Everyone Has A Unique Perspective

Some of my favorite Jewish personalities are those who bring about fresh perspectives despite the well-worn paths in Torah. While many do little more than quote the scholars of the past, my personal favorite thinkers are those who will be quoted in generations to come from now for their unique insight. While you would assume that these individuals are incredibly intimidating, they also happen to be some of the most approachable figures in existence. They have their own doubts and fears just like the rest of us. In fact, many of these thinkers are so similar to the average person that one may not realize their own genius. I would go even further to argue that even every common person has their own contribution to Judaic thought. My main source for this theory would be Exhibit A: Myself.

While I have a blog online that discusses Jewish ideas, I’ve always said I’d rather be the talk show host than the interviewed guest. My knowledge of Hebrew is mediocre at best and I’m not particularly well-studied in comparison to many of my fellow online Jewish writers. I’ve sat across from scholars fluent in several languages, those who had entire works committed to memory — those with all sorts of titles before and after their names on very expensive pieces of paper. I am not one of these people. I am the one who dreams of simply reading the books published under their names. Despite this, I believe that every person has a unique perspective on the well-worn path of Torah scholarship and Jewish life. I didn’t realize this as much until someone brought one of my ideas up in conversation — me, a quasi-educated Midwesterner trying to catch up with my own Judaism.

In October of 2014, I published an article in which I argued that the 10th commandment of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) was the most underrated commandment of the ten. The piece was called “The Most Underrated Yet Most Destructive Sin.” In it, I basically argued that the act of coveting was the basis for all other averiot (sins). One must desire something in a way that is unhealthy before they act upon such a desire. One steals because they covet an object. They commit acts of violence or infidelity because something appears to be in the way of what they covet. Even desecrating the Shabbat is done so when one covets not being “burdened” by the Shabbat’s stipulations.

This didn’t necessarily seem like an earth-shattering piece to me, but fell more under the criteria of “Judaism According to Ken.” Some years later, I was visiting Congregation B’nai Israel, the headquarters of the Karaite Jews of America in Daly City, California — just a little ways outside of San Francisco. After Erev Shabbat dinner, I was sitting with my friends, Shawn Lichaa (creator of A Blue Thread) and Tomer Mangoubi — an MIT graduate and accomplished Karaite Jewish scholar. They both wanted to talk more about my idea about the 10th Commandment being linked to all other transgressions. They seemed to be making a bigger deal about it than I thought they would and seemed to hold the opinion in very high regard.

 

Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 11.14.18 PM
Shawn, his son Reuven, Tomer, and James Walker (in kippah)

 

“Do you realize that this was an opinion held by the Karaite sage Hakham Nisi Ben Noach in his work ‘Bitan Maskilim’?” Tomer uttered.
I shrugged, as I had never heard of Hakham Nisi Ben Noach. They continued to shower me with compliments about coming to such an insightful conclusion.

“Yeah, well…how do you know that I didn’t just rip that idea off from ‘Bitan Maskilim’?” I murmured as a means of reminding them that it was me they were talking about — not some published authority.

“Because ‘Bitan Maskilim’ has never been translated into English and I know that your Hebrew isn’t that great,” Shawn said with a truthful laugh. He was right — my Hebrew, especially then, was trash. Though he had said this for the entire room to hear, the previous compliments on my ideas about “לא תחמד” more than outweighed any potential embarrassment I could have felt.

While I continue to study Torah, I would be tremendously surprised if I ever were to come up with many more ideas that would seemingly warrant such accolades — after all, coming up with “ooh-ahh” concepts is not the reason I study. Still, I would encourage any person to share their own perspectives with their peers. If someone like me — who couldn’t pass for a talmid hakham on TV — can come to an insightful conclusion worth repeating, surely you have an entire book to write.

“Whoever is able to write a book and does not, is as if he has lost a child.”

– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Okie Hebrew Is Back

Disclaimer: This is mostly an update post about the site itself. 

Howdy, friends! I apologize that it’s been nearly a year since my last blog post. Oddly enough, the site was hacked by Algerian PLO sympathizers, even though I hadn’t even really posted any content regarding the Israeli/Palestinian struggle (I’ll leave that more to people who know what they’re talking about). Anyways, the hack made it increasingly difficult to edit and update the site, so I did lose some steam in maintaining it. Since then, I’ve had quite a few readers email me, asking me where I went.  Well, I’ve switched hosts and I plan on providing a whole more content in the future!

“Okie Hebrew — oh, that Karaite Jewish site, right?”

Looking around the internet, I have found that this site is linked to on many different Karaite Jewish websites. While this is extremely flattering, it would be misleading to say that the site is exclusively a Karaite Jewish website. Many people call me a Karaite Jew, which isn’t completely accurate. While I am an observant Jew with an interpretation that leans into many Karaite halachic spheres, I also lean into many different Rabbinic halachic areas of thought as well. I am simply a Torah-loving Jew and I draw inspiration from multiple Jewish movements. The reason why this site seems very Karaite is that it is much more Karaite than the majority of Jewish websites on the internet. That makes this website much more Karaite by default.

So, why do I explore so many Karaite Jewish ideas on this site? Well, to be frank, it’s because most Jewish not only do not but will not.

The Future of Okie Hebrew

There has been a huge resurgence of interest in Karaite Jewish ideas. As this wave rolls over the Jewish world, it has crashed against Rabbinic Judaism. Though it’s been an aim of the site in the past, the renewed goal of Okie Hebrew will be to provide resources that both observant Rabbinic Jews and Karaite Jews can use to better understand one another and coexist.

If you have any particular subjects you like to see discussed, do not hesitate to let me know using the following form:

Depending on how much I can expound on whatever subject you suggest, I may also call upon other individuals I know to guest post on certain subjects. I look forward to hearing all of your suggestions and interacting with you once again! It’s good to be back!

— Ken

God Has Left The Building

Without Googling, where would you say the world’s largest Passover seder is frequently held?

Jerusalem? Florida? Brooklyn?

Try Kathmandu, Nepal — because of all of the Jewish tourists to the East seeking new spiritual experiences.

There is a reason why Jeffery Miller became Lama Surya Das, why Dr. Richard Alpert became Ram Dass, and why both the late Adam MCA Yauch of Beastie Boys and Leonard Cohen both sought out spiritual paths in Buddhism. These are spiritually hungry Jews who had been failed by modern stagnant Judaism.

Far too often, more and more Jews report less reverence in synagogues and more of a spark of spirituality out on a hike through the woods. While ashrams, gurdwaras, and Buddhist temples are filled with Jews thirsting for a taste of the Divine, synagogues in their neighborhoods are having trouble making a minyan if theres not a chag or a bar or bat mitzvah.

Jewish congregations are becoming less of a place of a place where Holy One’s glory abides and more an extremely interactive museum to Judaism that mostly old men attend weekly out of habit. One of the main issues is that we, as a society, are becoming afraid of the elephant in the room — aka: God.

The modern synagogue has come to feel more like a country club than a center for spiritual nourishment. They have become fraught with committee politics when they should be centers of actively working out ones personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe. Less drama more kavanah.

A younger enthusiastic rabbi I know summed up the dilemma during a parent-teacher conference with the Rosh Yeshiva of his friends school.
“So, how is my sons study of Chumash going?”
“Very well.”
“And Talmud? Mishnah and Gemara?”
“He’s an exceptional student.”
“And his tefillah?”
“Yes, he prays regularly.”
“Well, of course, but I meant his kavanah. Do you think he has a good relationship with HaShem? Are they close?”
Sir, this isnt a hasidish yeshiva. We dont discuss each others personal spiritual relationships like that.”
“At this point, he turned to those whom he was telling this story.

“What? This is a yeshiva, right? Why am I even sending him here if not help him strengthen his kavanah and relationship with the Almighty? Why are they not giving him the tools he needs to better love HaShem every single day?”

Before another Jews feels the need to venture outside of their own Judaism to find the Divine, we need to invite God back into the building.

If you feel far from God, it wasn’t God that moved. Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser

Treating "Kavanah Deficit Disorder": Praying With Your Kishkes

The Fight For Focus

The second hand of a clock ticks from the next room. Under normal conditions, I don’t even notice it. It blends into the tapestry that is the noise of midtown. As I attempt to read on in my book, it feels like someone is slowly turning up the volume knob on this incessant ticking. My focus begins to disengage from the words on the page, instead floating right over them, and the ticking is like a penny on a railroad track that somehow is able to derail my train of thought. My focus is going…going…gone.

Living life withAttention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD is something most individuals out-grow as the chemical balance of their brains steadiesitself as they mature. If they don’t out-grow it, they suppress it by using all methods of narcotics that limit the brain’s ability to perform multiple functions simultaneously — like, remembering to eat food, just as an example. Well, I didn’t outgrow ADHD and I didn’t want to take a Schedule II narcotic every day. I’m left to just deal with it. So, what’s that like?

I can compare having ADHD to some hardware I use at work. Two tools I use are a DLSR camera and digital sound recorder. The camera has a nifty auto-focus feature in which sensors communicate with a computer to tell the lens how much to adjust in order to have the image in focus. On the sound recorder, there is a handy “auto” feature where the recorder raises the volume on the most prevalent frequency in order to drown out background noise. My sensory perception is just like these, only the auto-focus sensors pick up on the bee that flies through the shot and the sound recorder’s auto feature prefer ticks of a distant clock rather than the varying sounds of midtown traffic. This difficulty is because I have faulty neurotransmitters in my brain.

Having ADHD can be a real pain during prayer. Prayer seems to be a two-step process in developing ideas to transmit and then the act of transmission. In Jewish thought, one aspect of prayer one hopes to achieve is called “kavanah.” This word literally means “alignment” in Hebrew, but is more of the deep spiritual focus in which one has the sensation that the Holy One has picked up the other telephone line and their prayer is being heard. When one is unable to achieve the sensation of kavanah due to an inability to focus, it feels as though I’m expressing my most inner heartbreak to a dear friend and they’re preoccupied with a game of Candy Crush. The problem isn’t that the Holy One isn’t listening, but that my brain’s spiritual auto-focus is busted due to faulty neurotransmitters. What is my solution? Bypass the brain.

The Passage Way For Kavanah/Alignment

Many make the mistake in thinking that prayer is an intellectual endeavor. It most certainly is not. In many ways, the ultimate champions of prayer on earth are little children. Because many children’s minds have not developed to the point of rationally conceiving of an all-power Creator that exists within the fabric of existence itself, they’re prayers are nothing more than elevated admiration for a parent-figure that exists within. This does not mean that prayer is by any means foolish, but rather this means the intellectual may struggle more to overcome his own thoughts in order to come to the Creator in prayer while the child’s natural state is prayerful pleading. What is an intellectual to do in order to attain prayerful alignment? Be smart enough to bypass the world of intellectual thoughts and tap into the heart – or, as I have found, the gut.

Just like clinical heartburn has nothing to do with the cardiovascular system at all and is instead stomach acid that has found it’s way up one’s esophagus nearest the chest, so too is one’s emotional and spiritual not so much the blood-pumping organ, but rather the seat of one’s second brain – the gut. One’s digestive system is frequently the canary in the coal mine of own’s emotional state. Anxiety, stress, and depression frequently take their toll on one’s guts. The expressions “go with your gut” is not without an anatomical basis. Yes, one is actually able to process information not only from one’s digestive system, but also within one’s digestive system. This is what is referred to as the enteric nervous system (ENS).
gut brainOne’s ENS is literally a second brain of sorts that runs throughout one’s digestive system. Actual neurons exists within the human gastrointestinal system. Has sadness ever put a lump in your throat? Have you ever had your heart broken to the point of feeling it in the pit of your stomach? Do instincts ever first manifest as a physical “feeling in your gut”? Biological research has shown that one’s ENS actually carries out functions independent of one’s brain. This area of study is known as neurogastroenterology. This form of neurological activity is responsible for many forms of bodily functions ranging from the esophagus’ ability to pull substances into the stomach (yes, you can drink water while upside down) to your gag reflex. Neurogastroenterology is also closely tied to one’s deepest feelings. This is the reason why extreme stress can cause one to vomit. But how does this connect to prayer?

Just as referenced before, the basics of prayer can be broken down into a few simple parts. For prayers of thanks or worship, the feeling of gratitude is processed neurologically before it is transmitted spiritually beyond this dimension into a heavenly realm — God’s telephone, if you will. The same goes for prayers of request, whether for your own needs or for the wellbeing of another. In many instances, these styles of prayer have a much more complex “signal” to convey and details to transmit. Still too these prayers are processed. Where the the neurogastroenterological system comes into play with prayer is in one’s ability to reverse engineer the emotional process. Usually, an event causes one to feel an emotion that may or may not be processed into a biological response by the gut, but rarely does one consciously utilize the guts (or “kishkes”, if you prefer Yiddish) as the cosmic telephone receiver into the next dimension. But how are the guts actively targeted?

When one is actively processing information, there can actually be a sensation that one’s cranium is doing the computing. Now, whether this just a perception simply due to our understanding that our brain performs our problem-solving and also exists in our head or whether we biologically have a sensation of thought existing in our head, both of those are beside the point that this sensation is perceived there. Even beyond one’s five senses, one can be more conscious of a certain area of the body at a given time. During a guided meditation, one way the leader of a group of meditators gets the group to relax is to get them to close their eyes and consciously relax each section of the body. It may go something like, “Now, I want you to imagine your shoulders becoming more relaxed. No longer tense, your shoulders are soft and loose. This loose sensation now travels down your back…” with the leader doing this until the meditator has consciously envisioned each section of the body, to relax it, which in turn has a biological sensation of relaxation. Praying with one’s guts is very similar. In prayer, more complex thoughts will still be processed by the brain, but the sensation of kavanah which perpetuates greater spiritual focus is greatly enhanced when one prays “through” the guts.

While I’ve provided some of the science behind why it may be that “praying with your kishkes” may ultimately enhance your kavanah, or your spiritual connective focus during prayer, I can’t make the claim that it will work for everyone. I can only share my own experiences on what works for me.

Watch The Weirdo Squirm– The Biological Side Of My Prayer

When I pray, I obviously find that it needs to be in a fairly quiet place or as quiet as the situation will allow. Though some traditional Jewish prayer requires standing, I find standing to be beneficial for prayerful focus. In addition to praying, I believe there is some benefit to either swaying slightly in a semi-conscious rhythm from the hips. Sometimes, a slight rocking back and forth that some Jewish movements call “shockling” or “shuckling” (from the Yiddish word meaning “to shake”) also help in focus. I can’t attest that these are beneficial for everyone, but being ADHD, the physical repetitious movement works to quiet my mind. At times, I also use my free hand (the hand not holding the prayer book) to occasionally express the concepts I’m praying — for instance, sometimes my hand will flip down for “when you retire” and flip up for “when you arise” when praying the Veahavta. This certainly isn’t the case for all of my prayers, but I occasionally semi-consciously do so as a means of making the concepts I’m praying more alive.

Praying From My Kishkes

Before this was what is visible on the outside during prayer, but what is to follow is what is happening on the inside. There are some quotes from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov that influenced my prayer a tremendous degree and helped me understanding how to go about prayer.

When you speak to God, you should arouse your heart to the point where your soul all but flies out of you. This is true prayer.
You must cry out to God from the very depths of your heart.

The biological act of sobbing is not just a facial expression, a release of tears, or a vocal eruption, but also a tightened release of emotion from one’s guts. The same abdominal muscles used to squeeze air up and out to produce a wail also constrict and produce a form of a gut-check, not unlike someone preparing for a punch. For some reason, this is my seat of kavanah. When I feel as though I am at the height of spiritual focus, my stomach is in the same state if I’m getting choked up from a beautiful piece of music and I’m trying to express the sound to someone else. While my brain attempts to process the details of the greatness of the Creator, my messages gratitude and admiration are processed through my kishkes like an umbilical telephone line to the heavenly realms.

True prayer isn’t processing your emotions with your mind but instead wringing the tears of joy and sadness out of your guts before the Creator.