Saturday, September 23, 2017

Rabbis Talking Sense

When I was at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1981, I learned the principle, “You do what you can.”  The statement was made in the context of the so-called “mitzvoth,” or commandments, that Jews are supposed to follow.  The idea was that you try to live as ritualistically observant a life as possible, while recognizing that there are also forces in our lives that may prevent us from going all the way.  So, for example, on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), I do try to obtain from office work – but I don’t prevent myself from turning on lights, driving cars, or writing this blog.  

Today is a special Shabbat.   It is known as Shabbat Shuvah, aka the Sabbath of Return or Repentance.  This is the one that comes during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It is the holiest time of the Jewish year, and it definitely should not be spent blogging out bile.  So, to be respectful of the season, I’ll spare you a vituperative blogpost, like the one I was tempted to write, entitled “Spicey Goes to Hollywood.” 

Instead, I’d like to focus on two of my rabbis – one past, one present.   Together, they have reminded me about the importance of allowing ourselves to confront the oft-quoted precepts of conventional religion.  Once these precepts become clichés, we tend to accept them as true – or if we don’t, we feel like heretics for doubting them.  But in fact, the problem might not be ours at all.  Religious precepts can be downright antithetical to common sense and even destructive of the kind of spirituality that can enrich the world. 

Take, for example, the saying “All things happen for a reason.”   That’s innocuous enough when said in a philosophical sense, as in “every effect has a cause.”  But what if it’s said in the religious sense, as in “all things happen according to the plan of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent Lord?”  Nobody can disprove that statement, and plenty of people believe it.  I just happen not to be one of them, which means that I agree with Rabbi Michael Feshbach.

I know Michael Feshbach from his previous gig at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.  This past summer, he moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands to become the rabbi at one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere.  Little did he know that he would be moving into Storm Central.  The Washington Post wrote a story about Rabbi Feshbach and his experiences with Hurricane Irma.  Yes, the article came out before Maria, which surely mauled his island even more.    Here’s a snippet from the article.

“’I come from a progressive religious tradition that takes spirituality and God seriously but not necessarily always in traditional ways,’ Rabbi Feshbach said. ’I do not think that things happen for a reason, as sacrilegious as that may sound.’

“God, Rabbi Feshbach said, doesn’t control the weather. God doesn’t direct some of us onto a plane doomed to crash and others into a traffic jam that keeps us from boarding that plane.
‘That’s not a God I can live with,’ he said.”

Ever since a horrible earthquake leveled Lisbon in 1755 and killed tens of thousands of people, intellectuals have debated whether or not the people who lived and the people who died were chosen based on a divine plan.   Rabbi Feshbach and I prefer to think that we live in a world in which many things – including life and death events – aren’t planned for any reason.  They just happen.  They have antecedent causes, but those causes don’t involve a conscious scheme to promote some goal, such as imparting justice.  That’s why good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.  That’s why common sense suggests that we all must work our butts off to ensure that we take care of ourselves, rather than expecting some omnibenevolent cosmic Santa Claus to take care of us out of love. 

I wasn’t around in Lisbon in 1755, and I wasn’t around in Auschwitz in 1944.  But when I look at those times and places and confront the question of whether people died there “for a reason,” the only way I’m willing to give prayers of thanks to the One who killed some and saved others is if I assume that there was no reason -- or at least none that was thought through and designed to punish or reward based on the merit of those involved. 

That brings me to a second rabbi, Rabbi Hannah Spiro, the rabbi of the only Jewish congregation on Capitol Hill.  She happens to be one of Rabbi Feshbach’s former students – and my daughter.   Now, like her former rabbi, she too gets to preach sermons of common sense ... and heresy.

This Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Hannah slew a sacred cow that comes to us from the great late-18th/early 19th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.  He is often quoted for the principle that “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.”

As Rabbi Hannah pointed out, we are not compelled to agree with that old saw.  We can widen that bridge.  And sometimes we had better be fearful.  Prudence demands nothing less.

Hannah wrote a new song to make her point.  But my primary muse is philosophy, not music, so allow me simply to cite Aristotle.  The point of labeling virtues, such as “courage,” is to identify a golden mean between a deficit-vice and an excess-vice.  Courage is the virtue for which cowardice is the deficit-vice and foolhardiness the excess-vice.  Similarly, temperance is the virtue for which (a dangerous) asceticism is the deficit-vice and gluttony the excess-vice.   The word we use for the virtue typically reflects whether we generally think people have too much or too little of the characteristic.  Thus, for example, since we think people tend generally towards cowardice, we view courage as a virtue because it is pointing away from the deficit-vice.  Whereas because we think people tend generally toward gluttony, we view temperance as a virtue because it is pointing away from the excess-vice.  But still, we can’t forget that the virtue is a golden mean, not an extreme.  And the above quote attributed to Nachman is an extreme, immoderate statement.  Common sense teaches that we can do better.

By disrespecting legitimate fear, we dishonor one of our greatest allies.  Fear is what prevents us from destroying our planet with fossil fuels – it is, by contrast, the crazy fool who guzzles gas without care, all the while counting on a supernatural God to save us.  Fear is also what thankfully prevents us from ice climbing when we’re not athletic, or from giving up our day jobs when our families need our income, or from smoking cigarettes even though we love that buzz of a good smoke.

And let’s face it – feeling frequently fearful is as natural as the love of chocolate.  So rather than experiencing pangs of guilt about these sentiments, which can destroy our ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones, why not just embrace them?  Perhaps virtue lies in plowing forward.  Perhaps not.  But that fearful feeling is something to be cherished, not detested.  At best, it can save our lives; at worst, it can remind us to think before we act.     

In short, Rabbi Nachman was indeed onto something important: courage is a virtue.   But we in the 21st century must reflect on our ancestors’ teachings with a healthy amount of skepticism and never let them get in the way of common sense.  Teachings of religion, no less than any other domain, must be subjected to the crucible of reason. And when we reflect upon them critically, we’ll find that like most other good things, they can be construed immoderately and cause us miss the mark.

In fact, the Greek word for “sin” is a term for “missing the mark” in archery.  So, if we wish to avoid sin, which is one of the key goals of the Days of Awe, we must concentrate on what it means to live in a way that hits the target as often as possible.  How do we best do that?  By consulting our common sense.  It will tell you that the hundreds of victims of the recent earthquake in Mexico may have been killed for a reason, but it sure wasn’t a good one.   Or that those who out of fear took shelter from Irma were actually thinking wisely, not out of cowardice.  They were widening that bridge that connects us all to life.

Shabbat Shalom.  Shana Tova.   And may you have a blessed year, whether you treat it as starting on September 20th or January 1st.    

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Happiness in Hoosierville

I’ve been to four Rose Bowls and not one Rose Bowl parade.  I’ve raised two children to adulthood, yet never took them to a parade either.  Honestly, prior to last weekend, I don’t remember the last time I’ve ever attended one of those events, or even watched one on TV --unless you count the final scene in Animal House, which I’ve surely seen several times.   But exactly one week ago, I stood on Main Street in Zionsville, Indiana, and watched the floats go by. 

There was the Corvette Club float, and then, minutes later, a competing Corvette Club float.  There was the Boone County Republican float, and then, seconds later, two donkeys went by, which at the time I thought represented the only Democrats in Boone County.  I saw the Girl Scout float – I even had kin in that one – the Lion’s Club float, plenty of pirate floats (it was a pirate-themed parade), the Miss Boone County float, a float for the Eagles of Zionsville High and another one for the middle schoolers who will soon be Eagles.  I saw thousands of people lining Main Street – both in the road and next to it.  All seemed incredibly happy.  In fact, even though I couldn’t help but note that only three people I spotted in or around the parade were black and only two were Asian, that didn’t stop me from having a wonderful time.

I was witnessing a Boone County whiteout to be sure, but these people weren’t carrying tiki torches or spewing venom.  They were smiling, laughing, waving, and handing out candy.  They were eating guilt-free sausages and ice cream, riding in guilt-free gas-guzzling cars, and surely looking forward to guilt-free Pop Warner football games later in the afternoon.   In fact, after I left the parade, I immediately went to a field in another part of Zionsville to watch my great-nephew play tackle football and register a sack.  Where I live, we have grumps who’d use the term “child abuse” when describing parents who let their nine-year-olds play football.   I suspect they don’t have many people like that in Zionsville.  They just have Colts fans. 

Standing beside Main Street, watching Americana go by, I was reminded of various countries across the pond.  In England, you get ethnic English culture, in France, French culture, in Germany, German culture, and so on.  Crossing the pond is like going to dog shows – there, you see bichons, beagles, and dalmatians.   Purebreds, never mutts.   There’s a certain authenticity in a show full of pedigreed dogs, or a Boone County parade.   Simple, uncomplicated, traditional, joyous.  What’s not to embrace?

Then I let my mind wander.  I thought about another nation across the pond – Israel.  And how when I’m there, especially in Jerusalem, I frequently see groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews, all in black, often with those thick furry Shtreimels covering their heads (as if they’re living in a polar climate, rather than a temperate one).  I ask myself, “Are these men MORE Jewish than the rest of us?   It sure seems to be a larger part of their self-identity, and it totally dominates how everyone else looks at them.  But are they really more Jewish?”   I asked similar questions in Zionsville.  Are the people at this parade more American than the rest of us?  Are they really?

Occasionally, politicians force us all to ask those questions.  Think back to the awful campaign run by Sarah Palin in 2008, when speaking in rural North Carolina, she spoke about “the real America” and “the pro-America areas of this great nation.”  Those were truly offensive comments – tantamount to saying that every Jew who doesn’t wear a Shtreimel in the middle of the summer isn’t a “real” Jew.  The beauty of America in particular is supposed to be its diversity, its fostering of freedom to be whatever and whoever we wish to be.  Surely, this nation belongs as much to mutts as to purebreds.  We don’t associate it with one ethnic group, religion, race, or political ideology.  That is our greatest strength.

And yet.   And yet. 

I couldn’t help but take in the beauty of that ethnic ritual known as the small Midwestern town parade last Saturday.  I couldn’t help but recognize how the people there felt at home with traditional Americana, and how traditional Americana does tend to be associated more with certain ethnic groups and cultures than others.  This scene made me question my own childhood prejudices -- the ones that flow from growing up as part of an ethnic minority.  I spent my childhood years grumbling about why Jews like me always had to have Christmas shoved down our throats by these damned Christians who thought that their religion was the friggen be-all-and-end-all of religions.  But in fact, come December, the good people of Zionsville aren’t trying to shove anything down anyone’s throats.  They are just trying to enjoy a beautiful story, listen to a beautiful carol, and express a beautiful sentiment like “peace on earth, good will toward men.” 

The Zionsville scene was the antithesis of Charlottesville.  It was about white people loving, not white people hating.  And yet it allowed me to appreciate a bit why so many white Christian Americans in the south and elsewhere are experiencing the loss of something near and dear to them – Americana as they know it.  Among our youngest cohorts, white Christians are no longer the majority in this country.   Christmas no longer dominates the airwaves when we approach winter.  The fastest growing religious world view is “none of the above.”  And, in many liberal media outlets, Americans are increasingly divided into the category of “people of color” and “people of privilege.” I’ll let you guess which term is a compliment.

Then there’s the pièce de résistance: adults in small town America, no less than urban America, are dealing with how it feels to live in a generation that figures to be more affluent than our own children.  That is a bitter pill for any decent person to swallow. 

Reflecting on Zionsville, I saw a town that day enjoy the present by celebrating the past.   But what I want to know is, how do they see the future?  Can they envision a different future that is more culturally diverse, and yet authentic, respectful of the past, and worthy of celebration?  That is a question for Boone County, Beverly Hills, Baltimore and all other parts of America.  

Monday, September 04, 2017

Musings on a Labor Day

Happy Labor Day!  It is wonderful that America has a holiday devoted to celebrating our laborers.  There is nothing quite like an honest day’s work to give a person dignity.  Anyone who regularly puts in such a work week -- and behaves themselves ethically while on the job – is worthy of respect, though many don’t expect to be treated with any.  

“That’s alright, that’s OK, you’re going to pump our gas someday.”  Go to an “elite” college and you’ll often hear such a chant at a sports event, for apparently it is important that our “best and brightest” learn to disrespect laborers at an early age.  This kind of elitism is also on display whenever we use words like “professionals” to refer to members of certain occupations (e.g., doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects), while at the same time we refer to less affluent wage earners simply as “workers.”  Personally, though, I’ve met many a gas station attendant or fast food worker who epitomizes what it means to be a “professional,” whereas I’ve met many a lawyer who epitomizes what it means to be a “scumbag.”

This Labor Day, there is a special group of laborers who are worthy of celebrating.  I’m referring to the legions of Good Samaritans in East Texas who’ve volunteered their time to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey.  I honestly didn’t have them in mind last weekend when I wrote a blogpost about David Hume’s distinction between “sympathy” (a force for peace and unity) and “comparison” (a force for strife and hatred).  But clearly, ever since Harvey has made landfall in Texas, we have seen the immense power of human sympathy on display.  And it has been as beautiful as the most spectacular sunset.

Some people “Deep in the Heart of” credit the selflessness on display in their state as an example of what makes Texas – or America – uniquely great.  Personally, though, I choose to look at the beauty of the Harvey Helpers as an example of the wide-reaching power of human sympathy.  Sympathy resides inside all of our hearts, whether we are from Texas or Togo.   But unfortunately, it is often fleeting.  If only we can harvest this power more universally – meaning in more contexts – just imagine the world we would live in.  

I’m reminded of the plaque that appeared in front of the home in which Spinoza resided in Rinjburg, Holland.

Alas!  If all mankind were wise
And were benign as well.
Then the Earth world would be a paradise.
Whereas now it is often a Hell!

But why is it often a Hell?  In last week’s blogpost, I cited Hume to give part of the explanation.  Now, let me cite him again (also from his “Treatise of Human Nature”) to explain our predicament even further.

Here are Hume’s words:  “Every thing that is contiguous to us, either in space or time, strikes upon us with such an idea, it has a proportional effect on the will and passions, and commonly operates with more force than any object that lies in a more distant and obscure light.  Tho’ we may be fully convinc’d that the latter object excels the former, we are not able to regulate our actions by this judgment, but yield to solicitations of our passions, which always plead in favor of whatever is near and contiguous.”   And here’s Hume again, making much the same point:  “Men, ‘tis true, are always much inclin’d to prefer present interest to distant and remote; nor is it easy for them to resist the temptation of any advantage that they may immediately enjoy in apprehension of an evil that lies at a distance from them.”

From Rockport to Houston to Beaumont, we have seen examples of wonderful people heeding the call of those in need.  These heroes recognize how they personally can make a difference in others’ lives, and how their efforts can pay immediate dividends.  They can see profound, concrete, and undeniable benefits to their work.  The fact that these benefits would be enjoyed by strangers or that they themselves would be undertaking risks to help these strangers is not enough to deter these heroes.  They labor on, expecting neither money nor prestige, because (a) they have developed their faculty for sympathy and (b) the results of their labor will be sufficiently tangible and certain. 

I don’t wish for a second to undermine the importance of that assistance.   Taken together, it provides an inspiring example of the “wise” and “benign” human conduct reflected in the poem referenced above.  It is necessary that all people emulate these heroes if we wish to avoid the “Hell” on Earth that the poet was also talking about.  Necessary, yes; just not sufficient.

You see, it is not enough for our society to confront disasters once they are already upon us.  Once the signs of destruction are “near and contiguous” and can no longer be conceived “in a ... distant and obscure light,” we may be way too late to get involved in an adequate solution.  Thankfully, the Heroes of Harvey weren’t too late to save many lives.  But they were too late to save many others, or to avoid billions of dollars in property damage.  More to the point, all the Good Samaritans on the planet won’t be able to eliminate the deadly and costly consequences of the storms, fires and droughts that are sure to be coming, in increasing frequency, as long as the elites of our planet continue to treat global climate change as a merely theoretical and speculative concern. 

Thank God for the parents, educators, clergy, and others who are responsible for raising people like the Heroes of Harvey -- people willing to assume significant personal risks to save the lives of total strangers.  But please, God, may you find us politicians, business executives, and charismatic local leaders who can build a movement to confront the scourge of climate change regardless of whether its impact is near or far, clear or obscure, certain or debatable.

To be sure, we can debate the extent to which climate change will devastate us in the next generation or two.  But what seems certain is that the devastation will come, and that the less we do now to confront the problem, the greater the likelihood that the horrors will be Biblical in magnitude.  Isn’t it time to confront the matter now, before the floods are upon us?   Shouldn’t we listen to the old philosopher who tells us to trust our judgment, not our passions, and open our mind to what is “distant and obscure?” 

Just ask any doctor – it’s far better to stop smoking before the lung cancer comes, than to trust in the love of Good Samaritans to help you once the cancer has metastasized.   When it comes to our climate, every time we see glaciers melt, storms overwhelm us, or global temperatures set records, it is one more indication that our planet has cancer.  It’s too bad cancer can be such an unseen killer.

[Note -- The Empathic Rationalist will be on holiday next weekend and will return the weekend of September 16-17.]