Saturday, December 12, 2009

The generation of desperation

It's no secret that today's society is increasingly becoming more and more secular. The number of false idols in our valueless world is only growing. Which is why it is particularly interesting that within the Jewish tradition, there is a growing number of youth who are turning towards religion, away from this society. By this I am referring to the growing trend of Bal Tsuva's in Judaism- those "who return" to religion. Not only do I notice it within friends of friends and friends but I've also studied it in my Jewish history classes- where the upward trend of today's Jewish history is the return to religion. I suppose the answer to the question- why are people becoming more religious in a society that is becoming more secular- is obvious. Today's youth are grappling for meaning and depth in a society that is quickly losing any remnants of both. This brings me therefore to my main question or topic of this post, a question that I too was once faced with. To get to this question, let me tell a short story. While debating with someone, who claimed they were deeply atheist (at least to me- to counter my faith and belief) they revealed how they perceive the growing trend of religious people; as a form of desperation. These people are not able to face the truth or the reality of a meaningless world, and random world. They need a crutch; to use the tool of HaShem and religion in order to survive. The time-old question: Is it desperation for meaning instead of truth that is driving us towards religion? Is it what we want, not what is. And let's face it, this argument is nothing new. Was it not Marx who said that religion was the opium of the people- a line that resonates with popularity today? The idea that people are desperate for meaning, and can't face the actual realities of this world, and instead convice themselves of illusions. The world is what it is, what we can know, and religion is included in this knowledge. If this is so, than religion is simply a product of this world, and therefore a product of man. For man, the fear of facing a meaningless and random world (where especially in older times, where there was lack of proper government etc.. there was also needed a moral code and rules)was unreal, and so it became easier to believe in meaning. The idea that no path has been written for us, nothing is for any reason, and our existence is a mere coincidence of science, is difficult to accept. In essence- people are desperate for an answer, and are prepared to create illusions and crutches in order to understand. The world has no answers, but for those we create for ourselves. Now- I know it now sounds like I'm on the path to either put down religion or defend it, but I don't think it possible to do either in this blog.... or even ever. Religion today has become an incredible personal decision and a personal debate for each man. Rather, I want to argue against this idea that religion is a form of desperation, or that religion is the opium of the masses- although I do believe it has the potential to be both.

In the past, religion was a given, not a choice. People lived in a G-d drenched world, where G-d permeated every aspect of life. Today, our secularizing world offers most (lets stick to Western societies)the choice of how they want to live. Either world we embrace, we can easily find a community with open arms. So now the question becomes, how do we choose, where does the turn from one world to another come from? While it may be true that many people nowadays are perhaps initially turning towards religion because they are lost, or confused and can’t find their place or yadayadayada to whatever sappy story you hear, (and therefore can be considered desperate) I really wonder if this is what will keep them into religion once they return? I think that the key, at least for me here, is the aspect of spirituality and happiness. While we can use tools in order to get somewhere, we wouldn’t stay in this state for our entire lives, and also, we wouldn’t stay happy. I think that the answers given by a given religion also reflect how much spirituality and happiness they provide for each person. (reflected by how the truth resonates to each person) Therefore, sometimes the beginning of the path may be rocky and unclear, the journey and destination must have some authenticity. (to the person, not universally authentic or true) Are we continually desperate for answers, so much so that we are willing to accept anything that comes our way- or only that that rings true, both in our fufillment of happiness and our measure for truth. Further, the idea that faith can bring us an easy answer towards life is also completely unfounded. The concept of complete faith is much scarier and difficult to do than believing in nothing. Although it may seem that pure faith is easier, (because everything is in Gds hands and everything is done for the best- even the worst experiences in your life- because at the end of the day, Gd is only trying to improve you),as someone who is struggling to do this it's not as simple and easy to do. This is mostly because we have to put our instinctive intellect aside in order to believe. (When bad things happen we don't intuitively see the best in it, we get angry) So in this respect, does desperation lead us to give up all of our inhibitions and rationality in favor of something we can never really know. Perhaps this is the most difficult part of religion- to believe and to have faith. If we believe firmly that there is nothing out there, (or in an agnostic sense- that we can never know what is out there- but there is no way to ever know)then we allow ourselves to be the masters of our own life. 'If it feels good do it' type of ideology. Does life in this respect not become much simpler? We avoid sense of rules and fixed set of morals. Happiness is the next meal, the next lay, the next paycheck. Yet, if this is so, we can also allow our societies to be completely turned around, because we can never truely know what are the right values. Who says my values are better than yours?- no one. Therfore, the idea that the Nazis valued the life of animals, over the life of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and many Eastern European peoples (those not of Aryan decendancy) is fine. With no fixed set of values and mroals, I can't say that this is wrong (even to this day)- and many a peoples in this day, did just that. The value of life, comes only from the Judeo-Christian tradition of fixed morality. The idea that I cannot say what is right or wrong, but that the instruction and the communication (mainly through Torah)from a higher being- from someting infinite intead of finite, comes from religion. SO is this desperation too? I suppose it could be argued that the want of a fixed set of morals is desperation, but it can also be argued, that without this, we are not desperate for it, but that we decsend into a life of utter chaos. (Hobbes' state of nature type of thing)

I just want to take a minute here, to talk about the people turning to religion, whom I do see as desperate. (oh no! am I ruining my entire argument?) I think that parts of our society turning towards relgiion do so because they are desperate and need something to guide them. In this sense religion is good. Why are types of Judaism, like black hat Judaism so popular? becuse these are instructing you exactly how to live. Judaism has high potential to simply be a rulebook, or a book of riddles. (void of spirituality and connection to something loftier) People are living mechanical yet simple lives according to Torah. This is an escape for them, rather than a place for real answers. I once spoke to an incredibly wise person , who really inspired me, who told me that this was the easy answer to religion. Yes we question what we are learning in Yeshivas and seminaries but we are also just accepting what has been written in law without the means of questioning these old traditions. I think Judaism in particular has one of the most interesting histories, because of the way that Halachic law was cemented. Here I'm referring to the process of law and tradition. People will say; if you don't know which prayer to say over the wine?? Simply go out and see what your neighbors are saying,and this is the law. Tradition is therefore as strong as law. (Reference here to "tradition! tradition!" circa fiddler on the roof) tradition in Judaism is just as strong as law. Biblical Jews were not wearing the Hasidic garb, this sort of tradtitional dress was taken from Russian and Polish neighbors when Jews used to live in these areas for many years. Our ancestors were not wondernig the land of Israel wearing a fur hat, or the big black coat. The evolution of Judaism through influence of others, has been sealed into something just as strong as law. Which makes the older traditions of instituting halacha very interesting. Why did one city's law take precedence over another? because one shtetl had 100 more people, and therefore this law was put into the history book. Now our many learn these laws, but don't get the oppertunity to dig deeper into this process. This answer, to me, seems more layered and complicated and doesn't fit the reason why so many people are now becoming religious. So no, I cannot deny the aspect of desperation as reason for why some people become religious. However, the idea that the entire framework of religion is such, is definatly not true. If we are to really explore the depth and the framework of Judaism, in a way that doesn't just let us live our lives mechanically, then we are not desperate because this life only complicates our lives, and forces us to question, debate and challenge all of our prenotions and ideas. If religion is the desperate search for a definate answer then the true study and loyalty to Judaism will do just the opposite. So in my conversation with this wise friend, we discussed how the real potential in Judaism lays not within accepting the answer but rather to challenge the answer at every oppertunity. Religion in this way is not only a way of life, but a journey of exploration, and new discovery. The mere idea that Judaism offers this facet is important.

So maybe what I'm trying to say is that the answers offered in Judaism have potential(this I must concede to) to be a haven for the desperate, more than the truth of a meaningless world. But Judaism isn't all an easy street for the desperate. It would be naive to believe that it was simply this. Using Judaism as the exploration for truth, one will find the exact opposite. There are more quetsions and the path is deeper and longer- and it is in this way that 'nothing' can be a better haven for the desperate. However, the act of teshuva and returning to religion gives more meaning, spirtiuality and perhaps happiness than the endless pursuit of material goods- and living how we want. We gain a sense of vision impossible to understand in a secular world, and a set sense of truth with a brand of values that resonate. Maybe I'm wrong, or maybe I really am desperate, but if this is so, then this answer for my desperation is the wrong answer. Opium to hide the reality of the world is prhaps wrong, perhaps the opium of the people today is the idea that all we have is nothing. This allows us to live how and where we want without consquence, and this allows the blindness of the youth to continue grappeling with no answers. Is this the true condition of the human? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is what we've allowed ourselves to believe, because we can't really face the truth of the human condition within the framework of religion. How will we ever know?? Well, this million dollar question takes us right back to the beginning, and our personal decision about religion.

This was somewhat of a difficult topic for me to explore, so if I was unclear (which sometimes in my head I'm so completely clear but on paper... not so much) please ask and I'll attempt to explain what I meant. Also if you completely disagree or if I haven't fleshed out my argument well enough... go on and comment.


  1. A life is only worthwile if it has meaning. You wrote something like this in a previous article and, well, I agree (probably for different reasons). In short, I like it since meaning seeks challenge, direction, knowledge, reality, and truths. I do think that your jewish/zionist beliefs may be a way of ensuring that your life is worthwhile by assuming a meaning.

    now about this article with a story about an arguer I can only assume to be quite wise and handsome. I guess values are necessarily pretty arbitrary in the sense that they are quite subjective and poorly translatable into different environments. That we each depend on values is a given since we need to make choices as a part of life. Out of those choices comes a sense of desperation for a 'good' framework for everyone, not just the religousy people.

    I deeply cherish the idea of treating judaism as a means to complicate and search for realities. I regularly consider faking like I want to be a rabbi and going to yeshiva. However, I also consider a buddhist monastery, military boot camp, PhD studies, drugged oblivion, farming... Why use Judaism as a limit rather than an extension. At a lecture way back when on the different minority groups in Israel with the misogynist (is this how to spell this?) I asked a question about the rights of a Muslim (papa) and Jewish (mama) child. You responded quickly that such a thing couldn't happen because Islam and Judaism are both religions and a person can't subscribe to both. I don't criticize the religious because of their ability to have faith. I criticize that faith because it praises ignorance through an 'excessively' limited view.

    we probably both don't like comfort belief. Although I really know admittedly little about you, I just think you haven't followed through with what that implies.


  2. Hey Nick,
    Didn't think you read my blog- you should continue to comment, even if you are not hiddenly referenced in the blog.

    Now to respond. My Jewish/zionists ideas , are definatly a way to infuse meaning in my life, although, this was the consequence of my believing in them, not the reason for which I believe in them. I am passionate about them- because I believe they are worthwhile ideas and since then, they have brought meaning to my life- not the other way around.

    Also, when you wrote about humans (religious or not), 'desperate' to search out for our the good values in life, I really wonder why you choose this word. Why is it desperation? Is it because you believe this to be an intuitive need for human nature? (because without these good values, we gamble our life - knowing that true human nature is- "poor, nasty, brutish and short", which inevitably leads to a"war of every man against every man".-Hobbes) Why can I not sit with your characterization of the word desperate.

    Alright, I understand how you see faith as a limit rather than an extension for knowledge. However, first, you then shouldnt categorize yourself as an athiest then, because this too is a limit. Athiesm is (has become) a religion of it's own with it's own values and limited view- it only lacks the belief in the infinite, and has replaced it with science. This also feeds ignorance.

    Further, why haven't you become a rabbi? or a priest? or a buddist etc... It's impossible to be truely unignorant in all the knowledge of the world. (of which i'm including religion) Further, to subscribe to a religion doesn't neccesitate ignornace, it's a choice. We become religious for us, for those reasons that you do like- the complication and serach for a reality. At the end of the day, we want to be happy, and see some sort of clarity. Perhaps we can't subscribe to multiple religious in terms of faith and belief, but we can subscribe to them in terms of understanding and education. Therefore, Judaism does not have to be a limit of where our education leads us, or saying that someone is doing something wrong (like I can't say that Islam is wrong, or untrue only because I believe in Judaism)Religion does not neccesate closing our mind to everything (although it has the potential to) Therefore I think that we can both subscribe and use religion as an extension.