Why I love the Old Testament

These generalizations about the Tanakh – its proper name – don’t quite hold for the latest books, Ezekiel and especially Daniel, which betray a great deal of Iranian influence and thus should really be classed more with the intertestamental apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. NOTE: This is a draft post, subject to further refinement. These reasons are basically all right off the top of my head – the kind of things I would tell you if we were sitting down to coffee, and you happened to ask me how the heck a professed anarchist like me can love the Bible.

1. It does not depict a creation ex nihilo, but opens (pace the usual translations), “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…” God creates as a sculpter does, day by day uncovering an emergent order from the primordial wilderness (see 15, below).

2. It contains no theology (aside from God’s teasing statement to Moses in Exodus 3:14, the sense of which is “I will be whoever the hell I want!”).

3. It is not entirely monotheistic, alluding in a few places to other gods (e.g. Psalm 82); depicting Yahweh as having divine offspring and/or representatives (“angels”); and suggesting a multiple nature for divinity itself with Yahweh’s frequent alternate name Elohim, which is a plural form. (Adonai is also a plural form, but this “is usually construed as a respectful, and not a syntactic plural,” whereas “it is argued that the word elohim had an origin in a plural grammatical form.” See the Wikipedia article Names of God in Judaism for further discussion of the way different names reflect different aspects or personalities of divinity.)

4. Its Yahweh is not incorporeal, all-good, or all-wise, and in some stories resembles an amoral trickster deity similar to the Norse Loki, the Yoruba Eshu or the Maidu Coyote. Yahweh kicks ass.

5. It is free of the poisonous influence of radical dualism (good and evil – or matter and spirit – as wholly separate, mutually exclusive categories). The problem of evil is raised but not “solved.”

6. The destiny of the individual soul after death is alluded to, but nowhere treated as a matter of consequence.

7. The language is direct, rhythmic and repetitious in the manner of the best oral epic. The graceful language and vivid imagery recall poetry more than prose.

8. It is full of analogic thinking and creative leaps, such as “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” or “As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools.”

9. So-called “Biblical parallelism” extends from the level of the verse to the overall organization (alternate tellings of the same story, even alternate histories – e.g. Judges-Kings vs. Chronicles), teaching a tolerance for alternative interpretations.

10. For every passage that seems hateful and exclusive, there’s a passage that’s accepting and inclusive.

11. Hints of an earlier matriarchal order abound, and despite the overwhelming patriarchal emphasis, there are more strong female characters than in any comparable work from antiquity. In Proverbs, Wisdom is allegorized as a woman. By way of comparison, Zhuangzi, my other favorite anthology of sacred literature, contains virtually no references to women.

12. The Saul-David cycle has a depth of psychological realism worthy of the greatest novels. In general, Biblical characters are three-dimensional, flawed beings.

13. No one has ever written a book on The Plants of the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

14. Human beings are consistently depicted as a very small and weak part of an overwhelmingly large universe, and become guilty of the worst kind of impiety if they start to believe otherwise.

15. Desert or wilderness (tohu) is portrayed as part of a separate order that in some sense (as the tohu-wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2) predates and gives rise to Creation; thus, it is a place of testing and renewal (for Jacob/Israel, David, Elijah, etc.) and an image almost of Emptiness in the Buddhist sense.

16. Even as captured and subverted by end-time and Messianic theologies (including Christianity), its literary richness and depth of ambiguity has provided a much-needed moderating influence on radical movements, from the hey-day of gnosticism, through the Scholastics and Kabbalists, down to the Inquisition (which is, in one form or another, on-going).

17. It spawned two translations (the King James Version and, I gather, Martin Luther’s) which rank among the most beloved and influential works of literature in their respective languages – mainly by virtue of cleaving as much as possible to the literal meaning, even at the price of excessive strangeness.

18. The opening chapter of Genesis justifiably served as Exhibit A for the pagan author Longinus’ work On the Sublime. In the Bible, things don’t have to be ideal or perfect in a Platonic sense to inspire awe or reverence.

19. The Bible’s emphasis on mitzvot (“commandments,” duties) basically reinvented religion in the West, turning it away from a primary emphasis on the worship of power and toward an emphasis on the cultivation of individual morality and social justice.

20. The Bible makes room for scathing critiques of kingship and priesthood, and its nebiim (“prophets”) constitute one of the earliest and most important literary and historical models for conscientious objection to institutional power in the West.

21. Because awe is the beginning of wisdom, as the Bible repeatedly suggests, and because spirit and breath are intimately connected, as the Hebrew word ruah (and possibly the very name Yahweh) implies.

© 2006 Dave Bonta. Used by permission.

Counting the Omer

What is “Counting the Omer”?

Counting the days between Passover and Shavuot has been going on since the time of the Torah (and probably before). It’s the time of year when the viability of the crops is in doubt. It is an exciting time of year to see the new crop coming in, but it is also anxiety provoking because of the uncertainty of its success.

And you shall count … from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering [the second day of Passover] for seven full weeks. On the day after the seventh full week, on the 50th day you shall offer a new meal offering to the Lord. Leviticus 23:15-17

Seen as part of a grand historic drama, this is the period of time between liberation (throwing out Pharoah’s law) and revelation at Mt. Sinai during Shavuot (taking on God’s law).

The kabbalists (12th – 18th century roughly) saw this as a good time for inner work and spiritual purification in preparation for receiving the Torah at Shavuot. Each day in the counting to 50 represents an aspect of ourselves. With intent and reflection one can attempt to purify that aspect and therefore be better prepared to receive (again) the Torah on the holiday of Shavuot.

The kabbalistic system developed 10 sefirot (literally countings) or aspects of God’s emanation or unfolding. The group of ten are often divided up into the “upper” and “lower” sefirot. The listing below is of the “lower” seven sefirot that are used for the counting.

There are many different names and attributes for each of the sefirot. But here are some of the most common names for them:

1. Chesed – Committed Love
2. Gevura – Judgement/Power/Limitation
3. Tiferet – Beauty/Royalty/Kingship
4. Netzach – Endurance/Long Life
5. Hod – Resonance/Echo/Glory
6. Yesod – Foundation
7. Malchut – Queenship/Closeness of God/God in Our World.

The kabbalists took the seven weeks of the omer counting and assigned one sefira from the lower seven sefirot to each of the weeks. Then within each week, you have one of the seven for each day. 7 x’s 7 = the 49 days, theoretically relating to 49 aspects of our personalities and of our existence that need to be purified before we receive the Torah on Shavuot.

What is Shai Gluskin’s Omer Journal?

There aren’t precise meanings about what the sefirot mean or about what their combinations mean. My omer calendar is an associative musing, based on what I know about the symbols of each sefira and what I know about my own life. There is nothing authoritative about what I’m saying. I’m simply engaging in the count and putting my life and my ideas in the context of the counting.

[Note: here is an entry in Rabbi Gluskin’s Omer Journal. ]

Story and photos copyright © 2006 Rabbi Shai Gluskin. Used by permission.

Conversations with poems

Reading Poetry

What do you think about when you hear the word ‘poetry’? That it’s mostly written by dead white men about things that mean nothing to you in a way that makes them difficult to understand? I’m hoping to persuade you otherwise.

I first felt an inkling of what poetry could do for me at school. We were studying Philip Larkin, and I noticed the pleasure with which our teacher read ‘This Be The Verse’ with that shock word in the first line to describe exactly what our parents do to us. It felt grown-up, it felt naughty, it felt real. Larkin was saying something to me that was very specific – and I felt that I knew what he meant. This to me is what poetry is all about – it wants to communicate something specific to us, something important.

Reading a poem for the first time can be pleasurable – it might speak to us directly, we might get drawn in by a single phrase. But poems really come into their own when we get to know them, move past the small talk. Have you ever watched a film over and over until you know what’s coming next, and the jokes just get funnier? Or known the words to a song so well it seems as if the singer is speaking directly into your heart? This is what it’s like to carry a poem inside you whole.

There are poems that have stayed with me and become a part of how I make sense of the world. When I think of fathers, I think of Adrian Mitchell, and how he takes the hand of his three year old, Beattie, at the top of the stairs. As they descend he ‘. wish(es) silently/ That the stairs were endless.’ Louise Gluck describes a feeling that – ‘.fought like netted fish’ inside her – I know that feeling, and the poem labels it for me. Sometimes when I feel glad to be alive I think of Denise Levertov and her poem ‘Living’, ‘The fire in leaf and grass/ so green it seems/ each summer the last summer’.

Poems can also be taken as medicine. When I am needing to be reassured I read Christopher Logue who urges us to ‘be not too hard for life is short/ And nothing is given to man’. When I want to get closer to a certain type of grief I am feeling, a poem can help me to do this – as Stewart Conn faced a dying, breathless parent, he remembered the orange stains of fish under the ice in his garden pond and wished it was ‘simply a matter of smashing the ice and giving you air.’ He’s known true helplessness, and the more you read this poem the more you know it too.

And here’s the truth of it – poems ARE hard work. If you want a poem to truly inhabit you, to change you, then a quick read won’t do it. Poems demand to be struggled with a little. There are parts of some poems I didn’t understand for years, and the coming of meaning came like a shaft of light. And there are others that I still don’t understand – not completely – but the poem asks me to try, and gives me hints, and sometimes that’s enough. We don’t always understand everything in this world. It’s the trying that matters. I urge you to give poetry a chance – it wants you to listen to it, it has important things to tell you. And above all it wants you to listen to yourself.

All of the poems I’ve quoted above can be found in ‘Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times’ edited by Neil Astley. If you buy one book of poems this year (or ever) make it this one – and find a poem in it, any poem that catches a sliver of your interest on first reading. Read it twice every day for a week – first in your head and then aloud. After you’ve done this the poem will be a part of you, whether you want it to be or not. It will become alive.

Writing Poetry

I’ve been writing poetry for over 10 years now. I’ve spent more money on it that I’ve made, I’ve written hundreds of poems that have ended up in the bin, and I still feel like I am the beginning of my apprenticeship. So why do I continue to write? What keeps me going? how can I persuade you that writing is worth it?

What I love most about writing is the sheer pleasure of putting words together. There is nothing like fiddling around with a phrase until suddenly it rings like a bell – and says exactly what you’ve been trying to say. When Ted Hughes describes the “sudden sharp hot stink of fox” it’s not just the meaning of the words that strike us, but the sound of them. Say them aloud and you’ll see what I mean. Swap smell for stink and the whole thing collapses.

Sometimes it’s a single word that makes a line sing. Mary Oliver’s stars “burn through the sheets of clouds” – they’re not just showing, we can feel the heat. And sometimes the words are all simple every-day words, but when you put them together in a certain order they become something magical. David Constantine leaves us in one of his poems with “Sleep. Do not let go my hand.”

As well as the joy of playing with language, I also love the fact that being a poet helps me to pay attention to the world around me. Selima Hill once said to me that poems are just the by-product of being a poet, and she’s right. Looking at the world as a poet means noticing things and wanting to share these things with others. Writing poetry is one way of doing this – I suppose others choose paintings as their “by-products”, or music, or any other creative work that involves the communication of something more important. Writing poetry, and more importantly, being a poet, keeps me on my toes.

One thing I don’t find is that writing is cathartic – that it helps me to “off-load” my emotions. I’m sure some people do. But I keep this type of writing to my journal – simply because I’ve found that muddled or extreme emotion doesn’t make for a good poem. Once I have some distance from an emotional experience, writing a poem about it can be the best form of “closure”, especially if I can get really close to recording exactly what the event meant to me, the essence of what happened. Beware broken hearted poetry.

So how do you start to write? And how do you carry on? If you want to write seriously, I have three pieces of advice to get you started.

Firstly you’ll need plenty of raw materials to fashion into your poems. Your subject can (and must be) anything that interests you. Keeping a journal can give you a useful place to find seeds for poems. I’d also recommend that you buy a small notebook and carry it around with you everywhere. Use it to write down the things you notice that make you think “oh!”. It might be the colour of a flower or the way a man speaks to his son. Don’t forget to read too – read whatever you can – poetry, fiction, factual books.. think of it as feeding your muse.

My second tip would be to start practising the discipline of writing. As well as writing when you feel like it. Put specific time aside to write – at 5 o’clock on Thursdays, or first thing in the morning for ten minutes. Write during those times whether you feel like it or not. If you feel what you’ve written isn’t very good, then learn from it. What didn’t work? How could you improve it next time?

And the third, probably most important bit of advice would be to create a support network around you. Writing can be a lonely business and our muses need both encouragement and feedback so they can learn and carry on writing. There are huge amounts of support available on the internet and I’ve listed some places for you to start below. Nothing beats a face to face workshop group – try a couple locally until you find one that suits you. And make the most of other resources too – “how to write” books, courses, writing coaches and colleagues.

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Copyright © 2006 Fiona Robyn. Used by permission. Fiona Robyn is a published novelistpsychotherapist & creativity coach. She is the author of The Most Beautiful Thing. She blogs at Writing Our Way Home.

The art of the thank-you note

I didn’t know until much later in life that what I believed to be Universal Law was only Cohen Household Law: good deeds are memorialized in writing and mirrored back to the doer. This formalized ritual of written gratitude – the thank-you note – imprinted me with my mother’s vehemence for doing the right thing. As a child, my thank-you boomerangs made me very popular with my friends’ parents who were pleased to see their acts of kindness reflected back through the round, backward-slanting letters of my emphatic lefty gratitude.

At age 13, bent over a list of several hundred names paired with their accompanying Bat Mitzvah gifts, I labored to print a meaningful message into each redundant card imprinted on the front with my purple, metallic name. I remember my mother standing over me, proofreading. For those ambiguous, distant relatives who did not attend my Bat Mitzvah but sent gifts, I figured it would be acceptable to write multiple variations of the same vaguely generic message. My mother saw things differently. Each card, she insisted, was its own dialogue between the person receiving it and me. What, specifically, did I like about the gift? How did I feel about this particular person’s presence or lack of attendance? How could I make each introduction and conclusion personal to that specific person? From the lumpy coals of my junior high vocabulary, we mined thank-you notes so radiant and precise that they could have cut glass.

I hated writing those cards, many of which I had to throw out and start over, and I resented my mother for making me work so hard at them. And yet. In retrospect, I think of my mother as a master composer insisting that her protégé practice scales. Having spent my childhood cultivating those notes, chords and theories, the music of gratitude became as reflexive as my enteric nervous system. Today, I find myself replete with the pleasure of improvisational thankfulness.

For example, I hired Brant to build an arbor around my front door. I drew it exactly as I wanted, and he manifested my vision in physical form. The arbor permanently changed my experience of entering my house; its beauty uplifted me every time I crossed my threshold. Today, climbing roses and ecstatic jasmine cascade their fragrances of welcome from this lofty height of beauty. A few weeks after the arbor was erected, I called Brant. He answered the phone defensively.

“What can I do for you,” he asked, his voice a cold brillo of distance.

“You can say, ‘You’re welcome,’” I responded.

“I don’t understand,” Brant shot back across the wire.

“I am calling to say ‘Thank you.’”

Silence.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I love my arbor, and I wanted you to know how much I appreciate your work.”

More silence.

“I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and no one has ever called to thank me for it,” Brant responded. “People only call me when they have problems.” He was incredulous.

I had a similar experience with L.J. at Honda who sold me my car. As a single, adult woman who had never set foot in an auto dealership, I was full of trepidation when I walked through the Thomason Honda doors. L.J. answered my questions, didn’t push, was reasonable and gave me space to think and decide. He completely exceeded my expectations of what a beat-‘em-down car sales experience might be. I wrote him a note letting him know how much I appreciated the respect and spaciousness he provided for me and how happy I was with my car choice.

L.J. called me a few days later. He said that his was the first thank-you note in the history of the dealership. The managers open the mail, and then pass on all acceptable communications to the sales team. Evidently, my note was circulated through the ranks, and as a result, L.J. was mercilessly teased. But I’ll bet that every one of his peers looked at him differently after that.

Encounters like these give me pause. Are we really living in an age where the only feedback loops of closure are complaints? How did we get to a place where we have mutually agreed that what’s worth mentioning is what’s wrong? Possibly, broadcast news has trained us for this. Or therapy. Maybe the legal system. But I’m less interested in what has washed us up on this shore of mutual wonderlessness than I am in floating on my back through the oceanic mystery of appreciation. It seems to me that when our focus is on solving problems, we are most likely to see problems. When our focus is on celebrating goodness, we are likely to tune into what is good.

I think I first stumbled into this concept of intentional goodness when I read Charlotte’s Web as a small child. As you probably know, in this story a message woven into a spider’s web saves a pig’s life. “Special Pig,” as told by Charlotte, changed the way the world experienced Wilbur, while changing the lens through which he saw himself.

I would like to thank Charlotte for teaching me that just one word of appreciation can liberate hope from hopelessness and unlock life from death. And I would like to thank my mother for bringing to my life a discipline of acknowledging what is good. Like Wilbur, through the mirror of language, I have learned to find myself worthy. One note of gratitude at a time, I am claiming a place for myself in this world.

Copyright © 2006 Sage Cohen. Used by permission.

“Leturn to your loots”

[Note: this rumination is from Rabbi Gluskin’s omer journal, an informal journal he is writing in observance of the command in Leviticus to count the days between Passover and Shavuot. Read here for Shai’s explanation of counting the omer. – Ed.]

Part of my graduation ritual from UC Berkeley in 1981 was taking my family to the Tai Chi studio where I had studied intensively for two years. Some time into my study I came to realize that Tai Chi was satisfying a spiritual longing that I had.

When Sifu (teacher) Tsuei Wei took us around the studio, he stopped at some potted plants and told me, with my parents and sisters as witnesses, “You need leturn to your loots.” (That was the highest level English I had ever heard him speak. He spoke in gestures and one-word sentences that were powerful.)

Two years later I was off to the far east, with no plan. I was fulfilling the injunction of my geography professor at Berkeley, Robert Reed, to avoid the destiny of becoming an “armchair geographer.”

My first stop was Taiwan, where I visited the Tai Chi school that Tsuei Wei had come from. After attending only one class there, where I could have trained to become a Tai Chi instructor, the words of Tsuei Wei came back to me.

I had been a committed Jew, Zionist, Hebraist, etc. without ever having given Jewish practice a chance. I decided not to continue at the Tai Chi school. And I began my Jewish practice right then and there, deciding not to photograph or go on significant journeys on Shabbat and to light candles, and make kiddush/motzi no matter where I was.

Though that was in Fall of 1983 it wouldn’t be until the Fall of 1990 that I began rabbinical school at RRC. But something was set in motion then that was irreversible.

Yesod, Foundation/Structure in Hod, glory/resonance/echo/reflection invites a turning back to one’s core. What parts of me have I hidden away? Can I let go of the artifices I’ve created and see myself reflected in my life? Do I recognize myself when I look in the mirror?

I had to go all the way to China in order to come home. I feel blessed for having been on the journey.
Copyright © 2006 Rabbi Shai Gluskin. Used by permission.

Hotel

I worked in a hotel for five years. I still remember my orientation. The trainer told us that it was our job to make people forget that the pillows on which they rested their heads, or the cups that held their morning coffee had been used by hundreds of other people before them. Maybe even thousands.

One caked fork or a frayed bath towel could destroy the illusion and break the spell. Thus, the silver was always to be polished meticulously; the table linen needed to be crisp and unsullied.

It reminded me of the the similar spell that governs much of our lives. We forget how brief and temporary our tenancy is here. We can’t use or touch anything that doesn’t bear the unseen mark of those who came before; we can’t walk anywhere without treading on a world that millions of others once believed was their own.

And yet as soon as we arrive, we start to claim things: my cup, my pillow, my key to my room. Those who came before become a distant rumor. We grow restive if we’re reminded of them.

After the orientation, we took a tour of the hotel; and by the time I left, I knew I was going to love working there. It was, as the trainer unknowingly intimated, a world in itself.

Most of the workers had been there for many years, and within weeks, I had friends all over the building. I loved to sit in the kitchen late at night and talk to James, the erudite dishwasher, who had traveled all over the country with his blues band. I liked it when Maureen, the cranky chef who howled when she caught us filching a roll, let her guard down, and talked about the abusive boyfriend she couldn’t bring herself to leave.

Mark, one of the groundskeepers brought his border collie to work every day, and visiting Tilly became a pleasant part of the day’s routine. When one day, a heartbroken Mark showed up alone, we all mourned the loss of Tilly.

A trip to the laundry for linen was like traveling below the equator to a country where exotic languages were spoken, and the heat and humidity immediately induced torpor. Whenever I went there, I brought a few smuggled sodas. If I had time, I’d sit on a pile of clean linen and sip one with my co-workers south of the border.

For five years, I thought of the place as my hotel, just like the guests thought of the bed they had rented for only a night was theirs. I forgot the people who’d done my job before me, and those who would do it after I was gone.

Recently, I stopped in for a visit. The carpet was the same, the smell of the place–a mixture of chlorine and coffee– was the same, but when I ran up to the break room to see my old friends, it was filled with mostly unfamiliar faces.

“Can I help you?” a young woman asked, looking me up and down, and seeing an interloper.

How could I tell her that this was once my hotel, that she was drinking from my cup, and sitting on my chair? How could I tell her that she’d broken the spell by reminding me once again, that I’m just passing through?

© 2006 Patry Francis. Used by permission.