Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Complexity Anxiety

Everyday I become more and more convinced that complexity is one of the pivotal issues in our lives.

Think of the last time you gave someone directions how to get somewhere, without them writing it down. Every additional instruction is followed by additional despair in their eyes until they eventually give in. "I'll call you when I get lost." From my experience, most people handle at most 4 turns in an area they don't know before losing it. A 5th is just too much to handle.

As someone I know once told me, complexity builds itself. Take a simple concept and embellish it, and before you know it you have complexity. This applies to nature, to philosophy, mathematics, computer science, and every other human endeavor. You don't need to be a big Chochom to create complexity. This is why the Talmud is not particularly impressive to me -- take a set of starting assumptions, about a broken, conflicted document, and then try to iron out a set of laws from that document that is consistent. You'll end up (over many years) with something like the Talmud and its commentaries.

We can learn a lot about the our relationship with complexity through children. Kids live in a bubble of simplicity. They have a minimal capacity to assimilate the complexity of the world. For example, they need clearly defined 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. G-d forbid some of the 'good guys' should turn into bad guys! The very thought is inconceivable to them. The world must be as static and as simple as possible.

Every one of us still lives with that same bubble of simplicity, except some of us have expanded it more than others. Growing up, we realize that morality and the world in general is more complicated than we initially thought. And yet we struggle with life's complexity. Young adults tend to be naively idealistic about ideas precisely because they shut out the (complex) part of the world that doesn't fit in with their views. Even adults often don't accept a certain complexity of life until they experience it themselves ie. until they are forced to expand their bubble in that direction. As just one example, marriage is characterized as a noble ideal - yet when one experiences divorce C"V, one realizes the complex truth that sometimes divorce is necessary and even good.

Everywhere we turn in life we find complexity, and it scares us. The human being evolved to handle a moderate amount of complexity. We evolved with a primitive emotional system that needs simple things to latch on to, causing us to have serious biases and deficiencies in our thinking. We do have an advanced brain (relatively speaking, of course) but it is nevertheless very lacking. Not only is it extremely biased as well, it reaches its limits of complexity very rapidly.

For example, why do human beings need professions and specialization? Because the amount of complexity in most jobs is overwhelming. We can only really specialize in one thing. And how do we do this? How do we conquer complexity in our one field? By repeating the same task over and over again until we learn it. We slowly expand our circle of comprehension, often losing what we've learned along the way until we come to repeat it again.

Another limiting factor of our brain is our memory. It's built as an associative system and thus is poorly made for handling a complex world, which is better organized hierarchically. Our memory is terrible at remembering details, but it remembers stories and narratives fairly well, which is cause for yet another one of our biases - the narrative bias. We remember a juicy piece of gossip (which is understandable from an evolutionary perspective) far better than we do the periodic table, and this causes us to turn dry facts into exciting stories even if that means the stories are mostly fabricated. Think of the concept of 'based on a true story' in the movies and you'll get the idea.

I think this notion of complexity goes a long way towards explaining many phenomena in life. It explains why we tend to make sweeping generalizations. It explains a part of how we measure intelligence (really a measure of grasping complexity) and it also explains parts of religion.

People who live in times of great change are hit particularly hard by both complexity and uncertainty -- two things that scare us to no end. One of the functions of religion is to simplify the complexity of the world for us. Religion claims that it knows everything there is to know about the world. All we have to do is listen to our rabbi, follow what he tells us, and we no longer have to struggle with the complexity of life. It's during times of transition that religion seems most appealing. The anti-authority revolution of the 60s and the accelerating scientific revolution of the last several hundred years has left us with a world that is more complex and ever-shifting than ever. At the same time, we've been stripped of religion, which served as a blanket to shield us from the world's uncertainties. The Jew in Poland who had to tolerate pogroms, nevertheless had faith that his rabbi knew what he was talking about when he said that in the next world, everything would be better.

Some might counter that Judaism bombards us with more complexity than is present in the world around us, in the form of laws, commandments, Gemara and Halacha. It takes years to master this complexity, so how can one claim that Judaism makes life simpler? I think the key point here is that Judaism gives us a measured amount of complexity to deal with (Torah), and then tells us to focus almost entirely on this complexity. By stressing Torah over anything else in life, we're told that all other complexity is not really needed. Our anxiety over mastering the complexity of life is thus greatly reduced. All we need to do is to devote our life to mastering one complex field, and G-d will take care of everything else. Additionally, from the get-go, we're told we don't even need to worry about exhausting this field (Lo Aleicha Hamlacha Ligmor). We just need to make an effort.

On the other hand, I think even skeptics tend to shy away from complex positions. Many skeptics, as soon as they locate the countless holes in Judaism, throw out the entire package. This may sometimes be a reflexive avoidance of a possible complex position -- Judaism may be false, but some of its facets may have truth to them.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Is Morality Subjective?

Is morality objective, or is it subjective? I think the reason people trip over the answer to this question, is because the answer is somewhere in the middle.

Morality is objective in the sense that it's rooted in human empathy, which itself developed from the needs of a social contract. No society can be built on the basis of backstabbing, murder and lying. There must be some trust between fellow people, some way to prevent a tribe from degenerating into utter chaos. There must be some way for one caveman to know that he can go on the hunt, and expect to come back to his belongings and dear ones, knowing that no-one in his tribe took everything that he holds dear (at least without consequences).

Initially morality was targeted purely at one's own tribe. However, once human (and animal) nature evolved to support empathy, it became possible to apply this empathy to larger and larger circles, which was necessary as society grew. The key for application of human empathy is to see another human being as similar to oneself. Those elements of a society that were seen as equally human were seen in moral terms, while those which were dehumanized were deprived of moral treatment.

Thus, morality is objective inasmuch as it is the grease that keeps a society working. It is a reality of social structure, much like bureaucracy and is conveniently buttressed by human nature.

However, morality is also subjective in the sense that every culture throughout time determined its moral strictures differently, depending on its needs and depending on how wide its circles of empathy were.

Another subjective element of morality is that it is not strictly solvable. Society has clearly been moving in the direction of increasing circles of empathy. We now see people of different races, different religions and different sexual orientations as similar to ourselves, unlike our ancestors. But what about fetuses, for example? This age-old question remains unsolvable. At what point should a fetus be seen as a full-fledged human? Seeing a moving, reacting fetus kicks our empathy instinct into gear, and yet a fetus is clearly a not-quite-human entity encased in the very human shell of the mother, who often has different needs. What about empathy for animals? Also, what about the concept of equality? Once our circles of empathy are well developed, we become acutely aware of the inequality inherent in life. To what degree should a society be obligated to correct that inequality?

These are age-old questions that are debated endlessly by societies, and ultimately show that there are no 'objective' solutions to the question of morality.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Devarim Is Just Different (part 3)

Continuing with David A.'s posts:
See previous posts here and here.

The last installment of the differences between Devarim and the Rest of Chumash (RofC) is the comparison of the religious ideology and worldview (hashkofot) of each of the authors.

This list is NOT exhaustive by any means.

This presentation is more difficult as the Torah provides no text that overtly establishes beliefs and associated hashkofot. However, by examining texts from each of D and RofC that are clearly related to each concept under review, a reasonable comparison is formed and obvious conclusions can be reached.

Additionally, some assumptions must be made.

1. The importance of a subject matter or topic logically bears a strong relationship to the number of times (particularly for multiple repetitions) that the subject matter is referenced by the author.
2. Although, “absences of evidence is no evidence of absence” is generally true, however for a subject that is accepted as being very crucial within Judaism, the absence of said subject is taken as having some significance.
3. To simplify matters, the last chapters of D (32-34) are not considered as part of D for the purposes of this discussion.

So, in no particular order, the topics of interest are:


This theme is, without a doubt, among the core elements of Judaism. The translation and connotation is complex, so to simplify matters, I will leave that to the reader. I simply present facts in the form of text directly related to this topic to compare D to RofC with regards to the authors’ concern and treatment of Kedusha.

In RofC the word or some variation of it, appears over 150 times. There are hundreds of verses and dozens of laws devoted to Kedusha. Together with its related subjects of Tummah and Karbonot, it pervades and totally dominates the text of RofC. People, animals, vessels, places and times are designated as Kadosh with myriad of legal ramifications. Contrast all this to the treatment of Kedusha in D, where the word appears only about a dozen times and in extremely limited context. And even those few uses of the word in D when contrasted to the corresponding usage in RofC, are noticeably weaker in their application.

A short review of the application of the term Kedusha to various entities and the differences between the books.

•God is Kadosh. In Lev 19:2 God is thus described. Nowhere is this found in D. (although it likely was D’s hashkofo, as well)
•The Nation. Kedusha is a designation of the B’Y. However, in D the nation is repeatedly described as Am Kodesh (eg. D7:6, 14:2/21, etc.) which if literally translated is a passive designation while in RofC the nation is conjured to be Kedoshim (Lev. 18:2) a more active designation, implying continuous activity.
•Time. In RofC, all without exception, festival days are designated as Kadosh (with legal consequences). Not so in D. (However, both documents do designate Shabbat as Kadosh.)
•Temple Offerings and priestly dues. Rof C designates all offerings and donations as Kadosh and the text even applies gradations of Kadosh, so that some are “doubly” so. The implications legally of this are multifold, especially with repeated emphasis on the potential penalty (death/karet) for transgressing these laws. No such concerns are in D. There is the one exception the offering of Bechor (first born male ox or sheep, D 15:19) , where D designates it as Kodesh and the limited implication of this is no working the ox or shearing the sheep.
•Place. The central location for temple offerings and related activities is designated as Kodesh with an even higher level of Kedusha for the inner sanctum, and legal consequences of these designations. No such concern is found in D.
•Objects. In RofC All vessels and furnishing belonging to the Temple are designated as Kadosh. (eg. Num 4:15). No such designations are in D.

(The one overall exception to the above, where something is called Kadosh in D and no direct corresponding laws are found in RofC. In D, B”Y is called upon to keep the camp Kadosh (D 23:11-14) and some relevant laws are provided.)


The Torah defines a state of non-material “un-cleanliness”. People, animals and objects are capable of contracting this impurity and when in this state can, under specific circumstances, transmit it to others. One becomes tammei generally from coming into contact with certain physical entities (like dead bodies, certain insects, certain diseases, etc. ) or by experiencing various bodily excretions. Torah law informs us how and under what circumstances Tummah occurs, how it gets removed and other consequences of having become “unclean” and the responsibilities upon the tammei individual. In addition, there are varying levels or degrees of Tummah and the significance to the persons or objects contracted Tummah vary according to these levels. Tumma also is among the core elements of Judaism and obviously relates intensely with Kedusha..

To compare the treatment between the two books.

•In RofC the word appears over 100 times. As with Kedusha, there are hundreds of verses and dozens of laws devoted to this topic. And as stated earlier, together with its related subject of Kedusha, it pervades and totally dominates the text of Rof C. Most remarkably, not at all so in D, where the word appears less than 10 times in four simple applications.
•In Rof C, a key characteristic of Tumma is that it can be transmitted. Nowhere is this indicated in D.
• In Rof C, a person was restricted to where he was allowed to go, particularly the temple area, what he could do and eat. Priests were particularly affected by their state of Tummah. In D, no such restrictions are indicated and the restriction seems to apply only to a “war” camp and for the one clearly stated form of Tumma, a person experiencing seminal excretion.
• The severity of the penalties for breaking some of the laws of Tamma (even earning the death penalty) indicates the extreme importance of this subject to the author of Rof C. D appears not to be as concerned.
•An interesting note is that that D warns about “Tzorat” and “Tamma” animals, yet no indication that these impart anything requiring cleansing.


(Atonement or expiation of sin). A significant element within Jewish religious ideology is the belief that God has provided mechanisms for a sinner to be able to “right a wrong”, to have regret for having transgressed and through some form of active penance, receive forgiveness and absolution from G-d, in effect erasing the sin. There is no doubt that this theme is essential to the spiritual development and survival of B’Y.

In RofC, hundreds of verses and dozens of laws are devoted to this concept and its related procedures. Remarkably, not a single verse is found in D with regards to concept of atonement, as understood above. And in fact the word Kapporah appears only once in the entire Devarim. It is almost as if the author never heard of the concept or simply didn’t believe in it.

Related to this, is the fact that the offerings to effect Kapporah Chatot or Asham absent from D, and similarly the holiday of Yom Kippur apparently does not exist.

Ahavat and Yirat Hashem

In Judaism, Israel’s relationship with God is mostly defined by, and centered on two fundamental concepts, Ahavah (love) and Yirah (fear or awe). In a very simplistic manner, these concepts are as is literally translated from the Hebrew and are understood to represent their human equivalents. They are presented in the text throughout to be the basic underlying motivations to serving G-d and performing his commandments.

Yirat Hashem
Both the author of D and RofC believe in, and require Yirat Hashem. This is found, allowing for variation of the term, in both documents, (as in verses Deut. 5:26, 6:2/13/24, 8:6, 10:12/20, 14:23, 17:19, 31:12/13 and Ex. 14:31,18:21, 20:20, Lev 19:14, 25:17,25:36/43).

With regards to Yirat Hashem, there are two important differences between the text in D and RofC.

•Yirat Hashem is promoted and directed at individuals, as well as the nation in general, as a motivating clause for performing their commandments, while in D the theme is always given as part of a general directive of B’Y’s relationship to God within a “national” context.
•As a direct consequence of this distinction, we find that one of the parameters required to become an appointed judge as given in Ex. 18:21 is Yirat Hashem. No such requirement if defined in D 16:18-20 where the laws of judges, such as they are, are promulgated.

Ahavat Hashem
This theme when comparing the 2 books has a much stronger differential. Ahavat Hashem is invoked in a dozen verses in Deut. 5:10,6:5,7:9,10:12, 11:1/13/22,13:3, 19:9,30:6/16/20. On the other hand, the concept of Ahavat Hashem is NEVER found in Rof C Point finale.

("Love" of G-d is mentioned once in Aseret Hadibrot but in the form of G-d saying "Ohavai", my 'lovers'. This is meant to contrast "Son'ai" in the previous pasuk, since Sonai and Ohavai can mean 'enemies' and 'friends' in Hebrew.)

Reward and Punishment

The concept of “rewards” to be given for the fulfillment of commandments is basic to the Torah. The concept falls into two categories. (i) Recompense on a national level, to be awarded to the people as a collective for following in the path as demanded by the Torah. (ii) And, as the promise of substantive benefits to an individual for having performed a specific mitzvah.

Both RofC and D specify category one type awards.

However, category 2 type rewards are markedly different.

What stands as significant is that the text of RofC never promises rewards for the fulfillment of any mitzvah (with the exception of honoring one’s parents, Ex. 20:12).

In contrast, a totally different view of “rewards for mitzvot” emerges from the text in D. Repeatedly, at least ten times (in Deut. 5:6,14:28, 15:5/10/18, 22:7, 23:21, 24:13/19, 25:15), all of which are related to humanitarian mitzvot, the text clearly specifies that substantive material benefits will be forthcoming for the performance of these mitzvot.


The Torah clearly and repeatedly warns that the transgression of negative commandments will result in “punishments” for the sinner(s). The types, and the executor of penalties vary based on several considerations that depend on whether the punishment is directed at a single individual or is meant for the nation as a whole or whether the punishment is to be meted out by a human court or by the “divine court”. More specifically,

1.The Torah makes a distinction between (i) sins that are committed by individuals for which the responsibility of justice and punishment rest with the earthly court and (ii) those sins for which the Torah promises that the reckoning is to come from a “heavenly court” (divine justice).
A.Further, in the case of punishments executed by a human court, the Torah specifies three categories of sentences; (a) monetary fines, (b) lashes, and (c) the death penalty, the latter which is further sub-divided into four types, death by (i) stoning, (ii) strangulation, (iii) beheading or (iv) burning.
B.And, in the case of sentences that the Torah states will be given by the “heavenly court”, the Torah decrees the punishment of “kareit”.

2.In addition, the Torah, when decreeing divine punishment, also seems to make a distinction between penalties for an individual’s sins (generally by the application of kareit, with some exceptions) and those for national sins, i.e. acts done by (likely a majority of) the people whereby the Torah states these sins will bring about retribution on a national level, such as disastrous weather conditions, crop failures, epidemics, enemy invasions, and even ultimately exile.

So on the subject of punishments

Both D and RofCs warn about national punishments and the type of punishments are very similar..

However, the differences are:

•While both documents provide for death penalty, it does not appears that D ordered all the same types of death penalties as in RofC.
•D mandates lashes as punishment for some transgressions. None are specified in RofC.
•The punishment of “kareit” . Kareit is a core feature in the Torah’s arsenal of penalties and is mandated throughout RofC. Yet, what is most remarkable is that in D, the term or concept of kareit, or anything even remotely similar, is totally absent. In fact, it appears that the idea of any divinely meted punishment when referring to wrongdoings by an individual is never stated explicitly and rarely even implied.


(Definition: Systematic self-denial for some ideal. The religious doctrine that one can reach a higher spiritual state by rigorous self-discipline or self denial Webster dictionary).

There is little doubt that asceticism, as defined above, has been part of Judaism from time immemorial. The only dispute over the ages has been, what degree of self-denial is proper. Generally the following activities may form part of this concept:

Restricted diet, forbidden foods, fasting and drinking, Nazarite.
Restricted sexual contacts, forbidden sexual unions (but not celibacy).
Restricted pleasure of joyful activities, enjoyment of life, physical pleasures.

Comparing RofC and D on this subject.

•RofC provides for self-denial in the form of the Nazarite
•RofC restricts sexual activity, forbidding sexual activity with a menstruating woman.
•RofC recognizes fasting as part of spiritual improvement.
•RofC never encourages material pleasures. (one exception is Lev. 23:40 about Succot)

On the other in D, we do not find the above, and D is very strong on enjoying life with words like simcha, tov, tavat nafsho, spousal and material enjoyment appearing very frequently. (See Deut. 8:10,11:15,12:7/12/15/18,14:26/2,16:11/14/15,24:5,26:11)


In contrast to RofC, D repeatedly encourages the education of children.

Social and civil organization

D has laws related to kingship, city elders, prophets, judges, but nothing on the high priest. The opposite is found in RofC.

In summary

Kedusha, Tummah, and Kapporah are crucial to RofC, yet downplayed or completed ignored in D
Ahavat Hashem is central to D, but ignored by RofC.

Regarding punishments: Kareit is the main punishment meted by God for individual sinners. D never heard of it.

Asceticism: D wants you to enjoy life, RofC would sooner have you be a monk.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Faith is faith

Skeptics like to attack faith for being illogical, for not being based on reason etc. But I personally think we should give faith a break. We can argue the evidence as much as we want, but faith is faith.

The world we live in has untold levels of complexity, and I think skeptical arrogance easily allows us to think that science (in its current state, at least) is able to master all these myriad levels of complexity. I think that where the evidence is very weak, or where we are dealing with issues that science can't (and probably won't ever) get a grip on, it's ok to have faith. To say that we know what we really don't know, and can therefore deny particular faiths, is simply arrogance.

Skeptics don't know that G-d doesn't exist. They should admit their ignorance, or at most claim it's unlikely given the very scant evidence as they read it. We can talk about the likelihood of something being true, but unfortunately when we talk about the essence of reality likelihood generally goes out the window. The great irony of life is that the most important things in life, we have the least certainty about.

Skeptics should have the honesty to say that they live with a great deal of uncertainty regarding the world. That's what it means to be a skeptic. And yes, that applies to the flying spaghetti monster, gremlins, and fairies too, but especially with regard to a concept as basic and vague as G-d, where evidence is almost meaningless. If they don't believe in G-d, then they have faith that G-d isn't pulling the strings somewhere behind the scenes. Again, they may feel that they have justification (not real evidence, but justification). But it's still faith.

Reasons for believing in G-d may be personal experience, social, finding the (general) arguments convincing. All are ok.

Believers in G-d, however, need to learn not to kvetch the evidence (in my opinion, obviously). Evidence is evidence and needs to be treated as such. The rest -- is open to faith. For example, in my opinion, the Tanach contains enough evidence to suggest a man made-document made from different patches. But that doesn't mean G-d wasn't working behind the scenes to make it evolve a certain way. It doesn't mean G-d didn't inspire the interpretation stage (a la James Kugel). One could even theorize that G-d wanted to deliberately have a conflicted document -- one that would be seen as whole by the ancients and therefore inspire the Jewish religion at the right time, but that would then be seen as human in later times, allowing the relaxed grip of religion, technological and social progress etc. There is no limit to the possibilities, and they're all deep within the realm of the unknown and the cannot be known.

Both sides should separate the two domains: evidence is evidence, faith is faith.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Whoops! Moment for Sefer Devarim

Let's try to examine the narrative perspective of the text of Devarim.

While tradition claims that Sefer Devarim is supposed to be said by Moshe (as opposed to the other books), we can easily find some issues with this claim. The text of Devarim is not really in the 1st person, as we would expect a personal perspective by Moshe to be. We
find that there are several units of text: 1:1 to 4:41 is one speech (in 1st person), introduced in the 3rd person ("And Moshe said..."). 4:41 to 4:49 seems like an extra addition. 5:1 to 26:16 is another Moshe speech in 1st person, introduced initially in 3rd person, that takes up most of the book. 27 contains several 3rd person accounts that seem much like stuff from the rest of the Torah, continuing through to the end of 28. 29-30 contains yet another speech with the same pattern. 31 is again 3rd person like the rest of the Chumash. 32 is Haazinu, 33 is the Brachot, and 34 is more narrative in 3rd person.

One question that comes up is -- who is the narrator? If the narrator of the rest of the Chumash was G-d (let's just assume that for the moment), who narrated Moshe's speeches and other miscellaneous tidbits in the book of Devarim? It's unlikely that Moshe, who wrote his speeches in 1st person, would then proceed to describe himself delivering them in the 3rd person.

We also have the classic issue of who wrote the last chapter of Devarim? How could Moshe know nobody would know his resting place? And would Moshe, the humblest of men, have written about himself that "there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face"?

But these aren't the biggest issues.

Within his speeches themselves, Moshe does a pretty good job differentiating between himself (1st person) and G-d, who is referred to in 3rd person. Except for one main place: the 2nd paragraph of the Shema (Devarim 11:13-21).

The first thing to notice is that there is no break in the flow. The previous stanzas simply have Moshe talking as usual (for Devarim), talking about G-d in 3rd person and himself in 1st person.

However, in verse 13, Moshe refers to the Mitzvot as "Mitzvotai", my commandments, which is very unusual. Moshe might tell B"Y to keep the commandments which he communicated to them (as happens a couple of verses earlier) but never does he say the Mitzvot are HIS. The Mitzvot are always termed "G-d's commandments", since they belong to Him. Only G-d says "My Commandments". (You can check in other places).

The bigger problem is with 14-15, where Moshe says that HE will give rain to our land, and that HE will give crop to our animals so that we may eat and be satiated. Since when does Moshe have such powers?

Then, in verse 18, "and you shall put these words of mine on your hearts and on your soul" apparently refers to Moshe's words, not G-d's. Apparently the words we're meant to study are Moshe's rather than G-d's.

What is happening here? The other verses can be kvetched with some effort, but 14-15 in particular show that this passage was not supposed to be spoken by Moshe.

My opinion? The author of D either messed up here, or someone edited the document and put in this piece without realizing the major issue that was created. It's funny how we've all been saying this specific paragraph for ages, never realizing the problem within. Vekal Lehavin.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Devarim Is Just Different (Part 2)

We go on with David A.'s comparison of Devarim and the rest of Chumash (ROC). This time, we compare the Mitzvot, which forms the 2nd (and biggest) part of the book.

This review really can be broken down in two main groups. Those mitzvot that are in contradiction (wholly or just some detail) to the corresponding mitzva given in the rest of Chumashm (RofC), and those mitzvot that are a clear duplicate of a corresponding mitzvah from the ROC but with additional or fewer features.

So, for the group of mitzvot that seem contradictory or contain contradictory elements and in no particular order.

•Maaser (tithes). Deut 14:22 defines the annual tithe as a requirement that every farmer set aside 10% of his crop and bring it up to Jerusalem for him and his family to consume. Num 18:21 says all maaser is for the Levi.

To anticipate the response to this that the oral law has resolved this issue by promulgating 2 tithes (rishon for the levi, sheni for the farmer), i would like to point out that an objective and reasonable reading of D, indicates that the author of D did not know about or keep thi so-called “levi” tithe. This follows from the fact that that overall D is very concerned about the welfare of the Levi. At least half a dozen times he demands that the farmer share his “simcha” with the levi and twice he admonishes B.Y. “not to abandon the levi” (D 12:19, 14:27), so it is not credible that if there was a maser levi that D would fail to remind BY of it. Further D14:28 assigns a special command to clean house of all leftover maaser by inviting the Levi (and the poor) to a “house cleaning”. This makes no sense if there is already a maaser levi in affect.

•Bechor. (first born of sheep and cattle) D 14:23 & 15:20 says that the first born is for the cattle owner to bring to Jerusalem for him to consume with his family. Lev 27:26 says its to be given to “God” (i.e. the Kohen). Also, D 15:19 says the farmer should specifically “sanctify” his first born. Lev 27:26 provides a contradictory message.

•Festivals. In the Rof C they are designated as holy days (mikrei koidesh) and thereby all work is prohibited. Not so in D 16:1-15. And, except for the last day of Pesach, there is no indication of a work prohibition. In fact one may argue that D 16:8, by specifying a prohibition on day 7 of pesach, this indicates that the other days work was permitted. In fact, Deut D 16:7 clearly states that on the morn’ of day 1 of Pesach one may travel home.
•A few additional minor details that are contradictory. Deut 16:2 says that the Korban pesach can be from sheep and cattle, while Exodus says it was to be sheep. Also, D 16:7 says it is eaten cooked and Exodus says only roasted. In Deut, succot is seven days, while in Lev /Num its seven days followed by an eighth non-work day. And there is no indication that succot has booths or is related to the exodus whatsoever. Shavuot is defined as seven weeks after the early harvest begins (D16:9) and the festival involves the family and the indigent. In Lev. 23:15, the date of Shavuot is given as 7 weeks following the first Sunday following the pascal lamb and no elaborate celebration is mandated.

•Shemittah. In Deut 15:1 the definition of shmittah is about forgiving debts every seven years. In Lev 25:1 the law is about leaving the land fallow.

•Jewish bondsman. D 15:12 says that an eved ivri works for 6 years, and gets to go free after the 6 years, while Lev 25:40 frees him at yovel . Also, in Deut (and in Exodus 21:6) the text says that a recalcitrant eved stays employed forever. In Lev 25:39 implies that all go free at yovel.

•Forbidden animals

The laws governing animals that may be eaten are given in Lev. 11:1-47 and repeated D 14:3-21 with a fairly detailed and similar description of the laws governing which animals (including birds, insects and fish) are forbidden to be eaten.

Aside from the major issue of how to explain the seemingly trivial textual variations between the two passages, the few notable major differences between D & Lev. (but not necessarily out right contradictions) in law are:
1.D 14:19 makes a statement that seems to be a blanket ban on all flying insects or however one translates the phrase “sheretz ha-oif”, while Lev. differentiates and gives criteria for those permissible insects.
2.Both D and Lev., in addition to forbidding eating these animals, also forbid the touching of carcasses of unclean animals. However Lev, then introduces a new set of laws that the touching of such animals induces a state of Ta-amei for the person and his clothes, requiring mikvah purification for them. D does not seem to care.
3.Carcasses of Animals. D 14:21 says they may sold to non-Jews. While Exodus 22:14 states they must “be thrown to the dogs” implying no permission to sell.

•Blood. D 12:24 states that blood is forbidden to be consumed and must be poured away, with no distinction made for domestic or wild animals, while Lev 17:13 states that for wild (kosher) animals the blood is to be covered.

•Cities of refuge. Deut 19:1-10 and Num 35:9-28 both define was is essentially the same law. A person inadvertently killing another is sent to exile in 6 special cities. Aside from the fact that the language and terminology differ markedly in the 2 passages and a literal reading of the 2 texts seem to imply differing conditions under which the law is applicable, there are 2 clear contradictions. In N, the BY are told to build (or assign) 6 cities 3 on each side of the Jordan. important as opposed to only 3 cities in D. In D, the parameter for the refuge seems to be as a result of a pure accident, less so in N. Also, N the murderer can leave the city when the Kohen godol dies. No such freedom is accorded in D.

•Levite Cities. In Num 35:1-8, the Torah commands that 42 cities be set aside for habitation by the tribe of Levi. Deut 18:1 goes out of its way to again command that no land be given to the Levites. If D had the same mitzvah of 42 cities for the Levites, it would be a good place to mention it.

•The Kohen’s due. D 18:3-5 assigns exactly what the Kohen is get from the offerings on the altar and from BY’s crops. The items so designated are but a fraction of what is due to the Kohanin as defined in Leviticus and Numbers. (in many, many places)

•Definition of a Kohen. D 18:5-6 states that Kohanim were from all of Levi and that any Levite can apply to become a Kohen. Rof C repeatedly states that only the direct descendants of Aaron may serve as Kohanim. (see Ex 40:15, Num 18:7, 25:13….).

•Torah Study. D (6:7 & 11:19) commands that BY teach their children “these words”. No such command is found in Rof C, and teaching of the Torah seems relegated to the Kohanim and leadership.

•Tzitzit. In D (22:12) the mitzvah is placing “twisted threads” (artscroll’s translation) only on 4-corners of your clothing or only on 4-cornered clothes. In Num 15:37+, the mitzvah is “fringes” on the corner of all one's garments, not limiting it to only 4 cornered clothes.

•Shatneiz. D 22:10, the Torah forbids wearing shatneiz and expressly defines it as a combination of wool and linen. In Lev 19:19 literally, one might say the text refers to all mixed combinations.

•Similar distinction for “Kelei-im. In D 22:8, its limited to the vineyard. no such limitation in Lev. 19:19

•Shotgun wedding. In D, it’s a result of rape. In Ex. 22:15, it’s a result of seduction.

•Interest on Loans. D 23:20 states that it is forbidden to charge interest on loans to your fellow Jew while both Ex 22:24 and Lev. 25:36 imply that this restriction of charging interest is only on loans made to the poor.

•Amalek. Deut 25:17-19 commands BY to remember forever what happened with Amalek in the wilderness and that BY “wipe out the memory of Amalek”. No such command appears in the R of C and this whole passage makes no sense in light of verse Ex. 17:14 where God promises to “wipe out the memory of Amalek.

Devarim Is Just Different (Part 1)

I would like this blog to become a resource of sorts for textual errors, contradictions and mistakes. Not because you can't get some of this information elsewhere (check the right bar if you're not sure) but because most resources online are not comprehensive, not built for Jews (what do I care about contradictions in the New Testament?) or don't package the information effectively enough.

Rather than starting from scratch, I asked David A. if I can post his exhaustive list of differences between Devarim and the rest of Chumash on my blog, and he has graciously agreed.

Note that there are both disadvantages and advantages to making a list of discrepancies. The disadvantage is that we humans tend to lump things together. Too much information presented at once is seen as less convincing, just as statistics about high casualties are less touching than a single human story. On the other hand, presenting a single problem at a time is too time consuming and easier to kvetch, since the kvethcer doesn't need to make his kvetch work with all the other information. The ideal way to go through this list is one problem at a time, letting it build up so one realizes the gargantuan nature of the problem and indeed, how clear it is that the text is multi-authored. I hope to be able to focus on specific issues in the future.

David A: When i did this exercise (and it took months to complete) i broke the exercise it into 2 parts.

A. A posuk by posuk review of Devarim vs the corresponding (if any) in Shemot, Vayikra and Bamidbar.

B. A general summary of the hashkofot of D vs rest of Chumash (ROC).

The meforshim have many explanation, some sensible, some so lame you wonder if they believed them themselves.

Deut 1:1
The first posuk has several oddities:

1. The term "Ever Hayarden" would only be used by someone writing the text and physically sitting on the opposite side of where the action is taking place. So if the writer calls the east bank “Ever Hayarden” then obviously he was standing on the west bank when he wrote these words. And that makes sense for the hypothesis that Devarim was written by a resident of the land. He would refer to Moshe, who at the time was on the east bank as being at Ever Hayardein. (Obviouly the author didn't realize he was giving himself away at the time he write it, or maybe he didn't think that his text would be attributed to God or Moshe by later generations.)

2. The places listed in the text are not mentioned anywhere else in Nach.

3. The next oddity in this verse (and also in the rest of the core of Devarim) is that the most important geographic name in Chumash, i.e. Sinai, is missing. This verse, as throughout the narratives in D, always calls the mountain Choreb.

4. This is our first contradiction. As Rashi points out and calculates from the text in the prior account, (Num 10:11) it actually only took the Israelites three days to travel from Sinai/Khoreb to Kadesh, an obvious contradiction to the verse here, that specifies a travel time of eleven days.
Note: The commentaries reconcile this by saying that although the actual distance between these two points as measured by a normal travel time is eleven days, and that, by a miracle the Israelites accomplished this trip in only three days. But one would expect that such a miracle would be have been reported.

Deut 1:6-8 In these verses we find several minor points of difference worth mentioning and one outright contradiction to other texts in Chumash.

5. Nothing that resembles the quote in verse 6 appears previously, anywhere.

6. The name “Amorite mountain”, as a place name is never mentioned previously.
Some commentators say it is not a place name but it refers to the mountainous region wherein the Amorites dwelled. Still it is unique to Devarim.

7. Neither the name Lebanon nor the Euphrates is found anywhere in the previous wilderness passages. .

8. Contradiction: the text seems to imply here the Euphrates River is to become one of the borders of the Promised Land. However the borders of the future Land of Israel had already been delineated in Num 34:1-15 and the territory of Israel as defined in that text clearly was not to extend so far east.

Deut 1:9-18 Appointment of Elders and Judges
Verses 1:9-18 provide the first repeated event in the wilderness experience that is retold in Deut. And it appears to correspond to the incident that resulted in Moshe appointing judges and leaders to assist him in his leadership and adjudication roles. The corresponding passage for this is found in Ex. 18:13-27.

9. Before comparing the passages between Deut & Ex., it is important to note the text of verse 1:9 I said to you at the time, saying “I cannot carry you alone”…… The phraseology in this verse is also found in Num. 11:14, which apparently is a different incident, implying that the passages here in Deut. is likely a confluence of 2 separate events.

In any case, assuming that Moshe here is referring to the incident of the appointment of judges in Exodus, and comparing the text in D with Ex 18:13-27, we find the following notable differences:

10. In D, Moshe recognizes (on his own) that he needs help in his leadership role and in administering justice for the people. In Ex., it is Yitro that brings it to Moshe’s attention.

11. In D, Moshe recommends to the people to appoint “Shoftim” (translated as judges or tribal leaders) and “Shotrim” (translated as officers). Yitro is not mentioned in the narrative at all. In Ex., Yitro recommends to Moshe to appoint “Shoftim” (translated as judges or tribal leaders) with certain leadership capabilities. No mention is made of tribal officers (“shotrim”)

12. In D, The people agree to the plan. In Ex., no mention is made that the people are consulted.

13. The qualifications for being selected are defined quite differently.

14. In D, Moshe instructs the new judges. In Ex., no instructions are given.

Deut 1:19 As Hashem our God, commanded us and we came to Kadesh-barnea.

15. Since the text that follows this passage is the story of the spies, which was likely initiated from outside the Land, it would appear then, that the place name Kadesh-barnea mentioned here is outside the territory of Israel. This contradicts Num 34:4 which situates Kadesh-Barnea inside the future boundaries of the Land.

Deut 1:22-44: The Spies
This passage now has moshe retelling the mission of the 12 spies. While the basic elements parallel the previous depiction in Num. 13-14, a closer reading easily reveals several seeming contradictions, dozens of details that don’t match, as well as omission of elements that are important yet not retold.


16. In Devarim, the Mission is proposed by the People to Moshe vs by God in the Numbers-version.

17. In Devarim, the scope and purpose of mission is more limited (seems only a military scouting party) vs a more extensive tour in purpose and territory to be covered in the Numbers-version.

18. In Devarim, the definition of the mission in (Hebrew) va-yachperu and then later va-yeraglu (Deut. 1:24) vs v’yesuru (likely means different purposes)

19. In Devarim, the conscripts are 12 seemingly ordinary men vs 12 “distinguished men/leaders”. This prominence is emphasized in the text twice and the individuals are named giving them even more prominence.

20. In Devarim, the actual destination and itinerary is stated that the spies ascended the “Mountain” (likely, Har Emori) until arriving at Nachal Eshkol. The text seems to imply only one destination. The text in Numbers seems to imply that the spies covered at least five territories.

21. Upon return, the recipient of the spies’ report is the people, vs Moses and Aaron in Numbers.

22. In Devarim, the sequence of events upon the spies’ return is very different in detail from the version in Numbers.

23. In the Post episode war, the Israelites are beaten by the Amorites vs by Canaanites and Amalekites in Numbers.

- In addition there are several important elements in the Numbers-version that are omitted in Devarim:

24. Aaron is ignored in Devarim (which is consistent with all of Devarim)

25. Joshua is not mentioned in Devarim as one of the spies

26. The post incident plague is not mentioned in Devarim

27. In Devarim no mention is made that God wanted to destroy the people

28. In fact Moshe’s entire dialogue with God post incident, is not even referenced.

Deut 1:37 has Moshe saying: “with me as well, God became angry because of you saying: you too shall not come there”.

So it is quite clear that because Moshe sent the spies he will be punished with not getting to lead the people into the Land.

29. This statement is not in the Numbers version.
30. This statement is overtly contradicted by Num 20:12 which tells us that Moshe's punishment of not entering the Land was because of the hitting the rock to extract water 38 years later.

31. Numbers 3 and 4 describe the separation of the Levites for the priesthood and temple service (including care of the ark of testimony) while the Israelites were camped at Mt. Sinai in the second year after the exodus, but Deut 10:7-8 claims that the separation of the Levites occurred at a place called Jotbathah: "From thence they journeyed unto Gudgodah; and from Gudgodah to Jotbathah, a land of brooks of water. At that time Jehovah set apart the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of Jehovah, to stand before Jehovah to minister unto him, and to bless in his name, unto this day."

32. Deut 10:6 records the death of Aaron, who died "in the fortieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt" (Num. 33:38); hence, this passage also claims that the separation of the Levites took place 38 years after the account in Numbers 3 and 4.

Deut. 2:2-8 The encounter with descendants of Esau
The Seir region was populated by the descendants of Esau, who is also called Edom. Thus, this passage would seem to correspond to the report of the event as given in Num 20:14-21.

There are several differences and some, albeit minor, contradictions.

33. In D, Moshe says God told him …, in N there is no mention that God told Moshe anything concerning Seir and the text seems to indicate that Moshe acted on his own initiative.

34. In D, there is a specific command from God not to antagonize Edom (i.e. Seir). There is no such directive in N.

35. In D, the text says “they will fear you”, while in N it is clear that the Israelites are the ones that fear Edom. The text clearly says that the Edomites chased off the B"Y.

36. In D, God advises Moshe to request passage and the purchase of provisions, while in N, Moshe (no mention of advice from God) asks the king simply for passage promising not to touch anything, but later promises to pay for any damages.

Deut 2:10-25 The encounter with Moab and Ammon
Moshe recalls a warning that God gives him about BY not harassing Moab and Ammon. Differences are:

37. There is no such incident in the earlier part of Chumash, except a short verse (Num 21:24) that states that BY stayed away from Ammon because they were deemed too strong.

38. The contradictory nature of this passage is that in D, God talks about a friendly relation with Moab, in total contrast to the problems B"Y had with Moab. See Num. chapters 22-24.

Deut 2:26-37 The War with Sihon (& the Amorites)
This appears to correspond to Num 21:21. The stories are very similar.

The details provide in the comparative passages have some minor differences, enough to be notable, although not necessarily contradictory.

39. In D the text goes out of its way to describe the destruction and the booty as a result of the war. There is no indication of any specific booty mentioned in the N version, except to say that the Israelites won the battle and occupied the land controlled by Sihon.

Deut 3:1-7 The War with Og (& the Amorites)
Moshe recounts the victorious battle against Og and his Amorite people. This corresponds to the event and passage as given in Num. 21:33-35. The text in D (verses 1 to 3) parallels very closely the text as given in Numbers. But as in every other “repeated” section in D, there are minor variations.

40. Moshe elaborates a little more on the events and provides additional details (verse 5 to 11), particularly mentioning some very odd observations about Og.

41. In Num. 32:34 it says that Aroer was built by the tribe of Gad after the land was captured from the Amorites.

Deut 3:21-22 says I commanded Joshua at that time, saying, “your eyes have seen everything that Hashem , your God, has done to these two kings, so will Hashem do to all the kings where you cross over. You shall not fear them, your God – He will wage war for you"

42. In the corresponding accounts as given in Num. 27:18, it is at this point that God, in response to Moshe’s complaint about leaving the people leaderless, tells Moshe to formally appoint Joshua to succeed him. This "induction ceremony” is not mentioned in D.

43. On the other hand, D doesn’t recount the great victory that the Israelites had over the Midianites, after the Bilaam incident (Num. 31:1-12), and just prior to Moshe’s demise. The text (Deut. 4:3) does, however, recall the punishment that the Israelites received for worshipping the “Baal Peor” , the incident that provoked the war with Midianites.

44. Also, D does not indicate here why God was angry at Moses “At that time”.

Deut 3:26-29 Hashem said to me, “It is too much for you! Do not continue to speak to Me further about this matter. Ascend to the top of the cliff……But you shall command Joshua etc.

These verses, together with the three earlier ones, seem to correspond to a similar conversation that Moshe has with God, found in (Num. 27:12-23). The basic content of these comparative passages is the same.

Because Moshe is not destined to enter Eretz Canaan, God tells Moshe to go up to some heights to be able to view the Land, and that Joshua will become the new leader of the people. This dialogue is followed by the formal appointment of Joshua as leader.

However, when examining the details of the event and the language at least seven differences are readily found:

45. Moshe pleads with God to let him see the Promised Land. (Moshe uses the term “Good Land”, terminology never found in the ROC. ) No such pleading is reported in the ROC.

46. Moshe says that God was angry at him because of the people. However, no reason is given. God reminds Moshe that he “rebelled” against God at Meribah, the well-water incident.

47. Note that this is a possible internal D contradiction with 1:37.

48. Moshe reports that at that time God admonished him not to make this request ever again. No such admonishment is mentioned

49. God instructs Moshe to go up the mountain of Abarim to view the land.
No mention of any complaint by Moshe of potentially “leaderless” people..

50. Moshe complains to God that if he is to die soon, the people will be left without a “shepherd”.
God instructs Moshe to appoint Joshua as his successor. The language used to describe this aspect of the story differs substantively from that in found in Numbers.

51. No mention is made of Elazar’s involvement (consistent with D’s desire to minimize the importance of the Kehuna and the Ohel Mo-ed). Elazar (the High Priest) and Moshe, anoint Joshua as leader in/near the Ohel Mo-ed.

Deut. 4:10 to 4:13 Revelation at Sinai and the Decalogue
Moshe describes the lead up to “matan Torah”, corresponding to Ex. 19. The depiction has a few differences.

52. The elaborate preparation depicted in Ex. is left out.

53. The description of the mountain in Deut 4:11 is different than in Ex.

Deut 4:12 “Hashem spoke to you from the midst of the fire”.

54. This latter phrase is repeated often in D, as is not found in Ex.

Deut 4:21 “Hashem became angry with me because of you, and He swore that I would not cross the Jordan”

55. As this verse is part of a continuation of text re-telling events at Sinai, a literal reading implies that God became angry at Moshe because of the events at Sinai. No such characterization is found anywhere else.

Deut. 4:41-42 Sanctuary Cities
Moshe sets aside aside three cities on the bank of the Jordan as safe heaven for person accused of accidental murder.

56. The sudden digression and placement of these verses is odd and the text switches from first-person Moshe to third-person Moshe

57. This passage contradicts text in the Book of Joshua (20:7) that says Joshua built these cities.

Deut. 5:6 to 5:17 The Decalogue
Moshe here repeats the “Ten Words (Aseret Hadibrot)”.

58. The text in D of the Aseret Hadibrot has over one dozen variations from the same text in Exodus 20 with only one (the reason for keeping Shabbat) of these dissimilarities having possibly any substantive meaning. Which text was the official version kept in the "Aron"?

Deut: 6:22. Moshe reminds the people of the wonderous escape from Egypt.

59. Oddity. No mention of the famous Ten Plagues is found in D.

Deut 7:1 Moshe mentions the nations of that will be displaced in the Promised land.
60. Moshe lists 7 nations here. Everywhere else in the Chumash, the textual list is only six nations

Deut. 8:2 “You shall remember the entire road on which Hashem, your God, led you these forty years in the Wilderness so as to afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would observe His commandments or not.

61. This passage seems to contradict Num. 14 , which clearly states that the journey in the desert for forty years was as a punishment for the lack of trust in God during the incident of the “Twelve Spies”.

Deut. 9:8 to 9:21 The Golden Calf
Generally the passage in D is quite similar (for a change) in terminologies and details. However, there are a few important differences. The major ones that differ from the depiction in Ex. 32 are:

62. Nowhere does it state in the D version that the B"Y actually worshiped (bowed and offered up sacrifices) the calf.

63. Aaron’s role is left out (consistent with D’s ignoring him almost completely in the entire book), except to mention that Moshe prayed for him, but for why is not stated.

64. Role of tribe of levi is not reported.

65. The punishing plague, post incident, is not mentioned. This is consistent with D never mentioning divine “plagues” as punishments in contradistinction to the rest of Chumash having at least a half dozens plagues inflicted on B"Y.

66. Moshe's dialogue with God is hardly recounted.

Deut 10:1-3 The Cedar wood Ark
Moshe builds an ark to house the tablets of Aseret Hadibrot. This is one of the most remarkable contradiction to the rest of Chumash.

67. Absolutely no mention is made in Devarim of the elaborate construction of the Sanctuary and particularly of the gold plated ark to house the tablets.

68. Nowhere is it reported in Exodus that Moshe built such a "simple" ark.

Deut 10:6 “The children of Israel journeyed from Beeroth-bene-jaakan to Moseroah”

69. Text contradicts Num 33:31.

Deut 10:4 “And what he did to the army of Egypt, to its horses and its riders, over whom He swept the waters of Sea of Reeds when they pursued you”.

70. Why does Moshe not mention the splitting of the Sea?

Deut 10:6 “And what he did to Dathan and Aviram the sons of Eliab, when the earth opened its mouth wide and swallowed them, and their households, and their tents”.

71. The rebellion of Korach (Num. 16:1 to 17:15) and Datan and Aviram is one of the longest passages about any particular episode in the Chumash. Yet the story receives only a passing reference in D.

72. In N the entire incident is reported as being mostly instigated and led by Korakh. Why is there no mention of Korakh when recalling the event?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Metaphor and Deeper Meaning(tm)

I want to address one of the main defenses of the Intellifundie: the treatment of evidence as metaphor or as a clue for 'deeper meaning'. See The Intellifundie Cookbook.

The truth is, if we accept that difficulties in any text should be resolved as a 'metaphor' or as 'deeper meaning', then really there is no text.

Any text loses its message once we allow to read it metaphorically or with a search for deeper meaning. The intent of the author be damned -- If there is something that is contradictory, or doesn't strike my fancy, my worldview or my assumptions, I can claim that it's a metaphor or a hint for us to understand the 'deeper message' within. For example, modern readers can look at what the Torah says about gays and respond "of course the Torah wouldn't really care about our sexual life" or "of course the Torah doesn't really mean what it says when it says we should kill them, especially because this is a trait gays were born with". The section is interpreted as a metaphor, or perhaps alluding to some hidden 'deeper meaning' and the problem is thus resolved.

In general, we always have to be extremely extremely careful when saying that a text should be understood as metaphor. Humans are very good at making connections -- whether they were meant by the author or not. When you have a text that's not fully understood or has any difficulty, the human mind starts to run wild with connections and metaphors. This can be seen especially clearly in the fantasy genre. Since stories about fantastic lands seem alien to us, we tend to find connections to many things in the real world as a way of 'making sense' of the fantasy. For example, once Henry Littlefield published his paper about Frank L. Baum's Wizard of Oz, the book was suddenly seen as a political treatise referring to 1890s American politics and the gold standard. Suddenly, all sorts of 'connections' and 'allusions' were found in the story, making it seem like it was all one big metaphor. Later scholars found that the connections were questionable at best, and that the 'metaphors' could be shuffled around to mean completely different things! See for more details.

The Torah, more than any other text, has this issue, because it has a ridiculous number of contradictions, gaps, repetitions and mistakes. If each contradiction is left up for 'metaphor' or 'deeper meaning', then any reader can read it any which way she chooses!

A final point to be made is that nowhere do we find anyone finding 'deeper meaning' in a textual contradiction, outside of the religious world. Does anyone who finds a book with numerous contradictions within the text itself think 'oh, this is a metaphor, or a sign of a deeper layer of meaning?' Highly doubtful. Instead, what that person would think, is that either the writer was very sloppy, or the text was edited/written by many authors, with different versions etc. Only in the religious world, where the reader's belief is at stake, is he compelled to say that the contradictions, rather than being signs of discord, are signs of 'greater harmony' or a 'deeper message'.

In conclusion, we cannot responsibly use 'deeper meaning' and 'metaphors' to explain why contradictions, or any other issues, are found in particular texts, including the Torah. Contradictions and problems in texts are evidence (for any particular theory), and must be treated as such. Switching to the realm of 'metaphor' can only be done extremely carefully and minimally, while collecting sufficient supporting evidence.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Let's examine an interesting practice in Tanach -- the law of Cherem. It's a cruel law, stating that an enemy city is given as a gift to G-d. How is this done? By killing all men, women and children in the city. The gold and all the goods go to G-d (meaning to the Priests). See references here:

Bamidbar 18:14, Bamidbar 21:2-3, Devarim 13:16, Shmuel 1:15, Joshua 6:17-24, Joshua 7:1-26

G-d is so dedicated to this practice, that when Achan stole some of the gold that was supposed to go to the Priests, G-d let the Israelites' attack fail, and eventually Achan and his entire family were killed for it. so G-d REALLY LIKES his Cherem.

How could G-d possibly support this horribly immoral practice? Are you getting your kvetching hats on? Ready to pull out some kind of rationalization?

Lets try a few. Maybe G-d defines morality, so it's really not wrong?
Or maybe G-d is really elevating these barbaric people (who would otherwise just be killed since it's a Milchemet Mitzvah) and their goods? This way, their Neshama gets a boost?
Or maybe we'll go for a practical angle, that you have to fight barbaric people with severe methods. Still, that won't explain why G-d wants this practice of Cherem so badly.

Well, let's check out the Mesha Stele, as king Mesha talks about his victories against Israel:
(line 14) And Kemosh said to me, "Go! Sieze Nebo against Israel." so I
proceeded by night and fought with it from the crack of dawn to midday, and I took it and I slew all of them: seven thousand men and boys, and women and gi- and maidens because I had dedicated it to Ashtar Kemosh I took [the ves-]-sels of YHWH, and I dragged them before Kemosh.

Guess what word it uses to describe this practice of killing everyone, men women, children and animals. Look in the Hebrew (Phoenician really) at what it says:

כי. לעשתר. כמש. החרמתה
"I made it a Cherem to Ashtar Chemosh."

Looks like Chemosh, the Moabite god, liked his Cherem just as much as our G-d. So Cherem to your god was common practice in the area!

How could G-d possibly borrow such a horrible practice (that's meant for idol worshipping gods)? How could He then be so concerned about it, making sure the Priests get their share, and killing anyone who didn't keep up its full terms? Tzarich Iyun.


First for a bit of clarification: Ir Nidachat and Amalek are both specific cases of Cherem. There appear to be 2 levels of Cherem: one in which you kill everyone, men women, children and sucklings, and keep the booty, giving it to G-d, and one in which you kill the men, women, children and sucklings, and burn the booty 'for G-d'.

Now for a source I missed: Vayikra 27:21,28-29 refers to another Cherem. It appears that not only can you 'dedicate' the enemy's souls and booty to G-d, you can also dedicate your own stuff as Cherem: your field, animal or humans. Yep, you can dedicate a human to G-d. Presumably this is talking about a slave, though perhaps in-laws are also accepted. Pasuk 29 tells us what is to be done with the dedicated human: there's no way out -- he can't be redeemed monetarily. He's simply to be killed. Yes, I said killed. Tzarich Iyun Gadol.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Starting Assumptions

People will find whatever they want to find in Torah, if they're willing to be flexible enough. This is because texts are very hard to extract firm evidence from - they're pliable, especially if, like Torah, they're messy and schematic in some areas, and verbose and repetitive in others. If you start out with the assumption that G-d wrote it no matter what, you'll find it inside (especially with Chazal's helping hand). Let's try starting with some other assumptions though:

Let's try a reading of Tanach with the assumption that god is evil. This shouldn't be too hard :) also, I think it's already been done by the Gnostics.

Creation: obviously this world was created to do evil in. While it is a bit of a Kashya that God says he saw that 'it was good', notice that this expression is outside of God ie. God is external to good, remarking about it and quite possibly not very happy about it.

Adam and Eve: Where did the snake come from? Isn't he God's creation? God has no control over snakes? Clearly this was a setup to cause them to be tempted, so God could so some punishin' (which he loves to do). The 'tree of life'... good one. And then God walks around the garden all innocent-like asking "where are you?"... please, give me a break. This one's so obvious.

Cain and Abel: Is God really angry at Cain? Doesn't seem like it. He gives him a slap on the wrist, a so-called punishment to walk the earth, and the very next thing Cain does is settle down. Clearly God wasn't really angry. He wasn't that fond of Abel, but he did like all that cow and sheep-killing, so he tolerated him for a while.

Noah: Tzaddik clearly doesn't mean what we think it means. Look, God saves him, and then all he can think of is getting drunk! But God definitely enjoyed wiping out all those people. It's almost like he set them up to do it... Especially by sending the children of God to marry the wives of men and pollute the land... hmm

Abraham: Sets up two kings for a fall by giving them his wife (pretending she's his sister - nice) so God can punish them! It's true that he wanted to save Sedom (a city of evil people - nice again), but let's remember he had to argue with God all the way. (Even though they were evil, God still wanted to do some killin')

Yitzchak: God nearly had him killed. Totally traumatized this guy. And then later on God allowed him to be duped by his own son and wife, too!

Yaakov: God's favorite, and the progenitor of the Israelites. He lies, steals, cheats and kills his way out of everything: Lavan, Esav, and Shchem to mention a few.

12 sons: Now these are the kinds of things God likes. They kidnap Joseph, pretend he's dead, ship him to Egypt. Notice God doesn't protest against any of this or even tells Yaakov what really happened to his child.

Moshe: God allows Pharoah to 'forget' what Joseph did for Egypt. Why? So the Israelites can be tortured. And then God finds that to be a compelling reason to kill and torture Egyptians too! Why else would God be 'hardening Pharoah's heart'? Let's not forget little Moishe's a killer as well!

Desert: Could it be any clearer? Taking a slave nation, allowing it to starve/die of thirst, then smiting it. It's 'almost' like God took pleasure in the complaining/smiting process.

OK you get the picture. I could go on and on, and I could bring you all sorts of literary devices to prove my point. The literal words don't matter that much, because I can always construct devices from the 'dominant word' of different chapters, or read into silences in the narrative etc.

Just for the fun of it, though, let's try a different assumption: God is really a vampire. Yep, a vampire.

Creation: OK this one's a toughy since I don't know if there's a vampire myth that vampires created the world. But maybe there is, and this one's an obvious allusion to it. Notice how we go through, creating the different animals. The sixth day represents the highest part of creation, and animals are in it. God could have fed off of animals... But that's not enough, so he created man, to have the ultimate feeding source.

Sons of God: A clear term for the race of vampires coming to human settlements and mingling in, at which point they're undetectable by humans. Their offsprings are 'heroes' - since vampires and vampire-spawn were so much stronger than average humans.

Noah: God got sick of humans and their nonsense, but he needed to preserve a food source, preferably with as much variety as possible ie. the animals.

Skipping ahead to Egypt (not that Avraham to Joseph is hard to explain of course, I could fill pages and pages with drashot about their contribution to creating the ultimate race of semi-vampires and how it's pashut in the text) notice the first plague - blood. The frogs were simply turned into crazy vampire frogs (some say they were crocodiles). Some of the plagues though were clearly not meant literally. Makat Bechorot is an easy and fun one for vampires to do.

Desert: Notice the repetitive theme of blood. Who else but a vampire could want so much blood and so many dead animals? 'The soul is in the blood...' How could God smell the sweet scent of a sacrifice unless He was a vampire? What about the law against looking at God? Clearly God doesn't want to be seen because of what he is. It's pashut in the text that God was physical when he had the big feast with the elders and Moshe at the end of Parshat Mishpatim. Also, Moshe's 'aura' -- yep, he was turned.

Once again, I think you get the picture.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A New Manifesto?

There have been many posts I've wanted to write but my perfectionist tendencies has caused them to pile up, either in my 'unpublished' tab or in my head. As a result, I've decided to publish posts even in draft form and fix/remove them later, as needed. We'll see if this'll work.

As a side point, has any other blog writer noticed that posts come out so clearly when you're doing other things (like davening) but when you actually sit down to write them they just don't 'flow'?