I’ve been looking at religion all wrong.

I’ve often been critical in this column of the role religion plays in our lives. No surprise there. My tendency is to analyze religious beliefs and practices by whether they stand up to the test of rationality.

Can a religion’s backstory be proved or is it more a collection of powerful myths? Does religious law make logical sense? Is there tangible evidence for a supernatural presence in the universe?

All that misses the point, says Columbia College philosophy professor Stephen Asma. He lays out his argument in a recent New York Times article and in a new book, “Why We Need Religion.”

Religion will always fail the proof test, Asma says, because fact-based evidence simply doesn’t exist for religion, at least not in ways that science can measure.

But that’s not what religion’s all about, argues Asma, a once Catholic altar boy who grew up to become a devout atheist and religion-skewering writer for publications such as Skeptic magazine.

Asma still scoffs at the absolutism of religion. “I do not intend to try to rescue religion as reasonable. It isn’t terribly reasonable,” he writes in his Times piece. “But I do want to argue that its irrationality does not render it unacceptable, valueless or cowardly. Its irrationality may even be the source of its power.

The human brain, he explains, is a “kluge of different operating systems.” There’s the ancient reptilian brain, which governs our motor functions and our fight-or-flight instincts; the mammalian brain, which is where we find our emotions; and the more recently-evolved neocortex, which is where we derive our rationality.

“Religion irritates the rational brain,” Asma writes, “because it trades in magical thinking.” Religion’s sweet spot, rather, is the emotional brain. That’s where it “calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty.”

Our emotions – be they fear, rage, lust, love or grief – if managed properly, are part of how we survive. They helped early mammals flourish and for humans are every bit as evolutionarily imperative as our ability to walk upright or use language. “In many cases, emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems than deliberative cognition,” Asma says.

Moreover, religion – especially in times of crisis or bereavement, with its time-honored rituals and an emphasis on community – serves as a kind of palliative pain management. Just think about the healing role played by the Jewish custom of shiva, the seven days of mourning.

“What’s so bad about pain relief, anyway?” Asma the atheist asks. Indeed, who among us would take away a proven therapeutic tool like religion, only to leave the bereaved with – what – OxyContin, aspirin and alcohol?

“We need a more clear-eyed appreciation of the role of [such] cultural analgesics,” Asma states.

Karl Marx famously derided religion as “the opium of the people.” Asma’s counter: “Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson will not be much help, should they decide to drop over and explain the physiology of suffering and the sociology of crime” following a terrorist attack.

Asma hasn’t become a believer and his book is not a treatise on return to religion. He steadfastly agrees with fellow atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris that religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity. “But we’re at the wrong bar,” he says.

Nor is Asma blind to religion’s darker side. Its pervasive black-and-white, good-vs-evil narratives still lead to far too much narrow mindedness, hatred and violence. But is that enough to support American sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s claim that “the best thing we could possibly do” for the sake of human progress “would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths?”

I’ve never taken my own response to religious fundamentalism all the way to proposing we toss the baby out with the baptismal bathwater. Asma offers a new – and for me, refreshingly novel – way out: a bifurcation of the basis for religious belief into a requirement for definitive proof on one hand (not going to happen) and a non-toxic tool for releasing curative endorphins especially (although not only) in times of trouble.

Religion in this sense acts as a form of complementary medicine – a great big cultural placebo, if you will.

Compare religion with homeopathy, for example. There’s no scientific validation that homeopathy works. A 2016 British meta-study covering 176 trials looking at 68 different health conditions found “no evidence homeopathy was more effective than placebo.” And yet, many people steadfastly take their ultra-highly diluted little white pills and rub their arnica cream on zealously.

How is this any different than the emotional support religion provides?

My take: it’s not, and maybe that’s fine (as long as it’s not harmful). Same goes for other types of healing that have eluded science so far.

Does that mean I’m ready to re-embrace religious observance? Probably not. Nor will I let up on my criticism when I encounter religious hypocrisy or political overreaching. (Sorry, Rabbinate, you’re not off the hook here.) But perhaps I can accept that strict scientific scrutiny is not the only way to understand the persistence of religious faith and action.

In his Times article, Asma brings an example of a mother grieving after her son was murdered. Religion saved her from a mental breakdown, Asma says. It was only her belief that she would “see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife, where she was certain his body would be made whole [that] gave her the strength to continue raising her other two children.”

How could I not say “amen” to that?

I first compared religion and placebos in The Jerusalem Post.

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Rules for rumination

by Brian on September 30, 2018

in Cancer,Travel

The results from my latest PET CT were good. Excellent in fact. My hematologist sent me a two-line update by WhatsApp.

“No uptake in no lymph nodes! Well done!” she wrote (exclamation points included).

“Uptake” in medical language refers to whether the radioactive material injected into my veins prior to the PET CT had found its way into any of my lymph nodes. That would have indicated that I still had cancerous tumors in my body. It didn’t and I don’t.

My doctor followed her message with a pair of clapping hands. (You’ve got to love a doctor who communicates using emojis.)

I was less ebullient, however. Yes, I was officially now in remission. But as good as the news was, it was still “expected.” Most people with my kind of cancer respond very quickly to treatment. Moreover, my positive PET changed absolutely nothing. I still had another three chemo treatments to go and then 12 immunotherapy “maintenance” sessions over the next two years.

That’s because, with a chronic recurring cancer like follicular lymphoma, there are two battles: knocking out the cancer and then doing everything you can to ensure as long a remission as possible before the disease returns.

That put me in a bit of a Catch-22: I wanted to keep friends and family up-to-date, but if I said I was “cancer free” without a caveat, I’d be deluged with “congratulations” and “way to go” responses.

Even worse, my mind had already gone in a different direction. If I was now cancer free, did I still need all the remaining treatments? Maybe I could just stop. And the two-year treatment plan I’d settled on – was it even the “right” one? Could I have achieved the same positive result with less chemicals?

I was ruminating.

Rumination is when you essentially re-play in your mind a decision you’re not sure about, maybe even one you regret, to the point where you’re not able to be fully present in the current moment.

Rumination is not the same as reflection. That’s where you return to a decision but, rather than get lost in it, you evaluate it objectively in order to learn something new. For example, let’s say you sold your car for a certain price without doing a lot of research and later found out you could have gotten substantially more. Next time you’ll know better what to charge.

My worst case of rumination happened in 2011, when our family set out on a two-week trek in Nepal for my 50th birthday. One of the highlights of the hike was a pre-dawn 350-meter climb to a place called Poon Hill from which you could see all of the spectacularly snowy Annapurna range at first light.

But I was worried about being too tired to handle the long trek we had planned for the rest of the day. So I passed on Poon Hill.

As we hiked towards Tatopani, though, I couldn’t get what I imagined I would have seen atop Poon Hill out of my mind. With each of the hundreds of steps to the hot springs awaiting us at our destination, I beat myself up, over and over, missing out on the breathtaking real-time scenery unfolding all around me.

I needed some rules for rumination.

The key is separating what goes into making a decision with what comes after.

I’m a naturally analytical guy – that’s perfectly fine. If I’m going to buy a new smart phone, I’ll look at every possible model, listing all the pros and cons, prices, features and functionality.

But once I’ve bought it, assuming it works, looking back will only cause unnecessary pain. I can reflect (“next time, I’ll buy more storage” or “I’ll get the one with the better screen”), but rumination and reproach (“I should have bought the model with the bigger screen,” and “I’m such an idiot”) are off-limits.

That doesn’t mean you have to stick with a decision when new data becomes available. Let’s say you choose to go to a concert or a movie. Half way in, you realize you’re not enjoying it. Do you have to wait it out just because you paid for the tickets?

I had a clean PET scan – did that qualify as new data such that I should reevaluate? How about my physical response? After several months of treatment, I could see how my body was handling the chemo. Did that suggest a change of direction? Had the neuropathy – a common chemo side effect – been too intense?

Those kinds of discussions are entirely legitimate. What’s not OK: obsessively second-guessing whether the original decision was a mistake.

Another way of looking at the difference: reflection is looking back at a situation. Rumination is more like taking an actual step backward.

When I was debating whether to climb Poon Hill, I was worried I wouldn’t sleep that night. Guess what? I didn’t anyway – I was too busy “pre-ruminating.”

Years later, when my wife Jody and I took a similarly adventurous trip to Sri Lanka, one of the top recommended outings required a 4 am wake up.

I reflected on Poon Hill, deflected any rumination and we did it.

It was glorious.

I hope I can make a similarly glorious, non-ruminative decision on the coming months of my cancer treatment.

I first created my rules against rumination in The Jerusalem Post.

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“You look like you need a l’chaim,” the yeshiva bocher said to me, extending a plastic cup in one hand and elevating a bottle of vodka in the other.

“No, I can’t, it’s OK,” I replied, but he was insistent.

“I know a little about people and I can tell that you, my friend, are really in need of a shot,” he continued. He started to pour.

“You’re being very kind,” I demurred, although at this point I was starting to get annoyed. “But I’m just not allowed.”

He looked at me puzzled and I could tell he’d had a few drinks of his own already.

“But … it’s Shabbos!” he sputtered, then slumped onto the couch dejected before being distracted by the eye-popping scenery all around the two of us. We were at the 12th floor rooftop pool of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Herzliya. His black and white Shabbat garb was no match for the ever-changing color parade of half-naked men and women in their swimsuit finest.

I could have told my interlocutor why I was turning down his offer – that alcohol and chemotherapy don’t mix so well for me – but that would have gone against the aim of this weekend. My wife Jody and I had slipped into the Ritz-Carlton “cancer incognito.” We did it with the help of the wonderful Refanah organization.

Refanah is an Israeli non-profit that provides much needed “healing holidays” to people suffering from cancer. Refanah founder and executive director Robyn Shames has convinced dozens of hotel, B&B and guesthouse owners around Israel to donate sleeping accommodations based on the property’s availability.

Refanah’s pitch to proprietors is that they already don’t run at full occupancy year-round, especially during the week. So donating a room for a night only really costs them the cleaning afterward.

According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 6,500 B&B rooms in Israel with an average occupancy rate of 50 percent on weekends and just 25-30 percent during the week. There are another 50,000 hotel rooms with an average occupancy of 55 percent.

Shames came up with the idea for Refanah in 2014 after a relative, who had survived cancer, told Shames about Cottage Dreams, a similar program in Ontario, Canada.

Shames had already been doing important work as the executive director of ICAR, the International Coalition for Agunah Rights, fighting to “unchain” women whose recalcitrant husbands were refusing to provide them with a get, a divorce decree according to Jewish Law. After 11 years at ICAR, she was looking for a change. But it had to be one where she could continue doing good in the world.

The name Refanah comes from the Bible. Moses asks God to cure his sister Miriam of leprosy by praying “El na refana la.” It means, quite literally, “God please heal her.”

Shames started her Refanah by randomly contacting some 100 Israeli B&B owners to gauge interest. She figured maybe 10 percent would say yes; almost half agreed immediately.

“People are very excited about having this opportunity to do something nice,” Shames says.

In our case, the room at the exclusive Ritz-Carlton Hotel, overlooking the picturesque Herzilya Marina with its hundreds of yachts and sailboats, was owned by an individual who vacations in Israel the summers. The hotel generously added breakfast to round out the weekend.

People with cancer can browse the Refanah website to view properties and read details about availability. Refanah collects a modest NIS 100 fee when you make the reservation, “thus enabling every cancer patient to help others by participating in their circle of giving,” Shames says.

Both people undergoing cancer treatment and those who have finished treatment in the past year are eligible.

There are Refanah properties all over the country – on kibbutzim; smack dab on the beach; in the centers of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Eilat; in a stark caravan overlooking the Sea of Galilee; and even on an alpaca farm outside of Mitzpeh Ramon.

Refanah is great for people with cancer, but it’s good for property owners, too: a free night generates positive publicity that can lead to referrals and future business.

Despite the number of properties working with Refanah, the demand is constantly growing: about 28,000 people are diagnosed with cancer each year in Israel.

Refanah has now provided free vacations for nearly 2,000 cancer patients and their families.

For Jody and me, it was not just the break from routine in a pampering seaside hotel that was so invigorating. It was also the anonymity: no one knew how we got there or why. Maybe there was something small written on our reservation form, but to everyone else, we were just two ordinary guests.

For someone like me who’s been so public about his cancer experience, going incognito was as refreshing as that rooftop pool (which my doctor told me I was not allowed into because, you know, germs).

It’s not so surprising, then, that I chose not to tell my new yeshiva buddy the reason I was so resistant to his vodka volunteerism. Nor could he have surmised on his own my status – my hair hasn’t fallen out from the chemo (although my hairdresser says it’s thinned a little) and I’ve actually gained weight (treatment makes me crave carbs).

But someday – hopefully soon – I might just take him up on his Shabbos shots offer. L’chaim right back at ya.

I first got healed by Refanah at The Jerusalem Post.

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My daughter Merav is a proud Zionist. But even Zionists get scared sometimes. And living for the past two years in the Gaza border community of Sderot, where she’s studying at Sapir College, there’s been a lot to be frightened of.

In a heartbreaking post that’s been circulating on social media, Merav described the weekend of July 15, when 150 missiles were fired from Gaza. One landed just a block away from her apartment. After the hundreds of incendiary kites and balloons that have turned the air outside Merav’s idyllic student dorm room into a smoky hell, that was the straw that broke this Zionist camel’s back.

“We grabbed our backpacks and started stuffing them with whatever was near, threw them in the car and hit the gas, driving 140 km an hour through the eerily empty streets of Sderot, as though we were being chased,” Merav starts her piece. “I didn’t breathe normally until we passed Bror Hayil, a kibbutz outside the immediate radius of the current missile attacks.”

It’s not like Merav and her husband Gabe didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when they moved to Sderot. After four years of mostly calm following the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, they knew that violence could return to the region. But they found the laid back lifestyle of Israel’s south enticing.

They’re not alone.

The Israeli communities adjacent to Gaza have been booming. Hundreds of families have moved to the region’s cities and kibbutzim since 2014.

Some come for idealistic reasons: to fortify the vulnerable border. Others cite the natural beauty (although the fire kites have blackened that), affordability compared with Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and the child-friendly atmosphere. One new resident interviewed says that, despite the violence, he feels his kids “are safer here than in the big city.”

In the last year alone, eight new homes have been built on Kibbutz Nahal Oz and another 12 houses are being planned – “no small feat for a community overlooking Gaza,” reports journalist Amir Tibon.

The same pioneering spirit pervades the student body at Sapir. Merav and Gabe live in a college community called Ayalim, part of a national organization that recruits young people to move to student villages across Israel’s periphery. Ayalim’s 22 campuses provide low-cost accommodation and scholarships in exchange for community service.

In Merav’s first year, she volunteered with Holocaust survivors. Last year, she mentored a teenage girl.

Ayalim (and Sapir as a whole) remind me of my own college days in the U.S. – there’s a real small-town campus environment, unlike Israel’s bigger universities which have a high percentage of commuters. The students make Shabbat dinner together and run a local pub. There’s a fantastic humus place nearby (owned and operated by Ayalim graduates).

The city regularly invites top Israeli musicians to perform; most recently Sderot hosted its first Blues Festival.

If I were going to college in Israel, I’d want it to be in Sderot.

All that changed when the Hamas-fueled demonstrations broke out along the border and rockets returned to the skies.

A study which appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health a few years ago found that half of middle schoolers in Sderot suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Others put the number at closer to 80 percent.

When Merav asked the teen whom she mentored last year how she’s been coping with the situation, the young girl simply shrugged, her anxiety cloaked in denial.

“It’s no biggie for me,” she told Merav. “It’s definitely better then when we lived in Ashkelon and didn’t have a safe room in the house and had to go sleep in the stairwell.”

Merav wishes in some ways she could be more like her student.

“When people ask me how it’s going living where we live, I so badly want to say ‘you know, its life. We handle it, we’re Zionists and we are brave!’ But I don’t. I feel sad and scared.”

When the explosions intensified, Merav says she felt every one of them – on both sides of the border. “It was like our house was lifting off the ground,” she writes of the night before she and Gabe made their decision to leave for Jerusalem.

You might think at this point we’d be advising Merav to get out. There are other colleges in Israel. Does she have to be such a Zionist?

Merav is having none of it.

“I’ve never been one to quit anything,” she states. Describing her fellow students – as well as herself – she adds, “We are the reason our country still thrives, because we don’t leave, no matter how scared we are. Because we know how to weigh the enormous benefits of life in the periphery against the equally enormous challenges.”

How does she do it? I don’t know if I could.

Merav says she closes her eyes and imagines “the hot summer afternoons, the DJ jamming in the main square of the campus, the popsicles that the student union passes around. I remember the first Sderot marathon a few months ago where the entire city – including me – came out and ran alongside the fear.”

School is on break until the fall. Maybe this time, a cease fire will hold. In the meantime, Merav writes how she no longer takes things for granted.

“Every day with no siren is a gift.”

That’s not a lesson I’d wish anyone would have to go to college to learn. But I’m so proud that my daughter has learned it anyway.

I first wrote about Merav’s life in Sderot in The Jerusalem Post.

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Cancer as a chronic illness

by Brian on August 19, 2018

in Cancer,Health

Cancer isn’t what it used to be. Increasingly, researchers are no longer searching for a cure but for ways to manage this once dreaded disease over a lifetime.

Indeed, with new treatments showing such great promise (Gilead’s stunning $12 billion acquisition of Kite Pharma, which commercialized an Israeli-developed immunotherapy treatment called CAR-T, being perhaps the most dramatic), more and more cancers are becoming essentially “chronic conditions” – incurable but treatable, akin to diabetes, heart disease or even HIV, which used to be a killer but is now surprisingly survivable with the proper chemical cocktail.

“With regards to a cure,” Dr. Lisa Coussens of Oregon Health and Sciences University told the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual conference in April, “it’s really not a realistic goal.”

Coussen’s prescription: “Live with disease and live your life well with that disease. It’s a major shift, but a tremendous goal.”

Not every cancer is a candidate for this new status, of course, but mine is. The black humor among fellow patients is that “you won’t die from the lymphoma; you’ll die with it.

Another well-worn line that’s meant to evoke a wry smile (I’ve even heard it from my doctors): “If you had to get cancer, this is a good one to get.”

Chronic cancers ebb and flow, although rarely without treatment, which often involves chemotherapy and other meds that are a whole lot tougher on the body than, say, a simple course of antibiotics for a recurring head cold. The upshot, though, is that people are surviving – and even thriving – for decades with the Big C.

Cancer’s new chronic status throws into disarray much of standard language that’s evolved around the disease. You are supposed to “fight” cancer until you “beat” it. But chronic cancer never goes away. It may slip into remission for a while – sometimes years – but it’s always there, lurking in the background.

You find yourself worriedly scanning your body for signs that something’s off. Is that a lump? Did I work out too hard today or am I just cancer-fatigued? When’s my next PET CT?

You calm yourself by intoning, “it’s no different than any chronic disease,” but it’s still, you know, cancer and that carries a stigma, even today.

A colleague who I’ve never spent time with socially offered to come visit. It took me a while to figure out what he probably thought: it’s cancer, he’s going to die.

People with chronic cancer and other conditions can be wracked with guilt. The website The Mighty.com compiled a list.

“I feel guilty whenever I feel like I’m enjoying myself,” wrote one person. “Like, ‘you’re chronically ill so you can’t be allowed to have good days or else people will assume you’re better.’”

“I dread going to the doctor,” said another. “I hope I have enough symptoms to have them believe me and take me seriously. But I don’t want enough symptoms and hurt going on to warrant a crash.”

Part of the confusion is that with the classic stereotype of cancer there’s an “expiry” date. “You’ve got six months to live. Make every moment you’ve got left count.”

But with chronic cancer, there’s no unexpected early ending to prod such personal transformation. So, do you just continue with what you were doing before, punctuated by trips to the local hospital daycare ward for the occasional IV?

My wife Jody has remarked that I’ve been operating at 99 percent, even during chemo, barely braking and keeping up with my routine.

But make no mistake about it, I amsick. In remission, not in remission, from the day of my diagnosis forward, I will always have chronic cancer. It’s become part of my identity and the number of good days I’ll have over the long term is definitely less than it was BC (before cancer).

Mindi Boston writes on The Mighty about how her own chronic illness “may not define me, but it defines how I have to live.”

And yet, therein lies the “blessing” of chronic cancer. (Not that I would ever wish such a “blessing” on anyone – let alone myself.) But knowing – not just as a cognitive exercise but deep in your kishkes through lived experience – that health is not a given can help you appreciate the good (when it comes) that much more.

Stacey Kramer survived a brain tumor. She described it in a TED Talk as a “gift” that will have you feeling “loved and appreciated like never before … challenged, inspired, motivated and humbled.”

Psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte coined a term: PTG for “post-traumatic growth.”

I’ve had my own moments of PTG.

The night before my fifth round of chemo, Jody and I went out to eat in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. We chose the popular Pasta Basta, which always has a long line of eager young noodle nuts. I put together an odd mix: cheese and sweet potato ravioli swimming in a coconut curry sauce.

I was blown away by how incredible that evening was. Everything about it – the flavors in my dish, the parade of people, the sounds of the shuk – was heightened.

I knew as I was experiencing it that the hour was fleeting. The next day, I was subsumed again by the familiar aches and pains. But I could still savor how I’d maximized the moment.

I find myself returning regularly to that accident of attitude as I navigate the strange new world of chronic cancer.

I originally described cancer as a chronic illness at The Jerusalem Post.

Image by Bkalim [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

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Can Startup Nation save Israel from itself?

August 5, 2018

The Nation-State Bill. The Surrogacy Law. The detention of Rabbi Dubi Haiyun. Where did the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence go?

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Playing the cancer card

July 23, 2018

All I wanted was a “free pass” – the ability to say to a client, “I’m going to need an extension on the deadline because, you know, cancer.”

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Pay mindfulness forward

July 9, 2018

“I’m afraid,” I told my doctor, “that I’ll get to remission from the cancer but still be suffering from chronic pain. How do I cope with that?”

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The death of rational Judaism

June 25, 2018

Nearly all Jews today are “rational” in that we know which thoughts and behaviors to assign to the religious domain and which remain beyond it. But can that kind of Judaism survive?

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Famous germaphobes

June 10, 2018

I recently joined some dubious company. Among my companions are Michael Jackson, Howard Hughes and Donald Trump. We all suffer from mysophobia.

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