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Isn't it pretty?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Pesach Thoughts

Pesach has been on my mind, for various reasons. All the cleaning that needs to be done (no, I'm not going crazy, just doing the minimum necessary, but my car DOES need to be cleaned), and making arrangements for meals and accommodations. I know I have it super-easy, because I won't be hosting anyone and I'm actually going to be taking advantage of the very kind hospitality of others. I'm also really excited about Pesach because I'm heading down to Baltimore to see all my friends there that I miss so much. And I managed to tack on a few extra days to beginning of my trip, so I'll be spending six days there getting to see everyone. I really can't wait; it's been WAY too long since my last visit (almost six months!).

With all this Pesach preparation, I’ve been trying to think about the meaning of the holiday as well. Pesach is about freedom. It's interesting to me that this freedom from the bondage of slavery in Egypt leads to the yoke of Torah. That the very holiday in which we celebrate our release from the hardship of forced labor is commemorated by even more rules and restrictions than we typically follow. That we talk about the horrible work that we are released from during this time, only to have prepared for the holiday by cleaning and scrubbing and laboring and cooking.

I think what I have to learn from this is that we are all held captive by our personal demons, our self-induced bondage. And it takes hard work and sometimes other rules in order to free us from those demons. And I think this hard work is different for each person. As an aspiring therapist and someone who has tried to take a hard, honest look at myself, I definitely see how our own issues hold us back and keep us from achieving our potential. There is no magic wand to wave that will take those chains away - it takes the cleaning out, the scouring and the elbow grease to make us sparkly and clean, to let us shine. And that shine is maintained by rules and restrictions that don't allow us to fall back into old, bad habits. It's constant work, rather than careless and carefree floating.

Are the rules the same for each person? Do they come in a one-size-fits-all easy handbook? Unfortunately, no. Each person has to find and write their own rulebook in many ways, as each of us has our own challenges. Yes, you could argue that everyone has the same basic set of rules to follow, but the personal is in the details - as each of us is different and unique, our work and rules and ultimately, freedom, will be a slightly different version.

This Pesach, I'm going to be looking for my freedom and writing my rulebook and detailing the work I have cut out for me. Have a wonderful Pesach!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Knowing What the Future Holds

Being newly committed to being a cultured and up-to-date person, I was perusing the NY Times yesterday (yes, on my day off!) and I came across this article about a woman who undergoes genetic testing and discovers that she has the gene for Huntington's disease, a neurological disorder that truncates one's life and debilitates a person's quality of life due to the death of brain cells.

The woman featured in the article voluntarily underwent this genetic testing to find out whether she would develop the disease. The introduction to the article asks "If you carried the gene for a fatal genetic disease, would you want to know? Why or why not?"

To me, this is similar to the idea of Dor Yeshorim testing that many Orthodox Jews undergo in order to determine whether a potential spouse would be genetically incompatible with someone else. The way this testing is done is that you don't find out whether you are actually a carrier for a disease, but only whether both you and the person you are checking on are carriers, and therefore extremely likely to pass genetic problems on to your children. This is not as much of a predictive test as was discussed in the article, but they are similar concepts.

I've never been registered with Dor Yeshorim. I am very uncomfortable with the idea of, what seems to me, to make the attempt to predict what will happen, or avoid what may or may not happen. The idea of saying whether two people are compatible based on their genetic makeup just doesn't sit very well with me. I know the arguments - that you might as well avoid the heartache of having to deal with such horrible diseases and suffering in one's children, but I guess I just look and see that there are so many things that happen that can't be predicted and it seems weird to me to even try.

So, going back to the NY Times article, would I undergo such testing so I would know what my future holds in relation to a disabling genetic disease? It's different than in the Dor Yeshorim testing, because this is an absolute predictor. The woman who underwent the test found out that she would develop Huntington's disease and the test even gave her an estimated age at which it would begin to surface.

I understand the desire to want to prepare oneself and make the time one has left before developing such an illness as full and rich as possible. But the fear and dread that one is left with every day until the symptoms start really appearing - and the suspicion that every little pain or sniffle might be leading to it - I think that wouldn't be worth the knowledge. The fact that you would be waiting for it, without even having the option of thinking that maybe it wouldn't strike - to me, that would make my quality of life diminish.

Maybe it's because I'm not really a worrying type. I don't worry about so many things. I don't really live in fear of much. I even had to be trained to lock my doors (though I now do lock them) because I just don't have that quality that seems to lead people to fret and be scared. But to me, I wouldn't want to know. I would hope, and do hope, that I lead my life to the fullest I can without such an ominous future ahead. Because you never really know what's going to happen anyway.

I don't know, maybe I just like to cover my eyes and not see the reality of what life can offer. But I would rather be blind and live life each day without knowing what will happen the next. Would you want to know?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

An Anthropological Look at Religion

I just finishing reading this (rather long) article (hat-tip to ALG). It's a fascinating read, merging two prime interests of mine - religion and the brain. The article discusses a couple different evolutionary theories about why religion is so predominant amongst humans in every generation and civilization.

The first theory discussed is that the neurological desire to create a religion is a byproduct of some other need. But I didn't find the theory especially compelling because the explanation of the theory that the article offered didn't give any kind of substantial primary need that would explain such a byproduct. (Just a caveat - I don't know any more about the theory than was offered in the article. It is possible that those theorizing do have a primary need that I am not aware of.)

The second theory that the article discussed was that religion was an evolutionary adaptation of the brain meant for our survival as a group. This theory made a bit more sense to me, especially when discussing it from the standpoint of group dynamics, because I think religion is so much a group process and to study it only from the aspect of individual dynamics leaves a lot out.

It's interesting to me that most of the scientists involved in the theories discussed in the article are atheists who are studying religion. I have had encounters in college with many a science-oriented atheist. And honestly, I've never really understood it. (Though maybe I am naive.) But in general, while I do have questions about particular religious thoughts and denominations, I have never been able to deny that there is a God, or gods, or some kind of supernatural higher power. For me, the more I learn about the incredible complexity of the world and the body and science in general, the less I can believe it happened by chance, with no force behind it. My mind certainly can't conceive even an inkling of what had to happen in order for the world to be the way it is, so I don't really understand how someone can reasonably believe without doubt that there was no higher power involved. But that's just me, and the point of this post is not to debate theism vs. atheism (been there, done that, no winners because there is no proof either way).

I guess what really comes up when reading the article is, if these theorists are correct, and religion is an evolutionary adaptation or byproduct of the brain, does that necessarily mean there is no God? If scientists can prove that there is a neurological pattern and logic for believing in an afterlife, a high power, or deeper meaning, does that prove that it's all bull as well?

I don't think it necessarily does. Maybe it proves that specific religious beliefs and codes and strictures are falsified and created in order to serve some purpose in the grand evolutionary scheme of sustaining ourselves and attempting to maintain survival of the fittest in regards to the fittest religion. Maybe they could pick apart different religious practices and rituals and find the reason humans developed them in a grand survivalistic code.

But all that still can't say that there is no God. It still can't compel me to accept that just because there is a reason for it means that it isn't true. Yes, maybe God is a construct of the brain and religion is the dressing for that construct. Maybe. But maybe there's something to it and that is the reason so many throughout history have been compelled to use such beliefs as some kind of survival mechanism.

Again, the more I learn about how the world is put together, the more compelled I am to believe in some kind of power outside of random chance. I practice Judaism - do I know for sure that it's the right explanation? Nope. But I do have the desire to pay some kind of respects to what makes the most sense to me, so I do my best. Does that mean I don't accept the findings of scientists and the study of evolution? Nope, and I don't think that believing in religion means you have to reject those. I make my best efforts to marry all the information that is compelling and with what information I have, I believe.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Purim Sameach!

I want to wish everyone a fun, joyous Purim! Head on over to Serandez or the Muqata for the Purim Podcast - it's lots of fun - enjoy!