Saturday, May 7, 2011


Hello and Happy Saturday!

I wish to thank Hesham A. Hassaballa for his very enjoyable interview last week.
Thank you for sharing Hesham!

This week we have a new interview so please welcome G*3.
G*3 is Jewish and I know you will enjoy his interview as well!

Here Is G*3's Introduction:

Online I go by G*3 (not the catchiest of screennames, but it’s what I came up with on the spur of the moment years ago and it’s too much trouble to change it now).

I currently live in New York in a large Orthodox Jewish community. I have a masters in psychology, consider myself a history buff (particularly of military history), and have an active interest in philosophy, theology, and social psychology. I’ve always been a skeptic, but usually the only one – the only one in my Orthodox Jewish high school, the only one in the post-high school yeshiva I went to, the only one in my family. Then about three years ago I stumbled across the Jewish skeptics’ blogosphere, and I was amazed to find people just like me. About a year and a half ago I started my own blog, where I write about my experiences, philosophy, and theology, get my thoughts in order, and generally try to convince myself that I’m an intellectual.

1) What religion do you practice?
That’s a little complicated. In practice, I’m a (Modern) Orthodox Jew. I keep pretty much all of the mitzvos (commandments), I’m part of an Orthodox community, and I’m planning on sending my kids to Orthodox schools. But I don’t think that the tenets of Orthodox Judaism are true. My religious views are atheistic. I’m what some people call Orthoprax: I keep the prax (practices) of the Orthodox community, but not the dox (beliefs).

2) Are you a convert/revert or were you raised within this religion? If you converted, what did you need to do to convert? And what did you practice prior to converting?
I was born to Orthodox Jewish parents and raised by them in the Orthodox Jewish community, so as far as religion I’m not a convert. As far as my actual worldview, “convert” isn’t really the right word. I’ve only come to identify as a skeptic in the last couple of years, but that’s only about the label. As I wrote above, I’ve always been skeptical. The biggest change is that before I let go of the idea that there is a God, I spent years trying to fit religious truths into the real world. Over the last couple of years I finally let go of the last of the tortured logic and ill-fitting historical timelines that had allowed me to hold on to the idea that there might be something to God and religion after all. Once I realized that there are normal people who think the same way I do, I no longer felt the need to force myself to try and find ways to believe in things that just didn’t fit with the rest of what I knew to be true.

3)Within your religion are there degrees of observance (i.e. Orthodox, conservative, moderate, liberal)? What are the defining differences between the degrees of observance?
To do justice to Judaism’s full range of observance and belief would take a book, so I’ll limit myself to a VERY brief overview of Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox Jewish community can be divided along two axes: communal point of origin and broad theological approach. On the first axis, there are two major groups, the Ashkenazim (Jews from Europe, originally the Germanies) and Sephardim (technically Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, but often used as a catch-all grouping for all Jews who aren’t Ashkenazim). These groups are subdivided into German Jews, Polish Jews, Syrian Jews, etc. Each group has their own practices (called minhagim) in regard to various aspects of halachah (Jewish religious law).

On the second axis, on the far right are the Chareidim, which include the many Chassidic groups and the yeshivish community (the spiritual heirs of the Lithuanian Torah academies). Broadly, they believe in a mostly literal reading of the Bible (to be precise, a literal reading of the Bible as explained by the many commentaries), that the great Rabbis of the past wrote with Divine insight and were never wrong, that today’s rabbis have a similar, though lesser Divine insight, that added stringencies in the observance of mitzvos (commandments) is usually a good thing, that they must try as much as possible to separate themselves from the unholy influences of the outside world (no TVs, no secular newspapers, magazines, books, etc., and internet use restricted to business use only), and that one should ideally spend all of his time studying Torah (to the extent that many men spend a significant portion of their lives, or even all their lives, in yeshiva and never join the workforce). The Chareidim are the ones most people think of when they think of Orthodox Jews: black hats, black suits / coats, Chassidim with their shtreimels (fur hats), etc.

On the far left are the Modern Orthodox, who broadly believe that secular education is a good thing; that the great rabbis of the past and of today are pious men and brilliant scholars, but only human and susceptible error; that one can and should keep the mitzvos while engaging with the world at large, and that driving oneself crazy with added stringencies is not a good thing. The typical Modern Orthodox Jew dresses just like your average American, except that the men will usually wear a head covering.

There’s also kabblah (mystecism), which Chassidim and some Sephardim are into, and different social structures in different communities.

In practice, any given Orthodox Jew will fall somewhere on a continuum between right-wing Chareidi and left-wing Modern Orthodox. There are many different communities with various beliefs/observances that all bleed into one another, so there are informal categories like “stringent Modern Orthodox” and “Modern Chassidish.” And the far left of Orthodoxy bleeds into the Conservative movement…

4)Within your religion what degree of observance are you ((ie. Orthodox,conservative, moderate, liberal) ? Why did you choose this degree of observance?
In terms of practice and social identification, I’m somewhere in the middle of the Modern Orthodox segment of Orthodoxy. I grew up somewhere between Yeshivish and Modern Orthodox, and went to right-wing yeshivish schools. My skepticism pushed me towards the left: while I don’t think the religious beliefs of Modern Orthodoxy are true, at least many people in the Modern community are rationalists (as opposed to the mystically-oriented thinkers that dominate the right).

In terms of belief, I’m a heretic.

5)What is the Afterlife within your religion? For example: what happens when a person dies? Are there places for reward/punishment? (such as a Heaven/Hell concept)
There are slightly varying beliefs about the afterlife within Orthodox Judaism, so I’ll describe the version I’m most familiar with. Olam Haboh (literally, “the World to Come” - the afterlife) consists of Gan Eden (literally, “the Garden of Eden,” a figurative expression for Heaven) and Gehenom (literally, “the Valley of Henom,” an area outside Jerusalem that in ancient times had constant bonfires burning, an analogy for Hell).

Gehenom is more like the Catholic conception of Purgatory than it is like Hell. It’s not a place for punishment, per se, but for cleaning the residue of sin left on one’s soul so that it will be fit to enter Heaven. There are Rabbinic opinions that state Gehenom is not a place of physical cleansing and pain, but that in the World to Come everyone will know everything you did, and the shame of having your indiscretions known is compared to the physical pain of being burned in a fire.

Gan Eden is often described as a giant study hall, where we all get to study Torah with God. The more righteous you were in life, the closer you get to sit to God’s throne. The pleasures of Heaven are the intellectual pleasures of Torah study, of working through complicated legal problems and being rewarded with a sudden flash of insight.

From a skeptic’s standpoint, I’ll just note that the Hebrew Bible never mentions an afterlife; the most stringent punishment mentioned in the Bible is “mais yamus” (you will surely die); that there were mainstream Jewish sects during the time of the Second Temple that had no belief in an afterlife; that the ancient Hebrews appear to have believed in Sheol, a shadowy underworld where the dead were stored, similar to the Greek Hades; that the belief in the afterlife and the belief in universal resurrection when the Messiah comes coexist uneasily; and that the conception of Heaven as a giant study hall would appeal to the Talmudic scholars who wrote about it, but to very few other people.

6) In your opinion, does everyone make it into heaven/paradise? If they do not, why?
In my opinion, I see no reason to think that consciousness survives death. Neuropsychology is providing ever-better evidence that our consciousness is an emergent property of our brains. Much like software ceases to function when a computer stops working, so too our consciousness most likely ceases when our brains stop working. Which means that there most likely is no Heaven, no afterlife, and no one goes anywhere. We simply cease to be when we die.

As the Bible says: “Ki afar atah v’el afar tashuv” (For you are dust, and to dust you shall return). ;-)

7) What makes your religion a good fit for you?
If “your religion” refers to Orthodox Judaism, it’s not a good fit for me, but for the moment I’m stuck with it, and I’m used to it, so it’s not really a burden.

If “your religion” refers to my skepticism/atheism (which of course is not a religion at all, but a worldview) then it’s a good fit because that’s how I think. Nothing is taken for granted. Everything must be proven to a level of certainty in proportion with the demands it makes on me. In other words, if you tell me you have an aunt in China, I’ll take your word for it because it makes absolutely no difference to me. If you’re going to sell me a house for hundreds of thousands of dollars, you better have a deed showing that you own it and can sell it and I’m going to have the house inspected. If you want me to devote my life to a system of rituals and beliefs based on the premise that there is an intangible, omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent Creator who handed down a manual for life at a mountain three and half thousand years ago, you’re going to need some really good evidence.

Question everything, even this.

8) What are your holy days and what do you do to celebrate them?
I celebrate all of the Jewish Holidays. A description of each of the holidays can be found here:

Here’s my take, in chronological order (omitting some minor fasts):

Shabbos (the Sabbath, every week from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday):
Commemorates God resting on the seventh day of creation. Melacha (literally, “labor:” a large body of activities which includes turning electricity on or off, lighting or extinguishing fires, planting, doing laundry, walking more than about a quarter mile outside city limits, carrying objects outside of an enclosed area, writing, and many other things – you can fill a library with the books written on the subject) is forbidden, and objects which are muktza (things which are used to do melacha – for example, a pen which can be used for writing) are not handled. There are prayer services Friday evening (about an hour) Saturday morning (2 – 2½ hours) and Saturday afternoon and evening (about 20 minutes each).

Personally, I find the crowded, often poorly-ventilated rooms, incessant murmuring and chanting, and the visual stimulation of a roomful of constantly moving people to be very unpleasant, and find muttering prayers in Hebrew - a language I only understand if I concentrate – extolling the virtues of a Being I don’t think is there to be very boring.

Supper Friday night and lunch on Saturday are large family meals served on china, crystal, and silver. They provide good opportunities for having people visit, I try to have guests at the meals as often as possible.

Shabbos typically has a warm family atmosphere, provides a break from a hectic world, and the restrictions force us to do things like read and play games for entertainment instead of watching TV or going online. It’s one of the few things I would really miss if I ever broke with the Orthodox lifestyle.

That said, the long Shabbos afternoons during the summer can drag on and on and on…

Rosh Hashanah (New Years):
A two-day holiday, it shares most of the labor restrictions and atmosphere of Shabbos. Morning prayer services are typically about six hours long, with a break for a snack at some point in the middle. I don’t go much, but my wife likes me to take the kids to shul for an hour or so that they can hear the shofar (ram’s horn) blown.

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
Twenty-five hours of fasting and roughly twelve to fourteen hours of prayer. This is the day when we tell God what miserable sinners we’ve been and beg Him to keep us around for another year so that we can continue to be His slaves. Only God could get away with something like that.

What do you mean I’m cynical?

Succos translates as “booths,” which sounds like a silly name for a holiday, but then lots of names sound silly when translated. Abraham literally means “Father of many.” Imagine greeting a friend, “Hey Father Of Many! What’s doing?” But I digress.

On Succos we erect huts and eat our meals in them (and some people sleep in them) for a week. This is supposed to be in memory of the clouds with which God surrounded the Israelites in the Sinia desert during their forty years of wandering. Personally I think that’s about as likely as Jesus having actually been born on the winter solstice. It more likely started as a harvest festival that had biblical significance tacked onto it later.

Simchas Torah
The day after Succos, Simchas Torah celebrates the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle in shul (at the rate of one and occasionally two parshios (sections) per week) and the beginning of the next cycle. It is celebrated by dancing with the Torah scrolls in shul, after which every man gets an aliyah (a small portion of the weekly portion read while he stands next to the reader. Historically each person called up to the Torah would read a portion himself, but eventually a system evolved where the entire weekly portion is read by a designated reader, and he reads each sub-section in lieu of the person called up. This was because the masses were illiterate, and this system enabled anyone to get an aliyah.)

This is probably the most well-known and popular of the Jewish holidays, because it happens to fall around Christmas. Then again, it’s possible that it’s not a coincidence that a holiday during which lighting candles is the major ritual falls around the winter solstice, or that both Chanukah and Christmas share features with other Solstice holidays. Chanukah is a minor holiday and has nowhere near the significance that Christmas has for Christians.

Chanukah is celebrated religiously by lighting the menorah (a nine-branched candelabra) each night after sundown for eight nights and culturally by giving gifts and getting together for family celebrations.

It’s interesting that Chanukah is the most likely holiday to be celebrated by non-religious Jews, given that the holiday celebrates the victory of the fundamentalist Chashmonaim over the secularists and assimilationists of the time who wanted Judeans to integrate fully into the Assyrian Empire.

Tu B’Shvat (The fifteenth day of the month of Shvat)


Pesach (Passover)

The anniversary of the giving of the Torah by God to the Jewish nation at Mt. Sinia

Tisha b’Av (fast on the ninth day of the month of Av)
A day of fasting and mourning that supposedly marks the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Its historicity aside, this is one holiday that I think can be given real significance, as I wrote about here:

9) Do you consider people of other faiths to be your friends?
This assumes I have friends. I tend to be asocial, and the only people I would consider friends is a couple I know through my wife.

In theory, I have no objection to being friends with anyone who’s a decent person, but given that most of my very limited social contact happens within the Orthodox community, I don’t see becoming friends with someone of another faith happening in the near future.

10) Would you ever join people of another faith to celebrate one of their holy days? Please explain why?
Personally, I have no objections. I’m very interested in other cultures, and as long as they didn’t expect me to buy into the religion the holiday is based on, I could definitely see myself watching the festivities. Actually participating would be awkward, both because of my religious conditioning (which produces automatic reactions that are hard to ignore or suppress) that other religions are, well, if not exactly evil, definitely not good, and because as a skeptic I think it would be inappropriate for me to be an active part of something that is meaningful to others and that I view as superstition.

11) What are your thoughts on the burka, and Shariah Law?
Mostly that it’s none of my business. As a member of a religion that has similar (though less extreme) modesty rules for women and that lives by the dictates of a religious law code, I can empathize with Muslims. In Orthodox communities, it is often women who call for stricter observance of modesty rules, women who organize classes on modesty, and women who justify modesty rules as ennobling, as keeping their beauty only for their husbands and as keeping themselves from being seen as sex objects.

In practice, I’ve found that the stricter the modesty laws in a community, the more sexualized women are. In communities where men and women are strictly separated at all social gatherings and women are covered in loose-fitting clothing from collarbone to wrist to ankle, a bare elbow is pornographic and accidentally brushing against a woman is something that a man will remember for years.

When I was in high school, the (all boys) school I went to had strict rules against any of us having any contact with any girl to whom we weren’t related. As a result, I vividly remember the single time I spoke to a girl during my four years of high school: one morning when my bag dropped on the sidewalk and a girl on her way to one of the Orthodox all-girl schools helped me pick up my books. All I said to her was, “Thank you.” She didn’t say anything. It’s something that would normally be a non-incident, but because I had no contact at all with girls, it stands out well over a decade later.

I would guess that there are Muslim women that champion the burka as ennobling. And I would guess that there are Muslim men who would see a woman in street clothes the same way an American man would see a woman in a string bikini.

12) Are women allowed to hold religious office (priest, minister, rabbi, iman etc) in your religion and how do you feel about it?
No. Though there was recently an attempt by a single rabbi on the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy to ordain a woman. It didn’t go over well with the rest of the Orthodox community, but we’ll see where it stands in another decade or two.

On the one hand, I think it’s unfair that women are excluded from positions of religious authority. On the other hand, given the way Orthodox Judaism is structured, a version of Orthodoxy that truly allowed women into the religious power structure wouldn’t really be Orthodoxy. It’s a systemic problem, born of the belief that the further back in time a rabbi lived, the more authoritative he is; and the fact that the rabbis of centuries and millennia ago lived in and shared the values of the societies of centuries and millennia ago.

13) Does your place of worship segregate? If yes, how does this make you feel?
Yes. I don’t have a place that I go regularly, but all Orthodox shuls (synagogues) have separate men’s and women’s sections. Many have the men’s section in the front and the women’s section in the back, because the service is performed exclusively by men and the chazzan’s (prayer leader’s) podium and the aron (usually translated as ark: a kind of a closet, often made of ornately carved wood with an embroidered velvet curtain hanging over the door) where the Torah scrolls are kept are always at the front of the room. Many Modern Orthodox shuls have the divider run down the center of the room instead, so that the sections are right and left instead of front and back and the women’s seating opportunities are equal to the men’s.

Usually when I do go to shul I end up sitting next to a complete stranger and spend half the time worrying that I’m in someone’s seat. I’d much rather sit next to my wife, but for now, at least, that’s not an option.

14) How much does your religion affect your daily life and how much thought do you give it when making a decision? Does it affect in any way your decision on abortion, gay marriage, etc?
Orthodox Judaism has a large effect on my daily life. It affects what I eat (kosher only), where my kids will go to school, the kind of clothing my wife will wear, etc. I do give it some thought when I make decisions, but only in a practical (not moral) sense, such as which schools I’m considering for my kids.

Skepticism is just the way I think, and so of course it affects my life, my decisions, and in general the way I evaluate everything and relate to the world.

I’m neither a woman nor gay, so I don’t see that I will ever have to personally make a decision about abortion or gay marriage. If you want my opinion on their morality, I really can’t see how gay marriage harms anyone. As long as no one is being coerced I don’t see how any marriage is anyone’s business besides the two (or three or four or whatever) people getting married. Abortion is trickier, and comes down to your definition of life, at what point someone becomes human, and your take on the idea that every human life has intrinsic value. I can fully support aborting fetuses to save the mother or in cases where the child would live a short and miserable life. Other cases are grey moral areas that require more nuanced answers than “right” or “wrong.”

It occurs to me that the heated debate over abortion may be because people are very uncomfortable with ambiguity in their moral systems. This discomfort causes many on either side to adopt absolutist positions that can’t be justified and can only be defended with invective rhetoric.

15) How would you react/feel if your child wished to marry outside your religion?
As long as the person they want to marry is a good person who will make them happy, I’m fine with it. Telling their grandparents, though… that wouldn’t be fun.

16) In your opinion, if someone is not of your faith, will they go to hell?
I used to wonder about this. According to Judaism, any non-Jew who adheres to the Seven Noahide Laws (most of which are basic social rules) has a place in Heaven. But what about the Crusader knight who truly believed that he was doing God’s will when he slaughtered the Jewish communities of the Rhine valley? Or the devout Inquisitor who served the Lord by ferreting out Marranos (Spanish Jews who nominally converted to Catholicism but continued to practice Judaism in secret) and burning them at the stake in an auto de fe? Did God punish them for bringing such sorrow to His chosen people? Did He reward them because their intention was to serve Him?

Today, as I said above, I see no reason to think that the consciousness survives death or that there is any such place as Hell, so the question is moot.

17) Who do you think is not a practicing ----- in your religion and why? ie who in the public domain claims to speak for your religion? Do you agree with them or not?
I don’t think there is anyone who publicly claims to speak for Orthodox Judaism. For that matter, I can’t think of anyone in the popular media that claims to speak for Judaism collectively or in any of its forms.

There are outspoken atheists like Dawkins, Dennet, etc. who I often find myself agreeing with, but the disbelief in a concept is a weak bond on which to build a community identity and I certainly don’t feel that any of them speak *for* me.

18) Have you ever been the target of a hate crime? Please explain.
Nothing serious enough to be labeled a hate crime. I’ve had things like “Jew boy” yelled at me and once, shortly after I graduated from high school and was still wearing the white-dress-shirt-and-black-dress-pants I had been used to in school, I was mugged by a couple of teenagers who “helpfully” suggested that I should wear jeans so I wouldn’t stand out. On average, though, this sort of thing has happened maybe once a decade.

I had a much worse experience nearly a year ago when I foolishly commented on a Chareidi news site challenging some of the premises of an article posted there. I had been hoping for an interesting conversation with the article’s author. Instead I got threats, personal attacks on my character, and anxious comments warning that my identity should be found out so that I could be kept from corrupting the community’s children. I wrote about it here:

19) Do you ever feel like your religion devalues you?
In a way, I think religion devalues everyone. Accomplishments are attributed at least in part to God, while theodicy demands that people are solely responsible for their failings.

Years ago an acquaintance tried to convince me that Napoleon Bonaparte was a shaid (a kind of demon). The premise seemed to be that a mere human wouldn’t have been capable of accomplishing everything Napoleon did. Leaving aside that Napoleon’s life is well-documented, this kind of thinking devalues the human race as a whole because it denies us credit for our greatest accomplishments.

20) Does your religion give you peace of mind?
No. I don’t think Judaism is true, so there’s no help there. And without any belief in the metaphysical, I find myself groping to find meaning and slipping into nihilism.

Incidentally, the loss of meaning that sometimes accompanies loss of belief in religion is often cited by theists as a reason to be religious. Unfortunately, that’s just a pragmatic argument. It says nothing about whether the claims of the religion are true. As George Bernard Shaw said, "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one."

21) Do you believe in reincarnation? Why or why not?
No. I see no reason to think that there is a soul, and without a soul reincarnation is meaningless.

On the other hand, the material we’re made from is constantly recycled, and some of it will probably end up in some other living creature at some point. For instance, dust mites eat our dead skin cells, and the material becomes part of them. But somehow I don’t think that’s what most people mean by reincarnation.

Please note, if I seemed overly critical of Orthodox Judaism, that’s only because that’s the religion I’m most familiar with and the community in which I live. I have a similar opinion of all theistic religions.

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