Tag Archives: Akiva

What Would a “Conscious Judaism” Look Like?

What does it mean for us to be “conscious”?

Sometimes, it means that we are aware of our surroundings, as opposed to the times when are we blind to what’s going on around us.

Sometimes, it means that we are acting intentionally, as opposed to the times when we act without thinking.

And sometimes it means that we know our self, meaning that we are trying to determine who we really are.

These aspects of consciousness — awareness, intentionality and self-knowledge — have become rich sources of scientific inquiry. Interestingly, these ideas also have deep resonance with teachings found within Jewish tradition.

So where do Judaism and the science of consciousness intersect?  What would a “conscious Judaism” look like? And what does Judaism teach about awareness, intentionality and self-knowledge?

Awareness

In an article in the Skeptical Inquirer, psychologist Richard Wiseman describes a very simple experiment that he ran which shows how a lack of awareness leads us to ignore potential gifts, even when they are staring us right in the face:

I gave…people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside…I [also] placed a…large message half way through the newspaper. [It] announced: “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” …[The unaware] people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.

So simply by becoming more aware — more conscious — people discovered unexpected gifts they otherwise would have missed. And so the natural next question is — how many gifts do we receive each day that we are simply not conscious of?

The answer? Far too many. And because we are often totally unaware of all the blessings that we experience each and every day, Jewish liturgy reminds us that sometimes, we need some help in opening our eyes to the blessings of this world. Perhaps that’s why the Talmud (Menachot 43b) tells us that we should say “one hundred blessings every day” — it’s so that we become that much more aware of the myriad gifts that we experience, but all too often ignore.

Indeed, in his book The Book of Words, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner creatively defines the word b’rachah, “blessing,” as “awakening.” As he says:

Blessings keep our awareness of life’s holy potential ever present. They awaken us to our own lives. Every blessing says, “I am grateful to be a creature and to remind myself and God that life is good.”

With each blessing uttered, we extend the boundaries of the sacred and ritualize our love of life. One hundred times a day. Everywhere we turn, everything we touch, everyone we see. (Kushner, 20).

So one aspect of a “conscious Judaism” would be about raising our level of awareness of the opportunities, the joys, and the goodness in this world that we so often overlook.

Intentionality

Apparently (at least according to my fiancee), I have a problem with hogging the blankets in the middle of the night. When she wakes up in the morning, the blankets are wrapped tightly around me, and she doesn’t seem to have any. I remember saying to her once that “I don’t intend to steal the blankets,” but clearly that’s wrong — I do intend to do that, since that’s what happens! What I really mean is that I don’t consciously intend to hog the blankets, since I’m not actively trying to leave her shivering in the middle of the night.

Our intentions are what guide our actions, but when we talk about intentionality, we are really talking about conscious intentionality — making a particular decision because that’s the decision we want to make. But in fact, many of our choices are ones that we don’t consciously think about.

Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational, gives an example: imagine that you have spent most of your life drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. One day, you walk into a Starbucks, buy a cup of coffee, and enjoy it. Then,

…[t]he following week you walk by Starbucks again. Should you go in? The ideal decision-making process should take into account the quality of the coffee (Starbucks versus Dunkin’ Donuts); the prices at the two places; and, of course, the cost (or value) of walking a few more blocks to get to Dunkin’ Donuts. This is a complex computation — so instead, you resort to the simple approach: “I went to Starbucks before, and I enjoyed myself and the coffee, so this must be a good decision for me.” So you walk in and get another small cup of coffee. (Ariely, 37)

Generally, it’s not a problem that we make most of our decisions without too much thought. But all of our choices do have consequences, whether or not we make them consciously — and if we don’t consciously own our decisions, then we won’t be able to accept their consequences.

So how can we raise our level of intentionality?

Here again, Judaism can help guide us, since rabbinic literature emphasizes that all of our actions need to be done with a level of conscious intentionality. In Hebrew, that concept is called kavvanah.

Kavvanah is a subject of study because Judaism is a religion that focuses on actions, and in particular, mitzvot, or sacred actions. On the one hand, doing mitzvot could and should be done regardless of how we feel – we simply have a responsibility to give charity, to observe Shabbat, and to honor our father and mother.

But the Rabbis also tell us that “mitzvot require kavvanah.” (Berakhot 13a) While we could  fulfill our sacred obligations out of habit, when we recognize the potential holiness of our actions, we will naturally raise our level of intentionality. As Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels notes, “mitzvot provide a system of sacred practices that aim to lead us to the realization of the divine presence…For mitzvot to fulfill their purpose, we must bring mindfulness and intention to their practice.” (quoted in Cosgrove, Jewish Theology in Our Time, 38-39)

Judaism reminds us that actions need to be connected to purpose, and purpose manifests itself in actions. When we recognize that every choice is potentially sacred, we will bring more intentionality, more consciousness, to that moment. And if we can increase our level of intentionality, then we will be that much more able to own our decisions — and that much more able to own the consequences.

So a second aspect of a “conscious Judaism” would be about raising our level of intentionality, helping us recognize the potential sacredness of each choice we make.

Self-Knowledge

While awareness and intentionality are certainly important aspects of consciousness, they are also features that we share with all other animals (and, depending on how broadly we define those terms, perhaps even with all living things). But there is one aspect of consciousness that is uniquely human — a sense of self.

All animals have experiences, perceptions and desires, but only human beings can create a coherent sense of self that can not only evaluate the present, but also reflect on the past and plan for the future — and also to know that it is the same “person” who experiences all those moments. As Antonio Damasio notes in his book Self Comes to Mind:

What your life has been, in bits and pieces, is available to you rapidly in recall, and bits and pieces of what your life may or may not come to be, imagined earlier or imagined now, also come into the moment of experience. You are busily all over the place and at the many epochs of your life, past and future. But you — the me in you, that is — never drops out of sight. All of these contents are inextricably tied to a singular reference. Even as you concentrate on some remote event, the connection remains. The center holds. (Damasio, 168)

As far as we know, only humans have this level of self-knowledge, with the ability to become introspective and to create an integrated sense of “self.” And perhaps that ability to construct a unified sense of self is what it means when Judaism says that we are “created in the image of God.”

After all, the most important aspect of God in Judaism is that God is one. While that insight was originally used to claim there weren’t many gods, as the surrounding cultures had argued, it could also mean that God is unified or integrated. So today, when we say that we are “created in the image of God,” we are also saying that even as we grow and change and struggle, there is a continuity in our sense of “self” — who we were, who we are and who we will be are, in fact, all one person.

That’s an important thing to remember, because as evolutionary psychologists Robert Kurzban and Douglas Kenrick argue, we have many “modular subselves,” with different parts of our brain advocating for different goals. For example, in his book Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life, Kenrick calls these subselves

…the team player (concerned with the goal of making friends), the go-getter (concerned with getting ahead), the night watchman (concerned with protecting us from the bad guys), the compulsive (concerned with protecting us from disease), the swinging single (concerned with finding mates), the good spouse (concerned with the very different problem of keeping those mates), and the parent (concerned with taking care of our kin, especially any children we might have). (Kenrick, x-xi)

All these modular subselves have their own specific role and own specific purpose, so when we feel like different parts of our “self” are at war, it’s really because our different subselves are trying to get us to act in conflicting ways.

And yet despite the fact that one level, “who we are” consists of many subselves, on a deeper level, we know that “who we are” is unified, whole, and complete. And that idea that we know that we are an integrated self parallels a teaching that appears in Pirkei Avot, when Rabbi Akiva said, “while it was a great love that God created humanity in the Divine image, it was an even greater love that they were made aware that they were created in the Divine Image.” (Avot 3:14)

As Rabbi Irwin Kula taught, perhaps the goal of religion is to help people bring their disparate “selves” into a unified whole, reminding people that they truly are created in the image of a unified God.

So a third aspect of a “conscious Judaism” would be about developing an integrated sense of “self,” guiding people towards the knowledge that they are already whole, complete and unified.

I believe that a “conscious Judaism” — striving to enhance people’s awareness, intentionality and self-knowledge — could improve people’s engagement with the world, their decision-making process, and how they view themselves. It could help people in pursuing tikkun olam, repairing the world, and tikkun hanefesh, repairing the soul.

So now that I’ve shared my thoughts, I want to ask you — in your mind, what would a “conscious Judaism” look like? And how might it help improve both individuals and society at large?

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The Need for Self-Compassion

We always walk a fine line when we try to create our self-image and examine our own actions. We want to stand up for ourselves, but we don’t want to become a bully. We want to treat our children as special and unique, but we don’t want them to become narcissists. We want to do a good job on a project at work, but we don’t want to be losing sleep over it.

Striking these balances can often feel like walking a tightrope — on the one hand, we want to accept ourselves where we are, and yet we also want to strive to be better. But walking a tightrope is stressful — it is far too easy to fall over one side or the other. So some researchers have wondered: is there a more effective way to help us accept our human failings and be motivated to improve?

There’s a new, emerging field that may actually help in this struggle. It’s called “self-compassion,” encouraging us to treat ourselves with the same level of kindness and understanding that we give to those we love. As a recent New York Times article notes,

[t]he research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight. (“Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges“, New York Times, 2/28/11)

What seems so promising about self-compassion is that it’s not about trying to “get what we deserve” or even striving to be happy, because working towards those goals can easily lead to self-indulgence and entitlement. Instead, aiming to treat everyone — ourselves and others — with compassion, kindness and understanding can provide a crucial context of acceptance that is much more conducive to self-improvement.

After all, think about the various methods we use to encourage the people we love when they are struggling with something. Yes, we want to push them to do better, to reach higher, to grow and to learn. But we also know that berating them, putting them down, or constantly criticizing them is not the way to do it. Instead, the most effective way to help someone improve is to place those suggestions or constructive feedback in the context of unconditional love and acceptance for the other person as a whole, simply because we care for them.

And yet providing unconditional love and acceptance for ourselves can often be harder than it looks. As the Times article explains, “People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.”

So what do we do? How do we motivate ourselves to improve without lapsing into self-criticism, and accept our failings without becoming self-indulgent?

There’s a debate in Jewish tradition that can help shed light on this issue. Two rabbis are trying to decide on the most important verse in the Torah, and one rabbi, Rabbi Akiva, argues for one of the most famous statements in all of religious literature — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, for many of us, that guideline inspires many of our ethical actions.

But there’s a problem with it — it’s relative. If we do not love ourselves, then we will never learn to love our neighbor – and if we use that model, then how we treat others will be almost completely dependent upon how we treat ourselves.

So instead, another rabbi, Ben Azzai, argues for a different verse: “In the image of God did God create humanity.” In contrast to “love your neighbor as yourself,” this verse implies an objective standard. If we view every person as having been created in the image of God, then we have responsibilities towards both ourselves and others — regardless of how we are feeling at any given moment.

So even more important than having a right to receive compassion, love, and acceptance is our responsibility to create them — for ourselves and for others. Because if we can do that, if we can act compassionately towards ourselves and towards others, just imagine how much more peaceful and more whole our world — and our selves — would be.

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Pick a Destiny, Any Destiny

David Blaine’s street magic specials are always fun to watch. If you haven’t seen what he does, this is a great example:

Now, if you’re anything like me, your immediate reaction was, “Oh my God – how did he do that?!” It almost felt like he was reading that woman’s mind, since it looked like she had the choice to have “picked a card, any card.” But in fact, where magicians like David Blaine are truly masters of illusion is in creating the best illusion of all – the illusion that we have free choice.

One of the reasons magicians are able to “know” what card we’ve picked is because they have already determined what card they wanted us to pick – it was never really actually “our” choice in the first place. Their trickery lies in their ability to lead us to feel invested in “our” decision.

Stephen Macknik and Susanna Martinez-Conde are the authors of the book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About our Everyday Deceptions, and they argue that the reason we feel like we were the ones who actually picked the card was because “[o]ur minds will go to surprising lengths to preserve [our] sense of agency and choice.” (pp. 171-172) In other words, our brains sometimes lie to us, leading us to believe that we have much more control over our situations than we actually do.

And yet that’s actually not all that surprising. We know in our own lives that we do not have unlimited choice – there are very real limits to what we have the freedom to do. We can not simply “choose” to get a million dollars – we have to work hard at a high-paying job, and even then, luck will play a big role in whether or not we succeed. We cannot just “decide” to lose weight – we have to diet and exercise, and even then, our metabolism or our willpower may make it challenging to meet that goal. Our genetics, our environment and our past decisions all restrict our choices to an extent. While we may want to believe we have total and complete free will, when we reflect on it, we recognize that we are not nearly as free as we think.

Rabbi Akiva’s Magic Show

This question of how much free will we truly have is actually a very old one, and it’s one the Rabbis grappled with, as well. And perhaps the most classic statement comes from Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot, when he said, “All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given.” (Avot 3:15)

But how does that work? How can there be free choice if God has foreseen everything?

Well, think about a magic trick, but think about it from two different perspectives — from the point of view of the magician who is orchestrating the trick, and from our point of view, experiencing it. For the magician, “all is foreseen” — he knows what is going to happen, and has planned everything out meticulously. But for us, it feels like “freedom of choice is given,” because we feel we could have picked any card at all. And that’s the point. For the trick to work, we have to believe that we are the ones in charge — even if that’s not really the case.

So that realization can also help us understand Akiva’s statement — except this time, let’s think of our lives from two different perspectives — from God’s and from our own. Now, we may believe that God has foreseen everything, or we may not. I think it actually doesn’t matter which one is true, because as imperfect human beings, we will simply never be able to know objectively one way or the other. The crucial belief for us to hold onto is that “freedom of choice is given” — and it’s crucial for us to hold onto that belief, even if that, too, is not always the case.

And that’s because if we simply feel invested in our choices — even if sometimes they aren’t always ours” — we can then own them and take responsibility for them. If our only belief is that God has foreseen everything, that could easily lead us to abdicate our own sense of responsibility. But if we believe we are the ones in charge of our lives, then we can take pride in our ideas, celebrate our accomplishments, and become accountable for our decisions — regardless of how much they really are “ours.”

So whether or not “all is foreseen,” it’s much more important for us to act as though “freedom of choice is given,” because that’s how we feel a sense of ownership of our actions, over ourselves and our own lives. Because whether or not “all is foreseen,” and whether or not “freedom of choice is given,” we know from experience that there is great value in feeling like we can pick our destiny — any destiny we choose.

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