Saturday, March 21, 2009

Magic Underpants

In the comments of a previous post someone wrote:
I say [this] as a modern orthodox Jew who believes in G-d: anyone who believes that "the Rebbe" is moshiach is a heretic.

Why? Partially because according to Rambam, the Moshiach can't die. But, it's also because this garbage is so stupid, intelligent people such as yourself rightfully reject it.
I have heard many similar arguments from frum people, saying that Chabad is not "true Judaism" but rather a messianic cult (see David Berger's book for example). But I don't actually want to talk about that here, mainly because as a non-believer, I don't really care what Halacha says. Rather I want to address the attitude conveyed in the last sentence quoted above. We have a frum person smart enough to recognize the absurdity of Mishichist beliefs, who is seemingly not able to see that many of his beliefs are no less absurd.

This is similar to the common occurrence of Christians and Jews mocking the beliefs of Mormons and Scientologists. They will make fun of magic underwear and the galactic overlord Xenu, while themselves believing that God hates pork and that there was a talking snake. There seems to be some kind of cognitive dissonance here. Why can't one group of religious people see that their beliefs are as ridiculous and unfounded as another group's beliefs? My first instinct is to say it is because people get used to their own weird beliefs since they grew up with them, but this does not account for BTs or converts.

Whatever the reason of this phenomenon, wake up! If "their" irrational beliefs are so weird why are "your" irrational beliefs any better? Why can't everyone see that belief in Allah, Jesus, or Hashem is just as ridiculous as belief in Xenu, Rael, or the FSM? If you were born in Salt Lake City instead of Borough Park, don't you think you'd believe in the Book of Mormon just as much as you now believe in the Torah?


  1. Awesome post. Love it. I'm going to post something about Lubavitch soon.

  2. Frankly, I don't see how they don't appreciate the "magic undergarments" remark when they themselves may be wearing tzitzit! Holy garments is an idea found in Judaism through and through.

  3. Perhaps even more ironically, I remember hearing a Lubavitcher make fun of the "chassidishe unterhoisen" worn by Satmars, while he was wearing tzitzis!

  4. 'If "their" irrational beliefs are so weird why are "your" irrational beliefs any better?'

    Or your irrational belief in evolution, for example.

    'If you were born in Salt Lake City instead of Borough Park, don't you think you'd believe in the Book of Mormon just as much as you now believe in the Torah?'


  5. I think we've been over this before JP. There is overwhelming evidence that evolution happened, no faith is required.

    How about if you were born in Pakistan to a Muslim family? Do you really think you'd believe in Islam any less than you now believe in Judaism? If your answer is no, please explain.

  6. I'd agree with your supposition that it has to do with one's upbringing. As J.S. Mill puts it in "On Liberty":

    "In proportion to a man's want of confidence in his own solitary judgement, does he usually repose on the infallibility of 'the world' in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society...and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance."

    Now, that's not to say that any of the posted actions are not defensible when viewed in their own right. I think they could be, via appeal to a Kuzari-style argument that regardless of how irrational it sounds, at the end of the day, God commanded it during revelation. But I think you are correct that it's pretty self-contradictory to then criticize other religions because their beliefs/commandments "sound silly."

    Regarding JP--I'm not sure how evolution is an "irrational" doctrine. Choose to reject it if you will, but I'm not really sure how you support the claim that it is irrational.

  7. Sam,

    I've read about Kuzari's argument, which seems basically to be the idea that it would be impossible to fake a revelation to a multitude of people, so therefore any claim that such a revelation occurred must be true. That doesn't really make sense to me, since all you have to do is convince a few gullible people that such a revelation occurred in the past, and they will pass it on to their children (didn't this happen with Ezra?).

    I think the Kuzari argument is convincing only once you already assume the conclusion to be true. But I see how one can use such arguments to convince themselves that their beliefs are well-founded while others are not. But if such a person would think critically, I think they would realize that they are mistaken.

    I'm still not exactly sure how a Baal Teshuva gets convinced, maybe most of them already have belief in some watered-down version of Judaism.

  8. Hey Apikores,

    From what I've been studying recently, I've found that the argument you mention, though already well known as "the Kuzari argument," is not really the argument of the Kuzari,(it's closer to an argument of R' Saadiah Gaon, I think, though I could be corrected here). It's not what I had in mind in my comment, in any case.

    The Kuzari's main thesis, as I understand it, has to do with experience being able to override logic--what the eyes and the ears undergo can convince us even in the face of the unlikely. As such, for R' Yehuda HaLevi, it is the experience of undeniable revelation that binds one in mitzvot that seem irrational. So, for example, when questioned on the meaning of sacrificial offerings, the Rabbi responds with a lengthy discourse on the meaning behind them--but ultimately concludes, "this is all speculation, and at the end of the day, we had the experience of God saying to do it, regardless of whether or not we understand it" (to put it in my own words).

    Now, that being said, all this of course rests on accepting that the revelation actually happened in the first place. When it comes to that, I agree with your point from above that it's not provable in that way. My previous post was just to say that one could defend "strange" practices you cite (i.e. tzitzit, etc) by using the Kuzari's real argument, though that would of course depend on defending belief in revelation. Thus, odd practices could be defensible in the face of acknowledging their strangeness, but it's self-contradictory to then accuse other religions of having weird practices (as you write in your original post).

    Does that make sense?

  9. Yeah, I think I get what you're saying. I guess it's true that once you believe in the revelation then you can justify any strangeness (Mormon leaders have revelations all the time to justify any change in policy, for example). But like you said, the belief in revelation is itself unjustifiable.

    One could even argue that it is contradictory to believe in revelation at all (unless you yourself experienced it) because there are many religions who claim contradictory revelations.

    Anyway, I agree with your point that people can find ways to justify their beliefs, but I think they all require a suspension of logic at some point.

    Also, I doubt that most believers actually acknowledge the weirdness of their own beliefs, and they probably wouldn't make fun of other beliefs if they did.

  10. Interesting. Right, it's hard to understand justifying belief in revelation based on personal tradition alone, given that many others have very different traditions. And then if you start to critically examine the traditions to discover which is best, you find flaws/objections all around. That's my basic issue. In fairness to the other side (I tend to be sympathetic towards arguments that don't do it for me), I can understand someone claiming that lack of total epistemological justification is not a barrier towards other beliefs we hold, and so should not be here. It would fit in line with the point about experience over logic in the Kuzari--that we go with the daily life experience we have to work with, which in this case involves a tradition of revelation that seems "cogent enough" to accept.

    Frankly, I see that as one of the more honest justifications, though it does not quite do it for me because of the high stakes involved (I'd want much higher certainty than I have), and some of the objections.

    I certainly agree with you about most believers not really considering the "weirdness" of their own beliefs.

  11. You seem to be saying that there is some justification for religious beliefs, just not enough to convince you. I'm not really sure I understand what that justification is from your previous posts, could you possibly explain it again?

    (Maybe I'm just less sympathetic than you, but I've never really heard an argument that convinced me even in the least bit)

  12. I guess I am saying something like that, or more that I have recently engaged with people who used this justification, and could understand their trying to do so. I have understood it as being something like the following: embrace that I don't have full rational certainty regarding my religion, but accept it because I believe it fulfills criteria of belief that I accept elsewhere in daily life (i.e. testimony). So instead of rejecting the religion because it is not certain, you accept it because it is certain enough (through experience of revelation and then tradition of that experience) in comparison with all of life's uncertainty and the way I generally navigate through it.

    It's hard for me to make this case well, though, because I don't really buy it--it seems too obvious to question the validity of that chain of testimony, and in daily life, I DO question beliefs that are challenged. Personally, I prefer maintaining the skeptical attitude about most things rather than shrugging it off and saying "this level of knowledge is good enough." The position also seems contradictory, since there are other pieces of knowledge we regularly would accept--i.e. historical/anthropological scholarship--that one needs to discount in special cases pertaining to OJ. I guess I'm ultimately saying I can understand someone trying to defend OJ this way and am willing to have the discussion on it, but I don't really buy it. I look at the very shaky epistemological ground it all stands on and don't see a basis for obedience that comes with very high stakes.

    I hope I'm not just confusing things further... :-)

  13. That was a good explanation, and I think I agree. I certainly believe a lot of things because of testimony, since it would be impossible to live normally if I only believed the things I measured myself. But of course we should only accept testimony which we have good reason to think is reliable, especially when it is used to support extraordinary claims, and even more so when those claims will be used to restrict other people's behaviors.

    It seems you're more generous than me is bending over backward to accommodate religious perspectives. Maybe it's because many religious people haven't been very accommodating to me, or maybe I'm just a hardass. :P

  14. Ha, I probably am, for a few reasons. Maybe it's just where I am in my skepticism/intellectual interests....

  15. Different religions and belief systems have different degrees of absurdity. I'd be inclined to argue that mordern Orthodox Judaism is in many ways less absurd than believing that Lubavitcher was the Messiach.

    One good test for degree of adsurdity is how self-consistent the belief system is. Claiming that the Lubavitcher was the Messiah directly contradicts many of the standard teachings about the Messiah. I'm not claiming that standard Orthodox does not have serious internal contradictions, but that Mesichistim have more.

    Another method is how consistent the beliefs are with empirical evidence. An Orthodox Jew who accepts evolution, thinks the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and doesn't think there was a global flood is being more true to empirical evidence than an Orthodox Jew who believes that the Earth is 5769 years old and that there really was a big flood.

    Now, one problem with these sorts of analysis is that measuring the size of contradictions (either self-contradictions or contradictions with empirical evidence) are to some extent subjective. It isn't surprising that people are more likely to see religions which are more removed from them as having more problems, but one can still tentatively rank religious beliefs in this fashion. When one does so, scientology is really one of the dumber ones out there, and I'd argue that Mormonism is actually one of the more reasonable ones out there (and in some ways more sense than most forms of Protestant Christianity).

    So there isn't necessarily cognitive dissonance going on here. There might be biases coming into play, and in some cases there may be cognitive dissonance, but it isn't necessary to make these sorts of statements in highly limited forms.

  16. Joshua,

    I agree that "weirdness" is subjective and comes in different degrees, but I'm not sure I'd pick self-consistency as the test for whether a belief is absurd. You can create a self-consistent theory of the flying spaghetti monster, but most people would still consider it absurd.

    A better criterion might be probability or plausibility. I agree that Lubavitch Mishichism is probably not consistent with traditional orthodox Judaism (although there are Rabbis who argue otherwise; you can find justification for pretty much anything in all the differing opinions in torah), but from an outside point of view the idea that the Rebbe is the Messiah doesn't seem to be much more implausible than many of the things that most orthodox Jews already believe (for example, all the resurrection stories in Tanach, or the idea of the Messiah in general).

    It may be true that some Modern Orthodox people actually believe in the findings of science and reject many of the ridiculous claims of the Bible, so in that sense they can say ultra-orthodoxy is weirder, but many Modern Orthodox people I've met still believe that the exodus story is true and that the creator of the universe would rather you ate beef than shrimp, which are pretty implausible to an objective observer.

    Also, I'm not sure why you think that Scientology is more dumb. Are space aliens really more absurd than angels or virgin births? And why do you think Mormonism is more reasonable? Mormons believe that Native Americans are a lost tribe of Jews, and that Jesus visited America after the resurrection! Mormonism also has the disadvantage of being obviously fabricated, since we have much more information about the life of Joseph Smith than we do about Jesus or Moses.

    Anyway, I think that an objective observer would not really see a significant difference in the level of absurdity between traditional Judaism and Scientology, for example. I think it's just the novelty of Scientology that makes it seem weirder.

    Also, I didn't mean to imply that all believers literally are experiencing cognitive dissonance, just that many (probably most) religious people don't realize that their beliefs are just as unfounded as the beliefs of others that they so easily dismiss.

  17. I tried to use self-consistency rather than plausibility precisely because of the subjective issues at hand. Although I suspect that if you talked to a Reform or Conservative Jew they would generally agree that most forms of Orthodoxy are more plausible than Mesichistism. Whether that stays true if one expands to asking non-Jews or irreligious Jews in general, I'm not sure.

    You raise a valid point about the history of Mormonism. I was thinking more that the theology is pretty self-consistent. Indeed, having Jesus visit North America actually helps resolve serious theological dilemmas for standard Christians (there is an issue of how could people who never had any chance to learn about Christianity be saved). My sympathy to Mormonism may be coming from more emotional reasons than anything else.

    Scientology to my mind at least is more dumb because it does fail in terms of empirical evidence badly (their understanding of cosmology and geology is about as bad as that of most Young Earth Creationists) and because it is so painfully obviously just bad science fiction. The fact that the founder was a science fiction writer doesn't help matters.

    It might help matters if I used examples that are more extreme than Scientology or Mormonism. There are for example, real life worshippers of Cthulhu even though Cthulhu comes from works by H.P. Lovecraft which are explicitly fictional. Similarly, there are real life worshipers of Morgoth (although they call him Melkor for obvious reasons). Melkorism and variants thereof have gotten play in some white supremacist groups (see ). So we have here people worshiping a fictional Satan-figure from Lord of the Rings, the details of whose history contradict geology and all that fun stuff about as much as YECism. I suspect that an objective observer who had never encountered any Orthodox Judaism or Melkorism would label Melkorism as more absurd and self-contradictory.

  18. I see why you say that that, but I think if you looked at (for example) Cthulhu worship and Jesus worship as an outside observer (i.e. as someone who had a knowledge of science and history but had never heard of any of these religions before) you'd find that the difference in absurdity (measured by implausibility) between the two is negligible when compared to the actual difference from reality. Sure there is a difference in that we can trace the origins of Cthulhu much better than that of Jesus, in that sense I think you're right, but all these religions are so removed from reality that I don't think it makes much of a difference.

  19. >>>If you were born in Salt Lake City instead of Borough Park, don't you think you'd believe in the Book of Mormon just as much as you now believe in the Torah? <<<<<<

    absolutely. thats why I don't tell my Mormon friend to reform, or belittle anyone. we relate to the metaphysical in different ways, personal truth is malleable.

  20. "absolutely. thats why I don't tell my Mormon friend to reform, or belittle anyone. we relate to the metaphysical in different ways, personal truth is malleable."

    If people want to believe in "personal truths" that have little to do with reality, and which they only believe by an accident of birth, that's their business, and I wish them the best of luck. The problem is the vast number of religious people who believe that their "personal truth" is the actual truth and that anyone who doesn't agree is a heretic who must be convinced, by force if necessary.

  21. Ah the ever so familiar national revelation or mass revelation proof argument.

    In short, the argument is that Judaism is unique because it has, at its origin, a mass revelation. Millions of people (he says between six and fifteen million, but that's quite a stretch, even accepting the 600,000 number as literally true) stood at Mt. Sinai and literally heard God speak. Putting aside, for a moment, the fact that the only proof that this happened is because it says it in the very book you're trying to prove, it's a fair argument.

    I don't think most frummies have properly considered this argument, which contrary to Chabad propaganda, really isn't unique to Judaism at all

    . The Aztecs, for example, had a mass revelation story. They believed that their god, Huitzilopochtli, led them (in person) to the site of present-day Mexico City. Based on Rabbi Mizrachi's assertion, the very fact that another group even claims a mass revelation shows that the Torah is not true.

    According the Aubin Codex, the Aztecs originally came from a place called Aztlan. They lived under the ruling of a powerful elite called the "Azteca Chicomoztoca". Huitzilopochtli ordered them to abandon Aztlan to find a new home. He also ordered them never to call themselves Aztec; instead they should be called "Mexica." Huitzilopochtli guided them through a long journey. For a time, Huitzilopochtli left them in the charge of his sister Malinalxochitl, who, according to legend, founded Malinalco, but the Aztecs resented her ruling and called back Huitzilopochtli. He put his sister to sleep and ordered the Aztecs to leave the place. When she woke up and realized she was alone, she became angry and desired revenge. She gave birth to a son called Copil. When he grew up, he confronted Huitzilpochtli, who had to kill him. Huitzilopochtli then took his heart and threw it in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Many years later, Huitzilopochtli ordered the Aztecs to search for Copil's heart and build their city over it. The sign would be an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a precious serpent. The Aztecs finally found the eagle, who bowed to them, and they built a temple in the place, which became Tenochtitlan.

    And just to add a little fuel to the fire:

    A national revelation your forefathers were quick to forget. Just after God had displayed all his miracles, just after he allegedly appeared to everyone, you went back to idol worship as soon as Moses turned his back. Remember the "after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you" part?
    It’s also an established reality that the early Jews quickly went astray, changing religions many times in their lives, and in this atmosphere, you still tell me that authorship and moral + religious standards are not that important?

    “The Mosaic religion was initially a monolatrous religion; while the Hebrews are enjoined to worship no deity but Yahweh, there is no evidence that the earliest Mosaic religion denied the existence of other gods. In fact, the account of the migration contains numerous references by the historical characters to other gods, and the first law of the Decalogue is, after all, that no gods be put before Yahweh, not that no other gods exist. While controversial among many people, most scholars have concluded that the initial Mosaic religion for about two hundred years was a monolatrous religion. For there is ample evidence in the Hebrew account of the settlement of Palestine, that the Hebrews frequently changed religions, often several times in a single lifetime.”

    a reliable jewish source explaining how the early jews frequently changed religion in their lifetime and quickly strayed from monotheism, which casts much doubt on a so-called national revelation.

  22. Cool, I hadn't heard about that Aztec story before.

  23. heh!

    Stick with me Apikores. And I'll let you in on refutations for all the arguments in defense of Judaism.

    And while we are on the subject I may as well let out the best of the best.

    Frummies believe in the Torah as a divine book, and that is the foundation of their whole creed so when we crack that then we can crack all of Judaism.

    But what do we do if there are discrepancies between all the Torah scrolls.

    Here is rabbinical insight on the subject:

    Maimonides (Rambam), Hilkhot Sefer Torah 8, 4:
    "Since I have seen great confusion in all the scrolls [of the Law] in these matters, and also the Masoretes who wrote [special works] to make known [which sections are] "open" and "closed" contradict each other, according to the books on which they based themselves, I took it upon myself to set down here all the sections of the Law, and the forms of the Songs [i.e. Ex.15, Deut.32], so as to correct the scrolls accordingly. The copy on which we based ourselves in these matters is the one known in Egypt, which contains the whole Bible, which was formerly in Jerusalem [serving to correct copies according to it]. Everybody accepted it as authoritative, for Ben Asher corrected it many times. And I used it as the basis for the copy of the Torah Scroll which I wrote according to the Halakha."

    If you think Maimonides' testimony was grim, wait 'til you read the rest:

    RaMaH (R. Meir Ben Todros HaLevi) in his introduction to Masoret Seyag LaTorah:
    "...All the more so now that due to our sins, the following verse has been fulfilled amongst us, "Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work among this people, Even a marvelous work and a wonder; And the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, And the prudence of their prudent men shall be hid"(Is. 29:14). If we seek to rely on the proofread scrolls in our possession, they are also in great disaccord. Were it not for the Masorah which serves as a fence around the Torah, almost no one would find his way in the controversies between the scrolls. Even the Masorah is not free from dispute, and there are several instances disputed [among the Masorah manuscripts], but not as many as among the scrolls. If a man wishes to write a halakhically "kosher" scroll, he will stumble on the plene and defective spellings and grope like a blind man through a fog of controversy; he will not succeed. Even if he seeks the aid of someone knowledgeable, he will not find such a one. When I, R. Meir HaLevi Ben Todros of Spain, saw what had befallen the scrolls, the Masorah lists, and the plene and defective spelling traditions, due to the ravages of time, I felt the need to search after the most precise and proofread codices and the most reliable Masoretic traditions, to resolve the conflicts. The newly-produced scrolls should be abandoned in favor of older, more faithful ones and among these the majority of texts should be followed as commanded in the Torah to decide any controversy, as it is written: "After the multitude to do..."(Ex. 23:2). "

    It gets darker:

    R. Yom Tov Lippman Milhausen, in his work Tikkun Sefer Torah:
    "Because of our many sins, the Torah has been forgotten and we can not find a kosher Torah scroll; the scribes are ignoramuses and the scholars pay no attention in this matter. Therefore I have toiled to find a Torah scroll with the proper letters, open and closed passages, but I have found none, not to mention a scroll which is accurate as to the plene and defective spellings, a subject completely lost to our entire generation. In all these matters we have no choice [i.e. we are halakhically considered anusim]; but how to write the correct forms of the letters we do know and their laws are like that of tefillin. Thus if we allow the ignorant scribes to continue to follow their usual practices [in shaping the letters], here we sin on purpose [mezidin]."

    Don't really think so. Who knows what Maimonides and the two other Rabbis didn't disclose to the general public. Maimonides, in fact, when writing to the Jews of Yemen, lied to them by saying that there exist no discrepancies at all between all the Torah scrolls of the world, not even in vowelization. Obviously, this was to keep their faith up. Disclosing what he knew to them would've really shaken their faith. Do you know why he said that there existed no differences even in vowelization? It is because the Yemenite Jews were exposed to the polemics of the Muslims regarding the Torah's authenticity.