Tag Archives: Humanistic Judaism

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.


Striking results from survey of American Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what do you think!

h/t Chatzkaleh Kofer

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?

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: http://www.tubechop.com/watch/1649068.

Freedom is actually a good thing

In this article about the horrible tragedy of Deb Tambor’s apparent suicide and the way she and her partner were treated by her family and former community, the most powerful line to me is the last one. The Hasidic Jew from New Square levies upon her the damning accusation: “It’s like she was free!”

By all accounts, Ms. Tambor treated people with dignity and was a wonderful friend and partner. But all that is rendered insignificant because “she was free.”

I think that’s the biggest thing that separates us as freethinkers; we believe freedom is a good thing.

But this Chasid makes perfect sense, given his assumptions; if you’re sure you have the precise instructions from the all-knowing being on how to live a good life, and that includes a lot of restrictions and thus tells you that living however you want is a bad thing, then of course being free would be a bad thing. As the Torah says:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deuteronomy 30:19).

(In other words:

free will)

It’s like if you teach your daughter that cocaine is harmful, and she says, “But I want to be free!” of course you don’t want your kid to live free and do whatever she wants if that involves harming herself. So if you know that violating the Torah is as bad for you as snorting cocaine – except it’s worse, because it ruins your life both in this world and the next, then of course you would think of living free as a bad thing.

I normally have held the view that Orthodox Judaism, while based on a false assumption that the Torah is of divine origin, is not necessarily harmful, and as long as someone is happy and isn’t harming anyone, there’s no reason to try to encourage people not to be Orthodox.

However, as Sam Harris would say, beliefs have consequences. The Chasid in this article reminded me that if you really truly believe what Orthodox Jews are obligated to believe – i.e. that the Torah is God’s perfect instructions on how to live, then it’s impossible for you to believe that living “free” – i.e. living however you want as long as you’re not harming anyone – is a good thing.

And so how could we sit here while our neighbors teach their kids they do not have the freedom to live the way they want?