We were intended by God — we’re not afterthoughts

The magician succeeds by misdirection — look here and you will not notice everything that I am doing with my left hand.

Part of Christopher Hitchens’ magic in his essay is misdirection: He would have us ignore ourselves. How do human beings know? If we are, as scientific materialists tell us, nothing more than an accident of ancient chemistry, haphazardly evolved with no thought, no design, no intelligence behind the universe, then how do our minds draw correct conclusions about the origin of things? In Hitchens’ article he makes numerous assertions about the way the world began and will end and what God would or would not do, without wondering if it is wonderful that he can know this at all.

Minds evolved to survive on the savannah do not need to invent, much less master, nuclear physics. “I am awesomely, wonderfully made” sings the psalmist. The addition of evolutionary mechanisms to our stock of knowledge makes that declaration more potent, not less.

Evolution tells us that random mutations followed by adaptations to environment account for who we are. If we are adapted to fit an ecological niche, and our minds are as random and limited as our legs, ears and eyes, why can we understand truths about the world? Even more powerfully, where would free will enter this story? Products of heredity and environment do not get free will: No one picks his or her environment or his or her genes, so where do we get this glorious ability to choose?

It is possible that we are determined and all of our conclusions are limited or simple illusions. I cannot argue against the certainty that people are robots. But if you believe that what we know about the world has some relationship to truth, and that we are free agents, then you are driven to the conclusion that materialism may be too simple a conclusion. Perhaps God has something to do with this remarkable pageant.

The improbability of human existence can be seen from two different directions. Hitchens writes that given the ages Earth was without us, the close brush we had with extinction and the universe’s constant threat to wipe out life on our planet, we are clearly a wild card in the deck, products of happenstance.

There is another way to view the same set of facts: Given how long the Earth prepared for our appearance, however, (the midrash actually talks about how God set everything like a table for the guest of honor) and the unlikelihood of our being here and surviving, we could equally argue it is clear that we were intended. Once again, what Hitchens writes as conclusive — we were afterthoughts — can be seen in a very different light.

Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books

Physicist Robert Jastrow famously remarked, “At this moment, it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Faith is not a cowering born of fear, to be discarded when a vaccine proves more efficacious than a prayer. Two thousand years ago the rabbis taught us that faith from love is more powerful and lasting than faith from fear. They understood the uncertainty of reward and punishment in this world, teaching explicitly that there is no reward for mitzvot in this world (B.T. kidd. 39b).

There are religious people who are credulous and narrow. To set up these straw men is one way of disputing, but there are religious people who both contribute to and learn from the intellectual advances in the world. For we believe that God intends us to learn, to grow, to discover and to create. These things are not contradicted by a tradition that pictures God as a creator; rather creativity is one of the ways of imitateo Dei — becoming more like God in our conduct in this world.

Hitchens does not mention that people who are religious give more to charity, have more stable lives, are less addicted to drugs and alcohol and form more cohesive communities. None of this proves religion is true, of course. Things can be false and still good for us.

What it suggests, however, is that faith is far more complex than a simple ancient illusion. Only a narrow antagonism assumes religion can be replaced with the Hubble telescope.

Disdain is an ugly quality on either side of the debate. Humility and goodness are a prerequisite if one wants not merely to score points but to touch souls. Belief is not a static illusion to be knocked down at the introduction of a new scientific hypothesis or discovery. Faith is an orientation of soul, a posture toward God’s universe that finds expression in many religious traditions. God is not a magic dispenser of favors in the sky but a creator whose presence is a challenge to create goodness and a call to humility.

Those who value religious traditions should value thoughtful opposition, because it forces us to re-examine our own lives. In the end, however, I believe that questions honestly asked lead us back to the Source of all.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

Pitfalls of Making Playdate Plans

Brandon was 3 the first time another mother called me to schedule a playdate.

“A playdate,” I giggled. “That’s so clever! Did you make that up yourself?” (The dead silence on the other end of the phone clued me in that I had just made a monumental maternal faux pas that could potentially rival my last monumental maternal faux pas of offering up a bag of artificially colored/flavored Cheetos — rather than the au natural variety — to my son’s playgroup.) The other mother suddenly had a dire emergency and promised to call back. She didn’t.

Determined to spare myself future mortification, I began reading up on the ins and outs of playdates; rapidly surmising they entailed a considerable amount of parental involvement. One article, for example, “Plan the Perfect Playdate,” suggested I orchestrate a caterpillar cookie recipe that would have given Wolfgang Puck a run for his money. And honestly, do people really have potato sack races anymore?

Four kids and many magazine articles later, I now feel I am a virtual authority in the field of playdates. And considering Merriam-Webster has yet to add this modern mommy term to the official lexicon, I’ve taken it upon myself to write a definition.

Playdate (n): 1. adult-supervised, adult-directed “free play” between kids. 2. an organized method of fitting socializing into a kid’s hectic agenda. 3. a means of improving a child’s social status and heightening his popularity. 4. the culminating step in the over-scheduling of kids’ lives by over-protective, stressed-out parents.

Despite the societal clout of these new-fangled kiddie rendezvous, many experts fear that while they may be fine for preschoolers, they can be stagnating for kids developmentally prepared to be more independent, largely due to the following defining features:

The Playdate Scheduling Feature

When we were kids, our social plans were arranged with a “Hey, you wanna come over?” on the school bus ride home. Today’s playdates, in stark contrast, are planned weeks in advance and entered indelibly into parental palm pilots.

The Problem with the Scheduling Feature

Since kids’ friendships can change with the tides, a playdate planned six weeks in advance offers no guarantee that the playees will even be speaking by the designated moment of contact. Furthermore, due to vast parental involvement, playdates exude a comprehensive list of adult-driven etiquette rules that weren’t even on the radar screen when kids were running the show. If someone invites our child for a playdate, for example, mommy protocol suggests we reciprocate within a reasonable period of time. If, perchance, the other mother invites our child back prior to reasonable reciprocation, we must profusely apologize and promise to have her kid over two times in a row next time.

The Adult-Supervision Feature

When we were young, unsupervised play was the norm. We’d hop from one backyard to the next (before the evolution of the cul-de-sac) and stay out until our moms called us in for dinner. Today, parents are expected to continuously supervise their children’s social gatherings (and supply a long-range walkie-talkie in the event they have to run in to check on dinner).

The Problem with the Adult-Supervision Feature

From a safety standpoint, parental vigilance is perfectly appropriate. After all, awful, unthinkable things can happen to children when they are out of a parent’s vision and earshot (and the media makes sure we don’t forget it!). There is, however, a fine line (especially with older children) between being cautious and being overprotective and smothering. Our kids are growing up in a nervous world as it is. Our refusal to leave their side (when they are old enough for us to do so) sends a neon message that we, their knowledgeable parents, genuinely believe our absence will jeopardize their safety – an unsettling message indeed for children just getting their feet wet in the waters of independence.

The Organized Activity Feature

In the old days, If we and our friend grew tired of hopping on our pogo sticks, someone would say something profound like: “This is boring, let’s do something else.” We’d bounce around ideas like climbing a tree or watching “The Flintstones,” and move on to a new activity. During the modern playdate, on the other hand, the host parent is the designated boredom buster. Kids (and other parents) expect us to provide playdaters with one organized option after another, and have an arsenal of dehydration-preventing juice boxes are on hand, to boot.

The Problem with the Organized Activity Feature

Having every moment of a playdate planned and accounted for from bubble blowing to Batman action figure time, deprives children of the opportunity to engage in free creative play and learn to occupy themselves independently. Plus, it reaffirms the erroneous belief that it is a parent’s job to provide kids with round-the-clock entertainment.

So what can we modern parents do to counteract these playdate pifalls without making social pariahs out of ourselves? We can begin by throwing in the towel on the Julie the “Love Boat” cruise director persona (orchestrating limbo contests and shuffleboard competitions), and make like Captain Stubing instead (controlling the ship from a comfortable distance). In other words, our role as big kid playdate hostess is to provide a safe and pleasant playing environment, adequate (as opposed to constant) supervision, and, oh yes, dehydration-preventing juice boxes.

Sharon Duke Estroff is a nationally syndicated parenting columnist.


‘Image’ Is Everything

Dara Horn wrote an exuberant scene in her stunning debutnovel, “In the Image,” upon returning to her dreary garret flat during a yearabroad in 1999. “I’d been to this dismal British market in which an entireaisle was devoted to butter and fats,” the ebullient Horn, 25, said animatedly.”I recall a product called ‘beef drippings.’ The produce was wilting. All themilk was expired yesterday.  I was very homesick.”

So the New Jersey native did what any red-blooded Americanauthor would do: she sat down and wrote a scene about Costco. In the sequence,which parodies Emma Lazarus’ immigrant poem, “The New Colossus,” the youngheroine embarks “on a journey to the promised land of groceries … wherehuddled masses yearning to breathe free of halitosis went to stock theirshelves with mouthwash.”

It’s a frivolous but spirited moment in Horn’s richlydetailed novel, which places her within the same circle of Jewish rookie authorsensations as Jonathan Safran Foer. The story opens as Leora, reeling from thedeath of her best friend, stops speaking and instead simply examines “hersurroundings as if she were a visitor, someone passing through on a longjourney.” Then a very different kind of tourist, her late friend’s grandfather,Wilhelm “Bill” Landsmann, invites her to view his slide collection of Jewishcommunities abroad. Subsequent chapters travel back and forth in time toexplore the archetypal journey of 20th-century Jews, describing Leora’s doomedromance with Jake, a college jock turned ba’al teshuva, and Bill’s wretchedchildhood in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.

While the literary novel is chock full of illusions to theBible and to Yiddish literature, it isn’t above a trek (or two) to Costco.”Some might look at this as silly materialism, but there’s something sort ofexuberant about it,” said Horn, a Harvard doctoral student in Yiddish andHebrew literature. “It’s not just because you can get anything you want, butbecause you have the imagination to want more than you have. It’s theinspiration to decide what you want and who you want to be, which is reallywhat it means to be an American. So in my novel, Wilhelm becomes Bill, but Jakealso becomes Yehuda.”

Horn began thinking about American Jewish choices when shefirst read Philip Roth’s short story, “Good-bye Columbus,” set in her hometownof Short Hills, N.J., some years ago. The year is 1959, when Jewish quotasstill abounded.

By the time young Dara was growing up in Short Hills in the1980s, the quotas were gone and so was the need for plastic surgery. Hornproudly led junior congregation Torah readings at her Conservative synagogue,traveled to distant Jewish communities with her parents. At 14, she publishedher first magazine article, about Jewish historical sites in Spain, in Hadassahmagazine. She says she set her novel in Short Hills as a nod to “how much thesuburb has changed and how much the American Jewish community has changed in 40years.”

The setting and time frame also allowed Horn to explore thephenomenon of “people becoming more religious than their parents, whichintrigues me,” she said. “In order to make the decision to become morereligious, someone back in your family had to make the opposite decision.Neither choice is made frivolously, and I was fascinated by what makes peopledecide either way.”

Horn never intended to explore those issues in a novel; infact, she did not intend to write fiction until another fateful day abroad in1999. Bored during a train ride back to her Cambridge University flat, she saysshe began flipping through the spiral notebook in which she jotted ideas fornon-fiction articles and “suddenly began seeing how all these topics could belinked.”

While her classmates frequented pubs, Horn holed up in hergarret and started writing what she thought might be a series of short stories.Eventually, she linked them into a seamless, sprawling narrative that, in thetradition of Yiddish authors, frequently alludes to Jewish texts. A passage inwhich Bill and Leora visit a gravesite uses the structure of the Genesischapter on the binding of Isaac. The book of Job is retold starring Bill. Andthen there’s Costco as “The New Colossus” — the veritable opposite of thatpathetic British market Horn visited in Britain.

During a recent interview at a private home in Westwood, thefresh-faced New York author gleefully opens her novel and reads from the Costcopassage, clearly one of her favorites. “[There are] Waspy families whisperingto each other over piles of vegetables…. Trailer trash families brandishingtheir rattailed hair behind carts filled with fish sticks, Chasidic familiessweating in their long sleeves,” she read with relish. “[All] loading up theirshopping carts like Oregon Trail pioneers supplying their covered wagons asthey prepare to conquer the frontier, the parents gazing up at the toweringceilings of low-low prices, bewildered and captivated forever by this placethey call America.”