Monday, March 30, 2015

Sam Kleinman: A memorable fancy

Sam Kleinman zt"l was an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, who owned the Schuylkill Book and Curio Shop in a very dreary and rundown section of the city (Lancaster and Belmont Avs). From the first time I stepped into that book shop I knew it was mythic, and I was stepping up a plane or two in the esoteric levels of reality. Titans and demons were lounging around in his shop, inside of boxes, behind staggering piles of old books that were supported by other leaning and staggering piles, up in the dirty light fixtures. They were telling old tales and smutty jokes, smoking cigars, and sniping at the way things are.

I met Sam in 1970 as a sophomore at Penn, and spent untold hours in his "store". 'Store' is in quotes because it wasn't a normal bookshop with volumes arranged in some kind of order on shelves. There were a couple of locked metal cabinets, a shelf or two, and the rest of the space was full of piles of books and piles of boxes of books. I was allowed to rummage thru them, looking for poetry, old mythologies, medieval and modern psychology, and undiscovered Blakean geniuses.

It was in this kind of unpretentious (to say the least) chaos (to say the least), that one day after I'd been showing up at his door sporadically for a couple of years, he opened one of those locked metal cabinets and showed me an original Blake, possibly Songs of Experience (gasp!!!). As unknowledgeable as I was, I about fell on the floor. It was the most notable (by an exponential factor or 2) of the many treasures he showed me over the years, treasures I was mostly unable to appreciate or understand at the time.

I guess Sam liked me for some reason, me an unkempt hippy living on the edge. Indeed, he was profoundly kind to me, generous in every meaning of the term, and I remember more than once walking the mile and a half or so back to Penn (I had no money to throw away on buses or streetcars, especially after dropping $10 or $20 in his shop) with a *large* box of books hoisted on my shoulder.

I remember once, while I was searching thru stacks of boxes in a back room, someone knocked on the door. Sam didn't want walk-ins so he kept the door locked and usually just shooed people away. (Was I the only exception??) After a few moments he came back to me in a back room, where I sat on the floor, face streaked and hands black with dust after a long session of hunting thru boxes. He was chuckling.
"The guy wondered if I had any dirty books. I told him I had hundreds of boxes of them, but not the kind he wanted."
I was so clueless I didn't get the humor! He had to explain it to me, probably with a look of wonder and pity on his face.

Sam Kleinman. May his memory be a blessing. It is to me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969 (well actually, 1973)

Over the weekend I had an intense, remarkable, and troubling dream. Here’s the background, and then the dream:

The dream occurred during an approximately 36 hour period where I was immersed in a fairly powerful LSD-like experience. I did not choose to enter into this experience, it was often anxiety-inducing, and it remains unexplained, or unconvincingly explained. There is the possibility that it was caused by eating a particular kind of blue cheese. I ate an ounce or 2 of the cheese before the experience came on, and another ounce or 2 during the experience, not realizing it might cause such a reaction.

Naturally, it is very hard to describe the experience since it was outside of what we call “normal consciousness.” Here’s an attempt.

Primarily, my thoughts were being elevated so that I was experiencing them like they were, somehow, independent threads of reality, threads that didn’t “bubble up” from my brain, but rather, my “brain” was tapping into these threads that were brief segments of a full reality independent of me. I would melt back and forth between these semi-parallel realities. If we use the metaphor of a bubble to describe a brief thought, we might describe it as 1) momentary, 2) brain-centered, and 3) stimulus generated, and like a bubble that emerges and then dissipates-bursts and is gone, so our normal thoughts seem to emerge and disappear (although, of course we know that they do have some kind of subconscious continuity and independence).

These thoughts seemed very different. They were not momentary but seemed to be enduring; not brain-centered but seemingly independently created beyond the brain; and not stimulus-generated, but rather, somehow, embedded in the stimulus, whatever that stimulus might be; which is to say, released/exposed as a part of the stimulus-experience. The stimuli could be a sensory impression, an emotion, a related thought, a biological need expressing itself (like hunger, etc). I would find myself emerging from these threads back to my physical-centered awareness (say, sitting in a room reading), and it would be unclear how long I had been diverted into these thoughts, though generally it was not long, measured by a clock.

There was a strange but distinctly “effervescent” quality to consciousness, something between bubbles bursting and bubbles dissolving, as I moved from one state of awareness to the next. Normally consciousness is smooth, textureless, fluid, and continuous. In this state, however, there were thin “membranes” that distinguished between passing states/thoughts/moments, and as I crossed through these membranes, it would be almost like waking up to a new reality, with the awareness of crossing a “border”.

That is at least an attempt at an accurate phenomenological description.

Now here’s the dream, or rather, the thin fragment, much stripped down and reduced to knowable images, that I remember:

I was down on the national mall. Much activity. People were playing sports. Professionals? I got some document and had to separate it into pieces along perforations. But as I began, the perforations began to disappear, causing the document to tear unevenly. And then it merged into a kind of plastic, layered, rectangular, thin box, maybe 1'x2'. Hard to describe and unlike any object I’m familiar with. But the realization was that it was multi-layered and that my document was now submerged into this object, and now the surface was becoming sealed and the layers inaccessible. I could still feel them. The surface was thin and malleable, and as I ran my fingers across the surface, I felt a lumpy interior. Then it became like the mall, or it was the mall all along, and all this activity was also submerging and disappearing. Then almost nothing was left but a smooth surface, as people disappeared; a smooth brown plastic surface.

As I woke, or perhaps while still in the dream, the plastic rectangle/mall became the symbol/image of my life, and then all human life, emerging and disappearing, leaving no trace in the end. And I saw that all my ambitions were in vain, and even meaningless or useless. Even the great names -- I thought of Milton, the poet, and biblical Abraham and Moses -- even they were but momentary bubbles, eruptions that re-shaped the surface momentarily, and then were gone with no trace. Even the whole human species was such: a momentary phenomenon. I was torn in agony at this.

Thus, on one level, this dream represented my thoughts that had become distinct and independent entities, one emerging from the next, and then submerging into each other and becoming indistinguishable and buried beneath a surface of continuity and “uniformity” when, for a moment, my consciousness would once again feel semi-normal; and then ultimately when the altered experience, finally, slowly dissipated over the course of about 4 hours.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Two myths about Jews; Part 1

Two myths about Jews that distort nearly everyone’s thinking about Judaism and Israel.

The following essay discusses two important ideas that shape the myth of Jewishness. Those ideas are defined in Part 1 and their impacts on thought and behavior are discussed in Part 2. The core issue I discuss in Part 2 is how these myths are operative in nearly everyone’s mind, but that the more unconscious they are, the more likely they are to incline one towards anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. (Anti-Zionism: the compulsion to hold Israel to double standards and to blame Israel as the cause of many or most problems in the Middle East. Anti-Zionism culminates in the belief that Israel does not have the right to exist.)

1. The Myth of Chosenness
This can be summarized with the two canards that “1. Jews are chosen and others are not chosen; 2. that being chosen means Jews are inherently better than non-Jews.

2. The Myth of the Jew-As-Victim
This can be summarized with the canard that “Jews are supposed to be victims,” and when Jews don’t act like victims they need to be blamed, punished, and suppressed to return them to the status of victims. Sometimes the blame and suppression is a response to Jews being successful in various fields, but just as often it is simply a matter of a society that is failing or dysfunctional that needs to divert attention away from itself towards a scapegoat.

Part 1.

The Myth of Chosenness:
Discussing this concept, a friend of mine said:
“I grew a soft spot for Judaism after sharing hearts with [a friend]. But a Buddhist bud grew in me because they (Buddhists) don't choose, certainly not themselves, for the best jobs!”

My friend just put his finger on one of the great historical myths, and it looks like he didn't even know his finger was on it -- the idea that only Jews are chosen, and/or if you want to be chosen you have to be Jewish.

Jews as a ‘chosen people’ has its origins in the Bible, and it has become an important theological pillar in Rabbinic Judaism.
Here’s how I see it:

I do believe Jews are a "chosen people" although that's a term widely misunderstood and often used as a stick to beat us or a stick we use to beat ourselves. When someone hires you to do a job (teach a class, build a house, write a book), they've chosen you. They think you can do the job, and assume you'll do it well, but they may be critical along the way about your work or attitude, and perhaps even be unhappy in the end with the job you do.

So, we Jews believe God chose us. Those 7 simple words imply a vast mythology that has been translated into millenia of living history. We Jews have been chosen to do a job, NOT because we're inherently or genetically better than other people, although history and oppression may have done a fair amount of natural and unnatural selecting over the last 2000 years to make us into a fairly formidable intellectual cohort. We've been chosen (which translates existentially into "we have chosen ourselves") to be a priesthood people, to be a holy people for the sake of upholding and elevating our God and that God's morality, and in bringing that God and that God’s morality to the rest of the world. And if you want to strip God from the picture, nothing much changes. We’ve chosen ourselves to advocate for a universal morality, and for the principle that organizes that morality (a Divine “organizer”).

This is the basic idea, but it doesn’t mean that all or most Jews are actively pursuing these goals. It does mean that for 3000 years this has been one of the principles driving the thoughts and actions of many Jews, especially the rabbis and leading thinkers of most Jewish communities throughout most of these years.

The theology of chosenness and the existential act of self-choosing evolved together. We Jews took on the job (and continue to take it on). Others, mostly, didn't (and don’t). Christianity absolves the individual of the need for works and law. This is one of the primary arguments of the Christian Bible – Christians are absolved from carrying the law (eg. Epistle to the Romans). Instead, Jesus, as Savior does it all once you accept Him. Nonetheless, plenty of Christians, in spite of that, realize that even if Jesus does it all for them, they still have to do it all, too! Read your Kierkegaard, Barth, Niebuhr. Or read your Epistle to the Romans carefully - it still requires being good (law) and doing good (works).

Nonetheless, most Christians (and Muslims, etc) realize that they have to do at least SOMETHING for their own salvation. When they choose to devote themselves to being ethical, compassionate, educated, and/or helping the weak and the poor, they are choosing themselves in a specifically Jewish way even though they do not self-identify as Jews. In the end, history confirms that Christians have chosen themselves to promote virtually the same universal morality as that defined by Jews and the Hebrew Bible.

Buddhists, also are serious self-choosers in this Jewish sense, even though there’s absolutely nothing (to my knowledge) about being “chosen” in Buddhism, and there is little evidence that Judaism has had a significant influence on Buddhist theology. One chooses this particular Buddhist path for the sake of seeking higher states. And those higher states ineluctably include acting with higher standards of morality and compassion. Buddhists who choose this kind of path are not choosing to be Jewish. They are choosing to be Buddhists in a way that broadly overlaps with the Jewish sense of being chosen.

Thus, it is obvious both theologically and existentially that the Jewish idea of chosenness is not limited to Jews.

Now, some Jews will argue that the idea of being chosen is uniquely Jewish, and one can only be chosen by being part of the Jewish people. I disagree. I am distinguishing between the general act of taking on spiritual/moral leadership (chosenness) with the specifically Jewish form of this act. Paul sought to open the Jewish doors of chosenness to Gentiles. Although I don’t agree with Paul on many matters, I think he got that right. (See John Gager’s The Origins of Anti-Semitism, Part IV: The Case of Paul for a careful and insightful analysis of this position.) Just as the Torah is a text for all humanity, and not just for the Jewish people, so the task of chosenness, though spearheaded by the Jewish people, is not, nor should it be exclusive to Jews.

And let me repeat, the Jewish sense of being chosen has NOTHING to do with a belief in genetic or religious superiority. And unlike Muslim and Christian aspirations for establishing their faith as the one, true, and only faith, the Jewish sense of being chosen utterly rejects religious coercion. Nor does it depend on popular acclaim for its substantiation. That Jews are a distinct minority is irrelevant to the importance we place on the idea of chosenness.

In sum, Jews didn't take the best jobs (ie the priesthood tasks, and particularly the jobs of promoting one law and one moral standard for all people), leaving none for anyone else. There are as many “best jobs” as people to take them. Indeed, there’s a “best job” waiting for every single human on the planet. All you have to do is step up!

Nonetheless, the Jewish idea of being a chosen people is bound up with an extremely negative and hate-filled set of counter-ideas. As with every powerful, world-changing idea, chosenness casts a dark and dangerous shadow behind it. From it devolved the idea of Jewish superiority and its negative amplification, that Jews are diabolical and seek world domination. It is bound up with the belief of Jewish spiritual arrogance, as expressed in both Christian and Muslim texts; that Judaism is intolerant of other faiths; that Jews seek to eliminate other religions; that Jews believe there is only one way to know and find God. All of these are false theologically (and also, for the most part, existentially), but they nonetheless maintain a psychological grip on our thinking, Jew and non-Jew alike. The psychological and social impact of this reality is discussed in Part 2 of this essay.

The Myth of Jew as Victim:
Unlike the former myth, this one does not arise from any theological foundations. It is a product of the long history of Jewish exile, with Jews living in a state of social otherness and political disenfranchisement. And in that sense, this is not a myth at all. It has been a primary theme in Jewish reality, a theme that only fairly recently has began to be challenged by the counter-history of modern Zionism. But Zionism has not brought an end to the history of Jew-As-Other and Jew-As-Victim. It has simply brought on another chapter in the story, with different dynamics. The Jew remains vulnerable to victimization around the world, as we read in the newspaper regularly, from the bombing of the Argentine Jewish Community Center in 1994, to rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel (a daily matter for over 10 years until the Gaza war of 2014), to the targeting and murder of Jews from Mumbai to Kenya to Bulgaria to Belgium to France to the US. This is all ugly living history. It is not myth.

The Jew-As-Victim becomes a myth when it morphs in the human mind to “the Jew is supposed to be a victim.” This insidious transformation has taken on a life of its own, distorting nearly everyone’s thinking. From this perspective, Jews are not supposed to act with self-confidence, and Israel is expected to tolerate Arab terrorism and hatred, and is held to be inherently blameworthy when it responds militarily to such violence.

In Christianity this myth had taken hold by the time of Augustine, who at least in part helped establish as dogma the belief that Jews should be allowed to survive, but as a subjugated and humiliated people, as an example of Christian supersession. It took nearly 1400 years for Christians to begin to seriously question the morality and integrity of this position. It still remains an active ingredient in much Christian thought and in some Christian attitudes towards Israel.

In Islam this myth has been institutionalized in the apartheid-like laws of the dhimma (in which Jews and Christians have a legally inferior status to Muslims; also note that in the dhimma some other religions have an even lower status than Jews and Christians), and I would argue it is a central factor in the Muslim world’s intolerance for an independent Jewish nation.

In the west we see this myth working in the widespread popularity of Woody Allen’s movies and the way he caricaturizes Jews. We also see it politically in the left’s and far right’s double standards for Israel, and in their aggressive misrepresentations of Israel and those who support Israel.

In Part 2 I will expand on the way this myth subtly and unconsciously distorts our understanding of Jews, Judaism, and Israel.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A conversation with the apostle Paul

This scene is taken out of my long narrative poem about the Eternal Jew, The Atternen Juez Talen. I have converted the text to prose and translated it into "old English", that is, the English you're used to reading, since it seems my poetry can be hard to read.
The dialog (between Saul/Paul and the Eternal Jew) is based on a close reading of the Epistle to the Romans, along with the new analysis of Paul's position of Judaism, as presented by John Gager and others.
Here it is:

Funny how memories just pop in your head. I met that Saul on this road (Damascus Road) awhile back, maybe twenty five years before Jerusalem fell, in a mikdash*, I can’t remember where. Mumblin’ prayers like the rest of us. Wouldn’t a guessed he’d make such a name. Cranky he were with a sand paper edge, like the sugar in his tea has a bitter taste and his tallit* weighed like an iron yoke on his narrow shoulder and knobby arms. Hard to stand straight, harder to bow.
* synagogue
* tallit: prayer shawl

After kiddush* and motzi* over bread we stood talkin’ among the vines in the courtyard, lush in summer bloom, crownin’ the courtyard walls. Typical me, without no walls between my sparkin’ thoughts and my tongue. (With an oven like that you’ll burn your house down.) I says to him, “From what I hears you ain’t prayin’ with Jews no more. I’m surprised to see you here today.”
* kiddush and motzi: two prayers, the first over wine, the second over bread

He looks at me with a bit of a sneer, like, ‘Where’s your manners?’ and ‘What did I do?’
and ‘You only think you know who I am.’

I see that I hurt him. He turns to leave.
“Don’t go brother. I said that wrong. I meant to open a door for you to let you in, not to chase you out.”

“My fault too,” he say with a frown. “I make a stir wherever I goes. Some cry, ‘apostle!’ and wash my feet. Some cries, ‘apostate!’ and want me beat. I seen the inside a many a jail for nothin’ more than talkin’ of God. And I’ve tasted the dust a half the known world; shipwrecked and damn near drownded as well. The rod of the Lor driven me on.

“Truth is, I can’t hardly tell no more who is deliverin’ these bruises and welts, the Infinite One or the impotent ones, or where one ends and the other begins. But to answer the question you didn’t ask, I’m an Israelite, and I’m proud of it. What an honor to be a Jew! And so I prays whenever I have the chance to slip myself in, unnoticed, unknown, just another graybeard under his shawl.

“But just now, you spoke well, my friend. We Jews are required to open the door to these sons of Rome whose faith has failed; these orphans of gods turned ugly and cruel; no-gods whose future is no-good works; these orphans who finally face the truth – their guardian gods are failing them. They looks in our window and peeks in our door and sees a people inspired with faith by a God of justice and a Lor of love. Bring these lost and childlike souls into our brit* and up to our Lor. We must open our doors now and bring on the world!”
* brit: covenant, community

I looks around this little place. For a moment it seemin’ like Eden to me. Together, Roman, Greek, and Jew without our sharp and poison words, without our jagged-edged thoughts, just sippin’ tea and quiet talk, a moment of peace in a tohu* world.
* tohu: from Genesis 1:2, formless, chaotic

Then he pulls out an epistle writ to Rome. “Read,” he says, and gives it to me. Long it were. I squinch my eyes.
“You want to hear my thoughts on it or you just testin’ your writing craft to see if you can snag some fruit, a gift to bring to your Jesus feast.”
A wince of a smile, but he just says, ‘Read.’

We walked a ways to a shop he knows, owned by a Greek diplomat. All neat and tidy, arranged on shelves, books and scrolls and artifacts he come across servin’ the throne. He lock the shop and we leave thru a door in the rear. Eden, a garden 8 steps square. Carob and fig trees, viburnum, and palm.

I reads his letter while the 2 of them chats. Heat a the day begun to pass by the time I’m done. His eyes leap when he see me lay the papyrus down.
“So will you join me on my way?”

“Saul, your say ain’t writ to me. I’m a man of law and works, a Jew like you, well circumcised. But you cast law and works to the wind. Me, I’ll blow in the wind with them.

“But I likes your preachin’, urgin’ Greece and Rome to throw their idols down and find our Lor. And then you go and swerve away into a patch of brambly thoughts on grace and sin and God will save – as if you know how God will judge – and then you turn it all upside down, exhortin’ us to know good and do good. That’s the law and that’s our works, plain as any eye can see. I’ll let your philosophic Greeks sort their way thru that thorny stuff.

“And then you end with noble advice, bright and gentle, wise and kind – how to make their community strong with trust and love and humbleness, and callin’ all the worlds to God. Isaiah would be proud of that.

“In sum, it ain’t a work of art, and all our words will soon be lost, but still it stands as fair advice. Send it. It might do some good.”

He turns to his friend like I’m just a fly.
“There it is as I’ve said before. The law is a curse, enslavin’ the mind. Egypt it is. I’m glad to be free.”

And they walks away into the house, me standin’ there like a stump of a tree.
“No one will ever believe that stuff. He’ll turn around,”
I thinks to myself, as I makes my way back into town.