Photograph of the "heads" side of a penny, highly oxidized so that the copper has turned from red to green

Sometimes Bad Pennies Have Good Sides

To make sure I read a least a little Hebrew every day, I subscribe to a Kitzur Shulchan Arukh Yomi service. Each day (except for Shabbat and certain holidays), I receive a text message designating a passage from the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, an abbreviated quick-reference guide to the everyday aspects of halakhah (Jewish law) as they might confront an observant Jew living in the mid-1800s in Eastern Europe. (In case you’re wondering, the messages double-up on the day before Shabbat or holidays with similar restrictions.)

I don’t ordinarily read the entire passage; I didn’t do so yesterday, either, but that is because the first couple of paragraphs caught my attention and I just didn’t move on from there. And I think that text provides some nice ideas for our own time.

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We Do What We Do when We Do What We Do

So, NPR has this bit today: What if Atheists Were Defined by Their Actions?

The short answer? There are such individuals. Some of us are called Humanists. Read more. (Coincidentally, Patheos has an article about atheism and values.) To paraphrase Turk from Scrubs, we do what we do when we do what we do:

(And on a related note, what I am is what I am, are you what you are, or what?)

We don’t simply define ourselves by the single issue of belief vel non in a deity. We define ourselves as seeking to do good without a god–or better, I think, without respect to the question of a god, because it’s just not an interesting issue for some of us. And the author of that NPR piece, speculating about what ifs, missed the chance to help address the very problem she brought up.

So here’s my small effort to fix that.

I am not saying that all atheists are Humanists, or vice versa. Many Objectivists are atheists, and Objectivism is largely incompatible with Humanism. But the post’s author seems to bemoan that labels are necessary without looking to see what labels and affiliations are out there.

If we’re realistic about the world we live in, we acknowledge the necessity of labels. It’s a shame the NPR piece didn’t take a harder look at the issue.

 

Asking How You “Do Jewish” Isn’t Enough

Rabbi Ben Greenberg has an article at the Rabbis Without Borders blog about Jewish identity and whether, when we ask about someone’s congregational affiliation, we are asking the wrong question.

On the one hand, I agree with him: “Are you ______?” and “Which synagogue do you belong to?” are essentializing, unhelpful questions in many cases. Asking how you “do” Jewish may be a better place to start.

On the other hand, I cannot agree with him on his premise for the question, because he writes out portions of the Jewish community.

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Your Atheism is (Somewhat) Irrelevant

If you pay attention to what goes on in the world of atheism/humanism/secularism, you’ve probably seen scuttlebutt about a number of accusations of sexual misconduct by Big Names in that corner of the world. There has also been some significant worry about what these accusations and the response to it mean for the future of these movements. Questions like, “Why is it that the population of conferences on secularism are overwhelmingly male?,” and whether some Big Names who aren’t accused of misconduct are making matters worse by minimizing the problem and engaging in casual sexism and victim-blaming.

There is also the on-again, off-again furor Sam Harris creates every time he talks about Islam. Harris seems to me to have taken up the mantle left behind by Christopher Hitchens as a kind of gadfly, poking at the ability of any form of religion involving any kind of belief in any kind of divinity to be “good.” (For the record: I loved how Hitch wrote, but often hated what he had to say.)

I’m not going to talk directly about any of this–not because I don’t think these questions matter, but because they are symptoms of another problem: secularism has taken on a reactionary color that sometimes makes secularists a mirror image of those whom they cast as their enemies. The reactionary problem drags along with it gender and sexual issues, and issues about talking about religion, and it is biting the secularist movement in the ass.

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Atheist? Humanist? Tolle, lege.

This book review on Slate.com is an essential read if you’re an atheist or humanist. Why? Because it points out some of the very problems that inhere in the Four Horsemen’s approach to the subject of religion. I’ve written about this before. The Slate piece is simply timely in pointing out some of the snarkiness and mean-spiritedness that’s coming along with “New Atheism.”

So, tolle, lege.

(P.S.: “Tolle, lege.” is what Augustine of Hippo reported hearing at the moment of his conversion experience to Christianity. It means “take it up and read.” I use it here in sincere irony.)

Of Rights, Wrongs, and Rights

It likely comes as no surprise to members (and observers) of the secular movements in the United States that the secular and humanist world is in the midst of no small uproar over the results of the Hobby Lobby case decided recently by the U.S. Supreme Court. Due to my work and the ethical obligations that come with it, I won’t be commenting on the case at all. You’ll have to go somewhere else for that analysis. (Same for same-sex marriage cases, and really pretty much any case.)

But the secularist community’s response to that case does prompt this post. Specifically, I want to return to something I wrote about briefly some months ago: the secular movement’s apparent allergy to religion.

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We Can Do Better Without It

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, writing at SophiaStreet, has a post prompted by the deaths of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel.  (I’ve previously posted about this here and here.) In her post, Rabbi Kaplan argues that theodicy helps respond to suffering. She briefly catalogs the weaknesses of theodicy. For brevity’s sake, we will say that the basic problem with theodicy responses is that they have to contend with logical contradictions inherent to understanding God as all-powerful, all-present, and all-knowing, and yet allowing evil into the world.

She turns at the end of the post to say that yesterday, she would have thought these responses to be useless. Today (in light of the three students’ murders), however:

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A photograph of an opened Torah scroll, housed at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

Hypotheses, Theories, and Biblical Criticism, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “Higher Antisemitism”

(Warning–this is not a post written for the linguistically or intellectually faint-of-heart. If you’re a casual reader, you’ve been warned.)

In response to my post a couple of days ago about the implications of biblical criticism for Jewish thought–which was itself a response to Jay Michaelson at the Forward–the Society for Humanistic Judaism in its Facebook feed asked when a hypothesis becomes a theory. I’ve been mulling that over a bit, and came belatedly upon TheTorah.com‘s meme about what biblical criticism is:

Bible Criticism – From TheTorah.com

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Sometimes, the Truth Hurts. Can You Handle It?

Jay Michaelson of The Forward has a recent editorial, How We Know the Bible Was Written by Human Hands. In it, he reviews three recent scholarly works regarding the formation of the Hebrew Bible–the composition of the texts, their sources, and the canonization process. (I’m not 100% impartial to the review, as I studied a little bit with the author of one of the books discussed, but I’ve not yet read the books themselves.)

Michaelson is, I think, correct that the truth matters. More crucially, he notes that the truth hurts. There’s one problem with his thesis: no one knows it!

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Hyperallergenic

So, I’ve been a bit lax in posting recently. In part, I’ve been busy with various other things–Passover, classwork, grading student papers, working, parenting, etc. But in part, my podcast consumption has been down. I usually find something of interest in podcasts, but I just wasn’t listening to them as often because, during the winter, it can be hard to concentrate on driving safely and on keeping continuity of attention on the podcast. With winter mostly over, though, I’ve got a bit more mental bandwidth during commutes, and podcasts are coming back into the listening diet.

I subscribe to a number of podcasts–lots of New Books Network podcasts, some Jewish-oriented ones, some humanism-oriented ones. I try to enjoy what I find, but in the humanist-oriented podcasts, especially, I find this difficult because much of it is shrill and self-congratulatory.

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