Tag Archives: atheism

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.

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.

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.

Why the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails, and why it doesn’t matter anyway

We’ve all heard one or more variation of the following argument:

There’s no way this amazing world could have come into existence by itself.  There must have been some sort of “uncaused cause” that created the universe.

Philosophers have been aware of these sorts of arguments for many centuries, and yet philosophers have, by and large, rejected these arguments.  It’s easy to see why, when even just an average freethinker like me can see where these arguments fall short.

Let’s use the version known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, popularized by theologian and professional debater William Lane Craig, Th.D.:

Premise 1: Everything that comes into existence has a cause.

Premise 2: The universe came into existence.

Conclusion: The universe must have had a cause (which must be an uncaused being – i.e. God).

The way arguments constructed in this way work is that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true.  Conversely, if one or more of the premises may or may not be true, the conclusion also may or may not be true.

If you haven’t seen this argument before, maybe take a second to see how many holes you can find in this argument.  I’m not a trained philosopher, and I haven’t researched all that’s been written on this argument, but here are three simple flaws that I’ve either found or thought of:

I.                    Premise 1 may or may not be true

The argument is bit of a logical trick, because Premise 1 already assumes the conclusion.  You’re trying to prove that the universe must have had a cause, but Premise 1 already declares that EVERYTHING – including the universe – that comes into existence has a cause.  So essentially the argument amounts to “Everything that begins to exist, including the universe, has a cause, therefore the universe has a cause.”

The fact is, however, that we do not know that everything that begins to exist has a cause, because we’ve never seen a universe come into existence.  Therefore we have no track record, no basis for assuming that whenever a universe comes into existence (if, in fact, the universe ever did come into existence and wasn’t always there) that it always has a cause.  And so the assumption in Premise 1 that everything (including the universe) that comes into existence has a cause may or may not be true.  Since we don’t know whether Premise 1 is true, we don’t know whether the conclusion is true either.

II.                  Premise 2 may or may not be true

The argument assumes that the universe began at the big bang and that nothing at all existed before that.  While some cosmologists (scientists who study the early universe for a living) hold that view, others are not so sure.  For instance, it is possible that quantum (i.e. super super tiny) fields caused the big bang and those quantum fields always existed.  It’s also possible the universe has no beginning or end, similar to a sphere, as Stephen Hawking and Jim Hartle suggested (see: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/hawking/universes/html/bound.html).  In fact, there are several possibilities as to what happened or did not happen before the big bang, and so no one has any idea whether the world really came into an existence at some point or instead has always existed.  (See: http://www.closertotruth.com/video-profile/Did-the-Cosmos-Begin-Sean-Carroll-/1744.)  And so Premise 2, that the universe came into existence, also may or may not be true.  Since we don’t know whether Premise 2 is true, we don’t know whether the conclusion is true either.

III.                Something has to give

If you think about it, you can make the same sort of argument in reverse:

Premise 1: Everything that comes into existence has a purely physical (matter, energy, laws of physics – i.e. can be explained without God) cause.

Premise 2: The universe came into existence.

Conclusion: The universe had a purely physical cause (i.e. with no god needed).

The fact that we can flip this argument in such a way so as to draw the exact opposite conclusion shows:

a)      You can’t figure out how science works, including the origins of the universe, by constructing syllogisms (arguments with premises and a conclusion like this one).

b)      As I wrote above, since we’ve never seen universes come into existence before, we have no way to know which is more likely – that it was caused by purely physical causes like everything else; or that it was the one thing caused by some sort of uncaused cause, such as a god; or that it, rather than a god, is the one thing that is the uncaused cause and somehow didn’t need anything to cause it to come into existence.

Why it doesn’t matter anyway

Finally, even if one could prove that the world was caused by some sort of uncaused being, it would be an extremely fascinating piece of knowledge, but it would have absolutely no effect on our lives.  Since modern scholarship has shown that all our religious texts are man-made, we would have no idea whether that uncaused being is a god who listens to people’s prayers and watches over us, an alien from another universe who created this universe for some reason we’ll never know, a dentist who has the whole universe sitting in her fish tank in her waiting room to keep her patients entertained as they’re waiting, etc. etc., and we would have absolutely no reason for thinking one of these possibilities is more likely than the other.

These are just some thoughts that have come to me.  Do you know any other problems with the First Cause-type arguments?  Do you see any holes in my holes? 

Thanks so much for reading and contributing to this blog this past year!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!! 🙂

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: http://biblehub.com/hebrew/3117.htm). 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. http://www.jidaily.com/vAmb7).

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?

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. 🙂

Enjoy!

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?