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.

Dreaming About the Powerball Jackpot

Yes, I caught Powerball fever these last few days. And yes, I knew my odds were small (my favorite example: if you took the distance from New York to Los Angeles and chose one specific inch on that journey, those would be your odds). And so even as I knew intellectually that my odds were infinitesimal, I still plunked down a few bucks to play.

In response, one of my colleagues came up with an excellent rationalization: “It is cheaper than seeing a movie and provides many more hours of entertainment in the daydreaming department.”

On some level, she was right. In a Q&A session with psychologist Daniel Gilbert, one person noted that the value of the lotto ticket isn’t the winning — it’s the good feeling that the anticipation creates. “To put it another way,” this man argues, “for the dollar investment, you can have a much better feeling than flushing it down the toilet, which you cannot have a good feeling from.”

Having hopes and dreams are crucial to our well-being. We have to fantasize about the way our lives and our world might be, because they impel us forward. That sense of a better future is inherent in Judaism — we talk about the “day when God’s name shall be one” and look towards the day when we live in a world of peace and justice. The State of Israel came into existence because one journalist who said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” And even the Israeli national anthem is entitled “The Hope.”

But it’s not enough simply to dream — we have to put in the work to make those dreams happen. And when we forget that, things like lotto fever can become dangerous. It’s fine to spend $10 to release the chemicals that allow us to enjoy our fantasy of a big house and fancy cars. But at least one person spent $450 dollars on Powerball tickets. Almost certainly, that was an amount of money that impacted her life — and not in a good way.

So it’s great to dream…but not at the expense of reality. Instead, we should be asking “Where am I now? Where do I want to be? And how do I work to get from where we are to where we want to be?”

Because the other factor that many people forget about in lotto fever is that as long as we not in poverty, money doesn’t really make us happy. Instead, as a lot of significant research shows, it’s not what we have but what we do that brings us joy: Connecting with friends. Making a difference in people’s lives. Developing a sense of gratitude for what we already have. And those are things that require their own investment of time and energy.

And as Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic reminds us, people who “who aren’t careful to cultivate happiness skills such as optimism, a charitable attitude and savvy money management habits often wind up in more wretched circumstances than where they started.”

Those skills, too, are ones that need to be honed and developed. So even if you win the lottery, there would still be work to be done.

In other words, yes, it feels good to dream. But in truth, it’s doing meaningful and important work that makes you feel great.

(This post was cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on November 29, 2012

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

Connecting in a Disaster

At about 3:30 pm on Monday, our house in White Plains, New York lost TV and Internet service. We still had lights, and just a few minutes later, they came back on. We were hopeful.

But then, at about 6:30, I got a call from our landlord — he lost power.

Then, at about 7 pm, I started seeing Facebook statuses from people nearby saying, “No power.” So I knew it would just be a matter of time.

And indeed, about half an hour later, our lights flickered, flickered, and then went totally kaput. We joined the millions upon millions of people who lost power during Hurricane Sandy.

By Tuesday, our cell phone was running low on power, and our service was spotty at best. And we wondered — while we could hear the news through our battery-powered radio, if we had no internet and no phone, how would we connect with others? I felt very isolated — I wanted both to hear what was going on, and I wanted to tell others I was all right.

During the storm, people were certainly following the news, but even more, they were following their friends’ news. As Clay Shirky notes in Cognitive Surplus, our definition of “media” has changed — it’s no longer the one-way monologue of TV and radio; it’s now the conversation (both online and offline) that connects us with others.

I, too, felt a need to not only hear what others were going through, but to share my experience, as well. And what was fascinating was that I seemed to use the exact same words that so many people used to describe what was happening to them.

Facebook even provided their top ten status updates during the storm, and they probably sound a lot like what you saw or wrote:

1. we are ok
2. power – lost power, have power, no power
3. damage
4. hope everyone is ok
5. trees
6. made it
7. safe
8. thankful
9. fine
10. affected

Those phrases convey not only information, but emotion, as well. As Rabbi Rebecca Schorr just taught us, these words remind us that we share not only information but experiences with others — both joyous and scary. We have a need not only to know what is going on, but to share important events with others.

And what has inspired me the most (especially as someone who still has no power) is seeing neighbors, churches, synagogues, libraries and community organizations reaching out to others saying, “We have power — come to us.”

Indeed, while we hope that our life is easy, with few storms to toss us around, when disasters do happen, we truly see our ability and our need to connect with others. And even more striking, we see just how much it brings out the best in everyone.

Here’s hoping everyone is able to find a place of warmth, light and safety.

Posted on November 1, 2012

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The Expansiveness of Joy on Sukkot

Think about an activity you love to do that gives you a good challenge. Maybe it’s playing tennis. Maybe it’s sailing. Maybe you’re like me, and it’s working on the Saturday New York Times crossword.

Whatever it is, when you’re deeply involved in that activity, you’re in a state that’s known as “flow” — a state of pure enjoyment. Time seems to run at a different speed, you’re totally focused on your task, and afterwards, you feel a real sense of accomplishment.

“Flow” was first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and he argues that flow arises when we find challenges that are just ahead of our skills. And beyond the fact that being in flow just feels really good — it’s a state of pure enjoyment — there’s another very important aspect to it: flow pushes our skills to a new level.

If you are a tennis player, for example, you had to work your way up from getting the ball over the net (or not hitting it so hard so that it went over the fence) to improving your serve to nailing your backhand. Each new challenge was also an opportunity to improve your ability.

As Csikszentmihalyi phrased it:

Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness…

[In contrast,] enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before.

Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. (Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 46)

In other words, joy expands who we are. And that’s a message we need to remember for Sukkot.

Sukkot, along with Passover and Shavuot, are called the “three pilgrimage festivals” because they were the three holidays when all the Israelites were commanded to come to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Each of the holidays also has their own name in our liturgy. Passover, understandably, is called “the time of our freedom.” Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah, is naturally called “the time of the giving of our Torah.” Sukkot’s title, however, is a little more mystifying — it is called “the time of our joy.” Why is that?

There are any number of reasons, but one of the explanations recalls an ancient tradition from Temple times. On Sukkot, there was a ceremony called “the drawing of water,” and the Rabbis taught, “One who has not witnessed the celebration of the water-drawing ceremony has never seen real joy.” (Sukkah 51a)

What was that “real joy”? Well, according to the Mishnah, people danced and sang, and the wisest and most pious men would juggle torches. While that sight would certainly make people smile and be happy, I think there’s a deeper lesson.

Because Sukkot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the population of Jerusalem would increase dramatically, so before the holiday, the priests and Levites would make major renovations to the outer courtyard. They would add some extra balconies, and the courtyard ended up being a little bigger than about the size of a football field.

But lots of people were coming for the holiday. Lots of people. Probably more than what the courtyard could handle. If you want an image, think of MetLife Stadium, but instead of everyone being in the stands, everyone is on the field. But, the Rabbis said, “Miraculously, tens of thousands of people were able to crowd in.”

Now, since thousands of people were coming, they certainly may have been a little physically cramped. But these thousands of people were not coming at any time. Instead they were coming at a specific time — Sukkot, “the time of our joy.” And joy has a miraculous quality to it, because when we are feeling joy, we can somehow always find room for more.

Think about this way: if you have a child, when your child was born, you didn’t say, “Well, since I have only 100 points of love, let me now figure out who I’ll love less.” No! Instead, the joy you felt caused your heart to grow. Miraculously, that joy led you to find room for more holiness, more specialness and more love than you ever thought possible.

Indeed, as Csikszentmihalyi taught us about being in flow, when we are doing anything that gives us real joy, we are learning new things and we pushing ourselves. We discover that joy helps us grow — and that there is no limit to its expansiveness.

So on this Sukkot, may we strive to create a little more joy in this world. We’ll find the room.

(Cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on October 4, 2012

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

How Deep Are Our Thoughts?

For our first anniversary, my wife and I went on a trip through the Southwest, seeing Sedona, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos and Los Alamos. But the highlight for us was walking up to Mather Point at the Grand Canyon as Friday evening turned into Shabbat.

While I had seen the Grand Canyon when I was seven, I had no real recollection of it. When someone I know had gone to the Grand Canyon when he was 15, he had been outwardly unimpressed, remarking “It’s just a big hole in the ground.” But when we walked up to edge of the Canyon, I had no idea just how massive, impressive and beautiful it is. We stood, awe-struck, at the ways the Colorado River had cut into stone over millions of years, and with that image in front of us, we welcomed Shabbat. And the line that kept coming back to me was a verse from Psalm 92, a song for Shabbat: “How great are Your works, Adonai, how very deep are Your thoughts.”

Obviously, exclaiming “how great are Your works” was a natural reaction to having seen something as impressive as the Grand Canyon. But in truth, the word I couldn’t get out of my head was “deep.” The majesty of nature often inspires awe, and the “go-to” images are often sunsets, beaches and mountains. But what makes the Grand Canyon so mind-blowing is how you can see the intricacies of the layers of rock, and you realize that every time you see it from a new angle or at a different time of the day, you see something brand new.

It is amazing to me that something as complex as the Grand Canyon was the result of the flow of the Colorado River. And the Yavapai Geology Museum explained how that could happen. A placard in the museum noted that while rocks are imposing, impressive and seemingly eternal, they are no match against the power of water. Instead, it is the persistence of water deepens what we able to see.

This immediately reminded me of the story about Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest scholars in Jewish history. According to legend, by the age of 40, he had not learned anything. One time he was standing at the mouth of a well, and asked “Who hollowed out this rock?” He realized that it was the constantly dripping of water, and so he said to himself: “Just as the soft [water] shaped the hard [stone], words of Torah — which are as hard as iron — all the more so they will shape my heart which is but flesh and blood.” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan 6) In other words, a slow accumulation of knowledge deepened his learning, and deepened his ability to understand.

So when the Psalm says “how very deep are Your thoughts,” it teaches us how important it is to “think deeply” about things. It is far too easy for us to skim headlines and ignore context, to regurgitate ideas without considering them critically, and to find support only for perspectives we already buy into.

Instead, we have a responsibility to go in depth. And when we do, we have an opportunity to continually discover more nuance, more complexity, and more beauty than we ever could have imagined.

(Cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on September 6, 2012

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

The Message our “Stuff” Sends

Hair Dye as History

While I have never used hair dye myself, I certainly watch my share of TV, and so I know the ad slogans for two of the most famous hair coloring systems — Miss Clairol and L’Oreal. What I didn’t know — and what author Malcolm Gladwell explains in his essay “True Colors” — was how those two slogans reflected the radical changes in the way women viewed themselves in post-war America.

“Does She or Doesn’t She?”

Gladwell’s essay starts by introducing us to Shirley Polykoff, a copy-writer who was charged with finding a way to advertise Miss Clairol’s brand-new, one-step, twenty-minute hair coloring system. Polykoff had personally experienced the potential humiliation of people whispering about whether she dyed her hair or not — the first time she went to meet her potential mother-in-law, she could imagine her wondering, “Does she color her hair, or doesn’t she?”

So as Polykoff set about writing a slogan for Miss Clairol, she realized that along with the choice to dye their hair, women were also looking for ways to minimize people wondering about whether they dyed their hair or not.

Polykoff knew immediately what she wanted to say, because if she believed that a woman had a right to be a blonde, she also believed that a woman ought to be able to exercise that right with discretion. ‘Does she or doesn’t she?’ she wrote, translating from the Yiddish to the English. ‘Only her hairdresser knows for sure.’ For Nice ‘n Easy, Clairol’s breakthrough shampoo-in hair color, she wrote, ‘The closer he gets, the better you look’… (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 79)

“Does she or doesn’t she?” is really a slogan that is focuses on what all those “other people” might think. While women certainly were starting to get more choice in their lives in the 1950′s — as evidenced by the fact that they could now color their hair quickly and easily — there was still significant societal pressure to keep that fact hidden. They still cared about what other people thought — and talked about.

“Because I’m Worth It”

Nearly twenty years later, second-wave feminism had taken hold. And when it came to hair dye, the focus was now not on what other people might think, but instead, on what women wanted for themselves.

Look at how copy-writer Ilon Specht created the slogan for L’Oreal’s Nice ‘n Easy:

[M]y feeling was that I’m not writing an ad about looking good for [others...so] in five minutes I wrote [the ad copy]:…’I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference by L’Oreal. It’s not that I care about money. It’s that I care about my hair. It’s not just the color. What’s worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don’t mind spending more for L’Oreal. Because I’m worth it.’ (Gladwell, 87)

“Because I’m worth it” has a radically different feel to it than “Does she or doesn’t she?” It’s a much more assertive statement, and it’s much more self-focused. It’s about what the woman herself wants, rather than what other people might think.

Gladwell sums up the difference between the slogans like this: “[Ultimately, Clairol's] commercials were “other-directed” — they were about what the group was saying or what a husband might think. [Whereas L'Oreal's] line was what a woman says to herself”(Gladwell, 88).

Why We Buy Things

There is a very real tension between buying things for ourselves versus buying things for others to see. I’ll share an example from my own life. I consider myself an environmentalist — I try to recycle, turn off the water when I don’t use it, and have installed compact fluorescent bulbs in my home. But what I’m most proud of is my Honda Civic Hybrid. And it says on big letters on the bumper “HYBRID.” Yes, I’m happy to be helping the environment, but it’s also a public statement I want to make — people now know I drive a hybrid.

It’s the same with most of the other things we buy — yes, we want function. But there is always a small part of us that wants to send a message to others. Whether it’s the books on the coffee table, the furniture in our homes, or the cars we drive, our “stuff” isn’t just for us to enjoy — consciously or not, it’s also designed for others to see and to cause them to think about us in a certain way.

Jacob’s “Message” to Esau

There’s a short passage in Genesis where Jacob uses his “stuff” to send a message to his brother Esau. Let’s take a look at what he says.

Of all the characters in Genesis, Jacob was once of the richest. How did he get so rich? It really started when he stole two things from Esau — his birthright and his father’s blessing. Esau was the older brother, and in Biblical times, the “birthright” entitled the oldest sibling to get twice as much of the inheritance as the younger siblings. Jacob was able to convince Esau to sell that to him, so Jacob then was then the sibling who received a double portion. Then, as their father Isaac was dying, he wanted to bless Esau. But a”blessing” in the Bible wasn’t just something along the lines of, “May you have strength.” No, a “blessing” in the Bible meant that God would bless you with material riches. And Jacob was able to manipulate his father so that he would also get that blessing instead of Esau, as well.

Esau, understandably, wasn’t so happy about that. In fact, he was so enraged that he wanted to kill Jacob. Their mother, Rebecca, sent Jacob to his uncle Laban’s house, where Jacob was able to work for twenty years, and perhaps because God had indeed blessed him, gained an enormous amount of wealth.

In Genesis 32, Jacob is about to meet Esau for the first time in twenty years. He’s a little nervous about what Esau might do — will he forgive him? Or will he kill him? So he sends some messengers to Esau to find out what Esau is thinking, and also to give Esau a message.

But what is the message Jacob sends? It appears in Genesis 32:5-6: “I have stayed with [our uncle] Laban until now. And I have oxen, and asses and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants; and I send this message to you [literally, 'my lord'], that I may find favor in your sight.”

The message is not, “I’m sorry for having stolen your birthright.” It’s not, “What have you been up to in these last twenty years, Esau?” The message Jacob seems to send to Esau is simply, “Look at me! I’m rich!”

The messengers come back and tell Jacob that Esau is coming with four hundred men. That terrifies Jacob, so he asks God for help, and in his prayer, he says, “I am unworthy of all the kindnesses, and of all the truth, which You have shown to me [literally, 'Your servant'].” (Genesis 32:11) He does almost a complete 180 here, and feels like he is not “worthy” of all the blessings God has shown him. Yes, he has his wealth. But he starts to wonder — is he worth it?

Are We “Worth” Our Possessions?

The message Jacob sends to Esau is a totally “other-directed” message — like the Miss Clairol ads, it’s designed to get someone else (here, it’s Esau) talking about him. You can just imagine Jacob hoping that Esau would see his riches and think, “Ooh, how did Jacob get all this stuff?”

But when Esau responds in a way that makes Jacob nervous, Jacob has to pray to God for help. And because Jacob’s message was so “other-directed” he couldn’t even be proud of himself for all he was able to acquire in Laban’s house. By starting off trying to prove to Esau just how rich he was, Jacob ends up saying, “I am unworthy.” It is very hard for us to imagine Jacob at this moment confidently looking at all his wealth and proclaiming, “I’m worth it!”

For us today, we buy things for many reasons. Sometimes it’s because we want others to talk. Sometimes it’s because we think we’re “worth” it. But in fact, neither outlook is the most helpful way to look at why we buy things. Since our money is one of our most precious resources, we need to explore: are we spending in ways that are consonant with our values? Not because “we’re worth it” or to get people to ask “does she or doesn’t she?” or to be able to say, “Look at all that I have acquired!” but rather, to be able to spend money in ways so that when we look back on our bank statements we can say, “I am proud of how I spent my money.”

Posted on August 9, 2012

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

What Playing Games Can Teach Us About Prayer

While I certainly use my iPhone to check my e-mail and make calls, far and away, what really drains my battery are apps like Cut the Rope, Dark Nebula, and Words with Friends. Like almost everyone else on the planet, I simply love playing games.

But why? What is it about games that draw people in?

According to psychologist Alison Gopnik, it’s because the best games place us right into a sweetspot in the interaction between two poles — structure and creativity.

Sometimes, structure stifles creativity. That’s why Tic-Tac-Toe gets so boring so quickly, because there’s no space for imagination.

But for the most dynamic games, the rules can actually enhance our ability to be creative.

One of my favorite examples comes in a podcast from WNYC’s Radiolab, where co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interview chess expert Fred Friedel. Friedel wrote a computer program listing every chess move that has ever been played in any tournament. It’s called “Fritz.”

Now, whenever you play a game of chess, your first move has probably been done millions of times. After all, just about everyone starts with one of their pawns moving forward. But as the game progresses, the number of previous times a board position has occurred gets fewer and fewer and fewer. It goes from the millions to the thousands to the hundreds to the tens to the single digits.

Eventually, there comes a moment in the game that has never happened in tournament history. As Friedel describes it, the board is “in a position that has never occurred in the universe.” And when the game gets to that moment, as Abumrad and Krulwich tell us, it feels like “you get a peek at something infinite.”

What’s fascinating is that “a peek at something infinite” is not only something that happens in games. A “peek at something infinite” is truly the goal of prayer. And we get that glimpse when we find improvisation, imagination and creativity within the limits of a clearly defined set of rules. As Krulwich says, “[A game] has a small field of play, but then you step into it, and…whoosh!”

We want that “whoosh!”, but in order to get there, we need guidelines. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues, when it comes to prayer, spontaneity is the goal, but continuity is the way. And so Jewish prayer at its best has much in common with the best games — they both live in that space where structure helps us engender wonder and imagination.

In Judaism, prayer involves those two components — keva, the fixed words and set times we should pray, and kavannah, the intentionality and inspiration prayer is supposed to create. Often, keva is disparaged or ignored, because it feels boring, or repetitive, or that it’s simply rote recitation.

But when prayer is at its best, keva actually helps us get to kavannah. Rabbi Shawn Zevit says it well:

What is the structure that allows you to express your longing, your thanks, your wow, your reflection? I find that prayer, the structure of it and our own particular Jewish nuances of it, is an optimal part of the living diet for well-being In the Jewish modalities of prayer, those very longings, those very human dimensions are addressed… (in Comins, Making Prayer Real, 146-7)

We want to be inspired. We want to find strength. We want to feel connected to something larger than ourselves. But those moments rarely happen by accident.

By giving us a framework, rules and structures can help us get there. They remind us to practice. They tell us what to look for. And they allow us to regularly experience the ordinary, so that we can be ready to experience the extraordinary.

Indeed, that’s the deep connection between both games and religion. In a review of Robert Bellah’s book Religion in Human Evolution, Charles Mathewes reminds us that

…[p]lay involves a dialectic of freedom and constraint, or better, freedom within constraint. This is obviously so in games, but equally so in any form of play. The boundaries of play, the delimiting and the defining of the conditions of play, themselves can stand in a kind of dream-like state of critical assessment…

In short, play nourishes us, makes us fully human, equips us for reflective agency and enables us to understand that behind (or above) the routines of the everyday there can be a carnival of an altogether different sort.

In other words, “playing” and “praying” have much more in common than we may think.

(Cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on July 12, 2012

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

Pick a Destiny, Any Destiny

David Blaine’s street magic specials are always fun to watch. If you haven’t seen what he does, this is a great example.

Now, if you’re anything like me, your immediate reaction was, “Oh my God – how did he do that?!” It almost felt like he was reading that woman’s mind, since it looked like she had the choice to have “picked a card, any card.” But in fact, where magicians like David Blaine are truly masters of illusion is in creating the best illusion of all – the illusion that we have free choice.

One of the reasons magicians are able to “know” what card we’ve picked is because they have already determined what card they wanted us to pick – it was never really actually “our” choice in the first place. Their trickery lies in their ability to lead us to feel invested in “our” decision.

Stephen Macknik and Susanna Martinez-Conde are the authors of the book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About our Everyday Deceptions, and they argue that the reason we feel like we were the ones who actually picked the card was because “[o]ur minds will go to surprising lengths to preserve [our] sense of agency and choice.” (pp. 171-172) In other words, our brains sometimes lie to us, leading us to believe that we have much more control over our situations than we actually do.

And yet that’s actually not all that surprising. We know in our own lives that we do not have unlimited choice – there are very real limits to what we have the freedom to do. We can not simply “choose” to get a million dollars – we have to work hard at a high-paying job, and even then, luck will play a big role in whether or not we succeed. We cannot just “decide” to lose weight – we have to diet and exercise, and even then, our metabolism or our willpower may make it challenging to meet that goal. Our genetics, our environment and our past decisions all restrict our choices to an extent. While we may want to believe we have total and complete free will, when we reflect on it, we recognize that we are not nearly as free as we think.

Rabbi Akiva’s Magic Show

This question of how much free will we truly have is actually a very old one, and it’s one the Rabbis grappled with, as well. And perhaps the most classic statement comes from Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot, when he said, “All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given.” (Avot 3:15)

But how does that work? How can there be free choice if God has foreseen everything?

Well, think about a magic trick, but think about it from two different perspectives — from the point of view of the magician who is orchestrating the trick, and from our point of view, experiencing it. For the magician, “all is foreseen” — he knows what is going to happen, and has planned everything out meticulously. But for us, it feels like “freedom of choice is given,” because we feel we could have picked any card at all. And that’s the point. For the trick to work, we have to believe that we are the ones in charge — even if that’s not really the case.

So that realization can also help us understand Akiva’s statement — except this time, let’s think of our lives from two different perspectives — from God’s and from our own. Now, we may believe that God has foreseen everything, or we may not. I think it actually doesn’t matter which one is true, because as imperfect human beings, we will simply never be able to know objectively one way or the other. The crucial belief for us to hold onto is that “freedom of choice is given” — and it’s crucial for us to hold onto that belief, even if that, too, is not always the case.

And that’s because if we simply feel invested in our choices — even if sometimes they aren’t always ours” — we can then own them and take responsibility for them. If our only belief is that God has foreseen everything, that could easily lead us to abdicate our own sense of responsibility. But if we believe we are the ones in charge of our lives, then we can take pride in our ideas, celebrate our accomplishments, and become accountable for our decisions — regardless of how much they really are “ours.”

So whether or not “all is foreseen,” it’s much more important for us to act as though “freedom of choice is given,” because that’s how we feel a sense of ownership of our actions, over ourselves and our own lives. Because whether or not “all is foreseen,” and whether or not “freedom of choice is given,” we know from experience that there is great value in feeling like we can pick our destiny — any destiny we choose.

(originally published on Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on May 17, 2012

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Why Bernie Madoff Didn’t Lurk in Dark Alleys

We all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Don’t steal.” But it’s also hard for us to imagine Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Skilling in a hooded sweatshirt in a darkened alley mugging a little old lady. And yet clearly, Madoff and Skilling violated that two-word, easy-to-understand commandment. So we have to ask: how in the world were they able to justify it?

A large part of that justification is because different forms of stealing have different “feels” to them. Physically taking money from another person feels more violent, more immediate, and less justifiable of an action. “Cooking the books,” however, can easily feel explainable by the perpetrator. It’s pretty easy to follow the commandment “Don’t steal” if it simply means, “Don’t go around robbing people in the middle of the night.” But Skilling and Madoff did steal – and stole significantly more money than all the armed robbers in America combined.

In fact, when people don’t deal in cash directly, they actually are able to rationalize their actions, and thus end up stealing significantly more money from people.

Cash Keeps Us (More) Honest

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a fascinating study in the MIT dorm rooms to examine what might allow people to steal without feeling all that guilty about it. At first, he put six Coke cans in a communal refrigerator. Within three days, all six cans were gone. No doubt, people thought, “No one will notice, and hey – free Coke!”

He then put six one-dollar bills on a plate in the refrigerator. They were left totally untouched.

Why? As Ariely explains:

When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold, hard cash (except occasionally). And that’s my point: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 218-219)

There seems to be a psychological block that prevents most of us from simply forcibly taking cash from people, but allows us to rationalize small falsifications that ultimately end up being the same thing as stealing. And that is why, in fact, the Torah has more to say about honesty in business beyond just, “Don’t steal.” In Leviticus, the Torah even regulates what might happen one step away from money that might lead people to cheat.

Honest Weights and Measures

Leviticus 19 contains some of the most important and most famous laws in the Torah. The Ten Commandments appear here, as do the verses, “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole chapter is known as the “holiness code,” implying that beyond just being ethical, treating people fairly is truly a sacred obligation that God demands of us.

The very last laws in chapter 19 say, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah (a unit of dry measure) and an honest hin (a unit of liquid measure)…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)

Why did this law have to be written in the first place? The simple answer is: you don’t forbid something from happening unless it has already been occurring. So clearly, there were people who would falsify their weights and measures. Cheating and stealing are nothing new in today’s society!

And that’s what makes this commandment so important and valuable. If the Torah had simply said, “Don’t steal,” our natural ability to rationalize would have given people the opportunity to say, “Well, if I weigh down my grain a little bit, no one will really notice. And after all, everyone else is doing it, so it’s not really stealing.” Instead, the Torah teaches us, “Don’t cheat even – perhaps especially – when you’re one step removed from money.” It’s a lot easier to steal when you’re one step removed – and that’s why that commandment is needed.

The First Thing We Will Be Asked When We Die

The Rabbis even elevated honesty in business to become one of the highest values we need to live up to. In fact, in the Rabbinic mind, the first thing God will ask us when we die is not, “Did you believe in Me?” or “Did you pray?” No – according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the first question we will be asked when we die is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”

We sometimes say that we know we are acting honestly if we can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. But perhaps that is not enough of a judge. After all, our ability to rationalize could make it very easy for us to say, “Well, it’s just a small thing I’m taking.” Moment by moment, we can easily find ways to steal that feel OK and won’t cause us to lose sleep.

So to truly bring ourselves up to our highest standards, the question should not be, “How do we feel about ourselves right now?” It should really be, “How do we want to feel about ourselves at the end of our lives?”

Only by having our day-to-day actions live up to the values we espouse can we truly be proud of the actions we take.

Posted on April 19, 2012

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Torah as Food

If you’ve ever walked down the condiment aisle of a grocery store, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by the ever-expanding number of varieties of mustard or salad dressing. But for some reason, ketchup has stayed essentially the same since it was created. How come?

According to Malcolm Gladwell, what makes ketchup so amazing is that it hits all five of the basic tastes at once — we get sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (that proteiny, full-bodied taste in chicken soup and soy sauce). There really aren’t many other foods that hit all five. So the reason ketchup has stayed the same is that it encompasses all five of our major taste-senses.

And in fact, that’s the reason kids like ketchup so much. When they’re faced with a new and potentially scary food, they can use the fact that ketchup gives us everything we need in order to make this new food palatable.

So the “essence” of ketchup seems to be two-fold. First, it encompasses all the major taste-senses. And second, its universality allows it to be an outstanding complement to a whole range of foods, providing stability and comfort when we are faced with a new taste.

How is Torah Like Food?

The rabbis often made comparisons between Torah and food. It’s not hard to see the connection — in the Rabbis’ mindset, both Torah and food provide sustenance, both are seen as gifts from God, and both help give us strength.

But it’s not just the idea of “food in general” the Rabbis focused on. They often looked at very specific foods (and usually ones that everyone ate, and knew some facts about), and asked, “How is Torah like this particular food?”

For example, when children start to learn Hebrew, the teacher is supposed to put a dab of honey on each letter. Why? Because “Torah is as sweet as honey.” Notice that the focus is on the main aspect of honey –when we’re comparing Torah to honey, it doesn’t really matter that honey is made by bees, or that it takes a long time to make, or there’s always a little extra drip that you have to find a way to get off the spoon. No, the Rabbis want children to focus on the sweetness of honey, and hope that Torah feels just as sweet in their mouths.

Torah as a Fig-Tree

Let’s look at another example — this time using a food we don’t know as much about. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba compares Torah to a fig tree and asks, “How is Torah like it?”

“Why are the words of Torah like a fig tree? As a fig tree yields its fruit whenever it is shaken, so does Torah always give us new teachings whenever it is repeated.” (Eruvin 54a)

What is the “essence” of a fig tree that allows it to be compared to Torah? Because the more you shake a fig tree, the more figs come down. So just like a fig tree, the more we grapple with Torah (“shake it,” if you will), the more insights will come out of it. In fact, we can find something specific about almost any food — its  “essence” — and we can try to ask, “How is Torah like it?”

So even though this may border on the heretical, let’s ask: how is Torah like ketchup?

How is Torah like Ketchup?

We certainly know a lot more about ketchup than we do about fig trees, and as we’ve seen, the Rabbis had no problem comparing Torah to a wide range of foodstuffs. And the eternal and universal nature of ketchup certainly has echoes of what Torah could be. So how is Torah like ketchup?

My own suggestion is this: ketchup does not stand on its own — it is always used in conjunction with another food. And no one has succeeded in changing ketchup because it gives us everything we need taste-wise. We need its stability in order for us to branch out and explore a wider variety of foods.

Similarly, Torah does not stand on its own. It is to be used in conjunction with what is happening in our own lives. And the eternal nature of Torah (we’ve been studying it for 3000 years!) can help us evaluate the new information that comes out every day.

So how is Torah like ketchup? Because just as ketchup encompasses all we need, but needs to be used as a companion to another food in order to be fully utilized, so too does Torah encompass all we know, but needs be used as companion to our life experiences in order to be brought into this world.

Posted on March 22, 2012

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How Should We Talk About Science and Religion?

As someone who loves both religion and science, I often struggle with how they interact.

Are they in opposition to each other? Do they need to be reconciled? What happens when new scientific knowledge challenges the tenets of my faith?

Part of the difficulty in talking about science and religion is that there are several different ways we can discuss their interaction. Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Director of the Dialogue for Science, Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, outlined several different models in an outstanding talk. Therefore, inspired by her, I want to share four different ways we can frame the discussion about how we talk about science and religion.

Contrast

The Contrast model is probably the most common way people speak about the interaction of science and religion. Often, this view is boiled down to the idea that “science deals with ‘how’ and religion deals with ‘why.’”

Stephen Jay Gould popularized it with the phrase “Non-Overlapping Masteria” (NOMA), which he describes as follows: “The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”

But there are two problems with this paradigm. First, religion has theories about what the universe is made of — for example, Jewish tradition has statements about the way the world came into being and why the world is the way it is. And science is now talking about morality and even meaning, with books like Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape about the science of morality and The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thagard about neuroscience and meaning. Thus the magesteria, in fact, do overlap.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s simply not true that science talks only (or even primarily) about “how” — there’s a lot of “why” in there, asking questions like, “Why is there something instead of nothing? Why do our brains work in the way that they do?” Similarly, religion doesn’t talk only (or even primarily) about “why” — there’s a lot of “how” in there, asking questions like, “How do did humans come to be? How should we act in this world?”

So for people who view themselves as both scientific and religious, the Contrast model often makes them comfortable. But as science enters into the realm that has historically been the purview of religion, and especially if we look more deeply at religion and at science, this model stops working very well.

Concert

The Concert model is the opposite of the Contrast model, as people try to directly reconcile science and religion. It is another attractive outlook to those who are both dedicated to their faith and committed to reason, since it means they would not have to reject either. This model makes claims such as the concept of a “day” in Genesis may actually be billions of years, or that the crossing of the Red Sea was actually finding a swamp that could be crossed at low tide.

But here, too, there are problems with this view. After all, science is always changing, discovering new data and revising theories. If science and religion are in concert, what happens to religious faith when new scientific evidence arises? Indeed, not only physics and biology but also human sciences such as archaeology, political science and history are helping us understand who we are, why we do what we do, and our place in the universe. So if religious faith is based on science, what happens when science presents new evidence?

Indeed, this model makes it hard to do a critical analysis of Biblical texts, and that type of study frequently leads to a crisis of faith. In order for it to work, this model requires significant mental gymnastics, and forces people to maintain only a surface understanding of both science and religion.

So while this view may be appealing at first, it is actually quite fragile. All that needs to happen is for science to discover something that contradicts a deeply-held belief, and people will easily elect either atheism or fundamentalism.

Conflict

The Conflict model is the paradigm that gets the most press, and it claims that religion and science are inherently incompatible. It’s the idea that if you buy into one, you must reject the other. This worldview is exemplified by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on one side, and people who deny evolution because it contradicts the Bible on the other.

But while this outlook generates the most passion from people on the extremes, there are a vast number of people who do not buy into it.

An article in the Huffington Post describes recent work by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who

…interviewed 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members from 21 research universities in the United States. Only 15 percent of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, while 15 percent said the two were never in conflict. The majority, 70 percent, said religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.

Similarly, a study from Pew Research Forum showed that “a solid majority of Americans (61%) say that science does not conflict with their own religious beliefs. Even among those who attend worship services at least once a week, a slim majority (52%) sees no conflict between science and their faith.”

Thus while zealous advocates on each side often dominate the discussion, there is a large silent majority who do not see science and religion as inherently in conflict.

The bigger problem is that while the Conflict model produces a lot of heat, it rarely creates light. It regularly devolves into unproductive arguments and ad hominem attacks, and causes both scientists and religious people to become either overly aggressive or feel themselves to be “victims” of the other side.

So even though for some people, this is an outlook they hold strongly to, it is much more likely to shut down conversations than to open them.

Contact

This is the outlook that I find most resonant. In this model, science and religion can remain in their own spheres, but when it is appropriate, they can also mutually inform each other, and provide us with a variety of ways to help us know what it means to be human. Indeed, its great value is that it reminds us that both religion and science have to be understood in the context of human experiences, because both religion and science are human endeavors.

The Contact model reminds us that science is not independent of the scientists who pursue their field of inquiry. After all, while the universe may be 13.7 billion years old, and humans may have evolved on the African savannah, it has only been since modern times that human beings have sought to undertake a rigorous understanding of fields like cosmology, paleontology, psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry. We have to remember that not only does scientific knowledge provide information, it is deeply influenced by the passions, the curiosity and the personal experiences of the scientists who pursue it.

Similarly, our own personal experiences influence our religious outlook. People’s feelings about religion are naturally affected by how they were raised and what has happened in their own lives. In the words of Rabbi Laura Geller, “All theology is autobiography.” And while religion is older than science, it is still a human creation, helping us structure our human experiences, and asks deeply human questions like, “How should I act? What should I value? Who should I choose to associate with?”

When we place science and religion in the context of human experiences, we recognize that both science and religion are driven by human needs and are victim to human foibles. The Contact model thus encourages humility in both science and religion, reminding both sides that there are things we do not know, and things we will never know.

So the other crucial piece to bear in mind for the Contact model is that “religion” and “God” are two separate things. “God” is bigger than any one human being or group of people; “religion” is our particular attempt to understand God, and is necessarily limited. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “[R]eligion for religion’s sake is idolatry…The human side of religion, its creeds, its rituals and instructions is a way rather than the goal. The goal is ‘to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)” (I Asked for Wonder, 40-41)

So for those of us who feel connected to God, when we forget that religion is not Divine, but human, we can easily fall into the trap of arrogance and narrow-mindedness. Micah thus reminds us that justice, mercy and humbleness are truly the most important values.

Indeed, our ultimate purpose in life is to strengthen ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. Science does that by giving us a fuller understanding of the world, by advancing knowledge, and by examining the relationship between theory and evidence. Religion does that by giving us a sense of purpose, by strengthening communities, and by giving us a potential glimpse of the Divine.

When we remember that both science and religion are human enterprises, we can remember that the most important question isn’t whether they need to be viewed separately, or if they can be reconciled, or if they are inherently in conflict.

The most important question is: how are they being used?

(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on February 23, 2012

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

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