Friday, July 25, 2008

There is no point in fearing G-d if you don't even trust yourself. None. Part Two.

Are the rabbis less fallible than us? Evidently not if you follow the news. Doubly not if you listen to them bicker and make snide comments as to who is more right than another, or more to the point, as to who is less right and capable than another. The fact that they'd snipe each other in defiance of loshon hara tells you right off that they aren't less fallible than you.

And this leads to a terrible path for the rabbinate. On the one hand they are empower by all those who ask for a psak on which socks to wear on a given day, on the other hand, as Senator Palpatine said, all those who gain power are afraid to lose it. The following of people who rely on a rabbi constitutes a tremendously seductive temptation to make use of that power. It also constitutes an understandable force in their minds leading to disregard, disdain, disapproval, and even outright condescension for those who so blindly follow them. The phrase "useful idiots" wasn't invented for nothing.

Further, while those poor and uneducated Jews of the shtetl of prior centuries were definitely viewed with scant regard by the learned and this was noted by the Baal Shem Tov and his immediate circle with disgust and shame, today we have a system of learning for all. The material wealth of food, energy, and housing has led to the ability for just about any Jew to learn all day long. Many do.

No longer are they uneducated in Torah and Talmud, but can read the works and know them perhaps even better than their own rabbis who might in their age have forgotten something. What does this mean? It means that the human tendency to find mysteries and yearn to solve them comes into play. No longer is it that they don't know and must take the rabbi on his word, but when he says something out of bounds with reality as they've experienced it, they will feel that deviation, and think for themselves. As the explanations and reasoning for obvious contradictions become ever more convoluted, the desire to conform and pretend belief is ever more tested by what they know for themselves.

It isn't for nothing that the skeptidox blogging world is dominated by the formerly deeply religious of the Charedi and Chasidic worlds. The most formidable atheist and agnostic people usually hail from strong religious backgrounds whether early on or late such as for disillusioned Baalei Teshuva or Born Again Christians.

This entire focus on fear is setting us up for disaster. We're creating generations yet to be born who will be trained in the deepest writings of Jewish thought, law, and belief without having a shred of faith in any of it. We're making an army of atheists and agnostics who will walk away turning their back on G-d because those who were charged with keeping Him alive in the hearts of the people themselves feigned faith, and acted falsely, and some were out and out liars.

The very foundation of rabbinical Judaism is being set up for a fall but it is also the responsibility of the faithful to call bullshit when a rabbi errs. Were the average Jew who asks for rulings to only ask for rulings when he truly could not see past his inner doubt and conflict, when he truly could not decide for himself, and all other times have faith in G-d and rely on the conscience and heart He gave them, then he would take from that rabbi the corrupting power a good and decent rabbi has no need of and only give him the truest and most special power of truly being needed and not merely being a default device in the living of his followers' lives.

Why do we rely so heavily on them? Why do we not celebrate those our hears tell us are good but listen to whichever rabbi we do by default? We fear that we do not know enough. We fear that G-d is going to punish us for simple mistakes. We fear that G-d will judge with absolute severity anything less than a truly G-dly effort to avoid error in the first place. WHY?

Primarily, because we fear G-d. We don't love G-d, we fear G-d. We fear that the ultimate power in the universe, our Creator, can override our free will, render us irrelevant in our own lives, and take away from us the power to choose for ourselves, most likely the fun things. However, we judge G-d based on our own example. It is other humans who capriciously and whimsically impose on us and take the fun out of our lives and we go by that. Well, I am here to say G-d does NOT work that way. Your free will is the entire point.

As I read a phrase on the Internet once, "everything not forbidden is not compulsory". That is, just because you can do something doesn't mean you need to do it, or should do it. We fear that we will have G-d take away the very possibility of choosing something which in the end when we are good people, we would not do anyhow. You have free will to do anything you want. You also have a nature, a conscience, circumscribing that will. You can choose anything, but what you choose reflects on how you are. As you were made in His image, then so to as you do, so do you reflect on G-d.

If you live in fear of punishment and only do things or not do things for fear of reprisal, of G-d not liking you, and not because they are right or wrong in and of themselves, then you know nothing of right and wrong. You only know punishment and loss versus not being punished and not having something taken away.

When bad things happen, we always look up and ask, "why me". We assume that G-d who made the entire universe and perhaps an infinite number beyond is going to take time out of His schedule of doing whatever it is that He does, to smack you down for not covering your heard or wearing your tefillin right and that's why your car has a flat tire. He is punishing you for doing something wrong. All mankind assumes this. They assume their various deities, or that G-d, or that nature, or whatever is taking time to mess with them.

Humans take pain personally They then share that pain with others, and by the example they set, they judge G-d, and then it all snowballs from there.

We need to stop fearing G-d. Fear is for those who otherwise can't get into the feeling of love for G-d and would otherwise transgress, but not for those who truly feel His love. If you do, act in accordance with that love for G-d as you would someone in your everyday life. If you would not see a parent in disgrace for misdeeds, then would you see disgrace brought upon G-d by those who abuse kids and do not follow the laws and commit fraud? If they are also made in G-d's image, then that which they do reflects on G-d, and, concomitantly, reflects G-d back into them. If you love G-d, then you must also love the transgressor enough to not see them in disgrace but correct them and clean the stains of their disgrace by helping them to change, or if necessary despite all exhortations to teshuva, justice before the community at the earliest possible chance.

When we love G-d enough to trust G-d, we will only give such power to the rabbinate as those within it deserve, and only the deserving. Those who are not will eventually not be rabbis and in the future, no one will be a rabbi who does not deserve the trust of that position's responsibilities. We will be doing the entire rabbinate a favor in thinking for ourselves for no longer will we seem like ignorant frightened children, but worthy of more of the word of G-d, deeper thoughts and cogitations on the meanings and import, and worthy to bantered back and forth on the issues because we will raise no issues that we all know are nonsense, and only those we believe in our hearts are relevant and good to G-d, and His posterity and integrity and honor out of love.

In short, love G-d, do not fear. Think for yourself, and feel for yourself, and know He has undying compassion and forgiveness for you beyond all mankind, so that your errors are not sins worthy of condemnation when you learn from them and change what it is within you that made you commit them, and so do them no longer, or on the way, not so much. Do not unduly press on your rabbi's shoulders with expectations of guiding every juncture in your life. Offer them instead any service you can to lighten their load and help them with their awesome burdens. Care for your fellow man whether Jew or goy because G-d made them all and all are an aspect of Him and if you love Him then so should you love them. Care for their posterity and honor and do not countenance their own self-created disgrace to continue without intervention to change their path from darkness to light. Do not maintain a tight-lipped silence allowing misdeeds to go unaddressed for not a bit of good do you do by the misbehaving, but only let them heap more shame on themselves.

(Brought about because of a week of posts at Failed Messiah, The Kvetcher, and other places reporting more sad signs of fear-centric religious practice instead of love-centric worship. We worship best when we simply truly allow G-d into our lives. He wants to know us. We need desperately to let Him.)

There is no point in fearing G-d if you don't even trust yourself. None. Part One.

As I read on in theology, especially Orthodox Jewish philosophy, I am struck by the constant theme of fear. Fear it is posited must be in the hearts and minds of everyone who would do G-d's will. I understand the viewpoint. It's laid out quickly and simply in the movie Dogma when Barnaby tells a boardroom of about-to-be-executed sinners basically that lacking fear, they feel free to do whatever. Only fear of ticking G-d off will make people behave.

This is a simplistic notion, really, and one that smacks of distrust of human potential for goodness, for love, for faith. It says that by default, without fear of punishment, people will choose the bad course and do the wrong thing.

Okay, then if that is so, how can the story of the Besht and Elijah where the Besht refuses to tell what he did on his Bar Mitzvah to Elijah have any weight whatsoever? Did he do it strictly in fear of G-d? No, he did whatever it was in service of G-d. We do not serve those we fear, we merely do what they tell us when they tell us, or do without being told because we fear reprisal, but we are not serving. Service requires some measure of affection. We do service for love of G-d. The Besht did a good deed out of love for G-d, and that was all he needed to know. It wasn't for reward or fear of punishment or fear of not being rewarded and he purposely didn't answer Elijah despite the prodding, knowing full well that he wasn't going to get the promised reward if he maintained his silence.

NOT out of fear did the Besht act, but out of love. Are we expected to believe we are inherently so much less worthy that we default to doing worse? The story of the Besht is that of a simple soul who had a choice and chose well. We each can do as well and the Besht himself taught that.

Yet do we teach it today?

Today we teach fear and distrust. We've given up on enlightened self-interest and embraced the fallback of ages, unenlightened self-interest. The first of course takes into account positive emotional concerns such as love and caring for others and that we will out of desire for those things do many other things to ensure them, some out of fear of loss, others merely as a constant way of maintaining them which feels natural to us.

The second revolves around fear and greed and while I am all in favor of using the fear and other negativity of others to counteract those same things, it must always be towards a goal of bringing about amplification of their positive affectations. We must not encourage selfish unenlightened self-interest for in that way there is no reliability. Those who do only for fear of punishment if they fail can be fairly guaranteed to not act of their own accord should they either not be ordered to, or should the act not present itself as obvious enough to make sense to avoid punishment. Further, other actions they might in their heads see in fear as needing doing to avoiding punishment might be done and they might be wrong. Act in haste, repent in leisure they say. It is as equally valid when you replace the word haste with fear.

We teach fear first of others, secondly of not having a rabbi to follow, and lastly ourselves. We internalize it, and then we make it our guiding force.

You may wonder why I put fear of not having a rabbi in there. Do I mean to badmouth the entire rabbinate? Heck no. I mean to badmouth our collective dependency on the position and those who hold it without any proper recognition of the great responsibility which goes with it on the part of everyone, both rabbi and congregant.

The responsibility that goes with being a rabbi is that of the spiritual guidance of those that ask for it in all trust. If G-d gives us Torah, and the rabbis then are the position of authority on its meaning and application, then the desire of G-d to educate and guide us is being handled by them. This is clearly an awesome responsibility. One must never try to be an intermediate between someone else and their Creator, but must be a scout and ranger to lead them through the wilderness of unbelief and ignorance to the Torah.

How can any rabbi do that in fear? In fear, do we not slow our progress on the trail? Do we not in fear poke bushes with our staff and timidly take only the safest and most boring way possible, missing out on all of the other places G-d put in the way for us? Of course we do. We take the path most traveled, not the path less traveled. A path where everything is the same, we are put to no challenges, our character decides nothing because all is rote, all is programmed response. Known boulder, walk left and follow path. Step over log one hundred feet on. Continue down hill to your right. Sidestep the gravel.

Is not much in Charedi Orthodoxy of today a clear expression of this fear? Dress the same, look the same, speak the same, do not expose yourself to anything which might require your decision, do not think for yourself, simply do and learn as told.

I think it is and I think the Besht thought it then of the Judaism of his time. I think all the fear first and foremost brought out a reaction of revulsion and sickness from this loving man and his response was to lead from love more than fear. Fear of disappointing someone you love outranks fear of being punished by someone you don't love. The latter takes the course of least resistance and effort, the former takes whatever course may come and often, all the effort in the world.

When I say sickness and revulsion, I do not mean to imply hate or dislike or even disregard for those who were steeped in it. One does not necessarily follow from the other. Sometimes, the feeling of sickness and pain is in the love of someone else, namely fearing that those you care for are in serious error that will harm them and damage their spirits. When a loved one is filled with hate and anger, do you not care that they are hurting their own hearts, and perhaps pray for them to see a better outlook and a calmer mind?

Another place we proceed in fear is fear of not being religious, or righteous, or good enough. Not for fear G-d will be dissatisfied but because we fear that WE will not be satisfied or more to the point that we will not have the satisfaction we yearn for. At what point will you be religious, righteous, or pious enough? People never ask that. They need to. What is the yardstick? The point of a goal is that it defines a journey. Even an endless journey to an unreachable ultimate destination still has the definition of that destination. What is the definition of righteousness? Ask an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi. Ask a Reform, a Conservative, and a Modern Orthodox. See how many definitions you get.

Without an idea of whether we're getting any closer, it's no different than a starship traveling in a void with no landmarks. We have no idea if we're better. When it comes to righteousness, absent a yardstick, we instinctively say, well, more must be better. More conservatism, more suppression, more oppression, more holding back.

Remember what I said about fear, timidity, and choosing the path more traveled. We are at two counts in favor of more stringency. Is it getting easier to see why we keep defaulting in religion to more and more suppression?

However, there is another path. The path of love. The path of effusive good feelings, of embracing openness and caring. The doing of right things because they are right, because your heart tells you that they are right, and not because G-d might smite you.

No, we experience fear. Fear that we do not know enough to make our decisions in religion for ourselves. Fear that we do not know enough to help make decisions in religion for ourselves with the rabbinate. Fear that we can do nothing. The only way to salvation is to follow the rabbis.

(to be continued shortly)

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Simpsons Talmud - By Noah Gradofsky

If you need something amusing and light then this is probably what you're looking for. I thought it was a hoot. I only found it because I was searching Google for an idea of how often Talmudic content is someone saying something in someone else's name, which is often as well many know.