Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Israel goes Electric

Cool news from Israel. Hopefully it's not just PR and will actually happen.

Israel announced, yesterday, a partnership in which a massive infrastructure for electric cars will be built over the next few years - see:


The most innovative part is this:
(from http://www.news.com/8301-11128_3-9854591-54.html?tag=nefd.top)

Project Better Place, Agassi's organization, will try to build 500,000 electric service stations in the country, according to the organization. At these stations, attendants will swap out depleted batteries and put in fully charged ones. This saves the several hours typically required to charge a lithium-ion battery pack made for cars.

Monday, January 14, 2008

What kind of skeptic are you?

A comment on my last post got me thinking:

There are 2 types of skeptics hanging out in this zone of the blogosphere.

Skeptic type #1:

I only believe what is proven by empirical evidence. There is no logical reason to believe in god or any divine source to Judaism, especially since one can trace the entirely social development of superstitious belief in gods or god in various cultures. Plus, in light of modern science, archeology, and historical research, the divine revelation and many other events related in the Torah could not have happened.

The definition of a rational human being is one who bases belief on observation. I am such a rational being. It would make no sense for me to believe in something intangible like god. That is outside the realm of empiricism and therefore does not exist.

The entire basis of Judaism is riddled with inaccuracies and ancient misconceptions. The Torah is clearly not divine. Therefore, the entire basis of the religion is a myth.

Skeptic type #2:

I believe in God and Torah. It may be that my belief is due only to the fact that I was taught to believe from an early age, yet still, I feel something deep within me that tells me there’s a God and that the Torah has divinity.

However, in light of modern science, archeology, linguistics, and historical research, I realize the Torah, i.e. the 5 books of Moshe, could not have been written by God and the events contained within could not have happened the way they are portrayed. I must accept that, or throw rational analysis out the window.

But I still feel a deep spiritual connection to the Torah and to Hashem. Yes, I know that I have no empirical evidence, but this is another kind of knowing entirely. I KNOW that Hashem exists. I KNOW that the Torah has divine elements, at least as much as the other parts of Tanach do, which even fundamentalists believe were written by people.

So I begin to piece together my Judaism. I look at the documentary hypothesis and see honest human beings cobbling together a document from a combination of prophecies and divine inspirations. I see Ezra presenting this document to the people of Israel and of their building a religion based on it. I see a religion that has evolved but held fast to its basic identity for over 2 millennia. And as I begin to understand more & more how Judaism really came to be, I appreciate its beauty more & more.

I definitely fall under #2. But I certainly respect those who fall under #1 and I understand why so many of them have such a hard time being happy in their relationship with Judaism.

#2 skeptics, if they are successful in reconciling ideas, can have a rich and fulfilling Judaic life.

Where do you fall? Do you think my definitions are faulty? Is there more of a spectrum in between?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Happy with my Judaism

Reading about the struggles of so many to find a balance between their Orthodox lifestyle and their skeptical outlook, I feel lucky.

I'm pretty happy & comfortable where I am. I'm a quasi-skeptic who is happy with an observant lifestyle (with some social innovations) and finds divinity in what is probably a human-written Torah.

I've always been fascinated with the ancient origins of Judaism. Now the human story of creating this religion actually is making it more meaningful to me than when I thought it was given as a complete product by Hashem.

One always takes more pride in what one builds oneself. As a nation we can take more pride in what we or our ancestors built ourselves rather than it being handed to us all finished.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Oral vs. Written tradition

I went to Yeshiva day schools K-12. I started studying Gemara (Talmud) in 5th grade and accepted as a given that what I was told, that Torah She-ba’al Peh (the oral tradition) was given along with Torah She-bichtav (the written Torah) at Har Sinai and that it was a parallel revelation meant to explain the obscure language of the Torah itself.

Except for occasional classes, I’ve neglected studying Gemara since my early 20’s. Instead, I concentrated my Torah study on Tanach on the one side, and pure Halacha on the other. Recently I’ve begun to go to a weekly gemara shiur again and it’s amazing how my perspective has changed. Since the last time I studied gemara seriously, I’ve grown much more questioning about the origins of Judaism in general, and have read up more on history and philosophy of the ancient world.

In this light, the gemara seems to me to be much more of a struggle between two ancient traditions and the challenge of reconciling them.

One was text-based and one was halachically based. Once the Torah was “rediscovered” in Ezra’s time, where he reassembled the Torah from the various texts that represented the various interpretations of divine revelation, the form of the Torah was mostly fixed. By the late 2nd Temple era, that text was assumed to be of entirely divine authorship by the majority of sages (though not by all, a point that is often overlooked today.)

Yet there was an oral law in existence as well. Torah She-ba’al peh consisted of the various laws that had coalesced over the previous centuries based on a combination of divine revelation, interpretation of various divinely inspired texts, and pragmatic traditions of an ancient agrarian society.

The problem was, it had come to be an authoritative body of laws and interpretation in its own right and that body did not match the now accepted-as-divine text.

Now two varying traditions were both claimed as divine. One was text based. The other was mostly law based, but with aggadic traditions as well. If they were both divine, how could they conflict with one another? Therefore the Talmud emerged, a diary of centuries of intricate reinterpretation to force the two traditions to not be in conflict. Every extra letter or ambiguous phrase in the Torah was claimed as evidence that it meant or implied something somewhat different or sometimes even opposite, its plain meaning.

Wherever a Mishna or Braita made a particular halachic or aggadic claim that seemed to conflict with the Torah, the phrase “Mina Hani Mili” or simply “Minalan” or similar was employed in the Gemara. “Where do we know this from? What scriptural proof is there for this claim?”

The Gemara then painstakingly analyzes the text of the Torah to find the proof, whether it be an extra letter, a repetition of something somewhere else in the Torah, or a particular turn of phrase. It is very hard to believe that the text of the Torah so often meant something other than what it plainly implied.

I don’t consider it a waste. The amoraim engaged in this beautiful dance and laid a framework for the future of Judaism. I wonder of they all really believed that the 2 traditions were both really fully divine and absolutely needed to be reconciled, or if it was simply a pragmatic way of formulating a religious tradition that would be accepted by the masses by calling upon the accepted text to bolster practices already widespread, even if they had their own doubts.

In any case, I reject the modern scholarly assumption by some that the laws were made up later than the text of the Torah itself. It makes no sense for those forming a tradition to come up with halachot that clearly contradict the accepted base text of Judaism. The halacha, albeit perhaps in an earlier form, must have been extant already.

From that point, it is a short leap of faith for me to believe that there is a divinity in much of the halachic system, through some form of revelation, just as there is divinity in the Torah (see previous post.) And to me, that makes Judaism all the richer and more meaningful.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Documentary Hypothesis

First of all, I have to admit that I haven’t really studied the DH in any great depth, so I can’t speak with firm authority on its validity as a theory.

But my gut feeling, based on a light examination of it, is that much of the DH is speculation. The specific attribution of particular parts of the Torah to different authors seems somewhat arbitrary and less than purely scientific. There seems to have been an orthodoxy established (if you’ll pardon the word) since the 19th century dividing up the Torah into these various hypothetical authors, and very little has changed in the DH since then.

However, that’s just my opinion of the answers that the DH posits. Its questions are extremely valid. The inconsistencies, lack of archeological and geological evidence, anachronisms, are all strong contradictions of its word-for-word divinity. And as such, it seems unlikely that the Torah came, whole cloth (or parchment) word-for-word, directly from God. It seems that there were very likely several different human authors. The DH is simply some intelligent speculation on who those authors might have been and which of them wrote which part.

The DH also usually comes with an assumption that since the Torah is not what traditional Judaism claims it to be; an exact dictation from God, then that means that God had no part of it, if there is a God at all.

I believe that despite its human authorship, the Torah is at least divinely inspired. Call it what you like – prophecy, ruach hakodesh, etc. There’s too much in there that strikes a deep chord with me and with millions and millions of others throughout history. (Yes, I know that’s unscientific, but I’m talking religion here, not science.) There was some kind of divine revelation, whether at Mount Sinai or elsewhere. That revelation may have been a single event, continuous, or punctuated, but there was something. Various authors wrote down their interpretation of that revelation, incorporating their own bises and knowledge of their own times, and Ezra later combined it into the Torah that we know today.

Again, this isn’t scientific by any means, but things like the fact that the Torah was far more compassionate than contemporaneous societies, the story of creation that seems to eerily fit our current models of cosmology (if you read between the words), and many other things help me see the divine in the Torah.

Stay tuned - tomorrow I'll post on Torah She-Bichtav vs. Torah She-Ba'al Peh