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

Monday, February 9, 2015

"I Respect It, but I Do Not Agree with It" A review of Shulem Deen's Memoir- All Who Go Do Not Return

As a child, on the rare occasions when I passed through Boro Park or Williamsburg, I was always so fascinated by the chassidim I saw. Although they were Jews, they seemed so strange, exotic, and, I must admit, scary. I viewed them as monolithic and never thought about whether we shared anything in common despite our obvious differences. In recent years, through general and social media, I have come to know a number of current or former chassidim, including some from the more closed and extremist groups, Satmar and Skver. I have learned what should have been obvious, that in so many ways, we are not really so different from one another.

In the past few years, a number of former chassidim from these communities have opened up about their stories and the reason why they went “off the derech” or OTD. Some have started to speak of the books they have written as a genre. To me, this term is unfortunate. It lumps together various individuals, and their stories, as if they are all the same . Although, until recently, I had not read any of these books, I was familiar with the stories, and I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up Shulem Deen’s memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return”. Instead of a tell-all style, complete with salacious details, Deen has written a book that was so powerful and insightful that I could not put it down.

Deen grew up in Boro Park, the son of chassidic parents who were baalei teshuva. His father, who was not fully a member of a particular chassidic community, and whose persona seems to permeate the book,  was thoughtful, intelligent and kind, traits that Deen himself seems to have inherited. His father’s openness to the outside world, expressed in his outreach to those who were religiously observant, as well as two extensive libraries, one religious and the other secular, seems to have given Deen a healthy curiosity and sense of individuality. His father’s early death was the first of many tragic moments in Deen’s life.

In the book Deen describes his decision to become a Skverer chasid, his serious religious and less than serious general studies education, and his engagement, at the age of 18, to a woman he does not know. As he describes these various experiences and the painful events to which they lead, the reader notes that even where there might have been justification for resentment and recrimination, that Deen consistently takes the high road. He manages to describe the difficulties of marriage and the challenges that a couple who have no knowledge of sexuality before the day of their marriage, with a level of modesty, while still powerfully conveying the difficulties that he and his young bride Gitty faced.

As he develops his story, he shows how his questions about the ways of the community in which he lives, as well as his uncertainty about the foundations upon which his marriage is built, lead him to start asking more serious questions about his beliefs and worldview. Scared to express his growing doubts to almost anyone, he stays in his marriage and community, while he and Gitty become the parents of five children, three girls and two boys. As he begins to open up to the outside world, at first due to his need to support his growing family, his doubts continue to grow. Despite Gitty’s willingness to tolerate, and occasionally even join in exploring some of her husband’s forays into the modern world, his integrity and self-awareness make it difficult for him to pretend he is still the believing chasid whom he appears to be on the outside. Even as he seeks answers to his religious doubts, first in the books of a friend who works at a local yeshiva for baalei teshuva, and later, through the library and internet, he is unable to find satisfying answers to his questions.

Ultimately, things unravel as he is forced to move out of New Square after the community learn of his doubts, and, despite trying to makes things work, he and Gitty are unable to save their marriage. Tragically, despite his and Gitty’s efforts to create a situation where their five children split time between their parents, one by one his children refuse to spend time with him. The book finished with Deen’s transition into a secular life, where he manages to pick up the pieces, despite the depression that comes from losing his connection to his children. He powerfully tells of his efforts to find in the secular world, what he misses from the religious world. Without going into the details of these efforts, I read them with a lump in my throat.

So how might those of us who remain in the world of observance that Deen left, approach his story? One approach, which has become all to common, is to try and find the biographical reasons that led him to lose his faith. One recent review did this by focusing on Deen’s baal teshuva parents. This approach, while predictable, is unfortunate, as it serves as a way to push off whatever discomfort that his questions might raise. It also frees us from having to ask whether our community is sometimes at fault in the way that we deal with our most intelligent and sensitive members.

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about what our community might be like if there more people like Deen’s father. Early in the book, Deen powerfully conveys the story of the night that he, as a young boy, accompanied his father to a speaking engagement. He watches as his father interacts with secular Jews who are so different from the Jews that Deen knows from Boro Park. As his father enters the room, he notices that the men and women are sitting together. He asks them to sit separately by gender and then says “I would like to say that I understand and respect the desire avoid such separation. But I do not agree with it”. Deen watches as his father repeats several more times “I respect it, but do not agree with it”. As I finished the book I thought back to this scene, and began to wonder what a community that took such a position might look like. A community that would have passionately strong beliefs, while recognizing with respect, that no matter what we do, not everyone within our midst can or will share these beliefs. A community that would allow even those who go, to return, even is just briefly, to spend time with those whom they most love.

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.