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.”

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.

 

Zaida: Remembering My Grandfather

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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.

 

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.

bowie

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.

 

What Is The Human Way? A Report From Martin Buber

Martin_Buber_portrait

The following is a lecture I wrote and gave at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Vancouver last Shabbat (Sabbath). In it I attempt to hit some of the main points of Buber’s classic work “The Human Way (Der Weg Des Meschen)”. This work was based on six lectures Buber gave where he attempted to present Hasidic insights on the human way to an audience of Dutch Quakers.

At a time when Hasidic life is dominated by legalism, insularity, outward religious observances, and a thick layer of customs it is increasingly difficult to recover what it has to contribute to humanity. Buber’s lectures, which were given in the late 40’s, are a window into the rich inward life and deep insights of this tradition at it’s best.

Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher best known for his works in existentialism and his popularisation of the inward aspects of Hasidic spiritual practice. He was also an important figure in the early Zionist movement; translated the Bible into German, and played an important role in the transmission and development of Jewish culture both in Europe and in modern Israel.

Buber came from a family of observant, if liberal, Jews. Buber joined many Jews from Observant families in pursuing secular studies- in his case philosophy In 1923, Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou), and in 1925, he began translating the Hebrew Bible into German.

In 1930, Buber became an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt Am Main, but resigned from his professorship in protest after the Nazis came to power in 1933. He then founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became important after the Nazis forbade Jews access to public education. In 1938, Buber left Germany and settled in Jerusalem, receiving a professorship at Hebrew University. Buber died at his home in Jerusalem in 1965, where there is now a street named after him. 

Perhaps the most condensed and potent of Buber’s spiritual writings is the small book “The Human Way According to the Teaching of Hasidism”. This book originally consisted of six lectures given to a group of Dutch religious socialists in Holland in 1947. The Woodbrookers were a Christian group who has been persecuted by the Nazis during WW2 and had ties to English Quakers. Their leader had known Buber for some time and had been influenced by Buber’s philosophy. Buber delivered the popular lectures as requested, and a German edition called Der Weg Des Menschen was published in 1950.

Each of the six lectures is based on a Hasidic story, though Buber in fact touches on many Hasidic sayings and tales in each lecture. Time constraints will not allow us to ponder insights from all six lectures here. What I will do is share the essential lesson of each lecture, giving particular attention to the first two.

Heart Searching

The first talk opens with the following tale: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, was jailed in Petersburg because the mitnagdim had denounced him to the Russian government. He was awaiting trial when the chief of the gendarmes entered his cell. Impressed by the Rav’s demeanour, the man entered into conversation with him and brought up a number of questions he had about the Bible. Finally he asked him, “how are we to understand that the omniscient God asked Adam in the garden, “Where are you?”

“Do you believe”, answered the Rav, “that the scriptures are eternal and address us all?”

“ I do”, the man said.

“Well then”, said the zaddik, “in every generation God calls to every man, ‘where are you?’ God says something like this, ‘You have lived 46 years. How far along are you on your way?’’

When the man heard his age mentioned he pulled himself together and said to the Rav, “Bravo!” but his heart trembled.

What happens in this story? asks Buber. He points out that it is similar to some Talmudic tales where a Roman challenges Jewish doctrine by pointing out a seeming contradiction and has his point refuted or resolved by a Rabbi. The difference here, points out Buber, is that true to Hasidic discourse in general the answer is given on a different plane than the question is asked on.

 Buber says, “‘Where are you?’, whether the question be addressed to Adam or some other man- in so asking God does not learn something he does not know; what he wants is to produce an effect in man which can only be produced by just such a question, provided that it reaches man’s heart- that man allows it to reach his heart.”

 Why does every person run from this question?

 “Adam hides himself to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility for his way of living. Every man hides for this purpose, for every man is Adam…..To escape responsibility for his life, he turns existence into a series of hideouts.’”

 There is always a Voice seeking us, asking us, “Where are you?” But we spend much of our days in hiding, whether we are outwardly religious or not.

As Buber points out, however, “Man cannot escape the eye of God, but in trying to hide from Him, he is hiding from himself. ’” We cannot, of course, hide from God. Who are we hiding from them? We hide from ourselves. Yet in hiding from ourselves, we do not face where we are, and so we are lost.

Buber writes, “….the Voice…is a ‘still small voice’, and easy to drown. So long as this is done, man’s life will not become a way. Whatever success and enjoyment he may achieve, whatever power he may attain and whatever deeds he may do, his life will remain way-less, so long as he does not face the Voice.”

Buber points out, however, that the Gerrer Rebbe teaches that Esau also asks questions. Esau asks Jacob, “Where are you going?” Buber writes, “There is a demonic question…which apes God’s question, the question of truth….it does not stop at ‘Where are you?’ but continues, ‘From where you have got to, there is no way out.’ There is a Voice that offers a liberating confrontation, and there is a voice that accuses and interrogates so as to kill. In Jewish tradition that voice is, of course, the voice of Hasatan, Satan, whose name literally means “the accuser”. Our problem is that we are confused about what voices are from God and which from Satan. To quote another Hasidic teaching: the devil clothes his demands as mitzvot. Some of God’s commands to us we mistake as satanic. How ironic that sometimes, in trying to escape the accusing voice of Hasatan we unwittingly run from the liberating voice of God. That must be one of the Devil’s most diabolical tricks. How then are we to find our way?

The Particular Way

Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to his teacher, the ‘Seer’ of Lublin: ‘Show me one general way to the service of God.’ The Zaddik told him that it was impossible to tell men what way they should take…Everyone should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose that way with all his strength.” The way to find our way is to know what we love. We should do that, yet pursue it not as an end in itself, but as a way to God.

We are to revere the sages of the past, but not to imitate them. “God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one man. When some disciples of a zaddik visited the Seer of Lublin and expressed surprise that his customs differed from those of his teacher, the Seer replied, “What sort of a God would that be who has only one way in which he can be served!” God says, whatever you do may be a way to me, provided you do it in a manner that leads you to me.”

A zaddik once said, at the end of Ecclesiastes we read: “At the end of the matter, the whole is heard: “Fear God.” Whatever matter you follow to its end , there, at the end, you will hear one thing: “Fear God”. The point, says Buber, is that “Any natural act, if hallowed, leads to God, and nature needs man for what no angel can perform on it, namely, its hallowing.”  The word “hallowing” here, refers to sanctification. Any way if taken in order to reach God, is a way that reaches Him. In following that desire, that natural inclination of the heart, but seeking to do so in a way which leads to God and answers God’s call, that desire and the heart which desires are both sanctified.

Resolution

In the third talk Buber clarifies that in all of this heart searching and seeking one should not become a creature blown around by internal winds, irresolute and conflicted, obsessed with introspection. Rabbi Nahum, the son of the Rabbi of Rishyn, entered the house of study at the wrong time and found his disciples playing checkers. “Do you know the rules of checkers?”, the Rabbi asked his embarassed disciples. “ The first is that one must not make two moves at once. The second is that one must go forward and never back. The third is that when one gets to the other side one may make any move one likes.”

As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “We learn the way by walking.” In seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow our own particular way we must not be paralyzed by introspection but must act resolutely and keep moving forward.

Begin With Oneself

The primary answer to the conflicts of our lives is found in knowing ourselves and bringing our own selves into harmony. Buber here quotes a Hasidic saying that “if a man makes peace in himself he can make peace in the world.” Satirizing the way that we get lost in externals, trying fruitlessly to put other people in order,  to control our lives, and to amass cherished things while losing the one thing most essential, Buber tells a fable of Rabbi Hanokh: “There was once a foolish man. When he went to bed at night he was afraid that he would not remember where he had put his clothing. So making a great effort he took a paper and pencil and noted down where he put everything as he undressed. When awoke in the morning he took the slip of paper in hand and read “cap”- there it was; “shirt”- there it was; and so on until he was fully dressed. “That’s all very well”, he exclaimed, “but now where am I myself?” He looked and looked but it was in vain, he could not find himself. “And that is how it is with us”, concluded the Rabbi.

 Not To Be Pre-occupied With Oneself

Rabbi Hayyim of Zans married his son to the daughter of Rabbi Eliezer. The day after the wedding he visited the father of the bride and said to him, “Now that we are relatives I feel that I can confide in you.” My hair and beard have grown white, and I have not yet atoned!”

“O my friend”, replied Rabbi Eliezer, “you are thinking only of yourself. How about forgetting yourself and thinking of the world?”

At first glance, points out Buber, this seems to contradict everything he has just said. He has just said that everyone should search his own heart, find his particular way, unite his being in action, and begin with himself, and now we are told a man should forget himself. This is not a contradiction, however. Buber says, “One must simply ask, what for? Why am I to search my heart? What is my particular way for?”.  Not for my own sake. You begin with yourself, yes, but you do not end with yourself. We put ourselves in order so that we can turn outwards toward the world.

That is not yet the final point though. Why do we search our hearts, find our way, unite our beings, put ourselves in order and turn toward the world?

Here Where One Stands

For this final lecture I won’t offer any commentary, but let Buber’s lyrical voice speak for itself.

“Most of us achieve only at rare moments a clear realization of the fact that they have never tasted the fulfillment of existence, that their life does not participate in true, fulfilled existence, that, as it were, it passess true existence by….in some measure we strive to find-somewhere- what we are seeking. Somewhere, in some province of the world or the mind, except where we stand, where we have been set- but it is there and nowehere else that the treasure can be found…..It is said of a certain Talmudic master that the paths of heaven were as bright to him as his hometown. Hasidism inverts the order: It is a greater thing if the streets of a man’s hometown are as bright to him as the paths of heaven. For it is here, where we stand, that we should try to make shine the light of hidden divine life.”

 “Once they told Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz of the great misery among the needy. He listened, sunk in grief. Then he raise his head. ‘Let us draw God into the world,’ he cried, ‘and all need will be extinguished.’

Buber tells a final story:

 “Where is the dwelling of God?” This is the question with which the Rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world filled with his glory?”

Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever man lets him in.”

“This is the ultimate purpose”, says Buber, “to let God in. But we can let him in only where we really stand, where we live, where we live a true life. If we maintain holy intercourse with this little world entrusted to us, if we help the holy spiritual substance to accomplish itself in that section in which we are living, then we are establishing, in this place, a dwelling for the divine presence.”

 

 

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?

All A Horrible Mistake: The Bible’s Supposed Condemnation of Homosexuality

Moses

Human history, especially recently, has shown that we can be very wrong about some things, even things we’ve believed for a long time. The sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. Solid objects are actually mostly filled with space. And the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality. What? But don’t most Jews and Christians, the people of the Book themselves, say it does? Don’t they say the Bible condemns homosexuals even when they disagree with that condemnation? Doesn’t the Bible say homosexuality is an “abomination”?

The answer to the first question is “Yes, that is what they say.” But the answer to the second question turns out to be “No, it is a misunderstanding.” I myself was unhappily convinced, until a few years ago, that the Hebrew Bible did condemn homosexuality. I thought this was disturbing because I myself don’t agree. Homosexuality seems to me ethically neutral and grounded in genetic predispositions.

All of this changed when I took a closer look through the lens of some excellent Biblical scholarship basing itself solidly in the historical-critical approach, ie. in arguments based in textual criticism, archaeology, anthropology, and cross-cultural studies.

When we say “homosexual” today we generally mean people who are primarily sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. By “homosexuality” we mean people of homosexual orientation who engage, homosexually, in all the same sexual and romantic behaviours that heterosexuals do: casual sex, affairs, committed monogamy, and now marriage.

First off, no one in the cultural sphere of the Bible thought of certain people as “homosexuals” or had a concept of “homosexuality” like the one I describe above. There is no word for homosexual or homosexuality in Hebrew. In fact scholars assert that the category “homosexuality” did not occur in western culture until the 17th century. Before then, sex with another man was just seen as a “perverse desire”, a temptation that some people were more prone to than others.

What is at issue here in Leviticus is a certain act not a category of person. The verses in question are: “You shall not lay with a male as you would with a woman, it is a repulsive thing.” (Lev 18:22) and “The two of them have done a repulsive thing. They shall be put to death.” (Lev 20:13). We need to understand exactly what “laying with a man as you would with a woman” means, and why that was considered “a repulsive thing”.

Friedman and Dolansky (2011) offer a very compelling historical and cross cultural analysis here (For a detailed discussion and defense of their argument see here, what follows is a summary).

They agree with the mainstream Judeo-Christian interpretation the verses refer to sexual intimacy between men, which is supported by the language used. How exactly does one man lay with another like the second man was a woman, though? Friedman and Dolansky ground their understanding of why homosexual sex is forbidden in an Israelite aversion to one man being penetrated by another (the reason for the aversion will be explained below). The Israelites most likely understood “sex (laying)” to refer to “sexual intercourse” specifically. Even more specifically, the law is addressed to the active partner- “you shall not lay with a man”. In other words, the intention of the law is to forbid a man having sexual intercourse with another man by penetrating him. Now, you might think this is a law forbidding homosexual romance. But, Friedman and Dolansky explain, it appears you’d be wrong.

First off, they argue, homosexuality per se can’t be the problem. Why not? Because female homosexuality is not against the law. Think that “the misogynists” just didn’t bother to mention women? Au contraire: when bestiality is discussed, the authors specifically mention both men and women being forbidden to have sex with animals. Further they argue ancient Israel was polygamous and men were not only familiar with female homosexual acts but had relatively easy opportunities to observe them and even to enjoy them, as they had multiple wives. The proof? There is a Biblical law in Leviticus making it illegal for a man who has married two sisters to have sex with both of them at the same time (Lev 18:18). Sisters just, not wives generally. If threesomes were not known and common enough, why would this law be necessary? Yet there is no law in the Hebrew Bible forbidding sex between females.

A Christian pastor named Justin Cannon makes an additional argument that is relevant here in his book The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality. It is in fact a very Jewish argument! He points out that in the Torah “to lie with” refers to sex. The verses in question could have just said ” it is forbidden for a man to lie with a man”. Why do they add “like a woman”? This seems to qualify and make more precise what is being discussed: not intimacy or love between men of just any kind, but specifically sexual intercourse.

To understand why male homosexual intercourse  would be repulsive to Israelites, Friedman and Dolansky look at mentions of anal sex in the surrounding cultures. A Babylonian divination text says that being the passive recipient of homosexual anal intercourse brings bad luck. Two Assyrian laws discuss anal penetration: The first states that someone who falsely accuses another man of often being a passive recipient of anal sex will be whipped, do forced labour, pay a fine, and be castrated. The next law states: if a man anally rapes a social equal than he will in turn be anally raped and then castrated. In other words: being penetrated by another man is degrading, and is a common enough form of male social violence to be mentioned in law. One very important detail: anally raping a social inferior is not punished. The reason for this is simple: the problem is not anal sex per se, it is the socially degrading nature of being the passive recipient. If you are already a social inferior of the one who pentrates you than there is no problem in the eys of the Babylonian law. All of this is relevant to understanding the Biblical law, as we shall see.

Egypt provides similar evidence. Egyptian literature generally portrays the passive partner as weak, cowardly and effeminate. In the bizarre myth of Seth and Horus a struggle between the gods is decided by who has managed to place his semen inside the other: the implanted god loses. What about famed Greek homosexuality? It turns out the picture is more complicated then you might have heard. Greek literature does not know of a general category of men called “homosexuals”, but it does know of homosexual love and sex. And even in Greece, it turns out, to be the passive recipient of anal sex was considered shameful, effeminizing, and humiliating.

Plato comments on the practice (with a strong note of misogyny): “Will not all men censure as a woman a man who acts womanly?” Here we have, of course, a very clear parallel to the probable thinking of the Biblical law: the passive partner is considered “as a woman”. Plutarch, a Roman inheritor of the Greek tradition wrote, “We class those belonging to the passive part as being of the lowest vice and accord them neither confidence nor respect or friendship.”

What Leviticus forbids is not what we call homosexuality, but the degradation of another man’s dignity and social status through an act which was widely regarded as humiliating and socially degrading. This is in keeping with the basic egalitarian intent of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, an intent brilliantly showcased by Joshua Berman. As Berman’s book shows masterfully, we mistake the laws of the Hebrew Bible when we see them as primarily about individual morality instead of economic, social and political dynamics (though grounded in a radical concern for individual human dignity). As Berman shows, the laws of the Hebrew Bible prevent the formation of a class structure; put the King under the law with everyone else; undercut the practice of slavery; alleviate poverty; prevent the formation of an inherited aristocracy, and restrain prejudicial treatment of foreigners and non-citizens, among other social justice measures unheard of in contemporaneous middle eastern and mediterranean societies.

Bearing this in mind we come to a shocking realization about the law against anally penetrating another man. Far from being a law about forbidding homosexuality, it turns out to be a law supporting equal dignity among men and a classless state. The law existed to prevent one man from socially humiliating and degrading another man. This doesn’t mean that the laws in the Hebrew Bible are perfect in promoting equality. They still contain inequalities, most notably between men and women. That does not change the fact that they were, in context, an attempt at building a new kind of Utopia, a rebellion against the stratified slave states of Egypt and Babylon. And it doesn’t change our fundamental point, which is that the law is not about what we think it is about.

The New Testament

This interpretation of the laws of the Torah is actually supported by a proper reading of the oft-cited and misused comments of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Here Paul condemns a number of types of human immorality and includes the set “pornoi, arsenokoitai, and andrapodistai”. These are often translated “fornicators, homosexuals, and kidnappers”. Cannon argues, in The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality that in context these Greek terms are best understood as “male prostitutes, those who use them, and their procurors (literally “slave-traders/kidnappers”). All of these characters were present in the Rome of Paul’s time. This moral condemnation follows on the Hebrew scriptural idea of anal sex as fundamentally a degrading act for one of the partners.

A second text, Romans 1:24-7, condemns people who have turned away from God and are overcome with lust breaking through all boundaries and having “unnatural” sexual relations. Cannon and others argue that in this text the referent is in fact Roman religious orgies. The Evangelical ethicist David Gushee, following others, argues that this text may be a veiled reference to debauched behaviour at the Roman imperial court by the likes of Caligula and Nero. Either way, it cannot be taken refer to committed homosexual romances of the kind we know today.

The Consequences

We simply cannot take the Torah’s condemnation of anal sex between men out of its original cultural context. The act was condemned because of its social meaning then. As an illustration, consider this: in Thailand it is considered incredibly insulting to touch another adults head. Now imagine certain men were in the habit of touching the heads of other men in a way which marked them as social inferiors and exerted power and status. If one wanted to create a society of equals one might outlaw one man touching the head of another man. In our culture, however, touching another man’s head simply does not have that meaning. To insist that all “head-touchers” are immoral and worthy of censure in our context would make no sense.

Similarly to insist that male homosexual love relationships are immoral in all cultural settings on the basis of the Levitical texts is incoherent. In our culture sexual love between men is simply seen as another type of morally neutral romantic love. You might object that not everyone sees it that way. The irony is, of course, that those who see it otherwise are usually inspired by their fidelity to the Bible’s supposed condemnation of homosexual love! Their opinion, therefore, is not in need of respect but simply of correction.

The consequence of all of this is that centuries of religious interpretation aside, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. In fact it does not even discuss it. We are left to make up our own minds about what the Bible might have said about homosexuality today given its underlying mission to promote a political state where all people are free and equal before God.

Works Cited:

Berman, Joshua. Created Equal: How The Bible Broke With Ancient Political Thought. 2008, Oxford University Press.

Cannon, Justin. The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality. 2012, Justin R. Cannon (Ebook).

Friedman and Dolansky; The Bible Now. 2011, Oxford University Press.

Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind. 2014, Read The Spirit Books.

What Do We Do With Our Spiritual Chometz?

פסחיס ב: רבי יהודה אומר אין בעור חמץ אלה שרפה וחכמים אומרים אף מפרר וגורה לרוח או מטיל לים.

Mishna Pesachim 2: R’ Yehuda says: Chometz must be destroyed through fire. The Sages say: One can crumble it and release it to the wind or in water.

On the holiday of Pesach (Passover) Jews are forbidden to eat chometz (leaven) or to even possess it. We are approaching Pesah and it is time to contemplate the removal of our chometz, both literal and metaphorical. R’ Shlomo Carlebach, zt”l comments that just as even a little external chometz must be removed from your possession, so even a little spiritual chometz must be given attention. Chometz, or leaven, is a concern for both Jews and Christians. Resonant with Rabbi Carlebach, Paul warns in Galatians 5:9, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump (of dough).”

Such spiritual chometz is the yezer hara (evil inclination- here foolish, destructive desires). Chazal, our sages, call the yezer hara “the chometz in the dough” (T. Bavli; Berakhot 17a). Paul associates chometz with “malice and evil” contrasting it with the “matzah of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthinans 5:8). Jesus seemed to associate chometz with malevolent spiritual pride, as in Mark 8:15 and Matthew 16:6, “Beware of the chometz of the Phrisees and Sadducees”. Chometz here is probably again, however, a watchword for the yetzer hara more generally.

As R’ Carlebach points out (Carlebach Haggadah) even small things can cause great damage- harsh words to our spouse or children, laziness in failing to honour our parents, giving charity to someone on the street without a smile; a habit of being impatient, aversive, or judgemental; apathy or a tendency to be self-deprecating. These behaviours, or whatever is subtly or not so subtly holding us back in our lives, in our avodas Hashem, are rooted in internal middot ra’ot (bad traits) which are rooted in the yezer hara (evil inclination).

Your body and soul are the palace of the Infinite One (the ein sof) where he resides. How do you think the King of the palace feels to find that not only have you allowed the strange god (el zar) of foolish, meaningless desire (yezer hara) to sneak in and set up shop but you the prince of the palace, even make it at home and listen to what it says!

– R’ Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, zt”l, the Piazecne Rebbe, Chovas HaTalmidim

How do we destroy our internal chometz? In the Mishna above Rabbi Yehudah says that it must be burnt. We must destroy it completely and immediately in the fire of our internal scrutiny, our moral passion and commitment to Torah. The Sages disagree, however, giving more nuanced guidance. It may also be crumbled up and dissolved in water, or given to the wind. Our internal chometz can be broken down (deconstructed) through understanding, contemplated and questioned until it becomes less compelling. Once weakened it can be dissolved by immersing in Torah study (water, as the Torah is called “mayim chayim/living waters”) which will fill more and more of the mind with holy thoughts, thus gradually disempowering, thinning out, and dissolving hometzdik thoughts (Likutey Moharan 1:35). As it says in the Gemarra, if you cannot overpower the evil inclination (yezer hara) drag it into the Bet Midrash (house of study). The sages also permit releasing chometz to the wind , which is prayer, as it says kol ha neshama tehalel Yah (let every breath praise God, Tehillim 150:6), which refers to prayer, as Hazal say: prayer is spoken with the breath (neshima) of the mouth (Bereishit Rabbah 14:9), which is also called wind of the mouth (u v’ruach piv– Tehillim 33:6).

As Pesach approaches then it is upon us (aleynu) to search out our internal chometz. What can be burnt, let it be burnt. What is not so easy to get rid of let us dissolve in the light of sechel (intelligence), bringing it into our understanding. Let’s then let it go through Torah study (immersion in truth) and praying for siyata d’shemaya (divine help).