Friday, October 24, 2014

Afternoon with a Rabbi

My friend Marsha and I were discussing anti-Semitism. Well, I was discussing anti-Semitism and pulled Marsha into it because she is both Jewish and unlikely to be offended when I start asking questions. I asked Marsha to introduce me to a local rabbi and she suggested that I speak with Neumiro daSilva. We met in a Panera as he ate lunch.
Neumiro is both a rabbi and a Class A general contractor. His rabbinical duties include officiating at weddings and funerals, Bar & Bat Mitzvah tutoring, Shabbat & holiday service music (he plays guitar), teaching the Torah, consoling the sick, dying and bereaved and general counseling. As a builder, he focuses on home improvements such as custom decks, porches, fences, kitchens, bathrooms and such. I suppose he is building something either way.
Neumiro opens strongly, jumping into theology immediately after looking clearly and openly into my eyes, studying me. He throws out the word spirituality and then notes that it contains the word ritual: "Judaism is ritual". That is a good mneumonic, but not linguistically accurate. The English word comes from the Latin spiritualis, from spiritus "of breathing". Ritual, on the other hand, shares the same root as the English word rite. Both stem from the Latin ritualis from ritus, suggesting a usage of something, particularly in a religious context. The linguistic sleight of hand makes me wary. Was it intentional, meant to be just a useful way to think about Judaism or was he repeating something that he had heard without checking his sources? I may never know. As Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman and author, so keenly observed, "Nothing so baffles the scientific approach to human nature as the vital role words play in human affairs."
Neumiro's point is that one may be Jewish without believing in God. Ritual is the thing. He does believe in God.. It doesn't bother him if others don't. "God believes in you", he says. I have heard that before and am not offended.
Neumiro was raised Catholic in Brazil. His mother converted to Seventh Day Adventism when he was a child. She simply came home one day and announced that the family was now all Seventh Day. Neumiro was confused by that. At 25 years old, Neumiro met a young woman who claimed to be of the Seventh Day faith. She was 20. He brought her home. "Hey, Mom! I met this wonderful girl and she's Seventh Day!" Only later did he discover that she was from a Jewish family. Fern was also American and the happily married young couple moved to the United States. He converted to Judaism eleven years later and eventually became a rabbi.
Neumiro's English is heavily accented in the way that an Iberian language filtered through dense jungle can be. He says the word "Judaism" almost continuously but pronounces it "Judaísmo" as in his native language.
His rabbinical training was taken in New York but required him to travel to Israel to walk the land of the Torah. He was fascinated to discover a "garden of death" perched against the city walls of Jerusalem. The garden was dedicated to a God that occasionally asked for the sacrifice of children. That got him thinking about the story of Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son, Isaac. "Was God testing Abraham or was Abraham testing God?", he asked. I said that I am very comfortable with the idea that Abraham was testing God. Many people, including atheists, test God. We watch people every day ask, "Is God there?" This fits in easily with an atheist perspective. I have never experienced God testing anyone. Neumiro also thinks that Abraham was testing God, which is why he brought it up.
On evolution: Most Jews accept evolution. Neumiro notes that the Catholic Church accepts evolution, but most Catholics and Protestants he knows (and that I know) do not. This is especially true in the United States, but also in South America.
On Genesis: Neumiro notes that woman was God's second act of creation in relation to humans. His point was lost in translation. I sincerely hope that he doesn't infer something along the lines of the New Testament's 1 Timothy 2:12, where Paul puts women in their supposed place, but I'm not sure.
The God of Judaísmo, says Neumiro, is not a loving God. "He is in a bad mood all the time. I like that." If the God of the Torah wants people to move to a land, or an enemy to be destroyed, the people have to do it for Him. "God asks us to do his dirty work." Hah! That's a nice metaphor. Nobody is going to do anything for you. You will need to get out and do it for yourself. It reminds me of Mahatma Ghandi's famous quote, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I tell this to Neumiro and he responds, "Martin Luther King, too. 'I have a dream' and all that. You must do it."
"Elohim is God", Neumiro says into the natural pause, "which in Hebrew starts with an aleph. The aleph in Hebrew is sometimes silent when a vowel is not present. You must seek. That is, you must add a vowel yourself to make a sound in order for God to speak to you." That is a beautiful metaphor but my atheist mind wants to say something along of lines of, "If you need to do all the work yourself and make the sounds yourself for God to speak, what purpose exactly does God serve?". But I don't. To do that would be to fall into the same trap of literalism that I rail against. Be happy with the beautiful metaphor, I think.
How can God be everywhere? Neumiro answers his own question with an analogy. No matter where you stand on Earth, he says, you look up and you can see the sun. I don't mention nighttime. That would be rude and really quite unproductive. If you are somewhere else, anywhere else, in the world, you can look up and see the same sun. That's how God can be everywhere. I'm not sure how to take this one. Were I only a few stars away, or even between here and, say, our nearest neighboring star, our sun wouldn't look like anything special. From the Andromeda galaxy, it would effectively have ceased to exist. And Andromeda is close, astronomically speaking. This story reminds me of how effective analogy can be when restricted to a purely human scale. It would have worked wonders during the Bronze Age, I see that. My modern, educated mind jumps to poke holes in it in terms of scale, and in terms of movement. I know that I am not stationary. The sun is big only from my puny perspective.
Neumiro moves on to the story of Babel. It doesn't matter how it happened, he thinks. Something happened. The story recorded what more than how. It is a perspective that I appreciate. He is trying to find middle ground with me and he succeeded. He probably thought he lost me with God being everywhere.
The story of Cain and his younger brother Abel comes up next. How could it not? We are on a stroll through the twisted paths of the Torah, as if the pages had been flung far into the air and we were coming upon one random one and then another. Judaísmo requires that a witness be produced or a crime cannot be punished. There was no witness to Cain's murdering of Abel, says Neumiro, and so Cain could not be punished. There is the lesson - it is a recording of an aspect of Jewish law.
Was Cain not punished? The Christians and Muslims seem to think so. My Revised Standard Version of the Bible, hardly a canonical reference, states that Cain was "cursed from the ground" and he "shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth." Yet it also says that God marked him to protect him from harm by others (What others? Who are these others that are not Adam and Eve's children - we are not told - another indication that the earliest biblical stories are the folk tales of a tribe), and that he goes to the land of Nod and builds a city. The Islamic version seems on the surface to agree that Cain was a murderer and punished, but its location (in Book 5, section 5, entitled "Cain and Abel - murderous plots against the Prophet") have lead some scholars to suggest that the reference is more to the otherwise well-known story of Cain and Abel and not a retelling. A contemporary allegory may have been the thing.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell hinges his reading on the fact that Cain was a farmer and Abel a herder. God liked the offering of Abel better, which caused the fight in the first place. Campbell dissects the myth in relation to the murder motifs of many early planting myths of tropical societies and comes to the conclusion that the myth is in many ways backward from its peers. "Here the murder motif does not precede, but follows, the end of the mythological age, in contrast to the sequence in all the primitive myths. Moreover, it has been transformed to render a duplication of the Fall motif. The ground no longer bears to Cain its strength and he is to wander on the face of the earth - which is, of course, just the opposite result to that which the ritual murder of the agricultural myth produced." (Occidental Mythology, Arkana Penguin, 1964, pp. 105.) I note that Campbell was also referencing a Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible.
With due respect to the scholarship of others, I wonder, as I so often do, if the point of the story isn't easier than all that. The story of Cain and Abel undoubtedly was recorded by early Hebrews in a desert climate. Campbell himself notes later (pp. 106) the existence of a Sumerian cuneiform text of c. 2050 BCE in which a goddess prefers a farmer over a herder. "One millennium later", says Campbell, "the patriarchal desert nomads arrived, and all judgements were reversed in heaven, as on earth." One immediately notes the similarity to the Chinese concept of actions on earth mirroring actions in heaven. Perhaps climate change, locally caused by over-farming or irrigation as in so much of the ancient Mediterranean, from the silting of the harbor of Athens to the "granary of Rome" that was once Libya, was to blame for the Sumerian withdrawal and the ascendance of the nomadic herders. But times changed again. The ancestral memory of God might have preferred herders by the time of the recording of Genesis, but Cain was the farmer (again) who lived, albeit in a different land "far to the East". Farmers do not eat as well (they are "cursed from the ground"), and are therefore not as healthy as their herding cousins, but their settled ways allow them to feed more children. Farmers, unlike herders, do not traditionally practice infanticide. Populations rise (Cain founded his city) and eventually the unhappy farmer takes over, much to the herding God's chagrin.
At any event, one must be careful when playing a game of telephone over three millennia. I try this on Neumiro. He is unimpressed.
Why do educated people so often fail to follow up on new perspectives or respond to newly available knowledge? One reason often discussed in the media is that new perspectives can threaten outlooks that are based upon so-called revealed knowledge. Another and possibly better reason have been known to psychologists since the 1940s: The Einstellung Effect. The Einstellung Effect is a natural consequence of the way your brain functions that literally (yes, literally) blinds you to new experiences and better judgements, descriptions or solutions when the one you have settled on is already "good enough". In other words, if your brain is not forced into cognitive dissonance then you don't feel the need for cognitive closure. You just won't revisit the issue. A recent study reported in Scientific American provides more detail on the causes and mechanisms of the effect.
The Einsteillung Effect alone is not sufficient to explain all of cultural history. There are other factors. Another important one may be the cycles in larger society. There would seem to be several of these cycles of longer and shorter time scales. The fascinating 2009 book Secular Cycles [AmazonGoodreads] by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov describes some of economic and especially population-driven cycles without particular reference to religion. Alternatively, the anthropologist Marvin Harris, writing in the 1970s, described a longer religious thought cycle that he dubbed the messiah/witch cycle. In his fun little book Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches [AmazonGoodreads] Harris traces the rise of "messiah" cultures, where the idea of a "a final and decisive struggle" is promised to "achieve redemption and salvation on a cosmic scale", and "witch" cultures, where (I dare not say "in which") the dominant idea is "a lifestyle dreamwork whose social function is to dissolve and fragment the energies of dissent." Put another way, the messiah/witch cycle takes us from everyone joining to everyone doing their own thing and back again. Monotheistic Judaism and more literalist progeny Christianity and Islam are stalwarts of the messiah archetype. They fight against the witch wherever it arises, be that in post-medieval Europe or in the mid-twentieth century "counterculture".
Do we have any hope of escaping such cycles? Nobody is certain how our unprecedented scientific explorations and creation of technology will impact them. Harris suggested:
I make no claim for the millenarian splendors that will come from a better understanding of the causes of lifestyle phenomena. Yet there is a sound basis for assuming that by struggling to demystify our ordinary consciousness we shall improve the prospects for peace and economic and political justice. If this potential change of odds in our favor be ever so slight, I think, we must regard the expansion of scientific objectivity into the domain of lifestyle riddles as a moral imperative. It's the only thing that's never been tried.
All of this flashes through my mind as Neumiro takes me on a tour of Bronze Age thought. It works. Humans, after all, haven't changed much if at all. Our only real change has been cultural. Our culture is currently more amorphous, more under stress, from the process of globalization as we are forced against our will to recognize that other humans with other ideas are as human as we are. It makes people uncomfortable. Those Bronze Age ways of defining an in-group and, unavoidably, the out-group serve to bind people into a covenant of comfort in a changing and dangerous world.
Neumiro returns to the story of Cain and Abel. "God asks for a sacrifice and then changes His mind. That reminds us that we can also change our minds." Does he mean that God changed his mind because he didn't accept Cain's sacrifice? "Yes." That may be so. It is certainly a plausible reading and, like so much of what Neumiro has said, it is a nice metaphor. The entire conversation reminds me why I get along better with more Jews than Christians. I can appreciate the metaphors while still rejecting their god. They don't generally seem to be upset about that. Christians uncomfortably insist on proselytizing. No doubt that is why there are more Christians than Jews. I still find it annoying.
"You don't need to go to the synagogue to pray.", Neumiro continues. "Life is about feelings." The synagogue is a tool to help you reach those feelings that make you feel in touch with the rest of the world. Fair enough.
"Judaism, reform, orthodox, conservative, changes constantly. They do not believe what they did even ten years ago." I wonder about the rise of fundamentalist Islam and Christianity. Evangelical Christians have certainly changed their thinking dramatically in my lifetime, at least in the US. They are, as a group, much more vocal in politics and thus more insistent upon having their views reflected in the laws of the land. I'm not certain about radical Islam. The radical fringes of both religions claim to be returning to the basics of their religion. I know for a fact that they are doing no such thing in Christianity. But Islam? I suspect that Islam is suffering from its incredibly detailed early literature and history. Islam simply got started late and is better documented than either Judaism or Christianity. Perhaps that gets in the way of people changing their thoughts to match new situations. We have never in the history of the world encountered such a radical global change as we have now, especially in the pace of scientific and thus technological advancement. Those unable to close their cognitive dissonance in a flexible way are naturally stuck. It is easier to burn down the house than map its rapidly changing rooms.
This ability to adapt and change seems to be central to the Jewish experience. They are so few, surrounded by so many, and scattered literally over the face of the Earth. I know several Jews who know of no other Jews in their town. Lucky are those who live near a synagogue. The ability to adapt their religion to their immediate needs has no doubt been both a source of strength and a guarantee of a sort that their is a community out there somewhere to which they belong. Christians and Muslims, each strong majorities in many countries, do not face the world's uncertainties with such resolve. The senseless persecution of members of those religions causes large-scale outcry. The Jews are, outside of Israel, left to adapt.
It is always easier to take the side of a minority. I get along with US-based Muslims better than I do with US-based evangelical Christians and with Indian Christians better than Indonesian Muslims. Certainly US Christians were more careful in their public views during their fractious minority in the Enlightenment than they are currently in their majority. I commented upon this in more depth in my review of Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism [AmazonGoodreads].
It may in fact be time for Islam to revive its "lost tradition of independent thinking", know as ijtihad, as Irshad Manji suggested in The Trouble with Islam Today [AmazonGoodreads]. That would certainly help moderate Muslims combat the growing fundamentalism in their own communities. Harking back to Islam's intellectual golden age of roughly 900-1200 CE instead of ancient tribal rivalries also wouldn't hurt. I have no idea what the Christians could do. Protestant Christianity shows no sign of returning to the authoritarian fold of Catholicism and in its insistence that each individual can reach God directly promotes a sort of democratic acceptance of ignorance that sits poorly with the new science. Protestantism is in fact a form of Harris' witch culture in spite of its messianistic promises.
"That's why I don't like the Talmud!", declares Neumiro. I think back. The Talmud contains a record of generations of rabbinical thinking. It records interpretations of the Torah and how challenges to Jewish life have been met for generations. It is roughly equivalent to Islam's Hadith. I do not know of a similar concept in Christianity. "The rules are so strict! Think about a traffic light. It can be red, yellow or green. Do you speed through a red or yellow light if you have someone behind you who will rear-end you if you stop? The Orthodox say no! You will break a commandment!" He is excited at this point. "The Talmud says 'no'. I say 'of course!'"
I am reminded of my wife's thought that you can make heaven or hell for yourself right here, right now. By stopping at the light, you will make hell not only for yourself, but for the people behind you. You will cause them to repair their car at a minimum. Someone might even be hurt or killed. My atheistic, at least partially Utilitarian, philosophy appreciates Neumiro's position.
The mention of my wife brings Neumiro to his. He is honest about both the joys and frustrations of marriage. He congratulates me with a hearty "Mazel tov!" when I mention that we just celebrated our twentieth anniversary. "We are at thirty", he says. "Do you know that some Jews like to break the glass at weddings? It is not about throwing something away. I tell people that they need to pick up the pieces every day, try to put it back together again." It is yet another living metaphor. This is a fun conversation.
"What does it mean to you that we are created in God's image?", I ask. Neumiro thinks for a moment. "There is a kid's song." He hums for a few seconds. "I don't know how to sing it in English. It says, 'my spirit and my soul'. What is the difference between a spirit and a soul? When you sleep, your soul wanders." Suddenly, we are back to the Bronze Age. Does he mean that it literally wanders or is this another metaphor for dreaming and free association during memory formation? It is hard to tell. I recall a conversation with a Methodist minister in Northern Virginia where I tried to pin him down on Biblical literalism. He squirmed out of it every time like some kind of ecclesiastical snake, not of course in a Garden of Eden way. His genius is to avoid traps from people like me. He let his partitioners believe in a literal Jesus if they wanted to. He challenged no one.
"The spirit is your breathing. God gave Adam life by breathing it into him." I am reminded of the Sanskrit word prana, which means both "life force" and "breath". The concepts are conflated in yoga practice, in many martial arts and apparently in Judaism.
Neumiro is uncomfortable being Jewish in the US. "Christians say that we are going to hell. Jews don't believe in hell." He mentions the 2012 bombings of synagogues in Newark, New Jersey. He says that Jews regularly receive notes from the FBI telling them to "be alert". One gets the idea that Neumiro is alert. "It is more dangerous in Brazil, though, or Europe." He is right. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor stated in April 2014, is such that "Normative Jewish life in Europe is unsustainable." A late 2013 survey found that almost a third of Europe's Jews were considering emigration as a response to rising anti-Semitism.
The amazingly erudite Christopher Hitchens wrote in his introduction to the 2007 Penguin edition of Rebecca West’s classic but controversial pre-WWII book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon [AmazonGoodreads]:
West reflects on the virus of anti-Semitism, shrewdly locating one of its causes in the fact that “many primitive peoples must receive their first intimation of the toxic quality of thought from Jews. They know only the fortifying idea of religion; they see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism.”
I found that particularly interesting when laid alongside the recent Pew survey How Americans Feel About Religious Groups that demonstrated widespread uneasiness regarding atheists.  Of course, the Pew survey reflects current US values, not historical ones nor those in other countries. It would seem that there is a strong similarity between those who introduce, intentionally or not, doubt into religious convictions. They, we, are naturally vilified.  The underlying evolutionary mechanism is probably human group dynamics, especially the cohesiveness so necessary to the formation of stable tribes.
In spite of some press reports to the contrary, examples of atheist bashing in the US are not uncommon.  Research by Margaret Downey (Discrimination Against Atheists: The Facts) shows that atheists are "losing their jobs, facing abusive family situations, being subjected to organized shunning campaigns in their communities, receiving death threats, and the like." This should not be a surprise. Just like domestic violence, rape, and other socially stigmatizing crimes, it is under reported. I suspect the same is true for anti-Semitism.
We were interrupted by a woman sitting at the next table. "I'm sorry to interrupt your conversation", she says, "but I just wanted to say that I just love the Jewish people." She was concerned that the US "stand by Israel". I wondered whether she was going to inform us that Jesus had been a Jew and indeed she did. "Israel's boundaries were established Biblically", she informed us, no doubt parrotting her Christian minister. It didn't sound like something she had thought of herself. Her name was Sarah. She was sweet in a rather innocent way. "A few of my friends feel the same way." Neumiro was later to pick up on the word "few". "Not many or most", he said. Neumiro gave Sarah a business card. She thanked him. I hesitated, frankly afraid of being too open with a person didn't know and didn't particularly trust.
"Thank you for interrupting", I tried. "It is not often that a Christian, a Jew and an atheist can have a peaceful conversation."
She made pleasant sounds but returned immediately reassure Neumiro that Jews were fine with her. She was not interested in me. I breathed a sigh of relief. They share a god, I thought. At least they have that in common.
I turned back to Neumiro when Sarah left. "I fear the combination of nationalism and fundamental Christianity. It would seem to be an explosive mix. The combination of national socialism and blaming others didn't work out so well. This could turn the same way if we let it."
"God told Abraham to go to a place", Neumiro replied. "He never gave him a destination. Each step Abraham asks where and God says, 'keep going'. The journey is the thing."
We shook hands and parted friends.

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