Thursday, January 19, 2017

Somewhere a Master: Hasidic Portraits and Legends

It would be easy and lazy to label Elie Wiesel’s Somewhere a Master: Hasidic Portraits and Legends as mere hagiography: simple stories of saintly man without human flaws.  But this collection of stories and tales belies hagiography.  

Wiesel takes these figures, brings them to life, and maintains their human complexity. Hasidic rebbes were public figures. They had followers and students. This came with a great cost.  The need for solitude and connection to G-d was strong, and often stymied because of their functions as rebbes.

Wiesel observes that nearly every master died in some state of despair.  Often, it is not clear why, but Wiesel seems to be telling us that these men, who gave so much to their people, lost things in life through their service; this brought some measure of despair at the end.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery

The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery, by Wendy Moore, follows the story of John Hunter (13 February 1728 – 16 October 1793) who is widely credited as laying the groundwork of the modern science of surgery.

Moore’s book is detailed, entertaining, and informative.  John Hunter was both inwardly driven, a self-made man who became Europe’s greatest surgeon through pluck, intelligence, and hard work and also at a crux in the history of science: empirical methods were beginning to supersede the ancient reliance on Galen and his theory of the humors.  Hunter dissected corpses, performed autopsies, used precise methods and practices and relied experience, not medical books; he applied scientific norms to surgery with great success.

In a sense this book is perhaps a bit too long.  Moore delves deeply into the times, and in the process, perhaps adds too much.  That said, this book is intriguing.  In our world, were we are often confronted by over determined fields hamstrung by methodology and held in the vice grip of bureaucracies – we cannot help but be nostalgic of Hunter's time and life, when men (and all were men) could use their talents, skills, and drive to get somewhere in the world - and to make a difference.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Too Good to be True: Memoir

Benjamin Anastas’ memoir Too Good to be True, should probably be required reading for every young person who wants to write and make a living at it.  Make a living is the operative term. Anastas appears to spare no little detail in this work, documenting his plunge as a writer, and along with it, the rest of his life.

Of course in such a book which chronicles decline and failure, there is no little amount of self-pitying. This is to be expected; some parts are difficult to read, but at the least the author maintains a voice that is at once true and unsparing.  Anastas is also very well aware of how he laid the ground work for his artistic, financial, and perhaps relationship fiascoes.

Most of all, this memoir shows just how dangerous it is to have high and inflexible expectations about writing.  In the end, talent may not be enough; work may not be enough; contacts may not be enough.  Persistence and fortitude, however, may get you through the disappointments. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought, by Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer

Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought, by Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer, has a good book somewhere within it covers, but it takes difficult, often tedious exploration to extract it.  Granted this is an academic book, where some denseness is expected; yet even by this rubric, this work is extraordinary impenetrable.

Quietism is defined as “devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism.”  The author explains how this form of religious expression was part and parcel of Hasidism from its earliest days.  The first Hasidim, and their founder, the Besht, were "a group of decided spiritual (pneumatic) cast, which fashioned for itself a specific communal life-style built, not  around family units, but rather on meetings organized around prayer circles. As a matter of principle, this patterns served as the basis for the development of the classic Hasidic community.”

The author concedes that Hasidism stressed a this-worldly orientation, viewing such physical acts as eating and sex as holy, when performed with the right intention, but all quietism and spiritual retreat were hidden in the Hasidic agenda.  The "meeting and prayer circles" of the early days laid the seeds for Hasidic quietism.

Eventually the nullification of the ego, or the self, evolved into an Hasidic preoccupation, especially for the Maggid of Mezhirech and his followers.  The Maggid believed that “a person should not pray concerning matters of his needs.”  The Maggid was concerned with “the issue of the nullification of ‘the intellect’ and the nature of thought.”  By eradicating the ego, then “man may acquire a new intellect, a form of pure spiritual thought which is beyond time.” This kind of agenda, the author claims, is a “quietistic doctrine which equated human activity with Divine activity,” a classic definition of quietism.

The Maggid believed that only “spiritual prayer” had real meaning.  Therefore “a person cannot find the way from his own concrete personality to G-d save by way of the spirit, for it is there that G-d is revealed to him…”  The authors goes on explaining that “the Maggid advocated a spiritual life removed from the world” where “the power of the spirit [negates] the feeling of physical existence.

The thesis of this book is rather straightforward, as you can read from the above quotes.  But the tangled structure and language of this book makes it nearly unreadable.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar by Ira F. Stone

A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar by Ira F. Stone, is generally disappointing.  Mussar is a system or program of Jewish ethics and behavior developed, mainly, by Lithuanian Jews in the nineteenth century.

Stone’s work revolves around the writings of Rabbi Simcha Zissel (died 1898) who Stone quotes quoting a passage from Mishnah Avot: “Our Sages taught: one of the methods by which the Torah is acquired is by bearing the burden with our fellows.”  Bearing the burden with our fellows, and variations on this phrase, is the axis of Stone’s book.

I’d like to say that this focal point gives the reader some traction, as Stone explores the ramifications of this phrase and what it means for our lif life and behavior.  But Stone, despite exploring these words in different contents, offers a very dry and uninspiring prose.  The author gets lost in over analysis, high concepts, and dullness.

So, sharing the burden with our fellows sounds like a very unpleasant thing from my read of Stone’s version of mussar.  It makes me want to avoid my fellows.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Short Method of Prayer” by Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines religious quietism as:

…the doctrine which declares that man's highest perfection consists in a sort of psychical self-annihilation and a consequent absorption of the soul into the Divine Essence even during the present life. In the state of "quietude" the mind is wholly inactive; it no longer thinks or wills on its own account, but remains passive while God acts within it.

For the Catholic Church, this doctrine, which was banned, is a grave error or sin.  It leads to erroneous notions which, if consistently followed, would prove fatal to morality. It is fostered by Pantheism and similar theories, and it involves peculiar notions concerning the Divine cooperation in human acts.”

Yet it is difficult to see any of this dangerous material in “A Short Method of Prayer” by Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon (1648-1717).  Rather than being about “anything goes” and the abandonment of either religious or conventional morality, this book, and the quietism it expresses, is mild and inviting.  By laying down your will, or parts of it, we invite the Divine into our formerly restless minds.  

Of course, if you are running a church, want to fill pews, and fill up the collection basket, this kind of religious stance could be dangerous.  But for the rest of us, quietism is a perfect way to enter into a relationship with the divine unhindered by organized structures, either spiritual or religious.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution

Nathaniel Philbrick in Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution, does an admirable job depicting the series of complex events which lead up to the Battle of Bunker Hill.  He charts the evolving nature of the American Revolution, beginning with local trouble in Boston regarding taxation and smuggling, up into the Battle of Bunker Hill, which cemented, in the eyes of most patriots, that this war was now for independence, and not to ensure the rights of English colonists.

He pays special attention to Dr. Joseph Warren, who was killed in the battle.  More popular than George Washington, if he had not been killed, he would, no doubt, had been a leader of the revolution on par with Washington, Adams, Jefferson. In other words, a founding father.