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)

Friday, December 24, 2010

All You Need is Ahavah

The Ways of the Tzaddikim identifies Love as such an important middah that it

includes more acts than any of the other [middot], and when one employ's [one's] love for good, it is the highest of all the [middot]...

I want to point to one troubling passage and one fascinating passage in the chapter on Love.

First, the troubling. In describing the dangers of love that is not informed by wisdom, the text refers to ahavat nashim, love of women, as being a danger. All of the attitudes we might expect of a text written in the 16th century manifest here: a woman has the capacity to morally destroy a man; women lead men to "fornication" and "lewdness." In the passage describing the benefits of harmonious love, the text states that in a proper relationship

she keeps him from promiscuity, through her he fulfills the mitzvah of having children, she rears his children...she serves him all of her days, preparing his meals and looking after the other household needs, thus freeing him to study Torah and to perform mitzvos.
One wonders whether some essence can be derived from this that allows us to apply it to a loving relationship between adults. It is not at all clear that this can be "gender neutralized" so to speak - it may be inextricable from its patriarchal views.

I do think there is a larger point to be made about a balanced love between adults. We'll try to explore that territory in the next class.

The fascinating part is the passage about Olam Ha-Ba (page 110-111 in the Feldheim edition). Notice that his description of the World to Come in this passage is not at all mystical or mysterious: it is ethical. This jibes perfectly with Rabbi Stone's rather obscure argument in A Responsible Life.

Time Out For Fun - Terrapin Station

One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands in one of their best years. Grateful Dead, Terrapin Station, 4/27/77. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rational, Animal

Aristotle defined humans as "the rational animal." I'm thinking a lot about rationality these days because one of the primary assumptions of mussar is that we are controlled by irrational impulses that are deeply resistant to conscious, rational attempts to overcome them. The class this week (Thursday night, at Har HaShem) will explore the idea of the unconscious as described in the writing of Rabbi Israel Salanter and Sigmund Freud. Musar is a method for understanding the place of these unconscious drives in our personality and actions and then rehabituating the spirit to overcome (repress?) them.

In any event, a fascinating article in this week's New Yorker (abstract here) had a particular resonance because of my thinking about these things. Lehrer reflects on a recent movement among a small number of scientists in various fields who are raising questions about the use of the scientific method.

Neither the mussar writing nor the article point toward the conclusion that rationality is hopelessly lost. Merely that it is much more elusive than we think.

Time Out For Fun - Late to the Lennon Tribute Edition, Part II

Beautiful, beautiful song:

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Time Out For Fun - Late to the Lennon Tribute Edition

I haven't done a "Time Out for Fun" in a bit, and I'm late on observing the anniversary of Lennon's death (12/8/80), but here it is. What can you even say in remembering John Lennon? Any one song is ludicrously insufficient to capture his impact on music; and even all of his music posted simultaneously wouldn't get as his cultural impact. In any event, "I Dig A Pony," a great and underrated Lennon tune. A bit of a throwaway for him, I'm sure, but a great tune:

The World to Come

Chevruta study links us with another person and so creates the future.

In Chapter Seven of Rabbi Stone's A Responsible Life, which we are reading in my 613 Habits of Highly Effective People class, a new and surprising understanding of Olam HaZeh and Olam HaBa appears. I want to summarize this dense chapter here for those in the class but I will do so by addressing the topics of present, future and past in a different order. Interspersed with the summary are my own interpretations of Rabbi Stone's ideas.

The past is pure spirituality. That is, it is not material - we can't touch it. Nonetheless, it is more than memory because it has a real effect on our lives. It shapes us. What makes the past Torah is the extent to which that shaping of our lives is purposeful. A whole series of events in the past may affect my life, but those might just be a collection of random experiences that have no purpose. But the Torah, the revelation, of the Jewish past, is trying to shape my life in a particular direction: cultural memory, the teachings of the Jewish tradition, the mitzvot, these all are trying to make me act in a certain way. The past reaches into the material world to guide it.

The present is where I exist. To exist in the present is to be conscious. Consciousness is most immediately tied to one's own experience, one's own needs. What it means to be me is to see the world through the lens of my consciousness of my own perceptions and needs. In this sense, the self is the "location" of the present.

This present is 'olam hazeh' - this world, the material world.

The present (the world of self) is interrupted by the awareness of the needs of another person, awareness of the reality of another consciousness that exists along with us. We suspend our interest in the self - we set aside the present - when we encounter another and we therefore have to look to the future to return to our self, with all of its demands on us. This is what Rabbi Stone means when he says that "waiting for another creates the future for me." If we sit and stare at our belly button, and a needy person knocks at the door looking for food, we stop staring at our belly button and think "I'll get back to that later, in the future" as we go to answer the door. That is a silly illustration of what he means.

The future is 'olam haba' - the world to come, a world that is both material (there is another physical being that causes it to exist) and yet spiritual (the process of waiting for time to pass is a spiritual experience, according to Stone).

We move between olam ha-zeh and olam ha-ba as we switch between a consciousness focused on self and a consciousness focused on others. Though orientation toward others is "responsibility" and in this sense is a burden, it is also liberating, freeing us from the unsatisfying entrapment in the prison of the present and the prison of self.

Apologies to Rabbi Stone for any possible misrepresentations of his ideas that may appear in this post.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chevrutah, Part II

Some of you in my mussar class (The 613 Habits of Highly Effective People) are pressing against the limits of chevruta. You wonder about the propriety of moving beyond the text of the class to the personal, you are afraid to do so. I wrote previously that chevruta study should not be limited to the text (nor can it be free of the text) that you are studying. It must include reflections from your own life and tales from your own experience.

But in our society, so focused around the sanctity of private space, sharing deeply emotional experiences is unusual - and even "impolite." But Torah is illuminated when lived experience confronts tradition and each informs the other. What prevents us from opening to others in this way? Why do we cover up - and what are we covering up?

We follow in these weeks the story of Joseph. Throughout the story Joseph is covered up and then revealed. His famous katonet pasim, the "technicolor dreamcoat" is a source of his brother's envy. They strip it off of him. In the house of Potiphar, his refuge in Egypt, Potiphar's wife strips Joseph's clothes off of him. Eventually he will be dressed in the clothes of an Egyptian nobleman and his brothers will not recognize him.

This cycle of enrobement and revelation has its emotional counterpart this week, in Parshat Vayigash. Judah, unaware that he is speaking to the brother that he nearly killed, pleads with Joseph to have mercy on the brothers. Finally, Joseph "was no longer able to hold back" and bursts into tears. "I am Joseph" he reveals.

The Sefat Emet points out that this is preceded by Judah's speech, which begins "Judah approached him" (Gen 44.18). He writes

The 'him' here refers to Joseph, to Judah's own self, and also to God. The meaning is as follows: Judah offered nothing new in his words [that is, there was no argument here that the brother's had not previously made to Joseph] nor did he have a good claim with which to approach Joseph. But as he clarified the truth of the matter, salvation came to him. 'Truth grows from the earth' (Ps 85.12).
The Sefat Emet suggests that in Judah's approaching Joseph there was immense power. The act of reaching out beyond the boundary of self was revelatory. It cut through Joseph's pretense so that he could no longer be false and v'hitapek, "he could no longer hold back." Joseph's reaction is to finally reveal the truth, "I am Joseph."

But the Sefat Emet is also pointing out to us that this psychological unveiling is at the same time a spiritual revelation. He renders the verse as "Judah approached God." As Judah reaches across the boundary of self, cuts through the cloak of concealment and defense he also reaches across the boundary of the material into the divine within himself and his brother.

I want to suggest the chevruta learning has the same potential. We can cut through the falsity and pretense that we use to get through the business of everyday life in these moments. There is nothing inherently bad about our initial reluctance to reveal something real from our own experience. We need these garments of self and identity in order to function in the world.

But two souls revealing something more true beneath the veil have the ability to uncover great truth and to access the deeper divinity that is trying to reveal itself - that source of divinity that is trying to make itself manifest through the process of self-examination and teshuvah that is part of mussar.

But it starts with one of the two people in the chevruta "approaching" first - just as Judah had the courage to do.

Nietzsche is Dead, part II

I pointed in the last post on this topic to an article from nytimes.com about religion in the modern world. The article points out that the truth claims of religion have been limited by modernity.

I see two points in the article. First, in modern, diverse democracies, multiple truths are accepted as legitimate. In the absence of any broad shared Truth (capital T truth) we use tolerance as a way to live together. In the good old days, we could condemn a heretic because they rejected a truth that was universally accepted. In the more complicated modern world no one has the authority to say that someone's take on Truth is wrong. This is the 'practical' problem of religion in modern society - our diverse society just can't function without a very broad and deep tolerance of multiple Truth systems.

Is anyone still reading? The second limit on religious truth claims in the modern world is not practical but substantive: science and history have decimated traditional religious views, at least in the realm of the 'revealed' religions.

These are two distinct problems and I won't deal with either of them here! I will deal with them both eventually.

Let me just say two things: first, I don't have a definitive answer to these problems. I struggle with this essential problem often, constantly, but I have been unable to resolve it in a way that the philosophically trained part of me finds satisfactory.

Ultimately the part of me that continues to need and affirm my relationship to the Holy One simply trumps my philosophical impulses. To those reading (?) who are inclined toward rationalism - or rather those whose rationalism is totalizing - that will sound ludicrous. And I can actually empathize with, I can inhabit, that view.

I feel very much of two minds. It is as though there are two distinct consciousnesses within me that really should not be able to live together but do. And their cohabitation (!) is not due to their harmony. It is due ultimately to my emunah that there is something true but unresolved in their cohabitation.

Ultimately I believe that this philosophically trained part of me is blind so something that is more elemental and true. What that is, and why that is, cannot, by necessity, be explained rationally. Nor can I convince anyone of it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nietzsche is Dead, and We Have Killed Him

Great article in the New York Times online "The Stone" section, which deals with philosophical issues as they pertain to contemporary culture. The author is Sean Kelly of Harvard's Philosophy Department.

He writes about whether it is possible, in an era when belief in God is no longer central to the culture's claims about truth, to have a religious belief with integrity.

One can imagine a happy suburban member of a religious congregation who, in addition to finding fulfillment for herself in her lofty and ennobling religious pursuits, experiences the aspiration to this kind of fulfillment as one demanded of all other human beings as well. Indeed, one can imagine that the kind of fulfillment she experiences through her own religious commitments depends upon her experiencing those commitments as universal, and therefore depends upon her experiencing those people not living in the fold of her church as somehow living depleted or unfulfilled lives. I suppose this is not an impossible case. But if this is the kind of fulfillment one achieves through one’s happy suburban religious pursuit, then in our culture today it is self-deception at best and fanaticism at worst. For it stands in constant tension with the demand in the culture to recognize that those who don’t share your religious commitments might nevertheless be living admirable lives. There is therefore a kind of happiness in a suburban life like this. But its continuation depends upon deceiving oneself about the role that any kind of religious commitment can now play in grounding the meanings for a life.

This is the tension for the modern religious person. I wonder about his premise in this passage, though. Does it have to be the case that a person who experiences the hold of God in her life sees those without that experience as living diminished or "untrue" lives? Is there such a thing as religious humility?

More on this later...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I Found a Chevruta Partner - Now What?

In response to some queries about how chevruta should work, I want to post some thoughts on how you might approach this powerful Jewish learning methodology.

Both partners should arrive at the learning session having read the text.

Both partners should bring a copy of the text they are studying. Trade off reading out loud to one another, one bit at a time. Sometimes this bit will be a whole paragraph, sometimes just a sentence, and sometimes even just a word. It depends on what you find in it.

After you've read the paragraph or sentence, go back over it to make sure you've understood the most basic meaning. What is the author saying?

If you are the kind of person who is quite shy, make sure you are contributing to the conversation. If you are the kind of person who loves to talk and is brimming over with thoughts about the text, make sure you make plenty of space in the conversation for your partner to participate.

Keep in mind that every person has something unique to bring to the text. If you hold back your insights, or if you prevent your partner from participating, you are silencing the insights, culled from a lifetime of experience of being a human, that are waiting to come out.

What are your reactions to the text? Do you agree with it? Does it resonate with other things you believe? Do you disagree? Why? How does one paragraph connect to the next - is there an argument that is being built? What are the assumptions of the text? What assertions about human nature are being made? What assertions about God are being made?

What are your emotional responses to the text (this may not always apply, of course)? Chevruta study doesn't have to be a mere intellectual exchange. If you find your anger swelling at a certain passage, or if you are particularly moved by a particular passage, that's important. Delve deeper to find out what about the passage is hitting you so hard.

The conversation should be informed by your life experience. The conversation should absolutely drift from the text at times so you or your partner can "open up" or clarify a certain passage with insights from personal experience. How far afield you run will depend on your judgment, and your partner's, as to how valuable the conversation is. However, you should avoid the temptation to read one paragraph and then have it become a schmooze session. Make time to schmooze afterward. Make sure you return to the text.

Don't feel that the primary purpose is to get through the entire chapter. All things being equal, if you have enough time, or if you are meeting more than once between classes, this is the best thing. But if you are rushing through the text just to finish, you are shutting down all the best parts of the conversation. At the same time, if you only cover one paragraph in the session, you won't really have a chance to engage with the work.

It is 'ok' not to agree with the text. Keep in mind that Orchot Tzaddikim is 550 years old! You need to avoid simply giving up on the text. This wouldn't be giving kavod to this teaching which has touched so many lives.

Make notes about the parts that bother you. There can often be great insights that emerge from disagreeing with a passage if you can be patient enough to stick with the text and explore where it is coming from and then articulate where you are coming from.

You and your partner may disagree about the value of a passage, or even about its meaning. It is important to explore those disagreements. But do so with a sense of respect and humility. The point of chevruta is very much NOT to convince the other person that they are wrong. I would expect that many disagreements will simply be left unresolved.

Your book should look messy with pencil marks, underlines, marginal notes, and questions when you are done.

There are some further resources here.

Mussar Resources

I promised to post some online mussar resources. Here they are. These might be helpful for those who need to delve further into the middah that they have chosen (of course, these may also be useful for the middah - currently anavah, or humility - that the class is working on together).

Your individual middah may or may not be covered by the resources below. If you cannot find resources on your middah, please send me an email so we can find out how to connect you with the teachings you need.

1) http://www.mussarleadership.org/ This is the website of Rabbi Ira Stone, whose book, "A Responsible Life," we are reading in the class.

Go to "Mussar Pathways" along the top menu; select "Middot" and then choose one of the middot. For many but not all of these, Rabbi Stone has written an essay exploring the topic in some depth.

2) Alan Morinis' Mussar Institute lists some online English mussar classics. Please let me know if you want to pursue this route so I can aid you in your learning. The links are at http://www.mussarinstitute.org/wisdom-way.htm