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)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Channukah's History and Mystery

Correction: This class is in the main building - 3950 Baseline Road in Boulder. Not in our south building, as the post below indicates.

I'm teaching a class on the history and mystery of Channukah on December 2nd and 9th at 6:30 at Har HaShem. The class is in our south building at 3901 Pinon Drive in Boulder. You can check out the blurb for the class, and the entire Jewish Enrichment program we have lined up for the year here. Each class is $5 for Har HaShem members. I think it's $18 for non-members. It would be helpful if you would call Katherine Schwartz at 303.499.7077 (or email her at k.schwartz@harhashem.org) to let her know you're intending to come to the class.

We'll explore a little of the history, some of the traditions of Channukah, and look at the dark side (Jewish zealot heroine decapitates Greek king) and the light side (the mystical teachings of hope and possibility in the holy day).

Blurb for the class:

Channukah may be a festival that kids love – but
it’s not just for kids. We will look at the grown-up
themes of Channukah, including violence and
betrayal worthy of The Godfather, Jewish guerilla
warfare, and the difference between the true history
and what you were taught in religious school. We
will also explore the religiousmeaning of Channukah
through some traditional texts and how what you
thought was eight days of latkes and gifts is really
an opportunity for insight and self-transcendence.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Meditations on Jewish Psychedelia, Volume II

Last time I wrote about the intense and subtle artistry of the first prayer before the Shema (in the evening prayers). The prayer that follows it, ahavat olam, is another heavy-duty beauty, with meaning to spare.

One hidden-out-in-the-open idea in this poem reflects a crazy combination of faith and fear, or confidence and insecurity.

It begins, "You have loved your people the Children of Israel with an eternal love." What does it mean for God to love us? Well, the prayer doesn't say. But it suggests what that love looks like from our end: "Therefore, Adonai, our God, when we lay down and get up we will talk about your laws and we will be happy about the words of Your Torah and Your commandments - forever."

So, whatever Divine love means, we experience it by spending our time thinking about and talking about the meaning of our lives. According to the prayer, that's what it feels like to be loved by God: you meditate on the purpose of your life.

And remeber, we opened with an assertion that this will last forever. I like to understand this as saying that our lives will always be filled with meaning. God might take away everything we can touch - money, relationships, Doritos - but God will not remove our sense of meaning and purpose, because God loves us with "an eternal love." And we are emphatic about this because we then say that we will "talk about" and "be happy about" God's commandments (what I'm caling our meaning) "forever" [I've bolded the phrases above to show that they're the same word in Hebrew: olam. So, no matter what happens, we'll be 'ok' and will always have a sense that on a deep level, life has meaning and purpose.

But then, like a high-school Romeo in the third week of love, we become insecure. In the very last line of the prayer before the concluding blessing, we see "Never take away Your love from us." [Again, bold because it is the same word: olam - well, actually olamim, a variation].

What? We open the prayer saying that God loves us with eternal love. Eternal, as in always. And then we say that we will experience this in a happy way, always. This sounds good. As in, no problem, lots of love to go around - nothing to worry about.

But then, at the end, we do worry: "Never take awy Your love from us." What does this line say about the first line? Or about us? Does it mean that Divine love isn't really eternal? If so, why would we worry that it would be taken away? How could it be if it's eternal? Does it mean that it is eternal, but we are so neurotic that we can't really handle that, can't accept it?

In other words, we close this prayer with a desperate plea: please don't make our lives a drag in which we have nothing meaningful to think or talk about, in which we have to listen to Sean Hannity endlessly. Please don't let me come to believe that "90210" is all there is to think about.

This is a prayer for this time. The collapsing economy has a lot of people frightened. I've spoken with many people who are living with a deep sense of insecurity. In some cases, it is anxiety about what might be coming down the road. For others, it is about real and profound shifts in their lives brough about by recent events.

Is it possible to experience "God's love" at a time like this? Can I have a sense of enduring meaning and purpose when everything that I can touch dissolves? I think the prayer is ambivalent - that is, it is deeply human and honest. We are sure that even when everything seems unstable, that what really matters to us will keep us upright. Yet we walk around with a fear and nagging suspicion that it may all be for naught.

Prayers are only beautiful when they express what we really feel. This is no Hallmark card: this is Jewish prayer.

Finally, there's an essential and inextinguishable hope built into the prayer. Because the dissonant note of insecurity and the fear implicit in the closing lines of the prayer are part of the conversation about God's intentions for us. They are part of the conversation about the purpose of our lives. And this, according to the earlier part of the prayer, is what it means to experience God's love: when we discuss, meditate on, and rejoice in God's Torah, we experience love. The insecurity becomes part of the pattern of security and stability. Anxiety is coopted into a broader pattern of meaning.

When I write sentences like that last one, it generally means that the engines are shutting down and it's time to go to bed. Good night.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Torah Portion Chayei Sarah: In Death as In Life

I'm thinking about this parshah in light of Proposition 8. As I indicated in an earlier post, the passage of the amendment, and the Mormon Churche's declaration that it's actions in supporting the bill were beyond criticism really got under my kittel.

In reading the parshah and some midrashim attached to it, I thought about this constitutional travesty and miscarriage of justice. [Obligatory and obvious clarification that traditionally Judaism does not countenance gay marriage].

Now that that's out of the way, onward: to me the most powerful part of the midrash is when the servant Eliezer, sent by Abraham to find a wife for Abraham's son Isaac, and now far from home, finds Rebecca and gazes upon her in amazement.

He announces himself and gives her gifts of earrings, bracelets, and gold. Targum Yonatan comments that the half-shekel earing corresponds to the half-shekel contribution that the Israelites will contribute to help in the construction of the mishkan (the roving Temple used in the desert). The midrash Genesis Rabbah says that the two bracelets correspond to the two tablets of the commandments, and the ten shekel's weight of gold correspond to the ten commandments.

Time collapses at the moment that Rebecca is "discovered" by Eliezer. The Israelite present and future become one as we are reminded that the coupling of two people - Isaac and Rebecca - carries much, much more than their personal longings and desires. It is the root of the history of an entire people and it makes possible the creation of a moral future. As Eliezer gazes at her it is as though he sees the significance of his discovery of her and everything that will follow from it.

Isaac's and Rebecca's relationship is described in terms that would have Freud reaching for his cigar. The Torah says that in Rebecca, Isaac found comfort after his mother's death. The midrash goes further, indicating that Isaac's attraction to Rebecca stemmed from a similarity between the two women - Rebecca conducted herself precisely like Sarah and her presence brought reminder's of Sarah's life back to her son.

What strikes me about the story, with the midrashic details added, is the family psychology. Sarah's death hangs over the parshah; her son is invisible, presumably in mourning for his mother. He is broken, we learn at the end of the parshah, but meeting his wife has revived him and allowed him to triumph over the bitterness of his grief.

Those who seek to deny marriage to gays and lesbians are blind to the psychological depth of gay relationships. They are obsessed with seeing them as merely sexual, or rather as merely "aberrant," non-normative acts. What has become so clear, though, is that such relationships are....relationships. They are complex, beautiful expressions of personal narrative, history and intimacy. We need other human beings to help us move beyond pain, grief, loss, personal history. Anti-gay activists do not want to accept that this is just as possible in relationships between two men or two women as between a man and a woman.

And just as Eliezer gazed upon Rebecca in amazement, aware of the potential of this woman to create a new reality by a holy relationship with Isaac so too should we see the millions of gay people seeking to sanctify their relationships as bearers of history. Each relationship has the potential to transform the individuals who engage in them but also to sanctify the entire society - to build it, improve it, strengthen it with the intense love that exists between two human beings.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Meditations on Jewish Psychedelia, Volume 1

Beginning tonight I will periodically and briefly explore prayers from the siddur (prayerbook). I'm calling this series "Explorations of Jewish Psychedelia" because 1) it's eye-catching and 2) the Greek roots of the word brush up against my understanding of prayer. Psyche means "soul" and delos means "manifest." Liturgy is psychedelic in two ways. First, it is the manifest content of the historical Jewish soul, recorded over time. Second, prayer is an attempt to make the soul manifest, to draw it out of its latency and into reality.

Tonight, some thoughts on the evening prayer known as the ma'ariv aravim. The title comes from the first sentence, usually translated in a way that looks something like this: "Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, whose word brings on [ma'ariv] the night [aravim]."

A sweet little poetic touch here. The phrase ma'ariv aravim captures precisely and concisely the central idea of the clause: that God's word is the cause of night. ma'ariv is the verb form [causative, if you care] of the root a-r-v, night, the noun that follows directly after it.

, "brings on night" is an unusual word. It is created by taking the root of the noun evening and just making it a causative verb. In fact, most literally, the sentence means "Blessed are You, Adonai....who nights the night." By this verbal play, the sentence reflects on a linguistic level the expressed meaning of the sentence - night is caused by God "nighting." So, the author tries to get us to see through language what is beyond language. The passing of the day and the coming on of darkness is effected by God speech. But the "speech" in this case is actually just the attribution through clever language of a physical reality - the coming of darkness - to an action by God.

This is a more beautiful way of understanding the mysterious idea that God creates through speech. Taken simply, and literally, we imagine a being that actually speaks words which then create physical reality. This is pretty hard to accept. This prayer gets at something deeper: the understanding of physical reality as God's speech.

In the creation story, our translations usually read something like "God said 'Let there be light' and there was light." Because of the way the present and future tenses of the verb 'to be' work in English (be/was), the translation cannot capture the linguistic identity of God's spoken word and the result. In Hebrew, it is y'hi or, v'yhi or. To capture the similarity in both the sound and appearance of the words, ignore the illogical syntax in the following English, which reflects the identity of the two Hebrew phrases: "God said 'Let there be light,' and let there be light."

That English captures how the exact Hebrew command by God is used to express the result. Another way to render it in English that is more true to that feature of the Hebrew, but less true to the grammatical meaning, would be "God said 'Light!' and: light!"

In both the Genesis story and this beautiful prayer, the Hebrew captures the true meaning of divine speech: physical reality is God's articulated message to human beings. There is something causing physical reality, a force 'speaking' it into existence. If we listen, we can hear.

Tuesday Night: David Schneer at the Rock n Soul Cafe in Boulder

An amazing program planned for Tuesday night. If you're in Boulder, please come and join us - we're looking forward to a great evening of conversation.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Religious Bigots Win in California

Well, California Proposition 8 failed. Put differently, the constitution of the state was amended so that gays and lesbians have been stripped of their right to marry there.

A significant player in the "Yes on 8" - that is, the anti-gay marriage side - was the Mormon Church. I read an article on the National Review's website (they supported Prop 8) arguing that the very strong criticism by Prop 8 opponents targeting the Church amounted to bigotry.

Nonsense. It is the religiously motivated backers of anti-gay legislation who are the bigots. Pointing out their support for laws designed to deny right to gay people is not bigotry. A religious minority that acts hatefully is not immune from criticism just because it is a minority.

What's the Jewish perspective on this? There are two Jewish perspectives. There's the confused and shortsighted view and then there's, well, mine and that of other forward thinking Jews.

The confused view, endorsed by people like Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel, is that the Torah prohibits homosexuality and therefore state constitutions should outlaw gay marriage. Shafran is, of course, entitled to his view of the Torah. If people want to view those parts of an ancient text, written by an ancient people in an entirely different culture, that dehumanize a group of people that is now more fully understood, as authoritative, that is their right. But we don't have to take those arguments seriously as we make social policy - and in fact we have an obligation to fight against the appearance of such arguments in the public square.

Shafran confuses Torah and secular law. Yes, the Torah prohibits certain homosexual acts but it does not follow that the state should use that as a guide in making laws. Would this not be a ludicrous country of we made secular laws based on the multiplicity of religious tradtions within it?

Why is this shortsighted of Shafran and his ilk? Do Jews, roughly 2% of the population of this country, really want to be in the business of encouraging people to use religious texts to make social policy? Haven't we been here before? Didn't our ancestors suffer under monarchies whose power and policies were justified based on their acceptance of Christian law and Church authority? And in an environment in which Christian fundamentalism is still burning strong (yes, weakened by the last election, but not for ever) do Jews seriously want to use the same mindset and tactics they employ?

The state accepts and permits all kinds of behaviors that the Torah would prohibit. If we accept his reasoning, we would be outlawing all kinds of acts that are currently legal, such as seething a kid in its mother's milk, blasphemy, and idolatry. Do Shafran and other biblically-motivated cultural watchdogs hope to use the power of the state to prohibit these?

When a religious leader puts forth such arguments, we needn't demonstrate respect for their piety; neither must we avoid criticism of them because of their status as leaders of religious minorities. The proper response is to call a spade a spade.

So, Rabbi Shafran: you are ridiculous. Your confused and self-defeating arguments have no place in a modern democracy. People such as yourself use the veil of religion to hide the absurdity of the claims they make in the public realm.

Again, to be clear: you are not simply wrong - you are ridiculous. Californian's were having a serious debate about social policy affecting millions of people, and you based your arguments upon the laws in the Torah. (One imagines that Shafran's response would be that his arguments are based upon the so-called Noahide laws that the Torah sets forth for all humanity, as opposed to other laws intended to govern only Jews).

Public policy in heterogeneous democracies must be made based on rational and secular claims. Not because the secular is more authoritative than the religious but because secular rationality is a discourse that can be used by people of diverse backgrounds. I don't try to convince a fellow American who is an atheist that poverty is unacceptable on the grounds that the Prophet Isaiah decries injustice; I may take my inspiration from Isaiah, but my arguments must be grounded in reason.

How can any Jew be so shortsighted as to think that using religious claims to pass laws meddling in the lives of other citizens is a good idea?

The proper Jewish view on the matter of Proposition 8 is that the proposition was wrong and should have been defeated. Let religious communities police themselves, and make their own arguments to their own people. Let the state establish a basic equality for all citizens. This is, in short, good for the Jews.

Time Out For Fun - Yo La Tengo, Sugarcube, Hannukah at Maxwell's

TIme Out for Fun - Sex Pistols, Holidays in the Sun

Time Out For Fun - Dylan, Hard Rain, Live 1976

From the Rolling Thunder Revue