Sunday, January 21, 2007


Bob Miller was kind enough to e-mail me Friday his thoughts on TIPS(Torah im Pro Sports). Commenters are kindly asked to exercise restraint on a topic which often turns out to be a rather contentious one.

Today, Indy is gripped by pro football mania, with our Mayor urging us all to wear blue clothing and businesses to fly blue banners, in the run-up to the AFC Championship game here against the hated so-called Patriots. Since dina d'malchusa dina, I have done my bit (easy 'cause my weekday shirts are blue anyway). The Rolls-Royce aircraft engine plant where I work automatically has lots of blue and white; the R-R corporate colors and the Colts colors are basically the same.

So what do pro sports have to do with Torah? Do they foster good or bad attitudes and midos among the fan(atic)s? Are they a form of bitul Torah in any case? A shul we once belonged to sponsored a group trip to a Detroit Red Wings hockey game, complete with shiurium from the shul's Rav between periods. In our present shul, we have some adherents of an extreme avoda zara cult (NY Yankees) who are otherwise solid citizens and minyan-goers.

As a fan of another NY team (yes, some will also call this avoda zara!), I recall listening on the radio to the Mets' National League playoff series with the Atlanta Braves in 1999, when we were living in Houston. As a game was seesawing back and forth, with pitchers on both sides failing at their basic task, the arch demon John Rocker of the Braves began to pitch in relief. I really lost it, screaming at the Mets' batters to send one up the middle and decapitate Rocker. The batters either didn't hear me or had other plans, so the only real damage done was the Mets' loss.

This got me to thinking. I'm a basically rational person. What strange urge made me act like a raving loony? So I have toned it down a bit since, but have not yet sworn off spectating altogether. Readers arise and please enlighten me about the true Torah view of this topic, as I am biased.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Archeologists uncover 3500 year old blog entry! - Exodus 'proof'?

Archeologists report that a recently unearthed 3500 year old papyrus may be the first blog entry in history. “True, the medium is different,” said Professor Nowitt All, “But the essential flavor of random rantings on various topics is easily recognizable as the same as our modern equivalent.” Although some were quick to see in the posting's reference to Hebrews and slavery a corroboration of the Biblical story of the Exodus, the Professor dismisses such claims as those of fundamentalists biased by their beliefs. The Professor claims the papyrus describes the appalling work conditions of an ancient brewer of beer – He Brew – not the Biblical Jews. “Since we know the Bible cannot be literally true”, explained the Professor, “There cannot exist evidence to substantiate its historical narrative, therefore the only objective reading of the text possible is a reference to a brewery.”
The text reads:

…can’t believe you buy this Moses fellow. Look, the Canaanites have gods, the Hittites have gods, everyone around us has kooky gods, but no rational person
believes any of that stuff. I mean, we literally have the technology to lift tons of rock off the ground – I bet thousands of years from now they will wonder how we built those pyramids – we have advances in medicine, math, science, and you guys want to keep the beliefs of the desert age. It’s rational thought that got us those advances, not belief. This Moses does parlor tricks, but where is the evidence? I know he is selling a great story describing our national history that makes everyone feel good, but how does anyone know that stuff is true and not fiction? The fact that not a single pot shard has ever been found that says "Abraham" on it and none of our Egyptian histories mention the guy even though he supposedly visited here doesn't inspire me with confidence. I know the 'proof’ of religious traditions being handed down directly from your great-great grandfathers, but remember, your great-great-great was supposedly Terach, an idol worshipper, and you abandoned that tradition! I know, how could our parents and grandparents lie to us, but the Canaanite and Hittite children say the same thing to justify their belief handed down from their parents– how does anyone know which version is right? The Ephraimites who tried to flee years ago also believed G-d would redeem them, and they ended up perishing in the desert - so much for unjustified belief. We all need myths to sustain us and make a life of hard work meaningful, but don’t confuse myth with reality! I like myths also, especially that Sabbath idea that gets us a day off, but it’s the practice that I enjoy, the -proxy, not the silly –doxy, the beliefs that no one can substantiate. And speaking of work, it seems that Moses bringing up this whole religion thing has just made things worse. No straw, yet we are supposed to make bricks. What kind of benevolent deity would do that to his beloved people, raising everyone’s hopes and then just lowering the boom with more slavery? Just look at the trouble the silly fundamentalists have caused us. Do you think G-d would purposely create a situation where the evidence in front of our eyes - more work, no straw - contradicts the very belief that he wants us to have? Is that a fair test? I t sk t [rest of text is garbled]

Scholars are still working to decipher the remainder of this ancient text.

(Note: Even though this is a montage of different ideas "out there" in various places, I hesitated to post it because of the risk of someone taking personal offense, and my bouncing it off someone else has only slightly reduced my qualms. Parody obviously carries with it more sting than a straight post, but I don't take intellectual disagreement as a license to personally offend anyone. If anyone feels slighted I ask that you anonymously comment [which I will get faster than if you email me during the day] and I will withdraw the post. You may take this as an apology in advance)


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Chareidi Insularity and Blogger Emotion

I'm trying to figure out why many non-Chareidi bloggers react strongly to every headline in the Yated, Jerusalem Post, or Haaretz regarding Chareidi insularity. Okay, let's say that the Chareidi world is moving in the direction of greater insularity. But why the strong reaction? Each to his own, live and let live!

Do people feel compassion for chareidim? Or are they afraid that they might be asked to contribute money to the chareidi community? Perhaps some are insecure about their own choice of lifestyles. These might be concerns, but why the vehement reaction? Why does it appear to bother people who are not members of the community?

The particular issue doesn't make a difference. Yesterday it was the El Al boycott, today it is the Beis Yaakov teachers' training issue. A few months ago it was the blurring by Charedi newspapers of pictures of women on the cover of books. No doubt that there will be at least fifteen more such issues before the end of the year--the particular issue is unimportant, as the internet posts will simply repeat the same ideas. We are obviously talking about prototypical issues, and a prototypical reaction.

Often, readers of blog postings on these issues focus on the language of the posts in question, accusations of “charedi basher” are then hurled, and the discussion doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.

For a moment, though, let's leave the question of what is bothering bloggers , and focus on what one might term the positives and negatives of Chareidi life.

As I see it, living in the American, and particularly the Israeli Chareidi communities involve trade-offs. They negative aspects include (a) the acceptance of a more non-nuanced rejection of secular education and society, (b) a more intense rabbinic authority structure, (c) a more intensely regulated media, and (d) some degree of economic hardship.

All of these items are perceived by outsiders as negative aspects of life. The possible benefits are (a) being able to partake in an unadulterated and unique kind of spiritual life, and (b) possibly taking greater responsibility for the continuance of the Torah nation.

Now these are what I think are benefits as perceived by chareidim, and the negative aspects as perceived by outsiders. An outsider him or herself may feel that they, as well, take great responsibility for the continuance of the Jewish nation while maintaining their own lifestyle. Personally, I think that both groups need each other. But I am talking about conceivable benefits and possible drawbacks.

Presumably, many charedim view this trade-off as worthwhile, and are satisfied with the above reality. Nevertheless, it is equally true that there are at least some charedim who likely are unhappy with the system, and these people are sometimes interviewed in articles on the subject.

It is also possible that with time, the Israeli system will move slightly in the direction of the model of the American Yeshiva World, in terms of being more accepting of advanced vocational training for both men and women, and accepting the value of secular knowledge, including acceptable elements of secular psychology—chochma b’goyim taamin. On the other hand, there is resistance to change. As is known from past experiences, there are conservative, or zealous elements, in the Chareidi world who resist any type of change. No one can therefore predict the future with certainty.

Getting back to what I think bothers people most, I would say that it is the concern that the Israeli Chareidi model might be imported by Western countries. This is an entirely understandable thought, and there is nothing wrong with discussing it respectfully. Certainly, even some Charidim would find it difficult to adjust to the Israeli model.

Is this concern realistic? In think not.

Notwithstanding that the American Yeshivah world, influenced by its more insular factions, appears to be shifting to the Right, I still think that in reality, adopting the Eretz Yisrael model in its entirety is an unlikely occurrence, given the different environments. The fact that the Israeli chareidi community, as per a recent Jewish Observer article, discourages potential Olim who are unable to accept the above trade-offs and “leave their hashkafos back in America”, would seem to show that the differences in the nature of the two communities is indeed still being recognized and respected, at least at the current time.

Perhaps people are concerned that their own communities might be affected by the rightward shift, even if the system in its entirety will not be imported to their areas. What do you think?

To end on a positive note, I think it is good advice, sometimes, to ignore the opinions of others on intra-Orthodox matters, to ignore the claims advanced that, "my group, rabbi, or gadol is better than yours". Let everyone concentrate on their own spiritual goals in life, and stop trying to show that one's own derech is superior to someone else's. We shouldn't feel a need to defend our choices to anyone else either, as long as we follow our personal Rebbe or Rav.

Here is one of my favorite quotes on intra-Orthodox issues, from the end of an article by someone who deals with people from all segments of the Orthodox community:

People, most of all, need to be comfortable with themselves, in their own skin, to comfortably find a place in their community. It is not in the color of their hat. Dr. David Pelcovitz often speaks of the resiliences of people, the inner strength a person has to carry them through difficult times. Dr. Abraham Twerski is renowned for his message on building self-esteem as a most important ingredient to carry a person through life with a positive self-image, an intrinsic belief system that you are good. As long as we're comfortable with whom we are, with what we want to be, we can be in the Center, the Right, Left or anywhere in between. As long as we don't change to be someone or something else we're not ready to be, and whom we don't want to be.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

knowledge vs. belief: a tempest in a celestial teapot

"Yesod hayesodos v’amud hachochmos leyda she'yesh matzuy rishon…" (Rambam, Yesodei haTorah 1:1)

What is the difference between “knowledge” and “belief”? Whether or not the Rambam’s use of “leyda”, to know G-d exists, as opposed to “l’ha’amin”, to believe, is significant is a matter of debate, but to even suggest such a distinction (as many have) presupposes a distinction between the two terms.

Until the 1960’s, most philosophers defined knowledge as JTB – Justified True Belief. Something is termed knowledge, not just belief, if:
P is true;
S believes P to be true;
S is justified in believing P to be true.
While I don’t know if the Rambam subscribed to that definition of knowledge, I do know that at least one philosopher has made an oft-cited argument against religion that seems to at least embellish if not distort that definition, and those who cite him neither defend that embellishment or think it even worth mentioning despite the philosophical Pandora’s box of questions it opens.

Bertrand Russell’s famous celestial teapot argument goes as follows:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Variations on the same theme compare religion with the likes of a theory postulating the existence of invisible pink unicorns (IPU theory) which cannot be disproven because they are invisible. Clearly, an irrefutable proposition does not make reality so.

Without bothering to mention it, Russell has snuck into JTB the added criterion of falsifiability – unless there is a way to disprove a statement, it has no cognitive value, meaning it can never be termed “knowledge”. Unless there is some way to disprove the assertion that a teapot is in orbit, or that G-d exists, or some other dogma, all the justification in the world cannot according to Russell convert these beliefs to knowledge.

Is there really no such thing as knowledge that does not meet the falsifiability test? Most atheists claim that their lack of belief does not make them immoral, just unreligious – undoubtedly, even atheists know “It is wrong to kill”. But here we run into a brick wall, as there is no way such a statement can be disproven either logically or empirically. So is such a statement knowledge or merely belief?

If you are willing to go so far as to say we believe murder is wrong but it is not the same as knowledge, then try this: put your hand in your pocket and pull out your wallet. Most of us would not hesitate to say, “I know my wallet exists”. Yet, such a claim fails the test of falsifiability! Even if I searched the entire world and could not find my wallet, that is not a proof that it does not exist, just that my search has failed.

We all know that murder is wrong and that the wallet before our eyes exists even such knowledge is immutable to tests of falsifiability. In fact, all ethical or existential claims cannot pass the test of falsifiability – all we are left with is a test of verifiability, or judging the strength of the evidence in favor of these statements as a measure of their cognitive value. But no one can fail to recognize that immutability to the falsifiability test does not render these statements false.

Even Karl Popper, one of the great philosopher’s of science who was a strong advocate of the falsifiability test, only used it as a means of demarcating science from non-science, not as a measure of truth or of knowledge. He wrote, “The problem which troubled me at the time was neither, "When is a theory true?" nor "When is a theory acceptable?" my problem was different. I wished to distinguish between science and pseudo-science; knowing very well that science often errs, and that pseudoscience may happen to stumble on the truth.”

I’m afraid Bertrand Russell’s great proof amounts to nothing more than a tempest in a celestial teapot, proving no more than the fact that existential claims of G-d’s existence are not a scientific theories – a proposition that was never under dispute.

I’m not out to bash anyone over the head with rhetorical fluff in the hopes of winning an argument, so I feel compelled to add that there may be good reasons why you would want to add a test of falsifiabilty or indefeasibility to the standard definition of JTB (it is one way of getting around Gettier’s objection), and good reasons why you may not want to use verifiability alone as your test of what knowledge is. You might certainly draw distinctions between my examples and the analogy to G-d’s existence. But these considerations get into the nitty-gritty of epistemology and probably are beyond my ability to discuss well, or to keep you reading much further.

Which leads me to my final points: If the likes of Dawkins and Harris and others in the jblogsphere and beyond who follow their lead in attacking religion were seriously interested only in the “dispassionate pursuit of truth”, shouldn’t they be the ones delving into this deeper nitty-gritty of epistemology rather than swallowing Russell’s proof uncritically, as if Russell was a prophet of some religious order?

Secondly, I wonder to what degree these posts are worth it. It takes a mild amount of intellectual effort to undo these “proofs” of atheism and expose their assumptions and reasoning. But in the end, no one suddenly becomes an atheist because they read Bertrand Russell, and no one will become a theist from reading my responses (don’t get me wrong - I would be delighted to know these posts do some good : ) Is there any value to “dah mah shetashiv” carried out in the blogsphere? Should we be concerned with so-called "anti-religion" proofs being so accessible and offer a response, or should we ignore the challenge and let the chips fall where they may?


Monday, January 01, 2007

Halakhic Discussions and Poskim Bashing

A recent article in the Jerusalem Post quotes a doctor who specializes in infertility issues who raised the issue of “Orthodox Infetility” -- i.e. infertility where the woman has a very short cycle and the keeping of Hilchos Niddah with all its chumras can result in difficulty in the woman conceiving. This doctor suggested that the entire Jewish world cease keeping certain chumras related to Hilkhos Niddah, in particular what is know as the Minhag d’Rabbi Zeira.

Now this suggestion has many halakhic problems, which I will not go into here. Suffice it to say that many very prominent poskim and talmidei chachamim, including R Moshe Feinstein, R. Ovadya Yosef and Rav. Y.D. Soloveichik considered and rejected this very hetter for this very purpose.

Furthermore, it is not altogether clear to me that the person suggesting this, not to mention many in the J-Blogosphere who have supported him, even understand all the halakhic parameters.*

The current essay does not address these halakhic intricacies, however. Rather, it addresses what has become a common-place rhetorical device which is trotted out every time a controversial or sensitive halakhic issue comes out. Sooner or later, someone who is desirous of a hetter will say (or blog) something like, “the current poskim are cowards” or “they are fearful of sticking their neck out and advocating a hetter” or “the poskim lack the courage to be mattir” or some variation thereof.

This line of rhetoric was popularized some 30 years ago by a prominent Orthodox academic who claimed to have single-handedly found the solution to the modern-day Agunah problem. The problem was, virtually no poseik nor talmid chacham of any stature agreed – and in fact several vehemently disagreed. His retort – the poskim all really agreed with him, but they were all “afraid” of a negative reaction from the nefarious “right.”

The gemara in Berachos 19a is pertinent:

”One who talks after the biers of Torah scholars {who denigrates them after their death}” What is this? As we learn: He {Akavia ben Mehalalel} would say: we do not give the convert nor freed maidservant to drink {the bitter waters} And the Sages say: we do give to drink. And they said to him {Akavia}: there was a story with Karkemit, a freed maidservant in Yerushalayim, and Shemaya and Avtalyon gave her to drink.

And he {Akavia} said to them {the Sages}: as a dugma they caused her to drink And {as a result} they {the Sages} excommunicated him {Akavia}, and he died in a state of excommunication And the court stoned his coffin {after his death}.

Rashi gives as explanation of dugma -- Akavya was alleging that the reason Shemaya and Avtalyon give this woman to drink was that they were descended from converts, and they had a desire to legitimize and mainstream converts, and so they held as the Sages held.

Amazing! What did Akavia do to deserve excommuncation? He called into question the integrity of two of the Chachmei ha Masorah in paskening a shaylo! That was enough to put him into nidui and stone his coffin after his death!

The charge that poskim are “afraid” to poskein as they believe is correct is a grave act of hotzaas shem ra – for after all, there is an issur of los saguru mipnei ish. Anyone who makes this claim has to explain how these poskim violate this issur.

The charge is also belied by history and common sense. All three of the prominent talmidei chachamim I cited above at one time or another held controversial positions and issued controversial psakim. Indeed, R. Moshe Feinstein was subject to physical threats over his psakim on artificial insemination. They were undeterred from holding as they believed were correct. That being the case, what reason would one have to believe that in some other area – e.g. agunot or hilkhos niddah, they would be any less fearless to paskein as they believed appropriate?

Simply put, the charge as applied to the gedolei ha poskim is utterly bogus and is a rhetorical dodge used to hide weak halakhic arguments.

Now before anyone attempts to give counter-examples, let me cite two examples of reluctance to issue a psak which are legitimate and do happen, although not for the reason charged:

1. Humility – It is a truism that not everyone who is a talmid chacham is on the same level, and certainly not everyone who is a talmid chacham is a gadol ha dor. There are many fine, outstanding talmidei chachamim who certainly learn very well and know how to pasken, yet they defer to those they consider greater than them. This is what in Yiddish used to be called breite pleitzes – broad shoulders. Certain talmidei chachamim, by dint of their outstanding learning and yiras shomayim are deferred to by others.

2. Public Policies Require Broad Acceptance – Certain areas of halakha affect only individuals or small groups of people. Other areas affect the public at large. For example, a determination in the area of agunos and eishes ish has the potential for affecting whether certain families can marry into others. One can easily see that, if one group of poskim were to hold by a hetter in agunos and others did not, that klal yisroel could quickly become split into different camps who cannot marry one another. That is something we simply cannot afford at this point in history.

For that reason, there are poskim who will seek a general consensus in these “public policy” type halakhos because they do not wish to create such a split. That perforce sometimes means not insisting upon all of one’s views, no matter how strongly held.

*Apart from the Minhag d’Rabbi Zeira (which is that even for a tiny speck of blood, a woman must count 7 clean days), there is also (a) a gezeira of Rebbe that every instance of menstrual blood by a woman be treated as safeik niddah/safeik zava and (b) the minhag of the Rema to wait at least five days before a woman can do a hefseik tahara. The din under (a) is even more severe than the Minhag d’Rabbi Zeira and cannot be undone without a beis din greater than that who established it. If you do away with the Minhag d’Rabbi Zeira but keep the gezeira of Rebbe then, practically, you have helped very few women with infertility by OTOH, the minhag of the Rema is more lenient, and indeed the poskim do discuss how one can be lenient on that minhag where there are fertility issues.