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.


  1. I remember hearing this story about the woman who had the stroke. I think that you are right about the sabbath observer- the spirituality of the experience is what is happening. People may be uncomfortable giving the credit to a 'being' of some sort as if something or someone controls us and than they say they don't believe in G-d. But if you believe G-d is interchangeable with spirituality than you just might be agreeing.

    If you understand what I just said, please explain it to me!

  2. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reocnstructionist Judaism, said that a person must acquire a religious faith, not by being reasoned to about God, but by experiencing God's power inmaking life worthwhile.

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