Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Frum Skeptics

There was recently a guest post over at Godol Hador that got me thinking.

The crux of the post was that the poster was a frum skeptic: he didn't believe in the basic tenets of Judaism, but that he still feels a connection to what I would call the cultural aspects of Judaism (learning Gemara, eating kugel, singing zemiros, etc.).
Above all, my skepticism has not muted the pleasure of sitting around the table with my family at a Shabbos meal and singing zemiros or listening to the little ones mangle the story of the weekly parsha, or the awe I feel watching my wife light Shabbos candles and usher in the light of a new Shabbos.

I am the last person to advocate giving up Frumkeit. It is part and parcel of who I am.
For many people, this sort of thinking is merely rationalizing the fact that the person in question is trapped in the Jewish culture (due to family, friends, work, or other reasons), and so they find solace in the familiar.

However, the logic presented by Mike in the guest post I referenced would seem to be equally valid for someone who grew up Catholic, Mormon, or Muslim. If Judaism is simply taking refuge in the familiar because of an inability to take another path, what makes it special? Better yet, what makes it worth spending so much time and energy devoted to fulfilling not only the religious rules that you consider manmade, but also the regulations of Slifkin-banning, Wig-burning, Water-filtering 'Gedolei Hador.'

Any frum skeptics wish to comment?

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Jewish Republican Crisis

In America, Orthodox Jews, especially right-wing Orthodox Jews, are all too often aligned with the American GOP (Grand 'Ole Republican Party). Quite frankly, that position makes no sense.

As Jews, we have two major political goals:

1) To ensure our own survival and the right of Jews to worship without interference from the state. How ironic is it that American Jews, in defense of the virulently Christian-dominated GOP, echo the claims of Pat Robertson in saying that the United States is a Christian country. As Jews, we should support a strict firewall between Church and State. A rock-solid one. Because allowing the whims of the majority to control the practice of religion in our country has never turned out well for us.

How many of us would support a Pledge of Allegiance with the words "One Nation Under Jesus." Most importantly, the Jewish religion does not endorse proselytism. If we do not seek to get others to convert to our values through gentle persuasion, certainly we should not support forcing those values on others through the legal system.

2) To support Jewish values where they are compatible with the notion that we should not impose our values on others. Attempting to impose Jewish values on others will lead to others imposing their values on Jews. To put it plainly, we don't have a majority in this country, and supporting simple majoritarian rule when traditional Jewish values happen to be in the majority (homosexuality, God) will lead to others using that majority against us. That said, we should support the enactment of laws that support Judeo-Christian values with more universal consensus.

Some examples: helping the poor, orphans, and the sick, loving thy neighbor as thyself, prohibitions against killing. Unfortunately, the United States GOP actually opposes the enactment of laws that would help the poor, sick, and infirm and support a roll-back of laws that already exist.

Look at the following notion:
And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger.
A classic Jewish law that would be opposed by the modern day Republicans. "What do you mean, you're forcing me to contribute part of my field to the poor. Let them get their own field. If they're too lazy to get their own field, they deserve to be poor." I can hear it already.

As Jews, we should be extremely scared at the ideas promoted by the Christian right: that the United States is a Christian country that needs to be taken back from those who believe in the separation of Church and State. It never worked out before, and we're fooling ourselves if we believe it'll work now.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Letter On Evolution in the Jewish Press

I may not be the first person to mention this, but the Jewish Press ran a letter this week by one Zev Stern, Ph.D about the 'evolution letters' the Jewish Press has been printing over the past several weeks, and which he, apparently, started with a letter a while ago.

Some interesting tidbits:
The theory of evolution needs no defense in The Jewish Press; it is the cornerstone of modern biology. As all roads lead to Rome, all biological roads lead to evolution. The Jewish Press is not the proper venue to challenge scientific ideas; that is done in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and before one’s colleagues at scientific meetings. None of the readers who’ve assailed evolution in The Jewish Press have published or presented in this way.
Great Stuff:
Apparently many (but by no means all) so-called gedolim are so small-minded and insecure that any idea that seems to pose the slightest challenge to their view of the world is to be suppressed, and anybody holding such views, no matter how learned, is to be branded an apikoros (heretic) and subjected to the most reprehensible vilification and character assassination. Gentiles in the academic world behave better than that toward colleagues with whom they disagree.
It's sad, really. Read the entire article at JewishPress.com. Scroll down to the bottom for this particular letter.

It's really too bad that the crux of modern Judaism has strayed from "V'ahavta L'rayacha Ko'mocha -- Zeh Klal Gadol Batorah" into a desire to control the thoughts of the Jewish people in a fairly extreme way. Much of the Gadol Hador establishment is used as a rubber-stamp on ideas and groups that can gain their ear, and it's quite unfortunate. More on that later.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Electricity on Shabbos

For a long time, I've considered the issue of electricity on Shabbos (and Yom Tov) to be a prime example of a case where Orthodox poskim have made some bad decisions, and nobody's willing to do anything about it because "the poskim have 'always' held this way." Never mind that 'always' means around one century, or that the poskim haven't always held this way.

People want to believe that if the entire Klal Yisrael does something, there must be a good reason, right?

I recently came across an interesting article by Rabbis Michael Broyde & Howard Jachter published in 1991 in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society. The crux of the article is that Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (not exactly a lightweight in Torah circles) methodically dismissed all of the claims that allegedly ban electricity on Shabbos, but came to the following conclusion:
In my opinion there is no prohibition [to use electricity] on Shabbat or Yom Tov... There is no prohibition of ma'keh bepatish or molid... (However, I [Rabbi Auerbach] am afraid that the masses will err and turn on incandescent lights on Shabbat, and thus I do not permit electricity absent great need...) ... This matter requires further analysis... However, the key point in my opinion is that there is no prohibition to use electricity on Shabbat unless the electricity causes a prohibited act like cooking or starting a flame.
Many years later, Rabbi Abadi, whose children run kashrut.org holds that with regard to electricity, "Adayin Tzoruch Iyun" (i.e. it requires further analysis).

I find it hard to believe that in all this time we don't have sufficient information about electricity to come to a conclusion on it.

Another interesting point in the article directly contradicts the notion that all Rabbis have always opposed electricity on Yom Tov. The following is a quote from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef:
Since there are those who permit the lighting of electric lights on Yom Tov, one should not strongly rebuke people who turn on lights on Yom Tov - specifically since many congregations in the Diaspora have this tradition with the approbation of their rabbis. Nonetheless, it is proper to explain to such people in a mild voice that most rabbinic authorities are strict about this matter, and the law follows the majority.
As I have said before, fascinating.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Is the Torah Literal?

The Slifkin controversy has brought out an old discussion about the 'literal-ness' of much of the Torah, as well as comments and stories by Chazal, Gedolim, and others.

By matter of fact, the Jewish people have always considered the possibility that elements of the Torah are allegorical. Although many considered the Rambam in his time a Kofer (oh, how times have changed...), his comments are still interesting:
Know that also in Natural Science there are topics which are not to be fully explained. Our Sages laid down the rule," The Ma'aseb Bereshith must not be expounded in the presence of two." If an author were to explain these principles in writing, it would be equal to expounding them unto thousands of men. For this reason the prophets treat these subjects in figures, and our Sages, imitating the method of Scripture, speak of them in metaphors and allegories; because there is a close affinity between these subjects and metaphysics, and indeed they form part of its mysteries.
When attempting to understand what the Torah could mean when it describes Hashem 'talking,' either to Adam and Chava, or in the Maysei B'reishis itself, various commentators explicitly reject the literalist account.

In fact, a substantial source of controversy during the time of the Tana'im was whether the Torah should be taken literally. The Tana'im and Amora'im took the position that it should not, while the Tz'dukim took the position endorsed by today's anti-science fundies, that is should.

The back of the Vilna Shas contains an introduction by Rabbi Shmuel haNagid, which states:
Haggadah is any talmudic interpretation which does not concern commandments... and you need not learn anything but what seems reasonable. You should know that whatever Halacha Hazal maintained regarding a commandment from Moshe Rabeinu which he received from the Almighty may neither be added to nor subtracted from. But as regards the interpretation of verses which is framed according to individual intuition and personal opinion, one need learn from such explanations only that which seems reasonable; and as for the rest, one is not dependent on them.
This means that the back of the Shas that is used by the vast majority of those who learn Gemara contains a statement that what the Chazal say about things like Maysei B'reishis (which are not Halachic in nature) are not to be considered literally true, and that we may regard that which is unreasonable as allegorical.

ZooTorah.com documents the condemnations of Slifkin's book. The following is from the address of Rav Uren Reich at the Young Israel Melava Malka:
…If the Gemara tells us a metziyus, it’s emes veyatziv. There’s nothing to think about. Anything we see with our eyes is less of a reality than something we see in the Gemara.
So Rav Reich, in condemning Slifkin, disagrees with the Rambam, a statement at the back of the Shas he probably used when learning throughout his life, and many other commentators. This is typical of the contemporary UO right, but it's certainly not been the case all along.

At its core, it seems that the anti-Slifkinites would be more comfortable with the Tz'dukim that Chazal. That's too bad.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Exsurge Domine

In 1520, the Pope (yup, I'm starting with the Pope) issued an edict called Exsurge Domine officially condemning the writings of one Martin Luther (who dared to write books that suggested that certain traditional church teachings were incorrect). Given the book bans that have come out of our 'modern' Jewish rabbinate, I thought a quick excerpt might be instructive:
Wise in their own eyes, according to the ancient practice of heretics, they interpret these same Scriptures otherwise than the Holy Spirit demands, inspired only by their own sense of ambition, and for the sake of popular acclaim, as the Apostle declares... No one of sound mind is ignorant how destructive, pernicious, scandalous, and seductive to pious and simple minds these various errors are...

They continue:
we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth. By listing them, we decree and declare that all the faithful of both sexes must regard them as condemned, reprobated, and rejected... Moreover, because the preceding errors and many others are contained in the books or writings of Martin Luther, we likewise condemn, reprobate, and reject completely the books and all the writings and sermons of the said Martin... We forbid each and every one of the faithful of either sex, in virtue of holy obedience and under the above penalties to be incurred automatically, to read, assert, preach, praise, print, publish, or defend them.

Finally:
Therefore let Martin himself and all those adhering to him, and those who shelter and support him... know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father. Let him abstain from his pernicious errors that he may come back to us.

I call this fascinating because it is so close in thought and language to the original Slifkin ban:
...the books written by Nosson Slifkin present a great stumbling block to the reader. They are full of heresy, twist and misrepresent the words of our sages and ridicule the foundations of our emunah... The publication and distribution of these books present a spiritual danger and I fear that people will be adversely influenced by them. I therefore declare that these books should be distanced and it is forbidden to read, own, or distribute them as the Halacha applies to all "books of heresy." The author should also not be permitted to engage in outreach so that he should not transgress the cardinal sin of spreading words of heresy. There can be no room for justification whatsoever for spreading these books.

And:
Signed with a pained heart and with the hope that the author who has spread this heresy will burn all his books and publicly retract all he has written.

Like I said, frightening.

As a new entrant into the JBlogosphere, I hope that I will be able to contribute a tenth of what earlier participants have.

Happy Purim all!