Captives of our Bias

Date: Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Time: About 4 pm

Lesson:

We are all captives of our bias, living in a world divorced from the physical laws of nature.  In our minds, we seek to satiate our desire to be accepted and belong by leading our hearts in the direction we were raised to follow.

Like a bird caught in power lines, there is nothing that mangles the philosopher within all of us than concrete science, in this case Chemistry.  Following a mind-wrecking examination, profusely exhausted mentally and physically from having to overcome subatomic computations, abstract thought was the least of my intentions.

After half-assedly gauging the consensus of my classmates on their performance, I stumbled towards my car in an effort to finally rid myself of  zombie-like fatigue.  As I made my way past the numerous academic halls, a friend approached and we went about our way discussing life as usual.  The Friday atmosphere was all too apparent and we decided to reward ourselves with a few smoothies in the Student Union.  We sat, discussing mildly stimulating topics that our brains had managed to retain after a grueling week.

The campus was sparse and the few individuals that had been roaming its confines were either faculty, PhD students or plant workers.  Among the remaining crowd, an interesting sight caught my eye.  It wasn’t so much the familiarity of the man himself, but rather his attire and overall appearance: disheveled, his posture somewhat skewed.  A vacant yet preoccupied expression behind his shoddy, unkempt beard, which meandered northward towards his untamed hair, topped with a Yarmulke.

A fellow Jew’, I thought mischievously.  I had made a rather sinister hobby out of confronting, what I perceived as, “pious” individuals about their beliefs, particularly in order to reassure myself that my secularist mentality still held merit above all else, my insecurity notwithstanding.

“Shabbot Shalom”, I motioned towards the man humorously and my friend followed suit.  The man observed us curiously and slowly approached, the vacant, preoccupied expression remaining.  He adjusted his glasses and stared.  After a few awkward, yet humorous moments, I began to question the man on his intentions: after all, it was Friday and perhaps there was a sermon that I could have been missing somewhere.

Briefly, we introduced one another by name and “Jewishness”.  The socially maladroit man gave us the gist of his pursuits:  He had been given the task, by God we assume, to seek out Jews on our campus and engage them into active prayer.  Because of our [my friend included] close proximity to the Hebrew ethnicity, we allowed the man to humor us further:  this particular sect of Judaism conclude that the Hebrew Messiah has indeed come in the form of a revered Rabbi.  The details were at best muddied, but we expected no more out of faith-based beliefs.

We allowed the rabbi to humor us further.  He insisted that we adorn the Hebrew faith and join him in prayer; we obliged.  My friend was given a set of Teffilin [cuboidal compartments filled with Torah passages to be wrapped around the left arm and head to serve as a sign of remembrance to God’s glory for leading the Jews to the Promised Land] and a Kippah to compliment his already puzzled expression.  The whole scene was something out of a extemporaneously constructed prank: I stood, in my hoody and skinny jeans, watching the devout man read aloud Torah passages as my friend mumbled back in subordination, once in a while having to excuse himself for asking the Rabbi to repeat the proper Hebrew pronunciation.

As the prayer concluded, I knew I could let this moment go to waste and make it as “Facebook Worthy” as possible.  I asked the man to take a few photographs with us; myself, with the Kippah, grinning from ear to ear at having witnessed what had just ensued, and my friend, still visibly shaken, unsure of how to pose for the camera.

For the next hour we discussed a variety of topics: geopolitics, the environment, globalization, Russia’s role in the Holocaust.  All topics in which my friend and I indulged in frequently.   The Rabbi’s despair was apparent; he was oblivious to our views and understandings, more so, he was completely out of touch with the modern world.  We presumed this was on account of his religious affiliation, as even witnessed by his archetypal, ecstatic rocking back and forth while he read his prayer allowed.  The man was submerged in his belief, so we decided to navigate the conversation in a different, more familiar direction.

I began with a slow summarization of the Jewish faith, in reference to all other faiths humanity has ever possessed.  The Rabbi aroused our interests when he inquired [somewhat condescendingly]

(1) Whether we “actually” believe the Earth is more than 6,000 years old
(2) Whether we believed the moon landing was indeed  a valid endeavor
(3) How we are sure that the world “is” actually round

The shock wore off rather quickly.  Although a few remnants of disbelief remained, I gathered my patience and lectured the Rabbi with forced equanimity: relaying, among other scientific evidence, the existence of DNA base pairing, ocean currents as a result of the rotation of our Earth and even, at one point, the existence of flying cars.

Upon hearing this, the Rabbi’s eyes lit up with dismissive curiosity, yet we responded with tantamount evidence to satiate his questions.  It took nothing more than a YouTube video of a flying car (with a propeller) to convince him otherwise.

“The poor guy is so out of touch.  I feel sorry for him”, said my friend, following our interaction.  He was right, what we had perceived as arrogant certitude was simply the naivety of a man who had dedicated his life to live in a world removed from our own.

We credulously sought to give the man a taste of his own inquiries.  I had heard the “Chosen People” and “Israel” lecture far too often to allow it to somehow deter my talking points.  My universalist approach was pronounced, but all too typical of my secularist bravado.  I sought to devalue the idea that God favors one group of people and prefers you to follow his trivial and sometimes illogical laws, none of which, in my view, would be able to serve pillar of world peace and cooperation.

The Rabbi became increasingly detached from our inquiries, almost as if the onslaught of the scientific community had proved too heavy for something he had accumulated over his entire life.  My final grievance was on the basis of discrimination between faiths and how the process undermined global unity while allowing any given religious community to prosper, keeping in accordance with a tribalist mentality.

This time the Rabbi issued a personal anecdote in compromise.  He woefully regaled us with a story about his trip to Israel 15 years ago, when he was 19 years old.  Upon visiting his newlywed brother with his parents, he had fallen in love with a Jewish state.  Seeing as to how the country is a virtual safe-haven and utopia for world Jewry, it was not difficult for us to understand why this man possessed such a passion for the land.  He told us, that despite his deep longing, his mother’s pleas had led him back to the states.  He claimed to have been married once, sighing as he hinted past tense, and what touched me most deeply was what he said next:

“…and all this time, I feel like I have wasted 15 years of my life for nothing.  Living here.” 

The Rabbi’s intentions were not to somehow enforce or assert his way of life, as it was now apparent that he had neither possessed the will nor the prerogative to debate any of our assertions about the world.  But rather to find unity and cohesiveness through likeminded individuals.  He wanted to belong to a community that followed the traditions he had been engendered with as a child, so that any place outside his home could still feel like a homestead with values and beliefs familiar to him.  My misplaced aggression was followed by a humbleness I had not felt in many months.

We are all captives of our bias, living in a world divorced from the physical laws of nature.  In our minds, we seek to satiate our desire to be accepted and belong by leading our hearts in the direction we were raised to follow.

-Konstantin Ravvin

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