We are wonderful

There is a recent story in the NYT about child sexual abuse in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn. It seems that when parents of abused children – who were abused in places like the mikveh, or ritual bath-house, and in religious schools – spoke out and went to the police, they were shunned by their own community.

Abuse victims and their families have been expelled from religious schools and synagogues, shunned by fellow ultra-Orthodox Jews and targeted for harassment intended to destroy their businesses. Some victims’ families have been offered money, ostensibly to help pay for therapy for the victims, but also to stop pursuing charges, victims and victims’ advocates said.

One quote in particular caught my eye. The mother of an abuse victim told the paper:

“There is no nice way of saying it,” Mrs. Engelman said. “Our community protects molesters. Other than that, we are wonderful.”

Other than that, we are wonderful. I wonder if her son agrees with her.

 

Jewishness without god

The following short essay was written for Moment Magazine’s 2011 “Elephant in the Room” contest. The question put to all contestants was, What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God? 500 words isn’t much space to elaborate in, but here is my entry. 

I didn’t win the iPad 2, which was the main reason I entered the contest (truth be told). My essay was excerpted, however, under the heading “Finalists” on their website. You can read the three winning essays there as well.

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I grew up secular and came to my Jewish identity as an adult. When my Jewishness first struck me, I regretted not having had a religious education. I was so unfamiliar with the Bible I didn’t even know it was about the Jews. There was much to catch up on.

The next four years were spent teaching myself to be Jewish. Living in Rome, my options were limited. I went to an Orthodox synagogue. I frequented a struggling group of Reform Jews. I studied Hebrew at the local JCC. I constructed an ad-hoc form of kashrut, which seriously damaged my relationship with a dying aunt. I read deeply in Jewish history and the history of anti-Semitism, which didn’t make me many friends at parties. However, I did feel I was beginning to understand what being Jewish was about: feeling uncomfortable in the world.

In my Jewish excursions, one thing I never felt comfortable with was God. I disliked newly-learned expressions like “Baruch Hashem” (“Blessed be the Name”) and the socially-driven piety I saw around me every day. (The Jews were behaving just like the Catholics, I thought.) The end came when, at Yom Kippur services one year, they brought out the Torah scrolls and the congregants began kissing them. “Idolaters!” I wanted to scream. I left and never went back.

Not long after this – and likely as a product of my voracious studying – I concluded I was an atheist. I spent some time thinking about how to reconcile my sense of Jewishness with my rejection of the Jewish God and, eventually, Judaism itself.

First I began to notice how many fellow Jews were atheists. They were everywhere: Spinoza, Einstein, Freud, Woody Allen, Isaac Asimov and Amos Oz. Even the so-called “New Atheist” movement was brimming with Jews: David Silverman, Jerry Coyne, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Weinberg and Susan Jacoby. These Jewish atheists were sensible, creative, highly-motivated people. And free of the superstition that so annoyed me.

I sometimes hear that a Jewish atheist is an oxymoron. In such cases I like to tell my one of my favorite jokes. A young student reveals to an elderly rabbi that he is an unbeliever. “And how long have you been studying Talmud?” the rabbi asks. “Five years.” “Only five years, and you have the nerve to call yourself apikoros!?” (Apikoros is a rabbinical term for “atheist”, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus.)

As an atheist, my Jewishness is rooted in a shared historical identity and not belief in a popular idea called “God.” If I thought for a moment that lacking this belief disqualified me as a Jew, I’d have no trouble saying goodbye to Jewishness forever. But I feel no pressure to make this choice. Jews have always been heterodox in their beliefs, despite attempts by zealots to unite them under one banner or another. It’s a bit like herding cats, or atheists.

The silliness of shabbos

Not long ago I was trying to explain the “Sabbath elevators” in Israel to my Catholic aunt. She just kept looking at me like, “You gotta be sh/£&%g me!” Too bad she doesn’t have a computer, or I’d send her this video. It’s really crazy what observant Jews won’t do on Saturday, and the ingenious ways they invent in order to get around the system.

Which means they either think G-d is a bumpkin, or they just pretend to believe in His Omniscience in reverence to Tradition.

Jewishness without “God”

This goes back almost a month, but In the Moment excerpted my essay for Moment Magazine’s “Elephant in the Room” contest. The question was, “What does being Jewish mean without belief in God?” Entries are now closed. If I win, I get an iPad – so pray for me!

“In my Jewish excursions, one thing I never felt comfortable with was God. I disliked newly-learned expressions like ‘Baruch Hashem’ and the socially-driven piety I saw around me every day. (The Jews were behaving just like the Catholics, I thought.) The end came when, at Yom Kippur services one year, they brought out the Torah scrolls and the congregants began kissing them. ‘Idolaters!’ I wanted to scream. I left and never went back.

“Not long after this – and likely as a product of my voracious studying – I concluded I was an atheist. I spent some time thinking about how to reconcile my sense of Jewishness with my rejection of the Jewish God and, eventually, Judaism itself.

“I sometimes hear that a Jewish atheist is an oxymoron. In such cases I like to tell my one of my favorite jokes. A young student reveals to an elderly rabbi that he is an unbeliever. ‘And how long have you been studying Talmud?’ the rabbi asks. ‘Five years.’ ‘Only five years, and you have the nerve to call yourself apikoros!?’ (Apikoros is a rabbinical term for ‘atheist’, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus.)’ 

“As an atheist, my Jewishness is rooted in a shared historical identity and not belief in a popular idea called ‘God.’ If I thought for a moment that lacking this belief disqualified me as a Jew, I’d have no trouble saying goodbye to Jewishness forever. But I feel no pressure to make this choice. Jews have always been heterodox in their beliefs, despite attempts by zealots to unite them under one banner or another. It’s a bit like herding cats, or atheists.”

Apikoros and proud of it!

Here’s my favorite Jewish atheist joke, c/o Leo Rosten:

A brilliant young student goes to an old, learned rabbi and defiantly exclaims, “I must tell you the truth! I have become an apikoros. I no longer believe in God.”

“And how long,” asks the elder, “have you been studying Talmud?”

“Five years,” says the student.

“Only five years,” sighed the rabbi, “and you have the nerve to call yourself an apikoros?!…”

• Apikoros is a rabbinical term for unbeliever, skeptic, agnostic, atheist.

How do you say “facepalm” in Hebrew?

h/t R.S.H.T.

Yaakov Swisa, founder of FaceGlat – an ultra-orthodox Jewish version of Facebook – has this to say:

“People who are God-fearing and care about their children’s education – cannot tolerate the ads and pictures one sees on the regular Facebook. I personally know people who have deteriorated spiritually because of all kinds of things they were introduced to there.”

You mean people who believe in a neurotic, psychopathic deity can’t deal with ads for, say, vacation houses in Croatia? (I just took a quick look to see what Facebook was offering me.) What’s wrong with them?

As for their children’s education, does Swisa really think Facebook offers tutorials on the theory of evolution, the age of Earth or any of those frighteningly atheistic things normal people learn about in school? No worries!

If people can’t have fun on FaceGlat and meet some interesting folks – or even converse with their own spouses – then what the hell are they doing there? Aren’t there enough morality police in Mea Shearim already?

Kill the men, rape the women

It doesn’t look too good for Rabbi Shapira’s plan to beat the swords of modern combat into the ploughshares of Yahweh-inspired warfare. Yesterday I wrote about his proposal for Torah-based practical combat; today I want to follow it up with a short paragraph from a book I’ve been reading intermittently for over a year. The book is called War in Human Civilization (OUP, 2006) by Azar Gat, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. Gat writes:

Warfare regularly involved stealing of women, who were then subjected to multiple rape, or taken for marriage, or both. Indeed, the story of Moses’ command to the Children of Israel to kill all the Midianites except for the virgin women who could be taken (Numbers 31. 17-18) typifies victors’ conduct throughout history: kill the men, rape the women, and take most of the young and beautiful as war trophies. If women could not be taken because of the enemy’s opposition, or because of domestic opposition at home, they would often be killed like the men and children, in order to decrease the numbers of the enemy.

Here, for the record, is Numbers 31. 17-18 (that’s part of the Torah for those unfamiliar with the term):

17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 

18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

According to BBC, the King’s Torah (Shapira’s controversial book) “suggests that babies can justifiably be killed if it is clear they will grow up to pose a threat.” This would be perfectly coherent with Torah-regulated combat, as we saw above.

The Torah may have been a slight improvement over earlier codes of law like that of Hammurabi – itself perhaps rather innovative for its time for actually codifying laws – where the punishment for nearly everything is death, but it has long been surpassed by modern secular ideas of justice in every way.

The Torah, like the Gospels and the Qur’an, is a document produced in a certain time and place by humans very much of their time (no human has ever been of any other). As such, it’s a fascinating thing to study. But any proposal that modern values be abolished or subverted out of allegiance to this ancient anthology of Near Eastern literature should be met with jeers. As a thought experiment, imagine what life in your country might be like right now if ancient Babylonian law was suddenly put into practice.

If fire break out in a house, and some one who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire.

Now does that sound reasonable to you?

Torah-based practical combat

Sound like a guide to warfare based on the laws promulgated in the Torah? Well, that’s what it is. Rabbi Shapira explains:

“I think that people who read the plan will realize that what the Torah says is much more sincere than ‘purity of arms’ (IDF’s official doctrine of ethics). I think that calling it ‘purity of arms’ is a disgrace – it’s putting human life in risk.

“The Jews are wise people; they will come to their senses. The conscious and behavioral revolution will take place easily and pleasantly, and I hope we won’t have to experience difficult things for it to happen. We can’t go on acting like we’re acting today, because then the situation of the Jews here will be worse.”

This is a disgrace. “Jews” are not “wise people.” Individuals may have some modicum of wisdom, but no ethnic, national or religious grouping can be “wise.” Rabbi Shapira is a prime example of a Jew who is dangerously unwise, for example.

He doesn’t seem to realize that a “conscious and behavioral revolution” has already taken place in much of the world – and right there in Israel, too. That Israel practices an imperfect form of combat (often the IDF is chided for its “brutality”), yet doesn’t resort to fire-bombing wide swaths of enemy territory in order to cause maximum damage – a practice which would be rather simple given their technology – is itself an improvement over less moral ways of doing war. And it is definitely an improvement on the Torah.

…the rabbi strongly criticized Israel’s legal system and former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak. According to Shapira, Barak decided to confront the Torah with all his might…

As well he fucking should have. A supreme court bound by allegiance to the Torah would fast turn Israel into the most backward nation in the Middle East. As a Jew and a liberal Zionist, all I can say is: to hell with the Torah. Fuck it. Throw it in the garbage. Don’t base your life on its teachings, and don’t let it rule your courts of law. If Israel has any advantage over its neighbors, it is to be found in its (rocky) adherence secular principles, not in the factoid that “Jews are wise.”

* h/t Ophelia Benson.

The story of Passover

Today is the first day of Passover as well as the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. I’m sure theists of all stripes could have a field day with that.

Atheist Rabbi Jeffrey Falick has an interesting post on his blog. He has written a supplementary account of modern archaeological findings which pretty much contradict the traditional story of the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. It’s written in the style of the Haggadah, the Passover story book. I first came across this thesis in Melvin Konner’s book Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews. Here’s Falick:

For the last twenty years or so the prevailing hypothesis, based on a growing number of corroborating sources, shows that the Israelites came together out of a social upheaval in Canaan.  This is because, even without a shred of evidence for a conquest or massive settlement from abroad, they did find substantial growth in the Canaanite highlands in the mid-13th century C.E.

The idea is that the Jewish people were native to Canaan. They didn’t conquer it by divine command or any other way, though this became part of their national mythology over time. And it still is.

This is something I’ve been trying to bring up for years during whatever Jewish holidays I end up celebrating with friends: that the “official” versions are myths based in history. And doesn’t it make for a richer experience when we can ground an implausible escape with consequent wandering for forty years in a desert with (almost) no water in what we can actually know about those events? And the answer I almost always get is this: “Don’t ruin my Passover/Chanukah with your atheism. I like this story.”

Anyway, Hag Pesach Sameach to my Jewish friends!

Two rabbis walk into a dialogue

I’m delighted to see that two rabbis have entered into a dialogue on religion. One is Jeffrey Falick, the Atheist Rabbi, whose blog is hosting the debate; the other is Frederick Klein, an Orthodox rabbi who took up Falick’s challenge.

Lately HuffPo, or PuffHo, or whatever it’s called, has been hosting various rabbinical voices attempting to talk sense to us new atheists. There’s David Wolpe and Adam Jacobs, and there was that debate where Hitchens and Harris were terribly rude and gnuish to Wolpe and his colleague Bradley Artson Shavit.

I’m thrilled about all this. As a Jewish atheist I’ve had endless discussions with Jewish friends about atheism, faith, God, morality and tradition. It’s been tough to find many other Jews who will stand up and say, “I’m an atheist.” My guess is that they would somehow feel un-Jewish, and that for them Jewishness is at some level sustainable only through passive acceptance of rabbinical tradition. Even if they don’t believe a word of it.

I remember once asking a Lubavitch rabbi what his position on evolution was. He sent me a link to another Lubavitch rabbi rambling on for an hour before a room full of Lubavitchers. His point was that anything that conflicted with the Torah was, well, unacceptable. End of discussion.

Let the Lubavitchers wall themselves off from reality until moshiach arrives. In the real world, the dicussion continues unabated.