Self-Reflection and Self-Loathing: Welcome to the High Holy Days

Who among us hasn’t turned a blind eye to our own faults? Who among us hasn’t known or suspected that we were acting badly, but never taken the time to contemplate it? Don’t so many of us think better of ourselves than we deserve, need help finding a better path, or hurt others without thinking?

Assuredly. And so, thank goodness for the High Holy Days, the two days…or ten days…or month and a half Jews are asked and encouraged to reflect on our faults and sins, all the ways we’ve fallen short, to confess and ask for forgiveness, both from others and from God, all in the hopes that we will be written in the Book of Life, and secured for another year.

But what of us who reflect on our faults throughout the year, and not just during the Days of Awe? Every month, or every day, or all the time? Who are susceptible to scrupulosity,  or simply excessive self-criticism and blame? What if you already don’t like some or all of the person you are? What do we do with the High Holidays? To borrow from another holiday, why should these days be any different from any others?

When you are keenly aware of your faults, when you notice when you do wrong, and think you do wrong more than you do, when you’ve worked on worrying *less* about your flaws, what are you supposed to do during this time, how are you supposed to feel?

Appropriately for a Jewish question, there are approximately 613 possible responses.

Here are some of mine, based on what I struggle with.

Excessive self-blame, it turns out, isn’t actually mutually exclusive with doing things wrong. Feeling overwhelmed by guilt isn’t an excuse for not facing our faults and striving to do better. The High Holy Days are a good time for that.

In fact, the excessive guilt thing isn’t all that Jewish at all (though, that’s the kind of thing that could make someone in this mindset feel even worse about themselves). “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” To drown or wallow in self-recrimination prevents us from actually taking positive steps to improve and do better.

One of those positive steps is asking for forgiveness, one of the most powerful things I do on a regular basis as a part of being Jewish. It’s a way to move forward, a positive step, that doesn’t involve weaponizing weakness or talking about how horrible you are. It’s a way of focusing on others, not yourself.

Focusing on how you, yourself, have done wrong is part of the process, but not all. Ashamnu, the confessional prayer, is stated in the collective. We have gone astray, we have given bad counsel, we have rebelled. It’s not about you. We have all done wrong, and we stand together to ask for forgiveness. And we have probably all done many of the things on that list, so we are not alone. But we haven’t done all the things on that list, so we are standing in solidarity with others who have done wrongs we have not, and so they are standing for us, and our wrongs.

On Kol Nidre, the evening service on Erev Yom Kippur in which we renounce all our vows, we say, admit, that we will be saying the same thing next year. It might be mightily depressing, to think that inevitably, another year of sins will accrue. Even in the time that we are most fixated on changing our ways, our focus drifts to the ways we’ll fall short. But the inevitability of failure should also be a comfort, to know that we are all flawed, and our tradition accounts for that. It, or God, doesn’t expect us to be perfect.

Not only does our tradition know we will fail and falter and fall short, but it has a process in place for us. This might make it worse (if you’re the anti-inductive type); why do it all if you know you’re bound for failure? I happen to like the finiteness of the process and how much is externally ordained. You do the right things, in the right order, and it might not make it better, but then it’s over. You don’t have to think of what the right things are, they’re right there in your machzor, or in your family tradition. You pray, or think, or reflect; you ask forgiveness, connect with those around you; you confess; you try to do better.

Believing in God might make things worse. Perhaps for his anger, jealousy and viciousness, his demands on our thoughts and behavior. Or, oppositely, because he is the moral arbiter, a Judge, and our King, and we are being held to account in ways we might wish we weren’t. After all, we are told in the Unetanah Tokef that God plans the manner of our deaths at the same time he counts up our sins.

Not believing might make things worse. If there’s no God to keep us accountable, what’s the point? If there’s no god to love us, how do we escape from our self-hatred? Having god in your life can be a comfort and a help, whether the model is of a monarch or a parent, a judge or a caregiver, or something else besides. We are lucky (others might say blessed) to be part of a religion uniquely accepting of atheism and doubt).

But a situation which is lose-lose is also a win-win, so maybe we can feel lucky for what we do get, atheist or believer: the comfort of boundaries or the joy of freedom, ethics divinely inspired or humanistically molded. God will think of our good deeds as well as our bad, and look upon us mercifully. We can do the same, and recall our achievements as well as our faults. We are made of dust, but we are also made in the image of God.

Whatever helps you, the following are true:

Yes, you’ve sinned, but here you are, atoning.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and we have time to do better.

Yes, you’ve sinned, but it’s not all on you.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and our community stands together to proclaim it.

Yes, you’ve sinned, but maybe not as much as you think.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and will sin again, but maybe we will get to make new mistakes instead of old ones.

Yes, you’ve sinned, but still you are loved.

Yes, we’ve sinned, and you can ask for forgiveness.

Yes, you’ve sinned, and so what?

Yom Kippur will come regardless.

It might be difficult or easy, painful or lovely, empty or meaningful. I hope the latter for all of you, but the former are just as fair and legitimate.

I will be praying and fasting and atoning and self-berating and apologizing and hurting. It will be hard. I will prostrate myself and beat my chest and feel the fear and agony of the gates of heaven closing.

And then they will close. And then it will be evening and morning, a new day.

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Jewish Atheism

Coming as no surprise, I identify both as a Jew and an atheist. I’ve written about what it means to me to identify as religious, and how I reconcile the potential contradictions here and here (oh, and here), and I spoke about the Holocaust memorial on the Ohio statehouse on the Camels and Hammers show, which can be found here.

The atheist community seems split on this (I mean, insofar as they are deeply preoccupied with this questions, which is not so much). Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, says no. Kate Bigam says yes. Many many people say things that I find demonstrate a total ignorance of Judaism and Jewish identity. These comments range from a misunderstanding of what the Jewish star is and represents, to what halacha (Jewish law) and the separation of genders in Orthodox spaces is supposed to do.

My dear friend Miri Mogilevsky and I sought in the most recent FTBCon (full play list here) to explain ourselves and address some of those ideas and misconceptions. Comments and further questions welcome!

Should A Public Holocaust Memorial Have a Jewish Star?

That’s the question many atheists are asking. The state of Ohio is intending to build a Holocaust Memorial at the Ohio Statehouse that prominently features a Jewish star. It will be on public land, and 300,000 of the 2,300,000 dollars used to build it will be public money. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has sent the State of Ohio a letter claiming that the star violates the separation of Church and State, but do not currently have plans to mount a lawsuit.

The model of the proposed memorial

This spread around the atheist blogsophere fairly quickly, and there have been excellent pieces written from several perspectives. Dan Fincke was the first to bring this to broader attention, and criticized the FFRF’s position extensively. James Croft wrote about the difference between secular law and secular culture, Hemant Mehta defends the strategy, and Adam Lee called for a defense of the constitution. To try to sort out the many issues by dialogue, a varied group of atheists – lawyers, bloggers, activists, people with opinions – participated in a public Google Hangout/an online panel to discuss the morality, legality and reasonableness of the memorial and the star. I was very pleased to be invited to join, and it’s now available on youtube! Watch at your leisure:

The Questions We Discussed

  • Is the memorial legal?
  • Is it advisable to fight it?
  • Could the FFRF (Freedom from Religion Foundation) win a lawsuit against it?
  • Is it an unethical use of public land?
  • What vision or version of secularism do we want to see America move towards?
  • Does the memorial endorse religion? Does it privilege religion over nonreligion?
  • Is the Jewish star a primarily or solely religious symbol?
  • And others!

Things I wish we’d had time to discuss (or discuss in more detail):

  • Ohio’s goal in building the memorial. Is it as powerful and uplifting as Ohio Jewish Communities has it,

    To create a memorial that would help legislators and visitors to The Statehouse understand not just the history of the Holocaust, but the fact that today we must stand against evil. To construct something that can teach people about man’s inhumanity to man. To create a monument to remember the victims of the Holocaust, Ohio survivors and liberators; inspiring people to think and act differently in the face of hatred, anti-Semitism and genocide.

Is it, as some of the more cynical on the panel had it, to court Jewish votes to the Republican party or to win the approval of the Jewish or Jewish sympathetic public? Is it another part of the ongoing attempt to harness the influence of Jewishness to make the case for right wing causes? Is it because the last survivors are about to die? Or perhaps, is it something we can actually take at face value, that Ohio is doing this It would have been interesting to investigate.

  • The relevance of the first line of the intended inscription: “Inspired by the Ohio soldiers who were part of the American Liberation and survivors who made Ohio your home.” How did this not come up? How did no one (myself included) know about it? How does this not make it absolutely relevant to the American context? And this ties it in so beautifully to one of the other lines of the inscription, the Jewish proverb, “If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.”
  • What a truly inclusive memorial would look like, and what we would like to see in it
  • Hopes for memorials to the Romany, to the Jehovah’s witnesses, to the gay people and so on.

In my opinion, the best arguments against the memorial:

  • It would be relatively easy to remove the star or make it not the only symbol present on the monument, so the cost of making everyone happy is low
  • We don’t want to allow a precedent of religious symbols on public land
  • We must fight the contrived Judeo-Christian alliance based on Dominionist, theocratic values that may have been the basis for the decision to build the monument

In my opinion, the best arguments in favor:

  • The Jews were central to the Holocaust, the Jewish star is the best symbol to represent Jews, and thus a prominent Jewish star is entirely reasonable on a Holocaust memorial
  • The Jewish star is a symbol of culture and ethnicity as well as religion, and it represents Secular Jews as well as religious, and both were killed in the Holocaust
  • The memorial and the star serve legitimate secular purposes and do not exist as a result of favoritism of Jews over others or religious people over the nonreligious
  • This does not advance the causes of atheist acceptance or religious liberty
  • The proposed inscription is beautifully inclusive, paying homage to the

six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and millions more including prisoners of war, ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the disabled, and political dissidents were suffered under Nazi Germany

Also, keep an eye on this google plus link for an upcoming public discussion from me and Miri Mogilevsky about Jewish atheism, which I imagine would be relevant to this broader conversation.

I’d love to hear more thoughts about the Holocaust memorial in comments! What would you like to have seen in the discussion?

More links on the topic here:

Identity Confusion Part 2: Wading out of the mud

I realize that my last post was pretty incoherent, and so I want to write a follow-up piece, one I hope will be shorter and actually have a thesis. In particular, I want to respond to some excellent criticisms that my mother has levied at me.

She pointed out, to begin with, that I didn’t even bother to define ‘identity’ and that’s true. I thought I had good reason not to, given that I was trying to explore intuition rather than give an exhaustive account, but perhaps I was wrong. So to begin with, I’d like to define identity as a composite of three major elements: the psychological and philosophical phenomenon that is a result of memory and consciousness, the sense of ‘I’ that traces out a path through time and space, that is consistent and coherent and develops in a continuous fashion (by the way, note the last sentence of the first paragraph of the Wiki article); the sociological position of existing at the intersection of various communities and societies which help us define ourselves and choose our paths in life; and then the intuitive notion of identity as a deeply significant emergent property which is inherent in us from birth, which comes about as a result of the other two.

The argument I’m proposing is that we gain a better understanding of where our intuitions about identity come from and acknowledge the utility and disutility that come about as a result.

To the best of my knowledge, our psychological and philosophical conceptions of self and identity come mainly from consciousness, that state of being self-aware and having the capacity to recognize an autonomous self, and memory, the capacity to recognize this self as the same self that has existed at other times, in other forms and in other places. This psychological quirk of humans (and possibly other animals) is, one might argue, the defining characteristic of our species. Even if it’s not unique to humans, it is what makes possible the vast majority of what we do. Without a conception of being individuals, of being autonomous beings, I can’t say that I know what humanity would look like. Without a doubt, then, this inborn identificatory mechanism does a great deal of good. Of course, this has a lot of problems. Where, for example, does consciousness come from? Well, the brain, but to be honest, we don’t really understand it (though Dennett thinks he does), and it seems difficult to say what is and is not important. When does someone in a vegetative state cease to be a person? If you are copied and one copy is killed, is it murder? Of whom? More on this later.

Then there’s the sociological conception of identity, in which we are defined by the communities to which we belong, whether we are born into them or we choose them. This could be religion, ethnicity, subcultural interests, place of birth or something else. These are also important to humans, to being human. They give us communities of people similar to us in a variety of ways, they make us feel happy, they give us a sense of belonging. There is no doubt that a humanity without partitioning into subsections based on a number of characteristics would either be a singular community, one that some feel is the future of humans, or a vast network of unconnected autonomous agents, which would probably be undesired by most people. 
So far, everything seems fine. Identity is shown to exist by natural and social sciences alike, it makes us human, and it does a great deal of good. Well, sure, but it’s what we do with that information that begins to disturb me. I mentioned a third aspect of identity above and it’s that one I think I was discussing last time. The intense significance identity holds in our lives bothers and frustrates me when it appears that we are giving it far more power than it ought to have. So let’s problematize the issue. 
Who are you?
Make a list, if you like, of all of the things you are. Maybe they’re nouns, maybe adjectives. Some of them will be capitalized. I’m sure you’ll object that there’s an immaterial general sensation of being yourself that is impossible to convey in a list, and that’s fine, write that down, too. 

Now, let’s play Armchair Philosophical Thought Experiment. If you turned out to be a brain in a vat, would you still be you? If there were a brain in a vat that had all of your memories but was physically distinct from your brain, would that be you? How would you feel about being cloned? Would someone with all of the characteristics on the list be you?
I hope what becomes clear is that what matters is the sense that you are you, not any ‘actual fact’ of being you, and that is really only in your brain. Which does not I repeat does not mean that you are not real, or that your identity isn’t real. As Dumbledore says, “Of course it is happening inside your head…but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”. It just means that given the logical reasoning you’re able to accomplish, your identity is only based on you thinking you have one, having the ability to consider having one. And that means that your identity is a self-constructed object, pulled from selectively chosen and carefully framed memory, tempered and modified as contexts change. There’s certainly something real about your history, but what your mind chooses to recognize as itself is another thing entirely. Or else do you never feel like you do things that are ‘out of character.’ Are you you when you’re drunk, or high? When are you most quintessentially you, then?
More Thought Experiments. What kind of person are you? Are you kind, decent, nice to people? Above average in most ways? Intelligent, thoughtful, prone to changing your mind when you need to? Do you act in approximately similar ways at most times? Are you a special snowflake? Are you good at imagining what it is to be other people? Are you a tolerant, unprejudiced individual?

Well, probably not, or at least not at all times. We think that we’re consistent, but we in fact behave in wildly different ways depending on our circumstances. We hate changing our minds, rationalizing to infinity to avoid it, especially when it challenges any deeply or emotionally strongly held identity. We care about being kind to people in our in-groups more than people in our out-groups. And none of this makes a bit of difference when you’re asked to describe yourself to others. Want more evidence? You’ve probably heard of the study in which people are given psychological profiles, which they rank as highly accurate, not knowing that they all got the same one. We’re all pretty similar, even though we don’t like to admit it, and furthermore, in the ways in which we are different, we just imagine what we would do in any given situation and work based on that. All of these things we consider ourselves to be, all of these traits we pride ourselves on, they don’t appear to be all that true. And you’re probably a racist.

Finally, what do the groups you count yourself a part of say about you? Does being Jewish really say anything substantive about you? What does it even mean to be a woman, or a man, or neither? There are countless words that we use to refer to concepts that seem to be simply indescribable; they simply are, and we associate powerful identities with these things we can’t explain. But given the vast diversity within the people who identify in a certain way (do Democrats all agree? What about neo-Platonists?), what are we really saying? Or are we muddling through, hoping people understand that intangibles we’re trying to get across?
Some answers:

Clearly, we have much more to learn about psychological identity, but it does seem that our intuition does alright by us, that generally our bodies circumscribe our identities, that our brains are the locus of self and that we are the same people as we move through time. So that’s not so bad. We’ve never really had to deal with aliens, Star Trek or teleportation, and so perhaps it doesn’t matter. But it should really be acknowledged that we don’t have good answers to these questions, and so maybe we shouldn’t put so much stock into the answers we have.

As for how we think of ourselves in terms of positive characteristics, there are very good reasons for favorable self-conceptions. It’s how we stop ourselves from being depressed, it’s how we have the psychological immune system that keeps us happy most of the time, no matter what happens. And yet, if we ignore the facts about the ways we think and the ways we treat and think about other people, we’ll never be able to improve ourselves. If we think we’re excellent, rational thinkers, how will we overcome our biases? If we think we’re consistent and need to be, how will we change our minds when we need to? If we think we are the same around different types of people, how will we learn to act appropriately in different situations, or learn not to judge others for doing the same? And if we think that none of us are racists or sexists anymore, then we won’t respond well to being called out on it, and feminism will stay middle-class and white and no one will think objectification is a problem.
Also, while communities and identity labels are important and feel good and give us a sense of belonging, we can’t be giving up anything just to belong to an incoherent cluster concept. Most identities really are empirical dense spots in concept-space, but there’s plenty of variance in there, and while identifying yourself publicly can make an excellent political statement, there’s no reason to subscribe to the whole list just because you already fulfill a lot of it. If you’re a woman you don’t need to dress a certain way, look a certain way, have sex with men. If you’re a Jew you don’t need to believe in Biblical inerrancy just because you believe in god, or be halachically observant just because your mother was Jewish. These get pretty complicated, of course, but the point is that there’s no need to appropriate a whole set of characteristics for yourself just because they happen to be highly correlated over a population.
In the final analysis, identity is an emergent property, and the thing about emergent properties is that they vanish when you dig in a little. They are real, they are important, but they are not unquestionably fundamental aspects of our lives, unless we make them so. For all of the benefits they give us, there are drawbacks, and we should question these identities whenever they unduly affect us.