Friday, March 30, 2007

I love trilobites

I just bought this on the web for $30 and I’m keeping it on my desk at work. It’s a rock that contains an imprint of an insect that lived in Utah about 500 million years ago. I think the symmetry and detail are beautiful.

Personally, this doesn’t disturb my faith in the truth of Genesis in any way, and in fact it increases my love for God and my appreciation of the glory of His creation.

Actually, the sudden appearance of trilobites is one of the greatest proofs that evolution is false.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Could Ezra Have Written the Torah?

[open Torah scroll]

The Torah scroll is the foundation of Judaism. It includes all of God’s commandments to the Jewish people as well as an account of all the miracles that give those commandments validity. It includes the doctrines of one, unseen God and His creation of the universe, which are the bedrock of Judaism. Later books in the Hebrew Bible merely reemphasize the message of the Torah while the Talmud is basically a rabbinical commentary expounding on the Torah. The Torah, with the commentary of Rashi, is the first book studied intensively by all students in Orthodox Jewish schools. The scroll is read publicly in the synagogue every Sabbath morning in a cycle of readings which is completed each year. The Torah scroll is the holiest item in the synagogue.

From time immemorial until well into the nineteenth century, virtually all Jews accepted without question that Moses wrote the Torah. Secularists have rejected this and therefore must find a different authorship for the Torah.

The most popular theory seems to be as follows:

The story of the Deluge was based on an actual Mesopotamian flood about 2,900 BCE. The Exodus story was presumably based on the actual escape of a small group of slaves from Egypt about 1,400 BCE. From there these stories became embellished by constant later retellings. Eventually, various diverse sacred documents arose. The most important ones were:
- A document written by a priest in the Kingdom of Judah about the 800 BCE. This includes most of Genesis, basically. It is known as “J”.
- A document written by a priest descended from Moses who lived in the Kingdom of Israel about 800 BCE. This includes part of Genesis and the Exodus story. This is known as “E”.
- A document written in the time of Hezekiah, about 700 BCE, after the exile of the Kingdom of Israel. This includes the later part of Exodus, all of Leviticus and much of Numbers. This is called “P”.
- A document written about 600 BCE during the time of Josiah. This includes Deuteronomy and is called “D”.
Finally Ezra came about 450 BCE, at the time of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, and presented to the people the Torah scroll which we have today, compiled from all the above sources. He claimed that this was the true, original scroll actually written by Moses and all Jews accepted that as fact until modern times. Having behind him the power of the Persian government, he was able to eliminate any opposition.

The question is, is this scenario plausible?

First of all, at the time the second temple was built, Jews were scattered throughout the Persian Empire. If they had no single Torah scroll, but rather various different traditions and texts passed down over the previous thousand years, it is hard to imagine Ezra succeeding in presenting a single, never before seen scroll. In recent times, this might be comparable to the story of Joseph Smith, who attempted to present Christians with a sort of “third testament” in the Book of Mormon. Some people did follow him, however most Christians were outraged by his claims. He survived only 15 years before being murdered by a mob. In contrast, we know of no trace of dissent in regards to the Torah and there is no reference anywhere to any earlier documents. In fact, Ezra is never depicted as publishing a new text; rather the Jews ask him to read an apparently well known Torah of Moses. Note how much difficulty the Greeks soon afterwards had when they attempted to impose religious innovations on the Jews.

Secondly, surely the Samaritans, the Jews' enemies, would never have accepted Ezra's scroll.

Thirdly, the contents of the Torah are bizarre if Ezra wrote it. Jerusalem and its Temple are unmentioned, while the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, no longer of any practical relevance, is written about at great length.

Considering the fact that the Samaritans accept the Torah and the Torah does not mention Jerusalem, this would seem to date the Torah from the time of Samuel at the latest, or only 400 years after the Exodus. And if that is the case, how could the Jewish people have been convinced that such incredible miracles happened only a few centuries earlier if they in fact had not?

Similar to evolution being an atheistic attempt to explain life’s development because “where else could it have come from”, the idea of Ezra writing the Torah based on earlier documents is equally hard to believe although secularists must accept it since they have no better choice.

In conclusion, there would seem to be no plausible, natural, human explanation for the Torah's origin.

Friday, March 23, 2007

My Thirtieth Anniversary!!!!!

Today it is exactly thirty years since my conversion to Judaism on March 23, 1977.

My life has been immeasurably enhanced by my decision to observe the Torah’s commandments.

I began contemplating spirituality at the age of 11 during a visit to Glacier National Park in 1971. I felt the presence of something supernatural in the beauty of nature. Since then, it has been an amazing journey.

Words cannot express my deep gratitude to God for having made it possible for me to reach this point and for having guided me and helped me every step of the way. I have so much to be thankful for. I hope and pray that the next thirty years will be even more rewarding.

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Should Science Replace Religion?

Yisrael Meir Kagan 1838 - 1933 Polish rabbi

Sigmund Freud 1856 - 1939 Viennese psychiatrist

A common attitude in academia seems to be as follows:

Science, the careful, rational, organized study of nature, is the light of humanity.

Until about 1800, modern science did not exist. Nevertheless, people were curious, so to explain the causes of natural events, man invented religion. "God" created the earth. "God" made man. When the crop was good, it was because "God" was happy. When the crop was bad, it was because "God" was angry. When a person died it meant that his soul had left him and gone to a spirit world. Without science, there was no way for people to correctly understand the world so they made up childish explanations.

Science has changed all of this. Now, based on science, we know that the universe has gradually and automatically developed over billions of years from a Big Bang. We know that man evolved from an ape that lived about six million years ago. We know that crops fail or prosper due to global weather changes and infectious diseases. We know that the “soul” is merely the activity of billions of neurons in the brain. When the brain stops working, we perceive that the person has died.

The Pentateuch was written about 2,300 years by the Jewish leader Ezra the Scribe. He compiled it based on several earlier manuscripts and presented it to the Jewish people as having been written 1,000 years earlier by Moses, as related in Nehemiah 8:1. It is simply a collection of Israelite and Mesopotamian myths. The Jews gullibly accepted it as authentic. The Talmud was written by later Jewish leaders who created and compiled a huge body of legislation, covering ritual and civil law. They invented sources in the Pentateuch for all their legislation, although in fact they simply made it up themselves, based partly on earlier Jewish customs. This was accepted by about 90% of the Jewish people until the 19th century.

Today, religion is an obsolete relic of the past, and a dangerous one. It causes unnecessary hatred, intolerance, violence and neurotic sexual repression. The 9/11 attacks are an example of the evil of religion, however there are endless others. It is perhaps the root of all evil. Religion also discourages the study of science and the continuing progress of mankind. We need to educate children in science and especially evolution so that they will no longer turn to religion to understand the world. We must teach our children that egalitarianism, liberal democracy and the Golden Rule are moral and ethical because they will bring the most happiness to the most people, but not because any god commanded anything. They must be reminded that any belief in the supernatural is false and dangerous.

This is the essential belief of atheism, scientism or naturalism. Is it really true?

First of all, this philosophy basically worships scientists as being mankind’s saviors, white knights who have appeared to rescue mankind from all evil, including the machinations of clerics. Probably many scientists like that image; some seem to be vigorously advocating it. But is it exaggerating the importance of modern science?

Science has created some very useful things, like antibiotics and vaccines, cell phones and cars. In the pre-scientific world, the average life expectancy was about 35 years. Today it is about 66 years. The world population was about one billion in 1800 and it is over 6 billion today. On the other hand, science has also created some horrible things like nuclear weapons and gas chambers. In fact, many experts are concerned about devastation in the near future thanks to scientific progress.

Science has also made some interesting discoveries. We now know more about stars and fossils than we once did. However, science is far from answering all the basic questions of life. Science can not tell us why the Big Bang happened, what came before it if anything or why our universe is fine tuned in a way that makes life possible. Science can not tell us how life originated and the story about man evolving from an ape seems unbelievable to many, including this writer. It is true, as has been known for centuries, that the brain plays a role in thought; however science cannot explain why we are aware of ourselves or why we feel that we have free will. Science also does a very poor job of predicting the future. Whether there will be a hurricane next month, whether there will be a recession next year or whether someone will die of cancer in the next decade are all still mysteries which may depend on the anger of a deity for all that any scientist knows.

The story about Ezra being a sort of Jewish Joseph Smith doesn’t hold much water. It is not plausible that the entire far flung Jewish community, as well as Samaritans who were Ezra’s enemies, would have been accomplices with him in his false claim that this scroll had been well known all along and had been handed down for the last thousand years from Moses. The rabbis’ obsession with legal minutiae and the Jewish community’s enthusiastic acceptance of it for two thousand years seems bizarre as well if the Talmud was merely a fiction.

In the last couple of decades, psychologists have begun realizing that religion plays a major positive role in many people’s lives, giving them more happiness and satisfaction, more self control, better relationships, less substance abuse, less suicide and less violent crime. There are violent, suicidal cults and Islam has some serious problems; however this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

In conclusion:

- Science has answered none of the basic questions, such as how did the universe originate, how life originated, what our creator asks of us, is there life after death, how can we prepare for it, etc.

- Science cannot provide morality and ethics or a satisfying, hopeful meaning and purpose in life. Science cannot teach us how to live or why to live.

- Science has not proven Judaism to be false.

- Chemists, physicists and biologists, while intelligent and highly educated, are in principle no different than plumbers, mechanics and dentists. They provide society with a useful service and for this we should be grateful, however their professional training provides them with no special insight regarding religion. Professor Richard Dawkins is a good example of this. Although he is an outspoken and influential atheist, his professional background is actually in the field of animal behavior. Paleontology and Middle Eastern archeology do have relevance to the Biblical narrative, however, as I have explained in posts about Creation, the Deluge and the Exodus, I don’t see any contradiction between them and Judaism.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Wisdom of Torah

[title page of the Talmud]

"This is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who, when they hear these laws, will say 'This great nation is a wise and understanding people'" (Deut. 4:6)

It is my opinion that the extraordinary wisdom of Torah also testifies to its divine origin.

First of all the Torah contains an ingenious blueprint for creating a peaceful society and leading a healthy, happy life (provided that it is observed faithfully).

The genius of the Torah is that it doesn't decree point blank "Don't steal" and "Don't kill" and leave it at that, like almost any other legal system. Rather it prescribes an elaborate system of safeguards and educational activities that remove almost any possibility of murder and theft. Almost all of Judaism can be viewed as a vast network of "moral preventive medicine" - stopping evil tendencies at their actual root long before they can lead to a crime.

Take, for example, the belief in one omniscient, omnipotent God who will inevitably punish wrongdoers and reward the righteous, either in this world or in the next world. For its own sake, this concept is valuable since it can provide a person with peace of mind and purpose and meaning in life that would be impossible otherwise. More than that, however, it is the only guarantee possible to moral integrity. An atheist may feel that it "isn't right" to hurt other people or that it's bad for society. However, when he is faced with a strong temptation to hurt someone else (e.g. he has much to gain and little or no fear of punishment) will a vague sentimental feeling or philosophy stop him? Probably not. However, a God fearing Jew knows that to escape punishment is impossible.

This great concept is not left as an abstract theology, however. Judaism teaches its adherents to constantly remind themselves of this great principle. The Sabbath is a reminder of it (Ex. 31:17) . Passover and the other holidays are reminders of it. The phylacteries (Ex. 13:16) , mezuzah (Deut. 6:9) and zizith (fringed garment, Num. 15:38) are to remind us of it. The constant prayers and blessings which Judaism requires (Ps. 34:2) are also a reminder. Torah study reminds us of it.

[It is interesting to note, incidentally, that these educational activities seem to fully utilize all three forms of mental representation defined in "Toward a Theory of Instruction" by psychologist Jerome Bruner (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1966). Putting on phylacteries and eating matzah, for example, are enactive representations involving action and movement. Seeing the zizith, the mezuzah and the succah are iconic representations, or visual stimuli. Prayer and Torah study are symbolic representations, involving language, spoken as well as written. Much more could be said about this, however let it suffice to say that the broad range and great number of experiences required by Torah make realistic the psalmist's statement (Ps. 16:8) "I have always placed God before me".]

The morality and ethics of the Torah also emphasize the prevention concept. A Jew is not only forbidden to kill and steal. He is commanded to love his neighbor(Lev. 19:18); he is prohibited from gossiping and bearing a grudge and cursing (Lev. 19:14-18). He may not even desire someone else’s property (Ex. 20:13). The Torah commands the Jew to give generously to the poor (Deut. 15:7-11) and to return lost objects (Deut. 22:1-3). When one considers that a Jewish child spends months being taught the section of the Talmud dealing with the returning of lost objects, imagine how foreign the idea of killing or stealing will seem to him as an adult!

The Jewish code of modesty also indirectly strengthens society. Everyone is aware of the emotional damage and delinquency caused by unwed mothers and broken homes, which has been the direct result of the "New Morality" (a glorified term for the virtual prostitution of American women over the past 25 years). By requiring the strictest monogamy, the Torah insures that children will be raised in secure, stable homes.(And to insure that monogamy doesn't become monotony, a Jewish couple are required to observe occasional periods of abstinence, see (Lev. 18:19).

The dietary laws also play a role in this, in that they encourage social isolation - preventing Jews from frequenting gentile taverns, parties, etc. where they will be badly influenced.

If one needs any further proof of the wisdom of Torah ethics, one may note how they have tremendously influenced the religions of Europe and the Middle East for fifteen centuries and are clearly a major foundation of Western thought.

The originality of Judaism's teachings may also be taken into consideration. Today we accept ideas like God, morality, ethics, etc. as being more or less universal, however 2000 years ago they were very unusual and bizarre ideas. No other work of ancient literature emphasizes modesty, self-control, moderation, humility, peace, justice, kindness, and patience as does the Hebrew Bible. Nearly all human literature at that time was filled only with stories of idolatry, violence, and obscenity.

It is also interesting to note that the Torah contains much scientific knowledge that is amazingly accurate.

The Torah exhibits a keen insight into human psychology. This can easily be seen in the books of Proverbs especially if studied together with the classical rabbinical commentaries. The Talmud (e.g. in Pirkei Avos - The Wisdom of the Fathers) also contains many psychological principles and the Talmudic interpretation of the narratives in the Hebrew Bible offers a wealth of insights into human nature. As already explained, the entire ethical system of Judaism shows profound psychological knowledge. It can be convincingly argued that a sensitive person with a thorough knowledge of Torah will be as well or better equipped to counsel troubled people as would any clinical psychologist. [For an interesting anthology of rabbinical teachings relating to psychology, see "Gateway to Happiness" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. This is actually an excellent work, combining both theology and cognitive therapy.]

The Talmud (Shabbos 86a) states that semen remains vital for no more than three days in the uterus (which happens to be exactly correct) and learns this from Biblical verses. How could they have known this without microscopes and hormone tests?

Finally, the sheer size of Torah literature is amazing. The Talmud is really an encyclopedia of Jewish law (ritual and civil) and ethics. It is about 5000 pages long and written in a very abbreviated style - almost a sort of code. A page of Talmud is usually to some extent incomprehensible without at least the basic commentary of Rashi, and even then it will usually take an experienced student an hour to go over a page which he hasn't studied before. And to really understand a page of Talmud properly the student may need to spend many days examining the numerous commentaries and super-commentaries until each point in the Talmudic debate is clarified. The scope of even the basic Torah literature actually includes hundreds of large volumes, containing ethics, history, poetry, philosophy, and mysticism besides, of course, law. This is even more remarkable when one considers - why would any human minds conceive of such intricate and complex laws that obviously make Judaism only less popular? Wouldn't it have made much more sense for the rabbis to make Judaism easier and trim down the law - as the Christian leader Paul did, and with spectacular success?

Considering all of the above, it is very difficult not to feel that comparing Judaism to other religions is like comparing a living man to a mannequin: the mannequin may superficially resemble a man, however a living man is filled with endless complexity and true wisdom, while the mannequin is merely a lifeless piece of wood. So too, all the other religions are merely collections of fantasy, superstition, and, often, evil nonsense (except for a few grains of truth, usually plagiarized from Judaism) while Torah stands out as extraordinarily rational and practical (see Maimonides, Letter to Yemen).

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Extraordinary History of the Jewish People

[from the Washington Haggadah, written in Bonn, Germany 1478]

"Who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth" (Sam. II 7:23)

From a careful and unbiased study of Jewish history, it is clear that the Jewish people were, indeed, raised to an extraordinary spiritual level 3300 years ago at Mt. Sinai.

It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of the Jewish people as one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world is an open miracle. Where are the ancient Moabites, Hittites and Philistines today? How many thousands of years ago did they disappear, absorbed by other, more dominant cultures, changing completely their language and religion time and again according to political and social pressures? This is natural and normal and a constant process in world history, as one culture is absorbed or destroyed by another. Why have the Jews been so strangely, uniquely immune to this, at least up until the last century?

Note the physical situation of the Jewish people. They are not a huge nation living in total isolation like, for example, the Chinese or the Hindus. They began as a small nation in the eastern Mediterranean, easy prey for neighboring empires. Two thousand four hundred years ago they were conquered and dispersed. Almost invariably they were forced to live as a minority among other nations; constantly in contact with and completely at the mercy of the dominant majority. To remain distinctive and preserve such a radically different life-style, inviting almost constant ostracism, financial sacrifice as well as outright massacre for so many centuries is incomprehensible, psychologically as well as historically. Why did few choose to assimilate, right down to modern times? To be sentimental about ones ancestral traditions is understandable. For an entire nation to calmly face martyrdom for over 2000 years for their traditions is inexplicable.

Important to note as well is the amazing vitality of the Jewish people. One would logically have expected the Jews to be reduced long ago to a few isolated, primitive villages in the mountains of Iraq (if they survived at all). Instead they have created flourishing, vigorous communities throughout Europe and the Middle East. Their piety, kindness and intellectualism have been extraordinary. They published libraries of sacred literature (they had no other type) during centuries of poverty and persecution. When few gentiles were literate, an illiterate Jew was a rarity. Jews generally made up the middle class of craftsmen, physicians, merchants and bankers and therefore were (reluctantly) tolerated by the surrounding gentiles. It is known that in medieval Europe many Christian noblemen demanded Jewish doctors and treasurers in spite of how much they were despised. Even following secularization this vitality has been clearly apparent, at least for several generations until assimilation is total. Witness the fact that approximately 20% of Nobel Prize winners have been Jews, although Jews make up merely .2% of the world population, and in spite of the fact that in the first half of this century the Jewish people were largely devastated by the chaos and genocide of World War I and World War II. In the cases of Jesus, Marx, Freud and Einstein we see how even Jews who were far removed from authentic Judaism achieved tremendous recognition in world history. Witness as well the creation of Israel, which demonstrates how even more or less secularized Jews, after over 2000 years of exile, retained such a strong attachment to the ancient Jewish homeland and language. (Can anyone imagine the ancient Hittites, for example, reestablishing in the 20th century an independent state, complete with their ancient language?)

All the above was nicely summarized by Mark Twain in an essay entitled "Concerning the Jews", published 1898:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded into dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

Consider also the tremendous unity of Judaism throughout the centuries. The Jews were scattered in thousands of independent and, to some extant, isolated communities from Afghanistan to Morocco and from Lithuania to Yemen. It would have been natural for them all to remain unanimous on certain basic principles (e.g. the Scriptures, monotheism, not eating pork, Sabbath observance) while diverging in everything else, adapting and changing the tradition to fit in with their needs and situation. We would expect to find very distinct and independent Yemenite Judaism, Polish Judaism, Persian Judaism, Moroccan Judaism, German Judaism, etc. each with its own ritual and theology. This is taken for granted in other religions (e.g. an Episcopalian Christian has very little in common with an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian). Jews however, until very recently never disagreed on anything significant. Two hundred years ago a Jew from Amsterdam could have married a Jew from Baghdad with no change in theology, no important change in ritual and certainly no feeling of converting to a different sect for either of them. (It should be noted as well that deviant Jewish, or psuedo-Jewish, sects such as the Karaites, Sadducces or Samaritans never, as far as anyone knows, constituted more than a very small minority compared to mainstream, rabbinical Judaism). This extraordinary unity testifies to the incredible loyalty of the Jews to their traditions. [The phylacteries found with the Dead Sea scrolls also give us an idea of the authenticity of Jewish tradition - not only did they conform to the specifications written in the Talmud 500 years later but they even conformed to the opinions of Talmudic commentaries written over 1000 years later in far-away France!]

Consider also the five levels of Jewish sacred literature. The authors of the Mishnah never contradicted the prophets. The authors of the Talmud likewise stood in awe of the authors of the Mishnah. The early Talmudic commentators would never contradict the Talmud. The later commentators with very rare exception never contradict the earlier ones. This phenomenon clearly indicates the gradual decline of the Jewish people from a great original spiritual level.

All this points to the reality of the Mt. Sinai revelation, which lifted the Jews far above the rest of mankind. It also demonstrates the integrity of the Torah tradition - since the Jewish people were raised to such a high level it is clear that until recently none except a few of the most ignorant would have deviated from the genuine tradition.