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.

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