Thursday, August 21, 2008


The three of us are on vacation for a week (albeit to separate places), and so is our posting. But I'm working my way through Exodus for the TMH/DH project, and I've started a post on interdenominational switching. So check in next week.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah

Just when you thought it couldn't get any better. The Three Jews will be one of the permanent bloggers at Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. This blog is devoted to reading and blogging about Chaim Nahman Bialik's book "Sefer HaAggadah." The book, written in Hebrew 100 years ago (and fortunately now in translation), is a collection of classical midrashim and aggadot. Our fearless blogmeister, Ben Dreyfus, has posted a schedule with short readings each day. It will take about two years to get through the whole book.

Ben also put together six "teams" of two or three people each to blog about the daily reading. At least one member of each team will blog at least one day per week, although we all may post on other days as well. The Three Jews will be blogging on Sundays. The teams come from all sorts of backgrounds, and there will definitely be widely disparate viewpoints represented.

This should be an interesting and fun way to read and review and comment on lots of classical midrashim. So pick up the book, subscribe to the blog feed, and leave some comments there as well.


Monday, August 11, 2008

God - Part 2. Refocusing the Question, not Redefining the Terms.

My last post on God was unclear on at least one issue, and others picked up on this. Larry King in a comment noted that I could be arguing either (1) that one should focus on the godliness aspect of God, or (2) that God can be redefined as the sources of Godliness. Similarly, Freethinking Upstart argued that I was simply redefining God and this language game was not very helpful.

I am not redefining God; I am simply focusing on a different question than most theists and atheists.

Theists and atheists disagree over whether God exists. This is a purely supernatural debate. I don't think either side is capable of rigorous and compelling proof, and I am agnostic on this issue. But this debate does not have much immediate practical impact. One can believe or not believe that a supernatural being exists. But the practical question that follows, at least for Jews, is how does this effect one's actions and one's involvement with Judaism?

Many atheists I know argue that if there is no God, then there is no reason to have any serious level of Jewish practice or belief. One can be culturally Jewish (throw in a yiddish phrase here and there, eat bagels, support Israel, vote Democratic : )) and do pleasant religious things (light candles on Hanukkah, or have dinner with friends on Friday night) but that's about it. My contention is that even if a Jew is a firm and convinced atheist, that Jew should still have a robust Jewish religious life. I get there not by redefining God, but by focusing on a different question.

Most decent people (including theists and atheists) agree that godliness is a real attribute and is good. Theists argue that godliness consists of acting as God Himself would act and that God exists. Atheists argue that godliness is acting as God Himself would act if He existed, but He doesn't exist. But in either case, most everyone would agree that helping someone who needs help, being kind, and honoring your parents are all acts of godliness.

My claim is that this is sufficient for a robust and meaningful Judaism. Not Orthodoxy, but perhaps a lot closer to Orthopraxy in many areas of practice than most people would initially believe. (Of course, at this point I have simply asserted this, not shown it. That will be the subject of many upcoming posts.)

My point is not that we should redefine God this way. This godliness aspect of God is PART of traditional Judaism. For example, in Exodus, Moses could not see God's face, but could only see God's back. (The rest of us cannot even do that.) Maimonides explains that Moses could not perceive God intimately, and we certainly cannot do so. We cannot know or perceive God directly, the way we know and perceive rocks and trees and friends. Instead, we must know God through acts or the natural world.

"The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork" (Psalms 19:2.) That is, we can see the glory of God through his created world.

There are numerous other examples in traditional Judaism, but the basic idea is that we experience God through natural beauty, doing mitzvot, studying, etc. Indirectly, not directly.

My contention is that we can step out of the theist / atheist debate and still have a robust and meaningful Judaism by focusing on this. Obviously, Judaism can be understood in the conventional OJ sense and these things really do reflect a supernatural God. But OJ suffers from all sorts of problems, including the documentary hypothesis. But Judaism can also be understood in the godliness sense, and that works well also. We can think of all these things as reflecting either the actual God or the ideal of God. It just does not matter.

There are lots of issues that this raises: prayer, ritual, problematic ethical rules, etc. All of these will be covered in future posts.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008


I think the contemporary debate over the existence of a supernatural God focuses on a less important issue. By understanding God differently (although not that differently) the supernatural issue becomes subordinated to less controversial and more important ideas about goodness and godliness.

The classical understanding of God is that He is metaphysical, is outside of time and space, is ultimately unknowable, and operates in ways we cannot understand. Not surprisingly, God then becomes a difficult thing to discuss. Atheists argue that no God exists, and theists argue that this God does exist. Each side offers arguments, some persuasive and some not, but none of which ultimately wins the day. The bottom line is that this debate is doomed never to reach an answer. Because of God's supernatural nature, it is simply impossible to determine conclusively one way or another whether or not God exists.

But I think this entire debate, fascinating as it is, completely misses the mark. Even if a supernatural God does not exist, there is no doubt that Godliness exists. And much in Judaism is about bringing this Godliness into the world. This is the approach of some liberal or moderate philosophies or Judaism, and in fact it is a major theme in some branches of traditional Judaism, like Hasidism and mysticism (divine sparks and all). This is the understanding of God that unites us, and this understanding has the potential to help even the most atheistic Jews become more observant, at least in some ways, and the most charedi Jews ground at least some of their Judaism in humanistic terms. It ties in with prayer, ritual, and most mitzvot (all of which are the subject of future posts.)

Rabbi Harold Schulweis has an interesting approach to understanding God in this way. He calls it "predicate theology." He flips sentences around. He moves God from the subject to Godliness in the predicate, and moves what was the predicate into the subject. Here's how it works.

Take a sentence like "God heals the sick." When you read this sentence, you picture a supernatural God acting in some way — perhaps knowable, perhaps not — to heal the sick. He may have provided the laws of physics and chemistry and biology, given the body the natural power to heal itself, given doctors the knowledge and skill to heal, or performed a miracle resulting in an otherwise unexplained cure. People who believe in a supernatural God quickly defend this position, people who do not attack it, and we are instantly in the middle of a supernatural theological argument.

But note what is lost in this debate: any focus on the poor sick person. The debate quickly becomes otherworldly. But Rabbi Schulweis argues that we can solve this problem, as well as many other, by simply fliping the sentence around: "Healing the sick is godly." The focus of the sentence (like most sentences) is still on the subject, but the subject has changed from God to "healing the sick". The linguistic focus is now on the sick person and his sickness. And the predicate "is godly" is something that is now uncontroversial. It is good or godly to heal the sick. Of course that is true. And godliness certainly exists, regardless of whether a supernatural God exists. (For example, "unicorn-ness" exits too, even though unicorns do not. It involves looking like a horse and having one horn. Usually there is a rainbow and a 7-year-old girl involved somehow.)

Once we make this grammatical move, we are proclaiming that healing sick people is a good thing. And the obvious follow up question is on our actions: if so, what can we do to help heal someone? We are thus acting in partnership with God (whether or not God exists) to bring Godliness into the world.

With this understanding, God is simply the source of godliness. There could be an actual supernatural God or there could not be. Healing sick people might be Godly because a supernatural God would do it, or did do it, or wants us to do it. Or it could be Godly simply because it is good, even if there is no God. It does not really matter for these purposes. The important point is to focus on the very real and very this-worldly Godliness, not aspects of uncertain supernatural God.

Ironically, this belief is not all that radical and is found solidly within traditional Judaism. Perhaps the most commonly-said blessing by all Jews is the blessing over bread: hamotzi lechem min haaretz. We praise God for bringing bread from the earth. But of course God does not actually bring bread from the earth. At most, God (or the blind forces of nature) brings grain from the earth. People, not God, then turn the grain into bread. And there is a huge difference from our perspective between bread and hot, wet, yeasty, ground-up wheat, even though they are not all that difference chemically. The difference is goodness. Or godliness. Thus, people act in partnership with God or Godliness when they make bread. They bring Godliness into the world by taking raw ingredients and making them better.

The traditional blessing is to praise God for the complete process of "bringing forth bread from the earth." If understood the traditional way — a supernatural God made bread by a miracle — the blessing is absurd. God does not actually make the bread, just the wheat. But if the blessing is understood in terms of godliness, it simply means that bringing forth bread is godly or good. And that is a proposition that everyone can agree to. (Unless you are on a low-carb diet, and then it become more controversial.)

Rabbi Schulweis seems to suggest that under his understanding, a supernatural probably God does not exist. My co-blogger Diane has referred to God as a "non-ontological being", with the same suggestion. That is, God is like goodness or justice or kindness: an important and meaningful idea or ideal, but one without any correspondence to an actually existing object or thing.

I do not go this far. I do not see anything in this understanding of God that either precludes or requires that God be or not be a supernatural being. At the deepest level, I simply think it is impossible to know anything about the existence and nature of a supernatural God. One can believe in a supernatural God as a matter of faith or reason. Or one can refuse to believe in such a God as a matter of lack of evidence, lack of faith, or reason. Both positions are supportable, neither is compelling, and neither is all that interesting to me. I want to focus on bringing Godliness into the world, not on debating abstract and unresolvable questions.

A traditional theist would agree with everything I have said so far, but argue that this focus on godliness only captures part of the nature of God. That is, a traditional theist would not disagree with this claim but argue only that it is woefully incomplete.

An atheist would agree with everything I have said but argue that it is silly to use the words "God" or "godliness" to refer to purely naturalistic things when they are loaded with supernatural connotations.

Both points are partially valid. I concede the traditional theists' point, but relegate the other supernatural aspects of God to faith. And I agree with the atheist that God has some supernatural connotations, but also has some naturalist ones.

But here is why this approach is important and where this approach really pays off. Many people do not believe in a supernatural God, or are not sure whether they believe in God, and view this belief (or lack of belief) as an obstacle precluding their participation in Judaism, at least in a meaningful and significant way. Several readers of this blog fall into this category. I strenuously disagree, and I think this conclusion does not follow from the premise. Even if one does not believe in a supernatural God, one still can (and probably does) believe in godliness and goodness. And that is sufficient.

My (admittedly controversial) contention is that Jewish practices, beliefs, prayer, holidays, and rituals, are spectacular and spectacularly subtle ways of fostering Godliness and goodness. Thus, I think that even the most ardent Jewish atheist (in the classical sense) should become more observant, do more rituals, and even pray. I will be spelling out the details of some of these contentions in later posts. But for this post, I am simply contending that everyone should believe in God as the source — supernatural or natural, ontological or non-ontological — of goodness and Godliness.


Monday, August 4, 2008

Rubashkin's, Ethical Kashrut, etc.

How should we think about the appropriate Jewish response to the allegations about Rubashkin's?

In addressing this question, I write as a lawyer, a (mostly) vegetarian, a Jew, and a person who cares about human rights and the rights of workers. I'd like to think those perspectives don't contradict each other, but they certainly are not the same.
As best I can glean from news reports, the "scheme" taking place at Rubashkin's involved falsified employment papers for mostly Guatemalan workers. Because the falsification involved using identity documents or numbers of actual people, the government is treating the offense as "aggravated identity theft" -- even though there appears to be good reason to believe the workers in question had no real idea of what was going on. The prosecution of these workers is itself problematic in all sorts of ways -- so much so, that the translator hired by the government, in a possible breach of his own professional ethics, has acted as a "whistle-blower" to talk about what has gone on. The long and short of it, for our purposes here, appears to be that these workers were inveigled into an illegal employment scheme by Rubashkin's, got "caught" and are going to be punished for it (by deportation, at least).

For me, if there is reason to believe (and there is) that anyone in management was behind this scheme -- knew about it, planned it, and of course, benefited from it -- I don't want to do business with these folks. Period.

Now, as a (mostly) vegetarian, perhaps such talk is cheap. I hardly eat meat from one end of the month to the other, and went more than a decade without eating it at all. So let me try to imagine that they were, for example, my favorite ice-cream manufacturer....

Again, I think the solution is just as easy. BUY ANOTHER ICE CREAM. The idea that indulging my mere preference, when there is reason to believe it is coming at the cost of significant wrong-doing, is somehow OK, seems to me indefensible. Rubashkin's is not the only game in town, for goodness' sake. (The biggest, the cheapest, the easiest, maybe. But not the only.)

But none of what I've said so far has much to do with Judaism or kashrut. So let's turn to those topics. It is possible -- I'm no mashgiach -- that absolutely nothing Rubashkin's is accused of, would implicate the kashrut of its products. I'm willing to grant that may be true. If so, that demonstrates, at best, the incompleteness of kashrut for exhausting the moral dimension of eating. For those chafing under the yoke of kashrut, it might seem that being asked to impose still additional requirements (but is it organic? but is it fair trade? but are their workers unionized?) is just too much to ask. For those serious about halakhah, they would then appear to be choosing certain laws about food, over other, equally serious, laws about treatment of workers and more general morality. I think that's a bad choice -- and I could say a good deal about why -- but that is the choice. But for those to whom the purpose of kashrut is supposed to have something to do with "You shall be holy," it's just ridiculous to suggest that the demands of that do not encompass everything that bears on how a particular food ends up on one's table. "Halakhic man" (or woman), who will inquire into the holiness dimension of every activity in which it is possible for a person to engage, cannot be indifferent to whether the chain of events that bring a food product from earth to table includes unfair labor practices or the abuse of the earth. Putting blinders on by asking "but is it kosher?" and nothing more, is just ridiculous.

Which brings me to the last point -- one I tend not to make in very many contexts. And that is shanda. This entire episode is a classic "shanda for the goyim" (pardon my broken Yiddish) -- that is, a scandal that makes Jews look bad before the non-Jewish world. I don't think Rubashkin's is the worst meat-packing plant in the world. Probably not the worst in the U.S. But I don't care. They are Jews, and they are holding all of us up to ridicule and derision. They are making Jews appear to be people who care about ridiculous, archaic, hyper-technical rules (is the animal standing up or lying down?), while tolerating the most egregious, abusive, illegal labor practices. They make me ashamed to be a Jew. They make a travesty of our deep moral traditions, which have put Jews on the front lines of every battle for fair labor practices, for ecologically-sensitive agriculture, and so on. And they do so under the mantle of "Orthodoxy." They play into the hands of every anti-Semite and Jew-hater anywhere. And for that -- unless they are completely exonerated in a way that seems quite impossible at this point -- they should be roundly condemned and put out of business by the Jewish community acting as one.