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If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him

There is a Zen saying that goes like this: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. The foundation of this saying is to remind us that if someone seems to have all the answers to all the questions, they don’t have any answers at all. I was reminded of that saying last Monday night when I sat down for a traditional Passover Seder and the leader of the Seder presumed to know everything. It was rather tedious having to listen to his zealotry as he fumbled through a Haggadah different from the rest of us trying to find a place we could all agree on. It was tedious to listen to the polemical insistance that the story being repeated was an actual experience witnessed by millions of Jews in Egypt and at Sinai around 3200 years ago.

I must admit being a bit impatient with the leader, who was trying to equate my relationship with a Chabad Rabbi and his relationship with the Chabad. When I tried to explain to him that my interest was more or less academic and not religious or spiritual he was arrogant enough to tell me I was wrong and that no one goes to the Chabad unless they are interested in spiritual development. When he presumed to know my personal motivation I demonstrated my own impatience by telling him that the stories that survived to form Rabbinic Judaism are simply made-up, redacted and crafted by the redactor to create a theosophy matching the politics of the exile after the rise of Christianity and the defeat of Bar Kochba; that it is impossible to ignore the political reality and still understand the surviving mythology.

At that point I was told that he and I are exactly the same. We come from the same religious experience. In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth. True, we are about the same age, we both have prostate cancer although mine is currently in full remission while his is, unfortunately, not, we both attend the Chabad (but not for the same reasons) but there the similarities end. I am an atheist, a Jewish atheist but an atheist nevertheless while he is conveniently religious (only when it suits him). I am curious about the form of argumentation used by the post-exilic sages because it is a fascinating academic exercise to understand the thought process as the core documents of Jewish thought were created but I do not accept these documents as anything other than an effort to explain that which is difficult to explain. He takes the documents at their face value asking no critical questions as to origin, political considerations or relationships between Jews and Gentiles as these documents were being created. I could go on about differences but I think I have made my point.

I generally find those people who presume to speak for others to be both tedious and arrogant. Perhaps the two cannot be separated in any meaningful way. In this particular case, I was also angered by the presumption that this man decided what my personal motives might be and how utterly wrong he was. His error was compounded by his failure to listen to any explanation of my motives that I offered. I soon became tired of the whole affair and began to respond to him with the following, “I can’t believe you swallow this made up BS hook, line and sinker!” For that I probably should ask for forgiveness but I probably won’t because I only see him on rare occasions any longer.

What I find is that I have far more questions than I have answers. I don’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself when I write. Sure I try to write persuasively but I don’t expect anyone to simply accept my arguments at face value. I write to construct tentative answers to difficult questions offering up my musings for comments and critique. After all, isn’t that how we learn to understand each other. Only when there is a single-minded zeal does the process of understanding get interrupted falling into ruins. So keep the conversations lively and if you meet the Buddha on the road…Kill him!

 

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Assimilation or Acculturation, One Lesson from the Talmud: Thinking in Jewish IX

Between the [holy] books on one hand and the tefilin and mezuzot on the other, this is the only difference: the books are written in all languages, whereas the tefilin and the mezuzot only in Hebrew. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: “Even for the [holy] books, they [the masters] have only authorized [by way of another language] their being written in Greek.”
Tractate Megillah, 8b

Assimilation or Acculturation, One Lesson from the Talmud: Thinking in Jewish IX

Assimilation or Acculturation, One Lesson from the Talmud: Thinking in Jewish IX

In the Souls of Black Folks, W. E. B. DuBois argued persuasively that an important issue facing African-Americans in the post-slavery United States was whether or not to assimilate into the culture of the majority. DuBois argued that assimilation would effectively destroy that which defined the souls of Black people, arguing that rather than submit to a reduction into the same (not DuBois’ term) and engage in the culture of the normative society, rather than seek to assimilate, Black people should concentrate on acculturation as a meaningful alternative. Acculturation meant that learning to navigate through the White man’s world, adopting speech patterns, clothing and accepted manners while dealing with White people did not mean that one had to accept total reduction to the same, rather, one could continue to maintain cultural and linguistic roots while working and living within one’s own community.

Nearly 2,000 years before DuBois wrote Souls of Black Folks the sages of the Mishnah, and 700 years later the sages of the Talmud in commenting and clarifying the Mishnah addressed the same issue; just what is one’s obligation to conform to the normative society and what are the options open to maintaining one’s roots as Jews in the diaspora. The quote from the Mishnah above, found in Tractate Megillah of the Talmud Bavli is focused on the same question that DuBois raised. In essence the Mishnah allows for all sacred texts from Scriptures through commentaries to be translatable into the language of the people with two exceptions, the tefilin and the mezuzot. A minority opinion is included that points out that translation into Greek is the only one expressly authorized by the masters, the sages of the Sanhedrin.

Why is this so important? By making the claim that translating sacred texts into the language spoken by people, the rabbis are making it clear that it is more important to be able to understand what is written than to simply adhere to the original textual form. While there is implicit in their ruling, for that is what the Mishnah is, a compilation of Jewish Law, that translations are interpretations of the texts, translation leads to clarity and visceral understanding as well. It is also clear, through the minority opinion, that the masters understood the need to translate at least into one language but had no ability to extend to any other language as the Sanhedrin no longer existed.

Why the exception for tefilin and mezuzot? The most important prayer for Jews is the Shema, the prayer that affirms the oneness of God, one that is repeated three times each and every day and when Torah is read, more often. It is also repeated with greater frequency on some special holidays. Translated into English it reads: Listen up Israel! The Lord is God, God is one. Directly following the recitation of the Shema is a prayer called the V’ahavtah, a prayer that tells devout Jews to bind these words as a sign upon your hand and between your eyes (tefilin) and they shall be inscribed upon the doorposts of your house and gates (mezuzot). Inside the tefilin and mezuzot are hand written prayers that include the V’ahavtah and other verses from Torah. These verses are not to be translated into any other language, rather they are to be held in their original linguistic form for all ages; a clear connection to one’s roots. To do otherwise would be to become just like those of the other nations, the gentiles, and would lead to a complete absorption into the broader, normative culture.

The Rabbis were being careful to preserve the essential quality of what it means to be Jewish. They were saying, through the metaphor of translation, that it is more important to preserve the core of one’s cultural belief system than to turn the whole over to those in a strange land. They were fully aware that if one allows the other to define the self then the self is destined to be reduced to the other without recourse to that which underpins one’s attitude toward life, ethics, and morality. By creating an exception to the translation rule, the Rabbis preserved a specific hook upon which to hang one’s hat, a specific bit of Torah that cannot be changed, no matter how hard others may try to reduce it to the ashes.

If the sages of the Talmud lived today, I am certain they would side with DuBois, arguing that acculturation is preferable, in fact is the positive choice for Jews, rather than attempting to assimilate into gentile society. Acculturation provides one with a dualistic approach to society, being comfortable in two worlds, without having to sacrifice one’s ethical convictions to one or the other.

Am I learning to read between the lines? Indeed, I think so.

Trust is not Blind Faith: Thinking In Jewish III

Trust is not Blind Faith: Thinking In Jewish III

Trust is not Blind Faith: Thinking In Jewish III

I trust science. I trust evidence. I trust questioning everything. I think that evidence always trumps ideology; when allowed to drop the ideological posturing even the ideologue will follow the evidence. Evidence cannot be self-serving. One cannot rely on one’s ideology and the documents of faith attached thereto as reasonable evidence because it leads one into a circularity of thought that refuses to admit any other evidence. The difference between science and ideology, between science and blind faith, is that scientists are always ready to be convinced of an alternative to their current position given the weight of new evidence.

What was true during the rule of the Roman Empire (Middle Ages, The Renascence, The Enlightenment — take your pick) is not necessarily true today (there are some things that remain constant in human life such as ethics, love, peace and understanding). Advances in science and in social science, in philosophy, in analytical approaches to both the collection of evidence and the interpretation of the evidence collected is the stuff of human progress. To ignore advances, to jump up and down about divine punishment if you believe in say, Darwin’s theory of Evolution, is to ignore the weight of the evidence supporting the theory itself. In fact, it also shows a profound misunderstanding of the very idea of what a theory is.

A theory is an invitation to seek evidence both for and against the position offered by that theory. Like anything else in science, the position of scientists is that if even one piece of the theoretical position is shown to be false, the entire theory collapses. When, for the past 130 years or so, biologists have always found the idea of natural selection (Darwin never said “survival of the fittest” a term adopted by Spencer in Social Darwinism) to be the best answer to the question of species development as well as species diversion into separate species. The fossil record as well as experimental evidence has never shown Darwin’s notion of natural selection to be anything but correct. This does not mean, however, that sometime in the future an even better answer can be found and if it is, the scientific community will adapt to and embrace such a new approach. That is the profound difference between relying on ideological claptrap and scientific evidence.

All this is prompted by my own desire to learn the conceptual framework for thinking in Jewish. As part of that journey I sat in a class with Rabbi Mendel last night. The discussion was both lively and productive. Rabbi Mendel works within a belief system that admits to the Torah being revealed to Moses at Sinai and passed down generation to generation until today; absolutely true and unchanging, the Torah is unable to be questioned, to be analyzed except for creating stories that help explain the contradictions contained therein. More words of interpretation have been written to explain what is held to be the absolute truth than are contained in the Torah and the remaining books of the Tanach including the histories, prophets and other writings that make up the Jewish holy scriptures.

I find this interesting on several levels. It seems that thinking in Jewish is, at once, an analytical exercise as well as an exercise in trying to explain the unexplained; the contradictions, the laws that appear on the surface to make no sense and other anomalies found in the basic sacred texts themselves. The part I find most interesting is the former and not the latter. The analytical approach to reading these sacred texts filled with humanistic metaphor is, at least as I understand it today, both universal in its approach to broader constructions of human life and is quite narrow and particular in terms of the law and the interpretation of that law. My interest is in the universal, the humanistic, the ethical and how these ancient scholars grappled with many of the same ideas that occupied the Greeks and their offspring, the philosophers of the West.

I am interested in the deconstruction of single verses, of words and their pluralistic meanings and the insights that come from said deconstruction. The difference, as I understand it, between the deconstruction of Torah sages and the post-modern deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida, is that the Torah sages had a self-serving ax to grind, they were true believers where the post-modern deconstructionists are not bound by ideology, rather they are driven by deep reading and a certain desire to reveal nuances in the text being interpreted that have never been addressed before.

At the same time, Rabbi Mendel, while an ideologue, is quite adept at zeroing in on a point to be made. While some of his points are straw-men, he nevertheless has a knife sharp point of view that wants to narrow the conversation to the point that is on the table. His approach embraces difference of opinion while, at the same time, putting his point of view sharply out there for consideration. He is a good listener and a good debater. Hooray. While I seldom agree with his faith based point of view, I admire his ability to analyze and to place his view out there for consideration. I am learning a great deal from this young man on a mission.

I am, of course, recovering from prostate cancer, retired and curious. One thing I learned through my relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous is that I am never cured, only recovering. That is an important consideration in my road to recovery. While I have overcome the worst of the disease, it is only because of early detection, fundamentally the probabilities were at work here and I drew the winning card on the river (a poker analogy for those not in the know). Had the original spike in PSA been found a month or two later the likelihood of a completely different diagnosis would be quite high. Nevertheless, it is what it is and what it is provides me with the time and the ever increasing energy to pursue the idea of thinking in Jewish. I will remain diligent in dealing with my health concerns, having PSA checked four more times in 2013 and once a year thereafter and, with any reasonable amount of luck I will remain cancer free. I will, however, always have prostate cancer lurking in the back of my mind.

Free Flight or Dancing Toward the Light

Free Flight

Free Flight

It is Monday morning, a gray dreary day outside, below freezing temperatures, a threat of snow later today. The Bears lost yesterday in a game that was so bad I decided to turn it off and do something more productive than just sitting around watching a team self destruct. Sounds depressing, yes? Well, not so much. I also watched a flock (or is it a gaggle) of Canada geese foraging in what was a corn field undisturbed by the weather, the dreary sky, or the misty rain that fell all day yesterday. In addition, my wife and I attended a Chanukah party hosted by Rabbi Mendel and his wife at the Elgin Chabad celebrating the light that each one of us brings into the world as a healing force, a force for good. So goes a tale of lived-experience. Sometimes things are rosy and other times they are bleak but nothing lasts forever.

Over the past several days I have been battling a rash and a mind numbing itch resulting from a reaction to the adhesive in the steri-strips used to close the wounds from my prostate surgery. The itching has been constant, keeping me awake at night and causing me to be cranky with others. I am treating the rash and itch with cortisone creams and over the past several days the rash is diminishing and the itching is mostly under control. Progress!

Additionally, I am struggling with incontinence, a common side effect of radical prostatectomy. On the first day post catheter removal I filled up my adult diaper to the point of significant discomfort six times. On day two, Saturday, I only required five changes and yesterday that number dropped to four. Progress! Last night I slept through the night with a nearly dry diaper, got out of bed with no additional leaking and made it to the bathroom to urinate normally. Progress!

Levinas warns against the self retreating into its own interiority when facing issues of pain or suffering of any kind. Because one’s focus is on the pain or, in this case, the constant, painful itching, little, if any, room is left for seeking the exteriority of the other. Yet, one cannot afford the luxury of sinking into one’s own self, into the isolation of the interiority of self-pity, and remain an ethical human being.

Sometimes, sinking into the depths of interiority is absolutely unavoidable, the loss of a loved one comes immediately to mind. The profound sadness, in this kind of a situation, is not only expected, it is entirely appropriate. This interiority lasts for a few days and is soon replaced by a return to a relatively normal lived-experience. To sink into the interiority of pity because of a rash or a normal side-effect of surgery is, however, self-defeating. In these kinds of situations one’s primary obligation is to accept the condition as existing in this very moment and the consequences of that condition as the final outcome and then working to find relief. In my case, I treated the rash with cortisone and read everything I could get my hands on regarding post radical prostatectomy incontinence. The rash is getting better and I now know what to look for in terms of progress with the incontinence.

By adopting treatment and knowledge, while the immediate conditions may drive me a bit nuts, I am also adopting an attitude that simply won’t provide the space for me to take the plunge into self-pity. So I can turn off the Bears game, tolerate the Winter weather, take solace in the industry of the Canada geese foraging for food in the rain and celebrating Chanukah with others. To my mind this is a simple formula of making oneself present for the other, to recognize one’s existence in the company of other human beings focused on bringing light into the world.

Getting Festive . . . Making Decisions

Getting Festive

Getting Festive (photo credit: Roger Passman)

It is Saturday afternoon as I sit down to write. The day began with a trip to the Vet’s office with our two dogs, Mazel and Simin. They were due for their heartworm injections, in fact, they were it turns out, six months overdue. They should have been injected in June but that month was taken up with my knee replacement surgery. Who ever said that growing old was going to be easy? Now, with the relief of being declared cancer free, we can pay more attention to the mundane tasks of everyday living.

While at the vet’s office I watched these two dogs, sniffing and exploring, at least that is what I think they are doing. I thought about their actions, how they were absolutely engaged in this very moment, concerned about nothing but their well chosen activity. There I sat, thinking also that I was peeing into a diaper which made me a bit self-conscious, while the Vet was getting ready to inject them with the serum to keep the dogs safe from heartworms for the next six months.

In the car, on the way home, it hit me. What am I feeling sorry for myself for? Look, I still don’t know if the incontinence caused by the Radical Prostatectomy is permanent. In fact, there have been some signals that it may be only temporary. But so what, let’s take the worst case, that the condition is permanent and I will be wearing adult diapers for the remainder of my life. What if instead of diapers I would be tied to a colostomy bag? Would I be complaining loudly or accepting the condition as a fact of life that I would simply learn to live with. Things became quite calm at that very moment of decision. It is now unlikely that prostate cancer will be the cause of my demise. The latest mortality rates for disease specific mortality is a mere 10% (a survival rate of 90%) so it is clear that I am not facing death from this disease. If I have to face the consequences of incontinence so be it. At least I may actually, possibly, maybe see the Chicago Cubs win a World Series…I can always hope!

I am also getting ready for the holiday season. Chanukah begins at sundown and the first candle is to be lit tonight. We are planning to attend a Chanukah party at the Elgin-Hoffman Estates Chabad tomorrow afternoon and on the last full day of Chanukah we will drive to Madison to join our Grandson Eddie, his parents and a number of other families for a festive Chanukah party with potato latkes, lox and bagels and a whole lot more. While I don’t much care for religious celebrations, Chanukah is one of those times when kids have a whale of a good time, families get together to share and we can get ready to be rid of the cold weather and look forward to Spring. The fact that one must recite a few blessings interjects a pallor of myth that must somehow be deconstructed in order to make any sense at all of the underlying irrationality of the holiday itself makes the whole thing somehow tarnished.

The ubiquitous nature of the season is also a cause for stress. No matter where one turns there are reminders that simply won’t let go. I cannot drive down my street without being attacked by houses lit up with commercially available lights made in China (or some other third-world sweat shop) which seems to me to debase the message the house decorators are trying so desperately to send. Wouldn’t it be a better choice to sit this one out, to pledge to purchase only domestically manufactured goods as presents? Perhaps one should also look to the idea of gifting as something one does, not to impress, but to give unconditionally without expectations of a gift in return. The gift of love, of caring, of hope, of embracing the differences we share with our neighbors ought to be enough to capture the spirit without breaking the bank or supporting the practices of shipping jobs overseas to save a corporate dollar (which goes to feed the greed of the corporate executives at a rate of nearly 500 times the annual salary of their average company salary). Okay, then, I have ranted enough. Time to sit back and watch some sports on tv and get ready for dinner with friends tonight.

Learning to “Think in Jewish”

Infant

Infant (Photo Credit: Roger Passman)

Later this morning my wife and I are going to an open house at the Chabad of Elgin and Hoffman Estates. The rabbi and his wife are celebrating the birth of their new daughter with the community they are building. I am looking forward to this event.

So what is an atheist Jew doing spending time with a Hasidic rabbi and his family? Funny you should ask. In this post I’ll try to explain, if not for you, for myself. Two reasons jump out to me. The first is that Rabbi Mendel is a meaningful example of living the fundamental ethical obligation, living a life of service without reservation. Secondly, and this is quite a selfish reason, I will be studying Jewish texts with Rabbi Mendel in order to better learn how to “think in Jewish.” Let me elaborate.

The Fundamental Ethical Obligation

About six months ago, Rabbi Mendel and his wife and infant son packed up and left Ohio for Elgin, Illinois. He was commanded to leave his father’s home, much like Abraham was commanded to leave his father’s home, and go to a land where he would build a Jewish community. With only a few dollars to his name and a donation of a house and some land upon which to build, he and his family set out on this great adventure. Arriving in Elgin, Rabbi Mendel announced to anyone who would listen, Here I Am! without knowing anyone there, establishing a proximate space and he waited. His announcement is made (it is an announcement made in this very moment without interruption) without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation, yet people hear it and they come.

I met Rabbi Mendel about a month ago. I explained to him that I do not believe in god, that I was raised Jewish but I rejected the religious aspect of my life. While I still acknowledge my Jewishness, I do not chose to perform the tasks required of the religion. I explained that my interest was to learn to “Think in Jewish.” I already know how to “think in Greek” the logical discourse that the West took from Athens and made its own but because of the influence of Emmanuel Levinas and his ability to synthesize thinking in Jewish and thinking in Greek, I wanted to develop a competence in “Thinking in Jewish.”

I responded, reciprocated if you will, to Rabbi Mendel’s open invitation and, in spite of the fact that I did not absolutely fit his Hasidic mold, I was embraced. That’s right, my difference was and is embraced by this man from Ohio who left his father’s house and set out, like Abraham, to find his own way. The fundamental ethical obligation to be responsible for the welfare of the other sets up the obligation to embrace the other as one finds him or her; to embrace difference without reservation. Certainly, this obligation is part of the lived-experience of Rabbi Mendel. It provides me with a living model of the ethical experience, one that reaches well beyond the theoretical.

Thinking in Jewish

In graduate school I was trained to think in a logical, deliberate manner, to think in the language of philosophers, to think in Greek. During my academic career that thinking served me well. I published academic papers, wrote a book that was published, presented academic papers internationally and influenced the lives of many of my undergraduate and graduate students as well as the lives of many of my middle school students before I entered post-secondary education.

Then I discovered Levinas’s work which led me to deconstruction and a different way of thinking. Somewhere along the line I decided that if I were to become competent as a complete thinker, I needed to learn to “Think in Jewish” as well as Greek. I tried reading Jewish texts without a teacher and found that, while there is a logic to the approach, that logic is not completely clear to me. Like deconstruction, a method that concentrates on language use, the sages of the Talmud uncover meaning through concentrating on language, sometimes on single words and sometimes on single letters within words. How words are pronounced also creeps into the logic of the Talmud (Hebrew and Aramaic being vowel-less written languages making pronounceation a matter of interpretation).

Without a competent teacher, one may uncover the methodology for reading these texts but it is a difficult chore. For quite selfish reasons, therefore, I sought out a competent Talmudic scholar to help me understand how to “Think in Jewish.” When I told Rabbi Mendel of my reason for wanting to “Think in Jewish” he stood ready to help me in my studies.

So there you have it. A true model for the ethical life I know in theory and someone, because of his commitment to what I call the fundamental ethical obligation (thanks to Hillary Putnam), is willing to help me learn how to “Think in Jewish.” What more could one ask for except to be able to celebrate a new life on this beautiful Sunday morning.

With Apologies to Bertrand Russell: Why I Am Not a Believer!

Studying the Talmud

Studying the Talmud (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few posts ago I mentioned that I am an atheist. I was raised as a Modern Classical Reform Jew in the suburbs of  the North Shore of Chicago however I never much found the need to devote much effort to a piecemeal Jewish education. As an undergraduate student I took an elective in comparative religions. During that semester I came across the works of Joseph Campbell and his inquiry into comparative mythology. I became more convinced that man created his gods and not the other way round.

After undergraduate school I chose to go to St. Louis University for graduate studies in Latin American history under the mentorship of John Francis Bannon, SJ. Being one of only a handful of Jewish students (it’s like the mafia, once you’re in you’re in and there is but one way out) at a Catholic university, I experienced a sort of strange, albeit, unexpected acceptance. This was the time of John XXIII and Vatican II when the Jews were absolved of any further guilt for their perceived sins. I actually felt no relief, rather the raw emotion was one of indigence; who gave you the right to absolve me of sins I could never have committed and where is the apology for nearly 2000 years of persecution and lies? It helps to remember that this was a mere twenty years after the Shoah (you might know it as the Holocaust). As a brief note, Shoah is a Hebrew word meaning destruction while Holocaust derives from a Greek word meaning burnt offering. Most Jews today prefer the term Shoah to Holocaust because of the sacrificial (religious) undertones of the latter.

In my middle years I looked at the synagogue as a place to go for weddings, funerals and bar (bat) mitzvahs. The general liturgy made little sense to me. I went about my life, not seeking a god but not avoiding one either. As an atheist it was and is clear to me that if there were convincing (not self-serving) evidence for the existence of a god, any god, then I would be convinced and would no longer be an atheist. I make a rational choice to reject the theistic choice based on evidence rather than take the coward’s way out and claim to be an agnostic.

Much to my surprise, about ten years ago I became quite interested in the notion of the ethics of responsibility, a postmodern idea arising from the work of Emmanuel Levinas. The more I read Levinas the more I became attracted to Jewish texts, many of which had a profound influence on Levinas’s work. I began reading Torah and Talmud, studying first with a Lubavitcher rabbi and later, for a very brief time, with a Conservative rabbi. When I moved to the Northwestern suburbs of Chicago I no longer had ready access to a Chabad house and so I stopped studying. About three months ago a Chabad house not 10 miles from my house opened and I am pleased to announce that I will be reading Talmud and Torah with the new Lubavitcher rabbi at this Chabad house.

Why would an atheist Jew want to read sacred texts? Frankly, the answer is quite simple. I find great ethical wisdom in the methodology attached to reading Jewish text. The readings are alive, subject to interpretation in the postmodern world we live in, have significant influence on social justice and, if one can read beyond the verse as expected, the ethical implications are significant. Furthermore, reading these texts, the texts that are so closely attached to my cultural history, is another way of knowing. The pages of the Talmud are filled with an existential argument deconstructing the very texts they are commenting upon. As an alternative to the Greek approach of logical argumentation, that which I am steeped in, the arguments of the Talmud appear to skirt around the point until the point can be made and even then there is potential disagreement among the sages.

Learning to think in Jewish (Talmudic discourse) as opposed to thinking in Greek (philosophical discourse) allows for the potential to synthesize the two, to join the two in a proximity that affords a deeper understanding of my own ethical obligation to others even before I have an obligation to myself. This does not mean that this course of study will “allow” me to “find” god or gods; that, I think, is not my motivation. The evidence for the existence of such a deity is overwhelmingly absent. What it will do, however, is allow me to pursue a course of study that is open to a different way of thinking.

I was, to tell the truth, inspired to write this because so many people who have visited my blog have offered to pray for me. While I have no objection to those finding comfort in prayer (I meditate after all), I have no expectation that those prayers will be heard by anyone or any thing other than anyone within earshot. I certainly have no expectation that such prayers will make any difference at all in my course of treatment.

Please, don’t get the wrong idea. I am not disrespecting your beliefs or your religious practices. I am merely explaining briefly why I am not a believer; I do not expect miracles, expect to be singled out, either positively or negatively, by some inaccessible deity hovering around in some supra-natural context. I do not believe that my cancer is a punishment for past sins or that any potential recovery will be a miracle. I put my trust in the existential moment of existence, try to show up the best I can at any given moment and deal with the messy stuff that is the hallmark of the existential life.

Given my encounter with my own mortality, I take great comfort in those atheists who have faced their demise with dignity and hope; Christopher Hitchens comes immediately to mind. Like Bertrand Russell once said when he was asked what he would tell god if, after his death god asked him why he did not believe, “Not enough evidence!” replied Russell. I might alter Russell’s quip to be, “Far too much evidence against!”

So pray for me if you must. I won’t object. But, please, don’t come back to me with reasons I should become a believer, work on my eternal soul, or take a positive stance rather than one that you feel endangers my eternal soul. Look, there is nothing positive about cancer; there is, however, something quite positive in living in this very moment and continuing to do what must be done. There is, it seems to me, clarity in being a post-Shoah Jew with a lust for life yet being aware of living within the bookends of the infinity of nothingness. I refuse to hang on to the Bronze Age mythology that just happens to have a history of longevity, other than to understand it as a discourse worthy of engagement on an intellectual rather than on a spiritual level.

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