Monday, August 26, 2013

I haven't the wisdom to know whether we need courage or serenity.

When I was a child, the "Middle-East" was an almost fictional place that seemed to exist only in the context of evening news reports. The only thing I knew for certain was that the people there were in a constant state of conflict.

I was in middle school when Desert Storm happened, which I experienced through the lens of Channel One News. For anyone not familiar with Channel One, it broadcasts news and commercials directly into classrooms around the country, where it literally has a captive audience for marketing and political propaganda. I went to school in Ohio and also in North Carolina during the first Gulf War, and everywhere I went, Channel One was there. Of course, being a child, I saw nothing wrong with the program at the time; it broadcast the same images I saw on my television at home: night vision scenes of our highly sophisticated missiles dispensing justice on vague green outlines of buildings. It wasn't until high school, while listening to Roger Water's album, "Amused to Death" that I started to question the possible insidious intent of the ever blurring lines between news, entertainment and video games. It wasn't until college that I began to look at America's involvement in the struggles of the Middle-East as self-serving, and often destructive.

And so, with the current turmoil in Syria and Egypt, it's difficult to ascertain what the proper role of the United States should be. On one hand, these countries should be free to handle their own affairs, on the other hand, those same countries seem completely incapable of doing that.

On Egypt, I fully supported the popular movement that ousted Mubarak, and I was disappointed when Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected. I was even more disappointed when Morsi used the drafting of a new constitution as an opportunity to consolidate religious control of the government rather than foster inclusiveness and cooperation with other equally important groups in the country. At the same time, I am distrustful of General Sisi who has ousted and arrested Morsi, taken control of the government, and is violently putting down Morsi supporters. After all, Morsi was elected by the citizens of Egypt, and he wasn't shaking his fist in the air and crying, "death to Israel," so Egypt could certainly have done worse. And who knows? Now they might do just that.

On Syria, I honestly feel like the media has been going to great lengths to overlook what has been taking place there. But the most recent violence there has been impossible to ignore, especially with the internet making amateur footage so easy to share with the world. It is truly heart-wrenching to watch YouTube videos of apparent sarin gas attacks on civilian populations. Tears stream down my face as I watch a naked prepubescent girl who is in shock, still soaked with the water that was poured over her by frantic adults trying to wash away the chemicals that were killing her. She is crying out for her family, that is obvious. The man covering her with a blanket is telling her that her family is dead, according to the caption. I am overcome with sorrow and outrage, "we have to do something!"

But what?

Even if we were not a war weary country, it's difficult to say what exactly the US should do in this situation, except that we should not be doing anything unilaterally. At the same time, all of this "mulling it over" by the Obama administration certainly feels a lot like inaction.

I know I usually have more well-developed opinions before I go through the trouble of writing a blog post, but I am honestly stumped on this one.

I feel like I'm back at square one in regards to understanding what is going on in the Middle-East, except of course that they are still fighting.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Do animals have souls?

*If you are taking the time to read this post, I would like your input. Even if you disagree with me, I welcome dialogue. I don't have a blog as a platform to project my views out into the world; I want to know what YOU think.

I'm not sure that a soul exists in the form of some ethereal version of our self that is transported around this physical world inside our physical body.

So I will argue for the "more than the sum of our parts" version of a soul, the soul being that part of our essence which cannot be accounted for, even if our bodies were dismantled atom by atom.

First of all, what does it mean to say that animals do or do not have a soul?

Defining the nature of animals is really about defining ourselves. We want to believe that humanity is unique and set apart from the natural world. For the earliest humans, the natural world was chaotic and hostile. As nomadic tribes, our grasp on survival was tentative at best. We could be wiped out by a flood or a drought, eaten by animals, plagued by disease. Religious beliefs tied us to a world beyond this world, a supernatural world that was ordered and rational, to which humans alone belong. Our rituals, prayers and sacred items tie us to the supernatural world, and allow us to appeal to supernatural forces to intervene on our behalf in this chaotic and hostile physical world. So, from the beginning we were set apart from animals, and this idea has been central to who we are as human beings. (It should be noted that I am speaking in terms of Western thought and religion, which is almost unique in its view that humans are in a separate category than the natural world.)

Philosophical and scientific thought has continued to hold the idea that we are unique and set apart from animals, establishing rational reasons for this belief. The idea that animals do not have the emotions we have has been mostly abandoned in modern thought, which is why we now have laws protecting animals from abuse and neglect. It is important to note here that the humane treatment of animals has been a central tenet of Jewish law for all of recorded history.

So, we are generally in agreement that animals have emotions, yes?

I was told when I was young that the difference between man and animals is the ability to reason, but that really doesn't hold true either. I was watching a documentary in high school about training dogs to sniff out drugs. The dogs think they are playing a game. They are looking for a rolled up towel, which smells like drugs. When they find "the towel," they are rewarded with a game of tug-of-war with it. Here's where it gets interesting: a crucial part of the training involves teaching the dogs to ignore their own logic when it comes to smelling drugs in a package that is too small to hold their towel. The dog smells the drugs in the tiny package, looks at it, and then continues to sniff the surrounding packages which are large enough to hold the towel. The trainer picks up the tiny package and does a sleight of hand trick for the dog to make it look like the towel was pulled from the package. And it takes a lot of reinforcement to convince the dog that the beloved towel is a "magic towel" that can actually be found in containers that are logically too small.

So, animals are capable of reason (and just as capable as human beings of being trained to ignore reason).

OK, so what about self-awareness? Well, it turns out that self-awareness can be tested, primarily with a mirror. You put a dot on the forehead of a toddler and show him a mirror. Before a certain age, I think about 18 months, the toddler tries to rub the dot off on the mirror. After developing self awareness, when the toddler looks in the mirror, he understands that the dot is on his own head and rubs the dot there. Other animals that have proven they are self aware with similar mirror tests include: Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas, Magpies, Dolphins, Orcas, Elephants, and Orangutans. (Which is why I firmly believe that none of these animals should be held in captivity and used for the entertainment of humans.)

At the synagogue a few weeks ago, the rabbi was talking about names, and he said that he thought perhaps humans were the only animals that called each other by name. I was delighted after services to inform him that recent studies have found that dolphins do in fact have distinct names for one another (he seemed to be just as delighted to hear this as I was to tell him).

Well, what else is there? What do we have that animals do not?

When I was very young, I was also told that animals do not go to heaven. I remember thinking that heaven didn't really sound like a place I wanted to be.

And I feel the same way about the "soul." If animals do not have one, then what good is it? I cannot count the number of times in my life I have been actively comforted in a time of need by an animal who, unlike the people around me at the time, was undeterred by my well-practiced guise of "I'm OK."

When I look into the eyes of an animal, I see a being who is more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps what I am seeing is the reflection and perfection of my own soul. And if that is the case, then animals absolutely have souls; they have ours.

In addition: rats can laugh. How wonderful is that?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Repair the World

Religion has been on my mind a lot lately, and with the High Holy Days being just around the corner (seriously, where does the time go?), I'm hoping I can put together a coherent post on the subject.

First of all, I don't believe in God. I'm not saying God doesn't exist, I have no evidence to support such a claim.

Our rabbi once said that a long-time member of his congregation came up to him one day and confessed that he didn't believe in God. The rabbi replied, "God doesn't care whether you believe in him or not."

And that's what I love about Judaism.

Because Western theology as we know it sprouted from the seeds of Judaism, it's easy to forget just how different the religions are.

People ask me, for instance, "If you don't believe in God, and Heaven, and Hell, then what is your motivation to be a good person, and refrain from stealing and murdering?" My reply is that I have no desire to steal or murder, so I don't need a reason not to do those things. I desire to be a good person, so I don't need any extra incentive to be good.

And I like to counter with, "If you're only being good because you think someone is watching and keeping score, then that's not really being good; that's behaving properly."

For the most part, Christianity is grounded in the belief that people are naturally bad; born bad. We are born with Original Sin. And what was that first sin? Reaching for knowledge (eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, to be precise).

Personally, I believe that people are the same the world over, and for the most part, people are inherently good. There are bad governments, bad philosophies, ignorance, and selfishness. And there are certainly bad individuals who enjoy hurting others physically or emotionally; who enjoy having power over people and abusing that power.

Ultimately, devoting your life to ensuring you will have an exalted place in the afterlife is counterproductive to the life you are actually living right now, and it's a selfish reason to do the things you should be doing anyway. Now, just to be clear, I'm not saying Christians are selfish because I don't believe that they do good deeds because they are trying to score points with the judge. I think that, like everyone else, they do good things because they are good people who care about their neighbors and their communities. But their theology is rooted in the idea that people are naturally bad, and that people can only be fixed by believing in Jesus.

How is Judaism different?

Tikkun Olam.

We are obligated to "repair the world." THIS world. The world that matters. This is why we endeavor to keep mitzvot (commandments, or good deeds). And Tikkun Olam itself isn't even a commandment. We don't strive to repair the world because it is Biblical law, but because for the last two thousand or so years, the most learned Rabbinic scholars in Judaism have made reasoned arguments explaining why we should.

We are not waiting for this world to end. We are striving to make this world perfect, and not by proselytizing and trying to convince everyone else that they need to abide by our laws, but by trying to follow our own laws as earnestly as we can so that we might set an example for others to create harmony in their own lives and with their neighbors.

Is Judaism the shining light that sets an example for the rest of the world?

Well we are, after all, only human.

But when you consider that the Jewish people, in spite of several attempts to be wiped off the face of the planet, in spite of never constituting more than 1% of the world's population, has not only survived, but has had such a monumental influence on the world's cultures and religions... we must be doing something right.