Thursday, December 8, 2011

How do Orthodox Jews explain the Exodus?

Originally posted on The Skeptitcher Rebbe
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

One of the first things I came across that began my path towards doubt was the population problem of the exodus. The Torah tells us that 600,000 fighting men left Egypt during the exodus, which would amount to about 2 to 3 million people in total. What is the problem with this scenario? Egypt at the time only had about 2 - 3 million people in total! This would have meant that all of Egypt was practically gone at the time of the exodus, yet with all of the well documented history we have from Egypt and the surrounding nations at that time, not one thing mentions this, nor does it indicate that anything changed at all.

But it gets even better, apparently our tradition tells us that it was only 1/5, others say 1/50 and others say 1/500 of the Israelites left Egypt. So conservatively using the 2 million estimation that right before the exodus there were 10,000,000 or 100,000,000 or even 1,000,000,000 Israelites living in Egypt. Now if that isn't totally absurd I don't know what is.

Has any Jewish scholar addressed this issue? Do frum Jews simply blind themselves to this glaring problem? I know that I did for a long time, before I finally came to terms with its implications.
Posted by Skeptitcher Rebbe at 9:34 PM


Lisa said...
Well, there are a few things:

1) How do you know that Egypt at the time had about 2-3 million people? How much of that is based on conjecture from the average settlement in Egypt at the time (and we'll get to what "at the time" means in a bit), and how many settlements in Goshen (eastern Delta) were included in the survey?

2) When are you looking in Egyptian history? Are you looking at the 18th or 19th Dynasties? The two strongest dynasties in all of Egyptian history? Or are you looking at the end of the 6th Dynasty, as you ought?

3) Midrash is midrash. You can't use a literal reading of a midrash in that way. You might as well ask how Pharaoh's daughter got her magical stretching powers. חמושים means armed. That's simple pshat.

As far as your last question, yes, most Jewish scholars just ignore the issue. But in part, that's because the various disciplines of ancient near east history (Assyriology, Egyptology, Archaeology, etc.) take a lot of time to master. And most secondary sources in the field make assumptions that Orthodox Jews disagree with. Since they aren't qualified to discuss these assumptions, let alone challenge them, they step back and say either "Naarischkeit -- it's obviously prejudiced against us" or "It will eventually be explained, even if we don't understand it now." The first of those is obviously nothing more than intellectual bankruptcy. The second isn't.

I did some graduate work in Assyriology at Hebrew U back in the late 80s. And I can tell you that much of what's touted as a scholarly consensus is only really the consensus of a handful of scholars whose views can't easily be challenged if you want to continue on in the field. And there are many assumptions made in the field that pre-exist the field itself and are simply never seriously addressed.
October 6, 2010 12:34 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...

First off thanks for the comments, I really appreciate them. As to your points:

1) I am basing this off of the work of Archeologists. I will get back to you on your points once I try to find out exactly how this figure was determined but I think you would have to argue that the population was vastly different than what has been determined which sounds like it would be a stretch.

2) To argue that the exodus occured during the 6th dynasty sounds pretty ridiculous. The 6th dynasty lasted from about 2345-2181 CE. Looking at Melachim I 6:1 "And it was in the four hundred and eightieth year after the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt, in the fourth year, in the month Ziv, which (is) the second month of Solomon's reign over Israel, that he did (begin to) build the house of the Lord." This tells us that the building of the first Temple under Shlomo HaMelech was 480 years after the exodus. Even using the latest date of the 6th Dynasty 2181 CE this would mean that the building of the first Temple would have occured at around 1701 CE! Do you think that is a reasonable? Based on Melachim the earliest the Exodus could have been would be around 1500s CE. Well after the 6th Dynasty.

3)Good point.

Also the practical implications of a group of 2.5 million Jews is very problematic as well.
October 6, 2010 4:38 PM

Lisa said...

A group of 2.5 million Jews is problematic in the sense that overseeing them is like herding cats.

As far as the date of the 6th dynasty is concerned, that's one of the assumptions I'm referring to. Did you know that the approximate date for the end of the Bronze Age and beginning of the Iron Age is based on a misreading of a biblical verse? That mistake predates modern archaeology as well.

You know I Sam 13:9, right? It says אין חרש בישראל and goes on to say that the Jews had to go to the Philistines to get their tools sharpened. And the King James translation gives that Hebrew as "There was no smith in Israel", which is commonly assumed to refer to a blacksmith. The division of human history into Stone and Bronze and Iron ages is as old as ancient Greece, so someone looked at this verse and concluded that they'd found the dividing line between the Bronze and Iron Ages in Israel, right? Because the Philistines had iron, and the Israelites didn't.

The problem, obviously, is that חרש doesn't mean blacksmith. A חרש ברזל is. But the verse doesn't say that. A חרש is anyone who takes a raw material and turns it into something refined. A חרש אבן is a stonesmith. A חרש זכוכית, if the term ever appeared, would be a glazier.

But the assumption was that the Iron Age started around the time of Saul. At least in Israel. And the chronologies of Egypt and Mesopotamia have coalesced around that. Egyptian kings and dynasties were once considered to be consecutive in all cases. As a result, Egyptologists put the start of the 1st Dynasty at about 6000 BCE. Eventually, they proposed overlapping dynasties and reigns in order to bring it down to where it is now, at about 3100 BCE. Largely (though not entirely) because of the Bronze/Iron thing.

But if you look at the archaeological history of the land without dates (and archaeology is without concrete absolute dates in this period; no coins that say 3000 BCE), you can see a series of settlements of the land by different cultures. You can see a lot about their level of material culture and about how levels of habitation began and ended. A layer of ash between two levels suggests strongly that the lower (earlier) one was destroyed in fire.

And what you get matches the biblical historical narratives. It's just that with the chronology of Egypt stretched out artificially like it's on some Procrustean bed (or Og's, if you like), everything gets labeled differently.

There are many reasons why the end of the Old Kingdom (end of the 6th Dynasty) should be dated to the time of the Exodus. And there are other issues as well. Shlomo's kingdom is utterly missing from the archaeological record. Unless you assume that the Bible was making most of it up. But there's archaeological evidence of a huge empire stretching from the eastern Nile Delta up to the Euphrates. Its inhabitants spoke Biblical Hebrew and used biblical weights and measures. And scholars are split on whether it fell apart due to invasions from Egypt or civil war. Which you'd think would be an obvious match. But since that empire was during the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt (right before the 18th Dynasty), it "couldn't have been Shlomo", and it gets called the "Hyksos Empire", despite the fact that ancient documents that mention the Hyksos (like Manetho) say that they ruled from Memphis, far to the south of the southernmost part of the empire, and don't even suggest that they ruled anywhere outside of Egypt.

Anyway, there's a short piece I ghostwrote about 15 years ago on the subject. It was for Jewish Action, so it's not exactly a scholarly piece, but if you're interested, I put the link in my initial comment.
October 6, 2010 5:27 PM

Rabbi Jeffrey Falick said...
"And what you get matches the biblical historical narratives."

Um, no, Lisa,

There is no material evidence whatsoever of an exodus taking place. There is real scholarship easily available on these matters, notably Finkelstein and Silberman's "Unearthing the Bible" is an excellent starting point. There is evidence of major population upheavals and settlement in the highlands around 1200 BCE. This is suspected to have been caused by a re-organization of Canaanite life. These were possibly the real ancestors of the Israelites. Again, see Finkelstein and Silberman.

It is true that there is archeological support for the events of the bible, broadly understood, from after David/Solomon and on. There is absolutely no evidence of an exodus or conquest as described in the bible. Egyptology, with tiny exceptions, is irrelevant.
October 7, 2010 2:36 PM

Lisa said...
Jeff, Unearthing the Bible is sitting on my bookshelf, about two and a half feet away from me right now. What makes you think I haven't read it?

What you don't understand is that their view assumes the conventional chronology of the strata. It can't be used as a support for that chronology without it being circular reason.

I laughed a lot while reading that book. Not because I don't respect their scholarship. On the contrary. The scholarship I disrespect is the sort that "broadly understands" the biblical historical narrative. If there's no room for the biblical account of Solomon's kingdom in the Iron Age or at the end of the Bronze Age, say so. People like Hershel Shanks who weasel around with their "broad understandings" in order to shoehorn the biblical account into the archaeological evidence are unfortunate.

But while I read that book, I did so with the question of the dating of the stratigraphy in mind. And all the way through the book, supposed "conflicts" turned out to be nothing but artifacts of an incorrect stratigraphic dating.

I've been meaning to post a commentary of the book on my blog, going over these "conflicts" point by point. You've given me some more impetus to do so.

Did you read the article I linked to above? Bear in mind that the biblical historical narratives being accurate doesn't in any way prove that the religious elements in the Bible are for real. Your atheism is safe on that count. But the royal inscriptions from Egypt and Assyria are just as replete with supernatural events and claims that their deities got involved with the events. Scholars don't throw out these inscriptions because of the religious aspects; they simply disregard them for the purposes of history.
October 7, 2010 2:51 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...
The following comment is from gntessler

They were unable for some technical reason to post this comment themselves, so they e-mailed me and I am posting it on their behalf.

dear SR;
I tried to post on your site, but was unable to get past the 'select profle' part. bottom line: dont give up your skepticism! I would like to comment on Lisa's comments.

The date of the exodus of Israelites from Egypt is usually in the framwork of 1500-1200 BCE. A few opinions have pushed it back to the 1700 BCE era. This is the opinion of Immanual Velikovsky and David Rohl, whose theories on the dating of the exodus have been definitively refuted. Lisa would have you believe that the exodus was in the 6th dynasty ( 2323-2150 BCE ) because of the nonagenerian, Pepe II ( 2246-2152 BCE ). This date, you may notice is 1000 years earlier than the generally accepted date of the exodus !!
Secondly, as far as the number of Israelites, 600,000 men between the ages of 20 to 60, plus their wives, children and elderly would be, as you mentioned approximately 2,500,000 people. The statement: Midrash is Midrash is just a silly statement. Rashi states that during the plague of darkness, 80% of the Israelites died. Today, all, i.e. 100%, Torah-observant, God-fearing Jews absolutely believe this Midrash. It is irrelevant to Reform and Conservative Jews, since they generally don't believe the exodus even happened, ( See passover sermon of Rabbi David Wolpe, 2001 ). This would mean that there were at least 12,500,000 Israelites on the day before the darkness plague. Remember, although the Israelites may have been slaves, they were not in a concentration camp nor gulag, where a few guards could guard many thousands of prisoners. This was an active Egyptian civilization. Estimates or "guesstimates" of the Egyptian population at the time of the exodus was between 2-3 milliion up to 5 million people. Of course these numbers could be based on errant information disseminated by a coterie of conspiratorial egyptologists. Anyway, this would put the population of Egypt at that time to be close to 20,000,000!! An absolutely impossible number.
October 7, 2010 8:13 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...
The following comment is from gntessler continued...

SR, if you wanted to use any of the above as a comment on your site, that would b OK. You should know that many, many, many dates and events in just the Chumash have been refuted by data and logic. Even in Nevi'im, the numbers of soldiers in Israelite armies are beyond credulity. Although we all agree that the Torah is not a "History Book", it does give dates and events that can be verified or falsified.
I would like to close with a "Vort" from this week's parsha, Noach.
The world was created in the year 3761 BCE ( 5771 CE, which we celebrated on Rosh Hashana , 5771 -2010 = 3761 ). Noach was born in the year 1056 , 2705 BCE. At the age of 600 yrs, Noach set sail in his ark with his menagerie and relatives, 2105 BCE. In the year 2104 BCE, Noach descended from the ark, presumably finding a world totally devoid of life, possibly plant but certainly no animals. All the events of the story can be explained by one word: Miracle ! except one.
In the year 2104 BCE , Egypt was in the First Intermediate Period ( 2181-2055 BCE ) There is absolutely no evidence of a sudden cessation of life in Egypt. History in Egypt was continuous as is well documented. Further east, 2104 BCE was the twilight years of the Sumerian civilization and the rising of the Akkadian civilization, which was called the Sumerian Renaissance. Again there is absolutely no evidence of an end to civilization in that year, and historical documention shows continuity. Further east we come to the Indus Valley in India. In the year 2104 BCE, the Harappan culture was in full swing. Again no sudden cessation of life. And finally, even further east, in China, the Xia dynasty existed. Although several decades ago, the Xia dynasty was thought to be only a legend, there now is documention of its existance. It was followed by the Shang dynasty.
The discrepancy between the dates and details of the Flood and historical continuity of these civilizations cannot be explained away by "miracles".
October 7, 2010 8:15 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...

You claim that the Exodus occured during the 6th Egyptian dynasty, correct?

For clarification do you believe that the Exodus occured in the time around 2300-2100 BCE or do you think that the 6th Egyptian dynasty occured around 1500-1200 BCE?
October 7, 2010 8:25 PM

Lisa said...
SR, I think it happened in either 1476 BCE or 1310 BCE.

I'd like to reply to gntessler's comments.

Bringing up Velikovsky and Rohl any time someone suggests that the conventional chronology may be wrong is an ad hominem fallacy. For the record, though, Velikovsky was wrong because his chronology was unworkable, and because he was trying so hard to make the archaeology fit the biblical accounts that he made some embarrassing (for him) mistakes. He also had no familiarity whatsoever with Akkadian or Egyptian, and he came up with a lot of whoppers as a result.

"Midrash is midrash" is not a silly statement. You're unfortunately right that there are a lot of haredim who take midrashim too literally, too often. But it doesn't change the fact that Rambam and his son Avraham both referred to anyone who takes midrashim uncritically and literally is a fool. Which is a fairly strong statement.

I'm not interested in answering for the Artscrollists and DaatTorahists.

I'm a "Torah-observant, God-fearing Jew", and I don't take that 80% thing literally. And before you ask, I'm not one of those radical left-wing-barely-modern-orthodox Jews, either. So the 12.5 Million figure is nothing but a strawman argument. Please, by all means knock the strawman down if you like; it doesn't interest me.

And again, when you say "Estimates or 'guesstimates' of the Egyptian population at the time of the exodus was between 2-3 milliion up to 5 million people", you're begging the question of what "at the time of the exodus" means, and what the source of that estimate is. Your comment about "a coterie of conspiratorial egyptologists" is yet another strawman. I didn't say that, and I don't believe it. I think the men and women working in this field and related fields are honest and intelligent and seeking the truth just as much as anyone else. I also think they're hampered by an incorrect chronology.

Hidden assumptions are insidious, because they never get addressed. Not to prove them and not to disprove them. They're taken for granted the way fish take water for granted and we take air for granted.

And "many, many, many dates and events in just the Chumash have been refuted by data and logic" is a vague claim that I don't think you can substantiate.

Lastly, in terms of the Flood happening during the FIP in Egypt, you're again relying on the conventional chronology. I'm certainly not suggesting that there was a global flood during the FIP. Did you see someone else making that claim, or is it a third strawman?

See, I'm not interested in proving the Bible right. Though it seems to me that you're very interested in the converse. "dont give up your skepticism!" comes across as the sort of thing a kiruv worker or missionary might say. I certainly wouldn't want SR to ever give up using his mind critically, but I get the feeling that you want him to be a "skeptic" (in the sense that you use it) uncritically.

I'm like 90-95% convinced that it's all true. Which is enough for me until evidence to the contrary comes along. It was a lot less before I started studying ancient history. And gntessler: there's a difference between studying a field and rummaging through books trying to find talking points that can be used as bludgeons against those with whom you disagree. I'm just saying.
October 8, 2010 11:36 AM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...

Thanks for your comments again. Since you seem to be fairly involved with this subject could you inform me how the archeologists came up with their current chronology and what assumptions they made that were evidently false, in your opinion? Is there any place, preferable online, where I can read up on what the archeologists discovered as well as the ancient documents that these archeologists used?

I see what you are saying about how archeologists may have been basing their findings on mistaken assumptions, I just find it difficult to accept that Egyption history as it is currently determined by the majority of educated archeologists in the field could happen to all make a mistake of this magnitude, ie essentially shortening Egypts history by at least 700 years or so. Also do you have anything from archeologists who have seen and rejected this view so I could see both sides of the argument, because you seem to be saying that archeologists of today are refuting another view of history not the one you are supporting. If they have not refuted this view, why is that? Has it not been presented to them?
October 8, 2010 12:39 PM

David said...
There's a bit of a trick, here. People (and, Lisa, correct me if I'm wrong) who believe in the Torah don't generally do so because archaology has proved some or all of it to be accurate. They accept the truth of the Torah as an a priorii fact. People who approach it from a scholarly perspective generally don't accept the Torah simply because there's little archaological evidence to support the history therein. However, those who both accept the Torah as "true" and have some interest or acceptance of modern scholarship will generally find (and often go to great lengths to find) some way to reconcile-- at least in their own minds-- the archaeological evidence with the Torah.
October 12, 2010 8:29 AM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...

The problem isn't the lack of evidence for the Torah, it's the evidence that has been found which plainly contradicts the Torah's account.
October 12, 2010 9:38 AM

Anonymous said...
great dialogue -- LISA, for all of us who have no idea what to think, and are trying for years to make sense of our Judaism, please consider some long form article or a book. If you want, I will put you in contact with some publishers who could be interested. You write very clearly, you have done a lot of research, you have much to say. If you are persuasive, it could really help us all in our profound confusion over Torah, history, accuracy, archaeology, etc.

Tuvia (Todd)
October 13, 2010 9:07 PM

Lisa said...
Tuvia, I've been working on a book for a while now. But a full time job and a 10 year old daughter aren't conducive to research and concentration. If you're interested, you could email me at lisa at starways dot net.
November 2, 2010 12:46 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...

abele derer said...
There are a couple of points that I will focus on, the stronger ones that you mentioned.

1. The Aztec myth does not mention the number of witnesses. In fact, according to one version I read, all of them met in a cave. Most caves aren't too big. So it MAY have been a small number of people who were believed to have been on the journey.
Second, how do you know anyone believed the myth? In fact, according to a Lous Weisburton in "Aztec Civilization" the Aztec's are known to have deliberately REVISED their own history to glorify their past"(24). That means that no one believed it. They wrote a glorious history, after they were conquered by the Christians. Did anyone believe the sexy myths? We have no way of knowing, and the fact that each version of the journey contradicts the other versions tells us that no one believed it. Kinda like the Harry Potter myth.
Third do they have the ANY commemorations of the event?

2. I don't have the burden of proof to show that the chain never broke. Indeed, it is possible that the chain broke. It is possible that flying-spaghetti monsters convinced them to accept a false history. All I am saying is that the evidence I am presenting has never been wrong and nothing even remotely close to it has been shown to be wrong.

3. I will focus on one of the poins I mentioned, that the sinia events were a miracle. All I am saying is that we have no right to assume that God would have caused various beliefs about the miracles. Citing a non-miraculous event is of no use when trying to decipher HOW God makes people think when He perfoms miracles.

3. The Zeitoun apparitions are an interesting case, one which I actually wrote a paper on when I was in college.
So how should we deal with this case? The first thing skeptics of miracles (me included)is whether there is a plausible natural cause of this phenominon. There is: Someone either in the vicinity or in the Church itself used a flashlight or spotlight to create a "flashing intermittent light," the words used by one of the witnesses.
So, the believers respond, "but we searched the area and we didn't find a spotlight in the vicinity."
Skeptics: Who searched? How many people searched the church or the vicinity? The answers are not forthcoming.
In short, I BELIEVE THE EVIDENCE. I believe that there was a "flashing intermittent light." However, I merely claim that it was a natural event.
Do you believe that manna fell for 14,600 days? You don't. You simply ignore the evidence. And for no reason (you present an alternative naturalistic approach, which is also possible.)
The point is that optical allusions do exist. And hallucinations do exist. What is remarkable about the sinai history is that it is too extensive for it to be the product of a hallucination.

4. Regarding the Radak, that's my point exactly. Fifty-five years is too short of an amount of time for the chain to be broken. Also, the chain of miracles wasn't neccesarily broken -- so you haven't met your burden of proof.

5. Indeed, however, why did so many people forsake the Torah? Because, as the Rambam tells us, people are beholden to the beliefs of their neighbors. It is human nature. And it's very sad. God can bang you over the head a hundred times -- but you will still be more-impressed by what people around you do. A friend of mine, a frum guy, said that he was as devistated by the Jets recent playoff loss than he was by his broken engagement (which she broke)!! And I believe him. If every new yorker is into the Jets, we are into the Jets.
God realized that the only way for the Jews to believe was for other nations to believe in the historicity of the Torah. Before the Jews were exiled, God ensured that other nations would believe in the Sinai events -- Christians and Muslims.
January 25, 2011 2:12 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...
1. I don't see why any of these questions couldn't be posed towards the Sinai myth. I don't see how a commemeration of the event adds or detracts anything from the likelyhood of any story being true.

2. If you are trying to claim that the story of the revelation at Sinai is true, simply because the story exists and was accepted as truth, then any break in the chain shows how this story could be made up, and the descendants of that group convinced about a story of this nature of which they never heard before. It seems that it is plausible that the story was made up, and that is the most rational thing to assume. Just because something hasn't been disproven (I think there is enough evidence to disprove the event though) doesn't make it true.

Can you prove that Mohammed didn't get a revelation from G-d? Can you prove that Jesus wasn't ressurrected? I think you get my point.

3) Again I am unsure about what you mean here. G-d isn't causing people to believe certain things about these events, the events themselves give rise to memories upon which people structure their beliefs. I don't see how a memory of an event should make a difference if it were miraculous or natural as long as it was an important event for the nation/group of people.

3(again)) Same skepticism could (and should) be applied to the sinai event. What sort of people investigated the Sinai event? How many?

Apparently most of the narrative seems to be based on natural events with additional (miraculous) things entering the story over a period of time. How do you know that it was G-d speaking and not some other person? Weren't the people forbidden from approaching the mountain? Could that possibly have anything to do with some trickery going on that Moses didn't want the people to find out about.

I agree with your skeptical analysis, I just wish you would be consistent in your approach to faith/miracle claims. I am skeptical of all such claims, and Sinai is no different for me.

4) Why is it too short of a time? When a chain of tradition is broken it is broken. If the people need to be taught about the Torah they should have known about and they accept it even though they hadn't heard of it before, this disproves the Kuzari argument whether it be 100 years or 1 year. 55 years definitely seems like more than enough time to me, I don't see why not.

5) Yes, they went after their neighbors culture, a convinient place to introduce an embellished story about a national revelation for which the nation of Israel "forgot" because of their attraction to the idols of their neighbors.

I don't see this as supporting your point that the Sinai event must be true. It sounds more like the opposite. Many of the Jews, (and others like the Samaritans, etc) will accept a myth like that of Sinai to be like their neighbors who believed in it, even though they never received any tradition of it.
January 30, 2011 2:47 AM

abele derer said...
1. The fact that the event was believed to have been commemorated with everlasting commemorations makes it MUCH harder for people to accept the event. Here, people shouldn't have merely asked: Why didn't we hear about the event from our ancestors but ALSO, "Why haven't we heard about the Sabbath if millions of our ancestors were commanded to keep it it forever?"
The Aztec myth does not claim any commemorations (and, again, it fails to mention the number of people).

2. I don't care if you think that it is plausible for this thing to have been made up, plausible that my evidence is fallible. Show me that it is indeed plausible for people to accept false national, heavily commemorated history. The only way you can do that is by showing a parallel event.
I don't know if Muhamed is lying. Buy I do know that the evidence he is presenting is fallible: People always lie. If I have fallible evidence for a miracle, I ignore it.
3. Again, you are claiming that God, even when performing a miracle, would SURELY not intervene to solidify the nation's unified and unanimous belief and acceptance of this event. How do you know? Please show me at least three confirmed miraculous events, and show me that these miraculous event lead to divergent beliefs about these events, and you will have made a relevant point. Until then, you haven't.
3 (again). OK. So you are claiming that you believe that manna fell for 14,600 days, but that you skeptically claim that it was a natural event? If that is your claim, then you aren't attacking Kuzari. You are presenting a different argument, which we can discuss.
4. If it was for 55 years, then IT IS NOT BROKEN. Broken, in this context, means that people believed in an event which they could not have checked its veracity from their ancestors. Here, they could have. SO YOUR POINT IS OF NO RELEVANCE.
January 30, 2011 4:54 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...
1. I think the entire Aztech nation is said to have witnessed these miracles, and as it was a myth about their origins, I have no reason to assume that they didn't believe it. Most of the myths of ancient peoples were believed to be true by the populace, I see no compelling reason to assume the trend was changed in this situation.

2. You are trying to prove the event of Sinai out of the story itself. History shows that people are extremely gullible and ancient peoples were especially so, not to mention they were also very superstitious and had little to no access to check facts, nor the motivation to.

If the statement "People always lie" (which btw isn't true, but I understand your point, that people will often make up or exaggerate stories) is enough to dismiss Mohammed, then I see no reason that the evident statement "People are very gullible" can not equally dismiss the Sinai event.

3. I find it funny that your use of evidence against the Sinai event (that there aren't any divergent claims) you claim is a result of G-d's tampering with our brains. If that is the argument you use, then why should I accept the stories of people who's minds are so easily tampered with. Why would G-d need to tamper with peoples brains anyhow? It seems a rather suspicious presumption, one that could prove any event and doesn't add weight to the Sinai story, but rather weakens it.

3 (again) I never said I accepted the event as stated. You don't accept the story about The Zeitoun apparitions exactly as stated, but rather ignore the religious aspects of the story and understand them of exaggerations of a natural event. I see it the same way with the manna. There was probably some food that the Israelites (or some other people) may have had access to in the desert. They found it in the morning and assumed it had fallen from heaven. This happened sporadically from time to time, but eventually the story was told as if it happened every single day, except Shabbos.
January 30, 2011 10:02 PM

Letter to the editor

Originally posted on Baal Habos
22 FEBRUARY 2009

At least once a month, I get some unsolicited Email, and it's always of some interest to me.

What's your take of this letter below?

It included what seems to be a real name, but of course, I won't post that and I edited some other detail (number of kids).
I have a similar story to yours. Maybe we can compare notes.
First of all, although I'm really today frummer than I was raised, I do have a netiya to go OTD. When I was younger I was too embarrassed. Today I'm married and soon I'll have _ kids.

I have always realized that most people don't agree with each other. Chassidim don't agree with Litvaks, different streams in each don't agree with each other. But one thing everyone has in common: EVERYBODY is convinced that he's seeing things straight and if everyone else would just open their eyes they would see that WE are right.
Litvaks are convinced that every chassid deep inside knows that being litvish is right. Every Modern Orthodox I've ever met thinks that every Charedi secretly wants to be MO.
And every Satmar KNOWS that the only reason everyone else is not Satmar is because they're letting their taavos in the way. I could go on and on.

Most people would have decided that they're all a bunch of garbage, but I decided that maybe everyone has some truth and some sheker, and I love everybody and appreciate everybody for what they stand for. And I try understanding them from *their* point of view. I take what everyone says seriously, even after I make a decision I still respect the outlook of others (and to the disgust of some of my friends, I even respect Satmar!)

I also decided that I wanted to understand people with sfeykos in Emunah from their own point of view. After checking out their blogs I was shocked to see that they also are convinced that if only everyone else would just open their eyes then they would also have sfeykos. Of course, they realize that the people without sfeykos say the exact same thing,
Really, I shouldn't have been shocked at all. They're just like everyone else, who can't think out of their box. But I also started having sfeykos. Of course, sfeykos doesn't prove anything, and kashyos don't prove anything. Someone who has doubts about his atheism doesn't automatically start believing in Christ.
Maybe frum people are right that there are answers?
So what do we do?
The rabbonim are convinced that there are answers for everything. Have you contacted them? Just because I don't understand their answers doesn't mean that they are wrong. just because I don't understand bilogy doesn't disprove evolution, but neither does it prove it?

Right now I don't have alot of time for EMail discusions, and even less time to go to Footsteps to discuss this with live people. Do you have any eytzos?

My response was

"Have you read my story? I don't think it's similar at all. I had no Netiya to go OTD.
I'm also not exactly sure what you're asking. I have no eitsos as as evidenced by my blog.

BTW, are you trying to be Mekarev me?


I'm almost certain he was trying a Kiruv job. But why does he need to be so sneaky? Why not just come out and say it? Why the subterfuge? Can't Kiruv stand on it's own without deception? I can't imagine Footsteps doing anything as underhanded as this.

I haven't heard from him again, so I'm pretty sure I'm right.

Was I wrong? Was I too brusque with him? Is he another lost skeptic soul who needs my chizzuk? I don't think so. I think I had him nailed. I think he was a fake phony and fraud. But then again, you never know.
posted by Baal Habos @ 2/22/2009
I could bet my house (don't have one, but whatever), that you nailed him. It screams from the lines. I could see he doesn't get that the pettiness he is used to is not what our issue is. Don't worry about him.
Sunday, February 22, 2009, 3:56:59 PM
– Like – Reply

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter.
You don’t have to feel annoyed be missionaries. We should accept the truth wherever it is. If a rabbi wants to throw down the gauntlet and convince you with his answers, wouldn’t you go for it and try to prove him YOUR answers?
You don’t have to feel bad if you were too brusque; you don’t win a mitzvah by being mkerev frum people to be skeptics. The facts are out there, and anybody who possesses critical thinking skills and is willing to use them is welcome.
Sunday, February 22, 2009, 5:08:21 PM
– Like – Reply

Baal Habos
>You don’t have to feel bad if you were too brusque; you don’t win a mitzvah by being mkerev frum people to be skeptics.

No, I'm not trying to turn believers into skeptics. My concern is what if he's really a skeptic who's looking for chizuk. But a real skeptic would never use a real name.
Sunday, February 22, 2009, 6:57:26 PM
– Like – Reply

"But a real skeptic would never use a real name."

You shouldn't say that. Some people are in a position to do so. He just souneded like a fraud.
Monday, February 23, 2009, 12:48:10 AM
– Like – Reply

wow. seems to me, your response to that guy was way out of character compared with all the other thoughtful, measured, intelligent comments of yours that I've been seeing. Reading--and rereading--his email, I didn't see a single thing that really 'screamed phony'. Not terribly sophisticated, maybe---certainly not well-versed in the glib repartee some of your regulars favor---but to all appearances, sincere; simply someone bothered by doubts who thought he might've found a like mind. Trying to be mekarev you? Was that the part about everyone having some truth and some sheker... or maybe the admission that he has sfeykos? c'mon...

your assertion that you "don't think [your background/story] is similar at all" is a case of protesting too much. The similarity he referred to was plainly--and obviously--that both you and he had doubts, period.

Your reaction was too defensive. And the way some of the others applauded, with zero consideration of the possibility the guy was sincere, makes it seem uncomfortably like a closed circle reinforcing its own, ahem, orthodoxy.

just my opinion. (For the record, I'm only here because I saw, and enjoyed, many of your posts on various blogs.)
Tuesday, February 24, 2009, 3:15:43 PM
– Like – Reply

Baal Habos

Al Achron, Rishon.

>(For the record, I'm only here because I saw, and enjoyed, many of your posts on various blogs.)

Thank you. But there's really no need to apologize for stopping in ;)

> seems to me, your response to that guy was way out of character

Yes, I admit I was a bit curt, unnecessarily so, but I still stand by my suspicions.

> Not terribly sophisticated, maybe---certainly not well-versed in the glib repartee some of your regulars favor---but to all appearances, sincere; simply someone bothered by doubts who thought he might've found a like mind.

No, Anyone reading my blog, knows that I don't really have doubts, I was always way past that in all my blog posts, even from day one. And nothing in my blog ever mentioned a netiya to go OTD.

> Trying to be mekarev you? Was that the part about everyone having some truth and some sheker... or maybe the admission that he has sfeykos? c'mon...

It's that, together with what seems to me to be a deliberate unsophistication.

>your assertion that you "don't think [your background/story] is similar at all" is a case of protesting too much.

No, I did not protest enough! I've seen that in the past, the intimation that Skeptics are driven by a desire to go OTD and then "maybe the Rabbi's are right". It's a typical one two punch.

>The similarity he referred to was plainly--and obviously--that both you and he had doubts, period.

I didn't read it that way. But I admit, I might be wrong.

If I am, I apologize.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009, 10:45:44 PM
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OK... I was basing that on your 'byline' describing yourself as "just your typical Baal Habos, who's grown a little skeptical....".(Besides, it may have been evolutionary or revolutionary---but at some point, whether for years or for a day, you had doubts, no? that moment in the doorway between "of course things happened just that way in the year 1300BC"---and "waitaminnit--just because one well-meaning rabbi in the year 500AD makes an historical assertion, sans anything resembling evidence...")
also, one might arguably define being "way past" entertaining doubts as going OTD, if only 'in one's heart', an intrinsic part of said derech being emunah in certain principles of faith, no? Semantics, in any case.

(I'm not Jacob Stein, btw)
Wednesday, February 25, 2009, 8:47:22 AM
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Baal Habos
JS, it was more revolutionary for me. Of course, that's not the case 100%. I was slowly accumulating knowledge that eventually turned me, but I was not aware of any internal conflict as it was building. I didn't agonize over things. It was just a kashya, and another kashya, etc. And you know the old adage, from a Kashya shtarbt men nisht. There was suddenly this terrible moment when it all "clicked" and suddenly the old model was just no longer believable. I hadn't yet replaced it with a new model, but the old one was destroyed. It's all described in posts of the past which are accesible in the side-bar (Getting to know me). Too bad the comments are in Blogger form and not accesible thru the current Haloscan template. It was very lively here back then.

So just to re-iterate. I simply don't relate to "having a tendency to go OTD" and my defences go up when that is insinuated.

While things have changed a bit, this

and the one linked to it in the beginning of that post explains it a bit better.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009, 5:48:27 PM
– Like – Reply

Baal Habos
JS, and see this -

So deception seems to be fair game for people into Kiruv. That does not prove anything about the one who wrote the letter to me. Yet it does show that at least some Kiruv people have no qualms about approaches that are less than 100% forthcoming.

New! Frum Science

Originally published by Godol Hador

Steg posts about ‘Wrathful Dispersion’ Theory, a new theory rapidly gaining in popularity, that suggests that all the different languages arose because Someone (not saying who) deliberately caused ‘confusion of the tongues’. My brain is a little fried this morning from working on a PowerPoint since 7:30am, so I can’t figure out if this is just an imaginative spoof of ID or if there are really fundamentalists out there who are pushing this. The fundies are so loony that I wouldn’t be surprised. Ku-ku-ri-ku!

But this got me thinking, why stop at ID and WD? We should create a whole new ‘Frum Science’, which answers all the difficulties between modern Science and the Torah. That way, we can engage in Science quite happily with no contradictions at all.

Here are some of my proposed theories.

Global H20 Theory
It is clearly possible that at some point in the past (about 5,000 years ago), a major Global Warming Event occurred. This event, caused by the sudden appearance of about 5 trillion trillion trillion tonns of boiling hot water clearly devastated the planet and everybody who lived on it. This water also had some very special properties (which Scientists today are not aware of), and so didn’t leave any traces. It also all vanished. Where did this water come from? We don’t like to suggest any Names, but clearly it could only have come from Someone capable of magically dropping 5 trillion trillion trillion tones of boiling magic water on the planet, and then removing it all a year, leaving no trace at all. We believe that this theory should be taught alongside traditional geography classes, as it is certainly a credible and very scientific alternative.

Animal Communication Theory
Recent studies have shown that chimpanzees possess a remarkable ability to communicate. It is not a stretch of the imagination to posit that other animals posses such abilities too. For example, parrots can say a few words, and I’ve seen a dog on TV say ‘sausages’. So why not snakes? This theory suggests that a talking snake is in fact possible, or may have been possible in the past. We are not saying exactly who the snake was, or what he may have said, or who he was speaking to at the time, but it’s interesting to note that certain ANE texts do describe a similar occurrence, thus providing further evidence for this theory.

Genetic Lifespan Endurance Theory
Science has made great strides in genetics. It will be possible to some day clone a human, and even alter our genes so that we can live to be 1,000 years old. Today, the longest lifespans typically do not exceed 120, and no one has ever been recorded living past 150 in recent times. However this is clearly due to poor diets and lack of exercise. We suggest that in the distant past, when people ate better, and exercised more frequently, their genes could have been much better, enabling lifespans of 500 or even 930 years. We would like this theory to be taught in History classes. Or maybe Cooking.

Location Based Time Relativity Theory
This theory is an extension of the General Theory of Relativity. It suggests that time can flow at various speeds, which still maintaining the overall rate of flow. For example, 15 billion years could pass by in six 24 hour days. This is a difficult and non intuitive concept to grasp, but true Scientists understand that difficult and non intuitive concepts are the hallmark of modern Science. With this theory, it is clearly possible that the world is in fact 5765 + 6 days old, and those 6 days actually contained 15 billion years worth of time, while still absolutely and definitely remaining 6 days of 24 hours each, of 60 minutes each, of 60 seconds each. And the seconds are normal seconds too! But still 15 billion years passed. Isn’t Science amazing! We think so!
posted by XGH @ 10:39 AM

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Age of Reason?

Originally posted on Divrei Acher
Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm reading Gershom Scholem's autobiography, and the strongest impression that I got from it so far, was the intellectually stimulating environment he found himself in. The Apikorsus of all brands was there for the picking. There were groups, circles, clubs and organizations of all kinds based on this or that shared common belief. Today, there are a few of us here and there who have to go to great lengths to meet a like minded soul. When I read accounts of that time period, I feel like I'm in the wrong century. Granted, most of the intellectual fads of the time, were based on some sort of socialism, which is revolting to me, mostly due to it's naivete, and completely unfounded belief in humanity. Nonetheless, it was a time fertile for intellectual creativity, and Meshugaim like us, who cared or at least though they cared for the truth, were common enough to be a class for themselves, that can flourish as such.
This bring me to my second point, the different manifestations of our Apikorsus. It seems like these guys had guts, something that I find lacking in many of us, myself including, to a degree. Certainly, much of this difference can be attributed to demographics. Most Jews at that time, especially in Eastern Europe, were religious, and that was the time when those that couldn't stay were leaving. It was a mass exodus, simply because it's time had come. In numbers there is power, and it seems like the established religious power holders, were on the defensive. We're now a century after this process, and the religious community has come back in a much smaller, compact and introverted form. It's also been setup (at least the ultra Orthodox) with the primary goal of keeping its members in the fold. This has created a very different dynamic, a sort of reversion to tribalism if I may use the term, which is very successful at keeping it's limited numbers in the fold.
And still, I think there is something missing. Maybe it's living in America, the land of the cheeseburger and the SUV. I don't know, but why can't we be something more than just a couple of Meshugaim. We're definitely a product of the times, and times have changed, alas they've become more boring.

Freethinking Upstart said...
>Granted, most of the intellectual fads of the time, were based on some sort of socialism, which is revolting to me, mostly due to it's naivete, and completely unfounded belief in humanity.

Maybe you could talk more about your revulsion with socialism. I find political theories intriguing.

What do you think most of the intellectual fads of today are based on?
JULY 19, 2009 3:34 PM

Frum Heretic said...
If you haven't already read it, check out the fascinating article from The Nation:
JULY 19, 2009 6:05 PM

Baal Habos said...
Acher, agreed, it's kind of sad there are so few of us. That's actually on of the depressing things about blogging. I expected to see the circle of bloggers grow exponentially, but that has not really happened.

Frum Heretic, the best line in that article: "You know that I believe that mysticism is nonsense, total and complete nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship."
JULY 19, 2009 8:39 PM

Pen Tivokeish said...
I believe it a has a lot to do with material wealth.

Poverty was and still is a great motivator.

Also, the kotzker vort: "אַל תֹּאמַר מֶה הָיָה שֶׁהַיָּמִים הָרִאשֹׁנִים הָיוּ טוֹבִים מֵאֵלֶּה כִּי לֹא מֵחָכְמָה שָׁאַלְתָּ עַל זֶה. " that it may be true, but no need to dwell upon it. :)
JULY 20, 2009 5:21 PM

Baal Habos said...
PT, yes, poverty is a great motivator. So how come Bnei Brak is not awash with skepticism? (Or is it?)

I think there's more to it.
JULY 21, 2009 7:17 AM

Acher said...
"You know that I believe that mysticism is nonsense, total and complete nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship."

By far my favorite quote of all time.


Yor point is valid but isn't completely accurate historically. Often lots of fevrent intellectual activity was going on amongst youth who grew up in middle class families or even well off. Case in point, Scholem himself.

Oh the times they are changing, hoho the times they are changing...

Bob Dylan


It's too bad I was very tired last night when I read your comment, because I was very much in the mood for writing some bitingly sarcastic polemic against foolish do-good political movements. Today, I'm in a more equanimous state of mind, which is good I guess. Briefly, my cynical nature and the clear perception that everyone is ultimately selfish, no matter what sauce they may put their words in (it's a simple fact of nature), makes me scoff at any type of socialism, which is ultimately based on some belief in the goodness of the human spirit. Utter nonesense, and all attempts at it have proven my view to be correct again and again.
As to contemporary political thought, I have to admit that politics doesn't interest as much, if at all, as history, and I only study political theories for their historical value, so I'm relatively ignorant as to contemporary political thought.
JULY 21, 2009 7:55 PM

evanstonjew said...
First of all Scholem wasn't an apikoris in our sense. He came from an assimilated home and returned to Judaism. Second he was religious, even mystical though he never went to a shul. Third the difference between then and now was that they had hope, and though very sophisticated in a Berlin-German way, they were not cynical. Fourth he wasn't a socialist but a radical close to anarchists. His friend Benjamin became a communist, but Scholem was never ever close.

Scholem knew little of East European yiddishkeit. Buber did. Scholem was a great yekke, right about Zionism, right about Israreli politics, right about Hanna Arendt and Eichman to name just a few of his famous polemical fights.

If I had to pick the greatest of that chabura in the sense of the most geshmack I would say Agnon.The greatest German Jewish writer of that period for me is Kafka. The one with the greatest general influence is Benjamin. The guy who taught me the most about Judaism is Freud followed by Scholem. LOL.

What a wonderful awesome generation.
JULY 22, 2009 12:55 AM

Acher said...

>though he never went to a shul

Incorrect, but otherwise, true, true, true, and true. But I wasn't specifically referring to Scholem, reading him just got me thinking of the times, and in reality I probably relate more to the Russian intellectual, the ostjude, than to his Yekke couterpart. There was much more cynicism there, but it seems like at that time it was of a constructive kind, not of the desperate kind I see in myself and others today.
JULY 22, 2009 7:46 PM


Originally posted on Divrei Acher
Thursday, July 30, 2009

Listening to Eichah last night, I realized a simple thing, namely that of the first 4 chapters in which the Psukim are composed in alphabetical order, there is a discrepancy in the order used. Only the first chapter goes according to the order we're familiar with, chapters 2-4 have Peh before Ayin in all three chapters. Is this a mistake in transmission, or more likely, there were different orders used in different times? Has anyone noticed this, also any suggestions about literature on this topic.
What disappointed me about this finding last night, was the following: I've read Eichah dozens of times already, and it took me to become an Apikores to realize something as simple as this? Were we really that blind? I know we were, but that blind!
Another simple thing that came to my attention is that the meaning of the Posuk,
רְאֵה יְהוָה וְהַבִּיטָה, לְמִי עוֹלַלְתָּ כֹּה: אִם-תֹּאכַלְנָה נָשִׁים פִּרְיָם עֹלְלֵי טִפֻּחִים, אִם-יֵהָרֵג בְּמִקְדַּשׁ אֲדֹנָי כֹּהֵן וְנָבִיא
'See, O LORD, and consider, to whom Thou hast done thus! Shall the women eat their fruit, the children that are dandled in the hands? Shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord? (Lamentations 2:20)
has nothing to do with the Gemara's Pshat that says the latter half of the Psouk is a retort by God, referring to the slaying of Zecharyah by the Jews hundreds of years prior. This I kind of knew, but still the Drush which RSH"I brings down was always so vivid, I would automatically read it that way.

Nu, so what's the Mussar Haskel. Don't read TN"KH without Meforshim: you will become an Apikores. And conversely, the surest way to become an Apikores is to read the text of TN"KH by itself! But please boys and girls don't try this at home, it is dangerous.

zdub said...
They messed up with the links, but this should still work:

The Peh/Ayin Order in the Acrostics of the Book of Eichah.
JULY 30, 2009 8:39 PM

Baal Habos said...
Acher, great catch!

Some will say, what's the big deal? Chazal already caught all this, as pointed out by zdub. Well, Chazal had a much smaller corpus of literature to work with. I.e. they never had to mess with Tosifos (or even Gemarah)! So while we are attuned to scouring the details of the Mishna Berurah and Toisfois, Chazal had the luxury of analyzing the core texts. (Obviously I didn't do such a fine job with my Sanhedrin, because I don't ever recall hearing about this Ayin/Peh issue.)

And zdub, thanks for that link.

Interestingly enough, with the reversed order, this vort does not hold true.
JULY 31, 2009 10:40 AM

Acher said...

First, I'm happy to know that I have more than a dozen readers, maybe with 13 it means we can make a Pesach Seder, (Lfum Chad Girsa) :)

Anyway, thanks for the link, and that means I should check my emails from the Sforimblog more often for good stuff like this.


I was actually very disappointed that I didn't remember the Gemarah in Sanhedrin myself, I did go through Sanhedrin some years back. But again, my greater disappointment lies in the fact that it took me till now to realize it.

And that Vort is true, I mean the good part of it: Elvis = Lives, Mamesh what can be more Poshut than that :)
And please if you have anything more like that please email me, you know I love this type of stuff.
JULY 31, 2009 8:00 PM

Modernorthodoxhistorian said...
I wrote an article on this:

it is the last article on the site

Mitchell First
OCTOBER 6, 2009 8:23 PM

No questions asked

Originally posted on Baal Habos
21 MARCH 2009

Last week, a comment in a Letter to The Editor in the Jewish Press caught my eye. I doubt that comment would have passed muster (not Mustard!) in the Yaated Neeman. Check out the last Letter on the bottom entitled "Hearing Vs. Discerning".

It seems that Dr. Yaakov Stern goes out of his way to make this astonishing admission:
“While we may not like to admit this, even to ourselves, the reality is that everyone to some degree is plagued by doubt as to the veracity of the Torah and the omnipotence of Hashem...........”

Now, that's quite a shocker. Until my skeptic years, I really can't say that I was consciously aware of such feelings. Sure, I may have had some issues with some Chazals and some Gemaras. But that's not quite the same as doubting the veracity of the Torah. I may even have had some questions about the Torah, but to claim everyone is plagued by doubt seems to speak more to Dr. Stern's frame of mind.

[So please tell us Dr. Stern, what exactly about the Torah do you doubt? Maybe I can help out out there? Yuk Yuk.]

And if you DO doubt it and if everyone doubts it, why is it so terrible to ask questions in public? If doubt is normal, then maybe there's a good reason for it! If doubt is commonplace, isn't it more than expected that some will act on their doubt? Why is it a given, in polite company, that Toras Hashem Temima?

But the truth is that Dr. Stern is at least partially correct. Many people might have moderate levels of doubt. The numerous "train the teacher" Kiruv programs might be be nothing more than an excuse to allow the FFB adult to explore the forbidden in a controlled environment. When Rabbonim tell people about these programs in public, they often say as an unplanned afterthought, "and it will help your own Emunah". Books like Permission to Believe and Permission to Receive are not just meant for the borderline BT. I think it's on the Bookshelf of many Maaminim Bnei Maaminim.

Yet, for all the doubt that does exist, it's still verboten to express your doubts in public. Honest questions of basic belief are not tolerated. Just try it. Just try the vaguest hint of questioning even today's rabbonim, let alone Chazal, and you'll get comments such as "you need to work on yourself" or "That's dangerous" or "I believe such and such because I believe in God". As if their Rav has Gilui Eliyahu.

You'll get odd looks and many types of statements either putting you in your place or cavalierly dismissing the hint of questioning. You'll get any statement other than an open admission that there's a good reason to doubt or that it's OK to doubt.

So my skeptic friend. Just nod your head at the assertion that there will be a Mechitsa in Olam Haboh when listening to Hashem's Shiurim (yes, that was a statement from an Adam Godol). Just keep your mouth shut.


Because an elephant in the room is easier ignored than a buzzing bee.

posted by Baal Habos @ 3/21/2009
Great post. and they wonder why I call it a cult...
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 12:58:04 AM
– Like – Reply

>Because an elephant in the room is easier ignored than a buzzing bee.

The problem is, these days the Gedolim are becoming more and more like buzzing elephants.

I think you're a better judge on what a Frum person really believes and how much he doubts. You were a believer as an adult, while I started loosing it as I came into my own. Although I will say that when I was really FarFrumt, I not only believed, I thought I can prove God through Moreh Nvuchim etc.
But I even have a hard time believing many Frum people are in a state of mind that I was before my official skepticism, where I had dubts but wouldn't allow myself to "go there". That's already too much. So maybe this Stern himself is Abiselh you know, not all the way were he 'should' be.
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 1:02:36 AM
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Baal Habos
OTD, Thanks!

> So maybe this Stern himself is Abiselh you know, not all the way were he 'should' be.

Yes, that's why I said "astonishing admission". No way this would make it into a more right wing paper.
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 1:18:26 AM
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kollel wife
Well said. We, grown men and women, are expected to act as if that which is uppermost in our minds doesn't even exist. What a horrific sham our lives have become.
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 1:42:06 AM
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Baal Habos
>We, grown men and women

Kolel Wife,we could use a few good women on this blog. But I'm not sure I want to have real Kolel Wives reading my blog, unless you're a real skeptic. Are you pulling some kind of letzanus?
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 1:52:28 AM
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Pen Tivokeish
Re your poll "For believers only", I yell discrimination BHB. You need to create another poll with similar questions for the كفّار kuffār
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 8:48:10 AM
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Actually I think this makes sense. There's lots of things that go on in society, but people make a conscious decision not to have it all 'out in the open', to at least maintain appearances. Many examples, including marriages, adultry other issues etc etc etc. Society requires a certain facade.
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 10:59:21 AM
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>Because an elephant in the room is easier ignored than a buzzing bee.

That is exactly why you bloggers are in business.
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 12:12:15 PM
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Baal Habos
> Actually I think this makes sense
Sure, everything I write makes sense!
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 12:21:18 PM
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I've long noted--with considerable dismay at his inxplicable knack for getting said rants published in the JP---Dr. Stern's entries in the Letters section of the Jewish Press. For what it's worth, they exhibit a very consistent and defined, if obnoxious, worldview: basically all examples of independent thought he disses & dismisses as "gedolim-bashing". He's also a fan of that time-honored device of "I'm not criticizing---I, too am guilty of the above"---which tends to come across about as sincere as "nisht oif Shabbos geredt, but what stocks are you pushing this month?" or "no offense, but that haircut makes you look like a baboon."
Sunday, March 22, 2009, 3:05:42 PM
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There is a big difference between "questioning" and "skepticism", and even more so questioning a modern day Rabbi and questioning Moshe Rabbeinu.

Not sure what Stern had in mind, however IMHO, asking questions is good, I've questioned everything (almost). The problem is where you you look for answers. Hint - the internet is the wrong place.
Monday, March 23, 2009, 5:38:17 PM
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What's wrong with questioning moshe rabennu.
No other field do they kill u for questioning a historical figure.

Imagine getting stoned for questioning wether einstein was right. Imagine where science would be if it didn't.
Monday, March 23, 2009, 8:50:29 PM
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Monday, November 28, 2011

How Identities Cloud Judgment

Originally posted on The Skeptitcher Rebbe
Thursday, December 2, 2010

I recently cam across this article: and I thought I would share it here.
Keep Your Identity Small

February 2009

I finally realized today why politics and religion yield such uniquely useless discussions.

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What's different about religion is that people don't feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone's an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there's no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there's no back pressure on people's opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

But this isn't true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people's identities.

Because the point at which this happens depends on the people rather than the topic, it's a mistake to conclude that because a question tends to provoke religious wars, it must have no answer. For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerable—that all languages are equally good. Obviously that's false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn't safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.
I think this article is very insightful and has some very good points. It makes me want to reconsider how I identify myself or at least how the way I identify myself may skew my beliefs.

However, even if you think you don't identify with a group you may still be falling into the above trap. For example, I am not sure how much of my argument for circumcision has to do with my identity (probably a lot) as well as I am unsure how much other peoples arguments against circumcision has to do with their conceived identities (either as atheists or whatever). It seems to me that people should always be on guard against the traps in our minds that we set for ourselves. You can never be too sure that you are arguing solely on rational grounds and that your personal emotional attachment towards a topic has nothing to do with your positions.
Posted by Skeptitcher Rebbe at 10:23 AM

Anonymous said...
I don't identify (much) with Jewishness even though I was born into a Jewish family. As a I get older my identification gets less. But it will probably be there somewhat forever. I don't see it ever going away completely. Somethings are impossible to remove even if you wanted to
December 2, 2010 1:41 PM

Questioning Yid said...
I found this article quite interesting myself. I am all too familiar with the detrimental effects of identity on parties being able to relate. I have a deep-rooted Jewish identity, but it was formed in a mixed marriage and a predominantly Christian school. As I moved beyond the early stages of being a Ba'al Teshuva, rather quickly I might add, I returned to my identity incorporating my non-religious and non-Jewish background. I disagree with the general idea that any sense of identity is detrimental. It is through our identities that we find others with whom we relate and form friendships, communities, and societies. Perhaps, rather than avoiding things entering our identity, we should instead work to ensure our identities are not just tolerant of others, but are open to differing identities and points of view. We should identify as people interested in getting to know and understand the thoughts and feelings and beliefs and identities of others and welcome them with open arms. I think that is the true step beyond.
December 13, 2010 9:07 AM

Anonymous said...
The premise of this article is wrong. JavasScript does always lead to an argument.

Mac vs PC? Yankees vs Redsocks. Apple, Microsoft, Google... all of it.
February 28, 2011 4:49 AM

MatureDurai said...
"I disagree with the general idea that any sense of identity is detrimental. It is through our identities that we find others with whom we relate and form friendships, communities, and societies. Perhaps, rather than avoiding things entering our identity, we should instead work to ensure our identities are not just tolerant of others, but are open to differing identities and points of view."
Well said,Questioning Yid!Cheers!
August 1, 2011 1:28 AM

Circumcision. Should it be banned?

Originally posted on The Skeptitcher Rebbe
Sunday, November 28, 2010

I have been having a rather heated discussion with Brian Westley on OTDs blog post about circumcision here.

While I don't believe that circumcision has any superstitious benefits, I do believe it does have real social ones, namely avoidance of ostracism from within the Jewish community for your child (if you wish to be a part of the Jewish community). Also there isn't a reverse ostracism from outside the Jewish community either (having a circumcision is very common for non Jews as well). Since I don't think that the costs are too significant (mild memoryless pain for a short while, recovery in about a week) I think it should be up to the parents to decide whether or not their son should get one as an infant and shouldn't be banned universally.

What do you think?
Posted by Skeptitcher Rebbe at 11:28 AM

G*3 said...
I don’t think anything should be banned unless it’s shown to be harmful. Circumcision has not been shown to be harmful, therefore it shouldn’t be banned.
November 28, 2010 12:04 PM

Bob said...
Male circumcision is a safe, popular, healthy & beneficial procedure for individuals & parents to choose. It provides benefits such as 12x less likely for UTI, +22x less likely for cancer, 28% less risk for herpes, 35% for HPV & 60% for HIV/AIDS. The risks are about 0.2% and are typically minor & easily corrected.

Parents should research circumcision and make an informed decision for the health & well-being of their son.

More information can be found at the following sites:
November 28, 2010 12:16 PM

Baruch Spinoza said...
I have a different why I am against banning circumcision. You can read about it here ( ).
November 28, 2010 1:50 PM

Caroline said...
Eliyahu Ungar Sargon made an interesting film on the topic
"Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision"
November 29, 2010 4:04 PM

Caroline said...
November 29, 2010 4:05 PM

Hugh7 said...
Isn't "avoidance of ostracism" an unworthy motive for cutting part of a child's genitals off? If the community ostracises someone because of something someone else hasn't done to them, shame on that community! Who do they think they are? Let them mind their own business!

@G*3: How about the fact that a significant number of men hate the fact that it was done to them? More than 70 have signed up for a class action. Apart from certain harm, the risks, from unaesthetic outcomes all the way to loss of the penis and death, go underreported.

Bob's figures need context. For example, since less than one in 100 boys gets a UTI, by his own figure, 991 circumcisions in 1000 are wasted. His citations are laughably biased.

#Jewish philosopher: Only for adult volunteers where AIDS is rampant. The protection (even if genuine) is only for infection by men from women, very rare in the US.

A small but growing number of Jewish parents are choosing to name their sons without surgery. Contact details for celebrants, including a number of rabbis, are here. One, in New York, has celebrated hundreds.
November 29, 2010 6:04 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...

Many people permanently alter the bodies of their children in ways that don't affect the functionality of those bodies, but are done solely for the reason to avoid social ostracism. Such things like altering a deformed ear or nose which funtion totally normally from a medical standpoint but are seen by most in society as being an abnormality.

I don't see why allowing a parent to alter their minor childs body is acceptable in the above case is acceptable whereas with circumcision doing it for the same reason considered unacceptable. I am willing to change my mind on this, I just haven't been convinced that the differences in either scenario are too far removed or that the effects of circumcision are so negative and harmful to oppose the practice universally.
November 29, 2010 7:34 PM

Tony said...
Skeptitcher Rebbe,

The above is acceptable because it is a deformity. The foreskin is not a deformity. It is a normal body part. No one is suggesting that medically necessary circumcision is unacceptable. Proxy consent has validity. But altering a child's healthy body to avoid something that may not happen or may not bother the child is bizarre.

For example, I have red hair. I was mocked for this throughout childhood (and still am, amusingly). Should my parents have forcibly dyed my hair to save me from this social torment? That's not permanent, either. The correct analogy to circumcision, of course, is for them to continue forcibly changing my hair color now based on their opinion of my body, whether I want it or not. Since I can't undo the circumcision they forced on me.

Yet, I'm indifferent to the ridicule I receive about my hair. Why should I care what my peers think? They can judge me for being who I am, but that doesn't lessen me in any way. I learned that because I was mocked for who I am. It's a cliche, but the social attacks made me stronger, not weaker.

As for the effects of circumcision, it's objective harm. It's a surgical alteration that removes healthy tissue and nerves. It creates a wound. It leaves scarring. There is a risk of infection and complications from the surgery. And it alters the functioning of the penis. (An objective claim, unlike the subjective question of whether it's better or worse.)

Does the individual want any of that? I don't. Why should my parents' misguided, inaccurate perception about my body rule over my (lack of) need while I was in their care? As I said, at 37 years old, it's a decision they're effectively still making for me. Permitting that under proxy consent is flawed.
November 29, 2010 9:22 PM

Hugh said...
As a common slogan has it, "A foreskin is not a birth defect", and it is very odd to treat it as though it is. (People in the US seem far readier than elsewhere to modify their children for conformity's sake alone, as witness the preoccupation with straight teeth. It may also have to do with the economics of the health care system.)

Circumcision does affect functionality. I don't imagine you have talked to many intact men in detail about exactly what is conferred by their foreskins. It has been described as "a symphony of sensation" - not just more sensitive, but better sensitive. Cutting off the foreskin, with its ~20,000 nerves specialised for feedback, is like pulling out the accelerator pedal and leaving an on-off switch. You can still get there, but the journey is not as enjoyable.

Forgotten pain was still pain at the time, and how long does it take to forget? Taddio et al. found circumcised babies react differently to the pain of vaccination, months later. Crimes committed on drugged victims are still crimes, even though they are not remembered.
November 30, 2010 3:59 AM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...
But its only considered a deformity by social standards not natural ones. The weird looking ear functions just as well as any other ear. If you are indifferent by the ridicule you receive from your hair, why should you try to alter the shape of the ear so that your son or daughter wont be? If it really makes you stronger why is it altered at all if there is no medically necessary purpose? It is for purely social reasons it is altered so why alter it? Deformity is only something you in your society consider abnormal, what is to stop another society from considering it an acceptable deviation?

I have heard opposite accounts on how sex life after a person had a circumcision was actually improved. More nerve endings doesn't necessarily mean better sex.

Sex may or may not be more enjoyable with a foreskin, but for those who have one they will never be able to tell what it is like without it. For those without one (even if it was voluntary) will never be able to go back, so its not really like an individual can compare sex life with and without a foreskin and then choose to have his foreskin. So I don't really see that as a strong argument, since comparisons and decisions based on that comparisons with regards to sex are practically impossible.

Hugh, I would like to see the study by Taddio if you don't mind. I think that is an interesting factor to take into account, as long as I understand what exactly was tested and what the findings were.
November 30, 2010 10:23 AM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...
One more comment, I just don't really agree that circumcisions really are all that harmful. I am beginning to think that the benefits I am describing are not really all that rational.

But if I were going to try to force my views on my wife and refuse to let her circumcise my son I think I am going to have to have a really convincing argument for the horrible and terribly harmful thing circumcision is, and as of yet I am not convinced that it is. I still see it as a fairly mild operation with very little functional difference in the person. If it wasn't a common practice and my wife didn't insist on its importance I definitely wouldn't do it but as things are now I don't believe my son will be all that upset or resentful, because it really is not such a big deal IMO.

If I had convincing evidence that showed beyond a reasonable doubt that circumcision is something that truly is harmful to a child then I would reconsider position on it.
November 30, 2010 10:47 AM

Tony said...
I'm not suggesting I think parents should have surgery on their children if the child has a deformity. I have a family member with a mild birth defect. It hasn't been corrected because there's no need. My only point is that I won't judge parents who face that tough decision for their children. At least they're confronting an abnormality.

Parents who circumcise their normal children don't face that decision. They're deciding in favor of common at the expense of normal. That's not a valid decision by proxy.

What is it that's preventing you from seeing the harm of circumcision? I'm genuinely asking because I'd like to persuade you, if you're open to listening. I think you are.

Circumcision is objective harm. That much is undeniable, as there's a wound after the surgery. I accept that the value of that harm weighed against the claimed benefits is subjective to the individual.

For me, it's not close. It's a net harm because I don't value the cultural conformity it was meant to confer, and I resent my parents for forcing it on me. But I don't expect that everyone will or should have that opinion. I only expect everyone to understand that anyone could have that opinion. Parents aren't psychic. Imposing their preferences on their child when those preferences do physical harm is wrong because the child may not want the potential, subjective benefits the parents value.
November 30, 2010 4:22 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...
"What is it that's preventing you from seeing the harm of circumcision?
Circumcision is objective harm. That much is undeniable, as there's a wound after the surgery."

Well I guess the objective harm as being minimal enough for it not to really matter. To me its like parents who choose to pierce their daughters ears as an infant. There is pain and there is permament scarring to the ears. No medical purpose, only for social reasons, and who knows if the child would want their ears pierced.

I think your arguments are valid, but there are two main reasons I don't feel that the harm is significant enough for me to be universally against the practice.

1) While there is scarring, it is "normal" scarring in our society and the pain for infants truly is minimal if the procedure is done properly. My son when he was circumcised cried literally no more than a few seconds, the wound healed in a couple of days, and he didn't show any discomfort in that area since the cut was made.

2) The pain and distress for those who wish to be circumcised later on in life, even a young child a couple years old is very very high, and the healing process takes weeks and sometimes over a month. If my son did decide, at an age where he could consent, that he wanted to be circumcised, to fit in or for other reasons, I would have to put him through a horribly painful procedure. I know of one Jew who is very upset with his parents for not getting him circumcised since he did want to fit in later in life and the procedure was very painful, he said he could barely walk for weeks. I would much rather spare my child of having to make that decision at all and give him a relatively painless memoryless surgery over that scenario.

There are no guarantees either way and a son could be equally upset with his parents for either not circumcising him, or for circumcising him. Like you said parents aren't psychic and it is impossible to tell what is the likelyhood for either case, but for a Jewish family it is likely to be higher than for a non Jewish one that the child would rather have a circumcision, but there aren't any garuantees.

For you it was a net harm, for others it could be a net gain. For me it was a net gain, I probably would have been just as pissed at my parents as you are if they hadn't circumcised me since I would have to go through this grueling process which could have easily been avoided as a child.

Thus I view the decision from the parents perspective to be basically on neutral grounds. There is a possibility it will be a net gain or loss for the child to circumcise, but it is also possible it will be a net gain or loss for the child to not circumcise. Since the likelyhood of all the cases are unknown I don't feel like there is a general net harm to the procedure and I basically view it as net neutral.

btw I am enjoying this conversation very much and your comments have been very thoughtful and engaging. Thanks.
November 30, 2010 5:44 PM

Rabbi Lamech Somayach Meshumad Meshubach said...
If you want Jewish boys to avoid HIV keep them away from Rabbi Yehudda Kolko at Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Brooklyn, NY.
December 1, 2010 12:25 AM

Tony said...
The facts that pain can be minimal (not entirely verifiable) and not remembered aren't relevant. Such reasons could justify any number of invasive procedures on a child. If you numb him up, you could punch him in the face and do less permanent damage than circumcision. It's an intentionally absurd example, of course, but it gets at my point that all of the extraneous factors we wrap into this discussion distract from the core. The act needs to be judged on its objective facts, not the subjective add-ons each of us value in our own way.

Yes, I think it's likely that a significant number of boys left intact and raised Jewish would want circumcision. I don't see a conflict there. This isn't about despising circumcision, per se. Whatever might motivate someone to choose it for himself is valid for him. I don't think circumcision itself is automatically bad. But force is. This is about each individual retaining choice over his own (healthy) body.

In economic terms, the basic concept is that all individual tastes and preferences are subjective. I don't value circumcision. I value not being harmed (however minimally one might judge it). I don't value cultural conformity. I don't value the potential health benefits. And so on. That's my collection of preferences. Yours are different and they're no less valid. But each of our preferences are only valid for ourselves.

Overall statistics show a different story on what males left intact will likely choose or need. The percentage of circumcision among those men is very small. That's useful for the general population.

But you raise a valid issue within the ritual subset of circumcision. It's necessary to address this. Again, all individual tastes and preferences are subjective. Circumcision has claimed benefits, claimed harms, and objective harms. Each individual can decide for himself how he weights each item. For Jewish males who would have to choose circumcision later in life, they would decide whether they value the commandment and/or social benefits more than the real physical cost(s). If they choose circumcision, yes, the healing process will be challenging, although I've read anecdotal evidence across the spectrum of possible experiences for adult circumcision. (I wouldn't confine the choice to 18+, just consenting males.) But they will be choosing for themselves that the benefits are more than the costs. Males raised Jewish who later reject circumcision or Judaism entirely are stuck with their parents' choice.

I think our difference is partially in utilitarian (i.e. community) versus individual thinking. I have no issue with decisions for communal reasons, but the individual is superior in the narrative of rights. He must choose permanent inclusion in a community. Without the option to exit, even if he wouldn't exercise it, it's an issue of force.

The remaining issue is, of course, our evaluation of the objective harm. I think the comparison to ear piercing is useful, but the difference in degree is significant. Ear piercing doesn't remove a normal, healthy body part. It doesn't alter the functioning of a body part. The loss of the foreskin is a significant portion of the harm. Most boys will come out of circumcision with the typical, intended results, and the wound will heal. But the foreskin will be gone. It won't be there to protect the glans. It won't be there to provide gliding action during sexual activities. The nerve endings are gone. Whether or not these are acceptable is, again, unique to the individual. But they are real, and we can't know what the individual will want.
December 1, 2010 11:16 AM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...
"Overall statistics show a different story on what males left intact will likely choose or need. The percentage of circumcision among those men is very small. That's useful for the general population."

Part of the reason that is the case is because the pain involved is tremendous for adults to undertake a circumcision. This is why mild pain in the procedure for an infact is indeed useful information since it is contrasted in relation to the same procedure on an adult where the pain is significantly higher.

When you don't circumcise an infant who grows up to be an adult who wishes to be circumcised you steal from him the opportunity to have a memoryless and significantly less painful operation to achieve the same results. In my determination the choice that a parent has to circumcise their infant son is a different choice than that an adult has to circumcise himself. He can't choose to have a memoryless, less painful procedure as an infant, that option was only available to his parents who decide whether or not to chose this option for him.

My preferences are indeed different than yours, but my preferences are as follows in decending order [circumcision as an infant(for myslef)] > [circumcision as an adult] > [No circumcision]

The likelyhood of my preferences being in line this way was, in my own opinion, rather high seeing as many children from Jewish families do wish to be a part of the Jewish community and in so doing for the most part wish to be circumcised. Their preferences would likely be close to my highest preference, of having my circumcision as an infant.

But to go even deeper parents are continually given license to decide for their children things that will permanently change and effect their children to a far greater degree than circumcision would. Very often do parents make these decisions for their children based on assumed preferences without the childs consent. Sometimes they get it wrong but many times when the parent is consientious they get it right. Why should this decision be excluded from a parent on the issue of circumcision but not on the countless other more impactful issues such as:

1) Whether or not they will grow up in a specific religious community or not.
2) Whether they will be in close contact with many relitives, like grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins or not.
3) What type of education they will receive.
4) What (if any) musical instruments they will learn.
5) What (if any) additional languages they will learn.
6) What sort of nutrition they will receive as children.
7) Whether or not they will be immunized against various diseases.
8) Whether they will be breastfed or bottlefed.

The list can go on and on. These items permamently affect the child in a much more impactful way than circumcision, most of the time they are done without the childs consent and they are irreversable. The child grows up and is happy with some of the decisions his/her parents made on his/her behalf without his/her consent, sometimes they are unhappy. The same is easily said of circumcision. I am very happy that my parents made the decision that I could never make, to have an infant circumcision, for me.
December 1, 2010 12:44 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...
Tony, a bunch of your previous comments seem very similar to one another. Did you want me to delete any of them for you.
December 1, 2010 12:51 PM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...
I would agree with you for the most part, basically if I believed that the parents choice to circumcies was the same choice as the individuals to circumcise himself, because the significant differences in pain. If the choice was essentially the same (for example using a special dye that permamently changes your hair color) I would agree with you that this decision should not be up to the parents because the choice can just as easily be given to the child when he can consent. The choice between infant circumcision and no circumcision, and the choice between and adult circumcision and no circumcision is are significantly different choices in my determination. The person can't choose to have a circumcision as an infant.

Also I believe that the impact of having a circumcision vs not having one is minimal, greater than ear piercings no doubt, but still relatively minor compared to most of the more impactful things parents are warranted to do (and rightfully so) to their children without their consent that are also irreversable.
December 1, 2010 1:12 PM

Tony said...
Yes, please delete them. Google gave me errors for length. I waited and refreshed and nothing showed up, so I assumed they were lost. I apologize for that.
December 2, 2010 11:18 AM

Tony said...
I agree that the pain involved for adults is a reason why more intact males don't choose circumcision. That supports me. They reveal their preference for avoiding pain more than being circumcised. That's instructive. When you circumcise an infant who grows up to be an adult who wishes to be intact, you steal from him the opportunity to have his normal body and no painful operation. There are opportunity costs on both sides. But only in refraining from non-therapeutic circumcising do you allow every individual to get as close to what he wants as possible.

The problem is assuming that the pain is mild for an infant or milder than adult circumcision. We don't know how different they are, if at all. It's obvious that infants feel pain. How do they process it? Do they want that? That's not an end to the debate, but it looms much larger when the surgery is not needed. The facts that an intervention can be only mildly painful and memoryless are irrelevant. It doesn't add anything to the discussion of ethics.

It's also worth noting that adults can receive proper pain management tailored to their response and can choose how much skin to remove (and whether or not to remove the frenulum).

I concede that most Jewish males left intact would ultimately choose circumcision. I think that percentage would decrease over time, but I accept that it will be a majority for a long time. However, I can't accept that we should ignore the minority to avoid a painful choice for the majority. The majority can still get most of what they value. They also might find that their preference changes from:

[circumcision as an infant] > [circumcision as an adult] > [No circumcision]


[circumcision as an infant] > [No circumcision] > [circumcision as an adult]

With infant circumcision, the minority can get none of what they value. Even on utilitarian grounds, defending circumcision doesn't work.

I think your list of options is useful. I agree, there can be a permanent effect, but that isn't guaranteed. For 1-5, those are not permanent. They can be overcome, with a caveat about the potential death of relatives with whom parents forbid contact. Nutrition and breastfeeding matter, and to a large extent, I think interference with those decisions is wrong. As long as the child is not malnourished, it's a parental decision.

The only item similar is vaccination. It's an intervention, it carries risk, and it's in essence permanent. However, vaccination deals with diseases that have few, if any, better prevention methods. Unlike circumcision and female-to-male HIV transmission, for example, a child can get measles in the course of normal social interaction. More importantly, vaccinations work with the body's natural functions to kick-start it. Circumcision for health (not really our focus) or social reasons works against the body, changing it to meet beliefs. That's the crux of where it differs and why standards for interfering with parental decision-making are different for the two.

I disagree that these permanently affect the child in a more impactful way. I was sent to church as a child. I've rejected that. (Disclosure: I'm agnostic.) I was given musical lessons for an instrument I didn't want, so I stopped when I could. As an adult, I'm now learning an instrument I like. I was raised an omnivore, and I'm now a vegan. And so on.
December 2, 2010 11:34 AM

Tony said...
(This is the second half. I'm assuming the first half will show up before this, eventually.)

I will always be circumcised. And I will always be against it for myself. It can't be overcome. You value circumcision, particularly that it was done to you as an infant. That is correct for you. But your conclusion is not mine, as I know you understand. We all have a basic right to be free from unwanted harm. A person can't choose circumcision in his infancy, but he also can't unchoose a circumcision in his infancy. That's the core fact. Until a child can offer consent, non-therapeutic circumcision is an unethical violation. Proxy consent is invalid.

There is no corresponding right to grow up* circumcised. Yes, you would have to choose it for yourself, with all of the drawbacks that go with it. Again, that's revealed preferences. It leaves the individual to evaluate and determine his own life. If you value circumcision more, you would suffer for a brief time, but you would ultimately get most of what you want. I will suffer my entire life and never get back any of what I want. I'm stuck with my parents' preference, or at least what they incorrectly assumed I'd want.

Related: On Monday, you posted Sara Bareilles' "King of Anything". Since I first heard it, that song resonated with me for a parent-child relationship, generally, and circumcision, specifically. For what that's worth...

* As I stated earlier, with any proposed prohibition on non-therapeutic circumcision of minors, the requirement should not be iron-clad on the age of majority. With the right textual protections against coercion, I'm fine with the individual's consent at whatever age he concludes he wants to be circumcised.
December 2, 2010 11:36 AM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...

Thank you for your well thought out and elucidative comments. I will have to chew them over a bit.

I will give you my initial reaction though. First off I think that the permanancy of all of the choices parents make in my list are in the realm of altering you in regards to your mind not your body in general. You will carry with you the connections you make as a child for the rest of your life. Sure you can learn a new language as an adult, but your mental skills will never be able to improve as much as if you had learned it as a child. I do believe that experiences you have as a child will alter your mental state for the rest of your life, either for good or for bad, and I believe a altering a persons mental state is more impactful to their life than the body altering of a circumcision.

I just simply haven't been convinced that I should universally reject this practice. I think that if I were to agree with your logic, which I think is very reasonable, I would also have to universally reject the practice of infant ear piercings (IEP). It seems to me that you wouldn't reject IEP because of the scale of harm done in your determination is not significant (correct me if I am wrong). I can't see how IEP are different than infant circumcisions in any other way. If the scale of harm done can be a determining factor in whether or not one should reject a procedure of this kind (and I think it is) then I am simply not convinced that the scale of harm is significant enough for me to oppose it. I would oppose other similar procedures whose harm I consider too significant to allow (such as cutting off a childs arm or tattooing disgusting images to a childs face) and I would not oppose practices I don't consider significantly harmful (like IEP, or a small tattoo on an inconspicuous part of an infants body assuming doing so doesn't make the child look abnormal, or circumcision).

As you said earlier:

"The remaining issue is, of course, our evaluation of the objective harm. I think the comparison to ear piercing is useful, but the difference in degree is significant"

Who gets to decide where to draw that line of where the degree of significance lies? I think it is hard to tell where it does and circumcision may be close to where that line gets hazy or it may not. I still am unsure about it being ok but I am also not convinced that it is unethical.
December 2, 2010 12:07 PM

Tony said...
"... You will carry with you the connections you make as a child for the rest of your life. ..."

I don't want to give the impression that I disagree with that. I probably did, since I was nonchalant on discarding some of my parents' decisions. I do carry the connections. We're all a collection of our experiences, not just the ones we like/choose/etc. Is it better to say "reduce the permanence" or "lessen the effect" of past parental decisions, or something like that? I still think that's different from circumcision, since I can't undo any of its effects.

Regarding IEP, I think parents shouldn't do it. It carries risk of infection. The incidence is rare but awful when it occurs. I think it treats children like dress-up dolls rather than children. Parents aren't considering that their children will one day be independent people with their own preferences. I've met women who wish their parents hadn't pierced their ears. Not many, but they exist. (Like circumcision, it should be allowed when there's consent, not the age of majority.)

As for a prohibition, it's tricky. I'd support it, and I think it's justified. But it's not a battle I'm interested in fighting, precisely because the difference between it and non-therapeutic circumcision is significant.

Drawing a line on significance is about objective facts. I think the line has both on the same side, against. If it's somewhere between the two, it's not so much about where that line is or who decides, but why it's drawn between them. Ear piercing affects a normal body part and exposes the recipient to some risk. Circumcision removes a normal body part, denying aspects of the human experience to the individual.

I respect your need to ponder our discussion and will not try to convince you further. We've hit the bulk of the discussion, anyway. I obviously hope my position will eventually convince you. Regardless, I commend you for thinking. I rarely encounter anyone who supports proxy consent for non-therapeutic circumcision who is willing to think. Most proponents already "know" everything (i.e. a subset of facts with many errors) they need to know. Thank you for being decent.
December 3, 2010 11:30 AM

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...

I have really enjoyed all of your comments. I commend you for your consistency and I think your reasoning is totally sound. Like I said earlier I will have to dwell on this some more before I can make a decision, but you have given me a lot to think about, and who knows I may very well oppose this practice in the future. But like all things I think all people should take their time with developing their beliefs and should do so with the utmost care, which I can see you have done with your position on circumsision.

I don't think I have really anything more to say on the subject either. Again thank you for the engaging conversation and for visiting and reading my blog. I really do appreciate it and love discussing difficult issues like this with open minded, thoughtful and respectful people such as yourself.

Take care and have a wonderful winter season.
December 3, 2010 11:49 AM

Questioning Yid said...
How delightfully refreshing to see a thoughtful and respectful dialog between opposing parties on a hot-button topic that never devolved into puerile and pugnacious exchanges. Thank you both for restoring a bit of my faith in humanity and true discourse!
December 13, 2010 9:20 AM

Jasmine said...
I'm against it for a very simple reason: bodily autonomy, which I consider sacrosanct (as far as an atheist can, anyway). People (and that includes infants) have the absolute right to decide what gets done to their bodies. Since an infant obviously can't make such a decision, the only ethical procedures are critical, life-saving ones. Others must wait until they are old enough to decide on their own. Surely that's not too much to ask?

Suppose it were considered socially important to give an infant a giant facial tattoo that marks them out forever, regardless of their later wishes. What would we make of that?

With the case of the deformed ear, again we must wait. Perhaps the child will not consider it so bad after all. Perhaps in the future such things will be accepted. Perhaps in the future there will be better ways to fix it. Who knows? Not us.

I submit that parents who surgically modify their children without permission are placing their own social discomfort over the wellbeing of their child.
December 20, 2010 12:07 PM

Balboa said...
I don't think circ should be banned for adults who choose to do it for themselves. I do think parents should not have unnecessary surgeries done on infants. especially not in synagogues with parties and smiles while the infant cries for help. I relented and had it done for my son after about a month because it would have cost me my marriage and my kids didn't deserve that.
December 26, 2010 3:08 AM