Thursday, April 17, 2014

Religious cherry-picking - the only sane thing to do

There's a post currently making the rounds from George Takei's (a.k.a. Star Trek's "Sulu's") Facebook page, which after one day has over 350,000 likes and 260,000 shares - so people obviously resonate with it.

It's a "quote" from a pastor's sermon (real or fictitious, it doesn't matter), which cites a religious double-standard: We don't listen to the Bible (in this case the Christian scriptures) regarding the severe way it deals with divorce, but yet we're happy to accept the Bible's severity regarding homosexual relationships - and "ruin the lives of people we don't even know". In other words, we cherry-pick Scripture where it suits us.

Of course, the pastor is hardly the first to point this out. The "cherry-picking" criticism is regularly thrown into religious people's faces. They cherry-pick verses which are convenient for them, which fit into their philosophy, and then "conveniently ignore" others which don't. Same thing with practices - they do the ones they want and ignore the others.

But for me, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's the only sane thing to do. Why? Because the Bible is not written by God - it's the product of human beings. So naturally, it contains things we might agree with, relate to, want to incorporate into our lives as part of a religious/cultural tradition, and it contains other things that we can in no way can accept nowadays and need to reject.

So we absolutely must cherry-pick the Bible if we hope to use it constructively, in a healthy way. Two caveats though:

1) We also have a tremendous amount to learn even from those things we disagree with, maybe just as much as the rest. So when I say "cherry-pick", I mean for purposes of identifying those things we agree with and wish to uphold.

2) The difference between the cherry-picking I'm talking about, and the cherry-picking that typically goes on in religious circles, is that for me it's important to be open, honest and explicit about it. In other words, rather than just brush certain verses under the rug which don't fit our religious philosophy (by pretending they don't exist or reinterpreting/sanitizing them) and denying the fact that this is religious cherry-picking, I say: Be a proud and vocal cherry-picker! Say it straight - that you're picking X and rejecting Y.

That's really the difference between fundamentalism and "choiceism". One views the text of the Bible as God's immutable word and therefore can't admit that it cherry-picks (or worse, doesn't bother cherry-picking!). The other looks at the Bible as an imperfect (or "perfectly human") document, cherry-picks as a matter of principle, and takes 100% responsibility for the choices it makes.

And I'll state unabashedly: I'm a "choicist" through and through.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No Exodus? No problem!

How can we continue with Judaism if there’s no historical Exodus? Isn’t that living a lie? Well, that all depends on how we view Judaism. For me, Judaism is not about what “is” or what “was” – it’s about the kind of people we seek to be, the kind of society we wish to build.

And if the reason we haven’t found any substantive physical evidence for the Exodus is that it simply never happened (at least not in any manner resembling the Torah narratives), then that makes the above point even stronger. Because the legend was obviously told that way, carefully crafted and highly embellished, to convey a teaching, and to build up the story so as to give that teaching weight, to help it “stick”. Torah after all means “instruction”, and the main point of that instruction (many of the unsavory details notwithstanding) is to get us to enter into a covenant – with ourselves – to be a “holy nation”, i.e. to create a moral, elevated society. And that is a national calling I believe we can all relate to, even today.

Now of course, most religious Jews would maintain that the way to create a moral, elevated society is to follow what the Torah says to a “T” (especially the Oral Law) – because it’s Hashem’s will. To that, I say:

1) The idea that the Torah (written or oral) is "the word of God" is nothing less than pure fantasy, and it’s time we face up to that like mature adults.

2) Religious observance (even filtered through a more “modern” Talmud) is hopelessly inadequate for the purposes of creating a moral, elevated society – to today’s standards, at any rate.

Well then, if producing a moral, elevated society is the goal, what’s the point of religious observance, the whole tradition, or being “Jewish” for that matter? Why not just be ethical humanists? Why maintain the “Jewish” label altogether?

Because, at least for many of us, we want to continue to “be” as a people. Simple as that. And there’s no shame in wanting to survive, in wanting to maintain self-identity as a group. It’s human to identify with a distinct culture, to have a set of traditions and rituals you call “home”. It’s stimulating to have such a vast and rich intellectual tradition to relate to. And as long as we get to choose how – and to what extent – we relate to that tradition, as long as it remains meaningful and enjoyable and doesn’t become a burden, as long as the “particularist” aspect doesn’t hinder our “universalist” aspirations (to the contrary, it can and should be used to inspire such aspirations), then our “Jewishness” can be affirming, positive and vitalizing – useful as both a means to an end, as well as an end unto itself.

So... No, it doesn’t look like the Exodus story has much historical veracity – not even the non-supernatural parts. But for me, that’s irrelevant. The Exodus is a part of our national “story”, and for that reason alone it’s something we’ll always come back to. We may be inspired by parts of it. We may object to parts of it and actively disavow those parts. But it’s a win-win proposition – either way, we can use those feelings, those reactions to our tradition, to help chart our way forward, to continue deciding who and what we’re about.

And that, to me, is a very “authentic” Judaism – because it’s the story we create for ourselves.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Avadim Hayinu - At first we were slaves... to Judaism

My take on "freedom" going into Erev Pesach:

Once you really internalize that there's no Overlord scrutinizing our every move, that Torah/Judaism is solely a product of the human mind, that's the ticket to freedom. Because now the whole system turns on its head. No longer are we slaves to Judaism. No, it's Judaism that has to work for us.

When it does its job well, meaning it adds to our lives positively - provides meaning, joy, growth, etc. - then great. But when it starts to be a drag, makes us neurotic, strikes us as immoral, etc., then it's not doing its job, and either that part of Judaism has to shape up - the way we decide it should - or it gets the ax. And each of us as individuals gets to make that call. We created Judaism, and that means we can keep it or reject it - or even change it* - as we see fit.

(*Some of us may undertake such change slowly, others overnight. Some may use Halacha as the process for introducing/vetting change, others their own conscience. Some may tinker with this or that, and others may need to revamp entire areas of Judaism. Whatever your preference, there's probably a Jewish denomination or community that's a good fit for you - or at least good enough. And if not, you can be sure there are many more kindred spirits out there with whom you can form a community. You just have to find them.)

Now, that doesn't mean we act like slave drivers. That which is within our employ deserves our respect, and it also requires great effort - care and attention - on our part. For Judaism to work for us, we also need to work for it. That's how I understand statements like, "More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews." Only by expending effort on Shabbat do we derive benefit from it. It's not a metaphysical idea - it's a general principle in life.

So, freedom "from" Judaism, if that's what an individual needs - yes. Freedom "within" Judaism, as something we do out of choice - yes. But no more slavery - that's over. At least it is for me.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The pseudoscience of Kabbalah and how I thought I was "Neo"

What "happens" when we daven or do mitzvot?

In my view, what happens is that we experience psychological and social effects - nothing more and nothing less. Which is not to minimize these effects - they undoubtedly have a big impact. But other approaches make further claims.

In the non-mystical theological approach, the claim is that Hashem "hears" and "sees" what we do, and judges us more favorably when we follow His commands.

And in the mystical approach - which I want to focus on here, the claim is that Hashem gives us "pathways" to achieve spiritual goals. So when we recite a prayer just so, or do a mitzvah just so (which can also include having the right kavana/intention), we "stir the Heavens" by sending energy along these pathways, which then has a positive trickle-down effect for us here on Earth.

This last approach - I would contend - is actually a quasi-scientific orientation to the world, in the same way that the magical, metaphysical or spiritual-mechanical orientation is quasi-scientific. Mind you, I don't mean in the "evidence-based" idea of science, but rather more in the loose-experimental sense of attempting to discover things that "work". When we turn on a light switch, the light comes on. Likewise, the belief is that there's a built-in infrastructure of nonphysical/unseen "wiring" in place which permeates the universe (including spiritual dimensions), and what we need to do is figure out how and where to construct the right "switches" to take advantage of this spiritual infrastructure and produce the desired effects.

I was once very much taken in by this approach. After all, we live in a world of technology. We appreciate knowledge and activities which "do" things.

So let's say I put on Tefillin. I could say that the main reason to do it is that it's a "mitzvah", and that Hashem judges me favorably as a result of putting it on, because I've fulfilled the command to a "T". But to me, the Commander/King motif always smacked of metaphorical, anthropomorphic religious-speak, the idea of the Judge on High who scrutinizes my mitzvah observance and awards me accordingly. It's a model that almost from the outset of my "frum career" I found very difficult to buy into.

How else to understand it then? Well, I could say that putting on Tefillin is personally meaningful, that I am binding myself to Hashem as it were, that each aspect of it is symbolic of a lofty religious concept. Well, that may be beautiful, but what bread does it bake, really? What does it "do"? If it's all meaning and symbolism, then isn't it ultimately arbitrary? To me, this was the most insipid and uninspiring approach to Judaism - the "symbolic" approach. How weak! How arbitrary! What a waste of time!

And so the Kabbalistic approach was much more my speed. Finally, an approach that talks about the mitzvot "doing" something! The mitzvot are a "technology" of sorts. They manipulate unseen energies. All we have to do now is "reveal" those energies, reveal the hidden infrastructure, and we can remove all the kashyas (questions of halacha), all the religious talk, all the metaphors, and know precisely what to do. It's like in The Matrix when Neo had his epiphany and was able to "see" the computer code underlying everything, unmask the reality surrounding us. That was essentially my dream - to become the "Neo" of the Torah world.

After all, if Tuma and Kedusha are real, if they're really out there, if they're energies which interface with the physical world, then we should at least be able to find them, detect them - right? That's what I thought at least, and I literally wanted to invent the "Tum-ometer" and "Kedush-ometer", to hone in on the physical manifestation of these energies and measure them, conduct experiments to demonstrate their presence - and in so doing be able to reveal the unseen reality to the world.

And think what honor that would give to Torah - to be able to "prove" conclusively, once and for all, that it's not just a bunch of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. It's real. It's a technology that works, and we've known about it for thousands of years...

To me, that was the Holy Grail - to reveal the system, uncover the technology. Well, that turned out - big surprise - to be a total pipe dream. At first I chalked it up to my own intellectual and/or educational deficiencies - lack of a firm scientific/mathematical background. "If I only knew X, Y and Z, I'd be able to crack it!" But over the course of several years (on the heels of numerous dead-ends, and simultaneously while being introduced to skeptics like James Randi, Derren Brown, Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.), I came to the obvious question and conclusion:

What's really more reasonable, more plausible?
  1. That there are actually "hidden energies" which are streaming all around us, and the mitzvot channel those energies - just that science hasn't discovered it yet. Or...
  2. That I merely believe that there are "hidden energies" which are streaming all around us, and the mitzvot channel those energies, and that's the reason science has never and will never discover it. Because it all boils down to self-suggestion.
Answer number 2 turned out to be my great "epiphany". Yes, it was exciting to think that locked within Torah lie deep secrets about the nature of reality, that after thousands of years we're finally on the cusp of revealing those secrets, and that this revelation is part of ushering a new redemptive era. Very exciting indeed! But when push comes to shove, to go around speculating about the "technology of Torah"... Imagine if someone talked about the "technology of the Koran" and said the exact same thing but plugged in different words. It would sound to me like a person who may be creative, possibly even nice, but at the same time pretty obviously self-deluded. Well, that's precisely how I was coming off to people. And for good reason.

So it took some time, but eventually I simply let it go. And I feel substantially "lighter" for it. As exciting as it was, the feeling that I had to prove the cosmic "Truth" of Torah weighed on me. I can't tell you how freeing it's been to get that off my back, to have nothing more to prove and simply be open to "what is", and enjoy Judaism for what it is - and not pretend it's something it's not.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lessons in true Tzniut from a non-Jewish waitress

A friend forwarded a video (see below) of an "April Fool's" prank. But it wasn't so much a prank as a show of appreciation - and a "boost" - for someone who really deserved it. The woman, Chelsea Roff, is a struggling waitress who has supported her baby sister from the time she was a little girl, battled a severe eating disorder, and now runs a non-profit yoga center for helping other women overcome eating disorders. In the video, she is showered with lavish gifts from "customers" over the course of a shift - only to discover that the whole thing was set up by her friends. One of the first thoughts that came to my mind after watching it: Wow, that's tzniut.

The frum world tends to think about tzniut (modesty) in terms of skirt length and collar buttons. By that measure, Chelsea in her sleeveless shirt would hardly be held as a model of tzniut. She'd be looked down upon in many circles as crude and immodest, and in fact she'd potentially be in danger if she walked through certain "modesty-obsessed" communities in Israel dressed like that.

And yet Chelsea's whole demeanor bespeaks tzniut of a much more profound variety. She walks without the slightest air of self-importance or ego, without vanity or sexual provocativeness. She encounters gifts, appreciation and attention with a distinct feeling of awkwardness, a sense of "Me? I don't deserve all this." And that, I submit, is a sign of true modesty.

Compare that to the (unfortunately not small number of) frum Jews who walk around with the sense that the entire cosmos revolves around them, with a feeling (and indeed a whole religious philosophy) of superiority over non-Jews, a sense of arrogance in the absolute certainty that they're fulfilling the will of the Creator, whereas everyone else basically doesn't have a clue, is at best ultimately meant to serve them, and at worst is subject to Hashem's "wrath upon the nations". I don't care how many frocks or hats or sheitels you have on or how many buttons you have buttoned - if you think you're "the stuff" and everyone else is just "chaff", then not only do you not know what real modesty is about - you've turned the very concept on its head.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Rebbe Nachman and the Red Sea

I've had less time to write lately, which I suppose is a good thing in a way. What happens though is I start writing and quickly find myself short on time, and the result is that I'm now sitting with a whole bunch of "stubs" of posts that I never published because they're unfinished. And what good is that? So... My thought is that I should put out more "stubby" posts - short ones, thoughts I have on this or that, even if they're raw, incomplete, less polished - and we'll see how that goes.

To kick this off, I wanted to mention a brief conversation I had with my son yesterday. He started singing a Rebbe Nachman song he heard at school, which contained themes to the effect that Rebbe Nachman will "save" you, that Uman is an "ir hakodesh" (holy city), and that we look forward to the day when Eliyahu Hanavi comes and Rebbe Nachman "returns".

To be clear, he was singing it in humor. I asked him why he came home early, and he explained that one of the teachers at his school is a Breslover Chasid and flew to Uman to be "by the rebbe" for Rosh Chodesh Nisan.

Then my son asked me (more like prodded me on, since he knows that I tend to roll my eyes at this kind of stuff) about what I think about the whole Rebbe Nachman thing. And I said as follows:

It would be really easy to say, "This is totally crazy." But the truth is, there are a lot of crazy beliefs in Judaism. Is the belief that Rebbe Nachman will save us so much crazier than the belief that the Sea split? Not really. But the difference is that the Sea splitting is written in the Torah itself, and it's a fixture in our mesorah (tradition). So even though it's a crazy thing to believe, we accept it as a part of our tradition, and we deal with it - think about it and interpret it - however we choose to do that. Whereas the Rebbe Nachman craziness is hardly a "fixture" in the tradition. So why add more craziness to Judaism?

Like all such conversations, I'm sure I could've put it differently, maybe better. But what I liked about it was that I was able to "give over" the idea that there are concepts in the tradition which don't make sense rationally, and that it's OK to recognize that (as opposed to defending them as rational), and it's OK as a thinking person to allow such a thing to exist as a part of Judaism. And he was able to hear that.

And that's basically my whole approach to Judaism: Be real and honest about the tradition, and at the same time find ways to enjoy it, to appreciate it, and to make it meaningful.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What Exactly Is "The Power of Tehillim"?

Here's one for the "rationalism vs. mysticism" file. I was speaking to a friend of mine - a regular frum guy, pragmatic, mussar-oriented, not particularly mystically-inclined. But in the course of our conversation, he said the following about the "power" of Tehillim (Psalms):

"David Hamelech's kavanot [meanings/intentions] are already there in the Tehillim. You don't even have to understand what you're saying. That's how powerful it is."

Built-in kavanot - just add water? You mean all you have to do is say the words and they produce a "powerful effect"? I challenged my friend gently, saying that I'm wary of approaches that come close to the idea of "incantation". He agreed, and added that really it's more of a "tefillah" (prayer). (Of course, if you have a mystical approach to the formulaic recitation of tefillah, that's no less incantation-like. But I decided not to go there...)

Needless to say, he's hardly alone in invoking the "power" concept. Here's what you get when you do the following Google searches:

"Power of Tehillim" (75,400 results)
"Power of Tehilim" (54,400 results)
"Power of Psalms" (48,800 results)

(Note that the phrase "power of prayer" yields a whopping 1.8 million results. Actually, you could pretty much substitute "prayer" for "Tehillim" in this post - it's virtually the same idea.)

Among the samplings I found among the "Power of Tehillim" results:

The Tzemach Tzeddek [3rd Lubavitcher Rebbe] once told his chassidim, "If only you knew the power of Tehillim, you would recite them at all times. Kapitlach of Tehillim break all barriers and bow before Hashem, bringing results with kindness and mercy."

"Let us see how many times the Book of Tehillim can be said each day and what the power of Tehillim can do!" - Leah Rubashkin

If people only knew the power of Tehilim they would read it all day long, seven days a week!  Reading Tehilim on a regular basis can open up the gates of heaven and change a person's situation in life for the better.

But what is this "power" exactly? Here are a number of possibilities, rationalistic and otherwise:
  1. Its meanings inspire positive change in us, and we in turn effect positive change in the world.
  2. Its words resonate with our life experiences and help us to articulate our feelings.
  3. It helps us transcend the mundane in daily life - e.g. by saying Tehillim while riding on a bus.
  4. It gives us something to "do" - and therefore offers comfort - when we feel helpless during difficult times.
  5. When said as part of a group, it lends a sense of solidarity, pulling us together as a community.
  6. It gives hope to the people it's being said for.
  7. It instills a sense of compassion and mutual responsibility within those who say it.
  8. It strengthens our emuna (faith).
  9. It gives us zechut (merit), which can potentially "tip the scales" in Shamayim when our fate is being decided.
  10. The words themselves have a power to effect changes in the Higher Realms.

I'd basically divide these into three groups:
  1. Internal effect - psychological/communal
  2. External effect - influencing Hashem's decision
  3. External effect - creating spiritual realities
And these aren't mutually exclusive. Religious people certainly appreciate the psychological and communal effects - the idea of "working on ourselves" and cultivating compassion for one another. At the same time, they generally agree that Tehillim does something "out there" as well - and that's what I find people typically refer to when they invoke the idea of "power". But in my experience, most people have only the most vague sense of what that power is - whether it's more like #2 or #3 above and how that actually works. 

So they speak in generalities about "power" and "merit", and bring miracle stories about people saved by reciting Tehillim, as in:

No matter how distressing the situation, Tehillim has eased the pain and achieved miracles. A story is told in the sefer Chesed L’Avraham about an entire city that was kept safe for years because of a single man’s recitation of Tehillim every day... Our experience has shown that Tehillim has accomplished wonders, astounding the doctors of our patients time and time again... The power of so many prayers will surely evoke a heavenly response.

What does that mean, "evoke a heavenly response"? Evoke - as in bring about or conjure, or influence the decision-making process? Heavenly - as in Hashem, a larger heavenly court, or the metaphysical plumbing on high? Response - as in action-reaction, spiritual mechanics, or response in the sense of an "answer"? It's like the proverbial "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" The more you talk on the topic, the more foolish it sounds. So it's left deliberately vague.

But that's not to say that the inability to offer a coherent explanation is viewed as a problem or that it casts the belief itself into doubt. Just the opposite - it feeds into the "other-worldliness" of it, the sense of majesty and mystery, unknowability, a shining example of "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways". So expressing vagueness and a lack of understanding might actually be termed a kind of "piety" in cases like these.

Now, my intent here is not to demean the idea of saying Tehillim, organizing Tehillim groups, etc. Even if people have only tenuous notions of what they mean when they say it's "effective" in the metaphysical or theological sense, the fact is - it is effective for all the psychological and communal reasons. And I also recognize that people's mystical/theological beliefs themselves have power - the power of hope, which can make a tangible difference in people's lives.

So I'm torn. On the one hand, if challenging people's spiritual claims about Tehillim would lessen the positive effect it has, who am I to do that? Would I likewise go into a homeopathy clinic and tell patients who say they're benefiting from it that the whole notion behind homeopathy is ridiculous? We're talking about people's lives and health at stake. It may be the "placebo effect", but the placebo effect is very real and very powerful!

On the other hand, kavod ha-Torah (the honor of Torah) and consequently "kavod of the mind" are on the line here. Do I just stand by and not say anything about beliefs which are patently false as long as it "works" for many people? And let that pass for "Torah"? Let Torah - and everyone affiliated with it - be derided as superstitious and backwards? Not on my watch!

Obviously this question goes to issues of religious belief in general.

And honestly I don't have a one-size-fits-all answer. Or maybe my answer is that we shouldn't have an absolute position in such matters. Life is complex, and requires nuance and sensitivity. As I've said many times before, people come before ideas. You don't ruin lives in order to make a point. But... There has to be a place to make a point. Which is why I said toward the beginning of the post that I challenged my friend "gently". I didn't want to hurt him, but I also felt compelled to say something. So I suppose the best policy is (and really I'm telling myself this as a sort of mantra): Use thy best discretion!