Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gay marriage impacts everyone

Congratulations to gays and the marriage equality movement for a major victory in New York. But rather than marching along in a pride parade, I need to be contrarian and point out one small but significant area in which the opponents of gay marriage actually have a point. It's not a decisive point by any means -- I still favor allowing gays to marry and so should you -- but it nags at me.

The pro-gay-marriage position is based on the idea of individual and equal rights, and a standard argument for it is that allowing gays to marriage cannot have any conceivable impact on heterosexual marriages (eg here or here). This seems very wrong to me. Despite this argument generally coming from the left, its underpinnings are identical to the libertarian/conservative dismissal of social reality, put in its starkest form by Margaret Thatcher's line "there is no society; there are only individuals". Well, no. Society is a real thing, we are all involved in it in one way or another, and it is involved with our lives. Marriage is a social institution, not merely something two individuals decide of their own free and independent wills to do. This is true of pretty much everything, but it's glaringly obvious in the case of marriage, which comes with a huge set of legal, social, and cultural baggage.

So extending the bounds of marriage to include same-sex couples is in fact a big change that impacts everyone, whether or not they themselves are going to get hitched to someone with similar genes and plumbing. Conservatives are right to sense this. Society works by means of norms and institutions, which are very real things (and sorry if I sound like a college freshman who has been bowled over by his Soc 101 course, but my naive and amateurish interest in the sociological won't be still) and changing them changes the world for everyone.

Now, that particular bit of truth is quite separate from the idea that such a change is necessarily pernicious. And even if it was, those theoretical harms would have to be balanced with the very real harms done to individuals by denying them equal rights.

But proponents of marriage equality should be careful in their arguments. Extending individual freedom is great, but pretending that it doesn't have any impact on society is a bad tactic because it isn't true, and people (including the people who need to be convinced in order to continue the legislative victories) know that it isn't true.

The issue is complicated by the fact that marriage generally has a religious and a secular component, but they are tightly interwoven. Proposals to split it up and get government out of the marriage business entirely and just have it manage the legal relationship of civil union made a lot of sense, but that's not the way things have been playing out. Marriage has remained a unified concept and that's where the battle is taking place, and if our side wins let's not pretend that there was a ground to fight over and the other side has not lost something.

The larger issue is that the left should not be in the business of making libertarian arguments and ceding the ground of society to conservatives.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why do religion?

I feel a need to apologize for or explain the recent excursion into mystical shit. Why, I'm not sure – who am I apologizing to? Myself I guess. Does anyone else care? In part it was motivated by a feeling that I have to put some money where my mouth is. If I really believe, as I've said here on occasion, that religion is an important and fundamental part of being human, then I have to do it. Whatever religion is, it's not just something you think about or believe, it's something you practice. So I'm doing, in a fairly random and haphazard way, to be sure.

The whole Omer/Kabbalah stuff really just served as way to nucleate my usual self-absorption along certain lines that happened to be the same as other people in our synagogue's little study group. The point of this was to do this collectively, as part of a social group, which is not something I normally do. It's hard to make sense of that communal act out of its context – it is at least as much about doing something together with a particular group of people as it is about the ostensible content. Last week I was at a scientific meeting on synthetic biology (crashing it actually), and I'm struck by what ought to be by now a banal truth, which is that more than half the point of these things is networking or simply being there and constituting a social group, rather than some kind of pure disembodied information exchange. This is a pervasive phenomenon, but it's just more obvious in the case of religion than it is in cases where there are rational reasons for people to be together.

So religion is fundamentally social, just like everything else. I am someone who is (or at least perceives himself as) fundamentally asocial and areligious, and constantly working on trying to fix that.

What I ask of the free thinker is that he should confront religion in the same mental state as the believer…He who does not bring to the study of religion a sort of religious sentiment cannot speak about it! He is like a blind man trying to talk about colour.

The most bizarre or barbarous rites and the strangest myths translate some human need and some aspect of life, whether social or individual…Fundamentally, then, there are no religions that are false. All are true after their own fashion. All fulfill given conditions of human existence, though in different ways.

Because society can exist only in and by means of individual minds, it must enter into us and become organized within us. That force thus becomes an integral art of our being…

There cannot be a rational interpretation of religion which is fundamentally irreligious; an irreligious interpretation of religion would be an interpretation which denied the phenomenon it was trying to explain.

From my standpoint...religion ceases to be an inexplicable hallucination of some sort and gains a foothold in reality. Indeed, we can say that the faithful are not mistaken when they believe in the existence of a moral power to which they are subject and from which they receive what is best in themselves. That power exists, and it is society...In this way, religion acquires a sense and a reasonableness that the most militant rationalist cannot fail to recognize. The main object of religion is not to give man a representation of the natural universe...religion is first and foremost a system of ideas by means of which individuals imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet intimate relations they have with it.

– Emile Durkheim (the son of a rabbi, I just learned), The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Well, I could pull quotes from Durkheim all day, but the overarching point is that religion is about something real, and that whatever it is, is the same thing that animates social life in general. So, my interest in religion has two aspects: from the personal side, I do it to align myself with the social, something that I feel I need to do in order to be a mature adult (still working on that at my advanced age). And from the outside, I don't think you can understand politics without understanding religion, a point I touch on occasionally and is the subject of an interesting-sounding new book on "political theology".

We live in a dangerous time. The old gods are dead, the new ones have not sorted themselves out yet. I feel some sort of an obligation to be part of the sorting process.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Counting the Omer: Malkuth (Kingdom, Matter)

Here's where shit gets real, where the spiritual connects with the realm of matter. So to the materialist (ie, me, most of the time), this is the only realm that actually exists. I am in Malkuth, looking up. Or out. Or something.

Due primarily to the neo-platonic influences in the Kabbalah, Malkuth also is typically seen as a locus of evil, since the real materialized world can never measure up to the ideal. Anything coarse enough to actually exist has to be imperfect, hence distinct from the good, hence evil. This has to be one of the major bad ideas of all time, responsible for so much denial of reality and denial of the flesh and concomitant misery. Nonetheless, my assumption is that such a powerful idea must have an element of truth to it, or it would not be so persistent and pervasive, and reflected in so many things. For example, look at occupational status -- the more your job involves dealing with the physical on a day-to-day basis, the lower status it is, broadly speaking. It's interesting that there are exceptions to this general rule, such as surgeons and sculptors, and cooks at a high enough level. And you can look at the Maker cultural movement as an attempt to further elevate the status of the material. But in general people who push matter around for a living are beneath those who push words and symbols around. At this very moment I have people doing construction on my house, and while I have nothing but respect for their craft, the status differences are there and hard to ignore, although we try to do that here in the US.

Matter is also identified with the female (look at the etymology). It is receptive. In the Omer it represents an endpoint, the point where the Jews received the law at Sinai. That's another picture of the materialization of spirit. The Torah has an almost idolatrous place in Jewish life as a result, it is paraded around at services so that the community can touch it (of course idolatry is forbidden in the Torah itself). It's very strange, when you think about it, but apparent self-contradiction is just part of the religion game, all oppositions get reconciled in the infinite. Or something. God materializes into the law which materializes into scrolls which we can see and touch and read. Judaism itself has materialized itself around this particular document and practices, and old and strange thing, a community and set of practices which draw me in despite myself. I can't defend it, and I don't really have to. Judaism doesn't proselytize, it's not a belief system, it's the original community of practice. I find myself at the margins of it (and many others), drawn in a bit, repulsed a bit, trying to find a balance.

Malkuth is also identified with speech and expression, it is the locus where the inexpressible divine energy crystallizes as mere words. OK, not "mere" words, but words that somehow reflect authentic presence, that carry the holy fire. In today's world, where the written word is insanely abundant, where everyone's words are instantly uploaded, indexed, chopped up, and linked to ads by the trillions, it is hard to imagine what the earlier relationship with words was like -- before the internet, before printing, before mass literacy. It is strange that ancient attitudes and practices have survived the turmoil and inventiveness of the millenia, but there it is. "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Counting the Omer: Yesod (Foundation, Righteousness)

It's getting harder and harder to write something sensible about this stuff. But I press on, Shavuot is in sight. I promise at the end I will write something that explains/justifies for my alarmed readers why I am spending time on this nonsense.

Yesod is the sephira near but not quite at the bottom of the tree of life, a kind of gathering point for all the energies present in the other sephirot before they trickle down to reality, which is next week's subject. (Oddly enough my work involves a form of flux analysis in metabolic networks). It's identified with the "procreative organ" as the books so delicately put it. What does righteousness have to do with it? Well, the very first commandment was to be fruitful and multiply. Jews are obligated to make more Jews. The tzadik is the foundation of the world.

That's a very strange thought to my ususal materialist self. If righteousness and persons are anything at all, they aren't the foundation of the world but a late, epiphenomenal, accidental sort of thing. But maybe not. Maybe the universe was inevitably directed towards making entities that could perceive it (via anthropic selection if nothing else), and maybe such entities had to have a moral sense baked into their foundations, maybe it's an inevitable and necessary a part of intelligence. I can almost see that.

Also odd to me is the confluence of (pro)creation and righteousness. I tend to view creation as an amoral, wild sort of activity, whether it is influenced by the divine or not, it proceeds by its own rules and not some external law. But again, maybe not. Again, going back to the earliest parts of the Torah, the message is that God not only created the world but pronounced it good. And when I create something, I generally have some idea of goodness in mind that guides me. So maybe it's not so strange, maybe my ideas about creativity have been infected by a pernicious romanticism or something.

A fleeting idea of a sort of metaphysical Darwinian process: that which exists is good, what is good exists, and what exists is that which is capable of propagating itself, of procreating, of having its form persist and replicate across space and time. A tzadik is one who combines the moral, physical, spiritual, biological, and I-don't-know-what-other forms of this process into one handy human-shaped container.

Alright, that's enough of the acid flashbacks for now, got to walk the dog and take out the garbage here on planet Earth.

[and, let me just note, that while "what exists is good" may have some sort of truth in a visionary sense, that kind of thought doesn't survive for an instant once critical thought from the merely human perspective is applied to it. From that vantage, all sorts of existing things are manifestly not-so-good, from the Holocaust to polio to global warming to mundane everyday problems (we just had to have all of the heating ducts in our house replaced because they had originally been installed by incompetents and have been mostly eaten into by the local wildlife...) to all the individual tragedies of life (another suicide on the railroad tracks I ride to work on last night). The pollyanish, best-of-all-possible-worlds kind of attitude that sometimes accompanies religion is one of the major turnoffs/obstacles for me. But at least I can catch a glimpse of where it's coming from.]

Speaking of that: last week we touched on a line from the Torah that resonates with the above. Abraham tries to talk God out of destroying Sodom and Gommorrah and says "shall not the judge of all the Earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25). I was somewhat embarrassed that I recognized this from Alan Moore's Watchmen comic, but no matter. It's rather startling, in that we see a human teaching morality to God, chiding him even. There's a major part of the Jewish character rooted in that, a more familiar one than this mystical stuff, which seems linked with an unquestioning acceptance. Also contrast with Christian theology which has a whole branch dedicated to explaining away God's shitty behavior.

[[Update: Stumbled on this passage just after writing about my personal duct problems above:
Yesod means "foundation", and the sephira represents the hidden infrastructure whereby the emanations from the remainder of the Tree are transmitted to the sephira Malkhut. Just as a large building has its air-conditioning ducts, service tunnels, conduits, electrical wiring, hot and cold water pipes, attic spaces, lift shafts, winding rooms, storage tanks, and a telephone exchange, so does the Creation; the external, visible world of phenomenal reality rests (metaphorically speaking) upon a hidden foundation of occult machinery.