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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Modern vs. Ultra: A False Dichotomy

Recently, I've been poking around in the blogosphere, reading various Jewish bloggers. There's a distressing number of blogs written by Jews who are frum in their day to day lives (or at least they identify that way), but have the hashkafa of left-wing Conservative Jews.

Moses Mendelssohn is considered the spiritual father of the Reform movement. Ol' Moses did such a hot job Jewishly that his grandchildren were all either non-Jews or Jews who converted to Christianity. He's a cautionary tale made flesh.

Because -- and this is sometimes ignored by a lot of people -- Moses Mendelssohn was frum. He was as observant as any frum Jew of his time. Nor, I think, did it ever occur to him not to be. The problem was never his observance. It was his hashkafa. To use Rabban Gamliel's terminology, tocho lo hayah k'baro. His insides were not like his outsides. He may have done all the ritual, but hell, anyone can do that. You can train a monkey to lay tefillin if you want. On the inside, where he generated his thoughts and ideas -- the thoughts and ideas that made him a Jewish dead-end -- he was a goy.

There's a growing number of the ein tocham k'baram (ETK) crowd, it seems, and an awful lot of them have blogs. And I tremble to see what's going to be in another generation. To think of what they teach their children. I can only hope that the social pressure to send their kids off to yeshiva will minimize the ill effect these people will have on the next generation of frum Jews.

But I'm getting offtrack a little. This is about the ridiculous false dichotomy between "Modern Orthodox" and "Ultra Orthodox". I find both of these groups a little scary and a little pathetic. With regards to the "Modern Orthodox", so-called, I refer you to my article on the Edah/JOFA/CLAL axis. With regards to the "Ultra Orthodox", also so-called, I want to tell you a little story.

In 1997, I was davening on the Yamim Noraim by a certain Young Israel. The daughter of the rav there invited me for lunch on the second day (I think it was) of Rosh HaShana. During the meal, we got onto the topic of ancient history. Of course. I mean, people ask what you do, and you tell them that you're a secretary, but that you also work on articles and books in the field of ancient history, and it tends to pique their curiosity.

I waxed all passionate about the need to educate frum kids about archaeology and the way in which it can enhance our understanding of our history. After all, unless they're completely cloistered, they're going to run into claims that archaeology contradicts Tanakh, and if they're left unarmed, they're going to wind up like the very many ETK Jews I was complaining about above.

I cited books like Artscroll's History of the Jewish People: The Second Temple Period as an example of the problem. The book is so riddled with contradictions that anyone with a modicum of reasoning skills is going to read it and ask, "Why are these people lying to me?" At which point, the rav's daughter started looking extremely uncomfortable. So I dropped the Artscroll bashing, like a good guest. Rav Scroll can look out for himself, after all.

But I gave her another example. The Living Torah. Now don't get me wrong. I like The Living Torah. But there's a problem with it. Not a problem that stems from the book itself, nor -- chas v'shalom -- from R' Aryeh Kaplan z'l, who wrote it. No, the problem stems from the outlook that's become representative of the so-called Ultra Orthodox community. You see, R' Kaplan has notes in this translation of the Torah. Botanical notes, explaining what exactly the plants are which are referred to in the Torah. You want to know what atzei shittim are? Check the bottom of the page and read all about the Acacia tree (if I'm remembering correctly). And historical notes. The Torah talks about Pharaoh and Joseph. Well, check out the notes at the bottom of the page and learn all about Amenemhet II, or whichever Egyptian king R' Kaplan identified with Joseph's Pharaoh.

And therein lies the problem. Because Amenemhet and Sesostris and the rest of that dynasty probably all date to the period of the Judges. Along with their contemporary, Hammurabi of Babylon. Or maybe I'm wrong, and they don't. But in any case, R' Aryeh Kaplan, for all his brilliant scholarship in the areas of Torah and physics, was not an expert in Assyriology or Egyptology or archaeology. He never claimed to be. He didn't study up on the subjects and determine as a Torah truth that Amenemhet II lived at the same time as Yosef HaTzaddik. No, he probably opened an encyclopedia, and looked to see who historians say was king of Egypt at that time.

I pointed out to the rav's daughter that there were probably people who thought it was a matter of emunat hachamim, or trust in the rabbis, to accept R' Kaplan's identifications in this matter.

And readers, how do you think she reacted? Let me preface this by saying that she'd gone to Stern College, but her outlook was 100% "Ultra Orthodox". She looked at me with a mixture of discomfort and a small amount of horror and said, "But if R' Aryeh Kaplan said that's who it is, you can't just dismiss it."

Hmm... Yes, actually, I can. And I do. And I do so without taking the slightest bit of respect and credit away from R' Kaplan. Rabbis are people, folks, and just like you and me, they can make mistakes, particularly in areas outside of their expertise. That's why we have the rule that says rabbis have to consult physicians when it comes to medical questions. And it doesn't begin and end with medicine. When the Rambam spoke about astronomy, he based it on the experts of his time. They were wrong, and so was he. Big deal. When Reb Moshe Feinstein wrote a teshuva claiming that no one can actually have a sexual orientation towards members of the same sex, and that anyone saying they do simply has a yetzer hara for forbidden acts, I can -- and do -- say that he was dead wrong. And I say it without taking the tiniest bit of kavod away from him. He spoke out of assumptions that at the time and in his cultural milieu were understandable. But he was wrong. Just as the Rambam was wrong about planets being embedded in spheres with the Earth at the center.

And that's why I have a hard time with the so-called Ultra Orthodox. And in case you wonder why I keep referring to these folks as "so-called", it's because I dispute the labels. The "Ultra Orthodox" are no more orthodox than those of us who refuse to bow the social pressures that require plus signs to be made like a (T) or kamatzim to be revised so that they have little balls on the bottom. And the "Modern Orthodox"... well, so many of them are more orthoprax these days than orthodox, but they certainly aren't any more "modern" than those of us who are computer geeks, but still insist on the Truth (with a capital T) of the Torah.

When I lived in Israel, there was a category called "Yeshivish". Yeshivish Jews didn't cower in the ghetto, but at the same time, they stood fast against creeping Mendelssohnism. As someone who is proud to be yeshivish, hashkafically speaking, I'm tired of the loopy extremes that are touted as the only two groups within the frum world. And like everyone who rejects the far extremes, I've grown used to being called "Modern Orthodox" by the ultras and "Ultra Orthodox" by the moderns. But I don't like it. It shows a shallowness of thought that is one of the biggest flaws in the frum community today. Across the spectrum.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Belief vs. Conviction: A Primer

(Originally posted on soc.culture.jewish.moderated, 11 August 2002)

A certain escapee from my killfile (don't worry; that won't happen again) wrote:

>Lisa does not claim to believe in
>the truth of Torah. She declares the truth of the Torah as being something
>outside the realm of belief, as something that isn't "believed,"

And added:

>And further, she declares not just that "Torah" is truth, but
>that the set of traditions that she declares as being the Torah to be
>truth, and that this declaration too is outside the realm of belief, but
>is objective fact.

It's amazing to me that this person has once again twisted what I wrote and attributed to me the exact opposite of what I wrote. But of course, that's what earned him entrance to my killfile before. Sometimes I'm a slow learner.

So for anyone else who may be reading this, since I've given up trying to get this person to read what I actually write, here's the difference between belief and conviction.

Belief is inherently a-rational. I won't say "irrational", because you can believe something that turns out to be rational, but belief itself is 100% detached from any rational process. It lives in the guts; not in the brain. A person can believe in elves or fairies without ever having seen any evidence for or against the proposition that elves and fairies exist, because belief doesn't care about evidence.

I remember a man I met once when I was in college. It was a Hillel House activity, and this was some older guy from the community. And we got to talking. And during the course of this, he explained that since the Torah says we're supposed to be a Holy People, that means we need to be unified. Why? Because, he explained, he believed that there must be some connection between the words "holy" and "whole". I explained to him that there wasn't, and that in fact, we weren't told to be "holy", but rather "kadosh", which has a connotation of separateness and uniqueness, rather than wholeness. He got a stubborn look on his face and said that he believed otherwise, and that was that. Nice.

The early Christian theologian Tertullian (bear with me, O Mods), when asked how he could believe the absurdities of his religion, answered "credo, quia absurdum". "I believe because it is absurd". And there's hardly a better definition of belief than that.

Belief doesn't want to hear about information to the contrary. Belief spits in the face of logic. Belief is just a matter of whim, and nothing more.

Science tells us that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant, and they can tell us to a very high level of accuracy what that speed is. I don't "believe" this to be true. I do not "believe" that every molecule of water is made up of one atom of oxygen and two of hydrogen. I accept those facts not because my emotions require me to and not out of some intrinsic or Platonic "knowledge" (which is no knowledge at all), but because the information comes to me from sources which I consider, based on the learning I have done and based on the areas where I have checked for myself, to be trustworthy.

The same is true of anyone who accepts a piece of knowledge that they haven't personally seen for themselves. If they accept that information as valid, it's either because they've seen evidence which convinces them of its validity, whether direct or indirect, or because they want to. The latter is belief. The former is conviction.

Conviction, by its nature, requires an act of convincing. That's simply what the word means. A conviction can be wrong, just as a belief can be right. But the fact that they can each be right or wrong doesn't make them the same thing. Not by a long shot. Conviction requires an act of reason. It might be poor reasoning in some cases, but the process is going on in the brain, and not in the kishkes.

Torah is not about belief. If religions are based on belief, then Judaism is not a religion. The Torah is about knowledge. Information. The reason it was revealed in front of about 3 million men, women and children was so that people wouldn't need to rely on belief. Other religions have a man receiving a revelation in a cave all by himself. Or have a dozen individuals witnessing a resurrection. How convenient.

I can never quite grasp what people are thinking when they try and imagine the Torah having been other than what it claims to be. I'm picturing Moses in the desert trying to convince everyone that they'd personally witnessed God giving the Torah at Sinai. Or Ezra trying to convince an entire nation, most of whom were still in Babylon, that they'd been passing the Torah down for a thousand years and just didn't remember doing so. How stupid do some people think our people were?

If you sit down and think about it, the vast majority of the information in your lives is information that you did not acquire first hand. You're told that the earth is 15 billion years old, but I assume you haven't been around that long to verify that claim. You're told that the sun is a big fusion reactor in the sky, but you almost certainly have not seen any of the evidence for that.

It can be rational to be convinced of something even without having witnessed it personally, but only if you approach it rationally. If you slam your eyes and ears shut to any evidence that goes against your cherished beliefs, you've left the realm of reason.

Are there Orthodox Jews who operate on the level of "belief"? Sadly, yes. But Judaism itself doesn't care a whit for belief. And to respond to another chacham on this newsgroup who felt himself capable of giving me a lesson in Hebrew, the word "emunah" is the same root as the word "emet", or truth. Nun-tav dipthongs often blend in Hebrew to leave only a tav. The words "at" and "ata" (you, in masculine and feminine) are a classic example. In Arabic and Aramaic, they are still "ant" and "anta". The dagesh (dot) in the tav in "ata" is a remnant of the nun that dropped out.

"Emet" is the noun form of the verb alef-men-nun. Amin means trustworthy, and also true, as in "a good man and true". When we say "amen", we are affirming the truth of what was just said. The person who decided to instruct me in Hebrew is much like the guy who wanted to tell me that we're supposed to be a "whole" nation. Simple translations for simple use lose the nuances of the words in the original language. It's one of the nice things about Everett Fox's translation of the Torah. For all its faults, it preserves nuances that are lost in dictionary-style translations.

Judaism is about living according to the Torah that God gave us, and passing it down intact to the next generation. And operating on it with the system that was given as part of it. The people who were there at Sinai (in body) didn't need either belief or conviction. They saw it with their own eyes and heard it with their own ears. And vice versa to a certain extent. Their children all heard about it from their parents, and only a nut would have denied it at that point, because they all heard the same thing, and their parents were all alive. Sure, it becomes more removed with time, but that's the reason that it was given to so many people at once, and that's why the accurate transmission of the Torah is such a vital issue in Judaism.

Those people who want to just close down their minds and say, "I don't want to be bothered, so I'm going to disbelieve", they are the ones who are operating on belief. They have an emotional reason to push the Torah away, and reason doesn't faze them. Although that's not true of all of them. Jews do come back to the Torah, and Jews always will. And Orthodox Jews are not going to apologize for placing our knowledge of Torah above the cavalier and emotional rejection of what the Torah says by those who think with their kishkes.

As far as the individual who started this nonsense by inverting what I said and presenting his invention as what I said, I hope that even those of you who disagree with me will know better than to ever listen to anything he says when it involves presenting the views of someone else.


Monday, March 27, 2006

Yehoshua Etzion, z'l

On January 30, 2006, Yehoshua Etzion passed away suddenly. I heard about it from his wife, Dalia, on February 9.

Yehoshua Etzion was a violinist with the Jerusalem Symphony, and the author of התנ"ך האבוד (The Lost Bible), published by Schocken Publishing House in 1992. I had read a summary of the book, which you can read for yourselves here, back in the 1980s, and I was very excited when the book was released. I looked forward to seeing it translated into English, because it is a very important work.

Etzion would be termed an amateur archaeologist, in that he possessed no degrees in the field, but he possessed something better, in my view, than academic training. He had an incisive mind, and a curiosity and a drive to find the truth that simply would not rest.

I met and spoke with Yehoshua on a couple of occasions. His work and my own, while differing in some areas, were similar enough that we found a commonality of purpose. I translated a small section from his book and posted it on my site, and in turn, Yehoshua linked to it on his own site.

Schocken did not feel it was worth translating Yehoshua's book into English. I think this decision is a major mistake. But, as Yehoshua related to me the last time we met, he had been subjected in Israel to many of the same types of "dirty tricks" that the late Immanuel Velikovsky was subjected to in his time. Invitations to speak which were endorsed by mainstream scholars were revoked when advocates of the conventional archaeological dating threatened boycotts. The decision makers at Schocken apparently felt that this would make it difficult to sell The Lost Bible in an English edition.

A couple of years ago, I contacted Yehoshua's editor at Schocken. With his consent and blessings, of course. She explained to me that Schocken would be willing to have the book translated and published, but only as what I would call a "vanity publishing" exercise. In other words, for a set cost, they would have the book translated, and would do a print run of 2,000 copies of the book, which would be shipped to me in Chicago. Selling them would be my problem.

I was willing to undertake this, but the amount in question was over $32,000. And fundraising has never been my strong suit.

I honestly believe that getting this book translated into English and published is incredibly important. It is important in terms of our understanding of history. And it is important in terms of Jewish education. I related in an earlier post how I came to be an Orthodox Jew. I had friends in the Orthodox high school who went in the opposite direction, and in at least one case, a friend explained to me that after learning in college that science disproves the historicity of the Bible, she couldn't continue being Orthodox. I believe that she is one of thousands, even tens of thousands, of young Jews who are bombarded with a false impression that one must choose between archaeology and accepting the truth of Judaism. I have seen, on various blogs and e-mail lists, that even Jews who continue to identify as Orthodox are losing their emunah, because they lack the tools with which to see that it isn't the archaeology that is in conflict with the Tanach, but only the way the archaeological evidence is dated.

So... while I don't know what the cost would be, currently, to get Yehoshua Etzion's book translated and issued in English (prices may have gone up in the past few years), I am asking anyone who thinks they could either raise the $32,000 or so that I mentioned before, or who knows others who can, to contact me, so that we can accomplish this. I feel extremely guilty that I was not able to do this in time for Yehoshua to see it himself, but I do believe it would be a terrific way to honor him, even aside from the other reasons I've mentioned.