Friday, July 21, 2017

The Bahir: Illumination by Aryeh Kaplan





The Bahir: Illumination, by Aryeh Kaplan, is one of the legs in the three legged stool of Kabbalistic books.  Along with the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, and the Zohar, Jewish mysticism is more or less  based on these works.  The Bahir is an early work, and in it can be found most of the ideas that would fully flower in later Jewish mystical traditions, including the "Tree of Life" and the Sephirot.

The layout of the book is challenging.  Kaplan’s translations and commentaries are together, but to read the Hebrew text, which is vital, you have to flip to the back of the book.  I photo-copied the Hebrew text, so I could follow along.  

But this is petty concern.  We are lucky to have this English translation and commentary.  For one interested in expanding his or her Jewish religious literacy, this book is essential.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff



Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die, by Garrett M. Graff, is a revealing history of the attempts by the US government to insure the continuity of government (COG) since the dawn of the Cold War, and with renewed and slightly shifted vigor after 911.

The title is telling.  At the beginning of the Cold War, there were plans in place to save large population centers through evacuations.  But as nuclear weapons grew in size and strength, these efforts were largely abandoned.  The government, particularly the Executive Branch, was widely acknowledged to be the only entity that could  possibly survive a nuclear exchange with the USSR and govern what was left of the country.

Graff’s book is detailed, knowledgeable, and for those of us who lived during the Cold War, frightening in the sense of how close we came to nuclear war through accidents, computer malfunctions, and faculty communications.  At times only luck saved us from Armageddon.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation



Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation as translated by Aryeh Kaplan, is a nearly impenetrable book, examining the theogony of G-d’s attributes.  This book is written in a highly esoteric style.  The Hebrew, while formally simple, is compressed and open to many interpretations.

Kaplan takes a decidedly mathematical and mystical approach to this work.   He believes Jewish mystics used this work to induce numinous states.  He may very well be right.  The work also has a strong and unavoidable tone of magic; for example, astrology, largely forbidden in the Jewish tradition, is given a pass in the Sefer Yetzirah.  In a note Kaplan explains:

There is a commandment, “There shall not be found among you… one who calculates times.  In the Talmud, according to Rabbi Akiba, this specifically applies to one who calculates auspicious times, and a number of authorities accept this opinion as binding.  This, however, only means that one should not make astrology a dominant influence in one’s daily life… when one is engaged in these mystical techniques this prohibition is not applicable.

So, astrology is a tool used in Sefer Yetzirah, but never is prime directive.  Instead, the book of creation blends philosophy, midrash, astrology and earlier kabbalistic works in a melange.  In the end, it really belongs only to itself; read it, and it will be more than apparent. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answers: Exploring Spirituality and Existence in the Modern World by Richard Sylvester




Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answers: Exploring Spirituality and Existence in the Modern World by Richard Sylvester examines the author’s uncompromising stance on non-duality.  This books is a series questions asked and answered by via email.  There is no particular order to the emails.  There is a great deal of repetition.  If you are unfamiliar with Sylvester’s view on non-duality, this is not necessarily bad; the repetition reinforces the topics, which are difficult to express in words.

Sylvester offers no system or strategy to “see” our non-dual status. We are already there, so there is nothing to be done.  We may be offered an experience of non-duality, and from that see that the world of our perceptions is like a “walking dream” and there is no self.  For many, that experience leads to depression.  If the world of phenomenon, where most of us get our vital reinforcement, is empty or a “walking dream,” then what is the point of anything?

But Sylvester explains that a second “state” can often arise, where we see meaning, or love, in the emptiness.  Beyond those two things, the author eschews any system (if these two points can even be called any program at all).  People are “awakened” to non-duality with often profound results.  Others simply see it as a given, and it has a minimal impact on them.  Still others plunge into crisis. 

I don’t agree with all that Sylvester writes.  I still think certain religious practices can help us understand our non-dual state.  He mentions Kabbalah in a limited, dismissively sense with apparently no much knowledge of the tradition.  But I understand Sylvester’s skepticism of methods.  Some people use them and they work; others do, and they fail to work.  A great deal of emotional discord can be created by the spiritual quest. We must be careful to not be always 'questing.'

In the end, Sylvester has the same advice for most of his correspondents who are undergoing a crisis or striving to understand non-dualism. Take a walk in the park.  Have a cup of tea and a cookie.  There is good reason he tells us this: we can’t intellectually or emotionally understand non-duality.  Perhaps the best places to 'experience' it are in simple tasks divorced from any process.  For this author, there is no difference from seeing the face of God and having a cup of tea.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph Ellis



The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph Ellis, examines the role of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison in the creation of the Constitution.

For those unfamiliar with American history, it seems as if a national sense existed in 1776, when we declared independence from Britain.  But as Ellis shows, the picture was far more complex.  The document for a common government following 1776, the Articles of Confederation, in many ways recapitulated the dysfunction of the Continental Congress.  It was more about the rights of the states than some overarching national government.

The quartet of the title had born the brunt of this system either in the Continental Army, or by serving in the Confederation Congress and sought to redress its shortcomings.

By the end of the Constitutional convention in 1797, the tide had decisively moved away from the moribund confederation, to the structure of government we more or less have today.  Ellis is correct in calling this a second American Revolution.  The quartet sought to enshrine the revolutionary spirit of 1776 in the Constitution.  The Articles threatened to tear the country apart, creating little republics or dictatorships at war with each other.  The Constitution sought to balance blocks of power against each other to promote comprise and prevent tyranny.

Ellis makes fascinating observations about the outcome of the Constitution.  It was felt by all delegates, especially by James Madison and Gouverneur Morris, who more or less framed the document, that it was incomplete in many ways.  They believed it would grow and evolve to meet the times.  So much for “original intent” conservative jurists who see the constitution as having some basic and unchanging meaning, as if frozen in amber.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante




The Story of the Lost Child is Elena Ferrante’s final of her four “Neapolitan” novel series.  Ferrante certainly delivers in this final novel, wrapping up the saga of Lenu and Lina, and along with them, their poor neighborhood in Naples, its residents, and the trajectory of modern Italy.

I suppose part of the success of this novel, and the series, is the sense of ego-related claustrophobia that Ferrante is able to express. She is so skilled at parsing the lives of her characters, their minute motivations, their shades of thought and feelings, that it is often a relief to put the books down.  At times it is almost too intimate and probing.

Regarding this novel, I think Ferrante overplays her hand when the dolls are delivered near at the end.  It strains credibility.  It is obvious what she is trying to do, but in a novel of subtle chords, this note is a bit shrill.

Beyond that Ferrante never really misses the mark; she has created a masterful work about the heart of friendship.



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The World Without Us



Alan Weisman's The World Without Us is supposed to explore what would or could happen to our world if humans suddenly ceased to exist.  Weisman does do this, but he must of necessity discuss how we have altered/destroyed much of our world, in order to illustrate what would happen if we were to disappear.

So, Weisman takes us on a tour from the mass extinction of the passenger pigeon in North American, to the Moa bird in New Zealand.  We look at climate change, nuclear waste, and plastic islands in the oceans.  It is a depressing catalog.

The only bright spot is that, to quote Jurassic Park, nature finds a way.  Animals, plants and birds no longer found in Korea thrive in the depopulated DMZ.  In the quarantine zone around Chernobyl, wolves have returned, along with moose, deer, badger, and horses.

The take away, the world will do fine without us.  In fact, it might just thrive.