אונזערע הערליכע קהילות זענען קראנק Our Beautiful Communities are Ill

Video transcript from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHR54qMpi1I&t=2s. English below.

מיינע חסידישע ברודער, די תורה זאגט אונז אז אויב אונז וועלן זיך אויפירן ווי ס’דארף צו זיין וועלן די פעלקער קוקן אויף אונז און זיי וועלן זאגן “רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה”. איך וואוין שוין זעקס יאר ציווישן די פעלקער און קיינער זאגט דאס נישט וועגן אונזערע חסידישע, היימישע קהילות. די אידן וואס די וועלט קוקט ארויף זענען נישט פון אונזערע היימישע קהילות. אונז זענען די קהילה אידן וואס פרובירן מער ווי אנדערע אידן אפצוהיטן די תורה איז פארוואס איז די הבטחה נישט מקוים געווארן?

די תורה זאגט אונז אן צו זיין אן “אור לגוים”. אונז דארפן זיין די וואס ווייזן די וועגן פון אמת און ישרות פאר די וועלט. אבער אלץ איינער וואס וואוינט ציווישן די גוים קען איך אייך זאגן אז ליידער איז אונזער קהילה אפט א מוסטער אויף וויאזוי זיך נישט אויפציפירן. וואס גייט פאר?

איך בין א פראדוקט פון אונזערע חסידישע און היימישע קהילות. אין די מוסדות האט מען מיך אויפגעברענגט צו ליב האב אן אנדערן איד, צו העלפן א צווייטן. מען האט מיך אויפגעברענגט מיט עבודת השם און עבודת המידות, צו פאדערן פון זיך, צו ארבעטן אויף זיך, צו ווערן א בעסערע מענטש. די הדרכות באגלייטן מיך טאג טעגליך אין מיין לעבן און איך בין גאר מחשיב וואס אונזער מסורה האט מיך איבערגעגעבן.

אונזערע קהילות זענען פול מיט ווארעמקייט, חסד און לעכטיגקייט. מי כעמך ישראל ווי אידן געבן זיך איבער איינעם פארן אנדערן, ווי אונז האבן א פריוואטע health care: הצלה, ווי די קהילה נעמט זיך צוזאם כאיש אחד בלב אחד צו העלפן א איד אין נויט.

אבער למען השם וואס גייט פאר מיט אונזער אנושות, אונזער מענטשליכקייט? וויאזוי רעדן מיר וועגן דעם באשעפערס בריאות וואס זענען נישט ווי אונז? וויאזוי באציען מיר זיך צו גוים?  וויאזוי לאזן מיר צו אז עס איז א נארמאלע זאך אין אונזערע קהילות צו אויסשווינדלען דעם גוי און אים צו ווינטשן אלעס שלעכטס? וואספארא מענטשן זענען אונז וואס ווען מיר הערן אז איינעם גייט שלעכט זאגן מיר “אויף אלע גוים געווינטשן”? גוים זענען עפעס נישט קיין מענטשן מיט געפילן וואס קענען שפירן צער?

די גמרא זאגט אז דעם וואס האט נישט טועם געווען פון א יעדע פרי וועט מען מעניש זיין וויבאלד ער האט נישט הנאה געהאט פון וואס דער באשעפער האט אים געגעבן. די תורה וויל אז אונז זאלן זיין באקוועם אין דער וועלט וואס דער בעשעפער האט באשאפן פאר אונז מענטשן. דער רמב”ם זאגט נאכמער אז אונז האבן א חיוב צו לערנען און פארשטיין דעם באשעפערס בריאה. לכאורה וואלטן די universities געדארפט פול זיין מיט היימישע אידן וואס שטודירן די בריאה און ווילן איר פארשטיין. ווי האלטן מיר אבער ווען עס קומט צו לעבן אין די וועלט און איר פארשטיין?

אונז ברענגען אויף אונזערע אינגלעך צו לעבן ווי נשמות אן גופים. אויף יעדע שטאפל לערנט מען זיי אויס אז די וועלט איז א שלעכטע פלאץ. מען זאגט זיי אן זיך אפצוזינדערן פון די וועלט און גיין וואוינען אין די עולמות העליונים. א יעדע מענטשליכן געפיל איז א זינד; וועלן פארשטיין די וועלט אביסל איז כפירה. אנשטאט אונז אויפציברענגען מיט א נאטורליכע נייגעריגקייט און וואונדער פארן באשעפערס בריאה פארמאכט מען אונזערע קעפ מיט נארישקייטן און אמונות טפילות. ווען איך האב געפרעגט אין חדר וויאזוי גראז וואקסט, האט מיך דער מלמד געזאגט אז יעדע גראז האט א מלאך וואס זאגט אים צו וואקסן. ווען איך האב ווייטער געפרעגט וויאזוי דעם מלאך’ס דיבור איז גורם דאס וואקסן אינם גראז, האט ער מיר געזאגט אז דאס איז העכערע זאכן און מיר פארשטייען נישט.

אבער דער מלמד האט ליגן געזאגט צו מיר. מיר פארשטייען יא! דער זעלבע פראפעסאר פאר וועם די קהילה וועט זאמלען מיליאנען כדי אז ער זאל אויסהיילן א קראנקן איד קען דיך מסביר זיין פונקטליך וויאזוי גראז וואקסט. דער פראפעסאר דער גוי פארשטייט בעסער די בריאה ווי דו דער עובד השם אבער דו פארשטאפסט דיינע אויערן און ברענגסט אויף דיינע קינדער מיט שקר און בלינדקייט.

אונז ברענגען אויף אונזערע אינגלעך מיט א האס און שנאה אנטקעגן דעם באשעפערס בריאה און די מענטשן וואס ער האט באשאפן. אונז זענן אומבאקוועם אין דעם באשעפערס וועלט און אונז האבן זיך פארמאכט די אויגן און פארשטאפט די אויערן פון פארשטיין וואס גייט פאר. אבער די וועלט ווארט נישט פאר אונז. ביז דערווייל האבן גוים און מאדערנע אידן זיך אוועקגעזעצט צו שטודירן די וועלט און איר פארשטיין. מיר האבן אנטדעקט דברים העומדים ברומו של עולם וועגן די וואונדערליכע בריאה. אונז האבן דערגרייכט מיט אונזער מענטשליכע פארשטאנד דארט ווי פריערדיגע דורות האבן ניטאמאל געחלומט. אונז פליען אין די הימלען ווי פייגל און אונז האבן פארלענגערט די לעבנס-יארן פון מענטשן מיט אפאר צענדליג יאר דורך אויסטרעפן רפואות פאר אלערליי מחלות. אונז פארשטייען וויאזוי די וועלט ארבעט פונם קלענסטן אטאם ביז די גרעסטע galaxies. איך שפיר יעדן טאג די זכיה אז איך קען זיין ציווישן די סייענטיסטן וואס פארשן אונזער וואונדערליכע וועלט.

אבער ווי זענען אונז היימישע אידן?  ווי זענען אונז ווען עס קומט צו פארשטיין און לערנען דעם אייבערשטנס בריאה?  זענען אונז נאכאלץ אן עם חכם ונבון, אדער מעגן נאר פרייע און מאדערנע אידן קענען די וועלט און די בריאה?  וואס וואלט רמב”ם דער דאקטאר געזאגט ווען ער זעט דאס שפלותדיגע מצב פון אונזערע קהילות?

אונזערע קהילות זענען אריבער אסאך טראומא. מען האט אונז גערודפט, דערהרגעט און אונז געצווינגען צו שמד. נאכן חורבן אין אייראפע האבן אונז מחליט געווען אז אונז קענען נאר איבערלעבן ווי אידן אויב אונז פארמאכן זיך פון די וועלט. אונז האבן אויפגעגעבן אונזער רעכט צו זיין בירגער פון די וועלט כדי צו ראטעווען אונזער אידישקייט. אבער וואס אויב אין זיך אזוי ראדיקאליש פארמאכן האבן אונז אויפגעגעבן נישט נאר אונזער אנושות, נאר אונז האבן אויך פארשוועכט דאס עצם אידישקייט?  וואס אויב אונז האבן זיך אזוי פארלייגט אויף זיך צו אפהיטן און זיך צו פארמאכן אז אונז האבן אינגאנצן פארגעסן ווער דער אייבישטער איז און פארוואס ער האט באשאפן די בריאה?  אונז האבן געמאכט טפל עיקר און עיקר טפל. אונז האבן אנגעהאלטן די גוף פון אידישקייט אבער אפגעלאזט איר נשמה.

אין אונזערע מוסדות לערנט מען אונז נישט אויס אהבת הבריות. מען לערנט אונז אויס אז מיר טארן נישט זיין נייגעריג און וועלן פארשטיין. עס איז נישט דא קיין וועלט אינדרויסן פון די ענגע כותלי בית המדרש. ניטאמאל פארשטיין אונזערע אייגענע הייליגע לשון קודש מעג מען, ווייל דאס איז די טריפהנע דקדוק. אונזערע אייגענע תורה און היסטאריע – נ”ך – לערנען מיר נישט; אפשר דערפאר ווייסן מיר נישט ווי ווייט די נביאים האבן פיינט געהאט שווינדל און ווי זיי האבן געזאגט אז ישרות און צדק און אהבת הברוית איז וויכטיגער פון עולות וזבחים.

“מאסתי חגיכם” זאגט אונז עמוס. הושע זאגט “גם כי תרבו תפילה אינני שומע”. מיכה זאגט “מה ה’ דורש ממך, כי אם עשות משפט ואהבת חסד והצנע לכת עם אלהיך”. ווי ווייט אונזערע קהילות זענען אוועק פון עבודת השם! אנשטאט אין אידישקייט זענען מיר עוסק און ביטערע און הארבערע חומרות; אנשטאט ניצן די שכל וואס דער אייבערשטער האט אונז געשאנקן, פאלגן אונז וואס נישט געזונטע מענטשן הייסן אונז ווי מענטשן וואס גייען ארום אנא קעפ. “אזוי האט מען געוואוסט ביי חסידים”, “מען דארף נישט אלץ פארשטיין”, “ס’איז העכערע זאכן”. ווען וועלן מיר עפענען די אויגן און זען די וועלט? אדער זענען מיר אזוי brain washed אז מיר קענען פשוט נישט טראכטן פאר זיך?

אונזער קהילה – די זעלבע הערליכע קהילה מיט די חסד און די לעכטיגע משפחות – איז קראנק. אונז ברענגען אויף דורות מיט בחורים און אינגערלייט וואס זענען פשוט נישט געזונט מיט טיפע גייסטישע פראבלעמען. זיי וויסן נישט וואס צו טון מיט זיך און מיט דער פאקט אז זיי האבן א גשמיותדיגע גוף און אז זיי לעבן אין א געזעלשאפט. זיי וויסן ניטאמאל אז זיי מעגן האבן געפילן, אז זיי מעגן טראכטן פאר זיך.

אונזער קהילה דארף האבן א דאקטאר נויטיג. אויב אונז וועלן נישט זיכן רפואות גאר שנעל, וועלן אונזער שענסטע און בעסטע נישט האבן קיין ברירה און וועלן מוזן פארלאזן די קהילה. שוין יעצט אין ארץ ישראל און אמעריקע פארלאזן קלוגע און וואוילע מענטשן אונזערע קהילות ווייל מען האט זיי נישט געגעבן דאס פלאץ צו שפירן, לעבן און טראכטן ווי א מענטש. און די ציפערן וואקסן מיט יעדן טאג.

די תשובה איז נישט מיטן זיך פארמאכן נאכמער אדער מיט ארויסווארפן נאך שנעלער די וואס וואגן זיך צו טראכטן פאר זיך. מיר מוזן איבערקומען די טראומע וואס האט אונז גורם געווען צו האבן אזא פחד פון די וועלט. מיר מוזן אויפהערן זען די וועלט ווי אונזער שונא. מיר דארפן אויפברענגען אונזערע קינדער צו זיין אידן וויבאלד אונזער מסורה און וועג פון לעבן איז פול מיט גוטסקייט און חכמה, נישט וויבאלד די וועלט איז א סכנה. מיר דארפן זיין אידן אין די וועלט, נישט אנטקעגן די וועלט. מיר זענען אידן ציווישן אנדערע מענטשן וואס זענען אויך דעם באשעפערס בריאות, נישט אידן וואס רעכענען גוים פאר “אונטער-מענטשן”. דאס איז א נאציסטישע וועג פון טראכטן, נישט א אידישע!

אונזערע קהילות זענען אין קריזיס. עס איז נישט דא קיין צייט צו פארלירן. די בחירה איז פשוט: אדער עפענען אונז זיך אויף און הייבן אן אויפברענגען מער געזונטע קינדער, בירגער פון די וועלט, מיט א נאטורליכן נייגעריגקייט און דאס מעגליכקייט צו טראכטן פאר זיך. אדאר לאזן מיר די עקסטרעמיסטן אונז אראפשלעפן נאך טיפער און שאול תחתית, אינם גהינם של מטה ווי אונז זענען ווי זאמביס וואס קענען נישט טראכטן און פילן און האבן פיינט סיי די וועלט און סיי זיך אליין פאר דער חטא פון עקזיסטירן אינם וועלט. די בחירה איז אונזערע. אין הדבר תלוי אלא בנו.      

My chassidic Brethren, the Torah tells us that if we’ll behave appropriately, then the nations will look at us and say, “Isn’t this great people clever and wise?” I’ve been living amongst the nations for 6 years now and no one is saying this about our Chassidic, traditional communities. The Jews that the world does look up to are not from our traditional communities. Ours are the community of Jews who try more than other Jews to obey the Torah, so why has this promise not come true?

The Torah commands us to be a “light onto the nations”. We are meant to be those who show the world the ways of truth and fairness. But as someone who lives amongst the gentiles, I can tell you that our community is often a model on how not to behave. What is happening?

I am a product of our chassidc, traditional communities. In these institutions I was brought up to love my fellow Jew and to help others. I was brought up in the service of God, in character-improvement, to demand from oneself, to work on oneself to become a better person. These teachings accompany me in my daily life and I am very appreciative of what our tradition has passed on to me.

Our communities are full of warmth, kindness and light. Who is like us in the way that we selflessly care for others, how we have our own private health-care system in the form of Hatzalah, how the community gathers as one to help a Jew in need.

But for God’s sake, what has happened to our humanity? How do we talk about God’s creations who are different to us? How do we relate towards gentiles? How could we let it be the case that it is normal practice in our communities to swindle the non-Jew and wish him ill? What kind of humans are we that when we here that someone is in pain we say, “may this come on all the gentiles”? Are gentiles not people with feelings who can suffer?

The Talmud says that whoever hasn’t tried every type of fruit will be punished, since he hasn’t enjoyed what God has given him. The Torah wants us to be comfortable in the world that God has created for humanity. Maimonides says that we have a duty to study and understand God’s creation. Presumably the universities should have been full of traditional Jews studying the universe and trying to understand it. But where are we up to when it comes to living in the world and understanding it?

We bring up our boys to live like disembodied souls. At every stage they are taught that the world is an evil place. They are taught to isolate themselves from the world and live in the Upper Realms instead. Every human feeling is a sin; wanting to understand the world is heresy. Instead of educating us with a natural curiosity and wonder of God’s creation, our brains get blocked with nonsense and superstitions. When I asked in school how grass grows, the teacher told me that every blade of grass has an angel that tells it to grow. When I carried on asking how the angel’s speech causes the grass to grow, he told me that these are mystical matters that we don’t understand.

But the teacher lied to me. We do understand! The same professor for whom the community gathers millions of pounds so that he may heal a Jew who is ill, can explain to you exactly how grass grows. The gentile professor understands God’s creation better than you, God’s servant, does. But you block your ears and bring up your kids with lies and blindness.

We are bringing up our boys with hate and loathing towards God’s creation and the people in it. We are uncomfortable in God’s world and we have covered our eyes and blocked our ears from understanding what is happening. But the world isn’t waiting for us. In the meantime, gentiles and modern Jews have sat down to study the world and to understand it. We have discovered profound truths about the wonderful creation. With our human intellect we have reached there where previous generations haven’t even dreamt of. We fly in the skies like the birds and we have increased the human life expectancy by several decades through the discovery of all kinds of medications. We understand the workings of the universe from the tiny atom to the largest of galaxies. I feel privileged every day to be amongst the scientists who study our wonderful world.

But where are us traditional Jews? Where are we when it comes to understand and study God’s creation? Are we still a “clever and wise people”, or are only secular and modern Jews allowed to know the world and creation? What would Maimonides the doctor have said had he seen the lowly state of our communities?

Our communities have gone through lots of trauma. We have been prosecuted, murdered and forcefully converted. After the holocaust we decided that we can only survive as Jews if we close ourselves off from the world. We gave up our rights as citizens of the world in order to save our Judaism. But what if in so radically closing ourselves off we have given up not only our humanity, but have also desecrated Judaism itself? What if we have focused so much on shutting ourselves closed that we have forgotten who is God and why He has created the world? We have made the details into fundamentals and the fundamentals into details. We have kept the body of Judaism but given up on its soul.

We are not taught love of humanity in our institutions. We are taught that we mustn’t be curious or want to understand. There is no world outside of the narrow walls of the synagogue. We are not even allowed to understand our own Holy Tongue, as that is the “inappropriate grammar”. Our own Torah and history – the Nach – we do not study; perhaps that’s why we don’t know how much the prophets hated swindle and how they said that fairness, justice and love of humanity is more important than sacrifices for God.

“I find your festivals disgusting”, Amos tells us. Hosea says, “even as you multiply prayers I do not listen”. Micah says, “What does God ask of you other than pursuing justice, loving kindness and being humble with God?” How far our communities have strayed from the service of God! Instead of Judaism we are busy with strict and severe stringencies; instead of using the intellect that God gave us, we obey unhealthy people as if we were people walking around without heads. “This is how chassidim lived”, “We don’t need to understand everything”, “It’s a mystical thing”. When will we open our eyes and see the world? Or are we so brainwashed that we simply can’t think for ourselves?

Our community – the same beautiful community with the kindness and radiant families – is sick. We are bringing up generations of boys and young men who are simply ill with deep mental issues. They don’t know what to do with themselves and with the fact that they have an earthly body and that they live in society. They don’t even know that they are allowed to feel and think for themselves.

Our community urgently needs a doctor. If we won’t look for remedies swiftly, our best will have no option but to leave the community. As I’m writing, there are nice and clever people in Israel and America who are leaving the community because they were not given the space to feel and think like a human being. And the numbers are growing with every passing day.

The answer is not to close ourselves off even more or to kick out even faster those who dare to think for themselves. We must overcome the trauma that caused us to fear the world. We need to stop seeing the world as our enemy. We need to bring up our kids to be Jews because our tradition and way of life is full of good and wisdom, not because the world is a threat. We need to be Jews in the world, not in opposition to it. We are Jews amongst humans who are also God’s creation, not Jews who consider non-Jews as subhuman. That is the Nazi way of thinking, not the Jewish one!

Our communities are in crisis. There is no time to lose. The choice is simple: either we open up and start bringing up healthy children, citizens of the world, with a natural curiosity and permission for independent thinking. Or we can let the extremists drag us down even deeper into the abyss, into a hell on earth where we are like zombies who can’t think and feel and who hate the world and ourselves for the sin of living in it. The choice is ours. The matter depends on us alone.    

     

The Outsider (Camus) – Book Review and Essay

I read this book over the span of a week or so. Then I immediately reread it in one 2hr 40min sitting. It was a meditative experience. The Outsider (that is the character, not the book) is a being living in the moment, not taking life and the world too seriously, but profoundly enjoying it. However, societal morality dictates that we care more and conform to considerations beyond the here and now and that we follow a specific (time- and space-dependent) moral code in doing so. The Outsider finds this perplexing. It’s not that he doesn’t care, only that he wants to enjoy life in a way that is unconstrained by considerations beyond the present moment in time. He’s riding along life’s waves happy to see where they will take him. The prospect of certain death is therefore intolerable to him, not because he doesn’t want to die, but because life’s trajectory (i.e. his certain death) has become predetermined for him. For him it isn’t living if life can no longer take him on various destinations and voyages.

I think that we can all learn from the Outsider. To me he represents the conflict between our own personal and idiosyncratic existence on the one hand and society’s dictations and expectations of us on the other. Society wants us to conform to certain ways of being, thinking and feeling, but in doing so we give up some of our personality and individuality. Society wants us to feel certain moral feelings, but these demand of us to feel sad and worry and we are not at liberty to transcend these feelings and just live in the moment and take things as they are, or we risk being executed by society just like our Outsider is.

When we see what society does to the Outsider, one natural response is to heed the lesson and become an Insider. That’s what the vast majority of us do. We have become insiders to such a degree that we’re not even aware of the fact that we are insiders and instead regard our mode of being as the only one, with all the norms, feelings and morals that come with it. A different response, however, is to remain an Outsider in Insider’s skin. This demands living a double life where in one’s internal life one is an Outsider, but in one’s external life, one behaves and acts like an Insider. Thus one can hope to avoid Meursault’s (the Outsider of our story) sentence by fooling society into treating him or her as an Insider. In fact, society doesn’t have an issue with Outsiders as long as they behave and present as Insiders, thus not challenging or subverting society’s norms and expectations.

But the double-lifer lives a dangerous existence, as if he ever lets down his guard he might slip up and betray his true mode of being. When that happens, society will invariably execute him, whether literally or socially. If he isn’t killed, then he will lose his job, his friends and his family. But for the Outsider this is a risk that he has to take, as to become a full Insider is to give up on his integrity, freedom and individuality.

Whilst the Outsider can never publicly admit that he’s an Outsider, he sometimes drops hints – a very risky business – just to prove to himself that he hasn’t been subsumed in the Inside and that he is still an Outsider, even though he is wearing Insiders’ clothes.

It is lonely and isolating being an Outsider, and sometimes the Outsider will seek to connect with other Outsiders (the Outsider feels claustrophobic on the Inside, but he is still a social animal in need of company). But most often when that happens, a new Inside is created and the Outsider finds himself suffocating again in need of some Outside fresh air. He then packs his bags again in search of a new Outside, only to have the story repeated again and again.

At some point the Outsider realises that there is no such thing as a place for Outsiders. All available places are Inside. The Outsider who reaches this realisation, resigns to his isolation and loneliness, puts on his Insider garb and finds comfort and excitement in his constant struggle for self-identity and demarcation in a world that will do anything it can to deny his existence.

Avoidas HaShem: Becoming a Better Person

In this post I would like to introduce you to Mussar. I’ll start with some historical sketches, then I’ll discuss some of its features, and finally I’ll explore a little about what it means to me and how I have used it during different phases in my life.

The word mussar comes from Biblical Hebrew, where it has the meaning of flagellation, admonishment and reproach. When a father gives mussar to his son (as in Proverbs 1:8), he is reproaching him, often with harsh words, in the hopes that the son will reflect on his ways and improve.

Beginning in the early 19th century in Lithuania, Mussar became a popular movement of self-improvement in the service of God, with yeshivas emphasising its teachings and a vast literature being published, distributed and read by thousands. But the Mussar genre is far older than this 19th century movement. Literature on self-improvement in the service of God is found amongst the earliest Jewish writings, starting from Biblical books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, then in the Mishnaic-era Pirkei Avot, in the medieval Chovot HaL’vavot, through to the early modern Messilat Yesharim. The Mussar movement incorporated and studied all of these traditional texts, whilst adding and creating new texts.

In traditional Judaism, as in the Mussar movement, no distinction is made between philosophy, theology, psychology, wisdom and self-improvement. All of these domains are mobilised and utilised without distinction for one goal: self-improvement in the service of God. Philosophical and theological insights are used extensively in the mussar literature, but never for the sake of pure intellectual and abstract curiosity. An insight is worthy insofar as it helps one in his avoidas hashem.

What is avoidas hashem? Literally, the term means “service of God”, but in the mussar movement this term is used to mean “self improvement in the service of God”. It is worth pausing for a moment to unpack this. From a secular perspective, self-improvement and serving God might seem like two very different things. You might think that self-improvement would involve living healthier, becoming a better person, being nicer to others, feeling happier, etc. On the other hand, serving God means praying, following Biblical commandments, studying religious literature, etc. But in mussar, as is the case with traditional Judaism in general (and in all mainstream religious traditions), these two are not separable.

Avoidas hashem means serving God by becoming a better person and becoming a better person in order to serve God. You are not becoming a better person if you are not serving God and you are not serving God if you are not becoming a better person in the process. The rationale for this is very straightforward. God is your maker and knows what is best for you. Moreover, God wants what is best for you. So the only way to live your best life is to listen to God and obey Him. Similarly, if you listen to God and serve Him, you will become a better person – as long as you are doing it right. Mussar is here to teach you how to do it right.

Needless to say, that just as with every tradition, some books in the mussar tradition are better than others at conveying this message. Likewise, some figures in this movement are better role models than others. For example, it is not uncommon to come across mussar literature that have neglected the “self-improvement” part and have developed a notion of serving God that is completely divorced from human nature and from human well-being. Some communities and traditions have gone down this harmful route and have developed really depressive and self-denying philosophies.

But, just as with every tradition, the mussar tradition is well-equipped with its own internal resources to rectify for these straying and misled strains. Many mussar leaders and books will warn against reading this book or that, due the unhealthy ideas espoused in them. Unfortunately, it is not always the healthy thinkers that people will listen to and many in my native community, including myself, spent many years listening to and reading unhealthy, life-denying thought and literature. It is a lifetime’s work to unlearn them.

Whilst the mussar movement was a primarily Litvish (Lithuanian) phenomenon, mussar ideas and traditions existed in all Jewish traditions and demographics, as discussed. Additionally, the newly invigorated ideas of the 19th century mussar movement seeped through to chassidic Polish-Hungarian Jewry, even as the latter disparaged and resisted it. Chassidic Jewry had developed a parallel to mussar, which is chassidism. Chassidism concerns itself with many of the themes found in mussar, but it uses a very different vocabulary. Unlike the mostly plain-spoken mussar literature, chassidic literature uses a mystical and interpretive vocabulary. Whilst mussar literature is relatively down to earth, chassidic literature often talks about ecstasy, divine-communion, self-annulment and other-worldly matters. Chassidic literature also doesn’t emphasise the “self-improvement” component of avoidas hashem in the way that mussar does.

Despite chassidism’s early scepticism of the mussar movement, mussar literature is now extensively read in all chassidic communities, including literature produced by the 19th century mussar movement. Growing up in a chassidic community, us boys were introduced to traditional mussar literature before we were introduced to chassidism, due to the accessibility of the former as compared to the latter. The first mussar book that we studied in cheder was the Orchot Tsadikim – a book whose chapters correspond to different character traits (e.g. laziness, arrogance, etc) and it teaches you to identify the good ones from the bad ones and how to amplify the good and combat the bad.

Whilst I did read plenty of chassidic literature in my teens, my heart was always drawn to mussar – especially those of a rationalist bent. Thus my all time favourite mussar book that I studied many times from cover to cover was Ramchal’s Messilat Yesharim. Ramchal was a polymath and a brilliant writer. Whilst he had a very strong mystical and superstitious side, he keeps many of his writings very rationalistic and accessible. His mastery of early modern Hebrew is unparalleled and his clarity of exposition had not been seen in the Jewish tradition since the medieval Maimonides. I was absolutely in love with his writings (as you can probably see, part of me still is) and for many years I would read him on a daily basis.

Well, actually, that’s a lie. You don’t read mussar. Only academics studying mussar as outsiders read mussar. Those within the tradition shout mussar, breathe mussar, live mussar. My daily study of the Messilat Yesharim consisted of locking myself into my room, opening the book and shouting out the pages’ contents at the top of my lungs, all the time swaying wildly to and fro. It is not an intellectual experience of reading something insightful, but a meditative experience of transforming yourself, admonishing yourself, demanding from yourself and promising yourself that you’ll be better. This mussar meditation experience used to be the highlight of my day. I would look forward to it, knowing that however bad my day is, a dose of mussar would give me new hope.

Other mussar personalities that I listened to and read were the late Rabbi Avigdor Miller, The Steipler (Chaye Olam), The Chazon Ish (Emunah Ubitachon), Chovot HaL’vavot and many more.

When in 2015 I lost my faith in orthodox Judaism, I stopped engaging with mussar. As discussed, self-improvement is intimately entangled with service of God in mussar and it didn’t seem to make sense for an atheist to carry on reading this. But I lost something very valuable and that is the self-improvement side of mussar. Of course I could have found many books and writers on the themes of self-improvement and character development in secular society and in many philosophical traditions, but for some reason I didn’t. Perhaps I wasn’t ready.

Over the last 5 years I have thrown myself into philosophy. I have soaked up everything the analytic philosophy course at my university had to offer. Philosophy has given me very important and valuable tools, tools that will accompany me for the rest of my life. But it has given me nothing in the form of self-improvement and character development. Not once in my four-year philosophy course did we stop to ask the following simple question: what is the good life and how can we live it?

This is not a shortcoming of my course; analytic philosophy is simply not equipped to deal with this question. Asking why we didn’t ask this question in the philosophy course is like asking why we didn’t ask it in the physics course: these disciplines are simply not equipped to handle such questions.

And so it was that I never seriously asked myself this question since I lost my faith. I think that I didn’t know that this is a question that needed to be asked. As a believer I never had to ask this question, since the answer was obvious. And as an atheist I never asked it because I thought that it was an illegitimate question: what’s the meaning of life? Well, life has no meaning – move on!

But I’ve recently come to realise that this is a question that is legitimate. But not only that, it is the most important question that one can ever ask. It’s a simple question: I’m here visiting existence from non-existence for a really short stay; how do I make the most of it? And once I started asking myself this question, a whole host of questions opened up: am I happy? Am I living the kind of life that I will come to be proud of in years to come? What things that I am doing now will I come to regret?

The answers to these questions weren’t terrible. I was living an OK life. I wasn’t always happy, but I wasn’t miserable either. Not that I was utilising every moment of my life, but I wasn’t wasting all of it away and doing nothing with it.

But is this good enough for a life that I have one and only one chance at living?

I started reading more and listening more. I started scheduling in regular sessions of self-reflection. I started making small but meaningful changes in my life. I started the work towards becoming a better person.

And then it clicked. I was doing mussar again. After all, I have a rich tradition of self-reflection and self-improvement to fall back on for the task of becoming a better person and I don’t have to start from scratch. The tools for self-improvement are all there in mussar, you just have to know how to translate the vocabulary to fit your own needs.

Perhaps there’s even room for God! What is God? That ultimate idea that obligates you to become a better person? Well, I now believe in that God. It is of course not the Jewish God, but isn’t my quest for the good life a god? Isn’t it the most and only important goal? What else is there to want other than to live the good life? Doesn’t this god also obligate me to do certain things and to avoid doing others? Well, this God tells me to stop overeating, to start waking up earlier, to live in the moment, to be kind to myself and others!

And so I come back to avoidas hashem. It’s the same idea just translated in vocabulary that I can understand. And over the last few months I have rediscovered for myself many more mussar entities that help me in my newfound avoidas hashem. There’s the yetzer hara (evil inclination) that keeps on whispering things in my ear to distract me from my goals; there’s the concept of Bitachon (trust) that I need to have in order to believe in what I do and that the direction that I am taking is good for me; and alongside them there’s a host of other concepts and entities that help me in my avoidas hashem.

And if you ever find me walking along the riverside immersed in thought, perhaps talking to myself, don’t interrupt me. I’m having a mussar session. I’m thinking about that most and only important question in life. I’m thinking about avoidas hashem.

Caitlin’s World

The following post is not my own, but written by lovely Caitlin. I share it because it is one of the wholesomest things that I have ever read and it brought me to tears. It gave me a deep insight and empathy into Caitlin’s world and why veganism and animal-rights activism is so important and fundamental to her. How can it not be? Read how beautifully and tragically she describes the world of her five-year-old self and you will see why she has to care so deeply. I’m not a vegan myself and the fight for animal rights is not important in my life (I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be; I’m simply being honest). But this post helped me understand how and why it is so important to Caitlin. I hope that you benefit from reading this too.

Alright, enough of me. From here on speaks Caitlin:

The topic of animals in relation to mental health is a complex issue for me. As a vegan, I’m haunted daily with the moral crimes committed against animals in numbers that the human brain can’t even begin to fathom. Yet, my personal relationship with animals has been a deeply emotional, and fulfilling aspect of my life – beginning when I was tiny with the realisation I had nits.

That probably went to an area you didn’t expect, you probably stumbled upon this blog expecting cute muses about puppies and kittens and their adorable ways. Admittedly, yes, they’re lovely creatures – I recently said goodbye to my childhood companion and the heartbreak is truly all-consuming. But, we’ve domesticated dogs and cats for thousands of years, selectively breeding them to be exactly how we want to them to be, they can’t exist without us, so those cute little eyes that scream love and adoration are little more than evolutionary traits bred into them by us to serve our love of big eyes and adorable cheeks. For all we know they might hate us and only bother interacting with us for the sake of shelter and food.

But I digress.

It was a cold winter’s day, and a 5 year old redhead was frolicking away in her own little world, exploring the chaotic and wonderful creation that is the microscopic animal kingdom found in the vegetable patch. I (I’m going to assume that at this point you’ve figured out it was me, so the change in person shouldn’t come as a surprise to you) was clinging onto my floral sun hat that I delicately placed upon my noggin each cold morning, when my mum called me in for lunch. Me being a child my mother had rarely even attempted to understand my unusual ways, but me clutching onto my sun hat in the middle of a storm appeared to peak her curiosity. She enquired about the necessity of the hat and I felt it odd that I had to point out that it was to keep my nits safe and warm from the weather, obviously.

From the very beginning I had an instinctual need to care for and protect animals; I would play my violin (much to the distress of my parents I’m sure) to keep the nits entertained; I’d wear my night hat around the house to keep them warm and snuggly, thinking I was bringing comfort to a being that would otherwise be ripped out of my hair with an aggressive comb, in turn destroying families, even livelihoods, and thrown in the bin. It brought me enormous reassurance that I was indeed a good person. Years of bullying had resulted in me being a timid and insecure little girl. I would stare at my feet all day and would refuse to talk to anyone other than my closest friends and family. I thought I was a horrible person and internalised enormous guilt that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, graceful enough, or enough of any of the good traits little girls must have.

The insecurity I was burdened with growing up made me someone that always sided with the underdog: I understood their pain, their humiliation and the completely internalised feeling of worthlessness. Living near an intensive chicken farm I saw immense animal suffering on a daily basis. I recognised their vulnerability and understood they were completely defenceless. When I saw their sadness, I felt it as if I was there with them. I wasn’t in anyway religious, but I prayed to God everyday, just in case he existed, that he would provide salvation and eternal peace for these desperate souls. I had a deep seated affinity with animals that lives on to this day. I empathise with them to the point it brings me enormous pain; but when I can be the source of a moment of relief, or even comfort for a rescue animal, I know this is my purpose on earth. My understanding of animals has resulted in me temporarily caring for several abandoned and injured animals over the years, before sending them off to rehab to forge a new life either in a sanctuary or with a new family.

The times I’ve spent arduously caring for animals and making sure their voices are heard have been some of the most rewarding and painful times of my life. I’ve had deep depressions based on the injustices I see, and I’ve had times of utter euphoria seeing them build up strength and confidence. They’ve made me feel, something, anything, regardless of what it is, I have felt it and do feel it, deeply.

Rosh HaShanah Memories

It’s the morning of Rosh HaShana eve, 4am, and dad’s soft voice wakes me up from a sweet dream. In hushed voices as to not wake up mum, who has been working incredibly hard over the last few days to prepare for yom tov (holiday), he reminds me that it is time to wake up for selichois (penitentiary prayers). It is dark and cold outside and every bone in my body wants me to just roll over and pretend that this was just an uncomfortable dream. But I know better than that. Tomorrow is Judgment Day!

I hate this moment in time. I wish it was Cheshvan (the Jewish month in Autumn), or Kisleiv (the month during which Chanukkah falls), or any other month of the year really. Why does it have to be Tishrei (the month of the High Holy Days)? Why can’t we just celebrate the holidays with some good food, family spirit and joyful song? Do I really now have to wake up in the middle of the night to pray for 4 hours?

Yes, I do. This has never been optional.

This morning follows the whole month of Elul, the month of repentance. During this month we prepared ourselves for the big court case to happen on Rosh HaShana, during which God Himself and His Heavenly Entourage will judge us on our deeds of the past year. They will weight up all our good deeds against our bad deeds and will come to a verdict as to our status in the coming year. If they find us to have sinned and not repented they might condemn us to a horrible year with pain and misery.

But God is all-merciful. And that’s why He gave us the month of Elul during which we can repent and prepare ourselves for our trial. Deep down I know that this is a tremendous opportunity and that I should be immensely grateful for this gift. But on every other level of my mind and body, I hate this month. I hate it and I fear it and I loathe it. If only I could have a time machine that would transport me into mid-Tishrei when the repentance-period is over and there’s festivities and food instead! If only I could fall into a coma and wake up on the eve of Sukkot when this nightmare is over!

But I can’t. There’s nothing I can do but suffer through. How I dread this time of the year!

And on this morning of the eve of Rosh HaShana, as I am quickly getting dressed and trying to refresh myself after just 3 hours of sleep, oppressive memories of the past month pass in front of my eyes. The endless speeches by my mashgichim (mentors) on repentance; the endless guilt and fear; the constant anxiety that I’m not doing enough and that God won’t find me pure on Judgment Day. It’s all too much and too oppressive, but I mustn’t say that. I mustn’t acknowledge even to myself that I hate all of this, as that in itself is a rebellious thought against God. God has given us a tremendous gift – the gift of repentance – and I mustn’t find it oppressive. I must rejoice in this gift and be grateful!

I am done clothing myself and I head down the road to the mikva. Before beseeching God it is proper to immerse oneself in the ritual bath to spiritually cleanse oneself.

The dark roads are full of men hurrying to the mikvas and the synagogues. Many are murmuring prayers as they are walking, anxiety and fear is in the air.

As I walk I think of what awaits me on the days ahead. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Tomorrow is Rosh HaShanah and we will be spending 7-8 continuous hours in the synagogue praying. The following day is the second day of Rosh HaShanah, during which we will repeat the exact same protocol. I dread it. Sitting for 7 hours and reading hundreds of pages of prayers and incantations in a foreign language – the only word that comes to mind to describe it is torture!

I have tried to prepare myself for the prayers to make them more meaningful. I have learnt their translation and have read commentaries on them, but, frankly, they are just bloody boring. It’s just prayer after prayer of “God is the greatest and the most merciful” and “we have sinned and regret it; please forgive us” and “please don’t kill us this coming year!” Honestly, if God is really that merciful, why on earth would He put me through this nightmare? Why am I praying to be prevented from having a miserable year, when I am having a miserable year right now thanks to these prayers?!

I know that I will be sitting there on Rosh HaShanah morning, counting the hours. Two hours will have passed. 5 more to go. I know that I will be leafing through the pages of the machzor (prayer book), counting how much we have left, mentally breaking them up into milestones to make it more manageable. “In only 50 pages we will have reached the half point of the first prayer!” I tell myself, trying to prevent myself from going completely insane. “In half an hour I will take a toilet break and have a stretch.”

But after Rosh HaShanah it will be far from over. Follwing it are the Ten Days of Repentance, during which we will get up early every day and recite more and more prayers of repentance. Our fists will hit our bosoms countless times to express our great pain and hurt and regret that we have sinned against God. Personally, I’ll just be hitting my bosom to distract myself from the mind-numbing boredom and brain-dead monotony of the endless penitentions.

Like, I get it. I admit that I have sinned. I haven’t been perfect. I have sneaked in a loshn hora (gossip) here, I have missed a prayer there. I accept that I have what to repent on. But, like, I have said this prayer a million times by now; I have already been confessing my sins since the beginning of Elul over a month ago; I truly am sorry and I will never do those things again – even if only to have to avoid this torturous journey of repentance. But why am I still hitting my chest? Why am I still repenting? Why am I still getting up early to cry and ask for forgiveness? Has God not heard me the first 100 times that I asked Him for forgiveness? Is He hard of hearing? Or does He just enjoy the power rush of having us beg on our knees like this for one and a half months?

I have reached the mikva, undressed myself and immersed myself in the pool of stinking, greasy and hair-dandruff-infested water. But the water is also hot. You can’t be picky in life and you’ve got to take the little moments of pleasure that you get given amidst all the misery. I know that in 10 minutes I’ll be swaying and praying and wishing I was dead. I may as well enjoy the warmth that this human sauce of a water-pool offers me.

As I dunk my head beneath the water, wishing that I’d never have to resurface again, my thoughts circle back to those days ahead. The Ten Days of Repentance will climax with Yom Kippur – the final day of atonement, during which we also fast and abstain from all pleasure. Yom Kippur is undoubtedly the harshest day of the year. You are in the synagogue praying for 17 of the 25 hours of the day. You do that whilst fasting, not wearing shoes, not being able to refresh your face or wash your hands, and on top of that, you are wearing your festive clothes that way on you, suffocate you and absorb all your bodily fluids.

On the other hand, Yom Kippur is also the last day of the penitentiary period. You know that once night falls on the evening after Yom Kippur you are going to eat as if you’ve never eaten before and all your guilt and promises and anxiety is going to fly out the window and you will be free to sin as your heart desires until the following Elul in 10 and a half months’ time.

And that’s when Sukkot arrives. Sukkot was my favourite festival. It’s fun and joyful and filled with good food and, most importantly, it is free of guilt and repentance and of long prayers and of air that is so heavy that you can cut it with a knife. Sukkot is definitely God feeling bad for putting us through the nightmare of Elul and the High Holy Days and being like, “chill a bit my children. Have some good food and take it easy just for a bit.” How I love God on Sukkot!

I emerge from the mikva wet and excited by my breif sukkot fantasy. Reality hits me in the head. Sukkot is still 10 days away. In the meantime there are hours upon hours and pages upon pages of boring, meaningless and torturous prayers. No amount of convincing me that these prayers are profound, mystical, pleasing to God, etc. can make them anything but numbingly and never-endingly miserable.

Yes, I know, I have also read the chassidic literature. I have also seen that every word of prayer of a Jew builds up mystical cities and palaces for God in the Upper Realms. I have also heard about the tremendous joy that happens in the Upper Realms when Jews pray. I am aware of the Higher, spiritual powers of the words of prayer. I know that they are infinitely holy, profound, divine and esoteric.

But none of that makes them any less boring and meaningless and please-kill-me-now miserable. The only consolation that I can possibly have right now is that it will be over soon. In only 10 days. 10 very long days.

I arrive in the synagogue. The chazan (prayer leader) starts the prayer with a melancholy tune. The congregation follows him in harmony. It’s depressing as hell. The least I can hope for now is that after all of this God really does grant us a good year. C’mon, it would be mean not to!

Shanah tova and a happy New Year!

Disagreement

This post starts with a somewhat technical exploration in the philosophy of language, which I hope that I’ve made fairly accessible to a lay audience. It finishes off with a very important, practical lesson for our eberyday discourse that is very dear to my philosophy of how we should do political discourse. Please bear with me as I plow through the abstract philosophy in the first half in order to appreciate the political conclusions of the second half.

Adam and Beth are having a disagreement about the weather outside. A. says that it’s raining outside and B. says that it isn’t. This a disagreement that can easily be solved by peering out of the window. If it is raining outside, then A. is right and if it isn’t then B. is right.

Suppose that A. and B. are inmates in a maximum security prison where they gave no access to the outside world. Simply peering out of the window to check the weather is not possible. Their disagreement is not one that can easily be settled, but it is still a well-defined disagreement with well-defined truth-conditions and verification-conditions. Let me explain what these last two terms mean.

The truth-condition of a proposition p (e.g. the proposition “it is raining outside”) is the state of the world that would need to obtain in order to make p true. For example, the state of the world in which it is raining in Adam’s and Beth’s vicinity is the truth-condition of Adam’s proposition “it is raining outside”. That is the state of the world that renders Adam’s proposition true. Similarly, the state of the world in which it isn’t raining in Adam’s and Beth’s vicinity is the truth condition of Beth’s proposition “it isn’t raining outside.”

The verification-conditions of a proposition p is what it would take for an agent uttering p to verify that p is true. In our initial scenario, the verification conditions for Adam’s proposition is looking out of the window and seeing water droplets raining down. Similarly, the verification conditions for Beth’s proposition is looking out of the window and seeing a clear sky and a dry surface.

While the truth-conditions for Adam’s proposition in both scenarios (the one where they are at home and the one where they are in prison) are identical (i.e. that it is raining in their vicinity), their verification conditions are very different. In the prison scenario peering out of the window is not a legitimate verification-condition, as there is no window. Instead, the verification conditions for Adam’s proposition are, leaving the prison, stepping outside and seeing rain drops pouring down.

Similarly for Beth’s proposition, the verification conditions for her proposition in the prison scenario are, leaving prison, stepping outside and seeing a clear sky and a dry surface.

Now, in the prison scenario Adam and Beth have no way if settling their disagreement as they cannot fulfill their verification conditions. That is, they cannot leave the prison and step outside to assess the weather. Nevertheless, their disagreement is very well defined. The truth-conditions and verification-conditions for their respective claims are very clear. They both know what state of the world would show which of them is right (the truth-conditions) and they both know how one would (hypothetically) obtain knowledge of that state of the world (the verification-conditions).

For this reason, their disagreement is very clear, even if they might not be able to settle it.

Let’s now look at examples of disagreements that might not be so well-defined. Suppose Adam and Beth are eating a curry and Adam says, “this is spicy”, to which Beth replies, “no, it isn’t”.

On the surface, this looks like a classic disagreement about the state of the world. A. is saying something about the curry (that it us spicy) which Beth negates. But let’s try and find what might be the truth-conditions and verification-conditions of their respective propositions. First the truth-conditions.

What does the world need to be like such that Adam’s proposition comes out true (or, “obtains”)? Well, intuitively, we’d say that Adam’s proposition is true if it is the case in the world that the curry is spicy. But is “being spicy” an objective state of the world? Spicy to whom? How spicy? Surely having a micro-trace of chilly doesn’t make it spicy, so “containing chilly” won’t do as an objective criterion, so how much chilly does it need to contain for us to be able to say that it us objectively spicy?

Well, at this point you are probably thinking that “being spicy” is just not an objective state of the world. Rather, it contains subjective and traditional qualities. And you’d be right. But that also means that we can’t construct truth-conditions for Adam’s claim or for Beth’s. That means that we cannot specify what state of the world would make Adam right and what would make Beth right.

We can go through a similar process with the verification conditions and we’ll find out that there are no objective tests or experiments that we can carry out to discover whether the curry is indeed spicy or not.

So we have seen that Adam’s and Beth’s disagreement about the curry is nothing like their disagreement about the weather. In the latter case it was a well-defined disagreement about the state of the world, whereas in the latter case it isn’t.

But what is it then? Are they disagreeing at all? I won’t go into this in this post (maybe in another one!), but what is taking place is definitely not a surface-level disagreement. They might be disagreeing about whether most people would find this curry spicy (this has well-defined truth- and verification-conditions. The truth-conditions are that if all people in the world eat this curry, they find it spicy. The verification-conditions are feeding this curry to all people in the world and nothing down their response on whether or not they found it spicy and then tallying up all responses to find that a majority reported that they found it spicy).

Alternatively, Adam and Beth might not be disagreeing at all. Adam’s claim is really just shorthand for “I found this curry spicy” and Beth’s response is shorthand for “I didn’t”.

Now all of this was me just building up philosophical tools in order to make a very important claim about social, political and moral disagreement. I think if people took on board what I’m about to say and that they took it seriously and internalised it, then our political landscape would be far less toxic, polarised and dogmatic.

Here is the claim:

The vast majority of our political, moral and social disagreements are like the curry disagreement and not like the weather disagreement. That is, our political disagreements almost always lack truth- and verification-conditions. As a result it is never clear what we ate disagreeing on and whether we are even disagreeing at all.

“There is systemic racism in the police force”. “No there isn’t.”

“We live under a patriarchy.” “No we don’t.”

“Religion is the opiate of the masses.” “No, it gives people meaning and fulfillment.”

“The government is being incompetent in handling this situation.” “No, it is doing whatever it can to keep this country running.”

These are just a few examples of seeming disagreements where defining truth- and verification-conditions is impossible and it is as a result not even clear what the disagreement is about, or whether there even is a disagreement at all. I’d love to go into the details to show why these cannot be analysed as surface-level disagreements, but for now this is left as an exercise to the reader. Hint: try defining the truth- and verification-conditions for the seemingly opposing propositions. Try to find the state of the world that would render one of the interlocutors as clearly right and the other as clearly wrong. Try to find verification conditions that will satisfy both interlocutors that one of them is right and the other wrong.

So what are the implications of this analysis for how we do political discourse? Well, I think it should make us all far more sceptical in the certainty of our own beliefs and opinions. I think it should make us far less angry at our political opponents and far less certain that they are wrong or bad. I think that it should make as have a far more nuanced position on politics and morality and a deeper understanding of their limitations. I think it should make us overall more tolerant of opposing beliefs and of those supporting them.

Let me know what you think and whether you’d want me to expand any particular point or in any particular direction.

An Ode to my Dead Family

She was 3 years old when she first played mummies and daddies. Her brother-husband, just 2 years her senior, was the proud daddy of a small silicon doll who was older than both of them combined. But it was she, the young mummy, who would show her little baby all the love that she knew to give, rocking it, caressing it and making sure that it is well fed and looked after. Although this looked like play to the adults around her, this was really the start of a lifelong career.

A few blocks away in a noisy house a young boy is playing bride-and-groom with his niece. Under the canopy he puts a ring on her finger, her smile shining through her veiled face. His brothers around him shout out “mazel tov!” and the young couple break out in a joyful dance. They know that really only huge boys and girls can become daddies and mummies, but it’s not really fair that just because they are so tiny they cannot have a wedding and a baby, is it?

The 3 year old girl will steadily grow older, all the while receiving the best possible training for her career ahead. Every week she babysits her neighbour’s little children even though she is only 14. She gets hands on training on how to rock a crying baby to sleep, how to calm a whining toddler and how to break up a fight between two seven year-olds. Even before she has hit puberty, she is already praying 3 times a day for healthy, God-fearing children. She will give her all to be a dedicated mother and in return she is sure that God will grant her her wish for pious and obedient children. She can see God nod in agreement, “It’s a deal”, His divine voice rings in her ears.

The young boy also grows older. He knows that his first commandment is to “be fruitful and multiply” and he cannot wait to fulfill this, joyous duty. In his long days in yeshiva when he is meant to be concentrating on his texts, his mind sometimes wanders off into pleasant fantasies. He sees himself pushing a double buggy from which childish chuckles emanate. He imagines himself standing at the barmitzvah of his eldest giving a sermon, his father – the grandfather – looking on with pride. Now he is supporting his son under the chuppah. His son’s face is a blur, but he is wearing the unmistakable chassidic garb that he – his father – is wearing. Father and son look like majestic royals in their broad shtraymels, black silk caftans contrasted with their snow white socks. The stern voice of his lecturer interrupts his sweet day-dream. Back in reality he is 15 years old and not married himself. There’ll be many years before he can marry off his own son.

Mom and dad were teenagers when they met. They knew very little about each other or even about each other’s sex, but they were united in one common life-goal – one that they knew that they are ready to sacrifice their whole life to. That goal is to establish another chassidic home that will be pleasing to God, to their parents and the whole community. Theirs will be a model for a home that stands firm against any foreign influences or temptations that can lead one astray. They would pamper, protect and preserve their future children’s innocence. Whatever it takes, their children will grow up to be pious and God-fearing chassidic Jews who don’t deviate an iota from the path of tradition.

Mom and dad never needed much in life. They had no desire for expensive furniture, cars or holidays. They never had any personal ambitions. All they ever wanted was to raise a family of God-fearing chassidic Jews to make them and the community proud. Their only meaning and possession in life is their family and their vision of their family. If this fails there is no plan B. It cannot fail. Surely God would not let His faithful servants down. Surely He would not cast away decades of prayer and cupfuls of tears! Mom and dad have a single life mission. If it fails, why live?

Mum and dad brought me and my siblings up in line with this vision of theirs. No efforts or money was spared in educating us to be Torah scholars and chassidic Jews. From the youngest ages we knew that we are different. We don’t just go through the motions because others do so. We do what we do because we have a mission and a duty. We are God’s servants and we dedicate our lives in His service. Dad had the highest expectations of us because he wanted us to have a good life. And what better life can one have than doing God’s will to the best of his ability? Mum and dad didn’t send us to academies or private schools. They didn’t even send us to legal schools! But they did give us the best education and upbringing a child could wish for. That is if his life is to be dedicated to the service of God as a chassidic Jew. But that that would be our path in life had already been decided for us back when mum and dad were young children playing “house” with their dolls.

Mum’s and dad’s tragedy was that whilst it is clear to them that their children ought to follow on the path that they have chosen for them, some of their children have ideas of their own. What in their worldview is the obviously one and only correct path in life, is in my worldview an insular cult that they were brainwashed into. What in their world was a stellar upbringing is in my world denying a child his rights to education and choice. What for them is a child’s duty to follow the path that his parents have cut out for him, is for me personal autonomy and freedom to live my life as I see fit.

But how silly of me to think that my “rational” arguments will convince them to see things how I see them? How deluded of me to think that mum and dad will come around to accept my liberal and secular perspective? How dare I come and ruin their lives’ project, their childhood dreams? How cruel of me to kill what they have spent their lives creating? How can my progressive newfangled ideologies about freedom and choice override their age-old understanding of a child’s place in the world and his role in the family?

Of course they are angry at me! I am the enemy on the inside who single-handedly tore their family apart, extinguished their dreams and brouht on them immense shame. I am the child who ungratefully spat in the face of all that his parents did for him and went on to murder their feelings again and again and again. I am the boy who robbed them of their only possessions, doing so head held high, without showing any bit of remorse or guilt. How much evil and cruelty must one possess – how callous must one be to be able to destroy the lives of his nearest and dearest like that? Of course I deserve no love. Of course I deserve to be banished from the family, to be cut off, shunned, ignored.

Look what liberalism has done! Look how it turned son against father, pupil against teacher! The sheer arrogance and selfishness of the liberal to think that everything is about him and his wants and desires! The chutzpah of absolving yourself from all duties towards family and heritage and going out to forge your own way with complete disregard for the beliefs and traditions that your ancestors died for! How evil this liberal individualism is with no sense of duty towards family and community! Look how much pain these secular atheistic ideologies have caused; how many parents they have robbed of their children; how many parents they have brought to the grave before their time.

Of course that’s not how I see things. Of course from where I sit it is their religious fanaticism that is the cause of all their pain. Of course for me parents have no right to expect their kids to be little copies of themselves. Kids are not there to live out the dreams and visions of their parents. We kids are individuals in our own right who must live as we see right whilst respecting our parents as family. In my world you take pride in your children not because their lives follow your blueprint, but because they live fulfilling lives in their own right through their own agency. In my world you don’t cut children off for making their own choices and for having their own beliefs. In my world you don’t brainwash kids to believe what you believe.

But that is my liberalism talking again. My parents are grieving and hurting and I talk ideology! This isn’t some abstract philosophical discussion: this is people’s lives we are playing with!

Mum and dad love me. They have to as I’m their firstborn. But they also know that I have betrayed them, hurt them, murdered them. They can’t forgive me – not that I have asked for forgiveness. They know that I have destroyed their family, their dream. They know that I am responsible for the tragedy that befell them. How can they not be upset? How can they not be angry at me? How can I expect them to show me love? Isn’t it just proper that they ignore me, forget me, excise me from memory? Why shouldn’t they mourn me like a dead one?

Mum and dad don’t talk to me for now. They say that it is too painful for them. Just remembering that I exist and that I have hurt them like this is too much to bear. Just picking up my call, answering my text is too much. Seeing me live my guilt- and remorse-free life is unbearable. Hearing my unrepentant voice, hearing that I am doing fine and thriving whilst they are the living dead – it’s all too much. God has once again let the righteous suffer whilst the wicked prosper. Why should they see me – the wicked and sinful – happy whilst they – the righteous and obedient – are in perpetual suffering? Where is God’s justice?

But mum and dad, whilst I am not repentant or remorseful, I do grieve and hurt with you. I don’t need to feel your pain because I have plenty of pain of my own. Whilst you grieve on your lost dreams and destroyed family, I grieve the loss of my parents and the disconnect from my siblings. I grieve being a son who is told that his parents must cut him out simply because the pain of hearing his voice is too great for them to bear. I suffer the knowledge that you blame on me all the ills that befell you and our family. It’s not an easy burden to carry.

I wish I could be for you a son. I wish that you were parents to me. I wish I could just pick up the phone to ask how you are without hearing the deep insufferable pain in your voices. I wish I had a normal family. I wish I could hear my brothers’ voices, my sisters’ laughter. But I can’t. I can’t because I have deviated from the path of tradition. I can’t because you have banished me. I wish you could accept me for how I am. I wish you could love me as your son. I wish you could take pride in my life achievements. But you can’t. You can’t because God told you to send me away from home like Abraham banished Yishmael. I can’t because liberalism – my new religion has put weird ideas into my head about autonomy freedom and choice.

Fuck God and fuck liberalism. Fuck those stupid, silly ideologies that have torn father and son apart, that have estranged mum from the first fruit of her womb.

Mum, dad, it is not you or me it is these stupid ideologies. Your God and my liberalism have conspired to destroy our lives. Let’s murder them! Let them both go and fuck themselves together so that we may live in peace happily ever after. Mum, dad, are you coming? Will you join me?

A grieving liberal who’d rather be a son

Satmar: Education, Gender and Sexuality

After a several week hiatus to sit my third year exams and to move house, I am back to finish off my Series on Satmar with the final few posts. In this post I will explore the gender roles in Satmar, how boys and girls are educated, and the suppression of sexuality in the community.

As I have written before in this series, gender is strictly segregated in Satmar. Men and women over the ages of bar and bas mitzva (13 and 12) respectively are not allowed to form friendships or to have any non-essential relationship. Men and women don’t congregate together and don’t chat with each other. When some form of interaction is unavoidable, they’ll try to avoid eye-contact, they will refer to each other in third person, and will not hand things (like change) directly from hand to hand.

Every chassidic celebration is partitioned, with men and women using different entrances to their respective spaces. Even during family celebrations, such as weddings, will the men and women be completely separated. During the wedding meal, bride and groom are separated. They dance with their male and female friends and relatives respectively, but they don’t see each other. Only late in the wedding when all but immediate family have left, do the partitions come down and the bride and groom sit next to each other and even have a small (very formulaic and prescribed) dance with each other.

But this strict gender segregation is not in the form of separate but equal. Rather, each gender has defined roles that it must adhere to. Men and women serve completely different purposes in the structure of the community. This division of roles starts from a very young age, with boys going off to cheider at the age of 3 and girls to school.

From the very youngest age, boys are brought up to be Torah scholars. They are told that they are going to grow up to be great sages and saints; that they are going to dedicate their lives to the study of Torah and the service of God to the exclusion of all else. In reality, very few boys grow up to be like this, but pedagogically this is the only ambition that a Satmar boy is to have.

Boys will start learning the Hebrew alphabet and will be taught the Biblical legends in a highly moralistic fashion. Through the Biblical characters and lores they will learn to love righteousness and to eschew evil; they will learn that the righteous obey God unquestionably and that the evil disobey God or want to harm Jews. They will encounter and get comfortable with, a magical world where no laws of nature apply: the world of midrash, or Jewish myth. They will be taught the most outlandish folklore as historical truth. Thus we grew up believing in people who lived for a thousand years and in giants the size of mountains. The purpose of this instruction is to construct a world that is so magical and fantastical that no claims of miracles seems too outlandish in comparison. In a universe of walking snakes and talking donkeys, is the splitting of the sea so unbelievable?

As boys reach the ages of 6-7 and have grasped reading Hebrew, they will be introduced to the text of the Torah and later the Talmud. They aren’t taught Hebrew or Aramaic directly, but will pick it up as they learn more and more of these texts. Boys will also start learning some very basic secular subjects for an hour or so every day, during which they will learn very basic English reading and writing, a bit of beginner’s arithmetic and some rudimentary science trivia. Secular instruction stops at the age of 12 and no official exams are ever sat. The kids will also learn to disparage the secular instruction, having been told that this is only done to fulfill the minimum legal requirement. Secular instruction is the last hour of the school day and the kids know that that is a time to switch off and take it easy. No effort is made that kids actually learn much and many kids will leave cheider without basic English reading and writing skills.

At the age of 13 boys start yeshiva. They are now considered adults by Jewish law and are expected to spend every last second of the day in God’s service through prayer, Torah study and good deeds. A typical yeshiva day runs from 8 in the morning to 9-10 in the evening. Other than prayers, meals and short breaks, the whole day is spent studying classical rabbinic texts, such as the Talmud and its commentaries, Jewish law, and hashkafah (“worldview”). Study sessions are often 3-4 hours long, involving uninterrupted concentration on the text and its interpretation. This can be highly rewarding – I often felt drug-like “highs” after emerging from a 5 hour uninterrupted study streak. This psychological state was widely reported by others and was considered to be the achievement of an intimate spiritual connection with the holiness of the Torah (d’veikut). But quite often I also struggled with such long sessions of uninterrupted concentration. This was a constant struggle throughout my teens. Many boys fall out of the system this way, as they simply find it impossible to adhere to these intense requirements. Such boys are referred to as “weak boys”.

Alongside his studies a yeshiva boy will also be expected to adopt highly pietistic and saintly practices, such as not sleeping or eating more than necessary, refinement of one’s character traits, reigning in on one’s worldly curiosity, euphoric and ecstatic prayer and complete and total suppression of sexual desire. The latter especially is something that almost comes to define the boy’s teenage struggle in Satmar pedagogy. Boys are constantly warned in highly euphemistic terms about the evils of impure thought and gaze and inappropriate touching.

In orthodox Jewish law it is forbidden for a man to as much as touch his own penis, lest this brings him to willful erection, which is regarded as highly sinful. Whilst the Talmud forbids masturbation, it is later kabbalistic works, like the Zohar, that regard it as the worst sin. It is said about one who is sexually impure that none of his prayers or Torah study are effective. Satmar (as well as other chassidic sects) therefore puts tremendous emphasis on total sexual purity. Boys are taught to walk in the streets with their eyes cast down, lest they see an immodest woman and get aroused. Sexual purity was a constant source of struggle and guilt for me throughout my teens, as was it for any boy with whom I discussed this, although such discussions were taboo in yeshiva.

Boys will carry on in the yeshiva system until their marriage between the ages of 18-20.

Throughout this series I have attempted to give a descriptive picture of the community without being moralistic or judgmental about it. But I need to make an exception here when it comes to describing the upbringing of boys. Many of the practices of the community seem alien and even wrong to members of a more secular culture. But conversely, the community views secular practices judgmentally and disapprovingly. In such instances I take a cultural-relativity heuristic and observe without judgment. However, the practices of education for boys are not a matter of differing cultural norms, but I believe that they go against human nature, directly cause tremendous, lifelong harm and are unhealthy in – I believe – an objective and quantifiable manner.

This is going to sound hyperbolic and exaggerated, but I do not know a single one of my friends and classmates in yeshiva who have not suffered considerable and sustained psychological harm as a direct result of the yeshiva education system. I do not know a single Satmar adult who does not deal with serious issues of psychological suppression, guilt and trauma on a daily basis. You walk into a chassidic synagogue and you see masses of psychologically unhealthy people, pain and trauma screaming from their eyes, their every mannerism betraying an education system which has stifled their development and killed their souls.

I know that I will be accused of prejudice against the community, but leading psychologists and educators within the community are starting to say this as well – for now in hushed voices. And this isn’t about the community’s way of life more generally either: women in the community are far more psychologically healthy and robust. It is specifically the men that are broken and it is the yeshiva system that is to blame.

When I recently took a friend on a tour around the community in Stamford Hill, she remarked after several minutes of observing people walking in the streets, “why do all the men look like they don’t belong on this earth and that they would rather escape their bodies and become incorporeal souls?”

In very recent years the community has slowly started to embrace psychological and psychiatric methods to help struggling members – something that was heavily resisted and taboo whilst I was growing up. For now they are still dealing only with healing the victims, rather than preventing the root of the harm in the yeshiva system. hopefully, an internal discussion will happen in the community in the near future to bring about urgently needed reform in the education of boys.

Education for girls is very different. Satmar believes that girls may not learn any Torah directly, since the Talmud says that their minds are “light”. Instead girls are brought up to be good Jewish mothers to large families, and supportive wives. They will be taught about Jewish law and myth from Yiddish texts and will be trained in all kinds of domestic skills, such as sewing, cooking etc.

Girls also get a relatively good secular education, even sitting some GCSEs. Their textbooks will be heavily censored though to prevent any heretical or inappropriate material from seeping through. Whilst with boys the emphasis is on sexual purity, for girls it is on modesty – especially of dress, but also of mannerisms and demeanor. Girls and women are to be inconspicuous, unseen and unheard. Their skin (accept for face and hands from the wrist down) is to be covered at all times, their dress must not be tight, bright or provocative and they must wear dresses or skirts that extend below the knee cap. Additionally, women must be quiet in the presence of men, so that the latter may not be aroused by their voice.

When a boy or girl comes of age (around 18 years old) matchmakers will approach his/her parents with match suggestions. The first considerations will be that the family is suitable. In the vast majority of cases the family belongs to the same sect and has a similar claim to genealogy. Families boasting rabbinical pedigree will usually marry other rabbinic families. And money is a factor too. Once the families match the parents will make their inquiries about the girl/boy by asking around and talking with the latter’s friends and teachers.

Once this stage is complete and both sets of parents are happy, the parents will meet. Then they will meet the girl/boy. Finally, when everyone is happy with the match, the boy and girl will meet 1-2 times, after which they are engaged. They will then cease all contact until they meet again at their wedding.

I will pick up this story next time, talking more about Satmar family life. I will also talk about business and money-making in the community, See you then!

Next post is the final one in the series (other than an epilogue). Following that I plan on making a Q&A post to answer any questions, both to expand on what I have touched on and to talk about aspects that have not made it into the series. You can comment on here with your questions, tweet at me @posenizzy, or send me in private messenger. I will put up all questions anonymously.

Reflections on my Fifth Secular Anniversary

Today, on the 12th of July, I celebrate my annual anniversary of leaving the charedi community. Over the past five years I have made it my custom to write and reflect on my journey and to share how far I’ve come. My tone over these years was triumphant and celebratory, but things have changed. Today’s anniversary will be one of sober reflection, rather than celebration. After five years, my secular honeymoon is over and I’m ready for a more mature conversation.

Just to be clear, I still do not believe in the charedi God, or in any God for that matter. I do not regret my decision to leave and I still feel immense liberation now that I am on the outside living a secular life. But my disillusionment comes from several factors – psychological and ideological.

I can identify two psychological factors. Firstly, as it has been several years now since I left the community, I am starting to forget what it felt like being trapped inside and how oppressed I was. My memory has never been great, particularly my memory of feelings. And as the years have passed I have forgotten how isolated and and imprisoned I felt. When I hear the stories of those who have just recently left, I find myself in shock that such things can take place in modern Britain, until I am reminded that that is exactly what I myself experienced not so long ago.

Secondly, after years of being away from my family and the culture and community of my upbringing, I increasingly feel a strong sense of nostalgia. Having forgotten the things that I loathed, my mind fixates on those communal aspects that I loved and I miss them dearly. I miss the smells, the tastes, the sights – even the stench of the bio-hazardous, hair-and-dandruff-infested mikvah, or of the body odours of a densely packed synagogue on a summer shabbos morning, evokes fond memories in some sort of subversive psychological manner that is beyond my comprehension.

I miss being part of a family and celebrating together. I miss welcoming in the shabbos on Friday evenings, the house sparkling-clean, the family fresh and dressed in their finest, knowing that “all our work is done”. But I know that I cannot have these – not without giving up on my secular lifestyle. But I wish that I could straddle both worlds; I wish I could dip in and out. I wish I could visit for a shabbos, immerse myself in the culture, willingly suspend my disbelief and then go back to my Godless life. But I can’t.

Ideologically, several things have changed over the last few years. Firstly, after studying normative- and meta-ethics, I have become less certain that we can see one society or culture as better than another. I no longer believe that we can say that secular culture is objectively better than the charedi culture. Yes, I was unhappy in the charedi community, but how many people are unhappy in our secular communities? Yes, people have fewer rights and freedoms in the charedi community, but what is so desirable about rights if they don’t make us happier? After five years of living in secular society, I am not convinced that people are happier and more content with more rights and freedoms. We are ungrateful, unappreciative, greedy, jealous and discontent. Our freedoms mean nothing if we don’t appreciate them. And we don’t. We live in the most free and prosperous society to have ever roamed this earth. We have unprecedented rights and social mobility. And yet we are continually led to believe that things are bad for us and that we are oppressed. We have the world’s riches and blessings, but we’re unhappy.

Secondly, I have become increasingly disillusioned with how secular “secular” society really is. My main reason for leaving the charedi community (at least on the conscious level accessible to me) was my loathing of their dogmatic beliefs in obvious falsehoods. Whilst paying lip-service to the truth and claiming to own the truth, the charedi belief-system is irredeemably riddled with falsehoods, inconsistencies and distortions. A system of strict censorship and selective discourse keeps the community in the dark on all matters, whether it be history, science, philosophy, or even the development and interpretation of their own literature. (See Marc Shapiro’s Changing the Immutable for examples of charedi censorship of its own literature.) A sophisticated system of indoctrination, brainwashing, terror of hell and fear of social repercussions, enforces the orthodox dogma to the point that very few manage to ever question it. It took me many years of fighting against my own fear, accompanied by enormous guilt, before I could allow myself to question things even just in my own head.

I left the community an idealistic liberal on a search for truth. I hoped that a secular society would eschew dogma and censorship and would encourage a disinterested search for truth and enlightenment. But liberalism is dead and the enlightenment spirit is widely disparaged. Those few in academia who really do care for the truth, are ashamed to say so, as it is very unpopular. In paper after philosophic paper we read about how the disinterested search for truth must be abandoned as an ideal and must instead be replaced with a host of values, such as equality, liberation, etc.

Alongside the death of liberalism, we are wittnessing an unbearable rise of dogmatism and moral pruritanism in academic and student circles. I am watching how day by day our spaces get radicalised and taken over by a terrifying moral certainty and prescribed orthodoxies and dogmas that must not be questioned on pains of being ostracised as a bigot (the “secular” term for a heretic). On too many occasions to count have I recently felt very similar to how I felt when I questioned the charedi orthodoxy back in yeshiva. Perhaps the problem was me all along and not the charedi belief system? Or perhaps all human societies just come with orthodoxies and dogmas as part of the package? But even just in the last five years I have witnessed secular spaces become rapidly dogmatic and very religious-like in their moralism. It is only going to get worse.

Five years ago today I rejected the charedi God. Today I reject the God of Social-Justice too. I still want to be kind and empathetic. I want to increase happiness in the world and help the disadvantaged. I feel passionate about people like myself who have not been given the blessings of education. I want to encourage young people and tell them that everyone can move forward in life; that everyone can liberate themselves from the circumstances of their birth to progress and prosper. But I object to elevating social justice to God-status. Even good causes become tyrannical when they are worshiped like idols. As an atheist, I reject all gods and divinities, even so-called secular ones.

My thinking has changed a lot in the last five years. I am no longer as anti-charedi as I was when I left. But I am still just as secular and Godless – perhaps even more so. I’m sure that my thinking will further evolve over the coming five years. Perhaps I will strongly disagree with what I wrote here? Perhaps I will see things completely differently? But that is just part of life’s journey. I hope that throughout my life I will continually change my mind on all kinds of issues. Living is the constant process of gathering more evidence and reinterpreting old experiences in the light of new ones. I hope that my beliefs change as I experience more of the world and have the privilege to spend more time studying it.

The Value-Ladenness of Theory

In our societal moral discourse we often claim to be able to justify our values by recourse to some empirical facts. We say that we care about group x because group x is oppressed; we fight against y because y is harmful. Here we are trying to justify our values (that we care for x and fight against y) in terms of empirical facts (that x is oppressed and y is harmful).

But as I have argued on here on multiple occasions recently and as is well known in philosophy, there is no strictly empirical way of of finding out exactly who is oppressed and what is harmful. In fact, that quest doesn’t even make sense, as terms like “oppressed” and “harmful” are highly normative terms (meaning that they have values built into their meaning, unlike terms like “chair” or “moon” etc) and normative facts cannot be discovered empirically.

This result is called in the philosophical literature “the value-ladenness of theory”. It means that theories are not strictly descriptive and empirical, but have values built into them. There is also a related result called “the theory-ladenness of observation”, which means that all gathering of evidence already presupposes some theory and so there is no way of gathering data in a purely detached manner and letting it guide us to a conclusion. Rather, in the choices that we make for the data-gathering and the ways in which we choose to interpret the data, we are bound to presuppose some theory.

In several of my recent posts I have given examples of how terms standardly used in sociological discourse are heavily value-laden. But it is worth repeating, as it is a result that is widely ignored even by educated people and which has far reaching consequences for our political and moral discourse.

The first thing to notice about society is its sheer complexity. Society is the most complex entity in the universe by far. Nothing in the universe – even complex star clusters, chaotic weather and turbulent flow – come even close to the complexity of society. In fact, we have good mathematical models to deal with some very complex systems, but we have no such models to deal with society as a whole. We cannot predict when pandemics will happen, when war will break out, or even who the next ruling party in government will be.

How do we make sense of such complex systems? How do we go about explaining what’s happening in society? We do this by reifying (bringing a concept into existence) highly abstract metaphysical entities and by artificially isolating and cutting off causal paths. Let’s look at these two in turn.

Strictly speaking, there are no men, no women, no races, no classes. There are only people, over 7 billion of them. Each of these billions of people are different from each other in an infinite number of ways. This is all we can say about humanity if we want to be precise and accurate and not presuppose any metaphysical, non-empirical entities. But this view isn’t very helpful, as we will need infinite pieces of information in order to describe people’s behaviour on this level. That’s why we reify sociological concepts.

We pretend that there is such a thing as “a woman” and we ask what it’s like to be a woman, what are some things we can say about women, etc. Strictly speaking, there is nothing what it’s like to be a woman; there is only what it’s like being person x at time t and person y at time t. Feminist philosophers have long questioned the meaningfulness of talking about “women” as a well defined concept. Let’s break it down.

Asking what it’s like being a woman seems like too broad. It seems obvious that your experiences will be impacted by other factors besides for womanhood. So let’s try being more specific: what is it like being a black woman in the UK? But this still seems too broad. Surely other factors besides for your gender, race and country will impact on how you experience the world. Let’s try again: what is it like being a black, working class woman in the UK? Still too broad, as different black, working class, UK women will experience the world differently depending on whether their (dis)ability, health, income, age, sexuality, etc.

Ok, so how about we try factoring all these in? What is it like being a black, cis, abled, straight, working class, …, woman living in the UK? Are we done now? Let’s ask this question differently: Do all black, cis, abled, straight, working class, …, women living in the UK experience the world identically? Well, obviously not. If we want to be more precise with our categories we are going to have include more identity factors. Once we have finished including all factors for which we have names in our language (such as gender, sexuality, class etc), we can now include factors for which we have no names. Here are examples of some factors that will have a bearing on one’s experience: having 3 children; having 3 children aged, 2, 5 and 13; having 3 children – a boy aged 2, a boy aged 5 and a girl aged 13; having 3 children – a neurotypical boy aged 2, a boy with autism aged 5 and a girl with back-problems aged 13; having 3 children – a neurotypical boy aged 2 who likes to play with friends, an autistic boy aged 5 who doesn’t like cereal and a girl with back problems aged 13 who is bullied in school.

As you can see, we can be more and more specific in describing a person’s experience and in trying to isolate what it feels like to be them. Eventually, we get down on the level of individuals and we are simply describing an individual’s life. So what has happened to the category of “woman”, or of “black woman”, or of “black, working class woman”? We have seen that there is no such thing as a woman or a woman’s experience and there is no such thing as a black woman or a black woman’s experience. But, conversely, having 7 billion sociologies, one for each individual member of society is completely uninformative.

What we therefore do is we reify metaphysical concepts (essentially, make them up) to help us simplify society. We imagine that there is this entity called “womanhood”, or “being a woman” and we try to find common experiences for all those that fit in with certain criteria who we are happy to call women. We do the same thing with race, sexuality, etc. The crucial point, however, is that these “carvings up of society” into these categories are not unique. Who to count as “black” for example is not unique: how dark does your skin colour need to be in order to count as black? How much black ancestry do you need to have in order to be black? Etc.

A second way in which these “carvings” are not unique is in making sense of the data. A topical example is police violence. We can show data that there is disproportionate police brutality against blacks. But the same data interpreted differently will say that it isn’t disproportionate violence against blacks, but against men. Yet a third interpretation will say that it’s about income; a fourth interpretation will say that it is black, men of a certain income; a fifth interpretation will find a psychological component to it as well; finally, a sixth interpretation will just enumerate all the victims of police brutality, name this group of people as “people likely to experience police brutality”, or “brutalisable” in short, and claim that the people whom police brutality really affects are “brutalisable” people.

If we want to ask which hypothesis is most supported by the data, we will find that the last one is. In fact there is 100% correlation between “brutalisable” people and people who are victims of police brutality. So it isn’t really about race, gender, income etc, but about “brutalisability”. Of course this is utterly uninformative. But here we are again at our result that there is always a trade-off between informativity and precision. What level of precision to sacrifice for what level of informativity is not a trivial matter and there is no unique way of doing it right.

So far we have looked at the reification of abstract entities (womanhood, race, class, etc) in order to make sense of the complexity of society. We have seen that there is no one unique way to do it and that there are an infinite number of possible entities that we can reify (such as “brutalisables”), depending on how it helps us understand society. Now I want to look at the second way in which we analyse society and that is through isolating and cutting off causal chains.

Suppose I ask for the reason of a specific sociological phenomenon. To give you a full picture of the reason, I can look at some causal chains, by asking what caused this phenomenon (very often asking for a reason, is asking for a causal chain). Strictly speaking, the cause of any phenomenon is the Big Bang. If not for that, then this phenomenon would not happen. But this is probably not informative and not what you asked for. You may ask for a more proximate cause, or for a cause that would explain why x happened instead of y, rather than a cause that would explain why there is something rather than nothing. I may then move on to the formation of the solar system as a more proximate cause. Still not informative. The evolution of life? Slightly more informative. The evolution of culture? A bit more informative. The history of Western society? Even more informative.

We see here the same trade off between giving the full picture and being informative. The fullest explanation of any phenomenon would be giving the full causal chain starting off from the Big Bang. But that is very uninformative. The more informative we want to be, the less of the causal chain we should be including. But deciding what bits of the causal chain to include and what to omit is not a trivial matter. Let’s make this more concrete through an example:

If I ask why single mothers are often poor, I can give any one of the causal components in the following list: because they have no one to feed them whilst they look after their children; because they got divorced; because they are not supported by the state; because we live in a brutal, capitalist society; because we live in a patriarchy; because we have an institution of marriage in the first place; because they chose to have kids; because they chose not to have abortions; because they haven’t given up their kids for adoption; because their exes are dicks who don’t pay their share; because thy don’t work hard enough; because they don’t kill themselves; because they don’t kill their children.

All of these listed are part of the causal chain in the sense that it is true that if one of these hadn’t happened then the plight of single mothers would have been different. It is true that it single mother all committed suicide then they wouldn’t be poor. Should we then include “not being willing to commit suicide” amongst the causes of poverty for single mothers?

But this brings us back to the idea that there is no unique way to conceptualise societal causes. Ultimately, what causes to include as the reasons for a phenomenon is a choice and there is no unique, or empirical, way of doing it.

I think that the way in which we settle these questions is by introducing a paradigm (what I am proposing is itself a paradigm). How do we decide what entities to reify and what parts of the causal chain to include in our analyses as informative? I think that we build up a paradigm, or a way of looking at things and we interpret the data through the lens of this paradigm. This paradigm is both theory-laden and value-laden in the following sense. For the theory-laden part, we use past results and conceptualisations to help us understand the data. The reason why we see police brutality as a race issue and not as a “brutalisables” issue, is because we already have a “theory” or conceptualisation about race and so we use the lens of race to interpret the data. We have no analogous theory of brutalisables.

For the value-ladenness, the reason why we don’t include the lack of suicide as a cause of poverty is because we don’t believe that poor people SHOULD commit suicide. Or, in other words, we don’t believe that our society SHOULD solve poverty by encouraging suicde. Whether we include capitalism or lack of government support as amongst the causes of poverty will depend on whether we believe that we SHOULD bring down capitalism and whether we believe that the government SHOULD support the poor. Thus our theories are value-laden.

Coming back to ideas of harm and oppression, I claimed that there is no uniquely empirical way of determining those without value-ladenness. If we want to decide who is oppressed, we need to have presuppositional values about how our society SHOULD look like, how rights SHOULD be distributed, what inequalities SHOULD be avoided and so on. We don’t count it as oppression of white people when a disproportionate number of mega-rich football players are black. We don’t count is as oppression that plus-sized people are underrepresented amongst Olympic athletes. Do we count it as oppression that rich people live more comfortably? That will depend on our values. If we have a communist bent, then we might count that as oppression. If we are more on the libertarian side of things, then we are unlikely to. What we count at oppression depends on our values and on how we envision the ideal society to be. There is no empirical way to determine this.

Likewise with harm. We don’t count it as harmful to throw sex offenders into jail, even though they will definitely suffer harm there. We don’t count it as harmful to drive a car, even though there is a statistical probability that you will kill someone. What we count as harmful is, again, dependent on what we envision the ideal society to be like and, ultimately, on our values.

Coming back to where I started, empirical data cannot be used to justify values. You cannot justify your values by appeal to what is harmful or oppressive, as to interpret these concepts you are already presupposing values. Ultimately, the data and our values are in a symbiotic relationship where they both need each other and both reinforce each other. Your values tell you how to interpret the data and the data – having been interpreted by your values – further shapes your values. To think that the data empirically vindicates your perspective and your paradigm is to misunderstand this relationship.

Ultimately, we think in paradigms. We build up a metaphysics of society based on our values and based on what conceptualisations and reified entities we find most conducive towards our understanding and our political aims. We are never talking about objective facts (unless we are referring to the raw, uninterpreted, data-points), but always about constructions and conceptualisations. Internalising this can help us understand better where disagreements in the moral, political and social realms come from and why they are here to stay. It can also help us be more compassionate and understanding towards those who see things differently to us. Rather than seeing them as “bad” or “wrong”, we can understand that they are operating within a different paradigm and are conceptualising things differently. There is no way of showing that they are wrong and we are right.

(Btw, none of this is novel. These results have been well known at least since Quine’s work in the 50s.)