Sunday, August 24, 2008

Confronting the Questions

Over shabbos, a close family friend raised an interesting issue. A discussion of the parsha somehow led into speculation about some of the modern historical, scientific, and anthropological challenges to certain accounts in the Torah.

For instance, let’s say you believe that it has been 5,768 years since Adam HaRishon spoke. This assumes that you adopt the more scientifically compatible position that a “day” of creation really means a stage, and that each day could have lasted thousands of years, so that 5768 is not the age of the universe, but rather the age of humanity. Okay, so let’s say you accept that. Still, modern anthropology tells us that human beings have existed for much much longer than that. How do we resolve this contradiction?

The point our friend was making is that within the religious Jewish world very little attention is paid to such questions. They are generally ignored, or dismissed as unimportant or uninteresting. This disturbs him, because he feels that, especially within the Modern Orthodox community which professes to unite the world of secular knowledge with that of religious scholarship, these issues should not be swept under the rug.

And my thoughts, on a personal level, are as follows: as many of you know, I am interested primarily in the humanities and the arts. I love literature, writing, philosophy, music, drama. I do not like math. I do not like science. I often find history somewhat dry. This may be a failing. This may just be my personality.

Regardless, I tend to spend my time studying and pursuing the areas that I find compelling. This means that I know very little about science, very little about anthropology. Most of the questions and challenges to religion that exist in those areas are foreign to me simply because I do not know enough to even realize that they exist. Our friend argued that this approach is intellectually dishonest. And I wonder: is it?

Even if I studied those areas and began to comprehend some of the problems and seeming contradictions that exist, even if I encountered a question with no apparent answer, would I give up my faith?

I honestly think not. I know that there are questions that are not easily resolved. I know that I certainly do not have all the answers. But I don’t feel that I have to. The things that form the basis of my faith are unrelated to the Torah’s apparent scientific accuracy, or lack thereof.

So I feel justified in not pursuing these issues. I’m, frankly, not all that interested in these areas, and don’t feel compelled to research and discover the questions I know are out there.

Is this a mistake? Is it intellectually dishonest? Any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Tisha B'Av Story

My cousin M and his wife L, who normally live in Jerusalem, arrived in my city to visit my family yesterday—and told me the following story.

M and L flew straight to my house from Toronto, where they stayed with L’s family for the nine days. Like the rest of klal Yisrael, they went to hear Eicha on motzai shabbos. When they came home, they got into an intense discussion with L’s father about the horrifically tragic occurrences described in the megillah. M asserted that these atrocities are not as distant as we generally assume. Many similarly terrifying things happened at the time of the Holocaust, and since we are still in galus, no one should ever feel overly secure.

With these thoughts in their minds, they went to bed.

At four in the morning L was awakened by a thunderous boom, as she felt the house shaking beneath her. Shocked, she shook M awake and declared: “Canada is under attack!” More explosions followed, and soon the entire family had gathered, awake and in a panic, trying to determine what was happening. From the window they could see a gigantic column of orange flame licking the sky, and a mushroom cloud of billowing smoke—and it wasn’t so far away.

No one had any idea what was going on. Petrified, they only knew that giant fireballs were illuminating the night sky nearby—and that it was Tisha B’Av. L’s parents made a rapid decision. They gathered up their family, their pets, and their passports, packed into the car, and started driving north, toward L’s father’s office.

They took refuge in his office, waiting to hear an accurate report of what had happened. As daylight broke, they heard: a propane plant had exploded. The area was being evacuated.

Relieved that the truth was far more benign than they had originally assumed, they staked out spaces for themselves on various pieces of furniture and tried to sleep. At 2 pm they were finally allowed to go back to their undamaged house.

Though they ended up sleeping almost until mincha once they finally got to real beds, their experience this Tisha B’Av was in way far more profound than a day, like mine, spent listening to Tisha B'Av appropriate shiurim.

They experienced, firsthand, the fear that characterizes this day in Jewish history. Their eyes witnessed images of destruction that the rest of us only conjured in imagination. They realized that in exile, tragedy is tangible, security nonexistent. Their Tisha B’Av was manifested in action, not just thought.

Thank God, it was a false alarm, and for the most part there were only minor injuries as a result of the explosion--though, tragically, one firefighter perished. May this be the last Tisha B’Av spent in exile; the final year of mourning for the Beis Hamikdash. May our tears next year be tears of joy, as we gather together in Jerusalem.

And let’s hope Toronto stays safe, too.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Wall

I stood there at the kotel in Yerushalayim, the holiest site we have, and tried to pray.

I searched for the words to express myself, but even more, I searched for the emotion I knew I should feel.

My lips moved soundlessly as I began a one-sided dialogue with God. I told Him that this year has been hard for me, that I have learned a lot, but that I have lost a lot as well. I told Him that, as much as I have gained, I am concerned that the past few months have brought me to a place I’m not happy with, a place where much of my passion is merely surface-level. I am worried, I told Him, that some of the things I’ve learned have had negative effects as well as positive ones. For example, increased understanding of the other side of an issue can weaken one’s own convictions. If I can see every side of any coin, my own view becomes more blurry, my determination to follow through less intense.

You know that I still have my beliefs, I said. They’ve shifted this year, of course, as I’ve grown, and that’s a good thing. And I can still argue my perspective as eloquently as ever, and it sounds right to me, and True. But that’s just it. It’s all sounds. I like the sounds, I like the thoughts behind them, and when I articulate it, I am happy to believe it. But what is belief if it isn’t manifested in every aspect of life, if you don’t feel it there pulsing, behind everything you do? Judaism isn’t, it can’t be, purely intellectual. Intellectual it must be, I believe that, but it must be emotional as well. And more than emotional—it must be all encompassing. I used to have that, at least, much of the time. But now…?

And I told Him that I know the old me is gone. A certain purity of faith, a certain innocence, has vanished. I feel blasé now, in a way, jaded almost. I feel flat. It comes with the loss of emotion, which itself stems from a few factors I can (but won’t) name. I’ll regain the emotion, I am determined to do it, and so I will, but I will never have the old me back. I’ll reach a new level, somewhere more nuanced, more complex; yet I will miss the way I was. I’m a lot older now—not in days, but in spirit. I will be refreshed one day, I pray—but there is no going back. I resolve to go forward.

So I stood there, talking to Him, spilling out my soul, yet all along I realized: it wasn’t real.

I wanted it, so badly, to be real. I was trying so hard. Yet I still couldn’t feel anything. I said to myself, this is the kotel, the holiest place, I must feel the connection. But then I answered back: this is only the outer wall. Inside, behind this wall, the Beit Hamikdash should lie. Behind this wall is where the Shechina really dwelt. But here—I was on the outside.

I stood, gazing up, at the stones of a wall, too solid to break through. And inside myself stood another structure of stone, separating me from my emotion, from reaching God and holiness. And I felt—how I hated to admit it!—that I was only talking to myself.

As I backed away from the kotel and into the plaza, my heart was heavy—because that was the only thought that could wet my eyes with tears.