Who decides?

A thought about an article on Tablet.com about Yair Lapid’s move to require military service and basic secular studies of the Israeli Haredi community.

In response to Lapid’s plan to add English and math to the curriculum, David Saada, a representative of the Haredim in Bnai Brak, says this:

“We’re not willing to give up even one minute of [Torah] study,” David said. “And who exactly decides which part of the tradition and the Torah you give up?”

My thought? You make these choices all the time. When you reject certain scholars and accept others, when you don’t study the Mishneh Torah and instead study the Shulkhan Arukh (maybe with, maybe without Isserles’ glosses), you decide “which part of the tradition and the Torah you give up.”

And if you’re 15% of the Israeli population, you perhaps had best work on figuring out exactly how it is you plan on making choices so that you’re defending yourself and funding your educational institutions. Because there’s a good chance that, at some point, there might not be enough “empty cart” secular middle-class Israelis to keep you in business.

(Steps down from soapbox)

Ritual is still so habitual

I guess I’m not done with the topic of the prior post, in part because what I posted about didn’t quite hit what I was initially thinking about.

The other difficulty I wonder about with changing language and changing ritual is just the “feel” of the new material. It’s difficult to get around habit and our existing expectations, and entire congregations have been formed after someone wanted some liturgical element in or out of a service.

So the challenge for really any innovating religious group looking to grow is balancing the need to be true to principle and the need to fit into congregants’ comfort zones–especially the new congregants who come along as a response to philosophical/spiritual resolution.

I don’t have answers for this; but it’s something I think about. Sort of the pains of growth, I suppose.

Ritual is so habitual

For those of us coming to Secular Humanistic Judaism from outside that movement (e.g., my own start in Conservative Judaism), one of the biggest problems that comes in the transition is the change in liturgy, ritual, etc. Moving to humanistic practice and belief means taking a serious look not only at what one does but also what one says. And the personal integrity that moves someone to change their denomination because of their beliefs–rather than convenience or comfort, as is true of many individuals who change congregations (which can work incidental denominational changes)–also requires that the person look at how they practice, not only what they believe.

One area that has caused me special worry is liturgy. Many of the traditional texts used in Conservative and even Orthodox services are still very appealing to me–not the content of the texts themselves, I should say. But the melodies still hold me so that I can sort of sing them and it’s somewhat mantra-like for me; I love some of the traditional melodies for the piyyutim, love the melody for the Shabbat Kiddush, love much of the Birkhat Hamazon.

Then I actually read them–not the weird, sanitized, fuzzified translations, but the actual Hebrew text–and remember what those texts say. And that’s where the trouble starts. Because I can’t honestly say I believe much, if any, of that stuff.

And this is where I worry that Secular Humanistic Judaism may fall down. Looking at the publicly available Secular Humanistic Jewish liturgical texts (e.g., in Rabbi Wine’s “Celebration” or the materials that can be downloaded from various congregational sites), what immediately trips me up is that I can’t fit those words to any melody I know from the traditional liturgical materials. This makes the ritual of lighting Shabbat candles, for example, a somewhat alien experience–I can’t say the traditional blessing with a straight face, but I can’t seem to fit the traditional melody with the new texts that I’ve found.

It seems to me that this is a problem to be worked on. At some point–like, after all my exams are graded and the students’ grades are submitted–I might get around to doing something about the common stuff, if only for my family’s use at home. At the moment, I just haven’t the time.

So, here’s a shout into the ether: anyone got anything?

Mind and Cosmos, Dazed and Confused

I’ve been intermittently reading Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos. Intermittently in part because, like, I have a life, in part because some of it’s dense and I’m not super-engaged in the materialist stuff Nagel critiques, in part because I’m busy reading lots of other stuff, in part because I’ve been brushing up on Hebrew a bit, and in part because I’ve got tests to write and work to grade.

I’m not coming at Nagel from any particular direction–I’m not one of the religious folks making common cause with him because of his critique of materialism as it exists on his (and their?) account, and I’m not on board with the folks Nagel is out to critique. I discovered the book after a retweet of a link to Leon Wieseltier’s discussion of the book on his blog with The New Republic.

But I do come at the book from an essentially humanist Jewish perspective, and I think Nagel’s critique captures a couple of important matters that we as humanists may miss from time to time. One of them is simply this: we don’t actually know everything, and it’s likely folly to think, however good our explanatory and exploratory tools, that our current methods for investigating the world are going to be the last word on any subject. The other is: as humanists and, frankly, rationalists, we err when we think that our rational apprehension of the world satisfies all.

Let me start from the second of those points. One of the things I think we miss out on when we are too humanist, too rational, is that religion serves a number of functions, and among those is a reflection of how peoples encounter the ineffable. (Note that I didn’t say the divine–what is sacred or profane is, I think, a matter of human definition.) Much of Nagel’s critique of both theism and materialism, it seems to me, is unsatisfying to his critics in part because it butts up against what religion has done so well–allow a path to speculate on the ineffable.

The reason, I think, Nagel has no firm or satisfying path forward is that we’re not at a point where we can rationally apprehend and discuss the zone of concerns that Nagel has about mind vs. brain. Might we in the future? Perhaps–but I don’t know, and neither, I suspect, do you. But that ineffable area of concern–we are remiss to disregard the role that religion plays in allowing us to apprehend and ease ourselves about that. (Not that this doesn’t get very, very out of hand at times–just that we are remiss when we disregard religious language as providing a set of tools to discuss that.)

That takes me back to the first point about explanatory paradigms. When I said “I don’t know, and neither, I suspect, do you,” I was thinking quite distinctly of a Kuhnian approach to science. Perhaps we will have a scientific advance that allows us to get at the brain vs. mind issues Nagel is concerned with–or maybe Nagel’s concerns are pointing up the kinds of problems that, on Kuhn’s account, lead to scientific revolutions.

In any case, don’t discount religion or Thomas Kuhn.