In Search of Absolute Truth

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Being raised as an atheist, I had too many questions that atheism simply could not answer.

One of the examples: Why am I me? Why do I feel myself as I? Who am I? I was not asking about the personal details such as name, gender, nationality, talents and character traits, family relationships etc. I was asking about the ability to feel the universe as myself. Who is that I? Why was I created altogether? Why was the universe created?  Science could not answer these questions. As the world-renowned physicist Brian Greene states in his article in Scientific American: “Science is very good at answering the ‘how’ questions. How did the universe evolve to the form that we see? But it is woefully inadequate in addressing the ‘why’ questions. Why is there a universe at all?” Also, since I love science I knew that our world is a very harmonious and orderly place. For those who are not familiar with science, it will be easier for me to bring a quote from a scientific authority such as Albert Einstein on the matter: “Your question [about God] is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations.”( From an interview published in 1930 in G. S. Viereck‘s book Glimpses of the Great)

The only creature who is capable of bringing havoc into this harmony is a human. This quality is not his physical characteristics but his perception of the world and actions that follow this perception. The great Jewish sage Maimonides stated that humans are the only representatives of all living things that are themselves learning good and evil, and are choosing what to do from that study without obstacles.

Having all of these in mind, I was looking for the answers everywhere. If everything is so harmonious in the physical sense in the universe, it seemed logical to me that if I had a question there should be an answer. However, understanding how unimportant, though very complex we are compared to the universe, I had enough humility to realize that we could not possibly possess the knowledge of it. We don’t even know how to use our brain 100% (This one actually casts many doubts on the theory of evolution since the capacity of the human brain significantly surpasses the need of survival. But this should be in a different post).

The only possible answer that was given from without is religion. Yet there are so many of them! Which one to choose? Being raised in a completely assimilated environment, I first turned to astrology and to a church as a leading spiritual influence on the culture in the country I lived in then. Astrology satisfied me to a certain degree. Although being very structural, it still did not answer the WHY questions. Christianity appeared to me as a beautiful fairy tale that had little to do with the complexity of human nature and expected the not so perfect people to behave as angels. Plus both Islam and Christianity are trying to claim the truth that was already stated before. And surely a secondary source loses to a primary one – Judaism. Jews, on the other hand, still survive and flourish spiritually nowadays despite all the persecutions, whereas the mighty empires who tried to destroy them vanished. So the choice was made and now I practice Orthodox Judaism.

So what about the question of evil that exists in the universe? Why is it needed? I already hinted at it above. Humans are given the important role to be partners in creation and that’s why we have freedom of choice. All of these choices have meaning only from the human perspective as I already stated. However you can’t change people around.  You can only decide for yourself and maybe influence others, but you can’t make decisions for them.  For example, there were people who in incredible circumstances of social pressure in Germany during the Holocaust went against the rulers and made their choice by saving the Jews, risking their own lives.  They were in the minority, but this shows exactly that we do have freedom of choice.  There are many more examples but I will limit myself with one here due to the extensive length of the post.

As for why G-d needs evil in the universe, I can only tell you that even though I sincerely believe I was created by Him, I definitely will not claim that I can understand Him and read His mind. It says in Torah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” To understand such a difficult concept to a certain degree, I can refer you to the great piece of science fiction “Solaris” by Stanislav Lem.

I will also quote here from Leonard Susskind, the co-founder of string theory. He suggested getting rid of the term” reality” altogether. Because, he says:”The problem is that what people tend to mean by “reality” has more to do with biology and our neural architecture than it has to do with physics itself. We’re prisoners of our own neural architecture. We can visualize some things but can’t visualize other.” So the inability to understand G-d simply lies within our boundaries and limitations while for Him there are no such things. He gave us laws to follow so we will be able to choose the right path. However, we do believe that the ultimate time of pure harmony and absolute good will manifest itself here soon with the coming of Messiah, the king of the final redemption. It states in Mishna: “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the entire life of the World to Come. And one hour of bliss in the World to Come is better than the entire life of this world.” That basically means that yes, we all waiting with anticipation for these moments of the Messianic time since it is very painful to see bad things happening in the world. However, we also will miss this time because now we are partners in creation through choosing good or evil. Then there will be no choice anymore, since the choice can’t be made when everything is pure and only good .

Now this is Judaism and my own perspective on the matter. I am not trying to persuade anyone to follow me. I am simply answering a request from an acquaintance of mine to explain myself on this topic. I am open to questions on this subject.

P.S. And yes, people from  religious community are still people therefore have freedom of choice as well.  It implies that they also can make mistakes. The difference between them and people from secular world is that they have easier access to the laws that help to make a right choice.  However  what kind of choices people make  is solely up to them.

To follow your dreams

                                                                                       follow-your-dreams

I have to admit. I have a weak point – I like intellectual people. And sometimes I  have  cognitive dissonance when I hear something that goes against my understanding of intelligent and profound person. Because  sometimes I forget that intellect is not an equivalent  of  insight or depth of the mind. A person may have strong analytical abilities but keep them on the surface without digging the problem further down.
The results are astonishing!  You can have a very successful writer, blogger and engineer all in one who would manage to state that nowadays wisdom depends on computer skills!!!  Or writer, political analyst and religious scholar who would try to assure you that your instincts and minute desires are what making your real Self.
Though I think you don’t have to be a scholar to recognize that this is wrong. The intellect is definitely ruling over emotions but you have to understand that the intellect has power over minute urges and instincts only when the will is in work. And what makes the will to pop up in the picture to rescue the weak soul? The inner part of the will – the inner desire. This is how you check if your aspirations of the moment are true or not and you can work them out by either controlling or pursuing them. For example the difference between strong urge to eat cake right now having afterwards tons of guilt feelings, pessimistic attitude towards self image in the mirror, problems with  health on one hand and real desire to be healthy, fit, energetic and as a result of it be happy and content on the other.

I think the ability to internalize and evaluate the situation shows the level of maturity. It is kid’s prerogative not to differentiate between temporary good and ultimate good. One of the most famous examples of this type of substitution is escaping to drinking: I am in distress now because I did not get the job I wanted ( argued with spouse, did not get certain amount of likes on Facebook, have to deliver the speech tomorrow or have a due date for the project too close etc) so instead of working it out I’ll go and drink and forget about everything for the hour or two or may be for the whole night. Sure sometimes you need it but when it turns into a habit of how you dealing with situations in general  because when you drink you feel good and don’t have to fight with difficulties and challenges then it is wrong. You are just trying to escape from reality. For an hour or two or for the whole night  and it might turn into the life program.
By doing just opposite and sticking to your true desires you don’t  break your inner self. You try to change yourself by transforming and learning to be who you want to be ultimately. By doing that instead of following the animal instincts you can strive to bigger heights and have more self confidence and dignity. With maturity comes the understanding that even something seems to be annoying and difficult there is a deeper good. And the things we desire are not always good for us.
Then you would feel yourself that you are a human being who follows his/ her dreams and ambitions  so that they will not remain merely illusions. You will be able to stay on the difficult path of accomplishing your real purpose in life  instead of feeling as a looser just because you choose not to control your natural instincts and blew off the whole vision of your life for a minute desire.
It is not easy but well worth it. It is that  simple.

To follow your dreams.

Liberal Controversy

It seems so strange for me when people think cliche thoughts and claim to be open and liberal. For example everyone who wants to be modern and independent thinking must fight for gay rights in our time …However not as many are eager to fight for the rights of those who practice polygamy. Though everyone agrees that biologically a gay couple doesn’t have any future on their own.  And on the contrary  the polygamy was / is a traditional way of building families with offspring for many cultures. Muslim, Jews and Mormons are all can be part of this ancient practice. Why then should we at first accept the law regarding gay marriages instead of trying to work it out with something that is acceptable for many cultures and seems to be more traditional in nature?

From the classroom

One of the worst things is to be sick with flu during vacation as you’ve been forced to stay at home. However even at home I was not able to do much. When the period of inactivity was coming to an end  I just wanted to run out of the house no matter where even to do grocery shopping.  Away from computer :) So when finally I went to work today I felt so happy that I am back to the classroom where we learn, think and explore together with my students. Today with the older grades we learned about the Jewish presence in the New Spanish Empire. I had some unresolved questions referring to the Jewish history at this time and place. Why, for Heaven sake, some poor Jews who have been prosecuted in their homeland went to Americas  under the leadership of the same antisemitic King instead of escaping to Ottoman Empire, Netherlands etc?! The possible answer I found in the article about the Crypto Jews in Mexico. It is well known that the same year Columbus sailed to find India Jews were expelled from Spain. It happened in 1492. So whoever left was forced to convert to Christianity.  Many just outwardly but there were some who decided to be devoted Catholics. So by the time Spanish established colonies on the American soil many conversos already thought of possibilities to have  better life on the different continent far from the pressure of Inquisition. Conversos started to settle in the New World approximately around 1520. Some even had prominent positions in government offices in New Spain like Luis de Carvajal, el Conquistador, who was granted the official power in a newly created province, the New Kingdom of Leon.   However it was an illusion and a big mistake!  Just several years later Spanish clergy became the real influence in the New Spanish society. The New World’s colonies were settled in accordance with Catholic rules and traditions. More than that,  the structure of society in the New Spain was such that only peninsulares, who were born on the Iberian Peninsula, were allowed to hold the highest positions in government and church. Creoles, people with Spanish ancestry but born already in Americas, were not able to play prominent roles in politics. I think it was done having in mind that a person has  strong connection to his Motherland and if he was already born somewhere else besides Spain he wouldn’t  be completely loyal to the Royal Crown. Therefore, the Jews in the far away land, where they hoped to find peace, met the same devoted bishops and others who enforced Inquisitorial rule and executed punishment for the divergence from these rules.  In 1571 the Holy Inquisitional Office had established the Holy Inquisition of New Spain (The Mexican Inquisition). By 1590 a large Jewish community had already made their home in Mexico City. Unfortunately the following history of conversos in Mexico was full of tortures and burning at the stake.

There is another interesting hypothesis regarding what happened to certain groups of Jews who wanted to escape the danger of Inquisition. I’ve never heard of it before. Mestizo Jews. Originally the term “mestizo” means the mixture of Spanish and Native American backgrounds. However when the definition “the mestizo Jews” is used it means the mixture of Jews and Native Americans. Interesting, right?  So how was it possible? The Jews were trying to hide themselves from the powerful hand of catholic church among the Indian population who themselves were Christians cause they’ve been converted as well by many missionaries. Luckily for the Jews these Indians weren’t so zealous as the Spaniards. The result was the establishment of mixed Jewish – Indian communities throughout all of Mexico.  Some of these communities still exist today in Venta Prieta, State of Hidalgo; Toluca, State of Mexico; Apipilulco, State of Guerrero; and Monterey, State of Nuevo Leon. Some of them were trying to convert Native Americans to Judaism in order to marry them and keep the laws of Torah, some mixed together Cristian and Jewish traditions, some thought that’s OK for the Jewish girls marry Indians because their kids will be Jewish anyhow, according to Othodox Judaism, some believed that the Native Americans were among lost ten tribes of Israel so there was no problem to intermarry  with them.   As the number of Mestizo Jews increased, so did their communities.  Venta Prieta is the best known Mestizo Jewish community in Mexico.

However the historian Americo Castro doesn’t support the theory of possible intermarriages between these two groups of population in Mexico at that time. He wrote: “The people who really felt the scruple of purity of blood were the Spanish Jew… there is a punctilious concern for family purity… as a consequence of the persecution in the fifteenth century he became still more acutely aware of his exclusive particularism” . There are also some people in the Venta Prieta and Mexico City “Mestizo Jewish” communities who claim that their ancestors were converted to Judaism only in the very recent past.  Nothing concrete has been established to refuse or support the theory of mestizo Jews but from historical point of view I think it is a very interesting hypothesis of possible developments in the New Spain.

Photo: Ida Cowen, USA

Jews in their shabbath clothes, Venta Prieta, Mexico, 1940

                               LIVING WITH THE MOMENT
There are people who live in the past. They might be pretty young but they are longing for  their  memories to keep them alive. These  memories are their stronghold that keeps them stable and secure in their present reality.

I’ve never been like that, never been sentimental to keep the first love letter, the first lock of the child or her first silver spoon or something like that. Though I am the fan of history and  like stories of past but mainly because of  scientific interest, passion for exploration rather than nostalgia. Whatever happened – already happened. You better get lessons from it but you can’t change it.

I am a person of the future. I need something great ahead of me in order to strive and to reach.  I need  to be challenged.  However sometimes life becomes so hectic, running at lightning speed because I feel the urge to do too many projects at once. Because I feel that this is imperative and crucial  to do all these things in order to feel myself fulfilled and accomplished.

However we know from Chassidus (Jewish Philosophical teaching)  that the greatest advantage has the person who is neither dwelling on the past nor on the future. The one who lives with the moment. He is called pnimi in hebrew – an inward person.

I am trying to teach myself to slow down, to take  a deep breath and look around to see what’s going on while I am in such a rush to catch the escaping reality. To cherish and to enjoy the moment,  to concentrate on what I am doing now rather what I’ll need to do sooner or later. The vision of where you are heading  is still important as well as to be loyal to your past but the real life is now, in this particular moment. This is what is defining you, making you who you really are.

The photo is credited to Henry Kisor  Sunrise over Lake Superior, Michigan, July 2011