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.