Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Important Big Post: Where Do We Go From Here?

[I was part of the frum community for 5 years. So before I make my decision, even as I suspect some people will react viscerally to this post, I feel I owe it to readers to let them give their input, put out their own thoughts if they feel so inclined. Where did I find the time to write this post, you may ask? Answer: Sometimes I feel absolutely compelled to write something is all, I can't get it out of my head. Moreover, Sukkos break is coming up, which means I have a five-day weekend (and get to stay at home studying for the next five days, whoopee!). Because I am not sure about what I will propose at the end of this post so I want to give people a chance to give me a reason to reject my tentative conclusions. If you think I'm not open to your ideas, then I suppose this post would be a waste of your time and I encourage you to skip it.]

I was thinking about the blog and I'm not really sure where I want to go with it. I do want to have a debate on Orthodox Judaism* and I am certainly going to put up papers that I write here, as well as videos of conferences and interesting lectures** I attend.

But recently I've been riffing on the Orthodox and I was thinking about it;*** I don't think I'm being intellectually consistent here. When I used to riff on Orthodox spokespeople, it was because I really cared. The Orthodox Jews I knew and loved were going in the wrong direction, towards a worldview which is frummer than the pope's. Through the Internet, I realized that on the opposite end there are those who condemn all of the anti-science and anti-history stuff unequivocally but then don't provide answers to the big questions raised by modernity themselves. And then there are all those who are somewhere in the middle. I wanted the anti-science people to realize they were making a mistake and I wanted the "Modernishe"to realize that it was their duty to start proposing their own scholarly answers to the big questions. Then everybody could realize that Torah and rationalism weren't incompatible and, going forth with good answers to the big questions, they could have no real kashes on frumkeit intellectually. Torah Umadda would withstand everything the modern world could throw at it.

But now, as detailed in previous posts, I don't believe in frumkeit. Why am I still writing like an insider activist?
Seems to be a bit of cognitive dissonance on my part. I also feel when I talk to frum people that I'm kind of in this limbo between wide-eyed-baalei teshuva-in-potentia-who-will-accept-anything and those who are in the "in" group, those who "know" and "understand;" I felt this way very often as a Modern Orthodox Jew who wasn't going to let other people tell me how I had to think "to be a good Jew" as well, but as a young whippersnapper brazenly rejecting Judaism, I feel this even more. People tell me that I'm wrong or my ideas are silly or that I just don't recognize the proper way to think, but then when I say, let's have a debate about it, they back off; they prefer browbeating to actual discussion in front of an audience. Don't get me wrong, just about all of my old friends (I have one new friend here at Brandeis and he's an ex-Catholic) haven't been like this; they were understanding of my decision. But then, most of my old friends aren't really in touch; for some reason, a lot of them just saw the post where I announced my leaving frumkeit. The people I hear from are the ones who tell me how I'm wrong, I'm biased, I'm silly, etc. I look into claims as to why I have to believe in religion (most recently, by one of my best old friends, the Torah Code. Yes, I'm serious, some people just never find the time to look them up after going to the wonderful Aish lecture. Not even 5 years later.).

Perhaps I really ought to follow the advice of one good Rosh Mechina, detailed elsewhere on this blog****: "HERE IN THIS YESHIVA, WE LEARN GEMARA, TOSAFOS! IF YOU'RE NOT GOING TO LEARN GEMARA, TOSAFOS, I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING HERE!?" Perhaps it is time that I do my best to shift my mind from one which sees the Jews as fellow Jews to one which sees the Jews as a fascinating academic topic? Perhaps I should see myself as a fellow traveler with those who proudly and firmly declare that, despite their background, they are not Jews? The "sense-of-community" bit doesn't seem to apply anymore and even when it did, I always was uncomfortable with the reasons (not because of my personality or even a love for all mankind but because of an accident of birth into the Chosen People which nodded when a mountain was held over their heads and because I'm a potential target for kiruv and having Jewish babies as opposed to goyishe babies).

*Three positive responses to my offer have been extended thus far. The first wanted to mainly focus on the existence of a philosophical deity (e.g. deism) as opposed to a traditional Orthodox Jewish deity, but as that didn't fit my offer, we agreed that it was fair not to have that discussion. The second was withdrawn independent of discussion with me. In order to keep my word to have a debate, I sent an email to Dovid Kornreich accepting his demand for a debate ("Please tell me when we..."), but now he writes that before he accepts the offer [which he already accepted], he'd like me to properly answer some questions of his (When he asked me what my motivation is, I couldn't help thinking: "WHAT is your quest?").

**The lectures I've gone to so far I can't imagine y'all would be much interested in.
***While thinking about it, I also received an email from Dovid where he asked me a question which was related to these thoughts.
****Clarification here.


  1. Yes, I had to make this move in my own thinking. You have to go from responding to a particular group to developing your own ideas.

  2. I don't know what to say anymore, Baruch.
    You keep wanting to have a debate and I keep asking: based on what common understandings?
    You want to debate God's existence? Are you or I qualified considering the intelligence and depth of knowledge of others who have tried on both sides of the issue?
    Listen, there is a cognitive dissonance going on here but it's the usual, whether you realize it or not. Here's how it goes:
    1) The most "authentic" Judaism is fundamentalist Chareidism.
    2) Fundamentalist Chareidism does not have the answers to withstand the challenge of modernity.
    3) Therefore authentic Judaism is false.
    The corrolaries are:
    1) Modern Orthodoxy, being not fundamentalist Chareidism, is inauthentic.
    2) Modern Orthodoxy has answers to the challenge of modernity.
    3) Since Modern Orthodoxy is inauthentic, these answers are all apologetics and therefore can be dismissed.
    I see it over and over again. People don't change, just their behaviours do. Are you sure you're not embracing your new apikorsus with the same passion you once embraced Judaism with? And if you are doing so, then how can you justify your current beliefs any more than your previous?

  3. What you said about Modern Orthodoxy isn't my position. My position is that Modern Orthodoxy hasn't really provided good answers to the challenges of modernity. But hopefully some of that will come up in my debate with Dovid.

  4. You keep wanting to have a debate and I keep asking: based on what common understandings?
    It depends who the person is. If you and I were to have a debate, I suppose it would be on the validity of the concept that one should have faith in Judaism.

  5. First of all, one does not have faith in Judaism. One has faith that God exists, before anything else, and then that He shows interest in the goings-on of the universe he created. Only then could we have a debate on the legitimacy of Judaism because until you accept those two points, how could we?
    Secondly, Modern Orthodoxy has done a fine job handling the claims of science. The claims of scientism, the religion that claims to represent science, well that's another matter.

  6. I see this rhetoric of the religious pitching science as a religion, "scientism" and the like, quite frequently. On its face, it makes a lot of sense, but the difference between faith in God and faith in science is quiet clear. To have faith that an omniscient being of extraterrestrial origins exists occupying all space and time, unbound by its confines, requires one to believe with absolutely no foundation. To then believe that this incorporeal being was the catalyst of the Big Bang (or whatever creation myth you prefer) and that It continues to step in and make changes whenever It wants requires further blind faith. One can turn to personal experience, history, etc. to try and find patterns, proofs of God's existence, but at the end of the day, he is believing blindly. To have faith in science is to have faith in a method which has, up until now, done a marvelous job explaining the workings of the universe, updating itself every time new information comes to falsify the old. We cannot grasp dark matter, but strong evidence suggests its existence. We cannot see a black hole, but we can see its byproducts with special imagining, radiation which was predicted to coincide with them long before it was ever actually found. Not long ago, the vast majority of the scientific community believed the universe had always existed, as the laws of science as they understood them did not allow for a beginning. As science advanced and a better understanding of those same laws was reached, some postulated a start-point and suggested methods to prove their theories. Some were proven absolutely false, others plausible, and a couple very likely. The beauty of science is that it is ever expanding, always improving itself and its understanding of the universe. To have faith in science is to have faith in a system which continues to work. Not an infallible system and one which doesn't claim to be. A "theory" in science is a well-established and tested claim which yet remains falsifiable by nature of the very system it was created within.

  7. Jared, you clearly don't understand what faith means.
    If I put a pot of water on a stove, I don't have to have faith or believe the water will boil. Given the laws of physics, I know it will.
    Science is a field of knowledge which runs by very specific rules. There is no room for faith because everything is testable.
    Scientism is an atheistic religion in which the rules of science are perverted to create a moral system. For example, to use Baruch's favourite whipping boy, global warming. Current there is plenty of evidence that it is occuring. There is also plenty of evidence that it isn't. The world is so complex that no one model can fully explain what's going on. As someone in the paper wrote today, on one hand they tell us they don't know what the consequences will be if we don't stop global warming, and then they go and tell us anyways!
    Science tells us there's evidence for both sides and no firm conclusions can therefore be drawn. Scientism tells us it is happening, that all data to the contrary must be ignored and failure to acknowledge that it's happening renders one a fool and heretic. if that isn't religious, I don't know what is.

  8. Garnel, I think global warming is a poor example, and I don't quite get your point beyond it. All current evidence supports a notion that the global temperature is rising. Unless I'm missing something, that is irrefutable. The reasons and resulting necessary action, however, are absolutely in dispute, and any real scientist would concur that we cannot know for sure if it is by human interference, natural rhythm, or some other outside, unknown factor. Therefore, science cannot make claims as to morality and demand specific action. Scientists can propose causes and outcomes and suggest behavior which they believe, based on their studies, would help prevent negative outcomes they have predicted. Science tells us it is happening and what that might mean. Idiot elitists tell us what we have to do based on a skewed understanding of science, and other idiots believe them. That's not science nor religion. That's just plain stupid.

  9. Jared, your first comment proves my point. Currently, there are four groups in the global warming debate:
    1) As per your statement, all current evidence supports a notion that the global temperature is warming. This is entirely humanity's fault and huge changes in the way we live in the West (although curiously not India and China) have to occur.
    2) All current evidence supports a notion that global temperature is warming. The existence of the medieval warm period suggests that humanity is not at fault. We don't have to adjust to prevent warming, we have to adjust to be prepared for its consequences.
    3) There is good evidence that global temperature is rising and equally good evidence that it isn't. Pick your side.
    4) There is no good evidence that global temperature is warming.
    Me, personally, I'm in (3) but a large number of scientists are in (1) but not because they necessarily believe that but because otherwise they risk the loss of the funding and ability to publish.
    Science, as you noted, tells us what is happening. But scientists, who have flaws and biases like everyone else, tell us what it means and therein lies the problem.

  10. Garnel, though my scientific knowledge is somewhat dated, I have yet to see a convincing study published by a scientific group not funded by a political campaign which supports the forth opinion, and recent changes in the polar ecosystems seem to only support the claims in (2) over (3). I personally don't find myself in any of your above classifications, but rather somewhere between (1) and (2), where we cannot be certain if this is a natural process, one caused by human interference, or a combination of the two, and that it is necessary to continue research into the causes to adequately know how to respond as events unfold. That being said, I respect your opinion and two well versed people certainly have the right to disagree.

    Back to the issue at hand, my primary complaint is your use of language equating science to religion. While it is unfortunately the case that many within the scientific community have been ostracized for holding opinions outside what is considered the acceptable norm, this has happened throughout history, and I doubt it will get better any time soon. However, such rhetoric is frequently used by the religious right to invoke a kind of fundamentalist vigor against the scientific community with the intended end result of blindly discounting all scientific notions outside those immediately observable in preference of unfounded and unsupported claims. If science is merely a religion like any other, what makes the claims of scientists more valid than your local witch doctor or crystal healer? Such a mentality can be harmful and lead followers to refuse healthcare, ignore the environment, or mistreat minority groups. I agree that there are those whose pseudo-scientific beliefs verge on faith (as many Randians do), but I object to the use of terms like "scientism," as they are misleading and imply a well accepted belief structure held by all or most scientists.

  11. Jared, I might not have been clear. I differentiate between science and scientism. For example, consider Stephen Hawking's recent diatribe against God.
    Science tells us that the Big Bang created the universe from a wee tiny molecule. Science does not know where this molecule came from and although it proposes various theories it recognizes there is no evidence for any of them, just some good thoughts for discussion. On the other thand, Scientism says that there are lots of theories as to where this molecule came from and holds that these theories are more likely than asserting that God created the molecule and therefore there is no God, chas v'shalom.
    The danger of scientism emerges when it comes in contact with the fundamentalist religious right as you noted. The fundamentalists, who generally lack scientific training, cannot differentiate between science and scientism. Thus when Hawking announces that science says that there's no God, he is giving the fundamentalists a chance to attack science in general. Science does NOT say that there is no God and is not equipped to answer the question so how does Hawking think he is qualified as a scientist to enter into that area?
    In conclusion, science is a field of knowledge with well-established rules and a mandate for examining a defined portion of reality. Scientism is a religion in which certain scientific findings are given an authority which they do not merit in order to push an ethical agenda.

  12. I don't recall any "diatribe" by Hawking.

    Here's the context of the quickly famous quote:
    Many people would like us to use these coincidences as evidence of the work of God. The idea that the universe was designed to accommodate mankind appears in theologies and mythologies dating from thousands of years ago. In Western culture the Old Testament contains the idea of providential design, but the traditional Christian viewpoint was also greatly influenced by Aristotle, who believed "in an intelligent natural world that functions according to some deliberate design."

    That is not the answer of modern science. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

  13. Thank you Baruch for the quote. I believe what Hawking is saying above is not that there is not a supreme being, though I assume that is his belief, but rather that one need not have faith in a deity in order to validate the Big Bang and its result from time zero onward. Garnel, your point is well made nonetheless, but I still shutter at the implications such language can have when it meets the ill-informed masses. Having grown up the target of religious fervor gone bad, I avoid using terminology which could lend itself to unfortunate misunderstandings.

  14. Funny how Garnel has no problem when scientists pay lip service to Dog, yet throws an all-out hissy fit when a scientist disses God. Apparently, scientists have a lot of credibility (Garnel being the notable exception), and their opinions on legends and fairy tales are highly sought-after. Thank Science most of them aren't crazy theists like Garnel, though far too many are accomodationists/enablers.

  15. Go away OTD, the adults are having an important discussion.

    Anyway, here's the part of the quote that gets Hawkings into trouble:
    "As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing."

    This is complete bovine feces. Matter and energy must come from somewhere. It simply doesn't pop into existence all of a sudden one day and go BANG. The National Post recently ran a piece by a physicist in the US very critical of Hawking for saying this and it undermines his entire piece.

  16. You all are so heady and intellectual that you're missing the point. You will go round and round forever in your brilliance, yet go nowhere. Nothing really matters outside the fact that HaShem is the living G-d who is a personal G-d, who loves each and every one of us. He is the powerful G-d who hears and answers prayer. From Bereshit He has reached out to explain His plan of redemption, but we have failed to see beyond the veil. Look inside the ancient pages of Tanakh and see what He says. It has been proven not by scholars, but by archeology, astronomy, history and geography etc. etc. Read Mishlei 30:4 - Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Who has cupped the wind in the palms of his hands? Who has wrapped up the waters in his cloak? Who established all the ends of the earth? What is his name and what is his son's name? Surely you know? So - what is his name and what is his son's name?