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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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DQing my way towards Arabic, one letter at a time

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- also the Latin Breviary in 24 letters, and the meaning of blood and dots ]
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I was aware of the Arabic letter nun:

but not until the last few days, the letter ra:

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The letters that comprise alphabets, and the words, phrases, sentences and books that are built of thedm, are capable of enormous meaning…

The banging of a judge’s gavel can be a death sentences, the pillars of a door painted in sacrificial blood can cause hamash’chit — the destroyer angel — to overfly a house in which there are Jews, thus saving them from the destruction of their first-born, a yellow six-pointed star painted on a house or shop indicate its Jewish ownership — and the Arabic letters nun and ra serve similar purposes, signalling both a threat from ISIS and a mark of pride and solidarity…

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For those with hermetic and kabbalistic tastes, I’d like to take this a little further.

A single dot can have powerful meaning…

In Judaism:

bereshit

Although the Torah itself suggests that certain hylic entities co-existed with God at the beginning (water, darkness), by separating out the diacritical dagesh from the word [it is the dot in the first letter]:

Beginning with a point… b • reshit (Zohar I:15a)

the Zohar finds the philosophic principle creation ex nihilo [from nothing] in the first word.

In Islam:

dot_under_ba

And know that all of Allah’s secrets are in the heavenly books, and all of the secrets of the heavenly books are in the Qur’an. And all of which is in the Qur’an is in al-Fatihah, and all of which is in al-Fatihah is in bismillah, and all of which is in bismillah is in the ba’ of bismillah, and all of which is in the ba’ in bismillah is the dot (nuqtah) which is under the ba’. Imam ‘Ali said: “I am the dot which is under the ba’”

first finds the saying I am the dot which is under the ba’ in al-Ghazali, where it is attributed to Abu Bakr al-Shibli, disciple of the great Sufi al-Junayd

and comments:

We can not understand the Quran properly without dots, or if we can know the point (Nukta) of a thing we understand the reality of the whole matter.

In Hinduism:

black-aum-sign-on-white-background

The symbol of Aum contains of three curves, one semicircle and a dot. The large lower curve symbolizes the waking state; the upper curve denotes deep sleep (or the unconscious) state, and the lower curve (which lies between deep sleep and the waking state) signifies the dream state. These three states of an individual’s consciousness, and therefore the entire physical phenomenon, are represented by the three curves. The dot signifies the Absolute (fourth or Turiya state of consciousness), which illuminates the other three states. The semicircle symbolizes maya and separates the dot from the other three curves. The semicircle is open on the top, which means that the absolute is infinite and is not affected by maya. Maya only affects the manifested phenomenon. In this way the form of aum symbolizes the infinite Brahman and the entire Universe.

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And the entire elphabet?

Here’s the Shortest Rite for Reciting the Breviary, for Itinerants and the Scrupulous, as transmitted to me by Dom Sylvester Houédard, priest, poet and scholar:

RITUS BREVISSIMUS RECITANDI BREVIARIUM PRO ITINERANTIBUS ET SCRUPULOSIS

Dicitur: Pater et Ave

Deinde:

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

V. Per hoc alphabetum notum
R. componitur breviarium totum (Tempore paschali, dicitur Alleluia)

Oremus.

Deus, qui ex viginti quatuor litteris totam sacram scripturam et breviarium istud componi voluisti, iunge, disiunge et accipe ex his viginti quatuor litteris matutinas cum laudibus, primam, tertiam, sextam, nonam, vesperas et completorium. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Signat se dicens: Sapienti pauca.

V. In pace in idipsum.
R. Dormiam et requiescam.

If my rusty, Google-assisted Latin is to be believed, the gist of the central prayer here reads:

O God, who hast chosen to compose the entirety of sacred scripture and this breviary out of twenty-four letters, separate, join and receive from these twenty-four letters Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, through Christ our Lord. Amen..

That’s the complete Holy Office as recited by Catholic monks — Dom Sylvester was a member of the Benedictines — in just 24 letters.

Which is less than it takes to type:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

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One grief, all worlds

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from Gaza to Mt Sinjar and beyond, the universality and singularity of grief ]
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One grief at a time is enough. It is “unbearable”, meaning that it arrives at the limit of what we single humans can possibly endure.

How can one match this father’s face at the funeral of his son — one of the four boys killed while playing on a Gaza beach — caught here (above) by photographer Hosam Salem?

How can one match these words of Yassin Suliman, speaking of his cousin, also killed in Gaza?

We buried his legs this morning and we will bury his body this afternoon.

Do the fathers and mothers of the Israeli dead feel any the less grief?

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The Talmud, at Sanhedrin 37a, tells us:

For this reason was man created alone, to teach thee that whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.

The mention here is of a single soul “of Israel”, a phrase that many contemporary Jewish sources omit — perhaps because the immediate context indicates a that it should be taken in a universal sense, since those particular words are immediately followed by the observation that the very diversity of HaShem’s creation of humanity is evidence of his greatness:

Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, ‘my father was greater than thine, and that the minim might not say, there are many ruling powers in heaven; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one, blessed be he: for if a man strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme king of kings, the holy one, blessed be he, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake.

Qur’an 5.32 picks up the idea and continues it:

On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

Likewise, Qur’an 49.13 celebrates human diversity as evidence of the merciful intentions of the Merciful at ):

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).

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Somewhere in my recent readings — on Gaza, Hamas, Iraq, Syria, the caliphate, the Yezidis — I found a sentence to the effect that one person’s grief is about as much as we can savor. It was a casual observation, but the same idea has been stated as a philosophical and theological proposition by Wittgenstein, CS Lewis and others: I catalogued those I knew in Of Quantity and Quality II: Holocaust, torture and sacrament.

Matthew Barber, blogging about Sinjar and the Yezidi at Joshua Landis‘ Syria Comment in a post titled Sinjar Was Only the Beginning, tells us:

In my conversation with Osman, it struck me that I was encountering the pain of just one man among several hundred thousand new refugees in the Dohuk governorate, each with a unique story.

I ask again, how can one fully and richly feel the utmost grief of a single person, and multiply it? And in circumstances where so many are bereaved at once, how can one not attempt to multiply their individual griefs?

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Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones 3: a Judaic perspective

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on the godliness of collateral child slaughter, viewed from the perspective of "he will become cruel to the compassionate" ]
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Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps, Psalm 137

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At the end of my second post in this series, I quoted the words of the rabbi, Jesus, as an appropriate transitional figure between Judaism and Christianity:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous….

I have mentioned that Anglican Christianity is my own “home” tradition, and it is. But I am a citizen of the world, and cannot afford to be bound by my own assumptions. As I consider Israeli actions in Gaza, therefore, I want to recall that Judaic assumptions may differ markedly from those I was raised with.

Thus Eliav Shochetman recounts the midrash, “He who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate” and quotes Maimonides as explaining its meaning in his Guide of the Perplexed thus:

compassion towards the wicked – is cruelty to all beings

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Here is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, writng in First Things under the title The Virtue of Hate:

During my regular weekly coffees with my friend Fr. Jim White, an Episcopal priest, there was one issue to which our conversation would incessantly turn, and one on which we could never agree: Is an utterly evil man — Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden — deserving of a theist’s love? I could never stomach such a notion, while Fr. Jim would argue passionately in favor of the proposition. Judaism, I would argue, does demand love for our fellow human beings, but only to an extent. “Hate” is not always synonymous with the terribly sinful. While Moses commanded us “not to hate our brother in our hearts,” a man’s immoral actions can serve to sever the bonds of brotherhood between himself and humanity. Regarding a rasha , a Hebrew term for the hopelessly wicked, the Talmud clearly states: mitzvah lisnoso — one is obligated to hate him.

Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist and writer, put it pithily in an interview with Deutsche Welle:

I never agreed with Jesus Christ about the need to turn the other cheek to an enemy. Unlike European pacifists I never believed the ultimate evil in the world is war. In my view the ultimate evil in the world is aggression, and the only way to repel aggression is unfortunately by force. That is where the difference lies between a European pacifist and an Israeli peacenik like myself. And if I may add a little anecdote: A relative of mine who survived the Nazi Holocaust in Theresienstadt always reminded her children and her grandchildren that her life was saved in 1945 not by peace demonstrators with placards and flowers but by Soviet soldiers and submachine guns.

To understand further the differences between Judaic and Christian attitudes to what Soloveichik termed “The Virtue of Hate”, it may also be helpful to research the difference between the two faiths’ understandings of love. Soloveichik’s own God’s Beloved: A Defense of Chosenness would be a good place to start.

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For a non-Judaic western position comparable to that of Amos OZ and Meir Soloveichik, consider this passage from Machiavelli in his The Prince, XVII. Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better to Be Loved or Feared:

I say that every Prince should desire to be accounted merciful and not cruel. Nevertheless, he should be on his guard against the abuse of this quality of mercy. Cesare Borgia was reputed cruel, yet his cruelty restored Romagna, united it, and brought it to order and obedience; so that if we look at things in their true light, it will be seen that he was in reality far more merciful than the people of Florence, who, to avoid the imputation of cruelty, suffered Pistoja to be torn to pieces by factions.

And for a modern similitude to the apparent difference between Judaic and Christian emphases explored in these last two posts, consider George Lakoff‘s analysis of American politics in terms of the Strict Father vs Nurturant Parent mindsets:

Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline – physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

Thinking as I so often do in terms of koans, real life would seem to demand an admixture of both — and the question of how to move between them, one that only wisdom can answer.

Good luck with that.

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The image at the head of this post illustrating the verse “Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps” comes from Ilia Rodov, With Eyes towards Zion”: Visions of the Holy Land in Romanian Synagogues, in Quest: Issues in Contemporary Jewish History, Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.6, December 2013. It shows an early 20th century wall painting from from the Great Synagogue of Iasi, photographed by Zussia Efron, from the collection of the Center for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

By the bye, Amos Oz also has a “balancing acts and mirror images” quote in that interview he gave:

I believe the majority of the Palestinians are not in love with Israel, but they do accept with clenched teeth that the Israeli Jews are not going anywhere, just like the majority of Israeli Jews – unhappily and with clenched teeth – accept that the Palestinians are here to stay. This is a basis not for a honeymoon, but perhaps for a fair divorce just like the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

How’s that for balance with requisite nuance?

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