Sunday, September 24, 2006

K'ev Rosh (HaShanah): Remembering the Cycles

“In the seventh month, on the first day of that month, you will observe a holy occasion. All business and mundane labor should not be performed. It is to be a Day of Trumpeting for you.” (Numbers 29: 1)

“It is an active command of the Torah to hear the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah as it states “….a Day of Trumpeting for YOU.” The horn used, whether it be for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur is to be a curved sheep’s horn, and any horn not of this specific type is unfit. Even though the Torah does not specify which type of horn is to be used for Rosh Hashanah, it does say in regards to the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:9) “And you shall blow a shofar…..a shofar shall be blown.” Tradition tells us that the horn for both occasions is to be a male sheep’s horn.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Shofar 1:1)

“This month shall be for you the first of the months; first it is to you of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:2)

Clearly one can see that Exodus 12:2 is referring to the Hebrew month of Nisan and not the month of Tishrei since the following verses (3-20) relate specifically to the weeks preceding Passover and the Pascal offering. Since Jewish months did not have actual names until the Babylonian Exile, prior to that time they were called by their biblically designated ordinal numbers i.e. first month, second month, etc., and there wasn’t any way possible to confuse one month with another. Unless, of course, one wishes to overcomplicate matters.

The first of Tishrei is now considered as the primary Jewish New year. So how do the rabbis explain this contradiction with Exodus 12:2 which obviously refers to Nisan? The rabbis claim that in reality there are two new years, one that signifies our collective beginning as a nation and the other, the New Year we all know and love, is the annual day of personal and communal Judgment where we stand before God and await his verdict. This explanation is wholly unacceptable because the Torah doesn’t even hint to such an explanation for the ‘day of trumpeting’. If someone wishes to derive an interpretation from another interpretation that’s fine, but at least the original interpretation should have some Biblical source to support it. In this case, the rabbis are way off base and thus have turned Rosh Hashanah into a liturgical and psychological disaster.

The Torah in Numbers 29 makes no mention of repentance, sin, or overtures of regret for wrongs committed. Yet, for some reason, we Jews, prior to Rosh HaShanah, subject ourselves to endless sessions of self-effacement and apology, pleading for this merciful god not to kill us or horribly curse us for even the most minor infractions of Jewish Law. The entire month of Elul, a full 30 days prior Rosh HaShanah, becomes a marathonic dirge of penitent supplications and solicitations to the Almighty, culminating in the recitation of Selichos, a torturous early-morning prayer cycle authored by someone with a lot of time on his hands and not much imagination. Orthodox Jewish men rise earlier than usual to spend hours reciting page after page of “I’m a piece of crap and not worthy of Your kindness. You are the Merciful One. Please don’t fuck me over. I promise I’ll change my ways.”

Maimonides (see above) explains that we know the horn for Rosh Hashanah is to be a shofar (curved sheep’s horn) because the same terminology of ‘blowing’ (teruah) is found in relation to the Jubilee Year, where a shofar is specifically mentioned. The theme of repentance fits with this notion. A horn that is bent represents a bent knee or bent spirit, in line with the assumed theme of judgment and repentance. Nonetheless, the Torah in Numbers 29 doesn’t appear to offer any obvious reason why the Israelites were to have a special day set aside each and every year to hear the shofar blown, so the Rabbis, eager to inundate us with their ‘superior logic and morality’ had to create some new ones. To do so they had to ignore some realities of the day.

Even if one was to accept this interpretation, one would also have to assume that the Torah, while referencing a Jubilee year (Lev. 25:9) would also mention something of repentance or supplication in order to support the rabbis theme of repentance, yet it fails to mention either. The Jubilee Year is a time of ‘release’ and marks a period when debts are forgiven, the soil and people are given additional time to rest, harvests are for everyone equally, and real estate values are assessed by the Jubilee date. There remains no mention whatsoever of repentance or divine judgment, even though the actual shofar blowing of the Jubilee year was to occur on Yom Kippur!

Maybe the Rabbis are part right, but not in way that they might imagine. The ‘new year’ and the Jubilee are connected in a very practical sense. The Jubilee was a grand and awesome event, since much of ancient Israel’s commerce was affected and dependent upon it. Land deals were revoked or recovered, farming was absolutely forbidden, and indentured servants were freed without question. It was accompanied by a time of economic uncertainty and turmoil for both the average guy and the long-term investor. Imagine being told that in year ‘50’, all of your business deals, deeds, and loans were going to be annulled and that the free household help you enjoyed for the last umpteen years was being cut loose. That’s a huge lifestyle change and it required a powerful faith to put aside worldly concerns and observe it.

This may answer why there was a ‘Day of Blowing’ and why it was so important. Holidays are national occasions. Why was it so important that all Jews make themselves available on the 1st day of the 7th month to hear the Shofar? It was a yearly reminder of the Jubilee and the Cycle of Land Rest (Deut.16:1). After all, most ancient peoples didn’t have calendars, palm pilots, or day planners to remind them of these events and without someone to keep track and announce their imminent arrival, holidays and remembrances would be missed by a day or two or maybe even altogether. Horn blowing was another means of public service announcement, and specific horns were used for specific purposes depending on what sort of event was being announced. Ancient people knew the difference between the sounds of a straight horn, a curved horn, and a bronze or golden horn. To further support this theory, the shofar was blown everywhere, not just in Jerusalem, and everyone was obligated to mark the event by hearing it wherever they happened to reside. Every Israelite, be they slave, master, man, woman, or king had to know from which date his dealings were time-stamped as a mental preparation for the coming Jubilee.

This is the real reason why the Shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah and perhaps why we call it a ‘new year’ even though it isn’t the New Year at all. In agrarian societies, where manual labor, real estate, and investment capital were a vital necessity, the life-blood of the culture revolved around harvest times, where the return on one’s investments finally paid off. Farmers and merchants could borrow against the actual harvest return rather than the anticipated return of a springtime transaction; the harvest being a better and more tangible indicator of financial stability and success. Rosh HaShanah, the first of Tishrei, becomes the beginning of the ‘business’ year and we are reminded by the Shofar that our business dealings are subject to the cycles of rest and motion encapsulated within the commands of Rest Years and the Jubilee.

This would also explain why the shofar must come from domesticated male sheep; horns of wild goats are not permitted, since they bear no relation to the theme of the day. Domesticated sheep horn is also almost always curved, so the rabbinic wrangling over bent knees and spirits is just plain nonsense. The people used what they had readily available. Domesticated sheep were all over the place so everyone would have access to a shofar or at least to someone who had access. It’s just that simple. The important thing for Moses was to have everyone do it at the same time. No point handing out wristwatches if they aren’t going to be synchronized. This is another example of rabbis overcomplicating relatively simple issues and making the rest of us suffer needlessly in the process.

No, I don’t think the shofar’s shrill sound, enchanting as it may be to many, is that of the ‘Jewish soul crying out for God.’ It is, however, a stark reminder that our efforts to achieve prosperity and security in this world remain inexorably bound with the cycles of Nature. As Moses said when offering his blessings to the Jews (Deut. 32:1) “Listen skies and I shall announce! And let the earth hear the speaking of my mouth!” Moses invoked physical skies and the material earth to bear active witness upon the Israelite destiny. The nation’s adherence and recognition of these cycles were vital to their prosperity and survival.

(The word ‘shofar’ is commonly translated as ‘horn of a male sheep’, but maybe that translation is based solely on the common rabbinic understanding of shofar and Rosh HaShanah, being that nobody ever bothers to argue the point anymore.)

In any case, hob a gutt und a gebenshte yohr.

Kol Tuv

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Torah: Walk or Fly?

I think one of the greatest problems with Orthodoxy is its inability to state the plain truth and just read the Torah without obscuring it with commentaries, suggestions, numerology, and exegesis that have no bearing whatsoever on the story being told. In fact, the plain Torah is chock full of riveting, full-bodied accounts of personal heroism and sacrifice that the Rabbis overlook completely or deliberately disguise in their quest to appear more learned; driven to outdo the previous commenter by creating a newer set of explanations even more convoluted than the last. If it weren’t so sad and misguided, it would almost be comical.

My father, though devout, was not a Torah scholar. It is probably he who is to blame for my unique outlook on Torah and how I interpret the various personalities and events that grace its long columns of precise calligraphic beauty. My father insisted that Torah ‘says what it means and means what it says’, adding that too much exegesis just plain confuses the hell out of the issue. The Rabbis tell us that the Torah is like an onion, and as you begin peeling off layers, there are new layers to be found beneath. My father commented once to me privately “That is the biggest onion I’ve ever seen!” He also wondered why it is we keep peeling the onions and never cooking them; the implication being whether or not the practical and profound details of the simple explanation have been lost in the rush to discover those ‘deeper’ meanings. I fully agree.

Torah scholars love to make things more complicated than they really ought to be. The Rabbi’s Sabbath sermon is replete with quotes from Talmud, other famous Rabbis, or stories of a famous rabbinic contemporary. The rabbi of the synagogue will perform all sorts theological acrobatics; performing syncretisms without end and reconciling all apparent contradictions with a few sprinkles of Hasidic lore to boot. It’s nothing short of magic unless, of course, you know how this slight of hand operates. These complicated sermons are nothing more than smoke and mirrors to make one believe there is a problem to be solved when, in fact, there never really was. I would watch those around me sit in awe of the speaker and would wonder if they even knew which Torah portion was being read.

I was a Torah reader for many years and the man who taught me how to read was a very skilled grammarian. His love for the art was evident in his mastery of the language and its usage. Though I could not possibly ever match his expertise, I did develop an appreciation for power of the simple word. This, coupled with my father’s blue collar approach to Torah, paved the way for the reading of Torah to become a living experience. The word itself contains all the passion and realism to convey a profound and full message. I would stay up all Friday night preparing for the Saturday morning; usually reviewing the Torah portion a dozen times or more, while reflecting each time on the simple beauty of the story being told. Read a good piece of literature aloud to yourself a dozen times or more and see how it comes alive on its own, bringing you along almost unwillingly into the drama. There is a magic present in that experience.

All this reminds me of a fairly rotten analogy comparing Torah learning to the various modes of travel. Two Torah students were debating the benefits of two schools of religious discipline designed to create lasting spiritual and behavioral changes in the individual. For the sake of brevity I will call them (A) and (B). School (A) takes an esoteric or mystical approach to behavior and School (B) uses a somewhat more practical and emotionally-charged methodology. In this analogy, the student of School (B) complains that when he studies the curriculum of School (A), he doesn’t feel spiritually or psychologically satisfied. The student of (A), in defense of his preferred teaching, tries to tries to convince his counterpart that the teachings of School (A) are much better than (B) with the following analogy:

“The learning of school (A) is like flying in an airplane and that of school (B) is like riding in an automobile. In a jet, one doesn’t feel as if they are traveling 500 mph, but one is. You also reach your destination much faster than if you were merely driving.”

Now, I have heard some stupid rationale in my day, but this one took the cake. How about we take this analogy a step further? First of all, in an airplane, you aren’t in control of where the plane is going. In an airplane, if it crashes, expect to die horribly. The landing, analogous to coming back to reality, is always the most dangerous part. Lastly, while flying, you can’t see anything that going on below on the ground below which, as fate would have it, is your final destination. The Student of (A) will tell nonetheless you not to worry because there is a Rabbi piloting the plane and everything will be alright. You just have to take his word for it. No one really knows what goes on in the cockpit.

I remain the sort of fellow, although raised in the philosophy of School (A), who believes one has to crawl before walking and walk before running with episodes of stumbling, falling, and crying along the way. The Ethics of the Fathers (5:25) clearly states that there is a hierarchy of understanding that flows in a particular progression of intellectual and physical development. Our common experience agrees, and the understanding of Torah doesn’t operate any differently. In fact, I honestly wonder if flying or driving is really necessary at all if one doesn’t force the need. Maybe it comes from that little ‘homebody’ inside me, but what’s the big rush to reach some far off destination? Isn’t ‘home’ the real destination anyhow? So, if I never leave home, then it follows that I would already be at my ‘destination’ without requiring myself to board a jetliner.

So again, why the rush to fly? What particular benefit do we imagine will be gained by traveling faster? The Chinese say that a happy man never leaves his village because his happiness prevents the sort of curiosity that leads men to wander off in search of happiness elsewhere. His realizes his grass is sufficiently green and each day he walks barefoot across it. He also finds inspiration walking the old familiar alleys and sidewalks. I think Torah is the same as that wonderful patch of lawn and the beaten path to a familiar place. It is totally unrecognizable from 35,000 feet above the Earth and yet, it becomes an intimate and sensational event each time you find yourself standing right smack in the middle of it; your toes and heels digging into the sod and the tops of the blades tickling your ankles. That’s why Torah is to be kept simple. It reflects the uncomplicated nature of a whole being having a seemingly simple but comprehensive sensory experience. You don’t get that kind of joy when flying, even in first class.

Call me prejudiced, but I happen to prefer walking to any other mode of conveyance. If it were possible I would not drive at all, but arrange my circumstances so that I could walk to anywhere I needed to be, and any destination within five miles is easily walk-able. The beauty of walking is that one can actually see and feel the world up close while moving with it. The rain, the sun, the wind, the noise, and the smells and sights all create a new experience each time they occur. Walking is up close and personal. When I walk, I can hear couples arguing or making love as I pass by their homes. I find interesting objects along the curbside or notice new framing on an old house. I can greet other passersby and maybe even stop to chat for a minute. If I were driving or flying, these experiences would be unknown to me. I would know it was raining. I would assume there were people getting wet and complaining to each other about the weather, but I’d never feel the rain of the day on my own face. It would remain for me an abstraction.

One other way that the innate richness of Torah is destroyed comes through the moralistic ranting and the hero-creation of the ‘frequent fliers’. For some reason, the ‘learned ones’ among us feel that they have to interject a high-browed moral lesson onto each event in Torah in order to prove that the characters depicted were undoubtedly behaving in a perfectly righteous and holy manner, even when it becomes required for them to ‘flip the script’ out of the realm common experience to support their wild hypotheses. The story was meaningful long before they got a hold of it, and I can’t see how creating saints and sinners out of common men makes the story any more believable or relevant to normal folks like us.

One should walk through the Torah and not fly over it. There are people to meet and things to touch inside of it; things that will forever alter your ideas about yourself and the world around you as they come up off the parchment into your understanding. This is truly ‘walking the walk’. As the Torah says in Deut. (6:7) “……talking…..sitting…..moving around…..laying down….getting up.” It’s within the familiarity of home and common every-day doings that Torah is found.

In walking this walk, we can climb to the highest branches of the tree of Knowledge and survey the Garden of Eden with Adam the First. We can make idle conversation with Abraham and comfort the bereaved Judah on the loss of his wife and two sons. We can pass by Sodom and pocket a few pieces of ash and crumbled stone. We can be the first to set our own feet in the waters of the Red Sea, or stand in the middle of the Sinai desert, feeling both helpless and awed by the expanse of its emptiness. Coincidentally, every one of these events our fore-bearers experienced while walking.

Let’s have a stroll. Shall we?

Kol Tuv

Friday, September 08, 2006

Holding My Tongue

In an American social climate growing more and more hostile to anything outside ultra-conservative or fundamentalist forms of religion, introducing oneself as an atheist (or even as a liberal) can be quite problematic. It’s not as if I go out of my way to advertise my atheism. Even though I am well beyond outspoken in print, I do occasionally choose to remain silent on the subject of religion should it come up in business meetings, at the gym, or at gatherings among those who haven’t yet suffered through a lecture on my philosophical outlook on everything. Even the closest of my friends can’t bear more than one or two ‘pontifications’ a year, and I try my best to accommodate them.

Overall, I’ve noticed that believers tolerate other believers of different faiths (and agnostics) better than they do non-believers. As long as there is a belief in some sort of monotheistic deity, be it a moralistic god or otherwise, one won’t encounter too much nervous tension. One could assume, in our day and age that, were one to profess belief in the gods of Mt. Olympus, he or she would receive some funny looks and maybe a few laughs, but never with the sort of negative reaction which atheism seems to engender in even those who are not hardcore religionists. Back in ancient Rome, speaking ill of the gods was not met with resounding approval either. The gods have may changed since then, but humanity obviously hasn’t.

So why does my non-belief in this eternal, transcendent, all-powerful being make others so uncomfortable? There are two explanations. First, there is the assumption that my non-belief is also a rejection of any moral or ethical standard that the believer mistakenly claims as synonymous with his or her god and religious doctrine. How many times have we heard it said that America is a Christian country based upon Biblical principles”? It goes without saying that the Islamic world feels much the same in that regard. So when I state that “I am an atheist”, it means much more to them than a mere disregard of their particular deity or religious doctrine. It becomes an attack on what they perceive as a national credo, and I appear to them as one who seeks to undermine their entire way of life. The fact that nothing could be further from the truth means little, however, since one who is willing to believe the unbelievable is equally capable of denying the believable when he so chooses.

The second reason is closely linked to the first and although they are not mutually inclusive, they sure seem pretty damned close to it. First, consider the emotional attachment one develops in regard to ingrained and cherished ideals. One doesn’t build their whole life and hope around something without becoming emotionally involved. Then, mix in the reality of human beings as creatures of habit and routine. Once we factor in the pain caused by an attack on any of those ideas or behavior patterns, it becomes apparent why some would be so offended by my non-belief. It would be great if rationality always prevailed, but I’ve learned to expect that this just isn’t so. The affronted party will likely remain civil to my face, which is great, but even from afar, it is preferable that nobody engages in hearsay or negative conjecture on my behalf. Who needs that kind of karma?

Therefore, in order to avoid the initial uneasiness and fallout of an oft-disliked opinion, I simply say “I am still exploring my spiritual and intellectual options.” The listener generally smiles and replies “Well, it is good that you are searching. So many people don’t even make the effort.” I feel just a little dishonest in holding my tongue, but it’s always easier to take a compliment than to start an argument or forego the possibility of forming a lasting connection with someone you have just met. Besides, they will have plenty of time to know me better after I create that first ‘good’ impression and earn their willing attention. As my friends would attest “Shlomo is a really nice guy, but he has some crazy ideas.” If all people hear is the ‘crazy’ part, I’ll never get to show the ‘nice’ side, and there will be no opportunity to dispel their misunderstanding of my atheism. You can always argue with a friend and remain friends, but you have to make friends in order have someone with whom to argue safely.

(There are rare occasions when I am asked to discuss religion, science, and philosophy with someone who has already been forewarned about what they are getting themselves into. Some people just love a challenge. My response always comes in the form of a question asked of anyone who has ever sought out confrontation for any reason. “Do you really want to do this?” I leave it up to them. I know how to walk away from a fight. Hell, I’ll run if I have to! I like peace better than war anyhow.)

Why push it? Isn’t that what friends are for?

Kol Tuv

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

From Judaism to Atheism: Maybe?

Naturalism is a philosophical movement which affirms the natural universe the whole of reality and is understood only through scientific investigation, often referred to as methodological naturalism. While denying the existence of supernatural or transcendent entities, or the questioning of the ultimate nature of reality, naturalism affirms that cause-and-effect relationships, as in physics and chemistry, are sufficient to account for all phenomena.

Materialism is the doctrine that all existence is resolvable into matter or into an attribute or effect of matter. According to this doctrine, matter is the ultimate reality, and the phenomenon of consciousness is explained by physiochemical changes in the nervous system. Materialism and naturalism go hand in hand.

Skepticism is the refusal to accept certain kinds of claims without first subjecting them to a systematic investigation or rational inquiry. For many skeptics, this process is akin to the scientific method. This type of skeptic generally accepts those assertions that are in likely to be true based upon a testable hypotheses and critical thinking.

Atheism is basically a lack of belief in a deity or deities of any sort. Although some atheists tend toward skepticism or other secular philosophies such as humanism, naturalism and materialism, there is no single system of philosophy which all atheists share, nor does atheism have institutionalized rituals or behaviors.

I endeavored to define each ‘ism’ as succinctly and yet, comprehensively as possible to set the stage for understanding this article. There are a few of you whose eyes have already glossed over and you’re getting angry at me for not getting right to the point. These brief definitions are important for understanding where it is my ‘atheism’ comes from and why I feel so strongly about it. The metamorphosis from belief into non-belief is not, as some would have it, merely a matter of emotional or social dysfunction, though such things do occur internally in those who are faced with conflicting outlooks and must, as their social needs require, perform a psychological balancing act to live in both worlds simultaneously.

Why Us?

It occurred to me that more Jews turn toward Atheism than those of other religions. From Spinoza, to Freud, to Einstein, and many others in between and since, Jews have been at the forefront of non-theistic thinking in modern Western culture. I wondered why this was and thought maybe it is because so much of what makes an atheist is already latent within Jewish learning and culture. Is that possible that elements from within my own religious education led me to atheism? My personal correspondences with other disaffected Jews also confirms this hypothesis, as none of them (among the dozens that I have contacted) have taken on other faiths or even less stringent forms of Jewish practice. All have embraced either atheism or some variant of agnosticism. This was definitely something that needed further exploration.

The answer I came up with isn’t definitive or universal by any standard. I cannot speak for all renegade Jews-turned-atheist, nor would I attempt to speak on behalf of anyone but myself. My goal here is seek out that ‘something’ in Judaism that could lead to atheism and rejection of Judaism in the process. This is, at worst, an uneducated guess which proves to be way off base or, at best, an introspective analysis into my own particular view of Jewish learning. I believe it will be instructive in either case. Those of you living with these same inner conflicts and questions will understand and hopefully garner some insight from this article.

When the Love of Being Right Goes Wrong

As a rule, most human beings love to be right, but when we Jews decide we are right about something no one hammers home the point better than we do. It isn’t enough to know that we are right amongst ourselves. Oh no. We Jews are fully prepared to take all the time and effort required to make sure the world hears every syllable explaining and justifying our correctness. If you argue with a Jew, the first words out of his mouth will be “As a matter of fact…” attesting with precise logic and devout passion to the veracity of anything we assert as truth. We are the ‘Kings of Disputation’ and throughout our history in Exile we have been subject, time and time again, to debates and argumentation with Epicureans, Christians, Moslems, the Enlightenment, and, last but not least, even amongst ourselves. Why do you think we make such good lawyers?

This steady stream of attacks from without and within Judaism, philosophical and physical, on traditional believers has created an insular and defensive mentality among the Orthodox. Let’s be honest here. We are a culture that is built, shaped, and influenced by our persecutors and retractors as much as it is by our own internal genius and religious ingenuity. One cannot exist as a hated minority for all that time and not come away without a victim mentality. This mentality reinforces, or maybe even is what created our argumentative nature and the often hyperbolic, reflexive defense mechanism that our culture displays. Without military power or demographic numbers to save us, all that was left for us to do was argue our way out of the predicament. The flip side of providing this positive argument for one’s position is by exploiting the weaknesses of the other opinion. Overall, this method has met with limited success.

This ‘Jewish’ skepticism means that every time we hear about Jesus doing a miracle, or the Pope blessing a couple to conceive, or any other supernatural claim, we immediately have two thoughts. First, it’s impossible, and second, if it did happen, there must be a perfectly rational explanation for it that has nothing to do with Jesus or the Holy Father. Our skepticism directed at the claims of other religious doctrines leads us to arguments based in naturalism and materialism. We have now, and so far unknowingly, united the three basic elements needed to create an Atheist into our method of disputation, but we haven’t asked the same questions of ourselves, because it requires more emotional input and sense of loss to question one’s own beliefs that it does to destroy the faith and hopes of 1000s of others. You couldn’t possibly take their loss personally.

So what happens when a Jew, trained in Talmudic logic and the various forms of argumentation and now having this ingrained skepticism toward any threatening or seemingly anti-Jewish ideal, suddenly doesn’t know how to shut that skepticism off? What if all the arguments that one utilizes to debunk Christianity or Islam suddenly become thrown into reverse, critiquing one’s one faith and heritage by the same rules? This is where the problem begins. I cannot simply claim that Judaism’s miracles are rational and true and yet, in the same breath, claim that Christianity’s claims must be false because they are physically impossible or highly improbable. I cannot, in good conscience, debunk the myth of Santa Claus while, in the same breath, seek to defend the belief that Elijah the Prophet shows up at every Jewish home on the night of Passover. Each idea is equally preposterous for the very same reason; it is physically impossible. We invariably end up, through asking others to be ‘intellectually honest’ to prove our point to them, at same later time, facing ourselves in the same ‘intellectual’ mirror and wonder if we are being equally honest about ourselves and what we believe as truth.

(I wonder if this is the ultimate reason why Maimonides opposed philosophical inquiry, or why, during the Middle Ages, the Rabbis generally forbid formal disputations with Christian scholars. In debunking an opponents idea, the same logic could be used, circumstances reversed, to debunk one’s own, and therefore one had to very careful as to who was going to be doing the debating. It’s not that the Christian would trip one up in an argument, but that one would become so sure of his own debating skills that one would begin to argue with everything, friend and foe alike, based on that technique. )

The Truth Isn’t Cold or Hard

As much as I’d like to think this whole process is completely cold and rational, it obviously isn’t. The feeling of power that can accompany being ‘right’ about any issue can be very addicting. Sometimes this gets out of hand, but even then isn’t necessarily a bad thing until we separate our intellectual and emotional faculties and that is where we go horribly wrong. We assume that when we are thinking that we are somehow no longer feeling, and we end up, unknowingly, becoming attached to our thinking in way that puts us into a position of holding an enormous emotional investment in our opinions. Do you know how hard it is to admit that you are wrong? Or that the position you have arduously defended for many years is as equally misguided as those you debunked, if not even more? Few of us ever realize the deep emotional attachment we have to ideas we assume are ‘cold hard facts’, and are dead wrong about. We throw ‘intellectual honesty’ in the face of every opponent but no ‘emotional honesty’ in the way of our own introspection.

At some point, some of us actually make that leap into that intellectual-emotional self-inquiry. We use the very same tools we have been taught to use on others to inflict maximum damage on our own Jewish beliefs and religion in general. We begin to ask the same questions of ourselves that we demanded of others and by the same methods and arguments. Yet, we are no longer debating strangers from whom we emotionally disassociate ourselves. We are arguing with our own core beliefs and the fight hits home with a vengeance. For those of you who have never felt the emptiness of being wrong, completely wrong, and having to alter your entire thinking based upon that realization, I cannot put adequately into words how gut-wrenching that experience feels. It is nothing short of heart-break. I really believed that the Judaism I was raised in could withstand all the scrutiny that I was fervently using to admonish the rest of humanity, but it could not.

My atheism is a direct by-product of my Jewish upbringing. Not in terms of information, mind you, but in how information in general is to be processed. I was taught to ask tough questions; to think and to problem solve. I was trained to debate the point with determination. I was educated in argument and commanded to treat any strange idea or religion with strong skepticism. My problem is that I didn’t know when or how to turn it off. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to.

So here I am.

Kol Tuv

If Pascal Were A Jew

Pascal argues that it is always a better "bet" to believe that a god exists, because the expected value to be gained from believing that such a deity exists is always greater than the expected value resulting from non-belief. With his wager he sought to demonstrate that believing in the existence of a god is more advantageous than not believing, and hoped that this would convert those who rejected previous theological arguments. Pascal is like the card shark down on the corner enticing you into choosing the magic card with the lure of reward should you bet correctly, and the fate of everlasting doubt should you fail to seek out those possible rewards.

Due to its relative simplicity, Pascal’s Wager (or Gambit) still serves as the most popular argument for belief in some sort of deity that rewards or punishes in the hereafter. As I see it, this wager works out great for most Christians, who have little to actually do to fulfill their religious requirements, having shed themselves of the “law” through faith in Jesus. It is fair to ask as to what would the average Christian lose or gain by accepting Christianity on a bet? Surely, his life would change little. Even the most secular society demands respect for parents, fidelity in marriage, and even when it comes to the ‘Seven Deadly Character Flaws’, society already provides the means to overcome or to deter those behaviors, be it through social pressures, education, or the rule of law. If the Christian dies to find there is no god, his life was still meaningful, even in the secular sense, and he has lost little for his gamble.

For the Jew, however, to accept Pascal’s proposition is quite another matter. We Jews, in order to be 100% true to the rules of this wager, must accept all 613 commands of the Torah (though most do not apply and others are situational and never come up), the edicts and additions of the Rabbis, and the entire body of Jewish Law which govern our lives from dusk until dawn, waking to sleep, and even into our dreams. There is no aspect of human life that Judaism doesn’t seek to govern. Judaism, as a religion, is not merely about belief, but concerns itself with practical application; belief itself is considered to be an application of thought and emotion. Belief is essential, but belief without action is meaningless and is not considered Judaism at all. Even the proposed Seven Noahide Laws require an active participation on the part of Gentiles. So were I to accept Pascal’s Wager in Jewish terms, the stakes would be much, much higher than for my Christian neighbor.

The Christian who hedges his bets really loses nothing by doing so. He will, if he follows the best of what his faith demands, remain faithful to his wife, do honest business, and perform acts of charity when needed. He will be kind and respectful of his neighbors. In other words, he would fulfill the definition of good common citizen and had he not announced his faith in public by church attendance, no one would be the wiser as to his true religious leanings. The Jew, however, takes on a whole other set of rules that sets him apart from the rest of society, so much so that he is required to restrict his interactions with the world in order to fulfill the laws of his faith. This comes at what appears to be a much greater sacrifice to the non-believer. Should I accept the rules, and then find out there was no such god to command them, I would have altered my whole existence to the extent of tremendous personal self-sacrifice for what? So I would never taste pork? Have sex with a non-Jewish woman? Take a bus ride on Saturday? Not eat a cheeseburger?

This is why I spin Pascal’s Gambit the other way around. As a Jew betting with Pascal's logic, I would become inundated with rules, regulations, restrictions, etc. that control almost every aspect of my life, be it dietary, literary, or mortuary; since even in my death there are rules to be strictly followed. In terms of how I would have to alter my life and thinking to accommodate the religion, the stakes are just too rich for my blood. The Jewish Pascal wants me to bet on there not only being a god, but a god that wants everything from me in exchange for a ‘possibility.’ I am not the sort of betting man that would sacrifice the freedom and liberty of the secular life without evidence and good reason. To accept what, in my estimation, are meaningless rules and regulations based upon another’s suspicion that there may be a vengeful or rewarding god in the afterlife is a bit more than I am willing to wager. Frankly, I have seen e-mail scams more convincing than Pascal’s Wager.

To me, it appears somewhat analogous to buying a lottery ticket (except that with the ticket there is a definite possibility of a winner). It’s all about hope or fear and what one is willing to give up hoping that the fears don’t ever materialize. For the person to wager a few dollars on the chance of winning millions, it seems quite reasonable. (I do it every week.) This is the extent of the Christian commitment to Pascal’s Wager. As they say “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” For the Jew to play this lottery, however, he must invest all the capital he has available to him, notwithstanding that in the end, his odds aren’t really much better than those who wagered much less.

Had he been an Orthodox Jew, or had Christianity been more demanding of its followers, it is likely that Mr. Pascal never would have taken those odds either.

Kol Tuv

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Subverting Democracy Right Here At Home

Ok. Go ahead and call me a pessimist and a cynic. You can’t tell me it’s not without good reason.

I have been diligently following the various election problems and voting troubles across the USA since the 2000 presidential debacle that ‘gifted’ control of our nation to the PNAC. I have been scouring the internet, blogosphere, and even scanning the piss-poor mainstream media reporting for incidences of voter fraud, machine breakdowns, poll worker malfeasance, voter disenfranchisement, and the rampant corruption that exists as a result of HAVA between GOP legislators and the electronic voting machine manufacturers. I am not happy with what I am hearing. In addition, recent court decisions are not favoring an honest and verifiable electoral process. The recent case of CA-50 is a prime example of how lawmakers and judges play their cards wisely to usurp power. The people be damned!

Defenders of the status quo, consisting mostly of the various secretaries of state and paid representatives of voting machine companies, expect the American people to blindly ‘trust’ the elections. “No one would ever dare tamper with the American Democracy!” they argue. Now, someone please tell me why I should assume the system to be honest? Is it because someone’s grandmother was a poll worker at some time, and she was an obviously earnest and upstanding human being? Maybe it seems perfectly reasonable that an oatmeal-cookie-baking grandmother wouldn’t tamper with an election, but what about the politicians or the interests who have so much to gain from the outcome? Do you think the players just pack up their balls and go home quietly when the game is lost? Not a chance. They seek every advantage before, during, and after each contest, up to and including, unfortunately, subverting the process. Think about what is at stake for them.

It is strange to me that so many people would readily admit that almost 100% of those in politics on any level are in some way corrupted yet, when it comes to the very process that gets them into office, these same criminally-minded corporate servants are treated as being beyond any reproach? Are you saying that there is no-way-in-hell that politicians would try to influence and election by resorting to dishonesty, either in advertising or practices? Oh, how naïve some must be! Anyone who still imagines that our elections have always been honest and treated by those seeking power with deepest reverence needs to visit their local library and head straight for the history section. Read a little about the influences of Tammany Hall or the history of Chicago politics.

There is no reason to blindly trust anyone for anything. I have no implicit faith in any form of governance. I want evidence; the sort of evidence as produced by the checks and balances provided through transparency, oversight, and public scrutiny. My vote is to be held as a sacred, sealed, and secret ballot only at the point when I cast it. After that, it doesn’t become subject to the sole jurisdiction and discretion of a bureaucrat or the proprietary intellectual property of a voting machine company. My vote does not become a matter of national security and nor do I fear identity theft should the vote be recounted. That vote is the property of the American people in collective and is to be counted openly for that collective to witness. Voting is not an act of faith. There should be no closed doors and secret meetings when and where the votes are being tallied. If they have nothing to hide, then they shouldn’t mind being watched while they do it. This legislatively required electronic voting process doesn’t make elections more honest, it only makes dishonesty more convenient and further shrouded in the nomenclature of computer lingo and legalese.

The process of counting those votes must never be a clandestine affair limited to the prying eyes and fingers of those who hold a stake in the outcome. The sad reality we face is that candidness in gathering and recounting the vote is becoming a scarce event, often routinely denied or subverted by political operatives, corporate stooges, or judges. This deceit is a shameful statement of how far American politics has divested itself of any moral character or high ground in the debate over freedom and democracy around the world. Our government insists upon open elections overseas while making excuses for not having it here at home.

All we are asking for is verifiable elections. You know; the kind with receipts and open honesty. That seems to be too much to ask from our government these days. They claim it is either too cumbersome, or too expensive, or too late, or too early, or too divisive, or too contentious, etc. ad nauseum. These conflict-of-interest-ridden liars conjure more lame justifications for their political trickery in pursuing an unsupervised and unaccountable election processes than my ex-wife had excuses for avoiding sex. I must admit, however, that at least my ex-wife came up with a good reason now and then.

Qui Bono?

Many thanks to the Brad Friedman, Clint Curtis, Black Box Voting, and many others for keeping the concept of honest and verifiable elections alive! Please visit their sites. Draw your own conclusions, but at least give them a chance to present their cases. I think you will be dismayed and surprised at the same time.