Magical Thinking In Reform Judaism

Magical Thinking In Reform Judaism June 5, 2013

As a (still) dues-paying member of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, I receive the magazine “Reform Judaism.” Some of the articles are useful and interesting like a recent one about “Reinventing the Synagogue.” Some are even spot-on historically accurate like the article about the Exodus that I commented upon in a previous post.

Others are more problematic.

Almost two years ago I took the magazine to task for running a piece by a lay leader who sees angels in the “twists and turns” of life.

It seems that Reform Judaism is not done with angels.

In the Spring 2013 issue, Rabbi Cary Kozberg write about the patients he works with who suffer from dementia. In the interests of full disclosure, I know the rabbi; he performed my wedding to my ex-wife. He is a good man who I’m sure is loving and supportive of the people in his care at the senior housing facility where he works.

His ideas about some of them – the worst cases suffering from dementia – are decidedly wacky:

…Alzheimer’s can actually be a boon to someone’s “personhood”… because it is a boon to his or her spirituality. I have witnessed heightened feelings of joy, spontaneity, enthusiasm, and gratitude in people with dementia, because these feelings no longer pass through the cognitive filter of the rational mind. Sometimes I marvel that folks like [these] seem more fortunate spiritually than those of us who have that filter [emphasis in original].

…In a curious way, I have come to view persons with advanced dementia as assuming the role of “angels.” …[T]heir task (whether they are aware of it or not) is now to sing praises to God.

It should not surprise anyone that many readers were deeply offended by this inanity. Their concerns were noted in the next issue.  One reader characterized the piece as “completely devoid of even the most basic scientific/medical facts…and replete with magical thinking and appalling personal opinion….”

The same issue with that complaint also features a debate about the controversial practice of physician-assisted suicide. Like the vast majority of Humanists, I favor it under certain circumstances.  We see it as an issue of ultimate personal autonomy and freedom of choice.

Rabbi Phil Cohen, adopting a position that recalls the importance of personal autonomy in historical Reform Judaism, agrees with me:

…[F]or some, even treatment at the most supportive hospice or palliative care unit does not alleviate their physical and psychological pain. In these dire circumstances, it is not right to force a human being to suffer against his/her will. We should instead honor one of the hallmarks of Reform Jewish thinking—individual autonomy—and grant a patient the right to end his or her own life.

Rabbi Barry Block takes the opposite side.  Like Kozberg, Block favors magical thinking as the organizing principle of an ethical system that opposes physician-assisted suicide:

If we do not hasten death, we also have more time to explore each patient’s individual emotional and spiritual needs. We can ask, “Do you feel right with the people in your life, and with God?” We can discuss Judaism’s rich teachings about everlasting life, which can be as comforting as any palliative care. And when we pray together with the person who is dying and his/her loved ones, we can help our fellow human beings face eternity with faith and hope.

I give you modern Reform Judaism:  Alzheimer’s patients are spiritually enlightened angels. People with horrific and painful terminal diseases should prolong their suffering so that they can wrestle with feeling right about God and face an imaginary eternity with their faith intact.

Reform Judaism honors human dignity by claiming that it stems from humanity’s creation “in the image of God.” When this leads to every day acts of kindness and progressive stands on human freedom, then I say, “Kol hakavod – good for them!”

The problem with their philosophy, though, is that even in this most liberal of Jewish traditional approaches, the ultimate standard remains God, understood as the measure of all things. This works fine when you imagine a God who wants us to treat people well. It’s a little more awkward when that God, and the legends that surround him, are elevated and given preference over the dignity and needs of actual human beings.

As for me, I’ll place people over legends any day. It’s just one more reason that I am a Humanist.

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