Thoughts on Judaism

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Vivid Dreams-Kabalah

The title links to an article on about dreams. It starts sanely enough and then drifts off into Kabalah. As many of you know, to my mind, what we call "Kabalah" today is largely a pastiche of traditional Jewish mystical thought with an equally large helping of non-Jewish superstition and magic, and a dash of unsourced utter nonsense on the side. Sadly, it can no longer be sorted, though Chasidic groups made a valiant effort in formulating Chasidut, emphasizing the parts that are beneficial to "avodah" while trying to guide people away from the nonsense.

Is it dangerous? Two words, Shabtai Tzvi. The modern version is based largely on one direction, that of Yitzchak Luria, the Ari, and his school. While he promoted a resurgence of Kabalah and the mystical side of Judaism, he also introduced new ideas that cannot be traced back beyond a century earlier. The rejoinder to this is that Kabalah existed in a hidden form, where only a few people passed down in a clandestine chain. To me, this breaks the whole Jewish model of generational transmission. The idea was that everyone saw at Mt. Sinai and that other religions were passed down by a single person, as with Christianity or Islam. This even spawned the circular Kuzari "proof", which we have already discussed. To have a major change in the religion that only a select few know is not Jewish, because in Judaism, even the king, prophets and saints are not above the law. However, if only an oligarchy know the "true" law, then no one can ever hold them accountable. Even Moses took pains to be seen by the people speaking with G-d, before he would be trusted to transmit the law.

To answer, vivid dreams are the same as any other dream. They reflect what we think about during the day, as he says in the Raisha of the article. Our minds simply prepare us to do something that our bodies are not yet ready to do. When our brains tell us something, we tend to believe it, just as we tend to believe our parents when we are children. If our brain sends us false signals, which we are used to interpreting one way, we are impressed that we have experienced "reality", even if it is weird. Stage magicians understand this. They tell you things and show you things normally interpreted one way, and then they change the field so that you are tricked about what you have reasoned will or can happen next. Usually, when shown the secret behind the trick, people are amazed at how easy it is. Stuxnet virus also works on the same idea. It tells the instruments in the control center false things that are normally interpreted as true by the trusted source.

Overly trusting our brains, any more than our eyes and ears, leads us to endangering ourselves based on hallucinations, or little voices. A vivid dream is no more than a vivid hallucination. If you put your old aunt in the home for believing it, it is not valid for you to believe either. Mental wards are full of people who follow the reality of their mind, when in everyone else's reality, their mind is what is broken.

Just because we receive a message from our minds, rather than from our outer senses, it may not be any more trustworthy. This brings a certain amount of discomfort and insecurity as we deal with the world around us, but it is a truth that we cannot deny. And this is sufficient for he that understands. The rest is passed down only to special students and only the chapter headings.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Even Rashi doesn't know

The verse says, "And Yitchak sent (shalach) Yaakov, and he went to Padan Aram to Lavan the son of Betuel the Arami, the brother of Rivka, the mother of Yaakov and Esav." On the last words, "mother of Yaakov and Esav" Rashi says "I do not know what it teaches us."

The implication is that telling us that Lavan is the brother of Rivka, a fact we already know, is obvious what it teaches, but that telling us another fact that we already know, contradicts what the obvious implication would be. In my mind, this clears it up.

Why did Yitzchak expect that Lavan would protect Yaakov, and get involved in frateranl broges with the dangerous Esav. Answer: because Yaakov was closest to Rivka and as she favored him, so would Lavan. Whereas Yitzchak favored Esav, and this was further from Lavan in terms of loyalty. This is somewhat confirmed by the next pasuk. "And Esav saw that Yitachak had blessed Yaakov and sent him away (shilach) to Padan Aram. Shalach means to send on a mission to something, whereas shilach means to send him away from here. (This is clear from Rashi's p'shat, that sending him away to escape and sending him to get married, were two different things in Esav's view.) So Esav interpreted the action primarily as Yitchak supporting Yaakov's escape, the rest being a pretense, whereas Yitchak understood it as sending him on a journey to get a wife. So Esav sought to counteract the pretense, rather than to thwart Yaakov's escape, since his father wanted it.

Howeer, in truth, Rivka would have wanted the escape more, so she was relying on Lavan's loyalty to her as her brother. Why then emphasize that Rivka is the mother of both of them? This would inspire Lavan to have the same loyalty to both and not to get involved. Even though Yaakov is mentioned first, nonetheless, this would emphasize that Lavan still would have no reason to completely side with Yaakov. Thus, this pasuk confuses pshat, rather than clarifying it, and we do not know what it meant to teach us.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Sons of Avraham Part 2

Well, after our failed vacation trip, we returned home to news that some of the "Occupy" movements had become violent, you know, those movements in every city that are directing anger at "bankers", i.e. Jewish bankers, i.e. Jews, who are all bankers. So, my family sat down to discuss possible scenarios to defend our home in case of attack.

Scenario one.

Suppose a couple of bachurim that we have never met before came to the door, and the "occupiers" chose that moment to riot. They surround the house and the bachurim are trapped inside. Now, I like to think out of the box, and so I came up with a really creative plan. My two daughters, who are both engaged BH, were home. So I suggested, in case they were home when the riot began, that we could offer them up to the angry mob to protect the bachurim inside. I could use my influence in town to sell the idea to the crowd and then they would spare us and the bachurim. My wife and family do not always appreciate my ideas, but I feel that their over-reaction to this idea was completely out of line. Both of my daughters also complained to their chasanim, but they tried to placate the girls by saying that I must be joking. Where is everyone's spirit of mesiras nefesh?

So that was a bust.

So, having failed to convince my wife on our adventure to Egypt, I decided to take my sons on a trip. The older one has always been a bit of a wild kid and likes to endanger others just for fun, so I will have him stay with the car while the younger one and I go exploring. We like the mountains. Then, I had this great idea. Let's see how my younger son, a really nice and obedient kid, reacts to my thinking out of the box. So, I suggest that we leave the older son with the car, while we go on a hike and have a personal barbecue up on one of the mountains. I brought picnic basket and we started up the slope. When we got to the top, he says to me, "I see you brought barbeque sauce, ketchup, mustard, and you even brought firewood and a knife. So why didn't we stop off at the kosher butcher and get some meat to roast?" I explained that the voices in my car had told me to barbecue him. At first, he was all into it. However, as I tied him down to slit his throat, he began to have reservations, but it was too late. He just gave me a look, you know, that "I'm so disappointed in you Dad, but do what you think is right" look. Just then, the voices from the car spoke to me again and said that really, tying him down was all that was required and I could now release him. I even saw a ram with its horns stuck in a tree, so voila, barbecue. We had a great time, but ever since, my son has been acting out in school and he keeps muttering strange things to himself. Then, they were going to have a class picnic, and the teacher says that my son freaked out and hid under his desk yelling "Take my brother. He's bigger, he has more lean meat on him and he's a jerk too!"

I tell you, raising kids is tough.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Whose failure?

After passing the Mishnah in daf yomi and the corresponding Rambam in nearly syncronized cycle about the half mouse half earth impurity, I realized that Rabbi Slifkin had given an excellent examination of the subject, so I relented.

However, over the weekend, I was forced to ponder some of the same experiences that I have had throughout my life when the Orthodox and non-Orthodox interact. Invariably, some poor lamenting souls will ponder the tragedy that X has gone off the derech, that Y is married to a non-Jew and that Z keeps many Jewish laws, but does not keep Shabbat or kashrut k'halacha. Who do they think they are fooling? Or who do they think they are impressing? Or what did they do that deceived them into going the wrong way in life? Kiruv Rabbis around the world have been pouring life blood into the effort, only to see a small dent in the effort to show the entire world the truth of Orthodox Jewish laws, customs and theology. Why so? IMO, they are asking the wrong questions.

The question is not why Jeffrey likes the shikse, or why Pinny changed his name to Parker and works on Yom Tov even though he comes to shul many times when he is not working. It's not even why a hundred people show up to a social event at the shul, but it struggles to make a minyan. Nor is it why Sheila has to go to the treif restaurant when there are so many kosher ones in her city. And they always ask "Who's to blame? The parents, the teachers, the rabbis?" However the correct question is why haven't we inspired them enough, created a Jewish edifice inviting and inspirational enough to earn their hearts and minds?

Now many frum people who read they are infuriated that I would ask that. Why should they? This is why they are failing. For it is not that Jeffrey likes the shikse, but that we have not shown him anything that inspires him enough to accept our advice. Period. He does not understand why his girlfriend should be called a derogatory name, just because she was born to non-Jewish parents. He is told that he is bad for seeing her. But we have not built our relationship with him such that our advice is (or even should be) meaningful to him. Building that relationship means putting ourselves into his position and analyzing the matter from his viewpoint. Remember some vort about "kamocha" that you slept through? ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION!!!! Why should he listen to me? What have I offered him that he should change his world view to mine? Some old stories and ideas that may not even appeal to him? Would that convince you to convert some other worldview, say ... oh, I don't know... Christianity? Of course not!!!

Why indeed? Is it comparable? Isn't there a pintele yid, a Jewish spark that drives the Jew to accept our ideas? Isn't that given in the equation? Answer: So how's that working for you? There is still no minyan, there is still a mixed marriage, there is still a nonreligious person or formerly religious person. And you want to throw a platitude at it.

So who is to blame? Practice the question in front of the mirror a few times to make sure you are asking it forcefully enough. Then realize that you are finally asking the right person the right question. What am I doing to make Judaism more inspiring and more inviting and more enticing to young people? Not programs, not debates, not rational cover for lousy ideas, not pronouncements from out of touch rabbi celebrities. Why should anyone take my advice? Answer that honestly and they will come.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Sons of Avraham? Daughters of Sarah?

To test the idea that we have the traits of Avraham and Sarah, I decided to play a little impromptu role game with the Rebeltzin. (No, the kids can keep reading.)

From Rashi, we have an interesting case scenario. So I asked the Rebeltzin if she would like to join me on a trip to a hostile country that is full of crime, and is run by totalitarian dictatorship (perhaps Egypt, under military junta). It is imperative that the people in that country (especially the women) and its leaders be abnormally ugly. The Rebeltzin is always up for a challenge, so she is in. I explained to her that, since it is dangerous, and there is a good chance they won't like Jews, especially if we have a few bucks and appear powerful, that they will want to kill me. However, if she pretends to be my sister, instead of my wife, they will take her captive and (at least) sexually molest her and allow me to live. (Were they to know she was married to me, they would probably just kill me and take her captive anyway, they have their standards of morality after all.)

She was not reacting as positively as I had hoped. Where was the adventurous woman that I once knew? Anyway, I sweetened the pot, as it were. I also told her that, if she follows through with this plan, the wealthy leaders of the country will probably give me many gifts and make me much more wealthy than I already am. At this point, she stomped out angry for some reason. If I live to be 100 years old, I will never understand women! Fortunately, the couch is really comfy. However, next year, maybe I will suggest going back to Charan to visit the family.