Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Atheist Questionnaire

I've been tagged by Shtreimel to answer the Atheist Questionnaire which has been making its way through the intertubes lately. Before I even start this questionnaire, I have to express some ambivalence at the very outset since I don't actually classify myself as an atheist. That caveat being said, let's answer the questions.

Q1. How would you define "atheism"?

Don't have a good answer for this, and as I don't consider myself an atheist, the question has never concerned me enough to figure one out. I'll pass on this.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

I was raised religious, in what could best be described as a yeshivish (a version of ultra-orthodoxy slightly less extreme than chassidish) environment. As a very young child, we were actually much more moderate (we had a TV until I was around nine), but over the years, the nature of my family's religiosity has only become more extreme. I once came home to discover that when I washed the dishes, I had to place a plexiglass cover over the second sink to prevent any splashing from the milchig side getting into the fleishig one. Don't ask.

Q3. How would you describe "Intelligent Design", using only one word?

Desperation. (To be honest, I don't know enough about it to really express any opinion on it, but judging from other examples where religious people utilize pseudo-scientific arguments to reconcile their faith with the facts, it seems apt.)

Q4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?

Cellular Biology. Proteinomics.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the "atheist community", what would it be and why?

I think that some of the more militant voices of that group (community might be too strong a word) could do well to be a little less disrespectful of those who don't see things their way. Christopher Hitchens might well make some brilliant points, but he won't be changing anyone's mind when he speaks like a pompous jackass. They'd all do well to read a little Dale Carnegie once in a while.

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

My first response? "Uh… I have a child?"

Seriously though, I would try to ascertain exactly what is motivating my son or daughter to make such a decision. If the rationale for such a path is sensible and responsible I'd like to believe that I would support it. But if the child was doing it for the wrong reasons, I don't think I'd be able to give my blessing. In any case, I'd like to believe that no matter the motivation, my child wouldn't be rejected or made to feel horrible for their choice.

Q7. What's your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Well, my favorites are the really dumb ones, and they don't really need much in the way of refuting. Like when someone says, "Well if you believe that the world couldn't have just magically gotten here from nowhere then obviously you should be following the torah!" Do I really need to refute that?

What I find really fun is to show the inconsistencies of thought common to religious people. For instance, when they say that halacha never changes, I demonstrate just how often it actually does. Or when they say that the torah is timeless and should be our moral compass forever; I then show them something in the torah which runs contrary to their moral standards and they use the line of "Well, it was written for that era." Or when they point to prior torah leaders as role models for how we should conduct ourselves; I then point out that there are countless things these figures did which are not acceptable today, then they respond with "Well, they were great enough to do (or believe) such things. We simply aren't!" And the amazing thing is that they don't see themselves as being inconsistent in the least!

As for serious theistic arguments, one of my favorites is when a religious person will respond to the observation that so many atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of religion, with the answer that plenty of godless, atheist societies (Communist Russia, North Korea etc.) have done plenty of damage too. Harris answers this objection really well. He eloquently explains that these aren't actually atheist societies. A genuinely atheist society would allow for exploration of ideas and be based on reason and common sense, and not be bound by any dogmas, whether they be religious, political or scientific. These are simply authoritarian dictatorships which have rejected the tenets of science and discovery as much as they have the teachings of Christianity. None of the perpetrators of such atrocities ever seriously claimed that they were acting in the name of discovery and skepticism. (I don't think I did his explanation justice. You've got to hear it from him directly.)

Q8. What's your most "controversial" (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

Probably that I'm not actually an atheist.

Q9. Of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favorite, and why?

That would be Harris. I think he approaches the issues with a certain humility and respect that is lacking in some of the other figures. Hitchens just sounds like an angry buffoon talking down to everyone. Dawkins often reminds me of an impatient professor that is just totally dumbfounded why his students can't see the obviousness of what he's trying to tell them. And Dennett I only heard a long time ago so I'm not familiar enough with him to comment on.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Any majorly respected black-hat rosh yeshiva or gadol. Someone like Rav Elyashuv would be just awesome. It's not that I care one way or another what view any particular man subscribes to, but the effect on the frum world of such a figure defecting would be so much fun to watch. You know what? He doesn't even have to abandon all his beliefs. If he would just renounce any commonly held frum ideology it would be incredible. Can you imagine how freaked out they'd all get if he publicly announced that mixed seating in shuls is allowed?

Now name three other atheist blogs that you'd like to see take up the Atheist Thirteen gauntlet:

I'd actually love to hear from Enigma4U and Mis-Nagid, but since they don't have blogs, I'll pass this on to Little Foxling, Orthoprax, and Spinoza.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Halachic Choices

There's a well known, yet unpopular saying in the Orthodox world: "Where there's a rabbinic will, there's a halachic way." It's unpopular because it implies two very unpalatable things:

a) The halachic system itself doesn't rest upon any concrete and lasting principles; that they can be adjusted and modified to meet the popular demands of the day

b) That rabbis can essentially rule in whatever direction they want, and if they don't address certain issues, it's because they just don't care enough about the issue to deal with it

Strictly observant types consider this idea practically sacrilegious. I've always (well, in the past decade or so) believed the aphorism to be quite apt. Once upon a time I also found it to be offensive, but the more I learned about how things operate in the real world (as opposed to the idealized portrayals we are given in yeshiva), and the more I learned about Jewish history (and other areas of knowledge which the average yeshiva guy is ignorant of), the more I realized how true it was. There are so many examples of rabbis responding to cultural and societal needs, and bending the rules to meet the needs of the populace that it's hard to believe anyone can actually think otherwise. Whether it's pruzbul, or mechiras chometz, or eruv, or some previously forbidden activity now being permitted, or some previously permitted activity (or person, or idea, or practice) now being forbidden, the rules often change to suit the popular mood (or need). Sometimes it's just an original and novel heter, sometimes it's a convoluted workaround or legal ficiton, sometimes it's a reliance on an obscure opinion, but whatever methods they employ, it's just too common to deny that the unbending rules of halacha can be quite flexible when the right pressure is applied. Sometimes this flexibility can be used positively, like when it's used to help people out of overly burdensome situations (eruv and mechiras chometz). Other times, and this is what's most common nowadays, the strategy is employed less charitably, and we see it often used to impose stricter standards on the community.

In our contemporary era, one of the most egregious violations of justice that is allowed to be perpetrated in the name of halacha is the problem of the aguna - a woman whose husband will not grant a divorce and who (according to halacha) is forbidden to marry another. There have been countless efforts to address this problem, but overall none of them have seemed to make much headway. One of the solutions that I recall hearing about was to retroactively annul the marriage so that no divorce is even necessary, and the woman would then be free. There was, of course, much opposition to this proposal, with one of the objections to this solution being that it would then mean that the children of such a marriage would then be considered to have been born out of wedlock. In any case, like so many of the others plans, this idea was never implemented, and to this day very little has changed in regards to the general situation of agunos, with the rabbis continuing to insist that their hands are tied by the dictates of halacha.

I was recently reminded of this issue as I was reading the latest reports of the wholesale and retroactive nullification of thousands of Jewish converts by the beis din in Israel. For those who aren't up to date on the latest brouhaha, the Jerusalem Supreme Rabbinical Court (not to be confused with the Israeli Supreme Court) has nullified all the conversions from a particular rabbi, thereby revoking the Jewish status of all the people he has converted (and presumably also the children of the women he converted). Now, I'm not going to get into the ramifications and implications of this decision (there's been more than enough of that in the print and blog media), but I can't help comparing the two situations (aguna and conversion). They seem to be using the exact same methodology: retroactively declaring a halachically approved commitment null and void. In one situation, the rabbis don't want to employ the tactic even though it would have a positive result (the aguna being freed). In the other situation, they are willing to employ the strategy, even though it would have disastrous consequences for thousands of people.

To me, this discrepancy highlights a crucial element of what I find so troublesome about Chareidi Judaism. The goal for them is never about trying to improve things, to be inclusive, to create allowances, to use their talmudic ingenuity in order to produce something positive. It is instead always negatively oriented, to exclude people, to keep ideas out, to place further restrictions and create further divisions. I can't recall the last time I heard a p'sak which made me think, "Wow, halacha really enhances people's lives!"

That this attitude is so ingrained is disturbing enough, but what bothers me even more is when I see the law itself being used in exactly the opposite way which I think it was intended for. Sure, we can use our brilliant halachic minds to figure out a way to write out hundreds of sincere and committed Jews from the community, breaking up countless relationships, possibly delegitimizing their children, and causing untold heartache. But to use that very same logic to help out a suffering woman who is being tormented by a malicious bastard who is himself abusing the halachic system - no, that would be unacceptable according to halacha!