The best argument for not having kids is a very simple one

OK, whether this is the best argument for not having kids will be for you to decide.  But I happen to think it’s a good one — and a very simple one, too.

(No offense to those of you who have kids.  I’m sure you’re awesome parents, and you’re giving your kids the best life they could have under the circumstances.  But for those who are deciding for the future whether to have kids, perhaps this argument is something to consider.  Or not.)

Here’s my simple argument; please let me know what you think:

Every time we choose to have a baby, we make a choice on that new human being’s behalf, without his or her consent.  Nobody asked that person whether he or she wants to born.  Nobody asked that person whether he or she wants to be put into this world we live in.  Right?  And yet we put the person into this world anyway, without his or her consent.  This already would seem to be morally problematic.

But what’s even worse is: we bring a new human, without his or her consent, into a situation that’s very difficult to get out of.  Once the person is here, it’s extremely difficult for that person to “opt out” and decide he or she doesn’t want to live.  Suicide almost always involves a painful death and a lot of suffering leading up to it and following it, for the person as well as for the person’s loved ones, friends, classmates, co-workers, acquaintances, etc.

It would be one thing if it were easy to opt out of life.  We could then try to justify having kids by saying, “Yeah, it’s true I’m bringing this human being into this world without his or her consent, but it’s no big deal, because if this person ever decides life in this world isn’t for him or her, he or she can always just end his or her life.  No harm done!”

But that’s not the reality, right?  People can’t just easily decide life isn’t for them and end their life.  The way society is structured, ending one’s life is extremely difficult and inevitably painful for all involved.

So that’s my argument:  When we have a kid, we’re putting someone into a situation (life in this world) without that person’s consent, and then once they’re here, they can’t even check out if they want to, except perhaps with a tremendous amount of suffering involved.  Putting another person into any situation without his or her consent, let alone a situation the person won’t be able to get out of painlessly, would seem to be wrong.  Wouldn’t it?  What do you think?

Against your will were you formed, against your will were you born, against your will you live, against your will you will die.

– Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers 4:22)

That’s the short and sweet rendering of this argument.  Now here’s a more wordy, expanded version of the argument, with refutations of possible counterarguments:

Every time you have a baby, you’re bringing a human being into this world without that human being’s consent.  Right?  So already right there, before even going any further, you have to ask yourself:  What right do I have to put someone, anyone, into any situation without that person’s consent?

In this case, not only are you putting that person into a situation without that person’s consent; you’re putting the person into a situation that is guaranteed to contain pain and suffering, as all lives do.

Even if your baby gets lucky and becomes the first human ever to go through life without pain or suffering, even then — what right would you have to make that choice for that person to put him/her into this particular situation?

It would be like if I say to you: “Hey, I’ve got the perfect career for you.  It’ll be nothing but fulfillment for you.  There will be no bad days at the office.  So I’m going to take you now and put you into this career, without your consent.”

Even if I’m right about that career and that person will have nothing but good days in that career, does that mean I have the right to make that decision for that person and put that person into a certain career without that person’s consent?

Similarly, by bringing a person into this world, even if my attitude towards this new person is “Hey, I’ve got the perfect life for you.  It’ll be nothing but fulfillment for you.  There will be no bad days in your life.  So I’m going to take you now and put you into this life, without your consent,” what right do I have to do that?  How can I make that choice for that person?  It would seem it’s not for me to decide, any more than it’s my right to decide someone should be put into a certain career, right?

In reality, of course, it’s much more problematic than this.  As we know, no life is perfect bliss.  Everyone who is brought into existence will have bad days, and everyone brought into existence will experience pain and suffering.

Some people learn ways of coping with and even growing from the pain, but despite all of a person’s best coping mechanisms and best therapies, some amount of pain — physical, psychological and emotional — is inevitable for everyone.  Indeed quite a lot of pain is inevitable for everyone, when looked at across the person’s lifetime.

And so, in reality, it would seem that having a kid is more like telling someone, “I’m going to put you into a certain career, without your consent, even though this career will include at least some pain and suffering, most likely a lot of pain and suffering.”  Would there be any moral justification for me to make such a decision on someone else’s behalf without that person’s consent?

For two and a half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel disagreed. These say: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. And those say: It is preferable for man to have been created than had he not been created.

Ultimately, they were counted and they concluded: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. However, now that he has been created, he should examine his actions that he has performed [and seek to correct them]. And some say: He should scrutinize his planned actions [and evaluate whether or not and in what manner those actions should be performed, so that he will not sin].

– Babylonian Talmud: Eruvin 13b

Now, of course you’re probably thinking, “This is the most ridiculous argument I’ve ever read.  Of course you can’t obtain a person’s consent to be born before the person is born!  So the best we can do is assume that most people, at least in safe, developed countries, will have happy lives worth living, and I’ll do my best as a parent to make sure that this will be the case for my child.”

I think there are at least two problems here:

Firstly, indeed, you can never get a child’s consent before being born.  That’s the point!  Since you can never get a person’s consent before bringing that person into existence, what right do we have to bring any person into existence, since it’s always without the person’s consent?

Secondly, no matter how hard we try, even in safe, developed countries, any person we bring into this world will have to experience pain and suffering, as we discussed above.

Now, another response you may be thinking of is:  We make decisions on other people’s behalf all the time, when they’re not capable of doing so for themselves and we know it’s what’s best for them.  For example, we vaccinate our infants without their consent, even though the needle that supplies the vaccination may cause the infant some pain, and the infant may experience some temporary sickness after the vaccination, because we know that the infant will have a better life this way.

That is, if we make the decision on their behalf, without their consent, to have them vaccinated, they will most likely have a better life, and if we don’t make the decision, without their consent, to have them vaccinated, they will be more likely to have a worse life.

We make many other choices on our children’s behalf, and we also make choices on behalf of those who are too old or infirm to make their own choices for themselves, when the right to make such decisions is out of their hands and has been placed upon us.

However, there is at least one key difference between those other cases where we make decisions on other people’s behalf without their consent and the case of bringing a person into existence without his or her consent.  In those other cases, if we don’t make these choices on their behalf without their consent, they will be worse off.

In the case of vaccinations and other decisions made on behalf of people without their consent, we are placed into the less-than-ideal dilemma of:

Either

I make a decision on that person’s behalf without that person’s consent (e.g. to vaccinate the infant) — which is not ideal because what right do I have to make a decision on that person’s behalf? —

OR

I don’t make the decision on that person’s behalf (e.g. I don’t have the infant vaccinated), which would be good in the sense that I’m not making a decision on that person’s behalf without that person’s consent, but in the end that person will be much worse off, because, in the case of vaccination, that person will be more likely to contract polio or MMR or tuberculosis and/or cause others to do so.

So in all those cases where we’ve decided that making decisions on other people’s behalf without their consent is the right thing to do, in every case it’s because if we don’t make the decision without their consent, we have good reasons for believing the person will be worse off.

However, in the case of bringing a new person into existence, it is NOT the case that if we don’t bring them into existence without their consent they will be worse off.  If we don’t bring them into existence, there’s no “they” to be worse off!  If we don’t make that decision, that person will simply never come into existence at all!  Right?

So we can’t say that if we don’t make the decision to bring a child into existence without the child’s consent the child will be worse off, because if we don’t make that decision, there is no child to be worse or better off!  And so we go back to our original problem:  What right do we have to put someone into this world without his or her consent, let alone when we know that doing so will include pain and suffering?

Finally, one might argue that it’s OK to put someone into a situation, even without that person’s consent, as long as the person can always easily get out of the situation.  In this case, it’s OK to bring a person into existence, without the person’s consent, because if that person doesn’t like being in this world, he or she can always choose to leave.

But there are at least two problems with this way of thinking, in my view:

1: Is it even true that it’s OK to put someone into a situation, without the person’s consent, as long as the person can easily get out of that situation?  If I’m going to a party tomorrow night and I think you would enjoy it too, do I have a right to take you when you’re fast asleep and throw you into my car, drive you to the party, and place you in the club where the party is going on?  Even if I let you leave the party whenever you want, it still wouldn’t make it right for me to have brought you to the party in the first place without your consent, would it?

2: Leaving life is not so simple.  It’s not like leaving a party.  Quite the contrary; it’s almost always very very difficult to leave life.  Once we bring someone into existence, there are parents.  There are siblings.  There are uncles and aunts and cousins.  Pretty soon there are classmates, teachers, friends, BFFs, and, in some cases, a multitude of fans.  If the person chooses to check out of life, he or she knows that many people will have to endure a great deal of suffering because of this decision.  In addition, people who choose to end their life normally experience a great deal of suffering leading up to this decision, as well as during the act itself.

Therefore, it would seem we cannot justify bringing new humans into existence by saying, “Ah, worst comes to worst they can always opt out if life isn’t their thing,” because a) opting out is normally extremely difficult and painful, and b) even if it weren’t difficult and painful to opt out, we would still have no right to “bring them to the party” without their consent in the first place.

Nu?  Tell me why I’m wrong. 🙂

Thanks for reading all that!  And I hope you’ve all been doing great the last few years since I last posted!

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Thanksgiving is more meaningful for atheists

You know of course I’m biased, but I really think Thanksgiving is more meaningful for non-theists. Since I’ve abandoned giving thanks to a god, 100% of my gratitude is now directed towards those who can actually receive my thanks.

And so I’m going to go directly thank anyone I can think of to whom I owe my thanks. If I have more time, maybe I’ll also make a list of non-human things for which I’m grateful. It’s not that those things care if I’m thankful for them, of course; being thankful for them would be for my own well-being. Of course if you’re spending all day cooking your turkey and stuffing with kids running around, it may be more of a challenge to do this kind of thing, I guess. But I’d think it’s still possible, right?

You may say I have too much time on my hands, but as a humanist who wants to raise the well-being of living beings, I would think doing this exercise once a year (at least!) would raise a lot of people’s well-being – both the giver and the receivers of the thanks. Wouldn’t it?

For instance, thank you to you who have read my very occasional posts, and a special thank you to SJA, Cynthia and whoever else has taken the time to offer thoughtful comments. Happy Thanksgiving!!

Oh, before any theists jump on me, yes, I agree, you can do the same exercise even if you believe in a god. 🙂

Struggling with your beliefs? This should help.

Great news!  If you’re struggling with your beliefs, with that voice in the back of your head saying things like, “What if I’m wrong?” or “How do I know if what I’ve been taught is true?” the problem may be you don’t even know how to go about deciding what to believe. I say that from experience, as we are not typically given these tools in school. In fact, not only are we not given the tools that would help us arrive at true beliefs, we are often taught methods that make us less likely to arrive at true beliefs.

For instance, we may be taught “We have a tradition that this is true, going back many generations, and so therefore it must be true,” or “The Rambam (Maimonides) was smarter than you, and he knew all your questions, and yet he still believed this, and so therefore it must be true,” yet we now know that neither of these methods are good ways to determine what is true.

The stupendous news is there are actually really good tools we can use to ensure, or at least make it a lot more likely, that we end up believing what it is true and not believing what is false, whether it be on matters of faith, science, politics, health news, GMOs, or any other area of knowledge.

And the even better news is that you and I will be able to learn these skills for free from two experts in the field in a 12-week online course beginning August 25th. Duke University will present “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue” through Coursera. For more information and to sign up, go here.

A few of us freethinking Jews are hoping to get together online after each class to discuss what we learned and talk about how it affects our beliefs. If you want to join, please comment below or email me at freethinkingjew (gmail).

Had I only learned this stuff many years ago, I wouldn’t have had to struggle psychologically for so many years, stressing out over whether the beliefs I was taught in school were reasonable or whether my doubts were valid. Fortunately I’ve been able to learn some critical thinking skills in my adulthood, and I’ve found the feeling quite freeing, because these skills give me so much more confidence that I am making the right decisions about what to believe and what not to believe. But I’m looking forward to learning much more beginning August 25.

Note: I do not work for Coursera, and I gain no financial benefit from recommending this course. I just like to share the gospel.

The wise son of the Hagadah: Why textual criticism is cool

Just like Biblical criticism does not mean to criticize the Bible, textual criticism does not mean to criticize a text. It just means to try to look at a text (in the case of the Bible, the Biblical text) in a critical/scholarly/objective way. Specifically, textual criticism means looking at several different really old copies of the Bible, noticing when there are differences among them, and trying to determine which one makes the most sense in each case.

One of my favorite examples of textual criticism of the Bible answers a famous question often heard at the Passover Seder. In the Hagadah (the text used during the Seder), we are taught that the Torah teaches us about four types of sons who attend the Seder, two of whom are the wise son and the wicked son. What differentiates the wise son from the wicked son? The wicked son asks, “What is this service of yours (Exodus 12:26)!” The Hagadah explains that he is wicked, for he said, “of yours,” implying that he wants no part of the Seder and his people’s traditions. The wise son, for his part, says, “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (Deuteronomy 6:20)?” So he’s showing interest.

But wait: the wise son also said, “What are the decrees…. That YHWH commanded YOU!” He’s excluding himself, just like the wicked son did! So how does he come out being the good boy?
While many of us have heard responses to this question, I think it’s safe to say that in most cases, “The question is better than the answer,” as we’d say in yeshiva.

So a textual critic asks, “Wait a minute; what if the text that the original Hagadah had was slightly different from what we have in our Hagadah’s today, and maybe that slight difference would explain the apparent contradiction here?” Turns out that modern scholars who have looked at some of the various old copies of the Biblical text, including other old texts that cite the Biblical verses mentioned above, have found a very important difference!

As Jeffrey Tigay, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, shows in his wonderful article (here) on the Bible codes, this passage about the four sons appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the Mekhilta (a compilation of rabbinic discussions of some of the legal parts of the Pentateuch), and both quote the wise son’s statement with a change in one word. Instead of “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (eschem)?” these ancient sources quote the wise’s son question, which is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:20, as: “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded us (osanu)!” In addition, the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, also has “us” in this verse, rather than “you,” suggesting that the Hebrew Bible used when making the Greek translation also had “osanu (us).” Thus in the original Hagadah, the wise son does not, in fact, exclude himself by saying, “the laws that God commanded you,” and so that’s why he’s not the wicked one.

And so modern Biblical scholarship, in this case textual criticism of the Bible, has answered a long-standing question, asked mostly by people who would consider textual criticism heretical. 🙂 But seriously, how could anyone find this heretical! Some of the best textual critics of the Bible are/have been Catholic priests, because they want to figure out the most accurate version of God’s word. Why can’t Orthodox Jews adopt the same attitude?

Why Biblical criticism is important for both the religious and non-religious

I know I haven’t posted anything in ages.  Sorry; been busy with important stuff.  Thanks a lot for sticking with me.

I can’t write as well as this guy.  Here some of my favorite quotes on the virtues of modern Biblical scholarship (a.k.a. Biblical criticism) – especially for those who are religious, courtesy of the late Italian scholar of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Alberto Soggin, via John Bowden’s outstanding translation (Introduction to the Old Testament, Revised Edition).  [I’ve added occasional points of clarification in brackets].  If you have any favorite quotes on the subject, please share!  Enjoy:

“It is impossible to understand the attitudes of people or schools of thought and therefore the writings that derive from them, without knowing the events which have influenced them in whole or in part.  For example, inadequate knowledge of Canaanite religion would constitute a most serious obstacle to understanding the message of the prophets…, nor could we understand properly their comments on society if we did not know the economic and social conditions which they were attacking (p. 4).”

“The fact that the Christian theologian is convinced that he finds Christ foretold in the writings of the Old Testament (cf. John 5:39) or that the Jewish believer discovers here the revelation and the promise of God for his people, and the divine law, should not in any way prejudice critical and historical study of the texts, which is needed if faith is not to be reduced to the level of ideological prejudice.  The fact that the texts of the Old Testament have an authoritative character for the believer, whether Jew or Christian, which they evidently do not have for the unbeliever, should not prevent the former from achieving a proper objectivity.  On the contrary, it should compel him to listen humbly to what they say.  This is not a paradox.  He should therefore make as calm an examination of the text as possible, taking care not to read into it what is not there.

“Thus the criterion of scientific objectivity applies first of all to the believer, if he wishes to hear the word of the Lord instead of his own, and if he wishes to have a dialogue with his Lord instead of a monologue with himself and his own opinions.  At the same time, it is right that the scholar who is not a believer should be asked to apply the same objectivity to the text of the Bible as to any other oriental [Near Eastern] text (pps. 9-10).”

“In the case of the Old Testament and all the literature of the ancient Near East, the reader finds himself at a considerable remove in both geographical setting and chronological context; the modern reader, especially the Westerner [of the Western hemisphere], meets peoples (and therefore literature, customs, institutions and patterns of thought) with which he has little or nothing in common.  We shall certainly be right in supposing that anyone who does not have an advanced and specialist education will be largely ignorant of the historical, political, economic, social and religious facts to which the texts refer.  In addition, … there is a problem peculiar to the biblical texts; when considering a work which for thousands of years has been the sacred scripture of Judaism and Christianity, and still is, it is all too easy for the Western reader, who has grown up within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to have assimilated unconsciously a theological and ecclesiastical tradition which will not fail to make its weight felt in an any explanation of the texts.  Without one noticing it, centuries of exegesis loaded with preconceptions can lead either to uncritical acceptance of certain unproved assertions or, paradoxically, to an equally uncritical rejection of particular positions simply because they have traditionally been sustained within the sphere of the religious community.  The need for a science of introduction which offers a critical view of the biblical literature must therefore be obvious to anyone (p. 5).”

“While there has never been a time when the reader of the Bible has not felt the need for information about the circumstances which accompanied and often governed the origins of a particular text…, we must remember that (leaving aside the Antiochene school and Jerome) up to the Renaissance the Christian church was not very interested in establishing in an independent and original form the circumstances in which the sacred books had their origin, being content to accept the traditional views of them handed down by the synagogue.  Allegorical exegesis [interpretation] , very soon practiced on a large scale in the medieval church, avoided problems by means of that special form of unhistorical sublimation which is its hallmark; consequently the problem of the difference between the reality presented in the texts and the traditional interpretation of them did not arise before humanistic exegesis  at the beginning of the sixteenth century….  It was humanism, with its principle of a return to the sources, which first laid the foundation for scientific and critical introduction (pps. 5-6).”

“From Napolean’s expedition to Egypt onwards, with the discovery of the Rosetta stone which provided the key for the deciphering of its two scripts and of the Egyptian language (1798), through the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth, there was a rediscovery of the world in which the men of the Old Testament had lived and against which they often struggled.  Practices and customs, religious, political, judicial, and social institutions, people and places previously unknown, or known only vaguely, began to take shape.  Perhaps more important still, their languages came to be understood.  This restored a proper historical basis and a setting in a wider historical context for texts which hitherto had almost always been read only in a church setting.  It also often eliminated fictitious themes and explanations which had been created by the traditions of synagogue and church (p. 7).”

 “Because the believer, Jewish or Christian, sees the text as having a sacred and therefore authoritative character, he should be able to accept biblical [textual] criticism* without difficulty in so far as it sets out to present a text which is as close as possible to the original.  However, precisely the opposite has happened:  among conservative [religious] Jews, Protestants and Catholics, biblical criticism has often received with mistrust, as through the discipline set out arrogantly, and there impiously, to put itself above the text to judge and to ‘criticize’ it.  Such an interpretation of the functions criticism shows a complete lack of familiarity with the concept … and it cannot therefore be taken seriously (p. 30).

*Textual criticism means looking at various old manuscripts of the Bible and, wherever the manuscripts differ, trying to figure out in each case which manuscript has the best reading.

Striking results from survey of American Jews

The Pew Research Center recently published its study of American Jews conducted between February and June of 2013. While their findings confirm some trends a lot of us had already sensed, it’s still interesting to see how striking some of the numbers are.

I recommend taking a look at the report (go here), which presents the findings in a very clear fashion.  But here are some highlights:  (Note: It seems they defined someone as Jewish if s/he had one Jewish parent, father or mother).

  • 22% of Americans who consider themselves Jews also consider themselves as either atheists, agnostics, or having no religion.
    • The younger the “Jew,” the more likely is s/he to be part of this group of non-religious Jews.
    • These non-religious Jews are far less likely to donate to Jewish organizations and to raise their kids with any Jewish culture or identity whatsoever.
    • 30% of Americans who consider themselves Jews do not identify with any denomination of religious Jews (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc).
    • Orthodox Jews have more than twice as many babies as other Jews, and so their share of the Jewish American population is growing.
    • Only about half of those raised Orthodox are still Orthodox; however,
    • 83% of those raised Orthodox who are now between ages 18 and 29 are still Orthodox.
    • Among Jews married in 2000 or later, 58% married non-Jewish spouses.

And so if you raise your kid Orthodox today, there’s a very good chance the kid will remain Orthodox into adulthood.  And the Orthodox population is growing, because Orthodox Jews have a lot more babies than other Jews.

On the other hand, if you raise your kid Reform or Conservative or one of the other flavors of modern religious types, it seems likely your kid will be less religious than you in adulthood.

And so it seems like we’re heading towards a pretty severe dichotomy:  Jews will be split between very religious and very not religious.  As I argued previously, you can teach your kids to be strictly Orthodox, i.e. to believe that the Torah is the inerrant word of the perfect, all-knowing being and ignore the challenges of science, philosophy, and modern Biblical scholarship, and unfortunately that usually works.  Conversely, you can teach your kids that to accept science, philosophy, and modern Biblical scholarship and accept that the Jewish religion is as man-made as every other religion, and that also usually works.  But when you try to mess with Mr. In-Between, as some Reform and even more Conservative Jews, as well as Modern Orthodox Jews, do, you have your work cut out for you trying to get your kids to buy into both modernity and the Jewish religion, as these survey results seem to show.

I will say, though, I think it is sad that more non-religious Jews means much less involvement in and donations to Jewish organizations and more raising of Jewish kids with absolutely no Jewish identity.  There are so many Jewish-led organizations, many if not most of which are non-denominational, that do such wonderful philanthropic work, and it would not do anyone any good if they go out of business.  And while raising kids who are not Orthodox may be a good thing, so that these kids realize they have a choice on how to live their lives and are not taught beliefs that have been disproven, raising kids with no Jewish culture whatsoever would mean no more Jews.  After all the pogroms, exiles, and a Holocaust, I think it would be very unfortunate if all the richness of our ancient Jewish customs, songs, foods, teachings, values, expressions, and sense of community would be no more.  That’s not going to happen, because the Orthodox Jewish community is growing, but I wouldn’t want a Jewish population consisting only of Orthodox Jews either.

And so when I bring in words of Torah or Jewish expressions or talk about Jewish culture, it’s because a) I think it’s fun, and, more importantly, b) if Freethinking Jews don’t make an effort to spread the gospel of “Jewishness Without the Dogma,” we’ll be headed for a Jewish world that none of us wants.

But what do you think!

h/t Chatzkaleh Kofer

Out-of-touch rabbi comment of the day

I still receive weekly E-mails on Jewish law from Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff, an American-turned-Israeli Orthodox Jewish scholar and writer.  Rabbi Kaganoff is a very intelligent man, and he really knows his stuff when it comes to Jewish law.  But in this week’s article, which is apparently recycled from one he wrote in 2010 (see here), he writes the following when introducing the laws regarding conversion to Judaism:

DEFINITION OF A JEW

To the non-Jewish or non-observant world, the definition of a Jew is based on sociological criteria. But to the Torah Jew, the definition of a Jew is someone who is a member of a people who are obligated to fulfill all of the Torah’s commandments. For this reason, it is axiomatic that no one can become Jewish without first accepting the responsibility to observe mitzvos [the commandments] (kabbalas mitzvos).

This concept, so obvious to the Torah Jew, is almost never appreciated by the non-observant. Someone who does not (yet) observe mitzvos himself usually does not appreciate why observing mitzvos is imperative to becoming Jewish. This is why a not-yet-observant Jew often finds our requirements for giyur [conversion] to be “unrealistic” or even “intolerant.” However in true reality, attempting to bend the Torah’s rules reflects an intolerance, or more exactly, a lack of understanding. The Torah Jew realizes that the basic requirement for becoming a Jew is accepting Hashem’s commandments, since a Jew is by definition someone who is bound by the Torah.

With all due respect to the rabbi, I think it’s impressive he was able to squeeze so much misguided, retrogressive thought into so few sentences.

Despite the arrogant tone with which he sets us straight about how “We Torah Jews know what the Torah really says about conversion,” the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), in fact, says zip about conversion.  In Jewish day school, we were taught that the word ger (with a hard g) in the Hebrew Bible means “convert;” however, if one sees how the word is used, one immediately notices ger cannot mean “convert.”

For instance, when the Torah says, “You shall love the ger, for you were a ger in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19),” translating this commandment as “You shall the love the convert, for you were a convert in the land of Egypt” would be nonsensical, because the Israelites weren’t converts in the land of Egypt.  Rather, ger refers to a resident alien – i.e. someone who is not ethnically a member of the local people – in this case, the Israelites – but lives in its community, and so his/her status is different.  Typically a resident alien could not own land, for instance, and thus we find the beautiful commandment to make sure that those who don’t own land, such as the Levite, the ger, the orphan, and the widow are as happy as you are when you gather your hard-earned crops you worked so hard to reap from the land you are fortunate to own (Deuteronomy 16:14).

And so the rabbi’s assertion that the Torah view is that conversion requires accepting the commandments is baseless, since the Torah doesn’t say anything at all about conversion.

Secondly, and equally importantly, the idea that becoming a member of the Jewish community requires accepting the commandments with it is like saying writing with a pen requires using a quill.  In Biblical times, being part of a community necessarily included accepting the community’s local god.  If you moved to Moab and wanted to identify with the Moabites (part of modern-day Jordan), you most likely had to accept the Moabite god Chemosh.  If you moved to a Phoenician (modern Lebanon-area) community and wanted to identify with the Phoenicians, you most likely had to accept the religion that centered on worshipping Baal.  And the same was true if you moved to an Israelite community.  Thus, when, in a touching assertion of loyalty, Ruth the Moabite famously refused to forsake her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi and told her, “Your people is my people, and your god is my god (Ruth 1:16),” the two (people and the local god) went hand in hand.

Today, however, pens no longer go together with quills and joining a new community no longer goes together with accepting the community religion.  You can become Irish without becoming Catholic, and you can also join a Jewish community, where people celebrate Jewish culture, etc., without accepting any specific religion.

Granted, for many centuries the definition of Jew included following the Jewish religion.  Over the last 300 years or so, however, most Jews have defined themselves as Jewish and yet do not follow the commandments.  And so there’s no reason someone cannot join the community of the vast majority of Jews who define Jewish as one who connects with an extremely rich Jewish heritage and culture, independent of their adherence to the Torah’s commandments.

Finally, is there anything more worthy of throwing an article into the trash than seeing the good old “not-yet-observant?”  It’s a shame that the not-yet-enlightened and not-yet-out-of-the-17th-century Rabbi Kaganoff is not yet observant that calling people “not yet observant” is offensive.

I feel better now.

Thanks for reading.  Please add your thoughts below!

Hand of God found in space!

In case you were wondering where God’s hand was located, it’s been severed from his body and is suspended in space, millions and millions of miles away from us:

Hand of God

(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/McGill)

If you haven’t seen the story, look here.

I’m not sure what the chiddush is; we already saw a clear sign last year that, not only does God exist, but that his name is Osiris (see “Take this, ye stubborn non-believers!”).

Kudos to the author Tanya Lewis for realizing that not everyone has been taught critical thinking skills and taking it upon herself to enlighten those who need it, at the conclusion of the article:

“The Hand of God is an example of pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon of perceiving familiar shapes in random or vague images. Other common forms of pareidolia include seeing animals or faces in clouds, or the man in the moon. Despite its supernatural appearance, the Hand of God was produced by natural astrophysical phenomena.”

Can you think of any other clear signs of God that have been reported?  I don’t know about you, but I find them highly entertaining.

h/t theHighJewess

The best explanation for miracles, e.g. Splitting of the Sea

This Saturday, Jews around the world will be reading about how our ancestors walked through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, with water on both sides.  Accordingly, I thought you would enjoy this hypothesis given in 2010 by Carl Drews of the National Center for Atmospheric Research:

You can find many news articles about this study online (e.g. here).

While we have no way to know for sure the event occurred as Mr. Drews suggests, I happen to love this way of thinking when it comes to explaining miracle stories.  We freethinkers look for the most likely explanation, and since “An invisible being came and messed with the laws of physics” is never the most likely explanation, seems that we’re left with either:

a)      The story was completely fabricated, or

b)      A natural event happened, and the authors of the Bible did what everyone did in the first millennium BCE – they attributed the event to the hand of their god.

Which is the more likely explanation for miracle stories?  a) or b)?

No doubt that for some of the miracle stories in ancient sources such as the Bible, explanation a) may be the most likely explanation.  But, in general, all else being equal, I would think that b) should be the default, at least when it’s a story that is presented as an historical event that happened to an entire people.  In some cases, though, the story may have started as a b), but as it was related many times over many generations, some additional embellishing fabrications crept in.

The Aish HaTorah/Ohr Somayach types (those who try to “prove” the Bible is divine) are known for arguing, “There’s no way you could convince an entire nation that –

– their ancestors all stood at Mt. Sinai;

– their ancestors survived in the desert for 40 years on manna;

– their ancestors all saw the sea split;

etc etc.

While their basic argument is wrong – plenty of people have been convinced that miracles happened to their ancestors – just ask students of Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach! – I think it is true that the more likely explanation is that something did happen, and the people interpreted that something as an act of God.  For instance, we wouldn’t argue the Miracle of the Sun story never happened at all.

What do you think?  Do you think miracles are usually made up 100%, or are natural phenomena misunderstood, … or Option C!
(h/t Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – one of the things I actually learned from him in that debate with Professor Richard Dawkins for which I criticized Rabbi Sacks in previous posts.)

Why is Christmas in the winter? Not the reason you thought, says New Testament scholar

Since many Christians will be celebrating Christmas or the Feast of the Epiphany this Monday, on January 6, I figure it’s not too late to post about this.  I think it’s good for us freethinkers to have an idea of why Christmas is celebrated when it is, and this article suggests a reason you may not have heard.

In this interesting article (here) in Biblical Archaeology Review, New Testament scholar Andrew McGowan goes through the sources and explores how December 25 or January 6 came to be celebrated as Jesus’ birthday.

I recommend reading the full article, but if you really want a short spoiler, keep reading.  My short summary is:

  • The first mention we have of Jesus’ birth occurring on December 25 is from some 300 years after the time of Jesus.
  • The earliest source we have on Jesus’ birth says it occurred on May 20.
  • Some of the rituals associated with Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, are probably borrowed from pagan religions (religions where people worshipped more than one god).
  • No one knows for sure why Christmas is on December 25, but
    1. One possibility, which Professor McGowan does not advocate, is that Christmas was established on December 25 either to coincide with pagan holidays celebrated at that time in order to spread Christianity among the pagans, or to connect the birth of the Messiah to the winter solstice, when the sun is “reborn” (i.e. when the days start getting longer).
    2. Another possibility, which Professor McGowan thinks is more plausible, is that if Jesus died on the Eve of Passover, his death would have occurred on March 25, and early Christians believed he was crucified on the same day he was conceived.  If he was conceived on March 25, add nine months and you get Baby Jesus on December 25.

What do you think?  My Jewish education taught me a boatload about Judaism and zip about Christianity.  So if you have anything to add, please do so.