Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Exclamation Point! Semi-Colon!

I was just reading over a chapter of Open Minded Torah, getting it ready for publication. There was something really annoying about the chapter - which I realized, after a while, was the presence of so many exclamation marks! Elmore Leanord in giving advice for writers advises that 'you are allowed only two or three exclamation marks for every 100,000 words of prose.' My piece was only 1500 words, and I had already used seven! I was way over the limit!

So what's wrong with exclamation marks?

They are the punctuation equivalent of the kinds of actions to which we might respond, quoting Hamlet, 'the Lady doth protest too much.' Someone writing with exclamation points in the earnestness of his strivings (and his desire to convince others) is hiding something, probably his own lack of convictions. Too many question marks can be mopey and cynical; too many exclamation points strident and overbearing. Exclamation points may be the enthusiastic cover story for beliefs that are insufficiently convincing - most of all to the one setting them forth.

So, yes, I revised the chapter.

What is your favorite form of punctuation? The mystic will like the ellipsis... The philosopher - the hyphen. My preference is for the semi-colon; and no, to the nay-sayers, it is not merely an exalted comma! Oops, am I being defensive about my punctuation preferences?

The Torah has no punctuation, but if it did, I'm sure that God would also have a preference for the semi-colon. The semi-colon is the punctuation for what Erich Auerbach called the style of 'parataxis' - the placing together of clauses without subordinating them. The juxtaposition of sentences and ideas, without subordination 'acknowledges the multiplicity of meaning and the demand for interpretation.' There is the space in between - the space guarded over by the semi-colon. The semi-colon is the punctuation that says 'darshaini' - interpret me. The semi-colon is the opening to midrash and creativity.

It's the most inviting and fertile form of punctuation; at least, that is what I think.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Faceless: the Ninth of Av

‘And I will dwell upon you’ - so God says to the people of Israel, and He dwells among them, first in the sanctuary in the desert and then in the center of Jewish worship the Temple in Jerusalem. The ninth day of the month of Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple, the day to which future Jewish tragedies are linked –exile, pogrom and holocaust. ‘I will hide my face from them,’ and so God – Jews know this too well – withdraws his presence when He turns His face from His people. Not only is the face of God absent, Primo Levi writes out of Auschwitz, but also the human face. ‘I do not know who my neighbor is. I am not even sure that it is always the same person because I have never seen his face.’ Auschwitz - churban and destruction – is the faceless world without the presence of God or man.

The first Temple, built in the merit of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was destroyed on the ninth of Av because of the sins of the people of Israel, illicit relationships, idolatry and murder. Abraham’s hesed, the outward excess of generosity, turns into vulgar indulgence; Isaac’s subjugation of his will to God, bound on the altar by his father, turns to idolatrous ritual; the peace established by Jacob, through the tribes of Israel, transforms into murder. When the attributes of the patriarchs that had distinguished the Jewish inheritance are overturned – and turned into their opposite – says the Maharal, the first Temple falls. The temple is rebuilt, not because of the merits of the patriarchs – the first and second Temples are different – but because of the unity of the people of Israel. In the Purim story, Esther calls a day of fasting for the Jewish people: ‘go and gather all the Jews of Shushan.’ As a result of their heeding her call for unity – the story of Esther takes during the Babylonian exile – the Temple is rebuilt. As the Maharal writes, the sustenance for the first Temple came from Above, the relationship that God initiates with the patriarchs. That of the second Temple came from below, from the people of Israel. But when the Roman general Titus destroyed the Temple hundreds of years later, also on the ninth of Av, the sages say that the people of Israel were engaged in Temple service, studying Torah, and performing acts of kindness – what Simon the Just later calls the ‘three pillars upon which the world stands.’ So what went wrong? There may have been scrupulous observance to the Torah, and even shows of care for others, but beneath it all, there was sinat chinam, baseless hatred. And so the second Temple fell.

'You shall not harbor hatred for your neighbor in your heart.’ So God commands the people of Israel in Leviticus. There is another command which must be fulfilled with all ‘your heart’ – ‘b’lavavcha.’ In the first verse of the ‘Sh’ma’ God commands a love of Him with all one’s heart – the doubling of the letter bet in the Hebrew word for heart means, the sages say, that one must love God with both good and bad inclinations. So in practice, I love God with the energies which I am happy to publicly own, and those about which I am less inclined to acknowledge. I love God even with the self which may seem a stranger to the self I proclaim to myself and others. One of the sixteenth-century sages of Safed, the Alshich, applies the words of the sages about love of God to the command to refrain from hating one’s neighbor – since both commands are incumbent on the heart. Just as I love God with both good and bad inclinations, I also hate with good and bad inclinations. To hate with my bad inclination is, paradoxically, ‘better.’ For after having been wronged or injured, and turning towards another with hatred, I may, in a moment of calm, come to my senses and experience regret. ‘It was a bad moment; I had a bad day: the part of me that hates is not the part of me that I want to be.’ And out of regret, repentance sometimes follows. But I can also hate with my yetzer tov, my good inclination, or with that part of my personality which I see as upright, and even moral. But from such hatred, repentance rarely follows. For as I hate the other, I tell myself that I am justified in my hatred. The hatred in fact is my duty, a sign of my moral rectitude. And if anyone questions me – I try my hardest not to condescend to them as I explain to them – ‘how could I do otherwise? how could anyone? don’t you know that it is a mitzva to hate?’ ‘We are obligated to hate evil!’ – I may even show you a verse in the Torah, as I prove that hatred is my religious obligation. But devotion to hatred or the strident adherence to any position, the psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear writes, usually has another function: to keep me ‘in the dark about who I am.’ My unconscious, the part of me that feels ambivalent about my own choices and actions, causing me to lash out at others, acts out not through my ‘evil inclination,’ but through my so-called ‘good inclination.’

This may explain why in our generation, we do not fulfill the mitzva of hating evil in our fellows. Not just because it is hard to distinguish good and evil – as Milton wrote, ‘good and evil grow up together almost inseparably’ – but also because our ‘good inclination’ is suspect. One of the great sages of the twentieth century, the Chafetz Chaim says, ‘if you are looking around for mitzvot to perform – hatred is not among them – you will have to find another.’ Not only is the hatred projected outwards likely doing psychic work for me about which I am not fully aware, masking my ambivalence about myself, but it is also a hatred from which I will never recover. I repent of what I acknowledge I did wrong. But I cannot repent of something which I consider to be a mitzva.

Already at the time of the second Temple, the people of Israel were doing hesed, performing acts of kindness with the wrong kind of ‘good inclination.’ They put a good face on things – the Temple service was flourishing, the houses of study were full, and the hesed organizations were thriving. But through these acts of kindness, their ‘good inclination,’ they showed what they were really about. ‘We are the genuinely God-fearing,’ each group boasted. And: ‘the way they serve God is not to my liking.’ ‘I don’t like the shul where he prays’; and ‘I don’t care for how she dresses.’ ‘They may look like Jews, but they are not,’ so each group claimed of the other. Acts of kindness directed only at a select group, and excluding others, did not serve as a way to come together, but to divide. Kindness becomes a way of expressing exclusivity; hesed, paradoxically, the way to show hatred for others. This baseless hatred is not just an external cause for the destruction of the Temple. Without the unity of the people of Israel, the Temple had, writes the Maharal, nothing to sustain its continued existence. The Jews may have been doing mitzvot, but they did not make themselves present to others in doing those mitzvot. Just the opposite: the performance of the mitzvot – hesed as a form of hatred – allowed them to be absent to others, because absent to themselves.

The sages say: ‘Any one who has da’at or knowledge,’ it as if the Temple is rebuilt in his days.’Man is like the Temple in the way that he brings together different worlds. Betzalel, who constructed the sanctuary in the wilderness through his da’at, the power to connect, brought the Torah and the divine presence or shechina, down to earth. So the individual brings together upper and lower worlds. The sages link knowledge and the face. For the individuality of a person is seen in his face; it is the place where neshama and guf, soul and body, upper and lower worlds come together. The sage Shammai’s injunction, ‘always show a good countenance, panim yafot,’ or literally ‘a beautiful face’ is not just a call for good manners. The beautiful face, the face that glows or shines, is like the Temple, which is called hod or beauty, where the physical yields to the spiritual, where God’s presence rests. The Second Temple was built in the merit of the people of Israel, in their making themselves present one to another. A person who has da’at, who is present to himself and present to others – his hesed is not a form of division but of connecting – participates in the Temple’s rebuilding. He joins higher and lower worlds in himself.

When God’s face is absent on the ninth of Av, it is not just a seeming absence; on that day we experience it as such. On other days – holidays and fast days like the ninth of Av all provide different lenses on experience – we may speak about happy endings and redemption, but on the ninth of Av evil is palpably, irredeemably real. And in the face of destruction, and trauma, man’s face is also absent. So Primo Levi writes of the camps: ‘I could not see his face.’ Absent in Auschwitz, absent in the traumas that make us unable to show ourselves or be seen. Though the Temple was rebuilt, it lacked, the sages of Babylonia say, the divine presence, the holy spirit, and ark of the covenant, all aspects of the divine connection to man. The sages of Palestine, however, say there was a divine presence, even in the Second Temple. True, they acknowledge, the divine presence that comes from Above was gone. But the Second Temple was built because of a different kind of divine presence, one with origins from below, from the people of Israel. Someone with da’at, who is able to join upper and lower worlds, who brings the Torah down to earth through his actions, is like one who builds the Temple. He makes himself present to himself, and others. Though there is no compensating for the sufferings of destruction, exile and holocaust, there is the possibility of repair – through bringing the shechina down to earth, by letting it be seen in the human face.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

'Miami Thrice' and King James

No, I do not live in a cave. I followed the adventures - through New York Times headlines - of Lebron, and watched with everyone else as he did what in retrospect seems obvious, signing with Dwayne and Chris and (here's the significant and) Pat Riley.

But I still, over the last few days, have been guilty of a cognitive disconnect. I kept on seeing tweets, about 'hating King James,' and I'm thinking to myself: why the sudden animus for the King James Bible? Maybe, I found myself thinking, public culture is not in such a sorry state. True, I myself prefer King James, especially to the polemical and fussy Geneva Bible, but hey: I'm open minded. In any event, feeling myself not so irrelevant to discussions of the day: first one of the World Cup organizers refers to Donne's Meditation 17 - 'no, man is an island' - and now the greatest English Bible translation trending on twitter.

But then I realized: oh, that King James.

A twitter-quaintance - is that a word? - noted how 'all of the yeshiva guys' he knew were in the parsha of King James, but this time, the right one, or the wrong one, depending on your perspective.

So why does the 'Torah only' world tolerate a love of basketball, but not King James (the real one), Aristotle, and Shakespeare? Talk about the King James Bible translation to yeshiva guys, and after a long blank stare, they will probably wonder if Art Scroll got a new donor. I'll quote Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein: why do people think it is 'perfectly legitimate to labor long and engrossing hours in order to eat lamp chops, drive a Volvo, or vacation in St. Moritz, but illicit to devote those hours instead to exploring, with Plato and Goethe, new vistas and experience?'

Yes, Rav Aharon's references are dated (a Volvo!), but why do so some of us tolerate Torah and entertainment, and not pursue Torah u'madda? or pay lip service to the latter while pursuing the former?