Friday, January 25, 2008

The Genius of Judaism: Kindness

[Jewish charity collection box]

I recall speaking to my parent’s Presbyterian minister when I was a teenager and he told me that he saw himself as being part of a continuous tradition of kindness going back to Abraham. Basically, he was correct.

Judaism invented the obligation to do kindness.

Leviticus 19:18 states “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.”

Leviticus 19:34 states “The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

Deuteronomy 26:12 mentions the tithe of crops which must be given to the poor in the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical cycle while Leviticus 23:22 states that the remnants of the harvest must be left for the “poor and the stranger”.

Deut. 15:7 mentions the obligation to give loans to the poor according to their needs. This loan must be given without interest (Leviticus 25:36) and it must be forgiven in the Sabbatical year (Deut. 15:1).

We are obligated to celebrate our holidays together with the strangers, orphans and widows (Deut. 16:14).

Even in the present day, Jews are disproportionately represented among major philanthropists.

Based on various blogs, there would appear to be many Jews who have been raised Orthodox and lost faith in Orthodoxy, yet continue to pose as Orthodox, apparently because the secular world is so much more harsh and unkind. I am not aware of the opposite happening too often – secular Jews, who believe in Orthodoxy yet wish to remain secular because they do not want to leave behind the warm and loving secular community.

In contrast, primitive peoples were and are very violent. Infanticide was almost universal. (Today, abortion is the slightly more civilized alternative.) My pre-Christian Scandinavian ancestors murdered and robbed with no hesitation. In the ancient pagan world and in East Asia, the concept that the powerful and wealthy were obligated to help the weak and the poor was virtually unknown. The most popular entertainment in ancient Rome was gladiatorial combat. The only possible example of kindness outside the Abrahamic tradition of which I am aware is found in Stoicism.

In the modern world, kindness actually runs counter to Darwinism, which teaches that biological progress is the result of weaker individuals dying before they are able to reproduce (“natural selection”). Kindness stifles (the fictional process of) evolution.

Many non-Jews have, however, been impressed by the beauty of the concept of kindness. Christianity considers charity to be an important virtue, as does Islam. Secular humanists believe in the value of “working to benefit society”. The idea of kindness being a basic human obligation is something that has been adopted by perhaps the majority of mankind today and there can be little doubt that most of whatever kindness exists in the world is a direct result of the Torah and its influence.

However it all began with a few Jews in the Middle East a few thousand years ago.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chandra: The Good Atheist

[Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar 1910 – 1995]

Over eight months ago, I asked a question “Can anyone find an example of a single prominent atheistic leader who was kind, honest, and sober and had a stable family life?”

One fellow blogger offered the following answer: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Fortunately, there is one biography of Professor Chandrasekhar in print and I bought a used copy (my library doesn’t have it).

Let me point out that first of all, Chandra, as he was often known, does not satisfy all of my criteria. He was not an atheistic leader in the sense of being a leader of the atheistic community or movement, which is what I meant. He never publicly advocated atheism. However, he is as close as anyone has come to answering my question. He was honest and sober and had a stable family life (one marriage, but no children). He may have been kind as well. Chandra seems to have been almost the ideal scientist: brilliant, hard working, devoted completely to discovering the secrets of the universe. And he did call himself an atheist.

There is an interesting postscript to this, however.

Between 1977 and 1991, the author of Chandra’s biography, Kameshwar C. Wali, recorded many conversations with him. Some of these conversations are published verbatim at the end of the biography.

On page 305, Chandra states “I don’t really have a sense of fulfillment. It does not seem to me that the pursuit of science results in feelings of contentment or peace. Would faith and simple beliefs bring inner peace and harmony? I’m not sure. However there is a marvelous story by Balzac called ‘The Atheist’. In this story, an atheistic doctor is seen attending church services twice a year with great devotion. Someone asks him why. He explains that he does it out of respect for a simple water carrier who was a pious man who had helped him when he was young. He, the doctor, wishes that he had the faith of that water carrier. Likewise, for myself, religion cannot save me because I don’t have faith.” [This has been slightly paraphrased for the sake of brevity and clarity.]

Indeed, in that story, Balzac has the atheistic doctor declare “I swear to you, I would give my whole fortune if faith such as Bourgeat's [the water carrier] could enter my brain.”

This was the attitude which one the greatest of scientists, a world famous Nobel Prize winning physicist, an atheist but an honest man, had in the last years of his life. Perhaps this helps us to understand why a pious Jew recites the prayer each morning “Blessed are you Lord who has not made me a gentile”.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Jewish Philosopher’s Quick Roundup

Atheism is basically synonymous with hedonism, narcissism and moral relativism. Atheists are usually moral degenerates.

Atheism is based on selfishness. Orthodox Judaism is based on reason.

On the average Orthodox Jews are much nicer than atheists.

On the average Orthodox Jews are much happier than atheists.

Some popular excuses for atheism:

The idea of a transcendent, non-physical being is unbelievable. [It is only if you refuse to believe it for some emotional reason.]

There is no rational reason to believe in God. [False. See the argument from design.]

God is no more likely to exist than Thor or Zeus. [False. Judaism is entirely different.]

God would not allow suffering. [Sure He would.]

People are naturally good and moral. Religion corrupts people and makes them hateful and violent. [History's greatest murderers were atheists.]

People only believe in religion because they were taught it as little children. [Most things people know they were taught as children, including speech, literacy, arithmetic, etc.]

Religion makes people unhappy. It deprives people of joy in life. [Proven false by psychological studies.]

Religion is based on an ignorance of nature. Science will destroy religion. [That may be true of primitive paganism, but not Judaism. Pagans may attribute every natural event to the whim of a god. Jews accept the laws of nature, but believe that God created them.]

According to the principle of Occam’s razor, any natural explanation for something, no matter how unlikely, is preferable to a supernatural explanation. [A simpler theory is not better if the simpler theory is much more improbable. Therefore, actually, Intelligent Design Theory is better than the Infinite Monkey Theorem.]

Man is not special. Man is merely one of many species of animals inhabiting one of many planets circling one of billions of stars. [Man is special; he is the most complex object in the known universe.]

Evolution is a fact. It is obvious that all life is descended from bacteria just as much as it is obvious that the world is round. [Events that allegedly happened millions of years before recorded history and which contradict common sense and the fossil record are hardly as obvious as the shape of the earth.]

The United States, in spite of being more religious than Europe, has far more crime than western and northern European countries. This proves that religion does not make people moral and perhaps proves the opposite. [The US has far more residents of black African and Latin American heritage than European countries. These are people whose original homelands are very violent. They are the source of most of the crime. On the other hand, Utah has a very high level of church attendance, few blacks and a crime rate comparable to western Europe.]

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Genius of Judaism: One God

[scroll from the mezuzah]

Perhaps the most striking and original concept of Judaism is monotheism – the belief in one God.

Looking at the world around us, there seem to be endless separate and even conflicting forces – rain, wind, fire, the sun, the moon, plants, animals, disease, birth, death, etc. The conclusion drawn by most people in earlier times was that each of these forces was controlled by a superhuman, but not supremely powerful, being and these beings were constantly interacting with each other and even fighting with each other. Humans might hope to appease these gods through sacrificial offerings or various rituals. This was the early paganism still practiced in some places today.

Modern man laughs at this; however actually, modern science is not much different. The modern scientist still believes that the universe is controlled by laws of nature. If you ask a scientist, what causes lightening, he will not reply “Thor did it”, but rather he will reply that the laws of physics cause a lighting flash, however he will still be at a loss to explain where these laws come from and why they exist. Some laws of nature seem to be contradictory, such as the laws of quantum mechanics and general relativity. The attempt to create one theory of everything is still very elusive. So instead of gods who must be appeased with sacrifices, we have today laws of nature, which we must simply try to understand and cope with as best we can. That may be a step in the right direction, however it still has its limits.

Judaism from day one has taken an entirely different approach: “Know this day, and lay it to thy heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else.” Deuteronomy 4:39. We are not at the hands of bizarre superheroes or mysterious forces of nature. Rather, behind the scenes, there is one lord and master who is orchestrating everything. Furthermore, he is a judge and a lawgiver. Mere sacrifice is not enough; he demands obedience, as the next verse states “And thou shalt keep His statutes, and His commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, for ever.”

This is truly the theory of everything and it greatly simplifies our understanding of the universe. Yes, there are many forces of nature, however one Creator made them and one divine Ruler established them and manipulates them according to His wishes. He is the one God whom we must serve and the one Lawgiver whom we must obey. This is an amazing example of Occam’s Razor. This idea is so sensible, that the majority of mankind now accepts it. But it all began with a few Jews in the Middle East several thousand years ago.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Judaism and Pedophilia

[cover from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov]

Some people claim that Orthodox Judaism permits adult men to have sex with little girls. Actually, this is true. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch Even Ha’ezer section 37 is entitled “All the Laws of Betrothing a Little Girl”. However, certain stringent conditions must be met before this union is condoned by Talmudic law.

First of all, the couple must be married. There must be a legally binding, publicly committed, long term relationship between the man and the girl. Offering her candy and driving away with her is not allowed.

Second of all, her father must consent to the union and participate in the betrothal ceremony.

Thirdly, a man is not allowed to have sex with his wife without her consent, as is mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim section 240:3.

Considering this, how frequent are sexual relations between adult Orthodox Jewish men and little girls, with the blessings of the rabbis? Not very. I know of no Jewish bride in modern times who was under 17. In ancient times, my impression is that typically brides were 12 while the grooms were 18. In fact, the Talmud Tractate Kiddushin 41a states “It is prohibited for a father to betroth his daughter in marriage until she matures and declares that she wishes to marry the groom.” Tosafos however does qualify that by saying that in a situation of extreme poverty and economic uncertainty, as was the case for Jews in medieval France, a man may marry off his small daughter if he is afraid that later he will not have the financial means to do so and she will therefore remain a lifelong spinster.

In conclusion, based upon the available documentation, a sexual relationship between an adult man and a little girl, with the consent of the rabbis, seems to have been a rarity which was permitted in some unusual, emergency situations in medieval Europe. Today it is unimaginable.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Few Observations About Evolution

[a video clip from a fellow blogger]