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Pet Peeves: Just Words?

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Example: Government leaders who say, “We have the right to defend our citizens.” Is it really a ‘right’? Or do they mean ‘responsibility’? Every government is obligated to defend its citizens from threats domestic or foreign. Should a government feel that they are incapable of such defense, they must resign and let someone else govern. Is it just words? Or is it wrong-headed?

Example: Rabbis who equivocate, “We believe G-d spoke to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai.” We believe? Who’s we? Believe? Do you or don’t you know? It’s been 3,000 years and you still don’t know? And you’re a rabbi!

Did G-d create the world – yes or no? You believe he did? Maybe you should take up knitting! Is it just words or does it reveal a lack of conviction – the conviction that every Jew should have?

Example: Teachers who say, “G-d wants your Mitzvahs but doesn’t need them.” Let me understand this: G-d wants what he doesn’t need? He’s too perfect to need but not too perfect to want?

He wants every Jew to keep kosher yet not every Jew does; is He still perfect? He creates the world with a purpose – an important purpose – yet whether this purpose is achieved doesn’t matter to Him?! He doesn’t need it?

G-d says “I am a jealous G-d” but He is not really jealous?! He says non-kosher animals are an abomination, but thier not His abomination?!

We call Him “Father and King” but He doesn’t need His children or Hispeople?! He doesn’t need Pharoah and the Egyptians to know Him – even as He gives that as His reason for ten plagues of human suffering?!

Wants. Needs. Is it just words or does it trivialize Him to claim that He demands what He does not need?

Example: Calling intimacy “Making love.” Does one ‘make’ love? Love is a feeling. Does one make feelings? Love means attraction. Does one make attraction? I know you can feel love; I don’t think you can makelove.

Love is a very nice feeling and is often apropos to important relationships. But how can you compare it to intimacy? Love is personal; intimacy is interpersonal. Love can’t be regulated; intimacy must be regulated. Love can’t turn ugly; intimacy can. Love can not produce a baby; intimacy can.

So calling intimacy ‘love’ is degrading and vulgar. It reduces the sacred to a feeling; the spouse to an object of one’s mood; the baby to an intruder on a personal experience. Is it just words or we losing sight of all that is holy.

Example: People say “I doubt that”. Often they really know nothing at all about the subject. So what is doubt? What’s wrong with saying, “I really don’t know?”

“Do you think there is life on Mars?” “Nah, I doubt it”. Is that supposed to mean that you know something about Mars that makes you doubt it would support any kind of life?

How old do you think the world is? Do you think the Torah is Divine? Who do you think wrote the Zohar? Are you not sure or are you sure you don’t know? Is it just words or do we have a hard time being honest?

How do I know Torah is True?

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Dear “Unsure”,

You are torturing yourself unnecessarily. As a fifteen year-old, why would you expect to ‘know for sure’ all the truths of Torah? How are you supposed to ‘know’ who created the world?!

You don’t how an airplane flies or how an antibiotic works. You’ve never seen a germ or a virus, and probably don’t know where your spleen is or what it looks like. Does any of this matter? No, you live your life based on knowledge received from the past without need to reinvent the wheel.

G-d created the world and gave the Torah on Mt. Sinai unless you have witnesses to the contrary.

The best and wisest minds among our sages, every one of them smarter than Einstein, studied the Talmud for three thousand years without doubt of its origin and you are not sure!

So you feel guilty as if you are responsible to prove or confirm cosmic truths! Get real. Relax. It’s not your job. Your job is to elevate yourself to a more productive, noble, respectful life every day.

Work on that. I guarantee you won’t regret it!

What is God’s part in my day to day life?

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I recall a particular afternoon some years ago, in the early 1960s, when thirty Jewish scientists from various Eastern universities attended one of the Rebbe’s Shabbat afternoon gatherings (called farbrengens.) The scientists sat among the Chassidim and listened while the Rebbe spoke in Yiddish, which they did’nt understand. During the break for singing, one of the Chassidim gave them a synopsis in English of what the Rebbe said. Even in English it didn’t mean much to them.

When the Rebbe resumed the discourse, he dedicated the next portion of his talk to the visitors, and for the next forty minutes he described the mystical Chassidic view of the universe. During the next break, the Chassid again translated the Rebbe’s words; “The Rebbe said that all matter is behavior, and we can see this behavior by observing nature closely”.

“Did he really say that?” one scientist asked. “Physics also defines nature as “observable behavior patterns.” The scientists who had come as curios observers began to wonder if the mystical and physical are compatible after all. Certainly, in the Rebbe’s world, the two are one. Of course, there are significant differences between the scientists’ view and Chassidus’ view. The scientist saw a mechanical universe. The Rebbe saw a warm, responsive universe with a beating heart.

Chassidus’ view of creation sheds new light on the phenomenon of miracles. The Rebbe pointed out that the miraculous events described in Torah are G-d doing what He always does, only varying the routine.

For instance, G-d usually tells water to flow downward, an instruction so familiar that we call it natural law. Then one day, somewhere in the Sinai, G-d told water to stand still: The water behaved like a wall to their right and to their left. This instruction happens so infrequently that some people call it a violation of natural law, and others call it a miracle. In truth, both standing still and running downward are miracles.

The Talmud tells the story of the sage, Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, who arrived home one Friday evening, just as the sun was setting. As always on Fridays, he found the table set and his daughter preparing to light the Shabbat light. But something was amiss.

“Why do you look so unhappy?” he asked.

She answered that she had accidentally added vinegar to the oil in the Shabbat lights. “The vinegar will surely extinguish the flames,” she said.

“He who tells oil to burn will tell vinegar to burn” her father answered.
That Shabbat evening, vinegar burned.

Was it a miracle? We assume that oil burns because of its chemical properties, meaning, “I don’t know why, that’s just how it is.” Although we can see oil burning, there is no reason that oil must burn. The Rebbe, a mystic as well as a man of science, said that oil burns because G-d tells it to.

The same is true of all natural laws. We know that aspirin relieves a headache and we may even know how it does the job. Yet we’ll never know why. The Healer of all flesh instructs aspirin to subdue pain, usually. And usually, He tells water to flow downward and oil to burn. It’s all the same to them.

How do I live a Happy life?

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Here’s a thought that came up in a conversation the other night:

The simple truths in life are what brings happiness. This means focusing on simple realities: life is good, being a Jew is good, having my family is good, etc. This enables you to be happy. However we need to distingush happiness from contentment. To be content is different from being happy in the following ways. Contentment must be earned – happiness is free. Happiness is related to gratitude – contentment is related to satisfaction. Happiness is the absence of doubt – contentment is the successful resolution of doubts.

Therefore, simple truths will produce happiness, but only achievement will bring contentment.

So I am happy to be what I am, to be included in G-d’s vast eternal plan. A part of the chosen people, able to serve Him at any time. But if I don’t actually serve Him and accomplish some good in my life I will not be content. Contentment is measured by effort. The harder I try the more content I will be.

What do you think?

The Nature Of Intelligence

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We find ourselves in the midst of a season of gift-giving. Everyone ponders what they could possibly give their friends and family that they would appreciate.

As human beings, our deepest appreciation is for things that nurture our deepest qualities. And there is no deeper human quality than intelligence.

In our fast-paced, high-powered society, good-sense intelligence is being replaced by artificial intelligence. We are accomplishing more than ever before because we have to think less than ever before.

And yet this explosion of accomplishment is not creating a happier society, only a busier one.

How can we re-learn and re-teach the art of fine intelligence? And wouldn’t that be a meaningful gift to offer a person you care about (such as yourself)?

This article offers one way to do it. While this covers the subject of intelligent discussion of faith, the premise holds true for all unreasonable and thus unhealthy skepticism.

What is the intelligent response upon hearing something new? Is it to automatically doubt the veracity of this new piece of information or flatly reject it because you have never heard it before?

Of course not. That is not an intelligent or constructive reaction.

Imagine an explorer returning from a distant land and reporting facts you’ve never heard before. Would you doubt him? If someone comes back from Australia and tells you he saw a unique animal that carries its babies in its pocket, would you respond, “I’ve never heard of such a thing. I’m too intelligent to believe that”?

The explorer is telling you he’s discovered something you have never encountered. How can your objection be, “I’ve never heard of or seen such a thing”? Is that really an intelligent response?

The healthy behavior when confronted with information you’ve never heard before — and know nothing about — is to assume it’s true and that you’ve just learned something new. To be skeptical is a limiting habit, a learned behavior that can come from being lied to.

For example, when someone says, “G-d created the world,” a common reaction is rejection: “I can’t believe that.”

Why? Why can’t you? Do you have information that points in another direction?

If you do not have an intelligent objection, the sensible reaction is not to doubt the new information, but to assume it’s correct.

To reject an idea, a belief, or an argument on the grounds of never having seen it yourself is counterproductive. Why? Because seeing and hearing new things is how you learn new things! We need to rethink our whole attitude towards how we perceive and process new information.

There also seem to be an unhealthy obsession and demand for proof. If I say G-d gave the Torah at Mount Sinai, the automatic reaction will be, “Can you prove that?”

Why do we need proof? What’s the objection? Do you know for certain that G-d was in Cleveland that day? Does He need an alibi?

Whenever a certain discipline becomes popular, people begin to view everything through the prism of that discipline. When psychology became popular, everything was interpreted through the lens of psychology. (Are you angry with your mother?) When politics is front and center, anything being discussed has some kind of political implications. People often take one idea and make a lifestyle out of it; it doesn’t work.

At the beginning of the last century, science became a god. To establish a scientific fact, you have to test it repeatedly to see that you get the same result.

When science became a god, life became a science. Now, everything has to be proven; everything has to have evidence. (My mother loves me, but where is the proof that she’s my mother?)

But life is not lived in a laboratory.

What we have to introduce to young people is: That what we’ve always known to be true is true. What is wrong with that? Why does that need to be fixed? Would you ever say, “My mother claims to be my mother and she acts like my mother and I want her to be my mother, but I need proof”?

If an idea has been popular for 5,000 years, it would be foolish to say, “There’s no such thing.” Saying that an absence of proof somehow proves that something does not exist is nonsense. There is no intellectual discipline that focuses on what does not exist. Not having a proof does not prove anything.

Intelligence does not work that way.

If you have a reason to disagree, present your reason. If you have no reason to disagree, be excited that you’ve learned something new. That’s the healthier approach.

Generally, when you speak to people who consider themselves atheists, they end up saying something along the lines of “OK, maybe there is some kind of G-d, but I can’t believe He’d be bothered by what I eat!”

If you ask: What is G-d? What do we know about Him? Why does He care what we eat? Those are valid questions. Now you’re starting to make sense.

Now we can have a conversation.

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