Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Last night in class

I am a Jewish educator, which makes me a religious educator, a job description which has some baggage that I would like to address. In many Western nations, religion has pushed itself into a dichotomistic relationship with society. There has become a faith/no faith binary which has tarnished the beautiful role religion can have in society.
On an individual basis, I have decided that I need to sit on the fence when it comes to deciding about God. I am agnostic because I see no clear benefit in being a theist or it’s opposite. Even if I declared a belief in God, it would not be a matter of faith. Some would say that you can only believe in God as a function of faith. I am not so sure.
When Abraham was said to have heard God’s call, “Lech Lecha, go forth to the land I will show you,” he didn’t have faith in his encounter. He heard God’s command and went forth. And, yes, I am aware of the problem of using this story to illustrate my point.
I am not such an empiricist as to accept that only those things we can actually experience through our senses exist. If this were the case, Australia would be lost to me and my cell phone would work by magic instead of the radio frequencies that carry our voices over great distances. At the same time, if I thought I heard God commanding me to go to a land that he will show me, I would go for a “check up from the neck up,” as Kinky Friedman likes to call a visit to the psychologist.

In class last night, I explained why I have a problem with William Pinar’s book, Race, Religion, and a Curriculum of Reparation: Teacher Education for a Multicultural Society. I saw Pinar speak about his underlying premise at the American Educational Research Association’s national conference in Chicago and raised my objection. Pinar starts his argument with the story of Noah after the episode of the ark when he is lying in bed drunk and is visited by his son Ham.
If he were just giving his interpretation of the story, I would have no problem. I love midrash, and I appreciated the insight Pinar gave as a possible explanation for why Noah’s sons received such a terrible curse from their father. My problem with Pinar is not his midrashic abilities. My problem is that Pinar tied his interpretation into a defining logic behind the sexual mores and racial iniquities of our time with a very cursory understanding of what religion has done with these texts.
I won’t speak for all religions, not even for my own. Religion is not so monolithic that it can’t be spoken for in one voice. Speaking from within my tradition, I can say that Noah is in many ways an anti-hero in the best literary criticism understanding of a text. The rabbis of the Talmud were not literary critics, but they asked the question, “Why does Torah provide us with this story?”
If I am William Pinar or anyone who sees religion as monolithic and even threatening, my answer is simple. Religions see this as holy text. In other words, this is God’s word. Some in Judaism believe this, other’s say the text is divinely inspired. Some just have reverence for the text for its social, historical, cultural and moral impact on society. My Jewish tradition is clearly not monolithic.
The rabbi’s surely believed that the text was given by God to Moses. In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, we get the direct line of Torah.

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. Shimon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things the world is sustained: on the Torah, on the (Temple) service, and on deeds of loving kindness. (Pirkei Avot 1:1-2)

This text does not say “Moses received the Torah from God.” I don’t know how deliberate that was, but it does tell us how the tradition was passed from generation to generation, or at least how we think it was passed. Pinar does not address this. He reads the text and interprets it. Fine. Though some people, me included, would have a problem with an interpretation that ignores the greater context of the period from which the text was written. But this is not the main problem, and we could rejoice in the fact that Pinar is not a literalist like many who interpret these texts.
My problem with Pinar is that he ignores the fact that some of these stories are not taken at face value as he presents them. Noah, according to the rabbis, is not a hero. The rabbis ask why Noah wasn’t willing to stand up to God when he threatened to destroy all of humanity, while Abraham was willing to challenge God when all He wanted was to destroy Sodom and Gemorah. The rabbis address the literal meaning of the description of Noah, “a righteous man in his time,” and ask what it means to be righteous relative to a certain epoch of history. In short, the rabbis don’t like Noah.
Given this understanding of Noah, how can Pinar say that the sexual mores and racial iniquities of our time are rooted in this anti-hero. Isn’t it clear that the intention of an anti-hero is to be a model of what not to do? If it is, then isn’t tying issues of sex and race to our understanding of this biblical story really an indictment of us, as if to say that we don’t get it, we mistakenly modeled our behavior after a character whose role it is in the Bible to deter us from following his ways.

I can understand why people have a problem with faith. We live in an epoch of scientific understandings. Sometimes we take science so far that we cannot accept any explanation of phenomenon which is not rooted in scientific methodology, quantitative measures and rational understandings. I don’t think we need to be so rigid. In his day, Yochanan ben Zakai, the first leader of the Sanhedrin in Yavne, did the opposite with religion. He said that if you are planting a sapling and they tell you the messiah has arrived, finish planting and then go out and greet the messiah. In other words, the issues of this world are more important than the issues of heaven.

For me, the question is not whether or not to keep religion. It is about what we do with it. As an agnostic person who is committed to social justice and not fully content with humanism, and totally fearful of relativism, I struggle with religion. It has been used to justify so much bad in the world, and it has the potential to create a lot of good. The same can be said for science. The scientific age ushered in cures for disease and many other wonders. It also included eugenics and the creation of weapons of mass destruction.
As my father has taught me, you can never sit back and kick up your feet, and on this issue, I think we will never have the luxury of feeling completely comfortable with where we stand. With this as the case, I think Yochanan ben Zakai gives us a pretty good model with his planting trees, and I think I’m going to follow his lead.

Homelessness and the Jewish Tradition

(567 words submitted to Shema magazine for a contest to be published)

As a struggling artist, my father bought a building in a struggling neighborhood in Chicago. He needed a place to live and exhibit his work. Fortunately the East Village became the center of our small family real estate empire, but it also made us complicit in the gentrification of a neighborhood that no longer supported its original population, mostly poor Puerto Rican and African American families.
From early on, my dad chose to hire local trades’ people to help him fix up his properties. Torah teaches us about the ethical treatment of those who work for us and my dad was always guided by the mitzva, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger…You must pay him his wages on the same day…for he is needy and sets his life on it, (Deut. 24:14-15)” The way my dad described it, it was a double good. The people in the neighborhood need the work and we want to be good neighbors.
When I took over the management of my dad's properties and bought some of my own, I found myself on the other side of two tenets of Judaism. Rabbi Akiva believed that poverty existed so that the more fortunate can do good, and in Torah it says that there will always be poor people. I believe that this was one of those rare times that Rabbi Akiva was sorely mistaken, and I was driven to disprove this Biblical conception of inevitable poverty. Why did there always need to be a class of poor people?
As a doctoral student of education, at the time, I decided that what kept poor people in their place was a lack of education. Nobody chooses to be poor, but these people were disadvantaged because they didn't have the tools to improve their lot. I continued to employ the people my dad had helped for over two decades, but I introduced something new to the mix. Together with our tenant, the local Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr., I started a Friday afternoon book club and hot lunch program.
The Chicago Avenue Book Club lasted for two years as I wrote my dissertation and ended abruptly when I took a job as an Education Director in a synagogue 20 some miles from our property. During that time I learned that literacy is a key to overcoming poverty. Literacy is not just the ability to read and write text. It is the tool, as the great Brazilian educator Paolo Freire wrote, “to read and write the world.” In the Book Club, we read Torah, wrote poems, spoke of our hopes and dreams, packed food for Katrina victims, learned about AIDS and dirty needles and shared our stories. Most of all, the book club members, of which there were several dozen, were listened to. Their voices mattered and they experienced self-esteem.
Of all the Jewish values that apply in fighting homelessness, self esteem is clearly the highest and I see its source in the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment is not about doing onto others as we want done onto ourselves. It means you must love yourself in order to love your neighbor. Maybe if we can work on our own self-esteem as a society, we will begin to treat our homeless as people made in the same image of God as we were made in.

Here are ten minutes about my book club made by the members and me.

Yom Kippur: Our Marriage to God

The most memorable rock concert in my life was not when my mother climbed a tree with me on her back to see Janis Joplin, nor was it the first Kinks concert I saw on my own when I was a teenager. It wasn’t even the Elvis Costello show at the Royal Albert Hall in London where I almost fainted when Elvis brought out Van Morrison to sing with him. No, it was the small intimate gig with Billy Bragg, a British folk rocker, in a beer garden near San Diego that made the biggest mark on me, and it has everything to do with Yom Kippur.
Bragg stopped in the middle of the concert to address fans concerns over a lyric which bothered them. It goes something like, “I don’t want to change the world. I just want to find me a new girl.”
He said that he understands that on the surface the lyric sounds chauvinistic, but he wanted to explain his deeper intention. For Bragg, the intimate relationship between loving partners is the core of improving the world because in that relationship we learn about and experience love, trust, honor, respect, sympathy, empathy and personal growth. With these at the center of our lives, we cannot help but make the world a better place.

This summer, as I prepared myself to lead the Shabbat service on Tu B’Av, I learned that in the Talmud Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel [said] there were no greater festivals for Israel than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out... and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? ‘Young man, raise your eyes and see which you select for yourself....’ (Talmud, Taanit 26b)
When I read this, my Billy Bragg memory jumped forward from the recesses of my mind. Of course, it would be unfair to expect the same egalitarian sensibilities from the Talmudic rabbis as we can expect from Billy Bragg in our time, but the messages are very similar. Bragg sees intimate partnership as the center of improving the world and so did the rabbis. This also explains why Tu B’Av is mentioned before Yom Kippur in the list of Israel’s greatest holidays because Yom Kippur and the 15th of Av are the respective betrothal and marriage dates of God and Israel. Yom Kippur, which comes first in the Jewish calendar, is the day on which the second set of tablets were given to Moses, marking the fulfillment of the covenant at Mount Sinai and the day of Israel's betrothal to God. Tu B’Av represents rebirth after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and can be seen as the consummation of this marriage.
To teach our children that the Jewish people are married to God is a beautiful framework for discussions about our rights and responsibilities as partners with God, but it is still a metaphor and, as such, it is open to misinterpretation. Marriage in contemporary society is constantly threatened by divorce, and we would hope not to impress upon our kids that they can divorce themselves from God, but marriage is a choice and that gives the chooser a sense of ownership which is key to feeling good about a relationship.
By using the marriage metaphor, we also level the playing field. God may be our king and ruler, but “[the Torah] is not in heaven” and we are the managing partners of the world. In this role, we have many rights and responsibilities, but we lose strict justice. As it says in the Talmud, “If you seek to have a world, strict justice cannot be exercised; and if you seek strict justice, there will be no world…You can have only one of the two. If you do not relent a little, the world will not endure. (Genesis Rabbah 39:6)” This is God’s way of telling us that the world is neither black nor white. It is gray and full of compromise. It also brings new light to Billy Bragg’s lyric, “I don’t want to change the world. I just want to find me a new girl.”
As we enter the New Year, 5769, let’s make all of our relationships full of love, trust, honor, respect, sympathy, empathy and personal growth so that we too can be God’s partners in repairing the world.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Pyramids in His Eyes - A Short Story

Being an artist has always gotten him in trouble, but never before was trouble anything like this. As a child he doodled in his notebooks to keep from falling asleep in class and was often sent to the headmasters office for disciplinary measures, especially when his doodles included naked members of the opposite sex. “If Rembrandt were drawing in Mr. Hoffman's class, nobody would attack him for the content of his work.” He would say in his defense, only to be told that he can tell that to his parents while he sits at home for his three day suspension from school.
While in art school, he was told that under the new government his art might be considered degenerate and lead to his arrest and imprisonment. They had already confiscated and destroyed several works of masters like Ernst Ludwig Kirschener and Franz Marc, but Marc was French and a Jew and his work was degenerate just by virtue of his genes. Kirschener, on the other hand, was a patriot. He served in Germany's defense during the Great War and was loved by everyone. What could Hitler possibly see wrong with Kirschener's canvasses?
Being Jewish was never really and issue for him. He was a Jew, but with a name like Boris and no outward signs of a Jewish pedigree, it never seemed to matter, not in Kiev. He was an artist, a cosmopolitan and a socialist, as were all the intelligencia.
When the guards entered the barracks on this particular winter morning, there was no reason to believe that this was different than the usual erratic interruptions that were slowly becoming part of the rhythm of this place almost like that American jazz music he would listen to when he was in his studio. How could he have known that they would search the ground under the munitions factory that was the original purpose of this God forsaken place. Dachau was not meant to be a concentration camp. It's original barracks were built for six thousand laborers who worked tirelessly to feed the German military machine in exchange for salaries and pride in their dedication to the motherland. Who would have thought that those same barracks could house over thirty thousand political prisoners, Communists, criminals, and Jews, at any given time, and that this modest camp between Freising and Munich could become the model of all the concentration camps of the Reich?
When he entered the camp, that first night, he punctured the skin of his thumb to draw blood and paint the portrait of his beloved Marie on bottom of the wood of the third layer of his bunk. This brought new meaning to the saying, “One man's ceiling is another man's floor,” as the bed of the guy who snored above him became his Sistine Chapel.
He didn't know this at the time he was arrested, but Marie's mother directed the Gestapo to his studio and exposed his Jewishness, which had never been in question, to keep her daughter from “making the biggest mistake of her life,” and marrying this Russian Jew. Even under annexation by the Nazi forces, Claudette, Marie's mother, was still more disdainful of immigrants than occupiers. For Boris, his portrait of Marie would be the first in his red period, which he only resented because Picasso had beaten him to the idea, but surely Picasso didn't fill his canvases with his own blood. Maybe, if he could just make it out of here and get his work to the critics and gallery owners, his brilliance would be discovered and he would find his place on the Kunst Museum walls, or, better yet, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, far away from Europe.
When the Nazis found the cachet of drawings he and the others had stashed under the bricks of the dilapidated munitions factory, he knew he would have to take the fall for his partners in crime. He volunteered to do it. Why shouldn't he? He was the only Jew among them and, as such, his death was a sure thing. The group had agreed that in the absence of photographic evidence of these horrors, they served a holy purpose by documenting the insanity and inhumane behavior of their jailers. Boris would be their Jesus and would die for the group's collective sins.
“Achtung!” yelled the soldier when he entered the barracks. Everyone knew the drill and jumped from their beds. “Who among you is the bastard who drew these pictures?”
Heads turned, but not a sound was spoken. Then Boris stepped forward.
“Are these pictures yours?” Asked the soldier.
“They are.” Responded Boris.
“Follow me,” said the soldier, as led Boris from the barracks.

The next thing he knew, Boris found himself in the commandant's office. The was not a mere suspension. This was the real thing. He looked around and observed the orderliness of the office, the commandant behind his desk and a family sitting on a couch.
“Did you draw these?” Asked the commandant.
“I did.”
“They are pretty awful. What were you trying to do with these?”
“I paint what I see.”
“That is not the answer to my question. What were you planning to do with these pictures?”
Boris continued in a quiet tone. “Nothing Sir. I just paint what I see.”
“And this is why they were hidden under the factory? Because you paint what you see?”
“I couldn't bring them back with me to the barracks.”
“You certainly couldn't.” Replied the Commandant. Then he asked as he pointed toward his family on the couch. “Now tell me, what do you see here?”
“A family.”
“A family as awful as your paintings of this camp?”
“No Sir.”
“And if I let you paint a picture of this family, how would you paint us?”
“As I see you, Sir.”
The next thing he knew, Boris was given a palette and paint. He was even given a cup of water beside the glass of turpentine. As he painted, the commandant engaged him with questions. “What are you drawing now? Who would you say are your inspirations for your art? Do you think that art is something a person can learn? Or is it inherited?”
Mostly Boris answered with a yes or a no.
“Do you think an artist is better at his craft when he is aware of art history? I'm not an artist, but I know a lot about the history of art. Did you know that when the pyramids were designed, the Pharaohs would treat the architects like royalty and let them feast with them the entire time of the building of the pyramids? They would. And even after the conclusion of the project, they would live as royalty until the death of the pharaoh. Then they would be ordered by the new Pharaoh to lead the team of servants, with the pharaoh's dead body into the pyramid. The servants would be killed and buried with their master so they could serve him in the afterlife, but the architect was needed to seal the pyramid so that nobody would know the entrance. It was all very secretive. Like this portrait that you are painting for me and my family. The only difference is that we are not going to die.” Then the commandant corrected himself, “Let me correct myself. My family is not going to die. You are.”
Boris remained silent as the commandant searched for signs of a reaction on the face of his captive artist.
“I'm going to have to kill you after you finish this painting, you know. It's not possible that you should live and it should be discovered that I commissioned this portrait from a Jewish artist. Then I would be the dead one among us and you would seal the pyramid on me.”
Boris kept painting as if he were deaf and couldn't hear a word that was said t him.
“Do you understand what I am saying to you?”
“I do,” replied Boris. “You will need to kill me once I am through.”
“And what do you have to say about that?”
“What would you like me to say?”
“That is not an answer to my question.”
“I'm afraid I have nothing to say.”
Then there was quiet as Boris continued to paint. In his mind, he was painting a family portrait of himself and Marie and the children they never had. Instead of starring at the commandant's family, Boris imagined a huge mirror with himself and his family positioned on a couch. All he could think of is how he longed to kiss Marie on the back of the neck and clasp his fingers around hers and chew on the lobe of her ear.
“Are you a fan of American cinema?”
“Excuse me.”
“I asked if you are a fan of American cinema. In American movies they always give a man a nice dinner before he is executed. I think I will arrange a dinner for you before you die.”
“I'm not sure you should speak like this in front of your children.”
“Are you questioning my parenting? You have nerve. I could kill you right now if I want to.”
“I think it may not be wise to speak about this in front of the children. I'm only thinking about them. What is the difference for me if I meet my maker with a full or empty stomach?”
At that moment, the commandant called out to his secretary and ordered a gourmet meal for Boris. When the painting was finished, he was moved into another room where he was served under the watch of a Nazi soldier. As he ate his asparagus, Boris thought about ways he could escape this destiny. He imagined pleading with the soldier to let him escape. He wondered if he could convince the commandant to have him paint more portraits before he would be killed. All of this was really about one thing; he needed to see Marie just one last time.
Then a piece of steak got caught in his throat and the soldier came to pat him on the back, an unexpected nice gesture from a Nazi which was greeted with another unexpected gesture. Boris raised his steak knife and cut the guard's throat. He jumped up from the table where he was eating, smashed the soldier's head against the wall, made sure his victim could no longer resist and started to undress him before the uniform would be completely covered in blood.
Dressed as a Nazi soldier, Boris reentered his barracks, pointed his newly acquired gun at the guy who snored in the bed above his and the one who shared a piece of bread with him when he was feverishly ill, and led the two of them at gunpoint to the Dachau gateway. Work had set him free.
In a patch of trees, Boris fired two shots, handed his gun to the prisoners and started on his journey back to Paris to see his beloved Marie and take her as far away from Europe as he possibly could. Maybe they'd go to Egypt, he thought, to see the pyramids.