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.