November 19, 2018

Marty Kaplan: What matters to me & why

I began making a list of what matters to me. Intellectual curiosity. Climate change. The First Amendment. My family. Giving back. One friend said to me, I know what I’d say: Money. Another friend told me: Those talks can be surprisingly honest.

That got me thinking. What’s the most honest answer I could give?

Right then, I knew. I had to come out. I had to say a three-letter word, beginning with G.

God.

For an academic, saying something good about God can be one of the last great taboos. So let’s break it. I’m talking about my relationship with God and no-God. You know that campaign, “We keep kosher at home,” my mother explained, whispering, so the other Jewish people at Ming’s eating trefe wouldn’t hear.

“But Rabbi Engel says—”

“Don’t tell Rabbi Engel.”

“But why—”

“That’s how we do it in our family.”

Yes, she admitted, later that night, sitting on my bed, after I had done with crying, yes, the Torah does contain 613 commandments, but only certain kinds of Jews obey them all. Fanatics. Our kind, the people of Schuyler Avenue, have made a little accommodation to modern life. We don’t live in the old country any more.

Thus was I introduced to the notion that the Torah was more like a buffet of options than an all-or-nothing proposition. My mother saw no slippery slope between her selective enforcement and moral anarchy. As long as people like us kept certain key commandments inviolable — Thou shalt not marry a shiksa, a Gentile girl, for example — our Jewish identity was intact.

I felt betrayed. It seemed to me that if one rule could be broken, all of them could. And so, perhaps inevitably, I rebelled. As my vision widened, as teachers and books and television and other kids ventilated my thinking, as puberty arrived, I began to question everything.

I confronted Rabbi Engel. If man descended from algae, how could Genesis be true? He patiently explained that some things — the idea of a “day,” for example — need not be understood literally. But Rabbi, I pressed, if one part of the Torah can be explained away as a metaphor, why can’t any other portion be waived as well?

It was like fighting with my parents about keeping kosher, only now it was the rabbi himself playing loosey-goosey with absolutes, and this time I felt not betrayal, but vindication.

I became the Voltaire of Schuyler Avenue, skewering everything on my skepticism. If God is good, I asked anyone who would listen, why did he let the six million die? If I can pick and choose among the commandments — if I’m free to eat shellfish — why isn’t another man free to murder? The answers confirmed my suspicion that religion was a con job, an iconoclasm also spurred by my devotion to Mad Magazine, the South Park of its time.

In high school, in AP physics and chemistry I learned the real rules that governed the universe: not scripture, but science. In AP biology I learned that life randomly emerged from an organic soup stewing for a billion years — no Creator required, thank you very much. In AP history I learned how much blood has been stupidly spilled in the name of an imaginary Deity.

By the time I arrived at Harvard, though I continued to eat matzoh on Passover and fast on Yom Kippur, these were acts of solidarity with my cultural and genetic heritage, not worship of my people’s God.

Harvard, from which I would graduate summa cum laude in molecular biology, completed my secularization. This is not a criticism. If Harvard had made me a more spiritual person, it would have failed in its promise to socialize me to the values of the educated elite.

Those values were, and are, secular. They enshrine reason, analysis, objectivity. The advance of civilization lies in the questioning of received wisdom, the surfacing of hidden assumptions, the exposure of implicit biases.

This view is not the product of a left-wing conspiracy to undermine traditional values; it is the inevitable consequence of an Enlightenment that began with Galileo, Descartes, and Newton… and a modernity launched by Darwin, Marx, and Freud… and a post-modernity postproduced by Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, and Derrida.

The prized act of mind in the Academy is the laying bare of hidden agendas. Nothing in culture is neutral. Nothing is what it seems. The educated person knows that love is really about libido, that power is really about class, that religion is really about fantasy, that altruism is really about self-interest.

At bottom, all values are relative to their communities. At bottom, everything is political. At bottom, everything is contingent, driven by the mores of time and place, reducible to its origins in evolution and history.

In every field, this view was being pursued to its postmodern conclusion; all the leading theorists were busy committing epistemological suicide. Look at the ideas that bit the dust: in aesthetics, the notion that there are objective standards of good and bad; in literary criticism, that there are right and wrong ways to interpret a text; in law, that justice is beyond politics; in psychiatry, that there are fixed distinctions between normalcy and madness; in anthropology, between savage and civilized; in art, between high and low.

The project of thinking, I came to understand, was to dismantle its own foundations.

Even science itself was under siege. The great achievement of the philosophy of science, I learned, was to reveal that science is saturated with politics. When scientists find evidence that conflicts with a paradigm, and they have to choose between discarding the evidence or discarding the paradigm, they make that choice not by applying objective rules, but by deciding who among their peers they trust.

By my last year in college, I was no longer a scientist. I was searching for answers elsewhere. In Dostoevsky, in Nietzsche, in artists who had looked deeply into the human condition, what they found, what I found, was the Abyss. We are alone. Life is absurd. We shiver in the pointless void, haplessly contesting the meaninglessness of our fate. Our yearning for purpose is doomed. It is our burden to live in a time when our minds have deprived us of our capacity for soothing self-delusion. In other words, everything sucks. In other words, nihilism.

A nihilist who doesn’t kill himself is lacking in followthrough, but not in analysis. Though I had thought myself out onto an intellectual ledge, I didn’t jump. I kept going — as many people keep going — by making an armistice with the ways of the world. Call it nihilism lite. It sounds like this:

If everything does come down to politics, it’s still better to know that, so that we can fight for our side’s values, than to pretend otherwise, and be the victim of their side’s values posing as transcendent norms. Even if love can be reduced to evolutionary biology and neurotransmitters, it can still feel like it makes the world go round. Even if values aren’t God-given, moral conduct is still possible. We abide by Kant’s categorical imperative: The rules we should follow are the ones we’d want to be universal laws.

This works. It’s practical. It helps countless people get out of bed in the morning.

But it is an armistice, not a peace. Existential desperation is never far away. It is difficult to face mortality without God. It is hard to tell children that the universe is indifferent to them. Even for the most fortunate, it is painful to confront the night thought, Is this all there is?

No wonder religious fundamentalism is booming. Fundamentalists know who they are and where they fit. They have no difficulty recognizing evil. They are confident that theirs is the one true way. We have Kant; they have God. They live by the literal word of the Bible; we live by its poetry. They are commanded; we are merely moved.

But fundamentalism is not a rational choice. It is not willed by the intellect; it is a mysterious visitor. I have often daydreamed about that visitor. If the God of the Lubavichers or the Satmars were to appear to me and demand obedience, I suspect I would gladly give it. But I am no more capable of partaking in Hasidic ecstasy than I am of heeding the biblical injunction against mixing linen and wool. It is not an option for me. Once the mind thinks some thoughts, it cannot unthink them.

This is the sadness at the heart of secular lives. No one wants to live in a pointless, chaotic cosmos, but that is the one that science has given us. We may yearn for the divine, but hipster neo-Dadaism is the best we can do. Everything’s ironic. Everything’s a joke. But inside, it can feel awful. The things you want a God for — an afterlife, a comfort, a commander — seem unavailable.

That’s where I thought I would spend my life: a cultural Jew, a closet nihilist, searching despite myself for something transcendent to fill the hole where God was.

I found that something in my dentist’s chair.

When he told me I ground my teeth, I denied it. I didn’t think of myself as unduly stressed; I had long ago decided that life is a roller coaster. Stress comes with the territory, and you deal with it, even thrive on it. That I was grinding my teeth suggested I was kidding myself. A part of me, beyond my conscious control, was having a hard time, and taking it out on my molars. Wearing a night guard would be like admitting defeat — letting my unconscious torpedo my equanimity.

“You’d be surprised how many of my patients use them,” my dentist said. “A lot of people hold tension in their jaw. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” I imagined myself reaching to my night table for my night guard. It made me think of the false teeth my Russian grandmother kept in a jelly glass by her bedside.

“Are there any alternatives?” I asked him. He pessimistically suggested meditation.

What appealed to me about meditation was its apparent religious neutrality. You don’ t have to believe in anything; all you have to do is do it. I had worried that reaping its benefits would require some faith I could only fake, but I was happy to learn that 90 percent of meditation was about showing up.

The spirituality of it ambushed me. I saw no visions, heard no voices, felt no caressing hand. But unwittingly I was engaging in a practice that has been at the heart of mysticism for millenniums. I’d read that people of all faiths had learned to meditate without violating their personal beliefs. At the time, I took this to mean that there was nothing inherently religious about meditation, which suited me just fine.

I was wrong. The reason that meditation doesn’t conflict with religious beliefs, whatever they are, is that it shares a highest common denominator with all of them.

To separate 20 minutes from the day with silence and intention is to pray, even if there’s no one to pray to. To step from the river of thought, to escape from monkey mind even for a moment, is to surrender to a transcendent realm. To be awakened to consciousness empty of content; to be thunderstruck by the mystery that there is something, rather than nothing; to be mindful, to be present; to be here, now: this is the road less traveled, the path of the pilgrim, the quest.

When I am asked whether I believe in God, I say that belief is the wrong word to use. I experience God. God may be the wrong word to use, too.

What I experience — no, not always, and sometimes not at all — is known to every mystic tradition. It has been called Spirit, Being, the All. It is what the Kabbalah calls Ayin, Nothingness, No-Thingness. It’s ineffable. It’s why Jewish mystics call God ha-zeh — the This. You can point to it, but you can’t describe it. You can sing it, but you can’t say it. It is better conveyed by silence than by language, by dance than by liturgy. And it is the experience at the heart of all contemplative practices, whether you’re looking for it or not.

The All is a long way from Newark, and silence is a long way from Harvard. As am I.

I used to think scientific materialism was the apex of human evolution. I used to think nihilism was the tragic price of progress. I used to think the soul was just a metaphor, a primitive name for dopamine. Now I think thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

What matters to me and why?

What’s mattered most to me in my life is… wrestling with that very question: What matters?

And why? Why does wrestling with that question matter to me so much?

I can’t help it. I have to. That’s the thing about experiencing the ineffable. That’s the thing about the This.


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Moving ‘God, Faith & Identity’ passes mantle of remembrance

Seventy years ago, the Red Army liberated the death camp at Auschwitz, an event that now marks the observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Ever since that day, we have been struggling to explain and understand what happened in the killing fields and concentration camps where 6 million Jews were tortured and murdered.

The latest such effort is found in “

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Christians and Jews, united in conversation and shared values

There exists a deep relationship between Judaism and Christianity rooted both in a shared history and religious values. History shows us that Jews and Christians once knew one another very well, recognizing that in some way we were brothers, like Jacob and Esau. In fact, in the Middle Ages, Jews used to call Catholics and Christians “Esaus” — brothers that had to overcome jealousy and heat, but at the end, both of them recognized their fraternity. 

Pope Francis and I became friends in the mid-1990s, after spending time together at official state ceremonies in Argentina. A humble man, with deep understanding and reverence for prayer and the power of God, the future pope and I were able to connect on a spiritual journey together, discussing interfaith issues and doing so without apology or hiding ourselves. Of course, there also was time to debate whose soccer team was the better club. Over the years, we delved deeper into our interfaith discussions, recognizing the important lessons that both religions hold dear — including the so-called Golden Rule. 

Leviticus 19:34 teaches, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” We should honor this message by welcoming all to discuss their faiths, to engage in open dialogue so that we are no longer strangers but rather neighbors. While the pope and I have had our differences of opinion on certain issues, it was clear that these discussions were not only enlightening but a way to publicly present, at first to Argentine society and now to the world, a way of holding open , honest interfaith dialogue.

Today, both Pope Francis and I believe that we must work to revitalize the type of conversations between our faiths that existed from the beginning of the first century and into the second century. By speaking openly about our faiths, and yes, even delving into and focusing on theological issues, we can better understand not only our differences but our similarities in how we interpret Christian Scripture and Jewish texts. Only by coming to the table with open minds can we truly understand the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism that goes back 2,000 years, to understand who the other is and the significance each faith holds for the other. 

This same goal brings me the United States this month as I travel to Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and Southern California to join my colleagues from the Church in open dialogue about religion and politics. Our religious views have great influence over our political beliefs and religious leaders can have a particularly strong impact on their communities’ views. In better understanding each other’s religions, we can better understand each other’s political beliefs. 

In politics, as in religion, it is important to understand the views of those with whom you disagree to better understand how we all fit together. I do not understand the resistance to interfaith dialogue by some, or dialogue across the political aisle by too many. Individuals who are steadfast in their beliefs should have nothing to fear in exploring why they believe what they believe. 

As I travel around the U.S., I do so not as a representative of the Jewish people as a whole, but as a rabbi hoping to engage in meaningful dialogue with all communities, which is why Masorti Olami, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, is holding open community events throughout the country. I hope that these conversations will inspire others to do the same. 

While in California, I will have the opportunity to speak with Archbishop José Horacio Gomez, the fifth Archbishop of Los Angeles, and with Bishop Kevin Vann at events at Loyola Marymount University and the Christ Cathedral, respectively. We plan to discuss the Latino world’s impact on both religion and politics, with discourse about the intersection of these two worlds and how religious leadership can influence policy. I hope these conversations can provide some fresh perspective to those who join us and encourage them to also discuss, analyze and study the issues from all viewpoints. Everyone is welcome.

At a time of increasing strife and violent extremism, it is even more important for us to engage in open interfaith dialogue and move to better understand one another and our intertwined history and morality. In this new year, let us resolve to work together to bridge the aisle, to begin to speak as brothers and truly learn about one another. Let us remember Jacob and Esau, their meaningful embracement and the rich history that connects us all.


Rabbi Abraham Skorka is currently the rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer, which trains Masorti/Conservative rabbis, cantors and educators in the Latin American Jewish community. The rabbi and Pope Francis co-authored “On Heaven and Earth,” a book on interfaith dialogue. He will be in Southern California for various Masorti Olami-sponsored events Jan. 22-25. For more information, visit masortiolami.org and follow the rabbi on Twitter at @RabbiSkorka.

Why religion is a laughing matter

Satire and caricature are funny things. The most effective satire makes us laugh — but then it also gives us something to chew on, to think about.  

Not all satire is humorous, however. In the Middle Ages, caricatured figures were generally not intended to be funny, as for example in the Christian sculptural traditions that depicted Jews and heretics with deformed features. That was essentially an early version of hate speech. Satire runs on a spectrum from humor to bitterness to hatred, a range of meanings that can only be deciphered in their cultural context. We learn to figure out what is funny (think of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), what is trying to be funny but is really in bad taste (“The Interview”) and what is downright mean (Nazi cartoons of Jews).  

But within this complexity, caricaturing and satirizing religion historically have been even more sensitive. The Protestant Reformation produced humorous and heated satire against Roman Catholicism, and even the pope. Once Protestantism was established in a country, however, satire was censored. Humorous cartoons about political issues came into prominence from the Napoleonic Age onward; but the authority of religion protected what was demarcated as holy. In intensely secular, revolutionary France, prelates could be lampooned, but in America it was more often the “enthusiasts” — the wild sectarians such as Mormons and millenarians — who would appear as the object of caricature. Mainstream religion — decorous, solemn and rational — rarely suffered direct attack until the late 20th century.

Why have we not been able to laugh at religion? Underneath it all, are we afraid to take religion lightly? That a wrathful deity might put up with all kinds of other crimes against humanity, life and even lack of devotion to Himself, but not with being laughed at? Would the creator of humanity, who made the world completely good, regret creating a laughing being more than a murderous one? This would be an ironic theological outcome for Western religions. Not that Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism or Hinduism are known for rollicking laugh-fests.

Oddly enough, given its minority status, Judaism seems to be the religion that has produced a larger repertoire of humorous religious satire. The tradition that supposedly invented the absolutist, jealous, wrathful God also produced a people that considers religion pretty funny? That is pretty funny, but true. Jokes about rabbis abound, as well as about Jewish practices such as the Passover matzah and bitter herbs, circumcision, conversion and bar mitzvah, not to mention theological topics such as God, Satan and death. Such jokes are even recited from the pulpits of quite religious congregations. Are Jews secret atheists? Is this revenge?

No. Jewish humor comes from the Jewish tradition of destabilizing structures of power — which is the source of both revolutionary ideology in the sociopolitical realm and humorous satire. From biblical times, our texts recount the overthrow of ancient worldviews that believed in child sacrifice, the rights of the first-born, divine humans, divine rights of kings and dynastic rule. They limit the power of owners over slaves, of husbands and fathers over women, even of humans over animas with the laws of the Sabbath.  

But humor can go deeper, liberating the mind. The Exodus story is in part a satire on Pharaoh who believes himself a god. While he was issuing decrees and whips were lashing the Israelites, women outsmarted him. The midrash tells us of the midwives who said, “We can’t kill the Hebrew boys as they emerge from the womb — the women deliver their babies so fast we can’t get there in time.” Really! And if you believe that, I’ll sell you a bridge over the Nile. Worse yet, modern children’s songs about the Ten Plagues make Pharaoh a laughingstock, a helpless victim of forces he thinks he controls. 

The story of Balaam and his talking donkey in the book of Numbers is a parody of a prophet who thinks he can outsmart the deity and get rich. The tale of Elijah competing with the prophets of Baal in the book of Kings is a hilarious caricature. The book of Esther satirizes the power of villains and foolish kings. The book of Jonah has plenty of irony: Really, Jonah, you think you can run away from an infinite God? The strange ending to that story could almost be a cartoon: You feel sorry for the plant that died, but not for the thousands of people of Nineveh who would have died if they had not repented? And so many cattle?   

Our problem today is that too much of religion has not fulfilled its promise as a disruptive, liberating force. It is another bastion of structural stability and entrenched power. Ironies of divine behavior are interpreted as warnings and punishments. The force of humor is repressed by being associated with arrogance: Religious authorities proclaim it sinful to satirize views of God, religion or its representatives. But, isn’t the arrogant shoe on the other foot?

Religion in most traditions is no laughing matter because it is defined as nonmatter, as “spiritual,” as on a higher level than we benighted humans. But for Judaism, everything human is, simply, human. Everything natural is, simply, nature. There are visible and invisible worlds, but “God” is not defined by any of their terminologies. So everything, including our religions, is subject to critique.  

Humor — as satire, as caricature — is a Jewish way of subverting idolatry. But the best humor comes not with bitterness or revolutionary zeal. It comes with love, or at least appreciation, for the precarious and tender efforts of human and divine partners to be in relationship.  

One of the cartoons that supposedly angered Islamic radicals depicted the founder of Islam, holding his head in his hands and saying, “It’s so hard to be loved by idiots.” The cartoon could have been one of God as the old bearded man in the sky, looking down on His human creations. It must be hard for Him, too, to be loved by those idiosyncratic creatures who forget what He is all about.


Tamar Frankiel is president of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a scholar of comparative religion.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis remembered with tears and laughter at funeral

My immortality, if there be such for me, is not in tears, blame or self-recrimination.

But in the joy you give to others, in raising the fallen and loosening the fetters of the bound.

In your loyalty to God’s special children – the widow, the orphan, the poor, the stranger in your gates, the weak – I take pride.

 

As was often the case, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis said it best, even at his own funeral service, in the excerpts, (a portion of which is reprinted above), from his poem “For Those Beloved Who Survive Me,” printed in the program.

Despite the rabbi’s admonition, there were tears at the funeral service on Dec. 21 among the more than 1,500 speakers friends, congregants and admirers who overflowed the large Valley Beth Shalom sanctuary and into adjoining rooms. Rabbi Schulweis died on Dec. 18 at 89.

But there was laughter, too, as rabbinical colleagues, family members and others profoundly touched by the rabbi’s warmth and wisdom recalled anecdotes from the rich life of the man who was arguably the most influential synagogue leader of his generation.

Three rabbis who had worked closely with him, Joshua Hoffman, Stewart Vogel and Noah Farkas, recalled Schulweis’ modesty, erudition and their difficulty in addressing their revered mentor as “Harold,” despite the latter’s insistence. “For most of us, the voice of God was Rabbi Harold Schulweis,” Vogel said. But he was also marked by “rabbinic humility.” Vogel added.

Rabbi Schulweis’ younger cousin, Harvey Schulweis, observed that when the former spoke “he looked into your soul, and there was no one else in the room but you and me.”

As if to illuminate these words, sunlight, reflected through a stained glass window, streamed across the bimah.

Janice Kamenir-Resnick, whom Schulweis enlisted as co-founder of the Jewish World Watch, thanked her mentor for “making us leave our comfort zone” and for “opening your mouth and opening my eyes.”