The writers’ strike wears on, but our nerves don’t thanks to those daring and resourceful folks at Operation Facestrong. Long may it wave.
“For example, that guy over there with the ‘I Climbed Lassen’ T-shirt.”
“Well, he obviously wants everyone to think that he climbed Lassen. But ‘those who know do not speak,’ so…”
“So you’re saying he didn’t really climb Lassen?”
“I’m saying that whether he did or he didn’t, he wants everyone to think he did.”
“He might as well have a T-shirt saying ‘I Seen It Too.'”
“Yeah! Or a bumpersticker. That would pretty much cover everything experienceable.”
“Bumpersticker’s better. They’d be cheaper to print and we could sell more of ’em.”
“Sell ’em to who?”
“To people who didn’t actually see It, but wanted everyone to think they did for whatever reason, but if they had seen It, they wouldn’t need to tell everybody.”
“What if they had seen It, and just wanted in on the joke?”
“Mmm … let them get their own damn ‘stickers.”
“But they should buy them from us since we thought of it first!”
The future is an open hand; the past is a closed hand.
What’s in between?
Like any Torah Nerd, I’ve never met a commentary I didn’t like — the more abstruse and seriously-taking the better — but I’ve always had difficulty with the traditional view of God As Punisher and Rewarder.
Perhaps that stems from an inherent distrust of authority, honestly earned by dint of entering my formative years about the time Nixon was talking to the White House portrait gallery. But whatever the reason, the Deuteronomic Theology has never struck me as an accurate model for my own devotions; I’m much more of an “I can’t figure it out, so I’ll enjoy what I can while I’m here, help others do the same, and try to do my best” Ecclesiastician.
But what if we take “God of Justice” as a culture-specific metaphor for, or understanding of, the Universal Law of Inescapable Returns — otherwise known as Karma Popula, What-Goes-Around-Comes-Around, Don’t Excrete Where You Eat, et al?
And what if the Torah’s take on this most basic of closed-system principles is a logical consequence of the Torah’s concept of a personal God — One we can cut a deal with, speak to, and Who has a deep and abiding interest in our welfare and actions?
After all, if we posit a personal relationship with the Source of Existence, it’s easy to take things personally when they don’t go our way — when they’re out of our control, when we ask, “What did I do to deserve this?”
One cannot guess the mind of God, but certain actions (and patterns of actions) remit almost guaranteed consequences — and when we know this, the God of Blame becoems the God of Responsibility.
“Neither the security of the wicked nor the afflictions of the righteous are within the grasp of our understanding.” — Pirke Avot
IN THE BEGINNING was the Text. But not for long.
The Text – definer and exemplar, authority and comfort, platform and trampoline – was no ordinary collection of words. It spoke of history and possibility, treated miracles as though they were commonplace and elevated the commonplace above the miraculous. Its basic gist was that humanity matters, even if humanity couldn’t always understand why.
Yet while the Text was finite (after all, its Author had to stop writing somewhere) it did contain the seeds of an infinite perpetuation, though not in the most obvious of ways.
Topically all-encompassing, the Text also seemed contradictory or vague – at least on first reading. But its devotees were so in love with the Text and its ideas that they couldn’t help amplifying and illuminating these apparent inconsistencies, often at great and obscure length. Some of these clarifications were laughed out of the circles which bore them; others took hold to become part of the Text’s official lore, in turn spawning their own hyper- and meta-comments. Some of this secondary lore was so treasured and logical that many who had never read the Text first-hand (but who couldn’t help soaking up its concepts and practices through occasionally distorted dissemination) assumed that the expositions were actually primary documents.
After enough time had passed for the Text to inextricably intertwine itself into the culture which carried it, three main schools of thought began to develop. One held that no intelligent person could understand the Text without its body of subsidiary lore. Another proclaimed that the Text was inherently perfect and no intelligent person would gussy it up with a lot of commentary-come-lately. The third was composed of a grumpy few who insisted that any intelligent person could see the Text was “just a story,” and devoted as much time and energy to disproving the Text and its importance as the Text’s devotees did in celebrating it.
These three schools also invested much time and energy in attacking each other’s opinion and occasionally each other as well. So when a fourth school emerged, holding that the Text was just a set of clothing for an Idea, you may imagine the rage and blather which ensued from – and, ironically, united – the first three.
This fourth school, however, knew that the test of intelligent persons wasn’t in which school they followed but whether or not they believed Text’s basic Idea – that humanity matters. (Some members of the other three schools believed this also, but they tended to be more uptight about it.) With what seemed annoying smugness, but was actually ecstatic enthusiasm, the fourth-schoolers acknowledged that the Text was just a story, but an extremely important one – both inherently perfect and valid fodder for exposition – and that only a damn fool wearing either-or blinders could possibly disagree at this late date in the Text’s history.
Such views, of course, were heresy; thus, it’s no wonder that the fourth-schoolers tended to feel a bit lonely and picked-on.
But their heresies did not end there. Some bold souls, who had observed that story-telling (especially story-telling about story-telling) was one of humanity’s oldest and deepest traits, began to notice that what made the Text unique wasn’t the Text itself but the way in which people related to it: whether the Text was Torah, Gospel, Quran, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Roddenberry or Lucas (some would add Beethoven and Jefferson, and occasionally Capra or Huston). What’s more, its devotees displayed the same compulsive can’t-leave-it-aloneness: whether the question was one of authorship (man or God? Will or Francis?), psychology (why was Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac? Was Hamlet mad, or simply adolescent?), intent (was Sauron a metaphor for Hitler? Did Paul corrupt or clarify Jesus’ teachings?), consistency (how did Klingons go from smooth to bumpy foreheads? How can God simultaneously command us to submit and to question?) or common sense (how could the Jedi not see that Palpatine was Darth Sidious? If Moses transcribed the entire Torah, how could he write about his own death?).
In short, the heretics had discovered a Great Truth: You don’t have to take the Text literally in order to take it seriously — and if you take it seriously, there’s no end to the fun.
Of course, the fourth-schoolers couldn’t share this cross-Textual speculation with anyone but other heretics. They realized that most Text devotees believed that only one Text (i.e., theirs) could be emulated and embraced, and all others were “just different, that’s all.” This made them sad; partly because they weren’t terribly keen on eyeless-among-the-blind pariahood, but mostly because they wanted everyone else to enjoy themselves, and the Text in all its manifestations, as much as they did. As they could neither understand nor overcome their neighbors’ stolidity, these unhappy souls resigned themselves to a life of furtive isolation.
But not, they hoped, for long.
… of its content, this might have been posted 12/28/6, the day I wrote and sent it to my coworkers. But it wasn’t:
If you can imagine a universe-sized sponge made of galaxies surrounding bubble-like voids, congratulations: you’re hip to the current scientific model of the Big Picture.
We humans don’t always do too well with the Big Picture, though. Our tiny brains like to slice reality into assimilable, us-sized bites. Instead of Limitless Space, we distinguish between Here and There; instead of Eternity, we think about Then and Now. Sometimes, we even think about Later.
Every time our planet completely circles its star, many of us commit to doing (often changing) something as we travel the orbit to come. (That orbit doesn’t actually start on January 1st — that’s a date as arbitrary as the alphabet I’m using to type this email — but as the man draining the swamp said, “You have to start somewhere.”) If it’s your custom to do that, may you have the strength to live up to your commitments. If it’s also your custom to become frustrated with yourself a week later, take heart — it’s a big universe, with enough room to start over and enough time for patience.
Happy New Year, whenever it finds you.
RABBI AKIVA TATZ IS A turned-on guy whose shiurim (lectures) are ripe with mystic but rational Torah learning. R’Tatz tells a wonderful story about apikorsim (singular “apikorus,” from the Greek “Epicurean;” one who disbelieves the divine origin of Torah and the rabbis’ interpretations thereof). I couldn’t find it anywhere on the ‘Net and don’t remember which specific shiur it’s from, but here’s the gist:
A young Jew once found himself possessed of unassailable doubts about Torah and decided that he was an apikorus. A good friend of his, knowing that the young man was not one to do anything by half-measures, advised him to seek out the Apikorus Rebbe.
“There’s an Apikorus Rebbe?” asked the young doubter.
“Oh, yes. He’s famous. And you can’t be a proper apikorus without his guidance.”
So the young man set off to find the Apikorus Rebbe, who lived in [insert heavily 0 community here]. He arrived one late Friday afternoon and was directed by a passerby to the Apikorus Rebbe’s house. Knocking at the door, he was surprised to find it answered by a woman wearing a sheitel [wig] and long dress. The heady aromas of Jewish comfort food warmed his nostrils and confusion.
“Excuse me, but I’m looking for the Apikorus Rebbe,” he said.
“Oh, he’s at the mikveh,” the woman answered. “He’ll be home after ma’ariv [evening services]. Do you have a place for Shabbos? Would you like to join us?”
So the young man entered, noting with perplexity the spotless white tablecloth, the shining brass candlesticks, the groaning bookcase filled with Torah, Talmud, Midrash and all the classics. His perplexity increased when, after a suitable interval, the Apikorus Rebbe appeared — dressed in shtreimel [big furry hat]and robe, with long peyos [sidelocks].
After a long and delicious Shabbos dinner (made longer by the Apikorus Rebbe’s insistence on singing every zemir in his well-thumbed benscher), the young man could no longer contain himself.
“Are you really the Apikorus Rebbe?” he asked.
“I am,” replied the great sage.
“But you live a traditional life,” the young man answered. “What makes you an apikorus?”
The Apikorus Rebbe pointed to a well-thumbed copy of Tao Teh Ching on the coffee-table.
“THAT’S IT?!?” cried the young man in astonishment. “That’s what makes you an apikorus? That’s nothing!”
“Well,” calmly replied the Apikorus Rebbe, “what would you do if you were an apikorus?”
“Anything I wanted!” said the youth. “I’d rob! I’d steal! I’d kill!”
“You’re not an apikorus,” said the sage. “You’re a pig.”
“Most people don’t worship God. What they do is make an image of what they think God is, and worship that.”
— James “Sputnik” Gjerde
The biggest problem with Aristotelianism is that it posits false dichotomies (good/evil, up/down, is/ain’t, tastes great/less filling, et al) and forces us to choose between (and subsequently defend) inaccurate pictures of reality.
I don’t like doing that, nor should any sane person. But the Aristotelian Heresy (TM) so underlies our Western linguistic thought-frame that its perniciousness oft goes unnoticed. This is particularly true when applied to theology or other non-mystical apprehensions or understandings of [your favorite metaphor for nondualism here]. One classically smug statement of this sort of ontological oafishness is:
Can God make a rock so heavy He can’t lift it?
Rather than wasting time explaining the inapplicability of language to direct perception, perhaps the best response may be:
Yes — but He can lift it anyway.