Thursday, December 29, 2011

The God of Me

I am trying to end the year on a Jewish inspirational note, and this has brought me to Jewish Lights, of course, and a seemingly oddly titled book called The God of Me, by Rabbi David Lyon.

I'm all for books that try and tie Torah to daily life.  If we can't do this with Torah, then it is just sacred history, or we should study it as a piece of cultural history, but certainly not as a portal through which we find God and the template we use in our  interactions with other people and our earth.

Rabbi Lyon does this by tying different parts of the life cycle to parts of the Torah.  From birth to death, he draws lessons for life from Torah and its stories.  Behind them all is our constantly changing view of God.  Our idea of God should be dynamic and transform with our journey through life.

Rabbi Lyon's book is clear, but in some parts a bit simplistic.  This in itself is not bad.  The Rabbi is trying to reach a broad audience by broadening our view of God.  He wants Jews to see themselves as adequate successors to the patriarchs and matriarchs.  The God of Abrahman, Isaac, Jacob... The God of Me.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Both No Escape and Loving Kindness

Pema Chodron's The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness has both what I love and dislike about Buddhism in one inspirational package.

First, there is no denying the Chodron is writing about profound topics that revolve around respect for oneself, others, the earth, as well as teaching a philosophy or religion where people see their own mutability, and therefore have compassion for other mutable creatures, trapped by their circumstances and fate, hoping to be free of the confining influences of life here as human beings.

My main problem with Buddhism is not the message, but the sub-text of that message.  Most of what westerners see of Buddhism is from teachers from the west, or those who fashion their message for the west.  Chodron's book is a series of talks over a month at a remote monastery in Nova Scotia.  People sit for most of the day, concentrate on their breathing, have communal meals, talk mediation walks.

This seems remote from daily, domestic life.  Who has Buddhist babies to make new Buddhists?  Who runs the house and makes the money and cleans the dishes and pays the bills.  The version of Buddhism presented in this book is almost purely monastic.  Since most of us do not live monastic lives, but in households, with children and spouses, what good is any of this?  The sub-text is a bit scary: the shaved heads, the loose robes, the lack of possession, life is fleeting.  Is this a religion that promotes a sense of life denial?

Also, most Buddhists are of the "folk" variety; they believe in many gods and goddesses, incorporate Buddhism in family life, mix their Buddhism with local belief  and custom.  Where  is this in Chodron's book.  It is simply not there.

The message of this book is wonderful, but how we are to get there strikes me as somehow presented in a less than ingenious fashion.  We are told that life is fleeting, desire is never satisfied, yet at the same time, we should remain attached to live and existence and be good.  Can we really be both?

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Shadow of Slavery and the Light of Kindness

Beloved, of course, has become a `canonical' work in American fiction. Whereas twenty or more years ago, High School Students may have been assigned The Great Gatsby or The Sound and the Fury, they now get Beloved. My copy belonged to an Ithaca High School student. I wonder what she thought of this story of ghosts, slavery, pain and partial redemption?

Beloved has curious plot holes. We know what Sethe does to Beloved, and she somehow injures her other children, but the extent is never made known. What did she do to the boys? The plot just glides by it. And why did Sethe cross the Ohio River only to `hide' at her mother-in-laws house, Baby Shruggs, when that would be the first place slave catchers would go to retriever her? She doesn't even try to hide, but is out in the open for all to see. The characters in this novel are very adept at saving themselves, and very clever, so this move makes less than no sense --- it just reminds the reader the Morrison is writing a novel and wants to give us a message, even at the expense of common sense.

Regardless, Beloved is a masterful work. Morrison gives a lyrical quality to many passages, taking the reader to places that are hard to pin down in terms of concrete reality. It is a timeless world of myth and legend, rendered into a prose which is very much near poetry. She also shows how the `colored' community of Cincinnati helped each other, relied on each other, even in difficult circumstances (or rightly because of them). The legacy of slavery and the Civil War was families broken apart and scattered around the country; in the wake of this, community filled the gap in helping individuals, even strangers.

Ultimately, Beloved is a novel about how human suffering can be elevated through the help of others. Even the legacy of slavery can be mitigated by simple kindnesses.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wisdom VS Torah

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is a religious relativist, not a fan of halakah, and tends to exist on the margins of Jewish thought and ideas, a place he seems extremely comfortable to dwell.

This shows in his translation and annotation of the book of Proverbs. Shapiro is very loose in this translation (as he is in all of his translations) and this is purposefully so; he seeks to shift the emphasis on certain words and phrases to advance his non-dualist view of Judaism. He does this along the line of Jewish translators who produced "targums" translations in Aramaic that expressed the agenda of the translators and their community.

Shapiro also shows us, in this work and others, how varied views of God and reality are in the canonical books of the Hebrew bible. The Bible is not a unified book, but an anthology about God, human beings, and the world. As such, Proverbs is not overly fixated on God. It is a practical book of ethics, meant to guide people not through mitzvot or divine intervention, but through the application of their own minds and actions. 

Shapiro sees this as a universal mode of seeking, common to many cultures. It is a way to be a good person without the specific injunctions of the Torah. However, he does say that the Torah accomplishes much the same goal, but only in the more limited world of the Jews.

This in itself is an interesting idea, and I hope Rabbi Shapiro explores it more in the future.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Moon Songs (iv) conclusion


Moon harpies live under the eaves
Half-woman, half shining moon-clod
They shine through their transparencies
Their little slips of aether

They murmur and murmur
Their prophecy to the chilled air.

Late December, not a strand of water
Stands in this moon chamber
Under the cathedral of their dripping orb

There’s no telling what they’ll do
Lightly shod and low
They rule this realm
We pass through 
Like a rustle of leaves
Ruffled by a husky breath

Moon, moon, moon, they mumble
And we repeat, this menstrual catechism
Then a freeze.   
It all locks up
In a lattice of crystals
The entire world is encased
In frost, chill
It is hoary, as old as the moon
But its limber
Like a young girl
The ice arches across the creek
With the suppleness of a ballerina
Little curlicues of snow 
Coned bobs of Ice flotillas, 
Mobbed and crazed spindles of frost

With this root of freeze
We labor under the whip
Of the Queen of Frost
She’s banished the Moon
Beneath her wall-to-wall
Carpet of whit
The violent shock of a world
Carved numb and smooth.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Moon Songs (ii) & (iii)


The moon should flay her own skin
Her leather is cracked, blistered, torn
Like an overridden saddle.

We push and push, but
She doesn’t budge
Her pieces adhere, but she isn’t one
She’s a line assembly of meats
A taxonomy of padded bones.

I’d hit her with a shovel,
But the bone is sponge
We’ll leave the moon be.
Bury her jig-saw pieces in the hole.


The stages along life’s way
Confound the moon
It beats its copper kettle
All chipped and dinged
It holds out its upturned arms
Asking for alms
We give it a silver
And are returned a chipped tooth
The moon has no use for confessions
Its tears are arid flakes
It dangles by its rope of blue light
Trapped in a prism
The oceans are dragged by its chords

We are moon ready
I bend at the knee
The blue saturates the
Atoms, they smash
Under the weight of moon glow
Like top heavy towers

This is where we sit
The moon demons serve up their
Drinks, cold, blue, flat
Like a deep shaft of well water
It chills the teeth

Monday, December 19, 2011

Moon Songs (i)


The moon hangs from hooks
Dangling like a prophecy of tides
Dismantled in the air
A smear of broken light

It needs little but thin air and
A wedge of cloud, back-lit

It falls from its trapeze
Into a net of cob webs

We scoop it with spoons
We are greedy for
An orgy of moon-glow

They shattered the vessels
These moon goblins

They ride witch-wild
And cross the speckled night
Moon mad and gibbering

They utter senseless divination,
They are our children, 
Wizened by moon-glow
Drunk on vaporous night air
Our hands, swollen with use
Are useless in its glow

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mara: A Novel by Tova Reich

I am a big fan of Tova Reich's work.  This is a review I wrote in 2008 for her superb novel Mara.  My only problem with Reich is that she simply does not have enough published work out there to lay my paws on...

Reich walks a fine line in Mara between satire and burlesque and the display of real, shaded, faceted human life. The first half of the novel is almost completely taken over by satire, as Mara and her husband Sudah are portrayed as hapless, comic lovers; Mara is the innocent quickly shedding her innocence under the paws of Sudah, the wily Mizrahi lover who initiates her into the ways of Eros. By the end of this stunning little novel, Mara and Sudah are transformed from bumbling hedonists to genuine seekers of religious truth: Sudah in India and Mara in a cave in Formentera, living off berries and water. Reich is particularly adept at this type of slight of hand. She is fiendishly funny, poking fun at nearly every human foible, but she knows the seriousness of this venture of human seeking, and can put the gags aside for weighty matters like meaning and truth and love.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mind I & II Poem, Eric Maroney

Mind I & II


Somewhere in the mind
A circle bordered in black crepe
I can’t remember all the screaming
Faces of my childhood
They’re play masks,
Shadow puppets with less
Substance than a puff of air

My secret is my anagram,
That face pressed to my face
I strangled it with chords
Garroted the head till it gurgled
Its last bit of spite
Useless, I buried the face with a spade
Down by the creek in
My barrow beneath the rocks,
Along the falling, foaming water
That plugs my ears like wool.


Unseen, unforced
The expansion is real
Not diluted
All the quaking leaves
Falling to the ground
The icy chill
Doesn’t retard us
It is our benediction

Winter is no underling
A force unperturbed by
Our equivocations
The steady, wet snow
Solemn as a muffled drum
Is not a dirge or lament
Our sorrows pass unseen
The creek, black as obsidian
With its border of white silks
This is the world I fled to
This, the sketch of my old life