Book Review: Aphrodite and the Rabbis

When I started researching Judaism, the first thing I learned was that I didn’t know anything about Judaism. It turns out that Judaism-in-the-Bible (the one I was familiar with) and modern Judaism are pretty different.

Visotzky’s Aphrodite and The Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as we Know it explores the transition from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. If you’re looking for an introductory text on the subject, it’s a good place to start. (It doesn’t go into the differences between major modern-day Jewish groups, though. If you’re looking for that, Judaism for Dummies or something along those lines will probably do.)

I discussed several ideas gleaned from this book in my prior post on Talmudism and the Constitution. Visotzky’s thesis is basically that Roman culture (really, Greco-Roman culture) was the dominant culture in the area when the Second Temple fell, and thus was uniquely influential on the development of early Rabbinic Judaism.

Just to recap: Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was located primarily in its homeland of Judea, a Roman province. It was primarily a temple cult–people periodically brought sacrifices to the priests, the priests sacrificed them, and the people went home. There were occasional prophets, but there were no rabbis (though there were pharisees, who were similar.)  The people also practiced something we’ll call for simplicity’s sake folk Judaism, passed down culturally and not always explicitly laid out in the Mosaic Law. (This is a simplification; see the prior post for more details.)

Then there were some big rebellions, which the Romans crushed. They razed the Temple (save for the Western Wall) and eventually drove many of the Jews into exile.

It was in this Greco-Roman cultural environment, Visotzky argues, that then-unpracticeable Temple Judaism was transformed into Rabbinic Judaism.

Visotzky marshals his arguments: Jewish catacombs in Rome, Talmudic stories that reference Greek or Roman figures, Greek fables that show up in Jewish collections, Greek and Roman words that appear in Jewish texts, Greco-Roman style art in synagogues (including a mosaic of Zeus!), the model of the rabbi + his students as similar to the philosopher and his students (eg, Socrates and Plato,) Jewish education as modeled on Greek rhetorical education, and the Passover Seder as a Greek symposium.

Allow me to quote Visotzky on the latter:

The recipe for a successful symposium starts, of course, with wine. At least three cups, preferably more, and ideally you would need between three and five famous guests. Macrobius describes a symposium at which he imagined all the guests drinking together, even though some were already long dead. They eat hors d’oeuvers, which they dip into a briny sauce. Their appetite is whetted by sharp vegetables, radishes, or romaine lettuce. The Greek word for these veggies is karpos. Each food is used as a prompt to dig through one’s memory to find apposite bookish quotes about it. … Above all, guests at a symposium loved to quote Home, the divine Homer. …

To kick off a symposium, a libation was poured to Bacchus Then the dinner guests took their places reclining on pillows, leaning on their left arms, and using their right hands to eat. Of course, they washed their fingers before eating their Mediterranean flatbreads, scooping up meats and poultry–no forks back then.

Athenaeus records a debate about desert, a sweet paste of fruit, wine, and spices. Many think it a nice digestive, but Athenaeus quotes Heracleides of Tarentum, who argues that such a lovely dish ought to be the appetizer, eaten at the outside of the meal. After the sumptuous meal and the endless quotation of texts… the symposium diners sang their hymns of thanksgiving to the gods. …

All of this should seem suspiciously familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Passover Seder. The traditional Seder begins with a cup of wine, and blessings to God are intoned. Then hands are washed in preparation for eating the dipped vegetables, called karpos, the Greek word faithfully transliterated int Hebrew in the Passover Haggadah. Like the symposiasts, Jews dip in brine. The traditional Haggadah recalls who was there at the earliest Seders: Rabbi Eliezer … Rabbi Aqiba, and Rabbi Tarphon (a Hebraized version of the Greek name Tryphon). The converation is prompted by noting the foods that are served and by asking questions whose answers quote sacred scripture. …

Traditionally the Passover banquet is eaten leaning on the left side, on pillows. Appetites are whetted by bitter herbs and then sweetened by the paste-like Haroset (following the opinion of Heracleides of Tarentum?) Seder participants even scoop up food in flatbread. Following the Passover meal there are hymns to God.

Vigotzsky relates one major difference between the Greek and Jewish version: the Greeks ended their symposiums with a “descent into debauchery,” announced api komias–to the comedians! Jews did not:

Indeed, the Mishnah instructs, “We do not end the meal after eating the paschal lamb by departing api komias.” That final phrase, thanks to the Talmud of Jewish Babylonia, where they did not know Greek, has come to be Hebraized as “afi-komen,” the hidden piece of matzo eaten for desert.

The one really important piece of data that he leaves out–perhaps he hasn’t heard the news–is the finding that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically about half Italian. This Italian DNA is primarily on their maternal side–that is, Jewish men, expelled from Judea, ended up in Rome and took local wives. (Incidentally, Visotzky also claims that the tradition of tracing Jewish ancestry along the maternal line instead of the paternal was adopted from the Romans, as it isn’t found in the Bible, but is in Rome.) These Italian ladies didn’t leave behind many stories in the Talmud, but surely they had some effect on the religion.

On the other hand, what about Jews in areas later controlled by Islam, like Maimonides? Was Rome a major influence on him, too? What about the Babylonian Talmud, written more or less in what is now Iraq?

Modern Christianity owes a great deal to Greece and Rome. Should modern Judaism be understood in the Greco-Roman lens, as well?

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The Talmud and the Constitution

This post is about similarities between the development of Jewish law and American law.

A story is recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, which I am going to paraphrase slightly for clarity:

Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav (Abba Aricha) said, “When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, up to the heavens, to receive the Biblical law, he found God sitting and adding calligraphic flourishes (crowns) to the letters.

Moses said,”Master of the Universe! Why are you going so slowly? Why aren’t you finished?”

God said to him, “Many generations from now, Akiva the son of Yosef will expound on every calligraphic detail to teach piles and piles of laws.”

Moses said, “Master of the Universe! Show him to me,” so God told him to turn around, and a vision of Rabbi Akiva teaching his students appeared. Moses went and sat in the back row, but the teaching style was so intellectual that he did not understand what they were talking about and got upset.

Then one of the students asked Rabbi Akiva, “Our teacher, where did you learn this law?”

Akiva replied, “It is from a law that was taught to Moses at Sinai.”

So Moses calmed down. He returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said before Him, “Master of the Universe! If you have a man like this, why are you are giving the Torah through me?”

But God only replied, “Be silent. This is what I have decided.”””

2,000 years ago, when Yeshua of the house of David still walked the Earth, rabbinic Judaism–the Judaism you’ll find if you walk into any synagogue–did not fully exist.* The Judaism of Roman Judea was a temple cult, centered on the great Temple in Jerusalem (though there were others, in Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and of course, Samaria.) Ordinary Jews went about their business–raising crops, tending goats, building tables, etc–and every so often they visited the Temple, bought or brought an offering, and had the priest sacrifice it.

*Note: See the comments for a discussion of continuity between Pharisaic Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism. I am not arguing that Rabbinic Judaism was invented whole cloth.

69 AD, also known as the Year of the Four Emperors, was particularly bad for the Roman Empire. Galba seized power after Nero‘s suicide, only to be murdered on January 15 in coup led by Otho. Emperor Otho committed suicide on April 16 after losing Battle of Bedriacum to Vitellius. Vitellius was murdered on December 20 by Vespasian‘s troops.

Meanwhile, Judea was in revolt. In 70 AD, Vespasian’s son (and successor) Titus besieged Jerusalem, crushed the rebellion, and razed the Temple.

Without the Temple–and worse, scattered to the winds–what was an ordinary Jew supposed to do? Where could he take his sacrifices? How was he supposed to live in this new land? Could he visit a bath house that had a statue of Aphrodite? Could he eat food that had been sold beside non-kosher meat?

The Bible has 613 laws for Jews to follow, but do you know how many laws you live under?

I once did a research project on the subject. I found that no one knows how many laws there are in the US. We have federal, state, county, and city laws. We have the code of federal regulations, containing thousands of rules created by unelected bureaucrats within dozens of agencies like the EPA, which is enforced exactly like laws. We have thousands of pages of case law handed down by the Supreme Court.

It’s one thing to live in an organic community, following the traditions handed down by your ancestors. Then perhaps 613 laws are enough. But with the destruction of the Temple, Judaism had to adapt. Somehow they had to get a full body of laws out of those measly 613.

Enter the Rabbi Akiva (also spelled Akiba or Aqiba) and his calligraphic flourishes. By examining and re-examining the text, comparing a verse from one section to a similar verse to another, groups of rabbis (teachers) and their students gradually built up a body of laws, first passed down orally (the Oral Torah,) and then written: the Talmud.

For example, the 5th Commandment says to Remember the Sabbath Day, but how, exactly, are you supposed to do it? The Bible says not to “work” (or so we translate it,) but isn’t a rabbi preaching his sermon on Saturday working? To clarify, they look to the next verse, “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:11) and declare that “work” here refers to creative work: building, writing, sewing, sowing, reaping, carrying (materials for creative work), building fires, or inversely, putting out fires, knocking down buildings, etc. Merely giving a speech–even if you get paid for it–is not work. (Though you can’t accept the payment on Saturday.)

The word for “work” in the Bible, transliterated as “melachah,” is further interpreted as related to “melekh,” king, relating it back to God (the King)’s work. Melachah is not found very often in the Bible, but shows up again in Exodus 31, during a discussion of the work done to build the Ark of the Covenant [which is not actually a boat] and various related tents–a discussion which is suddenly interrupted for a reminder about the Sabbath. From this, it was reasoned that work specifically mentioned in the first part of the passage was what was prohibited in the second part, and therefore these were among the specific varieties of work forbidden on Shabbat.

If a suitably similar verse could not be found elsewhere in the text to explicate an inadequate passage, rabbis found other ways of decoding God’s “original intent,” including gematria and the aforementioned calligraphic flourishes. Hey, if God wrote it, then God can encode messages in it.

Which gets us back to the story at the beginning of the post. Note how it begins: The Talmud says that Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav said… ‘Moses said…'” This is a written account of an oral account passed from teacher to student, about a conversation between Moses (recipient of the Torah or first five books of the Bible from God and recipient of the Oral Torah, which was just how everyone lived,) about the transformation from Mosaic Judaism, centered on the Temple and lived tradition, to Rabbinic Judaism, centered on repeated reading and interpretation of the holy text, which contains in it all of the things that used to just be part of everyone’s traditions.

The result, of course, was the Talmud–or rather multiple Talmuds, though the Babylonian is the most commonly cited. The Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Tamud runs 37 volumes, and looks like this:

The inner section is a passage from the original Talmud. The inner margin is Rashi (a famous rabbi)’s commentary, the outer margin is additional commentary from other famous rabbis, and around the edges you can see marginalia from even more rabbis.

Like an onion, it is layer upon layer upon layer.

But what authority do the rabbis have to make pronouncements about the law?

The Talmud recounts an amusing argument about whether an oven could be purified:

The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.

After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits.

The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction.

They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall.

Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute?

The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it.

A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12).

The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context?

Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion.

The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration?

Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

So say the rabbis!

(you might be thinking, “Didn’t Elijah live a long time before the rabbis?” But since Elijah was taken up in whirlwind he never died, and thus may still be encountered.)

The importance of this little bit of Talmudism–in my opinion–is it lets the rabbis modify practice to avoid parts of the Bible that people don’t like anymore, like stoning adulterers. Sure, they do so by legalistically telling God to buzz off, they’re interpreting the law now, but hey, “Israel” means “wrestled with God“:

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. … Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” …

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” (Genesis 32: 24-28)

Arguing with God. It’s a Jew thing.

The downside to all of this is that the Talmud is SUPER LONG and gets bogged down in boring legal debates about EVERYTHING.

Every so often, a group of Jews decides that all of this Talmud stuff is really too much and tries to sweep it away, starting fresh with just the Laws of Moses. Karaite Jews, for example, reject the Talmud, claiming instead to derive all of their laws directly from the Bible. They have therefore written several hundred books of their own interpreting Biblical law.

Hasidic Judaism was founded by the Baal Shem Tov, a rabbi who (according to his followers) emphasized the importance of having a “spiritual connection” to God (which even poor Jews could do) over legalistic arguing about texts, (which a rich atheist could do but not a poor man.) Today, Hasidic Jews are prominent among the Orthodox Jews who actually care about extensive, strict interpretation and implementation of Jewish law.

It’s not that reform is worthless–it’s just that the Bible doesn’t contain enough details to use as a complete legal code to govern the lives of people who no longer live in the organic, traditional community that originally produced it. When people lived in that community, they didn’t need explicit instructions about how to build a sukkah or honor the Sabbath day, because their parents taught them how. Illiterate shepherds didn’t need a long book of legal opinions to tell them how to treat their guests or what to do with a lost wallet–they already learned those lessons from their community.

It’s only with the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Judea that there comes a need for a written legal code explaining how, exactly, everything in the culture is supposed to be done.

Okay, but what does all of this have to do with the Constitution?

As legal documents go, the Constitution is pretty short. Since page size can vary, we’ll look at words: including all of the amendments and signatures, the Constitution is 7,591 words long.

The Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare,) clocks in at a whopping 363,086 words, of which 234,812 actually have to do with the law; the rest are headers, tables of contents, and the like. (For comparison, The Fellowship of the Ring only has 177,227 words.)

Interestingly, the US Constitution is both the oldest and shortest constitution of any major government in the world. This is not a coincidence. By contrast, the Indian Constitution, passed in 1949, is 145,000 words long–the longest in the world, but still shorter than the ACA.

People often blame the increasing complexity of US law on Talmudic scholars, but I think we’re actually looking at a case of convergent evolution–the process by which two different, not closely related species develop similar traits in response to similar environments or selective pressures. Aardvarks and echidnas, for example, are not closely related–aardvarks are placental mammals while echidnas lay eggs–but both creatures eat ants, and so have evolved similar looking noses. (Echidnas also look a lot like hedgehogs.)

US law has become more complex for the same reasons Jewish law did: because we no longer live in organic communities where tradition serves as a major guide to proper behavior, for both social and technical reasons. Groups of people whose ancestors were separated by thousands of miles of ocean or desert now interact on a daily basis; new technologies our ancestors could have never imagined are now commonplace. Even homeless people can go to the library, enjoy the air conditioning, log onto a computer, and post something on Facebook that can be read, in turn, by a smartphone-toting Afghan shepherd on the other side of the world.

The result is a confused morass. Groups of people who don’t know how to talk to each other have degenerated into toxic “call-out culture” and draconian speech codes. (Need I remind you that some poor sod just lost his job at Google for expressing views backed by mountains of scientific evidence, just because it offended a bunch of SJWs?) Campus speech codes (which infringe on First Amendment rights) are now so draconian that people are discussing ways to use a different set of laws–the Americans with Disabilities Act–to challenge them.

Even the entry of large numbers of women into colleges and the paid workforce (as opposed to unpaid labor women formerly carried out in homes and farms) has simultaneously removed them from the protective company of male relatives while bringing them into constant contact with male strangers. This has forced a massive shift both in social norms and an increase in legal protections afforded to women, whom the state now protects from harassment, “hostile work environments,” rape, assault, discrimination, etc.

Without tradition to guide us, we try to extrapolate from some common, agreed upon principles–such as those codified in the Constitution. But the Constitution is short; it doesn’t even remotely cover all of the cases we are now trying to use it to justify. What would the founding fathers say about machine guns, nuclear missiles, or international copyright law? The responsibilities of universities toward people with medical disabilities? Medications that induce abortions or unionized factory workers?

The Constitution allows Congress to grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal–that is, to officially commission pirates as privateers, a la Sir Francis Drake, private citizens allowed to attack the boats of (certain) foreign nations. But Letters of Marque and Reprisal haven’t actually been granted since 1815, and the practice has been out of favor among European governments since 1856. Like stoning, privateering just isn’t done anymore, even though it is technically still right there in the Constitution.

By contrast, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Constitution says that the states have to issue gay marriage licenses. Whether you agree with gay marriage or not, this is some Rabbi Yehoshua, “It is not in heaven,” level reasoning. I’m pretty sure if you raised the Founding Fathers or the authors of the 14th Amendment from the dead and ask their ghosts whether the Constitution mandates gay marriage, they’d look at you like you’d just grown a second head and then call you crazy. Gay sex wasn’t just illegal in every state, it was punishable by execution in several and Thomas Jefferson himself wrote a bill for the state of Virginia which penalized it via castration.

But “living constitution” and all that. A majority of modern Americans think gay marriage should be legal and don’t want to execute or dismember homosexuals, so society finds a way.

It’d be more honest to say, “Hey, we don’t really care what people thought about gay marriage 200+ years ago; we’re going to make a new law that suits our modern interests,” but since the legitimacy of the whole legal edifice is built on authority derived from the Constitution, people feel they must find some way to discover legal novelties in the text.

Like a man trying to fix a broken fence by piling up more wood on it, so American law has become an enormous, burdensome pile of regulation after regulation. Where traditions can be flexible–changing depending on human judgment or in response to new conditions–laws, by nature, are inflexible. Changing them requires passing more laws.

The Talmud may be long, but at least I can eat a bacon cheeseburger on leavened bread on a Saturday during Passover with no fear of going to jail. Even Israelis aren’t significantly restricted by Talmudic law unless they want to be.

By contrast, I can be put in prison for violating the endlessly complex US law. I could spend the next ten pages recounting stories of people fined or imprisoned for absurd and trivial things–bakers fined out of business for declining to bake a gay wedding cake, children’s lemonade stands shut down for lack of proper permits, teenagers imprisoned and branded “sex offenders” for life for having consensual sex with each other. Then there’s the corporate side: 42% of multi-million dollar patent litigation suits that actually go to court (instead of the parties just settling) result in the court declaring that the patent involved should have never been granted in the first place! Corporate law is so complex and lawsuits so easy to bring that it now functions primarily as a way for corporations to try to drive their competitors out of business. Lawsuits are no longer a sign that a company has acted badly or unethically, but merely a “cost of doing business.”

How many businesses never get started because the costs of regulation compliance are too high? How many people never get jobs as a result? How many hours of our lives are sucked away while we fill out tax forms or muddle through insurance paperwork?

Eventually we have to stop piling up wood and start tearing out rotten posts.

 

PS: For more information on the development of Rabbinic Judaism, I recommend Visotzky’s Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as we Know it.

Species of Exit: Israel

Israel is–as far as I can tell–one of the sanest, least self-destructive states in the entire West. (Note: this is not to say that I love everything about Israel; this is actually a pretty low bar, given what’s happening everywhere else.) Their people are literate and healthy, they have a per capita GDP of 36.5k, (33rd in the world,) and they’re 18th globally on the Human Development Index. They don’t throw people off of buildings or have public floggings, and despite the fact that they have birth control and the state actually pays for abortions, the Jewish population still has a positive fertility rate:

The fertility rates of Jewish and Arab women were identical for the first time in Israeli history in 2015, according to figures released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday….Jewish and Arab women had given birth to an average of 3.13 children as of last year.

According to Newsweek:

This high fertility rate is not simply an artifact of Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox or Haredi population; the non-Haredi fertility rate is 2.6. (This is, by the way, a far higher fertility rate than that of American Jews, which is 1.9; the replacement rate is 2.3.)

Did you think we were getting through this without a Polandball joke? And they’ve managed to resist getting conquered by their aggressive and numerically superior neighbors several times in the past century.

Not bad for a country that didn’t exist 100 years ago, had to be built from the sand up, and is filled with people whom conventional wisdom holds ought to have been rendered completely useless by multi-generational epigenetic trauma.

Now, yes, Israel does get a lot of support from the US, and who knows what it would look like (or if it would exist at all,) in an alternative timeline where the US ignores it. Israel probably isn’t perfect, just interesting.

Harking back to my Measures of Meaning post, I propose that Israel has 4 things going for it:

Ethiopian Jews
Ethiopian Jewish member of the IDF

1. Israelis have meaningful work. Their work has been, literally, to build and secure their nation. Israelis have had to build almost the entire infrastructure of their country over the past hundred years, from irrigation systems to roads to cities. Today, Tel Aviv is a city with a population of 430,000 people. In 1900, Tel Aviv didn’t exist.

Unlike the US, Israel has a draft: every Israeli citizen, male and female, has to serve in the Israeli army. (Obviously exceptions exist.) This is not seen as state-run slavery but part of making sure the entire society continues to exist, because Israel faces some pretty real threats to its borders.

The IDF even has a special division for autists:

Many autistic soldiers who would otherwise be exempt from military service have found a place in Unit 9900, a selective intelligence squad where their heightened perceptual skills are an asset. …

The relationship is a mutually beneficial one. For these young people, the unit is an opportunity to participate in a part of Israeli life that might otherwise be closed to them. And for the military, it’s an opportunity to harness the unique skill sets that often come with autism: extraordinary capacities for visual thinking and attention to detail, both of which lend themselves well to the highly specialized task of aerial analysis.

picture-5

I suspect–based on personal conversations–that there is something similar in the US military, but have no proof.

My anthropological work suggests that one of the reasons people enter the military is to find meaning in their lives, (though this doesn’t work nearly as well when your country does things like invade completely irrelevant countries you don’t actually care about like Vietnam.)

2. Like I said, Israelis have above-replacement total fertility–meaning that many Israelis hail from large families, with lots of children, siblings, and cousins. Israelis appear to have managed to achieve this in part by subsidizing births (which probably will have some long-term negative effects for them,*) and in part by explicitly advocating high birth rates in order to prevent themselves from being out-bred by the Palestinians and to show that Hitler what for.

*ETA: See the comments for a discussion of dysgenic fertility on Israel.

I have been saving this picture for so long3. Religion is so obviously a unifying force in Israeli life that I don’t think I need to detail it.

What about that fourth thing? Oh yes: Many of the Jews who don’t like the idea of “nations” and “ethno states” and “religion” probably moved to the US instead of Israel. The US got the SJW Jews and Israel got the nationalist Jews.

4. A sense of themselves as a distinct nation. As I’ve discussed before, this is not exactly genetic, due to different Jewish groups having absorbed about 50% of their DNA from the folks around them during the diaspora years, and of course a big part of the country is Arab/Palestinians, but there is still much genetically in common.

There is probably a lot I’m missing.

15han-2-master675Of course there are religious Jews in the US (and their numbers are growing relative to the secular Jewish population.) While Jews as a whole voted 70% for Hillary, only 56% of the Orthodox supported her. (I’ve seen different numbers elsewhere, but these are the ones I’ve been able to find a source for.)

(I suspect that America’s high-IQ secular Jews suffer from being in America instead of Israel. They don’t have religion to guide them, children to focus them, nor (in many cases) meaningful work. Without something positive to work towards, they turn to politics/ideology to provide meaning in their lives, while simultaneously suffering the psychological stress of knowing that the Holocaust was directed at people like them.)

But that’s irrelevant to Israeli Jews.

Long-term, I’m not bullish on Israel, given its precarious location, surrounded by nations that aren’t very fond of it–and I am not offering any opinions about the Israeli/Palestinian situation–but as first world nations go, it at least desires to keep existing.

Re: Why does my fridge have a “Sabbath Mode?”

source
From the Geek Guide to Kosher Machines

So I got this letter from a reader: “I just got a new refrigerator, and it comes with a “Sabbath mode”–if Jews aren’t supposed to use electricity on Saturday, why don’t they just turn off the fridge? Isn’t this cheating?”

I may not be the most appropriate expert for this question, being not a Jewish lawyer, but it’s just too funny not to answer–but please consult with a real rabbi before making any important halakhic decisions about your fridge.

First, as you probably already know, there are basically 3 varieties of Jews: Atheist Jews, moderately religious Jews, and Orthodox Jews. About 2% of Americans are Jewish, of them, 10% are Orthodox–and as far as I know, only the Orthodox care about following all of the little Jewish laws and whether or not their fridges are sabbath compliant.

Noam Chomsky may be Jewish, but he probably doesn’t care what his fridge does unless it can prove the existence of universal grammar.

The Orthodox Jews are the ones who tend to dress most identifiably Jewish, with black hats, curly sidelocks, black suits, and beards. For this reason, I think people sometimes confuse them with the Amish.

Orthodox Jewish family
Orthodox Jewish family
Amish family
Amish family

Yes, they both wear beards, but there’s an obvious difference: the Amish live in PA and Jews live in NY.

From Time, "This Photo of Mark Zuckerberg's Closet is Ridiculous"-- I remember when Time was a respectable magazine and not just clickbait trash.
From Time, “This Photo of Mark Zuckerberg’s Closet is Ridiculous” (ugh clickbait titles)

(I do wonder if there is a connection between the Orthodox Jewish tendency toward identical clothes has something to do with Zuckerberg’s preference for only wearing gray shirts–but please note that many Orthodox Jews do not, in my experience, dress in the stereotypical way. Most I have met, while they dress modestly, are pretty much indistinguishable from everyone else.)

That business you’ve heard about Jews not using electricity is wrong. The Amish are the ones who don’t use electricity. Jews use electricity, even on Saturday.

However, some Jews (mostly Orthodox) try to refrain from turning electrical things on or off on Saturday. It’s just fine for an electrical thing to be on and stay on all day. It’s fine for an electrical thing to be off and stay off all day. It’s the flipping light switches on and off that’s a problem.

6df93d0c2319e0324710f55dcfcc5446But isn’t this cheating? Aren’t they supposed to not use electricity?

No. There is nothing in the Bible about not using electricity–not even in the Apocrypha. Nothing in the Talmud, either. I guarantee it.

The Bible does say, in the 10 Commandments, to honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. In the Genesis account, God created the world for 6 days and then rested on the 7th, so traditional Jewish law proclaimed the Sabbath (aka Shabbat, aka Saturday,) a day of rest, when people went to synagogue or studied the Torah and didn’t do any work. “Work” is defined here in terms relevant to people in Biblical times, not today: agricultural activities like planting, plowing, reaping, and threshing; cooking: kneading dough and baking; clothes production: shearing, carding wool, spinning, weaving; animal-products: trapping, slaughtering, skinning, preserving; “creative” activities: writing, erasing, building, demolishing, kindling a fire or putting it out; and carrying around heavy stuff.

Yes, the law goes into A LOT more detail than this, like “Is it okay to trap a fly that’s buzzing around in your cupboard?” “What about a poisonous scorpion that’s in my shoe?” “What about a snail?” (IIRC, maybe, yes, and yes, respectively,) but this is the big picture.

Note that while there is a prohibition against lighting a fire (and against putting it out,) as this is considered a “creative” act and often involved carrying around large bundles of heavy wood, there is no prohibition against sitting near a fire and staying warm. Traditional Russian Jews would have gotten awfully cold in the winter if there had been. Instead they just built up a big fire on Friday afternoon and hoped it lasted until Saturday evening. There was never a requirement that they had to put out the fire and sit around and be cold.

The same holds for candles.

When electricity was first introduced, some folks decided that lightbulbs were an awful lot like candles and electricity like fire, especially electric sparks. So some Jews decided that turning lights on and off was analogous to lighting (or dousing) a fire, and thus shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath.

220px-refrigerator_sabbath_modeMost Jews who are concerned about the fridge light just take the easy route and unscrew it a little on Friday afternoon, but some people are now buying refrigerators with built-in display panels that let you program the ice maker or something. And these panels let you set the fridge to “Sabbath mode,” where the light and fan won’t turn on when you open the door.

(“Sabbath mode” is also available on ovens and other appliances.)

Note that, just as it is fine to leave the fire going overnight from Friday to Saturday so long as you don’t mess with it, it’s also fine to leave on an electric appliance. In fact, if the lights happen to be left on when the Sabbath starts, you’re not supposed to turn them off–you have to just leave them, even if you’re trying to sleep and they’re really annoying. Likewise, you are not required to turn off your refrigerator.

(Hey, don’t tell me I’m getting all Talmudic when the question was literally about Jewish law.)

I think you put the stylus in the holes and somehow it dials
I think you put the stylus in the holes and it dials.

Now, some people object that it seems like Jews are “cheating” by finding creative ways to circumvent the law instead of just obeying it. As someone who would never even bother about fridge lights, I don’t see how it’s “cheating” to turn it off by computer instead of unscrewing it. But perhaps more questionable is the old practice of hiring a non-Jew to show up on Saturday morning and make sure the fire is nice and warm or waiting for a neighbor to push the elevator buttons so you don’t have to walk up a bunch of stairs to your apartment. Or this telephone:

But the whole notion that Orthodox Jews aren’t being strict enough because they’ve developed funny work-arounds strikes me as trying to interpret Judaism as though it were a branch of Protestantism. Personally, I think they’re already over-thinking things and really don’t need to be encouraged to be stricter.

My impression of Judaism–and I could be wrong, because I’m mostly going off material on the internet–is that their attitude toward “the law” is quite different from the Christian attitude.

Christian theology teaches that because of Adam and Eve’s “original sin,” all humans are inherently sinful and destined for Hell–except that through Jesus’ sacrifice, they have been redeemed and can go to Heaven. (There are some variations on this throughout the many branches of Christianity, but this is pretty basic.)

Judaism–as far as I can tell–lacks this teaching entirely. Yes, Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and got expelled from the Garden of Eden, but this does not translate into “original sin” inherited by all humans. Humans are not inherently sinful and are not destined for Hell–in fact, Judaism doesn’t really have the concepts of “sin,” “Hell,” or “Heaven.” There is kind of a vague, nebulous belief that there might be an afterlife and something similar to Purgatory for sinners. The have a belief that the “messiah” (or “moshiach”) is going to come someday, but I don’t think they think of him the same way that Christians do.

In short: Christianity teaches that breaking God’s law is sinning and sinning => Hell. Jews don’t believe in sin or Hell, and so do not believe that turning on the lights on Saturday => Hell. Following the law is supposed to make you happy because God made the laws in order to show you the way to a nice life, (hence why it would be really stupid for God to require you to put out your fire and spend Saturday shivering,) but it’s not required.

Again, this is my impression; I am not an expert.

So why even debate matters like whether one is permitted to trap a fly on Saturday? To be honest, I think they enjoy the debate. The same for all of these silly work-arounds: I think they just do it because they find it amusing to think about their laws this way.

(That said, I get the impression that some of the stricter Hasidic sects take a much more hardline view and can be real kill-joys.)

How exactly a sect originally founded on the idea that unlearned peasant piety and mystical connection to God is superior to the Talmudic study of wealthy Jews became so devoted to strict halakhic observance remains a mystery for another day.

An Open Letter to the Jewish People

Guys, we need to have a serious discussion.

You’ve been around my whole life–friends, confidants, you’ve even helped me move–and I’m getting worried for you.

Anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe:

Overall, anti-Semitic violence rose by 40 percent worldwide, according to figures provided by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University. A total of 766 violent incidents were recorded worldwide last year, a “sharp increase” over the 554 tallied in 2013, according to the European Jewish Congress, which contributed to the report.

Black Lives Matter’s anti-Israel position and the increasing expulsion of Jews from SJW-spaces:

Milan Chatterjee, a third-year law student at UCLA, on August 24 informed the school chancellor of his decision to leave the university and finish his UCLA law degree at New York University School of Law. In a letter that was made public earlier today, he alleged that since November 2015 he has been “relentlessly attacked, bullied and harassed by BDS-affiliated organizations and students” and that the harassment had become intolerable.

Anti-Semitism on the rise in the US, especially online harassment from the far-right. (Actually, the far-right exists in Europe, too.)

What’s driving this? Trends normally don’t just come out of nowhere.

Muslim immigration appears to be a major factor in Europe, eg:

A number of studies conducted among the Muslim youth in various western European countries have showed that Muslim children have far more anti-Semitic ideas than Christian children- in 2011 Mark Elchardus, a Belgian sociologist, published a report on Dutch-language elementary schools in Brussels. He found that about 50 percent of Muslim students in second and third grade could be considered anti-Semites, versus 10% of others. In the same year Unther Jikeli published his findings from the 117 interviews he conducted with Muslim male youngsters (average age 19) in Berlin, Paris and London. The majority of the interviewees voiced some, or strong anti-Semitic feelings. They expressed them openly and often aggressively.[47]

A large number of violent antisemitic attacks in Europe were done by Muslims- the murder of 4 Jews in Toulouse in 2012 by Mohammed Merah,[48] the 1982 attack on the Jewish Goldenberg restaurant in Paris that was carried out by Arab terrorists, the kidnapping and murder of the French citizen Ilan Halimi in 2006 by a Muslim gang and the antisemitic riots in Norway in 2009 are a few examples to this phenomenon.[47]

This is not really surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Now, I know many of you have been in favor of helping Syrian refugees, on the grounds that suffering people fleeing from warzones ought to be helped. It’s a kind impulse, a humanitarian impulse. And it’s not in your own best interest.

If you want to help refugees, then help them get to safety in countries that are similar to their own, where they won’t face major linguistic and cultural barriers to starting new lives.

I know more about the American situation because I live here. Most American Jews, whether liberal or conservative, vote Democrat–even though it’s Republicans who are your staunchest allies. I mean look at this:

picture-5

White Evangelicals are the Jews’ biggest fans, and they like Jews better than any other religious group (except themselves.) By contrast, Jews like Evangelicals less than everyone one–even less than Muslims.

Sure, Evangelicals can be kind of loud, they may support Israel because they think it’s somehow going to trigger the apocalypse, and they seem to think that Jews are just Christians who don’t yet believe in Jesus, but they don’t mean you any harm and they’re still trying to be supportive.

I figure this disconnect is largely due to Jews being heavily concentrated in NYC and LA, while Evangelicals are concentrated in the South. NYC and LA are Democratic strongholds where Evangelicals are disliked for their habit of voting Republican, so Jews have picked up this dislike.

But this is not sensible. Just because something earns you social approval in NYC does not mean it is in your own long-term self interest.

You’ve been involved in the Civil Rights movement since its beginning–again, because you believed it was the right thing to do. Tikkun Olam and all that.

Bernie Sanders was volunteering with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and getting arrested in Chicago during a demonstration. Hillary Clinton was a Young Republican and volunteering with Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act.

(For the confused, Bernie Sanders is Jewish.)

And what have you gotten for your trouble?

From NBC News

Let’s check in with Louis Farrakhan:

In Part 2 of his Saviours’ Day address at Mosque Maryam in Chicago, Farrakhan received a standing ovation after telling his audience that “the Satanic Jews that control everything and mostly everybody, if they are your enemy, then you must be somebody.”

Farrakhan says a lot of other, similar things. The “Nation of Islam” is not your friend.

Wikipedia notes:

Black Americans of all education levels are significantly more likely than whites of the same education level to be anti-Semitic. In the 1998 survey, blacks (34%) were nearly four times as likely as whites (9%) to have answers that identified them as being of the most anti-Semitic category (those agreeing with at least 6 of 11 statements that were potentially or clearly antisemitic). Among blacks with no college education, 43% responded as the most anti-Semitic group (vs. 18% for the general population). This percentage fell to 27% among blacks with some college education, and 18% among blacks with a four-year college degree (vs. 5% for the general population).[83]

Modern liberals see themselves as a coalition fighting for the rights of non-whites (“PoC”) against white oppression (structural racism.) While Jews are perfectly well aware that they have suffered from racism in white countries, PoC logic dictates that Jews are “white” and Palestinians are “brown,” and therefore Jews are white supremacist oppressors of non-whites.

Did you know that a majority of whites haven’t voted for the Democrats, in a presidential election, since 1964? American politics, viewed from the outside, is pretty darn racial: blacks and Hispanics vote overwhelmingly Democrat (For example, 90% of blacks voted for Gore; 62% of Hispanics and 55% of Asians voted for Gore. By contrast, 55% of whites voted for Bush II.)

To skip forward to the current election, (which, to be frank, is no longer interesting,) of the three major candidates, Sanders is explicitly Jewish; Trump has an Orthodox Jewish daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren; and Clinton’s daughter married a Jew, but does not appear to have converted and her grandchildren therefore aren’t Jewish under Jewish law.

Say what you will for the man, but I don’t think Trump hates his own grandchildren.

One of the weirder parts of this election has been people accusing the candidate with more Jewish family members of saying anti-Semitic things about the one with fewer Jewish family members–as though anti-Semitism were some kind of selling point with the Republican base! (No, that’s Hillary’s base.)

The media, in particular, has been actively pushing the whole “Trump is literally Hitler!” rhetoric for a long while.

Now, you might be saying, “Hey! We aren’t the entire media!”

Yes, I know. But you are visibly over-represented in the media, and many Jewish media folks have been vocally anti-Trump. Fair or not, being a small minority always means that people will be judging you.

To be explicit: You look like you are actively siding with non-whites (who hate you) against whites. With Muslims (who hate you) against the Evangelicals (who like you.) With internationalists (like Hillary) against nationalists who want to promote American interests.

And on top of that, you are super-successful, dominating Ivy League admissions and high-paying professions, way more than your % of the population, (while at the same time claiming that white over-representation in various areas is due to “white privilege.”) You write things like this:

White people need to open ourselves up to a particular type of wounding to genuinely understand and then work toward racial justice. Our comfort and privilege generally keeps us from incurring these wounds naturally, and thus they must be sought out, disseminated, and used to motivate action.

From the outside, this looks really weird.

And this is why the far-right thinks you are doing it on purpose to destroy white America.

Let’s show a little common sense. Stop working against your own long-term interests. Step away from divisive politics. Being simultaneously high-profile and opposed to the interests of the biggest groups in the country is a good way to get the majority of people mad at you. Stop supporting people who don’t support you.  Shame and ostracize Jews who make the rest of you look bad. Figure out who your friends are and be loyal to them.

Do science. Live well. Build civilization with me.

 

Oh, everyone, I know this goes without saying, but please be polite in the comments. Comments that impede discussion will be deleted.

Sticky Brains and Forgiveness

(Warning: this post is based on personal, entirely anecdotal observations of other humans.)

I interact, on a fairly regular basis, with people from a wide range of backgounds: folks who’ve spent decades living on the streets; emotionally disabled folks and folks who were emotionally traumatized but recovered; working, middle, and upper class folks.

“Functionality” may not be the easiest term to define, but you know it when you see it: people who manage to pick up the pieces when bad shit happens and continue on with their lives. Non-functionality does not automatically make you poor, (nor does functionality make you rich,) but it is often a major contributing factor.

I’m not going to claim that we all go through equal amounts of trauma; certainly some of us, like infants who were dropped on their heads, have truly shitty lives. Still, almost all of us endure at least some trauma, and there is great variation in our responses to the tragedies we endure.

Among the people I know personally, I’ve noticed that the less-functional tend to have “sticky brains.” When trauma happens, they gloom onto it and get stuck. Years, sometimes decades later, you hear these people still talking about things other people did to them.

For example: two people I know (we’ll call them Foxtrot and Golf, following my alias convention,) had rough childhoods.  Foxtrot is still quite bitter over things that happened over 50 years ago, committed by relatives who are long dead. He’s is also bitter about things that happened recently; I often hear about very minor conflicts that normal people would just be angry about for a day or two that Foxtrot is still losing sleep over a month later. Unsurprisingly, he is an unstable emotional wreck with no job, a string of divorces, and virtually no contact with his family.

Golf’s childhood was, by all objective measures, far worse than Foxtrot’s. But Golf doesn’t talk much about his childhood and is today a functional person. When bad things happen to Golf, he deals with them, he might get angry, and then he finishes with them and puts them aside. He has his bad spells–times when things are going badly and he gets really depressed. He also has his good times. But he has managed to keep himself together well enough, even through these bad times, to stay married and employed (to the same person and at the same job, for decades,) is in contact with most of his family, and enjoys a decent reputation in the community.

The homeless people I interact with also have “sticky brains.” When bad things happen to them (and, yes, being homeless is like a permanent bad thing happening to you,) they get really focused on that bad thing. For example, one homeless woman I know has worried for decades about a possible indiscretion she might have committed back in highschool–it is a very minor thing of less importance than copying a few answers on a math test, but she is still worried that she is a cheater and dishonest member of society. Another is fixated on a bad interaction with an aid worker that happened over a year ago. Most people would say, “yeah, that guy was a jerk,” and then stop worrying about it after a week or so; in this case, the hurt is reviewed and re-felt almost every day.

And, of course, I have many personal friends who’ve endured or dealt with traumas in their own more or less useful ways. (Not to mention the various ups and downs of my own life.)

Because trauma is common–some, like the death of a loved one, strike almost everyone who makes it to adulthood–societies tend to adopt guidelines for trauma response, such as a funeral for the dead followed by a six-month mourning period for widows, official days of mourning or remembrance for people who died in wars, therapy and anti-depressants, confession and forgiveness, head-hunting (among head-hunters), or sympathy cards among the less violently inclined. My own family has a tradition of visiting the graveyard where many of our older relatives are buried once a year and cleaning the gravestones. (The children have a tradition of pretending to be zombies.)

Anthropologists like to call these things “rituals” and “customs.” Different societies have different customs, but all of the ones listed exist for the purpose of helping people cope with trauma and grief. (Or at least, that’s what the head-hunters claimed.)

Watching people attempt to cope with life has made me appreciate (most of) these customs. “Six months of mourning,” may seem arbitrary, but it is also pretty useful: it dictates that yes, it is very normal to feel terrible for a while and everyone will be understanding of that, but now the time has passed and it is time to get on with life.

Christianity and Judaism (and probably other religions) command forgiveness:

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. — Leviticus 19: 18

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? “Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” — Matthew 18: 21-22

This is ostensibly for practical reasons:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. — Matthew 6:14-15

On Yom Kippur, Jews observe a tradition of forgiving others and asking forgiveness for themselves. (It is not surprising that forgiveness should be handled similarly in two religions that share much of their scriptures; Christianity seems to differ primarily in making the institution of forgiveness a more personal matter rather than an annual ritual.)

I’m pretty sure forgiveness is a big deal in Buddhism, as well, but I don’t know much about Hinduism and other belief systems, so I can’t comment on them.

But why should God require forgiveness? It seems rather unfair to say to someone who was raped as a child and has done nothing worse than tell a few lies in their life, “If you don’t forgive your rapist, God won’t forgive you for lying.”

But this assumes that forgiveness exists for the forgiven. In some cases, of course, it does. But forgiveness also serves a function for the forgiver. I shall leave the concept of spiritual purity to the spiritual; as a practical matter, forgiveness allows the hurt party to stop focusing on their pain and resume life. Most people do this fairly naturally, but some of us need a bit of encouragement–and perhaps ritual focus and faith–to heal.

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. — Matthew 5: 3-12

I don’t think the point of this is that it is morally superior to be insulted or hurt or poor, but reassure and comfort those who have been.

Judaism as Memetic Model

Judaism is a useful ethno-religion for modeling mitochondrial/viral meme interactions because it is relatively small.

Depending on which study you read, the US has between 4 and 6 million Jews, neatly split into four main groups:

"Jewish Denominational Affiliation" graphic courtesy Pew Research Center.
Jewish Denominational Affiliation” graphic courtesy Pew Research Center.

A bit confusingly, Orthodox are the most conservative and Conservatives are more moderate. Reforms are liberal, and “No denomination” is mostly atheists who are, of course, the most liberal.

Orthodox have a TFR (total fertility rate, or children per woman,) of 4.1.

Conservatives have a TFR of 1.8.

Reform have a TFR of 1.7.

Atheist Jews have a TFR of 1.5. (source)

(Here I have to stop and point out an error in the source, which claims that “TFR”=total number of children per adult, when TFR is defined as childen per woman. The US TFR of 2.2 means the average woman has 2.2 kids, not that the average woman has 4.4 kids.)

Back to our data. We can see immediately that only Orthodox Jews have a TFR above replacement (approximately 2.) Let’s run through the numbers, just for fun (using a compromise starting number of 5 million total Jews):

Generation 1: 500,000 Orthodox Jews; 900,000 Conservative Jews; 1.75 million Reform Jews; and 1.5 million atheist Jews.

Generation 2: 1,010,000 Orthodox; 810,000 Conservative; 1.488 million Reform; and 1.125 million atheist Jews.

If this trend continued, by Generation 5 we’d have: 8.8 million Orthodox; 530,000 Conservative; 776,000 Reform; and 356,000 atheist. From 10% Orthodox to 84% in just a century; from 30% to 3% atheist.

In reality, though, this doesn’t happen, because many of the children of Orthodox Jews don’t stay Orthodox: “Fewer than half of Jews raised in Orthodox homes have remained Orthodox, with more than 20 percent leaving the religion altogether.”

But this finding requires a caveat, the authors are quick to add: those who left Orthodoxy in droves came of age in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The 1980s and 1990s have been a lot kinder to the Orthodox denomination; fully 83 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox.

!! If that doesn’t look like the less-devout boiling off, leaving a more genetically-inclined-to-Orthodoxy core, I don’t know what does.

Among Jews who were raised Conservative, the number who have left Jewish observance rises to 30 percent; among Jews raised Reform, 35 percent.

Notice that no one talks about Reform Jews becoming Orthodox, because very few do. Orthodox Jews may know how to have children, but their beliefs are simply unattractive to anyone who isn’t raised Orthodox. By contrast, Reform Jews can’t replenish themselves, but their ideas are attractive to non-Reform Jews.

In other words, Orthodoxy is mitochondrial; Reform and atheist Judaism are viral.

Here’s a graph for you:

Denominational switching among Jewish Americans, courtesy of the Pew Research Center
Denominational switching among Jewish Americans, courtesy of the Pew Research Center

I love a good graph.

Okay. So let’s recalculate Generation 2:

1,010,000 Orthodox => 48% O, 15%C, 11% R, and 26% A (as a practical matter, “no denomination” is pretty darn close to atheist,) or 485,000 O; 152,ooo C; 111,000 R; and 263,000 A +

810,000 Conservative => 4% O, 36% C, 30% R, 30% A, or 32,000 O; 292,000 C; 243,000 R; 243,000 A.

1.488 million Reform => 1% O, 6% C, 55% R, 37% A, or 15,000 O; 89,000 C; 818,000 R; 551,000 A.

and 1.125 million atheist Jews => mostly atheists.

For a total of 532,000 O; 533,000 C; 1,172,000 R; 2,182,000 A.  In case you’ve forgotten, Gen 1 had:

500,000 O; 900,000 C; 1,750,000 R; and 1,500,000 A.

The numbers aren’t extreme (which makes sense, since the average TFR is close to 2,) but notably, even though 52% of Orthodox children elected to go be something else, Orthodox is the only Jewish denomination that actually managed to grow. Conservative and Reform numbers, despite influxes from Orthodox Judaism, (and, for Reform, from Conservatives,) fell. Atheist Jews, of course, had a significant rise.

Carry on this pattern for several generations, and you get a Judaism that is increasingly split between Orthodox on one hand and atheism on the other.

Now suppose that the more recently observed trend of younger people staying Orthodox at higher rates than previous generations holds true, and the future looks even grimmer for the Conservatives. I’m not going to work out the math, because you can probably estimate for yourself what an 83% retention rate combined with a 4.1 TFR looks like–a very Orthodox Judaism. And very atheist.

I suspect that Christianity (at least white, American Christianity; Ugandan Christianity is totally beyond my knowledge zone,)  is following a similar pattern, with a large increase in atheists on the one hand, massive losses from the moderate center, and the most conservative elements almost hanging on:

I wanted a graph that went back further in time, but this is what I found.
Courtesy of Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape

I suspect that the “unaffiliateds” include both atheists and people who believe in god or spirituality in some sort of vague way, but not enough to actually attend a real church.

These drops are just over the past 7 years; looking further back, in 1948, nearly 70% of Christians described themselves as “Protestants” (including both mainline and Evangelicals;) today, that’s dropped to 38%. (I think Black Protestant churches and the Mormons are doing fine, however.)

I don’t want to get into the details of the changing Christian landscape, because that’s way too much to cover in the tail end of a post, but the pattern looks very similar, especially the precipitous drop in the Catholics and Mainline Protestants (the Christian moderates and liberals.) Evangelical Protestants don’t have the birth rates of Orthodox Jews, otherwise they’d probably be doing a little better.

Moldbug proposed that Reform Judaism is Judaism infected with the Progressive virus, where Progressivism itself is a viral form of Mainline Protestant (ie Puritan) Christianity that has shed its specifically theistic aspects in order to compete in our officially a-religious political sphere.

But how much could just be convergent memetic evolution, given an identical meme-vironment?

Why is Star Wars more popular than God?

I’m not a Star Wars fan.

I don’t hate it; I don’t love it. I’m normally quite agnostic on the subject.

I don’t begrudge people having favorite movies; I have favorite movies. I don’t begrudge them sharing their favorites with their kids (though it will be quite a few years before my kids appreciate any of the movies that I like,) nor do I look askance at movie-themed products (those Frozen-middle grade novels strike me as a cute idea.)

But when I see moms dressing their infants in Darth Vader onesies, I think society has gotten really, really weird.

Target is filled with mountain of Star Wars crap, much of it regular products with a Star Wars logo slapped on. Fuzzy infant socks with a tiny picture of Yoda’s head on the side; beer holders and bouncy balls and ugly sweaters.

I’m not judging the sweaters; they’re advertised as “ugly sweaters.” (Why would anyone purposefully spend money on an “ugly sweater”?)

I can’t get to the diaper section without feeling like my soul is being crushed beneath the mountains of useless crap produced solely so we can buy it, wrap it up, and exchange it for someone else’s box of worthless crap in imitation of ritual.

And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:30 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom.31 And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.32 And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?

33 And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.

34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

At least you can eat lentils. How much have we sacrificed for this pile of crap?

70% of American adults claim to be “Christians;” that drops to only 56% among “Young Millenials” (folks 19-25 years old.) But parents are disproportionately religious, which probably explains why, according to le Wik, “62 percent of children say religion is important to them, 26 percent say it’s somewhat important, and 13 percent say it’s not important.”

Interestingly, on a related note:

From Faith in the Family: How belief passes from one generation to the next
From Faith in the Family: How belief passes from one generation to the next

According to Vern Bengston’s research, Jews and Mormons are particularly good at passing on their religious beliefs to their children. He credits this to these religions’ intergenerational focus and household rituals. Part of it is probably also the fact that these religions are still focused on having children, and religion is pointless without children. If you’re looking for a religion to raise your kids in and have no particular preference of your own, Mormonism or Judaism might be the ticket.

Bengston also finds that a major influence on a child’s likelihood of adopting their parents’ religion is how good the relationship is between them and their parents, particularly their father:

From Faith and the Family: How religious belief passes from one generation to the next
From Faith and the Family: How belief passes from one generation to the next

If your dad’s a jerk, you’re likely to reject his beliefs. (Does this mean divorce is driving the increase in atheism?)

At any rate, no matter how you slice it, over half of parents–and children–claim to be Christian.

What percent of people are Star Wars fans?

One amusing study found that 4.8% of Alaskans “liked” Star Wars on Facebook. Alaskans appear to be the biggest Star Wars fans, followed by WA, OR, and Utah. Star Wars has the lowest % of likes down in the Deep South. In other words, English and German-descended folks like Star Wars.

I always groan a little when someone produces a map of ethnicity without realizing it.
(I always groan a little when someone produces a map of ethnicity without realizing it:

The "Americans" are mostly Scottish/Irish
Note the very high quantity of English in Utah and Maine, vs their relative absence in the Deep South [highly black] and MA/RI/Conn/NJ [Irish, Italians.])
A Facebook Poll asked people to list their favorite books; while Harry Potter came in first, 7.2% of people listed the Bible.

Obviously this is not a good way of comparing affection for Star Wars to affection to the Bible, but having interacted with people, 7% feels rather close to the actual percentage of real Christians.

There’s always a chicken and egg dynamic to marketing and advertising. How much of the crush of Star Wars merchandise is driven by actual demand, and how much is everyone just buying Star Wars crap because there happens to be an enormous pile of it?

There’s another thing that makes me uncomfortable: this notion that Star Wars somehow reflects my culture. Or as an acquaintance claimed this morning, “The Big Bang Theory.” For the sake of this post, dear readers, I have ventured into the nether reaches of YouTube and watched The Big Bang Theory highlight reels (I can’t seem to find any full episodes; probably a copyright thing.)

The Big Bang Theory is not my culture. (You may have noticed a distinct lack of Batman jokes on this blog.) Neither is Star Wars. Yes, some nerds like Star Wars, but we are not the people who motivated Target to stock enormous piles of Star Wars merchandise. I have nothing personal against these franchises, but I recoil against the claim that they have anything to do with my culture.

At any rate, no one is stopping you from buying a Veggie Tales DVD (Amazon has a ton of Veggie Tales free for instant streaming if you have Prime membership; there are also a bunch on Netflix,) or Queen Esther action figure, Bible Heroes trading cards or Anarchy in the Monarchy card game–no, wait, the last one is just funny, not religious.

I’ve never understood why, but the average “Christian” parent won’t buy any of that. Perhaps their kids just don’t want religious toys (though I would have loved ’em.) Perhaps my Christian friend was telling the honest truth when they said, “No one likes a Jesus freak.” Maybe most “Christians” are less devout than I am (which is really saying something, since I’m an atheist.) Maybe the folks who decide which products will be carried at major stores aren’t interested in religiously-oriented items, and everyone else just goes along, sheep-like, with whatever they see. I don’t really know.

But if you care about passing on your faith, consider abandoning the materialistic deluge and spend some quality time with your kids instead. Even if you don’t care about faith, I still recommend that. If you don’t have kids, substitute the loved ones you have. They’re worth a lot more than a Yoda-shaped mug.

Judeo Ethnogenesis

Ethnogenesis, as the name implies, is the process whereby a new ethnic group is created. An ethnicity is more or less a group with a shared culture, belief in common ancestry, and that preferentially marries within itself rather than outside of itself. Over time, this creates a group that is ethnically distinct from its neighbors, even under conditions of close proximity.

The Amish, for example, after splitting off from the Swiss in the 1600s over religious differences (remember, religion is ethnicity,) arrived in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s, so we may mark Amish ethnogenesis around the mid 1600s or early 1700s People today make fun of Ben Franklin for complaining that the German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania were problematic and not integrating with the rest of the population, but you know, the Amish still haven’t integrated. They still speak German, follow their own religion and traditions, and don’t inter-marry with the rest of the Pennsylvania population, such that they are quite ethnically distinct, at least on a genetic level.

The Hui of China are another example; they were not really considered an ethnic group before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China circa 1949. The Chinese decided to just lump all of their Muslim minorities–some of them quite distinct–under one term. (Historically, the term “Hui” also referred to Christians and Jews and was just a general catch-all.) Hui now marry other Hui preferentially enough that the Wikipedia page goes into detail on known cases of inter-marriage with the Han, but a fellow Hui from across the country may be regarded as just another Hui, and so a preferred partner.

Anyway, so that got me thinking about the establishment of Israel. Normally when I think of Jews, I am actually thinking of Askenzim, and you probably are, too. But Israel is actually 61% Mizrahi Jews–Jews from predominantly Muslim countries.

You know the general story: Once upon a time, all of the Jews lived in Israel. These people were probably pretty similar, ethnically, to the Palestinians, assuming the Palestinians are anything like the region’s residents 2000 years ago, and don’t have a massive influx of Turkish DNA or something like that.

Then the Jews got conquered and scattered to the winds. Most famously after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, but also during the Babylonian  and Assyrian eras, etc. Anyway, for the past 2000+ years or so, there have been significant Jewish communities in a lot of places that aren’t Israel, eg:

Uzbeki Jews
Uzbeki Jews
Chinese Jews
Chinese Jews
Ethiopian Jews
Ethiopian Jews
Cochin Jews
Cochin Jews
Lemba Jews?
Lemba Jews?

Then in the late 1800s, the Jews–mostly Ashkenazim, I think–got sick of this state of affairs and decided to exit Europe and go back to Israel. Unfortunately, they didn’t really succeed until 1948, at which point Jews from all over the world started pouring in.

Since most people are genetically similar to their neighbors, eg the Palestinians and Syrians, or Han and She, I began wondering how similar Jews were to their neighbors of millenia verses their similarity to each other.

Here’s a graph showing major genetic lineages of a bunch of different ethnic groups, including several Jewish ones:

nature09103-f3.2

Broad cultural zones are easily distinguished, like East Asians in yellow, South Asia in greens, Europeans with their large dark blue chunk, Middle Easterners with their big patches of light green and light blue, and the rust-tones in sub-Saharan Africa. This data set is great, because it lets us compare various Jewish groups to their immediate neighbors, eg:

J1

I made a condensed version of the graph that highlights the measured Jewish groups and their neighbors, (sadly, some of the samples are pretty small, making them hard to read):

J1

And an even more condensed version that just compares the Jews to each other:

j2

(Note that the pure green section on the right-hand side is not a Jewish group, but just a chunk of the graph that happened to overlap the text due to the Cochin Jewish section being so small.)

Observations: Most Jewish groups are significantly more similar to their immediate neighbors than they are to other Jewish groups, especially when we look at the furthest-flung folks. Cochin Jews and Ethiopian Jews, for example, show almost no DNA in common (in this graph.)

Given what all Middle Eastern groups look like in the sample, we may speculate that the original Jewish group primarily had a large section of light blue and a slightly smaller section of light green, with probably a smidge of sub-Saharan. Several of the Middle Eastern Jewish groups still have this genetic makeup.

Three Jewish groups show a more European makeup, with a large dark blue chunk characteristic of Europeans and North Africans: the Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Moroccan Jews. They look closest to Cypriots, though I compared them to Spaniards and Tuscans as their nearest neighbors in the graph.

Since the Ashkenazim are estimated to be about half Italian, it’s not surprising that they have about half as much dark blue as the Italians. Even within European groups, while they look fairly similar at this level of resolution, some groups are quite distinct from each other–Italians and Germans, for example, or Brits and Greeks. Geneticists can determine whether your ancestors were Italians or Germans or Greeks just by looking at your DNA, but those kinds of small details don’t really show up all that well on a graph that is trying to show the differences between Sub-Saharan Africanss and Asians. So while Moroccans, Sephardim, and Ashkenazim all look rather similar here, there may be finer grained differences that just don’t show up at this scale.

What’s up with the Moroccan Jews? They do not look like Moroccans; I therefore speculate a more recent migration of Moroccan Jews from somewhere else that’s not Morocco, like Spain.

The Jews who migrated to the East, however, lost a significant portion–almost all–of their light blue component, replacing it with dark green more typical of Indians and other SE Asian populations.

I don’t think this dataset contains Uzbeki Jews (or the Lemba, who are not Jewish enough to be considered Jewish, but still have a few Jewish traditions and folktales and a bit of Jewish ancestry,) which is sad, but I’d wager the Uzbeki Jews look a lot like other Uzbeks.

One of the things I’ve heard often from Jews is that all Jews are Jews, part of one great big Jewish family descended from Abraham (even the atheist ones!) and thus Jews should always try to be kind to each other, all Jews are welcome in Israel, etc. This is a perfectly sensible philosophy when you’re a peasant in Poland and the only foreign Jews you’ve ever met were from Lithuania. But 2000+ years of diaspora have resulted in far flung groups becoming quite ethnically distinct from each other. Like the Amish, isolated groups in Cochin or Ethiopia have become their own ethnies distinct from their ancestors, but unlike the Amish, they have inter-married significantly with the locals. (The Amish do not marry non-Amish.)

The Roman Exile, therefore, should be regarded as a major ethnogenesis event–the beginning of the creation of most current Jewish ethnic groups.

The creation of the state of Israel constitutes a second major ethnogenesis event, a bringing together of these multiple ethnic groups into one population that views itself as one population. I expect a great deal of mixing between these historically distinct groups into a more homogenous whole, (though some groups may not mix terribly well.)

Without Ceremony, Religion is Meaningless… (part 1)

Without ceremony, religion is empty.

Without children, it’s pointless.

Without a strong sense of ethnicity, religious identity disappears.

 

Part 1:

So continuing my reflections on why religious belief has decreased so much in the past few decades:

I theorize–this was originally someone else’s theory, so I can’t take credit for inventing it–that the feeling of the divine presence that people feel at worship or festivals is due to the feedback effects of watching everyone around you experience this at the same time–those “mirror neurons” at work, making you experience inside your head the emotions you’re reading on other people’s faces.

This is the power of crowds–the same power that makes grown men willing to pay actual money to sit in a big stadium and watch other grown ups play a children’s game of keep-away, and feel absolutely exhilarated by the experience instead of mortified. The power that makes peaceful people in big groups suddenly torch cars, or feel suddenly patriotic after singing the Star Spangled Banner together.

Once, totally randomly, I happened to park in the middle of an anti-Fred Phelps rally and had to walk along with it to get wherever I was going. (Probably dinner.)

The rally was fun. There was this great sense of togetherness, this electric excitement running through the crowd. A sense of being united in a common cause, something bigger than oneself.

“This must be why people liked the Nuremberg Rallies so much,” I thought. Only those involved half a million people instead of a few hundred. (As fun as they are, I think I will continue to generally avoid political rallies, because I’m not so keen on thinking other people’s thoughts.)

I have also experienced charismatic religious events, back in the days when I was a religious kid. That was an interesting Episcopal church, I gotta say. Anyway, so you know that thing you do with the laying on of hands and praying for the person in the middle of the hands and then you all feel the Power of God and the person in the middle faints (and maybe is healed or whatever)? Yeah, that is pretty fun, too. I mean, I don’t think it works if you don’t believe it–if you don’t believe in god, you’d probably just stand there feeling very uncomfortable while everyone else around you is falling over or making weird noises. But if you do believe, then you get to partake in the experience with everyone else.

And this is where ritual and ceremony come in. It probably doesn’t particularly matter what kind of ritual you have–you can wave around lulavs and etrogs or dance around the May pole or sing hosannas together–the important thing is that the ritual be meaningful to you and involve other people who also find it meaningful. Then every time you do it, you can access both your previous mental states from the past times you did it, and also the mental states of all the people around you, creating the collective experience of deep religious feeling.

It is no accident that many religions encourage their members to worship and study together, rather than apart. For example, Judaism requires a minyan–a group of ten people–for prayer, worship, reading the Torah, etc. It’s not wrong to do these things alone, it’s just seen as superior to do them together. “It was the firm belief of the sages that wherever ten Israelites are assembled, either for worship or for the study of the Law, the Divine Presence dwells among them.” (From the Wikipedia page.)

From Christianity: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20

I bet other religions have similar calls to group worship, since group worship is a pretty common occurrence. Individuals of great genuine religiosity may be able to function this way, especially if they spend much of their time reading religious literature and praying and the like, but for the average person who isn’t inclined toward reading, this is probably the fast road to atheism. Luckily for Protestantism, the denominations quickly figured out how to have group religious experiences that rival or exceed Catholicism’s in effectiveness.

These days, however, the same intellectual impulse of, “Why do I have to be around other people to be religious? I can be just as religious at home as at church!” is probably leading a great many people to drift away from religion, leading inevitably to non-belief, since the emotions of others were a critical component of faith all along.

(What’s that, you thought you knew more about how religion works than thousands of years of religious tradition? You thought you could defy Gnon with your “logic” and “reason”? Gnon does not care about logic. Defy, and you will be annihilated, whether you like it or not.)

And as the number of atheists grows, even religious people are increasingly surrounded by people who do not believe, and the amount of belief they can access is thus decreasing. We’ve gone from a society where virtually everyone was Christian and religious expression was seen as a totally normal and welcome part of everyday life, to a society where close to half of young people (the people I typically am around,) are openly non-religious and want nothing to do with that (and even many of the people who claim to be religious make no regular signs of it.) This makes it hard to take religious belief seriously, as people increasingly associate genuine belief with low-class out-groups they don’t want to be part of. (Unless you are part of a prole out-group, in which case you’re probably proud of your religion.)

 

(This might make aspie people particularly bad at religion, because they are [speculatively] less capable of using these feedback structures to internally experiencing other people’s emotions.)

Stay tuned for Part 2: Without Children, Religion is Pointless.