Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Problem #6: God Subverts our Morality

Is there any doubt that Biblical morality has on the whole made a positive impact on the moral development of human civilization, and that it contains many teachings still highly relevant to people today? I would say this is unquestionably the case. The question is what to do about the other parts.

"What do you mean, 'other parts'?" says the hypothetical Orthodox believer. "If it's all from God then it's all from God. The Torah is eternally relevant – there are no 'problematic parts'. If there is something we object to, then the problem lies with us. Either we're not understanding it correctly, or we've been infected by outside thinking. Torah is the word of God, and God is perfectly good by definition."

Let me be clear from the outset – the title "God subverts our morality" is this author's shorthand (Mishna-speak, if you will) for saying that "literal belief in the God of the Bible often subverts our morality." How so? Because the mindset of the above hypothetical believer (which I do not think is an unfair depiction, and in fact is fairly standard Orthodox belief) will eventually bring a person to either agree with, or apologize for, things which would otherwise be perceived as "immoral" by the standards of the modern free society in which that Orthodox individual lives.

That is not to say of course that "modern free society" should always be listened to. If we were to throw out all Jewish practices and teachings which at various times in history have been deemed "immoral," we may not exist as a people today. Even more so, sometimes our strength as a people is davka (precisely) that we are willing to stand alone, against prevailing societal beliefs and norms, in order to defend what we believe to be true and right. This goes back to Abraham the "ivri" ("Hebrew"), whose strength was his willingness to cross over and stand "on the other side" of the river, to break away from the idolatry of his homeland, from those beliefs and practices with which he was raised.

To give one current example of a Jewish practice which has been termed "immoral" by some, but which we may not wish to abandon quite yet, there is the issue of shechita (ritual slaughter). Kosher slaughter has been banned in New Zealand and has been under intense scrutiny in European countries, particularly the Netherlands, on the grounds that it is less humane (i.e., induces more pain and suffering) than stunning an animal prior to slaughter. However, given the fact that this claim itself is inconclusive and the subject of much debate, and given the appalling conditions animals are routinely kept in under "normal" commercial agricultural auspices, before being "humanely" stunned, it is perhaps not a stretch to conclude that this issue is a red herring, an excuse to legislate anti-Semitism under the guise of animal rights. Therefore, kosher slaughter, when done properly, conscientiously, should not "necessarily" bother us as Jews (that is, relative to normative practice, but see below), despite the fact that some would label it "immoral."

Of course, it follows from the above that if a new technology for animal slaughter were to be devised which was truly and indisputably painless, and yet we still insisted on the use of shechita, this might be cause to reconsider the matter. And if the wider society were to renounce the practice of animal slaughter altogether, and yet Jews insisted on maintaining it for religious reasons (e.g. to have meat on the Shabbos table), I would consider this to be a potential moral problem. In fact, following a more "Abrahamic" spirit, I would imagine the idealistic founder of Judaism to perhaps be the first to stand on the other side of the river and say "enough" with cruel industrial farming practices, and enough with the shedding of blood for food altogether. But I recognize this supposition would be the subject of hot debate, and I'm afraid we have even hotter territory to cover.

Which brings us to the next point... As an example of a branch of traditional Jewish practice deemed morally problematic, and that without question certainly does contravene the standard practices of free and civil society today, we can look at the unequal treatment of women in Jewish law.

Even from a more "minimalist" Orthodox position (i.e. not including stringencies which have become the norm in many religious communities), women are not counted in a minyan (prayer quorum), do not conduct religious services, may not serve as witnesses in a beit din (religious court) nor as dayanim (judges in religious court), may not obtain a divorce without consent of their husband, and technically/Halachically speaking must be "acquired" by their husband in order to be considered married. To any one of these Halachic facts on the ground, we might say "dayeinu" – it would be "enough for us" to be utterly embarrassed, ashamed, that women in free, secular society (and of course in other Jewish denominations) enjoy every measure of equality under the law, but under standard Orthodox Jewish law they do not. Even without using terms such as "second-class citizen" or assuming any diminution of women in the minds of Orthodox men, even assuming the utmost in respect and admiration for women, and that on the whole Orthodox women themselves enjoy their lifestyle and would defend the tradition (though there are certainly those who do not and find themselves "stuck," with no other choice), the fact that such inequality exists per se, in law and in practice, is enough to call it "immoral." Yes, even a hundred years ago, Judaism’s policy with regard to women could perhaps have been said to fall within the ethical bounds of civil and free society, but that is by no means any longer the case.

This is without even touching on more extremist (a.k.a. standard "Haredi") practices such as the exclusion of women from Orthodox religious or political leadership positions, from the front of "mehadrin" bus lines, from the media, including the removal of women’s images from periodicals or anywhere in the religious public sphere, and the attempt to prevent women from speaking at professional conferences or even at a loved one’s funeral. It does not touch on other Halachic injunctions such as kol isha (the prohibition of hearing women singing), "modest" dress (covering elbows, knees, collar bones, etc.), or covering one’s hair when married, which can constitute an impingement of women’s self-expression. It does not touch on teachings or prayers within the tradition which are potentially demeaning to women, such as the "shelo asani isha" blessing (thanking God for not having been made a woman), or sayings such as "the more wives, the more witchcraft" (Pirkei Avot), or that women are "light of intellect" (T.B. Shabbat 33b). It does not touch on passages from the Torah itself, such as the right of a father to sell his daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7), or the monetary "valuation" of a woman as being less than a man (Leviticus 27), or the humiliation of the "Sota" (a woman suspected of adultery, Numbers 5:11-29), or the length of a woman’s "impurity" following the birth of a girl being twice as long as for the birth of a boy (Leviticus 12), or the superstitious notion that niddah (the menstrual period) is considered a "sickness" requiring her to be segregated (Leviticus 12:2, hence the term "niddah" stemming from "niduy" – being sequestered, separated off). And of course all that is without even touching the very idea that a woman is taken from a man’s rib, responsible for the downfall of man, and fated to be ruled over by her husband as punishment. Any one of these points alone might be difficult to swallow, but when taken all together, it is simply overwhelming, if not downright depressing!

Yes, it is true that there are numerous laws in Torah designed to protect women's interests, and that during many periods in history the Torah's position toward women was probably considered positively "liberal." It is also true that for every derogatory statement about women in the Torah tradition, there are probably a dozen other positive, glowing statements, extolling the praises of women. And indeed even the derogatory statements are interpreted in ways which take the "edge" off, so as to prevent them from being understood to demean women in any way.

But in response to this last point, while I applaud any and all goodwill interpretive efforts, it is crucial that we also seriously address the plain meaning of a statement. Let me attempt to explain why.

Imagine if you will, sitting in an unfamiliar house of worship where people are praying, and your ears perk up upon hearing them recite the words "greedy Jews" in passing. You are taken aback, and when you approach them afterwards about your dismay, they reassure you that despite the way it sounds, they interpret this text to mean "greedy for the well-being of others." Alternatively, they point you to several other quotes that speak about Jews in a positive light. Would you be satisfied with this explanation, or would you leave with some grave misgivings about this religion and its adherents? And what if in addition to there being unflattering statements about Jews, there were laws on the books which limited the participation of Jews within their society – not in any wicked and anti-Semitic "Nuremberg Laws" sense, but simply due to "kavod hatzibur," a question of maintaining "communal honor" (the reason given in Halacha for why a woman is not called up to read from the Torah)?* Would you be perfectly hunky-dory with that, or would you instead want all such legal distinctions undone, and all outwardly offensive statements taken out of the liturgy and completely and unapologetically repudiated?

Point being, the promotion of more "palatable" interpretations, as well-meaning as they are surely intended, is not nearly good enough as a solution for addressing the problem. Why? Because it still leaves the problematic elements/practices themselves intact, and this is something we would in no way possibly tolerate in any other society (as the hypothetical scenario above was intended to illustrate). The way women are addressed in traditional Torah/Orthodox teachings and practice is, many times, simply "immoral." In fact one of the hallmarks of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations is their decision to tackle women’s inequality head-on, by renouncing and eradicating it, since it is seen without question to be a moral failing of traditional observance and belief. Why then does the Orthodox community not see it? Why does it offer mere apologetics as the solution? To be fair, certain Modern Orthodox circles have taken the issue seriously, and have worked to take Halacha to its very limits in order to undo some of the gender inequality. But why stop there?

Enter God.

As stated above, Torah (and by extension Halacha) is seen in Orthodox belief as God-given. Therefore, one cannot be "Orthodox" in any normative sense and say that there is something "immoral" in the Torah. Some Orthodox Jews may be willing to say that a particular area of Halacha, as it is currently practiced, is immoral, and that our duty as God-fearing Torah Jews is to wrestle with and work through the Halacha so that we can bring it more in consonance with God's will, closer to the true moral position – and I do think this is a valid and even noble approach. However, there is only so far one can stretch Halacha, and even the most liberal Orthodox poskim (people who render practical legal decisions in Jewish Law) will never say, "In this case we simply need to bypass Halacha." Again, the reason is that even if Halacha itself is in the hands of the human being to work with, the Halachic process itself is understood to be God-given, and to choose to veer outside of Halacha altogether is to contravene God, to put oneself outside the faith.

It is therefore God that is the factor preventing the Torah world from dismantling and rejecting positions within Jewish tradition which have, over time, become immoral. The problem is "God" insofar as believing in the traditional/Orthodox/literalist conception of the Biblical God, which renders the text (and often the Rabbinic tradition) immutable and unassailable. This reticence to deal unapologetically with immoral beliefs and practices exists even among the most liberal Orthodox communities, and it is all the more pronounced, and disturbingly ideological, in "Ultra-Orthodox" communities. Immoral statements in the Bible are routinely apologized for not only regarding women, but also concerning slavery, calls for genocide, stoning of Sabbath-breakers, speaking of gay relations as an "abomination," lauding Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and on, and on. The only reason these are apologized for, and not definitively repudiated, consigned to the annals of ancient history with a sigh of relief and a hearty "good riddance," is that such laws and narratives are seen as the living word and will of God Himself. Belief in God, in the Orthodox sense of the term, thus has the capacity to undermine and subvert our morality, our better judgment, our sense of right and wrong. It gets us to do, believe, support and apologize for things which we would otherwise abhor.

If we would cease believing in God in any sense of authoring, commanding, sanctioning, or perhaps even "inspiring" the Torah and the Halachic process, then we would with no guilt or misgivings whatsoever be able to rid ourselves of positions that we identify to be immoral. If Torah is not eternal and immutable, but rather the product of human beings, then by all means as human beings we can and must make it work for us. Yes, we ought to be cautious not to jettison practices and ideas whenever someone in the world screams the word "immoral." We must be thoughtful and judicious about change. We would also be wise not to overly "judge" the Torah or our forbears for their beliefs and practices. It is possible to vigorously repudiate such beliefs and practices, and yet attempt to judge the texts and scholars of our tradition favorably and compassionately given their historical context. And I would not advocate "erasing" anything from the Jewish historical record. But I would suggest that we make every effort to abolish immoral practices. And I would recommend that whenever we encounter teachings which fly in the face of our ethical sensibilities, that we actively renounce them, speak about them with discomfort and remorse. When the Torah is read in shul, we might read passages such as the "Sota" in a more hushed or less enthusiastic tone, as is currently done when reading the section of the "curses" in Deuteronomy. There are many ways to express protest while at the same time according due dignity to the tradition. And in the final analysis, I would argue that by protesting aspects of the tradition, that itself accords dignity to the tradition.

One may ask, why not simply adopt a non-fundamentalist belief in God, or switch over to a non-Orthodox denomination? To that I would answer: By all means! However, if one wishes to benefit from the richness and depth of a Torah-observant life, if this provides a person with meaning and joy and connectedness to a community, if one considers robust observance and involvement in Torah learning to be key to the survival and success of the Jewish people, but at the same time she/he is embarrassed by the immoral "baggage" – whether practices or dogma – that traditional Orthodoxy "schleps" around with it, and cannot/will not tolerate carrying it, then what this writing is intended to impart is that it is possible to have it both ways. It is possible, if we desire it, to retain the greatness of observant life and simply drop the rest, to just… let it go. And the key I propose, to letting it go, is to shed the myth of God as Commander and Teacher, Author and Authoritarian, Rewarder and Punisher. Remove God as a "justification" for any and all Jewish practice, and we will be well on our way.


*I must admit I was a bit taken aback, when immediately after writing this last statement about "communal honor" as distinct from the Nuremberg Laws, I discovered that the first of the Nuremberg laws is in fact called: "The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour." No, I do not maintain that traditional Torah/Orthodox policies toward women are anything even remotely similar to Nazi policy, God forbid. I see this as merely a disturbing coincidence, but it does underscore the point that we cannot take the language we use for granted!


  1. I’ve been digesting this comment for a few days. When it comes to the Orthodox Jewish treatment of women, I am in favor of whatever it would take to change this situation.

    You argue that God is the factor that prevents Orthodox Jews from treating women fairly. Your reasoning starts with halacha, which can be stretched via interpretation but cannot be changed so long as it is seen to be God-given. I think, once again, that by linking a problem to God you are failing to understand the problem. In this case the problem is religious law, and more particularly how such law can develop and change over time.

    The traditional view is that a body of law is established, and then the folks charged with responsibility for legal administration have to apply that law to different situations that may arise. As the law is not always clear, legal practitioners have to “find” the law by studying the statutes, legislative history, prior judicial decisions and so forth. There may be “wiggle” room in a given instance to argue for the interpretation of the law based on principles of justice and equity … but to a considerable extent the process is seen as an objective process: the legislators “make” the law, and the judicial branch applies and enforces the law as so made.

    In the early twentieth century, scholars from the school of legal realism developed an alternative view. The new approach was that the law represents the status quo interests of the ruling class of society, and that the law is enforced to protect and further those interests. Most of these interests are conservative: preserving rights to private property, protecting those with power against those seeking power, upholding the “privilege” of social elites (whites, Protestants, men) and so forth. The laws on the books are written for this end, and it is the job of the lawyers and courts to see that the law fulfilled this intent. Of course, the law would not always be conservative: it might prove to be in the best interests of the power elite to, say, desegregate the schools or protect civil rights (like the right to vote) so that there was not too great a gap between the facts on the ground and the principles (or perhaps, the myths) on which the society was built.

    I think that your point of view could use a bit of legal realism. The problem is NOT that we are commanded by God to “find the law” in the Torah. The problem is NOT that we all want a fair and moral system of religious law, but that we can “stretch” the law only a little bit, as far as “interpretation” of the law will allow. The problem is that Torah “law” as imposed by Orthodox Jews is a system for perpetuating an existing social and political power elite.

    Look who gets money from the state, and who does not … who is given coalition making-and-breaking power in the Knesset and who is not … who is required to serve in the Army and who is not … who receives State funding and who does not.

    If this was a matter of being stuck with rules written 3,300 years ago that do not anticipate our current situation, then please explain how ALL of these rules are interpreted to serve the interests of the power elite. Please explain why there’s nothing in halacha that, say, requires us to treat the Palestinians with greater fairness than the Orthodox might like, or require that the LGBT community be given more rights than the Orthodox might like.

    The problem is NOT that we’re stuck with a halacha that no longer speaks to current conditions. The problem is that Orthodox halacha speaks PERFECTLY to current conditions – those conditions being the consolidation, perpetuation and growth of the power of the current Orthodox ruling elite.

    Sorry, AJ. But if you want to improve the status of women in Orthodox Jewry, God is not your problem, and Torah is not your problem either. The problem is the dudes with the black hats. They like things just the way they are, and things are the way they are because that’s what the black hats want. Torah is just a convenient excuse.

    1. Larry,

      FOR SURE what you say is true - a certain amount of what goes on under the guise of "Halacha" is really a question of consolidating power. However... 1) If one were (theoretically) to remove the stamp of "Hashem" from Halacha, I'd have to imagine that this would pull the rug out from under the ruling elite, and 2) you may be right about some of the "black hats", but this doesn't fit what's going on in the left-most wing of Orthodoxy.

      Take for instance the idea of a "partnership minyan" - considered radically egalitarian even within most of the Modern Orthodox world, but yet where a minyan is still "10 men", and women still can't conduct certain parts of the davening which are considered to have "kedusha/sanctity". The reason is that they wish to be "Halachic" and are therefore bound by the limits of normative Halacha.

      I argue that the reason they feel bound to Halacha is the idea that it's God-given, and that if we would understand Halacha to be a 100% human endeavor in the first place, we'd have no problem contravening Halacha in cases deemed by the community (or individuals) to be immoral.

      Yes, believe in God if that's your inclination, but my suggestion is to separate God from Halacha, to stop saying that it represents "God's will". To me, that's where we get into serious trouble, and that's really what my "atheism" is about here.

      I'll tell you what I think the challenge to my argument would be: Conservative Judaism. They consider themselves (as a movement) to be Halachic, and God-believing, and yet nearly 40 years ago they were able to find sufficient Halachic basis to pass a rabbinic decree allowing women to be part of a minyan.

      Why has Conservative Judaism been able to do it and the left-wing of Modern Orthodoxy (LWMO) hasn't? Is it a difference in how they conduct the Halachic process? Is it a question of "where there's a will there's a way", and somehow LWMO doesn't have the will - maybe because they feel if women are part of a minyan they'll no longer be "Orthodox"?

      Thoughts on any of the above?

      Best, AJ

    2. I don’t know how to explain the reluctance of LWMO to push the rules. From what you cited about the “partnership minyan”, it seems obvious that the LWMO regards halacha as binding. Why do they feel that way? Because they’re afraid of God? That if they count a woman towards a minyan, what’s going to happen? Drought? Plague? I imagine that they want to be counted among the Orthodox, that there’s a status or other importance to this recognition. Perhaps they want to reform Orthodoxy as a whole, move it to the left, but they feel this is possible only by working from the inside.

      Conservative Judaism is not my shtick. My understanding is that Conservative Judaism believes that halacha is mandatory and binding, but that they view halacha differently, as something that can be interpreted diversely and divergently. There’s also greater willingness to reinterpret halacha in accordance with changing times. Reform Judaism does not view halacha as mandatory – it’s up to the individual Reform Jew to decide what halacha to follow and not to follow.

      My experience is that in practice, there’s not much difference between the Conservative and Reform Jewish viewpoint on halacha. I think that most Conservative Jews are essentially Reform Jews who like a more traditional worship service. As an example: Conservative Jewish halacha allows a Conservative Jew to drive on Shabbat, but only to get to Shul to daven. Strictly speaking, a Conservative Jew is not supposed to drive for any other purpose – not even (for example) to attend a B’nai Mitzvah service away from one’s community. I’ve never even heard of a Conservative Jew who follows this rule.

      I don’t think that God or no-God enters explains the difference between the Orthodox and the Conservative/Reform view of halacha. I think that there are plenty of Reform and Conservative Jews who believe in God. The difference between Orthodox and Conservative/Reform might have to do with the God we believe in. I frequently hear Reform Jews express the belief that the God they believe in does not care if we have two dishwashers or drive on Saturdays.

      I have never understood Judaism to say that halacha is God-given. I don’t even understand Orthodox Judaism to say that. Torah (in the sense of the stuff in the scroll): yes, that’s supposed to be God-given. Everything else is either supposed to be God-inspired or derived in a human process from what is God-given or God-inspired. Torah is not in heaven, right? So it’s my understanding that Orthodox Jews follow halacha NOT because it’s from God, but because it’s supposed to be from people who were closer to Torah (and perhaps, therefore, closer to God) than we are.

    3. > Why has Conservative Judaism been able to do it and the left-wing of Modern Orthodoxy (LWMO) hasn't?

      LWMO won’t be able to do it precisely because CJ did it first. Even if a clever MO posek came up with something that’s within the bounds of normative Orthodox halacha, it would be seen as what Conservative Judaism does, and therefore illegitimate. After all, Orthodoxy, as a distinct movement, is a reaction to Reform and has as it’s rallying cry “chadash assur min hatorah!”

  2. AJ, at your suggestion I am contemplating the idea of Judaism without God. I do not know that such a thing is possible, let alone advisable.

    I suppose that Atheodox Judaism might look something like Buddhism, which might not be a terrible thing. But even Buddhists have a belief system, one that includes karma (something like cause-and-effect ethics), maya (the world is an illusion) and reincarnation. I think that contrasting Atheodox Judaism with Buddhism is (heh heh) enlightening. What would be the Atheodox belief system?

    I gather that Torah would still be central to Atheodox Judaism. The question is, why? There has to be some reason to follow Torah, independent of the fact that we’ve always done so.

    We might say that Torah was written by very wise people, so it is a source of wisdom, even if it’s not from God. But there are problems here. There are many wise books; why limit ourselves to Torah? We don’t generally build religions around wise books that we understand to be purely human creations. Those who follow the wisdom of human authors are thought of as following a philosophy, not a religion.

    Torah is thought of as the word of a God that has a special relationship with the Jewish people. If Torah is now to be understood as merely a human-created source of wisdom, what connects it to Judaism? If it’s merely the Jewish identity of Torah’s human authors, we might just as well follow Karl Marx, or Groucho for that matter.

    Would Atheodox Judaism aspire to something like Buddhism, a belief system for everyone? If so, what do you do with the obvious particularism of Torah and halacha?

    I think that religion requires some kind of imperative, some quality that makes it necessary, or urgent, or at least important or significant, even if it isn’t mandatory or subject to divine punishment and reward. Without God, where is your Jewish imperative?

    But the biggest problem in Atheodox Judaism is getting there. I’m certain you can’t talk people out of their belief in God. Even if you could persuade people to give up God, I doubt you’d be able to do so while at the same time persuading them to remain Jewish. In my experience, atheists either are not religious or are in the process of becoming less so.

    What’s most frustrating about this is that YOU SEE THE PROBLEM. But while you see the problem, you’ve adopted a solution that can never be implemented and is thus guaranteed to perpetuate the problem.

    1. Larry, you made a number of points here, but let me respond to this last one and see if that helps.

      I’m certain you can’t talk people out of their belief in’ve adopted a solution that can never be implemented and is thus guaranteed to perpetuate the problem.

      "Atheodoxy" is not a global solution for Judaism. It's a specific measure designed to carve out a space of acceptance (of which there is none) for non-believing observant Jews (of which there are many).

      There are Jews out there who see great value in and derive much meaning and enjoyment from observant life, but 1) cannot accept the dogma, and 2) have serious gripes with some Orthodox norms. Such people are made to feel ashamed of themselves for thinking this way (by ideas in Torah literature and general frum sentiment) and are ostracized, rejected by the community if they "come out" and actually express it.

      The Atheodox position is a "pride" position, which says that not only should such Jews not be ashamed of who they are and how they think - it's something to be proud of, feel idealistic about. Really, Atheodoxy is more of a liberation movement, a bit of radical activism whose deliberately strong and self-assured message is designed to pave the way for greater tolerance and self-acceptance of non-believers. There's of course a huge range from "total belief" to "total non-belief". I'm specifically taking a "mehadrin" (purist) zero-dogma approach, since it represents the limiting case and therefore covers lesser forms of non-belief.

      And this puts me in an admittedly odd and ambivalent position. As much as I do think Orthodoxy holds wildly untenable beliefs, I really don't want to "talk people out of their belief in God". What I want is for people to be able to freely believe or not believe as they choose, without the negative social repercussions. However, as Orthodox Judaism clearly already welcomes belief, I need to make a strong case for non-belief in order to clear the needed space of tolerance in the system. But again, this is hopefully just a temporary measure.

      My longer term "solution", "vision", would be to create a branch of observant Judaism wherein beliefs are a personal matter, free-thinking is encouraged, and where problematic norms are abolished. What I'd really like is to take the best of all worlds - the robust observance, learning, and communal life of Orthodoxy, the flexibility of Conservative Judaism, the Tikkun Olam orientation of Reform Judaism, the open-mindedness of Humanistic Judaism, and put them together into something truly outstanding and worth getting excited about. I suppose I already live this way to a certain degree myself, but I'd also like a community which would support me (and others) in this. Really, that's what anyone wants out of a community - that it should support their efforts, foster their ideals, help people grow in the way they want to grow.

      My prediction on how this might potentially start: When a knowledgeable, graceful, charasmatic rabbi of a LWMO congregation "comes out" as not accepting the traditional belief package. Initially it will be a shock. Some congregants will leave. There will be scathing words and opinion pieces written across the Orthodox world. But then the noise will die down. And people will see that this rabbi is every bit as caring, every bit as committed to Judaism, to learning, every bit as wise and worthy as before. And many in the congregation (and elsewhere) will come forward and express what they've kept inside all along - that they weren't really "with the program" in terms of accepting the beliefs, and are tremendously relieved to find a leader and mentor who was courageous enough to simply be real.

  3. AJ, I think you should take your last comment to me and post it in some permanent place on the blog, like “About This Site”. What you wrote was very powerful, but it also expressed what I understand to be at the heart of what you’re doing here.

    I think at its heart your quest is for religious freedom. It may be the case (as you’ve argued here) that good things will happen if Orthodox Jews are given the freedom to make these things happen. Or maybe not – one theme in the history of the world is disappointment that people don’t do better things with their freedom. But freedom is a good thing in its own right.

    My next thought is to question whether it is truly religious freedom that you seek. I would suspect that you HAVE religious freedom: you can be an Orthodox Jew, or any other variety of Jew, or convert to a different religion, or give up religion altogether. Evidently, this religious freedom is not enough for you; you are also looking to belong to some kind of religious community that gives you the freedom to believe what you want to believe. But of course, these communities already exist. I personally live in a Jewish community that at least aspires to the kind of freedom you advocate.

    The problem is, you state that part of what you seek in a community is the “the robust observance, learning, and communal life of Orthodoxy.” Our experience is that our religious communities change character once we give people the religious freedom you seek. It can be argued that “robust” community life requires social norms and a structure to enforce these norms. Another way to say this: religious freedom includes the right to associate with a religious community in a non-robust way, and our experience is that many (perhaps) most members of a religious community WILL opt for the non-robust option if given the freedom to do so.

    I would argue that people will not naturally engage in the observance, learning and communal life you seek if these things are not required of them. Granted, it’s possible to put together such a community without using the threat of divine punishment to hold it together. Nevertheless, the religious norms must be enforced. We can argue about the degree of force required to enforce these norms, but some amount of force is necessary, and the existence of this enforcement effort limits the freedom of the members of these communities. I think that there’s a trade-off here: more robust religious communities require stronger religious norms and greater efforts to enforce the norms. Or put more simply, there’s a trade-off between robustness and freedom.

    This leads me to question my original observation. Perhaps what you seek is not greater religious freedom, but instead you are looking to create a new form of Orthodox Judaism containing different but equally robust religious norms. If so, you risk the marginalization of people within your religious community who find these norms to be unacceptable, or shaming; you risk their being ostracized.

    It’s a trap to imagine a robust religious community where everyone thinks like you do. That may be a robust community (though I would argue the contrary), but it’s not free.

    There’s more to say, but I’ll pause at this point.

    1. Larry, sorry for the delay in responding.

      Really what I'm after is simple - to develop a free-thinking Jewish observant community. Simple, but obviously not so simple. The jury is out as to whether such a community, without the fear of Heaven hanging over its head, can in fact survive, or whether as you say it will opt for a "less robust" track of observance.

      About "force" vs. "freedom", it's an interesting question. Because while legally speaking we have freedom of religion, to practice what we like, or to not practice at all, for practical purposes most people are not 100% free. Part of the reason is that our life circumstances and identities are so firmly rooted. Making a religious change impacts family, friendships, alliances, work/career, community - everything. Meaning, the momentum of people's own lives (and the incredible will power, energy and determination required in many cases to make a change) constitutes a venerable "force".

      There's also the "force" of commitment. We stay faithful to our spouses because of the commitment we make to them. So even if we're technically free to do what we want, we choose to honor our commitment, because we believe in it. The same can go for observance. If it's something we believe in, or the community believes in and is committed to, then there is a pressure (internal and external) to honor that commitment. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn't necessarily have to involve "God" at all.

      So what I'm saying is that I believe people should be free to do what they want, and believe what they want, but I recognize that human nature and society limits freedom by definition, and I also recognize the value of individual/communal commitment, which also limits freedom.

  4. In my last comment, I expressed uncertainty over whether you’re really looking for greater religious freedom. It might be more accurate to say that what you’re really looking for is greater religious acceptance. Putting it in stark terms, perhaps what you want is to practice Judaism in a way that’s different from the current Orthodox norm, and have your practice accepted within Orthodoxy. While that might sound harsh, I don’t mean it that way. I think what you’re seeking is something that many others seek in other contexts. For example, I am a strong supporter of gay marriage, and what I want is to make legitimate a practice outside of traditional marriage AND to have that practice acknowledged within traditional marriage.

    The problem as I see it is that Orthodox Judaism has adopted a view of what is Orthodox that is way, WAY too narrow. When you describe your feeling of being ostracized and rejected by the Orthodox community, when you describe the need for more free-thinking and greater tolerance, you are describing a feeling that is broadly shared by others in the Jewish community – not just atheists, but Reform/Reconstructionist/Conservative Jews, women, LGBTs, and many others.

    So … at least for this comment, I prefer to think of you as a Marginalized Jew, as opposed to an Atheodox Jew. I think that all Marginalized Jews want what you want: the freedom to practice Judaism in a way that is meaningful for them, AND acceptance of that practice by the larger Jewish community. It’s important to argue for your desired form of practice, but you risk alienating Jews like me if you fail to see your problem in more general terms.

    Still more to say, coming later.

    1. Honestly there are several things going on. Part of me feels "marginalized" and wants to be accepted, part is deeply disappointed in Orthodoxy and wants to see IT change (beyond simply being more accepting), and part says the heck with focusing on Orthodoxy - if you have a vision for something better, go toward the vision and don't worry about the other guys!

  5. AJ, hopefully I can wrap up what’s been an awfully long comment.

    Obviously, if what you seek is greater tolerance, it’s an odd tactic to argue that God-belief is unreasonable, beneath our dignity, unholy, mentally unhealthy, character-corrupting and morality-subverting. But that’s not the crux of my comment.

    The crux of my comment is that most of your arguments against God-belief have little to do with God-belief. As you clarified in your comments, your claim that “God defies reasonability” and “God is a mental health liability” was aimed at a literalist Orthodox Jewish belief in scripture. Your arguments about God corrupting character and subverting morality were both aimed at Orthodox beliefs and practices. While your arguments about holiness and mental health are more difficult to pin down, again it seems to me that your arguments are based on attitudes, beliefs and practices you’ve observed in the Orthodox Jewish community. In each case you’re describing problems with God-belief that exist within a minority of the Jewish population, and a tiny fragment of the world’s population of God-believers.

    So far, you’ve failed to address two critical questions that go to the heart of what you’ve written so far. First, is there anything wrong with God-belief outside of the Orthodox Jewish community? To be certain, there are large communities of God-believers who are not literalists or fundamentalists. I think this is an easy question to answer, based on the arguments you’ve made so far: there is nothing wrong with God-belief, but there are serious problems with fundamentalism and literalism.

    The second question is harder to articulate, as you say that you’re not trying to talk anyone out of their God-belief. Still, you argue a theoretical position that there are things “wrong” with God-belief, and while some of these “wrongs” consist of departures from true and reasonable ways of thinking, other “wrongs” consist of behavior that is intolerant and oppressive. To make the question easier to ask, I’ll just focus on these behaviors: would these behaviors change if we could simply wave a magic wand and convert all of Orthodoxy to atheism? Because you can hardly argue that God-belief is “wrong” if non-belief would not be better.

    This second question is much more difficult to answer, but it’s key to everything you’ve argued so far. The God I believe in is a force for good. But adopting an atheist perspective, God is not real, and the content of God-belief is a human invention. If God-belief is “wrong”, it’s because there’s something wrong with the God we invented. The fault lies not with the idea of God, but with the humans who invented him. Strip God-belief from these humans, and they should be capable of inventing a God-replacement that’s just as “wrong”, or even “wronger”.

    There are many forms of idolatry. Some of these forms are atheist.

    1. Larry, about your first question... I've tried to be clear that the "problems" I've outlined in my various posts are with the literalist/fundamentalist belief in the God of the Bible. If someone believes in God the Creator, takes a more Deistic position, or even believes in a "God-inspired" Torah (i.e., wherein the Torah is still a human product and subject to fallibility), this seems to me to be fairly benign.

      At the same time, the idea of "Atheodoxy" is that one can lead a meaningful observant life and simply leave God out of the picture altogether. There are people who function fine (or even better) without asserting that God inspired this, created that, has this or that characteristic, etc.

      About the second question... Would Orthodoxy be better if everyone magically became atheists? If every Orthodox Jew suddenly had an epiphany that there was no God, my guess is it would be something like the midrash - some would leave Judaism, some would go crazy, some would just keel over and die for utter inability to exist with that, and then there would be those who survive intact and say, "Oops, almost late for Mincha!"

      But I realize you're asking something else. If the Orthodox world were all AFB's (atheists from birth), would we have a better Orthodoxy? Assuming it was sustainable (which I admit I don't know), I would say YES it would be, from an intellectual and mental health standpoint without all the problematic (and let's admit it, "crazy") indoctrination. From a moral standpoint, it would be better in a number of areas where fundamentalism now brings people to follow policies which they would otherwise disdain. But I also recognize that the fear of God is the only thing which separates some people from unethical, malicious behavior. So it's by no means a simple matter.

      As I've said, I'll take a benevolent fundamentalist over a rational misanthrope any day! And I fully concur that people are capable of concocting the most horrific and cruel ideologies purely on rational grounds. Benevolence always has to be the foundation.

    2. > And if the wider society were to renounce the practice of animal slaughter altogether, and yet Jews insisted on maintaining it for religious reasons (e.g. to have meat on the Shabbos table), I would consider this to be a potential moral problem.

      Why? As I see it, morality is merely the rules people have come up with, for biological or social reasons, to ensure the smooth functioning of societies. A lot of it is reducible to the Golden Rule. So I should not cause my neighbor to suffer because I would not want him to cause me to suffer – to ensure that each individual doesn’t have to worry too much about others causing him harm, we all, as a society, agree not to cause each other harm and to punish those that break this agreement.

      Under what circumstances will cows ever have the means to cause me harm? And, because there is no conceivable way that a cow could ever be a party to the social contract, what reason do I have not to slaughter and eat it?

      As for the rest of the post, yes, without God, halacha wouldn’t be binding and would be subject to change, but that wouldn’t be traditional Judaism, let alone Orthodoxy. Judaism has been accumulating stringencies and outdated halachos for three thousand years, and isn’t likely to stop now.

    3. Under what circumstances will cows ever have the means to cause me harm?

      A very fair point. I suppose I'd respond that the golden rule accounts for a lot, but it's not everything. For instance, one could argue that it's "immoral" to kill oneself, even if this would do no harm to others. And the treatment of animals is certainly something most would consider a "moral" issue (whether it has to do with mistreating them or killing them for food). In other words, the "social contract" encompasses more than just interpersonal matters and extends in general to what's considered to be civil behavior in that society.

      Although I suppose even in such cases we might call it "indirect harm" to others. Because even if an activity (e.g. killing animals) doesn't harm a person directly, if it's deemed uncivil/immoral behavior, and yet it's allowed to persist in the society, people will feel that the morality of the society has been compromised, and that will negatively impact people's happiness and quality of life.

    4. > For instance, one could argue that it's "immoral" to kill oneself, even if this would do no harm to others.

      You could argue that, but I would disagree. I think the discomfort with suicide is mostly an over-generalization of the rule, “do not kill.” One can argue that most suicides are depressed, and so not making rational decisions, and should be stopped – because when they are rational, they will be glad they were not allowed to kill themselves. And one can argue against euthanasia because of the fear that those who are sick or elderly might be encouraged to kill themselves, rather than it being a wholly their own decision. But to argue that one shouldn’t be allowed to commit suicide because it’s immoral – well, why would you think so?

      > And the treatment of animals is certainly something most would consider a "moral" issue

      Yes, but I’m not sure that makes it one. Which is elitist of me, I know, but most people have never thought through the underpinnings of their moral systems.

      > Because even if an activity (e.g. killing animals) doesn't harm a person directly, if it's deemed uncivil/immoral behavior, and yet it's allowed to persist in the society, people will feel that the morality of the society has been compromised, and that will negatively impact people's happiness and quality of life.

      Deeming immoral things that people don’t like simply because they don’t like it is a dangerous thing to do.

    5. You bring up a number of good points.

      Re: suicide and euthanasia, there are places where it's not considered immoral. Morality goes according to what a given society designates. Why might I think suicide is immoral? I don't necessarily, but I'm influenced by our own tradition a bit. There is no word for "morality" in Torah. But there is a concept of "good and bad", and "good" is associated with "life" (as in "the life and the good, and the death and the bad"). And there is a mitzva of "v'nishmartem meod l'nafshotechem", and one is not allowed to give up their life except in very specific and dire circumstances, and killing oneself is destroying the tzelem Elokim, etc. etc. So whether you want to call it morality or legality, the Torah system is "in general" opposed to suicide. (I say "in general" because I can't imagine Torah not giving some leeway to euthanasia in certain circumstances.) I pretty much resonate with the Torah approach on these matters.

      most people have never thought through the underpinnings of their moral systems

      Ain't that the truth!

      Deeming immoral things that people don’t like simply because they don’t like it is a dangerous thing to do.

      Morality itself is dangerous territory. What I call good you call bad. My God is good and yours is bad. Good and bad eventually devolves into killing "for the good" or "against the bad". That's actually "theoretically" a great thing about Halacha. It doesn't deal in goods and bads, but rather "mutar" and "assur". So (again "in theory") there doesn't have to be any judgment about the things we deem to be assur. To break Shabbat isn't "bad" - it's just breaking a command. Same thing with eating a cheeseburger, or gay sex. One can be dispassionate, matter-of-fact and nonjudgmental about these things. (Not that people ARE, but they CAN be!)

      Best, AJ

    6. BTW, I just saw a related post that maybe you'd like to chime in on as well: