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.

What is religion?

Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, who blogs as The Atheist Rabbi, has a new post responding to an article by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former head of the Reform movement.

I have very little to add to Rabbi Falick’s specific critique, so before you read what I have to say, tze ul’mad (go and study) what Rabbi Falick says. Go ahead–I made that link give you another window so you won’t lose your place.

You’re back? Okay.

Rabbi Falick makes the point that as Jewish humanists, we don’t reject religion–rather, we reject the confirmability and necessity of a vertical dimension to a separate divine being. Some humanists are atheists. Some are agnostic (don’t know) or ignostic (don’t think the question is relevant). Those answers all tend to lead to the same conclusion.

What is important is that the question of the existence of a divine being has, for us, no normative consequences. That does not mean that we reject normative principles–ethics are important, and independent ethical inquiry is even more important for humanists than for non-humanists because we don’t accept divine command-theory accounts of ethics and morality.

Religion is not only about the vertical connection of individuals to a divine other; it needn’t be about that at all, in fact. Spirituality is also not about that kind of connection. We are “vertically” connected to the entire universe beyond ourselves and other humans. We appreciate the glory and beauty of all that is, in all its varieties. We recognize the role of natural processes in the world and marvel at their power and complexity.

We don’t impute into them or derive proofs from them of the existence of a separate divinity. But we organize communities around appreciation of them, and we recognize their power and our power to shape and live within them. We believe in and appreciate the importance of our own role in that broader order.

As Jewish humanists, we look to the entire spectrum of Jewish life to help us infuse all this with greater meaning. We look–very often first–at Jewish texts, practices, and principles in forming observances.

All of this is religion. It is also all faith. It is all spirituality writ large. And it is participation in cultural and ethnic life.

What it is not is theism.

Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow

This article, on MyJewishLearning.com, has an interesting premise: the Pew survey (there it is again!) shows that most American Jews–even those that believe in God–are basically not observant, but nevertheless proudly identify as Jewish. The author, Joshua Ratner, suggests that it’s always kind of been like this, and maybe we should embrace that by focusing more on training a cadre of leaders and less on the kinds of outreach programming that has, so far, not been all that successful in getting the “Jew on the street” seriously attendant to Judaism as a religious life-system.

On the one hand, I sort of agree with this, because it’s true of many other groups–the interests of the group are often best advanced by leaders as opposed to trying to bring the whole group into a leadership role for itself. There are many reasons for this.

On the other hand, I worry that Ratner gives up a bit too easily because his focus is on Jewish religion (which he likely means as belief in and service of the divine). He, as other authors, sort of nod at the “cultural Jew”–Ratner actually says, “whatever that means.” If we’re getting people to engage–whether they engage in a theistic or non-theistic version of Judaism–we’re doing part of the job of being Jewish leaders and helping to perpetuate Jewish identity and Judaism in all its forms.

No, I don’t think you’ll drag people into Judaism as religion (as defined above). But you’ll get people into Judaism writ large–and that’s a good thing.

Plasticine prayers

So, I mentioned at some point on the blog that I’m a rabbinical student here. The current rabbinical seminar centers on the Jewish calendar, holidays, liturgy, etc. Among the items discussed last week was Shalom Auslander’s short story, “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Supremey.” In it, the protagonist creates two golems using instructions in Kabbalah for Dummies, and chaos ensues. Interspersed throughout the story are excerpts (translated into English) from various traditional Jewish prayers, with “Epstein” (the protagonist in the story) taking the place of the name of God.

It’s a hoot, though not for the religiously faint of heart (that’s true for a lot of Auslander’s writing). We used it in class as a way of leveraging into thinking about what prayers say and what, as Humanistic Jews, we should say in liturgical texts, because integrity of thought and speech is central to the movement’s self-definition.

This, plus reading for the next class session, brought me back around to thinking about the language of liturgy. I’m still unsure about how I think we should approach dealing with traditional texts and melodies from a humanistic perspective. One thing I liked seeing was a few texts from HJ services that recognized past practice and prayer, then turned to what we now say. But I’m a history buff (ask Mrs. Secular Jew in Indy about that), so that would appeal to me. And, of course, you can’t stick a “this is what we used to say” prefix onto everything–it’s not as though the reasons for the musaf service in traditional practice are persuasive for a humanistic Jew. (Heck, it’s not even persuasive for plenty of folks in the Conservative movement!)

Nevertheless, after seeing a number of HJ liturgical texts, I still think I would like to see a bit more in the way of adopting traditional forms into HJ liturgical practice. I’m not sure what that would look like–I actually rather like the adaptation of Shalom Aleichem that I’ve seen in HJ texts–but I’m sure I’ll continue to ponder this as time goes on and as I have more reason to communicate with other Jews about what I’m up to.

Yom Kippur – Say What You Mean

One of the things that, when I was in a more “mainstream” movement Jewish setting, frustrated me was the language of prayer. What I mean by that is the translations in most of the “liberal” are also themselves quite, erm, liberal vis-a-vis the original Hebrew; once I actually learned Hebrew, the highly artistic-ish English translations of say, Siddur Sim Shalom became very, very suspect because they are really not accurate.

Last night, I thought I would take a look at the (it’s the old one from 1972) Conservative mahzor on my bookcase (prosaically titled “Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” in English, and Mahzor L’Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew) to see if I could find anything interesting/inspiring/appropriate for setting a course on thoughts for Yom Kippur. After taking a quick spin though the Kol Nidre prayer and not really finding great inspiration there (it is, after all, a preemptive mulligan on vows for the coming year–nice, legal stuff), I went to the beginning of the Yom Kippur evening service.

Boy, did I find something. But, as is so often the case, it’s not what I hoped it would be. It was something way, way better.

After setting forth Deuteronomy 30:15 & 19 in Hebrew with a pretty decent English translation on the opposite page, we get this gem (my translation from the Hebrew):

Master of the Universe, Merciful and Forgiving Father whose right hand is extended to accept those who return, I have conducted myself according to the will of my inclination toward evil; I have rejected the good and chosen the bad. And not only have I not sanctified my limbs, but I have also made them unclean.

I will admit, it’s a rough translation, not great in the details and not artfully done (it’s early and my son is running around jabbering about VeggieTales). It is, however, something the Conservative mahzor is not; basically literal. The English on the facing page of the mahzor doesn’t even attempt a literal translation, instead including paraphrases like “Is there a person anywhere altogether righteous…? I am but flesh and blood, often yielding to temptation,” and “The struggle is ceaseless, the choice is ours.” (Mazhor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, p. 347)

The next few paragraphs all begin the same way: “barata bi”–“You [God] have created in me” various characteristics–a mind and heart to contemplate the good and to discern holy things, eyes that can see the universe’s beauty, etc. Several of them conclude similarly, too: “oi li ki”–woe unto me, for “I have followed my eyes and made them impure,” or “I have made my ears too impure to hear words of prayer.”

The English? “I have been created with eyes” or “ears” or “a mind,” but always passive, deemphasizing the clearly active voice of the underlying Hebrew. And the conclusion does not include the “woe unto me,” but rather says, “Often I squander God’s gift and look without seeing,” or “hear without listening.” (p. 347)

The problem–and it’s like this throughout the mahzor–is that the English is gussied up, sanitized a bit, and presented as if what we’re saying in Hebrew is what we’re saying in English. (Yes, it’s the older mahzor. Guess what? The Conservative movement’s approach hasn’t really changed much on translation over the last few decades.)

It is not. And if you care about the integrity of public liturgy–whether you want to call it prayer, shared ritual, or something else–that’s a problem. It’s a problem that the mainstream liberal Jewish movements don’t really deal with well, because they live in a strange world where the “sancta” of Judaism (Mordechai Kaplan’s terms) are largely preserved and retained in use, put into the mouth of the average congregant (or at least recited on her or his behalf), and yet are clearly not what the leadership of those movements understand their members as willing to affirm or have affirmed for them.

Yet on the High Holidays, when synagogue attendance quadruples (or more!), those most important of days in the calendar, shouldn’t we say what we mean? And for those of us who will or have taken leadership roles, shouldn’t we provide our fellow Jews with the ability to say what they mean?

This is a hard thing, without question, because it presents us with a challenge: how much do we preserve? What do we set aside? How do we do so in a way that respects a wide range of beliefs? And how do we do so for ourselves?

I think the place to start is by acting for ourselves. And so that is what I plan to do this year. As we move through the calendar, I will try to use or craft language that reflects what I actually think.

I recognize that this will be a challenge for me. It already has been, and we’re not through Yom Kippur yet. I still find awkward–because they are unfamiliar–the blessings for Shabbat and Havdalah that are in the Society for Humanistic Judaism materials. But I can’t in good conscience recite the traditional blessings, because I don’t believe in a god that directly created the universe or acts in history; and that is so regardless of how comfortable or nostalgic I find the traditional texts.

I am comforted, however, by a reminder that this isn’t the first time I have had to adjust to the new. In that timely way they have, Tablet Magazine published an article this week, “Learning Judaism as a Native Language Requires More Than Synagogue Once a Year.” It reminded me that I learned to play guitar awkwardly, at first, but became more natural over time. So, too, with Hebrew (and I’m still learning there). So, too, with the traditional prayers I know so well.

So, too, will this be. And it will be an adventure.

I’ll keep you posted. Hopefully, you will have or have had an easy fast, if you fasted. I wish my Jewish readers all the best in the coming year. (To my non-Jewish readers, too, but you’re likely not so preoccupied by Yom Kippur.)

And now, here in Indianapolis, the sky is a clear blue, the temperature is wonderful, and after this morning, we will be headed out to be in the world a bit to cap off the High Holidays.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah.

And now we’re back, or, “Witchcraft”

Here I am, back to thinking about liturgy and ritual.

I’ve been thinking about liturgy, practice, and taboo quite a lot these days as I consider what lies ahead for me.

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, studied at some point in preparation for Conservative rabbinical training, and am on a decidedly different path (though it is strange that some things old are becoming new once again for me; that’s something I’ll discuss as the time becomes right). My humanistic Jewish identification has made things interesting for me in dealing with my prior engagement with Judaism, as I suspect what I would do looks a lot more traditional than what many other humanistic Jews would do in terms of practice, liturgy, etc.

Example: a kippah. Many humanistic Jews would not wear one in any situation, because the point of the thing is to show respect for the God of Israel. I don’t think I’ll be in that category, not because I think there’s a need to show respect vertically, but because i think it helps, for me, to mark off time where I’m directly engaged in Jewish tradition. To do otherwise would, for me, feel uncomfortable (though not impossibly so–I’ve not worn a kippah lighting Shabbat candles in quite some time).

On the other hand, I would find it difficult to enter a synagogue–any synagogue–without slipping a kippah on my head, but the discomfort in doing so feels different to me. That is, if a building is a building is a building, which I recognize, then why the discomfort in entering certain buildings without a kippah? The answer for me is, I think, “simply taboo.” (Now get your witchy fingers out of my hair, Old Blue Eyes.) That’s probably my own issue to work through.

An issue for me and many other humanistic Jews to work through? Getting people in the doors and comfortable. And I think this means adapting pieces of the traditional liturgy so that the Jews we’re thinking belong with us–Jews whose beliefs and practices most closely comport without our own–are comfortable coming in and adjusting to services.

I’m very attached to the traditional liturgy and its melodies; I’m at least as likely to be humming some piece of the traditional Shabbat service (morning or evening) as I am to be humming a Springsteen song or a TV theme song. And I think others are, too, at least insofar as they expect to hear certain melodies and words in order to feel at home.

So, at least for my purposes, I’m thinking of adapting things to make them work for me and my family, because lighting candles without something to say is weird, I can’t say the traditional thing, and I don’t like the alternatives I’ve found.

I’m certain I’ll have more thoughts on this over the coming few weeks as I get a bit more exposure to some things. Hold that thought–I’ll be back around to this.

Do you speak my language? No Vegemite sandwich.

And with that flippant little title, to serious business about language games.

I’ve recently begun listening to a podcast on Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah from the rabbi at the Pacific Jewish Center (which bills itself as “The Shul on the Beach”), and finally wandered over to the shul’s website and the rabbi’s blog when I had a little time before a hearing. The rabbi, Eliyahu Fink, seems at least somewhat on the not-so-right-wing-end of traditional Judaism.

(I don’t really like calling it “orthodox Judaism,” let alone “Orthodox” with a big O, as I don’t agree that there is specifically one form of “right belief.” Nor do I think orthopraxic is quite right–because, again, of the normative implications there. Flame away if you like–I’ll just moderate your comments–though to be fair, I don’t have a big audience.)

In any case, the Mishneh Torah podcasts are incredibly interesting, and Rabbi Fink’s blog posts are interesting as well. Reading that led me to Professor Alan Brill’s also-fascinating blog, “The Book of Doctrines and Opinions,” which posted an interview with Tamar Ross, who teaches Jewish philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. Professor Ross is working on a theological approach to allow traditional Jews, who ordinarily accept the idea of Torah mi-Sinai (“Torah from Sinai”) view of revelation of the written and oral Torahs, that will allow some…modification?…of the idea in light of the results of biblical criticism.

Part of Professor Ross’s discussion involves the idea of the language game in Wittgenstein’s work, part of it involves Maimonides’s discussion of religious language and Torah imagery as “necessary truths” to allow people to speak about God and Torah, and part of it involves Rabbi Avraham Kook’s idea of progressive revelation. It’s interesting.

It’s not necessarily convincing to me, however. I don’t agree with Rabbi Fink’s take on it, which is that it’s not particularly useful for many people–I think it fits rather nicely in the more traditional ends of the Conservative Movement, for example, though I do agree that it probably wouldn’t suit those farther down the spectrum.

My objection is that it’s just too mushy. The position Professor Ross takes is, it seems, partially this: we have to respect the results of criticism, but what we’ll say is that scripture is revelation, just not actual speech–since, of course, we know from Maimonides that divine speech per se didn’t happpen–and so our subscription to faith is something of a language game. (This reminds me of MacIntyre’s choice of Thomist Aristotelianism because, eventually, you have to make a choice of some kind.)

But acknowledging that you’re playing the language game brings significant normative implications when you’re talking about a religious system.

Part of what comes with the language game is a claim about reality: the thing in itself has nothing to do, really, with the name we give it. So what does it mean if we say that we can play a language game with religious concepts like revelation? I’m not sure we can in the way Professor Ross wants to. Shifting the “meaning”–that is, the underlying concept to which the word “revelation” points–seems like a clever trick more than a real grapple with the underlying problem of what Torah mi-Sinai really means.

And it’s what Torah mi-Sinai really means that is the problem. Even supposing you shift the referent from literal spoken Torah to something like what Professor Ross is up to, you haven’t really addressed the problems posed by the old or the new referent, namely, that revelation (if it happened) didn’t happen that way.

What’s the normative implication of this? If you ground your notion of obligation to act upon the literal truth of a means of revelation, and that account is capable of being undermined, what portion of the obligations must you now consider optional? To the extent portions of your normative expectations depend upon material later determined to be compromised by scholarship, do those expectations fall away?

The problem, I think, is that you have to pick a version of scholarship to go with, and scholars can be wrong. Responsible scholars would likely acknowledge that nothing is certain–the explanations are simply the best ones they are able to offer.

That is, in the end, I think the problem is not scholarship–it’s revelation. But that’s a different matter altogether.

A (not-so-brief) reaction to a Skirball podcast with Neil Gillman

On my drive to work one recent morning, I started listening to a series of interviews with Professor Neil Gillman of Jewish Theological Seminary. The Skirball Center in New York had put out these lectures as podcasts around 2008. (I’m behind a bit on podcast consumption.) Part of the discussion centered on Professor Gillman’s reaction to the storm of “New Atheist” books that had appeared on the market in recent years–works by, e.g., Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc. Professor Gillman made a statement that struck an odd note for me–that the New Atheist thinkers were making straw-man arguments that were not really reacting to all theists, but primarily to the newer forms of fundamentalist religion. Part of the analysis Professor Gillman offered was that, to his thinking, the New Atheists were actually not all that in-tune with what liberal theology had to say. I suppose we could infer that the New Atheists would have nothing to say to the larger body of liberal believers.

I’m not convinced this is entirely fair to all humanists, thought it is often fair of the positions taken by Hitchens, Dawkins, et al. More troubling, I think, is Professor Gillman’s articulation earlier in that podcast of the “God is when” idea.

The idea is twofold. In modern lives, the divinity is only present when we invite it in, and we most often invite it in at those moments where the usual mental and psychic debris of our lives clears away so that we have something like a pure encounter with whatever it is we are observing/experiencing at the time. So the divinity is brought in when we invite/perceive it to be there–it seems the two would be the same process. Thus, for Gillman, god exists at those times. Or, more properly to his thought, god is present at those moments (Gillman adopts something of the Maimonidean tack that god is so radically other that descriptions of the divinity are somewhat beside the point).

This is an attractive idea for a humanist, as it seems to return to our control the concept of the divine. But Gillman’s approach doesn’t really do this. For as the series of talks goes on, Gillman continues to presume not only the existence of the divine separate and apart from the world, but also that the divinity cares about the world (though he does recognize that this is human language attempting to describe something very not-human). Later, when he discusses revelation, Gillman makes the argument that the Bible’s descriptions of god and the encounter with the divine are necessarily attempts to express that encounter language available to the Israelites at various stages of biblical history.

Gillman takes for granted the existence of a transcendent divine being, one outside of history that cares about what happens to us, and this assumption has normative implications. And that is problematic for a humanist–not necessarily for a naturalist (which is how Gillman describes himself), but certainly for a humanist. For while Gillman’s thought locates some amount of authority in the Jewish people, it stops short of locating all of the authority for Judaism with the Jewish people.

This, I think, is where even a quite liberal theologian like Gillman opens himself up to a humanist critique, for at least two reasons. First, Gillman’s approach is somewhat have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too: there is both divine authority and human authority, and the normative claims ultimately derive from an experience of the divine. Second, as a logical matter, it is difficult to see how Gillman overcomes the no-ought-from-is problem–and this is generally true of all theistic approaches.

To his credit, Gillman recognizes that there is a tremendous shift toward individualism among Jews and others, where individual members of the community take up the obligation of defining their own identities and relationships with Judaism. (A version of this of which I am fond is at punktorah.org, though I don’t quite fit there because I’m just way to square and establishment for that.) His willingness to say, “I need a minyan” is an example of this kind of crafting; but his unwillingness to say that he feels free to redefine very much of Judaism left me feeling that his approach falls just tantalizingly short of something that more secularly-oriented Jews could use as a guide.

Nevertheless, I still find myself looking to Gillman’s work as a valuable resource, if only because it reminds me of where I came from (Conservative Judaism) and where I’m going (someplace where the existence of god is just not that important a question).