Tuesday, July 17, 2012

God: Up, Up, Down, Down

Through the baby monitor, I heard these words from my two-year-old daughter:

"Up, up, down, down...
up, down, up down..."

I knew immediately what she was singing!  Uncle Moishy's song about God [Hashem]:

Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere
Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere
Up, up, down, down
right, left, and all around
Here, there and everywhere 
That's where He can be found...
Apparently, she had been learning this ditty in her little day camp around the corner from my house.  I found this to be overwhelmingly heartwarming, and repeated her genius to everyone I know (hence, here).

Why?

Because I adore the fact that my very young child, who can barely put together a sentence, is absorbing in her young and fragile psyche ideas that I hold so dear.

That God is omniscient.

That He is omnipresent.

That He's personal.

I take God personally.   That means I believe He cares intensely about what I do, micromanages world details to accommodate and make possible the personal growth of me and others, employs a level of detail in the minutiae of my motivations and machinations, and it's all because He loves me.

Were you told that God loves you?  If you ever opened a prayer book to the Shema, it was right there, in the paragraph preceding it.  Tim Tebow opened this question to the world on a whole new level: does God live on a sports field?

Here, there and everywhere, that's where He can be found...
While hearing my child sing this song gives me intense comfort and peace, I acknowledge that there are those for whom it brings a stiffening of the neck. Was the Tebow debate about the detail of God's personal involvement? Was it the resistance of Jews to unabashed declarations of faith? Is that discomfort dependent on WHICH God we're talking about (well-nigh irrelevant: a Jew would never wear his God on his sleeve. Why?)?

How much longer can my little girl unabashedly sing "Hashem is here" without filtering?

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117 comments

117 comments:

  1. Oof. This pains me....if God is really micromanaging our lives then I think he's a huge jerk. The only way I can reconcile the existence of God with all the senseless suffering in the world is to believe he does NOT intervene. Like, ever.

    I read a blog by a fellow Jewish woman (missingmaxie dot blogspot dot com). Her beautiful, perfect, happy 9.5 month old baby died of SIDS a year ago. Why? To teach her a lesson? To teach us a lesson? No way. No WAY. I can't believe God would choose to put an innocent family through such suffering while the rest of us float through life relatively unscathed.

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    1. Hi Anonymous,

      ...Oof. It pains me to hear God referred to that way. But, to your point.

      Judaism advances some possibilities of why a loving God would put people through painful experiences. But when someone is in pain, it's not the time to speculate on such possibilities.

      Recently, a terrible tragedy befell a local family and the rabbi, at the funeral, basically said what you just did: sometimes, other Forces (forces?) are more powerful than God. But this I do not understand (which is different from saying I do not believe). Because if God is not intervening, ever, is that a choice or is that due to his limited power? I don't know, but nowhere in our sources or liturgy is there a source for an LLC God.

      I will say that different things comfort different people. When my family went through a terrible tragedy, these very beliefs were what allowed us to continue putting one food in front of the other.

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    2. I'm anon #1: it just feels sort of icky for me to thank God that my baby didn't die of SIDS when others do. What, like I'm so special or God is being nicer to me? I do love your point that it would be terribly inappropriate to bring up the "everything for a reason" argument to a person in deep pain. Is that a Jewish teaching specifically?

      Also, I don't mean to offend with my jerk comment - my point was I don't believe he's a jerk - I believe instead that he's choosing not to intervene, ever (because his power is unlimited if he is indeed God). Which makes me wonder can you expand at all on the idea of forces more powerful than god? How can that be? I understand if you don't have any more information on that topic though since you said you don't understand it yourself. :)

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    3. Right. Not to gloat over those who can't say those thanks, but to be grateful each day for all the things that might have gone wrong and didn't. Not as far as being more special, but more grateful than before. The teaching of refraining from preaching when someone is in pain comes from Iyov (Job) and is the source for not initiating conversation at a shiva but rather waiting for the mourner's cues.

      To clarify: *I* certainly don't think there are any forces more powerful than God, but it seemed this rabbi did. Which is what I didn't understand. Which is what I know no source for in Judaism.

      But if God chooses not to intervene, and could, as you suggest, isn't that just as cruel? Silence is consent/complicity to a crime and so forth?

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    4. Honestly, Ruchi, this is why I am leaning towards atheism. How can an all-powerful, all-loving God allow such senseless pain? I know that's the question everyone asks themselves but the more I think of it the more I can't figure out a logical answer. The only thing I could come up with is that he created us (and everything) and decided from the beginning to never intervene - let nature take it's course in things like disease and death, and let people exercise free will in situations like war and crime. I think this is less cruel than a God who jumps in here and there, saving some innocents and letting others suffer and die.

      It's also hard for me to reconcile this with the shema, which I understand to mean God is infinite, so He IS the natural disaster, etc. He's in everything, including the bad decisions and the bad luck. I don't know.

      That's the bottom line - I don't know, and if I think about it too much I get so angry over things like SIDS and cancer and the holocaust and everything else, that I end up concluding no all-loving God can possibly exist.

      (sorry for typos, writing from a mobile device)

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    5. Should be workingJuly 18, 2012 at 3:44 AM

      I think the rule about following the mourner's cues instead of initiating conversation is wonderful.

      So I'm assuming this was an O rabbi. That sounds, then, like there is room for quite a bit of divergence in views about God's power even within O Judaism. Or not?

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    6. Perhaps what he meant was that sometimes other forces act with more power than God. Not that they are inherently more powerful or that He couldn't overcome them if He wanted to, but that He refrains from acting and thus leaves the field open to those other forces.

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    7. Anon: (are you still anon #1? Can you number yourself?) If your question is not derived from pain, but rather from your mind, I would like to share some of those "other possibilities" with you. It sound as though you're faced with a millie choice where you have to choose the most plausible, but you don't love it.

      I'd like to add to your choices.

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    8. Sbw and Dg: This was a non-Orthodox rabbi. To my mind, a rabbi who espouses a limited God cannot by definition be Orthodox. Dg: He said God doesn't have control over everything.

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    9. Anon1 again and yes, sorry, that was me up there too. Yes, please feel free to add to my choices! My email is r_shekter@yahoo or fine to discuss here too.

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    10. Anon: Can I just ask how you can "believe ... that [God is] choosing not to intervene" and at the same time be "leaning towards atheism"? The God who doesn't exist chooses not to intervene?

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    11. Ruchi, care to expound on what you mean by 'a limited God'? Is a God who could intervene but chooses not to do so limited?

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    12. No. Limited means you want to but can't. It's not your choice.

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    13. Dg: anon1 here. I am like mulder - I want to believe! And the only way I've found to believe in god without thinking he's awful is to believe he doesn't intervene. But as ruchi pointed out, that also has its flaws. If I think about it too much, I lean more towards atheism. But for now I suppose I'm agnostic.

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    14. Anon #1: I'll email you some of my thoughts.

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    15. The only helpful thing I have to say on this topic is that it would be difficult to acknowledge the good and to be grateful for it, if there weren't any bad. This is an inadequate reason to create sick babies and tzunamies and abject poverty, but it's all I have. -MP

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    16. Interesting. And I agree, small comfort.

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  2. When you think of it like that...you can think of how much Hashem IS in fact pushing off and saving us from day in and day out.

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    1. Wait, are you anon #1 or anon #2? Either way... I agree. Do each of us wake up every day and thank God that our child did not die of SIDS last night?

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    2. Um...yeah. I do.

      And Ruchi, I will second that experience of going through tragedy and having the belief in G-d as a way to see the tragedy and my part in it as part of a bigger picture. It was the very things i had learned previously (NOT what people said to me at the time) about the nature of the world that allowed for me to weather that storm.

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    3. That would make me crazy, spending all day thinking about everything that could have gone wrong.

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    4. Rachel... No words.

      Dg: there's a healthy balance, somewhere between forgetting to count your blessings, and being obsessed with potential disaster.

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  3. Hi Ruchi,
    No one ever told me that God loves me, probably because I don't think my parents believed in an omnipotent being, or spirit, or man up in the clouds, just as I cannot bring myself to do. But that doesn't mean I feel left out, my family and friends here on Earth keep me deeply satisfied and content; I know they're the ones that have my back. I am grateful each day my family wakes up healthy and happy, but I don't think that anything other than luck and healthy habits has anything to do with that. When my dad became gravely ill, I knew it was from genes, thus bad luck. Nothing God could have done to change the DNA that made him a tow headed kid who sunburned every summer as a child only to develop melanoma as a 62 year old. Ruchi, I appreciate you sharing how much your belief in a higher being comforts you, but I am such a practical person, that until someone can prove that a God exists, I'll remain atheist and count on my own choices (I strive for moral ones), to keep me grounded, humble and happy. I am not trying to live an ethical life because I think it will please God or get me into heaven, but because in my heart, I know it's right and that brings me peace. (It's Nikki, but when I typed that in to the URL, it wouldn't let me publish, so selecting anonymous is the most direct way for me to get this on your site at this late hour).

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  4. Hey Nikki,

    Thanks for your comment. You bring up a lot of important themes that I'd like to address:

    1 The God of one's childhood vs. perception of God in adulthood

    2 Morality choices in the absence of an objective moral code

    3 God's ability to "manipulate DNA"

    4 Gratitude without a recipient

    5 Where luck and our own choices fit in with the Providential idea

    6 Do people of faith behave mainly to get into heaven, whereas atheists behave more altruistically?

    This may morph into its own post... Gonna contemplate that. Meanwhile, happy to hear your or others' thoughts on that breakdown.

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  5. Curious: those that struggle with faith - how would you react if your child came home from Jewish camp singing a song like that? Would it bother you? Would you say something?

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    1. Should be workingJuly 18, 2012 at 9:46 AM

      I would find it sweet if my kid came home saying that. But it would not have the effect on me that it had on you, i.e. delighting you that she is learning to embrace things you hold dear.

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    2. Otoh, it doesn't sound like you STRUGGLE with faith.

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    3. No, I would not be upset at all. We have to let children find their own way and sometimes they will be exposed to ideas that I don't totally agree with. Also, I usually like music. - MP

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    4. Should be workingJuly 19, 2012 at 4:18 AM

      True, I don't struggle. I am more just ambivalent and mostly skeptical, in a kind of liminal way that I'm ok with.

      Here's another question: I don't ever recall hearing any talk at Reform synagogue, or even in any more O context online, about God LOVING us. I always thought the Jewish idea was more about incomprehensibility and distance. The love element sounds to me more like the Jesus people. Do you hear a lot about God loving us in synagogue?

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    5. Mp: I find that very noble and touching.

      Sbw: here's something odd - VERY often when I google a core Jewish concept to prep for a class or something, the first two pages are filled with Christian or even Messianic sites (i need to blog about this), and sometimes it's not so immediately obvious that they're not Jewish.

      Christianity got "God loves you" from the Jews, and, I must say, did an awfully good job of marketing it. Why this is so is a fascinating study, both in terms of what Christianity was trying to accomplish, and in terms of how Judaism developed more "rational" approaches - less emotionally based.

      The answer to your final question is yes, but synagogue is hardly enough. And it depends which synagogue. Back to A Jew in the Lotus, when you read accounts of Jews who encountered spiritual love in Tibet for the first time... Ouch.

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    6. Actually, I thought it was the Christians who saw God as distant. I was told by a Catholic once that it's wrong to pray for such little things as parking spaces. It's as if they think we shouldn't bother Him with minor things. Jews, OTOH, believe that nothing is too small to pray for -- which means that God can be in every detail of your life. That doesn't sound like distance to me. Also, the Christian idea of eternal damnation sounds awfully scary -- not my idea of boundless love for everyone.

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    7. Should be workingJuly 19, 2012 at 10:13 AM

      Catholics have saints and other intermediaries to pray to for smaller things, or even not-smaller things. I used to feel envious of that as a kid, it seemed like there were just more possibilities than the big, Scriptural God who doesn't seem to directly show that much love in the Bible. As an adult I have read a little about how giving the law is an act of love, and things like that, but love does not appear in as obvious a way in the Hebrew Bible as in the Christian Gospels. Or so it seems to me.

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    8. Is it loving to condemn people to hell for all eternity just because of what they think? Christianity claims that God does that -- that if you don't believe, you're going to hell no matter how good you've been. They like to pretend that they believe in universal love, while consigning all of us to hell. Not my idea of love.

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    9. Christianity got "God loves you" from the Jews, and, I must say, did an awfully good job of marketing it.

      Can you provide some sources? Aside from chassidism, I'm really unfamiliar with the plethora of God loves you quotes in traditional Jewish sources- chumash, nach, gemara, etc.. - MP

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    10. Devarim 14:1-2. Devarim 7:6-8. Pirkei Avos 3:18. In davening we say God loves us right before Shema. Whenever we mention Him giving us the holidays/Shabbos "with love" (not sure what the source is for that in Torah she-b'ksav). Tehillim, all over the place. I didn't say there was a plethora, although I'm sure a scholar could do a far better job than I did.

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    11. Pirkei Avos. Unless there are different ways of dividing up the chapter, 3:18 has nothing to do with the subject, whereas 3:14 does.

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    12. Weird! I checked a few versions, and the lovey-dovey one is 18 all around...

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    13. OK, I just checked two editions of the Mishnah and 3 siddurim. Both editions of the Mishnah have it as 14; all 3 siddurim have it as 18. Interesting.

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    14. Dg and Sbw: I know very little about Christianity. I would imagine there is a big difference between Catholicism and Baptist-ism.

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    15. Most of the cites are not about love but about chosenness. A few are about love. I think Christianity got love from the New Testament, which is replete with that language and not so much from the Jews. Christianity began as a breakaway group because they felt Judaic practice was rote and unemotional. -MP

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    16. Mp, chosenness and love go hand-in-hand. Along those lines, Song of Songs certainly predated Christianity. It's interesting you mention the rote and unemotional - that was a big spur for the Chassidic movement, which DID do a good job marketing the "God loves you" piece, as you referenced earlier.

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  6. Cute post, and I must say that I love the (new isn't it?) logo on the top left.

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    1. Why thanks! I was hoping y'all would notice.

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  7. i am 53 and still singing that song!
    my motto is
    'if you believe there are no questions,
    if you don't believe there are no answers.'
    Believing to me means knowing there is a reason for everything.
    Mans Search For Meaning by VICTOR FRANKL explains this theory well.
    If man thinks he must be able to make sense of G-D he's completely missing the point.

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    1. Interesting, Faygie. I think that even if you believe there are some unanswered questions, but you are confident that there is, nonetheless, an answer. Also, for those that don't believe, that can be its own answer.

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    2. I think it helps to realize that some extremely intelligent, thinking people who have addressed the problems have remained believers. That doesn't mean that their conclusions were always right, but it does prove that faith is compatible with intelligence and thought. If you have no questions, you probably aren't thinking.

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  8. While the belief in hashgachah pratis (idea of G-d being involved in the minutia of daily living) is extremely popular in mainstream Judaism today, probably due to the enormous influence of Lurianic Kabbalah and Hassidism, it's definitely not the only view. Cf the Rambam, who claimed that God intervenes only on behalf of nations, kings and certain individuals. The rest follow the the rules of nature setup at time of creation.

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    1. Ben Yehoshua rushes in to the place that I was tip-toeing towards. Ruchi, you may remember a scene in The Jew in the Lotus where Rav Zalman Schacter Shalomi was telling the Dali Lama 'The say above every blade of grass there is an angel saying grow, grow, grow' and the other rabbis had difficulty with this PoV being presented as normative Judaism.

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    2. Interesting topic, thanks to everyone for chiming in. Ruchi, I didn't mean to imply that the less religious or atheist among us are more altruistic, because we could all find examples for and against that idea. I can only speak for myself- I act with no expectation of quid pro quo. There is beauty in every major religion (I don't know enough about the minor ones to comment) and if someone is kind, charitable and honest, that's good enough for me. (Nikki, again).

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    3. Interesting. I know Rambam was more of a "rationalist." What do you think he would say to, say, the Yom Kippur war? Or to the assertion in the daily prayers that God "renews, in His goodness, daily and constantly, the work of Creation"? Do you have a quote from him on this topic?

      LL, I do remember that scene, and remember thinking, gee, I learned about that, what a shame so many Jews aren't aware of God's intense involvement in every level of creation.

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    4. Nikki: Antignos of Socho ... said, "Don't be like servants who serve the Master for the sake of a reward; rather, be like servants who serve the Master not for the sake of a reward" (Pirkei Avot 1:3).

      In other words, Orthodox Jews aren't supposed to do things just to get into heaven either.

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    5. Yes. Also Nikki, very often life is messy and being a "10 commandments Jew" is far more tricky than it seems. This is what I meant before about the absence of an objective moral code.

      One example (politics aside): is abortion a kindness, or a murder? Say you're the doctor, just trying to be a kind person...

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    6. I wouldn't classify abortion as either kind or evil, but sometimes a necessary procedure to save the mother, rid her of a baby implanted by a rapist, or to keep a child from a life of abuse, neglect and or extreme poverty. It's not for me to judge any woman making that agonizing decision, I'm not privy to the special circumstance. What i would fight for is our right to make that choice. Your question about the doctor is actually easy for me to answer. If I were an OB, my first duty is to my patient- the mother. If I felt abortion to be abhorrent, I certainly would have elected a specialty other than OB/gyn. I won't get into the gory details, but one of my three babies was born in extreme distress and I was in a similar state. My OB literally ignored the baby, much to my dismay, and immediately went to work on me, saying her loyalty was to me, her patient. Obviously, this was in a modern hospital so there were staff to take care of my child.

      I like that Orthodox Jews aren't supposed to act morally for salvation's sake. But there are plenty of other religious people who do. A close Catholic friend always says that he is going to hell because he was more or less a ruffian in his youth. It's sad that people are shamed into acting civilly and honestly. It should be a choice from within, not as a path to redemption.

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    7. Rambam explicitly says that if God was to somehow vanish, the entire universe would vanish as well. Creation is an ongoing process. But the laws of teva (nature) are sustained in the very same way. Speaking of the degree of God's control of living creatures other than humans Rambam says:

      I do not believe at all that this specific leaf falls as a result of divine providence, nor that this spider devours this specific fly as a result of a divine decree on this individual fly. Furthermore, I do not believe that when Reuven spits and the spit lands on a specific mosquito in a specific place and kills the mosquito, that this was fulfillment of a heavenly decree, nor that when a fish snatches a specific worm floating on the river that such was the will of the Lord. Rather all of the aforementioned occurrences are completely chance, as Aristotle contends.

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    8. Anonymous thanks for your interesting reply. My question wasn't whether abortion is kind or evil. I agree with you that sometimes it is kindness, and sometimes murder. "Right to choose" (aka politics) aside, how would you, the doctor, decide which is which in less extreme (and far more common) circumstances than you described?

      Please try to put the emotionality of the issue aside to evaluate my question logically. A 22-yo college girl is pregnant by her loving and wonderful boyfriend and approaches you. You are a "10-commandments Jew."

      What do you take into account? Is there some kind of checklist in your mind? Her age? Their employment? Week of gestation? How upset she is? What if dad is okay with it? Do you offer adoption as an option?

      My point: trying to be a moral Jew on your own terms seems fraught with ambiguity.

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    9. Larry, thanks for clarifying. All I'm hearing, then, is that the level of detail of God's involvement does not extend to the plant/bug world. I hear what you're saying as far as TJITL - but certainly in the human sphere, and even possibly animal, I still don't see a contradiction between my original post and the position of even a "rationalist" such as Rambam/Maimonides.

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    10. What's tjitl?
      The Jew in the Lotus, referenced in my comment above

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    11. Rambam's opinions about how divine providence interacts with human beings is complex, and a subject of debate among both traditional Jewish scholars and academics. In our day this debate is even harder to follow because we don't have an Aristotelian world view and so many of the technical terms Rambam uses have different meanings to us.

      A good discussion between someone who believes Rambam had a similar approach to divine providence as the Besht (the founder of Chassidim, who lived centuries after the Rambam) and someone who does not can be found on thanbook a blog by my friend Jonathan Baker. I would recommend that anyone interested print out his post and the post he links to and read them over Shabbat - they are too dense to skim. I only got away with it because I was re-reading them. :>)

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    12. Larry, as always, your access to this stuff amazes me. Thanks.

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    13. If I'm a doctor whose profession involves abortions- I do the abortion, no questions asked. That's part of my job and I shouldn't have taken it if I had qualms about performing my duties.

      Every job, every single one, has some situations where a person has to do something they consider morally or ethically dubious. A teacher is told by a principal to excuse the behavior of a bullying child because said child's parent is a board member. That's an easy example, there are many others.

      With regard to abortion, I would be more okay with the ethics if the mother had what I consider good reasons- rape, incest, fetus with tay-sachs or similar severity illness, abject poverty, etc.

      MP

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    14. It's not so simple even if you don't object to abortions on moral/religious grounds. Do you encourage the woman to have the abortion if there's something wrong with the fetus? Many doctors do, sometimes very insistently. What if the mother has some health problem that could make the pregnancy risky (but not necessarily fatal)?

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    15. "Every job, every single one, has some situations where a person has to do something they consider morally or ethically dubious. "

      Yes, and you have to decide whether or not to do it. What if your boss tells you to overcharge someone? What if he/she wants you to exaggerate the benefits of the product you're selling? I'm sure you would agree that there are situations when you shouldn't do something your boss tells you to do.

      Do you call up suppliers to point out that they forgot to bill you? If you're a teacher, do you let a kid get away with cheating on a test if you know he's having a hard time and needs a break?

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    16. That's correct DG, but I don't think religion necessarily instructs on all of these issues. You sometimes need to make up your own mind. - MP

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    17. Really? Personally, I would seek clarity on any of those issues in Torah wisdom, and would find that far less confusing than trying to muddle through the issues alone.

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  9. Although I haven't read it myself, I'd like to mention a book recently published by a friend of mine: "Where's My Miracle?" by Rabbi Morey Schwartz. Morey is an Orthodox rabbi, raised in the US and now living in Israel. He was one of my NCSY advisers way back when, critical to my path to O Judaism, and endured his fair share of tragedy at a young age. This book is an exploration of various textual and rabbinic perspectives within Orthodox Judaism, such as the Rambam mentioned above by ben-yehoshua. (The book is available through Barnes & Noble, Amazon, etc.)

    I have had Morey's book on my shelf for over a year, and haven't made reading it a priority partially because I am scared to read his answers. This existential question of Gd's role vis-a-vis the tragedies and horrors of life is a big one to me, and I tend to deal with it with conscious denial. When life is good, I thank Gd profusely, and when life gets rough I shrug and let Him off the hook as choosing not to get involved. I know I am inconsistent and I am aware that I am ignoring thinking it through.

    In terms of my kids, I have tried very consciously to instill in them the kind of "blind faith" that I lack. When they come home from school with sweet stories on the theme of emunah (faith), I stifle my cynical responses. I think a foundation of faith is valuable, even if later on they develop their own questions.

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    1. Miriam, thanks for your heartfelt words. I'm going to look for that book (may I encourage you to read it?) Another interesting read is Reasonable Doubts: a young Orthodox woman struggles with her faith after being in an accident. I found it exquisite.

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  10. Replying to the abortion post... I'd probably encourage a healthy, young college girl to stay pregnant and offer the child up for adoption. That child would most likely be adored and loved by people desperate for a child. But this is a hypothetical and each situation is different. I don't love hypotheticals, especially after years in journalism because you see that each circumstance is unique. And again, if I were an obstetrician, I would do as my my patient wishes, whether I think she should keep a baby or do away with it. Doctors aren't supposed to judge, their purpose is to administer health care. Here's a more extreme, but similar example... My long time friend is an ER physician who once worked at Metro, the hospital that sees the most gang related injuries in Cleveland. She treated hundreds of felons (including murderers and rapists) brought in for repair of gun shot and knife wounds,, etc. Her duty was to save the patient, not judge them on the reasons they were in her operating room in the first place. Many came in with police escorts, they were that dangerous. So yes, while she would rather stitch up an innocent child who fell off his bike, her duty was to save felons, on countless occasions. When they were well enough, they'd be judged in court: her job was to get them well enough to appear and let our judiciary system dole out necessary punishment.

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    1. It's not really the same thing, because either way you are helping someone. I did speak of judging the girl at all. My question was merely, do you put your moral thoughts aside and perform abortions even if you're doubtful as to whether it's ethical?

      Because an Orthodox Jew simply shouldn't do that, if they are committed to following the Torah. Again, my point is: when you're on your own, how do you make that call about what to DO? (Not about what to THINK.)

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    2. *didn't speak of judging the girl at all.

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    3. do you put your moral thoughts aside and perform abortions even if you're doubtful as to whether it's ethical? Because an Orthodox Jew simply shouldn't do that, if they are committed to following the Torah.

      I cannot tell you how many times I have been told I have to put aside my ethical conclusions and simply do what the halacha dictates(*). Unless you are equating an Orthodox Jew's sense of ethics with what the Torah dictates, I really think there are other views than yours within the community.

      (*) more often in principal than in practice

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    4. I was; I thought that was obvious from the context.

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    5. Should a Jew who works as a cashier in a drug store ring up the sale of a box of condoms to a man wearing a kippah? What about a cashier in a supermarket who sees someone they know is Jewish buying a product they know contains basar b'chalav (milk and meat? Should they tell the Jew to go to a line with a non-Jewish cashier for the checkout? If they won't do the checkou, should they take the jobs in the first place?

      When a Jewish doctor who works in an abortion clinic has a Jewish patient, should they make sure she has checked with her rabbi as to whether the abortion is permissible? If she hasn't should they consult with their rabbi and refuse to perform the procedure if he says it is ossur? What if the rabbi refuses to rule since he doesn't know the woman?

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    6. Should be workingJuly 23, 2012 at 12:08 PM

      Larry: "Unless you are equating an Orthodox Jew's sense of ethics with what the Torah dictates, I really think there are other views than yours within the community."

      Larry, I thought O Judaism was as Ruchi said about making one's own principles of action coincide as much as possible with Torah (as interpreted by whoever one's O leader is). Can you explain what another O view is besides this? If you have been told to put aside your own ethical conclusions and do what Torah dictates isn't that because the leader/Rabbi/adviser thinks your conclusions are not what Torah would prescribe?

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    7. Larry, I thought O Judaism was as Ruchi said about making one's own principles of action coincide as much as possible with Torah (as interpreted by whoever one's O leader is).

      SBW, the last phrase is the kicker. Many O Jews do not have a singular leader whom they go to for all details. I don't believe there is a single Torah True answer for 'who should I vote for for president in 2012?' and I don't accept that my rabbi has the ability to tell me how to vote. Ruchi linked to an earlier article of her's about her relationship with her rabbi. To me the description of how she interacts with her rabbi (He's her guide to the ins and outs of the law, he's her advisor on moral questions, he's her comfort and guide in spiritual explorations) all sound good. But she describes that approach as 'daas torah'. To me, daas torah is more like what I described in my nightmare post above - the acknowledgement that the rabbi is closer to God than you are and that your job on earth is to do what he says. Adherents of daas torah whom I have met regard it as perfectly normal and acceptable that their rabbi tells them how to vote. I am told some people ask their rabbis questions like 'should I make this business deal? Should I fly on Wednesday rather than Tuesday on this trip' not because there are halachic questions involved, but because their rabbi's closeness to God means he can answer these questions better than they can. That is what I do not think Orthodoxy requires.

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    8. Larry, all of the questions you posed two comments ago are clear-cut Jewish law issues. When you have doubt about the law, and you care about complying with it, consult an expert. It's simple.

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    9. Should be workingJuly 23, 2012 at 1:42 PM

      Larry or Ruchi: Please explain 'daas Torah'. It sounds like a matter of authority/hierarchy regarding Torah application to everyday life? Is it a derogatory term in itself or is it just something Larry disapproves of?

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    10. Ruchi, I don't think it is that simple. First of all, we are O Jews, not Catholics. A rav can educate me, or guide me, but I don't believe I need a rav to think for me. I believe I am allowed to think for myself, to review sources and apply them. Particularly on the "smaller" details of daily life. When I am unsure of the halacha, I ask. I agree with Larry that checking with a higher authority is not required, even if some choose to do so.

      Also, as we have discussed previously in OOTOB, finding a rav isn't so simple. I had a rav. He is no longer available to me, and I disagree with the hashgafah (overall philosophy) of all the rabbis in my neighborhood. I know I am adrift, but have no easy alternatives at this moment in my life. So I do the best I can, and seek out guidance from friends who are more knowledgeable than I am, or work things through on my own. Such is life; moving to a more compatible community is not an option right now.

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    11. SBW, as I defined it on my Ask the Rabbi post, "daas Torah – literally, the wisdom of Torah. It refers to the special insight a person cultivates when they learn and live Torah."

      If, indeed, I believe Torah contains the truth of God (as all Orthodox Jews profess to), this should be a natural continuation of that thought. No one is privileged here; we all have access to Torah. Rav Gifter, one of the greatest Torah leaders of my generation, grew up in public school.

      You should know, now, that this is a point of difference between the Modern Orthodox world (of which I believe Larry belongs) and the (non-Modern?)Orthodox world. How much insight, actually, does a rabbi have? So to Larry I think there may, indeed, be a derogatory spin in the phrase, although if I were smart, I would let him speak for himself, whereas to me, I think it a beautiful thing.

      Because I believe the insight extends past Jewish law and into life itself. So in terms of *what* I will ask, no, it's not just halacha, it's also personal dilemmas where I feel stuck.

      Whoa, miriambyk... a rav think for me? You are putting words in my mouth, now. (And taking thoughts out of my head.) I ask my rabbi when I don't know how to proceed on my own; when all my thinking has led me to a catch-22 or a lack of knowledge of the law. Instead of guessing, I'll ask someone wiser than me.

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    12. Here is a (controversial) view of Daas Torah, as understood (and opposed) by a Modern Orthodox scholar. Here is another view by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein a Israeli religious zionist Talmid Chacham. I'll let Ruchi post links that are more supportive of the concept.

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    13. Here's a more legible version of Kaplan's essay on Daas Torah.

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    14. Larry, I did skim, but did not completely read the essays (although I should take your advice in another place and print them out and read over Shabbos). I do, though, have a question for you (with apologies to the non-Hebrew fluent readers): do you see a difference between emunas/t chachamim (faith in Torah leaders) and daas/t Torah? If so, what and how would you define each? Is one more valid, to your view, than the other?

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    15. Here is a shorter essay on contemporary Daas Torah by one of the leaders of the neoMussar movement, Rabbi Micha Berger. The essay suggests that there has been a shift over time in what the term means, and traces what he thinks the history of the shift was.

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    16. The link appears to be broken

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    17. It appears to be through an aggregator site. Here is a more direct link.

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    18. And to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, here are my own thoughts on emunat chachamim (the wisdom of the sages).

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  11. Hypothetically, if I were a surgeon, I'd go back to the Hippocrate Oath for guidance. There are several versions of this beautiful document, some more modern than others. But each is in agreement that a physician must do right by his/her patient. A wonderful novel that exposes all the nuances of this most controversial surgery is The Cider House Rules by the brilliant John Irving. For those that want to THINK about this issue, rather than being bound by a four word commandment, "thou shall not kill."

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    1. There is no such four word commandment in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. I suspect the Jain sect in India may have one. But for the Abrahamic religions the English version of the command is 'Thou shalt not murder' where murder means 'killing of a human being without proper authorization". Soldiers may kill, the executioner has done no wrong, and the Talmud says "When someone comes to kill you rise up and kill him first." Indeed, halacha allows you to kill someone who is no threat to you at all, as long as he is in the act of killing someone else and there is no other way to stop him.

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  12. The king James bible says "thou shalt not kill." exodus 20:13.

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    1. That's why there's the Oral Law (Mishna +Talmud). I would venture that its segments on those four words, and associated commentaries, are far longer and possibly far more nuanced than the novel and the Oath combined. Think away!

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    2. That is why it is also valuable to read the Torah in the original Hebrew. The King James Bible is a translation. All translations present a particular perspective. The Hebrew of Exodux 20:13 is clearer that the verb is "murder" not just "kill". Such linguistic nuances are frequently lost in translation.

      For those without the language skills to read texts in the original language, it can frequently be elucidating to check multiple translations.

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  13. I'm going to quote Christopher Hitchens who writes so much more beautifully than me, regarding some things you mentioned above, Ruchi...numbers 2 and 6, about atheists behaving altruistically without a moral code and certain pieces of literature being a fine compass for morality. "Our belief is not a belief.Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely soley upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason.... What we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake... We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and- since there is no other metaphor- also the soul. We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful. (In fact, if a proper statistical inquiry could ever be made, I am sure the
    evidence would be the other way.) We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room...We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true- that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow."

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  14. What I hear here is what he DOESN'T believe; also that the process trumps the product (a belief shared by Reform clergy). Re his final point, it would seem to me that many masterminds of evil (Hitler, for one) acted on atheism or paganism, not Abrahamic faiths.

    *sigh* Another talented Jew who never studied Judaism seriously...

    Ps Which anon are you? #1, Nikki, MP, or abortion?

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    1. Should be workingJuly 22, 2012 at 9:22 PM

      Here I agree with Ruchi but for different reasons: Hitchens doesn't seem to have studied Hebrew Scripture (even in translation)--an atheist can still read Scripture as the best literature of all time, and also as dealing with nothing other than moral issues (which in my view is what makes great literature great).


      My own favorite "where's your ethical compass" story came from a Cleveland Jewish family originally from South Africa who had an exchange student stay with them. The student asked, in a way that was classically dutiful for her rules-oriented culture, "Please tell me: What are the rules of the house?" The parents were a little taken aback, thought for a moment, and finally answered, "There is really only one rule: Do what is right." The student was confused, but they just repeated it. When she left them she told them how that moment was the biggest cultural-difference experience she had all year, and that she had grown a lot from trying to live that out in a way that her culture never encouraged.

      I love this story. I feel like it is about taking responsibility for figuring out what is right, which is hard but to me a precious act. Sometimes Ruchi's way of emphasizing the need to 'seek Torah wisdom' feels to me like it abdicates a responsibility for thinking through what is the right thing to do. I don't know if this means that I haven't understood what Ruchi is saying. It feels to me like the 'do what is right' dilemmas are more than a process vs. product dualism, but I can't figure our right now just how so.

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    2. I love how much you make me think. Before formulating a response to your highly insightful comment, let me see if I got it right: being in possession of an objective moral code is too EASY?

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    3. Speaking for myself and not sbw I think that the notion of consistently delegating your moral decision to wiser elders who know the secrets of the objective moral code may be viewed by some as a nightmare. I think that approach can lead to a lack of agency that is a nightmare too.

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    4. There is absolutely no way that any written or even recitable code of conduct can state explicitly what to do in every situation. We are all required to determine "what is right." The question is how we do so. Every such decision is based on underlying moral principles. The result of the judgment will depend on what those principles are. Even if you think you don't believe in an objective moral code, you have an implicit belief system telling you what is right and what is wrong. For instance, you may believe that people have the right to do whatever they want provided that it doesn't hurt anyone else. Sure, it's a much shorter code than the Torah, but it's the principle on which you base your judgments. Or you may believe that might makes right, in which case there really is no wrong.

      If you believe in an objective moral code, then you have the advantage of having experts to consult. I don't know nuclear physics, so if I needed information about the subject, I would ask an expert. Consulting experts on an objective moral code is no different. Some people consult professional ethicists in academia. While these people have thought about ethical issues, if their premises aren't the same as mine, their conclusions may not qualify as ethical in my book.

      If I believe in the Torah, then the expert I want to consult on moral issues will be an expert in Torah-based ethics. But that expert doesn't make my decisions for me! I decide to ask, I choose whom to ask, I decide whether to accept the advice. I can discuss my hesitations with the expert before he/she gives me advice and even say "But what about ..." afterwards.

      The Torah makes so many more areas of life subject to judgments of right/wrong. If figuring out what is right is a precious act, then Orthodox Jews, who have many more opportunities than other people to make such judgments, spend a great deal of their lives engaged in precious acts.

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    5. Larry: http://outoftheorthobox.blogspot.com/2012/01/ask-rabbi.html?m=1

      Dg: sing it, sister!

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    6. Should be workingJuly 23, 2012 at 12:18 PM

      DG, that's illumating to me. But I'm still chewing on Ruchi's process/product comparison. What about an ethical advisor who does not have a code but does have an 'objective process'? And anyway wouldn't you say that those Torah advisers--who have to sort through sometimes conflicting edicts, traditions and imperatives--also have a 'process' that might be at least as important as the imperative they decide in favor of?

      Yes, Ruchi, I meant that having the objective code does seem 'easier' to me than not having one. By far. Trying to be ethical without an objective code is a murkier process. Which in my view does not make the outcome less ethical. You know I don't mean to say here that O Jews have it easy, I'm just weighing the ideas of how people come to ethical conclusions in different ways.

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    7. sbw: I'm no sure what you mean by an objective code. Experience teaches me that deep thought about moral issues ahead of their becoming real decisions is helpful in letting you reach the correct decisions in the crisis. A moral code that simply says 'do what feel's right' offers no guidance. There have to be some baseline rules ("He who dies with the most toys wins" or "An it harm none, do as you will"). The more time you spend exploring your rules (what constitutes harm? If I get a promotion and someone else at work doesn't, have I harmed them? Who counts as someone versus no one. Can I kill mosquitos? How about cows? How about great apes?) the better off you are.

      In my pre-observant days, I adhered to a principal I called 'theological modesty.' It consisted of constantly reminding myself I didn't know for sure and I could be wrong. So when I saw someone doing something I opposed, I could rank how firmly I opposed it:
      1) I don't think you're doing the right thing, but it is none of my business
      2) I don't think you're doing the right thing, and I will protest to you
      3) I don't think you're doing the right thing, and I will use social sanctions to discourage you from doing it.
      4) IDTYDTRT and I will use the legal system or work to make the legal system prevent or penalize you if you do it
      5) IDTYDTRT and I will use force to prevent you from doing it.

      The constant repetition of 'I could be wrong' tended to push my reactions to the lower end of the scale. In a society where most things are just, I think that is an appropriate outcome. In a less just society it might make one an accomplice to evil actions.

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    8. SBW, I was thinking about your question all night long. ("Sleeping on it" means different things to different people.) In another post, I mentioned "knowing right from wrong." Now, that is a whole different animal from *doing what is right*. Because knowing it, and doing it, can be as far away from each other as the North Pole is from the South.

      I think Judaism is enormously about doing the right thing. So the Torah [aka God] gave us clear directives in that regard. I mean, He tells us: Behold I have placed before you the blessing and the curse. But choose life.

      Seriously? You are telling us, black and white, that following the Torah is good for you, and ignoring it is bad for you, and then in the same breath, advising us to choose life?? Yup, because even with a clear moral code, it ain't easy. Free will will always be retained. Hard to learn the code, hard to accept it as binding, hard to follow through in our behaviors. Sometimes you're really not in the mood of consulting with a mentor when you're stuck because you really don't feel like doing the right thing.

      But without one, it's a sadistic game. "Do the right thing... but I'm not going to tell you how."

      I like the "house rules" story, because the stakes are low. It has its place, there. When the stakes are high I would feel bereft.

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    9. Should be workingJuly 23, 2012 at 1:54 PM

      I'm modifying my views as I study the thread. I am now wondering if I disagree with the idea that O Judaism offers an 'objective' moral code. It consists of interpretations of Torah and how to apply Torah to our lives, interpretations that span centuries, have different possible interpretations themselves, and also present-day interpretations (this is one of the things that attracts me, the layers of interpretation that lend themselves to different readings; to me this does not detract from but rather is the source of its interest for me).

      That application of Torah to concrete situations means sifting through conflicting edicts and coming up with interpretations (at least by the experts and also to a degree by the individual practitioners). Isn't the variation between and even conflicting views among O Jews--about which I am not very knowledgeable--an indication that it's not 'objective'? Like different views about Zionism? And different experts could give different advice, so that is another indication of the ambiguities inherent in the moral code.

      I agree that Judaism is about doing the right thing. But I think that, as DG said, it can't give you the answer in each situation as to how to follow the general rule about 'doing what is right'. And then the fact of the interpretedness comes in, the 'process'.

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    10. There is an objective moral code. How to apply it is where it gets interesting, especially when you look at Sephardic/Ashkenazic interpretations. But all who adhere to it and agree that it is, indeed, an objective moral code, concur that certain ground rules will never be broken. For example, you can't overturn a previous ruling in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), human life comes before almost everything else, etc.

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  15. I would add that Hitler was using religion as his front, in a Martin Luther-esque way. He figured German Christians were the superior race and sought to exterminate everyone else, from Jews to Catholic Slovaks,, Poles, Serbs, etc. I like that example from "should be working" about the exchange student because this is my goal and I haven't subscribed to any religious dogma in quite some time. You may find this heretical, but I wouldn't look to the bible (a work with countless edicts toward violence, child abuse, slavery, misogyny), to learn about morality. I can't speak for Hitchens since I didn't know him, but I think he'd consider himself quite well versed in Judaism. The faith he admitted he didn't know loads about is Islam. My point is this: no one was more devout than the 19 suicide bombers on the planes on September 11 and look at the devastation they caused. Religious people, anyone on the spectrum from near secular to evangelical, don't automatically hold the keys to goodness. I think you'd agree, Ruchi, that one's actions must be good. thanks for reading. I'm finished, but I appreciate the forum and like learning from all the different viewpoints. Nikki

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    1. Nikki, I doubt you're still reading but I would like to say that I don't, actually, consider the suicide bombers "devout" at all. I would say they hinged their violence on God. A murderer cannot be devout. Nothing is automatic; of course your actions must be good.

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    2. Should be workingAugust 1, 2012 at 2:02 PM

      Wish we had someone with expertise in Islam around here. I suppose in Islam there are some elements of their Scripture that seem to exhort people to violence, like in Judaism [haven't we talked about those parts?]? And then it's a matter of how the respective Scriptural interpreters have found ways to show that those don't apply to our age, or are meant metaphorically or spiritually. Another topic for another day, possibly incendiary: how do O Jews view the religion of Islam? Lots of shared laws on food, for instance.

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    3. I don't know what Islamic scripture says. I've heard conflicting reports. I know next to nothing about Islam and Koran. I do know that their leaders (unclear to me if political or religious, or if there's crossover) exhort to violence.

      As far as I understand, Islam is considered by Judaism to be a monotheistic faith and devout in many ways. Their adherents generally are children of Abraham and thus carry some of his admirable character traits such as hospitality. I don't understand much about the food, other than kosher is good enough for Muslims, but halal is not good enough for the strictly kosher. There are certainly things about Islam that are in direct conflict with Judaism.

      Check out "My Year Inside Radical Islam," a chilling memoir by a nice Jewish boy who now considers himself a Christian, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. http://www.amazon.com/My-Year-Inside-Radical-Islam/dp/1585425516. In some ways I was struck at how similar Judaism and Islam are, and in other ways at how radically (npi) opposite.

      In fact, I'm going to add that to my amazon list in my sidebar.

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  16. Why do people assume that all religions are the same? If they were, there would be only one religion in the world. Suicide bombers are not adherents of Judaism, so why should Judaism be tarred by their actions?

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    1. Exactly. The aforementioned moral code states clearly: and you shall choose life. Nowhere in Judaism will you find support for that.

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    2. Examples of Jewish suicide bombers? Samson comes to mind immediately.

      Remainder of post deleted by author. One should always remember that the internet is a public forum, and one should not post material that might give aid and comfort to anti-semites, unless the need is great. Winning a debate should not count as a great need.

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    3. Should be workingJuly 23, 2012 at 1:56 PM

      Larry, did you here write that you deleted the rest of your own post and the part about the public character of the internet?

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    4. Yes I did. I wrote at some length, then decided not to post but added why I was choosing to do so so that something good should come of the effort. Ruchi did not delete the post nor ask me to - I deleted it before the first time it was posted.

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    5. Larry, returning to this thread after a week, so I hope you're still following... Just wanted to point out that Samson was a hostage, under physical torture, and killed his captors. Not so with 9/11.

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