Monday, August 5, 2013

The Post-Modern Prayer Service

I've been in a funk lately, as regards to my religious life. Frankly, lately I've been finding that much of the prayer service bores me. The routine has become...routine. How can I get that old time religion?  How to get some passion back into the service?  Comic books perhaps??

Until recently, I'd never say that to anyone in public for fear of appearing like a total heathen. But what if the slings and arrows of modern life have left your faith worn out and depressed? If you're not connecting spiritually at Temple, where to go next...meditation?

The internet comes to the rescue!  There are now websites (or at least, one website) which allows you to create and customize a prayerbook online. I'm thinking specifically of Build-A-Prayer.  This website, designed by BBYO, provides you with a form with a series of check-boxes which allows you to specifically customize your own prayerbook. Every prayer in the Jewish prayerbook is offered as a check box option, along with fields for you to add your own original content.

How would a congregation use such a prayer book? Well...probably by requiring that each prayerbook include the shema, and let everything else be a check box option.  This is not to say that entire service is optional, only its important for Jews to connect with their prayer books, and providing for a way for an individual have some say in the content of the text is a good idea.

But there's a slight problem: if everyone in a congregation prints out their own customized version of the siddur, would the result be cacophony when the group tries to pray together in a synagogue? Yes and no. I'm envisioning a prayer service where there would be only two or three mandatory prayers, such as the "Shema" and "Shabbat Shalom". Every other part of service would require your own editorial involvement. Jews often joke to themselves that Jews never agree with each other. This website (Build a Prayer) isn't laughing: it recognizes that for what it is: a problem. No one likes to be dictated to (unless those who feel that they need that kind of structure); so instead of sitting there bored and unhappy, create your own version of the siddur (using congregation's text as a reference point)

You might ask yourself, "if everyone is praying out of their own personal prayer books, what's the function of the bima? If no one is "on stage", where do we direct our attention?" Answer...on your singing.

Here are my ideas for redesigning the prayer service so that it includes more meaningful participation by congregants. First, print out your own version of a siddur on Build-A-Prayer.  Then, to address other issues that crop up as a result of this change, consider this additional commentary:

[1] Use a multi-purpose room instead of the sanctuary. The sanctuary functions more as a theater than as an ideal place to encounter the divine (at least the ones I'm familiar with), due to its architectural layout.  Sitting in round minimizes the "rock star" factor, with no one being on stage.  The sanctuary, with it's beautiful architecture, is better suited for bar/bat mitvahs, concerts, and real theatrical productions. No service should create idols, include rock idols. Minimizing the "look" and "feel" of a theater would minimize problem.

[2] Have the service in-the-round; Put the focus on the Shabbat candles, the goblet of wine, the challah and its cover, and possibly the Hebrew text of the ten commandments (or even just the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet), and the Torah. This station (or stage) would be in the center of the service, serving a place to focus our attention, and a mnemonic device to actually remember for the ten commandments actually are. 

[3] Put the focus on singing. I was happy to learn that the Torah is actually supposed to be sung. When kids get their bar and bat mitzvahs, they have to chant a section of the torah using a very specific melody.  The entire Torah is supposed to be chanted, not spoken. God created torah by singing (that is, chanting) it.  So, you should sing too!

I've always admired the gospel choir. At times, I've thought, "how come Jews can't get that gospel spirit?!. I think it would be great to see Jews totally excited about  singing Jewish ritual music as if they were Ella Fitzgerald or or Big Mamma Thornton. There are actually Jewish drashes (i.e. commentary about a Torah portion) about how God likes it best when Jews pray with kavanah. So you want your prayers heard? Belt it out!

If there is to be more focus on singing, then there must also be classes in how to sing. I'm sure that a little vocal instruction would go a long way. How about having the congregation offer classes in how to sing? I'm sure congregants would love it.  I know I would love it.

Anyway, I discovered this website called "Build-A-Prayer", and it got me thinking about all kinds of related issues that crop up once you create your own private prayer book (that you intend to bring to a synagogue). One tenant of Reform Judaism (as I see it) is that it caters to a multiplicity of views.  The website "Build-A-Prayer" does a great job of doing just that.

Central to a congregations's identity is it's choice of a prayer book. I call this blog entry "The Post-Modern Prayer Service" because it's not advocating a fixed reference point (that is, the prayer book), with a fixed translation, nor a fixed table of contents.  With the internet, with websites that create customizable forms with check-boxes, we now have a new question: can a congregation be unified around a customizable website rather than a prayer book? I'm beginning to think that that yes, it's possible...and probably the way to the future.  But you'll have to bring your own Chumash.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Meta-Cosmological Questions: Is God's "Being" a Set of Empty Brackets?

In the beginning of Vayeira, the Lord appears to Abraham in the form of three men.  God's ability to morph into various creatures is something that always surprises me. I've got the bias inside of me that God must be a single "Being", and that a Being is one contiguous shape. 

God appeared as three men?Can you regard a society (for example, a group of three men)  as a "Being"?  I'd always assumed that a "Being" had a contiguous shape... (but  I know that that's not true...)

The dictionary defines a "being" as something that "exists". And what exists? 

The terms "exist" and "being" define each other: existence is defined as "being"; "being" is defined as "existence". But this creates a logical problem. Does EVERYTHING exist? 

Apparently any utterance has some sort of meaning, some sort of "existence" in the "world". Even logical impossibilities can exist, because we recognize them as logical impossibilities, and thus, name them as such. 

So, anything that exists can also be regarded as a being unto itself. This would have to include EVERYTHING; if you can name it, then it must exist (in some form or other). 

(Before I go any further, I should note that I'm well aware of the accomplishments of philosophers of language, who've clarified that nonsense words don't have the same type of existence as "real" words. Rather, logical impossibilities "subsist" in the world -- a sort of nether region where logical anomalies get to hang out without feeling ostracized...)

But this can't be right, can it?  Just because you can NAME something, doesn't mean that that that something actually exists. Then what am I talking about? Even nonsense words, or logical impossibilities EXIST. Why? Because they can be named.

Naming, as we learn from the opening words of Genesis, is a creative act. God spoke...and thus created the World. So here's a logical problem (using the logic of the Bible): what if God says something non-sensical? Is that also an Act of Creation?  Yes: God can create logical impossibilities (and even paradoxes) simply by thinking of them!

To clarify: God speaks...(even nonsense terms) and thus CREATES!

What about THINKING? Does that constitute a creative act on God's part? Must thought be verbalized (in the Torah) be have a Creative effect?

For me, it's not clear exactly what constitutes a creative act on God's part. 

If I take my cues from the opening lines of Genesis, then God's speech is the engine of Creation; God speaks, and World, with all of it's creatures, suddenly comes into Being. So, getting back to the opening lines of Vayeira, God appears to Abraham in the form of three men. Does that mean that God said to himself, "I am now three men"? Magic doesn't exist (half true; consider Mose's tricks...), but God's ability to do whatever He wants does. He thus has the power to bring into Being anything He can think up. If he can visualize it, it suddenly exists. If He can speak it, it suddenly exists.

 All of this talk about the power of talk has got me thinking: Who was God addressing when he made his statement, "Let There Be Light"? Why did He have to say anything at all? Why can't he create via THOUGHT? Must he "speak"? In the cosmic void, who's He talking to...Himself?  Where'd He learn how to talk in the first place?

I think I've just caught a glimpse of God. He looks like...a pair of brackets: an empty dynamic category, waiting for you (or Him) to fill the contents...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Kierkegaard's "Akeida" revisited...its a SHIFT in God's Consciousness

Earlier in this blog, I wrote about Soren Kierkegaard's book "Fear and Trembling", which studies the psychological baggage in the "Akeida" story. My conclusion back then was that Abraham failed God's "test" by agreeing to sacrifice his son, for he could just as easily rejected God's request and still come out looking good, for being a "mentsch". Well...that's what you call "post modern thinking": looking at the situation with the wrong CONTEXT. I now look at the story as being important, for it illustrates the shift in the mind of God...the story of Abraham and Isaac are just SYMPTOMS of what the REAL story is: a shift in the mind of God.  Here's my new view on the Akeida (which I'd written as a reply to my earlier post on the subject):

"Lately, I've been having second thoughts about my initial conclusion that Abraham failed the choice, by preparing his son Isaac to be sacrificed. Lately I've been studying Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmec, and it appears that they DID use human sacrifice. If you contrast those cultures to the story of the Akeida, I get a different perspective on Abraham: it's necessary for Abraham to prepare for a human sacrifice...but then to be interrupted, having the sacrificial victim spaced, and in his place, a non-human sacrifice is offered up instead. To simply judge Abraham as "wrong" would make sense only if you judge him by TODAY's values. But if you put yourself in the mindset of a pagan worshipper 4,000 years ago, human sacrifice would probably be understood as the way the Universe worked. The Akeida, when looked in its proper historical context, is actually revolutionary in the history of religion. It represents the first nudges towards HUMANISM: the value of human life. While there are still sacrifices, they'll be now be ANIMAL sacrifices...something that we moderns would still recoil from ...

I'd like to cut Abraham some slack. In today's world, his act looks incredibly abusive--and I'm sure it looked that way too way back when. But story is necessary to show the SHIFT away from human sacrifice...and the Akeida gives us a front row seat at the precise moment that that shift happened. Although it's easy to judge Abraham for being a mindless true-believing zealot. But the story isn't really about Abraham, nor is it about Isaac. It's about God. God needs the Akeida to tell the Jews (and thus, all the rest of the World) that human sacrifice is a cruel and unusual way of worshipping the Divine. Although the book first appears a catalogue of horrors, it's actually about a change in consciousness. Even Kierkegaard gets caught up in the psychological dynamics of it all. But I now think that the story is a giant red herring...because the real story isn't about Abraham or Isaac, but rather, a SHIFT in the Mind of God."

(Note: the phrase "Mind of God" is not some cheap effort at appearing "deep"; it is a concept that abounds in the "Zohar" (a classic text in Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism). The sephirot diagram, as it's described in classes in Jewish mysticism at Temple Emanu-el,  in Tucson AZ, is a "map of the Mind of God"). Our minds are plastic, and can grow. So why can't God's mind too? can and does! Exhibit A: the Akeida!)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Moses and his Hulk-like tendency to smash

 Why is Moses so short-tempered? Why does he have to take out his anger on precious objects? We're already familar with his smashing of God's tablets (upon seeng the Israelites dancing around a Golden Calf). Now, in Numbers, we've have the Israelites rebelling against Moses...and again, there's the Hulk-like tendency to smash.

In Numbers 20:2 (in Parshat Chukat) the Israelites are thirsty. They become hostile, and (as it is written) they turned against Moses and Aaron.  This provokes Moses to strike the rock of Miraba, which causes water  to pour out. The people have water,   but Moses falls from grace with God: He’s forbidden from entering into the Promised Land..

I’ve always been bothered by Moses’fate here: I’ve often felt that God was too harsh with Moses, forbidding Moses from entering the Promised, all because he lost his temper and stuck a rock with his staff. It was hot, people were dehydrated and complaining…But on closer reading,  I can see that scene is not simply about a leader losing his temper; it’s about ritual impurity, which is the theme that runs thoughout this entire parsha. Let’s look at this scene more closely:

First, as we learned in Leviticus 20:2, the people were without water.   They’re probably overheated and dehydrated, being in the desert.

Then, in the next line (Leviticus 20:3), some of the Israelites say something incredible.  When complaining to Moses for the lack of water,  they say, “if only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Eternal!

Perished at the instance of the Eternal? That’s an odd thing for an Israelite to say... unless it’s a clue about how to read what’s coming up next.  I think that it’s a reference  to the fate of Nadab and Abihu,

In line 20:6, we learn that the setting for this scene is actually before the Tent of Meeting. As it is written,  after Moses appeals to God for guidance, God gives Moses these instructions: “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock, and provide drink the congregation and their beasts”

I think that the proper way to read this scene. is that God is explaining a ritual to Moses. Moses is to perform the ritual,  God is to provide water from the rock, and the Israelites would praise God for His blessings.

It doesn’t work out that way.  In the very next line, Moses deprives God of the Israelites brucha (for providing water),  and also glorifies himself as a magician.  Angry with the Israelites for their complaining,  Moses says

“Listen, you rebels, shall we get water out of this rock?”, and Moses raised his
hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and their
beasts drank”

When Moses strikes the rock in anger, causing water  flow out of it, we’re supposed to look at this as analogous to Aaron’s sons bringing unholy fire into the Temple: it’s a form of ritual impurity.  The whole theme of this parsha is issue of ritual impurity

Many commentators have a hard time figuring out why God is so hard on Moses for this incident at the rock.  I’d like to suggest that if we view Moses’ angry outburst, and his striking of the rock, as a ritual violation,  perhaps that will shed some light on the subject.  Moses needs to be a better Moses! Moses not Hulk!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Inception", Dr. Strange, & Joseph: Three Dream Worlds

I just saw the movie "Inception", which is about an adventure that takes place in the "dreamworld". It's very much like the old Doctor Strange comics from the 1960's, which had a similar premise: two opposing forces fight it out in dreams. With Doctor Strange (at least in the beginning), troubled people would visit him in his office...but instead of offering psychological counseling or psychoanalysis, he would offer to enter the dream world of his patients by going into a trance, and then visiting his patients demons on their own turf: the world of the dream.

 Since Doctor Strange was a Marvel Superhero, he operated within a moral Universe: there was a force of cosmic Good, and a force of cosmic Bad. A superhero battle in the dreamworld of Doctor Strange thus represented a battle between Good Character (or Good Conscience) vs Bad Character (or Bad Conscience). This made Doctor Strange in interesting and compassionate character. Not only that, but Steve Ditko's artwork, which was a mash up of various schools of modern art (e.g. the surrealism of Salvidor Dali, the angular and geometric look of Russian Constructivism, and the graphic sharpness of Pop Art) So how disappointing that "Inception" has no moral core: it's has no heart. The plot involves some thieves who want to enter someones mind not to heal them, but to rip them off. The main character's motivation is to enter someones mind so he can get hold of a combination to a safe. How disappointing. (His secondary motivation is to convince his wife, who thinks that she's living in a bad dream, that she's not in a dream)

Compare the dreaming in "Inception" to incidents of dreaming of Joseph in the Torah. Joseph has several dreams, each which suggests that Joseph has a future of greatness, whereas his brothers do not. This so enrages Joseph's brothers, that they throw him in a pit, with the intent that he die. As it turns out, Joseph IS destined for greatness. He lives to meet his brothers again, this time as a ruler, and to have the chance to take the high road and reconcile with his brothers, who don't recognize him.

In "Inception", as in "Doctor Strange", the dream world is where the action takes place. Most of the movie is spent navigating the layers of the subconscious. It's got the logic of a video game: hit all your targets on one level before moving to the next level (of dreaming). But in the Joseph story, the dreams are incidental: they provide a motivation for his brothers to get jealous and angry, and thus set the story in motion. Although Joseph did have visions of greatness for himself, it didn't involve him achieving it by ripping off someone else.

Did anyone achieve any "wisdom" in Inception?'s all about accomplishing a mission. It's a very aggressive movie. In the Torah, when people dream, it's a sign from God; it's a forecast of the future; it's a sort of esoteric wisdom.  What about the dreams in Inception? Were they holy?. No, in this movie dreams are induced, forcibly entered, and then exploited.

 "Inception" would be far more interesting if it was a movie about sibling rivalry in the dream world. What would "Inception" be like if it used as its source Joseph's dreams of greatness? Suppose that Joseph had his dreams, and then his brothers plotted to enter those dreams in order to extract their revenge,(rather than extracting the ideas out of someone's head)  instead of throwing him in a pit? Perhaps Joseph would morph into Doctor Strange, so that he could confront brothers in his dreams. That would be interesting.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Exodus & Eugenics: The Mad Scientist as the new Pharoah archetype

When reading over parsha Shemot (actually, only the second paragraph, Exodus 1:8 - 1:12), which is the beginning of the Exodus story, I couldn't help feeling that Doctor Sivana (of the old "Captain Marvel" comic book series) is the modern face of Pharoah.

In the 1940's, there was a comic book series called "SHAZAM! The Adventures of Captain Marvel", which featured Billy Batson, Captain Marvel, and his arch enemy, the evil Doctor Sivana. Doctor Savana was continually thinking up plots to take over the world, enslave mankind, and beat Captain Marvel.

How illuminating a costume change can be! Normally, when reading the story of Exodus, I picture Pharoah as an Ancient Egyptian in period clothes: the head dress, the chin beard, the throne...  Envisoning Pharoah in that type of get-up keeps our view of Pharoah in the past. But today, in this brilliant and ominous world of science and technology, Pharoah would look much different. Today's Pharoah would be a mad scientist. (Where's the Mad Scientist as a character in today's culture? He seems to be absent) Doctor Sivana, of SHAZAM! fame, fits the bill perfectly; he's concerned with eugenics and a genocidal plot. How thoroughly contemporary.

In this parsha, we see a reversal of fortune for the Jews (or the Israelites, who are the proto-Jews)  As it says in the parsha, “A new king arose over Egypt who does not know Joseph”.   Immediately I’m suspicious. How could the new king not know Joseph? How could the new king not know the second-in-command in all of Egypt? I’d assumed that at that level of leadership, all of the big players would know each other.  But not the new king. So where did he come from? Who was he? I think that there was possibly some sort of coup back then, or at least some bad office politics. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a new king arrives who doesn’t know Joseph? 

In the next line, we see that the new king is obsessed with the Jews fertility rate.  He doesn’t even regard them as citizens of Egypt. Just look at the language in this line: “And he said to his people, ‘look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them so they may not increase”. “His people” doesn’t mean us. The king doensn’t even regard the Israelites as citizens of Egypt.

But what’s especially serious in that line I just quoted is that the king hatches a genocide plot to prevent the Israelites from creating successive generations.  Notice how the Pharoah says that he must deal shrewdly  with the Israelites, so that they may not increase. With the technology at Pharoah’s hands in those Ancient times, eugenics consisted of killing the Israelites male babies by drowning them as they were born, and throwing the fertile males into forced labor camps, inside of a “garrison city”, as it’s stated in this parsha. If Pharoah was alive today, imagine how much more shrewd he could be, with modern methods of making men sterile and women infertile at his disposable: radiation, chemicals, diseases, and other stresses.  Men and women who couldn’t conceive would never suspect that Pharoah had a hand in their biological misfortune.

I’m having a hard time getting past the first few lines of this parsha, because it seems impossible that a new king could arise in Egypt without having any knowledge of Joseph.  I’m also struggling with Pharoah’s fear of the Israelites. It seems to come from nowhere. Why’s he so afraid? 

I’m troubled by Pharoah’s ignorance of Joseph, and his paranoid campaign to wipe out the Israelites. Why's he so afraid of the Israelites? Where’s all of this paranoia coming from?  If you imagine Pharoah as Doctor Sivana, the answer becomes clear: Doctor Sivana's afraid that his evil plot will be uncovered!

Doctor Savana:  the new archetype for Pharoah??

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Technical Specs of Jacob's Ladder??

I've been thinking about Jacob's dream, where he sees a ladder rising up to Heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. It just struck me: why do angels need a ladder in the first place? Can't they fly?  Forgetting that question for a moment, lets consider the technical specifications of a ladder to Heaven.

First of all, without any clarification in the torah, artists are free to imagine what the ladder to Heaven might look like. Artist William Blake created a beautiful painting about Jacob's ladder, but where does it even imply that the ladder is a spiral staircase under a tent??  Nowhere! (Although Blake's work does conjure up a dreamy image that does feel sacred) I , however, would like to examine the ladder as a ladder, without much embellishment. I'd like to consider the ladder as a LADDER! This means that it would look more like something you'd find at Home Depot, rather than at the Guggenheim.

Let's consider some physical facts when trying to visual Jacob's ladder.

Clouds are roughly a mile above the ground : about 6500 feet) (source: here) So, what should we consider when constructing a ladder that's 6500 feet high?

First thing I thought of was "how many rungs are on this ladder?" "How far apart should they be?"

I figured that government engineers might have some standards I could use as a starting point. According to the OSHA website, "The minimum clear distance between the sides of individual-rung/step ladders and the minimum clear distance between the side rails of other fixed ladders shall be 16 inches (41 cm)." (source: here --scroll to 1926.1053(a)(4)(i))
So...the answer to the question, "how many rungs are on the ladder to Heaven" is roughly 4333. (If you assume that the rungs are spaced apart accoring to OSHA standards (i.e. 16 inches apart) AND you take into account the width of each rung (I assumed a 2 -inch rung size), then the formula for number of rungs on the ladder to Heaven becomes...the length of earth to sky (i.e. 78000 inches), DIVIDED BY 18 (i.e. the number of inches from rung-to-rung; 16" being the OSHA standard for distance between ladder rungs + the width of each rung, which I've assumed to be 2 inches) comes out to roughly 4333 rungs.

"This works out my leg muscles real good!" (image source: Comic Book Siddur)

Once I had a clearer vision of what an actual ladder to Heaven would have to require from an engineering standpoint, my vision of what the angels looked like started to change. Initially, a had a sweet vision of fresh faced choir members floating around the ladder, as if they were are all riding an escalator in a department store. 

A DRASH OF THE RIDICULOUS: Is there wisdom in laughter?
But as the details of the ladder came into clearer focus (due to my calculations), my impression of angels ascending and descending a ladder changed: I began to imagine what someone climbing up and down a ladder would look like: it's not as graceful as I'd initially imagined! I saw figures holding onto the ladder they would fall, straining to hang on as they strained to get up and down each step. Or do angels show signs of strain at all?   My image of angels ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven became more absurd and grotesque, the more literal I tried to make that vision.    I also began to worry about someone ascending and descending a ladder which was over a mile high. Yikes!

Jacob's dream had a meaning. So why does its "message" seem to change when I focus on the technical specifications of Jacob's Ladder?  Does my turning to OSHA standards make it ridiculous? Maybe...but why? There has go to be SOME specifications for a ladder. I mean, Bezalel was given very specific instructions from G-d re: how to build a tabernacle. So why should a ladder be any different?