Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Don't Worry - There Was No Genocide!

I recently picked up Richard Elliot Friedman's Commentary on the Torah at the local library. If you don't know who Friedman is, he is a professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the U of C (San Diego) and one of the leading proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis. Friedman says at the outset that his commentary is focused on the text itself and not on the history of Bible scholarship. He therefore does not comment on the Torah's authors and sources, but rather attempts to write a commentary in the tradition of the classical commentaries. But don't be so quick to bring this book into shul - there is still a lot of juicy stuff (read apikosus) in it, largely because Friedman relies heavily on the archaeological revolution of the last 200 years. For heaven's sake, at the very least put a fake cover on it (perhaps a suitably trimmed photocopy of the Artscroll Chumash); you are bound to run into folks that know of REF and you'll therefore avoid some major stares.

In last weeks parashah, Ekev, Friedman set my mind to ease with his comment on verse 7:2 which reads [his translation]:

When YHVH, your God, will bring you to the land to which you're coming to take possession of it and will eject numerous nations from in front of you - the Hittite and the Girgashite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite - seven nations more numerous and powerful than you, and YHVH your God, will put them in front of you, and you'll strike them; you shall completely destroy them!

Yuck, wholesale destruction of man, woman, and child. Pretty awful huh? Well here is what Friedman has to say: "Many people have been troubled by the idea of commanding the annihilation of the Canaanite residents of the land. The archaeological evidence is that such a destruction never took place. This passage in the Torah was written long after the period of the Israelites' settlement in the land, and so it is ironic that the author of this text conceived of a degree of violence that appears never in fact to have happened, and then people are troubled by this degree of violence in Israel's history".

So don't be angry at God because you believe "He" condoned genocide. This was simply an after-the-fact explanation for how the Jewish people became so populous in Israel to the exclusion of other peoples. The author was just not bothered by the concept of destroying entire nations, such was the mindset of the time.

And to all of those folks who denigrate the Torah for its genocidal policies, I just have this to say: Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The End of XGH (Again)

While some folks may be happy about its demise, XGH is no more. I am a long-time reader of, arguably the most read Jewish blog, both in his latest incarnation and in his previous one as Godol Hador. While he often (especially lately) harped on the same subjects over and over, his posts were for the most part both interesting and well-written. Much food for thought for the whole spectrum from fideistic to confirmed skeptic, although he was certainly much more of a threat to the former. Unfortunately, he devolved into a depressive nihilism as of late and as a result deleted his blog and all of his comments. Not only that, but he deleted the long-defunct, but much more valuable, postings.

While I certainly support his right to do this, in a way a popular blog belongs to the world. Many people put enormous time and effort into leaving comments and maintaining debates, most notably his Kuzari debates with Rabbi Maroof ( Although often repetitive to the point of monotony, the posts were still a great source for the seeker of religious and philosophic truth. So it was with some dismay to find that XGH didn't simply close his blog, but removed everything without consideration for the many contributors that made the blog what it was.

Although it is somewhat painstaking to do, Google Reader caches blogspot postings and one is still able to view old XGH postings, although not the comments. If you wish to save a copy of any or all of the postings, simple go to "Expanded view", keep scrolling down to load more postings, then copy and paste to Word or whatever format you like. (The whole thing is about 10 megs.) Anybody save a godolhador archive?

Whether XGH will post again (it's hard to keep a talented blogger down), I wish him luck in attaining whatever peace of mind is possible for such a turbulent soul.

Monday, August 25, 2008

God Is In Control...

... was a bumper sticker that I saw on a van today. Fortunately I stifled my temptation to rear-end the van and then claim "I lost control"!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Avos - 1, Scientists - 0

# of WivesAge at Death

See here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rabbi Mordechai Becher & Occam's Razor

Rabbi Mordechai Becher in this six minute Aish Hatorah video, proposes five reasons why a Jew should explore Judaism before examining other religions.

Are you going to start alphabetically, he asks? By the time you went from Anabaptist to Buddhism to Christianity (and its 2000 variations) to Judaism, you'd either be in the loony bin, or very confused or dead. Here are his five reasons for why one should start with Judaism:
  1. If you have eliminated polytheism and are a monotheist "because Occam's Razor is the most simple, elegant solution to the conundrum of why there is a world, how it's fine tuned, how it seems to be designed, why there are laws, etc., so I'll say, OK, there seems to be one God, one infinite God, it precludes the possibility of other gods." Once you get to monotheism, it makes sense to start with Judaism which is the oldest, preceding Islam and Christianity by thousands of years. Both of these later religions believe in the Jewish Bible. A Christian will say the Jewish Bible is true, the Koran similarly (although they have "some issues with the precise manuscripts"). In terms of the 2-1/2 billion monotheists of the world, virtually the only thing they do agree on is the Torah.

  2. Judaism is very accessible with thousands of books published in every language, including Klingon, explaining itself. It's not a secret religion and it can explain itself. You don't have to be a priest or an imam.

  3. It doesn't ask anyone to "give up their mind". There are religions that have "holy mysteries", there is the statement "I believe because it is absurd". Judaism doesn't ask for that. It asks for a reasonable faith. It is based on reason and logic. If you are investigating something, there is the assumption that you are relying to a great degree on your own intellect. Universal literacy is one of the goals of Judaism and one of the greatest commandments is to study. We are not about secrets and the limiting of information.

  4. If you are Jewish, Judaism is a great place to start. One may accept that there are sparks of truth in other cultures and religions. But the soul is composed of a spiritual identity that is an accumulation of the history and experiences of the people that came before you and who contributed to your soul. Thus, the religion that is most fine-tuned to your soul is Judaism. You are a product of your ancestors and their history, like it or not.

  5. There are many religions out there that don't even make a claim to truth! Some say we are just a convenient way of getting to nirvana or we are a pleasant life-style. Judaism makes a claim to absolute truth and if you are concerned with truth and not just "this is comfortable, this is nice", then it would be nice to start with Judaism. And, among those religions that make a claim to absolute truth, Judaism is the oldest and the mother of them all.
I really don't take issue with R. Becher's primary point, namely that it makes sense for a Jew interested in adopting a religious lifestyle to investigate Judaism first. (Hopefully he or she will also learn about the difficulties that most Baalei Teshuvah have in integrating into most non-Modern Orthodox communities.) Judaism is indeed very accessible, and there is neither lack of availability of fundamental texts in English (even the most esoteric) nor lack of available learning opportunities with others, at least for most people who live in or near a populous city.

I do, however, take exception to a number of R. Becher's assertions. His six minute compendium of talking points contains numerous falsehoods and examples of sloppy thinking.

Point 3: A typical Aish party line is "you don't have to give up your mind". But ultimately one will encounter major roadblocks to a rational acceptance of certain claims of Judaism (the Mabul as described in the Torah, 600,000 adult males leaving Egypt, etc.) and will be fed either kvetchy answers or told that science is flawed and one has to have emunah in the words of the Torah. And certainly the masses of Orthodox fundamentalists do give up their mind to the "Daas Torah" of their rebbaim.

Point 4: Becher conflates historical/cultural experiences with mystical notions of the soul. How do you know if you weren't a gentile in a previous life?? According to Chaim Vital and others who are fond of weaving - frankly very fascinating - reincarnation connections, the 24,000 Shechemites who were killed by Shimon and Levi became the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva as merit for circumcising themselves! Dina bas Yaakov became Cozbi bas Tzur who became the wife of Turnus Rufus who eventually converted and married Rabbi Akiva! (OK, I'm quibbling on this point but Becher should have simply stated the cultural convenience of adopting Judaism. Besides, I wanted to throw out some interesting esoteric tidbits for you.)

Point 5: Which religion doesn't make a claim to truth? I can't think of a one. Becher shows his ethnocentricity and ignorance by presuming that only the Big 3 western religions make any claim to truth. See, for example, my post here which is basically a quote from the Dalai Lama and his explanation regarding the need for verification of religious doctrine via "reasoned examination and personal experiment."

I saved the best for last. Point 1. Forget the simple fact that Becher creates a classical "false dilemma" (stating that the choice is between monotheism or polytheism, where in fact there are also non-theistic religions, henotheism, etc.), then quickly moves to the only choices being Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (he should read up on Sikhism, Bahai, even Hinduism which some understand as non-polytheistic), and finally to claiming that everyone agrees on the Torah (a glib oversimplification. Besides, even if they "agree" it doesn't mean it's true.) No, it's how he arrives at monotheism by invoking Occam's Razor. This principle states "one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything". Becher is reducing entities from multiple gods to a single God to explain the world. "God did it", is the simplest explanation in his view, while prepping the seeker with some classic Intelligent Design claims ("fine tuned", "it seems to be designed", "why there are laws"). Now it is interesting that Occam's Razor is more often used to as an argument against the existence of God (ironic because Occam was a theist), but I really don't want to get into that debate. (Besides, I do believe in "some sorta God".) No, it is what I presume would be his exclusive use of Occam's Razor in claiming that it argues for monotheism. Would he also claim that "a miracle" is the simplest postulate for the miracles of the 10 plagues? For the splitting of the Reed Sea? Manna for 40 years feeding millions of people? The sun and moon standing still for Joshua? Resurrections performed by Elisha and by Eliahu? The most simple explanations, of course, are that these were not miracles but natural phenomena that were recorded as miracles by pre-scientific minds.

I think that Rabbi Becher is confusing simple with simplistic.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

Such a cute goyisha kop (Will, not Dr Smith), but he had better stay away from the Bais Hamikdash!

I really can't relate to the Tisha B'Av kinos. The rabbi's introductions to each one were pretty interesting, but unfortunately a better understanding of these ancient dirges still didn't result in them resonating with me emotionally. Sorry, Kalir...

Anyway, I did bring along some alternative reading material, including "A Time to Weep" by Rabbi Leibel Resnick. You know, one of those CIS publications that you get as a "donation incentive" for some charitable organization. This particular book has lots of (uncredited) photos relating to the Second Temple period and one of them quickly caught my eye. A picture and description of the "Temple Warning Inscription Stone". This stone was found in Jerusalem in 1871 and is housed in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, Turkey. A second stone was discovered in 1935 and has almost the identical wording (that one is currently at the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.)

The inscription is in both Latin and Greek, and has quite a frightening message:
No Foreigner*
Is To Go Beyond The Balustrade
And The Plaza Of The Temple Zone
Whoever Is Caught Doing So
Will Have Himself To Blame
For His Death
Which Will Follow
(*A Time to Weep states "Let no foreigner, nor anyone defiled..." but I could not find any other source that mentions the defiled restriction.)

Yep, that's correct, DEATH to all furriners (that is, non-Jews)! These markers were placed in the outer court of the Temple as a warning to all Gentiles not to enter the inner court area on penalty of death. The Romans allowed the Jewish authorities to carry out the death penalty for this offense even if the offender were a Roman citizen!

Josephus mentions this in his Antiquities, Book 15, Chapter 11, in discussing Herod's rebuilding of the Temple: "...Thus was the first enclosure. In the midst of which, and not far from it, was the second, to be gone up to by a few steps: this was encompassed by a stone wall for a partition, with an inscription, which forbade any foreigner to go in under pain of death."

Although not carried out today, non-Moslems that enter Mecca are likewise guilty of a capital offense. This used to seem barbaric to me, but I'm fine with it now that I know we had a similar edict hundreds of years before there was any such thing as a Moslem. And also because I (and presumably all of my co-Ortho-religionists) take to heart one of the fundamental messages of Tisha B'Av - the desire to return to a time in which we can once again impose such penalties.