Canadian Civil Society III – Partisans versus Impartiality

Canadian Civil Society III – Partisans versus Impartiality

by

Howard Adelman

This blog continues the discussion of the core values of the Canadian civil religion in contrast to the Stone- Trump ethos now governing the polis in the U.S.  In the previous two blogs, I dealt with the first five values: civility versus incivility; compassion versus passion; dignity versus indignation; diversity versus unity; and empathy versus insecurity. In this blog, I want to take up the last five antonyms:

Canada                                        U.S.A. (current ruling ethos)

  1. Impartial                           Partisan
  2. Egalitarian                        Inegalitarian
  3. Fairness                             Ruthless & even Unfair
  4. Freedom as a Goal          Freedom as Given
  5. False-consciousness        Humans as Falsifiers

Yesterday, at the final public session of a conference held at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto on Religion and Ethno-Nationalism in the Era of the Two World Wars, Victoria Barnett from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Professor Susannah Heschel from The Mandel Center at Dartmouth College were on the final panel moderated by Doris Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto.

A number of observations:

  1. The conference in Ottawa was held by people engaged in interfaith dialogue; the conference in Toronto was, in part, about people engaged in interfaith dialogue 75-100 years ago.
  2. The Ottawa conference, like the Toronto one, was about religion, but the former presumed a peaceable kingdom and did not focus on either ethno-nationalism or violence but rather the victims of both.
  3. While the Ottawa conference was about interfaith cooperation to do good, the Toronto conference primarily explored the role of religion in causing, contributing to or exacerbating violence.
  4. The Ottawa and Toronto conferences are both signs of an increasing interest developed over the last couple of decades in the role religion plays in politics in general and in either peace or conflict more specifically, filling in a correlational gap in scholarship that heretofore focused only on power, economics, ideology, nationalism, etc.
  5. While the Ottawa conference approached the issue of the relation of religion to the polity from the perspective of participant observers, the Toronto conference strived for detachment, but both did so within an ideal of impartiality that, in itself, seemed to belie an essential part of traditional religion, its commitment to the truth of partiality as expressed in any specific religion.
  6. Lurking in the background of the Toronto conference was the heavily quantitative use of the Minorities at Risk (MAR) data base at the University of Maryland initiated by Ted Gurr in the mid-eighties and used in Jonathan Fox’s Religion, Civilization, and Civil War or his edited volume, Religion, Politics, Society, & the State, and, most importantly, his own conclusion that religion was not a salient factor in violent conflicts. The figure cited at the conference was only 13%.
  7. The latter complemented my own studies referred to in the Ottawa conference that historical memory rather than faith was a main determinant of assisting refugees, suggesting that faith had a very limited role in fostering good works as well as violence.
  8. Victoria Barnett suggested two main streams for approaching the relationship of religion and power, that of interfaith dialogue so evident in the Ottawa meeting, and a more critical approach, one which has barely broken through into deep discussions of theological differences and the role of those differences in fomenting violence or the role of overlapping beliefs fostering good works.
  9. Susannah Heschel was very suspicious, no, dismissive, of any attempt in using religion to apply to secular systems of values. Though she restricted her asides to caricatures – football as a religion – she was clear that she wanted to limit the use of the term to social systems based on rules and practices that made reference to a superior being, though religions exist which do not.
  10. However, in listening to the discussion, I concluded that the distinction was not between religions confined to a connection with a superior being and the extension into realms of civil society, but between faith systems that were rooted in absolute certainty and the truth for which one was willing, not only to die but to kill, versus religions that brought to consciousness that which had been taken for granted and, therefore, left unexamined, the connection between absolutist beliefs and violence.

The core characteristic of traditional religion may be that it is rooted in an inherent bias. Therefore, how can I dub a set of values articulated as the best for a polis as a civil religion if one of those values is impartiality? Is interfaith dialogue only possible because of a willingness to set aside or bracket theological differences in the search for commonality, thereby surrendering the core of that which may give religion its sense of passionate commitment? What if violence is defined as the commitment and effort to achieve a higher good? If so, how can interfaith dialogue be peaceful if it tries to go beyond making space for the other and, instead, uses the space in between and among to engage with others over commitment, over truth, and over what is most important in offering one’s life as a sacrifice? Or is that simply the orientation of the dominant Western religions?

One might even go further. Is not the development of a civil religion the sign of that effort to reach for a beyond that has been a hallmark of all religions, but doing so by setting aside the inherent connection to violence? In fact, is not the post-enlightenment effort over the last one hundred and fifty years been to discover and articulate a set of values and norms which defend a common humanity as primary? Has that effort not developed rules about the employment of violence, as in just war theory and practice, that allow lions to lie down beside lambs? In other words, the very effort to strive for impartiality, the very effort to esteem the core values of science, may be the core civic value in overcoming the traditional partisanship, not only of religion, but of ethno-nationalism?

Which brings me to the issue of equality. In Jeffrey Omar Usman’s very long scholarly article, “Defining Religion: The Struggle to Define Religion under the First Amendment and the Contributions and Insights of Other Disciplines of Study Including Theology, Psychology, Sociology, the Arts and Anthropology” [note the explicit omission of politics and economics] published in The North Dakota Law Review (83:123, 123-223, 2007), he concluded as follows:

“whatever definition of religion is applied, it should be applied in a consistent manner, and though courts should act with caution in defining religion, they should do so without fear. It is readily apparent that religion is incredibly difficult to define; scholars and courts have stumbled and will continue to do so in approaching this extraordinarily complicated subject. In endeavoring to formulate the best possible definition, the most important elements of the continuing effort by judges and academics to define religion are: (1) adherence to equality (my bold and italics) as a guiding interpretative principle; (2) employing the definition in a consistent manner; and (3) being cautious but not so frightened that the courts retreat to so vague a definition that the term religion loses its meaning.”

Why equality? Why consistency? How do these two overarching values help prevent slipping into the mire of meaningless equivocation? Look at how Usman’s key elements of a religion, that must be expressed, articulated and be unequivocal, are mapped onto those articulated by Susannah Heschel.

  1. “A religious belief or practice under the First Amendment…should be an approach toward or duty imposed by an authority that is part of some reality or understanding that is beyond the ordinary and beyond the state.” (This is a wider frame than Heschel’s definition in terms of a superior being, but it entails the retention of the distinction between a sacred authority and the profane in relation to fundamental questions of existence, and the exclusion of beliefs that are just personal and not broadly communal. The rituals of football or the collection of memorabilia about a celebrity or even the pursuit of wealth ad infinitum, do not deal with the meaning of suffering and death and the existence of spiritual reality, what Hegel called the Geist.
  2. On the other hand, that authority beyond the ordinary, whether it be called divine or not, “can encompass both the divine and demonic, the creative and the destructive.” (Paul Tillich) [I will return to this at the end.]
  3. There is a distinction between the right of free speech, a much broader right independent of religion, and a guarantee of the free exercise of and the prohibition against an established
  4. To go further, and in an extract by the Supreme Court of the U.S, “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” The First Amendment states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, freedom from practicing religion is as important as freedom to practice one’s religion.
  5. When William James, one of the key founders of Pragmatism, in the nineteenth century wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience [note, experience is singular but religion is written as a plural noun], it is clear that, although there may be a singular ultimate concern, people experience life with a variety of competing and conflicting concerns through various experiences and, therefore, there should be no effort of the polity to give one set of concerns priority over another.

That is why the core sentiment expressed in the American First Amendment is so crucial in the construction of the values of the modern world. Impartiality, equality and fairness are at the centre of post-enlightenment religion rather than partisanship, inegalitarianism as well as ruthless and unfair practices characteristic of the profane realm and built into historic religions. The Stone-Trump doctrine raises the profane values of extreme partisanship, inegalitarianism and ruthless and unfair methods to advance a cause once seen to be core values of religion and ones removed from that core by the First Amendment and modern efforts to articulate a Civil Religion. It is a civil religion as demonic.

And the reason is simple. Whereas Hobbes and Locke made the fundamental mistake of presuming that freedom rather than equality was the fundamental given, and, therefore, allowed those who developed their ideas on this platform to conceive of the state as an instrument for squelching or confining that freedom, a modern civil religion views freedom as the holy grail, as a state that we should be dedicated to establishing for all humanity.

This brings me to my final set of antonyms, false-consciousness versus humans as falsifiers. The latter is easy to understand. Those who would raise the core of the profane to the level of the sacred are slaves to dishonesty, to using whatever is necessary to win, in business or in politics, as long as those efforts fall within the law, or, at least, fall within the law that can be used to send you to prison and deprive you of freedom – hence the effort to control the making of laws to expand the realm in which dishonesty can be used with impunity. Some would claim that sacred is even a non-issue for such people, but the passion of belief of a man like Roger Stone suggests otherwise.

Freedom, instead of providing a platform in which different groups can pursue the questions of the ultimate meaning of existence without interference by the state, is conceived as already pre-determined, as rooted in a law of nature: each individual exists simply to pursue his or her own well-being. Freedom equals the doctrine of possessive individualism. That is why all other belief systems can be used and abused, trampled upon and cast aside, in the pursuit of self interest.

In Friedrich Engels and other theorists, false consciousness was the use of people pursuing survival within an ideological and institutional framework that perpetuated rather than undermined inequality. It was the disease at the ideological base of capitalism. It is the base that forms the core of the Stone-Trump ideology in an effort to monopolize the conception of capitalism under the virtue of greed in the guise of free competition. However, it should be apparent to everyone that competition for recognition is not equivalent to competition over the acquisition of material goods ad infinitum, that competition in capitalism can be a virtue without raising greed to a high altar in the holy of holies.

No one who turns mendacity into a supreme virtue can even explore the conception of false consciousness. For the purveyors of this supreme lie allow for no other competing belief in their civic demonic religion. All humans are greedy. Period! The core of a civil religion is to unpack this false consciousness, not only in others, but in our own ideological conceptions and institutional preferences. Critical self-consciousness to uproot false consciousness has to be at the centre of a civilized civil religion.

It is these values of this demonic religion set in Catfish Row on the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina, where a Black mammie takes care of the child of a good-lookin momma and rich and powerful father, that were satirized in George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that I heard a chorus sing at a concert last evening.

Summertime,

And the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’
And the cotton is high

Oh, Your daddy’s rich
And your mamma’s good lookin’
So hush little baby
Don’t you cry

One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky

But until that morning
There’s a’nothing can harm you
With your daddy and mammy standing by.

Then, among the Hebrew, Yiddish and other great songs, the choir sang “Blackbird” that expressed the ultimate goal of the new civic religion.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life,
You were only waiting for the moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
All your life,
You were only waiting for the moment to be free.

Black bird fly, black bird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Black bird fly, black bird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Akram Kahn and Toro

by

Howard Adelman

At then end of yesterday morning’s Torah study session, the rabbi passed around a copy of chapter 9 of Rabbi Joshua Heschel’s 1951 book, Man Is Not Alone. I can remember how much I was affected by reading that book almost sixty years ago in early 1958.  I could not recall the contents, but I certainly recall the powerful impression that the then fifty- year-old rabbi made on a twenty-year-old in second year medical school and living in Mount Sinai Hospital in the interns’ quarters. I was not an intern, just getting free accommodation in return for working in radiology a few hours every evening. I certainly felt alone as I wrestled with my desire to leave medical school and just read and write.

The chapter distributed yesterday is called, “In the Presence of God.” As I wrote above, there was not a chance in hell that I could tell you what was in that chapter. I have only picked up Heschel sporadically since that time, and then only to read bits and pieces. But I remember reading that book and I definitely remember reading that chapter. I thought at the time that he should have written a chapter called, “In the Absence of God.”

The chapter begins, “The sense of the ineffable introduces the soul to the divine aspect of the universe, to a reality higher than the universe.” Why should the inability of language to depict God introduce a soul to the sense of the divine in the universe. Adam in the Garden of Eden had the power of speech. It was his duty and responsibility to be a scientist, to walk around that garden and do the closest thing to imitating the creation of the universe by naming things – cats and dogs, tulips and daffodils. He was a nascent biologist.

But when it came to God, the same God who told Adam, the archetypal nerd who was totally oblivious to the fact, that he was alone in the universe and that he needed a helpmeet, when it came to God, Adam could not pigeon-hole Him, could not properly categorize Him or Her. I do not remember much of what I learned in Talmud Torah, even though I spent four afternoons a week after school as well as Sunday mornings there. But I do remember, though probably not from my years of non-study of the Torah, my years of feeling like I had been sentenced to a few hours of prison every day. I do remember that Moses had asked God what his name was. No, that is not what he asked. He asked, “Who are you?” Not to solicit God’s name, but his character. Moses was saying, I have learned from Adam to categorize different kinds of dogs and different kinds of tomatoes. How do I categorize you?

How does God answer Moses? With words that Adam cannot possibly experience. I am eternal. Since you left the Garden of Eden, you only know your mortality, especially as you grow older. But I, God, am immortal. I lack the experience of being mortal. I lack the experience of living within a limited time. I am unable to experience how time is sacred because I permeate all of space. But as such, God has experienced human affliction, in particular, the affliction of Moses and his ancestors, the affliction of my people and my ancestors. God is a witness to suffering while not being able to suffer Himself – a very different sense of the divine that is taught in Christianity. God does not suffer. God observes, not what category we belong to, not whether we are doctors or lawyers or labourers. But God witnesses our pain and our affliction, all inherent to what it is to be human.

But God is not just a witness. He is a redeemer. Actually, He promises redemption. There is no evidence of delivery. He offers a promise, a future prospect of redemption, of relief from that affliction, a relief from being mortal. But unlike God who is not mortal, that redemption could not come by our being made immortal as many believed. I knew better. It meant that God was Death, for the promise was just a tautology. We were mortal. Ergo we would die. Ergo we would be redeemed from our affliction. And the older you get the more aware and sensitive you become to a world full of pain and suffering.

If God is death, why “Kiddush Hashem?” Why sanctify His name? Why is profaning God’s name prohibited? Why must we avoid bringing shame onto God, avoid “chillul Hashem?” Not by uttering blasphemies, but by our behaviour, bringing God into disrespect because of what we do. If God’s name is YHWH, Yud., Heh, Vav, Heh, the four letter acronym for God that expresses His or Her ineffability,  that says that, unlike a flower or an ant, God cannot be characterized by His or Her name, but only by a name that says we cannot capture God by a taxonomy of language.

Hence Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joshua, the card God held up his sleeve when both Moses and Aaron fell so far short of who they could have become! For Yeshuah means, the Lord is my salvation. For God is Elijah. God is the Lord. God is Elohim, the ruler of the universe. Humans live in bondage. God, and really only God, can be a Lord on High. God has enormous power. God has unbounded authority, not that we really can understand either. But the depictions teach us that humans can only have bounded or limited power and authority. And the great sickness of man is to aspire to have unbounded authority, to become a dictator, to become an authoritarian ruler and revel in one’s power and one’s might.

It is so easy for people who are feeling insecure to long to worship at the feet of a golden calf, especially if it is a golden cow with a crown of gold for hair. But, for Heschel, it is precisely because God is ineffable that we are introduced to two things at one and the same time. First were are introduced to our own souls because our minds, our brains, are pre-programmed to reject an inability to categorize, to reject that anything is ineffable, for the intellect is totally convinced, has it built into its very DNA, that everything in experience can be classified and categorized, assigned attributes that allow one thing to be grouped with another. By definition, according to Heschel’s challenge to the Lithuanian and enlightenment tradition of Judaism, the mind inherently cannot grasp God. And only when humans recognize that, only then will they come to recognize that they have a soul which, though it may not be able to grasp God in order to categorize and characterize Him or Her, can experience God’s presence.

But can the soul feel God’s absence? That is the question I wanted to ask Heschel sixty years ago. If the soul can be attuned to God’s presence, the soul must be able to experience God’s absence. Even if that absence is only depicted as not experiencing that presence. If God, for Heschel, was a category within which the universe was to be placed rather than placing God as simply one additional item within the universe, God would then still be experienced as a category. And so Heschel began that chapter with a fundamental contradiction. If God was ineffable, then God could not even be categorized as something within Whom the entire universe and the entire universe of categories could rest. For that would still mean grasping God as a category for the mind and not simply experiencing his presence.

That is how I experienced that chapter – not as a chapter about the anteroom of experiencing God, but as an introduction to a paradox that even depicting God as ineffable did not work, even suggesting that by grasping the ineffability of God, the soul is introduced to the divine aspect of the universe. For if the universe could only be grasped intellectually as within God, then how could Heschel say that the soul experiences an aspect of the world as divine, for then the universe could not entirely be within God, but God, the divine, must simply be one part of the universe?

But Heschel does not get caught up in intellectual paradoxes. For in describing, in trying to experience God through first grasping that God is ineffable, an experience which the intellect by definition cannot grasp, we fall into the Black Hole of the intellect from which we cannot escape. For the issue is not really knowing God. By saying that God is ineffable, we are saying that God cannot be known. So what are we talking about? We are not really discussing God, but as Heschel writes, we are discussing that which can know God, our souls. We need to be introduced to our own souls. And if we are mortal and God is immortal and eternal, then the issue is not what we think of God, but what God thinks of our existence, of our mortality, of the fact that we exist at all. The issue is and always has been, not do we have faith in God, and not even whether God has faith in you, but who you are to be worthy of God’s faith in you.

In other words, we must look not at our experience of the universe, but at the universe as an object of divine thought, not us as simply independent agents, for, by definition, from God’s perspective, independence and individual agency are ruled out in advance,. Even if the Torah is all about teaching us to be responsible human beings and to take responsibility for the universe in which we live, from God’s perspective, we and the universe are objects of divine thought. Even if we do not yet – or ever – experience God’s presence, we are taken out of our minds, we are, in fact, driven out of our minds to open ourselves to the experience of God by first recognizing that God’s experience of the world is not ours. We cannot grasp the universe from the perspective of a being who is ineffable. That is just the nature of what it means to have a mind. And that is why such an experience must, and is the only way to grasp that we have a soul that can have such an experience.

That is an awful lot of verbiage to spend explicating the first couple of sentences of a chapter in Heschel’s book. For his book is just a reiteration of an Enlightenment precept articulated by Kant, that the mind, the brain, has its limits and can really only operate within those limits. If you try to grasp God from the perspective of a brain that works by giving finitude to the world of objects, then we cannot know we have a soul and, it follows, we cannot experience God’s presence, or, as I would add, even God’s absence. The only way to begin to know our own soul and begin the long road to experience God’s presence is not through the intellect but through intuition. This is Heschel’s central message.

Presence precedes essence. And intuition is the precondition for experiencing a divine presence. The intellect has to be bracketed.

I write this not to begin a theological discussion, but as an introduction to my experience of  the dance and sound performance of Akram Khan and his musical partners that I experienced at the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening. The performance cannot possibly be grasped or depicted in words. It has to be experienced. I have never seen a performance like it before. And thus the paradox – using words to depict what is not about words at all and that cannot be grasped by words that, in effect, reduce language, not to words, but to a wide variety of sounds and movements, to body and auditory language without words. And it is not only the sound of drums or the various voices on stage, but the sounds of silence, the sounds of the body language, not only with its foot-stomping flamenco rhythms, but with the sounds of silence as hands whoosh through the air, as shoulders jerk, as heads move as in a Thai dance.

Unlike simply a musical performance of a band or singing group, dance is movement without a text, without a vocabulary. Reading all the books on my shelves will tell me nothing about the experience of watching a dance company. This is even truer when the purpose of that dance company is to express the ineffability of both dance and voice. God is the witness to the experience of our ancestors. The construction of the mishkan, of the Tabernacle, can be described in exquisite detail. But what about the dancing of the Hebrews when they whirled with joy around the golden calf?

The faster the dance, the more exotic the rhythms, the more complex the movements, the less dance is able to be grasped and depicted through the language of the intellect. If flamenco is defined as the cry of the soul of the Spanish people, more particularly, the gypsies or Romani and the Jews, the Moors and the Andalusians, we have on offer one entry into how the ineffable God experiences the world, one entry point to our souls, one entry point from which to experience the ineffability of the divine presence.

There was evidently a back story to last night’s performance. I really did not know about it until I read the theatre notes. Evidently, the original show scheduled was a performance focused primarily on two dancers, the very famous flamenco dancer, Israel Galván and the equally famous British choreographer, Akram Khan of Bangladeshi descent and interpreter of Indian traditional music and dance, kathak, from which flamenco is believed to have been derived. What unites both forms of art is they are more direct aesthetic expressions of what is written in Torah, the experiences of pain and oppression, the lamentations and suffering of a people over time, and the moments of exquisite glory that like a flaming torch leads the people on its onward journey through history.

The back story is important. Israel Galván did not perform last night. The production, which was originally scheduled, was a duet–duel, like two rappers. It is a dialogue between these two traditions coming once again face-to-face, both having traveled via different routes through the Diaspora. But without Israel Galván, who had been ordered to rest for weeks, even months, to allow an injured knee to mend, the performance of TOROBAKA could not be presented.

Akram Kahn had written that Israel Galván is a sublime storyteller of rhythms, not rhythms of the past, but rhythms of the future,” “He [Galván] has opened my eyes into how and what is possible with flamenco, how one can deconstruct it, transform it and recreate it, in order to form new stories. After all, stories are what help us make sense of the world.” I would suggest one modification to what Khan wrote of Galván. “Not rhythms of the past,” I suggest he really meant, “not just rhythms of the past.” For, if the performance originally scheduled was even loosely akin to the performance of toro that we witnessed last evening, then the profundity of the music and dance comes not merely from its novelty, but from how the new and innovative can be enriched while raising up and preserving the past, the past even before there was a recorded past, the past prior to the mind going to work categorizing the world and writing down those stories.

I mention this back story because, after the performance I heard two different people say that, although they really liked the performance, it was too bad that they had missed seeing TOROBAKA. I wondered. Was my experience of God’s absence preventing me from fully, or even partially, experiencing God’s presence? For what we saw last night was so extraordinary, so outstanding, I could grasp how focusing to even a small degree on what is missing can interfere with experiencing what is present before us.

At the end of the movie, Revenant (which I promise to write about), when the picture fades, we still here Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) breathing. A very old friend from my activist days in the New Left in the sixties, whom I have not seen for decades, but whom I frequently read since he became a rabbi, Arthur Waskow, wrote an essay called, “The Breath of Life and Prayer.” It begins as follows:

For millennia, the Jewish convention has been to non-pronounce “YHWH” by saying instead, Adonai, “Lord.”  This fits with naming God as Melekh ha’olam, King or Ruler of the universe. Sometimes people (usually from other religious communities or influenced by academic teaching) try to pronounce the four-letter Name by adding vowels, so it becomes “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” But what if we broke the rule and “pronounced” that Name with no vowels?  I have invited hundreds of people to experiment this way, and for almost everyone, what happens is a breath, or the sound of wind. Spiritus in Latin is “breath” and “wind.”  In Hebrew, Ruach=breath=wind=spirit. “Spirituality” is what celebrates the interbreathing that connects all life. (What we breathe in is what the trees breathe out; what the trees breathe in is what we breathe out.) So we might begin our blessings, “Baruch attah [or Brucha ahtYahhhhh elohenu ruach ha’olam”—“Blessed are You, our God, the Breathing Spirit of the world.”

For me, YHWH as Breath of Life is not just a neat understanding of the four-letter Name, but a profound metaphor and theology of God. God as the Breath of Life, in-and-out- breath, that which unites all life, that which is beyond us and within us. Words are physical breathing shaped by our intellectual consciousness into emotional communication. Using words is one of the crucial aspects of being human (not absolutely unique to us, but by far best-developed among us). So for me, what we do when we pray or study Torah or share words of compassion is breathe our selves into the Breath of Life. We shape one major aspect of what makes us human, and part of the Breath of Life, into a conscious weaving of our breaths into the breath of life.

But there is breathing even before there are words. In the movie, Hugh Glass insists that, “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.” And his dead native wife appears to him as a floating ghostly figure and articulates at greater length the sense of the divine as ruah, as breath, as spirit. “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.”

Experiencing the breath of life inherently makes us feel insecure, on edge. And that is exactly what toro did last evening. Once, my wife walked away from an accident in which she flipped an ATV onto herself. It has left its memory written into her bones. But she walked away breathing. Toro is not just a bull, but is precisely to walk away standing, breathing and alive after wiping out. And that is what toro was about last evening. You could not help, if you attended, continually catching your breath, infusing ruach into your very being. It allowed us to get in touch with sound before there was language, with motion and gesture before there was ballet or the fox trot. Toro took us back to a time before intellectualization took place, before we were placed in the Garden of Eden, before we were instructed to categorize and give meaning to what we experienced, to a time when experience was direct and immediate before we constructed a correspondence theory of truth and organized language mediated between what we experience and how we articulate what we experienced.

Thus, the movement of animals – the bear in Revenant, the representation of animal movements the dances of Akram Khan. As the program notes expressed it, “The hunter, lost in the countryside, imitates the gait of the animal he has come to hunt. Words are yet to be defined; they are guttural sounds which are understood almost as if they were orders, acts of command. Every part of the body is expressive, movements are read, they have a function. “TOROBAKA!” But what happens when we have the bull without the cow, toro without baka. (Baca, as in Hebrew, is also vaca, “cow”.) We have even a more refined version, I suspect, of Adam living in the Garden of Eden before Eve came along. We have the expression of loneliness and inter-subjectivity without the experience of human intercourse. For, as in jazz, the dancers and singers play off one another.

Thus we have futuristic dance, dance and sound as fusion and reflection and resonance, but always with a reaching back to before we learned to play intellectual games, the choreography of kathak and flamenco with flamenco remaining as a residue where we experience its absence through its presence. As background to Akram Khan’s stamping and jingling ankle bells, to Khan wearing and dancing with flamenco shoes on his hands, Khan silences each of his singers in turn – except for the exceptional percussionist, B.C. Manjunath, without whose rhythms there could be no performance.

We have dialogue and tension, but not a duel between two very different paths of history, Sometimes, the sounds are purely guttural. At other times they mimic a Latin boys choir in a mediaeval church in something that sounds like Latin but is not. Thus, we have the great soloist, the speed, precision and virtuosity of Azram Khan accompanied by, no, really matched against, the Don Quixote of the troupe, David Azura, a countertenor, whose singular voice carries the sound of a full boy’s choir.

As a vocal contrast of David’s, we hear the voice of Christine Leboutte with a maternal and sometimes unusually gutteral contralto sound. What comes out of the mouths of the musicians just does not match their body types. David Azura could pass for a tall, bald and gaunt monk in a mediaeval church. Leboutte is a matronly earth mother with a voice that both startles and comforts. When Manjunath offers his vocal contributions, we are listening to the deep roots of scat in the jazz tradition, but the vocalizations resonate with something even deeper than the blues in the rapid-fire vocalizations that compete with the stamping. Then there is the portly bald and bearded rabbi of the troupe, Bobote, who just startles you when he performs flamenco numbers. And when he sings…! But he also performs with his arms as if he were Krishna standing in the shadow of Khan. And then his clapping, the intricacy along with its independent voice, sometimes performed with just fingers against a palm and sometimes with the sound of one hand clapping.

Arms weave and gesture, express awe and wonderment, while at other times commanding silence, telling us clearly in the voices and the sounds that what we are experiencing, that we are in the presence of the ineffable. So why long for an absence? What does it teach me about getting beyond the experience of an absence to intuit a presence?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Divine is in the Details

Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21 – 40:38) 

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening at our synagogue, we were treated to a dialogical discussion about specific biblical texts and commentaries – eight were offered and four were actually discussed – between Rabbi Mark Fishman from Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Montreal, an orthodox rabbi, and Rabbi Yael Splansky, our Reform rabbi. They have been having these dialogues once a month in the Canadian Jewish News and Yoni Goldstein, the editor of the paper, chaired yesterday evening’s session. Fishman is a very personable rabbi and feels quite relaxed addressing any Jewish audience. He does not seem to have any trouble or qualms about addressing a Reform congregation. He even went further in an angular response to a congregant who wanted the differences between Orthodox and Reform brought into sharp focus and discussion. As Fishman responded, he was interpreting text as a rabbi, not as a representative of orthodoxy. He presumed that and respected Rabbi Splansky for doing precisely the same thing. I hope I can offer due respect for what they said since I did not take notes and have had to rely on my memory.

One of the texts discussed last night was Genesis 43:29-33 and, more specifically, verse 32 that reads, “They served him separately and the Egyptian who usually ate with him separately.” The verse occurs in the context of the return of his brothers to Egypt for the second time, this time with Benjamin in tow as commanded. The brothers still do not recognize Joseph, the top government official in Egypt.

26 When Joseph came home, they presented to him the gifts they had brought into the house, and they bowed down before him to the ground.27 He asked them how they were, and then he said, “How is your aged father you told me about? Is he still living?”

28 They replied, “Your servant our father is still alive and well.” And they bowed down, prostrating themselves before him.

29 As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son, he asked, “Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?” And he said, “God be gracious to you, my son.” 30 Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.

31 After he had washed his face, he came out and, controlling himself, said, “Serve the food.”

32 They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians. 33 The men had been seated before him in the order of their ages, from the firstborn to the youngest; and they looked at each other in astonishment. 34 When portions were served to them from Joseph’s table, Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as anyone else’s. So they feasted and drank freely with him.

What did it mean that Joseph ate alone? Rabbi Splansky suggested that it meant that, although Joseph had reached the heights of success in the Diaspora, without being amongst his own people as well, he was utterly alone. Without explicitly referring to E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, she cited a dominant expression from that text – “only connect.”

Rabbi Fishman, if I remember correctly, focused more on the fact that the passage described how Joseph, who usually ate together with the Egyptians, then chose to eat alone. And we are told that, for the Egyptians, eating with the Hebrews was an abomination. The implication was that he was caught betwixt and between, for he could not eat with his brothers or the Egyptians would have been appalled. But if he ate with them, he would have effectively joined the group that Egyptians found it vile to eat with, the Hebrews, and then what would happen to the esteem in which they held him? In that sense, loneliness, just when you are supposed to break bread together, was his only option. One interpretation focused on Joseph’s emotional state while the other focused on the politics of the situation.

I myself had a third interpretation, more in line with Fishman’s, but with a twist. Joseph chose to eat alone because he wanted to send a clue to his brothers that he was not an Egyptian. It was not simply that he was being forced between two unacceptable choices and choosing a third as the least bad of the three options. The choice he made was a positive one consistent with his playing with his brothers prior to revealing himself, as he clearly longed to do as indicated when he went off alone to weep profusely at the sight of his younger brother, Benjamin. The issue was not primarily about incompatible political and moral choices nor about an existential crisis of loneliness, but about playful politics.

Now none of these three positions are incompatible with one another. Unlike the possibilities of Joseph eating with his brothers, eating with the Egyptians or eating alone, which are mutually exclusive choices, the above three interpretations are all possibly true at one and the same time, but the emphasis shifts from existential angst, to moral politics to manipulative politics.

A second passage for discussion was offered by Rabbi Fishman, the famous passage in which Adam and Eve had just eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and God goes looking for Adam who has gone into hiding. When God come across him, Adam explains that he hid because he was naked and afraid. The passage given to us followed: “And He [God] said, ‘Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?’ And the man said: ‘The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.’”

In Fishman’s interpretation, God was testing Adam and Adam failed the test. Instead of accepting responsibility for what he had done, he blamed what he had done on Eve and, indirectly on God Himself for it was God’s idea to give Eve to him as a helpmeet. I tried to remember whether Rabbi Splansky had a different take on this, but I could not recall. I do recall one person in the audience raising the question of the counterfactual – what if Adam had passed the test and owned up to what he had done? Fishman offered an interesting answer. There were two possibilities. In one, Adam and Eve in the company of God could have returned to enjoy the pleasures of paradise. But he suggested that this was unlikely, because God wanted them to leave the garden.

I confess that I found the discussion disappointing. For this is one of the most iconic and important portions of Torah text and is about something even more fundamental than the message about accepting responsibility and not projecting blame onto another, though it is surely about that. What was the original command? Do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil for if you do you will surely die. Note the following:

  • Neither Adam nor Eve dies, though they certainly now know they are mortal; just because he was made in the image of God, Adam has now come to recognize that he cannot be God whose essential character was that He was disembodied and could not die
  • The command was not a categorical moral commandment but a conditional one – If you do x, y will follow.
  • As Fishman said, the other tree was the Tree of Life; why was there a fear that Adam and Eve could have eaten of it and achieved immortality? Why did they not eat of that tree?
  • Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil meant Adam and Eve had sex and sex introduced both to a radically different kind of knowledge than knowing and naming objects; it was about coming to know another person and, in the process, thereby coming to know oneself, seeing oneself in a mirror as it were and seeing oneself as embodied.

The issue was not that Adam felt ashamed because he had no clothes on, but that he now clearly and unequivocally saw himself as embodied and thereby knew that eating of the Tree of Life was a fantasy. In effect, psychologically and intellectually, he was no longer in the garden of innocence and now had to go on the voyage of discovery of learning what it meant to be an embodied creature, what it meant to make moral choices, what it meant to now really experience the knowledge of what was good and evil. If the first lesson of that voyage of discovery was accepting one’s embodied and non-divine form, the second lesson had to entail assuming responsibility for your actions and not displacing them onto another.

My dissatisfaction was not with the lesson Fishman took out of the passage, but how the form of the discussion had impoverished the potential metaphysical richness beyond it. The divine and the devil are both in the details.

Fishman had offered another passage, Genesis 37:21. “And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his [Joseph’s] life.’” According to Fishman, this is the only time that the Torah tells a clear lie. For the brothers had thrown Joseph into a pit to be left to die. Travelers came by, heard his cries, rescued him and took him off to Egypt. Reuben, having felt guilty, went back to save Joseph’s life and sell him into slavery. But Joseph was no longer in the pit. So he retroactively made up a story and rewrote history in terms of his intentions and not in terms of what actually took place.

What unites all three passages is that they are each about accepting responsibility – the first being about Joseph accepting responsibility, not only for the well-being of his brothers, but for himself as a Hebrew with responsibilities for and to his people.

Before I turn to this week’s parsha. I want to discuss the fourth passage of commentary discussed last evening from Genesis Rabbah about a man traveling from place to place who saw a palace aglow/in flames (birah doleket). Did the passage mean that the travelers were appalled that the palace was on fire and the world that is God’s glory was on the verge of extinction, or is it a vision of fireworks, of a celebration of the palace that is God’s world in all its glory? These are two very opposed meanings, but again, they are both possible.

Perhaps trivializing the passage too much, it is seeing the glass half full  –  the fireworks from the palace of God celebrating the glories of this world – or, on the other hand, the glass half empty as we contemplate radical climate change because of human hands and the potential destruction of the world as we know it.

What has all this to do with this week’s parsha? First of all, it is about my own dissatisfaction with the discussion that skipped from one item to another without probing anyone of them in much greater depth. That is probably just my problem. But it is definitely related to this week’s text which is about details and depth.

We all know the expression that the devil is in the details. It has a mirror expression. In Gustave Flaubert’s words, “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail.” (The good God is in the detail.) Is it God or the devil in the detail – or is it details? Surely, it cannot be both. But why not? Don’t the two versions express the same thing, just as the term “detail” can both be a singular and a plural? The divine is in the detail because attention to particulars is critical to the success of any project. If one is to do something right, it has to be done thoroughly with meticulous attention to every detail. For if not, the devil is in the details. Miss out on one crucial item and, instead of the construction of a building of exquisite beauty and engineering, we get a balagan.

Do the divine and the devil both being in the detail point out two sides of the same homily? – if you want something exquisite, pay attention to the detail. If you do not, one detail left out can cause devilish destruction. Aspiration and caution are two sides of the same message. Attending to every small item is critical in accomplishing an important task. Of course, the same expression is cited when offered as an excuse for a delay. ‘It took longer than I thought because I had to pay so much attention to each step of the way.’

But the uses of the expression and the expression itself may be varied, but the meaning is constant. Attention to detail matters. So in this week’s portion we now have the accountant’s summary to add to the architectural and design detail of the mikshan. For accountability means not only taking responsibility for one’s action, but entails transparency and auditing of what took place. The world needs accountants as well as architects, engineers, and set designers. Further, after the architects, after the accountants, then the political leaders have to follow the exact details of their divine instructions. Only then, the Book of Exodus ends with the following:

When Moses had finished the work, 34 the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 36 When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; 37 but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. 38 For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

We return to the depiction of the divine as a cloud where the divine presence so fills the mishkan that there is no room for Moses. But when the cloud lifted, once again the Israelites could continue their journey, a journey that must have continued at night led by a torch for “a cloud of the Lord rested (on the mishkan) by day.” If there is anything where it is virtually impossible to grasp details, it is in a cloud or in fire. So we are faced with a paradox – a section of the Torah that has been all about details of architectural detail and the refined design of the artefacts, about construction details and detailed rules about usage, we are back to an old theme, God as a cloud by day and a fire by night, of resting by day and moving by night.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the details of Jewish ritual, particularly on shabat when we are commanded to rest, to be near the Tabernacle – not in it – when it is filled with the cloud of divine presence. Each of us, as Heschel said, is called to accept responsibility for being the architect of sacred time while the divine fills up sacred space. So when the detailed work was done, when the accounting was all completed, when the instructions on use were followed in all their detail, God as a cloud gets to occupy the space and there is not even room for Moses, the leader of the people. How can that be? How is it that the community is brought together as one nation, not in a space shared with God, with God’s presence being felt and experienced, but when the divine cloud takes up all of sacred space and the Israelites are left to cope with sacred time?

Often we are told that Judaism encourages communal more than individual worship, such as when we recite the kaddish. But I would attend to the other aspect of this depiction of the divine in the midst of His people, a depiction of the people outside the Tabernacle when it is filled with the cloud of the divine presence – the message of exclusion rather than inclusion, the vision of Joseph sitting and eating by himself while his brothers eat at another table, and his Egyptian friends and companions eat at a third.

God in the Torah is a God of frozen ice and fiery lightning that reigns down on the Egyptians. (Exodus 9:23-24). When the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, they were accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (Exodus 13:21-22) Once the mishkan is constructed, the pillar of cloud no longer leads the Israelites, but fills the Tabernacle so that the Israelites cannot move forward. In my interpretation, they must probe through the haze and confusion and figure out their next step and who they want to become. They must decide who should be the next president of the United States. That, only they can do, not God.

Of the items included in the mishkan, including rare gems and fine linens, the most important may be the mirrors of copper, at once artefacts of vanity and narcissism of self-obsession, of self-confidence and self-consciousness – among birds, only magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror. As Rabbi Fishman told us last night, when we read the Torah, we are holding a mirror up to our own souls. For the Torah is not just a text about history but a sacred text about who we are now and where we should be going, about our taking responsibility for oneself, but doing so in communion with others, about seeking and following a pillar of fire. As palace of sparkling fireworks with the glorious future beckoning and a palace on fire in which we face an apocalypse, about reconciling our best of intentions with our actual behaviour as we go forth from our land in search of a better world.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman