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.


  1. I've read a few of your posts, and I find them to be very interesting. I'm not an atheist Jew, but this post really speaks to me. In my eyes at least, it is absolutely vital, whether someone considers themselves a theist or an atheist that they come to their belief system based upon their own observances regarding the world. Basing your worldview on the teachings of another, or on a feeling just isn't enough. One must truly think for themselves.

    With that said, and while I admit I haven't read your entire blog and perhaps this question would be better asked under an earlier post, why is it necessary to reject theism all together. I would think that rejecting the chains placed on you by others, and even finding beliefs that don't sit right with you within Orthodoxy, shouldn't lead to a complete rejection of theism, but rather of Orthodox Judaism as it currently stands.

    Personally, I believe in God, I believe in some form of revelation, keep Shabbat and keep kashrut. I also support Gay Rights, and I don't believe God wants me to commit genocide. I consider myself an observant Jew, but doubt I would be considered Orthodox. Which is fine by me. When we reject what others say, we need to make sure that we don't close ourselves off completely. Perhaps Orthodoxy can't work with you, but shouldn't that mean you need to explore the truths of the world further? If we explore more fully, we can free ourselves, whereas otherwise we really are just choosing one chain over the other.

    1. Thank you for the compliments.

      I agree that basing beliefs on feelings isn't enough, it's not even close to enough. In truth a lot of this post is a sort of a reverse kiruv shiur. Connecting various texts together to make a point in a very emotional way, which isn't very much grounded in facts or rational observations of the world.

      In this way it doesn't really reflect my thoughts on theism vs atheism, but rather as a way to portray atheism as something more than just strict rationalism. It as a way of approaching the world can be beautiful and poetic. It also can be validated by texts I consider a heritage of mine, although they were never intended to validate it.

      It certainly isn't necessary to reject all of anything. Sure Chareidi Orthodoxy can be false but Modern more liberal Orthodoxy can be true, or even just the concept of God and spirituality devoid of any religious dogma. My problem with this isn't that it must be rejected, but rather I have no reason whatsoever to think that it is accurate.

      A lot of beliefs such as this come about for several reasons. Two big ones are (1) trust in religious authorities and (2) that it may be comforting. Neither of these apply for me anymore, although they used to.

      Once I came to realize that much of what I was taught from Rabbis I respected where flat out objectively not true or at the very least very misleading (things like rejection of evolution and even statements about Judaism itself) then I lost my appreciation of authorities in general (and religious ones in particular). Sure maybe some of them get things right, but when it comes to any idea I try to take the idea itself under consideration, not by whose mouth it came out of. The trust was gone and so now why accept spiritual concepts just because a Rabbi or a tradition said so?

      For the latter ones I began to see the world in the light of there being no supernal being, or spiritual realm I found that although I used to think I couldn't cope in a world without one, it was surprisingly easy to get along. Actually not only was I able to cope with this new worldview, but my life in general and my self esteem has improved considerably.

      So if I have no need to trust in authorities and I have no emotional reason to believe in these concepts, the last and most important thing is whether it is actually true, and for that although I have asked many spiritual people and read several texts I have yet to find much of anything that could even be considered convincing evidence for God/the supernatural/etc.

      Once I realized I didn't need to believe in God anymore I had no compulsion to believe. Sure I didn't and don't need to reject God, but on the same note on what basis should someone be compelled to continue to believe in it?

      I am never closed off to any idea. I still say God and even Orthodox Judaism may be possibly true. But just as I am sure you don't live your life expecting things like the resurrection of Jesus, I don't live my live expecting the coming of the Orthodox Moshiach. I am in constant flux.

      My beliefs change and become more refined with every new thing I learn, and I try to learn from everyone. That is something I didn't learn while I was frum though. For me, atheism has truly been a freeing experience. I don't need to accept any and every idea that comes my way to be open minded, that just means I would be credulous. All one needs to be open minded is to be willing to consider any idea, which I am. I use my own mind and I come to my own conclusions. And if that makes me a slave in someone else mind, well then they will need to actually demonstrate the validity of that before I will accept it.

      Thanks for commenting. What you say is certainly thought provoking.


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