Feeding the God of Compassion

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In the Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35), we find Moses on the top of the mountain and the Israelites growing restless. They’re not sure if Moses will ever come back, so they pressure Aaron into helping them build a Golden Calf that they can worship (“that will go before us.”) God inevitably becomes infuriated and threatens to wipe all of the Israelites. Though Moses eventually talks God off the ledge, God later sends a plague upon the people as punishment.

A little later on in our portion however, God appears to have reformed completely. When God passes by Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai, God’s divine attributes are described as: “compassionate and slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.”

So which one is the real God? The punishing authority figure or the unconditionally loving parent? The angry warrior who demands that we dislodge and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan or the compassionate exemplar who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves?

As I grapple with this question, myself, I’ve come to accept that whether we like it or not, both of these “Gods” are a part of our tradition. As much as we’d like to, we can’t wish away or surgically excise the nasty God from our sacred texts. On the contrary: if we really intend to be serious about incorporating Biblical tradition into our spiritual lives, we need to be prepared to own and confront the “everything” of that tradition.

For me that means asking this question openly and unflinchingly: if the Torah teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God, which image of God will we proclaim? The God of anger or the God of forgiveness? The God of hatred or the God compassion? The God of harsh judgement or the God of loving acceptance?

Needless to say, classical Jewish tradition has had a great deal to say about these questions throughout the centuries. You may be interested to know that contemporary neuroscience has been exploring these issues as well. Over the past decade or so in fact, physicians have been investigating the ways in which spirituality is rooted in the biology of the brain. By combining the fields of neuroscience and religious studies, they’re helping us to actually understand how our neurological makeup influences the ways we experience God.

Several years ago, Dr. Andrew Newberg, the founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, explored these issues in his book, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.” This was Dr. Newberg’s basic premise:

Every event that happens to us or any actions that we take can be associated with activity in one or more specific regions of the brain. This includes, necessarily, all religious and spiritual experiences. The evidence further compels us to believe that if God does indeed exist, the only place (God) can manifest (God) existence would be in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain.

For me, the most amazing findings of this research demonstrate the way God has evolved neurologically over the centuries. In a later book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” Newberg posited that different experiences of God actually correlate to the development of the human brain. Neurologically speaking, researchers have located the angry, authoritarian God in the limbic system, which houses the oldest and most primitive structures of the brain. This includes the amygdala – the little almond-shaped organ that generates our “fight or flight” response.

The benevolent, compassionate God, on the other hand, can be found in our frontal lobes, and particularly in a structure known as the anterior cingulate. These are the parts of the brain most primarily associated with our experience of compassion and empathy. Compared to the ancient limbic system, these structures are the most recently evolved parts of our brain and they appear to be unique to human beings. This is how Newberg put it:

Something happened in the brains of our ancestors that gave us the power to tame this authoritarian God. No one knows exactly when or how it happened, but the neural structures that evolved enhanced our ability to cooperate with others. They gave us the ability to construct language and to consciously think in logical and reasonable ways…Without these new neural connections, humans would be limited in their ability to develop an inner moral code or a societal system of ethics.

To be clear: this is not an argument for doing away with our brain stems. We obviously cannot survive without them. And we cannot deny that there may well be times in our lives when anger, fear and vigilance are warranted. The problem, of course, is that we can too easily let our limbic systems run wild. Indeed, neurological research demonstrates that whenever we let our anger or fear overpower us, brain activity in our frontal lobes gets shut down. When this happens, our “fight or flight” response is generated, and it spreads rapidly throughout our brains.

We’ve long known that excessive anger or fear can cause problems like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Studies also show that extreme anger can permanently disrupt structures in both our brains that control basic functions like memory storage and cognitive accuracy. In other words, when we indulge our anger, we feed the more toxic and destructive manifestations of God.

In Jewish terms, this research remindes me of the famous dynamic between the Yetzer Hara (“the bad inclination”) and the Yetzer Hatov (“the good inclination.”) The rabbis made sure to point out that the Yetzer Harah was an essential aspect of our humanity. The conventional translation of ra and tov as “good” and “evil” is not tremendously helpful in this regard. The sages, in fact take pains to point out that we need them both. Whether we like it or not, these impulses are a part of us – much like our limbic system is an essential and necessary part of our brain. The point is not to deny or repress our Yetzer Hara, but to channel and master it. As the verse from classic rabbinic text Pirke Avot teaches: “Mi hu gibor? Mi’she kovesh et yitzro” – “Who is mighty? The one who masters one’s yetzer (hara).”

So how do we do this? By consciously channelling our “fight or flight” impulses while exercising those frontal lobes. Or another way of putting it: by keeping our baser instincts in check while nurturing our capacity for kindness. And believe it or not, science itself is proving that compassion and empathy can be neurologically contagious. Studies demonstrate conclusively that there is increased activity in the compassion center of the brain whenever we perceive others as being sensitive to our needs. Scientists have also concluded through research that the more positive contact we have with members of other different religions, cultural, and ethnic groups, the less prejudice we tend to harbor in our brains.

So to return to our portion, I’m struck that it when God witnesses the Golden Calf episode, we read an all too human description of a limbic system run amok. Interestingly enough, it is Moses himself who serves as the frontal cortex in this case, keeping God from indulging the impulses toward annihilation.

I can’t help but think there is a profound neurological/ethical lesson for us in all of this. Given the precarious nature of our 21st century reality, I’d suggest we need to heed this lesson now more than ever.

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Rabbi Art Green on the Kabbalah Centre: “Kabbalah Deserves Better”

Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times

As someone who cherishes Jewish mystical tradition, I confess that I’ve long been dismayed by the shallow pop culture hucksterism of the the Berg family’s Kabbalah Centre (made famous in recent years for attracting Hollywood celebrities such as Madonna, Brittany Spears, and Ashton Kutcher among their devotees.) Whenever asked by those interested in learning more about Kabbalah, I’ve made a point of steering them away from the likes of the Kabbalah Centre in favor of contemporary scholars such as my own teacher Rabbi Art Green, author of “Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow” and “Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Jewish Mystical Theology.”

For years I’ve been interested in what someone like Art would say about a phenomenon such as the Kabbalah Centre.  Now I’ve just discovered that he did precisely that in a HuffPo piece last October:

What (Kabbalah Centre founder Rabbi Philip) Berg figured out is that superstition and the insecurities that attract people to it did not disappear with modernity. They exist in Hollywood just as much as in poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem. You just need to know how to market them. At this he became a genius. He took his outrageous promises and bundled them together with the sort of self-help advice one can readily find in many books sold in airport bookstores. To these he joined some light bits of true Kabbalistic learning. He wrapped them all up in bundles of red string, making an old Eastern European talisman, used mostly for keeping witches away from babies’ cribs, a new identifying symbol for his “Kabbalists,” most of whom had no real idea of what the Jewish mystical tradition was all about…

The sad part of this story is that it represents a thorough mixing of goodness and cynicism. Many people testify that their lives were set straight by loyalty to the Kabbalah Centre, that they were freed from addictions, brought back from depression, or even just redeemed from the triviality of Hollywood and its values. Who could not thank the Bergs for the positive effect they have had on the lives of so many? But in the end, hucksterism seems to have won out. The “evil urge” is a pretty slippery character, especially when big money becomes involved. The Kabbalah Centre’s founders and leaders, especially in creating a dynasty, have taken the reputation of an ancient and noble tradition and have sullied it for their own gain. Kabbalah deserves better.

Art’s piece followed upon a thorough investigative article in the LA Times on allegations of corruption and financial shenanigans at the KC. Click here to read more.


The Season of Our Service: Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772

As my Torah study students will attest, the book of Deuteronomy can be pretty tough stuff. Deuteronomy, of course, is the final book of the Torah, and most of it is a monologue delivered by Moses to the Israelites before they cross into the Promised Land. As Moses is about to die, he engages in a kind of review lesson for the people, relating their history, describing their journey and reminding them of the laws they have agreed to as part of their covenant with God.

This last part – the theological emphasis on the covenant – is a major theme in Deuteronomy. Over and over, God tells the Israelites through Moses: “You’re about to enter the Land. Just follow my laws and you’ll be fine. But break them and you’ll be very, very, sorry.”

It’s really not to hard to discern these theological threats throughout Deuteronomy– in fact we read them over and over and over again. God tells the Israelites that a deal’s a deal – and they had better hold up their end or else. And of course the “or else” is spelled out repeatedly – often in gruesomely vivid detail.

Now, of all the laws contained in this covenant, there is one in particular that God seems particularly uptight about: that is, namely, the law against worshiping other gods. That’s not to say God isn’t concerned about laws such as murder, theft, providing for the poor, caring for the stranger… While these kinds of laws are certainly mentioned, the stakes always seem to be the highest when it comes to the commandment against idolatry – against serving gods of foreign nations.

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My Prayer for Elul

It’s Rosh Hodesh Elul, the first of the last month of the Jewish year – also known as the month of spiritual preparation that leads into Rosh Hashanah. I plan to write extensively about Elul rituals over the next few weeks – in the meantime, here is my own rendering of Psalm 27, which is traditionally recited every morning this month.

Rosh Hodesh Sameach – a joyful and spiritually fruitful Elul!

Psalm 27

You are my light my hope
why should I fear
You are my life and my strength
why do I tremble

When I contemplate surrender
to my dread
to my terror of the unknown
I hold tight to you
and your strength gives me strength

Just one thing I ask of you
just this one thing
that I find welcome in your home
all the days of my life
to behold your beauty
to dwell in your innermost place

For in you there is shelter
in times of hardship and disquiet
in your tent there is sanctuary
from that place I will sing
a joyful song to the darkness
with openness and love

Do you hear my song
do you hear me when I cry
do not turn away
I seek you endlessly
I turn toward your light
it seems
I’ve sought your face
forever

Still in my darkest moments
this I do know
even if my father and mother abandon me
you will always be there
to gather me up

Teach me the ways of wholeness and justice
remind me that no matter how far I may stray
from this path
there is always a way to return

Even if I can’t always see it
I will ever believe in your goodness
right here
right now
in the land of the living

Hold on to your hope
and be strong
the time of our return will soon
arrive


Don’t Expect Applause


From Pirke Avot 1:3 (translation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro):

Antigonus of Sokho received the Teaching from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say:

Live without hesitation.
Dwell not on outcome or reward.
Act with full attention.

The 59th and final “slogan” of Atisha – a revered Buddhist teacher from present-day Bangladesh (980-1052 CE):

Don’t expect applause.

Commentary by Acharya Judy Lief, writing in Tricycle Magazine:

Another problem with the hunt for approval is that it to gain approval you must buy in to the dominant values of the society around you. If what gets approval is getting rich, that is what you strive for; if it is beauty, that is what you obsess about; if it is power over others, that is what you focus on. The desperation for outer rewards goes hand-in-hand with an increasing sense of inner poverty. If you are successful in your quest for recognition, you may be able to ignore what you have given up to achieve it. If you are unsuccessful, you may simply blame the system. But in either case, since you have given over our power to others, you are left empty.

Today’s practice
When you notice you are expecting applause, explore what lies behind that expectation. Notice the subtle shift between when you have done something and when you begin to look around you for recognition.