Archive for category Philosophy

Spiritual Dialysis and the Biology of Virtue

question_headIn an old stand-up routine, comedian Steve Martin proposed his way to get out of anything with two simple words: I forgot. As in the statement, “I forgot bank robbery is a crime.” Absurdly funny, since we’ve all learned by middle school that ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law.

Even those who consider themselves religious are quite capable of rationalizing their way around almost any moral impediment. People whose aversion to murder makes them challenge the morality of capital punishment may be equally passionate in their support for euthanasia, partial-birth abortion, and the “selected non-treatment” of handicapped newborns.

Even the most righteous among us are not immune from moral indiscretion. As the sages taught: Most people are guilty of theft; a few are guilty of sexual immorality; and everyone is guilty of loshon hara (malicious gossip).

So what makes some of us more moral than others? Is moral conduct simply the absorption of cultural values or submission to some doctrinal code? Are we nothing more than products of our environment, or is there some moral imperative programmed into the human psyche that we can channel through sheer force of will? Why is the path of virtue often so hard to find and why, even in moments of moral clarity, do we experience such dissonance between our minds and our hearts?

Click here to read the whole article.

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The Priorities of Progressives

I offer here a remarkably savvy insight into progressive thinking and priorities from Jim  Geraghty of the National Review, cited by Eytan Kobre in Mishpacha Magazine:

 

imgresA list of progressives’ fears would offer a mix of the insignificant, the theoretical, the farfetched, and the mundane… climate change a century from now, the Koch Brothers, insufficient cultural sensitivity in video games… New York mayor Bill DeBlasio is on a crusade to save his city from charter schools and horse-drawn carriages…

You notice progressives don’t spend a lot of time and energy fearing flights of people from countries with Ebola, and unsecured border, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Vladimir Putin’s aggression, the declining number of two-parent families…

This may be a bit of psychological transference.  When the Leftists notice things like ISIS, Putin’s aggression, or the collapse of the family, on some level — perhaps subconsciously — they realize their prefered options are unlikely to be effective.  Confronting that fact would force them to reevaluate how they see the world — and sometimes, after a sufficiently dramatic or frightening event such as 9/11, some people actually do change their worldview.

But a lot of people can’t or won’t overhaul their entire philosophy and understanding of how the world works.  So they deny the idea that any of these are real problems or worthy of much attention or discussion — they reflect GOP scaremongering, others’ paranoia, etc.

But all that fear and anxiety and anger has to go somewhere… and thus it gets expressed at much more convenient and much more philosophically aligned targets — i.e., climate change a century from now, the Koch Brothers, insufficient cultural sensitivity in video games, and so on.

 

In other words, if the big problems of the world are likely to remain insoluble unless I change my approach to political, economic, and social dynamics, then I’m likely to shift my focus to more abstract issues that don’t force me to question my own ideological predisposition.

This reminds me of a meeting I once had with my editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  In the course of the conversation I mentioned columnist Charles Krauthammer.  Without missing a beat, my editor said, “I hate him.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.  “He’s so articulate that I find myself agreeing with him… and I don’t!”

Had I been less protective of my position at the time, I would have suggested that she reexamine some of her positions.  Oh, well.  I guess I can suggest it now.

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Answering the Once-a-year Jew

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imagesIn a letter to Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, a former student he calls “Sarah” grapples with her indecision over whether she should continue to attend Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur eve. Having discarded the Torah observance of her youth to intermarry, she still feels drawn to this one last vestige of Jewish practice.

Sarah confesses that she feels like a hypocrite, and she wonders whether she angers God by standing before Him on the Day of Atonement when she is not even fasting, and when her whole life is a rejection of His commandments.

In his column in Mishpacha Magazine, Rabbi Feldman invited readers to offer their own responses.  Here is mine:

Dear Sarah,

You ask in your letter whether God sees you as a hypocrite for coming to shul on Yom Kippur.  Your question contains its own answer.
Read the whole article here.

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The True Rewards of Giving

12012228_f520Would most people rather save one person or save the world? The answer might surprise you.

University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic asked subjects for donations to save a little girl from starvation. To one group he gave no other information; to the other group he added that this girl was one of millions of other starving people. Logically, that extra bit of information should make no difference, since the girl being saved is the same.

But as one of my mentors likes to say, human beings are psychological and not logical creatures. Case in point: subjects in the second group donated about half as much money as those in the first group.

Click here to read the whole article.

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Dance with Joy

Finding the hidden meaning of Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah

Simchas_TorahWhat is the mysterious power of music? And how do we quantify the difference between the melodies that make us smile with tranquil joy, those that make us clap our hands, and those that make us leap to our feet and start to dance?

According to a study published in April by neuroscientists at Denmark’s Aarhus University, our dance reflex may have more to do with the beat that isn’t than with the beat that is.

“[It’s] not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity,” Maria Witek, the study’s lead author, told NPR, “but the patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity.”

In other words, songs that have layered rhythm — a repetitive underlying beat that merges with a syncopated pattern interrupted by rhythmic gaps — entice our minds to fill in those empty spaces with our own creative expressions. Too much regularity and the brain can find nothing to add; too little regularity and the brain can’t figure out how to engage.

This study may have a basis in Torah. The 18th Century Torah giant Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch defines the grammatical root rokad which we translate as “dance,” as having the connotation of skipping orfrolicking. There is an experimental playfulness that manifests itself in the natural human desire to fill in empty spaces, dark corners, and awkward silences. When we feel something is missing, our creative juices start flowing in ways that often have to be stemmed by our more cautious impulses and our better judgment. But we dare not stifle those inclinations, lest the fear of taking chances causes us to miss out on priceless opportunities. Always, we strive for balance.

Traditionally, rokad means to dance in a circle, symbolizing the coming together of beginnings and endings, the totality of the human condition as bounded by the circumference of the material world, and our interdependence upon one another in fulfillment of a shared destiny. There is a sense of completion in a circle, of restored unity and achieved purpose. We dance with joy upon attaining the feeling of security that comes from filling in the gaps, tying off loose ends, and imposing order on chaos; we revel in the blended satisfaction of finishing one task in preparation for the new mission that lies ahead.

Read the whole article here.

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NOW IN PRINT!

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A collection of insightful Torah essays that will change the way you look at the world and at yourself.

A Crucible for Silver
Forging a brighter future for our children and ourselves

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Read the title essay here.

Available at Block Yeshiva High School, the Kollel bookstore, or from the author

$18 Donation (+ $3 postage)
All proceeds go to Block Yeshiva

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The Power to Change the World

On the afternoon of September 18th, a teenage driver lost control of his SUV as he sped down Salt Lake City’s Indiana Avenue. The GMC Yukon tore through the safety barrier, went airborne into a ravine, and landed upside down in three feet of water and the bottom of the gully. Dazed or unconscious, strapped in by their seat belts, the driver and his two passengers had minutes before they would drown.

imagesWhat happened next offers a welcome relief from the relentless litany of strife and suffering that fills the headlines. Moments after the crash, nearly a dozen bystanders waded into the waist-high water and, working in unison, flipped the massive vehicle over onto its wheels, lifting the crash victims out from under the water and saving their lives.

But it might never have happened. As horrified onlookers stood frozen and stared at the capsized SUV, Leo Montoya, Jr., an out-of-work locksmith, overcame the Bystander Effect, plunged into the current and dove under the water in an effort to save the occupants. Unable to free them from their seat belts, only one option presented itself.

 

Click here to read the whole article on Aish.com.

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