Sunday, February 23, 2014

What Exactly Is "The Power of Tehillim"?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 17, 2014

Mah Nishtana Ha-Fundamentalism Hazeh?

Recently I found myself in the company of a Jewish tour guide describing Christian theology - e.g. why when Mary went up to Heaven in her sleep that's called an "assumption" as opposed to "ascension," how at the crucifixion Jesus' blood flowed down, seeped below the ground and touched the skull of Adam which happened to be buried right below, thus atoning for the Original Sin, and of course the whole business of the virgin birth, etc. When I expressed some incredulity at how Christians could actually believe all that, the guide came back and said, "And how do so many Orthodox Jews believe that the world is 5774 years old?"

Precisely the point! I often find myself incredulous at what Jews believe. Which for me begs the question: Mah nishtana? How is Judaism different?

Well of course it's different - in countless ways. It's different in terms of deed over creed. It's different in that it doesn't believe in the concept of the "God-man." It's different in its whole attitude toward the world. Judaism is about acts, earning one's place. Christianity is about grace, acknowledging oneself as a sinner and coming to God in contrition asking for salvation. And even regarding the idea of miracles, while religious Jews often like it when scientists weigh in, e.g. talking about land bridges and wind patterns explaining how the Sea of Reeds could have split, Christians generally stay away from naturalistic explanations, e.g. parthenogenesis as accounting for the virgin birth, since they see such explanations as taking away from the miracle.

But that's not enough mah nishtana for me. To me, the fact that at the end of the day Jews have to justify what we do and what we believe based on the argument that "my God is right" is a chilul Hashem, something which degrades us as a people, and demeans the Torah. What do I think the mah nishtana should be? That Judaism contains no supernatural dogma whatsoever. That there's not an ounce of pressure on a person to accept miracles or gods - period. Yes, we have a moral imperative in the world. Yes, we have an intellectual heritage, and a cultural package, a whole slew of religious norms which give us a distinct identity, meaning and memory as a people. And these are obviously crucial. But at the same time we can and should have clear and free minds. No cult-like beliefs where if you don't conform your mind to them and say aloud "I believe" you're outa there.

Now you might justifiably say, "But that's not Judaism!" You might say, "You don't want to believe - fine, but don't try to pass off this non-belief as Judaism."

But I will say similarly: You want to believe in a Creator? You want to believe in a personal God? You want to believe in miracles? Great, but don't try to pass that off as being so wildly different from Christianity. Don't try to say that Christians are nuts for believing in a man-god and a virgin birth while at the same time you believe in "Vaydaber Hashem el Moshe leimor" (God speaking to people and issuing commands).

I don't have as much of a "Jesophobia" as many Jews do. I have no doubt that Jesus had many intelligent and helpful things to say. What he said obviously resonated with a lot of people at the time - and of course now. But I do have a problem with Torah being no better than Christianity insofar as requiring a person to sacrifice the mind in any form. To me, the mind is kodesh.

And my feeling about Torah is that ultimately it is capable of embracing a total anti-dogma position. In fact all along Torah has arguably taken a minimal-dogma approach. It has gone through fantastic intellectual contortions to make sense of itself - and even remake itself - over time. The Biblical mentality and practice is like something from a different planet compared to the Judaism we practice today, and compared to our modern outlook.

Yes, the "party line" is that nothing has changed - except for a few "fences" and the fact that we've become much "lower" spiritually, but to me that is just as implausible and cult-like a tenet as other metaphysical claims. So in essence, my answer to the "that's not Judaism" critique is that you could've asked the same question to Chazal and countless others throughout the millenia. Judaism morphs and evolves over time. That's part of what Judaism is.

Point being, we've always adapted our understanding of Torah to be meaningful and have something positive to contribute in the contemporary world. But until very recently, that world has been utterly pervaded with supernatural and superstitious beliefs. It would have been nearly impossible to believe in "no gods and no miracles," let alone come out and say it as a religion.

But we're in a different age now. Torah can and should remake itself once again, and this time go all the way. Zero cult-like pressure to believe. Zero justifying what we do based on supernatural premises. No saying "Judaism" believes in X, Y or Z metaphysical events, or that the Bible should be taken literally - or as a document written by God. No more chilul Hashem by saying things which degrade the kedusha of the mind and the legacy of Torah and Am Yisrael.

And no more giving zealots any opening for their zealotry. If we hold that "God wants us" to dress modestly, make no mistake, this can and does lead to women wearing burqa-like garments - no, not just because they're "crazy" but because they sincerely want to be the most pure "in the eyes of God." If we hold that "God wants us" to keep Shabbos, this leads to people throwing stones at Shabbos desecrators - not because these zealots are crazy but because they truly feel they are doing the right thing - that this is a life-and-death absolute necessity that we stop the "opposition to the will of God" by any means necessary.

In a "God says" reality, the only way you get non-zealotry, what we'd call "normal practice," is due to people adopting a watered-down approach, where most people don't take the religion with such deadly seriousness. And I say thank God for the half-hearted, watered-down, milquetoast approach! We ought to celebrate people's religious mediocrity, laziness and lack of faith and commitment - because it's the only thing keeping us from being a raving fundamentalist mass. Seriously.

My advice: Just pull the plug. Stop the God-talk as a matter of religious policy. Take away the opening for fundamentalism. Why should we have to pray for people's religious idealism to be blunted? We should set up the "ideal" to be something where we'd actually like it if people really took it seriously! Why should we be no different from other religions in basing ourselves on a "my God is right" position? Why should we give any opening to zealotry? Why should we degrade the kedusha of the mind by telling it what it has to believe - or else? Why should we degrade Am Yisrael by sustaining a cult-like belief in any dogma, however minimal? Why should we degrade Torah/Judaism by saying that it believes in things which are patently untrue? Why should we accept anything less than the very best from ourselves and our Torah?

That's my position at any rate. There's a whole lot more about our current concept of Judaism that could - and should - be "nishtana."