A Bloody Ruler

In the lab, bent over graphs in search for some values, I overheard a fascinating conversation from the distance. Actually it was more of a debate than a conversation. It was argumentative, quarrelsome, and at times even violent. Although their actions did not necessarily affirm this, it seemed that both parties were convinced in their righteousness. Moreover, apparently the only reason for their disagreement was for the sake of the truth, which obviously each of them thought was with them.

The interlocutors could not have been more different to each other in appearance. On the one side was a – mostly – smiling old man (though I couldn’t tell whether the smile was genuine or fake), his head bear and bold and a heavy pair of spectacles resting on his nose. In his one hand was a book, to which he kept on referring to make his arguments, whilst his other hand was incessantly being directed towards his long, free-flowing beard, as if receiving from it some mysterious inspiration.

His rival, a young woman, her hair tied up in a neat pony-tail behind her head, was busying herself with a piece of equipment, which seemed to be a telescope directed upwards to the skies, although it was difficult to tell due to the many blood stains that were covering it from all angles. I couldn’t help but notice that the girl did not seem to be bothered by the excess of blood and was just concerned with the set up of the instrument, which she seemed to want to use to win the old man. Could she be used to bloodshed, poor girl? She looked so young, but on her face were deep signs of trauma.

I did not feel bad at all for listening in to the debate, because it seemed to be quite public. Multitudes of people were present, passionately supporting either of the sides, though very few seemed to be interested in what was actually being said. Whilst no words were heard from the interlocutors themselves, which I later found out was due to the fact that they did not speak the same language, it appeared that the very existence of the girl was threatening the old man, to the point where he was actually shivering in fear. But this was a mystery to me, for the man seemed to have a much louder and noisier crowd than the woman who seemed to be content with her equipment and a few bones, although she did have some supporters too.

I instinctively sided with the old man. I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was because of what he was saying, his book, or perhaps because of his smile. To be fair, he was an old and experienced man, and he seemed to have seen a lot and done a lot in his lifetime. It was reasonable to assume that he knew what he was talking about. His followers also seemed to be really devoted to his position, unlike the girl’s supporters who seemed to be just getting on with their lives. Once again I couldn’t tell if this was due to the people’s genuine belief in the correctness of the man’s position, or because of some other unidentifiable reason.

As I was being  drawn to the man’s position more and more and moving away from the girl, the lines and numbers on my graph were becoming blurry. At first I could still make out some rough figures and sketches, but to my horror I realised that increasingly they are fading away completely. The ruler I was holding to help me with the measurements was beginning to bend and the lines drawn using it no longer came out straight, but distorted and curved.

I looked around and realised that all of the followers of the old man were holding these distorted rulers, but I could not understand what use they could possibly have. I looked back to the counter in front of me, and on the paper that until recently contained my graph, letters started to appear. They were not the type of letters I would use in physics to calculate the values of my graph, but letters of a different kind altogether. Instead of the sharp, crisp letters I was used to until now, these letters were quite fuzzy, vague and blurry, which I actually found to be quite exciting, as it gave me lots of flexibility and movement to use them as I pleased.

I turned my attention towards the girl, and I was surprised at her beauty. I did not recall her being as gorgeous when I looked at her earlier. Could she have changed so drastically in such a short period of time? I keep on staring at her and notice that she is growing more and more beautiful with every passing second. I look towards her equipment and notice that the blood has gone from the telescope. It doesn’t take me long to spot them on the bones. Oh my! The bones were covered in blood! There was the old blood from the telescope, but plenty of fresh blood, flowing all over. Wherever there was a bone, there was blood and it would not seem to stop. I could not figure out where the blood was coming from.

My ruler is still in my hand, bent and twisted as it is, but I feel movement on it. Someone is playing around with my ruler, tugging it and pulling it in different directions. I lower my eyes to see what is going on, and I see the letters – the ones which I so loved, the fluffy and fuzzy ones – grabbing hold of my ruler to bend it and twist it even more. “Stop!” I shout out to them, “Is my ruler not twisted enough? Why are you making it worse?”

“My Son,” I hear the old man’s voice coming in my direction, “They are not distorting your ruler, but making it straight!”

I calm down. I am not entirely convinced, but there isn’t much I could do about it anyway. The girl catches my attention again. There she is, beautiful as never before, but she is not satisfied. I watch her as she keeps on discarding her possessions, one by one. Often she would work on something for a long time, only to discard it later in favour of something new. I couldn’t wrap my head around this strange behaviour, but I noticed that it is when she throws something out that her face grows more beautiful and fresh. The more she discards, the more the glow on her face brightens.

The old man and his followers also seem to notice the girls behaviour, but they take it as a failure of her’s, not noticing the glow it adds to her features. They derisively point their fingers at the discarded items as if saying, ‘look what a failure you are; you can’t even keep your possessions for more than a while!’ I look at the old man’s book, and indeed, it is really old. He does not seem to suffer from the girls problem, but on the other hand, neither is his face glowing as is the girl’s.

The story with the blood still mystifies me and I am determined to find out what’s their source. It does not take me long to make the shocking discovery: it is the rulers that we are holding that are shedding the blood! I am absolutely in shock. My ruler! My beloved ruler, the one who in the past has helped me draw graphs and geometric shapes has now become a murderer?! What have the letters done to it?

Realising what I’ve done, I run over to the girl. I kiss her, embrace her and help her wipe off the blood. As I apologise to her and pledge to be with her from now on, I can see movement on my counter once again. I watch in ecstasy as my graph comes back and my ruler straightens out. I ask the girl if I can offer her any help. She tells me that she is looking for a string. With combined effort it doesn’t take long to find it and as we emerge with the string in our hands, we realise that the old man and his group had vanished, disappeared forever.


Why, as an Atheist, I Am a Karaite

People have long come to terms with atheist Jews. But how about an atheistic Judaism? Well surely that must be oxymoronic. Judaism without God, many would argue, is like Christianity without Jesus or physics without Newton. Atheist Jews can celebrate aspects of Judaism for sure, but no way can they claim that their beliefs and practices are in any way authentic expressions of Judaism. Or Can they not?

This view is not one held only by theistic Jews. Actually many atheist Jews would nod in agreement. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, goes as far as claiming that “atheist Jew” is an oxymoron and refers to himself as an “ex-Jew” having abandoned Judaism for atheism. In a lecture for the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle and FreeThought Arizona titled ‘I’m an Atheist and So Are You’ (which can be found here) he strongly expresses his view that Judaism is nothing but a religion based on beliefs of which belief in God has a central and essential place.

But I beg to differ. As an atheist Jew who is very much in love with Judaism, I do not see any conflict whatsoever between my disbelief in God and my belief in Judaism. Am I deluded? I don’t think so. To see why, we need some historical knowledge of the origins of our people, the ancient Israelites, and a careful reading of scripture.

Let us start off by exploring the relationship between the Hebrew Bible – the Tanach – and Judaism. But wait a minute; isn’t Judaism the religion of the Hebrew Bible? Well, surprise, it isn’t! In fact, the Jewish religion has very little to do with the Hebrew Bible. The Tanach is not to the Jewish religion what the New Testament is to Christianity and what the Quran is to Islam. Yes, the Tanach is used a lot in the Jewish religion, but only used; the Jewish religion is not based off the Tanach. To give an idea of how unrelated they are, in some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities study of the Tanach is actually banned as its study is considered a threat to the purity of Judaism!

So what is the religion of the Tanach? If it is not Judaism, for what religion, extinct or extant, does the Hebrew Bible act as its foundational religious text? Well, once again I’ve got a surprise for you: the Tanach is not a religious book at all! At this point I have probably lost you. I can picture you raising your brows thinking, ‘this guy is crazy’. ‘”Not a religious text”?! If this is not a religious text then what is? The ten commandments, miracles, God, worship: of course this describes some sort of religion!’ But hang in there a little, I promise to explain everything.

A careful and critical reading of the Tanach, corroborated by archaeological findings, gives us the following, extremely simplified, picture of the ancient Israelite people:

We find the ancient Israelites living in Canaan, present day Israel/Palestine. The Ancient Israelites are pagans. They and their tribal chieftans/kings worship a plethora of pagan gods and goddesses which they share with their Canaanite neighbours. They also have their own tribal deity, Yahweh, who fights their wars, takes their side in conflicts and dwells in the different temples and sanctuaries that they build for his needs.

The Israelites also have a whole collection of tribal myths. They have a mythological ancestry with patriarchs and a genealogy that hierarchically connects different sub-tribes to specific roles and geographical areas; they have mythological narratives to explain certain tribal practices that none of them remember how they started off and they celebrate certain tribal festivals which usually correspond to agricultural events.

It is important to remember that they are not Greeks and that they do not think like Greeks. This is a period before Socrates roams the streets of Athens probing people to think about the meaning of life. For the ancient Israelite, history, mythology, theology, philosophy and science are indistinguishable from each other. The priest is the doctor and the prophet is the historian. The natural and the supernatural are both equally mysterious and the rainbow is no more anomalous than a flying fiery chariot. The ancient does not believe in his gods, he worships them; she does not have faith, she simply lives with her unquestioned practices. The gods are as obvious for the ancient as earth’s sphericity and the solar system’s helio-centricity is for the modern.

The ancient Israelites, just like the ancient Cannanites, are not  religious. Religion has not been born yet as it waits for the Greeks to come around. Only centuries later, when people start thinking about the nature of knowledge and belief, can religious ideas be formed, but at this point people just live and do, instead of think and believe.

The Tanach is the collection of the tribal mythology of the Israelite people. It contains real history, pseudo-history, mythology, theology and much more, intertwined with each other without any distinctions between them. The Hebrew Bible is thus a tribal text rather than a religious one, as are the practices and beliefs of the ancient Israelites tribal rather than religious.

Judaism starts turning into a religion during the rabbinic period driven by two factors: the rise of Greek thinking, and the decentralization of the Israelite/Jewish people in their sovereign country. Tribal rituals and mythologies usually do not survive the application of Greek patterns of thought to them. The Greek wants to categorise, characterise and canonise, whilst the pagan needs spontaneity, flexibility and creativity. Critical thiking is lethal to the paganistic worldview, as the pagan is unprepared to take on the challenge. The thought that his assumptions might not reflect reality has never crossed his mind and the question “why” is not in his vocabulary either.

Likewise, the growth and decentralization of the tribe means that it can no longer evolve in unison, posing a danger to the unified nature of the tribal identity. Without the royal court, the institution of prophecy and the priestly cult of the temple, the tribal rituals and narratives have to be canonized into something substantial and defined, or they will not survive.

So starting from the later Biblical authors, around the time of the Babylonian exile, the Bible starts being radically interpreted and reformed to reflect these needs. By the time the Talmudic rabbis are around, Rabbinic Judaism is no longer comparable to Biblical Judaism, which some Jewish sects – most notably, the Sadducees – try to uphold. By the law of Natural Selection, the other forms of Judaism do not survive, as they were not capable of adapting to the needs of the time, and Rabbinic Judaism emerges victorious becoming the mainstream – if not the only (until the Karaites come around) – stream of Judaism.

As an atheist, or someone who does not believe in God – not to become too technical with labels and definitions – I am really not a part of the religion of Rabbinic Judaism. I do not believe in its dogma, and I do not practice its commandments. Nor do I feel a strong connection with it per see, or see much value in it on a personal level. However, Rabbinic Judaism is not  the Judaism of the ancient Israelites or of the Hebrew Bible, and unlike the religion of Rabbinic Judaism, God is not an essential part in Biblical Judaism. Sure, Yahweh, the tribal god, is assumed in the Tanach, but he is there just as an unquestioned part of reality, not as a belief. There is no coherent or unified theology about the nature of God and His workings amongst different Biblical authors and it does not really bother them either. These things are left to the individual and as long as one holds up the tribal honour and rituals nobody cares what they do or do not believe in.

If you ask me why I grab species of vegetation and sit in a booth on Chag, I will tell you that I do it for the same reason that the ancient Israelite did it: to celebrate a tribal practice. The ancient Israelite did not perform these rituals because they believed that they were fulfilling a commandment or being religious by doing so. No; it was a tribal ritual which in some way or another made sense in their worldview and which I feel connected to too as a member of the “tribe”. Judaism is not my religion, it is my tribal identity and the Torah does not tell me what to do, but how things are, or were, done.

All Jewish denominations and factions can be seen as genuine expressions of the Hebrew/Jewish tribal identity (with the possible exception of some Ultra-Orthodox sects which do not see themselves as part of a Jewish people, but as a cult of worship), the combining factor being the tribal identity, the shared mythology, history and heritage, not God or any degree of observance.

That is why as an atheist, I am a Karaite because the original meaning of the Tanach is what sets the tone for my Jewsih identity, and not the religious reinterpretation of the rabbis.

Our Father, Our King, We did NOT sin before you; We have made mistakes, but it is none of your business!

It is Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar, and I am sat with a group of fellow travellers – the only type of people I want to be sat with, not only on Yom Kippur but all year round – chanting along with the service leaders words of introspection and songs of reflection. We are sat together, we are singing together, but we are each on our own journeys, journeys that are to take us from where we are to where we want to be.

Yom Kippur translates as The Day of Atonement, but it is not atonement that I am after. Atonement is for sins, but I have none. Atonement is by someone, for someone else, but I do not need anyone to atone for me. I do not need that kind of help, for I can manage perfectly fine on my own.

“Our Father, our King, remember that we are dust.” “Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, though we have no worthy deeds; act with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.”

Well, no thanks! We are dust?! What a self-loathing idea! I am not dust; I certainly do not think of myself in that way!

“We have no worthy deeds… save us!” How pathetic! What a miserable existence! And why exactly should you be saved if you “have no worthy deeds”? How derogotary towards the human species can one get, to reduce us to worthless dust at the mercy of a being who needs us to internalize this message in order to save our poor, miserable existences  purely at their arbitrary discretion?

No way! Our Father, our King, we have not sinned before you! We have made mistakes, but it is none of your business; we can manage perfectly fine on our own.

I have made mistakes, lot’s of them, but I do not feel guilty. A mistake is not something we should not have done, but something we hope not to repeat in the future. I made mistakes because I am human and I will not apologise for being human. I will continue to make mistakes because I will continue to be human and I will not apologise for that either.

I will not apologise for making mistakes, but I will apologise for the mistakes themselves. I do not feel guilt for being me and doing what me does, but I do take responsibility for being me and for doing what me does. I do not feel guilt, but I am sorry. I do not feel shame, but I know that what I have done was wrong and I hope not to repeat it again.

I am not looking for atonement, but I am looking for forgiveness, forgiveness first and foremost from myself and then from those I have hurt. Forgiveness is not atonement. It is its opposite. Atonement is the partner of sin, whereas forgiveness follows mistakes. Atonement implies cleansing something that is impure; forgiveness is the reassurance that one has remained as pure as before. Atonement is sought to appease someone else, forgivenes for one’s own health and ethical life.

Forgiveness is the voice within ourselves, often stimulated by the voice of others, that tells us and reassures us that everything is OK, that we are absolutely fine and that our mistakes do not have to be repeated, at least not in the same way. After expressing remorse, acknowledging that what we did was indeed a mistake, we seek forgiveness so we can remind ourselves that we are amazing despite making mistakes.

And as we continue to chant and sing together in a trandescendent experience of healing and empowering, the time has come to recite the vidui (confession) traditionally said on Yom Kippur, and so I say:

Izzy, please forgive yourself for the following mistakes:

  • For the mistake of not forgiving myself for doing what I did
  • For the mistake of not accepting myself for who I am
  • For the mistake of not loving myself for being who I am
  • For the mistake of not acting with compassion towards myself and others
  • For the mistake of holding on to grudges and resentments towards others in the mistaken belief that it makes me feel better and makes them feel worse
  • For the mistake of not maintaining healthy boundaries with difficult people in my life
  • For the mistake of allowing toxic people into my life and allowing them to hurt me
  • For the mistake of saying “yes” to someone’s request when I really wanted to say “no”
  • For the mistake of not cultivating gratitude for all the blessings in my life
  • For the mistake of thinking that life should be fair
  • For the mistake of forgetting that we are connected in love to all that lives and all that breathes
  • For the mistake of comparing myself with other people
  • For the mistake of not asking other people when I need help
  • For the mistake of not asking for what I need from others
  • For the mistake of thinking that other people in my life should know what I want from them (without me telling them)
  • For the mistake of not seeing the uniquness of, and divine image in, all human beings, including myself

We have now finished our little service, our souls have been refreshed and having forgiven ourselves for our mistakes in the past year, we are now ready to face the new year with its new mistakes.

Shana tova!

 (The vidui is from Danny Newman for Grassroots Jews)