Sunday, November 30, 2008

if we really controlled the media we wouldn't have this problem

You know how completely nuts it made you to here people – maybe even people you knew, maybe even people you were related to, say things like Obama got half of his money from the Arabs, or that he was secretly a Moslem? Because there’s nothing you can say when people have so internalized a story written by the opposition that they don’t even realize that it’s not common knowledge, let alone that it’s not true. For them, there is no argument; you’ve lost before you’ve begun.
Well, I felt that way just the other day. But it had nothing to do with Obama, and it wasn’t from yokels. It was this:
In the Abrahamic tradition, our sense of God has evolved. For example, the Israelites, 4,500 years ago, had Yahweh, who was a ferocious warrior, a law-giving God. That's a very different god than the one that Jesus spoke of, a God of love. So our sense of God just in the Abrahamic tradition has evolved.

This is Stewart Hoffman, by way of Andrew Sullivan. It’s the standard story, the spin, created by Christian theologians as a slightly less inflammatory version of the deicide charge, but with the same message: Jewish religion bad, Christian religion, good.
It’s nonsense, of course, as anyone who’s spent time either with the original texts or modern scholars know – the images of God in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are complex and multifaceted, each containing vengeance and love, justice and mercy. But because the spinners have been dominating the discourse, the spin has become taken for granted.
And so neither Hoffman nor Sullivan need to actually study the various scriptures, let alone read the scholarship; they “know” the story because it’s part of the common cultural baggage. And what makes it especially frustrating is that Hoffman has some really interesting things to say; he's a serious, creative thinker. But when it comes to the Bible the two of them are just repeating the partisan narrative: Obama is a closet Moslem, I mean, the Christians worship Love while the Jews worship Vengeance.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

a day without spin

Some years back the chaplains at a local college had organized a thanksgiving service for the school, and they'd invited various members of the administration to share a word or to about what they had to be thankful for. Whatever they were expecting, what they got was spin. "The athletic department is grateful for the opportunity to provide the best sports program to the greatest number of students..." well, you get the idea. It sort of missed the point.
As a Jew, I like it because it's the one meaningful holiday I can share with the rest of the country. While Christmas (even in its most deracinated, secularized form) always makes me feel like an outsider, Thanksgiving belongs to all of us. And as an observant Jew, having a festival meal with none of the festival restrictions is, as they say, a mechayah. I can shop at the last minute, I can use the Cuisinart - it's all good. But as an American what I've come to appreciate about it is the complete absence of triumphalism. So much of the public discourse about what it means to be an American revolves around the notion that we're so much better than everyone else, or at least our country is, that it's hard to take seriously. Whether it's the collectivley-enforced liturgy of "USA! USA!" at international sporting events, or genuflecting to the doctirine of American exceptionalism by politicians, there's an expectation that when American talks about itself, what it says is "We're number 1!"
Except at Thanksgiving. It's not a story of us beating anyone at anything, or triumphing over anything except perhaps winter, and even that was only through the help of others. We don't celebrate being better than anyone; we celebrate the simple miraculous fact of being, and of being together.
There is something liberating in the idea that we can celebrate in full awareness of our fragility and without pretending to an excellence we may not have; something of a gift in the idea that simply surviving with our humanity intact is cause enough for a holiday. It is a day to stop striving, and to take pleasure in the idea that whatever we are is enough, that whatever we have is a gift, and that what we give back to the universe is much less than what we recieve. We're not used to that, to allowing ourselves not to be the best. But it's restful, and even more than that it's largely true. And that's ok. And the ability to know that it's true, and to know that it's ok that it's true, and to be able to celebrate in light of that truth - that alone, I think, is something to be thankful for.

politically correct

Nowadays, the term politically correct is usually used as part of an attempt to make one's obnoxiousness seem daring, or even heroic. "Oh I guess that wasn't terribly PC of me," we say with a mock-sheepish grin, as though using a slur was akin to insisting that the Earth does move, and to hell with the consequences. To be sure, it's only brave when it's someone else being poked; when you're the one being insulted, the other person isn't non-PC, just offensive.
But there was a time before PC was a pejorative term for "polite when I don't wanna be," when it meant being in thrall to some ideological orthodoxy. The poster boy for this was a man named Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko (1898-1976), a Soviet agronomist, rejected the bourgeois doctrine of genetics in favor of an idea that acquired characteristics could be inherited. This so delighted the Soviet hierarchy as being in line with Communist teaching that the classical Mendelian approach was banished. The only problem was that Lysenko was completely wrong, and the insistence on a politically correct science - instead of a scientifically correct science - set Soviet biology back by a generation.
The problem with politically correct science is that sometimes it kills people. A new study estimates (conservatively) that 365,000 people whose lives could have been prolonged by proper medication died prematurely in South Africa. Why? Because the president of South Africa insisted that AIDS was not caused by HIV, and that claims to the contrary were the work of racist Westerners.
Real racism would be to assume that the suppression of science for the sake of a doctrine could only happen in someplace truly backwards these days, like Africa. But those in search of true Politically Correct science need go no further than the White House. In areas ranging from earth science to medicine to developmental psychology, the Bush regime has replaced scholars and scientists with commissars. One of the many characteristics of Obama that give cause for hope is that he seems to genuinely believe that knowledge is a good thing, that, in fact, it should precede policy.
The stance of honestly wanting to know of accepting - even seeking - surprise, is not only a good scientific, or even policy stance, but it is fundamentally moral. Ethics begins with the idea that the other is a subject, self-defining and self-validating. That means my approach to an other is from a place of humility. I come to you aware of the fact that I don't (yet) know you, that you will confound my expectations. I must come to you looking to be surprised.
Which brings us to an interesting twist. If in modern discourse "PC" just indicates consideration or respect, it turns out that the most "PC" science is also the least politically correct.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Just a little cranky

I'm back - thanks for waiting.

There’s a scene in Robert Greenfield’s novel, Temple (a book that was read by me and the two other people I told about it) where an elderly man returns home from morning prayers, and is asked, “Hostu gut gedavvent?” and it throws him into a reverie for a while: what does it mean to pray well?
I wondered the same thing the other day, when people asked me “how was it?” after my visit to a Famous Synagogue, well-known for the particular care it spends on orchestrating the Friday night liturgy. But hob ich gut gedavvent?, did I pray well? Hmmm. The singing was fine, thanks.
There seems to be more and more singing in synagogues these days. Rabbis like it, because it makes the customers – I’m sorry, the congregation – happy. It leads to joy, says one; it keeps them enthusiastic, says another. I still say, hmmmm.
It’s not that I’m such a purist about using the traditional melodies and modes, because I’m not really; or that I’m just cranky, which I kind of am. And it’s not only when there are some times when it seems to me that enthusiasm and joy are what you don’t want. Why, for example, do we sing what are essentially campfire songs on Tisha B’Av?
My deferral is that I’m not convinced that joy and enthusiasm are necessarily indicative of good prayer. Or that they’re even necessary to keep people involved.
People sit zazen, or work on their quads, or practice viola, or undergo psychoanalysis -they devote themselves to all kinds of activities, sometimes even paying money to do so, without looking for fun, as such. “How was your session?” “Great!! Dr. Rosenblatt had this great new Carlebach tune for ‘I think you’re avoiding thinking about your mother.’”
The thing is, we know more or less what we want from our meditation, or workout, or practice session, or even (sort of) the analysis. There is stuff we want to accomplish, and if we do, then it was a good session.
Whavtever else prayer has going against it, if you don’t know what it’s supposed to accomplish there’s no way to know if it’s being done well; there is no “done well” to measure it against. And then the liturgy will necessarily suck, because all it’s going to be is going through the motions. Not “prayer”, but “prayerism.”Singing is especially seductive because you can tell if you’ve sung well and if you’ve had a good time doing so, and the ‘service” can deliver on its promises. But not all singing is prayer, and not all prayer is singing, and if we don’t have a sense of what prayer ought to be, what it could be, that lets us know when we’re doing it right, then at some point we’re going to stop trying altogether. And we’ll look for the place with really good singing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

from the sidelines

Surely the squabbling among the faithful as to whether or not Obama is a real Christian has been an important source of cheap entertainment in these otherwise bleak times. Not just because of the pleasure of watching yet another right-wing circular firing squad, but because it’s so darn fascinating. Arianism, Psilanthropism, Adoptianism. Just saying them makes you feel like a sort of Indiana Jones, and actually following the argument – is a “bridge” the same as a “mediator?” – is as much fun as any insider baseball around.

Some of the exotic attraction of this comes from the fact that there’s nothing similar in Judaism. It’s not that there aren’t a whole range of abstruse Jewish discussions on point of doctrine, it’s that no one gets particularly exercised about them. There is not going to be a discussion anywhere, for example, about whether or not Joe Lieberman’s beliefs concerning individual vs. communal judgment in the afterlife are sufficiently orthodox for him to be called Jewish.

This studied indifference isn’t just about the kinds of questions of interest only to scholars. Lubavitcher Hassidim believe that the late Rebbe is the living King Messiah, with some referring to him as “our Creator,” which puts it about as close to Christianity as you can get without the cross. Yet except for a rear-guard action among some Orthodox Jews, no one is going to start treating Chabad as beyond the pale.
Given the extent to which the Enlightenment project has succeeded, it’s inevitable that doctine doesn’t quite matter in the way it once did, and that’s undoubtedly for the good. Still, when I watch the passion of the debates over Obama’s beliefs I’m reminded of a passage from one of don marquis’ poems, in which Archy the cockroach describes watching a moth immolate itself.

myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity
but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Monty Python and the Holy...Land

You know that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Arthur has a run-in with Dennis, a politically astute peasant? I love that bit. Especially the part where Arthur is trying to explain the legitimacy of his kingship. We’ve all been brought up with the story, and we want to share in the enchantment so we kind of nod along as he describes the appearance of the Lady in the Lake, his eyes full of wonder at the memory. Sure. Magical call to rule. Works for us.

Dennis is having none of it. “If I went around saying I was an emperor because some watery bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away.”

It’s not that he’s calling Arthur’s story a lie, it’s just that it has nothing to do with him. If Arthur’s mystical vision sends him wandering around the countryside on a quest, that’s between him and the Lady. But once it involves others, there had better be a reason that makes sense to everyone. Otherwise, as Dennis says, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system.” And as much as we hate to give up the enchantment, we’ve got to agree that he has a point; a pretty clear one at that.

It’s not that clear in real life, certainly when it’s our stories at stake.

Those of us who’ll be in synagogue this week will read about Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah. This story, along with others before and after it, provides a kind of mythic compass or loadstone, aligning the Jewish imagination towards the magnetic North of sacred geography. We need our sacred stories to give us a sense of direction. So that’s cool.

But it’s not so cool when we try to use those stories the way Arthur invokes the gift of Excalabur. My teacher in these and many other things, Gershom Gorenberg, has shown what many have suspected: the entire settlement enterprise in the Territories is illegal. Not only that, but the Israeli Government has known it as long as it’s been doing it.

Imagine if we used that knowledge to frame the discussion. “Ok, here’s some land we’ve settled on that belongs to someone else. Should we build some more on it? Here are some settlements that break Israeli and international law. Should we expand them? Invest in the infrastructure.” But we don’t use that knowledge; we assert a mythic “right” to the land, which while it may be True and Certain and Holy, has the same legitimizing force as Excalabur. Is it any wonder that people look at us the way Dennis looked at Arthur?

Of course, when Arthur leaves, Dennis’ friend observes that he must, indeed, have been a king – he hadn’t got shit all over him. We should only be as lucky.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

the importance of being playful

As I've thought about my own teaching, and as I've watched the education my own Young Heroine has gotten, I've been more and more aware of the issue of playfulness. I'm not talking about "having fun", that should be a by-product of play. What I mean is that sense of exploration, of the negotiability of boundaries and definitions. When children play they try out possibilities, which is to say they're trying out possibilities of who they might be; and the more expansive and free-ranging their play, the greater the range of both freedom and control they have over their own identities.

And as an aside, this is not just for kids. This same sense of exploration, of messing with possibilities for the shear joy of seeing what you can come up with and trying it out, is one of the dominant features of a lot of rabbinic literature. And certainly liturgical prayer has an element of play - you try on someone else's words to see how they feel, and you try to imagine what it would be like if you were the one saying them.

Anyway, it made me really happy to read that there was a conference about the importance of play for children. With all the anxiety about scores and skills and schools, it's crucial that the schools remember that an important part of the work of being a kid is to play lishmah as they say, for the shear joy of it.

Which is why I didn't quite know where to turn when I read this:

"Among the speakers at last week's Wonderplay conference was Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple University psychologist who contends that lack of play in early childhood education 'could be the next global warming.' Without ample opportunity for forms of play that foster innovation and creative thinking, she argues, America's children will be at a disadvantage in the global economy."(italics added)

That approach is, it seems to me, exactly and precisely wrong. And if one of the speakers at the conference doesn't get it, the kids are in Really Big Trouble.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Proposition 8

That more people are not scandalized by the Conservative Movement's great silence on Proposition 8 is only a sign of how irrelevant we are: no one really expects to hear from us on any of the pressing moral issues. We've long since stopped making a differnce; why should anyone look to us for leadership now.

Still, the more I've thought about it the sadder I am that I didn't hear anything on it from my Chancellor or my Rabbi. And so I've been trying to imagine the sermon I would have like to have heard. I think this might have been part of it:

You know, my Judaism isn't threatened when people who have very different practices and beliefs call what they do "Jewish" and my marriage won't be threatened by my knowing that somewhere two men or two women are calling what they have a marriage. My marriage isn't threatened, my children aren't threatened, my family is not threatened by the presence of other adults trying to live as responsible caring partners. Their love will do my household no harm.

But what might threaten my marriage is my own fear. You need to be big-hearted to love well. You need to be open to your partner's strangeness, you need to be open to your children's weaknesses. To be a good lover, you have to love to be surprised.

I don't think that most of the people supporting Proposition 8 are evil people; but they are scared. They didn't ask for that fear, they didn't invite it in, but they have spread. They encourage their fear, they even celebrate it, because that's how fear works. But it's that fear that really poses a threat to our marriages, because fear tells us that surprise is bad, that difference is bad, that strangeness is bad. When we give into fear our hearts contract; they grow hard shells to keep the scary surprising strangeness out. And we become less able to love anyone with our shruken, heardened hearts.

I don't know exactly what it means to say "God wants;" I'm not even sure I know what it means to say "God". But I know that whatever it means, I have a hard time believing in a God who would rather us be small-souled. I think if God wants anything it is that we be big and as unafriad as possible, that we be brave and open and loving. And to welcome all those others who ask nothing more than to be allowed to be brave and open and loving as well.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

the kindness of readers

So I'm reading Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge for this dissertation I'm supposed to be working on. Her argument, briefly, is that (certain kinds of) novels have a unique role to play in moral education, in that their portrayal of finely-drawn characters in nuanced situations helps the reader develop that kind of vision necessary to a high moral imagination. Now, I'm drawn to that idea, not just because it would be helpful for my work, but because her location of the moral imagination in the ability to perceive and respond to the particular, the radically surprising nature of the individual, is one I'm very sympathetic to. But then you'd expect that novelists and critics and scholars - the closest, most careful readers - would be the kindest, or wisest, or possessed of the most generous hearts. But I've never heard that claim made. Have you? Has anyone ever said, "I was just at the MLA conference - what a bunch of sweeties" in the entire history of the Academy?
Of course I'm oversimplifying just about everything here, but still. It seems to me that calling a faculty "moral" means that it plays out in the world of human interaction. If you're still a shmuck, then whatever it is you've developed it ain't a moral imagination.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Avodah Aravit

Benjamin Emanuel's outburst shouldn't end up being a problem for his son. I have this image, in fact, of Rahm and Mary Rose Oaker of the Arab-American Anti-Defamation League beginning to grow closer as they share stories about the various ways their parents have embarrassed them ("And then at my graduation party, he started making jokes about how professors never did any real the dean"). It certainly doesn't reflect on Rahm, or on Obama, or really much of anything. By the time anyone even reads this post, the whole incident will be forgotten.
What should be the real story is the extent to which avodah aravit, "Arab work," has long been an Israeli idiom meaning work that was either so demeaning that only an Arab would do it, or had been so shoddily done that only an Arab could have done it. Now, this is by no means the most serious problem facing Israel, and it doesn't mean that Israel is an illegitimate colonialist puppet state or anything like that. But it means that there's a level of vulgar prejudice that his become normalized to more of an extent than most of us (= Jews of a certain kind of sensibility) would like to recognize.
Now, it's one thing for an oppressed minority to keep its spirits up, to maintain a level of self-esteem, by demeaning the oppressor. For Jews in Eastern Europe, jokes about "dumb goyim" may have had some value. But now things have changed, both in America and Israel, and cracks about non-Jews - we won't even talk about the "shv" word - have no excuse at all. Of course avodah aravit doesn't even have the excuse of being a post-ghetto atavism; it's oppressor language, pure and simple: a way of justifying exploitation by reinforcing the idea that the exploited don't deserve any better.
We've got no business talking like this. Let's cut it out.