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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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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