"The only flowers of her youth," photo by Roman Vishniac

I’ve been struck lately by how history – defined as the way that we collectively perceive the past – is a plastic phenomenon. Almost nothing about the past – as experienced by those living in it – is truly accessible to us. Things that seem incredibly significant now may not turn out that way. “History is written by the victors,” of course. But the power over future interpretations may come down to the efforts of a single person.

Take a look at this fascinating New York Times Magazine piece reappraising the work of Roman Vishniac, the photographer did more than anyone to shape a collective image of pre-Holocaust shtetl life, a culture that was, of course, virtually wiped out. Whether you’ve leafed through his most famous book, “A Vanished World,” or not, your perception of that world was likely shaped by his stark images of pious Hasidim and gaunt, fearful shopkeepers with few wares on the shelves. (Well, those and “Fiddler on the Roof.”)

But this is an inaccurate view:

Jewish life in Eastern Europe, especially in the interwar years, was roiling and diverse. All kinds of people — secular and religious, urban and rural, wealthy and poor — consorted freely with one another in all aspects of what many of us would consider the pillars of a modern society: a lively and contentious political culture, a theater scene that rivaled those of most major European cities, a literary tradition comprising not only Yiddish and Hebrew work but also European fiction and a thriving economic trade that successfully linked cities and countrysides (one of Vishniac’s unpublished pictures shows a store in a tiny Eastern European town selling oranges imported from Palestine). Even Hasidic life, so easily caricatured as provincial and isolated, was nothing of the sort: yeshivas, like today’s universities, often attracted students from all over Eastern and Central Europe. The concentration of poverty and piety in Vishniac’s pictures in “Polish Jews” created a distinct impression of timelessness, an unchanging, “authentic society” captured in amber.

As it turns out, Vishniac was a bit of a fabulist. (more…)


One of the odder bits of fallout from Brit Hume’s already-odd decision to proselytize the Christian faith to Tiger Woods has been the even-odder backlash from two high-powered conservative commentators, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat and the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson. They each argue that Hume’s statements were not only appropriate, but that he has been unfairly pilloried, the result of an outmoded, politically correct decorousness about discussion of matters of faith.

This is preposterous.

Remember the circumstances here. Hume was speaking on Fox News Sunday – a political chat show in which pundits and politicians argue unproductively with each other about the events of the week. FNS and other Sunday shows are part of a larger ecosystem of TV political chat which is, to generalize, crass, superficial, flighty, and out of touch with both American public opinion and the workings of the political system it purports to analyze.

Pundits argue all the time about the role of religion in politics, a perfectly valid topic for discussion. But can we envision them expanding their portfolio to include religion itself, and the questions – cosmic, existential and deeply personal – it engages? (more…)

David Brooks hit upon something important in his “neural Buddhists” column last week: both the militant atheists and religious fundamentalists miss out on larger truths about the nature of spirituality that scientists are actively exploring:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

As it is with Brooks at his best, the column boils down a large amount of difficult material into provocative and culturally savvy points – which, in this case, happen to be mostly correct. “The self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships” is straight out of Buddhism 101, and accords not just with scientific understanding of the body and mind but also with common sense. (Buddhism emerged in a milieu of ancient Indian religious philosophies that explored the nature of the body-mind in a systematic, experimental way. The Buddha himself put the era’s leading approach to spiritual insight, asceticism, to the test, nearly starving before ultimately rejecting it.) And the is-there-or-isn’t-there debate about God is, indeed, mostly beside the point, a sideshow that sells a lot of books but elides the important questions.

But the column still falls into a typical Brooksian trap: glibness. Are the religious experiences scientists are investigating really a kind of gooey (small-r) rapture, the perception of “the unknowable total of all there is”? I wish he’d chosen his words more carefully. And how are these very diverse concepts – no fixed self, morality, ecstatic experiences of oneness – related, except in the broadest terms, as a bunch of stuff scientists (and religious people through the ages) have observed? Brooks tosses around interesting ideas, which may or may not be connected, either conceptually/theologically or even scientifically, and suggests they’re all part of a single cultural revolution now underway. Not sure about that. The scientific study of morality, for instance, tries to tease out its evolutionary basis – typically, the advantages of altruism for perpetuating genes. But when altruism (or any kind of self-sacrifice) becomes merely a tool for keeping the species going – a means to an end – it loses any claim on the sacred, and on true morality. If you’re being nice to advance your own interests, in other words, you’re not really being nice. And God (if there is one) knows it. But most scientists wouldn’t make that distinction.

On the other hand, Ross Douthat’s critique of Brooks sounds equally muddled:

This notion’s major premise is summed up nicely by Brooks as follows: “Particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits.” No, the Christian would say: Particular religious systems are cultural artifacts, in a sense, yes, but they’re artifacts built around specific human experiences, not universal ones. Christian theology and Christian ritual are compatible with the universal human ability to experience the sacred through prayer and meditation, but they’re “built on top” of particular encounters and revelations that tend to have little in common with the “transcending boundaries/overflowing with love” experiences that neuroscientists are equipped to measure. Indeed, in both the Old and New Testaments, the foundational encounters with God – the religious experiences that created Judaism and Christianity – are nothing like a meditative, free-floating sense of one-ness with the universe. Instead, whether it’s Moses encountering the burning bush or Job being addressed out of the whirlwind or the disciples encountering the Risen Christ, the encounters with God that shape the Judeo-Christian tradition tend to be extremely personal on the one hand (God has a personality, a voice, even a body; He isn’t just some cosmic soup we can all go swimming in) and extremely terrifying and difficult to comprehend on the other.

Here, Brooks’s generalizations are turned into straw men. Of course religions are built on “specific” experiences. Every person’s experiences are, after all, specific. You cannot build a religion on some abstract, unrealized human capability – it must be realized, and every realization will by definition be unique, a product of its own place and time. “A free-floating sense of oneness” may crudely describe, clipboard-style, what some test subjects felt. But it’s a cliche, some words on a page – it doesn’t capture the actual experience they had. By the same token, I doubt Douthat, or the rest of us for that matter, can know what Moses, or Jesus, or the Apostles were thinking and feeling. We have some idea of it from what people wrote down, years after the fact, and yes, it was strange and surprising. Real insights always are.

Photo: Great Buddha (Daibutsu) statue in Kamakura, Japan


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