Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ha'azinu--I Love Poetry. Just Not This Piece of Poetry. Is that OK? I mean, it's from the Torah, and all....

            Is one permitted to not like a piece of Biblical poetry? I have been reading, chanting, and studying this parsha/Torah Reading for all of my life, and, to speak truth (I can’t lie; I’m a rabbi, after all), it continually grates on me, year after year. Why? Because it illustrates a basic tenet of religious theodicy with which I disagree: that if bad things happen to us, we must have misbehaved in some way, either known or unknown to us, and that God is always waiting to inflict pain on us backsliding human beings, like some Celestial Policeman, armed with a Truncheon of Wrath.
I am not speaking of deliberately breaking the law or dealing falsely with one’s neighbors, or with God; those are clear violations of the human and divine compact which rules us all. I am speaking of the mindset which says, “I am suffering, therefore God is surely punishing me; I must have fallen short of His expectations in some major way.” Poor mortal! God has enough to do in running the universe, than to single you out for torture and punishment. We live in a world, I hope and believe, in which God’s mercy outweighs God’s tendency toward strict judgment, and should live our lives accordingly. All the more this year, immediately following Rosh Hashana, should God be willing to grant us all second chances!
            This poem preaches the opposite: once Israel is settled in the Promised Land, fat and happy, they will immediately begin to backslide and pursue idolatry, says God. Why so? They simply cannot resist temptation, like a Weight Watchers member walking past a Dunkin’ Donuts (I’ve been there myself, and know what it’s like). And when that happens, God will be forced to send pagan nations to conquer and punish them for their lack of faith or gratitude. I agree that pagan nations—Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and, most horrifically, Rome—did indeed conquer Israel, but I choose to see it as part of our tragic history, rather than payback for disloyalty to God. There will always be stronger nations picking on weaker ones: in a paraphrase of Isaiah, we find Woody Allen’s words: “The lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.” And here is Moshe Dayan: “When the lion lies down with the lamb, I want to be the lion.”
Ha’azinu’s verses may have effectively frightened Jewish congregations into submission and acceptance centuries ago (and among simple-minded Jews today) when people sought a slam-dunk reason for Jewish suffering, but I choose not to agree with it. Our people are linked to God by an inextricable chain of love and destiny which will endure: so may it continue for all time, despite the inevitable course of human events and misfortunes. Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live—yes, naysayers, we live and flourish, now, and forever!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fantasy Boys XXX: FB3X Drabble Cascade #78 - word of the week is 'de...

Fantasy Boys XXX: FB3X Drabble Cascade #78 - word of the week is 'de...: Welcome to FB3X Drabble Cascade #78 - This week's word of the week is 'delta' . Suitable for all. The Way A Casca...

Autumn 1969, Greenwich Village, NYC, Drabble

            A coolish-warm Autumn night—delta of 10th St. & 6th Ave: Bookstore on the corner—Erich Segal’s Love Story perches on its shelf-summit, mocking its siren-song to us young Orthodox Jewish college freshmen strolling, trolling for college girls.
(O Hope forlorn!)
Bell bottom jeans, leather jackets with fringe; long hair. The sweet smell of maryjane pervading the air. Incense, peppermints, lava lamps undulate, slowly, in head-shop windows….
            In night-darkened Washington Square Park, groping gaggles of NYU students lust in the darkness, kiss fiercely in shadows, mount on benches. We girlless men of Yeshiva, aching-loined, ritually skullcapp’d, unwillingly celibate, look on in envy.
            “Where are you Boys from?” a voice whispers, gentle as new-fall’n dew;
            We look up, startled:
            Two College Girls; behold! The Tone of the Night has changed.     
            O Stars, dilate!
            G-d, bite Your nails!

            What will ensue?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Standing Before God Drabble

Standing before God Drabble

“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God…all the men of Israel…from woodchopper to water-drawer—to entire into the Covenant of the Lord your God….”—Deut. 29:9-10

            Yossi Water-Drawer shambled into the Israelite Camp, laid his humble Burden down: one water-bucket, sloshing out its contents—some brown, turgid turbid aqua, scoopt from a desert-beast’s pawprint, pailful of a late-morning’s wadi-gulley-washing; mud, mostly, mainly.
Drawing water in joy from the wellsprings of salvation….
            “Does God exist,” he wondered-positing, gazing within his catch while Moses spoke, “amid this floating aquarium of auburn aqualife, smelly goat pellets, and bird-droppings? Is it my fate to be a water-drawer, Aquarian on Earth?”
            “Shh—quiet, Man,” said the Fellow next him, bending down; his Ax slipped over, and cut off a bit of Yossi’s ear—Cosmic punishment, no doubt, for his not listening to Moses—poor Moses, passionately pilpuling on, about Canaanite nighttime orgies!

            Give it a rest, the Israelites murmured, Give it a rest. We all need a rest….

To Be a Jew is to Exist, Out of Earthly, and Into Spiritual, Universal, Time: The Power of Nitzavim-Vayelech

Here, Moses reaches the epitome of his speaking powers, commanding all Israel to remain faithful to the sacred covenant with God as described in the Torah. To whom exactly does he address his words? Attempting to answer this question, the text reels through time, its audience first appearing to be the Dor Haye’tsiah/Exodus Generation, which escaped Egypt and died in the wilderness, afterwards shifting to the Dor HaMidbar/Wilderness Generation, which was born after the sin of the Golden Calf, and grew up, free, in the Wilderness, knowing Egyptian slavery only from their parents’ stories (as we do, on Pesach), and faithful only to Moses and Joshua. Moses’s prophecy moves both backward and forward in history, from all Jews who were ever born in the past, into the as-yet-unknown future history of our people, far beyond our lives today, as we strive to keep our people active and faithful to the Eternal Covenant with God.
What I love about this God-language is that Moses addresses, not only our Wilderness ancestors, but all of us Jews—we are truly a People who dwell, not only within, but outside of human history. His speech is so appropriate for this time of year, as we approach the holidays which depend on Time, more than any others in the Jewish calendar. In our modern world, Time dominates our lives in myriad ways, from the daily schedules we follow, the cellphones we carry and covet, the computers we depend on, and the machines which we believe we control, yet which inexorably dominate our lives. These timeless words of Moses—“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God” (Deut. 29:9),—speak, not only to tribespeople living in a cloudy, distant Past, but to all of us, Today. We are not bound by cellphones or human schedules; we are truly bound only by the holy laws of Torah and God.
            Beyond the standard conditional warnings of prophecy—“If you fulfill God’s will, then God will ensure your prosperity”—we find an idea fundamental to Jewish thought, especially around this time of year: that of teshuva, doing repentance, and returning to God. When Israel crosses over the Jordan and abandons God for the idolatrous, but attractive, cults of the Canaanites, God may punish them for a time, but will never totally abandon them, instead hoping that they will rediscover how much God loves them and desires to draw them near. In a world of materialistic tawdriness and gimcrackery, let us always make time to bring the lasting and sacred into our lives.
“I have never lived a Godly life before,” you may say, “How can I begin now? How can I make keeping Shabbat, lighting candles, coming to temple, part of my life? I have gone too far in the opposite direction; I am lost….”
No: there is always Hope. Indeed, our tradition teaches that a repentant sinner is more precious to God than someone who has always lived a religious life, because the former has succeeded in taking the evil of his previous existence and converting it to spiritual light.
            Moses then addresses his primary disciple, Joshua, who will lead Israel after Moses’s death. The aged prophet despairs: God has granted him a vision of the Israelites backsliding in the future. Are we therefore always doomed to fall short of God’s expectations?

I believe with all my heart that the Jewish relationship with God today continues as strongly as it has been, iron-plated and copper-sheathed, despite our tendency to doubt and quibble about the details. God may well have questions about us, but loves us, nonetheless, as a parent does an erring child. “If you come towards me even one hand’s-breadth,” says God, “I will come from miles away, and cover the remainder of the distance between us. I am as close to you as your heart and soul.” Remember this. Always remember—and Shana Tova—a Happy and Healthy New Year. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Beer with Stephen Crane: The Bowery, NYC, May, 1893: Flash Fiction

            A Sunday in May, 1893: stale cigar butts, gutter garbage, horse manure droppings, and a mild breeze blowing—I was on my way to Donovan’s Tavern on the Bowery to meet with Stephen Crane. It was a crisp Spring day in New York City, with a hard-working New York Sun trying to burn through a clutch of coal-scuttle clouds.
            “Show yer a good time, Dearie?” an old-young prostitute leaned out of a slummy doorway—I could smell her cheap perfume—her showing a bit of bosom to my eye—far more than was Proper, back when a naked ankle, all that could be seen beneath a long skirt, could turn a Gentleman’s head—that, and “a goodly pair o’ poonts burstin’ out o’ a bodice” as the organ-grinder’s song went….
            But I was late: I skidded ‘round an omnibus-horse-car, narrowly missed an old, bearded pedlar (perhaps a Jew; so many Jews thereabouts) selling warm, soft salted pretzels off long wooden sticks, stuck in a cane basket, as I almost tripped over a stray pug dog and fell onto a pushcart laden with buttons—buttons of all kinds, from tiny black buttons for ladies’ high-button shoes, to big brass frogs for the double-breasted scarlet greatcoat of the doorman at Luchow’s German Restaurant on 14th Street (Wiener Schnitzel und Bock Bier fur Two: Wunderbar!).
            “Mark! My writing friend! Over here!” called a raspy, young-man’s voice, and I saw him, there, at a scuffed-and-scarry table outside of smoky Donovan’s, out in the innocent air: natty carnation in his buttonhole (from his brothel-keeping young-madam friend, Cora Taylor, back in their coldwater rooftop tenement flat), long black handrolled Cuban panatela clamped in one corner of his gleaming young smile, well-creased-and-battered fedora on his head: the King of New York, my muckraking tyro comrade, the Methodist Minister’s son (14th child, and baby of the family) from Newark, New Jersey: Stephen Crane.
            I will always remember how he pluckt the cigar from his mouth, grinned like a boy who’s stolen an apple from a grocery-stand, stood up, and saluted me, beer-stein in his hand, and gave the slightest ironic bow, before taking a long swig, and laughing; laughing!
Seven short years, hundreds of newspaper articles and short stories, and two novels later—he would be dead, at age 28, and off to—where? No Heaven or Afterlife for him; he was a Realist: “There is no God, and He hates you.”

Rest in peace, my grinning, forever-young Friend; O Stephen! What promise we lost in you!

Free Will vs. Divine All-Knowing: a Jewish Medieval Philosophy Flash Fiction

            In the cardamom-scented evening, 11th-Century Egypt, turban on head, holy scroll before him, reclining on’s divan just-so, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, called Maimonides, reclined on his right side. Tall, cool drink in his hand: sherbet, of cinnamon-ice, mixt with snow packt from Mount Abora.
            He writes: The way God sees the World. Unlike us Humanity. God above Time. Above Space. While we, Mortals, live along a Time-Line: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Hence, God knows all, while we live to discover, create, discern, what does the Future hold?
            He lay back, lay down his stylus, read the scroll, smiled.
            Thereafter: later 14th Century, France, Perpignan, Jewish community, occasionally protected by the Papacy; otherwise, caught by the Medieval Power-structure, like mice in a trap: here is Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, called Gersonides; like Maimonides, Aristotelian, but a Man with a Gloomy World-View, and why not?
Feather quill in hand, flickering candle, a night of clouds and rain: God knows generalities, not particulars.
For me, e.g., D.M., the writer of these words: rabbi, teacher, college instructor: God knows weekdays I go to college, why? To teach. Wearing what? Dress shirt, chinos, necktie. This outfit, God knows.
            God does not know details: the color, fit, ensemble: the blue, the brown, the grey, the black—here fits my Free Will: Absolute, but within a Limited Sphere.
            Maimonides limits Man; Gersonides, God.

            The World spins on….