Procedural vs. declarative Judaism

If you don’t listen to the New Books Network podcasts, you are really missing out. Get thee to thy preferred podcast app and subscribe!

One of my favorites from the network (and I subscribe to a bunch of these) is the New Books in Big Ideas podcast. The most recent of these is a conversation with A. David Redish, author of The Mind within the Brain, which discusses the various kinds of memory and cognition, decision-making processes, and the problems that may arise with all these.

During the podcast, he and the host, Marshall Poe, discussed procedural vs. deliberative (also known as declarative) cognition and how these affect decision-making processes and human behavior generally. Prof. Redish mentioned that you learn to do new things–basketball was the example, but there are others–through a process that initially engages the deliberative/declarative systems but then moves toward ingraining those things into the procedural systems of the mind.

It was a fascinating discussion, especially because I really have very little background in psychology. (Come on–I went to grad school for religion, law school, and worked in IT. Something had to give! I also know very little about art, for what it’s worth.) And it got me to thinking about what my misgivings and comfort levels are with traditional prayer in a less traditional Jewish context, and why halakhic observance (or heck, remembering that I don’t actually want to eat very much meat) is so difficult for newcomers.

One of the tricks of procedural memory/cognition is that it engages the dopamine feed into our brains, which is why athletes talk about disengaging your conscious thinking and talk about being “in the zone.” My experience with the traditional prayer services is like this–I can get “in the zone” where I’m executing (in a technical manner) and feel really comfortable. But that doesn’t happen when I stop and read the words.

Actually, it does–but it engages the “in the zone” feeling for reading and translating Hebrew, rather than the “in the zone” feeling for reciting the prayers. The problem, of course, is that when I’m in the Hebrew zone, I remember that I don’t actually agree with the contents of the prayers. And I think this explains why I and others sometimes feel uncomfortable with the different liturgical approach of Secular Humanistic Judaism. (In my rabbinical school class a couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Chalom explained this as we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t–people don’t actually agree often with the content of the prayers, but they refuse to allow change.)

This actually has me feeling pretty optimistic about my own ability to adjust out of the unease I feel with some of the liturgical challenges of Humanistic Judaism. Eventually, I realize, I’ll “get there.” The challenge will be making myself practice differently until what is deliberative becomes procedural.

I think many of us approach Judaism this way generally. “Why do we do it this way?” “We’re used to it.” “That’s absurd, don’t you think?” “Sure, but it’s how we do it!”

That covers a wide range of issues; in the liberal Jewish movements, we all “know” that many of the biblical texts aren’t literally true. Yet Rabbi David Wolpe (a Conservative rabbi) got in some trouble at a Passover seder when he said something like, “The Exodus didn’t really happen,” and was upbraided not because the audience disagreed, but because they just didn’t want to hear it in context–like that’s dirty laundry we ignore in public.

So the challenge for many of us will be, in the future, shaking up that procedural memory. Seems like it will be an interesting challenge.

No, I’m not rebelling against the old man in the white robes

I’ve been reading Dr. Ron Wolfson’s Relational Judaism recently, and I was reminded of a trope I’ve heard from philosophers/theologians of liberal Judaism on several occasions (Neil Gillman is among them), as well as apologists for more traditional views of the divine.

That trope is: Atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc., don’t really not believe in a deity. It’s just that they don’t believe in the “Old Man in the White Robe with a Long Beard” version of God. Well, neither do we! And also, there are no atheists in foxholes.

It’s not that I think that we are all there is; it’s just that, absent knowledge that there is anything else, we are left to act as though we are all there is.

I also heard something like it just this morning during an interview with Mary Eberstadt on the New Books Network about a recent examination of the history of secularization. Eberstadt pegs secularization, in part, on disruptions to family structure and the cognitive results of that disruption upon the ability to “get” the traditional, paternal view of God in orthodox Christianity and “orthodox” Judaism. Eberstadt and the host of the podcast, Marshall Poe, take some shots at the New Atheists whom they, not without reason (see, e.g., Christopher Hitchens, whose writing I love but whose thought I often do not), accuse of not “getting” the communal values religious practice and community brings to the table.

So I want to take some time to state where it is, as a Humanistic Jew, I come from on these issues. And I want to start by making it very clear that I think the “there are no atheists in foxholes, and I also don’t believe in that kind of God” trope misses the point for me.

I don’t care that much about the question of whether there is a God. It’s an interesting philosophical question, but it’s not factually susceptible to proof.

More important is that the answer to that question is, essentially, irrelevant for me, because my observation of the world tells me that a view of God that places he/she/it directly active in history is something that I simply must reject. I cannot have faith in–that is, express allegiance and fealty to–a being that has power over the world and does not intervene in great trauma, causes trauma as a “test,” grants trauma to those who are able to “handle” it, is unable or unwilling to act to alleviate suffering, etc.

Proof, incidentally, is not citation to a tradition’s texts. It’s not showing me examples of how various traditions share common concepts. The “authoritative” text goes only so far as one accepts the authority of the text itself, which is why “John 3:16” signs don’t work for Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. And the common concepts are great–except that there are plenty of common concepts that we reject.

I also cannot have faith in a being that we are told we cannot understand, can describe only in the negative, and yet to whom normative prescriptions are attributed, which normative prescriptions we must obey in order to be moral.

That’s a long way of saying: God’s existence cannot be proved, God’s intervention in the world cannot be proved, and God’s moral authority cannot be proved. Thus, the idea that individuals must have faith that the prior three things exist, pay fealty to that idea, and act in conformance with the moral codes that are set out in service of that faith is an idea I reject.

I’m not someone whose only encounter with concepts of God is the traditional version. I spent six years of my life studying religion directly, and will likely be spending significant portions of the next four years doing so as well. I’ve flirted with plenty of ideas and approaches to religion, to faith, and to God.

But I keep coming back to the fact that there’s no proof, empirically or philosophically, and that we’re left to figure this out on our own. It’s not that I’m rebelling against the old man, or that I’ve had prayers denied. It’s just that, when I look at the situation with my own eyes, I can’t accept the idea that we should cede our own power over the world to the non-provable.

It’s not that I think that we are all there is; it’s just that, absent knowledge that there is anything else, we are left to act as though we are all there is.