Reasonable Doubts Blog

What Creates Holiness?

Posted in holidays by Cheryl Berman on the September 13th, 2010

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur have always been two of the most complex days of the year.  They don’t try to hide that fact…  they present themselves that way – full of dizzying dichotomies.  But the one thing that stands out about both these days, the one undeniable fact, is their palpable holiness.  It’s in their nigunim (tunes).  It’s in their tefillot (prayers).  It’s in the foods.  It’s in the fast.  It’s in the molecules of the air.  The holiness is transformative (if you allow it to be).  But what is it?  What is holiness?  And what creates it?

Rav Soloveitchik discusses the unique quality of the holiness of the chagim (holidays) in an essay in his Divrei Hashkafa.  He explains that the chagim are intrinsically different from Shabbat.  The chagim were established by bet din (court); Shabbat is pre-established by creation.  The Rav points out that the midrashim are full of praises of the Jewish people who are in control of the calendar to the extent that they can overrule God himself in deciding when to establish a chag.

The holiness of chagim does not stem from God; it stems from the Jewish people.  Holiness in Judaism is not  innate to an object or a time.  It is an expression of a relationship the Jewish people have toward a certain time period or place.  There is nothing magical about holiness. We make things holy by perceiving them a certain way, and utilizing them in the service of God.  The Bet HaMikdash was a holy place because the Jews served God there.  The moment that service was annulled the spot lost its sanctity.  Rabbi Meir of Dvinsk writes

…Do not think that the Temple and the Mishkan are holy of their own accord, God forbid! God…dwells among his children, but if they like Adam transgress His covenant, all holiness is removed from them, and they become like mundane utensils…. Titus entered the Holy of Holies with a prostitute, and was not harmed, for its holiness was removed…”

Rav Soloveitchik continues to explicate the concept of holiness.  Man is not expected to remain on one level his entire life like an angel.  He goes through different stages of life, various moral highs and lows, spiritual cliffs and canyons. He has moments of religious enlightenment and instances of bleak obscurity.  But it is precisely during those awe inspiring moments of religious experience, where man encounters God, that engenders holiness.  Man is the sanctifier of holiness and it is through a religious experience that he is able to do it.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur aren’t just days where we encounter holiness; they are days in which we produce holiness.  The holiness that overpowers us on those days comes from within us.  It is the result of a religious experience that we have created with God.

I think many of us who read this will probably immediately acquiesce to its message.  We have all experienced years in which we have better Rosh Hashanot than others.  What differentiates one year from the next?  Is it the chazzan? The person sitting next to us?  Most likely not.  Usually the differentiating factor is something within us, something perhaps going on in our lives, or as Rav Soloveitchik s aptly describes, our own various lows and highs that determine what type of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will have that year.  By far my most perplexing ones were the ones that I encountered in the midst of faith crises.  There is no more perplexing time of year for a faith crisis sufferer than  this time of year.  But as I recently stated in my Rusty Mike radio interview (how’s that for a smooth plug?) there is also no greater opportunity for a faith crises sufferer.  Religious experiences are in abundance for anyone who is willing to set aside his skepticism for a day (admittedly, not an easy thing to do – nothing this important is).  Letting yourself be enveloped by the tefillot and the nigunim will allow you to create your own pocket of holiness and that might go a long way in terms of resolving a crises of faith.   The important thing to remember is that it comes from within us – and what we are willing to put in, we will surely get out.

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Poker anyone? (some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah)

Posted in Defining faith, holidays by Cheryl Berman on the September 6th, 2010

I’ll never forget the college paper I wrote on Kant’s critique of the Ontological Argument. St. Anselm conceived of the argument after much contemplation and prayer and it was based completely on reason. It went something like this: If I can conceive of a being than which no greater being can be conceived then this being must exist – because if it did not exist then another being than which no greater being can be conceived and which did exist – can be conceived – but this would be absurd. Nothing can be greater than a being than which nothing greater can be conceived! (Read it over a couple of times. It took me a few minutes too!) Technicalities aside, The Ontological argument was to become the subject of extensive debate over the course of the next few centuries as were the other proofs for the existence of God: the Argument from Design, Cosmological argument, Moral argument etc. The end result was a draw. Nobody can prove the existence of God, but nobody can disprove the existence of God either as Gutting pointed out a few weeks ago in the New York Times with his rebuttals of Dawkin’s attempts . The fact is religion was simply not meant to be decided over in a debate.

This point is brought out beautifully in an essay by Professor Nathan Aviezer (physics professor at Bar Illan). The essay is about the Anthropic Principle, a modern version of the argument from design which states that “1) very slight changes in the laws of nature would have made it impossible for life to exist, and 2) human life would not have been possible were it not for the occurrence in the past of a large number of highly improbable events. “ Professor Aviezer provides three examples of the Anthropic theory: A) If the nuclear force of nature would be only slightly weaker or slightly stronger the sun would either not shine or would explode. B) The earth is the perfect distance from the sun to support life. If it would have been slightly closer or slightly farther life would not have been possible. c)The fact that a meteor destroyed the dinosaurs by seemingly random luck allowed for mammal life to survive. What’s more, apparently the impact of the meteor had to be of a very specific strength to cause the exact amount of damage necessary to allow for life as we know it today.

Professor Aviezer sheds some light on the significance of these facts with a metaphor. He says suppose you were playing a game of five card poker. In this game a` straight flush is a dream come true. It is the type of event that a person will talk about for the rest of his life. But suppose the same person is playing bridge. He is dealt his 13 cards and the first 5 cards in his hands spell out the very same straight flush. He will probably not even notice. The event will be valueless to him because he is judging things differently – by the rules of bridge not the rules of poker. “In other words,” Professor Aviezer writes, “the same rare event can be either wondrous or meaningless: it all depends on the importance that one attributes to the event itself.

Scientists all agree that the events that contribute to the existence of the planet and human beings are exceedingly rare. But whether or not they attribute meaning to this fact depends on how they value the human being. Is a human being simply another species, another card in a hand of a bridge game? Or is a human being something more, the most significant of all creations, the straight flush in a game of poker? It all depends on your perspective, on which card game you chose to play.

For many of us this is our job this Rosh Hashana – to decide which card game to play. Which perspective are we going to view the world from? Is there deeper meaning to human life? Can I sense some purpose in my own life? If so, what or who is it that has endowed my life with that value? Is there indeed something miraculous about the unlikely existence of the human race? So many of us get stuck on the question St. Anselm meditated on for so long, so many centuries ago: Trying to come up with an intellectual proof for the existence of God. But perhaps that’s not where the answer lies. Perhaps the answer is hidden in the card game we chose to play.

Here is the link to Prof. Aviezer’s article :

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Karen Armstrong Reevaluates Religion

Posted in defining religion by Cheryl Berman on the August 26th, 2010

I recently watched a TED lecture that was recorded in February of 2008 given by Karen Armstrong. Karen Armstrong was a nun in her earlier life but eventually abandoned Christianity and became entirely disenchanted with religion. She tried but failed to pursue a career in literature and wound up working for television. She focused on religious programming, mostly debunking the “myths” of religion for an admiring London audience. But at one point, she explains in this TED lecture, she traveled to Israel on assignment for a program on early Christianity. In Israel she encountered Judaism and Islam for the first time. And there in this “tortured city” she goes on to say that she became aware of the profound connection between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Armstrong returned to the study of religion, although this time academically. She pursued a career in comparative religion and wrote such bestsellers as The History of God and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.

It was this new found approach to religion that brought Armstrong back to what she calls the “true sense of what religion can be.” Whereas before religious doctrine has seemed abstract and unlikely Armstrong learned that religious doctrine is not what what truly lies at the root of religion. In her autobiography The Spiral Staircase Armstrong describes a scene in which she is discussing religion with a Hyam Maccoby a Jewish librarian from the Leo Beck College in North London. They were talking about the famous story of the pagan who came to Hillel and asked to be taught the entire Torah on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and responded, “do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study.” Armstrong was shocked that Hillel could summarize the entire Torah without one word of ideology. Where was belief in God? Hyam explained to her that”theology is just not important in Judaism, or in any other religion really. There’s no orthodoxy as you have it in the Catholic Church. No complicated creeds… No infallible pronouncements by a pope. Nobody can tell Jews what to believe. Within reason you can believe what you like. (235)” Armstrong sat for a while trying to take all that in. It went against everything she had previously understood about religion. Years later she would come to learn what I wrote about in my very first blog post which is that the definition of belief is not an intellectual assent to certain propositions. Belief means to hold something dear, to love. It is an existential position, not a rational one. It was only later on in our history that religious belief took on intellectual overtones. (Armstrong claims it was in the 17th century but I think it must have been earlier – when lists of dogma began to appear in the middle ages.)

So if religion isn’t about certain ideas what is it about? Hyam Maccoby explained to Armstrong that religion is about behavior. Once you start inculcating certain behaviors into your daily life you begin to understand certain truths. And Armstrong witnessed the beauty and the energy of this type of approach when she visited Israel. In The Spiral Staircase she writes “In Judaism, the study of Torah and Talmud had never been as goal directed as some modern scholarship. Yeshiva education was not a matter of acquiring information about Judaism; the process of study itself was just as important as the content, and was itself transforming: the heated arguments, the intensive interaction with a teacher, the question and answer methodology all propelled students into a heightened awareness of the Divine presence.(288)” Even the most intellectual of all religious institutions – Torah learning – is transformed into a religious experience – a behavior – so the student not only has learned something related to Jewish law or ideology, he has also tasted the presence of God. And it is that brief whiff of eternity that ultimately changes him as a person.

In her TED lecture, Armstrong chose to focus on a different aspect of religion. She asked herself the question: What is the common root of all religions? She concluded that compassion was common to every ideology. Every major religion espouses some version of the golden rule as quoted by Hillel above. Armstrong claims that religion has been hijacked by extremists who feel that ideology defines its core when in reality compassion defines its core and I think she has an excellent point on more than one front. Clearly on the larger world stage terrorists and religious extremists have hijacked religion for their own agendas. But even on a smaller scale I think we need to start reevaluating our religious priorities. I don’t know how, but in many communities sleeve length and the size of a person’s kippah has become more important than Hillel’s summary of the entire Torah on one leg. Compassion has taken a back seat to evaluating the level of religious observance of our fellow man and I wonder what Hillel would have to say about that.

Here’s the link to the TED lecture:

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Rav Soloveitchik on Akedat Yitchak

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the August 18th, 2010

In many ways, of all the stories in the Tanach the Akedah stands out as one of the most perplexing.  Particularly in light of Sefer Devorim which we are currently reading, where the Jews are implored over and over again not to follow in the ways of pagan worship, how could God  request of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?  And what could Abraham have been thinking when he unquestioningly saddled his donkey and led his party to the unknown mountain?

The Midrash sheds light on some of the inner workings of the mind of Abraham as he made his way to the dreaded mountain.  Chazal records a conversation he had with the angel Samuel in which he had to defend his actions against difficult assaults.  The opening of Kierkegard’s Fear and Trembling is dedicated to the various possible scenarios that were going through the mind of Abraham during this impossible time.  All seem to agree: he must have been brutally conflicted.

But in a footnote on pages 156-157 of  The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rav Soloveitchik disagrees with this account of the state of Abraham’s mind during the Akedah, and his description sheds some fascinating light on the nature of faith.  Rav Soloveitchik describes Abraham, whom he considers an example of the Charismatic Personality, as someone who discovered morality on his own and met God later and joined up with Him.  God helped Abraham develop morally but did not impose Himself.  Rather their relationship was a friendship, a bilateral covenant.  Rav Soloveitchik stresses the point that in this covenantal relationship, which also characterizes the Jewish people’s relationship with God, God is a freely elected king as opposed to a self inflicted monarch.  And yet the Akedah seems to be a break in this theme.  Here, God appeared to Abraham  not as a friend but as a terrifying master demanding an ultimate price.  It was contradictory to every previous interaction and yet how did Abraham react?  According to Rav Soloveitchik (and this reading is in consonance with the pesukin) he didn’t even flinch.  In the words of Rav Soloveitchik: “He was not cognizant that by requesting Isaac, God actually annulled everything, including the fellowship between him and Abraham. Naively, almost irrationally, did he conceive the demand as somehow compatible with the whole.  He carried it out as if it were another means leading to the realization of the eternal covenant. … By acting the way he did, Abraham unconsciously relieved the tension and reconciled himself with God.”

Somehow Abraham managed to do the impossible.  Without even having to convince himself, he simply believed the absurd. And in doing this his covenant with God took on a new form.  Before it was simply like any other treaty between two parties, now it became a covenant of an “existential community” where “man sacrificed himself to God” and “God dedicated Himself to man”.  But the Akedah  became more than that.  It became the act that would serve as the future model for a life of faith. According to Rav Soloveitchik “faith represents this peculiar attitude of leading a life fraught with realities which contradict the very ideal for which the faithful suffer.”

I don’t think I ever appreciated the full  significance of the Akedah before I read this footnote.  I always knew that for various reasons  it represented a high point in Jewish history but I never realized that it signified nothing less than the sum of what it means to live a life of faith.  The Akedah is an acknowledgement of the ironies, the tragedies, the intellectual, emotional and physical challenges of a life of faith.  The journey of the faithful was never meant to be paved in rose petals.  People of faith were meant to be forced to stand up to impossible challenges and inner contradictions.  The Akedah was God’s way of  pointing this out and at the same time assuring Abraham and future generations that while the life of the faithful promises to be a difficult one it would ultimately be  rewarding.  It would be the only one that incorporates a singular relationship with God.

Let’s face it.  When most of us are faced with challenges to our faith,  intellectual, emotional or otherwise, we don’t respond like Abraham – we do flinch.  But we need to keep in mind that for whatever reason these challenges are part in parcel of the faith package as God has packaged it.  And if we flinch, it’s all part of achieving a unique relationship with God.  That is the message of the Akedah.

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Lessons in Religious Doubt from Mother Teresa

Posted in Uncategorized by Cheryl Berman on the August 12th, 2010

Recently my attention was drawn to an article in Time Magazine dated August 23, 2007 entitled “Mother’s Teresa’s Crises of Faith.” The article speaks of a book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, which is a compilation of Mother Teresa’s correspondences, many of which she requested be destroyed upon her death. The Catholic Church overrode her wishes and published the letters in order to teach some important lessons regarding religious doubt.

It seems the very same Mother Teresa who accepted a Nobel Peace Prize in December of !979 with the declaration that God is everywhere actually felt bereft of God’s presence for nearly half a century. Her letters to various priests and church officials are replete with pleadings from them to pray for her because while God has a special love for them “[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak …” The crises became so extreme it drove her at a certain point to doubt the existence of heaven and even God himself.

Mother Teresa’s pleadings went essentially unanswered for decades until a Christian theologian by the name of Rev. Joseph Neuner provided her with some comfort. He explained three things to her. He said that a)that she was not responsible for her religious state and she could do nothing to affect it b) “Feeling” God is not the only proof of His existence and the fact that she sought Him so desperately was a sign of his hidden existence c) God’s absence was part of the spiritual side of her work.

I must admit I was very impressed with the church’s willingness to publish these letters. Historically, Christianity has banned books that  countered its beliefs and here is an example of a Christian Saint declaring her religious doubts, and the church bent over backwards to bring it to light. The church was making an important point in publishing the book, a point that Jews have recognized for centuries. Religious doubt is a part of faith. It is not something you need to conceal, it is something you need to recognize and deal with.

Judaism has also faced circumstances where some of its adherents began to doubt and it has not been intimidated by it. The Book of Iyov is dedicated to religious doubt, the stories of Acher appear in the Gemara, and the Rambam wrote his Moreh Nevuchim to a student who had religious questions. It seems though that in some segments of Orthodoxy doubt has become stigmatized. People are afraid to ask questions, and to be frank, many rabbis and teachers have lost the ability to give appropriate answers. Fortunately, there are groups out there dealing with these issues. There are books being published. But we aren’t there yet. We need to reach a place where doubters can feel safe enough to start asking their questions … out loud, not just anonymously on the internet. If the Catholic Church can figure this out, why can’t we?

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Philosophy and Faith Together Again

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the August 8th, 2010

There is little more satisfying in life than watching two of your greatest loves meet:  Brown mustard on a barbecued hot dog.  Salted butter on a steaming cob of corn. Or even the first meeting between your parents and your husband-to-be.  I think this is one reason I was so disappointed when my two loves – philosophy and faith- seemed to part so irrevocably with the various discussions and critiques surrounding the proofs for existence of God. Let’s face it.  The medieval rationalists had it easy on this front.  They believed these proofs worked technically so for them philosophy spoke volumes about religion and faith.  But when the proofs were shot down and the metaphysics was shown to be beyond our logical minds, philosophy and faith seemed to part ways.  Religion was thought to be based solely on a blind faith. What more could philosophy possible have to say?

A recent article in the New York Times by Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame rejects this view of the relationship between philosophy and faith. Gutting offers philosophy a second chance at faith by using ideas from philosophers like Hume, Wittgenstein and Platinga.  The three philosophers claim that everyday life is based on “basic beliefs” that we have no good arguments for.  For example we can’t prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life.  These are beliefs that we have adopted based on our life experiences.  They can’t really be proven technically. Faith can be viewed as one of these types of beliefs.  We have all experienced the deep beauty of nature, moral obligation, a sense of love and being loved, and through these life experiences we can  speak about a belief in an all good and powerful Being who cares for us.

Gary Gutting admits that this type of belief is far from the specifics of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but his point remains.  Philosophy and religion do not abide on separate islands.  They can still speak to and of each other, and they should.

While there are flaws to his theory I still think Gutting’s point is valid.   Philosophy and religion should not disengage.  There are branches of philosophy like existentialism that can uncover vast treasures of religious ideology (as has been demonstrated by Rav Soloveitchik and others) exposing new elements of the phenomenon of faith. Even the outdated medieval philosophers have something to offer religious thinkers today and they should not be discounted. I admit that not all of philosophy is amenable to religion, but where would we be without Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Buber’s I and Thou, or Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith?

Faith is one of those of those mysterious human qualities that begs to be explored in order to be deepened. And as people who either experience faith or search to rediscover a lost faith we need to understand it. Philosophy is one of our best tools with which we can do so.

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Raise Your Hand if You Believe in Free Will

Posted in science and religion by Cheryl Berman on the July 28th, 2010

“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.” - Albert Einstein

“The initial configuration of the universe may have been chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the laws of science. In either case, it would seem that everything in the universe would then be determined by evolution according to the laws of science, so it is difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate.” – Stephen Hawking

“You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.” Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)

My first act of Free Will shall be to believe in Free Will.”William James

As I read the latest round of the Free-will/Determinism battle in the New York Times over the last couple of weeks I couldn’t help but to wonder at how far these arguments have developed. The seeming contradiction between what science tells us and what we experience day to day has confounded man for centuries. Democritus’ theory of tiny bits of matter called Atoms making up the material part of the world led to the first Western deterministic philosophy in the 5th century BCE. It was not well received. Epicurus, who relied heavily on Democritus’ Atomic Theory, later introduced a curve to the atomic path allowing for the possibility of free will. Since then new terminology has been introduced. Science has made vast discoveries in fields like neuroscience that have lent new perspectives to the issue. And yet the question remains where it was in the 5th century BCE: unanswered.

A few days ago William Eggington, professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, added his two cents to the centuries-long debate ( ) and I have to say that I very much enjoyed his two cents. Eggington discussed an experiment that was aimed at discovering the neuro basis for decision making. The experiment was written up in The Annual Review of Neuroscience by Josh Gold of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Shadlen of the University of Washington. In the experiment sensors were hooked up to the parts of the brains of monkeys that are responsible for visual pattern recognition. The monkeys were taught to respond to a cue by looking at one of two patterns. Computers that were interpreting the sensors were able to predict the patterns the monkeys would choose a fraction of a second before the monkey chose the pattern. The computers were literally reading the monkey’s minds.

If a computer could predict what a human will decide before he makes his decision, like it did for the monkeys, what does this say about free will? Have our decisions been made for us?

Eggington explains that this logic is based on a false premise. We are imagining Space and Time as if it were in some type of legible code of codes that can interpreted. So when the the computer predicted the monkeys choice it was reading from some type of code of the future as opposed to simply reading the mind of the monkey. Instead of interpreting the experiment as a statement about the neural processes of a monkey’s brain (in which the unconscious mind is a fraction of a second faster than the conscious mind) we have extrapolated about some future as if it were already written down in some secret but ultimately decipherable code.

I can’t claim to have read all or even most of the recent literature regarding the issue of free will and determinism but it seems to me that Eggington is on the right track. He reminds his readers of Kant, the limits of the human intellect and the dangers of trying to stretch reason too far. There is only so much we can know. And when we reach our limit we can’t keep using our intellects to create hypotheses so that we can prove some pre-determined theory (pun very much intended). That’s probably what Tolstoy was sensing as he raised and lowered his arms of his own free will and dared philosophers to challenge him. There are limits to the elasticity of our brains. Sometimes we need to concede to the illogical.

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Is it wrong to fast on Tisha Be’Av?

Posted in holidays by Cheryl Berman on the July 23rd, 2010

Recently I noticed an article in Haaretz written by Anshel Pfeffer entitled It is wrong to Fast on Tisha Be’Av. Pfeffer’s arguments were twofold. Firstly he argued that for the first time in history we live in a world in which Jews who do not live in Zion do so of their own choice. Even countries like Iran allow their Jews to leave, those Jews who do not, elect not to for financial reasons. Secondly, the Temple has not been built because the Jews did not want it to be built. In 1967 when Israel conquered Har Ha’Bayit they were all ready to blow up the mosques and construct a third Temple. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan rejected those plans and elected to hand Har Ha’Bayit over to the Muslin Wakf. According to Pfeffer “secular Jews have no affinity to a priestly caste sacrificing heifers and goats, while the great majority of religious Jews are not very eager themselves.”

When I first read the article I was struck by two opposing things. First, I was struck by his misguided assessment of the religious population. Religious Jews know that we can’t just decide when to build the Bet Ha’Mikdash on our own.  God has a say, of course.  Had the Messiah  come in 1967 we would have fought Dayan’s decision.  But he didn’t, so we left it as Dayan desired and continued to pray for the day the Messiah would lead us to Har Ha’ Bayit

But then I thought about Pfeffer’s article some more.  Perhaps Pfeffer had revealed an aspect of the modern religious consciousness that we as religious Jews would rather had left untouched.  The fact is how many religious Jews really would feel comfortable with the notion of animal sacrifice as a means of getting closer to God? I don’t know what the Third Temple will look like.  Perhaps, as Rav Kook posits, there will be no more animal sacrifices in the time on the Third Temple, and perhaps there will. But if the majority of rabbanim are correct and animal sacrifices will be restored to the Jewish people, we will have to adapt to a completely  foreign method of communicating with God. The fact is most of us don’t see the connection between the death of an animal, and all the various customs surrounding that death, and our connection with our creator.

In truth, I think I always felt like the Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim with regard to animal sacrifices. The Rambam describes an evolutionary system in which Jews of ancient times had to be weaned off of idolatrous practices and sacrifices were allowed as means for them to serve God. But civilization has developed and sacrifices have been replaced by a more lofty method of communicating with God – prayer. Then I read about the autistic animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin.

Dr. Grandin described herself as thinking in pictures, having very simple emotions (mainly fear ), possessing hypersensitivities to touch and certain sounds. In other words she functions exactly like animal. This visceral insight into the mind of animals allows her to work on behalf of the humane treatment of animals. By 1997 (the year the article was published in the New York Times) she had designed livestock facilities for nearly half the cattle in the U.S. And Canada.

Among the livestock systems she redesigned were kosher slaughterhouses. Her description of one of her experiences in designing a kosher slaughter house in Alabama was surprisingly mystical. She explains,

”When I held his (the cattle’s) head in the yoke, I imagined placing my hands on his forehead and under his chin and gently easing him into position,” she wrote in her book. ”Body boundaries seemed to disappear, and I had no awareness of pushing the levers.”

She compared it to a state of Zen meditation: ”The more gently I was able to hold the animal with the apparatus, the more peaceful I felt. As the life force left the animal, I had deep religious feelings. For the first time in my life logic had been completely overwhelmed by feelings I did not know I had.”

There is no doubt in my mind that this woman’s experience was similar to those of generations of cohanim, Leviim, and Jewish pilgrims who made the trek to Jerusalem three times a year or more to bring their offerings to Hashem. There is something religiously powerful about holding a life that is drifting off to God, in the palms of your hands. There is something uniquely terrifying about knowing that this life is leaving this world is lieu of your own. There is no more potent reminder of the specialness of life than the messiness of death. There are so many messages for us behind the karbanot, if we were only sensitive enough to intuit them.  Mr. Pfeffer, you are very much mistaken, there is every reason to mourn this Tisha Be’Av. We must mourn that we lack a proper understanding of why we must mourn. After 2000 years we have no idea what we have lost.

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A Lesson in Faith from the Writer of “Friends”

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the July 9th, 2010

About a year ago my family went to my parent’s apartment in Jerusalem for Shabbat. They had two guests for lunch – one was a pediatric surgeon and the other a Hollywood script writer. I’ll never forget my sister-in-law’s remark to me as we all sat drinking in every comment the script writer made. She pointed out how interesting it was that one man saved the lives of children, the other wrote for shows like Friends and we are all in awe of the one that worked with Joey and Monica. At the time I laughed at the irony.

You can imagine my surprise at finding an article about this script writer in Jewish Action one year later. Apparently there was a reason to be in awe of him, but it had nothing to do with Joey or Monica.  Michael Borkow had a lot to teach us about faith.

Borkow grew up in a secular home, and was first introduced to Judaism in a class his friend urged him to take. That class coupled with a week long trip to Israel convinced him that it was time to look further into Judaism. He organized a Saturday “Jewish Book Club” in which Jews of every variety came together to discuss the weekly parsha. Eventually Borkow decided to keep Shabbat.

When it was time to take a break from script writing (he had just come off the sitcom Joey) he decided to study in Israel. He focused on Talmud study, but at some point it was time to face a dilemma that had plagued him from the start. He didn’t understand how anybody could be certain there was a God. Clearly we can’t see, hear, or feel God. He thought agnosticism was the best position, but it was difficult to remain an agnostic in Yeshiva. He explained that in a secular environment truth was considered to be relative. But this did not coincide with the world of religious Judaism that asserts the existence of a God and the validity of the Torah.

But he explains, “Through my study of Chazal on this topic I learned a believer isn’t necessarily someone who is 100 percent certain there is a God. He can be someone who strives for the courage to act and think faithfully despite living in a world that doesn’t offer absolute scientific proof.”

Borkow continues to explain that the fact that God cannot be proved scientifically is not a “glitch in God’s plan.” “It isn’t a challenge to faith; it’s the essential starting point for faith. If one is having doubts, that can, in fact, be a reason to practice faith. It doesn’t make sense to say ‘I’m not going to pray because I am not sure there is a God,’ just as it wouldn’t make sense to say ‘I’m not going to the gym because I’m out of shape’ The same way the gym is designed to get you into shape – prayer and mitzvot are tools for strengthening one’s belief.”

I think Borkow makes two very important points about faith. Firstly, many faith crisis sufferers spend their time looking for scientific proof for the existence of God. They feel that a life of belief is predicated on the absolute knowledge that God exists. But Borkow has pointed out that the life of a believer is much more complex and dynamic. It is not predicated on absolute knowledge of anything. It is predicated on a commitment to a life of faith. Belief is essentially the journey in which one strives to fulfill his commitment to a life of faith.

Borkow’s second point is equally important, and one that I have pointed out in previous posts. If someone finds himself entangled in a crisis of faith the worst thing he can do is to stop praying and keeping mitzvot. Prayer can be used as the forum for his doubts. A person can pray to God that he has lost the ability to pray. Just keep the dialogue alive. Religion is about a relationship and once you stop speaking to your partner you have severed that relationship. Some of my most powerful religious experiences have come within a prayer to the God I wasn’t sure existed. I have learned that if you keep speaking to Him, you will become religiously sensitive enough to hear Him speaking back to you.

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A Fresh Look At Doubt

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the July 6th, 2010

Last night I attended an interesting lecture given by Prof. Howard Wettstein, professor of philosophy at University of California. When I first walked into the room I was struck by the audience.  The first person I saw was a tall middle-aged man with a long gray beard, misshapen black hat, dusty black suit, and Crocs with no socks. I thought I might be in the wrong room but he indicated to me that this was indeed the room designated for the lecture. The crowd that would eventually fill the room was diverse, Some men wore black suits and black hats, others were in jeans and tee shirts. Some women were in shorts and flip flops, others in long skirts and hair coverings.  The subject of the lecture, “Doubt – A mode of religious life,” was clearly a subject that crossed religious sociological boundaries.

Dr. Wettstein was a middle-aged man, balding head, white mustache and beard, and a kind face. He explained that while his teaching formerly focused on technical philosophy, he recently began to focus on philosophy of religion. He opened his lecture by telling us a bit about his background. He grew up in a secular Jewish home, but decided to attend Yeshiva University which is where he received his first exposure to religious Judaism. He fell in love with the learning and the lifestyle and he graduated from Rav Moshe Besdin’s starter’s shiur to Rav Aharom Lichtenstein’s shiur and eventually he studied briefly under Rav Soloveitchik. But while he was enamored with the learning he always entertained doubts. He never quite understood how he could prove that Orthodox Judaism was more true than any other way of life. He met with his rabbanim often but eventually decided that he needed to leave orthodoxy.

He studied philosophy and became an academician. When he reached his forties he went through a transformation. He explains that a certain sentence in Heschel caught his attention. Heschel says that the word “belief” is not found in the Tanach. The concept is prominent in both Christianity and Islam, but does not exist in classical Judaism. The Torah speaks of Fear of God and Love of God, but not belief. This led him to ask himself – if religious Judaism is not a system of beliefs, what is it? He explained that for thinkers like Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel religion is an “affective attitude” – it’s a stance or responsiveness one has to life and to God. It’s a relationship.

Dr. Wettstein explained this theory further by comparing it to a Greek model. He said that loving God in medieval rationalism, which is largely based on Greek philosophy, means something very different from loving God in the Torah. In medieval rationalism God is the most perfect being. How can you love something so perfect and beyond you? Loving God for medieval rationalists means worshiping perfection. This type of love has no reciprocity.

The Torah portrays love of God very differently. If we look in Shir Ha’Shirim we see love of God is modeled on human love. It involves a relationship. Dr. Wettstein’s point is that when we look at religion from the viewpoint of medieval rationalism (as most people do) we see a very different portrait of religion from the one actually portrayed in the Torah. And the viewpoint of the rationalists which makes God into the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being, makes God into something we can’t have a relationship with.  Dr. Wettstein’s proposal is that in order to understand religious Judaism we must abandon the widely accepted views of the medievals like the Rambam and embrace the anthropomorphic language of the the Torah.

Dr. Wettstein went on to explain that often the most passionate part of a relationship is when you try to fix a rift in it. Doubt is the rift in our relationship with God and ironically it might be the most dynamic part of a person’s religious life. Perhaps this is what God truly seeks.

Dr. Wettstein provided me with a unique perspective on doubt. We generally view doubt as a negative experience. It is something we need to conquer, to resolve. But Dr. Wettstein’s point is a good one. Our most passionate exploration of religion and God emerges from doubt. Our deepest sense of desire for God emerges from the fact that we aren’t sure there is a God. So often in Judaism as in every relationship things stop sizzling. They become rote and unfeeling. Doubt shakes things up. It forces you to perceive God from a different perspective. It forces you to accept what you couldn’t accept before – the paradox of faith. Accepting paradoxes in life is an uncomfortable thing to do. But maybe it’s good to be uncomfortable with religion so that you don’t become too comfortable with it.

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