Living With Your Whole Brain – Yom Kippur 5775

In tenth grade, my parents encouraged me to acquire a skill that changed my life.  For an entire year, first period, I took touch-typing.  Ms. Griffin, my teacher, who hailed from Mississippi would admonish us in the morning to put our hands in the home position – asdf jkl; – and begin our exercises.  It was a great way to wake up in the morning.  Imagine the machine-gun like chatter of 32 IBM Selectrics rattling at 8:00 a.m.

Eventually, I got good.  By the end of the year, I could type nearly 90 words per minute.  It was a particularly useful skill.  I’ve always had terrible handwriting, and I found that by typing I was much more free to express myself.  The ability to touch-type opened a doorway through which I fell in love with writing.  It was also quite lucrative – I made a lot of money in summer jobs working as a secretary and in college typing my friends’ papers.

But in rabbinical school, when I was writing my thesis, I had to learn a different skill – touch-typing in Hebrew.  It was so much harder.  Not only did I have to figure out where the new letters were on the keyboard, but I had to learn how to keep changing left to right – then right to left – then back again. I eventually got the hang of it, but I’m nowhere near as proficient typing in Hebrew as I am in English.  Somehow typing in Hebrew is like using a different part of my brain.

Then this summer, I found out I was right.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his phenomenal book The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search For Meaning describes a particular “eureka” moment he had in school.  In the last 150 years, neuroscientists have discovered the incredible differences between the two sides of our brain.  The left side of our brain tends to be where we process linear, analytical, mechanical thoughts.  The left brain breaks things down into component parts, categorizes and classifies them, and figures out their logic and sequence.  The right side of our brain tends to be where we find empathy and emotion and social intelligence.  The right brain integrates ideas, irony, and metaphor and humor.

Rabbi Sacks, who was the former chief rabbi of England, notes that in languages where there are letters for vowels, words can be recognized one by one with limited ambiguity, but in Hebrew, there are no letters for vowels.  When you read the Torah, there are no vowels at all, and so the meaning of words depends significantly on the context.  From English, you can figure out the meaning from the phonics; in Hebrew you figure out the phonics from the meaning.  English, is a left-brained activity; Hebrew, more a right-brained kind of thing.[1]

Over time, the western world evolved into a left-brained kind of world.  With Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the advent of science and philosophy, the West began to prize rational inquiry and scientific thought.  And while Judaism has always prized that left-brained perspective, Judaism is founded more on the importance of love and relationship, compassion and covenant: what we need from our right-brain.

The fact is we need both: to be all we can be in the world, we need to use our whole brain – right and left.  There are times we need to be logical, rational, and physical, and there are times we need to be emotional, passionate, and spiritual.  As Rabbi Sacks relates: “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”[2]

When I was a kid I loved to grab a screwdriver and take things apart, but what I found is that it was often much more difficult to figure out how to put things together.  Building a world of meaning is not nearly as simple as a mathematical proof. Moral truths are hard to determine.  For example, we may say that murder is wrong.  We know that to be true.  But how?  There are any number of philosophical arguments we might make, but those arguments are based on an idea, on a belief.  Murder is only wrong if we believe that human life is sacred.  And that truth, though we embrace it with every fiber of our being, is not one that we can prove.  It is one that we take on faith.

What is faith?  Faith is that which you believe that you cannot truly prove.  And faith is hard to come by.  In the story of the Exodus, our people are given plenty of signs of God’s presence and power, wonders that Moses performs, plagues that afflict the land of Egypt and its people, a sea that parts, manna in the wilderness, water from a rock, even their own experience of revelation at Mt. Sinai.  But as powerful as were these signs, they could not offer the proof the Israelites craved.  So when Moses is gone, the people lose their faith.  They say to Aaron, “make for us a God that will go before us, for that man Moses – who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what’s happened to him (Exodus 32:1).”  Why do they need Aaron to build them a God?  They had witnessed the plagues, and all the other miracles, had even heard God speak to them directly the month before.  The evidence was strong, but their faith was weak.  They needed proof that God was with them, so they built an idol, a God they could see and touch, proof that God was with them.

And in many ways, we are just like them.  We want rational and scientific answers to prove that Judaism and the Torah are true.  It’s amazing to see the pretzels we turn ourselves into to prove scientifically that the Bible is true.

Every year, two or three people will email me an article claiming to understand the scientific basis for the ten plagues, the rational basis for the laws of kashrut, and the Discovery Channel will inevitably show how the story of Noah and other biblical events can be traced back to astronomical and meteorological phenomena.  There … I guess that proves the Torah is true.

But the Truth value of Torah is not found in left-brain analysis, but in right-brain appreciation.  The stories of the Torah are not meant to be taken as literal scientific truth.  They are allegorical narratives designed to help us figure out the purpose and meaning to our lives.

But we cannot abandon the importance of what left-brain truths we constantly learn.  People who abandon their left-brain rationality and reason are dangerous.

This is what groups like ISIS in the Middle East are trying to achieve.  They want to turn the clock back a thousand years to establish a society built solely around the dictates of religion.  They want to build their whole society around ancient Muslim Sharia Law.  A 23 year-old young man who goes by the name of Abu Tareq grew up in Denmark and decided last year to travel to Syria to join the fight for the Islamic State.  While visiting the city of Raqqa, he saw a man was arrested for drinking alcohol.  After the charge was leveled, the man was beaten seventy times with a lash, after which he kissed the two men who delivered the punishment.  “I could tell he regretted his offense,” recalls Abu Tareq. “It was the most beautiful moment to me, illustrating the peaceful, beautiful life under Sharia, under ISIS.”

But in truth, a world where we live by the literal world of religious texts is a scary, horrifying place.  Life under Sharia law is draconian and negates all the progress society has enjoyed since the middle ages.  According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the news report Syria Deeply, life under ISIS in Raqqa is a “nightmare” in which crucifixions and beheadings take place on a regular basis, and women are forbidden access to employment or education or even sunlight on their skin. Just recently, within the span of twenty-four hours in late July, two women who were accused of adultery were reportedly stoned to death.[3]

We cringe with horror as gruesome acts of inhumanity, intolerance, terror and murder are committed in the name of religion.  We live in an age where ultra-orthodox Jewish men spit on an eight year old girl and call her a whore because she had the audacity to wear a long-sleeved, high-collared shirt that wasn’t long and high enough for their taste.  We live in an age where fundamentalist Christians demand that biology curricula teach creationism as science and evolution as merely a theory.  We live in an age where pathological Muslim men shout “Allahu Akhbar – God is great” as they steer an airplane at over 500 miles an hour into the side of an office tower.  Living in a completely right-brain world where religion, and only religion holds sway is like living with half a brain.

If that’s what religion brings, then who wouldn’t turn away from religion?  Everyone from Bill Maher to many members of our own congregation profess to me some measure of atheism.  When I talk to many people who feel disaffected with religious life, inevitably they point to the history of war, bloodshed, tyranny and oppression religion leaves in its wake.

But as dangerous as the world seems to be from religion, a world without religion is even more dangerous.  There are many modern day scholars, writers, and people like us who worship science and atheism with the same ferocious commitment as the most religious fundamentalists.  Certainly we can look at religious movements and be repulsed by the wake of destruction they seem to leave, but when we look at movements that cast out religion, they are far more destructive.  Count up the millions who were murdered by Hitler, and Stalin, and Mao to see how infinitely more dangerous and horrifying is a world without religion.

This idea was brought home to me several years ago by a young man from our congregation who was home visiting his family.  He had studied at the University of Florida and majored in Sociology with a minor in Chinese, and he wanted to see how good his Chinese actually was.  So after graduation, he moved to Shanghai, where he eventually built a business consulting on design and operations for Chinese night clubs.  He had met a beautiful Chinese woman and was wondering whether he should actually built his life in China.

“What’s holding you back,” I asked him.  “Sounds like you’ve built a great life for yourself.”

“The problem is, Rabbi,” he said, “I don’t know if I can live in a country where people don’t believe in God.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “the Chinese people I’ve met have almost no sense of morality like we do.  They love their immediate families and will do anything for them.  They are generally nice people.  But for anyone else, most of the people I know wouldn’t hesitate to lie, cheat, or steal if it would help them get ahead.  Because they have no religious life, they have no sense of moral code, nothing that tells them this is right, and this is wrong.  There is no sense that they should care about each other, no sense that they should be generous for those less fortunate.  The ideas of morality I was taught to value they think of as quaint and naive.  I don’t know if I can really live in that kind of society.”

This isn’t to paint the Chinese with a broad brush but to make a point: if we put all of our trust in science and reason, and leave no room in our hearts for faith and purpose, it’s like living life with half a brain.

We come here today because in some measure we believe in something sacred.  We believe in the creation and maintenance of a moral universe that is founded on a very distinct set of values and principles: wisdom and understanding, compassion and justice.  The Prophet Micah said it best: “What is it that God demands of you?  Only this: to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly in God’s presence. (Micah 6:8)” We believe in generosity and kindness, in protecting the vulnerable and the weak, in the sacred nature of the bonds of love that unite us in a web of interdependent relationship, and in cherishing and honoring the infinite value of life itself.  We have taught, and we believe, that all this is good.  And you know what’s amazing?  We believe all this and we can’t prove any of it.

The fact is that the moral underpinnings of our society got there because we live in a world founded on religious truths – faith-based truths.  And unless we take seriously the religious foundations on which that moral framework is built, then it will eventually give way, crumble, and fall.  Tolstoy wrote in A Confession and Other Religious Writings: “The instructions of a secular morality that is not based on religious doctrines are exactly what a person ignorant of music might do if he were made a conductor and started to wave his hands in front of musicians well-rehearsed in what they are performing.  By virtue of its own momentum, and from what previous conductors had taught the musicians, the music might continue for a while, but obviously the gesticulations made with a stick by a person who knows nothing about music would be useless and eventually confuse the musicians and throw the orchestra off course. … It is truly desirable,” he said, “that moral teaching should not be adulterated by superstition, but the truth of the matter is that moral teaching is only the result of a particular relationship established between man and the universe, or God.”  For us as Jews, the particular relationship Tolstoy describes we call the covenant.  A covenant we are admonished on Yom Kippur to embrace with more deliberation and seriousness.

The fact is that science and reason may teach us how to build a better IPhone but it can’t teach us how to build a better world.  Science and reason may teach us how to make more money, but it can’t teach us what we should use that money for.  Science and reason may teach us why things happen the way they do, but science and reason will never tell us what it all means.  Science and reason may explain how the world is, but only the Torah will tell us how the world ought to be.

On this Yom Kippur, we have to finally admit to ourselves that it’s not okay to be ignorant of our religious teachings and it’s not okay to have a half-hearted commitment to religious life.  We have to know our people’s story, understand our people’s teachings, and practice our traditions.  It’s not enough just to “feel Jewish in our hearts” or simply to “try to be a good person.”  We need to know where being good comes from.  We need to take a leap of faith and build for ourselves a Jewish life and a Jewish understanding that feeds the other side of our brain without having to check our mind at the door.

Each of us today has a responsibility – a responsibility not to let religious life take a backseat to, well, just about everything else. If not through religious life, in the home or the synagogue, how will we, our children, and our children’s children ever learn the wisdom and the moral values that make for the kind of society we want to have?

We need to lead by example, and make the observance of Shabbat, holidays, and Jewish learning a real priority for ourselves and our families.  We need to admit that to end our children’s Jewish education after Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a sin. It’s not their sin; it’s our sin.  It’s a sin to think that a 13 or 14 year old child has the wherewithal to decide if he or she needs to lead a religious life. We need to admit that it’s a sin to drop our kids off at Temple for Youth Group on Friday night, or a holiday, and then drive off and go do something somewhere else. It’s time for us to devote the same time and commitment to taking care of our spirits as we devote to taking care of our bodies.  It’s time for us to devote as much attention to developing our right brain as to our left.

What we discover as we go deeper in Jewish learning and living is that a religious life is not just reasonable, but good.  We learn, as have our people throughout the centuries, that acts of faith make rational sense.  Judaism is ultimately not simply a religion of reason, but the transformer from which we can draw the power of a deeply meaningful spiritual life. Join me.  In this New Year 5775, see how a more serious investment in building a life of religious meaning can make perfect sense.  And let us more fully embrace our collective mission to secure the moral framework on which we can build a world filled with understanding, love, and peace.

[1] Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership, New York: Schocken Books, 2011, pp. 39-41.

[2] Ibid., p. 55.

[3] “Inside ISIS: The Making of a Radical,” by Louise Stigsgaard Nissen in http://www.narrative.ly

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1 Comment

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One response to “Living With Your Whole Brain – Yom Kippur 5775

  1. Rabbi Levin, thank you for this thoughtful and though provoking message.

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