Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hearts and Minds

It is a well traveled saying that people do not give up orthodoxy because of religious doubts, rather, they develop doubts to rationalize their desire to give up orthodoxy. I have a strong instinctive urge to refute this idea. It seems inherently dismissive and not respectful of the legitimacy of the ideas and motivations of those of us who ‘leave’. For someone like myself, who is inherently cognitively driven, and who has spent so much time reinforcing this intellectualism in the bais medrash, it is particularly annoying.

After all, there are more than enough difficult points of belief within Judaism to have rational reasons to disbelieve. If anything, believing – which requires the acceptance of almost endless supernatural events and divine prophesies - is far less rational.

But as much as I would like to get on my soapbox and argue that this is fundamentally untrue – that we stay or leave because of our theological reasons, the fact is that I believe that it touches on one of the most basic facets of humanity and faith. I’ve seen much discussion on what ‘belief’ – a principle requirement of orthodoxy – really means. But what is often overlooked is that belief is inherently an emotional process. It is the adherence to an idea which, by definition, has no rational verification. In modern psychological literature it is “an emotion which gains long term purpose”. Beliefs are ideas which have become deep seated sentiments.

As anyone who has engaged in theological debate knows, you can’t talk someone out of their beliefs. This concept is very well understood by those who are in the business of changing the ideology of others – missionaries, kiruv workers, cult recruiters. They know that in order to change a belief, the emotional groundwork must be established.

Of course, we are rational beings as well, and we struggle to maintain a coherent intellectual ‘story’ which works with our beliefs. Perhaps the more far fetched and irrational our beliefs are, the stronger our emotional attachment must be to maintain it. The emotional attachment which we develop with orthodoxy – from our earliest childhood experiences - are incredibly strong. Those who change a fundamental belief require a strong emotional incentive to do so. Perhaps that incentive is unhappiness in their life, perhaps it is something about the way that frum society works which doesn’t work for them, perhaps it is an emotional pull from outside of the frum world. It’s possible that some of us are so strongly intellectual that the very irrationality of the frum system adds to their unhappiness. But for all of us, you must understand the emotional context in order to understand why we remained orthodox or did not.

Frankly, this mechanism is one of the things that I wish were different about our species. If our rationality is fundamentally at the mercy our emotions, how do we go forward with our intellectual exploration. How do we trust our own reasoning. How do we be believe our own thoughts. For someone who grew up with the ideals of intellectual honesty and being true to ideals and beliefs, it is unnerving to think that our cognitive process is so polluted by our emotions. I was raised with the belief that, while our intellect represents our higher calling, and should guide our actions, emotions are the voice of the baser part of our beings. Emotions are there only as a test of our ability to use our intellects to overcome them.

I think that it is only by embracing the interplay between feelings and ideas can we regain our intellectual honesty. Navigating through our reasoning with honesty and moral clarity requires an heightened respect for and awareness of our emotions. If you’ve been raised in a religious environment, it becomes almost second nature to dismiss feelings. Many of the things which we feel are not helpful to our lives – the easiest thing to do is to shut those emotions out. Some feelings don’t jibe with our moral outlook. We automatically label these emotions as being ‘wrong’, and often don’t even let our conscious mind acknowledge that they exist.

But it is only in being highly aware of our emotions – be they comfortable or uncomfortable – that we can be fully aware of our intellectual process. Doing this is what gives us choice. We don’t have to act on our emotions – life is about making those choices. But if we do not listen to what our hearts are saying to us, we will never really understand our own minds.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Curious Jew

I'm a neophyte to the blogging world and am enjoying a universe of fascinating and diverse discussions. One blog which I would recommend is The Curious Jew by Chana, an orthodox seventeen year old student. I think that you'll find her topics to be interesting and though provoking and her work to be well written and researched. Most of all, you'll be inspired by the intensity and power which she brings both to defending her beliefs and to asking her questions.

Friday, January 20, 2006


I’ve been asked many times by my orthodox friends and family why I don’t believe in Torah M’shamayim (the divine origin of the bible). Sometimes the question is a challenge, sometimes it is negative and judgmental, and sometimes it is a sincere attempt to try to understand my decisions. I always feel that I would love to have some concise ‘zinger’ to offer – the ultimate ‘taiku’ - a problem so fundamental that it would convey with absolute certainty that my rejection of orthodoxy is firmly based on irrefutable logical and textual analysis.

As anyone who has studied Talmud will know, there can never be such an answer – or such a problem. We have created a mesorah that is so rich with explanations and analysis that every problem has at least one possible solution – and probably many more than one. Pointing out any one of the many issues which I have will immediately bring a rush or possible answers.

Instead, I usually explain to them that my problems with the Torah are the same as everyone else’s problems and questions. The only difference is that, to me, the world makes much more sense if you replace the many, many complicated answers with a single, simple thesis – that the Torah has problems because it was written by men, not by God.

Here is (yet) another excerpt from something that I wrote recently:

“There are many hundreds of problems and incongruities within the Torah. When you are thinking within the Orthodox system, all of these problems become points of departure for a deeper understanding of the Torah. All of them have solutions – some more elegant and some more forced. Many answers are quite difficult to reconcile – they are all square pegs in round holes - but each in itself can be rationalized.

It is only when you are ready to peak at the questions from a different perspective that you realize that with just a simple change in the fundamental assumptions, all of those pegs become round. All of a sudden, everything makes a lot more sense.

I can’t prove that men, not God, wrote the Torah. I am skeptical about the quality of the historical evidence which existed before the common era. And, I think that alternate arguments can be offered which reconcile these problems. But these are just more and more square pegs.”

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Akeidah and Me

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: 'Abraham'; and he said: 'Here am I.'
2 And He said: 'Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.' (Genesis 22)

The story of the Akeidah – Abraham’s task to sacrifice Isaac – occupies a central place in orthodox thought and emblemizes the power and supremacy of faith. This is Abraham’s final test of faith, it is this act of supreme belief and devotion which solidifies God’s pledge to Abraham and the Jewish People:

15 And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, 16 and said: 'By Myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, 17 that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.' (Ibid)

I had always found this story inspiring – and it all made perfect sense to me, both the story itself and all of the many midrashic explorations. Abraham, had not only longed for many years for a son who would succeed him, but had devoted his entire life to renouncing the local pagan worship, especially it’s most odious form – human sacrifice. His triumph is the struggle to overcome his native emotional instincts to fulfill God’s will.

As we say on Rosh Hashanah: "Master of the Universe! Just as Abraham our father suppressed his compassion for his only son to do Your will with a whole heart, so may Your compassion suppress Your wrath against us, and may Your mercy prevail over Your attributes of strict justice."

It is difficult, from the orthodox starting point, to gain some independent spiritual perspective on this. This is excerpted from something that I recently wrote:

“One of the facets of being religious (at least ‘frum’) is the idea that the moral code is completely proscribed by God. “The only free person is he who is immersed in Torah.” (Perek, 6:1). Our job is to free ourselves of the need to make independent moral choices. There is no stronger message than the Akadah. If God commands Avraham to sacrifice his son, his challenge is to suppress his innate sense of morality in favor of the divine decree. If you can do this, you are truly religious. You may be able to achieve happiness and serenity, and a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. The only problem, however, is that you’ve slain your son in the process.

To put it in less macabre terms (although, it wasn’t me who wrote Bereishis), you have given up your prerogative (and perhaps, ability) to develop your own sense of right and wrong. If the world is fortunate, the dogma to which you subscribe is magnanimous and humanistic. If less fortunate (as history has unfortunately demonstrated) it is prejudiced and brutal. Probably – if the Torah is any indication – it is a mixture of both

Whether or not there is a God, the one thing that I believe is that we are born with an innate sense of justice and morality. That sense is compromised throughout our lives by the dogma and socialization to which we are born. Our supreme moral challenge is to re-connect with that sense within us all - that inner voice which has been drowned out by dogma, by social stigma and by prejudice. What we arrive at may not be perfect, but it paves the way for those who will come to take the next steps. That is my definition of “Tikun Olam”, and that is what we sacrifice when we choose to remain believers.”

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