Thursday, June 30, 2011

On the Worship of an Ass, II


As is known, the calumny that Jews worship the head of an ass is ancient. The fact that the opponents of Amichai ben Dovid employed the slander against him shows the acrimony of the dispute. It was a charge made by Israel’s most vociferous enemies. One ancient Greek writer claimed that the Jews refrained from eating the flesh of the hare because of its no small resemblance to their god, the ass.

Another writer from long ago claimed that the Jews, while wandering the in desert for forty years with Moses, one day suffered from a terrible, mortal thirst. As they were just about to die, they spied a heard of wild asses, and followed them to a natural spring. The Israelites were so grateful that they abandoned the God of Abraham to worship the ass.

The most famous slander of all was reported just after Pompey conquered Jerusalem and entered the most sacred chamber of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. There he found the image of a golden ass. He had it removed from its tabernacle and paraded through the streets of the City of David, to shame the defeated Jews by revealing to them the face of their hidden god.

But the most sinister slander was written by a Greek named Democritus in a book composed of lies and fabrications called “About the Jews.” There he claimed that not only did the Jews prostrate themselves in front of the head of an ass, but that every seven years they captured a Gentile, murdered him, cut his flesh into pieces, and offered them to their thick lipped, long eared, gleaming idol.

So when the rabbis against Amichai ben Dovid claimed he worshipped an ass, it was a most grievous charge. It shamed them to make such an assertion. But on the other hand, the deeds of Amichai ben Dovid were so outlandish, that his followers support cast the shadow of shame on them as well. And just before these events the times were hard; it seemed as if such fantastic deeds could be seen on the earth.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On the Worship of an Ass : a short story in eight parts

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: "This is a requirement of the law that the LORD has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke – Numbers 19:1-2


When Issur the cattlemen told the rabbis of Demblin about the birth of a red heifer, at first only half believed him. It has been six months since Amichai ben Dovid had hinted that he was the Messiah: both the reincarnation of Shabbatai Zvi, the disgraced self-proclaimed savior dead now one hundred and fifty years, and the fabled David, Israel’s anointed king of old. Every Jew in Demblin and the surrounding provinces held their breath. Would the rabbis declare Amichai ben Dovid the long awaited Messiah?

But many did not wait for the dickering sages to decide. Jewish peasants out in the steppes removed the roofs from their huts in anticipation of the cloud of glory which would usher them to Jerusalem. Very many more began to sell their property and household items. As land and goods flooded the market, prices dropped, and Gentiles bought goods and fields from the Jews of Demblin for a pittance. Why own land and a plow, these Jews reasoned, when any day now we will be residing on the slopes of Mount Moriah?

Then the red heifer was born to Issur’s herd, and the rabbis, who had been debating the half-hinted claims of Amichai ben Dovid, found it necessary to tramp out to Issur’s paddocks and examine the calf. And there, surrounded by mud and dung, the dissension among the ranks of the rabbis of Demblin was plain for all to see.

The birth of a red heifer is a sign of the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of his people, Israel, to their sovereign land. In the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the ash of a red heifer was used to cleanse all those who entered the sacred Temple Mount. If a heifer was truly red, without a spot or blemish or even a single hair other than red, it was slaughtered by its third year and burned and its ashes were used to purify Jews who wished to sacrifice in the Temple.

Without it, every Jew is suspected of having touched a corpse, and therefore is impure. Only the ash of the red heifer can insure the purity of those who worshipped in Solomon’s Temple. So, without a red heifer, there could be no rebuilding of the temple. And without the hope of the rebuilding of the temple, the Messiah would likely not come. The birth of a red heifer was viewed as a birth pang of the Messiah.

So when the rabbis of Demblin reached the barn, they studied the beast with great scrutiny, as if pouring over some sacred tome. A mighty crowd swelled around them, so much so that the military guard was called out and kept the Jews back with their truncheons and the flanks of their horses.

When the rabbis emerged from the barn, the division among their numbers was apparent. Half were on the side of Amichai ben Dovid and the other half were ready to declare him a heretic and excommunicate him. A vicious argument broke out right there in Issur’s muddy pens. The rabbis in favor of Amichai ben Dovid declared he was the Chosen one of Israel, and that the red heifer was a sign of the coming of the end of days and the reign of a Jewish King in Jerusalem.

The rabbis against Amichai ben Dovid denounced him with many of infamies and slanders, the most salacious was that he secretly worshipped the head of an ass. Violence erupted. The Gentile guards broke the rabbis apart. There was much screaming, cursing and incrimination. As bad as this scene was, there was worse to come.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hasidism for Everyone

In Martin Buber’s early career, he set about to translate (into German) tales from Hasidic masters. His translations were later heavily criticized as re-renderings. Buber felt that the stories the Hasidic master’s told had become garbled and corrupted and needed to be cleansed and made viable.  This is probably no more than a half-truth.

In the process of doing this work, Buber became one of the founders of the Neo-Hasidic movement, which sought to bring the treasury of Hasidic stories and lore to modern audiences. He attenuated Hasidism, showing those parts he found decorous and meaningful, and leaving a great deal he did not like out.

This is evident in his “The Tales of Rabbi Nachman” where he presents six stories from the master Rabbi Nachman of Bretzlav. The framing technique is evident. The first 43 pages are Buber’s reflections on Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Nachman, and the stories themselves. The final chapter is an essay by Buber on Rabbi Nachman’s voyage to Palestine and its positive implications for Zionism.

All and all, Buber presents a great deal of material we no longer care about. We can now see it for what it is , Buber’s attempt to create a “cultural” Judaism divorced from Jewish religious practice. But in an odd and fitting way, Buber is doing nothing more than other Jewish writers and interpreters (even Rabbi Nachman himself).  He is taking sources and intentionally bending them to his own view of Judaism. He tries to create a new type of Judaism from old building blocks.

Buber is in very good company here. So although his rendering of Rebbe Nachman’s tales should be viewed with suspicion, we should no longer single him out for a sin shared by many others.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Million Writers Award

My story, "The Incorrupt Body of Carlo Busso," is now in the number one position in the reader's vote for the Million Writers Award.

If you read it, and like it, can you please cast a vote for the story?
Much thanks,

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Fragment, Never Finished

from the Typology of Place and Soul

The Plow

The people had gone but they had cast a long shadow over the field. The trees which barricaded the flatland of Queen Anne’s Lace and thistle appeared to genuflect toward the curtain of maple and oak, and the tangled veil of vine and shrubs which formed a half-screen of under story. People had scored the land with their marks, but those had reached their half-life. A faded imprint moving semi-formed among those maples, oaks, and Queen Anne’s Lace, set to motion by the idea that people had been here and were now only an after image.

But finding their reflections is easy. Their inconspicuousness, in some puzzling way, only lent weight to the theory of this place. That people had come and gone and would not come again. Yet rust can have a solidifying property. It is a general category to a specific instance and in this place of silences and green filtered light it was like a beacon in a murky, hazy night.

So the plow sat, consequential yet discarded, shrunken but conspicuous, where the farmer of this field had left it long ago. Its placement appeared obvious, even self-critical. At the end of a furrow long overgrown the plow was abandoned. And then that wall of green, slow, deliberate, corrosive, began its counterattack after two hundred years of being held at bay. The woods and fields had the strategic depth and hence the advantage of  retreat and now the offensive could not be halted. Nature, like war, has its own strange momentum and tipping points, its moments when the last moment of one era lingers and then ends, to be replaced by something new, a thing indelible and hence never ebbing.

So we can stand, you and I, and look over this rusty plow, in this long field, stretched out in the hot, shimmering spring day, this unlikely moment of heat. Men had gouged out this earth to plant wheat, barley, corn, and than it lay fallow, a deceptive word. For it is active. Alive and ascending a ladder to more life.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Rebbe and the Neurotic

Rodger Kamenetz, of The Jew in the Lotus fame, takes on Kafka and Rebbe Nachman in Burnt Books. Kamenetz sets a course to show us the similarities and differences between both men, and most importantly, the points of contact and departure of their respective fiction and stories. Both use parable to advance their own spiritual agendas. Both burned books and manuscripts they felt missed the mark (Kafka) or revealed esoteric secrets (Rebbe Nachman). Both were questioners, doubter, seekers and mercurial.

Kamenetz does a good job plotting these intricate courses, but sometimes gets lost and the narrative get tangled. We go from Kafka to the Rebbe to Kementz’s trip to Uman with no apparent sense. There is a great deal of repetition that could have been eliminated, and in the end, the sheer weight of Kafka’s and Rebbe Nachman’s unbending personalities make us wonder if there really is a connection between these two men worth extended investigation.

With that in mind, Kamenetz has still written a book that raises interesting questions about faith, doubt, and the art of writing. He just takes a while to get us there. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Friends of God

Jurgen Wasim Frembgen has assembled an attractive book with full color reproductions of modern Sufi posters from Pakistan. The book shows the wide creative license of the people who created these posters, borrowing freely from the motifs and themes of sub-continent Islam and also the religions of the region, especially Hinduism and Sikhism.

The abundance of posters comes with commentary, and the specific parameters of Sufism in Pakistan are exaplained. Perhaps Fermbegen's greatest achievement in this work is to show how fluid the world of Sufism in the sub-continent is; borrowing from one saint to another, from one religion to another, is the norm and not the exception in these posters.

Perhaps the great flaw of this work is not enough real or revelatory analysis of just what this borrowing means for Pakistani Sufism. But perhaps that is a topic for another work.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Pro religione populum

Everyone who knows me (and who know me?) knows that I am an enthusiast for folk or popular expressions of religion, particuarly in the West, and particularly in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  I am currently writing a book about popular religion in the aforementioned faiths.  Here is a review of an excellent book about popular Catholicism in Italy.


Michael Carroll wrote Veiled Threats with the intention of showing us that popular Roman Catholic religion, as expressed in a variety of customs and practices, is ultimately in the driving seat of Italian religious life. He makes a convincing case; it is well-known that Marian and saint veneration in Italy, especially in the south, is far more popular than more normative expressions of Catholicism (i.e. worshipping Christ).

Carroll shows how the Church needed to work with these folk tendencies after the Council of Trent so as not to alienate the Italian people. The Church, when possible, channeled image worship, cults of the dead, relics, and saint's remains, into somewhat more acceptable forms. Often they did this by ignoring the motivation of people when engaged in a religious practice. They did not care if a person prayed to an image or saw it as a reflection of the higher spiritual power it represented. The form was enough, and the rest would take care of itself.

Carroll's view of the Church after Trent shows a remarkably tolerant institution, able to adopt and adapt to the most un-Catholic of folk practices. Other scholars may take issue with this, seeing religion as primarily top-down rather than down-up. I'm not in a position to judge. But as someone who has seen Italian religious folk practice up close, his conclusions make a great deal of anecdotal sense

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fracking Whores Part II

The Ithaca Journal has an article about the hydrofracking meeting at the Brooktondale Community Center.

In it there is a strange sense of dissemination on the part of Councilpersons Hoyt, Adams, and McDonald, as if they exist in  a sphere detached from social cause and effect. 

On being asked about a conflict of interest in supporting a resolution to offer no impediments to fracking in Caroline, McDonald answered he did not see a conflict of interest in his actions, but he would look into it.  What exactly is he going to look into?  That he has a gas lease, and that  he supports a measure to prevent any ban on fracking? 

It appears he needs to find the connecting thread where a conflict may exist.  But where? In his mind, in his soul, in the spheres up high where motivations become actions,  but are often shrouded in a concealing mist?  We don't want to be uncharitable, and venture to say he is not being truthful?  Something else must be wrong.  He needs to solve a mystery.

Linda Adams, who works for a landowners coalition that helps secure gas leases, also sees no conflict at all in her support of the ban.  She is quoted:

"for the first time in their life (they) are not signing a gas company lease, but something that the community put together, that the landowners had drafted for their purposes, not the industry,"

She herself has not signed a gas lease, she explained, but she helps others to do so.  From what motivation?  Through the goodness of her heart?  From a firm and unwavering stance for landowner rights?  From remuneration from the coalition?  We have to wonder why, and scratch our heads as we ponder the purported lack of connection between her support of the ban and her work at getting advantageous gas leases for her clients.  She has some homework to do.  She too needs to roll up her sleeves, sit at her kitchen table, and do some old fashioned connect the dots.

But Peter Hoyt's disjunction is perhaps the most elegant.  There is simply a disconnect, pure and simple. He did not see a conflict.  In fact, he never though of it.  He is quoted:

"A conflict of interest never occurred to me, but it was mentioned here tonight and I think it is a legitimate observation. I'm kind of surprised I didn't think of it" 

When there was laughter in the room, he responded:  "Guys, I'm just telling you the truth, OK?"

He is kind of surprised he didn't think about it.  Indeed, the admission is shocking.  It either shows a lack of fundamental thinking on issues that impact him and us, or some kind of radical cleavage between the parts of his life, his public role and his private interests, that he has kept so far apart he did not even see that they may be in conflict until that very moment.  If this is so, he is a man of rare psychological gifts.  He can live two, or more lives of very different motivations at one time.  Good thing he attended the meeting.  He may have missed a vital piece of self-knowledge.  He may have lost he chance to connect those pesky dots of his varied motivations.

So we are thankful that Peter Hoyt attended the meeting. He was given a boon to take home with him.  There may be a conflict!  He didn't know.  He is telling us the truth.  Maybe he will ponder it further and reach deeper conclusions.

For now, the ban on the ban on fracking had been tabled for a later town meeting.  I suggest it gets moved from the table, taken out in the yard, and buried for good.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fracking Whores

Some of our local elected officials are willing sell out our land, water, air, health, and life, for their own personal profit.  I'm very proud that over 200 + people showed up at the Brooktondale Community Center to support the defeat of the Hoyt/Adams legislation that would let hydofracking run amok in our community.  I found this particularly compelling quote regarding Councilpersons Hoyt, Adams, and McDonald:

"Council members Linda Adams and Peter Hoyt co-authored the legislation, and Toby McDonald supports it. Should gas wells be drilled in town, all stand to benefit: Hoyt and McDonald have leased their property to gas companies, and Adams directs the Tompkins Landowner’s Coalition, a group whose sole purpose is to help landowners obtain the best lease possible."  Found in this blog.

Nice to know the even our local politicians are just as capable as thinking (and I use the term lightly) with their wallets rather than their consciences.  There is a special brand of shame for their avarice.  A special place in the gallery of doomed people who can be bought or sold.

And for this trio, it is easy.  They need do nothing but own land and reap the benefits of their non-labor at the expense of others.  When has doing nothing and thinking nothing been so profitable?

PS: And Linda Adams is our Watershed Committee Chair! 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

War and Peace Revisted

I read War and Peace when I was 18, and I would rather read books than talk to real people.  A brick of a book, sitting with it kept people away.  I was so engrossed in it, and it was so incredibly large, that few dared approached me.

After twenty years, I just re-read it. At more than half a million words, it is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. And it is, in way, a showcase for the brand of literary realism of the mid-to-late 19th century. Tolstoy obviously paints on a very large canvas. There are dozens of characters, large and small. There is a mix of historical characters and the purely created (the post-moderns did not invent this move), their minute worlds, the words inside their heads, their thoughts, fears, and actions. Then there is the large scope of history. History is one of the prime characters in War and Peace, and Tolstoy famously ends this novel with his musing about history, how it is told, its deficiencies as a study, and his suggestion of a science of history in line with other scientific endeavors. A curious suggestion from a novelist who has just recreated history over the course of 1,200 pages!

Tolstoy takes on a great deal of course, and it is curious to see how some characters, seemingly important, get the short shrift. Sonya seems prepped to be a major character, but Tolstoy loses interest in her along the way, and she becomes curiously flat and left out of the major action. Even the younger Count Rostov, so important to the plot, has nowhere near the character development of a Pierre or Prince Andrei.

That said, War and Peace is a masterpiece, but it is not perfect! Like all ambitious pieces of art, there are stray bits of string hanging off the edges. But this takes nothing away from the accomplishment of this book. It shows just what heavy lifting a novel can do. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

By the Hudson

The literary journal Forge will be publishing my story "By the Hudson" in their July 2011 issue.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Million Writers Award --- Top Ten

My story "The Incorrupt Body of Carlo Busso" was chosen as a top ten story in the Million Writers Award contest.  It is open for public voting.  Thanks to Tom Dooley, editor of Eclectica, a tireless advocate for writers,  who published it, and the contest judges.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dance Removes Harsh Judgements

Again from Rebbe Nachman:

"When there is, heaven forbid, harsh judgement against Israel, the judgement may be sweetened by dancing and by clapping the hands."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Once there was a poor man...

[The Clay Digger's Fortune, a mystical parable by Rebbe Nachman]

Once there was a poor man who used to make his living by digging clay and selling it.

One day he was digging in the mud when suddenly he found a jewel. It must have been worth a fortune! The Clay-digger had no idea how much it was worth, so he went to a jeweler to have it valued.

The jeweler told him it was worth so much that there was no-one in their country with enough money to buy it! He would have to travel to London, the capital city. But being poor, the man did not have the money to make the journey. He went and sold everything he had and went from house to house asking for contributions, until he had sufficient money to journey to the port.

He wanted to board the ship but he did not have enough money for the fare. He went to the captain and showed him the precious stone. The captain immediately took him onto the ship with great flourish, saying, "You're a sure bet!" The captain gave him a special first class cabin with every luxury as if he was a person of very high rank.

The Clay-digger's cabin had a window overlooking the sea. He would sit there enjoying himself immensely rejoicing over the diamond, especially at mealtimes, because joy and good spirits are medically proven aids to easy digestion!

One day he sat down to eat and placed the diamond on the table in front of him so that he could enjoy it. After his meal, he took a nap. While he was asleep, the cabin-boy came in and took the tablecloth with all the crumbs, and without even noticing the diamond, shook everything into the sea!

When the Clay-digger awoke he realized what had happened. He almost went out of his mind with worry and anguish. What was he to do? The captain was a pirate who would murder him for the boat fare.

Still, the Clay-digger pretended to be happy - as if he was quite unaware that anything had happened.

Every day during the voyage the captain used to talk to him for several hours. He did the same today. The Clay-digger made such a show of being happy that the captain didn't notice anything unusual.

The captain said to him, "I know you are clever and honest. I want to buy a large quantity of grain to sell in London - I can make a big profit. My fear is that I will be accused of embezzling from the royal treasury. Let the purchase be made in your name and I will reward you handsomely." The Clay-digger felt it was a good idea and he agreed.

As soon as they arrived in London, the captain died and everything was left in the hands of the Clay-digger! The cargo was in fact worth many times more than the diamond!

The truth is that the diamond did not belong to the Clay-digger - and the proof is that he lost it. The grain did belong to him - and the proof is that he kept it. And he only gained what was his because he forced himself to keep happy.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

There are people who say...

[more from Rebbe Nachman]

There are people who say that when a genuinely righteous man is great in his spiritual level, it is because of his greatness he is not able to pay attention to and consider people in the world, because he is far from the world.  In truth, this is not so.  On the contrary, when a righteous man is very great he is able to pay attention to and consider the world to a greater degree...  For is not God, may He be blessed, highly elevated and completely beyond the  world; nevertheless, he is able to pay attention through divine providence to the world.  For in truth he who is part of mundane reality [yes] is not able to be in every place at the same time.  For a person who has a sense of his own reality when he stands here is not entirely here, for instance when he is serving God.  Thus he is not able to contemplate the world.  But a person who has a deep sense of his own nothingness, there is no place where he is not, since he occupies no place at all.  Therefore, the more that a righteous man is incorporated in nothingness, the more he is able to pay attention to and contemplate the world.  For it cannot be said of him that he occupies an elevated place and is distant from the world.  For he is no place at all.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A person should know

A person should know that 'His glory fills the whole world' and there is no place unoccupied by God.  He fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds.  Even a person who engages in business with heathens cannot excuse himself from saying that he cannot serve God because of the coarseness and corporeailty which continuously affects him.... For our Sages, may their memory be for a blessing, have already revealed to us that in all physical matters and in all Gentile languages, one can find God there.  For without God they would have no life or existence at all.

Likkueti Moharan, Rebbe Nachman - 1:33:2