Gene Wilder and The Theology of Avram Belinsky

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Gene Wilder was not a religious Jew, but he once played one. In the under-rated classic The Frisco Kid (1979) Wilder plays a young rabbi, Avram Belinski, from Poland who is sent to America in the mid-1800s to transport a Torah to a San Francisco synagogue.  Belinsky ends up having a series of misadventures in the Wild West while befriending a tough but kind cowboy played by Harrison Ford.

Belinsky is presented as an un-armed man in a world armed to the teeth. As has been argued elsewhere, Belinsky is a holy shlemiel, a “wise fool” whose innocence and purity of heart (as well as his faithfulness to Shabbat, Torah and Jewish values) save him from pickle after pickle throughout the movie. All of this is somewhat surprising in a late 70s comedic Western. The film’s non-Jewish director, Robert Aldrich, surely deserves credit for this as well as the screenwriters- Michael Elias and Frank Shaw.

The Frisco Kid contains a hidden theological gem in a scene where Belinsky and a Native American chief discuss the nature of the Jewish God. In the preceding scene, which is excellent for its own reasons, Wilder and Ford are captured by a Native American tribe while trying to rescue Wilder’s Torah scroll, which has come into their hands. After they are tied up and brought before the tribe, the Chief comes to inquire who they are. Wilder at first greets him by talking in a condescending pidgeon english, prompting the Chiefly to comment wryly, “You don’t speak english very well.”

Ford breathlessly explains to the Chief, “He’s a holy man Chief, speaks to the spirits every morning and every night, and he’s so good and kind and gentle, just a sweetheart of a man. Why, even when we robbed a bank and the posse was chasing us, he wouldn’t ride on Saturday, no siree, because that’s his holy day he didn’t want to make the spirits angry.”

The Chief asks Wilder what he calls the scroll he has come to rescue, and after the Chief successfully masters Wilder’s yiddishe pronunciation of “Torah” he asks Wilder, “Will you trade your horse for Torah?” Receiving a “yes”, he continues,  “Your horse and your boots? And all of your clothes, and everything else you own?” Wilder replies “yes” each time, prompting the Chief to ask, “Even your knife?”

Wilder says he has no knife, eliciting gasps from the crowd and a curious awe from the Chief. “If I give you back Torah”, the Chief asks, wanting to test his captives spiritual mettle, “Will you purify your soul through fire?”

Wilder ascents and is lowered into the fire, preparing for his death. At the last moment, before he begins to burn, the Chief calls it off and returns to him his precious Torah scroll. “Rabbi With No Knife, you are a brave man”, the Chief concludes. To Ford he cannot resist the aside, “You who talk to Indians like little children, you have a big heart, though not as big as your mouth”. The chief lets them both free and later that night over a celebration where Wilder admires the Indigenous dancing for its freiliche qualities, the Chief pursues the question with him of whether “your God can make rain”. Wilder says his God can make rain, but doesn’t.

“Why not?”, the Chief asks.

“Because that’s not his department!”, cries Wilder in exasperation.

“But if he wanted to he could?”, the Chief presses.

“Yes.”

“What kind of God do you have?!”, the Chief says in bewilderment.

“Don’t say “my God”, he’s your God too!”

“Don’t give him to us, we have enough trouble with our own Gods!”

“But there’s only one God!”, Wilder replies.

“What does he do?”

“He can do anything!”

“Then why can’t he make rain?”

“Because he doesn’t make rain!”, cries Wilder. “He gives us strength when we’re suffering, compassion when all that we feel is hatred, courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness, but HE DOES NOT MAKE RAIN!” Wilder’s sentence is punctuated by a thunderclap and a downpour of rain.

“Of course,” says Wilder, “Sometimes, just like that! He’ll change his mind.”

This hilarious scene portrays a surprisingly deep and moral theology. The God Belinsky speaks of is not a God who is called upon in a quest for power or security. In Belinsky’s theology what is wanted is not land, not safety, not power, not even external peace, but rather moral courage, compassion, and wisdom, and these are the things that God grants.

In Belinsky’s theology the prayer that God answers is the prayer to be more of a mensch. In Belinsky’s view, the prayers that God wants are not those for peace, for protection, or even for healing, but rather those for being kinder, more brave, more wise. As another famous Jew once said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness,  and all other things will be added unto you.”

This post was originally featured on my Jewish philosophy website, Talis in Wonderland.

The Sanders-Clinton Fight is Really About This Philosophical Question

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We live in an age of strategy. Our public discourse is largely, though not exclusively, concerned with “what works”, with large-scale analysis of what we think is likely to lead to what. This is not surprising in a culture dominated by technology, and in which the central metaphors for life are often now fundamentally technological- drawn from computing or systems theory, for instance. The fundamental question is, “How do we manipulate systems to get what we want?” High levels of moral compromise and imperfection are assumed. We are concerned with results, and we assume that the end justifies the means.

The Clintons embody this type of pragmatism. Their policy decisions often included horrible means- go to war, incarcerate more African Americans, preserve the death penalty, enrich the wealthy- which did not themselves embody admirable principles but were seen as means to good ends. Hillary and Bill often defend their past (bad) decisions on the grounds that they did the best they could under the circumstances (Bill) or were simply mistaken in their strategic analysis (Hillary), but insist they had the right principles at heart.

One problem with this approach is that human beings grossly overestimate our abilities to act strategically within complex systems. The “law of unintended consequences” haunts all of our skill at manipulation. This is what “principles” are designed to do: principles are derived from centuries of human experience and are meant to protect us from the mercurial paths of short-term thinking and the hubris of attempting to manipulate complex systems with morally relative but, we think, effective stratagems. When we say a principle is “right”, we mean that on a meta-level that principle yields good fruit, or reflects values which we think are true and worth making sacrifices for.

Sanders is not a strategist; he is a man of principle. This frustrates a lot of people. There are endless calls for him to be strategic and, for instance, renounce his candidacy. To do so would be both against democratic principles (that the people should choose) and would be to yield to someone he considers less qualified. In other words, to do so would be unprincipled and so he will not do it. Some people think that he should be less critical of the Democratic party, as calling out procedural injustices foments division and potentially weakens the party against the GOP (now known officially as the ICP- the Insane Clown Posse!) But Bernie believes that procedural injustices and irregularities should be called out, and so he will do that. Some media commentators repeatedly interpret Sanders’ actions as though he were playing chess, but he’s not. Those who insist on analysing Sanders through a strategic lens consistently misunderstand what he is doing and why.

The fight between Clinton and Sanders’ supporters comes down entirely to this issue: principle or strategy. Few defending Clinton claim that she is a person of higher principle than Sanders. Clinton supporters argue either that she is more likely to win against Drumpf, or that once in office she will have more skill at “getting things done”, i.e. she will be more effectively strategic. Sanders supporters criticise Clinton for her lack of moral consistency (i.e. principle), or criticise her actions for being based on the wrong principles, or they point to the fact that her supposedly superior strategic gifts have in fact led to multiple disasters.

This last point is key because it points to the fundamental argument behind the Sanders-Clinton feud. Sanders supporters believe that amoral strategies have shown themselves to lead to disasters, or in other words, that the strategic approach is not an effective strategy in the long term. Though Sanders supporters will more often argue that Sanders is right rather than that he is smart, they will of course also argue that his policies will work. This is because they believe that acting on principle is, in fact, the most strategic approach.

In the end, then, the argument between Sanders and Clinton supporters comes down to a philosophical fight that is not really between principle and strategy, but is about what is most strategic in the long term. Sanders supporters argue that holding to principles produces the most good over time, and Clinton supporters argue (though this is less clearly articulated on their side I think) that short-term strategic thinking is more realistic and effective for the common good. That is the real fight.

Hilary Putnam: Secular Philosopher and Religious Jew (July 31, 1926-March 13 2016)

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“On March 13, America lost one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced……there is no philosopher since Aristotle who has made creative and foundational contributions in all the following areas: logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, ethics, political thought, philosophy of economics. philosophy of literature.”

Martha C. Nussbaum (Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, The University of Chicago Huffpost March 14)

Hilary Putnam was born in Chicago and raised in a secular family with a left-leaning gentile father and a Jewish mother. One of Putnam’s fellow pupils at school was another left leaning Jew, Noam Chomsky, who remained a friend throughout his life. In fact Putnam’s last post at his blog Sardonic Comment was about a debate he was having with Chomsky. Putnam’s first teaching posts were in math and philosophy at Northwestern(1952-53) and Princeton (1953-61) and then as professor of the philosophy of science at MIT (1961-65) until his move to Harvard as professor of philosophy.

Putnam focused on philosophy of science, epistemology, and the mind. He was a critic of both Behaviourism and Type-Identity theory, each of which seek to reduce mental states to physical ones. Behaviourism claims that mental states are simply what we do, or are inclined to do, in certain circumstances (being in pain, for instance, is just the way we typically react to physical injury by flinching from its cause, crying out, etc.) and Putnam proposed a thought experiment: would stoic Spartans trained not to react to pain thus not be in pain?

He vigorously critiqued Type-Identity theory, which holds that  mental states will “turn out to be” particular types of brain states just as we have found heat is “just molecular motion” and water “just H2O”. Putnam argued that mental states are “multiply realisable”, i.e. the same mental state, for instance an experience of pain or desire, could be generated by different physical bodies- humans, cats, or whales. Therefore one can not be reduced to the other.

Putnam also famously argued that meaning was neither subjective nor objective. Meaning depends on external states of affairs; but the nature of these as we experience them are relative to language. “Thus the world is both ‘objective’ and not ‘objective’; we cannot ask what is the case without choosing some system of concepts (and no one system is uniquely fitted to describe ‘the world’); but once we have a system of concepts in place, what is true or false is not simply a matter of what we think.” Our linguistic system is thus like a fundamental axiom: once it is set, which statements within it are true or false are not subjectively so but objectively are so dependent on the rules of how our language and the external reality interact.

While revolutionising philosophy, Putnam was also involved with radical politics. At MIT in 1963 he organised against the Vietnam war, and at Harvard he organised campus protests and publicly burned draft cards. In 1965 he became a member of the Progressive Labor party (promoting, in his own words, an “idiosyncratic version of Marxism-Leninism”), and would stand outside factory gates to discuss politics with the workers. On campus he disrupted the classes of Richard Herrnstein (co-author of the allegedly racist Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life), and he lived in a commune with students. As Jane O’ Grady wrote in a recent obituary, “for a time his students had to spend his lectures twisted round to look at him because he refused to sit at the front; although, in his more dogmatic Marxist phase, he spoke on a podium and advised students to read Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. The Harvard establishment was in despair”.

Putnam took intense pleasure in thought. After reading aloud from a philosopher’s work in a lecture, he would laugh with delight. Putnam valued the willingness to think in complexity and nuance, famously saying, “Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.” As Martha Nussbaum recently wrote, “The glory of Putnam’s way of philosophizing was its total vulnerability. Because he really did follow the argument wherever it led, he often changed his views, and being led to change was to him not distressing but profoundly delightful, evidence that he was humble enough to be worthy of his own rationality”. In fact Putnam became so well known for changing his mind that the Philosophical Lexicon named a moment of intellectual time a “hilary”, as in, “That’s what I thought a few hilarys ago.” 

In 2008 Putnam published the surprising Jewish Philosophy As A Guide To Life, which analyzes the thought of Wittginstein, Buber, Rozensweig, and Levinas (a group he called 3 ¼ Jews). In the introduction to that book Putnam describes how he came to write it. In 1975 the older of his two sons surprised him by wanting a bar mitzvah. Putnam got in touch with a Rabbi he had met and been impressed with years previously, Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold. Gold had been Rabbi of Harvard Hillel when Putnam gave an erev shabbat talk there on his reasons for opposing the Vietnam war. Putnam and his wife agreed to attend services with their son for a year while the boy prepared for his bar mitzvah, and by the end of the year the service and prayers, in Putnam’s words, “had become an essential part of our lives”. Putnam davenned every day for the rest of his life. How did a self-described “naturalistic philosopher” reconcile with his newfound religiousness?

According to Putnam, for many years he simply did not reconcile them. The philosopher and the religious person lived side by side but did not enter into direct confrontation. This could not be the final resolution for a questing mind like Putnam’s, of course. In an attempt to explain his perspective, over which he said that he still struggled and expected to struggle, Putnam wrote:

“Physics indeed describes the properties of matter in motion, but reductive naturalists forget that the world has many levels of form, including the level of morally significant human action, and the idea that all of these can be reduced to the level of physics I believe to be a fantasy. And, like the classic pragmatists, I do not see reality as morally indifferent: reality, as Dewey saw, makes demands on us. Values may be created by human beings and human cultures, but I see them as made in response to demands that we do not create. It is reality that determines whether our responses are adequate or inadequate. Similarly, my friend Gordon Kauffman may be right in saying that “the available God” is a human construct, but I am sure he would agree that we construct our images of God in response to demands that do not create, and that it is not up to us whether our responses are adequate or inadequate.”

Ruth Anna Putnam has said, “If you would like to make a gift in Hilary’s memory, please donate to Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama 36104.”

What The World Needs Now……is Pictures of Yoga, Sweet Pictures of Yoga

The following post was originally published in Elephant Journal

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Man sitting on bed doing yoga

I am a former teacher of the various commercial brands of western hathayoga, colloquially known here in BC where I live as “Yoga”. I also used to work as a holistic therapist out of a health studio/day spa which called itself a Yoga centre. For both of these reasons I am connected to a lot of teachers and practitioners of Yoga, especially on Facebook and other social media outlets. Scrolling down my feed as I am wont to do, I’ve come to a sad conclusion:There are just not enough pictures of beautiful, highly fit and photogenic young men and women doing advanced Yoga poses out there.

Ask yourself: how are we ever going to change the world, make a healthier society, and lead people to strength and enlightenment without more half-naked, beautiful pictures of people doing tricky and impressive asanas? Particularly caucasian women, who are under-represented in this field. My feed is inundated with pictures of people of colour, plus size models, octogenarians, and men with limited flexibility. More white women! Where are you? And young too, please: where are the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings? The constant barrage of photos of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s gaining enlightenment through meditating in yogic postures is getting tiresome. You would think that Yoga was for just anybody, when from my experience the  really succesfull yogis are fit, beautiful young women. This is not well represented in what you actually see out there. Also- let’s be honest: very few of these pictures are sexy. Who wants to see you do yoga in sweatpants, or loose flowy clothing, or anything else which covers up that svelte yogi/yogini body? How about trying bikini underwear, skin tight fabrics, or even lace underwear or outright nudity. Nothing communicates “close to enlightenment” like being able to see your ripply muscles and gorgeous contours. Even if you’re just trying to promote Yoga for health, bear in mind that we all know that health=thin, fit and young, so let’s not send a mixed message by covering up how fit, thin or young you are.

On top of the lack of sexy yoga pictures, not just of women but also of men (all the male yoga pictures I say these days are of older, out of shape men- and there’s also a real lack of tattoos and dreadlocks)-most of the pictures I see seem to be of people doing boring un-yoga like things like feeding the poor, praying, meditating while fully clothed, engaging in street protests or planting trees. NONE OF THESE THINGS ARE YOGA! Here’s my rule of thumb: if the activity helps you to try out for Cirque de Soleil, it’s Yoga. If it has a merely spiritual or moral purpose, it’s something else.

A friend of mine the other day said the most insane thing to me. She said, “Real yoga can’t be photographed. The word “yoga” comes from the ancient root “yuj”, which referred to a yoke in the sense of a “discipline”. That’s the way the oldest texts, Yogic and Buddhist, use the word. It just means “committed spiritual discipline” and there are a million ways to do it. It’s entirely a matter of the heart.”

BORING! These kinds of sentiments devalue what Yoga is really about: feeling beautiful. Yoga allows me to feel a sense of mastery and a radiant sense of beauty which I communicate to others through well orchestrated photos of my accomplishments in flesh and bone. I’m sure you feel the same, and we need to fight against these disembodied, spiritualist put-downs of our bodies and our selves.

Another friend of mine, who is a Yoga teacher, suggested to me that a true “yoga picture” would be a picture of the practitioner’s face, one that showed the lines on their face, the soul in their eyes- the hard-won wisdom and transcendence that their years of practice had brought them. What nonsense! Anyone can have a nice face and still be overweight, stiff, and not know a bharadvajasana from a vishvamitanasana.

So: a plea to the beautiful people-to the truly successfull yogis and yoginis out there: strip down, go somewhere beautiful, and have someone take truly beautiful pictures of you showing what Yoga is really all about. Let’s stop navel gazing and start celebrating each other. I’ll celebrate you and you celebrate me, ok?

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A View From The North

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Like a river of bullshit it flowed: fetid, revolting, and fertile with dangerous life. To watch the invasion of America by the circus-hallucination reality-tv politiporn of Donald Trump and the swaggering John Wayne insanity of Ted Cruz seems at time like watching the invasion of civilization by a an unthinkable horde barbaric.  What does it mean that simaltaneously we have the rise of ISIS, Al-Quaeda, Boko Haram, etc. in the Middle East while in America we see the rise of Trump and Cruz? Not that there is a moral equivalence between Daesh and Donald, at least I hope there isn’t, yet there is a similar madness, a similar horrific urspung of primal perversity in both cases which makes one fear that some sectors of the political stage are devoluting into a gangfight of swaggering mafiosos. Meanwhile Clinton, the true blackstar giving off obfuscation instead of light, the mask of a mask, pulls out her latest chameleon skin and says what her advisers tell her to say.

From the other side, the side of holiness, like some neopagan prophecy of the required balancing of darkness and light in the great cosmic harmony comes Bernie Sanders, Brooklyn Jew with white hair glowing like the transfigured robes of Jesus. It is literally like we are watching the writhing mass of American culture coalesce into a living yin-yang symbol before our very eyes.

Bernie Sanders will be president in 2016. Trump will go on to some other grandiose bit of public masturbation. The real fear is: what happens after Sanders gets elected? The Roman empire doesn’t treat socialist Jews all that well. How long will Sanders survive in the white house? I mean, like, literally survive? I hope he has bullet proof pajamas and that wily old zaida survives long enough to turn the American ship away from the brink of disaster and towards the dream of a civilized future where tzedaka u’mishpat (righteousness and justice) are allowed once again to rear their hoary, weary, immortal heads. I don’t agree with Sanders on everything but on most things I vehemently do, and every half-blind donkey who has not been bewitched by Trump’s Reichian fascist-nation into seeing Trump as anything other than what he so painfully, obviously, is, can see the writing on the walls of Trump tower (how have I had to write that man’s name so many times?). Sanders is a decent man and what’s more- a jewel so rare it’s value is hard to calculate- an honest politician. Yasher Koach, Bernie. I pray to see you in the White House.

 

Is Bernie Too Among The Prophets?

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Bernie Sanders is now the first Jew ever to win a presidential primary and be seriously considered as a candidate for the American presidency. Recent polls have him tied with Hillary Clinton. Reactions from the Jewish community have been mixed, and mostly quiet. Many Jews have chosen, unsurprisingly, to debate Bernie’s record on Israel. Has he supported the state enough? Are his ties to J Street and other liberal, dove-ish groups a sign that he will not stand up for the Jewish state?

For myself I am not interested in debating Sanders’ record on Israel, and I think other North American Jews would also be wise not to focus on it. The reason is simple: Sanders is running for the US Presidency, and the primary issues that need to be considered are how he will run the country he might be chosen to lead. I also resist the idea that the primary consideration for Jews should be Sanders’ relationship to Israeli security concerns. I think that the primary consideration for a Jew thinking about Sander’s candidacy is his relationship to Jewish tradition and the degree to which he embodies Jewish values.  

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The progressive Jewish community has seemed hesitant to throw it’s weight behind Bernie, perhaps because until recently they saw him as unlikely to succeed. Or maybe there is a fear of jinxing him: “Shhh, they haven’t really realized that he’s Jewish yet.” As Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote  a few days ago in The Times of Israel, one of the great things about Sander’s ascension is that his Jewishness has been so irrelevant to Americans- he has risen in the polls purely because of who he is as a human being. Meanwhile big Jewish financiers like George Soros, Donald Sussman, and several others have been backing Clinton, not Sanders.

So what is Sanders’ relationship to Judaism? Well, it seems that he is comfortable with his Jewishness and appreciative both of what he finds valuable in the tradition and of Jewish customs. Sanders has not been making much of his Jewishness, to the chagrin of people like Michael A. Cohen. Cohen recently complained in Tablet that Sanders was downplaying his Jewishness, saying that it “hurt”. Cohen seems to prefer Jewish identity politics to embodying Jewish ethical values. Sanders feels the opposite, and his evaluation is a perfect example of the moralism that is drawing people to him in the first place.

On Chabad,org Dovid Margolin recently defended Sanders’ connection to Judaism, citing his fight for the right for Chabad to light a public menorah on public property in a key court case which paved the way for the now common practice. Sanders was also appreciative of the Rebbe’s stance on education and declared the Rebbe’s birthday “Education Day” in Vermont with these charactarisic words:

The Lubavitcher Rebbe has democratized education by labouring tirelessly to establish educational institutions for the elderly, for women, for children, and whereas he has sought out the materially oppressed and disadvantaged thereby effecting their enfranchisement through education and by stressing the universal implications of education as a source of continuous creativity through which the human condition is perfected; and whereas especially in this same week marking the 850th birthday of Maimonides, binding the principle of reason to human liberation, now therefore I, Bernard Sanders, mayor of the city of Burlington, hereby designate yud-alef nissan as the day of educationNote Bernie’s use of the Hebrew “yud-alef nissan” to designate the date, as well as his interesting commentary on Maimonides. Margolin also notes that Sanders and the Rebbe corresponded and Sanders celebrated his re-election as mayor by attending a Purim party in Crown Heights. This writ, from 1985, does not establish Sanders as a Hosid, which clearly he is not. It does show him as sensitive to, and appreciative of, Jewish values and Jewish sages. As some have pointed out, Sanders is more of an old style Yiddish Socialist than a “Socialist”.

Sanders himself, when asked, had made it clear that he is not a religious Jew. When late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel asked  Sanders in October whether he believes in God, Sanders sounded more like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr than Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I am what I am….and what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.”

Sanders does not strongly identify with his Jewishness, and his religious sentiments could better be described as a general reverence for life and humanity, a kind of secular, naturalistic spirituality. He and his Catholic wife Jane both say they believe in God but are not involved in organized religion, and that their faith backgrounds inform their moral sentiments. David Harris-Gershon has written in Tikkun, “For Sanders, socialism is Jewish. Ending income inequality is Jewish. Supporting black Americans as they struggle against continued oppression is Jewish. Which is not to say such things are inherently so, but rather that for Sanders, such positions are a direct extension of his Jewishness. His career-long drive for social justice is a central part of his political identity in the same way his being Jewish is a central part of his cultural identity, and the two are inextricably intertwined. Belief in God doesn’t matter. Going to synagogue doesn’t matter. Keeping kosher doesn’t matter. What matters is justice. And that mattering is Jewish.”

Jay Michaelson has written, “secular, progressive Judaism is, itself, a kind of religion. While dispensing with the God of the alte velt—if the Enlightenment didn’t kill him, the Holocaust certainly did—leftist Jews of the 20th century maintained a prophetic, religious zeal for justice… if we are asking whether Sanders is “religious” in Jewish terms, the reply must be that he is.” I would argue that the evidence supports that assertion with regards to Bernie, who may be the most prophetic politician in decades.

The prophets of Israel were relentless in criticizing the behaviour of Israel and calling it back to its highest ideals. Contrary to the popular vision of them as diviners of the future their primary job was calling people back to the ethical demands of God. Their vision had social justice at it’s core; for them this equalled fidelity to God. In the words of Jeremiah (22:13-17): “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,’ who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion. Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He vindicated the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me?’ declares the Lord.”  Isaiah sums up the prophetic vision well (1:17): “Learn to do good; seek justice, fight oppression; bring justice to those without a protector, plead the cause of the vulnerable.” Or Zechariah (7:9-10): “Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Judge truly, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the vulnerable, those without a protector, the foreigner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Israel’s wisdom literature agrees: Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).”

Walter Brueggeman, a leading scholar of the Hebrew Bible, describes the prophets as follows, in words I challenge you not to associate with Bernie Sanders: “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that make it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” (The Prophetic Imagination)

These are, of course, the very criticisms levelled at Bernie: that the future of justice that he fantasies is not thinkable, that it is indeed pure fantasy and cannot be implemented. Many would argue otherwise. Many would just like to see somebody really try for a change. That is why Bernie is so popular with millennials.

The Jewish Candidate

Bernie Sanders is relentless and consistent in his criticisms of the financial elite, his calls for a political system free of legal bribery, and his defence of education and the needs of the poor for fair wages, medical care and enough money to live. He wants to free Americans from debt and modern slavery and to pull America away from militarism and hatred of the stranger. All of these themes echo in dozens of verses and laws structuring the political vision of the Torah and running deep in Jewish consciousness, even when they are obscured by fear or effaced by our falls into chauvinism. Bernie Sanders may not be just the Jewish Candidate by ethnicity. Ironically this secular, non-observant Jew may be the candidate that best embodies the political values of the Torah, which is to say, the ethics of the Jewish tradition.

 

The Tower of Babel: Bad Religion?

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I was recently listening to the punk band Bad Religion’s album Recipe for Hate. The song Skyscraper, whose passion and composition I’ve always enjoyed, centers around the metaphor of the tower of Babel (you can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/37Jlj0_FsZU). I can’t claim to understand the lyrics to the song in toto, but it does seem to be criticizing the destroyer of the tower (God), not the builders. In Greg Gaffin’s midrash, the tower builders are trying to reach God and God is afraid that if they find him they will abandon him (presumably because he doesn’t exist). Gaffin sings: I know why you tore it down that day, you thought that if you got caught we’d all go away, like a spoiled little baby who can’t come out to play, you had your revenge.  Gaffin sees the destruction as a bad thing: Well madness reigned and paradise drowned when Babel’s walls came crashing down. The song also seems to contain an implied criticism of the story of the tower itself- the last verse of the song characterizes the story as hardly understood and never any good.

Leaving aside Gaffin’s somewhat bizarre atheist fantasy midrash, this got me thinking about the story. How good of a story is it?

This question resonated in my mind more because of some reading I was doing lately, in a book called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament by John Walton. This book, which I recommend, strives to let people know what more than a century of intense archaeological investigation has uncovered about the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. It puts the Torah into context. Walton says, as many have before him, that the story of the tower of Bavel takes its central image from the Babylonian ziggurat.

In Genesis 11:1-9 a group of early humans settles in Shinar, probably Sumer, an area in southern Mesapotamia associated in the Torah with Babylon. The Mesapotamian building materials are foreign to Israelites, so the Torah describes them for us. The “city and tower” being built (see below), if true to history, would have been an urban area housing public buildings. In this case it was a temple complex. These structures, which began being built at the end of the 4th milennium BCE, were still visible in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The tower in the story is almost certainly based on the ziggurat temple complexes of Sumer, which are frequently described in Mesapotamian literature as”with head touching heaven”, as in the Torah as quoted below.

The story in the Torah is as follows:

The whole earth was of one language and of one speech.  It came to pass as they journeyed from the east that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and they dwelt there,  and they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly.’  They had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar, and they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in heaven and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And YHWH came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And YHWH said: ‘Behold they are one people and they have one language and this is what they begin to do.  Now nothing will be withheld from them which they aim to do. Come, let us go down and confound their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.’  So YHWH scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off  building the city. Therefore was the name of it called Bavel; because YHWH did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there did YHWH scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

This enigmatic story seems to warn human beings about the hubris of using technology to storm the heights of heaven and make themselves secure from any danger. Sound familiar? Far from being a story that should irk Bad Religion, a band which continuously snarls warnings about human arrogance and self-deception, I would think this story might make it on to their “acceptable biblical stories list”. I suspect that such a list does not exist. In any case let’s look a little more at the story itself and its ancient context.

In the story YHWH confounds people’s languages and spreads them out over the world. The story then explains the existence of multiple languages: they are there to prevent the creation of a mega-mono-culture and the attendant human hubris and blindness, one in which people make themselves God and depend on their own technology and might.

The fact that the story appears based on ancient Israelite perceptions of Babylon is also interesting. Babylon was a sophisticated, expanding empire with technology beyond Israel’s. Israel, a society of farmers and shepherds, looked up at the urban megalopolis of Babylon and its temple towers and saw nothing but a symbol of human arrogance and, it seems, a force that threatened to destroy smaller cultures and impose it’s own hegemony on everyone. Babylon was an imperialist state whose leaders glorified themselves and exalted in their technology and military strength. The story criticizes what Israel perceived as Babylon’s dream of a monocultural, invincible empire.

One interesting thing about this story, though, is that the Israelite perception of the nature of ziggurats- temples reaching upwards to heaven- is wrong. As Walton points out, ziggurats had a different nature and purpose. Humans did not use them, did not live in them or climb up them. Ziggurats existed as stairways upon which the gods descended to bring blessing to the earth, and to receive offerings. The ziggurats were not for the use of human beings, but for the use of gods!

We can thus see that the Israelite story is not an accurate depiction of Sumerian or Babylonian religion but rather takes up an image from the civilization of their neighbours and riffs on it to make a point- a point that is both a shot at perceived Babylonian arrogance and a broader statement. Anyone familiar with the sourcing of the story of Noah and the flood in older Akkadian and Mesapotamian stories knows that this is not a singular occurence in Israelite literature. It appears that the crafters of Israelite literature took up motifs from the literatures and civilisations of their neighbours and ran with them in a completely different direction. The religious sensibilities of Israel were truly an anamoly in the ancient near east (see Created Equal by Joshua Berman or the excellent discussion in Fight by Preston Sprinkle, ch.3-5). 

To answer my own question: is the the tower of Bavel a good story? I think it’s a very good story.  The story’s lesson seems to me to be that cultural diversity is a divinely willed protection against human hubris. Think of this-when there is only one human culture, from where does diversity, criticism, and challenge come from? Israel seemed to intuit that an unchallenged culture possesses an unlimited potential for evil.

Technology tends to empower empire and its accompanying arrogance. The technical-industrial explosion of the last 300 years has not only allowed us to touch the heavens. We have also exterminated more than 50% of the cultures and languages of the world, reducing ethnodiversity as well as biodiversity. We have pierced the atom and the gene and are quickly approaching the doleful day when “there is nothing they cannot do”.

I am reminded of a verse from the Daodejing, the ancient classic of Daoism by the Old Master (Laozi) which describes the ideal civilization (translation by Red Pine):

Imagine a small state with a small population

let there be labor-saving tools

that aren’t used

let people consider death

and not move far

let there be boats and carts

but no reason to ride them

let there be armor and weapons

but no reason to employ them

let people return to the use of knots

and be satisfied with their food

and pleased with their clothing

and content with their homes

and happy with their customs

let there be another state so near

people hear its dogs and chickens

and live out their lives

without making a visit.

 

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.