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)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Israel - Darkness During the Festival of Light

I'm a mess of mixed emotions right now. I can barely bring myself to look at pictures of beautiful Palestinian children bandaged, bloody and bruised as a result of Israeli rocket attacks in Gaza - of corpses lined up next to one another surround by people wailing in grief. Try as we might, we cannot pretend that these are the faces of Hamas terrorists. Certainly Hamas terrorists and agents of their administrative apparatus have been killed - but these children? All of the bodies in the street? I believe in the moral value of proportionate response in war - that is, the notion that it is immoral to respond disproportionately to a threat. It is hard to see this as proportionate.

And yet...why has the world been silent as Hamas has violated the truce that was in place? As Hamas fired rockets into Israeli civilian areas? An organization with medieval social values and political objectives attacks the only democracy in the area and escapes without criticism. This is Israel's predicament, constantly: its sovereignty is violated innumerable times, it faces deadly attacks against its citizens, responding the way any other nation on earth would if it faced similar threats - yet the world is silent. Voices of outrage come only when Israel responds.

And yet, again...it is agony to see the Jewish state involved in this. This is not why Israel was created. Can Israel be more than a state? Must it be locked in realpolitique? Does it deserve the title Jewish state if it cannot transcend?

We must respond to this by turning to Jewish values and reflecting. Our responses cannot be conditioned by anxiety about whom we will disappoint or about whose side we fear to be on.

May it be Your will that the children of Abraham and the children of Ishmael one day live in peace.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Young Jews and the Shoah

What we've known anecdotaly for some time is now beginning to be common knowledge: young Jews do not see the Holocaust as an essential part of their Jewish identity. An article from Moment discussing new research is here.

For centuries Jewish identity and cohesion has been an alchemy of the Jewish past and present. Jews in 2008, young or old, don't get a lot of mileage from an emphasis on suffering in the recent past. It is not the experience of most Jews. The challenge is to give people meaning in a world in which all frameworks of meaning are under assault.

For many baby boomers the cornerstones of recent Jewish history are the Holocaust and the 1967 war. These are an important part of their experience and identity. The primary experience of younger Jews is one of domestic stability, tolerance, affluence, and an absence of anti-semitism. With regard to Israel, the formative memory is probably 1982 and Lebanon, which frames a view of Israel as the persecutor.

Basically, young people, like all people, are looking for authentic responses to questions about the meaning of Judaism. "Because our ancestors suffered" has never been enough.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Inauguration of Hate

Oy. Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church fame, will give the invocation at Obama's inauguration. What an awful gesture on Obama's part, a shameful gesture. Ugh. Blech. I assume it's an attempt to "unify" the nation, to reach out and demonstrate that he intends to be the leader of the entire nation, not just of Democrats. And, significantly, a calculating political move designed to bring more conservatives into the Democratic fold.

Isn't Obama more clever than this? This is the only way he could imagine to accomplish those goals for his party? There will now be a fundamentalist Christian who wants to use the literal word of the Bible as a blueprint for public policy inaugurating my President? I'm getting Jewish-y shivers.

Shame on Barack Obama. Oy.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Time Out for Fun - Music to be Plagued By

Someone just brought to my attention a brilliant concept (thanks, Steve). There is an album called "Plague Songs" with various artists performing their own musical interpretation of the Ten Plagues from the book of Exodus.

You can buy the CD here, the label's site is here, and the blurb about the CD follows....

Ten international singer-songwriters have each been commissioned by Artangel to write and record a song inspired by one of the ten biblical plagues. Following the original biblical order of the plagues, Plague Songs opens with Klashnekoff’s menacing Blood, via King Creosote’s bewitching Relate the Tale (Frogs) and Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt’s insistent Flies, Laurie Anderson’s mournful The Fifth Plague (Death of Livestock) and Imogen Heap’s mesmeric Glittering Cloud (Locusts) to Scott Walker’s evocation of Darkness and Rufus Wainwright’s tragic Katonah (Death of The Firstborn).

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who's Praying Who?

Beautiful Weirdness from the Talmud.

In the Talmud (Brachot 7A if you care) there is a "whoah, heavy" moment (Dude, have you watched the Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon?) that just blew me away when I read it.

Following an assertion that God prays, the question immediately comes up, "Well, what does God pray?"
Rav Zutra bar Tovia said in the name of Rav, [God prays] “May it be My will that My mercy will conquer My anger, and that My mercy will overcome My [other] attributes. And may I deal with My children according to the attribute of mercy and deal with them more generously than the law requires.”

Huh? To whom - or is it, to Whom - is God praying? "May it be My will"? Who is controlling God's will? If it is merely God focusing God's own intention so that God remembers to be merciful, does this teach us something about our own prayers? Are they simply words intended for the one who prays? One way to deal with this is to say that God is actually powerless. Perhaps the prayer reflects Divine acknowledgment that the universe moves along and God can only say "May it be...."

And what are we to think, as we pray? Keep in mind that many of our blessings begin with this same formulation (May it be Your Will....) If we mimic God, who is praying, and if clearly God can have no object to whom Divine prayers are directed, then are we praying to no effect?

Things get stranger. This passage is followed immediately by a story:

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said, “Once I entered into the inner sanctuary [the Holy of Holies] to make an incense offering. I saw Achtari’eil Yah Adonai Tzva’ot, who was sitting on a high and elevated throne. He said to me, ‘Yishmael, My son, bless Me. I said to Him, ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy will conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy will overcome Your [other] attributes. And may You deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and deal with them more generously than the law requires.’” He bowed to me.

Dude. Pass the Fritos. It could be that the previous prayer - the one that God is understood to pray - comes from this. That is, this story about Yishmael may be placed here as an explanation of the previous paragraph. So, the Talmud is saying, "How do we know that God prays that prayer? Well, Yishmael once blessed God with it, and God recognized the legitimacy of the prayer by bowing [a commentator imagines God saying "Amen"].

But it could work in the other direction [hat tip to Channah Rose for this]: it could be that God's prayer is proof that when Yishmael encountered God, the prayer Yishmael uttered was put in his head by God. So, Yishmael had the experience of praying by his own volition but was actually a vessel for words planted in him by God.

This also suggests a way to understand the meaning of prayer in our experience. Words that feel either like spontaneous outpourings of the heart, or words that come to us prescribed by the tradition, are actually words "returning to their source." Seen in this light, prayer becomes a meditation, a deep and profound meditation, with subject and object coming together; matter and maker becoming one through meditative language itself.