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!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Problem #5: God Corrupts our Character

Once again, let me begin by arguing the opposite point - that belief in God can help improve a person's character. One who is predisposed to violence, thievery, or other behavior which is destructive to others or themselves, can utilize faith in (and fear of) God as a catalyst for self-correction, teshuvah, for "turning over a new leaf." Of course this also applies to people who are not "criminally" predisposed per se, but are simply susceptible to the many weaknesses which naturally afflict human character, such as the propensity to get angry, speak harshly, act selfishly, become jealous, adopt unhealthy behaviors, get involved in shady dealings in pursuit of honor, glory, money and power, and so forth. The belief that God detests/punishes such traits and loves/rewards higher, more noble traits, is often a motivating factor for people to "work on themselves," whether in a Mussar framework or otherwise.

However, belief in God, and particularly the God of the Torah and Orthodox tradition, comes with a flip side - it has the capacity to bring out darker character traits in people as well. These traits stem in large part from elitism. This is connected to the notion of "chosenness," the belief that God holds the Jewish people in "higher" regard than other nations, due to our accepting/keeping the Torah. It is the belief that learning Torah and doing mitzvot are the only things that truly matter, and that all other people, pursuits, things - and not merely on Earth but in fact all things in the entire universe - are simply "props" on the stage which revolve around Jews keeping and learning God's law. Yes, the Torah teaches that all human beings are created in "God's image" and therefore possess a certain sanctity, but that notion is largely placed on the back burner, and what comes to the fore in the religious mentality too often are attitudes of condescension and pity, apathy, antipathy and disgust, toward non-Jews and commonly toward non-religious Jews as well. It is a belief that religious Jews "know better" and therefore need to "fix" non-religious Jews. It is a feeling that non-Jews are "in the way," busy creating distractions, "stumbling blocks" from which Torah Jews must guard themselves. They are a "tamei" (impure) influence, tainting the holiness of Torah and Torah Jewry, an affront to God's mission, to Creation itself. These are the goyim, the shiktzes and sheigetzes of the world, who one day will find out the "real truth" and beg forgiveness from God and the Jewish people, and will fall over themselves just to be able to serve us... That is sadly the kind of thinking that persists in many religious circles.

One wonders how walking around with a sense of contempt for the non-Orthodox world, looking down one's nose and thinking, We're better than them, can possibly be indicative of a "holy" people. Without a doubt, sensitive and conscientious religious Jews would say that such an attitude comprises quite the opposite - a truly unholy and loathsome brand of character, and a corruption of true Torah. It is that last part with which I disagree. Sensitive religious Jews must come to recognize that such attitudes are unfortunately not a "corruption" of Torah - they can be learned out of the Torah itself, and are aided and abetted by standard Orthodox theology and metaphysics. For instance, if the Jewish people are the only people possessed of God's true teachings, does this not imply that everyone else is "wrong," of second-order status, or at the very least "less connected" to God? If the Jewish people are the only people possessed of neshamot/souls (or at least "higher souls"), does this not imply that everyone else is somehow "lesser," "lower"? This is where Orthodox theology and triumphalism brings us.

It pains me to have to say all this, because there are a great many religious Jews in the world who possess a wonderfully developed sensitivity toward others, highly refined character traits, and would not hurt a fly, let alone disparage or harm another human being in any way. And in fact the same people who hold these objectionable beliefs are often otherwise decent people, even sometimes extraordinary people, individuals involved in chesed (charitable work), people who are kind, gentle and giving. The Orthodox world is an odd phenomenon in this way - it places much emphasis on personal refinement and self-development, discussing certain areas of the human psyche with a great deal of sensitivity and sophistication, and at the same time it also abounds in glaring omissions, where either little or no self-development is taking place, or development of a negative or destructive type is being perpetuated based on traditions handed down.

But the time has come for all of us to own up to the traditions and attitudes in Judaism's own backyard which help to cultivate what has become a superiority complex of the most obnoxious kind, which dehumanize or otherwise breed antagonism for other peoples and cultures, or for Jews who do not "conform to God's will." The time has come to strongly, loudly and unequivocally repudiate these attitudes, expunge them once and for all from our hearts and minds. It is time for Orthodox Judaism to "clean house." And a critical step in doing this is to remove the transcendental/theological justifications which underlie these pernicious attitudes. Once we renounce the belief that we have been chosen by God as the very pinnacle and purpose of His creation, that we are inherently "higher," "better" or "more important" than others, then the sense of arrogance and superiority will dissolve away. If we purge ourselves of metaphysical beliefs, we will recognize what should be patently obvious: A person is only as "good" as their character and their treatment of others, period.

The Orthodox belief in God leads to other "darker" character traits as well. One is selfishness - on the individual level, manifested in the constant pursuit of "my mitzvah" - worrying about me being "yotzei" (satisfying my mitzvah obligation), me davening on time, me hearing every word of the Megillah, removing every crumb of my chametz, picking out my lulav, or protecting/securing "my Olam Habah" (the reward of the "World to Come"), for instance in asking someone for forgiveness not out of genuine regret for having harmed them, but so I myself don't incur the wrath of Heaven... On the communal level, selfishness manifests as apathy about what goes on outside the four cubits of the frum community, an attitude that unless it impacts the religious world, "it's not my problem."

Another negative trait which (counterintuitively, one might say) is propagated by Orthodox theology, is the nearly relentless focus on externals. Is there another community in the Jewish world so obsessed with measuring sleeve length and skirt length, so focused on knees, elbows and collar bones, watching for closed-toed shoes vs. open-toed, sheitels vs. snoods (vs. God forbid no hair covering at all)? Is there another denomination of Judaism which so scrutinizes and prejudges people based on beard length, shirt color, jacket length and hat style, kippah color and material (or again, God forbid no kippah)? The award for religiously-based neurotic attention to externals clearly goes to Orthodoxy. Is there is a role for modesty, or a place for a culture to retain a certain style of dress as a part of self-identification? Of course there is, but again the sense of transcendent/theological importance which is attached to dress, the sense that God is watching and cares (and judges) whether a handsbreadth of a woman's hair is showing, turns it from a potentially benign cultural norm into an obsession on externals - not exactly a noble (or particularly "religious") character trait.

Without question, the non-Orthodox world is rife with its own brand of selfishness, lack of concern for others, and excessive focus on externals. And indeed, within the Torah tradition can be found countless teachings which combat such attitudes and promote higher character traits. As we discussed above, belief in God can be a motivator for people to work through such issues and develop more refined modes of thinking and conduct. The Orthodox world in fact excels in utilizing belief toward these ends. But that same belief in God can also corrupt people's character, causing them to cultivate attitudes which are truly ugly and demeaning of other human beings. The suggested remedy? Emphasize and cull from those teachings in Judaism which bring out the best in our character - but do so completely "lishma" (for its own sake), without attaching to it any metaphysical or theological justifications whatsoever, but simply because that is the kind of people we choose to be, that we seek to become.

The best way to develop a "lev tahor," to be truly pure of heart and mind, is to rid ourselves of belief systems which inevitably sully our character, and to develop and demand of ourselves no less than the best, highest and most noble of human traits. If we do, there is abundant and beautiful material within Torah to glean from and to help inspire us along the way.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Problem #4: God Is a Mental Health Liability

In the introduction to this section, we touched upon aspects of God-psychology which are undoubtedly positive for people: comfort, security, sense of purpose, strength, hope, and so on. And for someone who merely believes in a personal God, a loving Creator with no major strings attached, the potential cost (even if this belief is a delusion, pure wishful thinking) is not terribly high. We all live under a certain degree of delusion, and in many cases it helps us to better function in the world.

However, to walk around believing that not only is there a God, but that this God created the world in six days, literally according to the Creation story, flooded the entire earth save Noah and his Ark, caused the sea to split before Moses, came down in smoke and lightning on Mount Sinai and issued eternal instructions in the form of the Torah, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those who do not, reigns on high in the celestial kingdom atop the Throne of Glory, surrounded by angels adorning the heavenly court, that there are talking snakes and donkeys, people who once lived hundreds of years, that the universe is only 5700+ years old... To believe all this (or even a portion of it), when there is either evidence against it, or at the very best an utter lack of positive evidence for it, that is a level of delusion comparable to living in a fantasy world.

Now, there is a time and place for living in a fantasy world. For children, it is a completely normal part of development, a healthy way to exercise their imagination. Children can believe in supernatural beings, miracles, fantastic abilities which defy all reason and experience, and we liberally allow them this leeway, not wanting to prematurely place the limitations of adult, real-world thinking upon them. And yes, even for adults it is perfectly healthy and appropriate to indulge the imagination at times, but as a child grows older, she/he is supposed to develop the reasoning to distinguish between the real world and the world of fantasy. As the above beliefs (that is, Biblical literalist/fundamentalist beliefs) testify, the normal processes of reasoning and maturation are stunted by normative Orthodox theology.

Connected to this is magical thinking. Children commonly ascribe to themselves powers they do not possess (e.g., laser vision used to strike down foes on the playground), and this again is quite normal. Indeed, adults also employ magical thinking at times (e.g., blowing on dice before throwing them). But a normal, mentally healthy adult engages in such thinking with a grain of salt, knowing full well that it is pure superstition, and is capable of distinguishing between magic and reality.

Consider the institution of prayer. Of course, there is prayer as catharsis, as gaining clarity about one's wants and needs, as instilling compassion, hope and gratitude in the person praying. There is the comfort in knowing that one is being prayed for. Yet these are all reducible to psychological phenomena. However, the belief that one can affect others at a distance (via God or in conjunction with a Rabbi, living or deceased) involves magical thinking. Until there is evidence for human telepathy or telekinesis, the notion that one's thoughts and words (no matter how sincere or fervent), said in private, can travel across the world (or even across one's house) to have a direct effect on someone or something else, is pure fantasy. To indulge in such fantasy when in the throes of a dire situation is understandable. But to do so day after day, and to believe that by reciting certain words in a certain formulation, and by having certain "kavanot" (intents), this will affect celestial realms and influence events here on earth - that is grandiose thinking, a sign that the person lives in a world of magic.

True, magical thinking and fantasy, in and of themselves, can make for a perfectly pleasant existence (albeit highly deluded). However, there are aspects of traditional Orthodox belief which can be less than pleasant, and whose psychopathology brings with it much suffering. Examples are guilt, neurosis and anxiety.

Guilt is something we have come to expect from religion. One who believes that God is watching at every moment and has a highly specific and ambitious set of expectations of them, and who believes that "spiritual damage" is caused whenever she/he steps out of line, is certainly liable to feel guilty for even the most innocent or minute infractions. All the more so for intentional, repeated infractions, this can produce an intense guilt that weighs heavily on a person, to the point of inducing depression, self-loathing, and a deep sense of shame.

Becoming neurotic about the performance of mitzvot is an all-too common malady in traditional Orthodox circles. The "fear of Heaven", or the fear of creating a disturbance in the "celestial plumbing" (the Kabbalistic/mystical mindset), can cause a person to become obsessive-compulsive in ritual performance, caught up in the most minute details, not being satisfied until utter perfection is achieved (which quite often is an impossibility). Yes, there can be something positive in training oneself to be dedicated and detailed, but when the implications are eternal and cosmic, it can turn obsessive, impairing a person's ability to function properly or happily, bringing an immense amount of stress upon themselves and others, such as family members whose physical performance of mitzvot lacks sufficient "attention to detail" and is met with disappointment, frustration or outright anger.

Neurosis is really part of a wider class of disorders related to anxiety, of which living in a God-reality provides no shortage. Take for example the prevalent idea that "everything God does is for the good". It sounds positive enough, and in fact such belief can provide tremendous comfort for some people at times of tragedy or loss. When one is struck with a devastating loss, left shocked and confused, unsure about how to piece life back together, the idea that God has a plan that is beyond human comprehension means that the person does not have to figure it all out, does not have to carry the burden - that can be left to God. However, when absolutely everything that happens is believed to be a product of the will and plan of God, as having divine purpose and meaning - and for the believer that certainly includes whatever happens to them, this has the potential to make a person positively paranoid. "God must be testing me... cleansing me... sending me a message... But what is the test? What is the message? Why am I being cleansed? What did I do wrong this time?" The same feeling of "being held" can easily morph into the feeling of being squeezed, choked or strangled: "Help! I can't take these tests anymore!"

Remove God from the Torah system, and we will have effectively eliminated needless guilt, neurosis, paranoia, stress, and the pain of disillusion that God could possibly be so cruel. We will also train ourselves to appropriately distinguish between fantasy and reality, as any mature adult should. Yes, we will have to learn to live without the psychological and emotional "crutch" that God provides, but that too is part of learning to be a mature adult. Orthodox theology has the capacity to infantilize people - "Does Hashem let?" "Let me ask my Rabbi if I can." "My Father is watching over me and protecting me - He says everything's going to be okay." The hallmark of adulthood, on the other hand, is making one's own decisions, being willing to take responsibility for one's actions. An adult knows that not everything has a "reason", and not everything will be "okay". A psychologically robust adult can live with hard truths and uncertainty.

And when we are faced with pain, loneliness, fear, desperation and confusion, this is what our fellow human beings are for... to stand alongside us, cry with us, share the feeling of uncertainty, and in so doing, to give us the comfort and strength we need to stand tall and move forward - and to help others in need.

This is the path to achieving a strong, mature, robust and positive mental health profile - and is yet another example of what is wrong with God.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Problem #3: God Is "Unholy"

The Torah asserts that human beings are made in the "image of God." Much ink has been spilled to try to understand what this means. On the simple and straightforward level, "image" and "likeness" may well relate to the physical similarity between human beings and God. (Yes, ancient theology was much more corporeal than it has become acceptable to acknowledge.) But based on the context of the narrative, the phrase "image of God" can also be understood to refer to the conscious mind, and its uniquely human capacity to analyze, conceptualize, create, formulate, consider, ponder, reflect, choose, and so on. This is confirmed when the Serpent tells Eve that if she eats from the Tree of Knowledge, her eyes will be opened and she will be "as gods*," knowing good and bad. To what do eyes opening and knowledge relate, if not the mind? Thus to be "godly" is to have a mind. (Of course, the reality is in all likelihood quite the opposite; to be human is to have a mind, and it is the human being who fashioned God in her/his own image.)

Now, since the seat of the human being's godliness is in the mind, and "godliness" is correlated to "holiness," then the mind is none other than the Holy of Holies. Indeed, the mystical tradition understands the soul (neshama) as residing in the brain. Of course the very concept of "holiness" is itself a construct of the mind. Meaning, there is nothing, no place and no person, which is "holy" apart from its having been designated as such by the human being. Barring some sort of shocking discovery, there appears to be no intrinsic holiness, no mysterious and magical property buzzing within spaces such as the Temple, and any belief in such is superstitious, rather akin to belief in magic. So too, the mind is not "intrinsically" holy. Rather, to speak of the mind as such is to regard it with awe, and to imply that we must nurture and guard it with utmost care. The mind can be likened to the Garden of Eden itself, wherein Adam was placed to "work it" and to "guard it." It is hallowed ground, to be cultivated and watched over.

How does one cultivate and protect the sanctity of the mind? By considering carefully what ideas and beliefs we allow to take root and grow there. For example, we would not want to plant and nurture patently false ideas in the mind if we could possibly help it. So we would be wise therefore to reconsider belief in God, particularly the Biblical God of Orthodox Judaism.

To explain why it is that God's miracles and overt presence are conspicuously absent in our day, Orthodox theological apologetics suggest that such revelation is "no longer needed" or "merited" by post-Biblical generations. To explain, in the light of monumental human suffering and injustice, how it is that God is perfectly "just" and "kind," it is generally asserted (in Jewish and Christian apologetics alike) that God's ways are "hidden" from humankind in our lifetime, beyond any mortal's ability to understand.

But is it not obvious how terribly convenient these explanations are, that clearly they were formulated to cover up for an unworkable theology? After all, which is more likely, that the Biblical generations were uniquely privy to the "greatest show on Earth" in the form of God's direct/open communication and miracles - and that the show simply stopped one day, or... that really there was no "show," that in fact the Bible simply reflected the beliefs and storytelling style of the day? Which is more likely, that other ancient cultures just happened to have stories about their gods and their miracles - theirs being of course "myths" and ours being "literal truth," or... that in fact all such stories are myths? Which is more likely, that there is a "hidden plan" which justifies the incredible pain and suffering of humanity throughout history, that all suffering is "just," that no evil goes unpunished and no good deed goes unrewarded - only either we cannot see it, or reward and punishment are waiting in the afterlife, in the "next world", or... that, excuse the expression, "sh*t happens" and that these "next world" explanations are designed to make us feel better and to apologize for our God?

These questions are clearly rhetorical. Of course there was no "age of miracles." Of course the notion of reward and punishment in the next world (which the Torah itself does not even write about) is merely a way to help us deal psychologically with the fact of injustice, a conceptual construction which piles untruth on top of untruth in order to defend a transparently indefensible theological position. Truly it is beneath us, as an intelligent, sharp-minded people, to accept such utter falsity, and thereby sully and desecrate the mind in such a fashion.

Leviticus 20:26 adjures us: "You will be holy to Me, because I the Lord am holy." Yes, throughout history, God has occupied a central place in the Temple of the mind, in the hallowed ground of human consciousness. Belief in the Biblical God, the Just God, was holy, healthy, reasonable, reconcilable with our worldview. How so? Wasn't common sense just as readily available to previous generations as it is to us today? Shouldn't they have seen this theology likewise as being "transparently indefensible"? No doubt there were individuals who did. But when 99% of society would view such common sense as blasphemy, when the world was absolutely rife with myth and superstition, when vehicles of mass communication were not available to the everyday person, it would have been inordinately difficult for such thinking to spontaneously take root, much less spread to others on any significant scale.

Today however, we live in a different world, and frankly we have no excuse. It should now be evident that placing the Biblical/Just God in the Temple of the mind is to affix an idol therein. It is an unholy presence.

Yes, we are charged to be a "holy nation." To be as such, we must constantly be vigilant in protecting and nurturing the mind, to try to the very best of our ability to remove all traces of falsity therefrom.  We must take our inspiration from the Maccabees and purge the Temple of the mind of all its pagan remnants and superstitions, seek out that single cruse of pure oil, that most clear and untainted/unbiased thinking, that which comports with the best of our knowledge, reasoning, wisdom and common sense, and use it to light the way for human consciousness. No swords are necessary in this battle, only the desire for truth and the courage to be real.


* Not "like God" as it is usually rendered, which would have required "yod'aya" (knowing) in the singular. Rather the text says "yod'ay" (knowing) in the plural, rendering "kelohim" to be "as gods."

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Problem #2: God Is Beneath our Dignity

Many are familiar with Maimonides' explanation of sacrifices in the Guide to the Perplexed (3:32), where he maintains that the inclusion of sacrifices in the Torah was a concession to the people, who had a desire to imitate the pagan norms of worship at the time. This is only partially correct. 

First off, while yes, the Israelites certainly would have wanted to follow local norms of worship, the Torah's prescribing of sacrifice does not reflect any language of "concession" but rather wholehearted agreement with the institution of sacrifice. Secondly, even if the author(s) of the Torah knew full well that sacrifice was not intrinsically necessary, meaning that God did not need to be fed and cared for in this way, it would still be important to maintain sacrifice, not just as a concession, but as a matter of national dignity. How could it be that other nations would show so much care and devotion to their gods, spreading out the best of the land in daily meals and incense before them, whereas we Israelites do not care enough for our God to offer even so much as a crumb. It does not look good for the nation, or for our God.

This as well answers the question about the Torah's inclusion of the "Akeida," the binding of Isaac. To be sure, we would all like to explain like the 14th Century commentator Ibn Caspi that Abraham's test was not to sacrifice Isaac. But not only does he stand fairly alone among the classical commentators in offering such an interpretation, really the Torah itself seems to clearly indicate otherwise. Abraham passed the test precisely because of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son and heir. The question of course is how could God have commanded such a sacrifice when the Torah later goes on to warn the people against following the idolatrous practices of other nations: "Do not do this to the Lord your God, because every abomination of the Lord that He hates they did to their gods; for even their sons and daughters they will burn in fire for their gods." (Deut. 12:31) 

Clearly the Torah is against child sacrifice, and the fact that the angel stopped Abraham attests to this. However, the Torah also recognized the need to have Abraham effectively sacrifice his son. Why? Because this was the way, par excellence, for a person in the ancient world to demonstrate their unequivocal devotion to their God. And if mere laypeople of other nations were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give their most prized possession, their own flesh and blood, how is it that Abraham, the "father of many peoples," the leader and progenitor of the Israelites, could not also give on this level? If he had not, it may have looked as if he lacked adequate credentials for leadership, to be God's ever-willing agent and selfless servant. It would have been beneath our national dignity, beneath God's dignity, to appear "lesser" than the nations in this regard.

Moving forward in time, prayer eventually eclipsed sacrifice as the Jewish mode of worship. Indeed, part of this owed to the destruction of the Second Temple. However, the institution of prayer had already been established well before the destruction. Clearly, just as the original Israelites wished to worship in the manner of the nations by offering sacrifices, so too did later generations desire to utilize prayer, which presumably became a mode of worship in common use by other nations, such as the Greeks. When the Temple was destroyed, prayer by default became the only mode of worship allowed. But in all probability, once sacrifice was all but rooted out of "civilized" religion and was looked upon as a vestige of paganism, of primitive religion, the notion that sacrifice could no longer be performed would have come as a welcome relief to most Jews. That is to say, prayer was now the proper mode of worship. And just as with sacrifices, it would have been below the dignity of the Jewish religion not to honor its God with prayer.

This transition was most certainly connected with the increasing appeal of Christianity. With the advent of a "New Testament" which resonated with the higher moral sensibilities of people at the time, it became beneath the dignity of a religion to have a "wrathful" God. In earlier times such a God was magnificent, powerful, respected, an honor for a people to have. No longer. But rather than add to God's word, the Jewish methodology was to reinterpret it, mold it into something acceptable. Midrash in essence saved us from the ignominy of a wrathful God. In the Biblical view, an affront to God's honor was worthy of wholesale slaughter, innocents and children alike. As much as it may be difficult for us to comprehend, this was not considered to be morally problematic at the time. In Talmudic times however, and in the Midrash, such cruel or unjustifiably harsh punishment on the part of God would be totally unacceptable. So the Midrash adds detail to the story, justifications and qualifications, to soften the blow as it were, so as to bring God in line with a more dignified conception. Likewise, the Torah extends the death penalty rather liberally according to the text. In rabbinic interpretation however, capital punishment in the Torah serves largely as a warning, which only very rarely and under the most extreme circumstances would actually be carried out.

Fast forward once again to the post-Enlightenment, post-Scientific Revolution, modern era. Whereas religion once served as the beacon of light to the world, offered answers which could be fully digested by the intellectual mind, science and secular scholarship now began to command far greater attention and respect. At the early stages, it would have been beneath the dignity of most anyone to call themselves an "atheist" per se. However, the theological dogma became softened among many intellectuals, who were attracted to more to "deistic" ideas (a more naturalistic conception of God) rather than traditional theism, with its belief in Divine oversight and judgment, Heaven and Hell, miracles, and so forth. It would be beneath the dignity of an enlightened thinker to entertain fundamentalist beliefs. However, it would also be unseemly to profess in public the denial of a God/Creator altogether.

Nowadays, throughout the non-fundamentalist world, it is perfectly acceptable to call oneself an agnostic or an atheist. However, there is still a certain level stigma attached to non-belief, as evidenced by politicians who commonly pander to religious groups by professing their belief in God and Jesus Christ. Evangelical or otherwise fundamentalist Christians certainly do not see it as "beneath the dignity" of Jews to take the Bible literally. Yet in more secular circles, which includes the vast majority of academic and scholarship circles, Torah and Orthodoxy are grouped with all other forms of religious fundamentalism, being at best quaint, naive and sorely deluded, and at worst a danger to free society. Torah Jews are seen as blind followers of religious doctrine, denying basic facts about the origin and age of the Universe and the development of life on Earth. They are seen as teaching their children to believe in myth and superstition, holding fast to antiquated notions about women and gays, and to varying degrees as rejecting the value of secular knowledge and studies. And they would be correct in this.

It is contrary to the honor and dignity of Torah, and of Jewish civilization, for such beliefs and attitudes (and in some cases, practices) to be perpetuated. It should be beneath the dignity of any people who seeks truth, who eschews the worship of falseness, to carry on professing myth to be reality, and reality be the product of a "secular agenda". It will eventually be beneath our dignity to walk into synagogue with the intent of worshiping a God. All this is a "Chilul HaShem", a blight on the name of Torah and Judaism.

That, in brief, is another example of what is "wrong" with God.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Problem #1: God Defies Reasonability

Discussions about whether or not to believe in God generally come from either the truth angle or the utilitarian angle. Truth arguments relate to whether or not it is reasonable to postulate God's existence. Utilitarian arguments relate not to the fact of God's existence, but to whether belief in God is a constructive, positive force in the world, or whether it is a destructive force. The previous section outlined in brief some of the utilitarian arguments for belief in God, particularly as it pertains to Jews living in the religious community. This section will briefly address the question of the "truth" of God's existence.

It must be understood from the outset that it is in no way possible to demonstrate or prove conclusively whether God does or does not exist. The question relates to the reasonability of postulating one way or the other. To examine this, it is important that we first make the distinction between "God the Creator" and "God of the Torah."

I maintain that belief in a Creator of the Universe is perfectly reasonable. We do not understand how existence came to be what it is, and it is reasonable to speculate that there is an Intelligence behind it. (This is not, to be clear, an argument for Intelligent Design, which claims to offer evidence for God's existence based on gaps in nature, especially in evolution, that it proposes could not have been bridged were it not for Divine intervention. The consensus at this time in the scientific community is that Intelligent Design is a pseudo-scientific enterprise, whose arguments do not comprise anything on the order of evidence of the supernatural.) When I say that belief in a Creator is "reasonable," I mean from the standpoint of human psychology - i.e., it is a natural thing for us to believe. If we are conscious beings with the ability to create, who is to say there is not a consciousness greater than ourselves which is responsible for the universe? Does that mean that God's existence is therefore "likely"? No. Does it say anything as to the nature of God, or for that matter how many "gods" are involved? No. Might there be a race of aliens who spawned life on Earth? There may well be.

Point being, the idea of God is pure speculation, reasonable coming from the human being, but speculation nonetheless. However, the more specificity one attaches to God the Creator, often the less reasonable the speculation becomes, and the more complex theological argumentation one must formulate in order to support that belief. For instance, the notion of a "benevolent" God is one which is difficult to support. Positing such inevitably leads to the theological paradox often brought between God's omnipotence and God's benevolence (i.e., the question as to why an all-powerful God does not intervene to curtail suffering). It is precisely theological questions such as these, which appear contrived, needless, and frankly irksome, which draw many people to an atheistic position. After all, why enter into such a paradox when there is a far more straightforward way out?

Much ink has already been spilled on arguments for God's existence (cosmological, teleological/unmoved mover, Jewish-historical, etc.), and I do not intend to elaborate on these here. Suffice it to say, such arguments may highlight lapses in our knowledge, or phenomena that are unique and highly intriguing, but they in no way require that we fill in those spaces with "God," as opposed to any other natural explanation. In any case, my focus here is not on God in the abstract, ineffable sense, but on God as the giver of the Torah, God the commander, maker of miracles.

We spoke about specificity in regards to God as being inversely related to reasonability. On that count, the God of the Torah is another level of specificity altogether. To believe in this God, one has to accept that He came to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Joseph and Moses, spoke to them, took the Children of Israel out of Egypt with wonders and miracles, and commanded the mitzvot of the Torah, all of which took place approximately between 3800 and 3300 BCE. In traditional Orthodox terms, one also would have to believe (despite it not saying so it the Torah) that God dictated the entire Torah letter by letter to Moses. Again, one cannot "prove" that this did, or did not, happen. The question is one of reasonability. To that end, let us ask two simple questions:

1. Where is God now?

Stated bluntly: "Show me the miracles." If a sea can split on command, if the voice of God can be heard on the top of a mountain giving over instructions to a nation, if a column of fire/cloud can follow a people's path in the desert, if manna can fall from the sky, why is it that we do not see and experience these things (or anything remotely similar) today? To one who says that some individuals do indeed hear the word of God, I say that if you examine closely there will invariably be a more reasonable explanation. It will be accountable to some combination of self-delusion, fakery, mistaken attribution, dream, trance, hypnosis or hallucination. To one who cites real-life miracles (chance meetings/synchronous events, miraculous healings/rescues, etc.), to which hundreds of thousands of individuals regularly attest, once again there will always be a more plausible explanation, such as statistical eventuality.

That is, with the countless events and decisions a person encounters every day, it is to be expected that once in a while, one of those would have a serendipitous character. What happens is that such an event is taken not only with great surprise and joy but as also portending supernatural involvement, i.e., God's hand in the world. But for every one of those events are countless others which were decidedly less than astonishing. There were all the times you turned a corner just a split second before running into a friend from childhood. Similarly, for every person who makes a miraculous recovery, there are thousands more who do not, and their stories generally remain untold. Understandably, we prefer to relate the miraculous, happy endings, and therefore we lose sight of the fact of their statistical inevitability. Moreover, even if one were to posit supernatural explanations to things such as chance encounters, they are still miracles on a different order of magnitude than, say, water standing up like a wall, or all the firstborn males of Egypt dying overnight.

One argument made by believers is that God's "appearance" in Biblical times was due to its being a special era, whose specific needs required a more direct Divine engagement with humanity. Now that the revelation has taken place, God's face as it were has been "hidden," no longer given to open miracles, prophecy and other fantastic encounters. Ours is now a test of faith... Granted, this is an explanation, and a rather convenient one at that, but the far more reasonable explanation is that such miracles and other direct encounters with God never in fact occurred at all. And that is why we never see them today. It should be especially obvious given the fact that at the time that Torah came onto the scene, all peoples had their gods, and the powerful acts of these gods and their interrelations with humans are likewise interwoven as part of the national story. Should the Israelite story be any exception?

2. Are the mitzvot Divine?

It follows from the belief in a Divine Torah, wherein the mitzvot are commanded by God Himself, that such commandments are invested with an "eternal" quality. Their laws and principles are etched into the very fabric of the cosmos as part of the Divine will for Creation. Yet with only a cursory examination of history, it is clear that the mitzvot, far be it from being "timeless," are in fact a clear reflection of Bronze Age civilization. Israelite civil law bears a close resemblance to other codes of law from the ancient Near East. Other peoples gave tithes to their priests, and gave food and incense offerings to their gods, some in temples strikingly similar to the structure of the Mishkan. Some, including the Egyptian priesthood, performed circumcision, exercised dietary limitations, and immersed in ritual baths.

I ask then what is more likely, that everyone was closer to the Divine will at the time, that Bronze Age Mesopotamia just happened to strike upon the perfect "cosmic cocktail," such that all subsequent generations must now follow its particular set of rituals and norms as the living word of God, or that the ancient Israelites were simply a product of their time and place, albeit with their own unique "spin" on it all?

Would Moses, were he to first come on the scene today, possibly make us painstakingly (and at great cost) write out the Torah, letter by letter, on strips of animal hide attached together with sinews, because there is something "Godly" or "holy" to this specific set of materials and processes? Or was that simply the technology available at the time? These questions are obviously rhetorical, as it is certain that Torah is no more, and no less, than a product of its time. Yes, we have adapted it in many ways which make it "timeless," but to say that the Torah is God's eternal law is completely untenable. Therefore, the Biblical God, commander of mitzvot, is completely untenable.

People looking for "proofs" may wish to draw your attention to the millions who stood at Sinai and watched the revelation with their own eyes, and that in no way could this kind of story be "made up." Remember however that every ancient people had its origin story, in which the gods played a role. Myth and history were regularly interwoven as one. It is only in modern retrospect that we cannot fathom such a thing. Therefore we assume that our Biblical forebears would not have knowingly retold myths. But they were not "lying" by telling of miracles, wonders, prophecy, wrath, and Divine conquest in the desert; rather they were giving honor to their God and to the people. To tell a story (remember that as much as we are now called the "People of the Book" it was a primarily oral tradition for the entirety of the Biblical era and then some) without God, without miracles, would be at the very least dry and not terribly memorable, and further it would be unseemly, not befitting to any people, let alone a "holy nation." We had to tell our story in a supernatural, super-memorable fashion.

Just because someone is able to put words skillfully together, so as to appear to make a good case, does not make it "true." One still needs to consider common sense plausibility. And given the absence of open miracles and Divine intervention today, and the fact that the mitzvot and God-invested stories of the Torah are very much a product of their time, maintaining a belief in the God of the Torah, the commander, the miracle-worker, defies common sense. It defies reasonability.

Someone may wish to believe nonetheless, which is fine. But better to be honest and call it "faith."

Monday, April 2, 2012



Before I say what is “wrong” with God, I want to state that I recognize that there are many positive functions which God serves in people’s lives. God helps people feel that the universe has a purpose, and that they have a purpose. God gives people the sense that they have someone watching over them, protecting them, that they are never alone. God is that someone they can call out to in times of pain and desperation, a hope for salvation. God is a focal point to which to attach awe and wonder at the world, to whom to direct gratitude for any and all positive things in life. All such beneficial psychological effects of God-consciousness are the source of immeasurable comfort and strength for people, certainly not things to be tampered with lightly.

God also serves the function of “ultimate authority,” the final arbiter of good and bad, and the one who doles out reward and punishment. A “God-fearing” person is one whose fear of Heaven keeps her/him on the straight path. For such a person, crime is “sin” and worthy of divine wrath, so that even if the person manages to evade flesh and blood authorities here on earth, what comes around will eventually go around in the next world. For many, the belief in a punitive God may be the only thing standing between them and criminal, violent, or otherwise harmful behavior. This is also something not to be uprooted without at least first giving the matter some careful thought.

In addition to the psychological comfort that God provides, and the role of God as the ever-present “eye in the sky” which helps to keep us adhering closely to the mitzvot, there are other benefits of having God in one’s life as a religious Jew. One is quite simply that Orthodox communities are faith-based, God-believing communities, and it certainly is far easier to have one’s beliefs fall in line with the people around them – neighbors, rabbis, teachers at their children’s schools, etc. To reject God and live in a God-centered community is a formidable challenge, and can lead to feelings of deep alienation, the sense of being very much alone in a crowd. And one who attempts to alleviate this loneliness by being honest about their non-belief, may (depending on the tolerance-level of their community) eventually find themselves ostracized, no longer welcome. Such friction is potentially no more acute than in one's own home. To be a non-believing child in a religious household is a supremely challenging position, especially given the innate desire to be a source of "nachas" for one's parents. And to be a non-believer when one’s spouse is a believer can very possibly interfere with the couple’s level of friendship and intimacy. Practically speaking, it can make for great difficulty in running a home, raising children, and interfacing with the rest of the religious community. In short, being a non-believer can have grave social and communal repercussions.

Apart from all that, a God-orientation suffuses one’s Torah learning with an air of cosmic importance. When the secrets of God and the universe are bound up in a verse in the Torah or words of the Sages, when their significance is greater than any words can truly describe, this brings an air of fantastic weightiness to one’s Torah learning, infuses it with meaning, energy and excitement. To take God out of the equation has the potential to deflate that excitement, or to bring a person to abandon Torah learning altogether. Again, it goes without saying that non-belief can negatively impact a person's Torah observance every bit as much as their learning.

The above of course begs the question: If being a believing Orthodox Jew gives one vital psychological, moral, and communal support, and makes one's connection to Torah and mitzvot more impassioned and secure, why tamper with a good thing? What's wrong with God? 

The short answer is that, I believe, we can do better. Judaism can do better. The longer answer comes next...