Monthly Archives: December 2013

Christmas for freethinkers

One of the benefits of being a freethinker is that now I get to observe and enjoy other cultures and their traditions, setting aside the irrational beliefs woven into their practices.  Last night I attended my first ever Christmas Mass.  I loved it!  I also got invited to my first Christmas dinner set for tonight, and I’m looking forward to that, as well.

But enough about me.  I got this interesting E-mail from the Secular Coalition for America, which sends out highly informative E-mails every week about issues of secular interest, especially those related to separation of church and state.  I wish they would have included sources for each of the tidbits below, since we freethinkers don’t just take people’s word for it.  But maybe some of you could confirm or deny some of them?

Either way, I think it’s a pleasant message, so I want to share it:

Happy Holidays from the SCA!

Shared holiday histories make this a time for all to come together

At this time of year many cultures and religions celebrate different holiday traditions, including Human Light, Hanukah, Kwanza, Winter Solstice, and of course Christmas, among others. Many of these traditions overlap or have a shared history or origins. And perhaps surprisingly, many of the traditions associated with the holidays have very little or no religious basis at all, such as:

  • It is believed that the modern date of Christmas on December 25 was chosen, to correspond with the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti, celebrated in ancient Rome. It was tradition to bring gifts as offerings to the emperors during these holidays, and the tradition was later expanded to include everyone.
  • Some believe that celebrating the birth of Jesus, who they believed to be the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the winter solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the northern hemisphere.
  • Until 1931, Santa Claus was generally was depicted as an elf, until Coca-Cola ads portrayed him as human-sized.
  • Rudolph was created by an advertising agency hired by Montgomery Ward department stores, which created him to become became Santa’s ninth reindeer.
  • Christmas was illegal in the early Puritan colonies in the early 1600’s because they believed there was no “scriptural justification” for celebrating Christmas. In fact, those who were caught celebrating were required to pay a fine.
  • In the famous poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” published in 1823, Clement Clarke Moore named Santa’s reindeer first time (sans Rudolph). It’s speculated that the eight reindeer are representative for the eight-legged flying horse that belonged to the Norse god, Odin.
  • Poinsettias came from Mexico in 1828.
  • The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is believed by many to date back to the sexual freedoms associated with the pagan holiday of Saturnalia.
  • Santa Clause is based on a real person – a Turkish bishop Nicholas born in 270 CE. He was made a saint in the 19th century, and is considered the patron saint of children and the poor. St. Nicholas became associated with Christmas because the days are so close together, although the Roman Catholic church later dropped St. Nicholas’ Feast Day from its calendar because his life is so unreliably documented.

These shared and overlapping histories demonstrate that even the holidays we associate with certain religions are in fact a compilation of our shared cultures and experiences as human beings throughout the modern history of the world.

“The holidays” mean different things to different people and each tradition has its own history and meaning—although many are shared. As Americans we have the unique ability to be able to choose to celebrate all, some or none of the holidays.  No matter what you choose to celebrate –even if that’s nothing at all– the Secular Coalition for America would like to wish you and yours a happy holiday season and all the best for the new year ahead.

The Secular Coalition Staff


May God save us from superstitions that get people’s hopes up

O God.  This closed group just showed up on my Facebook: “40 DAYS “PEREK SHIRA” TO FIND YOUR BASHERT II!!!” (Yeah, “II,” because apparently there was a “40 DAYS “PEREK SHIRA” TO FIND YOUR BASHERT I!!!“) It’s got 2,308 members, including 4 of my friends – one of whom has a Ph.D.!

(If you have no idea what they’re talking about in the first paragraph, read on.)


SHALOM Y’ALL!!! BH given the overwhelming response to the 40-Day “PEREK SHIRA” cycles we’ve been running, we found it useful to create a group specifically dedicated to collecting names for the upcoming cycle of 40 DAYS “PEREK SHIRA” TO HELP FIND ONE’S BASHERT!!!

As each 40 day cycle runs exclusive of previous ones, we invite you to submit your FULL HEBREW NAME AND THAT OF YOUR MOTHER, as well as those of friends in need of finding their “BASHERT” (predestined life-mate).

As each cycle is independent of others, names must be added to the list each time. Also, those wishing to volunteer to recite will need to let us know each time.

The names are collected and a database of names is finalised before volunteers begin reciting PEREK SHIRA for 40 consecutive days with the list of names in mind.



eg. Yitzchak ben Sarah or Leah bat Rivkah.

Our Sages OBM have emphasized the IMPORTANCE of this SONG, which was composed by King David + King Solomon.

RECITING PEREK SHIRA FOR 40 DAYS CONSECUTIVELY has tremendous influence in the higher realms, and is said to be a tremendous SEGULA, particularly for those in need of finding their bashert.

ALSO, if you are interested in VOLUNTEERING to do the 40-Day Cycle yourself, and wish to get a copy of list of names of people to daven for, please indicate so and zap me your email address.

To recite PEREK SHIRA in Hebrew please visit:

To view PEREK SHIRA with English translation please visit:




I guess we can file this under the No Hope for the Human Race category.

I just feel bad for the people who really believe this stuff and get their hopes up.  Nebach.

Proclaiming the good news

Who says only Christians can spread the good news?  Here are two pieces of wonderful news:

1)      The Jewish community in Lakewood, New Jersey, is one of the largest and most religious in the world.  The community provides a lot of wonderful resources to those within it, but unfortunately does not provide wonderful resources to help those who decide that observing traditional Judaism is not for them – until now.

A courageous young lady named Chaya has started a group for such people to hang out with and support each other.  In Chaya’s words:

“The purpose of this group is to facilitate meetups and events for those of us who … would like to benefit from and provide support to others in similar situations.”

PLEASE think for a moment: Do you know anyone, or do you know anyone who might know anyone, who lives in or around the Lakewood area who might benefit from such a group?  If so, please tell them they can join the group through Facebook by using the following link:  If Facebook isn’t good, please have the person E-mail me (my gmail account is freethinkingjew), and I’ll connect the person with Chaya.  (I don’t know if she wants me posting her E-mail for all to see.)

2)      A few years ago, another courageous young lady named Malkie decided that the Hasidic upbringing with which she was raised was no longer for her, and she needed support in pursuing her own path.  Desperate to find others in a similar situation, Malkie put up signs around her college campus where she was a student, and 20 people showed up to her first meeting.

Ten years later, the organization she founded called Footsteps has helped over 850 people seeking to choose the life they want by providing bi-weekly support groups; helping those deprived of a secular education earn their diplomas/GEDs, get into college, and find employment; advocating for parents torn away from their kids simply because the parent has left religion; and generally creating a community where none would likely otherwise exist.  Footsteps’ logo sums it up:

Your life. Your journey. Your choice.

Footsteps recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a large gala dinner attended by over 400 supporters.  While the organization’s mission is to help people in the NY area, its officers very kindly offer their time and expertise to advise those wanting to start similar groups in other cities.  Footsteps ( has grown exponentially (that means each year more people join than the year before), partly due to the international attention it has received.  E.g.:

The Forward:




The Katie Couric Show:

And many others:

The more we spread the good news about organizations like Footsteps and Chaya’s new Lakewood group, the more quickly we’ll see the day when children will no longer be raised to believe they have no choice on how to live their lives.

Modern religious leader’s dishonesty about the Bible: another example

Here’s another example of a modern-minded religious leader’s seeing his religion’s teachings the way he wants to see them, rather than looking at what those teachings actually say. The Bible has so much cool stuff in it – I really don’t think there’s any need to mangle it.

When talking about the story of the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14), former chief rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks, claims below that the entire Hebrew Bible is a polemic (an attack) against power, and that the story of the Exodus, where long-oppressed slaves won out over the most powerful empire of the time (Egypt) is Exhibit A.

(The clip should start at about 16:10, hopefully!)

While a beautiful message, the claim that the Bible is a polemic against power is not only untenable but contrary to fact.

Here are five instances in the Torah (the Pentateuch – the first five books) alone that glorify the powerful:

  1. Throughout the Torah, the only way the people get to hear YHWH’s (Hashem) command is via Moses (and rarely his brother Aaron). When a man named Korah and his supporters complained to Moses and Aaron that “the entire congregation is holy! Why do you raise yourselves above the assembly of Hashem?” Hashem had some of them swallowed up in an earthquake and the others burned alive (Numbers 16).
  2. The Bible supports the power of the master over that of his slave. Not only does the Bible not present any polemic against the power of the master, it instructs the master to consider the slave to be sub-human, as noted in my previous post. E.g. if someone strikes a non-slave and the victim dies, the perpetrator is put to death (Exodus 21:12); however, if a master strikes his slave and the slave dies, as long as the slave survives a day or two before passing, Biblical law dictates: “If he [the slave] survives a day or two, he [the master] will receive no retribution, for he [the slave] is his [the master’s] money (Exodus 21:21).”
  3. A priest (kohen) is given the power to incarcerate anyone he wishes for as long as he wishes. All he has to do is see some sort of spot on the person’s skin and declare it to be leprosy. No doctor or anyone else is consulted (Leviticus 13). Indeed when the priests got into a bitter dispute with their king Uzziah, wouldn’t you know it – they noticed that the king had leprosy on his skin! The alleged leper spent the rest of his life in jail (2 Chronicles 26:16-21).
  4. The people must obey every legal decision rendered by the priests or the judge at that time or else be put to death (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). No jury of one’s peers. No appeals process. All the power resides in the hands of those priests or judges.
  5. When a famine crippled the entire Near East, the only one who had any food was Joseph, viceroy to the Egyptian king, who had stored up seven years’ worth of food. Rather than use his seat of power to save as many as possible from starvation, the Bible devotes a whole section to tell us how the people had to beg Joseph to keep them alive, and only after selling to him literally every piece of property they owned – their animals, their land, everything – did Joseph give in (Genesis 47:13-26). No polemic against power found here. (One could argue that the Joseph story as a whole is a polemic against the power of his brothers who had tried to kill him. But this episode in the story is clearly an example of the opposite dynamic – one of the powerful winning out.)

I have no reason to believe that the Rabbi Sackses of the world knowingly and maliciously lie about the true content of their religious teachings. And we’d rather have a world of religious people who embrace science and morality than a world of religious people who don’t. But as I argued in my previous post, if you dig yourself into the hole of trying to reconcile ancient religious teachings with modern science and morality, it seems you leave yourself no other choice but to mangle the religious teachings and/or misrepresent them until those teachings seem palatable in 2013.

Do you think modern religious thinkers usually mean well, or are they purposely trying to mislead people about what religious teachings really say?

Do you agree that these examples show that the Bible is NOT a polemic against power, as Rabbi Sacks claimed?

Religious teachings vs. science and moral progress: Modern Orthodoxy’s fatal flaw

As we all know, people who are religious are sometimes confronted with two types of conflicts:

1)      Their religious teachings say one thing, but modern science has shown otherwise.

2)      Their religious teachings say one thing, but our morality and reasoning have progressed and now say otherwise.

Examples of the first type are….

Religious teachings say:

a)      the world was created in 7 days and is thus less than 6,000 years old (Genesis 1),

b)      the Earth stands still while the sun moves (e.g. Joshua 10:12, Psalms 104:5, etc), and

c)      an invisible being spoke and gave commandments on top of a mountain (Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 5.

But science has shown:

a)      the world is approximately 13.8 billion years old,

b)      the sun is still while the Earth moves, and

c)      an invisible being can’t speak and give commandments on a mountain top.

Examples of the second type are….

Religious teachings:

a)      support slavery and treating slaves as subhuman (e.g. Exodus 21);

b)      mandate genocide (e.g. Deuteronomy 25:19, Deuteronomy 20:16, Numbers 31, most of the Book of Joshua, etc);

c)      reward Abraham and commend Jephthah for their willingness to sacrifice their son and daughter to Hashem (YHWH) (see below), and

d)     say gay men are committing an abomination and deserve the death penalty (Leviticus 20:13 and Leviticus 18:22).

But our morality has progressed and now says:

a)      slavery is wrong, and all humans deserve to be treated equally;

b)      genocide is immoral,

c)      child sacrifice is evil; and

d)     consenting adults should have the right to have relations with each other, and it’s no one else’s business, regardless of the sexual orientation of those involved.

So what to do?

If you’re a Haredi Jew or a fundamentalist Christian, no problem!  God’s word is always right.  When science or modern morality conflicts with God’s word, God wins.  As the Harvard-trained geologist Kurt Wise famously said:

“… if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.”

But if you’re a Modern Orthodox or Conservative Jew or any of the more moderate Christian denominations, you don’t have that option.  You’re modern.  You accept scientific and moral progress.

Such religious moderates or centrists no doubt mean well, and the world would probably be a much better place if their numbers were growing and those of the fundamentalists were shrinking, when the opposite is the case.  But it seems the only solution for those of this mind is:

Reinterpret the religious teachings in an intellectually dishonest way so as to conform as much as possible to science and modern morality.

Here are some examples….

Modernity: The world is 13.8 billion years old.

Religious teachings: The world and mankind were created in 7 days, so the world is less than 6,000 years old.

Solution: When the Bible says 7 “days,” it means “eras.”

Fatal flaw: The Hebrew word for “day” (yom) appears 2,303 times in the Hebrew Bible.  It never means anything but day when used in the singular, and it never means “era” in any form. (See: When the Bible’s creation story says 7 days, it means 7 days.


Modernity: Killing all men, women, and children of an entire nation is evil.

Religious teachings: Killing all men, women, and children of an entire nation is proper, when my god commands me to do so – e.g. the nations of Midian, Amalek, and 7 indigenous nations of Canaan. (Deuteronomy 25:19, Deuteronomy 20:16, Numbers 31, most of the Book of Joshua, etc).

Solution: What God meant was to kill anyone with the evil Amalekite mentality and behavior who is not willing to change (e.g.

Fatal flaw:

a) You can’t ask little Amalekite babies whether they have the evil Amalekite mentality, and yet you’re commanded to kill them anyway;

b) Both the command to wipe out Amalek and the story of Saul’s near accomplishment of that goal make clear that the command was understood quite literally (I Samuel 15).  Hashem removed Saul from his throne because Saul didn’t do a good enough job killing all the men, women, and children of Amalek; he had the audacity to let their king Agag live and sit in jail and to let their sheep and cattle survive (to be brought as sacrifices to Hashem, of course).


Modernity: Slavery is wrong, and all men are created equal.

Religious teachings: Slavery is not only OK, but slaves are to be treated like the master’s property, and their lives are not as important as those of freemen.

Solution: When the Bible talks about slaves, they weren’t slaves like the kind we think of when we think of slavery.  They were treated well.  They were just live-in nannies.

Fatal flaw: “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money (Exodus 21:20-21).”


Modernity: Children should not be taught they have no choice and that they must believe in and follow the same religion their parents do.

Religious teachings: “Hear, Israel, our God YHWH is one YHWH (Deuteronomy 6:4).” “I am Hashem, your god, who took you out of Egypt.  You may have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3).”

Solution: Claim, as the former chief rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks does below, that

1)      Jewish schools do not teach children what they have to believe, and

2)      Judaism does not have any sort of confirmation into the faith.

(If the clip below doesn’t start at about 28 minutes, please move it to that spot. Sorry!)

Fatal flaw:

1)      Every Orthodox Jewish day school (Rabbi Sacks was in charge of all the Orthodox Jewish day schools in England) teaches children what they have to believe.

2)      I assume chief rabbis get invited to more bar and bas mitzvahs (i.e. confirmations into the faith) than anyone.


Modernity: Sacrificing one’s son or daughter to a god is a heinous crime.

Religious teachings: The Bible praises Abraham because he proved he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac to Hashem (Genesis 22) and tells us how Jephthah, the leader of the Israelite people in his day, sacrificed his daughter to fulfill his oath to Hashem (Judges 11:29-40).

Solution: Claim, as Rabbi Sacks does below, that the Bible is a polemic against child sacrifice, and that the purpose of the Abraham and Isaac story was to teach us that child sacrifice is wrongnot that it’s praiseworthy. The only reason Hashem told Abraham to sacrifice Abraham’s son was because child sacrifice was so pervasive in those days that, had Hashem not done so, Abraham would have thought something was wrong with Hashem.

(If the clip below doesn’t start at about 19 minutes and 20 seconds, please rewind it to there. Sorry!)

Fatal flaw:

After Abraham binds Isaac on the altar and shows his willingness to obey Hashem’s orders, Hashem tells Abraham:

“because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring … because you have obeyed my voice (vv. 16-18).”

It should be clear to any honest reader of this chapter that the author of this story thinks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son was an admirable thing.  Hashem blesses Abraham and clearly states He is blessing him because Abraham went against his fatherly inclination and “did not withhold” his son.  This shows clearly that the author of this story believed that being willing to sacrifice your son to Hashem is a good thing, not a bad thing, and so to say the Bible is a polemic against child sacrifice is contrary to fact.


Lest we think this is a new phenomenon….

Modernity (even 800 years ago, in Maimonides’ time): Donkeys can’t talk, and so a story about a talking donkey that claims to be real cannot be believed.

Religious teachings: “Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? (Numbers 22:28)

Solution: “That which happened to Balaam on the way, and the speaking of the ass, took place in a prophetic vision (Maimonides (Rambam) in Guide for the Perplexed, Part 2: Chapter 42).”

Fatal flaw: The talking donkey story says nothing about a prophetic vision.


Modernity (even 1,000 years ago, in Maimonides’ time): The idea that God wants humans to feed him is absurd.

Torah: Sacrifices to Hashem (YHWH) are a central part of Judaism. See especially the Book of Leviticus.

Solution: Maimonides says Hashem commanded his people to sacrifice animals and grain to him only because that was the primary way ancient Near Eastern peoples such as the Israelites knew how to connect with their god, and so Hashem make concessions to work within that frame of mind.  It’s not as if the author of the Torah really believed that you’re feeding Hashem when you offer sacrifices (Maimonides (Rambam) in Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3: Chapter 32)!

Fatal flaw: “Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel and say to them, ‘My offering, my food for my food offerings, my pleasing aroma, you shall be careful to offer to me at its appointed time.’ And you shall say to them, This is the food offering that you shall offer to the Lord… (Numbers 28:1-3).”


Finally, it appears this phenomenon has been going on since the early days of Rabbinic Judaism:

Modernity (even 2,000 years ago, in the days of early Rabbinic Judaism): Punishing a woman by cutting off her hand is never right.

Religious teachings: When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity (Deuteronomy 25:11-12).

Solution: When it says, “cut off her hand,” it really just means to give her a fine (Sifrei, cited in Rashi).

Fatal flaw:

a) Really?

b) If the Torah just wanted to say that you should fine her, why didn’t it just say “Fine her,” instead of “cut off her hand?”  (Lawrence Schiffman told me the reason was “to scare the hell out of you.”  However, if everyone knew from the beginning that “cut off her hand” really just means “fine her,” how does that scare anyone?)

c) This barbaric punishment is typical for Ancient Near Eastern law codes.  E.g. in the Code of Hammurabi we find:

192. If a son of a paramour or a prostitute say to his adoptive father or mother: “You are not my father, or my mother,” his tongue shall be cut off.

194. If a man gives his child to a nurse and the child dies in her hands, but the nurse unbeknown to the father and mother nurse another child, then they shall convict her of having nursed another child without the knowledge of the father and mother and her breasts shall be cut off.

Did the Code of Hammurabi also just mean to fine the nurse when it said to cut off her breasts?

Nowadays, when we’re capable of writing blogs and calling out religious leaders when they reinterpret their religion’s teachings in academically dishonest ways, is it any wonder that the population of Modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews and moderate Christians is shrinking?

I’ve done enough talking. Do you agree with this post?  Any examples to add?

Four BIG misconceptions about Chanukkah

Jews around the world are celebrating Chanukkah, marking the victory of the Jews over the ruling Greeks in 164BCE and the restoration of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.  However, almost all celebrants harbor the following major misconceptions about Chanukkah:

Misconception #1: Chanukkah is 8 days long because when the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem from the Greeks and the priests entered the Temple and found only one container of unopened olive oil with which to light the lamp (the Menorah), a miracle occurred, and the oil lasted eight days, to allow them enough time to press more oil.

We know this reason is false for several reasons:

1)      One day’s worth of oil can’t last for eight days.

2)      The earliest sources on Chanukkah (I Maccabees 4, II Maccabees 10, and Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities) mention nothing about the miracle of the oil.  (You’d think a detail like that would be one you wouldn’t forget to mention.)

3)      The earliest sources give other reasons for the eight days.  For instance, the Second Book of Maccabees, which is edited from material written by a contemporary of Judah the Maccabee, says the Maccabees established the holiday for eight days as a makeup for Succos:

It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.                                                                (II Maccabees 10:5-8)

The miracle of the oil doesn’t show up until much much later, for instance in the Talmud, which wasn’t compiled until some 700 years after the Chanukkah story, and in other late sources, such as Pesikta Rabbasi and the Hebrew additions to Megillas Taanis.

Misconception #2: The name “Maccabee” is an acronym that stands for the Hebrew words mi chamocha ba’eilim, YHWH (Who is like you among the gods, Hashem?).

There appears to be no source for this, and it seems quite farfetched anyway.  It’s probably either a Hebraized form of the Aramaic word “hammer” or an acronym that stands for Matisyahu Kohen ben Yochanan.  (See:

Misconception #3: The Maccabees called the holiday Chanukkah, which is a contraction of חנו כה – “they rested on the 25th day[of the month Kislev].”

1)          חנו doesn’t mean “they rested;” it means “they camped.”

2)          We know the holiday wasn’t called Chanukkah until later, because Josephus writes towards the end of the first century CE that it was called, not Chanukkah, but Lights:

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.

It seems the first mention of the name Chanukkah, which means “dedication (as in “to dedicate a new altar in the Temple”) appears in the New Testament, out of all places, in John 10:22.

Misconception #4: What do we celebrate on Chanukkah?

As we have seen above in the words of II Maccabees and in Josephus’ words, the holiday was established to celebrate religious freedom.  It would be a shame to think that Chanukkah is a time to celebrate the miracle of the oil and focus on the oily Chanukkah foods like latkes and donuts.  The Jews at that time were celebrating that they regained their freedom to worship as they saw fit, so why should Jews today celebrate for any other reason?

Can you think of any others?  Do you celebrate religious freedom on Chanukkah or other things?

Special thanks go to Rabbi Barry Freundel, Ph.D., in whose graduate school course I learned most of the above.