While We’re At It…

11 Aug

I sent a piece into a new right wing “thinking magazine”. I didn’t really expect it to be published, but I figured what the hey, I’ll test the waters. The editor immediately thanked me for the submission and said he’d pass it around the “rabbinical board” for approval and get back to me within a week. He didn’t, so I emailed him again. He ignored my email.

That pissed me off. Fine, you don’t want to publish my piece, but have the decency to talk to me. There wasn’t anything wrong Apikursus-wise with it, see for yourself below. Ok, it may not be exactly party line, but the magazine explicitly says it’s goal is to discuss hot button Hashkafah issues openly. I’ll admit, I gave parts of it a bloggy tone, presented some points without sources, and wrote it under a pseudonym. But that could easily have been cleaned up.

The obvious, and only, answer is that the magazine is actually meant to champion existing Hashkafic stances- you know, a propaganda machine. The editors realize that they can’t tell me this straight out, but they also feel that they don’t have to make any excuses because they’re doing the Lord’s work. So they just cut off contact with me. I guess I should be thankful they didn’t give me the royal slifkin, but it’s messed up that even these self-proclaimed smart yeshivish people feel they have to turn off part of their brains to get into heaven. (I’ll have to do a while nother post on that.) Well, that wraps it up for this week. Take it easy, and I hope you have a good Shabbos.

Here’s the piece (I should warn you, it’s a few pages long, so find a couch and get comfortable):

Is Religion For Nerds?

The original title for this piece was going to be, “Is Religion For Women?”. Then I realized that I should change it because it’s unforgivably declasse to use the plight of a group of people who are beaten down as a joke. Thank God, making fun of beaten-down men is still perfectly acceptable, so I can keep my flashy title.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous argument that ‘God is dead’ rests on his observation that religion is popular when people are without power. Since they can’t compete with the masters in the real game of life, they invent slave values that allow them to be masters in their own domain. In the modern day, however, he argues that intelligent people will realize the farce and discard God. Is this true?

Well, support for this idea can come from the observable fact that women and old people, who cannot compete as well in the rat race, tend to be more religious. Also, men who compete badly can become ‘religion nerds’ as well.

These people have similar characteristics to others who have been forced out of the game. They generally excel in the physically non-threatening world of ideas, like academia, teaching, and other salaried positions, while generally avoiding risk-taking such as entrepreneurial ventures. In these sheltered positions, they resume the competition by exercising their power over others. Religion stresses the idea of another, invisible but higher, world with non-competitive goals. This would naturally attract these ‘weaker’ people.

Another fact that is often quoted is that in times of oppression and poverty, such as the dark ages, or slavery, religion is nearly universal. In times of wealth and possibility, religion is discarded. Similarly, in ancient times, people didn’t have technology to rely on and were therefore very fearful and God-fearing. They also didn’t understand how things worked and were superstitious and polytheistic. However, as technology makes people less fearful and superstitious, God is left behind as well.

I think that such an argument is very one-sided. For good reason, no doubt. These aspects of religion do resonate with disenfranchised people. Western society has been corrupt and disenfranchising for a long time. As such, Jewish (and Christian as well) theology has been morphed, by stressing certain aspects and de-stressing others, into being a refuge for the meek.

Such morphing is inevitable. The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, 3rd Chelek, Perek 46 [*1], actually says that certain Mitzvos in the Torah were adapted specifically for the people at that time. What would happen later, when those specific concerns were not Noge’ah? Naturally, those mitzvos would still be followed, as per the Rambam’s own position in Yesodei Hatorah, Perek 9, among other places, that nothing in the Torah will ever be changed. However, with the original motivation gone, it logically follows that they will be de-stressed in importance. Similarly, the Gemara indicates that a shift occurred when the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed, “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One has nothing in His world except the four Amos of Halachah” (Berachos 8a) And in our own time, we find that Torah learning for the masses is stressed more than in previous generations.

However, there is a Torah for the “Alpha male” as well. The Torah is meant for those living in this world. In fact, the spiritual world is merely hinted to in the Chumash. The rewards and punishments listed are all events that take place in this world. This world is our domain. This is what we are supposed to fix.

As we know, the Torah has two categories of commandments, Bein Adam Lamakom, and Bein Adam Lechavero. If we look at the BAL”C section of the Aseres Hadibros, which is usually the more rationally intelligible one, we find that we are not to covet anything our friend has. The Torah is setting the bar very high. Similarly, we are commanded (Vayikra 19:18) “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. I am Hashem”. Regarding the latter part, R’ Akiva famously said, “This is the great principle of the Torah”.What is the underlying message that the Torah is trying teach us? I understand it to be unity. Unity between ourselves, and unity between us and God. By incorporating this sense of unity into our minds, we can subjugate the competitive physical side to the spiritual one, and create a perfect society to welcome Moshiach [*2].

This idea seems to be against nature. Species compete. Those who succeed get resources and are allowed to mate. In fact, many human societies over the course of history have taken such an approach to gain an edge. Ironically, none of these societies advanced very far.

Societies that did advance, such as our own, allowed for co-operative competition. Antitrust laws, low interest rates, health insurance, all allow for mutual, communal progress. But is that the ultimate goal? Now that we figured that out, is Moshiach supposed to come? Have we reached the level of the pasuk in Yeshiyahu 11:9, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea”?

No. We are still jealous. We still fight, and steal and kill. Why is that? For the same reason that societies always fail when they reach the high point of their civilization. There is nowhere to go from here. The alliance bringing us there was always utilitarian. It was Nationalism, or Communism, or War, or Technological Advancement, or The Tower of Babel that brought us together. But what is the endgame? Where is the fantastic happiness waiting for us at the end? It’s not there, because we are still playing the physical game, the object of which has always been survival. We can not envision a better world, except that it will be free of problems. The American dream, if advertisements are any indication, is to retire when we’re healthy, and then what? Play competitive sports for eternity?

The way out of this problem is a spiritual one. Judaism’s message is to give up on our idea of being separate people who’s only focus is self-preservation and advancement. How? By embracing our reality as all being part of one body, part of God Himself. We are all “Chelek elokah mima’al mamash”. The Tzaddik recognizes this already. He is happy doing Chesed all day long. He gives to others, because he understands that he is helping himself by helping others. He doesn’t have low self-esteem, and need approval, or see himself in the role of a lower, ‘helping’ member of society. He has a very healthy self-esteem by seeing himself as an individual, useful, cog in the larger body of humanity. He has no arguments with other people because it’s ridiculous to him to argue with, essentially, himself.

Well, this is all very nice, you’ll say. But what happens in this theoretical universe, when everybody helps everyone else out and Moshiach comes, and everybody understands this concept? When everything is fixed, what do we do then?

At that point, we just get closer and closer by understanding more and more of our true essence which is God himself. Then, the effects of our Torah and Mitzvos are realized in us through this bonding. Mekubalim call that understanding Toras Nistar, the hidden levels of Torah.

However, as the Rambam says, it is not important to concern ourselves with thoughts of what exactly will happen then. It is enough to know the destination and the vehicle of getting us there. That is living in this world.


[*1]The Rambam says that our monotheistic sacrificial service is formulated as an antidote for idolatrous practices. I know many people will stop taking me seriously at this point because of the Ramban’s critique of this view in his Hakdamah to Sefer Vayikrah. I’ll therefore answer his questions now:

Q1: Karbanos exasperate the problem by allowing the specific polytheistic, idolatrous practices to continue.

A: Karbanos are reverse engineering the problem by bringing all the gods to bear before the One God (See Rambam’s history of the development of idolatry in Hilchos Avodas Kochavim). The carefully defined instructions in the Chumash make it clear that everything is going towards God. Entrenching the idea of monotheism while allowing the ritualistic practices is a very logical way of weaning idolaters off. Eventually the practices themselves would adopt the new meaning.

Q2: & Q3 Noach and Hevel brought Karbanos before there was Avodah Zarah. Bilaam brought Karbanos specifically to find favor with Hashem.

The pasuk says it is a “Rayach Nichoach Lashem”, it is pleasing to God. So it obviously isn’t merely a means to get rid of idolatrous thoughts from the ignorant folks.

A: The motivation for sacrifices is rooted in rational thought. Making a sacrifice to God is logical. It shows devotion, either fear or love of God. Why shouldn’t it apply to One God as well as many? Hashem picked specific practices that arose from pure thoughts of worship, and left off the perverted ones.

[*2] For the Rambam’s thoughts on the idea of preparing the world for Moshiach, see Kapach Rambam, Hilchos Melachim, Perek 11, Halachah 4.


6 Responses to “While We’re At It…”

  1. Wolrep August 11, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    Can you dumb it down a bit for us feeble-minded folk?

    • itchemeyer August 11, 2011 at 11:09 pm #

      Sorry, I thought I’d have to smart it up for the magazine. What part was confusing?

  2. avr1891 August 12, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    Hey, just wanted to say I first read your creepy elter boruch post on frumsatire, and loved it. Then I realized that a lot of the posts I liked on frumsatire recently were yours. You have a great tone and writing style and I wanted to thank you for being able to express your criticisms intelligently and amusingly. Even though I didn’t go to yeshiva (I’m a girl) I definitely appreciate the humor. Keep writing!

  3. hotshot bald cop August 30, 2011 at 2:39 am #

    I agree 100%


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