Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Existential Angst of Twenty-Somethings

Conversations I have had with friends and family who are millenials lately have been interesting, to say the least.  One of the commonalities I have heard has been along the lines of "Religion is not for me" or "Who needs religion?" This, of course, is no surprise since most millenials define themselves as "spiritual but not religious," a phenomenon I explored approximately one year ago.  The other commonality that I have noticed amongst these conversations is that the same millenials who don't see any relevance in religion are also the same ones who tell me that they're lost in life and don't feel any sense of purpose in life.  After hearing that so many people in my generation don't take to religion, for whatever given reason, it begged the following question:

"Are my friends feeling more lost because they don't have religion or is my attempt to point out causation a form of cum hoc ergo propter hoc?"

I've actually had this discussion with a former professor.  In today's society, there is something inherently unstable about being in one's twenties.  As she had stated, "the twenties were the worst time in my life."  There are so many uncertainties with being in one's twenties.  With the decline in marriage in this country, being single and not finding that "special someone" is becoming all the more prevalent.  Even with the imperfections in marriage exemplified by the rate of divorce in this country, there is still something to be said for the companionship of another individual and combatting a sense of loneliness and despair. 

Higher education also puts a strain on millenials.  For the Baby Boomers, a high school education was sufficient.  During those days, only one person with a high school education had the realistic potential to support a middle-class family.  Nowadays, you need two parents with post-secondary education to maintain the same lifestyle.  In addition to the fact that a Bachelor's Degree does not have as much effectiveness as it used to have, you also have to deal with the hyperinflation of college tuition costs compared to general inflation, which is estimated to be 300 to 400% higher than normal inflation (numbers calculated from late 1970s).  The feeling of debt can crush an individual's mentality and reduce the individual to abject despondency.  Since the labor market of those with Bachelor's Degrees has increased, not to mention the expectation of post-secondary education, the overall value of such an education exacerbates the individual's situation since it takes more time to pay off that debt.  And we can all be certain that a global recession only compounds all of this hopelessness. 

Millenials also have to deal with being unsure of their career path, entry-level wages, increased costs of buying a house (when adjusted for inflation), and a hostile, uncivil political climate that breeds uncertainty and cynicism.  Needless to say, there is plenty that has the potential to bog down the typical millenial. 

I don't want to diminish these valid concerns.  They breed incertitude in an indvidual, and that incertitude creates angst.  However, if millenials are to believe that life is so awful, I think each millenial would need to pick up a history book because living conditions and security of rights in this country right now are better, obviously with some exceptions in certain areas, than in any other country during any given period in time.  Life expectancy is longer than ever and what used to be considered luxuries (e.g., air conditioning, the automobile, the five-day work week) are now commonplace. 

Dealing with difficult times and incertitude is nothing new in our day.  I don't care what you say about organized religion.  Every institution has its flaws and need to be worked out.  However, dismissing centuries of religious wisdom and practice is foolish.  There is a reason why religions have had staying power for all this time.  They have grappled with life's questions of meaning and significance.  They have had much more time to hammer out the details than a millenial has had to even think about them.  Throwing out the baby with the bath water is imbecility par excellence.  Although there are exceptions, the general trend I see in life is that those who have religion in their life have more stability in their life.  More stability generates more happiness because one does not feel lost.  Is this to say that religion is for everbody?  Not necessarily.  Is this to say that religion automatically makes you a good person?  No.  I have met religious people who are severely flawed, and I have met atheists who are wonderful human beings.  Is to even say that religion will solve all your problems?  Nope!  I don't make that guarantee.  Life is a bumpy ride, after all.  The purpose of religion and having a sense of connection with a higher power transcending yourself is that when these bad times do come along, you are better anchored and better equipped to handle it. 

This is not an attempt for me to prosletyze.  After all, in Judaism, an individual from any nation has the potential to be rewarded in the afterlife, presuming there is one in the first place.  Jews don't need to convert others.  What I advise to my friends who feel lost and who feel they are severely missing that sense of purpose in life, go religion shopping!  I know, it's a secular way of framing the advice, but see which religion works for you.  Obviously, I would say give Judaism a try.  Aside from it working for me quite nicely, I find it has a pragmatic, realistic way to approach theology, ethics, and the question of the meaning of life as a whole.  But a man's spiritual journey is his own, and what I hope is that what he finds ultimately brings him solace.         

Thursday, April 14, 2011

When a Scapegoat Doesn't Cut It

This week's Torah portion (Leviticus 16:8-10) has a peculiar practice that is referred to as the "scapegoat ritual" (עזאזל).  Essentially, the sacrificial ritual of two goats is supposed to cleanse one of all sins, thereby bearing off all their iniquities (16:22).  My Christian friends see this and attempt to extrapolate this practice to the cruxificion of Jesus since that, too, allegedly did away with all iniquities. 

I never liked this ritual.  Sacrificing two goats is too simplistic of a solution towards repentance.  Much like with kapparot, it doesn't create a sincere sense of repentance.  The fact that the ritual had to be done on an annual basis is all the more evidence that the ritual was not as effective as one would have hoped.  As this D'var Torah points out, there's another issue with the ritual.  In verses 29-30, we're still told to celebrate Yom Kippur.  If the scapegoat ritual was supposed to cleanse the people of Israel of all their sins, why would there be any need for Yom Kippur? Michael Carasik provides an answer:

In the ritual metaphysics of sin and its removal, perhaps they have been. Figuratively removing sin from the locale continues to be part of Jewish observance; on Rosh Hashanah, New Year's Day, Jews throw bread into the water in the ceremony known as tashlikh.....Like the scapegoat ritual, this serves (if only symbolically) to carry sin away from the sinner and into the void. The solemn ritual of animal sacrifice—meant, as some of the traditional commentators explain, to shift the punishment the sinner himself deserves to an animal—must have worked similarly. But neither ritual is enough to complete the job.

A scapegoat, as we use the word today, is someone who takes the fall for the person who is really responsible for the crime. But when what you want is not to shift the blame but genuinely to cleanse yourself of your misdeed, neither a scapegoat nor any other kind of vicarious punishment, even in the form of animal sacrifice, is sufficient. You must afflict yourself—not because G-d desires such affliction, but because you might not feel truly cleansed unless you, too, feel some of G-d's distress at the existence of sin.

A point I like to bring up time and again is that ritual is the means, not the ends.  The ritual may or may not have the intended impact of sobering the individual to not sin in the future.  However, by making Yom Kippur necessary even though their is a scapegoat ritual teaches us something more.  True repentance comes through realizing what you have done, making up for it, and vowing never to do it again.  That has been and will always be the prevailing message of Yom Kippur.  Although it's not the High Holidays, it's still always a good time to realize what we have done wrong, compensate for it, do our best to make sure we don't do it again, and thereby grow in the process.  G-d didn't create us to have a goat wipe away our sins.  He created us so we can grow as individuals, and that's what repentance is all about.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Parsha Acharei Mot- Does Leviticus 18:22 Condemn Homosexuality?

Homosexuality in religion is an intriguing topic not only because it's a hot-button issue, but up until very recently, it has been considered taboo to the point where the issue is simply swept under the rug.  It becomes even more stimulating of a topic in Judaism because from a historical perspective, Judaism is the source of anti-homosexual sentiment, a sentiment which later influenced Christian and Muslim definitions of marriage.

Just a brief overview of the denomination's views on homosexuality.  If you look from a traditionalist perspective, the Orthodox Jews unanimously agree that homosexual acts are unambiguously a violation of G-d's decree.  The Conservative Movement, at least here in the United States, still feels more divided about the issue.  The other movements (i.e., Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist) have accepted same-sex marriage.

With the increasing momentum of the gay rights movement and awareness of what homosexuals endure in a religious environment, not even the Orthodox can hide from the fact that their stance of anti-homosexuality has caused religious homosexuals an unbearable amount of pain.  After all, if one of the premises of Judaism is that G-d is a loving deity and G-d allowed a certain percentage of [Jewish] individuals to be homosexual, can Leviticus 18:22 really prohibit all homosexual activity? 

At this time, I do not want to discuss how to grapple with the issue of the frum homosexual since that conversation would remain fruitless until we discuss the genesis of this viewpoint, Leviticus 18:22:

ואת-זכר--לֹא תשכב, משכבי אשּה:  תועבה, הוא.

"Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination." (JPS Translation) 

The JPS translation is the rough equivalent of what many Christians use to justify their anti-homosexual stance.  Before I begin with analysis of the text, I would like to bring up two main points.  First, and this is the joy I have from linguistic work, is that translations are inherently limiting.  When going from a Semitic language to a Germanic language, much gets lost in translation, which is what merits this blog entry in the first place.  The second issue is that when you put a text in man's hand, even if the text is claimed to have divine status, interpretation is inevitable.  This is a scary notion for the other two Abrahamic faiths.  In Judaism, however, interpretation have existed for quite some time.  With that in mind, let's embark on an age-old, Jewish tradition.

The most objective way of approaching a text, especially with such gravitas, is to look at what the text itself has to say, and subsequently put the text in its context.  If you cannot do that, you can take any text out of context, thereby rendering the text meaningless.  As such, we need to know what the text is really saying before we can sufficiently say what it's condemning and what it's not condemning.  

 ואת-זכר: The word את is a direct object indicator in the Hebrew language.  את points what you do to somebody (זכר), rather than what you do with (עם) someone.  Although this seems like a nuanced form of semantics, the preposition makes a huge difference, especially if we are to claim that the text is divine and G-d chose His words with the utmost care.  If you look at any homosexual act in the Tanach, there is a common element--domineering.  The domineering connotation in Leviticus 18:22 is one of the main points of R. Steven Greenberg's book "Wrestling with G-d and Man: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition." Actually, when you look at the verse in the context of the entirety of Leviticus 18, the motif of power plays in domineering relations predominantly emerges.

Ham wanted to teach his father, Noah, a lesson, so he dominated him (Talmud, Sanhedrin 70a).  The Sodomites were so inhospitable and hostile to poor people that they were willing to dominate the two "wayfarers" to chase them out.  Even in ancient societies, much of homosexual relations consisted of the older man dominating the younger one.  This leads me to my final comment on these words: there is not a single condemnation of a consensual, loving homosexual relation in Tanach.

לֹא תשכב: This means "do not lie [in]," deriving itself from the infinitive לשכב.  In its simplest sense, it means "to lie down" or "to recline."  However, within the context of the verse, it is in reference to lying in the sexual sense.

משכבי אשּה: The phrase משכבי אשּה is best translated as "[in] the lyings of a woman."  A good question to ask is "what does this phrase mean?"  If G-d wanted to give a blanket prohibition against homosexual acts, he simply would have said, "ואת-זכר--לֹא תשכב ,תועבה, הוא," and He would have left out משכבי אשּה, but He didn't.  If anyone would have chosen His words carefully, it would have been G-d.  To say otherwise would be blasphemous.  Therefore, G-d must have had something more specific in mind than a blanket prohibition.  Aside from Leviticus 20:13, the phrase משכבי אשּה does not show up in the Tanach, which does not help us give a contextual sense of what משכבי אשּה really means.  We do, however, have an equivalent, which is "the lyings of a man,"  משכב זכר (Numbers 31:18, 35, Judges 21:11).  From these verses, we can figure, through extrapolation [and Jewish tradition of interpretation], that we are talking specifically about penile penetration. We additionally have Rashi's commentary on Leviticus 20:13 that states that we are talking about one act that is prohibited in Leviticus 18:22, mainly that of male-to-male anal intercourse.  Also, the fact that the Tanach is silent about lesbian relations all the more confirms that we are talking about one specific sex act.

תועבה: This is a tricky word to translate.  Many have rendered it as "abomination," although it hardly scratches the surface of the word's meaning, as is describe in this teshuva by the Conservative movement.  In most instances, it is better to translate תועבה as "taboo."  The word תועבה is used to describe Egyptians eating at the table with Israelites (Genesis 43:32), eating shrimp (Deuteronomy 14:3), and even marriage to one's sister (Leviticus 18:9) or to two sisters (Leviticus 18:19), something which two out of three of the Patriarchs did.  On the other hand, something such as using incorrect weights (Deuteronomy 25:16) is also a תועבה, which by most standards, would be considered intrinsically problematic. When תועבה is used as "intrinsically problematic," it is used to bemoan an ethical wrongdoing, which sexuality is not. When it is "intrinsically problematic," the phrase "unto G-d" is included. In Leviticus 18:22, no such indicator exists, thereby implying that the prohibition is more contextual in nature.

Although in most instances the word תועבה is translated as "taboo," one could still theoretically argue an ambiguity of what the word means in this context, since the word can have more than one meaning. I would still opine that given the context, its most probable meaning is closer to the concept of being taboo. To help sort out the ambiguity, we can look at what the rabbis of yore had to say. They had three interpretations of the word and why this act was so problematic: innate repulsiveness, a defiance of procreation, and a disturbance of peace in the home.  Let's look at these claims individually:

  1. The Ralbag (1288-1344), as well as R. Moshe Feinstein, argued that this verse existed because homosexual sex was prima facie disgusting, hence the prohibition.  This argument fails on two levels.  First of all, if it is inherently disgusting to do, why the need for the prohibition in the first place?  Second, this verse fails to account for the fact that around 5-10% of all humans are exclusively homosexual, not to mention the sizable amount of other individuals that would not mind partaking in such activities.
  2. According to the Midrash Lekach Tov, as well as the Sefer ha-Chinnuch, the reason for this prohibition is because it "frustrates the Divine plan of procreation."  Unlike Christianity, Judaism permits non-procreative sex.  Furthermore, infertile heterosexual couples are permitted to still be together.  This does not mean that Judaism has not viewed procreation as optimal, but to say that it views it as an absolute is not Jewish, thereby diminishing this argument.  
  3. There is a third argument postulated by the Tosafists.  According to the Talmud Bavli (Nedarim 51a), the word תועבה is an acronym for "to'eh attah ba'ah," which means "and you shall not stray."  The Tosafists were perplexed by a lack of indirect object, and they had concluded that "one would stray from his wife because of this."  Homosexual acts would disrupt the family life, and all the more so than normal adultery.  Why?  Because the man can provide something that the wife could not, and for that, the tension rises all the more.  שלום בית, or "peace in the home," would be greatly disrupted.  Out of the three traditional arguments, this is the one I find most compelling.
Postscript: I can go into further non-textual analysis.  I could say that many of homosexual relations in ancient societies were about dominance, and not about love.  I could say that from a pragmatic standpoint, in an agrarian society, having as many children as possible was a necessity to survive, and up until the Industrial Revolution, a homosexual relation could not be fathomed.  I can even attempt to juxtapose the surrounding verses and limit the act to an idolatrous context.  However, I will conclude with this: the Torah is described as (Talmud, Eruvin 13a) "black fire upon white fire," meaning that one can find many interpretations of the Torah, some of which can be totally contradictory, and some meaning which we have yet to find.  In this verse alone, we have found the potential to read this verse in multiple fashions.  The verse can be viewed as a condemnation against domineering sex.  It can be viewed as solely a prohibition against male-to-male anal intercourse.  It can be viewed as simply a taboo for the given time period.  Whatever the case may be, the last thing that one can argue is that the verse is a blanket prohibition against any form of homosexuality whatsoever.  I find that the beauty of studying Torah is that even in a verse as controversial as this one, one can find multiple forms of interpretation, thereby bringing multiple ways to bring this verse alive.  However you decide to read this verse, may it be done so in the goodness of Torah, as well as the dignity of your fellow man.

UPDATE 7/25/2012: I have been reminded that the word את can also mean "with," which can make a case against our modern-day concept of homosexuality and loving, homosexual couples. However, given the overall context, I would contend that the more substantiated argument is in favor for loving, homosexual couples. Even if we were to give this argument to those against homosexuality or homosexual acts, the argument that the verse confines the prohibition to a single sex act between two males still stands. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hypocrisy vs Inconsistency: A Different Perspective on Religious Life

This is one of those fun charges that atheists and anti-religious people like to throw at me. Essentially, it goes something like this: the morals and standards espoused by religion cannot realistically be reached by man because they are too high to be obtained on a consistent basis. Therefore, there is an innate hypocrisy in even trying to be religious.

I cannot begin to tell you how obnoxious this is to hear. This doesn't even touch upon the veracity of those standards or what it even means to have standards in the first place. But because I hold myself to higher standards that I cannot consistenly keep, does that make me a hypocrite?

Obviously, a simple reply of "no" will not suffice, which is why I find it to be important to differentiate between hypocrisy and inconsistency.

Let's outline a textbook example of hypocrisy. You have a fundamentalist Christian from the Religious Right. He tells you that homosexuality is a sin because of Leviticus 18:22. He is the one that Bible-beats you at services every Sunday about it. He is the one protesting any gay pride rally. He is the one who constantly espouses "family values." But his life behind closed doors tells another story. You later find out that not only does he cruise gay bars, but he actually is cheating on his wife with a male lover.

When you are beraiding others for doing something that you yourself are doing, that is hypocrisy. You really have no place in constantly chiding another individual or group of people for a flaw that you have. It's just not right.

Inconsistency, on the other hand, is a whole different matter because it does not predicate itself on the all-or-nothing mentality that religious fundamentalists hold dear.

In my humility, I recognize that I am an imperfect being. I have made mistakes in the past and I am sure that I will err in the future. Does this mean I shouldn't have standards? No! Does this diminish the fact that I hold myself to higher standards? Absolutely not! The whole premise of Judaism, or even religion in general, is to cultivate yourself into being a better human being. It's what I like to call minimizing the gap between our imperfections and perfection. The difference between me and the hypocrite is recognizing where I am in life, where I am going, and how to minimize the aforementioned gap. It won't be progress and perfection all the time. I'm sure there will be some relapses in my life or certain reactions that simply will not be pretty.

With this mentality, it's much easier to judge others becuase then you realize that you would like to be judged at least as likely as you would be if the roles were reversed. I'm here in this life to do my best and I cannot do anything more than that. I find it to be a healthy approach to imperfections. What's more is that I find it the best way to be honest with myself. That way, my relations, whether with myself, other people, or G-d, can be done with the most positive sense of integrity possible.