Thursday, January 12, 2006

Off the Derech

Let me fall
Let me climb
There's a moment when fear
And dreams must collide

Let Me Fall
by Josh Groban

There is a moment in time when each person faces a choice. We come to the end of the road, as it were, and face different paths. It is then that we ask ourselves- why are we religious? Why am I a Jewess? Why do I believe?

If we are simply Jewish because of our blood, and we know no other reason, or if we are faced by ideas that seem extremely contradictory and receive no clear answers, if our questions are not acknowledged or are answered inadequately, if, in effect, we find ourselves in spiritual difficulty- and who has not?- the choice is not so simple.

There are those, based on many premises- whether intellectual, moral, emotional or religious- who choose to abdicate or to forgo the responsibility, others who desire to follow their dreams and moral beliefs- ideas that are not substantiated by Judaic law. There are some who present scientific arguments, others with intellectual arguments, some who base their decision on the way in which they were treated while within the Jewish community- oftentimes with scorn or derision, even intolerance, close-mindedness or anger. There are some who simply do not believe in organized religion, no matter the kind.

These are the ones who make a choice- reasoned, impetuous, irrational or logical- to step off the path.

This step is different for everyone. Some may whistle, cheerfully placing one foot in front of another as they dance off the path. Others may step forward tremulously, hesitantly embarking on a path that is totally different from all they ever knew. There are still others who march as a soldier unto battle, people who are strong and believe in the strength of their choice. And of course, there are the many within these various spectrums.

Many times, the ones who choose to step off the path have valid concerns. They have been exiled by the Jewish community in certain ways, perhaps, or maybe religion was never presented to them in a meaningful context. There may be others who were forced into religion too soon and against their will and therefore resent it. There are still others with carefully constructed arguments that delve into the Biblical texts themselves, or describe the many ways in which scientific theory appears to differ tremendously (and possibly even negate) ideas mentioned in the Torah. All of these are questions and concerns.

There are others who are disturbed by the moral implications of the Torah. Why is homosexuality impermissable? Why would we voluntarily involve ourselves in genocidal warfare against Amalek, especially since we have experienced the Holocaust? Why are men who seem cruel, who sold their own brother to traders, the forerunners of the 12 tribes? Why were we told to wipe out the seven nations of Ca'naan? Why is a woman's testimony not valid in court?

These, too, are valid qustions and concerns. Indeed, the great majority of issues brought up in the Skeptic's Annotated Bible are not simply issues that trouble them, skeptics and apostates alone, but rather issues that ought to trouble us all. There are many ethical and moral dilemmas that we are presented with. Differences in gender roles. Questions about love and mercy. The reiteration that our God is vengeful, jealous. So many questions, in so many different forms.

As I have stated, there are many reasons that one might choose to step off the Judaic path. I do not wish to state the obvious- namely, that if we were open to questions, accepted them as valid, and at least attempted to answer them, there might be fewer youth (I say youth in particular) who would find it necessary to step off the path. But I hardly believe that this is the solution. Indeed, I do not know that there is such a thing as a "solution."

Because a person's choice can hardly be viewed as a problem; it is a choice, one that man made for himself in keeping with his beliefs and values. The question that I believe is more important, then, is not necessarily the reasons for stepping off the path, but rather, the response on our part. The reaction. The stigma. In short, what the words "off the derech" convey.

Einstein, who did not believe in a personal God, made a statement that I regard as being true:

    Actually it is a very difficult thing to even define a Jew. The closest that I can come to describing it is to ask you to visualize a snail. A snail that you see at the ocean consists of the body that is snuggled inside of the house which it always carries around with it. But let's picture what would happen if we lifted the shell off of the snail. Would we not still describe the unprotected body as a snail? In just the same way, a Jew who sheds his faith along the way, or who even picks up a different one, is still a Jew.

I find this statement to have great depth.

A Jew is a Jew without his faith, even as a snail is a snail without his shell. He still exists among us, amidst us, despite his views and ideas. He is not to be shunned, to be hated, to be exiled. He is not to be despised.

Some common reactions to finding out that one has stepped off the path are:

    Stony silence. Regarding the person as totally forfallen.
    Anger. Confusion. Even hatred.
    "Why are you doing this to me?"
    "Your grandparents died for this faith! How do you, an American with a perfect life, have the right to deny it?"
    "You are not going to live in this house if you do this..."
    An inability to admit the person has made a life choice/ decision. Instead, thinking that the person will "come round" if you ignore what they say/ choose not to see it.
    Sending the person to a Rabbi/ therapist/ counseler.

I think these reactions are understandable, but not helpful. I do not want to judge the people who say/ do this. I am not in their position, and what I propose is what I mentally find to be correct, and not necessarily what I would do (although I hope I would) if I were in the same position.

I asked my parents what they would do if I would one day decide to leave my religion. I did not do this because I am actually considering leaving, but rather for guidance with regard to their response. My parents believe that the person who makes this choice must be treated with love. We may differ- intellectually, theologically even- but should keep the channels of communication open. Instead of accusations or anger, my father (very simply) said he would ask me "Why?"

This "Why" would not be condemnatory, an angry thrust, a pointed barb. It would be a true question. What is it that persuades you Judaism is wrong/ incorrect? It is possible that I too, Chana, your father, share the same questions as you, and am also looking for the answers...

My mother believes in unconditional love, and would want to be an involved part of my family anyway- attending celebrations and various joyous occasions. She could not write any of us off- we are her children. There is a bond that connects us, through all of our searching, no matter where it may take us.

A person has merit even if he has chosen another path. He is not suddenly stupid or foolish or simply wrong. The main preoccupation of Orthodox Jewry is trying to get those who went "off-the-derech" to come back on. There's so many organizations that wish to accomplish this. While I think their intentions are good, I believe that the focus may be wrong.

Before we tell others to come back, to join us, as it were, oughtn't we to listen to their reasons?

If the only reason you speak with someone is to refute him, and not to learn from him, how can you possibly answer reasonably?

If someone has made a life decision- particularly if the person is learned, and has thought about intellectual and logical parameters- one can hardly begin to debate him if one does not understand his premise. And even those who leave based on emotion- the fact that they feel stifled, or are angry with their parents/ school system- have something to say within the anger. You must listen before you can argue. You must desire to hear what they have to say.

There is also an assumption that the person is instantly wrong when we say that he has "gone off the derech." In truth, this is wholly situational. An adolescent who has decided to engage in something harmful to his body (drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc) and rebel may also step off the path as part of his rebellion. But this is also viewing a situation very simply. There may be more to the "rebel" kid just as there may be more to the intellectual premise. It would be best not to make assumptions. We state that there is a "correct path" and that others have strayed from it and our mission is instantaneously to bring them back to it. This is like putting blinders on one's eyes. To them, we are not on the path...

People who gain a child/ adolescent's confidence in order to cajole him into reaccepting religion disturb me. This is treating a child shabbily indeed. Even people who propose extremely simplistic arguments undermine our intelligence. For example, my Rabbi at Templars (one of the good ones, if you can believe it) once stated during a Machshava class the idea of Pascal's Wager (though not in those words):

Rabbi: So if you keep the Torah and the mitzvos, then you go up to Shamayim and if there is a God, you receive Olam Haba! And if there isn't a God, well, then, you've still lived a good and moral life. So you might have missed out on some things, on pleasure mostly, the pleasures of [gives a list], having fun, but in the long term, what's better? I'd gamble on Hashem!

Chana: But your whole life would have been a lie!

Rabbi: But you would be dead, so you wouldn't realize that.

Chana: You can't just say that we're only "missing out" on pleasure if we keep the Torah! There are so many other things that are worth thinking about/ debating...

Class: (Jumps on Chana= attack Chana time.) The Rabbi's is too pleasure, it's TV and movies and pritzus and untznius clothes...what do you mean?....I'd rather have Olam Haba...and either way, you'll still have been a good person...

Even if the class accepted this argument, I still think it insults an adolescent's intelligence to state this. I believe that if we were grounded in the basics of our theology/philosophy/religion, and understood it from an intellectual premise rather than from an emotional "feel-good" premise (the common argument- I love Shabbos! I get together with friends; it's wonderful! Yeah- but, as I read somewhere, maybe even on one of the blogs- Shabbos was also extremely hard for my grandparents to observe, due to the fact that they would lose their job if they did so- is the "feel-good" philsophy going to hold up under that situation? No...)

Someone who steps off the path may have some very valid points. This person deserves thinking, questioning discussion, not an idea that we have all the answers and , in an effort to save his soul, must be "mikareiv" him.

Look at Elisha ben Avuyah, in Chagiga 15A.

R' Meir continued to learn from R'Elisha, because Elisha did not suddenly lack in knowledge of Torah. He was brilliant, an extremely erudite scholar! Yet he chose to leave Judaism, and later on, was under the impression that he could not return. He tore a root/ radish from the ground on the Sabbath for a prostitute; she was shocked by his actions and decided he was Acher- another. Even so, R' Meir listened to him and learned from him.

There is a wonderful story mentioned there- Elisha, riding his horse on Sabbath and R' Meir, walking alongside him, spoke of Torah until they reached the techum, where Elisha stated that R' Meir could walk no farther. R'Meir implored him to return; Elisha stated that he could not (he believed he had been forbidden to do so.) Others had the option, but not he.

When I was in Israel over the past summer, I visited a certain site (I cannot remember exactly where it was, I think perhaps within the Talmudic Village) where a certain introductory video played. This story, of Elisha ben Avuya and R' Meir, was enacted on screen; the two of them speaking together about Judaic law even as Elisha rode on his horse. Then, the screen switched to a modern-day scene. A man with a black hat, long earlocks and black gaberdine, walked next to a totally secular Jew driving a car on Shabbos. The two of them were deep in intellectual discussion, engrossed in a fascinating argument.

This struck me immensely. Why is it that we never see this happen? I have never seen a religious Jew and one who has walked "off the derech" discussing Torah together, let alone as one broke the law through driving a car on the Sabbath! I have heard of people who throw rocks at those who drive cars on the Sabbath, totally antithetical to what the very Gemara seems to say.

If one has the ability to discern between good and evil, to take the wheat and discard the chaff, to sift the good from the bad, then one has much to learn from one who goes "off the derech." In the limited sense, one can learn the person's reasons. In the larger sense, if the person is a scholar, it may be that you can even learn Torah from him...

One of the most fundamental laws of Judaism is that we must love one another.

I do not think it is love to persuade people back onto the path through false means. It is something they must choose to accept, knowingly and understanding what they do. One cannot lie and emphasize the "feel-good" ideas, the peace of a Sabbath meal or the psychological benefit therein. At times it is hard, very hard indeed to keep the laws, and what do we do then?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as part of his lecture on the Role of the Rabbi, stated (and this may be found in Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff's book 'The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik', page 54 onwards):

    Judaism must be explained and expounded on a proper level. I have read many pamphlets that have been published in the United States with the purpose of bringing people closer to Judaism. There is much foolishness and narrishkeit in some of these publications. For instance, a recent booklet on the Sabbath stressed the importance of a white tablecloth. A woman recently told me that the Sabbath is wonderful, and that it enhances her spiritual joy when she places a snow-white tablecloth on her table. Such pamphlets also speak about a sparkling candelabra. Is this true Judaism? You cannot imbue real and basic Judaism by utilizing cheap sentimentalism and stressing empty ceremonies. Whoever attempts such an approach underestimates the intelligence of the American Jew. If you reduce Judaism to religious sentiments and ceremonies, then there is no role for rabbis to discharge. Religious sentiments and ceremonies are not solely posessed by Orthodox Jewry. All the branches of Judaism have ceremonies and rituals.

    This is not the only reason why we must negate such a superficial approach. Today in the United States, American Jewish laymen are achieving intellectual and metaphysical maturity. They wish to discover their roots in depth. We will soon reach a point in time where the majority of our congregants will have academic degrees. Through the mediums of white tablecloths and polished candelabras, you will not bring these people back to Judaism. It is forbidden to publish pamphlets of this nature, which emphasize the emotional and ceremonial approaches.

    There is another reason why ceremony will not influence the American Jew. In the Unitesd States today, the greatest master of ceremony is Hollywood. If a Jew wants ceremony, all he has to do is turn on the television set. If our approach stresses the ceremonial side of Judaism rather than its moral, ethical, and religious teachings, then our viewpoint will soon become bankrupt.

    The only proper course is that of Ezekiel's program for the priests: "And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean" [Ezekiel 44:23] The rabbi must teach his congregants. He must deepen their appreciation of Judaism and not water it down. If we neutralize and compromise our teachings, then we are no different than the other branches of Judaism.

People are smart- they are academic, intellectual. They need to hear true answers, intellectual answers, textual answers, not ideas about emotions and ceremonies. If someone steps off the path, you will not persuade him back through feel-good Judaism. You must listen, think of what they are saying, hear their words and arguments, and then, if itis possible....respond...

The most chilling words in the entire 'Fiddler on the Roof' are from the following scene:

    Chava: Papa.
    Papa, I've been looking everywhere for you.
    Papa, stop!
    At least listen to me!
    I beg you to accept us.

    Tevye: (reverie)
    Accept them?
    How can I accept them?
    Can I deny everything I believe in?
    On the other hand,
    can I deny my own daughter?
    On the other hand,
    how can I turn my back on my faith,
    my people?
    If I try and bend that far,
    I'll break.
    On the other hand...
    No. There is no other hand.
    Tevye: (angry) No, Chava! No!
    Chava: But, Papa! -
    Tevye: No! No!
    Chava: Papa!
    Tevye: No!
    Chava: Papa!

According to justice, to true justice, there is no other hand...but Tevye's denying his daughter is one of the most emotional scenes- the scene that makes people cry. Not because they find Tevye intolerant and ignorant, but because they understand his dilemma, the terrible choice with which he is faced. Accept them? He cannot.

One of the most terrifying things for a parent to think about, for any relative or friend to think about- is not the fact that what the person is doing is "bad or wicked" so much as what his punishment may be. If one truly believes in God- in the God of the Torah- we see that He metes out measure for measure, justice with mercy, but He is a Judge above all else. If we believe in this God, we are terrified for the member of our family, friend or community who does not, or worse yet, mocks Him. What will happen to this person? What will God say to him? We do not want anyone we love to be hurt or punished by God in the next world. We want the best for them- we want them to enjoy the beauty and richness of Olam Ha'ba, the World to Come. We want only good for them. We want their lives to be filled with joy, with happiness...

If I believe in God, and I believe in justice, then it follows that I believe that each person is judged based on whether he is what he could have been. I do not want those I love to have to undergo a judgement or even a purificaton of souls that may be harsh. I want those I love to be protected...

Those who chose this path or step will avow that this is totally their own choice and that they do not need you to worry about them. And this is true...Yet while I will not force anyone to rejoin Orthodox Judaism, while I do not think it is right to impugn on someone else's views, and I certainly do not think "feel-good" arguments will prevail, I do love so very many people within my community and even within the blogosphere. I only want good for them. And since I believe, it is not so much that I want to "save thier soul" from being damned so much as I do not want them to be placed in a position where they might be judged unfavorably.

There are some who care only for appearances and for the shame of having their child go "off the derech." There are some who feel this is a deliberate slight or the American mentality at its worst. But at the core, what I truly believe motivates people (albeit, at times, in incorrect ways) is that we love so fiercely and so passionately, and we do not want our children/ relatives/ family members/ friends to suffer. We do not want them to be hurt in any way. In some ways, we are scared for them.

I admit that I feel this way. I don't want to force ideas upon people. I don't want to infringe on others' lifestyles. I understand many of the reasons behind the step off the path.

But loving you, I want your life to be pleasant, beautiful. I want you never to know anything bad.

This is why, I believe, people are concerned about those who go "off the Derech." This love is misdirected, for there are those who often smother people in it, choke them on it, try to force them to change. That is wrong. People take responsibility for their actions. They make their own choices.

But to love Jews- Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Atheist...all also to fear for them.

If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't care about your life choices/ decisions.

But I do.

Know, then, as you suffer the multitudes attempting to persuade you or change you, that it comes (or so I think) from a misguided depth of feeling for you that is so strong that it cannot be mentally broken.

This is our people, least our people as we could be. People who care about one another. People who love one another. People who feel directly affected by the choices of others...

A loving people.


Ezzie said...


Ezzie said...


Robbie said...

You're a very impressive writer. Keep it up.

Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam said...

One of the many beautiful things in Fiddler is that Tevye cannot just let her go. At the end of the play/movie he gives her a blessing. Quietly, she doesn't hear him even, but Tevye's wife passes it on to her so that she knows.

We should always let people know.

Foilwoman said...

A very thoughtful piece, and well-written. A little scary, that the only world is an ethnic in-group . . . but I've never been a member of an insular group or tribe, so I just don't really understand the identity issues. I'll keep reading your blog (and Da'as Hedyot's and Jewish Atheists) and maybe it will make more sense to me.

I just have trouble seeing the world that way (my problem, not yours -- your worldview isn't that understandable to me, but I'm not criticizing it, just trying to figure out how to understand).

Anonymous said...

If your compassionate and insightful views were widespread within Orthodox Judaism, two things would happen:
1) Orthodox Judaism would be far more beautiful.
2) Orthodox Judaism would be far smaller.

Irina Tsukerman said...

Thank you.

It's an interesting to read your perspective, because I never thought much about what the people on the derech think about those who go off.

I've never been on the derech to begin with, but right now I feel I want to achieve some level of observance and am struggling to understand all these things.

So now I get to see the other side!


There are still others ... people who are strong and believe in the strength of their choice.
no there really are not we all have doubts,therefore we have to have faith, there would be no point to nessyoyon if we always saw God.

homosexuality is not impermissable
homosexual sex is.

Why voluntarily involve ourselves in genocide against Amalek?
because as eichmann said its either you or us. the Holocaust therefore proving what eichmann said as true.

Why are men who seem cruel, who sold their own brother to traders, the forerunners of the 12 tribes
theby showing us there is room for everyone of us to return.we all come from sinners as they repented so shall we.
we were not told to wipe out the seven nations of Ca'naan, though anhilation is one of their choices.

a woman's testimony not valid in court as an ayd, but her remarks can and are noted.your question could also then be why ONE man's testimony not valid in court?

a majority of issues brought up in the Skeptic's Annotated Bible are answered by chazal, we don't read the torah as kararites.the torah is silly w/o chazal.

it as true if we were open to questions, accepted them as valid, and at least attempted to answer them, there would be fewer youth who would step off the path. though most go w/o much theological debate, the gemarea says most jews go to avodah zara is done for the sex.

you asked your parents what they would do if I would one day decide to leave ?you asked them to tell you mentaly how they would respond emotionaly to a situation that has not occured;whtever answer they give you will be does not equal emotion.

i concur I have never heard of people becoming frum from having a rock thrown at them on Shabus

have you read any pamphlets that have been published in the United Staes written by leo jung?

Irina Tsukerman said...

Thanks for the link!

Jewish Atheist said...

Wonderful post, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Amshinover- thanks very much for your answers (many of them are helpful), and I totally agree that my parents' mental response is not necessarily equivalent to their emotional one. But I still think it is a good place to start.

No, I have not read Leo Jung's packets- is this a good or bad thing?

To the others- thank you very much for your kind words. And Foilwoman, I agree that this is hard to understand from an outside perspective, and I am inspired by your determination to try.

Critically Observant Jew said...

Chana, amazing post. Please write more - your writing and your familiarity with a variety of sources make your posts enjoyable and thought-provoking to read.

Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam said...

homosexuality is not impermissable
homosexual sex is.

Why voluntarily involve ourselves in genocide against Amalek?
because as eichmann said its either you or us. the Holocaust therefore proving what eichmann said as true.

Amshi -
Two questions:
One: Isn't it apparent that the prohibition of homosexual sex (andtherefore a physical relationship) is also what is perceived as unreasonable discrimination? How does it really help a homosexual to tell them that they can be gay as long as they don't do anything about it.

Two: Either us or them? Really? Did we have to kill all the Germans? Couldn't it possibly be that we just had to stop them killing us and then make sure the German people civilize themselves again? I really hope the Holocaust did not prove Eichman right because his morality was that of mass murder- pure evil.

e-kvetcher said...

I've always been fascinated by the figure of Acher, mostly because there has to be so much more to that story. He must have been quite a man if even after his downfall he still figures so prominantly in the Talmud.

The notion of Rabbi Meir learning from him is also amazing, especially today. Can you imagine an Orthodox Rabbi learning from a Reconstructionist?

Although I seem to recall somewhere in the Talmud it was mentioned that R' Meir had some stigma attached to him because of his association with the Acher. Anyone know what I am talking about?

Jewish Atheist said...


I have a little more time now, so I thought I'd respond to a few things.

First, in my experience, it seems that those with the "common reactions" that you enumerate often don't have a solid underpinning for their emunah and are threatened by those who choose to go "off the derech." A thoughtful and knowledgeable person like you has the luxury of listening to the other side, but a lot of frum Jews aren't qualified to do more than go ad hominem, ignore you, or parrot hackneyed arguments like Pascal's wager. If they thoughtfully engaged, their beliefs likely couldn't compete with the thoughtful philosophy of someone who left because of textual criticism, scientific disagreements, or moral complaints. Aristotle said that "it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." I think that many people in the frum world are, by Aristotle's definition, uneducated.

Second, I admire you for your obvious love and concern for those who go off the derech. However, and perhaps as an atheist I don't have the right to talk about this, but I don't understand how you could believe in a God who doesn't even live up to the standard that you, an imperfect human, lives by. It seems to me that you don't judge us "unfavorably," yet you fear that God will. I ask you, how could God be less understanding than the person created in his image? How could a just and loving God judge someone who leaves for valid reasons? I understand the negative judgement of a murderer, but of a basically good person who goes "off the derech?" I don't get it. If God is good, he must be better than the best human. If he's not, why do you worship him?

Finally, to touch on the story of Elisha ben Avuyah. After I had "left the derech," I was still occasionally asked halakhic questions by a BT I knew. Regardless of my choices, I'd had a frum education, after all. :)

e-kvetcher said...

Jewish Atheist - when you were asked halachic questions, did the BT realize you were OTD?

PS Good Shabbos to all!

Jewish Atheist said...


Chana said...

Jewish Atheist,

Forgive me for taking a while to respond. I really wanted to consider your question thoughtfully and thoroughly.

You ask me how God could be less understanding than the person created in his image. I think that the difference between our two approaches is that I believe I am created in the image of God, but God is not created in my image.

I admit that it is difficult to differentiate between the two ideas. What I wish to say, I believe, is that humans as a species are so varied, so colorful, each with our prejudices, biases and talents. If you ask me how God could be less compassionate than me, another could ask how God could be less prejudiced than a different person, or even the reverse- less caring, more judgmental...for we would judge God based on ourselves.

I would think that if I am compassionate, and since I, a human, am compassionate, so must God be. But this would be recreating God as myself, and not the other way around.

For me, the difference between the way I judge man and God judges man would depend on our positions.

One who 'steps off the path,' as it were, offers me no provocation. I did not create him, I have not formed him, I did not will him into being. He is not accountable to me. For me, it would be the very height of arrogance and cruelty to claim that he is a "bad" person, a wicked person. How can I judge?

You have not wronged me, for you do not owe me anything.

However, if I do believe in God- and I believe that He created me, and you, then you are indeed accountable to him. It was He who formed you (when I say you, I use it loosely- to encompass everyone), who created you, and who gave you a purpose. Therefore He has the power to judge you, but I do not.

Hence I cannot condemn anyone, but God could- and that is why I would believe that a God, even a loving God, could mete out reward and punishment, measure for measure.

dbs said...

As someone who’s been down this road (and off), I was struck by how well you characterized both the development of religious doubts and the reactions of the frum world. I’m not really sure that there is a hashkafic basis for what you are advocating – that you have an open and accepting attitude towards those who become non believers. The Elisha ben Avuha story is a stunningly beautiful story of the bond between a teacher and student, but I’m not sure that it offers much proof for general tolerance. On the other side are many sources which emphasize the importance of distancing yourself from evil and evil influences.

I noticed that you didn’t mention one reaction which I encountered quite a lot – but fortunately amishinover filled this in. That is, the real reason that people leave is not for ideological reasons but to pursue some lust. There is an assumption that anyone who is being intellectually honest will see the beauty and truth of the Torah. Therefore, if someone does not believe, it must be some yetzer harah which is interfering with their thought process.

It is only now, after years of having these debates, that I find myself with a different perspective – one which is very hard to see from within the orthodox sphere. Now, when someone asks me why I don’t believe, my instinct is to say:

“Let me get this straight, you believe in a religion based on spectacular miracles, divine prophecies and minute interpretations of nonsensical customs – and you’re asking me to explain why I DON'T believe this?”

Very impressive post, keep it up.

e-kvetcher said...


I am sorry to say that as much as I think your response to Jewish Atheist is beautiful, it is not in the spirit of the Jewish Rabbinic tradition. The Torah plainly states the punishments for those transgressing the Law, and the majority of them are to be carried out by the community. Remember Pinchas and the spear?
In general, people who did not accept the authority of the Rabbis were either persecuted (if the Rabbis had the authority to do so, e.g. Karaites) or excommunicated(Spinoza).
Up until the age of Enlightenment, when the number of Jews stepping off the derech rose precipitously, these Jews were not allowed to be buried in Jewish cemetaries, you could not say Kaddish for them if they died, and in general they were treated miserably. Clearly, the Courts and later the Rabbis felt they had the authority to judge others.

Is this a "feel good" thing? - No. But it is a consistent message that has been presented for thousands of years.

Anonymous said...

hmm. curious. i think i'll have to read that one 3 or 4 more times to have a definite response. especially with all those big words.
email me again, i suffer from the inability to respond syndrome. any homopathic remedies are welcome.
post-sabbatical salutations.

Chana said...

Interestingly, e-kvetcher, I believe there is Halakhic basis for my viewpoint.

First, I wish to address the specific situation you mention- Zimri and Kosbi. I believe this is different, for Zimri was doing more than simply breaking a law. He was mocking the leader of the Jewish people, deliberately attempting to undermine his authority. "You married a gentile," he says snidely, "why do you care what I do with Kosbi?"

In this case, Zimri would indeed be accountable to Moshe. As leader of the Jews, Moshe deserves and must receive respect. Look at the very phrasing of the verse:

ו וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא, וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל-אֶחָיו אֶת-הַמִּדְיָנִית, לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה, וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
6 And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.

If Zimri simply wished to cohabit with the woman due to his love/ lust for her, would he not do so in a seemly fashion, inside his own tent? But this was a political move, destined to embarass and undermine Moshe's position. Even were it not for the sake of God's honor, Pinchas would have been justified in killing Zimri for the concept of rebellion against a king/ leader, 'mored b'malchus.'

If you do not find this possible answer satisfactory, then I would still point out the difference between times when God's presence was obvious- due to the fact that He rained manna down from the sky every day, gave the Torah amidst flames and smoke, and so on- and nowadays. Then, a transgressor who denied God might as well deny his own existence- it was so clear and so obvious- and so his sin in the face of God, almost like a slap to His face-might be treated differently.

I do not, I think, have to mention the fact that the laws in the Torah are stringent enough that there could be no reasonable doubt, most situations need witnesses who must warn the transgressor, there need to be at least two, the Ben Sorer uMoreh case may not even have ever happened because there are so many specific laws surrounding it, the Sanhedrin is termed a murderous court if they execute once in seven- or seventy years, etc.

Now, beyond the specific situation-
You may be interested in works like Eyes to See: Recovering Ethical Torah Principles Lost in the Holocaust by Rabbi Yom-Tov Schwarz and Jewish Tradition and the Non-traditional Jew edited by Jacob J. Schacter, from which I base my view/ attitude. You may also like to read Chapter 32 in the Tanya...

In Chapter 21 of Rabbi Yom-Tov Schwarz's book, titled 'One who Condemns the Non-Observant Jews of Our Time Brings Indictment Against Himself' there is a wonderful quote by the Tzemach Tzedek from Derech Mitzvosechah:

"Certain people draw their principal life force by executing harsh judgment against others. We can see this in a very tangible way: when people of this ilk encounter individuals who are transgressors, they immediately become very heated. They are filled with wrath and driven by anger to punish them and beat them with cruel and murderous blows; they even insist on doing so with their own hands. They will not rest or calm down until they have consummated their wicked deeds against them, because their own inner nature is essentially evil! Therefore, the vil that they perpetrate against others infuses their lives iwth vitalitya nd endurance; without it, they would have no life at all. For them, an opportunity to commit murderous acts revitalize their soul, for this is their vital force. And though they disgusie their true motivation in a cloak of righteous indignation- for the object of their wrath had committed a sin- there is no truth to this whatsoever. For in reality, G-d is full of compassion and kindness...Their behavior stems from the evil temperament of their own souls, which bears the mark of harsh judgments, seeking only to harm and punish others."

I think that firmly supports my position- indeed, it even turns back this judgmental attitude on those who judge!

I hope that explains my view...

e-kvetcher said...


We all know that if one looks hard enough one can always find a Halachic basis for one's views. There are homosexual Orthodox who believe that they have found theirs. There are women who want to participate in T'fillah who believe that they have as well. I am not denying that that may be the case. What I said was - "it is not in the spirit of the Jewish Rabbinic tradition." It would be wonderful if we could change that tradition, but frankly, as in many of the other things I mentioned above, I don't believe this is possible.
It is my opinion that at least for the forseeable future Orthodox Judaism will continue to move to the right as a response to perceived threats from more progressive movements.

Anonymous said...

This may be the single best post I've ever seen on a Jewish blog. Thank you.

Jewish Atheist said...


However, if I do believe in God- and I believe that He created me, and you, then you are indeed accountable to him. It was He who formed you (when I say you, I use it loosely- to encompass everyone), who created you, and who gave you a purpose. Therefore He has the power to judge you, but I do not.

I understand what you are saying about God having the power and you not, but I'm still having trouble imagining a God who would punish his Creation simply for not believing in him or for (e.g.) eating a bacon cheeseburger. Am I deserving of punishment? Is a man who falls in love with, joins his life with, and has sex with another man deserving of punishment?

I guess what I am getting at is the source of morality. If morality is simply "whatever God commands," than I don't see how we can call God good, except tautologically, and if there is a morality external to God's command, than I don't understand how any of the ben-adam-l'makom transgressions are immoral. And if they're not immoral, I can't understand why God would punish one who transgressed, particularly if they transgress through an honest disbelief in God or halakha.

FrumGirl said...

Out of all the things you talk about on this post the one thing I can say is... how wonderful for you to have such supportive parents who love you so unconditionally and give you that freedom of expression that you have in such a healthy way! You truly are a product of good upbringing and I admire them.

Chana said...

Jewish Atheist,

Your objections to the definition that morality as defined as God's law are good in that they are logical- why does this happen? Why can't a man and his lover lie together? Why can't I eat a cheeseburger? Why does God care?

I think, however, that these objections are defined in terms of emotion. Emotionally, it is difficult to understand why God would separate man and his fellow male lover, or command us to war against Amalek. Logically, it makes little sense that we cannot eat cheeseburgers. Since the objections are of this nature, I offer you the following:

In Abraham R. Besdin's Reflections of the Rav, in which he compiles thoughts "adapted from lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik," there is a section that addresses this idea.

It is Chapter XIII, titled 'The "Common-Sense" Rebellion Against Torah Authority,' and it discusses the rebellion of Korah. Korach was a brilliant man, learned and well-versed in the Torah. He is famous for making certain arguments about halakhos and mitzvot in the Torah. For example, he argued about the tekheles. "Does a garment that is entirely blue require tzitzit or is it exempt?" Moshe responded that it still required tzitzit. Korach answered "A robe of any other color fulfills the tzitzit requirement merely by having one of its threads blue. Surely a garment which is entirely blue should not require an additional blue thread!" (Rashi, Num 16:1)The Midrash adds another argument. He asked, "Does a house which is filled with Torah scrolls still require a mezuzah on the doorpost?" Moses answered yes. Korach said, "If one brief section of the Torah placed inside the mezuzah satisfies the mitzvah requirement, most certainly a multitude of scrolls which contain many portions should!"

Now I come to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's analysis-

"Korah's appeal to common sense in Judaism was basically a claim that only da'at, and not hokhmah, is involved in the application of Halakhah. He conceded that the legal aspect in the practice of Halakha require expertise, techincal and academic. But he mantained that there is also a pschological and emotional aspect in the practice of Halakha and the observence of mitzvot. In judging the utility, relevance, and beneficial effects of the mitzvot, all intelligent people are qualified to render judgment on the basis of close and informed observation. For this aspect, he argued, common sense, human experience, and basic judgment are the criteria. And on this basis he challenged the authority of Moses.

Korah was committed to the doctrine of religious subjectivism, which regards on'e spersonal feelings as primary in the religious experience. God requires the heart, Rahmana liba ba'i (Sanh. 106b), and it is in the mysterious recesses of his personality that man meets his Maker. The mitzvot, by contrast, are physical acts which reflect the inner quest, the hidden feelings of religous emotion. The mitzvah is an external form of a spiritual experience; each inner experience has its external correlate in the form of particular mitzvah performances.

On the basis of Korah's theory, the mitzvah would have to correspond to the mood that prompts it. The value of the mitzvah is to be found not in its performance, but in its subjective impact upon the person, its ability to arouse a devotional state of mind. Tefillin would be justified, according to Korah's theory, only for their elevating and inspirational quality.....If these mitzvot ceased having this impact upon people, their observance would be open to question and new rituals, more responsive to changing sensitivities, should perhaps be enacted. What follows from his reasoning is that hte mitzvah may be modified according to changing times or even according to the individual temperaments of different people. That is, to him, no inherent redemptive power in the mitzvah beyond its therapeutic effects, it capacity to evoke a subjective experience."

In Halakha, the Rav goes on to say, "we do not regard the qualitative and subjective experience as primary. RAther, the objective act of performing the mitzvah is our starting point. The mitzvah does not depend on the emotion, rather, it induces the emotion."

He then asks, "Why does the Halakha refuse to give primacy to the emotions, to the inner feelings? Why.....

First, the religious emotion is volatile, ever-changing, and unstable, even within one individual. To correlate the outward act to the inner emotion would require regular adjustments. The mitzvah would continually have to be modified and, at times, nullified in favor of new symbolic acts that would correspond to the person's emotional state. The format and identity of the mitzvah would be destroyed and no continuity of identifiable performance would be possible."

(Pages 139-144)

Now, you may say, why is this a bad thing? Does it matter if mitzvot changed with the times? Why is this problematic?

I would then point to 'Surrendering our Minds to God,' also by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

"The religious Jew accepts the entire Torah as a hok, both in regard to its immutability and also its unintellegibility....To be a loyal Jew is to be heroic, and heroes commit themselves without intellectual reservations. Only one who lacks the courage of commitment will belabor the "why"....

Why the Divine Imperative for Mishpatim? We have spoken heretofore primarily of the hok, the inexplicable precept. In fact, we perform all mishpatim (mostly social laws) in the same manner as the hukkim. The Torah does not assign separate sections to the hukkim and mishpatim respectively; they are interspersed throughout Scripture. We make no distinctions between the two as regards the quality and totality of our commitment. Why, we may ask, is it not enough for the mishaptim to be intellectually motivated? Why the need to add a hok, a non- logos dimension, to social laws which conscience itself dictates?

Apparently, reason is not a reliable guide even with respect ot mishpatim. There are borderline situations which confuse the mind, and consequently it finds itself helpless in applying its moral norms. Since our intellect must wiegh pros and cons and is slow and eliberate in deciding, society starts to nibble away at the edges of marginal, borderline problems. Life must be lived; before our logic can formulate an opinion, society will already have weakened all restraints. Permissiveness will have replaced orderliness and the amoral in man will have emerged triumphant.

For example, the mind certainly condemns murder. This is particularly true of the killing of a young working mother who leaves behind orphaned children. But does this abhorrence of murder also apply when the victim is an old, cruel, miserly woman who in the eyes of society was a parisitic wretch, as in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment? May we murder her in order to save a young girl from the clutches of degradation? May euthanasia be practiced to relieve the elderly or terminally ill of further suffering? Here the logos hesitates, is uncertain, and imparts no decisive guidance. We can easily rationalize in either direction and no external norm is compelling. As a mishpat, a social norm, murder may at times be tolerated; as a hok, the prohibition against murder is clear and absolute.....

We have assumed that mishpatim are prompted by reason. Yet, in our modern world, there is hardly a mishpat which has not been repudiated. Stealing and corruption are the accepted norms in many spheres of life; adultery and general promiscuity find support in respectable circles; and even murder, medical and germ experiments have been conducted with governmental complicity. The logos has shown itself in our time to be incapable of supporting the most basic of moral inhibitions.

The Torah, therefore, insists that a mishpat be accepted as a hok; our commitment must be unshakable, universally applicable, and upheld even when our logos is confused. Without hok, every social and moral law can be rationalized away, leaving hte world a sophisticated jungle of instincts and impulses...."

(Pages 103-105)

Hence my belief in an absolute law. I do not see how relative morality can exist in this world, the debates we have over euthanasia, abortion and the like clearly exhibit this. There must then be an absolute morality, something beyond all bounds, beyond all feeling or compassion, and that is indeed "what God commands." Is this morality good? If God is considered good, He must also be considered evil; he is made up of opposites and the source of everything. God is black and white, the source of good and the source of evil, kind and judgmental, for all contradictions and qualities are embodied by him...

As for God and the atheist- for that, I can only answer with a quote from Rav Kook found in Orot.

It is titled 'Atheism and the Higher Belief:' Souls imprinted with a higher vision cannot be satisifed with mediocre religiosity and end up in disbelief. The cure is to prepare "vessels" for the higher "lights."
Chapter XLVII, page 197

"Because the picture of the greatness of the divine light is so immense inside the souls of the last generation of "the footsteps of Messiah," to the extent that they do not yet have the capability of structuring real life according to this lofty greatness, there results the disbeliefs and spiritual impoverishment resembling destruction, which we witness in our generation. But the way of healing is to generate vessels, explications, and plans, which will pave paths to actual implementation based ont he loftiest illuminations. For this reason, there is such a demand for freedom of spirit and strength of body, for only a storng spirit and healthy body can contain without shattering the highest illuminations and withstand active life full of vigorous creativity, and derive thereform ways of life. all these preparations are necessary for the complete Return (teshuvah) that stands beyond our wall."

I will not tell you that I understand this wholly, but I do believe the concept is beautiful- the idea that there are certain people who cannot make their ideas into "real life" and hence desire "freedom of spirit and strength of body"- but in truth, it is these people, who are thinking and fighting, who will eventually become vessels of light for others.

David_on_the_Lake said...

Your breadth of knowledge..leaves me breathless..

I have much to say. However let me just touch upon one point. Your utilizing Albert Einsteins quote to undermine a parents panicky response to a childs leaving is not really relevant. I think..although it is true that your child will always remain a reality, usually all it takes is a generation or two for them to be lost to the Jewish people. I think this is a worthy cause of anxiety even with Einsteins reasoning.


Jewish Atheist said...


Thanks for the thoughtful response.

I'm not sure it quite addresses the point of our disagreement, though. I'm not arguing that we have a right to change halakha to suit our beliefs; I'm arguing about whether God will punish those who transgress.

In the shema, God says:

And it shall come to pass if you surely listen to the commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul, That I will give rain to your land, the early and the late rains,
that you may gather in your grain, your wine and your oil.

And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle and you will eat and you will be satisfied.

Beware, lest your heart be deceived,
and you turn and serve other gods, and worship them.

And anger of the Lord will blaze against you, and he will close the heavens and there will not be rain,
and the earth will not give you its fullness, and you will perish quickly from the good land that the Lord gives you.

According to this passage, it seems that God will indeed punish those who go "off the derech." And if you believe that this passage is literally true, then I understand why you worry about them.

But the passage reads as if God is just some powerful Being with whom we've made a deal. He's not particularly loving or generous. If we do what He says, He'll reward us, and if we don't, He'll punish us.

Is that the God you believe in?

Jewish Atheist said...

(BTW, that last comment took me forever to compose -- I'm having trouble getting to the meat of what I'm getting at.)

Chana said...

He's not particularly loving or generous. If we do what He says, He'll reward us, and if we don't, He'll punish us.

Is that the God you believe in?

I think I'm getting closer to what you mean.

The question you have, I believe, is that God does not sound particularly loving and generous.

And I say- that depends on what you mean by loving and generous.

If you mean a God who excuses my faults, who pretends not to see my misdeeds, who takes pity upon me and does not hold me to the highest standard- if that is a God who is loving and generous- then no, God is not loving, nor generous.

The God I believe in is a God who practices mercy tempered with justice. He is not a God who excuses me of my responsibilities, who takes pity on me, who tries to erase my actions in an act of false compassion.

The God I believe in is a God of truth. Every action has its consequence; I take responsibility for each choice I make. Laws are laid out very clearly, my people made a covenant with God, if I choose to disobey, that is my exercise of my free will- but it is also my choice to accept the consequence.

Jews in ancient times accepted their consequences. There is a famous story of Yeravam. God told him to repent, and he would walk alongside David in the next world. Yeravam wished to know who would walk first- the answer was David. In that case, Yeravam chose not to repent, knowing full well what would happen.

Or take Acher. He, too, when he died, stated that he would remain in a state of limbo- he would not be judged and would not ascend or go below. R' Meir, his student, vowed to achieve atonement for Acher, and did so eventually.

Or look, if you would to Achan in the time of Joshua. He had stolen, plundered where he ought not to have done so, confessed his sin, and was stoned (the Midrash explains this as atonement for his sin, something he accepted voluntarily.)

God is a wrathful God, a jealous God, a God of anger, fiery and furious. He is also described as Israel's beloved, and we a straying nation, continously choosing others to be our lovers, defying our husband, as it were. The relationship between God and his people is passionate; there are times when we draw close to one another and others when, "stiff-necked" people that we are, we merge farther apart...

The way in which God is loving and generous is in that he sends warnings; He does not desire to destroy people without cause. He sends Yonah to Ninveh to tell the people there to repent (even though Yonah does everything he can to outwit God, becase he does not want the Jews (who do not repent) to be compared to the inhabitants of Ninveh, who do. God forces Yonah to go, for peope must be given a proper chance.

This is the same way in which there are the laws of witnesses, where witnesses must be present and specifically warn the perpetrator that his action will be punished by certain consequences. A person cannot be killed by Beis Din unless these conditions are met.

Or there is the famous story of King Ahab (Achav) and his companion, the man who rebuilt the city of Jericho even after Yehoshua had cursed he who would do so. The man buried each of his children, as the curse specified. When Elijah the prophet came to comfort the mourner, he found Ahab and his friend sitting next to each other. They laughed at Elijah- "Yehoshua's curse with regard to the rebuilding of Jericho comes true, but Moses' curse that the rain will not come if we worship idols does not come true!" At this juncture, Elijah caused a famine.

But why had God refrained from allowing a famine before then? Because he had wanted Ahab to repent on his own, not when he was forced to do so...

This is similar to the Sforno's approach to Pharoah in Egypt. Many people take umbrage at the idea that God "hardened" Pharoah's heart. What God was really doing was restoring Pharoah's strength, so that he would not make a decision to let the Jews go free because of his fear/ being pestered by advisors/ weakness, but only because it was truly his own choice to do so.

I want to offer a quote from 'The Fountainhead:'

"Howard...I brought something I wanted to show you."
He walked back into the room and put hte briefcase on the table.
"I haven't shown it to anyone." His fingers fumbled, opening the straps. "Not to mother or Ellsworth Toohey...I just want you to tell me if there's any..."
He handed Roark six of his canvases.
Roark looked at them, one after another. He took a longer time than he needed. When he could trust himself to lift his eyes, he shook his head in silent answer to the word Keating had not pronounced.
"It's too late, Peter," he said gently.
Keating nodded. "Guess I...knew that."
When Keating had gone, Roark leaned against the door, closing his eyes. He was sick with pity.
He had never felt this before- not when Henry Cameron collapsed in the office at his feet, not when he saw Steven Mallory sobbing on a bed before him. Those moments had been clean. But this was pity- this complete awareness of a man without worth or hope, this sense of finality, fo the not to be redeemed. Tehre was shame in this feeling- his own shame that he should have to pronounce such judgment upon a man, that he should know an emotion which ontained no shred of respect.
This is pity, he thought, and then he lifted hsi head in wonder. He thought that there must be something terribly wrong with a world in which this monstrous feeling is called a virtue."

(Page 609)

I am not quite sure if you see what I am after with the quote, so I will try to explain.

God made human beings upright, strong, able to hold up their heads and conquer the world. We are creatures of free will, people with the ability to make choices, to accept responsibility, to do what we will.

If God were to excuse me from my responsibility in an effort to be "loving or kind" He would really be doing neither. He would simply entrench me in my habits, allowing me to do wrong and never to be called on it, to understand that it was wrong. I would learn nothing.

I would become a creature unable to hold up my head because I could not attain the standards that were set before me, someone who was not punished, who could only be pitied- and spared because of that pity. Someone ashamed before God.

I do not want that kind of pity, that mercy, that kind of loving. I want to take responsibility for myself and for what I do.

I believe God is a loving God and a merciful God, but a just God. And that is why I believe in reward and punishment, in right and wrong, in good and evil.

This is where the emotional questions come in- it does not seem wrong, emotionally or logically, to eat a cheeseburger. But if it is the law, according to the covenant I agree to honor, then I must know that I will suffer the consequence for breaking the law.

So long as this happens, we are on equal footing, me and God. I can stand tall, proud- I have nothing to be ashamed of.

But when someone pardons you when you do not deserve that pardon- when someone does not punish when you deserve punishment- you are in their debt, and that debt runs very deep. You are ashamed.

To give you a modern example- in the Harry Potter books, specifically Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry saves Wormtail's life. He turns to Sirius and Lupin and says he reckons that his parents wouldn't have wanted them to become murderers for Wormtail's sake.

Wormtail rejoins his master, Voldemort, that night. Harry is horrified by what he has done.

But it is then that Dumbledore explains that Harry has sent back a servant to Voldemort- but a servant who is in Harry's debt. This is going to work against Voldemort in the end, because Wormtail's life/ freedom belongs to Harry.

So long as I am served in accordance to my actions, I can hold up my head proudly, a servant of God. The first time God withholds punishment is when I am sworn to him, body and soul, not through choice but through a debt that (figuratively) cripples me. I am ashamed.

There is actually an idea/ question as to why we were placed in the world- one possible answer is that we initially were in Olam Ha'Ba, but we ate the 'bread of shame.' We had been placed in this high sphere for no reason, we did not deserve it, we did not earn it. We were indebted to God.

God then allowed us to descend to the world so that we could earn our way, as it were.

That is, of course, more of a mystical notion. But I hope you understand my meaning.

My God is a God of love and kindness- but this very kindness is expressed by the fact that he holds me accountable for my actions. That he does not pity me when I don't want to accept responsibility. That he allows me to create myself, as either one who is good or one who is wicked. That I have free will.

That I receive what I have earned- no more, and no less.

This is my God.

David_on_the_Lake said...

My God

Jewish Atheist said...

I think I'm getting closer to what you mean.

The question you have, I believe, is that God does not sound particularly loving and generous.

Yes, I think that's it. I think that's where we disagree. To me, the God you describe sounds like an abusive husband. As long as I do what he wants, everything's great, but if I look at another man or disobey some rule which doesn't make any sense (i.e. a hok), then I'll be severely punished. But then I disagree with many of God's actions in Tanakh. The Flood, commanding genocide, etc.

Maybe I simply can't see that God's actions are moral because I'm an imperfect human being. Maybe my yetzer hara is tricking me. But all I can do is go with is what I believe, and I believe that the God of Tanakh, read literally, is all-powerful, but not worthy of our worship. Since I cannot conceive of a God that powerful who is jealous and wrathful, I cannot believe in that God. (I don't believe in any other god, either, but that's a different story.)

Chana said...

I guess I think of God more as a father.

I know that this example has been over-used, but if a child misbehaves, his parents put him in the corner if he's young, or ground him if he's older, or even put him into treatment if he won't listen to them- takes drugs, threatens his health, and so on. And when he behaves well, his parents praise him.

So I don't exactly see the abusive husband metaphor...

I think that maybe one of the key differences between our approaches is that I believe we have accepted the covenant upon ourselves (by Mt. Sinai) and are therefore sworn to it, whereas you do not seem to think we have accepted it in the first place.

That's why, maybe, you would think God is abusive- because he's punishing someone for something that it is not his right to punish them for. Just angry, lashing out in hatred, or something of the kind. In other words, a God who punishes without cause. Random acts of brutality.

I see God as having proper cause for all punishment and/or reward, because we agreed to follow the rules, similar to the way one's parents would punish a child because we must abide by their rules.

Hence the difference.

Is this right?

David_on_the_Lake said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David_on_the_Lake said...

I don't mean to interrupt..
However these arguments will go on ad infinitum because there's a fundamental catch 22 at work here..

If one truly accepts God..then he's forced to acknowledge that there's a divine element at work here...and as such how can he hope to match his mortal limited scope of understanding to a divine counterpart? We would be forced to submit our morals..and ideas of what's "good" and "right" to the divine ideas of what's good and just.

On the other hand if religion is nothing but a lifestlye..a smorgasbord of possible Gods..then you're removing the element of Truth and Divinity..from the picture and the religion collapses on itself...

Jewish Atheist said...

I know that this example has been over-used, but if a child misbehaves, his parents put him in the corner if he's young, or ground him if he's older, or even put him into treatment if he won't listen to them- takes drugs, threatens his health, and so on. And when he behaves well, his parents praise him.

Chana, there are different kinds of punishment. When a good parent punishes, it's never out of anger or jealousy, but out of concern for the child's well-being. Punishment is most frequently used by the good parent as a deterrant. An abusive parent, on the other hand, punishes not to teach a lesson, but to vent his anger.

I can understand an interpretation of the Shema which says that behaving well "naturally" (i.e. according to God's system) causes good things to happen, and behaving badly "naturally" causes bad things to happen. And I can imagine a God who makes life difficult for the atheist in an attempt to bring him back.

But that's not really what we're talking about here, right? You aren't afraid that your friends who go "off the derech" are simply going to have a harder time? And we all know that good things happen to bad people and vice-versa.

I thought what you're worried about is Divine punishment either in the afterlife, or in this lifetime but without benefit to the punished. Neither of those can be compared to the loving punishment of an unruly child.

As for Sinai, that opens up a whole different can of worms. Personally, I don't remember agreeing to anything and so I don't think it's fair to hold me to that agreement. But also, just because two parties sign a contract doesn't mean that the contract is valid. I can sign a contract with my wife that purportedly gives me the right to kill her if she cheats on me, but that contract would be neither legal nor moral.

Chana said...

Now I see the point of confusion, so I will clarify...

What worries me is not that God will take out his wrath upon people and blast them to bits, that he will damn them or hate them or express any such petty human emotion.

I do not want those I love to have to undergo a judgement or even a purificaton of souls that may be harsh. I want those I love to be protected... (from my post)

The following scenario is wholly based on my belief, please don't take it as any kind of assault upon your ideas:

Imagine, if you will, a person who has mocked God all his life, railed against him, claimed that he does not exist, and disobeyed him. Imagine then that that person is brought for judgment before God. And realizes that his whole life's work was for nought.

Isn't that punishment enough?

It's not that I think that God will damn people to hell (Judaism doesn't even believe in that kind of hell, but in the purification process- just as one refines gold in a crucible, so the soul is refined~ and even this saddens me, because I would prefer that people not be subjected to the purification process but simply enter the World to Come), but that people will be ashamed before God. Wouldn't it be crushing to realize the meaning of one's life- that there was no God- was turned around, and in the end, there was indeed a God? Wouldn't that be a harsh blow?

I would be struck dumb, having nowhere to hide my eyes, to look away.

And I would have realized that so much of what I had lived for- my entire life- had been wrong. And that would be crushing.

It would be paralyzing. Paralyzed by fear, by shame, by embarassment, standing in front of the very one I had spent my time deriding or claiming could not be.

That is what I fear. That meeting between the denier and the one he has denied. The shame. The inability to fight back. How could one then say "You don't exist?"

I especially fear this for those who were bright enough and brilliant enough to understand the flaws and questions in Judaism. Because if they had the ability to do this, did they not also (perhaps) have the ability to understand that the religion is correct?

That's the harsh judgment I fear. I am judged based on what I could have been.

If my life was devoted to proving God did not exist, or that he was wicked and cruel, and then I realize He does when I pass on to the next world-

Then it is there that I will also see the brilliant person I could have been, the Talmudic scholar or clever worker, the one who could have, as it were, accomplished so much- and instead, I spent my life accomplishing just the opposite.

Isn't that a harsh punishment? Wouldn't that make you weep?

It would make me weep.

That's what I fear for those who 'step off the path.' That realization, later on, and the hopeless feeling that there was so much brilliance and potential within themselves, potential that went unused, or was devoted to the very antithesis of that cause.

Jewish Atheist said...


Thanks for explaining that. I was having trouble picturing you as someone who believed in the more literal kind of punishment.

So, if I may reiterate what you're saying, you're really worried that at the end of their lives, those who go off the derech will see the error of their ways and be ashamed and regretful about their wasted lives. I guess that's fair, but I'm not sure I understand the degree of shame/regret that you're imagining.

If I die and, to my astonishment, come face to face with God, I will be shocked. Perhaps I'll even be embarrassed that I was convinced by (obviously) false arguments to disbelieve and to not worship. I might feel some shame over influencing others to leave religion. But, on the other hand, I'd realize that it was an honest mistake and that better men than I had made it. I imagine God and me having a laugh about it. I'd be all, "Come on man, you were trying to throw me off with evolution and the stoning gays and the Flood story!" and he'd be like, "Yeah, I know. I just think it's funny to trick you guys."

On a side note, and I know you know this but I wanted to make it explicit -- there are many ways to live a meaningful life, and many of them don't involve Orthodox Judaism. Suppose one grows up in an ultra-Orthodox enclave, decides Judaism isn't for him, and instead becomes a doctor that cures AIDS or a lawyer who fights for the underpriveledged. Even if he eats bacon every morning and sleeps with his gay life partner every night, I can't imagine he'd be too ashamed to stand at the end of his life before the Almighty, should He exist.

Chana said...

That was the most beautiful touche ever, Jewish Atheist.

And I agree wholeheartedly. :)

And I hope you understand that I don't mean it as in "their wasted lives," i.e., they have nothing to live for and whatnot, becasue that would be ridiculous and not my intent at all. But I figure you understand that from your response.

So now we are good? *smiles/ laughs*

Jewish Atheist said...

We're good. :) Thanks for the lively discussion.

Ralphie said...

I know I'm coming to this party late - and I know that Einstein was a pretty smart guy... but isn't a snail without its shell just a slug?

Atheist Jewess said...

The delightfully fetishistic, legalistic, and endless Talmudic and rabbinic debate is EXACTLY what makes a Jew a Jew. I believe that the content of the debate is always irrelevant; it's the reality that intellectual and emotional debate is encouraged and that there is a meta-community of Jews, no matter what brand, what orthodoxy, what beliefs, and what upbringing that delights in the endless conversation. We may be snails, but we're very smart snails.

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