Monthly Archives: July 2013

Atheists can be anti-science and irrational, too

Being a freethinker, I’m free to call out irrationality whether perpetrated by atheists or by theists.  Here are just a few examples of atheists’ being anti-science, making assertions with no evidence, and adhering to views that run counter to the facts or to the scholarly consensus in the relevant field:


Many atheists believe that foods containing genetically engineered ingredients (GMO’s) are either unsafe or that not enough research has been conducted to determine their safety.  However, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, a European Union study of 50 research projects, and other reputable studies  on this question (e.g. this one and this one) have concluded unequivocally that GMO products have been scientifically shown to be safe.  In the words of the EU study, there was “no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

As Skeptic Magazine’s Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer), an atheist, conceded in a recent tweet:  “Anti-GMO/Monsanto is science denial/anti-capitalism comparable to climate denial/creationism on the right. We all have our blind spots.”

Bill Maher

Mr. Maher, a constant ridiculer of those who hold anti-scientific views, apparently is anti-vaccine and has doubted germ theory.

Free will

Neuroscientist and anti-theist author Sam Harris, of whom I am a fan, as well as anti-theist biology professor Jerry Coyne, adhere to their view that humans have no free will (see here and here, respectively).  I have found their arguments persuasive.  However, a survey of analytic philosophers showed that only about 12 percent accepted or leaned towards no free will.  In addition, Dr. Harris maintains that science can determine objective moral values, despite the fact that his thesis has, by and large, been rejected by moral philosophers.

Dr. Harris rails against religious people for relying on Bronze Age teachings rather than having a 21st century conversation.  In these cases, however, 21st century conversations have taken place and yet neither he nor Prof. Coyne has accepted the conclusions of those conversations.

Gun control

In the gun control debate, the same atheists who ridicule religious people who back up their views with nothing but passion, name-calling, and assertions without evidence often do the exact same thing when arguing for stricter gun control (e.g. here).  This is not to say their conclusion is wrong necessarily – just that they usually don’t use any evidence to support their position.  Granted, good data in this debate is difficult to find, but then we should just say “Let’s come up with more good data before we trust our inclinations.”  Isn’t that we do with questions such as, “How did the universe begin?” and other faith-related questions?

In another recent tweet, Michael Shermer declared: “New paper on relationship between gun ownership & gun homicides: More Guns=More Murder. John Lott is wrong again.” [Lott is a crime researcher who is a proponent of gun rights.]  However, right there in the abstract of the article Shermer cites, the authors of the study write, “This, however, should not be seen as a policy recommendation, due to the limited data available to inform and parameterize the model.”

How is this different from theists who quote mine or jump to conclusions about their beliefs based on little or no real evidence?


Finally, a very costly example is the way many atheists have sadly gotten swept up in the “Israel-bashing is cool” trend.  For instance, many atheists who themselves are not anti-Semitic will blindly regurgitate what they hear from those who are – e.g. that Israel is an “apartheid regime.”  Yet it would be oh so simple for them to be good skeptics and look up the facts, instead of just believing such a severe accusation on faith.  If they would do so, they would discover, for instance, that:

– about 20 percent of Israelis are Arabs;

– Israeli Arabs have voting rights equal to those of Israeli Jews;

– the Israeli parliament has included Arab members at all times since the founding of the state and currently includes 12 Arab members;

– an Israeli Arab medical student graduated first in her class this year at the Technion – Israel’s version of MIT, a Lebanese woman was last year’s valedictorian, and a leading Israeli cancer researcher there is Arab; and

– Miss Israel is an Ethiopian-Israeli.

On the other hand, if a Jew would try to take up residence in Gaza or the West Bank – let alone try to gain voting rights, join the Palestinian government, or study at a Palestinian university, the Jew’s head would become a soccer ball before he/she could say, “Apartheid.”


I have no doubt that atheists are far more likely to accept the evidence and scientific consensus that evolution and man-made climate change are true, and that’s important.  But as the above examples show, the idea that atheists are always guided by evidence and scholarly consensus – well, the evidence is clearly against that hypothesis.


Objectively awesome

Do people really think atheists aren’t overcome with awe and don’t appreciate the tremendous beauty and feel the same emotions religious people do when we see something as spectactular as this?

View this on the biggest screen you can find.


[I found this through the website Why Evolution is True.]

Atheists can celebrate religious holidays – like they play Monopoly?

I recently discovered a delightful collection of short clips from interviews of atheists that one Chris Johnson conducted on a whole range of topics.  According to Johnson’s website, he is a photographer who is “traveling through the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom putting together a book of photographic portraits of atheists.

“From the college professor, to the farmer in Kansas,” Johnson writes, “I want to document my fellow atheists and ask them what brings meaning and joy to their lives. The goal of the book is to visually capture the diversity of non-believers and the ways they maintain a better life, not in spite of their atheism, but because of it.”

That is, Johnson’s goal is to show that “the atheist life is a better life and it deserves to be celebrated.”

As we’ve discussed before, atheism is a judgment about the quality of the evidence for and against God, and so whether or not the atheist life is better or worse than the religious life has no bearing on whether or not atheism makes sense.  Still, I find it interesting to hear how atheists find meaning in their lives, define their morality, grieve, enjoy life, treat religious holidays, etc., differently from theists.

In my previous post, I showed a clip from Johnson’s interview with Julia Sweeney on dealing with death.  Here’s another interesting short clip, this one from his interview with Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy Emerita at the University of California, San Diego.  How does Professor Churchland, an atheist, celebrate Christmas?  (Can you tell she’s Canadian?)

And so Dr. Churchland’s two approaches are:

1)      Understand and appreciate the history behind the holiday.

I have had discovered the same benefit.  Whether it’s the origins of Christmas as a celebration of the winter solstice or, in my case, the origins of the Jewish holidays, I find that the awareness of how the holiday was originally intended and celebrated as compared to today quite intriguing.

For instance, if you’re a mainstream Orthodox Jew, Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and is the day when God judges all human beings for the coming year and Shavuot (Shavuos) is the anniversary of the giving of the “Ten Commandments” on Mt. Sinai.  However, as a Freethinking Jew, these holidays gain a certain richness when I appreciate that in Biblical times these holidays had nothing to do with any of this and instead had completely different reasons for their celebration.

I think it’s interesting to see how these holidays have evolved over time and to think about why they evolved the way they did.  E.g. in Biblical times, most of the Jewish holidays were agricultural, to thank their god YHWH (Hashem) for the crops, etc.  As society moved into the cities and the agricultural significance of these holidays was no longer meaningful, the Jews needed to develop new reasons to celebrate these holidays.  And so I find it interesting to see, for instance, how the Holiday of the First Fruits (Shavuot) evolved into the Holiday of the Giving of our Torah.

2)      Enjoy the theistic aspects of the holidays, the way we enjoy playing Monopoly.

I have found this part a little more difficult but still possible.  E.g. on Passover, when we’re reading in the Haggadah about all the miracles God performed for our ancestors as He took them out of Egypt “with an outstretched arm,” it’s hard at times just to put my mind into the game, so to speak.  On the other hand, when we’re singing Dayeinu or other holiday songs, I find it fairly easy just to enjoy the song and the connection with the tradition and community without being bogged down with the theistic implications of what I’m singing.

And a third approach that Dr. Churchland does not suggest but that I have found commonly employed:

3)      Draw your own meaning out of the holiday.

Going back to Passover, I think one reason why so many otherwise-unaffiliated Jews relate to Passover is because they have found in it a modern-day message.  Rather than celebrating the one-time event of the supposed exodus of our ancestors from Egypt 3,300 years ago, many Jews are really celebrating the fact that Jews have managed to escape the bondage placed upon them countless times throughout history.

In addition, those who have overcome personal struggles such as addiction no doubt think of Passover as a day to celebrate freedom from personal slavery.  Similarly, when I celebrate Succot (Succos) – the Holiday of the Gathering of the Crops, I feel gratitude for the various “crops” that we have been fortunate to “harvest” in the previous year through our modern-day vocations.

The above is not to argue that an atheist should celebrate religious holidays but rather to demonstrate that those who choose to do so have multiple reasons for what they do.

One more thought on grieving for non-theists

Just as a short follow-up to Rebecca’s post on grieving, here’s a short but poignant thought I just saw on this topic from actress and author Julia Sweeney:

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I’ll pray for him/her/them,” and I just want to scream and say, “How about you go DO something to HELP them!”

I would think helping in practical ways would come first even if you are under the impression that prayer works.

Guest Post: Grieving without belief in God or an afterlife

By Rebecca Hensler, founder of Grief Beyond Belief

As today is Tisha B’Av, the traditional day of mourning in the Jewish calendar, we freethinkers who don’t have the comfort of “knowing” that death is part of God’s plan and that we will be reunited with our departed loved ones may need ideas on how to grieve given such realities. 

We are very privileged and I am extremely grateful that Rebecca Hensler has written this very meaningful and helpful guest post for us.  Ms. Hensler, who has an M.S. in counseling, has turned personal tragedy into a means of helping others by founding Grief Beyond Belief, a support network for those who are grieving without belief in God or an afterlife. [-FTJ]

I light a Yahrzeit candle for my son, Nathaniel Judah, on the anniversary of his death.  But I have never said the Mourner’s Kaddish for him.  Like many modern Jews, I pick and choose what practices and beliefs to engage with in my day-to-day life and which to omit.  And worshiping God is one I omit.

I was raised a secular Jew.  No one sat me down as a child and told me that; I only put the word to it after learning about secular Judaism in the atheist community.  But looking back, I remember reading illustrated children’s books of Torah stories and recognizing them as myths, singing the blessings on Shabbat and holidays with a sense of thankfulness but not addressing it to a literal deity, talking about God with my parents only as a theoretical possibility.  I remember going to Hebrew school, but answering, when asked if I wanted a Bat Mitzvah, “I would just be doing it for the presents and party.  That seems like a bad reason to do a religious ceremony.”

When it came to the topic of death, no one in my immediate family proposed that I — or anyone — will pass to The World To Come after our lives end.  In fact, the freeform Reform Judaism that my family practiced said very little about death, and nothing at all about an afterlife.

What I gained from this upbringing was freedom from dogma.  I have seen people who were raised in fundamentalist religions struggle to find themselves as freethinkers; I strolled easily into atheism, keeping what I appreciated of Jewish culture and philosophy while shaking off what I had no use for.

But my lack of faith gave me nothing to work with when it came to death, not even a starting place.  Thus in my early adult years, when friends around me began to die, first of AIDS and then of suicides and overdoses, I didn’t have the ancient, well-tested tools with which Jews traditionally and ritually process grief.  It is no surprise that I cobbled together an eclectic assortment of beliefs and rituals of my own from the Pagan and New Age cultures that surrounded me at the time.

I had already given up these beliefs for lack of evidence and accepted my own atheism when, in the forty-first year of my life, my infant son died.

Nathaniel Judah, known to all as Jude, was the tiny love of my life.  Carrying Jude in my womb, birthing him, caring for him in the hospital, holding him while he passed from life, and grieving his death transformed and inspired me.  Two years after his short life, I founded a grief support network for atheists and other freethinkers: Grief Beyond Belief.  Grief Beyond Belief’s Facebook Page sends its daily post – a question, quote or link about secular grief – to thousands of freethinkers, and Grief Beyond Belief Group has over 500 members sharing sorrow and support.

This is how I come to be writing here about the differences between grieving as a religious Jew and grieving as a secular Jew.

Some of those differences lie in the ways we grieve, the actions we take following a death.  Sitting shivah comes to mind first, of course.  An observant and traditional Jew will spend the seven days following a death staying in the home, actively grieving and following a set of rules defining that process.  A secular Jew, while perhaps recognizing the value of devoting time and attention to the act of grieving, is less likely to take part in this formal and constrained ritual of grief.

But there is no reason why secular Jews should not sit shivah.  In fact, in a New York Times column in January, 2012, Bruce Feiler wrote of how his own circle rediscovered and redesigned the ritual with changes that allowed it to meet the needs of a group with diverse beliefs.

“The ‘secular shivas’ we organized had a number of notable differences that proved crucial to their success. First, we organized them for Jews and non-Jews alike. Second, no prayers or other religious rituals were offered. Third, we held them away from the home of the griever, to reduce the burden. And finally, we offered the grieving party the option of speaking about the deceased, something not customary under Jewish tradition.”

There are other actions in which a theist Jew can engage while mourning or on the anniversary of a loved one’s death that are adaptable to secular observance.  For example, those who believe that their loved one’s soul will be judged following death may also believe that that soul can increase in “merit,” if charity is given, psalms are read or Torah is studied in their name.  While a secular Jew recognizes that no soul exists after a loved one dies, he or she may still choose to extend the influence and impact of that person’s life by giving or acting in their memory.  Atheists do this all the time, donating to a secular foundation such as Foundation Beyond Belief, paying to have trees planted or a microloan granted, or contributing to a scholarship fund in the deceased’s name.  For me, founding Grief Beyond Belief allowed my son’s life to lead to something of lasting value despite its brevity.

So we are left with the possibility that beliefs, and the prayers and texts that give voice to these beliefs, are the sole aspects of traditional Jewish mourning that cannot be shared by secular Jews.  Our beliefs regarding what — if anything — happens after death are where we differ most.

The beliefs of religious Jews about death and life after death are more diverse than in many other religions, but most theist Jews believe in some form of afterlife and many believe that a person’s actions during life impact the nature of that afterlife.  Secular Jews believe that when a person dies, that person’s consciousness ends irrevocably.  Thus theist and atheist grief are divided by one simple distinction: the faithful hope for reunification with the deceased in the next world, whatever that means to them; the secular understand and accept death as a permanent separation.

On first examination, the former is obviously preferable; who would not rather grieve a temporary parting than a permanent one?  But for the skeptic, the rational thinker who demands evidence for any belief, trying to hold onto a hope of reunification — when every bit of evidence we have points to the death of the brain as the permanent end of consciousness — requires grieving in a state of cognitive dissonance.  While sometimes atheist Jews may wish that they believed their deceased loved ones are somewhere waiting to rejoin them, they ultimately find other ways of staying connected with those who are gone and of bearing the loss.

Two years of running Grief Beyond Belief has taught me a great deal about how atheists and other freethinkers live with their grief without religion or spiritualism.  For those who are facing grief as a nonbeliever, or who are leaving religion and are concerned about how they will survive a loss in the future without the familiar comfort of belief, here are just some of the secular strategies with which freethinkers heal from the death of a loved one and learn to live with grief:

1. Expression and Empathy

The greatest benefit of peer-to-peer grief support is the opportunity to share your emotions with others who are experiencing the same things and feeling the same way.  For me, this is how online grief support came into my life: reading the thoughts of other grieving parents, writing my own thoughts, and seeing the similarities between the two allowed me to recognize that I was not going crazy, I was grieving.  Furthermore, simply moving my pain out of my head and onto the computer screen helped me process it, feel it, deal with it before it built up and overwhelmed me.  Since we started Grief Beyond Belief’s private closed “Group” on Facebook, we have heard time after time from members that being able to express their darkest thoughts and most painful feelings — and be heard and understood — makes it easier for them to live with grief.

2. Storytelling and Memorializing

One of the kindest things that you can do for most people who are mourning is to ask them to tell stories about the people they are grieving.  Funny stories, heroic stories, romantic stories and tragic stories, they are the stuff of which our memories are made, and we bring our loved ones to life when we tell them.  We also love to hear other people’s memories of our loved ones, or even just to hear their names spoken.

The grieving also find healing through the things they do to honor those they have lost.  A memorial garden or bench; a scrapbook, art project or homemade video; a fundraiser or scholarship; a donation to a hospital or hospice; the possibilities are endless.  Every action taken in memory of our loved one brings that person from the past into the present, giving them a way to continue to impact the world around us.

3. Humanist Philosophies About Death

Many Jews do a whole lot of studying, thinking, talking and arguing about what they know, what they think and what they believe about the nature of the world around them.  Many atheists do too.  Humanist philosophies are those that focus on the human potential for growth, ethical decision making and creativity, and are based in a naturalistic rather than supernatural perception of the world.

There are many Humanist philosophies about death that comfort those who grieve without belief in an afterlife.  Atheist blogger Greta Christina has written a great deal about these philosophies, particularly following the death of her father and her own cancer diagnosis only two weeks later.  In her essay, “Humanism in a Shitstorm,” written in the aftermath of these two events, she sums up many of these philosophies in one paragraph:

“And the secular philosophies of death that I’ve been writing and reading and contemplating for years now… these have been a tremendous comfort. For instance: The idea that we didn’t exist for billions of years before we were born, and that wasn’t painful or bad, and death will be the same. The idea that our genes and/or ideas will live on after we die. The idea that each of us was astronomically lucky to have been born at all. The idea that death is a deadline, something that helps us focus our lives and treasure the experiences we have…The idea that loss, including death, is necessary for life and change to be possible. The idea that things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful. The idea that your life, your slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though you die. The idea that death is a natural, physical process that connects us intimately with nature and the universe. In an unspeakably shitty time of my life, all of these ideas have been a deep, solid, very real comfort.”

Greta isn’t the only atheist author writing on this topic.  Google “humanism” along with “grief” and you will find many insightful and well-spoken writers and philosophers, both amateur and professional, “thinking out loud” in ways that will help you find meaning in times of sorrow.

These are only three of the approaches that atheists have found for surviving and living with grief.  Daily, at Grief Beyond Belief, freethinkers share advice on mourning, often based on their own experience surviving grief without religion.  With thoughtfulness, kindness and rational compassion they have created a community and proven that a belief in the afterlife is not necessary for the grieving to find comfort.

Conditional love? Do my religious loved ones really love the real ME?

Ever since I stopped observing halacha (Jewish law), the elephant in my room has been: “What will happen when they find out?”

The “they” includes my family members – most of whom are not aware, my old friends from yeshiva and Jewish day school, my old rabbinic teachers, and – let’s call them the tusks of the elephant in the room – all the wonderful families in the Orthodox Jewish community who have welcomed me into their homes and had me over countless times to enjoy Sabbath and Jewish holiday meals with them.  When I say “welcomed me into their homes,” I mean it.  I never felt like they were doing me a favor or a kindness by giving me a free meal and a warm Sabbath experience.  We developed lasting, meaningful relationships.  We care about each other’s well-being.

I say the latter are the tusks of the elephant in the room, because when I think about this question – “What will happen when they find out?” it’s usually those wonderful families who are foremost in my mind.

So what, in fact, would happen?  I guess either:

a) they would cut ties with me – something that would make me feel sad and offended;

b) they would continue to be kind and welcoming, but their reason for doing so would change, at least partially, from “because we like him and enjoy having him over,” to “because we need to keep him in the fold in the hopes that he’ll “return” someday,” – something that would make things very awkward-feeling; or

c) they would feel and act the exact same way about me as they do now.

Since every two Jews have three opinions, as they say, I speculate that I would experience all three of the above possibilities.

Another concern I have is the self-consciousness I would feel whenever I find myself in the Orthodox community.  When I go to the kosher supermarket and see all these people who’ve known me for 10 or more years, the first few times I would probably turn the same color as the beets in the canned vegetables aisle.

One final concern I have: breaking these wonderful people’s hearts!  I remember how difficult it was when I was at the height of my yeshivishness and a close family member stopped being observant.  I was tormented with “There’s got to be something I could do, something I could say to him.”  When he would drive home after the Friday night Sabbath meal – the epitome of throwing off the yoke of traditional Judaism, it would rip my heart out!

And so how could I now go and break the hearts of such good people, who have been so good to me?  “What is hateful to you, do not to your friend,” as Hillel famously said.

A fellow formerly observant friend of mine, though, has been trying to help me with this.  He says (regarding a specific such Orthodox person I gave him as an example):

I can say very plainly that if she cares about *you*, it wouldn’t make any difference to her whether you believed in an imaginary sky-friend.

In any event, is your relationship with her real if it is premised upon her belief that you are someone different from that which you hold yourself out to be? Can you possibly care about breaking the heart of someone who essentially has no idea who you are?

I think the man is wise.  I’ve been thinking about what he said (although not that often, because the whole thing isn’t pleasant to think about), and today I also recalled the Mishnah (1st or 2nd century rabbinic teaching):

Any love that is dependent on something – when the something ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases [Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 4:16].

The rabbis had a talent for laying things out crystally clearly, didn’t they?

I still don’t want to break their hearts, though.  And I still don’t want to feel self-conscious or go from being “one of them” to becoming a kiruv (Jewish outreach) case.

I’d love to hear others’ experiences.  Thank you for reading.

Did the Exodus happen? World’s leading scholars convene

If you have any interest in the question of whether or how much of the Exodus story in the Bible is historical, I just learned of a recent conference on this topic that included some of the world’s biggest Bible scholars, Egyptologists, and Near Eastern archaeologists.  So I just had to share the great news with you that all the lectures are available on YouTube!

There’s a lot there, so I suggest scrolling through the list of lectures and going right to the topic(s) that most pique your interest.

Enjoy! 🙂
(h/t Prof. Aren Maeir)

Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

In honor of the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred and is mourned during this time of year, I present you the infamous short story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.  Whether or not the story occurred exactly – or at all – as recorded in the Talmud, the story serves as an important lesson on a) how petty discord can bring about horrible consequences, and b) what happens when leaders, in this case rabbis, don’t speak up.

The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamtza and a Bar Kamtza in this way:

A certain man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza.” The man went and brought Bar Kamtza.

When the man [who gave the party] found him there, he said, “You’re my enemy; what do you want here? Get out!”

Said the other: “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”

He said, “I won’t!”

“Then let me give you half the cost of the party.”

“No!” said the other.

“Then let me pay for the whole party!”

He still said, “No!” and he took him by the hand and put him out.

Said the other, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the [Roman] government.”

He went and said to the emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.”

He said, “How can I tell?”

He said to him: “Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar].”

So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he [Bar Kamtza] made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they [the Romans] do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the government.

Said R. Zechariah b. Abkulas to them: “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.”

They then proposed to kill Bar Kamza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah b. Abkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”

Rabbi Yochanan thereupon remarked: “Through the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.”

He [the Roman emperor] then sent against them Vespasian the Caesar who came and besieged Jerusalem for three years….                                                         (Babylonian Talmud: Gittin 55b-56a)

And the rest was history.

Two responses to “I’d much rather believe in a world that….”

It’s no secret that even entertaining the possibly that no one is watching over us is extremely challenging for many people.  As we know, the emotional bond with, and in some cases, dependence upon, such a God is held so deeply inside some people that the idea that no Father in Heaven exists would be too traumatic even to consider.

What happens sometimes, though, is that people use the above as a/the reason for why they believe in God.  So that if you ask someone, “Why do you believe in God?” instead of hearing a logical argument for God’s existence, the response you often hear is something like:

“I’d much rather believe in a world where this is a god watching over me.  I can’t imagine living in one where there isn’t.”  Or:

“Life would be so meaningless if there’s no God and everything is just random.”  Or, my favorite, from a good friend of mine:

“If I don’t believe in God, who am I going to b—- to?”

For an “intellectual 2 by 4”TM response, here’s my personal favorite:

Alternatively, here’s a response I once gave someone on this.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

We would rather live in a world without cancer and without hunger, but unfortunately we have to deal with what is. Right?

I could keep saying, “I’d much rather live in a world where I imagine there’s no cancer and no hunger,” but if I do that, I’m less likely to do the best I can given these realities.  I won’t try to help cancer patients or poor people.  I won’t get checked for prostate cancer when I’m 40.  Etc.

So too herrrre, [that’s how we used to talk in yeshiva – FTJ] I feel like I’m better off dealing with the reality that there is no one up there watching over me, because if I keep imagining there is one, I’ll be less likely to live my life in the best possible way given this reality.  

E.g. Instead of turning to a god when I’m in need, I’ll turn directly to those who can really help.  Or I’ll find new capabilities within myself.  I’m also more aware now of how much I need to help the less fortunate, because if humans won’t, no one will.

New archaeological discovery exposes harm caused by extremism

Israeli archaeologists have just discovered artifacts that give us a vivid sense of how destructive and merciless extremism of any sort and an eagerness for war can be, as reported last week by the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

You wouldn’t expect to find a cooking pot – let alone three of them – inside a cistern, which is a tank, usually underground, used to collect rainwater.  But when archaeologist Eli Shukron and his team were excavating a cistern associated with a first-century building near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they found these three intact cooking pots and a small ceramic oil lamp dating to the time of the failed Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in 66-70 CE.



[Photos taken by Vladimir Naykhin]

These inhabitants of Jerusalem – who were most likely innocent, peace-loving people – were forced to eat food in hiding, at the risk of persecution – from other Jews.  Both the eye-witness testimony of Josephus and a story recorded later in the Talmud report how a group of Jewish extremists known as the Zealots (or the Sicarii or Biryonei) were so bent on getting the rest of the Jewish community to fight for its independence by revolting against the Roman Empire that these Zealots intentionally caused a devastating man-made famine to force the people into war.

Josephus (37 – c. 100 CE):

As the famine grew worse, the frenzy of the partisans [the Zealots] increased with it….  For as nowhere was there grain to be seen, men broke into the houses and ransacked them.  If they found some they maltreated the occupants for saying there was none; if they did not, they suspected them of having hidden it more carefully and tortured them.

Many secretly exchanged their possessions for one measure of wheat if they happened to be rich, barley if they were poor.  They shut themselves up in the darkest corners of the their houses, where some through extreme hunger ate their grain as it was, others made bread, necessity and fear being their only guides.  Nowhere was a table laid…. (Josephus, The Jewish War. Translated by G.A. Williamson 1959. P. 290 – cited in the IAA article linked above).

The Talmud (edited c. 575 CE):

He [the Roman emperor] then sent Vespasian the Caesar who came and besieged Jerusalem for three years.  There were in it three men of great wealth, Nakdimon b. Gorion, Ben Kalba Shabua’ and Ben Zizith Hakeseth….  One of these said to the people of Jerusalem: I will sustain them with wheat and barley.  A second said: I will sustain them with wine, oil and salt. The third said: I will sustain them with wood….  These men were in a position to sustain the city for twenty-one years.

The Zealots were then in the city.  The Rabbis said to them: Let us go out and make peace with them [the Romans].  They would not let them, but on the contrary said: Let us go out and fight them.  The Rabbis said: You will not succeed.  They then rose up and burnt the stores of wheat and barley so that a famine ensued….

The leader of the Zealots in Jerusalem was the son of the sister of Rabban [Chief Rabbi] Johanan b. Zakkai. [The latter] sent to him saying: Come to visit me privately.  When he came he said to him, “How long are you going to carry on in this way and kill all the people with starvation?”  He replied: What can I do?  If I say a word to them, they will kill me (Babylonian Talmud: Gittin 56a).

Every summer, during The Three Weeks, which this year run from June 25 – July 16, Jews traditionally mourn over the destruction of the Jewish communities centered in Jerusalem, as well as the focus of Jewish life – the Temple, that occurred both in 586 BCE and 70 CE.  The latter was the sad culmination of the Great Revolt discussed above.  Both in 586 BCE (see Jeremiah: Chapter 18 onward) and in 70 CE, the human suffering that resulted was largely due to the behavior of those who chose to wage war for their independence rather than accept peace under the ruling government.

For traditional Jews, the destruction of the two Temples is a primary focus of this period of mourning.  But for a Freethinking Jew, who is not inclined to mourn over the fact that Jews can no longer offer animal sacrifices to their god, is there any reason to mourn?

I have been thinking about this question the past couple weeks.  Besides the obvious reason for mourning – the tremendous human suffering that took place, I think taking note of what happened when extremism and zealotry grabbed hold of the wheel is extremely important, so that we can learn a lesson from history and be less likely to repeat it.