Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reflections in Sanskrit

Ishvara (Sanskrit Īśvara ईश्वर "lord, master", from an adjective īśvara "capable") is a philosophical concept in Hinduism, meaning controller or the Supreme controller (i.e. 'God') in a monotheistic sense or as an Ishta-Devata of monistic thought. Ishvara is also used to denote a "lord" in a temporal sense, as any master or king (a dual usage also found in English).


Advaitism [a school of Hindu philosophy] holds that when human beings think of Brahman, the Supreme Cosmic Spirit is projected upon the limited, finite human mind and appears as Ishvara. Therefore, the mind projects human attributes, such as personality, motherhood, and fatherhood on the Supreme Being. An interesting metaphor is that when the "reflection" of the Cosmic Spirit falls upon the mirror of Maya (Māyā; the principle of illusion, which binds the mind), it appears as the Supreme Lord. God (as in Brahman) is not thought to have such attributes in the true sense. However it may be helpful to project such attributes onto God — the myriad names and forms of God one finds in Hinduism are all human-constructed ways for approaching the divine.


Compare with this:

[W]e may promote certain conceptions about God that are valid in the sense of the lessons they teach without actually being technically true. Where fundamentalists fail is by essentially fetishizing the lessons by branding them as literal truth. The truth of the matter is that we know very little about the nature of the ultimate reality and so even while you might consider such an admission an evasion, it remains a key fact to understand.

On a personal note, another key realization is to understand that a skeptic's approach to religion need not always be a matter of confrontation.

What I conceive about God is hard to put in words. I have conflicting notions and ideas that are not yet fully developed - assuming they may one day be. But, fundamentally, I consider God to be the ground of being of existence - the source for existence itself. God is the source of order which makes rational existence as we know it possible.

But does God 'think'? Does God have 'knowledge'? Is God 'good'? These things sound like anthropomorphizations to me. Nevertheless, they may be useful approaches to the transcendent, even though they are flawed. We are limited beings, but just because we haven't figured out what's going on 'up there' doesn't mean that we can ignore it.

It's nice to see one's own ideas reflected in the wisdom of others'.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Take a Hint from the East

Hinduism is a very rich and complex religion. Each sect is like a denomination with rich religious practices. Professional priestly brahmins have denominations like Shaivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Smartha. Each of these four denominations share rituals, beliefs, traditions and personal Gods with one another, but each denomination has a different philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal (moksa, liberation) and different views of the Gods. Each follows different methods of self-realization and worships different aspects of the One Supreme God. However, each respects and accepts all others, and conflict of any kind is rare. Among Hindu followers as a whole, there is a strong belief that there are many paths leading to the One God or the Source, whatever one chooses to call that ultimate Truth.
The presence of different denominations and schools within Hinduism should not be viewed as a schism. On the contrary, there is no animosity between the schools. Instead there is a healthy cross-pollination of ideas and logical debate that serves to refine each school's philosophy. It is not uncommon, or disallowed, for an individual to follow one school but take the point of view of another school for a certain issue.

Although Hinduism has obvious differences from Judaism it still is, in some important ways, very much like Judaism. Like Judaism, it is a People first and a Religion second. It is all pervasive with ethics, rituals, values and beliefs underlying and directing all aspects of life. It has many different religious beliefs (albeit with more diversity than Judaism) but it is the constancy of orthopraxy which maintains its identity. They are both heritage-minded, non-exclusionary (i.e. Jews and Hindus both believe that non-adherents can still 'get into Heaven') and generally non-proselytizing.

It is therefore of no surprise - and frankly long overdue - that each community should finally recognize the other as natural allies in terms of how each religion intersects with communal life. (Not to mention politically as well, since both Israel and India are at the front lines of the confrontation with Islamic extremism.) In February there was a Hindu-Jewish summit in New Delhi where they met to officially recognize just that.

Anyway, I think we might have more to gain from our Hindu cousins in respect with how they manage a co-existence of very different ideas while not being much for heresy hunting. A similar approach could be applied for a reconstruction of modern pluralistic Judaism. Excerpts from here:

In the case of most religions, beliefs and practices come first, and those who subscribe to them are acknowledged as followers. In the case of the Hindu tradition, however, the acknowledgment of Hindus came first, and their beliefs and practices constitute the contents of the religion.
The Hindu tradition encourages Hindus to seek spiritual and moral truth wherever it might be found, while acknowledging that no creed can contain such truth in its fullness and that each individual must realize this truth through his or her own systematic effort. Our experience, our reason, and our dialogue with others—especially with enlightened individuals—provide various means of testing our understanding of spiritual and moral truth. And Hindu scripture, based on the insights of Hindu sages and seers, serves primarily as a guidebook. But ultimately truth comes to us through direct consciousness of the divine or the ultimate reality. In other religions this ultimate reality is known as God. Hindus refer to it by many names, but the most common name is Brahman.
A Hindu is thus identified by a dual exclusion. A Hindu is someone who does not subscribe to a religion of non-Indian origin, and who does not claim to belong exclusively to another religion of Indian origin—Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism. This effort at definition produces a rather artificial distinction between Hinduism and other dharmic traditions, which stems from an attempt to limit a system that sees itself as universal to an identity that is strictly religious.
Various schools have contributed to Hindu thought, each school with a different emphasis. The school known as Vedanta has been the standard form of intellectual Hinduism. According to Vedanta, the highest aim of existence is the realization of the identity or union of the individual’s innermost self (atman) with the ultimate reality. Although Vedanta states that this ultimate reality is beyond name, the word Brahman is used to refer to it.

Whether this ultimate reality is itself ultimately without distinguishing attributes (nirguna) or with personal attributes (saguna) has been a subject of extensive debate among Hindu scholars. To be ultimate Brahman must transcend (exist above and beyond) all limiting attributes, such as name, gender, form, and features. But how can the human mind, with its limitations, conceive of this transcendent reality? Human comprehension requires a more personal reality, with attributes.

Saguna Brahman is also called Ishvara, a name best translated as "Lord." A quotation attributed to 8th-century Hindu scholar Shankara illustrates the subtlety of these ideas: "Ishvara, forgive these three sins of mine: that although you are everywhere I have gone on a pilgrimage, although you are beyond the mind I have tried to think of you; and although you are ineffable [indescribable] I offer this hymn in praise of you."
How do we proceed if we wish to rise toward Brahman? Hindu thought takes the personality of the seeker as the starting point. It divides human personalities into types dominated by physicality, activity, emotionality, or intellectuality. The composition of our personality intuitively predisposes us to a type of yoga—that is, a path we might follow to achieve union with Brahman. Although many people associate the word yoga with a physical discipline, in its original Hindu meaning yoga refers to any technique that unites the seeker with the ultimate reality.

While physical fitness buffs may seek such a union by practicing hatha yoga, people with different personality traits have other choices. For the action-oriented person there is karma yoga, the yoga of action, which calls for a life of selfless deeds and actions appropriate to the person’s station in life. For the person of feeling, bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, calls for unconditional love for a personal divinity. For the person of thought, jñana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, calls for spiritual and physical discipline intended to bring direct insight into ultimate reality. The yogas do not represent tightly sealed compartments, merely convenient classifications. A well-balanced personality might well employ all four. These yogas are sometimes called margas (paths), suggesting that the same destination can be approached by more than one route, and indeed by more than one mode of travel.
Hindus consider all of creation worthy of worship, and thus religious activity in Hinduism takes many forms. Rituals may be performed by the individual, the family, the village, the community or region; at home or in a temple; and frequently or infrequently. The prevalence and persistence of Hindu ritual may well provide the stabilizing factor in a tradition that is so flexible in doctrine. Ritual might even be considered the glue that holds Hindus and Hinduism together. Many rites and observances that Hindus practice daily have come down from ancient times. Others grew up around the lives and teachings of Hindu saints and sages. While details of rituals may differ from region to region and jati to jati, their meaning and central practices have remained consistent over vast distances of time and space.

Virtually all rituals in Hinduism possess multiple meanings, including symbolic interpretations. Even the way Hindus regularly greet each other may be regarded as symbolically bowing to the divine. The Hindu greeting involves pressing the palms of the hands together, which symbolizes the meeting of two people; placing the hands over the heart where Brahman dwells, indicating that one meets the self in the other; bowing the head in recognition of this meeting; and saying namaste, a Sanskrit word that means "I bow to you" and signifies "I bow to the divine in you."

So are there differences? Sure. But perhaps it is no coincidence that in Hebrew, Hudi and Yehudi are only separated by one letter.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On Obligation

This is a bit of a sticky issue. How can the movements of Judaism which do not recognize the divine authority of the mitzvot or the standing of rabbis to declare judgment in Halacha still maintain a sense of obligation to Jewish heritage and traditional Jewish practices? What is the place of Halacha in a philosophy that does not recognize divine law? Simply, on what basis can liberal Judaism make requirements on their constituents?

A major problem of Reform and Conservative Judaism is the apparent "anything goes" approach to Jewish practice and belief which leads to a free for all and disintegration of Jewish identity and community. This approach is based on the ill-conceived idea that people will leave Judaism entirely if they feel the least bit chaffed by obligations that do not suit them, yet it is those people who are most likely to be committed to Judaism which then feel little for it because it requires nothing of them. Judaism becomes meaningless. Liberal movements tend to play towards the lowest common denominator in order to create the biggest tent, but ultimately this backfires as the content of Judaism is lost in empty aphorisms and continually dated political efforts. The process promotes a weakness in Judaism to which even committed Jews have trouble finding tangible connection.

So I have an approach which is akin to some Reconstructionist approaches where it is Jewish heritage itself that makes claims on each Jew. A committed - religious - Jew is one who delves into the richness of our history, religious evolution and traditional practices in order to make a home for themselves in our heritage - and, most importantly, is keen on passing on that sense of patrimony to the next generation. The idea is that one is not just a passive receiver of a heritage, but one has an obligation to maintain it, make it one's own and pass it on. The mandate is to build a Jewish philosophy, a Jewish family and a Jewish community. This necessarily applies to both individuals and the larger collective as the goals cannot be met by a kahal without individual interest, nor can an individual best express his Jewishness without communal life.

B. Spinoza elsewhere lambasted this approach as being little more realistic than divine obligation. That a heritage cannot create an obligation. I disagree (obviously). A Jew is defined by his heritage - since it is only our heritage which makes us different from any goy on the street and therefore it is by our heritage that we can judge whether a person is a good or a bad Jew. First and foremost is how importantly a Jew considers his heritage to be - indeed, how important a Jew believes it is to be a Jew. Any individual Jew may be a great person, but if he doesn't take his heritage seriously and doesn't care to pass it onto his children, then he (I'm sorry to say) simply isn't a great Jew.

Now I believe that once a person really takes his identity seriously, a next step is to follow a way of life that best exemplifies the values so accepted. Following some approximation of traditional Jewish practice - orthopraxy - seems like an ideal fit to me. What precisely the borders of Halacha ought to be in such a state is essentially a matter of politics, though some general principles need to be followed in order for communities to coherently exist. Personally I tend towards relatively more conservative realizations of Jewish practice, but these are details.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Rabbi Schachter (effectively) Forbids Jewish Surgeons

Rabbi Hershel Schachter (Rosh HaYeshiva of RIETS) says:

"There is a terrible misconception that the laws of Shabbos do not apply to doctors. This is absolutely incorrect. No profession exempts anyone from any mitzvos. Medical students are certainly not exempt from Shabbos observance. And even after having completed his school years, the future doctor must take special care to make sure he has a Sabbath-observant residency. If this can not be arranged, the student must simply look for a different profession."

That's a pretty strong statement there. And since there are some fields of medicine that don't really offer such residencies, is R' Schachter saying that an Orthodox Jew cannot realistically become, say, a surgeon or a cardiologist? (Though if anyone does know of a shomer-shabbos surgical residency, I'd be interested to hear about it.)

Clearly, though, there are plenty of observant doctors today who did go through residencies that were not particularly Shabbos friendly - so what gives? Are all these people in error?

Compare the above with the responsum of Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Halpern of Shaare Zedek:

Question: I am a medical student in the United States and am in the process of choosing a residency. Here in the States, there are some specialties in which one can obtain a residency that does not require working on Shabbos (eg, internal medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry and radiology), whereas there are other specialties where working on Shabbos is a requirement (eg, general surgery, OB/Gyn, urology, cardiology). Is it permissible to pursue training in one of these latter fields in the United States?

Answer: It is preferable to train in a Shomer-Shabbat program. If one feels very strongly that he can best serve as a physician in a field which has no such program, it is permissible to train in a regular program. However, one should be very knowledgeable concerning the laws of Shabbat, which is quite a complicated matter.

Looks like Rabbi Dr. Halpern takes a much more reasonable approach. It seems obvious to me, however, that Halachic conflicts are almost inevitable when working in any field on Shabbos but that shouldn't be reason enough to make people turn their back on what otherwise could be their calling, especially when the unimpeachable goal is to save human life and/or to better the quality of life for those who are suffering. As the famous saying goes, I'm not maikil on hilchot Shabbos, I'm machmir on hilchot pikuach nefesh!

I never liked the idea that Halacha is a barrier to the success of man. What it is (or should be), is taking a different approach through life that allows you to get to the same destination - but as a Jew.