Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why I'm Shaving

It's here. After so many months, so many Facebook status updates, so many laughs and quite a few tears, the day of the Big Shave is finally here. Tonight, I'll sit along with 60 or so other Rabbis, and we'll shave our heads. We'll shave our heads to honor the commitment and support that so many of you have shown us. We'll shave our heads to show our love and support to Michael and Phyllis. And, of course, we'll shave our heads to honor the memory of Sam, along with countless others who have been lost to cancer.

Many of my friends and colleagues have been writing about why they're doing this, and I want to add my voice to that. I talked about this on Friday, but I wanted to share it with more people, as well. My apologies if it's a bit long, but I hope you'll take the time to read it.

"Why do bad things happen to good people?" It's the eternal religious question. If there is a benevolent God, why would that God allow terrible things to happen to people who don't deserve them? Why isn't the world fair? Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the most famous book on the subject (well, 2nd most famous ) calls it the only religious question.

My own understanding about this comes from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the intellectual giants of 20th century Judaism. In a powerful (although difficult) book called "Fate and Destiny," the Rav (as he was known) explains that, in reality, "why?" is the wrong question. In fact, it's not just wrong--it's immoral. In some ways, amoral.

Asking "why" something happened implies that there is a reason. And, if that reason comes from God, then, by definition, it's a good reason. And, if there's a good, God-approved reason for something bad happening to us, then that implies that, in the big picture, it isn't bad at all. Sure, from our limited, myopic, selfish point of view it seems bad. But, it's not really bad.

It's like when I take my kids to get an immunization shot. They think it's awful. But, what do they know? The doctors and parents know that this is actually a good. A bit of pain for a larger benefit. "Why did they stick a needle in my arm?" "To save you."

The Rav rejects this kind of thinking about tragedies in our world. Because, he says, they deny the existence of bad and evil. When something bad happens, trying to find the reason for it implies that it wasn't really bad at all. It only seemed bad to us; but, from God's point of view, it was actually a good thing, like that shot. But, part of what it means to be human (maybe the biggest part) is our ability to tell the difference between good and bad. We, human beings, are the ones who can look at a natural disaster and say "that shouldn't be." We can look at acts of human evil and say "that's evil. That's wrong. I reject that, and I'll fight against it." Trying to turn every seemingly awful thing into something good is a repudiation of our God-given sense of right and wrong. Tsunamis that kill thousands are not good. Wars which kill millions are not good. Cancer which kills children (or anyone else) is not good. These are awful, and no amount of theological gymnastics will change that.

The real question, he teaches it not "why?" but "what now?" We can't explain what happened. We certainly can't undo it. But, we can decide to act in its wake. That's the meaning of his title, "Fate and Destiny." Fate is what happens to us, and it just happens. There are no reasons (or, at least, none that we'll ever understand). But, Destiny is what we do with our Fate. It is precisely how we react to our fate which, potentially, redeems it. It doesn't make it good, but it makes something good come out of it.

I've been talking about this for years. And, invariably, at this point I give an example, and I've been using the same one for as long as I can remember. As painful as it is to share now, here it is:

Imagine a child dies of cancer. Is there any reason for that horrible death which will be adequate? Is there any Divine Plan which, if we were to learn it, would make us satisfied with the trade off? Is there any plan which, if offered to us in advance, we would say, "I'll take that"? Of course not. Nothing you can ever say or explain will make a single parent satisfied with the death of their child. To even suggest it is a monstrosity.

But, my example always continues, children do die of cancer. Reason or not, they do. And, it's always a tragedy, on every level. But, if in the wake of that tragedy, what if a parent is driven to raise money to support cancer research, and through that research, actually does cure cancer? Will I accept that God made that child die of cancer, specifically so that the parents would raise this money? No--I won't accept that. It's illogical (an all-powerful God has better options at hand) and it's immoral (solving problems by killing children isn't right, and I can't believe that anyone will try to justify it, although they surely will). But, we weren't offered that deal. We weren't given a choice. The child died, and that's wrong in every way, but now what? Can we do something in the wake of the tragedy? Can we make something positive come out of something merit-less? Can we redeem that evil and, while we can never make it good, at all, can we make something good emerge from it? 

Yes. We can. 

That's what we're doing tonight. That's what we've been doing for months. The death of Samuel Sommer (and Sam Jeffers, and so many others) is not good. It is wrong. It is wrong on every single level. It should not be. But it is. It happened. We can't change that (and, my God, how I want to change that). All we can ask is "what now?" 

Every one, especially every grieving parent, has a different answer to that question., I don't think that it's incumbent upon all of them to raise a half-million dollars for cancer research. For some, just surviving another day, another second of the day, is enough. But, for Mike and Phyllis, this is their response. This is their "what now?" Through their unfathomable courage, grace and love, they brought dozens of Rabbis, and hundreds and thousands of others, along on a journey to do something. To make something. To redeem something. They are making something holy out of the least holy thing my mind can fathom.

And, in the end, that may be the whole of religion. Making something holy out of something which isn't. Making order out of the chaos. I think that's what Kushner meant when he said that "why do bad things happen?" is the only religious question. Ultimately, religion is about finding order in the chaos, about finding meaning in the void. Our first story--the story of creation--is about God making order out of chaos. The origin of religion itself may have been about the attempt to find order in a chaotic world--patterns in the stars, and patterns in our behavior. And, god damn it, if those patterns aren't there, then we're going to make them, because that's all that we can do. We'll draw pictures over the heavenly chaos. We'll make rituals to order an unordered life. We'll make something good come out of a place where there is no good. 

I would give anything to bring Sam back for my dear friends. I would give anything to make right what is wrong. But, I can't. We can't. Tonight--tonight is the best that we can do. Tonight, I will be honored beyond my ability to share to stand with friends and colleagues, with so many people whom I love and respect, and try to create the smallest spark out of the deepest darkness.

Zichrono Livracha -- may Sam's memory always be a blessing.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Messy Hair

When I updated my Facebook profile picture a day or two ago, I also posted a comment which seems to have disappeared. So, apologies if you've seen this, but here (more or less) is what I said.

Yeah. My hair looks bad. That day in particular, the humidity was up, and the hair was...bad. Silly bad. "Get a haircut, hippie" a friend yelled at me. "Which stooge are you trying to be?" a congregant asked me. No defending it--the hair is silly.

In a few days, I'll shave my head, and then I'll look a whole different, new kind of silly.

A few months after that, the hair will grow back, and I'll be back to my normal kind of silly-looking. Life will go on.

F or me. My hair will go back to normal. I'll go back to normal. My life will go back to normal. But, Phyllis' life will never go back to normal. Michael's life will never go back to normal. Sabrina's life will never go back to normal. They, and countless other parents like them, had a child stolen from them by cancer. And, from the moment of the diagnosis, to say nothing of their child's death, their lives were changed. Forever. Normal went away.

As the shave gets closer, and the messages and posts increase, I'm getting so emotional about this. I think about my friends, and I try *not* to imagine having to say "goodbye" to my own precious children. It hits me at the oddest times--in the gym yesterday, for example--this overwhelming sense of sadness and, more than that, maybe, wrongness. This should not be. And then, I get to go back to life. I get to put that feeling away, at least for a while, and pretend that the world is as it should be.

It's not.

I'm letting my hair grow because I love my friends. I'm shaving my head because I love my friends. And, because I hate cancer. And, because I hate hate hate hate kids dying, even more than I hate anyone dying, which is a lot.

Laugh at my hair. Please. I deserve it. It deserves it. But then, when you're done, hug your loved ones a little tighter than they want. Make a donation to St Baldricks, or some other charity. Thank God, or the universe, or whatever, for everything you've got.

Zichronam Livracha--may their memories be a blessing.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Merit of the Golden Calf

This week, we read about the Golden Calf--the people are afraid because Moses has been up on Sinai for too long, so they panic. They demand a new God, so Aaron (the High Priest) says, "Give me all of your gold, and I'll make you a new God." They do; he does; God gets mad; Moses gets mad; Moses smashes the tablets.

Not our finest moment.

But, a teacher (his name is smudged in my book, so I can't cite him properly*) finds some merit in our idolatrous ancestors: at least they were willing to sacrifice their gold--their money--for their god. Even if he was false, they would do anything for him. As opposed to Jews in "our day" he says, who won't give of their wealth.

* Itturei Torah, volume 3, page 258, 1st teaching. Any of my Rabbi friends able to help?

Now, I'm not sharing this because of the chastisement itself--I'm not suggesting that all of you (all of us, really) are bad because we don't donate enough to our synagogues. I like it for another reasons--our teacher's willingness to find merit, even in an awful, idolatrous act.

Was the Golden Calf a sin? Of course it was. It was an awful thing for our people to do. For God's sake--we had just been rescued by God from slavery. God had split the Red Sea for us! And still, we couldn't be faithful. Such a betrayal.

But, even in that moment, this teacher finds merit. Even within an act which he would still undoubtably condemn, he finds something to admire.

It's easy to see people doing things that they shouldn't be doing. It's easy to get righteously indignant about it. It may even be justified.

But, at the same time, might we be able to find something to admire? Might we find a spark within the darkness? Are we generous enough of spirit?

I'd like to think I am. I'm not sure. Something to think about, and to try, this Shabbat, perhaps.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Finding Awe (and God) in Evolution

So, I just posted to Facebook this fun little Buzzfeed article, featuring a series of Creationists holding up questions which, in theory, challenge Evolution and/or promote Creationism. Most of these are pretty weak--if there are good arguments to support the Biblical account of creation, I'm pretty sure that pointing to Lucy is not one of them. Fine.

I was tempted to go through and answer each one ("Yes." "No." "No, but I'm not sure what you think that proves."), but that seemed kind of snarky, even for me. And, maybe more to the point, it also seemed like a lot of work. So, I decided to just amuse myself with my answers in my head.

But, I just have to say something about #20 (and, it kinda applies to #5, and maybe a couple of others, too). It reads:
How can you look at the world and not believe Someone Created/thought of it? It's Amazing!!!
Let me ask you: in all honesty, which is more deeply, profoundly amazing? That an all-powerful Being created the world as we see it? Or that, without any intervention, this world created itself?

I mean, if there really is an all-powerful, active, independent God*, then creating the world, in all of its complicated beauty, wasn't the least bit difficult. Sure, the world seems awfully complicated to us. But, to God? Making it must have been no more difficult than a card trick. Right? But, if all of that beautiful complexity evolved through its own process, becoming what it is naturally, fluidly, independently? That is pretty darn amazing, isn't it? Awe inspiring, even.

* which, by the way, the Bible never really claims that there is. It might be worth remembering that.

I once learned (I think this is still the current thinking, but even if it's not, the point will stand) that the universe exists upon an unbelievably fine balancing point. Certain forces, and possibly the amount of matter in the universe, are so finely in balance that the smallest change to any of them could have made reality as we know it impossible. Some have pointed to that as more evidence of the existence of an active Creator.

But, again, setting up the world with such a fine balance might be many things, but it isn't the least bit difficult to God. Why would we be amazed that God could do that, when God can, we're told, do anything?

But, to know that the universe somehow unfolded and evolved into this, without the guiding hand of an all-powerful Being, that everything that we know--everything--exists only because of a knife-edge dance played out on every level from the sub-atomic to the cosmic, that our lives and everything we hold dear are, in some sense, a minor nudge away from non-existence? That fills me with awe. That fills me with the wondrous, scary feeling of being not just in the presence of, but of being within, some One who/that I can never, never understand.

I look at the world, and I most definitely believe that no One created/thought of it. At least, not in anything like a literal sense. And, you know what?

That is amazing. That is awesome. That, my anonymous friend on Buzzfeed, is what it truly feels like to stand in the presence of God.

Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, oseh ma'aseh v'reishit. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, the Source of Creation.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Religion and the Benjamin Franklin Effect

An insight I had when trying to talk about Sacrifice with a student last week. We were pondering why God who, logic would tell us, couldn't possibly need anything that we have to offer. I mean, I'm pretty sure God doesn't need meat, and if God did, then God has access to some pretty good barbecue, without me throwing my bull on the altar. Right?

I was trying to explain the idea that, just maybe, these rituals were for us, not for God. I've talked about that before. Plenty. But, I then linked it to the Ben Franklin effect. In short, Franklin discovered (or, maybe just relied upon) the fact that the most effective way to get someone to like you is not to be nice to them (which most of us would assume to be the case). Far more effective is to get them to do you a small favor. When they do the favor, they become more likely to have nice feelings for you.

It's almost Pavlovian (I think). Usually, we do nice things for people we like. So, if you do something nice for me, something in your brain makes that association, and starts thinking "Hey! I must like this person."

I'm pretty sure that all of our religious rituals work on exactly this premise.

The Dangers of Certainty

For a long time, uncertainty and ambiguity have been among my favorite topics to read, write and think about. And, I mean that from a religious point of view—I am theologically committed to the idea of uncertainty. I suspect that would sound somewhat strange to someone who tends to think of religion as it is presented in larger settings–usually as absolute, confident assertions about who or what God is, what God wants and how others are wrong about those very same questions.

Me? I think that real truth (or, maybe I should say, real Truth) is never found in absolutes and certainties. There's an old Yiddish proverb that "to know God is to be God*," which I think is another way of saying that no one, other than God, can ever really be certain about anything when it comes to God. If my feeble, limited mind** can contain an idea, then that idea is, pretty much by definition, small enough to be contained in my feeble, limited mind. Which means it ain't as big as God!

* I tried to find the original Yiddish, and according to Google it seems that lots of cultures claim that as their original quote. One more thing I thought I knew...

** And, compared to an ultimate God, all of our minds are feeble and limited, right?

A lot of my writing over the years has been explicitly or implicitly about this topic. If you don't believe me, check out these blog posts (which are mostly implicit) or this sermon (which is pretty explicit!) on the topic. I even have a file of interesting ideas and articles on this topic, in the theory that, one day, I may even have a book to write about it!

But, lately, I haven't been writing so much. I still feel that it's one of the most important topics in my religious life, and as a Rabbi (which is a different). Especially given how certain many others in the world (and, especially in the religious world) seem to be, I think it's an absolutely essential topic. One of the most essential, frankly. But, I haven't had anything new to say about it in a while. So, I find myself not saying much, at all.

But then, I was pointed towards a recent blog post from the New York Times. It's titled The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz. I can't recommend strongly enough that you read it, and watch the (four minute) video with. It's simply extraordinary.

* Thanks, Steve B!

The author, Simon Critchley, points out that the history of science has actually not been an inexorable march towards certainty. People often assume that it is—as we learn more, we become more certain about how the world works. And, on the surface, that is indeed how science seems to work. But, real scientists have been learning for a long time just how uncertain we necessarily are about world:
Dr. Bronowski’s 11th essay took him to the ancient university city of Göttingen in Germany, to explain the genesis of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in the hugely creative milieu that surrounded the physicist Max Born in the 1920s. Dr. Bronowski insisted that the principle of uncertainty was a misnomer, because it gives the impression that in science (and outside of it) we are always uncertain. But this is wrong. Knowledge is precise, but that precision is confined within a certain toleration of uncertainty. Heisenberg’s insight is that the electron is a particle that yields only limited information; its speed and position are confined by the tolerance of Max Planck’s quantum, the basic element of matter.
Dr. Bronowski thought that the uncertainty principle should therefore be called the principle of tolerance. Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty. Heisenberg’s principle has the consequence that no physical events can ultimately be described with absolute certainty or with “zero tolerance,” as it were. The more we know, the less certain we are.
The plain, scientific truth is that it is impossible for human beings to ever know, with absolute precision and certainty, anything. Anything at all. A certain amount of uncertainty is (quite literally?) built into the cosmos. Scientists know this–as far as I know, this is not a disputed point anymore. But, perhaps ironically*, many religious leaders, and religious non-leaders, seem to not accept this in their own lives. We might be uncertain about the exact state of an electron, but that doesn't mean that we can't be certain about God, right?!? 

* I say "ironically" because, in theory, we're supposed to be the humble ones. Right?

It's obviously ridiculous idea, when I put it like that*. But, that really does seem to be the basis on which many people speak about religion: as a realm of absolute certainty in an uncertain world. I'm with Critchley (and the Dr. Bronowski he quotes) in believing that that's among the most dangerous attitudes in the world:

* that's why I put it like that.
For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”
The relationship between humans and nature and humans and other humans can take place only within a certain play of tolerance. Insisting on certainty, by contrast, leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.
If I believed in tattoos* I might get that last sentence tattooed somewhere prominent on me.

* I have some religious objections to them, of course. But, mainly I'm against inflicting pain on myself.

Look, by this point in my searching, I'm fairly well convinced that all of our various statements about God only makes sense as metaphor and approximation. I'm an extreme non-literalist, and to quote myself, a Radical Non-Fundamentalist. So, I know I truly am (somewhat ironically) a bit extreme in this way. I simply don't believe that anything any of us say about God should ever be taken literally. But, even if you're less extreme and I am– even if you're a bit more of a certain, literalist than I am, don't you have to admit to at least some uncertainty? Don't you have to admit that in a world in which we can't be precisely sure of the location of the smallest building blocks of matter, we also can't be sure of the will of the Divine?

And, if you can't be absolutely sure about that, then don't you have to be at least a little bit tolerant about those who believe, or think, differently than you do?

It's really difficult to kill someone over an idea that you aren't 100% sure is true. Isn't it?

I just wish that it wasn't such a seemingly difficult concept for others, especially my partners and cousins in striving for God, to accept.
We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A First Step Towards Compassion

I mentioned in this morning's post that compassion (rahamim in Hebrew) has been on my mind. So, I decided to also teach a bit about it at our monthly lunch and learn today (you can always join us--look for it on Congregation Beth Am's website, always on a Thursday at noon). At the end of the (really interesting, fun) session, I shared a metaphor which seemed to resonate with people. So, I'll share it here, too.

I've heard that one of the harder tasks for baseball outfielders is learning to always take their first step out. When a ball is hit to them, it always looks, at first, like it's going to fall in front of them, so they naturally start moving in. But, the ball is actually often going over their heads, and so then they need to scramble backwards. That's why you see so many little-leaguers chasing balls which got past them; they haven't yet learned to always, reflexively take that first step out. Even if the ball is in front of them, they'll have time to adjust to that, most often. It's not perfect, but it's a good rule.

That's kind of how I feel about compassion. I know that there are times when an actual compassionate response might not be right. There are times when strict justice is needed, or self-preservation, or something else. But, so often compassion is the right response, but we aren't trained to respond that way. So, our first step is in another direction, and it's really hard to adjust back towards compassion once our fear, or righteous anger or whatever else get going.

What I want is to train myself to always react with compassion first. To have compassion be my reflex. It won't always be the right reaction, but it will more often than I might instinctively think.

As I once said, when in doubt, err on the side of compassion.