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!