Monthly Archives: November 2009

Religion and Economics: Trust, Hell, and Keep it Minimal

Robert Barro, an economist at Harvard, and his wife, Rachel McCleary have returned to the question of the Weber thesis with rigorous statistical analysis, a pop article has some of their conclusions.

They found that the trust generated by a close knit community makes more money (and that is why the financial scandals have sent such a shiver in the community). Hell is a better motivator to attend services than theism, mere belief in God does not give enough incentive to waste time on religion. Long term literacy and skills raise income. And one need a certain ideal type of hell-less theism to create the world of Silicon Vally.

Does this explain why learning Torah is an activity that many value but don’t spend much time on? Since most Modern Orthodox don’t have a clear sense of hell, do they have a sense of punishment that keeps ‘em coming or is that why the community seems minimal at times. Is the tight knit social grouping all that is actually valued? What other applications does their reach have for the practices of the Jewish community?

On a larger scale, religious denominations affect economics by creating bonds of trust and shared commitment among small groups, both necessary qualities for lending and trade.. The Quakers of 18th-century Britain, renowned for their scrupulous honesty, came to dominate British finance. Ultra-orthodox Jews similarly dominate New York’s diamond trade because of levels of trust based on religion. Modern religious kibbutzim on average outperform their secular rivals, in part because of trust built through engaging in communal religious rituals.

Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Mere belief in God has no effect one way or the other. Meanwhile, if church attendance actually rises, it slows growth in developing economies.

McCleary says this makes sense from a strictly economic standpoint – as economies develop and people can earn more money, their time becomes more valuable. For economic growth, she says, “What you want is to have people have their children grow up in a faith, but then they should become productive members of society. They shouldn’t be spending all their time in religious services.”

Robert D. Woodberry, a sociologist at University of Texas at Austin. He has mapped how missionaries spread literacy, technology, and civic institutions, and finds that those correlate strongly with economic growth. He argues in part that this helps explain why the once-poor but largely Protestant United States surpassed rich, Catholic Mexico after 1800.

Governments worldwide have tried to foster their own versions of Silicon Valley, and, lacking the California Bay Area’s particular culture and history, have mostly failed. While education and rule of law might seem straightforward secular policies, the cultural forces that carry them into a society, including religion, have a lot to do with whether people respect them.

The bigger application of research into religion, she thinks, isn’t to foster religious imperialism but to build a better-informed economics, and in the long run, better policy.

More on Spirituality and secularization: Yoga, Jewish Yoga, and Hasidism

The Immanent Frame has a posting on     Taxing yoga: exercise or spiritual practice?

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported on a controversy that erupted over the decision by Missouri tax authorities to require yoga centers to collect and pay a sales tax on their classes. Yoga instructors have argued that they should be exempt from the tax “because the lessons include spiritual elements.” In this week’s off the cuff feature, we’ve invited a small handful of scholars to comment on the legal and cultural status of yoga and on the right of states to levy taxes on yoga centers.

Courtney Bender, Associate Professor of Religion, Columbia University

While the yoga teachers interviewed in the article are quite concerned that the state of Missouri considers yoga to be “entertainment” or “exercise” (unless, presumably, it takes place in a temple or a church), the category confusion surrounding yoga is nonetheless generative and valuable for those who teach it. The yoga teachers I met during a series of interviews I conducted in 2004 moved back and forth easily in spaces where they taught yoga as primarily exercise, primarily meditation, or primarily stress relief. These multiple capacities actually made it possible for yoga teachers to make a living. Likewise, it seems to me that they reveled to some degree in this possibility. They could argue that even if you didn’t “believe” in yoga it could help you.
Of course, not everyone thinks that this separation is possible—some teachers, and many outside observers, agree that it is not. But in this regard, yoga’s “spirituality” surfaces as a concern, or a danger. This Monday morning’s New York Post gives us a clear example. Several years ago New York City’s Department of Education contracted with an independent group to teach yoga and movement in dozens of elementary schools. When the Post got wind of this, it ran a story with a headline reading “‘Cult’ program in NYC schools.” Even though the techniques described seemed innocuous (if not downright silly), the reported dredged up fears of yoga as a plan to infiltrate the schools and brainwash innocents (not surprisingly, the article links the “guru” to a sexual harassment case). Within several hours of the publication of the story the city suspended this program.

1] How does this relate to our quandaries over self help and Neo- Hasidism? If I have any criteria for Hasidism of the eighteenth century  is an immanence that is enthusiastic, devekut, and mindfulness of God. The 21st century versions the immanence is about self, expression, exercise, and marketing.  Midpoints are more confusing.

2] There are now studios claiming to teach “Jewish Yoga” to emphasize that it is not foreign and to incorporate it under Jewish spirituality and Neo-Hasidism. They will do a renewal chant instead of a Sanskrit chant at the end.  I have no problem saying it is not Neo-Hasidism. But is it Jewish, Hindu or exercise (as Missouri thinks)? I ask becuase there are teachers of the dharma who find the term Jewish Yoga as offensive as Hindu Kabbalah or Christian Talmud. When the Swamis wrote to the Jews, they received a reply that this yoga is Jewish. The swamis are going Huh?!? it is our India tradition. The Jews respond it is Hasidism. My Jewish-Hindu encounter  article elicited emails to me from the Dharma side to help fight the degradation of their tradition.

Which brings us back to The Immanent Frame

Stuart R. Sarbacker, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Oregon State University

That there should be tension between the spiritual and material culture of yoga is not surprising, given its modern history. Modern yoga, especially the posture-driven variety that is popular in North America, is the product of a particular historical moment in which premodern forms of yoga (such as hathayoga) were merged with Indian traditions of martial arts and wrestling, European physical culturalist thought and callisthenic practices, Hindu universalism, and emerging ideas of “modern science.” The shift towards scientific and secular frameworks and the focus on the body (often through intense attention to the finest of alignments in posture, such as in the Iyengar system) broadened the appeal of yoga while often pushing its metaphysical moorings into the background. As a result of this, the contemporary yoga community in the United States represents a spectrum of traditions that extend from sectarian tradition-driven studios and ashrams to “free-floating” yoga courses offered at fitness centers such as Bally’s Total Fitness.

The fact that yoga brings together the exotic overtones of Indian spirituality with the more familiar exertions of Euro-American callisthenic and fitness traditions has certainly been a driving factor in the success of yoga in North America

Yeshiva U sponsors New Age Jesus speaker as Jewish values.

This Tuesday Shmuly Boteach’s  Jewish Values Network together with YU is sponsoring an symposium on Jewish values.  One of the main speakers on Jewish values is Marianne Williamson. I assume that no one at YU knew who she was or looked into it and now it is too late to change it. I don’t blame them. I assume that once they saw the conference had Michael Steinhardt, Dershowitz, Steinsaltz, and Tulushkin, then they could sponsor it, since these speakers represents Yeshiva University values. (This is an interesting topic in its own right.) But I find it quirky at the least but also disturbing since I know someone who almost converted out of Judaism because of her. full schedule here
Who is Marianne Williamson? The following account is all quotes from the web- so technically I should indent.

The story began in 1965 when Helen Schucman, a professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University in New York, began receiving channeled messages from a speaker who would later identify himself as Jesus Christ. The messages began with the words, “Please take notes,” this is not optional. So Helen Schucman a atheist Jewish psychologist began writing and for the next ten years the voice is said to have dictated “in an inaudible voice” over 500,000 words contained in the three volumes. This was done through the process called automatic handwriting, (in which a spirit entity guides the hand )and clairaudience, (hearing from a disembodied spirit) Schucman wrote this hefty volume, and she claims the source of the words was Jesus Himself.

The primary reason for the Course is the “Correcting of the errors of Christianity…. To foster spiritual development through the study and practice of A Course In Miracles, a set of three books channeled by Jesus. …to teach the Course’s reinterpretation of traditional Christian principles such as sin, suffering, forgiveness, Atonement, and the meaning of the Crucifixion…” (Foundation for A Course In Miracles, “Forgiveness,” p.3- 4).,

Marianne Williamson’s full embrace of the Course led her to give talks and lectures on it, which eventually resulted in the publication of A Return To Love. The book A Return to Love, became immensely popular as an inspirational self help book. Here most famous new age quote which has been attributed to many:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

With the strong Eastern influence in self-help writing, the Christian stance of A Return to Love stands out, but it is best seen as a spiritual work that happens to use the Christian terminology of the Course. Williamson is quick to admit that all ideas about God are expressions of a single reality (she herself has a Jewish background), and that people do not have to consider they have a personal relationship to ‘God’ to be an advanced Course student. Its students proceed according to how they treat other people. So to even think the name “Jesus” is to be reminded of one’s essential nature and one’s essential power. A Course in Miracles also says “you do not have to personally invite Jesus into your thought system to aid you in your journey.” But Jesus can do more for you if you did.

What Marianne Williamson Believes About Jesus

Remember I’m not a Christian, I am a Jew. My conversion to Christ, and to me conversion means “a conversion in thought-forms and a belief system.” I don’t feel that I was born a Jew and was supposed to become a Christian. But I do feel I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, and I was meant to meet Jesus on my journey. It is, above all others, my most predestined relationship. I feel blessed to have met him as a Jew.

1] So did no one notice? Was it because Shmuly Boteach took charge? How are they going to spin this as authentic Jewish values? I assume that no one looked over the program.

2] Is all new age, self-help, and popular spirituality OK as part of Judaism?  How does anyone teaching 12-step, “The Secret,” or Course in Miracles manage to call themselves Hasidism and Kabbalah?

3] Is new age really the new cosmology, meaning that it is invisible and taken as a given by common sense, in which it is OK to say Marianne Williamson is kosher and muttar in a way that Biblical scholars or historians are  not be kosher?

Two Months

Well, I have managed to still be here after 2 months.

I have learned that when I go away for a few days, I need to place a notice that I am away.

I have learned that many people show up Saturday night -after shabbat. Most people visit in the weekday evenings. I cannot usually guess what get the most hits. I expected the Trude Weiss Rosmarin post to get many hits and a friend even transcribed the entire article. But I would have not expected that the David Nirenberg article on Jewish-Muslim relations in Christian Spain to be one of big hits. On the other hand, I am quite surprised that no one is looking at the Novak posts here and here. I learned that three book reviews from Haaretz in a single post is too much. I also learned that if I announce a public event, I find that readers will show up.

I will be teaching contemporary Jewish thought in the Spring, thinkers of the last 15 years. So even if people are not interested in Novak, you will hear more about Fishbane, Halbertal, Boyarin and others. And more on Sacks and Benedict. There will also be more Kabbalah and spirituality.

If you want to comment on a post then post it, dont send an email. But if you want to comment on the general content or to let me know you are out there,  and you are not already on weekly (or monthly) email contact feel free to drop me a line.

A Tiny but Articulate Minority -The Thought of Rabbi Walter Wurzburger

I have been asked by several people  for a copy of my article on Rabbi Walter Wurzburger’s thought- A Tiny but Articulate Minority TRADITION 41:2 (2008). So here it is below. Wurzburger  formulated an existential and Kantian defense of Orthodoxy against historicism.  In his time, congregations in Queens and Long Island, with YU rabbi were still called Orthodox. Yeshivish Jews were called Ultra-Orthodox. The term modern Orthodox  (small m) was a term only for the rabbinical intellectuals who embraced modernism, by their own count – a few score at best. In the late 1970’s the term was applied to a not very clearly defined sociological group of those who have more modern congregation, graduates of day schools, and orthodox summer camps. By the 1990’s  there was a serious mess of terminology.

Rabbi Wurzburger saw a need to affirm a modern philosophic Orthodoxy. He was active in interfaith work and was committed to an ethical Judiasm that aspires to answer to higher “covenantal imperatives,” greater than a formalist reading of the legal canon.

I wrote a long article but think someone out there should use my article to write for him an appropriate wikipedia article.

Here it is:  A Tiny but Articulate Minority- The Thought of Rabbi Walter Wurzbuger by Alan Brill

Spirituality at B’nai Jeshurun

There is a new study from Synagogue 3000— The New Jewish Spirituality and Prayer: Take BJ, For Instance  Ayala Fader & Mark Kligman S3K Synagogue Studies Institute. This one looks at the success of BJ in NYC. I have picked out the theological sections.  BJ preaches a spirituality of finding God in one’s own life through an emotional religious experience. Their deity is a therapeutic deism with psychological elements- it seems the true fulfillment of Arthur Green’s theology in Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology (1992) or the undated pop version Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (2002).

Central to BJ is the claim by members and rabbis alike that in order to experience God, individuals must “let go”  of rationalism and the intellect. The goal is to access an emotional part of the self which opens the individual to experience the “energy” of God, something which is found within each person. When it comes to prayer, comprehension of Hebrew (loshn kodesh), Jewish ritual or traditional Jewish music is less important than kavanah (“sincere intention”). By privileg­ing kavanah, the emphasis of prayer shifts from “obligation” (the mitzvah) to what congregants describe as the “freedom” to choose those aspects of Judaism that best speak to each individual’s experience of God.

[The] aim is to have religious practice create opportunities for what they call “spiritual experi­ence,” meaning the experience of God; but God must be re-concep­tualized in order to be relevant in the contemporary world. Marcelo explains: “We have to change the paradigm from the idea of God to the experience of God.” The paradigm for today’s Jews requires what the rabbis describe as a “God of love.” Jews today, suggest the rabbis, need a “reason of love” or they will abandon God. [Their ] “God of love” is not necessarily a supernatural figure. As an entity found inside the self, God is, in effect, human.

To find God, each person must search inside the self. This concept of God echoes humanistic beliefs, but is clearly distinct from secularism. The rabbis elaborate a post- rationalistic God, located in the emotional interior of each individual, not the intellect. The point of the commandments (mitzvot), claim the rabbis, is not to force us to “give up things” but to “open us up and purify us for God.” Jew­ish ritual practice, particularly prayer, is an individual choice one makes in order to experience the divine.

Self-exploration is often expressed in therapeutic language, but with the goal of personal transcen­dence. When there is closeness to, and individual experience of, God, an individual can become more holy in the sense of ascending to a higher level of humanity. As the rabbinic intern said: “It’s not separating the two, God and psychology. We’re not going to pass it over to the therapists…it’s about finding out where God is in your life… It’s about how you can grow holy in this thing… It’s co-opting psychology and lacing it in spiritual terms.”

Now the contextualization in studies on Spirituality and Evangelical Churches. It confirms that much of the Neo-Hasidism of liberal Jews shares much in style with Conservative Evangelicals.

Embodied religious practice comes also through the use in services of practices from a range of minority religions. A number of people talked about the use of “breath” and meditation techniques. Others adopt meta­phors of “healing and wholeness” drawn from therapeutic contexts. This kind of combinative religious practice is a com­mon feature of New Age spirituality (Rothenberg and Vallely, 2008). Individualized picking and choosing from world religions in order to satisfy personal needs is a feature of postmodern religiosity, a “tradition” favored by Jewish baby boomers (Cohen and Eisen, 2000). But at BJ, combinative religious practice is institutionalized, not left to individual personal spiritual journeys; it is part and parcel of the synagogue, modeled publicly by authoritative spiritual leaders, and framed as the revitalization of Juda­ism’s authentic and shared religious heritage.

BJ shares many goals and practices with North Ameri­can megachurches and evangelical seeker churches. These churches focus on Christian spirituality in large settings where members can be part of a growing, successful and innovative ministry (Thumma and Travis, 2007:158). Like so many at BJ also, evangelical seekers, predominant­ly baby boomers, decidedly depart from the denomina­tion of their upbringing, searching out religious fulfill­ment through individual choice and a therapeutic ethos with an anti-institutional bias (Sargeant, 2000:163-4).

However, BJ has a distinctive definition of what indi­vidual fulfillment means. Seeker churches satisfy thera­peutic concerns for self-fulfillment through an evangelical understanding of Christ’s salvation (Sargeant, 2000). At BJ, individuals encounter God through individualized and, often, embodied expression of affect. Concep­tions of God, too, differ of course. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrman’s description of a “new paradigm” church (2004), for example, describes how congregants learn to conceptualize Jesus as a “buddy.” BJ members, by con­trast, find God inside themselves. However, God only enters the emotional, non-rational, vulnerable aspect of the self.

Regardless, what makes BJ seem modern to so many is the way that the traditional liturgy is made to engage modern forms of self-construction, including introspection, self-cultivation, and personal freedom as the path to happiness.

Full Article Here

Novak- Natural Law in Judiasm part 1

Natural Law in Judaism – David Novak (Cambridge UP). Here we go again with another volume.

This book, except for a few slips and snipes, is not directly against liberals. Rather it presents Novaks view of Judaism.

Chapter One – Jews were outside public sphere in middle ages and did not know how to enter. We need natural law based on God’s wisdom to engage public life.

Chapter Two – The Bible is filled with stories showing the pre-existence of morality. They prove natural law. Novak does not really entertain that they might be intuitionism like Saadyah Nahmanides, and Rav Kook, or virtues and phronesis like Maimonides, or cultivated conscience like R. Israel of Salant.

Chapter Three – Jewish ethics are based on natural law. Novak assumes that we are darshinan taama dekra (expose reasons for the scriptural law),  we work on reasons for the commandments, and that the Talmudic discussions on rational commandments were actually derived by reason. The Noahide law shows that natural law undergirds the Talmud. He also assumes that the Meiri’s category of “people of relgion” to be the Noahide laws and that the Meiri is the best explanation for the Talmudic law. He assumes the natural law, which preexists the halakhah, includes the principles of avoiding desecration of the name, human dignity, and misleading someone in business.

Chapter Four – Maimonides showed the rational structure to the law and its teleology in accordance with nature.

Chapter Five is the core argument of the book. Albo brought the term natural law into Judaism but it was always there.We receive norms from God on the right way to act. We avoid the two incorrect positions – it is incorrect to act from autonomy and it is is incorrect to think we have to wait for Divine commands. God gave us the basic principles as norms know through natural law. The Talmud is a record of the Jewish understanding of what natural law requires.

Novak rejects legal formalism and is happy  that his approach rejects the approach of the legal formalist Hans Kelsen. Unlike formalism- Novaks law corresponds to a divine reality, is given to humans to make the world a better place and shows the primacy of God’s wisdom in our world. Our major activity in maintaining the world through Torah is the development of the rational laws through philosophic activity. Jewish law, philosophy, and theology all merge in our quest to apply the natural law to the world’s problems.

He pushes Maimonides slightly on the side because he is too Platonic and based on an ideal nature. Now we are post Cassier and Habermas and knowledge is for human construction and to serve human interests.

Novak quotes Etienne Gilson on the need for revelation and to see divine wisdom in our world. Rav Lichtenstein quotes the same idea from Gilson But for Rav Lichtenstein, the Divine wisdom is the Talmud as know through the books in the Beit Midrash; the halakhah in is playing out by the hakhamim is Divine wisdom. For Novak, the divine wisdom is the Jewish natural law, the norms given by God and know as the basis of the Bible and as the principles on which the Talmud is based. The divine wisdom is in our rationally understanding these norms of natural law and philosophically applying them.

Novak does explicitly rejects Rabbi JD Bleich  who equates halakhah and ethics. Novak argues that ethical principles inform the law and one cannot decide the law without philosophic principles.

Novak avoids the presentation of Maimonides as done by David Hartman and Isadore Twersky where Maimonides combines halakhah with philosophic quest. In contract, Novak presents Maimonides as working for natural law philosophic principles to derive Jewish law.

Chapter Six – Noahide Laws The Noahide laws are not just something before Judaism or of a lower status but they are the basic principles of morality for Jews too. Moral by definition mean the Noahide laws. The image of God means that people can make more of themselves than they can from a natural state.

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Etienne Gilson