Friday, May 31, 2013

Judging Religion

There's something in my blog post from earlier today that I want to get back to, for moment. In it, I'm talking about various comments from atheists, including one from Prof.Daniel Dennet:
You don't get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.
This kind of comment is fairly routine in these debates between atheists and the faithful. One side argues that religion does so much good in the world — they point to all the charity which religious people give (which is, on average, greater than nonreligious people, according to at least some studies). They point to the fact that (again, on average) religious people show up in greater numbers, and stay longer, to help with natural disasters and such.

And then the atheists, or the antireligious people, start pointing out all the terrible things that have been done in the name of religion. The Crusades. Terrorism. The Inquisition. And so on.

And now, we've essentially turned the debate into a math argument — let's add up all the good done, and all the bad, and compare them. Of course, it's not that simple — there is no way to quantify these things, and so it turns into an endless debate, with each side pulling out as many examples as possible, as if that will change anything. It won't — there really do seem to be an infinite number of good things for which religion is responsible, as well as bad. And, I have absolutely no idea which side of the ledger would win out, if we could find a way to measure this.

I'll admit that, without giving it much thought, religion seems responsible for many more big bad things than good (see that list above). But, how you compare the countless acts of small or medium goodness (and badness, of course) with these larger acts — well, I think we can all see that it would be a pretty silly exercise.

More importantly, I think it's an exercise which misses the point. Ultimately, I don't have much, if any, control over whether religion continues in the wider world. Or, what form it will take. All I have control over is whether I will be religious, and if so, how. What kind of religion will I have in my life? And, that would seem to imply that the relevant question is not whether religion, in the largest possible sense, has done more good or bad in the world. The relevant question is whether religion has done more good or bad for me.

I firmly, deeply (one might even say, religiously) believe that I am a happier person because of Judaism. And, I believe just as strongly that I am a better — more moral — person because of Judaism. Not that I am more moral than you are; I am more moral than I would be without Judaism. Judaism has made me, both morally and spiritually, better.

If I were to stop being Jewish — if I were to give up on religion, possibly motivated by all of the truly terrible things which have been done in the name of religion, then it would have almost 0 effect on the wider world. Even if the theoretical absolution of religion would be better for the world, the removal of religion from my own life would be ever so slightly worse for the world, because I would be a worse person without it.

Is it really just that simple? Of course not. Like I mentioned in that earlier post, there is a reasonable argument that religious people like me make it easier for the fanatics to continue with their version of religion. And so, you could argue that I have a responsibility to stop being part of the problem. I don't reject that argument out of hand — I think that deciding to no longer be part of a larger problem, even if the immediate effect is infinitesimally small, is a very important thing to do.

But, I have to weigh that theoretical, minuscule effect against the very real, very significant impact which religion has on me, personally. I can understand, in my head, that I might be, in some indirect way, contributing to a larger problem. But I feel in my guts the positives — I live them, and I see them day by day. And so, while I do acknowledge the validity of the other arguments, there really isn't a debate for me. It's pretty clear to me that the world is, ever so slightly, better because I have religion in my life.

Atheism, Fanaticism and, perhaps, Something In Between

I recently came across a couple of articles which I put in my (ever-growing; rarely shrinking) list of "articles about which I must blog." I kept thinking about them, maybe because I started to realize that these were two very different articles that were, in some way, about the same thing. And, it's one of my favorite (if often most frustrating) topics — non-extremist religion.

First, we had a piece by CNN on famous atheists. It wasn't actually an article — just a slideshow*. But, it featured a long list of famous people who don't believe in God, each with a quote or two about what they do, or don't, believe. Some were silly, such as Javier Bardem:

* This is, after all, You don't come here for serious news anymore. I keep forgetting why I come here at all…
I've always said I don't believe in God; I believe in Al Pacino.
Some were very thoughtful, such as Professor Daniel Dennet:
You don't get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.
But, it was clear that nearly all of them were thinking of religion in a particular sense - as a literal religion. A religion which takes it claims literally. Ricky Gervais saying that religion is like Santa Claus - a lie you keep telling yourself so you can keep getting gifts. Penn Jillette pointing out, in an honestly interesting comment, that, if religion were to be wiped out and recreated, it would never be recreated in the same way, as opposed to science, which would be rediscovered in, more or less, exactly the same way. Because, science, unlike religion, is objectively true - we discover science, while we create religion (my words, not his).

There were some exceptions – Sam Harris argues that liberal religions make it possible for fanatics to continue -- without freedom of religion, the fanatics couldn't survive, so we're better of without any of it. But, not surprisingly, when people talk about religion in public they nearly always, and nearly always implicitly, rather than explicitly, talk about literalist religion. They talk about religion as something which tells us to believe something which isn't true — something about which we have no proof, but for which there is pretty good counter-proof (e.g. "the world was created, as is, in 6 days").

I talk, probably quite a bit, about a different way to engage in religion. About understanding that religion is not (or doesn't have to be) a set of unverifiable fact claims. I've said, probably quite a bit, that I don't think that the Torah has a single accurate historical fact in it (and, it's got some really questionable science in it, to say the least). That doesn't make it useless — it just makes it useless as a science or history textbook. But, there are plenty of other ways to view, and to use, religion.

It's frustrating sometimes. It's frustrating to hear people, some very smart, attacking "religion," all the while thinking to myself, "That isn't religion - that's one type of religion. But, it's not my religion" It's like hearing someone attack music as being terrible - all music - and then finding out that they only listen to Top-40 radio. Well, maybe that music stinks, but have you heard about good Rock, or Jazz, or Hip-Hop? You might like those!

But, no — they haven't heard about those. Because all of the stations that they listen to only play Top-40. They only play the vapid stuff.

And, the same is true of religion, which brings me to article #2 - "The Creeping Fundamentalism In Our Midst."
We’ve read stories recently of Haredim in Israel comparing Israeli politicians to Hitler and throwing stones at women praying at the Kotel; of Haredim in New York fighting to restrict the prosecution of sex abuse claims; of Haredim in Germany threatening the fragile truce on circumcision by defending the practice of adult men sucking blood directly from the penises of infants.
So much religion is deserving of the hatred which is often sent its way. Religion is, far, far too often, self-serving and venal. It is misogynistic and homophobic. It is irrational. It is petty. And more.

So much of it is. But not all of it. And, it doesn't have to be that way. But, those of us who believe, but believe very, very differently haven't been effective in getting noticed. We haven't claimed a place in this conversation. Why is that? I'm not sure - it might be that there just aren't enough of us. That, in reality, we are a blip on the radar, and the real discussion is between extremists. It might be that the media always loves extremes - it makes for great copy, while thoughtful, esoteric, complicated, nuanced theology really, really doesn't.

All I know is that when I read the arguments of atheists, I agree with many of them. But, I'm not one of them. I'm not an atheist. The religion which they reject, I reject, as well. Maybe not as stridently, and maybe not as universally. But, still. The religion which I practice just doesn't look like the religion which they reject. I wish more people knew that.

By the way, starting on Tuesday, June 18th at 1:00 I'm going to be teaching a course (a reading group, really) on Rabbi Art Green's Radical Judaism. It's the best book I've ever read explaining a theology which is quite non-traditional, but 100% rational. And, to me, overwhelmingly powerful. If you're interested, pick up a copy and read the Introduction, and then join us on the 18th. It should be a really interesting class.

Hell, it could even start a movement.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Don't ever change. But, what, exactly?

In this week's Torah portion, the priests are given instructions as to how to light the menorah (the lamp) in the Tent of Meeting. Then, we are told that, "Aaron did it thusly." (Numbers 8:3). Rashi, the great medieval commentator, teaches that the Torah includes these words as a praise of Aaron — praise, because he didn't make any changes to the instructions.

The Hasidic teacher Sha'arit Menachem teaches that this is great praise, indeed, for a priest. Or, for that matter, for a teacher or a leader. Their job, he teaches, is to not change what their teachers taught them. That way, their students will know that they can trust what they're learning — after all, this teaching goes back a long way, so it must be good!

I'll admit, it's not a teaching I love. I mean, I have plenty of respect for my teachers, but I don't particularly hold to a slavish devotion to their exact words. And, in a larger sense, I certainly don't believe in a lack of change — Reform Jews proudly accept the right to change teachings, and laws, from the past. The past has a power, of course. The past must be respected, and we must learn from it. But, "never change?" I can't buy into that.

Neither, it seems, could another great Hasidic teacher — Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, also known as the Kotzker Rebbe. His reaction to that line from Numbers, and to Rashi's teaching, is quite different. The Kotzker teaches that Aaron's great merit had nothing to do with externals — nothing to do with the procedure by which he lit the lamp. Instead, it was about not changing the fundamentals — what was happening within, in his heart. Everything great and worthy, he teaches, is hidden deep within the heart. It can't be seen on the outside.

I needed that teaching right now, so I'm glad I happened upon it. Because, just before I read it, I was reading an article in The Forward. You see, a rabbi recently wrote another article expressing the belief that the Reform rabbinical school should admit intermarried people into the rabbinical program, and should ordain intermarried rabbis. There's been a lot of these arguments and articles going around, and it's a complicated issue, so I'll stay away from it, at least for the moment.

But, the article I was reading was a reaction to that article, arguing that it was a slippery slope leading, unavoidably, to the ordination of non-Jewish rabbis. Or, at the very least, that was the logical conclusion of this kind of policy change, even if it would never happen in pratice. Non Jewish Rabbis or hypocracy, more or less. Whatever you, or I, think about the idea of intermarried rabbis, I'd argue that this slippery slope argument is pretty weak.

But, what really got to me were the comments*. Buried among the few rational arguments, the rambling, the ad hominem attacks and such were the predictable anti-Reform screeds. Reform Judaism isn't real. Reform Jews don't care. And so on.

* Really. You think I'd know better. Nothing good happens in the comment section.

It's probably good that I don't have much time right now, so I have to finish up this posting as soon as possible. I can ramble on this topic for quite a while at the moment, given the opportunity. But, let me just say this -- it never ceases to amaze me how much people think they can infer about someone's religiosity based on their external's. Or, on their willingness to change those externals.

You can see if, and how, I choose to keep kosher. You can see whether I wear a kippah and a tallit. You can see a lot of things about how I practice my religion.

You can't see a single thing that really matters.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Stephen Hawking and Boycotting Israel

As you may have heard, the world's most famous scientist, Stephen Hawking, has recently backed out of a visit to Israel, thereby taking part in an academic boycott against the state.

As one of many who deeply admires Hawking, it's distressing to hear of him participating in this. I've been reading many responses to his decision, but in some ways the most powerful is one by Carlo Strenger. I'll include the full text below, but I find it so compelling because Strenger is highly critical of Israel:
Let it first be said that I have been opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories for many years, and that I have voiced this opposition with all means at my disposal. I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is indefensible morally, stupid politically and unwise strategically, and I will continue opposing it as long as I can.
This is no Israel apologist (he even accuses Israel of human rights violations in the West Bank). But, even with that, he finds this boycott, and Hawking's participation in it, indefensible:
Yes, I think that Israel is guilty of human right violations in the West Bank. But these violations are negligible compared to those perpetrated by any number of states ranging from Iran through Russia to China, to mention only a small number of examples. Iran hangs hundreds of homosexuals every year; China has been occupying Tibet for decades, and you know of the terrible destruction Russia has inflicted in Chechnya. I have not heard from you or your colleagues who support an academic boycott against Israel that they boycott any of these countries.
This gets to the heart of what angers so many defenders of Israel, myself included. It's not that I think that Israel is perfect, or that it's wrong to criticize Israel. But, Israel is often singled out in a way in which no other country would ever be.

How can a person claim that, for political reasons, they will not visit Israel, but then visit China, or any of the Islamicist regimes? Or, even America:
I’m still waiting for the British academic who says he won’t cooperate with American institutions as long as Guantanamo is open, or as long as the U.S. continues targeted assassinations.
What possible justification is there for that hypocrisy? 

I hate blaming things on Anti-Semitism, as that's often a cheap, ad hominem attack meant to derail actual debate. But, I honestly can't think of a better explanation for why Israel is routinely criticized for doing what others do as a matter of course. 

Israel is in a tragically untenable situation, where all of the choices are bad. It's possible (indeed, I would argue) that many of its choices have been the wrong ones. But to single Israel out in this way reeks of Anti-Semitism and hypocrisy. I would love to expect better, especially from a free-thinking genius.
Living up to the standards of human rights and the ideals of democracy in an imperfect world is difficult. Major thinkers like Philip Bobbitt and Michael Ignatieff have invested deep and comprehensive thought into the difficult topic of how to maintain the human rights standard in a world threatened by terrorism.

Professor Hawking, I would expect from a man of your intellectual stature to get involved in the difficult task of grappling with these questions. Taking the simple way out of singling out Israel by boycotting it academically does not behoove you intellectually or morally.