Monday, June 30, 2008

What Should We (and You) Read?

What books would you recommend we read that address the specific topics of this blog?

I've complied a list of general categories and books and articles within each category. Please suggest more books and articles in the comments, as well as more categories. I'll try to update this list from the comments to keep it current, although I might not add every book. These are in no particular order, and I've probably left off a bunch of important ones. I have not read all of these, and there's no guarantee I will. But a list is a good place to start.

General Approaches to Judaism.
- Julius Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism
- Martin Buber, I-Thou
- Franz Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption
- Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings (Diane would kill me if I left this one off)
- Arnold Eisen, Rethinking Modern Judaism
- Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity
- Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion
- Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man
- Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, The Jewish Book of Values

Orthodox Thought
- SR Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters
- SR Hirsch, Horeb
- Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed (S. Pines translation, with Leo Strauss's introduction)
- Luzzato, Path of the Just
- Yehuda Halevi, The Kuzari

Conservative Thought
- Mordecai Waxman, Tradition and Change
- Elliot Dorff, Our Ancestors to Our Descendents
- Elliot Dorff, The Unfolding Tradition: Jewish Law After Sinai
- Elliot Dorff, Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants
- Elliot Dorff, Knowing God: Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable
- Arnold Eisen, Taking Hold of Torah

Reform Thought
- Eugene Borowitz, Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew.
- Gunther Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism

Reconstructionist Thought
- Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization
- Harold Schulweis, For Those Who Can't Believe : Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith

Bible Criticism
- Richard E. Friedman, The Bible With Sources Revealed
- Richard E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?
- Jame Kugel, How to Read the Bible
- Alexander Rofe, Introduction to Composition of the Pentateuch (recommended by Little Foxling)
- S.R. Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (recommended by Little Foxling)
- William Schneidewind, How the Bible Became a Book
- Emmanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible
- Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament

Responses to Bible Criticism
- David Weiss HaLivni, Revelation Restored: Divine Writ And Critical Responses
- Yitzhak Etshalom, Between the Lines of the Bible
- Louis Jacobs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt
- Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe


Amidah - Building Jerusalem and Restoring the Divine Presence to Zion

The Amidah contains two apparently redundant blessings: blessing God for "building Jerusalem" and blessing God for "restoring the Divine Presence to Zion". These both seem to refer to the messiah, and one of them seems redundant.

But the modern state of Israel points out the difference between the two blessings. We have built Jerusalem. It's a hoppin' place. But there is still much unholiness: Jews fighting with Arabs, Jews fighting with Jews, and political scandals, just to mention a few problems that seem omnipresent. We have built Jerusalem, but we could use a little more Divine Presence there as well.


Monday, June 23, 2008

The Documentary Hypothesis, Torah Min Hashamayim, and Bayes' Theorem - The Implications

Now for the qualitative implications of Bayes' Theorem to TMS / DH debate. Bayes' Theorem starts with an initial probability (or a probability estimate) prior to any information. It then shifts this initial probability as new information comes out that is either more consistent or less consistent with each of the two theories. There are at least five implications for the TMH/ DH debate.

First of all, Bayes' Theorem requires an initial probability estimate. In the example above, we could make the assumption that 50% of the jars were Type Y jars. But there's no good way to make any estimate in the TMH / DH debate. Some people might start with the initial premise that it is highly likely that there is a God and that He would want to give a set of instructions to people. They would start with the premise that the probability that TMS is true is very high. Others would think it is highly likely that there is no God and, if there were, He already gave sufficient guidance through natural law and reason, and so there is no need for Him to do so by some divine revelation. These people would the premise that the probability that TMS is true is very small.

One implication of this is consistent with what we see on both sides of this debate. As proponents of one theory present what they think is a pretty compelling argument, the other side responds with a bored yawn. "That may be fascinating, but I just don't see that that gets you very far." But the proponents disagree and think the argument is brilliant and airtight and proves their theory is correct. Neither side understands how the other can either miss the power of their airtight argument or make such a silly argument. The explanation for this breakdown in communications may lie in Bayes' theorem.

The argument might in fact be quite good. But the opponents are starting with a very low estimate of the prior odds. Consequently, this very good argument does not shift the odds that much. Or alternatively, the argument might not be that good. The proponents think it is great because their estimate of their theory being correct is very hight. But their odds started off high in the first place. In either case, Bayes' theorem explains the frequently observed result of debates in this area: a frustrating sense that the other guy just does not get it.

The second implication of Bayes theorem is that it points us to what sort of arguments should be convincing. A convincing argument is one where the following condition holds: the probability of the new fact being true given that one theory is true is greater than the probability of the fact being true given that the other theory is true. The focus has to be on relative probabilities here, not absolute probabilities.

Here's a real example of this problem. I once mentioned to an Orthodox friend that many other ancient cultures had flood stories similar to the Biblical flood, and the Gilgamesh story is remarkably similar to Noah's flood story. To me, this seemed like a good argument supporting the claim that the Biblical flood story was derived from these other stories. My friend argued that this cuts the other way: this independent corroboration supports the historicity of the flood story.

It took me a while to unpack this exchange, but Bayes' theorem provided the key. My argument, more fully expressed, was that if you assume the DH is true, then it is not surprising (that is, there is a high probability) that there are actual ancient sources for the various Biblical stories and that there is some chance that we can actually find some of these. And we did. That argument is right, as far as it goes. My friend's point was that if you assume TMH is true, then it is not surprising (that is, there is a high probability) that there is independent corroboration of these historical stories. And that is right also, as far as it goes. But both of us were looking at only half of the problem.

The way to advance this argument is to look to relative probabilities, not absolute probabilities. That is, we each need to find facts that are more consistent with our theory and less consistent with the other theory. For example, as many have argued — including most recently James Kugel in How to Read the Bible — some of the literary aspects of the Gilgamesh story are virtually identical to the Noah story. This is pretty likely if one was copied from the other, but it is pretty unlikely if these are two independent literary witnesses to the same historical event thousands of years earlier. I don't mean to start a debate on the flood here (plenty of time for that later), but my point here is simply that Bayes' theorem points us to this type of argument.

Of course, these arguments are qualitative, not quantitative. We cannot estimate the actual probabilities of any of these things with any precision. Even a general estimate of likeliness is made all the more complicated by the fact that we just don't have any idea of the sort of book that God would write if He were to write a book. We just don't have a good data set there.

Third, there is no magic bullet or killer argument. Each argument is of the form "This is more likely to have occurred if Theory X is correct than if Theory X is not correct." And each argument like that just shifts the odds, either a lot or a little. The only argument-ending argument would be one where the odds of a particular thing happening is zero if Theory X is correct. (Suppose that Type Y jars also had one purple marble, but Type H jars did not. If you drew a purple marble, you would know for sure that you had a Type Y jar, regardless of anything else.)

Fourth, the only way to have a comprehensive understanding of this debate is to consider all the arguments together. You cannot just look at one draw of a marble. You need to look at all draws — all the yellow marbles and all the green marbles. And here, this is complicated. There are lots of different arguments covering lots of different areas. It is virtually impossible to master them all.

Fifth, ideas and terms like "burden of proof" and "presumption" have no place in this debate. These are legal terms that reflect policy decisions. They involve who needs to come forward with evidence, what we will believe (as a matter of policy) in the absence of evidence, and what happens if the weight or convincing force of the evidence is exactly equal. But there should be plenty of evidence and argument on both sides. And in the extremely unlikely event that the weight of the evidence is exactly equal, one should just get more evidence and argument.


The Documentary Hypothesis, Torah Min Hashamayim, and Bayes' Theorem - The Basics

There are two competing theories for the origins of the Torah: (1) Moses wrote it under God's guidance or dictation (often called "Torah from Heaven" or "Torah Min Hashamayim" or simply "TMH") and (2) multiple authors well after Moses' time wrote separate parts, and these were later compiled and edited into one document (the "Documentary Hypothesis" or "DH"). There are many arguments on all sides of this issue. (For what its worth, I think the DH is correct, and I will be examining the arguments for and against this in future posts. It is hard to beat the job that Little Foxling has done on his blog, although I will be approaching the problem from a slightly different perspective.)

But now I would like to focus on a logically prior issue: as we gather and consider evidence and arguments for and against each theory, how do we go about deciding which theory is correct? There's a lot of muddled thinking on this issue, and people recklessly throw around terms like "presumptions" and "burden of proof" here.

I think the answer lies in Bayes' Theorem, a well-known idea from probability theory. This theory tells us, in a rigorous way, how new information changes the relative probability of two separate and competing theories. And there are many implications of this theorem for the TMH / DH debate. For example, this theory explains why different people might reasonably reach different conclusions, even though they are looking at the same evidence and arguments.

The math is not that hard, although for these purposes the broader implications of Bayes' theorem are what's really important, not the technical mathematical ideas. After all, none of the TMS/DH claims can be given precise probability values. So if math isn't your "thing", don't worry. Skim the math, read the text, and you'll be fine.

Here's the basic problem Bayes' theorem addresses. Suppose you start with an initial estimate of the probability that a particular theory is true. Then you get new information that makes that theory more likely or less likely to be true. How does that effect your overall probability estimate?

The simplest example (and one used in just about every probability book) involves jars of colored marbles. So here goes. Suppose you have 100 (opaque and identical) jars filled with marbles. There are 50 "Type Y" jars (for "yellow") that have 90 yellow marbles and 10 green marbles. And there are 50 "Type "H" jars that have half-and-half: 50 green marbles and 50 yellow marbles.

Suppose you pick a jar at random. What is the probability you have a Type Y jar? That one shouldn't be too hard: 50%. (If you missed that one, you'll have to stay and clean the erasers.)

Now, here's the good part. You randomly pick one marble from your mystery jar (without looking inside), and it is a yellow marble. Great. 90% of the marbles in Type Y jars are yellow, but only 50% of the marbles in Type H jars are yellow. This new information --- your yellow marble --- is more consistent with a Type Y jar than a Type H jar. It is still possible you have an H jar, but it now seems more likely that you have a Y jar. How much did this new information shift your initial 50% chance of having a Y jar?

OK. Here comes the math. (Feel free to skim this part.) Here's Bayes' Theorem, with the explanation to follow.

P(A|B) = P(B|A) * P(A) / P(B)

P(something) means the probability of that something occurring.

A is the "prior event." In our example, it is "picking a Type Y jar" It is "prior" in the sense of not taking into account the later information.

B is the "posterior event." In our example, it is drawing out one yellow marble.

The vertical line | means "given that".

So this theorem in English says

The probability of prior even A given posterior event B is: the probability of B given A, times the probability of A, divided by the probability of B.

Lets see how this works out with our example.

P(A) is the prior or initial probability of getting a Type Y jar. That's 50% (That one is easy.)

P(B|A) is the probability of drawing out the yellow marble given that we picked a Type Y jar. That's easy too. There are 100 marbles in a Type Y jar, 90 of which are yellow. So it is 90%. Note that P(B|A) is the reverse of what we want to find, P(A|B). And that's where the power of Bayes' theorem comes in. We cannot easily figure out the latter, but we usually can figure out the former. Bayes' theorem tells us how to use the information we have to figure out what we don't have.

P(B) is the overall probability of drawing a yellow marble. Well, there are 10,000 marbles total (100 jars with 100 marbles each). Of those, 4,500 are yellow in Type Y jars (50 jars x 90 per jar), and 2,500 are yellow in Type H jars (50 jars x 50 per jar). So 7,000 of 10,000 marbles are yellow, and so P(B) = 70%.

Now, plugging all this in gives P(A|B) = (.9 * .5) / .7, which equals about 64.29%. Cool. We stated with a 50% chance of a Type Y jar, drew out one yellow marble, and now have a 64% chance of a Type Y jar.

Suppose we replaced the marble, shook the jar, drew a second marble, and it was yellow. The probability of 2 yellow marbles in a Type Y jar is 90% of 90% or 81%. But the probability of 2 yellow marbles in a Type H jar is 50% of 50%, or 25%. If we plug all this in, we get the probability of a Type Y jar given 2 yellow marbles is just over 76%. (I leave the math to the interested reader.)

So as we keep drawing marbles, the odds would continue to shift up or down, depending on whether we drew a yellow or green marble. As we draw lots of marbles, if our sample starts approaching 90% yellow, we become very likely to have picked a Type Y jar. And if our sample starts approaching 50% yellow, we become very likely to have picked a Type H jar.

Let me make one more quantitative observation. Suppose we start with a very unlikely initial probability estimate. To revise our example, suppose there are only 5 Type Y jars and 95 Type H jars. The initial odds are very small (only 5%) that we picked a Type Y jar. But if we keep drawing yellow marbles, those odds will go up dramatically and eventually get close to 100%.

I'll end this post here, and start the qualitative implications in the next post. Please comment in the next post only.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Doing The Right Thing

What matters most to me about Judaism (and religion in general) is how -- or, regrettably, in some cases, whether -- it empowers people to "do the right thing." Making better people and making people better is more important to me than abstract philosophical inquiry and speculation. To put it another way, I am much more interested in Jewish values than Jewish metaphysics.

One way to think about how Judaism makes me, or anyone, a better person, is to describe how Jewish values and practice operate as a sort of two-step process: 1) helping people to understand what the "right thing" is, and 2) helping people to actually DO the right thing once they know what it is.

When we think about the first step -- figuring out "right and wrong" -- Jewish law and wisdom is obviously encyclopedic and, in my opinion, Jewish values are remarkably subtle and penetrating. But there is a further distinction with regard to this first step that I find useful.

On one level, Jewish values identify ethical behavior in a variety of contexts that most people (read: most people I know, or know of, including non-Jews) would immediately identify as "ethically charged." That is, in situations where wide agreement prevails that there "is" an "ought to" -- sometimes very easy to identify, sometimes not so easy, and sometimes very difficult.

But on another level, Judaism expands the universe of normative ethics into contexts that I do not believe most people would find to be obviously a matter of ethics at all. By way of example, this might include being cheerful, not smoking, or observing kashrut. (I find the line between "ritual" and "ethical" mitzvot blurry at best.) So, Jewish values not only help provide the right "choice" in moral dilemmas (or where no dilemma presents itself -- people are rarely "torn" about whether to commit wanton murder); they also define the landscape of ethical human action to include many things that might not so obviously have a moral component. Insofar as we find these Jewish values important and worthwhile, this is a very good thing. Indeed, the farther we move away from the obviously ethical -- that is, those questions of human action where there is vast agreement of a moral component and vast agreement of the "right answer" -- the more important these values become as an agent for positive change in people and in the world.

Turning to the second step, Jewish practice provides a rigorous web for reinforcing and living these values. Jewish prayer is replete with admonitions that are designed not so much to teach us what the right thing is as to help us actually do it, if by no more subtle a method than putting certain obligations in the forefront of our mind. I agree wholeheartedly with non-religionists that one does not need God or religion, neither as a conceptual nor a practical matter, to know right from wrong or to do right and not wrong. But I also point out that it helps me a lot to regularly pray, "to honor father and mother," "to visit the sick," "to make peace where there is strife," "keep my tongue from evil and my lips from lies," "let me be humble in the presence of all," and so on.

In addition, the Jewish synagogue and the Jewish community obviously provide a communal structure for living Jewish values -- of tzedakah, of tikkun olam, of acts of loving kindness. Again, while these religious institutions are by no means the unique agent of reinforcing positive values and putting them into action, they have been doing quite a good job of this for quite a long time. And because these institutions are so integrated into the daily lives of their members, as individuals and as families, they can be more effective than most other civic and charitable organizations that promote similar values. (Naturally, as has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, there are also lots of other reasons for Jews to live a Jewish life and, correspondingly, affiliate with a synagogue.)

At the intersection of these two "steps" -- which are much more intertwined than this discussion implies -- is sensitivity. Speaking very personally, I see this process of moral education and reinforcement as a process of making me more sensitive to people and to doing the right thing. I can't possibly overstate the importance of this type of sensitivity. I know too many people who spend a lot of time thinking and debating about moral philosophy and political philosophy, but are not all that kind, or loving, or generous. They sometimes appear to be more interested in ideas than anything else. Of course, far more common, are people who simply do not have these values in the forefront of their mind or their behavior. This doesn't mean they are bad or evil people; in most cases, thankfully, it is quite to the contrary. But my personal experience has taught me that I become a better person -- a better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better boss, a better teacher -- when I keep these values vitally present in my mind and in my heart.

Finally, I want to stress that my discussion here is obviously personal, and furthermore focused on personal ethics -- that is, how I conduct myself in my interpersonal relationships (not merely with friends and intimates, but with all other people). I have completely ignored a set of questions raised in other threads about how to demonstrate or "prove" that these Jewish values are good, and on what basis they might be "enforced" on others. ("How do we convince the would-be murderer that he's wrong and we're right, and on what moral authority do we restrain or punish him?") As has been debated in these other threads, I believe questions of how governments or other rule-making authorities -- who can promulgate and enforce values as laws -- function ethically or morally ("legitimately" might be more apt) is a different (albeit related) matter. Questions of how these governments relate ethically or morally to each other on the international stage is still another step removed. I plan to address these matters in a future post.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Jew's Reaction To Bertrand Russell's 'Why I Am Not A Christian'

Bertrand Russell's 1927 essay, "Why I Am Not A Christian," is a little masterpiece of secular philosophy and tongue-in-cheek rationalism. It is also thought-provoking for a Jew serious about both philosophy and religion.

Here is the essay. My comments follow.

Why I Am Not A Christian
by Bertrand Russell

Introductory note: Russell delivered this lecture on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall. Published in pamphlet form in that same year, the essay subsequently achieved new fame with Paul Edwards' edition of Russell's book, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays ... (1957).

As your Chairman has told you, the subject about which I am going to speak to you tonight is "Why I Am Not a Christian." Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, if only because it would imply that all the people who are not Christians -- all the Buddhists, Confucians, Mohammedans, and so on -- are not trying to live a good life. I do not mean by a Christian any person who tries to live decently according to his lights. I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.

What Is a Christian?

Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature -- namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. The Mohammedans, for instance, also believe in God and in immortality, and yet they would not call themselves Christians. I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian. Of course, there is another sense, which you find in Whitaker's Almanack and in geography books, where the population of the world is said to be divided into Christians, Mohammedans, Buddhists, fetish worshipers, and so on; and in that sense we are all Christians. The geography books count us all in, but that is a purely geographical sense, which I suppose we can ignore.Therefore I take it that when I tell you why I am not a Christian I have to tell you two different things: first, why I do not believe in God and in immortality; and, secondly, why I do not think that Christ was the best and wisest of men, although I grant him a very high degree of moral goodness.

But for the successful efforts of unbelievers in the past, I could not take so elastic a definition of Christianity as that. As I said before, in olden days it had a much more full-blooded sense. For instance, it included he belief in hell. Belief in eternal hell-fire was an essential item of Christian belief until pretty recent times. In this country, as you know, it ceased to be an essential item because of a decision of the Privy Council, and from that decision the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York dissented; but in this country our religion is settled by Act of Parliament, and therefore the Privy Council was able to override their Graces and hell was no longer necessary to a Christian. Consequently I shall not insist that a Christian must believe in hell.

The Existence of God

To come to this question of the existence of God: it is a large and serious question, and if I were to attempt to deal with it in any adequate manner I should have to keep you here until Kingdom Come, so that you will have to excuse me if I deal with it in a somewhat summary fashion. You know, of course, that the Catholic Church has laid it down as a dogma that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason. That is a somewhat curious dogma, but it is one of their dogmas. They had to introduce it because at one time the freethinkers adopted the habit of saying that there were such and such arguments which mere reason might urge against the existence of God, but of course they knew as a matter of faith that God did exist. The arguments and the reasons were set out at great length, and the Catholic Church felt that they must stop it. Therefore they laid it down that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason and they had to set up what they considered were arguments to prove it. There are, of course, a number of them, but I shall take only a few.

The First-cause Argument

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. (It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God.) That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

The Natural-law Argument

Then there is a very common argument from natural law. That was a favorite argument all through the eighteenth century, especially under the influence of Sir Isaac Newton and his cosmogony. People observed the planets going around the sun according to the law of gravitation, and they thought that God had given a behest to these planets to move in that particular fashion, and that was why they did so. That was, of course, a convenient and simple explanation that saved them the trouble of looking any further for explanations of the law of gravitation. Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced. I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein, because that again would take some time; at any rate, you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion. We now find that a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depths of stellar space there are still three feet to a yard. That is, no doubt, a very remarkable fact, but you would hardly call it a law of nature. And a great many things that have been regarded as laws of nature are of that kind. On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was. Quite apart from that, which represents the momentary state of science that may change tomorrow, the whole idea that natural laws imply a lawgiver is due to a confusion between natural and human laws. Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way, in which you may choose to behave, or you may choose not to behave; but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave, and being a mere description of what they in fact do, you cannot argue that there must be somebody who told them to do that, because even supposing that there were, you are then faced with the question "Why did God issue just those natural laws and no others?" If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of natural law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others -- the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it -- if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary. You really have a law outside and anterior to the divine edicts, and God does not serve your purpose, because he is not the ultimate lawgiver. In short, this whole argument about natural law no longer has anything like the strength that it used to have. I am traveling on in time in my review of the arguments. The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.

The Argument from Design

The next step in the process brings us to the argument from design. You all know the argument from design: everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different, we could not manage to live in it. That is the argument from design. It sometimes takes a rather curious form; for instance, it is argued that rabbits have white tails in order to be easy to shoot. I do not know how rabbits would view that application. It is an easy argument to parody. You all know Voltaire's remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles. That sort of parody has turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed in the eighteenth century, because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation. There is no evidence of design about it.

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists? Moreover, if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending -- something dead, cold, and lifeless.

I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out -- at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation -- it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.

The Moral Arguments for Deity

Now we reach one stage further in what I shall call the intellectual descent that the Theists have made in their argumentations, and we come to what are called the moral arguments for the existence of God. You all know, of course, that there used to be in the old days three intellectual arguments for the existence of God, all of which were disposed of by Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason; but no sooner had he disposed of those arguments than he invented a new one, a moral argument, and that quite convinced him. He was like many people: in intellectual matters he was skeptical, but in moral matters he believed implicitly in the maxims that he had imbibed at his mother's knee. That illustrates what the psychoanalysts so much emphasize -- the immensely stronger hold upon us that our very early associations have than those of later times.

Kant, as I say, invented a new moral argument for the existence of God, and that in varying forms was extremely popular during the nineteenth century. It has all sorts of forms. One form is to say there would be no right or wrong unless God existed. I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question. The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation: Is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God's fiat, because God's fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God. You could, of course, if you liked, say that there was a superior deity who gave orders to the God that made this world, or could take up the line that some of the gnostics took up -- a line which I often thought was a very plausible one -- that as a matter of fact this world that we know was made by the devil at a moment when God was not looking. There is a good deal to be said for that, and I am not concerned to refute it.

The Argument for the Remedying of Injustice

Then there is another very curious form of moral argument, which is this: they say that the existence of God is required in order to bring justice into the world. In the part of this universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper, and one hardly knows which of those is the more annoying; but if you are going to have justice in the universe as a whole you have to suppose a future life to redress the balance of life here on earth. So they say that there must be a God, and there must be Heaven and Hell in order that in the long run there may be justice. That is a very curious argument. If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say, "After all, I only know this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also." Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue, "The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance." You would say, "Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment"; and that is really what a scientific person would argue about the universe. He would say, "Here we find in this world a great deal of injustice, and so far as that goes that is a reason for supposing that justice does not rule in the world; and therefore so far as it goes it affords a moral argument against deity and not in favor of one." Of course I know that the sort of intellectual arguments that I have been talking to you about are not what really moves people. What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason.

Then I think that the next most powerful reason is the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people's desire for a belief in God.

The Character of Christ

I now want to say a few words upon a topic which I often think is not quite sufficiently dealt with by Rationalists, and that is the question whether Christ was the best and the wisest of men. It is generally taken for granted that we should all agree that that was so. I do not myself. I think that there are a good many points upon which I agree with Christ a great deal more than the professing Christians do. I do not know that I could go with Him all the way, but I could go with Him much further than most professing Christians can. You will remember that He said, "Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." That is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-tse and Buddha some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle which as a matter of fact Christians accept. I have no doubt that the present prime minister [Stanley Baldwin], for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on one cheek. I think you might find that he thought this text was intended in a figurative sense.

Then there is another point which I consider excellent. You will remember that Christ said, "Judge not lest ye be judged." That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries. I have known in my time quite a number of judges who were very earnest Christians, and none of them felt that they were acting contrary to Christian principles in what they did. Then Christ says, "Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away." That is a very good principle. Your Chairman has reminded you that we are not here to talk politics, but I cannot help observing that the last general election was fought on the question of how desirable it was to turn away from him that would borrow of thee, so that one must assume that the Liberals and Conservatives of this country are composed of people who do not agree with the teaching of Christ, because they certainly did very emphatically turn away on that occasion.

Then there is one other maxim of Christ which I think has a great deal in it, but I do not find that it is very popular among some of our Christian friends. He says, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor." That is a very excellent maxim, but, as I say, it is not much practised. All these, I think, are good maxims, although they are a little difficult to live up to. I do not profess to live up to them myself; but then, after all, it is not quite the same thing as for a Christian.

Defects in Christ's Teaching

Having granted the excellence of these maxims, I come to certain points in which I do not believe that one can grant either the superlative wisdom or the superlative goodness of Christ as depicted in the Gospels; and here I may say that one is not concerned with the historical question. Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one. I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance, "Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come." Then he says, "There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom"; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. When He said, "Take no thought for the morrow," and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count. I have, as a matter of fact, known some Christians who did believe that the second coming was imminent. I knew a parson who frightened his congregation terribly by telling them that the second coming was very imminent indeed, but they were much consoled when they found that he was planting trees in his garden. The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent. In that respect, clearly He was not so wise as some other people have been, and He was certainly not superlatively wise.

The Moral Problem

Then you come to moral questions. There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching -- an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation. You probably all remember the sorts of things that Socrates was saying when he was dying, and the sort of things that he generally did say to people who did not agree with him.

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell." That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: "Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come." That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.

Then Christ says, "The Son of Man shall send forth his His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth"; and He goes on about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It comes in one verse after another, and it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often. Then you all, of course, remember about the sheep and the goats; how at the second coming He is going to divide the sheep from the goats, and He is going to say to the goats, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire." He continues, "And these shall go away into everlasting fire." Then He says again, "If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched." He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him asHis chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.

There are other things of less importance. There is the instance of the Gadarene swine, where it certainly was not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill into the sea. You must remember that He was omnipotent, and He could have made the devils simply go away; but He chose to send them into the pigs. Then there is the curious story of the fig tree, which always rather puzzled me. You remember what happened about the fig tree. "He was hungry; and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came if haply He might find anything thereon; and when He came to it He found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it: 'No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever' . . . and Peter . . . saith unto Him: 'Master, behold the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.'" This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.

The Emotional Factor

As I said before, I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds. One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it. You know, of course, the parody of that argument in Samuel Butler's book, Erewhon Revisited. You will remember that in Erewhon there is a certain Higgs who arrives in a remote country, and after spending some time there he escapes from that country in a balloon. Twenty years later he comes back to that country and finds a new religion in which he is worshiped under the name of the "Sun Child," and it is said that he ascended into heaven. He finds that the Feast of the Ascension is about to be celebrated, and he hears Professors Hanky and Panky say to each other that they never set eyes on the man Higgs, and they hope they never will; but they are the high priests of the religion of the Sun Child. He is very indignant, and he comes up to them, and he says, "I am going to expose all this humbug and tell the people of Erewhon that it was only I, the man Higgs, and I went up in a balloon." He was told, "You must not do that, because all the morals of this country are bound round this myth, and if they once know that you did not ascend into Heaven they will all become wicked"; and so he is persuaded of that and he goes quietly away.

That is the idea -- that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with all its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.

How the Churches Have Retarded Progress

You may think that I am going too far when I say that that is still so. I do not think that I am. Take one fact. You will bear with me if I mention it. It is not a pleasant fact, but the churches compel one to mention facts that are not pleasant. Supposing that in this world that we live in today an inexperienced girl is married to a syphilitic man; in that case the Catholic Church says, "This is an indissoluble sacrament. You must endure celibacy or stay together. And if you stay together, you must not use birth control to prevent the birth of syphilitic children." Nobody whose natural sympathies have not been warped by dogma, or whose moral nature was not absolutely dead to all sense of suffering, could maintain that it is right and proper that that state of things should continue.

That is only an example. There are a great many ways in which, at the present moment, the church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering. And of course, as we know, it is in its major part an opponent still of progress and improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world, because it has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness; and when you say that this or that ought to be done because it would make for human happiness, they think that has nothing to do with the matter at all. "What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy."

Fear, the Foundation of Religion

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.

What We Must Do

We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world -- its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.

Electronic colophon: This electronic edition of "Why I Am Not a Christian" was first made available by Bruce MacLeod on his "Watchful Eye Russell Page." It was newly corrected (from Edwards, NY 1957) in July 1996 by John R. Lenz for the Bertrand Russell Society.

My Comments

Russell’s essay, for all its good humor, suffers from some argumentative fallacies of its own. Take, for example, the “crate of oranges” example. It is only sensible to conclude that the whole consignment is rotten, if, in fact, one already has reason to believe the top layer is typical. But do we have reason to believe that the injustice in our corner of the universe is typical? I would think that the very vastness of the universe uncovered by science forces at least agnosticism on that question.

Russell is also critical – and perhaps rightly so – of the religious impulse as a desire for a “big brother watching out” for one. That many people have such a desire is beyond question. But (totally apart from whether the Jewish God is anyone’s “big brother”), the observation that a state of affairs would fulfill our desires, is no more an argument against it, than it is an argument for it. Wanting there to be ice cream in the freezer makes it neither more nor less like that there is ice cream in the freezer. For one who already believes in God, that we may have divinely-implanted desires for God, for justice, for faith itself, is not hard to understand. But even to the committed secularist or rationalist, such desires must be at worst irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the state of affairs at which they aim.

As do many anti-religionists, Russell also conflates what we might consider an epistemology of religious belief, with an etiology of it. The study of how and why people come to acquire particular religious beliefs (in which early upbringing and culture surely loom large), can and should be distinguished from whether such beliefs are warranted, and in what that warrant consists. Most people around here believe the earth is round and that it orbits the sun because they were told so, early in life, and are surrounded by a culture of people who believe so – but that is not what makes it the case that the earth is round and orbits the sun.

Russell begins his essay by defining the Christianity he doesn’t believe in. Russell strips Christianity down to a desiccated minimum – belief in God, immortality, and that Jesus was “the best and wisest of men” (not even necessarily divine). And even that far, he is unwilling to go – hence, he is not a Christian. An interesting exercise indirectly prompted by Russell’s essay is to try to articulate an ineliminable minimum which one must believe in order to be a Jew, religiously speaking. (Because Judaism has such a strong ethnic and cultural component, I will readily concede that one need not believe any particular thing to “be” a Jew simpliciter.)

Here is my first tentative approximation to the minimum one must endorse to be a Jew, religiously speaking: that the Torah and Talmud mark out a distinctive way of being for the Jewish people, and that that way of being in some way calls out to (or even binds) me.

Too much? Too little? Too obscure? Not enough God and Moses? Please comment!


Friday, June 13, 2008

The Maximum of the Minimum

Judaism focuses both on practice and belief, and the two are related in many interesting ways. One question that is interesting and helpful, if only in a heuristic way, is what Jewish practices ought a Jew to keep if that Jew believes none, or perhaps almost none, of the traditional Jewish beliefs. That is, suppose one does not believe in any sort of God and believes that the Torah was written long after Moses and was not divinely inspired. What sort of Jewish practices should this person keep and why? In other words, what is a plausible maximum set of Jewish practices, given a minimum set of Jewish beliefs?

I contend that the set of Jewish practices this Jewish non-believer should keep is fairly large. It includes obvious ethical rules (don't steal) although probably for different reasons. It also includes let obvious ethical rule and, surprisingly enough, many of the rituals. Explaining why is complicated, but I will ask and try to answer this question in future posts covering particular practices.

This is obviously an important question for people with such beliefs. But it is also an important question, even for the most traditional Jews. This question focuses us on what is important to us in a very this-worldly sense. Traditional Jews might wrap tefillin, for example, because God said to do so. But less traditional Jews might do so because it is meaningful to them. Liberal Jews have a greater need to find such meaning, and more traditional Jews might find some important value and insights into what they have come up with. Or more traditional Jews might benefit from simply asking the question themselves: other than obeying a divine command, what specifically am I getting out of this? Answering that question can only make wrapping tefillin, and doing any other ritual, more important and meaningful.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Virgin is Married on A Wednesday

A French court in April annulled a marriage between two French Muslims because the bride had lied to the groom about being a virgin. This ruling raises lots of interesting religious, political, social, and legal questions, and I would like to ignore all of them. (Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy has a short analysis that basically seems right.) Instead, I'd like to focus on a very similar provision in the Talmud and its surprising evolution between the Mishnah (about 200 CE) and the Gemara (about 500 CE).

In traditional Jewish law, there is no requirement that a bride be a virgin. And many of the particular rules (including the following one) have been relaxed or modified in later times. But the Talmud makes a distinction between when a virgin and non-virgin are married and for an odd reason.

The first Mishnah in Ketubot (or Kesubos, depending on who your friends are) is "A virgin in married on a Wednesday, and a widow on a Thursday." (Ket. 2a.) The Mishnah explains that since courts met on Mondays and Thursday, if the groom had an issue about his bride's virginity, he could immediately go to court the following morning. This raises a zillion issues, and the Gemara jumps right in.

One practical problem is how does the groom know that his wife is not a virgin? The Talmud suggests two possibilities (and sorry for the explicit language here): if the groom finds that his wife has an "open opening" (a petach patuach) or finds the absence of blood, these suggest a lack of virginity. (Ket. 9b.) Note that neither test is all that reliable, and there is the practical question of how the groom has acquired such expertise in both the openness of openings and in hematology.

The Gemara then recounts a series of six stories involving a husband challenging or questioning or doubting his wife's virginity. (Ket 10a - 10b.)

In the first story, a groom comes to R. Nachman and says that he found an "open opening". Without hearing anything further, R. Nachman immediately order that the groom be lashed with palm branches because he must have visited prostitutes to have known this. (Ket. 10a.)

What a surprising twist. The groom's underlying complaint is completely ignored. R. Nachman changes the subject from the bride's virginity to the groom's conduct and summarily punishes him. No hearing and no evidence. Not even the opportunity for the groom to explain. Just immediate lashes.

In the second story, R. Gamliel explains that the complaining groom is probably mistaken and entered at the wrong angle. (Ket. 10a.) This is followed by two analogies to entering at an angle. Again, the rabbi hears no evidence; he simply throws obstacles in the way of the complaining groom.

And so it goes, through all six stories. (My favorite: the wine-barrel test. You can look that one up. Suffice it to say that there is no way that the wise R. Gamliel bar Rebbi could have believed that the test would provide any useful information.) In all six stories, the groom's complaint is ignored, dismissed, or rejected, often on pretty shaky grounds.

What is going on here?

A little legal realism goes a long way here. The Gemara rabbis are simply doing justice, not following the strict letter of the law.

Under the strict letter of the law, the groom has marched into court with a plausible complaint, just as the Mishnah says he should. He might prevail or he might not, but like anyone with a plausible complaint, he is entitled to his day in court.

But the practical aspects of the story are much bigger. The two "tests" for virginity are not very reliable. And a wedding night, especially for a younger and inexperienced groom, is a highly confusing and emotional time. The groom might have had unrealistic macho expectations about what it was all about. He might have been terrified and not known what to expect. He might have had too much to drink at the wedding. There are lots of reasons to want to keep this groom out of court.

The consequences of erroneously believing the groom would often be devastating on the wife: an immediate divorce and a blackened name. And the consequences of erroneously believing the wife's claim that she was a virgin would be considerably smaller: a continuing marriage between two people who, at least until the night before, wanted to be married. All in all, there is no great practical reason to let these cases into court. But we have the explicit statement in the Mishnah that the reason a virgin is married on a Wednesday is precisely to allow the groom to come into court on Thursday if he finds, or thinks he finds, a problem.

The rabbis could not change the Mishnah. But they could circumvent it, at least within some broad parameters. And as these six stories show, they did exactly that.

One quick comparison with American law. American law has a built-in mechanism for evolving in the face of problems or changed circumstances: we can amend statutes and overturn cases. Accordingly, there is little or no reason for American judges to engage in creative interpretation to avoid a problematic law.

But halacha lacks such a mechanism for change. In fact, numerous interpretive rules make change even more difficult that it otherwise would be. This makes sense if the written and oral law were literally given by God and the earlier sages were on a higher spiritual plane than later ones. But if this is not the case, then employing these rules will, over time, simply ossify bad or outdated laws.

The rabbis of the Gemara realized this problem, at least in some extreme cases. And they were willing to be flexible where they needed to be. It might be that liberal Judaism, and specifically Conservative Judaism, with its greater flexibility towards changing halacha, is the true ideological heir to the Talmud.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Current Posting Plan

So far, my posts have been on broader themes or ideas. I plan to continue with this for a while. But I will start including posts on more particular ideas, such as God, prayer and especially the amidah, and tefillin. And I've got a doozy parshah idea towards the end of Numbers. And I'll be including some reflections on some recent books I've read. I think my thoughts on omer counting will have to wait until next year.

Steve and Diane have a few posts planned as well. So stick around.


Mix and Match

One issue that often arises in liberal Judaism (and arose in an earlier comment) is why should a Jew be limited to just Jewish practices and idea. Lots of people have good ideas. And if the mitzvot are not literally commanded by God, then why not adopt these other good ideas too. Christmas and Easter are pleasant, even for Jews, and especially if one is not too literal. But why stop there? Celebrate Kwanzaa, meditate with the Buddhists, get married with Sufi wedding rituals, adopt a Kantian ethic (or Aristotelian, or Ayn-Randian), study Talmud, and be a citizen of the world.

There are many responses to this question, lots of them unpersuasive. But there are at least three that I have found compelling, and one reason for actually adopting at least some non-Jewish practices or beliefs.

First, it is not so easy to mix and match like this. There is not that much play in the joints. Beliefs and rituals and holidays do not exist in isolation; they are part of a larger coherent (or at least largely coherent) system. And many practices work well together, but do not work well with other practices, even though those other practices work well together. Ice cream is good and sauerkraut is good, but ice cream and sauerkraut together are not good. You are better off just picking one.

In Judaism, there is a tight linkage, for example, between the Torah, the holidays, and the Jewish people. The story of Passover is told in the Torah. It is about the Jewish people being liberated from slavery. The actual commandments to celebrate Passover are in the Torah. We eat matzah on Passover, as commanded in the Torah, to remind us of our Jewish ancestors (not just someone in general) who did the same thing.

In Christianity, Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died for everyone's sins, and by adopting Jesus as our personal savior, we can be saved.

These are two very different belief systems, and while they don't literally contradict each other, they just don't fit together all that well. They reflect different ideas of redemption, different views of the relative importance of this world and the next world, and different fundamental approaches to behavior and belief. Jews look to Jewish history or myths or culture and use these to reflect broader universal themes. Christians look to universal themes themselves, and Jesus is a model of universal values. The question "What would Jesus do?" has no real analogue in Judaism. Jews look to laws and rules; Christians to broader ideas of love and sacrifice. Much can be said about all this, but my purpose here is not to discuss the particulars in any detail, although I do have to concede that bunnies and chocolate and candy beat the heck out of plagues and bitter herbs and matzah. My purpose here is simply to note that these two belief systems and these two holidays reflect different ways of thinking about, and participating in, life. Not really contradictory ways, but ice cream and sauerkraut are not contradictory either. They just don't blend well.

The second reason for avoiding a free-for-all mix-and-match is that Jewish practices are after all Jewish practices. They are ours. I love my wife and kids, and I like my house a lot. Other people have wonderful wives, kids, and houses. But mine are mine, and theirs are theirs. I can appreciate theirs, but I do not want to marry their wives, adopt their kids, and move into their house. (Well, actually, some houses are a closer call.) Part of the reason is that the value of my relationship with, and love for, my wife and kids is based on my prior experiences with them. My wife and kids are really and actually part of me. And as I build and expand on those relationships and experiences, they becomes even more a part of me. And to a lesser degree, my relationship with my house, a physical object, works the same way. It is a special place because of the specialness that my family and I have created here. Other houses might be great, but ours is special to us.

The same is true of Judaism. The value of Passover, to continue the analogy, is my decades of experience with Passovers. And my family's and community's experience, and my ancestors' experience, and my descendants' expected experiences. I am linked to all of this, and it is part of who I am. And Easter is simply not. So as much as I like the bunnies and chocolate, I'll stick with the bitter herbs and matzah.

The third reason is closely related to the second: it helps builds communities. My family, Jewish friends, and members of my synagogue celebrate Passover. We can invite them over, share stories, discuss what went right and wrong with the seder, offer suggestions on how to make it more meaningful, and in the process grow closer. If they doing something else, this would be lost.

The bottom line is that we do not write on a blank slate. We have strong connections specifically to Jewish practices and ideas. It is not all that easy, and often not very desirable, to sever that connection and link up with some other practices or ideas.

But none of these arguments completely preclude other ideas or practices from influencing or being incorporated into Judaism. There are many non-Jewish practices or ideas that complement Judaism nicely or even warrant modifications to Jewish practices or idea, and Judaism has always been influenced by such ideas and practices. The Passover seder is based on a Greek symposium. Maimonides drew heavily on Muslim Arab philosophers and Aristotle. And today, American Jews have elevated the importance of the otherwise minor rabbinic holiday of Channukah, largely oblivious to the irony of partially assimilating with a holiday that celebrates zealously not assimilating.

It is not clear what exactly distinguishes practices that should be adopted from practices that should not. But a few factors come to mind. The new practices that were incorporated into Judaism occurred gradually, were adopted by entire communities not just individuals, and did not conflict with existing ideas of Judaism. (Maimonides' view did sharply conflict, but he eventually won the battle.) This is a far cry from individuals simply picking the practices or beliefs that they find appealing from all of the world's religious and secular culture.