Thursday, September 30, 2010

Emptying upon emptying... Everything is emptying

In his reprise of The Wisdom of Solomon, Rabbi Rami Shapiro once again tackles his favorite book in the Tanakh, Ecclesiastes. Unlike The Wisdom, this book is a more literal translation of the original text. In The Wisdom, Shapiro wrote (his own interpretation) of the essence of the text, the total impermanence of everything; the passing away of things in the world. For Shapiro, Koheleth is an investigation into the very nature of reality itself, which is completely unstable. This instability, when viewed correctly, should not be a source of anxiety, but a release. By freeing people of the false need for stability, they can live closer to reality. They can understand that all things come and pass away.

In this version of the book, Shapiro wants us to equate HaElohim, literally: The God in Hebrew, with "reality." He makes this move based on the use of the article in front of the name of God, and the total lack of the other frequent name for God in the Bible, the tetragrammaton. For some readers, this move may be difficult to swallow. Shapiro explains this choice in the introduction about the translation saying " may be helpful to say that HaElohim is closer to the Chinese understanding of Tao than the classical Jewish... notion of God... The Tao is not a person who wills, but reality itself giving rise to all things and their opposites." From reading his other writings, we know that Shapiro believes that Reality is God. In this book, his notion of God is very pantheistic, coming close to that of the Stoics, which is reinforced by frequent comparisons of Koheleth to Marcus Aurelius' Meditations in his commentary.

Readers very interested in Shapiro's ideas in this book should try to get a copy of the Wisdom of Solomon.  With its looser translation, and free of the format imposed by Skylight Paths Publishing, he delves more into the specious nature of the ego, takes apart the notion of the past, in fact, destroys all notions that there is anything but the present moment.  This is largely absent from this version, or found to a lesser degree.  I think it detracts a bit from this version, but Shapiro gains ground by giving us a very wild and uncomfortable notion of God.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Boosterism Inside Out

Jay Michaelson has been an outspoken critic of the Israeli government and its attitude toward the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  At the same time, he has cited his own growing alienation from Israel itself.  As an American Jew, he wonders what, exactly, is his connection to this place.  After sixty years of boosterism in American Synagogues and Community centers for Israel, American Jews on the left are losing their love affair with Israel.

There is also an opposite phenomenon.  For this High Holiday season, I attended a synagogue away from home (that is, far from Ithaca).  The rabbi was a well-known activist for the cause of peace in the Middle East, reconciliation with the Palestinians, the end blockade of Gaza, and so forth.  Most of her sermon involved these issues.  Who can say this is not important?  People living under oppression must be helped, when possible.

One the other hand, as I sat there and listened, I wondered what this had to do with me.  Does an American Jew, born in America, reared as an American,  owe special allegiance to Israel, either on the side of boosterism, or its opposite.  Do Italian-Americans lament Italy's internal affairs?  The answer: no;  most are unaware exactly how Italians govern themselves.  As I sat there listening to politics, I wondered, where is God?  Where is the attempt to reinvigorate a synagogue scene that is often stale and muted?

People should be doing back flips for joy of HaShem.  Well, ideally.  We should integrate more halakah into our lives and always try to see ourselves as projections of HaShem.  There should be more to this enterprise known as Judaism than support or condemnation of another nation's internal policies.

Such issues are important.  Don't get me wrong.  But  boosting the souls of American Jews, in my opinion, ranks a bit higher.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Greater Israel, one cinderblock at a time

There was a time when Zionist leaders had grand territorial ambitions.

Herzl thought he could get his charter for a Jewish homeland in one solid piece, so to speak, and settle destitute Jews en masse. Eventually, a more pragmatic approach to Jewish settlement of Palestine was taken by the left-wing leaders of the Yishuv: one settlement at a time; on land purchased a piece at a time. It is now called creating facts on the ground. Eventually they did accomplish this; certain areas of Palestine were predominantly Jewish : the coastal plain, west Jerusalem, the Jezreel Valley and scattered outposts in other areas. There were facts on the ground, and during the early stages of the War of Independence, the Yishuv, and then the State of Israel, fought hard to defend these strips of land inhabited by Jews.

There was a pragmatism in the early years regarding ideas of land, its possession, and its sense of importance to the Jewish state. Certainly, there was a cult of the land, but it was always tempered by the idea that only land that could be protected, that could enhance the security of the state, was land worth having. Certainly right wing ideologues dreamed of a Greater Israel, encompassing all of pre-war Palestine, and perhaps even the Transjordan, which would become the Kingdom of Jordan. But eventually those big dreams deflated. Even Begin, who once belonged to the rightest Greater Israel clan, under favorable circumstances traded land for peace.

Now we see that pragmatism completely abandoned. The West Bank does not need another settlement to enhance Israel's security (in fact, they undermine security). Most Israels simply don't care about this area, either practically or spiritually. Three out of four Israelis live on the coastal plain. Gush Dan, the area that comprises Tel-Aviv and its environs, is the largest Jewish municipal center in the world. The West Bank is small potatoes for three out of four Israelis. A small minority makes a few dunams of land an international crisis and the present Israeli government appears happy to skip along with them toward self-destruction.

The dream of Greater Israel died a long time ago.  There is no need to disinter its corpse.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Earth Jews

There is something essentially pagan about Sukkot.   The season is turning from summer to fall;  leaves are stirring; there is the smell of overripe vegetation.  Sukkot is a biblical holiday, and was one of the pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem for the blessing of the new fruits.  The historical reason for the holiday was that it symbolized the impermanent structures where the Israelites dwelled  during their 40 years wanderings.  But really, what we have here is an agricultural holiday given a historical dimension (often done in Judaism, and other traditions).

I like the symbolism of the sukkah.  It is not permanent.  One must be able to see out of the roof.  Often, the thing gets knocked down during autumn storms and one is forced to build it again.  Everything in nature is slowly fading away.   During the waving of the lulav, one turns to all points of the compass, and up and down, to symbolize that no place is devoid of HaShem.

The two symbols dovetail.  Nothing is permanent.  Everything is in flux.  There is only HaShem.  We are part of all this and it is all the same.  Earth, sky, water, air.  Everything is One.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sober at Purm

Sober at Purim

by Eric Maroney

A ganz yor shikker und Purim nichter -- A Yiddish Proverb

“You only want to tell stories to hear yourself talk!” Yosse the Beadle spread his coat over the chair near the stove. First an ice storm, and then a blizzard, had covered the world. He had been outside spreading salt on the stairs to the study house so no one should, God forbid, fall and break his neck. Steam rose from the tattered garment near the fire. He placed his hand over the fire, and then upon the glass of the study house window, afraid, as he always was, that the thin glass would crack.

“Well, what is the saying? A Jew likes the taste of a Yiddish word on his tongue,” Nachman the Cobbler answered, smiling broadly, revealing a gold front tooth.

“But your stories never end!” Yosse the Beadle answered, tugging at his gray beard. “If you get started, no one will crack the spine of a book! You don’t want to study because you know no more of the Holy Tongue than a mule!”

“As the saying goes, if you don’t know Hebrew, you’re an ignoramus. If you don’t know Yiddish, you’re a gentile. I only know that I can’t just tell one story,” Nachman grinned before continuing. “One log doesn’t warm a fireplace,” he added, and on hearing this, all the men laughed. “Besides, books aren’t everything – they can’t fill an empty belly, for one!” and Nachman nibbled a slice of herring he had in a handkerchief.

“But you also know the saying, Reb Nachman:” a man interjected, ‘A Jewish thief steals only books.’”

“Nu,” Nachman the Cobbler gently slapped the man’s knee. “There was a man in Tarnopol who did just that, but not in the way you would think…” and all the men, realizing that Nachman the Cobbler had started, cheered and booed.

“Tarnopol is no little burgh… it has its share of good booksellers, but none was as good and prosperous as Mendele Bucker. He could procure any book anywhere. Go in there and ask for a book – some obscure title quoted in this old book or that old book which hasn’t seen the light of day since Methuselah was a pup, from some dusty corner of Babylonia that hasn’t had a Jew tamping down its dust since the flood water receded, and Mendele Bucker would listen, think for a moment, and tell you to come back tomorrow. And when you did -- lo and behold, he had the volume, in a new binding no less, in finely tooled calf skin, in exquisite calligraphy, and more often than not, the ink looked as fresh as a newborn baby’s hide!

“Well, one day a great scholar was passing through Tarnopol, and of course, he stayed in the chief rabbi’s house. And what do men of learning do when they are in the same room? Well, they set about to study the Torah, back and forth, quoting this book, citing that book -- so the erudition was as heavy as a Chasid’s fur hat left out in a downpour. Then one of them quoted a source, and the other questioned it, and soon the scholar and the rabbi were on their feet screaming, and the students were afraid it would come to blows. It didn’t -- these are Jews we are talking about here, after all, and not drunken Cossacks. But the rabbi didn’t have the book that was quoted. No one did. Someone had seen a copy in Vilna over forty years ago, but that hardly helped. Finally, they all trooped over to Mendele Bucker’s shop. The great scholar told Mendele the title of the work, and Mendele was silent as if thinking, and then told the men to return tomorrow…”

“And let me guess,” Yosse the Beadle interrupted. “They came back with the sunrise, and as if by magic the bookseller produced the tome, in a brand new binding, in fine calf skin, as smooth as a baby’s behind, in Rashi script as fresh and untrammeled as a virgin bride under the wedding canopy!” All the men laughed. Someone produced a bag of chestnuts and spread them over the top of the now glowing stove.

“No,” Nachman the Cobbler slyly smiled, “you’ve got the spirit, but not the letter of the story, Reb Yosse. You see, everyone in Tarnopol was so accustomed to Mendele Bucker that they were no longer amazed by him. What is the saying? If you sit in a hot bath, the whole town looks warm. But this scholar, he didn’t like what he was being told and even less of what he saw about Mendele Bucker. And the fact that no one in Tarnopol thought the bookseller odd, made him even more suspicious. You know the saying: If everyone pulled in one direction, the earth would keel over. So, the scholar went out that night, and snooped around the keyholes of Mendele Bucker’s shop.

“The next day, when the good Jews of Tarnopol went to get the book from Mendele Bucker, the scholar refused to so much as touch it. ‘What’s wrong?’ one of the rabbi’s men asked him. ‘Open the book and let us settle the dispute.’ But he refused, saying ‘I am a Kohen, a priest, and I can not make contact with the dead, or what has touched the dead!’ Although no one in the room knew what the scholar was talking about, they all began to moan and wail. But the chief rabbi silenced them. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked, and the scholar explained. ‘This bookseller is actually Eleizer the Scribe, the most famous scribe in Babylonia, the assistant to Saadia Gaon himself!’ On hearing this, the men began to wail and moan again. The rabbi held up a hand. ‘But the Gaon and his scribe, may their memories be blessed, died more than eight-hundred years ago.’ And then the scholar told a tale:

“ ‘Eleizer the Scribe was the most erudite man in all of Babylonia, with the exception, of course, of his master, the great Saadia Gaon. Like many men with intellectual gifts, Eleizer the Scribe became haughty, and wished to be the most erudite Jew in Babylon. So he found a forbidden book in his vast library, and summoned up a familiar spirit, who gave him access to the heavenly spheres, where all the holy books that have ever been written or will be written are stored. But there was a catch: to gain access to this sphere, once he died, Eleizer was punished by finding no respite in the grave. No, he was forced to wander the earth, practicing his scribal arts. He is a dead man. His books are unclean, Jews of Tarnopol! They should not be touched, let alone read. He stole them from the heavens using black arts, and by doing so, defiled them!’

“So all the Jews of Tarnopol were in an uproar, yelling and rending their clothes, as if half the town had been taken away in a plague; but Mendele Bucker stood there passively, as if none of this uproar was for his benefit. Finally, the chief rabbi asked the scholar how to get rid of this bookseller. ‘There is a book called The Book of Remedies that the great Gaon wrote to thwart Eliezer the Scribe. If he copies out this book, he will be forced to go on his way.’

“So all the men left, but the rabbi remained with Mendele Bucker, and requested the Gaon’s long lost book, The Book of Remedies. Mendele Bucker thought, and thought, and thought some more, and for the first time, a vexed expression crossed his face, and he then asked the rabbi to return tomorrow…”

“And let me guess,” Yosse the Beadle interrupted, using the sing-song cadence of someone chanting from the Talmud, “as it is written: by the next morning, the bookseller was nowhere to be found!”

“Ahh,” Nachman the Cobbler moaned and rubbed his hands with glee. “You please me, Reb Yosse. As the saying goes: Among Jews one is never lost! But not only was he gone – so was every book he had every made, from the Talmuds in the rabbi’s study, to the Yiddish prayer books in the women’s section of the synagogue – it all turned to dust!” On hearing this, the men began to chatter.

“What did they do without their holy books?” one man asked worriedly.

“Why, what else?” Nacham the Cobbler beamed. “They went to another bookseller and bought some more. A Jew without the holy books is like an owl without his eyes.”

The men then began to argue about dybbuks, familiar spirits, ghosts, and corpses that refused to recognize their deaths and went out into the world, worked, married and even sired children, all the while thinking they were very much alive. Nachman the Cobbler squinted as he stuffed his long pipe with tobacco and then lit it with a piece of straw that he placed on the coals. The men went back and forth, agreeing and disagreeing by turns about the residents of the unseen world, and on hearing this, Nachman the Cobbler began to laugh.

“Why do you laugh, Reb Nachman?” one man asked.

“Oh, you know the old saying, two Jews, three opinions,” and looking at Yosse the Beadle, Nachman the Cobbler noticed that he was laughing as well, but in a different way than the rest. “And why do you laugh, Reb Yosse?”

“Why? Because those things do not exist. Dybbuks, ghouls, the un-dead… the Torah mentions them nowhere.”

“Oh, Reb Yosse, you can’t be more wrong,” Nachman the Cobbler waved a finger in the air. “You know the old saying: if God lived on earth, people would break his windows. There are evil forces in the world. They surround us. The Talmud says that if a man could see them with his eyes, he would go mad. They exist to lead men astray. But there are some men who do wrong not because the evil ones impel them, but because they have contrary natures. They are just born wrong and continue to do wrongs unthinkingly, just as a cow chews its cud without a thought in its thick head. Of course, no man is free from sin. But we must be good most of the time, and sin as sparingly as possible. Otherwise, we become like the man who is drunk all year long but sober at Purim. And there was just such a man who lived in Gomel…” and the man began to titter and jeer, and someone opened a bottle of schnapps and passed it around, and another man shoveled more coal into the fire.

“There was this man, Dovid Lifshitz, and he was the living embodiment of this dictum. He was a raging drunk all year, and stone sober at Purim. He sinned simply because it was his nature. He ate on Yom Kippur; he was joyful on Tish’b Av; he was sad on Simchat Torah. He seemed to live in another world, a world where everything is upside down. Perhaps it was one of those worlds that God created and then destroyed before he stuck to this one, as the Talmud tells us…

“Anyway, none of the good Jews in Gomel could do a thing with Dovid Lifshitz. He had a contrary nature, and did evil without even relishing it. He sinned from compulsion, like a woodpecker is compelled to peck at a rotting stump. The Rabbi couldn’t mend his ways, nor Dovid Lifshitz’s wife, or children, who were not sinners, by the way. Even the town doctor tried his luck with him, but he threw up his hands in defeat. Everyone began to believe that Dovid Lifshitz was demented. They began to just leave him alone to his sin. But you all know the world, people began to talk, to tell stories about Dovid Lifshitz, and news of him left Gomel.

“A short time later, a large coach roared into the town. Four massive black horses festooned with bells and feathers pulled next to the inn; the coach bore royal insignia and coats of arms on its doors, but no Jew in Gomel could make head nor tail of them. Four men, decked out in elaborate livery, clung to the carriage, riding on its railings and running boards, and when the coach stopped, a large man alighted. He wore a tall black hat, a black cape, and a sash studded with golden coins. He took the best rooms at the inn, and stayed there for a week, seeing no one and letting no one in. He did order the finest foods and wines, and had them brought up to his suite. He paid in gold coin, and his men never took the change. The Jews in Gomel, thinking him a gentile lord, hoped he’d stay forever -- as the saying goes: live among Jews, but do business with gentiles. One day, to everyone’s surprise, he summoned Dovid Lifshitz to his rooms. Well, as arrogant as Dovid Lifshitz was, he wanted nothing to do with gentile lords. He went into the room with his cap in his hand like a boy about to be slapped with a rod by his cheder teacher, his face as white as chalk. When he left, everyone wanted to know what had happened, but he didn’t say a word, as if crows had torn out his tongue. The next day, the gentile lord walked out of the inn and into his grand coach, and was gone as mysteriously as he arrived.

“Dovid Lifshitz stayed in his house for seven days, as if he was in mourning. And do you know what he did then? He left his house and threw all the forbidden foods he was eating into the trash pile for the pigs to eat, and went to the kosher butcher to buy some meat. He woke up in the morning and donned a prayer shawl and phylacteries and said the eighteen benedictions, as Moses enjoined us to do. He was in the shul every Monday, Thursday, and Sabbath. He slept in a sukka during Booths and sold his leavened bread to the gentiles before Passover…”

“So he became a penitent, a ba’al teshuvah?” one of the men asked Nachman the Cobbler.

“Of course,” Nachman the Cobbler smiled and puffed on his pipe. “A Jew is a Jew, he can’t rub those stripes off even with a stiff brush.”

“But who was the man? The gentile lord?” another man asked.

“Well, ask Reb Yosse. He is like the lazy Galacian in the proverb: he is always skipping to the end of the book to see how things turn out.”

“He was the Evil One,” Yosse the Beadle answered, “or this is what Reb Nachman wants me to say. But this is not possible. Perhaps this Dovid Lifshitz owed money to the gentile lord? Or owed him a favor? Or impregnated one of his peasant wenches? Or a thousand other things that can be explained in the light of the day.”

“Who knows?” Nachman the Cobbler shrugged, as much to stretch as to express incredulity. “What I do know is that the Evil One wants us to sin for his own ends, not for our own. He wants no freelancers like Dovid Lifshitz. The Evil One is like the general of a great Army, even greater than the Czar’s. He wants no insubordinate privates! Explaining things by the light of day, Reb Yosse? No, the world is one long night, good Jews. Only if we remain faithful to the Torah of Moses will we be saved, for men are prone to evil. As I said, if God lived on earth, people would break his windows… and speaking of windows, Reb Yosse, it is as hot as Gehenna in here, and as cold as Siberia outside, and these study house windows are as thin as parchment. If you’re not careful, my dutiful beadle, the glass will crack….”

But it was too late. While the men were telling tales, arguing, laughing, gasping, sipping schnapps, and cracking chestnuts, the glass in the study house window had cracked from sash to sash.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Always be Joyous

"Always be joyous, for sadness is a great obstacle in serving God. Even if you sin... do not let it stop you from serving God. Limit your feelings of sadness and regret to the particular trangression you have committed, and then return to rejoice in the blessed Creator.

"After all, you have repented, and have no intention of returning to this foolishness again.


"And even if you know that you are not fulfilling every aspect of a particular mitzvah, do not lest this upset you; rather, think of the blessed Creator --- He knows that you want to serve him in the best possible way, but that you cannot do so at this moment.

"And when you perform an incomplete mitzvah, pay no attention to the evil inclination that wants you to stop carrying out this deed. Rather, say to it, 'In performing this mitzvah it is not my intention to anger God, nor am I carrying it out for my own honor'"

Rebbe Dov Baer of Mezeritch, Hayim V'Hesed # 3

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Hard Burned Bricks of Itil

The Khazars have suffered a cruel fate, both in reality and historical study.

Since the publication of the Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Kosetler in 1976, various anti-Semitic, anti-Israel lunatics have used the supposed Khazar conversion to Judaism sometime during the 8th and 9th centuries to make outrageous claims against Israel and European Jews. Basically, they see all European Jews as descendants of the Turkic Khazar and therefore, not Semites. The logic continues that if this is the case, then the European Jews who established the State of Israel have no real genetic right to that land.

So, a great deal of pseudo-scholarship has developed around the Khazars, all of it false or misleading. The twisted historical logic of their conversion and the founding of the modern State of Israel has been unfortunate,nasty, small. Hardly concealed behind it is a rage against of Jews, Judaism, and Israel.

Well, when I was writing The Other Zions, archaeologists in Russia uncovered what is believed to be the capital of the Khazar kingdom Itil. Located near the Caspian Sea, they found a triangular fortress made of brick and yurt shaped dwellings. According to medieval documents, by Khazar law flamed bricks could only be used in the capital.

So far, no Jewish inscriptions have been found at the location (that I am aware of). Artifacts from places like North African and the Byzantium attest to a great trading center. But what of Jewish stuff? This is the prime interest scholars have in the Khazars. They might well be studied without their legendary connection with Judaism, but they would be simply one amongst a herd of Turkic tribes inhabiting the region.

The lack of Jewish material is just one more mysterious element to be explored and hopefully explained. But this often happens in an area of study where manuscript evidence was once the only evidence there was. When archaeologist start to dig, they find things in the ground quite at odds with the documentary evidence.

Material culture and political-religious culture produced by the elite are often at odds with one another, or even a projection or fantasy of some other, unknown party.

A tricky field, where hard and fast conclusion are difficult to reach.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The General Rule

"The general rule is that a person must try with all his might to be joyful, for by nature a person is drawn toward melancholy and sadness because of the events that befall him, and all people are full of suffering. It is... essential that one force himself with all his strength to be joyful always and to use every means to make himself rejoice, even if he has to resort to silly things. It is true that it is good for man to have a broken heart, yet this should only be in a certain hour. He should set aside an hour each day to break open his heart and pour out speech to God... For the rest of the day he should only be in a state of joy. For it is easier to be led into melancholy from the state of brokenheartedness that it is to stumble, God forbid, through joy so that one is led to frivolity. "

Likkutei Moharan, Tinyana, no. 24 Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Way of Solomon: Finding Joy and Contentment in the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is my non-dualist hero.

He has just published a commentary on Kohelet. I'm very pleased about this updated translation and commentary on Ecclesiastes, revised a decade after his first work with the book, The Way of Solomon. The new book, it seems, is a more literal translation of Ecclesiastes. I hope that in the process he doesn't water down the starkly beautiful non-duality of the original.

Shapiro explains In the Way of Solomon that "We are waves of the divine, of the Infinite, of God. Ecclesiastes is King Solomon's attempt to reveal the illusion of separateness and awaken us to the wonder and unity [of reality]."

This seems like an eastern take on the book, of course. In the Jewish and Christian tradition, Ecclesiastes has often been interpreted as a depressing book, influenced by dour Greek philosophy. But what Shapiro does in his translation (really a re-rendering) is tease out a meaning more deeply latent in the work. He does this by stretching the translation of the Hebrew words to their limits, to drag new interpretations out of the text.

This is not as uncommon as you might think. For instance, in the tradition of translating the Tanakh into Aramaic, this was extensively done with concepts of God's body; literal translations of these concepts were substituted for more metaphorical ones. This is common with Hasidic homilies as well. Writers would take a Hebrew word, break it apart, and put it back together, to give it new shape and meaning. So Shapiro is firmly in the Jewish tradition here.

He takes Kohelet and gives it a decided Taoist flavor; again, not uncommon in the Jewish tradition. From Philo to Maimonides, HaLevi to Mendelssohn, Jews have always reached out to other cultures to borrow elements and make them decidely Jewish.

Take the well known opening of Kohelet. Here is Shapiro's rendering:

Emptiness! Emptiness upon Emptiness
The world is fleeting of form
Empty of permanence
Void of surety
Without certainty
Like a breath breathed once and gone
All things rise and fall

Here is the King James translation (with some text removed, for Shapiro has taken away lines to eliminated repetition)

Vanity of vanities... all is vanity
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh...
There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things to come with things that shall come after...
All things run into the sea; yet the sea is not full...

As you can see, Shapiro takes very specific, grounded images of life's impermanence, and makes them general. Nothing is stable. This is not a bad thing that should cause anxiety. We should look at the lack of stability as the chance to free ourselves from useless desire.

For Shapiro, there is no self, no soul, no ego, no I, no world (as we envision it) no God out there (as we imagine Him-Her-It); there is existence, and we are an impermanent part of it. It is ever expanding, growing, changing, adding, subtracting. Letting go our our surety of stable existence is the key to the garden.

Try viewing things this way. This turns out to be a very difficult conceptual project to pursue.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Jewish Queen's Digs

When I was writing The Other Zions, I devoted a chapter to Adiabene, a kingdom in the Parthian Empire whose royal family, headed by Queen Helene, converted to Judaism some time before the first revolt against Rome. While I was writing this chapter, I did not realize that a piece of evidence from her life was being dug up beneath a parking lot in east Jerusalem.

Queen Helene and her sons converted to Judaism and eventually she settled in Jerusalem. There is much legendary material about her; in a time when Judaism was on a crash course with Rome, wealthy and powerful monarchs converting to Judaism would have caused people to notice. She was also generous with the poor and made donations to the temple. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in Greek, told tales of these monarchs. And on the other side of the first century Jewish spectrum, the rabbis who would be quoted in the Talmud used the Abidabene monarchs as examples of exemplary piety and adherence to the Torah.

So, there may well be a kernel of historical truth behind the tales told of these people. Encrusted by layers of legend, there appears to be some hard layer of fact in the center. Now, the ruins of a stately home have been uncovered. Again, we rely on Josephus : he claims she lived in this part of Jerusalem, in a large home among mostly poor people. The stately proportions of the ruins have led archaeologists to tentatively identify it as her house.

Is it her house? Shy of an inscription or some written evidence at the site, I can't see how this conclusion will ever be anything beyond conjecture. But that has always been Queen Helene's status: a figure poised between reality and legend. That said, there is a street named after her in Jerusalem, sure enough evidence of some kind of existence.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

There is no God in Judaism

There is the impression, in watching Rabbi David Aaron talk about his conception of God,that he is playing with us a bit. When he says that God is not mentioned in the bible, he is fooling with the tradition.

There is a perfectly functional word for God in Hebrew, elohim, and it is used to distraction all over the place. But it is not considered the paramount name for the divinity. What Rabbi Aaron is talking about are some interpretations about the name God reveals to Moses, HaShem, the name that can't be pronounced. This is the divinity that is about non duality. There is not Him and Us; there is only a kind of oneness that transcends the human conception of oneness.

What Aaron is getting at here is that when you say the name God, all sorts of images come to mind (usually of an old man somewhere, or a being someplace that is not here). So he invites us to toss out the word, because it has too much baggage. There is a place in the Jewish tradition for a broader view of the divine: as the unfolding nature of reality, of the past, the present, the future, all at one time and in every place.

This kind of "God" gets to skip away from all kinds of troubling aspects of traditional monotheism. If this "God" concept picks up a few of its own theological conundrums, some hard nuts to crack, then it says more about the way we think, than about a non dual God.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review of the Other Zions: the lost histories of Jewish Nations

The Zionist movement viewed the establishment of a Jewish state as a remedy for Jewish “powerlessness.” In the late nineteenth century, Jews seemed condemned to exist as a despised minority within Christian or Islamic cultures. This well-done and revealing study shows that, even after the final, futile revolt against Roman rule in Judea in the first century, A.D., Jews exercised sovereignty in several regions outside the traditional Jewish homeland. Some of these Jewish states have already been well documented by primary sources; others are shrouded in legend, but their existence is credible. Maroney acknowledges the difficulty in separating fact from fiction and avoids unwarranted speculation. The Khazars, a Turkic people, established a state in the Caspian region and made Judaism their state religion in the ninth century. They may even have attempted missionary work in the emerging Russian state. In the Arabian peninsula, Jewish tribes controlled strips of territory but were overwhelmed by the Islamic tide in the seventh century. This is an informative and surprising examination of some obscure aspects of Jewish history.

— Jay Freeman

Yiddish and the Art of Hand-Washing

During our vacation in Lake George, I took this photo above a water fountain at a rest stop in Saratoga Springs. To the uninitiated, it looks as if Yiddish speaking Jews are unaware that hand washing in the water fountain is frowned upon (I say this given the relative length of the Yiddish versus the English text).

Actually, the situation is more complex. Orthodox Jews must ritually wash their hands at certain times, and cannot recite the blessing accompanying it in a bathroom. The Yiddish sign informs the hand washer that there are sinks available for washing away from toilets, freeing up the water fountain for its intended use.

All and all, not what one expects to see in a NYS rest stop. A curious bit of Jewish ritual next to the brochures for the race track and camp sites.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Yom Kippur is no time for neurotics

The Days of Awe. Well, as I said before, I have some problems here.

Sukkoth, which is within sight, I can embrace wholeheartedly. A celebration of harvest and bounty, of earth and open air, it gives the soul (if there is one) a healthy does of this worldly pleasure and a glimpse, perhaps, of something more.

Yom Kippur reeks a bit to me of radical self-denial. Rendering oneself a corpse for HaShem bespeaks a kind of guilt and fear that I believe we should move away from in our conceptions of God.

But my thinking on this is far from advanced. I'm sure there are many differences of opinion out there, and mine, no doubt, is quite narrow. There is certainly something to the seeking forgivness aspect of the day. Who have we not hurt this year? Who should we not seek forgiveness from? If my words have caused you needless suffering this past year, I ask your forgivenes.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Islands in the Stream

Islands is part of Hemingway's posthumous body of work, published in 1970 under the auspices of his last wife, Mary Hemingway. It was carved out of the UR text that Hemingway worked on after the war, which ultimately produced (or spawned) The Old Man and the Sea, The Garden of Eden, this work, and by extension, A Moveable Feast.

Islands is a compelling novel, and in terms of structure and action, the best of the posthumous works. It drags a bit on dialogue; there are times when the reader feels he has read parts already. But beyond that, the novel stands on its own as a work, and also provides glimpses into Hemingway's post-war preoccupations. There are long mediations on the nature of art, productivity, and the act of expression. There is a longing look cast backward, toward Paris, which found greater expression in A Moveable Feast.

The novel is also unremittingly dark. We get a glimpse into the Hemingway in his declining years, as his power receded, and his depression and anxiety rose.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Best Review

This is one of the best reviews I have ever recieved. This one, for my first book, Religious Syncretism. A savy blogger (his true views are often hard to discern) and religious enthusiast wrote it, and I was pleased to read it.

By Curtis Steinmetz (just outside the beltway) -

Syncretism is a very controversial subject. It is also an intrinsically complex subject, since by definition it involves the ways in which religions "mix" together, rather than the far simpler (but in truth simplistic and hopelessly unrealistic) approach of treating religions as neatly separated, mutually exclusive clubs.

Controversies over syncretism arise because of two inter-related questions: (1) is syncretism a good thing or a bad thing? and (2) is syncretism a natural state or is it a sign of the "decay" of a once "pure" religion? While scholars tend to shy away from the first question as irredeemably subjective, the second question is unavoidable. But the second question inevitably yields only one answer: that syncretism is a natural, universal feature of all religions. But that, in essence, also answers the first question.

Maroney confidently handles this complex and controversial subject. His writing style is clear and engaging, his examples are thoughtfully chosen and well presented, and the book is structured in a way that presents the world of religious syncretism in all of its luxurious messiness without overwhelming the reader (the forest, as the old saying goes, is not lost sight of in the course of examining representative trees).

This is a subversive book. It "deproblematizes" syncretism in a way that many will find discomforting. As Maroney himself points out in the first chapter, the monotheistic religions of the world have a tendency to view syncretism as their "sworn enemy". In spite of that attitude, though, Christianity, Judaism and Islam have all engaged in syncretism throughout their histories not only with each other, but also with those other, Pagan, religions.

Although he has chosen what has generally been considered an esoteric topic in the study of religion, Maroney has actually produced a book that in many ways is far superior as a general introduction to Religion (with a capital "R") than the usual survey books on World Religions (ie, Huston Smith, Stephen Prothero, etc). Because he focuses on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the otherwise forbidding subject of syncretism is made accessible to a wide English speaking readership. I wish such a book had existed many many years ago -- but I am very glad it is here now!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Days of Awe

There is a great deal of old imagry for the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur that are hard for many modern people to swallow. The Days of Awe are the time when God inscribes people in the book of life; that is, if you have lived a proper life (according to Halakah) then you will live another year. If not....

Yom Kippur then is the great equalizer. On that day, one cannot eat or drink for 25 hours. One can't shower, shave, have sex. In essence, one makes oneself into a corpse, or one of the quasi-dead. Once more, this is for the benefit of a punishing God. There is a hint of old magic in this custom. "Don't count me in that book, you angry old god in the sky. I am dead already."

I appreciate the magesty and importance of the Days of Awe. But I often have problems with the nuts and bolts of the thing.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

There is no such thing.

I gave up negative expressions about people about a year ago (alas, not yet about myself). I found myself increasingly occupied with such negative thoughts, to the detriment of my outlook on life, and to those around me.

Of course I have thoughts about negative things. I see a person and have a negative thought, but I don't allow it to congeal into words, and especially into any organized form of expression. Is it that easy? Maybe so. Maybe not.

If we believe certain philosophies and orientations about thought and mind, there is no such thing as the Self or the Mind. These are a series of discreet events, which we mistakenly tie together into a bundle that we call Self. But really, there is no Self, just a self. We are not what we think; we are what we think we think. The thing we call self that we believe is organized and stable is actually the exact opposite.

So if you stop thinking a certain way; if you exercise your powers to stop thinking a certain thoughts, eventually the glue that holds everything in the universe together, Habit, kicks in, and you lose something or gain something or morph into something else althogether.

But don't think it is easy...

Saturday, September 4, 2010

People of the Land

The novel I just finished (in about six months of writing, six months of editing) came together quickly, but had behind it a great deal of germination time. There was energy stored away for this work, and when it came out, it was very well formed in my mind how the story should go.

First, the character, Yasha Schulevitz, is as familiar to me as the contents of my sock drawer. I wrote an entire novel about him in the present universe, from World War I until the conclusion of World War II. So I had a definite biography of this man, a Hebrew poet and European, one of the last of his kind.

Since I liked him so much as a character, since there was so much more to mine, I decided to write some short fiction about him and pass them around. "And Moses Made a Serpent of Brass" taken by OUR STORIES in 2008, is a Yasha piece. "Memorial Year" taken by ARCH in 2009 is as well. So, I had written about Yasha in the novel in real world form, then created yet another Yasha, similar but different, in the short pieces. Then it was time for round three.

Putting this character in a created world, in an alternate history, gave him elements that I did not see before in the two previous incarnations of his existence. Yasha was Yasha but he was also different.

So, for a writer's project, it was a great learning experience. It was also tremendous fun.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Summer of Writing

I spent most of the summer writing short fiction. Really, it was an experiment writing. I was to write a story a week. I did do this, and now the 'final' story of the summer sits at my desk, and I think it is my best.

As one continues to write, and write a great deal, certain steams of thought and narrative flow(s) reveal themselves. This is not a flashy way of saying I repeat myself. No, I think it is the realization that we have, as writers, certain strata in our psyches (or selves, or personae) and that this is the root level of where our material comes.

One must be true to these levels, and work them as you would anything that requires work. The form is there, one just give it substance.

And of course there are various resistances that shall remain nameless...