January 24, 2019

Richard Greene: How One or Two Words Can Change Your Life

One of the world’s leading experts on public speaking, Richard Greene, explains why people fear public speaking more than death, and discusses the abuse of language in the era of Trump. Visit his website.

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Religion finally heard at TED Talks

The TED conference has become famous because of the TED Talks broadcast throughout the world, and available online. The talks have beguiled and instructed, with a wide range of topics from the workings of the human mind to the outer reaches of technology to social innovation. For several years, I have attended the conference, but at last month’s annual gathering in Vancouver, B.C., something happened that to me was unprecedented and remarkable.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. Some of the most eminent people in the world speak and attend: Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Al Gore, Bono, actors, educators, financiers, scientists, psychologists and so forth. This year, former world chess champion Gary Kasparov spoke about the intersection of human intelligence and technology.

In the eight years I attended TED, with the exception of the curator of the Vatican Museums, I never ran across another member of the clergy — not a priest, minister, imam or rabbi. Despite the many Jews who attend TED who have distinguished themselves in their fields, I never saw another kippah apart from mine. Although I was often approached in a friendly way to answer questions about my religious convictions, people seemed amused or even astonished that a rabbi would be at TED. I always was puzzled at the double-sided neglect: Why weren’t more religious people interested in the remarkable advances that TED showcases, and why wasn’t TED more interested in the power of religion?

Each year, I would talk to people about this question, which troubled me. If religion is to enter the modern world, it cannot ignore the kind of learning and teaching that goes on at TED. And although some at TED are plainly hostile to religion — I’ve had (always amicable) exchanges there with such prominent atheist writers as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett — I maintained that others would benefit from understanding more about religion. After all, I argued, if you want to change the world, religion is the army with the greatest number of troops on the ground, scattered throughout the world, able to help. When I volunteered a few years ago to help rebuild an orphanage in Haiti, almost everyone else I met there, many of whom had been working in the country for years, were Christian aid workers.

Yet, so far as I could see, since Pastor Rick Warren’s address in 2006, religion had been banished from TED. And then, this year, something remarkable happened.

On the first day of the conference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain, addressed the attendees. He spoke about identity and otherness, the promise of America, reaching out, welcoming the stranger, acts of goodness and how the Jews managed to maintain their identity by telling their story. It was a message pitched to the TED audience but one that would not have been out of place in a synagogue, except for the omission of overt theological motifs. It also was eloquent and beautifully delivered. When Rabbi Sacks concluded, the hall erupted in a sustained standing ovation.

The following day, we were told a surprise world leader would address us. The rumor swept across TED that former President Barack Obama would appear. When the time came, however, speaking via video transmission was Pope Francis.

The effect was electrifying. Once again, the pope’s message was not unexpected. He, too, spoke about care for others, how technology must be fashioned to serve human ends, and the importance of peace. It is fair to say that neither Rabbi Sacks nor the pope conveyed essentially new information or ideas. Rather, they beautifully packaged old truths.

But as I walked the halls afterward, these were the two speeches everyone was talking about. Amid the technologists and historians and innovators, representatives of these two ancient traditions struck the deepest chord.  

As one would expect, the people who attend TED are future oriented. They trust the promise of technology, striding around halls studded with virtual reality booths, next generation car designs and a variety of high-tech displays. Sometimes, however, the seductions of tomorrow blind us to the power of the past.  

Suddenly in a hall of visitors sporting jeans, sneakers and mobile devices, we witnessed tradition’s capacity to spark hearts. Data-driven social scientists rose to acknowledge the cogency of telling the Passover story. People who spend their lives working on gene sequencing cheered language about shaping souls. A moment of convergence swept the hall, when technological transformation bowed its head to ancient, shared truth.

The pope asked the people gathered there to use their gifts for the benefit of humanity and to take care not to leave the less fortunate behind. In a gathering of privilege, those words struck a chord; among people who are filled with dynamism and the desire to do good, here was an ancient affirmation that they are valued and needed. And it came from a place that many had long since dismissed. 

This year, the modern world of Silicon Valley briefly clasped hands with ancient Jerusalem. The wired world was strikingly rewired: TED took the bold step of demonstrating that the wisdom of tradition has much to add to the power of innovation.

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple. His most recent book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).

Arianna Huffington’s ‘Thrive’: Tips, tricks and the Torah

Is there a Torah of self-actualization? 

American tradition, following Ralph Waldo Emerson, puts the individual at the pivot of the world: “When I look at the rainbow I find myself the center of its arch. But so are you; and so is the man that sees it a mile from both of us. So also the globe is round, and every man therefore stands on the top. King George and the chimney sweep no less.”  

With one twist of the ego, this turns into an insufferable narcissism. But looked at another way, this idea is the engine of innovation that has driven America forward.

Has Judaism a similar doctrine, or perhaps the same one? Along with many others, I recently read Arianna Huffington’s best-selling new book, “Thrive.” (Full disclosure: I am mentioned briefly in the book in connection with a story about my father.) Many of the book’s reviews have focused on Huffington’s persona and not on her message. More pointed is the question: How do social science, pop bromides and world wisdom, as the book is liberally marbled with quotes from many traditions, all filtered through the life of a phenomenally successful woman, square with Judaism’s approach to a life well-lived?

Huffington’s premise is that wealth and influence are less central to a satisfying life than we are often led to believe. She argues instead that what ultimately will make us happy or satisfied is our relationships, as well as sleep, exercise, meditation, cultivating a sense of wonder and being in touch with traditions of wisdom. We thrive less through accumulation than through giving and growth. 

Granted: We should indeed sleep more (wakefulness won’t bend to willfulness). Meditation can calm the mind. Most of us should exercise and watch less TV. Unplug, says the creator of Huffington Post, and she offers some practical and helpful suggestions on how to do it. Fight “hurry sickness” by slowing down (as in Mel Brooks’ immortal advice on the album “2000 and THIRTEEN” — “Don’t run for the bus; there’ll always be another”). Volunteer and give, both because it is good for the world and it is good for the soul. Although the quest for money and power dominates many of our days, they are overestimated as sources of satisfaction or genuine happiness. 

There is a great deal of sagacity by social science, and the book does not lack data points. Inevitably, as with all advice literature, this book also includes contradictions. We should care about the globe, but pay attention to what is close by; decrease worry, but be concerned about others; let go of fears and time anxiety, but keep the reality of death before us always; use intuition, but pay attention to all these studies with stats that prove what I am saying. Such contradictions are part of the relentless messiness and glorious variety of human experience. If there were advice that applies to everyone in every situation, there would be just one advice book, and we would all read it and be done. In wisdom, as in diets, the proliferation proves that no single regimen always works.

Through this book and a host of others less adroitly written and sourced, we are told to moderate in a somewhat immoderate world. This is Icarus warming his wings by sunlamp.  

Having previously written about our enslavement to technology in these pages (“Am I an E-Slave?” April 11, 2014), I am sympathetic to the “power-off” movement. Of course, here, too, lurks a contradiction, because the same scientific mindset that studies social movement, individual psychology and seeks to make the world better through technology (farming, electricity, vaccinations, etc.) is inextricably bound to the world of the smartphone, to having all knowledge — and every acquaintance — at your fingertips. Having attended several TED conferences, I’m always amused when they ask you to turn off your screens because otherwise you will disturb the people around you, when you know that half of them — and the speaker they are all listening to — make their b/millions by persuading people to turn on their screens. 

Still, throughout the “gentle wisdom” movement, as well as Huffington’s books, is a vision different from the Jewish world view. I want to emphasize that to elaborate it is not to diminish the author’s very helpful and readable book. The critique is not about the humane vision Huffington enshrines. Rather, it is the essentially countercultural critique that a truly religious vision of the world requires.

The subtitle of “Thrive” is “The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder.” Apart from the jargony “metric” and the oxford comma, what one notices about the title is the book’s aim — creating a life of well-being (presumably both physical and emotional), wisdom and wonder, that is, a lasting curiosity about the world. All noble goals, and surely success defined as attaining these things is agreeable to us all.

Yet, classical Judaism would, I believe, feel estranged from such a definition. Not only for the obvious reason that Judaism mandates conforming to the will of God in any definition of a successful life, but because of what that conforming entails. Ultimately, a successful life is one that transcends the individual who lives that life. Success is measured less in the attributes of the individual — wonder/ wisdom/well-being — than in a life where all those are in service to something greater than oneself. I don’t mean that Huffington is preaching selfishness; she is not. There is a section about giving that is sincere and has practical suggestions. But even giving in our culture is justified by the good it does for the emotional well-being of the one who gives. We circle back to the powerful teaching of Emerson at the top of the article — you stand at the arch, and no matter how the globe turns, you are its pivot. 

That is the Torah’s penultimate message, but not its final one. There is a great deal in the Jewish tradition about cultivating wonder, attaining wisdom, being healthy in body and mind. The human being was created singly, the Talmud insists, because we all include a world.  None of that is the ultimate purpose of life, however. The end is service of God. In other words, doing mitzvot, improving the world, learning Torah — all of it may bring you great joy and satisfaction and a kind of success, but that is not the subtitle of Jewish life. The subtitle is finding joy in service to something greater than you. The sedate and judicious model in the pages of “Thrive” would never fit the heroes of the Torah — Moses, David, Deborah — or even the great and often-tormented spiritual figures who shaped Jewish history.   

Judaism asks for a strenuousness and immoderation that puts it out of step with the modern world. There is an impulse, old but much magnified lately, to reinterpret Jewish tradition as being designed to be good for you — kashrut is about health, and daily prayer about slowing your heart rate, and Shabbat about calming the system and forging relationships that are essential to well-being. But such rationales keep bumping up against the parts of the tradition that cause stress or strife or unhappiness. Suppose that on Shabbat you’d be happier driving to the beach, or what if lobsters are suddenly discovered to be a health food? Judaism makes your life better, to be sure, but it is ultimately about holiness and the guidelines for living a holy life. Our tradition just isn’t completely rational and will not fully accord with any other system.

The deeper message of Huffington’s book is that, ultimately, life is about the well-rounded elaborations of human potential. While not negating — God forbid — the importance of such advocacy, it is not too much to say that Judaism also speaks up for the lopsided, the unbalanced, the passion that crowds out equanimity. Judaism puts realistic breaks on wild fanaticism, but there is a restlessness, an unease, an intensity at the heart of Jewish life that remains ever unquenched. And such will always be the case when the human being believes that the highest use of life, as William James put it, is to spend it on something that outlasts it.  

The soldier who fights for his country, the mother who sacrifices for her child, the observant Jew who renounces career advancement to Shabbat observance and easy social interactions to kashrut, all in very different ways, are putting something above their own well-being.  

Mission sits uneasily with moderation, and metrics give way to mitzvah.

David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.