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.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

How do you relate to Tisha B'Av?

I'd like to know your thoughts on Tisha B'Av.
  • Do you mourn the loss of the Temple and sacrifices? Do you yearn for their restoration/rebuilding?
  • To the extent that the "Destruction" relates to the loss of Jewish national sovereignty in the Land of Israel, do you see the State of Israel as any kind of rectification, or a "nechama" (comfort)?
  • Do you focus on the loss of life, national/communal calamities? How much does the Holocaust figure in?
  • Do you attribute anti-Semitism to internal Jewish problems? How much blame to you place on the actual perpetrators?
  • How do you understand the "teshuva" aspect of Tisha B'Av?
  • How do you relate to the traditional mourning customs - fasting, non-leather shoes, no unnecessary washing, no greeting people, no Torah learning, etc.? Do they help?
  • What do you think of the Kinnot?

I'll offer a few of my own off-the-cuff responses.

The Temple... As far as past events, yes, the destruction of the Temple was absolutely devastating. It was our focal point as a nation, and its destruction marked the collapse of our society in Eretz Yisrael. In terms of current events, I'm appalled by the ongoing destruction of antiquities taking place on the Temple Mount. It's beyond me that a sovereign nation has to walk on eggshells regarding its own holy sites. And even though I don't know the resolution, I'm saddened by the fact that we're sitting in our own ruins - which is what the Kotel is. As far as a future Temple, on the one hand the idea of a "beit tefila" for all peoples is lovely. But even if "magically" the Dome of the Rock were to just vanish, and the entire world decided to "rally around the Jewish vision" (a fantasy which is as egotistical as it is completely crazy), I have to say I'm not particularly excited about the idea of everyone unifying over the idea of worshiping God together (as you might imagine). Besides, the whole "house of prayer for all nations" idea is patently false. The Third Temple would be like the Second Temple, which was about the daily and holiday sacrifices, and pilgrimages whose purpose was to have people bring sacrifices, first fruits, etc. And not "all people" but primarily and specifically Jews. (That's not even getting into the potential for religious politics in the Third Temple. Just think "Kotel" and magnify that by 1000. Also see what the Gemara has to say about the corruption in "good old" Second Temple times.) And I have absolutely no interest in reinstating sacrifices. Yes, if we're going to eat meat, then to "sanctify" it, to know what it means to take a life, is arguably a good thing - especially in our world of industrialized farming. So then educate people about it! But to restart a form of worship that's been defunct for over 2000 years? Why even go there? To me, the cessation of sacrifices is a silver lining in the cloud of the Destruction.

The State of Israel... I see it as a HUGE deal, a major rectification. Yes, there's the totally humanistic side of me which says, "Who needs lands and borders?" But that's the world we live in. We have attachments to places. And it's a very big deal that we have Jewish sovereignty in a place where we have such a major historical/emotional attachment. It's an amazing thing that we've put together a working nation here and have re-established our language and culture here. It's something we totally take for granted. So yes, as imperfect as it is, I see it as a profound reversal of the Destruction.

Loss of Life / Holocaust... For me, human suffering is the main focus of Tisha B'Av - and in this case, particularly Jewish suffering of incomprehensible proportions. And to me, that should include in the most central way, the Holocaust. I can't tell you how frustrated I feel to hear people brush off Yom Hashoah as some sort of "false" Jewish observance, since Tisha B'Av is the "true" time to mourn the Holocaust - and then we're lucky if the Holocaust even merits a Kinnah or two at the very end of the service. The Shoah is a disaster, a loss of life, a show of cruelty, a period of such intense suffering, on such a massive, industrial scale, and it's something which happened in the lifetimes of our own parents and grandparents! We can can go and hear people alive today tell their miraculous - and horrific - tales of survival. And yet, a great proportion of our own Jewish rabbinic leadership can't even get itself together to properly commemorate it?? Words truly fail me.

Anti-Semitism... We're an odd people who sets ourselves apart from others - that makes us targets. We excel, succeed, pioneer in so many areas - that makes us targets. We make the world feel guilty, we make them question themselves - that makes us targets. I don't think our "disunity" or "sins" are the magical cause of anti-Semitism. Yes, when we're "weak" (and disunity to an unhealthy degree can sometimes cause that), that can embolden our enemies and cause them to attack. Yes, when we do bad things, people hate us all the more. But I don't blame anti-Semitism on Jews in the sense that our misdeeds are the "cause" of it. That said, anti-Semitism can be used as an "occasion" for introspection. That's a very different thing. To me, that's a healthy - and indeed very "Jewish" - reaction.

Teshuva... Even though I don't believe that the Temple was destroyed "because of" sinat chinam, hatred among Jews, nor "because of" lashon hara, evil speech, again I do think it's a good "occasion" to focus on the way we treat one another. And not just as a "talking point" which everyone has to insert into their Tisha B'Av drasha, but something which people take seriously, as a matter of highest priority, for themselves, and in terms of the kinds of values they instill in their kids. This is something I aspire to achieve on this blog - to make it a healthy atmosphere for discussing ideas, even allowing for a good deal of "irreverence", but which doesn't devolve into pettiness and personal digs. There's enough misery in the world without wishing it upon people we disagree with. To me, that's an area which is ripe for teshuva.

Mourning customs... Whatever you want to say about the specific customs, they do imbue the day with a unique character which makes it uniquely "Tisha B'Av". And that has a role in and of itself. That said, there's nothing about wearing non-leather shoes which is remotely "mournful" (or even uncomfortable) other than the fact that we associate it with mourning. And I'm not the worst "faster", but it is a tough fast. Does not eating or drinking facilitate the "teshuva" process? Not sure. Sometimes I think it's a distraction from it. I guess I'd say that while I couldn't see a day of mourning where everyone simply ate as normal, I wouldn't mind if there were such a thing as a water-only fast, or a water-and-snack-only fast. Then you'd have there being a "difference" in the day, and a reminder of mourning, without making people suffer unnecessarily or putting them in a physical condition where they're unable to focus on what the day is about.

Kinnot... What can I say - sitting through endless Kinnot is a kapara in itself. It's kind of like when my wife asks me, "How was shul?" and I respond, "Well, it sure felt like a korban." Personally, I typically start Kinnot with everyone, then do my own reading most of the time, and then pick it up toward the end at some later point. Kinnot aren't my thing per se, but then again neither is "recitation" in general. Again, I'd like to see the Shoah figure in more prominently, if not in Kinnot then elsewhere.

One last thought... A friend of mine told me about a drasha he attended where the rav of the shul said we should be spending more time in the Three Weeks "mourning" and less time planning fun activities for after Tisha B'Av. My reaction: When you think about how many people walk around all year with sour expressions, when you think about the fact that it's not the happy people but the miserable people who commit crimes and cause other humans to suffer, maybe the road to teshuva and rectification is NOT about seeing how miserable and mournful we can make ourselves - but rather it's trying to seek out happiness for ourselves and others. How do we transform Tisha B'Av from a day of mourning to a day of joy? Maybe it's by cultivating joy.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Praying as an Atheist

You've probably heard the expression that there's "no atheist in a foxhole." Meaning, even if someone professes not to believe in God, if they're truly scared for their life they'll invariably call out to God for help and thus reveal their true beliefs. Some atheists, particularly in the military, object to this sentiment, and I can understand that. However, I'd like to bring out another point - that one can pray as an atheist, and still be an atheist.

First, a quick aside. I deliberately titled the post "Praying as an Atheist", and not "Davening as an Atheist". Davening is something that nonbelievers in the Jewish world do as a matter of routine, because it's such a central part of Jewish ritual life - going to shul, hearing the Torah reading, saying the Shemona Esrei, saying Kaddish, etc. What would a nonbeliever get out of an experience which ostensibly is "all about God"? Plenty. Shul/davening is a multi-layered experience. It has a certain rhythm to it, specific melodies, things you have to do at certain times. And those familiar words, tunes, procedures, places and faces can give a person a much-needed sense of stability and comfort. Davening at shul also has the obvious social aspect, as well as the communal cohesion aspect. You start to feel "out of it", out of sync with the community, if you don't show up in shul from time to time. There's the "getting away from the house" aspect (come on, guys - we've all been there!). There's going to davening because something else is going on at the shul - a shiur, an event, etc. And of course there's also the possibility of introspection and focus - either on what you're saying or in general on things that matter. There's taking a few minutes out of the day just to breathe. (Of course, when davening is fast there is no chance to breathe or unwind. In fact the davening itself can be stressful. But then again, when it's slow enough to breathe, and you just want to get out of there already, that's also stressful. So take your pick!) Anyway, like I say, there are lots of layers to be found - even before you get into matters of "belief". So yes, nonbelievers "daven" all the time.

But what about "praying"? What about asking for help, expressing joy and gratitude, awe and amazement, etc.?

For quite some time, I was "anti" the idea of praying. After all, if I've come to the intellectual conclusion that the God of the Torah, alleged to have given the Torah, is not a historical reality, how can I in good conscience pray to that God? And if I've come to the conclusion that we have no evidence to believe that God (or anyone) responds to our prayers, or that our prayers do anything apart from the effect they may have on ourselves or those who know we're praying on their behalf (not to minimize that effect), then how can I in good conscience join the ranks of people engaged in mass delusion? And if I know how ridiculous and cruel it is that God should answer the prayers of some but reject the desperate pleas of others, innocent people suffering in untold ways, why would I want to pray to such a God, whose morality I consider to be majorly suspect?

Yet of late I've been praying from time to time. Mostly it's at times when I'm worried about some specific thing in the future and pray that everything turns out alright. Just something very short - as in, "Please let X go OK." As I say, I used to deny myself that indulgence on intellectual grounds. But then I realized - if it's something I truly feel the emotional urge to do, why am I denying myself? It's not as if there's some sort of "atheist's code of honor" that I'd be breaking. So I just do it.

Ah, well, doesn't this reveal the truth that I'm not really an atheist after all?

I thought you'd ask that! Nope. No, it doesn't.

It's not that I don't believe most of the time, then switch over momentarily (and conveniently) to being a "believer" when I have something to pray about, and then go back to being a nonbeliever. No, it's me the whole time - just that the thinking me expresses itself one way, and the emotive me expresses itself another. And when I'm emoting I'm not "believing" or "not believing" - I'm out of the intellectual/belief frame entirely!

Who says that when someone expresses themselves emotionally that it somehow has to "fit" with what they believe intellectually? Yes, internal consistency on an intellectual level might be something to strive for, but to demand consistency between one's intellect and other aspects human expression? I think that's where we've got it wrong. To me, that's imposing the intellect into areas where it doesn't necessarily belong.

Now, that doesn't mean there's no place to "think" about one's prayer, to evaluate it on an intellectual level. Of course there is - just not while it's happening, and not at the expense of it happening. When the intellect starts to interfere with or mute other essential, healthy parts of our humanity, that's when we might want to "rethink" what we're doing. At least I have, at any rate.

So I'd even go so far as to say that it's possible for an atheist to pray "to God" and still be an atheist. God can exist for a person in the emotional domain without existing in the intellectual domain.

For me though, the prayer "Please let X turn out OK" is something I simply release out into the ether. I'm not directing it "toward" anyone or anything. The "God" thought doesn't even enter into my head. I couldn't care less if anyone's actually listening or I'm just saying it to myself. It's like saying "Ouch!" or "Wow!" or "Damn it!" or "Woo hoo!", any spontaneous verbalization of an emotion. It just feels right, helpful to do at the time.

So yes - I agree that the "no atheist in a foxhole" idea is a fallacy. But so is the idea of there being "no atheist who prays". 

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Angel of Poverty, Hashem, and other Literary Devices

There's something about learning Gemara that reminds me of the Web. You're looking at one thing, and as if by hyperlink you get referred over to a totally different discussion in another tractate. While reading there you get referred elsewhere again. Before you know it you have a pile of books in front of you, and you've all but forgotten what you were looking up in the first place! It’s a fun way to learn - very much "stream of consciousness" oriented. Anyway...

I was learning something in Mesechet Brachot about breadcrumbs, and got referred elsewhere to a Gemara in Chulin that reads as follows:
ואמר אביי: מריש הוה אמינא, האי דכנשי נשווראה - משום מנקירותא. אמר לי מר: משום דקשי לעניותא. ההוא גברא, דהוה מהדר עליה שרא דעניותא ולא הוה יכיל ליה - דקא זהיר אנשוורא טובא, יומא חד כרך ליפתא איבלי, אמר: השתא ודאי נפל בידאי, בתר דאכיל - אייתי מרא עקרינהו ליבלי שדינהו לנהרא, שמעיה דקאמר: ווי דאפקיה ההוא גברא מביתיה
Abaye said: At first I thought one collects the breadcrumbs [off the floor] because of cleanliness. My Master said to me: It is because [leaving them on the floor] leads to poverty. There was a certain man whom the Angel of Poverty was following, but he could not prevail over him, because the man was very careful about [collecting] breadcrumbs. One day he ate bread over grass. [The Angel of Poverty said,] "Now he will certainly fall into my hand." After he ate, he took a spade, dug up the grass, and threw it into a river [thus disposing of the breadcrumbs properly]. He then heard [the Angel of Poverty] saying, "Alas, this man has driven [me] out of his house."

Just to give a bit of context here - There are a number of halachot which relate to the idea of not wasting food, and not treating food in a disrespectful manner. This especially regards bread, lechem, considered in Jewish tradition to be the "staff of life" as far as food goes. And just like the English word "bread" is slang for "money", so too lechem is associated with money, livelihood, parnasa. So if you trample on your bread, it's as if you've trampled on your parnasa. If you throw it away, it's like throwing away your livelihood.

The question is, when speaking about handling bread and the effect on one's livelihood, are we talking about something psychological or mystical? In terms of the Angel of Poverty, are we talking about a "spiritual being" or a pedagogical device? And what does that mean in general about how we relate to things supernatural?

As far as what Chazal themselves held, we may never know. Certainly angelology was a part of the belief system of the ancient world, including in Jewish tradition. Chazal talk a great deal about angels of various kinds. So it's definitely reasonable to assume they understood these things literally, that there are supernatural beings appointed over various tasks, and the Angel of Poverty is one of them - albeit one of the "darker" angels, like the Angel of Death and the Prosecuting Angel. Rashi explains the Angel of Poverty as "the ministering angel appointed over poverty, who pursues a person to trap him and bring him to poverty". Now, could it be that Chazal were simply using "angel-talk" because it reflected the language and belief system of the day? Possibly. Though of course when we say "Chazal", we're talking about hundreds of people - certainly not a monolithic group. It could be that some believed in angels while others took the idea with a mythical grain of salt.

But the more pressing question of course is: How do we choose to understand these things?

From my experience, the mainstream frum approach is to believe in angels in the literal sense. There's Gavriel, Michael and Co. who protect us while we sleep. There's the Satan, who tries to trip us up. These are all "real" beings which we could see if only we wore the right spiritually-tinted glasses.

The Angel of Poverty however is a lesser-known entity. When people are concerned about throwing away bread and breadcrumbs, I would guess that most aren't envisioning a supernatural being lurking behind the curtain, ready to zap them with "anti-parnasa" rays if they don't clean up the crumbs. BUT... It seems to me that people do have the sense that if they don't dispose of bread properly, they're leaving open the door for "something bad to happen" concerning their parnasa. It's considered a foolhardy thing to do from a "spiritual mechanics" standpoint. You can try to look up the exact how and why in Kabbalah, but at the end of the day we don't really know how it works... In other words, it's the mystical approach.

The more "rationalist" way of looking at it is either symbolic or psychological. In symbolic terms, breadcrumbs "represent" livelihood. And we show respect for our livelihood by not trampling on that which symbolizes livelihood. In psychological terms, it's saying that by caring for bread, which we associate with money, we will come to show greater care and attention in money matters - and if we're wasteful or careless with the "small stuff", this develops the kind of mindset that will come back to haunt us on a larger scale. Either way, in this way of thinking, there is no "Angel of Poverty". It's a pedagogical, literary device used to convey an idea.

But as I mentioned above, for no other reason than the fact that the Angel of Poverty is a rather "obscure" angel, my sense is that even the traditional frum world is more open to looking at it as non-literal, a literary device - albeit a device used to refer to a "mystical" process.

And here's where I want to push the point a bit.

If the Angel of Poverty can be understood in symbolic/psychological/literary terms, why not the rest of the angelic cavalcade? And if other supernatural beings are rendered in those terms - then why not Hashem Himself?

If it's clear that concept of angels in the Torah tradition arose out of a world where that belief was common, and we're ready to let that go... If we feel comfortable speaking about angels as having a literary and pedagogical function in the text we're looking at, and we focus on the message being conveyed rather than the mythical carrier of that message... Then why can't we do the same with Hashem?

Yes, keep Hashem in the tradition, the same way we keep angels in the tradition. Study the messages from the Hashem-narratives the same way we study angel-stories. But understand that Hashem too arose out of a world where belief in gods was ubiquitous. Understand that it would be absurd in ancient times not to have a deity in one's society and stories. Yes, we have the One deity instead of many. And perhaps Israelite monotheism was a chiddush (novelty), or perhaps not. The "quantity" of gods is not the point. Likewise, the fact that Hashem is the "ultimate superbeing" (and not just one of many "sub-superbeings") is not the point. The point is this: The only reason we're reluctant to take a literary/non-literal view of Hashem like we do with the angels, is that the belief in a law-giving, reward & punishment-doling God has not yet gone out of religious fashion.

But for those who want to be on the "cutting edge" (more accurately called the "just-trying-to-catch-up-with-the-rest-of-the-sensible-modern-world-edge"), there's a place to be a Torah Jew who rejects the supernatural-being concept in its entirety. No, that doesn't mean there isn't more to the universe than we've discovered - just that the Biblical portrayal of God is so obviously not that "more".

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Do You Believe in Extraterrestrial Abduction?

(A parent is called in to speak to the principal of a local day school...)

Thank you for coming in. I appreciate it. I have a question I need to ask you. 

Absolutely. Go ahead.

I don't know how else to put it, so I'm going to ask you straight out - Do you believe in extraterrestrial abduction?

Do I believe in E.T. abduction... You want the honest answer?


No, I really don't.

(Pregnant pause)  

Ok then... Wow, I really thought I knew you. 

You don't know me? I'm the same person I always was. Why does it suddenly change everything if I don't believe in E.T's?

Because you're walking around like you're one of us, and you're not. It's dishonest.

I'm not one of you? I'm living as a contributing member of the community and believe in what we're trying to accomplish. Do I have to broadcast what's going on in my head? Do you think everyone around you thinks exactly alike?

Look, it's your life. You can believe whatever you want. But there are consequences. You can't be a part of our community if you don't believe in E.T.'s.

Why not?

Because this is an E.T. community, that's why. And I'm sorry for being blunt, but by saying you don't believe in the most basic tenet - that makes you a denier. It goes against everything we stand for. So now you want me to let you and your kids come in here with your heretical ideas and weaken people's belief? After all the hard work we put in creating a community of devout believers? No way. I'm afraid your kids can't go to our school anymore.

Seriously? But we love this school. I went to school here. My kids have all their friends here. You're really kicking us out?

I'm sorry. We just can't have it. This is not the community for you.

How can you say that? We've been a part of the community since I was a kid. We're so involved. We've given so much to the school. And we love it here. We love the people. We share the same values. We've never caused any harm... I just don't believe in the E.T. stuff.

What happened to you? Why don't you believe anymore?

It was a gradual process. Several years back, I started thinking about the fact that I've never actually seen an E.T., never seen a saucer. Never been abducted. Never heard any stories about E.T. involvement that couldn't be explained some other way. And I've done a lot of reading... 

But how can you not believe in extraterrestrial abductions? What about all the evidence?

I've seen it, and I don't find it convincing. Besides, if there was really so much hard evidence, why isn't it just common knowledge to everyone? Why is it relegated to X-Files episodes and the like?

Because people don't want to believe it.

Could it be that they don't want to believe it because it sounds unbelievable? Even a bit foolish?

Who's being foolish here? Think for a minute. How can thousands upon thousands of people give separate testimonies about something that never happened?

I hear how that sounds like a proof, but more people probably believe they've seen ghosts and believe in the Ouija board. There's all kinds of crazy stuff out there which people believe is 100% true. And they also produce lots of "evidence". So why couldn't the same be true of extraterrestrial abductions?

First of all, because E.T.'s simply are real. The other things are not. Secondly, the evidence for alien abductions is a tradition that stretches back for millenia - ancient civilizations speak about it. Whole cities of people have watched E.T. ships light up the sky. And you never answered how people could separately report on the same phenomenon with details that match up.

You could say the same thing about near-death experiences. Or any number of supposed "paranormal" phenomena. And everyone is "wowed" by the fact that people give similar descriptions.

And that's a sign that they're not true?

It's a sign that since clearly not "all" of these phenomena are true, that means you can't conclude any of them are necessarily true based on the fact of separate reporting alone. You just have to use a little common sense here.

But the details of the reporting of E.T. abductions are absolutely staggering. The chance of it happening by "coincidence" is one in trillions. Who's the one not using common sense here?

I didn't say it was a coincidence. There's obviously some other explanation. When something as remarkable as alien abduction is supposedly happening on a mass scale, and there's no conclusive proof that's obvious to everyone, obvious to science... What can I say - I'm pretty suspicious. So I'm sorry, I can't force myself believe in something I don't believe in.

It's a shame. You've obviously been influenced by skeptics. This is why we tell people not to look at any non-extraterrestral-related literature.

Why is it such a shame to expose yourself to more information?

Because it's actually misinformation, from people who don't want you to believe, people who just want to go on with their lives without being inconvenienced by the truth.

The truth that...?

That extraterrestrials are real. The abductions are real. People aren't making it up. It's not some sort of joke.

But what difference does it make whether or not I believe it? If they're real and I don't believe it, it doesn't make them any "less" real. So what's the problem?

The problem is that the extraterrestrial beings want you to believe it. They love us, and they want humanity to do better. They want us to follow the Universal Rules.

But am I not doing what I'm supposed to be doing? Do I not follow the Universal Rules? In fact I think I'm doing a better job than most - and that includes a lot of "believers" whose kids you let go to this school. So let me ask YOU - even if the E.T.'s exist, why isn't that enough for them? Why do they care whether I believe they're here and abducting people?

You seem to be forgetting that the very first Universal Rule is that you need to believe in them. 

No, I'm very much aware of that. I'm saying that I'm doing 99% of what the E.T's supposedly want. Isn't that enough?

It's a good start. But why are you even following the rules if you don't believe in E.T.'s?

Because even though I don't buy the "back story" about the Universal Rules (I think we came up with them ourselves), I think there's a great deal of wisdom in the system. I think it has a lot of intrinsic value. It has a great deal to add. And it's my community. I'm proud of it.

Ok, so tell me this - What's the "intrinsic value" of the rule of putting an alien bobble-head on the dashboard of your car? The only reason we do it is because they told us: "You shall place us on the dashboard in your coming and going."

Fair question. It's true - not all the rules make sense or are obviously connected to the goal of improving humanity. But that doesn't mean they don't have value. My kids like the bobble-heads. And they have symbolic value. When I look at it, I think about who I am and what I'm doing here.

And the green spacesuit?

Same thing. Wearing a green spacesuit reminds me that I'm a part of a community, a people.

If I found out there were no E.T.'s, and the whole abduction thing was a sham, I'd take off the spacesuit immediately. It's ridiculous - and it costs a fortune to dry clean.

Great. Take off the spacesuit if you don't like it. Or just wear the boots. I don't care. The nonexistent E.T.'s certainly don't care.

So again, WHY BOTHER?

I'll tell you why. We need to preserve some of the "ridiculous" stuff, because that's what makes us identifiable as a community. If all we did was just the "improving humanity" part, and not the ritual, we know from experience that we don't survive. We just assimilate and that's that.

Then we should assimilate, because if there are no E.T.'s, there's no point of preserving our community. 

You're saying there's no point to the Universal Rules if there are no E.T.'s?

I didn't say there's no point to the Rules, but if all you want to do is improve the world, then join Greenpeace or the Salvation Army. You don't need us.

So you'd just advocate communal suicide? Would you tell the same thing to the Irish? Native Americans? They and their traditions should just go out of existence since there are no E.T.'s?

If you put us on the same plane with the Irish and Native Americans - as just another "culture", then that's pretty sad. And no, the world wouldn't end if there were one less culture. I'm sorry.

I agree the world wouldn't end. But it would be missing something. And I happen to believe in that something.

I'm sorry to tell you but you really don't believe in it.

Oh, I don't? Let me ask you: What about the Universal Rule of truthfulness? Do you believe in that?

Of course I do.

Well so do I. And how am I supposed to uphold that rule if I have to reject the truth and live with a fairy story?

It's you who are living the fairy story, my friend... I think we're done here.

What about my kids and the school?

Why don't you try the Irish school down the block.


Just to know, this was a completely made-up dialogue. None of my kids have been kicked out of school... Baruch E.T.!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Why I Can Live Without the "Why" Questions

Two separate people recently asked the "Why me?" question in conversations I had with them. Which prompted me to think: "There must be a reason for this... Yes, 'Someone' is trying to tell me to write a new post!"

Both cases involve a person suffering an injury that's had a major impact on their life. The first question came from a third party, asking how the injured person was doing: "Do you ever think about 'why' this happened to them?" My response: "Honestly, no. Not once. Not at all." The idea of there being a cosmic "reason" behind someone's misfortune (or fortune) is entirely foreign to my consciousness. There is not one scintilla of a thought lurking in the back of my mind that maybe the tragedies that befall people fit into some sort of larger "Divine plan". I don't believe it for a second.

But it's not just that I don't believe it - I have no need to believe it. As a point of contrast, I was speaking with another friend once about this topic, said I didn't believe there's any "grand purpose" to the events in our lives, and they told me that they couldn't even go there, because the thought was so deeply unsettling to them, so disturbing, that it would be like pulling the rug right out from under their reality. And I thought it's amazing how different people are. Here's this person who's profoundly psychologically dependent on the idea of "objective meaning" in the universe, and here's me who has absolutely no psychological need for it whatsoever!

Does that mean I live in a "meaningless" world? Is everything just "vanity and striving after wind" (to quote Kohelet)? An emphatic NO.

I get meaning from all the things and people that mean something to me. I get meaning from helping people, from trying to bring more sanity and joy into the world. I get meaning from spending time with my family and friends, from quiet moments with my wife and less-than-quiet moments with my kids. I get meaning from experiencing the world, from breathing forest air and listening to the sound of the waves (two things I need to be doing more of, come to think of it!). I get meaning on the intellectual plane from trying to make sense of things and gain clarity, from Torah, and from writing in this blog and elsewhere. Life is literally packed with meaning! And yes, I know that this is only meaning which I myself have constructed, that it's not necessarily meaningful to anyone else, let alone "objectively" meaningful. But I'm 100% OK with that. I don't feel any sense of "lack" in that kind of meaning, like there's some sort of "hole" that needs to be filled. That doesn't mean I'm not continually seeking more meaning, greater meaning (via more varied experiences, deeper relationships, expanding intellectual horizons, etc.), but the meaning I do experience is very much "shalem", whole.

So for me, there's no "living in vain", and there's no "dying in vain" either. Why? Because the very "vain"/"not in vain" distinction assumes purpose - or in this case living or dying in such a way that does/doesn't comport with the purpose. So that's right - it's really the opposite of what you might think. The whole notion of "vanity and striving after wind" only arises out of the assumption of "objective meaning"! Replace that with personal/psychological/subjective meaning, and voila - there's no more "hevel", at least not in any existential sense. (Put that in your philosophical pipe and smoke it!)

Anyway... I mentioned there being a second person who got injured - this person suffered a fall requiring surgery. On the phone they said to me, "I know it happened for a reason. I just don't know what it is yet." And you know what I responded? Nothing. I kept my mouth shut - apart from a simple "Hmm" of acknowledgement, that is.

I know I've mentioned this before, but more than I believe in there being no "objective" purpose or meaning, more than I believe in intellectual honesty and truth-telling, I believe in people coming first. And sometimes (many times in fact - and believe me, as a married person I can attest to this!), the highest wisdom is to be able to zip your lip, hold yourself back from saying something, even if you believe in your heart of hearts that you're right. Yes, when someone is suffering because of their "why me" perspective (and that also happens a lot), there's a place to gently try show them another path. But even then you have to be judicious and sensitive. And besides, there's only so much you can do - ultimately people need to come to these kinds of things on their own. To quote The Matrix (a movie worthy of a separate discussion): "I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it."

But again, that's just me. I'm interested to know how you relate to these questions.