Luke Ford Shabbaton At Westwood Jewish Center – Shabbos Lunch Speech

* Define good
* Christian vs Jewish views
* At 22, I noticed older people were kinder than younger people
* Psychological/addiction obstacles to goodness
* Belief in God and a transcendent moral code
* A set of daily practices to hone one’s commitment to the transcendent code
* A system for transmitting that code to each generation
* A community to keep an eye on you
* Common sense
* An awareness of your habitual reactions to stimuli and a willingness to let go of those reactions that don’t serve you because sometimes how we do something is more important than what we do.

I want to talk about how do we make good people. Yes, some people are born wonderful. They grow up to be wonderful. But most of us need some prodding to be our finest selves. Even those of us born brilliant and fantastic and good and kind, need some prodding, some education, some incentives and some inspiration to be even finer and kinder.

What do I mean by good? The same thing you mean by good. If somebody steals from you, that’s bad. If somebody helps you out, that’s good. If somebody gives you a ride or gives you a job or a referral or sets you up on a good date or invites you for a lovely party or a Shabbat dinner, that’s good. If somebody is honest and forthright, that’s good. If somebody is deceptive, that’s bad. If somebody puts one over on you and causes you harm, that’s bad. If somebody hits your parked car and doesn’t leave a note, that’s bad.

It’s not that complicated. What do I mean by good? It’s obvious. Do I need to keep explaining what I mean by good? I understand that most people are complicated, a mixture of good and bad. I get it.

Raise your hand if you believe that most people are basically good? Are born good? And then society corrupts people?

The Christian view is that we are born into original sin. Sin is not so much what we do but what we are. Therefore, we need a divine savior who takes away our burden of sin and gives us eternal life.

The Jewish view is that we are born with inclinations to do good and inclinations to do bad and it is easier for most people to do bad. Therefore, we need laws and stories and teachings and community and God to improve ourselves. Some people are just wonderful naturally, but everyone can improve.

The Christian view is that if you change someone’s heart, change his relationship with God, then goodness will naturally flow. Some people are changed in the matter of minutes and for the rest of their lives, they walk with the Lord. The Jewish view is that by performing the commandments, you will become good and your heart might even change. They trust the heart, we trust the law, as Dennis Prager puts it.

One morning in 1988, I woke up with what felt like the flu. I spent a couple of days in bed and then stumbled back to work and college. A few days later, I had another relapse.

It felt like the mono I’d had two years previous. But this time it didn’t go away.

I went to many doctors and eventually got the diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I was at UCLA. My friends weren’t sympathetic. They said it was all in my head.

It reminds me of a girlfriend who said, channeling Byron Katie, “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome may be the greatest gift you’ve ever received.”

Whenever my back went out, she’d say, “Do you think it might be psychological?”

How often have you been impressed by some piece of pop psychology wisdom quoted from a Dr Phil or a Dr Laura or whoever? There’s nothing wrong with the wisdom, but in the context of your particular relationship, such wisdom was not helpful.

I remember countless people who knew I went to psycho-therapy and believed in the powers of psychiatry would nevertheless ask me about my CFS, “Do you think it might be psychological?”

My CFS might be psychological but you as an amateur saying this can do no good. Do you think you might be raising a perspective I’ve never heard before and launch me on the road to recovery? Of course not. So if you’re right, you’re annoying and if you’re wrong, you’re annoying. Telling people felled by back pain or CFS or whatever, “Do you think it might be psychological?” only does harm.

When my illness forced me to leave university in 1989 and return home, my friends went on with their lives. They were young and I was awkward to consider. By contrast, almost everyone I met in the second half of life reacted to me with compassion.

That’s when I came to agree with Dennis Prager that the most important thing in the world is developing good people. Can you think of anything you want more than to be treated decently by the people around you? Are not your deepest pains from people treating you badly?

I think that for most of us in the room, our deepest pain comes not from bad luck or bad genetics or things we can blame on God, but from our experiences with other people who’ve chosen to act badly?

How do we morally improve? How can we as a community make good people?

For many years, I thought this was a matter of will and of education. You get a goal of goodness and you work steadily towards it. Now in my old age, I realize that our perceptions of reality are invariably flawed. Sometimes dangerously so. I realize that how we go about things is often more important than what we actually do. Many people have psychological and addictive problems that until these problems are solved, they can’t be upstanding members of the community. They’re too screwed up. They can observe Shabbos and kashrut but how they do things is heavy and obnoxious.

One major obstacle to moral growth is psychological. If you have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it’s going to be really hard for you to be a good person. I’m not even sure if such narcissism is curable.

Most people don’t see themselves accurately. People who are funny think they’re not funny and people who are not funny, think they’re funny. People think they’re standing up straight when they’re tipped back and leaning to the left. We all have faulty sensory perception. The whole way we look at the world is flawed to varying degrees.

I’m an Alexander Technique teacher, so I look at the world in terms of body tension. A tense person is unlikely to be pleasant to be around. Most people carry around a great deal of unnecessary body tension. This distorts their sensory perception. Tight muscles don’t feel accurately. You know how creepy it is to be touched by somebody filled with unnecessary body tension and how by contrast it is pleasant to be touched by someone free and light and buoyant.

How free are you going to be to make good decisions in the moment when you are weighed down and heavy and hurting because of your layers of unnecessary body tension?

There are all sorts of other reasons for people having an inaccurate perception of reality. They might have psychological baggage or addictions. If you are an addict, you see everything through the lens of your addiction.

If you are enslaved to an addiction, be it to substances such as alcohol, drugs or over-eating, or to processes such as gambling, gaming, love, sex, porn, co-dependent relationships, stealing, hoarding, then if you are in the grip of these addictions, you’re going to use everybody and everything in your life to meet your addictive emotional needs. You can change jobs, change religions, change relationships, change from spirits to white wine, hook up with someone of the same sex instead of the opposite sex… You can set limits to manage your addiction. I’ve always been pretty good at that. My addictions have never caused me to act criminally. I’ve never woken up drunk and wondered where I was. But I’ve just been managing my addiction.

Rabbi Shais Taub says the addict is somebody who can’t live without God. Many people can seemingly lead fine lives without God but the addict can’t. He will use if he’s not in a relationship with God. The highs the addict chases get him temporarily out of his miserable uncomfortable state. But they only work for a little while and they leave him feeling worse.

I see that I’m boring you. You want me to give a traditional rabbinic discourse about how Purim is like Yom Kippur.

Every Orthodox Jewish bachelor I know well over age 30 has told me that they have a porn problem. An Orthodox friend of mine finally married in his 40s. A few months into his marriage, I asked him how it was going. “It sucks,” he said, “my wife won’t let me look at porn.”

Porn addiction is a rampant problem in the Orthodox community. It’s what this big rally in New York against the internet was about. It wasn’t so much against the internet as against a particular branch of the internet.

How many Orthodox wives here in Los Angeles have been horrified to discover their husband pants down in front of the computer?

I remember walking out of a 12-step meeting with this guy. We shared certain patterns of pursuing intensity rather than intimacy in our relationships. And he said to me, “You know that what we’re talking about isn’t our problem. It’s just a manifestation of our problem. At core, we have an intimacy disorder and this addiction is just how we act out.”

I’ve been 12-stepping for about 16 months and I’m quite proud that I have yet to 13 step. Everyone know what it means to 13 step? It means to date someone you meet in the program. You bring a bunch of addicts together and help them to stop drinking or snorting or looking at porn or whatever, and they’re likely to scratch their itch in other ways. Every attractive woman who goes to a 12-step program like AA gets hit on and she might think, wow, this guy who gave the lead share, he’s been sober for 15 years. He wants to show me his first edition of the Big Book of AA, which he has in his bedroom. That sounds reasonable.

Well, you can be sober from drugs and alcohol and not be sexually sober.

I notice that few single Orthodox women go to shul. If you’re an attractive woman and you step into the confines of a holy Orthodox synagogue, you’re going to get hit on. I imagine it gets tiring.

As one convert to Judaism told me, amazed at the inept guys hitting on her at shul, “Jewish men don’t know their level.”

An attractive friend of mine converted to Orthodox Judaism. She had a lot of trouble with the rabbi running her conversion program here in Los Angeles. Finally, the guy just propositioned her, and it almost seemed worth it to her. Let me just get this over with.

A lot of women wanting an Orthodox Jewish divorce have found themselves propositioned by the rabbi presiding over her divorce.

Orthodox Jews are no less likely than any other group to be predators. Sexual predators. Financial predators.

I’ve always hated spirituality. I’ve always had contempt for most people who talk about it. Spirituality has usually struck me as cheap grace. It’s a way for people to try to get the benefits of belonging to an organized religion without paying the price. I don’t think anyone here has any illusions about the price of belonging to an organized religion. It makes a lot of behavioral demands on you, time demands on you, monetary demands on you. It makes intellectual demands on you. You can’t publicly disagree with the foundational beliefs of your religion if you want to get along with your co-religionists.

On the other hand, it is easy to feel spiritual at the beach or in the mountains or while watching a good movie or listening to music. Where’s the objective moral code that a spiritual person is accountable to? What code can you point to when your spiritual but not religious roommate is obnoxious?

My last girlfriend was raised an Orthodox Jew, educated through 12th grade at an Orthodox day school, and just hated Orthodox Judaism. She had so much contempt for me. If I ever failed to keep a mitzvah, she’d call me a hypocrite.

“You’re lucky,” I told her. “You can never be a hypocrite because as a secular leftist you don’t subscribe to any objective moral code.”

So I have this contempt for spirituality, and then I realize that for all my religiosity, it’s not changing my basic exploitive nature. So I start 12-stepping. And to my joy, it’s all about spirituality. It’s about having a relationship with God.

I thought I left that talk behind in my Christian upbringing. There I overdosed on talk about loving God, relating to God and the like.

And now I’m stuck with that same challenge.

Most people tend to relate to God the same way they relate to their father. I have a distant relationship with my father. I have a distant relationship with God. I see my father as the moral arbiter. I see God as the moral arbiter. It’s never occurred to me to try to have a relationship with God.

So I’m struggling with that. I’m struggling with accepting that I’m powerless in the face of love, sex and fantasy. I’m powerless over my tendency to get into co-dependent relationships. It’s hard for me to say that because I think of myself as so strong, so disciplined, so determined, but it ain’t working. I need to accept my powerlessness over my addictions.

I never considered 12-step programs seriously until about 18 months ago. I always thought they were for the weak. People who weren’t as disciplined as me. I’ve never done anything criminal. I’ve never been arrested. Everything I do is normal, right? I’m just a normal healthy guy who can’t seem to sustain a relationship much past a year.

So I realized that what I was doing was not work. That 12-step programs were worth a try. I appeared to have some unhealthy addictive patterns in my relationships. I thought 12-steppers would be dirty criminal addicts who molest kids and rape women but I got in the rooms and found I could empathize with most of them. I saw parallels to my own struggles in theirs.

Step one. Accept that I am powerless over my addictions. Step two, accept that there’s a power greater than myself that can return me to sanity. Step three, make a decision to turn my life and my will over to God as I understand Him.

Step four is killer — make a complete and fearless moral inventory. Typically, you make a list of people that you resent, and then you look at each of those relationships and see where you contributed to the harm, and you take responsibility.

Step five — you admit to yourself, to God and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs. That’s what I’m doing now. Working the fifth step.

If my will got me into the mess I am today, then my will is unlikely to get me out of this mess. I have to turn my will over to God.

To create good people:

* Need a way to help people become aware of their addictions and crippling psychological issues and overcome them.
* Belief in God and a transcendent moral code
* A set of daily practices to hone one’s commitment to the transcendent code
* A system for transmitting that code to each generation
* A community to keep an eye on you
* Common sense
* An awareness of your habitual reactions to stimuli and a willingness to let go of those reactions that don’t serve you.
* Sometimes how we do something is more important than what we do. Many times in davening, I will concentrate on the few prayers that mean something to me rather than rushing through all the prayers. Rather than worrying about doing everything and keeping up, I worry about stopping and pausing over the occasional sentiments that speak to me.

Let’s talk about kashrut. I go to a writing group that meets in the home of a woman who does not keep kosher according to the standards of Orthodox Judaism. I eat her grapes. I drink the mineral water she puts on the table. I eat her tomatoes. I don’t eat the dip that does not have hashgacha. I know Orthodox Jews who will make a big deal about how you won’t even drink water from your tap, they won’t drink a Diet Pepsi if you offer it to them in a new can, they won’t eat an apple. You can be heavy and obnoxious with your observance or you can be just as observant but carry your religiosity lightly. You can observe the mitzvahs in a way that will make the people around you hate Judaism or you can observe them in a way that shows the wisdom and goodness of the Torah.

Let’s talk about golf. Most golfers have heard the admonition to not take your eye off the ball. As with many wonderful admonitions in religion, this particular admonition does no good much of the time. Why? Because people develop tension responses that render keeping their eye on the ball impossible. They have to first reprogram their responses to stimuli before they can keep their eye on the ball.

I live near a school and I constantly hear coaches yelling at their students. You can yell all you want to a student to keep his eye on the ball, but if his level of body tension is such that he can’t do that, all that yelling will not only do no good, it will do harm because the universal response to being yelled at is to tighten and compress. The tighter and more compressed you are, the less free you are.

So too there are lots of mitzvahs that just aren’t going to be right for some people for where they’re at. They’re not capable of keeping 25 hours Shabbat for instance. So what many Orthodox rabbis will do will encourage the person to keep an hour of Shabbos.

Some people when they become religious become finer and kinder, other people become more obnoxious and more judgmental. Some people were lovely before they became religious but once they got frum, they started shushing people in shul and generally acting obnoxiously.

So the how, the way, the means, we go about things, including developing our moral character is frequently more important than what we do.

* The most powerful cause of moral improvement for me is human connection aka community. When I feel disconnected, I do anything I want and morally justify it. When I’m connected, I instinctively take into account the people who are important to me when I make decisions. I was at this Orthodox shul for about seven years, and several times when I was going to do something quite wicked, the image of my rabbi came to my mind. I usually went ahead and did the wicked things anyway, but I didn’t get to enjoy them.

A few weeks ago, I became Facebook friends with a Rebbetzin and that has had a strong inhibitory effect on my Facebook posts. I haven’t been as raunchy.

Chaim Grade, the Yiddish novelist, was a leading student of the Chazon Ish. Grade became secular so that he could write what he wanted. The Chazon Ish told him that because of his yeshiva education, he would be unable to enjoy his sins. Chaim Grade never visited Israel because once the Chazon Ish moved there, it would’ve been inconceivable for him, Grade, to visit Israel and to not visit the Chazon Ish.

The novelist Chaim Potok was invited several times to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe and declined every time because it might affect his writing. He was that afraid of the transformative contact with a holy man. When community becomes so tight that it chokes off my writing, I pull away. I’m willing to sacrifice some degree of community for freedom and some degree of freedom for community. It’s a balancing act. I keep going back and forth. I’m unwilling to live without the Orthodox Jewish community and I am unwilling to always go along with every single one of its mores.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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