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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A treppenwitz moment

Some newcomers may not have given much thought to the name 'treppenwitz'... thinking that it is just a nonsense word, or perhaps even my name.  My 'about me' page actually explains what it means, but it bears repeating because there is a very serious reason for the name:

'Treppenwitz' is a German word for which there is no real English equivalent.  It literally means the 'wit/wisdom of the stairs', and in usage, it is meant to describe the belated realization of the perfect retort to a lively conversation/argument with someone... only as you are already on the stairs leaving the building.

Sound familiar? Anyone???

Personally, I experience this phenomenon of treppenwitz on such a regular basis that when it came time to name this journal, there was simply no other moniker in the running.

So, apropos of this site's name, I'd like to share a story from this past weekend:

This past Shabbat we had a family visiting from the U.S. join us in our home.  The parents are dear friends of Zahava's from her University days at Wash. U. in St. Louis, and as often happens with couples, they have managed to create a beautiful family over the years.  Bottom line, we like them a lot... which is why we had them over.

As often happens with old friends, the conversation over one of Zahava's delicious dinners was a rollicking combination of 'catching up', sharing news/views, and the usual taboo subjects; religion and politics (we eschewed sex for Yonah's sake). 

At one point near the end of the meal, one of their daughters casually floored me with the kind of honest statement that only the young can manage;  she frankly explained that she was personally against all organized religion, and that she felt religion was at the root the world's ills.

Wow.  Just wow.  Where do you go from there?

First of all, I should mention that this young woman is no dummy.   Just based on what I know of her parents, she and her siblings have all won the equivelant of the genetic lottery when it comes to smarts. Seriously... scary smarts all around.  So, pooh-poohing her thesis about religion would be a disingenuous and cruel condescension to a bright young woman. 

Also, there was a part of me that had to conceal a smile at hearing her statement, as I could easily have seen myself making similar pronouncements at her age.  And to be clear, I was every bit as certain of myself then as I am now. 

So, having once felt as she does, I wanted to gently point out that one never knows where life's experiences will lead.  So instead of staking out a position of my own or asking her to defend hers, I simply offered the following quote (which I misattributed at the time to Twain) that I hoped would allow for her position... as well as for the possibility that her ideas might change over time:

“If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”

~Winston Churchill~

But, being that; a) I am an observant practitioner of an organized religion; and b) I have roughly three times the life experience of this young woman, my first instinct was to gently challenge her to defend her position.  This is where treppenwitz came into play.  When faced with such a sweeping generalization, the mind quite literally goes into lock-down... and doesn't know where to go.  Until later, that is.

After we had said our good-byes and parted ways, I kept turning over in my mind the enormity of what she'd said... and all the possible things I should have offered in response (i.e. classic treppenwitz).  So with the indulgence of the regular readers here, I'd like to address the following to that bright young woman as if she were still seated at my table:

Dear ----------,

You are absolutely correct in your statement that organized religion has had a hand in many of the world's ills.  In fact, I would go so far as to concede that organized religion was at the root of some (though certainly not all) of the darkest and most savage chapters in human history. 

But before we lay all the world's problems at the feet of religion, maybe it makes sense to set out a few things where they can be seen and fairly considered by all.

First of all, since no religion is in complete agreement with any other in all it's tenets and beliefs, and no religion has absolute proof of its validity as the 'correct' one... it would be pointless to try to come to any kind of consensus on thesepoints.  In short, let's agree for the moment that matters of faith will remain so.  I won't try to prove to you (or anyone else) that G-d exists so long as you acknowledge the futility of trying to prove the opposite.

Next, let's share a John Lennon moment and imagine a world with no religion, no possessions, no countries, no promise of heaven or threat of hell, etc..  Mr. Lennon (of whom I'm a tremendous fan) made a few logical leaps in his song that, when examined closely, don't quite hold up.

To begin with, he posits that without the things I've mentioned above (religion, possessions, countries, etc.), there would be "nothing to kill or die for"... and "no need for greed or hunger".   But that isn't quite true is it? 

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think John Lennon was advocating a descent into anarchy in his song... where everyone can simply take what they want/need.  So we can safely assume that he had a kinder/gentler set of civic organization/rules to replace religion that would keep people from slaughtering one another over the limited resources.  

And we can also assume that he didn't have some secret remedy for the basic human condition, so barring some sort of miracle, people will always want more of whatever is available... and therefore greed and hunger aren't likely to be going anywhere unless held in abeyance; again, by some set of enforceable rules.

So what rules are we talking about if not religious ones?

What many fail to recognize is that countries tend to organize themselves according to rules and principals that are somewhat analogous to the tenets of the religion(s) practiced by its population.  In both there exists the concept of, if not reward for adherence... then at least of punishment for transgression.

However the main difference between civil and religious ordinances is the extent to which the ruling authority (e.g. G-d or the government) is perceived to be aware of what people are/are not doing. 

Let's take a couple of simple examples where individual needs and the needs of society collide; speed limits and income tax.  Both enshrined in law, but both tend to be observed only to the extent that they can be enforced. 

For example, in the case of income tax, if you know that certain financial transactions (such as those conducted with cash), are outside the ken of the government, there is a tremendous motive to understate (or neglect to report altogether) such income.  Even though we know that the taxes we pay are the life blood of our government, we tend to favor our own benefit over that of society. 

By the same token, if you know from experience that a stretch of road is rarely, if ever, patrolled by police for speeders, you are much more likely to travel at a speed that is comfortable for your needs/schedule than at the posted speed limit.  You know that by exceeding the speed limit you not only breaking the law, but you may be endangering yourself, your passengers and others who share the road.  But your own needs - especially if you are running late - tend to win out over the needs of society.

Organized religion, like an organized state, offers a codified set of rules.  But instead of (or sometimes in addition to) human enforcement (think peer pressure, not inquisition), there is the added belief in an omniscient authority to whom one is ultimately answerable for transgressions.

To give even more examples, while most societies have laws against theft, assault, arson, graft, extortion, murder, etc., to keep people from having a negative impact on one another, there is a 'wild west' mentality that kicks in when the Sheriff is perceived as being weak or absent (i.e. when the likelihood of being caught/punished is remote). 

One of the best examples of this can be found in one of the most chilling books I have ever read;  William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'.  In it, the both religious and civil authority are suddenly removed from the lives of a small group of humans stranded on a small island.  Though a few of the castaways try in vain to re-create the safe, structured society of their homeland, they discover that the rule of law is difficult  or impossible to bring to bear when there is no enforcement except (by rule of force).

So aside from the theological aspect of organized religion (i.e. the worship of/belief in a higher entity), you have to admit that having a codified set of behavioral laws in the framework of a community where the 'sheriff' is omnipresent/omnipotent (i.e. religion), kinda closes up some of the incentive to cheat.

Now, obviously I have already decided what team I'm on.  Call me 'observant' or 'orthodox' or whatever floats your boat.  But I subscribe to a particular religious doctrine.  Full stop.

You are obviously free to opt out of religion altogether.  But even if you claim no religious beliefs, you will still benefit from the fact that many around you still adhere to some sort of organized belief system... kind of like the way kids whose parents opt out of organized immunization programs are still protected from infection by the majority who do get there shots.  If everyone suddenly stopped getting there immunizations, we'd see a huge resurgence of diseases we thought were banished to obscurity, if not oblivion!  By the same token, if everyone suddenly opted out of religion, I believe we'd see a huge surge in lawlessness.

So with that in mind, I want you to think about what would happen if religion suddenly disappeared from the world.  Most people refrain from stealing from one another because it is morally wrong, not because it is illegal.  The proof of this can be found in the roadside produce stands in and around rural America where passers-by can take what they want and leave their payment in the unattended cash box.  That system works because of trust and honor codified in various religious beliefs, not because the act of stealing the produce and the cash is illegal!

That concept of trust/honor is what I think of when I hear the word religion.  Religion doesn't have to be Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist.  It can be any organized moral/ethical code that keeps people from acting badly towards one another... even when there is no risk of being observed/caught.

Of course, there are religions whose beliefs bring them into conflict with others (I don't really need to name names, do I?), and this is absolutely a problem every bit as serious as that of a nation that feels it is entitled to infringe on the rights/resources of its neighbors/citizens.  But this doesn't mean all religion is bad any more than the idea of national sovereignty is bad.  It simply means that some religions - and some nations - will periodically need to be confronted... and if necessary, de-fanged.

I don't profess to have all, or even most, of the answers.  But I do know that as I take each additional trip around the sun, I become more convinced that there are very few absolutes in the world. 

I can't wait for your next visit to our home.  It was a pleasure meeting you and I'm sure we have much to learn from each other.

Posted by David Bogner on June 10, 2009 | Permalink


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I view religion as something that helps bring out the best in you - or it should. The concept is that a person can be a good and caring person without being religious...but, being observant within a religious movement should help you follow a path that is good and therefore help guide you at the times when natural instincts may threaten to take you in the "wrong" direction.

Yes, we should all resist stealing. The idea of religion is that for those times when the temptation overwhelms the ingrained sense of right and wrong, the religion stands there to say, "Don't do this." You might well get to that point without the religion - all the better, but it should help guide you for the times when you might otherwise fall.

Those religions that encourage you to do wrong, that glorify death and suicide or inflicting pain on others...they fail the test of what a religion should be. Of course, often it is the people who interpret the religion and attempt to speak for it, and not the religion itself that is at fault. In this case, it is even more important for others within that religion to stand up and denounce the poisoning of their beliefs.

Anyway - this is a wonderful, well-written, clearly presented post...as usual.


Posted by: A Soldier's Mother | Jun 10, 2009 2:33:46 PM

I don't disagree with the young woman's statement either. But maybe it's a little bit like matters of the heart - sometimes logical, sometimes not, sometimes rewarding, sometimes not. Wars have been fought over love. One is perfectly welcome to refrain from the whole enterprise, but there is something about this basic human need that makes it hard to resist. We give it our best shot and hope for the best. It's the human condition, isn't it?

Posted by: Ari | Jun 10, 2009 3:47:20 PM

Outstanding post, as usual. In a response to the popularity of the books of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, which made a similar assertion to the one made by this young woman, Chief Rabbi Dr. Sir Jonathan Sacks pointed out that many of the world's major conflicts were, in fact, fought on the basis of religion. However, the two most destructive movements, the ones responsible for killing the most people- namely, Nazism and Communism- were atheistic movements bent on eradicating any kind of religion or religiously imposed moral code.

Posted by: babyrabbi | Jun 10, 2009 4:18:08 PM

Great Response. Just a day late and a dollar short

Posted by: Ed | Jun 10, 2009 5:02:31 PM

I wouldn't blame all of tthe worlds evils on religion, but I wouldn't say that you have to be religious to be moral either.

Posted by: Jack | Jun 10, 2009 6:46:18 PM

Excellent response: but most young opinions are rationalizations, not reason. In any case, I highly recommend William Pfaff's book, The Bullet's Song, in which he examines the Twentieth Century's utopian movements and the unprecedented barbarism they generated. The problem with religion is that, like all utopian ideologies, it generates a messianic certainty that The Great Purpose justifies any means of reaching it.

Posted by: Barzilai | Jun 10, 2009 7:12:30 PM

"Wasn't it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?" - Elvis Costello

Posted by: Yeshara | Jun 10, 2009 8:58:05 PM

David, now I'm confused. Does "treppenwitz" mean the "wisdom of the stairs", or the "Tolstoy novel of the stairs"?

Posted by: Late Night Thinker | Jun 10, 2009 9:30:44 PM

I'm with Jack - - you can be moral without being religious.

But nice post, as always.

Posted by: val | Jun 10, 2009 10:46:37 PM

If she hates organized religion, we Christians have just what she wants: disorganized religion.

Posted by: Bob | Jun 11, 2009 1:46:19 AM

Good POST!
Religion does not force us to be good. But it gives a good push or two.

Posted by: rickismom | Jun 11, 2009 2:02:42 AM


Posted by: Rami | Jun 11, 2009 12:06:43 PM

A rather long winded way of saying that religion has produced many terrible crimes against humanity, but has also inspired things of great benefit.
There, that was easy...

Posted by: cyberdov | Jun 11, 2009 3:38:47 PM

I enjoy the long-winded Tolstoy / Dostoevsky versions ... nice :)

Posted by: Seattle | Jun 12, 2009 12:02:16 AM

enjoyed this post!! especially because just tonight my daughter made one of those bombastic statements that clearly had thought behind it (something about believing that there will never be an end to war). She caught me completely off guard. Luckily, Moshe is much quicker on the uptake. We ended up having a really interesting conversation.

Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Jun 12, 2009 1:15:18 AM

I don't care what you believe. I care very much what you do with whatever beliefs you have.

Posted by: Elisson | Jun 12, 2009 6:32:28 AM

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