Friday, July 31, 2009

Is God a useful idea?

A colleague of mine recommended a book, How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Waldman. Among other findings, the authors talk about results which show that people who believe in a God tend to be more compassionate*. There are other benefits, too – lower incidence of dementia, for example.

* right now, some of you are preparing responses of this sort: “I know of person X who claims to believe in God, and they do A, B and C, all of which are horrific things.” Don’t bother – the claim isn’t that people who believe are automatically nicer, or that people who don’t believe aren’t. The claim is that belief in a God, like other activities, such as meditation, can strengthen the parts of the brain that allow us to feel compassion. But, it’s not guaranteed, and it’s not the only way.

So, here’s an interesting philosophical question. Imagine that you don’t believe in God (which is surely true for some people reading this). But, imagine that you become convinced that acting as if you believe in God can/will have significant, positive benefits for you. Or, imagine that convincing yourself that you believe (which is different from just acting that way) will give you those benefits. Would you do it?

For me, it’s a real quandary. I am, by nature, somewhat philosophical. I place a high value on Truth. I don’t want to believe that which isn’t true, and I get very frustrated by those who equate all belief with belief in irrational things. But, what if I were to decide that my insistence on rigorous truth is actually a detriment to my life? What if I’d be happier/nicer/healthier, if I could just get over myself, and pretend to believe that which I don’t believe? Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face, by sticking with Truth?

In the end, I don’t think so – in my case, it’s just too far to go. So much of my thinking, and my religious identity, is based around this concept of truth, that to go away from it would be a lie, and probably an unsustainable one. But, it still leaves the question an open one, and an interesting one, so I’ll put it to you, dear reader: if you don’t (or hypothetically didn’t) believe in God, but believe that it’s better to believe, would you / could you fake it?

By the way, here, according to the book (according to my colleague), is the list (I believe in order of effectiveness) of ways to exercise your brain:

  1. Smile
  2. Stay intellectually active
  3. Consciously relax
  4. Yawn (though hopefully not during this sermon!)
  5. Meditate
  6. Aerobic Exercise
  7. Dialogue with others
  8. Have faith.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Anyone follow God on Twitter? What's He up to?

Apparently, you can now use Twitter to put a prayer in the Western Wall. A colleague of mine wrote about what, exactly, is wrong with this - calling it "Fast Food Judaism." Quick and easy religion which might feel satisfying at the time, but ultimately is unhealthy for you. Pretty good analogy, if you ask me (and I do love a religious analogy).

I'd go a step further than he does, though. He does allow for the value, in a limited way, of putting prayers in the wall (for those who don't know, the Western Wall in Jerusalem is sacred, and many people write prayer on slips of paper, and put them in the cracks of the wall). Let me preface this by saying that, like him, I love the Wall - I've always found it incredibly powerful to be there, and I am always drawn to return to it, whenever I'm lucky enough to be in Jerusalem.

Put the whole idea of putting a note in the wall just runs counter to what I believe. No matter how people try to justify it (and some just accept this as literal fact), the implication is that God hears our prayers (reads our prayers?) better when they are put there. If I ask God for health, or happiness, or a new car, but I do it here in Tampa - well, that gives me a 20% chance of getting what I want. But, if I stick that prayer in the Kotel (the Hebrew word for "wall"), then it jumps up to 80%. Maybe 90%, if God's running a special that week.

There is a very fine line between religion and superstition. One of the signs that you're crossing that line is if you ever say "this prayer/ritual/rite will work better if it's done in this way/at this time/in this place." To use one of my own favorite (and well used) metaphors, God is not a Cosmic Vending Machine, requiring only that we learn which buttons to push, and in what order, to get what we want.

Of course, this can get overstated - holidays are special times, and the Wall is a special place. Finding sanctity in some times and places isn't inherently superstitious. But, believing that God will react differently, in a literal sense, in those times and places is. Are there ways to do the "note in the Kotel" thing that don't cross that line? I'm sure that there are. But, when people think that Tweeting "please give me a pony" is, in any way, better than an authentic, personal prayer, then I think we've crossed a line.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I'll admit up front that this post is not technically Jewish, but it's something that's been on my mind for a while. And, since Judaism places such an intensely high value on Pikuach Nefesh, the requirement to save a life, whenever possible, I can feel justified about posting it. At the risk of being melodramatic, this really could save your life.

A couple of days ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released research which reconfirms what several other studies have shown in the past few years: talking on a cell phone while driving is dangerous. In fact, it seems to be the statistical equivalent of having a .08 Blood Alcohol Level - the legal limit here in Florida. You are 4 times more likely to be in an accident if you're talking on the phone while driving than if you're not.

Now, here's the part that really gets people: it makes essentially no difference if you use a hand-held phone or a hands-free phone. Talking on a earpiece or via a Bluetooth speaker does not, in any way, make you safer. It's not about the use of your hands; it's about the distraction*.

* there is a side issue here which I find fascinating. These results are not new, but when I've brought them up before, people always reject them. Tell a normal, smart person that talking hands-free is just as dangerous as hand-held, and they'll often tell you that you're wrong. Tell them that there is science to back that up, and they'll deny it, or claim it doesn't apply to them, or say that the science is wrong, without ever looking at it. Think about that the next time someone claims that people are essentially logical.

I rarely talk on the phone while driving, but I do it sometimes. Several times, I've claimed that I won't do it any more, but I always make exceptions - just a quick call home, on a road I know well. No big deal, right? Well, maybe I'll be better if I do this publicly: I hereby promise and declare (our religion forbids me to swear, so I won't do it) that I will no longer use a cell phone while driving. I won't do it a little. I won't do it for a moment. Nothing I have to say is worth quadrupling my chances of being in an accident. It can wait.

But, here's where things get really sticky. If I was sitting in a car, and the driver pulled out a beer, would anyone begrudge me the right to say, "Please stop that. It's incredibly unsafe, and it makes me wildly uncomfortable"? Would anyone call me insane if I insisted on getting out of the car, right then and there, no matter where we were? How about this - would you think I was nuts if I chastised you for drinking and driving, even if I wasn't in the car with you? Probably not. But, what about with a phone? Don't I now, given what we know, have the right to ask others to not use the phone while I'm in the car? And, if a friend or loved-one calls me from the car, isn't it only friendly and loving for me to say, "This really isn't safe. Please give me a call when you're not driving, ok?" I've thought about doing that many times, but I've never been brave enough. I feel like a nudnick - like an annoying zealot.

Look, I'm sorry to be a pest, but we have to face reality. If you talk on the phone while driving, you are putting yourself, and others, in danger. No matter why you think it's not true, it is. Put down the phone, and get home safely.

Judaism, Feminism and duality

One of my conversion students recently pointed me to an essay about a Jewish woman, studying to be a Rabbi, and how she deals with some of the issues which come up for her.

What I love about the essay is her willingness to discuss, and even embrace, tension and duality. She comes at it (largely) from a feminist point of view, but I'd argue that these same issues are present for any of us who take liberal religion seriously - those of us who are dedicated to being sincerely religious, but stridently non-fanatical. There's always a certain intellectual tension in that kind of life - how can I be faithful both to an ancient religion and to modern, liberal values, when those two worlds often conflict? How can I claim to be serving The One higher than myself if I'm the one picking and choosing what to do? But, how can I claim to be sincere and honest if I pretend that my religion is infallible and absolute when I know it's not?

Rather than try to find easy answers to these questions, the writer admits that they're important (I'd say fundamental) and troubling, and that they must be engaged. As always, people taking questions seriously are much more important to me than people who claim to have pat answers. Truth is messy - anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something*.

* That's a misquote - can anyone name the movie?

Friday, July 17, 2009

The honor of enduring

I love baseball, and I love baseball writing - I probably read more baseball blogs than any other type. My favorite blogger has become a writer by the name of Joe Posnanski - he writes really long, really well crafted, really well thought out posts. Today, he posted a piece about a certain kind of player, and person, who just refuses to give up, even when it's clear that it's time. Towards the end, his writing gets more personal:

I always say that the single most enduring memory of my childhood is that of my father going to the factory every single day, waking up so early the television stations were still static … then dressing in the dark, packing a salami sandwich in a brown paper bag, wandering out in the arctic chill of 5:30 a.m., driving through the darkness, over the potholes, to the factory, where the air was stale and the lights flickered and the work could break you. I always say that the single most enduring memory of my childhood was of my father coming home in that blue, rusted-out Chevy Nova, getting out of the car, his pants and hands black from oil and muck and whatever else, and how he would have this smile on his face, and I would beg him, and he would grab a Nerf football or grab his glove and wander out to the backyard with me and play catch.

That long memory is special for me because he is my father, of course. But that memory is also special for me because (I realize) it is the model against which I judge everyone and everything, the model against which I judge myself. Do you bring it every day? Do you endure through the monotony? Do you hold on to what’s important to you even when it isn’t easy? Are you a hero to someone — not because of talent or artistry or what is largely viewed as success, but instead because of who you are at your core?

I know that, if I take just a moment, I can find the perfect Jewish quote which says essentially the same thing, but with different words. But, truth is, that seems redundant. Nothing wrong with finding an occasional nice Shabbat thought in the world of baseball, rather than in Judaism. They are, after all, my two religions.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Biennial, Toronto

Just a heads-up to any Beth Am'ers (and anyone else who's interested). From November 4-8, the URJ is holding their Biennial Conference in Toronto (click here for more info). If you've never been to Biennial, it's basically hundreds of members of the Reform Movement getting together for a few days of learning, exploring, praying, singing and much more. Think of it as a giant retreat for all ages. It's hard to describe - it really has to be experienced.

I thought I'd bring it up now, just to plant the seed. If you're interested, feel free to talk to me (or check out that website) for more information - and be sure to mark it on your calendars, now!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Traditional Feminism?

Over the summer, I'm meeting bi-weekly with all of my conversion candidates for class/discussions. This week's topic is women in Judaism and Jewish Feminism (which sound alike, but are very different, albeit overlapping, topics). I've been sending them a few articles and such to read, to get the thinking/conversation going, and lo and behold* this came across my e-desk today:

There is plenty to criticize/disagree with here, but also some potentially interesting ideas. My students will get a chance to air their questions/thoughts/arguments on Thursday. Anyone in cyber-land care to chime in in the "comments" section?

* Zaddok Hakohen of Lublin said, "The first premise of faith is to believe that there is no such thing as happenstance...Every detail, small or great, they are all from the Holy One."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sanctuary in the round

If you've been to services in the past couple of weeks, you've surely noticed a big change in the sanctuary - a new seating arrangement. We're experimenting with "services in the round" or, more accurately, "in the octagon." In brief (more to come, later) we're trying to play with our physical arrangement to see what effect it can have on our prayers. Can our seating plan help us feel more connected, more spiritual? Can it make praying easier, or more meaningful?

This is definitely a big change, and it will take some getting used to. Having led one service already in this configuration, I can tell you that there were some thing I loved (a much stronger sense of "being together") and some things which bothered me (it's hard to give a d'var torah in the round. I nearly made myself dizzy trying to give equal "face time" to everyone). And, that's to say nothing of the logistics (e.g. sound) which will be iffy, unless and until we decide to make this more permanent.

Of course, what we really need is to hear from our pray-ers - you! What do you think? Have you had a chance to participate in "services in the round," yet? If so, what was good, and what was bad? Please make comments below, and let's get the conversation rolling!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What is a soul

Came across this today. In Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's The Book of Words, he creatively redefines common Hebrew religious words, in an attempt to better explain them. For example, he renders mitzvah, usually translated as "commandment," instead as "response." It's brilliant (check it out sometime). But, I don't think I've ever seen his definition of neshama before. Rather than the usual "soul," he translates it as "self." Make sure that whenever you read "self," you're also reading "soul":

You are (like everyone else who is not crazy) a barely coherent hodgepodge of contradictory thoughts, feelings and deeds. What keeps you "together" is an imaginary center called a "self." The parts may not organize themselves gracefully, but their totality is literally "you." Without a "self" you would literally disintegrate.

We speak about our self as if it were real even though it possesses neither substance nor location. It is precisely the same way with God. God is the self of the universe. To say, "There is a God," is to say that creation has some inner coherence and integrity that can make sense. In the same way, our alienation is self-estrangement and estrangement from God."

The argument over "is there a soul" in the public sphere usually comes down to religious people, who believe that there is a magic force in us - the proverbial "ghost in the machine" - against the scientists who don't believe in anything which can't be measured. Exactly like the debate about whether or not their is a God. There is, however, a middle way. A soul doesn't have to be a mystical energy field which somehow escapes detection. And we don't have to be nothing but fleshy robots, doing nothing but processing inputs into outputs. We can believe in a soul, and a God, without thinking that they are things.

Let me ask you this? Does a music CD contain data, or does it contain music? The answer, of course, is that it contains both, depending on how you look at it. The data comes together to form the music. The parts of me come together to form my soul. The Universe comes together to form God.


One of my favorite parts of my job is participating in conversions. I'm not talking about the long, ongoing process of helping someone find their way into Judaism (well, that is a favorite part, but not the one I'm talking about today). No, I'm talking about the actual final steps of conversion - sitting on a Beit Din (a Rabbinical court), deciding to (and, on very rare occasions, not to) accept a convert and then, especially, going to the mikvah (the ritual bath) to perform the actual act of conversion. A non-Jewish person goes into the water, and a Jewish person comes out. Like most (all?) religious rituals, it is simultaneously meaningless (the water doesn't actually do anything. It isn't magic) and absolutely exploding with meaning - usually, the convert has put so much thought, so much love, so much time into the process of conversion, that this final act becomes incredibly poignant and powerful. It's one of those moments which never fails to move me.

Today, I had the chance to sit on the Beit Din and witness the mikvah of another convert (one who had worked with a colleague of mine, not one of "my" converts). One of the (usually) final steps in conversion is picking a Hebrew name, and most people try to find a name with meaning. It might be a Hebrew word that expresses some trait that they admire in themselves, or wish they had. It might be a biblical character they relate to. It might be after a person who was meaningful to them. Today, the giyoret (the Hebrew word for "convert") chose to name herself after her son. You see, her son had died, about a dozen years ago. And, it was that death which had led her to search for something, which had led her, eventually, to Judaism.

It is considered a high form of honor to name a child after a deceased ancestor. This is the first time I've encountered someone naming themselves after a deceased descendant.

If you have children, go home, give them a kiss, and thank God that they are carrying their own name.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why does God roar? Why don't we?

Our weekly Talmud study group met again this morning (as we will every Thursday at 9:30 a.m. - join us if you're in town!), and we're up to our second full page of Talmud (which, being the Talmud, is actually page 3. Of course). The whole first section of Talmud deals with trying to figure out when we are required/allowed to say the evening sh'ma - in other words, knowing that we are obligated to say the sh'ma "when we lie down," what does that mean? Literally at our bedtime? At the time of evening when most people go to sleep, even if we aren't? Just "nighttime," perhaps? And, how, exactly, do we define those times? It's all very detailed and technical, and, on occasion, headache inducing.

This week, though, we took a side journey through a quote from Rabbi Eliezer (this is Berachot 3a, if you're following along). Eliezer says, "At each and every watch [3 times a night], the Holy One, Blessed be God, sits and roars like a lion...and the sign for this is as follows [e.g. this is how you know that each watch, and therefore each time of "roaring," has been reached]: at the first watch, a donkey brays; at the second watch, dogs howl; and the third watch, an infant nurses from its mother's breasts and a woman speaks with her husband."

Obscure, to say the least. But, with some helpful hints from the footnotes (which point us further down the text) and some talking it through, we came up with a possible interpretation. The first thing that we need to know is that, according to the sages, the reason for God's howling is the destruction of The Temple in Jerusalem. In other words, three times a day, God sits in heaven and cries over the lost Temple and, with it, our exile. The Temple, in case you didn't know, is traditionally understood to have been destroyed because of our sins - it was our fault.

But, why those three signs? What, in God's name [pardon the non-pun], do a donkey, dog and baby have to do with any of this? Quite possibly, nothing. It's possible (and this is strictly my interpretation) that these signs are there because they are so ordinary. Donkeys bray, dogs howl and babies suckle. In other words, those are symbols of ordinary life. Life goes on. The world continues as it was, and as it is.

But, not for God. For God, life is torment. God looks down every day, and sees our people scattered, God's Temple in ruins. Sees discord and pain. And, to make matters worse, sees a world in which no one pays any attention to this. A world which seems to think that this is normal.

Imagine a Social Worker who spends all day trying to help the homeless and hungry, and then goes back home to have dinner at a restaurant with her family. She sees people throwing away mountains of food, not even aware that their scraps would be desperately coveted by those in need. Imagine how hard it would be watching a world where people are so unaware of the pain and misery that surrounds them. Wondering - what would happen if everyone here tried to feed one hungry person today? Could we, together, stop hunger? At least for a while? Imagine how hard it would be for God to watch us, unaware of how far our world is from its potential, and how little we do to fix it.

It is, to me, an incredibly poignant image. So many people criticize God (usually, a God they don't believe in, by the way) for letting bad things happen in the world. What if our sages were on to something, and God is up in heaven, weeping and screaming because we aren't taking charge? What if, through our own actions, we could actually make God smile, instead?

That same passage in the Talmud says that every watch here on earth is paralleled by a watch in heaven. What we do here is reflected "on high." It changes the cosmos. I don't care if you take that literally (I don't). Just know that if you do something good here, you've brought comfort to God.


I've been away a bit more than usual, and that, plus some busy work-stuff, has made it hard to keep up with the blogging. This is me, trying to get back into the swing of things.

Although I've been trying to cut down on the number of blogs I follow (Google Reader is an unbelievable black-hole of time for me), I recently added one, The Art of Manliness (this is where I take a moment to remind my sister, who sometimes reads this blog, that Blog Am is a semi-official work blog, so she should keep her comments to herself). I came across it by random (I think through another blog), and I decided to follow it because a) it doesn't seem to be too busy, so it won't take too much time and b) it has the kind of useless, but still practical, trivia that I love seeing - how to tie 4 different tie knots, how to mix the "5 most important cocktails" and so on. I read it just because it's mildly entertaining.

But, even though I know it isn't meant to be taken seriously, I can't help but wonder about the basic idea - manliness. What exactly does it mean to be a man?

American culture often uses the term "a real man," and that seems to imply something along the lines of John Wayne - tough, resolute. Short of words, long on action. A man's man, as we say. We tell someone who is whining or hesitating to "man up."

But, it's interesting to me that the Yiddish word for "man" is "mensch," which is used completely differently - "a real mensch" is someone who is kind. Someone who is thoughtful. Someone who looks out for others.

And, this bout of ruminating also got me thinking about the passage from Pirkei Avot, the 2000ish year old Rabbinic text which asks "who is mighty? (literally, you could read it as "who is a warrior?") A person who controls his urges." A very different image, to say the least.

So, if we were going to make a blog with the name The Art of Manliness, what would go on it?