Monday, February 20, 2006

Radical Empathy

I’ve had a number of heated discussions recently about the Dutch cartoons and the violent responses which have arisen. For the record, I find the rioting, destruction and hateful rhetoric, which has certainly been exacerbated by politicians and clerics, to be morally reprehensible. Period.

There are two things which bother me, however, about the reactions which I am hearing and reading. First, and of lesser importance, there is a strong tendency to deny or overlook the idea that Moslems are truly, genuinely, deeply offended by the depictions. There seems to be an almost global view in the west that the reactions are almost entirely orchestrated. While there is certainly truth to this, why is it so difficult to understand that these images are belittling to deeply held religious beliefs. The average American would be completely shocked to understand how meaningful these sketches are. In this respect, the Iranian papers were not so far off base in comparisons to the holocaust. Ask yourself – do you think that Moslems are as upset by these images as we would be of holocaust cartoons? If your answer is ‘no’, then you don’t get it.

Second, and far more importantly, while there are all kinds of expressions from the west denouncing these depictions as being hateful, who among us really thinks that they are off base? Do we not think that the Moslem world is steeped in violence and aggression? Do we not view the average adherent to Islam as being less progressive, more inclined to radicalism, more likely to advocate war over peace? Don’t the cartoons simply emblemize ideas which are widely held in the west – you are the enemy, we don’t trust you, we fear you, we hate you.

Most of the Moslems in the world, the vast majority, are not rioting. They are upset by the loss of life and embarrassed by images in the media of embassy burnings. It is true that their voices are drowned out by angry radicalism, but who would they talk to anyway? Where do they expect to find an audience?

So, while we’re busy congratulating ourselves for being so far superior in the way that we have suffered the hatred which has been directed at us for so long, perhaps we can at least examine whether we have just a slightly more human feeling towards our Moslem cousins. Don’t stop condemning violence, but as we denounce all of this terrible hatred, perhaps we can try to address some of our own.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Epiphany! Oh, never mind...

It’s late at night and you’re driving home, listening to some old Eagles song, letting your mind wander over some troubling, unsolvable problem which you’ve been thinking about for a long time. Seemingly from out of nowhere, an answer so elegant, so powerful, so obvious, so perfect comes suddenly into full focus. You’re so excited that you almost miss your exit. You can’t wait to think it through, write it down, tell your friends, take out an ad in the times, change your life… You think it over and over, rounding it out, looking for flaws, but they aren’t there, it’s really the answer.

You’ve just had an epiphany.

As soon as you get it all straight in your mind, you call your best friend to let them share in this great discovery. Ignoring the sounds of him fumbling to see what time it is on the other end of the phone, you erupt into your speech, which by now has been honed into a powerfully worded thesis, complete with footnotes, ironic anecdotes and dramatic florishs. Finally you finish and pause for air.

Your friend says, “Yeah, I guess I hear what you’re saying. Yawn. Hey, it’s late, what else is going on?”

On Sunday, Godol Hador, the Time Warner of the tiny sliver of humanity who blogs on Orthodox Jewish theology, wrote a post which received an unprecedented (in my limited experience) number of comments, over 600. In the post, GH puts forward a non-theological argument for why the Jewish religion is spiritually valid. While the piece was interesting, well written and peppered with GH’s characteristic side riffs on the orthodox landscape, one has to wonder why this particular post generated so much activity.

This post was unique in that it was presented not just as a theory, an argument, a proof, but as a master epiphany:

“Listen carefully Rabbosai, because this revelation is the answer. This revelation ties everything together. This revelation answers all our questions. This is it!”

GH had been hit by Newton’s apple. This answer harmonized all of GH’s problems with orthodox dogma and practice. The passion, the conviction - the deafening sigh of relief – they were what made this post so compelling.

GH’s skeptical readers reacted skeptically (and perhaps with a little disappointment), his believing readers reacted with great enthusiasm, overlooking, for now, some of GH’s more adogmatic assertions. Some felt that his conclusions were wrong, some felt that they were trivial, some that they were home runs. But few shared the blinding light which shone, at least momentarily, on the writer.

So what is an epiphany, I wondered. Why does it feel so good and so right? Why does it have special meaning to the person who experienced it, but not to those who share the idea? Why is it so exciting to have one?

And then, suddenly, it struck me. An epiphany is not just a thought which intellectually makes sense. It is an idea which resonates with our emotions. It lights up a new solution which works for us.

GH writes:

“Nothing was going right. Nothing was adding up. I was getting deeper and deeper into doubt. By Friday night I was sliding towards the bottom of the slippery slope.”

Godol Hador was saved. He did not have to stop believing, to give up all of the ideals and comforts of his orthodoxy, to abandon his growing blogging empire.

That is why the experience is so personal. It may have intellectual meaning to others, but it only delivers the powerful emotional message to ourselves. To the one who experiences it, the epiphany is instant relief from some strong emotional upset. It resolves a conflict, rationalizes a troubled choice, lights the way for a new path.

That must be it. It's perfect.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Change, Children and Hard Choices

I’m not quite ready to post about the saga of my relationship with my children. I have four children, ages eleven through eighteen, and have been divorced for about two and a half years. For one thing, the story still has no ending. For another, I’m not sure that I can convey all of the essential nuances of the story without exceeding the patience of my nascent readers. Probably sooner, rather than later though, you’ll find a first installment of this epic, which plays such a central role in my life.

But as I’ve been reading and writing here, I’m increasingly aware that others also share the dilemma of how and when, if ever, to tell children of our religious doubts or disbelief. For me, as I’m sure I’ll get around to writing, the choice was made by my ex wife, rather than by me. So I claim no privilege of being a shining example of proactive honesty and consistency.

As I can personally attest, parents changing their beliefs can be extremely traumatic to children. In addition, there are some very real consequences which children must deal with when this happens, and all of us have strong responsibilities and instincts to protect our children. Also, each situation, indeed each child, is very different and has its own nuances and specifics, so I am certainly not presuming to have advice which is relevant or appropriate for all.

Having said all of that, I would like to point out a few issues which may be less obvious to those who have not ‘gone public’ with their families.

First, if you have the goal of a long term relationship with your children that is based on mutual love, respect and understanding, you must at least give them the tools to respect and understand you. The religious community tends to view those who become non-religious as having made an immoral choice. The common view is that people leave because they are drawn by the earthly pleasures of the world, because they do not want the hassle of being observant, or because they have some other ulterior motive. Sure, they may tell themselves that their choice is based on rational thought or on a search for truth, but this is merely a rational, they have been seduced by their evil inclination. At the very least, they are considered to be morally inferior. After all, they were not drawn by some lofty moral ideal, they simply rejected a religion which, at the very least, is highly moral.

It is very possible that you will be the only voice in the lives of your children who will offer a different picture. It is only you who will be able to tell them that your choices are legitimate, moral and honest. Whatever your motivations are, you are the only one who can convey their legitimacy. You don’t have to debate beliefs with you children, but you will have to be willing to be comfortable telling them, when appropriate, what your beliefs are. The longer that you avoid this, the longer that you pretend to believe what you do not, the more you reinforce to your children that not being religious is a shameful, immoral position. You are one of the strongest forces in your children’s lives and they have a very strong motivation to connect with you. In the end, they will still love you, but it will be much harder to respect your actions and understand you if you do not give them some context with which to do so.

Second, be aware of the role which age plays in the ability of children to accept and integrate drastic changes. As a rule, the younger your children are when you let them know, the easier it will be for them. Younger children accept the new situation simply as the reality of their life. Religion does not have all of the same meanings to them as it does to you. This does not mean that they will be immune from any confusion or pain, and as they grow up and mature, they will have to re-experience and re-integrate, but it will still be far easier. The older children are, the deeper is the sense of betrayal. They have more of a sense that you, and they, have been living a lie. The full implications, both practically and religiously, of your position will be more meaningful and more traumatic.

Lastly, consider the legacy which you are passing to your children. If they know that you are not religious, or that you are skeptical, despite how difficult that may be now, it inherently gives them a choice and empowers them. One of my motivators in how I ultimately dealt with my situation was to decide which message I wanted to pass to my children. That they had to adhere to orthodox practices at all costs, even if they did not believe, and that they had to stay in a marriage at all costs, even if the relationship had failed beyond repair. Or, that they had the choice, the authority, and the responsibility to believe what they believe, to act in a manner consistent with those beliefs, and to ultimately stay or not stay in a relationship.

Ask yourself this question. If you were the child, what would you prefer that your parent did, pretend to believe in something that they did not, or be honest with you and consistent with themselves?

Friday, February 03, 2006

...just a little bit


Is it disrespectful to not be observant when in the company of our religious family and friends?

I do not refer to when we are in shul or during some religious practice. I am speaking of when we are visiting, having dinner, or getting together somewhere. Do we wear our yalmukas, wash, bench, go to minchah?

Is this “respect”?

I’ve certainly heard that it is - not just in my own case, but applied broadly to other members of the family who are not frum. “Isn’t it nice how they came to davening.” " Can you believe that they drove off before the end of shabbos?" My parents, (who have generally been very understanding) deeply believe that this is an issue of respect.

I bought into this idea as well. For quite a while, long after I was no longer observant – and long after my family knew this – I behaved religiously when I was with them. Not all of my motivation related to respect. There are other, more complex reasons – I have four orthodox children who I love very much – and the emotional consequences to them of my actions is far more important than to anyone else.

But if the reason to keep up the observance is as a show of respect, then I think that it is misplaced. This isn’t to say that my family would not be hurt by seeing me violating some lav – they would, and I understand the choice not to subject them to that pain. But this is not respect.

Respect, in my opinion, is a genuine appreciation that someone else has a valid right to choose their beliefs and to act according to those beliefs. It is not an expectation that someone else will mimic your observances so as not to upset you. Acting religiously may make my family more comfortable, and it may allow them to hold out hope that I may ultimately become frum, but it does not show respect.