Monday, December 7, 2015

Belly of the Beast

I belong to a poetry group on Facebook. It's founder, Nika Renee, gives us prompts, and a week to write. I really don't have a week, so when I have a few minutes I just do the best I can. I am so pleased with this one that I tossed off this morning, off the top of my head, that I just have to share it. The prompt this morning is "the moral economy."  I thought that would be murder to write to, but it turned out to be pretty easy. Here it is.  Anybody want to illustrate it?

The Moral Economy
(to be read out loud, at a somewhat Suess-esque tempo)

I'm reporting to you now
From the belly of the beast
Where we've all settled in
To a thing-fest, a feast
There are sofas and chairs
There are restaurants and wines
There are toys on the floor
And toys for our minds
There is Google and Snapchat and Twitter and such
They take bitcoins and visa and cash if you must
You can spend whole days indulging your passions
Without ever partaking of real interaction
It's hypnotic. It's distracting. It's numbing. It's cold.
And you might never notice, until you grow old,
That you've narrowed your life down to stuff you can buy
And things that might thrill you
And new things to try
But you've missed the fact
That the world's floating by
With its chaos, its conflict,  its war and its norms,
With human pain and child hunger, momma's grief, papa's storms.
With injustice, with plunder,
With rape and with pillage,
Because it's all happening
In some far off village,
So it's no trouble of yours
And though you may twinge
You do not lend a hand
Though you tut while you binge
I have noticed this place
Has no windows to see from
And no pools for reflecting
No chapels to free us
From the throes of this madness
That has crippled our minds
Fed us into a fast lane
And gobbled our time,
And will leave us old
With vision that's waning,
With aches and with pains
And with lonely complaining
And those who would help us
Send us "likes" and thumbs up
Which is less than a Band-Aid
When what we need is a touch
And it's about that same time
When you take a step back
And notice the belly has walls that are black
And although there hangs art
It covers a truth
We've been absorbed by our greed
And it's swallowed our youth
And it's swallowed our middle
And it's swallowed our end
And we suddenly see
We must get out of this pen
So let us scratch, let us scramble
Let us #occupy and shout
Let us all scream together
Pray God the beast spits us out.

To the Left and to the Right, Forward, Side, Together

Yes, some of you may recognize the title of this post as dance steps, and it's a dance I think American political types are doing right now in response to the words of Phil Robertson.  Robertson is the patriarch of an A&E TV family called the Duck Dynasty - and I admit here I am not one of the 14 million Americans who tune into Duck Dynasty weekly, according to Nielson, and frankly didn't know it existed before this bru ha ha. We can talk about how out of the mainstream that makes me some other time.  That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows me.  Anyway, in a  a feature article on Mr. Robertson and Duck Dynasty in GQ Magazine Robertson said some words about pre-civl rights era Black people, and elsewhere, some other words about people of - how should I say this - a particular sexual orientation.  These offending words have been picked up and transmitted far and wide via social media:

Here are the words lifted from the GQ article:

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

And these words:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

And there's this interaction between the writer and Robertson:
“We’re Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television,” he tells me. “You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off. We ought to just be repentant, turn to God, and let’s get on with it, and everything will turn around...."

What, in your mind, is sinful?

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

Later, in a statement issued after certain segments of the political world erupted in outrage and A&E suspended Robertson's contract for Duck Dynasty, he also said this:

“I myself am a product of the 60s; I centered my life around sex, drugs and rock and roll until I hit rock bottom and accepted Jesus as my Savior.  My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together.  However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other.”

Robertson's words have been attacked from the left, and defended from the right.  Just the smallest sample of what's out there:

A spokesman for GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), a media monitoring organization, said:
"Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil's lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe. He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans—and Americans—who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples...Phil's decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families." 

At the risk of ruffling feathers, I have an entirely different perspective on all of this. First, we are punishing this man for speaking [ignorantly, I grant you] from the heart. If you've read all his words, he's obviously speaking from his personal experiences (black farmers he worked alongside of) and his religious belief system (his perspective on sexual orientation), but not from any knowledge beyond that. If you've read his words, you know that he comes from a place of ignorance and lack of education in the sense that he hasn't been exposed - perhaps never bothered to expose himself - to the alternative oppressive experiences of black culture and life during the pre-civil rights era. And because he was, in his own words, "white trash" working in the fields alongside the Blacks he knew, he may not have seen his own situation as far removed from theirs. There are multiple power hierarchies. "White trash" - poor white people - are below the rest of the white people on that hierarchy, and even though they carry white privilege - possibly or probably without understanding that they do or the implications of the privilege - Robertson in those days may have related more to his Black co-workers than to his white bosses.

However - and please don't take this as a defense or an apology for Robertson because it's only an observation - he appears not to be malicious in his ignorance - in fact, possibly the opposite. Biblically speaking, which seems to be the frame that informs him and his views, he seems to come from the "right" place in Leviticus - the place that says to love everyone, not the place that says to be a hater. I see Robertson as absolutely the wrong martyr for the Religious Right, and also the wrong punishee for the Liberal Left. Instead, I see this as a teaching moment for both sides. To the Left I say: Don't punish this man as representative of the worst of the right - the true haters. Instead, invite Robertson into an educational experience. I think he'd be open to it, considering his tone and word choice. And to the Right I say: Don't be stupid. Here is a political opportunity for the Right. Embrace the fact that this man doesn't have the whole story, and use this as an opportunity to discuss the need for more extensive education, both about the Black experience in America and the positive contributions to America. Both sides - plus the American people - could score if we saw this as a teaching opportunity.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Let's Answer to a Higher Authority

This morning I got one of those emails comparing the number of Nobel Prizes and cool medical and technical inventions cooked up by Jewish scientists with a lesser number attributable to Muslim professionals.   I do love seeing how many brilliant things come out of the Jewish keppe.  We are truly the people of the book in so many ways.

On the other hand, it saddens me that we play "My dog is bigger than your dog" with the Muslims.  Yes, some of the Muslim world harbors a terrible hatred toward Jews (also toward Americans and the whole westernized world), but I try not to forget that Islam is not just a reflection of extremism any more than Judaism is a reflection of our own bad actors - there have been more than a few, though thankfully not often of the terrorist sort.  I try to remember that Muslims took us in and guarded us during the Crusades and at other points of expulsion from European countries.  Without the kindness of Muslims, Maimonides may not have survived.  More recently, an Egyptian doctor was given the Righteous Gentile award for the work he did saving Jews during the Holocaust, the Muslim countries of Tunisia and Morocco protected its Jews while occupied by Nazi invader.  In my own community a Muslim doctor founded and runs at great peril to himself an international organization dedicated to fighting Islamist extremism.  And in direct controversion to the letter I received this morning, much of early math and physics was developed within the Muslim world.  

Millions of peace-loving Muslims do not want to spend the best parts of their lives on conflict with Israelis or other Jews.  Some of these are partners in attempts to build bridges between the two cultures.  There is a facebook page called Israel Loves Iran,, where Israelis and Iranians are coming together to talk about peace.  An Iranian artist filmed a video asking people on the streets of Iran what they wish for Jerusalem, and the response is honest and overwhelmingly about peace.  The video is called "Your heart and mine are one."  It's in Iranian but has subtitles.  In response, a group of Israelis published their own version of One Wish Jerusalem,  The thing that strikes me the most strongly is how alike all these people look and how alike are their hopes for peace - none of them wish to live under the threat of violence for the rest of their lives.  כולנו רק ילדים של אלוהים.  We are all just children of G-d.  

Please understand: I am not defending Muslim extremism in any way, shape or form.  I'm properly terrified of certain imams in Iran and extremist cells in Syria, and I think I might support much of Bibi Netanyahu's military strategy were I Israeli.  I dialogue regularly with my non-Jewish liberal American friends trying to explain the realities on the ground in Israel and in the middle east.  And yet I think it critical that we do not lower ourselves to the level of those, for example, who create the textbooks of the Palestinian children, in which Jews are vilified and Israel is absent.  Like Hebrew National hot dogs, we must answer to a higher moral standard.  How else will we ever get to peace?  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Every Baby Boomer Who Looks At the Clock Asks This Painful Question

"A person who has mastered peace of mind has gained everything." ~ Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv

"As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in the service of God, it is clear that such a person remains remote from true service." ~ Rabbi Yisroel Salanter

"Why is my life - and the whole darn world for that matter - still so far from being what I thought it was supposed to be?" ~ Every baby boomer who just looked up at the clock and figured out that time is running short.

We late boomers coming of age in the 1970s first opened our eyes philosophically speaking onto a mind-boggling public display of soul-stretching, quite the likes of which has not been seen in our western American culture before or after those years. The soul-stretching was both personal and communal.  With the war and race riots in our faces, it may have been inevitable.  Who knows?  John Lennon challenged each of us to  "All shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun." Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young begged us to come together: "We can save the world, rearrange the world."

While the desire to find political enlightenment took young people to the streets, the desire to find personal enlightenment took us outside our own normative paths - the culture and religions we were brought up with, for example. Those who had little discipline or interest in philosophy and theology opted for a fast-tracked, scientifically-induced enlightenment, experimenting with psychotropic drugs like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and magic mushrooms.


Those who craved context for their experimentation had a choice of options including meditation, Buddhism, Taoism, Native American shamanism, Kabbalah and other, more obscure mystical practices.

Back then, in my immature perspective on the matter, I tried it both ways and found that enlightenment seemed to come in two flavors.  One I experienced as intense, super-hero style "knowing."  I remember accepting a tab of acid during my freshman year of college, and then heading off to a concert.  Standing in the space between the first row of seats and the stage, I had an excellent view of the musicians.  I spent the concert being amazed by my ability to see deeply into the soul of each musician.  Thanks to the acid, I knew each of their personalities instantly and intensely.  The key to my insight, I still recall clearly, was each musician's cheekbone structure.  Bone structure, it seemed, offered a detailed blue print to the individual soul.  Acid's power of enlightenment, by the way, had its limits.  Under the influence, I entirely missed the fact that the fellow standing next to me had absent-mindedly tucked the lit end of a cigarette into my upper arm.

The other flavor: figuratively, an out-of-body experience, the feeling of connectedness with the entire universe, the sense of everything being One with Itself, the exact opposite of the aloneness of individuality. It was a spiritual equivalent of becoming aware that you are a drop of water in a vast ocean - together with all other drops merged into the inseparability of the waves, despite your drop-ness.  I kinda, sorta, experienced this, too, in a small town between San Jose and the ocean, under the tutelage of a woman who taught me vocal toning, a form of meditation.  There were weeks on end when I "just loved everybody," wondering whether there was any means to pass this healing feeling along to the rest of the world.

A rabbi once told me that sometimes his congregants dove headlong into certain ritual practices in search of transcendence from the mundane.  He said that, although he was always glad to see people adopt Jewish ritual into their lives, it sometimes appeared to him that these congregants were more interested in escaping reality than in finding a spiritual practice to deepen their lives.

This last statement, finally, brings me back 'round to the two quotes I began with, quotes from rabbis who in their time were teachers of the Jewish spiritual practice called Mussar.  These quotes, which seem at first blush to be in opposition, taken together suggest that we might want to reconsider our youthful ideas about what "enlightenment" looks like.  And the third quote - my own, of course - suggests that simultaneously, we might also want to reconsider the ideas we've held since childhood of what "the good life" looks like.  I don't know about you, but my story was a common cultural one - an early marriage to a boy I would recognize as "the one," followed by children, and a meaningful life of service to family and community.  The communal piece of this story suggested that, as a community, the world was making slow progress toward peace.  That our generation would be stewards of a better world.  Such pretty little visions both, and yet they have been incredibly difficult to pull off.  Children are still dying of hunger.  Men are still bombing buildings.  Companies are still stripping our earth of its resources and leaving pollution and destruction in their wake.  Personally, I've been waylaid, had a gun held to my temple, beat up, robbed, raped and left crying by the side of the road - in some cases figuratively and in other cases literally.  I'll let you wonder which is which.  I've also, by the way, been blessed many times over through family, children, friends, work and service opportunities.

The stories articulated by parents and institution, stories by which we would faithfully steer from childhood through to old age - all unintentionally set us up to feel incompetent when it didn't happen that way and we can't get it done.  I know many people who's stories are more complicated than mine.  I know a few whose stories were more realistic for our times.  But I don't know of anyone whose stories have been easy to pull off.  In fact, I don't know too many people whose lives haven't been fraught from time to time with unexpected trauma, strength-sapping loneliness, mind-numbing boredom - leaving us with that one big question:  "Is this all there is?"   And, as my rabbi pointed out, these stories set us up to feel cheated somehow, with a desire to escape.

Rabbis Salanter and Ziv, however, tell us a different story.  Our true paths require struggle and growing pains.  And when they mention service, we know that what is true for us personally is also true for our communities - communal growth will require struggle.  The key to our enlightenment as individuals and as members of our communities is not to find a way to jump over the struggle, but to work our way right through the struggle, becoming all that struggle can teach us.  And somehow, there is peace of mind to be forged and brought to the work, both personally and no doubt as a community, and we must find it.  And while psychedelia, religious ritual and meditation may be tools we can bring to the party, anything less than a grounded approach to this struggle will distract us from our journey of growth.

To see the struggle as an intentional part of both personal and community life is, for me, comforting and strangely freeing.  It releases me from asking myself, "Why is my life still so far from being what I thought it was supposed to be?" It releases me from wondering why my generation did not manage to "save the world."  Both of these are particularly painful questions to have to ask the older one gets and the less time one - or one's generation - has to "get it right."

Instead, the rabbis open the way for me to ask, "What is the most constructive thing I can do in this place where I currently find myself?"  And for my community, to know that this struggle is not mine alone, but all the generations - and they will continue to strive after I no longer can.  We are all drops in the same sea, despite our drop-ness.

I'm about to begin the study of Mussar with a friend.  I look forward to a journey that promises to help me distinguish the path I am destined to from the detour I've stumbled down in search of something illusory.  If you're interested in following my journey, I'm sure I'll be writing about it here.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Don't Waste Precious Time Apologizing

Nepal © Sandy Price 2012

All of us are bound to misstep.  As we trip through life, it is inevitable.  How precious, then, is the early innocence of children.  How important the opportunity to teach children kindness toward one-another.

There are two categories of wrong-doing, that which is between the wrong-doer and God - or the between you and yourself or the Universe if you're not a God person - and that which is between the wrong-doer and another person.

Remorse - meaning, a recognition of wrong-doing, followed by confession and a firm intention not to repeat the behavior - might more easily be addressed toward God or to the mirror or put out there to the Universe. More easily because the consequences for putting it out there in this way are negligible.  It doesn't stir up any bad feelings or initiate conflict.

It should come as no surprise, however, that in the latter case - wrong-doing toward another person -apology, remorse and restitution must be directed toward the individual who sustained the harm.

Today's Chofetz Chaim addresses an utterance of speech that could result in harm to someone, but as of yet has not. In that case, one's duty is not to run to the target of the speech and apologize, but instead to rush to preempt harm by contacting everyone who has heard and let them know the statement was inaccurate.


Monday, September 30, 2013

On the other hand!

image from
Today's Chofetz Chaim:

I'm having a harder time with this one.

If someone is on the receiving end of harm, and you observed it, you are not allowed to tell.  Nope, you are not.

Unless, that is, there is a reasonable chance that telling will serve a constructive purpose.  However, "constructive purpose" is very narrowly defined as the likelihood of restitution or the imminent possibility of further harm from the same quarter.  When restitution is unlikely and you can ascertain that the victim is not vulnerable to further harm, you must hold your tongue.  Since nothing positive will come of tattling, revealing what you know is still considered unwarranted gossip.

I get it that if you're pretty sure that no good will come of telling, then telling is simply gossip.

On the other hand, we westerners have a deep-seated desire to know who done us wrong.  If we were the victim and someone else saw the bad guy, we'd want to be told.  We don't like letting people get away with things. Oh, and we like to plot retribution, hold grudges, make sure the perp gets his due.

And even if not restitution, if we tell, won't the perpetrator learn something valuable about his behavior when people look askew at him, ostracizes him even?   And when the community sides with the victim, won't it thereby restore a bit of the value and dignity that was stolen from the victim when the perp disregarded the victim's feelings, rights or needs?

On the other hand - we Jews have so many hands, just ask Tevya - such  gossip is sure to stir the pot, creating rancor in the community.  Turning community member against community member. Promoting judgment before understanding. Seeing, after all, is not the same as understanding motive or circumstance.

Perhaps the Chofetz Chaim felt we should not rush to judgment, or that peace in the community holds the higher value.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

When Gossip is Good

MY NEW YEARS RESOLUTION. The Jewish New Year just happened - I want to study the Chofetz Chaim, the primary Jewish texts on the impact of speech written by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan. Rabbi Kagan's ideas are universal and not specifically Jewish, so I hope some of my Facebook & blogger families might like to study with me. I'd love stories, conversation and opinions that support or differ from the Chofetz Chaim. 

Today's thought: 

There are circumstances when it is permissible to tell someone about gossip going around about them. One circumstance is when to do so would help open a person's own eyes to a bad situation (e.g. behaviors impacting relationships or work, or when they are thought to be the victim of abuse), enabling him or her to improve their own lot. However, if you're pretty sure that the person either does not have the emotional strength to act on your information, or is not ready to act and so will refuse to "see" what is being shared, then we are prohibited from relaying the gossip. The reason: Even when your true intention is to help, if no good will come of it, it is still "just gossip."

Read more about the Chofetz Chaim by clicking here