Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tis the Season to be Blogging

Various cool updates on things you may have missed:
I do accept guest posts here at Baruch's Thoughts. Write something interesting about history, politics, or religion and please submit it! You can email me at baruch.pelta@gmail.com .
There are some new end-of-the-year start-up web endeavors which I thought might have been overlooked, but seem to have some potential. Check them out!

Friend-of-the-blog Questioning Yid is a great writer; he's decided not to let that talent go to waste in blogging about his own life journey. I see lots of potential! Check out his blog, In Silence.

Back in like 2005, all the cool bloggers were refuting various statements of the Frumteens Moderator. Somehow got out of style. Anyways, kicking it retro, one Yoni has started a Frumteens Moderator Critique blog. It's quite new, but I'm keeping my eye on this one.
Over at Yeshiva University, there's a very interesting initiative going on. Some students have decided to start a new online publication entitled the YU Beacon. Apparently, some of the women at Stern College's Observer "were kept multiple times from publishing articles based on what the editors there thought were inappropriate or reflected poorly on Stern, two things which we did not think should be reasons to suppress journalism or stories." While suggested to submit their articles to the Commentator (the boys' paper), they took the opportunity to instead start an alternative paper which will give a voice to those "large groups of students at both schools who feel as if they are not being heard."* It's also been emphasized that the paper will be uncensored (whatever that means for a frum paper). This at a time when YU has instituted a censorship committee. If they're relevant enough to be successful, they risk being picked on by the committee and they risk melting away in the face of rabbinic opposition. So I'm a bit cynical of their chances. But the editorial board sounds like a crack team and two of them are acquaintances of mine, so I'm not hopeless. Good luck to them.
I've long felt people are far too harsh on Rabbi Avi Shafran's writings (and not near harsh enough on Jonathan Rosenblum's, but that's another story) and even expressed, yes, my heretical like for them . He's stopped writing columns in his capacity as Agudah spokesman and instead is writing as an individual for Ami Magazine. One of his pieces was an absolutely spot-on criticism of a problem with many people in the frum community; it's important that he writes such internal critiques, because when they come from him, they (hopefully) reach people who might usually be deaf to mussar. I don't want to ruin it, so I advise people to read it.
Christopher Hitchens layed the smackdown on Shmuley Boteach again awhile back and an acquaintance who went promised to give me a guest post on the debate so we'd have the first word on what happened; he then proceeded to renege. Anyways, said debate is now online. Like I said, the HiTCH destroyed. But I should say, wow, look at how Shmuley can so much appreciate the work and life of people who even vehemently disagree with him. That's real derech eretz.

*Both quotes from facebook note by one of the new editors, Simi Lampert Eisenman.


  1. Thanks for the publicity! Needless to say, I fully endorse your blog as well. Perhaps we can trade guest posts some day.

  2. Yes, Hitchens destroyed Shmueley. And Michael Brown, a Messianic Jew, has also repeatedly destroyed Shmueley. Since Hitchens' and Brown's views can't both be right, the results of these debates say nothing about the correctness of the content, only the skill of the debaters. One can be incredibly wrong, and be an incredibly good debater. Maybe Hitchens and Brown should now debate each other - and what would that prove?

  3. Harold, yes, one can be incredibly wrong and be an incredibly good debater. But debates can still open peoples' minds to new possibilities.

    Besides, aren't the rabbis supposed to have the Talmudic acumen to be able to easily show up atheists? One would think that a gadol would've gone and destroyed Dawkins by now, converting hundreds or thousands to theism and mekarving people to become baalei teshuva galore.

  4. Baruch, Rabbis, like in any other field, represent a wide range of abilities. Also, I'm sure you've come across brilliant people who aren't particularly good at debating and vice versa (I certainly have). I think one of the problems has been, at least for those who Hitchens' has debated in the Jewish world, that whoever is putting together the debates has gone more after "star quality" than intellectual prowess. Hitchens has gone right along with this, kind of like a fighter who has a good win/loss record because he fights against not-so-challenging opponents.

    The other Jewish debate I know of was with Rabbi David Wolpe, who obviously was also chosen because he is well known. I did not see the debate, but got a transcript of it, which I read carefully. There are things I wished Wolpe had said that he didn't, but it was a much stronger performance than Boteach. My impression from the transcript was that Hitchens presented some arguments for atheism that have been around for quite a long time, but he presented them as if he was revealing some new insights that no one had quite thought of before someone of his brilliance came along. And he never did really counter some of the things that Wolpe said.

    What I would really like to see is Hitchens debate someone like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (this is also star power, but Sacks offers more than star power), or perhaps Rabbi J.J. Schachter, Professor David Shatz, Rabbi Doniel Hartman, R. Adin Steinsaltz, etc. etc. I think with anyone like this, it would be an incredibly different debate than with R. Boteach, or even R. Wolpe. You might not agree with their answers, and might choose to buy into those given by Hitchens - but I'm pretty sure it would not be the kind of debate that anyone could walk away from saying with confidence that Hitchens won. For that matter, I'd prefer to see any of them debate Michael Brown than R. Boteach.

    As for your tongue-in-cheek comment that Rabbis should have the Talmudic acumen, etc., again, one could say the same about Boteach's performance with Michael Brown. Using your logic, wouldn't this just prove that there must be something to this messianic Judaism thing?

  5. FTR Richard Dawkins tried to interview Sacks for the Root of All Evil? documentary, but the Chief Rabbi declined. Instead, this past year, he made his own 30 minute documentary The Case for God? and handpicked some atheists to argue with on some specific points. A lot of people thought the chosen interlocutors were extremely milquetoast...I thought they were ok, but it's clear he wasn't going "into the lion's den" as the BBC billed it and he wasn't "putting my faith on the line" as he said. Respectful mild conversations, more like.

    ...again, one could say the same about Boteach's performance with Michael Brown.
    My comment wasn't making the point that we atheists are right. It was about the supposed ability of the frum rabbanim to show up all other ideologies. I think if the individuals you named seek to debate a thoughtful atheist, they will find him. I agree, I'd love to see them debate an atheist. Perhaps Mark Perakh or Vic Stenger, who have taken on frum people in writing before, would be willing. I still have my debate challenge up too: http://bpelta.blogspot.com/2010/10/new-challenge.html .

  6. I haven't seen "The Case for God?" Do we know that Dawkings or Hitchens wasn't asked to be on Sacks' show? Having done some work with film, I think the Rabbi had every reason to decline, regardless of his oratorical skills. Being interviewed for someone else's show, where they can cut and paste your remarks at will and add their own commentary, is hardly the same thing as having a debate where there is a real exchange of ideas. If Sacks was interested in having a real conversation about the issues, then he was 100% right to decline such a format. And if he asked Dawkins or Hitchens to be on his show, then I would say that, from their perspective, they would be 100% right to decline. None of this changes the fact that if Hitchens (or Dawkins or Harris, etc.) and Sacks had a real debate, the outcome would be very different than with Boteach.

    Re: Michael Brown. Who said that ALL frum rabbanim have the ability to debate and show up all other ideologies. My original point still stands - there are Rabbis of varying intellects and varying debating abilities (just like atheists). The fact that R. Boteach didn't make a good showing reflects on R. Boteach, not on all of Judaism. Anyway, I think you really are trying to say that atheists are right. Or at least that Judaism must be wrong if a frum Rabbi can't win a debate against an atheist. Otherwise, what is the point of making such a big deal out of the Hitchens/Boteach debate.

    As far as the people I named seeking out a debate with an atheist, my guess is they are too busy doing other things to bother with it. Most of these debates do not happen because anyone is seeking anyone else out. They have mostly happened because organizations put them together - so for example, the Hitchens/Wolpe debate happened because the Jewish Week newspaper organized it. None of this changes the fact that there are plenty of frum Rabbis who could give people like Hitchens a run for his money.

    Maybe you should invite Hitchens and really high-octane Rabbi (like Doniel Hartment, J.J. Schachter, etc.) to Brandeis.

  7. Like I said, Sacks's documentary was looking for a specific type of person. If you watch it, it's clear he wasn't looking for a Hitchens or a Dawkins. Anyways, there are heated debates on religion going on all the time in London (note for example Intelligence Squared). If the Chief Rabbi sought, he too would find.

    Otherwise, what is the point of making such a big deal out of the Hitchens/Boteach debate.
    Who's making a big deal out of it? It was the last thing I mentioned on a post updating people on interesting things they might have missed. I didn't write that all frum rabbanim can show up all other ideologies, but Boteach is the one who represents them in such debates and while that might not reflect on Orthodox Judaism, it does reflect on how Orthodox Judaism chooses to interact/not interact with challenges to the belief system.

  8. Sorry, but to say that Boteach "represents them" in debates is a bit disingenous. Boteach represents Boteach. It's not like he goes into these debates with the endorsements of a long list of Orthodox Rabbis (or any list). It does not reflect on how "Orthodox Judaism chooses to interact" with challenges. It reflects on how one Rabbi chooses to. In any event, I would serious doubt that R. Sacks is running scared, if that in fact is what you are implying. I certainly haven't heard any arguments that Hitchens et al. have presented that Sacks, or someone like him, couldn't refute. In any event, my original point still stands - put up a stronger Rabbi in the debates and it's a very different debate. Don't think Rabbi Sacks is up to it? Try Doniel Hartman. Try one of dozens of other people. But please don't say that Rabbi Boteach represents Orthodox Judaism in these debates, any more than Sarah Palin represents all women just because she happens to offer an opinion about women.