A few days before writing of this article, the United Nations renewed and strengthened it’s call that peace be along the lines of the 1949 armistice lines set in the first war fought by the modern country of Israel. Jerusalem has gone back and forth between all sorts of conquerors for thousands of years – it’s name, according to Jewish sources is a mix of “yeru” meaning to fear or be in awe of G_d because of Abraham’s fear of G_d there … and “salim” which the people before him called it. It was a compromise.
Maybe one day I will get to reading books as they come out – while I was about 60 years too late commenting on Lawrence of Arabia I’m only about ten years behind for the Jews in the Dominican Republic and this one. However, this is not a new topic for me and in many ways, one needs to find an older book to find something more scholarly on the subject of Hasidic Jews who leave the path. Today, what I largely find on the topic are sensationalist “self-accounts” and Facebook rants by angry people that I’ve found by accident . . . but I stuck around for some great intellectual discussions with them.
Hella Winston on Hasidim
Anyway, on to Hella Winston’s book. She’s a Jew raised with no religious background who describes her own great ignorance about Judaism. She, in one extreme, set out to understand the other extreme and ended up writing about those who leave or want to leave their Hasidic groups which proved more interesting to her. Almost all of the stories focus around Satmar, one of the largest Hasidic groups and the one known to be most strict and insular. While the author goes to great lengths to simply provide the information without bias, she’s less successful at this at the book goes on but no person can truly write without bias and overall, she does a wonderful job.
One of those biases is the repeated rebuke of the premise that Hasidim who leave will get into drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. The book mainly tells the tale of “Yossi”, a former Satmar Chasid who gets into drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. At one point, she quotes him as saying, “I eat anything. I shtup anything.” (The word used wasn’t in yiddish.) Then there’s an interesting insight about how Chasidim often do believe that being a liberal and being on the outside involves just that … doing anything without bounds. Meanwhile, the few Lubovitch stories (a group which has a goal of being connected to the outside world and bringing them in) are far, far less dramatic though still heart-wrenching.
What Do I Think
For my own biases, which you can find all throughout this blog, one of the best biographies I have ever read was on the Satmar Rav – you can read that review over here. He was a man of amazing intellect, principal, and the drive to replace a community that was destroyed in a way which was more exacting and more extreme than the one he left and with great success where his predecessors largely failed. He wanted to make it better and in his community, there were no compromises and no exceptions. Meanwhile, no matter who you are, you can’t go through a situation like he did, barely escaping with his life while your world is destroyed, and come out unscathed.
While I certainly admire the man, what I haven’t written about is that after I read the biography, I went and found a book purity based on the writings of the Satmar Rav … I couldn’t get very far. Let’s leave it at that.
The striking part for me is what I’ve heard about, but Winston brings a whole lot more understanding to – it’s all or nothing. The problem is this, and this is straight out of Mesilias Yesharim, the chapter on purity: the higher levels of purity are meant for some, not all. By requiring it of those who are not up to the task, you are suffocating them. What then happens is they become requirements in a community, and worse, many of the requirements have nothing or little to do with Jewish law – e.g. there is no requirement (that I know of) in Jewish law to have long peyos though I can and do appreciate those that say “I want to do more than the minimum” and leaving the corners of your face unshaven, as we leave the corners of our fields for the poor. There is no requirement (that I know of) to have a long beard – it’s a kabbalistic thing of sorts (though I have one because it beats shaving every day). There is no requirement to wear a long black coat. However, these are things that people can see and since there is no leeway for doing anything but the highest levels of “purity”, people end up doing them not out of purity but out of “what will the neighbors say?” It’s kind of like “what will my friends say if I drive a Volvo while they have Benz’s?” only with a Volvo, your kids can still be accepted into the local schools.
The same goes for secular education – Winston aptly brings up the point that the Hasidim of old were involved in trades and secular education, but today it’s largely fallen by the wayside especially as funds have dried up with huge growth and low incomes to support it. If you ever want to see how government assistance can ruin the work ethic of a community, no need to look at the inner city black population (at least not that black population). The funds could be better directed to providing better educational opportunities, but alas, in the United States and more so in New York, again we’re faced with an “all or nothing” situation … funds are provided for public schools devoid of specific religious instruction or you go to a religious institution which struggles to provide secular education (or gives up in others).
Where We Go
I am a Torah observant Jew and I can say I experience some of these issues, while not seeing the others. A world where people’s interiors sometimes are far different than what they keep up on the exterior? Not in my circles. A world devoid of secular education? Not in my circles. A world where we struggle to find the balance between religious and secular? Yes! That’s in my circles.
What is needed is the place where one can find the middle path and where children can grow to find theirs. I have the utmost respect and the utmost support for a Jew who is Chassidish and is totally into it just as I do the Modern Orthodox Jew, so long as they are true to themselves and true to the Torah, and ultimately, what G_d wants. G_d gave us the Torah and mitzvos as a vehicle for joy, meaning, and purpose in life. At the same time, we have to live within the world and we are the only major belief system that says we have to do both.
As someone who went “the other way”, going from secular to religious, I also say that we must be sensitive to where our children are. While we guide them and of course want every Jew to be Torah observant, even Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov were completely different in their approaches to serving G_d but all completely observant of the mitzvos.
I’ll leave it at that.
In part 1 I discussed living for meaning and how that brings one to go towards an infinite purpose beyond our lives and world which is destined to end.
In part 2 I discussed which alternatives do not fit this criteria – they either do not provide a positive purpose for this world in which I am in and/or do not fit with observable reality where I find myself.
Now in part 3, I discuss why Judaism fits into the criteria I used as my basis for part 2.
How Does Judaism Provide a Positive Answer for How to Live?
We have to deal with “bad things” if we are going to discuss the observable world. These “bad things” do not happen without purpose in Judaism. “Bad things” are not desired by the Creator. They happen to bring about good. They happen to help us grow. Everything is a lesson for us, and every “bad thing” teaches us something or jolts us to do better because we should be doing something more. If never tested, we could never grow to do more. You can’t be “great” if you are never given the chance to overcome challenges … and succeed. This is for the individual and this is for society as a whole.
Thus, while we lament 2000 years since the destruction of the second Temple for example, on a day of mourning each year, Judaism believes that it’s not the fault of the others who did the destruction. The Jews could have been doing better and it was done with the angelic creatures in the holy of holies facing towards each other … out of love. We strive for greatness by breaking something and putting it all back together a whole lot better.
On a personal level, this goes throughout our day and our life. Adversity and seeming “bad things” become good … because Judaism believes they are, no matter how small or large. You can test me with my life and you can test me with my keeping of the Torah. The latter is actually a test which is able to hurt us much more, but still, the test allows us to achieve. As long as we look at the world in this manner, we will always be happy. It’s not always easy, but this does fit within what we observe in the world – all people go through trials and pains. We are all meant to realize what we are going through is for us to have and for us to overcome in our personal struggle. It is, after all, the struggle that brings meaning. It is this struggle and this meaning which makes us greater, as a part of the Creator which is infinite, than just a hypothetical Creator with no creation.
How Does Judaism Fit Within the Observable Reality
As referred to in the previous article, the reality is that the whole world does not believe the same thing. The Torah accounts for this, pointing to many nations with different beliefs. The reality is that we don’t meet perfect people. The Torah accounts for this, telling us exactly what our prophets did wrong.
Muslims love to use this as an example of how their prophets were perfect, but we speak badly about ours. On the contrary, I say that all the others like to talk up the perfection of their holy person, whereas Judaism has no single holy person, but has a nation which struggles for greatness and with real faults. This is evidence, to me, that Judaism is much more likely correct since it’s impossible logically for all the contradictory “religious” belief systems to be true and contradictory, but yet they all, to my knowledge claim their leader was perfect … except Judaism. When Jews are described as “stiff-necked” in the Torah, is it an anti-semite writing or the Creator speaking truth?
When one looks as Ismael, father of the Arab nations and Esav, father of the Rome, Ham, father of the African nations … it all seems to fit well. Just as, in a silly example, Star Wars has staying power because it speaks to lots of people through time, so has the Torah. The proliferation of so many beliefs based on it seem only to show how much meaning is in there.
Then, take for example the prediction of the destruction of Israel, the scattering of the Jews, an the return to Israel described in Devarim [Deuteronomy]. What kind of man made religion predicts such a crazy thing? How is it turning out to be true 2000 years later? Who disperses around the world and then returns in any recognizable fashion to their original land?
Using the Physical World, But Being Spiritual
Judaism provides an intersection between the spiritual and the physical. The physical is “elevated”. The Talmud asks how one can eat anything – you’re stealing from the Creation. Answer: you say a blessing where you thank the Creator and have a relationship with the creator. You turn it into a spiritual experience (when done right).
We have six days a week of work and one day a week of spiritual existence where we disconnect from acts of creation in the physical world (the Shabbos). On the work days, we say blessings, we kiss mezeuzahs when we enter through doors, we put on tefillin, and we take time out three times a day for meditation. On Shabbos, we take are whole day out, but still eat and do physical things so long as they don’t remove us too far from the day or involve acts of new creation.
Then we have the exceptions – Yom Kippur, a day dedicated to the spiritual with no food, but not no food out of affliction. Rather, this is because completely spiritual beings do not need food. On the flip side, we have the physical day – Purim, where we use the physical as a tool to remove our inhibitions and connect to the infinite. Most times, however, are in the middle of the extremes … something like Pesach where we eat a full meal as thanks to the Creator and then finish with some matzah for dessert … flat bread devoid of having risen, which we eat when full for the mitzvah itself, not the sustenance. However, Jewish law says that we must have some room left over to eat it because, after all, we are still physical and must involve the physical.
What About Heterodox / Non-Orthodox Jewish Movements
Along with this question goes, “Why do I have to do all these things?” and “What if I don’t find meaning in them?” One of the tragedies of modern Ashkenazi Judaism is lack of education. Judaism is an entire way of life which works and has tremendous staying power. No matter the adversity, there is something to it. Still, most recently in history, Jews when through enormous physical struggles and came out wounded, but with a Torah system which is rebuilding anew and in many ways, much stronger.
The practical reality is that today there’s very little distinction between the different non-Orthodox variants. For example, the written Torah and every Jewish sect and breakaway known in our entire written history says that we don’t light a fire on Shabbos. This is an act of creation from which we refrain. Every modern heterodox movement will say something like, “that’s too hard for us today, so you can drive your car with combustion engine.” Some will say, “but only to synagogue,” as if this is more logical. In an attempt conserve, they’ve put a band aid on a huge wound and taught what is not Torah is the name of Judaism.
It’s a huge failure. If you don’t teach the children that it’s truth and strip the inner essence to leave some rituals that you view as antiquated … you won’t be left with many adherents. This seems obvious to me. The last time I heard a heterodox leader speak, it was at a great-uncle’s funeral. He asked why angels were going up a ladder and another set down in Jacob’s dream. He then went into some sort of attenuated comparison about my great-uncle’s volunteering for the WPA. I wanted to scream out, “Rashi [most basic commentator to the Torah] gives two answers to your question! Just pick one!” The problem is I’m pretty sure I’m pretty sure no one in the room would know what’s a Rashi.
Conservative Jews are so because Judaism meant something to their parents. Reform Jews are so because Judaism meant something to their grandparents. With this exception of a very small knowledge inner core, the substance of Judaism has been replaced with nastalgia and modern American liberal politics having nothing to do with a counter culture that has transcended continents and cultures.
If Judaism is So Great, Why Do Even People Educated Properly In It Leave?
People don’t run away from something good. I don’t think there’s one answer to this question. There are different groups of ‘leavers’. Many, I have found, come from very rigidly structured groups without the ability for self-expression. Others are rebelling from their parents to lesser or greater degrees. Others had social issues, especially as children – Jewish learning is demanding. A boy who has trouble learning can be at risk of leaving if he fails he is a failure and it is a wholly negative experience. A boy who is way too smart may also not fit in and may not find a suitable peer group and may be teased. Others don’t want to be “told” what to do; they want to have their version of “freedom” and don’t have room for another power greater, smarter, or better than them. These reasons for changing what one does in life are not exclusive to Judaism, I think tend to have an emotional underpinning, and is a topic that needs further exploration.
Part of my goal here, besides more content = better SEO = higher ranking for my work website which is linked to from here … where was I. Part of my goal was to put down in writing “What I answer myself” as well as common questions that come up in discussions on the topic.
I hope I have explained a rational basis for belief in a Creator. Added to this is that the more one believes in a Creator, the more one experiences a Creator. Things happen because of a Creator and answers come. One starts seeing a Creator everywhere. Here’s one example I see.
I hope I have also explained that a belief should be both positive and fit within what we observe in the world – I cannot test or rely on what is not here, nor do I choose a belief which negates this world or looks at it negatively.
Finally, I hope I have explained how Judaism best satisfies all of the above criteria, and is, in my view, correct and only re-enforced by other beliefs from scientific thoughts on creation and evolution to other Judaism-based beliefs. Still, there are of course questions and nothing is a proof, though I choose, with reason to place my belief over here.
In a first post, I wrote I chose to be an Orthodox Jew, focusing mainly on belief in a Creator. How does that get me from Creator –> this particular belief system?
In part 2 below I will discuss which alternatives do not fit this criteria – they either do not provide a positive purpose for this world in which I am in and/or do not fit with observable reality where I find myself.
In part 3, I will discuss why Judaism fits into the criteria I used as my basis for part 2.
Why Does Belief in a Creator Solve Anything?
First, I think it’s true that belief in a Creator does not fully satisfy an answer to a question of “then what? Isn’t there also some sort of end that way?” The physical world ends in heat death … if I survive on forever with my soul or return to the infinite … then what? For this I refer to things I’ve heard in the name of the Ari Z”l, a kabbalist, and the RamChal, a would-be kabbalist who died at 39 years of age.
In order for the infinite to truly be infinite, that infinite needs a finite part. The physical is that finite part and has within it all sorts of very big and complex things … the concept of hate and the concept of suffering being some of them. One cannot perfect oneself if one is never given the chance to do so. We are part and also the same as the Creator, in different senses. One can spend one’s life dedicated to a certain profession or study, and that’s fine, but even better is to couple and connect back.
An atheist once argued to me that this is no different than the physical world … one goes around in circles. Maybe true, but I’ll choose the biggest and most meaningful circle – the infinite one and not the limited duration timeline one.
How I Narrow Down What Belief System to Choose’
Referring back to the first sentence of the earlier article on What to Live For, I choose to live for something positive. This rules out arguments like the “reverse Pascal wager” which posits that maybe the Creator created us with a test not to believe and those who do will see punishment. No one actually believes such a thing … they just use it to try and win arguments.
As a starting point we also have to look at how the world is. If you want to start with, “If there was a G_d, then X would be different…” you lost me. You are pre-supposing that G_d wouldn’t create the world this way. I don’t pre-suppose such things, and again, such arguments are academic. I want to make a choice how to live my life based on what I observe and what gives meaning within the observable system I call my life.
This also involves intellect which says there is something more in order to achieve greater meaning and purpose. Even evolutionary theory points to this – evolution states that things get more sophisticated … we seek intellect and the majority of humans seek out and believe in a Creator. Animals, as far as we know have no such ability.
Applying the Narrow Down Method
As amply covered already, scientific inquiry and discovery not in the context of a world with a Creator is meaningless and purposeless. I want better than a Camus-type answer of something along the lines of learning to like pushing a rock up a hill to watch it come back down. Where is there meaning beyond working to eat food have the energy to work again? Further, where is this a positive way to live.
Buddhism was out for me pretty quickly. It’s founded by someone who, the story goes, engaged in flagellation and sat under a tree deciding that the world is suffering and he most escape. Nope – this is a negative world that I’m living in and the best I can hope for is escape from it? Not for me.
Hinduism actually holds a bit of appeal to me … if one finds a very monotheistic version.
Then there are the Judaism-descended beliefs. Christianity was supposed to supplant Judaism. Islam and Mormonism were supposed to supplant Christianity. Ba’hai was supposed to supplant Islam. Each of these has factions and sects and the like. All this proves is that Judaism has a really, really good foundation for which a whole lot of people and beliefs can use to try and claim some legitimacy. Further, it’s not really logical for the Creator to give an eternal instruction book that gets replaced with another one saying to do different things.
Yes, I know, each replacement theology will have it’s arguments … second coming, man corrupted the stuff before, or that sort of thing. Even if you say that, you still have to contend with things like most people being destined for eternal suffering, the ability to do terrible things and be “saved” because you say you believe the right thing, and so forth. Each of these, not coincidentally, also thinks that the rest of the world is supposed to believe like them. If so, then why don’t you see that in the observable world? I’m just supposed to believe this other guy because he tells he has faith in iteration 2, sub part 33 of the replacement theology and not the other guy with faith in iteration 4, sub part 5? No thanks. None of this fits either of my requirements – a) positive, b) fits with the observable world.
Which brings me to . . .
This brings me to why Judaism fits the test – it’s positive and fits with the observable world. It is positive in this world, here and now. It provides the ability and guidance to live within this world. It also provides a spiritual existence with meaning transcending this life alone.
In article 1 (below) I discuss living for meaning and how that brings one to go towards an infinite purpose beyond our lives and world which is destined to end.
In article 2 I will discuss which alternatives do not fit this criteria – they either do not provide a positive purpose for this world in which I am in and/or do not fit with observable reality where I find myself.
In article 3, I will discuss why Judaism fits into the criteria I used as my basis for part 2.
What Do You Live For?
The meaning of life is in the struggle for greatness. Those who are happy are those who have something to life for and a goal to seek. Some struggle for freedom from oppression, some struggle for food. Some struggle for power, some struggle for money. All those struggles end in death. I write nothing new here, as this is more or less the beginning of one of the first classes I ever heard from an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi. His name was Noach Weinberg, and this speaks to me.
This immediately rules out, at least for me, a life devoid of connection to G_d, the infinite, the Creator, the spiritual plane of existence. You can have all the pleasures in the world, all the money in the world, all the power in the world, and even all the knowledge in the world. Then what?
I’ll tell you what: heat death of the universe. This is what science has to offer us. For all our struggles, we will die. Our ideas will die. Humanity will die. It will be for nothing. If all there is, is a physical world . . . that’s depressing. You can do something “lesser” or something “greater” but compared to heat death, all is nothing. Again, I say nothing new here. King Solomon said this long before me as did Iyov [Job], as did many modern philosophers.
Why Does Being an “Orthodox Jew” Give Something to Live For?
Every day, I wake up and thank the Creator for returning my life to me another day. This is, in Jewish law, the very first thing we say upon waking up every day. From the very beginning of the day, I arise with purpose. I head off to synagogue and continue . . . thanks for giving me eyesight, thanks for giving me the ability to walk, thanks for giving me the ability to . . . well, not be like an animal that seeks it’s food to live in an endless circle of food for life, living for food. Thank You because I can connect to You.
Sure, there are morning I don’t make it to synagogue and there are mornings I’m late and unfortunately rush through faster than I should. Still, I get up, and do this no matter what, the getting up with purpose culminating in a mediation session where it is just me and the infinite . . . who I talk to in the second person: You [ata in Hebrew].
How do Believe in That Which You Cannot Test?
That is all well and good, but the atheist will argue that one can run tests and experiments and write peer reviewed articles and come to a consensus on a great many things in the physical universe. I have spent many a conversation trying to understand the beliefs of an atheist, here, here, and here for example.
At the end of the day, however, a consensus does not bring truth. Consensus is often wrong. One can neither argue nor prove the existence nor lack thereof of a Creator, though the more one sees the world as though there is one, the more it becomes obvious that there has to be. One cannot know why the Big Bang did what it did. One cannot know why the laws of physics are just right such that ice floats, protons and electrons exist and form compounds … that carbon can bond with itself four times. The famous Dr. Crick, who discovered DNA, a wonder in itself that stems from life just spontaneously existing, declared that it must have come from an outer space seed because … how else could it have happened?
There is evidence of, and mathematical theories as to how evolution, for example, might have worked. These theories are usually written by people who don’t believe, don’t want to believe, and start with a premise of disbelief. They believe in it without ever having seen a fish grow legs and walk on land, for such a proposition is far from testable. It’s a tool to understand creation by a Creator, nothing more. The Talmud describes it in the second chapter of Chagigah, that such studies are like examining the King’s trash heap . . . see all the things the King discarded. You, the atheist will argue, “but you’re pre-supposing G_d exists when you call it ‘the King’s trash heap'” to which I rebut, “Okay, let’s examine from your perspective: you’re examining the dead remains of what came before you while on your way to heat death. Go find a hot tub and enjoy the moment instead.” That’s not a belief. It’s an attempt, all to often, to escape from G_d, not find a positive belief of your own. As Dawkins famously said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
In a Dawkins world, one receives Intellectual fulfillment as long as one doesn’t think too long term as from where you came and where you are going. For this, the various Greek philosophies made more sense … go for physical pleasure how you desire here and now. What’s in it for examination of the past … unless you believe in G_d and then, hey, maybe it’s a trash heap, but it’s a heap of a King! Now I can understand something about how G_d functions and how the progression went from simpler to more complex as both the geological record and Judaism-based beliefs both tell us.
So an honest answer is – we all believe in what we cannot test unless we simply do not think about it. Some believe in “evolution” as a reason for us to be here, some believe in “G_d”. Most in either category do not think about it one way or the other. Once you begin to think, that’s when you get yourself into trouble. Absent emotional reasons to believe one way or the other, one cannot prove one way or the other, but one must logically choose to believe there is a Creator and then follow the evidence from there.
Why is Belief in a Creator Any Better?
Aren’t we still just going around in a circle, back to a Creator? What for? Part II will answer this.
Relationships are Meaning
One summer day in my childhood I returned from swimming with my grandfather to his house where I was staying. Waiting at the front door were two smiling missionaries. It didn’t take long for my grandfather to start arguing, “You expect me to believe in G_d? In a being who sits alone with no company? An unsexed being?” The missionaries smiled and moved on, while my grandfather and I went in to unload the dishwasher while my grandfather apologized for being an atheist while encouraging me to have my bar mitzvah. Later in life, it would irk my grandfather quite a bit when I became Torah observant.
Yet his argument is, I think, somewhat correct. The Rosh Hashana machzor [prayer book] speaks of the “King who sits in solitude” and this is one of many philosophical questions that that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks answers. In fact, he explains the whole opening of the Torah itself is about relationships. One would expect a G_d-given rule book to start with the rules … open with the 10 commandments maybe. Nope. After a very short, terse, and in Rabbi Sack’s view, non-literal exposition of the creation of the world, we find thousands of words on relationships.
Relationships taught in the Torah include man’s relationship with the Creator; meaning, that the Creator does not sit along with no company – we are like the bride, the children, and the partner with the Creator in the creation. This includes relationships between fathers and sons (e.g. Abraham and Isaac), brothers (Yaakov and Eisav), sisters (Rachel and Leah), neighbors, bad inlaws (Laban), bad rulers (Nimrod), and so on. This is such a large part of creation and Torah and understanding G_d that, as Rabbi Sacks posits, this is why the Torah is written this way.
Meaning is Outside the System
From there, Rabbi Sacks covers a wide range of philosophical topics that I wish I read when I became Torah observant because, much of what I wrote in my first posts where I describe my process of choosing a Torah way of life, Rabbi Sacks describes with quotes reference to some of the great philosophers. In fact, I’d guess that, excepting for the posts about kosher travel, half the posts on this blog are encapsulated in Rabbi Sacks’s book.
For example, Rabbi Sacks talks about man’s search for meaning. He states that meaning is always outside the system. A rat running through a maze does not see the meaning behind why he running through the maze. Yesterday, I witnessed a college student with her iPad having children play a “game”. She didn’t disclose that she was running some sort of psychology experiment on the kids, and while I watched it and saw all the questions, only she who is running the experiment posing as a game really knows the meaning behind it. This, as Rabbi Sacks quotes, is the essence of Iyov [Job]. There are a whole lot of questions, but not a whole lot of answers.
So when philosophers search for meaning, they do so in two ways; in a world with an ultimate meaning and purpose and in a world without. Camus cannot accept that there is a G_d and his in depth search for meaning results in, what Rabbi Sacks describes as, “Sisyphus comes to enjoy pushing the stone up the hill to have it fall back down and do it again.” That is, there is no meaning, just the system. Camus says find ways to like being the rat in the maze. On the other hand, Tolstoy says there is a G_d and finds meaning outside the system. Rabbi Sacks says that meaning is always outside the system. I agree.
Finally, Rabbi Sacks comes to King Solomon and Kohelles [Ecclesiastes]. It’s an entire book that Jews read every Succos, on a holiday where we are supposed to be joyous for eight days … yet it opens with the famous line, “futility of futility.” Discussing every pleasure known to man from a “been there, done that” perspective and trying to find meaning, the book closes with what is really meaningful … none of what you do in life matters expect for serving the Creator and following the guide book, the meaning being outside the system.
[On a side note, after reading this book I began listening to the English version of Tolstoy’s “What I Believe” available on YouTube. it’s eight hours. In short, he guts Christianity and re-translates / re-interprets it to be an extreme form of pacifism that is not practiced by the governments who enforced it through killing through his day. In the one reference to Judaism I came across, he states that Jews believe in the Torah from Moses and that’s a whole and complete belief that he can’t find reason to argue with, though he is very clearly a Christian believer.]
Opposition by Atheists and Religious People
At other times Rabbi Sacks implies, sometimes more recognizably so than others, that it doesn’t matter so much if there is a G_d, but that society is changed based on whether it is one that is G_d fearing or not. (A midrash says similarly, stating something like, “if they would forget Me but remember my Torah…”) R’Sacks uses overly safe language to describe this, stating that a society without G_d won’t remain “exactly the same.” Of course it won’t remain exactly the same, but his examples go further than that, including the oppression of a Catholic adoption center in the United States because they will not consent to homosexual partners adopting. This is the opposite of liberty and allowing those to have choice in their beliefs, for which he compares to being “French.” After all, he is British and the British have a long history of mocking the French. The French, he says, had an abrupt revolution and changed things dramatically … and failed in doing so. The British way, he tells us, is to move slowly.
When religious faith goes, five things happen, gradually and imperceptibly. First there is a loss of belief in human dignity and the sanctity of life. This is not immediately obvious, because the new order announces itself as an enhancement of human dignity. It values autonomy, choice and individual rights.”
So what of religious oppressors? He has no love for that either. He describes that his debates with atheists (of which his PhD mentor was one); he agrees with almost everything they say. Further, those who have done things in the name of G_d things that are amoral are just as bad to him as to an atheist.
The cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.
He rails against the Christian form of stoic G_d who has hell fire ready for us upon our death and dualistic right vs. wrong, us vs. them sorts of philosophies which come in both religious and atheistic forms. An example: he states that the first suicide bombers were secular Tamil tigers in Sri Lanka, the Muslims only copying them. On the other hand, he praises the Muslims for their faith, which, save for the unfortunately large and growing extreme dualistic elements is far better than the results of society with no moral basis whatsoever. He fears for the direction Europe is going, finding that will be much worse and points to, of course, the holocaust.
Rabbi Sacks on Science and Old of Date Theology
Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind. – Albert Einstein
The book, after all, is called “The Great Partnership” between science and religion. Rabbi Sacks quotes Einstein (above), and shrugs off contradictions between science and religion with a great, “meh.” His answer is something like, “So the Bible isn’t literal after all. Let’s move on.” His training is in philosophy, not in hard sciences, but more on this in part II.
The Question: Earth’s Water Came From Where?
MinuteEarth / MinutePhysics are great YouTube channels discussing various topics about earth / physics in short videos. I highly recommend them. The writer, a theoretical physicist, even has a video on the origins of modern scientific views on the the world having a beginning, giving a nod to theologians.
One of his recent videos on the origins of Earth’s water got my thinking. Here’s the video:
The short version, if you want to save a few minutes, is that water molecules contain hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is usually made up of one proton and one electron, however, a very tiny fraction of hydrogen molecules also have a neutron. This is called deuterium. Here’s the problem: according to scientific theory, when the Earth was forming and there was no atmosphere, any water would have boiled off and the planet should be as barren as everything else this side of the Kepler belt. Further, the water found on Earth matches the deuterium ratio of the outer solar system.
Far-fetched Theory or Fact: Comets
The prevalent scientific theory has been that water on Earth comes from comets with water hitting the Earth after the atmosphere was formed. This even even reported as fact by science museums, so it must be true, right? Below is a picture of a sign from the New York Hall of Science in Queens, NY:
[Begin Gripe] Click on the image to see it bigger and clearer. I love science museums, but it a huge pet peeve of mine when they teach theory as fact (see a similar post about the Harvard Museum) … especially when it’s a theory with so many problems. The theories are rapidly changing, bit I suspect the next sign in the museum will state the next theory just as unequivocally. It’s the inverse equivalent of the “G_d of the gaps” fallacy – when you don’t have a good answer, instead of saying “mystery of G_d” you say to an 8 year old, “here’s the least absurd thing we can think of right now that we’re going to pass off as unequivocal truth so you don’t look further.” We laugh at plenty of things in science books of twenty years ago, and apparently, twenty years from now we’ll still be doing that while meanwhile a bunch of non-thinking people will continue to put their unquestioned faith in the high priests of science who claim superior knowledge. [End Gripe]
Questioning the Comet Theory
The oceans cover 71% of the Earth and “happen” not to cover just some puddles (as would by my guess given the amount of space and relative sizes of the planet and comets) or the entire thing (if we’re talking about 4 billion years of consistent bombardment). Why, if comets are hitting the Earth and providing water would the size of our land masses, even if moving, just conveniently stay about the same for the past hundred of millions of years?
Then further, that’s a whole lot of outer solar system comets that managed to hit Earth and miss … everything else in the “vicinity.” Why did all these ice comets “happen” to nearly completely miss Mars and our moon? Is Earth such a bigger target? (See more about water on Mars from an article that just came out a day before this post – it’s a quickly changing topic.)
Contemporaneous with this article, the European Space Agency has landed a probe on an outer solar system comet and the deuterium doesn’t match. The scientific theory is already shifting . . . no, no… not comets… how about asteroids. That seems to have the same problem to me, but now you have to say further, “the comets [with the wrong levels of deuterium] missed Earth but the asteroids [with presumably the right levels of deuterium which has yet to be determined] hit Earth.” I don’t buy it.
The Less Crazy Theory: Rocks Turned Into Water
This theory has been gaining momentum just this past year. It would take 1/3 of 1% (by current estimates) of the rocks in the mantle of the Earth to be composed of water trapped in ringwoodite rocks to equal the water in the oceans. Ringwoodite is some pretty neat stuff, only discovered in 1969. The numerous biblical references to water from rocks don’t seem to mysterious and it appears, once again, like the beginning of the universe, science and Torah are converging. Further, the theory makes a whole lot more sense. The reason Earth’s water didn’t all boil off pre-atmosphere is because, in this theory, it was under the surface and came out over time, the pre-Earth mass with ice being formed from the same stuff as the outer solar system, so as to match the deuterium levels in our own water.
The Talmud on Water Creation
First, there is at least one source, in Sanhedrin, for boiling water in the oceans. Then, as for the creation of water itself, the second perek [chapter] of Chagigah is quite intriguing. The whole thing is here, with phrase by phrase translation. I am only pulling out bits and pieces here, for brevity. First, the mishnah tells us that even if we understand, we cannot teach to another “THE WORK OF CREATION IN THE PRESENCE OF TWO, NOR THE CHARIOT IN THE PRESENCE OF ONE, UNLESS HE IS A SAGE AND UNDERSTANDS OF HIS OWN KNOWLEDGE.” So creation itself is just under the hiddenness of creation as seeing heavenly creatures. Rav Meiselman says that once something is revealed, it is like it has taught itself, so we can discuss such things which have “revealed themselves” publicly today.
The very second verse of the Torah, describing creation, states:
|ב וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.||2 Now the earth was unformed [tohu] and void [vohu], and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.|
The Gemora [Tamud] tells us, “It is taught: Tohu is a green line that encompasses the whole world out of which darkness proceeds . . . vohu, this means the slimy stones that are sunk in the deep, out of which the waters proceed”
I think it is reasonable to understand this in line with water created from deeply sunk rocks! That’s where some sort of “water” comes from! The waters extended up from the depth until G_d said, “Enough!” tells us other sources. Other midrashim tell us how Dovid HaMelech [King David] dug down to these waters which threatened to flood the Earth again. The Earth’s water coming from rocks under the surface certainly has it’s sources in Torah.
Now, this comes with the standard disclaimers … it’s nice when you find theories in science and Torah that match, but some of science is in flux, and so is some of our understanding of Torah so with moving targets, it’s just another point of confirmation that may or may not stand the test of time, but I still like it as of this writing because the theory of our water from underground rocks makes the most sense, based on what I understand, from both a scientific and Torah perspective. In doing so, i reject the theory that ocean water comes (in any significant quantity) from comets or asteroids, as the current scientific theory states.
What Else Does the Talmud Have to Say Over Here
Jump down to page 5 over here to read, in English, more of the account of how things were created according to the Torah. Some of it matches our modern understanding, some does not. For example, I find this interesting and perplexing: “Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: The first man [extended] from one end of the world to the other … as soon as he sinned, the Holy One, blessed be He, placed His hand upon him and diminished him.” Does this mean that “man” as we know us was not the 6 foot tall flesh and blood creature? I picture The Little Prince on his own world or a baby in a womb, the womb being the entire universe at the time, and then the entire nature of the world became concertized into something closer the form we know it today once man was expelled from the garden. It’s all just conjecture, but fits in with Rav Meiselman‘s point about not being able to understand previous time epics through extrapolation using present physics, rendering such theories meaningless. Or, it might also fit with those who take the Torah’s account of creation to not be literal in any case, such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the complete other end of the spectrum. Perhaps there is really no difference between the two “opposite” opinions. It is something I grapple with all the time, for which the only thing I know is that I will never know.
In issues of political contention, I often have hard times making decisions. There’s typically a reason they’re in contention in the first place. The Torah helps solve a lot of these and let’s us determine right from wrong, but then in cases like zionism which are in contention, I can argue a lot of sides. However, in the 2014 conflict between Gaza and Israel, I just don’t get how a reasonable person supports Hamas. So I went and found a “reasonable person” – a nurse at a local hospital. Below is our conversation which started in response to an article about a protest for Gaza.
Request for Dialogue
Me: I’d really like to go to the new ‘palestinian american community center’ and speak one on one with some of these people to actually understand their opinions / dialogue. The only problem is that I fear for my safety. Somehow, I doubt they would fear for theirs in the opposite context. How do they chant things like “stop the hate”? Since when has anyone, Israeli or Jew anywhere in the world, or even non-Jews, ever expressed hate for the Arabs in Gaza? Maybe there’s a person here or there, but their own leader in Gaza was on CNN, a station not exactly friendly towards Israel, the leader not exactly denying age old anti-semitic slurs that he spewed. Is there chant, “stop the hate”, nothing more than a case of projecting their own feelings, thinking we look back at them this way? If not, where is this coming from? Then there’s the more obvious – one person says, “Palestinian blood is not any different than any other blood” but there not a single reference to, or better yet, protest against Hamas. If all blood is the same, why is there no protest against calling for arabs to stand on their roofs bare-chested to receive bombs? Missile launchers next to playgrounds? 14% of missiles launched from Gaza … falling in Gaza. If they had their protest in Gaza itself, likely most of the protesters themselves would be shot. It’s so simple. All they have to do is stop shooting. Stop spending 40% of Gaza’s government budget on digging tunnels to abduct and kill people. When you use concrete for terror tunnels instead of an office building or even a mosque, is your goal for Israel to be as poor and miserable as you, or do you want to be as happy and well off as Israel? I’m hardly a big supporter of the Israeli government and mistakes have been made in dealing with Gaza, but there’s no question in my mind which side has the moral right here.
First Response and Reply
Responder: That’s amazing your words are as pure as israeli actions. 2000 innocent civilians and 600+ kids dead. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t you dare criticize peaceful protests especially for the apartheid. Me: If thousands of rockets fired at civilian cities is your idea of peaceful protest, then we’re not using the same definition. Had Hamas / Gaza engaged in “peaceful protest” they would have open borders and live side by side in peace. I don’t know how you can refer to the terrorists shooting rockets as “innocent civilians.” Go ahead and set up a rocket launcher on the grounds of Holy Name Hospital [a local hospital] and fire an M75 rocket in the general direction of Manhattan. When the police come and shoot you, will you say you were an “innocent civilian”? Terrorism is not okay and terrorists in the act of committing terror do need to be killed before they are successful. Yes, it is true that there are some civilians who are killed and that is a tragedy.
Second Response and Reply
Responder: Ha ha isn’t the west bank a great example of peaceful resolute? 15 years ago the Fatah and Arafat responded to every Israeli demand in return for a Palestinian state. Where are we now? More israeli settlements and Arafat was killed. Your a lawyer right. How would you argue the fact the 3500 rockets 2 civilian deaths. 1 airstrike averages 10 civilian deaths. How would you argue the airstrike on the beach that clearly had zero action just 4 kids kicking a soccer ball. How could you argue that when journalists in gaza have to wear 50 pounds of gear to protect themselves yet journalists in Israel are playing golf. How do you justify the torture and murder of 2000 innocent civilians. If you stop restrictions on their freedoms than you’ll stop the hate. But as a professional liar you can’t justify 2000 killed and thousands more getting tortured daily Me: Please at least keep this respectful and refrain from comments like calling me a “professional liar.” That’s uncalled for. Why are you not protesting Hamas? Why are you not demanding that they stop shooting rockets at civilians if everyone’s blood is equal? Why are you not demanding removal of rocket launchers from kindergartens and rockets from mosques … terrorists shooting from the windows of shefa hospital in Gaza City … if you care about even Muslim blood? You can’t make war from these places and cry foul when your rocket launchers are destroyed. As for you other arguments: – Arafat was offered a state by then Prime Minister Barak in 2000. He turned it down and launched the second intifada. – 10,000 Jews were evicted from their homes in Gaza [which also doesn’t make sense – even if it’s Arab run, why can’t people of other religions live there?] Gaza responded by voting in Hamas to destroy Israel and started shooting rockets a year later.
– 3500 rockets and 3 civilian deaths is called an open miracle. 3500 rockets is not okay. 3500 rockets is an act of war. In you want peace, protest the 3500 rockets and tunnels into Israel with plans for mass killing and abduction of Israelis and then you won’t have to protest Israel coming into Gaza and attacking the terror infrastructure.
– The Druze in Israel (who are Muslims) largely serve in the Israeli army … they elected to be peaceful since ’48. In fact, Abu Ghosh, a neighborhood in Jerusalem of Sunni Muslims is one example of many (I don’t know them all) that elected to live in peace and they do. Imagine if the UN’s partition plan in ’48 would have been accepted by the Arabs. Clearly, it wasn’t G_d’s plan, but there would be no need for war, ever.
– Maybe Gaza should build golf courses instead of terror tunnels to journalists there can play golf too. Instead, journalists are harassed, threatened, and expelled if they report anything negative about Hamas … but they don’t get it as bad as the Gazans who are summarily executed for protests.
– Again, a mistake civilian death is tragedy and the Israeli army does everything they can to avoid them and calls off airstrikes when there are too many civilians. The clear difference is that Israel does things like drops leaflets before and says leave the area so they can destroy the rocket launchers, whereas Hamas responds and says stay there and bare your chest to the missiles and be a casualty.
– No one “tortured and murdered” thousands of innocent civilians unless you’re talking about 9/11, ISIS, Syria, or the numerous other places where people, in the name of Islam, are mass murdering. Killing these mass murderers, or attempted mass murderers (since, thanks to some help from above, it seems Hamas’s plans have very much been thwarted in Israel) is, unfortunately, necessary.
I regularly work with Muslims / Arabs. My barber is one and so are many of my clients. Admittedly, I don’t talk politics with them very much, but what I never understand is why Arabs focus so much rage on others and so little on self-introspection. There’s not a protest, let alone a peep, against anything from Bin Laden to ISIS beheading children in playgrounds and putting their heads on sticks, to hundreds of thousands killed in Syria. When you see a picture of a dead child, do you have to read whether it happened in Syria or Gaza to decide whether or not you are morally outraged?
Third Response Deleted and Reply
There was also a subsequent comment which the responder had the good sense to delete blaming the abduction and murder of three teens on an Israeli government conspiracy after my below response. This deleted comment also blamed Israel for “genocide”, “ethnic clensing”, and denying food to people in Gaza. I was not able to retrieve the original, but if he went back to delete it, that’s a success as he realized how egregious such claims were. Responder: I apologize if you’re still doing the math, rockets have been successful in 0.0006% instances. That’s a real threat, you have a better chance of getting hit by lightning. Me: If a murderer is ineffective then their attempts at murder are okay?!?! [It’s also somehow Israel’s fault for not allowing more citizens to die by using missile defense systems. Then it would be ‘fair’.] According to your logic, if 10 gang members surround you with guns and try to kill you it is only self-defense to shoot one of them. You can’t kill 2 because then “the numbers speak for themselves.” If you kill 4 of them, it’s “ethnic cleansing” and if you kill 6 or more, it’s “genocide.” You admit and are fully aware that Hamas has fired 3500 missiles (just recently) at civilians, and are probably also equally aware of the suicide bombings and so forth. They are called a terrorist organization and you are defending them. That is not okay. If the Arabs in Gaza want peace, why did they vote in terrorists? Israel provides Gaza with hundreds of trucks of humanitarian aid each day – Hamas uses half their tax money for not food, not water, not any of that … for terror tunnels and missiles fired, not at the army, but at people’s homes. Not only are you throwing around words like “ethnic cleaning” and “genocide” (while still ignoring Syria and ISIS and other places where these things are actually going on) but you are blaming the Israeli government for murders carried out by Hamas. I ask you one question – do you seriously believe the stuff you are saying? If you want peace in Gaza, I suggest your next protest be against Hamas and terrorism. All they have to do, to get what you claim they want – is stop fighting. If Israel put down it’s weapons, Hamas would keep attacking. If Hamas put down it’s weapons, it would have an open border and peace. It’s that simple. Is placing a rocket launcher next to a kindergarten and aiming rockets at civilians okay – yes or no?
Fourth Response – Turkish ‘aid’ Ship
The responder posted, then deleted after my response, a response to my comment about humanitarian aid, above. Paraphrasing from memory, he stated that Israel is so evil that they don’t let humanitarian aid into Gaza and even attacked and killed 9 people on a humanitarian aid ship from Turkey because they’re just like Hitler. Well, he lost the argument due to Godwn’s law. Me: The Turkey “aid ship” was a setup. They [the ship] were told to turn back – it’s a closed military blockade as recognized by the UN which is never pro-Israel, and they chose to run the blockade anyway telling the Israeli commander on the radio “go back to Auchswitz” and chanting on the ship “remember kibar”. (We can read the Koran too, you know… we know what that means.) Israel stupidly sent soldiers armed with paintball guns to take over the ship who were immediately attacked and had to shoot to save them. Comparisons to Hitler are uncalled for, as are claims of genocide. It is not my people, even the ones I most vehemently disagree with, who chants “death to” anyone.
Fifth and Final Go At it
Responser: like I stated before we will know what happen in this genocide when the UN does its probe. We all know in 2005 israel was found guilty of war crimes. It is called for the Hitler and genocide comparison, they are identical. Thank you for agreeing that the blockade prevents humanitarian aid to reaching kids in need of food and medicine. As far as what happen on the ship it was israel that conducted the investigation and they are known to be let’s say untruthful. But they did mention that activists had no weapons, more proof that disproportionate force is used. But instead of debating on who is wrong or right I will say this, I am pro 2 state solution. The borders should be patrolled by worldwide neutral officers and the blockade should be lifted. I have alot of Jewish friends, we are great friends here, before 47 they lived together peacefully for many years. This crap has to stop and blaming Hamas is not going to get peace, fixing the root of the problem will result in peace Me: If you believe UN is an arbiter of truth and/or fairness, that would be the furthest opinion from mine that you have proffered yet. The writer of the 2005 report, Goldstone, recanted his findings. The UN is always against Israel. Check out how many statements they make about Israel compared to the rest of the world… it’s something like 70% of resolutions about Israel with a population of less than 1% of the world. Where is the ‘human rights commission’s’ investigation of … anything else? Humanitarian aid can be shipped, and is shipped, by many countries around the world… it goes through the port of Ashkelon. If Turkey wanted to send it that way, they could (and probably do). The mavi mamara very much had weapons. From Wikipedia: ” Israel said that they found knives, metal and wood sticks in the ship. The U.N. report stated that knives from the ship’s kitchens (plus one traditional, ceremonial knife), some catapults (slingshots) and metal pipes the passengers cut from the ship’s railings were found. ” Since you seem to trust the UN, I think you will agree that there were knives, slingshots, and metal pipes used as weapons. All of these things can kill people and the Israeli soldiers didn’t just start punching themselves. I have heard similarly from some anti-zionist Jews who live in Israel that before ’47 the Arabs and Jews lived more in peace. I wish the zionists had respected Arabs more from the beginning, but the fact is that we can’t change the past. We’re living in 2014 and yes, Hamas is to blame for the current situation. Imagine if in 2005, after Israel left every inch of Gaza, the population there voted in a government that recognized Israel and bought not one missile or dug one tunnel into Israel or fired one shot into Israel. How do you think the situation would have looked? There would be not 2000, not 1000, not 50 deaths from Israeli strikes. There would be none and Gaza would have an open border and flourishing economy. Again, we can’t change the past, but … Gaza can still make this choice today.
Dialogue like this gives me hope – if a person never hears something from another side, it allows them to re-enforce ever sillier views. The person I was discussing deleted some of his more heinous arguments, re: Israeli conspiracy to murder teenagers as a pretext to start a war, and ended with his respect for Jews and a two state solution. This was an educated person living in the United States, however. Still, what I never understand is … where are the Muslim/Arab movements that speak out against Hamas, terrorism, and the like? Example: When the Boston marathon bombing happened, instead of the mosque in Boston saying, “We’re so upset it happened here – we’re inviting the FBI to give our leaders training in recognizing potential terrorists before they commit acts of terror and raising awareness among our members”, the Imam wrote, “We’re victims just like everyone else. His gym didn’t catch him either.” Yes, but the gym doesn’t have a recurring problem with producing terrorists – nor does the gym refrain from speaking out against them.
The Anti-Semitic Conversation with Others
I confronted this person on some un-sourced ridiculous allegations based on hearsay: “I was there several years ago on an archaeological dig. They are in a desperate situation, and do not enjoy the full human rights most people enjoy … While there, a friend of his along with a brother were killed when the IDF had bombed and destroyed a U.N. designated vehicle they were riding, w… The objective of the IDF is to cause as much damage as possible, and apparently there are radical Rabbis there encouraging them to kill as many Palestinians as possible. It is definitely a collective punishment of the entire population.” Me: The U.N., three times admitted that it’s schools in Gaza were used to house rockets. One million Arabs are citizens of Israel. When i was last in Israel, I was in the same children’s ball place with my Jewish kids and Arab kids. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have never heard any rabbi ever say “kill as many Palestinians as possible.” This is nothing but a blood libel. Anti-Semite: Do you really think that a rabbi would come out and say “kill as many Pal. as possible.” and let it be known. But Natanyahu has said that he did not care about civilian deaths in Gaza. The head of the Israeli army when interviewed on DemocrayNow stated that the targets were very precise (see Amy Goodman’s column 2 weeks ago). The rhetoric that you use is exactly the same as what was used against the American Indian. The white man takes over land and then he blames the occupied for defending themselves. This has nothing to do with rockets or Hamas. This all started in 1948 when Zionist demanded a jewish state. From your comments/one-sided view it is obvious you do not know or refuse to accept history … just like Hitler and his followers; they all blindly followed because few had the courage to really see what was ocurring.” Me: Lou, are you implying that there are rabbis who say kill as many Arabs as possible? If so, what’s your source. This is a libel, nothing more. Netanyahu never said he did not care about civilian deaths. He said he laments them which means quite the opposite. What is your source for such an egregious claim? Forgive me if I confuse your message as being not anti-zionist, but anti-Jewish. No one is abandoning Manhattan to give it back to the Indians based on a 1647 land claim, no one is giving 1/3 of Baghdad back to the Jews based on a 1940s land claim, or Tehren based on a 1960s land claim … but for some reasons, we’re supposed to treat land claim in Jaffa based on an Arab’s great-great grandmother differently. The fact is that millions were displaced in WWII and thereafter … including millions of Jews from Arab countries. Why do you single out the Jews for special treatment complete with a comparison to Hitler? If the best you can do is say the most offensive thing to me possible (compare me to Hitler) while saying it has “nothing to do with rockets” fired from schools and mosques at Tel Aviv, then I am afraid we will continue this on and on. Vilifying one side, complete with comparisons to Hitler, is not okay. You don’t know what I think of 1948 era zionism, but in any case, we’re in 2014. The populations are where they are. Israel is not going away any more than the United States, or for that matter, millions of Palestinians living between the Jordan River and Mediterranean. Surely you can come up with another solution besides “one side must stop existing.”
My Shavuous Experiences
Shavuous is one of the three regalim, three pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover and Succos [Sukkot]. Jews celebrate the anniversary of receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, but there are no special things required of us, unlike the other holidays where we stop eating bread or move out of our houses. I had a reform bar mitzvah, but never even heard of Shavuous. In fact, when I ‘went to the Orthodox’ to learn, one of the things I was taught there which had the greatest impact on me appears in the first sentence of this article.
My first Shavuous came when i just wanted to see what it was. I met someone in a Rabbi’s basement and stayed the night … the Rabbi came out in the morning and wanted to know who this kid was who stayed all night in his basement learning. Truth is, I tried to leave much earlier but couldn’t find my way back to where I was staying in the middle of the night. It’s a good thing too, because that Rabbi got me into regular Torah learning.
This exhilarating feeling of an all night learning session effected me even greater when I learned how to learn. A few years later, I spent the night learning in yeshiva in Jerusalem and walked to the Kotel [Western Wall] in the morning. There, with tens of thousands of people praying loudly, as the sun is about to rise, everyone becomes silent in the silent prayer… all at once. Then I stumbled back to my apartment, taking a ‘short cut’ which turned out to lead me to a fence and a much longer walk, feeling exhausted and accomplished.
Then came this year – it no longer works for me to stay up all night, so instead I go to sleep at my regular time and wake up super early, e.g. 3:15am, and learn before sunrise and through the morning. This year, my second son walked with me to the synagogue at the start and we learned together. He left after the morning prayers. My oldest son (under bar mitzvah) met me later in the morning and then we learned together. After over 7 hours straight of learning and praying, I walked him with my oldest son at my side. What a great time we had – feeling spiritual, connected to the Torah, and learning with my sons intellectually stimulating and meaningful works helping us understand creation together.
Too hard? Well, then Drop it. Wait, what?
Then I ran into this article written by an acquaintance. The gist is that Rav Auerbach was asked by someone whether he should stay up all night and learn when it will cause him to be too tired to learn properly for the rest of the holiday. Rav Auerbach said he should at least stay up part of the night to learn because it’s an important custom. The blog author seems to suggest that since it’s ‘just’ a custom, it should logically be discarded in favor of what will bring more Torah learning. I’d like to build on this – it won’t hurt a person to stay up an extra half hour and learn some Torah at night with a huge number of other Torah observant Jews. Rav Auerbach’s answer seems to be correct on all levels – maximize learning and customs.
Why do we keep our customs?
Our customs are important because that’s who we are. Rav Avraham Rosmarin in Jerusalem once told me that you could carve hundreds of religions out of Jewish texts. In fact, many have been. But if we strictly go by the text, we lack the taste. It is true that one can ‘properly celebrate’ Shavuous by sleeping through the night. One is not even required to learn Torah … or eat cheesecake. The entire holiday is celebrated through customs. But what are these customs? They are the taste and the feeling beyond just the dry letter of the law.
Further, a Jewish custom isn’t “cook half a chicken because my mom did to fit it in her pot”. Each valid minhag, which we usually translate as ‘custom’ has a source in the Torah. There is a reason and meaning behind it. Sometimes, it’s just love of the mitzvos – we sanctify the holy days over a cup of wine to beautify and it make it nice. The referenced blog says “there’s no obligation to kiss the mezuzah.” True, but we do it out of love, not obligation!
Sometimes, we do things based on things set down by earlier generations who were closer to the receipt of the knowledge, or chose for us a path for future generations to follow in one continuous body. This might be the paragraphs we say from the Torah in the Shema prayer twice a day, or the sounds of the shofar that we blow each year. This is the taste and feeling, chosen for a reason. In the latter example, the sounds are chosen to encompass all opinions and unify the Jewish people. This is also love. Sometimes, it is just ‘protection’ of a Torah command. For example, we don’t eat chicken with meat because we might come to like the taste of meat/milk together when it’s not forbidden from the written Torah, but this too, is because we love the mitzvos and want to make sure to follow out of love, and not only the letter of the law.
So What’s the Source for the Shavuous Custom?
Again, one could choose not to learn any extra Torah on Shavuous and go to bed and wake up at their normal time, and they wouldn’t be doing anything ‘wrong’, but they’d be missing out on a great opportunity to connect with the rest of the Jewish people, not only in this time, but also in prior times. I don’t think we know precisely how long this custom has been going on, but to give a corollary, I have a close Jewish relative who isn’t religious per se, but she can’t light Shabbos candles. Every time she does so, so thinks of all the Jewish women throughout time who have done this same act and becomes so overwhelmed that she cries.
What brings this connection to Shavuous learning at night? Midrash Rabbah to Shir Hashirim, a love story between the Creator and the Jewish people, states:
While the King of kings was at His table, He already preceded [the Jews at Mount Sinai … like\ a king who issued a proclamation, ‘On such and such day I will enter the province’ and the people of the province slept the entire night; and when the king arrived and found them sleeping, he appointed over them horns, trumpets, and shofars. And the officer of that province was arousing them and bringing them out to greet the king. And the king was then walking before them until he arrived at his palace. Similarly, the Holy One, blessed is He, preceded [the Jews at Mount Sinai, quoting Shemos 19:16-17]. Section 56.
It continues …
The Jews slept the entire night because sleep during Shavuous is pleasant and the night is short. R’Yudan said: Even a flea did not sting them… Section 56.
So in truth, the commentators disagree as to whether or not the sleep that night was a bad thing or a good thing. During sleep, we have a level of understanding that we do not when we are awake, but suffice to say, the custom that has developed therefrom is to stay up and learn the entire night in preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuous.
In case one is in doubt as to whether one is doing the ‘wrong’ thing by following the accepted custom of staying up all night instead of sleeping, “coincidentally” enough, the prior section, section 55, states:
R’Levi bar Chiya said [Jacob and his sons] cut down [trees] in Magdela Detzaabaya and brought them down with them to Egypt . . . there were acacia trees in Magdela [in the days of R’Chanina] and [the people there] had a custom to treat them as forbidden items because of the sanctity of the Ark [made from these trees]. They came and asked R’Chanina, the colleague of the Rabbis, and he said to them, ‘Do not change from the custom of your fathers’. Section 55.
Thus, we see that here, even when the specific trees now growing aren’t used for the ark, the fact is that the trees in this area used to have sanctity given their use. The actions translate into following the customs of your father … here, we’re talking about materials for the holy ark. We do as our fathers and connect to and join in, in that meaning. In the same way, we relive receiving the Torah through the custom of our fathers by staying up and learning Torah … and while it’s not always easy, and not everyone can do it every year, it’s exhilarating. It’s something to be maintained, as is everything else that connects us to the receiving of the Torah, and ultimately, to our Creator.
You could go through an entire Shavuous or Shabbos and sleep for 25 hours. There’d be no taste, no love, and no joy. We do more than what we technically ‘have’ to do to get meaning. People feel a need for relationships and connecting with things greater than us. There’s the analytic and the emotional way and we serve the Creator with both. Fully analytic is without taste, fully emotional is without structure.
I wrote an earlier article showing the unbroken chain from the Exodus in Egypt (circa. 3300 years ago). The article takes us through the end of the biblical era (circa. 2500 years ago), over 1500 years in Babylon (aka. Iraq/Iran) (in this case, ending about 1000 years ago), Spain (ending about 600 years ago), and then through Eastern Europe (ending circa. 75 years ago) through today’s Jews in the United States and Israel.
Further to the written article, slides are provided below with some more details such as the Yehoakhin Ration Document linking the written Bible to the chronology in Babylon, as reported by “independent third parties” (e.g. those of the Babylonian kingdom), and The Chronicle of the Cid from the Spanish in the 1500s.
A higher quality version (easier to read) can be downloaded here in PDF format. The “private” version for my family’s seder actually continues to my youngest daughter. If you shoot off from this tree somewhere, I am also happy to provide an editable version that you can freely markup and continue to your own family. Just contact me and I’ll get back to you.