End Times

People think the difference between religious and non-religious people is their belief in god. It’s not. It’s accompanying beliefs that have other kind of impacts.

For example: religious people know how the world is going to end. There’s going to be a redemption, a second coming, a reckoning.

That’s why the don’t have to worry about climate change, why they don’t make movies about nuclear or zombie apocalypses or alien invasions, or what happens when all the fuel is used up, or the world floods or the sun dies, or everything goes black.

They don’t have the same fears, they don’t lie awake genuinely worried about what their grandchildren will eat.

“Science fiction”, a comic-reading, TV-watching, video-gaming teenager once told me, “is the philosophy of today.” He should know. It’s how he thinks about what makes us human vs alien vs animal vs machine. It’s how he questions self, purpose, soul, morality, social contracts. Many of the working definitions we use to function break down when you enter space, introduce new species, when you can design aliens to be any combination of feeling, thinking, communicating, acting beings.

(He tried for a long time to teach me the difference between Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Stargate Atlantis and various other shows that all seamed to feature very idealistic humans in uniform, strangely-shaped, pointy-eared, scaly-skinned foes, and voluptuous music scores set to scenes of deep space.)

Religious people know the answers to those questions, and if they don’t, they start from the position that there is an answer, and a body of thought from which to decipher it. To a deep-space explorer, there is only possibility.

A few days ago the mother of teenager, who is no longer a teenager, told me that he told her that he no longer believes in god. A difficult thing to hear. I guess I knew it was coming. Can god compete with science fiction?

The absence of redemption

Christopher Hitchens:

It will never be normal or safe to be Jewish. And I hope it never is.

Leo Strauss:

The Jewish people and their fate are the living witness for the absence of redemption. This, one could say, is the meaning of the chosen people; the Jews are chosen to prove the absence of redemption.

Brought to you me by YouTube. By an innocent romp through the web of Christopher Hitchens clips.

Though I know of Christopher Hitchen’s renown I haven’t read his writing or listened to his talks. Frankly, I’ve been scared. If he’s as good as everyone says, I have to be ready. But a 2.5 minute clip from Hitchens on Israel? I can do that. 30 seconds in he said of “Israel and the Jewish question” the first quote above, and then paraphrased Leo Strauss.

I felt punched. Physically punched. The absence of redemption, that’s what we are. Destined to wander and suffer and never be safe. Believing all the while that we’re the light, the chosen, that there’s reason and purpose to being hated or different or both. That there will be redemption, a redemption, one that vindicates everything we’ve endured at the hands of others and everything we’ve imposed on ourselves. May it be speedily in our days.

Without redemption, what is there?

In the clip before this one Hitchens responds to a girl in a Q+A session who asks why the world is so focused on Iran’s evilness versus Israel’s. Hitchens, “Does this (Israel’s guilt) in your mind make the destruction of human rights in Islamist countries okay? or not?”

He mentions that the Hezbollah flag (it was actually a banner at an event) has a mushroom cloud on it, with a threat to the Jews. So there’s knowing that many people want you dead – me dead – me, here in LA, with my first world problems and first world naivete and first world tolerance and liberalism towards all people. And there’s knowing that we’re the suckers, or the true believers.

Eli Weisel, as always, says it best:

Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out,
swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…”

I can do no wrong

I miss being an existentialist.
Not that I knew, or know, what that means. I gave it my own private definition, based on Wikipedia entries, a brief reading of The Stranger and the sound of the word.
As an existentialist I could be dismissive. I didn’t have to worry that while I wondered if I’d ever find anything that mattered, I was missing out on all the things that did.
It was really a mask though, a filter.

Then I read an essay on existentialism by Sartre. It said that existentialists don’t believe in design, in a prior purpose.

What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that first of all man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards defines himself.
Man is nothing but he makes of himself. That is the first principal of existentialism.

To most people that’s akin to having the floor drop open beneath you. They take it to mean that nothing matters unless you impose meaning to it. Since the meaning is self-imposed it isn’t real. Sartre says otherwise. It means that everything matters. Every decision has massive significance. It makes yo who you are.
That’s a scary thought.

It’s also the first time I understood how it’s possible to not have a binary view of the world. If there is truly no objective truth then there are no shoulds; there is no right or wrong. Just choices and outcomes.
(I’m not sure why this suddenly made sense to me. It’s not like I’ve never heard it before.)

In the past when I had to make a decision, the process involved deciding which option was right, or more right. That meant trying to divine what G-d, or the Rebbe (spiritual leader) would deem right, the effect of the choice on my spiritual improvement, on others in my life, and on G-d’s master plan. (Hence my indecisiveness?)

When I dropped that way of thinking the deciding factor became my happiness. I felt guilty for thinking that way but consoled myself that when I was unhappy nobody benefited – physically or spiritually. That I was doing the right thing by looking out for myself.

Recently I had to make a decision about moving. What was more important – privacy and comfort, or friends and community? Was it okay to make a change just for the sake of change? I went to the beach to think about it, an empty beach, about one story below the road.

(A friend and mentor told me to choose the place that would be better for my connection to religion. She’s the only one who still talks to me that way.)

On the beach I ran through the pros and cons, which were all two sides of the same coin. I couldn’t see myself settling on one choice or the other. Either way I’d be sacrificing, and gaining. Then I remembered what I’d read and I realized there was no possible way to get it wrong. What a relief.

Faith 22

My problem with faith isn’t that it’s trite, or weak, or primitive.

I see the wisdom in it.
Let go. Stop trying to control everything. Submit, succumb, lie still for a moment and let G-d, or fate, or the universe do their thing.

My problem with faith is faith.
It’s like telling a depressed person that to heal they need to be happy, or an addict that to heal they need only to stop using.

If you’ve been hurt by someone you love, betrayed by someone you trusted or by an ideal in which you trusted, the casualty is your faith. In G-d. In humanity. In goodness. In truth.

So how can you turn to faith for comfort, or guidance?

You can’t. The solution is a change of expectations. Have faith in something different. In subjectivity. In anonymity. In the fragility and intangibility of being.

Trust issues

From Why I am Not Modern Orthodox:

In conversation after conversation with friends, peers, colleagues within the ex-Haredi community, what I often hear is not a rejection of religion itself but the erosion of a basic trust. Trust in those who claim the mantle of authority to deliver timeless truths. Trust in rabbis and ancient texts and traditions. Trust that anyone but we as individuals can determine our own truths and values.

Yes, yes, yes and yes.

And I would change the last line to, ‘Trust that anyone can determine their own truths and values.’

Halakhic Man, by Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik


Written in 1944 by Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveichik, the head of the Rabbinacal school at Yeshiva University, Halakhic Man is a description of the ideal Jew in a modern world.

The Halakhic Man has a number of distinct characteristics.

1) He is rational

Like a mathematician he believes that there is an ideal world, which reality is at odds with. This is the world described by Halakha, and it can be approached only through reason. He studies all of its nuances, so that he can transform his reality into the preexisting ideal.

2) He is optimistic, content

Unlike the prototypical homo religiosus, he does not suffer from a conflict between body and soul. He sees no duality. His purpose is to rectify this world, and to yearn to transcend it, would be evading his purpose. Man can find his perfection only here, not in spiritual realms, or after death.

3) He is creative

“The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.” -pg. 109

Creative as opposed to deterministic. In a deterministic world, time is linear.  You and everything that you do is is simply an effect of an earlier cause. Free choice gives a person the freedom to create each moment as it comes, and with that choice to redefine the past that led to it and the future to which it might lead.

Not a Litvak

As discussed in the essay ‘Rabbi Soloveichik’s Halakhic Man: Not a Mithnagged’, the Halakhic Man proposed here is not at all similar to the Lithuanian tradition from which Rabbi Soloveichik came. HM is similar to the Misnagdic tradition in his appreciation for study, and for the minutae of the law. He is dissimilar, and even contrary, to the idea that man’s purpose is to be found here, in this world. That is a Hassidic perspective, and a relatively modern idea.

However, the implications that RS and Hassidism take from that idea are however, very different. In Hassidism there’s a back and forth between heaven and earth – the desire to transcend the limits of this world, and the need to stay grounded here and carry out G-d’s will. Like the heart pumping, they’re the same movement really. The one drives the other.

According to RS, it’s all about this world. There’s no need to transcend when living a life according to the Halakhic blueprint is the true way to realizing your religious self.

Best quotes ever

Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments. – Footnote 4, pg. 142

Take that Raskolnikov.

Choice forms the base of creation. Causality and creation are two irreconcilable antagonists. -pg. 116

Forget evolution vs. creation. Are evolution and free choice (=creation) irreconcilable?

The experience of Halakhic Man is not circumscribed by his own individual past… His time is measured by the standards of the Torah, which began with the creation of heaven and earth. Similarly, Halakhic Man’s future does not terminate with the end of his own individual future at the moment of death but extends into the future of the people as a whole, the people who yearn for the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom of G-d… We have here a blurring of the boundaries dividing time from eternity, temporal life from everlasting life. -pg. 117

Welcome to infinity in the everyday.