## Friday, August 23, 2013

### Listening to your Pintele Acher

When non-Orthodox Jews (whether Reform/Conservative/Secular/Atheist/etc) are conversing with Orthodox Jews and the latter is trying to convince the former to either accept the Orthodox worldview or to increase in their observance (sometimes called Kiruv or Mitzvoim) it is common to hear the plea for the non-Orthodox Jew to listen to their "Pintele Yid" (a Yiddish term that means "Jewish Spark").

The "Pintele Yid" refers to the religious notion that all Jews have an essential core of pure Jewishness within them that can help to steer the person back to their Jewish "roots". It's similar to the theistic argument of "deep down you know God exists." Well perhaps a pintele yid resides deep down in my being, but what about the Orthodox Jews "Pintele Acher"?

Acher is the nickname (literally "Other One") for the Talmudic Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah who became a heretic, according to some, after witnessing the following event as recorded in the Talmud Chullin 142a:

"Thus, in connection with honouring parents it is written: That thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee (Deut. 5:16). Again in connection with the law of letting [the mother bird] go from the nest it is written: ‘That it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days’ (Deut. 22:6-7).

Now, in the case where a man's father said to him, ‘Go up to the top of the building and bring me down some young birds’, and he went up to the top of the building, let the mother bird go and took the young ones, and on his return he fell and was killed-where is this man's length of days, and where is this man's happiness?"

So while the Torah claimed that performing either of these two mitzvahs (commandments), honoring one's parents and shooing away a mother bird before taking her eggs, that they would live a long life and a person performing both at the same time falls to his death, isn't this a plain contradiction? Isn't it obvious that what the Torah predicts simply isn't accurate?

I once heard a lecture speaking about the mitzvah of letting the land of Israel lay bare for one year every seven years (called the shmita or sabbatical). During that time the Torah promises that there will be enough food from the prior year to keep everyone sustained while there is no farming for the year long Sabbatical. It was claimed in the lecture that had this miracle not occured people would have rejected the Torah flat on its face. It makes a claim and it doesn't come true. Therefore since they didn't reject the Torah, surely the miracle must have occured, because no one would hold on to inconvinient beliefs that have been falsified.

Aside from the idea that perhaps they didn't actually perform the mitzah at all (which some other evidence suggests) or if they did they may have grown crops in Israel through loop holes similar to how it is done in much of Israel today, had they attempted it and it not come to fruition undoubtably they would have come up with one excuse or another not to accept that the prediction of the Torah was false.

Similar to the story above, while Acher ended up becoming a heretic, other Rabbis gave alternative explanations in order to preserve their beliefs in spite of the evidence. One said perhaps the man was thinking idolatrous thoughts while performing the mitzvah, another thought was that perhaps the situation was excessively dangerous in which case no divine protection is guaranteed, and lastly there is the interpretation that long life is not meant literally, but refers to the resurrection of the dead in the world to come.

What is going on here? I thought that any obvious undermining of the Torah's predictions should cause the Jews to give it up, just like Acher did. Perhaps the problem was that the Talmudic Rabbis were using their pintele yid, ignoring the obvious uncomfortable truth in order to preserve their preconcieved notions of the world, the Torah and God. They were not listening to their pintele Acher, their inner doubt, which was saying "you know at the end of the day, none of this really adds up, it just doesn't seem right."Perhaps the pintele Acher is that nagging feeling that your beliefs aren't more than skin deep prose. Perhaps they are nice sounding, comforting even, but in the end have nothing to do with reality.

Some may argue "Well perhaps that is so, but why should I listen to my pintele Acher. This nagging doubt. It will only cause me to consider questions I never had to consider before, questions that are difficult to answer, perhaps even impossible to answer. Why go through all of the strife and aggrivation when I have here a book or a Rabbi telling me the answers. I am free from questions, free from doubt. Isn't that better than doubting, questioning, considering?"

Similarly in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers) 3:6 it says:

"Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah said: Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, from him will be taken away the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care; but whoever throws off the yoke of Torah, upon him will be laid the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care."

The person above and Rabbi Nechunya both view "worldly care" as a yoke. Sort of like slavery. To them either you are a slave to the Torah (the views of ancient men and modern Rabbis) or you are a slave to yourself. The thing is being a slave to yourself and yourself alone is the very definition of freedom.

The views above are no better than those of the stiff necked Jews of the exodus. They also preferred being slaves than being free. They viewed their roles in Egypt in a similar way, as being true freedom. They even called Egypt a land of milk and honey.

They pre
ferred slavery to freedom because to them slavery was freedom. They didn't have to think for themselves or make any decisions since their slave masters did that for them.

The lesson our ancestors taught us in the Torah, even if shrouded, was that slavery is not freedom. And until you stand up and break the chains of the pintele yid you will never be able to enter Israel.

When a person asks me to listen to my pintele yid, it has nothing at all impressive to say. It says "come back to Egypt , be a slave again, you no longer need to work over the soil in Israel not knowing what the next day will bring, your slave master will provide for you daily rations, he will think for you, he will act for you" but for anyone who has known true freedom, these words will always fall on deaf ears.

And as always the worst thing a person could do is let someone or something (jewish lore and law and rabbis in this case) who have nothing to lose by you making a mistake, do all of your thinking for you. You are offered an opportunity to break the shackles and it does get besser.

## Wednesday, July 3, 2013

### A Bayesian Problem of Evil

Often times in debates about religion the issue of human suffering comes up. How could an Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent being stand idly by and allow for such gratuitous suffering? Wouldn't observing this kind of suffering at the very least be evidence against this sort of God (not proof, just evidence)?

Let's look at a common argument made on the subject encapsulated in a conversation from the play The Trial of God by Ellie Wiesel. The play takes place on Purim 1649 in the town of Shamgorod a year after a brutal pogrom had wiped out the town's Jewish population save an innkeeper (Berish) and his daughter (Hanna). As part of an impromtu Purim shpiel the innkeeper and his guests set up a Beis Din (Jewish court) and put God himself on trial, with Berish acting as prosecuter and a stranger named Sam acting as defense attorney. Here is an excerpt from the play:

BERISH
A lie, it’s a lie! There are a thousand ways to suffer, but only one way to die—and death is always cruel, unjust, inhuman.

SAM
No, my dear Prosecutor. In these matters I am a greater expert than you. There are moments of death more cruel than others.

BERISH
You’re telling me? More cruel, yes! Less cruel, no! (To the court) Take Reb Hayim the scribe, who never squashed a fly or an ant, for they too are God’s living creatures; I sam him in agony, I want to know: Who willed his agony? Take Shmuel the cobbler, who treated strangers as though they were his own children; I saw his tears, his last tears. I demand an answer: Who was thirsty for his blood? I want to know: Why was Reb Yiddel the cantor murdered? Or Reb Monish his brother? Why were Hava the orphan and her little brother Zisha murdered? So that they could say thank you—and I could say thank you?

SAM
Again you speak for them? You act as though they had appointed you their spokesman. Have they? You knew them—so what? Alive, they were yours; dead, they belong to someone else. The dead belong to the dead, and together they form an immense community reposing in God and loving Him the way you have never loved and never will! (To the court) He is asking, Why murder—why death? Pertinent questions. But we have some more: Why evil—why ugliness? If God chooses not to answer, He must have his reasons. God is God, and His will is independent from ours—as is His reasoning.

MENDEL
What is there left for us to do?

SAM
Endure. Accept. And say Amen.

BERISH
Never! If He wants my life, let Him take it. But He has taken other lives—Don’t tell me they were happy to submit to His will—don’t tell me they’re happy now! If I’m not, and I’m alive, how can they be? True, they are silent. Good for them and good for Him. If they choose to be silent, that’s their business! I shall not be!

SAM
That is understandable. They saw His charity and grace; you did not.

BERISH
Maria, you are right. He is repulsive. (To SAM) How can you speak of grace and charity after a program?

SAM
Is there a more propitious time to speak about them? You are alive—isn’t that a proof of His kindness?

BERISH
The Jews of Shamgorod perished—isn’t that a proof of His lack of kindness?

SAM
You are obsessed with the dead; I only think of the living.

BERISH
And what if I told you that He spared me not out of kindness but out of cruelty?

SAM
He spared you, and you are against Him.

BERISH
He annihilated Shamgorod and you want me to be for Him? I can’t! If He insists upon going on with His methods, let Him—but I won’t say Amen. Let Him crush me, I won’t say Kaddish. Let Him kill me, let Him kill us all, I shall shout and shout that it’s His fault. I’ll use my last energy to make my protest known. Whether I live or die, I submit to Him no longer.

In this conversation, Sam is making two arguments I have heard frequently among theists when discussing this topic.

One is the defence that one cannot know the mind of God or that God's ways are mysterious to human beings, thus we have no way of knowing if any event, including gratuitous suffering, is ever truly bad in the big picture. Perhaps the suffering serves some divine purpose that we are unable to comprehend, but if we were to comprehend it we wouldn't consider it wrong. Thus suffering of any kind can never be evidence against God's existence since one can't say God wouldn't allow for it to occur. I will call this argument (A).

The other argument Sam makes is to look at all of the positive events around us. Surely the fact that Berish and his daughter survived, although traumatized, is nothing short of a miracle. Additionally, Sam says he prefers to focus on the positive, all the good things in this world that point towards God's existence. This is further emphasized in the way Sam argues in the following passage when one of the Judges, Mendel, discusses a pogrom he experienced:

MENDEL
Sabbath morning. A crowded synagogue—more crowded than usual. I stood on the bimah before the open scrolls and read. That Shabbat we read the commandment to celebrate our holidays in joy. I had hardly finished the sentence when the doors were pushed open. The mob took over. The killers were laughing. I remember their laughter as I remember their shiny swords. Minutes later, it was all over. Not one Jew cried out; we didn’t have the time. As I heard the echo of my own words: “And you shall celebrate your holidays in joy”—I found myself without a community. I was still standing; I stood throughout the slaughter. Standing before the open parchments. Why was I spared? Is it possible that they failed to see me because I was standing? I saw blood, only blood. I felt swept by madness. I whispered over and over again: “And you shall celebrate your holidays in joy, in joy, in joy.” And I backed out and left.

SAM
Blessed be the Lord for His miracles.

MENDEL
A whole community was massacred, and you talk of miracles.

SAM
A Jew survived, and you ignore them?

Hence, if a truly remarkable and positive thing occurs this is surely evidence, if not proof, of God's existence. I will call this argument (B).

The problem with these arguments is that they are completely inconsistent.

To show why these arguments are incompatable we can look to Bayes' Theorem.

$P(A|B) = \frac{P(B | A)\, P(A)}{P(B)}\cdot$

Bayes' Theorem defines the relationship between unconditional and conditional probabilities, but more than that it helps us understand the best way to adjust our beliefs based on evidence.

Probability can be understood as the degree of belief or confidence one has in a proposition. For example one could say that you have 20% confidence that it will rain today. We could represent that degree of belief or confidence in probability notation as

P(It will rain today) = 20%

Yet lets say that if you observe rain clouds outside your confidence that it will rain today goes up, that can be represented as follows:

P(It will rain today|Rain clouds are in the Air) = 80%

The notation of " | " above simply means given. Thus the probability (or your confidence) it will rain today given you see rain clouds is 80%. Your degree of beliefs in propasitions change as you gain relevant evidence.

What Bayes' Rule tells us is how evidence (in the above formula "B") alters our beliefs ("A" above) and we can see that by comparing P(A), the prior belief of A before evaluating the evidence, to P(A|B), the posterior belief after evaluating evidence B.

There is a lot of contention when it comes to how the prior probabilities are set, but for our purposes here I don't really care about what actual numbers are applied to the prior. The only thing I wish to evaluate is the relationship between the prior and posterior probabilities. If P(A) > P(A|B) then that means the evidence B diminishes belief in A. If P(A) < P(A|B) then that means the evidence B increases belief in A. If P(A) =P(A|B) then that means the evidence B has no effect on the belief in A.

Applying Bayes' Rule to the arguments above we can define some notation.

• Let's say T is the "event" that "theism is true" (that a God as described above exists)

• Additionally E1 is a remarkably positive event (let's say a person surviving a pogrom as Mendel did above)

• And E2 is a remarkably negative event (say a child is murdered in a particularly heinous way)

Using these terms we can set up Bayes' Rule as follows:

P(T|E) =                  P(E|T) x P(T)
P(E|T) x P(T)  +  P(E|not-T) x P(not-T)

Translating the arguments A & B into probability notation we get:

(A) Suffering (or any event E2) can never be evidence against Gods existence can be written as follows:   P(T) < or = P(T|E2), otherwise if P(T) > P(T|E2) then this means that this evidence E2 diminishes the belief that T or God exists.

But following Bayes' rule, regardless of how the other variables end up, unless the theist wishes to argue that not seeing a remarkably negative event is evidence against God, they are forced to say that P(T) = P(T|E2) = P(T|not-E2). Or in other words evidence of this type has no effect on ones belief in God.

(B) Amazing events (or any event E1) is positive evidence for God can be written as P(T) < P(T|E1).

Now here is the problem,  for any evidence (say E1 in this case) that steers ones belief in any one direction, in the situation where the evidence is not observed to occur (not-E1) necessarily results in P(T) > P(T|not-E1). Thus using the example above, Mendel not surviving the Pogrom would result in a diminishing of belief.

But how could that be so in light of argument (A)? How could a non remarkable negative event such as this (it is hardly surprising for a person to die in a pogrom under those conditions) result in a diminishing of belief in God, whereas a surprising negative event such as E2 not effect any change whatsoever?

The reason is because E1 & E2 are essentially the same type of evidence (we could categorize them under the label E) and we can see that the the arguments (A) P(T) = P(T|E) and (B) P(T) < P(T|E) are mathematically contradictory. It is inconsistent to argue that negative events cannot imply anything about God since God's ways are mysterious and then to turn around, as Sam does in the play, and argue that positive events imply that God does exist as God's ways are Just, Moral & Good. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

Now there is nothing to stop a theist from adopting either argument, but they must only choose one. If they choose (A) they can combat evidence of the form E2, but have no way of using positive events (even to the extent of not being able to argue for Divine Providence I suppose) of the form E1 as evidence for God. If they choose (B) they can use remarkable things to indicate God's existence, but for  every remarkable thing, their belief in God must be diminished by the negative events E2 (which IMO far outweigh events of type E1).

Which approach do you consider more reasonable?

## Friday, May 10, 2013

### The Last Question of a Theist

The following correspondence is one I had right before I became an atheist, my last question to a Rabbi, to help me answer my unsettled doubt. By this point I have already recently become convinced in evolution (as opposed to the traditional 6 day creation story, believing the latter to be simply a metaphor  but still divine) and considered myself a "rationalist orthodox Jew" and no longer a Chabad Chassid. I also had become convinced that Homosexuality isn't unethical and that Homosexuals weren't pushing an agenda (as I once believed) and I believed that there must be a place for homosexuals and their relationships within Orthodoxy because otherwise that would make Hashem a cruel and unjust God.

Now my faith has been shifting. I asked this question to a Rabbi on Chabad.org. I wonder if he would have said something different had he known my entire faith was on the line, but I doubt had he known that it would have made any difference.

--------------------------------------------------------------
Dear Rabbi,

Abraham brought his son up as a sacrifice to G-d and this is seen as a tremendous act of faith, but if some other person claims the same God's will, why are they not given the same benefit of the doubt?

Deanna Laney murdered two of her children and severely injured a third because she believed G-d asked her to sacrifice her children to Him. For us today she is clearly and rightfully viewed as a lunatic and should be sent to prison. However we see Abraham as a righteous individual and not a lunatic. If the situation was a little different and Deanna Laney didn't kill her children but only brought them up and attempted to kill them but as the blow was about to be struck a police officer came and stopped her, would she still not be sent to prison and condemned as a lunatic? Even if her children were grown adults and were consenting to the acts she would still be sent to prison and condemned as crazy.

I am a practicing and religious Jew but this question has always bothered me and I never heard a satisfactory answer for it. Is it really a Jewish ideal to be willing to commit an atrocious act for G-d? Is it really a Jewish ideal to blindly follow horrific commands without questioning G-d or your sanity on the matter?

Clearly it was an impressive act of faith that is unmatched by any other act Abraham could have committed but to be willing to perform an immoral act based on blind instruction from G-d without question in my mind isn't a tremendous act of faith but a tremendous act of foolishness. I am not trying to be disrespectful, this question just bothers me very much.

-Daniel Rosenberg
--------------------------------------------------------------
BH
Hi Mr. Rosenberg,

Are you asking why is Deanna Lavey different? Or are you asking, why is it praiseworthy that Avrohom agreed to do something that is immoral in human instinct just because G-d said so?

Best regards,
Rabbi
--------------------------------------------------------------
Rabbi,

I guess both. First off how can we condemn her or others who may be doing what Abraham did, but not Abraham himself? And secondly how could Abraham accept to perform an immoral act from G-d without question? For instance would you consider it noble for a man to accept a divine command to slaughter his entire family without question, even if the acts are never actually performed (perhaps he is arrested, etc.)? Would it be noble for a man to rape someone else based on a divine command without question?

Thanks for the response.
-Daniel
--------------------------------------------------------------
BH
Hi,

These are both difficult questions. The answer to the first one makes the second one even more troubling.

The answer to the first one is that the Torah states that the laws of the Torah will never be changed, so even if a true and proven prophet (by virtue of being fit for prophecy by the Torah's guidelines, and having having accurately predicted the future) comes and tells you that they have an instruction from G-d to break the commandments, this is the biggest proof that they are not telling the truth. The only reason we believe a prophet is because the Torah commanded us to do so, and that same Torah said that the instructions given by Moses will never change. So there can not be a true prophecy that tells us to abolish a Torah law. So Deanna Lavey could not have received such a prophecy.

This seems to make the second question even stronger... but Abraham did recieve such a prophecy?! Why did G-d tell him to do so? and Why was he rushing to do it?

Here are two articles that address the Abraham issue:

Please let me know if this helps.

Best regards,
Rabbi
--------------------------------------------------------------
Rabbi,

I appreciate the thoughts and I will have to chew them over a bit. It does help, thank you so much.

I thought the article with the discussion between the skeptic and the believer was the better of the two. The other one basically said that we can't trust our own rationale and must only trust in G-d's. While this is true to a point, it doesn't really answer the question. The remaining problem I see is that if the reason Abraham was allowed to perform the command without question is because it showed his unwavering commitment to G-d why then is a person who may hear a similar voice (even if he is delusional) not judged on the idea that he is showing his commitment to G-d like Abraham did. If it is because that prophecy is only believed if it doesn't conflict with G-d’s laws then why wouldn't this also negate Abraham’s revelation?

I think that the best solution is that Abraham and Isaac both decided to go through with the sacrifice thus not making it murder which was already revealed through Noah as a sin. Thus Abraham and Isaac could have potentially believed that if they ruled out murder from the act then human sacrifice really isn't a problem since it was common practice at the time anyway. Thus Abraham is not breaking any command G-d previously issued by the act and thus wouldn't assume the revelation was faulty. However today it has been revealed that human sacrifice is wrong thus we shouldn't rely on that type of revelation.

I know this isn't perfect but it is what I came up with based on the articles and your email.

Thanks,
-Daniel
--------------------------------------------------------------
[6 Days later]
--------------------------------------------------------------
BH
Hi Daniel,

Just got to read your suggested answer. While it does seem to answer the issue of murder, it could still be argued that suicide was also forbidden for the children of Noah, so how does Isaac have the right to choose to end his life? Also, it could be argued that even if one wants to end his life, it is still forbidden for someone else to end it for him even at his request. (Do you remember the Kevorkian case?)

I, too, have difficulty with the article just dismissing the issue as human moral against G-dly morals, but ultimately, I agree with the point that the repulsion with murder must stem not just from our gut feeling, but because G-d told us not to murder. Otherwise, there is room for mercy killings et all. Once we've established that, then if G-d were to actually tell some to do otherwise in a specific case, like in cases where the Torah prescribes capital punishment, then that is just as G-dly as life. In Abraham's defense it is clear that he truly got this command from G-d, and therefore was willing to do so instead of questioning.

With the giving of the Torah G-d laid down the rule that prophecy will never abolish a Torah law.

Please let me know if this helps.

Best regards,
Rabbi
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I believe the day I received this last message was the same day I became an atheist. Between the time I sent my question above and when I got the Rabbi’s final response I came across information that led me to begin doubting the Exodus and Matan Torah itself. I had already accepted a “rational” approach to Judaism and no longer believed that scientists were only out to push an agenda designed specifically to deny Judaism. This didn't help when I heard the evidence and arguments presented by leading archaeologists and historians when it came to the Exodus story. Also the moral dilemma’s regarding God’s command of genocide in the books of the Tanach became more and more unsettling for me.

This weak response, not to use my intelligence, and non-responses to similar questions I asked of supposedly “rational” Rabbis, regarding the morality of genocide and historical problems with Matan Torah was the final nail in the coffin of my once fervent belief in Judaism.

But with this death came a new life. A life filled with the elation of experiencing the real as opposed to fantasy. A life filled with the satisfaction of living for yourself instead of being a slave to ancient men. A life filled with the exhilaration of thinking for yourself rather than others thinking for you. A life filled with wonder.