Ben Avuyah

Welcome to the Pardess.

Monday, May 30, 2005

My Master

My master, my lips open, and I cannot but speak your praise…

Servitude. It is the beginning of the silent prayer I say three times a day in synagogue. Today’s prayer is no different and I stand in a closely packed room, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow congregants. My Tallis is draped around me and I pull it closer around my head, veiling my face as I scan the room. All stand in deep concentration as they bow in subservience to the creator of the universe and begin the amidah.

I bow as well but it has been many years since I have chosen to converse with my master.

He has an odd nature, my master does. Half mystical, omniscient, and kindly father; half enraged kindergartner ready to kick whatever is closest.

He has chosen to have us remind ourselves of his, shall we say “quirky”, personality traits three times a day in the Shema.

“Now remember kinderllach”, the master chides us children, “If you follow my impossibly complex and ridiculous rule book, and love me for it, you will enjoy the bounty of the earth.”
But then his face turns dark and he draws back, “Heshomru lachem…watch yourselves, if you turn away from me…. Viavoditem mihara maol haaretz hatovah…. I will suddenly destroy you off the face of my good earth.”

Interestingly, the Jerusalem bible translates "Vi’avadatem" as make “you perish” which is close to the meaning I have always learned as “destroy”. Ever careful artscroll sanitizes God in his many temper tantrums, translating it as "banish", based not on the actual wording but on a drasha from the Vilna Gaon. The text itself suggests loss of water and food resulting in starvation.

So there it is… the central tenet of our religion. This mafia threat, this rule through terror, this is the keystone of our relationship with our maker. It is so crucial to his plan for us, that God wants us to place it closest to our hearts, on our doorposts, and keep it ever in our conscious minds.

This is what we are asked to believe? That the sum total of unlimited intelligence, unlimited creative power, and unlimited knowledge result in a two bit Costa nostra who’s threats of physical pain and punishment are to be taken as the very evidence of his concern for our ultimate well being? Are we to have faith that the method every power hungry despot uses to coerce humanity through fear and intimidation using personal physical pain is one and the same with the infinetly wise conclusion reached by the Almighty?

It cannot be.

This is who we are asked to love? The most powerfully benevolent force in the universe, creator of the unfathomable infinity that is the cosmos, designer of the powerful machinery of biology and physics; who has boiled it down to one thing you really better not forget… “I can make it hurt real bad”

It cannot be.

If there is a force behind the universe it is not you, my master.

After all, master, if you were a super intelligent being you would not pick pain and starvation as the core icon by which to remind us of our duty. Only humanity could be so cruel a manipulator of it’s own.

“We know the author by the mark of his claw”; someone once praised Newton upon finding an unsigned copy of his work in Calculus.

Here as well, tracks have been left showing us the real author of our faith, and it is the heavy hand of man.

Many in the synagogue have finished their prayers and I sit down as well never having spoken a word. As the services conclude I ponder the fact that the very paragraph that this group of orthodox Jews sitting around me utters three times a day to preserve their faith, has directly led me to lose mine.

Hands reach toward me as Kiddush ends.
“Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos.”
The crowd busies itself in another well loved and timeless tradition of last minute preparations for a morsel of herring and snippet of scotch. They are in love with the details of the rituals. The kiddush cup is filled so high, and the order of the brochos is just so. Does the tea bag go in the cup first or is it the water ? So many mountains of delicate minutia, and a people so attentive to detail. It is easy to be distracted from the core of the faith, which would likely leave an unpleasant taste in their mouths anyway.
Perhaps my fellow Jews manage not to think of it. After all, there is a shiur starting soon and many halachos of shabbos that they need to brush up on to get it just right.

Though it may set them free, they are not yet ready to hear the truth.

Friday, May 27, 2005

DSM IV for the Devout

I can’t help wondering, with so many Jewish people in the medical professions, if any one else has had a similar experience to mine. That is to say an experience, which closely aligns our traditions with mental illness.

Here is my tale…

A young, overzealous, lad in graduate school, I chose to spend some elective time studying mental illness in a psychiatric prison. My first day was a horror ripped straight form the pages of, “Silence of the Lambs.”

Crossing the threshold of that building I left the free and sane world behind. My first glance was of the dim gray walls, the heavy set guards in blue, the buzzer that coincided with the opening of a monstrous metal gate heavy enough to crush a man’s skull.
I tell you no lie; within minutes my damp, sweaty fingers were loath to let my ID card just hang on my jacket. I clutched it there firmly for fear that it’s loss would doom me to join the very populous I intended to study.
I could see them now, through the gloom of poor governmental lighting. These apathetic figures in their cells; moaning of miseries that only they could understand. They noticed me as well… some of them sitting up in cots, or walking over to rusting iron bars that separated their world from mine.


I jumped half out of my skin at the sound of another human being so close to my ear.

“Wha…”, I said, clumsily dropping my note pad and seriously considering making a run for the door.
As I bent to pick up my notebook my Yarmulke fell off too.

It was the security guard talking to me, and for my part, I was making another sterling silver first impression.

I collected myself as he informed me that he would always be watching me as I was interviewing patients. He put his hand on his nightstick and patted me on the back..

“You’ve done some stupid things in your life,” I thought to myself, “but this is the worst.”

I stood there in a moment of indecision as the reality of my new predicament rattled about my head like a bunch of old bones. I don’t know what to tell you, really, except perhaps that fear of a bad grade in grad school is more powerful than fear of death.

Stomach fluttering, anal sphincter clenching and unclenching to the beat of Tom Petty's American Girl, clutching my ID and note pad in a seismic, fucking, Kung fu death grip, I entered that first cell.


Looking back, all theses years later, I need not have been as terrified as I was, the guards were top notch, “incidents” were rare to non-existent, and the short stretch of time I spent there studying schizophrenia, proved to be one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.

One of my first interviewees had been incarcerated for holding up a convenience store. Unfortunately for him, his weapon of choice was less then satisfactory.

There it was for all to see, written on his admission note in bold face type… “Two old socks in a plastic bag….”

Sitting there in his dingy cell, on a rickety metal chair with unbalanced legs, I remember clearing my throat and stifling a laugh before asking, “So…. you held them up with a bag that contained two of your socks.” I tried to imagine the scene at the store, how had the clerk responded?

He nodded affirmative and confided apologetically, “the devil made me do it.”

Such a fascination with good and evil, devil, and god, since my time at the prison I have not come across anything like it.
This patient had entire notebooks scribbled with words he had received from one or the other. His dementia had over flown his notebooks and spread to his walls, his covers, his floors and his body. Sitting in his room I was surrounded on all sides by his broken mind.

Yet another inmate had a sense of humor mired in word games.
“Date of birth”, I had asked him as a preliminary.
“I was born on a plane on July, 1947”
It wasn’t the birthday in his chart…
And then I got it…. 747. He played similar tricks with every opportunity.

The most horrifying story I heard was of a college student who had the onset of his schizophrenia in the dormitory and began to hear voices coming from the radiator next to his bed. Late at night an unknown child would call for help, insisting it was trapped in the boiler room.
This illusion became so powerful that this patient had called the police, insisting that they search the boiler room for the lost child.

But the reason I bring up this entire subject is to recount to you one particular episode that has stayed with me all this time.

It is the story of young girl, who, as it commonly happens, had her schizophrenia present in her college years. As she tells her story she was walking back to her dormitory on a sunny day in March when having just returned from class, she heard someone call her name.
"Sarah", the voice said behind her.
She turned around, looking for whoever might be calling her name.
She turned to see an open field.
Sarah scanned the windows of the nearby building and of the dormitory, but no one was evident.
Shaking her head and continuing her walk back to her dorm, her name was called again, this time louder and more insistent, not far behind her.
She spun on her heal, only to be confronted with the confounding emptiness that surrounded her.
She desperately wondered what type of college prank was being perpetrated on her and felt tears spring to her eyes. She decided to walk resolutely to her dorm regardless.

"Sarah", it was an unmistakable whisper…. directly in her ear.
Sarah fled to her dorm room in a panic, hands clenched over her ears, but nothing she did could stop the voice.

It was a matter of days before Sarah's disease was diagnosed, and a matter of months before she was instatutionalized due to its severity.

I went home that night after hearing Sarah's tale, and something was bothering me…. It reminded me of something that I couldn't quite put my finger on, like a movie star whose face you can see but whose name stays tantalizingly on the tip of your tongue, playfully avoiding your conscious mind.

Then it hit me…. In few seconds I had flipped to the appropriate page of the Jerusalem bible I had in my house….

Samuel I Perek 3 Posuk 4

And the Lord called Shemuel and he answered, here I am. And he Ran to Eli, and said, Here I am, for thou didst call me. And he said I called not, lie down again. And he went and lay down. And the lord called yet again. Shemuel. And Shemuel arose and went to Eli, and said, here I am for thou didst call me. And he answered, I called not my son, lie down again. Now Shemuel did not yet know the lord, neither the word of the lord yet revealed to him. And the lord called Shemuel again a third time. And her arose and went to Eli and said, here I am, for thou didst call me. And Eli understood that the lord had called the child.

Spooky isn't it.....

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Vogon Poetry

Ode to a lump of green putty I found, one day, lurking in my Rebbi’s beard

Betwixt his shoulder and chin it sat there and leered,

Trapped in moist hairs, I tell you no Chidish,

It bobbed up and down with each word of Yiddish.

Ode to a lump of green putty I found, one day, lurking in my Rebbi’s beard

I tried not to look, but much as I’d feared

That suspicious congealment, under it’s spell I was smitten,

To ponder it’s origin, while all-else studied Gittin.

Ode to a lump of green putty I found, one day, lurking in my Rebbi’s beard

Was it meatball? or chulent? or cream cheese mis-smeared ?

His hand came upon it, as the riddle I laid-low,

And watched Rebbi eat a bit, of last weeks tomato.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

In Search of a Rational God

It's not a fair fight, from the start, faith has stacked the deck.
Most of us can remember being told by our parents that we could grow up to be and do whatever we wanted. This sentiment is so ubiquitous in our society that I have rarely encountered someone who didn't start life with this broad option.
"What ever you want to be, Doctor, Lawyer, Doctor, Doctor…" (every family has its own variation.)

Well, except for one thing.
Here we are told what to believe and how demonstrate our faith.
Sorry, kid, no choices here. This is the way we do things... get it!
Good. Now eat your Matzo and tell your sister to stop pulling on the cats tail, he doesn’t like it.

This works well for a number of years as long as reward follows obedience. A child treasures reward and acceptance more than truth.
But inevitably we grow up and in the process make acquaintances with people who are just as consumed as ourselves, with odd religious beliefs, often passed down from antiquity, that color their perspectives and direct their actions.
Carl Sagan once theorized that the reason free thought and scientific inquiry of ancient times were so often found in coastal regions was related to this same effect of ecumenical exposure. When enough sailors from different cultures had passed through, a local inhabitant would be sure to wonder how both Marduk and El could be supreme Gods. Each had very different set of rules. Additionally, and equally troubling, each God claimed the exclusive allegience of different peoples. Even to a mind from the bronze age the contradiction is obvious.

It must have amused port city dwellers of old, to hear one culture after another, impart with sincere faith and conviction, their beliefs about world forces they couldn't understand, while decrying the views of others.To the intelligent observer some of these ideas must be wrong. And if some, why not all. And if so, why would one's own belief system be any better.

Once the seed of doubt is planted, and one's mind turns to examination of orthodoxy it doesn't take long to find the ridiculous.
Do our fingernails really contain a source of unholy power so awesome as to require quarantine ?
And what of all the rich and abounding heritage of demons and devils. Is the Gemara in Berachos correct. Can one see demons by semi medical administration of a special eye drop that contains ashes of a black cat, seventh descendant of a black cat?
Can a document that claims, the reason why the trousers of Talmedei Chachamim wear thin at the knees is from the rubbing of demons, minions of which live amongst us; be trusted to help us with the logic we use daily with regard to end of life issues?
It is a slippery slope downwards and as we peel away the layering of our laws and traditions we are left confronted with belief itself.

Its probably put best by Shalom Auslander in his book Beware of God where he describes the ancient world thusly:

"Everybody believed in someone or something and whatever anybody believed, they believed it completely. Their belief in their belief was unbelievable. They had complete faith in their faith. The only thing they doubted was doubt itself. "

This seems apropos to the modern world as well.
I have often wondered, "What is this thing called belief whose hold is so powerful over me that I find my heart pounding every time I consider doubt? And can someone, even an all powerful someone require it of me."?

The more I think of it, Belief seems to me to be a preponderance of evidence that you have come to accept, and a rational belief means a belief that can change as the evidence does.
In every area of my life other than religion I change my beliefs as evidence and common sense indicate. Why would religion be any different? Is religion meant to be devoid of logic and evidence or perhaps, above them?
Surely not, otherwise why would we have a Talmud steeped in logic to determine the will of the Creator, and why would the Cuzari expound on his “evidence” that our religion is correct.
No. Surely logic and reason are central to our religious beliefs and if so should be subject to the same rules as any other area of our lives.

Additionally, I have found that I don’t, in other areas of my life, choose my beliefs.
I don’t believe Alien Civilizations have visited earth, but I didn’t decide to believe that. I simply viewed the evidence and read critical reports and, Poof… I had an opinion. My opinions and thought processes are inherent to whatever it is that makes me 2/3 a skeptic and 1/3 a dreamer.

Additionally, I don’t think someone could ask me to believe that furry ewoks do the gardening in my back yard. They could beat the words out of me, or offer a reward high enough to make me lie. But actual belief would not occur until some element of evidence or rational was offered that was weighty enough to tip whatever scale exists in my brain.
This, for better or worse, leads to two questions.
If religion were a rational belief it should allow adjustment based on evidence. Clearly it doesn’t and is therefore irrational.
Given the nature of belief, why would a superhuman creator require as a prerequisite to service, for you to believe in him?
To my mind it is clear that beliefs are based on evidence. If evidence supports a creator, one believes. If not, well, then, hey, nice knowing you God.

But to require belief outside of the framework of evidence or rationale, is contradictory for a being that supposedly understands our innermost workings.

Here once again we are left with an irrational logic/creator/religion.

For those who persist in the rationality of religion there exists the following thought experiment.

What would it take for you not to believe in God?

You know, like on a scale of one to ten. One being biblical criticism, five being the dead sea scroll discovery of a J or E document in entirety, and ten being, lets say, time machine: you get to go back and stand next to an irate Moses, who, having just nicked his thumb, starts yelling at Joshua for not holding the damn tablet still. Or whatever scenario seems most convincing to you.

When this question is posed most religious people assume the look of a trapped animal. The rational admit that there is some level of evidence that would make them not believe. This is a problem because religion and God require you to believe no matter what.

The irrational folks do something quite amazing in response to this question. I have heard, “it is heresy and therefore forbidden to think about.” Which makes one wonder how strong is a belief you can’t think about. And if you can’t think about it then what are you believing in when you say you believe.

I have also heard “Since it is impossible that anything in the torah is not true, that can’t happen.”
I just view this as another variation on the first theme with similar problems.

In any case, above-mentioned conversations end poorly, as you would expect when the rational meets the irrational.

Because of all of the opinions I have mentioned here my conversations with most of my friends have become difficult. And I often wonder if there are not many more people like myself.

I am not saying anything in this, my own little soapbox preamble, because I want to leave Judaism. To the contrary I like my friends and family too much to depart.

Nor do I really mind the laws and customs. I am not saying I am the most observant, but I do OK and have found a nice level of comfort, well within the norms of the community.

I am sure many people lash out at our religion from the inside because they yearn for the delights that sit fragrantly on the dinner plates of their business partners, while they are forced to smile perfunctorily, feigning enjoyment of their tuna in a can.

For me it is not necessarily about that (though I cant deny those steaks look good and juicy) rather, it is about an empirical logical problem that plagues our religion and all religions, which does not appear to have an answer.

I would happily ask for an answer, and would not be disturbed by the existence of the divine should it become probable based on evidence or logic, (Suffice it to say it would take a lot to get me to believe in that fingernail stuff.) but I am afraid that very little in the way of conversation can occur between those who embrace rationality and those who don’t.