Monday, October 31, 2016

Worship of the Heart

The Rav’s Worship of the Heart, as the title implies, explores the emotive elements of Jewish prayer. The Rav examines the general aspects of prayer in such essay as “Prayer and the Medium of Religious Experience” and “The Human Condition and Prayer.”  He also explores specifically Jewish prayer themes in essays like "Intention (Kavvanah) in Reading Shema and in Prayer," and "Reflections on the Amida."

The Rav’s writings are always heavy on halakhah.  As the first sentence of the introduction explains  “[a] hallmark of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach is his insistence on elucidating Judaism from within the sources of Halakhah.”  And indeed he does.  So, this is not an easy read.  He is an analytical writer, completely at home in the world of the intellect.  That said, there are passages where the Rav waxes on the love of G-d as any good mystic or Chasid would do (often while explaining passages from the Rambam):

“It is not a coincidence that Judaism, in describing the relationship between man and God, has taken advantage of a very rich reservoir of sexual symbolism, similes, and metaphors…. Man’s love of God [is compared] to a love-sick individual whose mind is at no time free of his passion for a particular woman… God fascinates and charms, beckons and whispers like the fairest of lovers.”

But such rhapsodies are rare in this collection  This is a religious inspired analytical examination of prayer.  The reader must bring a forcused mind and steady attention to this book.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Invention of Nature. Alexander von Humboldt's New World

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, Alexandra Wulf explains the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt (1769 - 1859), a naturalist and scientist. Wulf convincingly describes the far reaching impact of von Humboldt on the science that would eventually be called Ecology.

He worked at the dawn of the specializations of the sciences, yet saw early on that in the study of any subject, particularly nature, is best understood as a complicated web of interactions between life forms.  No plant or animal can be adequately studied in isolation. As the sciences became more specialized in the nineteen century, his was a voice in the wilderness.

Von Humboldt traveled extensively, wrote a great deal, and had an impact on the progression of science for several generations. Charles Darwin was inspired by von Humboldt to travel around the globe on the HMS Beagle.  The ecologist and naturalist John Muir was moved by von Humboldt’s early calls about the preservation of natural spaces.

Wulf makes a great case that Alexander von Humboldt, a man not known to most, laid the foundation of our understanding of the natural world.  He invented nature in the sense that he reformulated age-old ideas about the natural world and its ancient hierarchies into the forms we are more familiar with today -  a world tied together by intimate bonds of reciprocity. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Founding Life of the Patriarch

Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Founding Life of the Patriarch, are a series of essays from various sources, culled by the editors of this series from the writings of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

Like many Jewish commentators, the Rav views Abraham as a Jewish archetype.  One reason is that Abraham adopted monotheism and was bound to the Torah well before it was given.  There is a Jewish side to Abraham, one that was concerned with his Jewish progeny and the mitzvoth.  The Rav also sees the other side of Abraham, his universal approach and appeal.  He will become a father of many nations, not just the Jewish nation and his ideas will move beyond the Jewish people.  As such, his impact is felt everywhere.  Importantly for Jews, the essential tension in Judaism between its parochial and religious goals, and its universal messages play out in Abraham’s life, utterances, and actions.

The Rav says: “The Jew is a member of humanity.  G-d’s command ‘to be fertile and multiply; fill the land and conquer it, dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks on land’ is addressed to non-Jew and Jew.  As human beings, Jews are duty bound to contribute to the general welfare regardless of the treatment of them by society.”

Then the other side.  Jews are bound by G-d's covenant.  The Rav says: “The covenantal commitment creates an existential tension, because the Jew has a commitment the non-Jew does not understand.”  So Jews must obey the universal element of Judaism, it commitment to justice, peace, and equality, while also following in the way of “an elected community” which started with Abraham's call from HaShem.

In this work the Rav lays out one of the fundamental conflicts and challenges to modern Jewish people: both how to belong and diverge from society. Abraham is a great jumping off point for this speculation, as both the first Jew and the first ethical monotheist.  He is the first to encounter this timeless struggle.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Visions of Man Evolved

I never much read the magazine Omni during its tenure.  Its vision of the future was too multi-dimensional for my teenage mind.

One article, however, has stuck with me over the years, "Visions of Man Evolved" from the November 1982 issue.  The pictures pretty much speak for themselves.  The speculative article strains credulity, but at least we survive 50 million years, which strikes a hopeful note.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss

When Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 memoir The Kiss was published, it caused quite stir, and rightly so.  Harrison was estranged from her clergyman father from an early age, and when he came back into her life as she began college, their relationship became sexual.

This dark memoir is certainly about incest between two consenting adults, but that is simply the covering for the deep level of one family’s dramatic dysfunction. Love and its absence guide Harrison through an act considered morally abhorrent, and illegal.  

Harrison’s narrative is bleak, and clearly illustrates that the sexual relationship is stripped of all pleasure.  Rather, it is a compulsion, an addiction for a love she never had and desires.  She says: “Like more prosaic addiction ­– to alcohol, to heroin – mine for my father consumed the rest of my life.  I take no pleasure in its satisfaction, and yet I cannot see beyond it, him to anything else, even myself.”

The incest is the symptom of deeper levels of need and hunger.  Rather than fully face the twisted dynamics of her family, the incest stands as a proxy.  It is so beyond the pale, so all consuming, that it allows Harrison “to avoid contemplating the enormity of what we’re doing – an act that defines me, that explains who I am, because in it is all the hurt and anger and hunger of my past, and in it too, is the future.”

So, this is not a book that anyone will enjoy in a conventional sense.  Really, it is a cautionary tale of how far the need for unconditional love can be twisted; although most people would not travel down Harrison’s path, we all make awful decisions to feel loved and wanted – even when the love, as in Harrison's case, is an illusion.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories

Edward Hollis’ The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories has an interesting premise which Hollis largely exploits.  He examines the active life of buildings, from their conception, construction, use, decay and re-use.  

The Parthenon is the model Hollis uses in all his other examples.  This icon of western architecture is contextualized by Hollis, shown to be mutable and unstable and is contrasted to the imperfect life of other well-known buildings.

Sometimes Hollis stretches connections between his essays, or stories, as he calls them.  They appear to be independent entities, and he fiddled around to make them connect.  But overall this does not hamper the effectiveness of this work.  Informative, entertaining, interesting… Hollis has produced an unique book about our built/physical environments.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

William Craig’s Does God Exist

William Craig’s Does God Exist takes you through a beginner’s tour of the traditional, rational arguments for God (or at least, versions of them).  His chapters handle the Cosmological argument, the Teleological argument, the Moral argument, and the Ontological argument.

Oddly, the last argument gets short shrift.  The Ontological argument holds the greatest promise, as it does not rely on observation; it is strictly deductive, while the Theological argument, for instance, flies in the face of the theory of evolution.

But don't fear. William Craig has a number of other books and videos on YouTube explaining rational arguments for G-d’s existence.  So, if you read this book, and feel unsatisfied at its brevity, there is far more out there to explore.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

Toni Bentley's The Surrender

Can finding G-d and anal sex be commensurate activities? Before reading Toni Bentley’s The Surrender, I would have paused.  But she makes a forceful and appealing case of how the flesh and the spirit (if we can even make such distinctions) are the same players on one team.  The sex act Bentley discovers,frees her from the physical and mental bonds which crushed her for years, giving her a broader, more universal view of life.  If that is not a religious experience, than what is?

Part of the appeal of this act for Bentley is, of course, its transgression.  It fits well with Bentley’s desire to be free of conventional encounters with men.  She says:  “If a man can possess a woman sexually -really possess- he won't need to control her ideas, her opinions, her clothes, her friends, even her other lovers.” 

The possession, and ultimately the surrender, is at the heart of this memoir.  When Bentley finds a man to engage in sodomy (a word she often uses, and seems to prefer) her voluntary act of submission is a catalyst toward a new found freedom.  So we get prose like this:

“I recognized it immediately the first time it happened... It is the sound of a woman who is caught inside the mystery of the universe, in the irony of the angst, in the place ego abhors. Bliss.”

Bentley is uniquely qualified to find bliss in this act.  As a former ballerina, she encounters beauty in the movement of a body which is often in pain.  For Bentley the discomfort is integral to the experience.  Just as in dance, where the body is flesh in beautiful motion -- while often subjectively uncomfortable for the dancer -- anal sex too carry some measure of the pain of motion and the trigger to transcend it. 

That said, large portions of the book read like conventional porn.  Bentley explains the act, its mechanics, prep, etc.  So, in that sense, there is nothing new here. The book is meant, in part, to arouse the reader.   On the other hand, it transcends porn.  This is an exploration of how we enter the Garden of Eden, and how we will inevitably lose it. From the first encounter with the man who brings her to this state, Bentley realizes that eventually this all will end.  There is no avoiding her expulsion for paradise.  She takes solace in writing down each encounter, like a holy person detailed her visions.  And ultimately those notes and journals produced this book.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Gold Fame Citrus: A Novel

Claire Vaye Watkins' novel Gold Fame Citrus begins with a great deal of promise, but Watkins gets lost in the weeds of complexity, dangling too many plot points and then trying to tie them together artificially at the end.

The set-up is great: the California drought has reached epic proportions, and California, for so many Americans, is the dream of America, the hope and aspirations of a life that is larger than life. That is gone in Watkins’ novel.  And with the dream gone, something has been lost from the fabric of American life and it will never return.

After the characters leave California for the Dune Sea, Watkins loses control of her novel.   She does not sustain the drive of the set-up. So, although this is a good novel, it falls flat in most of the major areas of novel writing, particularly character development and the forward motion of the plot.  

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews

The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews by Patrick Desbois is not a particularly well structured or well-written book, but its importance far outweighs its narrative flaws.  Father Desbois spent the better part of a decade in  rural, western Ukraine, searching out the mass graves of the Holocaust. 

Without his efforts, much of the testimony gathered in this book would be forever lost.  Most of the people interviewed are old Ukrainian peasants who were children when the mass extermination of the Jews began.  They were able to assist Father Desbois in finding mass graves.  In turn, he collaborated their locations using German and Russian documents.  He even oversaw a dig of a mass grave.

This is important work.  A million and half Jews were killed with guns.  There was no need for capos,  workers in crematorium, prisoners to maintain a work or death camp.  So nearly all Jews were immediately killed; Jewish survivors are few and far between.

So Father Dusbois’ work is a vital part of the history of the Holocaust.  There are thousands of mass graves in the Ukraine. And he has done much work in identifying them, and in many cases, commemorating the sites.