This article will be pointless to most. People who are not Orthodox Jews may need no convincing that Orthodox Judaism is strange and unfounded. Still they may be surprised to learn just how strange it can be. Orthodox Jews will find my words patently wrong - because it contradicts the "truths" we have been taught - or in many ways “brainwashed” with - from childhood. They will also find it offensive. I don’t mean to give offense but sometimes, to some, the truth is offensive.
But I hope that those rare Orthodox Jews who have the open-mindedness to challenge their religion will find some strength in this. Based on emails I receive from time to time it seems that my overview has indeed helped people.
I have kept this anonymous. I am no longer embarrassed by my views but it might embarrass close friends and family - you know what I mean.
So what are my issues with Orthodox Judaism (OJ) - the religion in which I was intensively brought up and which is believed and practiced by the vast majority of family and friends? What makes me a proud "Apikores" - the highly derogatory term for a Jew who does not believe in the fundamentals of the faith? Four independent things:
Most of this is an intellectual critique but I will end with some thoughts about pet peeves, so why do people believe and coming out (as an Apikores).
First and foremost, orthodox Judaism is a set of beliefs. The balance of evidence and reason is overwhelmingly against these beliefs. Of course, there is no end to the creativity which the determined believer will apply to reconciling the facts with fundamental Jewish beliefs. And if you're determined enough you can excuse anything. But if you're at all open minded, you weight the evidence and see that all the evidence is overwhelmingly against OJ.
Here are a few examples of where the facts - or at least the evidence - contradicts traditional Jewish beliefs.
The world was created according to the account in Genesis - some 6000 years ago. The evidence for a universe some 12 billion years old starting from a big bang is clearcut. Astronomers can view light from galaxies billions of light years away. They can detect the microwaves remaining from the early stages of the Universe. All astronomical objects are moving away from each other indicating an expansion which started 12 billion years ago. Geologists and paleontologists can also trace in great detail the 5 billion year history of planet Earth and 3-4 billion year history of life on Earth. Human evolution can be traced back a couple of million years. Some very specific aspects of human culture can be traced back tens of thousands of years.
Some creative but defensive and unconvincing excuses have been proffered by Jewish authorities. Maybe God created the universe looking like it was old in a cunning ploy to fool us all. Sure, and NASA staged the moon landing. Or maybe things are just how they seem - what's more likely? In any event, as we will see, the stories after the date of creation are no more possible.
Another favorite excuse is that the Chumash (Pentateuch) is not intended as a history book. It's not? Then why all the boring bits which list the chronicles of mankind generation by generation - with names and dates - from Adam down. And if Noah was not to be taken literally then what about his descendant Abraham (born in the same Parasha) and if he is not literal then what does it even mean to be a Jew.
The Chumash was written by God. Anyone who thinks that probably hasn't read it, at least not with a clear and open mind. There is nothing non-human about the writing - its an intriguing ancient book but hardly divine. Linguistic analysis proves this book was edited, not written by a single author. The classic excuse is that God wrote it in human language. But surely if this was God's eternal words of wisdom to mankind He would have made it a bit special
The Tanach (Old Testament) gives a truthful historical account The obvious problem with this is the miracles. All the world's animals in an ark? Egypt flooded with frogs? The red sea split? Well maybe Jack climbed the bean-stalk to a cloud. But for my money it's more likely that this is a fairy tale.
Beyond the miracles, the detailed archeological record of life in Egypt and the “Land of Israel” shows no record of Jewish slaves, slaughtering of baby boys, ten plagues, crossing of the red sea, conquest of Israel and disturbingly little evidence of the unified kingdom of Solomon and other biblical history. I mention a few highlights - many books have been written about the contradictions between the bible and the archeological record.
Common human ancestor The genetic diversity of humanity conclusively contradicts a common ancestor in the last few thousand years in Noah or Adam and Eve. If we had a common ancestor so recently we would all be almost genetically identical. By the way, I have listened with amazement to Jews talking about the fact that many priest’s or “Cohanim” share a common Y chromosome evidencing a common paternal ancestor consistent with a common paternal ancestry from the biblical Aaron. Well, then why don’t all of the word’s men share Noah’s Y chromosome - he was a mere 15 generations earlier in the biblical account.
Humans are categorically different to animals In fact humans are genetically 99% identical to chimps, gorillas and bonobos and have remarkable commonalities with lower mammals too. There is strong evidence of a common ancestor in the last few million years. The facts do not support the view of humans being created in the image of God and send as a totally different category to animals.
Ludicrous is a separate point to incorrect. My first point is that the balance of evidence is overwhelmingly against the correctness of the Jewish religion. My point here is that common sense is inconsistent the principles of OJ.
Here are some of the many points which I find ludicrous. Again the believer will find creative excuses. But why bother?
God chose Jacob and his twelve sons as the ultimate ancestors of the chosen people (not Abraham or Isaac by the way - not all their descendants were chose - Jacob was the defining forefather of all Jews). This is a favorite of mine.
What do we know about Jacob? He cheated his blind father, he cheated his employer (albeit greatly provoked in that case), he treated his wives, children and grandchildren with appalling favoritism which drove them to want to kill each other.
What do we know about the twelve sons who fathered the twelve tribes of the "chosen nation"? Nine of them wanted to murder their own brother, Joseph. Judah, on the other hand, a real role model for the future chosen people, was righteous and proposed that they instead sell Joseph into slavery. Then the ten brothers told father Jacob an appalling like, that his favorite son was dead. Joseph himself sought revenge and taunted his brother cruelly; later he became a tyrant who systematically deprived the Egyptian people of their property and liberty. Simeon and Levi cheated then massacred an entire town, apparently because one man, the Chief’s son had slept with their sister (there being no evidence that she was an unwilling participant). Levi’s descendants were chosen for special privilege.
Can you see why God would say - there is a model family - anyone descendant from those guys will be my chosen people? Neither can I. My orthodox teachers actually tried to say this is a virtual of the Chumash that it shows people with their faults. But these were not good people with human faults (maybe Moses was but not these guys) - they were savages. Not surprisingly the Gmara (Talmud) goes to some lengths to insist that this family was righteous in a pointless effort to cover up that they were animals.
My main concern here is specifically to critique Orthodox Judaism but it's worth mentioning that any belief in God and the insistence on one God is totally unfounded. The normal argument is that the world is beautiful so it must have taken an all powerful God to create it. Kindergarten children know the answer better than we do. Then who made God? They're right - we don't know how the universe was created but saying it was created by God solves nothing - maybe there are seventeen Gods. Maybe none. Maybe there is a God but he's not all powerful and he in turn was made by a super-God. Let's just admit that we don't know and can't know if and what is behind the creation of the universe.
Richard Dawkins had a cute point about monotheism - it's only advantage is that it is numerically closer to the truth than polytheism!
By the way Judaism is particularly amusing in being passionately monotheistic on the one hand, but then assigning to God different names with different modes of behavior associated, distinct attributes (Midot), different types of angels and councils etc. - clearly Judaism is monotheistic in name only and retains its ancient polytheistic roots of many Gods. I enjoyed the book God a biograph. which shows how the Chumash really treated God as different characters with different names and then just slaps on the assertion that God is one.
Jewish thinking and law is routed in the following principles:
The book of Genesis - the foundation of foundations of the Jewish religion - is largely a theory of the origin of races; Genesis makes some notorious racial disciplines of the 20th Century which I wont mention look good. Jewish law - Halachah - codifies this racial theme. Obviously the Jewish law gives radically different roles and laws for the Jewish race. It appears that there is also a different value for Jewish life - e.g. the rules of Sabbath may be waived to save a Jewish life but not for prima fascia a non-Jewish life (although loopholes emerged over the centuries to try to accommodate this in practice). Within the Jewish race, the races descendant (paternally) from Levi and from Aaron have special roles, rules, rights and obligations. But additionally Jewish law specifically discriminates in varying ways over and above other gentiles against Amalekites (where Jews are for-ever commanded to murder every man, woman, child and animal - and King Saul indeed committed such a genocide in the bible although he was criticized for sparing the animals), the seven nations of Canaan of whom the Israelites murdered six, Egyptians and Moobites who had a special status and Jews were not allowed to intermarry, etc. Today these Jewish laws still apply but as the races have become intermingled only the races of Jews, Levites and Priests preserve their special status in practice. Incidentally, the appalling biblical passage commanding the genocide of Amalek is read aloud in synagogue from the scroll once a year to this day and is considered the most important reading of the year since the bible commands that we not forget this edict.
Much has been written about the role of woman in Judaism and some have attempted to portray the role as “different but equal”. Well there is a ton of Jewish literature and you can certainly find women portrayed in different ways - even on rare occaisions with some respect - but the overal theme of Halacha is clear - woman are a peices of property which belongs first of their fathers and then of their husbands. To wit:
That was just the halacha stuff. Here are some examples of the derogatory attitude to woman:
Homosexual intercourse between two consenting adults carries the death penalty. Homosexuality is described throughout Jewish literature as an abomination - the ultimate tragedy of Noah’s flood is blamed by the Jewish Midrash on homosexual practice.
The bible and Jewish law allows slavery of non-Jews. Some very minimal rights are granted to slaves such as the right to be released if the master causes the amputation of a limb (implying though that non-excessive beating is appropriate). Some say that even these minimal rights were forward thinking 3000 years ago but is this the eternal morals of the master of the universe? Halachah actually forbids the releasing of slaves!
Disabled priests were barred from serving in the temple and according to Jewish belief will be barred from serving in the future temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem. In many communities they cannot participate in the Cohanim's blessings today.
Thile some associate orthodox Judaism with the laws of Sabbath, or Kosher, actually by far the most dominant set of rules, which occupy a sizeable chunk of the Chumash, are the laws governing animal sacrifice. The bible makes it clear that these appease God who appreciates the smell of burned animal meat. (Many Jewish comenators have of course tried to rationalize it differently but that's not what the bible says).
Most transgressions of Jewish law are punishable by 39 brutal lashes, many dozens are subject to the death penalty in public. This includes for example cooking on the Sabbath or eating an apple without first setting aside the tithes (a sort of tax for the priests) and of course for blasphemy.
In many cases Jewish practice has found technical legal loopholes to evolve and avoid some of these practices. Yet these morals are still fundamental parts of what the Jewish religion considers to be God's eternal word to mankind. While animals are not sacrificed in practice, many women and homosexuals in the community suffer from these morals every day. It is also my personal view that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is fueled by Jewish extremism as much as Muslim extermism - the view that some deity gave the Jewish master race the right to take all the land for ourselves instead of splitting it between the two people's that live on it. Joshua was commanded to massacre all the inhabitants of Canaan and these words are ringing in the ears of the modern settlers who set up their home deep in the Palestinian West Bank.
Orthodox Judaism stipulates tens of thousands of incredibly intricate laws effecting every tiniest aspect of a person’s life. Laws govern everything from how to tie your shoes to how to wipe your bottom differently on a Saturday. If you like to put your teabag in your mug before your pour the hot water - make sure you reverse the order on a festival - intentional failure to do so would in principal carry the death penalty.
Consider a spoon. How many different religious statuses can a spoon have. A spoon you ask? Yes a spoon. If it has been in contact with non-Kosher food it is not permitted to eat with the spoon (it may depend on whether the food was hot and other circumstance). But suppose it hasn’t. If it has been in contact with dairy food it is religiously “dairy” and if it has been in contact with meaty food it is “meaty”. If neither, it is neutral. If it has been in contact with both it may not be used at all without some cleansing ceremony (but the laws are slightly different to the case when it was in contact with non-Kosher food and depend on the material of the spoon). But whether, dairy, meaty or neutral, it is probably not fit for use on the Passover festival unless it has been kept in strict isoluation from any bread crumbs. Further, if manufactured by a non-Jew it may not be used by Jews without first ritually immersing it in rain water.
Then there is an entire set of laws, which are practiced in times of the temple governing whether the utensil is ritually pure - depending on whether it has been in contact with someone who has been in contact with someone who has been in contact with someone who has been near a dead body etc. etc. This is actually an extreme oversimplification of the laws regarding the spoon - many books have been written on the laws governing food and utensils.
Of course, if the spoon is good to go, the laws governing food are more complex still including the laws of Kosher, ritual slaughtering, cleansing meat, tithes, separation of dairy and meat, supervision, avoidance of cooking on Sabbath and festivals, limitations on cooking by non-Jews etc. etc.
And even if the food and utensils are good, there are books on when you may eat (there are several blackout periods each day, fast days etc.), what you must say before and after eating, ritual washing before and after food, the order in which foods should be eaten etc.
In summary, the seemingly infinite laws governing time, space, people, animals, food, and inanimate objects add up to a lifestyle which I find it hard to consider sane. In some ways though the lifestyle is damaging.
Perhaps the most damaging part of orthodox Judaism, is the astounding attitude to sex. Young men and woman from adolescence until marriage, are forbidden from any sexual contact at all, and forbidden or strongly discouraged from even casual contact such as a handshake. Men (but not woman) are strictly forbidden to masturbate, read or think about sexual matters or even “look” at woman, for fear of it leading to masturbation. Similarly men are forbidden from touching their privates even casually. I would assume that not all adolescent orthodox Jews manage to comply with these rules, but then they are lumbered with unnecessary guilt. There is no relaxation of these commands as young men and woman fall in love or even after they are engaged to marry. But ironically the couple who have never touched the opposite sex are encouraged to have sex immediately on their wedding night . Having gone from no contact to intercourse in a day or two the woman is then impure and no contact, even casual, is allowed for a couple of weeks. That restriction is repeated in every menstrual cycle - apparently menstrual blood is so impure that it makes the woman (and in theory things that she touches) impure for at least twelve days - so for about half the marriage, no contact whatsoever is allowed between the couple - even handing objects to each other. Yes God wants a couple's sex life and even casual contact to be governed by a strict cycle based on menstruation and ritual immersion.
Deploring (correctly) the Nazi “Master Race” and “Final Solution” but believing in the “Chosen People” and the extermination of Amalek and the Seven Nations of Canaan.
Reading the genocidal poison of "Zachor" (remember according the bible such a genocide was really carried out by King Saul except that unforgivably he spared the sheep and one person so that the commandment to commit genocide continues in principle) and then instead of debating why we are encouarging racist genocide out loud, the community debates whether it should be pronounced zecher or zeycher.
Deploring (correctly) the Muslim practice of giving lashes or stoning adultaress women while praying for the return of Jewish Law which mandates 39 lashes for most transgressions and death for many others.
Orthodox feminism - for example woman expressing their feminism by holding a Sefer Torah (scroll) in which woman are in many ways described as men’s property (see above). I often look at the professional women sitting behind the Mechitzah (partition in synagogue) and wonder how the same women would react if all the women were put as passive observers behind a screen in their workplace or in the congress/parliament/knesset.
“Ben Adam Lechavero” From time to time the Jewish sources and rabbis try to claim that Judaism is as much about respect for other people as for God. Not true. The Halackha has always been obssessed with God worship. The Chumash spends a hundred times more versus (just a guess) on animal sacrifice than on the often quoted respect for foreigners (×’×¨). Here is an example. The bible forbids charging your fellow Jew interest on loans (usary of non-Jews is permitted) and requires forgiving loans on every seventh year. The rabbis created loopholes to elimiate these rules. On the other hand the bible says that God doesn't want us to eat bread on Passover. The rabbis here took the opposite approach adding books and books of extra stringencies (×—×•×ž×¨×•×ª). There are no such stringencies added to laws between people.
One favorite example I have of this is that our Rabbi once explained that we must not take our willow branches (×¢×¨×‘×•×ª) from someone else's tree because stolen willows are forbidden for use in the rituals of Succhoth. Note that he didn't bother to mention that theft itself is not allowed - only that this particular ritual was not appropriate with a stolen item.
The ever-present condescending feeling that Orthodox Jews are more moral than the big bad world out there. Are Orthodox Jews more likely to ritually shake a palm branch and citron on the festival of Succhoth. Undoubtedly. Are they more likely to pay all their taxes for the public services they get? I doubt it.
Still it's time to get over it and create our own meaning for our lives and communities.
It took me like seventeen years from reaching the philosophical conclusion that OJ was incorrect and morally bad till I finally took off my kippa and broke shabbat or kashrut in public. That seems embarassing in retrospect but that's how it was. Now I look back at myself, rub my eyes and wonder what I could have been thining.
In many ways I'm still part of the orthodox community because all my family and most of my friends are. And I give them credit for accepting me as I am. I'm open about being non-Frum but not yet to the extent that I want to sign this article and test my family's tolerance.
I've heard all the silly dismissals over the years. “He was tempted by the permissive lifestyle.” “He didn't get a good enough Chinuch.” Needless to say neither of those were relevant - this is simply about replacing blind belief and lazy thinking with a genuine pursual of the truth and of better morals.
So, what's your story?
Comments: (this email was not working for some years - sorry to everyone I ignored)