Thursday, April 16, 2009

Equestrian Pesach

courtesy of

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cosmic Consciousness: The Beatles, Passover and the Redemptive Power of Storytelling

What could bring the remaining Beatles - Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr - back together? Surprise: the David Lynch Foundation which advocates teaching Transcendental Meditation - 'every child,' the foundation website reads, 'should have one class period a day to dive within himself.' As part of the show at Radio City, after Ringo and Paul did a version of 'With a Little Help from My Friends,' the two performed a tune which Paul composed on a 1968 trip to an ashram in India - 'Cosmically Conscious.' So the two former Beatles sang - 'Come and be cosmically conscious, cosmically conscious with me.'

Passover is also a time of consciousnessness-raising, but when our thoughts turn to Pesach our thoughts are not wholly transcendental. In all of our festival commemorations, it is the exodus from Egypt which we remember - we don't remember G-d - this would be the transcendental version - who created heavens the earth, but rather G-d who took us out of Egypt. Our service avoids cosmic consciousness for a consciousness achieved through the collective experience of lived history. And we achieve that consciousness not through transcendental meditation, but through story-telling, the reading of the hagadda. 'And that you may tell in the ears of your children, and of your children's children, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Lord.' As the Sfat Emes tell us 'story telling' - and 'you shall tell your children' - 'leads to consciousness or da'as.' Da'as represents the capacity that Betzalel, the master craftsman, employed in building the sanctuary in the desert, joining heaven to earth.

Perhaps, out of habit, we fail to notice the novelty of seder night when the Torah turns story-telling into a mitzva. Try this for a thought experiment: you're going to create a religion, and part of that religion will be the injunction to tell a story. If there's a eucharistic moment in Judaism, it's seder night, but achieved through story-telling. It's the kind of a thing that a literary critic might make up! Even more strangely, we read in the hagadda that even if 'we are all wise, all understanding, all experienced,' we would still have the obligation to recount the events of the exodus. Our sages tell us also that even a wise person - who finds himself alone on the night of the seder - is obligated to engage in the act of story-telling. He stays up half the night -by himself - repeating a story which he has known since childhood!

The Talmud tells us: 'in every generation, it is incumbent upon each person to see himself - lirot atzmo - as if he were leaving Egypt.' Maimonides - either he had a different version of the talmudic text or he was innovating - writes that each person is obligated to show himself - l'harot atzmo - as if he were leaving Egypt. Both versions - but in that of Maimonides especially - emphasize performing the exodus from Egypt, for oneself and others. The hagadda is a set of stage directions for that performance: drinking the four cups of wine, maror, matza, leaning while we eat and drink, derech cherus, our sages tell us, in the manner of free men and women. So interested are the sages in the experience of the seder that they provide actual recipes for that performance. Rabbi Yochanan says that the charoset is a commemmoration of the mortar; Rabbi Yochanan says it is in rememberance of the apple trees under which Jewish woman led their husbands despite their protestations about Egyptian oppression ('we can't have kids!,' their husbands protested, 'not now!'). Abaye goes on to provide the recipe - food can be philosophical - for our dialectical consciousness, both slavery and redemption. 'Make sure that you pound it to make it thick' - commemorating our hardship - and 'add lots of wine and apples to make it sweet' - recalling our eventual triumph. No transcendental meditation here; pass the apple peeler.

The seder is full of props for out performance - it's always fun to add your own (red dye for blood, marshmallows for hail are among my favorites) - but the primary means is speech. Aristotle may say that man is the rational animal, but our tradtion tell us that man is distinguished by his speech. 'And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.' A living soul - nefesh chaya - as our tradition tell us, man is the creature who speaks. Man, says the Maharal of Prague, is not a purely spiritual creature - he represents a hybrid between the spiritual and physical, between the dust from which he was created and the divine breath which inspirited him. Descartes, having ruined everything for Europeans with a philosophy separating mind and body, tried to make amends by suggesting that the despite everything, the spirit does invest the physical in - get this for a philosophical joke - the pineal gland. The Maharal, however - no philosophical models for him thanks - is serious when he says that the mind and the body come together in the tongue.

Though a picture may be worth a thousand words - we know that even the most humble of the people of Israel experienced a prophetic vision which was more vivid and intense than that of the prophet Ezekiel - on seder night, we turn primarily to words. When the word for hearing - shmiya - is used in the Torah, Onkelos who provides the Aramaic 'Authorized Version' translates kabbala. Kabbala - don't think of Madonna here - means acceptance, or perhaps in more psychological terms, internalization. Though the people experienced the 'visuals' on their way out of Egypt, it wasn't long after that they were worshipping the golden calf. So much the more so in our generation, we need a way of taking our own cosmic consciousness and bringing it to life. For this, there is the speech and the redemptive power of story-telling - and a performance that leads to internalization.

In the hagadda, we read: 'one who expands on the story of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy.' The Alter of Kelm explains that praiseworthy - m'shubach - comes from the word mashbiach - improved or refined. Through our storytelling - to ourselves and our children - we have the opportunity of refining and improving ourselves. Of taking that transcendental cosmic consciousness - internalizing it - and making it real.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Religion for Adults - Anyone?

On Friday night, I heard a story - about a businessman in Baltimore who returned to Judaism late in life. Though he did not have the skills in Torah study of many of his new found peers, he found other ways to express his commitment to Torah and Jewish life - through tzedakah, charity and good deeds. For him and his wife, tzedakah was personal - it became for them what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes as a 'worshipful performance' - an expression of their personalities in the service of G-d.

But then came Lehman and AIG, and the story that continues on the front page of every paper - that is, those papers not put out of business by the crisis. His portfolio declined forty-five percent; his profits diminished; his expenses, however, were on the rise. The couple hoped to continue giving as they had in previous years, though given their circumstances, they had already fulfilled their obligation for charity - even when defined by the most maximalist measure. So committed was his wife, however - even willing to give up her comfortable home for more modest quarters - that she encouraged her husband to consult a legal authority in Israel about their predicament. The rabbi answered quickly: of course the businessman - now down on his luck - had fulfilled his obligations. But, the rabbi added, if he and his wife were to find a cause which they found truly worthy, then further donations would be meritorious. Thinking through the advice of the sage, the couple determined to adjust their lifestyle - so they would be able to give close to the level they had in previous years.

An inspirational story - though it continues.

Only a few days later, the businessman received a phone call from a Swiss broker - who managed a large portion of his funds. It seems an error had been made - holdings had not been properly cataloged, account statements not properly calculated. The bottom line - the opposite of the Madoff story! - a surplus of funds in the range of several million dollars! Not only did this cover his previous losses, but the newly found income made the couple wealthier than ever before!

A triumphant look from the one telling the story; smiles all around, but when the warm fuzzy feeling dissipated, I thought of another story - that of Abraham, his uncle Haran, and the wicked tyrant Nimrod.

Our sages tell us that when Terach discovered his son's belief in one G-d, he turned him over to Nimrod, who threw him in a fiery furnace: 'if your G-d is so powerful,' Nimrod boasted to Abraham, 'let him rescue you!' Standing on the sidelines, Uncle Haran calculated - 'if Abraham gets torched, then I am with Nimrod; if he survives, I'm with Abraham.' When Abraham emerged triumphantly from the furnace, Nimrod asked Haran - 'whose side are you on?' True to his prepared script, Haran answered - 'For Abraham!' And then Nimrod threw Haran into the fire where he was burnt to a crisp.

Haran makes his calculations not on principle, but on cost-benefit. Not because of his faith in G-d, but because of hopes of reward. 'If Abraham turns out to be father of all the nations of the world, I will be his right-hand man... and if not - thinking like an Israeli politician - I'll find something to do in Nimrod's government.'

The message of this story is similar: do a good deed, and get properly compensated. It's as if I'm saying to G-d: 'Let's be business partners... I'll do my share, the mitzvos; you protect my family from hardship, and if you can throw in some earthly reward (BMW 320i in black please), that will also be fine. So whatever I give to you G-d, I will expect the dividends.' This is what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls the mentality of a religion for children - the pragmatic quid pro quo, the calculation and anticipated receipt of my just returns. But it's not only childish - it's dangerous. What happens when G-d isn't the business partner I expect? Do I break off the business arrangement? After all, childish expectations do yield to disappointment. The facile stories of simple reward - our sages tell us we don't know the nature of the reward for any given mitzvah - may lead to not just disappointment, but despair. 'This business arrangement,' I might think, 'is not working out the way I had anticipated. Not at all.' And then what?

The couple from Baltimore did the right thing - an inspiring thing. Even - or especially - without the results. With the coda of wealth and reward - thank G-d that it was, in this case, the outcome - it becomes part of the literature for a religion for children where there is always a happy ending. Though we may hope - and pray - for such endings, our 'end' in the moment in which we live is to transform ourselves through mitzvos that bring us close to the divine. So the story of the businessman from Baltimore, without the coda of the guaranteed happy ending, fits in a different and more demanding canon of stories - that of a religion which a fellow blogger calls 'complex,' or more simply a religion for adults.

The purveyors of the happy endings - and in our post-holocaust generation there is, strangely, a near cultural obsession with such stories - assume there are no longer any adults in the audience. I'm betting otherwise. Am I wrong?