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From My Readings: Leonard Epstein, Chapter 3 – G-d and the Creation of the World

9 Tamuz 5774

In this chapter, Epstein asks us to look at possible explanations for the creation of the world (and, by extension, the universe) that will both allow for what we know from science and what the Bible tells us G-d did. Epstein’s discussion points out that G-d creating the universe implies a moral dimension to the universe, and that the idea that G-d is simply a First Cause (as Deism posits) is antithetical to Jewish thought, because Jews see G-d as involved with humanity, not separate from it.

My take on that, going back to my discussion of Kushner’s view of the limitations on G-d’s omnipotence due to natural law and free will, is that you can be involved without interfering directly. Think of the universe as G-d’s petri dish, if you will. Any scientist worth his or her salt knows that once you start the experiment, you do not interfere with it if you want to see what comes out of your first principles when you started the experiment. Watch? Certainly. Record and learn? Definitely. But you don’t open up the petri dish and mess with what’s going on inside it. And this may be how G-d is involved with humanity at this point – he is watching what is happening as his experiment plays itself out in the petri dish called our universe.

So it is possible for G-d to be involved, then, while still not interfering. I kind of like the idea of G-d as a scientist, myself.

Epstein also discusses possible explanations that integrate both G-d and what we know from science when it comes to the creation of our universe.

First, there’s the idea of G-d as a First Cause that created everything through starting the Big Bang. This doesn’t explain or factor in G-d as involved with humanity, but Epstein also points out that even if we can’t prove that G-d was behind the Big Bang, we also can’t rule out that he might have been.

Second, there’s the idea of the “fine-tuned universe.” There are some characteristics of our universe that seem uniquely suited to life, and if these characteristics did not exist, life as we know it could not have come to exist. The distance of the Earth from the sun provides optimum temperature and living conditions here, but a difference of as little as 5 percent of that distance closer would scorch us off the face of the Earth, while 5 percent further would leave it frozen and unlivable. According to Epstein there are more than thirty different examples of the fine-tuned universe. This, again, does not prove that G-d exists, but it also means we can’t rule out the possibility that like any good scientist, he set up optimum physical conditions in the universal petri dish.

Finally, we have the worrisome fact that the world is random and chaotic – so does G-d, as Einstein once famously rejected, just “play dice with the universe”? Well, Epstein responds, the fact of the world being random and chaotic to us does not mean it’s random and chaotic to G-d. There’s also the fact that supposedly-random, supposedly-chaotic situations still produce predictable outcomes over time (Epstein uses the example of a gambling casino making a reliable profit). The fact that we can’t perceive the underlying order of the universe right now does not mean we never will. We may simply need better tools that have not yet been developed.

Epstein eventually comes to the conclusion that “We are left without an ultimate answer. There is no adequate explanation for creation. Everyone is left believing in some force beyond our understanding.” This is kind of where I am about G-d generally. Given that he can’t be understood with our limited human faculties, I have to accept that he is a “force beyond our understanding.” There was a time, not so long ago, when I would have fought that with every particle of my being because I found it offensive that there were things I could not understand with my limited human brain. I’m past that now, fortunately (and part of me actually finds it a bit childish and arrogant to have ever thought that I ought to be able to!).

In the first exercise of this chapter, Epstein asks us to find ways to connect with the world with wonder, rather than analysis. I will be doing that today and tomorrow, mindfully. A friend of mine on another site wrote about how one of his proofs for G-d is “that there exist things in this universe which are pointlessly beautiful.” He’s got a point, certainly. What is the point of the beauty of a sunset? And yet it is beautiful, for no apparently functional reason. While there are people who will insist that the beauty of a flower is completely functional, I haven’t seen any explanation for the function (or utility) of the beauty of a sunset.

But since it’s hard to write about that exercise (since it’s more experiential than analytical), I’m going to look at Epstein’s next exercise, which goes like this:

“Consider all the options about understanding natural evil. Is there no [G-d]? Is there the traditional [G-d] who is all-powerful and all-good and therefore responsible for natural evil but whose ways we don’t understand? Did [G-d] create the natural world in a way that would inevitably lead to life but which isn’t controlled?”

Interestingly, I think I’ve addressed these in prior posts. At this point, I believe there is a G-d, at least in an agnostic way – I do not have beliefs about his specifics, but I do believe he exists. The reasons why would not satisfy any scientist because they’re experiential, but I still believe he exists. I dealt with the all-powerful issue in posts about Kushner’s work where we find logical reasons why G-d was all-powerful when he first put the universe in motion, but how some of the things he gave us (natural law, free will) now act as controls on his power. And because he started us out with optimum physical conditions and is now letting the experiment run its course, of course it isn’t controlled except beyond the controls of natural law and of moral decisions by those who can exercise our free will – in a word, humans.

I’ll come back to Epstein again tomorrow. For now, though, I’d like to have your thoughts on this as well. Does it bother you that we do not have, as Epstein says, an “adequate explanation for creation”? If it does, why? If not, why not?

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From My Readings: Back to Epstein

8 Tamuz 5774

I’m working my way through Leonard Epstein’s book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism for the next few weeks. In this book, Epstein gives us a chapter on some topic, and then some exercises at the end of the chapter for the reader to think about. He doesn’t number his exercises at the ends of his chapters, so sometimes it’s a little hard to figure out if a sentence is an exercise to write about or just something to think about. For example, Epstein asks us at the end of Chapter 2 to “Consider what is at stake in your beliefs. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put this very well: “[G-d] is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.”

Hm. OK. I’m not sure how to parse that, especially with the Heschel quote attached. Since the chapter is about G-d, Epstein probably means our beliefs about G-d. But as a former agnostic/atheist (and even now I’m not sure which of those I used to be), it’s hard to even put my beliefs about G-d into words, let alone talk about the stakes of those beliefs. I know what I used to believe. Now, the only thing I can be sure I believe is that G-d is there, somehow, and that a lot of what I used to think about him isn’t true.

I don’t know what Epstein means when he says “what is at stake in your beliefs.” Does he mean Pascal’s wager? Does he mean what people might do to me if they find out what I believe? Some other stake that I can’t discern yet? I’m at a loss.

So I’ll just address those two things and move on.

Pascal’s wager is that if we believe in G-d, there’s a chance we’re wrong. If we believe and we’re wrong, we simply die when we die, there is no afterlife, and there is no reward. But if we do not believe and we’re wrong, then we end up in Hell. Meanwhile, if we believe and we’re wrong, nothing happens to us, but if we believe and we’re right, then we end up in Heaven. So it’s better to believe than not believe.

But Pascal was talking to Christians, not to Jews. Does the wager even apply to Jews? Since Jews do not believe in the afterlife or in hell, and since Judaism is largely based on what you do rather than your statements of belief, it’s kind of hard to apply Pascal’s wager to Judaism. Besides, I’ve always felt that believing in G-d only because you were afraid of what would happen to you if you didn’t believe in him seems kind of dishonest, and that G-d would see through that in a heartbeat.

However, on a more pragmatic level, there are certainly things at stake in my belief in G-d and my performance of that belief through Jewish practice. On a very mundane level, it means giving up Saturdays as a day when I work and catch up on things, which for me is a pretty big deal. It means that sometimes I will make people uncomfortable when they see my kippah or my Mogen David, or when they see me praying the brachot at mealtimes (although I generally do that sotto voce; it’s my conversation with G-d, not theirs). It means that I may lose friends and even family members when I finish my coming-out process later this month. And it means that I will be a target for violence, because there are plenty of people who don’t like Jews, even today in this supposedly enlightened age.

On a less pragmatic level, the things that I risk in my belief in G-d include the stuff I’ve already talked about having to let go of: empiricism as a solution to every problem, black-and-white answers, suspicion and mistrust.

So what’s really at stake? Pragmatically, it’s my time, my energy, possibly my social relationships, and (in the worst case) my safety. Emotionally, I risk having to admit I’m wrong, having to get good with doubt, and having to change my perspective on the world.

So why risk that, you ask?

Well, in a pragmatic sense, many of the things about being a Jew (which will be the public face of my belief in G-d) that will make me a target are no different than the things about being queer that make me a target. People who hate tend to hate all groups that aren’t just like them. The KKK doesn’t have a Log Cabin KKK group, for example. They hate on Jews and queers pretty much the same way. As far as my belief in G-d specifically making me a target, I expect it’ll mostly be from the die-hard atheists who can’t tolerate other people believing in G-d for the same reasons I used to be unable to tolerate it. But even then, atheists rarely rise to the vitriolic level of a Richard Dawkins or a Greta Christina, and if they do, I can simply ignore them, as hard as that may be.

Taking this a step closer to my own personal life, as far as the atheist friends who demand sameness of belief or nonbelief as a condition of friendship? Well, it was nice knowing them. As the saying says, “Sometimes people come into your life for a reason or a season, not a lifetime.” I have already (probably) lost one friend over this, and I’m just hoping I won’t lose more, but if I do, it’s not that different from when I came out as queer.

So maybe the reason that it’s hard to parse Epstein’s question is because there is nothing new under the sun here for me. Almost everything that I have to face from other people’s reactions is the same stuff I had to face when I came out as queer. This is not my first rodeo. The things at stake that happen internally? That’s stuff I’ve been considering even before I started this blog. Could I maintain my self-respect after admitting I’d been wrong? Could I see myself as intelligent when I still have doubt? Could I accept non-empirical evidence and not think of myself as a fraud?

As it turns out, yes, I can.

But then there’s the other half of Epstein’s exercise, the Heschel quote. In many of the other books I’ve been reading, there’s this presumption that G-d is central to everything in Jewish life. And I can see that it must be for those who are Orthodox and even, to some extent, Conservative. But I’m not in the habit of praying before everything I do and everything I think. I don’t know if there’s a way to make G-d central when I’m at one of my medieval events, for example, except through my practices – avoiding lashon hara, being kind, being considerate.

Is that enough? Must I become a fundamentalist to be a good Jew?

I reject that. While Heschel has wonderful things to say, I don’t think the idea of G-d as an on-off switch is compatible with my Yiddishkeit. I do not think that it’s possible to allow for doubt if G-d must be of supreme importance all the time. I do not think it’s possible to allow for argument and debate if G-d is of supreme importance all the time. I think that in my experience of Judaism to date, it’s been about people – how you treat other people – far more than about G-d being central. And even some writers have said that it’s better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than to do the wrong thing for the right reason.

That also calls the question of what it means to make G-d central to everything. Is it professing continuous belief in G-d that makes him central? Or is it behaving towards others with kindness, giving them the benefit of the doubt, avoiding lashon hara that makes G-d central?

I’d say that as a person who aspires to become a Jew, my answer would have to be that it’s the practice, not the profession, that makes G-d central.

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Why Shabbat? From My Readings: The Sabbath by Heschel, and Who Needs God by Kushner

24 Sivan 5774 (after sundown)

I’ve just finished reading Abraham Heschel’s classic work The Sabbath (and I recommend it, despite the somewhat dated writing style). In it, Heschel points out that the Sabbath is holy because it is sanctified time, rather than a sanctified object. Time is an unusual idea, according to Heschel – it is not something that exists in any one place, nor is it attached to any one thing. Shabbat is important because it is time set aside to recuperate and recover from the daily grind of work and business, and to reconnect – with G-d, with our families and friends, with ourselves. Instead of having to travel to a specific place in order to reconnect, recuperate, and recover, we create a sacred time that can be observed anywhere.

That reconnection can be fatiguing and even intimidating if you’re not used to it. Most of us have seen the family at the restaurant with everyone’s nose buried in their GameBoy, their Kindle, or their iPhone. When was the last time you actually sat down and had a meal with your family, without the distractions of the game on the TV or the GameBoy in your child’s hands? When was the last time you actually spent an hour with someone just talking, with your phone set to “off” rather than “vibrate”? And if you did, did you really connect with them? Or was all the discussion about mundane things like the weather and the latest sports news?

I also finished Kushner’s Who Needs God earlier today. He refers to “the iPhone problem” as it was experienced in an earlier time – with the transistor radio as the interfering agent – as one of the ways we can be together in body and still totally separate in spirit. Before that, I’m sure that it was newspapers, magazines, and books that interfered both outside the home and in it, and at home there was also the TV and before that the radio as interfering agents between ourselves and other people. Kushner talks a lot in this book about loneliness, and how we miss our connection with others more than we realize we do. We compete, rather than connect. We objectify, rather than empathize. And as a result we end up with what Kushner, referencing Martin Buber, calls the I-It relationship, rather than the I-Thou relationship. We see others only as “how can I get something from them/how will they benefit me”, instead of seeing them as human beings with families, or health problems, or crises of faith, or worries.

The concept of taking an entire day “just” to rest is pretty foreign to me, as it probably is to most Westerners who weren’t raised Jewish. I know of about three Christian sects that make a point of Sabbath being an all-day thing, but that’s it. For most people, taking an entire day to rest sounds like a luxury. To others, it may even sound sinful. For me, a day off is ideal for catching up on work – answering student e-mails, for example. Planning my next class. Working on my budget. Organizing my desk. It’s work time, not play time – and certainly not rest time.

I’ve had Shabbat evenings on Fridays. I’ve been to a few Shabbat services at my temple on Friday nights, but the next morning I fell right back into doing what I needed to do in order to get work done – emails, grading, and of course endless Facebooking. I couldn’t seem to conceive of doing Shabbat not just on Friday nights but all day on Saturday, too. Even thinking of trying to have a full evening and day of Shabbat was nerve-wracking to me. What was I supposed to do with myself? Study? How, when I’m not supposed to write (because writing is creation)? Read? What would I do if I ran out of books to read (a perfectly possible scenario for me)? What about my students, and their e-mails, and the homeworks I have to grade, and the classes I need to prep? Heck, what about Facebook? How could I just not be there for a whole 25-hour period?

And what, exactly, would my kids and I – and my partner, once he arrived home – talk about, exactly? How would that look? How would that work? They’re not converting to Judaism – so one of my main current topics isn’t an option for table conversation. Talking about work is sort of not what I had in mind for Shabbat conversation. But what else is there to talk about?

Like the idea of taking a day completely off to rest, the concept of connecting in person is also increasingly foreign to most Westerners. “Connection” has become a term that refers to e-mail, websites, and blogging – and believe me when I tell you that I recognize the irony here, as I write about this issue on a blog. What we used to mean by connection, in-person connection, has become largely shredded away, as if we never needed it or wanted it.

So I didn’t think I could do it. I thought for sure I’d go mad with the tension of not doing anything productive, not to mention the guilt about the aforementioned emails and students. But I had to try. If I’m going to truly live as a Jew, this is part of it. So I need to learn how, right?

One of the things that Shabbat does is give us a holy time to see others as real people and human beings. I decided on Thursday night that I was going to make this Shabbat special, because my kids were going to be here. So I saw my doctor in the morning, I picked up my kids, ran my errands on Friday during the day, and then we prepared a real Shabbat meal. Even though the main dish just did not turn out right, it was salvageable without too many problems. I said the prayers before my older child and my partner came to the table (at their request – and I’m not about to push that on them), but my younger child decided to be there and participated with me as I sang the brachot and the Kiddush. We had even baked challah for the meal – grain-free, true, but it was still challah. We had a meal together as a family, we prepared it as a family, and we cleaned it up afterward as a family. At the table, each person shared something good that had happened to them in the last week. I haven’t had that much connection with my children in literally months.

This morning my younger daughter and I walked to the synagogue and found out that the Saturday morning Shabbat service included a bar mitzvah. Walking home, I felt such a sense of peace, just talking with my daughter, being disconnected from all my electronics, and feeling so connected to my kid and to the greater Jewish community. It was astounding. This afternoon, after I read for three hours from Kushner, my children asked me to play a game of Apples to Apples with them. Sure, it wasn’t entirely Shabbat-related, but in the spirit of spending time with my family, I dove right into it. I’m pretty sure HaShem didn’t mind.

I’m still not sure I can completely keep Shabbat the way the more-conservative Conservative Jews do. I’m not sure I can give up jotting notes down about things that I need to remember but which my somewhat distracted brain might otherwise forget, for example, or cleaning up my kitchen after a meal even if it’s still technically Shabbat by the clock and calendar. But I can’t deny I got something out of doing this. I didn’t quite make it to sundown, I admit, but when I did finally log into my computer about four hours before sundown, I found out that the e-mail and the students were still there. I was able to get the work that I needed to do, done, with a renewed energy and sense of peace that I’ve rarely felt even since I realized I need to convert. More to the point, I felt rested. I haven’t had that feeling in months, either.

So I guess the lesson I’m taking away from this experience is this: Being busy is fine – but being calm is necessary too, and making a sacred space and a sacred time for calm and study and meditation and connection is part of what we need, as human beings, to not just survive but to thrive.

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My Jewish Reading List: Books I Still Need to Read

13 Sivan 5774

I put this here as a service to folks who might need suggestions for further books to read. I’m also going to be reading these in the next month or two, I hope.

First, the other convert at my temple sent me the rabbi’s reading list, which includes:

  1. The Siddur Hadash, by (I’m assuming) the Center for Contemporary Judaica
  2. The Synagogue Survival Kit: A Guide to Understanding Jewish Religious Services, by Jordan Lee Wagner 
  3. The Book of Jewish Values, by Joseph Telushkin
  4. A Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 1: Everyday Living, by David A. Teuts
  5. Prayerbook Hebrew the Easy Way, by Anderson, Motzkin, Rubenstein and Wiseman
  6. Teach Yourself to Read Hebrew, book and cassette, revised edition, by Simon and Anderson

Other books I’ve had recommended to me by friends include:

  1. Mah La’asot: What Should I Do? by Alper and Grishover
  2. Embracing the Covenant by Berkowitz and Moskovitz
  3. Elijah’s Violin, a collection of Jewish fairytales from different parts of the Diaspora
  4. Jewish Folklore, by Nathan Ausubel
  5. The Big Book of Jewish Humor by Moshe Waldoks
  6. The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism, edited by Danya Ruttenberg
  7. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory by Josef Yerushalmi
  8. The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Ilya Schor and Susannah Heschel
  9. Essential Judaism by George Robinson
  10. To Pray As A Jew by Hayim Donin
  11. Growing Up Jewish: or, Why Is This Book Different from All Other Books? by Moline

As you can see, I have some reading to do. I can’t afford to buy all these books – yet – but I’ve put almost all of them on my Amazon wishlist.

 

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