Saturday, July 30, 2005

Responses To Tanya, Sefer Shel Benonim, chs. 1-5

Do people have souls?

The problems posed by the concept of a transcendent soul that interacts with the physical body are similar to those posed by the concept of a transcendent deity who interacts with the physical universe. Neuroscience has a long way to go, but we do seem to be making strides in the direction of understanding -- and, to an extent, being able to control -- many aspects of emotion and cognition, including matters as fundamental as decision-making, empathy, and impulse control. The better these matters are understood, the less room there seems to be for a non-physical human "spirit."

Most religious people seem convinced that we do have souls independent of our bodies, but I wonder whether this doctrine is truly vital to religious belief. It is undeniable that people have the capacity for thought and emotion. We can contemplate God, choose ethical conduct, and find joy in religious activity. If these are the elements necessary for religious devotion, and if we believe that these traits are, in one way or another, given to us by God, what difference does it make whether they are ultimately physical or not?

I raise this question now because it relates to the nature of the truth that may be embodied in such mystical works as Tanya. The author of Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, divides the transcendental aspect of human beings into various parts. We have two souls (neshamot), as well as spirit (ruach) and life (nefesh). In addition, our souls (the sum of the three) have ten manifestations, corresponding to the ten Sefirot, or Divine spheres. For the Ba'al Ha-Tanya (the author), this is all quite literal. The base, wicked soul resides in the blood, and the evil inclinations within it emanate from the four elements (Fire, Water, Air, and Earth). The second soul, meanwhile, resides in human breath. The external nefesh, surrounding the internal neshamot, ruach, and nefesh, is comprised of the essences of the individual's mother and father, and so on.

But are these physical connections necessary? In a very different context, Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into Ego, Superego, and Id. Freud never claimed that these were directly related to the physical brain, or that they existed on some transcendental plane separate from it; they simply described the various human inclinations as they seemed to manifest themselves in his observations. Presumably, he could have divided the psyche into four parts, or ten (if he were a kabbalist), and the analysis would be no less accurate, provided that it corresponded to human nature as we experience it.

Is Tanya less valuable because it claims more for its assertions than this? Because, frankly, the Aristotelian science doesn't do it for me. . .

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Dragon in My Garage

Whether your name is Meredith or not, be forewarned: this post contains deeply heretical ideas, along with some gross stuff about my love life.

DH has known about my spiritual struggle since we were in high school. This was, in part, because we were both socially inept. I asked him to senior prom (not because I was particularly interested in him, mind you, but because I knew he'd be available), and on the way, in the limosine, I started rambling on about God.

I was in the midst of a massive crisis of faith. All my life, I'd been deeply religious, which is to say that I did my utmost to behave in accordance with halakha as I understood it and to believe the religious dogma that I was taught. This had become increasingly difficult, however, and lately, even the most basic tenets of religion had begun to seem irrational.

Everyone else seemed to think that I was a model Jew (notwithstanding my strange decision to go to prom), and I didn't know how my date would respond to this sudden admission of agnosticism. To my surprise, it didn't seem to affect him at all. He responded matter-of-factly that of course there was no way to prove or disprove the existence of a Supreme Being. Then, with a grin, he concluded:

"God is a postulate."

Strangely enough, that was the moment when I realized that this incredibly nerdy boy, who couldn't assemble an English sentence without including a world like "postulate," was someone I'd actually like to befriend.

Several years later, when we became romantically involved (in spite of a distance of approximately 400 miles), I began what became a lengthy e-mail exchange debating the God Postulate.

Some excerpts:

God is only a useful concept. . . if He interacts with the universe in some way. Can't one assert, then, according to a law that seems to hold true within the universe, that a system including a superfluous entity is less likely to accurately describe the way things work?

If you get the same results from one line of math that you would get from 7 pages of algebra, chances are, you want to use the one line, and all that it implies about the physics, as the basis of your theory. On the other hand, if there are some phenomena that can only be explained by the theory that would require 7 pages of algebra to do, you know that while the one line works in a limiting case, it can't be the entire truth.

Quantum theory is valuable because there are cases that Newtonian physics can't explain. Find me an aspect of the universe that can't be explained except through theism.

Dearest Pathetically Devoted One,
I'm glad that you finally responded to my e-mail. I was starting to worry that I might have actually destroyed your faith, which would suck, because then we'd have to switch positions.

And so on.

One of the things that most attracted me to DH was his willingness to confront these issues. I also liked the fact that they didn't seem to interfere with his religious commitment. Still, I have to admit, I was also kind of hoping that he'd eventually formulate an argument that would make religion seem reasonable again. Perhaps that was too much to hope for from anyone.

I've found myself thinking about these issues a good deal lately, mainly as a result of the proliferation of blogs by Orthodox and formerly Orthodox sceptics. Of course, I've dragged DH back into the conversation. The outcome of our last debate (if you can call me whining while my husband tries to sleep a "debate") is encapsulated in this post on DH's blog. In response, some obviously intelligent and thoughtful people contributed these (forgive me) entirely pathetic arguments in favor of theism:

1. "Cognitive closure:" The "wiring" of the human brain prevents us from grasping God's function in the universe.* Possible? Certainly. It is also possible that we are "wired" to think that the world around us is real, when it is actually a "matrix" designed by giant robots who are farming us for energy. In fact, a movie based on that premise was wildly popular. Still, I don't see people restructuring their lives on the basis of The Matrix. That's because, not only is there no reason to think that it's true, but it undermines everything we're able to deduce based on our senses and our capacity for logical reasoning.

If this doesn't trouble you, think about your daily life. Pretty much everything you do is based on the assumption that your senses and capacity for basic reasoning will not fail you. Everything. . . except religion.

2. God could "shift some quantums one way, and balance it out by shifting others the other way."** Also possible. But realize that this is the logical eqivalent of the argument that God fabricated the fossil record in order to fool us. Tell me again why I should believe in a God who's done everything possible to ensure that I can't detect his existence?

Sorry to be so shrill, but I know that there are many intelligent religious people in the world. Can't anyone do better than this?

* From respondingtojblogs
**From Godol Hador

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Yes, I just added it. So, officially, there has been a total of 1 visit to this site as of now (not counting DH and myself). In case you care for some reason.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Daughters of Zelophehad as a Model for Halachic Change

The story of the daugthers of Zelophehad (Num. 27:1-11) is often looked to as a prototype of Jewish feminism. A group of women approach Moses, the leader of the entire Israelite nation, and demand, before all the members of the Israelite hierarchy, that they be granted a right previously restricted to men: the right to inherit land.

A close reading of the story (or Hirhurim), however, reveals that this interpretation has serious flaws. The daughters of Zelophehad argue not on their own behalf, but on behalf of their deceased father, who, they say, has a right "live on" by keeping his allotment of land within the family, a right that the current system would deny him because of his lack of sons. The ruling issued at the end of the narrative addresses precisely this complaint, and not the inequality of the sexes: the daugthers will inherit their father's land, but only for the purpose of ultimately passing it on to their sons. Moreover, in order to ensure that the patriarchal system of land-tenure is maintained, the daughters of Zelophehad (and presumably any women to whom the ruling applies) are required to marry within their father's tribe.

That said, it seems to me that the story can still provide a model for feminist change within halacha, as well as for any change that seeks to expand the rights of various individuals and groups within the Jewish community.

In this regard, the following features of the story are noteworthy:

1. Change is initiated by laypeople (in this case, people from a particularly low stratum of society). These people observe that the legal system, as it stands, does not do justice to certain members of the community.

2. The laypeople do not request justice; they demand it.

3. That said, they do so within the communal framework, by bringing their complaint to the religious authorities (in this case, Moses and God).

4. The religous authorities take their complaint seriously and address it. They do not dismiss those making the complaint because of their lack of status, or because of their tone, or because the complaint is based on the fundamental value of justice rather than the particulars of Israelite law.

5. The result is a partnership between bold laypeople and bold leaders, both willing to modify the legal system when it is in the interest of justice to do so.

Of course, there is one glaring difference between the situation in the parsha and the situation facing Jewish communities today. God very seldom speaks directly to our rabbis and tells them exactly what to do. Instead, we try to preserve the integrity of halacha by working within a textual tradition, which seems to say something slightly different to each individual who confronts it. But here again, I think the idea of partnership is key. We can't just wait for the texts to tell us what to do or for rabbis to tell us what to do. We have to figure out for ourselves what isn't right with the status quo and then try to work together, with our leaders and with our halachic tradition, to change it for the better.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The DH Moves

My husband's commentary on "Judaism, Computers, and other elements of Life" can now be found at The Apikorsus Companion v2.0.

Monday, July 11, 2005

ELF Experiments with New-Age Avoda Zara

I attended my first yoga class on Thursday. It was enjoyable. Most of the exercises were physically intensive, but at the end of the class, the instructor asked us to lie on our backs and try to get in touch with the "energy in everything" and "experience it as joy." Eventually, he said, we would learn to channel and "radiate" that joy to the people around us.

I'm a good sport, so I gave it a shot. For five minutes or so, I lay on my mat, not thinking too much, just breathing and feeling. As soon as the class was over, though, the analytical side of my mind kicked back into gear. The first thing I thought was, "what the hell??"

I don't know much about the philosophy behind yoga (or Eastern religion in general), but it seems to me that the notion of a "spirit" or "energy" inhabiting all physical things has attained much of its current popularity in the West as a response to the challenge that science poses to religion. The fundamental problem is this: the more we understand about the workings of the universe, the more it appears to be a causally closed system. Thoughtful people who believe in an active, independent God must imagine Him to be increasingly limited, not a direct force behind the weather, or the growth of plants, or the birth of babies, but a remote force, lurking behind some distant, primordial event that scientists have yet to fully explain. It is difficult to imagine such a God being truly relevant to our daily existence, even if, as some assert, He planned the entire course of history from the outset.

An alternative to this approach is to expand God rather than contracting Him, imagining a divine spirit inhabiting all that exists. But what does it mean for God to be part and parcel of a causally closed system? Can one pray to a god who is indistinguishable from a fruit fly, or the force of gravity? Can such a deity command ethical behavior?* I'm all for feeling at one with the universe and radiating joy to the rest of humanity, but why get in touch with God when I could accomplish the same thing by eating a bowl of ice cream? Can this sort of theology provide an adequate substitute for theism in the modern world? Many liberal Jews and Christians seem to think so. But I have my doubts.

* I realize that classical yoga includes prayer and ethical conduct. It also usually includes theism (I think). But I'm not really talking about classical yoga, which I clearly don't know much about . . .

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Couple of Links

As usual, I find myself with little to say about recent tragic events. This post by Islamoyankee is worth reading, as is my Dear Husband's analysis (of course). Ed Cook has an encouraging quote from C. S. Lewis.

On a different topic, a very human column in today's Globe looks to Israel for a much-needed warning against character judgements based on political affiliations.

I will have something of my own to say again, eventually. Your patience is appreciated.