Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I was listening to NPR one afternoon. Judith Shulevitz was talking about her book, The Sabbath World: Glimpse of a Different Order of Time. The book is described as both a scholarly exploration of Sabbath practices and an exploration of her own recently acquired practice of Sabbath observance. It was interesting.

There was one thought that she expressed that I both recognized and found paradoxical. To paraphrase: “ I love synagogue, the Sabbath observance, but I don’t believe in Gd.” I have heard many variations of this sentiment expressed. I really don’t get it. I don’t understand what “I don’t believe in Gd” means in this context. What is happening to people who attend synagogue, enjoy prayer, or the observance of prescribed practices, like the observance of Sabbath? What do they mean it has nothing to do with Gd?

A few years back I saw a short clip on the web of a lecture given by Jill Bolte Taylor http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html)

Dr, Taylor was a neuroanatomist, a researcher of the brain at Harvard who suffered a devastating stroke on the left side of her brain at age 37. Her story is about both her recovery and what she learned about “right brain consciousness” as a result of her stroke. I was so moved and fascinated by the lecture that I bought and read her book when it came out several months later and followed her on the talk show circuit, whenever I could.

Dr. Taylor suffered a “slow bleed” into the left hemisphere of her brain, the location of her stroke. For a while she experienced only what could be apprehended from the right hemisphere. Undistracted by the linear, verbal, linguistic, rational, logical and autobiographical left hemisphere, she had access to a unique experience of consciousness.

The right hemisphere of our brains are affective, non-verbal, non-linear. There is no time, only the present moment. There are no boundaries, all is one and one is all. As Dr. Taylor describes it, the right brain experience is close to “nirvana,” or the state of ecstatic oneness, that meditative adepts have been able to achieve.

The right brain seems to house the organ of spiritual receptivity. That is what this brain scientist experienced and came to believe in fervently.
We are two-brained. And we forget this. We think of the logical left brain as being the true mind, and the right brain, which is online much earlier in our development (and maybe is the last to go), as being somehow less valid, less reliable, less real.

As the left hemisphere was blinking on and off at the moment of the stroke, Dr. T. found herself unable to focus on calling for help, dialing or even reading the phone, forming or understanding words. Remarkably she did not die. More remarkably she has almost completely recovered. But most remarkably she has had the experience, and is able to convey the experience, of having full access to right-brained consciousness:living in a space that was truly spiritual.

So this is what I think is happening with Judith Shulevitz and the rest of us wrestling with being drawn to something that we do not “believe” in. I believe that Sabbath observance, prayer, meditation practice, yoga give us a glimpse of right-brained consciousness. If you do not have the ill fortune of a left hemispheric stroke it is not a simple thing to “feel” your right brain. The chatter of the left drowns out the timelessness and serenity of the right. We all have to work really, really hard to get access to that other form of consciousness. Music may get us there, poetry, meditation, prayer, and ritual are some popular routes. For Judith Shulevitz it may be Sabbath observance. But I’m just guessing.

Belief is a function of left brain work, that which is logical,
rational, linguistic. “Is there a GD” is a left brained question.” And there is no left brain answer. If “answer” is a relevant word, and I’m not sure it is, we need to turn to the other side.

Thursday, April 8, 2010



I thought if I waited long enough, procrastinated long enough, this would go away and I would not have to write this post. Not that the crisis would go away, just the headlines about the church/sexual abuse scandal. My comments would be moot. Then yesterday, front page, New York Times: Vatican Priest Likens Criticism Over Abuse to Anti-Semitism. That pushed me over the edge. Perpetrators as victims, that sounded oh, too familiar.

As a long time psychotherapist, the church scandal that broke several years ago, came as no surprise, not to me, not to many of my colleagues. We had been hearing about severe sexual , physical and emotional abuse of children by priests and even nuns for many, many years. It was validating and freeing for our patients to have this out of the closet and to know that it was institutional.

I have treated many victims of sexual violence, some at the hands of priests. I have treated a priest who was a sexual offender. They have been my teachers.

I have one thing to add to the conversation on the church, the systemic denial and cover up of the scandal and the recent revelations of how high in the hierarchy these matters reach.

Commentators looking to understand what is institutional and systemic have pointed to two factors: celibacy and more offensively, homosexuality. The have also pointed to the probable homosexuality of a substantial number of offenders. This analysis fails to explain why children are the objects of sexual desire, rather than adults, and why the church has failed so miserably to protect children from pedophilic behavior, once the pedophile has been identified. Why is the expression of compassion and protection for child victims of rape so much more tepid than the protection afforded perpetrators? Why does the church view itself as victim, rather than perpetrator?

I believe much about these matters can be explained better by reference to power relationships. In a word its about patriarchy. Power that is “infallible,” where the rule of obedience supersedes all other (moral!) considerations there is bound to be corruption and victimization of those weak and without voice.

Several years before the church abuse crisis, feminist scholars were observing that patriarchal, hierarchal institutions were much more likely to tolerate and produce violence against women and children than less rigidly hierarchal organizations where power and authority is more egalitarian in expression. This applies to family, cultural, and religious organizations.

Judith Lewis Herman, a psychiatrist and scholar in the area of sexual abuse and the effects of sexual abuse on children betrayed by trusted authority figures, writes eloquently about “the rule of the father” in an incestuous family. Herman argues persuasively and with scientifically supported data, that where father’s rule and mother’s nurture , where father’s power is paramount and mother’s power minimal, children are more at risk for the father breaking the incest taboo with his daughter. Children are undoubtedly more at risk for all kinds of violence from the father, where mother’s power is absent.

I believe the stunning insensitivity of the church, the absence of compassion for victims, the decades of denial and cover-up, the arrogation of canon law above civil law and ordinary morality, all make more sense in the context of an understanding of the perils of institutional patriarchy.

If the patriarchal nature of the church could be addressed we might see some real change in victimization within the Catholic church.