4.12.2008

Late-Night Philosophy

Here's essentially what I've been saying to rabbis and congregations as I go around peddling my book, Waiting for God.

You seem to have no idea of how important you and your communities are in today's world — as centers where questions can be asked about what we, as human beings — with awesome, unprecedented power — should be doing. Not only what
we CAN do, but what we SHOULD do. And what is the should based on? What does the should reach for? Why don't we always follow the should? What conflicts exist between the collective should and the individual should? Who's leadership can we trust? How do we judge authority? And how do we think for ourselves? All of these can be defined as religious questions — or, at least, religious institutions are the spaces where conversations about these questions can flow most naturally (there's too much pass-fail static in the classroom, and too much commerce in the media).

And instead you use your precious community time repeating rituals that bring comfort (for those who are comfortable with them) but little insight, certainly little new insight, about the should.

Why do you do that? Why do you go for the predictable instead of the creative and unpredictable? Especially when, in most liberal Jewish communities, there is really no God to serve, there is little belief in a commanding God whose commands are embodied in the Torah. Why do you spend time praising God, therefore, instead of encountering one another? Why do you address the You that is, in truth, a proxy for the We?

It is a strange thing: The tradition that we honor, Judaism, wisely saw human beings in a balanced way, as containing the possibility of goodness and also the possibility of negativity; the possibility of interconnection and the possibility of selfishness; the possibility of I-Thou and the possibility of I-It. The rabbis didn't just say,
Human beings are evil, tainted with sin, and they didn't just say, Human beings are good, made in the image of Goodness; they recognized that we are bundles of contrary instincts — but that even the selfishness can be channeled to be socially constructive with the right set of life rules! “We know that you're going to be selfish, we know that you're going to be driven by fear and greed — so we're going to make you say 100 blessings a day so that you can also remember, constantly, the interconnected reality of your life, the interconnection that brings you your good fortune, your survival.” But most modern Jews, including Jews in most modern congregations, have declared themselves, at least in their hearts, to be free of the "must" behind those 100 blessings, as free of most of the Jewish rules that were devised to channel us towards the social good. Yet we spend our time, when we're together, repeating the old rituals, the old prayers, as though we still were making use of that system in our lives! In fact, we should be spending our time discussing our own modern perceptions of human good and human evil, and defining our own rules to channel us towards the social good. Yes, those rules should be ripe with Jewish content — it's good content, some of that old stuff! — but first and foremost, we have to make the space to have the discussion. That means, DON'T take the Torah out of the ark every single Saturday! Reading from the Torah is not all that edifying! Why not take a globe out of the ark one week — pass the world around, let people hold and kiss that? Take a baby and pass her around, let people hold and kiss her. THAT'S Torah! And then talk about it!

We need to talk about our moral foundations, our knowledge about human genetics and human social nurture, about how who we are gives rise to our institutions and how our institutions shape who we are. About the possibility of transformation — and the impossibility of transformation. About how to stop war — really! About how to love the stranger — really! About mindfulness, about our mothers and our daughters, about genetic engineering and atom-splitting, about the reaches and limits of humanism . . .

We need to make our religions oh-so-worldly, in a world that is oh-so-troubled.

And then I say,
Nu, what do you think?




3 Comments:

Blogger michael.littman said...

It's a great point you are making. What do they say? Do they accept your premise?

9:04 AM  
Blogger Lao Qiao said...

You're quite right about selfishness, Larry. It can be channeled to improve the world. After all, helping your family is selfish. Helping your community is selfish. Helping the world is selfish. The most selfless of all people are suicide bombers, whose acts don't help themselves and don't help their cause. Al-Qaeda could not possibly have been helped by the courageous and selfless acts of those who died in order to kill.

People can think, and thinking—questioning—leads us to be good, as I say in the book I wrote under my English name (George Jochnowitz), THE BLESSED HUMAN RACE.

4:21 PM  
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1:55 PM  

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