The Kuzari … again

I have posted previously about the so-called "Kuzari proof" for Judaism. Last week the blog Kefirah of the week (btw highly recommended!) has done a post on the topic which in addition to the usual refutations (how many people were there, no archeological evidence, other revelation stories exist) brings a new aspect: Sinai is never discussed by the prophets!

I’ll let him make his own argument (heavily shortened, go to the original post to read the whole thing):

[…] we can instead look at what the Kuzari argument’s positive claims are, things that would have to be true for the very premises to make any sense. These are: 1. The Sinai revelation story was known to every generation from the original event until the modern day. 2. The Sinai revelation was considered “foundational” for every generation until the modern day. […]

I think looking at the prophets is a good approach because they’re the best witness to the Israelite culture in the latter half of the first temple period and the exile. They are attempting to persuade the Israelites to worship God properly, and in doing so, they use everything at their disposal. […]

So, the question is, what do the prophets say about Sinai? The answer is, nothing. They don’t even mention the word. […]

What to make of this? Here are some options. Neither the prophets nor the people knew about the Sinai revelation. In this case assumption 1 above is false and the Kuzari argument falls. Another option: the prophets knew about the Sinai revelation but the people didn’t, in which case both 1 and 2 are false and Kuzari falls. How about: the prophets knew about it, but didn’t think it was important, in which case assumption 2 is false, the revelation just wasn’t all that important and Kuzari falls. […]

I’ll repeat myself. The Kuzari is not a "proof", not even a convincing argument for believing that Judaism is true. No one should use it for kiruv (to bring Jews back to Judaism). If someone builds his/her faith on something this shaky, how much is that faith worth? Let people appreciate the beauty of Judaism and of G-d, build a connection and then they can decide for themselves to believe.

Male-pattern cluelessness

I’m shamelessly copying this from David’s harp (including the title) because it’s just so good:

There was once a land which was the very apex of Ultimate Moral Standards. In this land, half of the citizens had blond hair and half had brown hair. Because the law of the land was just and fair, there was absolutely no discrimination between the Blonds and Browns, however, the wise law of the land did provide slightly different roles for the two groups.

Blonds were allowed and encouraged to seek education in all areas, and were particularly encouraged to gain expertise in areas of jurisprudence, leadership and ethics. They alone could assume positions of political, social and judicial leadership. To them fell the weighty task of ensuring that the society maintained the Highest Moral Standards. All positions with any decision making authority at all were filled with Blonds.

Browns were not permitted to study any area of law which involved the intricacies of legislation – especially on a theoretical level. They could not study law or hold any career position which involved legislation or jurisprudence. In fact, they could not even testify in court. They not hold any political offices or assume positions of civic leadership. They could not vote for political leaders or for propositions of law.

The Blond legislators instituted law which created an equitable division of labor. Under such law, the Blonds would spend as much time as they wished in the pursuit of the study of ethics and law. Browns were required to facilitate this study by contributing a special income tax of at least 50% of their income, and were required to spend 85% of their free time providing for the domestic needs of the Blonds.

There were some special privileges which were accorded to Browns. For example, they were encouraged to recite lengthy poems which described the exalted beauty of the Ethical Law. And there were special laws which defined how they should dress, wear their hair, and socialize. In addition, to ensure equality, the law carefully maintained that the Browns were subject to any legal restriction which also applied to Blonds.

Some Radical Browns occasionally misconstrued the judiciousness of this system and ignorantly claimed that it granted Blonds greater rights than Browns. These troublemakers were never motivated by any genuine ethical issue, but were rather motivated by selfishness and influenced by evil societies which did not live up to the Highest Moral Standards.

Not that the secular Western world gets it all right, but there are some areas where serious adaptations of the role of women in orthodox society are needed (marriage and divorce, religious leadership positions, witnesses before a Beit Din, obsession with tzniut).

Stop waiting!

It has been quiet around here, because I am extremely busy at the moment. I’ll be back when thing quiet down. In the meantime, something small…

A few days ago I read something about people putting their lives on hold until they achieve X (move, marry, get a job, etc) and I got pulled back in time. For a while I had put certain things on hold "until I convert". This seems to be something many converts do, I’ve often heard plans from other people that start with "after my conversion". But then more and more time passes, life happens around you and suddenly you realise how long it has been!

In my case the realisation was about a year ago and I have now decided to stop waiting. I was waiting because I was afraid of destroying my chances of converting. And because I felt I had no right to do some things as a not-quite-Jew. But I have decided that if it is G-d’s will that I convert, then I will convert. Next year or in 20 years. But I cannot spend my life waiting for it. So, I’m living my life now, I’m not making my life conditional on the uncertain (if ever?) date of my conversion. I’m done waiting.

When did you decide to convert?

For my Master’s degree I went to a big city in a different country. There was a sizeable Jewish community there and from the very beginning I went there for services. And it was awesome! There were lots of people, also people my age (gasp!) and they had a dinner for young people every Friday. I rapidly had a circle of Jewish friends. The rabbi was also great, I felt that he was connected to the real world and had something interesting to say (in contrast to the one at my former synagogue). I finally felt that this was were I belonged.

So I approached the rabbi and asked whether it would be possible to convert with him. He told me I could come to the class he was giving, but that there was no Beit Din in the country and conversions needed to be done in Israel. So in the end I resolved to learn as much as I could and then go back to my home country to convert there. It seemed like the easiest path, as anyway my Master was only going to be a bit over a year.

At this point I had been interested in Judaism for about 8 years, but then was the first time I had a real community. I was able to share holidays and shabatot with other people who were friendly, my age and just "normal" and fun to be with. I also discovered how much I actually knew about Judaism, most people thought I was Jewish when they met me and couldn’t believe I had learned all this by myself. All my fears that I didn’t know real Judaism and it was all my own fantasy were blown away. It all just fit me so well. I increased my observance of kashrut and shabat, I started wearing skirts, I prayed daily, I observed all holidays. And I loved it.

What were your first experiences with a Jewish community?

The first time I had the opportunity to experience Jewish community was when I started my studies. The community I ended up in was really, really small. Also, the people who actually came to services were all old (read: over 60) and all male. So I didn’t really fit in. I think I didn’t talk to anybody for the first year or so (not even the rabbi, he never approached me). A few times there were some students or young people doing an internship with whom I had contact for a few months, but all of them disappeared relatively quickly from the synagogue. I should have gone to Saturday morning services where there were more people, also women, but I didn’t know that. Anyway, I’m not sure this would have helped, as there still wouldn’t have been any people below 40.

I had lots of work to do for my studies, I felt that I was way too young to make such an important decision, I didn’t feel I belonged in that community, so I didn’t attempt to talk to the rabbi or anybody important. Still, I went to Friday evening services nearly every week, I kept shabat, I ate vegetarian (kosher would have been impossible in a shared flat with non-Jews) and I read everything about Judaism that I could find. But I wasn’t really thinking that I would convert someday.

Looking back, I think I was right in taking my time to decide, but it definitely wouldn’t have hurt to get some sort of formal process started or at least I should have talked to the rabbi. Still, I learned a lot during this time, about navigating the service in Hebrew, about explaining Judaism to non-Jews. But it was pretty lonely and I’m a bit surprised that I actually stayed there for so long.

You are not going to find here what you are looking for

WordPress gives you statistics about the terms people use to get to your blog. And for quite some time I have been getting lots of hits for different variations of one specific search phrase for which unfortunately this blog cannot provide an answer. So, dear search engine user, I am sorry, but you are not going to find "mishna berura online english translation" here. Try Google books!

How did your parents react?

Well, I didn’t tell them for a very long time. They knew I was interested in Judaism, but I didn’t tell them that I had started to practice some things. We had plenty of other problems with each other (I was 16!). As they and all of my siblings are not religious at all, already that I was involved at the church was strange. They told me repeatedly that religion is for those who are not able to make their own rules. They knew I learned Hebrew, but I had taught myself Spanish and a bit of Russian before, so they just assumed I was into languages (which I am). They thought Judaism was a phase, one of these things people find interesting as teenagers and then drop it as they become adults.

Probably the first sign that I was more serious about Judaism than they realized was when I went to Israel for six months after finishing high school. But possibly they still thought it was a phase or that I just wanted to annoy them. Anyway, I went and I think the distance and the fact that I was so determined to go really helped both sides to re-evaluate their positions and expectations.

When I came back from Israel, I moved away for my studies and we started to get along better in general. And after a few years they even asked me if I was involved in the Jewish community and I said yes. It became more normal for them that I am sort-of-Jewish. They now see that I haven’t become a crazy fanatic. And now, more than ten years after I started this process, I can talk to them about my frustration with the conversion process, about a nice shiur I had, about some mitzvot [commandments] or about the ultraorthodox in Israel without any stupid comments. But I still wouldn’t tell them all that I do and I make plenty of compromises when I am at their house.

How did your interest in Judaism affect your former religious practice?

When I became interested in Judaism I was 16 and was in charge of a weekly girls’ group in the protestant church in my neighbourhood. But the rest of my life wasn’t actually very religious, I didn’t pray or read the bible or believe all the bible stories literally. I was in for the people and the music.

Judaism changed my life pretty fast. I remember doing my first Shabat not even a month after I stumbled upon Judaism (hidden from my parents). There was no synagogue in my city, but I spent loads of time in a Jewish chatroom. I tried out lots of things. I turned off my computer for Shabat (more out of boredom, because the chatroom was empty). I fasted for Yom Kippur (without telling anyone, not even my parents, just to see if I could). I became a vegetarian (easier to explain than kashrut). I learned Hebrew (when I was bored at school). I memorized the Kaddish (don’t know why this prayer exactly). There was no Jewish community reachable for me, but I did what I could on my own. I didn’t want to convert at that point, I think. It was more experimentation of how crazy all of it actually was than really believing in it at the beginning.

During the same time I continued to be actively involved in my protestant community. And I subtly changed towards Judaism. When I had to tell a biblical story, I took it from the "old" testament – it has great stories, nobody really missed anything. When I had to select songs I selected those without Jesus – there are lots, nobody even noticed. In the bigger events I volunteered for the music group or the outdoor activities instead of the bible groups. The children or the pastor never knew. My fellow counselors probably suspected, because in our discussions my viewpoints became more and more synched with Judaism. One person told me I’d go to hell if I don’t believe in Jesus. But at that point I was so far away from Christianity, it didn’t matter to me at all.

Without really realizing it or planning on converting, I ended up observing many Jewish things. And it just fit! I don’t think I did anything "religiously Jewish" like rituals or praying though.

Defragment your Torah for better performance [fun]

Picture looking like Windows defragmentation but listing the different authors of the Torah as postulated by bible criticism.

[hat tip: e-kvetcher at Search for Emes]

How did you become interested in Judaism?

That’s a good question and I guess some basic interest goes far back into my childhood. I remember talking about Judaism in class (we also did other religions, but I don’t remember those). Particularly I remember tasting the different food items for the Pesach seder in elementary school and I remember acting as the bride (or bride mother?) in a Jewish wedding*. I also remember reading all the holocaust-related books in the local library, and I remember a workshop on Yiddish songs together with children of some other nationality, maybe Polish.

But apart from these bits and pieces, I grew up sort of protestant. My parents are not religious at all and never went to church. My grandmother went and I used to go with her a few times, especially during the year when I was confirmed. Me and my siblings spent a week or two each summer at a children’s retreat organized by the church. I really liked that, so after I grew too old to participate, I became a counselor. Eventually, I took on a weekly girls’ group. But I wasn’t too much into the religious part of it, it was more about the people and the music.

I started to read more about (Christian) theology and actual beliefs around the age of 16, I don’t really know what triggered it. And the more I read, the more doubts I had. Jesus, virgin birth, original sin, all these miracles, all the contradictions between what the text said and what people actually believed? Coincidentally we got internet at the same time, and soon I was wildly browsing throught the internet in search of religious stuff. As I said, I was researching Christian Lutheran-protestant theology.

And by chance somehow I ended up in a Jewish chatroom. There were all these people talking about odd stuff. And I was hooked. I don’t remember what exactly they discussed. I think it must have been about Shabat. And I think the fascination of Hebrew played a big role. But I returned to this chatroom every day from then on and started to learn about Judaism.

* Now, as an adult, and on my way to becoming a Jew, I am unsure what to think about this method of teaching. Is it appropriate and respectful to stage ceremonies of a different religion? I don’t know, but it certainly made a big impression on my 10-year-old self.

Religion, Truth, and the Five Stages of Grief

Not a lot of time, but I thought I’d share these thoughts from the Jewish Atheist on religion and science (also old, from 2005 this time).

I think that when religion is confronted by truth that conflicts with their most basic beliefs, it goes through the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
(Jewish Atheist: Religion, Truth, and the Five Stages of Grief )

When a scientific theory* is young enough that not everybody has accepted it, or maybe even the scientific establishment is sceptical, you can get by with ignoring or denying it. Next comes the stage where you cannot ignore it anymore. Lines have to be drawn, correct beliefs defines, heretics outlawed. A classic example of the third phase is Chabad defending its geocentrical worldview with relativity theory. This stage may be absurd, really convincing or really confusing, depending on how articulate and intelligent the person making the argument is. When bargaining doesn’t help anymore and depression sets it, people go OTD, become buddhists or start to write blogs. And lastly, finally, we arrive at the end, where the science can be acceppted as just one more fact of life that is not life-shattering.

These phases do not only apply to religion and science, often the general public or even the established scientific community reacts the same way to a new, revolutionary theory*. Take climate change. First it was largely ignored by many. I’d say now we are between anger (the people who will shout at you for just using the word) and bargaining (the people who say climate has always been changing and it’s a natural process during the earth’s lifecycle – it may look like it changes, but it’s not our fault). I’m not sure what depression is going to look like, but I hope acceptance starts before it’s too late for this earth.

* "A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation." (Wikipedia: Scientific theory)

Support babelism! [satire]

One of the best parodies of creationists I have ever read, written by Gail Davis in December 1996 (yes, it’s old, but I’m young, so I hadn’t seen it before): Godless Linguistics!

Clearly, we can see the very structure of our civilization crumbling around our ears. Sexual perversion runs rampant as our once-proud moral culture slides ever closer to the gaping maw of oblivion. One need only turn on the TV to witness ample evidence of the degradation of our current Godless society, slipping closer to destruction with the wanton disregard for proper diction, and the torrid abomination of corrupted grammar!

Why, just listen to the “music” of the young people these days. Such trash! The words slur together (when they can be understood at all) into a putrid mush of incomplete sentences and split infinitives. It’s awful. And it has been PROVEN to induce young people to commit acts of violence, theft, and unwed pregnancy. And surely, it is no mere coincidence that this dire threat to the fabric of our very civilization coincides exactly with the indoctrination of our young people with Godless LINGUISTICS in the public schools.

Our public schools have turned away from the source of Truth, to teach our children that our sacred English language has descended from other languages. The poor impressionable youngsters are taught AS A FACT that English words have certain “root words”, even though this is only a theory. The FACT is, God Almighty created all languages complete when he confused mankind’s original language as punishment for our transgression at the tower of Babel. But the athiest/lingusts don’t want this mentioned in public settings, because it goes against their FAITH, and forces them to face their own accountability. So they have BANNED the teaching of Babelism, because they are afraid that it might expose the weakness of their own linguistic ideas. Is this fair? I don’t think so. It goes against all that America stands for.

Therefore, join me in the campaign to have a balanced and fair treatment in public education. All english teachers should be required to include Babelism as a valid alternate theory to Linguisticism, whenever the origins of the English language is discussed.

Oh, of course we can expect opposition from the entrenched vested interests. They will point to certain similarities (i.e. “mother”, “madre” “mater”) as evidence of the relatedness of various languages. But this is a complete misinterpretation of the evidence. Clearly it is more economical for God to use similar phonic structures to designate similar meanings. Therefore, the existence of such similarities PROOVES that the various languages must have had the same author.

Second, a language is a complex thing. The odds that some first speaker could randomly string together a complex series of sounds, and then multiply this by the odds that someone else would UNDERSTAND him, and the probablity could be calculated to be less than 1 in 10^500. That’s a one with five hundred zero’s. A statistical impossibility. Obviously, the first language must have a designer: God.

Third, there is NO evidence that transitional languages ever existed. What use is half a language? A noun without verbs conveys no meaning! Sure, there is middle and old-English. But these are ENGLISH! A complete nontransitional language. We do not deny that micro-lingustics can happen, but this process can create only DIALECTS. There is NO EVIDENCE that a series of random micro-lingustic events can create a WHOLE NEW LANGUAGE. I’ll beleive in Macro-linguistics when I see a video tape of a child growing up in an Eskimo village suddenly become fluent in Armenian! It takes A LOT MORE FAITH to beleive in athieistic linguisticism than the truth of Babelism.

So join me in the crusade: Babelism must be included in the public school English curriculum.

There are only two theories which explain the origin of our language: Babelism and Linguisticism. Shouldn’t they BOTH be given a fair hearing?

Thank you.

Support babelism!

Shaming G-d vs. shaming people

Somebody told me the following story: Shabat morning service at a festival, a crowd of people who usually pray in different (orthodox) settings, in a small room with a mechitza. The Torah is brought out, passed among the men, and is read. During the reading of the women asks whether the Torah can be passed around the women as well when it is brought back. One of the rabbis says yes. One of the rabbis says no. In the end, it’s not done.

I don’t want to talk about the halachic aspects here. Some say that it’s perfectly fine halachically that women kiss the Torah. Some say it shames G-d. I don’t know. Let’s assume the second rabbi sincerely thought it would be a big shame for G-d and it completely forbidden. But what not passing it to the women certainly does is shame people. The women who want to express their love of Torah and are deprived of an opportunity to do so. And not after a private discussion, but they are rejected in public, during the service.

And there are other examples of similar behaviours that in the end come down to following (that person’s very strict interpretation of) G-d’s law and shaming other people, or doing something that shames G-d (by disobeying his commandments). Refusing to sit next to a woman in a plane. Refusing to shake a woman’s hand. Insulting women who wear the wrong clothing or soldiers. Refusing to eat kosher meat because it doesn’t have the right hechsher or doesn’t follow some chumra.

So, what is more important? That shame is not brought to G-d or to other people? The Talmud talks about the severity of shaming others: "He who publicly shames his neighbour is as though he shed blood" (Talmud, Bava metzia 58b)? Isn’t it as much required by Torah to prevent shame for your fellows as following the ritual laws? For all the mitzvot you do, don’t forget to be a mentch!

Omer counting notifications on shabat

This year I am counting the omer with the help of an app. Every evening, just after nightfall I get a reminder to count. It is quite practical actually, not only because of the reminding, but also for keeping track of which day in the omer it is.

At some point I started wondering about the halacha of sending a notification on shabat. Intuitively, probably one might think it is forbidden, as this is an electronic device and basically anything with electricity sets the "forbidden"-flag. But the notifications are automated, so it should be the same as setting an alarm (which you can do) or timers for light (which you can do) before shabat starts. The notification is programmed beforehand by the app developer.

So you might think what does it matter? Anyway, the religious person wouldn’t see the notification, because she certainly turns her phone/tablet/thingy off for shabat. But there are Jews who use their phone on shabat and are still religious (though not orthodox, probably). I know a few who count the omer and use phones on shabat. So if they rely on the app to remind them for the omer and on shabat it dosn’t, and they forget to count… isn’t that near to the category of causing someone to sin? After all they are obligated to count the omer.

I haven’t really looked into this, way too busy at the moment, but I’m curious. As far as I know, my app doesn’t give notifications on shabat. It’s from Chabad, so probably the app developers just don’t think shabat-phone-using-omer-counting-jews exist? Or is there another reason an app shouldn’t send notifications that I have missed?

Pater Noster and Amidah – the language

In my last post I have looked at the structure of the Christian prayer Pater Noster and tried to align it with the Amidah. In this post I am going to look at some of the language.

The language of the Amidah is Hebrew (like most Jewish prayers). There are many arguments for thinking that the Pater Noster was originally given by Jesus in Aramaic (the commonly used language at the time) or Hebrew (the language of prayer). But it has come down to us in the gospels in Greek. I don’t speak Greek, so I am basing myself on the English translation here.

Our Father in heaven
Often Christians cite this personal, intimate adressing of G-d as a crucial difference of their faith to Judaism. This isn’t quite correct. Of course there are lots of instances of "Lord, our G-d", or "G-d, king of the world" in Jewish prayer. But the concept of G-d as a father is present as well. A famous example that has inspired quite a few musicians is the prayer "Avinu Malkeynu" that is used for Rosh haShana (new year) and Yom Kipur (day of atonement). It literally translates to "our father, our king" and asks for forgiveness of our sins. But the Amidah contains the phrase as well, in blessing six (also in the context of forgiving our sins).

Hallowed be your name
Jewish tradition has always assigned a special meaning to G-d’s name. When G-d shows Himself to Moses in the burning bush, He reveals His name to him. During the time of the temple, G-d’s name was used only once a year, on Yom Kippur, by the high priest. The name was too holy to use in other circumstances, there paraphrases like "Adonay" ("Lord") or "Eloheynu" ("our G-d") were used. Today the holiness of G-d’s name has expanded even to these designations and orthodox Jews use them only in prayer. In everyday life "haShem" ("the name") is used to refer to G-d. Jewish liturgy is full of calls to sanctify G-d’s name. In the Amidah, blessing three has "You are holy and Your name is holy" and "we will sanctify Your name in the world", blessing eighteen has "for everything Your name may be praised and glorified". The well-known Kaddish prayer, that is also said in every service, starts with the words "May His great name be exalted and sanctified" (in Aramaic). These are only a few examples that underline the importance of G-d’s name in Jewish prayer.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, […] And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
All these lines could as well be part of any Jewish prayer. The Amidah prays for sustenance (blessing 9), forgiveness (blessing 6) and deliverance (personal in blessing 7, communal in blessing 15). Jews, similar to Christians, await the coming of the messiah when G-d will reign as king over all the earth. The Amidah talks about the coming of the messiah in blessing 15, and about the rebuilding of Jerusalem (which will also happen in the messianic era) in blessings 14 and 17.

As we also have forgiven our debtors.
You may have noticed that I left out this line in the above. I have written in my post about the structural similarities that the Amidah is no place for our promises. Still, it is implicitly understood in all pleas for forgiveness from G-d, that G-d can only forgive sins against G-d. Sins against another person must be forgiven by that person. So Jews do (must!) also forgive their debtors.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever.
This is a very common theme in many prayers, I’ll just give two examples where the language is very very similar. The first is from the Aleinu prayer which is said at the conclusion of every prayer service: "For the kingdom is Yours, and You will reign for all eternity in glory as it is written in your Torah: haShem shall reign for all eternity" (Wikipedia doesn’t have the second part, you have to take my word for it). The second quote is from 1 Chronicles 29 verse 11 which is recited when the Torah is removed from the ark at Shabat morning services: "Thine, O LORD, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is Thine; Thine is the kingdom, O LORD, and Thou art exalted as head above all."

So, in conclusion, most lines of the Pater Noster would not be out of place in a Jewish prayer. Many sound really familiar to a Jew (if you translate them to Hebrew, that is). Does this mean that Jews should pray the Pater Noster? No, by its history it has become a Christian prayer, maybe even the quintessential Christian prayer. And Jews do not use prayers from other religions. But the text itself doesn’t have anything really objectionable from a Jewish point of view (in contrast to other prayers, e.g., the Credo, the Christian statement of faith).