Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The semantics of "faith"

Lately, I've come across many theological arguments where one side will resort to the following strategy - "Well, you can't prove that G-d exists, and besides, that is why they call it faith!"

I have problems with both parts of this statement. Seems to me that when our theological texts refer to "faith", or being "faithful" (ne'eman), they really mean faith in the sense of steadfastness, fidelity. In other words, not abandoning a belief in the face of persecution or dissuasion, like a good friend who sticks by you through thick and thin. I don't believe it means to acquire a belief without a rational basis for it. So to appeal to the usage of this word seems disingenuous, or at least inappropriate in this context.

Tackling the first part of the statement - it is probably true that you could not prove the existence of G-d, just like you could not prove the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. However, this is not what the crux of the argument is usually about. The proof that is sought is usually the veracity of claims of various religions about G-d's interaction with the physical universe and specifically direct communication with various individuals. This is something that should be easy to prove.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Passion Plays in Shul

Another week of passion plays in shul as we make our way through Breishis. The rabbi just won't let up. Just a little while ago it was Ishmael, and this week it is Esav. This really feels like I am watching a medieval passion play. Here comes the good guy - Yaacov. He is perfect. Here comes the bad guy - Esav. He is evil. Boo, hiss...
I am sure it is heresy to say, but I just don't buy into the whole midrashic caricatures of these characters. Every possible character flaw has been heaped on these poor souls - idolaters, incestuous rapists, murderers. However, reading the text, none of this is even remotely suggested. In the pshat, they are all multi-dimensional human beings. The years of allegorizing had transformed them from normal families to some kind of soap operas - cue the bad organ music.
I am reminded of the time when the European authorities decided to assign names to Jews for census purposes. Often they would come up with demeaning or silly names - if a person was tall they would give him the last name of Klein (small), etc. Yaacov is supposed to represent Emes - truth. Yet if I had to pick one patriarch who uses deceit as a strategy, it would be him.

How far do we need to stretch the pshat? Is the benefit of this technique really so great. Do we need to make the "Other" as bad as possible to the point of absurdity?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Oedipus Rex, Fate and Free Choice

I am always fascinated how some of the same philosophical questions that torment us today have been around for millenia, for example free will vs fate.

Apparently, twenty five hundred years ago, Greek society was facing the same religious/secular schism that we face today. Many philosophers, such a s Protagoras, felt that the notion of fate was an archaic superstition and that there is no higher purpose to existence - a random universe.

Of course, Oedipus is the quintessential portrait of a man who fulfills his fate by running away from it. However, from a dramatic point of view, watching a man destroyed by fate is not a very fulfilling for the audience. One of the reasons why this play is a classic is summarized by Bernard Knox, a scholar of Hellenic Studies:
Oedipus did have one freedom: he was free to find out or not find out the truth. This was the element of Sophoclean sleight-of-hand that enabled him to make a drama out of a situation which the philosophers used as a classic demonstration of man's subjection to fate. But it is more than a solution to an apparently insoluble dramatic problem; it is the key to the play's tragic theme and the protagonist's heroic stature. One freedom is allowed him: the freedom to search for the truth, the truth about the prophesies, about the gods, about himself. And of this freedom he makes full use. Against the advice and appeals of others, he pushes on, searching for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And in this search he shows all the great qualities that we admire in him - courage, intelligence, perseverance, the qualities that make human beings great. This freedom to search, and the heroic way in which Oedipus uses it, make the play not a picture of man's utter feebleness caught in the toils of fate, but on the contrary, a heroic example of man's dedication to the search for truth, the truth about himself. This is perhaps the only human freedom, the play seems to say, but there could be none more noble.
from the introduction to Oedipus Rex in Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On free will, omniscience, and baptised penguins

In his book Penguin Island, Anatole France tells the story of a bunch of penguins that get baptised accidently by a near-blind saint who mistakes them for humans. Hilarity ensues - as does a Heavenly debate about their fate. G-d makes the decision to turn them into human beings, and makes the following statement:
However, my foreknowledge must not be allowed to interfere with their free will. So as not to limit human freedom, I hereby assume ignorance of what I know, I wind tightly over my eyes the veils which I have seen through, and in my blind clairvoyance, I allow myself to be surprised by what I have foreseen.
What eloquence!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Stinking Russian

Found this today.

Hat-tip mentalblog

Monday, November 13, 2006

Weekend Walkabout

My wife decided on Friday morning that we should take a weekend trip to Springfield, Illinois, our state capital. We left right after the Sabbath, and after four hours of driving through fields, arrived , checked-in, and went to sleep.

In the morning, after a twinge of disappointment about forgetting the camera, we embarked on our one day journey.

The town of Springfield is exceptionally ugly. Parking lots, boxy government buildings with no personality. Among them are sprinkled remnants of the original town.

The state Capitol is one of these architectural landmarks. It is truly a marvel of construction inside and out. Constructed of limestone, marble, and wood. Neo-classical style colonnades and cupola. Stained glass in the rotunda.

After that - the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Unlike my wife, I do not harbor an avid interest in American History, yet as the years go by, the person of Abraham Lincoln fascinates me more and more. Walking through the exhibits, I became much more aware of several aspects of this man that were not apparent to me before.

Immediately, you get an appreciation for his charisma. Partially it is his earnestness, his work ethic culled from a frontier childhood, his ability to express himself in a way that no modern statesman seems to possess.

You also get the sense of tragedy that was a constant presence in his life. Yet, some people believe that unlike many people, who are debilitated by tragedy and depression, Lincoln actually seemed to be driven by his melancholy to accomplish the task that was placed in front of him.

Lastly, this museum put into perspective how fickle public opinion can be. Lincoln is perhaps the greatest American president, yet during his tenure, he was viciously attacked and maligned by the press, other politicians, and Washington society. He was called a monkey, a devil, a country bumpkin, and worse. Yet, history judged him differently. And ultimately this is what matters.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I am His Highness' dog at Kew; Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

Our shul has its share of very wealthy members. One thing I've noticed is that there is quite a bit of fawning and sucking up to these guys by most of the community. Yet for some subconscious reasons, I am repelled by these people and tend to not really socialize with them. I certainly don't make an effort to schmooze and be very friendly with them.

This is bad on several levels. For one thing, many of these people are reasonably nice. I feel like I am projecting my own prejudices on them. Deep down in my heart, I guess I believe that it is really hard to be this wealthy without taking advantage of others. Perhaps it is still some vestige of childhood indoctrination. Then there is also the fact that my constitution is so different from that of a mover and shaker, a businessman, a barterer, a salesman. I am an engineer, a philosopher, a navel-gazer.

I think this will probably hurt my family in the long run. These communities seem to thrive on connections. Knowing the right people seems to be very important. And frankly, sucking up is expected.

Some say it is a learned behavior - like manners. You need to practice it to get good at it. Yet, I cannot force myself to engage in it - some inexorable force drives me to rebel, to withdraw, to stick to stupid, windmill-charging ideals. Shigata ga nai.

Hip Hop Penguins

Sunday, November 05, 2006

La Linea - The Great Space Coaster

Anyone still remember that show? Gary Gnu et al.

Do you remember the cartoon shorts with a guy drawn as a line on a blackboard?

Found some video of the original cartoon shorts here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

History is written by the victors - Sefer Milchamot Hashem

Reading the translation of the first three cantos of the Sefer Milchamot Hashem, I am struck by several impressions:

Firstly, how pious the Karaite is. He is not a rebel or a mocker. He truly believes that he is in possession of the truth, and the Rabbanites are heretics. He is trying to show them the error of their ways.

Secondly, how his arguments are not very different from those voiced on many j-blogs today. (Not necessarily by the bloggers themselves)

Thirdly, how the Karaites basically disappeared from the radar of the Jewish world.