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Nina Paley’s OTSOG genius

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Nina Paley is as strong an argument as I know both for the idea that individual genius exists, and (not so paradoxically) that it arises OTSOG -- "On the shoulders of giants" as Robert Merton has it ]
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It’s always a delight to find the same rich insight in divergent cultures — in this case, from Airborne, Down to Earth: words of Wallace Black Elk, which I collected and arranged in The Greenfield Review, vol 9 ## 3-4, Winter 1981-82 (upper panel):

SPEC WBE Paley

and in the latest film offering from Nina Paley (lower panel).

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I have said before that I vastly and deeply admire Nina Paley’s animated feature based on Valmiki‘s Ramayana, Sita Sings the Blues. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch the first six and a half enchanting minutes… and the whole film will be here for you when you have just under an hour and a half to spend:

Nina also is a paragon of the movement to make cultural works available without the current restrictions of copyright, as she explains, and has placed Sita Sings the Blues in the public domain..

You’ll hear all about her upcoming feature about and around Passover / Pesach — from which the corpse > become mummy > become flowers image is taken — when the time comes…

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h/t Bill Benzon at New Savanna

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Breaking the Tablets, Breaking the Vessels

Monday, October 27th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from Oklahoma via Moses in Egypt and Lurianic Kabbala in Safed to the contemporary understanding of tikkun olam ]
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Broken Commandment Tablets

A deranged man drove his car into a 6′ representation of the 10 Commandments near the Oklahoma state Capitol a day or two ago. He apparently said the devil made him do it, which might be taken to imply belief in God, no? Tom Ricks at FP commented, aptly enough:

I am getting tired of the suspects blaming Satan.

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It is not by any means the first time the Tablets of the Law have been broken, however: Moses himself broke them when he returned with them to the people of Israel and found them worshipping the golden calf, as Exodus 32.19 tells us [edited to use the new JPS version here]:

As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

The motives in the two cases were entirely different, as were the contexts — but there’s a follow-up to the first breaking of the tablets, and it might be worth pondering now that we’ve been faced with the recent event in Oklahoma City. For myself, I find it more profitable to contemplate this follow-up and its implications than the furious political battle around public religious monuments here in the US — or the unhappy behavior of a man who stopped taking his meds and believed the devil possessed him, telling him to smash one such monument.

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A second version of the Tale of the Broken Tablets is found in Deuteronomy 9. 15-17, and it goes like this:

I started down the mountain, a mountain ablaze with fire, the two Tablets of the Covenant in my two hands. 16 I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you. 17 Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes.

Thus far the two narratives agree, the main point of interest being the Deuteronomic statement that the mountain was (still) “ablaze with fire” — a point which will find its resonances later in this post. But Deuteronomy 10. 1-5 also tells us what happened to the broken shards of the first tablets:

Thereupon the Lord said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.”

I made an ark of acacia wood and carved out two tablets of stone like the first; I took the two tablets with me and went up the mountain. The Lord inscribed on the tablets the same text as on the first, the Ten Commandments that He addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. Then I left and went down from the mountain, and I deposited the tablets in the ark that I had made, where they still are, as the Lord had commanded me

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The rabbis have commented extensively on the eventual fate of the broken tablets, ie their placement in the ark. Thus R Natan of Nemirov, a student of the great R Nachman of Breslov — grandson of the Baal Shem Tov — writes:

And this is the meaning of the verse “Which you broke and place in the Ark”, about which our Sages said: “the Tablets and the Broken Tablets are placed in the Ark”. By means of the aspect of broken tablets, broken faith, by means of that brokenness itself the faith returns and amends itself, which is the second tablets. Because thanks to the existence of a shard of the broken faith, by keeping that shard he is fulfilling the advice of the faith itself which was broken – and he can return and repair that faith which is the aspect of receiving second tablets.

while the earlier Kabbalist, R Eliahu Devidash tells us:

The Zohar teaches that the human heart is the Ark. And it is known that in the Ark were stored both the Tablets and the Broken Tablets. Similarly, a person’s heart must be full of Torah… and similarly, a person’s heart must be a broken heart, a beaten heart, so that it can serve as a home for the Shekhina. For the Shekhina [divine presence] only dwells in broken vessels, which are the poor, whose heart is a broken and beaten heart. And whoever has a haughty heart propels the Shekhina from him, as it says “God detests those of haughty hearts”.

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This brings us to what Howard Schwartz writes in his How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism::

For many modern Jews, the term tikkun olam (repairing the world) has become a code-phrase synonymous with social and environmental action. It is linked to a call for healing the ills of the world. Indeed, tikkun olam has become the defining purpose of much of modern Jewish life. What many of those who use this term do not know is that this idea is rooted in the last great myth infused into Jewish tradition, a cosmological myth created in the sixteenth century by the great Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari (1534-1572). Here the term “myth” refers to a people’s sacred stories about origins, deities, ancestors and heroes.

What was this myth? Schwartz describes it thus:

At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting Himself. From that contraction darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.

In this way God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. Those sparks fell everywhere, but more fell on the Holy Land than anywhere else.

Notice once again the motif of ten containers of the divine generosity which are shattered… a connection which Schwartz makes explicit:

The second stage, that of the shattering of the vessels, may have been inspired by the biblical account of Moses throwing down and breaking the first tablets of the law (Exod. 32:19), which, like the holy vessels, were crafted by God on high. So too is there a biblical passage about scattered sparks, found in Ezekiel 10:2, where fiery coals from the Temple altar are scattered by some angelic figures over the city of Jerusalem: “Fill your hands with glowing coals from among the cherubs, and scatter them over the city.” This passage manages to work in the scattering, the sparks, the concentration of sparks on the Holy Land (especially Jerusalem), and the holiness of the sparks, since they come from the altar.

Schwartz concludes with the imperative of Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world:

That is why we were created — to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. God created the world so that the descendents of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles — to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.

And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete.

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I learn as I go, and I go as the world unfolds.

I am grateful, besides Howard Schwartz, to Rabbi Mishael Zion, Co-Director and Director of Education for the Bronfman Fellowships for his Broken Tablets: A Study Guide for Shavuot, and to Dr. Lawrence Fine for his Tikkun in Lurianic Kabbalah.

And I am more than grateful for the two volumes of Martin Buber‘s Tales of the Hasidim, without which I might know nothing of the Baal Shem Tov. His story too is a tale of the wondrous fire.

It seems to me that Tikkun Olam is the task before us, believers and unbelievers alike, in whatever way the works of love may be accomplished.

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Mary Qualit and Martha Quant

Friday, October 24th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- quality and quantity, subjectivity and objectivity, the hard problem in consciousness, and what truly counts ]
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quantbyquant
Mary Quant, as Wikipedia has it, was “one of the designers who took credit for the miniskirt and hot pants” — a quantitative approach to fashion, albeit minimalist.

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I’ve written a couple of post recently with the qualit and quant tag [1, 2], in fact in one of them [3] I referred to “quantity and quality” as a great koan.

I don’t pretend to know how they work together, but a question has been hovering in the back of my mind for a while, and cropped up as I was making those recent posts — what’s that quote about quantity being a form of quality, and where does it come from? And today, reading some more from DigitalTonto, I ran across this:

  • As Stalin said about armies, “quantity seems to have its own quality.”
  • **

    So I started searching, looking to see if anyoine had a Stalin reference — and found this, on a Marxist site under the heading

  • Dialectical Materialism:
  • Dialectics explains that change and motion involve contradiction and can only take place through contradictions. So instead of a smooth, uninterrupted line of progress, we have a line which is interrupted by sudden and explosive periods in which slow, accumulated changes (quantitative change) undergoes a rapid acceleration, in which quantity is transformed into quality. Dialectics is the logic of contradiction. [ .. ]

    The transformation of quantity into quality was already known to the Megaran Greeks, who used it to demonstrate certain paradoxes, sometimes in the form of jokes. For example, the “bald head” and the “heap of grain”—does one hair less mean a bald head, or one grain of corn a heap? The answer is no. Nor one more? The answer is still no. The question is then repeated until there is a heap of corn and a bald head. We are faced with the contradiction that the individual small changes, which are powerless to effect a qualitative change, at a certain point do exactly that: quantity changes into quality.

    **

    Then I found…

  • Clausewitz, On War, II, On the Theory of War, tr. Howard & Paret, pp. 194-195:
  • “Superior numbers, far from contributing everything, or even a substantial part, to victory, may actually be contributing to very little depending on the circumstances…But superiority varies in degree…it can obviously reach the point where it is overwhelming…so long as it is great enough to counterbalance all other contributing circumstances

  • Well, quantity has a quality all its own, as Napoleon liked to say
  • The quote credited to Mao, Lenin and Trotsky, “Quantity has a quality all of its own”, continues to have resonance at a national level, especially in regard to military force.
  • As Stalin said about armies, “quantity seems to have its own quality.”
  • and finally:

  • Quiddity has a qualia all its own, Eric Raymond.
  • **

    The story of Mary and Martha is one of the more interesting in the Gospels, since it effectively DoubleQuotes the contemplative and active aspects of life. Jesus visits two sisters, Mary and Martha, and while Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word”, Martha “was cumbered about much serving”. Luke 10. 38-42 tells the story:

    Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

    Martha enacts the spiritual life in service, while Mary directly enhances her own in listening. Martha, if you like, represents the virtues of the outward life, Mary of the inward.

    I mentioned the British fashion designer Mary Quant at the very top of this post. Her name has stuck in my mind from the sixties, giving rise to my coinage, used in the title of this post: Mary Qualit and Martha Quant.

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    Here’s a discussion of the hard problem in consciousness, which may be the same koan as that of quality and quantity, of our inner and outer lives, diferently phrased:

  • Keith Frankish on the Hard Problem and the Illusion of Qualia
  • And I am brought back once again to that powerful quote by Castoriadis:

    Philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let the Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?

    The more I contemplate it, the more I see that quote as a pithy summary of my own weighing of the balance between the imaginative and physical worlds.

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    The new AQ magazine: miracles from Khorasan

    Monday, October 20th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- there's a similar report from Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army, fwiw ]
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    I have commented before on the use of miracle stories by Abdullah Azzam as quoted in Inspire magazine, and an African equivalent found in Gaidi Mtaani, the Shabaab magazine, to engage the devotion and loyalty of pious troops: Resurgence magazine continues the tradition.

    Hasan Gul

    Here for your edification from the new AQIS magazine Resurgence, are two examples, drawn from the life and martyrdom of Hasan Gul, known to the Washington Post, and likely many ZP readers, as Hassan Ghul.

    The first as to do with the miraculous preservation of his life:

    When Shaykh Khalid Habib, the military head of Al Qaida in Khurasan, was martyred, brother Hasan Gul was with him. The Shaykh (may Allah have mercy on him) was inside the car, while he was standing outside. He had just extended his hand to open the door of the car when a missile fired from a drone hit the car. Allah (swt) miraculously saved his life. He was thrown several feet away by the explosion. His shin bone was fractured as a result. Several days later, when I met him he showed me a coin that had been in the upper pocket of his shirt, just above his heart at the time of the drone attack. A small shrapnel of the missile had hit the coin, because of which the coin had been bent inwards. Allah (swt) prevented the shrapnel from piercing his heart with this small coin. Verily, when Allah (swt) decrees life for His slave, no one can give him death!

    It seems plausible that the same mercy was extended to one of Cromwell‘s soldiers in the English Civil War, if one may trust James Waylen’s 1880 The House of Cromwell and the Story of Dunkirk:

    An account of the pocket-Bible printed by Cromwell’s order for distribution among his men was some time back published by Mr. George Livermore of Cambridge, Massachusets, who possesses one of the only two copies known to exist, the other being in the Brit. Mus. Library. .. That such a book was really in use, we learn from Richard Baxter who relates the story of a soldier receiving a shot near the heart, the fatal force of the bullet being arrested by its lodging in the Bible which he carried in his breast. And a very thin Bible it was too, being comprised in a sheet folded in 16mo. An entire Bible, even in the most compact form then known, would have been far too bulky and far too expensive.

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    The second deals with the pleasant scent that Azzam had previously noted was a mark of the martyr — here’s the same motif as applied to Hasan Gul:

    Last year in October, when he left his house on a motor bike, American drones assassinated him. His body was shredded to bits by a direct missile hit and his remains were scattered over a large area. When some Mujahid brothers reached the site of the attack, they faced the problem of searching for and gathering the bits and pieces of his body. However, Allah (swt) made this task easy for them. A large part of his body was easily found. An ethereal fragrance that was simply not of this world was coming from this dismembered part of his body. This extremely beautiful fragrance was smelt by all the brothers present at the scene. The brothers then decided to locate his body parts with the help of this scent. All the brothers had to do was to follow this fragrance to find a part of his body. All the parts of his body exuded this fragrance without any exception. Thus the fragrance of Hasan Gul’s blood led to the remains of his body. May Allah be pleased with him and grant him the company of the Prophets and the righteous. Ameen!

    Again, I refer you to my post Of war and miracle: the poetics, spirituality and narratives of jihad for comments on similar reports in Catholic and Arthurian literatures.

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    But let’s return briely to that Bible story — there’s really quite an extended history of these reports.

    Consider the American Civil War veteran of the Fourth Iowa Cavalry Division, whose daughter wrote:

    At another time a bullet hit the New Testament he was carrying in his shirt pocket and glanced off. This sweetheart, who later became his wife, had given him the New Testament when he entered the service.

    Or the Army Cyclist Corps despatch rider whose life was saved by a still-extant “combined Bible, prayer book and hymnal” near Arras, France, in 1915:

    bible-saved life

    Or Pfc. Brendon Schweigart, who claims only that when a sniper’s bullet found the Bible in his shirt pocket in Iraq, it:

    definitely prevented more serious injury, because if it wouldn’t have been there, it would have ricocheted off my bullet-proof plate and more than likely would have gone back into my chest, causing more damage.

    Indeed, the “Bible stopped the bullet” tale has enough variants that Mythbusters once tested it with a 400-page Bible, albeit not one with a metal cover…

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    Because, yes, metal-covered Bibles were given to GIs in World War II with the cover inscribed “May this keep you safe from harm” — no doubt with the hope and prayer that if need be, the metal covering would indeed prove a protective “breastplate of righteousness”:

    Heart shield bible

    In fact, the 1943 “Heart Shield Bible” depicted is on sale now on eBay, at a current asking price of $21.49.

    **

    It’s no dcoubt a bit of a stretch, but I believe that when you “encourage” miracles by providing metallic holy pocket-books for protective use on the battleield, it’s an example of what Max Weber famously called the “routinization of charisma”.

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    Al-Nusra and Daesh: a joy, a grief and a prayer

    Thursday, October 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- reading the Quran & hadith concerning the fates of Fr Hanna Jallouf, Alan Hemming, and Peter Kassig ]
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    L-to-R: hostages  Fr Hanna Jallouf, Alan Hemming, and Peter Kassig

    L-to-R: hostages Fr Hanna Jallouf, Alan Hemming, and Peter Kassig

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    I rejoice that Jabhat al-Nusra has released the Franciscan priest Fr Hanna Jallouf, remembering Qur’an 5.82:

    Thou wilt surely find the nearest of them in love to the believers are those who say ‘We are Christians’; that, because some of them are priests and monks, and they wax not proud;

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    I grieve because IS / Daesh has executed the aid worker Alan Henning, remembering Quran 60.8:

    God forbids you not, as regards those who have not fought you in religion’s cause, nor expelled you from your habitations, that you should be kindly to them, and act justly towards them; surely God loves the just.

    As a sizeable group of British imams put it:

    Mr Henning was a volunteer who travelled to Syria to help innocent civilians.

    Acts of humanitarianism are an essential element of religious practice for all Muslims, and of course they are just as significant to other people too. Islamic teachings call for charity and selflessness. Most importantly, acts of beneficence do not, and cannot, exclude non-Muslims.

    In Islam, concern for fellow humans and the duty to help everyone is a religious obligation. Anyone undertaking a humanitarian act is paving his or her way to receive help from heaven, should be commended and held in the highest esteem.

    In contrast, the senseless kidnapping, murder and now the despicable threats to Mr Henning at the hands of so-called ‘Muslims’ cannot be justified anywhere in the Quran and the Sunnah (Prophetic traditions).

    The un-Islamic fanatics are not acting as Muslims, but as the Prime Minister has said, they are acting as monsters. They are perpetrating the worst crimes against humanity. This is not Jihad – it is a war against all humanity.

    **

    And I pray for the life of Peter Kassig, a Muslim convert now captive and under threat of death by IS / Daesh, remembering Quran 16.125:

    Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.

    and the hadith found in Sahih Bukhari, vol 1, bk 2, # 25:

    Narrated Ibn ‘Umar:

    Allah’s Apostle said: “I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform that, then they save their lives and property from me except for Islamic laws and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done by Allah.”

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