Author Archives: Geoff Mitelman

Geoff Mitelman

About Geoff Mitelman

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he received the Cora Kahn Prize from the Cincinnati faculty for the most outstanding sermon delivery and oratory. An alumnus of Princeton University, he received multiple prizes for outstanding scholarship in Biblical and Judaic studies. In addition to My Jewish Learning, his writings about the intersection of religion and science have appeared on the homepages of several sites, including The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He was interviewed by BBC Radio’s World Have Your Say about the religious implications of the Higgs Boson, and is also on the planning committee for the new URJ 6 Points Science Academy. For seven years, he served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. He lives in Westchester with his wife Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter Caroline.

What Do You Believe About Science? It Doesn’t Matter…Until It Does

VaccinationA few days ago, a friend  of mine sent me a note saying, “I would be interested to read your take on vaccinating children being (or not being) a Jewish issue.” My response was one word: “Vaccinate!!”

I sent her to the excellent pieces by Rabbi Jason Miller and Jamie Rubin explaining why vaccinating children is a Jewish value, yet I was trying to get into the mindset of why people might not vaccinate their children. To be honest, I still can’t do it entirely, but I now think it comes down to beliefs.

Now, some of these beliefs are erroneous, like that vaccinations lead to autism, or that immunity can be developed “naturally” without vaccinations. Other beliefs, though, are more subtle.

Rand Paul and Chris Christie have recently said that they believe that parents should have some level of choice over whether they should vaccinate their children. That belief isn’t so much about the science as it is a belief about the role of government. And as the father of a 16-month-old who now cries when she sees her doctor, I can understand the belief that parents don’t want their kids to feel pain when they get poked at a lot. (By the way, having her be uncomfortable for a few seconds is a price I am certainly willing to pay to keep her and her friends healthy and safe!)

But here’s the thing—beliefs guide our actions. And while we can privately believe whatever we’d like, when those beliefs manifest themselves in our choices, there are consequences. And what we can’t choose is what happens as a result of our decisions.

Adam Frank, an astrophysicist and founder of NPR’s blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture, makes it very clear that in many ways, nature doesn’t care what we believe:

Infections spread with well-understood mathematical patterns. Planets respond to changes in atmospheric composition via the laws of physics and chemistry. They do this in spite of who we vote for. They do this in spite of our political or social beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad.

The world, in other words, has its own ways. Denial can’t change that. But what the Disneyland outbreak makes clear is that science denial has consequences. That is the real news here. The anti-vax and climate “skeptic” strains of science denial have been with us for more than a decade. Until now, however, it’s all seemed a bit theoretical, like just another forum for Internet hate-festing (which we shall all see soon in the comment sections of this post). But now along comes an outbreak of a once-beaten disease and—surprise—we suddenly see that science denial has actual real-world consequences, because it’s about the actual real world (the one we humans invented science to describe).

People often say that “everyone has a right to their beliefs.” But one of the wonderful things about Judaism is that in general, it doesn’t really care what we believe per se. Instead, what Judaism cares about is how those beliefs play themselves out in our lives, in our relationships, and in our world.

So yes, while everyone has a right to their beliefs, Judaism’s emphasis is not on our rights but on our responsibilities, and especially our obligation to care for ourselves and for others. Otherwise, we’d live in the world described by the recent piece in The Onion, “I Don’t Vaccinate My Child Because It’s My Right to Decide What Eliminated Diseases Come Roaring Back.”

Neil de Grasse Tyson once said that what’s good about science is that “It’s true whether or not you believe in it.” But there is an addendum to that statement: our beliefs influence our actions, and our actions create consequences—not just for ourselves, but for others.

After all, science doesn’t care what we believe…until those beliefs lead to measles outbreaks and rising sea levels.

Posted on February 5, 2015

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A Moral Life? Or a Meaningful Life?

Meaning of LifeA few days ago, David Brooks wrote an article entitled “The Problem of Meaning.” In our society today, and especially in more liberal Jewish circles, “meaning” has become a high value. We want our prayer services to be “meaningful,” we want our social justice activities to be “meaningful,” we want our text study to be “meaningful.”

But, as Brooks notes, meaning can potentially be very self-centered. It is often less about making our world better and more about making ourselves feel better. As he says,

If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.

In other words, “feeling good” is not enough to drive our lives — and Judaism would agree. Our goal in life is not simply to feel warm and fuzzy inside, it’s to repair our world. If that’s the case, morality, not meaning, should guide us.

The challenge is that while meaning is certainly subjective, morality is also not completely objective, either. Different people place different priorities on different values. So what are we to do?

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, in his book Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God, suggests the following:

There must be a best way to construct human morality, though people may never fully agree what that way isTo guide our lives we must rely on some specific cultural synthesis. We “hop” to Judaism or Christianity…believing that in the process we can live largely moral lives. Lest we be paralyzed by uncertainty and indecision, we live as if our set of moral values captures absolute right and wrong, knowing, though, that as a human system, a cultural expression, it may at best come close to that ideal.

So even if we don’t know with certainty what “the right thing to do” would be, we still have to live by principles. And if that’s how we look at morality, that’s where meaning can come back into the equation.

Meaning, at its core, is how we make sense of the world. It allows us to figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” If we view meaning in this way, then our morality, even if it is imperfect, truly is a form of “meaningfulness.”

Yes, meaning can be fluff — or, as Brooks phrased it, “the NutraSweet of the inner life.” But it can also be the driver to a more just and more peaceful society, because it is what allows us to discover how we can best bring our gifts and talents in the service of our world.

If we are looking to better ourselves and our world, morality might be more important. But meaning might be more effective.

 

Posted on January 8, 2015

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Do You Accept Science, Or Judaism? Yes.

shutterstock_134698571During my seven years in the congregational rabbinate, I had so many people say to me, “I don’t believe in God, and I don’t feel connected to my Judaism. Instead, I believe in science.” Or they would approach me and explain that they saw Judaism and science as separate realms, with no connection between the two.

The way this was framed saddened me, but I could understand where it came from. Since the media portrays religion as anti-science, many Jews would say, “I don’t want my science and my Judaism mixed. And if religion is opposed to science, then I don’t want any part of Judaism.”

Yet are those statements representative of the Jewish community as a whole? How do Jews perceive the relationship between Judaism and science?

Recently, my organization Sinai and Synapses partnered with the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER), a part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), to run a workshop exploring those questions. DoSER had joined with Rice University to create the Perceptions Project, an initiative to increase understanding between religious and scientific communities. They ran a comprehensive survey of 10,000 Americans — Jews, Evangelical Christians, Catholics and more — to provide a snapshot of religious communities’ views on science, and how we can create a healthier relationship between the two.

Last month, DoSER and Sinai and Synapses ran a workshop for the Jewish community, bringing together rabbis and scientists to delve into the data, so that we could uncover both the challenges and opportunities surrounding Jewish responses to science.

The first finding that surprised me is that I had always thought that Jews didn’t feel the same conflict between religion and science that, say, the evangelical Christian community feels. But in fact, about 25% of Jews do see religion and science as being  in opposition — about the same number as the American population as a whole.

Yet while most of the Christians who see religion and science as being in opposition view themselves as on the side of religion, those Jews who see science and religion in conflict come down on the side of science — and by a huge, huge margin. For those “conflicted Christians,” about 3 out of 4 opt for religion, and about 1 out of 4 choose science. But for that 25% of conflicted Jews, 15 out of 16(!) would see themselves on the side of science — and therefore, anti-religion.

Now, on one level, that number is a real positive. Jews are clearly deeply in favor of science. But just as religious fervor and opposition to science can thwart scientific research, scientific fervor and opposition to religion can hinder religious living.

So that’s the first challenge for the Jewish community when it comes to science — while the Christian community grapples with how to embrace science, the Jewish community has to figure out how to relate to Judaism.

But there’s a second, more subtle, challenge for the Jewish community. Besides “conflict,” the Perceptions Project also offered respondents two other frameworks to describe the relationship between science and religion. People also had the option to say that these two realms were “independent (referring to different aspects of reality)” or “collaborative (they can help support each other).”

And that led to the second finding that surprised me — among all religious groups, Jews were both most likely to pick “independent” and least likely to pick “collaborative” to describe the relationship between religion and science.

In other words, every other religious group was more likely to find that science could enhance their religious outlook than the Jewish community. Instead, Jews were much more likely to separate their religious and their scientific outlooks and keep them siloed off.

Here, then, is a great opportunity — after all, if Jews tend to have a positive outlook on science, why not use science to help people enhance their connection to Judaism?

That’s the inspiration for Sinai and Synapses, and how we are striving to bridge the religious and scientific worlds. We want to look at questions using the best of science and the best of Judaism in the service of making people’s lives more meaningful and our world more just.

We want people to understand how memory actually works in our brains, and what that means for how we observe Passover. We want to study the role of online activism in effecting real social justice change. We want to use science to teach us about how to act more compassionately.

And so that’s why, when people ask me, “Do you accept science, or Judaism?” my answer is, “Yes.” Because not only can science and Judaism co-exist, they can help us bring out the best in each other — and in ourselves.

Posted on December 11, 2014

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Why “Useless” Knowledge Still Has Value

London Cab MediumI can’t get anywhere without my phone’s GPS (which my wife and I have named “Miriam”). We’re so reliant on it that there have been a number of times my wife and I have been driving even in our own neighborhood and said, “Wait —where are we? And how do we get home?”

It’s one thing for you or for me to get a little lost. But for London cabbies, that would be unacceptable. Taxi drivers in London need to have spent literally years studying every single back road, housing estate, bar, restaurant, park, and major or minor point of interest for over 25,000 streets. The test to become a London cabbie is often thought to be the hardest exam in the world, and it’s simply called “The Knowledge.”

But as a recent New York Times article asked, how important is the Knowledge in a world where everyone’s phone can have Waze to get real-time traffic reports, and can tell you how to get to whatever you want to see?

The Knowledge seems quaint and outdated today, but it still is being used. Why is that? As Jody Rosen, author of the article, suggests:

Ultimately, the case to make for the Knowledge may be…philosophical, spiritual, sentimental: The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London’s soul, and for the souls of Londoners. The Knowledge stands for, well, knowledge—for the Enlightenment ideal of encyclopedic learning, for the humanist notion that diligent intellectual endeavor is ennobling, an end in itself. To support the Knowledge is to make the unfashionable argument that expertise cannot be reduced to data, that there’s something dystopian, or at least depressing, about the outsourcing of humanity’s hard-won erudition to gizmos, even to portable handheld gizmos that themselves are miracles of human imagination and ingenuity.

The Knowledge, then, is not simply an avenue to know whether or not to take Fishponds Road. It’s a belief that learning for its own sake has value.

And that philosophy is a very Jewish one—in Judaism, knowledge and learning have inherent worth. Torah lishma, Torah for its own sake, is to be celebrated.

In many ways, Torah and Talmud study parallel the Knowledge. Why do we need to know the intricate details of animal sacrifices that haven’t been done for thousands of years? Why should liberal Jews care about the laws of purity?

If we think of knowledge as purely instrumental, then the answer is “We don’t.” But there is difference between knowledge and learning. Knowledge is the result; learning is the process. And regardless of whether or not we use that knowledge, we all can strive to be learners.

As Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches,

Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life…

One of the laws of thermodynamics is the principle of entropy — that everything returns to chaos eventually. In the world of biology and physics, only the investment of new energy can counter the inevitable spread of disorder.

This is true of the spirit world, as well. Judaism has made a cardinal mitzvah out of Talmud Torah, Jewish learning. Jews studying together, the Mishnah teaches us, experience in the process the presence of God. (The Bedside Torah, 238-9)

There is joy in discovery. Curiosity is its own reward. The challenge of learning pushes us in new directions. Even if we might never use the laws of animal sacrifice, the simple act of studying our sacred texts is a sacred act, powerful in and of itself. As Artson says, “Go ahead. Learn a little.”

After all, even if a London cabbie could potentially turn on their GPS, ask them just how much value, pride and excitement they felt in their arduous process of learning. We might need or use all the knowledge we gain, but the simple process of learning for its own sake can be deeply spiritual.

Posted on November 13, 2014

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Why We Build Something That We Know We’ll Take Down

Yom Kippur is an exhausting day. By the end of the day, we’re tired, we’re hungry, and we’re just ready to be done. But traditionally, even if you’re exhausted, there’s a mitzvah to fulfill the next day: on the day after Yom Kippur, you’re supposed to build your sukkah.

What’s fascinating is that the day after Yom Kippur was also seen as the first day of building for the two most important structures in Jewish historythe mishkan (home for the Ark of the Covenant), and the First Temple in Jerusalem.

And these three structuresa sukkah, the mishkan, and the Templereflect three different levels of permanence.

Solomon's TempleThe ancient Temple in Jerusalem was awe-inducing. It was at the top of a mountain in Jerusalem, and for most people, it would take days or weeks to travel there. It was a mob scene, with thousands and thousands and thousands of people in one location. If you went there, you would have thought that it would last forever.

Except it didn’t. The Temple was destroyed. Twice. The permanence was an illusion.

In our lives, too, we often look for stability, because it gives us reassurance. But we also know that our lives can change in a flash. Whether it’s our health, our finances, or our relationships, even if we think things will be there forever, we know that the vagaries of life and chance have their say, too. So yes, when we find a sense of security it can be comforting, but we also know that we can’t rely on it – too many things can happen.

Ark of the CovenantThe mishkan, in contrast, was the ultimate in portability. It was intentionally designed to get dismantled and rebuilt at every spot along the Israelites’ wanderings. Its impermanence was its defining feature, and a reminder that God could live anywhere.

And because the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t rooted down in one place, it became more than just a physical home for God; it was a spiritual home, as well.

The Torah says that when the mishkan was finished, God proclaimed, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in their midst (b’tocham).” The Hebrew word “b’tocham” certainly means “in their midst,” but it also can mean “in them.” So it could read, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell inside the people’s hearts.”

It’s like the story of the young man who wanted to be a rabbi. He told his rabbi, “I have gone through the Torah over twenty times.” “Ah,” said the rabbi. “That’s wonderful. But how many times has the Torah been through you?”

Our greatest treasures are not the things we physically own, but the values that guide us. Remembering what we stand for, who we want to be, and how we want to live allows us to deal more easily with the ups and downs of life.

Building a sukkahThe sukkah lies in between the Temple and the mishkan in that it is “semi-permanent.” It comes up for a week, and then goes down. It has a roof, but you have to be able to see the sky. It has walls, but not four of them, ensuring that our tent is wide open.

So with its sense of semi-permanence, the sukkah reminds us that even though that nothing lasts forever, we still need to build. Why? Because Judaism strives to create more blessings and justice and peace, and those things don’t happen by accident. They happen when we ourselves create them.

Will we be guaranteed success? No. Will they last forever? No. But for as long as they remain, we embrace them, we celebrate them, and we work to make more of them.

As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote last week, “Shelter and beauty and life are fragile, and to be joyously cherished.”

In the end, we should build our lives the way we build our sukkahremembering that we are not eternal, but that while we are here, we have opportunities and responsibilities to embrace while they are ours to have.

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Posted on October 13, 2014

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Waking Up Is Hard To Do

WClockyaking up in the morning a definite challenge for me. I hit the snooze button more often than I should. At least three times, I have to say to myself, “OK, time to get up.” I need some real motivation to get out of my comfortable bed.

So that’s why I could really use a product known as “Clocky.”

According to its description, “Clocky is the alarm clock on wheels that runs away beeping! You can snooze one time, but if you don’t get up, Clocky will jump off of your nightstand up to 3 feet high, and run around your room as if looking for a place to hide. You’ll have to get out of bed to silence Clocky’s alarm.”

Clocky is so valuable because very often, what we plan to do is not always what we actually do.

When we go to bed and set our alarm the night before, we’re expecting that when we wake up, we’ll leap out of bed instantly, ready to go. But when that alarm actually goes off in the morning, our best intentions often manage to fall by the wayside.

Understanding how we stumble and miss the mark is all the more important when we think about our choices that can lead us to become better people as we start the High Holy Day season. It is fairly easy to sit in the sanctuary on the High Holy Days and resolve that we will, say, “be more patient” in 5775. It is a lot harder to actually be more patient when we feel like it’s the twentieth time we’ve had to tell our child to clean up their room.

The resolutions about ourselves that we make can be very hard to hold onto when the moment of choice arrives. Indeed, that’s really what we reflect about on the High Holy Days each yearthe times when we “missed the mark,” when we aimed to do one thing, but ultimately did another.

So how can we do better?

Recently, psychologist David DeSteno wrote an article entitled “A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses.” He notes that Americans struggle with self-control. We eat too much, we spend too much, we give into our baser impulses too much. And we tend to think that employing cognitive strategies (“you’ve just got to handle your anger better”) is the way to go.

But as DeSteno argues, rather employing cognitive strategies to overcome our urges. we should use emotional strategies. He gives several reasons and suggestions, but perhaps most importantly, he reminds us that

[w]e often make the mistake of assuming that cognition and reasoning will always favor the most objectively rational, long-term outcome. But in reality, reasoning is tainted by bias; we can rationalize pretty much anything if it suits our immediate needs…I deserve an extra drink, a smoke, a sweet, a break, or a luxury today. Why? It’s been a long week. I had an argument with my spouse. Fill in the blank.

So instead, DeSteno suggests, we should cultivate using emotional strategies:

These emotions—gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up, without requiring cognitive effort on our part, to shape decisions that favor the long-term. If we focus on instilling the capacity to experience these emotional states regularly, we’ll build resources that will automatically spring forth in reflexive and productive ways. In essence, we’ll be giving ourselves inoculations against temptation that, like antibodies in our bloodstream, will be ready and waiting to combat possible threats to our well-being.

In the end, our goal on the High Holy Days is help us become better people, to use both our heads and our hearts to improve who we are as we start 5775. But as humans, our natural tendency is to be drawn towards the path of least resistance. So we need any and all strategies we can use to make sure our choices help us—and not harm us—on our journey.

And that brings me back to Clocky.

One wonderful metaphor for the shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah is that of an alarm clock, waking us up to the ways we have acted, and helping us to become the people we wish to be. But all too often, we are likely to hit the snooze button.

So for this year’s attempt to become better people, maybe willpower isn’t the best strategy. Instead, let’s not be afraid to use any tools, tips, or even tricks we can find to help us grow.

And if we do that, perhaps we’ll have just a little less trouble waking up.

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Posted on September 18, 2014

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What (and How) The Simpsons Can Teach Us All

Simpson FamilyIf you’ve got nothing to do for the next twelve consecutive days, and don’t need any sleep. starting tonight you can turn on FXX and watch all 552 Simpsons episodes ever made.

The Simpsons has been a television institution for two and a half decades, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Yet what’s most amazing is how effective it is for studying a whole host of subjects. There are books that use the Simpsons to teach things such as philosophy, psychology, mathematics, educational theoryscience and religion.

Why is that? I think it’s because the Simpsons is not simply entertaining — its humor often acts as a vehicle for learning. The show is filled with references that are often arcane and obscure. Before I watched The Simpsons, for example, I had never heard of Rory Calhoun or knew what a tontine was. It inspired me to look into the philosophy of Pablo Neruda and the difference between history, legend and myth. And I’ve used it to teach about the everything from the American Jewish immigrant experience to the story of Job.

Even the show itself has remarked about how they intentionally make viewers work in order to understand the jokes. In an episode a few years ago that focused on the declining appeal of kid-show-host Krusty the Klown, one character remarked that “[t]oday’s kids are uncomfortable with a clown whose every reference they have to look up on Wikipedia.”

Yet in fact, being challenged helps us learn. There’s some significant research that in fact, when something is harder to learn, we remember it better. As Harvard Professor James Lang wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “when students…have to put in more work in processing the material, it may sink in more deeply.”

That’s an important message for the Jewish community, because Judaism requires work. Prayers are in a different language. The Torah is complex and can be hard to understand. Some of the rituals seem antiquated and have very specific steps.

Yet the flip side is that the more Hebrew we know, the more we get out of services. The more text study we engage in, the more rewarding we find Torah. The more we observe rituals, the more meaning they give to our lives. In other words, the more we put ourselves into the learning process, the more we get out of it.

So what do we do? As Professor Lang notes, “[t]he challenge that we face…is to create what psychologists call ‘desirable difficulties': enough [challenges] to promote deeper learning, and not so much that we reduce the motivation of our students.”

That’s a lesson The Simpsons has learned, and is the key to making Judaism engaging. We need to make sure that Judaism is fun and enjoyable. At the same time, we need to make sure that people have to invest themselves in their Judaism.

If we can do that, if we can create the right “desire difficulties,” then we’ll be creating a new generation of dedicated, engaged, and committed Jewsand will outlast even the longest-running sitcom in history.

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Posted on August 21, 2014

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Liberalism, Loyalty and Israel

Iron DomeI am sad. I am scared. I am angry.

Like many of you, over the last few weeks, I’ve been following the news about the kidnapping and murder of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal, followed by the revenge killing of Muhammed, followed by increased rocket attacks by Hamas towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, followed by military response from Israel into Gaza. And I am particularly sad, scared and angry about what might follow next.

But what has been most challenging for me personally has been the internal tension between my liberal values and my loyalty to Israel—and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.

Last month, I mentioned how much I value Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. He uses a framework that has helped me understand why I have felt so torn these last few days.

Morality, Haidt argues, isn’t just one thing. It has five main different facets to it—care for others, justice and fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, and a sense of sanctity. Liberals, he notes, tend to focus mainly on the first two (care and justice), and feel much less strongly about the other three (loyalty, authority and sanctity).

Most of the time, liberals are deeply focused on caring for others, so when people are in harm’s way, we simply see that they need our support. When we see Boko Haram kidnap girls in Nigeria, or genocide in Darfur, or millions of immigrants unable to enter the United States, we feel motivated to act.

But when it comes to Israel—especially when it is under attack—many liberal Jews also embrace a sense of loyalty, as well. And the result is that our “care” foundation comes into direct conflict with “loyalty” foundation.

On the one hand, our sense of care is aroused when we see the citizens of southern Israel under constant rocket attacks from Hamas, as well as innocent Palestinians who are caught in the crossfire. On the other hand, when we see how poorly the media portrays Israel, or when we feel like other Jews are not rallying to defend Israel, our sense of loyalty rises to the forefront.

And that’s the reason why so many liberal Jews are feeling so torn about what is happening in Israel right now—two of our foundational beliefs are in conflict.

Now, we may never resolve this conflict within ourselves, let alone the conflict in the Middle East. But when we do feel this tension, we need to remember two things.

First, both care and loyalty are strong foundations for our sense of morality. Indeed, if you are feeling torn right now, that’s a good thing, because it means that you have a broad and deep sense of what right and wrong might entail.

Second, care and loyalty are not the same thing. They motivate different types of actions, and different people may prize one over the other. So when we get angry at people because we think they are being either disloyal or uncaring, we need to recognize that they may be valuing a different element of their morality than we are.

Ultimately, when we are feeling torn between our loyalty to Israel and our care for others, we should remember the words of Walt Whitman, ““Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” 

May we be large enough to embrace both our sense of loyalty and our sense of care, and finally create the peace that we all so desperately want.

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Posted on July 10, 2014

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3 Cognitive Science Books That Teach Jewish Ideas

Why is it often so hard to do the right thing? Why doesn’t everyone share our same beliefs? And why is it so hard to be happy?

These are questions that are integral to the field of cognitive science—the study of how and why we think, feel and act the way we do. But what’s interesting is that so many of these questions have links to Jewish thought and practice.

As someone whose shelves are overflowing with books about cognitive science, and who often integrates these findings with Jewish teachings, I want to share three books that teach Jewish ideas.

The Honest Truth About DishonestyThe (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely

Let’s be honest, behavioral economist Dan Ariely tells us. We all cheat. You cheat. I cheat. But we don’t do it because we are bad people. Instead, we tend to view ourselves as good people, so we tend to “fudge” things just enough so that we can keep that self-perception. So not only do we cheat, we also lie to ourselves about our own cheating!

But of course, lying and cheating are antithetical to Judaism. We are taught: “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor,” and “You shall have honest scales and measures.” (Lev. 19:13 and 19:36) Since Judaism tries to teach us how to honest and ethical people, it’s crucial to understand how and why we end up missing the mark. Ariely’s work gives an insight into what encourages—and even more importantly, discourages—cheating, in the hopes of building a more just society.

The Righteous MindThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

There’s a reason politics and religion are generally taboo topics for polite conversation—if you feel strongly about your political or religious beliefs, you just can’t seem to understand how people on the other side can be so stupid. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that a large part of the problem is that we think of religion and politics as being about “right” versus “wrong,” and when we phrase the question that way, it actually becomes “us” versus “them.” As he says, “Morality binds and blinds”—morality creates a more cohesive group of “us,” but it also keeps us from seeing other perspectives and the needs of “them.”

That creates a real challenge edge for the Jewish community. Judaism is not just a religion, but a people. There definitely is an “us” when we think about the Jewish people. But a sense of universalism is central to Judaism, as well—when we think about Jewish ethics, we tend to think about at the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. Haidt’s book helps us to understand where morality comes from, and how we can grow the sense of who we consider to be “one of us.”

Stumbling on HappinessStumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Which would you rather have happen: win the lottery, or become a quadriplegic? Most of us, without even a thought, would pick the first, because we think that winning the lottery would make us happy, and becoming a quadriplegic would devastate us. But how many wealthy people do you know who are actually miserable? And how many people who have suffered a tragedy are actually fulfilled in their lives? Psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that we are very, very bad at predicting what will make us happy, and that’s because we have a “now-self” and a “future-self”—and they are not always the same self.

Judaism, too, lives with this tension of the present and the future. We both envision a time when the world will be at peace, but we have to do the actions here and now that will make that happen. Or at the High Holy Days, we dream about the kind of person we will become, but recognize that it’s our day-to-day actions that will make us that person. Gilbert reminds us that our “future-self” soon becomes our “now-self,” so we have act in ways that help us bridge that divide.

Ultimately, the reason I love cognitive science is that is helps us better understand who we are and why we act the way we do. And so I believe that if we use the best of science and the best of religion, we can make our own individual lives more fulfilled, and our world a little better.

These three books have been instrumental for me—what books have had a surprising influence on your Judaism?

Posted on June 12, 2014

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Why We Love “Throwback Thursday”

keep-calm-its-time-for-throwback-thursday-1Every Thursday, my Facebook feed is filled with old pictures, stories of favorite memories, and statuses that remind people of “where they were X years ago.” Why? Because they all end with the hashtag “#tbt”—a way for people to recall memories on “Throwback Thursday.”

But why do we love “Throwback Thursday?”

Clearly, when we go through our old pictures or think back on events we experienced, we feel a wonderful sense of nostalgia—a warm, fuzzy feeling. But that just pushes the question one level back: why do we feel nostalgia? What value does does nostalgia have?

It’s actually a very nuanced question. The value of simple memory is very easy to explain, especially for evolutionary reasons. If, on the African savanna, you could remember who in your tribe had helped you take down that mastodon, or which berries had made you sick when you ate them, or where that saber-tooth tiger tended to live, you would clearly have an competitive advantage over others.

But it’s harder to understand why we would want to use memories to evoke certain feelings. especially because nostalgia is often very bittersweet. We smile when we remember a poignant memory, and at the same time, there’s some sadness as we realize that that moment from the past can’t ever be replicated.

Yet it turns out that there is some research that suggests that those feelings of nostalgia can make us better people. As John Tierney explains in a piece in the New York Times, “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”

Nostalgia, in other words, helps us connect to ourselves and to others. As Dr. Constantine Sedikides, one of the pioneers in this field, remarked: “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”

So if that’s what nostalgia truly is about, then Judaism is very much about nostalgia. We see our child become bar or bat mitzvah, and we see the past, present and future mixed together. We smell the brisket our grandmother used to make on Passover, and it brings us back to our childhood seders. We join a synagogue community and build relationships and memories that sustain us.

So “Throwback Thursday” is a perfect avenue for Judaism. It connects us to our friends and our family. It roots us. And it makes us smile.

Because in the end, our memories are what make us who we are. When we recall our fondest memories, we end up strengthening our sense of self.

And that’s why we love “Throwback Thursday”—it not only lets us relive the past, it truly helps us live in the present and get ready for the future.

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Posted on May 15, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy