Is it ever right to suppress others’ views?

I came across a piece in which five clergy of different faiths/denominations are asked if censorship is appropriate in a religious context.  I find it interesting that four of the five respondents seem to indicate that for the most part, censorship is unnecessary as we should support choice in life.  Unfortunately, not all clergy feel the way these writers do, as can be seen on a daily basis.  I will present short vignettes in between each one’s idea.  All  five ideas have merit, though some are more challenging to me than others.  It is a fascinating coming together of minds. 

Faith Forum is a weekly dialogue on religion coordinated by Rajan Zed.
We posed to our panel of religious leaders of the region the following question:

Religious censorship: Should we control freedom of expression, basing it on religious doctrines and raising concerns of blasphemy, sacrilege, impiety, etc? Should the organized religions attempt to suppress contrary views?

Here is what they have to say:

Choice is mine

Matthew Cunningham, Roman Catholic Diocese of Reno chancellor

Anyone paying attention to technology and commun-ications is aware that controlling flow of information in today’s world is nearly impossible. Anyone with a modicum of training and Internet access can have an audience with the stroke of a key. We cannot always control what information we receive and thus it becomes our personal decision whether to accept the message. We must make personal judgments about the suitability and value of communications. It is at this point that our religious beliefs must guide us.

It seems that what is more important than control of information is concern for the content of the message. Our focus should be on civility, common decency, truthfulness and respect when we communicate by any means. Parents, especially, have a responsibility to educate children about appropriate ways to communicate. We must learn to be discriminating readers and listeners. Our faith communities can assist us in this effort.

According to our first writer, it seems that religion cannot censor so much as people should self-censor based upon religious sentiment.  He does promote choice, though with limits.  We have to make choices not to see certain things. 

No Censorship in Buddhism

Jikai’ Phil Bryan, Reno Buddhist Center priest and meditation guide

Siddhartha’s teachings of the four noble truths and all subsequent Buddhist teachings emphasize tolerance, patience and understanding. There is no such thing as censorship in Buddhism. All views are open for discussion, debate, empirical testing and analysis in terms of the Middle Way. Buddha advised all followers to consistently respect other religions, but also not to react negatively to criticisms or disparagement by others. With only anomalous exceptions, Buddhism has welcomed engaged criticism aimed at alleviating suffering and improving conditions of life. Buddhism is a “religious” way of life, not a divinely revealed religion, so there is really no controlling Buddhist god to blaspheme, and nothing so divine in Buddhism to protect from sacrilege. A famous line by Hakuin, one of our greatest Zen masters, says, “Outside sentient beings, where do we find the Buddhas.” Buddhism’s concern is not in defending views, but in improving life for all.

Being human is about being exposed to life.  Ideas should not be supressed because they could be formulated as a means to reach the “path.” to equanimity.  Tibetan Buddhism under the Dalai Lama especially has exemplified the idea of confrontation. 

Contrary Views Welcome

ElizaBeth W. Beyer, Temple Beth Or rabbi

Contrary views in Jewish thought are welcome, as long as they are “for the sake of Heaven.” A good example of this is one of our longstanding traditions, which is to study Talmud, a compilation of works that includes opinions of various rabbinic sages over many centuries. Talmud is more than 1,500 years old, and it overflows with arguments between one rabbi and another or one group and another group. It is a multivocal document recognizing the validity of many perspectives in the search for truth on a vast number of topics. In contrast to a dispute for the sake of Heaven is one purposefully done to disrupt or create havoc. This type of dispute is unwelcome and would likely be censured. Recognizing and allowing creative, penetrating discussions while discouraging agitators is sometimes challenging.

Alas, I wish it were so simple.  She is basically rehashing an idea in Ethics of our Fathers (5:16).  The Mishnah states:

 ה,טז [יז] כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, סופה להתקיים; ושאינה לשם שמיים, אין סופה להתקיים. איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי; ושאינה לשם שמיים, זו מחלוקת קורח ועדתו.

Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will have a constructive outcome; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a constructive outcome.  What sort of dispute was for the sake of Heaven? – The dispute between Hillel and Shammai.  And which was not for the sake of Heaven?  The dispute between Korach and his entire company.

Unfortunately, Jews of all stripes do not live out this ideal today.  Most argument we find now is harsh and tend towards disparagement and hate.  Some might try to justify themselves as doing it for the sake of Heaven, but the vitriol is such that I would be hard-pressed to believe our argumentation is merely for the betterment of the Jewish people. 

Love Allows Freedom of Choice

Stephen Bond, senior pastor of Summit Christian Church, Sparks

Jesus said our love for one another is the most important evidence that we are truly his followers. This means Christians are to be known for their love. This makes sense especially when we consider the Bible says that God himself is love. The Bible also defines love. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Clearly, love does not manipulate or coerce people. Love grants the freedom of choice — even when those choices are morally wrong. As a result, it would be contrary to Christ’s teaching to seek to control the expression of religion or to suppress contrary views.

I am troubled by this theology because the same love of which they speak has been used as a means to argue for conversion.  “We love you, we don’t want you to suffer the fires of hell, so convert or die.” I am not saying that these words would automatically apply today, but a doctrine of choice through love is wrought with dangerous precedent. 

Church should preserve freedom

Nicholas F. Frey, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints area public affairs director

The freedom of expression found in the Magna Carta contained guarantees of civil and personal liberty, which later found fuller expression in the Constitution of the United States. We hope such guarantees eventually sweep the world. The church, which also enjoys guarantees under the Constitution, should not infringe those guarantees by attempting to suppress contrary views. Without imposing censorship, when confronted with attacks on our own or others’ religions, we church members and leaders should insist on the right to be heard, responding within a framework of self-imposed tolerance, good taste and common sense. The church has a great stake in freedom. It must zealously act to preserve and maintain it. The forces of the church are applied through kindness and persuasion. In God’s plan, the inalienable rights of the individual are strictly and jealously protected. What the individual does, he does voluntarily, not by force.

Choice is valued because everyone wants his/her voice heard.  This last opinion is driven by modern Enlightenment sentiments of liberty.  We all have liberty to believe what we want, just allow us to all have a say at the table.

Fight or Flight: the confrontation of Orthodoxy and modernity

(h/t The Book of Doctrines and Opinions and A Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva)

R. Dov Linzer, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), in his speech at this year’s YCT semicha graduation, shared an idea related to last week’s Torah portion about the need to confront challenge head on instead of running away from it. I was directed to this speech through a post on Dr. Alan Brill’s blog (see here and the comments, which seem to be a sharp critique of the need for response and engagement). I have been turning over this speech in my head to see what is relevant and what is missing the boat. As such, let me share some points, both in response to R. Linzer as well as in response to some of the questions posed by Dr. Brill.

To begin, I find that R. Linzer is presenting a critique of the Orthodoxy of the centrist Orthodox/YU world, from which I myself was graduated (I realize that am lumping several smaller subgroups into this heading, but I am driving at certain points). As I read his words, the challenge he is placing before his rabbinic graduating class is how to find a balance between being innovative/creative and being pastoral. The balance I refer to is how to bring the Torah out of the desert without compromising on one’s role as a spiritual leader caring for others. How this is translated into reality is a different question.  When I was beginning semicha at YU, we first year students had a dinner with R. Norman Lamm, who harped on the need for Rabbis to keep a structured learning seder every day, as well as the need to read multiple newspapers.  While most of us can get our news from the internet in greater doses than a couple of papers, the other part, about a set learning schedule, is not nearly as simple.  And it is this that R. Linzer is perhaps referring to.  The rabbi must be a pastoral presence, but must also grapple with personal growth, both spiritually and intellectually.  As an aside, this is a big challenge of chaplaincy, which some YCT’s graduates and students find themselves working in as well. Can one’s intellectual study find a place in one’s pastoral work? Is it even supposed to?

Now I will address some of the questions Dr. Brill presents:

According to the speech, there is a need to deal with Biblical criticism and the Holocaust. For the latter, you can tell everyone to read Kol Dodi Dofek, Yitz Greenberg, and Eliezer Berkovits but what are they expecting for Biblical criticism? Are they telling graduates to embrace it or just to spend an afternoon reading Mordechai Breuer? And if the goal is to open afresh: Why be Jewish? What answers do they expect?
He said “did we once again say that halakha will answer all religious questions?” Where are the new answers going to come from? How are they expecting the young graduates to grapple with these topics? Read Newsweek and blogs? Are these the topics that they should bring up with their congregations?

In terms of the issue of the relevance of grappling with the Holocaust, Zionism, biblical criticism, etc. I disagree with the idea that we no longer have to confront them, as many of the comments on Dr. Brill’s post want to argue for. I find that these topics have not become passe, as one can see in the blog world and within various Orthodox communities.   In the community I live, a group got together about five years ago and established a lecture series under the title, The Orthodox Forum.  What I find fascinating is that while much of the rhetoric is outdated or doesn’t respond to the challenges presented, there are many speakers on the circuit who feel that they can engage the topics with sophistication.  As such, even for those of us who find the debates to be besides the point or irrelevant, people are interested and will always remain so.  Just look at the titles of lectures being offered around the country, or the journals being published by Marc Angel’s Jewish Ideas and Ideals.  Granted, it might be easy to argue that the topics this journal is covering are also in the category of irrelevant, but my point is that this is what people want, for otherwise the enterprise would not be as broad.

Personally, while I often struggle with the confluence of modernity and Judaism, I do believe that there are greater issues facing the Jewish community than Israel, the divinity of the Torah, etc., such as tuition, cost of living, economic and social change.  We do have a responsibility to the world.  I should clarify that I define this responsibility different from many.  Nevertheless, to simply shrug off the grand questions as pointless is arbitrary and becomes a personal vendetta.

From a rabbinic standpoint, one must realize that when crisis hits, then of course, the questions and struggles disappear.  And this is where the rabbi trained in pastoral care will thrive and potentially make a greater impact.  Yet, in order to be effective at supporting people in crisis, one must first grapple with how crisis affects one’s own thought and life.  Confronting ourselves in all our struggles will be the impetus to allow us to fight, to lead and to be confident in our authenticity.

I applaud R. Linzer’s effort to encompass the rabbinate in the metaphor of bringing the Torah out of the desert.  It is a compelling way to look at life in the working world of the rabbinate.


Torah Study includes self-introspection

In Jewish Theology in Our Time, one of the authors, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, talks about the idea of a non-dual Judaism, in which we recognize that all is divine.  In his essay, he touches upon the concept of Torah, and develops a meaning of Torah based on the approach of a non-dual Judaism.  He states:

How then do we understand Torah and revelation on such an approach?  On one level, all reality including ourselves becomes Torah, for everything is a revelation of divinity.  As Torah ourselves, we must recognize how our own person reveals the divine presence, and we must study ourselves intensively, going deeper and deeper, from the surface concerns of our p’shat (the literal meaning) to the fathomless nature of our sod (mystical meaning).  Introspection, mindful self-awareness, then becomes talmud torah (study of Torah).  – p. 37

I was highly struck by these words.  It reminded me of conversation I have had with people referring to the human being as a “book.”  We each write our own Torah, in the sense of how our lives are a narrative.  In spending time soul-searching, being mindful of what we have done, we are in a sense fulfilling the idea of studying Torah, as studying is not just about the physical books we can read but it is also about the book we create of our lives.

Heavenly Torah – Issues of Belief # 3

In Conversations Winter 2010, the journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, an article was written by Daniel Jackson called Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking.  In this piece, he surveys and reviews the recent challenges to the divine authorship of the Bible.  To start, Jackson makes the case that Torah min HaShamayim (TMS) is the current hot button challenge for a believing Jew.  Evolution and science, while challenging, are predominantly accepted in one way or another in the MO and Centrist Orthodox communities (the Haredi community [in most of its forms] is still struggling with this, usually by denying science over Torah.  As an example, see the Slifkin affair of this past decade.  DH doesn’t even show up on their radar for the most part).  TMS has many challenges, including feminist theory, biblical archeology, modern science, textual/literary criticism, modern morality. 

I have struggled for many years with this topic.  The typical Orthodox responses, such as the ideas of mass revelation, or bible codes, as offered most coherently by Lawrence Kelemen in Permission to Receive, are full of holes.  For example, even if you accept TMS, it is extremely difficult to argue that there aren’t minor variants in different traditions Masoretic texts, as presented in various halachic arguments about kosher vs. pasul sifrei Torah.   While most authorities are not concerned with the minor variants in the text when it comes to the general principle of TMS, the other issues are greater and potentially more concrete challenges. 

In my first post on belief, I stated the following about belief in TMS:

2.  Pirqei Avot 1:1 – Moses received the Torah at Sinai – The Sinaitic experience was some sort of climactic moment in which the Judeo-legal and ethical system was revealed to the Earth.  The how and what of revelation become secondary to the concept of a revelatory experience.  This eliminates the questions about the historical event as well as removes the challenge of Documentary Hypothesis or Ancient Near Eastern influences.  It is not Hazal that dictate a pristine Torah from Sinai without a single mistake.  The exactness of the text might be assumed but then again, the way texts were read in the Talmudic and pre-Talmudic times, it is hard to fully engage such a notion.  Today, with the conclusiveness of the Torah containing linguistic layers, etc. it becomes challenging to concretely claim absolute single authorship at a single moment.  I remain non-committal on the exactitude of TMS (Torah M’Sinai).

In reflecting more on my words, I was struck by the following post I saw on another blog, QED (Avi Woolf).  He presents reader’s with an assignment to read a piece by Rav Yoel Bin Nun, one of the foremost Tanach teachers of today, on modern Orthodox approaches to Tanach study.  Rav Bin Nun argues that both he and R. Mordechai Breuer are doing Orthodox Bible study and not academic study, so when it appears they are talking about DH or historical lacunae, it is all in the guise of legitimate Torah study.  While I don’t agree with Rav Bin Nun’s assessment of the Breuer methodology, theirs are one of the few approaches out there for religious, believing Jews who are also educated in modern biblical criticism.  Jackson, meanwhile, presents Kugel and Brettler as his other two examples of Orthodox men who are also involved in areas of academic Bible.  Again, the challenge presented by those two thinkers is that their Bible study is set in academia and for most would cause tremendous difficulty. 

More to come on this topic when I can better formulate the specifics of those mentioned above.

The travails of Jewish miseducation: Issues of belief 2

Marc Angel republished an article of his in the Winter Conversations journal, put out by his organization, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.  In this piece, titled Reflections on Torah Education and Mis-Education, written in 2008 for Tradition, he decries the seeming miseducation of Jewish children because teachers are unaware of sophisticated, meaningful ways to answers challenging questions. 

He presents five case studies to prove his thesis.  In each of these stories, the common theme is that the Rabbis must be correct and any dissent is just completely wrong.  As with Rabbi Angel, those stories struck as me as sad but true.  I recall having heard some of the same responsed during my formative years growing up, attending a Chabad synagogue (though my high school education also was based on the ultra-rationalism of fame [which will require its own separate piece]).   Rabbi Angel then proceeds to explain how each of those cases can be handled in a competent, clear manner, with both respect to Hazal as well as the changes in understanding that have occured.  In each of these cases, he provides sources to rely on.  Of course, finding sources to back most opinions is not too difficult. 

In thinking about this article, I felt a sense of satisfaction in Rabbi Angel’s attempts to confront standard questions that repeat themselves in Jewish Education.  He doesn’t fault the teachers for teaching certain ideas, but he does fault them for not knowing how to respond to questions today.  Yet, something seems to be lacking from his perspective.  Going back to the previous piece on belief, answers are not always needed.  Sometimes questions will remain.  The reason answers are secondary is because the whole enterprise is secondary.  Belief takes a back seat to action for most people.  Sure, we pay lip service to the “tenets” of Judaism, regardless of whether we are talking about Maimonides’ 13 principles or some other system.  Yet, I would suggest most people who attend Orthodox synagogue tend to be more focused on checking off mitzvot than in contemplating theology or belief.  This is especially true when it comes to interpersonal relationships.  I happen to also believe that this is the correct approach.  Nefesh HaHayyim, the great Kabbalistic work of R. Chaim of Volozhin, the father of the Modern Yeshiva, discusses in his opening chapters about recognizing that all of our thoughts, actions and words, whether good or bad, have an effect on the divine realms (this is obviously not a unique theme to R. Chaim of Volozhin, but it is a source with which I am quite familiar).  However, he also cautions his reader that if we constantly dwell on the affects of our thought, speech and action, we will be immobilized and never accomplish anything.  I think the same can be said for belief.  Belief is important and can be a foundation for our actions.  Yet, when it comes to action, if we first were to consider our tenets, it would be detrimental and cause actions to be delayed or forgotten about. 

I should also state that I am not advocating for an Orthopraxy.  I advocate for the idea that beliefs, while important, are not primary.  If you look at my list from the previous discussion, you will see that the beliefs are general principles that are to guide the grand scheme of practice.  Specific aspects of belief on the other hand are important from an intellectual and philosophical stand point but should not be barriers to the true calling of following ritual and commandments, namely growing spiritually (we will discuss spiritual growth in a further piece). 

To conclude, let me return to the piece by Rabbi Angel.  I must commend him for writing such a thought provoking piece as well as for his other recent works, especially Maimonides, Spinoza and Us (of which I wrote a short review).  For many in our community, modern science and modern thought, whether popular or academic, offers challenges to “traditional” understandings of our texts.  As such, I do believe our educators need to be better prepared to handle these questions.  This is true whether the questions have answers or require a sincere response of “I don’t know, let us study this some more together.”  Of course, part of the problem is that “our” educators are often not “our” educators but come from communities that do not espouse a MO mindset (in whatever form that might be).  Just to add, all of the above about engaging questions and being up-to-date on contemporary challenges is a requirement for clergy regardless of career for people look to any Rabbi when contradictions arise.  It is not enough to be well-versed in Judaica. 

For the next installment, we will use another article from the same Conversations volume to discuss studying Bible today.  For those interested in looking ahead, see Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking by Daniel Jackson. 

Do you believe in G-d? Issues of belief in Judaism

Over Shabbat Chazon (July 16-17), I was reminded of a story that happened to me approximately 12 years ago.  While studying in Israel, the post-high school yeshiva I attended arranged for the students to attend a two day version of Aish HaTorah’s Discovery seminar, which is a week-long “Introduction to Judaism” kiruv program.  The seminar offers various arguments for the validity of Judaism, from Bible Codes to the compatibility of creation and evolution.  Its goal is to convince the unaffiliated or non-Orthodox that Torah Judaism is the only legitimate way to live. 

Being the skeptic that I am, during the two day seminar, I asked many questions of the presenters.  While some of the questions were simply out of frustration for the simplicity and superficiality of some of the “proofs,” all in all I thought that I was doing what was appropriate, namely getting my fellow students to think.  What ended up happening was a bit more fascinating from a sociological perspective.  When we returned to Yeshiva, I think about half a dozen of my friends had to make sure I was really a believer, so I kept being asked, “Do you believe in G-d?”  I recall that my answer was something to the effect that I believe in G-d not due to some philosophical proof, but rather because life did not seem coincidental.  Strange events have occurred that I believe just have to be guided by something higher.  In the years since, I have come to realize that the notion of proofs, something I was exposed to both in high school (see to get an idea of these “proofs” which I encountered during my teenage years) and subsequent, is for the most part silliness.  It is silliness because the argumentation becomes circular and the proof texts used are the ones that are being proven to be true. 

There is a quote by Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger that has summed up my approach to the notion of philosophic analysis when it comes to G-d and religion:

To present history as objective evidence for the existence of G-d to a non-believer is an exercise in futility. Like most theological arguments, they are unnecessary for the believer, and useless for the non-believer. But, as we have already observed with respect to various other “proofs” of the existence of G-d, they are of great help to the believer in the quest to relate the insights of faith to the unfolding of the historic process (Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger. G-d is Proof Enough (Devora: NY, 2000 66)).

It is unpopular to believe in something without empirical evidence.  This is perhaps part of the problem that OTD’s (Off the Derech people) face today.  They are correct that most answers provided to their philosophical and historical questions fall short.  Furthermore, the other side, the “heretical” side (or the “dark side” if you’re inclined in that direction) seems more intellectually appealing because if we discuss evidence, then that side has a stronger set of arguments.  Additionally, most rabbis, including the kiruv rabbis, don’t really know the latest findings or conversations in the academic world.  I grant that academia is biased as well, but for many, it is extremely compelling.  Instead, they give simple, silly answers that often backfire (for recent discussions of the issues of faith and the challenges of being Modern Orthodox see Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking, by Dr. Daniel Jackson, and Reflections on Torah Education and Mis-Education, by Rabbi Marc Angel).

I think it is important, having said all the above, to also lay out how I view belief and dogma as it relates specifically to Judaism.  In short, I do believe there are basic tenets of Judaism, regardless of the various arguments on both sides.  These premises are not as comprehensive as Rambam.  They boil down to the following, as laid out by Tanach and Hazal (for Hazal do provide certain basic tenets):

1.  Exodus 20:2 – I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt… – This verse is the acceptance of a higher power in relation to our collective history.  Since G-d is the moving force of history, issues of what G-d is or isn’t become irrelevant.  In other words, questions like, Can G-d create a rock he can’t lift, become merely mind games.  These questions should have no effect on our day to day worship.   

2.  Pirqei Avot 1:1 – Moses received the Torah at Sinai – The Sinaitic experience was some sort of climactic moment in which the Judeo-legal and ethical system was revealed to the Earth.  The how and what of revelation become secondary to the concept of a revelatory experience.  This eliminates the questions about the historical event as well as removes the challenge of Documentary Hypothesis or Ancient Near Eastern influences.  It is not Hazal that dictate a pristine Torah from Sinai without a single mistake.  The exactness of the text might be assumed but then again, the way texts were read in the Talmudic and pre-Talmudic times, it is hard to fully engage such a notion.  Today, with the conclusiveness of the Torah containing linguistic layers, etc. it becomes challenging to concretely claim absolute single authorship at a single moment.  I remain non-committal on the exactitude of TMS (Torah M’Sinai). 

3.  Sanhedrin 11:1 – All Israel have a place in the world to come…those who don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead have no place in the world to come – There will be some form of utopian society, we hope and pray, and perhaps a means of regenerating life from after death (though whether that life form will be the exact us is part of the question – Genetic engineering could recreate the physical presence but not necessarily the non-physical which constitutes the rest of self).  This tenet is most difficult to fathom from a scientific perspective, but it is needed as part of the system. Having a picture of life after death and potential reward provides incentive for further growth and motivation.  Franz Rosensweig stated in the beginning of The Star of Redemption “From death, from the fear of death arises all knowledge of the All.”  I look at death and dying as a motivator to take advantage of doing valuable things for the world and for humanity, not as an opening for hedonism. 

These basic tenets provide a framework for which I practice Judaism, following halacha and the Jewish traditions.  Coming back to the beginning of my story, if I am committed to Jewish life and recognize a relationship between humanity and the divine, how important are the philosophical specifics or the exact number of dogmatic statements with which I agree or disagree?  Can anyone know what another truly believes, especially by assuming that questions asked must mean knowledge already accepted?  Belief tends to contain various ambiguities and little exactitude.  As such, to assume you can garner what is in a person’s heart because of questions asked is arrogance.  We are taught to question and investigate.  One doesn’t die from a question.  And yet, when we ask questions, we are either looked at as heretics or given some rehearsed or outdated response.  Walking away from the Discovery seminar after the second day, I was quite angry, feeling that I was misunderstood because I thought the goal was to challenge, not accept with blind faith.  I now feel sorrow.  I am sad that Judaism as I have come to engage it thinks it needs exact answers and if it can’t find the answers will attempt to deflect the questioners away instead of admitting “I don’t know.”

Responsiblity above all else

Without placing blame on any particular party in the Gulf oil spill, R. Shmuly Yanklowitz discusses the issue of collective responsibility from a Jewish perspective.  It is refreshing to get a perspective on a major current event without having to resort to finger pointing.  The finger pointing is potentially important from other perspectives, but when it comes to lessons learned, perhaps better we observe what else we can garner from a tragic situation. 

In this piece he discusses human fallacy, arguing from the Shulchan Aruch that while error is natural for human beings, blaming something on an accident doesn’t always remove personal responsibility.  We should learn from the oil spill that we need to be more wary of what we do in our lives and minimize potential damage and accident.  Our goal in life is to both do good and avoid harm.

Reincarnation as argument for Jewish Morality

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz presented an argument in the Jewish Week, positing for a Jewish Moral Argument for Reincarnation.  His primary argument seems to be that we should be moral beings because of our interdependence, not just with other people who are alive but with all the souls past and future.  His piece reminds me of the present story from the Gemara about the old man who planted a Carob tree knowing that he would not benefit from it.  His reason for planting the tree was for the future, just as his grandparent had done for him.  Our actions are often needed not for ourselves but for the future. 

To take a more specific approach, if the soul I am entrusted with is an incomplete soul, then my goal would need to be to improve on the soul.  However, if I have a sense of that improving the soul is a timeless task, I might be less inclined to work too hard for whatever gets left over will be made up by the next person responsible for my soul.  At the same time, if I cannot be aware of what is left to be done for this soul, then it could be less work might be more than enough. 

Regarding Rabbi Yanklowitz’s opening presentation, I am caught off guard as to how his fear of death and dwelling on dying might be detrimental to morality.  Is he arguing that recognizing our mortality would be an impediment to our striving to be moral?  I look at death and dying as a motivator to take advantage of doing valuable things for the world and for humanity, not as an opening for hedonism. 

Overall, I find his piece to be food for thought.  What does ground us in life?  Is life about the here and now or is it about the collective existence of all throughout history?  To see additional thoughts on this editorial, see Shmuly Yanklowitz: Reincarnation and a Moral Conscience, comments on that post and the subsequent response by Rabbi Yanklowitz.

Heart of Darkness (?)

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks addresses a fundamental principle of humanity in the following thought of the day. 

We must never forget the danger that lies beneath the surface of the human heart
Thought for the Day – BBC Radio 4 – June 2010
Our thoughts continue to be with the families of the victims of the shootings in Cumbria that left 12 dead, 25 injured, and families and communities torn apart. And in the aftermath people have been asking, how could it have happened?
The killer, Derrick Bird, was described by those who knew him as quiet, unassuming and friendly. He had just become a grandfather. He looked after his elderly mother, enjoyed his hobbies and had just come back from a holiday. A close friend said: “He was a really nice guy. Something must have clicked in his head. He must have just snapped.”

People do just snap, and there have been other similar tragedies in recent times, in Dunblane in Scotland, and in America in Columbine and Virginia Tech. Usually the killers are younger but it can happen in the most unpredictable way, leaving behind a trail of grief and bewilderment.

One of the great errors of modern thought was to believe that we are rational creatures who make decisions on the basis of deliberation and calculation. Reason, said the heroes of the enlightenment, can cure of us the passions and prejudices of the past. We now know that the human mind doesn’t work that way.
Neuroscientists have shown how decision making is inseparable from emotion. There are two systems at work in the human brain: the amygdala which generates highly charged emotional reactions, and the prefrontal cortex, more rational and deliberative, capable of thinking beyond the immediacy of the situation. The second system is significantly slower, so it’s always at risk of being overridden under stress or fear or anger. That’s how we often act irrationally and how, in extreme cases, ordinary people can commit terrible crimes.

Christianity called this original sin. Jews called it the evil inclination. “The heart,” said Jeremiah, “is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The Bible traces this back to the first two human children, when Cain in a fit of anger killed his brother Abel — then said, in sudden realisation of his guilt, “My sin is more than I can bear.” That’s why perpetrators of violence like Derrick Bird often end by turning it against themselves.
So for all our everyday calm, we must never forget the danger that lies, like an unexploded mine, just beneath the surface of the human heart. Meanwhile to the injured and the bereaved, we send our shared grief and our prayers.

We human beings constantly struggle with the duality of being animatistic and cognitive beings with souls.  As such, we must continuously work towards overcoming the animal, base nature in order to better serve the world around us.  We must put our divine side forward, acting with justice and in accord with our fullest emotional, spiritual and intellectual potential.

Should this be the last generation?

Peter Singer, the often controversial philosopher, is at it again. In a post online, entitled Should This Be the Last Generation, he posits a seemingly timeless philosophical question; should we continue to populate the planet and why? 

His arguments are based on the following assumptions (which seem to be premises for many of his other notions):
1. Most of life is about suffering and chasing after illusionary satisfaction.
2. Human beings have no intrinsic value (Singer is also a proponent of euthanising those who are physically and mentally challenged).
3. Bringing unborn into the world is a form of cruelty because we are bringing people into a world to suffer.

While he presents an argument that seems in favor of this crazy scheme, Singer comes to the conclusion that life is worth living for most, so therefore, ending human life is not worth it.   After presenting his argument, he poses the following questions:

1.  If a child is likely to have a life full of pain and suffering is that a reason against bringing the child into existence?

2.  If a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life, is that a reason for bringing the child into existence?

3.  Is life worth living, for most people in developed nations today?

4.  Is a world with people in it better than a world with no sentient beings at all?

5.  Would it be wrong for us all to agree not to have children, so that we would be the last generation on Earth?

To answer his questions in one shot, I would argue that of course life is worth living.  To even begin questioning whether the world would be better without us is coming from a place of arrogance.  How would we even know or how would a comparison be possible as no sentient beings would be able to judge a world without humans. 

For those of us who believe a higher power, regardless of title, many of his questions can be answered as follows:  Life has an intrinsic value for each and every one of us.  Most of us never fully grasp what that value and purpose is, yet we recognize a certain quality of being special.  I would assume that this thinking is somewhat across the board, even in third world countries (maybe especially so, as reproduction continues to remain higher).  Yes, life is depressing at times, a theme we find as far back as the book of Ecclesiastes (Qohelet) and other works of that genre, but, as to quote a commentor on the piece by Singer, better to have lived and loved and lost than never to have lived at all.  Bringing a child into the world is a joyous occassion with hopes and dreams.  Very often those dreams get shattered, but it does not mean a mistake was made, or that the parent should then be considered harmful as they brought the unborn into the world to suffer.  Rather, it means life is never what we plan it to be, which for some can be quite sad, while for others brings about greater, more lasting joys.

Update Jun 17, 2010:  Peter Singer responds the critiques of his piece in the following post.