Monday, November 15, 2010

Problems With Orthodox Attitudes Towards Tradition and Authority

Orthodox thinking is often characterized by a strong reliance on the authority of tradition. In contrast, more liberal Jewish thinking is often characterized by undervaluing the importance of tradition. Both can be problematic. But two posts at Cross-Currents on two very different issues show, albeit in an unintentional way, the problem with the Orthodox world view.

In the first post, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein discusses a recent denunciation of Kupat Ha'ir's solicitation methods as theft. I had never heard of Kupat Ha'ir or its solicitation methods, and checking out the links reveals that this organization apparently solicits funds for charitable purposes, but in doing so suggests or claims in some way that giving such tzedakah will help the donor solve various personal problems: obtain a spouse, recover from illness, earn more money, etc. Apparently many devout Orthodox Jews have given money with this expectation and then were bitterly disappointed when the spouse or recovery or financial security never showed up.

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes, and note that this is sad, and somewhat pathetic, on several levels. I realized that this type of problem is simply non-existent among the the Conservative and Reform Jews that I know. (To be fair, it is also apparently non-existent among the Orthodox Jews that I know, but it is a problem in some segments of the Orthodox world.) I wondered why. Reform and Conservative Jews are not smarter or less foolish, on average, than Orthodox Jews. They may have less of an absolute faith that God will solve their problems if they pray or give tzedakah, but why do these beliefs differ.

I think the answer, or at least part of the answer, is that more liberal Jews, embracing modern skepticism, simply tend not to believe such supernatural claims. The reaction of virtually every Jew that I know to such a solicitation would range from amusement to anger, but no one would think that giving such tzedakah would be effective. But apparently there is at least a segment of the Orthodox world where this is not true. Rabbi Adlerstein bluntly notes, "I can think of few regular, familiar features of Orthodox life that bring more disgrace to Torah life than the KH brochures and ads. They proclaim to the public that Torah is the province of worshippers of miracle-rabbis." I think the problem, simply put, is that many Orthodox Jews tend to be less skeptical, and tend not to critically examine claims put forth by established and respected rabbis or institutions.

The same problems revealed itself in a very different way in the second Cross-Currents post entitled I Thought The Greeks Lost by R. Dovid Landesman. The article is about the conflict between Greek (or more generally Western) values and Jewish values, including science. R. Landesman notes that science, although not strictly part of traditional Jewish learning, is built on observation, anyone could do it with enough time and effort, and is not antithetical to Judaism. He explains, "These fields of knowledge do not depend upon Divinely revealed wisdom accessible only through Torah; they are a byproduct of the Divine gifts of intelligence and creativity with which all mankind was imbued and which everyone can develop to the extent that his potential allows." He argues for teaching subjects of general knowledge.

All that is fine as far as it goes. But it reflects a much deeper problem. The scientific approach is emphatically not based on a respect for tradition. To the contrary, it is based on doubting and questioning the received wisdom at every turn. This approach to thinking cannot be easily reconciled with the Orthodox approach.

I am not sure Rabbi Landesman realizes where this path will take him. Students (and adults for that matter) who approach scientific problems using the scientific method will then start to apply it to traditional Jewish teachings. They will not accept on faith that God exists, that the Torah is a divine book, that the oral law did not evolve, or that a rabbi should be listened to and obeyed when he says something doubtful.

There are two approaches the Orthodox community can take here: they can separate themselves from Western ideas or they can try to balance between Western ideas and tradition. The former might work to some degree, but it tends to be repressive, xenophobic, and ultimately separates such communities from the real benefits of things like science, technology, literature, music, and even plain old critical thinking and skepticism itself. The latter approach probably makes more sense, but it runs the risk of undermining traditional Judaism.

To take perhaps the clearest example, when critical principles are used to examine the Torah itself, a remarkable consensus has emerged over the past 150 years or so among scholars of all faiths and of no faith that the Torah is a composite documents written well after Moses's time. There is a huge debate about exactly when and where and how these documents were written, but there is unanimity in the basic rejection of a unified document written by Moses. Nothing that the Orthodox world has come up with the in past 150 years has even dented this consensus, and in fact the paucity and in some cases dishonesty of the Orthodox response to Bible criticism has underscored the real problems with a traditional understanding of the Torah.

My claim is that you cannot teach students to use critical scientific methods to learn about biology and physics and history, noting how powerful such methods are for discovering truth and weeding out falsehood, but tell them not to use them the same methods towards Judaism itself.

Incidentally, the solution to this problem by more liberal forms of Judaism is not without its costs. By embracing science and skepticism, Reform and Conservative Judaism has knocked down some outdated or incorrect or problematic beliefs in Judaism. But it has not been as successful in building Judaism, either in some new form or as a modified form of traditional Judaism. But all that might be part of an on-going evolving process.

In short, the problem is that the Western, skeptical, scientific worldview that doubts tradition and authority and the traditional Jewish worldview that respects religious tradition and authority are fundamentally at odds. This problem can be smoothed over in some areas, but it ultimately cannot be ignored.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Old Haloscan Comments Imported!

I have now imported all of the old Haloscan comments.

About a year ago, our old commenting system Haloscan changed over to a paying system. We switched to Disqus (which is a much better commenting system in any case). I was able to download all the old comments from Haloscan to my hard drive, but was unable to upload them to Disqus. Disqus has now modified and fixed its importing system, and after a little programming, I was able to convert the old Haloscan comments into an XML format that Disqus recognized.

The bottom line is that all of the old comments to this blog (about 1000 of them) have now been successfully uploaded.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Saturday Morning Conservative and Reform Shabbat Services

Our Conservative synagogue has one critical problem with its Saturday morning shabbat services. I know other people, synagogues, and minyanim have the same problem, and I was wondering how others have addressed this.

The services themselves are fine. We have a regular service that is fairly well-attended. The rabbis are good, the cantor, choir, and music are good. The sermons involve some audience discussion, which is interesting and works out well. We also have a more traditional library minyan that meets twice a month, and that service is also fine. It is well-run by competent lay leaders.

So what's the problem? Younger people do not attend services. Families are virtually absent, and people under 50 are virtually absent. The people who do attend tend to be older, and often much older. Virtually everyone who attends the regular service and library minyan is over 50, and the median age is considerably higher than that.

I am certainly not objecting to older people attending services; to the contrary, I celebrate that. But I am concerned about younger people not attending. The religious school has been running a "family shabbat service" for families with younger kids, and—despite the size of the religious school and the day school—virtually no one attends.

The result is problematic for several obvious reasons. We lack a community; the families do not regularly see each other at synagogue. We are not teaching our kids by example that services are important. We are not teaching our kids the basic skills necessary to be a competent Jewish adult. And we are missing out on shabbat services.

The problem is not the synagogue itself. To the contrary: if any synagogue could be expected to have services where younger people show up, it is ours. We have extremely intelligent, articulate, and well-liked rabbis. The synagogue is doing fine financially; we could afford anything reasonable that would help solve the problem. The synagogue is large, and we have both a day school and a religious school. But neither the parents there nor the kids show up at services.

The problem was even more serious several years ago at my father's (then) Reform synagogue. The synagogue did not have a Saturday morning service if there was not a bar- or bat-mitzvah. My dad showed up on Saturday morning all the doors were locked. (He has since switched synagogues.)

I see several causes of the problem, and several potential solutions.

1. Adults Do Not Think The Service Is Meaningful Or Interesting. This is the most basic problem. I think most adults in their 30s and 40s at suburban Conservative and Reform synagogues have a negative view of prayer itself. Bluntly put, they view it as all about sucking up to a supernatural Being that they do not believe in. Given that, it is silly and meaningless, and they just do not want to go.

The solution to this problem is to help parents reformulate their understanding of prayer and the Saturday morning Shabbat service. There's much to be said about the details of this, including whether it is even possible. And it obviously takes a time commitment. But this is basically an intellectual or educational problem. If adults learn about prayer and the Shabbat service and think differently about them, they might be more inclined to show up. (Or at least not to not show up because they think it is not meaningful or interesting.)

This was actually my primary problem for years. I did not attend services. I had belonged to our synagogue for several years, and someone asked me something about the shabbat service. I had no idea of the answer; I had never attended. But in the last year or two, I have been attending sporadically, but more regularly.

BTW, there is a new book called "Making Prayer Real" by Rabbi Mike Comins. I'm about halfway through it, and he (and about 50 other rabbis and educators) address some of these issues. I intend to blog about it at some point.

2. Adults Do Not Know The Details Of The Service. It is quite frustrating to most adults not to be able to follow the service and read the Hebrew. It is even more frustrating to get lost and not even know what page everyone else is on. This is especially true for people who competent or even excellent in all the activities in the rest of their lives. A Shabbat service can be a long experience of incompetence and frustration.

The solution here is to teach adults the service. There are lots of ways to do this: a teaching service, a class, podcasts. But again, it takes a time commitment and willingness or interest in doing this.

By the way, this problem was absent for people who grew up in a more traditional background and then wanted a traditional but non-Orthodox shul. The Conservative movement rode this demographic wave up in the 1940s - 1970s. During that time, Conservative synagogues could assume that most members were knowledgeable and competent with regard to practices like a Shabbat service. But most Conservative and Reform synagogues today have to assume the opposite, at least with regard to most younger members. And them means today's Conservative synagogues must be educating synagogues.

3. Kids Sports. They are on Saturday. Not much can be said here. But it is worth noting that there are some Saturdays when the kids don't play, or play later or earlier than the service.

4. Younger Kids and Child Care. Younger kids have a hard time sitting through a long service, especially one with lots of Hebrew. Most synagogues where parents with younger kids regularly attend services offer some sort of child care. (I blogged about this problem before.) I spoke to my rabbi about this several years ago, and he told me that the synagogue used to offer child care but no one showed up. He told me that if I let him know ahead of time that I was coming to services, he could arrange child care. But the problem is not that I personally need a babysitter. It is a collective action problem. I would like lots of people to want to come to services, and if child care helps everyone (not just me) then it should be worth doing.

This is actually a serious problem. I went to the library minyan at our synagogue yesterday, and last might my wife asked if I planned to regularly leave the rest of the family on Shabbat and go to services. She has a good point. It does seem odd that a shabbat service should be the thing that divides a family on shabbat.

* * *

Some hopeful signs.

There are st least four hopeful signs that I have seen for this problem.

First, there are the independent minyanim. In short, these minyamin are mostly in urban areas and mostly attract younger single people (20s and 30s). They are vibrant and dynamic, and full of Jews who take prayer seriously and are knowledgeable and competent. (Ben Z. over at Mah Rabu is one of the leaders of this movement; his latest post is here.) These members often get married, get older, and move to the suburbs. Established suburban congregations should welcome them and their energy; they could help revitalize the synagogue service for younger people.

Second, Camp Ramah. Some appreciable number of (mostly) Conservative kids to go Camp Ramah and come back liking shabbat services. This proves that the problem is not intractable. If some of Camp Ramah's energy and enthusiasm could work its way into the regular shabbat service, it would also help.

Third, Modern Orthodox synagogues. An appreciable number of Conservative Jews who want a active shabbat-observant community find it lacking in Conservative synagogues and end up at Modern Orthodox synagogues. They are not Orthodox in their beliefs. They are often egalitarian, accepting of gays and lesbians, and not completely shomer-mitzvot. But they are willing to tolerate joining an Orthodox synagogue so that they can have the benefits of shabbat. But if Conservative synagogues would offer this, they would feel more at home there.

Fourth, churches. Many churches have families who regularly attend on Sundays. If they can do it, we can too.

* * *

In short, I think this is a huge collective action problem. Adults in their 30s and 40s with young kids do not attend services for lots of reasons, including the fact that other adults in their 30s and 40s with young kids do not attend. If lots of people would start attending at the same time, they might just find that they would like to attend because lots of other people are attending. The question is how to jumpstart this.

Comments and suggestions are obviously welcome, and I would be especially interested in hearing from people who do not attend shabbat services about why they do not attend.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Building a Sukkah - Some Pics

My prior post (from two years ago) on building a sukkah did not have pictures. I have now remedied that problem.

The most important thing about a sukkah is that it be structurally sound. You don't want it falling on guests. As noted in the earlier post, I accomplished this by bolting 2x4s together using metal L-straps to prevent racking. Here is what my basic corner joint looks like:

Note that the two 2x4s sandwich the L-strap between them, and each joint has 3 bolts. Each bolt protrudes by 1/2". So since standard 2x4s are actually 1.5" x 3.5" (don't ask), there are two "short bolts" (at the top and the left) that are 2" long (1.5" for the board, plus an extra 1/2"). There is also a longer bolt in the center that is 3.5" long (it goes through both 1.5" boards, plus an extra 1/2").

Also, each bolt has two washers.

Here is a "double" joint in the middle of the sukkah.

This is a double version of the first joint. There are actually two horizontal boards that end in the middle of the vertical board. (You can't see it from this side.) Note that in the first picture, the holes were centered on the vertical board, but in this picture, the holes are offset. I needed room for two L-straps. This takes some careful measuring. As noted in the previous post, I carefully made a template and then used it to mark all the holes.

Finally, here is a three-way corner joint. This joins three orthogonal boards.

A few things to note.

Note the marking on the right side mostly covered by the L-strap. It says "L3-R4 Down" This indicates that this is the lower board that goes from L3 (the third vertical post on the left side) to R4 (the fourth vertical post on the right side). (I have an extra vertical board on the right side to accommodate the door.) Uniquely marking each board is critically important.

There are two sets of three holes here. I had to make sure to offset them so that the bolts did not bump into each other. So I raised the board on the right by 1.5" by simply placing an small offcut from a 2x4 under the template while I marked the holes. I did that with all boards going that direction.

The joint on the left is the same as in the first picture. But the joint on the right used bolts of different lengths because two of them are going through the long size of the 2x4. So the 3 bolts are 4", 5.5", and 2". (I leave the formal proof as an exercise for the interested reader.)

* * *

One final structural point. I have two doors in the sukkah. (The sukkah is located at the corner of my house, and it blocks access from driveway to the backyard. The two doors give us that access. Here is the small door on the left, and part of the larger door on the right. Not that the doors do not have a bottom board (it is easy to trip over them). To give that side support, each side with a door has a complete square of 2x4s (top, bottom, left, and right) next to the door opening.

Here's the view from the front.

And here's the view from the inside (with a special cameo appearance by Dad, another Jew with another couple of opinions).

Note that the height of the vertical boards (7') is calibrated to the 6' height of the plastic-bamboo walls, plus 7" for the two 2x4s, plus all little extra for some space at the top and bottom. 2x4s commonly come in 8' lengths, but if I left them at 8', the extra space would raise an issue as to whether the wall is a complete wall. Also, I could attach the top bolts on a 7' vertical board without standing on a ladder, but not on an 8' board.

Finally, although none of the pictures show it, I marked the top-front-left corner of each board by making a slight bevel on top-front and top-left edges next to the top-front-left corner. So not only is each board uniquely placed, but it is easy to orient each board. I simply orient the board so that the notches are on the top-left and top-front edges.

It took a lot of careful planning and drawing to think through all the joints, to count up all the nuts and washers and bolts (in various sizes) that I needed, and to make templates, notch the boards, drill the holes, and square up each side. But it was worth it. Three years ago, two friends and I designed and built our sukkahs using the same design methods, but with slight variants in size and orientation. It was a lot of time and a lot of work. But we ended up with sukkahs that look good, are very strong, and can easily be stored. If a part gets lost or broken or damages, we can easily replace the part at the local hardware store. And most importantly, the sukkah can easily be put up and taken down; we built each sukkah in just 2 - 2.5 hours this year.

Chag sameach.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Perils of Bible Translation

The Velveteen Rabbi has a detailed summary and review of a talk by Dr. Joel Hoffman on The Perils of Bible Translation. Some of the examples are funny and thought-provoking. It's worth reading.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Is the Historical Truth of Torah Important?

Our worldview influences what questions we ask and what categories we place things in. For many Jews, the debate over whether the traditional account of the historical origins of the Torah is accurate is determinative of their religious beliefs. If the traditional account is correct, they are Orthodox. If not, they are not religious at all. I think this entire approach is wrong.

This emphasis on historical truth is misplaced. Take (as an odd but illustrative example) the story of the Three Little Pigs, an obvious myth with a simple but important lesson: take the time to do things right. The lesson is good and quite valuable, and the story is fun and playful. Suppose someone heard the story and then argued that it was false because wolves do not have the lung capacity to blow down houses, even houses made out of straw or sticks. Moreover, pigs lack opposable thumbs and cannot construct even the most rudimentary structures. I think most of us would think that the person missed the point of the story.

But then suppose someone else replied that the story was in fact true and offered a detailed explanation of how pigs could construct a very rudimentary house and how a wolf could blow it down given the right wind conditions. The first person disagreed, and they started arguing about the wind force that wolf lung could exert

I think most of us would respond to the debate by noting that it is simply absurd. If we had to, we would side with the first person and concede that the story is not an account of an actual event, but we probably would not want to go there. The purpose of the story is to teach a valuable lesson, not to recount a historical event. That is, given our worldview, we place the story in a certain category, and this determines what questions we ask about it. And its historical truth is not a question we ask.

So why do we typically not take this approach with the Torah? I think the answer is largely historical

In Talmudic times people were much more playful with the text. They created midrashim with clever life lessons. These are clearly false (that is, they do not describe historical events) but they make quite valuable points. And frankly, they are fun. Chazal never offered proofs of God's existence or systematic theology. Instead, they simply offered a way of life: love God, do mitzvot. They certainly believed in the historical accuracy of the text, but there was no other credible option. And in the ultimate sense, it is not clear how central this was to their entire worldview.

When the medieval period rolled around, the quest for certainty was in full swing. We got detailed proofs, and ikkarim, and systematic theology. And since this was a pre-scientific age, these claims had wide scope; they covered scientific assertions and facts.

Then when the Enlightenment and real science rolled around, we started asking scientific questions about the contents of the text. Is the account of Creation correct? Is the account of the Flood correct? Did the Exodus occur? And then we started asking scientific questions about the text itself: who wrote it? when? On all of these account, the traditional explanations took a beating. Without jumping into the merits of these debates, for these purposes, it is sufficient to note that the traditional explanations became more and more untenable and most Jews rejected them.

But some did not, and they defended the traditional accounts. In doing so, many painted themselves into a corner. They adopted a scientific worldview, staked their entire religious belief system on the accuracy of some scientific questions, and then resorted to strained arguments (to put it mildly) to defend their positions. So we have all sorts of absurdities, like rabbis with no scientific training arguing the details of evolution against scientists. Not just one scientist at the other podium, but the entire scientific establishment.

One effect of this debate is to keep the issue of the historical truth of the traditional account of the text in the foreground. And this presents an unattractive choice: take Judaism or modern science, but not both.

This problem can be seen in XGH's latest post (and many other posts, for that matter). XGH is caught squarely in this dilemma. He has (another) interesting discussion entitled "A Non Fundamentalist Conception of TMS." One key sentence caught my attention: I do believe that religious language and mythology has value, whether the myth is true or not.

This sentence reflects the importance of the historical truth of the account in his worldview. Note that one could say, "Myths have value, whether or X" and plug in a lot of Xs: (e.g., whether or not the protagonist is left-handed, whether or not the story teller is standing or sitting when he tells the myth, etc.) We would consider most of these to be absurd statements --- what does being left-handed have to do with the value of the story? They are technically true, but we never would think of characterizing the issue this way.

I think the same is true here. The value of the Torah lies in its value, not in its historical truth. And (for lots of reasons explained elsewhere in this blog), I think the Torah is quite valuable.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jewish Particularity: Can't We Live A Meaningfule Life Without Judaism?

Dan left a good comment to the last post. He agreed with my thoughts on God, but argued that this general idea of God has no relationship to Judaism in particular. In other words, one can simply lead a good life in all respects and blow of Judaism completely. This is a serious and important challenge, but ultimately one that I think comes up short. And Andre Ethier and the Dodger game on Sunday helps illustrate why.

Judaism is a derech or path or way of life. It is a way of experiencing the good things in life. It helps focus us and teach us, and does so as part of a community. Of course, there are many such paths, some better than others. But being on some specific path is necessary. We will lead a less meaningful and fulfilled life if we try to simply have general thoughts, or even general experiences, in the abstract.

For example, I can sometimes get some sense of the Infinite or God or Goodness. (For me, it usually involve both nature and bigness - think Yosemite or the ocean or space). I can act ethically, love and be loved, and experience beauty. But a Jewish path helps me experience these things better. For example, I know that freedom is a good thing, but having a discussion with family and friends about freedom during a seder, and realizing that this experience is being repeated (with lots of variations) all over the world, and has been done throughout Jewish history, and will be done into the future makes it a lot more special. Davening sometimes brings me closer to the things I find important. Hearing a clever d'var Torah sometimes brings an insight that I would not have thought about.

Here's a real example from last night. We counted the omer, and my kids and I (briefly -- school night, ya know) discussed the sefirot. Last night was the malchut (nobility) of hod (humility). In addition to the English rhyme (the Hebrew rhyme came the night before, with the yesod of hod), we talked about how being humble is also part of being noble. And we ended with with a great example.

We had gone to the Dodger game the day before, and I had read the kids the wrap up of the game in the paper. My 6-year-old explained that Andre Ethier (who had hit 2 home runs) mentioned that an important reason they won was the Dodger pitching. (Kuroda pitched 8 innings and gave up only 1 run.) My son noted that Ethier was being humble by talking about the pitching and not his own (amazing) hitting. And that humility made him more noble or admirable.

Now of course there are lots of ways of thinking about such virtues. Classical Christianity lists pride as one of the seven deadly sins and humility as one of the seven virtues. Other religions and philosophies and world views no doubt also discuss such things. But Judaism provides one particular way of doing this. And our tradition is to take seven aspects of God, generate 49 2x2 combinations, and think of them during 49 days between the second night of Passover and Shavuot.

One could throw out Judaism completely and simply acknowledge as an intellectual matter that humility is a virtue. The problem is that there is much more to life than asserting intellectual propositions, and Judaism also offers the rest. It offers particular ways to think about the idea, and particular times to think about it, and particular rituals associated with it, and particular teaching opportunities regarding it, and a community of people also interested in this.

We use this approach with regard to other abstract ideas. As a general matter, it is good that people should have a partner that they love. But I do not simply acknowledge the general idea. I also love my wife in particular. In doing so, I am not making a general claim about my wife (everyone should love my wife) or about me (I should love everyone's wife.) My relationship with my wife is one particular manifestation of the general idea, and another person's relationship with his or her partner is another.

But the bottom line is that Judaism, at least if done well, helps us get the most out of life.


Monday, May 3, 2010

A Relationship With God? Yeah, Right.

XGH asks a good question: how can someone have a non-delusional relationship with God. If God does not exist, no relationship is possible. And if God does exists, how can one have a relationship if God does not directly respond. XGH analogizes this to someone who writes letters to Queen Elizabeth and Britney Spears and claims to have a relationship with them. XGH dismisses the conventional response -- God answers me in cryptic ways -- as delusional and indistinguishable (in theory) from a terrorist's claim that God told him to kill innocent people. In the comment section, Evanston Jew proposes two responses (walking and talking with God, and inwardness), but acknowledges the difficulties. He notes -- correctly and insightfully -- that the problem stems from Maimonidean rationalism.

I want to pick up on EJ's last point and the offer a possible solution to XGH's question. As I have argued before, I do not think the Enlightenment has been kind to traditional Judaism. I am a huge fan of the Enlightenment. Its philosophical progeny -- strong forms of rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism -- have done a tremendous amount to advance science, eliminate false ideas, advance true one, and improve the world. These philosophical ideas are useful in explaining many things, but are not useful as the exclusive approaches for explaining or understanding Judaism.

Traditional Judaism claims that God spoke at Sinai and entered into an eternal covenant with the Jews. A modern approach to Judaism tries to analyze this claim scientifically, looking for evidence of all kinds to support or refute this claim: archaeological, textual, historical, etc. The result seems to be a lot of foolishness on one side and a sad abandonment of Judaism on the other. At one extreme, we have rabbis with no scientific training arguing against biologists and paleontologists about DNA and the fossil record. And at the other extreme, we have ordinary Jews concluding that "Judaism is false" and either leaving it completely or treating it as someone quaint and childish, but nothing that has anything of serious value to a sensible adult.

I think both extremes suffer from trying to fit Judaism into a modern scientific framework. This approach gained traction after Maimonides and continued through the 19th or 20th century. Maimonides helped bring Judaism into the medieval period, but it may be time to move forward.

One better approach to Judaism (as I have argued here, here and here) is to ignore the scientific questions about God and focus instead on our own experiences of God. That is, we don't ask whether God exists or what God's properties are, but instead ask how we experience God (regardless of whether God exists or not). God is simply the name we give to the things we experience as Godly. There's a lot to say about this, as discussed in the posts quoted above.

Under this approach, a relationship with God is then like a relationship with any abstract thing. There are all sorts of things that "exist" but do not have a corresponding physical entity. For example, goodness, the American spirit, and mathematics all exist in the sense that the terms meaningfully describe things, but the things they describe are not actual objects. So we can have a relationship with God the same way we can have a relationship with goodness, the American spirit, and mathematics, but not the same way we have a relationship with Queen Elizabeth and Britny Spears.

We have a relationship with goodness by doing good and thinking about goodness. We have a relationship with the American spirit by feeling proud to be an American, knowing something about America and American history, and observing American holidays and rituals. And we have a relationship with mathematics by knowing, doing, and appreciating mathematics. As we describe these relationships, we necessarily are speaking subjectively. The mathematician would simply be speaking of his own inner feelings towards mathematical, and those feelings are real. It would be absurd to argue that there is no physical entity that corresponds to the work "mathematics" and thus the
mathematician is delusional.

Along the same lines, we have a relationship with God by knowing about God and doing Godly things. There are many ways to do this, including prayer. One could imagine talking to goodness, or America, or mathematics to further or deepen that relationship. We do not typically do this, but that is largely out of custom, and we sometimes do (sort of) speak to these things. People commonly say "My goodness." We pledge allegiance to the flag as a symbol of America. We are not addressing the flag directly (we don't say "I pledge allegiance to you") but we are talking to nobody in particular about pledging allegiance to the flag. So it is neither inconceivable nor delusional to speak directly to the goodness, America, or mathematics without making some strong ontological claim. I do not see prayer as any different.

None of this denies or affirms the traditional understanding of God as a real entity that responds to prayer. This approach simply goes in a different direction.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Wagner Probably Didn't Count the Omer

It was an odd experience last night—returning home after seeing Gotterdammerung and then counting the omer. The juxtaposition heightened the difference between Judaism's and Wagner's weltanschauung (the word is wonderfully appropriate here.) But first, some background about Wagner, the Los Angeles Opera, and me and my (present in real life but largely blogo-absent) co-blogger Steve.

Two characteristics stand out about Wagner. He was a exceptionally brilliant composer and an exceptionally awful person. He is not merely another really good composer among many. He revolutionized music, especially opera (although he would not have used that word), in the 19th Century. (Many others far more knowledgeable than I am have written much about this; google him for details.)

At the same time, Wagner was reprehensible in pretty much every way. He was petty, vindictive, mean, a perpetual moocher, and an anti-Semite. His essay "Jewishness in Music" and later essays were exceptionally spiteful. And Hitler loved Wagner's music. Other than Wagner's musical genius—and genius is the right word—Wagner pretty much had nothing going for him.

There are some serious issues about whether Jews should listen to Wagner, given his anti-Semitism and the Nazi's love for his music. (The last piece the Berlin Philharmonic played in April 1945 was, appropriately, the final scene from Gotterdammerung.) I have never been particularly bothered by this. I never forget who Wagner was, but I separate the man from his music.

Wagner's magnum opus is a four-opera, 16 1/2 hour "Ring cycle", based on the Niebelung myths, the same Norse and Germanic myths that Tolkien used (among other things) for Lord of the Rings. The basic story involves magic gold in the Rhine, protected by mermaid-like Rhine-maidens. The gold can be made into a magic ring that will allow its owner to rule the world, but only a person who renounces love can take the gold. Alberich, an ugly dwarf, figures no one will love him anyway, and so he renounces love, takes the gold, and later makes the magic ring. Wotan the chief God wants the ring, as does a bunch of other people. The story rolls on through a series of adventures and misadventures, loves gained and lost, scheming, fraud, fighting, killing, betrayal, incest, and the obligatory slaying of a dragon (who actually used to be a giant - long story, don't ask). We have magic swords, magic apples, magic helmets, magic fire, and magic potions. The upshot: after far too much abuse of power, almost all the heroes, heroines, and Gods die, Valhalla (home of the Gods) burns down, the ring gets washed back into the Rhine, and (as Anna Russell put it) we are right back where we started 16 hours earlier.

Well almost. We've actually moved in a circle in one dimension but forward in another. The era of the gods is over, and the era of man has begun. Like Joni Mitchell, Wagner had a spiral view of time, not merely a cyclical one. In fact, "logo" of the Los Angeles Opera's production of this ring cycle is a spiral.

More background. In 1979, I took a great 9th grade history class, along with my co-blogger Steve (yes, we've known each other that long) and a bunch of other friends. The class covered the Renaissance to the present, and our teacher emphasized viewing the political and social history through a humanities lens; we studied the art, music, and architecture of the different periods and saw how it influenced—and was influenced by—the political and social history. It was a spectacular class, and made it clear that serious study of serious subjects could not be limited by a class curriculum. Everything was connected in very complex ways. In many ways, it was my first serious adult intellectual thinking.

Steve and I and a few other friends did a multimedia two-screen slide show (back before powerpoint) on Wagner, at the suggestion of the teacher. This was a very clever suggestion to several bright Jewish suburban kids: tell us about the brilliant composer and horrible anti-Semite. He knew exactly what he was doing (he is Jewish and designed a Holocaust curriculum, and has since trained countless teachers in how to teach the Holocaust.)

We were interested in seeing the Ring back then, but Los Angeles had no opera company. Well, the Los Angeles Opera opened in the 1980s, and last season they started their first Ring cycle. My wife categorically refused to see another Wagner opera after we endured a bizarre minimalist production of Parsifal, and so Steve and I got tickets. We saw the first two operas last season, and the last two this season. We saw the final opera, Gotterdammerung, yesterday. And we were fortunate enough to be joined—after all these years—by our 9th grade history teacher, now a retired principal and (as always) an opera fan. It took us 30 years to complete our Wagner project, but we did it.

By the way, the Los Angeles Opera has a few more shows of Gotterdammerung, and then is re-running the entire cycle three times in late May and June. If you are in Los Angeles (or anywhere close), I would highly recommend seeing this production. And Ring Festival LA is a loose collection of all sorts of events pertaining to the Ring cycle, and it includes several discussions and other programs exploring Wagner and his anti-Semitism.

Which gets us, of course, to counting the omer.

In the Ring cycle, Wagner pits love and power as irreconcilable opposites. Alberich must renounce love to get the ring and its power. The desire for the ring caused the giant Fafner to kill his brother Fasolt. Several other characters have their love cut short by power, or their power cut short by love.

This is a pretty dark view of the world. You can choose love, but then get clobbered the next time some powerful person rolls around. Or you can choose power, but you will have a miserable and loveless life.

Love and power are sometimes in tension. However, Judaism gives us a much brighter picture, as we are reminded when we count the omer. (I meant to post on counting the omer but never got the chance. I will try next year. Google it for details.)

All the seven "lower" sefirot are emanations of God (or goodness, if that is easier to think about), and we are reminded of each of the 49 combinations as we count the omer for 49 days. The first two sefirot are chesed (loving kindness) and gevurah (strength or power). And the first thing Judaism (but not Wagner) teaches about love and power is that they are aspects of the divine, and thus cannot be irreconcilably opposed. We can think of them as opposites in tension, but the resolution of that tension is itself the third sefirot, tiferet (beauty or harmony). That is, harmonizing these two is itself good and divine. Or we can think of them as complementary aspects of the divine. So, for example, a parent might be strict, but do so out of kindness. Or might be kind, by do so out of strength. The result is a much more optimistic—and I might add, realistic—view of both love and power.

Wagner's music is great. Go see the Ring. But when you think about love and power, remember the omer, not the gold in the Rhine.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Matzah and the "N-word"

The Passover seder is post-modern avant garde performance art. We not only tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but each of is required to regard ourselves as if we went out of Egypt. So the performance is by us, for us, and about us. All lines between the subject of the story, the performers, and the audience are erased. The whole purpose of the story is to cause people to ask questions and engage with the story, not merely to entertain and amuse. And we have innovative and unconventional props used in innovative and unconventional ways. "You wanna know how bitter slavery was? Eat this!"

The central object of the seder is matzah. And the symbolism of matzah makes an odd transition during the seder, and one that, in a strange way, reminds me of a changing symbol of oppression for American blacks: the word "nigger".

At the beginning of the seder, after Yachatz (the breaking of the middle matzah), we point to the matzah and say "ha lachma anya - this is the bread of affliction or poverty." This is the symbolism of Matzah at the beginning of the seder.

But at the end of the Maggid (or storytelling) section, the matzah symbolism takes a turn. We say "This is the bread that our ancestors ate when they left Egypt in haste." It is now the bread of freedom, the bread we ate when we left Egypt. The symbolism of the matzah changed from oppression to freedom during the seder itself.

Why? The answer, I think, lies in what came between these two mentions of matzah: freedom.
One was before Maggid and the other after. And once we complete the Maggid section, we are free. Only a free people can change the meanings of their symbols—the signified of their signifiers—especially symbols of oppression. But we do.

Perhaps the closest analog is the use of the word "nigger" in American life. This was the worst term of oppression for American blacks during much of the 19th and 20th century. But towards the end of the 20th century, a strange thing happened. Some American blacks staring calling each other "nigger" in a lighthearted or joking or casual way. When I first heard this, I was startled and surprised. And that was exactly the point. They were reclaiming this word from their racist oppressors, in effect saying "I am free. I own this word, and I can use it anyway I want. I am not afraid of it, and you cannot use it to oppress me."

Yup. That sort of in-your-face up-yours attitude towards oppression is exactly what Passover is about.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Innovative Passover Seder Ideas

Do you have any innovative Passover seder ideas? If you have tried something interesting, please share it here.

Passover is a great holiday. But unfortunately too many people turn this into a boring ritual by simply take turns reading paragraphs in the haggadah. Fortunately, in recent years, numerous new haggadot have been published with all sorts of interesting commentary and ideas. Also, many books have been published on how to have interesting and meaningful seders. Hopefully, the era of the boring seder is drawing to a close.

Here are a few things that we have done in recent years.

1. Notice. I realized that one important part of having an interesting seder is to have it be more participatory, and this requires that people come to the seder with that expectation and perhaps with a little preparation. To help do this, I sent e-mails to the guests ahead of time explaining a little bit about the seder and asking them to bring something interesting to do or read or share. Many Jews who have been doing seders for years have only the most rudimentary understanding of the holiday and the seder. In some years, I assigned parts of the seder to different guests, and in other years I have left it more open-ended: come with something. And over the years, the guests have come with all sorts of interesting things (and some less interesting things).

2. Questions. I usually start the seder by explaining that in our house, we have a strict seder rule: no interesting questions are permitted. Anyone who violates this rule and asks an interesting question will be punished and have a candied nut (or raisin, or passover candy, or whatever other goody you have) thrown at them. This sets a fun tone for the evening, and usually produces some giggles. (And some good questions.)

3. Munchies. Most of the food in the first part of the seder comes right at the end: matzah, maror, Hillel sandwich. But the blessing over the karpas comes right at the beginning. At that point, it is open season on veggies. There's no need to be "symbolic" and limit yourself to a tiny bit of parsley. Eat! Prepare some veggie platters with (appropriate Pesach) dips and bring them out once you say the karpas blessing. Guests can eat carrots and celery and jicama and bell peppers and anything else covered by the blessing during the rest of the first part of the seder. This keeps people interested and comfortable.

4. Tell the story wrong. I would briefly tell the story of the exodus from Egypt during the maggid section, but first tell the kids that I was not too sure of all the details. Then I would tell the story with some clear errors. (E.g., "Abraham's mother put him in a basket.") They kids would yell "NO!!!" and correct me, and I would then act frustrated and throw a candied nut at them. This works great for smaller kids. Teenagers are less impressed.

5. Have the kids tell the story. My co-blogger Steve had a great idea that we implemented last year: let the kids the story. (The kids have to be old enough.) I explained that I was very frustrated with all my errors in telling the story in previous years and them correcting me all the time. So now they needed to tell the story. I gave them a short outline of the story, and the kids went into the other room to prepare a "play" about the exodus. The adults had 10 minutes of grown up talk, and the kids came back and put on their play. They had props, heavy melodrama, and it was really cute.

6. Props. Plastic frogs, pharaoh masks, etc. The best frogs are the ones with the bulgy eyes.

7. Serious discussion topics. Passover is about some really serious topics. Freedom can be understood politically and psychologically. There's a lot of serious ideas here, and plenty to talk about. Google around - it's amazing what is out there. The extent of this discussion depends on how many children are present and who the adults are. But I think there should be room for at least some serious adult discussion. Judaism is often presented as a religion for children, and I think it is good for children to see adults engaged in a serious adult religious discussion, even if they cannot follow all the details.

8. Good wine. One suggestion is to progress through the evening. Start with a light wine like a moscato, then try a chardonnay or a light red wine. Conclude with a heavier red wine and then a dessert wine. Or have the more serious wines before dinner, and end with something like the mosato or a port.

9. Performance art. The seder is essentially performance art. We not only tell the story, but we experience it. (They ate matzah. Here, have some. You wanna know how bitter slavery was? Eat this.) The goal of the seder is to re-create the exodus from Egypt. And each part of the seder (or broadly speaking, each glass of wine) is like a roadmap. The breakdown is kiddush (introduction / celebrating the holiday), maggid (telling the story), birkat (being thankful) and hallel (praise). So one aspect of the seder is to imaging all the feelings you would have leaving Egypt. The second half, with being thankful and praising God, is an important part of that.

* * *

A quick note on timing. To do some of these innovations lengthens the seder. This results in either a very long seder (my preference) or requires shortening other sections (the preference of everyone else). In modifying the seder in any way, keep in mind a few things.

First, a good haggadah with some commentary is a good guide. We used "A Different Night" and it identifies a "bare bones" seder with the critical parts as well as many suggestions for additional activities.

Second, keep in mind the mitzvot of the seder itself. There are five of them. Two from the Torah (eat matzah, tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt) and three from the mishnah (eat bitter herbs, drink four glasses of wine, say hallel). Whatever else you do, don't eliminate any of these.

Third, think about the participants. We are doing three things when we are doing a seder: celebrating a Jewish holiday in a traditional manner, celebrating an ethnic and family-oriented Jewish holiday, and having a meaningful religious experience. These three goals are frequently in conflict with each other, and each of the participants may favor one over the other. So, for example, a common issue in some homes is whether to even do the second-half of the seder. (Its late, the kids are tired, we just had dessert. E
nough is enough.) The traditionalist perspective would favor doing the second half because it is the traditional thing to do (and part of the hallel is in the second half of the seder). The family / cultural perspective would not, since the important part of the seder is that the family is all together and we are "doing something" Jewish. The specifics here don't really matter. From a family and cultural perspective, Elijah's cup may be far less important then Aunt So-and-So's gefilte fish. And from the meaningfulness perspective, it is not clear which is more important. It depends on what happens during the second half. Striking the balance is very tricky. Do so carefully.

Have you tried anything novel that worked well (or that didn't)?

* * *

Update (2014): 

10  Read the comments.  Some really good suggestions there. 

11.  Find a bunch of quotes about freedom.  You can use the Torah, political sources, popular songs.  Anything that seems to suggest something about freedom.  Print them out, laminate them, and pass them out ahead of time.  At a few times during the seder, ask the guests to read the quote on their card.  Then ask everyone else what they think about that quote. 

This is a good way to prompt a discussion rather than having a lecture. 


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More on Miracles

My friend (and long-time reading group colleague) "LA Guy" over at PajamaGuy challenges my post on miracles and Purim. He and I agree on much, but end up in very different places. And I think a simple example -- colors -- will help illustrate where we disagree.

We both agree that modernity has been hard on more fundamentalist or literalist forms of religion. Empirical observation and science are the most important, and probably the only, way of knowing objective empirical information.

So far, so good. But when discussing miracles, I then shift the focus away from an objective description of reality to a more phenomenological description of how we experience things. LA Guy objects to this move: "I think the best you can say is science doesn't yet fully explain our subjective feelings. I'm not sure where this gets us. Does that mean we give up trying to understand them?"

No, not at all. I'm just asking a different question, and not a scientific question. Let me offer a simpler and (hopefully) less controversial example: colors.

Scientifically, we know what the color of an object is. It is simply light of different frequencies reflected from the physical object. But this objective account of light and color does not explain how we perceive color. We experience red as hot and exciting, and blue as cool and calming. Some colors or color combinations upset our sense of aesthetics (mud brown and lime green), while others (blue and yellow) are more esthetically pleasing. None of this is captured by an objective account of the physical properties of colors.

OK. Maybe we can help the scientific approach by shifting to an objective account of our brains and our eyes, rather than light and objects. That helps a bit. We might note that certain colors or color combinations trigger different neural paths and "light up" different regions of the brain. But it does not really solve the problem. Even this description does not capture our experience of perceiving color.

A better way of understanding this may be to turn to poetry. Homer's use of "rosy-fingered dawn" nicely captures the faint red before the sun rises. Or Robert Browning:

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low:
- "Meeting at Night"

Or perhaps turn to painters. Or even a book on how to paint. All of these things focus on our experience of color, not on the objective characteristics of color itself.

This is certainly not to deny the importance of a scientific understanding of color or even of our brains. But this scientific account simply does not capture everything.

LA Guy then argues that this is a "god of the gaps" sort of argument. That would be true if I were trying to rely on this experiential description or miracles as a substitute for scientific descriptions. I am emphatically not doing that. Objectively, the gaps in our empirical knowledge are simply gaps. They may get closed or they may not, and science is the proper way of doing that. Instead, I am simply asking a different question. In fact, extending LA Guy's argument slightly, I would argue that this "god of the gaps" does not really capture what God is. For example, a god of the gaps is simply a super-scientific principle. It explains some naturalistic phenomena, but -- like gravity and energy and matter -- it has no personality and is not deserving of being worshiped or even thought about all that much. We might occasionally note that gravity is a good thing, but that's about it for our "relationship" with gravity.

LA Guy then get to what I think is the key issue. We all have feelings, but why wouldn't we say "wow, it's amazing how the natural world supplies us with these awesome emotions"?

This is a causal statement. In response to an amazing feeling, LA Guy would identify the source of these feelings: nature. That's certainly one response, and a good one. But there are other responses as well. For example, how have other people experienced these feelings? How about my ancestors? Can I share these feelings with other people, either in some structured or unstructured way? Is there something I should focus on when experiencing these feelings? Are there other related feelings? These are all questions, but perhaps the deepest response to a feeling is not a question but the feeling itself. We should simply be mindful of the experiences of awe or amazement or gratitude when we have them.

And if one generalized from mere "feelings" to deeper questions about significance and our relationship with others, we are in a much deeper place.

My claim is that religion provides one good framework for experiencing all of these things. My example in my original post is that by giving charity on Purim, we help create a miracle as experienced by the recipient. Or to take a more significant upcoming example, the Passover story -- the narrative of freeing an oppressed people from a cruel and tyranical ruler -- is perhaps the paradigmatic example of life-altering goodness. In "Exodus and Revolution" political philosopher Michael Walzer traces how this story itself and many of its particular themes had been explicitly adopted in numerous liberation movements throughout western history. One can ask the scientific questions about this story: did it happen, was a supernatural God involved, etc. And science is the method we should use to answer these questions. But the significance of the story in our own personal lives and in the political sphere is not fundamentally a scientific question. It is an experiential one. The black American slaves singing about Moses and Pharaoh were not making historical claims, they were expressing hope and affirming the goodness of freedom.

LAGuy then argues that I have provided "a seriously watered down version of miracles." Yes, if the "real" question about miracles is their objective cause. But if the "real" question about miracles is how do we experience things that we perceive as miraculous, then a discussion about their stochastic or supernatural causes is watered-down. But of course, there is no "real" question about anything. We can ask whatever questions we want. My point is that the debate over the ultimate causes of things we perceive as miraculous is ultimately a futile debate (although sometimes fun). But the debate over how we react to spectacular things in life is not.

In a pre-scientific age, religion could make scientific claims. It was the best we had. But in a scientific age, religion cannot credibly make scientific claims, and in fact it gets into serious trouble when it does. But that does not mean that its account of things is not useful. To the contrary, Judaism has guided Jews for thousands of years and helped people live meaningful and sensitive lives.


Monday, March 1, 2010

What If Jewish Education Were Run Like the Boys Scouts?

Children commonly complain that they don't like religious school. But the boy scouts do something somewhat similar to religious school (teach particular ideas and skills, inculcate good character, have children help others) and they seem to have a good degree of success. Can the Jewish education establishment learn something from the boy scouts?

My knowledge of scouting is limited (I was a cub scout for one year, and my kids are not scouts). From what I understand, the basic approach of scouting is that there are lots of "merit badges" in numerous categories. They start out simple (like knot-tying) and then progress to things like camping, astronomy, first-aid, gardening, woodworking, reading, etc. (Google it for all the specifics.) To earn a particular merit badge, scouts need to be able both to explain a specified set of things and do a specified set of things. Scouts work together on these badges. And along the way, there are all sorts of character lessons.

I would imagine that some merit-badge categories are mandatory and others are optional. But the result is that all kids will have a common core set of knowledge and skills (they'll all know how to tie a square knot) but different kids will choose different paths beyond that.

The kids get an actual physical badge, and these get sewn on either a uniform or a sash that are worn on certain ceremonial occasions.

The structure of religious education is the same as scouting. A religious school teaches kids certain core ideas and values and practices, and then kids might explore others on their own. But the way this is taught is usually the traditional classroom approach.

Could a religious school or some umbrella organization implemented a system of Jewish merit badges? For example, one category might be prayer. Kids could get a merit badge for knowing (and demonstrating that they know) certain common prayers, along with their English meaning. Another category might be holidays. Kids could get a badge for knowing about the holidays and participating in them. (You do the 4 Purim mitzvot and explain what they are, and you get a Purim merit badge.) There could be merit badge in Torah, in social action, in Hebrew, etc.

Religious school, or at least part of it, could be run like scout meetings. It would be more fun, and kids would be working together to earn merit badges or demonstrating what they know.

I see at least three key advantages of this approach.

The first is that it would force religious schools to clearly identify what they would like the kids to learn and do, both in terms of knowledge and skills and actions. And this overall structure will help both kids and adults.

The second advantage is that it presumably would make continuing with Jewish education more attractive to kids after their bar- or bat-mitzvah celebration. Stick around and get the really advanced badges, like Maimonides and Gemara and Social Action III. In fact, the bar- or bat-mitzvah could be an opportunity to obtain a bunch of merit badges (reading from the Torah, etc.), and this would subordinate the ceremony to a child's Jewish education as a whole, rather than the other way around.

And the third advantage is that it would give the kids an incentive to work on Jewish education outside of religious school. If kids could earn a merit badge for (say) reading and understanding Genesis, at least some kids would be motivated to do so on their own. This sounds farfetched if Jewish education is seen as something boring and horrible imposed on children. But if Jewish education is something serious and interesting and fun, at least many kids will pursue it on their own. Decentralization seems to work in lots of spectacular ways, and education should not be any different.

I would appreciate any reader comments, especially from those who have direct experience with teaching religious school, with scouting, or with both.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Miracles and Modernity and Purim

The Enlightenment and modernity has not been kind to more traditional forms of Judaism. But these might not be all that traditional, and Purim may point to a clever way out of this problem.

The Enlightenment and modernity emphasize the importance of empirical data, rationality, skepticism, and most of all objectivity. This is without a doubt a major step forward in a huge number of areas. Most obviously, it made real science possible, and that resulted in huge increases in the quality of life, health, technology, and wealth. It also went hand-in-hand with tremendous intellectual developments like democracy, egalitarianism, and huge developments in areas like law, economics, psychology, and history.

But when these modern tools were used to examine "traditional" understandings of Judaism, traditional Judaism took a beating. Skepticism undermined the belief in God and the belief in miracles. Bible criticism and archeology undermined the importance of the Torah and the Bible itself. The physical sciences undermined the traditional understanding of creation and the flood as set forth in Genesis. And ideas like democracy and egalitarianism undermined the particularism of Judaism. There are of course responses to many of these problems, some persuasive and others not, but the effect of Judaism cannot be denied. Many Jews responded by abandoning Judaism entirely, and others watered it down. And some segments of Judaism responded by retreating and abandoning modernity entirely.

But there is an interesting reaction to modernity in philosophy that might help resolve this problem, and in many ways hearkens back to some strands of traditional Judaism.

One problem with strong types of naturalism or empiricism is that they often result in a type of naturalistic or materialistic reductionism, holding that everything can be explained by its physical properties. We are just a collection of atoms arranged in a particular way. But that sort of explanation tends to provide be a woefully incomplete explanation of things.

For example, one can use science to explain the development of a baby from a fertilized egg to birth. And that explanation paves the way for spectacular developments in medicine. But that explanation, important as it is, does not explain our own sense of wonder and amazement when we see a newborn baby. Not even close. Objective science explains scientific matters, but it does not explain how we experience the world. And even if we examined our own brains and were able to describe this subjective experience empirically—when you experience awe, these neurons fire over here but those neurons don't fire over there—it still would not capture own subjective experience of awe or of any other emotion. Scientific reductionism explains empirical facts (and does so spectacularly), but it cannot explain our own experience of reality.

This shift of focus—from an objective description of reality to our own experience of reality—may make many religious ideas more compatible with our modern (or post-modern) sensibilities. Ironically, this non-traditional approach to Judaism is often exactly in line with traditional understandings.

Purim provides a good example of this. As is often noted, the book of Esther does not contain the name of God, and the name Esther is similar to the Hebrew word "hester" meaning "hidden." Also, the story in the book of Esther evolves through a series of apparent coincidences: Esther happens to win the contest and marry King Ahashverosh; Mordecai happens to overhear a plot against the King, the King happens to read about this in the archives just before Haman shows up, etc. The connection between the hiddenness of God and these coincidences is obvious: they were miracles. God was hidden, working behind the scenes, but orchestrated all these supposed coincidences to save the Jews.

That objective explanation works for many people, but does not work for others. (I discussed a similar point regarding God here and here.) My preferred approach is to avoid this metaphysical question completely, for several reasons. We cannot resolve it. Also, focusing on this tends to conflate all Judaism with this view of Judaism, and if someone rejects this approach, they may unnecessarily reject Judaism as a whole. And it distracts from other more important issues.

Instead, I prefer to focus on our experience of miracles, rather than the objective nature of miracles. At some point, we have all experienced something resembling a miracle: an odds-defying rescue from danger, a coincidence bring good fortune, some unexplained good news. Regardless of our objective explanation for this—coincidence, supernatural intervention, karma, whatever—we all experience it in similar ways. We are amazed, grateful, happy, and sometimes a little stunned. And we should be. In fact, part of the "modim" prayer in the daily davening focuses us on this very point: we thank God for "your miracles which are daily with us." There are wondrous and wonderful things that happen to us all the time, and we should acknowledge them, appreciate them, and be thankful for them. I am not really interested in analyzing whether they have supernatural origins.

Just to clarify: I am neither affirming nor denying that the objective cause of miracles is supernatural forces. I am simply avoiding the question and focusing on something I think it more important and certainly more immediate. Both metaphysical beliefs work perfectly find with this understanding of miracles.

That is the lesson of the book of Esther. God is absent from the book because God is absent from the book. No one will ever resolve the question of whether God was intentionally working behind the scenes or whether (as Machiavelli would have put it) Esther and Mordecai simply showed their virtu and took advantage of fortuna.

My friend Danny Corsun runs cooking classes for kids at schools, synagogues, and elsewhere (and bakes a great challah, BTW). At synagogues, he intersperses Jewish teachings with Jewish cooking, and he had an interesting lesson along these lines that he taught the kids as they baked hamantaschen. He noted that one of the mitzvot of Purim is matanot l'evyonim, or gifts for the poor. (Note: this is different than mishloach manot, or gifts of food for family and friends.) From the perspective of the giver, this is simply giving a gift. Objectively, it is quite simple: person X gives gift Y to needy person Z. But from the perspective of the recipient, this gift may arrive unexpectedly and in a time of need. It may be an actual miracle. And the experience of the recipient is completely unexplained by an objective description of the facts surrounding the gift. In short, by performing this mitzvah, we ourselves may actually create a miracle.

In short, a miracle is whatever causes the things we experience as a miracle. I do not care much for the metaphysical question of what that thing is objectively. Instead, I care about how I and everyone else experiences that miracle, whatever its ultimate cause. One lesson (or several, perhaps) from Purim and the book of Ester is that we need to act like God and create miracles for ourselves and others, and we need to be thankful and amazed when we experience these miracles. And that, to me, is a more interesting and important topic to focus on.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Blog Comments - Converting from Haloscan to Disqus

Just a technical update that might be of some interest to other bloggers.

Many of us have used Haloscan for our blog comments. A few months ago, Haloscan decided to end its free service. It would convert the comments to another system, Echo, but would charge an annual fee. Anyone who did not want to do this could export comments from Haloscan in XML format to his or her own hard drive. All the comments would be saved, but unfortunately, no other commenting service had an easy way (or even a difficult way, for that matter) to import these files.

I exported the Haloscan comments from this blog and then poked around the web. I switched over to a new commenting system, Disqus, that seems to be working pretty well. Disqus allows bloggers to import comments from other commenting systems, like IntenseDebate and JS-Kit, but unfortunately not from Haloscan. (Disqus says that are working on that.)

I realized that if I could convert the comments from the Disqus XML format to one of these other formats, I should be able to upload the comments. So I wrote a short Perl script to do that. I converted one big comment file into a second big comment file and tried to upload that. The comments failed to upload and generated a (unspecified) error. To isolate the problem I then modified the Perl script to create a bunch of smaller XML files (one for each post with all the comments to that post), and tried uploading each of those files. Some files uploaded, but others did not. This shows that the general approach works, but there are some particular problems. I e-mailed the technical people at Disqus to try to isolate the problem. If that doesn't work, I have a few other ideas about how to move these comments into Disqus.

The bottom line is that all the prior comments to this blog are saved. I have been able to move some of them to the new commenting system, and -- one way or another -- I will move the rest of them as well. Once I do so, I will explain how I did so.

If you are a blogger who used Haloscan, I would suggest exporting your Haloscan comments immediately. Don't worry if you don't understand any of the technical information. Just save that file on your hard drive, remember where you put it, and hang on to it. At some point, someone (Disqus, me, someone else) will figure out how to easily convert all the comments, and at that point, you can convert your old comments as well.

In the meantime, you need a commenting system. Feel free to add Disqus, go back to blogger's default comments, or use some other commenting system.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Still here ....

I've been swamped at work, and it should continue for the next few weeks. Once I get through that, I'll fix the comments and start blogging again. So stay tuned . . . .


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Should we take "A Serious Man" seriously?

Thinking about the Coen brothers' latest...

Let me say, first off, I'm more or less a Coen brothers fan. From "Raising Arizona," released the year I graduated from college, til now, I've seen and enjoyed most of their oeuvre. And I'm Jewish, and care about and enjoy most things Jewish.

This movie, however, is simultaneously vying for "most Jewish" and "least Jewish" film of the year. On the "most Jewish" side is a parade of crushing obviousness: Yiddish! A dybbuk! A bar mitzvah! A nose job! Whining! and so it goes. Yet -- unless this is "Midwestern Jewishness," of a variety this bicoastal Jew doesn't recognize -- the movie seems utterly to lack most of what I think of as a genuinely Jewish sensibility -- including irony and a sense of humor (except in brief flashes). Some of what is captured here is closely-observed: I would imagine most refugees from after-school Hebrew school will identify strongly with those scenes, whether they themselves snuck out to get high or only wished they might. The scenes with the "junior rabbi" and the "senior rabbi" certainly get a lot right in the general demeanor and mien of those kinds of men.

At the same time, much of the apparently "Jewish" content is clumsy and amateurish. A running "joke" in the movie is the wife's request for a get, before she can remarry. While it's not implausible that Larry, the main character, doesn't know what this is, it's just silly that two rabbis and a Jewish divorce lawyer wouldn't recognize the term. And to define it as a "ritual divorce", and not a "religious divorce" or a "Jewish divorce"? Who says that? No Jew I've ever met. (And the same goes for "goys," the term Mrs. Samsky uses to refer to the non-Jewish neighbors on the other side of the Gopniks. "Goyim", maybe - or "gentiles" -- though the people I grew up with would just have said, "Not Jewish?" But "goys"? No.) These characters are not actually speaking the argot of "real Jews".

Nor is the real Jewish calendar in effect. We are in Minneapolis or its environs, and the movie ends with a tornado. Tornado "season" in Minnesota is July-August; 60% of all Minnesota tornadoes happen in those two months. The naked sunbathing neighbor suggests summer. But the son, Danny's, Torah portion is Ki Tavo, chanted in the synagogue on September 23, 1967. But an attempted bribe over a "midterm" grade, and the meeting of a tenure committee? Those things can happen in October or November (or maybe, in the spring, March or April). The non-Jewish neighbor goes deer-hunting in the movie. Deer-hunting season in Minnesota is September to December. When is this moving taking place? What is the point of attempting to set a movie in a particular place and time, including events that only happen at particular times of year, and putting them at the wrong time? Jewishly speaking, it is as nonsensical to have a bar mitzvah chant Ki Tavo in the summer, while his neighbor goes deer-hunting, as it would be to set a Christmas movie in Minnesota and put the characters in bathing suits carving pumpkins.

A hoary old slogan for Jewish success in business (show and other) goes, "Dress British, Think Yiddish." A great deal of American movie and TV comedy has trafficked in some version of this - even the "Seinfeld" show with its obviously-Jewish but theoretically non-Jewish characters, is an example. A Jewish sensibility forced to some degree "underground" is actually far more effective, and more entertaining, for both insiders and outsiders -- for Jews who get the joke, and for non-Jews who don't need to. The Coen brothers might have made a better Jewish movie by making a much less obviously Jewish one.