October 26, 2016

Neanderthals

In the sixth chapter of the Book of Genesis you will find this:
“And the sons of the gods saw the daughters of humans that they were good and they took them as wives, wherever they wanted to. And God said my spirit cannot stand these beings...The Nefilim were on earth at that time and the humans mixed with them and they produced giants. They were the ones that caused devastation at that time. And God saw what a state the world was in and how badly the humans were acting, thinking of evil all day long. And he regretted what had happened so far. And said, ‘I will destroy these people.’” (Genesis 6:2)
Of course, there are many ways of interpreting these sentences and trying to figure out who were “the sons of the gods” or perhaps “the sons of judges”. And who were the Nefilim? Some Christian scholars suggest they were the fallen angels (from the Hebrew root NFL meaning to fall) who were cast down from the Heavenly Court with Satan. (See Milton’s Paradise Lost.) There are post-Talmudic midrashim that talk about fallen gods on earth. But let me tell you how I have always understood it.

I think it refers to a much earlier phase of prehistory. The memories had been passed down orally and were incoirporated. In the early stages of human development there were lots of different types of early species, “Homos” of various types: erectus, ergaster, rudolfensis, africanus, pekinensis, to mention only a few. Culminating (some might say regressing) in Homo sapiens, of course. But there were others, such the Neanderthals and doubtless other kinds of “missing links".

I know the theory of evolution has gaps and guesses. Yet all the anthropological evidence that science is accumulating, points to processes of evolution over a long period of time in which some species survived and others did not. Whether this happened under some guiding intelligence or not is as much open to debate now as it was in Darwin’s day. Most religious people see the hand of a divine power.

The interesting question, which was asked in the Bible itself, was whether Homo sapiens could ever self-destruct or go extinct. But before I try to answer that one, there is the easier issue of who these proto- or pseudo-humans were that the Torah refers to.

I have always taken it that the Torah recognizes this early process of evolution physically, which mirrors the process of spiritual enlightenment. This after all is the core message of Torah. Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses were stages in the awakening and deepening of a relationship between humans and God. But as a sideline, the Torah talks about earlier forms of life that coexisted with homo Adamus. Even beforehand. In the words of the Midrash Rabba, “God made worlds and destroyed them, made them and destroyed them, until He arrived at this one.”

Not only, but the Torah seems to be saying that these other Homos and Neanderthals mixed and procreated, and some of the results were not very nice. The nastier types, or perhaps the less reflective ones, died out. The successful species learnt to cooperate well. Others cooperated in destructive ways, as the story of the Tower of Babel records.

I saw Hollywood’s latest version of Noah’s flood (Noah, 2014). Darren Aronofsky directed with Russel Crowe as Noah. And the Nefilim get a role too! It is a disappointing production (despite rabbinic credits) with Ray Winstone as a cockney Tuval Cain, the bad guy. He stows aboard the ark, unbeknownst to Noah. But he ends badly. And I wondered whether the evil perpetrated by the Hitlers of humanity could be traced back to this Neanderthal strain that survived the flood! I gather the Neanderthals were not that bad actually.

I have always been interested in paleontology, anthropology, and archaeology. They explain physical things, whereas religion focuses on its strength, spirituality. For this very early period of human history, I recommend Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet. But I have also read Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, an entertaining romp through human history choc-a-bloc with fanciful theories. Some he adopts and others he discards with a recklessness that even he admits to. After reading him you will conclude that there is so much we still don't know. His conclusion is that modern science and technology are changing human capacities. Sapiens is being turned into cyborgs: “Such a cyborg would no longer be human or even organic.” He ended the book with the words: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

His latest offering is Homo Deus. According to him, humans invented God and will soon become God. Harari says that “ the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms.” Dataism will substitute for free will and God. The useless masses cast aside will pursue a mirage of happiness with drugs and virtual reality. Like Pagans, in fact. An elite class, the super rich, will reap the benefits, editing their genomes and merging with machines. Harari emerges as a cheerleader and perhaps scriptwriter for Hollywood.

The Talmud already wondered about this march of folly. It says that Adam was originally designed to span the universe. But when he disobeyed, made the wrong decisions, God shrank him to the organism we are today. In other words, we have amazing capacities. But we limit ourselves by pursuing selfish goals and bad decisions.

There is another scenario to Harari’s. Whenever throughout history one class or group emerges all powerful and subjugates all the rest, inevitably there follows a decline and fall or a bloody overthrow of the old system. That, I believe, is the message of first of the Nefilim and then Noah’s flood and indeed the repeated warnings in the Bible. Since those early days, history has consistently reiterated the message. The one percent can never sustain its hold on power and assets for long if it ignores the masses.

Religion offers an alternative model—the Messianic idea. Except the whole point of Messianism is that it improves the lot of everyone, of the world, not just of one class or percentile. It is true that many see Messianism as Divine Intervention to prevent a catastrophic collapse. That is indeed a comforting thought for those who have it. But meanwhile it is the universalist and humanist aspect of Messianism, and the Torah itself, of making the world a better place, that might just save the cyborgs from destroying it. But even if they try to. As the story in Bereishit indicates, humanity is resilient (or God is good), and it will rebound!

October 20, 2016

Agnostic

I have always thought it important to read opinions that conflict with mine, either to confirm my position or perhaps to reconsider it. A thinking person should always be prepared to examine his or her received opinions. So it was with eager anticipation that I read Lesley Hazleton’s Agnostic: A spirited manifesto.

I have known Lesley for a very long time as a very talented writer who has always held strong, contrary opinions, honestly and fearlessly expressed. I was not entirely surprised, therefore, to discover that I agreed with almost everything she writes.

In general, I approve of Voltaire’s, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is an absurd one.” I am sure that is true of intellectual ideas. Less so about emotions, of course. Although they, too, can often be just as misleading.

One of the things I like least about Orthodoxy as currently practiced is this absurd certainty that so many profess, about issues that often the greatest of Jews were not so certain of themselves. Great minds like Maimonides, Nachmanides, Yehuda Halevy, and Abarbanel, to mention only a few, were prepared to say that there were things they did not understand within the corpus of Jewish ideas and that even the prophets did not know the details of some of the ideas they preached. And that was precisely why there were so many different interpretations on such nonrational issues as the afterlife and resurrection.

Many theological issues that carry important messages in their abstractions are simply beyond us in rational terms. Yet children and adults are taught in religious schools or evangelical centers that they have to accept literal explanations and are often dissuaded from asking questions. This can lead to one of two possibilities: blind, unconsidered acceptance or rejection. Sadly, it is often the brightest who reject, and who can blame them? It is not surprising that such certainties have put people off organized religion.

As a recent Pew paper shows, for all the many that claim a belief in God, the different versions of what that actually means are often contradictory. Doubt is exciting and necessary when it accompanies an open mind. The Torah encourages children to ask why. The Seder revolves around asking questions. The Talmud in Sucot gives four quite contradictory interpretations of why we sit in a Suca. Is only one of them “the truth”? No one should be asked to believe in anything that doesn’t make sense to them on some level. But if the answer is, “Shut up and accept what I say without challenge,” a lively mind will just switch off.

It has become fashionable to try to use modern techniques to discover the religious gene or the way the brain reacts to prayer or meditation. Clearly some activities have a calming effect on the human brain. Praying for people can give those praying a sense of doing something to help. And people who receive blessings and charms can feel better even if it is psychosomatic or due to autosuggestion. One always hears about the few cases of success, rarely of the failures. Does this invalidate religion? Not necessarily. But it does raise questions that any thinking, religious person will want to find answers to. And it is of course perfectly legitimate sometimes to say, “I just don’t know.” The common response of religion to matters of faith is that they are beyond scientific verification. Even so, too much energy and effort is wasted trying to undermine scientific theories instead of focusing on the positive elements in religion.

But challenge popular myths and you will not be thanked. I have noticed that if I ask people to explain to me what it is they believe, they become uneasy and defensive. If I am critical of religious shortcomings, I often get the response, “Don’t we have enough enemies without you undermining religious faith?” As Ms. Hazleton points out, those who claim to possess certainty often hate to be challenged. She quotes Samuel Johnson, “Every man who attacks my belief diminishes in some degree my confidence in it, and therefore makes me uneasy; and I am angry with him who makes me uneasy.” And that's why religious rationalists get attacked so fiercely too, not just by fundamentalists but by ordinary people who want to feel secure in their belief that they are absolutely right.

Questioning does not necessarily undermine. It can help clarify. Finding gaps or problems with evolution does not necessarily prove that it was God who created the world. Antony Flew, the most famous atheist of my youth, now says he cannot believe the universe came about by accident. Neither can I! But that still doesn’t tell us who or what designed it.

I do find the agnostic position compelling. It contrasts to the absurdity of the atheist certainty “that not” and the fundamentalist certainty “that is.” Both exhibit the same absolutism. “I know for certain” always rings danger bells. What is wrong with saying “I honestly do not know”? So long as one is living an ethical and considered life.

Ms. Hazleton explores such feelings as being connected to the universe, in awe of nature, and similar attempts to describe what others call a religious experience. But none of these satisfactorily explain the persistence, even amongst rationalists, of a commitment to a religious way of life. Precisely because of the range of different experiences they engender and excite. In the end, the existentialism of experience wins over abstractions. I like to distinguish between rationalism and mysticism. Ms. Hazleton uses the word romanticism. She is indeed a romantic, as well as an honest doubter, and in my view that is an ideal position. It opens one up to a whole range of different experiences.

There are some minor cavils. For example, to say that the great Kabbalist Isaac Luria is the father of Kabbalah is rather like saying Martin Luther is the father of Christianity. It gives the impression of undervaluing all that went on before. Nevertheless, her book draws on Jewish and other sources from religion, philosophy, psychology and literature to create an entertaining and stimulating flow of ideas. It is a beautifully written, serendipitous exploration of doubting and questioning and allowing for the possibility of surprise.

And in our hectic life, having a row of festivals, each one standing in contrast to the prevailing society, it’s a perfect time to wonder why and to what end.

October 13, 2016

Rain

Between the two World Wars in Eastern Europe, yeshiva students used to entertain each other at weddings and other happy occasions with Gramen—rhymes in Yiddish prose or song that combined humor and scholarship. They were “party acts”. Now, with so many other forms of entertainment, the art is all but lost. Sad remnants are preserved at weddings in Chasidic circles where, at the very end (often at 5:00 in the morning), at the Mitzvah Tanz, a Badchan (a Chasidic-style court jester and amateur comedian), introduces guests and relatives with a few lines of rhyming verse. Nowadays they lack the skills of the past, so their rhymes are invariably banal, sycophantic ditties about how everyone is a scholar, a saint, a renowned benefactor. And the guests actually pay the Badchan for the honor.

Another old tradition of Jewish religious humor is the Purim Torah. Witty combinations of laws and ideas strung together in a nonsensical, humorous, but usually brilliant flow of Talmudic and Halachic texts. Alcohol helps; after all, nowadays that is what Purim is—a mixture of the spiritual and the profane.Standards have declined. My father was absolutely brilliant at both, in Yiddish and English. At weddings and at school parties. I have one record of a tour de force of his at a family wedding in the fifties where he succeeded in making fun of the other attending rabbis as well as the parents of the bride. But like all septuagenarians, I can look back and say that “fings ain’t what they used to be!” I, sadly, have dropped the baton.

This Jewish tradition was mirrored, in my youth, by brilliant non-Jewish or secular entertainers who combined academic and cultural excellence with musical talent. They were the stars of my youth, now long forgotten (though YouTube thankfully ensures they can still be found). Men like the American Tom Lehrer, a Harvard mathematician and satirical songster who used to pack auditoriums. And in England we had the brilliant Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. Michael Flanders (1922–1975) was an actor and composer, and Donald Swann (1923–1994) was a pianist and linguist. Amongst their most famous are the Hippopotamus and the Gnu songs. Their version of Mozart’s Horn Concerto with comic lyrics still delights me. I still love their song about the awful British weather. Here are the words:

January brings the snow
Makes your feet & fingers glow.
February’s ice and sleet
Freeze the toes right off your feet.
Welcome March with wintry wind.
Wish you were not so unkind.
April brings the sweet spring showers
On and on for hours and hours.
Farmers fear unkindly May.
Frost by night hail by day.
June just rains and never stops.
Thirty days and spoils the crops.
In July the sun is hot.
Is it shining? No, it’s not!
August cold and dank and wet
Brings more rain than any yet.
Bleak September mist and mud
Is enough to chill the blood.
Then October adds a gale
Wind and slush and sleet and hail.
Dark November brings the fog.
Should not do it to a dog.
Freezing wet December, then
Bloody January again.

This is part of my multicultural upbringing. And this is how I remember the British weather, although as I write this I sit in New York under driving rain, and Britain sees much more sun nowadays than it used to, thanks to Global Warming ( for those who believe it). But still, this explains why praying for rain and the Suca experience (I can’t remember when we weren’t washed out) just did not resonate as much with me as it should have done. It wasn’t until, as a teenager, I experienced Sucot in Israel that I really understood why it was so relevant there.

Now, of course, rain/water is a massive issue almost everywhere in the world. What was once seen as a minority concern of a small people living in the Middle East is now universal. The genius of our tradition is that old customs and laws that were instituted thousands of years ago are just as relevant now as they were then. Everything the Romans laughed at the Jews for are now major preoccupations and issues in modern society. The original Romans are long gone, but we are still here (no more popular than we were then). And according to that most derisory of bodies UNESCO and its lies, we never even existed! Nearly as insane as suggesting that the Quran written over a thousand years later than the original text was the true version and the earlier one’s forgeries. Such its the state of madness in our world.At least the rain doesn't play politics.

Praying for rain, understanding its importance, the growing concerns over climate change and the state of the universe, are all issues that make Sucot even more relevant now than ever before. We need to be reminded. We need rituals to shake us out of our convenient stupor and tendency to do the least possible. This festival is about us and our position in the natural world and the importance of the decisions we take to preserve it or destroy it, for us and our children.

Happy Sucot!

October 06, 2016

Resurrection

Western entertainment seems massively preoccupied with dead bodies coming back to life. Popular horror films and television series regurgitate this very weird fixation. And there’s Halloween. Parallel with this is the increasing belief of many scientists that we are on the threshold of immortality. Modern medical science will enable us to live forever. We will never have to confront death. My rational self is just amazed, both by the ridiculous and the unknown.

During this time of the year we are reminded of a range of theological ideas that if taken literally, do not make sense. In most major religions, resurrection in all its wondrous, fabled manifestations plays a crucial part. Whether it is fear of death and the need to be reassured at times of loss, or the belief that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. The ancient world believed in it. Think of the Pyramids. Christianity is predicated on it. This particular idea keeps on popping up. What are we to make of it?

In Judaism’s most repeated liturgy, the Amidah, “God, who enables the dead to live” is repeated at least three times a day, every day of the year. Yet no one throughout our history has successfully defined what it actually means. Perhaps it is no more than Elijah’s reviving an apparently dead child. Maimonides, writing about the tradition of the Messiah, but including the After Life and Resurrection, says, “All these ideas, no one knows how they will play out until they happen. This was something that was hidden even from the prophets….That is why there is so much disagreement.” (Laws of Kings 12:2)

The Talmud is mystified too: “Cleopatra the queen asked Rebbi Meir, ‘I can understand that dead people can be brought back to life, but will I come back with my clothes on or without them?’” No fashionista like Cleopatra would want to be brought back to life wearing clothes that were out of fashion. If it was meant literally, then of course we might wonder about the details. Do we come back as adults or babies? With plastic surgery, false teeth or limbs? Given that our bodies are constantly changing, growing, and decaying, at what stage of life? Or will we just rise from our graves as we were when buried? And what about all those thousands and millions of faithful Jews who were burnt to a cinder?

The Talmud, is divided. There are those who see resurrection as a national state, as the Prophet Ezekiel does, a nation reborn. Some rabbis said and resurrection was a “mashal”, a metaphor, a message that there is always hope and one should never give up hope—for cures, for rain, for life. Others say it means some miraculous intervention, an affirmation that there are forces, a force, in this world beyond our science and beyond our comprehension. Some people simply take it at face value and ask no questions. But that can be dangerous, particularly if you are a teacher.

Last week I was having a discussion with some young members of my community who went to a very good Jewish school in the USA. They raised the question of organ donations and told me that in their school the Jewish studies teachers told them that it was against Jewish law. Their teacher had said that when it comes to resurrection, bodies come back to life as they were at the moment of death, and if one was missing a crucial organ one would be resurrected without it. I asked them if they really thought that all those great rabbis and martyred Jews who had been burnt at the stake or incinerated would be denied resurrection. This, coming from an institution which prides itself on its high secular and religious standards. I then realized why I had heard that so many of its alumni were abandoning Orthodoxy.

I was so flabbergasted that I approached the rabbi of the school and asked him whether this was school policy or just one rogue (stupid/naïve) teacher. He promptly took out his US Organ donor card. I took out mine from the HODS the Halachic Organ Donor Society. He said he thought it important that we Jews be seen contributing to the pool or organs that we ourselves might need to benefit from. He said that it must have been a teacher in the much lower grades who would have said such a thing. We Jews come in all shades—the simple and the brilliant, the rational and the mystical. We are bombarded with different and conflicting narratives by rabbis who range from the brilliant to the stupid. But if we are mature adults we will listen, learn and make up our own minds.

Resurrection does not make rational sense. I often think of walking down High Street, World To Come and bumping into my late father. But I know it's a fantasy. How often do you hear it said that “your mother is looking down on you from Heaven”, as if she has eyes and a private space machine to follow you around.

Do our bodies come back with tooth veneers or rhinoplasty? Are we expected to understand these ideas the way they did then? Or should we try to make them relevant to us now? Do we simply accept age old theologies because we have to or because they can inspire us? If the most committed of us can agree that obligations in the Bible to destroy Canaanites no longer apply, or that if many of the punishments the Torah mentions were never expected to be carried out, can’t we say the same of ideas?

For me personally, Yom Kipur is a day of resurrection. It is a day when I descend to the depths of despair at the realization of my failures, mistakes, and inadequacies. I read the lists of all the possible errors the liturgy names. I wonder whether I deserve to live another year or why I was allowed to outlive my father by so much. This is a necessary, cathartic, and healthy process. It purges one’s black side. Though I approach the valley of the shadow of death, though I know I do not deserve it, I come back from the gates of Hell. The Day gives me hope, gives me life. Life goes on.

I know this process can be undertaken throughout the year, at any time and in any place. But the magic of Yom Kipur is that while we are all together during these 25 hours, the aura of the day weighs heavily on us. It takes us down, but then, magically, it lifts us up. That is resurrection.