Zombies and the Borders of Human Consciousness (June 27th, 2013)

Zombies climbing a wall — scene from World War Z.

I must be honest with you. I am an aficionado for zombie movies. Brad Pitt’s new zombie film, “World War Z” is based on Max Brooks popular trilogy by the same name. Horror films often give us a rare opportunity to examine our deepest questions about the nature of our existence, of life and death, and life beyond death.

But are zombies merely mythical creatures? Do they or do they not exist?

While rabbis across the world may wonder, “Who Is a Jew?”—on this night of Halloween, I am going to pose the question: “Who Is a Zombie?” Are zombies “human,” or are they something “Other” than human? The question has profound implications not just in the sphere of science-fiction, philosophy, religion—but also in the area of medical ethics.

The 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes viewed animals as machine-like creatures, bereft of a soul. Every aspect of the animal could be explained in terms of its physical “mechanical” movements. Descartes even entertained the idea of a mechanical person what we could call today, a robotic being. How would one differentiate such a creature from the “real deal”? For one thing, the machine would never be able to spontaneously formulate sentences; its non-verbal behavior would also be limited. (Bear in mind that the rabbis arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the artificial being known as the “golem,” for it too was incapable of human speech.)

“So what is it that defines our humanity?” asks Descartes—it is the presence of the immaterial mind, the soul, which interacts between the brain and the other organs of the body.

But this raises an important question regarding the nature of “personhood,” (to use the more modern terminology). At what point does a human being, cease being “human”? If we apply Cartesian philosophy to our question, it might very well be when our brain ceases to function adequately.

Could this apply to zombies as well? (Not that they care very much about our deep philosophical deliberations!)

Of course this begs the question: Do zombies really exist? Or, are they merely mythical creatures created out from Hollywood?

In general, many mythic stories of primitive peoples have some sort of basis in fact. This principle would apply to zombies as well.

Ever since I watched that great movie, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” I have been fascinated with this question. Harvard botanist, E. Wade Davis and Dr. Lamarque Douyon, Canadian-trained head of the Psychiatric Center in Port-au-Prince, have been trying to establish the basis for zombies, and according to them—they do exist![2] By the way, the book is much better than the film!

Haiti is a remarkable country; much of the contemporary folklore concerning zombies originates in Haiti—but there are legends about zombies that really go back to ancient history. Davis narrates the following story:

On a brilliant day in the spring of 1980, a stranger arrived at L’Estère marketplace in Haiti’s fertile Artibonite Valley. The man’s gait was heavy, his eyes vacant. The peasants watched fearfully as he approached a local woman named Angelina Narcisse. She listened as he introduced himself, then screamed in horror—and recognition. The man had given the boyhood nickname of her deceased brother Clairvius Narcisse, a name that was known only to family members and had not been used since his funeral in 1962. This incident was witnessed by more than 200 people!!

Well, it looks like the zombie can speak—and respond to human questions!!

You might wonder, “What could possibly turn a person into a zombie?” I have other questions as well, like—where did this man eat for the past 18 years, McDonald’s take out? What kind of music groups do zombies listen to? The Grateful Dead? (Sorry for the pun!)

Well, in both the movie and in real life, there is a coma-inducing toxin that comes from the voodoo priest (known as “bocors”), which slows the human metabolism. The sources for this toxin “textrodotoxin,” come from: New World Toad (Bufo marinus), and the Japanese “Puffer Fish,” which is considered to be a delicacy in Japan—after the toxin has been removed. The chemicals of these ingredients can affect both the heart and the nervous system. In Japan, thousands of miles from Haiti, those people who have accidentally consumed the puffer fish toxin behave—well, a lot like zombies—Japanese zombies, I might add.

Godzilla, move over!!

Experiments on rats have proven that the drug can induce a trancelike state as well. So, what does this all mean?

For one thing, zombies do not have an appetite for eating human brains. But there is some scientific evidence that certain drugs can induce the famous zombie-like state. So, would a person be guilty if he killed a zombie, according to Jewish law? Based upon the evidence these two scientists have shown, a “zombie” still remains within the category of a human being. Kabbalists believe there is a residue of the soul that lingers in the body after death. Could this explanation apply to zombies?

BEYOND THE QUESTION ABOUT ZOMBIES . . .

However, there is one lingering question regarding the nature of a “person” that is still a difficult to ascertain. Would a person still be considered “human,” even if s/he is in a chronic vegetative state? The case of Terry Schiavo is an excellent example of someone whom the State declared as “clinically dead,” while the family who loved her claimed that she was still “alive,” and even allegedly, “responsive.”

About six months after her life-support was turned off, and while she was also starved by order of the court, Discover Magazineproduced a fascinating article that made special mention about people like Terry Schiavo, who suffer from the chronic vegetative condition.

Here is one part of the Discover Magazine article that I thought was especially interesting.

  • In the 1970s, when intensive care dramatically improved the survival of brain-injured patients, doctors found that if the body can be kept alive, the brain usually shakes off a coma—a totally unresponsive, eyes-closed state—within two to four weeks. At that point some people simply wake up, although they may be delirious and impaired. Others graduate to an in-between zone that New York Hospital–Cornell Medical Center neurologist Fred Plum labeled the “persistent vegetative state” in 1972. At the time, among these patients, it seemed as if only “vegetative” brain functions like breathing, waking, and blinking were working. The higher functions commonly associated with consciousness seemed to be lost.
  • The first vegetative patient Schiff saw, the victim of a stroke, had no sign of consciousness. But when he ran into her three years later at a rehab center, he was shocked to find her awake and capable of talking to him.
  • The patients, doctors found, usually had widespread brain damage, but two injured areas were especially noteworthy: the thin outer rind, called the cortex, and the thalamus, a pair of walnut-size lumps in the brain’s central core, along with the neural fibers that connect these regions. The two areas are normally in constant cross talk, filtering and analyzing sensory data and making continual adjustments to attention and alertness. Lacking this chatter, someone in a vegetative state seems to be awake but not aware. They might moan and shift around, but they do not look toward a loud hand clap or pull away from a pinch. Given a feeding tube and basic medical care, someone might stay in this condition from days to decades, potentially until death. [3]

Well, as science progresses, it is only a matter of time before it can finally resolve this ethical question regarding the chronic vegetative state that we have heard so much about. Questions regarding the quality of life–even if such person should be revived from the chronic vegetative state–needs to be ethically weighed and considered by the family. If the patient has no quality of life, it is possible that reviving such a person may only cause indefinite suffering. Would this be something desirable? There is a season for everything under the heavens . . . sometimes we need to let go of the people we love. The dignity of the patient is something we must also take into consideration.

Obviously, the border separating consciousness from death are questions worthy of a Solomon to answer. In one of the symposiums I organized and participated in, I argued that ultimately—we may know a lot about the human body, but we still know very little about the nature of consciousness–where it begins and where it truly ends.

====================

Notes:

[1] R. Descartes, Discourse in Method, c. 5.

[2] Time Magazine, “Zombies: Do They Exist?” Oct 17, 1983,
www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,952208,00.html – Similarto Medicine: Zombies: Do They Exist? – TIME – Time Magazine

[3] Discover Magazine, Kat McGowan, “Rediscovering Consciousness in People Diagnosed as ‘Vegetative,’” March 2011; http://discovermagazine.com/2011/mar/09-turning-vegetables-back-into-humans/article_view?searchterm=Terri%20Schiavo&b_start:int=3

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The Man of Steel Movie & Our Loss of Innocence (July 1, 2013)

File:Superman.jpg

As a child of the early sixties, I could remember watching the George Reeves’ Adventures of Superman show on television.

Back then, the show did not feature super-sized villains like those that we have grown used to seeing over the past thirty years or so. No, Superman generally fought against a garden variety of thugs, scientists with super weapons, e.g., a hypnotizing machines, robots, Episodes follow Superman as he battles gangsters, thugs, mad scientists and non-human dangers like asteroids, robots, and malfunctioning radioactive machines.

My immigrant father from Czechoslovakia used to fear that I would try to jump out of a window in an effort to fly. Yes, those were the days kids used to wear a tow and make believe they were actually flying. He never cared for much of the fantasy world comic books promoted, but for a young child, Superman taught me much about the psychological archetype that is associated with being hero. When I was a young child, Superman also taught me how the mighty need to treat life with reverence–a quality I would later associate with the Albert Schweitzer. In retrospect, Superman lived by a biblical ethos that teaches us that every human being is made in the Divine Image (Gen. 1:26). For a young Jewish child enamored with the Golem stories of medieval Jewish tradition, Superman seemed much more of a role model than the Golem.

Each incarnation of the Superman character evolved. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, featured a charming reinterpretation of the Superman mythos and as a young adult, I watched every show. The story-lines featured super-powered villains, a dangerous but charming Lex Luther, and a cute looking Lois Lane. Then came Smallville, which focused on the adolescent life of a young Superman. This was definitely the best of the television series programs I watched over the decades. Superman seems to have grown older, much like you and me.

When The Man of Steel movie came out, I discovered there was hardly a seat in the theater. Obviously, the film was well received by generations of Superman fans. After watching the reincarnation of General Zod, Krypton’s well-meaning but ruthless general, I was curious how Superman would dispose of his enemies. Then the makers of the Man of Steel movie threw a curve ball at me—Superman breaks General Zod’s neck, thus killing him. I had expected that Superman would have zapped Zod back to the Phantom Zone, or at least to The Twilight Zone—a show that was contemporaneous with the original Adventures of Superman of the 1950s.

Superman had always represented the ideals of “truth, justice, and the American way.” He always treated even his enemies with considerable humanity—even though they relished at the opportunity of killing our Kryptonian hero. Put in simple terms: Superman has never killed. Yet, in 2013, Superman does indeed kill. What kind of message does this say to our young and very impressionable children? One wonders whether a child may break another child’s neck the next time boys play Superman and General Zod. Somehow, I do not think my father would have approved of this postmodern version of Superman.

Now, my rabbinical training teaches me that anyone who threatens the life of another—how more so the lives of many—may be stopped by any means possible, even if it means murdering the assailant. Policemen make such ethical decisions on a daily basis whenever they see a robber or a thug endangering the life of an innocent. General Zod threatened to re-terra-form the earth, and in doing so, he threatened the lives of an entire planet. (If General Zod had such a machine, one wonders why he didn’t choose to terraform Mars or Titan instead—or some other exo-planet in this vast universe, but I realize such questions would render the Man of Steel movie meaningless.) With a little more forethought, the writers should have had Superman zap General Zod back to the Phantom Zone, until he would come back again at some future date for another episode.

Superman’s traditional reverence for life vanished in a heartbeat. Somehow, I think Superman was not the only one who lost his innocence, perhaps we all did by cheering our hero as he dispatched his foe to oblivion.

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The Egyptians Get Rid of a Modern Day Pharaoh (July 6th, 2013)

Mohamed Morsi’s downfall

 

The following are the stages by which the Israelites journeyed up by companies from the land of Egypt under the guidance of Moses and Aaron. — (Numbers 33:1)

The biblical narrator lists 42 stopping points beginning with Egypt. Some of the mystical commentaries make a penetrating observation: The journey toward the Promised Land did not occur in one stage, but in forty-two stages.

Why did it take so many stages? They suggest the following answer: Although the Israelites had experienced physical freedom from bondage, their souls felt as though they were still enslaved to Egypt.

In reality, the slavery of the spirit is much harsher than physical slavery because its lingering effects can last at least a lifetime, if not longer.

Hassidic scholars observe that the name מִצְרַיִם “Mitzrayim” derives from the root mir, signifying “anguish,” “boundary” and “narrow place,’ e.g., “From a narrow strait, I called out unto God and He answered me with divine expansiveness” (Psalm 118:5).

According to Hegel, there is a cyclical dimension of history. We often re-experience the memories of our ancestral past in different but somewhat similar patterns.

Nearly 3000 + years later, we are witnessing a different kind of Exodus in the land of Egypt, but this time it does not involve the Israelites, it involves the Egyptians themselves.

After the Arab Spring that began in December of 2010, little did the world realize the changes that would take place in the Middle East. What characterized the “Arab Spring,” was the relatively bloodless nature of the uprisings against government that have been stable for decades.

Say what you will about Mubarak, although he was considered a tyrant by many of his enemies and foes, he kept the peace with Israel for over 42 years. That is no small accomplishment, and when he departed, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly took advantage and won the election—placing Mahammed Morsi in power.

This sympathies to Arab extremists like the Salafist, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and other groups were obvious to the Israelis; attacks across the Sinai quickly began, and Hamas was determined to take advantage of their man in Cairo.

But the people of Egypt deserve respect . Morsi acted like a leader who wanted to impose Shiria Law on Egypt’s largely secular society. He did nothing to better their economies; his secret police behaved no different from Mubarkak’s.

The difference between Morsi and Mubarak reminds me of an anecdote about two brothers. About 150 years ago in the wild west, there lived two brothers, who were well for their crooked business dealings and underworld connections. They acted as ruthlessly and cruelly as one might expect.. One day one of the brothers died, and the surviving brother wanted to give his dead brother a funeral fit for a king. He called the funeral home and made all the arrangements, then he called the town’s minister and made him an offer, as they say, he couldn’t refuse. He said, “I’ll give you $10,000 to put that new roof on the church if, in eulogizing my brother, you call him a saint.” Back then, $10,000 was like $200,000.

The minister agreed. The whole town turned out for the funeral, and the minister began: “The man you see in the coffin was a vile and debauched individual. He was a liar, a thief, a deceiver, a manipulator, a reprobate, and a hedonist. He destroyed the fortunes, careers, and lives of countless people in this city, some of whom are here today. This man did every dirty, rotten thing you can think of. But compared to his brother, he was a saint!”

Yes, Mubarak was bad, but now the Egyptian people realize that compared to Moris, Mubarak was a saint!

This time, the Egyptians said to Morsi, “We will expel you as our leader,” and the military got rid of him.

The synchronicity of this event is astounding—it happened on the week of the 4th of July.

When we look back at our history as Americans, we had the benefit of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other patriots were men who not only fought a revolution –all of whom were brilliant thinkers in their own right. They articulated a passion for the public good and thought that all private interests were secondary to it.

But what about the Egyptians?

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained that every leader and government has a social contract with its people. It has to act ethically and responsibly toward the governed. Otherwise, the people have the right to dispose of their leader, for he has broken the social contract.

This is indeed, one of the most important historical moments of the modern Arab world, one that could potentially spell the end of all the Arab theocrats who wish to keep their people’s souls and minds enslaved to the 7th century.

CHULA VISTA, California — The following are the stages by which the Israelites journeyed up by companies from the land of Egypt under the guidance of Moses and Aaron. — (Numbers 33:1)

The biblical narrator lists 42 stopping points beginning with Egypt. Some of the mystical commentaries make a penetrating observation: The journey toward the Promised Land did not occur in one stage, but in forty-two stages.

Why did it take so many stages? They suggest the following answer: Although the Israelites had experienced physical freedom from bondage, their souls felt as though they were still enslaved to Egypt.

In reality, the slavery of the spirit is much harsher than physical slavery because its lingering effects can last at least a lifetime, if not longer.

Hassidic scholars observe that the name מִצְרַיִם “Mitzrayim” derives from the root mir, signifying “anguish,” “boundary” and “narrow place,’ e.g., “From a narrow strait, I called out unto God and He answered me with divine expansiveness” (Psalm 118:5).

According to Hegel, there is a cyclical dimension of history. We often re-experience the memories of our ancestral past in different but somewhat similar patterns.

Nearly 3000 + years later, we are witnessing a different kind of Exodus in the land of Egypt, but this time it does not involve the Israelites, it involves the Egyptians themselves.

After the Arab Spring that began in December of 2010, little did the world realize the changes that would take place in the Middle East. What characterized the “Arab Spring,” was the relatively bloodless nature of the uprisings against government that have been stable for decades.

Say what you will about Mubarak, although he was considered a tyrant by many of his enemies and foes, he kept the peace with Israel for over 42 years. That is no small accomplishment, and when he departed, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly took advantage and won the election—placing Mahammed Morsi in power.

This sympathies to Arab extremists like the Salafist, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and other groups were obvious to the Israelis; attacks across the Sinai quickly began, and Hamas was determined to take advantage of their man in Cairo.

But the people of Egypt deserve respect . Morsi acted like a leader who wanted to impose Sharia Law on Egypt’s largely secular society. He did nothing to better their economies; his secret police behaved no different from Mubarkak’s.

The difference between Morsi and Mubarak reminds me of an anecdote about two brothers. About 150 years ago in the wild west, there lived two brothers, who were well known for their crooked business dealings and underworld connections. They acted as ruthlessly and cruelly as one might expect One day one of the brothers died, and the surviving brother wanted to give his dead brother a funeral fit for a king. He called the funeral home and made all the arrangements, then he called the town’s minister and made him an offer, as they say, he couldn’t refuse. He said, “I’ll give you $10,000 to put that new roof on the church if, in eulogizing my brother, you call him a saint.” Back then, $10,000 was like $200,000.

The minister agreed. The whole town turned out for the funeral, and the minister began: “The man you see in the coffin was a vile and debauched individual. He was a liar, a thief, a deceiver, a manipulator, a reprobate, and a hedonist. He destroyed the fortunes, careers, and lives of countless people in this city, some of whom are here today. This man did every dirty, rotten thing you can think of. But compared to his brother, he was a saint!”

Yes, Mubarak was bad, but now the Egyptian people realize that compared to Moris, Mubarak was a saint!

This time, the Egyptians said to Morsi, “We will expel you as our leader,” and the military got rid of him.

The synchronicity of this event is astounding—it happened on the week of the 4th of July.

When we look back at our history as Americans, we had the benefit of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other patriots were men who not only fought a revolution –all of whom were brilliant thinkers in their own right. They articulated a passion for the public good and thought that all private interests were secondary to it.

But what about the Egyptians?

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained that every leader and government has a social contract with its people. It has to act ethically and responsibly toward the governed. Otherwise, the people have the right to dispose of their leader, for he has broken the social contract.

This is indeed, one of the most important historical moments of the modern Arab world, one that could potentially spell the end of all the Arab theocrats who wish to keep their people’s souls and minds enslaved to the 7th century.

The changes in Egypt’s evolution toward freedom will not occur without difficulties. Martin Luther King explains in his writings that evil never gives up easily.

  • For years the struggle continued, the Pharaohs stubbornly refused to respond to the cry of Moses. Plague after plague swept through the Pharaoh’s domain, and yet they insisted on following their recalcitrant path. This tells us something about evil that we must never forget. It never voluntarily relinquishes its throne. Evil is stubborn, hard and determined. It never gives up without a bitter struggle and without the most persistent and almost fanatical resistance. But there is a checkpoint in the universe evil cannot permanently organize itself. So, after a long and trying struggle, the Israelites, through the providence of God, were able to cross the Red Sea, and thereby get out of the hands of Egyptian rule. But, like the old guard that never surrenders, the Egyptians, in a desperate attempt to prevent the Israelites from escaping, had their armies to go in the Red Sea behind them. As soon as the Egyptians got into the drowned-up Sea, the parted waters swept back upon them, and the turbulence and momentum of the tidal waves soon drowned all of them. As the Israelites looked back, all they could see was here and there a poor drowned body beaten upon the seashore. For the Israelite, this was a great moment. It was the end of a frightful period in their history.

May God help the Egyptian people and guide them with responsible leaders who will shepherd their people to peace and prosperity.

*

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Living Your Life With Hope Renewed

 

hope photo: Hope (small) hope_sm_zps5f69d9c7.jpg

 

So many problems in our society are because of the resentment that we have allowed to fill our lives with bitterness and a perceive sense of self-righteousness. While we cannot change the events of the past that have brought us sadness, we can liberate ourselves from the pain these memories bring us in the present.

Liberation is a spiritual process. It begins with a decision that each of us must make to be spiritually whole and integrated: I will not let the past define who I am this moment. By making such a simple affirmation, we can take the steps to improving our world–beginning with ourselves. Although we cannot change the past, we can choose how we allow it to affect us. My father was a Holocaust survivor who managed to survive Auschwitz. Yet, despite everything sad he had experienced, he lived his life with a joyous spirit. He chose to live in the present than remain in the past.

Our tale began long ago in the 18th century, in Eastern Europe.

In the Hassidic village of Meseritz, there lived a long thin baker named Jacob—a righteous man, with a long thin chin and a long thin nose. Jacob was so upright that he seemed to spray morality from his thin lips over everyone who came near him; so the people of Meseritz preferred to stay away.

Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was beautiful and stunning. Everyone wanted to be in her soft and radiant presence.

Rachel loved Jacob her husband, too, as much as he allowed her; but her heart yearned for human affection and attention, for her husband Jacob was too busy studying Talmud or praying.

And from this seed of sadness and loneliness, she strayed.

One early morning, having worked all night long in the bakery, Jacob came home and found a stranger in his bedroom lying in Rachel’s arms.

Soon everyone gossiped about Rachel’s infidelity. People everywhere whispered her name with contempt and shock.

Everyone assumed that Jacob would quickly divorce Rachel, for after all, he was a righteous man. But to everyone’s surprise, Jacob remained committed in his relationship to Rachel, and said that he forgave her as the biblical prophet Hosea forgave his wife for straying.

But in his heart of hearts, however, Jacob could not forgive Rachel for bringing shame to his name, nor could he forget. Whenever he thought about her, his feelings toward her were angry and hard; he despised her as if she were a common whore. When it came right down to it, he hated her for betraying him after he had been so good and so faithful a husband to her.

Jacob only “pretended” to “forgive” Rachel so that he could punish her with his righteous mercy.

But Jacob’s hypocrisy did not sit well in Heaven.

The Kabbalah teaches, “As above, so below.” God orchestrates the powers of transformation and growth in the universe based on our actions.

So each time Jacob felt contempt toward Rachel, an angel came to him and dropped a tiny pebble, hardly the size of a pebble, into Jacob’s heart. Each time a pebble dropped, Jacob would feel a stab of pain like the pain he felt the moment he discovered Rachel’s infidelity.

And so he hated her the more; his hate brought him pain and his pain made him hate.

The pebbles of his heart multiplied as his heart slowly turned into stone. Over time, Jacob’s heart grew very heavy; he could barely walk straight without feeling the immense weight of the pebbles, which now felt like boulders. With the weight of them, he looked like bent and broken man. Like Jonah in the Bible, Jacob felt weary from the pain he was carrying; he began praying to the Angel of death.

One night, the angel who dropped the pebbles into his heart, came to and told him how could he find healing for his pain and broken heart.

“There is one remedy,” he said, “only one, for the wounded heart. Jacob would need the miracle of the magic eyes. He would need eyes that could look back to the beginning of his hurt and see his Rachel, not as a wife who betrayed him, but rather as a weak woman who needed him.

Only a new way of looking at things through the magic eyes could heal the hurt flowing from the wounds of yesterday.

Jacob protested. “But nothing can change the past,” he said. “Rachel is guilty—a fact that not even an angel can change.”

“Yes, poor pitiful man, you are right,” the angel said. “What you said is partially true. You cannot change the past; you can only heal the hurt that comes to you from the past. And you can heal it only with the vision of the magic eyes.”

“And how can I get your ‘magic eyes’?” pouted Jacob.

“Only ask, desiring as you ask, and they will be given you. And each time you see Rachel through your new eyes; one pebble will be lifted from your aching heart.”

Jacob could not ask at once, for he had grown to love his hatred. But the pain of his heart finally drove him to want and to ask for the magic eyes that the angel had promised.

So he asked. And the angel gave. He began focusing on only her positive qualities and attributes.

Soon Rachel began to change in front of Jacob’s eyes, wonderfully and mysteriously. He began to see her as a needy woman who loved him instead of a wicked woman who had betrayed him. He begins to realize his part, and how his own lack of affection and attention pushed Rachel away. He too, required forgiveness, but of a different kind.

The angel kept his promise; he lifted the pebbles from Jacob’s heart, one by one, though it took a long time to take them all away. Jacob gradually felt his heart grow lighter; he began to walk straight again, and somehow his nose and his chin seemed less thin and sharp than before. He invited Rachel to come into his heart again, and she came, and together they rededicated their lives anew.

 

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How We Sometimes Lose and Rediscover Our Faith

victory of light over darkness........( right is always victorious )

Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox is someone I admire. As a clinical psychologist and researcher living in Israel, he has researched a social and religious phenomenon about a subject that many of us rabbis would sooner deny than admit: there are an increasing number of Orthodox and Conservative atheist rabbis! By “Orthodox,” I do not necessarily mean your typical Modern Orthodox rabbi. For Shrell-Fox, his list includes Zionist Orthodox and Haredi rabbis.

By now, I hope I have your attention.

These rabbis have something in common: they live religiously duplicitous lives. During the day, they function as icons of their faith, but when nobody is watching them, they live in an “atheistic closet.”

According to Shrell-Fox’s study:

  • Most of them are still there because they love community life, their friends, the Kiddush after the Shabbat morning prayer. Most of them are 40 and 50 years old – not exactly an easy age to start a ‘cultural emigration.’ Moreover, and that’s a very important parameter, most of them make a living off the profession, and their livelihood depends on their faith, even if [that faith is] just outwardly [observed].[1]

A ninth century Jewish philosopher named Saadia Gaon was the first Jewish thinkers to examine the question: Why do so many people have doubts about their faith in God? Although he was speaking to a medieval audience, his ideas are very relevant for the people of 21stcentury. Saadia writes:

  • My heart grieves for humankind and my heart is affected on account of my own people, Israel, who I see in my own time. Many who follow their faith, but they have a distorted understanding of their faith; consequently, their faith is replete with unenlightened views and absurd beliefs that are current among those who follow Judaism. Others, who deny their faith, proudly denigrate their unbelief, ridiculing those who truly believe . . . I also saw people drowning in a sea of doubt, overwhelmed by the waves of confusion with no diver to raise them up from the depths, with no swimmer to bring them to rescue . . .[2]

I wonder: If Saadia were living in the present, what would he say about today’s times? Had Saadia lived in today’s era, he most certainly would have spoken about the state of spiritual anarchy that is so pervasive in today’s religious societies.

Men and women of all faiths have abdicated their responsibility to care and shepherd their people. Every day, there are countless stories about clergy either participating or covering up crimes of pedophilia, fraud, or committing what seems to be an endless string of social crimes. Unenlightened views of God and religion are especially evident in communities around the globe where religious leaders often encourage their followers to commit acts of violence, terror and mayhem against its political foes.

Such amoral behavior hardly inspires belief in a kind or benevolent Deity, especially when God’s followers commit the worse kind of human atrocities and moral indecencies in God’s Name! Religious people are guilty of the worse kind of moral atheism that makes people proudly say, “I cannot believe . . .” Is it not any wonder why serious-minded people have arrived at the conclusion that religion is an illusion that has long outlived its contemporary usefulness?

While I commend Dr. Shrell-Fox for interacting with the disillusioned rabbis he has encountered, whose stories he has recorded, I would not really call these rabbis “atheistic.” The term “atheist” derives from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning “without god(s).” However, the Greek letter ἄ (alpha) may connote something oppositional and it could mean, “against God.”

The real atheist is not someone who is lost in a state of agnosia, “not knowing” whether there is a God or not. Grappling with the absence of God’s Presence and reality is a theological theme that permeates much of the Tanakh. Perhaps the most famous prayer is found in Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

Why so far from my call for help,

from my cries of anguish?

My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;

by night, but I have no relief. (Psalm 22:2)

Within the Jewish community, the real atheists are the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who use their religion to exploit the public for any kind of pecuniary gain—regardless how insignificant it might be. The real atheists are the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who seek to expand and dominate the collective psyche of their communities; such demagogues have no respect for contrary viewpoints. They wish to homogenize all Judaic thought into a monolithic formula that promises salvation to those who believe and damnation to those who won’t believe or vote for the religious candidate of their choice. [3]

The modern critics of religion since the time of Spinoza, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Hitchens, Dawkins and others, have done a marvelous job in pointing out the inner corruption and deceit that exists within the religious world of the “true believers.”

Religious minded people owe these secular thinkers a great debt of gratitude. They behave much like the biblical prophets of old, demanding that we throw our false idols out of God’s Temple. Rabbinical wisdom bears testimony to this obvious truth. Someone asked Rabbi Reuben: What is the most reprehensible act a man a person can possibly do? He replied, “to deny God’s existence. For no man violates the commandments, ‘You shall not murder’, ‘You shall not steal’, till he has already renounced his faith in God.” (Tosefta Shavuoth 3, end)

Maimonides would probably have more in common with an atheist like Christopher Hitchens than one might imagine. For Maimonides, before one can arrive at a belief of God that one can logically accept, one must first arrive at an understanding of what God is NOT (a.k. a. the via negativa — the path of negation.”) When we read about the religiously inspired violence of the religious fanatics of today’s generation, we are witnessing the atavistic power of religion that deflates and flattens religious consciousness.

We must not let these charlatans destroy all that is good and sacred.

Most importantly, we cannot let them destroy our faith in a moral and ethical God.

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How We Won the Cosmic Lottery

SWAP View of Sun space wallpaper

When I read about the sun’s magnetic field reversing its polarity within the next several months, part of me felt a little nervous. How will the sun’s changes affect the earth? Does this mean that our earthly days are numbered? Actually, astronomers and meteorologists have indicated that we have little to worry.

The sun’s shift in polarity will not lead to more solar storms or other events that might spell doom and gloom for the residents of earth. Such an event occurs every eleven years—and given what we have seen in the past, we are still here—alive and well.

The change in polarity may actually have some positive benefits for all us. For one thing, the shift in the sun’s magnetic field will make our planet’s radiation belt more effective as a barrier against dangerous cosmic rays emanating from distant galaxies.

Not bad, no?

In practical terms, the earth’s storms should be less intense since the lightning storms will diminish comparatively.

At any rate, the changes in our sun’s magnetic field illustrate just how finely attuned the universe is calibrated to enhance life on this planet.

In spiritual terms, we may say that God carefully preordained the movement of the heavenly bodies in the cosmos. Had the Earth been closer to the sun or larger than it presently became, the sun’s rays would have incinerated the earth. Had the earth been just slightly farther away from the sun than its present orbit, life on our planet would have frozen. Had the earth’s circular orbit (with a 3% variance) been like the elliptical orbit of the planet Mars, which varies by 42 million kilometers in its distance from the sun, the earth would incinerate annually once it came closest to the sun. Nothing is fortuitous about the Earth’s orbit. Bar-Ilan University physicist Nathan Aviezer observes how fortunate this planet was in the cosmological scheme of the universe:

  • Our planet Earth is very hospitable to life, abundant with air and water essential to life. Our neighbors Mars and Venus, however, have no water or air. Yet shortly after they were formed about 4.6 billion years ago, all three planets (Earth, Mars, and Venus) had comparable amounts of surface water. In fact, the deep channels that are observed today on the surface of Mars were carved out long ago by the copious, fast-flowing Martian primordial surface waters. Venus was once covered by deep oceans which contained the equivalent of a layer of water 3 kilometers deep over the entire surface of the planet. Why, then, are the two planets so completely different today?
  • The difference in the subsequent development of Mars and Venus was due to their proximity to the Sun. Mars is somewhat more distant from the Sun than the Earth. This caused the temperature of Mars to drop in the course of time. Eventually, Mars became so cold that all its surface water froze, and as a result, the planet Mars has become completely devoid of all liquid water, thus preventing the existence of life as we know it on that planet. Venus, on the other hand, is somewhat closer to the Sun than the Earth, which caused it to gradually become hotter. As a result, Venus became so intensely hot, all its oceans and seas completely evaporated and then decomposed into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas, both of which later dissipated. Why did the Earth escape these catastrophes?
  • The answer is that the Earth escaped these catastrophes by sheer accident! The Earth just happened to be sufficiently distant from the Sun that the runaway greenhouse effect did not occur and therefore all our surface water neither evaporated nor decomposed. Moreover, the Earth just happened to be sufficiently near the Sun that it remained warm enough to prevent all the oceans from freezing permanently into ice caps. Therefore, the Earth alone, of all the planets of the solar system, is capable of supporting life. This balance in the carbonate‑silicate geochemical cycle is so delicate that if the Earth were only a few percent closer to or further from the Sun, the possibility for life could not exist. This enigmatic situation has become known among scientists as the “Goldilocks problem of climatology.”[1]

The recent discovery of extrasolar planets orbiting other nearby stars, has given us a new appreciation as to the perfect conditions that exist on this planet, which produce life. One interesting planet, classified as Upsilon Andromeda b, orbits a star that is approximately 40 light-years away in the constellation Andromeda. It is a Jupiter-sized planet that circles closely around its scorching star every 4.6 days—is a world composed of fire and ice. Some planets float eerily through space with heat sources that someday may produce a new solar system, while others orbit pulsar stars, which emit such powerful bursts of energy—life as we know it would prove impossible. Paul Davies refers to our world as hitting the “cosmic jack-pot,” and argues that the “cosmos” appears to have played a “conscious” role in the formation of life, and continues to play a pivotal role in the evolution of the cosmos.

 


[1] Nathan Aviezer, In The Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1990), 37.

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A Medieval Story: A Stroll through the Cemetery

There is a charming medieval story about a certain low-life who once became infatuated with a beautiful maiden. Once there was a low-life who became infatuated with a beautiful woman. He used to fantasize about her in his dreams. Each day, he flirted with her, telling her how much he wanted to “get to know” her better. She ignored his overtures. One day, when he asked her out again, she told him to go to the cemetery—there, they would meet. Little did he realize the girl’s real message, namely—“Drop dead!”

Feeling jubilant about the prospects of romancing her, he went to the cemetery and waited. But she did not come. The hours had turned into days, but still, she did not arrive. As he began wandering from grave to grave, he saw how others had distinguished their lives by performing good deeds for the betterment of their communities.

He began wondering, “How will others remember me?” Then he decided that he too wanted to live a life that would earn him the respect and admiration from others. He began working on his character, and eventually became known for his piety—despite himself. [2]

The moral of the story is simple enough: the lure of forbidden pleasures has proven to be the downfall of many great people throughout human history.

Strangely enough, maybe the awareness of our mortality and legacy in this world—symbolized by the cemetery—may serve to help reign in one’s powerful sexual energy. The rabbis and their students studied the entire day in the hopes that they would exert self-control. However, sometimes Torah study by itself is insufficient.

Self-control does not come easy for a lot of people. The lure of temptation can topple even the greatest individuals.

Perhaps a stroll through the cemetery can act as catalyst for personal growth and change.

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Notes:

[1] BT Berachoth 5a.

[2] Reshit Chochmah, Sh’aar Ahavah.

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The Tragic Tale of a Fallen Angel

The Bachelor, Gia Allemand

Personally, I have never been one for reality television shows. Life is much too interesting to “observe” from afar. When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, I remember The Dating Game. This show would pit a number of contestants who would compete for the affections of a mystery man or woman.

Today’s reality shows are not much different. However, one contemporary show in particular caught my attention: The Bachelor. One of the female contestants, Gia Allemand, who took her role too seriously.

She committed suicide.

She was a young and beautiful actress who had much to live for. When someone so young dies at her own hand, all we can do is respond with shock and sadness. As a career rabbi, I have seen a number of tragic deaths involving young people who gave up on life.

According to the eminent psychiatrist, David D. Burns, depression is so widespread, it is considered the common cold of psychiatric illnesses. Many of us will inevitably encounter our dark demons and insecurities at one time or another at some point in our lives.

According to Burns, depressed people suffer from a torrent of negative thoughts that create “cognitive distortions” and produce a distorted view of reality. These negative thoughts and feelings of inadequacy engulf the person. In the end, the depressed person globalizes the problems and succumbs to despair. The only way to affectively and effectively deal with these perceptions is to let logic seize the moment. Begin a dialogue with your depressed self and say, “You are not a failure at everything …” Think about the moments that you have experienced success and personal vindication.

In the end, we need to remember that we all have our successes and our failures. Burn’s approach urges us to start being realistic about our perceptions and not allow our insecurities win the battle of our soul.

One last note needs to be added.

The bachelor Jake Pavelka had a lesson in Life 101. When he heard about Gia’s death, Jake had to pull his car over to the side of the road because he couldn’t stop crying when he learned that his castmate Gia Allemand had died. “She was one of the sweetest people I have ever known. And a very dear friend. My heart goes out to her family during this very difficult time. We have lost an angel today.”

Did her death have anything to do with The Bachelor show?

Probably not.

In all likelihood, she felt overwhelmed by life’s problems and perhaps her pervasive sense of loneliness and despair.

Although many people find The Bachelor show entertaining, it also trivializes human intimacy and relationshipping. Its context is much too banal for real people to relate to and shows like the Bachelor tend to portray men and women as objects rather than as actual persons.

A man should play around with the affections of a woman. Too many men have made this error largely because most men grow up in a narcissistic culture and foolishly believe that they are God’s gift to the opposite sex.

As a result, men tend fall in love with their emotional projections rather than with the reality of another person—who like themselves, also has feelings. Women also fall into this trap and as a result feel disappointed that their expectations fell short of the mark.

Perhaps the lure of being a television celebrity for a reality show only serves to cater to this false sense of Self that one identifies with the tube.

Every human being’s face is capable of infinite expressions. The eyes are the mirror of the soul.

· As the face answers face reflected in the water, so one man’s heart answers another’s. (Proverbs 27:19).

The Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas explains that, “The human face speaks out and speaks to me without words, ‘Look at me, I am a human being much like yourself. Respect me as you would want to be respected.’”

Sometimes, the request for respecting our humanity doesn’t even need to be verbally articulated, but a sensitive person is always aware of his neighbor’s face. It is the touchstone of our humanity.

For the postmodern world we inhabit, the idea of “knowing” the Other has great potential and promise for many of us who struggle with the difficulties of relationshipping. It is no small wonder that in our present society, human sexuality is routinely desensitized; love-making is portrayed in the media and advertising as a mechanical process of bodies uniting without souls and emotional bonding. At its consummation there remains within us a Faustian feeling and fear that the Other may not ever truly know who we are. At the deepest level of our psyches, we yearn for a love that will heal the inner woundedness stemming from our pervasive sense of separateness and aloneness. When there is genuine caring and empathy, the act of love-making can facilitate an almost mystical fusion and unitary consciousness of our personalities, allowing for each of us to truly and biblically “know” the inner world of the Other, while being “known” in return.

Authentic relationships are too precious to find on a reality television show. We discover our significant other often when we least expect it.

It is a pity that young Gia Allemand did not realize this truth until it was too late.

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Blessings & Gratitude

Once upon a time, some American tourists went to Mexico on a vacation; they toured some hot springs, where they saw the natives washing their clothes! One tourist said to his guide, “My, isn’t wonderful how Mother Nature provides her children with hot water to wash their clothes?” The tour-guide replied, “So you might think, Senor, but the natives complain that Mother Nature doesn’t provide the soap!”

It’s been said that the hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.

Chinese wisdom teaches, “When you drink from the stream remember the spring.”

This truth may help explain why the theme of recognizing blessing versus curses is so important in last week’s Torah portion, (Parshat Ki Tavo):

  • All these maledictions will come upon you; they will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed because you did not obey the Lord your God by keeping the commandments and statutes which he gave you. They shall be a sign and a portent to you and your descendants for ever, because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and with a glad heart for all your blessings. Then in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and extreme want, you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, and they will put a yoke of iron on your neck when they have subdued you. (Deut. 28:45–48)

The absence of joyfulness in our lives leaves us in a perpetual state of misery and want. Yes, attitude has everything to do with our capacity for happiness and self-actualization in life. Nature abhors a vacuum and when we relinquish the positive, it is inevitable that the negative attitudes will take its place.

Psychological studies bear this truth out as well.

Research has shown that people who regularly practiced grateful thinking were more than 25 percent happier, slept better, suffered lower levels of stress and even spent more time exercising. People sure like to complain.

According to one recent author, who wrote a book on Gratefulness, Prof. Richard Emmons explains that” Preliminary findings suggest that those who regularly practice grateful thinking do reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits. […] Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism […] The practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.”

Unfortunately, politicians and the czars of Hollywood love to create and perpetuate the mythos of class-warfare that occurs between the haves and the have-nots. These misleaders try to seduce us into thinking that creaturely comforts hold the key to our inner and spiritual state of mind.

The focus upon negativity and materialism is the end result of such a twisted point of view.

In Yiddish, we have a word for such a mindset, it’s called “Kvetching,” or chronic complaining. It’s as old as the Bible itself. It seems that many folks for whatever the reason, have an innate bias towards being or feeling negative. In other words, for some of us, being a grouch comes naturally. Therapists and psychologists alike tend to focus on the ethos of victimization, and narcissism, rather than engendering a life-attitude of thankfulness.

No society in human history has ever been as medicated with anti-depressants such as ours. Yet, developing an attitude of gratefulness can not only make us happier, it can also protect us from heart attacks, lessen physical pain and confer other physiological benefits.

It is no coincidence that the Founding Fathers looked to this week’s Torah portion pertaining to the first-fruits as the antecedent and inspiration for the American holiday of Thanksgiving.

For our spiritual and psychological healthiness, we need to be thankful for all that is good in our lives; the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus once wrote, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.”

Aesop may have made this point even more forcefully:

  • Once there was a Dog who had gotten himself a piece of meat and was carrying it home in his mouth to eat it in peace. On his way home, he had to cross a plank lying across a running brook. As he crossed, he looked down and saw his own shadow reflected in the water beneath. Thinking it was another dog with another piece of meat, he made up his mind to have that also. So he made a snap at the shadow in the water, but as he opened his mouth, the piece of meat fell out, dropped into the water and was never seen more. The moral: Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow. — AESOP, Fables, The Dog and the Shadow

 

When we lose sight of what we have, by grasping after shadows, we risk losing everything we already truly have.

In a strange and paradoxical way, the cartoon character Bart Simpson illustrates the nature of this problem; who was asked to say grace over the meal. He prays, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing!” Does that shock us? It shouldn’t. The world doesn’t have a clue to the essence of Thanksgiving.

What applies to the life of the individual, applies no less to our nation as a whole.

In words that could have been penned today, Abraham Lincoln knew that the need for remembering God in prosperity is imperative for any time, and constituted a requisite for our nation’s integral character and identity.

  • We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, for many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self‑sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.‑‑ April 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation for a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer

WHY BE THANKFUL?

One might wonder: When we look at the evil that engulfs the world with war, famine, and fear, it might seem as though “Thanksgiving” is self-deceiving. Despite the abundance that we have at our tables, it’s also easy to wonder, what should we be thankful for? When we see the ugliness in the world and in our society, it seems like a Herculean task to express happiness and blessing. Continue reading “Blessings & Gratitude”

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

Winding Road In Tibet Royalty Free Stock Photos - Image: 23557958

The Chinese say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Tonight we begin our spiritual journey with a celebration of Yom Kippur—a holiday that is wholly devoted to the cultivation of forgiveness and spiritual renewal—both as individuals and as a community.

“I have forgiven you as you have spoken” Fewer subjects personally challenge our moral sensibilities like forgiveness—both as individuals and as a society.

As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is important for us to revisit some of the important questions about the nature and dynamics of forgiveness.

But what are the limitations of forgiveness? What are its possibilities? Should a person forgive unconditionally?

In Jewish tradition, it is often customary to broach an important topic with a story.

You are a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. You are sent to work in a hospital. A nurse brings you to a German soldier named Karl, who is mortally wounded. The dying soldier confesses that he has committed terrible atrocities against your people and asks you to forgive him. What would you do? ‘

Actually, this was the question faced by renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and is the focus of his autobiographical novel, The Sunflower. Wiesenthal took the soldier’s hand listened to his story.

The patient recounted a horrible act in which he had participated. All of the Jews, mothers with infants and children, young and old, were rounded up and crowded into a large yellow house. The commanding officer ordered the house to be set afire.

When the Jews started running from the burning building and jumping out windows, the commander ordered the troops to fire. After telling the story, the patient asked Wiesenthal if he would forgive him for his role in the massacre.

Ultimately, young Wiesenthal walks away in silence. He can’t forgive the man. But his own soul is scorched with the agony of his decision to walk away.  Liberated from the camps, Wiesenthal seeks out the dead soldier’s mother to ease his mind. He finds a broken woman, left with nothing but the good memory of her son.

Wiesenthal decided not to tell her of her son’s confessed atrocities, his silence brings him peace of mind. He couldn’t forgive the soldier for the murder of others; he can spare an old woman suffering.

WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO FORGIVE?

Wiesenthal later wrote, “Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is a choice, and only the person who suffers is qualified to forgive”

As the years went by, his conscience still haunts him: Did I do the right thing in refusing to forgive the SS soldier? What do you think? Are there some crimes that simply cannot be forgiven?

When Wiesenthal first printed his book, there was a remarkable range of responses. Most Jewish respondents felt that Wiesenthal was right in not forgiving the dying Nazi. How could a mass-murderer be forgiven?

POSTSCRIPT

Did Karl truly repent? Only God knows, but it is possible that he took a significant meaningful first step toward some form of redemption . . .  The rest of his journey can only continue in the World of Eternity . . . As I mentioned earlier, The Chinese say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

In Karl’s case, we cannot confuse the beginning of a journey with its ending. It seems only apropos for the souls of the victims to deal with the souls of their perpetrators on their own terms. But regardless how one views the story, this much is known: Could either young Simon or Karl have ever imagined that their mysterious encounter would challenge the moral sensibilities of countless millions of people across time?

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