Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ghosts, Demons, and Bacteria


Concurrent with the release of the new Ghostbusters movie, somebody asked me about Judaism's position vis-a-vis ghosts. The truth is that the term "ghost" is somewhat vague. The ghosts in Ghostbusters are a mix of the spirits of dead people, demonic entities, and strange slimey things.

In various Jewish texts, the spirits of dead people are described as appearing in terms of gilgulim and dybbuks. Rabbi Reuven Margolies, for example, explains that the reason why a murderous ox is put on a human-like trial is that it houses the reincarnated spirit of a person. Belief in such gilgulim, first discussed in the era of the Geonim, is found with many authorities, though it was also rejected by many others.

(Opponents to the belief in gilgulim include Rav Saadiah Gaon, Emunos v’Dayos 6:8; Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam (see R. Margolies, in his introduction to Milchamos Hashem p. 19 note 11); Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud, in Emunah Ramah 7; Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Avraham Ibn Latif, Rav Poalim, p. 9 section 21; Rav Chasdai Crescas, Ohr Hashem, ma’amar 4, derash 7; Rav Yosef Albo, Sefer HaIkkarim 4:29; and Rav Avraham Bedersi, Ktav Hitnatzlut leRashba. See too Rashash to Bava Metzia 107a. Also see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary to Genesis 50:2. For further discussion, see Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, “Body And Soul: Tehiyyat ha-Metim and Gilgulim in Medieval and Modern Philosophy,” The Torah u-Madda Journal vol. 10, 2001.)

A much later belief is that in dybbuks - malevolent spirits that take over a person's body. One of the most famous such accounts is that of Rav Elchonon Wasserman, who told about an exorcism performed by the Chafetz Chaim. However, in Making Of A Gadol, Rav Nosson Kamenetzky cites various members of the Chafetz Chaim's family who said that the woman concerned was mentally ill, and the Chafetz Chaim was simply catering to her beliefs.

Neither gilguls nor dybbuks are found in classical rabbinic texts such as the Talmud or Midrash. However, there are countless references in these texts to sheidim and mazikin. What are these? In a very strange column published yesterday in Hamodia/ Cross-Currents, Rabbi Avi Shafran quotes the statement of the Talmudic sage Abba Binyamin that "Were the myriad mazikin that constantly surround us visible to us... we would be frozen in terror." Rabbi Shafran adds that "Whether he had in mind the fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses that regularly seek to invade our bodies must remain speculation."

Personally, I think that "wishful thinking" would be a better description than "speculation." It is, frankly, rather odd to posit that Chazal knew about such microscopic phenomena. First of all, considering how many very basic things about the natural world they did not know, such as the sun's path at night, why on earth would they have known about microscopic phenomena? Second, if they did indeed know about bacteria and viruses, then why on earth didn't they issue basic medical advice which would have saved countless lives over history, instead of all kinds of bizarre potions and procedures? Third, let's look at the full statement from the Gemara:
It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see the mazikin, no creature could endure them. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left and ten thousand on his right. Rava says: They are responsible for the crushing in the Kallah lectures, fatigue in the knees, the wearing out of the clothes of the scholars from rubbing against them, and the bruising of the feet. If one wants to discover them, let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock. If one wishes to see them, let him take the afterbirth of a black she-cat which is the offspring of a black she-cat, the firstborn of a firstborn, roast it in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him put some into his eye, and he will see them. Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they should not steal it from him, and let him also close his mouth, so that he should not come to harm. (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 6a-b)
That hardly sounds like a description of fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses!

The mazikin and sheidim of the Gemara are demons. Many rabbinic scholars over the centuries believed in the existence of such entities, in part due to the authority of the Talmud. Others, notably Rambam, dismissed the notion of demons.

There is a comprehensive discussion of all the different rabbinic views on demons in my monograph, Wrestling with Demons: A History of Rabbinic Attitudes to Demons. As I conclude in my study, the mere fact of someone ultimately accepting that demons exist does not at all necessarily mean that he is not a rationalist — it all depends upon the historical context.

The monograph can be downloaded after making a donation via PayPal account or with a credit card. The recommended donation is $5, but if you have gained from the Rationalist Judaism enterprise and would you would like to take this opportunity to express your appreciation with a larger donation, it would be gratefully appreciated! You can make a donation by clicking on the following icon. After the payment, it will automatically take you to a download link for the document.


93 comments:

  1. But Chazal DID offer advice that works well against bacteria. They told us that "evil spirits" are found in bathhouses, and people should wash their hands upon exiting a bathroom. That's still sound advice today. Chazal (or whoever they learned these matters from) made empirical observations about the connection between bathrooms (excrement) and disease, and based on that, made reasonable behavioral recommendations. Their observations were crude by modern standards, and so were their recommendations, and so was their understanding of the mechanism (we know that bacteria are microscopic objects, not spiritual objects). But their basic thought process was valid.

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  2. I read in an article written about Sir Ernst Chain that apparently the anti bacterial properties of earth fungi are known in the days of the Bible, as it is written (somewhere) that if someone died of an infectious disease burying them quickly would stop the spreading of the disease.

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    1. Burrying of an infected body, thus removing it from the immediate environment, would alone stop the spread of airborne and contact infection. No reason for contemporaries to presume anti-bacterial actors they would not be able to perceive.

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  3. If I recall correctly, Sa'adiah Gaon rejects the possibility of gilgulim of human souls into animals, but I think he allows for the possibility of gilgulim of human souls into future humans (reincarnation). I read Emunot v'Deot a long time ago, but I think he says that it's not logical for a human soul to go into an animal's body, because of the lowly spiritual state of the animal. That doesn't preclude being reincarnated in a (new) human being.
    Of course, if someone can quote the relevant section, I will stand corrected.

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    1. The Arabic term he uses is 'tanasukh' which mean re-incarn{meat}. The meaning of גלגולי הנשמות is either transmigration or metempsychosis of souls and not into carnal frames but apparently onto diff ontological planes.
      As far as I know the term 'reincarnation' was made up by the English Theosophists in the middle of the 19th century and is more of a popular belief in Hinduism than a doctrinal matter.
      The interesting point is that before the Ari the concept almost did not exist in Judaism and no one since the Ari has argued or even disputed the point in any any worthwhile manner[as far as I know}.

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    2. I believe the Zohar in Parshat Mishpatim also discusses "gilgulim"--the part known as סבא דמשפטים. (The Sefardim have a minhag of reading it on yahrzeits.)

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    3. אנשים ממי שנקראים יהודים, מצאתים אומרים בהשנות, וקוראים אותו ההעתקה (גלגול נשמות), ועניינו אצלם שרוח ראובן תשוב אל שמעון, ואחר כן בלוי, ואחר כן ביהודה, ויש מהם רבים שאומרים, יש פעמים שתהיה רוח האדם בבהמה, ורוח הבהמה באדם, ודברים רבים מזה השגעון והערבוב"
      (ספר האמונות והדעות מאמר ו' )

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    4. @Yehudah P.: He argues against both possibilities in 6:8

      והנני אומר כי אנשים, ממי שנקראים יהודים, מצאתים מאמינים בגילגול וקורים אותו ההיעתקות, וענינו לדעתם רוח ראובן תהיה בשמעון, ואחר כך בלוי, ואחר כך ביהודה. ומהם או רובם סוברים שיש שתהיה רוח האדם בבהמה ורוח בהמה באדם, ודברים רבים מן ההזיות הללו והבלבולים. .

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    5. @R. Yoel and R. David: Thank you for the citation and link--I see that it's not just on philosophical grounds that Sa'adiah rejects gilgulim, but also on Scriptural ones--as part of polemics against the Karaite movement.

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    6. @Yehuda P. Where do you get the part about polemics?

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    7. @R. David: The notes on the bottom mentioned that Rabbenu Sa'adiah Gaon was countering the "proofs" of Anan Ben David about gilgulei neshamot--he brings a verse, the Karaite interpretation, and then refutes it. (The Karaites were formidable in those times.)

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  4. I find it plausible that Chazal knew what bacteria did without knowing what bacteria was.

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    1. Kind of like dark matter. Astronomers and physicists can all point to what dark matter does because its effects are measurable but they've never actually found dark matter itself.
      In fact, the paragraph from the gemara quotes does mention a lot of natural processes that happen due to microbes in the environment.

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    2. It's possible, but not very plausible. Put it this way - is it plausible that chazal know about a topic and yet somehow it is not mentioned, anywhere, in the massive corpus of rabbinic literature? A topic that has obvious halachic import should be totally ignored, while countless unimportant aspects of life are mentioned? No, it is not.

      Agreed with Rabbi Slifkin. It's just wishful thinking. Some people want to believe that rabbis in Iran in the 4th and 5th century somehow knew about everything that would ever be invented or discovered, but NO ONE ELSE DID. And also, by the way, they never recorded that knowledge, never told it to anyone, and not even then own descendants knew about it, until 1500 years later when complete strangers stumbled onto the secret, and THEN those descendants said "Oh That? My ancestors knew about THAT a long time ago. Why didn't we make any money off of it if we knew about it all along? Well, I guess we SORT of knew about it, but we didn't REALLY know about it...."

      If (e.g.) American Indians today were to claim that their ancestors living on the plains of Oklahoma knew how to (e.g.) pasteurize milk, we would laugh out loud. And if they tried to explain that their traditional methods and family lore was the same thing as pasteurization, we would laugh even harder. We are only able to see how foolish things sound and look when we see them in others.

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    3. MCW, I'm not sure we understand each other. I posit that chazal knew there were unseen forces in the world which are detrimental to a person's well-being. They didn't know what they were, and called them sheidim. Now we know what they are and can take pictures of them with microscopes.

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    4. Kind of like dark matter. Astronomers and physicists can all point to what dark matter does because its effects are measurable but they've never actually found dark matter itself.
      In fact, the paragraph from the gemara quotes does mention a lot of natural processes that happen due to microbes in the environment.


      Not the same. The amount of dark matter can be measured (and confirmed through other measurements), some of its properties discerned, and the theory has been used to make some testable predictions. The parts that we don't know about are "known unknowns". I suppose that there is some analogy possible, but the pre-scientific era simply didn't have the tools to make proper assessments even of what was known and what was unknown.

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    5. JD - It's no big whoop to say chazal "knew there were forces detrimental to a person's well being." Everyone knew that. The claim of the true believers, however, is that chazal knew that there was a microscopic world of organisms, and that certain strains of these organisms (called bacteria) carried something called germs from one person to another. They claim the sages were aware of all of this, and this is what they meant when they spoke of sheidim. That, of course, is ridiculous.

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    6. DF, We agree that claiming Chazal knew the ins and outs of microbiology is ridiculous. I, not being a true believer by your definition, only claim they knew of the effects of microorganisms, but not the details. I do not claim they had a monopoly on this knowledge. To me it is similar to the fact that Chazal 'knew' the universe had a beginning millenia before science acknowledged the same.

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    7. You have raised the bar a tad too high on Sir Garnel's speculation, Mr Ohsie. Of course, the way we theorize about dark matter is different from the way anyone theorized about any phenonenon before science was formalised and specific tools, procedures and research strategies were set up. In this case, though, basic cause-and-effect observation did take place, judging from some of the rules on hygiene, quarantines and such. That, basic cause and effect observations, is as close as you can get to science under the circumstances. Of course, lacking the research tools and the necessary technology, these would easily (and perhaps inevitably) lend themselves to mystical explanations for these practical and at times effective measures. And of course, without a materialist hypothesis to keep the "discipline", the initial practical countermeasures and treatments would become ineffective once they became symbolic or ritual, but that is another matter.

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  5. For years I thought that one of the reasons that the Steinsaltz Gemarot were put in cherem was because they claimed that "shedim" are bacteria (though for the reasons you state above I thought it was more 'silly' than 'heretical'). Yet when I finally got round to checking I couldn't find such a claim in Steinsaltz anywhere. Now it turns out that what used to be considered "heresy" (at least by those who told me that was the reason for the ban on Steinsaltz) has become completely mainstream, to the extent that Avi Shafran says it. Just shows that even Haredi Judaism evolves.

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    1. which is why artscroll succeeded-they lined up haskamot so their break with tradition could be viewed as an intrinsic part of the mesorah process rather than an extrinsic change. Those that want change within orthodoxy should take note.

      KT
      Joel Rich

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    2. coincidence?
      http://www.torahmusings.com/2016/07/jewish-view-ghosts/
      KT
      Joel Rich

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    3. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch's Torah commentary also opines that it is possible mazikin are bacteria.

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  6. Rabbi Shafran's desire to interpret mazikin as bacteria is a good sign, though. It means he doesn't really believe in demons. Incidentally, I was told that one of the old Skokie roshei yeshiva in the 1970s also would translate mazikin as bacteria in his shiur.

    I agree with you, though, that honesty is the best policy (explain to the students that belief in demons was perfectly sensible to even the smartest people in the world in the year 500).

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    1. "Rabbi Shafran's desire to interpret mazikin as bacteria is a good sign, though. It means he doesn't really believe in demons."

      That's an excellent observation!

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    2. Thank you, Rabbi Slifkin. Much appreciated.

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  7. I dont understand why 'rationalist' Jews want to

    1) Reject these other supernatural beings. They already accept one, so what cant there be others ?

    2) It is pretty clear the Talmud, Tenach etc: were referring to supernatural beings and not bacteria and fungi. Why could not the Talmud and Tenach be referring to these supernatural beings ? Can anybody provide an actual Midrash, Pasuk, Gemorah that denies the existence of other supernatural beings ? There are many verses the support their existence.

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    1. Where does the Tanach mention mazikim? It mentions angels here and there- very rarely outside of visions (I can't think of a half-dozen examples tops, and none past Shoftim)- and the occasional ghost (Shmuel comes to mind, but I can't think of any others), but that's it.

      And the Rambam himself denies even these.

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    2. In answer to your first point: The supernatural being that religious Jews accept in God precedes and prescribes the laws of nature. The ones we query here are those that are supposedly part of the fabric of the nature that we experience, created by God, that do not seem to fit our observed understanding of how the world works. Therefore, we question their existence as supernatural, but not simultaneously that of God

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    3. In response to your first point: Religious Rationalist Jews have no intellectual difficulty in accepting God as a supernatural being, as He precedes and prescribes Natural Law. However, the supernatural beings whose existence we contend are those that supposedly exist within the realms of scientific reality, yet whose nature does not fit logically with science. Thus, we can query supernatural beings whilst not having to query God simultaneously. I hope this addresses your question

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    4. 1) Because the rationalist, following from R' Ishmael's rationalism, is to minimize the miraculous and supernatural as much as possible. R' Akiva and his mystical teachings and followers attempted to maximize and multiply the miraculous and supernatural as much as possible. See "Heavenly Torah" by Heschel for further explanation and example.

      2) The Tanach and the Talmud were given to people who did not understand the universe nearly as much as we understand it now. And so it catered to their understanding of the universe without attempting to clarify realities that weren't directly related to religious practice and tradition. It's goals were not to provide ultimate truth, but to guide them in truth and justice on the level they were at. This explains why the Torah can perhaps be seen as a bastion of morality relative to the cultures of the time, but extremely barbaric relative to Western civilization of our time.

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    5. There are numerous verse in the תנך, that support the existence of angels and some that would, at least, strongly indicate that they are continuously existing independent personalities. However, there are precisely no verses that indicate the existence of any other supernatural entities, and certainly not those believed to exist in late-hellenic and Persian culture. Conversely, the תנך relentlessly polemicises against the existence of other supernatural entities widely believed to exist in the ancient Middle East.

      Another reason why 'rationalist' Jews do not believe in the existence of demons is because ....... demons don't exist.

      Hope that helps.

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    6. Parenthetically, one reason why the Torah has no need to say anything about the existence of demons is that the empirical phenomenona which in other cultures were explained by demonology and which we explain through microscopic theory are dealt with in the Torah under the category of Tumah, which is plainly asssumed [for the benefit of the audience, one must add] to be a real (that is to say neither spiritual nor legal) entity.

      In Rabbinic Judaism tumah becomes a purely legal concept, which, of course, lays the door open for demon-theory. One could speculate about which is cart and which is horse.

      From the scientific perspective, I suppose the concept of an impersonal force that emanates from carcasses and the like is more sophisticated than the quasi-anthropomorphism of demon-theory.

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    7. "This explains why the Torah can perhaps be seen as a bastion of morality relative to the cultures of the time, but extremely barbaric relative to Western civilization of our time."

      No offense, but you need to get out more.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wichita_Massacre

      In reality, the Torah seems barbaric from the vantage point of western civilization because western civilization, like all other civilizations, considers itself to be at the summit of human achievement and defines barbarism and civilization in terms of proximity to herself. If the Nazis had won WW2 there would be people tapping away at their computers about how barbaric everyone used to be compared to Aryan civilization.

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    8. There are numerous verse in the תנך, that support the existence of angels and some that would, at least, strongly indicate that they are continuously existing independent personalities. However, there are precisely no verses that indicate the existence of any other supernatural entities

      The Satan?

      Also:

      יִזְבְּחוּ, לַשֵּׁדִים לֹא אֱלֹהַּ- אֱלֹהִים, לֹא יְדָעוּם;חֲדָשִׁים מִקָּרֹב בָּאוּ,לֹא שְׂעָרוּם אֲבֹתֵיכֶם.

      וַיִּזְבְּחוּ אֶת-בְּנֵיהֶם,וְאֶת-בְּנוֹתֵיהֶם לַשֵּׁדִים.

      You could argue these two to be "false demons", but they are there.

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    9. No offense, but you need to get out more.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wichita_Massacre


      Huh?

      In reality, the Torah seems barbaric from the vantage point of western civilization because western civilization, like all other civilizations, considers itself to be at the summit of human achievement and defines barbarism and civilization in terms of proximity to herself. If the Nazis had won WW2 there would be people tapping away at their computers about how barbaric everyone used to be compared to Aryan civilization.

      The mind boggles.

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    10. @ Gavriel So you accept there are at least some mention of other supernatural beings such as angles. “However, there are precisely no verses that indicate the existence of any other supernatural entities,...”
      I beg to differ. Cherubim - Genesis, Azazel most likely a demon - Exodus, many others in Isaiah - Seirim, Lilith etc:, Proverbs - Aluqah (Hebrew for the Arabic demon Aluq). Based ancient near east research, there are many terms in the Tenach that are referring to supernatural beings such as specific demons etc:

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    11. @ Anonymous - you seem to be picking and choosing based on science. But if the Tenach and Talmud both write other supernatural beings exist on what religious basis can you discard what Tenach and Talmud advocate ?

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    12. @ Drosenbach

      “The Tanach and the Talmud were given to people who did not understand the universe nearly as much as we understand it now.”

      AGREED.

      “And so it catered to their understanding of the universe without attempting to clarify realities that weren't directly related to religious practice and tradition.”

      Also, the Torah and Tenach sometimes ‘clarify realities’ that have no relation to religious practice and tradition and sometimes with factual errors.

      “It's goals were not to provide ultimate truth, [says who ?], but to guide them in truth and justice on the level they were at [says who ?]. “

      Provide false information and lousy justice because they just could not handle truth and justice. Or maybe, the Torah was meaning what it wrote.

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    13. "If the Nazis had won WW2 there would be people tapping away at their computers about how barbaric everyone used to be compared to Aryan civilization."

      Exactly right. As in certain Greek societies, compassion would not be seen as a positive, but as a form of weakness. As in Sodom, charity would be perceived [as it is also is in the West, in limited cases] as a vice in itself that rewards indolence. And I need not say that almost all the "values" of the liberal segment of current America would be completely rejected, for obvious reasons.

      The Torah has its own system of morality, and it is not, and has never been, perfectly aligned with the left wing or right wing of any modern country or region. Everyone just cherry picks the concepts he likes.

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    14. Alter Cocker
      Keruvim: Are angels
      Azazel: You are free to believe that this is some sort of demon, but Hazal tell us it is a rocky hillside. This is one of numerous occasions when the "mystical" version of Judaism just so happens to be a smuggled in copy of heterodox views explicitly condemned by Hazal. Rachel Elior is the best reference for this.
      Isaiah: I do not believe that any of these verses indicate the existence of such entities.
      Proverbs: I'll give you that one. It's not pertinent for obvious reasons.

      David Ohsie
      Satan: Is an angel. This is one of the occasions when angels appear as personalities rather than emissaries conjured up for a specific purpose. Such occasions are more frequent the later in the Tanakh you go, which some people might find significant.
      Sheidim: If that is your standard, then we can also say the Tanakh endorses the existence of Ba'al and Molech and Asherah and countless others. Perhaps you are missing the point.

      As for the rest. Every society has a high tolerance for certain forms of violence and low tolerance for other forms of violence based on its dominant ethical codes. As such, other societies that have different standards appear to it to be barbaric. This is almost trivially easy to see if you have the capacity to think historically.

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    15. "Exactly right. As in certain Greek societies, compassion would not be seen as a positive, but as a form of weakness."
      In Plato's Republic, he relates the legend of the Ring of Gyges (there's a Wikipedia article on it)--that would make the wearer invisible. The person who discovers it manages to kill the king and usurp the kingdom.

      Glaucon, who is debating with Socrates, posits that anyone who would have a similar ability to commit any crime and not fear any punishment, would behave exactly the same. Socrates differs and says that such a person would ultimately not be at peace with himself.

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    16. @ Gabriel M - You skipped Lilith, but my claim has been already proven true since you gave me Proverbs ! I can provide you with much evidence for the interpretations I have provided you, and BTW there are other demons mentioned in the Tenach and Talmud. FYI Cherubim - This word is identical to Mesopotamian "Karibu" - a winged monster like a griffin. By the 9th century BC it was a familiar figure in Syro-Palestinian art. To truly understand the Tenach one has to study ancient near east religion and literature as well as other ancient cultures. They explain previously obscure terms or rituals. Cherubim is a case in point.

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    17. Alter Cocker Jewish Atheist
      I thought you meant the Keruvim in Ezekiel. In earlier texts, yes, keruvim are some sort of flying beast. I thought that the the winged bull was the most convincing interpretation, but I can't pretend to have looked into much.

      But why would you think that this is a supernatural creature any more than the unicorn, or dragons, or bigfoot? Same goes for Lilith, by the way.

      So, once again, the Tanakh talks endlessly about the supernatural beings believed in by surrounding cultures. They went by the names of Ba'al, Molech, Asherah etc. The Tanakh's primary message is very clear: don't have anything to do with them whatsoever. It's secondary message is that they don't, in fact, exist. There's definitely a concept of angels that becomes more developed over time, and some allusions here and there to mythical beasts. There are also fragments of older belief systems in which G-d is depicted as flying around on said mythical beasts. What you don't find anywhere is anything even resembling Babylonian demonology or the "Jewish" mystical tradition. It's not hard to understand why: Hazal ruthlessly purged the corpus of sacred texts of those books that endorsed such messages and, by the way, those that had the most developed angelology. (One wonders what Hazal would have done had they been aware that the latter parts of Daniel were not by the same author as the first half, or that the opening passage of Iyov is a later editorial interjection.)

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    18. Gavriel M.: You are cherry picking interpretations that fit your view. For example, when it comes to Azazel, suddenly Chazal become super accurate about superstitious phenoemona. Thus, you are doing to Tanach what Rambam does to the Bavli: rationalizing. You can make the Pesukum fit your view, but you can't use them as independent support. Even monotheism can't be proved from the Pesukim of the Torah.

      Also, I'm not sure why classifying the Satan as an angel helps. You could just as well say that the demons of the Bavli are angels.

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    19. The Torah has its own system of morality, and it is not, and has never been, perfectly aligned with the left wing or right wing of any modern country or region.

      Part of the morality of the Torah seems to be that one should use his own brain and moral conscience to figure out what to do. Hence both Avraham and Moshe arguing with God about the morality of His actions. This makes no senses if morality is just a Chok.

      This notion that there haven't been advances in moral knowledge seems to be a bunch of apologetics. Conquering other countries to take their land, and their people as slaves is understood not to be moral. With better dissemination of information, we have war from the PoV of the direct participants and we have learned from that.

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    20. @ Gavriel M - the list I have given you include 1) non angel supernatural beings and 2) being written up as if they exist. You can deny that all you want, but it is the most likely meaning of the texts.

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    21. @ Gabriel M "It's not hard to understand why: Hazal ruthlessly purged the corpus of sacred texts of those books that endorsed such messages and, by the way, those that had the most developed angelology." Very true for the most part about the Tenach, yet sometimes things were missed and slipped thru. I suspect sometimes the editors did not know what they were reading and left in revealing verses or words.

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    22. @ Gabriel M Here is supernatural being - Resheph was as western semetic supernatural being responsible for Pestilence. In Deut 32:24-23 (and other pasukim) it is reduced to a demon version of an ancient Canaanite god. The Torah threatening Israel with a fictional supernatural being ?

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    23. "Conquering other countries to take their land, and their people as slaves is understood not to be moral."
      True, but Gavriel M.'s statement about what would happen if the Nazis would somehow have won WWII is still relevant. In a short period of time, the Nazis turned the German education system from one of the best into one of the worst, and indoctrinated a whole population that all other peoples are inferior and should be exterminated.

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    24. David Ohsie,

      1) You certainly can prove monotheism from the Tanakh in general and from the Torah in particular. What I presume you mean is that many traces of monlolatrism can also be found, most notably in poetry and in the utterance of certain characters (i.e. Yiftah, which verges even on henotheism)

      2) The early generations of Hazal embarked on an ambitious project to purge the corpus of texts revered by the Jewish people of anything not compatible with strict monotheism. Their two strategies were to ban books outright and to insist on "rationalist" interpretations of troublesome passages. What they would not do was edit books. Thus the decision was eventually made to include Yehezkel, but the public recitation of certain parts was banned etc. etc. This more than accounts for every odd bit that "mystics" can bring out to prove their cause. It's very easy to see what we are not supposed to believe in by reading banned books like Hanoch or Yovlot. Now, of course, you can argue that they were wrong and the Tzedokim were right and Judaism was totally off track until the mystic movement arose to save it, if you wish. Perhaps one day a mystic will be honest enough to say so.

      3) When I say the Satan as depicted in the editorial introduction to Iyov is an angel, I mean he is a character who is part of Hashem's heavenly court. Are you saying that one can plausibly say that Persian demons are part of Hashem's heavenly court? In any case, it is the most obvious thing in the world that late antique Persian demonology is not discussed in any way whatsoever in the Tanakh. What is discussed, over and over and over and over again, is the non-existence of the various entities believed by many to exist at the time.

      4) If someone wants to argue, based on the Tanakh, that we should believe in bull/lions with wings, and crazy four headed creatures then there is something to discuss. But oddly, none of the mystics express any interest in such things.

      5) The logical impossibility of moral progress follows trivially from the proposition that there is no objective moral truth. If you know what objective moral truth is then why are you wasting your time on a blog when you are the greatest philosopher in the history of the world?
      Without any objective standard we can only understand that prevalent moral opinions are the result of contingent historical events that could well have gone the other way. One way out of this is to posit that some providential force arranges history so that the right side always win, thus guiding humanity ever closer to moral truth. Another way out is to say that there is some sort of source of information that we can look at to judge whether changes in moral attitudes represent progress or regress. Like the Torah.

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    25. Alter Cocker. Thank you for the reference to Resheph. Always good to learn something new. I would guess that it's a dead metaphor that by a process of metonymy came to be used as a synonym for "really bad plague". A brief google search tells me that מות and דבר were originally the name of some heathen god things too. So that's two thankyous that I owe you.

      Look, we all know it's not hard to find traces of pagan thought in the Tanakh if you know how to look. Shaul called his own son "Man of Ba'al" for crying out loud. The question is what conclusion an honest person would come to after reading the Tanakh in its entirety. I submit that he would emerge a strict monotheist who thought the burden of proof lies on someone who wants to believe in a supernatural being, and certainly one not mentioned anywhere in the Tanakh. Of course, if you lived in fifth century Bavel then you would think the burden of proof was cleared. Not believing in them would be like not believing in democracy in 2016. Even if you didn't you would probably keep quiet about it.

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    26. "Conquering other countries to take their land, and their people as slaves is understood not to be moral."

      True, but Gavriel M.'s statement about what would happen if the Nazis would somehow have won WWII is still relevant. In a short period of time, the Nazis turned the German education system from one of the best into one of the worst, and indoctrinated a whole population that all other peoples are inferior and should be exterminated.


      I'm not saying that moral regression is impossible. But it is not just that "justice is the will of the stronger". The Nazis had to hide what they were doing from the population (who can still be blamed, as Primo Levi points out, for averting their eyes so as not to find out). The Nazi vision was to kill "mental defectives", but they had to stop that when their plan was found out.

      What is going on here is apologetics. Just like the Charedim can't admit that the Zionists could have a good idea of their own (political Zionism) or that Modern medicine can tell them that Metzitzah BePeh is a bad idea, (or to go the other way, some MO have a hard time believing that you if you want to become a Torah expert, you need to dedicate most of your life to it) so too some of our co-religionists can't admit that humanity's rejection of slavery could be a good thing since it doesn't appear have a direct Torah source. Instead it must be that is all just subjectively considered good because some group won a war (I guess the US civil war would have to be it).

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    27. 1) You certainly can prove monotheism from the Tanakh in general and from the Torah in particular. What I presume you mean is that many traces of monlolatrism can also be found, most notably in poetry and in the utterance of certain characters (i.e. Yiftah, which verges even on henotheism)

      Thanks for teaching me that word. Yes, I'm saying that the Torah part of Tanakh (at least) can be interpreted as monolatrism and many/most parts come out much better that way. I'm not saying that is how we should interpret it; I'm saying that going back to the raw Tanakh to prove that your interpretation is correct is false. If you take the monolatrism approach, then the Seirim mean actual demons.

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    28. @AlterCockerJewishAtheist: I am not saying that therefore supernatural beings other than God do not exist. The point you tried to make was that in questioning the existence of supernatural beings, which a Rationalist approach demands, we automatically have to question the existence of God. I demonstrated to you that that is incorrect.

      The Religious Rationalist point of view understands that God does not divert from the Laws of Nature unless there is a very good reason. As such, we need to flag up all mentions of supernatural beings in the literature (post-creation) and ascertain whether or not the sources are indeed discussing things that lie outside of the realms of scientific observation. However, this questioning does not mean that we assume them to be non-existent, and therefore we do not need a "religious basis" to discard these sources.

      I hope this is clear

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    29. 5) The logical impossibility of moral progress follows trivially from the proposition that there is no objective moral truth.

      There a lot of falsehood to unpack there, so I'll pick out just element. Let's assume that robbery and theft in the general sense is immoral and must be prevented via punishment, while non-robbers/thieves must not be falsely punished either by accident or intentionally. These principles can be true because we all agree to them or because God has commanded them or whatever your source of morality is. I assume that you would agree that trial by jury is a lot more moral than trial by fire, because there we can do some test to determine which type of trial is more effective to achieve or agreed moral goal. Thus, when we switch from trial by fire to trial by jury we make moral progress.

      More on you other assertions when I get some more time...

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    30. David Ohsie.

      "Let's assume that...."

      Well, sure, if you can assume that vaguely defined terms are immoral/moral then it is easy to identify moral progress. Yeesh.

      Anyway.

      1) Your Nazi example is spectacularly inapt. All it shows is that in the early years of Nazi rule (and there were only early years) the German middle classes, upon whom Nazi rule in its early period relied, retained beliefs characteristic of the old moral order. The normal process of moral change is that committed minorities with access to power do things that the vast majority of people do not want or have no interest in and then set about indoctrinating the next generation to regard this as a triumph of good over evil. What's perennially interesting is that they are usually successful even when by any intelligible utilitarian standard their changes have made things worse and, often, even according to their own subjective moral standards they have made things worse. I realise that its hard to see how this applies to your own civilization, but, surely, a moderately well read person should be able to come up with hundreds of examples from others.



      2) Slavery. Here's Oscar Wilde.

      "Slavery was put down in America, not in consequence of any action on the part of the slaves, or even any express desire on their part that they should be free. It was put down entirely through the grossly illegal conduct of certain agitators in Boston and elsewhere, who were not slaves themselves, nor owners of slaves, nor had anything to do with the question really. It was, undoubtedly, the Abolitionists who set the torch alight, who began the whole thing. And it is curious to note that from the slaves themselves they received, not merely very little assistance, but hardly any sympathy even; and when at the close of the war the slaves found themselves free, found themselves indeed so absolutely free that they were free to starve, many of them bitterly regretted the new state of things."

      Shocking, no? And yet this was the mainstream view both inside and outside America until the American progressive movement won the right not just to write America's history books, but everyone else's too.

      More broadly, slavery as an economic institution is either favoured by the economic conditions that exist or not. If it is not, it withers away. If it is, then no good has ever come from people (even people who weren't whackjobs like John Brown) trying to abolish it. In our age, there is almost no area of economic activity in which slavery can compete in a competitive market, so there is not much to talk about. What remains is slavery as a social institution. Aristotle (who of course wasn't as enlightened as Lil Wayne, or whoever we learn morals from nowadays) provides the most concise description of a natural slave. The question that follows is: do such people exist? Well, as it happens I know one. He is personable enough, but for some reason he can't stick a job even when people go to great lengths to provide one for him, or live within his means, whatever they are. He has burned through a quantity of other people's money that makes the eyes water and yet he has spent the better part of his adult life living in flats with no plumbing and, occasionally, on the street. And he's just the tip of the iceberg, after all he's not a recidivist methhead, or a members of the CRIPS and I'm pretty sure he's not one of the people in this video

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qZ009qBug0

      Or am I writing that just to wind you up?

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    31. 3) Regarding the Tanakh. There are hundreds of passages that explicitly teach monotheism and not one passage that explicitly teaches monolatry. I find it hard to accept that you are not simply being facetious for some reason or other. Of course, se'irim in that context means some sort of jinn. Whoever alleged that people sacrificed their child to their pet goat? But how on earth does it follow that these creatures actually exist? Who has ever read Devarim with any concentration and come out with the conclusion that Ba'al and Molech exist? (One might ask, in our generation, who has read Devarim with concentration full stop).

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    32. "Let's assume that...."

      Well, sure, if you can assume that vaguely defined terms are immoral/moral then it is easy to identify moral progress. Yeesh.


      That's one of your weakest replies ever. I don't know is vague about "thieves should punished, but non-thieves should not". But it matters not a whit: X is good; not X is bad by however you define your morality. You can get better or worse at how to achieve X and avoid not X. Jury trials and crime are an example. Thus moral progress is possible, in part, because all human action depends on complex non-moral phenomena which can be gradually better understood.

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    33. Slavery. Here's Oscar Wilde.

      [...]

      Shocking, no?


      You've got to be kidding me. You know that his the whole premise of his argument is that the working poor are like slaves and that socialism is the answer for both, right? He is lamenting that working poor are co-opted by the capitalist system. He is not decrying the "illegal conduct of agitators"; he endorsing them and comparing them to labor agitators who (in his opinion) are trying to put the workers on the path to uprising against capitalism. Here is the intro that you left out from your quotation:

      "However, the explanation is not really difficult to find [why the
      law-abiding working poor cooperate with the capitalist system]. It is
      simply this. Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and
      exercise such a paralyzing effect over the nature of men, that no
      class is ever really conscious of its own suffering. They have to
      be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve
      them. What is said by great employers of labor against agitators
      is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering,
      meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of
      the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That
      is the reason why agitators are so abundantly necessary. Without
      them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards
      civilization.
      "

      BTW, I disagree with everything that he says about socialism. I also disagree with his rhetorical premise (which was probably not all that serious to begin with) that the potential for slave uprising was not a huge factor in US slavery. The laws against educating slaves and manumission were precisely to combat the threat of slave uprising in parts of the south where the enslaved percentage of the population was high. Either way, his view on slavery is 180 degrees from yours.

      But we can leave it here: If people think that the American enslavement of African-Americans was a good thing, then they should agree with your view of morality. The other 99.9% of the world can agree with my view.

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    34. Gabriel M - I have not weighed in on the Monotheism vs Monolatry debate here - it was not my fight. Some Academic scholars do see monolatry in the Tenach and certainly amongst the ancient Israelites.
      There are pasukim that could well indicate there were other gods. (Side note: Other pasukim were likely edited to make them read as if monotheism.). Examples. Genesis 1:26, and 11:7; Exodus 15:2, 11 . Even the shema may really mean the ‘Lord’ is the one for YOU, as opposed to being ‘the only one;’ or ‘unity’. The 10 commandments - have no other gods before/beside me. This could well mean there are other gods, but the Israelites may not have any ahead of or above the ‘Lord’. P.S. I am aware of the traditional interpretations, but the weak ‘monotheistic’ language, peshat, plus indications of the existence of other supernatural beings should give monotheistic claimers pause. There just too many examples like this found in the Tenach.

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    35. @ Gabriel M - Follow up to my July 27, 2016 comment. Recall the Pentateuch writes G-d chose the Israelites as his own, will be the god of the Israelites and the land of Israel, and by implication not the god of other people and other countries. Do you really think the intention was to imply those other gods of other countries invalid ? That those people will have no real god at all and be absolutely godless ? Nor does it seem the intention was that all the other countries and peoples should adopt G-d as their own. Not sure G-d even gave them that option. It rather seems the Pentateuch intent was about how much more powerful the Israelite G-d is over those other countries gods, not that those other gods have no power at all.

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    36. David Ohsie, do you genuinely not understand that if you assume your conclusion as your premise, then your argument is null, or are you playing around?

      Regarding Oscar Wilde, I quoted him because it is not possible to quote whole books and he writes well. Are you seriously unaware that this used to be the mainstream consensus among historians everywhere outside the Yankee states, regardless of what moral spin or implications they drew from it? What new evidence was found to change this view? Did someone discover that around a quarter of all slaves did not starve to death? Did they discover hitherto unknown slave rebellions in which the slaves rose up to greet their northern liberators? Did they discover that the survivors did not mostly continue working at the same jobs in the same conditions as before, albeit in a wrecked economy? Did they discover Did they discover that the abolitionists were well balanced men who did not think it justified to murder and drag a country into destructive civil war in the name of their eccentric religious views?

      Or did Woodrow Wilson and FDR win two wars?

      I never said, nor do I believe, that "the American enslavement of African Americans was a good thing". First of all, I do not believe the existence of America full stop is a good thing. Secondly, to query whether it is right to back up run over someone in reverse, is not the same as to defend running over them the first time. Thirdly, I can state unambiguously that if the English settlers had picked their own damn cotton, then there would hardly be one inch of the world today that would not be a better place.

      Anyway, here's a video about people in Liberia who eat people for your delectation so to speak. "Western Civilization" i.e. American-democracy is one thing when introduced into countries that have already achieved capitalist economic growth and have a strong tradition of civilized governance and the rule of law that they gained under pre-democratic moral orders. The decay is slow, the signs of it can be explained away. It's only when you introduce it into virgin territory that its full potential is unmasked.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRuSS0iiFyo

      Alter Cocker
      "could well", "might", "likely edited". And yet there are thousands of pesukim that explicitly teach the contrary. Once again, I do not disagree that the Tanakh contains remnants of non-monotheist views, which certainly existed and which it was one of the great task of the prophets to expunge. I deny that any reasonable person could believe that any book of the Tanakh teaches monolatry.

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    37. David Ohsie, do you genuinely not understand that if you assume your conclusion as your premise, then your argument is null, or are you playing around?

      Sorry, I assume no conclusion. But let me make it explicit:

      1) Either there is no knowable morality at all or there is a knowable morality. (No assumption)

      2) If there is none, then not wearing Techelis is not a sin. So I assume you don't hold that part and we can stop here. (Follows from #1)

      3) Assuming there is a knowable morality: X is good; not X is bad by however you define your morality (Objective, subjective, Utlilitarian, God-given, whatever Gavriel M. holds, etc). You can get better or worse at how to achieve X and avoid not X. Jury trials and crime are an example. Thus moral progress is possible, in part, because all human action depends on complex non-moral phenomena which can be gradually better understood. (Follows from #2).

      If you stopped at #2, please let me know and we can explore that path.

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    38. Regarding Oscar Wilde, I quoted him because it is not possible to quote whole books and he writes well.

      So you quote something which goes against your own thesis because it is elegant? Is that like looking for a lost item under the lightpost because that is where the light is?

      The rest of your argument is, frankly, unhinged. I say that we made moral progress when we stopped going to war other countries to take their people as slaves, and your counter is that this is false, because the world would be better off if there never had been an African slave trade, and not only that, but after American slavery was ended, Blacks continued to be badly mistreated until the end of Jim Crow at least, and finally no bloody civil war to begin with would have been needed without American slavery. It appears to me that every single line there supports my assertion.

      Oh, and you know someone who has trouble holding down a job. Quite convincing.

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    39. @ Gabriel M - Can you provide a few pasukim in the Pentateuch that explicitly and unambiguously teach Monotheism. Thanks.

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    40. @ Gabriel M

      Here are a couple of Chumush pasukim seemingly advocating monotheism. Interestingly they are in Devarim which is widely held to be a later written text.

      Deut 32:39 - Maybe advocates monotheism. Can mean there is no god with the Lord.

      Deut 4:35 is probably the strongest monotheistic phrase. Could it mean there is no other god associated with the Lord or no other god can compete with the Lord ?

      I don’t deny eventually the Jews accept monotheism. I am arguing the Pentateuch could be giving conflicting messages.

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    41. Alter Cocker, I agree. Monotheism is more explicit in the Devarim than in the other books of the Humash and more explicit still in the prophets. However, the Humash is authoritative on all legal issues when they appear to clash. This is one of the central issues around which Moreh Nevukhim orbits, but it is not an insoluble problem. It might be insoluble for many Jews who think you don't need to learn the rest of the Tanakh.

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    42. David Ohsie,

      Moral progress is possible if you can identify what is morally good. The question is whether we can identify what is morally good and if so, how. I advance only the following propositions.

      1) Every civilization in history has declared itself to be morally superior to all others preceding it, with the caveat that many looked back to some semi-mythical perfect age which they claimed to be aiming to re-implement.

      2) This claim of moral superiority/progress has always been accepted by the vast majority of members of these civlizations. People who argued, contrary-wise, that their civilization was bad compared to those of the past were regarded as freaks.

      3) Of all the ethical and political views held by great thinkers over the course of history, perhaps 1% fall within the margins of respectability today. It's of course, possible that the 99% were just wrong, but then to know this you would have to have read them open to the possibility that they were right. Without evidence to the contrary, if someone has views that fall within the allowed range today, the assumption is that they are simply regurgitating the propaganda of their civilization.

      Slavery: if you can justify invading a country and killing 600,000 people in order to free some slaves, many of whom did not want to be freed, and a quarter of which then starved to death (not because they were "mistreated" but because they had no job) and claim that as progress (or "necessary"), then you can pretty much justify anything.

      The Jewish response to the situation as it existed in 1860 is perfectly clear and obvious: reform the existing system so that it better reflects the moral standards of the Torah law. This would not have involved killing 600,000 people or starving to death a million more, but you think it to be abhorrent because, to be frank, your moral views have nothing to do with the Torah whatsoever.

      The modern viewpoint of slavery is to judge the system by its abuses, on which basis we could condemn any system that has ever existed or could exist; to compare the condition of a slave labourer in 1860 with a free labourer in 2016, when it would make far more sense to extrapolate from the improvement in the condition of the average free-labourer to the potential improvement in the lot of the average slave; and, with no regard for history or logic, to conceive of slavery as an isolated evil rather than as part of a large continuum of hierarchical relationships which involve some part of the labour of one person being owned by another. There have been no shortage of people who have advocated abolishing wage-labour, debt and taxation* and some of them have been no less willing to indiscriminately slaughter than the Yankees, but they didn't conquer the world, so their opinions don't matter. Not so long ago, however, some of them came fairly close, and it's quite instructive to read some 1980s Soviet literature, both for its realistic picture of steadily improving conditions and for its carefully nuanced accounts of Communism's rise to global power.

      Or let's put it another way. Amongst our prophets we find page after page of the most searing moral invective ever written, no stone is left unturned to upbraid the people for their shortcomings. It is literally painful, for one who is reading them with any attention, to process such sheer negativity, and yet not one could simply find the time to write "abolish slavery". Maybe you know something they didn't, but maybe they knew something you don't.

      * We may add that under the hegemony of Yankee civilization the latter two have exploded beyond what almost anyone in past ages could ever have predicted, but it's probably a co-incidence.

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    43. Parenthetically, and I am perhaps being foolish in being goaded here, the person who I am talking about has destroyed the lives of a number of people, as well as his own. The Torah has a very simple solution: since he can not look after himself, he should be looked after by others and, in return, works for them. We can only imagine the possibilities, given the resources available today, if a modern day Bet Din were to devote itself to the task of organising a non-profit organisation to exercise personal government over those who drown under the impersonal form. Perhaps you do not know any such people, but before you so smugly sneer at the very suggestion, you should take stock of the fact that you are asserting that your wisdom not only vastly surpasses mine (which is fair enough), and not only the vast majority of philosophers who have dealt with the subject, but, in fact, the creator of the universe (and that's the charitable interpretation). I beseech you to consider the possibility that you may be mistaken.

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    44. Parenthetically, and I am perhaps being foolish in being goaded here, the person who I am talking about has destroyed the lives of a number of people, as well as his own. The Torah has a very simple solution: since he can not look after himself, he should be looked after by others and, in return, works for them.

      Is that how you think that slavery works? They one people invades another, psychologically evaluates the captive population, and enslaves those who would benefit while letting the others go?

      BTW, this Sanhedrin of yours is amazing if it can detect beforehand those who would destroy the lives of others before those others who know him/her can detect it. It's like a department of pre-crime on steroids.

      I don't accept your premise that there are a class of people running around free who could benefit from being slaves, but even if you could find such people, that still doesn't mean that it is a good idea. Giving the power to some people to declare others unfit is a slope more slippery than a World Cup downhill course.

      Perhaps you do not know any such people, but before you so smugly sneer at the very suggestion, you should take stock of the fact that you are asserting that your wisdom not only vastly surpasses mine (which is fair enough), and not only the vast majority of philosophers who have dealt with the subject

      Which philosophers it is a good idea to be invading another country to take their people as slaves?


      , but, in fact, the creator of the universe (and that's the charitable interpretation). I beseech you to consider the possibility that you may be mistaken.

      This is your real argument and it is a good question for a religious Jew to ponder. My tentative thought (not original) is that God gave us a system that would enable us to evolve our morality rather than imposing perfection as an unkeepable system. Kedoshim Tihiyu.

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    45. Moral progress is possible if you can identify what is morally good. The question is whether we can identify what is morally good and if so, how. I advance only the following propositions.

      Sorry, you are evading the question again. If there is any moral good that can ever be identified, then we can improve it's implementation. If not, then there is no morality to speak of. Choose your poison. Again, I bring the practical example of universally moral principles (and if there are any, you would imagine these are them): stop people from killing and stealing from one another, punish the evildoers, while not punishing the innocent. You can get better at that. But pick your own. If you can't, then there is no morality (an arguable position) and you lose that way too...

      1) Every civilization in history has declared itself to be morally superior to all others preceding it, with the caveat that many looked back to some semi-mythical perfect age which they claimed to be aiming to re-implement.

      Not true at all. The Germans do regret the holocaust, Americans slavery and Jim Crow, etc. But what of it?

      2) This claim of moral superiority/progress has always been accepted by the vast majority of members of these civlizations. People who argued, contrary-wise, that their civilization was bad compared to those of the past were regarded as freaks.

      Again, not true. I don't regard you as a freak; just mistaken. Again, what of it?


      3) Of all the ethical and political views held by great thinkers over the course of history, perhaps 1% fall within the margins of respectability today. It's of course, possible that the 99% were just wrong, but then to know this you would have to have read them open to the possibility that they were right. Without evidence to the contrary, if someone has views that fall within the allowed range today, the assumption is that they are simply regurgitating the propaganda of their civilization.

      Of all the views about medicine and physics help by great thinkers over the course of history, perhaps 1% was true.

      Anyhow I dispute your assertions. Some things were right and some were wrong. What is true is that if someone from the past was transported to the present and stubbornly held all of their views from the past, they would appear foolish, but that is true of all areas of knowledge. If Newton came back and derided quantum theory, he would appear foolish. Presumably he would accept that advances were made.

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    46. Slavery: if you can justify invading a country and killing 600,000 people in order to free some slaves, many of whom did not want to be freed, and a quarter of which then starved to death (not because they were "mistreated" but because they had no job) and claim that as progress (or "necessary"), then you can pretty much justify anything.

      (BTW, the number I saw when looking at your claims and what I found was a little different: "After combing through obscure records, newspapers and journals Downs believes that about a quarter of the four million freed slaves either died or suffered from illness between 1862 and 1870.")

      We an argue the morality of the US Civil War (sorry, do you call it the War of Northern Aggression?), but in what possible way does that support your thesis? Slavery was abolished in the British Empire without a Civil War and the slave trade was abolished in the US as soon as the US constitution allowed it. Moreover, it was slavery that caused the war in the first place; no slavery, no war. It also takes two to tango; had the southern states simply remained in the union, it is probably that their rights to own slaves would have dwindled down to an eventual nothing as the free states gained more and more political power over the slave states, but they chose to fight to try to retain the institution permanently.

      So it is completely consistent to oppose slavery 100% and speculate about other courses of action that both Lincoln and the Confederacy could have taken.

      "with no regard for history or logic, to conceive of slavery as an isolated evil rather than as part of a large continuum of hierarchical relationships which involve some part of the labour of one person being owned by another."

      No one is arguing that throughout history, the stronger did not oppress the weaker. What is argued is that we should oppose this. Why should the fact that something was once common make it a good idea? You might as well argue the benefits of Anti-Semitism with this kind of argument.

      There have been no shortage of people who have advocated abolishing wage-labour, debt and taxation* and some of them have been no less willing to indiscriminately slaughter than the Yankees, but they didn't conquer the world, so their opinions don't matter. Not so long ago, however, some of them came fairly close, and it's quite instructive to read some 1980s Soviet literature, both for its realistic picture of steadily improving conditions and for its carefully nuanced accounts of Communism's rise to global power.

      You've gone off the deep end now. You have no shortage people peddling bad ideas. We don't endorse them because the ideas were terrible. Their opinions don't matter because they were proven wrong in an involuntary experiment with millions of peoples lives over many years. Even the strong supporters of Communism were deflated after Khrushchev revealed the horrors of Stalinism.

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    47. Alter Cocker, I agree. Monotheism is more explicit in the Devarim than in the other books of the Humash and more explicit still in the prophets. However, the Humash is authoritative on all legal issues when they appear to clash. This is one of the central issues around which Moreh Nevukhim orbits, but it is not an insoluble problem. It might be insoluble for many Jews who think you don't need to learn the rest of the Tanakh.

      Don't know where you are going here. Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim admits going against even the plain meaning of the bulk of the Pesukim when it conflicts with his philosophical positions. Which is exactly what we all do with Monotheism: we believe it and interpret the Pesukim accordingly. As you are doing with Demons: you believe they don't exist and interpret accordingly. FWIW, I agree, but the Pesukim are not what compel it.

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    48. "Not true at all. The Germans do regret the holocaust, Americans slavery and Jim Crow, etc. But what of it?"

      Umm, in case you didn't notice, the Germans lost the war, the south lost the war and the south lost the battle to maintain segregation.

      "Anyhow I dispute your assertions. Some things were right and some were wrong. What is true is that if someone from the past was transported to the present and stubbornly held all of their views from the past, they would appear foolish, but that is true of all areas of knowledge. If Newton came back and derided quantum theory, he would appear foolish. Presumably he would accept that advances were made."

      So moral progress works like scientific progress. Let's do an experiment then. Let's take a random thing and then have a debate about whether to change it. Let's then record all the predictions of the pro-change party and all the predictions of the anti-change party. If the former prove to be correct, then we can agree that moral progress has been; if the latter prove correct, then we can agree that moral regress has been made and we'll undo the change. Right?

      Except in just as many cases, the precise opposite happens. The predictions of the anti-change camp prove to be entirely correct, but no-one bothers to read what the losers said and the change is endorsed by the majority as good.

      "No one is arguing that throughout history, the stronger did not oppress the weaker. What is argued is that we should oppose this. Why should the fact that something was once common make it a good idea? You might as well argue the benefits of Anti-Semitism with this kind of argument."

      I would argue the benefits of anti-semitism based on its merits. Slavery in the Torah is a social system designed to deal with the problem of debtors and thieves. The modern west has its own systems: the welfare state and prison. The flaws in these systems are so obvious that they hardly need rehearsing. I'm sure you have an argument for why they are better than the Torah's solutions that doesn't involve bald assertion.


      "You've gone off the deep end now. You have no shortage people peddling bad ideas. We don't endorse them because the ideas were terrible. Their opinions don't matter because they were proven wrong in an involuntary experiment with millions of peoples lives over many years. Even the strong supporters of Communism were deflated after Khrushchev revealed the horrors of Stalinism."

      First, "deflated" is such a vague term that I cant be bothered to argue, but I'm pretty sure that what you mean is false.

      Secondly, half the world has been thrown into chaos by attempting to implement democracy. The most contorted explanations for why country after country goes down the toilet after having American morality imposed upon it are refined and re-refined whilst the Occam's razor suggestion (democracy is a bad idea) is studiously avoided like the plague. The Soviet system was relatively weak in that Soviet subjects could find outside sources of information that contradicted the official world view. The west does not have its own west, thus returning the historical situation to something more like the norm.

      "Don't know where you are going here."
      I was loosely paraphrasing Leo Strauss; xxxii in the ChicagoU edition.

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    49. P.S. I didn't read your first comment before that reply. If you want to have a serious discussion about this, then we should check first that you actually have some clarity about how the institution of slavery functions in the Torah. A Jew becomes a slave either because he sells himself or because he is sold by a Beit Din to pay a debt that he cannot pay, or to pay off a robbery he cannot pay. The system of freeing a slave after seven years unless he opts to stay is a refinement designed to sift out people who should not be slaves. (Of course the slave may make the wrong choice, in which case he'll most likely be back).

      The case of a non-Jew is a different matter. It's certainly illegal both for a Jew and non-Jew to kidnap someone and make him a slave. There's a a sort of heter for wartime that seems to be implicit and I'm genuinely unclear as to what the halacha is here. Since a milhemet reshut requires circumstances that are hard to practically envisage, it's more or less moot. The normal way a non-Jew would become a slave therefore is the same as the way a Jew would become a slave. He sells himself. Of course, from then on, the laws of a Jew and non-Jew sharply diverge.

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    50. I know the difference between and Eved Ivri and Eved K'naani. The former is more like an indentured servant. But the latter implies that regular old slavery was also recognized by the Torah. From M"T Avadim 9:4:

      מלך עכו"ם שעשה מלחמה והביא שביה ומכרה וכן אם הרשה לכל מי שירצה שילך ויגנוב מאומה שהיא עושה עמו מלחמה שיביא וימכור לעצמו וכן אם היו דיניו שכל מי שלא יתן המס ימכר או מי שעשה כך וכך או לא יעשה ימכר הרי דיניו דין ועבד הנלקח בדינין אלו הרי הוא כעבד כנעני לכל דבר:

      Slavery in the Torah is a social system designed to deal with the problem of debtors and thieves. The modern west has its own systems: the welfare state and prison. The flaws in these systems are so obvious that they hardly need rehearsing. I'm sure you have an argument for why they are better than the Torah's solutions that doesn't involve bald assertion.

      I didn't claim anything about the Torah's solutions or the solutions in the US, but according the Ran and others, the Torah's criminal system was not intended to act on it's own as the requirements for criminal liability are too strict (e.g. acceptance of a warning) and the punishments are often insufficient (paying back twice the theft). While modern criminal punishment is far from perfect, there is nothing in the Torah that prevents the authorities responsible for making the system practical from adopting modern innovations. I presume that DNA evidence, for example, would be admissible in place of witnesses in any practical system of criminal justice, and that monetary punishment might be augmented by jail in some circumstances (hopefully better run that those in the US).

      Anyhow, I think that our premises and fact bases are simply too far apart for profitable discussion. If you think that the government of the Soviet Union was even close in quality and/or morality to that of any Western democracy then we are just too far apart to have a useful conversation.

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    51. Close in outcome? Not yet. Close in morality? Absolutely. In the grand scheme of things, indistinguishable would perhaps be a better word.

      http://www2.law.ucla.edu/volokh/blog/baldwin.pdf

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  8. Actually Rambam did believe in sheidim but he did not believe that they are supernatural beings. Rather they are humanoids who lack a tzelem Elokim and thus are capable of doing great damage (Guide, 1:7). Perhapos they are what we call psychopaths. A psychopath lacks a conscience and his orbital cortex. thought to play a role in regulating our emotions and impulses as well as morality and aggression, has reduced activity.

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    1. He is talking about regular people, not star-trek "humanoids". They did not utilize perfect their intellects which is what distinguishes humans from animals. Instead they used their intelligence to do evil. This is an example of Rambam rationalizing the Gemera:

      For those gifts of intelligence and judgment with which he has been endowed for the purpose of acquiring perfection, but which he has failed to apply to their proper aim, are used by him for wicked and mischievous ends; he begets evil things, as though he merely resembled man, or simulated his outward appearance. Such was the condition of those sons of Adam who preceded Seth. In reference to this subject the Midrash says: "During the 130 years when Adam was under rebuke he begat spirits," i.e., demons; when, however, he was again restored to divine favour "he begat in his likeness, in his form."

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    2. @ David Ohsie - you are speaking truth. Schroeder in his Science of God argues Rambam was intending Neanderthals !. In December 2013 I wrote an entire post explaining how Schroeder misconstrues Rambam.

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  9. >> it all depends upon the historical context.

    Now take our context, in 5776. We know, or should know, that the Torah consists of sources, E, J, REJ, H, Dtn, D, P, R. In view of that, one can not possibly say one is a rationalist Jew if one bases oneself on the first Mishna of Pirkei Avot. A rationalist would accept the sources, study them, and accept some, rejects others, and be neutral or ambivalent about some.

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  10. I would like to know what Rationalist Judaism's approach to unnecessary remakes of classic movies just to give them better specialist effects, make them more politically correct and use more swears words, is?

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  11. To summarize what others are pointing out here: Chazal (and other ancients) made many accurate observations about biology, but their theories were almost entirely incorrect because did not know about the microscopic world. So when Chazal say that food left uncovered may be poisonous, except that "old" wine is safe to drink, and dried out foods are safe, they are largely correct. But their theory that snake poison was at the root of this was incorrect.

    So I would say that when Chazal speak of demons, in some cases they are really talking about mental illness (e.g. the case of a person forced by demons to eat Matza who does not fulfill his obligation because he is considered a Shoteh). That doesn't mean that by the word "demons" they intended mental illness; what it means is that when they spoke of demons (in that case) we know today that this mental illness and not a literal external demon that caused the compulsive/deranged eating of Matza. Same for those cases of demons that can be explained by microscopic pathogens: they were referring to hard to explain phenomena that they thought were caused by demons, but we now know to be caused by pathogens.

    This has implications on the question of whether practices whose reasons are no longer valid should be disregarded. Tosafos say that since snakes are not longer commonly found, we don't have to worry about practices to protect against "snake" poison, but we know that they were incorrect in that and continue to cover (and now refrigerate) our food to prevent food poisoning. The same applies to hand washing. Dor Revii makes a similar point.

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    1. David Ohsie, I agree that some incorrect theorizing by the sages was occasioned by real phenomenon. Today we would call some of these phenomena (sub)microscopic, i.e., virii, bacteria, and fungi - as in food spoilage and disease; others would be strange men or psychopaths, i.e. dwellers of ruins and night lurkers. However the cited passage of Rava in Berachot 6a doesn't lend itself to such interpretation. It appears to be a desire to attribute any undesirable or untoward thing to "mazikin" rather than 'natural' phenomena such as the wearing out of clothes due to repeated washings. Perhaps he was alluding to the verse, "Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell these 40 years", i.e., if we were worthy none of this would happen to us.
      I also agree that various takkanot and halachot of the sages may reflect real concerns, even if the rationale given is invalid. Thus, food spoilage is an issue even when there are no poisonous snakes in the environment. However, Rabbenu Tam appears to have freed us from the takkana of Gilui (prohibition of certain liquids from Gentiles attributed to their possible exposure to snake venom) based on the acceptance of his view (no snakes - no problem) over many generations. While the takkana may have fallen into disuse, the concern about food spoilage is real. Prepared foods should only be bought from reliable vendors whether Jew or Gentile, and FDA admonitions should be heeded.

      Y. Aharon

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    2. However the cited passage of Rava in Berachot 6a doesn't lend itself to such interpretation. It appears to be a desire to attribute any undesirable or untoward thing to "mazikin" rather than 'natural' phenomena such as the wearing out of clothes due to repeated washings.

      How is that different? They are giving incorrect theories for various bad things that happen. Why clothes wear out really isn't explainable without resorting to microscopic phenomena. The ancient philosophers might have said that it was because everything in this world is compound and subject to degeneration as the parts separate. Neither is correct.

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    3. David Ohsie, clothes don't normally wear out due to microbes. Abrasion is the usual culprit. Rather than abrasion from invisible agents (mazikin), it should be attributed to normal wear and tear on the fabric and the abrasion from beating the clothes during traditional washing. The crowding in the Kallah lectures is also a normal phenomenon. Apparently, Rava assumed that faces in the crowd that he didn't recognize were really Shaidim - as opposed to people who only came to such events. Pain in the knees and feet are simply joint pains which can be blamed on gravity rather than mazikin.

      Y. Aharon

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    4. David Ohsie, clothes don't normally wear out due to microbes. Abrasion is the usual culprit.

      But the abrasion itself happens at a level undetectable to the eye. You could see it if you could see things that small, but you can't. So if you are sophisticated, the wearing out of clothes is a bit of a mystery.

      The crushing is probably result of crowd behavior which is not well understood; even in modern times people are occasionally crushed by spontaneous or triggered stampedes.

      Pain is obviously not just gravity; it involves issues totally unknown to them and are not well understood enough even today to actually fix the problem in many cases in humans.

      The mistake that you are making is that you know that various sciences can deal with these phenomena or if they can't, they are obviously all derivable in principle from fundamental physics. So it is obvious to you that no additional explanation is needed beyond those, even when you don't know the explanation. They were not in the same position.

      So you can take three attitudes:

      1) Most people: never really thought about it.
      2) Modern: I know that eventually stuff derived from physics can explain it.
      3) Ancients who thought about it: The world is really puzzling if you think about it. There must be some hidden causes out there influencing things.

      That is not to absolve completely those who went after demonic explanations. Even in the ancient world, there were those who refused to speculate like that and tried to limit their theories to some extent, like Anaxagoras.

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    5. David Ohsie, I don't accept your rationale for Rava's dicta. Wearing out of clothes would be seen even by the ancients as a natural phenomenon. Beating fabric repeatedly during washing does damage to individual strands which can be seen if one looks closely. Ultimately, the damage becomes tears due to fabric weakening, or results in a thinning of the fabric. Crowding during popular assemblies as in the Yarchei Kalah in Bavel is also a natural phenomenon.
      The deliberate avoidance of such explanations appears to me to be an attempt to inculcate the fear of 'mazikin' for which torah study is the antidote. in other words, it's a religio-political statement - not one of fact.

      Y. Aharon

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    6. Beating fabric repeatedly during washing does damage to individual strands which can be seen if one looks closely.

      Even looking closely was difficult in ancient times. Although I suppose that those with myopia could do it. Of course then you have to explain the damage to the individual strands.

      I'll say that I don't know who is right and I don't have a great way to determine this because I'm not familiar with the history of thought in this area.

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  12. Rabbi Gil Student's take on this very matter, published in an article yesterday:

    http://jewinthecity.com/2016/07/what-is-the-jewish-view-on-ghosts/

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  13. Barukh she-kivvanti. For years I've been saying that there are sheidim and that their names are Bacillus, Streptococcus, Spirochete, etc. We rationalists rightly admire Rambam for his bold stand against belief in demons, yet his "enlightened" medical approach was deficient because he had no way of knowing about the invisible-to-the-naked-eye pathogens that do exist.

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  14. I don't think anyone mentioned this above but Rav Ahron Soloveichik long ago suggested that sheidim/mazikin are bacteria. He said it many times and I think it is published in his book, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind. I never found it compelling.

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