The UNESCO Vote Mystery


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

There’s a mystery about UNESCO’s denial last week of Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The mystery is not that the resolution was proposed by some of the usual suspects (Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan). That’s expected.

Nor was it that the resolution passed, with 24 countries supporting, six opposing, and 26 abstaining. That’s also expected, from the perennial alliance between evil and cowardice.

No, the real mystery is this: Given that the Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and Western Wall are crystal clear, how could anyone believe otherwise?

The answer is the way in which people hold beliefs. All of us hold beliefs in three ways:

  • Hold and apply.
  • Hold and do not apply.
  • Hold if X.

Hold and apply

These are normal beliefs. In appropriate situations, we affirm them verbally or base our actions on them.

We weight all of our beliefs by credibility, importance, and other factors. Although the scale is arbitrary, such beliefs might be weighted from 1 to 10. In case of conflicts between beliefs, we apply the beliefs with higher individual or combined weights. If we do not reject them outright, we place the losing beliefs in the “Hold and do not apply” category.

Hold and do not apply

These are beliefs that we put aside because they conflict with other beliefs to which we give more weight. We do not deny them, but neither do we apply them.

For example, a central belief of the Pythagoreans was that everything could be explained by whole numbers and ratios of whole numbers. As a central belief, it was heavily weighted. They weren’t going to give it up. However, then they discovered that certain quantities couldn’t be explained that way, such as the hypotenuse of a right triangle whose shorter sides were both of length 1. They couldn’t deny it, but to apply it meant rejecting their central belief, so they didn’t.

Almost certainly, officials who voted for the UNESCO resolution know perfectly well that their resolution’s implication is false. However, they do not apply their knowledge because they know that they would be in serious trouble if they did.

Hold if X

These are beliefs that we hold only if a certain condition or conditions are true.

The most obvious case is when beliefs depend on matters of fact. Will I get wet if I go outside? I hold that belief if I look out the window and see that it is raining. If it is not raining, I do not hold the belief.

However, there are other cases of this type of belief-holding. Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam wrote about how he reconciled his religious and secular beliefs:

“As a practicing Jew, I am someone for whom the religious dimension of life has become increasingly important …Those who know my writings from that period may wonder how I reconciled my religious streak and my general scientific materialist worldview. The answer is that I didn’t reconcile them. I was a thoroughgoing atheist, and I was a believer. I simply kept these two parts of myself separate.”

Putnam weighted his religious and materialist beliefs differently in different situations. If he was in synagogue, he assigned weight 10 to his religious beliefs and weight zero (do not hold) to his materialist beliefs. If he was in his office at Harvard, he assigned weight zero to his religious beliefs and some non-zero weight to his materialist beliefs.

How We Weight Beliefs

We weight our beliefs by three main factors:

  • How much the beliefs fit our existing worldview.
  • How much we want to hold the beliefs.
  • How much evidence there is for the beliefs.

Notice that evidence comes last. Our assessment of evidence is heavily influenced by the first two factors.

Our worldview contains general beliefs by which we interpret new information and accept or reject new beliefs.

For example, if news reporters believe that the Temple Mount is a Muslim holy site with no connection to Judaism, then they interpret any Israeli attempt to secure the site as illegitimate. If a terrorist stabs four people and gets shot by the IDF, the news headline will be “Palestinian Man Killed by Israeli Soldiers.”

Likewise in the United States, if we believe that police routinely harass and murder black people, then we tend to interpret any contact between police and blacks as an instance of racism.

That’s why interest groups hammer away so relentlessly with propaganda memes. They want to bias your perception so that everything seems to confirm their narrative. It doesn’t matter if you later discover that their memes are based on lies. They’ve got control of your perceptual filters, so you’ll tend to see what they want you to see.

So even if you don’t work for UNESCO (thank goodness), carefully scrutinize memes and constantly-repeated political themes. If in the end you decide to believe something, then it’s fine; but don’t let anyone smuggle such beliefs into your mind. And be alert for your own biases. If you intentionally “hold but do not apply” some beliefs, at least be aware that you’re doing it.

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Twin Holidays of Creation


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. They seem quite different.

But what if they’re not so different after all?

I’m not a rabbi and I don’t play one on television, but I can tell you what I think: Both holidays celebrate creation, but from different perspectives.

Multiple perspectives occur often in our tradition. The Book of Genesis first gives a cosmos-level view of the world’s creation in 1:1-2:3 and then retells the story from a more personal, ground-level view in 2:4-24. Similarly, Exodus 6:2-7:13 gives a high-level view of Moses’ appointment by God, and Exodus 3:1-6:1 gives a more detailed and personal view of the same events.

But how could Yom Kippur be “another view” of Rosh Hashanah? What’s the evidence?

Our first clue is the date: Yom Kippur is the 10th day of the new year. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna remarks that for our ancestors, “the tenth day of the month in which the New Year falls must carry special significance, though in what way currently eludes us.”

Here’s a thought: In Jewish and Gentile tradition, the number 10 signifies completeness and perfection.

It’s the sum of both the first four counting numbers (1, 2, 3, and 4) and of two sacred numbers (3 and 7). Exodus 20:2-14 gives 10 Commandments (Buddhism also has 10 commandments, five for monks and five for laypeople). The Kabbalah says that God created the world by 10 utterances, using 10 Sefirot as channels for the Divine energy. There are 10 generations from Adam and Noah, and then from Noah to Abraham. God says (Genesis 18:32) that He will spare Sodom if Abraham can find 10 innocent men in it. Ten men complete a minyan.

It suggests that Yom Kippur, the 10th day of the new year, might be about completing something. But what? Creation? And completion by whom?

Our second clue is the number of days (40) between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur. Forty indicates transition, change, renewal, and new beginning.

Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days; in the Biblical flood story, it rained 40 days to purify the earth; and in the Kabbalah, each of the four corners of the world contains all 10 Sefirot, totaling 40. It’s often similar in non-Jewish traditions. The Babylonians celebrated a new year’s feast when the Pleiades reappeared after being gone for 40 days. In England, the ancient site of Stonehenge has 40 giant stone pillars in a circle with diameter 40.

Our third clue is the Biblical text itself, in the light of the fact that 10 symbolizes completion and 40 symbolizes transition. Yom Kippur means a completion that causes a transition.

From Genesis 1:1-25 at each step of creation, God assesses his work and sees that it is “good.” But then He creates human beings in His image, as self-aware beings who can choose what they do and how they live. After that, what He has created is no longer merely good: it is “very good.” God no longer has to work alone. We become His junior partners in creation, adding a human moral dimension to physical reality.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the physical world, which is good. Yom Kippur reminds us that the physical world by itself is incomplete. It’s up to us to finish it by the choices we make. God gave us a world, but what we do with it is up to us. God gave us a choice, but what we choose is up to us. God will not stop us from choosing foolishly or destructively. The responsibility to choose wisely is ours.

Yom Kippur asks the most fundamental moral question of life: What kind of person do you want to be? Our answer determines the kind of world we will help God create.

In this new year, let’s make it a better one.

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Never Give Up Hope


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

War. Terrorism. Riots. Crime. Unemployment. Political corruption. Intolerance.

There are many reasons to give up hope.


If you give up hope, then you give up on the future. If you give up on the future, then you give up on life.

Don’t do it. Don’t give up. As long as you’re still alive, you’re never defeated unless you give up.

Maybe you’re afraid. Heartbroken. Angry. Confused. There’s a lot of that going around. You’ve got plenty of company.

You can get through all of it, as long as you haven’t lost hope.

If you give up hope, what will you accomplish? Nothing. It’s guaranteed.

If you persevere, what will you accomplish? Maybe nothing. Maybe something. There’s no guarantee, but it’s better than guaranteed failure.

You might end up doing the one thing that tips the balance in favor of goodness. Isn’t it worth a try? If you fail, you’ve lost nothing. If you succeed, your loved ones and the world will be better off.

The future is not set. God has put it in our hands to make the future by our choices and actions. Our options are sometimes limited by what’s happened in the past, but we are always free to do the right thing in the present.

Don’t worry about yesterday. It’s gone. You can’t change what happened yesterday, but you can give it a different meaning and a new value by what you do today, tomorrow, and the next day. You can reframe yesterday to turn a past evil into a future good.

Most of what happens in the world is beyond your control. However, some things are in your control. Even if you can’t solve all the world’s problems, at least make a point of doing what you can:

  • You can’t change human nature, including your nature. But you can change how you think, how you act, and to some degree, how you feel.
  • You can’t eliminate hatred, but you can resolve not to give in to hatred yourself.
  • You can’t eliminate poverty, but you can give some of your time and money to help the needy.
  • You can’t eliminate injustice, but you can act justly and oppose injustice when it appears.
  • You can’t eliminate hysteria and irrationality, but you can try to stay calm and rational.
  • You can’t eliminate your own limitations, but you can use what you’ve got to be your best self.
  • You can’t live forever as the person you are now, but your actions can create goodness that will survive beyond your final breaths.

Hope will keep you going. But going to where?

Albert Einstein wrote that “the most important factor in giving shape to our human existence is the setting up and establishment of a goal.”

You need a worthy goal, something that can inspire you and others. When you find a goal, ask yourself:

  • Is it honest? If it’s dishonest, it’s neither worthy nor inspiring. Play it straight.
  • Is it realistic? William Penn (the founder of Pennsylvania) advised to “hope not beyond reason, for that shews more desire than judgment.” Long shots pay the most and succeed the least, but sometimes they’re worth it. Just be aware of what you’re doing.
  • Who will it help? And how will it help them?
  • Who will it hurt? For things like volunteering with the elderly, the answer might be “nobody.” However, the question is not “Do I think some people are hurt?” The question is “Do they think they’re hurt?” Everyone’s happiness matters, even people you don’t like.
  • Does it help more people than it hurts? Then it does more good than bad. As long as it doesn’t violate anyone’s rights, it’s a worthy goal.

Hope is an essential part of Judaism. Indeed, in certain respects, we invented it. Earlier faiths saw the world as cyclical. The future was the same as the past and people were prisoners of their fate. Judaism revealed that the future didn’t have to be the same as the past: it could be better. We weren’t prisoners of our fate: however difficult at times, we could choose the path that we followed. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said it very well:

“We are free because we face an open future: open because it depends on us. We know the beginning of our story, but we do not yet know how it will end … History without freedom equals tragedy. History plus freedom equals hope. Judaism is the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.”

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Are We Free to Choose?


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Do you have free will?

That’s an easy question. Of course you do.

Here’s a harder question: What is free will?

That’s where most of us get into trouble. Common sense tells us that we have free will, but doesn’t tell us what it is. We have only a vague idea of what it means to act freely.

And it’s a pretty important concept. If people can’t freely choose what they do, then they aren’t morally responsible for their actions. If we hold them responsible anyway, then we had no choice about it. Just like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, we are helpless automatons, not morally rational beings.


The Torah doesn’t explicitly teach that we have free will, but it’s implied. In Deuteronomy 30:15-18, God, though Moses, gives the Israelites a choice:

“I command you this day, to love the Lord your God … But if your heart turns away and you give no heed, and are lured into the worship and service of other gods, I declare to you this day that you shall certainly perish …”

There’s also a Midrash that addresses the issue:

“At the time when Moses was engaged in writing the Torah, he had to set down what happened on each of the six days of creation. When he got to the verse, ‘And God said: ‘Let us make Adam’,’ Moses dared ask, ‘Master of the Universe, why do you give heretics their opportunity?’ ‘Write, O son of Amram,’ God replied. ‘Whoever wishes to err, let him err.'” (The Book of Legends, 13:48)

Free will has been a hot discussion topic this week at Hebrew College, where one of my classes is studying the Book of Exodus. There, the issue arises in two main ways:

  • In Exodus, God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” so that he refuses to free the Israelites. Does that mean God sometimes takes away people’s free will?
  • In Exodus and elsewhere, God reveals what people will do in the future. Does that mean our actions are pre-determined, leaving us no free choice about what we do?

Those don’t seem like hard problems, but you wouldn’t know it from all the energy people have spent arguing about them through the centuries.

Our common-sense idea of free will is something like this: You go out for ice cream. You like chocolate and strawberry, but today you decide to get chocolate. You could have picked strawberry. Your will was free.

The problem is what we mean by “free.” Can a free choice be influenced by prior circumstances? You like chocolate and strawberry, so you choose one of them and ignore the vanilla. Could you have chosen the vanilla? Sure, but why would you? You felt like having chocolate ice cream.


That sheds some light on the story of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Jewish thinkers have proposed various solutions, but the answer might be very simple.

For example, suppose when you go out for ice cream, your spouse teases you about always ordering chocolate. That “hardens your heart,” so you order strawberry — that is, unless you’re really annoyed, in which case you order Rocky Ripple. Your choice was still free, but both your taste preferences and your spouse caused you to make it a certain way.

That fits very well with how causation works. Events are almost never caused by a single thing. Normally, a whole context of causes makes things happen. In this case, the context included your spouse’s teasing, your ice cream preferences, and you. Which one of those things we choose to call “the cause” of your ice cream choice depends on the kind of story we’re telling and for what purpose. Since we’re talking about free will, in this discussion, you’re the cause. You made the choice.

What about Divine knowledge of the future? If God knows what we’re going to do, does it mean our actions are pre-determined, and therefore not free?

I’ll tell you a secret: It often occurs that months before I know what I’m going to do, my mother knows what I’m going to do. She doesn’t make me do it: I still choose freely. She just knows me very well, so she can predict what I’ll freely choose. However, even she doesn’t know me as well as God does.

God’s knowledge of the future doesn’t mean that our choices aren’t free. It only means that God knows us infinitely well, is outside of time, and therefore can “predict” our actions.

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Solve the Right Problem


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

Define the problem right, and you’re halfway to a solution.

Define the problem wrong, and you’ll probably never solve it. You’ll waste all your time looking for a solution that doesn’t exist. That applies in every area of life, such as religion, relationships, science, and social problems. The best movie mystery of 2008 turned on mis-identifying the problem to be solved.

The flip side of defining the problem wrong is what computer programmers call GIGO: “Garbage in, garbage out.” If your assumptions are wrong, then even if your logic is flawless, your conclusions will be wrong. Garbage in, garbage out.

Ironically, it’s the best and brightest people who are most susceptible to GIGO errors when they think about social problems.

Their kind hearts make them want to believe the most optimistic things, so they often base their assumptions on optimism rather than realism. Their brilliant minds make them less prone to mistakes in reasoning than are most people. As a result, they go straight from errors in their premises to errors in their conclusions. And their high standards lead them to demand perfection: they see anything less as failure.

If they were worse people or not quite as smart, then they’d have a better chance of discovering the truth. When you start with incorrect information but make mistakes in thinking, then you might get the correct answer just by blind luck. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

Those thoughts are inspired partly by another blogger’s reflections about racism, and partly by “Religion in an Age of Extremism,” a conference to be held next Sunday at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center.

The conference program asks: “Why are the great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – chronically unable to fulfill their own self-professed goal of creating individuals infused with moral sensitivity and societies governed by the highest ethical standards?”

Is that really the right question? It seems to define the problem incorrectly, based on an incorrect assumption about what religion can accomplish.

All three faiths are able to help individuals develop moral sensitivity and societies become more ethical. They’ve done so. Judaism taught the world about universal moral law under God, improving societies and people from ancient times to the present day. Christianity added emphasis on individual conscience and individual rights, helping to develop Western ideals of freedom and personal dignity. Even Islam was a great improvement on earlier practices in the region where it developed, giving at least some rights to women and, in the medieval era, fostering a high civilization to which we Jews contributed.

What they cannot do is make all individuals and societies ethical all the time, and they can’t do it because it’s impossible.

The problem is not a defect of the faiths themselves, nor of the peaceful, well-meaning leaders among them. It’s a limitation imposed by human nature, and by the fact that people are not all alike. Some are thoughtful, ethical, and peaceful; some are inclined to mindless violence; and most are in the middle, inclined to go in whichever direction they are pushed.

So the problem isn’t helping individuals develop moral sensitivity and helping societies uphold ethical standards. Enlightened religious faiths already do that. They don’t succeed 100 percent of the time, but it would be foolish devote more and more resources to such a fruitless quest. As the French philosopher Voltaire said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

The problem is actually this: How can we do a better job of pushing that large middle group in the right direction? Saints don’t need pushing, and terrorists won’t accept it. But normal people, who are neither very good nor very bad, need guidance and encouragement. Because they have many other claims on their attention, our message must be simple, clear, consistent, and realistic. It must be achievable. And it must allow occasional failures, providing a way to recover from them and get back on the right track.

The solution is to talk to the majority in the middle. The results will never be perfect — only “better.”

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God, Science, and Objective Reality


My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

“If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

Dostoyevsky didn’t write exactly those words in The Brothers Karamazov, but he came pretty close. The character Ivan Karamazov says:

“For every person who believes neither in God nor in his own immortality, egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation.” (p. 62)

In other words, if there is no ultimate moral authority, then the only authority is each individual’s will. Whatever he or she wants is permitted. The only question is whether or not it’s possible.

An old newspaper editor in my hometown made a similar observation:

“It is necessary to reverse the usual tenets of economic and technological determinism, which hold that material forces somehow dictate political relations, ethical values, and religious sentiments. What I am suggesting instead is a theological determinism: theology determines metaphysics, which determines political philosophy and institutions, which in turn determine the economic and technological organization of society.” (Freedom and Virtue, p. 90)

They were talking about morality and politics, of course. But it seems to me that their argument applies more generally.

One interpretation of belief in God is that reality does not depend on what we believe, wish, or want. Apart from a few events that we control, reality is shaped by a power beyond us. If we are monotheists, we think it’s a single power: God. Scientifically-minded atheists have a similar belief but without the theology: for them, the single power is physics.

Belief in objective reality is a natural consequence of monotheism. Polytheists believed that there were many gods who often disagreed, so reality could change abruptly and senselessly based on which god held sway at the moment. If that god wanted things a certain way, then that’s how they were. There was no single, stable reality. Everything was subject to the will of this or that god.

Hardly anyone is a polytheist anymore, but our time has its own kind of metaphysical anarchy:

“If God does not exist, then everything is not only permitted, but also possible.”

If God does not exist, then just as with polytheism, no single will imposes a natural order on the universe. The secular faithful believe that multiple wills shape our reality, but this time it’s not the wills of various gods. It’s the wills of various individuals, based on what they want, what they think is morally desirable, or whatever seems compassionate at the moment in a specific case. They make universal law based on idiosyncratic circumstance.

In other words, if there is no ultimate metaphysical authority whether God or nature, then the only authority is each individual’s will. Whatever he or she (or ze, ve, or it) wants is possible. The only question is whether or not religious conservatives will object to it.

The chaos-producing role of multiple gods has been taken over by the individual will. Its feelings, desires, and whims are imagined as having power to shape reality as each person wants it. If a person wants to change sex, then it’s not only possible but guaranteed to work out splendidly. If it’s morally desirable for hostile groups of people to live peacefully in the same society, then they most assuredly can. If there’s no quantifiable harm in marrying a horse, then why not do it?

The test of such fanciful beliefs is their success in practice. If we can improve society and increase human happiness by trading long-established concepts and institutions for anything-goes individualism, then it’s at least worth a try. But we should think carefully about the risks. A society, once broken, is difficult to repair. A mind, once distorted, can be difficult to heal.

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The Weirdest Torah Theory You Never Heard


My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

It’s a weird theory about the Torah. You’ve never heard of it. And it’s really a thing.

Of course, you’ve heard of other theories. The documentary hypothesis says that ancient editors assembled the Torah from four different sources, J, P, E, and D. Academic Bible scholars use it to explain inconsistencies in the facts, vocabulary, and style of different parts of the Torah.

And you’ve heard of Torah min Hashamayim: the theory that God dictated the entire Torah, including the Oral Torah, to Moses at Sinai. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks gave a wonderful modern gloss on that theory:

“The idea of ‘Torah from Heaven’ was, even before it was explicitly formulated, far more than a belief about the origin of a text. It was a belief about the origin of a destiny. ‘Torah from Heaven’ did more than negate the idea that a people was the author of its own texts. It reversed it. It suggested that the text was the author of the people.” (Crisis and Covenant, but read it at the library, since it costs $300 on Amazon.)

Whether you agree or disagree with those theories, they make intuitive sense. But Julian Jaynes, an American psychologist, argued in the 1970s for a radically un-intuitive idea: that people in ancient times, including people described in the Torah, were not conscious.

That’s quite a stark headline to come out of a book with the ponderous title of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Even so, it’s attracted interest and a surprising amount of support, including a few rabbis. I think he’s wrong, but his book is fascinating. He discusses the nature of consciousness, the neuroscience of his time (some now disproven), the evolution of language, and the development of civilization.

Jaynes noticed that the oldest ancient literature, including the Torah, seldom referred to anyone’s mental life. The gods commanded, and the people obeyed. Society was organized on the same lines. He argues that it both reflected and shaped how people thought: the “bicameral mind.” One part of the mind did the decision-making. Then it told the other part of the mind what to do:

“Volition, planning, initiative is organized with no consciousness whatever and then ‘told’ to the individual in his familiar language, sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend or authority figure or ‘god’, or sometimes as a voice alone. The individual obeyed these hallucinated voices because he could not ‘see’ what to do by himself.”

My first reaction was probably the same as yours: “That’s completely nuts.” But Jaynes does assemble evidence and make arguments. He notes that the oldest stories often have God or gods speaking to humans and telling them what to do. As the centuries pass, such apparitions become less frequent. Eventually, they disappear except for the visions of a few prophets.

And I must admit, it lends more plausibility to stories like the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. Abraham hears a voice that tells him what to do, and he prepares to do it? That doesn’t make Jaynes’s explanation right, but it makes you think. Rabbi James Cohn thinks it’s right:

“Unable to disobey these voices, the inhabitants of ancient society acted according to the voice. This voice of God, or of the gods, was experienced as an externally heard voice, precisely as you hear the voice of a person with whom you’re having a conversation. Although the voice was a product of the individual mind, the culture of the time raised people to perceive the voice as externally produced.” (Minds of the Bible)

What changed? Here, Jaynes has more speculation than argument. He thinks that social chaos and the development of writing made people less reliant on hallucinated voices:

“This loosening of the god-man partnership by trade and by writing was the background of what happened. But the immediate and precipitate cause of the breakdown of the bicameral mind, of the wedge of consciousness between god and man, between hallucinated voice and automaton action, was that in social chaos the gods could not tell you what to do – or if they did, they led to death.”

It’s certainly not going to replace more mainstream theories of the Torah. However, it shines an interesting light on ancient history and our modern preconceptions of what people were like.

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