Tag Archives: Hashkafah

Deja Vu 2: Religion: What Is It Good For?

7 Dec

Note: I put this piece up as one of 8 start-up posts for this blog, on May 8th of last year. I’m a bit more jaded on the issue now, but I still like the piece.

The Kotzker Rebbe’s yahrtzeit is today. The Heilige Kotzker, as he’s known, was a man who devoted his entire life to the pursuit of truth, and to a relationship with God. Yet he, like many other Tzaddikim was extremely depressed. How does this reflect on Judaism?

When I was a kid, I was told -and firmly believed- that following the Torah leads to the only truly happy life. The proof was brought from our best examples, R’ Moshe, the Steipler, et al. Even as I grew a little older, and realized that my family kept the Torah and was still, to put it nicely, hell on earth, I still held on to the dream that, if done properly, Torah was the road to El Dorado.

Years passed, and I found myself turned into a jaded, depressed adolescent. Experience, colored by my own preconceptions, had destroyed any idea that the ‘masses’ could do Judaism properly. We weren’t a light unto the nations, and frankly, we weren’t even very well adjusted to regular life. Yet I knew, and hoped, it still existed.

Well I’ve grown a lot since then, and today I am a jaded, depressed adult. The honest truth is I don’t know anymore. Is a belief in a set of instructions that will fix all my problems if followed, a childish notion? Yes, undoubtedly. But my personal attachment to the religion really has nothing to do with the idea itself. So if you’ll indulge me to go on for longer than a normal blog post , I’d like to share my current ideas on the topic.

Humanity can be seen as a continuum, one long body constantly changing. Generations are shed like dead skin cells, and new ones grow in their place. There is a single soul that all of us share. (This is referred to in Kabbalah as Adam Kadmon.) The point of humanity is to get in touch with the spiritual, true, essence, and win the body over to it’s ‘service’. This winning over will bring about the Messianic era. In this sense, Mashiach is not a savior, but a necessary outcome of our own choices. We will have brought about an awareness of spirituality.

And what is this idea of spirituality? Hillel says, “What you hate, do not do unto your friend.” In the words of Isaiah: “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.” Our ‘universal brotherhood’ will be the knowledge that covers the earth.

Now, based on what we know in modern psychology, our free will operates on a very small level. Almost all of our actions are ‘predetermined’. What sense, then, is there of giving a Torah that prohibits certain actions? Why not give a manual for good psychological functioning? I think the answer is that a manual like that would inhibit free choice. It is, once again, a childish view of our role in the universe. The Torah outlines proper behavior. We need to study it and figure out what the underlying precepts are, and act on it. Using the body analogy again, there are brain cells, and body cells. The brain cells choose to figure out what to do; the body cells, however, choose to follow or not. We slowly change our own natures and pass on the changes in our parenting to our children. They do the same. With continual change, we can reach our goal.

There are certain preconditions, though. In order to be able to follow the Torah, God had to free us first. A slave cannot participate in the game of history because it lacks the time to think clearly about life, and the ability to act on it. So too in our own times. A Church forcing everyone to follow certain ‘slave values’, as Friedrich Nietzsche calls them, accomplishes nothing. What we need is emancipation.

Western democracy and the technology that followed gave us that freedom by improving our and the entire world’s living status. (Once again, people did that. The argument that Western values, shaped by Judeo-Christian values, caused it, is noteworthy, but conjectural. After all, they were also used to enforce an ancient feudal system.) With modern technology, we live securely enough to be able to safely connect with each other and thereby erase hatred. Why don’t we? Why do we follow a jealous, competitive lifestyle when it’s no longer necessary for survival?

This is where God comes into the picture. If we see ourselves as the purpose of everything, then it doesn’t matter secure we are. We will naturally devote ourselves to our most important value. However, if there is something greater, like a cause, then we will devote ourselves to that. So Communism, Nationalism, the progress of Science, The Tower of Babel, all cause a sense of brotherhood. But it’s merely a utilitarian alliance. It isn’t transforming the body into an aid to the soul.

Acceptance of God as our father: the only source, the only truth, total giving; and of our fellow humans as part of ourselves causes us to seek constant connection with each other and with God. Sex is referred to as “knowing” in the Torah. That is the true purpose of bonding, knowing and connecting with the true nature of others and with the greater reality of existence. And true bonding seems to me to be the only true happiness possible.

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Deja Vu Post: Are People Only As Nice As They Need To Be To Get What They Want?

4 Dec

Yes.

Oh, I was dying to just end it there. Wouldn’t that have been awesome? But I guess I should explain what I mean a little more.

It hasn’t been proven, but I believe that people learn to act either dominantly or passively as a response to their environment. You learn your place in society. Can I get stuff by demanding it, by taking it, or by being given it? Whichever one works is the one you stick with.

Were your parents authoritative, and controlling? Then you’ll be one of those “nice” guys. You will do so because you’re neurotic and still unconsciously fearful of repercussions. Did your mother wait on you hand and foot? Then you’ll expect all women to give you things if you demand it. Did you grow up rich and privileged? Then you take what you want from the lesser folks.

This seems logical, but for some reason, most people have a hard time deviating from standard definitions of good and evil. It’s so much easier when people fall into pre-established categories. But people aren’t evil or good by nature. What they are is adaptive. Can I survive by smacking this guy? No. This guy? Yes. The “super-nice” emotional guy might be a doormat to an adult, but a tyrant to his children. These are all learned. There is no choice involved.

What about the guy who feels like beating/molesting a child, and stops himself for no other reason than because God is watching? This man believes he’ll receive a super-smack in the afterlife. Choosing to forgo a bar of delicious chocolate from Chernobyl may be smart, but it’s not righteous.

The one I would call a ‘Tzaddik’, is someone who sees himself as part of a larger body. The deeper theologies, such as Kabbalah, stress this idea. Moshe saw himself as part of Israel, ‘one with nature’, so to speak. When Hashem told him he’ll wipe Israel out, and rebuild with just him, Moshe said no, we are all one, part of each other, part of creation, part of God.

This is a higher level, of course, but is a righteous man on a different plane of existence, acting with some ethereal value like ‘altruism’? I don’t think so. He has so-called ‘Daas Elyon’, elevated understanding. His mind sees the seemingly differentiated parts of the world from a larger perspective. But he still acts kindly because he sees it as helping himself. We are all connected, we are all one, therefore I am you. I will do a Mitzva because I am one with God, I am God.

I’ll point out a practical difference to illustrate my point. If I am a good Christian with Daas Elyon, living in the American South in 1850, I might fight for the rights of every White man, and own Black slaves. That’s because black people are not part of me. They are lower. I may feel that they are deserving of the same respect and good treatment as other animals by being part of the larger circle of life that I am, but they don’t have the ‘human soul’ that makes me see other white men as part of me.

The tzaddik, then, doesn’t operate on a different playing field. He has accepted certain ideas as truths that allow him to play the game differently, relative to how much of these elevated truths he has accepted. I believe the same idea can be applied to God as well. We believe He takes an active role in us because he cares about us. But He cares about us because we are Him.

Note: I originally posted this a while ago (June 5th, to be exact), so it’s a little different in style than what I’d write today, but the topic just came up in the comments on the Two Angels post, and I figured I’d post it again. Also, this was one of my earlier posts, when I didn’t have a lot of readers, so about 10 people total have read this piece on my site. I think I might start reposting some of my earlier posts that I thought were good when I wrote them, but didn’t get many views.

Are people only as nice as they need to be to get stuff?

5 Jun

Yes.

 

 

Oh, I was dying to just end it there. Wouldn’t that have been awesome? But I guess I should explain and add some exceptions to it.

It hasn’t been proven, but I believe that people learn to act either dominantly or passively as a response to their environment. You learn your place in society. Can I get stuff by demanding it, by taking it, or by being given it? Whichever one works is the one you stick with.

Were your parents authoritative, and controlling? Then you’ll be one of those “nice” guys. You will do so because you’re neurotic and still unconsciously fearful of repercussions. Did your mother wait on you hand and foot? Then you’ll expect all women to give you things if you demand it. Did you grow up rich and privileged? Then you take what you want from the lesser folks.

This seems logical, but for some reason, most people have a hard time deviating from standard definitions of good and evil. It’s so much easier when people fall into pre-established categories. But people aren’t evil or good by nature. What they are is adaptive. Can I survive by smacking this guy? No. This guy? Yes. The “super-nice” emotional guy might be a doormat to an adult, but a tyrant to his children. These are all learned. There is no choice involved.

What about the guy who feels like beating/molesting a child, and stops himself for no other reason than because God is watching? This man believes he’ll receive a super-smack in the afterlife. Choosing to forgo a bar of delicious chocolate from Chernobyl may be smart, but it’s not righteous.

The one I would call a ‘Tzaddik’, is someone who sees himself as part of a larger body. The deeper theologies, such as Kabbalah, stress this idea. Moshe saw himself as part of Israel, ‘one with nature’, so to speak. When Hashem told him he’ll wipe Israel out, and rebuild with just him, Moshe said no, we are all one, part of each other, part of creation, part of God.

This is a higher level, of course, but is a righteous man on a different plane of existence, acting with some ethereal value like ‘altruism’? I don’t think so. He has so-called ‘Daas Elyon’, elevated understanding. His mind sees the seemingly differentiated parts of the world from a larger perspective. But he still acts kindly because he sees it as helping himself. We are all connected, we are all one, therefore I am you. I will do a Mitzva because I am one with God, I am God.

I’ll point out a practical difference to illustrate my point. If I am a good Christian with Daas Elyon, living in the American South in 1850, I might fight for the rights of every White man, and own Black slaves. That’s because black people are not part of me. They are lower. I may feel that they are deserving of the same respect and good treatment as other animals by being part of the larger circle of life that I am, but they don’t have the ‘human soul’ that makes me see other white men as part of me.

The tzaddik, then, doesn’t operate on a different playing field. He has accepted certain ideas as truths that allow him to play the game differently, relative to how much of these elevated truths he has accepted. I believe the same idea can be applied to God as well. We believe He takes an active role in us because he cares about us. But He cares about us because we are Him.

(Cross-posted on Dovbear)

My Judaism, or Hevel Havalim.

17 May

After I caught myself kissing my Tefillin absentmindedly this morning, I started to wonder how many things I do that have no meaning at all the way I do them. Here’s my list:

-Everything to do with davening, brachos, etc. This is all a waste of mine and God’s time.

-Learning. Resentment and being uplifted don’t seem to be very compatible.

-Trying to better myself. I do this because I got confused early on with low self-esteem and working on my middos.

-Doing chessed. I don’t think I have that much real feeling towards people I deem ‘inferior’. I’m nice because I think God is watching and marking me down for extra credit.

Now, I know it’s impolite to admit these things in public, and they’re probably more evidence of a pessimistic view of life than anything else, but the odd thing is I’m really following “Fear God and keep his mitzvos, for this is all of man”. I’m assuming Shlomo wasn’t just a bitter old curmudgeon. Yet he says again, in Koheles 7:13-18-

13 Consider the work of God; for who can make that straight, which He hath made crooked?

14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God hath made even the one as well as the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.

15 All things have I seen in the days of my vanity; there is a righteous man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his evil-doing.

16 Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself overwise; why shouldest thou destroy thyself?

17 Be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish; why shouldest thou die before thy time?

18 It is good that thou shouldest take hold of the one; yea, also from the other withdraw not thy hand; for he that feareth God shall discharge himself of them all.

Basically, God is in charge and He’s gonna do whatever He wants. Don’t kill yourself to try to do what He wants, because you’ll end up wasting your life and not get anything in return. Just make sure not to piss Hashem off, and you’ll do fine.

Whoa, is that how it’s supposed to be? That’s not what they taught me in Cheder. But actually, the Chumash seems to also pay a much higher premium for fear of God than love. What do the modern, positive, hashkafos do with all this? I’ve seen highly regarded, Yeshivish approved modern seforim that seem to me to twist the Chumash out of the pashut pshat. (For example, when the pasuk says that the Jews at the Yam Suf first feared God and only then trusted in Him and Moshe, a certain sefer says that this fear was actually a result of a love that came first at some unmentioned time before. It was a ‘higher’ fear, meaning a fear of losing the special relationship. This is a huge dochek pshat, imo.)

I happen to think there was a shift at some point, to stressing a love-based relationship over a fear-based one. Even though I’m intellectualizing this emotion-based problem, I’m still curious to get to the bottom of this.

Wanna See A Trick?

11 May

If you like rocking the boat, here’s a parlor game you might enjoy. Amongst a group of good friends, bring up the interpretation of major events of the 20th century that you learned about in Yeshiva. Let’s pick the big ones, WWII and the 1960’s cultural revolution.

The Holocaust happened because people were going off the derech, because of the Haskalah. (This is a pretty mainstream interpretation, so it’s a pretty safe bet that if you say it out loud, most people will agree.) You might get an, “It’s so obvious, just connect the dots.”

First, point out the most obvious question. “Why were most of the victims Frum? After all, Poland was hit first, and the Jews there were nearly completely destroyed.”

“Well, Tzaddikim are hit first to atone for everyone else.”

Yeah, but most of the victims were Tzaddikim. That doesn’t fit well with the theory. Who were the ones doing the Averos that were actually atoned for and saved? Tzaddikim usually atone for more people than themselves. But they were hit hardest.”

“We don’t know what Hashem’s ways are. Maybe there was a gezeirah against everyone else.”

Weak! Sounds more like you already have a preconceived idea, and are using the Holocaust to back you up. That’s low, even for a self-righteous putz like you.”

“Yeah? Well how about you? I know you don’t give a damn about this, and are just having this argument with me to show me how smart you think you are. When are you going to grow up?”

Not true. Someone on the internet told me to do it. Now answer the question. Getting your coat, and walking out? So you can’t, eh? Baby! Let me tell my reason! Wait up!

“Get back in your house. There’s something wrong with you.”

Don’t drive off like that! Did you know that- ”

Vrooom.

OK, if you’re still following the plan, that’s a weight off my chest, at the cost of just one of your friends. Now for the next stage: the Rabbi.

“Ah, R’ Yankel, sit down, have some cholent.”

We’re having guests, I can’t really stay.”

“Oh, come on. Have a L’Chaim at least.”

Oh, alright. Ooh, Canadian Club. The shul must have gotten some membership checks in. Ahh, that’s nice. Ok, Rav, I have a question. You know how you always mention that the 60’s were supposedly this horrible time where all ‘Judeo-Christian’ values were overthrown, and people stopped wearing hats, and the birds in San Francisco started turning gay?”

“Haha! Not exactly, but close enou- ”

Well then, how come before the 60’s, Judaism was dying out in America? Everyone was trying to be like the perfect American, moderately Christian, white family. But afterwards, when all the old-time racist, competitive, warring values were rejected, and people needed something new to believe in, many Jews started taking pride in being Jewish! The 60’s probably saved Judaism! Maybe we should start being open to new ideas.”

“Hmm. That’s very interesting to think abo- ”

And dogmatic ideas like ‘Anything new is forbidden by the Torah’, causes societies to stagnate, and inhibits the natural growth of human civilization. Maybe that’s why the frum community is stuck in an old-time mindset and has so many psychological problems.”

“Wow. That really is a lot to take in. Why’s all this on your mind? Is something bothering you, or do you just want to show me how smart you are?”

Mostly the second one. Oh- Plus, I’m running to Mexico with my cleaning lady. Hey, 12:00. Gotta run. Thanks for the booze!”

Yeshiva Hashkafah Lessons

8 May

This post is going to seem strange for the uninitiated, so let me give a short introduction. To the typical outsider, Yeshivos must seem like Christian Seminaries. You go there to learn theology, to pray, and if you’re lucky, to have a few homosexual experiences.

Well- that’s not entirely true. You see, Orthodox Judaism is mainly a “kitchen religion”. There are, of course, people who know the reason why we have ovens and pressure cookers, and how to fix them, and why we’re all cooking 24/7. But they’re not important to us. What’s important for us is to learn how to cook, and keep filling the orders. That’s why the degree you’ll get is a Bachelor’s in Talmudic Law and not Jewish Theology (Or Masters in TL if your father-in-law’s insurance company requires an advanced degree).

But almost every boy, at one point or another, is going to start wondering why he’s learning all these details. And that’s when he’ll get the best, most nuanced, hashkafah (theology) answer he’ll ever receive. Since all these conversations are basically alike, I thought I’d share one at random, with some of the thoughts that usually accompany them.

15 year old boy: Ok…Who should I go to? The Rosh? He’s pretty scary. My Rebbi? Nah, he knows my parents. Hmmm..No. No. No. Rabbi Kamenetz! Definitely. He’s always been friendly. And he’s always learning some Sefer or other. And isn’t he the Mashgiach or something? What does he do? Uh hey Rabbi Kamenetz?

Rebbi: Yes?

Boy: Um.. I was learning ____ sugya. You know, where R’ __ says ___?

Rebbi: Stop ending your sentences with a question. Spit it out boy! Right, yes.

Boy: OK, well I was wondering about that. Because this Gemara says____________ (e.g. bad things happen to good people.)

Rebbi: So- why do bad things happen to good people? Another depressed kid? Sheesh, this one seemed so normal.

Boy: Uh Yeah, I guess so.

Rebbi: Go get a girlfriend! Haha! Just kidding. Well, it’s a good question. There are many Rishonim that speak about it. There are many different answers.

Boy: Well, you know, I’ll look at those seforim, like hell!, but can you give me your answer now?

Rebbi: He didn’t go for the bait. Well, since we know that Hashem loves us more than we can even imagine, if he punishes someone who doesn’t deserve it, he’s doing it to increase his reward in the next world.

Boy: Hmm, that seems ok…wait…But I, I mean, what if the person doesn’t want the suffering? Why can’t he ask the Ribono Shel Olam not to punish him? I think I heard a story where someone did that?

Rebbi: Well, they were greater than us, and they knew if they needed it or not. We don’t. Where’s this kid’s Rebbi? It’s 15 minutes into lunch already! Go away!

Boy: If Hashem gave it to them, doesn’t it mean that it was good? And if they couldn’t understand Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s ways, then they’re just like us. Plus don’t we say Hashem is with us when we suffer? How’s that possible if he’s privy to this entire world of information where the suffering’s actually good, and that’s why he’s doing it in the first place!

Rebbi: Shit. I don’t know. This stuff doesn’t bother me, I can’t even remember the last time I thought about it. Your mother should’ve hugged you more as a kid. Go see a therapist. I didn’t sign up for this.

Well, the Rishonim come out that suffering is a mystery. You can’t ask why He does what He does. We know it’s for our good, even when it seems bad. I mean, we don’t know why we do Mitzvos, and yet we still do them, right? All we know is that we were supposed to do them, and it’s good for us…..It’s too long to explain here, I need to get my wife some medicine she made lasagna for lunch, and it’s gonna be cold now! Thanks a lot. I think you should look at the Derech Hashem. The Yeshiva’s only copy is in Hebrew. He never crack it. Score!

Boy: Uh, thanks. I’ll do that. So basically you’re afraid of going to hell. Geez. Just say it. Are you afraid I’ll go off the derech or something? What does it even take to get a job here? Does anybody know these answers? That actually was a good question about the Mitzvos. You know, I really don’t want to do them either. Can I just tell God I’m calling it quits? Back to hell. Fuck. I mean, fudge.

Note to all commenters: Before you comment, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying there are no answers to Hashkafah questions. Just that you won’t find them in a typical Yeshiva.

Passover Psychology

8 May

(Crossposted on Dovbear)

The Pesach story is one of those parts of the Torah that makes me think that God was involved. Not because of the tales of supernatural events. Rather, it is the masterful, realistic portrayal of human nature in these verses that causes me to take the story seriously.

The Pesach story deals with a theme that is central to what is known in pop psychology as self-actualization. It is this lesson that the Gemara says we are supposed to take out of retelling the Pesach story on the Seder nights. How exactly do we do this? By “Starting with saying the bad, and ending with saying the good”. The Amora ‘Rav’ says this means starting the story by telling over our idolatrous beginnings and ending with God introducing us to monotheism. ‘Shmuel’ says it’s done by starting with our slavery to Pharaoh and ending with our miraculous freedom. The Haggadah does both of these.

Unfortunately, the Haggadah and it’s myriad pshatim seem to confuse the crap out of many people because it’s central theme is not laid out. Is that done purposely, as part of the “And when your child shall ask you” motif? Possibly. Who knows? What I would like to do though, is look at the Pesach story as a story of attaining ‘mental freedom’, and tie this into understanding “Starting with the bad…” and the opinions of Rav and Shmuel.

There is a problem with being physical. That problem is survival. We can only survive by consuming physical resources. However, there are many other people who need to survive using those same resources. This is what causes physical beings to compete with one another. If you don’t fight, you’re dead. However, in a totally competitive universe, religion can become pathological. Praying to different forces to gain a competitive edge, currying favors through any means possible. Unbridled competition, historically, also lead to slavery.

The effects of slavery are similar to those of physical and sexual abuse. It is the ultimate form of invasion, barring murder. The psychological effects are devastating and nearly impossible to recover from. The Jews in Egypt tried to hold out a small resistance to it. They held onto their Hebrew names, dress and speech, to whatever extent was possible. They were a stiff-necked people after all. But when push came to shove, they had given up on hope. Moshe was told to get lost. And even after a miraculous exodus, when they were confronted with the news of Pharaoh chasing them, they reacted by giving up and making cynical comments to Moshe (Ex. 14:11-12). They *knew* they would lose to Pharaoh. They were untermenchen.

But weren’t they right? After all, they were in no position to fight Pharaoh. Well- God knew that. And He didn’t get angry with the Jews for complaining then. Yes, He had shown them that he ruled all elements and that they had no earthly or heavenly being to fear, but Him. Yes, showed them that they were worthwhile human beings, special, cared about, chosen by God, one nation from the midst of another. And they even trusted in God enough, during the plagues, to sacrifice their masters’ diety and put the blood on display. But two hundred years of being shat on isn’t erased with a few weeks of therapy. When God wasn’t holding their hand while they faced insecurity, they reacted with their ingrained slave-mode of behavior. When the invisible superpower finally stopped showing His hand, the face of Pharaoh was still as visible as it had always been.

There did remain something, though. They had seen enough to know that Moshe could face up to Pharaoh. And Moshe was still there with them, the faithful shepherd, as always. So when he prayed to God at the sea, God told him (Exodus 14:15): “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the children of Israel, and they’ll travel.” Rashi quotes the Mechilta, that the merit of the Patriarchs and Israel’s faith in God to leave Egypt was enough split the sea for them. God knew that they had to take small, guided steps at first.

And we see in the desert that the big sins that they were tested with were always ones of faith: Moshe leaving them at Mt. Sinai, them sending spies to test out if the land was dangerous, no water at various places, surviving on seemingly unsubstantial food. They, understandably, had tremendous ‘trust issues’ that God was trying to work them through in order to transform them into self-actualized, people. The 40 year long therapy was designed to replace their reliance on human beings for support, with God. (This is probably why Moshe had to be the most humble of all men, so that he didn’t take advantage of the situation and become the cult leader that they were dying for him to be.)

This would eliminate the need for their natural physical competition. Abraham famously asked God, (Gen. 15:8) How will I know (that your promise will come true)? Abraham, the rational monotheist, tried to make a deal with God! And since he needed it, God made it. But he also designed the ‘melting pot’ of Egypt then (15:13) to rid the Abrahamaic line of the natural competitive, idolatrous nature in their blood.

And they did have a moment of unity- the result of replacing competition with reliance on God- when they arrived at Sinai. Unfortunately, it didn’t last, and besides for a few individuals, they were too scared, or unready, to let the therapy take full effect. Their children, however, were rehabilitated enough to take on conquering the land of Israel! (That’s high marks for Dr. God in my opinion.)

And that’s the lesson of Pesach, as I understand it. To erase the physicality of competition and replace it with the spirituality of faith. And even though we don’t have God holding our hand today, the Haggadah tells us to role-play going through the pain of slavery, and the relief and exultation of the Exodus. This therapeutic technique (done in a group setting, by the way) is designed to help us actualize our spiritual self, which is, after all, the point of the whole exercise of existence according to Judaism.