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Our old clock was dead. Until it wasn’t.
Sometimes even when it’s over it still isn’t over.
The story of a Great Flood can be found in virtually every human culture. However, the biblical record stands alone in its dramatic conclusion: as Noah emerges from the ark, the Almighty sets His rainbow in the heavens as a sign that never again will He visit the waters of devastation upon the earth.
Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow – an inverted bow to direct the arrows of divine wrath away from mankind. But is this a hopeful sign? Does it not imply that we are in fact deserving of destruction? Does it not contain a warning, that only because of God’s promise to Noah are we spared the natural consequences of our own moral corruption?
And what do the colors and beauty of the rainbow signify? Is it not incongruous to invoke something so beautiful as a reminder that a 4000 year-old covenant is all that stands between us and annihilation?
WANTING IT BOTH WAYS AND NO WAYS
In the old Peanuts comic strip, Linus once declared that, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”
It’s no longer a joke. As human society grows ever more fractured, we see everyone else as either too traditional or too progressive, too dovish or too hawkish, too far left or too far right. Unity remains a dream we no longer believe in as we divide ourselves up into increasingly tribal enclaves.
Paradoxically, it is the strength of conviction that separates people from one another. Too many of us believe that our way is more “beautiful” than anyone else’s way, that only we are the chosen standard-bearers, and that we alone speak Truth while all others are heretics or infidels.
Why do we find it so difficult to celebrate our — dare I use the word — diversity? We give lip service to the value of multiculturalism, recognizing that our differences can make us greater than the sum of our parts. But then we use distinctiveness as a wedge to set ourselves apart from others.
In modern society, diversity often becomes a club to bludgeon into submission all whose sense of traditional values or personal integrity compels them to reject the moral anarchy that defines our times. Intolerance masquerades as forbearance, proclaiming an open-mindedness that is reserved only for those who conform to ideologically acceptable standards of cultural elites.
THE CHALLENGE OF MORAL EQUILIBRIUM
It was the same kind of violent division that brought the devastation of the Flood upon mankind. In that benighted generation, the law of the jungle drove human beings to an unthinkable level of bestial corruption. Had the Almighty not brought the waters of destruction upon the earth, human beings would surely have destroyed themselves.
Back then, it was selfishness and greed that tore society apart. Today, it is ego and ideology.
True, it’s not easy to achieve the delicate balance between acceptance on the one hand and conviction on the other. Tilting too far to one side catapults us toward moral dogmatism; tilting too far to the other sets our moral compass spinning in all directions.
So what is the solution?
The answer lies is seeing the rainbow as both beautiful and terrifying. It is a symbol of diversity and how much we can achieve by celebrating our differences; but simultaneously it is a reminder of how much destruction we can bring upon our world when differences become justification for divisiveness.
To truly love our fellow human beings we cannot retreat into ideological isolation. If we do, we will succeed only in marginalizing others in our own minds. Ultimately, we must take great care to chart a course between the extremes of ideology and accommodation.
So reach out to connect with someone outside your own close, closed, comfortable group. Engage people who think differently, not to debate but to exchange ideas and seek understanding. Remember as well that the most exquisite flowers, the most dramatic seascapes, and the most inspiring mountain peaks are those that reflect all the colors of the rainbow.
Moshe was 11 years old in July 1941, when the Nazis marched into Lvov and tore him from his home and the Chassidic court of the Grand Rabbi of Bobov. The warm comfort of Torah study and Sabbath melodies vanished amidst the cold misery of the Mauthausen concentration camp.
But Moshe never lost hope. Whenever he felt ready to crumple under the bitter anguish of hunger and disease, his favorite tune from his rabbi’s Sabbath table would echo in his memory, giving him the strength to go on.
One frigid afternoon in December 1944 the inmates were herded into the showers for “delousing,” then chased back into the camp square for a headcount, dripping and naked in the subzero weather. Claiming a discrepancy in the prisoner count, the Kapos left the Jews to stand shivering on the frozen ground.
An hour ticked by, minute by painful minute. The water on their skin turned to frost. Then, one by one, bodies began to fall.
14-year-old Moshe felt himself freezing to death, and the snow beneath his feet seemed to offer welcome relief from his torment. But in the next moment he heard the Bobover Rebbe’s voice in his ears: “Don’t fall, my young friend. You must survive! A chassid sings; a chassid dances. It is the secret of our survival!”
Moshe began humming his favorite tune. Slowly, his frozen limbs began to move and he began to dance, leaving bloody footprints in the snow, until the Bobover melody warmed his heart and revived his spirit.
THE MUSIC OF EMPTY SPACES
What is the mysterious power of music? And how do we quantify the difference between the melodies that make us smile with tranquil joy, those that make us clap our hands, and those that make us leap to our feet and start to dance?
According to a study published in April by neuroscientists at Denmark’s Aarhus University, our dance reflex may have more to do with the beat that isn’t than with the beat that is.
“[It’s] not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity,” Maria Witek, the study’s lead author, told NPR, “but the patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity.”
In other words, songs that have layered rhythm — a repetitive underlying beat that merges with a syncopated pattern interrupted by rhythmic gaps — entice our minds to fill in those empty spaces with our own creative expressions. Too much regularity and the brain can find nothing to add; too little regularity and the brain can’t figure out how to engage.
This study may have a basis in Torah. The 18th Century Torah giant Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch defines the grammatical root rokad which we translate as “dance,” as having the connotation of skipping or frolicking. There is an experimental playfulness that manifests itself in the natural human desire to fill in empty spaces, dark corners, and awkward silences. When we feel something is missing, our creative juices start flowing in ways that often have to be stemmed by our more cautious impulses and our better judgment. But we dare not stifle those inclinations, lest the fear of taking chances causes us to miss out on priceless opportunities. Always, we strive for balance.
Traditionally, rokad means to dance in a circle, symbolizing the coming together of beginnings and endings, the totality of the human condition as bounded by the circumference of the material world, and our interdependence upon one another in fulfillment of a shared destiny. There is a sense of completion in a circle, of restored unity and achieved purpose. We dance with joy upon attaining the feeling of security that comes from filling in the gaps, tying off loose ends, and imposing order on chaos; we revel in the blended satisfaction of finishing one task in preparation for the new mission that lies ahead.
THE CIRCLE OF THE RIGHTEOUS
A famous Talmudic passage seems to bear this out. Ulla, in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, foretells that with the arrival of the messianic era, the righteous will dance together in a circle and, while the Almighty sits at the center in the Garden of Eden, each will point and proclaim, “Behold, this is our G-d.”
According to Chassidic teachings, every tzaddik — every truly righteous person — fears that his own service of G-d is imperfect or incomplete; nevertheless, he finds solace in the certainty that others more righteous than he have perfected their own service in absolute fulfillment of the Divine will. But at the end of days, teaches Ulla, G-d will show every tzaddik that his divine service was accepted and acceptable; each tzaddik will see that, irrespective of his trepidations, his own personal path was proper and correct.
Ironically, it is the very self-doubt of these tzaddikim that pushes them to new levels of spiritual refinement and self-knowledge. It is the conflict and the tension between the perceived and the hidden that drives them on in pursuit of ultimate truth and self-perfection. They know that they will never reach absolute enlightenment — the “center of the circle” — but they never stop trying to bring illumination to the dark and empty places of this world.
The Festival of Sukkos culminates in the holiday of Shemini Atzeres, when synagogues transform from houses of quiet reverence to halls of joyous song and dance. The Chassidic tradition explains further why we celebrate this on this day by dancing in circles: this is our celebration of the “marriage” of the Jewish people and the Torah and, as we join together circling a common point of focus, we experience for a brief moment the light of absolute unity and absolute truth.
Rabbi Zev Leff expands on this idea, observing that as the righteous change positions and look toward the center, they “see” G-d from the perspective of those around them.
Simultaneously, they will be able to appreciate that the different styles and approaches of others were not only correct but filled the gaps in their own service. As we dance, we look forward with joy the End of Days when the Divine will is completely revealed and every man, woman, and child witnesses the fulfillment of the prophecy, “They will no longer have to teach — each man his fellow, each man his brother… for all of them will know Me” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
THE MELODY OF CREATION
But those words of Jeremiah are for days yet to come, and attaining that future depends upon navigating an ever-shifting course between the familiar and the unknown, the expected and the mysterious. The rhythm of our lives can lull us into a sense of complacency and false comfort if its beats are too regular, or can confound us into paralysis if its cadence defies logic and predictability.
As a template for the challenge that defines our existence, G-d created three types of creatures: malachim, animals, and human beings.
A malach is a being of pure spirituality (translated imprecisely as angel), residing in such proximity to the unfiltered divine radiance of the Almighty that there is no room for individual ego or individual desire.
The spiritual “music” that a malach hears is so structured, so complete, so insistently harmonious that a malach has no free will; it can do nothing other than conform to the will of its Creator.
On the other extreme are animals, which are so distant from G-d that they can do nothing other than follow the physical urgings of instinct and nature. The “music” they hear is completely unstructured, rendering them effectively deaf to any higher calling.
In the middle there is Man, a creature uniquely suspended between the heavens and the earth, possessing a spiritual soul encased in a physical body, pulled heavenward by the promptings of his divine nature and weighed down by the animalistic impulses of his material environment, locked in an eternal struggle wherein each of his inclinations vies for supremacy over the other.
We perceive just enough to know the truth, and just enough is hidden from us so that we can deny the truth. The music we hear has an inescapable rhythm, but with gaps and spaces that require our participation if we want to fully appreciate its harmonies.
If we disengage, our animal nature takes over, shutting us off from the Divine. If we rise to the occasion, we reach a level higher than any malach, for we have reached it on our own through the self-determination of free will.
As the Jewish people were bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem for the first time, King David danced with such abandon that his wife Michal chastised him for an unseemly display of joy. But David was not rebuffed.
After a lifetime checkered by dark episodes and painful uncertainty, David was on the threshold of fulfilling his purpose as King of Israel. His whole life had been a “dance” in response to trials and tribulations. After all those challenges had led him to this consummation, what else could he do but dance for joy?
King David’s message should guide us through the Festival season and onward with each and every day. In moments of cacophony and seeming chaos, listen for the rhythm of Creation, hold fast onto the order that defines a life of Torah study and observance, and take joy in the opportunity to rise above the noise and confusion using the unique talents and opportunities that the Creator has given you.
Dance with joy, and joy will make you dance.
These are the conclusions of the World Values Survey (WVS), published this past July  in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. “Researchers measured happiness [in 97 nations] by simply asking people how happy they were, and how satisfied they were with their lives as a whole.”
Based upon survey results, researchers concluded that happiness derives from increased personal freedom, prosperity, and social tolerance. Evidently, it is the acquisition of wealth and the opportunity to use it as one wants without social criticism that makes us happy.
Upon reading these results, Anton Kaiser wondered if something was not rotten in the state of Denmark. The retired career army officer did some research and reported his findings in the Dakota Voice: “Denmark, Puerto Rico, and Colombia are highly literate democracies (98%, 94%, and 93% literacy, respectively), whose people speak primarily one language (Danish, Spanish, and Spanish, respectively), and who are overwhelmingly Christian (Lutheran 90%, Catholic 85%, and Catholic 85%, respectively).”
Kaiser wondered why these statistics did not lead researchers to conclude that opportunity, education, common culture, and religious commitment might have been the relevant criteria for producing happiness. But he didn’t wonder for very long.
THE CITY OF HAPPINESS IS FOUND IN THE STATE OF MIND
Denmark has topped the WVS list of happiest countries for years. The salient characteristics of Danish culture include legalized abortion, legalized prostitution, legalized drug use, legalized same-sex unions. The majority of Scandinavian countries — namely Norway, Sweden, and Iceland — have similarly “relaxed” social mores, and all rank high on the happiness scale. Of course, it may be mere coincidence that the WVS Association has its headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden.
Kaiser began searching for other factors common to the three highest-ranking countries. He also wondered why Puerto Rico — a province of the United States — had been ranked as a country at all.
“I discovered that Colombia began legalizing abortion in 2006, and in 2007 extended social security and health insurance benefits to same-sex couples, and on April 17, 2008, extended pension benefits to same-sex partners … I then analyzed Puerto Rico and, sure enough, its legislature had just rejected a gay marriage ban in June 2008.” It may simply be another coincidence that the WVS rankings came out the following month.
Then again, it may be that the WVS Association is pushing an aggressive social agenda by asserting that happiness is proportional to social permissiveness and inversely proportional to traditional values. One might easily imagine that any addict visiting a den of drugs and prostitution with no fear of legal, social, or economic consequences would rate his own happiness quotient off the charts.
DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF SATISFACTION
The sages of the Talmud address the question of happiness with pithy insightfulness: Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with his portion. In contrast to the researchers who concluded that wealth produces happiness, the sages observe that happiness is the source of true wealth. One need not look far to discover that many wealthy people endure miserable lives, where many who barely scrape by enjoy lives of joy and fulfillment.
Furthermore, the sages consider a person wealthy because he is happy with his portion — not because he is satisfied. Satisfaction results from the attainment of a goal and is usually fleeting; often, we experience sharp pangs of melancholy after the initial rush that accompanies success. Conversely, happiness results from striving toward a goal that is both attainable and worthwhile. It is this struggle that makes us truly happy, and a life spent striving for goals of intrinsic value is a life of immeasurable happiness.
Indulging every whim and impulse may prove pleasurable, but such pleasure-seeking will merely distract one from the lack of purpose that would otherwise make life intolerable. One who anesthetizes himself with chemical substances and sensory stimulation may deaden his receptors to the paralyzing pain of futility, but he knows nothing of real happiness.
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
The holiday of Sukkos, which follows Rosh HaShonah and Yom Kippur, has been described by the sages as zman simchaseinu — the season of our happiness. A curious appellation for a holiday characterized by exposure to the cool winds of approaching winter beneath a roof of palm branches and bamboo, without either the comforts of the living room or the amusement of electronic entertainment.
Strictly speaking, there is no prohibition against DVDs, video games, or web-surfing in the sukkah, but the spirit of the holiday clearly discourages such distractions. The sukkah — even when elaborately decorated — is essentially a structure of austerity, evoking the distant collective memory of our ancestors wandering through the desert with only simple huts for shelter.
Even by the standards of way back then, the thatched roofs of those Jewish dwellings provided little security. Rather, it was the Clouds of Glory, the manifestation of the Divine Presence, that protected the Jews in that foreboding wilderness and kept them safe from the inimical creatures and hostile elements that threatened them on every side. In the absence of material comfort, with only the manna from heaven to sustain them, the Jews experienced the most profound spiritual joy of divine intimacy with their Creator.
For what purpose did the Almighty engineer the miraculous exodus from Egyptian slavery, hand down His law at Sinai, and lead the Jews toward the land He had promised their forefathers? To light up the world with the glory of heaven, to radiate divine wisdom and justice throughout the world, to inspire all nations to accept the yoke of morality and virtue.
The sukkah is a microcosm of the world — unfinished and incomplete. It is here, sitting in his humble sukkah, that a Jew today can experience true happiness by rediscovering the unique sense of meaning that comes from being a partner in Creation. After the judgment of Rosh HaShonah and the atonement of Yom Kippur, after struggling to touch the heights of true spiritual awareness, the holiday of Sukkos brings us back down to earth, reminding us that freedom and wealth become the source of genuine happiness when we see them not as ends in themselves but as tools to use in pursuit of a higher purpose.
Two roads diverged in a wood and I –
I split the difference; don’t ask me why.
The truth of it is, I don’t remember why I strayed from the path.
No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was the second day of a five-day walking trip I had mapped out across the Lake District in northern England, hoping to channel the spirit of William Wordsworth and find inspiration in the exquisite British landscape.
But after the deflating experience of my first day’s outing, I should have been far more circumspect before turning down the road of impetuosity.
My little adventure began as I sallied forth from the youth hostel in Kendal for a twelve-mile hike to Windermere. I had plenty of backpacking experience, having twice hiked the Grand Canyon and once crested the Sierra Nevada. So I felt no cause for concern as I set off on this leisurely ramble along well-trodden trails.
The first lesson I might have remembered from my backpacking days was that any hike requires preparation.
Published in this month’s issue of The Wagon Magazine
What would Gandhi say?
There’s not much question, really. The icon of civil disobedience disdained every form of violence. He most certainly would have condemned riotous demonstrations protesting any courtroom verdict, no matter how unpalatable. So would Martin Luther King.
It’s easy to understand why many St. Louis residents took to the streets over the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. Officer Stockley’s comments and conduct raised serious questions about the credibility of his own testimony. And civil protest is one of the foundational principles of a free society.
But on the other hand, the shooting followed the high-speed pursuit of a suspected heroin dealer, and video footage failed to substantiate the claim that Officer Stockley planted a weapon. In the end, Judge Timothy Wilson concluded that there was insufficient evidence for conviction.
So did Jason Stockley get away with murder? We may never know. But that’s not the point.
TO ERR IS HUMAN
We all know that our justice system is imperfect, as any system designed and implemented by human beings must be. Sometimes honest people make mistakes. Sometimes authority is corrupt. Sometimes the truth hides its face, and sometimes we have to accept that justice can be painfully blind.
It’s what we do next that matters most.
Some respond to frustration by venting their anger on whatever target crosses their path – in this case, by smashing the windows of 23 storefronts in my hometown, the St. Louis suburb of University City.
But from these senseless acts of misdirected destruction emerged an exquisite silver lining, an example of how human beings can discover within themselves true nobility in the face of injustice.
The morning after the carnage, volunteers appeared on the streets and began sweeping up the broken glass and boarding up the broken windows with plywood. But even at that, the kindness of strangers had only just begun.
Before long, local artists showed up to paint the plywood panels, transforming stark reminders of wanton violence into beautiful murals of friendship and neighborhood harmony.
FACING THE FUTURE
This week, the Jewish community stands between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, between the Day of Judgment and the Day of Atonement. On those awesome days, we gather together in prayer, one people with one heart, to recite the High Holiday prayers. And as the liturgy rises to a crescendo, it impels us to ponder the uncertain future that awaits us in the coming year:
Who will live and who will die; who by water and who by fire; who by the sword or wild beast, who by famine or thirst; who by storm or plague or violence. Who will rest and who will wander; who will have peace and who will suffer; who will be poor and who will have wealth; who will be cast down and who will be raised high.
We have no idea what the future holds. Ultimately, we have no control over where fortune will take us. What we do control, however, is how we respond to our own fortunes and the fortunes of our fellows.
When we see our neighbors in distress, will we drop everything and hurry to their aid? When we behold injustice, will we add to injustice by lashing out impulsively? Or will we stand shoulder to shoulder in a show of solidarity?
And when we witness senseless suffering, will we close our eyes and harbor vengeance in our hearts, or will we resolve inwardly to do better ourselves, to ensure that we never contribute to the problems of the world but apply our energies toward finding solutions?
There is so much good in the world from which to find inspiration. And while some may add to the darkness with misdirected violence, let us call upon ourselves to rise to every challenge, to shine bright so we can inspire others to shine themselves.
Nobody likes fundraising dinners. The speeches are dry, the menu is dull, and the seating arrangements seem to have been drawn up by the Marquis de Sade. No one looks forward to these affairs, and we attend them only out of a sense of obligation.
Since one dinner I attended last year, however, I have become more wary than ever of this kind of event.
The evening began unremarkably and proceeded unremarkably — up to a point. The food was better than usual, the speeches ran longer than usual, the company was as good as could be hoped for, and I never saw the dinner plate that slipped from the tray of the passing waiter and struck me squarely on the forehead.
“I didn’t hit you, did I?” asked the waiter in response to the alarmed gasps and cries from the people who shared my table, several of whom assured him that he had, indeed, scored a direct hit.
“Are you all right?” he asked, inevitably. A silly question, really.
A pound-and-a-half of glazed ceramic packs quite a wallop after accelerating at thirty-two feet-per-second-squared from a height of six feet in the air.
At least I was still conscious, still sitting upright, and I didn’t think I was bleeding.
“Get a doctor,” someone said.
“He doesn’t need a doctor,” said someone else. “Get him a lawyer.”
The manager arrived with an ice pack. “Here, take this.”
“I was hoping for scotch with my ice,” I said.
He laughed, but didn’t bring me any scotch. “I’ll need your name and address, sir,” he said, handing me a pen and paper.
“Don’t sign anything,” yelled someone from the next table.
I scribbled my vital statistics. “I’m really very sorry, sir,” he said.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Just the scotch.” He laughed again and went away. I had figured the manager would offer me vouchers for a complimentary night’s stay. He hadn’t. (I never even got a letter of apology.) I hadn’t gotten my whisky, either.
I began regaining my bearings to a medley of more lawsuit jokes. From across the table, however, my next door neighbor offered the only profound comment of the evening: “What were you thinking about before you got hit?”
I knew exactly what he meant. According to Talmudic philosophy, there are no accidents, no coincidences, no random events. Everything comes about through the guiding hand of Divine Providence, the spiritual imperative that governs how the external world acts upon each and every one of us. In other words, if I got smacked on the head, I must have had it coming to me.
This is a far cry from the popular notion that whatever I want, I have coming to me. As much as contemporary culture may insist that privileges and entitlements are birthrights, the Talmud recognizes only our responsibilities, both to other individuals and to society. When we live up to our obligations, we may expect certain rewards to come our way. But if we do receive an apparently undeserved blow, great or small, we should assume that the equilibrium of the cosmic scales of justice somehow needed to be set back in balance, and we should reflect upon the message that has just been sent us from on high.
Sometimes we can easily identify a concrete lesson to glean from such mishaps. Other times not. But the principle holds, even when we can’t perceive any clear cause and effect: this was necessary; now we need to brush ourselves off and get on with life.
The traditional Yom Kippur liturgy provides a poignant example in its narrative concerning Rabbi Ishmael, the High Priest, who was cruelly tortured to death at the whim of the Roman governor’s daughter.
The heavenly court protested in outrage before the throne of G-d: “Is this the reward for living a life committed to holiness?” they demanded.
“Be silent!” commanded the Almighty, “or I will return the world to void and nothingness.”
The incomparable 18th century genius, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, explains G-d’s reply with this allegory:
A king once received a gift of fine Turkish wool, the most luxurious fabric in the world. It was so beautiful, in fact, that the king could not bear to think that even a tiny piece of it should end up as scrap on the cutting floor. He went to every tailor in his kingdom and asked each to make him a suit without letting even one thread of the wool go to waste. But every tailor claimed that such a feat was beyond his ability.
Finally, the king found a tailor who agreed to do the job. When the king returned to the tailor’s shop on the appointed date, he discovered that the tailor had indeed produced an exceptional suit of clothes. The king was elated.
“But have you fulfilled your promise?” asked the king. “Did you use every thread?”
“You really don’t know,” answered the tailor. “And the only way you will ever will find out is if you tear your beautiful suit apart and lay out all the pieces in the original shape of the fabric.”
Similarly, we often think that life is full of unfair knocks or is missing essential pieces. But to know for sure, we would have to see all of human history undone before our eyes. Only then would we have the right to assert that there were flaws in the slow sculpture of creation.
The days from Rosh HaShonnah to Yom Kippur — the traditional season of judgment — afford us the opportunity to strengthen our trust that the Master Tailor has done His job well, that He has stitched together the fabric of eternity according to a plan He understands far better than we do — even when bricks, or china plates, fall out of the sky upon our heads.
Should I have sued the hotel? the waiter? the school holding the event? the principal, who was speaking when I got hit? No doubt, I could have found any number of lawyers eager to take the case. If a woman could receive 4 million dollars for spilling a cup of coffee in her own lap, this should be worth at least as much.
But life is full of honest accidents resulting in superficial scrapes and bruises. It’s better for us (and better instruction for our children) to look for what we can learn from life’s bumps and knocks, not to look for whom we can blame and how much we can squeeze out of them.
The waiter returned, contrite and apologetic, perhaps more shaken than I was. “In twelve years this has never happened to me,” he said. Evidently, he also had a date with Providence. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”
“I wouldn’t mind a scotch on the rocks.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
He did. It wasn’t four million dollars, but it was better than a knock on the head.