Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The "First Cause" Bait-and-Switch Scam

Peanuts, (c) Charles M. Schulz, z"l
I've said before that my atheism, in the sense of "active disbelief", relates to the Biblical God. The possibility that there might be a single Creator of the universe however is something I remain "agnostic" about. I simply don't know, and I tend to believe it's rather impossible to know.

Now, some who believe firmly in God as Creator cite the First Cause argument.

(I find this argument unconvincing, for a number of reasons: Who says the "Cause" was sentient - maybe it was some kind of "force"? Also, if there's "one" original intelligence, who says there can't be a dozen, or an infinite number? Further, given the vastness of the universe and how relatively little we know about it, isn't it safer, and more honest, to simply say, "We don't know"? And doesn't the fact that some profess to "know" indicate more than anything their desire to justify an existing religious belief in in a single God/Creator?... I have this in parentheses because I actually don't want to focus on the First Cause argument itself, but rather on what that argument is so often used for.)

Let's assume for the sake of discussion that you accept the First Cause argument and agree that this proves there is in fact a single Creator, "God". Now what? Is that the end of the story? Hardly! Because now that we've got your attention, we're going to pull what's effectively a "bait and switch". Very cleverly, without your even being aware of how it happened, we're going to get you to move from the belief in a Creator to believing in the Biblical God - including all the "stuff" that such a belief entails. Ready? Here's the "elevator pitch" (based on a comment of mine in a prior post):
"The universe didn't come from nothing - clearly it was started by a First Cause, a Creator. Therefore God exists. Are you with me? And this is proven by science - we know now that there was a starting point, a Big Bang. Well, that's exactly what our tradition says: "In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth." That same tradition also states that God spoke to Abraham and later to Moses and imparted His eternal instructions. Yes, the very same God! After all, if logic dictates that the universe must have been created by God, then logic also dictates that God didn't create it just for fun - He must have had a plan. Agreed? Now if He has a plan, wouldn't it make sense that He'd want us to know about that plan? Wouldn't He reveal the plan? Okay, well that's what our religion has been saying for thousands of years: Here's the plan! We're His plan. And everything He wants us to do is written right here [points to Bible]. God is perfect, which means the plan - i.e. His commandments - are perfect, which means the Book that describes that plan - the Torah - is also, by definition, perfect. Also perfect is God's love for us. He must love us - otherwise, why else would He have created us? And all God wants is for us to love Him back. How? By having a relationship with Him, by emulating His ways, and by having the great honor of being a partner with the one and only Creator of the Universe, by keeping His commandments and thereby helping His great plan come to fruition."
Whoa, hold on a second while my head stops spinning... Okay, what just happened? We started from a "logical" First Cause argument, and somehow slid (think of a "slimy" surface on which things are prone to slide) into the idea that the Torah is the word of God, and we now need to keep the commandments. Wow - neat trick!

Now, I'm not saying this is the manner that a person would necessarily be convinced of divinity of the Torah. There are all sorts of arguments that may cumulatively come to bear, from the "miracle" of Jewish survival, to the "miracle" of the near-flawless transmission of the Torah text, to the near-impossibility of a mass revelation being "made up", to the Torah's inexplicably knowing there are "exactly" four mammals with only one kosher sign and not the other, to the statistical wonder of the "Torah codes" embedded in the text, and so on. And certainly there are a myriad of emotional reasons (community, connection with individuals, families and rabbis, personal "encounters" with God, miraculously improbable events experienced personally or given over via anecdote, and simply being "told" as much, over and over again in books, classes, etc.) which help to bring a person to the conclusion that Torah must be the absolute Truth. In fact, this is a useful tactic for lulling a person into a state of suggestibility and openness - just exhaust them by giving argument after argument, anecdote after anecdote.

However, the question I have is why even bring up the First Cause argument at all? It has nothing whatsoever to do with the proofs for the Biblical God or the divinity of the Torah! After all, even if "logic" dictates that a Creator (God) must have kick-started the universe, the "First Cause" argument is exactly that - arguing for a "first" action which set everything into motion. It says nothing about any subsequent action taken by the Creator. It says nothing about the "purpose" of Creation. It says nothing about whether the Creator "loves" us or not, whether He has any expectations of us - or whether He's a "He" for that matter! And it certainly says nothing about the "authenticity" or "authoritativeness" or "perfection" or "binding" nature or "divine" nature of a book written/compiled some 2500-3300 years ago that alleges that God spoke to certain individuals and issued a set of commands.

The only reason to bring up the First Cause argument (like we said above about inundating people with words) is to lull listeners into a state of "openness". By having to "concede" to one argument, the listener now has her/his guard down and is expecting that the next things which are stated have equal argumentative, "logical" force (especially when the person incorrectly uses the word "logic" to describe their arguments!). But the truth is, everything subsequent to the First Cause argument is pure speculation, based on what seems "reasonable" to us. There is no "logic" dictating that simply because a text cites the existence of a Creator of the world (again, assuming that is derived by logic) that this text must also be "right" about everything else it says - or indeed anything else it says. And the ideas of "love" and a "plan" are exclusively and transparently human categories, and it's just as (actually, I would say "far more") reasonable to say that what this book chronicles is man creating God in his image, not the other way around.

That is the "bait and switch" of the First Cause argument. So caveat emptor - let the buyer beware!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why the "Kaplan Affair" was a good thing

I have a basic one-off rule about lashon hara (gossip/unkind words): If you wouldn't say it in front of the person you're speaking about, then best to keep it to yourself. In other words, only speak the way you'd feel comfortable speaking if that person were there with you.

What I want to offer in this post is a similar principle: Only say things to your "in-group" that you'd feel comfortable saying to others.

The recent fiasco involving Rabbi Nissan Kaplan is a great illustration of how this principle can be arrived at - albeit unwittingly, and perhaps a bit too late. For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, R. Kaplan is a teacher at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Last March he gave a class, recorded (much to his regret) for posterity, in which he stated:
"On Shabbos I spoke to my kids, and I said that Rav Steinman spoke that lemeisa [for practical purposes], we have today Haman and Amalek - all this government [of Israel] - and really the way is to take knives and to kill them, just as with the Yevanim [Greeks]. This is what Rav Steinman said. You have to take a sword and to kill them."

"So why are we not doing it? Because he said, 'I don't know yet who is the general who could run the war. But if I would know who's the general, we'd go out with knives.' This is what Rav Steinman said. There's a war against religion..."

"I explained this to my kids... Then, in the middle of the meal, my kid, five years old, says, 'Abba, we don't have a sword in the house, I'm looking - maybe a hammer is also good?' I was very happy, I gave him a kiss... I was so proud of my son. He's looking for a sword to kill all these government ministers."
Quite a mouthful. It's unnerving and obscene, and - well, also fairly prosaic. When you've spent enough time in the frum community, you know that statements which are offensive, racist, sexist, arrogant, elitist and triumphalist, statements which revel in the idea of Hashem's destruction of non-Jews or non-believers, are said as a matter of routine, by leaders and laypeople alike. They're said without anyone batting an eyelash. In fact they only boost the speaker's "status" in the community - because hey, here's a person who "says it like it is" and doesn't mince words. Here's a person who doesn't "apologize" for the Torah tradition but instead takes a strong and unabashed stand, like a faithful soldier in Hashem's army should... etc., etc.

And yes, for the most part, these kinds of statements are a lot of "hot-air." Yeshiva students don't generally leave classes like the one given by R. Kaplan and take to the streets in violence, nor do they typically plot anyone's demise. (Yeah, tell that to Yitzchak Rabin.) No, they basically just go back to the beis midrash like normal and carry on with the business of learning. And any teacher at the Mir would be horrified if one or more students were to do otherwise and actually "act" on his words.

That's the blessing and curse of "charedism" - lack of concrete action. It's a mindset which says: We aren't "big" enough (spiritually) to make changes to the system, even when such changes are arguably logical and necessary, and we also aren't "big" enough to do things like slaughter Amalek in the form of Israeli government officials. No, we have to wait for Moshiach to come and tell us all what to do... Which basically means existing in a perpetual state of suspended animation. Like I say, it's either a blessing or a curse, depending on the issue.

But just because yeshiva bocherim aren't incited to riot immediately after hearing a talk like that, doesn't mean that the words aren't seeping, one talk at a time, into their brains. It doesn't mean that it doesn't plant the seeds of violence. Clearly it does. The rioting and anti-government violence which breaks out intermittently in places like Mea Shearim and Beit Shemesh doesn't come from nothing - it's fueled by every seemingly "innocuous" hot-air statement made in yeshivas and shuls, and said offhandedly 'round the Shabbos table between spoonfuls of chullent.

Which brings me back to my original point... Even though it's totally par for the course for people like R. Kaplan to give over outlandish, belligerent, nearly psychotic ideas while safely embedded within the "in-group", they would never think of uttering these statements in other contexts. And if such words are ever leaked to the outside world, it's a cause for much embarrassment, desperate face-saving, clumsy back-stepping, and - in R. Kaplan's case - an explicit apology. Some of his words:
"I am completely against such words. They're disgusting. I regret what I said, and I am deeply sorry for using such examples. I am also sorry for hurting people’s feelings, and I hope they can forgive me."

"It is an aveira [sin] to do such a thing [i.e. to kill Israeli ministers]."
But what does such an apology mean?

Well, for starters it should be clear that R. Kaplan's apology would never have been issued if he hadn't been taken to task, if his words didn't go public. There's no question that he desperately needed to cover his - and the Mir Yeshiva's - "behind" here. I take him at his word though that he sincerely regrets having caused people upset and alarm as a result of his talk. That's a pretty "pareve" thing to say: "I'm sorry if what I said hurt you." Then the question comes whether his apology means that he's actually changed his mind and now disavows the beliefs themselves, the same beliefs he's been espousing for years and which are standard fare within his in-group. Some excuse his statements as "hyperbole", an exaggeration, which people have done the mistake of taking literally. But how is making it sound like it's a mitzvah to kill Israeli ministers a "hyperbolic" way of saying that it's in fact an "aveira"? A mitzvah isn't an "exaggeration" of an aveira! So what does he believe in fact?

Honestly, I'm not so concerned with that question. To me, the question of R. Kaplan's "true beliefs" is far less important than whether ideas like this will continue to be spoken and heard - whether they'll stay in circulation. Because when you take an idea out of verbal circulation, you in fact help to curtail that belief.

I'd like to think that people would remove ideas like R. Kaplan's from circulation because they're loathsome. However in reality, it happens not "lishma" (for the right reasons) but instead out of fear of transparency, concerns about the backlash that will occur when you can't keep the "in-group" and "out-group" hermetically compartmentalized from one another.

In essence, Rabbi Kaplan, via the fiasco he brought upon himself, backed into the principle: Don't say to your "in-group" what you wouldn't want others to hear.

It's a principle that works to take extremist ideas out of circulation. How so? Because people start to talk much more reasonably, sensibly, and moderately, once they're aware they may be speaking to a wider audience.

Which is why the "Kaplan Affair", as disturbing as it was, is really a good thing - because it further plants into frum people's minds that what they say is increasingly vulnerable to exposure to the "out-group". With transparency (i.e. mobile/internet communications, videos, etc.) ever on the increase, you never know when your words will come back to haunt you.

That kind of fear is pretty useful, I would contend, because it helps to rein in some of the "crazy". And hopefully, over time, that will work to generate a little more sanity.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Israeli Holidays - the new "God"

I know the title portends an anti-Zionist tirade, as if the Israeli holidays constitute some kind of "idolatry", but actually I meant it as a compliment. Let me explain.

Here's how I understand the role of God in the Torah:

In antiquity, part of what gave a people "standing" (in their own eyes and in others' eyes) is that they had a good origin myth. It had to convey a sense of growth and development, overcoming human foibles and trials - making mistakes, falling into traps, and climbing out a better person for it. The story had to teach something valuable for generations to come, give over lessons and rules deemed essential to the aspirations and character of the people.

But just to have a "story" - even a good one - about the comings and goings of mortal human beings was not enough. The myth also had to have a god, or multiple gods. When you have gods involved in the formation of your people, that means you are a people of significance. You - your culture, your values, your practices - mean something.

Or put it the opposite way - not to have a god or gods in your people's story would be completely unseemly! In a world chock full of gods, where "everyone who was anyone" had theirs, if the gods had no intervention in the lives of your forbears, if there was no divine hand in your people's origin, to put it simply - you'd be a nobody. To tell a god-free narrative just wasn't done. It wouldn't be fitting, wouldn't be dignified. It would cheapen your worth - and sense of self-worth - as a people.

Which brings us to the title - that Israeli holidays are the new "God".

Here's the State of Israel, a new nation on the international scene. Aside from setting up a governing structure, utilities, trade relations, etc., what kinds of things does a "proper" nation do? Well for one, a proper nation celebrates its independence day. A proper nation has a memorial day to mourn over and pay respect to its fallen soldiers. A proper nation commemorates events of major magnitude - both joyous and tragic.

Can you imagine a country not doing these things - not celebrating its independence, not having a memorial day, not commemorating events of massive significance? What kind of self-respecting people would you be? That's no nation!

The Israeli holidays thus function something like putting "God" into the narrative. They, as well as other trappings of a modern state, help to give the nation "standing". It's part of the national psyche/self-esteem, and it's part of living in a world of nations.

So then where does that leave the "old God", as in God?

Well, as far as the State of Israel is concerned, God is a part of "Jewish culture", and there's a place for Jewish culture to weave its way into the national culture. I'd say there's even a place for a country to express a certain "deistic" self-identity, if that's where people are at. Sentiments such as "one nation under God" can help lend an atmosphere of purpose, humility, morality and underlying spirituality. And that can be a good thing, providing it remains innocuous and non-invasive. But once a nation starts to justify itself, its policy decisions, the wars it fights, based on what it alleges to be the "will of God", not only is that undignified - it's certifiably nuts, and it has the capacity to become pretty darn scary, both for its own citizens and for the rest of the world.

To me, the ideal is a secular State with Jewish overtones - which has national holidays, and Jewish holidays, and which keeps God out of law and policy. And what we have now may be far from perfect on these counts, but it's pretty good - and I'm grateful for that!

With that, I wish everyone a meaningful Yom Hazikaron, and a happy Yom Ha'atzma'ut.