Monday, December 31, 2007

Answers to a couple of recent comments on Faith vs. Evidence

My answers to a couple of comments on this post -

Anon:

I wasn't trying to give you a hard time for posting anonymously - sorry if it came across that way.

You're right - perhaps the word "retreat" is a poor choice. But I do not believe in rejecting empirical evidence because my religion claims it must be wrong. If I had always lived in caves and my religion had taught me that the sky was green, and I had always believed that, what would happen if I came to the surface and saw that the sky was blue? There would be 3 choices.

1) The sky isn't blue, despite the evidence of my own eyes.

2) The sky is green; therefore, my entire religion is wrong.

3) The sky is green, therefore my religion was wrong about this particular point. That doesn't invalidate the rest of the religion.

My beliefs would fall into the 3rd category. I love Hashem, I love Judaism. I am forced to concede that Judaism had it wrong on some counts, but that doesn't mean I reject it all.

You say that science is accelerating. But it cannot disprove an intangible. Science can never disprove my belief in God. Nor can science disprove that the Torah is, at the very least, divinely inspired by God and that there was some sort of revelation. This holds true even if the Torah was written by humans at a later date than is traditionally believed. If I choose to believe that many of the historical events and characters in the Torah are "true" only symbolically or allegorically, science cannot disprove that.

So, in answer to your question on what I believe that cannot be changed by scientific evidence: I believe in God and that the Torah is divinely inspired and that Judaism is an outgrowth of that Torah. I believe I am bound by the halachic system because we were commanded by God to create a process based on his revelation that resulted in said system of laws.

None of this can be disproved by science, so I am confident that I never need give up my basic beliefs.

David G:

I'm actually not really struggling with the conflict between science & Torah. I'm pretty comfortable with the middle ground that I carved out. I am fascinated by the challenges and possible solutions, but I don't feel my basic belief system is in danger.

Has the Democratic Party moved to the left?

I usually don’t comment on politics on this blog, but in this political season, and with politics being my version of sports, I guess it’s inevitable.

In this Jerusalem Post op-ed piece, Jonathan Tobin decries that the Democratic Party, by veering sharply towards the left, has forced people like Joe Lieberman to turn to the republicans and endorse John McCain. Tobin repeats the usual claim of the right that the Democratic party has become soft on terror and is now controlled by the radical anti-Israel pacifist left and that people like Lieberman have no choice but to lean towards the “responsible” foreign policy of the Republicans.

"At places like Huffingtonpost.com and other sites where the MoveOn.org crowd congregate, the comments range from the scatological to the purely anti-Semitic. At such places, hard core anti-Bush and anti-war sentiments are the coin of the realm, and hostility to Israel and its perceived influence on American foreign policy is rampant. The notion of a Democratic Party that aggressively defends America's interests abroad as vigorously as it fights for liberal causes at home is treated as an absurdity in this quarter."

The truth is, by needlessly attacking Iraq, mismanaging the war, torturing prisoners, and abrogating international treaties, Bush created the opening for the lunatic fringe of the left to gain so much of the voice of liberalism. If he had continued to responsibly prosecute the war in Afghanistan and not attacked Iraq and embraced unilateralism, the radical voices of the extreme left wouldn't be nearly as loud or carry nearly as much weight in the media.

That being said, it is exactly that focus by the media on the MoveOn.org crowd that gives a skewed impression of today's Democratic electorate. The vast majority of Democratic voters is fairly middle of the road and abhors the tactics and shrillness of the extreme left. But they recognize that the war in Iraq was a costly and useless error and they are anxious to move back to normality. Lieberman doesn't recognize this truth and therefore gravitates to the right. He left the Democratic party behind when he chose to support the wrong war.

The one Democratic candidate for President who really represents the fringe left that many seem so frightened of is Dennis Kucinich, and he is polling in the low single digits. Most Democratic voters are supporting mainstream candidates like Clinton, Obama, Edwards, etc. All of them supported the war in Afghanistan and have consistently expressed strong support for Israel. So in what way has the Democratic party abandoned the center? Only by the standards of those who support this wasteful and illegal war in Iraq.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

More on Faith vs. Evidence

Anonymous left a comment to my post "Faith vs. Evidence" on Dec. 24.

I started typing a comment in response, but decided my point merited a new post.

Anonymous wrote:

"Great blog. I came across it accidentally, but well thought out and thorough posts.

"Anyway, I don't think your generalization in the 2nd paragraph holds. I came from a pretty religious family, from an early age as I can remember I always valued logic and reasoning more than blind faith.

"But anyway, on to your statement that "There is nothing in the documentary hypothesis to force me to reject God's existence". If you are accepting scientific reasoning, as your post seems to suggest (e.g. you are refer to documentary hypothesis, which is a scientific construct), then you are going about it from the wrong angle. Extraordinary claims required extraordinary proofs. Thus, you have to prove God's existence rather than wait for someone else to disprove it. Otherwise, I could just say that there is nothing in the documentary hypothesis to force me to reject the existence of exquisite set of Fabergé eggs traveling in orbit of Jupiter.

"Moreover, as far as adjusting belief to fit empirical evidence... Sorry, either you believe in God or you do not. Adjusting your belief based on the soup du jour makes the belief invalid."

Anonymous:

Thanks for the comment.

What I was saying is that I am NOT basing my entire belief system entirely on rationalism. I am both a rational being and a religious one.

I come from a belief in God & Judaism. That, I admit, is not a rational belief. It is a religious one. I don’t advocate for that position based on a reasoned understanding of the evidence. I feel it emotionally, in a way that has nothing to do with empiricism.

On the other hand, I also view myself as a rational being. I am confronted with evidence about the natural world and of history and archeology, evidence that was not available to earlier generations.

So I am forced to retreat. But it does not mean that I must throw out all of my religious beliefs, but simply to acknowledge that some of them may have been based on myth and legend. Does that mean the entire foundation of my belief in Judaism has crumbled? I say no.

I concede the points I must, based on incontrovertible evidence. For instance, archeological and geological evidence clearly proves there was no worldwide flood in ancient times. Does that mean that I have to throw out the baby with the bathwater?

No! There are many ways to understand the flood tale related in the Torah. God meant it allegorically or symbolically. Or maybe there was a massive flood and it seemed like it covered the entire world and the Torah was given to humans in language they could understand. Or perhaps the Torah was written by humans, but it encompassed a measure of divine revelation.

Many of the dogmatic beliefs of Judaism were formulated much later than biblical times, and many of those even later than Talmudic times. So what if one part of dogma is proven to be untrue. There is enough richness of tradition to reach back and find a different explanation from antiquity that allows my belief to stand.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Modern Orthodox communities

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how much of the formerly Modern Orthodox community has been leaning to the right, religiously.

The problem is much more pronounced in the big communities where the Orthodox population is dominated by the Ultra Orthodox. The MO in those areas seem to take their cues for everything from the Charedim. Kashrut, education, etc, are all run or organized by Charedim and the Modern Orthodox just use the services provided by them.

I live in a small community that is most decidedly "out of town". Because there are only a handful of Charedim here, the MO rabbis and lay leaders and members of the community all step up to the plate and manage the Vaad Hakashrut, run & teach in the day school, manage the eruv, invite modern speakers, etc.

In the big communities the MO look to the UO for all their community building, by default, and end up thinking about themselves the way the UO think of them - that Modern Orthodoxy is just "Orthodoxy lite" instead of something dynamic and beautiful in its own right.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Faith vs. Evidence

Is there any evidence for believing in Hashem & Judaism other than faith?

It depends on one's starting point. Someone who was raised in a secular humanist household and whose identity is invested in secular humanism will undoubtedly see no reason at all to accept any sort of higher being or revelation.

On the other side of the coin are many of us who are starting from a point of faith in God and faith in Torah MiSinai.

We don't have this faith because we have deduced it from logical processes. Rather, we feel it deeply, in a way that is not subject to logic or rationalism. It's a different kind of belief, not based on empirical evidence. We simply KNOW.

Being intelligent individuals raised on modern western rationalism, we confront evidence that the Torah is not what traditional Judaism claims it to be.

What do we do? Rather than throw out all of our deeply held beliefs, we must modify them to fit the empirical evidence.

That is, emunah still has a place in our thoughts and hearts. It's still the place where we start from. We simply must adapt aspects of our belief to the incontrovertible evidence that we are faced with.

I don't claim to speak for everyone who comments and posts on this and like minded blogs. But I think most think as I do.

Coming from a firm belief in God, I see no need to jettison that belief. There is nothing in the documentary hypothesis to force me to reject God's existence.

The traditional views about the text of the Torah are another thing. I cannot, based on what modern scholarship presents me with, accept that the exact text of the Torah, word for word, was given to Moshe at Har Sinai.

Does that mean I must accept the conclusions of the DH? Certainly not. Much of the DH is simply intelligent speculation. The evidence requires me to modify my thinking somewhat. But it doesn't in any way prove the nonexistence of God or that no part of the Torah has its source in divine revelation.

I guess in the end part of it does come down to blind faith. But if we were only interested in what can be proven by logic, then this topic wouldn’t be so popular in the blogosphere.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Entertaining hashkafic doubts

Another comment that I posted on XGH's blog:

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I also entertain skeptical thoughts but here's the two facts which ground me:

1) I believe in Hashem. How to define Hashem? The standard way - an omnicient and omnipotent entity who created the universe (ir, in some way, IS the universe.) I leave out whether this entity exactly matches whet is depicted in Tanach for the moment. Call him a nondenominational God.

2) I believe in Judaism. That is to say, I believe in the process. Rabbinic Judaism is mostly man made anyway. What we practice today would be virtually unrecognizable to Jews at the time of, say, Shlomo HaMelech. So for anyone, 90% of believing in Judaism is believing in the process of Judaism, the give & take of interpretation of the Torah.

As for the other 10% - well, I have doubts, but I figure my belief in Hashem and in the process of Judaism is enough grounding so that I can explore my doubts about whether parts of the Torah were written by humans, or whether individuals in Tanach actually exististed, or if there was ever really a great flood that ecompassed the world, in relative theological comfort.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

God and authenticity of Judaism

On his blog, XGH often stuggles with God's existence and with the truth of Judaism. Here is comment I wrote to one of his recent posts - I ended up rambling a little:

Seems to me that you struggle with 2 questions and that you need to examine each in a different light:

1) does God exist

2) if god exists, is OJ true?

Or break it down even further:

If God exists, what kind of God is he? Does he consciously rule the world or is all of existence just a sort of "side effect" of God's being? Or does he take an active role?

If he takes an active role, did he actually command us to do all the things that the Torah lists or is that a human document by people who were striving for God?

Even if it's not a totally human document, what level of input was there by God? Written by God, every word? Written by people interpreting the word of God? Written with ruach hakodesh or divine inspiration?

There's a lot behind the question: "Is Orthodox Judaism true?"

Personally, I believe in God (99% of the time - I think 100% is unhealthy to having an active, thinking religion) and I believe in traditional halacha. But what does believing in traditional halacha mean? That all of Torah Sheba'al peh came directly from God at Har Sinai, or that humans extrapolated it from Torah Shebichtav? There are definitely majorly flawed halachot. If it's a partially human system, then you can accept that some of it reflects the biases of those who instituted those laws (and you work within the halachic system to change them). If it's 100% min hashamayim, seems to me that would imply a flawed God. That's why I think that accepting that the system is partially human created invites MORE emunah, not less.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The YU Commentator has an article about Young Israel setting a national screening process for all YI shul rabbis.

Here's the comment I posted at the Commentator website:

More top-down homogenization and yet another reason I don't daven at a Young Israel.

I wonder why they're taking this action? I have never heard of a case of a YI hiring a graduate of Chovevei Torah, and I can't think of any YI that would.

Another comment - as a fan of YCT, it disturbs me to see Rabbi Helfgot using the "Torah True" phrase. While I respect Rabbi Helfgot tremendously, this is slightly disturbing. While there's nothing's wrong with "Torah True" in principle, it's become a catchphrase of the yeshivish world to exclude places like YCT, and even YU sometimes. His using the term comes off like a desperate attempt to say to the yeshivish world: "Look - we're one of you! Please acknowledge our legitimacy!"

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Can women read the Megillah for men?

Recently I started attending a local Gemara shiur (Talmud class.)

The class is studying Tractate Megillah, and one of the first things we discussed was whether women can read the megillah for men.

It seems very clear from the gemara, (towards the top of page 4a), that women can do so, and that men will fulfill their obligation by hearing a woman read.

The gemara says:




Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in the reading of the megillah, for they too were part of the miracle.

Note that it says “bemikrah”, in the reading of the megillah, not “beshmiyah”, in the hearing of the megillah.

However, Tosafot, while acknowledging that the plain text would appear to support that view, then jumps through hoops to work out an interpretation that denies women this right.

I wonder if this is a case of approaching the topic by the standards of the medieval period in which the Tosafists lived with a preconceived notion and then wringing out their desired conclusion through rather convoluted reasoning?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Charedi demographics in Israel

From Forward.com:

Israel's Hiden Crisis

(http://www.forward.com/articles/11292/)

The article discusses the demographic crisis in Israel - not of Arabs vs. Jews, but of Charedim vs. Non-charedim

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So what to do? Is there a way to get charedim to participate in the workforce & army while allowing them to stay charedim? And what will this do to governmental institutions once the Charedim have that much voting power?

Perhaps what we need is something almost as unlikely as charedim working and serving in the IDF: massive North american aliyah of the non-charedi variety...

Thursday, March 8, 2007

A friend just sent me this article about the experience of Jews of color in the United States.

Aside from the fascination of the article as a whole, one quote by a Jewish African American woman caught my eye:

"In my experience in the Orthodox community, I have found the culture of being Orthodox and Jewish to be deeply tied to a need for conformity."

How true!

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A new label

Why do we in the Modern Orthodox community have such a deep need for validation from the Charedi community?

So they don’t accept us – big deal! Do you see Reform wringing their hands because of their lack of acceptance by the Yeshivish world? Do you see Conservative lamenting that Rav Shach never saw their movement as valid Judaism?

The problem is that Modern Orthodox and Charedim share a label: “Frum” or “Orthodox”.

I propose the following: Let Charedim call themselves whatever they want, and if we need a label so badly, we can be “Torah U’Mada” Jews, or something like that.

My suggestion is something even simpler: “Hilchati”

“Hilchati” Judaism, Yahadut Hilchatit, or Halakhic Judaism, is simple and to the point, as well as having the additional benefit of borrowing from the title of the Rav’s seminal work, “Ish HaHalacha” or “Halakhik Man”, thus having a built-in connotation to a philosophy that much of the Modern Orthodox world prizes and follows.

Once the label of “Hilchati” is applied, Hilchati & Charedi simply go their separate ways. Cooperate where it’s practical and ignore their rants about us the rest of the time. Rav Elyashiv leads that branch of Judaism, not ours.

I acknowledge that they are Shomer Shabbat & Kashrut, but I have deep problems with their Hashkafa. I nevertheless treat them with respect.

They acknowledge that we are Shomer Shabbat & Kashrut, but they have deep problems with our Hashkafa. I hope that they will nevertheless treat us with respect.

So be it. Simple disengagement will allow Yahadut Hilchatit to grow and flourish without constantly looking over our shoulders to see what Charedim think of us.