I Can’t Believe Sam Harris Got a Standing Ovation

The the Torah I’ve been studying lately has consisted of Sefer HaMitzvot and TaHarat HaMishpachah, which translates to “family purity” laws, and what really means a set of laws and customs dating back to the time of the Torah which govern the relationship between husband and wife.  In order to get married in Israel, a woman needs to take at least a few classes from a certified instructor.  I won’t go into detail here because it’s off topic, I’m not fully versed in it, and no blog post could do justice to something so vast and personal, but let’s just say that it has a lot to do with a woman’s period.

There.  You didn’t want to keep reading more anyways, did you?

Realizing that my time in my apartment is winding down, I decided that my search for some different reading material should include my roommate’s bookshelf in our living room.  One of the most popularly lended books has been The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose.  The book chronicles the author’s then-sophomore Brown University semester “abroad” as a transfer student at the world’s largest evangelical Christian college founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

I can see why the book has made the rounds.  Here is why I liked it:

  • Fun, reader-friendly writing style broken up into many small chapters
  • I appreciate Kevin’s honesty and his ethical struggles as a journalist
  • I knew very little about evangelical Christians besides that short of accepting Jesus as my savior, the best thing I could be doing according to them is to be in Israel
  • It was interesting to read the work of a former intern of A.J. Jacobs of The Year of Living Biblically and other hilarious books.
  • I was particularly impressed that he completed the book while an undergraduate student
  • I could relate to the strict laws of the religious devotees

At Liberty, Roose quickly finds out, there are a lot of rules in place to keep the young Christian souls away from sin.  These include a curfew, a dress code, no kissing, no boozing, and certainly no pre-marital sex.

These rules seemed familiar to me, as they are similar to what one might encounter at some orthodox Jewish religious institutions, but at the religious institution – not a school for secular inquiry.  And then they are only similarities.

The differences, I feel, are important to make.  First of all, religious Jewish institutions are not co-ed.  For goodness sake, who really thinks that 18 to 20-somethings having regular physical contact with the opposite sex won’t result in some hanky panky?  Religious Jewish institutions usually have a dress code, but it’s one based on halacha, Jewish law, not the whims of the administration, as at Liberty.

You can be sure that regular prayer and Bible study can be found at both.

But enough compare and contrast and on to my encore, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman.  At 246 pages, it was a small impulse buy when I was back at favorite D.C. Bookstore Kramerbooks during my last visit.  I’ve only just begun the volume, but the author, a former evangelical Christian, examines how original texts of the New Testament have disappeared and that existing texts available do not agree with one another and have been manipulated by human motives, sometimes centuries after they were to have been first written.

It is, so far, reminiscent of the section dealing with Christianity in The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, a book that comes highly-acclaimed by none other than The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Times of London, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.  I nonetheless liked it the least.

The Evolution of God explains how “God” has merely played a convenient social and political role throughout the evolution of societies.  He argues that human nature gave birth to religion — a God, or Gods, as conceptualized by religion, did not give birth to humans.

While I am not a Shamanic, Islamic, or Christian scholar (even after reading The Unlikely Disciple), I’d like to think that I know a thing or two about Judaism and its conception of God.  Wright was wrong on pretty much all accounts.  He lifts quotes from scripture out of context, mistranslates them and liberally uses ellipses.  Well, you’ve got a lot to work with when you do that!

It is clear from the writing that the author failed to consult a learned person from any of the religions he pulls into his evolutionary model of human thought and societal “progress,” and sure enough, an examination of the extensive footnotes proves this to be the case.  Wright heavily sources English translations(!) of the Bible and scriptures.  Other books are all academic works — nothing by religious scholars.  That means no Talmud.  Not only is the Hebrew of the Torah critical to attempting to analyze its meaning (all serious religious and secular scholars review it in Hebrew), eliminating the Oral Law of the Talmud is to present half the picture, and a skewed one at that.

What’s all this got to do with Sam Harris?  Well, on Thursday night I was frankly too lazy to read but still in search of something intellectually stimulating.  I went to ted.com, the website for a series of lectures on what basically could be summed up as “good ideas”.  The videos are segments from TEDx events held around the world.  I went to the “religion” tab and came across a lecture by Sam Harris titled “Science can answer moral questions“.  This the first time I got a glimpse of the man whose book The End of Faith I listened to in audio format while training for a marathon in 2008.  I thought he looks so Jewish.  A quick Google search confirmed that he is, in fact, halachically Jewish, born to a Jewish mother (his father is a Quaker).

Harris’ speech was similar to his book — when you pulled back all of the layers of academic posturing, it sounds nice, but it makes no sense!  I have no idea what he says in this video other than that if we try really hard, society, through science,  should eventually be able to figure out such difficult moral questions such as how to display the female body (Burqa = bad; nudie magazines = bad.  Where is the happy medium?).  While Harris, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA totally fails to show how science can help us make moral decisions, he makes it clear that religion sure can’t!

I frequently think that I don’t meet the material we cover in my marriage preparation classes with the level of enthusiasm that my teacher would like.  While at the end of the day, if you’re a believer, the law is the law, the truth is that there is beauty and sense in it; at the same time, it’s also gross and weird and sometimes offensive to my modern, Western sensibilities.

Having written all of this, I feel like I huge apikoris, but out of all that I’ve considered in this blog post, it’s the funky menstrual rules that make the most sense to me.


3 Responses to “I Can’t Believe Sam Harris Got a Standing Ovation”

  1. 1 Barry January 2, 2011 at 8:47 am

    I totally disagree with your short curt dismissal of Sam Harris’s proposal for moral measure. To say it’s academic posturing is the pot calling the kettle black.Your whole essay is a description of
    feigning need for academic stimulation then making your choice to listen to Sam Harris at TED based on the obvious criteria that this guy looks and sounds Jewish, is a high profile academic and therefore might be a coup if by chance he reinforces what you already believe and are invested in.
    I guess he didn’t quite make the cut. Not to worry…his father was after all a Quaker.

    • 2 Ilene January 2, 2011 at 10:10 am

      Hi Barry,

      Thanks for your comment. I have to point out though that you are in fact incorrect. As I wrote, I chose to listen to Sam Harris because I had already listened to an audio version of one of his books, but it had been 2 years, and I was curious to see if he had anything new to say. I had disagreed with what he had to say in the book, and yet I continued to listen to more of what he had ot say. It was only after beginning to watch the video that I wondered if he was Jewish. I hadn’t before. My comment was basically to indicate that actually Jewish academics are, to my dismay, often ones to academically discount their religion.

      I, too, had looked for many ways “out”.

      In short, I actually sought out, on several occasions, opinions different than my own. It seems to me that you read into this what you wanted to believe, which is that in an academically dishonest and even racist fashion, I sought out Jewish opinions backing my own.

  2. 3 Thomas January 2, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    There is this notion that has been around for hundreds of years, if not forever, that moral questions can only be answered through a God or religion. Sam is simply saying that we have to get rid of this notion, and that science, if given the chance, can be capable of doing the same.

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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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