Sunday, December 22, 2013

Would I Turn on Electricity for Warmth on Shabbat? In a Heartbeat!

There's a story which recently made the rounds here (see an English recap here) about Rabbi Yoni Rosenzweig, who talks about why on the Shabbat before last he decided to turn on the electricity. It was the middle of the night, and he woke up - it was snowing and the house was freezing, and he realized the main circuit breaker had tripped. He had little kids there and was concerned about staying in the house as well as about the prospect of finding another house to go to at 3am or whatever time it was. So he thought through the halacha for a few moments and decided he had a heter (leniency) to turn on the electricity.

I'm not going to address the soundness of his decision from a halachic perspective. I just want to speak about how I tend to handle these situations and ask you the same.

To put it simply - without question, without even thinking about any halachic back-and-forth, I'd turn on the heat on a freezing night. In fact I imagine that if I started to hem and haw, my wife would yell out from under the covers, "Are you nuts?! Just turn it on already!"

For me, the thought of not turning it on would be something like waiting at a long red light at 3am with no cars around and my wife in labor. Yes, I do respect the law. I understand that it serves an important function. But sometimes you've just got to do what you gotta do. And yes, I fully acknowledge that the reason I can say that (unlike normative believers) is that don't see halacha as affecting any metaphysical realities, nor do I believe it's "commanded" or "enforced" from On High. So like I say, to me it's not even a question.

Now with such a position, I know I could get it from both sides. Whether atheist or theist, frum or non-frum, a person might reasonably ask: If breaking halacha is no different than going through a red light at 3am, what does it matter whether it's freezing outside or just a touch uncomfortable? Why keep it any halacha if it's "inconvenient" for you? And then what makes you any different from a Conservative Jew?

First off, to go with the traffic analogy, even if there were no police (i.e. no concerns about fines/punishment) and no traffic (i.e. no public safety concerns), a red light at 3am isn't the same thing as a red light at 10am, when there are people around. Because law is more than just a series of "do's" and "don'ts" - it's part of the fabric of society. It gives the society a certain feel, which people identify with. If I ran a red light at 10am for no good reason, that would A) upset a lot of people, and B) it would disconnect me from the society (I'd be "cut off from my people"), both because I'd be rejected by them for flagrantly breaking the law, and also on a purely internal level I'd be dis-identifying with the society.

So here's a question: What if I just lived two lives - my "3am" life and my "10am" life? Meaning, what if I stopped keeping halacha behind closed doors and only kept it publicly? Wouldn't that also be "dis-identifying" with the society?

It seems pretty clear that most people (frum and non-frum alike) live double-lives to certain degrees, have a public face and a separate private life which they don't tell everyone about. And while "purists" may criticize such people for lack of integrity, personally I don't see a problem with it if it improves the person's quality of life (e.g. by "rounding out" a person's life, helping them to be more multidimensional, or by allowing a person to enjoy the benefits of public life while also not giving up individual choice and preferences). But when public and private life become so different that it involves undue secrecy, paranoia, fear, great efforts to hide activities, etc., that's not much of a quality of life, and I wouldn't recommend it.

As for me, I would say I wish I had less of a double-life, but I've positioned myself such that the tension isn't so bad. I have enough friends who I can be myself around (intellectually-speaking) that I don't mind staying "low-key" and not showing all my cards where it comes to the general frum society. Like I say, I don't "love" doing that, but it's sustainable, and the alternative if I would show all my cards is that I wouldn't be able to participate in the society. Not believing that halacha has a Commander is looked upon as "flouting" the law just like going through a red light. Actually it's far worse than that - it's seen as a "threat" to the society as a whole because it seems to question the very basis for the society and its laws.

And then of course one might fairly ask: So why do you want to "identify" with this society if you think the whole thing is made up, and if you think they'd reject you if they knew the truth about you?

So let me go back and answer the previous questions (where do I draw the line, doesn't that make me Conservative, etc.), and that will bring us back to the question of "why" do it at all.

The truth is, I don't have a hard and fast rule as to when I would or wouldn't break a halacha. There are certain things I'm more careful about than others, just like any frum person. But I have no compunction about doing whatever I feel I need to do on a private basis. Which doesn't mean I'm constantly breaking halacha, but it wouldn't take potentially "freezing" before I turned on the heat. If you want to call that "Conservative", fine. But Conservative Jews generally speaking aren't keeping halacha, nor are they learning Torah, nor are they living in frum communities where Shabbat observance is the norm. And that's the community I call home.

Which brings us to the "why" question: Why would I want to call this community home? Because for all the problems of the frum community, my quality of life is outstanding. It's as simple as that. You make choices in life, and you live with your choices, including the stuff you don't like. Or to put it another way - you live the best as you can, as productively and happily as you can, with your choices. And even though I can't say I have zero misgivings about the choices I've made, all in all I have a very blessed life. I'm grateful for all the "good" and wouldn't want to give that up.

There's something else though. It's not just the immediate "benefits" of frum life which keep me observant. There's also a sense of caring about the whole enterprise of the Jewish people, our existence and survival, and what we bring to the world. Even though like I've posted about before, it seems fairly clear that our contribution to the world as a people (at least in more recent centuries) has been made overwhelmingly by non-observant Jews than by observant Jews, still there is a "Jewishness" which (I strongly believe) is adding to the ethos and fuel for that contribution, and that Jewishness wouldn't be there were it not for Jewish observance. There are no Jews (eventually, after X number of generations) without observance. And I respect that, and want to contribute to that as well.

So that's my approach in a nutshell. Thoughts? Do you cut corners? If so, how do you feel about that? Do you have a "policy" about it? How do you deal with public vs. private observance?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Torah Theory That Will Change the World!

A long-time acquaintance of mine wrote to me last week after “going public” with a theory of his. To give some sense of it, the theory involves a scientifically understood astronomical phenomenon, ideas in quantum physics, and calculations based on Temple vessels described in Tanach. All this, the theory purports, combines to show that the major events of history – good and bad – have been predetermined from time immemorial and are in some sense predictable. He conjectures that this phenomenon was once known within the Torah tradition, informing the work of the prophets, but has been long since lost. And now, after thousands of years, it has finally been rediscovered, understood in the light of modern science, and its revelation is about to change the world as we know it…

There was a time in my life when I would’ve been “wowed” by such a theory. In fact I was partial to coming up with theories of my own, likewise thinking of them as great discoveries with the capacity to change the face of humanity. And truth be told, I am still open to new discoveries and world-changing, out-of-the-box ideas. What’s changed however is that I’m now – after much exposure to critical/skeptical thinking – keenly aware of how easy it is to create a convincing presentation, even seemingly based on “logic”, and supported by all kinds of “facts” and “evidence”, but which leads to conclusions which are completely untrue, and often even rather wacky.

Now some people are just charlatans, deliberately out to mislead others for fame, financial gain, or any number of reasons. But many are just earnest individuals who put forth their theories believing them to be the honest-to-goodness truth. The person I’m writing about is without question of the latter category. He’s a scientist, an inventor, brilliant in his own right, and also a humble, sweet and well-meaning guy. He simply wants to give honor to the Torah by assuming that it holds great secrets – secrets which potentially hold the keys to humankind’s redemption, to our future on the planet. But as intelligent and creative as he is, he’s absolutely blind to his own subjectivity and theoretical missteps.

Yes, the science he mentions is correct and well-documented. Yes, what he says about Tanach is a reasonable extrapolation. But what on earth do these two things have to do with one another?? Also, the “proof” he provides is that certain historical events just happen to line up perfectly with his theory – and what are the chances of that after all? Well, the chances are very low – unless of course you consider ALL THE OTHER events in history which don’t line up with the theory! It’s like when people tell miracle stories about this person getting saved, that person getting healed – “And you see, this proves that davening works, this proves there's a God, etc.” They’re great stories, yes, but the “proof” gets a bit sketchy when you start to consider the overwhelming preponderance of other stories out there which don't get told where the outcome was far from “miraculous”. Additionally, the theory itself has built into it a major “fudge factor” (i.e. margin for “play”) which allows him to more easily cherry-pick his evidence. Like I say, the theory is transparently flawed and subjective, but he sincerely believes it to be 100% rock solid.

And there's a part of me which would like to point all this out to him. But considering it’s a theory of his that’s been in the works for several decades, and given how much he’s invested of his precious energy, his heart and soul – and actual money... Considering that it gives him a sense of meaning and purpose, and that I know from personal experience how priceless that feeling is, to be so excited about a discovery, to be on such a creative high... I couldn’t possibly take that away from him. It may also be the case that I literally couldn’t take it away him. Someone so attached to a theory like this doubtless would respond with a million and one rationalizations as to how I’m just not looking at it the right way, point me to this, that and the other piece of evidence, etc. So my reticence about speaking to him about it is probably also my not wanting to bang my head against a wall, to get into a fruitless back-and-forth with someone who’s not going to hear my point.

So I just congratulated him about his presentation and left it at that, and I was left feeling slightly melancholy about the whole thing. There’s something tragic – in the quixotic sense – about the thought of someone so driven and idealistic whose mission is doomed from the very outset. Yes, I understand it’s like any other self-delusion or misguided belief which makes people happy – there’s a lot of good that can come out of such a state of mind which has nothing whatsoever to do with the “belief” per se. Still, I always prefer a bit of disillusionment over living an illusion, a little stark realism over fantasy, and I take it as a great bracha that I can now look at theories like this through much clearer eyes than I would have several years ago.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

VIDEO: Reverse Engineering Belief in God - with Derren Brown

This video came out about a year ago. It's by Derren Brown, an entertainer/magician known for his work using psychological suggestion and misdirection, and for orchestrating elaborate scenarios designed to test people's reactions, their strengths and fallibilities - and especially the power of belief. Occasionally I find his manipulative tactics to be over the top, particularly when he has people undergo intense stress or fear. But I appreciate the genius of Derren's work, and I have a great deal of personal hakarat hatov (gratitude) to him for helping me identify areas in my own life where I was given over to naive thinking and prone to irrational beliefs and suggestibility. In fact I wish there were a bracha (blessing) to say to express the joy of overcoming self-delusion! Any suggestions on that?

Anyway... This is the second installment of a two-part show called "Fear and Faith", wherein Derren tries to bring an atheist/skeptic to experience a powerful feeling of belief in God. His technique is to essentially reverse engineer the process, i.e. analyzing what goes into such belief and then trying to reproduce it. Even though the "religious epiphany" aspect of it doesn't really speak to the kind of belief experience which Orthodox Jews typically have, there are certain components of the process which I think are relevant to frum belief - particularly the propensity to ascribe supernatural significance to things which have down-to-earth explanations.

Before talking too much about it, I want to give you the chance to watch the video and offer your reactions. So enjoy, and Chanukah Sameach / Happy Hanukkah!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

What I Mean When I Say I’m an “Atheist”

I call myself an atheist, which is generally true. But the term needs defining, and I – like all people who use it to describe themselves – need to be more specific about where the term really applies, and where a different term might be more fitting. That’s what I plan to do here.


There are two basic ways the term atheism is used. One describes the lack of belief in gods. The second pertains to the belief that there are no gods. There’s an important difference between the two: The first is atheism in the sense of being “without God” (as in the Greek atheos). It is lacking belief in God either because the thought of God never crossed the person’s mind, or that it has but never made any impact either way. The person simply lives without God. The second type of atheism, by contrast, expresses a definite position on the matter. It is a positive belief, an assertion in and of itself – “There are no gods”. I actually fall into both of these categories.

As I go about my day, I am (with few exceptions – see the end of the post) “atheistic”, according to the first meaning. My experience in the world is one which lacks belief in God. I don’t walk around with a sense that I’m being watched, looked after, loved or judged by an Infinite Being. I don’t think of the world as being supervised, or events as having intrinsic “meaning” because they fall into a greater Divine plan. When something happens in my life, or around me, I have no impulse whatsoever to ask, “Why did that happen?” I don’t assume there being any “grand purpose” to it all. This is atheism in the sense of lacking God-awareness. It’s what is sometimes referred to as a “soft” or “negative” atheism.

That's in terms of my day-to-day experience. But intellectual matters are something else. Do I “believe” in God? The answer to that question really depends which God you’re talking about, and for me it ranges from total disbelief to having no clue whatsoever. As a general rule, the more specific the “god”, the more certain my belief is that it doesn’t exist.

In terms of the God depicted in the Torah, who creates people out of mud, destroys the world in floods, commands us to love Him “or else” – the Biblical God – I don’t just “lack belief”. I strongly disbelieve it. I believe with full confidence that if we had a video recording of the last 5774 years of human history, we could go through every second and every frame of that footage and not find a single one of the supernatural events described in the Bible. In fact – and I apologize if this sounds harsh – I believe the expectation that we would find such events in that footage to be fairly ludicrous.

This is atheism in the “hard” or “positive” sense of active disbelief. It’s the “atheo” in “atheodox”. And believe me, as a religiously observant Jew living in the frum community, I have every reason to want to believe it. It would make life ever so much simpler! But I can’t “in good faith” have that faith. Nor can I simply be “neutral” about it. I’m compelled in my desire for intellectual honesty – and in an odd sense in my desire to be faithful to Torah – to reject the Five Books as being "True" in the literal, supernatural sense.

Even if we get less specific and simply talk about a personal God who answers prayers, who loves us and intervenes on our behalf, I again tend toward active disbelief, and not just “lack of belief”. To think of the millions throughout history who’ve called out to God to be saved – people undergoing unspeakable suffering, crying out in utter anguish and desperation, innocent people, children – and who were simply left to their fate, I can’t help but believe there is no such God. Yes, the “hope” of intervention and salvation may serve an important psychological function for people, but it doesn’t make a loving, intervening God real.


Now, in terms of how I stand regarding the question, “Is there a Creator of the Universe?”, here the label “atheist” is less apt. I think of myself as an agnostic.

Agnosticism generally means having no “beliefs” about God – either of God’s existence or lack thereof. In that sense it’s similar to the “soft” atheism I described above. But there’s another form of agnosticism which goes further – where the person says that not only do they know nothing about God, but that they believe it’s impossible for anyone to have knowledge of God. Where it comes to the idea of an abstract Creator, I’m definitely a “category one” agnostic, and I’m sympathetic toward “category two”. Let me explain – and you’ll forgive me for the lengthy aside, but it’s to make a point.

I count myself no more qualified to give an opinion on the matter of whether there is a Creator than I am about giving an opinion on any matter relating to the ultimate nature of the cosmos. To articulate how utterly futile and insignificant I feel it would be to give my “two cents” about what/who created it all, let me just take a moment to describe one aspect of the universe – the sheer scale of what we’re talking about here.

Let’s say you’re standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. You’re overwhelmed at the magnitude of what you’re looking at, feeling absolutely dwarfed by the scope and grandeur, feeling miniscule in terms of time – reflecting on how ancient it is, how many human lifetimes and indeed entire species have come and gone within the millions of years it took to create this. And this is a place which covers a mere 4,926 km². Compared to the whole State of Arizona at 295,254 km², the Grand Canyon is nothing more than a fetching little dent in the ground.

Let’s zoom out a bit. The surface area of the Pacific Ocean is 165,200,000 km². In terms of volume, the Pacific’s 714 million cubic kilometers of water would fill up around 170,000 Grand Canyons. When you’re out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it is absurdly, unfathomably, mind-bogglingly, dizzyingly endless. The surface area of the entire planet Earth is just about exactly three times that at 510,072,000 square kilometers.

Now if you thought you were already feeling small, let’s zoom out a bit further. If you’d take off in a 747 and fly around the Earth (traveling at around 600 mph), it would take a bit under 42 hours to get back to where you started. But let’s say that instead you decided to fly straight up and take a little excursion to the sun. You might want to pack a few extra sandwiches, because it would take you about 17 years. And if you really enjoyed the ride and decided to kick up your feet and haul it to the edge of the solar system, approximately 9 billion miles away (the distance to the “heliosheath”), you’d need to sing “this is the song that never ends” for around 1,645 years before you arrived.

But let’s say you wanted to get to Proxima Centauri, the next closest star to the Sun. I think at that point it might be wise to upgrade your transportation. Say you take Nasa’s “New Horizon” spacecraft, which whistles along at around 60,000 km/h. To get to Proxima Centauri would take you, oh, around 78,000 years.

As impossibly distant as that seems, if we were to zoom out further and look at the Milky Way, which contains approximately 300 billion stars – relative to all that, the Sun and Proxima Centauri are practically kissing each other, an indistinguishable blur of light.

Leave the Milky Way, which looks to be absolutely bustling with light and activity (despite the mind-numbing emptiness between any two objects within it), and you get to a whole other level of quiet. The nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way is Andromeda, which is 2.5 billion light years away. To give you a sense of that distance, the Milky Way is approximately 100,000 light years across, meaning if you shined a flashlight out your window on one end, it would take 100,000 years for that light to reach the other end. Multiply that by 25,000, and that’s the kind of empty space we’re talking about between us and the next galaxy.

And yes, if you haven’t guessed it, the Milky Way and Andromeda are really just two peas in a pod. Because if you zoom out a bit more, you realize that we’re in a cluster containing hundreds or even thousands of galaxies. And the next cluster of galaxies over is absurdly far away, and even then that cluster and our own are really part of a “supercluster” of galaxies, of which there are approximately 10 million. Altogether, we currently estimate about 350 billion large galaxies in the known universe, plus another 7 trillion "dwarf" galaxies, with a total of around 30 billion trillion (that’s 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars. And for all we know, the “known” universe is just the tip of the iceberg of something far, far more vast. After all, where did we get the idea that this is “all” there is, that our universe isn’t just one tiny “blip” in something which is far larger, one dimension of something unfathomably greater?

And here you are standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon feeling impossibly tiny.

Point being, to speak about “knowing” anything significant about what it is that created the cosmos is indescribably, stupefyingly naïve. Imagine being blindfolded, touching the side of a building with the tip of your pinky, having no idea where you are, what’s in the building, how big it is, or even that it is a building, and then speaking with any degree of confidence about what you “know” of what it is you’re touching and who/what created it. Even with all our knowledge of the universe, which I agree is quite incredible, that level of futility is about what I imagine we’re facing here.

Yes, I suppose that if there is some sort of Creator, we do know “something” about the Creator to the extent we know something about the Creation. But given the infinitesimal amount that we know, it strikes me that the whole enterprise of making statements about the Creator is nothing more than pure vanity and striving after wind. So you could say I’m a fairly “hard” agnostic in that sense.

I should also mention though that in terms of the Torah, I’m also agnostic regarding the historicity of the non-supernatural elements of the story. Sure, I could make some leaps of intuition. Did Avraham Avinu live? Mmm… I would tend to think yes. Did Adam live? Pretty sure not. Did the Akeida happen? I have no clue. Did the exodus from Egypt happen? My gut says yes, in some form, but I could  be wrong. To me, it’s all open. And as I’ve said in previous posts, my motivation as an observant Jew doesn’t depend on it, so I have no problem living with that uncertainty.


I mentioned toward the beginning of the post about there being “exceptions” to my atheism. I mean this in the sense of "God" or "Hashem" figuring into my life, either emotionally, culturally or conceptually.

For instance, I do occasionally pray. Yes, I daven all the time in the ritual sense, but I’m talking about actual heartfelt “prayer”. This prayer is emotional, and not intellectual. I also say “Thank God” often, and I do mean it in more than the perfunctory sense. I'm expressing heartfelt gratitude for something and acknowledging that I in no way take it for granted. Though the "God" component of the statement is really secondary and cultural. I also speak about “Hashem” frequently in the context of Torah and Judaism. That’s simply because Hashem is in the system. I don’t deny that. But I look at Hashem as either a concept or a literary character, nothing more.

And finally, despite my lack of belief – and full-on disbelief – I consider myself as possessing a form of “emunat Hashem”. I believe in Hashem in the sense of my being largely – though not perfectly – faithful to the Torah. I’m here in the world doing what I can to perpetuate Jews and Judaism, to strive for truth, to act compassionately and kindly with people, and generally to try and do some good. And so even if I'm completely wrong, if my beliefs about God turned out to be totally erroneous and the Torah is true in the literal sense, I have to think Hashem would understand and appreciate where I'm coming from, that I'd still be okay in Hashem’s book. Actually, I imagine everyone apart from the most heinous and wanton evildoers would be okay in Hashem's book.

Now, as to whether Hashem is okay in my book, or humanity's book – that’s another matter entirely. Because it seems to me Hashem has got a whole lot of explaining to do.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Who's Really the Frum "Skeptic"?

I'm not the first nonbeliever who doesn't identify with the term "skeptic". Come to think of it, I don't particularly resonate with the term "non-believer" either - or "denier", or "doubter". But I am a nonbeliever. I do deny tenets A, B and C. I am skeptical. I do doubt. So what's wrong with these terms?

What's wrong is who the terms are assumed to apply to. To call me a "skeptic" assumes that the baseline "normal" is the belief that A, B and C are true: The Torah is in fact a word-for-word dictation from God. God created the world in seven days. Adam and Chava were the first humans, created out of mud (or more precisely, Adam was created from mud; Chava was created from Adam). Noach brought at least one pair of every single non-aquatic animal on Earth into the ark. Individuals from the antediluvian generations lived upwards of 1,000 years. God spoke face-to-face with people, rained plagues on Egypt, split the sea, stopped the sun in the sky, etc. And the reason we don't see such neat tricks today? Either it's because we don't need them, or we aren't on the "spiritual level" for them, or we're being punished with God's "hiddenness" in exile. Bronze Age Near Eastern society somehow got it exactly right, arrived at the perfect cosmic cocktail - which is why God's eternal commandments reflect that one specific time and place... Let me get this straight - if I don't believe all that, I'm a "skeptic", a "denier"?

No, no. You've got it the other way around. Not to believe that the Earth is billions of years old makes you a skeptic. Not to believe that human beings evolved over millions of years (if not in a graduated manner then via a more punctuated equilibrium) makes you a skeptic. Not to believe that the world runs via entirely natural processes (which would preclude supernatural intervention) makes you a denier. Not to recognize that the Torah emerged out of a world where god myths and other legends were commonplace, which explains why the Torah speaks the way it does (and not because it's "literally true"), makes you a nonbeliever. Not to acknowledge that the mitzvot are what they are because of their historical context (and not because they're somehow "spiritually perfect"), makes you a doubter.

The skeptic is the one who takes a cynical view of conventional wisdom and evidence. That's not me! The denier is the one who believes what he/she believes despite being saddled with the burden of exposition. Again, that's not me - adaraba, it's mainstream frum believers! They're the ones who should sooner be termed skeptics, deniers, nonbelievers and doubters, no?

Now, some people in the atheistic category don't like being called "atheists" either, since that's also a term which assumes God (i.e. theism) as the baseline "normal". I feel the same way. I don't walk around identifying as being "without God" any more than I walk around thinking of myself as being "without wings" or "without an eleventh toe". So some atheists came up with the term "brights" as a way of describing themselves in the positive. To be honest though, I'm not sure I like that one either, since the potential diyuk (inference) is that believers in God are "not bright." And if I've discovered anything in my journey through Torah and life in general, it's that this notion couldn't be further from the truth. People who believe in God - and indeed people who believe in the some of the most crazy things you can imagine - can also be absolutely brilliant. Genius and intellectual fallibility are by no means mutually exclusive.

So I don't think I need an identity-category to describe myself intellectually. I'm just a regular guy who's interested in truth, and who takes common sense and preponderance of evidence as the primary means of evaluating what's more likely to be true. I say "more likely" because history has taught us over and over that common sense and evidence can sometimes be completely misleading and erroneous.

"Ah," says the religious believer, "so you admit you're also a 'believer' - just that you believe in scientists who think they know everything but keep getting proven wrong time and time again, whereas we believe in an unbroken chain of Torah sages who've been saying the same thing for thousands of years. Who's the one believing in 'crazy things' here?"

I definitely admire the chain of tradition for its consistency and tenacity. And simply put, if it didn't exist I wouldn't be here writing these words. But you do also realize that people have been saying that Jesus is God for close to 2,000 years, which is fairly impressive itself. Saying the same thing for a long stretch of time clearly doesn't prove anything about the veracity of what's being passed down.

But more to the point, I don't mind at all that scientists are wrong, or that theories get overturned and new ones are built in their place. In fact I rather like that about science. It shows flexibility, a willingness to learn, to discover, to rethink, remake ourselves. I think that's a sign of health. And if that means I have to sit with the thought that large chunks of what we think we know scientifically may in fact be wrong, that's okay by me. I don't miss out on the certainty that I'm somehow keyed into the "absolute truth". It's not something I need. I'm quite content with the approach that we simply make our best guess based on the information we have in front of us. Which is also (aside from my rejecting the notion of "omniscience") why it doesn't bother me in the least that Chazal and other Torah greats erred in science - just like others did in their generation, and just like every generation does, as part of the organic process of learning.

So then I suppose you could give me a label. I'm a "work-with-what-you've-got-ist". But that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Living in Fairyland

Part of the reason I haven't posted lately is that I've been doing some other writing under my real name. In fact my wife suggested to me that maybe instead of having an anonymous blog (she knows about this one), I should start a blog under my own name. I told her it's a good idea - that is, except for the "instead of" part. As much as there's a place for writing about things from the mainstream Orthodox perspective, staying within the "ground rules", I also think it's important to retain a space to express some honest thoughts about the system itself - and in particular about the question of beliefs.

I explained to my wife that I feel I have a certain duty to address the widespread phenomenon of grown adults walking around believing in fairytales. I feel this responsibility both from the standpoint of being a part of a people which presumably values truth, and also because when those fairytales are taken literally it can sometimes cause people to do stupid and even dangerous things, and to take extreme, unyielding positions on a range of issues. So occasionally I just need to drop the "A-bomb" (i.e. atheism) - as in: "You wouldn't be doing all this crazy stuff in the name of God if you just took your blinders off and realized the whole premise is made up!" Challenging the foundations of Biblical literalism, shining a light on the fatuousness of supernatural claims, and pointing out the ease at which people are prone to accept blatant superstition, brings a bit of needed perspective to the conversation, and frankly it helps me to keep my sanity.

And then I told her this, which we both had a good laugh about: "But here's the thing - I've stopped believing in the fairytales, but I still want to live in Fairyland!"

Yes, despite the fact that I don't believe the commands have a Commander, I still want to observe Shabbat, the holidays, kashrut, live with an awareness of the Shulchan Aruch. I want to wear a kippa and tzitzit, and identify outwardly as a Jew. I want to be involved in Torah learning and send my kids to schools where they can become talmidei chachamim in addition to the other things they do in their lives. I appreciate the idealistic, values-oriented, mission-driven aspects of Orthodox life. (Even if - funny enough - I disagree with some of the specific ideals, values and missions, there is a great deal I do agree with and resonate with.) I also very much appreciate the communal component of being frum. We live in a great neighborhood, and all in all life is pretty darn good.

What's more, I happen to enjoy the fairytale. It's filled with fascinating glimpses of consciousness from various times in our history as a people. Some of the lessons are timeless and deep, ones I feel proud to pass on. Others may be deeply problematic - but they too cause a person to think. And as long as you realize it's a tale, you can do just that - think, rather than blindly accept.

For sure there are aspects of Fairyland that drive me absolutely bonkers sometimes, but I'm fortunate to live in a corner of the Land where the positive far outshines the negative. There are plenty of "dark forests" in the land of make-believe, and I travel through them often, but that's not where home is. And while I'm well aware that the vast majority of my immediate neighbors believe in the fairytale too, here it feels more like a video being played in the background. It's there, but it's not what people are consumed with, swept up in, constantly acting out. The people I live around are fairly open and chilled out, and that works.

Besides, as much as I wish we could all be intellectually mature, secure and honest enough to wean ourselves off of any and all belief in fairytales, I'm not entirely convinced that Fairyland could survive without it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rain in the Sukkah - Cranky Masters and Bad Omens

This past Shabbat here in Israel (chol hamoed Sukkot) we had a few good downpours of rain, causing us to scramble to get mattresses and the like out of the sukkah before they got soaked. The next day, I spoke to a friend about it, who lamented, "Hashem doesn't want us - He just poured a drink in our face." He was referring to a Mishna in Sukkah (28b) which says that if it rains on Sukkot and we have to leave our sukkahs, it's like when a servant comes to pour his master a drink, and the master - unhappy with the servant - pours the pitcher in the servant's face.

I responded to my friend that I wasn't terribly impressed with the middot of this "master". You're not happy with the service, so you pour the drink in the servant's face? If that's not obnoxious behavior, I'm not sure what is!

At any rate, it's a far cry from the "perfectly good", "perfectly kind" picture of God which people tend to paint today. Seems to me that in the days of yesteryear, at least as recently as the times of the Mishna, it was okay to have a God who gets cranky and ornery at times, who's a bit more "human".

And honestly I'm not sure which choice I prefer - (A) a God who on occasion can be a bit obnoxious but who's more human, more real, or (B) a God who's "only good" but represents a kind of far-removed notion of philosophical perfection which no one can ever hope to attain. My sense is that option (B) is what gets people to believe in ideas such as Chazal could never be wrong, that every Torah luminary who ever lived was a perfect tzaddik, etc. It's living in fantasyland, it's historical revisionism, and it borders on people-worship. On the other hand, I suppose I wouldn't want people walking around in the mindset of option (A) either, pouring water in each other's faces (or far worse) and justifying it as "emulating God".

Of course, I don't go for (A) or (B). I don't have a "Master". I do the work because I want to, and if anyone ever threw water in my face, I'd seek employment elsewhere!

One more quick thought and I have to get ready for the chag...

I recall one Shmini Atzeret a few years back when the first rain of the season fell mamash right after Musaf, right after the prayer for rain. And I remember how elated everyone was, the feeling that this was a positive omen for the Jewish people, that we must have earned Hashem's favor. After all, as soon as we ask for rain it starts coming down in buckets. So it's a great omen when it rains after Mussaf, but if it rains 24 hours earlier, on Sukkot, it's a bad omen... Even though I've seen it time and time again, it never ceases to amaze me how intelligent people can be so naive and superstitious. Just take the rain after Musaf - does anyone really suppose that every shul got rain right after Musaf? What about shuls that start davening later? What about other towns where the rain must've fallen an hour or two earlier? What about all the places which got no rain whatsoever?

I don't at all knock the joy people experience - goodness knows we need more of it! I'm not saying that we need to walk around like Mr. Spock, being so rational that we intellectualize away our feelings of positivity. But #1, for every warm and fuzzy experience produced by one superstition, there's fear and negativity produced by a different superstition. And #2, if we want to bring ourselves to a mindset of joy and confidence and positivity - then why not just choose a non-superstitious way, of which there are always plenty to choose from.
Wishing a good Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah to all...

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Meaning of Suffering (or lack thereof) - Rosh Hashana 5774 Drasha

In the past year alone, a close relative of mine became paralyzed. A friend barely 40 years old finished aveilut (mourning) for her husband. Another friend lost a sibling in a devastating car accident. Another has a spouse who fell into a severe clinical depression and can now barely function. We have friends now struggling with an anorexic child, others with an Asperger's child they now have to send overseas to a private school they can't begin to afford, another who got divorced after two decades of marriage and only now is telling people about the hell she went through, another who revealed to me that he's gay and going bananas in his frum married life. I could go on and on.

And that's just people I know, in the tiny circle of people in my life. And even in that circle, without a doubt I'm only seeing the outer surface of what's happening in people's lives. I'm sure there are people I see every day who unbeknownst to me are struggling with health problems, marital problems, child-raising woes, financial hardship, family-relational stress, addictions of various types, even abuse. There are people who put up a good show but are completely miserable, can barely get out of bed, are riddled with self-doubt, anxiety, who feel overwhelmed, stuck in their lives with no way out. So aside from the horrors and hardships we actually hear about, there are many others quietly undergoing immense suffering, day in and day out.

And the truth is, we all suffer. Every one of us has our struggles, our battles. Life is really, really hard a great deal of the time.

What to make of it all? As you might well imagine, I'm not about to commence with a discussion on the "messages" which God intends to impart via all this suffering, nor any kind of eternal reward that suffering helps us earn. And at the same time I'm not going to pounce on the opportunity to talk about how all this unjust suffering proves there's no God. No, I'm simply leaving God out of the discussion altogether. (Although She/He is more than welcome to listen in.)

The point is this. While I don't believe there's any "objective meaning" to our suffering, nor to anything else for that matter, there is most definitely - and crucially - personal meaning, subjective meaning. And in my opinion, the very first and most important meaning we can derive from suffering, is the fervent desire and commitment to stamp it out, to prevent human suffering - or at the very least work to alleviate it - wherever and whenever possible. In fact we should see that as part of our sacred mission in the world.

But given that unavoidably there's always going to be suffering, despite our best efforts, I recognize that there is indeed "meaning" (i.e. a sense of positive purpose) which we can and do derive from that suffering. I want to focus on two of the "silver linings" which the dark cloud of suffering offers us:

1. Helping us to cherish what we have.
2. Helping us to strengthen/deepen our relationships.

On point number one... It's simply human nature that sometimes it takes losing something, or nearly losing it, or seeing someone else lose it, to appreciate that thing. You have a health scare, and suddenly you're just happy just to get up in the morning and be able to walk out the door and go about your day, grateful just to look up at the blue sky and take in a deep breath of air. Or you see people whose child has physical or mental problems, or who dies God forbid, and you just want to love and hug and appreciate your own child, look past the difficulties you have with them and just cherish your time together. The same goes with a parent, a spouse, a sibling... You see friends who went from prosperous to broke, having to sell their house and go on financial aid, and you're glad just to be able to live simply - and in fact the desire to live lavishly seems misplaced.

On point number two... Like it or not, suffering brings us closer. With every last person I mentioned above, who over the course of the past year has experienced great suffering, it was the time we spent together during and in the wake of that suffering which made us closer, strengthened the bond of our relationship. Hours upon hours on the phone. Visits in the hospital. Inviting them for Shabbos meals. Watching their kids for them. Being there when they needed it, the way they needed it. To go through hard times with someone has a transformative effect on the relationship like little else. It's no question that I wouldn't be as close with many friends and family members were it not for traumatic episodes in our lives that we helped each other through.

Again, needless to say I wish none of this suffering had taken place. But I also have to acknowledge that b'dieved (given this foregone reality), there's a great deal that we gain from it in two central aspects of life: enjoying what we have, and forging deeper relationships.

On Rosh Hashana, we talk about the Books of Life and Death being open. (I take this as a metaphor, needless to say.) Which one will we be written in? is the question. We don't know. And when we think about the things that happened to people we know during the year 5773, many of them completely out of the blue, it's pretty darn scary. We don't know what our lives will be like when the year 5775 rolls around - or even (and I'm sorry for being morbid) whether we'll even be here to see it roll around.

What this reflection does is help us to appreciate the time that we do have a little bit more. We can try to cherish the people in our lives, the people we love, a little bit more. We can take a little time out to do or see things which are meaningful to us but which we never seem to get around to. We can be there for people who are suffering. Make the call. Stop by. See what they need and be the person who helps supply it. And in general we can give people a break. Let being gentle and compassionate be our default mode of interaction. Because everyone is struggling in their lives in different ways. Life is all too short and all too difficult - so at the very least let's not compound people's difficulty.

It's like Yaakov Avinu describes his life: "short and bad". (Though that reminds me of the Woody Allen joke about the two elderly women in a Catskills restaurant. One says: "The food here is terrible." The other says: "I know, and such small portions.") But even though life is so hard, and even though we can't control whether it's going to be a "Book of Life" year for us and our loved ones, or not - every time we ease a person's suffering, every time we generate a little joy and uplift, connect with people, savor a breath of air, truly engage life - for that moment we've written ourselves into the Book of the Living. It's the one book we do have some control over. And it's the one that truly counts.

So k'tiva v'chatima tova. May we write ourselves into the Book of the Living at every opportunity, and may we all enjoy a good and sweet year ahead.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Guide for the Theologically Perplexed

The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim argues that the reason for sacrifices in the Torah, as opposed to say worshiping God exclusively through prayer, is that we were so accustomed to these practices that the Torah couldn't just take them away from us entirely. All the world had Temples and sacrifices to their gods, and so the Torah allowed us to worship via sacrifices as well, as a way of sublimating the drive to follow idolatrous practices.

What I want to do is take it a step further and say as follows: All the world had gods. It was unheard of not to believe in and worship a god. And so the Torah effectively sublimates the drive to believe in gods by packaging its own narratives and commands in God-language. Instead of going from many gods to none, which would be too big a jump, at least we can take it down to one mega-god, and a less corporeal one.

To be clear, I don't believe that this was the actual intent of the Torah. Just like I don't agree with the Rambam that the Torah viewed sacrifices as a concession, I don't think that the Torah viewed Hashem as a concession either. I think it's fairly clear that both God and sacrifices are taken for granted in the Torah as being the optimal belief and practice. However, just as the Rambam wants to make sense of the Torah in retrospect as being a step in the right direction, implying what the optimal state would be - a "clean" worship of God without sacrifices, I'd like to do that as well, and say that the Torah constitutes a stepping stone toward a more optimal state - where we act in accordance with the highest standards of personal/societal conduct, while "clean" of any god-worship whatsoever.

My apologies to the Rambam if he'd be upset at my appropriating his words, but since he already says something very close to what I want to say, I'd like to take part of Moreh Nevuchim 3:32 and "tweak" it to illustrate my point.

(The crossed out/greyed out text is the original wording, and the bold text is my emendation.)
When [a mammal] is born it is extremely tender, and cannot be fed with dry food. Therefore breasts were provided which yield milk, and the young can be fed with moist food which corresponds to the condition of the limbs of the animal, until the latter have gradually become dry and hard. Many precepts in our Torah pertaining to a supposed "God" are the result of a similar course adopted by the same Supreme Being the Torah. It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. ...

But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship belief in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in the worship of gods, for instance sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images gods, to bow down to those images gods, and to burn incense before them. Religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the so-called "divine" service in the temples erected to the stars to various gods, as has been explained by us. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God the Torah, as displayed in the whole Creation [as in the example above of mammals], that He it did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service belief; for to obey such a godless commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used. ...

For this reason God the Torah allowed these kinds of service beliefs to continue. He It transferred to His service "the one god" that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings many gods, and of things likewise imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him keep the Torah in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple." ...

By this Divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry, i.e. god-worship in general, were on their way toward being blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith Torah, the Existence and Unity of God loving one's neighbor as oneself, was firmly established. This result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service beliefs to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange: you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that the Divine God-oriented commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake (i.e. out of the sincere belief in God and desire to worship Him), but only for the sake of some other thing (i.e. upright behavior and loving one's neighbor): as if they such beliefs were only the means which He the Torah employed for His its primary object? What prevented Him the Torah from making His its primary object a direct commandment to us, i.e. "You shall be a holy society, and without the false belief in a god", and to give us the capacity of obeying it? Those precepts and beliefs which in your opinion are only the means and not the object would then have been unnecessary.

Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Torah a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following: "God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people reconsider when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea," etc. (Exod. xiii. 17). Here "God" (quotes added) is described as having led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object.

In the same manner God the Torah refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned God-oriented commandments and beliefs as a means of securing His its chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him the principles of justice for the oppressed, compassion to the stranger, and other laws which pertain to the betterment of the individual and society, and to cause them to in the hopes that they would eventually reject idolatry, i.e. any worship of a god or gods. It is contrary to man's nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs and beliefs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course. It would be just as if a person trained to work as a slave with mortar and bricks, or similar things, should interrupt his work, clean his hands, and at once fight with real giants. It was the result of God's the Torah's wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness of erroneous belief in a god till they acquired the courage to let go of that belief and abide by the principles of the Torah for their own sake. ...

In the same way, the all portions of the Torah under discussion whereby a "god" is referenced, either as Commander, as a character in the narrative, or as an object of worship, is the result of divine the Torah's wisdom, according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship and belief to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith create a just and compassionate society, which is the chief object. 
(The original translation by M. Friedlander, Ph.D., 1904, can be found here.) 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Why Biblical Scholarship Is Irrelevant

There's been quite a bit of discussion of late (see e.g. here, here, and here - update: and now here) regarding Rabbi Zev Farber and the TABS project (Torah and Biblical Scholarship). The idea of TABS is to explore how we can make two seemingly irreconcilable worlds fit together: that of belief in Torah mi-Sinai, i.e. the Divine authorship of the Five Books of Moses, and that of academic scholarship and research into the origins of the Five Books.

Now, when I say Biblical scholarship is "irrelevant", let me immediately qualify that. I don't mean irrelevant in the sense that it has no merit, nothing truthful or insightful to say. That would be absurd - it certainly does. I mean irrelevant specifically with regard to the following:

1. Divinity of the Torah

Even if all academic research and theories such as the Documentary Hypothesis were to be conclusively refuted, and we had proof beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Torah was authored by one man, and that it was none other than Moshe Rabbeinu, this still says nothing about the Divinity of the text! In other words, the leap required to say that Moshe was the author of the entire Torah is infinitesimal compared to the leap you have to make to say that Moshe communicated with a Transcendent, All-Powerful Being and dictated the conversation word-for-word. The first is at least conceivable. The second however is a contention which requires a quantum leap into the realm of "other-worldliness".

To say that God authored the Torah rests on the assumption of supernatural existences of which we have zero evidence. It requires that we assume that the reason the Torah mentions miracles and encounters with God is not that it accords with beliefs which were common in the Ancient Near East, not that every people of course wove their gods into their narratives. Rather, we have to assume that there was something special about Bronze/Iron Age times and people which called for God to reveal Himself, and now - well, the show's over.

The reason God's miracles and open communication with humans are conspicuously and entirely absent today? We're less worthy, and so God has gone into hiding. And in fact God's hiddenness is a test for us, to see if we still believe it all happened. But really God's still here (in our hearts, if we call out to Him, look for Him, etc.) - just that our free will would be robbed of us if God were to show His face, and that would ruin the whole test. That's the reason we don't see God nowadays. The possibility that the God narratives themselves were simply a product of their time, and that is the real reason there's not a single shred of any God-appearances today - no mass revelations, no pillars of fire, no seas splitting (or even puddles), no sun standing still, etc.? Why that's heresy!

Suffice it to say, you don't need the Documentary Hypothesis or any Biblical scholarship to take the Divinity out of the Torah. All you need is a little common sense - call it the "Common Sense Hypothesis".

2. Observance of Mitzvot

Whether the Torah was written in bits and pieces over time and later woven together, or whether it emerged into the world as a single, holistic document, what does this have to do with the observance of mitzvot? To the traditional believer, certainly the Divine/not-Divine question should be more pressing. Meaning, if there was a Divine revelation at Sinai, what does it matter whether that revelation was recorded at different times by different people? The Torah is still "commanded" by God. And if there was no revelation, what does it matter if the Torah was written by the single author Moshe? There's still no "Divine command".

But from where I'm coming from, taking as an obvious given that the Torah is a purely human document, the question of Mosaic authorship vs. multiple authors or later authorship is totally irrelevant where it comes to Torah observance. There was no mega-supernatural-event which gave us the Torah. The commandments have no transcendent "Commander". Despite what the tradition would have us believe, the Torah has always been a covenant with ourselves. Which means we keep the Torah to the extent that we deem it as having inherent value, because we see it as being a net-positive for us, a good thing - personally, communally, and nationally. And that is a concept of Torah that no academic theory or scholarly hypothesis can touch.

So as much as I enjoy reading up on Biblical scholarship, as much as it interests me where the Torah "came from" - that's just an extracurricular curiosity. It has no nafka mina, no practical consequence for Torah and mitzvot. What interests me much, much more is the question of what the Torah is and what kind of impact its teachings and observances have on our lives. Is it making us better people? Wiser? Does it enhance our enjoyment of life? Is it helping us to survive as a people? Is it adding something positive to the world?

To me, questions like these are where the rubber really meets the road. All the back-and-forth about trying to "reconcile" Divine authorship and Biblical scholarship? Eh. To be honest, I get a bit impatient with it - both from the intellectual contortions people like R. Farber have to go through to try to make it work, and also from traditional believers who simply dismiss all Biblical scholarship out of hand due to their a priori conclusions of what the Truth has to be. I'm much happier being where I am - 100% open to and interested to hear whatever findings/theories the academic Biblical scholarship world wants to dish out, and choosing to engage in Torah and mitzvot regardless.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Atheodoxy: The Anti-Fundamentalism Project

To quickly sum up my previous post... I reacted to Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo's idea that the "greatest accomplishments for mankind" are achieved by knowing how to take risks, and that the current Orthodox leadership seems to be completely risk-averse. I countered that even if such risks were taken in Orthodoxy, it still wouldn't constitute a "great accomplishment for mankind," and that those accomplishments (by Jews and otherwise) are primarily achieved in the secular arena. Whereas with Avraham Avinu, "Judaism" itself was the contribution to humanity, by and large since then the great contributions by Jews have had little if anything directly to do with "Judaism."

The discussion got me wondering: Does Judaism itself have any "big things" left to contribute to humanity?

The frum answer is "Of course it does." Because "Judaism is right," and eventually (when Mashiach comes) everyone will come around to that fact. The nations of the world will acknowledge that the Torah is Truth, that Hashem is the One and True God, and that the Jewish people are the representatives of that Truth in the world.

My sense is that Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic Jews would also say "Of course it does." Only they'd speak about it as "Tikkun Olam," that the Torah instructs us to enact justice in the world, feed the hungry, fight for the oppressed and live in peace. As I said in the comment section of the previous post, I do not for a minute minimize these goals or see them as "non-religious." However, I do tend to think that rather than humanitarianism being something which emerges spontaneously from people immersed in Torah study, it's more that sources in Torah are used as a chizuk (reinforcement) to justify the humanitarian values people already believe in. Judaism is in essence used as an asmachta (support), which I think is a perfectly appropriate and idealistic thing to do. But I don't know if I'd say that it's "Judaism" per se which is making the contribution. Humanitarianism is something which is fairly universal - albeit sorely lacking universally!

It also got me thinking about what I'm doing with this blog. What do I think the idea of "Atheodoxy" has to contribute?

Is my orientation purely about internal Jewish affairs - as in creating a space for people who love Torah/observant life but can't (or won't) "make themselves" believe in myths? Is it about my vision of an "ideal Judaism" which has all the benefits of observance and none of the sacrifice of reason, which prides itself on intellectual honesty and lack of dogma? I think it is. But am I also after something more? Am I also playing with the idea that a God-free Orthodox Judaism might have something to contribute to the world?

Well if so, it's not about the "no-God" idea per se, which already has plenty of evangelists. In other words, it's way too late for anyone to try to be the "Avraham Avinu of atheism."

But maybe it's this... To try to pull the rug out from under religious fundamentalism.

As long as we speak about any actions we do (or don't do) in the world as being commanded or desired by God, we leave the door open for fundamentalism: My God vs. your God. God hates X, so therefore we hate X. Living for God, dying for god, killing for God, etc. - it all rests on the idea of using God as the absolute, transcendent justification for what we do and what we believe in. What I'm saying is that while it may feel good, and while it may even "work" to a limited extent, the end result is absolutely toxic, and it's time we kick the habit once and for all.

Ok, so why not just become secular, or join a different denomination?

First off, because I think traditional Torah/Judaism has a great deal to offer - communally, intellectually, in terms of personal growth, in terms of Jewish survival, etc. But the second reason is strategic - it's an altogether different way of tackling the problem of fundamentalism.

It's one thing to reject the nonsense, reject the fundamentalism - and then reduce one's religious observance or jettison it altogether. But it's another to transform a religion from the inside, to maintain one's commitment to religious observance, while simultaneously ridding that religion of fundamentalism. A Reform Jew who rejects fundamentalism? (Yawn) Par for the course... An ultra-liberal Muslim who rejects fundamentalism? Great, but not particularly exciting... But an Orthodox Jew or a traditional Muslim who completely and utterly disavows fundamentalism by removing any Divine justification for their religious practice? Now that's a statement! That's what I think I'm after here. To have a rejection of fundamentalism come from the most "religious" (i.e., traditionally observant) members of a given religion would in my opinion constitute a great contribution to humanity!

And so an Orthodox Judaism which led the way for other religions by having the courage to reject the unhealthy parts of itself, to renounce fundamentalism entirely, and yet show that it can still remain a robust and positive religion with a great deal to offer - culturally, morally, intellectually, spiritually - would constitute no less than a revolution, one that would definitely stand as one of the "greatest accomplishments for mankind" (to use R. Cardozo's phraseology).

Well, that's the idea at any rate. I recognize it's a near-impossible task, even within Judaism. And I also recognize it's not a panacea for the world's woes - I know there's plenty of killing and human-driven misery that has nothing whatsoever to do with God. But you've got to start somewhere - and as good a place as any to start is right here at home, by doing some deep introspection about the way we conceptualize Judaism and what that contributes to the world. After all, if ultimately we have to say, "Because God told us so," what's to stop anyone else from saying the same thing?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Judaism: Incubator for *Secular* Greatness?

I frequently read Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo's weekly "Thoughts to Ponder." Last week he wrote about Nachshon ben Aminadav, the Biblical figure described in Midrashic sources as jumping into the Sea of Reeds before it was split. Whereas everyone else was hesitant to move forward as directed, waiting for a miracle to occur first, Nachshon led by example, thus demonstrating his courage and faith. That's the idea in a nutshell. Rabbi Cardozo brings the idea to argue that the willingness to lead and take risks is one of the prerequisites for greatness:
"Looking back throughout history, we can see that the greatest accomplishments of mankind were achieved by the Nachshons of every generation."
He goes on to say:
"Judaism, throughout its long history, has always taken risks. In fact, it is built on the foundations of uncertainty: Avraham Avinu’s standing up to the injustices of his world and proclaiming ethical monotheism in defiance of the beliefs of his day..."
Rabbi Cardozo then laments the current religious climate in Orthodox Judaism as failing in this regard:
"Today we no longer encounter religious leaders who act as Nachshon did, prepared to jump into the sea, saving what needs to be saved and creating what needs to be created. Instead, we experience a constant desire to stay with the old and not rock the boat; to look over one’s shoulder fearing possible failure."
Regarding the "greatest accomplishments of mankind," it's clear that Jews have contributed more than our share. But how much of that greatness is attributed to "Judaism" per se? Sure, with Avraham Avinu, Judaism was the great innovation. It was the ideas of Judaism, and in particular monotheism, which our tradition hails as forging a bold new path in the world. Judaism was the radical new idea.

So yes, when we think about the Jewish contribution to the "greatest accomplishments of mankind," we can certainly include Torah ("The Bible") as having had a monumental impact on the world. But thinking about more recent times, and Jewish individuals who've had an impact - people like Marx, Freud, Einstein, the disproportionate number of "Jewish Nobel Prize winners" we love talking about - it's not Judaism itself which is the accomplishment. The accomplishment is entirely secular.

That's not to say there isn't true greatness to be found among the great Torah luminaries over the past 2000+ years - moral greatness, incredible genius. There certainly is. But their greatness and accomplishments are almost exclusively in the domain of "internal Jewish affairs." By and large, they're not people you'd point to in the history books and say, "Wow, what a contribution to humankind!"

One might even argue further - that many of the "greatest accomplishments" of Jews (particularly in the past few centuries) were achieved in part by people's rejection of Judaism, at least the traditional/Orthodox/Halachic version of it. Without the insular Torah world's obligations and expectations (and "head-trip"), many brilliant Jewish minds have been freed up to think on their own, immerse themselves in secular scholarship, and strive with single-minded determination toward the particular area in which they were destined for greatness.

Yet at the same time, even those Jews who leave the religious fold typically carry with them a strong sense of Jewish identity, including knowledge and values, and also the distinct feeling of being "different" - which is reflected back by the rest of the world, who views them very much as "the Jew," not fully part of the club. As painful as that nonacceptance is, it equips these Jews with the valuable perspective of an outsider, allowing them to see things about the world and about society that many others can't see - another factor that helps them to accomplish great things.

So again, even if "Judaism" per se hasn't been among the world's "greatest accomplishments" for quite some time, it - and the whole culture built around it - undoubtedly seems to serve as a kind of launchpad for greatness, a milieu for greatness, an incubator for greatness.

Regarding Rabbi Cardozo's thesis, my critique is this:

Even if the Torah world would produce a new crop of leadership which fulfilled his definition of greatness - people willing to "rock the boat" and meet the needs of the Jewish people in the 21st Century, that's still a matter of "internal affairs." It might be great for the Jewish people, but it's not "greatness" in the sense of leading the world in a positive new direction, adding something to humanity, being a "great accomplishment for mankind." That accomplishment comes from Jews who contribute to the secular sphere, regardless of whether any boat-rocking takes place in the religious sphere.

So yes, we can and should try to foster more internal health as a people, and I appreciate and encourage Rabbi Cardozo in his efforts along these lines. Truly I do. However, if we're thinking purely about "great accomplishment," really all we have to do is let the Jewish "incubator" keep doing its thing, just like it's been doing, despite (or possibly because of?) all our fragmentation throughout history - which includes all our crazy zealots, our establishment curmudgeons, our dauntless rebels, our staunch secularists, and everyone else in between.

(I have more to say about the idea of a future contribution from Judaism per se, but I'll leave that for Part 2.)