Minute Mitzvah: Keep Your Word

(N.B.: If you’re not hip to things eth(n)ospiritual, you may want to skip this post. Otherwise, feel free to comment.)

FOR ME, THE SECRET TO Jewish living can be summed up in two Hebrew words: “Na’aseh v’nishmah (We will do, and we will understand).” This is the nation’s famous response to Moses in Exodus 24:7 (which chapter/verse combo delights my study-partner no end), after the prophet asks them whether or not they’re willing to lead Torah-codified lives: “Right on! And we’ll learn by doing.”

“Torah” is often translated as “Law,” but a better translation would be “Instruction.” The sages of our tradition saw it as something alive, manifested in the day-to-day actions of ordinary people as they relate to each other and to God. Most of the 613 mitzvot (“commandments,” or what my teacher Rabbi Jack Gabriel translates as “God-connections”) deal with the currently defunct Temple sacrifical cult. But in 1931, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan sifted 270 which can still be done today — and which Serious Jews consider obligatory, or at least attainable.

When I returned to Judaism in 1997, I wanted to “do it right” and plunged headlong into a (still incomplete) study of the mitzvot. It occurred to me that most Jews are already doing 80 or so of these every day but don’t know it. And, according to Rabbi Kagan, knowing is the key: If, when your grandma enters the room, you rise because it’s good manners, that’s one experience. But if you do it because it’s expected by Torah, that’s another. Only you will know the difference. But isn’t that where it starts?

Thus: “Monday Mitzvah,” a weekly exercise in “making Torah.” (And, hopefully, a better world into the bargain.)

Today: Keep your word.

The human world is very fragile, and not only on the physical level. Human society is built on trust, and the basis of trust is the expectation that others will keep their promises to us and vice versa. That’s not to say it’s easy, especially among the important distractions of our daily lives, but when we break our word — even “just this once,” even “just a little white lie” — we disappoint someone somewhere. This adds to the net disappointment and despair in the world. And why would we want to do that? Torah tells us that we are bound to fulfill what passes from our lips, whether or not we use the magic word “promise;” better that we should say nothing than we should say and not do.

Exercise: Pay attention the next time you’re about to promise something.

Read This Book

THERE IS A Conversation THAT I’ve been having with a friend since we were both in high school, and the initial-cap in that word is due not to the colloquy’s duration but to its content.

Its thesis is simple: that Something Connects All This. Being a spiritual sort of guy, I feel more comfortable describing It in terms not far removed from the religious. Not so my erstwhile colleague and former brother-in-law Ransom Stephens. Ransom’s a physicist by inclination and training — passionately curious about why and how the universe works the way it does — and though we long ago realized that our different takes on the Ultimate Essence stemmed from a subject-not-Object orientation, we’ve never let that get in the way of a good 3 a.m. walk-and-talk.

Not surprisingly, his first novel — The God Patent — deals with those exact issues. As Ransom describes it: “A laid-off engineer trying to rebuild his life gets caught between science and religion in a battle over the origin of the universe and the existence of the soul.” TGP is one of the featured titles on Scribd.com, and clicking on the above link will not only help support a rising Northern California writer but will make it easier for all of those with a book or two in us. Check it out, and tell ’em Neal sent you.

Pithyism #22

DON’T ABUSE THE HELP. AFTER all, you’re someone else’s.

(A corollary to the police reporter’s “Don’t mock the damned — you may one day be one of them.”)

Re-Re-RE-Reads

SOME BOOKS ARE FINISHED IN a day; others, only when we are.

If books are portable doorways, then stepping into a beloved-since-childhood instant Now every few years can sometimes tell us where we’ve been in the meanwhile. As one of my perennial obsessions is the slippery intersection of awareness and time — e.g., free will[1] as side effect of fore-ignorance[2] — many of my own favored rereads tend to be “quest” stories: people who go in search of something and discover something unimaginably else. Here are five or six:

» Lord of the Rings (trilogy), J. R. R. Tolkien
If you’ve seen the movie, you think you know the story. But if you haven’t read the books, you really really don’t. Tolkien’s words have a different flavor in the mouth than on the page; I recommend reading these aloud, one night at a time, to someone you enjoy. (Takes about a year.) If you can do voice impressions, so much the better.

» The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
Space-stranded Gully Foyle was waiting to die until a passing ship ignored his pleas for rescue. His vengeance takes him from the interplanetary gutter to the height of decadent society, but his education elevates him to the next phase of human potential.

» Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass, Lewis Carroll
A chief delight of my 40 years’ acquaintance with Carroll’s endless puzzle has been watching it slowly transform from fairy tale to divine satire. How does he do that?

» Schrodinger’s Cat (trilogy), Robert Anton Wilson
Extrauniversal intrigue among at least three universes next door to this one, all wrapped in a literary Moebius strip. Wilson once offered a quick intelligence test: If the universe is getting bigger and funnier, you’re getting smarter. RAW’s books are for anyone who wants to become smarter — and really, shouldn’t that be everyone?

[1] For the record, I am not smart enough to reckon the “difference” between “free will” and “predestination.” However, I’m fairly sure that it’s my hand — and not God‘s — who’s picking out my socks and entertainment, at least most of the time.

[2] Similar to, but more certain than, “foreknowledge.”

Shalom, Mr Chips

IT’S NEVER EASY TO SAY “goodbye” — so I’ll say “thank you” instead.

Due to current synagogue demographics and ill health, I won’t be teaching at Shir Shalom next year. Obviously, I have mixed feelings. But mostly, I would like to thank the parents of this community for allowing me to share the light of Torah and tradition with our next generation of Jews. (I would especially like to thank our now-former education director, Susan Jebrock, for hiring me in 2000.) It’s been a rewarding, terrifying, enlightening, fascinating and instructive 10 years, and both a privilege and an honor for me to serve in this fashion.

Of course, I will continue to be available as a Torah and liturgy tutor (for pre- or post-b’nei mitzvah students). And Ann & I will still hold “France Street Torah study” in our living room on alternate Saturday mornings.

The Talmudic-era Rabbi Chanina said, “I have learned much from my teachers, and I have learned more from my colleagues. But I have learned the most from my students.” Baruch Hashem, praise G?d, for letting me learn that too.

Four Points of Contact

“IT IS THE NATURE OF religious belief knowledge to be compelling only to the believer knower.” So said Rabbi Micha Berger some years ago on Usenet’s soc.culture.jewish.moderated, and I have yet to see a better argument for pluralism and against proselytizing. (After all, how can you sell your vision of God when you know It only looks that way to you?)

Seen through the consciousness-shackling lens of Western culture, a popular understanding of religious/spiritual experience generally falls into one of two categories: “faith” or “reason.”

Why Star Trek Worked — And Lord of the Rings Didn’t

THE ONLY THING THAT BUGGED me about the new Star Trek movie — and that only for the first 20 minutes — was that it didn’t look “retro” enough; as though Mr. Abrams’ idea of “early Star Trek” was taken from the first films rather than the original series.

That disappointment was much more fleeting than the one which still accompanies another mythical relandscaping, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Sure, he got a lot right — including the balrog issue — but like many fen I loudly objected to Jackson’s character-monkeying (e.g., the emasculation of Aragorn) and addition of narrative-twisting scenes neither in the book nor appropriate to it. Not because I’m a purist (even though I am); adapting a Beloved Work from text to image, or from older image to newer image, almost always requires sacrifices, edits, and rewrites. And if you’re lucky or good enough to be in such a position you’ll soon split the fan base along love-hate lines depending on whose vision you ruined.

But even though Abrams’ Star Trek employs a couple of revisionist touches in look (2000s sweaty for 1960s antiseptic) and continuity (the planet Vulcan turns out to have been destroyed by time-travelling Romulans before Kirk and Spock can go mano-a-lirpa in “Amok Time”), he didn’t mess with the characters. Kirk, Spock, Uhura, McCoy, Chekov, Sulu, Scotty — they’re played by the next generation (puntended) of actors, but their essential Kirkness, Spockness, et al is intact.

And that contains a lesson for religiospiritual seekers of modern mind and purist bent. I can’t speak for members of other traditional religions who try to balance ancientry with innovation, but Jewish communal organizations have recently been floating a number of well-intentioned “repackaging” initiatives designed to make the old attractive to the new. As Jewish tradition is all about reinterpretation, we have something of a 3,000-year head start on the process. Yet many of these initiatives seem to assume that Judaism can’t speak for itself — that it has to be changed in order to suit 21st Century palates. But at what point, then, does it cease to “be” Judaism?

E. g.: Aragorn a la Jackson. By Tolkien, Aragorn knows exactly who he is: the last son of a line of noble kings trying to restore a united realm and win the hand of his love. By Jackson, he’s just another afraid-of-his-destiny Kevin Costnerism. That may play well in our no-heroes-without-ironic-flaws era. But it’s also inauthentic and dishonest, robbing both character and work of integrity and intended meaning.

An authentic Spock doesn’t need to be played by Leonard Nimoy, or even to have pointed ears — but he does need to struggle with his twin-world identities, just as many Jews do whether they live in the United States, Russia or Iran. Likewise, an authentic adaptation of anything must maintain the source’s integrity — instead of changing it beyond recognition by those who know and love it.