Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gay and Orthodox

I just found a link to a new blogger who is an Orthodox YU student and is also gay. He has just started blogging about his struggles with both. The blog is


(and Jewish Atheist provided the link through Chana / Curious Jew's blog).

This could be a very interesting blog. Obviously, I wish him strength and wisdom in working through his difficulties and challenges.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009


XGH has a funny post about a picture of Adam and Eve from his 5 1/2 year old daughter's school. It depicted them as real people, and that bothers him a bit, although he is not sure where to go from there.

The early stories in Genesis bother a lot of people. Much ink has been spilled over the biblical accounts of creation, the garden of Eden, Noah's flood, and the Tower of Babel. To most contemporary Jews, these are obvious myths. But two religious problems follow from this position. The first is how to derive meaning from such stories. Most people view historical fact as more robust than myths in terms of religious significance. The second is a slippery slope problem: are other other more significant religious stories also myths? If creation and the flood are myths, then what about the exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Mt. Sinai? And if those are myths, not history, then much of Judaism must be rethought, and some would argue abandoned.

At the other end of the spectrum, some view these stories as literal history. The problem here is that this puts such people in a perpetual state of war with most of the hard sciences, along with history, archeology, and a lot of other things. And this leads to disastrous results. There are some rabbis who have no formal training in the sciences but argue vehemently that most scientists are completely wrong and that Genesis, if properly read, gives all the answers. This position is not just difficult to maintain among most audiences, but it borders on the comical.

For all the obvious reasons, I treat these early stories as stories. They are pre-scientific attempts to answer scientific questions, and as such they should be celebrated, even if we no longer think their account is correct. But more importantly, these stories address important questions regarding the significance of things like creation, and later commentators have derived many great lessons from them. These lessons endure, regardless of the historicity of the stories. (I just reposted one of my attempts to analyze part of the creation story, drawing on both a midrash and Rashi.) There's nothing wrong with treating a story as a story.

Not that there's much comparison, but I think "The Three Little Pigs" is a great story with a good moral and practical lesson. To get back to XGH's question, if I illustrated it would draw the pigs as pigs. But I would also mention to my kids that this is a story, not a factual account of real suilline building projects.

I know that pigs lack opposable thumbs and thus cannot physically built a house out of straw or sticks, and certainly not bricks. And I know that a wolf does not have sufficient lung capacity to blow enough air at high enough velocities to blow down even a rudimentary house made out straw or sticks. But I also know that I would miss the point of the story if I focused on such questions.


Creation - Plants and Trees With Attitude Problems

[Note: the following is a slightly edited version of a post that I wrote for the now apparently defunct Sefer HaBloggadah.]

Genesis 1:11-12 covers the creation of plants. God says make some plants, and the earth makes some plants. The story is three sentences long. One might think this is all pretty simple and straightforward.

Not even close.

A midrash in Bialik's Sefer Ha Aggadah (1:2:32) picks up on one seemingly minor textual inconsistency, and a comment from Rashi picks up on a different textual inconsistency. Juxtaposing these two gives us some pretty interesting conclusions. Let's start with the Torah text, and then discuss our midrash, Rashi's comment, and what we can make of all this.

Here's the Torah:

And God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.' And it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:11-12)

The midrash notes one subtle textual discrepancy in this story. God said to produce "herb yielding seed" but the earth actually brought forth "herb yielding seed after its kind". (That is, the seeds from these plants would themselves grow the same kind of plant.) Here's most of the Midrash:

[T]he grasses applied to themselves an a fortiori argument, saying: If God enjoined "after its kind" upon trees, which by nature do not grow up in promiscuous miscellany, how much more does it apply to us! Immediately each grass sprouted forth after its kind . . . . Then the angel of the universe declared, "The glory of the Lords endures forever; the Lord rightly rejoices in His works!"

Grass with attitude. God says do it one way, and the grass thinks it has a better idea and does it differently.

But things gets better. Here's another textual inconsistency. God said to create "fruit-tree bearing fruit" (עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי), but the earth instead brought forth "tree bearing fruit" (וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה-פְּרִי). Our midrash skips this problem, but Rashi picks up on it. "This implies that the taste of the tree should be the same as the taste of the fruit. However, it [the earth] did not do this, but rather: 'The earth sprouted forth . . . a tree producing a fruit,' but the tree itself was not a fruit."

Now the earth has attitude. God's original plan called for the entire tree -- branches, leaves, bark, everything -- to be edible. It would literally be a "fruit tree" that also bore fruit. But the earth decided it had a better idea and made regular trees instead. Rashi notes the consequences for the earth's disobedience. "Therefore, when Adam was cursed for his sin, it, [the earth] too, was punished for its sin and was [also] cursed."

This is remarkable. God issued a simple command to the earth: make some plants and trees. The grass -- after comparing itself to the trees, carefully thinking through the problem, and applying Talmudic reasoning -- decided to improve on God's plan. And then did! (And did so before it was even created. Talk about being an over-achiever.) The earth on the other hand made the opposite move. God wanted super-trees, but the earth just created regular old ordinary trees.

But the most puzzling verse of all is the transition between God's commands and the much modified implementations of these commands: "And it was so." It most certainly was not so. God got very different grass and trees than he had commanded.

So what do we make of all this?

Here's my explanation. The divine plan for creation is not static. It is dynamic and changing, and these changes even include creation's modifications of the divine plan for creation itself.

Also, it means that people have a very important role in continuing God's creation. Contrary to Dr. Pangloss's position, this is not the best of all possible worlds. We can improve things, and we should.

As many people have noted, we see this idea reflected in our shabbat blessings. We bless God for bringing forth bread from the earth. But of course God does not create bread. Nature brings grain from the earth. People then improve the grain and make the bread. And then we bless God for creating the fruit of the vine. Well, God may do that, but we are not eating grapes. We are drinking wine. And people improved the grapes to make the wine. Our blessings make no difference between the the products people make (bread, wine) and the raw materials God makes (grain, grapes), and in fact seems to confuse the two categories.


The reason for all of this, as I see it, is that the divine plan includes the potential to modify the divine plan. Grapes includes potential wine, wine includes prior grapes, bread includes prior grain, and grain includes potential bread. God and people work together, we get some pretty good stuff, and all of this is part of the divinity of all of this.

The Torah notes that we are created in the image of God. And one important idea in Judaism (and other religions; hence the Latin) is imitatio dei: imitating God. God creates and modifies, and so should we.

This process is not limited to the physical world. It applies to halacha as well. God creates law. As I have argued elsewhere, God also modifies law. And so should we. Halacha cannot be a static and unchanging set of legal rules. Instead, it is up to us to create new rules and modify the old ones as changed conditions require changes in the rule. We should not do so out of convenience or laziness, but only to promote the highest ideals of Judaism.

This enterprise, like all such enterprises, must be undertaken with seriousness and careful thought. Note the two endings to our two stories. God rejoiced when the grasses made themselves better, but he punished the earth when it made trees that were worse. We should change things when we need to, but we need to try very hard to get it right.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Theories of Judaism and Rawls' Reflective Equilibrium

Jews tend to cluster around certain general understandings of Judaism, like Orthodoxy, secular or cultural Judaism, or ignorance and apathy. Other understandings, like moderate Conservativism tend to be less stable, with its adherents sometimes towards one of the other extremes. And when people make changes in their religious beliefs and practices, they often do so in large steps rather than gradually: Orthodox Jews go "off the derech" and secular Jews become Orthodox. In other words, Jewish religious beliefs tend to be "lumpy." Why?

One possible answer comes from the idea of "reflective equilibrium", a phenomenon explained by noted philosopher John Rawls. (My co-blogger Diane studied with Rawls; unlike me, she actually knows something.)

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls explained the idea of reflective equilibrium. He noted that people tend to start with both general theoretical ideas and some particular judgments. These may conflict, and when they do, we modify either our theoretical beliefs or our particular conclusions and then think some more. As long as conflicts remain, we are not in reflective equilibrium, and we repeat the process. However, once we reach a point where our general theory and our particular judgments are consistent with each other, we are in reflective equilibrium and we are satisfied with both.

One implication of this theory is that once we have reached reflective equilibrium, our beliefs tend to support each other. That is, particular beliefs (either general ideas or concrete conclusions) cannot be modified in isolation. The whole system of general beliefs and specific conclusions hangs together, and it is difficult to simply make a slight modification. (We don't see Orthodox Jews observing 612 mitzvot, but skipping (say) putting up a mezuzah.)

Another implication is that beliefs tend to be robust. That is, it is difficult to get people to change. A particular problem does not challenge only one small aspect of beliefs, but the entire system, and the system has a lot of intellectual inertia.

We see this robustness in religious discussions. When a traditional Orthodox Jew is confronted with some potentially troubling argument (the existence of needless suffering, modern bible scholarship, evolution, 2 million people wandering in Sinai, Noah's flood), his reaction is often to ignore the problem, deny the problem, or dismiss the argument as just implausible or unbelievable. Similarly, when a secular Jew is confronted with some potentially troubling argument (the existence of consciousness, the "Torah Codes", the inconsistency between going to synagogue on Yom Kippur and not observing other mitzvot), his reaction is often to ignore the problem, deny the problem, or dismiss the argument as just implausible or unbelievable. (Note: I am not making any claims regarding these arguments themselves; I am simply noting how people respond.)

A third implication is that some belief systems are relatively stable, and others are relatively unstable. As a very general matter, I see three stable and one semi-stable belief system.

The stable belief systems:

Orthodoxy: God entered into an eternal covenant with the Jewish people and gave us the Torah as binding instructions for life. Jews should do all the mitzvot and devote their lives to Judaism.

Slightly Observant and Barely Religious: Authentic Judaism is Orthodoxy, and we do not want any part of that. Judaism consists of ancient bizarre rituals and stories that no sensible person would take seriously. But it is mostly harmless, and might have some beneficial aspects, like teaching children general ethics and social responsibility, lifecycle rituals, and innocuous holidays like Chanukah and Passover. So we will send our kids to religious school at a Reform or Conservative synagogue to "get bar-mitzvahed," but we'll quit after that.
But we're not going to do the second half of the seder, our Yom Kippur fasting will probably stop when we get hungry, we're not going to read the Torah or any book about Judaism for that matter, and we've never heard of Shavuot and don't really care.

Hostile and Non-Observant: Judaism is just silly. We don't belief in God. We don't need religion for ethics, and the whole thing just upsets me. Religious people are deluded and foolish.

The semi-stable belief system:

Religious and Moderately Observant: We have an non-traditional understanding of both God and Torah. We take Judaism seriously. We observe enough mitzvot that our liberal Jewish friends think we are nuts (or might even be Orthodox!). But we do not observe enough mitzvot that our Orthodox friends think we are heretics. Unlike everyone else, our answers to simple religious questions involve long and complicated answers. We like contradictory slogans like "Tradition and Change."

The obvious reason why the last belief system (which is mine, BTW) is only semi-stable is that it is balancing between competing contradictory ideas, and if that balance gets unbalanced, we run off to one of the extremes. (Although we gain some flexibility, and things like atheism, agnosticism, theism, bible criticism, the existence of suffering or evil tend not to require huge shifts in our belief system.)