Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

Starting Points

As promised a while ago, I’m still here and will continue to post.

Posting will be a bit intermittent for a while yet, I think. We are, in some sense, trying to rebuild our lives a bit. And at a new starting point, I’m thinking about any number of starting points. This post is bit of reflection on that idea.

Starting Point, the First – Crisis

For those who’ve read the blog for a while, you’re aware that my son, Secular Jew, Jr., (let’s just use SJJ here for now) is autistic. (If you’ve not been reading for a while, you now know.) Over the last couple of months, we’ve seen a number of setbacks for SJJ–dramatic aggression, lost coping skills, lost communication skills–that in retrospect appear somewhat tied to medication issues, but that also seem to have been building for the last year or so until reaching a breaking point in late April. He’s been hospitalized in inpatient treatment centers twice in the last month, with the total inpatient plus waiting-in-the-ER time coming to about two weeks. The last of the two stays overlapped with his tenth birthday.

It’s been a horrifyingly difficult time for us–for him, unable to get across his needs and sometimes being ragingly angry, and for us, unable to do what parents are supposed to be able to do: to fix it. And the gap in services–medical, mental health, therapeutic, etc.–has been frightening and frustrating and enraging and depressing, because there are so few resources for parents dealing with autistic children in their extremes. Fortunately, we had enough support and resources to start to get back on track. Lots more behavioral therapy coverage has been approved by our insurance company, a new doctor is involved, and family was in town to help absorb some of the emotional blows of an earlier-than-expected release from the second inpatient facility. (And I’m beginning to wonder whether my insurance card will just spontaneously combust at some point from overuse.)

In short: we’re at a new starting point. Full-time therapy, no public school, no summer camp, a new schedule, and new challenges.

Starting Point, the Second – Identity

But putting SJJ into hospitals twice, with very limited visiting hours (generally an hour per day) during those visits, allowed Mrs. Secular Jew (MSJ) and I time we ordinarily would not have. And so, I had time to consider my own starting points.

The first time I had to consider these was when we checked SJJ into the first hospital. Hospitals ask about your religious preferences when you are treated inpatient, so they can (if you want) match you with a chaplain. Both hospitals just had an open box with religious preference–you write it in.

So, what would I put? (Somehow, though I insist to MSJ that just because I’m a lawyer doesn’t mean I’m good with paperwork. My job is more involved with tearing paperwork to shreds than with filling it in. Yet still, I do most of the paperwork.) None? Humanist? Jewish? Something else?

My decision: “Jewish (humanistic).” And I declined chaplaincy services. To my knowledge, there aren’t many humanistic Jews in the Indianapolis area, and I know who the Jewish chaplains in the area are and just didn’t feel like I would want their services. And SJJ, who has limited communication skills, wouldn’t get much from chaplaincy services in any case.

Mishnah Berurah - halakhic text (photo of book)

Mishnah Berurah

Did I write what I wrote because that was the easiest thing to do? Probably–the likelihood of it just confusing chaplaincy staff and encouraging them to let us be drove some of that decision. But the answer reinforced for me that, wherever I end up, I know where I start: with Jewish sources.

Starting Point, the Third –  Coping

Continuing on, it turns out that when your home life is oriented almost entirely around raising a special-needs child, you actually don’t know what to do with yourself when that child is gone. Or at least, we didn’t. So combined with the fears and concerns we had, all centered on a child who has suddenly changed in a dramatically negative way, we were faced with a vacuum in the conduct of our daily lives.

So we went out to dinner. We visited SJJ every chance we had. But when you’re accustomed to waking up to find that your child is in bed with you (again!), and wake up in a different state, it’s very disorienting. And it’s guilt-inducing to intentionally do things that are fun, because it’s not what you think you should be doing at that moment–even though you know you need the break.

I was in some ways almost paralyzed into anxiety and introversion by all this change. Decisions just didn’t matter, and I didn’t have a lot of interest in making decisions anyway–our son wasn’t home, and we were both exhausted. Yet I was waking up several hours before I needed to leave for work.

This is where I reached another starting point. I had to remake a daily routine that would at least begin to fill in gaps. I didn’t really know what to do with that time in a way that wouldn’t leave me perseverating on the troubles we faced–that our happy, funny kid had turned almost overnight into a desperately unhappy, angry, raging, violent person.

And so I did something I hadn’t done in years. I laid tefillin.

Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

“Wait!,” you might say. “You did what!?” (At least, if you’re a secularist/humanist/Yiddishist/etc.) So, let me explain.

I needed some kind of thing that would structure the day. That thing was usually helping get SJJ ready for school in the morning, but that wasn’t happening. I was up several hours early. And I needed a way to use the time to get my head screwed on right so that I could do the work of the day. I needed quiet; not the quiet that came with a suddenly empty house, but a reorienting quiet where I could work out my own “stuff.”

Meditation Room Window - stained glass nature image

Meditation Room Window

The building I work in has a meditation room. It’s labeled that way. I know, I know, it’s a chapel, right? But no crosses, or stars, or crescents. Some secular artwork? Yes. There are Bibles and Psalm books on some shelves in the back. But there are no religious services conducted there, other than the occasional employee-organized Bible study or prayer circle. Our employer does nothing in that space; a private organization separate from my employer maintains the room.

In short, it’s a quiet, warm room with some chairs. It’s not often used early in the day.

And I start from a Jewish point. It’s what I know and where I’m comfortable. So I constructed a weekday ritual around laying tefillin in the morning. I sometimes used a siddur, but engaged in a significant pick-and-choose process: I’d say one thing, omit another, change another, to express what I wanted to express. Or I would study something–part of the weekly Torah reading, or some halakhic text in Hebrew–to still my mind and transition from the trouble of home to the focus of work.

What I wanted to express was just the hope that we would be reunited with enough improvements to move forward. I didn’t ask anyone or anything supernatural to intervene, and I didn’t expect it. I still don’t. I didn’t pray. I still don’t.

But I needed a thing to do, and I needed a place to do it. I still love the core liturgical texts as poetry. I love Hebrew. And so doing something that would look to an observer like a very “traditional” Jewish thing to do–after all, tefillin were found at Qumran!–was what came naturally.

Starting Point, the Fourth – Moving Forward

Where does this all leave me now? Laying tefillin and studying a Jewish text–part of the siddur, or the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch yomi, or Mishnah Berurah yomitmost weekdays has become kind of centering for me. Even on days when I don’t lay tefillin, which has taken up a kind of “worry beads” meaning for me, I study one or both of the daily Kitzur or Mishnah Berurah in Hebrew. They’ve had no normative effect on me–I don’t do anything different, and many times I recoil at what the texts say about treatment of non-Jews. And, as before, I continue to try to read the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew, as well.

What am I not doing? I’m not praying. I’m not keeping kosher, observing Shabbat in a halakhic manner, or observing yom tov. When I’m burned out, I’ll stop without guilt, because what I’m doing isn’t something I perceive as being commanded in any way. It’s a balm.

MSJ and I talk about my new practice as “davvening,” since that’s what it looks like to the outsider. But it’s not what’s happening on the inside–and, if you look closely, you see that it’s not what’s happening on the outside. But it makes me feel better, and it lets me stay connected to parts of Jewish culture and history that resonate for me emotionally, though not intellectually or normatively.

And that’s what I need right now as a starting point.


So, I’ve been a bit lax in posting recently. In part, I’ve been busy with various other things–Passover, classwork, grading student papers, working, parenting, etc. But in part, my podcast consumption has been down. I usually find something of interest in podcasts, but I just wasn’t listening to them as often because, during the winter, it can be hard to concentrate on driving safely and on keeping continuity of attention on the podcast. With winter mostly over, though, I’ve got a bit more mental bandwidth during commutes, and podcasts are coming back into the listening diet.

I subscribe to a number of podcasts–lots of New Books Network podcasts, some Jewish-oriented ones, some humanism-oriented ones. I try to enjoy what I find, but in the humanist-oriented podcasts, especially, I find this difficult because much of it is shrill and self-congratulatory.

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Jewish Food and Humanistic Ethics

Rabbi Adam Chalom, rabbi at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in the Chicago area and dean of the U.S. division of IISHJ, posted this entry about the Jewishness of food as well as fasting. As I “turn[ed] it and turn[ed] it” (Pirke Avot 5:22) in my head, as well as other Humanistic Jewish writing about the status of issues of food and kashrut, I was reminded of a discussion I had in graduate school with one of my professors about the effect of the laws of kashrut on non-Jews. This conversation stuck with me, and I’m going to reflect on that and the ethical problems associated with maintaining kashrut.

(For my more traditionally-oriented Jewish readers: by now, you must have figured out I’m more or less a raging apikoros; I’d have to be to cite Torah and Talmud to reach the results I do. You won’t like what’s after the jump; I think you need to hear it, but you’ll likely disagree. I’m not picking a fight; it simply is what it is.)

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Autism, inclusion, and theodicy

(I will freely admit that this post is largely an emotional reaction. Tough. Go read something else if that bothers you.)

The “Daily Reyd” feature at Rabbi Gil Student’s Torah Musings blog has a link to an article at the Orthodox Union’s website. Titled “The Gabbai With Autism: A Living Lesson In Inclusion,” the article talks about Eli Gorelick, a young man with autism who serves as one of several gabbaiim in his congregation.

I will first say that the synagogue’s ability to adapt to Eli and to effectively welcome him to lay leadership is–or should be, anyway–a model for inclusion for those able and willing to serve with accommodation. I have no quibble at all with any of that, and it’s precisely that kind of thing that we’re missing in so many other places.

My problem, of course, is going to be the theodicy piece. Eli’s father is himself a rabbi, and when one of Eli’s siblings asked his father why God made Eli the way He did, the answer was, “Hashem wanted us to do chesed for Eli.”

And that, dear reader, is when I decided it was time to take the day’s lunch break.

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Why a Manual for Creating Atheists Isn’t

I’m hoping to publish in another forum a more detailed review of Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, so my comments here will not be especially comprehensive. But I was, in some important ways, rather disappointed with the book, and I want to express a bit of that disappointment here.

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Constructing a Pitch for Humanistic Judaism – Part I – Rationalism and Mysticism

(This is the first in a series of posts on my thoughts about pitching–both as a public proposition and in a more musical sense–Humanistic Judaism. This post will discuss what I think the challenge is Humanistic Judaism faces in gaining traction among American Jews. In the coming posts in the series, I’ll think a bit about how we might do that, and how we might pitch Humanistic Judaism outside our own circles–particularly since Americans don’t do doctrine much in their selection of a religious community.)

(Note that while I am a rabbinical student at IISHJ, I’m speaking here for myself–not the school, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, or the Association of Humanistic Rabbis.)

Last November (it seems like ages ago, so much has happened!) I went to a retreat for rabbinical students that was sponsored by Clal‘s Rabbis Without Borders. (Many thanks to Rabbi Chalom at IISHJ for encouraging me to go.) Students from various denominations and seminaries attended–Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (an “Open Orthodox” yeshiva), Jewish Theological Seminary and Ziegler (Conservative-affiliated schools), the Academy of Jewish Religion (nondenominational), HUC-JIR (Reform), RRC (Reconstructionist), ALEPH (Renewal) and IISHJ.

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I’m sympathetic, but unconvinced

Tablet Magazine has an extended article about David Silverman, who heads up American Atheists. The topic of the article: why Silverman insists that atheism and Judaism are incompatible.

I’m sympathetic to his position. But I don’t agree.  Continue reading


Nothing profound for the moment. Just this link to an article on Tablet about Thanksgivukkah food. Specifically, turkey-stuffed donuts and taquitos, one with deep-fried turkey, brussels sprouts, cranberry, and gravy, and another with latkes, apple sauce, and sour cream.

There is no part of me that is saying “Yum” to any of this right now. I am, however, wondering when–or if–this newly-found acid reflux will die down.

Now, if Mrs. Secular Jew could persuade a donut place to use her cranberry relish as a filling…

Words have meaning

Jason Torpy, a board member of the American Humanist Association, in response to media coverage of the atheist church in the UK writes here about the use of “religious” or “spiritual” language. He argues that humanists are a bit too sensitive or “allergic,” as he puts it at one point, to innocuous or apparently inoffensive uses of religious language.

I appreciate his misgivings; I share some of them. But I don’t share all of them, and, more importantly, Torpy’s writing gives no real guidance on what might be acceptable or not.

For example, he points to a Franciscan blessing, “May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world, so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done,” and says that you could make the line more humanist–but why bother, because the God stuff doesn’t really make a difference.

Except that it does. That language matters because it attributes to someone else responsibility for the subject’s success or failure to do “what others claim cannot be done.” Indeed, on the language of the blessing, it is only because of God’s grace that “what others claim cannot be done” can be done.

Why, then, is that Franciscan blessing any more acceptable to Torpy than the “In God We Trust” slogan or the “under God” language from the Pledge of Allegiance? These are both invocations of God to which Torpy objects.

(For what it’s worth, Torpy’s distinction appears to be a willingness to accept some religious language unassociated with the “culture wars.” But his reading of the Franciscan blessing makes even this principle troublesome because his approval of the line is essentially that it’s not really religious.)

Humanists and atheists (these are not identical categories) are often far too quick to reject the value of many religious and spiritual forms and uses of language. But whether rejecting or accepting, the rationale for doing so should be clear and not based merely on what one finds personally inoffensive or not troublesome.

Fitness, Ethics, and Humanism

It’s been a while since I’ve done any significant ethical navel-gazing here, so the time seems ripe.

Actually, it’s not too navel-gaze-y.

Over at Kyriolexy, there’s a post about a supposed moral requirement that individuals be physically fit. The author points out that, broadly, society uses the sometimes-compatible languages of virtue and pathology to talk about physical fitness, and criticizes the combined use of that language because of how it intersects with how we also talk about (especially) perceived mental disability.

As the parent of an autistic child, I’m sympathetic with the author’s account. At age 9, we really don’t know where our son will end up, how, and even what his capabilities are now because of his limited speech and self-expression compared to his neurotypical peers. And so, we’re reluctant to put demands upon him when we don’t know what he is capable of.

I do differ from the Kyriolexy post as it relates to the virtue–talking in philosophical ethics mode, that is–of physical fitness. And I think that difference comes because I am the father of an autistic child. But I think my objection to the Kyriolexy post would exist even merely as a parent. But that difference led me to think about what it is, exactly, motivates ethics in humanism. I have long thought that the more Platonic views of ethics (e.g., Kant, or others who posit absolute universal duties, with or without certain requirements for intent along with the action) are troublesome because they posit universality–of both place and time–of things that are essentially contingent, that is, conduct in dependent upon places and times.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I think, from a humanist perspective, some combination of utilitarianism and virtue ethics is probably appropriate. And I would point to the physical fitness question as an example of this.

Do I think all persons at all times and in all circumstances must necessarily be (or endeavor to be as though it’s required of them) physically fit? No. I don’t even think that all persons who are physically capable of doing so must necessarily be or endeavor to be physically fit. That is, I don’t think there is an ethical duty to do this.

But I do think that doing so, if you can, is virtuous and maximizes utility. Virtuous because it has the capacity to make the person happier (in the philosophical ethics version of happiness). Maximizes utility because the costs of being unfit reduce one’s own happiness and also impose upon other persons more broadly the costs of being unfit.

We know, for example, that obesity is associated with widespread inflammatory processes, which appear at least to correlate with increased morbidity and mortality from medical conditions associated with inflammatory processes: heart disease, hypertension, some forms of cancer, diabetes, etc. In epidemic levels, obesity that results in increased morbidity and mortality from inflammatory process-related diseases imposes significant social costs. For those who can be physically fit, doing so reduces the imposition of the associated costs–in very incremental fashion–upon others. It also reduces the imposition of the associated harms upon oneself.

When one is a parent, the costs of unhealthiness are also imposed upon children who have no capacity to address the problem themselves. So, if a parent is capable of reducing her or his own level of unhealthiness and increasing her or his own level of fitness, doing so maximizes utility not only for society broadly in reduced cost, but children in terms of parents who are able to be around, on the whole, longer, provide better care, and provide examples of the sort that will encourage health among their children. That, in turn, can compound the benefits.

Do I think that there are valid ethical claims upon me, as someone who is capable of being more fit, more healthy, and therefore less costly both to society and my son, to become healthy and/or fit? Yes, both from a utilitarian perspective and from a virtuous perspective. But I don’t accept that there is some universal maxim that imposes that upon me; I should do these things, but I need not.

Nevertheless, and pace Kyriolexy, I think there are some normative claims that can fairly be put upon some individuals to be more fit.

Discourse about that is another matter. I think the problem Kyriolexy addresses arises, in part, when we speak in unqualified fashion about things like not having an excuse for being unfit. It’s about broad social messaging; we speak in deontological terms, particularly in mass media but also in more individual-level discourse, and assume others to be similarly situated. I think, from the perspective of Kyriolexy’s hypotheticals, broad discourse fails to properly take into account exceptions and the very real limitations of each situation.

I’m not sure what the solution to that would be for the broader forms of discourse that trouble Kyriolexy. Clearly broad forms of discourse need to take into account the need not to shame, and they need also to be careful about what they convey about ability. Ideally, this would affect how individuals speak, too.

I’m not optimistic about the latter part. Because unless one very carefully and intentionally crafts their discourse, it will almost always be overbroad and transgressive. Most people–including Maria Kang, I suspect–don’t craft their discourse to exclude from its normative scope those individuals who, if pressed, the speaker would not have intended to include within the statement.

How do we fix that? I would turn to Greg Epstein’s book, Good without God, as a guide. Epstein’s view of ethics starts with the proposition that we should act from love–love for our fellow persons, in whatever their state. And I think that absolute moral propositions in the Platonic/deontological mode–which make sense when we talk about law–don’t proceed from love, but from judgment. And they largely fail to be persuasive as a result.