Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What a Wonderful World.

Question with boldness even the existence of god: because if there be one,  he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind-folded fear. - Thomas Jefferson

Science was my first love. I loved science for as long as I can remember. I loved science when I was a little girl watching a line of ants marching with crumbs from my peanut butter sandwich. I loved science while sitting at my window watching the moon, and if we were in a place without the NY light-pollution, I would marvel at  the myriads of stars. I have to give credit to my mother for this. She was the one who introduced me to my first love. We would sit at night with some milk and cookies and she would explain to me how a seed can grow into a plant, and how sailors can navigate using just the stars. Later the cookies and milk were replaced by coffee and the discussions turned to genetics and geology. 

Unfortunately the chassidic education isn't particularly known for their high caliber of scientific teachings. Love can withstand all challenges though, and this one did too. I got my hands on any book related to biology, ecology, astronomy..., I drank the information thirstily. I remember  when we got our first laptop in my parents home (internet free obviously), it had the Encyclopedia Britannica installed. I would spend hours under my covers getting lost in long labyrinths of information. If I didn't understand one word I would find its encyclopedia page, which would in turn lead me to more unfamiliar pages. Some of the information was way past my comprehension, but just the manner in which such complex concepts can be answered was so thrilling; it transformed a vast and at times frightening world into a fascinating systematic universe.

After graduating high school, I knew that I must continue my studies. I enrolled in a college program, one my parents approved of. The education was definitely a step up from high school, but did not offer a very comprehensive program. Most professors expressed surprise when they realized that this chassidic girl, who they would expect to be clueless, actually was at the top of her class. I conveniently withheld that I already read through all topics on their syllabus as a teenager. I got married shortly afterwards, and with my newfound independence I transferred to a secular college with a proper biology program. 

 Now if you remember from my last post, it was a while after I got married that I rejected the religious outlook on the universe. Being in a secular environment definitely broadened my perspective, but it didn't weaken my resolve, I came in with an attitude that my emunah is infallible. Science and I go way back, and religion never came between us. In fact I had created an environment where religion and science can co-exist perfectly. I had answers to all apparent discrepancies. I either found a plausible scientific explanation for it, or relied on an important caveat in my belief structure. Which was that I still believed in miracles. One of my favorite quotes is one by C.S. Lewis; "“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see." This quote fits so perfectly with both my old view and the new one. Its intended message told me that miracles are a very valid way of explaining observable discrepancies because we just aren't capable of seeing the complete picture. It is like the tiresome creationist argument that says "an ant will never be capable of understanding how a human machine works". But the unintended context is so much more valuable to my new outlook. We create miracles when we just don't want to see the alternative answer.

 As a side note: I think that this is important when considering debating creationists or religious apologists. We think our rationale and oh-so-attractive facts can sway their thoughts, but when one believes in miracles or the supernatural, then you are bringing kryptonite to a fight with Batman.  It is a very effective tool, but the wrong one for this particular enemy. When I ask myself how it was possible for me to hold such strong contradictory beliefs, this duality was the reason why I was able to hold onto my emunah even  in  an evolutionary biology lecture. I even wrote a paper entitled Scientific counter-argument for evolutionary changes in biological process. I got up in front of my evolutionary biology professor and classmates and presented a paper against evolution. That is how confident I was in the accuracy of my beliefs. 

Oh well, as you know that didn't last too long. The science was there, the information was there and without a complete different component to shake my comfortable belief system, It would have stayed in that stage for a while longer. In chemistry even spontaneous reactions, reactions that would happen on its own, sometimes need a catalyst. A catalyst will lower the activation energy or get the reaction done in a different chemical pathway. Emotion was my catalyst. A very difficult winter brought along struggles and sorrow. I watched people close to me suffer, people who were the epitome of goodness, and I started getting angry.

 As with tragedy, people repeated the lines that the religious find comforting: "Hashem knows best", "We do not understand his ways", "She is in a better place now"... I thought about these supposedly comforting lines, and they didn't sit well with me. Over the next few weeks I recognized the ridiculousness in being comforted by the idea that god, even when he seriously screws up, is still compassionate and loving. I rejected the bifurcated fallacy in believing that god is great so anything he does that seems sadistic must be because we can't understand him.  

Anger led to a new way of looking at old information. I no longer felt required to make religion reconcile with science. I looked at my science in a new way, without the requisite faith. I now saw a world where 99% of all "created" species were extinct, a world with a geological structure which very obviously underwent millions and millions of years of evolution, and a universe with earth very much not as its center. I realized how religion tainted my beloved science. How it took so much of it value and just tried to conceal it under a mystical, supernatural veil. How instead of allowing me to recognize that illnesses and natural tragedy is just a natural and sensible part of the universe we live in, it would try to make me feel better by saying there’s an undefinable god behind it and I will understand it later. It teased me with promised answers, all the while hiding the answers that I can clearly understand presently.

 Now in the rare occurrences when my mother and I get into a scientific conversation things have changed.  Take the time when I had just finished mapping the neuronal pathways of a thought in our frontal cortex, I am at a point of near euphoria over the sheer brilliance and complexity, and she says " Wow, מה רבו מעשיך ה (how wondrous is god's work) ". Blippoty blog, all excitement gone. It seems perhaps a bit extreme, but with that statement she essentially is ruining the authenticity of the natural world. The beauty of science is in its entirety, its beginning, and every aspect of its persistence and complex development. The beauty is in the highs like the ever-expanding universe, a herd of elephants across the African Safari at sunset, and the genetics in embryological development . But the beauty is also in the lows like an entire species being wiped out by a change in temperature, a lamb being devoured by a lion, and genetic mutations in malignant neoplasm. Cancer, as sad of an entity it is, needs to be appreciated for its science just as much as a cure for it will be. That is the element that religion takes that away. Religion removes that element of unstoppable rawness that makes me quiver. Religion tells us that you don't have the see these raw emotional moments in science because "Hashem knows best", "We do not understand his ways", "She is in a better place now". For that I can not forgive it, nor will I continue to allow it to hang around with my first and true love- Science.

Never Be Told!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fresh Start: Tishrei

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways that you yourself have altered" - Nelson Mandela

As some of you might know, this month is a busy one for Orthodox Jews. It is also a strange one for the outsider. The Hebrew month of Tishrei is considered to be the start of the new lunar year according to the Jewish calendar. This translates as it being dedicated to asking for forgiveness for all our past digressions.It is used as a fresh start. I take issue with many of the eccentric (read as: weird) customs that are practiced on this month of atonement. But it definitely was a personal Fresh Start.

All people are in constant state of evolution. We are constantly figuring out who we are, where we stand, and what we are doing with our lives. Looking back to the trajectory of my evolution,I find that there are distinct eras, each classified with different characteristics of religious beliefs and attitudes.

For quite some time now I have been analyzing much of the dictates taught to me in school and in my upbringing. I have questioned, wondered, and have often been confused by things I am supposed to do or how I am supposed to act. Questioning leads to answers. Answers have always been given for many of the major questions that can be raised by religious people. In fact, Judaism prides itself for being a religion based on reason. Blind faith is considered to be on a lower spiritual level than intellectualized faith- faith as a result of understanding. I have always appreciated that. Our spiritual ancestors have expounded on, argued about, and vehemently debated each other on so many tenets of our faith. So answers are plentiful. I have heard most of it, and even arrived to some of them through my own deductions. That was one important step of evolution. Asking questions, getting them answered and being satisfied with the answers. In fact some answers still seem sound to me, but they are now the vestigial organs of my attitudes; they once served the purpose, and still are present but useless, they don't do much these days. 

I lived for a long time at that stage, It was my Paleozoic Era so to speak, a long period of rapid  and complex development but most of it destined for mass extinction. I firmly believed and continuously was developing complex and higher level of spiritual thought. I followed the dictum to and above the letter of the law. 

That was to be followed with an era of independence, where I was out of my parents home and on my own. Thinking for myself making my own decisions. Independence has a marvelous effect where one realizes what they are capable of, and what they really believe. It was a painful time and quite a bi-polar one as well. It was a  time where no area of my life was immune to being chewed over, and reanalyzed with a fresh perspective.  I tested the boundaries and questioned things I never thought of questioning. Black and white turned to grey, which turned to psychedelic mush and back to black and white. Answers which seemed sufficient one day, didn't sit right the next.  But even with all these conflicting thoughts competing in my psyche, never was it translated to action. It was mostly just in theory. I very slowly came to the conclusion that I probably don't believe in a god, I recognized the hypocritical aspects in what I have always considered sacred. But that small lingering chance, coupled with many years of indoctrination still kept me afraid of translating thought to action. 

But of course it is impossible to stay completely committed when your cognition and conduct aren't congruent to each other.( I do love alliteration so very much!) I didn't do anything explicitly wrong, but left much room for interpretation. I started hanging out with friends in places deemed questionable by past me, I didn't really check on the "kosher" status of the drinks I ordered at these questionable places and ate things I never would have eaten in the past. The biggest change was in my attitudes as well. The supposed spirituality of the events around me, failed to move me. Most of the time, I found them strange, as if I was an outsider. My Paleozoic perspective was gone. 

Which brings me back to the month of Tishrei. A month where eating a head of ram for good luck, swinging a chicken for atonement, and building huts to live in for a week was observed with my cynical eye. And then a new era was born! On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, that strangeness reached its pinnacle. I was feeling angry, an emotion I have become very acquainted with in the stage of my evolution. I was angry because I am stuck in a place I don't belong, in a religion I don't understand or agree with, and angry how afraid I was to do anything to change it. I told myself that I am giving this one more chance. I went to the synagogue for the first prayer of this holy day, the prayer called Kol Nidre. I figured that if this occasion, which is considered by many as the highest point of the Jewish calendar can move me at all, I can maybe figure out a way to stay at the point of doubt, of uncertainty. I thought that perhaps the words will evoke the anger, it will give me some revelation of how insane this really is. But my response was quite surprising, and very telling. I sat in shul, holding a book soaked with tears of my past. Tears cried in earnest  from the times when I begged for a good year, when I begged for atonement for any past sins, and to be inscribed in the book of life. I looked at the book, I looked at the crowd, I looked down at the rabbi- a man I do admire, and nothing. I felt nothing at all. No anger, no resentment, no fear. I just felt out of place. I left, walked home, and ate a piece of cake. I desecrated the sacred fast, punishable by death, and once again nothing! I texted some friends, something strictly forbidden on such a holy day, and nothing! It felt ok. Nothing more, it just felt right.

That surprised and even puzzled me. I turned it over in my mind and I realized that I have evolved further than I had imagined. My conscious and thinking self was still wavering but my sub-conscious, my deep intellectual being already rejected it all. It had no misgivings about doing something the old me would shutter about. I have arrived at a new point of my existence.

Sadly this new revelation doesn't change much externally. I still can't leave, still am petrified at what these changes mean for my future. I might not be following the laws of Shabbat, but only under a pillow, with the fear of being caught. I still look the same in this era as I did the last one. But I feel good, I feel calm, the anger is diminished. I am continuing my intellectual pursuits, reading books that continue to shape my views on religion, evolution, culture and the world around me. I feel like I am preparing for the beginning of the next era. A era I do not see yet on the horizon, but if my past is any indication, I think I will be surprised by this one sooner than I think. I hope I survive it.

Never be told.