Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Secret Orthodox Atheists and How to Catch Them

[You are so busted.]

One unfortunate problem that seems to be increasing in recent years is the presence of secret atheists within the Orthodox community. These are people who may be from very respectable Orthodox homes and communities but who secretly do not believe in, and often do not practice, Orthodox Judaism. They like to call themselves Orthoprax, Frum skeptics or Hassidic rebels.

There is a group for these people on yahoo.com. Some of them have blogs. You can read about a young Orthodox father who secretly checks his email on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. You can read about Hassidic Jews secretly eating pork on Yom Kippur. Hella Winston in Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels page 51 indicates that there are at least hundreds of the these people.

In a certain way, this is a testimony to the beauty and warmth of the Orthodox community. Some people choose to remain within it even though they don't believe in it. To the best of my knowledge in other religions, for example Christianity, this is very rare.

The question is how should the Orthodox community respond to these people who hate Judaism, however who wish to remain in the community?

Seemingly, these people may have a very negative influence on others – for example they may secretly try to corrupt immediate family members, classmates, etc. I would assume that the recent kosher chicken scandal was the work of such an individual. We can only imagine in what other ways these people may be spiritually undermining the community – whether in making their family’s kitchen not kosher, writing not kosher mezuzos and tefillin, leading the congregation in prayers which they do not believe in, spreading illegal drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, etc.

Fortunately, I believe that there is a solution to this.

I would suggest that anyone who suspects his spouse or child of being a secret atheist should install monitoring software on their home computer. This may easily settle the question. An additional option might be in some case to use hidden cameras, for example in a child’s bedroom or in the kitchen or home office. If the suspicious person is using a vehicle or carrying a bag or a briefcase, a GPS tracking system can be used to monitor their precise movements. In some cases, a cell phone may be used as a tracking device.

If that is not practical or is inconclusive, then ask that person to take a lie detector test, during which he will be asked about his belief in the divine origin of the Torah. In addition, he should be asked to take an STD test and a hair drug test. A refusal to be tested should be taken as an admission of guilt.

Once a person is found to be guilty, then all communications with him should be severed permanently and his name, address and photograph should be published on a website established for this purpose.

In summary, I am suggesting that we use the same methods to screen our spouses and children which the FBI has used for decades to screen applicants. In addition, I think that religious organizations, such as schools, kosher supervision organizations and others, should use these tools. From now on, we should have zero tolerance for secret atheists.

In any case, this is my personal suggestion. Each individual case should be subject of course to the guidance of senior rabbis.

As a postscript, I want to mention that some commentators have suggested that once a secret atheist is discovered, we should attempt to be “mekarev” him, meaning that we should use gentle persuasion to convince him of the truth of Judaism. I personally feel that gentle persuasion, such as inspirational lectures and invitations to Sabbath meals, is surely the correct strategy to use when dealing with someone who has always been an atheist. However, in regards to someone who has been Orthodox for years yet has chosen to reject Orthodoxy, I cannot believe that gentle persuasion will be effective. After all, he has already heard many lectures and celebrated many Sabbaths yet he was apparently not impressed. In addition to that, even if he at some point claims to have repented, he has no credibility since we know that he attempted to deceive us in the past. I feel that the only appropriate response is to focus on damage control – in other words do everything possible within the law to protect Orthodox Jews from his influence.

In addition to that, some people might question the ethics of invading the privacy of secret atheists. However consider the case of a man who is providing financial support to a 20 year old daughter under the impression that she is Orthodox while in fact she is smoking marijuana every Friday night or the case of a woman who is married to a man and having children with him under the impression that he is Orthodox while in fact he is surfing the Internet early every Saturday morning. Don’t those people have a right to know the truth and evaluate the relationship accordingly?

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Biblical Deluge

[Noah's Ark]

This week, Jews will read in the synagogue the story of the Deluge, Genesis 6 to 8. This story describes how God wished to destroy all of mankind except for one righteous family. To do this, He caused water to pour out of the sky and from within the earth and to cover the entire globe for a period of several months. In the meantime, Noah and his family took refuge within a boat Noah had built. A sample of every land animal and bird likewise took refuge in the ark. The water then disappeared and Noah, his family and the animals were able to disembark from the ark and repopulate the earth. According to Talmudic tradition, the Deluge occurred in 2106 BCE.

Questions often asked about the Deluge are: Where did all the water come from? Where did it all go? How did the animals find the ark? How did they, together with their food, all fit into the ark? How did they return to their original habitats afterwards? How did plants survive? Of course, the Deluge was a miraculous event which can only be explained by divine intervention. Therefore there may be no geological evidence of the Biblical Deluge. No one would necessarily expect to find  scorch marks on Mount Sinai even though the Ten Commandments were given there.

There is, however, some independent evidence of this ancient global cataclysm.

First of all, the Deluge is recorded in the oral histories of most ancient nations. Considering the fact that natural floods are never extensive enough to leave the survivors believing that they are the only humans remaining alive, apparently these Deluge legends are based on a miraculous global flood. (Bruce Masse, an environmental archaeologist at the Los Alamo National Laboratory, believes that a global flood did indeed happen in historic times. He believes, however that it occurred in 2807 BCE, killed 80% of mankind and was caused by a comet strike.)

Additionally, there is evidence of a global catastrophe at about the time of  the Deluge. Archeologists have found evidence of a 4.2 kiloyear BP aridification event, which was one of the most severe climatic events in the past 12,000 years in terms of impact on cultural upheaval. Starting in ≈2200 BC, it probably lasted the entire 22nd century BC. It is very likely to have caused the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt as well as the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia. Perhaps this event was actually the Deluge and/or some after effect of it.

The Indus Valley Civilization, the only other civilization in existence at that time, is believed to have ended approximately 1700 BCE, however I am uncertain how precise that date is. We have no written records from that civilization. Seemingly uncalibrated radiocarbon dating from that era could be inaccurate by several hundred years. Problems within that range are found in Egyptian archeology.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rejoicing with the Torah

[Simchas Torah at the Western Wall – Jerusalem]

Yesterday I had the privilege of dancing with the Torah scroll in my synagogue on Simchas Torah. As I was doing so, it occurred to me what a marvelous document I was holding. This book is the source for Judaism, Christianity and Islam in all their various forms. It is the basis of Western civilization. Compare the Torah to, for example, the Iliad. The Iliad may be an interesting story, however what did the world learn from it? Without the Torah, there would be no concept of monotheism and altruism. There would not even be an alphabet; the Torah is the oldest complete book written using one.

Critics are quick to point out that the Torah also teaches violence, which is true, for example Numbers 31. However on the other hand, the Torah did not invent violence and surely history would have been equally violent had the Torah never been written.

The longest chapter in the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 119, is nothing but a long series of praises to this greatest book ever published.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

God Save the King: Why we need both government and religion

[King Edward VII]

I think most of us understand intuitively the need for government. In places where government is absent, such as Somalia today, Baghdad in April, 2003 or Berlin in May, 1945, conditions are generally not very good. The concept of the Noble Savage seems to be merely a myth, so therefore to rely upon people’s conscience or instincts to regulate behavior would seem to be a risky strategy. In order for people to defend themselves against each other a system of laws, courts and law enforcement officers is necessary.

The question is: Is government enough?

First of all, law enforcement cannot be everywhere all the time. Even with close to a million law enforcement officers, state of the art methods at their disposal and a vast prison system locking up millions of people, we still have quite a bit crime in the United States.

Another problem is: Who governs the government? In other words, what is to prevent the government itself from becoming oppressive or tyrannical? What is to stop the stronger members of society from oppressing the weaker, the majority from oppressing a minority or a big country from attacking a small one? Even democracy is no guarantee of fairness. Take for example Germany in January, 1933 – the Nazi government, surely one of the most evil in history, came to power by basically democratic means.

This is where religion is essential. Belief in God and in a humanitarian God given law can influence people’s behavior even when they know they won’t be seen by anyone. Religion can insure that the government itself is honest and humane. Just like no government-less society has ever been a very pleasant place to live, likewise no God-less society has ever been a very pleasant place to live. It’s true some religions are worse than others, just as some governments are worse than others, however just as anarchy is a nightmare so is atheism when practiced by an entire community. As Abraham expressed it succinctly (Genesis 20:11): Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife's sake.

I sometimes marvel at atheists – what do they really think the world would look like if tomorrow everyone actually listened to them and would become an atheist? If it would actually be so perfect, why don’t any American or British atheists seem anxious to move to countries like North Korea, or perhaps Vietnam or Russia, which are far more atheistic? I would love to live in a country based on Talmudic law if it would exist anywhere.

Without a belief in a transcendent moral authority, it would seem likely that mankind would not last more than a century. One half would kill the other half, the survivors would not bother to have children and that would be the end of that.