Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Meaning of Meaning

What is the meaning of life?

At one time or another, all thinking people grapple with a variant of this question. It is a dangerous and subversive question, in a sense; a question that causes one to seek, compels one to challenge, and tears one away from the spider-web of complacency. It is for this very reason that religion seeks to prevent its adherents from asking this question, and it does so by pretending it has the most compelling answer. It is unfortunate to me to see how, as Chasidim, we inculcate our young with the precarious notion that meaning is only to be found in God and religion. An obviously erroneous idea, but so powerful and appealing that once caught, like a virus, it is very difficult to shake.

I've never seen the logic in that claim. How is doing everything that an invisible and incomprehensible sky-monster commands somehow moral and meaningful? You are nothing more than a slave following the whims of his owner, toiling in fear of punishment and in hope of reward, and oh yeah, for the "love of thy master." Where is the morality? How is that the pinnacle of meaning?

"Subverting your desires," the adherents of this mind-numbing atrocity claim, "for the desires of God -- that is the very height of human achievement." How much more so, then, if instead of subverting our desires for the benefit of an imaginary being -- who, even according to believers, has no real needs or desires and can gain nothing from our meaningless actions -- we subvert them for the benefit of very real beings who have real needs and desires and have a tremendous amount to gain? How much more admirable that is! Expending energy placating an invisible bogeyman with ancient rituals doesn't seem especially moral to me. Instead, take away from the time and energy spent chasing your desires and go help the needy, visit the sick, feed the hungry, brighten the melancholy, take out the garbage, and save the world. That is true morality!

"Expressing ultimate fealty to your creator is the height of human accomplishment!" so goes an alternate version of the theory above. But why? Any creator sophisticated enough to create such an amazing machine can have no use for my stupid, vacuous and necessarily limited attempts at fealty. It can have no affect on Her! "It is for your own good, not for the creator's," the hangers-on will argue. How is this a laudable accomplishment, then? For my own good? That is pure selfishness! Fealty should be expressed -- even at the expense of your own comfort -- to humanity as a whole, and to specific humans in particular: friends, family, children, spouse, lover. That is a triumph of the human spirit!

From a very young age, our children are brainwashed to regard any human pursuit outside of Avodas Hashem (service to the Lord) as inherently meaningless. The filthy secular culture, we are repeatedly warned, is adrift in an abyss of purposeless pursuits and worthless endeavors. It is the way of ultimate meaninglessness, darkness, and futility. (Meaning, of course, but never quite mentioning, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.) Only God can add meaning to life.

The tragedy of this lie is not hard to see. What happens when someone fearlessly stares into the mouth of the abyss, and decides he likes it? Rock-and-roll is fun, drugs are pleasant, sex is divine. Never having acquired the skills to negotiate the minefield of self-destructive temptation and never having the chance to rethink the meaning of meaning, mindless hedonism, nihilism, guilt, depression, and aimlessness are his likely lot. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a cruel and terrible lie foisted on the unsuspecting and malleable minds of our youth.

The pure logic of "love others as you would yourself," an eminently reasonable rule once we realize we are all truly equal, is suddenly -- to those who never had the opportunity to think about it in this way -- lost when divorced of the idea of an enforcing deity. Any suggestion that altruism is also possible, nay, only truly possible without a belief in God and an ultimate reward will be met with a look of contempt and incredulousness. A suggestion that real meaning is derived by bringing happiness to other humans and not to Gods will garner the same reaction. Unconscionable!

But you know what? We don't need the promise of ultimate reward and the threat of ultimate punishment to bring meaning into our lives. Basking in the glow of an incomprehensible feminine Deity-figure (Shechinah) for all eternity is bound to get tedious anyway. I bet that after only, say, ten billion years one is bound to die of boredom. Even if, as rumor has it, Her skin never wrinkles. I'd rather take my chances and bask in the glow of a (sometimes) comprehensible feminine deity-figure in this world, not in the next.

And punishment? O Yahweh mighty son of El, whatever I may have done, I have nothing on you. The depths of your depravity is impossible to fathom with our puny human minds. Need I enumerate the destruction you have wrought on guiltless children throughout the ages? Plagues, drownings, burnings, impalements, the blood and guts of innocents. The commandments, proudly inscribed in your magnum opus, to murder and kill for any perceived slight against you. And you go around boasting about our father Abraham, who was all ready and eager to murder his own son on your command. You can rest assured that you'll never get me to do that! Kill? No thanks. You want him dead? Do it yourself, O omnipotent one!

So, in the end, what brings meaning to human life? Remember the golden rule. Do whatever you can to increase human knowledge, so you can leave the world in a better condition than the one you found it in. Be altruistic, so you'll be the cause of more happiness than the opposite. Help others, so you increase compassion in this world. Be selfless, so you, and others, can be content. And do it all without waiting for a bag of candies in the hereafter. Let the human spirit soar; it is the path to eternal bliss.

And what about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll? Of course. As long as you don't hurt someone -- or yourself. In the spirit of Purim, gather your associates and dance a little jig, gather round your family and knock back some drinks, and go have hot and passionate monkey-sex with your lover and best friend.

Simches Peerim

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Head in the Sand

Some of my brethren, fellow Chasidishe bloggers, have practically made a sport of something most would consider very unsporting -- burying their heads in the sand. They like to trumpet their faith loudly and stridently, seeing themselves as vociferous defenders of all things Orthodox in general and Chasidish in particular. All the while refusing to engage in rational debate anyone not prone to see things in the exact way they do. That is a failing common to fundamentalists of all stripes, and not something we can ever hope to eradicate. Some people are beyond the reach of reason.

I do not take particular pleasure in knocking others' most cherished beliefs, and I generally do not go around seeking out blogs proclaiming faith in the God of our fathers just so I could attempt to dissuade them of notions I consider hopelessly erroneous and dangerously flawed. Sometimes, however, when one of those self-proclaimed Chasidim puts up an invective filled, inane screed against those "rotten heretics" of the chasidishe persuasion, I am tempted to reply in kind. That is a failing of mine I hope to rectify some day.

That is what happened here ( For some odd reason, that blog owner chose to delete my comment. I'm sure he would love an opportunity to debate his point of view, but doesn't want to upset the sensibilities of other delicate souls reading his blog and give them indigestion -- or worse. Therefore, I've decided to repost my original comment here, in order to give anyone who wants to comment on this issue an opportunity to do so. I'm kind, like that. Here is my deleted reply: (Please make sure to read the original post first, or the following will make no sense. Italics is text quoted from Nuch's original; regular text is my reply.)

"What have I been thinking..."

Always dangerous...

"Their goal is to plant those into every one visits their blog for a good read, the innocent come there just to read something light enjoy and have fun, when in fact they are fed poison, and are caught in a web of 'kefira' and Apikorses."

Are you fond of conspiracy theories in general, or is it only this particular stupidity that caught your fancy? The goal of most blogs, such as it is, is simply to express the opinions, musings, frustrations, and views of the blog owner. There is no cunning scheme to force-feed anyone the "poisonous" truth, as you seem to think. Is your goal with the blog to brainwash others with the lie of Orthodoxy?

"Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own." -John M. Barrie

"These rotten bloggers who are missing the proper education to know what Torah or mitzvahs are "

While that is no doubt true for some, I'd bet many of "those" are better educated in what Torah and mitzvahs are than you are yourself (not to mention less rotten).

"Emunah is something that our parents and grand parents gave their life for"

Some of them did, indeed. However, arguing the truth based on someone else's conviction and sacrifice for that supposed truth is a logical fallacy. (For example, many others gave their life for Christianity -- and Islam. That says nothing as to whether those faiths are true.)

"If one doesn't believe in the thirteen principles of Jewish faith the ANI MAMIN he is officially considered a מין and is not a part of 'klal yisroel'"

A pity, then, that the Rambam himself didn't believe in the simplistic formulation you have in mind. For example, he didn't believe in a gehenom in the afterlife -- and neither did he believe in your conception of gan eden. Or didn't you read his perush on Sanhedrin on which the thirteen principles are based? Talk about not getting a proper education!

"Now, they claim to be intellectual apikorsim, but the truth is that it's not intellectuality that brings them to stop believing, but solely temptation"

An old canard, based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Did you even attempt to determine the truth in that claim? Or do you simply accept it because it is mighty convenient, so your puerile world view can remain unthreatened by the inconvenient reality that others have honestly investigated the bedrock on which your childish faith is based and found it lacking?

"They claim to have come to the conclusion of "apikorses", but the truth is that they are non believers because they don't know enough, or anything at all or about the subject to believe it"

Or, perhaps, they know more about the subject than apparently you can wrap your mind around.

"It's like I don't believe in the nuclear technology, it doesn't exist, and so I have a ton of questions on the whole 'sugya' of aerodynamics, it must be a lie, it cant be"

Projecting, much? Do you think that because you are woefully undereducated others must be the same? Did you attempt to understand the opposition? Did it even enter your mind that perhaps they have a point? Did you attempt to listen? Debate? Educate yourself?

"that brings them to come to conclusions that are not based on knowledge, but on suffering"

Another canard, based on the feverish imaginings of someone unwilling to consider his own biases.

"and you need to filter out the heretics and atheists"

Or maybe, just maybe, you actually need to figure out if you hold a tenable position? You can't keep sticking your head in the sand, you know. (Well, you can, actually, but it isn't very useful advice to give to others.)

"I will not get into any debates" said he, knowing he will lose. What makes you so sure you are right, then? The cosmic accident of your birth to observant Jewish parents? Had you been born to observant Christian parents, you'd be sure that Jesus was the messiah and son of God, and condemn all disbelievers to hell!

Time to grow up and realize that the particular circumstance of your birth has no bearing on the universal Truth.

Monday, February 12, 2007


"You know," a co-worker -- secular, worldly, well-educated -- causally said to me recently, "you really should enroll in an institution of higher learning and get a degree. "It seems like an excellent -- and well suited -- opportunity for you."

I was taken aback. Has he read my mind? To the best of my recollection, I've never mentioned to him my burning desire to get a higher education. That thought has been occupying a large part of my sub-conscious lately, an uninvited nuisance which took up permanent residence in some dark nether-region of my mind, popping up periodically to harass me and beg for attention like a too-cute squirrel popping out of an attic to beg for food from the other side of the window. Something you vigorously try to shoo away in the daytime while busy with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but in the stillness and quiet of a lonely winter night secretly wish would keep coming back to beg and pester, just so you know you're still alive.

"To what end?" you may ask. I wonder about that myself. Will an education bring any practical benefits, at this point? Is it worth pursuing just for the sake of it, for the pure sake of gathering knowledge? Should I indulge just because I want to?

Certainly, there must be an element of rebelliousness in that desire. An irrational but human need to stick it to The Man, to a system that, while providing a solid religious education, quite deliberately and perniciously tries to keep us ignorant of all secular human knowledge and progress in the past couple of centuries. The system fears knowledge, and inculcates in its followers an absurd arrogance about the correctness of its worldview and the folly of the idiot "scientists," a word mentioned with the same derision and scorn that "communist" used to illicit in mainstream America in the McCarthy era. All the while, social pressures assure that very few are educated enough to question that world view. If you mention that you believe the world is older than 6,000 years you will literally be laughed at, and if you persist, people will wonder if you have a screw loose for believing in such a bizarre notion.

It is remarkable to observe the baseless haughtiness of the uneducated, extremely ignorant of their own extreme ignorance. That is what an education -- and, arguably, an effective brainwashing -- grounded in anti-rational polemics will do. I've often wondered, doesn't anybody else wonder why we are so afraid of the free exchange of ideas? Can our worldview not withstand the scrutiny of differing ideas and opinions? Of course, the true answer is that it cannot -- at least not in its current form, as history has shown. And the leaders and policy makers instinctively know and understand that! Yet, I believe they -- and most everyone else within the community -- are genuinely and deeply convinced that they are the sole bearers of the ultimate Truth. Self-reflection is apparently not a human strong point.

With the advent of new technologies, this prison of enforced ignorance may be breaking down. Anyone with knowledge of the English language (itself kept to a minimum within the community), a basic post-high school secular education (What??? totally unheard of!), and enough perseverance (okay, so we've got one out of three) can now take most courses offered at MIT, totally free! Just click here to get started. This in itself isn't enough to get someone who is starting from scratch educated, but eventually technology and educational goodwill will progress far enough to put all the necessities of a basic education online, and the mighty chains whose links are forged of nothing but illiteracy will crumble into dust. At least, here's to hoping.

And so, I ponder the questions: Should I get my GED, apply to college, and pursue a post-secondary degree in mathematics, biology, or physics? Perhaps try for a doctorate? Is it possible to pull this off while providing for a family with more than a few children? If I find a way, will this be the beginning of the unraveling of my two-faced existence? If it won't, will I -- and more importantly, my family -- be able to withstand the inevitable tongue-wagging of the community busybodies? Will it be another cautionary tale of the terrible destruction the evil Internet has wrought? Should I simply do it?

Maybe I should. And, maybe I will.