Reasonable Doubts Blog

Raise Your Hand if You Believe in Free Will

Posted in science and religion by Cheryl Berman on the July 28th, 2010

“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.” - Albert Einstein

“The initial configuration of the universe may have been chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the laws of science. In either case, it would seem that everything in the universe would then be determined by evolution according to the laws of science, so it is difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate.” – Stephen Hawking

“You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.” Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)

My first act of Free Will shall be to believe in Free Will.”William James

As I read the latest round of the Free-will/Determinism battle in the New York Times over the last couple of weeks I couldn’t help but to wonder at how far these arguments have developed. The seeming contradiction between what science tells us and what we experience day to day has confounded man for centuries. Democritus’ theory of tiny bits of matter called Atoms making up the material part of the world led to the first Western deterministic philosophy in the 5th century BCE. It was not well received. Epicurus, who relied heavily on Democritus’ Atomic Theory, later introduced a curve to the atomic path allowing for the possibility of free will. Since then new terminology has been introduced. Science has made vast discoveries in fields like neuroscience that have lent new perspectives to the issue. And yet the question remains where it was in the 5th century BCE: unanswered.

A few days ago William Eggington, professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, added his two cents to the centuries-long debate ( ) and I have to say that I very much enjoyed his two cents. Eggington discussed an experiment that was aimed at discovering the neuro basis for decision making. The experiment was written up in The Annual Review of Neuroscience by Josh Gold of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of Washington. In the experiment sensors were hooked up to the parts of the brains of monkeys that are responsible for visual pattern recognition. The monkeys were taught to respond to a cue by looking at one of two patterns. Computers that were interpreting the sensors were able to predict the patterns the monkeys would choose a fraction of a second before the monkey chose the pattern. The computers were literally reading the monkey’s minds.

If a computer could predict what a human will decide before he makes his decision, like it did for the monkeys, what does this say about free will? Have our decisions been made for us?

Eggington explains that this logic is based on a false premise. We are imagining Space and Time as if it were in some type of legible code of codes that can interpreted. So when the the computer predicted the monkeys choice it was reading from some type of code of the future as opposed to simply reading the mind of the monkey. Instead of interpreting the experiment as a statement about the neural processes of a monkey’s brain (in which the unconscious mind is a fraction of a second faster than the conscious mind) we have extrapolated about some future as if it were already written down in some secret but ultimately decipherable code.

I can’t claim to have read all or even most of the recent literature regarding the issue of free will and determinism but it seems to me that Eggington is on the right track. He reminds his readers of Kant, the limits of the human intellect and the dangers of trying to stretch reason too far. There is only so much we can know. And when we reach our limit we can’t keep using our intellects to create hypotheses so that we can prove some pre-determined theory (pun very much intended). That’s probably what Tolstoy was sensing as he raised and lowered his arms of his own free will and dared philosophers to challenge him. There are limits to the elasticity of our brains. Sometimes we need to concede to the illogical.

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Is it wrong to fast on Tisha Be’Av?

Posted in holidays by Cheryl Berman on the July 23rd, 2010

Recently I noticed an article in Haaretz written by Anshel Pfeffer entitled It is wrong to Fast on Tisha Be’Av. Pfeffer’s arguments were twofold. Firstly he argued that for the first time in history we live in a world in which Jews who do not live in Zion do so of their own choice. Even countries like Iran allow their Jews to leave, those Jews who do not, elect not to for financial reasons. Secondly, the Temple has not been built because the Jews did not want it to be built. In 1967 when Israel conquered Har Ha’Bayit they were all ready to blow up the mosques and construct a third Temple. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan rejected those plans and elected to hand Har Ha’Bayit over to the Muslin Wakf. According to Pfeffer “secular Jews have no affinity to a priestly caste sacrificing heifers and goats, while the great majority of religious Jews are not very eager themselves.”

When I first read the article I was struck by two opposing things. First, I was struck by his misguided assessment of the religious population. Religious Jews know that we can’t just decide when to build the Bet Ha’Mikdash on our own.  God has a say, of course.  Had the Messiah  come in 1967 we would have fought Dayan’s decision.  But he didn’t, so we left it as Dayan desired and continued to pray for the day the Messiah would lead us to Har Ha’ Bayit

But then I thought about Pfeffer’s article some more.  Perhaps Pfeffer had revealed an aspect of the modern religious consciousness that we as religious Jews would rather had left untouched.  The fact is how many religious Jews really would feel comfortable with the notion of animal sacrifice as a means of getting closer to God? I don’t know what the Third Temple will look like.  Perhaps, as Rav Kook posits, there will be no more animal sacrifices in the time on the Third Temple, and perhaps there will. But if the majority of rabbanim are correct and animal sacrifices will be restored to the Jewish people, we will have to adapt to a completely  foreign method of communicating with God. The fact is most of us don’t see the connection between the death of an animal, and all the various customs surrounding that death, and our connection with our creator.

In truth, I think I always felt like the Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim with regard to animal sacrifices. The Rambam describes an evolutionary system in which Jews of ancient times had to be weaned off of idolatrous practices and sacrifices were allowed as means for them to serve God. But civilization has developed and sacrifices have been replaced by a more lofty method of communicating with God – prayer. Then I read about the autistic animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin.

Dr. Grandin described herself as thinking in pictures, having very simple emotions (mainly fear ), possessing hypersensitivities to touch and certain sounds. In other words she functions exactly like animal. This visceral insight into the mind of animals allows her to work on behalf of the humane treatment of animals. By 1997 (the year the article was published in the New York Times) she had designed livestock facilities for nearly half the cattle in the U.S. And Canada.

Among the livestock systems she redesigned were kosher slaughterhouses. Her description of one of her experiences in designing a kosher slaughter house in Alabama was surprisingly mystical. She explains,

”When I held his (the cattle’s) head in the yoke, I imagined placing my hands on his forehead and under his chin and gently easing him into position,” she wrote in her book. ”Body boundaries seemed to disappear, and I had no awareness of pushing the levers.”

She compared it to a state of Zen meditation: ”The more gently I was able to hold the animal with the apparatus, the more peaceful I felt. As the life force left the animal, I had deep religious feelings. For the first time in my life logic had been completely overwhelmed by feelings I did not know I had.”

There is no doubt in my mind that this woman’s experience was similar to those of generations of cohanim, Leviim, and Jewish pilgrims who made the trek to Jerusalem three times a year or more to bring their offerings to Hashem. There is something religiously powerful about holding a life that is drifting off to God, in the palms of your hands. There is something uniquely terrifying about knowing that this life is leaving this world is lieu of your own. There is no more potent reminder of the specialness of life than the messiness of death. There are so many messages for us behind the karbanot, if we were only sensitive enough to intuit them.  Mr. Pfeffer, you are very much mistaken, there is every reason to mourn this Tisha Be’Av. We must mourn that we lack a proper understanding of why we must mourn. After 2000 years we have no idea what we have lost.

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A Lesson in Faith from the Writer of “Friends”

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the July 9th, 2010

About a year ago my family went to my parent’s apartment in Jerusalem for Shabbat. They had two guests for lunch – one was a pediatric surgeon and the other a Hollywood script writer. I’ll never forget my sister-in-law’s remark to me as we all sat drinking in every comment the script writer made. She pointed out how interesting it was that one man saved the lives of children, the other wrote for shows like Friends and we are all in awe of the one that worked with Joey and Monica. At the time I laughed at the irony.

You can imagine my surprise at finding an article about this script writer in Jewish Action one year later. Apparently there was a reason to be in awe of him, but it had nothing to do with Joey or Monica.  Michael Borkow had a lot to teach us about faith.

Borkow grew up in a secular home, and was first introduced to Judaism in a class his friend urged him to take. That class coupled with a week long trip to Israel convinced him that it was time to look further into Judaism. He organized a Saturday “Jewish Book Club” in which Jews of every variety came together to discuss the weekly parsha. Eventually Borkow decided to keep Shabbat.

When it was time to take a break from script writing (he had just come off the sitcom Joey) he decided to study in Israel. He focused on Talmud study, but at some point it was time to face a dilemma that had plagued him from the start. He didn’t understand how anybody could be certain there was a God. Clearly we can’t see, hear, or feel God. He thought agnosticism was the best position, but it was difficult to remain an agnostic in Yeshiva. He explained that in a secular environment truth was considered to be relative. But this did not coincide with the world of religious Judaism that asserts the existence of a God and the validity of the Torah.

But he explains, “Through my study of Chazal on this topic I learned a believer isn’t necessarily someone who is 100 percent certain there is a God. He can be someone who strives for the courage to act and think faithfully despite living in a world that doesn’t offer absolute scientific proof.”

Borkow continues to explain that the fact that God cannot be proved scientifically is not a “glitch in God’s plan.” “It isn’t a challenge to faith; it’s the essential starting point for faith. If one is having doubts, that can, in fact, be a reason to practice faith. It doesn’t make sense to say ‘I’m not going to pray because I am not sure there is a God,’ just as it wouldn’t make sense to say ‘I’m not going to the gym because I’m out of shape’ The same way the gym is designed to get you into shape – prayer and mitzvot are tools for strengthening one’s belief.”

I think Borkow makes two very important points about faith. Firstly, many faith crisis sufferers spend their time looking for scientific proof for the existence of God. They feel that a life of belief is predicated on the absolute knowledge that God exists. But Borkow has pointed out that the life of a believer is much more complex and dynamic. It is not predicated on absolute knowledge of anything. It is predicated on a commitment to a life of faith. Belief is essentially the journey in which one strives to fulfill his commitment to a life of faith.

Borkow’s second point is equally important, and one that I have pointed out in previous posts. If someone finds himself entangled in a crisis of faith the worst thing he can do is to stop praying and keeping mitzvot. Prayer can be used as the forum for his doubts. A person can pray to God that he has lost the ability to pray. Just keep the dialogue alive. Religion is about a relationship and once you stop speaking to your partner you have severed that relationship. Some of my most powerful religious experiences have come within a prayer to the God I wasn’t sure existed. I have learned that if you keep speaking to Him, you will become religiously sensitive enough to hear Him speaking back to you.

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A Fresh Look At Doubt

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the July 6th, 2010

Last night I attended an interesting lecture given by Prof. Howard Wettstein, professor of philosophy at University of California. When I first walked into the room I was struck by the audience.  The first person I saw was a tall middle-aged man with a long gray beard, misshapen black hat, dusty black suit, and Crocs with no socks. I thought I might be in the wrong room but he indicated to me that this was indeed the room designated for the lecture. The crowd that would eventually fill the room was diverse, Some men wore black suits and black hats, others were in jeans and tee shirts. Some women were in shorts and flip flops, others in long skirts and hair coverings.  The subject of the lecture, “Doubt – A mode of religious life,” was clearly a subject that crossed religious sociological boundaries.

Dr. Wettstein was a middle-aged man, balding head, white mustache and beard, and a kind face. He explained that while his teaching formerly focused on technical philosophy, he recently began to focus on philosophy of religion. He opened his lecture by telling us a bit about his background. He grew up in a secular Jewish home, but decided to attend Yeshiva University which is where he received his first exposure to religious Judaism. He fell in love with the learning and the lifestyle and he graduated from Rav Moshe Besdin’s starter’s shiur to Rav Aharom Lichtenstein’s shiur and eventually he studied briefly under Rav Soloveitchik. But while he was enamored with the learning he always entertained doubts. He never quite understood how he could prove that Orthodox Judaism was more true than any other way of life. He met with his rabbanim often but eventually decided that he needed to leave orthodoxy.

He studied philosophy and became an academician. When he reached his forties he went through a transformation. He explains that a certain sentence in Heschel caught his attention. Heschel says that the word “belief” is not found in the Tanach. The concept is prominent in both Christianity and Islam, but does not exist in classical Judaism. The Torah speaks of Fear of God and Love of God, but not belief. This led him to ask himself – if religious Judaism is not a system of beliefs, what is it? He explained that for thinkers like Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel religion is an “affective attitude” – it’s a stance or responsiveness one has to life and to God. It’s a relationship.

Dr. Wettstein explained this theory further by comparing it to a Greek model. He said that loving God in medieval rationalism, which is largely based on Greek philosophy, means something very different from loving God in the Torah. In medieval rationalism God is the most perfect being. How can you love something so perfect and beyond you? Loving God for medieval rationalists means worshiping perfection. This type of love has no reciprocity.

The Torah portrays love of God very differently. If we look in Shir Ha’Shirim we see love of God is modeled on human love. It involves a relationship. Dr. Wettstein’s point is that when we look at religion from the viewpoint of medieval rationalism (as most people do) we see a very different portrait of religion from the one actually portrayed in the Torah. And the viewpoint of the rationalists which makes God into the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being, makes God into something we can’t have a relationship with.  Dr. Wettstein’s proposal is that in order to understand religious Judaism we must abandon the widely accepted views of the medievals like the Rambam and embrace the anthropomorphic language of the the Torah.

Dr. Wettstein went on to explain that often the most passionate part of a relationship is when you try to fix a rift in it. Doubt is the rift in our relationship with God and ironically it might be the most dynamic part of a person’s religious life. Perhaps this is what God truly seeks.

Dr. Wettstein provided me with a unique perspective on doubt. We generally view doubt as a negative experience. It is something we need to conquer, to resolve. But Dr. Wettstein’s point is a good one. Our most passionate exploration of religion and God emerges from doubt. Our deepest sense of desire for God emerges from the fact that we aren’t sure there is a God. So often in Judaism as in every relationship things stop sizzling. They become rote and unfeeling. Doubt shakes things up. It forces you to perceive God from a different perspective. It forces you to accept what you couldn’t accept before – the paradox of faith. Accepting paradoxes in life is an uncomfortable thing to do. But maybe it’s good to be uncomfortable with religion so that you don’t become too comfortable with it.

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The Atheist Rabbi: Has Judaism Lost its Soul?

Posted in Defining Judaism by Cheryl Berman on the July 2nd, 2010

A certain blog post has understandably received much attention from the blogosphere and I think it brings up some very important issues about contemporary Judaism. Here is the post:

I am the rabbi of a modern orthodox synagogue. I have traditional semikha, spent time studying in Israel, have written articles for various Torah journals, I am married (to the Orthoprax Rebbetzin) and have five kids (the Orthoprax Rabbi’s Kids). This is all pretty unremarkable. But, I figured I would let you all in on a little secret, while my congregants are all Orthodox, to varying degrees, I am not. I don’t believe in any of it. I am an atheist. I personally don’t keep much of any of Jewish law.

How then can I be an Orthodox Rabbi? Simple. A rabbi is a job like any other. No one asks the plumber if he believes in plumbing or the attorney if he truly believes in his client. Instead, everyone understands that many people go into different professions for many different reasons. Sure, there are those plumbers who view it as their calling or the attorney who only takes clients he can believe in. Most of us, however, aren’t that lucky. Instead, we take jobs that we think we can be good at, make money, get power or a host of other reasons. I took this job because I am a good speaker, personable and have a background in Jewish stuff. My congregants all like me – or at least it seems so, I just received a five-year contract extension and raise – so what’s wrong if I don’t believe. My belief doesn’t (for the most part, and I hope to explore some areas where it does) affect my job performance. I answer “she’elot” and give heartfelt dershot, officiate at weddings and funerals, and, as I said, people are generally satisfied. So do my beliefs matter?

Like many other bloggers I believe this is probably a hoax. While I think anyone can go through a crisis of faith (been through a few myself), and many fall victim to the crisis and lose their faith completely, I have a hard time believing that this “rabbi” would risk exposing himself and losing his beloved job. But perhaps, as some of the more psychologically astute bloggers have suggested, he is actually feeling guilty about the whole thing and this is his way of dealing with the guilt.

The question of the existence of this rabbi is almost moot at this point, he has become real in the consciousness of those who read his blog and his reality has posed many questions about the nature of the Rabbinate and the essence of Judaism itself. Is the Rabbinate simply a job like plumbing as this man has suggested or is it more of a calling? And is Judaism essentially a religion of practice (Orthoprax)or ideology (Orthodox)? Has orthodox Judaism become orthoprax? Many of the previously mentioned bloggers have responded to the first question. Most agree that the Rabbinate is a calling not a job and somebody who does not experience this calling has no place in the rabbinate. But I think the second question is equally important – perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on strict conformity of practice and not enough on ideology. I am not suggesting that practice is unimportant in Judaism, but I am suggesting that it has been stressed to such an extreme that it has begun to choke out the ideology. People have begun to consider Judaism bereft of a philosophy – a religion where pretty much anything goes (as the “rabbi” is really suggesting). Clearly Judaism is based on certain ideological propositions, and without those propositions the whole system collapses. What is the point of keeping Shabbat if you deny God’s creation and the notion of a personal God (Yetziat Mitzraim)? In some respects contemporary Judaism has lost sight of this.

I think, especially for the purposes of this blog, it is also important to distinguish between a person who is going through a faith crisis and a person who happily declares himself an atheist. A faith crisis, as I have tried to explain in earlier posts, is part in parcel of the faith process. A gleeful atheist has abandoned the process entirely and has no desire to pick it up again. We would expect a rabbi to go through a crises of faith in his lifetime, but once he firmly abandons the process he abandons Judaism. It would be hard to argue that someone who has abandoned Judaism can be part of the rabbinate. To use this man’s ridiculous metaphor: could a plumber who abandoned plumbing keep working as a plumber? It’s nonsensical.

This man’s post has clearly struck a very raw nerve with people. Perhaps it is time to deal with some of the issues the post has brought up.

I’d love to hear what you think of this man’s post and some of these issues.

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