Saturday, 20 December 2008

Mis-Nagid On Chanuka

Today, there are many profound Jewish sceptic blogs.

A few years ago, there were even more. Mis-nagid is a legend. The blog may be gone and his posts deleted, but his spirit and name lives on. This is my tribute to the legend: a post Mis-Nagid's I managed to find after much searching on the internet. I found it 8 months ago and have kept it ever since to post on Chanuka. Chanuka is all but here. Now settle down and hear the words of the profound.

Thus spoke Mis-nagid:

Frum Fantasy or How a Legend Spawned an Industry

The frum world is thoroughly suffused with fantasy and ignorance. Frum people know pathetically little about their own history and practices, and what they do know is usually wrong. In general, frum institutions never teach any history at all, or at least nothing that deserves the name. Most yeshiva bochurim have no idea what was going on in the world at the same time as any Jewish event. All "history" is seen through the gauze of fantasy. The frum view of the history of world revolves around Jews and includes lots of myths, which makes for a witch's brew that has little to do with real history.

The root cause of this lack of rigor in understanding the past is the need for ignorance. After all, if you ask "What was going on in the rest of the world during Noach's Great Flood?" you may be surprised to find out that great (undisturbed) civilizations in Egypt and China were already writing stuff down, and never mentioned any flood. As the frum dogmas are not grounded in reality, so too the history must be kept floating above the ground, never attached to anything of substance, lest it come tumbling down to earth.

Chanukah, one of the few Jewish holidays based on a true historical event, is, ironically, no exception to this. Grab a frum person and quiz him or her: In what year was Chanukah? Who was Antiochus? Who were the Yevonim? Who were the Chasmonoyim? How long did the war last? You'll get the most pathetic answers (if you get any), because frum people have no sense of history. Shoot, most frum people don't know what the word "frum" means, or where it comes from! [*]

There is one aspect of frum Chanukah that truly brings this sense of ahistory into sharp relief. Case in point: the Bais Yosef's Kasha. To those of you lucky enough to be uninitiated in the frum cult, this peculiar obsession of frum Chanukah takes the form of a question. The Bais Yosef asked, "If the oil could have lasted for one day, but lasted for eight, only seven of them can be termed miracles. So why celebrate eight (rather than seven) days?"

This "difficulty" occupies a special place in the frum universe; it's a "true" classic. Gallons of ink were poured to answer this stupid question. Virtually every frum commentator since his time has had a crack at it. There's even a very large sefer consisting of nothing but answers to this one question. However, every single one of those answers is wrong -- completely, utterly, and totally wrong.

Before I get to the correct answer, let's understand why they're wrong. Don't worry, I don't have to refute them all, one at a time. The reason they're off-base is simple: it's a legend. The story of the miraculous oil was made up approximately six hundred years after the events of Chanukah. Of course the rabbinical legend has inconsistencies -- it's fiction. There's no point in trying to "fix" them. It's like reading Curious George and trying to explain how so few balloons could lift a monkey of George's heft.

Now, to the real answer to the Bais Yosef's Kasha.

Due to their aforementioned lack of history sense, most frum people have no idea that there are books written from the era of the Maccabees. Nor do they know that these books make no mention of any miracles. Ask a frum person what is says in the two[**] Books of Maccabees, and they'll say "Books of Maccabees?" I'll not get into why those books are invisible from the frum world, but I'll note one piece of irony. Virtually every frum child knows the Chanukah story of Channah and her seven sons. Where's the story from? The Book of Maccabees 2.

Were you to read the actual history of Chanukah, when you get to the part about the rededication [chanukah] of the Temple, you'd find the following:

10:5 Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again, even the five and twentieth day of the same month, which is Casleu [Kislev].
10:6 And they kept the eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles [Sukkot], remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles [Sukkot], when as they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts.
10:7 Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also [lulavim, hadassos, aravos], and sang psalms [Hallel] unto him that had given them good success in cleansing his place.
10:8 They ordained also by a common statute and decree, That every year those days should be kept of the whole nation of the Jews.

That's right, the very first Chanukah was a delayed Sukkot. Sukkot traditionally required going to the Temple, but on the correct date for Sukkot, the Temple was still under Seleucid control, so it was not celebrated properly. The Maccabees cleverly scheduled the Temple's grand reopening on the anniversary of its sacking, and celebrated Sukkot like it's supposed to be. It was especially poignant due to the fact that the transient and ephemeral living embodied in the story of Sukkot was so resonant with them, having just spent so long hiding in mountains and caves.

Furthermore, the book opens with a letter to the Jews in Alexandria, telling them to celebrate this new holiday:

1:9 And now see that ye keep the feast of tabernacles [Sukkot] in the month Casleu [Kislev].

That is the correct answer to the Bais Yosef's Kasha. The reason Chanukah is eight days (instead of seven) is because it was a delayed Sukkot, which has eight days. It was always eight days, and the rabbis made their legend match the extant practice, leading to the slight inconsistency noted by the Bais Yosef.

Before I close this post, I'd like to add a piece of speculation. The Mishna nevers discusses Chanukah, even going so far as to give a grave warning against reading the Books of Maccabees (Sanhedrin 10:1). In the only Gemara to discuss Chanukah, history gets three lines, while ritual minutaie get more than three pages. However, there is one interesting link in this rabbinified version of Chanukah that may hint at their knowledge of its true origins.

In the discourse on how to light the Chanukah candles, two opinions are proffered. One says to start with one candle on the first night and add one each night, until you are lighting eight on the final night. The other says to start with eight and remove one each night. Where it gets interesting is the reason offered for the latter position. The justification given is that the candles represent "parei hechag," the bulls of the holiday. By this he means the bulls offered on Sukkot. As recounted in the Torah, those bulls were offered in decreasing number each successive day.

The commentators struggle to explain why that Sukkot practice is relevant to Chanukah lights. Some of them are almost amusing in their tortured logic. I'd like to offer a possibility; that this could be a partial remnant of the earlier explanations for the custom of the Chanukah lights.

email me: [mis-nagid_AT_hush_DOT_com]

[*] It's a Yiddishization of the German "fromm," meaning pious. Admit it, you didn't know that.
[**] The other Books of Maccabee aren't about Chanukah, and are somewhat misnamed

Relations with Relations

Life is hard. In particular, choices we make in life are hard. It's difficult to know precisely which choice will elicit which reaction from whom.

In fact, if Life were a video game, Choice would be the evil monsters you have to kill along the way, with some sort of Choice Big Boss at the of it, who you had to defeat using nothing but your words, whilst it threw rocket propelled grenades at you. A difficult task indeed.

Obviously, real life is nothing like a video game. There's no answer book, no walkthrough, no Dragons of Eternity guarding the Mountain of Doom that we have to defeat, afterwhich our overall purpose is revealed. We have to find our own purpose in life, and be happy with it.

No-one makes their choices in a vacuum, because we're all connected to people somehow. Therefore a sceptic being sceptical about religion may very well have the effect of upsetting said sceptic's religious, Ultra-Orthodox family. You'll notice I didn't say the sceptic has a choice in whether or not they're sceptical: I think scepticism is something thrust on people, rather than an actual choice we make.

The choice comes in what we do with that scepticism. We have to decide to live life and we either live it in line with religion or we don't. There's no halfway house: you're either going to turn on the computer on the Sabbath, or decide not to because it's the Sabbath. There are similar choices for sceptics in other religions to make like this. In other words, life isn't agnostic. Life is one way or the other. No-one can rightfully be said to teeter on the brink of Orthodoxy and Atheism, though this is what the tag-line of my blog claims, because there's simply no halfway house to teeter in. You can be an atheist and doubt you're right, but you're still atheist until you realign your values and subsaquently your actions: if there's no change in actions, I'd very much doubt there has been an actual change in values; people act on the values they hold.

I believe this to be true in a general sense. Where it gets skewed is where there are other people concerned. Say, your family. Though my values have changed compared to when I was growing up, I choose not to act out on all of them whilst I still live at home, because I don't want to offend my parents. Therefore, when at home I keep kosher and don't ever admit to them I don't keep kosher out of the home, or in any way lead a life which isn't in line with Orthodox Judaism.

Obviously, they're not silly and because they know my views and know that I have a non-Jewish, atheist girlfriend, can guess that not keeping kosher is the least of my transgressions. But this is something which hasn't really been spoken about until today.

A relative decided to confront me about my beliefs and lifestyle around the Shabbat table at lunch time, something I didn't exactly appreciate. I didn't appreciate it because apart from it being inapropriate to deny god at the table of any Orthodox Jewish family, I'm trying to protect everyone from my views, especially my younger sibling.

I'm not going to be convincing anyone in my house that god doesn't exist, neither do I seek to. But I do know that arguing for atheism will cause anguish and pain. To explain why I have a non-Jewish girlfriend means I have to outrightly deny all that which my family hold dear, out loud.

True, it's something I've done bit by bit through the past year.
True, the very fact that I have a girlfriend who isn't Jewish is already a denial of every Jewish value ever established.

But until now, there was some sort of tacit agreement that life is what it is and I'm making different choices to those my parents made. Now, however, I'm being forced to reveal all my cards on the table in one go. I feel that doing so would irrevocably damage the relationship I have with my family.

But why do I have a non-Jewish girlfriend?
Because I don't believe there's any inherent difference between a Jew and non-Jew, so to justify the fact that she isn't Jewish isn't really meaningful to me beyond the understanding that my family are demanding an explanation. Because I don't want to bring up my children in any sort of religious life-style. Because I want to be an all-in atheist and it's unlikely a non-Jewish atheist girl from a secular home is going to be reverting back to religion any time soon, something which can't be said from a tight-knit community of Jews.

Why this particular girl?
Because I love her and she's a rare catch. Because she shares my values and opinions on life. Because, in a nutshell, I feel we can have a good future together.

I love my family dearly, neither do I seek to deny the Jewish heritage of which I'm very proud. In an ideal world, I could have my family and heritage, and still get involved with this girl without anyone minding. But this doesn't seem to be a very realistic aspiration.

It's ever so difficult to have to choose between the girl I love and my family who I love. But this is the position I'm being pushed into from all sides, explicitly or implicitly, and it is quite pressuring.

I always knew there'd be a time when it became impossible for me to live at home, if I wanted to act on my values. I wonder if that time is now. I wonder if leaving the home is the right choice: some distance, so as not to flaunt my lifestyle, may be better than the daily reminder or heresy that I seem to have become.

Indeed, choices are hard.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Credit Crunch Madness

"Credit Crunch" sounds like a cereal, or possibly some sort of game like pac-man, except the little dots you have to eat are dollar signs.

Obviously, though, it's what the world is calling the recession without actually using that hair-raising, completely horrifying term.

One Rabbi has been paying attention to the economic downturn, however, and one of his sermons included a little bit about it. The credit crunch, he explained, is religiously significant. That's why it happened on Rosh Hashana!

This is obviously untrue. The credit crunch has been in the making for many months, the economic bubble of goodness was popped when everyone realised some @ssholes on wall street were granting and then selling on sub-prime mortgages.

I am saddened, therefore, to see a relative who has some connection to the city and is trained in the way of finance to suspend his training and logic and accept, even defend, this Rabbi's words as true.

I wonder if this Rabbi actually believes his words, or if he got caught in the moment of what he saw as a good sermon, and exaggerated.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The Rabbi

"Come in" said the smiling face, one hand motioning me inside, the other holding the front door. "You're here for the meeting? Good, he's expecting you, please, come right inside." The answers seemed to follow the questions by themselves, I smile politely and step inside the house, not yet uttering a word.

It smells of cooking. Who knows what was being cooked: maybe a chicken, maybe a chulent, maybe one hundred other things or perhaps nothing at all. But all around, the house smelled of cooking, the sort that wafted through my house and a million other Jewish homes on Friday evenings. How was it that a Rabbi's house maintains that smell all week around? As I was lead into the study, I wondered whether it was because the cooking lingered on the walls, whether he would notice my Tzitzis hanging on my sides, what the weather was going to be like tomorrow, what the words the Rebbetzin was saying that I wasn't hearing, was my Kappel on or did I forget, where should I say that I davened this evening if I was asked, should I--

"Oh, I'm sorry," I reply, apologising for the day-dreaming. What was it she asked me? Probably something about a drink. "Thank you for offering," I smile "but I'm fine" - I could really use a drink, I think, as I sit in the chair she's pointing at. She'll be back in a moment and the study is cluttered, books everywhere, papers everywhere, especially papers, the desk the chairs the bookcases the floor the walls the ceiling, the cup by my side. "Thank you" I smile, picking it up, almost forgetting to make a brachca before drinking. I need to focus. I try and focus.

After a short wait, I hear a key going through a lock on the front door. It slides in, turns and slides out. The door closes with a bang and I know the Rabbi is home. Greetings occur.

The door opens and a bearded man, about as tall as me, older, wiser, walks in.

"Ah!" he says, as if seeing an old friend. "Who are you?" I tell him. "Of course, of course. Tell me" says he, sitting down in his chair "what are you doing now?" And so the pre-sparring begins. Each sizes the other up. I purposely fiddle with my tzitzis, he notices, watching my actions, assuming it's my nerves and not a plot to get him to believe I'm more of a Yid than I am.

"So" he says, "what's your question?"
I start small, questioning tiny spiritual matters, but quickly progress to the big picture. I don't say I don't believe it, but neither do I commit when he asks. An hour goes by.

I survive. I offer no proofs for atheism, that is not my aim, but I manage to rebut his answers. They are simple ones, the sort I've answered many times before to many different people. He appreciates the diversity of my answers, he notes that I merely challenged what he says, not what he believes.

I am given a book to read, to discuss until next we meet. He pledges to rebut my questions, when next we meet. I am dismissed. I am whole and complete, I am still me, not plunged into doubt about my choices from his words at all, I can leave with a smile. I have long made my peace with who I am and I trust I will find my place in time. I am happy with who I am.

If only everyone could be happy for me too.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Hello again

Ah, dear Bloggers. It's been too long since we sat here, monitor to monitor, pixel to pixel. Sitting in our rooms by ourselves, ensuring no-one watches over our shoulders to see what we're doing. Veiled in secrecy, reading the latest entries as the effervescent rays of the sacred Altar of Heresy shine forth onto your pallid countenance, as if to ascend you into its illicit cult. That's right, bathe in the glory of your heresy! Embrace it!

And many of us have, myself included.

I have been away for a while, visiting France and various places in the British Isles, so apologise for the lack of entries - not that any one's particularly missed them.

Since I last blogged, I have told another person of my heresy.* This person is a good friend from my ultra-religious high school, who I have been withholding my heresy from for a long period of time, but generally letting things on from time to time that would allow him to guess that I no longer really believed in Judaism or religion. A few weeks ago I finally decided to tell him everything: not keeping kosher, the breaking of the sabbath, the non-Jewish girlfriend: I hid nothing.

I hid nothing because I didn't see the value of withholding information at this point: if I was going to tell him about my life after religion, then I would do just that. If I didn't want to, I wouldn't say anything at all. Was it wise? Did it achieve anything?

Not really to both. In hindsight, it perhaps was better to keep it hidden from him. It hasn't really changed our friendship directly, but constant references he makes to me being "a proper goy now" and how I must have had some trauma in my life. I've asked him to stop, but he seems to think it acceptable to poke fun of what were difficult choices for me. Being friends with him shouldn't be tiresome, and if it becomes tiresome, I'll simply stop being friends with him. Of course, this is probably more due to his particular personality than a rule of thumb with all people, so I'm not sure how much one can draw from this experience when considering if you should "break the news" to your religious friends. Note also that I don't live in North America, so the ultra-orthodox community is every so slightly more liberal here, if only because they don't ruin Jewish-owned cars for being too fancy, or place Rabbinic bans on things every two minutes.

I also let on to my brother that I was seeing a non-Jewish girl. I did so because he asked me directly who it was that I was always visiting, or talking to on the phone late at night and I didn't feel it right to lie. Perhaps the prudent thing would have been to tell a white-lie to preserve the peace (coincidentally, as Jewish law permits). My truth-telling understandably caused some strain between us, and he told me he'd do everything he could to bring us apart.

For him, the bottom line wasn't whether religion was true or false, it was about adhering to tradition and custom, clinging to family and community. I consider this the strongest argument I've ever encountered, because it doesn't rely on pseudo-intellect or false-logic like all the other arguments I've encountered thus far, but is formed out of emotional ties I have with my family and the wider Jewish community.

To put it frankly, why does it matter that religion was in the past used to unify a large group of people for the ends of leaders, to set artificial societal standards, or to otherwise manipulate the populous? It is religion that unifies people and in a Diaspora, there isn't much manipulation to be had like in the "old days," so why not stay unified with everyone? Why not keep the community?

To all these questions I have no answer beyond "it would be convenient, but I'm loathe to embark on a way of life I might regret later, feeling how I feel** about religion." That would be a sticky situation indeed. I would hate to be in a position where I was with a Jewish wife and kids, not believing myself, but nonetheless trapped in the religiosity around me.

My brother went so far as to say, effectively, "why force your family and community to cut you off? By making this choice, you're forcing their hand." As Abandoning Eden mentioned in one of her blog posts, and as I'm sure many people in a similar situation posit, is it really my responsibility to make provision for how other's will react? In short, isn't their reaction towards me their responsibility? That is, if they disown me it's their choice distinct from my own, not a cause of mine. On the other hand, my parent's wouldn't disown me unless I went OTD.*** Isn't that a clear indication that my going OTD is the cause? It would be logical to believe so, but it's just as logical to say "no, we're all responsible for our own choices, and their reaction can't be justified by stating it's an automatic response, at the end of the day, they're making an independent choice from you about how to react to you." This would be in the same way that "automatic execution" by a corrupt government isn't justified purely because it's automatic and you know it's a possibility. Either way, people will choose the side of the coin which best suits them. For myself, I'm happy to bypass this question entirely and say: we must all do what we feel necessary and for me, my choice of life is necessary. Let's do what we will.

*Though I keep referring to "my heresy," the real heresy is not allowing people the freedom to choose the way they want to live their lives, to say "live like me, or I'll cut you off."

**I have not used the word "know" because I am adamant that no-one can know for sure what is outside our perception. God would be outside our perception, so believer or non-believer, no-one actually knows if he's there, no matter what subjective "proof" or feeling the believer or non-believer has about the matter. Even the to most disbelieving of unbelievers, there must remain a shroud of doubt as to whether God exists or not, for in this particular case, anything could be possible, though not necessarily likely.

***OTD is Off The Derech, or "Off the Path [of God, and specifically, Jewish practice and belief]." I don't know this for sure about my parent's reaction, but am guessing.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008


Monday, 30 June 2008

Away away

My girlfriend (G) has gone away away to another continent. In true British middle-class fashion, she's gone on safari to a former colony - no, not America, but in Africa.

As a result, it's really lonely. I really miss her and can't wait until she gets back. She's missing me lots too, which makes me feel happy that she likes me so much, but even worse because I know she's feeling what I'm feeling, which is really horrible.

On her return, I'm going to introduce her to a few people in my Jewish circle of friends. These particular folks are sympathetic to free choice however, and are amongst the most accepting friends I have, so all shall be well. G is really shy when around new people though, so it'll be interesting to see what happens. I think it'll all be fine and dandy, but it'll make for an interesting social experiment at any rate.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

'The Atheist 13' in 10 easy steps

I was recently tagged by Lubab No More and asked to answer these questions. I followed the tagging back (quite a lot) to Nullifidian, where it appears the meme originated from - I believe the number 13 was thought up because there are 10 questions+3 bloggers you're supposed to tag. It could also have something to do with this meme being created on the 13th of June 2008.

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

I was originally going to say the word 'atheism' means "without theism" where "theism" is belief in God. However, I went over to to help with the answer and it said the following:
  1. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.
  2. The doctrine that there is no God or gods.
I'm sorry, but I disagree. The first suggestion seems to imply that God exists, but that the atheist chooses not to believe. The second says atheism is a doctrine. Is it? Can you have a doctrine of disbelief? If belief is a positive step (and none of us are born with leanings towards one religion or another) then the atheist is in a default state of nothing, as far as religion is concerned. An analogy would be darkness being the absence of light, not an entity (or doctrine) of it's own. I think my definition of "without theism" (darkness being without light in the analogy) stands up very well, if I may say so myself.
Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?
Mixed. Up until the age of 7 or so, I had a strong Jewish identity but wasn't religious. Around this age my parents decided to become more religious, and we started the upward climb from Reform Judaism to Orthodox Judaism to Ultra Orthodoxy. This last step was completed when I was about 12 or so and was cemented as I went through Ultra-Orthodox education.
Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?
Q4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?
General human advancement in all sciences really excites me. However, I have to say Space exploration, robotics and genetics take the cake.
Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

Add a sense of identity to it, so that there really could be an 'atheist community.'

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

Ask which clergy. After that, if the statement was sudden, I'd probably have a stiff drink: orange juice with ice. No alcohol, obviously. If they'd been showing religious tendencies and this didn't come as a complete shock, I'd make sure they weren't being forced/bribed/conned/emotionally black mailed into it, and if it was a normal clergy (i.e. not a cult or fanatical Christian/Muslim/Jewish sect) I'd accept that they can make their choices just as I've made mine. If it was one of these wacko places, I'd attempt to intellectually dissuade them from their endeavours.
Q7. What’s your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?
"People who disbelieve just want an easier life."
I've heard that so many times. A rabbi came to my college and said that and I asked if he honestly believed, out of the millions and millions of people,* that there wasn't one person on the entire globe who was intellectually honest with themselves?

The answer was "I do." I said "that's incredible" and he said "That's why I get invited here: I come to tell you the incredible." Quite ironic that the word 'incredible' means "without credit."

Other times I disprove it by pointing out that it's not at all easy to leave the Jewish community or stop believing in one's beliefs they've held so close to the hearts for so long. How is that easier to just forgetting about intellectual woes, or being orthoprax?

*Atheism is more common in Europe than America, it seems.
Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?
Like Lubab No More, I'm surprised that many atheists wish for the destruction of religion. Like LNM, I posit what seems to be the controversial view of "live and let live"
Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favorite, and why?
I haven't read the last two and only read a small part of Dennett's work, which I recall disagreeing with. I think Dawkins has grown intellectually arrogrant over the years and I dislike him because of that. So I'd have to answer: none.
Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?
My child in question 6 - otherwise no-one. As I said in question 8, live and let live.
Now name three other atheist blogs that you’d like to see take up the Atheist Thirteen gauntlet:

Abandoning Eden (who was one of the inspirations of this blog), Baal Devarim (whose blog I immensely enjoy) and Frum Heretic (who's bound to offer up something interesting).

Thursday, 26 June 2008


They say silence is golden and this rule generally applies outside the realm of blogging. I will therefore make some noise and post something now.

Two weeks ago I went camping with my girlfriend in a wonderfully nice area (in the middle of nowhere). The nearest town was a two hour walk from where we were camping, the only two alternative methods of transport being cab (expensive) or bus (irregular). That being said, we did move around quite a lot, eventually using all three modes of transport.

I have to say, that non-kosher food in restaurants is absolutely terrible. I commented to my girlfriend that I've not had any non-kosher food which is actually outstanding. This is, of course, with the exception of her parent's cooking - their food is absolutely phenomenal. I don't say this often (in fact, this will be the first time I've ever said it) but their food is better than my mother's. Flavour, texture, whatever you could want in any given dish.

Their high standard of cooking is not surprising; I believe they are food purists. This means that everything must be had in it's proper form - it's not enough to have a delicious onion soup, it must be had with Gruyère pastry and a blob of butter. Cooking steak? It is more than simply frying it for a half hour or so and proper preparation certainly doesn't include any form of easy-steak-cooking-grills. You must cook it in boiling oil for ten minutes, let it rest for another 10 minutes and only then cook it to the desired degree in a pan.

Needless to say, they don't own a microwave - or toaster for that matter. To toast bread, it must go under the grill, the old-fashioned way. They do, however, own a kettle. Perhaps they think boiling water is the same whatever the method...

I was, of course, delighted to be staying at my G's house. Along with the great company and tasty food, I was given the unique chance to cook a dish together with G. This is unheard of in my own house, my mum usually does the cooking hurriedly, but still taking ages to cook anything at all. I helped G. with the preparation and watched her carefully as she cooked, occasionally pestering her with affection as she worked. When I got home, I repeated the recipe, albeit with some changes I thought would make it better - everyone was surprised at my sudden culinary skills - I didn't only cook a meal, I cooked a great meal. My mum told me I could cook this particular meal once a week (which would give her a well-earned break) - but I've no intention to keep it to merely one dish a week. I've ordered a cook book off of Amazon, which is the same one G. bought for her father on Father's day (he loves cooking), so it's doubtless filled with good recipes. I also tasted a few recipes when I was at G's house over the weekend, as it was this cook book her dad was using to cook all those wonderful meals.

I would like G. to try some kosher food, something she's been reluctant to do as it involves being seen with me in Jewish areas. She finds it difficult to believe she won't be stoned to death if seen to be fraternising with a Jew, despite my reassurances that Jews don't do that anymore. She also thinks meeting my parents is scarier than torture and is convinced she will be shouted at, though I doubt that would be the case - if anything, I would be the sole target of my parent's hostility. After all, in typical parently-fashion, why wouldn't some shiksa like me, their son - a Jew - the question in my parent's eyes is, why would I aim so "low" and get involved with a shiksa?

Because she is, of course, absolutely amazing and I love her lots. Besides. The Jewish gene pool could do with a change of water...

Friday, 13 June 2008

Response to Comments

Ordinarily, I would have just responded in the comment sections themselves, but the comment got so long it was worthy of a new post. A few posts ago, I posited a theory I saw on Jewish Atheists's blog that Deuteronomy was not written by Moses, and that the Jews had no knowledge of Sukkot until it was instated by Ezra, supported by Nechemia 8:17:

And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.

I then drew the conclusion that Moses was not an historic character.

Rabban Gamaliel disputed both the Deuteronomy theory and the Sukkot theory and if he is correct, would defeat my conclusions about Moses and reinstate the status-quo (but not prove it).

Was Deuteronomy written by Moses?
Gamaliel said> "Also it doesn't say the Torah was not heard of."

The first thing to note is that the question is about Deuteronomy, not about the Torah as a whole. As there's some confusion about what I wrote, let me state it again.

8. And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. 9. And Shaphan the scribe came to the king, and brought the king word again, and said, Thy servants have gathered the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of them that do the work, that have the oversight of the house of the LORD. 10. And Shaphan the scribe shewed the king, saying, Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king. [II Kings 22]
The conclusion from this passage is that "a book of the law" was discovered and caused quite a stir. It went from the High Priest, to the court scribe, to the King himself who heard it and then tore his clothes in grief. No-one seems to have known of this book until now - therefore many scholars suggest there is a strong possibility that the book of Deuteronomy was new and hadn't been heard of before this point.

"The book of the law" doubtless refers to one of the books of the Torah (law), but the question is which one? Deuteronomy is the obvious choice, as it has a completely different style to the rest of the books and contains many of the laws of all the other books as well as some of its own.

Further, the actions of the Josiah in response to the discovery of this new book seem to indicate that the book referred to is Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 16:21: Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to the LORD your God 22 and do not erect a sacred stone, for these the LORD your God hates.
Deut. 17:2: If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the LORD gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God in violation of his covenant, 3 and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars of the sky, 4 and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5 take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.
Compare with:
2 Kings 23:4: The king ordered Hilkiah the high priest, the priests next in rank and the doorkeepers to remove from the temple of the LORD all the articles made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts.
And more:

Deuteronomy 12:2 Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills
and under every spreading tree...
Compare with:
2 Kings 23:5: He [Josiah] did away with the pagan priests appointed by the kings of Judah to burn incense on the high places of the towns of Judah and on those around Jerusalem—those who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and moon.

Deuteronomy 23:17 No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute.
2 Kings 23:7 He also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes, which were in the temple of the LORD...

Deuteronomy 7:5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.
2 Kings 23:15 Even the altar at Bethel, the high place made by Jeroboam son of Nebat, who had caused Israel to sin—even that altar and high place he demolished. He burned the high place and ground it to powder, and burned the Asherah pole also.

Deuteronomy 12 demands one place of worship, which is exactly what the demolition of all high places (idol and non-idol) and killing of pagan priests and general smiting of all religious things outside Jerusalem would do. It creates a centralised base of worship. This all seems to confirm that the book in question is Deuteronomy.

More Problems
If the book of Deuteronomy had merely been lost, I argued, why weren't there some elderly people who remembered it? Grandparents? Or how about younger people who had been told some Torah from Deuteronomy - for example, the opening words of the Shema (Deut. 6:4) - why didn't anyone remember it? In writing this up, I even crunched some numbers.

Menashe, the wicked king of Judah to whom the forgetting of Deuteronomy is attributed, ruled for 45 years. His son Amon then succeeded him and ruled for all of two years before he was killed. Then Josiah, Amon's son emerged as ruler. In his 18th year he found the book which is the subject of our discussion. That's 55 years in total and since we know that the average life expectancy was around 70 years (Psalms 90:10) it's entirely plausible that someone could have remembered one of the famous passages from Deuteronomy.

However, this is without factoring in that Menasseh ultimately repented of his evil ways and reinstated his saintly father's religious ordinances, so it's quite unlikely any forgetting of anything could happen just in Menasseh's reign, or in the two years of his son.

What suggests itself more logically, and in view of the evidence, is that the book of Deuteronomy was newly written and introduced to the people in Josia's reign, whilst inventing the notion that it was an old but forgotten book and Menasseh was used as a scapegoat to validate the story.

Why would they do this?
Easy. The temple needed cash for repairs and the priests of the temple needed to consolidate their power. The economic gain in having all sacrifices brought to the temple in Jerusalem, as opposed to any of the other "high places," is obvious, as is the effect of the entire nation giving tithes to the priests and levites. This effect is magnified as it was only the local Levites and the family of Hulda and Hezkia - descendants of Zadok - who were able to officiate at the Temple, whilst the northern Levites were demoted (they were non-Zadokites) - in essence, the central Jerusalem temple and one particular and powerful Levite family were benefiting from this new arrangement.

Is it any wonder a high priest "found" this document? And any wonder that Hulda, the high priests cousin and not anyone else, validated it? And any wonder that only Zadokites were able to officiate (validated by Ezekiel)?

Myth of the 13 Torah Scrolls

Interestingly, the book found is said to be written in Moses' own hand, no less. But if Moses existed, did he even have access to parchment in such quantity? Doubtful, considering that medium wouldn't be commonplace until 5 BCE. Parchment did exist as early as somewhere between 2613BC-2484BC.

Generally, everything was being written on papyrus or stone - which is why, I suppose, we have the idea of the tablets of stone.

Specific responses to Gamaliel
As for Persia being unknown in the Torah, what has that to do with anything? Deuteronomy doesn't give us any new history, it merely concisely (relative to the rest of the book) notes the history of Moses and Israel in the desert, before going on to give laws which are extremely favourable to the economy of the temple and Kingdom of Josiah.

You said also that "It is the way of the world that most of what we expect to be recorded of the history of a nation is from itself." Whilst I agree there, it is also the way of the world that a nation writing about itself tends to exaggerate things with absolutely no shame. This is why historians look for evidence external to that nation when seeking validation for any particular claim.

As for the proof texts brought for Sukkot, you brought down the text for the dedication of the temple. It says:

Kings I Chapter 8
1. Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel, and all the heads of the tribes, the chief of the fathers of the people of Israel, before king Solomon in Jerusalem, that they might bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord from the city of David, which is Zion. 2. And all the men of Israel assembled themselves to king Solomon at the feast in the month Ethanim, which is the seventh month.
The claim:
Sukkot is mentioned right here during the time of Solomon, therefore it's obvious that Sukkot was celebrated after the time of Joshua, and Nehemia 8:17 needs to be reinterpreted: "and all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so." It shouldn't mean that the Israelites had no knowledge of Sukkot, rather, they had a novel celebration of it on this particular occasion.

My Response:

The term "feast" (or chag in Hebrew) is a generic term which can refer equally to any of what we now call "High Holy Days." So then, which Chag takes place in the seventh month? All the High Holy days:

Rosh Hashanah: 1+2 Tishrei
Yom Kippur: 10th Tishrei
Sukkot & Hoshanna Rabbah: 15th-21st of Tishrei

This means the feast in 1 Kings could refer to any of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur or Sukkot, all of which fall in the month of Tishrei. That means that the "feast" spoken about doesn't necessarily imply a celebration of sukkot. Further, the dedication of the temple described here took place around the 8th of Tishrei and lasted for 14 days:

1) It was not a feast of 7 days, which sukkot is, so can't mean sukkot.
2) The sombre tone and many sacrificial offerings given seem to indicate that the feast started between Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, or possibly on one of these days, but doesn't necessarily indicate Sukkot.
3) The absence of the construction of booths during this celebration, which is specifically mentioned in Deuteronomy, seems to confirm the feast here was not sukkot.
4) To interpret "novelty" into the text and to state this was the booths being constructed means that for many hundreds of years, sukkot wasn't celebrated in accordance with the Torah and brings fault onto the likes of the Eli Hakohen, the Prophet Samuel, King Saul, King David and so on and so forth until the 18th year of the reign of Josiah. Is it likely these people would fail to celebrate a Torah-mandated festival? No.

Given all these objections, I consider it unlikely that your interpretation of the text in Kings is correct. Further, history very much seems to verify the theory but contradicts yours:

1) There's no mention of sukkot after Josiah discovers Deuteronomy, though it does mention Passover wasn't celebrated like it was there "since the days of Joshua."
2) No mention of sukkot during the babylonian exile.
3) If you're wrong about Solomon, which I believe you are (and if you object, I look forward to the rebuttal of all my objections), then there's no mention of sukkot there either.
4) Ezra arrives: suddenly we have sukkot.

Any proof from Chronicles brought for the celebration of Sukkot during Solomon's time is irrelevant because Ezra also wrote Chronicles.

I didn't mention anything about Passover in my original post, so have nothing to respond to the proofs of Passover you brought down.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Less frum = nicer

I was in a car with 4 other people, on the way home from a party last week. It was a little after midnight and I was chatting to some friends I hadn't seen for a while. As college students who have just finished a gruelling academic year are apt to do, we were discussing summer plans. I said I was going camping.

Friend> With who?
Me> My girlfriend (this in itself a revelation when said by someone who is perceived to be at the heights of frumkeit)
Friend> Who is she?
Me> You don't know her (how could she? She's not Jewish and doesn't appear in any Jewish social circles).
Friend> Ok, but what's her name
Me> G. (real name given).
An Observer> Is she Jewish?
*heavy silence*
Me> ...No.

I proceeded to explain that I didn't believe in Judaism any more, and identified more with atheism than theism. This entire episode was a nerve wracking experience for me, considering the only people I've told have been told on a one-to-one basis and are people I can absolutely trust with my life.

And so, at least for these car-people, the image of a "gut, frummer yid" was shattered. I confirmed I don't keep shabbos, kashrus, or anything else. We got into deep conversation about the source of my morals (are there indeed objective truths? Perhaps, but they are few and far between) and the history of religion. Slowly slowly, I am breaking this news to people who knows me and thus, more and more people within my social circle are being made aware that I no longer believe as they do (i.e. in a God).

Well, that's not entirely true. I have two social circles. The first is made up of entirely chareidi people; those who I went through 7 years of highschool and an intense year of "yeshiva gedolah" with. The sort who invite me to shabbos meals and who debate points of gemorrah and halacha with me. The second is made up of secular Jews, traditional Jews and ex-Orthodox Jews.

Some of my closest friends are in that second circle. This is because they're so accepting and open minded, and understand that there's more than one way to live life than just the "jewish way," unlike the chareidi friends of mine who define "open minded" as "watches movies" and "closed minded" as anyone who thinks it's wrong for guys to wear anything but dark pants and a white shirt. Non-chareidim do not for a second think to disown me because of my religious views (or lack of them) and make a concrete effort to understand where I'm coming from, contrary to the first circle, who believe I will go straighgt to hell for apikorsus.

In a discussion with a member of the first circle - the white-shirt wearing, black-hat donning, tzitzis dangling, shidduch going, 4th-year-yeshiva sort - I was told it was apikursus if I didn't believe in the concept of a bashert. I said outrightly there and then (perhaps unwisely) that I did not believe in such a concept, and watched as this friend struggled to reconcile his perception of me as a kindred spirit, to the perceived comment of apikorsus which I had dared to utter. He seemed to conclude that I was a smart, frum fellow and probably knew what I was talking about, and didn't push the topic further.

Ultimately, the Chareidim who claim to be caring and morally upstanding (or who should), are the least likely to stand by a decent person if they don't believe exactly as they do. Obviously, they are the group I am least likely to confide in about my beliefs, as their judgement about me will emulate that of the God they claim to worship: quick, swift and eternal. Once labeled an apikores, the word will spread like a forest fire in summer, leaving me with no - or precious few - friends in that circle. So why ever bother? It would be much easier to just fall out of contact with these folks, whilst starting new friendships with more accepting people.

As my friend in the car pointed out, I am living between two worlds, but hiding from both of them. It's time I pick a side, and I'm confidently siding with atheism and the second circle of friends.

Sunday, 18 May 2008


This is an experiment. I am now using Windows Live Writer to create this post which will, apparently, be deleted right away. We shall see...

Friday, 16 May 2008


I appear to be neglecting my blog. And I have.

One reason is because university work intensifies itself around now, namely assessment essays and examinations - aka 'actual work,' the great scourge of the student.

The other reason is because everyone deals with everything so well on their own blogs, I find there's nothing more to add to the subject. As for starting new subjects, most of them have already been addressed really well...hence the "far out" blogs I've written, I suppose.

Anyway, just to keep you up to date with my own life:
G. (my girlfriend) and I spent the day in a local park here, what with the nice weather we were getting, up until recently. We've made summer plans to go camping somewhere, seeing as both of us have really wanted to go camping for ages...and now we each have someone who is willing to go with us. So yay for that. Other plans are also being made for the summer, which I really can't wait for. Summer means no work and no work means I'll be able to see G more, and for longer.

Anyway. Because I've spent the last few posts speaking about how religion might be true, I have decided to spell out how it may not be true - specifically, Judaism.

How Judaism might be false - in three simple steps!

Moses may not have existed.
This follows from Jewish Atheist's blog, where he discusses who it was who wrote the bible, and I use his sources to support this view.

He opines that Ezrah Hasofer could have been the redactor of the bible, as much of it doesn't make sense before his time. If this is true, then someone after Moses' time would have written the following:

So Moses the servant of HaShem died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of HaShem. And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor; and no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day. (Deuteronomy 6:34)

The death of Moses in the fifth book he was alleged to have written obviously makes no sense: how can you write about your own death? Further, this verse could indicate that people didn't know where his tomb was, because he never existed in the first place, so quite understandably never had a tomb. If he was fictitious, this line would explain away his non-existence nicely: he was buried somewhere, but you can't go and look because no one knows where it is. Rather convenient, I think.

And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom HaShem knew face to face. (Deuteronomy 34:10)
Wouldn't this explain away the existence of God and lack of miracles? This verse confirms God exists and that he knew Moses, but with the caveat that there is none worthy enough to approach God on the same level as Moses. This is why we simply cannot ask God questions and receive back answers as Moses allegedly did...especially why we cannot ask God where Moses is buried, or who he was.

Similarly, the ordanances and laws Moses was supposed to have introduced to the Children of Israel "for all eternity" such as the Succoth festival (holiday of booths) had no record of being practised "since the days of Joshua" until Ezra's day:

Nechemia 8:17 And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.
Indeed, much of the book of Deuteronomy may have been written after Moses' time. The following is the discovery of what may have been Deuteronomy, which contains many laws inside it:

8 And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it.
9 And Shaphan the scribe came to the king, and brought the king word again, and said, Thy servants have gathered the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of them that do the work, that have the oversight of the house of the LORD.
10 And Shaphan the scribe shewed the king, saying, Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king. 11 And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes.

The rest of the chapter describes how the king commands all of Israel to be brought before him and the following chapter describes the religious awakening and "renewing of the covenant" between the Children of Israel and God, where this "book of the law" is read out by the king to the people, and they all swear to be bound by it. This certainly indicates that the book was new - there was not even one person, perhaps an elderly person, who recalled having heard of this book from their youth, or being told about the laws of the book by their grandparents or parents...

The bible continues to describe how the common practises of the nation were reformed after this book was sworn in - no more prostitutes in the temple, no more asheira trees, no more idols - basically everything the book of Deuteronomy prohibits was suddenly adhered to, despite there being no previous record of the book ever having been adheared to.

Of course, Moses may have existed, but I merely offer points to the contrary. Feel free to argue intelligently.

The Torah isn't from heaven.
That would certainly explain a lot about all these contradictions about the authorship viewed above. What makes people think it is? That the book itself says so? Viewed together with the above possible evidence, it seems abundantly clear the Torah isn't from heaven.

There is no God.
If it isn't from heaven, this isn't his work and there is likely no God.

Bonus: The Messiah isn't coming.
It's beenover 2,000 years and there's still no messiah. Whilst many Jews would say "you must believe he can come at any moment!" - don't Christians believe Jesus' return is imminent and wouldn't Jews think that misguided, pointing out the long delay in Jesus' death until today?

It's the height of irony that two religions have been waiting for different Messiahs for around the same length of time, justifying their own lengthy wait whilst simultaneously rejecting the justifications of the other religion in exactly the same fashion as the other does to their religion.

That's all for now, folks!

Friday, 18 April 2008

Evolution and the Bible: Revisted

I've noticed my blog is pushing at the envelope of atheistic disbelief and scientific reasoning, through the use of semi-scientific evidence and a little bit of unusual and occasionally original thought. I decided to pursue this position one more time with this post...

We all know the usual creationist/ID position, and I'm sure many have dismissed them [myself included] as forcing a modern, secular understanding of the world around us onto an ancient, religious document, with below-average success. However, I would like to explore the idea that the ancients did in fact know a thing or two about evolution, simply through observing the world around them. Using rabbinic and biblical sources, I'll show you what may be actual references to evolution in the bible.

Snakes had legs
According to New Scientist and various other thoroughly scientific sources, snakes used to have legs, many years ago. As evolution goes, they eventually mutated into having no legs, which is why we see snakes as they are today.

The midrashim on Bereishis say that the snake in the Adam and Eve story had legs and could walk. This is allegedly how Eve was pushed onto the tree which caused the pair to sin.

Human Evolution
The famous midrash is that before the flood, people used to have webbed hands and this a truism and left over from evolution? Or is this something made up? If the latter, the question that demands to be asked is, why would the rabbis make up the webbed hands and feet - what would they gain by it? Weave a more intricate web? Assure people that those before the flood are fundamentally different to those after it? Perhaps. Or perhaps at one point, "people" really did have webbed hands and feet. It would fit the evolutionary scale of things.

To conjecture further, perhaps people without webbed hands and feet lived alongside those with it, and a big flood wiped out the people with webbed hands and feet...? Either way, could this be another point at which the bible confirms evolution?

Genetic Inheritance
It is said that Abraham worried that people would think Isaac was not his son, so God made Isaac look like Abraham. I don't believe the biological fact of genes was spontaneously made by God at this point, but this aside, is this another reference from ancient times to what took humanity ages (literally) to discover? Perhaps.

OK, not strictly evolution. But is the concept of giants just fertile imagination? Perhaps people were shorter, so it was more odd to have people over 6 feet in ancient times. But to describe them as giants? We know Saul was considered very tall, but no-one described him as a giant. However, let's be vaguely scientific about this all...

1 Samuel 17:4 says Goliath, one such giant, "was over 9' tall." Now let us take a look at the tallest living people in medical history and then including the deceased. In both links, if we scroll down the page a little and ignore the pornographic pictures on the right (enjoy), we see that people up to 8 feet tall existed. It's not such a stretch to 9ft then, is it? And when we factor in that the writer of Samuel may have been incorrect in the height (let's face it, he was seen during a battle and no one would have measured him, would they) we see that the biblical "giants" may very well have existed as normal people who were way taller than everyone else.

Another explanation, perhaps describing Goliath's position...Could it be that very tall beings were observed by biblical characters as having a problem with their Pituitary gland? Perhaps. Either way, I think it likely that our modern understanding of "giant" is larger than the ancient idea of a mighty giant who stood just 9ft tall.

Giant Fish
Could the stories of giant fish be similar to the stories of giant people? Add a bit of imagination, a small village campfire and some good ol' fashioned embellishment and I think that is likely. Further, typing "giant fish" into Google reveals many pictures of giant tuna, crayfish and all manner of massive and scary looking sea creatures. One website called Fishosaur is dedicated to finding pictures of large fish, take a look.

Massive life spans
Adam lived for 930 years, but was supposed to live forever until he sinned. People after him lived pretty long too, Abraham and Sarah - 20 generations away from Adam - lived to 120 years and beyond.

This is more of an interesting conjecture than a possibility to be scientific fact, but if you've read this far, hear me out.

I was talking with someone after the second night seder, and we eventually started to talk about scientists who are isolating the aging gene(s). After discussing how it wouldn't do to allow everyone to live forever, and who would be able to eradicate such genes (the wealthy, the powerful and the gifted), I postulated that a good use of such technology would be to discover/colonise distant planets. Given how our technology is insufficient to transport humans to other planets within their lifetimes, making beings live forever would help solve the problem. They could then decide to commit euthanasia whenever they felt the colony was getting off to a good start. I postulated Adam was one such being. The argument goes like this...

The universe is expanding all the time, so the closer to the centre of the universe you are, the older everything is. It is therefore logical to postulate that another civilisation arose closer to the centre of the universe than we are. Being older than us, the beings there mastered the technologies we are stumbling upon only now, thousands of years ago. This older civilisation isolated the ageing gene and sent an explorer(s) to a distant planet we now call Earth. Adam founded civilisation here and hey presto! Here we are today.

As you can probably tell, I'm awaiting my copy of chariots of the gods....

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Girlfriend's House = New Food

I like my girlfriend. In fact, I love her very much and I have no doubt she's thrilled about me too. For the new readers, she isn't Jewish.

I've known her for several years, but only asked her out once I found religion was not the correct path to travel in life. She lives about an hour away from where I am and I recently went to keep her company whilst she was living alone in her house - the other occupants of the house had gone away for a short time. So there I was.

I had an amazing time of course, and my girlfriend - we'll call her "G" for "girlfriend" - is lovely about me not really wanting to eat some non-kosher foods just yet (pork, shrimp, etc.) and allowed me to make the choices when we went food shopping together. "I know you're still picky about the things you eat" she said "so just choose whatever you like..." and so I chose cheese, pizza, pasta, bread and other non-pork-based ingredients.

G has always wondered about my non-pork eating policy, and I tell her it's because I was so conditioned to not eating pork, that it has stayed with me. This is true. But whenever I'm at her house, I obviously come into contact with non-kosher food and generally take the opportunity of the visit to capitalise on the eating experience. What follows is a short list of interesting stuff...

Assorted biscuits/cookies and sweets/candies.

There's nothing quite like munching on a milk-based biscuit when you're hungry, something in short supply in the Jewish community. Because 6 hours is a long time to wait after having meat, it's just not practical to invent - or at least to stock - lots of milky snacks in the house. You'd just never eat them. But they're so tasty!

At this point I should mention there are two types of things in G's house, organic (which I shall name Nasty Things) and normal (after which shall follow hearty accolades testifying to their Loveliness). As I was sampling the delights of milky biscuits, I found a particularly good tasting treat. I was therefore taken by complete surprise when I put large teeth marks into an inconspicuous looking biscuit and tasted...well, sawdust. What had once greeted my optical system as a lovely treat was wreaking havoc on my taste buds. Dry, devoid of sugar and no milk to be tasted. Eurgh.

The sweets were mostly boiled with a curious sticky outside. They tasted far more like what they were supposed to taste like than the kosher candies for some reason.

I must say, it feels good to be able to just buy/eat something you like, without having to use the adage "if in doubt, do without."

Breads, Cheeses, butters and such.
Certain mass-made breads are absolutely disgusting. Knowing I felt like this, my girlfriend allowed me to purchase a bread item of my choice. I chose a mass-made supermarket bread instead, which was made that very day. Isn't that lovely? Indeed it is. It tasted lovely too.

Butters are pretty much the same, though I confess that the organic Cheddar cheese we bought was a bit too mature for G's liking and I concurred. I also sampled Brie, which is much creamier than its kosher counterpart and tasted only slightly stronger.

Main courses:
Curry and rice. I made the rice myself and it was great. The curry came from a packet in G's fridge. This is unlike any curry I've ever tasted, probably because it had cow's milk inside it and wasn't kosher. Despite coming out of the packet, I thought it was a very rich dish and G concurred. We both managed to finish our plates, though I had made too much rice (that little packet said it could feed two and I didn't believe it, so made more rice to compensate. It could feed two, I was wrong - and the rice suffered, uneaten, to be forever rejected in the garbage heap in G's house. Until trash collection day).

Various Chinese dishes: from the local take-away. First of all, the disparity in prices between kosher and non-kosher food never fails to blow me away. We ordered a fairly standard and small selection of some sort of spicy beef, rice and stir-fry noodles and chicken with assorted vegetables. The food was decent, better than my last non-kosher Chinese experience, but not as good as the kosher stuff. The price? $20. The price of a kosher equivalent? at least $40.

What did I feel when I was eating all the above? Nothing at all, besides my hunger abating. The only time I feel something is when I do something new, like eating my first non-kosher dish...that was a few months back and even then, I hesitated for only a second. How is this? Have I been less indoctrinated than the others out here? Perhaps, but probably not by much. I think my shameless, guiltless eating comes from believing in what I'm doing. I honestly don't believe there is a God out there, so why on earth would I have to worry about what I eat? Therefore eating becomes eating and not the tedious chore it once was, with intricate ingredients checking, hechsher checking, going to the beis-din website and all the shenanigans surrounding milk and meat and the six hour wait...Therefore, it was pretty much the same when I tried the next dish. I was not stopped by a psychological block any longer, it was reduced to merely another food...a new food, with only a momentary doubt...

Yes, that's right. I tried some smoked ham. I hear people wait years until they're able to eat pork, but it's just like any other food. I did it when I was heating something up and G was in another room, so she didn't see and I didn't feel the need to tell her. It tasted like smoked turkey, but chewier and it smelt different. To smell it, I made the ham hover right under my's hard to describe the smell. I thought it would be unlike anything I had smelt before, but it wasn't. They say you don't forget smells, that it leaves the longest lasting memories for your senses...and I knew I had smelt that smell before.

I don't know when, I don't know where, I just know that that smell wasn't a new was rather like finding a lovely old candy you forgot about and is still eatable, or something of the sort.

Have I had ham before? There is a slight chance, considering I was 6 when my parents decided to become frum, but I seriously doubt it as they were brought up to only ever eat kosher ingredients, as was I (I still have childhood memories of rejecting a meal at McDonald's). Perhaps I've taken in it's scent as I was passing by a high street restaurant? Could be. Who knows? It doesn't really matter, does it?

Thursday, 3 April 2008

To Doubt Doubts

This is the post I've been wanting to write for a while, and I was finally spurred into action by GH's post on why OJ isn't true. He says there is no evidence to suggest God is there, or that OJ or TMS is true.

But what if some evidence is there?

I don't consider direct evidence as possible to achieve, as direct evidence to me, would be nothing less than seeing God or something similarly divine, like an angel.

But what about indirect evidence? I'm not talking about the sort of arguments which say "oh, look at nature! look how amazing it is! Obviously it didn't happen by chance..." because there are sound alternative explanations for that which don't involve the divine. Let's take some biblical claims one by one and survey the evidence for them, if any. I'm going to attempt to stay away from absolutist statements, as there's probably lots I don't know about this subect. Comments, insights and facts welcome.

The Sea Crossing
There is evidence to suggest that this actually happened. First, a possible route has been mapped out here, and goes through the Red Sea. At the suggested crossing, sonar shows there is quite a large ridge (pictured), which probably would have been able to take the Children of Israel across to the other side of the sea...Egypt is on the left side of the border, Saudi Arabia on the other side. The ridge is somewhat elevated above the rest of the sea floor and this is the only elevation of the sort in the red sea. The sea floor isn't actually flat as portrayed here, but goes down to incredible distances.

Further, stone tools found in southern Arabia have been found to match those in africa (here) suggesting there was certainly migration across the sea at some point, so we know it's possible. Exprets believe that the first crossing took place before boat technology when those crossing either had nothing to cross with, or rafts at best. Further, through using data on sea flows and ebbs, experts suggest that the Red Sea was always covered with water for the past 2 million years, though of course at different amounts at different times. I don't know enough about sonar and underwater geography to know what this article means (it was drudged up in a google search at some point) but from what I can make of it, it doesnt seem to present any contradictions to this. It looks interesting though.

However. I think I've established (a little disjointedly, yes, but still) beyond reasonable doubt that such a crossing is possible, I present material which suggests the Children of Israel actually did it.

Under-water archaeological discoveries made seem to indicate that Egyptian chariots did venture out into the sea at some point. Below, a chariot wheel found in the Red Sea alongside what I assume (and seems reasonable to do so) is an ancient egyptian drawing of a chariot.

Further, this underwater wheel matches Egyptian chariot wheels found in Egyptian tombs. This wheel was found at the crossing site with many more wheels and human remains, which have since mineralised from resting at the bottom of the sea for so long. This seems to indicate Exodus 14 was correct when it documented the chariot wheels fell off and the Egyptians were drowned.

For those interested in the methodologies used to locate the presumed crossing path, it is available online over here.

Though this is not direct evidence of the divine, it does seem to indicate the bible has some historical truth in it. To what extent this was Divine is something an individual would have to decide for themselves, but I think it is safe to assume that the Children of Israel crossed the sea without this necessarily pointing towards the Divine.

Sinai Mountain and Revelation
The first image is found here, together with a nice little excerpt of the bible.
Based on the crossing route established above, the Children of Israel (CoI) would have emerged on the banks of Saudi Arabia - there are actually pillars dating back to the time of King Solomon on either side of the crossing, one in Egypt and one in Saudi Arabia. I have been led to understand that the pillar in Egypt was partially submerged in water, thus much of the inscriptions were eroded (though the part not submerged did survive) and the pillar on the Saudi side - which remained completely intact - was removed by the Saudi authorities and replaced with a flag pole indicating an archaeological discovery.

This article describes and shows in pictures the "real" mount sinai

Is there anything to it?
Of course, the stories of the bible could have been based around these phenomena...or it could confirm some bible stories, without necessarily implicating the divine...or it could be a truthful exposition which has verified various bible claims and is circumstantial evidence of the divine.

Could it be my predisposition to not believe would make excuses and justifications to that disbelief, even when evidence - possible evidence? - is present?

Further, compounding what science doesn't know - yes, a God of the gaps - creates a real worry for me. I was one of those people who believed evolution, the big bang etc. could have been how God created the earth, as it's an established precept of Orthodoxy that God acts within nature, and there's no reason to assume he wouldn't do so in a natural universe before humans were around. And I similarly opined that the first atom which gave rise to the big bang was created ex-nihilo by God and that life on earth was kicked off by God. Two "gaps" in science - more massive ravines than gaps - in which a presupposed belief of God would fit in very nicely.

Any thoughts?

Friday, 28 March 2008

God is not a meme

I've seen a few bloggers write how religion/belief in God is a meme. I'm not so sure I agree with that.

First off, I've read the God Delusion and The Selfish Gene, and am assuming those who wrote about memes also have. On the book God Delusion itself, I will say that Dawkins displays considerable intellectual arrogance and I don't really like him, champion of atheism or not. That's one of the great things about the secular world - you can criticise the "greats" without fear of a slap from God - or more likely, your rabbi.

It was Dawkins who introduced the meme and he stated a number of reasons as to why he did. The first was that is sounds like 'gene.' Another was that it was supposed to be analogus to the gene in 'structural make-up' and behaviour - that it finds a host and replicates (the gene equivalent of finding a mate and having babies).

The single most significant flaw in this reasoning is that culture is not bits of infromation floating around. Neither is it analogus to the gene in 'structure.'

What is more accurate to describe the fact that religion has propogated itself so far and for so long, at least in my opinion, is a combination of social/moral cohesion and violence.

Social cohesion means that a number of people in a single society are all forced to stay together and keep the traditions and values of that society, by society itself. Whilst that sounds rather odd in abstract terms, since if all individuals wanted to leave society, you'd expect them to be able to do it, for at first glance, it is the individuals who make up society. But in practise, the truth is different.

Take the Jewish community for example. Someone who grows up in a Jewish community will replicate the behaviour of the people in that community. If their behaviour differs from the norm, they will be put back in line by members of the wider community. That could be a parent, a teacher, a friend, a neighbour or a complete stranger who tells you off. This is all due to the effects of cohesion - keeping people together.

Of course, physically leaving the community is difficult, for the indivdual has been integrated into society to the extent that they rely upon it and should they leave, their social and perhaps economic lives will fall away...until they rebuild in a different community which has different values. Of course, the society will continue to function after the individual has left and the community will barely feel the absence of the few who are able to resist this cohesion.

Think of it in terms of quicksand. The longer you stay in the same swamp, the deeper you go in, the more the effects of cohesion, the harder it is to remove yourself. It's possible, just difficult.

Therefore religion is not merely an abstract bit of culture, an idea which has been passed down generations: it is a reinforced way of life which isn't "transferred" to the next generation - the next generation is automatically born into it and necessarily imitates the behaviour of those around them.

Violence is a part of it because that's how religions have tended to remain alive and/or grow. For example, Islam. Sikhism. And just about any other religion...they've all had violent pasts as far as I can tell.

Perhaps this gives a greater insight into the Darwinian necessity of religion than does the concept of a meme. Afterall, the idea of a meme is too abstract to understand why a particular meme would be replicated. This theory (which I'm sure belongs to Weber and that I've done it a great injustice) suggests survival of the individual - the individual now has a community to rely upon. It also suggest the survival of the community, in that the society will always have a membership and those members will remain loyal to that particular community even if it makes contact with other communities.

In short, individuals have little choice how they act, as they will usually only ever act within the bounds of a certain community. If your parents are Jewish, you'll end up being Jewish. If parents vote republican, it's likely their kids will too.

Incidentally, people are therefore predictable and we can therefore begin to predict modes of behaviour based on this alone.

Let the arguing begin.

N.B. this is over-simplistic and was written hurridly between essays over a number of hours.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Late at night. Two tall figures are walking in the dimly lit streets.

Frum friend: So, Jewish Sceptic! What's new? Going on any shidduchim?
Me: Oh, uhh, umm. Not exactly.

--At this point, an internal struggle takes place. Two minature figures appear in a puff of smoke, each sitting on a different shoulder. One is coloured red and carries a pork chop, and a seedy magazine. The other is dressed in a black bekishe and streimel, armed with a yiddish accent and Torah scroll.--

Evil conscience: You do have a girlfriend! Hahaha! She isn't Jewish either!! HaHaHa! Good job!
Jewish conscience: Oy vey! What would your friend think if he knew that? What do you think Hashem would think?
Me, thinking: My friend would have a heart attack. As for the other question, I'm not having a theological debate with you. Again.
Jewish conscience: Yes, what a chochom you are. Not. It says here in the Torah that...
Me: I know. I know. What do I say now though? Do I lie and say no? Or do I not lie and allow an argument to go ahead, and lose my friend?
Evil conscience: HaHaHa! I don't even need to be here!
Me: No. You don't. Because you don't exist and neither does Reb Yid here. You don't exist.
Consciences together: Oh. You're right.
--They both disappear in a puff of logic.--

Me: Umm...No, I'm not.
FF: are you sure?
Me: Yes.
FF: It would make you happier y'know!
Me: But I'm happy already...

The interesting thing about this discussion is that FF here seemed only to have reason in his life once he was dating. Whilst this isn't strictly true for everyone, I know plenty of young frum people, and it seems their only goal in life is to be old enough to get to go on a shidduch. What are their plans after that? Invariably none. Talking about girls take up so much time and effort in the frum community - at least the people I know - that they haven't given thought to what they're going to do after yeshiva, besides vague plans for college or a shallow committment to a family business somewhere...

Of course, not everyone is like that.

I had a similar discusson with someone a few days ago. I told them I was an atheist.
I told them everything. My doubts, my research of religion, my eventual journey to agnosticism and now atheism. I wanted to see what sort of reaction I would get and lucky for me, I found the right person to tell. There was no yelling, no disowning, no unpleasant stuff at all. In fact, they said "is that all?" and told me it's not such a big deal. I think it is a big deal - I also think I found the most liberal, observant Orthodox Jew in the world. Lucky me!! What would everyone else think though? Family, etc? "Oh, there'll be hell to pay, sure. Maybe literally..."

That would be rather unlucky, wouldn't it?