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The Arrogance of Belief: Thinking in Jewish 44

If you were to die today, where would you go?
Billboard Sign in Kansas

The Arrogance of Belief: Thinking in Jewish 44

The Arrogance of Belief: Thinking in Jewish 44

Driving through Missouri and Kansas for the past two days, I couldn’t help but notice the many billboards that read “If you were to die today, where would you go.” I know what the people spending money would like as an answer, thereby allowing their organizations to profit from one’s repentance; my answer, however, is simply this…I’ll go into the ground. I have no illusions about that for which there are no answers. I do not believe there is knowledge beyond the grave. I do not believe that the body and the soul exist as separate entities, rather, the soul, if there is such a thing, is fully dependent upon the physical body for its very existence. It is not a separate entity housed in the body at the pleasure of some deity or another. That being said, should one present evidence to the contrary, and by evidence I do not mean textual references to Bronze or Iron Age documents that purport to be the undeniable word of God for that is not reliable nor valid evidence. No, I mean something that counts as evidence that is both replaceable and reliable through valid experimentation. In short, evidence that does not rely on belief first and results second. If I were presented with that sort of evidence, I would be the first to change my mind.

What strikes me about these billboard adverts is their arrogance. They purport to know an answer that is absolutely unknowable, relying on fear laden belief systems that infuse guilt as the guide to right or moral behavior. The question being asked relies on a belief that there is an afterlife, that in this afterlife one is either rewarded or punished, that one has some measure of control over which afterlife one will receive and that this decision is ultimately out of one’s hands and in the hands of some eternal bureaucrat who metes out rewards and punishments like an angry parent might. It is just this kind of thinking that causes some people, Christians, Jews and Muslims, to choose martyrdom on  the promise that because of their actions they will be granted the highest rewards available in heaven for committing unspeakable acts upon their fellow man. None are immune from behavior rooted in the ancient mythology of the Bronze or Iron Ages because the holy texts of these monotheistic religions make promises based on nothing more than the words scratched out on some ancient parchment.

The Buddhists have a saying that keeps the whole thing in perspective, “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.” The force of this simple idea is that one who purports to know, who claims knowledge of the unknowable, is a false prophet and must, therefore, be ignored. One must not listen to the self-serving arrogance of one who claims knowledge of that which is ineffable. To do so is to engage in dangerous, menacing behavior designed to serve the self-interest of another rather than the interests of the greater good. The arrogance of those claiming knowledge of that which they have no knowledge other than their reliance on ancient texts born, perhaps, of political propaganda to serve the interests of the priests and ruling classes or, perhaps, the human need to understand that which is currently explainable  or, perhaps, both is palpable in the sense that it exploits those most easily exploited. In the words of P. T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

“If you were to die today, where will you go?” is in the same category as the arrogance of those who predict the dates for the end of the world and the evangelical campaigns like “I Found It” and “I Support Religious Freedom.” Ideas without evidence, relying only on faith for their foundational underpinnings. For me, I’ll simply pass.

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The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38

Therefore man was created singly in the world, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, it counts as if he destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul, it counts as if he saved a full world.
The Mishnah

The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38

The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38

On the surface, the Mishnah demands that human life is a precious commodity; each and every life, Jewish and Gentile, is of significant import. From this springs the very idea that every human being is responsible for the life of every other human being, what Levinas described as an ethical imperative. The Jewish idea of the soul, nefesh in Hebrew, is grounded in the centrality of the individual living among others who are simultaneously of central importance. It is a concept grounded in the here and now unlike Christian or Muslim concepts that ground the soul in the eternal afterlife. No, the Jewish idea of the soul may be described as being present rather than being anticipatory. There is a concept that blood is the nefesh, leading to the very idea that the soul is only viable in the living bodily experience of existential being. This very idea is captured in the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh, watching out for the soul. Under Jewish law, nearly every law may be broken on the Sabbath if life or death are involved.

Jews, with some minor exceptions, are not fond of martyrdom. A mere three Mosaic laws are worth dying for: idolatry, illicit sexual intercourse and bloodshed. Better to give up your own life or the life of the other than transgress these three commandments. Each of these prohibitions have their own problematic, specifically in terms of defining exactly what is meant by each term but the thrust of the prohibition is stark and compelling. Jews choose life rather than death. But the strength of the pikuach nefesh is its inherent flexibility when human life is at stake. At its core, the pikuach nefesh refuses to worship martyrdom and ignores the promise of some unknown reward or punishment in the afterlife by clinging to the flesh and blood of life itself.

There is a second meaning  in the Mishnah quoted above, that of the responsibility for “saving one soul, it counts as if he saved the full world.” As I indicated earlier, Emmanuel Levinas understood that ethics comprised the first philosophy, more important than all other philosophical questions; that all ethics boils down to a single principle that one is personally responsible for the welfare of the other [person] without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. This fundamental idea is deeply embedded in the textual historicity of Judaism. It is found in Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In Abraham’s argument with God regarding the destruction of Sodom and the finding of righteous men in the city. In Mordechi’s and Esther’s intrigue to save the Jewish people from Haman’s plan to destroy the Jewish people. There are many more examples that a short post will not allow. The underlying principle here is that every soul, every nefesh, is a full and complete world and that every other nefesh is complete and different from all others. As a secular Jew I claim this legacy in the sense that each of us, each and every one of us, is a singular, unrepeatable, irreplaceable piece of mankind, one singular part of a whole. Once gone, that life is gone forever. It, therefore, every one of us is responsible for every other one of us.

 

Belonging . . . The Vagaries of Community or The Fragmented Self

The Vaguaries of Community

The Vagaries of Community

Belonging . . . The Vagaries of Community

Belonging . . . The Vagaries of Community or the Fragmented Self

I created the splash art on the right as a representation of the vagaries of the whole idea of what it means to be a member of a community. Loosely defined, a community consists of a group of people with common interests, skills or vocations. Based on that definition I belong to many communities. Professionally, as a retired professor of language and literacy, I belong to a broadly defined community of reading teachers and specialists as well as to a broadly defined community of English educators with a concentration in the teaching of writing. Additionally, I belong to a community of prostate cancer patients with a current sub-set of prostate cancer survivors (although that could change in the future). I also belong to a religious community because I identify as a secular Jew with an interest in Jewish texts and how to interpret those texts. This latter identification, however, does not connect me to a community of religious/practicing Jews in any way. I also belong to a recovering community of alcoholics belonging loosely to Alcoholics Anonymous having put a cork in the bottle over 22 years ago. In fact, I could likely list dozens of additional communities that I loosely belong to but I don’t actually feel the need to do so at this time. The point is that the lines between what constitutes a community are blurred; they are noticeable covered over by other interests while often overlapping and turning back into themselves.

The communities I feel closest to are independent of my membership. What do I mean by that. First, they existed before I had any active memory and they will exist when my active memory ceases to be. My birth nor my death have any impact on the existence of these community groups. In fact, these communities are based on the ethical idea of extending oneself for the welfare of the other. I want to look briefly at three specific examples: first I explore the Chabad as a place of both refuge and learning that is open to all without reservations, then I examine Alcoholics Anonymous as a more specific ethical engagement, one recovering alcoholic helping another alcoholic for their mutual benefit, a slightly different twist on the fundamental ethical obligation. Finally, I briefly look at the social construction of race and ethnicity in light of my own existential experience and ask what it means to be able to free oneself from the shackles of stereotype; from external definitions and categorizations.

The Chabad as Community

As those who follow this blog know, I am exploring Jewish texts in order to better understand how to think in Jewish. This knowledge will, as I see it, make me into a more well-rounded thinker for two reasons. First, by learning to attack an issue from different perspectives, I will be better equipped to come to more thoughtful and, perhaps, more relevant conclusions. Secondly, learning to think in Jewish fills in a number of gaps in my own education and religious heritage. Both reasons are selfish on my part. What is interesting, however, is that when I approached Rabbi Mendel of the Elgin Chabad, his response was immediate and, as I expected, fully welcoming. He placed himself in my path without reservations offering to assist me in any way he possibly could to help me in my quest.

This notion of community is one based on the clear notion of being available to those wishing to belong. All I had to do was present myself to the community and I was immediately included in the goings on of the group, no questions asked. The Chabad existed long before I was born and will continue to exist long after I am gone; a community of Jews, some observant and some totally secular, coming together for the common goal of learning about their heritage. While I believe there are many roads to this very kind of learning, for most groups one must hang around for some period of time before they are accepted into the community. They must show up on a regular basis, show up when expected and participate to a level that the group expects of them. Not so with the Chabad. Just showing up is good enough for them. Period.

Alcoholics Anonymous as Community

There was a time in my life when suicide seemed to be a reasonable cure for the pain of what drinking was doing to my life. I saw no way out of the trap alcohol had for me. While the journey to AA was long and difficult, at my first meeting of AA, the day I admitted to myself and to a room full of strangers that I was an alcoholic, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders that felt like the release of a thousand pounds. At my very first meeting of AA I was accepted by those in the room, by those who were there before me. I had no idea why they were being so nice but I did have the sense that I was clearly in a place where I belonged.

Not until sometime later, when I had spent some time in AA meeting rooms, did I begin to understand the power of one alcoholic helping another alcoholic stay sober. Of all the people in the entire world, only another alcoholic can laugh at the tragic circumstances that brought us together in the first instance. While limited to serving anyone with a desire to stop drinking, AA’s mission is given without reservation. My obligation if approached by another alcoholic is to provide whatever assistance is within my power to help that individual stop drinking. From this friendships develop that last a lifetime but that are first and foremost anchored in the simple fact that I do not wish to take a drink today. AA was around before I was born and will be around long after I am gone because its call to community is strong.

Both of these communities have one other thing in common, they are tied together by ritual both in the form of liturgical practices and custom. I have been to AA meetings in any number of places and they all take on the same character and structure. Praying at the Chabad differs little from practices at any other Jewish religious organization. It is clear and recognizable even though they take on a local character as well.

Ethnicity and Race

When my grandparents got off the boat at Ellis Island as they immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe in 1898 their immigration records listed their race as Hebrew. Now, when I am asked to fill out a government form that asks for racial information I am given any number of choices but Hebrew is not among them. While I was young, being indoctrinated by Sunday School teachers at the Reform Jewish congregation that my parents belonged to we were constantly told that Judaism is a religion and not a race. The assimilationist strain ran quite deep in the Reform movement at that time, the late 1950’s through the early 1960’s. As I grew older, however, I found that I did not always fit in to a broader, more Christian, community. My first experience with the whole thing was a flat rejection from all college fraternities except the Jewish fraternities on campus. I didn’t think much of it at the time but it was a precursor of things to come. Sometime, in my mid 50’s, right after I earned my doctorate in language and literacy, I made a conscious decision that assimilation wasn’t working out quite so well as I was led to believe. I began to think more about the ethnic and racial categorization that was placed upon my grandparents, that of Hebrew, and I began to think about just how the very idea of race and ethnicity are socially constructed. I came to the conclusion that race and ethnicity can, and should, exist side by side with social responsibility. One can be a good citizen and yet identify with a group outside the norm. W.E.B. DuBois called this idea acculturation, an understanding of the dominant culture while maintaining a strong identity with one’s own core group. Since the time I began to think about just where I belong in the ‘human race’ I check the other box when I am asked about race or ethnicity on a form. I do not elaborate, I simply protest the very idea that one fits into a stereotypical category that serves to define one’s status in society and power over others.

Questions that Remain Open

Because these communities precede me and will exist without me, can I truly claim membership? Because I belong to any number of groups, some core and some peripheral, does that belonging fragment me into pieces that emerge only when I am within a specific place and time surrounded by fellow travelers? Or, should I even seek to try to identify with any group, any community, even the core community that forms the ethical core of being in terms of membership and simply live as a sentient being in the river of time beholden to no one or nothing that serves to classify me or put me into a cubby hole?

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

No More Roman Numerals

I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I started the “Thinking in Jewish” series of posts by numbering each post with a Roman numeral. This numbering system is antiquated and cumbersome and I am, quite frankly, tired of the whole mess. So from this day forward I will number the “Thinking in Jewish” posts using Arabic numbering system which means that the next post will be labeled 32.

There is a question I want to answer for the readers of this blog. It comes up from time to time in the comments which makes it a worthy topic to blog about. It centers on what on earth my atheism and the posts in the series “Thinking in Jewish” has to do with my prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment. Along the same lines I have seen a strange undertone that seems to be asking what is an atheist like myself doing commenting on Jewish thinking in the first place.  So here goes…my best effort at talking about these issues as I blog away.

Begin at the beginning. When I heard the words no one ever wants to hear, the words that may indeed harken the beginning of the end of life, the words “YOU HAVE CANCER” it has a sobering effect on the way one chooses to look at the world. In my professional life I was a Professor of Language and Literacy at a Midwestern state university. My professional interests gravitated toward the study of the teaching of writing so that middle school and secondary school teachers could better teach their students the skill of writing without effort. Blogging, then, seemed like the most natural thing I could do to both help me focus on the fact that I now have a disease that may contribute to my demise. Kubler-Ross was wrong in my case. I grieved over the possibility that my life was coming to an end but I quickly accepted that as a fact that may or may not be true. My job now was to come to grips with how I intended to live the remaining years (or months whatever the case may be) of my life.

As an atheist, I rejected the idea that there is a creator God that is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. My own observations of the world and my deepening understanding of Jewish religious texts, however, caused me not to reject my own Jewish roots. I am a Jew, I have a Jewish understanding of the world, of time and space, of ethics and morality. I simply don’t attribute any of this to a creator God. one that is angry, demanding and punishing. As a post-Shoah (or post Holocaust although Shoah is a better word choice) Jew, where 6 million of my nation perished at the hands of Germans in an unspeakably horrible genocide (perhaps religicide is a more apt descriptor) for no other reason than they were Jews in Europe, made the very concept of a benevolent and omniscient God improbable and the very idea than an omnipotent God would not put a stop to the horrors of the camps, gas-chambers and crematory ovens would make this God either a sadist or rather than omnipotent, simply impotent and unworthy of worship. The other possibility to consider is that there is no God to be omnipotent, omniscient or benevolent, a possibility I find more convincing than any that includes God or religion at the center of the a discourse.

While sick and waiting for testing to be completed to determine what course of treatment for my prostate cancer would be recommended, I decided that learning how to ‘think in Jewish’ would be a good way to think about the potential end of life. It was a clear choice. The Christian story makes absolutely no sense to me. The same can be said for the story of Islam although that one is easier to swallow perhaps because it was formed in the same region as the Jewish story while the Christian story, while originating in Palestine, is essentially a European take on the very idea of monotheism. That being said, I thought it best to stick with what I know and simply become better at understanding where and how the religion of my people developed. The story, especially when told in the light of the ultimate schism of Jewish and Christian thinking and the response of both to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, is fascinating. I do not intend to go into that schism here but the response of the triumphal Christians and the defeated Jews of the first three centuries CE paints a picture of quite different approaches to the self-same problem.

What I found as I studied and read more deeply was that the ethics of Judaism played a great role in the way I had been living my life for years. There was embedded in the literature constant reminders of obligations to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, for those less fortunate than we might be and there is always someone less fortunate than yourself no matter what your current situation might be. I don’t recall who said this but it is appropriate here. It goes something like this, “I cried out because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.” Sure I had cancer, but I still had hope and that hope lay in the hands of skilled physicians, men of science, who would do everything possible to make the remainder of my life one filled with the absolute joy of living. In the end, the men of science told me that surgery would cure my cancer and while there are some unpleasant side effects of the surgery, my life will not be disrupted to any great extent. I am now writing as a cancer survivor, one experiencing the unpleasant side effects and it is truly a small price to pay for many more years of life.

That being said, I decided to continue this blog because my personal struggle with ethics and evil in this world has become an important part of my life. Sure, it didn’t begin when I was diagnosed with cancer but that diagnosis brought it to the forefront of my being-in-the-world. That is why I continue to blog about my encounter with life in general and sometimes about health related issues that seems to arise as a result of my experience with cancer.

So no more Roman numerals and I’ll continue to make my thinking visible to me (and to you) on this blog.

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!

 

The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV

The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV

The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV

From Adam’s exile from paradise (exile), Noah’s redemption of the world (redemption), the exodus from Egypt (redemption), the first revelation at Sinai (redemption), the smashing of the tablets as Moses saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf (exile), the second revelation at Sinai (tentative redemption), the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (exile), the return of the remnant of exiles from Babylon and the building of the Second Temple (redemption), the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans (exile), Jewish historiography has been a constant story of exile and redemption. After the last exile, that of the Roman destruction of the Temple and the final crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132 CE, Jewish practice fell into the hands of a small sect of sages who authored the Mishnah, the Tosefta and the two Talmuds. The interesting thing about these documents according to Jacob Neusner, is that in response to the Roman exile, the Rabbis chose to remake the whole of the Jewish experience into one in which they created a world of extant redemption existing outside of the time and vagaries of  the temporal world. The sages created an ideal world, a world that mirrored that which they expected a final redemption to look like, not a world in which the Jewish people were marginalized, persecuted and ridiculed by the gentiles surrounding them. In short, the rabbis created a utopian vision of redemption that could only be achieved by communal action.

For the rabbis of the fundamental texts of Rabbinic Judaism redemption was not an individual, personal act. One cannot be saved from exile as an individual, rather, the whole Jewish community, wherever they might be, could only be redeemed from exile through the group effort of each and every individual following the law to the letter. The more people following the laws of Moses and the rabbinical deciders the closer one comes to redemption; the sooner the messiah arrives to return things to the state of paradise from which Adam was initially exiled. Redemption, then, comes at a cost, the cost of blindly following a set of arcane rules and regulations, many of which cannot be understood at a rational level and, to complicate things even more, better than half cannot even be carried out because they refer to Temple practices, animal sacrifices, priestly cleanliness (or suitability to carry out priestly duties), and other laws regarding the unique practices of the Temple sacrificial cult. This model served the Jewish people quite well until the middle of the 17th century CE when Jewish mysticism began to emerge.

According to Gershom Scholem, Jewish mysticism sprang from a religious revival among Jews so that by the mid 1600’s a shift in the idea of redemption moved ever closer to the idea that once the messiah arrived, individual salvation was indeed possible and would precede any kind of group redemption that was the ultimate goal of the arrival of the messiah. This idea was vigorously opposed by those rabbis representing the status quo but that didn’t stop messianic cults from popping up. The most successful of these cults followed the life of Sabbitai Zevi, a Sephardic rabbi who preached some unique interpretations of the law and, through his disciples, notably one Nathan of Gaza, claimed to be the messiah. Even after Zevi was forced into apostasy by Sultan Mehmed IV when he was offered the choice between death and conversion to Islam in which Zevi chose conversion, the movement remained strong until the mid 19th century CE. Scholem contends that the Sabbatean movement was the precursor of the modern movement of Reform Judaism.

Through the last two thousand years, Judaism flourished in an atmosphere of utopian expectations. The historiography of Judaism stresses the communal responsibility to obey commandments and if that is done then all will go well. It tells a story of perfection spoiled, of exile, of redemption, of exile, of redemption and exile over and over again. Living in exile today, Jews around the world just celebrated two nights of a holiday of redemption from exile yet even within the story of the Exodus are buried smaller stories of exile and redemption, of failure to follow the laws and commandments and being forgiven as a group. The Passover Seder ends with the utopian words, Next Year in Jerusalem; not the Jerusalem that exists today, rather the Jerusalem that will exist once the Temple is rebuilt and Jews can once again offer burnt offerings to the God of Israel. I am not sure that is a world I would choose to inhabit.

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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