Tag Archives: Judaism

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.

The wise son of the Hagadah: Why textual criticism is cool

Just like Biblical criticism does not mean to criticize the Bible, textual criticism does not mean to criticize a text. It just means to try to look at a text (in the case of the Bible, the Biblical text) in a critical/scholarly/objective way. Specifically, textual criticism means looking at several different really old copies of the Bible, noticing when there are differences among them, and trying to determine which one makes the most sense in each case.

One of my favorite examples of textual criticism of the Bible answers a famous question often heard at the Passover Seder. In the Hagadah (the text used during the Seder), we are taught that the Torah teaches us about four types of sons who attend the Seder, two of whom are the wise son and the wicked son. What differentiates the wise son from the wicked son? The wicked son asks, “What is this service of yours (Exodus 12:26)!” The Hagadah explains that he is wicked, for he said, “of yours,” implying that he wants no part of the Seder and his people’s traditions. The wise son, for his part, says, “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (Deuteronomy 6:20)?” So he’s showing interest.

But wait: the wise son also said, “What are the decrees…. That YHWH commanded YOU!” He’s excluding himself, just like the wicked son did! So how does he come out being the good boy?
While many of us have heard responses to this question, I think it’s safe to say that in most cases, “The question is better than the answer,” as we’d say in yeshiva.

So a textual critic asks, “Wait a minute; what if the text that the original Hagadah had was slightly different from what we have in our Hagadah’s today, and maybe that slight difference would explain the apparent contradiction here?” Turns out that modern scholars who have looked at some of the various old copies of the Biblical text, including other old texts that cite the Biblical verses mentioned above, have found a very important difference!

As Jeffrey Tigay, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, shows in his wonderful article (here) on the Bible codes, this passage about the four sons appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the Mekhilta (a compilation of rabbinic discussions of some of the legal parts of the Pentateuch), and both quote the wise son’s statement with a change in one word. Instead of “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (eschem)?” these ancient sources quote the wise’s son question, which is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:20, as: “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded us (osanu)!” In addition, the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, also has “us” in this verse, rather than “you,” suggesting that the Hebrew Bible used when making the Greek translation also had “osanu (us).” Thus in the original Hagadah, the wise son does not, in fact, exclude himself by saying, “the laws that God commanded you,” and so that’s why he’s not the wicked one.

And so modern Biblical scholarship, in this case textual criticism of the Bible, has answered a long-standing question, asked mostly by people who would consider textual criticism heretical. 🙂 But seriously, how could anyone find this heretical! Some of the best textual critics of the Bible are/have been Catholic priests, because they want to figure out the most accurate version of God’s word. Why can’t Orthodox Jews adopt the same attitude?

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

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!

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.)

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.)

BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND!!

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.

LET ME CLARIFY: THIS IS SPECIFICALLY FOR THOSE JEWISH INDIVIDUALS WHO HAVE YET TO FIND THEIR BASHERT (spouse-to-be).

ALL I ASK IS THAT YOU PLEASE SUBMIT YOUR FULL HEBREW NAME AND THAT OF YOUR MOTHER

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:

http://www.planetnana.co.il/perekshira

To view PEREK SHIRA with English translation please visit:

http://lazerbrody.typepad.com/Perek%20Shira%20English.pdf

PLEASE RESUBMIT YOUR NAME EVEN IF YOU HAVE PROVIDED IT TO ME IN THE PAST. WE START EACH CYCLE AFRESH.

PLEASE NOTE: ANY NAMES SUBMITTED PAST THE NEXT CYCLE CUT-OFF DATE WILL BE ADDED TO THE SUBSEQUENT CYCLE.

THANK YOU & BRACHA v’HATZLACHA !!!

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: https://www.facebook.com/groups/LakewoodOTD/.  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 (www.footstepsorg.org) 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: http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/189210/a-community-of-exes-hasids-that-is/

Haaretz: http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/.premium-1.560872

PBS: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365009605/

NPR: http://www.npr.org/2011/08/08/139220021/leaving-the-fold

The Katie Couric Show: http://katiecouric.com/tag/leah-vincent/

And many others: http://footstepsorg.org/media.php.

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: 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).

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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).”

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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.

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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.

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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).”

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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?