Friday, May 29, 2015

The appeal of apophatic theology

Earlier I was told that skepticism leads to apophaticism.* I wholeheartedly disagree. As I replied on the spot:
Apophaticism is not a result of skepticism, but a result of deep and careful thinking of the sort that always leads non-emotional, logic-abiding people to apophatic theology. 
I am not suggesting that logic abiding, non-emotional people are superior, only that this particular temperament leads to apophaticism. 
Wonderful, brilliant people who are, say, emotional - feelers end up elsewhere. 
But just as it wasn't skepticism that brought them to, say mysticism, it isn't skepticism that brought us to apophaticism
Let me tell you in just two words what I find so appealing about the apophatic line of thinking:

Its honest

Non apophatic Jews are forever making unsustainable claims on God's behalf. He needs our prayers. He wants us to do mitzvos. Our actions make him happy. He can be swayed to act differently toward us when we chant his praises. He can be bribed with compliments and symbolic deeds.

The only intelligent response to any of this is: How do you know?

And if, after realizing that you CAN'T know, you choose to think about it further, you'll see the central claims of apophaticism are unavoidably true: You can't accurately conceptualize something as unknowable as God. You can't speak positively about any of his deeds or actions. You can't acquire any real knowledge of God, or find words that describe Him fully.

Here's an analogy. 

Pretend you don't know the first thing about chess. You've never seen the game pieces and you don't know the rules. Now try to offer meaningful, accurate, honest, specific praise of Bobby Fisher.Ty to make a claim about the great chess-master's chess-playing abilities that aren't at best vague and at worst infantile and trivial. It can't be done.

Now compare the chess ignoramus's relationship with Bobby Fisher to our relationship with God. Can't you see that we have far less understanding of God's greatness, His brilliance, and His works? So now that its been established that we lack the ability to meaningfully understand anything about God or to say anything definitive and true about Him what are your choices? Do you go on making trivial, vague, infantile claims about God? Or do you embrace apophatic theology?

*Apophaticism is not deism, A classical deist is certain that God created the world, and certain that God has little or no direct involvement in that creation. Apophatic theology has no such certainties. It defines God by what He is not, and makes no positive claims about Him (such as those made by deists, viz, God has nothing to do with the creation.)

I want to provide you with an example of the trivial and the infantile. 

Because we know nothing about God, we have no choice but to personify him. All of us do this. But not all personifications are the same. For some reason, our culture deems it pious and preferable to personify God as an eight year old. In the imagination of the ordinary Orthodox Jew, God is a boy king sitting in his sky palace waiting for homage and genuflections. He likes hearing us praise His name. Our chants make Him merry and arouse His mercy. Odd symbolic acts - a key in the challa, a strap wrapped around the arm - compel him to bless us with health and riches and other rewards. How can a grown man accept this? How can He choose to worship such a childlike diety?

Which is why other personifications are preferable. Try it yourself. Instead of thinking of God in the terms described above, try to imagine him as a brilliant professor or a great athlete. You can't even begin to understand how his mind works. You can't meaningfully exist on the same playing field as he can. In fact you can't relate to him at all. But you can, perhaps, begin to emulate him, and through those acts of emulation you can become more like him, and as a result of becoming more like him various privileges and opportunities become available to you as the natural result of the changes you have made.

I am not saying that this second way of thinking is any more likely to be true than the first, but can't you agree that it's more mature and more respectful of God?

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What is spirituality?

This dates to 2010, but I'd like to discuss it again, if you please

On the last few comment threads [back in 2010], some of you have brought up spirituality. Adam, for example, says the OPR rabbi is causing "spiritual damage" to his congregation. Before that, on a post about the development of midrashim, Kramer claimed that statements made by the Sages have more "spiritual value" than identical, or nearly identical statements found in the much older Apocrypha. Back on the OPR thread Harry says a Rabbi is supposed to deliver "spiritual guidance".

I confess to having absolutely no idea what any of that means. When challenged the speakers provided no explanations.

My theories

(1) Spiritual damage, spiritual value, and spiritual guidance are all nonsense phrases, that don't mean anything. What the speaker really means is something more concrete, and the mumbo-jumbo about "spirituality" is just a lazy way to sound pious. For instance, perhaps what Kramer is really trying to say is that he trusts the Sages more than he trusts the anonymous authors of the apocrypha; therefore he feels more comfortable reading in BT Sanhedrin that the phrase "vayihi acherai hadevarim ha'eyleh" at the beginning of the Akeida episode is a clue that Satan talked God into testing Abraham than he does reading pretty much the exact same thing in the much older book of Jubilees. (click page 171) What he means by spiritual value then, is something like "this makes me happier" or "this just feels right." Likewise (according to this theory) what Adam really means is that the OPR makes him mad, and Harry's intent is that a Rabbi is supposed to tell us how to live our lives in ways that deliver the best results.

(2) We have something like spiritual bank accounts, to which we make deposits whenever we fulfill a commandment. According to this theory, perhaps Adam is worried that a shul-led by an OPR is not going to make as many mitzvah deposits as a shul with an OJR. How this works is unclear, however. If deposits to the account are made via actions, what difference does it make to the mitzvah-performing shul members is the man at the front of the room is a fraud? The congregation is still performing mitzvos; thus their deposits should still be good. If Adam wants to make the case that what he is saying is true, he needs to provide more information about the mechanics. Same for Kramer. If this is what he meant to say, like Adam, he needs to explain why reading an idea in one book puts money into the account, while reading the same idea somewhere else does not. Harry, though, is fine: Per this theory, when he says a Rabbi delivers spiritual guidance what he means is that the Rabbi tells us how to make deposits and avoid unnecessary withdrawals (I don't see any reason why a knowledgeable and trained OPR couldn't fulfill this task. Knowing how to best fill up the mitzvah account doesn't seem to me to depend on belief in God.)

Anything else?

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Post Shavuos thoughts and comments

Shavuos was grand, thanks for asking. As in previous years, all sorts of magical, mystical heights were reached via the eating of blintzes and the annual neglecting of the actual biblical components of the holiday, ie, the barley harvest. Plus, I was completely mevatel the first day of the holiday in deference to the relatively recent custom of staying up all night pretending to learn.  So, all in all great stuff.

Additionally, I encountered the following mysteries and their amazing answers:

Why is the gematria of Ruth's name = 606?

Amazing answer: "The gematria of Ruth is 606. If we add that to the seven mitzvot she already kept as a Bas Noach we get 613, the number of mitzvot she kept after conversion."

Awesome. Only wait....

Problem: If the gematria of Ruth was something else, don't you think the Rabbis would have found a way to make it work anyway? By adding the number of commandments, let's say, or the number of days it took the Jews to get to Sinai after the Exodus? Gematrias are notoriously slippery.

Problem: Ruth didn't keep 613 mitzvos after conversion. Many of them are only applicable to men, or to kohanim, or to land-owners. Ruth was none of those things.

Problem: The math is so exactly suited to the occasion it almost suggests that the author of the story chose the character's name for the purpose of the gematria. (I don't know if Jews played numerology games back when Ruth was written. If not, this problem is obviated)

Why do we eat dairy on Shavuous?

Amazing answer: We eat dairy on Shavuot because Moshe was on the mountain for 40 days, and 40 is the gematria of milk."

Awesome. Only wait....

Problem: So what? Why should the length of his sojourn on Sinai have any bearing on the contents of our holiday menu?

Problem: Does it follow from this that the Sages sat around the wisdom table, planning out new customs when someone said, "Ok, we need something spiffy for Shavuot. Who has ideas?"

I hope I don't sound like a Shavuos grinch. 

In fact, to help defeat the notion that I dislike shavuos, when what I really dislike are dumb people and their dumb approaches to "spirituality," let me share with you the wise words of Rav Zeira in which he pithily captures the true significance of Megilas Ruth. He says:

This Megillah does not teach us any laws of purity or impurity, nor does it teach us any laws of what is permitted or forbidden, so why was it written? To tell us how great is the reward of those who perform acts of kindness

Unfortunately, Rav Zeria is better remembered for being murdered and resurrected by Rabba on one famous Purim. If there was any justice this teaching would have priority instead.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

If Minhag and Halacha had Started Today…

Yesterday's post got me thinking. The world we live in radically different than that of our ancestors. There are the technological changes, like computers and airplanes, the resultant lifestyle changes, like the lack of open fires in our homes, and the social changes, like the disappearance of the aristocracy and the  recognition of women as men's social and legal equals.

The modern pace of change is unparalleled in history. Had you taken a Roman citizen from 2000 years ago and dropped him in medieval Europe, there would have been new things for him to marvel at, but the world was similar enough to the one he was used to that he could have gotten along. Take someone from the middle ages and bring him forward to today, and the world he finds himself in is an unrecognizable magical place. Yet almost all halacha and minhag developed before the world we live in existed, and reflects a world as foreign to us as ours would be to the medieval time traveler.

What might our rituals and laws look like had they ossified last Tuesday, instead of hundreds or thousands of years ago?

Today, biur chametz is an event, where individuals and communities have a rare excuse to play with fire and build bonfires to burn their chometz. Yet in the recent past, burning your chometz instead of, say, throwing it in the river was a matter of convenience. Everyone had  fireplaces in their home. It was much easier to toss your chometz into the living room fire than to take it outside. Had the minhag been set today, we'd probably flush our chometz down the toilet.

Lighting candles Friday night was initially done for light, so that one wouldn't have to eat their Shabbos meal in the dark. Had the minhag developed today, might women make a bracha before flipping the dining room switch? Would we have a minhag to have a chandelier with one bulb for each person in the family? If a woman forgot to turn on the light one week, might she ever after need to have an extra bulb in the chandelier?

Telephones would have prevented the problems that saddled us with two-day yomim tovim.

And so on…

Friday, May 15, 2015

Lag Be'Omer 2015, London


Images from a Lag Be'Omer celebration you wont see in the Hamodia centerfold.

Click here to see it [Sorry to all who disliked the autop play video with sound that was here before]

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A halacha that actually addresses our life...

Here's a comment written by E The P which deserves a wider audience, feedback and discussion:

While I wish that all non halachic Jews would either commit to Halacha or stop affiliating as Jews, I cannot refute the fact that historically (pre second temple, surely) they can stake a claim to Judaism.

For me, though, religion is completely institutional. Torah Truths are not objective, historical or ontological truths. They are "truths that we accept because they have value religiously". Halacha is crucial because it IS JUDAISM, bc Judaism is institutional and halacha defines the institutions. I think that our modern halachic system lacks the balls to impress anyone or effectively regulate life, but I follow it, bc it is Judaism. It should be different, we should be creating halachot, takanot, gezerot and ignoring all sorts of halachot that do not apply to our times (like our ancestors did with sacrifices etc.)

Sounds reform? Wrong. Reform and Conservative Judaism are concerned with making life easier, more comfortable and more accessible to non committed Jews. I am strongly against that. I don't want anyone who is not committed to be Jewish at all! Think about it this way: If all of world Jewry committed to halacha, we could regrow Halacha. We could have a real Torah sh'b'al Peh that would be relevant and sustainable in our 2015 reality, instead of having an "oral" Canon based in Babylonia 2 millennia ago. Haredim would protest, you say? Even YU might not accept it? Who cares, we would be a majority by 90%!

That was the vision of Proff. Leibowitz. A halacha that actually addresses our life. He had the best answer to the women in Halacha question: Halacha as discussed in Talmud and codified in Rambam and Shulchan Aruch is not aware of and never addresses modern women of today who go out in public, go to university and have professional careers. Therefore it is as if halacha discusses the kashrus of an animal that is almost extinct. Sure, if we find that animal we can apply the relevant halachos, but those halachos are irrelevant to the vast majority of animals. Same thing here. Most women today are not the same 'woman' that is discussed in halacha and so those halachos do not apply, unless we are talking about in Meah Shearim. (Obviously nidda still applies to all women bc all women still menstruate). Therefore, the halachot don't need to be changed, they need to be written in the first place! And so on for many areas of our lives today that Halacha does not touch.

But, all that said, we do still have a functioning Halacha and in it, Judaism lives. To me Judaism IS (Halachic, or) Rabbinic Judaism because it is the only kind that takes Judaism seriously and not just as a social services organization. So, the other denominations are no different to me than Karaism or Christianity (but even Chabad messianism is Judaism because they keep halacha. Again, many Chassidim and kabbalists are not monotheists strictly speaking , and they may call me a deist or an apikorus, but we are both following the same religion) It's not the beliefs that matter, it's the practice.

True,the Rambam wrote off Jews who believed in the corporeality of God as pagans with no share in the world to come, but I'm speaking here historically. Halacha is the only way in the past 2000 years to define Judaism. Otherwise we are left with a he says, he says game of who has the "real beliefs")

There is a lot to say about this. So let's go.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Americans hate mothers

You can't go on and on about how much you love mothers, and then fail to support legislation that makes life easier for them.

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Sacrificial thoughts

When people insist that today's halachic practices, and, to a large extent, today's social practices are part of an unchanging mesorah presented to Moshe on Sinai along with the text of the Chumash (previous phrase isn't mine)  I usually use animal sacrifices as my counter example. Animal sacrifices were an essential component of Judaism 1.0. Now we just don't bother. Surely this shows Judaism has changed?

The response is usually something like this: 
No, no. Judaism hasn't changed at all. Only the political situation has changed. If we could still bring sacrifices we would. 
Really? Well let's think about this:

When I say that Judaism has changed, what I mean is that it changed in response to things like the political situation. Can't go to the Temple Mount anymore? Well, Judaism can adapt to that reality or it can die. Same as with the other famous changes. Can't sustain an economy anymore with debt cancellations every Jubilee, or without interest-based loans? Well, adapt or die. Judaism is still here because it's adapted (i.e changed) in response to countless situations just like these three. The sects that did not survive went out of business because they refused to adapt, while the super-successful sects (hello Judeo-Christianity) performed super-successful adaptions.

Now, let's talk for a moment about those Judeo-Christians. They managed to develop an interpretation of the Bible that allows them to ignore all of the dietary laws and all the ritual law, while simultaneously considering themselves the one true Israel, and the legitimate heirs of the Biblical tradition. As far as interpretations go, this is quite an achievement.

And, to be perfectly fair, we Jews have done the exact same thing with sacrifices. Just as the Christians dropped the dietary laws, etc., we have dropped the whole sacrificial code. And don't blame this on the loss of the Temple. After losing the Temple, we had options, such as:

(1) Reinterpreting to allow sacrifices to be brought anywhere, in imitation of every single person in the Pentateuch. This, by the way, is precisely what we did with lulav. Instead of allowing lulav to die like we allowed animal sacrifice to die, we we reinterpreted to allow lulav everywhere on all 7 days of the holiday.

(2) Forcing our way back on to the Temple Mount during the many moments when this was feasible. One of these famous moments came in 363 when Julian, the last pagan emperor authorized the rebuilding of the Temple. The Jewish response was ambivalent. Why? Perhaps because 363 was an awfully late date to be recommiting yourself to animal sacrifice.
(3)  Some other creative solution, such as requiring money to be donated in place of the animal (as with kaparot). You'll note that we have dozens of zecher l'mikdash practices but how many of them are designed to keep alive the memory of sacrifices? (Along with lulav and shofer zecher l'mikdash practices include daily birkat kohanim in Israel, simchas beis hasho'eva, hakafot, sefirat ha'omer (according to some) and more.)

Instead we chose (4) Drop them completely, with appropriate interpretations and justifications provided (ie: Temple Mount isn't in our hands. So sorry.)

NOTE: Some say davening was instituted to replace korbonot. In which case that's the creative solution I'm looking for in (3) above. However, the suggestion that davening replaced korbonot is problematic for a variety of reasons and it seems to me more correct to say that interest in animal sacrifice declined as interest in other forms of worship developed. So korbonot weren't replaced by design with davening as other practices were consciously and deliberately replaced with the zecher l'mikdas practices described above. The style of worship simply changed.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Judaism changes and evolves and always will.

Judaism is constantly changing and developing, a process that includes dropping untenable practices or manufacturing ways around them, adding new rituals, and investing old rituals with new meaning.

The Judaism of the Torah is not the Judaism of the Mishna. In fact by the time of the Mishna, Judaism had split into several sects, only one of which survived. The winning sect, Phariseeism, which transitioned into Rabbinic Judaism, is popularly considered the authentic Judaism, but the whole idea of authenticity is a fallacy. There is no authentic Jewish condition, only the condition that obtains at the moment.

Ironically, the word Pharisee shows this to be true. It comes from the word פָּרוּשׁ pārûsh, meaning “set apart". Religions develop sects, as new groups find reasons to set themselves apart.

Had the Pharisees came first, it seems unlikely that they would have acquired this name.

Meanwhile, their main rivals, the Sadducees have a name derived from the word for "to be correct". (Think about what happened in the 19th century. The "new" Jews called themselves "reformers", while the "old" Jews were called "conservative" or "orthodox", even as they developed new sects, in part, as a response to the reform. The Pharisees are called "set apart"; their main rivals are called "correct." So who broke away from who?)

Though the Pharisees won the first battle we know about, history didn't end with their victory. Judaism continued to change and new sects developed, including Judeo-Christianity (which transitioned into Christianity) Karaism, Hasidut, and the three responses to modernity namely Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism. Additional sub-sects exist within Hasidut and Orthodox Judaism. And each sect contributed to the changes Judaism has undergone.

Demonstrating that these changes have occurred, and that our current day interpretation of Judaism is not simpicato with the plain Scripture is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Consider the frum shabbos which requires cholent, kugel, zmirot and a nap. Where is that represented in the Chumash? And where, for that matter, are the sacrifices the Chumash says must accompany every festival? Does any frum Pesach require the sacrifice of a goat or a sheep? More to the point, does any frum person really think his Pesach insufficient for not having included a blood sacrifice? (Made impossible by the loss of the Temple, you say? To which I reply: See what I mean about Judaism changing?)

Moreover, the Bible makes no mention of Lag B'omer, or upshurim, or g'broks, or any ritual clothing other than tzitzis. The Bible's Shavuos is a harvest festival, not the fulfilment of Pesach or the day the Torah was revealed. Another pillar of Judaism as we understand it is monotheism, but the Bible, notably the Ten Commandments ("No other God before Me") is, in many places, monolatrist.

None of this should be construed to mean that I think modern forms of Judaism are illegitimate. Quite the contrary. Judaism has always been nothing more and nothing less than what Jews say it is. How we decide which speakers and statements matter is outside the scope of this short blog post, but there can be no doubt that Judaism changes as Jews, as a whole and as specific sects, continue to think and speak about it. And we can expect such morphing, developing, changing and evolving to continue as long as there are Jews who take Judaism seriously.

A comment in which I said this in different words:

Lo Tignov means whatever the Rabbis say it means. And I mean the Rabbis in every generation, with the support of the people. Together they create the limitations applications and exceptions and interpret all that back into the verse. [Machlokes rishonim as to what midrash halacha is by the way]

I agree no one says we're allowed to steal, but you already have many Jews who will say that many things "aren't really stealing." And come back in 2000 or 10000 years and who knows what we'll find. Jews from 3000 years ago would be shocked to see how blithely and cavalierly we ignore the black and white laws of ritual impurity. If you were to return 3000 years from now, you'll be shocked at how Judaism has changed, too - if Judaism has survived. We just don't know what will be doing the shocking.

Another point: Christians consider themselves the true Israel, and the legitimate inheritors of the bible tradition, yet they have manufactured ways to ignore huge swaths of the bible. Perhaps future Jews will do the same (more than we have done so already, I mean

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Anthropomorphisms continued

The most amusing counterargument I received during last week's discussion of God's attributes went something like this.
Cmon DovBear look in the bible. You'll see its black and white. God has physical attributes and emotions.
To which I might reply, OK look in the bible. It's black and white. If someone knocks out your eye you  get to knock out his eye. Also its black and white that the goat that gets sent to Azazel is set free, not thrown off a cliff. Look in the bible. In fact you'll find dozens, if not hundreds of instances where the halacha contradicts the plain meaning of the text. You'll also find that several of our cherished and beloved current practices are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible.

How did this happen? Simple.

Like it or not, Judaism is a living, evolving religion, which means that the way we think about the theology and the way that we practice the rituals are both able to change over time. And in fact, they have changed.

Over the last several thousands years we've phased out ideas that no longer work, and replaced practices that are no longer tenable. We've also introduced new theology, new rituals, and new understandings of old rituals.

  • Ideas that no longer work: God appearing to people in human form as he did in the Bible; replaced with the idea that He is omniscient. 
  • Practices that are no longer tenable: Animal sacrifice, Jubilee debt cancellation; 
  • New theology: sefirot, Nitzutz kedusha; 
  • New rituals: upshurin, hats
  • New understandings of old rituals: Shavuos transformed from harvest festival to zman matan torataynu
So when I point out that great Jewish thinkers such as Rambam and Sadiah Gaon embraced apophatic theology following their encounter with Greek philosophy via the Muslim world, it really is quite pointless to respond that the Bible's paints a different picture of Gods attributes. Jews haven't really cared about the literal meaning of the Bible since at least the days of the first Pharisees. For more than 2000 years we've been far more concerned with what James Kugel calls the Interpreted Bible. After all, halacha as well as our understanding of Biblical events and personalities are based on the Interpreted Bible, not the Literal Bible. And as I reported both Sadiah and Rambam had ways of interpreting around Biblical anthropomorphisms in defense of their apophatic theologies, just as other Rabbis from both earlier and later eras have interpreted their way around whatever Biblical passages they found inconvenient to theologies and/or practices they wished to support. 

In a comment Avi adds a bunch of other untenable, discarded Jewish practices

Other untenable Biblical practices we don't observe today as written in the Torah: ribit, shmitta, not owning chometz on pesach, not carrying on Shabbat, techum Shabbat, polygamy, monarchy, slavery, stoning rebellious children, tribal land ownership, Amalekite genocide, basar b'chalav as written, and not adding commandments to the Torah (ex: second day Yom Tov outside Israel, which contradicts the explicit number of days each holiday is commanded to last).

Saturday, May 09, 2015

A plague with a penis is worth more than a treasure without

A guest post by Y. Bloch
Are arakhin misogynistic? Leviticus 27, which we'll read this coming Shabbat, sets valuations by gender and age (vv. 3-7).
The valuation you are to assign to a man between the ages of twenty and sixty years is to be fifty shekels of silver, with the sanctuary shekel being the standard; if a woman, thirty shekels. If it is a child five to twenty years old, assign a valuation of twenty shekels for a boy and ten for a girl; if a baby one month to five years of age, five shekels for a boy and three for a girl; if a person past sixty, fifteen shekels for a man and ten for a woman.
This is not one's theoretical worth on the slave market (damim), which of course varies by training, intelligence and aptitude. Hezekiah (Talmud Arakhin 19a) famously states that "An old man in the house is a plague; an old woman in the house is a treasure" to explain why the relative gap narrows after age 60. (Rashi explicitly says that the former is "only a burden," while the latter "can work hard and labor in her old age.")
Yet the "plague" is still worth more (15 shekel) than the "treasure" (10). By stunning coincidence, the maximum valuation of a woman, 30 shekel, is the fine you pay if your ox gores a slave, male or female (Exodus 21:32). Yet the valuation of a male slave (or random non-Jew) is still more than that of a freeborn Jewish woman--50!
What makes this even more perplexing is that this is in the context of the Tabernacle, to which the money is given. The Torah explicitly states that both men and women took an active part in putting the Tabernacle together.
 Both men and women came, as many as had willing hearts; they brought nose-rings, earrings, signet-rings, belts, all kinds of gold jewelry... All the women who were skilled at spinning got to work and brought what they had spun, the blue, purple and scarlet yarn and the fine linen. Likewise the women whose heart stirred them to use their skill spun the goat’s hair... Thus every man and woman of the people of Israel whose heart impelled him to contribute to any of the work Lord had ordered through Moshe brought it to Lord as a voluntary offering.
So why does the "valuation of souls/ lives" (Lev. 27:2) make such a distinction and value judgement?

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Friday, May 08, 2015

A little protest action

I'd like to see the sensible Jews push back against this new practice of excluding the photos of female honorees from school dinner invitations.

It's easy to see how this latest frum craziness got started. School administrators are notoriously insecure. Their greatest fear is seeing their institutions labeled "insufficiently frum." Hopping on the latest misogynistic trend is an easy way to shore up your bonafides and, hell,  what's a little female self worth and dignity when you're busy proving how frum you are?

So let's organize a response. Here are some ideas:
  • Social Media Shaming. I'm happy to publish your misogynistic dinner invitations on my blog. Send them over.
  • Send back empty envelopes
  • Send back envelopes containing nothing but a short pithy campaign slogan like, I'll support your institution when you support women. 
  • Send in a cash donation with the faces cut out (via @efink) 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

A modern anthropomorphism

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

- Xenophanes c 500 BCE

The Bible contains several shocking and frank anthropomorphisms. God gets angry, blows heat through his nose when he suffers jealousy, changes his mind and forgives people. He rests, remembers and relents.  He walks about a garden. He smells a scent and finds it pleasing.  In various places we hear that He has ears and eyes, a face, a palm, a finger, hair, a back, an arm, wings and feet that rest on a sapphire brick.

At the same time, Jews have long maintained that material representations of God are forbidden. 

At first, this restriction was limited to idols. As Judaism encountered more sophisticated theologies, the restriction expanded. Onkelos and Philo, thanks to Greek influence, stripped their commentaries and translations of all anthropomorphisms. Centuries later, Saadiah Gaon and the Rambam, thanks to Muslim influence, went even further. Saadiah held that that all corporeal references to God refer to non corporeal matters, and that that the only the attribute of existence could be ascribed to God, while Rambam insisted on non literal, allegorical understandings of all anthropomorphic expressions and said all who disagreed with him were heretics with no share in the world to come.

And yet, Jews continue to ascribe human characteristics to God, and continue to describe him in positive terms, while remaining blind to the fact that no one has any concrete knowledge of God.

For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge
 - Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, (c 320)

What I find most amusing about the typical 21st Jewish anthropomorphism is that it is completely out of date. Here's what I mean.

Not having any first-hand information regarding God's attributes, human beings have always imagined that he has the characteristics of a powerful ruler. But powerful rulers are not the same in every era.

When Jews commit the sin of anthropomorphism, the  ruler we have in mind is not a 21st century president or  a 21st century CEO, but a 12th century feudal lord.  Consider the differences:

Moderns believe that respect must be earned, ie commanded, while the medieval ruler takes it as his due. A medieval ruler is concerned about honor, and prestige and image far more than his modern contemporary is. A modern laughs off insults that a medieval would never tolerate..

Moreover, a 21st century leader doesn't throw a hissy fit when he's slighted, or demand ostentatious shows of loyalty and fidelity. He doesn't demand reverence and submission or require that his honor be satisfied. Those are all the behaviors of a medieval king. And its also the behavior of the Jewish God, as he is most commonly anthropomorphized.

What would happen if we were to update our anthropomorphisms, and imagine our God as a modern CEO instead of as a medieval king? Possible?

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Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Pleasing God

This is a battle I have no chance of winning, but I feel it must be fought all the same. I am talking about the ongoing Jewish habit of anthropomorphizing God, a recent example of which can be found in this passage written by RYA.

While I have little use for water with a hechsher, I would guess that HKBH loves the dedication of the individual consumer who insists on what he or she believes are hidurim in kashrus. I am staking a lot on a conviction that He also appreciates those with a dogged commitment to the bottom line in Shulchan Aruch that does not demand those hidurim as a matter of law, and to the approach of many sugyos in Chulin where Chazal permitted entire classes of foodstuffs – without supervion [sic] at all – because they considered any objections to be not of real halachic concern.
Nearly 1000 years ago the Rambam went to war against the philosophical errors and logical fallacies contained within this brief passage - and lost the argument. Still I'm compelled to respond to this piece of writing with some points of my own

I would guess that HKBH loves the dedication of the individual consumer who insists on what he or she believes are hidurim in kashrus
You can't say that God "loves" anything; in fact you can't say use any positive terminology to describe or refer to God at all. All we can do is say what God isn't. This is because human beings can not describe or define something as large or as complex as the Divine. Any attempted description will, ultimately, be false and should be avoided. Also why would God love "dedication?" Dedication, like sincerity, is not necessarily something positive, as both dedication and sincerity can be put to the service of something evil. (Hitler was both dedicated and sincere)

I am staking a lot on a conviction that He also appreciates those with a dogged commitment to the bottom line in Shulchan Aruch
You're not staking anything. The goal of religion isn't to please God (who can't, by definition, be pleased. If you are capable of pleasing Him, you're saying He can change.) The goal of religion is to produce behavior that changes people and societies for the better. Anyone who performs commandments for the sole purpose of receiving a gold star on his heavenly report card is an infant operating under a delusion.

Here's the Midrash disagreeing with RYA: What difference does it make to God whether one slaughters from the front of the neck or the back of the neck? Rather the mitzvot were given in order to  refine men (letzaref bahem et habriyot)

I have something else to say about how we anthropomorphize God, but that will have to wait until the next post.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Halacha Loopholes

I'm sure I've forgotten some so suggest your own.

OrthoDiction adds "Lending money with interest"

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Monday, May 04, 2015

#blacklivesmatter in Baltimore

I hope this is my last post about Baltimore for a while...
The fundamental error here is in assuming that #blacklivesmatter is some kind of code for "get whitey." It isn't.

When Baltimore protesters chant that #blacklivesmatter they aren't forgetting that Baltimore has a black police chief, and a black mayor, and diverse police force. They are protesting yet another extrajudicial killing of a black man, irrespective of who the culprit was. #blacklivesmatter isn't about white on black violence. Its about cop on black violence.

When people like Menken willfully ignore that, and instead set up some red herring definition of the slogan that they can easily undermine, they are either trolling or expressing tacit support for police brutality against black people.

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Friday, May 01, 2015

Baltimore Medical Examiner: It was a homicide

Thanks to irresponsible blogs like Cross Currents, you're going to encounter people in shul this weekend who will insist that Freddie Gray severed his own spinal cord.

You'll want to tell them two, or possibly three, things:

(1) The medical examiner has ruled the case a homicide.

(2) Six Baltimore police officers have been charged with murder and manslaughter. According to the state attorney: "Mr. Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury on April 12 while being transported in a police van — and not earlier, while being arrested — and pointed to the failure of the police to put a seatbelt on him as a crucial factor. “Mr. Gray suffered a critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside the BPD wagon,”

Read the story here:

At your option you may also wish to (3) remind people that victim-blaming is reprehensible.

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