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Reconciling Judaism

AM I A JEW?

I am the wicked son who asks at Seder, “Why has the Lord commanded you to observe these customs?” “Wicked” because I exclude myself from the group of Jews. I have not become the “wicked” son over the course of a bitter life. As far as I can remember, I have always excluded myself, not just from Judaism, but from every group. I am the existential outsider. Except that no matter how I view myself, the Jews continue to include me and view me as a part of their quite exclusive group.

Being included by a tenacious group like the Jews, who have miraculously survived over the course of thousands of years when so many other groups of people have been buried under the rubble of history, nettles, yet energizes, the core of who I am. It even causes me to question that core. I have recently completed one novel called “Prague Spring,” in which I wrestle with the issue of whether or not I am a Jew. I am now beginning a second novel in which I will take up the same question from another point of view. This blog is a way for me to record my extraneous, non-novelistic thoughts, as I continue to try to reconcile myself with being a Jew.

DO ABSOLUTE RIGHT AND WRONG, JUSTICE AND INJUSTICE EXIST?

While writing “Prague Spring” I continued to ask myself whether right and wrong, justice and injustice, are relative or absolute concepts.  If I believed in the God who handed Moses the Ten Commandments, the answer would be easy.  What is just and right is absolute: it is decided by God.  Yet I not only do not believe in the God who handed Moses the Ten Commandments, I do not think I believe in any God at all, at least not one who has the slightest interest in what happens to humanity. 

There are more philosophic ways to approach the question, though, even from a Jewish perspective.  More liberal-minded Jews might say that the Ten Commandments are written in our hearts–think DNA.  These moral edicts are instinctual.  And perhaps some of them are.  That, however, still does not answer my question regarding the relativity of right and wrong, justice and injustice.

One example that has continued to run through my mind has to do with “terrorism.”  Let us hypothetically assume that one of the men who executed the destruction of the Twin Towers managed to escape and return home to a people who revered him and regarded him as a hero.  And that he lived his entire life being regarded as a hero.  Would he not in essence have commited a just, heroic act?  If that is hard to swallow, let us try to turn the example around.  Let’s consider a group of Jews, such as the ones who blew up the King David Hotel when they were fighting against the British for their independence.  These terrorists were heroes to the Jews, but not the British.  Who decides if an assassin’s act is right or wrong?  God?  If so, whose God?  The Jewish God, Christian God, Muslim God?  Or does the person who commits the act decide by the way they feel afterward?  Yet, might not a man of conscience feel differently about committing violent acts than a man with less of a conscience or no conscience at all? 

From my readings and questioning of various experts, it does not seem to me that Judaism or any other religion has an answer to the question of absolute guilt or innocence.  Existentialism, I think, leaves it up to individuals and how they feel about acts they have committed.  Yet there is always the question of conscience.  People without consciences can feel no remorse about hurting others under supposedly moral or immoral circumstances.  Therefore, in my opinion, existentialism is only a valid moral code for people with consciences, and since the world is made up of many people without consciences, existential doctrine certainly should not be applied to the question of justice for all.

The question I think is whether the words exist to define an objective sense of justice.  It has been said that justice is defined by the victorious.  If Hitler had won World War II, then the murder of the Jews would have been considered just.  Perhaps when all of those who had conspired in the murder of the Jews had died, some discussions about whether it was a truly just act might have been ventured upon.  As we now talk about whether what we did to Native Americans was just, now that it is too late to prosecute the guilty.  Today one of the hot topics is whether what the Israelis have done with the Palestinians is just.  A very complicated discussion, and one I defy anyone to try to answer satisfactorily, with as many words as the Torah and Koran contain,  for both sides.   Issues that are seen through diametrically opposed points of view are impossible to contain in words, since those words will have such different meanings to those on each side of the issue. 

THE WORD

So it is the Word itself that has come to interest me in my new novel.  It has been said that God created the universe in a thought–that His one thought is the creation, and we live in a state of Grace because He continues to think the thought.  If He did not, all would vanish.  This divine thought, of course, has parallels to the Word of God.  Jews were the first people to worship the Word, while denying the worship of anything else that could be embodied in an image.  Before the Torah even existed, Jews embraced a singular God whose Word was truth.  Probably the first distinguishing act of Jews was to deny the images and idols worshipped by those around them.  Even the Word itself was considered dangerous, since it could be perceived as an image, and so God’s name could not be uttered. 

RELIGIONS AND THE GODDESS

And yet it was because of not simply the Word, but many, many words strung together in a book, that Jews exist to this day.  The Torah was written in exile, after the kingdoms of the Jews had fallen, and it reinforced the concept of worshipping that which is insubstantial.  A very unique idea, which then spun off many other religions who wrote their own books to worship.  For me all of these religions have something in common that is troubling: their core values are made up of denial.  They claim to deny that which is sinful, yet for all of these religions (here I include Judaism, Christianity and Islam) the feminine is the embodiment of sin.  Judaism, the father of Western religions, was founded upon the rejection of worshipping the Goddess Astarte.  For the earliest Jews, she was far more dangerous than any of the other “pagan” gods.

Now (and here is where I think I can bring a unique perspective) many books have been written proclaiming the superiority of goddess worship, and, of course, many more books have been written over the course of history explaining and defending the concept of sin inherent in these Western religions.  Pretty much anyone who gives this subject any thought is staunchly on one side or the other.  Either they believe that women should be separated from men in holy places of worship, that women should remain hidden from the eyes of men who are not their husbands, and that the feminine spirit is a darkness that should be carefully contained; or they are modern, and believe that women should be liberated from that old nonsense.  My beliefs tend to fall with the latter, modern group, but I am still opened to questioning the initial reasons why the Jews were so frightened of the worship of goddesses.  What were they afraid of unleashing, and have we in fact unleashed it?

WHAT IS IDOLATRY?

“Idolatry is the manipulation of the imagination for controlling the masses by means of an image of the world built upon meaningless promises and threats.”  Idolatry by Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit

This brings us to the subject of idolatry, which almost seems ludicrous to modern people, because we have abandoned all of the strictures of the ancients.  Our women are not covered, in fact they are very uncovered, open to be idolized by strangers, often welcoming it, and the reason for the  initial Biblical concern of remaining a virgin for marriage is no longer even an issue.  And yet, even though the ancient commandments against idolatry were very tied up with sexual concerns, fear of adultry or women straying in some fashion (note: always women, nobody cared what the men did, unless they allowed themselves to be swayed by some Jezebel, the original sin, Eve handing Adam the apple)–fear of adultry or women straying in some fashion is no longer an existential concern.  It has declined in value to being a bother, annoyance for both men and women who have been cheated on.  In fact it is routine.  And I don’t think I want to get into the morality of that issue.  Better left for today’s psychologists.

My question then becomes what do the commandments against idolatry mean to modern people?  Although idolatry was formulated with sexual metaphors, it did not simply concern sex.  The fundamental commandment was not to worship false gods.  But the temptation to worship those gods (or in many more cases goddesses, Astarte to be specific) came from our yearning for beauty, which has not diminished in modern man; quite the opposite, it has multiplied big time, since we have images of beauty everywhere we look.  Growing old and losing one’s beauty is a traumatic event in our modern Western cultures.   Yet is is not just human beauty that overwhelms modern people.  We are exposed to arts and travel so that we can witness the beautiful places in the world that often inspire artists.  We are as obssessed with aesthetic beauty as we are with human beauty.  Many of us are torn with yearning, wanting to possess beauty, to be beautiful, to create beauty.   How many stories have you read (or seen on TV and the cinema) about a person wanting to chuck it all and go to some island to paint or write or find their god or goddess in some pristine realm?  A place where the body is not pulled away from aesthetic concerns from daily bodily bothers.  I think we’re touching on something Platonic here, but I’d best leave that for now or get even more sidetracked than I tend to get.

So let me get to the question I wanted to ask: if God (and that includes most gods from most religions) did not want us to worship idols, why did He endow us with such a deep and yearning sense of aesthetics?  Why are we so drawn to beauty if he did not want us to have it?  Many answers come to mind, but the logic of them all seems to fail.  We were given an aesthetic sense to worhship Him and we must choose to turn away from all the other things that tempt us.   And there are others.  We were given the sense of beauty to choose a mate and then we should turn it toward God.  If I had panel of Rabbis, I’m sure they could come up with thousands of answers.  I’m not sure any of them would satisfy me though.  To some degree I can get a perspective on Biblical times, when Jews were commanded not to worhsip Baal and Astarte, and then there were those sex rites in the temples of Astarte (or supposed sex rites, since I have read feminist writers who think that’s mostly male fantasy).  Men were supposed to worship God and women worship God through their husbands.  That is pretty much a dud in modern society.

Another question I have on the point of idolatry concerns those first Jews who began to create art in the 18th Century.  Were they idolaters?  Their Orthodox parents probably thought they were.  And yet are we willing to say that the world would be better off without Mahler or Pissaro or Chagall?  If we agree that what Modigliani did in producing his nudes was not idolatry, then how did the concept of what idolatry comprised change in  a matter of a few short years?  Can we then say that idolatry has a different meaning to each new generation?  Can we say that the worship of idols is a meaningless commandment, even though it is part of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and from what I have heard (but don’t know first hand) Hinduism and Buddhism.  Did all these wise old sages get it wrong, or do we need to rethink what idolatry means to us?

One possibility is that we are all idolaters and since we have nothing to compare ouselves to, we don’t even know it.  It does bring up a problem, though.  Since the radical Islamist extremists are calling us idolaters and that would make them right and us wrong.  It would also make their ancient laws concerning women right and our liberal views toward women wrong.  It’s not a position I’m ready to admit to, since it just feels wrong in my gut.  Still I am having trouble defending our side, at least following the logic I have been following.  Either the commandment against idolatry changes with evolving generations, and we must figure out what it is in its essence, or the commandment against idolatry is meaningless, at least to us moderns, or the Islamists are right and they represent the true path.

I have just finished a book called “Jezebel,” by a feminist Jew who turns that whole story on its head.  She presents Jezebel as a modern, sophisticated lady and Elijah as the radical fundamentalist extremist who comes out of his hole in the desert to proclaim that this modern woman is a whore, not for her sexual activities, but for leading the Jews astray.  Her own personal beauty, and the beauty she surrounded herself with, especially the Astarte goddesses and the Astarte temples, were too much of a temptation.  In the book “Jezebel,” one must seriously question Elijzah.  He is not a character we can easily identify with.  We must also question his view of women and what he believed their role ought to be in society. 

Yet questioning Elijah is tough stuff as a Jew.  Especially if one believes he spoke for God, which, of course, would have made the weight of his words an entirely different matter.  Still, all religious fanatics claim to speak for God.  Granted, what Elijah had to say was new.  Nobody had yet claimed to be in a chosen relationship with a jealous god.  Previous gods had been easygoing about their worshippers’ promiscuity toward dieties.  But those who repeat today what Elijah had to say several thousand years ago say nothing new.  In fact it’s very tired stuff in our modern world.  Is it less true, though?

So many wise men have specifically warned against idolatry, or worshipping idols and images other than god, whichever god those wise men claimed to be speaking for.  So I get the sense that it is an important issue.  Yet what can it possibly mean to us, a people who are immersed in images of all kinds?  I, for one, am someone who cannot imagine a world without art.  A place without music, art, movies and even TV would seem an empty place to me.  Interestingly, it seems that art and religion were created at about the same time, approximately 60,000 years ago.  We know because that is when the oldest cave paintings have been dated to, and also when people began to be buried with icons for their journey ahead.  Life after death and religion go hand in hand.  No way around it.  Personally, I don’t even consider life after death as a possibility, but I won’t rule it out as a good way to kick-off philosophical wonderings.  So either all of us modern first-world people are lost idolators, or idolatry must have some deeper meaning, must have to do with something more than going to museums, watching movies and not being able to take our eyes off Victoria Secret models on TV.

I am now reading a book called “Idolatry” by Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit.  They propose that even though the issue of idolatry is couched in sexual metaphors in the Bible, the fundamental issue of idolatry in Judaism has to do with our compact with God.  God is called a jealous God in the Bible, and idolaters are compared to women (not men!) who cheat on their husbands.  But Halbertal and Margalit say that this metaphor is simply a way to give us understanding of the import of the act of idolatry.  The fundamental issue is that Jews are God’s chosen people, he led us out of the desert in the Holy Land, and for that we owe him our fidelity.  I have a few problems with this reason for not committing idolatry.  First I do not feel chosen by God, but then a lot of Jews would tell me that’s my problem, I’m chosen whether I like it or not.  But more importantly, science seems to indicate that the Jews were never really led by Moses out of Egypt.  Jews were Canaanites who emerged with a different view of their position in the world.  This is an interesting line of thought that I’d like to follow, but it does not cement my feelings about fidelity to God.  If he never led me out of Egypt, is there really a compact?  Or would modern progressive Jews reinterpret that compact in a less literal way?  And if they did, what would they consider idolatry to be in our modern world?  I’ll be looking into that as I continue to research my new book.

Idolatry In Modern Times

We live in an ironic world, to say the least.  Many of us living in the “first” world are more wealthy and live longer than virtually everyone from the past.  Because of the world’s growing population, however, billions of people live in utter despair.  This separation of the haves vs. the have-nots has been growing exponentially as societies have developed.  Certainly the ancients had their underclasses and slaves who lived miserably, but today’s numbers of relatively wealthy people versus those living on the edge of starvation and death are staggering.   The scale has become so large it is pretty much unthinkable for most of us.  We know this because we see images in the media.  But then we see all sorts of images in the media.  To a great extent we are all (even many of the world’s poor) products of the media.

In any case, if there were a God, and he did have a plan for humanity, it seems to be based on selfishness.  From a scientific Darwinian point of view, selfishness makes total sense.  We are all programmed to thrive and survive.  If there are billions of people sluffed off from evolution’s progress, well, that’s the way DNA progresses.  It’s not a pretty thought, so most of us try to think of things that are pretty, or at least aggrandize our egos. 

Yet it seems most people in  the world do believe in some sort of god.  And of course that god must have a plan or else he/she wouldn’t be much of a god.  A lot of people see the chaos in the world as a prelude to paradise.  Pretty much everybody has to die to attain that paradise, but hey, paradise is paradise.  Another little glitch in most peoples’ religioius beliefs is that only ”they” (i.e. those who worship their particular god) will attain paradise.  We wealthy, idol-worhsipping first worlders will get our comeuppance for our selfishness.  I can buy that; it seems fair.  But what about the billions who’ve been scrabbling to live from day to day?  Those who can’t read and don’t know anything about the god who’s going to deliver paradise?

No matter what god you believe in, the world sucks from somebody else’s point of view.  Let’s face it, no god seems to answer the fact that if there is a plan, it seems like a really, really bad one.  So I’ve got to put this grand-plan-paradisical god aside for the moment.   The fact that morality does exist, however, cannot be denied and is a pretty interesting fact.  Everybody, from the most wealthy to the most miserable, seems to have some sort of concept of morality.

So I’m going to revert to the liberal-minded concept that the Ten Commandments (and god) is in our DNA.  That makes sense to me on a number of levels.  Without getting into the “intelligent design” craziness, which has been co-opted by the Creationists (i.e. Biblical Creationists, which just seems silly, since following that logic we’d have to throw out almost all modern science) on the one hand, and the reactionary academics on the other hand (who want “just the facts m’am,” and refuse to deal with the sheer mathematical impossiblity of utter randomness leading so quickly to the complexity of life on earth), let’s just say that the possibility of metaphysics being programmed into our DNA is not beyond modern logical consideration.  (I am beginning to blog on “intelligent design,” and I think that blog will eventually intersect with this blog.)

If the Ten Commandments is part of our DNA, then clearly we’ve got two opposing forces programmed into us: idolatry, on the one hand, and the commandment against idolatry, on the other.  From where I sit, idolatry seems to be on a meteoric rise, especially since we have all these modern contrivances to promulgate idols.  As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say we are unabashed, unashamed idol worshippers.  American Idol is one of the most popular TV programs.  We’re not trying to hide it.  We not only want to worship idols, we want our chance to become idols whom others worhsip.  Talk about your Astarte temples!  A quick way for a woman to be worshipped is to participate in pornography and have that sent all over the internet.  I don’t think there is any argument–we are deep into idol worship.  So, what about the countervailing force, supposedly built into our DNA?  How is that evident in our modern society, besides from the fringe elements of radical fundamentalists?  (In this category I include Christianity and Judaism, as well as Islam.)   It’s something I’ll consider later.

You Can’t Root For The Bull

A number of years ago my wife and I went to a bull fight in Arles, France.  It was a Spanish-style fight where the bull was killed.  We watched the bull get wounded and bloodied by the picadors and my wife became upset.  Then one of the picadors got gored, but the bull fight continued.  As the bull fighter pulled out his sword to kill the bull my wife and other women left.  My wife said, “I feel like rooting for the bull.”  That’s the thing about bull fighting, though, no matter how angry it makes somebody to watch a poor animal be tortured and slaughtered, you cannot root for the bull.  We are human and so is the matador, and watching another human get injured is much more painful to us than watching an animal get injured.  Empathy for other humans is in our DNA.

What else is rooted in our DNA?  Certainly murdering people, considering all the people throughout history that have been murdered by other people.  However, very few people can committ this act individually.  They need to be part of a group to do it.  So murdering people in a group is in our DNA as well as individually feeling sorry for people who are hurt.  I’m sure it can be argued that these traits are not really in our DNA, but culturally learned.  For my purposes, though, if certain traits can be traced throughout known human history, I’m just going to say they’re built into our DNA.  Considering how fracturous these debates are, I’ve probably got at least half the social and evolutionary psychologists on my side, anyway.

So, both murdering people and feeling sorry for harmed people is in our DNA.  In other words, diametrically opposed forces exist within us.  I guess that’s nothing new: sin and redemption, God and the Devil, etc.  Yet, certain fairly negative traits (at least from our moral Ten Commandments stanpoint) seem to come out of us when we’re in groups, while other positive, life-affirming traits seem to be more individually expressed.  Perhaps always individually expressed, even if we express them in groups. 

In Biblical days, idolatry seemed to have been a mass phenomenon.  At the very least, the belief in idols was propogated by the masses.  It seems, though, that idolatry was mostly practiced in groups, worshipping at temples or bowing en masse at the foot of the golden calf or obelisk.  As far as I know, an individual, personal relationship with God didn’t come around until the Jews.  So, perhaps I’ve stumbled across a corrolary here: that one way idolatry can be distinguished from other behavior has to do with individual worship (or thought, or whatever you choose to call it) vs. personal worship or thought or whatever.  One of the pitfalls of this notion, however, following it’s logic to reductio ad absurdum, is that we masturbate alone and feel quite ecstatic at the time.

Perhaps I should leave sexuality out of this discussion for now, although there is no avoiding it forever, since sexuality is at the heart of idolatry.  We idolize that which we covet and idolatry sets us free to pursue our covetous desires, at least in the broader sense of the concept.

I just posted a quote from the book Idolatry that says, in essence, idolatry is a way to manipulate the masses with empty promises, which means that idolators do not get what they have barained for.   By “masses” the writers are talking about the ignorant masses for whom the Bible was written.  People who need their morality bundled up with a ribbon around it.  Who are those masses today, though, when most everybody is educated and knows exactly what they’re bargaining for?  If an educated person, even a religiously schooled educated person, who is not one of the so-called masses, chooses to pursue “empty” pleasures, doesn’t that person get exactly what he/she has bargained for?  Or have we all been manipulated with empty promises?  Are we all the now the hapless masses, no mattter how educated and how opened our eyes are?

The Human Condition

The human condition began approximately sixty thousand years ago.  That is when our large brains began to create sophisticated things.  There are all sorts of theories about why the brain became its present size about a million years ago but did not begin to distinguish itself from “lower” primates until about sixty thousand years ago.  I won’t get into those here. 

The evidence that we began creating sophisticated things are found in artifacts found both inside and outside of graves and art drawn on cave walls.  Because artifacts were put into graves it is assumed that art and religion began to develop at the same time.  We can reasonably surmise that music and language also began to develop around that time.  In other words, as we began to develop as humans we began to create images and concepts about the world that can be associated with idolatry.  In a sense one might say that the human race was born as idolators.  Ironic, huh?

So are these religious rules against idolatry telling us that we should deny our humanity?  Or are they a way of telling us that we should try to transcend our present human condition?  Empirically we could deduce that both are true.  Religions have encouraged us to deny our humanity by telling us to suppress our basic urges of sexuality, jealousy, hatred and other supposedly negative emotions.  Religions have also tried to teach us a more civilized and peaceable way to live.  They seem to be as dualistic as the human condition itself.  Well, they were concocted by us.

If we were to focus on the acts of human creation themselves, without taking into consideration human motivation, they too seem to have a dual nature.  We have created things of enormous beauty as well as unimaginable destructiveness.  So are the commandments against idolatry meant to curb only the destructive aspect of human nature?  Or is the thinking behind banishing idolatry like Plato’s when he bans poets from his Utopia?  I wonder if it is possible for humans to suppress our creative forces, whether they be sublime or destructive.

Or perhaps the commandments against idolatry are not telling us to suppress our creative spirits but to channel them toward a God that cannot be seen, imagined and whose name cannot even be spoken.   Or, leaving out God for those of us who don’t believe, simply to channel our creative spirits into the ineffable.  Those would be our higher creative spirits, since no religion has yet banned human reproduction.

Suggesting the ineffable is the job of the arts.  Music can create feelings that can’t quite be put in words.  The visual arts express mental tensions beyond verbal expression.  But I believe literature and especially poetry (since technically the ineffable has to do with that which cannot be expressed in words) can lift us to a more complex level of sublime expression.   For me the question that most directly relates to the subject of idolatry is whether this expression is human or transcends humanity.

Milton was not the only artist to say that his expression came directly from God.  If it is merely human, that is something particular to human beings that we simply haven’t been able to come up with words to define, then I think it can be argued that appreciating the arts can be related to idolatry.  If artists, however, are expressing something that comes directly from “God,” then perhaps they are tapping into something that transcends humanity and expresses a truly “universal” truth.  In that case it is possible that the arts that express something extra-human (and that is a very small percentage of the potboilers, kitschy paintings and overly sentimental tunes out there) are not the subjects of idolatry.

If I am referring to “good” art, then there is always the question of what is “good” art.  Let’s just assume for now that it exists and that it expresses a higher level of thought and emotion (or an amalgam thereof) than “bad” art.  Is it possible to prove that it expresses extra-human or “Godly” sentiment?  If it were possible, then we might be able to argue that the appreciation of beauty does not necessarily have to fall under the category of idolatry.

What might this be and where would it come from?  In my other blog about intelligent design I talk about the patterns that might have been inherint in the creation of the universe that are then repeated (or expressed in some way) in our DNA.  That the basic patterns of life are an expression of universal patterns.  I also mention that simply because ontological patterns exist in the universe does necessarily mean there is an intelligence that created these patterns.  The strange scientific discoveries of the Twentieth Century such as quantum physics might lead us to think about an effect without a cause.  We might not need a Prime Mover any longer or a Creator.  Perhaps the intelligence is simply in the patterns.  Perhaps God is not the creator but can be found in the creation.

I know this thinking is not particularly new.  It has been suggested by philosophers like Spinoza and the Transcendentalists.  Yet we have scientific information that these earlier thinkers did not have.  We have the theory of relativity that says that space and time are subjective and that it is possible for an effect to precede its cause.  Our physical thinking has been turned upside down, why not our metaphysical thinking too?

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