My TEDx Talk

“God in the Public Square” has been posted here. This seventeen minute talk examines non-theist God beliefs, a huge part of our culture today that few even acknowledge exists. For non-theists, God is a “What” rather than a “Who”. Non-theists have been central to the conversation in the Public Square since the founding of the United States and are still in the middle of the great debate.

tedx004

TEDx Adelphi University | AU PAC | April 5th 2016. Copyright Chris Bergmann Photography

God for the Rest of Us #1

Many of us are seeking a God we can believe in without discarding all of the amazing knowledge that we use in this unprecedented age of human advancement. Evolution is a fact and the Big Bang Theory is a fact. Computers, quantum physics and genocide are all facts of life. With all of this information and the rush of new ideas and concepts that we rely upon daily, what is a God for the rest of us?

#1 God of the Bible

Torah presents God as the Parent God, intervening in history, granting favor to the obedient, and lending a miracle or two to His children, the Israelites. This God has to present principles by which people can live without resorting to violence and mayhem first. This God sets down laws that are derived from the principles. He rewards good behavior and he punishes bad behavior. Like any parent, God of the Torah loses his patience with His children quite a number of times.

In the middle part of the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Hosea presents the image of God as the husband and Israel as His unfaithful, whoring wife. The prophet preaches that the relationship between God and Israel is not father and child but instead, husband and wife. This is not an equal relationship though because women were still property in significant ways and the husband was the final authority. Song of Songs softens the “authority and property” model with the erotic love poetry of two lovers. Rabbi Akiba, in his argument on why Song of Songs should be in the Bible, suggests we read Song of Songs as God the groom and Israel the bride.

The Book of Esther, in which God makes no appearance, presents the greatest challenge to those who want to believe in God. God is not in the story and He is not even in the wings. Through their own courage and tenacity, Esther and Mordechai save themselves. The Silent God, the God who does not answer, will haunt every person who finds themselves in harm’s way throughout the millennia. They will pray for rescue and salvation, and there will be no divine intervention.

The God who answers this dilemma of silence in the Book of Job offers no comfort. “You know not what I do. Even if you did know, you could never understand,” explains God in the whirlwind in a long piece of poetic prose in the last chapters.

The Bible gives us four major images: God the parent, God the husband, God the Silent and God who cannot be known. Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims embrace God the Parent and at times, God the husband. Atheists point to God the Silent and God who cannot be known and respond, “What’s the point then?”

If you are not Orthodox or Atheist, the search for a God for the rest of us must continue to look elsewhere.

Philosophy of Learning 1

How do we learn?  (or how did the Common Core curriculum, written by some smart people, miss the mark so widely?)

The Jewish world has a particular set of ideas of what is learning that are encapsulated in the morning service a Jew is supposed to recite every day. In our day where the methodologies of learning are changing with technology and global economy, this Jewish approach argues that the act of learning is still the same. Moreover, this particular approach to learning is more comprehensive and (one would hope) more effective than the methods being applied in public school curricula and often in college level curricula. For the non-Hebrew reading person, not knowing Jewish liturgy or Hebrew is not an obstacle for understanding the points this essay but my argument demands I reference the source text in the original:

וְתֵן בְּלִבֵּֽנוּ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל, לִשְׁמֹֽעַ, לִלְמֹד וּלְלַמֵּד, לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת וּלְקַיֵּם אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי תַלְמוּד תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ בְּאַהֲבָה..

“. . .and You have placed in my heart the ability to understand and discern, to hear, to learn and to teach, to observe and to do, and to uphold all the words of learning of Your Torah with love.”

The Hebrew above is a phrase taken from the morning service. The blessing is Ahavah Rabba (“With Great Love” has God given us. . .) from the Shemah and Its Blessings קריאת שמע section. Buried in this ancient text is a philosophy of how we learn that is very different from the mainstream of Western Thought that begins with Socrates and his foundational ideas (e.g. the Socratic Method). Jewish learning enters into the Western Canon at various points in time and a student will recognize the methods. The uniqueness encapsulated in this blessing is the number and depth of the approaches.

Unusual in Jewish history, all of the earliest versions of this blessing all agree on this text. There are no variants (Ismar Elbogen “Jewish Liturgy”). The blessing is first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 111b) although not all of its contents. Centuries later among the various written sources that stretch from Babylonia to the north coast of Africa through Spain and Europe continuing on to Russia, all extant prayer books or commentaries use the same wording for this sentence. Recognize that this exact wording remained intact over both thousands of kilometers and a thousand and a half years.

If from our most ancient available sources there is unanimous agreement, then it follows that this philosophy of learning was not only accepted but it was practiced. The opposite of controversial, this philosophy was concrete and confirmed through use. The Talmud has expansive examples of all sorts of methods of learning, including climbing a tree and hiding in the leaves to memorize Bible passages that the students were supposed to have already committed to memory (the art of procrastination). For quick access, the Talmud is unwieldy. The prayer book reduces a great deal of belief and learning that Talmud aggregated into an easily accessible daily repetition. This partial sentence on learning is one of those well done, concise reductions.

According to this blessing, learning and the love of learning is a gift from God. Rabbis are lifelong learners first and foremost; they are scholars. The ideal for them is “Let your house be a meeting place for the Sages, and sit amid the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.” (Pirke Avot 1.4 though the quote is earlier, 2nd century BCE). In the rabbinic mind, if one receives a gift from God, then one is obligated to make the gift orderly and use it. This line in the blessing is the rabbinic presentation of the elements of learning.

There are eight methods of learning, which I will translate literally in parenthesis and contextually in modern parlance afterward:

  1. לְהָבִין – (to understand) comprehend/analyze concepts or abstraction
  2. לְהַשְׂכִּיל –(to discern) common sense
  3. לִשְׁמֹֽעַ – (to hear) active listening
  4. לִלְמֹד – (to learn) book learning
  5. לְלַמֵּד – (to teach) teaching
  6. לִשְׁמֹר – (to keep, to guard, to observe) to practice or practice with repetition
  7. לַעֲשׂוֹת – (to do, to make) learn by doing, practice wisdom
  8. לְקַיֵּם – (to uphold, establish, preserve) memorization and recollection.

To clarify any misunderstanding, these eight approaches are not types of knowledge. Knowledge (דעה) is an entire philosophy unto itself. These eight methods lead to knowledge.

In the next essay I will explain each of the eight methods as I develop this idea into an article. At first glance does this presentation make sense?

P.S.: I am so impressed that WordPress can publish a foreign alphabet.