Friday, January 28, 2011

Religion: What is it good for?

By Avromie (

The Kotzker Rebbe's yahrtzeit was yesterday  The Heilige Kotzker, as he's known, was a man who devoted his entire life to the pursuit of truth, and to a relationship with God. Yet he, like many other Tzaddikim was extremely depressed. How does this reflect on Judaism?

When I was a kid, I was told -and firmly believed- that following the Torah leads to the only truly happy life. The proof was brought from our best examples, R' Moshe, the Steipler, et al. Even as I grew a little older, and realized that my family kept the Torah and was still, to put it nicely, hell on earth, I still held on to the dream that, if done properly, Torah was the road to El Dorado.

Years passed, and I found myself turned into a jaded, depressed adolescent. Experience, colored by my own preconceptions, had destroyed any idea that the 'masses' could do Judaism properly. We weren't a light unto the nations, and frankly, we weren't even very well adjusted to regular life. Yet I knew, and hoped, it still existed.

Well I've grown a lot since then, and today I am a jaded, depressed adult. The honest truth is I don't know anymore. Is a belief in a set of instructions that will fix all my problems if followed, a childish notion? Yes, undoubtedly. But my personal attachment to the religion really has nothing to do with the idea itself. So if you'll indulge me to go on for longer than a normal blog post , I'd like to share my current ideas on the topic.

Humanity can be seen as a continuum, one long body constantly changing. Generations are shed like dead skin cells, and new ones grow in their place. There is a single soul that all of us share. (This is referred to in Kabbalah as Adam Kadmon.) The point of humanity is to get in touch with the spiritual, true, essence, and win the body over to it's 'service'. This winning over will bring about the Messianic era. In this sense, Mashiach is not a savior, but a necessary outcome of our own choices. We will have brought about an awareness of spirituality.

And what is this idea of spirituality? Hillel says, “What you hate, do not do unto your friend.” In the words of Isaiah: “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” Our 'universal brotherhood' will be the knowledge that covers the earth.

Now, based on what we know in modern psychology, our free will operates on a very small level. Almost all of our actions are 'predetermined'. What sense, then, is there of giving a Torah that prohibits certain actions? Why not give a manual for good psychological functioning? I think the answer is that a manual like that would inhibit free choice. It is, once again, a childish view of our role in the universe. The Torah outlines proper behavior. We need to study it and figure out what the underlying precepts are, and act on it. Using the body analogy again, there are brain cells, and body cells. The brain cells choose to figure out what to do; the body cells, however, choose to follow or not. We slowly change our own natures and pass on the changes in our parenting to our children. They do the same. With continual change, we can reach our goal.

There are certain preconditions, though. In order to be able to follow the Torah, God had to free us first. A slave cannot participate in the game of history because it lacks the time to think clearly about life, and the ability to act on it. So too in our own times. A Church forcing everyone to follow certain 'slave values', as Friedrich Nietzsche calls them, accomplishes nothing. What we need is emancipation.

Western democracy and the technology that followed gave us that freedom by improving our and the entire world's living status. (Once again, people did that. The argument that Western values, shaped by Judeo-Christian values, caused it, are noteworthy, but conjectural. After all, they were also used to enforce an ancient feudal system.) With modern technology, we live securely enough to be able to safely connect with each other and thereby erase hatred. Why don't we? Why do we follow a jealous, competitive lifestyle when it's no longer necessary for survival?

This is where God comes into the picture. If we see ourselves as the purpose of everything, then it doesn't matter secure we are. We will naturally devote ourselves to our most important value. However, if there is something greater, like a cause, then we will devote ourselves to that. So Communism, Nationalism, the progress of Science, The Tower of Babel, all cause a sense of brotherhood. But it's merely a utilitarian alliance. It isn't transforming the body into an aid to the soul.

Acceptance of God as our father: the only source, the only truth, total giving; and of our fellow humans as part of ourselves causes us to seek constant connection with each other and with God. Sex is referred to as “knowing” in the Torah. That is the true purpose of bonding, knowing and connecting with the true nature of others and with the greater reality of existence. And true bonding seems to me to be the only true happiness possible

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