Monthly Archives: December 31, 2014

Rationalism: A Hard, Tasteless Piece of Meat

Tsemakh Atlas, the tortured protagonist of Chaim Grade’s classic novel, The Yeshiva, was besieged by religious doubt.  “He felt someone unknown pounding at his mind, as though beating fists on closed gates… ‘Do you even really believe in a Creator who gave the Torah?’ Trying desperately free himself of these doubts, Tsemakh began to burrow into medieval philosophical texts.  But the old Jewish philosophers, whose style and ideas were Aristotelian, asserted that it would be incomprehensible to conceive of the existence of the world without a Creator – and that sort of philosophy exhausted Tsemakh; it bored him and made his head ache with despair at finding nothing there to help him.  It also left him with a feeling of nausea, as if he were chewing a hard, tasteless piece of meat that did not stay his hunger but lodged in his cavities and between his teeth.”

We live in a world in which rationality and reason rule the roost.  Rationalists insist that our beliefs be based upon the pillars of knowledge and reason – upon hard facts, if we are fortunate to have them, and upon clear minded, logical thinking.  Clear thinking and “modern” people are happy to argue for or against the existence of God, but those “vague” emotions, those ineffable impressions and experiences of God – these feelings are deemed irrelevant, even unworthy of acknowledgement in the public square.  And so blockbuster movies that are based upon Biblical stories – like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings – bend over backwards to remove any experiences of the Divine from the story.  In today’s movies, God does not (or cannot?) speak to Noah directly, and Moshe is portrayed as a schizophrenic who hears […]

By |December 31, 2014|

Newspapers: Worth the Time?

The sweet pleasure of reading a printed newspaper, and the attendant joys of retrieving it from the bushes in front of the house, will no doubt be lost to future generations.  But the fascination with news, in whatever form it is imbibed, will no doubt continue.  Every day, millions of people tune into to news radio, watch it on television, and read (or, more likely, skim) articles upon articles of news online.

But is there any value in this mass obsession?  Henry David Thoreau, critical as usual, thought not: “I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.  If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked… we need never read of another.  One is enough.  If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications?” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond)  Though the names and characters change, the underlying stories to be found in newspapers remain the same.  The masses turn to newspapers for novelty and excitement, but in reality, the “newness” of newspapers is superficial; there is nothing new under the sun.

C.S. Lewis agreed, and derided those educators who encourage in adolescents the bad habit of reading newspapers.  “I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers.  Nearly all that a boy reads in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost importance.  Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired […]

By |December 22, 2014|

Spires and Towers

In his spiritual memoir, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his first trip to Oxford University as a young man in 1916.  A scholarly boy, Lewis travelled to this fabled center of learning, known as the “city of dreaming spires,” with tremendous anticipation.  But upon leaving the train station, Lewis became more and more bewildered; could this succession of “mean shops” and unimpressive streets really be Oxford?  Lewis walked through the unimpressive town until he reached open country; only then did he turn around and look.  “There, behind me… never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers.  I had come out of the [train] station on the wrong side and been all this time walking into the mean and sprawling suburb of Botley.  I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life.”  The glories of Oxford, its spires and towers, were right behind Lewis, after all.  All he had to do was turn around.

The spiritual seekers of our community – and there are more than we realize! – are frustrated; they are yearning for “spires and towers,” but finding none.  Though we constantly fill our days with the rituals and obligations of Judaism – religious, communal and social – we are left with a gnawing feeling that somehow, we are missing the main course.  For the most part, Judaism is perceived and experienced as a set of ritual and ethical practices – practices that may make us better people, but which have little relevance to our deep, inner yearning for a relationship with the eternal.  We know that there must be something deeper, something far more extraordinary in Judaism – if only […]

By |December 16, 2014|

Dear Journal

When I was a junior in high school, one of my more energetic and insightful teachers suggested that I write a journal (a journal, of course, and not a diary; diaries are for girls).  He explained: “One day, you’ll want to know what you were thinking when you were 16.”  Intrigued, I followed his advice, and kept an “on again, off again” journal for about eight years, until I got married, and that was the end of that.  Possibly for the better, “For an engaged or married man to have a secret super-confidante [i.e., a journal] who knows things which are concealed from his lady seems to me to be deliberate infidelity.” (W.N.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man)

Reading the journal, decades later, I’m struck by how self-absorbed my teenage self was.  But at the same time, I’m hardly surprised, for journals have a way of encouraging egocentrism.  C.S. Lewis argues that writing regularly in a journal is an expression of an unhealthy focus on the self – a flaw which sincere worship of God helped him to personally overcome: “One of the first results of my Theistic conversion was a marked decrease in the fussy attentiveness which I had so long paid to the progress of my own opinions and the states of my own mind…  Self-examination did of course continue. But it was at stated intervals, and for a practical purpose; a duty, a discipline, an uncomfortable thing, no longer a hobby or a habit.  To believe and to pray were the beginning of extroversion.  I had been, as they say, “taken out of myself.” If theism had done nothing else for me, I should still be thankful that it cured […]

By |December 9, 2014|