Friday, August 23, 2013

Spiritual Grandeur, Spiritual Pettiness

Parshat Ki Tavo
17 Elul, 5773
August 23rd, 2013

This column may trigger you. I sincerely hope it does. I need sufficiently annoyed partners to help me solve a particularly tricky problem for which I really need a solution.

One Shabbat, when I was an intern, a friend of mine set his siddur on the floor.

So this is a thing in Judaism - putting holy books on the floor, or, to be precise, not doing so. We privilege reverence over convenience. A simple way of showing that is care about how we treat holy books.

Anyways, after some internal debate, I reached down, grabbed his prayer book, and placed it on a chair near him.

He was furious with me. Absolutely furious. Livid.

Of that unpleasant experience, I remember one line in particular, "this isn't Mea She'arim," he said, mentioning the historic Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem "I've studied there, and this isn't it." Just to be clear, my not-so-much-of-a-friend-anymore was complimenting Mea She'arim. He was saying that, in that, more observant context, picking up the siddur would have been appropriate. Here, in liberal Judaism, it was just rude.

I've thought a lot about that comment in the years since, and as to why the two contexts were so different from one another. And while I think there's plenty to say about Ultra-Orthodoxy, I'm more preoccupied with my own world and its challenges.

And what I've come to is that, in the Western, privileged world, our spiritual spaces are infantilizing.

I don't quite know how we got here, but modern day synagogue and churches are not Houses of God. They are places to be offended, for slights real and imagined: who sits where, whose name is where, who insulted whom. We don't promote character, we prevent it. Mostly, people come to shul and find a nothing but an excuse for high dudgeon.

It's not the fault of individuals. My used-to-be-friend is a truly decent guy, and I'm not even sure that I did the right thing. But I do know for sure that we deserve better spiritual spaces that those we've provided for ourselves - houses of spiritual grandeur, not grand houses of pettiness.

May God take us from our own narrowness into the breadth of which we're capable.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Religion is Weakness


Parshat Ki Teizei
16 Elul, 5773
August 16th, 2013

At my ten-year high school reunion, I stepped up to the bar, and ran into a really decent guy with whom I'd taken Junior year chemistry. We chatted, and when I explained what I was doing for a living, he was taken aback - angry, even. "Man, religion is weakness," he said.

I've been thinking about that line ever since.

I finally have a decent response for him which I will now attempt to stuff into a few hundred words. I guess if it can't be said simply, it shouldn't be said at all.

The philosopher Charles Taylor wrote one of the great books of our time, A Secular Age. Most of what I'm about to write are his ideas, directly applied.

People who think that religion is weakness believe that science has come along to the myths that people used to tell themselves in order to explain the - at the time - inexplicable. But since we now know better, those who still cling to religion are wrapping themselves in a comforting cloak of lies. They don't want to feel alone in a cold and lonely universe.

The more mature among humanity have come to see religion for the delusion that it is, even as they understand its utility to an anxious mind confronting mortality. They are strong enough to realize that what some people call God is just a bad description of poorly understood scientific processes. There is no reason to think that God exists, and God's existence does not helpfully explain any facet of our world.

I disagree.

Science has expanded both our knowledge and our area of concern. But it hasn't answered ultimate cosmic questions in any discernible way. People are interestingly blind about such questions as where did that superdense collection of every atom in the universe that exploded (the Big Bang) come from, exactly? Though we understand physical processes much, much better than our ancestors, weve still got nothing on the ultimate question: "how the hell did all that get there?" And, to be blunt, it makes much more sense (though it isnt conclusive) to think that God (or the Divine Something) is behind the universe, rather than it just, you know, kind of somehow appearing by itself.

What science has done is show is that we were wrong about pretty much every factual belief we've held previous to now: the world wasn't created in 7 days, etc. And therefore most of what we knew about God, Gods personality (as it where) and the created universe, was just wrong.

However, considering that knocking holes in skulls to let the demons out used to be cutting-edge neurosurgery, one must grant religion the same room for progress that we've granted to science itself. In fact, all of 70 years ago, we thought that the shape of a persons skull (and their race, I might add) scientifically demonstrated their criminal tendencies. People make the same mistake about religion as the do about science though in the opposite direction both are developing. Science is certainly not perfect (thatd be unscientific by definition)*. Religion isnt now as it was in the 14th century. Both are growing.

So it seems to me that just because Ibn Ezra was wrong about the influence of astrology upon Torah in the 12th century, it is farfetched to say that science has disproved God. Science has changed religion. Its not the same thing. Not even a little.

The great religious debate of our time is not whether God exists, but what the source of moral authority is in our lives. In religion, that authority comes from above, and human beings are subject. But in an Enlightenment frame (in which science and reason are the highest source of knowledge), one's source of moral authority is one's one moral intuition. And that is the rub: we're arguing over the perception of being told what to do by God, or whether we ourselves are the ones doing the telling.

And that’s why people think that religionists are weak – Someone Else is telling them how to live. For Westerners, who prize individual authenticity over everything, there’s no greater insult.

And to those people, I have to say: I don’t buy it. I don’t buy that patterning our behavior off of our best guess as to the Divine nature of the universe is a bad idea. I don’t buy that the ultimate truth lies in ourselves. I don’t think human beings are that good as individuals – there are so many egregious examples to the contrary. I don't agree that our instinct as to the numinous (the feeling that we are part of something greater) is somehow less valid than our instinct to fall in love. What I see is that our capacity for greatness comes from grasping and holding to that which is outside ourselves. And while I do value personal authenticity, I know – know, empirically – that one’s own moral intuition is the beginning of the moral and spiritual journey, not its end.

Science has shown us that humanity is a much smaller part of the universe than we ever imagined. But the strange result of the scientific age is that we seem to be obsessed with ourselves and our own welfare as the measure of all things.

Taylor makes the point that we live in an inconclusive age. And I have no problem understanding why people come down on either side of belief, and either side of the question of moral authority. But to say that moral aspiration to God’s vision is silly? 

That’s weak.

* The scientific method is predicated not upon theories being proven, but rather upon disproving those ideas that are in fact incorrect. It relies upon the idea of “wrong” in order to progress.

Friday, August 2, 2013

First World Problems


Parshat Re’eh
26 Menachem Av, 5773
August 8th, 2013

Like a lot of guys I know, I occasionally put myself into mildly dangerous situations on purpose: surfing, diving,  martial arts, and, on one memorably terrifying occasion, hangliding. I seek this kind of stuff out,  and don’t feel quite satisfied without the presence of a small chance of grievous bodily injury. The women in my life greet these moments with heavy eye rolling.

Most people assume that these kinds of activities are just a way to prove I’m a tough guy. I am not. I am a cityfied, weekend warrior. But I have contempt for the decadence that my life of unbelievable privilege brings. And in those moments when a wave pushes me under, I think a lot less about whether or not that merlot goes well with the lamb, and a lot more about when I’ll have the chance to breathe next. It’s the simplicity I want. I lack simplicity in my life.

Rashi, the most important commentator on the Torah, gets this. He says about this week’s parsha’s discussion of whether we should be eating meat at all, “The Torah is teaching the way of things – that a person doesn’t really desire to eat meat until he gets prosperity and wealth.”  First comes wealth, then foodies try to put bacon into donuts.* Privilege brings glut, and the surest path to discomfort is to stuff ourselves with too much good stuff.

 As we attempt solve our First World problems of overabundance, I worry that we’re too attached to First World solutions. I love SCUBA diving; renting the gear costs $300 a shot. I love to surf one of my $600 boards. That simple, healthy food costs $40 an entree.

I don’t think that our opulence will ever lead us to the simplicity we seek.

*Please stop doing that.