Commentary about life and religion by an atheist embedded in the Orthodox community.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Jewish myths

There are many myths in Judaism.
Here are the main ones:
The Moshiach myth- that one day a man will come and restore the Davidic dynasty and rebuild the
The Olam HaBa myth- "life after death".
The Torah M'Sinai (TMS) myth- that God gave the Torah to the Jewish people
The Eretz Yisroel myth- That the land of Israel has more holiness than the rest of the world.
But the biggest myth of them all (which is not actually specific to Judaism, but that is how I and most Jews learn about it) and the hardest to break, is the God myth.
My journey from Orthodox Jew to atheist can be viewed as a sequential debunking of all these myths. Once one of these myths is challenged, one has put himself outside the norms of orthodox judaism. For me, the Moshiach and Olam HaBa myths were the first to go. I knew that it made no sense that I would continue to live after I die. I had a sense that it must be false, probably because I did not have any evidence for it (there isn't any). No one has come back from the dead to tell us
about it. There is no way of proving any such thing so I came to realize that it is a myth. People just have too much hubris to think that they just die and then cease to exist. It is a major blow to our egos. Yes, we should have great egos- humans are capable of wonderful things. However that does not mitigate the truth- upon death we cease to exist; we become raw materials for the next generation of life.
The Moshiach myth was also easy to dispel. There never was a magical person so why would be there one in the future. The world does not change just because one person who happenns to be a descendant of David exists.
The next big myth was TMS. This was such a core part of Judaism that I didn't even want to debunk it even I had many questions about it. But once I read up on the subject, especially with the book Who Wrote the Bible?, it was inevitable that I would view TMS as a myth.
However only recently did I realize that the whole concept of God, the basis of Judaism and most world religions, is also a myth.
What sets the God myth apart is that all the other myths I was taught at an age where I was a thinking person. Even if I learned those myths in first grade, I had to assimilate them into my mind. I can't say I remember the first time someone taught me about Moshiach, but it was probably some time after 5 or 6.
The God myth however is taught at a very young age, before is able to have complex thought. God comes up at an extremely early age because it is the parents' easy answer to many of the child's questions- where did I come from? why is the sky blue? why are there seeds in this apple? God becomes part of our world, as real as tv, mommy, and cars. Even the child doesn't understand any of these things, he comes to accept them.
It is not natural for a child to believe in God. I remember an incident a couple of years ago:
My younger daughter (2) was afraid of noises in her room at night. She thought there might be a monster there. My older daughter (5) told her not worry because Hashem (god) would protect her. But the younger daughter was not comforted. She said, "I don't know who is Hashem". She wanted something real to protect her- mommy, daddy, or maybe the lights turned on. But after many incidents like this one, she came to understand that Hashem is this being that has supernatural powers. In other words, she was inducted into the God myth.
Children only believe in things which they can experience unless they are taught otherwise by parents. My younger daughter does not believe me when I tell her that the moon is really a real rock and that people have walked at it. She just laughs at me- she thinks the moon is a big light in the sky. And I don't blame her for her misunderstanding since her experience tells her that she can see the moon but she can't feel it or visit it.
However, if I were to constantly talk about the moon as a rock (eg whenever we're at a playground and she collects rocks I tell her that the rocks might have come from the moon), she would begin to accept that the moon was a rock. Parents and teachers have the power to overcome a child's sense of reality.
And that is why the God myth is so hard to overcome.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Child Abuse in Gush Katif

I'm not referring to the soldiers but child abuse committed by the settlers.
I was just watching some video from Gush Katif and I saw two extremely disturbing images:
1)A man held his baby out of the second floor window of his house. He threatened to throw the baby onto the soldiers below if they dared to enter his house. The baby didn't know anything but this is clearly child abuse. That man should be arrested for endangering a child and be duly punished.
2)A man brought his daughter (7-9 years old) to soldier after soldier. He literally pushed his daughter's face into the soldiers face. There was no audio but I would guess that he telling the soldiers that they were evicting this innocent child. After doing this to the third soldier the girl started to sob.
This is clearly child abuse. Using your child as a threat or as a propaganda tool is not far from how the Palestinians use their teenagers as suicide bombers.
I am appalled.
It is one thing to protest but leave your children out of it! The settlers knew that these would be emotional and possibly violent protests so should have kept their children out of harm's way.
Just like the Palestinians, these settlers are putting their ideals above their common sense and exploiting children for their own use.
On the other hand, I have found the behavior of the soldiers and police to be very chivalrous. They do not scream back at the frantic settlers, rather they try to comfort them. They seem very gentle and understanding. And it was very understanding of the military to use males to evacuate males and females to evacuate females. I am very proud of the Israelis. Like our American soldiers in Iraq, these men and women are creme de la creme.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Another Genocide in the Parsha

Many people think the only genocide sanctioned by God in the Torah is that of Amalek. That disturbing command has inspired all types of apologetics of why this is really a moral command. For example, one can say that Amalek is such an immoral people, as demonstrated by their heinous attack on the weak and sick among the Jews that we must utterly destroy them completely, in order to totally rid the world of such evil.
However, many orthodox Jews do not realize that there are other genocides which the Jews carry out.
This is from this week's parsha:
ג,ו וַנַּחֲרֵם אוֹתָם--כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂינוּ, לְסִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ חֶשְׁבּוֹן: הַחֲרֵם כָּל-עִיר מְתִם, הַנָּשִׁים וְהַטָּף. ג,ז וְכָל-הַבְּהֵמָה וּשְׁלַל הֶעָרִים, בַּזּוֹנוּ לָנוּ.
I hope the Hebrew came out well. This is from Dvarim 3:6-3:7.
The Torah says that the Jews killed all of the inhabitants of some of the cities in Og's kingdom. Only the cattle were allowed to live. Now, how is that moral? Why do the children deserve to die? You can't say that these people are evil, since they did not even attack the Jews- the Jews came into their territory! Furthermore, this is not even territory in Eretz Yisroel proper. It seems that the main purpose of this war was to give the people and especially Yehoshua encouragement that they could defeat other armies. That way they will not be afraid to cross the Jordan and fight all the Canaanite peoples. So innocent women and children gave their lives in order to boost the confidence of the Jews. I am sorry- that is not moral.
By the way, another genocide is mentioned in Mattos- when God commands the Jews to kill every male- including babies.

Debate with Lakewood Rabbi

My parents go to a shul whose Rabbi lives in Lakewood during the week and then comes to my parent's community for Shabbos. He is a very sweet person and also intelligent. My wife and I agreed to go to the discussion he has with the lay people after the kiddush. The lay people are either ba'alei tshuvah or exploring orthodox Judaism. I forget how it came up but at one point the Rabbi mentioned that as Orthodox Jews, we do not believe in Evolution.
Well, that got me going. I happen to currently be reading Richard Dawkin's new book, the Ancestor's Tale. I objected to his statement and a debate on Evolution ensued. At one point, during the debate the Rabbi asked me to read a certain (Torah) book which explains why evolution is wrong. I readily agreed to read his recommended book if he would agree to read a book about evolution which I reexamining (I had the Ancestor's Tale in mind, but any basic book about Evolution would do). The Rabbi asked me if my book was a "Jewish" book. I replied that it was not and so he said he would not read it.
Now is that fair? How can you expect to learn the truth if you limit yourself to only Jewish books? As I have said before, all knowledge should be open. The truth will ultimately win so why should the Rabbi not read a non-Jewish book? (By the way, I'm sure he meant a book written by an Orthodox Jew with all the Haskamos).
As I said, I'll read any Orthodox, Buddhist, Muslim book which claims to refute Evolution. If it does persuade me, so be it. But I am not afraid of knowing the truth.
I guess the same cannot be said for this Rabbi.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Beware of God

I just finished reading this book.
Here is my review:
This is a truly amazing book.
Using satire and humor, Auslander demonstrates to the reader the difficulty and sometimes absurdity of living life as an orthodox Jew.
The characters in these stories are filled with conflicting emotions which can never be settled- the Orthdox Jew can never be completely happy because his life is full of guilt and fear. Guilt of sins and fear of punishment. Fear of missing out on Heaven or being responsible for another Holocaust.
In one story, a young boy both enjoys exploring his sexuality and feels terribly guilty for doing so at the same time.
The most brilliant story, in my opinion, is "Holocaust Tips for Kids". The author lets us into the mind of an orthodox child who has been totally inundated with precise and gory facts about the holocaust throughout his school year while at the same time being taught by his Rabbis that Jewish sins are responsible for God's causing the Holocaust. The result is a child who performss Judaism out of fear of causing another holocaust while constantly thinking of escape routes and hiding places in case a holocaust does occur.
I think this book shows us the schizophrenic personality which an Orthodox Jew must exhibit. On the one hand, there is the reality of this world- its worldly pleasures such as sex, money, and happiness; its suffering such as death and illness. The orthodox Jew, like any human, enjoys the pleasures and hates the suffering. On the other hand is his orthodox religious outlook which teaches to be wary of worldy pleasures (they are sinful or can lead to sin) and to embrace suffering as the mysterious work of a loving God.
These stories are funny but unfortunately some people live such lives and that is not funny.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Have some faith in God!

Well, I'm back.
I'm finally finished my grueling semester of graduate school, so I have some time to post some ideas (in between work and watching yankees games).
This post deals with the Siyum HaShas. I think it happenned back in March. I didn't attend this one but I did attend the last one back in 1997 when I was actually in Smicha at YU.
This year's siyum was even bigger than the last one. Last time it took place in Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Colleseum. This time it took place in those venues plus in Contenental Arena in the meadowlands. The question is, why can't they just have it in one place such as Giant's stadium which would accomodate all those yidden?
The answer was given in the magazine created by Agudah Yisrael which was given to the attendees back in 1997. It said that even though they know on which day they will finish Shas, they don't know what the weather would be. Therefore they must have the siyum indoors.
But that answer doesn't make any sense to me. If the Siyum is such an important event, wouldn't God make nice weather in NYC that day? God wouldn't have to create a miracle- most days in NYC are non-rainy. Besides surely, the prayers of all the great rabbonim could create a few hours of sun.
I remember back in the days when I used to believe (which was up to this year), I really believed God would look out for me. Before my bar-mitzvah, the weather people were calling for a big snow storm. My mother was freaking out that most of the quests would not come. I was totally calm. I knew that Hashem wouldn't make a snow storm on my bar mitzvah. And there wasn't any. There was maybe an hour of some wet snow. All the guests came. The bar-mitzvah was wonderful.
For my marriage, my wife and I wanted the Chuppah to be outside. My mother again was worried about bad weather, but I was completely confident that it would be a totally sunny day. And it was.
I believed and I had faith in God. Don't all these siyum people have faith? Obviously not. They claim that their siyum is such an amazing kiddush hashem and has wonderful affects in shamayim. But not good enough to push God to make a sunny day.
I asked a few people who were there, why wasn't it in an outdoor stadium. Wouldn't it be an even bigger kiddush hashem for 70,000 Jews to fill up Giants stadium? The answer was always the same- maybe it would rain. I would assume that the chance of rain on any given day in New York is less than 20%. But these people have no faith. Maybe they're afraid that it would rain. And that would ruin their suits and their faith. I guess they figure it's better not to test their faith, so they can keep playing their frum games.

-Mushroom Jew

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Kill me- I'm an Amaleki

Today was a very sad day for me in Shul.
Parshas Zachor is one of the reasons I cannot believe in frumkeit. The "divine" commandment to kill every man woman and child of a nation is unacceptable to me. If there is a God who commands such a thing, he should be disobeyed.
The equivalent idea would be for Jews to kill every man woman and child (and animals) in Germany. Just because some of their ancestors killed Jews. No one would propose such an idea. The Germans who did participate in the Holocaust should be punished (killed in my opinion), but not their children- that is repulsive.
Anyway, Parshas Zachor comes every year so I was prepared for it. What I was not prepared for was my Rabbi's sermon. You see, the Rabbi called me an Amelikite, which means that other Jews are commanded to kill me.
Let me explain:
The rabbi tried to explain the connection between the Parsha, which discusses animal sacrifices, and the Maftir which discusses our obligation to wipe out Amalek. He explained that the connection is made in the Haftorah. The Haftorah discusses the story of Saul, King of Israel, who was commanded by the prophet Samuel, in the name of God, to kill the Amelikite nation- men, women, children, and cattle.
Saul faithfully leads his army and carries out the command. All men, women and children are killed. However the soldiers kept the best cattle alive for themselves. When Samuel rebukes Saul for not following the Lord's command, Saul explains that his soldiers wanted to provide God with great sacrifices. Samuel replies that God is not interested in sacrifices- he is interested in obedience, which in this case meant to kill the cattle.
My rabbi explained that Amalek was a nation of reasoners. Even though God had just taken the Jews out of Egypt and vanquished the great Egyptian army, Amalek belived in their own power. They believed in the power of humans. They valued their reason, their power above that of God.
And Saul made the same mistake. He valued his own judgement above that of God's. But God just wants obedience. He doesn't want our reasoning.
My rabbi said that this is a mistake that many people make. That is why Jews must pray so often, three times a day, and say so many Brachos. To remind us of God. If we believe in our own power, then we are acting like Amalek.
So I was really squirming in my seat (I usually sleep during the sermon). Here was my rabbi, whom I respect somewhat, saying that Humanism equals Amalek.
I felt very persecuted. Because I believe in Humanism. I believe that man has the power to change the world. Not God. God was created by man when man was not in control of the world. But now we have reason and scientific inquiry, and democracy. These great ideas are to be cherished, not exterminated. So if that is how the Rabbi wants to define Amalek, then count me in. Icht bin a Amaleki.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Do not fear knowledge

I recently googled my old Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Parnes. That took me to an article he wrote titled "Torah u-Maddah and Freedom of Inquiry( His conclusion is that you can learn any Maddah you want as long as it does not impinge on the 13 basic principles of faith.
That does not make any sense to me. Why shouldn't we strive for as much knowledge as possible? Why should we limit ourselves? Won't the truth always emerge? If the 13 principles fail, so be it! If there is a God, I'm sure he would want us to know the truth, and not play games.
Why are the Rabbis so afraid of knowledge? I know why of course, because they are afraid of the truth. Well that's silly. If you're afraid of the truth, you should admit to your cowardice. You definitely should not influence others not to seek the truth.
If Rabbi Parnes doesn't want to study evolution, fine. But don't discourage others not to study it.

b'zman hazeh

I recently spoke to my friend who was at the siyum hashas. He started learning Brachos so to be able to finish shas for next time.
He started to tell me a dvah halacha that is based on one of the first blatt of brachos. It had to do with being alone (Yichud) with a member of the opposite sex.
Specifically whether two men can be alone with one woman. He told me that the gemorrah says it is allowed because men are considered kosher (ie not sexually promiscuous). He then said that there is a question whether this halacha applies "b'zman hazeh"-now- ie whether men are still considered Kosher.
He then proceeded to quote me the different opinions of the Rema and the Mechaber.
"The Mechaber holds that men are not considered kosher b'zman hazeh". I interupped him- "hold on, the Mechaber lived 400 years ago, how can that be b'zman hazeh?". He said, "yeah he's talking about b'zman hazeh". I said "400 years ago?" Anyway, my question went right over his head.
This is a big problem among frum people. They have no concept that times change. We're not living in the middle ages any more people. I suppose this is related to the "genre mistake" which misnagid is always talking about.
Frum people need to admit that halacha evolves, and theology evolves.
We need an update of halacha and theology.