Tag Archives: language and belief

Parashat Sh’mini: The Holy Power of Hands

I have two tales about hands.

The first concerns the hands of my college president. When we ordain our rabbis and cantors at the Hebrew Union College — an annual event, scheduled this year in just a few weeks’ time — our president lays his hands on each candidate’s head or shoulders.

In theory, the idea goes back to Deuteronomy 34:9, where we hear of Moses laying hands on Joshua, Moses’s successor. In actuality, rabbinic ordination with the laying on of hands is altogether a modern innovation. But never mind. That’s what we do. The idea is sound, the practice unforgettable.

We call it s’michah, a word also used for sacrifices. The priests of old practiced s’michah — laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear” (Lev.9:6). But the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses has in mind, so Italian commentator Obadiah Sforno (1475-1550) explains, “It is the laying on of hands.” Hand-laying is as central to Temple sacrifice of old as it is to my college’s ordination today: and for the same reason — not that rabbis and cantors are “sacrifices,” God forbid, but because the touch of human hands is how “God’s presence may appear.”

The second tale of hands comes from a sign I saw the other day: “Need a Handyman? Call me!” As someone who fixes nothing without making it worse, I always need people who are “handy.” Yes, “handy”! They too lay hands on things — hands, however, that mysteriously comprehend the inner life of gaskets, cams, cogs, and cranks. They unmake and remake complex machinery — make the old look like new.

By contrast, my college president’s hands — like the hands of the Temple priest — do absolutely nothing. They just sit there, utterly inert, untrained and unmoving. They are mere vessels for the work that God does through them.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy is insistent on that point: “God reaches out a hand” it says. But God has no actual hands, for God has no body at all. When priests or seminary presidents lay on hands, they do so on behalf of God, that God may reach out through them.

So too, Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim of today, reach out hands to offer the priestly benediction. Many people bless their children that way, too — or, nowadays, increasingly, even one another. In all these cases, the “hands” are not what we call “handy.” They are untrained. They accomplish nothing on their own. The people being blessed do not get put together differently; they are exactly the same as they were before. But there is this difference (a big one): they may sense they have been visited, through those outstretched hands, by the hand of God.

God visits the earth through the magic of human touch, as sacred a thing as there is. Like all things holy, it too is open to misuse — as when we warn, “Hands off,” or feel violated when someone touches us against our will. But also like all things holy, nothing bestows the certainty of hope and comfort better than the human touch, properly applied, by those we love: a friend at our bedside, their hand on our own; a soft embrace when words cannot assuage our pain.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo captured the magic of creation by the hint of two hands touching: the hand of God from whom life flows, and the hand of Adam, the first human being to receive God’s life-giving force. We humans, ever after, can do “what God commanded… so that God’s presence may appear.” We too can lay on hands for blessing.

When explanations only make things worse, when words ring hollow, when we have nothing to say, we can reach out, God-like, feeling hope’s promise flow to those in need. God shows up best in the warming touch where two hands meet.

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B’ha’alotcha: On Ritual, Religion, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Freud did not have our sedra specifically in mind when he wrote his treatises on religion. He would have pointed to its demand that the Passover sacrifice be done “in accordance with all its rules and rites” as evidence of his claim that religion is a caricature of obsessive-compulsive neurosis.

To be sure, it is a ritual; and the very nature of ritual is that it must be done “just right.” But that was, of course, Freud’s very point.

Still, Freud was not altogether objective in his critique. Lots of things, not just religion, are done “just right,” including Freud’s own writings which follow very strict canons of scientific research and argument. In the government of Freud’s Vienna, everything followed exact bureaucratic specification. And if Freud had consulted his own physician, lawyer, or accountant, he would have noticed all due attention being paid to detail.

As to ritual, whatever academic conferences Freud attended were nothing, if not ritually determined as to such things as who gave papers to whom; and who responded and how. Indeed, the psychoanalytic method has itself been described as a highly ritualized process. It was not, therefore, ritual that Freud found objectionable so much as it was religion, which he had rejected long before he applied his psychological theory to it. Freud’s commitment to scientific secularism had no room for religion, and as time went on, Freud developed theories that justified his objections.

But Freud was a genius and a doggedly accurate observer of human behavior; he was not, therefore, altogether wrong. Sometimes religious ritual does approximate obsessive-compulsive disorder. An example is the way some medieval Jews interpreted the phrase, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.” The 11th-century rabbi, Joseph Tov Elem (or Bonfils, his French surname), incorporated the line into a pre-Passover synagogue poem that highlighted the importance of attending to every detail of Passover preparation. One verse of that larger composition still concludes our Haggadah: “The Passover celebration has concluded appropriately,” we say, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.”

Bonfils had internalized an attitude that pervaded Christian circles in his day: the idea that religious rites (like baptism and Eucharist) achieve their intended impact as an automatic consequence of punctilious attention to detail. By contrast, skipping a single step or doing anything out of order renders the ritual null and void, so at roughly the same time that Bonfils was writing his poem, other rabbis were developing mnemonics to guide Seder leaders in doing everything “just right.” We still have one such mnemonic today: Kadesh urchatz, by Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise. We chant it as the Seder begins just to anticipate what follows, but originally, it was used to guarantee that the Seder not be rendered worthless on account of an error in order.

In its time, this was indeed an obsessive-compulsive attitude, but it is not typical of the mainstream Jewish approach to ritual over the years. Even “in accordance with all its rules and rites” was interpreted to mean more than an obsessive concern for sacrificial detail. Both Rashi and Ramban, for example, think it also entails linking the ritual acts of the Passover sacrifice to the non-ritual aspects of the Passover message — eating unleavened bread, for instance, as a recollection of the haste with which Jews departed Egypt so long ago. Elsewhere, too, the impact of halachic action is not normally believed to follow magically as a consequence of doing it flawlessly.

Of course we perform our rituals “properly.” Otherwise they would not be rituals. But everything that matters deeply to us gets done that way: arranging an anniversary evening, perfecting a golf swing, posing for an important photograph, creating a beautiful dinner: these are all examples of making sure that details do not get overlooked. Far from being obsessive-compulsive behavior, these are instances of artistic enterprise.

The lesson of it all — from the biblical Passover sacrifice to the Seder of today, and every other ritual we have as well — is that human beings have an artistic impulse at our very core. We describe God’s original act of creation as artistry; and we have been partners with God ever after. We love harmonized melodies, complementary color schemes, matching clothes, flowing language, and even coincidences that suggest patterns behind pure randomness. We should conclude (contra Freud) that while people can use ritual to further their own obsessive-compulsive needs, most of us appreciate it for its artistry — the means to express ourselves through what is graceful, elegant, beautiful, and profound.

Parashat Bo

There is something magic about midnight, as any child who has read “Cinderella” can tell you. It is the witching hour when imagination fails, when radiance turns into pumpkins, when dreams die fast.

Edgar Allen Poe expresses this resonance of despair in his poem, “The Raven,” the tale of a man whose yearning for his lost love Lenore is dashed by a “ghastly grim and ancient raven” who inserts his way into his home “once upon a midnight dreary” with the one-word prophecy, “Nevermore.” Never mind this life; there is also no life after death, no heavenly bliss where the two lovers may someday find one another again. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” asks the man, citing Jeremiah 8:22, no hope whatever? The raven’s answer comes unhesitatingly: “Nevermore.”

Poe’s midnight message chills us to the bone. We have all awakened in the dark and deep of night and thought for sure the nightmares that disturb our sleep are real, that “nevermore” will we find hope, love, health or joy; that a new day will never dawn.

It is around midnight too when the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father appears; and when Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman visits horror upon unwitting travelers. Nothing good can happen in what we call “the dead of night.”

How interesting, then, to find this week that God chooses “around midnight” for the angel of death to slay Egypt’s first born. From Israel’s perspective, however, this is deliverance, so ever after, Jewish lore associates midnight with good things happening. A traditional Haggadah poem carries the refrain, “It happened about midnight.” At midnight Jacob wrestled with the angel; at midnight Daniel was saved from the lion’s den. Baal Haturim concludes, “The Holy One performs miracles for the righteous — at midnight.”

Christianity too adopted this positive view of midnight. Since God had saved the Israelites then, the New Testament pictured prisoners breaking free from a Roman jail on account of the midnight prayers of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:2); and in 1849, Unitarian minister Edmund Sears wrote the Christmas carol, “It came upon the midnight clear.”

A novel touch arrived with the spread of coffee throughout the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. With Jews newly wired by heavy doses of Turkish coffee, kabbalistic masters converted midnight hope into ritual, alongside the promise that midnight was especially apt to find God’s presence among us. Mystical adepts would arise at midnight for a tikkun chatsot, a set of readings intended to bringing about a better world.

But kabbalists were building on more ancient lore: Psalm 119:62, which had King David say, “I arise at midnight to thank You.”

Can God’s Mind Change? God’s Second Book (Part 2)

Isn’t it possible for authors to change their minds between books? Even if (as I argued in the last post) both Torah and the universe are products of the same divine author, it does not follow (as I thought it did) that the two books cannot contradict each other. So argues Rabbi Rick Block in a thoughtful note that I greatly appreciate.

Let’s rethink the issue, using a test case, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. In 1921, he wrote Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, a densely argued study of the logic behind language. Following the school of thought that we call logical positivism, he limited meaningful sentences to statements of fact that are ultimately rooted in evidence from the senses. That excludes religion, ethics, and aesthetics, none of which is open to empirical proof. Statements about God, goodness, and beauty are neither true nor false: they are simply meaningless.

Later, however, his Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) seemed to contradict the Tractatus, in that it included religion, ethics and aesthetics as meaningful. Language, he now declared, was like a toolkit, that can be used to do different things: promising, hoping, describing (as in science) and so on. He called each of these things “a game.” The Tractatus described the game of science; but not the games of theology, ethics, and art, which are “meaningless,” perhaps, but only according to the game-rules of science. Investigations pointed out the need to describe the rules for these other games.

The Investigations does not disprove the Tractatus. It just limits its applicability and goes beyond it to include that part of reality for which the Tractatus did not work.

Like Wittgenstein, God too, we may say, has two books: Torah is God’s book of religion; Nature is God’s book of science. They are about different things; they cannot disprove each other, because they operate as different games with different rules of meaning..

Scientific knowledge works in mathematics, the language of Nature, it seems. When we translate those formulae into prose, we get sentences that follow Wittgenstein’s rules in the Tractatus. When we shift to religion, we change the game — and with it, the context in which to understand the sentences. Two sentences that seem to say contradictory things (“God created the heaven and earth,” from the Book of Torah, and “A big bang created time and a universe,” from the Book of Nature) sound like opposites because their syntax is similar. But they may both be right, because they operate in different realms of thought. In that way, they are like Wittgenstein’s two books. They complete, rather than deny, one another.

One more analogy is in order: fiction. Fiction is an art, much like painting, where Monet, for example, can paint several versions of haystacks, all of them equally accurate. A composer of fiction may, similarly, write two novels that contradict each other but be equally true. Insofar as scientific authors write metaphoric explanations of nature’s phenomena, they may do likewise, but when they try actually to frame nature’s laws, they may not make two contradictory claims, without one of them being wrong.

We can liken God’s two books to a nicely boxed set of two volumes, one on science and the other on what we loosely call religion. God’s first book, Torah, is the religious one. It is a work of art, containing such things as fiction, poetry, aphorisms, laws, ethics, values, and a subjective view of Israel’s history. Like any work of art, it regularly attracts new readings. The second book, Nature, is scientific. We change our readings there as well, but contradictory readings of Nature must refute one another, because the Book of Nature (as measured by mathematics) is changeless and, unlike art, a zero-sum game of “true or false.”

I do not mean to say that any reading of Torah is as possible as any other. Some interpretations of art are just wrong — as I said in an earlier blog, Hamlet cannot be a Marxist spoof on Capitalism. Also, ethics, unlike stories, poetry, and such, are absolute, so, like science, cannot admit two absolutely contradictory claims.

But comparing Torah with Nature, we can say that Torah and Nature are God’s two books which cannot refute one another. Like Wittgenstein’s two books, they represent extensions of one another – what we can call a dual extension of God’s mind.

When we look back at great authors, we call it a retrospective. Think of Torah and Nature as God’s retrospective, which we array with awe and reread with care.

Verbal Stretching, Word Rustling, and the Fate of Religion

Words live in fields, where they stretch, grow, and expand with the reach of human inquisitiveness. Take “fishing,” a word some ancestor must have coined many eons back, upon successfully spearing a swimming thing in the water. When fishing became a leisure-time activity instead of a means to procure food, “goin’ fishing” came to mean the blissful inactivity of watching a fishing line bob in the water – fish or no fish on the other end.

The New York Times of June 5 testifies to the freedom with which “fishing” still circulates in its verbal field. A stock broker accused of insider trading proclaims his innocence by calling the investigation “a fishing expedition.” That’s a verbal and a metaphoric stretch, or, at least, it was once. Now it’s too commonplace to count; it is, if anything, a dead metaphor. So too is the idea of “stretch” in “metaphoric stretch,” but “stretch” is a good word, because calling the FBI’s actions “fishing” stretches linguistic use, and, therefore, the imagination, as well as the world itself. The world now comes with potential “catches”: the “little fish” who get thrown back into the street, and the “big fish” whom the little fish help the FBI to hook.

A second article describes the scam by which emails from seemingly reputable corporations, like our banks or employers, request personal information that can be manipulated for identity theft. It’s called “phishing,” another stretch of the imagination, not just conceptually this time, but visually too, because of the clever substitution of “ph” for “f” – like the rock group PHISH.  It turns out also that China has been phishing for American diplomats. This is not just a mass email going out randomly to millions. Its targeted nature earns it the name “spear phishing.” The high profile of the would-be targets may even make it a case of “whaling.”

Words and the world work in tandem. Simply by opening our senses to the changing world around us, we stretch it into more than what it was. Like an animal hide stretched out to dry, this expanding world requires pegs – verbal pegs — to stake out the new territory. It is easier to use old words than to make up new ones, because old ones come with meanings we can borrow. So metaphors become the very best pegs with which we stretch our consciousness of what the world is newly made of.

Words aren’t allowed to roam completely wild, however. Technical language is guarded by linguistic police who fence off the field where the words have grown up and demand they be used properly. Biologists, for example, mean something specific by a virus. Still, viruses attack computers and web messages can go viral; so even technical vocabulary can be hijacked for general use.

It’s a good sign when linguistic rustlers multiply; it means your words are prolific, doing well enough to be desired for the light they can shed on someone else’s corner of the universe. When linguistic rustlers no longer care enough to carry off stray words from their technical holding pens, the words in question may as well be dead.

That seems to be the trouble with religion. Nobody wants to carry its words away captive any more. We still have echoes of when they did: “revelatory finds” once harked back to revelation from Sinai; “redemptive moments” recalled the parting of the Red Sea. But nowadays, the religious verbal police can relax: no one wants our words any more.

Words are also like currency. When no one wants them, their value goes down. Ours is an era of theological currency debasement. Take even the word “God.” People use it all the time, but, God knows, it doesn’t buy the serious attention it used to.

The easy theological answer is for religious personnel to hunker down in their theological verbal fields and continue making sentences to each other about things that no one else cares about. I imagine the alchemists did that at some point or other. Religion too can aspire to becoming alchemy. A better course is to head out into the world, riding our theological verbiage with wild abandon, and showing people how poetically our religious vocabulary can get at the very heart of things. We can even do a little rustling of our own, showing the theological implications of such secular words as “pattern,” “purpose” and “promise” (see “Ya Gotta Believe – Something [Part 2],” May 15, 2011).

The world will go on no matter what, stretched by whatever verbal pegs people find useful. Whether it gets stretched religiously depends on how well the keepers of religious language provide powerful religious metaphors to do the stretching. The alternative is to retire from the task and go fishing.

“Clearing God’s Bad Name”: Did I Go Too Far?

Did I go too far in my recent post entitled “Clearing God’s Bad Name”? I was discussing the way we read Torah portions in which God threatens dire punishment for human disobedience. It was time, I said, to “dispense with the childish belief in a God of simplistic reward and punishment.”  The God in whom we ought to believe can hardly be vengeful, I argued. It is time we cleared God’s name.

I published the piece separately in a couple of newspapers to which I submit regular articles on Torah, and received a thoughtful critique from a reader who took me to task for going too far. We may not, he cautioned, “excise portions of the Torah because our timid intelligence has deduced that we are so much more ‘enlightened’ than previous generations.” The letter arrived privately, so I will not divulge the author’s name – suffice it to say that his objection is that I was “preaching against the text,” the “sin” of sermonizing contrary to what the sacred text actually says.

Preachers do it all the time, of course, but use midrash, Talmud, or commentaries from somewhere else in the tradition as their justification — as if to say, “The Torah looks like it says such and such, but it really doesn’t; it really means something else (even the opposite of what its surface meaning appears to be).”

To some extent, I did that. But I went farther and did indeed leave the bounds of normal interpretation by denying a basic understanding of God that we find in most of rabbinic literature.

My critic finds that too much to take, and as I say, I take him seriously enough to want to think the matter through here as an instance of a machloket l’shem shamayim, what the Rabbis call “an argument for the sale of heaven.” Why don’t I think I went too far?

For starters, let us ask how Jews read Torah.

We read it so closely that every word and letter counts – but we do not read it literally. And we read it interpretively, the whole point being to come up with a chiddush, a novel insight that speaks to the situation of the reader seeking meaning in the text.

It is generally presupposed that whatever meaning we find is drawn out from the text, not read into it. The idea is to be properly objective in interpreting a passage so as to arrive at what the text really means. Now, it is not 100% clear that we can ever be absolutely objective about any text; sophisticated theorists know there is always some degree of subjectivity in the way we read. But in any event, sermonic interpretation, for sure, doesn’t work that way. “Meaning” here is always subjective, dependent on both the text and the reader, a sort of pincer movement back and forth between the two.  It is not so much “what the text means” as “how the text becomes meaningful to the person reading it.”

There are some limits of course – as there are for interpreting every piece of literature. If I say that Hamlet, for example, is about indecision, or moral outrage, or the oedipal complex, you will at least entertain the possibility that I am right. But suppose I say it is a Marxist spoof on capitalism. For lots of reasons that is utter nonsense. In making that claim, I lose all credibility. If no one even thinks my claim is sensible, I get read out of the reading community as a crackpot.

What, then, counts as the limits to sermonic interpretation? We would like to imagine that the interpreter always interprets Torah by citing other pieces of Torah – quoting the Talmud to elucidate the Bible, a medieval authority to interpret the Talmud, and so on. But it is never that clean. The twelfth-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra doubted that Moses had written the entire Torah. Afraid to come right out and question his received chain of tradition, he used allusion: hamevin yavin, he said, “The discerning reader will understand what I am getting at.” He got away with it.  Spinoza came right out and said roughly the same thing and was excommunicated. Spinoza had no readers willing to go as far as he did.

Ibn Ezra was more careful; but even he risked going over the line. He knew most readers would not follow his half-heretical suggestion. But he knew also that he was not the only reader who lost sleep over a traditional claim that no longer made sense to his growing historical consciousness. Rather than  risk positioning the Bible so that no one would respect it altogether, he went out on a limb and argued against the text.

I am no Ibn Ezra, and certainly no Spinoza, but in our time too, we dare not shy from confronting the real questions that people have – especially about God. Otherwise, we risk speaking to a shrinking audience of people who are already insiders in the Torah game we play – but alienating everyone else. Especially when it comes to hurtful images of God we too must sometimes preach against the text.

Ya Gotta Believe — Something!

When it comes to religion, Jews have trouble believing things. The American population as a whole still widely believes in religious realities: 93% believe in God or a Higher Power; 86% believe in heaven; 73% believe in hell. There are rarely enough Jews in these polls to be sure just what the Jewish parallel would be, but it surely isn’t anywhere near these figures. When it comes to God, 93% may be high – the question included belief in a “higher power” which skews the results upward — but another poll that limits the question just to “God” shows that 90% of Protestants, 79% of Roman Catholics but only 47% of Jews believe in God.

Another way of looking at it is to compare percentages of believers across countries, including Israel, where the majority is Jewish, When asked to affirm the proposition, “I know God exists and I have no doubt about it – as strong a statement as one can imagine (I mean, no doubts at all??) 62.8% of Americans answered yes. Israelis scored 43%. Even that seems like a lot, but somewhere around 19% of Israel’s population is Orthodox. Discount that 19% and you get a whole lot fewer Jews who believe in God! Orthodox Jews everywhere are likely to be believers; it goes with the Orthodox territory. The belief gap (a bad term, as we shall see, but usable for now) affects non-Orthodox Jews, specifically.

But why is that? Why do non-Orthodox Jews register so low on religious belief scales? In part it is all about “territory,” not geographical but social. It is not the case that we believe something and then learn to say it; we start by saying it, and then get so used to the sentences coming out of our mouths, that we profess to believe it, even though we may not be absolutely clear on what it is that we have said we believe.

What determines our ability to make belief statements is the territory, the people we hang around with. If they regularly say they believe this or that, the odds are we will too; and whether they say they believe or not (in the first place) depends on the institutions that hold them (and us) together. Even relatively lapsed Christians who nonetheless attend church on occasion (for social reasons, perhaps, or even out of nostalgia or habit) get used to making statements of belief, which, as I say, go with the territory. In conversation afterward, they may hedge their statements so as not to sound too literal (“I do believe in God, but what I mean by that is…”) but they are apt to have little trouble making the statements, without which, they would have to forego association with the church they still attend.

The same is true of Orthodox Jews. To be sure, people who believe strongly in God are likely to belong to synagogues where other people believe as well – belief sometimes does come first – so more believers come to Orthodox synagogues in the first place. But lots of people join Orthodoxy for reasons having nothing to do with God. They then get used to hearing (and making) sentences about God. Orthodox Jews are not more naïve, less educated, or less critical as thinkers. They just belong to language communities that take God seriously. Non orthodox Jews do not.

Belief is socially constructed. The organizations we frequent generate certain kinds of conversations, which, in turn, generate certain sentences that we get used to hearing – and then saying. Jewish organizations are good at making sentences about Israel, anti-Semitism, the state of the world, other Jews, and charitable causes (to name but a few things). But not God. Even if you are on a synagogue board, you can go for years without hearing anyone say a sentence about God.

When I consult with synagogues, I find that people have great difficulty wrapping their heads around a sentence with God in it. It is not so much that they do not believe in God, however, as it is that they do not think of themselves as people who talk about God. God-language embarrasses them. They yearn to believe in something, but they don’t know how to go about figuring out what it is.

More on this is a later posting. Suffice it to say that we suffer less from lack of belief than from inadequate language to express the beliefs we might have. The way toward belief lies in broaching conversations that are out of our comfort zone; listening to what we say; and then trying to determine what we might have meant when we said it.

The Jewish “failure to believe” is a misnomer. What is at stake is not a belief gap but a conversation gap, and for reasons I will get to later, it is time we changed the conversation.