Tag Archives: religion

Would I be good in Kiruv?

17 Oct

Sometimes I wonder if I’d be successful doing kiruv. Or rabbanus. Off the bat, you’re gonna laugh, I know, and the pros and cons here don’t paint a great picture either, but I wonder if the actual baalei teshuva/geirim/spiritually-minded in the audience would care to weigh in here.

Cons: 1. I can’t look at Jewish propaganda. A Jewish grandfather and kid laughing with white yarmulkes on and some Israel/family ad makes me cringe. An interenet meme hijacked by some mitzvah motivator makes me want to find a slightly overweight man in a suit with a black hat and trimmed beard and punch them hard, repeatedly. (You want to see someone profaning holy things? Foul Bachelor Frog promoting shacharis with only the barest pretense of humor evident.)

I can’t stand the davening. I barely ever do it except maybe once a week in shul, and then I leave out all the stuff that makes my skin crawl. Which is basically every other sentence.

I can’t imagine having to represent Judaism every second of the day. Wait, I kind of do that with my yarmulke on all the time. But that’s off sometimes, like at the beach. Plus, I don’t have to do public events and get my face plastered all over.


1. I like people listening to me.

2. I hate my job now.

3. I actually know the Jewish religion/philosophy/practice really well.

4. Hot women will suddenly be approaching ME for conversation.

5. I’m a pretty good speaker. I’m funny, and I can spin a pretty good vort out of most parshios out there. With life lessons thrown in at opportune moments.

5. Everything I say will suddenly have the weight of 3500 years of serious tradition behind it. Proxy respect, you say? My ego can’t tell the difference!

Now on to questionable areas: Would prospective religion seekers like my ideas? I can see it going both ways. Very broadly, here’s my outlook summed up in a hypothetical kiruv conversation.

Rabbi Dicker, Will I find ultimate truth in frum Judaism?

It really depends. I don’t know you well enough. It’s definitely possible you’ll be very happy for a while. Of course, then you might become even more depressed after investing your life in it and hating it. I’m not touching this one.

Is the Torah true?

Oh god. I don’t know. OK, probably not. Wait, wait! I’m just speaking rationally. You know, statistically speaking, with all the other competing traditions out there. And all the unbelievable myths, and antiquated beliefs you’ll undoubtedly find while learning through it. But really, Joanne, why does it matter?

Why does it ma-?

Yes. Let’s look at the facts on the ground here. Clearly people have a need for religion. Look at you, growing up in a secularized, rational, environment, looking now for that old time religion to follow. It’s hard going into the world by ourselves. Maybe biologically, we need this emotional support to be happy in life. Go to the most remote, ancient, primitive, villages on Earth, and they’ll all have sacred rituals that connect them with some higher forces. Just accept it and be happy. And if you’re being smart about the whole thing, while you’re at it, why not choose the one with the rituals that don’t creep you out, and that you’re already kind of familiar with, and that brings back those positive childhood memories of going to grandpa’s house?”

Hmm? Anyone think my spiel has merit? Think it’ll win me enough congregants to make Anshei Agnostics a success?

You know what? It doesn’t matter. Because at it’s essence, isn’t kiruv really just about showing a nice, smiling family around a shabbos table to people who are too emotionally screwed up to ever have it? I can do that. Shit, who am I kidding? I can’t pull that off. Maybe I’ll become a male stripper.


What If God’s Not One of Us?

3 Mar

I was in high school when that Alanis Morrisette* song came out and I remember being very confused at the positive reaction. Was I slow, or was everybody else?

Like “Isn’t it Ironic”, in “What if God was one of us”, Alanis tries to be brilliant, but comes across more as under-educated. (For the record: rain on your wedding day is not ironic.) The concept of God being one of us is cute but dumb. What I’m saying is obvious, but I think people like the concept as an extension of God’s love and empathy towards us. Personally, I don’t think that’s a very likely concept either.  

Think about it for a minute. Here we have God, an all-powerful, perfect entity. There is nothing that can exist without him, and nothing that can cause him the slightest danger. He, a being needing nothing, decides to create the universe for whatever reason. Not being able to fully understand what an existence like his means, I’ll agree that his reasons can seem unfathomable to us, and still be perfectly logical to him. However, now you say that he understands our problems and then empathizes with us to help us out. Understands? Fine. But feels human feelings? Impossible. He is a perfect being. He has no fear or desire or any other emotion.

(I know it’s getting a little dry, but stay with me here. I’m building up to something at the end.) Continue reading


8 Jan

By Gutman Braun

There seems to be this reality that exists wherever humans function in groups. I know that this is not an incredible or deep revelation, but I’d like to share it anyway – especially since I’ve been watching this in action fairly recently:


In a certain corporation that I had some interaction with, the management personnel generally made it to where they are, and achieved success, merely by being able to use force of conviction to make it sound like they have the answers. Here’s a typical meeting:


Assembled to discuss problems with the technology they are using (and how to solve those problems) are managers, technical experts and various employees (such as programmers, users and troubleshooters). Now, only a couple people there really understand the technology, while most of the assembled have only spotty understanding of those inner workings. Invariably, management personnel automatically begin stating the problems and prescribing solutions – dictating orders as to how the problem will be handled.


However, they tend to be the least knowledgeable. Moreover, even their understanding of the problem is generally not accurate – and they seldom (for some odd reason), if ever, seriously consult the individuals who are most likely to grasp the challenges and who have the knowledge to propose good solutions. The assembled participants of the meeting should, and I think do, know this – yet, they happily remain silent and are ready and willing to follow orders, regardless of the fact that it makes little (if any) sense. If they’re lucky, one of the truly knowledgeable individuals may attempt to steer the managers and the conversation towards a sensible direction (and this is also fascinating to watch) – but it’s not always the case and it’s not always accepted.


My point is that this dynamic seems to highlight how humans like to function: Those who climb the ladder of success are most often not those who are correct, rather, they are merely those who speak with conviction and an authoritative tone while ensuring that they maintain the peoples trust (which is actually not all that hard to do). And this is true everywhere: Religious leaders succeed primarily because humans suffer from such great uncertainly that they will give almost anything to have someone just tell them the way it is – and what a relief it is to find such a person! And if you think we don’t all do this somewhat, let me point to something that I have always found to be amazing:


Take, for example, a reputable newspaper article, book, etc. If we know very little about the subject matter, we generally trust the article to be fairly accurate – however, when we are familiar with the topic, we almost always find the article to be full of inaccuracies and mistakes. Thus, knowing as we do, that they’re almost always wrong when it comes to things that we know about, shouldn’t we consider all the information that we read or are told about as highly suspect?


And the answer must be a resounding ‘NO,’ It’s just way too hard (impossible, really) for humans to verify every bit of information we encounter. We are hard-wired to accept information that passes our first line of defense (i.e. it comes from a source that we don’t reject and it doesn’t conflict with the way we are already inclined to think). Therefore, to a great extent, leaders of all groups succeed through force of personality and conviction, and the followers are comfortable with that (often knowingly). Thus, for the sense of security that the individual will gain by trusting in the Rabbi, Priest, Manager, etc, most of us will gladly give up truth.


Only a very small percent of us prefer the road less taken.


Wait, Wait! Hold up! New Guest Post by Gutman Braun!

19 Dec

All of them are right

By Gutman Braun

 Little Johnny grew up in an orphanage. As it happened, the orphanage was a little unusual: instead of being run by a community or religious institution – as was so often the case – this was a secular orphanage called, “The Melting Pot.” The Melting Pot was run based on number of fundamental principals that were established by its founders (with some tweaks along the way), but one of the most significant elements was that it had an established separation of religion & institution. As a result, the caretakers, nurses and counselors, were not allowed to provide a specific, form of religious instruction, and the children grew up and entered the world without any personal religion to speak of.

The orphans, however, were not ignorant of religion completely. In their studies, they had encountered many religions and religious ideas, and many of them were familiar with the religious affiliations of their families (either due to visits by extended family members, or based on information found in their personal files that was fully disclosed to them). Not all that surprisingly, upon growing up, a number of the boys and girls did seek-out, or were sought-out by, religious groups. Our Johnny, too, tested the waters of religion: “Who knows,” he wondered, “maybe there is truth there that I missed out on?”

So search he did. He checked out a religion that his parents had belonged to called “Scroll Worship.” He wanted to give it a chance, and he began to see that it really was fascinating. There were many interesting and compelling elements. The message was generally positive and seemed to state a goal of improving the individual and the world, which sounded so nice. There were a number of things that he wasn’t so sure about, but overall, he decided it was worth a shot – so he gave it one. In time, though, he couldn’t get past the reality that the more he looked at it, the more he noticed flaws that troubled him. One of the more troubling elements that ne noticed was that for all the positive talk and content, there wasn’t all that much of it in action and there was plenty of implicit, even overt, hatred of the other religions. So, he decided that he must check out the “hated” others as well.

Some of those “others” shared element of the Scroll Worshippers (although they were quite different). One of them was called “The New Scroll Worship,” another was called “Worship of the More Accurate Scroll.” Since they were large groups, he tried them both out – but, once again, while he saw some nice ideas and positive elements, he couldn’t help but notice the many flaws and the deep hatred for all others that they each harbored and discussed ad nauseam. Actually, all three forms of Scroll Worship contained many sub-groups – too many to list here – and he looked into as many as he could. But after a very long while, he decided that since each one invalidated the other, they were probably all right – and he discarded all of them.

He checked into some of the other religions as well, perhaps a little less enthusiastically at this point, such as the “Enlightened Ones” and the “Epic-ists,” he even looked into the many forms of “Ism” as well as study many thinkers of the “Condescending-wise-ass-know-it-all-schools.”

It was a very time-consuming endeavor (indeed, it had taken up so much of his time that he never did manage to take out the garbage, which had piled up to such an extent that he had to pay fortunes of money in fines for environmental violations), but when finally he decided that he’d had enough of searching through the remaining schools of belief, he concluded that while all of them had some elements worth keeping, the absolute claims and the gaping flaws invalidated each of them. Furthermore, it struck him that he probably could have come up with the good elements on his own without any of the various belief systems anyway. Ugh.

But he was a little sad. He felt that had lost his innocence and become jaded and cynical – yet, he was satisfied with the knowledge that he had put many of his questions to rest. Of course, now there were new and different questions, but he had learned that the orphanage had been right all along: by giving him the freedom to choose, he had been granted the opportunity to realize that he was above it all.

Walking down the street, he met Maimon, an old friend from the “Scroll Worshipper” days. Maimon, greeted Johnny warmly, even excitedly, and offered to share a novel insight into the Scroll that he’d thought of. Johnny asked if perhaps they could discuss something more personal, but Maimon couldn’t think of anything personal or intimate to share – emoting was always a problem for Maimon anyway – so Johnny allowed his old friend to ramble on about oxen, fringes, mixing of fibers, offerings and miracles. When he had concluded his pilpul, Maimon looked to Johnny for approval, but Johnny just shook his head.

“OK, so what was it – why did you leave us?” Maimon asked.
“Maimon, I could ask you the same thing – why haven’t you left?”
“What?” exclaimed Maimon,”Leave? To go where? We have truth!”
“Yep,” replied Johnnie, “doesn’t everybody.”

P.S. If we’re really going to start this multi-member blog collaboration, we need to call the posts something other than Guest Posts. Any suggestions?

Funny Religion Pictures

8 Dec

When I was looking around for a picture for yesterday’s post, I found some really funny ones online that I just couldn’t pass up. One thing: Most of them are about Christianity. I don’t mean to offend anyone by picking on Christians, it just happens to be what 99% of them are making fun of.  Anyhow, I hope you enjoy:

(This is a Yom Kippur Ecard)

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.

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

4 Dec


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.