The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 18

I know the premises of my father’s manifesto on mathematics well because his educational philosophy and related reflections were common subjects of conversation between us. I was yet in high school when the Internet came into existence and my father launched cut-the-knot.orgMuch of his thinking in those early days spilled over from his online lessons and applets directly into our home life. The following is from his manifesto:

Pretend you are [a mathematician], and next time when making a new acquaintance suggest as much. Chances of a response in the spirit of ‘Oh, really. I have always had problems with math,’ or ‘Math was the most difficult subject I ever …’ are overwhelming. Somehow I feel that a biologist would not hear (at least not too often) complaints about biology, and a chemist about chemistry. I am sure of this because the term ‘math anxiety’ has gained a respected position in our vocabulary long ago which may only compare to the position afforded to a more recent ‘computer illiteracy.’ But whoever heard or confessed of ‘biological anxiety’ or ‘chemical illiteracy’?

My father noted that: “In pragmatic terms we need mathematics very rarely, and, when we do, the mathematics we need is mostly trivial.” The reason then that many people learn “very little or next to nothing” in their math classes, he believed, is reflective of a flaw in the education system itself. Rather than requiring the rote memorization of esoteric axioms and formulae, teachers should aim instead to instill in their pupils an appreciation for mathematics’ infinite beauty.

Once when I was in high school, papa showed me an elegant way to complete a mathematics assignment on my computer, producing a diagram that my teacher had specifically asked us to do with thread and tape by hand. Upon my homework being predictably and categorically rejected, he scheduled a meeting with the principal, arguing that arts and crafts is not the point of mathematics. After all, I had learned the nuances of the underlying concepts better by incorporating them into computer code than I would have by pulling strings tautly across a paper. The principal was apologetic but inconvincible; and my father was indignant.

* * *

I cannot know if papa would have agreed with me, but I had a flash of insight during the shiva when the subject of his life’s work filled the air, and friends and family filled the house. Judaism, I thought, is also taught wrongly.

Let’s try this thought experiment: “In pragmatic terms we need mathematics Judaism very rarely, and, when we do, the mathematics Judaism we need is mostly trivial… I know for sure that Mathematics Judaism may be beautiful. Judging Mathematics Judaism by its pragmatic value is like judging symphony by the weight of its score.”

This, to my mind, is the truth.

* * *

My mother tells us that she first felt me move in her stomach while she was sitting in an undergraduate Talmud class at Hebrew University, and she laughed out loud with joy. For as long as I can remember, I loved Judaism.

For whatever reason, I vividly remember an episode from my elementary school years when mama was late in returning from work to drive me to Hebrew School so I walked there instead, despite the daunting distance. She found my note and called the principal in a panic; Mr. Solomon found me sitting at the back of the classroom, listening to the teacher.

Throughout all of the swerves and detours on my religious journey, I have always been pained at my separations from Judaism. What, then, kept me away for long stretches at various periods in my life? Why had I avoided shul for three years before my father died suddenly? The answers are many, but in a smattering of passages by Martin Buber (1878-1965) I recognize some of myself –

* * *

Prof. Martin Buber was very critical of organized religion, as he underscored in Pointing the way (p. 113). His claim was that religion may actually serve to confound one’s (I) personal relationship to God (Thou):

All ‘religious’ forms, institutions, and societies are real or fictitious according to whether they serve as expressions, as shape and bearer of real religio – a real self-binding of the human person to God – or merely exist alongside it, or even conceal the flight from actual religio… At present the prevailing religious forms, institutions and societies have entered into the realm of the fictitious.

So what alternative does Buber offer us? In the book On Judaism (p. 80), Buber drew a distinction between religion and religiosity, which would have resonated with my father:

Religiosity starts anew with every young person, shaken to his very core by the mystery; religion wants to force him into a system stabilized for all time. Religiosity means activity… religion means passivity…

Still, Buber did acknowledge the need for religion, given the human condition, as he explained in A believing humanism (p. 115). This leaves me wary. In my humanity, I am driven to recite kaddish for my father but must maintain my perspective and search for meaning:

Each religion is a house of the human soul longing for God… Each religion is an exile into which man is driven… and not sooner than in the redemption of the world can we be liberated from the exiles and brought into the common world of God.

I must not allow religion to distract me from religiosity; but
I must allow myself religion.

* * *

Inevitably, expectedly, the boundaries of my comfort zone are shifting. After several months of kaddish’ing (to coin a word) much of my religious angst and acrimony have been tempered by prayer, reflection and writing. My feelings have been painstakingly panned, screened and separated, leaving me with sparkling nuggets of sorrow. My thoughts are clarifying.

Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish has been resting on my bookshelf as a reference guide, as I have continued my trek by way of other sources. Suddenly, some of his musings remember themselves to me in light of my own experience. He writes (p. 19):

The shul is losing its strangeness for me. This worries me. In a strange place, solitariness is possible. Sociability poses a threat to spirituality… Prayer is a throb of individuation, at least for me. And yet the congregation is one of the conditions of my kaddish… I used to stay away from shul in part because I was too easily influenced by it. I wanted so much to be like the people with whom I prayed. This troubled me. One should not wish to be influenced. One should wish to be convinced.

Two related concerns arise for me when it comes to davening with others. 1) The more I enjoy the company, the less certain I am of my intentions. 2) I have a propensity for comparing my prayer experiences to those of my fellow suppliants. In the moment, I am always certain that they are more capable and intentional than I.

Thankfully, the approach that I’ve adopted has been working healingly. Nearly three months ago I wrote:

I have been taking my pick of the siddur, sticking primarily to the most fundamental prayers – the Shema (2x daily) and the Amidah (3x on weekdays, 4x on Shabbat). And, of course, the mourner’s kaddish. Always the kaddish.

Somehow, I’ve put others aside and found solace, even pleasure, in my recitations of these central prayers. Twice now I have even surprised myself by leading the mincha prayer service before Shabbat, for it is the shortest avodah, and I find myself able to maintain my concentration and intentionality from start to final kaddish. Whereas once ‘sociability posed a threat to [my] spirituality,’ I now permit myself to pray as myself with purpose.

I note that not unlike Martin Buber, Wieseltier draws a distinction between religion (shul) and religiosity (religious experience). For him, religion is not simply a distraction from meaningful experience. He writes that the two are unrelated (p. 119):

I might spend a whole year in shul, morning prayers, afternoon prayers, evening prayers, and never have a religious experience… Shul was not invented for a religious experience. In shul, a religious experience is an experience of religion. The rest is up to me.

The rest is up to me. The Jewish tradition only requires me to recite kaddish with a minyan. For better and for worse, it does not require me to have a ‘religious experience.’ I accept this, and recalling my father’s advice from my early college days (“If you’re not disrupting anyone else, it’s fine to attend for your own reasons.”), I now fully embrace it, for I am learning how to have both:

I have my reasons for religion;
I have my own religiosity.

* * *

My reasons for swerving away from religion have been many, but my reasons for returning to religion time and time again have been twofold. First, I am a skeptic. I may be skeptical of spiteful, uninstructed angels and fiery, mystical chains, but I am also skeptical of the materialist who dismisses the possibility of the supernatural. Wieseltier captures this sentiment eloquently in his book (p. 123):

For many years I have lived without religion. But I could not have lived without the possibility of religion… The fact that I spend my entire life in darkness does not prove that there is no light. My experience is not the only philosophical datum that counts.

Secondly, as my father said, “I know for sure that Mathematics Judaism may be beautiful.” Perhaps “the mathematics Judaism we need is mostly trivial” (i.e. brit milah, bar and bat mitzvah, wedding, and funeral ceremonies), but “Judging Mathematics Judaism by its pragmatic value is like judging symphony by the weight of its score.”

I have yearned too much, experienced too much, learned too much, and grown too much to dismiss my appreciation for Judaism’s infinite beauty. ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’ is inspired by my love for papa; its essence is my yiddishkeit.

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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