Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Wisdom of (John) Wisdom

The question of religious belief and its rationality is one that will certainly continue for a long time. It is my belief that Religion deals with questions of 'why', that are, by definition, out of the reach of empirical tests, the domain of Science. The difference is aptly described by John Wisdom (Proceedings of an Aristotelian Society, LXV):

Two people return to their long neglected garden and find among the weeds a few of the old plants surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other "It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these plants." Upon inquiry they find that no neighbor has ever seen anyone at work in their garden. The first man says to the other "He must have worked while people slept." The other says "No, someone would have heard him and besides, anybody who cared about the plants would have kept down these weeds." The first man says "Look at the way these are arranged. There is purpose and a feeling for beauty here. I believe that someone comes, someone invisible to mortal eyes. I believe that the more carefully we look the more we shall find confirmation of this."

They examine the garden ever so carefully and sometimes they come on new things suggesting the contrary and even that a malicious person has been at work. Besides examining the garden carefully they also study what happens to gardens left without attention. Each learns all the other learns about this and about the garden. Consequently, when after all this, one says "I still believe a gardener comes" while the other says "I don't".

Their different words now reflect no difference as to what they have found in the garden, no difference as to what they would find in the garden if they looked further, and no difference about how fast untended gardens fall into disorder. At this stage, in this context, the gardener hypothesis has ceased to be experimental; the difference between one who accepts and one who rejects it is now not a matter of the one expecting something the other does not expect.

What is the difference between them? The one says "A gardener comes unseen and unheard. He is manifested only in his works with shich we are all familiar." The other says "There is no gardener." And with this difference in what the say about the gardener goes a difference in how they feel toward the garden, in spite of the fact that neither expects anything of it which the other does not expect.

It all comes down ultimately to will. I cannot 'prove' spiritual matters for proof does not operate in the realm of "why or what" but in the realm of "how" (the realm of Science). Therefore ultimately one cannot solely use facts or data to decide whether or not to live a life believing in God. He must rely on his experience. If so, it all comes down to willing oneself to allow experience to help one see God and not brush those experiences off as chance or something irrelevant. This is the idea of "Free Will" in its muted yet most glorious lyric: truly giving Man the opportunity to will himself to do right.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Marriage, Sinai and Responsibility

A friend of my wife is getting married this coming week. While reflecting on the idea of marriage, I was struck by an odd yet compelling question. The midrash states that Adam and Chava were created as two sides to the same body. They were both present, and shared one soul. Hashem then decided to split the body and soul into two, so that man and woman each became, effectively, one half of a whole. When they are unified in marriage, the primordial harmony is once again established. In essence, marriage is the reunification of what God separated at the dawn of time. While considering this, I asked, "Why did Hashem separate the original human creation? Why tear a soul in two, and then leave the two halves to find each other in a chaotic world? What purpose is served in this search?"

In Shir HaShirim (3:11), the author exhorts the daughters of Zion to celebrate with King Shlomo, "on his wedding day, the day of his heartfelt happiness." The Talmud (Ta'anith 26b) allegorizes this verse. The wedding day refers to the day of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, while the day of his supreme happiness refers to the building of the Temple. What does this allegory mean?

While in Egypt, the Jewish people were not rightly a nation. They were a collection of related individuals, whose common suffering gave them a bond. God's miraculous intervention in the affairs of Man had as a stated purpose, "ולקחתי אתכם לי לעם". By taking the Jews out of Egypt, Hashem would make them into a nation that would serve Him (Exodus 6:6). The goal of this physical creation of the nation of Israel was the immediate spiritual creation of a national purpose, at Sinai, in the giving of the Torah. The Torah codifies how the Jews are to interact as a national unit. But more importantly, it guarantees that each Jew be responsible for, and only be complete, in that national unit. This is the significance of the phrase "נעשה ונשמע", the national resolve that "we will do". No Jew can keep all 613 commandments, as some only apply to one group, while others only apply to another. It is only as a nation, by sublimating ourselves to the כלל, that we truly can uphold the whole of the Torah.

It is easy to imagine the connection between Har Sinai and the marriage canopy. Up until marriage, we are essentially individuals, fulfilling our own individual needs. However, under the chuppah, a man and woman accept the responsibility of acting and thinking as a unit. There is no more you and I, there is only we. I am reminded of the story in which the saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levine brought his hurt wife to the doctor, saying, "Doctor, our leg hurts." This man had internalized the idea of a couple as a unit, and not just a collection of two individuals, that he felt her pain as his own!

And so, our observance of the Torah and our consideration of our marriage inspire each other to greater thinking in terms of the group, and less of ourselves individually.

Next, the day of Shlomo's supreme happiness is compared to the building of the Temple. Rabbi Hirsch (Vayetzeh p. 457) explains that a Jewish home is supposed to be a miniature Temple. The atmosphere is meant to be one in which the loving and joyous service of God is carried out with understanding and emotion. When two people marry and begin a home, they lay the foundation of a family life that lives for the purpose of Heaven. Just as the Beth Hamikdash was the exemplary expression of a whole nation harmoniously serving God, so are our individual homes a microcosmic expression of the same ideal.

We can now understand why God chose to split Adam and Chava up. As one unit, the first human had no need to replace its ego with a larger picture. Everything it needed was in it. By splitting it into two, Hashem gave man and woman a need to transcend the personal ego, and sublimate it into a harmonious society serving God. This effort is then meant to be applied to the nation as a whole. Each family unit is a building block in a national unit. We see our fulfillment and success not only through individual achievements, but in the actions of the nation.

Commonly, we assume that the breaking of the glass under the marriage canopy is a reminder to mourn for the destruction of Jerusalem. While it is true that we must never leave that pain out of our celebrations, the Talmud (Brachos 30b) states that the custom arose when rabbis saw too much hilarity at weddings. They felt that with all the happiness, the bride and groom must not forget that they are just now embarking on a tremendously arduous journey, one in which they will learn to think as one, and through this, produce a home worthy of the שכינה. The glass breaking is a somber reminder that there is much work to be done.

Finally, I will add a very important lesson from מתן תורה. In Yitro, it says, "ביום הזה באו מדבר סיני", on this day, they came to the Sinai desert. Should it not say, on that day? Rashi quotes the midrash and learns from this that every day, we must feel as if we have been given the Torah anew. We must not let the apathy that so often is the effect of time to allow our zeal and excitement for Torah to rust. In the same way, marriage is something that requires constant renewal. We can never let ourselves feel stagnant and unproductive. Constantly learning about one another, seeing the glory of God emanating from our spouse, allows us to keep our marriages alive and fresh.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

BlueTruth Message

I just saw this new blog, and I think its aims are noble. I hope to read it regularly.

Jimmy Carter vs Simon Wiesenthal

I was pointed to this exchange between Rabbi Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and Jimmy Carter.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Beshalach: Awakening from Below

After triumphantly marching out of the ruins of a shattered Egypt, the Jewish People find themselves at the sea's edge. There seems to be no way forward, and the way back is blocked by the remnants of the Egyptian army, intent on reclaiming their escaping slaves. A frightened, hapless nation begins to question the whole enterprise. Moshe tells the people not to worry. This time, God will fight for them, and they may be silent (Ex. 14:14). Rashi and the Ramban quote a mechilta, and interject here that Moshe began to pray to God for salvation. The next verse (15) has God chastising the Jewish leader, "why do you cry out to me? Tell the children of Israel to proceed!"

Why does God speak tersely to Moshe at this time? What else should Moshe do but pray? Further, the second part of v. 15 is clearly a response to the prayer, implying that God accepted Moshe's intercession and now delivers his response! So, why does Hashem level such harsh criticism at Moshe?

The Or HaChayim answers in a greatly relevant way. Times of salvation are also times of judgment. Even when God's desires (if one may speak of God in such mortal terms) to act compassionately and miraculously, the element of judgment questions the merit of the Nation. After all, the Jews were not particularly deserving of redemption, and had to clinch the deal with the blood of circumcision and the blood of the paschal offering (Pesachim 96a). And so, Hashem, in his mercy, gives Moshe advice on how to lead a national assault on the prosecution in heavenly court: Act! Convince the Jews to act with faith, act with all their heart, and push forward into the sea before it splits! When Man acts with complete faith in God, we awaken the powers of redemption from below. This is necessary in order for the heavenly powers of salvation to be awakened on high. As the Vilna Gaon quotes the Zohar in Kol HaTor, it'aruta dil'tata (lower awakening) is first, and after that flows the it'aruta dil'eila (heavenly awakening).

The paradigm that the miracle of the Reed Sea teaches the Nation is that when salvation is near, words and prayers are not enough. Actions, specifically actions that highlight Israel's sole reliance on God, are necessary to bridge the gap between a hesitating dawn and a glorious sunrise across the horizon of geulah.

I venture to add my own insight. As we said, the mechilta adds the fact that Moshe began to pray to Hashem between v. 14 and 15. It is not implied by the Torah. The plain sense of these two verses is that Moshe calmed the People by telling them that they may settle down, for God will fight this battle. To that, Hashem responds, "Moshe, you are making a mistake. By telling the people to be passive and let Me act for them, you are effectively crying out to Me, putting the burden of salvation completely on Me. However, in order for Israel to be saved, they must act, as well. Only when they act with steadfast faith in Me, will I take over and split the sea."

May we internalize this message, in our momentous times of redemption, and avert the crisis of a geulah be'itah, a redemption coming because there is no time left, with pain and suffering, Heaven forbid. Let us catalyze a geulah of achishena, one that is hastened and glorious.