Friday, June 29, 2007

The Holocaust – a Painful Miracle

[Photograph in a letter sent home by a German solider. It was intercepted by the Polish Home Army. The back of the photo is inscribed “Ukraine 1942, Jewish Aktion, Ivanogrod”]

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a miracle means “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs”. In that sense, I believe that the Holocaust was clearly a miracle, although an extremely painful one.

On January 20, 1942 15 leading German government officials, the majority of whom were holders of doctorates, gathered in Berlin to organize the systematic and complete extermination of European Jewry. This was done at the direction of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. During the next three years, until May 7, 1945, approximately five million innocent, unarmed Jews would be murdered, in addition to the one million who had already been killed previously by the German authorities. This seems to have been a unique event. There may be no comparable example of coolly premeditated mass murder.

The strangeness of the Holocaust cannot be overstated.

First of all, Germans were on the average highly educated and civilized. They were very cultured people. They were not superstitious savages. Prior to 1933, there had been no anti-Semitic violence in Germany since 1819. German Jews had been granted legal equality in 1871. Twelve thousand German Jews gave their lives for the Fatherland from 1914 to 1918. Many German Jews had converted to Christianity, intermarried and had family ties with gentiles. Few were conspicuously observant.

Secondly, in 1942, Germany was in the midst of a tremendous battle for survival, fighting on all fronts against the USSR, England and America. It would lose this battle three years later. The idea of committing precious administrators, troops, trains, fuel, weapons, ammunition, etc to the pointless murder of civilians, civilians who could have worked productively, was not only criminal, it was inexplicable.

The Holocaust is so unbelievable that one can begin to understand the logic behind Holocaust Denial.

Yet we know it happened - but why?

I my humble opinion, there is only one plausible explanation.

The Jewish Enlightenment began in Berlin in 1783 with the publication of a translation of the Pentateuch into German by Moses Mendelssohn. From there it spread across Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, causing the most flagrant, voluntary abandonment of Jewish observance in history. Millions of Jews embraced secular Zionism, Communism and Socialism.

As the Torah predicts, devastation followed. Beginning in Berlin, spreading across Europe but primarily eastward, the war against the Jews spread, just as the Jews’ war against God had spread.

One rabbi, who was later murdered, commented “Because people no longer believe in hell, God brought hell to this world.”

Regarding the over one million children who were killed in Holocaust, the rabbis have taught “minors may die by their fathers sin, by Heavenly decree” Sifre, Devarim 24:147.

While it is true that many Jews, especially those in Poland, were still observant, however even in Poland observance seems to have been weak. Poland had a pre-war Jewish population of 3.3 million. Of those, to the best of my knowledge, no more than 100,000 voted for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel party in the pre-war Polish Parliament. The secularist Zionist and Bund were far more numerous. And in many cases God may punish the righteous because they did not make sufficient efforts to influence the evil.

On the other hand, in the ultra-Orthodox strongholds in the Oberland region of Hungary and Romania I believe that a majority, especially young adults and rabbis, did escape the Nazis. Their deportation to Poland began in the spring of 1944 and many survived until the war ended. Many Lithuanian rabbinical students also survived. Many of them fled to Shanghai, China or were deported to Siberia by the Soviet government in 1941, where most survived the war. These groups, together with their descendents, make up the bulk of Orthodoxy today.

North African Jewry was far less affected by the Jewish Enlightenment and also far less affected by the Holocaust.

The Jewish communities in America and Israel, although also mostly irreligious, were not affected by the Holocaust, I would assume because they were new communities, which were not yet deserving of such a fate. Let us hope that we all soon repent and avert any future catastrophes, God willing. We must not forget for a moment the enormity of our responsibilities and the horrendous consequences of failure. Ever action is ultimately rewarded or punished, in this world or in the next world. The Holocaust was simply a case where it clearly happened in this world.

Important to note as well, the perpetrators did not escape without punishment. The number of Germans who perished during the war (counting only those who lived within the pre-war borders of Germany) seems to approximately equal the number of Jews killed by the Germans. What goes around comes around.

It is true that I am making use of a tragedy to advocate my own beliefs, however I don't feel that is different than a doctor who uses the tragedy of lung cancer to convince his patients to stop smoking.

In my opinion, the Holocaust is one of the strongest proofs of the truth of Judaism.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What’s Wrong with Gay Marriage?

Well, from the point of view of Orthodox Judaism, there is plenty wrong with sodomy, as I have already written at length.

But, from a secular point of view, is the fact that the government does not recognize same sex marriage a problem? Is it a civil rights issue, comparable to interracial marriage, which was illegal in most of the United States in the first half of the 20th century?

In my humble opinion, even a total secularist should not support gay marriage.

A heterosexual, monogamous, committed relationship is a lifestyle which society should clearly encourage. Children raised in intact families generally are far more successful in life than children who have been raised in single parent homes. If we could wave a magic wand and somehow eliminate sex outside traditional marriage, we would probably in one stroke eliminate most crime, poverty, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and abortions in the United States. Therefore it is in society’s interest to encourage traditional marriage by giving married couples special privileges and to make it difficult for them to separate. Traditional marriage could make the difference, in the long run, between the survival and extinction of American society. There may be no other single more vital priority.

By contrast, what benefit does society have from gay marriages? Of course, it could be argued, that from a secular point of view whatever people do in privacy is their own business and should not be disrupted so long as no innocent person is harmed. However why should society encourage it? Should we encourage sex with animals, polygamy, child marriage and incest? Can I marry my cat and then have to go to court when I want to “divorce” her? There is no Constitutional “freedom of sex” or “freedom of marriage”. Witness the laws against prostitution and statutory rape.

This is even more odd when one considers that heterosexual marriage is almost dead outside of conservative religious circles. For most Americans, “marriage” just means a nice party. People divorce almost casually. First marriages routinely end within the first decade. Half of American adults are single. Forty percent of American babies are born to single women. Sex is not much more serious than a handshake. This makes the gay rush to the altar seem even more bizarre. Marriage is legally convenient in some ways, however it makes breaking up much more complicated. Religious people consider the sanctity of marriage to be a priority, however why do homosexuals want it or need it? Is it merely a desperate effort to prove their equality to heterosexuals? If they feel so inferior, then perhaps that’s a sign that something is wrong with their lifestyle.

Historically, homosexuality has apparently had a status similar to prostitution. It was always practiced everywhere to some greater or lesser extent, however it was never celebrated as a positive thing comparable to marriage. A Roman or Chinese emperor may have had a homosexual boy lover, just as he may have employed prostitutes, however neither the boy nor the prostitute were proudly displayed on official occasions. Today apparently homosexuals are seeking exactly that, a government certification that what they are doing is just as respectable as what everyone else is doing. I think few societies will agree.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Two Equals

Above are two photographs. One is a bank teller and the other is an automated teller machine.

According to atheism, materialism and determinism, both are machines; one made from metal and plastic, one from protein and nucleic acid. Both have the same purpose. Both will be maintained until they wear out and will then be disposed of. Perhaps the biggest difference between them is that an intelligent designer created the automated teller machine, however the bank teller was not created by any intelligence. She was created by chance chemical combinations accumulating over three billion years.

Does anyone not find this analysis to be a little absurd?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Being a Jew is Hard

[cadets United States Military Academy at West Point, NY]

But to stop being a Jew is harder; at least it is for me.

Being a Jew in America today is probably easier than it has ever been before. Jews have unprecedented wealth, freedom and opportunity in America. Nevertheless, it is still not always easy.

Most Americans today take a fairly casual attitude toward sex and experiment with many different types of relationships and experiences. Many of these experiences end disastrously, however never the less, I personally find this idea of lower moral values a bit tempting.

In addition to that, kosher food laws are quite restrictive. For example, just across from my office there is a beautiful non-kosher establishment that I pass by daily. I have so often wanted to sit down there for a meal.

Saying prayers, especially in the morning, can be a sacrifice. A Jewish man must pray for about one hour each morning at some time between about 5:00 am and 8:00 am. Preferably, this should be done in a synagogue. This means never, even once, being able to sleep late.

This list could go on for pages, however the above is a small sample.

When all this is considered, sincere Orthodox Judaism demands a good deal of self-discipline and self-sacrifice, of the type that might give pause to a professional athlete or an elite West Point cadet.

I have to confess that when I started my blog, I was secretly half hoping that my arguments in favor of Torah would be blown apart and I would finally have a good excuse to be at least more lax.

In reality, after a year and a half, I have found the opposite. Looking at the secular world and its beliefs, I have had to conclude that there is no “there there”. People who reject Judaism do so just because they want to. What seems to have happened in the past few hundred years is that the European world has dumped one nutty idea (Christianity) and replaced it with another nutty idea (atheism).

Atheists cannot explain how the universe started. Atheists cannot explain why the universe is fine tuned to make life possible. Atheists cannot explain how life began or how it has developed. Atheists cannot explain why we are conscious of ourselves or why we believe we have free will.

The fossils do not contradict Judaism, and neither does Egyptian history [1] [2].

The Documentary Hypothesis seems to prove nothing.

The argument from evil ("why do innocent children suffer") I think has been answered by the belief in reincarnation. Suffering infants may be reincarnated adult sinners.

On the other hand, the arguments in favor of Judaism seem quite compelling.

It doesn’t impress me that many eminent scientists are atheists. A few decades ago, many eminent scientists were racists and socialists. A few hundred years ago, many were devout Christians. I want facts, not an appeal to authority.

And frankly, I cannot willfully stop practicing Judaism unless I can look at myself in the mirror and feel confident that I am doing the right thing. I have to be able to answer to my own conscience.

Apparently, no one can help me.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Why Take Chances with Eternity?

[“Fire is one-sixtieth part of Gehinnom” Talmud Berakoth 57b]

I think it’s obvious that it is worthwhile to be an observant Jew even if one is not certain that Judaism is true – provided one condition is met: one is convinced that Judaism is more likely to be true than any other religion.

The reason is as follows. Let’s say someone would give you a hamburger but then explain to you that there is a 1% chance that there is fatal dose of cyanide in the sandwich. Would you eat it? I definitely wouldn’t. Therefore how can someone eat pork if there is even a 1% chance of burning in hell if he eats it?

The only logical reason I can imagine for ignoring Judaism would be a situation where someone believes that another religion makes more sense, and therefore he is embracing that instead, however actually no other religion comes close to having the logical basis Judaism does.

Alternatively, one could argue that although there is some chance that Judaism is true, however the cost of being a Jew is too great to make being observant worthwhile. This is surely untrue, since actually Judaism does so much to enhance the lives of those who observe it.

What amazes me are the skeptics who seem to view religious discussions as some sort of court case where they are the accused and I, the Jew, am the prosecutor. I must “convict” them. I must bring evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that Orthodox Judaism is true before they can be “condemned” to a life of observance. So long as they can raise some doubt, they are free. This is just delusional nonsense. The truth is precisely the opposite. They must bring evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that Orthodox Judaism is false before they can be “freed” from a life of observance.

[Incidentally, I have heard of “Pascal’s Wager” , however I believe that my argument avoids all the major objections to it.]

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Religion Works Too

[One of the modern homeless. Can science help her?]

I have seen atheists write “I believe in science because it works.” I have no problem in agreeing with this. Science does work – for certain practical things; so does plumbing and auto mechanics. However are there some situations where religion, and only religion, will work?

I would like to briefly relate two stories, one about myself and one about a former coworker.

My first wife and I divorced in 1991. She was also a convert to Judaism, however after 12 years as a Jew she regretted her decision and returned to being a gentile. We had no children after ten years of marriage. I was 31 at the time. I have had almost no contact with her since. However I was terribly disappointed and hurt. For months I felt suicidal. I reminded myself that suicide is prohibited my religion (“You will not murder” Exodus 20:12 includes suicide). Therefore, rather than escape my suffering, I would only compound it by committing suicide. I would be punished by God even after leaving this world. Also, greatly comforting me, close friends allowed me to live with them for several years until I remarried, fulfilling the religious commandment “Love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18). I was tempted to drown my sorrow in alcohol, however making vows prohibiting alcohol to myself stopped me, vows which I dared not to break due to the religious commandment in Numbers 30:3.

Thank God, my life gradually got back on track. I kept my job and my sanity. I remarried to a lovely young woman in 1994. Soon after I switched to a much higher paying job at my present company. We now have three beautiful children and a beautiful home.

In 2001, a beautiful 26-year-old woman I worked with divorced from her husband of eight years. She caught him cheating. They were also childless. Let’s call her Olga. Olga was raised in the Soviet Union with no religion. She was heartbroken by her divorce. She attempted suicide soon afterward. She was so distracted by her sorrow that she soon lost her job. She found work, however she was never able to have a stable relationship with a man after having been hurt. Recently, she has become unemployed again. She is drinking heavily. She has adamantly refused psychiatric treatment. Lately she has begun making threatening phone calls to former coworkers. There is a complaint pending against her for aggravated harassment (complaint #2815 with Officer Powlett badge #31995 of the 10th precinct Manhattan NYPD). She has been arrested. The long-term outlook for her doesn’t seem good.

Olga and I both have all the advantages of modern science available to us. However is that always enough? Doesn’t this indeed demonstrate literally “Man does not live by bread only, but rather by every thing that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD does man live.” Deuteronomy 8:3.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Talmudic Minutiae and God’s Love for Us

[Child with Lulav by Isidor Kaufmann]

One of my fellow bloggers wrote an interesting article recently, in which he comments:

I'm pretty sure I don't have the personality type to find such absurd rules [certain minor Talmudic customs] meaningful even if I did believe in God. ("Does God really care how I tie my shoes?" I asked as a kid when I first learned that rule.)

What he seems to be saying is that if religious rules are not clearly spiritual, relating to belief for example, then they are absurd. Laws about diet, dress, etc. are unnecessary and even sacrilegious. This attitude is a basic part of modern American Protestantism, and therefore it isn’t surprising that someone raised in American society might feel this way.

One could look at this from a different perspective, however.

First of all, all pre-modern religions tended to be legalistic. Muslims have Sharia. The Catholic Church has Canon Law. The Hindus have a caste system.

Judaism, however, may be the most extremely legalistic. We revel in Talmudic law. The greater an expert a young man was in the fine points of almost totally irrelevant Talmudic laws, the greater a hero he was in the Eastern European shtetl and the more prized he was as a husband. This is still true in many ultra-Orthodox circles. Can one imagine even the most law abiding American citizen fanatically pushing his children to become experts in all of American law, even the most rarely, marginally applicable details? I think it could be correct to call traditional Jews not merely legalistic but hyper-legalistic.

The reasoning seems to be as follows. We see each additional law as being an additional sign of God’s love for us. The Mishnah Tractate Makkos 3:16 states “God wished to increase the Jews’ merits, therefore He increased the number of their commandments.” God in His great love for us wants our entire lives to be dedicated to serving Him and increasing His glory. Therefore He has created the huge body of Torah law to make it possible for us to do just that. In the blessings which we say before the Shema each morning and evening, we ecstatically praise God for the great love He has shown us by choosing us and teaching us His laws. We beg Him to help us understand and observe those laws. We see this as the highest honor; the exact opposite of absurdity.This is a life dedicated to the service of God and therefore eternally, cosmically important.

The absurd life is the life of an atheist, unfortunately. He eats so that has strength to work. He works so that he has food to eat. He continues this cycle until his body no long functions, then his remains may be thrown into a dumpster. A life lived like that is truly illogical and nonsensical. Absurd, in other words.