Zaida: Remembering My Grandfather

Meyer Gindin photo obit

This is an unusually personal piece. I wrote it last October while my grandfather, or “zaida” in Yiddish, was dying of cancer and finished it shortly after he passed away. My zaida was a holocaust survivor and an amazing man who was an inspiration to the whole family and beyond. There are few survivors left. In a few years there may be none left, aside from a few people like my Dad who were children during the Shoah or in the DP camps after the war and can remember very little of what happened. 

I.

It is 1951. My zaida is a greenhorn just arrived in New York City. He has spent the last 12 years trying to survive and save his family from pain and death at the hands of their foiled executioners, millions strong and armed with guns, warplanes, radios, and all of the resources of the most advanced country on earth. He has succeeded.

He cannot speak english. He is looking for his one surviving brother, who is much older than him. Because this one brother left the old country for America when my zaida was a child, my zaida was later kicked out of the Russian army for having American ties and sent to a Siberian labour camp. He survived that too. My zaida’s name, Myer, means “light”. His wife, my baba, has a name which means “beautiful”.

Myer is following another Jew down the street. They are speaking Yiddish together, and Myer has gone from being lost to being found.

II.

My zaida Myer is led into a room where the voices add Russian to Yiddish. An old man sits among the others playing cards. It is his long lost older brother, the only other survivor.

His brother and the other New York Jews set Myer up with a room to stay in, money, food, and friends. He has never had it so good. After a few weeks he begs them to find him some work but they are not in a hurry. They know what he has been through.

Myer has been arguing with his wife about whether they should stay or go to Winnipeg, Canada, where her parents Gedala and Hyitl have been resettled, having gotten out of Europe sooner. She wins, which he will complain about for the rest of his life.

III.

1935. My grandmother’s father, Gedala, has put all of his money into sending his daughters Rya and Sarah to a tarbut, a new kind of Zionist Jewish school where they will learn the emerging modern style of Hebrew and get a secular education as well as education in Jewish culture. On the way to school every morning my Baba Rya and her older sister Sarah walk fearfully, their eyes peeled for non-Jewish Poles who gather to throw stones at them, spit on them, call them dirty Jews. My Baba will acquire Hebrew with a modern sefardit pronunciation. She will weather the humiliation of being pulled out of school one year because Gedala can’t afford it. She will learn to play the mandolin, and will do so until a nervous condition developed during the holocaust scars and disfigures her hands.

IV.

My zaida is late for shul. His older brother, who is an atheist and a marxist, slaps him for being late to the religious service. “Show papa some respect!”, he barks. Papa, Reb Shmuel, is an orthodox litvak, a non-Hasidic but pious Jew who teaches Talmud and Rashi in the synagogue and acts as a cantor during the high holidays. Myer will follow in his brother’s footsteps, join a Jewish socialist group, and hang out with the Red Army soldiers stationed in his town of Glemboka. It’s those soldiers who will tell him that the pact between Russia and Germany will fail and the Germans will come. They tell Myer to leave with his family before the Nazis get there.

When Myer tells his family he is leaving and why they are unmoved- they do not believe the stories of the Germans could possibly be true. Myer is adamant, already showing the prescience and cunning which will serve him so well later. He begs to be allowed to take one of his brothers, but his parents are firm that he will not break up the family. His father touches his head and bensches (blesses) him. Myer leaves alone and heads for Russia.

V.

1941. My baba Rya is taking food and clothing into a detainment complex where her father is kept. Drafted into the Polish army, Gedala is now a POW. His wife Chayitl and his two daughters are staying near the camp and doing what they can to take care of him. One day the family meets a handsome young Russian officer, a Jew, who is helping to get some basic amenities to the many migrants and refugees who need it- firewood, boots, bread. The young officer takes an interest in Rya, who is a beautiful, diminutive teenage girl of 17. Eventually they will marry in a back alley somewhere in Russia, secretively, hurriedly,  with a hastily put together minyan (quorum), Myer and Rya Gindin.

VI.

Through a series of unlikely events Myer has a key position in the leadership of a Russian munitions plant in Siberia. Months before he had been called before a committee of three men from the Party, one of them a Jew, to be examined as a possible candidate for helping with the plant. The men asked Myer a few questions and dismissed him. Myer took a shot. He had spotted the Jew. Figuring he might play on the man’s compassion, as he turned around to leave he faked a limp (which would mean he as useless as infantry). The man stopped him. “Amcha?”, he asked in Hebrew.Who are your people?

Yisroel, Myer replied in his ashkenazi Hebrew. He was given the position. Through superhumanly hard work he rose in the plant hierarchy, gaining the trust of the upper managers. They put him in charge of finding resources- scrap metal, industrial materials- to be turned into the weapons of war against Germany.

VII.

My zaida arrives cold and exhausted in Glemboka. He has gone back to see what has become of his family, and to tell them of his marriage. He rode the rails all the way there, a huge distance which took a weeks travel. The Jewish area of his village, the largest part of the village, is a ghost town. His family home is empty. In a shack erected outside of the home he finds the family’s shabbes goy- the gentile housekeeper they hired to look after the farm and house without the restrictions Jewish law placed on them. She tells him the story.

The Nazis did come, and they exterminated the town’s Jews. Myer’s family was lined up by a giant grave and gunned into a pit. Shmuel, his wife Bluma, Yankl, Shepsl, Yehuda, Baruch, Avraham, Zerah, Mendel, Ephram, Raphael, their wives and children….The shabbes goy saved some of their things in a locked room in case Myer came back. He takes a pair of boots for Rya and leaves the rest for her. He walks back to the train, back to Russia. For the rest of his life he will search phone books for Gindins. Maybe one of them escaped. Maybe.   

VIII. 

1943. My zaida is standing trial before an army tribunal, court-martialled. He is on trial for black market racketeering. He was turned in by a man, a barber, who he helped get a pair of boots. Someone planted whisky in his room, and he is being accused of hustling resources and moonshine. His government appointed defence lawyer is useless and Myer is sentenced to ten years in prison.

That night his dead father, Shmuel, comes to him in a dream. Make an application, my son, he says, and you will be freed.  Myer awakes to see a white bird tapping on his window, and then it flies away. Myer follows his father’s advice and gets an acquittal.

IX.

Myer and Rya cross European borders underground, looking for safe haven.They end up at one point in Ural, Siberia, where their first child is born. They name him after Myer’s father Shmuel. Myer refines his hustling abilities, making one potato become, after a day of trading among the poor, a small meal- maybe a loaf of bread and condensed milk for his wife and child.

A Jewish organization called bracha (blessing) gets them into Austria as the Allies win, and they end up in A DP camp on the river Danube where they will live in squalid, cramped conditions with other holocaust survivors for five years awaiting a country to immigrate to. The camp is near Linz, where Hitler was born. My Dad, whose Hebrew name Yehuda derives from one of Myer’s murdered brothers, is born there and lives there until the age of five.

My baba and zaida tell me of their flight into Austria, walking through snow covered forests with broken shoes, my baba’s pregnant belly poking through her undersized dress. They sneak across the border at night, my zaida begging one year old Shmuel to be silent, which, miraculously, he is. As soon as they step into the warmth of the safehouse Shmuelke begins to wail.

XI.

After my baba and zaida moved to Winnipeg my zaida took several jobs: a denim cutter, laying floor tiles, cutting glass. They lived in the poor part of Winnipeg’s North End. Myer eventually bought into a convenience store, and then borrowed money to invest in real estate. Working constantly, figures dancing in his brain, forming alliances and cultivating connections, Myer eventually bought and sold dozens of hotels and parcels of urban real state and became a wealthy man. He supported his sons, buying them property, paying off their debts, buying them businesses, making investments on their behalf. He helped put his grandchildren through school, financed their housing, flew them to Florida to visit him and Rya in the Winter or Winnipeg to visit them in the summer. Nights he did not sleep. He read voraciously, mostly about WW2 history, Jewish history, European history, understanding what happened in ever finer detail, spreading out through trajectories of historical space and time.

XII.

It is 2003 and I am a Buddhist monk. I am sitting on a wooden platform in hand-dyed burnt orange robes, with a shaven head and eyebrows. My Zaida Myer, and my uncle Sam are there, in an impossible and surprising gesture of solidarity. They are sitting across from me on a wooden bench peppering me with questions. They will ask me more questions in 20 minutes about the logic and intricacies of Buddhist monastic life than I have received in the previous two years. They head back to their motel room after agreeing to return the next morning to spend the day together.

The next day Sam, Myer and I go to a bookstore for coffee. Sam goes to the bathroom and my zaida leans in toward me. “Mettyu”, he says in his Yiddish accent, “I want you to know something. I might have my ideas about what you should do. And you might have your ideas. But whatever you do, and wherever you go, I will always love you.”

XIII.

2015: My father’s voice sounds lighter on the phone now. He has had a night and day to digest his father’s diagnosis with terminal cancer, and his natural philosophical optimism is kicking in. “I gave him the Feldman argument”, he said, citing the good death of his friend Bill Feldman a decade earlier, “People die all the time without knowing it’s coming. This way you get to put all of your affairs in order, say goodbye to everyone.”

In the background I can hear my zaida talking, then singing. My Dad holds up the phone so I can hear his amused, Russian-Yiddish sounding singing voice intoning, “I’ve got plenty of nothing….and nothing is plenty for me!”

IV.

 A week later My zaida gets the prognosis: 3-6 months. “What if I want to make it quicker?”, he asks. The doctor changes the subject. We visit him a couple of weeks later. My son lies in bed with him and they make funny noises.We talk privately. He says to me, “70 years of work, what did I accomplish?”

Thinking he is fishing I say, “What did you accomplish? You built an entire family! Everything we have is because of you. You built everything.”

“Did I?”, he asks, “Maybe it was God. I don’t know.”

The next day I am asking him questions about the war, clearing up parts of the story. He tells me my Dad got him a book about Jesus (Killing Jesus) a couple of months before. “Do you believe Jesus existed?”, he asks.

“Sure”, I say.

“Who killed him?”, he asks.

I am not sure what to answer with, so I choose what seems safe: “Pontius Pilate.”

“Both sides played a part”, he says correctly, making a matching hand gesture. “So we both have blood on our hands.”

I nod.

“He was a socialist”, he says dismissively. “If they hadn’t killed him nobody would remember him.”

I don’t say anything. He begins talking about God, denying his existence. My baba told me in the night he was asking her why God was punishing him. “He doesn’t talk like that”, she said. I begin asking him about his father, who came to him in a dream and saved his life after his death. I want to do a small something to turn his thoughts that way. Where did his father come from? Might there be something beyond the grave? Family members come in and disrupt the conversation. I make one last attempt: “Your father, he came to you….where did he come from?”

“He was dead!”

“I know…”

He loses the thread, starts talking about his trial. About going back to Glemboke during the war. He begins weeping. “When I walked into the forest, blood came up through the soil.”

We talk a little more, and then it is time to go. We exchange gestures of affection and I tell him I will call him the next day from Vancouver. When I call from Vancouver after that he is not well enough to talk. Two weeks later he is moved, at his own request, into hospice care. Before he goes to sleep that night he turns to his wife and asks, “Do you want to come with me?” That night he dies during his sleep, like a heavy, broken tree falling finally to the earth.

 

Vogons Behind NEB Hearings on Kinder Morgan Pipeline

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In a move which has surprised no one in the universe, except for the actual residents of the Earth the Vogons have long wanted to destroy to make room for a hypergalactic speedway, the spacefaring bureaucrats with a penchant for unutterably bad poetry have come out with an official statement supporting the NEB hearings over Kinder Morgan pipeline construction in BC. The hearings have been widely criticised for ignoring public input and for bias towards Kinder Morgan’s pipeline plan, which critics charge will do grievous harm to the local BC ecology and speed up the probable destruction of human civilization itself.

Moved by what apparently constituted ecstatic excitement but appeared to observers as a bad case of gas, one Vogon cleric burst into a poetic ode to the Kinder Morgan Pipeline which began:

Oh freddled gruntbuggly…..

The following lines were not reported after all the human reporters in attendance ran into a nearby river screaming and attempting to pull the ears off their heads. One reporter in attendance, who had cleverly inserted steel earplugs before the onslaught, was Ford Prefect, apparently a visiting alien of unknown origin. When asked about the Vogons and their intentions he pulled out an Hitchhiker’s Guide and read:

Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders – signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.

Reflecting on the NEB hearings thus far Chloe Hartley of Dogwood Initiative wrote, “This NEB review has been a carefully orchestrated process designed to defeat the public.” Hartley wrote that in a piece titled What’s a Public Hearing Without The Public? “Public Hearings Without The Public” are, of course, a Vogon speciality, as written above in the Guide.

Four Thoughts of Dogen on Time

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Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) is widely considered one of Japan’s greatest philosophers. He was a monk in the Soto Zen tradition and a poet and religious essayist. He left behind him a body of writings called the Shobogenzo which contains almost 100 essays which resemble what in the West would be called “theology”, except that they deal with Zen Buddhist preoccupations. The essays are bold, labyrinthine, beautiful and profound. Today they are a major inspiration for contemporary Soto practitioners and have spawned a small academic industry of interpretations. One essay, Uji (For The Time Being), deals with the nature of time. Below I’ve posted a contemplation on four of Dogen’s thoughts in Uji, from a collection of Dogen’s writings co-edited by my friend and teacher Peter Levitt.

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Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time. The reason you do not clearly understand the time being is that you think of time only as passing.

We often think of time as something people are losing. Time flows by, and we lose more and more time. It is as if time were sand in an hourglass flowing away, or as if we were all leaking time.

Dogen is pointing out that just as all things have a spatial dimension, all things have a temporal dimension. Just as the space of a thing is not separate from it but part of it, so the time of a thing is not separate from it but a part of it.  Time is not just something “passing away”. Time is being, and being is time. We do not lose or gain time. We are time.

Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If they were not time, there would be no mountains or oceans. Do not think that mountains and oceans here and now are not time. If time is annihilated, mountains and oceans are annihilated.

Time is as much a part of me as breath, skin, bone, or thinking. Time is actually even more fundamentally a part of me: I can live for moments without breath, skin, bone or thinking, but not for one moment without time. Not just without time: without being time. When we resist time we become divided against ourselves. We should love time, because time is our most intimate friend. Our intimacy with time is our intimacy with ourselves. To resist time is to resist being a creature. Yet we only exist as creatures. We only exist as limited beings. Those limitations are not limitations on our being but conditions for existing at all.

The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

The self- you or I- arranges itself as a world. We exist always as a world, and that world has flowing through its fabric both space and time. Every thing is thus a moment of time. A car is a moment of time. A word is a moment of time. A cloud, a coffee, you, me, are all moments of time.

Spring always flows through spring. Although flowing itself is not spring, flowing occurs throughout spring.

I flow throughout myself. Although flowing itself is not me (since we all flow) flowing occurs throughout me. In my very nature I flow, just as a river or, as Dogen would say, a mountain flows.

Is there any part of me that doesn’t flow? Most Buddhist philosophers have said that there is. Dogen’s view on this is controversial. I believe he would say that there is, and that part is what is experienced when “body and mind drop off” (shinjin datsuraku). Dogen says that when this happens “the original face appears”. Thus something appears. It is not the cessation of experience.

Some traditions, notably Hinduism but also some Buddhists, refer to this that appears as “the self”. I think this is misleading, while also in a certain way pointing to a truth. What is misleading is that what appears is not our individuality. It does not have spatio-temporal characteristics. It is not what makes Jane Jane or Franco Franco. That self, which is what we normally mean by “self”- the bundle of body, mind, experiences, knowledge, choices, etc which make me different from you, includes time within its being and experiences itself as time as it flows.

The original face is not a self in the sense of something that lasts (it does not last as an object in a world since it is not an object in a world). It is also not a self in the sense of something that confers individuality. Yet in a way it does last, and in a way it does confer individuality. This is because it is the ground of our experience. It is an open space which allows us to be. In the words of the Dzogchen practitioner turned Catholic theologian Stratford Caldecott, this ground of our being spoken of by both Buddhist and Christian mystics is both gift and grace. When we meet it we meet that without which our flowing self of time and space could not exist.

In the thought of Jewish kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572), when God created the universe S/he first created an empty space in herself where a universe could go- like a womb. This space is called the halal panui, the empty place. As Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi pointed out, this is actually a space where God appears not to be. It is actually bristling with divine energy- it is an empty fullness. This may be sounding familiar to Buddhists, though of course most would reject the idea that this empty fullness (tathata/shunyata) was created or exists within God.

However you look at it, the fact remains that this “empty space”, this urgrund, this empty fullness-full emptiness, is the gift that comes to us and allows us to be.

The time being has a characteristic of flowing. So-called today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday, yesterday flows into today. And today flows into today, tomorrow flows into tomorrow.

Each moment flows into itself and flows as itself. All moments are also interconnected and interdependent. Hence they are always already flowing through each other. How you experience anything depends on your position in time and space, and the rate of your flow, as Einstein showed. Those who have studied Indo-Tibetan Madhyamika philosophy know all of this relative interdependence is necessarily true for their to be “times”, for there to be “spaces. This is because if an object were defined by itself it could not change or interact with other objects. The same is true of a moment of time.  If anything solid were found anywhere it would gum up the works, and the luminous gears of the cosmos would grind to a halt.

The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

The way the self arrays itself is as a moment of time. Time is not our destroyer, for time loves us into being within the space that God gives us within Herself.
-All quotations are from: Kazuaki Tanahashi, Peter Levitt. The Essential Dogen. Shambhala, 2013.

Other sources:

Caldecott, Stratford. The Radiance of Being. Angelico Press, 2013.

 

  

Loving The Alien: David Bowie and the Leper Messiah

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The world reels this week from the loss of it’s leper messiah, David Bowie, the man who fell to earth. Bowie positioned himself consciously as a spaceman, an enigma, a “blackstar” which emitted not light but mystery. Bowie gave hope and consolation to outcasts throughout the world- especially artists, LGBTQ people, musicians and poets, and even bookish Jewish misfits like me (as discussed by Jay Michaelson here).

David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, was more than anything a brilliant musician and lyricist and that was what I loved him for. Yet contemplating his career one cannot help but meditate on the power of his persona. Bowie’s greatest creation, apart from his art, was “David Bowie”, an alias which itself had so many aliases that it was practically Talmudic in its self-referential hypertextuality. In actual practice the two went together, persona and logos, and Bowie created a legacy of intertwined words and images which shed light on each other.

Bowie contemplated spiritual matters throughout his artistic career, though this often came through in subtle, enigmatic ways. Songs like Sex and the Church, Saviour Machine, and  Loving The Alien explored Christian themes, and Station to Station even references Jewish Kabbalah when Bowie sings, “here we are, one magical movement from keter to malkhut”, ie. from the unmanifest down the pathways of the tree of life. On top of that “station to station” is, Bowie said, a reference to the stations of the cross. On his brilliant last album this becomes even more pronounced, as Christian imagery plays out in at least three of the songs (Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Blackstar muses on the enigmatic presence of God and Bowie’s own identity as an icon soon to live beyond his own lifetime; Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away explore the theme of resurrection (“the pulse returns to prodigal sons” in the latter). Lazarus contemplates Bowie’s own impending death. It opens “Look up here/ I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars you can’t see” ( a clear contrast to Jesus who after his ascension has visible scars). In the song Bowie indeed pictures himself ascending to heaven (and amusingly losing his cellphone along the way) and then becoming free “as a blackbird, ain’t that just like me?” The video, which ends with Bowie disappearing into a dark closet also depicts him as a blind prophet on a hospital bed cavorting in movements halfway between levitation and crucifixion.

Messianic imagery appeared early on in Bowie’s career and has been a staple. The album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars depicts an androgynous alien rockstar messiah ultimately destroyed by the masses he came to save. Bowie tellingly refers to Ziggy as a “leper messiah”, a saviour who is himself a frightening outcast. In one of the album’s songs, Starman, a child hears a late night transmission on the radio about a “starman/waiting in the sky/he’d like to come and meet us/but he thinks he’d blow our minds”. The child tells a friend (“don’t tell your papa or he’ll have us locked up in fright”). The starman’s message to the children: “He’s told us not to blow it/cause he knows it’s all worthwhile/He told me:let the children lose it/ let the children use it/ Let all the children boogie.”

Messianic imagery continues to haunt his lyrics and iconography right up to his last two albums. On his penultimate album The Next Day he featured a song (and even moreso a video) which is a daring and disturbing midrash on the messiah and the institutional church. The song is narrated from the perspective of an aging Bowie, who sings “Here I am/ not quite dying/ my body left to rot in a hollow tree/ its branches throwing shadows/ On the gallows for me”. He tells a story of a hunted prophet/christ figure who is chased through the alleyways with whips by a “gormless (i.e. foolish) crowd” who bring him to a sadistic priest for death. The demonic priests  “live upon their feet and they die upon their knees/They can work with satan while they dress like the saints/They know god exists for the devil told them so.” The unsettling video (which is not for young viewers or the faint of heart) depicts a shady, worldly club frequented by Catholic priests. One of the priests, played by Gary Oldman, assaults a poor beggar on the way in. Once inside the priests enjoy the company of prostitutes and the spectacle of a flagellant whipping himself. Bowie, dressed like a Franciscan Friar, denounces the crowd from the stage. In the bizarre denouement one of the prostitutes, who has been dancing with Oldman, suddenly develops stigmata and begins spouting blood from her hands.

This controversial video, which understandingly upset Catholics a fair bit, seems to me to make a valuable point that is consistent with Bowie’s use of messianic and prophetic imagery throughout his career. In this video the institutional priests are pharisees and hypocrites. The true form of Christ appears in the prostitute who is a scorned outsider being humiliated and exploited, giving up her body and blood for others.

In Bowie’s art the messiah is an outsider, an alien, who comes from outer space. This messiah affirms the outcast and outsider, and is himself “leprous”- strange and frightening. It is clear to everyone that to some extent this reflects Bowie’s self-understanding, and to some extent is a mission statement for the icon he was trying to create in Ziggy Stardust and the persona of “David Bowie”. What made Bowie strange, frightening and liberating was his radical affirmation of art and freedom of self-expression (including cross-dressing and using the male body as a canvas for art) and his open-ness about his bisexuality.  As comedian Sara Benincasa wrote, “I do not believe it is a wild exaggeration to say that there are on this earth today many people who would not be here without David Bowie….he gave them a reason to stay alive when perhaps they did not want to. He was the patron saint of all my favorite fellow travelers: the freaks, the fags, the dykes, the queers, the weirdos of all stripes, and that most dangerous creature of all: the artist.”

While today we may take for granted the freedom in much of Western culture, it was not always so and still isn’t so in much of the world. Bowie started off as a tall, strange looking artist walking around London in a dress being sweared at. By the mid-70’s he had changed the landscape. We may not agree with everything he stood for at times (like promiscuity, drug use, or for some the gender-bending sexuality itself) but aside from the power of art and the mind Bowie’s legacy still stands for something else even more important: loving the alien.

Bowie’s understanding of the Messiah has in the end a surprising depth. Bowie’s saviour figures are not figures of power or awe. They are strange and unsettling and they come “to seek and save what is lost” (Luke 19:10) and “not for the righteous but for sinners” (Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:13, Luke 5:32). The Talmud asks, “Where now is the Messiah?” and answers, “He sits outside the gates of the city, changing the bandages of lepers (Sanhedrin 98a).”  Bowie’s alien messiah is the saviour of the lost sheep, whose stigmata appears not in priests who protect boundaries but in hookers, addicts, and yes- artists.

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Update (Jan 14): In a pleasantly surprising move,  Christianity Today, which is the #1 mainstream Christian magazine (and was made what it is mostly by Billy Graham) has published an authentically appreciative and thoughtful eulogy about Bowie here.

 

Chatral Rinpoche Passes Away (with some thoughts on Thomas Merton)

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On Jan 5 the Himalayan sage Chatral Rinpoche passed away at the age of 102. Rinpoche was a long time ascetic, practitioner of dzogchen (a Nyingma meditation tradition), and spiritual teacher. He studied with many of the masters considered “greats” within the 20th century Vajrayana Buddhist world, and taught many of the leading teachers of today at some point in their lives. He was a man of enormous spiritual “weight”, an old elephant, a true sage. With his passing there is a feeling the earth just got dangerously lighter.

Here are some words from Harold Talbott, who travelled with Thomas Merton in Asia. From a Nyingmapa website:

“In Asian Journal, Merton refers to the Dzogchen Nyingmapa lama Chatral Rinpoche as the person he would choose as his teacher.

Talbott: He was Merton’s man. Chatral Rinpoche really gives the flavor of the Tibetans. I wouldn’t dream of studying with him, or anybody remotely like him, because he is totally and completely unpredictable. He is savage about ego and he will put you on the spot and I am not prepared to up the ante to that degree.

Tricycle: Why did you choose to introduce Merton to him?

Talbott: I wanted to make sure that Merton met all the outstanding lamas that I could dig up. In Dharmasala he met Avalokiteshvara-the Bodhisattva of Compassion-in the person of the Dalai Lama and I think okay, I’m doing my job, I’m getting him the whole spectrum of the force field. But of course that will an opportunity for me to hide behind Merton’s skirts and also meet Chatral Rinpoche who I’m terrified of.

He could throw stones at you- as he does do-and so I will use Merton as the front. We caught up with Chatral Rinpoche down the road from Ghoom in Darjeeling. He was painting the nuns’ house and he put some planks on some bricks and we sat and talked with the help of an interpreter. Chatral Rinpoche started by saying “Ah Jesus lama; you know I have never been able for the life of me to get a handle on Christianity so I’m real glad you came this morning.”

Tricycle: Did he know who Merton was?

Talbott: No. But he explained his perplexity about Christianity. He said, “The center of your religion is a man who comes back to life after death and in Tibetan Buddhism when you have one of those people, a rolog, or a walking corpse, we call our lama to put him down.

So I want to know what kind of a religion is Christianity which has at its center a dead man coming back to life.” So Merton explained the Resurrection in tantric terms about the overcoming of fear and the utter and complete power of liberation which is the center of Christianity. And this satisfied Chatral Rinpoche.

Tricycle: Freedom from fear?

Talbott: Freedom from all kinds of constraints and restraints. A man has died and he has come back in a glorious body and he has freed us from fear of death and fear of life. That’s freedom.

Tricycle: Because it’s eternal.

Talbott: No. If the universe is a place where a man can live again in a glorified body and teach the truth, then the world is a free place. And Chatral Rinpoche says, “At last I understand Christianity.Thank you very much.” And Merton says, “I would like to study with you.” And Chatral says “Right, we can work together. And so you’ve got to do your own ngondro (the preliminary practice of Dzogchen, which usually takes a Tibetan about a year).

We’ll get you a hermitage in Bhutan and that is where you should do your retreat. And I challenge you: see, I’m not enlightened yet, so let’s work

together and see which one of us can get enlightened first.” And so Merton said, “it’s a deal.” And so then we split and Merton says, “That’s the greatest man I ever met. That’s my teacher.” But they weren’t his exact words.

Tricycle: In Asian Journal he says if he took a teacher, that’s who it would be.

Talbott: Yes, but he would never have left the Church.”

Merton is a truly inspiring man: a devout Christian capable of revering and learning from the sages of other religions. My reading of the above meeting is that Chatral Rinpoche may have been testing Merton when he referred to Jesus as a “rolog”, a kind of Tibetan zombie, to see where Merton was coming from. If Merton has gotten offended or launched into a hyper-intellectual explanation he would have been revealed as coming from a place of ego or intellect, not heart practice. Instead Merton was unoffended and met Rinpoche skillfully, explaining the resurrection in a way which held true to the Christian view of it yet presented it in a way a man like Rinpoche could understand and value. Bravo, I would say. Having practiced the ngondro myself I have doubts that an orthodox Christian could practice them (they involved worshipping gurus and spirits) but I think Merton and Rinpoche would have worked out some way to work together if only they had had more time together. As it stands Merton was electrocuted in an accident in Thailand shortly after their meeting.

Rinpoche was a vegetarian and an advocate for animal rights. He was also concerned about nuclear weapons, and wrote the following prayer. It might be fitting to post it today, given the recent activities in Iran and North Korea. Here is an excerpt from the prayer (omitting a lengthy intro addressing the buddhas and spirit beings Rinpoche revered):

  

 We are beings born at the sorry end of time;  

 An ocean of ill-effects overflow from our universally bad actions.  

 The forces of light flicker,  

 The forces of darkness, a demon army, inflames great and powerful men.  

 And they rise in conflict, armed with nuclear weapons  

 That will disintegrate the earth.  

 The weapon of perverse and errant intentions  

 Has unleashed the hurricane.  

 Soon, in an instant, it will reduce the world  

 And all those in it to atoms of dust.  

 Through this ill-omened devils’ tool  

 It is easy to see, to hear and think about  

 Ignorant people, caught in a net of confusion and doubt,  

 Are obstinate and still refuse to understand.  

 It terrifies us just to hear about or to remember  

 This unprecedented thing.  

  

 The world is filled with uncertainty,  

 But there is no means of stopping it, nor place of hope,  

 Other than you, undeceiving Three Jewels and Three Roots,  

 (Buddhas, Teaching and Spiritual Community, Lama, Deity and  

 Dakini)  

 If we cry to you like children calling their mother and father,  

 If we implore you with this prayer,  

 Do not falter in your ancient vows!  

 Stretch out the lightning hand of compassion!  

 Protect and shelter us defenseless beings, and free us from fear!  

 When the mighty barbarians sit in council of war  

 – barbarians who rob the earth of pleasure and happiness  

 – barbarians who have wrong, rough, poisonous thoughts.  

 Bend their chiefs and lieutenants  

 To the side of peace and happiness!  

 Pacify on the spot, the armed struggle that blocks us!  

 Turn away and defeat the atomic weapons  

 Of the demons’ messengers,  

 And by that power, make long the life of the righteous,  

 And spread the theory and practice of the doctrine  

 To the four corners of this great world!  

 Eliminate root, branch and leaf – even the names  

 Of those dark forces, human and non-human,  

 Who hate others and the teaching!  

 Spread vast happiness and goodness  

 Over this fragile planet!  

 Elevate it truly with the four kinds of glory!  

 And as in the golden age, with all strife gone,  

 Let us be busy only with the dance of pleasure, the dance of joy!  

 We pray with pure thoughts-  

 By the compassion of that ocean the three supreme refuges  

 And the power of the Realm of Truth;  

 The complete sublime truth,  

 Achieve the goal of this, our prayer  

 Magically, just as we have hoped and dreamed!

crmerton

Father Louis (Thomas Merton) and Chatral Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the well known postmodern Lama and film maker (eg. the Cup) had this to say about Chatral Rinpoche (here):

“…make no mistake: Many lamas like myself, who make the loudest noises, display the most jarring images, and travel every inch and corner of the world, have achieved next to nothing compared to this man who appears never to have done anything except for keeping his meditation mat from ever getting cold. And if he did manifest in action, this is the man who spent 99.99% of what he had rescuing the lives of animals. So for ignorant beings like us to try and express the great qualities of this enlightened being is like trying to measure the depth and width of the sky.”

“In my limited life I have seen very few anti-hypocritical beings, and he was one of them. He meant business, there was no negotiation, and of course he never traded one single word of the dharma for money. Time and again, he refused to bow down to the mighty.

He made a lot of us hypocritical beings shudder. Just knowing he was alive and breathing somewhere between Siliguri and Pharping made our hearts quake. Even though we never got to see him, especially towards the end of his life – and I myself was refused an audience 20 times or more – his mere presence on this earth shattered hypocrisy.”

 

The Faith of Abraham (Revised 2015)

The story of Abraham and Isaac, known as the Akedat Yitzhak (binding of Isaac), or Akedah in Jewish tradition, has long haunted the imaginations and consciences of Jews and Christians. The Torah recounts in suspenseful, harrowing prose God’s request to Abraham that he slaughter his beloved son Isaac as a ritual sacrifice. Abraham famously acquiesces and takes Isaac up Mt. Moriah to a makeshift altar. He is stopped by an angel of God at the last moment. Do not stretch out your hand against the child, the angel says, you have passed the test.

What exactly is the test? How could God ask such a thing? How could Abraham agree? Are we supposed to applaud Abraham for the seemingly horrifying willingness to kill his own son? In the days of ISIS and other forms of violence across the religious spectrum these questions gain a new urgency. I want to suggest that the point of this story is somewhat different than most of us take it to be, and that there is still something important to learn from it 3,ooo years or so on from the events it purports to describe.

Growing up in a Jewish context I was told that this story has two main points: 1) Abraham’s incredible faith in God; and 2) God’s lesson that Israel was not to sacrifice its children in religious ceremonies, unlike the tribes that Israel would later dispossess in the land of Canaan. I agree that these two points are among the lessons of the story. But they still leave many questions which Jewish and Christian thinkers have struggled with.

Kierkegaard famously opens his masterpiece Fear and Trembling with several re-imaginings of the story. What really happened? In one harrowing version Kierkegaard imagines Abraham indeed carrying Isaac up the mountain but before drawing the knife confessing to Isaac that he, Abraham, is in fact a fraud- an idolater and a violent man, and he intends to sacrifice Isaac to an idol. Better he not believe such a thing true of God and believe me evil instead, Abraham reasons.

In some Jewish versions the Rabbis notice that Abraham is described returning from the mountain but Isaac is not mentioned. He remained alone on the mountain, scarred by what happened and unwilling to descend, say some. Others, more shockingly: Abraham did kill him.

Mainstream Jewish tradition has always affirmed Abraham’s virtuousness in the story, though the horror of it continued to surface in Jewish midrash. As an old man Isaac was blind because His eyes were weakened by the sight of the angel that saved him. Or: His eyes were ruined by tears shed because his father was willing to sacrifice him.

Surely in all of our imaginings the shadow that haunts us is this: how could Abraham have been willing to sacrifice his son, and what kind of faith is this willing to do such a thing? Is this faith actually commendable? Let’s look at the story in more detail.

God calls Abraham personally and unequivocally. Abraham responds: Hineni!, “Here I am!” a phrase which in Hebrew suggests total availability. At this point in his life Abraham has shown himself to have deep faith in God. God has been at times inscrutable and God’s time frame in delivering promises has tested Abraham’s trust, but Abraham has trusted and has thus far followed God’s voice, and his trust has proven trustworthy.

God opens without preamble to a shocking request: Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…..God’s wording is strange. Why does he not just say “take Isaac”? God’s wording bears within it explicit reference to the intense meaning of Isaac for Abraham. Isaac is his son (his first son Ishmael is lost to him now). Isaac is his “only one”, his only son, who carries the whole weight of Abraham’s life into the future. Whom you love. Isaac is not just the bearer of Abraham’s legacy; Abraham dearly loves him.

Why does God speak this way? It is as if he is affirming Abraham’s feelings and signalling that He understands them. I think God speaks this way, counter-intuitive as it might at first seem, to evoke Abraham’s trust. In other words, at the moment that supremely tests Abraham’s faith he speaks in such a way as to simultaneously support it. As we shall see, it is essential that Abraham be reminded of what we could call the humane nature of God.

Most amazing is Abraham’s response to the request. Early the next morning Abraham woke up and loaded his donkey. Abraham indeed responds with trust. What, though, is the exact nature of that trust? Does Abraham believe that whatever God ordains is good, and so he must comply? Is Abraham’s trust a simple submission to God’s inscrutable but always authoritative will? That was the way the text was presented to me as a child, and I think it is a very common reading. I also think it is wrong. Is this not the same Abraham who argued with God over the punishment of Sodom? The same Abraham who called out the challenge, will not the judge of the world deal justly?

I believe the text itself tells us the nature of Abraham’s trust in the next harrowing moment in the story, surely one of the most spine tingling in all religious literature.

Abraham and Isaac proceed up the mountain together alone. Isaac seems to intuit that something strange is going on. Perhaps Abraham’s hand trembles. Perhaps Isaac has heard stories of Canaanites who offer their children as sacrifices. Father? he asks.

Yes, my son?

The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?

Abraham’s answer holds the key to the whole story. YHVH himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, he replies. Adonai yireh, he literally says, God will see to it.

When I was a child I thought this answer was evasive and meant to reassure Isaac. It wasn’t until I read Yoram Hazony’s discussion of it (in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture) that the scales fell from my eyes. Hazony argues simply that Abraham is here saying exactly what he means. God will see to it. Abraham does not believe that YHVH will actually require him to sacrifice Isaac. This is likewise why Abraham explicitly tells his servants not just to wait, but says, “we will return to you.”

To believe that YHVH will in the end truly ask that heinous deed of Abraham would contradict everything Abraham believes about Him. Abraham’s trust is not just about trusting in God. It is about trusting in God’s character. The point of the monotheism of Israel is not just that there is one God. It is not a religion finally about the nature of divine authority- about its singularity. Judaism is not a numbers game. Israel’s monotheism is the belief that the universe is ruled by one good God, that any God worth worshipping is a God of love and justice.

The fact that what is central to Abraham’s trust is his trust in God’s character is proven by his reaction when God does indeed send an animal in Isaac’s place. Abraham names the spot to commemorate the wonder of what has happened. He does not name it “test passed.” He names it, “God will see to it (adonai yireh).” God will provide the sacrifice. That is the central meaning of what has happened to Abraham: He, Abraham, was right. Right about God’s character. Right about God’s justice. Right about God’s promises and faithfulness. Right about God’s intelligibility.

The test that YHVH set for Abraham is significantly different than we might have thought. It is not in the final analysis a test of Abraham’s submissiveness. It is a test of Abraham’s faith: its nature and its object. It is as if God is speaking through the test to Abraham, and he is asking the question, Do you know me?

God is not interested in mere submission. What God wants is for Abraham to know His heart. God does not want Abraham just to trust Him, but to trust Him for the right reasons. God wants Abraham to know who He is trusting. In the story of the Akedah God does not just test the nature of Abraham’s faith, He also vindicates and reveals His own character.

Imagine that you wake one night to find your house on fire. You grab your sleeping infant and turn around to find your wife trapped in a part of the room that is becoming engulfed in flames. “Hand me the baby!”, she says.

Your reaction will tell us everything about your opinion of your wife. If you trust her with your life (and the life of your baby) you will hand over the baby to her even though it seems that this is a homicidal act. So you do, and she then passes the baby out the window into the arms of waiting firemen you couldn’t see.

If you believe your wife to be irrational or even delusional you will not pass the baby to her. Your trusting aquiescence, or lack of it, tells us about your understanding of her character and your consequent faith in her (or lack of). This is the meaning of the last line of the story of the Akedah: now I know that you revere YHVH, because you have not withheld your only son from me.

In CS Lewis’ The Final Battle a cunning ape named Shift convinces a gullible, weak donkey named Puzzle to dress up like Aslan the lion, the spiritual ruler and creator of Narnia. The Narnians are well aware that Aslan is “not a tame lion” so when he begins making questionable, even violent requests many Narnians go along with it. Their instincts rebel and they feel sick, but who, after all, can understand the inscrutable Aslan?

Lewis brilliantly depicts the trap of perceiving God as above morality, a God of absolute power beyond good and evil. If God is not “tame”, i.e. does not conform to human demands and expectations, then who are we to judge his actions? In the end God may request anything of us, which means that his “representatives” may request anything of us.

Kierkegaard’s analysis approaches the truth of the story but also obscures it. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard correctly asserts that Abraham surrenders his son, his family obligations, his ethics and even his very self in a transcendent trust of God. His brilliant insight is that Abraham does not do this merely as a “knight of resignation” who acquiesces out of his sense of nothingness before God. Abraham acts as a “knight of faith” who against all rational evidence trusts that since God has promised him Isaac God will deliver- Isaac will somehow be returned to him in this world.

Kierkegaard is right in thinking that the nature of Abraham’s faith transcends normal reasoning and is based in a trust that he will not lose Isaac because God has promised him Isaac and will not himself be unfaithful. He is wrong though in considering this a “suspension of the ethical” or a trust which is entirely irrational or absurd. This line of thinking actually obscures the nature of Abraham’s faith as routed in an apprehension of the supremely ethical nature of God.

The Akedah teaches us about what Abraham believed of God’s character, and what God wanted him to believe. The point is not submission, not obedience beyond reason. Abraham trusts God not just because He is God, but because Abraham knows God. Abraham has seen God’s character and believes in Him as a God of grace and justice. Abraham trusts that God will not ask him to do something unjust, capricious, or immoral. If it appears that that is what God is asking than the reality must be otherwise, and Abraham complies and trusts, waiting to be proven right. God Himself will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, son. And He does. Abraham proves the nature of his faith, and God proves the nature of His faithfulness. The kind of faith that God wants is not simple obedience to pure authority, but a knowing and intelligent trust in His nature as love.

“If there are a ‘chosen few’…” Wendell Berry

If there are a “chosen few”

then I am not one of them

if an “elect”, well then

I have not been elected.

I am one who is knocking

at the door. I am one whose foot

is on the bottom rung.

But I know that Heaven’s

bottom rung is Heaven

though the ladder is standing

on the earth where I work

by day and at night sleep

with my head upon a stone.

-Wendell Berry, from “Leavings: Poems” 2010.

Jacob's Ladder Albert Houthuesen 1966
Jacob’s Ladder
Albert Houthuesen 1966

 

Some Thoughts On Marc Gafni

Marc Gafni Bio Picture

A recent article by Mark Oppenheimer in the NY Times, and a more detailed follow-up by him in Tablet, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Jewish world and beyond about the Jewish “spiritual teacher” Marc Gafni. Gafni teaches an approach to Judaism which is uniquely his own, and combines elements of Ken Wilber’s “Integral Theory” with what you could call a kind of “Hasidic Tantra”.

I first came across Gafni when I was taking a DVD course on Jewish spiritual healing in 2005. The CDs were a melange of Hasidism, Eastern philosophy, Buddhism and Shamanism put together by various Jewish teachers including Tirzah Firestone (see below) and Gafni. As I listened to the Gafni CD I was at first impressed by a sophisticated midrash he was giving about the Keruvim in the Temple, and then it began to sour. What was it? Something about his delivery, his tone, put me on edge. Earlier in my life I had experiences with “bad gurus”, spiritual personas who were masking serious problems with emotional and sexual predation. I picked up a kind of radar for it, and later even taught a course on the “bad guru” phenomenon as part of Yoga Teacher Trainings. I sensed the sickness in Gafni. I cut the CD short, unable to get beyond about 15 minutes for nausea.

A year later, in 2006, I was doing a 3 month summer spiritual retreat at Elat Chayyim, the then flagship of the Jewish Renewal movement, with the woman I would later marry. To my alarm I found out that among the various teachers coming that summer- including mature luminaries like Norman Fischer, Alan Lew, and Dovber Pinson- Gafni would be coming. I discussed this with the Rabbi in residence, David Ingber, who was also unhappy about the impending visit. Unhappy is actually an understatement- Ingber was sick over it- in a state of severe distress. Gafni had been his spiritual teacher and was one of the Rabbis who ordained Ingber but Ingber had realized that Gafni was emotionally manipulative, deceptive, and possibly a sexual predator, and had withdrawn from him. Ingber had discussed his concerns with the Elat Chayyim board but the board held to their decision to invite Gafni.

To make matters worse, a young, charismatic and talented spiritual practitioner in the community who was close to Ingber was planning to be ordained by Gafni during his visit. Ingber and I both expressed our concerns with this person- I told him not to accept the ordination- but the individual decided to go ahead. In the end both Ingber and I participated (along with many others) in the ceremony. I was nauseous throughout, and Ingber was crying what I didn’t think then were pure tears of joy.  

A few days before I had witnessed Gafni in action. It took place in a room full of excited students. They were all pursuing some kind of credential with Gafni, I forget what it was. We all waited in the charged room singing a niggun- a wordless spiritual melody. A beautiful female assistant of Gafni’s- who I think was his girlfriend at the time- revved up the audience, telling us to prepare for the “Rebbe” ( a term of veneration for Hasidic masters usually reserved for revered elders). Gafni finally arrived, 20 minutes late, rushing and looking “aflame” with some kind of passion. He was still wearing his tallit (prayer shawl) and his teffilin (phylacteries). Normally any self-respecting Jew would have kissed and carefully put away these items before appearing in public. Walking in with them on was brazen- a way of advertising both that he had been praying in the Orthodox manner and that he was somehow “above” respecting these ancient Jewish sacred objects. Even worse Gafni took off the tefillin without rolling them up or putting them away in their boxes, simply dropping them in a messy heap on the table. Ironically the tallit was an unusual colour- black, and gave Gafni the appearance of some kind of Tantric Darth Vader, which may not be that far from the truth.

Gafni launched into an impassioned teaching, moving restlessly around the room like a wrestler, his eyes scanning the crowd constantly measuring people’s reactions to him. I sat silent as a stone, frozen, refusing to respond to what felt like a psychic groping. At the first break I left and was unable to continue the weekend of “teachings”. A friend of mine in attendance, a psychologist, later told me that based on what he had seen he thought Gafni had a clinical personality disorder of some kind. Within a few months the allegations against Gafni exploded.

Reading Oppenheimer’s recent piece in Tablet, I am struck by how many spiritual teachers have defended him or continued to work with him. Some of them had quite a lot of information, like the late Zalman Shachter-Shalomi must have, and some had very little. The obvious question that strikes me is- why didn’t they do more research into Gafni when they heard allegations against him? I am not a fan of witch hunts, and I certainly don’t think schools and teachers should fire someone merely because allegations have been made. But surely when allegations have been made they need to be carefully looked into. The evidence against Gafni available on the Internet is enough to raise very serious concerns. Why, though, didn’t they get in touch with the people who knew him and gather more information? Why not reach out to some people close to the allegations?

Some Jewish teachers were admirably canny about what was going quickly, including the revered Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who rescinded Gafni’s ordination early on, and Rabbi Ingber. Joseph Telushkin, Arthur Green and Tirzah Firestone all seem bizarrely over-concerned to defend Gafni, but all later at least took back their support.  Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton are interesting cases among Gafni’s supporters in the wider world. Wilber has a bad track record in terms of which teachers he supports- which famously include the deluded megalomaniac and serial sex abuser Adi Da Samraj, and also sex predators Gempo Roshi, Osho, and others. I once warned a female student of mine that she should avoid any teacher lauded by Wilber as a matter of principle. Kempton was herself a disciple of Swami Muktananda, a Hindu Tantric teacher guilty of massive self-enrichment at the expense of students and serial sex abuse of several students in India and the West, including teenage daughters of his own students. I suspect that Kempton may have used a similar defense of Muktananda that she uses for Gafni- that he had difficulty controlling his “shakti”.

A salient aspect of the discussion around Gafni that keeps coming up is talk of the power of his Eros, or Shakti, and the claim that this is a spiritual energy that he is tapped into. The implications are that this energy is a beneficial, desirable one, and it is unfortunate that Gafni is not a perfect master of it. Poor master, it overwhelms him so that he is forced to manipulate, deceive, have sex with, and assault others. “Eros” is just a fancy word for sexual desire, of course, though Gafni wides it’s use to include a kind of pleasurable embodied presence in the world. “Shakti” just means energy, but implies transformative, or creative energy. Usually, in Hindu Tantra, it is used to communicate that the teacher has a super-human power to transmit a beneficial, transformative energy to his students. What kind of excess energy is it exactly that Gafni suffers from? I find it incredible, to put it mildly, that there is a kind of beneficial spiritual energy which, when too strong, inspires irresponsible, immoral, predatory and destructive behaviour. As the saying goes, Detras de la cruz esta el diablo (Satan hides behind the cross).

I would submit that there is only one kind of beneficial, transformative energy. That energy is love, and one can’t have too much of it. It refuses to use other people, refuses to put them in what Buber called an “I-It” relationship. Love regards the other, seeks to really see, to really cherish, and to really celebrate the other as other, both in what they are and what they can become. I have met spiritual teachers with that energy. Most often they were not famous, not rich, and not particularly charismatic. Yet they saw me, and when I spoke with them I felt like they and I were the only two in the world. They saw things in me with a precision and speed that astonished me, yet they didn’t use these things to their own advantage. They used their sight to give me good, loving counsel and to mirror me back to myself in my potential. They did not seek to make me dependent, but rather independent. They didn’t try to make me like them, but more like myself. They did not in any way have their eye on my wallet and they didn’t try to have sex with their students (excuse me, help them “tantrically”).

There are teachers like that, and the sad thing is that the Gafnis of the world convince some people that there aren’t. One colleague once said to me, “Spiritual teachers- they’re all fakes. Exploiters, predators and crooks.” That’s not true (which I attempted passionately to explain to her). As Rumi said, Without real gold there would not be counterfeit.

Why, though, do some teachers defend and befriend the likes of Gafni? Some of it is, no doubt, naivete. Some of it is a well-intentioned desire to avoid a witch hunt. Some of it, though, I think, relates to a simple desire for capital of one kind or another. Why did Elat Chayyim act as a venue for Gafni despite the concerns of their Rabbi in residence? Could it because he was a money-maker? Could it be because his fame and charisma increased the fame and charisma of Elat Chayyim? Some people, at least, are attracted to Gafni because, simply put, they like money or power. Associating with Gafni brings the same pleasure that many would find associating with any celebrity, conman or garden variety mafioso. This is the pleasure of associating with the resource that person has- which could be sex, money, talent, intelligence, or charisma- and the power that confers. Gafni’s friends all assert something along the lines of this: “He denies the allegations. He has great ideas, great energy, great power. I haven’t looked into this in detail, but he denies the charges. I trust him.” Listening to some of the defenses of Gafni reminds me of the reaction Trump had when he was praised by Vladimir Putin, the Russian autocrat. Trump, who loves a good compliment and the friendship of powerful people, expressed pleasure at Putin’s words. When he was challenged about Putin’s well known involvement in silencing free speech in Russia- even assasinating troublesome journalists, he said: “He denied it. I mean, it’s not like anyone found him with a gun in his hand or anything.” Maybe look into it, Trump. Maybe look into it, Jewish and non-Jewish teachers and community leaders. I’m glad Oppenheimer did.

UPDATE: Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, as just released a statement condemning Gafni’s behaviour and making it clear that as far as they are concerned he should not be teaching (see their Facebook page). They point out that Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi revoked Gafni’s ordination in 2006.

UPDATE (Jan 5 2016): A petition attracting the signatures of many Rabbis and Jewish leaders, including Avi Weiss (the founder of Open Orthodoxy), Joseph Telushkin and Tirzah Firstone, is now circulating calling for Whole Foods and others to cut ties with Gafni. The petition has gone above 2500 signatures. New articles have appeared in several papers and magazines.  See here.   Meanwhile, in an utterly classless move, non- Jewish “spiritual teachers” Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton are on record comparing the Jewish community leaders who are trying to shut down Gafni-which include some of the most important Jewish spiritual teachers and Rabbis alive today- to “neonazis”. Nice. Apparently Wilber and Kempton are specializing both in aiding and abetting abusers and in provoking other people’s most horrific traumas if it helps their friends. So tell me, if a rape victim goes to the police, does that make her a neonazi? Would that only be true if she was Jewish?

Kenyan Muslim Heroes Are An Important Reminder

crop_mobileKenya_University_Attack-00181

It was widely reported in the last couple of days that a group of Kenyan Muslims stood against Jihadi terrorists at the risk of their lives on a bus in Northern Kenya. The bus was travelling from Nairobi  to Mandera with 60 passengers when militants believed to be affiliated with the Somalian group Al-Shabab stopped the bus by shoooting through the windsheild. Before the militants boarded the bus some of the Muslim passengers gave Christians riding on the bus headscarves to try and conceal their identity as non-Muslims. They may have been recalling a similiar attack last year in the same region where terrorists killed 28 non-Muslims on a bus.

One of the terrorists boarded the bus and demanded that the Muslims and non-Muslims seperate. One Christian passenger tried to run and was shot in the back, according to eyewitnesses. The Muslim passengers refused to seperate from the Christian passengers and one man reportedly declared, “Kill us all or leave them alone”. Another man deceived the militants by claiming a police escort was not far behind the bus, and the Jihadis, apparently faced with a more complex situation than they had anticipated, left.

This heroic and beautiful story is being widely shared, and rightly so. It comes as a timely reminder of the divisions within Islam and should act as a curative against generalisations rooted in fear and anger over Jihadi terrorism. There are two mistakes I think we could make in hearing this story. The first is use it as proof that Islam is entirely a “religion of peace” and the supposed widespread problems in contemporary Islamic fundamentalism are a fiction in the minds of paranoid westerners. That is not the case. There are serious problems in today’s Islamic fundamentalist world, not the least of which are widespread violence towards women and homosexuals, rampant anti-semitism, and hatred of “infidels”, all of which are well demonstrated by polls and studies. These are dangerous sicknesses and to call them by any other name or pretend they don’t exist is unjust and deceptive. It would be nice not to get involved, to say that non-Muslims should not study or speak about these things, but the Muslim community is a large and inportant part of the global village and we are all now far too interconnected to turn our eyes away. We need to get used to being in eachother’s business, because that’s the way of the future as the human family gets every closer and closer. For a good discussion of this perspective from an insider, see this video by Toronto based Sunni Muslim activist Raheel Raza.

The second mistake would be to think that these Muslims were not inspired by Islam but were acting against it, some kind of “rebels against Islam”. That is also clearly not the case. Islam also has lofty ethical teachings and traditions that respect the humanity of all beings. Islamic spiritual practices and meditation on God inspire wisdom, love and courage in untold numbers of Muslims every day. If we see the al-Shabab attackers as Muslims, we must also remember and emphasize that the bus passengers who resisted were also Muslims.

I would argue that one of the greatest mistakes we can make in our era is to paint all Muslims with the same brush. It is surely at least as great a mistake as whitewashing the problems in Islamic fundamentalist culture and politics, and probably in the end a bigger one. It is imperative that any critique we engage in of Muslim culture should be informed, empathic and loving critique. We must reach out and befriend those Muslims who live the teachings of love, peace and tolerance which are also part of Islamic tradition (see here for one example). Now more than ever we must be their friends, allies and, if needed, protectors.  

 

Genesis 1,2 as Protest

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The Creation of Adam by Samuel Hardridge

The story of the creation of humanity, as presented in the opening verses of Genesis, is luminous and profound. Its profundity is sometimes overshadowed by cryptic elements, by the Torah’s concise and understated manner of expression (by our standards), and by inherited cliches about its meaning. For me a curative has been the study of other near eastern creation narratives. Below I’ll take a look at one aspect of the narrative of the creation  from this perspective, through which it is revealed as a narrative of protest and radical revisioning of the human being.

Why Was Humanity Created?

We are fortunate to possess records of the creation of humanity as conceived in the Egyptian Hymn to Atum (2500-2100 BCE in origin though our version dates from 400 BCE); the Enuma Elish cycle (compiled in Mesopatamia 1100 BCE from Sumerian and Amorite sources in order to glorify the rulers of Babylon, the Mesopotamian capital); and the Atrahasis Cycle (18th century BCE; Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian). The Genesis stories date from as old as 2300 BCE-1400 BCE and were likely written down in their current form around 400 BCE (these dates are hotly contested, of course).

My contention is that the narrative of anthrogenesis in the Torah is a remarkably humanistic one (it is also remarkably earth-positive but that’s a subject for another time). According to Genesis 1:26: “And Deity said, “Let us make the human in our image, as our likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, over the animals, the whole earth, and every thing that creeps upon it. And Deity created the human in his image; in the image of Deity he created them; male and female he created them. Deity blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and rule…And Deity saw all that he had made, and behold! It was very good.”

Later on we read (Genesis 2:7; 15): “YHVH Deity formed the human of soil from the earth, and blew into his nostrils a living soul, and the man became a living soul. YHVH Deity planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and place there the human he had formed….YHVH Deity took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to serve it/work it (l’avodah) and to look after it (l’shomrah).”

The vision here is of the human as created to “rule the earth” benevolently and to tend and take care of God’s garden. The strong implication here is that the human is created for its own sake. God does not say, “I will make me a servant”, or “one to glorify me”, or even “one to know me” (later Jewish and non-Jewish theistic traditions often envision God’s purpose as one of these). The later Jewish idea that God created “because he wanted to have someone to give to” (Hasdai Crescas; Ramchal) comes closest to the vision of Edenic life. The Human is created for no other purpose than to enjoy the nourishment and beauty of God’s creation, to grow in numbers (be fruitful and multiply) and exercise a benevolent sovereignty (“serve and look after”). In a sense the human is created as an ideal benevolent King below, ruling by the decree, grace, and good will of the true Ruler above. The vision of Genesis is echoed in the structure of the political state imagined in the later parts of the Torah: a confederation of tribes with no king where everyone is protected from debt or loss of land, limits are placed on slavery, and everyone, including servants and animals, gets one day a week off to rest (a truly radical idea in the ancient world and becoming radical again in our day). Even more radically, every seven years the earth gets a year off to rest. One shift from this over arching vision of egalitarian protest occurred later when Israel insisted on “having a king like the nations around us”. After warning them that it will lead to their exploitation YHVH grudgingly acquiesces, than proceeds to try to work with Israel through their Kings (which is mostly a failure, see the books of Samuel, Kings 1 and 2, Chronicles and most of the Prophets).

The vision of Genesis, and its radical implications, are highlighted in comparison with other Near Eastern creation myths. Whereas Genesis pictures the human being as formed of earth and divine breath, the Hymn to Atum takes a much more existentialist position. Says Atum (after masturbating into his own mouth and spitting and sneezing out gods):

“I wept, and human beings arose from my tears….”

Surely we can hear the hardships and arbitrariness of poor agrarian life in this Egyptian hymn (especially in a totalitarian state where most of the populace were worker-slaves). The hymn to Atum doesn’t state a purpose for human life. It appears as a result of Atum’s fervent desire to create, a desire which is presented as sexual, almost riotous, and without particular purpose.

The Enuma Elish, by contrast, does state a purpose for the creation of humanity: After a protracted battle for rulership of the Divine Assembly, Marduk, god of Babylon, wins. He dismembers his rival, Tiamat, and uses her corpse to create heaven and earth. Having won the fealty of the Divine Assembly by defeating her, he then creates human beings as slaves to work for the gods and so “set the divine assembly free.” Marduk forms humans from the blood of another Divine rival, Kingu, after killing him. In contrast to the riotous creativity of the Hymn of Atum, the Enuma Elish conceives of the world as created out of death and conquest- out of military prowess- expressions of the power of Marduk. That this mythology represents a theology of Empire should require no extensive argument.

The Atrahasis cycle posits a purpose for the creation of human beings similar to that of the Enuma Elish. When the Divine Servant Class refuses to work for the Divine Overlords, the gods create human beings to work for the Gods as irrigators and farmers of the earth instead. Eventually they multiply too greatly for the gods comfort, and their noise disturbs the sleep of the great god Enlil, who thus conspires to have the Divine Assembly control their numbers with plagues and famines. When this doesn’t reduce the numbers of their human slaves effectively enough the gods unleash the flood and eliminate them save for a Noah-like survivor, who is saved by a god who is partial to him for unstated reasons (because of his good service?).  This flood narrative is also in meaningful contrast to the Genesis narrative, which has God bringing the flood because human culture is filled with aggressive thievery and violence (“hamas”).

In both the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis Cycle, then, humans exist to serve their divine masters. As Joshua Berman has masterfully argued (“Created Equal”), this narrative seems to echo the political structure of Mesopatamia, Egypt, and Assyria, structures the narratives and laws of the Torah were in rebellion against (see also Yoram Hazony, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”).

In Genesis the human being is not created to serve the Divine, and is not made of tears, semen, or a dismembered enemy. The human being is made of the good earth and the breath of God, and our proliferation is not a threat- it is an expression of divine blessing. Last but far from least, the human is made ” b’tselem Elokim (in the tselem of Deity)”. The word “tselem”, when it occurs elsewhere in the Torah, is used most often to refer to idols used in the worship of false gods (Amos 5:26, 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17; Ezekiel 7:20, 16:17, Numbers 33:52 ). This common usage should not be overlooked: as shocking as it may seem, the Genesis narrative goes so far as to imagine human beings as representations of God, formed in God’s likeness and serving as the only legitimate clay idol. This leap in sensibility that happened in the ancient near east- the leap required to go from imagining human beings as slaves of the gods or random expressions of divine fertility to imagining them as sacred images of God created to enjoy the divine garden of the earth and to rule over it benevolently- is an awe inspiring moment in the literature of humanity. 2,500 years later we are still struggling toward fulfilling it, with failure a deadly peril.