Tying yourself in knots to please god

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I was at a conference recently and during one session a sign-up sheet was passed around. When it came to my row, the woman seated next to me gave me her business card and asked me to fill in her name and information on the sheet. I noted her long skirt and the fact that it was a Saturday and realized that she must be an observant Jew and that it was prohibited for her to ‘work’ on such a day and writing was presumably deemed to be work, something she confirmed to me later when we chatted at the end of the proceedings. I did as she requested, all the while silently marveling that a highly educated person would voluntarily conform to such absurd rules by an obviously petty god who has way too much time on his hands if he worries about things like this.

All religions expect their devoted followers to do all manner of silly things in order to show their devotion to a god who seems to care about the most petty things. But amongst the more populous religions, Judaism surely takes the lead in the knots that it can persuade its most loyal believers to tie themselves into. Judaism has more than its fair share of religious rituals that can make an outsider wonder how any rational person can think that their god wants them to submit themselves to such contortions just to please him. The anachronistic restrictions on clothes, the long hair and beards, the robes and head coverings, the incredibly complicated food rules, the prayer rituals with all that bobbing and weaving, seem to me to be bizarre. The strangeness of the rituals can cause problems, as in the case of a scare that resulted in a plane having to make an emergency landing because of fears generated when someone started practicing a complicated Jewish prayer ritual with boxes tied to his head and arm that seemed to the other passengers and crew as being inexplicable and, in these days of fear of terror, alarming.

It makes me wonder who thought up all these strange things and why. Perhaps making people look very different and do ridiculous things enhances group cohesion and enables the group members to distinguish and separate themselves from others, an important feature when you are a new and small religion trying to create a separate identity. After some time has passed and the religion is established, the need to be so overtly distinct disappears but the rules persist, leading to all manner of absurdities as the passage of time makes old rules seem increasingly nonsensical.

Attempts to reconcile behaviors prescribed in ancient religious texts with life in modern societies eventually lead to absurdities like kosher telephones (scroll down) and ‘certified Sabbath mode’ ovens.

There was also a recent controversy over ‘Shabbat elevators’ that operate in high-rise buildings occupied by observant Jews. Apparently, pushing an elevator button, like writing, is proscribed on the Sabbath. God forbid that on a hot Saturday afternoon people should decide to not take the stairs to their tenth floor apartment. God would be so mad at such an act of disrespect.

But even many religious people do not find the idea of climbing the steps of their high-rise appealing. So one set of rabbis approved of a solution where an elevator would keep running on a permanent loop, going express all the way to the top and then stopping at each floor on the way down. Thus observant people would not have to actually do anything other than walk in and out of the elevator when the doors opened at the appropriate floor. This might require a long round trip if, for example, if you wanted to go from the first floor to the third floor, but that was the price one paid for not offending your god, who seems to really care about such trivialities and keeps a close watch on people to make sure they don’t break the rules.

But, alas, another set of killjoy rabbis said that the first set of rabbis was wrong and that to use these elevators is a “severely prohibited” desecration of the Sabbath. No doubt a resolution will eventually be reached on the proper use of elevators after careful poring over the wording in documents that were written long before the discovery of electricity.

One man who has devoted his life to studying questions of halacha, or Jewish law and tradition, is Rabbi Yitzhak Levy Halperin, founder of the Institute for Science and Halacha. His organization provides consulting services and guidance on the installation of elevators and other systems in hotels, hospitals and other buildings.

Contrary to what his critics say, Halperin insists he is not in the business of finding ways for Jews to duck their Sabbath obligations. But he firmly believes that the Torah’s rules, as well as its lessons, can be applied in any age provided that Talmudic scholars take the trouble to delve deeply into the technological workings of each and every machine or gadget in question. (my italics)

For those interested in what those solutions are — and they are numbingly complex — the institute has published an entire book on the subject, replete with engineering explanations and diagrams.

I am certain that a solution to the elevator problem will be found and will be one that allows people to take advantage of this modern convenience, since religions seem to always find ways to accommodate the material needs of their more affluent members. (The cynic in me notes the curious coincidence that Halperin just happens to run a consulting business to advise clients on such highly esoteric doctrinal issues.)

But can you believe that people actually spend vast amounts of time and intellectual effort on things like this? And that their verdicts and the resulting rules are taken seriously and followed by others? Religion has to be one of the biggest time wasters that one can imagine.

But it is not always merely time-wasting that is involved. Sometimes things can turn downright ugly and hateful as when a group of orthodox Jews surrounded a reporter and repeatedly spat on her simply because she was using a tape recorder on the Sabbath. As she reports, “I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting – on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms. It was like rain, coming at me from all directions – hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses. Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face. Somewhere behind me – I didn’t see him – a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me.”

The men who committed such a disgusting act probably did so on the basis of careful study of their religious texts. No doubt they think of themselves as virtuous and godly men, and went home smugly satisfied that they had defended the honor of their god, and that their even more godly rabbis patted them approvingly on their godly little heads.

This is what religion can make people do.

POST SCRIPT: The Internet: Where religions come to die

Until this video pointed it out, I had not fully appreciated the fact that even though atheists are a local minority, their commonality across the world makes them numerically larger than the members of all except one religion.


  1. Chris says

    I wonder if it is permissible to use escalators? It seems like going up would be prohibited, but I could see a case for using one to go down.

  2. kuraL says


    Hindus too follow a 100 different rituals and unlike Judaism where there are about 3-5 main streams of thought on ritual, in Hinduism there are probably 100s. In fact one of the selling points advanced by huckster soul harvesters like the notorious Ravi Zachariah (Living Water Ministries) is how Protestant Christianity is free of ritual unlike in his opinion Judaism, Hinduism and even Buddhism. Forgetting of course that there is not much to choose between some obscure ritual and a fairy tale about talking snakes and an angry bearded man up in the sky!
    Ritual does definitely help us get our life in order in an uncertain world, and may have ultimate roots in empirical methods in the distant past >5000 years ago. Rituals are often rationalized although a reasonable case can be made at times. In India (and I am sure in much of South Asia) there are rituals/customs that are practiced across religious groups. For instance, you may be familiar with this, when one visits a home to condole a death in their family, one does not take their leave before leaving. The many who visited out home when my father passed away, Hindu, Christian and Muslim, paid their respects, shared their condolences, and left without informing me. It is believed by some that to take leave in such circumstances may imply that you wish to time your next visit during a tragedy. And there are a 100 other utterly horrendous and even gruesome rituals. Sadly there are some very sick minds that can rationalize every one of them.

  3. Chris says

    It seems like going down would be acceptable because there is a decrease in potential energy. Although, since work is being done to keep the escalator in motion in the first place, maybe that eclipses the decrease. Would it matter if it were powered by renewable energy?

  4. says


    Ah, I see. I have no idea what the answer to your question is but it seems like just the sort of issue that these scholars would love to study.

  5. Jon says

    Actually Chris, I was in Tel Aviv recently and someone pointed out a number of Jews who were using the elevator to go up to their floor, but walking down.

    Apparently being on an elevator on the way down ‘helps’ it (your weight). Quite remarkable.

    See this wikiepedia article for more:

  6. John says

    If writing on the Sabbath is a sin, why is it not a sin to ask someone to do it for you? If dialing a telephone or using an oven during some times is a sin, why is it not a sin to have a second device do it for you during those same times?

  7. says


    These are all good questions that just by being posed show how crazy the whole system is. It all comes down to incredible hair-splitting over the meaning of religious texts.

    This business of avoiding a sinful act by getting others to do it for you can lead to terrible situations, such as in the case Edgardo Mortara.

  8. says

    Hello, such a interesting subject. I have one question to author.
    “I am certain that a solution to the elevator problem will be found.”
    Do you personally have a solution to elevator problem?

  9. says


    No, because since there is no god to please, these are non-problems and simply a waste of time. But those who care about such things usually can find things in their religious texts that get them the answer they want.

  10. says

    I totally agree with these phrase:
    “All religions expect their devoted followers to do all manner of silly things in order to show their devotion to a god who seems to care about the most petty things. ”

    But can you tell me how do you know that there is no God?

    In my opinion, I don’t think God is “an old man” watching us. But I do think, that some rituals and practices helps us become more connected with the spiritual/energy part of the universe.

    What are your comment on that?


  11. says


    No one KNOWS there is no god. What atheists say is that in the absence of evidence for the existence for something, it makes no sense to believe that it exists. So the existence of god is on the same level as the existence of unicorns and fairies.

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