Tacking on Absurdity, Part II

I reread what I wrote yesterday on the efficacy of Chabad Hasidic philosophy in regards to its ability to justify belief in the spiritual presence of the Rebbe even after his death. Nothing seemed to be reconciled or explained by the end of my ramblings, and that is probably one of my worst attributes as a writer. I can write and write and write and by the end I’ve said so much without making any semblance of a point. But standing in the shower on this cloudy Saturday morning I was given the chance to think about questions raised by my wordy exposition. Namely, to what extent do Lubavitchers ascribe a postmortem experience of the Rebbe to the Rebbe himself as opposed to the practices which the community instituted to mitigate the effect of his physical absence? Does the average Lubavitcher believe that they feel the Rebbe’s presence because of some metaphysical presence of the Rebbe’s individual identity, or because prayer services are conducted exactly as if the Rebbe was descending the stairs from his office to lead the community in song? It seems abundantly clear to me that it is a matter of these practices which engender postmortem experiences of the Rebbe, but is it even possible to have as profound an experience of him if one admits that the only reason the experience is had is because of certain practices which are anthropologically and psychologically explicable?

Maybe my title for these entries is too harsh. I have to be open to the possibility that the experience had by “true believers” in the continued existence of the Rebbe’s individual identity after his death is something that is at least in its complete depth inaccessible to me, being someone who chalks up such experiences of the Rebbe’s presence after death to practices which efficiently manipulate the perception of those taking part in them. This seems to me to be the center of religious practices. I believe from what little I know about the social sciences that our entire consciousness experience can be explained in terms of information processing. While I do everything in my power not to be so positivist as to reduce the complexities of human consciousness and behavior to an input-output model of information translating to belief and behavior, it seems completely within reason to assume that there are certain systems of practices (both psychic and somatic) and symbols which can take advantage of naturally existing subconscious cognitive machinery in ways that manipulate our conscious experience of the world. One need look no further than the numerous available examples of the placebo and nocebo effects, as well as one of my favorite cognitive loopholes, the rubber hand illusion.

The question this line of thinking brings up is, can I take advantage of these sophisticated systems which have evolved over thousands of years to manipulate my perception while still remaining fully conscious that their functioning in my life can be explained completely in terms of the response of naturalistic cognitive processes to symbols and practices? Do I need to actively believe that the effects on my life I might experience from more deeply exploring Judaism are the result of some supernatural agency? I certainly hope not. I’ve written about my understanding of faith before, and most would disagree with the way I talk about it. Voices in my life often reiterate that it’s only faith if it involves belief in some proposition for no other reason than for the sake of belief in it. As I’ve said before, such a notion is abhorrent to me. And this is where I’ve arrived at my conundrum: I crave to honestly experience the spirituality of my culture, yet I am unwilling to leave anything up to belief for the sake of belief. As I see it, if there is anything that a Jew is encouraged to believe, it is the statement of the Shema, as I have mentioned. I believe in the metaphysical claim of this all important of declarations of the Jewish faith. I’m just not willing to believe in the historical reality of the captivity in Egypt, the events of the Exodus, the experiences in the wilderness, or the validity of what I know to be archaic, socially created dogmas which are misogynistic, xenophobic, and perpetuate the insularity of communities. I of course would never say that these characterize a majority or even a large portion of Jewish beliefs and practices, yet there are certainly some that fit the bill. I don’t want to believe the hardliners on either side of the religion- atheism conversation when they try and claim that the “true” way to follow a religion is to adhere to strict orthodoxy. If there is really anything which my current exposition can end on, it is the fact that all of my pontificating often comes back to the questioning of my identity as a Jew in the face of my problems with its more rigidly traditional instantiations.

I find it funny that I write these pieces as if there will emerge a clear answer to my problem of spiritual identity, and yet I know that there will never be a point at which I stop wrestling with myself. If I could make a prediction to serve as a sort of freeze frame of my 22-year-old mindset, I would predict that my evolution intellectually and spiritually over the rest of my life will only amount to learning more language with which to try, ultimately in vain, to express the futility of my soul’s search for a place where it can peacefully settle.

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