Thursday, June 19, 2008

Moon Mamas, Tradition, Innovation and Bliss

David, an old high school friend, sent me a link to a web posting by the Moon Mamas Rosh Chodesh Group in the Bay Area and their innovative "transition ritual" (though the subject heading in David's e-mail was a succint 'oy vey!'). Here's part of the ritual:

Begin by having friends and family line a path for the individual marking the transition to walk through. Each individual holds a jar/cup filled with water. The transitioning individual begins at the start of the path holding an empty jar/bowl and states the following:

The transition I am about to honor is ___________

She/He continues stating each of the following:

I am leaving behind _________

I fear _____________________

I need ____________________

I hope for _________________

I welcome _________________

As she/he makes each statement, the family and friends repeat:

You are_________________

She/He continues walking as each statement is made. As the individual marking the transition makes her/his way through the path, each person she/he passes pours water from their jar into hers/his (representing support and giving). At the end of the path the individual marking the transition bows or pauses. The last person in the path then takes the jar/bowl from the transitioning individual and pours the water over the hands of the individual marking the transition.

The ritual testifies to a lot of things: to the powers of community, the continued need for ritual in an ostensibly secular world, and the persistence of, for lack of a better word, the 'spiritual.' But the ritual that grows out of the Moon Mamas group seem to assume that tradition and creativity are opposites--that to be authentic one has to throw off the rituals of the past, and supply new ones. True, the Moon Mamas acknowledge--with the very turn towards ritual--that spirituality needs some kind of vessel, but instead of embracing those traditions and practices sanctified by time and practice of generations of Jews, they create their own.

But does adhering to ritual and tradition necessarily mean the abandonment of creativity? Does being 'orthodox,' as so many people have told me since graduate school, really mean giving up one's authentic creative self? If you want to be yourself, Joseph Campbell-style (remember him? he was that anthropologist from that PBS special years back), you have to "follow your bliss." Is the only recipe for finding such bliss the kind pursued by the "Moon Mamas"?

It's common to think that being traditional means blind submission to the past or mimicry of the practices of others, and that creativity its opposite. So in the Jewish world, there are those who believe that authentic Judaism means either giving up subjectivity entirely (with everyone in the same mold), or, at the other extreme, the pursuit of individual 'bliss' independent of traditions (and the creation of new rituals and liturgy). But there is another route: I take the traditions, customs and laws, and I make them my own. Not through uprooting them, but through investing them with myself, they become new and distinctly mine.

In my travels giving lectures, I am the beneficiary of lots of hospitality; as a result, I get to see many Jewish families in action. A few months ago, I was at the house of the Kohls of New Hempstead in Monsey--master parents and educators. It's a custom to say over words of Torah at the shabbos table; the Kohl family had a particular way of making this custom their own. Right before dessert, the kids took out a huge box of candy, and from the different shapes, sizes, colors and brands available (tons of different kinds of kosher candy in America!), they spelled out in acrostic from--though often in cleverly complicated fashion--different verses from the weekly Torah portion. I couldn't guess them at first (I wasn't, for example, able to follow the manifold connotations of different sorts of laffy taffy), but their parents did, and the kids were exhilerated by the activity.

I thought to myself, I have to try this at home! But it wasn't long before I lost my resolve: in my house, it would never work. Forget about the fact that the local candy store doesn't boast the same variety of candy, but my wife would never countenance candy during the meal (for good reason: our kids would probably eat the whole box). But then there was that moment, when the resignation yielded and I realized I could make it my own. My kids love to put on shows, so I transformed the candy acrostic into what I coined 'Parsha Pantomine'--mini skits acting out Torah verses. At the outset, I was the director: in the first scene, two of the girls took their seats on the imaginary 39 bus, initially not noticing me walking down the aisle of our fantasy bus, but then, in the end, yielding their seats ('on behalf of an old person, you should stand'). That was an easy one. When they got the hang of it, they directed another 'play': one of the little ones was blindfolded; an older sibling placed a footstool in her path; and another of the kids--just at the crucial moment--came to the rescue, pushing the obstacle away: 'do not put a stumbling block before the blind.' All this, with the rest of the family guessing, and thinking of possible skits for the next verse.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, one of the great sages of the eighteenth century, writes: "At every moment that a person is working and cleaving to the words of the Torah, the words rejoice as if they were given from Sinai." Revelation is not limited to a particular time or place: but when we are truly engaged in Torah study, the process of revelation repeats itself. When someone produces a genuine new insight into Torah, the words themselves rejoice as if they were given at Sinai. Simcha, joy, is the linked by our sages with the experience of renewal: the words of the Torah themselves feel simcha--joy--because Sinai is renewed in a new and contemporary context. So it is true in our practices: at the moment that we fill the vessel of ancient rituals with our creative energies, we show a side of Torah which--now revealed for the first time in our homes, with our children--has its origin in the revelation of Sinai. This is not Campbell's bliss, but the simcha that unites past and present, the ancient and the modern--the new joy of a creativity which links back to Mount Sinai.


Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

I feel there is a negative air when mentioning Joseph Campbell and the statement, "Follow your bliss." Following your bliss is all about being truthful to yourself. Some have suggested that as a Charedi you are fighting with your beliefs and what is driving you and therefore you created this site. Would a full on frum from birth Charedi go study at oxford etc.? Are you torn between the bliss of secular intellectual persuits vs. strictly frum from birth charedi persuits? You could say that Avraham was "Following His Bliss" as he didn't question for a second following Hashem. To "Follow Ones Bliss" is about following the highest calling within yourself.
Would a person born into a charedi family who felt he didn't believe in the charedi way yet had a burning desire to study Philosophy at the highest level at oxford yet never did for fear of retribution; would he be "Following His Bliss" by being Charedi though he didn't believe? "Following Your Bliss" means following your deepest desires. For some people this means living a charedi life to the enth degree for other's it means finally getting that sex change operation. cont'd

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

It's my opinion that "Follow Your Bliss" is more about being your authentic self than referring to a free for all in life without any tradition, myth, rules etc. I am "Following My Bliss" by caring for my daughter and giving her the highest quality of life while trying to insure she does not die an untimely death. "Follow Your Bliss" is just another way of saying, "Stop Fooling Yourself And Go All The Way."

Brad (Father To Shira SMA Type 1, Just turned 3.)

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

On Tradition and Creativity. I don't see the connection what so ever. All of the beautiful melodies that accompany prayer, the dramatic festivals and costumes we make or have custom tailored, the religeous artifacts we use in our rituals are all works of art. Imagination plus artisanship is everywhere in Judaism. Then of course you have the mathematical elements of Judaism that to some is beauty in itself. I see lots of creativity in every level of observance. For me I couldn't seperate Judaism from creativity on any level. Just look at the torah and all the material components adorning the Torah and the Aron Hakodesh, often they are beautiful creative works of art. Creativity permeates the Jewish culture. Brad (Father to Shira SMA Type 1, 3 years old)

WDK said...

To use a metaphor I've used before, from my perspective, Shira and Brad, are certainly finding their letter in the Torah through the care of their daughter. But yes, I do think that following one's personal desires are tied up with finding one's letter, and that you can be true to yourself and G-d.

You are right to pick up on the negative air: Campbell himself certainly saw a distinction between traditions (especially legal ones) and creativity, so much so that he was renowned (there was an article in the New York Review of Books by Brendon Gill) for his virulent anti-semitism...

Maxine said...

Unbelievable! I googled Joseph Campbell and anti=semitism to discover that the only proof of opinions against Jews is lashon ha rah, after his death! See "After Death, a Writer Is Accused of Anti-Semitism"
Published: November 6, 1989
A Jewish woman from a University where Joseph taught acknowledged that Joseph had issues with the Torah, many of these issues are also published in Kugel's book. The truth is, we cannot know if Joseph Campbell was an anti semite, but to accuse a man after his death because some one heard some one say, that's just wrong, regardless of ones opinion of his philosophy.

WDK said...

Maxine, you are right: Campbell's anti-semitism is contested, but I'd tend go with Brendon Gill who was not a Jew (so I'm not sure the laws of loshon ha ra apply), and actually a friend of Campbell's. The New York Review article is unfortunately not available online, though this is from a Washington Post review of a biography of Campbell by Stephen and Robin Larsen:

'Campbell's darkest side was his antisemitism, forcefully detailed by Brendan Gill in the New York Review of Books (Sept. 28, 1989). The Larsens dismiss it with a brief reference to "so-called bigotry." Campbell once said he moved to Bronxville to escape from Jews, and that the moon would be a good place to send them. He objected to blacks entering Sarah Lawrence. He threatened to flunk, and once did, any student who engaged in leftist political action.

Similarly, Campbell's hatred of President Roosevelt prompted him to say there were three living Caesars: Hitler, Mussolini and FDR. A great admirer of Thomas Mann, Campbell foolishly sent him a copy of a speech in which he
urged artists and writers not to take sides in the unfortunate conflict between Hitler and Churchill. It drew a barbed response from Mann. Campbell's political opinions, wrote Gill, were to the right of William
Buckley. "His glibness and his charisma," one of his students said in a letter to the New York Review of Books, "were a mask that concealed a narrow mind."'

Maxine said...

If indeed Joseph Campbell considered Hitler a hero then of course this is anti semitic. But from what I have read I have not seen this. And if he hated FDR and put him in the same boat as Hitler, that's his expression of hatred, not a positive view of Hitler. I fail to see how lashon ha rah is applicable to Jews only. And say that Gill is a friend of Campbell, I don't think so. Anyone who feels compelled to wait until your dead to talk about what you May have or not have done wrong is no friend. As for his moving because of Jews, again, some one said this and this is proof? And lashon ha rah is ok if your not Jewish? And then if you are Jewish you can talk about a non Jewish person's lashon harah as if it were fact? Really...I am not saying who Joseph Campbell was, I did not know him personally. But to say he was anti semitic based on quotes that may or may not be true and are certainly taken out of context is la shon ha rah. It is an opinion based not on facts but on heresay. And it is an opinion about a man who is dead and cannot defend himself. Anyhow, I believe that you have the right to your opinion.

Yaakov A. Mascetti said...

Thanks Bill for this new piece - it reveals your love for Torah, for tradition and for a healthy wrestling with issues which many discard as irrelevant. The only question I have after reading it twice is: must there be such an either / or dichotomy between the two perspectives? Meaning: are orthodoxy or secularism the sole two perspectives on the market? What about all those people who engage tradition in order to make it more relevant to their forma mentis? Where are those people who want to keep tradition alive and elaborate the things we have inherited from our sages? What about those who see in the stiff application of old thought paradigms for the resolution of contemporary problems nothing but the demonstration of tradition's lack of liveliness and creativity? Orthodoxy, as a concept, is an aberration which has never existed in Judaism and which the RaSHa"R Hirsch coined in his own context to differentiate the mainstream religious denominations from the reformist movements that bloomed at the time - nowhere else is it to be found. It is a Greek term which points to the right opinion, which is a clear polarization and simplification of the widely known complexity of the Jewish "Elu ve-Elu divrei H' Haiim." Jews have never thought of a right opinion, a right idea - there is no authenticity. There are discussions within a game played according to rules which are re-defined all the time, questioned all the time, and which some apply in different ways from others. I am afraid that in looking for the conceptual complexity, Bill, you have also found a large portion of simplicity and orthodoxy. But I may, as I usually am, wrong. Thanks again for the post.

WDK said...

Interesting, as Yaakov points out, that 'orthodoxy' and reform were born in the same historical moment. But before that point Jews--in their manifold differences--were united by their experience of divine revelation at Sinai. What became contested at that point by the innovations of Reform had been part of the fabric of Jewish practice and law for generations. True, 'Elu v'elu divrei Elokim Chaim'--these and these are the words of the living G-d--when cited out of the context--sounds like a version of contemporary liberal pluralism. Amiel Hirsch, the reform Rabbi, in his correspondence with the orthodox R. Yosef Reinman in a book, _One People, Two Worlds_, claims citing this phrase, that were Hillel alive today, he would be a Reform Rabbi. But 'Elu v'elu' is as much an exclusive principle, as an inclusive one (these and these, but not those). The Torah encourages--indeed depends--upon multiplicity, but such multiplicity has been sustained, in traditions that go back to Sinai within circumscribed frameworks of belief and practices.
Perhaps this is also too simplistic--admittedly a little bit on a huge subject. I have spent time thinking (and writing) about such issues as a scholar, but I hope to have the opportunity to clarify (and complicate) them at some point in the future. So watch this space...

Anonymous said...

כבר אמרו חז"ל "הפוך בה והפוך בה דכולא בה". לדעתי, כשאדם מחליט שהדת תהיה מרכז חייו הוא אינו מאבד את היצירתיות שלו. הוא פשוט משתמש בכלים היחודיים לו במסגרת הדתית. הגאון מוילנה וכמו שהוזכר פה תלמידו ר' חיים מוולוזי'ן היו ענקים שבענקים וראו בתורה את תכלית הכל. לדעתי זוהי פשוט שאלה של הדרגה בה האדם נמצא והשאיפה שלו: עד כמה התורה, עבודת המידות, וקיום המצוות הם ערכים מרכזיים בחייו.
תודה על הבלוג המרתק!!!

Yaakov A. Mascetti said...

Bill, yes, the narrative about maamad Har Sinai is certainly appealing, but there are so many historical proofs of Jews throughout the ages who absorbed external cultures, that it simply is naive and maybe a bit simplistic to refer to the "Judaism of Har Sinai." There is no such thing - people like Maimonides were entrenched in Greek and Arab philosophies - Leone Ebreo in Neoplatonism. And the list goes on and on... And regarding the elu ve-elu, again there is a lapse in exclusivism - whatever happened on Har Sinai, past generations were as exposed as we are today to external human cultures, and as such elaborated their thought on Torah (written and oral) with the lexica of those cultures (or language games). I wasn't referring to modern liberalism when I referred to elu ve elu. I meant literally, that we have no idea what the true interpretation is - we are obliged to know the tradition, that I agree with. But there is no one truth. So orthodoxy is a ridiculous term, so is Reform, "haredi" as "pious" excludes me as a pious or a Gd-fearing man because I don't go around with a Borsalino and a black suit (!), and "denominationalism" is yet another way to subdivide our people into chunks. Creativity is something tradition encourages - blind acceptance of things written hundreds of years ago which today are no longer applicable (medically, liturgically et al.) is often, but not always, paramount to strangling creativity.