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Finding God inhering naturalistically in all things -- a theory usually called panentheism -- is the only adequate religious response to science.
-R. Jeremy Kalmanofsky

Posts Tagged ‘Torah’

Judaism, Neuroscience and the Free Will Hypothesis (Part 1)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 @ 05:03 PM
posted by Roger Price

Forget Moses’s impassioned plea to the Israelites concerning their choices among the many blessings and curses that God reportedly set before them as they were about to cross the Jordan river into their promised land. (See Deut.  11:26-28, 30:15, 19.) Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne claims we have no ability to choose freely among alternatives. According to Coyne, “we couldn’t have had that V8, and Robert Frost couldn’t have taken the other road.” Presumably, the Israelites in the story had not much choice either.

Coyne argues that the free will we sense when we make a decision, the feeling that we are choosing among available alternatives, does not exist. In reality, he contends, our conduct is predetermined by physics. This result follows, he says, because our brains and bodies, the “vehicles that make ‘choices,’ are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by (our) genes and (our) environment.” The decisions we think we make are, in his opinion, merely “the result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another.” read more

When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 2)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 @ 01:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

 

That the age of robots is coming, and soon, seems indisputable.  For some, though, achievements to date in mobility, dexterity and intelligence (discussed in a prior post), may be as unsettling as they are amazing.  Surely future developments will be disruptive and challenging in a wide variety of circumstances, many of which cannot even be anticipated.

How will the Jewish community react when an artificial entity is created that not only looks human, but is thoroughly versed in all things Jewish? Will the Jewdroid’s presence be too much to bear or is Judaism’s tent big enough to hold him too? Shall we reject the Jewdroid whose existence is unprecedented or shall we welcome the stranger? What assumptions and values shall inform us? Let’s look at some objections to a proposed Jewdroid.

The first, and most trivial argument, is that based on appearance: the droid does not “look Jewish.” A similar objection was raised against the Bulbas at William Tenn’s imagined interstellar Neo-Zionist convention. Whether coming from Jews or non-Jews, that line assumes that there is such a thing as a Jewish “look.” Whether there ever was a “look” is doubtful, but today any argument based on a presumed Jewish look involving a distinctive set of physical traits shared by all Jews is not only obnoxious, it is contrary to the evidence of the varieties of contemporary Jewry. In the world in which we live, Jews come in many shades, shapes and sizes, each with a wide range of physical features. Why, there are even Ginger Jews! Looks alone cannot compel a conclusion that our Jewdroid either can or cannot be Jewish. Our droid could come in any hue and be a Jew.  read more

When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 1)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 @ 10:09 AM
posted by Roger Price

 

 

 

Credit: Jewish Museum Berlin

In a short story written expressly for inclusion in a groundbreaking anthology of Jewish science fiction and fantasy, Wandering Stars (Jewish Lights, 1974), the British writer William Tenn imagined a future galaxy populated with Jews who, consistent with their ancestors’ history, traveled far and wide in search of a better life. Among these Jews, or at least creatures who claimed to be Jews, was a certain group of small, brown pillow shaped beings covered with grey spots out of which protruded tentacles. Residents of the fourth planet in the Rigel star system (Rigel being a star in the Orion constellation as seen from Earth), they claimed to be Jewish by descent from a community of Orthodox Jews who lived in and around Paramus, New Jersey. Their non-human appearance was the result, they said, of natural relationships, over time, with the native inhabitants of their new planet. In Tenn’s tale, the Bulbas, as they were known, traveled to Venus in the year 2859 C.E. in order to participate in the First Interstellar Neo-Zionist Convention which was convened for the purpose of discussing a renewed claim to Israel, an area on Earth then free of all Jews. The question presented was whether the Bulbas could be accredited as Jews.

While set some eight centuries in the future, Tenn’s story asked age old questions about the nature of Jewishness. And if the context of the story seems far ahead of our times, the reality is that the pace of discovery regarding potential life on other planets continues to accelerate. After all, the existence of the first exoplanet, that is, a planet that is outside of our solar system and orbits its own host star, was not confirmed until 1995. Today we have identified over 3,300 such planets. The first exoplanet in a habitable zone was not found until 2010. Today we know of at least 49 such planets.  In 2014, the first Earth sized exoplanet in a habitable zone was discovered.  Within the past couple of months, we have found a potentially habitable exoplanet in the star system closest to Earth, that of Proxima Centauri.

At a distance of just over 4.2 light years from Earth, though, Proxima Centauri is still almost 25 trillion miles away. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, traveling over 36,000 miles per hour, would still need over 78,000 years to reach it. Obviously Earth bound readers of this essay will not be alive when the first probe to Proxima Centauri reports its findings. But dramatic advances in technology are raising the issue of Jewishness in yet another context. If the claim of the geographically distant Bulbas, who did not resemble our species in the slightest, was challenging, how will we consider the Jewishness of an android, a robot designed to look like us, and programmed with considerable intelligence, artificial though it may be?  read more

An Ark is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Friday, July 29, 2016 @ 02:07 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Ark Encounter

Ark Encounter is a theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky that invites you to “witness history,” to participate in a “life-sized Noah’s Ark experience” and to “be amazed,” all for the single day price of $40 per adult and $28 for children over 5 years of age. Seniors get a discount. Parking pass not included. Combination rates are available if you also want to go to Ark Encounter’s “sister attraction,” the Creation Museum, just north in Petersburg, Kentucky.

The underlying premise of the Ark Museum is that beside “the Cross, the Ark of Noah is one of the greatest reminders we have of salvation.” The reference, of course, is to the biblical story of a massive, worldwide encompassing flood which destroyed all human and other land based animal life on Earth, save that of a man named Noah, his family and such animals as he was able to collect and maintain on an enormous ship, the Ark, which rode the flooded seas for an extended period. (See generally, Gen. 6:9-9:29.) Ark Encounter considers the story of Noah’s Ark to be “true,” that is, an “historical account recorded for us in the Bible.”

For young earth creationists, like the proponents of Ark Encounter, history dates back to, and only to, about 6000 years ago, when, they believe, God created heaven and earth. Based on the genealogies in Genesis, the flood began when Noah was 600 years old, in the year 1656 AC (After Creation). Following the reckoning of Irish Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th Century as to the date of creation, this equates to 2348 BCE (Before the Common Era). The traditional Jewish calculation of the date of creation is somewhat different, occurring 3761/3760 years before the start of the Common Era, with the flood commencing 1656 years later, or about 2105 BCE. read more

The Myth and Function of the Passover Plagues

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 @ 04:04 PM
posted by Roger Price

Passover is a wonderful holiday. It is a time to gather together with family and friends. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with the millennia old line of the Jewish People. On Passover, we reach back through the mists of time to the myths of our national origin. We seek to find lessons from the distant past which might guide us in our present.

The highlight of the festival is the reading of a story from the Haggadah, literally meaning “the story.” The story tells of the enslavement of ancient Israelites in the land of Egypt and their release from bondage following a series of ten calamities, commonly understood as plagues, which devastated Egypt.  Those plagues, in the order of the story in the Book of Exodus are blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. (See Ex. 7:14-12:30.)

Today that core story, and its centuries of embellishments, is read, sung and discussed throughout the Passover seder (a ritual meal, literally “order”). All along the way we are requested to, challenged to, even required to ask questions, to probe into the meaning of the story. The whole exercise is quite dramatic, sometimes even including costumes and choreography. No wonder Passover is an incredibly popular Jewish holiday, with more Jews participating in a seder than fasting on the traditional holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur.

The Passover story is so powerful that its magic has not been dimmed by the increasing recognition that the premise of the story lacks a solid historical foundation. The Hebrew Bible states that six hundred thousand Israelites males, formerly slaves, along with woman, children and others left Egypt as part of a national exodus. (Ex. 12:37.) According to the traditional timetable, this mass migration occurred near the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, however, that idea has been largely rejected.  read more

Jews, Judaism and Genetically Modified Crops

Sunday, February 28, 2016 @ 10:02 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: USDA

Genetically modified (“GM”) crops are plant products which have been genetically altered for certain traits. Such traits include resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, herbicides and drought, as well as aspects of product quality like improved yield, nutritional value and longer shelf life.  (See here and here.)

The characterization is somewhat of a misnomer. Modification of biological organisms is not a new process. It has been occurring in nature for billions of years. Indeed, the natural selection of some traits over others is the driving force of biological evolution, the process by which a species over time secures a competitive advantage in its environment. Today, though, the label of GM foods is meant to identify those products that have been modified or engineered by human means.

And yet, the intervention of humans in an otherwise natural process is not new either. Humans have been actively engaged in plant breeding for up to ten thousand years. An Assyrian relief, dated to 870 BCE, illustrates pollination of date palms by man.

Similarly, the Torah tells of Jacob manipulating his flocks of goats and lambs so that he would increase his herd with the fittest among them. (See Gen. 30:31-31:13.)That the author ambiguously attributed Jacob’s success to both magical sticks and God’s miraculous power is irrelevant, for present purposes. What is important is that the story is testament to the reality that at least since the text was written some twenty-five centuries ago, humans have recognized the desirability of and have sought to guide the alteration of existing species in ways thought beneficial. This guided intervention has produced a host of useful and now common food products, but it is, or was, slow, unpredictable, unreliable, costly and inefficient. read more

Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai? (Part II)

Sunday, January 4, 2015 @ 02:01 PM
posted by Roger Price

The idea that 3300 years ago, at Sinai, God gave Moses a Torah identical to the Torah we have today is a powerful concept, one that still resonates. But is it probable, even plausible?

Previously, to explore this idea, we have taken the text of the Torah as we have it today and looked at issues of content, language and script. We have already found that the Torah we have not only makes no claim as to its original content, but that internal evidence from the Tanakh strongly suggests that whatever Moses may have written and conveyed at the end of his life was limited in scope. Moreover, external evidence from archeological and other sources indicates that Moses’s sefer haTorah was not written in either the language or the script that a contemporary Torah is. In this post, we look at the transmission of a presumed original Torah, focusing on security for the object and textual variations.

Securing the transmission of the originally inscribed text

Let’s start with the medium of Moses’s inscription of the sefer haTorah that our Torah says Moses wrote just before he died (see Deut. 31:9, 24-26) and the security afforded the resulting work. Our Torah does not say precisely whether Moses chiseled the words into stone, wrote them with a stylus in wet clay or used a quill on parchment or papyrus.  If the entire Torah as we know it was inscribed on stone or clay tablets, there must have been many of them to include almost 80,000 words containing over 300,000 letters. If one or more scrolls were used, the material involved must have been sizable as well. In any event, it is certainly hard to imagine the 120 year old Moses chiseling, pressing or writing that much text as he was about to die.  read more

Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai?

Thursday, December 18, 2014 @ 12:12 PM
posted by Roger Price

The Torah is the foundational text of the Jewish People. Initially, it asserts a pre-history and a purpose of the ancient Judahite kingdom to which contemporary Jews trace their emotional and often actual genetic origin, setting forth the kingdom’s legends and lore, its poetry and prose, its customs and commitments.

But the Torah is more than the purported history contained in it. When its contents were reduced to writing, text trumped tradition as the source of both political and religious authority in the Judahite world. (See generally, Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge 2004) at 91-117.)The result initiated nothing less than a textual revolution.

Moreover, in the words of Israeli writer Amoz Oz and his daughter historian Fania Oz-Sulzberger, a “lineage of literacy” followed.  (See Jews and Words (Yale 2012) at 15.) Transmitted over millennia and eliciting commentary which itself then begot more commentary, the written Torah has bound and continues to bind the Jewish People together over space and across time as they read it, study it, participate in its interpretation and organic growth and act out its lessons. Here, the Torah has served, and continues to serve, as trans-national and trans-generational glue. read more

The Lessons of the Bible Code

Monday, October 6, 2014 @ 03:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

Let’s start at the very beginning. It is, as Oscar Hammerstein once wrote, a very good place to start. Let’s go to the biblical book of Genesis, or, more specifically, to the Hebrew text of it, known as B’reishit, and look at the first four verses.  Let’s start with the first word in the first verse, b’reishit. The last letter of b’reishit is the Hebrew letter tav. Now let’s look for the letter which is fifty letters away from that tav. Let’s repeat that process two more times, each time skipping forty-nine letters and seeking the next letter that is fifty letters away from the one we just found.  If you count carefully, when you reach the third letter in the second word of the fifth verse in B’reishit, the four Hebrew letters you find in this sequence are tav, vav, resh and hey. Together, in that order, they spell Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.

Congratulations! You have just uncovered a hidden Bible code, one formed by an equidistant letter sequence, or ELS. Skeptics can repeat the exercise, and get the same result, as the beginning of the next book in the Hebrew Bible, the book of Exodus, known in Hebrew as Sh’mot.  Find the first tav in the first verse of Sh’mot (it’s at the end of the second word) and the next three letters each 50 letters apart. Again, if you are careful, you should find the sequence tav, vav, resh and hey, or Torah.

Too simple? A mere coincidence, you say? Wait, there’s more. read more

A Nice Jewish Shot: Why Vaccinations are Kosher and Required

Thursday, June 19, 2014 @ 09:06 PM
posted by Roger Price

Let’s face it. Sometimes you can deny certain established scientific truths and it does not make much difference. You can, for instance, believe that the Earth was created about 6,000 years ago and life as we know it will still go on. OK, maybe Jon Stewart and certain professors and pundits will make fun of you, but as the little redhead Annie always reminds us, “the sun’ll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar, that tomorrow there’ll be sun.”

If, however, you deny the safety and efficacy of approved medical vaccinations designed to prevent harmful, debilitating, even deadly diseases, such as polio, measles, hepatitis and tetanus, your belief may well make a great deal of difference to you, your family, your community and, indeed, all of humanity.

And yet, there are those who for a variety of reasons refuse to inoculate themselves or their children, or both, even when established governmental authorities require such action. While it is tempting to stereotype all such persons as undereducated or acting out of ignorance, some are not. Aside from the rare situations based on the medical condition of the child, some people object to a particular vaccine or procedure.  Others have broader religious, philosophical and personal beliefs that militate against inoculations. (See, e.g., here and here.) Some even may be part of an otherwise socially conscious community. read more