Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mormons - Lenient on Masturbation!

Those Mormons, so meikel regarding the scourge of masturbation! Let's look at a few of the points found in their guide to self-control taken from this 1970 missive and see if we can help them out by the judicious application of halachic principles.

Never touch the intimate parts of your body except during normal toilet processes.

Authentic Orthodox Jewish Comment (AOJC): Better advice is found in the Talmud, Niddah 13a (which is also the best place to start to put the fear of God into you regarding the sin of wasting seed): R. Eliezer said, Whoever holds his membrum when he makes water is as though he had brought a flood on the world.

Avoid being alone as much as possible. Find good company and stay in this good company.

AOJC: They forgot about being along during the night, which is when the real danger starts. The Talmud (Shabbat 151a) says that one should not sleep alone at night lest one be seized by that succubus, Lilith. (She's the one responsible for wet dreams and all of those little demon babies that are created as a result...)

If you are associated with other persons having this same problem, you must break off their friendship. Never associate with other people having the same weakness.

AOJC: All around good advice, as it says in Pirke Avot 1:7: Nittai the Arbelite said: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; do not associate with a wicked person; and do not despair of retribution.

When you bathe, do not admire yourself in a mirror. Never stay in the bath more than five or six minutes -- just long enough to bathe and dry and dress AND THEN GET OUT OF THE BATHROOM into a room where you will have some member of your family present.

AOJC: The Shulchan Aruch (YD 156:2) rules that a man may not look in a mirror due to "lo yilbash gever" (prohibition to wear a woman's garments). The Vilna Gaon agrees. It is permitted to look into a mirror only for medical reasons or if one cuts his own hair, or if a non-Jew cuts his hair in private.

When in bed, if that is where you have your problem for the most part, dress yourself for the night so securely that you cannot easily touch your vital parts, and so that it would be difficult and time consuming for you to remove those clothes. By the time you started to remove protective clothing you would have sufficiently controlled your thinking that the temptation would leave you.

AOJC: And also don't forget that it is a severe transgression to lie on one's back or on one's stomach, rather than on one's side. The fear is wasteful emission of seed. (Mishnah Berurah 239:6, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 71:5, T. Bavli Berachot 13b).

Never read pornographic material. Never read about your problem. Keep it out of mind. Remember -- "First a thought, then an act."

AOJC: Forget porn, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 20b) even prohibits watching animals mate lest it arouse one to inappropriate thoughts.

A number of additional suggestions are quoted in the document, including vigorous daily exercise, wearing pajamas that are difficult to open, holding the Book of Mormon in bed, tying a hand to the bed frame, etc. But we have only to turn to that great - though severely flawed - Gaon of Mussar, the Seinfelder Rav, for the best advice of all: be the master of your own domain!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Tale of Aqhat

In Robert Alter's Genesis: Translation and Commentary, he makes note of the similarity between the "annunciation" story of Genesis 18 in which angels inform Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son and an Ancient Near Eastern Text:

The whole scene seems to be a montheistic adaptation to the seminomadic early Hebrew setting from the Ugaritic Tale of Aqhat (tabet V:6-7) in which the childless Dan'el is visited by the craftsman-God Kothar. As Moshe Weinfeld has observed there are several links between the two texts: Dan'el also is sitting by an entrance, overshadowed by a tree; he also "lifts up his eyes" to behold the divine visitor and similarly enjoins his wife to prepare a meal from the choice of the flock.

Here is tablet V from Tale of Aqhat as translated in Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament:
(Some 13 lines missing at the top. The preserved portion begins in the middle of a speech of the craftsman-god addressed to Daniel:)
(abraded except for traces)

"I myself will bring the bow,
    Even I will convey the darts."
And behold, on the seventh day--
Straightway Daniel the Rapha-man,
    Forthwith Ghazir the Harr1am[iyy]-man,
Is upright, sitting before the gate,
    Beneath a mighty tree on the threshing floor,
Judging the cause of the widow,
    Adjudicating the case of the fatherless.
Lifting up his eyes, he beholds:
    From a thousand fields, ten thousand acres(1)
The march of Kothar(2) he espies,
    He espies the onrush of Khasis,(3)
See, he bringeth a bow;
    Lo, he conveyeth darts.
Straightway Daniel the Rapha-man,
    Forthwith Daniel the Harnamiyy—man,
Loudly unto his wife doth call:
"Hearken, Lady Danatiya,(4)
    Prepare a lamb from the flock
For the desire of Ko[th]ar wa-Khasis,(5)
    For the appetite of Hayyin(6) of the Handicrafts.
Give food, give drink to the godhead;
    Serve, honor him,
    The Lord of Hikpat—El,(7) all of it.
Lady Danatiya obeys,
    She prepares a lamb from the flock
For the desire of Kothar wa—Khasis,
    For the appetite of Hayyin of the Handicrafts.
Afterwards, Kothar wa-Khasis comes.
The bow he delivers into Daniel’s hand;
    The darts he places upon his knees.
Straightway Lady Danatiya
    Gives food, gives drink to the godhead;
She serves, honors him,
    The Lord of Hikpat-El, all of it.
Kothar departs for(8) his tent,
Hayyin departs for(8) his tabernacle.
Straightway Daniel the Rapha-man,
    Forthwith Ghazir the Harnamiyy-man,
The bow doth [...]..., upon Aqhat he doth ...
"The first of thy game, O my son,
    The first of thy ...[...],
The game of thy ...[...]."(9)
(some 12 lines missing)

Re-edited Footnotes:
1 i.e. in the distance.
2 "Skillful," the commonest name of the craftsman-god.
3 "Clever," another of his names.
4 The name means "God judges." Juding the cause of the widow and the fatherless is Daniel's special concern. His wife's name, Danatiya, is from the same root.
5 "Skillful and Clever"; see nn. 2 and 3.
6 "Deft," still another of his monikers.
7 The name of the craftsman-god’s "estate."
8 Or "from," if Daniel’s tent is meant rather than Kothar’s.
9 Perhaps Daniel here impresses upon his son the duty of offering some of his game to the gods. "First" may mean "choicest" here.
It has been said that there are only 7 basic plots in all of literature (for example, see here and here.) In the same way, some apologists would like to claim that Bible critics look at similarities to ANE texts and conclude that the Bible has engaged in large-scale borrowing from earlier texts, rather than admitting to the common use of universal themes. Most OrthoFundies are less sophisticated and know nothing about ANE texts, and simply reject the similarities as mere coincidence. Certainly from a religious point of view such similarities are largely irrelevant, for it is in the differences that the real theological uniqueness of the Biblical text shines through.

But I ask you, are the similarities between Genesis 18:1-9 and tablet V of The Tale of Aqhat compelling enough to suggest that the Biblical story has borrowed components from the Ugaritic one?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Is Nothing Sacred?

Just an excuse to post my all-time favorite Gahan Wilson cartoon.

Another Historic Figure Bites the Dust

OK, we all know that
But now they've gone too far. A frum Muslim says that Mohammed never existed!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Movies from a Godol Hador of Intelligent Design has a great set of Moody Institute of Science films from the 50's. They are described thusly:
The film's host Irwin Moon had an interest in science as a child and later incorporated that interest into his life as a pastor. He would tour the country giving his "Sermons of Science" where the marvels of science provide the visible evidence of a Divine plan of creation. His work with GIs during World War II showed him the impact that training films had on the troops. Moon partnered with the Moody Bible Institute to form the Moody Institute of Science, a company that made basic science films with a religious hook at the end. While revealing the complexity of nature, their films would end with Moon saying that this complexity was part of God's plan rather than evolution. Moody Institute of Science films were marketed to churches and also to public schools where today even the mention of the word "God" sparks a conflagration of protests and court cases.
Moon wasn't just some two-bit evangelist; he played to huge crowds at the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair, created sophisticated equipment out of war surplus material, and was a huge advocate of what is now called "intelligent design". Although the religious message of the films here are non-denominational, Moon is credited with first developing the concept of using science to illustrate the Gospel. There is some fascinating biographical material on Irwin Moon in James Gilbert's book on religion and science in American culture, Redeeming Culture; check out excerpts here.

Here are some of the movie highlights (if you do check these out, make sure and read the comments on each film):

In this 1960 movie on carnivorous plants, Moon mentions that the Venus Fly Trap is completely devoid of muscle tissue and a nervous system. At 5:10 he asks, "How does it happen? Someday we'll know" and gives a beatific look towards the heavens. Continuing, he explains that a master craftsman has laid out with intricate design a variety of traps to serve the needs of nature (but he doesn't say that the same craftsman allows another creature to die very slowly in the fly trap's digestive juices). At 7:30, Moon shows an intricate mechanical trip and asks rhetorically, "Can you imagine building all of this complicated mechanism into a trap the size of the head of a pin? God did it!"

The one on electric eels is well worth watching. You only get the kicker at the very end when he says about the eel, "you've given us a new understanding of God who made us all".

This 1957 one on Acara fish is geared to the under 10-year old crowd (here Moon is what you'd get if you crossed Mr Rogers with Mr Wizard). Some great comments on family values, especially the closer: "The acaras devotion to their babies is a wonderful thing, but the love of human parents for their children is different and far more wonderful. And what children do is important in family life too, for God requires that children obey their parents." Who can argue with that?

Living with Atom is a pretty long one at 25 minutes. We are treated to a lesson in atomic physics and are shown the frightening power of the atomic bomb. The moralizing begins, as usual, near the end. About the need to have reverence for the Creator, the importance of faith, righteous and humility before God. Principles upon which this country was founded (we'll ignore the fact that most of the founders - although deists - had very unfavorable things to say about Moon's religion) and principles upon which it can continue to exist.

In the Wonder of Water, Moon gives some younguns a science lesson plus tells them about the creators great wisdom and careful planning. If you want to hear much more detailed lectures on this subject with a decidedly Orthodox approach, check out Rabbi Shmuel Irons' lectures here and here (there is a fee).

And finally, The Wonder of Our Body tells us about the miracles of the eye, ear, the hand, and other parts of the body. I was scared for a minute when Uncle Bob ushered those boys into his back room to talk about their bodies, but my suspicions were for naught. Anyway, one of the boys takes the intelligent design talk to heart when he says "I guess God went to a lot of trouble just to make our bodies so perfect". A nice talk at the end about the importance about taking care of the body, keeping our bodies and minds clean. We can all take Irwin Moon's final words to heart: eat & drink good stuff, get plenty of fresh air, and plenty of exercise.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

God is a Mafia Boss!

At least according to Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb.

In this lecture on Evolution and The Age of the Universe, Gottlieb explains the discrepancy between the scientific age of the universe - 14 billion years old - and the Jewish date of 5766 (the lecture is 3 years old so add that to both dates):

"Now the short answer to the contradiction is that the universe is 5766 years old and God created it looking older than it is. So that scientists when they follow up the evidence of greater age, are following it up correctly. And they are correctly inferring the age of the universe upon that evidence based on certain assumptions that they are making... but their conclusions are wrong. Similar to a case where the Mafia plants evidence that someone committed a crime and police use the evidence according to all the correct forensic techniques to identify so-and-so as the criminal - they aren't making any mistakes in their inferences from the evidence - except they don't know the evidence is planted."

[Aside: there are other similarities between God and the Mafia - both have a Ten Commandments code of behavior!]

Is God therefore a jokester trying to trick us? Gottlieb asks rhetorically.
  1. No, the question is irrelevant since we cannot understand why God would do things in such a way.
  2. Since God told us the truth he's not fooling us. Some facts he wants us to know by observing the world, other facts he wants us to know by telling us.
  3. If we need to, we can easily supply a motivation for God by pointing out that the world largely presents a misleading appearance. God makes the world anew continually, as we say twice each day in davening. Clearly God makes the world in such a way that we cannot see the truth by observable evidence.
But couldn't you also use the "planted evidence" argument to say that the universe is 5 minutes old?

No, that's an inappropriate technique because it undermines all critical thinking. So you can't apply it arbitrarily. However, the "planted evidence" argument applies to the singular case of the Jewish date because it is a superior explanation, even superior to the scientific explanation! How? Try to follow this logic, folks:

The Jewish people have an independent source of evidence. Gottlieb doesn't discuss it in this lecture, but he references his other lectures on the historical verification of Torah (I'm sure that you've heard it all before). These proofs say that the world is 5766 years old. Claiming that a 14 billion year old age is a result of planted evidence fits the Torah explanation AND the scientific explanation (since science can't distinguish real from planted). But a purely scientific explanation cannot explain the 5766 date. That is, Torah can explain science's evidence, but science cannot explain Torah's evidence. Thus "5766 actual/14 billion planted" is a superior explanation! Q.E.D.

I had to listen to this section of the lecture a few times because I found it hard to believe that Gottlieb would resort to such convoluted logic. Of course, his biggest fallacy is in suggesting that the 5766 age is something that science needs to take seriously and somehow explain.

What I find most appalling is that Gottlieb never gives an inkling that there are other "Torah true" approaches. To my mind he is scraping the bottom of the kiruv barrel as he snares unsophisticated folks who will eventually give up their brains and adopt similar fundamentalist ideas.

By the way, the rest of the lecture is devoted to tired old arguments against evolution; someone really needs to bring this man up to date and send him a Kenneth R. Miller book.

Oh yes, you wouldn't know it from the logic that he uses in the lecture, but Rabbi Gottlieb has a Ph.D. in mathematical logic from Brandeis University.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Einstein - The Secret Weapon Against Assimilation?

As if developing the special and general theories of relativity, winning a Nobel Prize, and making numerous other major contributions to the field of physics weren't enough, Albert Einstein is now the secret weapon for combating assimilation!

The following is a short excerpt from the Fall 2008 issue of Jewish Action.
OU President Steven Savitsky: One of the greatest problems facing Jewry is intermarriage. What do you think can be done to stem the tide of assimilation?

Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman: There’s another aspect of this issue that we’re not touching on. And that is, How do we talk to our children about the problem of intermarriage? In other words, to simply say that we will not grant legitimacy is not sufficient. We have to instill in our children a love for Judaism. We have to create a sense of emotional relationship [to Judaism], of pride and joy. We have to talk to them not only about Jewish tradition, but about great Jews who brought credit to us. We have to talk to them about an Albert Einstein, a Jew who brought great glory to our people.

Frum Heretic's response: Rabbi Klaperman, you do know that Albert Einstein did not believe in a personal God, the God of the Jews, don't you? Perhaps you should read Albert's 1954 letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind, which has some quite acerbic words to say about Judaism:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this... For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them. [excerpt]

Did you also know, Rabbi, that Einstein's first wife, Miliva Maric, was Catholic? That Einstein got her pregnant before they were married and they divorced because Einstein committed adultery with his cousin, Elsa? That after marrying Elsa he had several extramarital affairs?

Is this your ideal of a Jew that can help stem the problem of intermarriage and assimilation?