The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

God and reason

I was going to write this when I first created this blog, but the story is much older.

I was raised without religion. I was made aware that I was Jewish, but I've lived most of my life outside of the Jewish community. My mother's side of the family has been secular for at least five generations. My mother's mother has a letter that her grandfather wrote to his father. In the letter, he describes meeting a Hasidic Jew on a train, sitting next to him, and asking him about his religious beliefs. It is clear in the letter that my great-great grandfather had no religious education of his own. My mother's side of the family were wealthy German Jews, who moved to the USA some time in the mid-19th century, not as refugees but from a position of strength. They did very well over here. The author of the letter was invited to President Garfield's inauguration, and my grandmother still has his invitation in a scrapbook. They had rather a poor estimation of their less wealthy, more pious coreligionists from Eastern Europe. In this, they shared the prejudices of the mainstream.

My grandmother married a Polish Jew who became very religious later in life. My grandmother had no objection to this, but did not share in his piety, nor did her children. My mother married a Galitzianer from a working-class family, and her snootier relations were mortified.

My father's father's father was rousted from his bed, in his shetl in the Ukraine in the middle of the night, as Cossacks were burning the village to the ground, murdering men and raping women. He and his pregnant wife ran for their lives and made it to a safe haven many miles away. He had stored some emergency money there, and they used the money to buy passage to Boston. My grandfather was born in Lynn, Massachusetts a few months later. He worked in a dress-making factory, then he was a foreman at the factory, then he ran the factory. My father's mother's father also ran a dress-making company, Siren Dresses. His eldest daughter was born in Moscow, and the rest of the brood were born in Lynn and Swampscott. My grandparents were born in the midst of the Great Depression. It took them several years after their marriage to afford wedding rings.

For my father's side of the family, being Jewish was a means of mutual protection rather than a spiritual thing. They could find protection, solace, company, and assistance from other Jews. The first two generations here in the USA spoke Yiddish, and could travel throughout the Jewish world this way. My great-grandfather still kept his business contacts in Russia, and my grandfather had business in New York, and later in Brazil, all through speaking Yiddish. I doubt my mother's side of the family spoke Yiddish after the Haskalah. My grandparents observed Passover, but it was more of a dinner with a story than a religious event for them. My grandparents would take me to their synagogue for the yahrzeits of relatives, but that was the only time they ever went. I doubt my grandfather owned a tallit, let alone tefillin.

So it's somewhat odd for me to be a religious Jew, who prays twice a day and goes to synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning. My father's mother's brother Morris was devoutly religious, as was my mother's father, but I can't think of any others in my family.

My father is a strongly rational agnostic, and my brother and I were raised that way. I thought my father was an atheist, but he objected to being called an atheist when I called him that, saying that he respected the religious beliefs of others (including his devout Catholic third wife, and their children), and that he wasn't willing to assert the non-existence of God. He has been very supportive of my religious life, which frankly came as a surprise to me. His second wife was a hostile antitheist ex-Catholic who aggressively mocked any show of piety anywhere near her, and my father never voiced any objection to her behavior in that regard, so I assumed he shared her attitude.

I always had a clear sense of my Jewish identity, as most secular Jews in the USA do, but we never lived in a predominantly Jewish community, never belonged to a synagogue, and never observed any Jewish holidays except the occasional Passover Seder with the grandparents. When I was about ten years old, my father gave me the choice of Hebrew school, or Pee-Wee hockey, and I chose the hockey. I went to two or three Bar Mitzvahs as a boy, but never wanted one myself.

I grew up regarding myself as a spiritual agnostic. I dabbled with Unitarian Universalism, mostly because most of my teenage sexual experiences happened at YRUU retreats. I also tried Quakerism, for which I will always have a deep respect. I was active in Young Friends, and gained a lot from going to Quaker meetings, but I was kicked out of Young Friends for a reason I will blog about later.

I bought my first Tarot deck when I was twelve, a Rider-Waite deck. As I got older, I became interested in Ritual Magick, first through Wicca, and then through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the work of Aleister Crowley. I deeply distrusted the OTO, and never joined them (no offense to OTO brethren out there, but your priority disputes and court cases are not very good advertising), but I knew people in the OTO and A.˙.A.˙. and learned a lot from them, but never felt comfortable entering their hierarchy. I also fundamentally distrust the cosmology Crowley published, and the law of Thelema does not speak to my condition. The best thing I gained from all this was a deep and abiding love for Hermetic Qabalah.

I first began to consider the actuality of God in graduate school. I was working on the Comprehensive Exams for my MS in mathematics. These exams are hard. It is difficult to describe how hard they are to someone who has never experienced something like them, but I will try. There were four subjects: Real Analysis, Complex Analysis, Algebra, and Topology. Each subject exam was two hours long, and had four problems on it. You submitted your best three answers, and had to get two of them right to pass the exam. That meant you scanned the test for the "zinger", the problem that was deliberately too hard, and skipped it, and then you had 40 minutes to solve each remaining problem. Each problem took about a week to solve. That meant that if you didn't already see the problem and solve it while you were studying for the exam, you probably would not be able to solve it at the exam. You had to remember the solution to every problem you solved while studying the prior exams going back about 10-15 years, and regurgitate the answer on the day of the test. At your first try, you could take as many exams as you wanted, but you had to pass at least two exams in order for your passes to count. You had to pass all four exams to graduate.

I was studying for the algebra exam, and I was working on an old test problem from a previous exam. I worked on the problem from 9:30 PM to 1:30 AM, and I got too tired to continue, so I reluctantly went to bed. That night, in bed, I dreamed the solution to the exam problem. I felt a rush of euphoria, which made me snuggle into the bed and ride out the feeling of bliss. I was rudely interrupted by a voice that told me, "Schmuck! That's the real answer! Wake up and write it down!"

I did, and went back to sleep. In the morning, I looked at what I had written. It was elegant, succinct, direct and powerful. With a minimal about of exposition, it attacked and immediately solved the problem. I was amazed. And that problem showed up on the exam I took.

My advisor had a theory that the mind we walk around with most of the time is not particularly smart. It can follow orders, and at can memorize and shuffle facts it knows, but it is not equipped for bursts of genius. If we find an interesting problem, we can attack the problem with the mind we walk around with most of the time, but if the problem is sufficiently interesting, our waking mind cannot solve it by itself. It works and works and works on it, and with one's will, one can drive the waking mind to continue its pursuit of a solution. If the waking mind sufficiently exerts itself, a deeper mind will notice that the waking mind is working on something. That deeper mind, its interest piqued, will decide to involve itself in the problem. There is a blinding flash of inspiration, and the deeper mind generates a solution. Then it is up to the waking mind to shape that solution into something workable, conveyable, capable of being printed and shared with others.

The job of the waking mind is to be disciplined enough, to work hard enough on a problem that the deeper mind pays attention to its exertions. The waking mind has to have all of its tools in perfect working order. It has to know all working definitions down cold, and make clear cognitive leaps that obey the laws of logic and reason. But for any truly interesting problem, the waking mind is not equipped to find a solution. The world of knowledge is full of really hard problems, problems the solver has to live with for days, weeks, and even years. The waking mind can work on the same problem day after day if properly disciplined, and it can tackle the easy sub-problems associated with the problem at hand, and it can clear away everything that is not the kernel of the problem, but it cannot get at the heart of the problem. It's just not smart enough. Nobody is smart enough.

The waking mind has to realize when to step away, and leave room for the deeper mind to work its magick. Afterwards the waking mind has to leap into action, molding and shaping the solution into something that truly fits the problem, and has to justify that the solution delivered by the deeper mind actually solves the problem.

There are many smart people in the world, but nobody is smart enough to solve the most difficult problems with their everyday consciousness. The most successful problem solvers know how to do the ground work for the deeper mind, and then know how to shape the work of the deeper mind into something that covers every aspect of the solution. The deeper mind is totally disassociated with ego. This is somewhat akin to what Ouspensky calls the "False Intellectual Center" and the "True Intellectual Center". Ouspensky also talks about the "False Emotional Center" and the "True Emotional Center".

Using the language of Kabbalah, I would say that, starting in Malkut, one ascends to Yesod. From Yesod, an intellectual problem is tackled in Hod, by the False Intellectual Center. The False Intellectual Center struggles with the problem (G'vurah), and attracts the attention of Chokmah, the True Intellectual Center, channeled through Da'at and Tiferet. Similarly, from Yesod, an emotional problem is tackled by Netzach, by the False Emotional Center. The False Emotional Center tries to relieve the emotional distress (Chesed), and this attracts the attention of Binah, the True Emotional Center, channeled through Da'at and Tiferet. If someone has a better explanation of these processes, I would love to improve this theory. A good argument could be made that Binah and Chokmah should be switched here, but I'm sticking by my original assessment.

The point is not that the voice that visited me in the dream is God, nor that the deeper mind is God, but that all higher consciousness flows from God. Once you encounter an consciousness greater than your own, that dwells not where you dwell, but is accessible in certain circumstances, after much preparation and exertion, it is not hard to allow for other such consciousnesses, cascading upwards until a single, supernal Consciousness is reached, from which all lesser consciousness flow. A river of light that immerses you when you make yourself available for such an immersion.

Without reason, this experience is drastically limited. Without the ability to feel deep emotion, this experience is drastically limited. And yet the prime mover of these experiences is beyond emotion or reason. Reason is very high, very nearly the highest form of consciousness. But not the apex. That is why a belief system that puts the False Intellectual Center (or the False Emotional Center) at the apex is patently absurd to me. We are small fishes, and there are big fishes out there that want to share their wisdom with us, and all fishes are just fragments of God, who is the entire world of oceans and everything in them, and beyond ocean, and who wants us to glow with the light He has to share with us, but wants us to find that light through our own exertions.

Tom Robbins gave the advice that, in seeking a spiritual tradition, the first place one should look is in one's people's tradition before looking at other traditions. We carry ancient racial memories that are much easier to awaken than the memories universal to all beings. A Jew should learn Kabbalah, a Celt should learn Celtic paganism, a Greek should study the Greek mystery traditions, a Hindu should study the Vedic tradition, etc. (This is deeply unsatisfying to people with universal faiths like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Baha'i, etc. Having never been raised in such a tradition, I can only sympathize from afar. From an intellectual standpoint, I agree that universal faiths are an improvement on tribal, parochial faiths, but I will blog about this debate elsewhere).

When I pledged my lodge, I listed my place of worship as First Parish Unitarian-Universalist Church in Cambridge. My former roommate is a member there, and I had visited many times with him, and liked that community. There is a sizable Jewish presence there (or Junitarian) as well. But upon reflecting about that choice, I realized that I was being disingenuous. A voice in my head asked me: "Why did you say you were a Unitarian? Schmuck, you're Jewish." (My inner voice calls me schmuck a lot). The next Friday night, I walked into Havurat Shalom for Kabbalat Shabbat services. I visited a number of synagogues over the next month or two, and chose Temple Beth Zion as my congregation, and have been a member ever since.

1 comment:

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