Posts Tagged 'Utilitarianism'

Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self

2014-07-24_14453922An academic article of mine was published yesterday in the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ed. James R. Lewis), titled Neo-Hasidism & Neo-Kabbalah in Israeli Contemporary Spirituality: The Rise of the Utilitarian Self. To quote the first paragraph, I try "to explore the rise of what can be called ‘the utilitarian self’ in the contemporary spirituality arena in Israel. This social reality, which has its origins in the religious field of late nineteen century America, is in Judaic social circles quite a recent development, and has begun to play a significant part of Israeli contemporary spirituality only since the 1990’s. I would like to suggest that the proliferation of certain Neo-Kabbalah and Neo-Hasidic movements since the 1990’s is indicative of its rise. By examining these we can better understand the utilitarian self, which lies at their background and presents the cultural conditions for their popularity."

I use the works of current Orthodox Neo-Hasidic popularizes of the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Rabbis Israel Isaac Besancon and Erez Moshe Doron, to understand how the adjustments and modifications they had made to Rabbi Nachman’s Hitbodedut practice reflect the growing prominence of the utilitarian self as a religious reality. I then continue with the non-Orthodox Neo-Kabbalistic movements – Rabbi Philip Berg of the Kabbalah Centre and Rabbi Michael Laitman of Bnei Baruch – which fashion an up-to-date version of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag’s socialist Kabbalah, and also display such an interpretation of the spiritual path.

The article ends with an attempt to place the above analysis within a theoretical framework that seeks to understand the roots and development of the utilitarian self. I see it as a particular hybrid of the Romantic spirit and Enlightenment rationalism, joined together by the auspiciousness of capitalist instrumental reason. It represents the current fascination with finding ways – indeed "methods" or "techniques" – which will allow one to actualize and exercise her or his “hidden” or “unrealized” capabilities in order to undergo an inner transformation and maximize the external conditions of her or his life.

The article is part of a special issue of the journal dedicated to Israeli contemporary spirituality, edited by Shai Feraro. You can fine the entire issue here. My article can be downloaded here. I am not allowed to hand out the article itself, but its final vertion and full text are here in pdf, here in scribd and here in my account.

Finally, Some Jewish Self-help Books

Parasha ve’isha: Limud Nashi Leparashat Ha’shavua, Yemima Mizrachi. Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 143 pp., NIS 118

Neviot: He’arot, Etzot vetovanot Hameshivot et Harua’h Al Pi Mishnato shel Harav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, edited and elucidated by Yuval Freund. Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 150 pp., NIS 98

Tzohar Le’asakim: Parashat Hashavua b’re’I Iski, Nihuli umanhiguti, edited by Itamar Mor. Danny Books, 408 pp., NIS 118

At the beginning of the 20th century a new and original genre became widespread in the United States: “Self-Help” books. These books offered readers a colorful array of useful advice, and outlined paths to scoring achievements in a particular field that was generally mentioned in the title. The most famous of these books was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which has sold more than 15 million copies to date and gave rise to many successful imitations.

Quite a few of these titles, which star on bestseller lists to this day, deal with financial advice, but there is no need to turn to these to understand that the capitalist, utilitarian logic is the spirit blowing through the genre as a whole. Life is presented in Self-Help books as a development project, with the reader as its facilitator and operational contractor. He must attack his life vigorously, mine its resources and get as much net profit out of it as possible. If need be, he can and should lay off useless departments such as moderation, sensitivity and common sense. “Democracy introduces an industrial spirit into literature,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed back in the mid-19th century, and de Tocqueville is right, as usual.

Most Self-Help books relied on the assumption (whose roots are to be found in the Romantic movement) that man possesses inner resources he must discover and exteriorize. Therefore the advice they offered usually revolved around the ways and methods to dredge up those hidden treasures. A human being is called upon to find within himself courage, determination or creativity, which he or she had no idea existed, but which the book explained that even if these had gone undetected until now, the hidden stores are nothing less than their deepest, innermost self.

The notion that redemption begins from within built its home on the basis of the modern individualism and ideal of independence and economic initiative characteristic of American culture. Together with the spirit of invention and technological innovation, Self-Help books gave their readers a feeling that not only in the economic sphere, but in each and every area of life is to be found “a method” that will make it possible to manipulate the data, and ultimately maximize profits.

Inevitably, self-help books began to be written in the religious-spiritual realm as well. This domain is not limited to systematic instructions for the most effective ways to communicate with the upper worlds, but often involved advice that is based on religious and traditional sources, but is actually meant to assist us in secular areas. As an example of this we can cite more than 50(!) different titles in English alone that proclaim they teach “the Tao of” (parenting, gardening, sexuality, cooking, business). These books profess to glean insights from the ancient Chinese tradition to improve the quality of our Western lives in the present.

Everything, as you know, makes its way to us belatedly, but the good news is that not only hath Israel not been forsaken by his God, but he has been bequeathed a fortune. In recent years it appears that Israeli Judaism has finally joined the trend, and self-help books based on the wisdom of Jewish tradition crowd bookstore shelves. Yedioth Ahronoth Books is the clear leader in this market segment, a fact that corresponds to its overall, and praise-worthy, efforts to enrich the Jewish bookcase with many and diverse offerings. Two years ago this publisher came out with a book (in Hebrew) bearing a subtitle that leaves no room for doubt as to the book’s role in the genre in question: “Once a Week: Insights and Self-Empowerment from the Portion of the Week,” by Aharoni Berenstein. The ways to draw insights and self-empowerment from the weekly Torah portion have only grown more numerous since then.

The Stress of Women’s Liberation

Yemima Mizrachi's bookThe new book by Rebbetzin Yemima Mizrachi, :“Parasha ve’isha: Limud Nashi Leparashat Ha’shavua” (“Portion and Woman: Feminine Study of the Portion of the Week”) is a fine example of this. Mizrachi is one of the most prominent of the popular spiritual women leaders in the field of Judaism in Israel. She is a lawyer and rabbinical pleader by training, and today she gives lessons on Jewish tradition and the weekly Torah portion all over the country. Thousands of women subscribe to her mailing list, and the gatherings she holds always draw a big crowd. As may be learned from her new book, the weekly portions serve her as a pliant and productive base on which to offer advice and insights that contribute to the empowerment of her disciples.

This is Mizrachi’s first book on the weekly Torah portion, and it is limited to the first two books of the Pentateuch – Genesis and Exodus. The motto may be distilled from the introduction: “Everyone is a treasure of wisdom, but it must not remain hoarded. In order for the wisdom to be affected and to affect connecting feminine study is required.” Our inner wisdom can be uncovered, then, with the help of the weekly portion, and Mizrachi does this with great wit and creativity. But the study required here, as stated, is feminine. According to Mizrachi this refers to study “that emerges from the chambers of the heart and hearth, different from the hum of studying that rises from the benches of the yeshivas. Women simply study differently.”

What does this feminine study look like in practice? According to Mizrachi’s book it entails using the Biblical narratives to understand how one ought to await a match, manage relationships and raise children. The portion “Hayei Sarah,” for example, deals with problems of couples’ relationships, “Toldot” – with parenting, “Miketz” teaches us that being chubby is perfectly fine, and “Vayigash” elucidates the importance of crying. In general, feelings and managing them are the main topic one can learn from the weekly portions, and eliciting them from the Biblical text known for its stinginess when it comes to sentimental expression is no mean feat.

Mizrachi delivers her commentary with great talent, and it is not hard to understand why she is so popular. On several occasions in her book she emphasizes women’s superiority over men, and yet at the same time never for a moment challenges the traditional division into gender roles. A Woman’s business is in the home, and the home is the business of women. When “women’s liberation” is mentioned, we learn that this process is responsible for our stress and fears. But this too is for the best. “What is the role of fear? First of all, to reveal to you how much strength you have. You are awesome!”

Rav Kook’s Wisdom du jour

Yuval Freund’s edition of Rav KookThe very same bit of advice may be learned from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook: “Many times the cataclysmic situations teach man about himself (….) The acquisition of new traits in the difficult periods causes a great and sophisticated increase afterward.” That is Yuval Freund’s interpretation of an excerpt from “Orot Hakodesh,” in which Rav Kook explains that, “from the depths of the abyss you must draw forth precious pearls. Then you will rise and renew your abilities, in strength and tranquility.”

The title of the book “Neviot: He’arot, Etzot vetovanot Hameshivot et Harua’h Al Pi Mishnato shel Harav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook,” makes it clear that here too is a self-help book that culls its life wisdom from the field of religion. This time not the weekly Torah portion but Rav Kook has been chosen to restore our spirit. Freund’s explications look out upon the rabbi’s words on the facing page, whereas the words of Rav Kook are arranged in short lines and centered, like poetry. Here too the guiding principle is mining the treasures hidden in the depths of the soul: “In man (…) there are great and enormous spiritual powers of an entirely different order, which he must appreciate and respect,” Freund writes.

Rav Kook is easy to translate into romantic selfhood, for he himself was greatly influenced by the Romantic movement. However, for decades the message that was delivered from his letters was purely national and messianic. The reason for the transition to the language of sentiment in this case is not merely the awakening of this genre – religious Self-Help books – but also the growing competition between Rav Kook and Rabbi Nachman for the hearts of youngsters in knitted-skullcaps. The emotional language and psychological insights of the tzadik from Breslov are winning over many souls in religious Zionist circles, and the latter have decided to fight back. Envy among scribes generates wisdom – in this case it’s more like street smarts

Rav Kook is a giant thinker and outstanding poet, and his words presented in this book are inspiring. Praise is due to the compiler, Yuval Freund, who was not afraid to bring also excerpts that might jeopardize the readers’ automatic allegiance to the Halakha, or Jewish law. Rav Kook calls, among other things, for deviating from the familiar structures and listening to our inner voice. The tension between the inner voice and obedience to the heteronomic Halakha should be obvious, and for anyone interested in unquestioning loyalty to tradition a certain risk is inherent in bringing such things from the mouth of such an authority. Advice on coping with this inner conflict, incidentally, is not included in the book.

The Spirit of Capitalism in the Weekly Torah Portion

Tzohar Le’asakimWe return to the weekly Torah portion with another title that represents a similar spirit: “Tzohar Le’asakim: Parashat Hashavua b’re’I Iski, Nihuli umanhiguti.” This book is a collection of short articles by some of the rabbis from the Tzohar organization, including its stars: Rabbis Yuval Cherlow, David Stav and Shai Piron (currently the Israeli Minister of Education). It should be mentioned that women are not absent from this volume and have penned several of the articles in it. As the book’s title suggests, in this case the weekly Torah portion serves as a source of insights into the business world.

The book is essentially an anthology of articles that were sent over the past decade to a list of Israeli businesspeople. The mailing list in question is the brainchild of Eran Rolls, a businessman who describes himself as someone with “a transparent skullcap” or “a religiously observant secular person,” and is himself one of the varied fruits of the Jewish renaissance in the country. Rolls initiated a weekly mailing of the portion of the week to his distribution list, which kept growing as the years went by.

The advice is nothing you could not guess in advance. Initiative, persistence, creativity, determination, taking advantage of opportunities, and originality – the weekly Torah portion teaches us all of these to assist our success in business. To the Tzohar rabbis’ credit, they seek to advance not only the personal success of their readers, but also the employment conditions of those employed by them. Many articles emphasize the moral dimension of the business world, and demand that the reader turn his attention also to the ethical implications of his actions.

The Utility of Sentiment

The examples cited above indicate a gradually expanding trend of Jewish Self-Help books, or in other words: the assimilation of Jewish tradition into the main trends in the global book market. Moreover, the books mentioned here are not only representatives of Self-Help books, but also expressions of a broad cultural movement that presents increased preoccupation with our emotional life, and an emphasis on a utilitarian worldview. It is a crossbreeding of the romantic inclination to find uniqueness, authenticity and meaning within us with the instrumental logic of the capitalist market. This match leads to a rich supply of “methods” and “systems” with whose help we will put into practice the hidden lights in our inner selves.

That isn’t necessarily bad, of course, and perhaps there really are within us hidden dimensions and unseen potential powers. But we should pay attention to this process, in which both tradition and the Jewish bookcase become raw material in the hands of the market, and translate themselves into the patterns of that same familiar utilitarian logic. Interestingly, fundamentalist religion, in Afghanistan or Mea She’arim, is one of the few foci today of stubborn resistance to capitalist globalization. It resists a lot of other things too, but it is possible that precisely by posing a determined alternative, which expresses a different worldview and a different logic, it invites us to learn something very important about ourselves; something no less important than how to wait patiently for a decent match or how to close the next deal.

Published in the literary supplement of Haaretz.

Consciousness, Suffering and Veganism

The correspondence between Yuval Noah Harari and Gary Yourofsky offered readers an encounter with two prominent and highly articulate representatives of the vegetarian and vegan movements. Bracingly, it also offered a glimpse of the dangerous and anti-humanist extremes of that ethical movement. I shall not waste too many words on Yourofsky. Anyone who calls humans “parasites” and explicitly advocates violence is motivated by messianic blindness and certain to eventually cause death, be it of his rivals, his adherents or himself. And the day is not far off.

"in suffering we are all equal" says the t-shirt. click to go to siteYourofsky gives vegetarianism and veganism a bad name, but he is not without a home within these movements, asthey also have an anti-humanist element built-in to them, as well as a tendency to cheapen life through a utilitarian quantification of pain and suffering. Had these noble ideas a spokesman of their own, he would have had to condemn Yourofsky, but as this is not the case, one can only hope that anyone possessed of compassion and a conscience will distance himself from him and his ilk.

Harari is another story. Not just as a popular intellectual, but as a brilliant and extremely knowledgeable person, Harari presents a much more complex view of the subject. And yet, I think he “falls” into a number of intellectual traps, two of which I shall elaborate upon here.

First, Harari’s insistence that there is no difference in consciousness between animals and humans is astonishing. Harari claims that “there seems to be no evidence that homo sapiens

has some kind of special consciousness, or a greater capacity to suffer [than other mammals].” This is an odd assertion, considering that there is no scientific proof at all of human consciousness. Neuroscience, for example, has no capacity to examine the existence of “consciousness,” but only the nervous system and the brain that, ostensibly, enable its existence.

This is why many neuroscientists and neurophilosophers believe that human consciousness is merely an “epiphenomenon,” a secondary side effect that arises from brain function and is of wholly negligible influence. The big questions raised by the Turing Test also derive from precisely the same premise – that human consciousness may only be identified via the external responses that it produces.

And it is precisely from those external responses that we see that animal consciousness is not identical to human consciousness. Animals are not capable of constructing a sentence, of adhering to ideologies, of discussing moral questions. Harari surely knows this, for the superiority of human consciousness is a key element of the excellent best-seller that he authored. It is quite strange to see him retreat from this observation, which ought to be obvious to any thinking person.

The Depth of Suffering

As for the capacity to suffer, it, too, derives from consciousness, of course. A large portion of human suffering is linked to memory, imagination and our ability to tell ourselves complex stories about what happened, what might happen and what could have been. Anticipation, longing and remorse are direct causes of tremendous suffering, such as the memory of our loved ones who have died, or anxiety in anticipation of our own deaths in the years to come. As one interested in Buddhism, Harari surely is aware that the Buddha ascribes to these same emotional impressions a central role in the suffering that we cause ourselves (and others). While animals can certainly feel pain, since they have no complex system of conceptualization and imagination they cannot feel the same intensity of suffering.

Moreover: If we return for a moment to the empirical findings we find that scientific research has no doubt that the human nervous system and brain are more complex and sophisticated than that of the fly, the cat, or even the monkey. In fact, if this were not so, we’d be compelled to argue that the cause of man’s superior consciousness is not the structure of his brain, but rather his divine soul. Since depth of consciousness is directly and undeniably connected to the nervous system and the brain, it should be clear to us that the more complex these systems are, the deeper and more extensive the consciousness and suffering they can produce. Man’s capacity for suffering is immeasurably greater than that of the grasshopper or the cow. Fortunately, we also have a much greater capacity for happiness.

A second problem that arises from Harari’s statements has to do with consensual entities. Harari argues that man has “the ability to imagine things that don’t really exist, like gods, nations, money and human rights.” The equating of gods to money and nations does a disservice to atheists, who I expect would insist that gods do not exist anywhere near the extent that nations and money do, for if not, we would understand from Harari’s words that, like nations, gods divide up geographical spheres of influence, and like money, gods do in fact make the world go around. But this is the smallest problem with what he says, for none of us has any doubt that nations do exist. Harari apparently means that they would not exist without human consent, and the same goes for money – that is, these are entities dependent upon general human consent for their very existence.

This is true, but if that means that these are “things that don’t exist,” before you know it we will have to make do not just without nations, but without human beings as well, for the category of “human” also exists solely by virtue of human consent. Without the conscious ability to perceive distinct mammals and include them under a single abstract heading, all that would exist would be an undifferentiated collection of various individual organisms. The category of “science,” which Harari is so fond of citing in support of his ideas, also exists only due to human consent. The scientific method is a human creation, and the definition of a scientific experiment, and the way in which one should draw conclusions from it, are also utterly dependent upon human consent. Before Harari draws conclusions on the basis or the lack of “scientific proof,” he should take note that it, too, is a consensual entity.

But above and beyond all of these issues, a dangerous utilitarian moral stance arises from the discussion between these two thinkers. As noted above, this is a worldview that flattens and breaks down reality exclusively into units of suffering and pleasure, and that measures each action on a scale calibrated to identify these two things and nothing else. A commonly seen slogan on the T-shirts of vegan protesters is “We Are All Equal In Our Suffering,” and the same slogan can be found on the website of the 269 animal rights group, the movement that recently placed decapitated calves’ heads in various public squares in Tel Aviv. Suffering here is the common denominator among all living beings, and what makes them, despite being clearly distinguishable from one another by any other measure, “equal.”

This anti-humanist attitude not only fails to see any unique value to human life, but also fails to accord any value to life at all, instead measuring it solely in terms of the suffering or pleasure that it produces. This is the darks side of that heightened sensitivity to suffering which is gaining strength in this day and age. Amid the crumbling of universal ideals (not to mention traditional moral values), it is coming to be perceived as the sole valid index. In a world in which the pursuit of “experiences” and pleasure has become the only thing motivating us to action (Why travel to India? Why do drugs? Why see a movie? Why change jobs? – “for the experience”), causing suffering is becoming the only reason to abstain from an action.

Of course, there is an important moral dimension to our desire not to cause suffering to another being (I myself have been a vegetarian for the past 17 years). Compassion, empathy and respect of others’ wellbeing are all important elements of our moral framework. But a moral world that is reduced solely to equations of suffering and pleasure is a shallow one, incapable of grasping a complex picture in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (as is the case, for example, with human society).

In fact, such a world, ultimately, also cannot explain why it is morally wrong to cause suffering. Yes, suffering is “unpleasant,” but then quite a few cultures consider the unpleasant or uncomfortable to have positive ethical value (See: asceticism). When Harari says that “gods, nations and human rights” are “things that don’t really exist,” he ought to bear in mind that the utilitarian notion that suffering must be prevented does not ”really exist” either. A less simplistic argument is needed in order to present a valid and convincing vegetarian or vegan stance.


Published in Haaretz

Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

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