Friday, July 26, 2013

Freethinking Religion

Parshat Ekev
19 Menahem Av, 5773
July 26th, 2014

If you've read my column lately you know that I'm a little obsessed with Vonnegut in the past month or so. I do wish my writing was not so derivative, but if one has to steal, I suppose one should steal from the best.

He was a freethinker, but what he has to say about religion strikes at my core. In particular, I cannot shake his belief that we now know too much for the convictions of old time religion to become the core of our beliefs. Homosexuality isn't a crime against nature; demons do not exist – schizophrenia does; genocide against unbelievers seems rather ill-considered. Vonnegut says, "I think we all know that religion of that sort is about as nourishing to the human spirit as potassium cyanide."

Our Torah tells us that we were once in a Garden, and that in Eden we were ignorant of just about everything we now consider to be fundamental information. It's a shame that, while ignorant, we were a damn sight happier than we are now. Our forbears chose knowledge over happiness, and chose irrevocably. "We are," he says, "stuck with our knowledge, which has seeped into all of our tissues."

As a result, I have become gently suspicious of those spiritual sentiments that sound just lovely. I have heard atheists and agnostics who believe firmly in reincarnation (what, pray tell, is doing the reincarnating?). I have heard believers tell me that, as long as I check my mezuzahs regularly, no harm can befall me.

And I realize that the people who say such things are sophisticated, intelligent, spiritually centered individuals. It just that they cannot escape our common fate: we are spiritually stuck. Our new knowledge prevents us from finding that in which we should believe. We just haven't had enough time with it.

So when we assert religious belief these days, most of us speak metaphorically and not literally. The things we say speak to the soul, not to the mind. And sometimes things we say, so welcome to the soul, look a little flimsy under the microscope.

The Talmud teaches that before moshiach comes, Elijah the prophet will show up and yetaretz kushiyot u’ba’ayot – resolve all our disagreements and problems, which, in matters of belief, would be absolutely wonderful. But until then, we need to hear two messages. The first is for the believers: when we assert belief, let us assert lightly; let us hold faith lightly, and not be greedy or paranoid about our most precious possession. If it is true Torah, it will show itself to be so. We are not yet in a place in which our knowledge and our faith know each other to be true.

The second message is for those who do not believe: it is worth listening to many of the believers; for though they may not grasp the truth firmly, they often point in its direction, and that is more valuable still.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Tisha b'Av


8 Av 5773
July 15th, 2013

Everyone knows George Santayana’s most famous line, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I suppose that, in an attempt not to repeat the past, I’ve been religiously miserable for the last 9 days.

Tonight starts Tisha b’Av - the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av. It commemorates the destruction of two Temples in Jerusalem, along with a slew of other Jewish tragedies. It is the saddest day of the Jewish year.

The observances of the day are stark: no eating, no showering, no sex, no music or enjoyment, no fancy clothes; in the evening and the morning, people sit on the floor rather than use the comfort of a chair. Eicha (Lament - a book of the bible memorializing the invasion of Israel and the destruction of the first Temple) is read.

Tisha b’Av builds up: the three weeks before the memorial begin the mourning. By nine days ahead of time, there’s no meat eating or wine drinking, no laundry, no live music, no swimming. It’s intense.

I could rhapsodize about how spiritually invigorating it is to abstain from all these practices, but I won’t - that would trivialize what Tisha b’Av is. The truth is, these nine days are hot, miserable, and unpleasant. I will be glad when they are over.

It is the way of spiritual discourse these days to portray religious observance as a kind of boot camp for the soul - that one passes through [insert observance here]’s strictures and requirements and comes out Army strong. Often, this description has the virtue of actually being true, as opposed to just rhetorically convenient.

But that is not the case with Tisha b’Av. The only point is to feel bad, and, by feeling bad, to gain the maturity that comes with memory.

Unlike other Jewish observances (Yom Kippur, for example), Tisha b’Av does not aim to make me a better person. I am not spiritually improved by the fast. Mourning is not redemptive.

Rather we mourn simply because these tragedies, full of suffering beyond comprehension or description (yet somehow not execution) happened, and they could happen again. It would have been better for the Jewish people and the world had we not been slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands and millions. There is no advantage to such suffering. But they did happen. So we remember.

Some argue that Tisha b’Av is wallowing, and that one should gather ye rosebuds and so forth. And I have to admit, the impulse to live in the moment and discard the overwhelming past is very seductive. But that is not who we are. It is not a virtue to pretend innocence once it has been lost, nor for the traumatized to deny trauma. If Tisha b’Av is anything, it is honest; memory is for the mature.

It would have been far better that Tisha b'Av never had happened. But because it has, our obligation is to remember so that it does not and cannot happen again. We cannot pretend to a rosier history.

What Santayana really wrote was this:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Religion's Sins

Parshat Devarim
5 Menachem Av 5773
July 12th, 2013

In our time, religion needs to do penance for past and current sins. For the sin of sexual abuse and the sin of hiding abusers in a veil of sanctimony, for the sin of not understanding human biology and the sin of degrading those whose innate sexuality and gender are different, for the sin of coercion and the sin of forcing women into misogyny – external and internalized – for these sins, religion must do teshuvah.

 In our time, religion itself is the most religiously guilty. May God forgive us, and it, for such heinous sins.

It is difficult, as a rabbi, to live in the period of religion’s tokheha – rebuke. To the extent that my personal limitations allow, I teach that God is love and Torah is gentle. I believe that the Torah’s message is essential, necessary. But I am increasing aware that, as I preach, those to whom I speak lack the single precondition that would bring Torah into relevance: trust. Most people I know do not trust religion to guide them well, or at all.

This lack of trust was rammed home for me by Shlum Deen – an ex-haredi who wrote this article for ZeekHere are the sentences that matter:
“What many ex-Haredim are saying, then, to religious leaders and religious communities and religious lifestyles of all kinds: We have lost the trust necessary to embrace your religious views, however moderate they might be. We have lost faith in your ability to convey truths, just as we have lost faith in the Haredi worldview with which we were raised. “

The obvious question (put to me many times, loudly) is why shouldn’t we then abandon the project of religion? And my answer, however distasteful it may be to some, is that we keep religion because we desperately need it. 

In the early 1970’s there was a groundbreaking television series called, “An American Family.” Though it was intended to chronicle the daily life of the Louds, a prosperous family in Santa Barbara, it became a public witness to a private mess – the parents’ separation and subsequent divorce, the coming out of a gay son. The show generated huge controversy.

Kurt Vonnegut, no big proponent of religion himself, spoke about the Louds in a commencement speech to William and Mary College:
“Most viewers, and the Louds themselves, claimed to be mystified by the tinhorn tragedies and unfunny comedies thus immortalized. I suggest to you that the Louds were healthy earthlings who had everything but a religion in which they could believe. There was nothing to tell them what they should want, what they should shun, what they should do next. Socrates told us that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living. The Louds demonstrated that the morally unstructured life is a clunker, too. 

“Christianity could not nourish the Louds. Neither could Buddhism or the profit motive or participation in the arts, or any other nostrum on America’s spiritual smorgasbord. So the Louds were dying before our eyes.”

Between the overabundance of bad religion and a scarcity of the good, we, in the Western, Liberal, educationally and financially privileged world, are starving.

I have to be honest: I do not know how to end the famine. I cannot not see, not clearly enough, the new-time religion that Vonnegut calls for (he doesn't do such a good job himself). And I don’t know any more about regaining the trust that has been lost than any other person. 

But I do know one thing: the answer is not, with casualness aforethought, to deny that we can live well without the combination of moral and spiritual truth – that is, religious truth. If it was, we would not be as we are, drowning in privilege, yet feeling so completely adrift. We do not live by bread alone. We were created to embody great virtues, and not only our sovereign individuality. To deny the needs of the soul leaves us not radically free, but unbearably lonely.

We speak of religion as irrelevant, as pathology, or as so personal and intimate that one person cannot speak of it to another without violating propriety. Which is to say that, in our time, only crazy people speak about religion in public, and everyone else sentences themselves to solitary confinement: our feelings of transcendence live and die in silence. On the few occasions that they are allowed into the light, they reveal themselves as pale and shaky creatures, and insubstantial.

We do not need religious dogma – in fact, a break from bombast would be quite refreshing – but we have lost any semblance of religious conversation. There are so many people smothering the airwaves with religious and anti-religious words, but I can’t shake the conviction that, with a few notable exceptions, I can’t seem to hear a damned thing. Our collective life wisdom, except on which 401k works best or how to get into Yale, has atrophied through neglect.

We are stuck. Whether sinner or sinned against through religion, we are stuck. But Torah teaches us that transgression and trauma are not the end of the spiritual path. Rather, both are ameliorated through teshuvah - repentance, which points transgressor and victim to a new way into old ideas, and into original holiness through new ideas. There is a world of essential meaning beyond the mess we're in today. May God bless us with that kind of new-time religion soon.