Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why be "rational" and anti-huddling

Kisarita asks the following questions:

From whence the assumption that ALL rational people should agree with me?

Why the certainty in my lifestyle is the best, and yours are destructive?

Why are artificially "rationally" created "like minded" communities better than emotional tribal ones?

By what possible reasonable criteria do you define who is superior and who is inferior?

Bkitzur, why do so may ex-frum sound like born-again religious converts in their devotion to secularism?

Me thinks there is something very suprarational about that.

end quote.

It would also be useful for readers to read Kisarita's post "In defense of Emotions" at .

My friend. Let me explain my position on this with an illustration ("men ken es farshtein mit a mashal" we can understand it with an analogy).

Judge Sotomayor was recently nominated for a Supreme Justice of the United States of America. As the procedure is with such high-impact life-time appointments by the President, The U.S. Senate questions the candidate about her judicial and even general socio-political beliefs. So the questions arises: why are we asking her what she thinks about Roe. v. Wade? Why should the actual opinion matter, as long as she is actually qualified for the position (experience-wise)? Would a Senator dare ask her how many times she brushes her teeth each day or her sexual intercourse frequency? Of course not! Would any politician inquire as to my judicial or political position? Of course not.

The difference here is that I am not a candidate for office of U.S. supreme court justice. In other words: I have not put myself out there in a position where my opinion should be relevant. If, for example, Judge Sotomayor were to be a dentist and she was nominated for administrator of the (theoretical) dentistry division of the Health Dep. then yes, it would matter somewhat whether how many times she brushes her teeth. If she is presenting herself as an expert on such matters and she is going to advise citizens on how frequently to brush their teeth, then --yes-- senators do have the right and responsibility to ascertain whether she indeed practices what she preaches. If she doesn't, there would be justified suspicion that she wouldn't be executing her job well.

How does all this relate to us?

Well, I did in fact grow up in a highly restrictive environment physically, emotionally and intellectually. If I am going to truly move on in life, then these issues do matter. It's not okay to shove them under the rug and say "let me live and let live". Clearly, if I have been told for 20 years that God created the world in six days, that Noah is the only one who survived the flood and that Moses received a revealed law code from God, it IS MY BUSINESS to set the record straight.

I totally denounce the non-judgemental-ism approach that many OTD's insist on. The Haredi movement is extremely judgemental. Why then, should I stand on the sideline and allow them to preach and advise their youth according to a system which I see as corrupt, incoherent, and illogical. If I am unable to engage successfully in a polemic on such topics, then my lifestyle and my offspring's are in jeopardy. I will never be able to gain the elusive stability that I am so wistfully yearning for. Therefore, I WILL judge my ex-community and say that their lifestyles are silly and I WILL explain why that is so.

This does not mean that I advocate forceful adherence to a code of law as they do. This is where the core American ideal of liberty creates a wide golf between us. I believe that reason should be engaged in and let the person then make an informed, wise decision on how to live. The Orthodox mostly adopt a Freudian defense mechanism of completely suppressing the "dangerous thoughts", denouncing them as heresy and shutting off any possibility of its members being able to extract themselves from their midst in a reasonable manner.

Life is a game of poker. The cards have been dealt and my hand sucks. What's worse is that the information so desperately needed to play this weak hand properly is being suppressed. Why should I be contain my sense of exasperation over how bad my hand is. I will speak up about it and tell the world how bad the cards are in Borough Park and how best to play the seven-deuce. By the way, for those who don't know, the best way to play 'em is to fold! But it's important to fold with style and that's where I come in. I am not imposing my beliefs on others. I am not saying that one "must" live in a particular way or believe or "not believe" any particular thing. I am simply getting a conversation off the ground. I am simply eager to discuss topics that were off-limits in my ex-community. I am eager to use research tools that were totally unheard of in the entire Ortho world from A to Z. In my biblical research I am suddenly encountering German, Christian scholars who have centuries ago employed sophisticated scientifically sound historical and linguistic tools to see the Hebrew Bible in a new light. This info has been completely withheld from me. I want to study it now. I want people to know it's out there.

If you still insist that a life devoid of education and truthful information is perhaps meaningful and advisable, then surely you should stop reading this post and I have nothing further to say in my defense. However, you've read til hear, so it seems to me that --consciously or not-- your instinct impels you to seek the truth and set the record straight.

I hope I explained my self well and good luck to everyone.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The short and Long Route: Difference between the Jewish Denominations

We all know there are three Jewish denominations: Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. But, do we understand the doctrinal differences between them? I think that many people --even those whom you'd expect to know more on this issue, such as OTD's-- don't.

I recently had a conversation with an OTD (off the derech) who made the remark that "reform Judaism is just a different form of religion. They are in theory just as dogmatic and religious as their ortho counterparts". I was appalled. It really irked me to hear this. Of course, in the heat of our conversation I had little success in debunking such a flawed understanding. So let me discuss this here.

It's important to understand that every religious movement and denomination thereof, has a certain real-life setting it feels most comfortable with. Each individual member, however, could do whatever they want and could claim that their behavioral systems are perfectly compatible with the founder's vision. While I usually cannot scientifically prove them wrong, studying the movement's history usually reveals its philosophical underpinning and that is a tremendous indicator as to what the movement stands for, its values, its direction and outlook on life. Do not get sidetracked by individual members claiming "there's absolutely no problem with dosing so and so in a given denomination". I'll give several examples to illustrate what I mean.

1) If you are having a polemic with an enlightened Orthodox Jew about the world being created in seven days (according to the Torah), they will likely admit that the world is older and make the common apologetic argument that the bible is referring to "god days" which are longer. Thus, they will say, the bible and the Orthodox religion are generally consistent with the secular chronology of human history. Wrong! they can believe whatever they want but the Orthodox premise specifically is NOT to interpret the bible allegorically. The importance of observing all the modern minutiae of Jewish law hinges on the belief that God intended the law to be eternal and immutable, precisely as it is presented in the book. Orthodox religion, by its very nature, doesn't allow "longer god days" wiggle room. In other words, while this "enlightened" yeshiva bachur can say and/or do whatever he wants, he's really missing a very essential point here: that the founders of the movement that he follows vociferously rejected any compromise with science. The general spirit of the movement does not allow such an interpretation of the Torah. His approach, rather, would be more fitting to the Reformed or Conservative view of religion.

2) If you've met a karlbach adherent, you may have noticed their intense passion for Judaic rituals such as prayer, dance and hymns. Traditional haredim dismiss them as not authentically religious. Actually, they are precisely what the early hasidim of the late 18th cent. were. The early hasidim were --contrary to modern hasidic practice-- not distinguished by dress, adherence to Jewish law or such. They disregarded Jewish law and scholastic pursuits in favor of a more emotional approach to religion. The karlbach's are as "hasidic" as they get. Don't let the looks fool you. If an satmar hasid ever tells you nishtakkecha torath habbal shem (the teaching of the baal shem had been forgotten), tell him "the karlbach's know what it is, let's go ask them". In contrast, modern "hasidic" practice has evolved so heavily from what its original founders had in mind that it is a misnomer to call it "hasidism"; it conjures up the wrong images. This is true even among the sects who maintain more of the hasidic veneer by emphasizing tischen (firday night table ceremony) and such. Those hasidim are cult-oriented in the sense that they gather round a charismatic figure and venerate him. That's not what true hasidism (as shown by historical fact) is all about.

Let me illustrate the difference between the dominant Jewish denominations through the biblical case law for theft. If one steels an ox or lamb and is caught, he must make restitution and also pay a 100% penalty (he must give back two lambs). Sounds pretty reasonable. However, if he has sold or slaughtered the ox or lamb, then the court forces him to pay a 3x and 4x penalty, respectively. Why the greater penalty? Why even ask this question?

The highly-traditional Eastern European answer is just that: The laws of the Torah are from God and we don't know why they are so and we have no right or reason to question them. The German Orthodox school (represented by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch), however, would acknowledge that there is some rational reason behind this: consumption of stolen property is viewed as consummating the crime; hence, the greater penalty. What the Hirsch school will not do is allow one to extrapolate from this law. To Hirsch, God knows what's good for us and instructs us to behave accordingly for our own benefit. If a computer laptop is involved instead of an ox or lamb there would no "dalet wahe" (4x or 5x penalty) if the thief resold the laptop. That's because God decides how to apply his rules; we are not to reason beyond what is provided by the law.

The Conservative school (represented by Solomn Schechter) would, in principle, allow extrapolation from the theft law. If we understand why the penalty for consumption or resale is greater than mere theft, we can --and should-- further extend this model to apply to other stolen items as well. The Torah only speaks of lambs and oxen because in Biblical times that was the only steal-able property. (Note that in this regard, a "progressive" movement is stricter in the application of ancient law, than a conservative movement -- a source of confusion to neophytes in theology and religious matters). The conservative school believes in the primacy of Halacha but they believe that it should be updated in accordance with modern culture and lifestyle.

The Reform movement, on the other end of the spectrum has the most liberal take on this. Reform scholars are Deists. In matters of conflict between science and religion they essentially side with science. They also advocate enlightenment, the power of reason and a complete revision of Biblical law so as to discard everything that is inconsistent with modern thought or practice. All they see in the theft law is a philosophical precept, which is in fact accounted for in modern Common Law or Civil Law through the imposition of a penalty in addition to restitution in aggravated cases of theft and deception. In other words, what's the point of sticking to the ancient law if-and-when it conflicts with what we would have said in its absence? All the ancient law says, according to reform jurisprudence, is that the ancients saw it best for their society to apply the law thus. Those very ancients themselves would have agreed that as social and economic conditions evolve the law should be updated accordingly. To the Reformer, then, Biblical law has very little significance beyond its moral or didactic element.

Returning to the original topic of this post, on the question of whether there is a fundamental difference between the religion practiced by Reform and Ortho Judaism, I must decisively say: yes, there is an enormous difference between the two. Of course, you could walk in to any Reform synagogue and see the Rabbi donning an unsightly talith and tefilin and preaching to the community on the importance of studying Hebrew and religious materials. You can also walk in to a charedi shul and hear the Rabbi talk about hos the tsiyyon we crave for in the amidah (shemonah esreh) is an allegory representing also the yearning for general salvation from our troubles such as making a living, family relations, morality etc... In both cases we have Rabbis who are preaching or acting in a manner that is more typical of a different denomination; they are "crossing over" (a Gregor Mendelian term?). Don't become obfuscated by such atypical rhetoric and make flawed inferences as to the general character of the movement, and the lifestyle those respective denominations advocate.

I view the various branches of Judaism in through a prism. The branches can --and should-- all be pegged steadfastly within the spectrum of the rainbow, one more conservative than the other. It is a mistake to suppose that one can remain attached to a hasidic lifestyle but be liberal in mind, or that the reform-affiliated congregant who goes to synagogue every Sabbath and says all his blessings constantly is somehow more religious than some Ortho Jews and so there's no point in distinguishing between the two.

The way I see it is that the route from religion to secularism is fixed and is longer than it seems. For ultra-orthodox Jews that route involves a liberal form of Judaism which should be studied and embraced on their noble route out of the shtetel and into 21st-century Western society. Without making this critical stopover in the journey to secularism, there is a high risk of relapse. It's what the Mishnah calls derekh qetsarah vaarukhah: the short route that is (=turns out to be) long.