Yuval HarariIt’s already hard to remember, with election fever raging all around us, what triggered this expensive, unnecessary mess we’re now in. I’m talking about the “Jewish State” bill, of course. It wasn’t the only culprit, but it was a big one.

What’s most interesting about the Jewish State law is not whether it was a deliberate provocation intended to force a change in government or whether it will return after the next Knesset is formed. Rather it’s that, from an evolutionary point of view, how unsurprising and in some ways even inevitable this bill is.

My thinking comes from Yuval Noah Harari, author of a huge Israeli bestseller called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari is a senior lecturer in the department of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His book came out in Hebrew in 2011 and stayed at the top of the charts for two years. (It will be published in the U.S. in early 2015.) He also teaches a free online class on the subject which is available on the website Coursera.

Sapiens traces the history of humanity from our various homo-ancestors, through the cognitive, agricultural, scientific and industrial revolutions, and on to where we may be going as a species in the near future. I’ve been taking the Sapiens course online and it’s spellbinding – no mean trick given that it’s almost exclusively a series of videos with Harari sitting in an armchair and lecturing to the camera.

In the second part of the course, Harari examines how human beings were able to organize into the large complex societies we see today. Written language and the ability to create “imagined realities” (stories we tell ourselves about how the world works) are two critical factors. It’s a third that relates to the Jewish State bill and that has been particularly eye opening for me.

In order for human beings to live in groups of more than a few dozen, Harari posits, we have no choice but to divide people up into categories: men and women; different religions, races and tribes; royalty and peasants; “us” and “them.” We don’t do this because we are inherently power-hungry or racist (although there are certainly people like that). Nor is this just some condescension to the weaknesses of early civilizations, something that we will ultimately transcend on the way to an egalitarian future where everyone is equal.

No, these hierarches, explains Harari, are essential to our ability to function when you can’t know every single one of your neighbors. For example, if you meet someone new, you can’t spend the time to get to know that person intimately; you need to make some snap judgments, to put that person in a box, so to speak, however limited that may be, so you can move on to interact with the next person.

This becomes all the more critical if you want to be able to live together in a village or city with hundreds, thousands or millions of people. Who can you trust? Who can you count on in a pinch? Who’s lazy and interested only in their own advancement? Who’s skilled in mediating arguments? Who would make a good mate? Who’s better at fighting and who’s better at writing poetry?

You need to quickly gather these broad if crude data points if the group is going to work together. But no one mind can keep track of so much information. So we create categories. We codify laws and write everything down. It’s a key advantage and one of the cognitive tricks that made humans so dominant, Harari says.

This isn’t a necessarily evil activity. When you say “I’m a lawyer” “he’s a journalist,” or “she’s a rabbi,” you’re defining yourself with the expansive strokes necessary for others to grasp your “essential nature” in a word or two, confident that your true friends and family will have the time and interest to get to know the “real” you.

Jewish law and practice, in its earliest biblical motivations, was all about creating categories that would allow a tightly defined, culturally distinct society to function. If a stranger wanted to insinuate himself into the Jewish tribe, there were (and still are) a lot of touch points he had to get right. Does he eat like a Jew (and know the rules and minutia)? Does he dress as you’d expect? And most important, is he circumcised? Kind of hard to fake that one.

The thing is: a lot of these categories about who’s in and who’s out are “accidents of history,” claims Harari. He brings the example of the caste system in India. According to many historians, raiders from Central Asia entered the Indian subcontinent around 3,000 years ago. They had more sophisticated technology (two-wheel chariots, for example), but they were far fewer in number than the local population which they subjugated.

The invaders needed a way to differentiate between those in power and the soon to be subservient masses. So they created “a stratified society in which they occupied the leading positions – the priests, warriors and kings – and the natives were left to work as peasants and slaves,” Harari says in his course. The invaders, then, “fearing they might lose their unique identity and privileged status, divided the population into castes which had different legal status and duties.”

Castes determined who you could associate with, who you could marry, what jobs you could hold and where you could live. Over time, these rules and prohibitions became an integral part of Hindu religion and mythology. “In order to convince everyone that the caste system was not a human invention,” the ruling elite presented it as reflecting “a kind of cosmic order whose purpose was to protect society from impurity,” Harari continues.

The concept of “impurity” has long been a popular way of oppressing certain segments of society, Harari continues, and we see it in many different religions and cultures (including Judaism). That’s because it’s rooted in a biological reality, where “through a long evolutionary process, people developed a fear of polluting themselves by coming in contact with things that might give them diseases, like rotting corpses or bad food,” Harari explains. But eventually social systems “hijacked these biological mechanisms and turned it against certain groups of people rather than dead bodies.”

Eventually, people forgot the historical reasons thousands of years ago for the creation of castes, but the system lives on as the “natural” way of things. Harari’s point: human society can’t function without categorization but most of the hierarchies it creates are almost entirely these accidents of history.

I was sharing this idea with a friend recently. “But surely the Jewish people is not an accident,” she countered. “Look how long we’ve survived! Where are the Romans today? Where are the ancient Greeks or Egyptian or Babylonians?”

It’s tempting to paint our survival over the millennia as unique, but that’s only because we survived. Had certain Caesars made different political and religious choices, Rome might still be here, and we’d be talking pig Latin about how gladiator culture not Judaism is the historical outlier.

Harari’s analysis is both illuminating…and profoundly depressing. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I took John Lennon’s words as my own religious doctrine (even if he was arguing for the opposite). Imagine a world with no countries, no possessions, nothing to kill or die for, he sang. It was the ultimate flat world, where egalitarianism and equality would reign supreme. This, surely, was where humankind was heading.

As we wind up 2014, though, Lennon’s vision seems farther away than ever. The need to define who’s in and who’s out has led to countless wars over borders and belief. ISIS is ascendant. Hamas and Hezbollah are unrepentant. And at home, our former government relentlessly pushed a law to further shrink the boundaries of Jewish national identity that inflamed our neighbors, wrecked a coalition and made us question the wisdom of our leaders. And yet, sadly, it is entirely in keeping with this deep human requirement to build walls between people and strengthen divisions.

What Harari taught me is that there’s no other way. And as long as we have no desire (or ability) to return to the days of the hunter-gatherer, we will continue to do so. Maybe that’s OK, though. If we accept this as our human reality and we understand why we do what we must do, we can also try our best to mitigate the most harmful hierarchies. And there has been improvement. After all, slavery was abolished in the U.S. Gender distinctions are diminishing. Fascism, despite some very high profile pockets of dubious distinction, is clearly on the global decline.

If we still have to create categories, then I want to be in the one that works towards that better future John Lennon was singing about. It may be pushing against tens of thousands of years of evolution, but we can still imagine.

I first wrote about the evolutionary inevitability of hierarchies and categorization at The Jerusalem Post.

Sapiens will be published by Harper in the U.S. in February 2015.


Carolyn TalWhen we made aliyah 20 years ago, did we come expecting that there would be war in our future? On a certain level, I suppose we knew that we were moving to a dangerous neighborhood and that conflict was probable. But we repressed that kind of thinking. You had to – why would we willingly uproot our family to put them in harm’s way? So we told ourselves stories: Peace is just around the corner. Wars are yesterday’s news. Soon we’ll be able to drive to Damascus for an exotic weekend and authentic baklava.

So when the inevitable fighting came – and in my years here, I’ve lived through a brutal Intifada (and maybe another one starting up right before our eyes), a war in Lebanon and three “operations” in Gaza – each time it hit me like a punch to closed eyes, a smack that rather than knocking you out, wakes you up to the cruel reality of the modern Middle East.

That’s a good thing, says Dr. Carolyn Tal, who heads up Tal Consulting. Cultivating a sense of realism is the first step towards developing resilience in the face of ongoing uncertainty.

Tal has spent the last few weeks giving lectures on “Developing Resilience” to English speaking immigrants at offices of the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) around the country. Her series is meant to address the continuing fear many have experienced post-Operation Protective Edge (and for Jerusalemites, the ongoing effects of the riots and attacks that have rocked the city).

Tal, who made aliyah herself from Chicago in 1991, says that in order to effectively respond to the challenges of the next war or attack – or, for that matter, to “smaller” scale dramas like a nasty boss or a difficult relationship – you have to develop “realistic optimism.” That is, she told an AACI group in Jerusalem, “to realistically recognize that the road of life has bumps, and to optimistically believe that we have or can develop the abilities needed to manage those bumps well.”

It all comes down to expectations. She gives the example of a traffic signal while you’re driving down a street. You know you’ll get a red light from time to time. You expect it, so it doesn’t throw you for a loop. That’s being realistic. In the same way, if you expect there will be another war or that violence in this region will never entirely abate, you’re not being fatalistic; rather you’re being realistic and it’s easier to deal with bumps when you expect them. She even suggests using a trigger word when a challenge presents itself. “Yell out BUMP when that setback appears,” she says. Labeling can remind you to be more mindful and not get lost in a destructive story.

Problem solving is another important tool Tal recommends. But you have to know which problem you’re trying to solve. During Operation Protective Edge, our soldiers were on the front lines risking their lives. Some of us had children in those tanks. But is that our problem? Is there anything we can realistically do to increase the soldiers’ safety? Not really.

Similarly, other than endlessly fuming around the Shabbat table, can we as individuals do anything to convince the Palestinian media to cut the incitement? Unlikely. So what problems can we solve? Maybe knowing where the nearest bomb shelter is, not driving through certain parts of East Jerusalem at night, or posting a guard at the entrance to your synagogue.

Solving the right problem gives a feeling of greater control, which in turn reduces stress. Steve Maier at the University of Boulder in Colorado says in the book “Your Brain at Work” that, “the degree of control that organisms can exert over something that creates stress determines whether the stressor alters the organism’s functioning.” His research shows that “inescapable or uncontrollable stress” can be destructive, whereas a similar stressor that’s under one’s control is much less harmful.

Here’s an example from the popular “Barking up the Wrong Tree” blog by Eric Barker. Why do people start their own businesses, even though they have undoubtedly been told beforehand (and quickly learn themselves) that small business owners work more hours for less pay than if they had a job in a larger company? Because there is a greater sense of control; you can make your own decisions about what you want to do and when.

This understanding of the relationship between control and stress didn’t jive 100% with what I’ve learned through my personal mindfulness and meditation practice, where a key teaching is that we have no control over our lives and trying to exert it – whether that’s getting too attached to a desired outcome or resisting something unpleasant – is a big part of what creates stress and unhappiness in the first place. I asked my teacher, Or HaLev founder Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, about the contradiction.

“It totally makes sense that when we feel more in control we feel less stressed,” he told me. “That’s why we want to feel in control all the time!” Moreover, “there’s nothing wrong with trying to have as much effect on a situation as we can,” as long as we remember that we are still never in complete control. So “if our happiness depends on our having control, then we’re going to get in trouble. We can’t force things to be a certain way.

So, unless you’re the IDF Chief of Staff or the head of the police, spending hours agonizing over what should be done to restore calm on the streets of Jerusalem or the alleyways of Gaza is probably not going to reduce your anxiety, because you really don’t have any control in this situation.

After the talk at the AACI, I got to chatting with the woman sitting next to me. She had made aliyah in mid-August, right in the middle of this summer’s war. Her son was already in the IDF, deployed in Gaza in fact. Was she crazy to come? Should she have at least delayed her plans until the heat was turned off a bit?

That was Tal’s last point: to keep our way on the bumpy road, to re-energize our disheartened spirits, “we need to remind ourselves of our deep purpose and values.” What drew us to Israel in the first place? And what keeps us here even when adversity seems to be everywhere?

The answer to that question will be different for every immigrant, and it will morph over time. But we can’t lose track of the bigger picture when the red lights are coming more frequently than we expected and the solution to the problem (other than maybe running the red) is not in our hands.

There’s an old martial arts saying that proper posture and training is not about maintaining one’s balance at all times, but repeatedly regaining it, over and over, so fast, that no one ever knows that you’ve fallen.

With the situation in Jerusalem looking ever bleaker, knowing how to realistically tumble and get back up again is a lesson we all could do well to learn.

Carolyn Tal’s tips first appeared in the This Normal Life column on the Jerusalem Post.


Merav in hat (sm)The sign on my front door read, “Men, please announce yourself.” It was a Friday around 1:00 PM and my arms were filled with pre-Shabbat shopping: challah from Pe’er, still moist chocolate rugalach from Marzipan, eggplant dip in Thailandi sauce from Tzidkiyahu. The Jerusalem Post, of course. 

I walked right in.

“Don’t come up!” my wife Jody called down immediately from the living room, up a half flight of stairs, as she detected my familiar shuffle. “There are women changing up here! And you’re the only man in the house.”

Not exactly a “house” anymore. Our Jerusalem home had been transformed for the day into a boutique clothing store. The living room was enclosed on three sides by shiny metal racks holding hundreds of dresses, blouses and pants created by Alex Benchemoul, a talented clothing designer from Pardes Hanna. A rainbow colored mirror from the Israeli wood furnishings shop Kakadu stood in a corner. 

We met Benchemoul several years ago at the Jacob’s Ladder music festival where she was running a sales booth in the outdoor lawn area, not far from the hot dog and chicken stands. Her style immediately spoke to Jody: flowing, soft, sexy, breathable and modest all at once. Accessorize it with a belt or scarf, or just let it hang for casual chic. Benchemoul says that she makes “elegant and comfortable” clothes that will look great on anyone, “not just on skinny models.” She’ll even custom cut a design on request.

Jody bought a dress one year and another the following Jacob’s Ladder; then Benchemoul had a baby and stopped coming. 

Pardes Hanna, where Benchemoul lives and operates a small shop, is not on our usual travel itinerary. But Benchemoul is an excellent guerrilla marketer and every Friday she’s on the road doing “home shows.” The prices are reasonable and the host can take 10% of sales as a credit on personal shopping. 

The only catch: I’d have to hide in my home office or stay away.

Then a funny thing happened. After my presence had been duly announced and I was putting away the challah and rugalach in the kitchen, doing my best to avert my eyes, a couple of the women suddenly appeared in the kitchen. “What do you think of this?” asked a friend of Jody’s. “I think it might be too tight. What do you think? Is it too tight?”

Now, in our house, I’m not usually the go-to-guy for fashion advice. On the contrary, whenever I tell my 21-year-old daughter what I like or dislike in her wardrobe (whether prompted or not), she invariably does the opposite. And as for my own style, well, let’s just call it retro in an “I don’t like to shop…ever” kind of way. Just let me wear that patchwork sweater from 1979. If it was hip then why shouldn’t it still be cool 35 years later?

But here I was, the token male, and whether it was sexist or not, I was being asked a direct and somewhat indecent question. This was going to be tricky: how do I give my opinion while simultaneously not looking too closely at someone other than my wife. 

The dress was too clingy, I concluded. But would admitting that betray a wayward eye? Should I pull a Shamai or a Hillel? 

Perhaps the most famous story of those two great rabbis of the Talmud centered on a difference of opinion regarding what celebrants at a wedding should sing when dancing in front of the newly married woman. According to the House of Hillel, the dancers should say the same words in front of all brides: “What a beautiful and graceful bride.” The House of Shamai disagreed. “What if she is lame or blind?” they asked, citing the commandment in Exodus to “stay far away from falsehood.” Ultimately, though, Hillel won the day.

So, did that mean I should say that the item of clothing I was being asked to weigh in on looked fabulous…even if it didn’t?

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin gives slightly more nuanced advice as he seeks to bridge the two positions in his commentary on the parable. In his 2000 volume, The Book of Jewish Values, he suggests that telling a Hillel-style white lie is appropriate if not doing so would result in inflicting “hurt without benefit.” Thus, he writes, “if somebody at a party asks you how they look, and you think they don’t look well at all, a blunt statement of what you feel may cause the person terrible discomfort, and accomplish no good whatsoever.” 

On the other hand, he continues, “If before going to a party, your spouse or a friend asks you if he or she looks good, and you think they look awful or are dressed inappropriately, you should tell them the truth. Doing so in as tactful a manner as possible will spare them from embarrassment.”

I decided to go for the truth. The friend didn’t buy that dress, but she did purchase two others. So did a lot of other women. (Not everyone asked my opinion, of course.)

The clothing sale was a success on all sides – Jody’s friends got access to some innovative designer clothing at a good price while Benchemoul, whose parents hail from Morocco and Lebanon and who isn’t a regular in our Anglo shtetl of southern Jerusalem, received exposure to a wide open new market. 

Benchemoul, 37, trained many years ago as a yoga instructor but as the field for downward dog poses in Israel began to fill up, she switched to clothing. Both of her grandmothers sewed, as did her father, who made a living stitching up jeans and handbags. Benchemoul started with her own machine when she was 15-years-old and is entirely self-taught: she never studied fashion design in school. She began selling ten years ago out of her house and opened her shop in the Karkur neighborhood of Pardes Hanna in 2012. She still does all the sewing and cutting herself.

Benchemoul’s business is small but growing. She promotes her work almost exclusively on Facebook and by home sales. If her visit to Jerusalem was any indication, she’s on to something. Sales were brisk (one buyer alone purchased NIS 1,500 worth of clothing).

As for me, other than a little schlepping heavy bags of clothes up from the parking garage to our living room, it’s all upside: I get to enjoy the fruits of the sale as my wife expands her wardrobe and my status as a fashionista will be forever validated. 

OK, fine, my status as the only man in the store…and that’s no lie.

Benchemoul will be back in Jerusalem for another home sale this coming Friday. Details on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/alexandra.benchemoul

My fashion sense was first revealed over at The Jerusalem Post.


On the road towards the passThe tragedy in Nepal two weeks ago, where 40 trekkers, including four Israelis, lost their lives in a sudden freak snowstorm along the well-traveled Annapurna route brought back a flood of memories from my own trip to the Nepalese Himalayas.

In 2011, my family and I went hiking in the same Annapurna region, and, although we didn’t navigate across the 5,400-meter high Thorong La Pass – which saw the brunt of the storm and most of the casualties when near zero visibility and sub zero temperatures shocked travelers who set out on what seemed an ordinary, October clear sky day – we trekked up to its end, threw snowballs, and spent a pleasant hour greeting the weary but exhilarated backpackers as they came through on their way to the bustling village of Muktinath, where we too spent the night.

Muktinath – like much of the Annapurna Circuit – is filled with Israelis. Indeed, a Himalayan trek in Nepal, combined with a month in India and possibly time in Thailand too was, until supplanted somewhat in recent years by South America, considered the classic post-army trek for young Israelis. Even if you’re not trekking in a group with Israelis, there will be signs – literally – of the Holy Land everywhere: pieces of cardboard with hand scrawled Hebrew adorn restaurants and accommodations with recommendations only other Members of the Tribe can understand. We saw, for example, “great hamburger here,” and “comfy rooms at good prices,” all written right to left.

In Muktinath, many Israelis congregate at the Bob Marley Guesthouse, a sprawling place with an enormous portrait of the reggae master welcoming visitors to its tens of rooms and chill lounge featuring a large pool table around which the dominant language is most definitely not Nepali. We didn’t stay there – our Nepalese guide recommended a more intimate place a few doors down – but we smiled as we peeked in and felt like we were already back home.

To understand why there are so many trekkers – including all those Israelis – on the Annapurna Circuit, you need only appreciate some of the most stunning scenery in the world, which as one backpacker put it, “gets better every day.” You start by hiking through the low lands: lush forests filled with bright red rhododendron flowers in the spring, passing impossibly green rice terraces spider-webbing their way down the hills as you climb higher.

Before long you are in a desolate alpine landscape, devoid of nearly all vegetation, vaguely Negev like but with more white and gray than brown, with the ever present peaks of the 7,500 meter Gangapurna and other Himalayan giants watching over travelers like a patron saint in hiking boots…until two weeks ago, when those same peaks turned into a death trap for far too many explorers, cut down at their most vulnerable, where the air was so thin.

The stories from the surviving Israelis are as heart wrenching as the thinning atmosphere that sucked the life out of those caught in its midst. One tells of Nadav Shoham assisting Tamar Ariel who had expended her energy early on helping other hikers until she could no longer walk herself. Shoham lifted her up repeatedly as she toppled into the snow until he too had nothing left to give. Both perished.

We were cold on our trek, too, but on nowhere the same scale and only at night if, as is inevitable for someone my age, one has to leave his or her sleeping bag to waddle outdoors to the squatter at the end of the hall.

That “hall” is part of what makes trekking in Nepal so appealing. There are guesthouses – known locally as “teahouses,” although they have beds and full meals, not just tea – situated every hour or so along the main parts of the trail. (Notably, there is only one teahouse with beds at the entrance to the Thorong La Pass and none for the next six or seven hours until you’ve descended to Muktinath.)

The frequency of guesthouses means you don’t have to lug camping gear or food. If you hire a porter – and at $10 a day, who wouldn’t – you don’t even have to carry your own pack, just some water and snacks. The guesthouses – which you can’t pre-book, it’s all first come first serve in the Himalayas – are what I’d call a Motel 6…minus 5. The rooms – if you can call them that – consist of a bed with a mattress of varying degrees of hardness and four walls but with absolutely no insulation and often windows that are either cracked or ill fitting. You’re not sleeping under the stars, but you can still see your breath at night. It makes an Israeli field school look like a 5-star palace.

But the teahouses were no guarantee against the storm that hit Annapurna. One Israeli trekker tells how she left her friends behind at a teahouse near the summit. (Her guide insisted they try to make it to the other side, despite the worsening weather; it saved her life.) At 2 pm, the teahouse owner decided to evacuate his property and escape. He promised to guide the trekkers to safety but, of the 30-odd people who followed him out, only a handful arrived safely at the nearest village many hours later.

Our trip to Nepal in 2011 – three weeks in total with eleven days on the trail including two rest days for Shabbat – was conceived as a way to celebrate my 50th birthday and our youngest son’s bar mitzvah. We did the “half circuit,” hiking in the opposite direction, giving the pass a pass, and flying back from the tiny airport at Jomson. I used to joke that our biggest accomplishment was that we spent all that time together, 24/7, three meals a day, and we didn’t kill each other. In light of recent events, that seems like inappropriate black humor.

Among those providing assistance to trekkers who made it out of Annapurna alive was Nepal’s strong Chabad, which has two main houses in Nepal – the main center in Kathmandu and an outpost in Pokhara, which is the jumping off point for the Annapurna region. At this time of year, Chabad was still bustling with backpackers who spent the High Holy Days in Nepal. We had our own Chabad experience – we went trekking in the spring and celebrated Passover with the group. That was part of the draw for me – Kathmandu’s Seder is known as the world’s largest although, in 2011, there were “only” 1,100 Israelis present at the Yak and Yeti Hotel, chosen not for its whimsical name but for the fact that, in electricity rationed Kathmandu, the Yak and Yeti had its own generators, meaning we would be less likely to be plunged into darkness at the height of the recitation of the Ten Plagues.

Throughout our trip to Nepal, when the weather was warm and the sights too striking to conceive of being consigned to a perfunctory photo album, I imagined I might return someday to do the full circuit, maybe for a 60th birthday challenge. After what happened earlier this month, would I still entertain the possibility?

While the Annapurna trail was, at press time, still closed to trekkers, as rescue workers continued to search for bodies, it will no doubt open again in the spring and the intrepid will return. Disaster can strike at any time, anywhere. Would I avoid Phuket and the beaches in Thailand that were decimated by the 2004 earthquake and tsunami? Should New York City become off limits because of Hurricane Sandy (or more human made catastrophes like 9/11)?

My heart cries out for the casualties and suffering of the Annapurna tragedy – all the more so because, like so many Israelis, I can see the trails and remember my own slowing pace as we hiked ever upwards. Perhaps I would hike earlier in the year to be extra careful. But if I’ve learned anything from living in the Middle East these past 20 years, it’s that we move on and do our best to live our lives “normally.” That applies in Jerusalem, and it does so in Jomsom as well.

I first shared my Nepal memories over at The Jerusalem Post.


Members of the Tribe

by Brian on October 17, 2014

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

Bird_flock_in_vedanthangal (1)Birds do the nuttiest things. In a flock, some of the birds will voluntarily serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which has less time to search for food and, by issuing a warning call, is more likely to be spotted by the predator. Why do they do it then? And how, if Darwin’s theory of natural selection holds, does a sentry gene get passed on if in fact many of the sentries wind up sacrificing their lives for the greater good of the group?

This was one of the questions raised in an intriguing article that appeared a few years back in The New York Times Magazine that has little to do with birds but a lot to do with human beings…and with contemporary Jewish communities in particular.

The article, “Darwin’s God” by Robin Henig, tries to understand why virtually every human culture across the globe has a religious component. Is this God’s will expressed through multiple manifestations, Henig asks, or the process of evolution? On the eve of Yom Kippur, where God is never far from center stage in the holiday prayer book, it seems an appropriate topic for introspection.

Henig focuses on how the human brain developed a tendency towards religious behavior…whether God exists or not. In the process, he provides clues to understanding how religious practice and community in the 21st century can be a good thing even for those who don’t subscribe to religion’s basic tenets.

Two main theories occupy most of the scientific community’s attention, Henig says. In one, human beings developed religious thinking as a genetic byproduct. For example, early humans may have found it advantageous to interpret unknown sounds and movements as having meaning. A rustle in the bush might mean danger…or a possible food source. Recognizing this would give those humans endowed with this sensitivity an advantage over those without. With time, that same genetic make up might extend to perceiving other events outside the body, not just food and danger, as having meaning, opening up the possibility for religious experience.

The other theory addresses adaptation. Here’s where the bird analogy comes into play: like our feathered friends, working together as a community or tribe would give certain groups of humans a survival advantage over those who acted more as free agents. Any behaviors that enhanced the cohesion of community – and there are none more cohesive than religious ritual – would be naturally selected, reinforcing the behaviors in the resulting societies.

Returning to the birds, Henig writes that, “if there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.”

If we move beyond birds and early humans, though, how does this type of genetic or adaptive group behavior fit with the world we now live in, where expressing one’s individuality has become a core value? Is group membership and identity still relevant? And for Jews: is it important anymore to be, or stay actively involved, in the Jewish tribe?

Many would claim that it isn’t. Enlightened citizens of the world should be able to do what they want without the baggage of history holding them back. Eva Illouz, writing in Haaretz on “The Six Commandments of Secularity” just before Rosh Hashana, argued that secular culture is inherently forward thinking, always anticipating advances in human knowledge and understanding, in contrast to religion, which takes a more retro perspective, where “truth” is necessarily closer to some revelation in the distant past. Isn’t clinging to ancient tribal models archaic at best, then; the source of sectarian violence and hatred at worst?

My own experience says no. Belonging to and participating in a community provides the individual member with a closeness that human beings crave. All you have to do is imagine moving to a new city alone and having no group with which to affiliate. Today’s tribes also provide us with protection – whether that’s physically through the police and army, or via legislation intended to maintain order or funding designed to promote cultural activities that in turn guard against isolation.

Even the most disconnected of individuals belongs at least to the tribe of one’s birthplace – their nation. Of course you can always change locations, thus choosing a new tribe in which to live (and pay your taxes). If so, then why not apply that same ease of mobility to picking your religious tribe, choosing between spiritual paths as you would a country, sports team or book club?

On one level, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the approach. As long as the tribe is not violent or extreme, or impinges on other’s rights, you should do fine.

But what about your tribe of origin? If all the sentry birds in the example above decided to defect to join the tiger or bear tribe (assuming the tigers and bears accepted them), the individual birds aren’t harmed. But the original flock will now be without its sentries. If other birds with different roles in the flock did the same, pretty soon there’d be no flock at all.

Maybe that means the flock or tribe didn’t deserve to continue in the first place. Here’s where a leap of faith may be required. I take as a starting point that my Jewish tribe, the one I was born into, with its rich history, culture and wisdom, is worth preserving. Biologist E.O. Wilson suggests there may be a scientific explanation for this seemingly illogical bias. “The tendency to form groups, and then to favor in-groups [that is, the group you’re already in], has the earmarks of instinct,” he says. “People are prone to ethnocentrism.”

The Israeli author Amos Oz once wrote that his definition of a Jew is someone who is engaged with Jewish tradition and subject matter – whether positively (“I’m proud of what the Jewish people have achieved”) or negatively (“I’m so ashamed by what the Jewish people have done or are doing”). The important thing, Oz says, is the desire for engagement with the Jewish community.

Returning to our opening example: who are the Jewish sentry birds? It would seem that if the flock is the Jewish people as a whole, then the sentries are those Jews who strive to maintain an even moderately committed Jewish lifestyle against the strong pull of contemporary assimilationist culture. This includes those Jews who live in Israel – perhaps the strongest public display of Judaism, even if its members would define their adherence more in nationalist than religious terms.

The definition can be extended even further to Jews of all stripes who are not afraid to be identified as such, and who demonstrate some Jewish engagement that goes beyond the 42 percent in the 2013 Pew study who say having a good sense of humor is part of what it means to be Jewish.

If that makes those overtly identified Jews and Israelis a bit like the sentry birds, forced to give up some of their personal freedom of choice for the good of the group, it seems a choice well worth making – whether seen as a manifestation of God’s will or the result of evolutionary forces anchored firmly in science.

This article originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post website.

Photo credit: Vinoth Chandar


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