Saturday, December 22, 2007

Letter to a Skeptic- Part III


This is the third part of my correspondence with my skeptic friend. Scroll down to see the second and first parts. (Also, this will probably be my last post as I'm leaving tomorrow morning to go to Florida for two weeks, for some fun in the sun. I may post from there or visit you guys so be sure to check it.) Another PS: sign the Jewish Declaration to the World if you haven't already!

Dear BK,

Just a couple of notes.

1. We cannot believe the Torah is god given and divine just because the bible said so. It is a cyclical argument. Stylistically, it has many currents and linguistic evolutionary markers, that suggest it did not spring forth whole but was written by various authors at various times. It stands to reason that it was written by wise men, who are at once incredibly smart and fallible. The book itself cannot be viewed otherwise, it is a human construct of magnificent power, and it is fallible and full of contradictions [that, for me, add spice to the enterprise and make it all the more compelling and interesting].

2. For every survivor who remained a believer, there are a dozen who forsook god. Those who survived, every single one of them, did so because they had something to live for. Some lived for god. Some lived to see a sunset. Some lived to save a sibling or a child. Some lived for revenge. Those who had a reason to survive the unspeakable horrors, did so with the strength of faith in something, anything, and god was as good an object of that desire as any. Read “Fateless” you will see what I mean. Incidentally, if you want to read about the Holocaust- I have a library here that rivals the Jewish Public Library on the topic. You are invited.

3. Quoting Hitler in an argument is like pulling an Ace at every hand of a game. it is a red flag name, it trumps all others, it is the ultimate squelcher of all arguments. If Hitler said so, it must be proof positive. he was actually quoting Nitsche and other thinkers who were in vogue in his time. he was sorely uneducated and used their theories liberally to prove his own agenda. Try to find other examples. It is like comparing any genocide to the Holocaust, any despot to a Nazi, any war to a find a solution. That will not do. It is a facile tool and it proves nothing but the flimsiness of the foundational argument. We all have “agendas” in arguing our points of view. There is no need to stamp a Hitler mark on the opposite agenda in an attempt to discredit the ideas behind it. it is best to argue on a level playing field. Leave Hitler out.

4. The very fact that our lives are a brief blink of an eye, the very finality of our life, its temporary and fragile nature, lends us reason to make it meaningful, to invest this time with purpose. If there were an after life, if there were a heaven, then suicide bombing would be a reasonable course of action to take in attempting to hurry up and get there. The challenge is to invest the inherently fragile and short life with purpose, and that is different for each thinking person. Some find meaning in solitary pursuits like writing or painting or meditating. Some find purpose in reaching out to others, like educators and priests and nuns and nurses and saints. The challenge is to find such purpose independently, to seek out a meaningful path with no blueprint. It is a nasty thing to say, but most people are bovine. They go through life consuming food, defecating, procreating, perpetuating the species in the most basic manner. Few rise to the challenge to make a difference, to make a name for themselves, few are remembered past their natural life cycle [grandpa is a charming idea, but what has he left behind but mom and dad’s and our anecdotal memories and a few faded pictures. Know what I mean?]. if we are called to follow the religious blueprint, we do not necessarily err, but we are not free to seek a path of our own that has not yet been foreseen and foretold. Our uniqueness needs a chance to be born.

5. Jewish pretensions of moral supremacy are just that. Our liturgy is filled with vengeful words, our stance against women is deep rooted and has affected millions of Jews and Christians and Muslims in a chain reaction of narrow mindedness. Our book is filled with violence, often gratuitous. We are not as nice as we make ourselves to be. I am reading a book now about the “white slave trade” [a euphemism for trade in humans for prostitutions] that flourished in South America and Eastern Europe between 1860 and 1939. it was run by Jews, religious ones, and traded in Jews, and is a blight upon our moral sense of self that we often ignore. It is not a typical story of the way Jews conduct themselves in the world, but it is typical in the fact that we do not remember that which does not compliment us as a People. The parasha today deals with the narrative of the past. Yossef tells his brothers that the sale of his person was evil but it turned out okay under the circumstances. He retold the past to invest it with meaning, to make sense of it all. We do that all the time. the history is only what men say is the history. The narrative changes with the agenda of the teller and with the times. There is no past that is decoupled form the present- we see the past through attitudinal prisms of the here and now, of the why that guides our life. Our ancestors borrowed heavily from the nations around them, and found it difficult to separate themselves from them and become distinct. The bible is filled with stories of blood shed over the worship of other gods. Shlomo worshipped Ashtoret. The monotheistic tradition was imposed by the sward [Eliyahu] and was imposed on a reluctant people by force. The morality of our ancestors is not a white sheet of Mitzvot and altruism. The rap sheet of our sages is convoluted and gnarly and we must face those aspects with open eyes, to know that what makes us unique is the ability to stare at our visage and know the truth and yet act in a just way.

6. Being created in gods image is an anthropomorphic need of all humans. We invest our deities with faces we can relate to.

7. The Torah allows men to sell their daughters. It allows for slavery. We are slave traders just like the heathens. Our daughters could be sold for “temporary marriage”, they had no rights, were considered property- what freedom a woman’s life?

8. The reason despots suppress religion is not because of the inherent bad clashing with the inherent good. It is because the cult of personality demands exclusivity. A despot needs to become god. They create an alternate set of faith based images and rituals that serve their need to reign supremely. God interferes with such ambitions, because his institutions are longer lasting and have deeper roots. Smart despots are far and few between- there has yet to be one who is altruistic and wants to improve the lot of his people and offers them an alternate religion of hope. Inevitably the hunger for absolute power corrupts them absolutely. And then god comes back because people are used to his absolute type of reign…


9. Read Sam Harris!!!

Shabbat Shalom,

Skeptic
***

Shavua Tov,

Here are some more notes:

1. You can probably figure out why I gave you the Garden of Emuna but 'Listen World, Listen Jew' does not necessarily seek to convince you of His existence. Rav Kahane took G-d for granted, in a sense. The book gives a sweeping account of Jewish history from the Roman Exile until the founding of the State of Israel. I think that it is extremely important to recognize that, thank G-d, Jewish history did not end with the Holocaust, but we in our generation and the previous were witnesses to tremendous miracles. The Jewish experience provides one of the best proofs of G-d. Otto Von Bismark was once asked by the Kaiser to prove the existence of G-d. He replied, 'the Jews, your majesty, the Jews'.

2. The Torah is not true simply because the Torah says so. That is circular reasoning. I don't believe based on a blind set of ancient dogmas but on the fact that G-d collectively revealed Himself to our entire people at Sinai. It is a national experience that is engaved on our souls. Judaism is the ONLY religion that makes the claim that it started with 3 plus million people seeing one event. No other religion makes such a claim. Why not? Because you cannot convince 3 million people that they experienced something they didn't. That would be way beyond a conspiracy. The Torah testifies to the uniqueness of the Sinai Event. "For ask now of the days past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it? Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live? Or hath God assayed to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before thine eyes ?" (Deuteronomy 4:32-34). Please, if is such an easy story to make up, why is it unparalleled in all of human religion, belief or mythology?

As I'm sure you know that if even one letter in a Torah scroll is not kosher, the entire scroll is disqualified. As such, the Torah has never, ever been modified. The Midrash testifies that Moshe wrote 12 Torah scrolls which were kept in Jerusalem and against which all other Torah scrolls were checked. After the Destruction of the Second Temple, the Sages would occasionally perform global checks to "weed" out the unkosher Torahs. To prevent nonkosher Torahs, there are over 20 factors that affect its kashrut. Some guidelines are

- A Torah Scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is added.

- A Torah Scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is deleted.

- The scribe must be a learned, pious Jew, who has undergone special training and certification.

- All materials (parchment, ink, quill) must conform to strict specifications, and be prepared specifically for the purpose of writing a Torah Scroll.

- The scribe may not write even one letter into a Torah Scroll by heart. Rather, he must have a second, kosher scroll opened before him at all times.

- The scribe must pronounce every word out loud before copying it from the correct text.

- Every letter must have sufficient white space surrounding it. If one letter touched another in any spot, it invalidates the entire scroll.

- If a single letter was so marred that it cannot be read at all, or resembles another letter (whether the defect is in the writing, or is due to a hole, tear or smudge), this invalidates the entire scroll. Each letter must be sufficiently legible so that even an ordinary schoolchild could distinguish it from other, similar letters.

- The scribe must put precise space between words, so that one word will not look like two words, or two words look like one word.

- The scribe must not alter the design of the sections, and must conform to particular line-lengths and paragraph configurations.

- A Torah Scroll in which any mistake has been found, cannot be used, and must be fixed within 30 days, or buried.

This system worked throughout the thousands of years of exile, persecution and oppression. Out of 304,805 letters in the Torah, there have only been a variation of 9 letters which have no effect on the meaning of the words, on the part of Yemenite Jewry who did not have these global verification techniques. In contrast, a study of Christian Bible manuscripts has shown a total of 30 000 (!!) different readings. Are there any alternative Torah scrolls? Of course not since the Jews were meticulous about preserving G-d's word. As for contradictions, this is often the fault of bad translations. And about the supposed different writing styles, I can only answer that the Torah is not a history book but is intended to teach us eternal lessons. Therefore, G-d chose whichever writing style most condusive to getting the point across. The Author of Authors is hardly bound by a single writing style.

2. You're right about Hitler. Things are wrong or right on their own, regardless of what that wicked man said. I just thought that Hitler was the best and most forthright about why he hated the Jews.

3. You confuse the faults of other manmade religion like Islam and Christianity with Judaism. We live in a goyishe society so unfortunately we are exposed to ideas which we mistakenly hold to be Jewish. The Torah doesn't preoccupy itself with the World to Come and is empty of the promises of eternal pleasure (though of course they exist), comparatively with the Christian Bible or the Qu'ran. Pirkei Avot 4:22 teaches us that "Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in This world than the entire life of the World to Come; and better one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of This World". This teaches two amazing lessons. It means that this world is where we earn reward, grow and develop while in the Next World, we cash in our checks. This world is precious, where we enter the fray and get a chance to purify our souls to return to our Maker. That's why the ideology of the suicide bomber is repugnant. It (and Islam in general) is nihilistic, though this world is essential. King David echoed your sentiments about the apparent futility of life (don't forget that King David suffered tremendously, more than most people, yet was able to write the Tehillim which still give us comfort.) "What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him? Yet Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour." (Tehillim 8:5-6). On one hand, we are absolutely nothing but on the other, we are made 'little lower than angels'. When we follow our own lusts, we are animals, yet when we follow the Torah, we subjugate our will and become even higher than angels who have no free will and evil inclination.

5. I won't pretend that Jewish history is perfect because it far from is. Also, I won't claim that violence and hatred are necessary evils, like Christianity claims. Judaism is all about balance. Peace and love are ideals but war and violence is sometimes necessary. In the words of King Shlomo, " To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven... A time to kill, and a time to heal;... A time to love, and a time to hate;... a time for war, and a time for peace." (Kohelet 3:1-8). But slavery as you think of it was hardly the case in ancient Israel. The Sages say that he who buys himself a slave buys for himself a master. The point was to rehabilitate a person who stole into society by giving him some sort of work, rather than let him languish behind bars. A Jew was only a slave (the better term is indentured servant) for a maximum of 7 years. There are many laws concerning him. If there is only one pillow or steak, it is to go to the slave. He received a wage and could not be oppressed. As for non-Jews, it was forbidden to cause a slave to lose an eye or a tooth, which allowed him to go free. Contrast this with the cruelty of Roman, Greek or even American slavery. I would suggest that you do not simply read the Biblical pshat but delve into the commentaries to understand and get a full picture of the laws of an indentured servant. I thought that I would bring for you the Rambam's words in the Mishne Torah about a Canaanite slave. I could only find it in Hebrew on the Internet but that shouldn't be a problem. Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avadim 9. (To those who don't read Hebrew: The Rambam writes that a Jew must not oppress his non-Jewish slaves since we are descendants of the merciful Patriarchs and we must also emulate the All-Merciful G-d. Psalm 145:9 "His mercy extends to all of His creatures".)

יב [ח] מותר לעבוד בעבד כנעני בפרך. ואף על פי שהדין כך, מידת חסידות ודרכי החכמה שיהיה אדם רחמן ורודף צדק, ולא יכביד עולו על עבדו ולא יצר לו, ויאכילהו וישקהו מכל מאכלו ומכל משקהו. חכמים הראשונים היו נותנין לעבד מכל תבשיל ותבשיל שהיו אוכלין, ומקדימין מזון הבהמות והעבדים על סעודת עצמן. הרי הוא אומר "כעיני עבדים, אל יד אדוניהם--כעיני שפחה, אל יד גברתה" ( תהילים קכג,ב). וכן לא יבזהו, לא ביד ולא בדברים: לעבדות מסרן הכתוב, לא לבושה. ולא ירבה עליו צעקה וכעס, אלא ידבר עימו בנחת, וישמע טענותיו. וכן מפורש בדרכי איוב הטובים שהשתבח בהן "אם אמאס--משפט עבדי, ואמתי: בריבם, עימדי. . . . הלוא בבטן, עושני עשהו; ויכוננו, ברחם אחד" ( איוב לא,יג-טו).

יג ואין האכזרייות והעזות מצויה אלא בגויים הערלים. אבל זרעו של אברהם אבינו, והם ישראל שהשפיע להם הקדוש ברוך הוא טובת התורה וציוום בחוקים ומשפטים צדיקים--רחמנים הם על הכול. וכן במידותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא שציוונו להידמות בהם, הוא אומר "ורחמיו, על כל מעשיו" ( תהילים קמה,ט). וכל המרחם--מרחמין עליו, שנאמר "ונתן לך רחמים וריחמך והרבך" (דברים יג,יח).

Remember, never take the test at face value! That's a Christian thing, not a Jewish thing. Learn all of the commentaries if you want to understand a law. About the crimes of our ancestors, I have a good parable to share. (I'm sorry for all these parables and quotes but I think that they are the best way to get a point across.)

A soap maker once said to his rabbi, 'if I were you, I would get a new job. Just look at all of the people who claim to keep the Torah but are really dishonest'. The rabbi said nothing but went for a walk with the soap maker. They came upon a park and saw filthy kids playing in the mud. The Rabbi said, 'if I were you, I'd get a new job. Just look at all of those filthy kids!'. The soap maker shot up, 'that's not fair! My soap's perfect; people just aren't using it properly!'

Skeptic, the product is perfect; it's just man that corrupts it. We can't separate the mitzvot that are bein adam le'makom from those that are bein adam le'chavero. They're part and parcel of the instruction manual that G-d gave us. Both are essential to a moral society. Those who wrote the US Declaration of Independe understood this. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' This right comes from the fact that no one has absolute power but G-d alone and that we can only serve Him. In contrast to the Christian idea that man is inherently sinful and can only be redeemed through G-d's grace, or the Islamic idea (Islam meaning submission) of being slaves to Allah, Judaism holds that man and G-d are partners and man therefore has self-worth.

6. Judaism is a revolution. In the ancient world, everyone knew that Pharaoh was created in the divine image, that he was the son of Ra. All emperors and kings were descendants of gods. Judaism came along and said that everyone, rich and poor, nobleman and commoner, are created in G-d's image and therefore has value. Same thing with the Exodus. Everybody knew that G-d was with the strong, with the mighty Egyptian empire, the conquerors. Judaism was revolutionary in that G-d allied Himself with the oppressed and weak, the Jewish nation of slaves, and rejected the powerful Egyptians.

7. Again, you are confusing Christianity with Judaism. Temporary marriages is a shi'a thing, not Jewish. While the goyyim were busy getting drunk and beating their wives, Jews respected theirs. On Friday night we say the eshet chayil and speak the praises of women. Just look at the marriage ketuba: all of the obligations fall on the man, to feed, clothe and make his wife happy. A man is commanded is honour his wife, to please her, is forbidden to criticize or hurt her. This has not always been the case clearly, but if we look directly at the laws themselves, they are very protective of women. The way in which men and women were created testifies to their equality. Woman was created out of man's half, implying that without her, he is defficient and lacking a half.

8. You prove my point. Everybody in life is slaves to something. We can either serve man, our own lusts, materialism, work, etc. our we can serve G-d, which gives man pleasure and fulfillment. Tyrants can't abide G-d's limits on their power. Look at what Pharaoh said to Moshe: "'Who is the LORD, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go." (Shemot 5:2)

9. Read Kahane's books! I heard the terrible things that people said about him, how he was called horrible things so I decided to buy his books and see what is was really about. Nowhere is there anything vaguely hateful or evil. He was a great Jewish visionary and was almost prophetic in what he said. His works can be found at www.kahane.org, and they are truly inspiring. I recommend his article 'Why be Jewish'. It is a must read for every proud Jew.

Shalom,

BK

6 comments:

WomanHonorThyself said...

wow what an extraordinary overview!..Enjoy the fun in the sun Bar!

Deborah said...

Enjoy your vacation... be good! :) I read your first letter and I'll read the others tomorrow - it's to late tonight. Very good info!

Shalom,
Deborah

Deborah said...

Absolutely beautiful painting, by the way! Now, that's something I'd like to have in my library!

-D

Jungle Mom said...

Have fun down in my neck of the woods!

Donald Douglas said...

Wishing you the best on this Christmas Day, December 25, 2007!

Wishing you well for the new year too!

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