Follow by Email

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Invisible Gorilla and the Jewish Question

Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris were two Harvard psychologists who in 1999 devised a very simple experiment. They asked students to watch a video of 6 students , three dressed in black, three dressed in white, passing a basketball to each other. The task was simply to count the number of times the players in white passed the ball. So not too complicated (even George Bush could have done this) – how many times was the ball passed by players dressed in white?

During the video a person in a full-body gorilla suit walked into the centre of the frame, pounded their chest and then walked off. They showed this video first in the US, then to people all round the world. The results were uniform. Fully half the people who took the test, in every country, when asked details about the video did not notice the person in the gorilla suit. Many of those, when shown the video again, protested that the video must have been rigged, doctored, faked, this second time. People who had seen the gorilla first-time round were incredulous – how could so many viewers miss something so obvious?

We of course fondly imagine that we would have been in that 50% who would have seen what was in front of our eyes. But Simons and Chabris – in their now famous ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment – had stumbled upon a basic lapse in human attentiveness. They called it ‘inattention blindness’ – the failure to see something obvious, in front of our eyes, when we have our minds elsewhere. (You can see this experiment on YouTube if you are interested – though you will, naturally, see the gorilla because you have been told it is there).

In their new book ‘The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us’ the authors describe a whole range of experiments to illustrate what they call our ‘illusion of attention’ – that is that we are often unaware of the limitations of what we perceive, not just visually (through our eyes) but in relation to memory, knowledge and perception. We think we see and experience the world as it is – but we are often distorting it, misapprehending it, or in various ways misinterpreting it. That we are subject to powerful illusions about how our mind works isn’t about stupidity, or arrogance – it is about something in us that is so immersed in our own subjective worlds, our own personal way of seeing and thinking, that we often just can’t look reality in the eye. And once we have an idea lodged in us it becomes very difficult to shift it.

They have interesting things to say about a range of issues like the MMR vaccine scare and hedge-fund meltdowns, where many of those involved were unable (not just unwilling) to change their way of thinking once they had decided how they viewed the situation. Although the authors don’t mention this, I think that climate change sceptics may fall into this category, although in relation to the environment a better guide to denial may be the poet T.S. Eliot’s words from Four Quartets: ‘human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality’.

I think that the ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment gives us plenty to think about. It can teach us the value of being more modest, more humble, less sure of the rightness of our thinking, more open to doubts about what we think we definitely know, perhaps more able to tolerate uncertainty. Perhaps it can point us towards appreciating the provisional rather than the definitive, the ‘maybe’ and the ‘perhaps’ of life rather than the ‘definitely’ and the ‘undoubtedly’. And the relevance of all this to our Jewish New Year should be obvious, for questions about attention and attentiveness takes us close to heart of what the High Holy Days are all about.

‘Give us courage to be honest with ourselves’ our liturgy says (p.131, Reform machzor) – and that simple statement encapsulates the major religious theme of these 10 days : honesty with our selves. And it is the most difficult work of our lives because ‘inattention blindness’ isn’t just a physical phenomenon it is also a psychological and spiritual one.

The call to be attentive, to pay attention to what is real and not illusory is, after all, at the heart of Judaism – and not just during these Ten Days. This is what the Shema is all about: Shema Yisrael, 'Hear, Israel' ... ‘Shema’ does mean ‘Hear’ but in the sense of ‘Pay attention’, ‘Pay very close attention’... And what are we to pay attention to? ‘Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad’ - ‘divinity permeates all of being, and everything is connected to everything else’ (I’m translating loosely - but trying to tease out the inner core of this verse, this belief, this affirmation of Jewish purpose).

Morning and evening, day in day out, we are called to be attentive to what is really happening – in us, to us, between us, around us - and not retreat into lives of illusion and delusion. And it is a very demanding call, this call to hear and listen and respond to what is happening within us and in front of us: the injustices that need addressing, the people who need helping, the support that needs to be offered, to our children, our parents, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, and the strangers in our midst, who are everywhere, in every land. The world could die through lack of compassion, through lack of sustained attentiveness to what is real and what is really happening.

And I think that this question of paying attention to what is in front of us is getting more and more difficult. Because something is changing in our consciousness as we become more and more dependent upon and embedded within this huge world wide web of inter-related technology and electronic networking that has grown up around us, and between us, over this last decade. What does paying attention really mean now when at the same moment you can be online ordering tickets, and checking your email, and Facebooking, and talking on the phone, while also maybe watching some TV or listening to music?

How do you pay attention in a sustained way In the midst of this transformation in what is possible? What are you paying attention to? Although I’m a bit of a techno-phobe, and somewhat resistant temperamentally to this fragmentation of attentiveness, I am fascinated by what is happening. And yet at the same time I’m sometimes rather scared at the implications of this ‘continuous partial attention’ [cf S.Craig Watkins: The Young and the Digital: what the Migration to social Network Sites, Games and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means For Our Future] which is required if we buy in, literally and metaphorically, to this world. We might joke that ‘continuous partial attention’ is just multi-tasking, and that’s what the world demands now, and women might smile wryly and say, well you are just describing what it’s like to be an ordinary mother – who has to pay attention to the children, and write her reports and cook supper all at the same time... ‘and it didn’t do me any harm’. Well, maybe, maybe not.

Perhaps this latest technology-driven manifestation of ‘continuous partial attention’ is nothing very new and my concerns about what it is doing to the quality of our lives and our human capacities for attention, concern and empathy are misplaced. I may be wrong about what it is doing to our psyches and indeed the very structure of our brains (there’s growing evidence for these changes in our neural wiring) – I may be wrong about what is happening but I do know that it is addictive, it is the drug of choice of millions who wouldn’t touch cocaine. They don’t call Blackberrys ‘Crackberrys’ for no reason.

There is a drive, powerful and increasingly irresistible, to be always ‘on’, anywhere, anytime, any place – like the old Bacardi ad, but for real: go online, stay connected, sense that constant unfolding newness, the potential to be filled with new news. We can’t miss anything - and everything must have our so-called attention: so we skim and surf, and search, and become twitchier, and more pressurised and irritable, yet also more distracted, less able to concentrate for very long on anything (like a sermon of more than 10 minutes, or a blog that keeps on going), and less able to listen – really listen – to another person. Which is actually part of the essence of being human.

We are more focused on the present moment because more involved in what is happening now – but, paradoxically, less connected to each other in deep and satisfying ways. It is a thrill to be able to be in touch with the world in all its wondrous density and complexity – but does it lead us into ways of honesty and charity, does it support us in our weakness and fragility, does it hold us in our fears of illness and loss, does it protect us from despair and anxiety?

This Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Twittering online world is not going to go away very soon and of course there are many benign aspects of this inter-connectedness – but it is infiltrating our consciousness in ways we can’t see, and that I suspect are not benign for our fundamental well-being. (So for those who attend synagogue services, for example, it’s probably harder to sit there for extended periods where there are few distractions and no hyperlinks).

But what Jews have over these Ten Days is an opportunity for a different way of seeing, a different way of connecting: it’s a call to slow down from our somewhat manic lives, and to start to pay attention again to what really matters – what used to be called ‘the soul’, some essence of us that needs time and space, that needs to be nurtured, that needs attention, real devoted, devotional, attention.

These thoughts have been based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue as the New Year began. It wasn’t a sermon on the ‘elephant and the Jewish question’ (as the old joke has it), but ‘the invisible gorilla and the Jewish question’. And it puts me in mind of the 19th century Hasidic story about the disciple who approached his Rebbe and asked, "Rebbe, every time I turn around, I hear about new, modern devices in the world. So, nu, tell me, are they good for us or bad for us?"

"What kind of devices?" asked the Rebbe.

"Well, there's the telegraph, there's the telephone, and there's the locomotive."

The Rebbe stroked his beard for a while, then replied, "All of them can be good - if we learn the right lessons from them. From the telegraph, we can learn to measure our words: if used carelessly, we will have to pay dearly. From the telephone, we can learn that whatever you say here is heard there. From the locomotive, we learn that every second counts - and if we don’t use each one wisely, we may not reach our destination in life.”

And from the internet we learn what the mystics of old already knew: that Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad – that everything is connected to everything else, that we have the divine within us and that we are held within God's own Going-On-Being, so to speak.


Some people asked me later about the 'elephant joke'. Here it is: Four doctoral students — a German, a Frenchman, a Russian and a Jew — took a seminar requiring a paper about elephants. The German wrote about authority in elephant society. The Frenchman wrote about the love life of the elephant. The Russian wrote about sharing among elephants. And the Jew, naturally, wrote about the elephant and the Jewish question.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Why the Jewish New Year is frightening

So here we are again. The summer holidays are rapidly receding from memory and suddenly we are on the cusp of a New Year. I love and hate this time of the year, the Jewish New Year with its services and rituals and expectations and demands.

On one level it is all very familiar : the words of the liturgy, the music, the motifs, the heavy language of sin and judgment, guilt and forgiveness, it doesn’t change, year after year it challenges and provokes and I fight it and then submit to it, wrestle meaning out of it then avoid the meaning within it, I defy it and judge it then acknowledge its power, I question it, reject it, search it, listen in to it, turn it this way then that, while I am turned this way and that, turned and returned. Return – ‘Teshuvah’ – all this love and hate, probing and being probed, is – I suppose – what it is all about, returning to the hard truths and hard questions about my life, our life, our lives.

So it is familiar, yes, but also each year there’s the shock of encountering again a religious world that is so unfamiliar, so distant from our daily lives: a world that believes that these things truly matter. That how he live, what we do, what we fail to do – all the tiny decisions of our everyday lives and the larger choices we make, thoughtfully or carelessly, that they all count, and that they all matter not just for us but in a larger scheme of things. It can be a shock to hear again these traditional words and the belief system they contain. We are drawn in – but maybe a part of us always wants to flee from it, as just too strange, or too demanding, or too guilt-inducing...

Because in our hearts we aren’t sure that we really believe in all this anymore – that the world is ordered and governed as the traditional liturgy says it is. We might intuit that some of these things do matter, we may have an inkling that that there are truths buried deep inside these traditional words, but we aren’t sure any more. We may not know what we believe, what we really think and feel, about God and mercy and repentance and forgiveness of sins. We know that life is more complex, and more random, than the sometimes simple pieties we hear about in the pages of this book, as wondrous as I think this book is, our Reform High Holy Day machzor.

But we still come - with our uncertainties, our doubts, our questions - because we also know that if we engage in this stuff something happens to us, in us – that some combination of the music and liturgy and the experience of community and the words the congregation exchanges with each other before or after the service, and even the words you hear from the rabbi (maybe), all these strands come together and we know that something about engaging in this annual journey does make a difference. Though we might be hard pressed to say what.

If these Ten Days do make a difference, maybe it is because during them we are – whether we want it or not – engaging with what is real in life, and a lot of the time during the year we might find ourselves running away from what is real. The High Holy Days asks us to spend time with what is really happening in our own lives – and that can be a scary thing to do. It is there right at the beginning of the preparatory Selichot our service: ‘Help be at one with myself, so that these precious days are not lost in pretence and self-deception. Give me the know myself as I am, a human being, sinned against and sinning...’ (p95). Self-deception is ingrained in human nature – that’s part of what it means to have an unconscious – and one of the manifestations of self-deception is that moment we all experience when we imagine that we don’t deceive ourselves.

What can be frightening about this time – and why so many Jews can no longer bear it, want to avoid it, or want to treat it dismissively – is that these High Holy Days expose us. We can’t escape the fact that we are asked to think about our lives, our successes and our failures, our creativity and our crookedness. These services can make us feel very vulnerable: because when we think about our lives we are aware of what goes well, yes, we are aware of our blessings – children, grandchildren, friendship, satisfying work, activities we enjoy, achievements – but we also become aware, maybe even more aware, of what might not be right in our lives: problems with our health, illness, the frailty of our bodies, problems about money, savings, how to pay the mortgage, anxieties about work or job security; we may become aware of the losses we suffer, friends who die, the death of parents, or a spouse; we may be experiencing loneliness, or the breakdown of a relationship, or the fragility of our emotional lives or insecurities in our mental state.

We may feel our lives are lacking in something – even if we don’t know what it is. We may feel that life is passing us by too quickly. We may be very frightened deep down, about dying alone, or dying in pain, we may be frightened about anti-Semitism, or the future of Israel as a democratic state we can be proud of, and as we read about 100 square mile chunks of ice breaking off the Greenland ice mass we may be frightened about the planet itself dying. Our fears may be focused on us, or out there. But you can’t go through these High Holy Days without at some moment or another – and maybe for longer – becoming aware of personal fears and insecurities, as well as collective ones. That’s why I say it can be scary to engage with – because these things are real – and the liturgy keeps bringing us back to what is real : ‘Help be at one with myself, so that these precious days are not lost in pretence and self-deception’.

Now of course it is possible to go through these days untouched by any of this – the paradox of the liturgy is that it can block access to what is real just as effectively as it can open us up to what is real. Although strictly speaking it isn’t the liturgy that blocks us, or prevents us going deeper, but something inside of us. Because you can say all the words and sing all the melodies and use them as a quite effective barrier against the reality of your life: you can perform them, like a ritual, and keep their essence far away from your heart and soul – or you can whisper them in awe and trembling, listen in to them, pay attention to where they are pointing, the reality of your own life, your unique and fragile and precious life.

But the promise embedded in the liturgy is that if you do allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to where the words lead you – the promise is that it is safe to do this. Our services are places where it is possible to be vulnerable safely – because they offer that private space, in the midst of the community. You are not alone in struggling with what is real, you are not alone as you reflect on what works in your life, and what doesn’t, you are not alone as you reflect on your values and the decisions you make. We are all in this together, even though we are each in it in our own way. But the value of community is that we are supporting each other in these personal journeys that the person sitting next to you might know nothing about, your family may know nothing about. We are not alone – even though it might often feel that we are.

And we are not alone not only because we are all in this together – but because the promise of these days is that if we do listen in to the words and we do follow where they are pointing there is a presence with us on the journey, that we are being held like a baby in the womb that has no knowledge of itself being held, that we are being held in what our tradition calls, rachamim: divine mercy. The Hebrew word for mercy, compassion, is - I’m sure you know - from the word rechem, womb. And it is one of the names for God.

And part of our work during these Ten Days is to listen in to this rachamim within us, this divine quality of care and acceptance and holding that says:

‘Yes, you fail to live up to what you know is best and you know is right; yes, you have done things that are wrong; yes, you compromise and you cheat (yourself and others), yes, you turn away from truth – but in spite of all this you are not alone, you have not been abandoned, because I who am rachamim live in you - in your capacity to have compassion on yourself. Don’t berate yourself for your failures; don’t hate yourself for your pathetic inability to live lives congruent with the values you give lip-service to, don’t hate yourself for what you do wrong. Have compassion for yourself – you are just another weak, struggling human being, trying to find the way in a confusing world. Find compassion for your suffering – because you do suffer. Find your compassion. Find Ha-Rachaman, the One who is Compassion. Find your compassion during these days – I give you ten days – you will find it, you will find Me. Find your compassion and you find Me.’

That is the promise of these days. And the work – and it is work - begins this week.

I wish you all a Shana Tova – a good New Year – and much strength for the journey ahead.

[Based on a text delivered at Finchley Reform Synagogue on Saturday night, September 4th]