Autobiographical Talk at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London – 20th of March 2019

(Note: I took minor artistic licences in the telling of my story. As it was intended as story sharing with moral lessons, I did not put emphasis on some of the nuances and complexities in charedi beliefs. All of the details are correct, but for a more objective picture some nuances need to be taken into consideration) 

Tonight’s theme is “transitioning to one’s authentic self”. I am not sure what an “authentic self” is and I definitely haven’t found mine yet. But I can tell you about my transition: a transition from chassidic yeshiva boy, to secular university student.

My name is Izzy Posen. I am a second year physics and philosophy student at the University of Bristol and the founder and president of the Bristol Free Speech Society. As you can probably tell from the fact that I am speaking at a Liberal synagogue, I am not a chassidic ultra-orthodox Jew. But that is exactly how I spent the first twenty years of my life. How did I get here? Following is the story of my transition.

I grew up in the chassidic ultra-orthodox community of Stamford Hill, East London in a family of rabbis and Torah-scholars. My parents raised me to be a God-fearing Jew and hoped that I would go in the paths of my dad, grandad and many of my uncles and cousins to be a Torah scholar.

My community led a life insulated from the outside world, trying to guard themselves and their children from outside influences, considered profane and immoral. We spoke only Yiddish and read only Yiddish books published by fellow ultra-orthodox Jews. The themes were all about the righteous and the God-fearing. Not much general knowledge, history, or science made it in there. We had no access to TV, films, radio, or newspapers. The world was corrupt and we preferred to know about it as little as possible.

Instead of primary school, we attended Cheider. Cheider was like school, except that there was no secular education and corporal punishment was used to discipline us kids – oh, and my cheider was also illegal.

I didn’t like cheider. Not the hours of sitting and studying texts and not the constant hitting and abuse. When I would come home crying, my dad would tell me that he went through the same. ‘It is normal,’ I thought to myself. ‘This is just what childhood is meant to look like.’ I couldn’t wait for the day that I would no longer be a child and the big adults would no longer be able to abuse me. But I knew that I wouldn’t let the same happen to my own children.

When I turned thirteen I had my barmitzvah. From then on I was considered an adult and was going to devote every second of my day to the service of God and to the study of His Torah. Indeed, I started yeshiva, where I spent fourteen hour days studying Talmud and Jewish Law. But that wasn’t enough for me.

I wanted to learn about some of the things that weren’t in the Talmud. I wanted to know why rainbows form, why birds fly, why the world goes round. I was told that the answers to all of these questions are contained in the Talmud and that if I study hard enough they’ll be revealed to me. I did. They weren’t.

I had other questions as well. Forbidden questions. Why does the rest of the world think differently to us? How do we know that our way of thinking is right and their’s wrong? These were scary questions. Heretical questions. I didn’t dare ask them. But they bothered me.

As I grew older I grew more bold in the questions that I’d ask and in my quest for forbidden knowledge. I got hold of a dictionary and some English books and started teaching myself the language. Seeing my quest and thirst, my mom bought me some science books to read. Before giving them to me she’d kosher them by censoring out all heretical words, such as, ‘evolution’, ‘the big bang’, or any number greater than 6000.

When I was 18 I left home for yeshiva up North in Gateshead. Away from the pressures of my parents and my community, I started frequenting the library to quench my thirst in philosophy, theology and science. In yeshiva I also discovered the internet, which opened up for me a world and wealth of information. My faith didn’t last long.

It soon became evident to me that the Torah was a man-made document and did not miraculously appear on a mountain, that the Talmud did most likely not contain all scientific truths and that Ultra-orthodox Jews do not have a unique claim to religious truth. I knew that I wanted to go to university and I started planning my next steps. I was still in yeshiva when I stopped practicing orthodox Judaism.

An organisation called Mavar helped me integrate in secular society and catch up on my education. Working during the day to support myself, I did my studies in the evening. I did some GCSEs in my first year after leaving and a foundation course in maths and physics in the second year. In the third year I was studying physics and philosophy at the University of Bristol.

My family and community had rejected me as soon as I left and three and a half years later I am still not in touch with my grandparents, my dozens of uncles and aunts, hundreds of cousins and eight of my siblings.

Transitioning to secular society is a little like being an immigrant in your own country. I had to learn the language and cultural norms. But in addition to that, I discovered fifty percent of the population whom I knew nothing about: women. It took me a while to get the hang of modern dating culture. Last summer, three years after I left, I met my girlfriend. We’ve been together since.

My journey has taught me never to leave societal views unquestioned. The thing about frameworks of knowledge is that when you are in it, it is very difficult to see whether it is right or wrong. Growing up there was nothing more certain to me than the truth and rightfulness of my way of life. This is still the case for my former community members. They cannot see that what they believe in may not be true and right because they are on the inside. It is only from the outside of a framework that one can see how well it does or does not fit in with reality.

We all have frameworks of knowledge and morality. It may be our belief in science, in democracy, in justice. There is nothing wrong with having a framework. But my experiences have taught me that every now and then it is worth dipping out of the framework for a brief moment to examine it from the outside. We shouldn’t be afraid to be somewhat self-sceptical. We shouldn’t be afraid to be somewhat irreverent, somewhat sacrilegious and to question our own sacred cows.

Each and every one of us has some mistaken beliefs and we can never hope to be right about everything. What we can do though, is try to be less wrong. We can try to have as few false beliefs as possible. How do we achieve that? One way is to broaden our horizons, by meeting different people with different beliefs and values. This helps us to put our own beliefs in perspective and to perhaps come across different and better alternatives.

To this end I have founded the Bristol Free Speech Society at my university. We come together weekly to discuss a wide range of topics and to question our frameworks and entrenched beliefs. This, for me, is the ultimate heresy. It is not about the rejection of God, or religion, but about a general openness to challenge one’s own beliefs and to be sceptical of one’s societal frameworks.   

In my journeys I also discovered the Jewish people. This may sound paradoxical, given that I left a Jewish community to secularise. But the community of my upbringing didn’t see themselves as part of a larger community of Am Yisrael. They excluded based on practice, beliefs and lineage. For them being Jewish was synonymous with being ultra-orthodox. It is only after leaving that I have discovered my people. My lovely, diverse and vibrant people. Jews of all beliefs and practices, of all shapes and colours and of all walks of life. I am proud to be part of the Jewish people. I am a Jew. A secular Jew.

 

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The Deaf and the Mute

Adam B. had some strongly held beliefs. He held them so strongly that he was convinced that he arrived at them by entirely rational means. Not that he thought a lot about how he arrived at these beliefs. But with every fibre of his body he knew that they were true.

Adam has a rival, Becca C. He knew that she disagrees with him strongly because he sees her get angry when he expresses his beliefs. But her views are irrational. They must be, since his are right. Becca would disagree, but Adam feels the rightness of his ideas in his body. He doesn’t feel Becca’s disagreement.

Adam knows that Becca has passions too. And he knows that when Becca seems angry, that’s because she is feeling something on the inside. But all of this is what Adam knows. He doesn’t feel it. His beliefs, however, he feels – with a burning passion.

Adam doesn’t just know that Becca is wrong. He experiences it. He cannot negate his own experiences. If Becca could talk, she would tell Adam about the experiences of her own. But Adam is deaf and Becca is mute.

Adam is angry at Becca, for she denies his own experiences. He is also scared of her, as her denial is contagious. With her very existence she makes him question his experiences. If his experienced truth is unreliable, then what is? It’s a scary thought. Adam therefore avoids Becca. Even just being reminded of her throws him into existential dread.

Adam doesn’t disagree with Becca; he lives a different kind of existence. And his existence denies hers and hers his. They cannot coexist.

Becca is not wrong. She is evil.

My World: A Tour

Welcome to my world, the space wherein I reside. It is a profoundly lonely place, although neighbouring it are many other worlds, as access is limited to me alone. In my world there is only one thing that matters and that is my own interests. However, surprisingly often those coincide with the needs of other worlds.

My world is a stormy and tumultuous place. Here battles, revolutions and natural disasters are common occurrences. There are no constitutions, base values, or core beliefs, although there are underlying persistent currents of zeitgeist which seem to evolve more slowly.

So let me take you on a tour around the perimeters of my world. I cannot let you in, but you may get a glimpse from the outside.

If you asked me what my prime goal and motivation in life is I would tell you that it is to discover as much of the general and universal truths as I can. This does seem somewhat consistent with what I have been doing over most of my mature life, however I do not know to what extent it is a fundamental driver, rather than a rationalisation of some deeper subconscious need.

This is especially a problem given that I do not even believe in the search for truth as a worthy ultimate goal. I do not believe that anything other than the pursuit after positive subjective experiences is worthy of being a primary motivation, although I do think that the most efficient way to achieve this primary objective is to focus on secondary ones. Thus, if I want to be happy and discovery makes me happy, I will get to my primary goal by focusing on a secondary objective, namely on discovery.

But what if I have gone astray and am worshiping a secondary goal like an idol instead of my true God, the primary goal? What if by my stubborn adherence to a specific secondary goal I am being blinded to more obvious and efficient ways to achieve happiness from which I am prejudicially closing myself off? Perhaps if I was not so insistent that it is discovery that needs to make me happy I would find happiness and fulfillment through some other easier route?

Mill commits this fallacy when he proves the superiority of man over beast or of the clever over the simple by appealing to the former’s refusal to turn into the latter even on reward of achieving greater happiness. The oversight here is that this refusal is irrational and stems from secondary-goal-worship. If achieving happiness is the ultimate goal, then being human is only advantageous insofar as it can form a secondary objective leading to the primary one. But choosing that over a direct route to the primary goal is confusing the means for the end.

Admitting that our ultimate goal in life is our own happiness may not be socially admirable, nor productive towards that very end, but as far back as in Plato compelling arguments are put forward arguing that no other ultimate goal is rational. The most that can be done whilst maintaining some sort of rationality is to extend that ultimate goal to other sentient beings too. Instead of one’s own happiness, one can strive for the impartial maximization of utility. This maxim may not be provable, but I think that it is defensible.

Besides for the discovery of general truths, forming relationships also makes me feel happy and content. They give meaning to my life. However, unlike the former, it happens through passive as well as active participation, which is why intellectual growth is my major explicit focus even though forming relationships is no less important.

In my world intellectualisation is prominent, but oftentimes I wonder how much my life choices are actually due to rational considerations, rather than to primal, psychological drives. I claim to be rational and I try to be rational, but I do not know to what extent I am successful. At least I am open to self-criticism and introspection, as I am aware that deeply ingrained beliefs must also be justifiable.

Sometimes when it comes to my very fundamental beliefs and core values it can be very painful to have them critically examined, as it feels like the rest of my epistemological edifice will crumble should they be shaken, but I never use that as a conscious excuse not to question them, although I suspect that there may be subconscious layers of defense surrounding them as a means of survival.

Talking of epistemological edifices, Hume discusses two kinds of philosophies. He talks about the common-sense philosopher who never ventures out too far in her arguments, maintaining close proximity to common-sense reality. She will address issues piecemeal and expand on them individually, so that all of her ideas are both self-contained and not too far from accepted reality. The second kind of philosopher, the one he calls ‘profound’, is the analytic one, who attempts to bring all knowledge into one coherent system of truths, each member of the system being consistent with the rest.

In order to achieve this the analytic philosopher must divert from common sense and give new meanings and interpretations to everyday objects of language and experience. But this comes with an inherent danger. Not only can one false assumption or premise lead the whole endeavor astray, but when that happens the philosopher has lost touch with common sense altogether, so that he is left wrong in a much more profound way than the common-sense philosopher can ever be. So whilst the common-sense philosopher does not come up with any profound revolutionary changes in thought, she also has less chance of going astray.

When I say this I think of Peter Singer. His profound analytical approach to ethics led to two famous positions, one which he is applauded for and the other which brought him much hate. His very utilitarian ethics that caused him to be a champion for animal rights is also what led him to do away with the idea of the sanctity of human life and to see infant euthanasia as the right course of action in certain circumstances.

The common-sense moralist would not come up with either of these principles, as they are not rooted in our evolutionarily inspired values. Singer however discovers profound principles, which if right are revolutionary and progressive, but if wrong have profound negative implications.

In my personal life I have followed Singer’s approach, basing far reaching and irreversible life choices on the basis of introducing consistency to my beliefs, even at the expense of deviating from common sense. As I know that my personal epistemology is nowhere near consistent and that the significant holes in it may lead to an overturning of my current beliefs, I am not sure what justified my moves. I guess that I have been moving up over gradations of coherence and that the state of my current belief system is so much more coherent than what it was that – even though it is not perfected yet – a move away from my old epistemology in favour of the new one was justified. Perhaps it is analogous to moving from an Aristotelian mechanics to a Newtonian one even if ultimately it is the Einsteinian mechanics that is true.

This leads me to an interesting thought that perhaps a Popperian approach should be taken to epistemology as well as to science. Perhaps the perfect epistemology is unobtainable and instead it is discarding the more mistaken one in favour of the less mistaken one that is how epistemology progresses.

In my world there are many beliefs. They are of two kinds: empirical and logical. For my empirical beliefs I try to rely on others, usually experts, to inform me about them. This is a difficult task, as whom to regard as an expert is in itself an empirical question. I therefore have very little certainty in many empirical questions, especially those around which there is lots of controversy amongst experts themselves. This reality leaves me with lots of room for skepticism, which can be very annoying when everyone around you seems certain and passionate about certain issues.

For the logical issues I usually form my own opinions, although they are always informed and influenced by the thinkers that inspire me. The meta-epistemology of how I can be reliant on my own opinions continually haunts me. Even to rely on others is to rely on your own judgment of their reliability, meaning that it is ultimately you who determines what kids of beliefs you will have. I do not know how we are justified in forming any beliefs in matters of controversy, unless we have the arrogance to consider our own conclusions superior. As with the empirical beliefs, this conundrum leaves me with much room for skepticism and caution. It can be very annoying, but I think that overall it results in much tranquility and moderation. The Pyrrhonians already claimed that this was the case.

In terms of  conviction my beliefs lie on two axes: the passion axis and certainty axis. Although there is some correlation between passion and certainty, the axes largely retain independence from each other. Thus some of my beliefs with high levels of certainty have very low levels of passion and vice versa.

The factors that determine the certainty are mainly epistemological, whereas passion is impacted by psychological as well as sociological factors. If a certain belief has become the hallmark of a group with whom I have fundamental disagreements I often find it hard to join them in passion, even though I agree with them on that issue. For example, I share many of the core beliefs of the social justice movement, and yet I find it hard to express passion regarding those, since I abhor the philosophy and methods of this movement, specifically in their dogmatism and intolerance. This kind of sentiment is what is meant by identity politics. I play it even though I do not like it.

In my world it is the method of arrival at a certain belief that matters far more than the belief itself. I will often side with those who disagree with me against those who share my beliefs if I think that the former’s methods are purer. As an example, on utilitarian grounds I do not regard abortion as morally problematic, and yet I think that the argument against abortion made from seeing the fetus as a potential being is stronger than the fallacious claim sloganised as ‘my body my choice’. One may argue that the reason for why I feel more passionate about the theoretical, rather than the practical, aspects of this argument is because I do not have a stake in the matter. This is a reasonable argument. I am describing here how I do feel, not how I ought to feel.

This uneven distribution of passion often results in people misunderstanding my position, as they take my passion as proportionately representative of my beliefs, when in reality this is not the case, as I have just described. Another source of misunderstanding is when I defend someone’s right to an opinion and it is mistaken for an endorsement of that opinion. I can without contradiction fight for someone’s right to talk and when that right is granted them personally protest their position, believing that it is wrong. I would protest outside a holocaust-denying conference after campaigning to have them be allowed to hold it.

In my world there is always something going on. At any given moment there is some questions that preoccupy my mind and that I – perhaps unhealthily – obsess over. I want to share these newsbits as they occur and I intend to do so in the form of occasional blog posts. In this tour I have described some of my core beliefs and  my general thought structures. They may change, but for now a lot about how I think and see things is given here. My world is one amongst many, but it is unique – as unique as your world is. There may be similarities between our worlds, but that does not diminish from their uniqueness, as my world is exclusively mine and yours is exclusively yours. I like my world. I hope you like yours.

Jerusalemite Thoughts, Nationalism – עשתונות ירושלמיות, לאומיות

Jerusalemite Thoughts, Nationalism – עשתונות ירושלמיות, לאומיות

When I come to describe my Jerusalemite thoughts, the most basic emotion experienced and all prevalent in Israel was nationalism. I used the term emotion for a reason and this is what this post will be focussing on.

I will be talking about Zionism – i.e. Jewish nationalism – specifically in my next post, but here I want to talk about nationalism in general – all nationalisms.

Nationalism has become somewhat of a dirty word in liberal circles and for good reason. So much evil has been done in its name in the last century and its particularistic message seems to be in direct contrast to the humanistic-universalistic approach.

But even universalists group themselves in particularistic groups of fellow universalists! How do you think a humanist feels towards her fellow humanist in contrast to how she feels towards a non-humanist? The humanistic-universalist also has an in-group and an out-group – an in-group based on the idea of abolishing in-groupness!

Does that make out universalists to be hypocrites? No, for here is the important distinction: universalism is an intellectual idea, whereas emotionally people will always group themselves with likeminded people with whom they share a common goal or vision.

As an intellectual humanistic-universalist myself, who believes that the feelings of all sentient beings are equally valid, I would still consider myself an emotional nationalist. The transcendent feeling of nationalism that I felt in Israel and how I fell in love with it made me realise that belonging to an in-group is simply an emotional necessity for me. It is the same feeling that I felt when attending the Humanist conference this spring and it is the same feeling that I feel everytime I attend a synagogue service.

I am a feeble little man in a massive world and feeling a part of something much bigger feels like receiving a massive, reassuring hug from the universe. That must be the power of identity: belonging. Us liberals are very good at validating and respecting identity, but it must not stop at nationalism – nationalism, not as an exclusionary, intellectual ideology, but as an emotional identity of belonging.

It is a shame that I had to fly to Israel in order to feel love for a country and a sense of belonging to it. My country is the United Kingdom and I should be able to feel part of it. Our country is so great and we have so much to be proud of it, we just do not stress it enough. How can I express my patriotism towards my country if displaying a union jack on my window would automatically brand me a racist?

We need to reclaim nationalism and patriotism from the haters as a sentiment that goes hand in hand with universalistic compassion and empathy and not as something that is in conflict with it. Perhaps a good start would be to introduce a year of mandatory community service for school leavers, so that young people feel like they have a part in building our great country, which will cause them to care more for it later in life after having invested in it.

Having destigmatised nationalism I will be talking in my next post about a specific nationalism: Jewish Nationalism, also known as Zionism. I will see you then.

A Letter to my Friend the Bigot

I do think that I’m right and you’re wrong, but I also realise that that’s me saying it, so what else would one expect?

I am aware that regardless of whether or not your truth corresponds with reality, your truth is as important to you as mine is to me. I therefore sympathise with your cause despite me thinking that it’s misguided and I feel for you when your goals are not met, even though I consider them to be destructive.

You sometimes hate me, but you feel that you have to. I love you and I sometimes love your hate. I am the one undermining your very values and your very beliefs. I am the one who keeps on telling you that you’re wrong. I have the hate coming.

I really don’t like how you treat those with whom you disagree and those whose lifestyle choices are different to yours, but boy do I understand you! I sympathise with your anguish as you see the world spiralling into what you consider immorality and spiritual destruction.

I don’t share your view and unlike you I like the liberal direction in which the wind is blowing. What you consider promiscuous, immoral and fornicatious, I consider romantic, loving and bonding. But I know that you are not comfortable. I know that what we are doing deeply troubles you and I sympathise.

Freedom of belief and consciousness is something that I will never deny to anyone, so I must accept the sentiments that your beliefs arouse in you. I hope that you can understand that when your feelings are hurt by my actions it is not you whom I want to hurt, but it is a cause that I’m fighting for. Just like you, I have values too and when they clash one of us will get hurt.

I really regret that this is how it has to be, but I must be frank with you: I consider some of your actions to be highly objectionable and harmful. I know that you have no bad intentions, but when you deny people the most meaningful and natural of pleasures I am bound to take up arms against you.

How am I meant to feel when I see you encouraging sexual repression? You try to get young men and women to abstain from physical contact with each other; you build up in them an unhealthy relationship with their sexuality; you won’t let them masturbate. You consider this moral, but to me it’s just cruel.

I understand where you’re coming from though. I know that you genuinely believe that this is good and noble and I know that it is important to you. Nevertheless, I will fight these ideas. In this battle of ideas one of us will be hurt. Badly. But we both need to fight on with conviction. I will continue to fight for progressiveness and liberalism and you continue to fight for conservatism and scriptural morality.

I sympathise with you and I know that you are fighting for an important cause, but I ask of you to remember that I’m fighting for an important cause too. True that only one of us will survive; true that I might need to kill you on the battle field; but we’re both fighting for a just cause and we’re both driven by conviction, passion and love.

One final point, my dear: when I call you a racist, sexist, homophobic, or islamaphobic, please don’t take offense and keep in mind that I’m not judging you. I give you these titles because they accurately describe your views and labelling you as the enemy makes it easier for us to fight you, but that’s it; there’s nothing more to it. I still think that you’re a lovely human being and I still value your strongly held sentiments.

You’re a bigot, no doubt about that, but you and your beliefs are still special and precious and there’s no need for you to feel down or apologetic because of who you are. I do want to exterminate your values, but not because I don’t value them, but because I think that they are harmful for humanity.

Send my love to your friends in the conservative community. See you on the battlefield,

xx

A Complex Universe

Yesterday I got to meet two of the great thinkers within the atheistic camp: Lawrence M. Krauss and A. C. Grayling. I had short discussions with both of them regarding religion and philosophy and both used very strong and certain language regarding religion, referring to any sort of religious belief as “bullshit”.

I walked away feeling really empowered and thrilled. ‘Those superstitious people,’ I thought to myself, ‘they believe in such superstitious BS, gods, free will, prayer – what’s wrong with them?’

This thought felt so good that I had to stop to examine what’s going on. I soon realised that I have just been biased by a thirst for certainty to jump to conclusions that I myself did not believe in. It felt so good to hear two intellectual giants validate my beliefs with certainty and dismiss all others as BS. For once I could let go of the ever torturing uncertainties and self scepticism and I could just be happy and sure about my beliefs.

But I quickly realised that that’s an illusion. Perhaps Kraus and Grayling have reached a level of certainty, or perhaps they are using strong language for emphasis, but for me, certainty is far far away, and as much as it sucks, that is still the truth.

Here are two ways of expressing the very same beliefs:

1. The notion of a God who intervenes in nature and who has a plan is quite frankly ridiculous. No intelligent person can feel comfortable with such a belief and whoever does hold such a belief is being superstitious, delusional and silly.

2. The notion of a God who intervenes in nature and who has a plan is philosophically highly problematic. We do, however, see many intelligent people holding these beliefs and one must wonder why that is. It would be interesting to learn about their justifications or the underlying reasons that drive them to hold these beliefs. Perhaps there are some arguments out there in favour of it, who knows?

Using the language in the first paragraph is really thrilling and perhaps it has its purpose from time to time, even if only to give in to temptation and to let off steam. However, the language in 2 is the honest and humble approach that should be used when debating and thinking with the intention of coming closer to the truth.

I wish that the world was simpler and as a physics student, reducing complex systems to simple laws and equations is what we do all the time, but reality is not a text book scenario and we must learn to live with complexity and embrace uncertainty.

The Uncertainty Principle

Next time you have a disagreement with someone or think that a specific view is wrong, ask yourself the following questions:
• Does your opponent think that they are as right as you think that you are?
• Does your apponent think that you are as wrong as you think that they are?
• Does your opponent think that the facts support their views just like you think that they support yours?
• Does your opponent think that you have got all the facts wrong just like you think that they have?
• Does your opponent think that you are biased just like you think that they are?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’ or ‘most likely’, then you are bound to realise that either of you must be wrong and that there is at least a 50% chance that it is you.

And before you tell me, “yes, but I just happen to be right”, think whether your opponent wouldn’t have said the same.