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 kids...so 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?


Blogger BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

First of all, let me say that your posts and comments are truly thought provoking as well as inspirational.

We all can relate, and understand this idea of which you speak, which generally refers to God as a punisher and a rewarder, depending upon our actions or inactions. Personally, I do not buy into this system, as in some ways I find it too simplistic to accept, and it does not allow for the idea that sometimes, as Rabbi Harold Kushner says, bad things can happen to good people. Sometimes that is just the way the energy of the world works, whether we have anything to do with the situation or not.

By the way: please be careful when you are using the word schizphrenic as you have, in the sentence. It not only stigmitizes those with mental illness, but you are not using it correctly. Schizophrenia does not mean a split personality, but rather is a brain disorder and is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. If you want to lean more about this illness, please go to www.nami.org. In addition to being a lawyer, I am an advocate for those who suffer from mental illness.

That being said, thank you for your comments on my blog about the Talmud. Please keep them coming.

I am happy to have found your blog!

March 07, 2006 6:06 PM  
Blogger Ger Tzadik said...

I didn't have time to really dive into the discussion there, but I think it was a cop-out on his part. There are ways to bring down the idea that your actions have real consequences in the world that are not nearly as knee-jerk as those he was using as an example.

There are also ways to effectively communicate the spiritual consequences of your actions without having to resort to their consequences in this world. I think that muddies the waters far too much, and is MORE likely to make children question God's role in the world. After awhile, those tough questions about how evil is allowed to exist and even thrive become harder and harder to answer the more you lean on cause-effect type theology.

You're absolutely right about this not being limited to Jewish thinking though. Many (most) who are raised in a religious Christian home hear the same arguments, and deal with the same kinds of issues. I think that sets back the argument for why God and religion are compelling.

March 07, 2006 10:39 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I really have a hard time with GH's blog because I often can't tell when he's serious and when he's mocking... Which is a ridiculous way to have a serious conversation - and how can any conversation about Divine reward and punishment or the divinity of the Torah or any of the other topics discussed on the blog, how can such a conversation NOT be serious. I don't mind goofing around, but I have a hard time mixing those two.

March 08, 2006 1:32 AM  
Blogger lightseeker said...

It certainly seems that every religion and philosophy has some concept which intertwines human behavior with the universe (or to God if you prefer that concept). Be it pop Karma in the everyday world (what goes around comes around), reward and punishment as presented from the Judeo Christian perspective, reincarnation as a way of working through past transgressions; they all share a common thread – being comforting to the believers (just as GH and some of his commenters stated).

It may be comforting because it provides a sense of control, or order, or meaning, or helps one see a divine plan, or makes the misery on the planet more palatable, or is simply consistent with the hard wiring of our upbringing, but at core it just helps us get through the day, reinforcing my notion that these ideas are simply human constructs painted on the universe around us. Nevertheless, I'm glad when these beliefs help people do good things, examine their motivations, try harder, spread good intentions and good deeds. And I can’t help believing that these good works do ripple through humanity and in so doing maybe even reflect back to us – no divine intervention required.

March 08, 2006 2:22 AM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

The idea that G-d is involved in the minutae of our lives is the height of narccicism. That is of course why it is such an attractive doctrine. It elevates the most unimportant and mundane events of our lives to cosmic importance. I believe that shedding this belief is quite healthy and liberating. I continue to examine my values continually, and I don't need G-d looking over my shoulder to do that. Much unneccessary shame and guilt has been shed, leaving more energy for real self-improvement. Sh*t happens folks, and it is primitive magical thinking to assume that everything that happens in your life is the result of a grand scorekeeper. The world just doesn't work that way.

March 08, 2006 8:41 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

First of all, you guys should read e-kvetcher's post on this topic:

(Any of you computer guys want to send me the html for hyperlink? I’m a lowly ee.)

I am guilty of using this term to convey rapidly shifting contradictory ideas. I take your point that using these words as literary devices helps marginalize those who struggle with the real thing. I’ll try to be more careful.

You’re right, there are many ways to get to the same philosophical (or theological) concept without turning the idea into a nursery rhyme. (No disrespect intended for ‘Yigdal’.)

I don’t know, I think that’s part of what makes GH’s blog so fun to read. I think that the other thing that he does is present a moving target about some issues (not all). Both the jokes and the mood swings give him much more wiggle room. How do you really debate this stuff anyway? Rationality only goes so far, much of the rest is what assumptions you consider to be reasonable. I think of it as being more of a forum for points of view than a methodical debate.

I suppose that you’re right that the concept of karma (or hashkacha) does help guide people to be more conscious of their actions and taking responsibility of their own lives. Certainly, being realistically aware of your shortcomings and seeking to improve are great qualities. I very much believe that everything that we do, large and small, has consequences for the universe. I just don’t think that the random occurrences which happen to us can be traced to anything that we did or didn’t do. If they can, it’s beyond our ability to calculate, so why should we be knocking ourselves out trying.

I’m not big on the ‘what goes around comes around” adage. The Talmud says that when Moses asked God to ‘reveal his ways’ do him, he was asking God to explain why some righteous people suffered while evil people thrived. God ultimately refused to answer Moses, saying “you will see me after I pass, but will not see my face”, which the Talmud explains as us seeing only the results, but not the reasons. God, Moses and the Talmud aside, I just think that things often don’t come out even. That’s just life, and it’s no use rooting for the hand of justice to come down and deliver the payoff.

I do very much like your ‘ripple’ model. (Grateful Dead?) I’ll have to keep pondering. For now, consistent with my skepticism, I’m skeptical.

Welcome to the party.

I don’t think that it’s narcissistic, (well, yes, it gives ourselves much importance in the universe), but I do agree with you’re s*it happens theory. I just didn’t want to come out and say it that way. :)

March 08, 2006 5:59 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Here's the link again.


I'll send you instructions how to do this. So, you're a EE? I am a CompE myself. Bode plots, dude!

March 08, 2006 9:30 PM  
Blogger anonymous said...

if you don't want to trouble with html, you can just use www.tinyurl.com to shorten the link to something easily clickable.

March 09, 2006 4:34 AM  

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