Monday, March 27, 2006

The Mine

Thousands of people are working in an enormous mine facility, many miles underground. The mine is stocked with food, water, energy and oxygen to last them one year. There is a huge explosion which completely destroys the tunnel which is the sole link between the mine and the surface. The tunnel is a remarkable engineering effort which took over 20 years to dig.

One of the minors, let’s call him ‘Moses’, proclaims that he has found a hidden map which describes a secret escape tunnel. With a massive digging effort, they can reach the escape tunnel in less than a year. The followers of Moses argue that he must be correct. After all, the mining company would never put them into this mine without some means of escaping.

Others claim that there is no such tunnel, that the map is an obvious forgery. They point out that there are rational reasons why the escape tunnel must not exist. It would be virtually impossible for a second tunnel to be dug without it being known. Also, if the tunnel is there, why did the company not simply tell everyone. They point out various suspicious aspects of the map which indicate that it was drawn up far more recently than Moses claims, and that it looks far more like a map made by a single person that by the company. They argue that a system of rational law should be put into place and that, so long as no one violates those laws, they should spend their remaining time as they see fit.

The followers of Moses argue back that there are many reasons why the map may have been secret. It is possible that the Company did not want the escape tunnel used unless it was a last resort. After all, the tunnel does not have the same level of safety as the main tunnel, and is not designed for constant use. It is even possible that the Company kept the existence of the tunnel secret so that the minors would not lose confidence in the security of the main tunnel, which they had always believed to be impervious to mishaps. They point out to the non-believers that, when the escape tunnel is reached, those who dug would be rewarded by the Company, and those who did not would be harshly judged.

Some argue that, while they really don’t believe Moses, it is far better for them to go along with the charade. After all, this belief would give the group purpose and meaning for the year of life which they had left. By performing the ritual of digging for the escape tunnel, the people would maintain their hope, and would live a more fulfilled and happy year. In addition, they are afraid that if all conclude that there is no escape, that the group would deteriorate to immorality and chaos. They also point out that, while there are undeniable problems with the authenticity of the map, no one can offer an absolute proof that the map is forged.

Yet others argue that, while there is certainly no tunnel, there is always some hope that, through some process unknown to them, a rescue is remotely possible. Perhaps there is some new digging technology which they are unaware of. Even if they can not fathom a rational rescue, they can not rule it out completely. They advocate that, while the group should not waste their time and effort in meaningless digging, the group should accept that they do not really know what their future holds.

So what would you believe?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Time for a Name Change

I'm changing my clever but obscure 'the daas and the diybur' to the simpler, more lyrical, (less anonymous) 'david's harp'. I'm not changing my URL, so hopefully Blogger will be able to handle this without too much trouble.

Selecting a name for this blog is difficult. I hope to continue to post about my ideas on the formation and adoption of beliefs, the interplay of emotions and cognition, and the gulf of understanding between believers and non-believers. I also hope to continue relating some of my personal experiences about the process and consequences of changing your beliefs.

But, as I go forward, I'll try to lighten up and have a bit more fun with the blog. After all, there's more to the meaning of life than, well, the meaning of life. Who knows, I may even post a bit of my music. We'll see.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Migillah Meme

Chana has tagged me with the megillah meme.

I'm not sure what the rules of the game are, so I guess I'll just follow my flow of consciousness and see how it goes.

This Purim, I thought about:

My oldest daughter, who is studying in Israel, and the fact that she will be celebrating Shushan Purim. Which got me thinking about... complicated the discussion in the Talmud is about which cities read the Megillah on which days. Which got me thinking about a weird thing in the discussion where...

... in trying to figure out if Tiberius was walled during the time of Joshua, the Talmud says: "ומי פשיטא ליה דטבריא מוקפת חומה מימות יהושע בן נון והא חזקיה קרי בטבריא בארביסר ובחמיסר", that Hezekia read the Megillah there on both days, proving that it was in doubt. (Megillah 5b). Which is very strange, since Hezekiah lived at least 200 years before Purim. (Has anyone seen any discussions on this?) Which got me thinking about... strange it is that there is such a long discussion of Purim, but only about half a page on Channukah in Shabbos. Which got me thinking about...

...Whether Chazal (the Rabbis of the Talmud) really had it in for the Hashmonaem, who were very likely Sadduceas, or at least had the ambition of a Priestly monarchy. (Which Chazal would not approve of, since they are not from the tribe of Juda.) Which would help explain why 'Esther' was accepted into the Canon, while 'Macabeas' didn't make the cut. Which got me thinking about...

... how it always seems to me that Judaism during the Second Temple period was splitting into two religion's; one based on the Temple, sacrifices and priests and one based on study and prayer. And that ultimately, with the loss of the Temple, that former branch of the religion was wiped out, which ended up being a good thing for Judaism, since a pagan-like religion could not have been sustained. Which got me thinking about about... it even seems to me that the Torah itself contains two very different religions; one centering on animal sacrifices, Priestly rituals, ritual purity and kohanic gifts, and the other based on the formula of the Ten commandments and the establishment of Civil law and moral codes of conduct. And thought about how it makes sense to me...

...that the story line really is that Moses envisioned a much less pagan-like religion, and tried to do away with all of the pagan rituals which had been adopted in Egypt and Canaan. And that, perhaps, when the incident of the Golden Calf occurred, he realized that he would not be able to pull it off. So, he appointed his own family priests and selectively adopted pagan rituals. (A little Parshas Parah drasha.) And that, actually....

...this isn't completely different from some of the ideas in Chazal that the Tabernacle/red heifer, etc.. Are 'atonement' for the sin of the Golden Calf. And that...

...Orthodox Jews pray so feverntly for the restoration of the temple and the sacrifices, but that they have no idea how bizzare those practices would be in modern times. One thing that Chazal got right was prohibiting the re-building of the Temple by human means. They, at least, understood that the world had moved past paganism. And, that made me think again how... me, this is just one more case of fitting a bunch of square pegs in round holes, and how a relatively small change in thinking can make such a vast difference in outlook Which got me thinking about...

...ow huge the gulf in mind-set is between believers and non-believers. Which of course, got me thinking about...

...My daughter, and how much I love her and miss her and my other children.

May these days be transformed "מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה, וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב ", "from grief to joy, from mourning to celebration" for all of us.

Happy Purim

Monday, March 13, 2006

Did you ever wonder....

Why do very, very smart people believe very, very silly things?

Now don’t get all defensive, I’m not necessarily talking about Orthodox Judaism, though to most people, the beliefs upon which orthodoxy is based are quite far fetched. Maybe I was talking about Mormon, or Scientology. Or maybe I was talking about some of the fundamentalist beliefs in some of the Christian sects. Or perhaps I was talking about Native American Religions, which holds that man was formed from mud (hmm, actually that sounds familiar). Regardless of what your own perspective is, you must admit that there are other belief systems which have many adherents, and which are based on some pretty far out notions.

Each of these faiths have the normal spectrum of intelligent people. All have brilliant, gifted thinkers who are educated, inquisitive and truth-seeking. There is a tendency to deny that people who believe these things are intelligent and open. But, regardless of the religion, those people are there. And, certainly, OJ has many frighteningly brilliant minds.

So how do all of these people live their lives holding on to beliefs which seem starkly irrational. Part of the answer has to do with the reasoning tools which we use to deal with these beliefs. All believers have a system of thought which helps them reconcile their ideas with science, history, etc.. The smarter a person is, the more sophisticated their reasoning processes. This may reduce the level of incongruity of the beliefs to a more manageable level, and may even provide some logical arguments to substantiate religious claims.

But, obviously, there is more going on here than cognitive reasoning. To understand what is happening, we must look past the sphere of conscious reason and look at what is going on in our subconscious minds.

Our subconscious brain is, among other things, a full time self-defense system. It is the invisible fence which gives us visceral jolts each time we come close to a danger zone, or each time a threat is perceived. The subconscious is not the absolute ruler of our selves, but to not be controlled by it, we must be aware of what is going on. If you have a fear of heights, your psyche has identified high places as containing immediate danger, and will let your emotions know loud and clear that you are in peril. You can still climb the ladder, (and it will become easier if you can be aware that you’re subconscious reaction is not always in line with the objective level of danger), but it won’t be easy.

Changing our long held religious beliefs is enormously dangerous to our emotional wellbeing. Consider this; all you need to do is conclude that the Torah does not reflect the word of God, and, instantly, you are in a very bad place. You’ve just lost your road map for what is and is not a priority in life, for how you evaluate moral and life choices. You don’t know what God or the universe wants from you, or what your life will ultimately mean. You are disappointing and betraying your role models, your parents, your teachers, your friends, and your children. This can add up to complete self-annihilation, ‘Psychic suicide’, the very thing which you subconscious is working overtime to avoid.

Regardless of how clear and objective a thinker you are, your mind will go to whatever extremes it must to prevent you from putting all of this together. You can circle around the perimeter of disbelief all you want, but something in your subconscious mind will simply NOT let you really go all the way there. You will always get caught somewhere in the process and side tracked to an alternate route. Your mind may shift to contemplation of all of the reasons why you do believe what you do. It may wander to your emotional and spiritual feelings. It may re-route you to thinking about what you find flawed in non-belief. But you will have a very hard time keeping yourself focused on the basic, objective evaluation of your beliefs.

If you are an OJ, try the following little experiment: Say to yourself, (and try to imagine believing) “There is no covenant between God and the Jews. The Torah is a work of fictional mythology. God, if he exists at all, could not care less about any of our religious practices.” Notice that as you say it, your brain is coming up with reasons why these statements are wrong – even absurd, or why they don’t work for you. Notice how uncomfortable this feels.

Your subconscious is interfering with your conscious thought process. And it will not let you give up these ideas without a fight.


Unless you’re life has taken a turn in which these self-annihilation elements no longer apply as much or, unless there are very strong emotional incentives to change. This can be caused by many, many things, both internal and external. Perhaps the beliefs that you have are causing more psychic anguish than not believing. Perhaps you have created a strong enough foundation of alternate moral and ethical principles, so that you will not be without a compass. Perhaps you have established a new support system of friends, role models, communities who will help you deal with the losses and alienation from your old world, or perhaps you have developed enough confidence in key people in your old support group that they will not abandon you if you change your beliefs.

Whatever the cause, when these offsetting forces come into play and gain enough strength to counter your self defense system, then, and only then, will your subconscious mind allow your conscious mind to begin to fully explore those beliefs upon which your life choices are based. Only then will you be able to change the ideas which you have held for your life. The process can be slow or fast, it can lead you away from faith or towards faith. Perhaps religious ideas always seemed untenable to you, but as you gain an emotional attachment to those ideas and to the people who practice them, they gradually seem less outlandish.

Understanding all of this doesn’t lessen the legitimacy of belief. On the contrary, knowing this is the crux of truly respecting the belief system of another, even if these beliefs are beyond what you consider rationally possible. The process of believing is a very personal thing, and has criteria which differ from one person to another. In this respect, believing and not believing are pure equals.

Only you can know which way is best for your path in life, and only you have the right to choose.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Your Karma is in my Hashkacha

This past Friday, the ever-quotable Godol Hador wrote about the issue of divine providence, “haskacha pratis’, that God is actively intervening in our lives. While the post briefly discussed some of the concepts in the Rambam’s (Maimonides) system of thought, it focused on GH’s own experience with his internal beliefs and instincts. He writes:

Anytime something bad happened, my parents would say ‘See! That’s because you didn’t clean up your room, or because you were rude to your mother, or whatever’.

… this attitude has become ingrained in me, or as DovBear might say, ‘hardwired into my brain and there’s nothing I can do about it’. Except that, being a mature, intelligent, adult, there is something I can do about it. I can stop thinking that way. But do I really want to?First of all, Chazal say that when troubles befall a man, he should examine his ways. Every time something bad happens to me, I can usually come up with something wrong that I did recently, and oftentimes my inventive mind can figure out quite a good middah cneged middah which wraps the whole thing up quite neatly.

If you can show me some hard evidence that God is not directing my misfortunes, (or even that He doesn’t exist) then maybe we have something to talk about. But until then, I think I will stick with my beliefs. They have served me well so far, and I see no good reason to change them.

Since the Rambam’s view on this issue contains some paradoxical (or schizophrenic) statements, and since I didn’t read the posting until at least five minutes after it appeared, by the time I looked, there were about a hundred comments. There was the usual rapid fire repartee about what the Rambam really thinks, whether it is or isn’t contradictory, and whether this is yet another indication that GH is a closet (or outright) irrational apikores.

But the one comment which I thought really was on point was by Ger T’zadik.

You're talking more about psychology, not the relative merits of theodicy versus rationalism. You may THINK you can stop from thinking that way, but the truth of the matter is that it will always be your first thought in those situations. You can learn to tune them out, but not off. You can also choose not to pass that trait along to your children by keeping such thoughts to yourself. Unless you have decided that it's such a worthwhile trait that it's good for them to have it. I suspect that is not the case though, and you will be a generally rational actor with your they won't share that one aspect of your personality. They'll be better rationalists than you.

I don’t know if the Rambam ends up promoting or debunking the idea of specific causality in everyday life. But, despite claims by some the commentors, this instinctive thinking that our fortunes or misfortunes are the result of something which we did, or some greater divine plan, is deeply engrained in almost all of us. There are endless lessons in the Torah which reinforce this idea and I’ve heard thousands of speeches, shmuses and drashas where this was the main theme. I’m not arguing that this is a required dogmatic concept of faith, but, rather, that it is the de facto ideology which dominates Jewish education and thought.

I used to think that such broad self-blame was a unique aspect of Jewish thinking – one which went a long way to explain the “Jewish Guilt” phenomenon. I’m no expert on comparative religion, but I’ve come to believe that the idea is quite global. Not only is it an integral part of Western religious doctrine, but the same principles are a key part of Hindu and Buddhist theology. While the Western religions attribute causation to God’s omniscient providence, the Eastern religions attribute Karma to the natural course of spiritual force. In the end, though, they both believe that seemingly random events are consequences of our actions.

Even outside of the realm of religious thought, this idea is popular. One example is the Lynn Grabhorn book “Excuse Me, Your Life is Waiting”, which argues that everything which happens to us, good and bad, is a direct consequence of what energy we are manifesting. Sure, this is pop spirituality (okay, I’m a self help book junkie), but it’s sold a few hundred thousand copies, and there are many similar ideas.

My question about all of this, though, is keyed off of GH’s statement at the end of his post.

…I think I will stick with my beliefs. They have served me well so far, and I see no good reason to change them.

Does this really serve us well? Suppose that there was no theological reason to attribute personal events to our actions, as many argue that the Rambam believes. Suppose that it is, after all, just an emotional instinct which we’ve developed. And let’s even assume that we can choose to turn this instinct off. We could just flip a switch and suddenly feel that our good and bad fortunes were random. (And, for believers, all consequences are left for a world to come.) Would that ‘serve us better’ or not?

Would we be overwhelmed, feeling that we were spinning out of control in a random universe? Would we live each day dreading all of the unexpected and undeserved disasters which could occur at any moment? For myself, it certainly feels good to think that I can effect my own luck by mending my ways, producing better karma or manifesting more positive thoughts.

Or, if we had the courage, would we get someplace better. Perhaps we would be more accepting of our troubles, and not make them worse by creating stories of self-blame. Perhaps we would roll up our sleeves and focus our energy on solving – and preventing - our problems with real life actions, rather than waste our efforts on thoughts and rituals which have no bearing on our situation. And, perhaps, we could even learn to accept the good fortune which we enjoy with a bit more humility.

Perhaps we would live closer to the ‘Serenity Prayer’.

"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,The courage to change the things I can,And the wisdom to know the difference."

GH responded to Ger T’zadik’s comment about not passing the self-blame reflex to his children:

On the contrary, I think I will drill this into them. Being super rational and potentially ending up as nihilistic atheists won't help them much in life.

Okay, GH, I know how you come down on this one. How about the rest of you?

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Perhaps I should spend less time online and more time reading the news.

Today, the NY Times printed a long article about the kidnap, torture and death of this young man, Ilan Halimi, in suburb of Paris. His tormentors were a ragtag gang, led by a Moslem from the Ivory Coast. Among the shocking and horrible aspects of this incident, is the fact that many neighbors and residents in the building in which Ilan was held and tortured for three weeks knew, or at least partly knew, what was taking place.

Since the police insisted on treating this case as a typical kidnap/ransom situation, and did not take into account the anti-Semitic factors, they did not allow for the possibility that Ilan may be facing unspeakable torture and death. This act was carried out by sociopathic criminals, but it was allowed to proceed by racists who could not be bothered to intervene in a crime being committed against a Jew.

France may well be the world (and certainly the Western) leader in anti-semitism. The bland official reaction to recent anti-Jewish violence, the strenthening of racist political groups, the great reluctance to prosecute those culpable for deportation during WWII, (And, of course, PM Raymond Barre's memorable eulogy for victims of the 1980 Paris Synagogue bombing killing "both Jews and innocent Frenchmen"), all of these are consistent with sentiments both in French officialdom and in the street.

I am an optimist about humanity and the future path of the world. My feelings are not based on how great the current state of affairs are, but of how far we have come over the long, twisting passage of history. I am not rushing to paint broad conclusions about rampaging evil from this tragic incident.

But I find no comfort for this terrible death. All I can hear are Ilan's cries in agony. His last desperate, determined crawl, his eyes and mouth taped, his body cut and burned, his throat slashed. He crawled from the woods, where he was dumped, to a nearby train station. There he died.

Mi yiten roshi mayim, v'aini m'kom dima

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

all in all, disconnected

My oldest daughter is a great writer. Not only has she been bestowed with an eloquent and lyrical style, but, more importantly, she has a much rarer gift. At eighteen, she has the ironic, unflinching eye of the writer. She can look at herself in an everyday situation and describe with humor, freshness and unforgiving accuracy, the human drama which is unfolding within and around her.

Here is an excerpt from a post on her blog, (which I will not link to our of respect for her privacy), which she wrote about a year ago.

A subway car is a capsule, a cross section of humanity momentarily crystallized in as inoffensive a setting as stainless-steel and plastic can conjure. Every crevice of society can be seen on the subway at one time or another, the respectable, the questionable, the inconceivable, and all possible contortions of "the other half."

These people fascinate me. A sliver of my mind is always itching with the sizzle of unanswered questions. Who are the people I see on the subway? Why are they there, and where are they going? How did they come to look as they do, as tired or preppy or mentally unbalanced as they do? What does their clothing mean- is it choice, statement or necessity? Where do they live, and what are their livelihoods? When they look at me... what do they see?

I have no regular contact with these masses. Television is about as near as I come, and I am not so naive to imagine that life imitates art as exactly as it likes to pretend. I stare, glassy-eyed at these foreign lives with a swelling concoction of anxiety and fascination, a mist of unfamiliarity tinting and amplifying my curiosity.

Reading this brought me back hard to my own feelings of looking at the world – incomprehensible – through the lens of my childhood. I don’t know if my experiences are similar to my Orthodox readers. But, to me, I couldn’t help to constantly play this very game. Who are these people? How, without laws of modesty or religious norms, did they come to decide what to wear that day? What is important to them, what are their values, what motivates them? Are they happy and purposeful? Are they miserable and lost? What are they thinking about? How do I appear to them?

Sure, I had lots of clues, as my daughter writes about her experience with media. But, even after I had graduated from a secular college, had worked, and had may friends and acquaintances who were secular, the image of their lives remained blurry. Their choices often seemed contradictory to me. Was it really true that they were uninhibited about so many things which I found to be problematic, or were they just blithely clueless? If so, where did their passion for their own causes come from?

By background had instilled within me an innate sense that my moral compass was always pointed true north. But what about them? Did they even have a moral system? Did they even care?

Even now, after my own moral realignment and much more life experience, understanding the “other half” still sometimes requires some calculus. But, at this point, there are many things which I do know about these other passengers with whom we share our world. I have far too much respect for orthodoxy and, certainly, for my children, to wish for them to change their beliefs. But I do wish that the world made more sense to my daughter, and that her being with these people could be more than just a spectator sport.

(This isn’t my daughter’s strongest piece, but I quote it because it does a good job of relating this experience.)