Monthly Archives: November 2013

Is Freethinking Jew or Jewish atheist an oxymoron?

I’m so excited; I finally got my first “interesting” E-mail from a reader!  Now I know my blog is legit. 🙂


I don’t really know who you are but your site is very curious.  I am wondering if you are who you say you are.
I am puzzled how anyone could use the word Jew and skeptic or atheist in the same sentence.
That Bible bull shit was invented by someone and who ever it was should be embarrassed after finding the truth.  Calling ones self a “Jew” is like calling ones self a hillbilly from Jerusalem in my mind. I just can not get my head wrapped around this concept.  It is like now that I am not a fundamentalist Christian anymore why would I want anything to do with let alone call myself a Christian?
Please help me.  I personally can not see how those who believe in a multi-ethnic congomeration insist on mentioning and whispering that “he or she is Jewish” don’t you know.  Why oh Why?  Are you not a Caucasoid white man?  I just don’t understand.  Enlighten me.
Also because a bunch of lemmings choose such and such why do we have to bless it with the Michael Shermer Kosher blessing as truth without any factual evidence or investigation of our own.

This is extremely puzzling to me.  Please help me!!!

Since the man was kind enough to take the time to write, I shall respond:

a) I use “Jew” in Freethinking Jew following Merriam Webster’s definitions 1b, 2, and, especially, 3, below:

Full Definition of JEW

1a :  a member of the tribe of Judah
  b :israelite
2:  a member of a nation existing in Palestine from the sixth century b.c. to the first century a.d.
3:  a person belonging to a continuation through descent or conversion of the ancient Jewish people
4:  one whose religion is Judaism

b) Wouldn’t the world be so much more boring if we all completely abandon our respective cultural heritages and just call ourselves “Caucasoid white men?”
c) After all the *#@! we Jews have been through together as a family, I’m not going to turn my back on my family, even if I no longer believe in the God we all used to worship.

What do you think, thoughtful readers?  Do you think Jewish atheist is an oxymoron?  Is the name “Freethinking Jew” misleading?

Prominent Bible scholar admits to overturning students’ lives and marriages

I guess many of us were aware of this phenomenon, but I think it’s very striking to hear a prominent academic Bible scholar say it publicly:

The truth really does hurt – if you’ve been raised to be an all-or-nothing thinker, that if you don’t believe exactly as you were taught, you are doomed, and that if you expose yourself to other ways of thinking and new evidence, you’re going to hell.  I know from personal experience, as I’m sure some reading this post do.

The truth really shouldn’t hurt, right?  The truth should be fascinating and liberating.  Uncovering the Torah’s contradictions, borrowings from earlier Near Eastern literature, scribal errors, scientific errors, historical errors, later additions to the text, anachronisms, pre-modern morality, etc., should be enlightening and, in my opinion, fascinating, not hurtful.

Indeed, once I got past the many years of stress, guilt, and torment of thinking that I had a problem that needed fixing, a sickness that needed to be cured or at least treated, the truth was marvelous.  It’s delightful to learn the Torah with a more accurate sense of the context in which its authors lived and what they were really trying to say and to use the Torah as our most revealing window into the pre- and early history of my people and its neighbors.  Now, all I am left with is the joy of learning the truth and the feeling of good fortune that I have been exposed to such truth.

But that was only after a decade or so of the truth’s hurting.  And had I gotten married to a religious wife and had kids during that time, the truth would, no doubt, still be hurting.

Parents who send their kids to religious schools where they are taught what they must believe apparently are simply unaware of the potential harm they are guaranteed to be causing their kids.  Either:

a)      their kids’ lives will be overturned , as Professor Propp described, when they discover the truth that those beliefs are no longer tenable, or

b)      their kids will be so close-minded and sheltered their whole lives that they’ll never discover the truth.  Ignorance may be bliss, but if you really want what’s best for your kids, do you really want them to be living their lives being shielded from knowledge and truth?

If only these parents would realize that they are guaranteeing that their kids will have only the two options above, perhaps they would think twice about the type of religious education their kids receive.

Three important notes regarding the typhoon tragedy in the Philippines

1.   An ideal way to help

Thanks to Foundation Beyond Belief, I found an aid organization that claims to use 100% of all donations directly to help the survivors of the typhoon.  In addition, the aid organization is already based in the Philippines, knows the lay of the land and the needs, and probably also isn’t having the challenges that some foreign aid organizations are having landing their planes, etc.  It’s super easy and takes two minutes, by going here.

2.   A human in the Philippines is the same as a human in Oklahoma, right?

Twenty-six humans lost their lives in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting  in December 2012, and 25 humans passed away in the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado last May.  Many times more humans have lost their lives in the typhoon, and yet many Americans may not respond the way they did to the tragedies that hit closer to home.

Since we have no reason to believe a human life in the Philippines is any less worthy than that of our neighbor – as Rava put it in the Talmud, “Who says your blood is redder?  Perhaps the blood of that man is redder (Sanhedrin 74a)?” we need to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of “psychological distance,” as social psychologist Brittany Shoots-Reinhard writes.  In this short but helpful piece, Dr. Shoots-Reinhard explains the roots of the problem and suggests two simple ways to undo the psychological distance and ensure that we and our children and students respond appropriately to such a tragedy:

a)      Commonalities – e.g. see for ourselves and show our children and students the way the tragedy has affected parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents and siblings, people who have lost their most precious family heirlooms – all things to which any of us living anywhere could relate.

b)      Stories – hearing/relating a story of a family or an individual affected by the tragedy makes the victim(s) more identifiable.  And when a victim is identifiable (e.g. Trayvon Martin, Gilad Shalit, etc.), the psychological distance is greatly mitigated.

3.       The humanist response

If anyone ever asks you what the humanist/atheist response is to a public catastrophe like this, this is an approach that resonates with and inspires me:

Think the wives of Talmudic rabbis were submissive yes-women? Think again!

I happen to find some stories in the Talmud highly entertaining – especially the ones about the wives of the great Talmudic sages living some 1,500 years ago in Babylon (Iraq).  If you imagined them as these quiet little demure and docile yes-women who were submissive to the men in their lives, you are in for a few surprises:

Surprise #1:

Rabbi Yosi the Galilean was travelling on the road. He met Bruria (the wife of Rabbi Meir) and asked her: “Which way must we take to the city of Lud?”

She answered: “You Galilean fool! Did not our sages say, “Do not converse much with a woman? You should have just asked, “Which way to Lud!”

The same Bruria once found a young scholar learning quietly to himself. She kicked him and said: “It is written [II Samuel 13:5]: ‘Firm in all and sure,’ which signifies that if the Law is firmly imbedded in all the two hundred and forty-eight parts of the body [i.e. if one puts all his energy into his studies] it can remain with the man, otherwise it cannot!”

(Babylonian Talmud: Eruvin 53b)

Surprise #2:

Here’s a lovely passage about reciting the blessings after meals over a cup of wine:

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Whoever says the blessing over a full cup is given an inheritance without bounds….  Rabbi Yosi son of Rabbi Ḥanina says: He is privileged to inherit two worlds, this world and the next….  It was taught, ‘He sends [the cup] around to the members of his household,’ so that his wife may be blessed.

‘Ula was once at the house of Rabbi Naḥman. They had a meal and he [Ula] said grace, and he handed the cup of benediction to Rabbi Naḥman. Rabbi Naḥman said to him, “Please send the cup of benediction to Yalta [Rabbi Naḥman’s wife].” 

He [Ula] said to him [Rabbi Naḥman], “Thus said Rabbi Yoḥanan, ‘The fruit of a woman’s body is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s body….’ [So you don’t need to give the cup to Yalta.]

Meanwhile Yalta heard, and she got up in a passion and went to the wine cellar and broke four hundred jars of wine. Rabbi Naḥman said to him, “Let the Master send her another cup!!”

He sent it to her with a message: “All that wine can be counted as a blessing.”

She returned an answer: “Gossip comes from peddlers and vermin from rags.”

(Babylonian Talmud: Brachos 51b)

“Gossip comes from peddlers and vermin from rags!”  Ouch!!

Surprise #3:

Apparently the assets of the great Talmudic sage Abaye were left to the rabbinic court in Maḥuza in Babylon to administer.  Abaye’s wife Homa, whose previous two husbands also had passed away, went to the court one day to try to obtain some of Abaye’s money so she could buy some food – and some wine.  It didn’t go so well.  Ḥoma, meet Rava’s wife, a.k.a. “Rav Ḥisda’s daughter:”

Ḥoma, Abaye’s wife, came to Rava [in court] and asked him, ‘Grant me an allowance of food,’ and he granted her the allowance.

‘Grant me [she again demanded] an allowance of wine.’

‘I know,’ he said to her, ‘that [Abaye] did not drink wine.’

‘[I swear] by the life of the Master,’ she replied, ‘that he gave me to drink from horns like these!’

As she was showing [the horns] to him, her arm was uncovered and a light shone upon the court. Rava rose, went home and solicited R. Ḥisda’s daughter [i.e. Rava’s wife]

‘Who has been today at the court?’ enquired Rav Ḥisda’s daughter.

‘Ḥoma, the wife of Abaye,’ he replied.

Thereupon she went after her, striking her with leather straps until she chased her out of all Maḥuza.  ‘You have,’ she said to her, ‘already killed three [men], and now you come to kill another [man]!’

(Babylonian Talmud: Kesubos 65a)


An anti-theist double standard

The great thing about being a freethinker is that I just follow the facts, regardless of to which direction they point.

Seems to me that some prominent antitheists are guilty of a logical fallacy (e.g. here), and it goes like this:

Religion causes people to do bad things they otherwise would not have done – e.g. suicide bombings, oppressing homosexuals, promoting anti-scientific teaching in the classroom, teaching kids they aren’t allowed to choose how to live their own lives because they’ll go to hell if they do, etc.

Religion, however, does not cause people to do good things they would not have otherwise done – e.g. Catholic Charities, church-run homeless shelters, people who rid themselves of addictions or illegal behavior when they “find God,” welcoming guests for Shabbos or Yom Tov, giving a tenth to charity, etc.  Good people will do good things with or without religion.

But then why didn’t you say the same thing before – “Bad people will do bad things with or without religion?”

Seems like a double standard to me.  If we’re being intellectually honest, either claim that:

a)            religion causes people to do good AND bad things they wouldn’t have otherwise done, or

b)            religion causes people to do NEITHER good NOR bad things they wouldn’t have otherwise done.

My sense is the facts clearly support a) more than b), but either way, it seems to be a logical fallacy to have it both ways and give religion credit for the bad it causes and not the good.

Of course if a) is true, that means we have to find ways to gain the benefits of religion, or find sound replacements, without teaching our kids things that aren’t true about invisible beings appearing on tops of mountains or men walking on water or flying to heaven on a donkey, etc.

But I’ll get to that in another post. 🙂