Friday, December 21, 2007

Chapter 1: Self-Understanding of Judaism

“Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.

Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in…

There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come of it. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.” (pg. 3)

Rabbi Heschel beautifully captures the essence of what I call “Simplistic Judaism.” It is unfortunately widely prevalent in the Judaism that I grew up with. I am in awe of his ability to put in a few short paragraphs a lifestyle and religious approach that I have battled against my entire life.

There is a Yiddish term, “A Pushete Yid” – a simple Jew – that connotes a person of deep faith – unquestioning – immutable - and unshakeable. This person will strictly adhere to all commandments, unquestionably follow anything his Rabbi (authority figure) will tell him and is highly praised as one of the strongest and most devoted of all Jews.

I want to be charitable and compassionate. I want to recognize this form of Judaism as “doing the best they can with the tools that they posses.” But I can’t help this sense of sadness that I feel for their fervently planting “a stone in the soil.” As Rabbi Heschel’s states, “It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.”

They are devout Jews who live normative lives of charitable deeds and strict adherents to the commandments. There is something to be said for this lifestyle when compared with the nature of man and the depths of depravity that we are capable of. However, they will never be able to bring it to the next level. The ultimate personal growth and creative force is out of their reach.

Which begs a different question. Are all people created equal in their growth abilities? There is no question that in regards to human dignity all people are created equal. But when it comes to potential and personal growth everyone must struggle and grow within their own parameters. For some that will end with Simplistic Judaism for others the striving will continue with Insightful Judaism.

A good question for future research is spiritual growth nurture or nature?


“Indeed one of the fatal errors of conceptual theology has been the separation of the acts of religious existence from the statement about it. Ideas of faith must not be studied in total separation from the moments of faith. If a plant is uprooted from its soil, removed from its native winds, sun-rays and terrestrial environment, and kept in a hothouse – will observations made of such a plant disclose its primordial nature?

The growing inwardness of man that reaches and curves towards the light of G-d can hardly be transplanted into the shallowness of mere reflection. Torn out of its medium in human life, it wilts like a rose pressed between the pages of a book. Religion is, indeed, little more than a desiccated remnant of a once living reality when reduced to terms and definitions, to codes and catechisms. It can only be studied in its natural habitat of faith and piety, in a soul where the divine is within reach of all thoughts.

Only those will apprehend religion who can probe its depth, who can combine intuition and love with the rigor of method, who are able to find categories that mix with the unalloyed and forge the imponderable into unique expression. It is not enough to describe the given content of religious consciousness. We have to press the religious consciousness with questions, compelling man to understand and unravel the meaning of what is taking place in his life as it stands at the divine horizon. By penetrating the consciousness of the pious man, we may conceive the reality behind it.” (pg.8)

I love how Rabbi Heschel speaks to people on both ends of the spectrum. First he tackled the inability of Simplistic Judaism to truly grow and take it to the next level. Now in these paragraphs he tackles the scientists and rationalists – the Richard Dawkins’s of the world.

He showcases the futility of studying religion in a vacuum. Faith and religion is too much a mind-body-spirit combination to adequately study it with only one discipline. It is the equivalent of examining a three dimensional entity with two dimensional lenses. The root core is lost in translation.

I love this sentence, “Only those will apprehend religion who can probe its depth, who can combine intuition and love with the rigor of method”.

It very much reminds me of playing Poker. The greatest poker players are not the mathematicians who can calculate the best possible odds. Poker requires knowledge of the odds, combined with a keen sense of intuition, ability to control one’s emotions and pick up all the human cues and clues that you opponent inadvertently leaves.

Poker has taught me that we pick up far more information than we can rationally explain. I happen to be very good at poker and just by watching how a player touches his chips or cards, by his expressions and words, by his or her choice of dollar amount; I can “feel” what cards s/he has. Yes, a lot can be rationally explained, but a lot more info is gathered by my mind then I can rationally point to, that goes into my intuitive process.

Religion is the same. A dry rationalist will be missing half or three quarters of the necessary information to see the whole picture.

Some more on the subject from Rabbi Heschel:

The Worship Of Reason

The way to truth is an act of reason; the love of truth is an act of spirit. Every act of reasoning has a transcendent reference to spirit. We think through reason because we strive for spirit. We think through reason because we are certain of meaning. Reason withers without spirit, without the truth about all of life.

Reason has often been identified with scientism, but science is unable to give us all the truth about life. We are in need of spirit in order to know what to do with science. Science deals with relations among things within the universe, but man is endowed with the concern of the spirit, and spirit deals with the relation between the universe and G-d. Science seeks the truth about the universe; the spirit seeks the truth that is greater than the universe. Reason’s goal is the exploration and verification of objective relations; religion’s goal is the exploration and verification of ultimate personal relations.

…There is, therefore, no rivalry between religion and reason as long as we are aware of their respective tasks and areas. The employment of reason is indispensable to the understanding and worship of G-d, and religion withers without it. The insights of faith are general, vague, and stand in need of conceptualization in order to be communicated to the mind, integrated and brought to consistency. Without reason faith becomes blind. Without reason we would not know how to apply the insights of faith to the concrete issues of living. The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence. The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith.” (pg. 18-20)

For a long time I have been battling with both sides of this equation the scientist/rationalist and the Simplistic Judaism/blindly faithful. They each made very valid points and would use their strength to dismiss their opponents. Rabbi Heschel brings forth poetically and precisely the heart of the matter.

The scientist/rationalist loudly proclaim, “The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith.” He is completely correct. He also can intuitively sense his righteousness on this point and it gives him the strength to dismiss his opponent.

The Simplistic Judaism/blindly faithful proudly proclaim, “The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence.” He is completely correct as well. He can sense his correctness and easily dismisses his opponent.

In my many discussions and debates with both parties I have tried to show them that yes their points are true and very valid but they are only half-truths. To truly grasp and understand the core of faith and religion one must posses both equally valid and true points.

In conclusion, in his first chapter Rabbi Heschel insightfully lays out the foundation of the necessary tools and pathways to understand HOW to search for truth within religion. To this point I am greatly impressed by his elocution and open minded, truth seeking, insightfulness. I am in complete agreement with his methodology and approach and I look forward to the next chapter.

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