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.

35 comments:

avrum68 said...

"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."

Sorry JP, I don't believe you. I believe you started this blog because you felt that you can provide enought "slam dunks" that will discredit atheists. And while I appreciate your efforts, they have also back-fired because your opponents have provided challenges that you consistently refuse to answer (I don't remember them all, but you've been called out for tangential comments having little to do with original challenges)

Judging from what I've read on your blog, I'd say the evidence (using the scientific method) weighs heavily in your favor of eating a cheese burger without any physical consequence...at least in this world. Spiritual and communal consequences are another matter.

Cameron said...

JP: Atheists cannot explain how the universe started.

CH: That's not atheist's job. Atheism is merely to explain how 'there are no God's' - if you want the answers to how the universe started consult a good astronomer or cosmologist, they'll tell you that it began with the massive explosion of a singularity - before which neither time nor space existed. What 'came before' is then a meaningless question.

JP: Atheists cannot explain why the universe is fine tuned to make life possible.

CH: We can't for two reasons - again, it's not our job (you'll notice a theme developing here), but also because I think it is clear that the universe isn't 'fine tuned FOR US'. It is in fact us humans who are tuning ourselves through natural and sexual selection to the universe.

JP: Atheists cannot explain how life began or how it has developed.

CH: Again, not my department, I leave those questions to biologists, paleontologists, and other experts in origin of life fields. That said, I remain confident that naturalist and materialist explanations will eventually refine the picture to one that is comprehensible to all.

JP: Atheists cannot explain why we are conscious of ourselves or why we believe we have free will.

CH: Once again, strictly speaking not my department as an atheist however - as a philosopher, this is firmly in my wheelhouse. We are conscious of our selves as thinking beings because we have evolved that way.

As for why we believe we have free-will, try going through a day without making any choices! The fact of our free-will and decision making (and the absence of God or Spirits when we make our decisions) should be obvious.

After all, when you decided what to eat for lunch, did God whisper in your ear 'have the smoked meat Jacob'? No, you made a choice based on your taste, your desires and presumably the availability of a nice Kosher deli nearby.

I also agree with Avrum above (now there is something you haven't heard in a while), in that I simply don't believe that you expected this exercise to do anything but confirm your existing faith.

Given the quality of the atheist commentators you've run across here (especially early on with the crass abusiveness you encountered) I can't say as I blame you for deferring to your faith over the options presented.

Baal Habos said...

This post disturbs me. It sounds as if you are close to throwing in the towel and just about ready to jump ship on belief. I think that some of your posts are really a plea that someone will rescue your beliefs, not destroy them.

Losing belief is tough, but what's worse is that I expect it will follow with immediate action on your part without any concern for your loved ones.

avrum68 said...

"This post disturbs me. It sounds as if you are close to throwing in the towel "

I agree. Though I think it was foolhardy - albeit entertaining and at times educational - to try and prove things that belong in the realm of faith. To be honest, everytime I hear a rabbi/priest go up against Dawkins/Harris, etc., they get their asses handed to them. Francis Collins is a wise man when he suggests that science and religion stay out of each other's backyards.

Cameron said...

Sometimes, the harder you try to grip something the more it will slip away.

You have demonstrated a desire throughout these posts to find a bedrock of belief in the more conservative areas of your faith.

Yet you also clearly struggle to reconcile the truth about the modern world (evolution, the advanced age of the earth, etc) with the doctrines of your faith that are not (at least without some serious mental gymnastics) compatible.

I'd be the first to suggest that you can make this easier on yourself by giving it up all together, but that isn't your only option.

You could choose instead to ameliorate your beliefs, to accommodate what you know to be true.

Apostasy should not be punishable by stoning. You know this is immoral even if your faith does not.

Homosexuality is not something we should punish by death, even if your holy book says it should be.

Slavery is not moral, acceptable or reasonable, despite the acceptance of it by your faith.

I have been invited to many a Seder, not because my Jewish friends wanted to convert me, but because the tenets of their faith are such that welcoming others who are not of the faith to their table is a tradition they respect.

Religious traditions can have meanings and value that transcend the doctrines, and while I profess no belief in supernatural beings, seeing the value of these traditions is easy. They have found a way to be Jewish and yet not feel the need to follow all of the old ways as if they were literally true.

Practice your faith with your true heart, look past the ancient logic, and embrace the modern, and you might find your faith can fill you up rather than leave you grasping and empty.

Faith is often a journey - and perhaps yours will take you to atheism (and from there, who knows?), perhaps not.

But if it does then there are still places for that journey to continue afterwards. Deciding that there are no Gods does not immediately give you the answers to everything else, it simply gives you a different starting point from which to start asking the same questions. (Who am I? What makes a man Good? What is moral? Where do we come from? etc.).

You may even find that the answers an atheist gives to these questions are really not that much different from what you yourself would suggest now.

I've greatly enjoyed the debates that have occurred on your blog Jacob, I hope that however your journey progresses you will continue onwards as openly and honestly as you have so far.

Peace,
Cameron

jewish philosopher said...

I first became interested in spiritual issues at at the age of 11 during a visit to Glacier National Park, Montana in 1971. I felt the presence of something supernatural in the beauty of nature. Since then, it has been an amazing journey.

The way that I look at Judaism, atheism, Christianity, etc. is that I try to listen to all the arguments pro and con and I then try to make a decision about where the preponderance of evidence is. What has surprised me a little bit is that the closer I look at atheism vs. Judaism the better Judaism looks. I haven’t taken Christianity seriously since the age of 12. That’s not an issue for me. However atheism is supposedly scientific and endorsed by some of the greatest minds in the world. I imagined that there must be something to it.

Cameron, the problem I have with atheism, in essence, is that according to how I understand atheism we simply should not exist. But we do. That’s a problem. I can’t swallow a philosophy like that. Compared to atheism, even Christianity starts looking pretty good, which is maybe why it has been reviving lately.

As far as compromises between Judaism and atheism go, they have never impressed me. Generally, they are just ways for Jews to ease their way gradually out of Judaism. Why should I bother? If it’s not true, so it’s not true.

Bos, frankly I have a very open relationship with other people and especially my immediate family. I just don’t have time for secrets, and my wife knows everything anyway. I’m sure that I would make them aware of new beliefs. If that would make a continuing relationship impossible, then we would have to deal with that. I could easily draw closer to my non-Jewish biological and/or adoptive families instead. They are agnostic and Christian respectively.

Cameron said...

JP: Cameron, the problem I have with atheism, in essence, is that according to how I understand atheism we simply should not exist. But we do. That’s a problem.

CH: I take the opposite view (as expected), the fact that we are contingent beings, that our existence was not foretold, determined or otherwise assured from the very beginning makes us something incredibly special. Our brains, evolved originally to help us survive, now help us learn and expand our knowledge in ways that could never have been predicted. We track supernovae in distant galaxies and read the genetic makeup of our species - we have so surpassed our origins as predatory omnivores that we barely recognize our animal past - and in some cases, seek to deny it completely.

Far from being a philosophy of negativity, atheism allows us to explore reality free from illusions about what we wish we were, and embrace what we truly are.

No, it won't give you a clear cut moral code written on tablets, or encourage you to eat certain foods, or ask you to face Mecca when you pray. But are those the important things about religion? Isn't it more important that we know and follow what is true, rather than what we wish to be true?

JP: I can’t swallow a philosophy like that. Compared to atheism, even Christianity starts looking pretty good, which is maybe why it has been reviving lately.

CH: Understandable, if depressing.

Cameron

Baal Habos said...

>Bos, frankly I have a very open relationship with other people and especially my immediate family. I just don’t have time for secrets, and my wife knows everything anyway. I’m sure that I would make them aware of new beliefs. If that would make a continuing relationship impossible, then we would have to deal with that.


That's not the issue; why should they pay for your mistakes. If push comes to shove, you can do like me and others. You suck it in and don't make it any harder on your loved ones than necessary. It's not always about yourself.


As some wise individual told me, you were willing to go out of your way to please an invisible God, so why can't you do the same things for your family.

badrabbi said...

Cameron;

I thoroughly enjoyed your previous 2 posts. Your ideas are clear and well said. I am now a fan!

jewish philosopher said...

Bos, seriously, the way I would look at it is like this: It's my life. No one owns me. I don't have pretend to agree with anyone just in order to avoid upsetting them and I won't. If I feel that my beliefs are well founded, then I am willing to explain my logic to anyone who wants to listen, family members or strangers, and if they choose to disagree, that's up to them. I'm not going to pretend that 2 + 2 = 5 just to make imbeciles happy. Not at age 16 or at age 46.

badrabbi said...

There is nothing wrong with sacrificing a cherished or desired activity for a belief or idea. If JP had to forgo a nice meal at a nice non-kosher restaurant because his belief system procluded the meal, then so be it.

Understand what agnostics and atheists are saying: we are not saying that we should abandon our pronciples and our integrity in order to do that which is easy. We don't say that "we should not eat a non-kosher hamburger but we will get away with it if we did!" This is a straw man. We are saying THERE IS NO MORAL OBJECTION TO EATING A NON-KOSHER HAMBURGER. One can be of a high character and eat a cheeseburger at the same time!

avrum68 said...

"One can be of a high character and eat a cheeseburger at the same time!"

I agree 100%. If nothing else, Dawkins et al are providing needed impediments which keep religious folks in lin with respect to their observations on human nature, science, etc.

Too often rabbis venture into areas that are best left to other professionals. Though, to be honest, atheists are guilty of the same crime.

Baal Habos said...

>Bos, seriously, the way I would look at it is like this: It's my life. No one owns me. I don't have pretend to agree with anyone just in order to avoid upsetting them and I won't. If I feel that my beliefs are well founded, then I am willing to explain my logic to anyone who wants to listen, family members or strangers, and if they choose to disagree, that's up to them. I'm not going to pretend that 2 + 2 = 5 just to make imbeciles happy. Not at age 16 or at age 46.


It's definitely a grey area, but what you're saying is that your own happiness is prime above every one elses including your family, even though you might be responsible for their current outlook on life and their situation.

It's Jacob Stein and everyone else be damned.

jewish philosopher said...

Bos, why would I cater to people who choose to be in denial about a false and dysfunctional lifestyle? Isn't that called enabling?

"Rich Perkins" said...

Baal -

I have to say I definitely agree with you on this one. Probably the only reason I am "frum" now is because of my wife and kids. I believe it would be unfair of me to ruin the famiy structure just because I have realized that OJ is not for me.

In retrospect, if I would have waited a little longer to get married, i probably woud not find myself in this situation. But you can't deal with the "ifs" in life. I did get married and i now need to fulfill that duty to my family.

What will happen when the kids are all older? Who knows, but I still have several years until my youngest is out of the house.

avrum68 said...

"Probably the only reason I am "frum" now is because of my wife and kids"

Weird. I know quite a few BT's who are in a similar, albeit reversed situation, to the one you're in now.

"Rich Perkins" said...

Avrum68 -

I grew up frum, went to yeshiva HS and to Israel for a year before going to college.

I was never so into OJ, but I only began to really think about the issues after i was married. Once I reached the point where one would likely drop it all, I had young children and great marriage.

I just don't think it is fair to leave the children w/o a father.

My wife knows I am not so into Judaism and often says I need more spirituality. She does not know how far I have gone from OJ, in thoughts and in action. In fact, nobody really knows where I stand. To the outside world, I am just a regular OJ. Yet another reason I use a pseudonym when I chat with others about this issue and post on blogs like this.

personally, living this double life is incredibly agravating. I often wonder how this will play out when the kids are older.

Henry said...

Interesting post. Every authentic spiritual path demands discipline and refraining from following your inclinations. So for "Jew" you could substitute Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Moslem etc.

If you want to abandon your chosen path you take the consequences. If you want to do hedonism then your life will fall apart, as happens when people do that. Why you would want to eat a burger, however, puzzles me.

(1) They are nothing better than expensive dogfood.

(2) Meat eating except very occasionally and in small quantities is wasteful of resources, causes unnecessary suffering, deprives others of food when they are hungry and is destroying the environment, so is immoral by any standards.

It cannot be wrong to stay away from the burger bar.

Your comments on "having given up on Christianity at the age of 12" suggest that your ideas in this area may be a little, er, undeveloped. Protestantism comes in many flavours, all of which involving the denial of some aspects of orthodox (Catholic/Eastern Orthodox) Christianity, and I don't suppose you even looked at that when aged 12.

Within Protestantism, there is a world of difference between the near-Catholic doctrine of the Scandinavian churches, the Calvinist sects of Northern Ireland, Plymouth Brethren and the varied doctrines held by members of the Anglican communion. And apart from the near Catholic beliefs of the Scandinavian/High Anglican groups, any apparent correspondence between orthodox Christianity and Protestantism is a confusion arising from the use of the same terms in entirely different senses. So you have "given up" on something you have never looked at.

But all belief systems depend on a body of authority built up over generations. They are not something any individual can make up for themself - to attempt to do so is naive and will drive them crazy.

My advice to you would be to stay with Judaism but get yourself properly acquainted with the mainstream body of thought, not these odd stuff you have been struggling with. And keep on praying.

Henry said...

Referring back to another of your comments, you have admitted that you have accepted a particular authority. So, once you have done this, what of facts? Ultimately there are but few facts of any interest or consequence and we would not agree on what they are. Beyond that, all is interpretation of sense data.

eg Just now I am lying on my bed with my laptop typing this. I am in a student residence in Uppsala where I have been for the past week and plan to remain until 10 August. I am here to attend a course to learn an obscure Northern European language. Those are facts of a sort but taken on their own are of no interest to anyone. Why I am here, 1000 miles from where I normally live is an interesting question I do not have the answer to. I suppose the facts would act as an alibi if I was to be accused of committing a crime somewhere else, but that is about all.

jewish philosopher said...

I'm not sure this answers your questions, however certain interpretations of the Talmud, based on my research, strike me as being honest and authentic than others. Those are the ones I try to follow.

Henry said...

Hmm. I wonder if you have not made life difficult for your self by doing that? What precisely is your aim?

jewish philosopher said...

To be honest.

Henry said...

That is very good. But how do you know when you have found the truth? How can a person know when they have found the truth? Is there such a thing as objective truth? And if there is, can a man know the whole of it?

jewish philosopher said...

How do I know the milk shake I'm drinking at the moment hasn't been poisoned? How do I know the woman greeting me when I come tonight is really my wife and not a clever impostor? One has to base opinions and decisions on reasonable assumptions. There is no other way a person can function.

Dave said...

Why do animals suffer and why do all babies suffer at birth? All reincarnates? There are more animals alive than the amount of "souls" that ever lived. Every Jewish male is circumcised. Is that not suffering? Every child goes through suffering at some point in his or her life. It has always been like that. If you would be honest you would understand that reincarnation solves nothing.

Dave said...

You yourself also note that not all the babies killed during the holocaust could have been reincarnates, but then belive that they were murdered for the sins of their parents. How would that be justified? Imagine a judge passing such a sentence today.

Then you have to answer for the genocide "your" people were commanded to commit. Midianites Cananites, and Amalekites all the babies were all bad none could have nurtured into goodness. That raises the question they must have been born bad so why do they deserve punishment.

jewish philosopher said...

Perhaps some suffering in childhood teaches us patience and humility at an early age and this is really a gift.

Perhaps some people are destined to live for only short time and those babies are given to people who will deserve the suffering of having a child die.

Apparently, God considered the Canaanites and Amalekites to be incorrigible.

I don't know why animals suffer.

Dave said...

Perhaps and perhaps, it is apparent that you don't know if the prepostuous blanket claim that The argument from evil has really "been answered by the belief in reincarnation". The talmudic sages did not claim to have the answer of "tzaddik verah loh" yet you do.

You conveniantly did not answer why did god make the Amalekites babies "incorrigible". Is that the same as he did to the Pharaoh when he hardend his heart "leman shisi oisoisei elhe bekirboh"?

When all is said and done, you can entertain yourself with as much apologetic clap trap as you wish but the torah and the talmud do not look like the combined handbook which knows the components of the car in whose glove compartment it is resident.

jewish philosopher said...

I don't claim to have all the answers, but I guess you do.

So how about this: How did life originate? And why is the universe fine tuned to make life possible in the first place?

Dave said...

You had to guess that because I did not give you anything from which
to deduce it. I'm afraid you guessed wrong.

You however made a specific claim which is that "the argument from
evil has been answered by the belief in reincarnation". Do you or
don't you have the answer to this specific problem? The answer seems to be a resounding no. So I suggest you retract that claim (or revise it).

On a side note regarding your formation of life question, the talmud belives in spontaneous generation. The odds against the generation of a fully formed louse/mouse/fish worm consisting of millions of replicating cells are apparently not a problem for your sages. I will choose (for now) to
take a leaf out of their book for one single cell.

jewish philosopher said...

Take a lot more leaves out while you're at it.

Tsvi said...

It is funny you compare the challenges of being Jewish to being a West Point cadet, because as one of two orthodox cadets at west point now I can say being Jewish here only makes this place 10 times harder.

jewish philosopher said...

I'm very interested in hearing more about you. I understood that due to the restrictions involved in keeping Shabbos, there were currently no Orthodox Jews serving in the American armed forces other than chaplains.

Tsvi said...

There are several religious Jews in the military in the US now. We often have to work with our training schedule and shabbat. There are conflicts but you do your best to work them out. Sometimes it does not work, but some times it does. Those who stick to their guns and try hard will do better at keeping religious than those who don't.

I see you live in Wesley hills, I might be there for shabbat soon.

jewish philosopher said...

That would be great. Check out my profile for more details about myself, my family, etc. I'm not far from West Point. In fact, one of my ancestors served under General Washington there during the Revolution.