Sunday, October 22, 2006


Bereshis Blogging

This past week marked the beginning of this year's Torah reading cycle with, appropriately, the reading of the Story of Creation and the Generations of Man. Many people take this story literally, or even if they do not, they seek to have physical and natural science validate the super-natural and meta-physical designing of the universe by God through a doctrine of "intelligent design". They feel anything less would represent an affront to their religious faith, as apparently, their so-called faith cannot admit doubt, even though it is through skeptical observation of nature, without any agenda to prove God's existence, that we obtain faith: faith the sun will rise again, etc. What kind of faith is it that requires scientific confirmation to know the sun will rise again tomorrow? That darkness is separated from light? What kind of faith can only proclaim God's unique existence when one has one's eyes open?

But doesn't Genesis itself place the physical origins of the universe and living organisms with God? Yes. But this story is an allegory. The Torah is notoriously spare with detail and filled with some rather puzzling turns of phrase, both of which defy literal interpretation and ask us to interpret the Torah as it would apply in our times. We are not told merely to follow the tradition given to our ancestors but rather that we were metaphorically at Sinai as well, so the Torah is given to us. So where the Torah alludes to myths and legends universally known to the its audience from 2500-3000 years ago but which we know not, we must fill in, via Midrash, our own myths and legends so we truly can understand the Torah at the same level as those who were closer in time to Sinai.

Where the Torah uses confusing phrasing, perhaps common at the time of its writing but now beyond our comprehension, it invites us and requires us to interpret its writings so that we may understand the Torah at the same level as those who were closer in time to Sinai. Jewish tradition presents us with two approaches here: Rabbi Ishmael argues that since the Torah is written in the language of its audience presumed to be literally at Sinai, we should not take the exact words of Torah so seriously but rather should understand fully the lessons Torah, our teacher from another time and place, is trying to teach us: a necessary challenge in any learning experience as our teachers, with wisdom we students have not, are necessarily as if they were from a foreign country -- that land of wisdom. On the other hand, Rabbi Akiva argues that as the word of God, we must read very carefully into the precise words of Torah. In either case, however, the presence of confusing phrasing is an invitation for us readers to either read the Torah less than literally or read the words of Torah very carefully and perhaps to have a meaning different than the literal meaning one obtains at a level of basic reading comprehension.

The creation story is one such place in Torah: e.g., the first word of Torah is b'reshith, which literally means, "in the beginning of [emphasis added]" ... in the beginning of what? Also, there is no first day, only "day one"; the light is created and separated from darkness before that which produces light is created, etc. The Torah invites us to take it at a different level than the literal level. Whether one uses the approach of Rabbi Ishmael which frees on to consider the creation story as an allegory attempting to explain important truths to an audience not ready to understand them literally or whether one uses the approach of Rabbi Akiva and focuses on the peculiar turns of phrase, one cannot limit oneself to a literal reading of the creation account and have a true understanding of Torah as if one was at Sinai (a similar argument can be made about the bizarrely phrased prohibitions in Leviticus taken by many to apply to homosexuality but which, in the spirit of either Rabbi Ishmael or Rabbi Akiva, beg us to understand them as prohibiting something else and perhaps even -- in the spirit of left-handers placing T'fillin on their right hand as they should read "right hand" as "left hand" as their right hand is to them as the left hands of us righties are to us --prohibiting gay men from having sex with women as much as we straights are prohibited from having sex with men -- bisexuals maybe even get a complete pass on this one -- making the ex-gay movement the abomination in the eyes of God, and the gay-rights movement holy).

Coincidently or perhaps not, the most recent Science Friday dealt with genetic evidence for evolution. Since, in a lesson to free-market-types who assume Darwinian processes result in some sort of magical efficiency and economy, DNA even when rendered useless only disappears or becomes meaningless so fast (if it ever does disappear or degenerate into a random sequence), each of our genomes bears fossil genes displaying our evolutionary origins. Why would an Intelligent Designer place such genes in our genome? The universe may be designed -- it may be fine-tuned for life, etc. -- but at a physical and natural level, the hypothesis of design is clearly disproved unless one believes in a malevolent or un-intelligent designer.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg on why "Intelligent Design" as a scientific hypothesis is bad theology. Assuming it were true (and the Designer's neither stupid nor entirely malevolent), why the creation of genetic fossils that might trick us into believing in evolution? Some would argue that these are tests of our faith much like Abraham's test with Isaac. But Abraham was "tempted" as some translation would have it, not tested (I'll go with an Akiva-esque like approach with that, for now): and Abraham failed the test, but he did not stumble, and God stopped the procedure before he stumbled. On the other hand, if we are spiritually blind not to accept "Intelligent Design", then the presence of genetic fossils is a stumbling block -- we have indeed stumbled and fell away from belief in "Intelligent Design" -- before we who are blind, the placing of which stumbling block is against God's commandments! Does God violate his own law?

This is a deep question, which is part of a larger line of questions separating Judaism and Christianity: when does God violate divine law and when does God not do so? What sins can God forgive and under what circumstances?

As to the latter question, Christianity tends to appear more lenient: even the most horrid of sins can be forgiven, according to certain strains of Christianity, so long as one accepts Jesus as the Christ and Son of God. But from a mechanistic soterological perspective, it is Judaism that is more lenient. The Christian, or at least either the fundamentalist or orthodox Christian, would say that God cannot forgive any sin as such forgiveness would violate an extra-legal (and shall I say rather Hellenistic and foreign to the Hebrew mindset) notion of God's perfection. Thus God requires a sacrifice (in the orthodox formulation, to purge the Original Sin ... which also relates back to differences in interpreting parts of this week's parsha, so I'm still on topic ;) ... for a very indirect Hassidic critique of the notions of "original sin" and vicarious atonement, see one of the readings in Machzor Hadash, which I mentioned in a post over a year ago: yep, this here blog thingy's now over a year old!), which, in His mercy, He's provided: His Son. Judaism, on the other hand, would say that since forgiveness after restitution is part of God's law, it would make no sense to have God sin by being un-just and un-forgiving. Thus, even though Judaism demands "T'shuva" (repentance, lit. return) to achieve divine forgiveness, which for grave sins becomes nearly impossible to achieve and thus makes Judaism seem strict, Judaism is really more lenient as it considers God to be forgiving of any sin, so long as the sinner truly demonstrates a return to the right path.

Looking back on the month that is about to end, full of festivals dealing in part with both the notion of repentance and the harvest as it was, we now have an interesting perspective in which to think of sin and repentance. On Rosh Hashanah in the ritual of Tashlicht, we cast bread, representing our sins, upon the waters. But on Sukkoth, we read in Ecclesiastes of casting our bread upon the waters meaning something quite different. Or does it? Perhaps it is through sharing the harvest, the real purpose of the sacrificial system, we repent for our sins and also ensure our own prosperity. Too many supposedly religious people nowadays have a bad attitude about wealth redistribution: but it's in the Bible as a means of both atoning for sin and assuring the general welfare and wealth of the nation!

And what are we to make of the contrasting in the Unesaneh Tokef prayer between rest, ease, tranquility, poverty and humbling with wandering, harassment, affliction, wealth and exaltation?

So many questions, so little time to think about them, nu? But to read the Torah carefully, one cannot and ought not to avoid asking questions: and one either has to confront the irregularities in the text with either a careful reading or a loose reading. One cannot avoid the problems of the text by being a literalist. Similarly, to expect hard and fast proof that a regular miracle will continue rather than to doubt it will continue and fear that it will not -- to have both the fear of God and the fear of the lack of God -- is not to have the highest faith, e.g. that science can and will establish the truth of religion, but to fundamentally lack the true faith which comes from doubt.

I am an atheist. I have little patience, actually a bit of contempt, for those raised in modern post-enlightenment societies who believe in superstitions. And yet...

I have always so admired the conceptualization of that evolutionary transition when our species partakes of the Tree of Knowledge. I have to credit those ancients. There really was and remains no better way to explain the blessing and curse of the advent of human intelligence. The authors of Genesis did dwell heavily on the curse aspect of a mind directed more by reason and free will than by instinct and compulsion but I guess problems tend to loom larger than opportunities.

The story seems to capture the essence of what was so evolutionarily problematic for we particular apes who live with a life long awareness, if not dread, of approaching death, artificial taboos, psychological maladies of shame and guilt but who, to the good, are able to engage in abstract thought, plan for the future and recount stories of the past (and past generations), choose and pursue a variety of preoccupations as individuals.

Do other mythologies provide such a profound description of the appearance of and the problems associated with human intelligence? (No offense meant with my use of the word mythology.)
I do not want to wander too far off topic but I noticed this comment over in a dead thread at Hullabaloo by your link buddy Olvlzl:

Agnosticism, saying that you don't know objectively if there is a God, is the only entirely honest position to take in as far as the debate goes. Anyone, believer or atheist, who says that they know either doesn't know what it is to know something or they are being dishonest.

I used the term atheist to describe myself in my earlier comment and for me it is the "only entirely honest position to take."

I was wondering if you were secretly my friend mikec, but mikec. is hardly an atheist, so unless you're playing devil's advocate here, I reckon you aren't ...

anyway, olvlzl's point is well taken. but some of us are epistemological subjectivists anyway, so even if we are Theists, by this definition of agnostic, we are agnostics as well, nu?
Do other mythologies provide such a profound description of the appearance of and the problems associated with human intelligence? (No offense meant with my use of the word mythology.) - cmike

No offense taken. Mythology is the correct word here. And I think the answer is that they offer such a description but (and I may be partial here) not such a profound description.

Interestingly, in these sorts of myths, the women is blamed for "civilizing" the man. I wonder what truth (or perhaps better what rather universal social conception) about the role of women in establishing and maintaining civilization is expressed here? Certainly there is a strain of "Judeo-Christian" thought (which seems to be at the root actually of some rather nasty homophobia and sexism) that women civilize men (and that if we men didn't have to deal with women, we'd be having a lot more fun ... which leads to an envy among those who think this way of gays which leads to homophobia via a sour grapes type phenomenon) -- and this, to me, is the rather problematic aspect of these stories.

Interestingly for the "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" crowd, the particular myth from which the Torah draws (the people were originally conjoined pairs of men and women) in describing God separating Eve from Adam's side, is used in Plato's Symposium to justify what we would consider modern homosexual love (which was not, btw, very much accepted in ancient Greece ... nor was it what was likely prohibited in Leviticus, as I've described in this post and previously).
Beyond perhaps "I think therefore I am" one can be agnostic in all matters epistemological and ontological. The empiricist believes there can be no certainty in inferences drawn from an incomplete set of observations of a class of phenomena. And yet the empiricist still bothers to get out of bed in the morning.

By declaring yourself to be an agnostic in matters of theism you really are relying on a philosophical tautology to avoid giving an answer to the questions what is the basis of your morality, from what source do you derive your purpose. None of us know if those around us are real entities unto themselves independent of our minds but very nearly all of us believe and act as if we knew others are independent entities. Empiricists do not wake on some mornings and shoot those around them because of a lack of certainty over the consequences or meaning of such actions. Empiricists do not waste a lot energy fretting over whether or not purple T-rexes are roaming their neighborhood just beyond their sight lines.

To be truly agnostic in the matter of theism I would think you would have to be uncertain about all versions of theism. Certain fundamental Christians believe that by accepting Jesus as your lord and savior you are guaranteed a blissful eternal life and by failing to come to Jesus you will be damned to the everlasting torments of a lake of fire. Those are pretty hefty stakes for the uncertain to fail to hedge. I think the reason agnostics do not break down and get Born Again is because, truth be told, they are not all that agnostic in the matter of Christian Fundamentalism.

In modern western parlance, theism is the belief in a god whose primary concern is with the lives and choices of each individual human and the general course of mankind. (For my purposes here I don't define theism as some Kantian/Buddhist universal intelligence that the enlightened can tap into or any version of animism.) Me, I'm an atheist because I just don't think human beings play the central role in the universe and I do think my morality is a function of my being of a species of mammals with pack animal tendencies - if I was a male crocodile eating baby crocs (and humans) would be quite moral.

Am I being honest when I say I'm an atheist? Am I certain? Well, I am betting my life on it.
Well, I am betting my life on it. - cmike

Pace Pascal, eh? OTOH, what if there were an "anti-Christianity" wherein God decides to condemn Christians to hell? Then either way you bet, you're betting your "life", nu?

This sort of argument is used by many atheists to argue against religion in general, FWIW.

Also, FWIW, some would indeed argue that the Kantian/Buddhist or even certain Jewish theological approaches are really agnostic if not de facto atheistic.
"Pace Pascal," wrote Alberich...I thought I knew all the four letter words but I had to get out the dictionary to make sense of this.

Voltaire praised and no doubt owed a debt to Pascal. Yet I can't help but think Voltaire might have talked some sense into that mathematical genius about carriage accidents and 1600 year old magic thorns had their order of appearance in history been reversed.

I do have a question to ask you about the philosophy of a Pascal contemporary. However, I've all ready gone too far afield in this thread. For now just be advised, you will get this question the next time you reference seventeenth century philosophy.
you will get this question the next time you reference seventeenth century philosophy. - cmike

I'm calling your bluff today -- see my most recent post.

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