What Does Being Jewish Mean (To Me)?

[This is mostly an attempt to delve into my feelings, and as such, might be rambling a bit. You have been warned.]

My metaphysical beliefs: I believe that “supernatural” is something that cannot exist. Everything that exists is “in” nature. There might be many natural laws we have not found, of course, but that is beside the point. As such, the metaphysical concept of “God” as a sentient, intervening being is something I do not believe. There might be powerful sentient beings, of course, that use technologies we do not understand to do things which seem like “miracle”. I do not consider them “Gods”. I don’t believe in a “soul” that survives death — since such a thing would not have an evolutionary advantage, even editing it into the genome would not be enough — the genes for that would deteriorate. I believe that “free will” exists as an emergent property of complicated enough computing machinery* (and the brain as an example thereof). Even in a Newtonian universe (think a pre-quantum computer with vacuum tubes running a neuron-by-neuron brain simulator) it is useful to treat this as “free will” since predicting the behavior giving inputs is as hard as full simulation.

*Yes, emergent is just a description, so let me make this clearer in a footnote: when the computational equipment becomes complex enough that predicting it is simulating it, it exhibits what is in essence free will: we cannot make general predictions about its choices with absolute certainty without a full “uploading” — and even then, since tiny changes can magnify in these circumstances, our simulation must be unreasonably precise. This lack of predictability of human choice is logically equivalent to having free will.

My moral beliefs: I believe that morality is a force as real as magnetism — meaning, it can be treated either as an emergent properties of other forces, but it is easier to treat as a force in and of itself. Morality exists in all beings — from viruses to mammals (an aside about viruses — there are “asshole” viruses which do not contain all the parts necessary to make a cell copy them, counting on other viruses on carrying this baggage). In human beings, free will interacts with morality to mean that the choice of behaving morally or immorally is up to our decision.

What God means to me: God, for me, is the anthropomorphized version of morality. As such, its existence is as real as that of morality (see above). Since the human mind is superbly built for social thinking (in many experiments, the same logical puzzle was much easier for people to solve when phrased in terms of social relationships), a personified God is a useful tool for us in being moral people.

Why Judaism is important to me: Being Jewish is about being the people “chosen” to be a “light for the nations” — I believe in upholding myself to a high moral standard in order to inspire morality in others. The rituals of Judaism are a way to achieve it — some in just marking ourselves, others in reminding us of specific ways we can help people, and some by a generic reminder of our duty to be good people.

Historical accuracy: The G’marah tells us, “be as servants who do not work for a reward”. Reward and punishment are crutches for morality, not morality itself. This is ultimately what “truth cannot contradict truth” (Maimonades) boils down to — science can teach us the ways the world works, but how we should act is a truth wholly different than that. In the thirteen principles of faith, it says “[God] has no body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever”, which plainly contradicts any “physical” God.

Do I want you to be Jewish?: No. I want people to be good and kind to one another. Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, tailored for us. If you are inspired to do good, you are encouraged to do it using whatever religious (or non-religious) framework you find comfortable.

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One Response to What Does Being Jewish Mean (To Me)?

  1. Yarko says:

    Nicely written, Moshe –

    w.r.t. to your comments about soul, surviving after death, and evolutionary advantages, I would share with you to a nice little essay. It has similarities to your argument/statement that a personified God is a useful tool for being moral; likewise living on (soul) may be a useful metaphor, evolutionarily and perhaps otherwise.

    This is the essay I refer to – the last chapter in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Finding Flow”, entitled “Love of Fate.”

    I hope you enjoy it!
    I look forward to seeing you at PyCon again 🙂
    – Yarko

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