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Doctor recommended for optimal cerebral hygiene 

Faith or fury?

Monday, June 28, 2004

In September of 1996, I was backpacking through Israel when I landed in the northern hill town of Tzfat (AKA Safed). Tzfat is the epicenter of Jewish mysticism and has become a...wait for it...Mecca for people interested in living a thoroughly Jewish life, complete with exhaustive ritual and worship, but with a focus on the more esoteric teachings of Kabbalah, rather than the more literal Judaism prevelent in Jerusalem. Often, people arrive in Tzfat wanting to merely dabble, but end up moving there and dramatically changing their lives.

For lodging I stayed at a hostel run by an Orthodox Jewish organization providing free shelter in exchange for attendance at religious education classes held several times a day. It's no secret that many Jewish tourists traveling around Israel have a sometimes hidden (sometimes not) agenda to have some kind of religious or spiritual experience while in the Holy Land, especially Jews from the U.S. where spirituality is mostly marginalized. After all, when you return from a trip to Israel, you will invariably be asked by many people whether or not anything happened, and by the way the question is formed, you know they're not asking whether or not you got sick from eating too many dates.

In Tzfat, something happened, but I've only recently figured out what it was.

I had already been through Jerusalem and had prayed at the holiest Jewish site in the world, the Western Wall, the remnants of the Holy Temple destroyed by the Romans in 68 C.E. While it was indeed an incredible place to visit, and while I did feel the weight of history and the echoes of millions of prayers thick in the air, I came away feeling like something was missing, as if I was supposed to have had a catharsis or awakening. Indeed, nothing so dramatic happened during my entire visit.

And so I came to Tzfat a bit let down, but not without hope that I'd pick up something of spiritual value. It was in that spirit that I attended a morning class with a Rabbi whose name, sadly, never stuck with me.

We spent the entire hour talking about the first line of the Book of Genesis. Well, at least the Rabbi tried to contain the discussion to the first line, quoting commentary written over hundreds of years, analyzing every word in that first sentence. Every word, of course, had numerous possible meanings as there is a great deal of interpretation that comes with translating from Hebrew. So, I thought this level of scrutiny was a green light for me to ask a question about the rest of the creation story, a question that had bugged me for years.

hjm: Rabbi, do you really believe that heaven and earth were created in 6 days? Six days as we know them now? Six twenty-four hour days?

Rabbi: Yes, I do.

hjm: What about modern interpretations that suggest the possibility that each of those 6 days actually lasted millions of years?

Rabbi: No. They were twenty-four hour days, just as we experience them today.

hjm: So, you actually believe that is has only been 5,755 years since heaven and earth were created.

Rabbi: Yes.

hjm: What about science? What about carbon date testing that shows fossils to be millions of years old?

Rabbi: Scientists believe what they want to believe, and I believe what I want to believe.

On the surface, there was nothing remarkable about this Rabbi. He wore the traditional black and white clothes, his hair and beard were characteristically unkempt, he was probably not that much older than me, but he'd forgotten more about Judaism than I had ever learned.

In hindsight, what I realize now as significant was the utter sincerity, the quiet conviction, the peacefulness he exuded, comforted by his faith and under no pressure whatsoever to justify it to anyone. Sure, he taught the classes in hopes that others might share the rewards of his faith. Yet, he had no desire to force his views on anyone.

So, it strikes me how different he was from other people I have met who profess a deep, passionate faith. It has been my misfortune to have more than once been confronted by religious zealotry, an entirely different practice in faith with a very different presentation. The zealot seems driven more by desperation than anything else. They have seen the light and operate from a place of panic, feeling that they are personally responsible for the salvation of others.

For years after my trip, I liked to tell the story about that Rabbi, and it is with some degree of shame that I realize that I actually took delight in pointing out what, until now, seemed like the worst kind of blind faith, the shunning of fundamental scientific discoveries in favor of a literal interpretation of a document, The Bible, that scientists and scholars have made few solid conclusions about. I got a lot of mileage with that anecdote and missed the point completely.

In the end, it was more important that the Rabbi was benevolent than whether or not he was right about the origins of the universe. One can have all the faith in the world, but if he/she does not practice tolerance towards fellow humans who have their own version of faith, if they are motivated by desperation rather than love, then not only are they are in no position to be prosletyzing, but they are hardly models of an enlightened being, totally incapable of demonstrating the benefits of faith.