Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Looking at the World through Rose-colored Glasses- thoughts on dreams delayed and destroyed

Derrick Rose might play in the NBA, but this post is not really about basketball. It’s about something that I have been thinking about, and Rose’s unfortunate story allows me to think about it with a small modicum of distance. It’s about dreams deferred, or maybe, dreams that will never come to fruition.

For those who do not follow the NBA, Rose, who is one of the most talented players in the league and thus, the world, recently suffered a season-ending knee injury, for the third consecutive year. For the third year in a row, his dream of leading the Bulls to the championship has gone up in smoke, but I have to imagine that for Rose, this injury suggests something worse than that. It suggests that he might never get the chance to do so. It suggests that despite all of his talent, and hard work, and sacrifice, and practice, he might go down in basketball history as just another case of “what if”, where we wonder what might have been. What if Rose had stayed healthy? How many championships migtht he have won? What if he could have led the Bulls to their first championship without the great Michael Jordan?

We all plan and dream. We think about what we hope to achieve in life and what it will feel like to get there. Even if, initially, we naively think that the path to our dreams will be a smooth one, inevitably, we learn that it will not. We learn to tolerate setbacks. If we are optimistic or spiritual-minded, we might even see them as part of the plan. Even pain can be accepted, as long as it promises to bring about the hoped for gain. What if failure comes again? What about the time after that? How many times is it reasonable to pick yourself up, and tell yourself that next time will be different? When is it time to accept that the dream will never come true, that it is time to adjust your goals, or, maybe even, give up on them?

Derrick Rose is a fighter. No matter how much talent he might have, he never would have reached the level that he has, if he wasn’t willing to work hard. I have no doubt that he will pick himself up from the canvas, and, for the third time, go through the painful process of rehab. He will come back, and maybe even, once again, play at a sublime level. I wonder though what he is thinking. Does he have a nagging thought somewhere in his head that tells him the dream is over? Does he have the ability to keep his latest injury from spreading to his heart?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ad D'Lo Yada- Since when is a lack of knowledge a good thing? (audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur we explore the statement of Rava that one must get intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai”. We look at why, on this one day a year, a lack of knowledge is seen as a good thing.

The shiur can also be listened to on YouTube by clicking on this link.

Running Time 55 Minutes

Thursday, February 12, 2015

50 First Faiths- How do move forward after emunah peshuta is gone

The wannabe intellectual in me is a little embarrassed to admit that I saw a movie starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, and very embarrassed to use the film to discuss religion. Still, “50 First Dates” is where I begin today’s post. In the movie, Sandler’s character falls in love with Barrymore’s character, and after a while things click. It is only afterwards that Sandler discovers that Barrymore has short term amnesia and forgets him and much else each evening. This leads to him having to get her to fall in love with him anew each date, and thus, 50 “first” dates.

There is something very beautiful about emunah peshuta, that simple level of faith in which there is only belief, and there are no questions or doubts. It is somewhat analogous to that time period when young children see their parents as perfect and invincible. One’s davening is pure, and shemiras hamitzvos seems almost as natural as breathing. For many people, emunah peshuta does not last. Just as the young child discovers that his father really isn’t the strongest man in the world, the maamin discovers that there are challenging questions that exist, and information that might lead to doubts. What then?

Once emunah peshuta is lost, the relationship changes. Gone is the bumpless road, where not only is the destination obvious, but so too is the way to get there. What once came naturally, now involves work. What works today, might not work tomorrow.

Being that I was open about the two years when I struggled with my faith, I am often asked for help by people who are struggling with their emunah. Which rabbi gave me all the answers? Which book showed me that my doubts had no basis? Can you please help me get back my emunah peshuta? Of course, I can’t help in that way. No person or book has all the answers, and there is no way to make the questions go away, so what is one to do?

To me the answer seems obvious. The first thing is recognize that one can not go back. Someone who is struggling needs to recognize that if they are going to develop a sophisticated belief system, it will take hard work, and not just once. There is no one who can solve the problem for you. Your questions are often different, and even when they are not, what works for another person, will rarely work for you.

So what did I do? I read a lot. I reached out to smart people and others who had struggled. I davened for help. I worked very hard until I was able to believe again. It was tough, and frustrating, and there are still times when I have do more work, and I suspect there always will be. It would be nice to be able to just “fall in love” just once and know that it will last. The reality is that while you probably won’t have to discover God anew each day, you are certainly going to have to discover Him many more times.

What's the Goal Behind Keeping the Mitzvot? (Audio Shiur)

In this week’s shiur we discuss the concept of Taamei HaMitzvot. After briefly examining the idea of finding reasons for specific mitzvot, we move on to discuss the general goal of the system of mitzvot. Starting in ancient Alexandria we work our way up to the Middle Ages, followed by the Modern era. By the end of the shiur we see various approaches to the goal of shemirat hamitzvot, as well as Judaism as a whole.

The shiur can also be accessed on YouTube by clicking here.

Running Time 1:10

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Is there a mitzvah to believe, and if so, how do we get there? (Audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur, we examine whether there is a mitzvah to believe. We look, at various approaches of the rishonim, achronim and modern thinkers. We also consider what the mitzvah might involve, and examine the concept of belief in general.

The shiur can also be listened to on YouTube by clicking on this link

Running time 1:27

Monday, February 2, 2015

Putting Descartes Before the Horse- On knowledge, belief and proof

I was recently asked, not for the first time, how I know that God exists. It’s a question that is often directed at religious believers in general, and at teachers and members of the clergy in particular. Before we can talk about how we “know” this, or more correctly, why we believe, it is important to discuss what it means when we say we know or believe anything.

Although a more complete treatment of this topic would involve a discussion about epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge, I will focus on a different area of discussion.

I was recently referred to an essay written by Isaiah Berlin, one of the preeminent thinkers of the twentieth century, by my friend Rabbi Todd Berman. In the essay, “The Concept of Scientific History”, Berlin explains why the attempt to treat history as a science, something that many considered an important goal for at least two centuries, is inherently futile. He conclusively shows that science, at least in its pure forms, can test claims and ascertain whether they are correct, while when it comes to the ideas of history, as well as many of its “facts”, this is not true. Thus there is a difference in kind, and not just degree, between saying that the egg broke because it fell on the hard surface, and saying that World War I started because Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. He goes on to say something that shows that it is not just history which can not be treated like a pure science:

If I am asked what rational grounds I have for supposing that I am not on Mars, or that the Emperor Napoleon existed and was not merely a sun myth, and if in answer to this I try to make explicit the general propositions which entail this conclusion, together with the specific evidence for them, and the evidence for the reliability of this evidence, and the evidence for that evidence in its turn, and so on, I shall not get very far. The web is too complex, the elements too many and not, to say the least, easily isolated and tested one by one; anyone can satisfy himself of this by trying to analyse and state them explicitly. The true reason for accepting the propositions that I live on earth, and that an Emperor Napoleon I existed, is that to assert their contradictories is to destroy too much of what we take for granted about the present and the past (emphasis added).

Outside of math and the pure sciences when we talk about knowing things, we all use a different criteria for evaluating the truth of a statement. Even though we can not prove that we were not created last Thursday with memories of a false past, we all know that claim to be false.

Let’s take this a step further. How do we react when we read an article that makes a claim? Do we investigate it ourselves? Study the subject so that we know as much as an expert before deciding what we believe? Of course we do not. Somehow, in our inherently subjective experience, we form an opinion. Even as some of us try to know more before reaching a conclusion, we still fall far short of the level of rigor we would expect in a scientific experiment. What about when we read of two experts who disagree about a theory or idea? Do we commit to being agnostic due to our inability to evaluate which of the two are correct? Do we do a poll of all experts in the field? Would such a poll prove anything? In short, most of what we think we know comes from some combination of intuition, knowledge and whatever other conscious and subconscious thought that goes into deciding. We make decisions about family, safety, career and meaning without being able to prove almost anything.

So where does that leave us? I believe that it leaves us in the potentially uncomfortable position of recognizing that religion is a belief, and not something that  we can prove. As with most areas of life, we subjectively judge the facts and then make a decision. Our reasons for belief might not be able to convince anyone other than ourselves. For those of us who have relied upon the arguments of Medieval philosophers, be it Maimonides or Aquinas, accepting this idea can be somewhat disconcerting. Still, I am not convinced that this is a bad thing.

The inherent subjectivity of our religious beliefs allows us to believe with what Rabbi Herzl Hefter has called “soft certainty”. This level of belief allows for us to live a life of firm commitment, sure enough to serve, but not sure enough to destroy. In an unredeemed world, I don’t think we can ask for anything more.