A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Time Out for Fun

John Zorn and Masada - Jewish music, American music, crazy music, beautiful music:

More Ado About Nothing

Was one of the great Jewish masters of all time a confused Buddhist?

It is a truism that many adult Jews who are dissatisfied with the tradition of their upbringing turn to Buddhism. This trend gives us the felicitous word, Jewbu, which I think is probably spelled Jubu.

For the record: I don’t view JuBus, as some people do, as having betrayed Judaism. I think most of them are responding rationally to their experience, which has often been one of dry, legalistic, empty, superficial, put-me-to-sleep Judaism. If they didn’t seek something else they would be meshugge. I do wish that they might be enlightened (har har) as to the richness and stunning insight of Judaism by new teachers or new methods.

A tangent before my real topic: the JuBu phenomenon is, I think, a babyboomer phenomenon. Of course, there are Jewish buddhists my age - and I'm all for it - but my generation's Judaism is characterized not by people turning from Judaism in search of something else, but in a profusion of new Jewish expressions, a reinterpretation of Jewish culture (sometimes with the annoying Generation-X ironic distance), an intense pride in Jewish folkways and an insistence on breathing new life into them. See, for example, jewcy.com, shemspeed.com, heebmagazine.com Most of this profusion is a a reengagement with Jewish culture, and not a religious trip. Anyway, back to the matter at hand....

My last entry on the Torah Portion “Kedoshim” (see below) holds the promise that maybe Jubus are not just a 20th century phenom. Was Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who wrote so powerfully about the nothingness that underlies reality, actually a Buddhist dressed up as a Jew? Was this Chasidic master, in fact, the first Jubu?

The realization of nothingness is central to Zen Buddhist practice and Levi Yitzchak’s ideas brush up against some Buddhist principles (it’s hard to write about Zen without contradiction – can there be a Zen principle? Once it’s laid down as a precept, idea, belief or principle, it’s not really Zen…but all I have is language).

Again, Levi Yitzchak writes that we are holy in that we can become aware of our essential nothingness – “Know that you come from nothing” – and that Jewish practice (mitzvoth) raise our consciousness of the nothingness underlying our existence, and the transitory nature of our materiality.

Shunryu Suzuki was a Japanese born American teacher of Zen Buddhism, and a Soto Zen priest. Does he agree with Levi Yitzchak? The Zen Temple he took over when he came to San Francisco had once been a synagogue. Hmmm…..

In his Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes,

[I]t is absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing. But I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form, and it has some rules, or theory, or truth in its activity…it is one existence, which has not form or color and it is always ready to take form and color. (116)

He also writes,

Without nothingness, there is no naturalness – no true being. True being comes out of nothingness, moment after moment. Nothingness is always there, and from it everything appears. But usually, forgetting all about nothingness, you behave as if you have something. (109).

There are essential differences between Judaism and Buddhism, to be sure. But it is intriguing that these two masters, separated by centuries, and writing about traditions separated by continents and history, use similar language to describe their understanding of the nature of reality.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Torah Portion: Kedoshim - Nothing's Shocking

Does slavish observance of Jewish ritual seem meaningless and low to you? You're in good company - the company of one of the great chasidic masters.

Let's be honest: any Jew who has thought about Jewish law and ritual has thought, at some point, something like: "What is the point of such an such a practice? The Torah says "Do X" and you do X? Why? For a reward? What is this adding to your life?"

Judaism can become, as we know, a checklist of behaviors: keep kosher, check; go to shul on high holy days, check; observe shabbat, check. Etcetera, ad infinitum. What's the point?

Today Rabbi Marc and I came across a mind-blowing explanation of one of the most beautiful and mysterious verses in the entire Torah. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev has a heavy take on the verse from Leviticus 19:2, which reads "You shall be holy for I, Adonai your God, am holy."

Levi Yitzchak picks up on the impossibility of the statement. How can it be that a human being can become like God in holiness? Or put differently, how can a human being become anything more than a human being?

His solution is that you become more by becoming less. Reinterpreting a passage from the Mishnah, he reminds us that we have come from nothing. Before there was anything, there was nothing - and this nothingness is an essential feature of God.

This nothingness underlies all reality. All matter, all bodies, brains, trees, money, and yes, even the Clintons, are only temporary - but underneath all this physical matter is a nothingness that is concealed from us. We think of ourselves as being made of something, as our lives and our achievements as counting for something. But Levi Yitzchak claims that all of these outward dimensions of human existence are illusions - really underlying it all is nothing.

And this is what we share with God. For God's nothingness preceded all creation - and this absence of physicality, this nothingness, is one of the features of God's holiness.

Through our physicality - actually, through the structure of the commandments, he suggests, we can raise our consciousness enough to see that we are comprised of nothingness. This nothingness is what we share with God. Thus, Be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am Holy.

He goes further and says that observance of the commandments in a slavish fashion, when it is done simply out of fear of punishment (or for many Jews, the fear that they will stop being Jewish, or lose connection to Jewishness) is insufficient. Instead the commandments should lead us to revere the nothingness that is the true essence of all reality. The commandments are to raise our consciousness of this fundamental and humbling reality of our existence.

Can we live in this way? With a profound humility that reminds us that all being is merely an outward manifestation of a much deeper truth - to use the language of Zen, an illusion? The commandments are, for Levi Yitzchak, the path to this awareness.

More on this later.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Pesach and Yom Ha-Shoah

Since Eliav’s first chirping cry announcing his arrival, the cosmos of my experience have undergone a Copernican shift. Before, the sun, planets and stars of self, family, work and friends spun in a happily balanced orbit. Now the son is at the center - Channah and I circle around in frantic rotation, changing diapers, searching for misplaced binkies, swaddling, taking late night carseat drives in search of sleep, and all the rest.

This reorientation has affected my thinking about serious issues. I write this a few weeks before Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha-Zikaron. For all of the Jewish talk about memory, I have never appreciated its seriousness until now. When Eliav is my age, the liberation of the camps will be more than 100 years in the past – as distant as we are now from the production of the first Model-T Ford. What meaning will the Shoah have for our children and grandchildren when their own elders were born a generation after it, and likely never met a survivor?

The devastation of the Shoah, on a scale unknown before or since, calls all life into question: what meaning can life have if such suffering is possible? In a shattering passage in Night, Elie Wiesel recalls that the sight of a young boy hanging on the camp gallows led someone to call out, “Where is God now?” Another answers “Here he is – he is hanging here on the gallows.”

In reflecting upon the meaning of Pesach, the Chasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Birditchev wrote of the Talmudic disagreement concerning the world’s creation: was it in the month of Tishrei, at Rosh HaShanah, or in Nisan, the month of the Exodus? He answers: the world was created in Tishrei – but it had no meaning for humanity until Nisan, when the whole world could see suffering redeemed and human life elevated. Pesach reminds us of this possibility. Yet the seder is diminished if it merely leads us to look back. The message of that past must become alive in the present.

So, too, with the Shoah. Our distance from it is a danger only if we limit its meaning to the past. We make meaning out of the unimaginable suffering – and honor those among us who lived through it – when memory changes us, and so changes the world. The Shoah must change how we view ourselves and our responsibilities in 2008, and make us into the kind of people for whom “Never Again” is not a timid wish but a determined assertion of moral courage that guides our treatment of all peoples.

Elie Wiesel’s book is framed by a father-son relationship upended by the Shoah. In our day, one generation expresses its obligation to the past and to the next generation by remembering not only with words but with deeds, and in so doing ensures the endurance of memory. Wiesel’s book is called Night, a word that summons up images of darkness. But for the Jewish people, each new day begins at night, reminding us that every period of darkness might give birth to new light, each curse might lead to blessing. We accept our obligation to let our memories be that blessing.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Time Out For Fun

In honor of Rabbi Zimmerman's Pulitzer, a beautiful wish of a song. My sisters read this at Eliav's bris... The second song is great, too. This is from the movie The Last Waltz. Enjoy:

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Passover Reflection

Some thoughts on Passover....

Every year we make the mistake of viewing the four children – the wise, the simple, the wicked and the one who does not know how to ask – as paradigmatic of personality types and styles of learning. We think we are challenged to offer Jewish wisdom to the beautiful array of children who need it. But in viewing the Haggadah’s four children only as children – as those other, little ones who need our help - we prove that we are in fact the fourth child: we do not know how to ask, and in fact do not know to ask. The Haggadah tells us that we are all wise, simple, wicked, and unable to ask. We can ask, and should ask, “what is this festival – to me?”

Rabbi Judah Leib Alter, known as the “S’fat Emet” ("Language of Truth") after his commentaries on the Torah, lived in the late nineteenth century. He offers a beautiful and surprising interpretation of Pesach.

He says that “on every Pesach, a Jew becomes like a new person, like the newborn child each of us was as we came out of Egypt.” There is a point within our hearts that God implanted within each of us - and it is renewed on Pesach. Our task is to expand this point of purity. This point gets covered over when we forget it and concern ourselves with what is unimportant, when we fail to act beautifully. We do forget it throughout the year, but this festival is the time when the point is renewed. Rabbi Alter says we have to protect this unchanging point from “fermentation” or change as we would dough prepared for Matzah.

In the Torah, in Exodus, we are told
“Keep the festival of matzot, because b’etzem hayom – on this very day – I brought the children of Israel from the land of Egypt.”
The phrase b’etzem hayom – this very day – can also be translated as this “inner” or “inward” day - that is, Passover is a day of inwardness. Rabbi Alter says that we are thus instructed to keep this inner point and remember it – we have to struggle through the year to remember that God implanted this purity within us. Pesach is a time, Rabbi Alter says, “that reminds us of the real reason we were created in this world – to do God’s will.”

Another word play illuminates his point. We are commanded regarding the sippur, the “telling” of the story of the exodus. Sippur can also mean shining, or brilliance (some say that the Kabbalists notion of the s’firot, from the same root, comes from this latter meaning, and was a Hebrew adaptation of the word “Saphire.”) If Sippur does mean brilliance or shining, then we might say we are commanded to let this pure point of divinity shine out at Pesach, to uncover it and renew its capacity to light our lives.

The essential point is that we are to see ourselves as if we personally were liberated from Egypt. This is not just an exercise in historical imagination. Indeed, every generation and every individual is involved in a personal y’tziat M’mitzrayim, a going out from Egypt.

In some way we are enslaved. How? We all have our own answers. But if we don’t uncover this light within us, this point of divine brilliance, we will not be able find understanding and happiness, we will fail to act with courage and beauty as we reach out to others, we will be unable to reshape according to God’s will the world in which we live.

Rabbi Alter teaches that each of us must assume responsibility, ultimately, for recovering this divine point – the Exodus is personal. It is also collective – we struggle away from Egypt as a beautiful and blessed family, as part of a people, part of a community, striving to recover the purest point within us.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Bob Dylan Wins a Pulitzer

Well, sort of. Jewish boy from Minnesota makes good.

We All Have Our Demons

Something strange about me: my clothing disintegrates. Sometime over the last year I noticed a tear in my shirt. No big deal; mass produced, low quality, money-saver. It happens. Then another was stained. Then another. Then the shirt I wore to my ordination ceremony developed a tear/hole in the chest a week after I bought it. Then my favorite shirt ripped at the button. And now another shirt - not a favorite, but a solid, war-horse shirt I use often - developed a tear/hole in the same place.

There were two possibilities. Bad luck, or sloppiness. Or so I thought. I had let the matter drop, until the Talmud (Berachot 5b) enlightened me as to the source of my troubles:

Aba Binyamin says “If [we were able] to see, no creature could endure on account of demons [that are around us]” [i.e. we would be so frightened at what we saw that we would expire]...Rav Huna said, "Each one of us has a thousand to his left and thousands to his right.." Rava said, “That pressing [feeling] at public lectures is because of them...those clothes of our rabbis that wear out is because of their rubbing are because of them.

Brief summary: 1) There are demons 2) They are the cause of certain annoyances 3) Among these is the quick deterioration of the clothing of rabbis/rabbinic students.

Why do I share this? It is a good reminder of the massive gulf that separates us from the Jewish past. We read the reflections of our forbears written 1000, 2000 or more years ago and try to relate our beliefs about God to their own.

And then we come across something like demons wearing down our clothes and we think, "Oh...the guy who believes that God punishes people who light fire on Shabbat is the same guy who believes that demons tear holes in my shirt."

So, why bother? Why try to accept Biblical, or Talmudic ideas about God? Maybe we should just treat them like we do the Demons-are-eating-my-clothes theory, and say "That's hilarious. And I reject it completely.

Why should religious belief be less prone to the ravages of time than strange superstitions? In another 1000 years, will the notion of God seems as ludicrous to our descendants as clothing-demons do to us?

But it is precisely these demons that keeps me at it. It is precisely the strange and uncomfortable that makes me more determined to find something to which I can relate. The animal sacrifices; the tabernacle; the goat which bears the sins of the community into the wilderness (the scapegoat); demons eating my clothing. These all speak to our historical situatedness and the contingency of our experience. Each generation creates a worldview that is impermeable to the inquiries of those who come later (what will our demons be, the ludicrous habits about which those after us will puzzle? Wave/particle duality? Kellogg's French Toaster Sticks?

The strange particulars of people at various points in history lead me to seek what is familiar and universal. My view of the deep-structure of the universe and of human being's relation to the divine is not confirmed by its similarity to the beliefs of those who share all of my assumptions. On the contrary. Only if I can verify that someone who believed in demons (and that they could be seen by grinding up the burnt placenta of a black cat and rubbing it in your eye - I'm not making that up) also shared my experience of what it means to contemplate God, to relate to the biggest questions we face, can I be sure that my beliefs have a grounding in the universal. It is the differences between us that make it possible to believe that, on a deep level, we have something in common.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King is rightly remembered for his legacy of racial reconciliation. We often have forgotten that for him 'reconciliation,' meant tough moral commitments and radical social change. So, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail and two speeches which remind us that he was broadening the struggle to force Americans confront the problem of economic inequality when he was cut down:


Time Out for Fun

The incredible Nina Simone singing Eretz Chalav u'devash (Land of Milk and Honey).

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Torah Portion, Tazria II: Holy Mouldy

Well, sort of.

In my previous post, which you should now have committed to memory, I mentioned that in the Torah there is both ritual and moral purity/impurity. We can probably all get our minds around moral purity: the idea that if we do something immoral we are somehow tarnished. Maybe you think that belief involves an unhealthy level of repression, but at least you understand it.

Ritual impurity in the Torah is a bit more far out. If a person comes into contact with a defiling substance they become ritually tamei (impure). They must maintain separation from things that are holy until they become tahor (pure) by being declared so by a priest. And impurity can even grow (like mould) on the structure of a building or on clothing.

We may occasionally get the feeling that someone has done something so morally questionable that being in their presence makes us say "I have to take a shower." Examples of this include close contact with car salesmen (I can say this because I was a car salesman one summer) or encountering a particularly awful moment of political desperation such as when Hillary Clinton tried to scrap together some votes by running an adsuggesting that the nation's children would be in danger if she were not elected President (I can say this because I had to take a shower after seeing that ad).

But this is just a response to the heebie-jeebies (and I do mean heebie). In the Torah, though, certain materials (such as a corpse, emissions from sexual organs, and the skin irregularities described in this week's portion) actually render a person incapable of attaining holiness until
the individual has been purified.

How can holiness be compromised by the material (as opposed to the moral)? The idea seems strange to us because in our scientific era, all matter is understood to be essentially the same. It may look different, and some matter may cause illness in humans, but under the surface, if you get to the electro-magnetic core of things, it's all just protons, neutrons, electrons, atoms and molecules.

So, skin disease, contact with a corpse, or emissions from the body are the things that cause ritual impurity. In the scientific world view they do not diminish us: that would be absurd. They are merely various kinds of matter coming into contact with other matter - there is no meaning to these encounters.

Each of these three things might alienate us from our bodies. They are all irregularities that disrupt our capacity to look beyond ourselves. The bodily emissions are things that are tied to birth - seminal emissions from the man, or afterbirth and post-partum discharges from the woman. The miracle of birth draws attention to our ability to create - but also the raw materiality of our existence. While we may be amazed at the birth, parents also become more aware of their finitude. Contact with a corpse may shock us into a meditation on death. And irregularities and bodily deformities are stark reminders of our body's delicate nature.

Some commentators have pointed out that these ritual impurities center around death and life, and draw our attention to these things. Because God is eternal, God neither lives nor dies, remaining at once within the material of the universe and totally apart from it. God - the essence and source of holiness - has no spirit/material divide. Perhaps the moments that make us more aware of the gulf between what is eternal and what is finite about us we distance ourselves from God.

Eliav cries....gotta run

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Torah Portion: Tazria

This week's Torah portion is Tazria, from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), chapter 12:1-13:59. Wild weirdness this week with spiritual questions that are rooted in discussions of scabs, skin conditions, and other bodily delights. More to come on Tazria - when you peel away the scab there are fascinating questions beneath (ok, that was nasty). But for now....

Just a brief word on how Jewish tradition deals with bodily irregularities such as leprosy (at least some people think it is leprosy) and other skin infirmities; and how we deal with it in contemporary society.

I just read a disturbing article about a 1987 US law that creates hurdles for HIV-positive foreigners coming into the US and can prevent their entry altogether. I don't know how many have been denied a visa because they carry HIV since the law was passed, but this case highlights our anxieties about infirmity and contagion, and our tendency to respond to that fear irrationally and with great cruelty.

The Torah discusses this week the laws concerning those in the community who have certain kinds of appearances on the skin. If discoloration or certain other marks appear on the skin, the victim is brought before the priest who must declare the person either tamei or tahor, usually translated as 'impure' and 'pure' or 'unclean' and 'clean.' But these words are not necessarily moral categories, at least in the sense that we understand them. That is, one does not necessarily become tamei by doing something that is forbidden. These categories determine whether you must be separated from the community or certain holy places.

In any event, the Torah specifies that a person with marks on his or her body will be declared tamei or tahor by Aaron the priest or his sons. The rabbinic commentators, writing much later, emphasize that regular old Israelites were not permitted to make this declaration. Because declaring a person tamei meant that they had to be physically separated from the rest of the community, the rabbis saw the capacity to declare as one of great power - power not to be misused. Hizkuni (if memory serves - I don't have the text in front of me) says that this declaration must be made by a priest to avoid confusion and inaccurate judgments from those who don't know better.

We read this ancient text of the Torah and think "wow, those people were weird - all those bizarre rituals." But the 1987 law referred to in the Globe and Mail article points out that we still are unsure how to deal with disease. We do assign moral categories to sufferers of disease - and certainly in the '80s and still today AIDS sufferers, especially gay men, bore the brunt of this.

The rabbinic reading of this Torah portion, which emphasized the methodical inspection by the priests as against a response driven by a fearful public stands in stark contrast to how our nation dealt with AIDS sufferers - and how we often deal with all kinds of ill people. As the AIDS crisis unfolded we allowed mass-hysteria to guide social policy.

Often we respond to people with illnesses by seeking to separate them from the community, focus on what we think is the moral dimension (AIDS sufferers are hedonists, obese people are lazy and undisciplined etc) and attempt to cut out the problem from the body politic. The ritual described in this week's Torah portion, while not something that would be great social policy in 2008, has one significant moral advantage: it is concerned with reintroducing people into the community. The priests are charged with separating the diseased until the affliction goes away and then, significantly, initiating a declaration of tahor to bring the sufferer back and restore him or her to public life.