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Priase the Lord…A Selfish Response to Tragedy

Priase the Lord...A Selfish Response to Tragedy

Priase the Lord…A Selfish Response to Tragedy

Leaving Alamogordo, New Mexico Friday morning, I set my gps for Joplin, Missouri and set my rain alarm app for push notifications. Our dog, Simin, developed a severe infection on his right-front leg requiring constant care throughout the day. Our plan for returning home was to spend around three nights on the road, stop off and see a few sights that we wanted to visit and arrive home on Monday. Those plans were shattered when Simin was diagnosed with this ugly infection. A friend’s daughter was kind enough to stay at the house to nurse Simin until we returned from our trip. But back to the point of this post.

Driving through Oklahoma City, the rain activity was picking up with storms tracking on either side of I-40. We drove on, with the bulk of the rain and storm activity either behind us or to either side. Pushing through Tulsa and on to Joplin, we arrived in Joplin tired and hungry. As we arrived the tornado warning sirens were blasting. We parked under the canopy to register but, rather than register, we were herded into the central hallway of the hotel and told that because we were under a tornado warning it would be best to stay in the hallway until the danger passed. They take tornados quite seriously in Joplin, Missouri, especially since the category five tornado that destroyed much of the town only a few years before. Once the danger passed we checked in, went next door to the hotel where there was a 24/7 Waffle House (hardly my first choice) for a light dinner and then back to the hotel where we went to bed.

From Joplin, we had about a 550 mile drive back home. With that in mind, I set my alarm for 6:00 AM so we could leave the hotel and be on the road by around 7:00 AM. At around 6:30 AM we were walking in the hallway toward the complimentary breakfast (which was, of course, included in the room rate) when a tiny, woman with a shock of tightly curled white hair greeted us. “Mornin’,” she said. “Quite a storm last night. But we’re okay…Praise the Lord.” That set me to ponder exactly what she meant when she so flippantly praised the lord. Was she praising the lord selfishly for her personal safety. If this were the case, then her praise is immoral, based only on her personal needs and desires and to hell with everyone else. If, on the other hand, she was praising the lord for the storms, including the tornado in Oklahoma City which killed at least five people according to the news that morning, then her praise for the lord was also immoral when one considers the fact that the storm was deadly as well as destructive to property. It begs the question, what did the people of Oklahoma City do to deserve this devine punishment of multiple tornados even as they were cleaning up from the Moore category five tornado which struck only a few days ago.

Either way, praise for survival when others lost their lives or praise for the occurrence of the tornado itself, the praiser is caught in a trap of immoral praise. Either the god to whom praise is offered is mean and capricious, offering a killer storm to some while saving others from wanton destruction or the praiser herself is acting from selfish relief that she wasn’t harmed by this god for whom she has apparently released her praise on purely selfish terms. It seems that one who insists on praising the lord does so without regard to the consequences suffered by others from the very act of destruction from which one is spared. This is an immoral, unethical act because it is self-centered, contained within the outcome of the self without regard for the outcome of the other. Shame on the woman in the hallway for her selfish response to the tragedy suffered by Oklahoma City residents.

A proper response to such tragic loss and one’s personal escape from the personal impact of that loss is not that of praise, for praise cuts a two-edged path. To the contrary, a proper response would be to consider one’s safety in terms of probability, a statistical calculation having little to do with one’s imaginary friend in the sky. When considering one’s own safety, one might also consider just what one is able to do for those who actually suffered devastating loss. In addition, one could consider one’s own contribution to the climate change that is bringing devastating weather events like category five tornados and super hurricanes to this small, rather insignificant blue ball orbiting a star which, in turn, orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy and work to reverse the harm to the planet we call home that we ourselves caused. Praise the Lord but Pass the Ammunition was a slogan that arose from the trenches of WWI. In the final analysis, it may be applicable here.  Go ahead and praise the lord if you must; in the end, it is what you personally do to influence the outcome that counts.

On a final note, an old Jew was praying by the Western Wall in Jerusalem, something he did for the past forty years of his life. He was asked what he was praying for to which he replied, “I pray for peace, for an end to hunger, for the Messiah to come.” The questioner then asked, “Does it help?” To which the old Jew replied, “It’s like talking to a wall.”

Natural Beauty, Humility and Stature: Thinking in Jewish 45

Natural Beauty, Humility and Stature: Thinking in Jewish 45

Natural Beauty, Humility and Stature: Thinking in Jewish 45

Last night at dinner our server, a delightful woman named Amy, and I got to talking about places to visit in order to take in the natural wonders of the Southwestern United States. I think the conversation began when Amy and my wife began comparing ski resorts but it quickly evolved to places we have been. We spoke of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Saguaro National Park when I mentioned that I had just checked off Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from my bucket list. Amy then commented, “It surely makes you feel small, almost insignificant, when you see the beauty of this world. The time it took to carve these magnificent landscapes and the short time we are here to enjoy them.” The only thing she left out of her comment, but it was clearly on the tip of her tongue, was the God which obviously created these landscapes. I don’t mean to put words in her mouth, for she didn’t actually add the bit about God, but I was certain that she didn’t want to offend by making God a central character in the drama of nature.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

To a large extent, her restraint was refreshing. I have been in similar situations where my interlocutor was not so thoughtful nor so humble. More often than not, the fundamentalist Christian response to such a conversation about natural wonders includes the notion that the creator God made this beauty in order to humble mankind, to make us feel insignificant in order to understand the power of the creator. To that I generally respond, “Poppycock!” There is no reason to believe that there is a creator God because of the natural forces that shaped the wonders of our planet. In fact, there are geological explanations that trump the mystic late Bronze and early Iron Age mythologies, no matter whose mythologies one chooses to adapt.

While natural wonders tend to humble the viewer, one does not require a creator God in order to be humbled by the grandeur of the natural world. To the contrary, humility comes from the eons required for a small, rather insignificant, river to carve through layers of stone to create a canyon which one can stand in awe of. The geological forces required to converge to create the canyons and mountains that make us breathe a bit quicker as we stand in their glory (religious terminology need not be exclusive to religious belief) explain a great deal without removing the humbling effect of these natural wonders. Standing on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, looking nearly straight down on to the Gunnison River some 2,000 feet below, hearing the rush of the water as it continues (albeit more slowly than ever because the dams upstream limit the flow of water through the canyon floor) to carve through layers of rock, is truly something to stand in awe of but not something to attribute to the whims of a creator God. Beauty need not be compromised by failing to understand the science contributing to the creation of these magnificent structures. Amen.

Storm Clouds, Tornadoes and Carbon

Storm Clouds, Tornadoes and Carbon

Storm Clouds, Tornadoes and Carbon

Storm Clouds, Tornadoes and Carbon

Storm Clouds, Tornadoes and Carbon

A second F-5 tornado strikes Moore, Oklahoma in the past few years and a representative from Moore responds with calls to prayer. The image on the right was shot along I-70 in Western Colorado around the same time this tragedy occurred. I was standing along an access road to a Costco store in the middle of Colorado gypsum country, in fact, the town in which the Costco was located was named Gypsum, in bright sunlight as the clouds gathered to the south producing rain. The storms were perhaps a mile away moving toward us. While in the mountains they didn’t reach the intensity of the Moore event, when we were driving through them on I-70 it was mighty scary. I suppose making images that tell a story is one way to connect to the tragedy suffered by those in Moore, there is little that one can do except to take action to reverse the man made climate change that is now clearly causing more tragic weather events.

The representative from Moore, in asking people for their prayers, did not express anger for the second and now precedented storm, that’s right, not unprecedented but precedented because this is not the first occurrence of such a storm in Moore. No, his response was to fall upon the mercy of his friend in the sky to help the townsfolk whose lives were either lost or disrupted from the after effects of the storm. My response is somewhat different. Over the past 20 or so years, significant weather changes manifest in a more powerful tornado seasons, more powerful hurricanes, drought, melting of polar ice-caps and so on. One thing I have noticed living in the greater Chicago area is that we seem to be having shorter Winters but when snow falls it seems to fall in buckets.

I think that one must recognize the part we all play in global climate change and vow to do something about reversing the problem. While I will not be around to see the effects of either further and more difficult climate change or the absolute reversal of climate change (I turn 70 in two weeks time), my grandchildren will. Yes, tornadoes are dangerous and the devastation they cause tragic but prayers to an imaginary friend in the sky do nothing to address the difficult, expensive solutions that human beings must take if we expect to occupy this planet for much longer. What is needed are not prayers but action. The first action must be to contribute provide aid and assistance to those who suffered this tragic event; that is merely the beginning and is more palliative than affirmative. The affirmative solutions do not come from denial that climate change does not exist; after all denial is not just a river in Africa, rather, affirmative solutions come from recognition that climate change is man made and that we must attack the problem with as much vigor as we prosecute the wars we ostensibly fight for the defense of freedom. Pray if you must, if you think it will help, if it brings you comfort but when you finish praying take up the cause of reversing global climate change as if your life and the lives of your children and children’s children depend upon the actions you personally take…Because they do!

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.

Question Everything…Learning to Think Clearly for Yourself

Don’t just teach your children to read…Teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.
George Carlin

The late George Carlin took nothing at face value. His deep and often cynical analysis of behavior and ideas was always refreshing in a world filled with apathetic acceptance of propaganda swaddled in the guise of politics, religion, culture, class, race, and gender. Forgive me if I left anything off the list. His point, however, is clear. Accept nothing someone tells you or what someone writes and you read. Do not believe the surface for if you do you’ll surely be disappointed. But what does it mean to question everything? What does it actually mean to read critically?

I have one anecdotal piece of evidence, a story that is funny while carrying the seeds of corporate greed at its core. It was widely reported in the late 1980’s that when toilet training one’s children, it is best to wait until the child asks to be trained. In an era of child centered parenting, a period in which I raised my own children, this bit of news reporting seemed to make a great deal of sense until I learned that the studies that were widely reported were funded by manufacturers of disposable diapers. The question arises as to whether the studies results were motivated by a reasonable interpretation of the data or by the profits to be made from selling one or two more years worth of disposable diapers? Fortunately for my kids, they were unable to use disposable diapers so we opted for cloth. The point of this anecdote is to simply point out that when a study is widely reported it is always appropriate to ask where the funding source for the study came from. Does the funder have an economic or idealogical stake in the results of the study.

It is always important to think clearly about claims made that appear on the surface to be quite logical. Another example: An argument made by fundamentalists for whom the literal (surface) meaning in the Bible is without flaw claims that evolution must be wrong by partially making their case that the human eye is too complex an organ to be made other than by divine design. This is an argument from incredulity which, in its simplest form, goes something like this: I can conceive of no other possible solution so X must be the case. The argument from incredulity is one of the weaker forms of argumentation because, for the most part, those who make the argument fail to consider sources outside of those which make them most comfortable. Consulting other sources, scientific sources, that argue for the evolution of the human eye using evidence from many species allows one to argue from extant evidence and not from belief systems or ideology.

Teach your children to read critically, open their eyes to the very idea that there is always more than one way to get to the roof but if you can’t think clearly you might not recognize them.

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

In their provocative book, The Bible Unearthed, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, drawing on the most recent archaeological research present to the reader a stunningly new vision of the rise of ancient Israel and how the Hebrew Bible served as a powerful mythology for the Judean kings beginning with the rule of King Josiah in the middle of the 8th century BCE. What Finkelstein and Silberman argue is that the Torah and the historical writings from Joshua through Kings I and II provide a picture that is more mythological than historical. Their argument is based on both archaeological data and practicability; could the events recorded in the Bible actually have occurred, do they pass the giggle test.

In terms of the mythological argument, Finkelstein and Silberman present a case that suggests that many of the events have an 8th century BCE contemporary feel that seem to be supportive of Josiah and his ambitions. Many of the “historical” stories presented use 8th century BCE geographical references to cities and peoples that could not have existed in the 15th century BCE when the stories were said to have occurred. Perhaps an example is in order. When the exodus from Egypt is said to have occurred, the People of Israel (they were not yet Jews) took the long way around, wandering in the Southern Sinai for 40 years. Had they taken the Northern route across the Sinai, along the Mediterranean Sea the people would have come in direct contact with a line of Egyptian fortifications which surely would have created an Egyptian response, if only to document the rabble of Israel leaving Egypt. There are any number of Egyptian documents extant today that mention the travel of many peoples but there is no mention anywhere of a rabble of 600,000 people, former slaves in Egypt, leaving as a whole group to cross the desert. To confirm the historicity of the Bible there must be other confirming data, either Egyptian records or archaeological discoveries; neither exist. Crossing the desert with so many people is also beyond reasonable expectations. Small groups of nomads for sure but the population of a small nation crossing the desert and surviving is beyond the capacity of human beings without leaving significant archaeological evidence behind. If the evidence is not there the historicity of the stories fails.

What Finkelstein and Silberman argue is that trying to understand the Bible as an historical document of the development of a people is not supported by the historical or archaeological evidence. It is, however, supported by inferential evidence as dating from the reign of King Josiah, a time in the mid 8th century BCE of great power shifts and an accompanying religious revolution. The evidence found in the historical place names in the Hebrew Bible through Kings II have a corollary in the historical record of that time period as found in documentary evidence from outside of the Judean Kingdom and from the archaeological data dating from this time period as well. Understanding the Bible as a cobbling of extant mythological stories and a political document supporting the ambitions and activities of King Josiah and his immediate successors is a more accurate view.

All that being said, the staying power of the texts is nothing less than extraordinary. The mythology of the Torah and the histories took on a life of its own surviving to this very moment as a guide to ethical practice in the world. It is a book of actions leading to understandings, even if those understandings are quite different and perhaps unrecognizable by those of 8th century BCE Israelites for whom the stories related to their contemporary lives.

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37

I have written about time as an illusion; that all that exists is the very moment which is always already gone. Time, in this sense, is the always already present. While one creates traces of memory as one passes through this very moment and one has the ability to project into the future, to create a future that may or may not be, the fact remains that existential time is only this very moment. Now, there are surely other ways to explain time and one is particularly Jewish.

Generally, time in Jewish thought is based on the idea of seven, seven days, seven weeks, seven years, seven groups of seven years. In each of these cycles, the seventh part is a sabbath, a day of rest governed by strict rules for what can and cannot be done during that day, year, or jubilee year. These cycles are the cycles of life with the foundation of them all resting on the creation myth where God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. In the human being’s desire to become God-like, it follows that we should act as God acted. The seven-week cycle, the counting of the Omer, is spelled out in the Torah as is the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. The Sabbatical and Jubilee year  place a great burden on the people in that the fields cannot be worked, no food is produced so the only available food is that which is stored for future use. Poor planning and the people starve while good planning keep the people well fed during these periods of fallow.

Additionally, there is a rhythm to the seasons. Celebrations, holidays occur at specific times during the year: Springtime celebrates the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah; Fall celebrates the harvest as well as the process of amends and redemption focused in the spirit of the High Holidays; Winter brings the celebration of the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah. In between, but measured by the calendar falling in their appropriate times.

Measured together, the cycles of daily life to the annual cycles of holidays high and low, time in the Jewish perspective is focused backwards. We celebrate the historicity of the people who have called themselves Jews since the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai with a long historical record flowing backward toward Abraham, the patriarch who was ordered to leave his home by the creator God and follow all the instructions and he would be the father of a great nation. Going further back in time we look to Noah and before that Adam (roughly translated as man) and Chavah (Eve). It matters little to the celebrations fixed in time whether or not there was an historical Adam and Chavah, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Judah (the reason we are called Jews), or any other figure represented in scriptural texts. The fact that they appear in stories meant to provide lessons for living an ethical life makes them real. The fact that generations before me, for at least 2500 years, perhaps longer, looked to these figures and these holidays as representations of living a Godly life confirms the value of the mythology.

The cyclical nature of Jewish time and the singularity of existential time must be reconciled. The nature of Jewish time, in this sense, may be seen as a community trace of memory, a utopian trace  for sure, allowing members of the community to constantly and consistently look back across Jewish history that, at each repetition, provides new and fresh insights in the flow of life. The illusion of time creates room for cycles that build understanding through the textual references that constantly are studied and re-read.

Close to every Jewish life one finds a strong connection to study and texts. That those texts that are often read ritually is not important, that they can and must be read critically is. Reading these texts at the appointed times, another cycle present in Jewish time, helps one explore the foundations in the text which is quite different that merely reading the texts as a ritually appropriate act. While I am not a religious Jew, I find great connections to the texts of my ancestors, to the melodies of prayer, of the sing-song rhythms of reading and studying the texts with a melamed, a teacher, deeply attached to the text allowing that text to come to life. Texts and time are intimately connected.

Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

As readers already know I am a secular Jew. I am also a Jewish atheist. This set of facts, perhaps, presents a difficult question of trying to connect these two similar but separate positions. How can this aporia be resolved; how is an understood connection to a Jewish continuum be reconciled with a secular position of atheism, a rational rejection of the existence of God? Is it possible that the two are not self-exclusionary, one canceling the other? In fact, I believe they are compatible, even necessary in today’s hyper-atomistic, self-centered, selfish world.

Let me begin with the idea that in spite of being a secular Jewish American I am directly connected to a lineage that dates back perhaps 14 millennia; a lineage of written texts that tell the story of a particular people arising from the stories of the Middle East. Texts, with origins in mythology, beginning with the Torah and carried on as a tradition of teaching and learning through the rest of the Tanakh, Mishnah, the two Talmuds and commentaries that followed to the present day. While I have a deep interest in understanding the historical relationship of text to text as well as an interest in an account of who may or may not have committed those texts to writing thereby preserving them for generations to come, in the final analysis it simply doesn’t matter about the historicity of the texts themselves or the authorship of those texts. While I find much to disagree with in the textual message, like the very idea that an all powerful God would be so insecure as to require curses for disobedience, when one carefully explores the texts themselves as total entities rather than as catch phrases, there is often a significant underlying ethical truth revealed.

One might ask, for example, if there is any ‘truth’ to Shakespeare’s character of Shylock or MacBeth, or Lear any more than there is any ‘truth’ in the biblical Moses, King David or Job. Let’s for a moment consider that all six characters mentioned are fictional. Does this mean that the characters themselves do not exist? I believe it can safely be argued that all six exist in the here and now while the question as to whether or not they were historical figures is irrelevant. They exist because they can easily be accessed because their words have been preserved in the continuity of text. Each of the characters may be accessed and the lessons they have to offer may be learned irregardless of whether or not I profess faith or belief, whether or not I believe in a creator deity or question if William Shakespeare actually was the author of the body of work attributed to him. Those questions, it seems, are irrelevant to the ethics embedded in the stories, in the available human lessons that may be learned. In thinking about the textual connection as a viable condition for understanding I am able to turn faith into wonder.

In this sense, wonder provides a unique freedom to accept some but not all of the written word. It means that I am able to read a text critically and completely; to not be satisfied with slogans cherry-picked from the text without placing those slogans into a rich context of the whole text from which the slogans were stripped. There is much in Jewish textual material that I find abhorrant at worst and naive at best. Some of the text I find arbitrary while some simply cannot stand up to the scrutiny of a natural world. Yet there are stories in the vastness and complexity of Jewish textual material that illustrate important ethical lessons. The fact that some of the texts are deserving of rejection does not mean that much is not worthy of consideration. It is interesting to consider, for example, that just among the named sages of the Mishnah, Tosefta and the two Talmuds, there are more people richly contributing to the texts that all of the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome combined. There is a rich scholarly heritage attached to the library of Jewish textual documents that serve the greater purpose of providing continuity from generation to generation across millennia

While I rationally reject the existence of God (as Bertrand Russell once quipped about this very subject, “Not enough evidence!”) and see little purpose in following an arbitrary set of commandments that are supposed to insure that I live an ethical life based on the fear of reprisal from an impassioned God, I do not reject the continuity provided across more generations than I can ever hope to count, a continuity bound together by an ever increasing volume of textual response to problems of the day. Being a secular Jewish atheist is completely in accord with the continuity of text, of the words spoken by my grandfather’s grandfather as far back as human memory cares to travel. I read these texts from a sense of wonder rather than from a sense of faith or belief and the wonder allows me to connect to the living characters, the men and women that were we to be able to meet across space and time would have something in common to talk about.

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.

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

There is indeed a problem with the whole idea of believing in something because one wants to rather than because the evidence pushes one in that direction.
Alastair Hannay, Introductory Essay to Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

Believers often define faith as belief in something without evidence; a deeply felt attachment to an idea or principle that, when closely examined would simply fall apart. Some rely on a belief system to explain the unexplained (please note I did not use the term unexplainable simply because, given enough time, all things are explainable but some things today remain unexplained) often sticking to older, yet no longer credible, constructions (e.g., the creation of the universe in six days by a creator God no longer is credible in a universe now known to be billions of years old). Still others claim to have experienced personal miracles in their lives and can only attribute those miracles to the intervention of God or Jesus or some saint or another with no other empirical evidence other than personal experience to back up their claims. Many of these stem from arguments of incredulity which basically go like this: “I can’t think of any other reason for ‘this’ to be therefore it must be the hand of a creator God because nothing else explains whatever ‘this’ is.”

People of faith, especially those who conger a teleological purpose coupled with an eschatological end of times, seem to recognize that their core beliefs are mythological in nature but that all will be revealed when the messiah comes or returns depending on which eschatological story one takes as being the ‘truth.’ It seems that the messiah may appear in the very next moment of time or sometime in the distant future (while some believe in the imminent appearance of the messiah without the ability to attach to that appearance a definite time or place).

Here’s the rub; the very belief in a purpose to the universe, to the very earth we walk upon, to the core of existence is a belief system that may or may not be true. What if, for example, there were no purpose, that the universe, the earth, our very existence were merely the result of probabilities resulting from the physics of the big bang. If this is the case, claiming there must be a purpose to life, that life itself must be meaningful as conditioned by the imposition of meaning or purpose by a creator God, has no foundation. Claiming that there is a teleological purpose is nothing if not the incredulity of belief. It overlooks evidence.

If there is no intrinsic meaning for our very existence is it possible to create meaning or is all lost? If the very core of human life is meaningless, how does one not dispair? If one sees oneself bound to a chain of events stemming from the teleological, if one is, in this sense, bound to a core of sin and redemption where redemption is the reward for living itself, there is little available to the human being but a dispair arising from unfulfilled desire for redemption. If, on the other hand, one addresses life as being in the moment, that one is embedded in the flow of life itself, almost like standing in a river rushing downstream, then one is able to adjust to the vagaries that arise from the changing flow without teleological hope ruling the day. Sometimes the river runs slowly, sometimes rapidly, sometimes the water level is low and sometimes it is flooding, all events that are predictable yet randomly occurring. It is said that one can never stand in the same river twice. What one can do is experience the flow rather than focusing on how one may be redeemed from it.

To remove the teleological along with the idea of eschatological redemption conditioned on the appearance of the messiah does not, however remove response-ability from the equation of life. It does remove conditional response-ability bound up in sin and redemption freeing it from the dispair tied to desire. Once the burdens of fear based desire are removed one’s response-ability is simply an ethical response to the other [person], not one based in fear of punishment or desire for redemption but simply because it is the right thing to do. By acting for the welfare of the other one extends the interiority of the self to the exteriority of the other while incorporating the uniqueness of the other into one’s on lived-experience. No need to condition the obligation to act as a response-able human being, to the contrary, one must act without reservation and without expectation for any reward or recognition or the act is not response-able, rather it is bound up in self interest and self preservation.

 

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