Sunday, August 28, 2011

Divine Truth

Divine Truth.

Reading Midrashes (definition below) has been a wonderful experience for me and sometimes an astonishing experience. For example, some sages had to determine whether an oven was ritually pure. Rabbi Eliezer said no, the others said yes and apparently there had to be total agreement; a holdout had veto power. Eliezer called upon God to prove him right, and the proof came in the form of miracles and when the sages did not accept such evidence, a voice from on high declared Eliezer to be correct . . . and still they did not agree. Think about this. Supernatural events occurred all confirming that Eliezer was correct. How could anyone reject such powerful support? But, the sages argued that once God had provided divine law, He no longer had a voice in interpretation because the law was perfect. It was up to human beings exercising free will to do their best to understand God’s law and that meant a vote.

This was a remarkable transformation. Human beings were responsible; they could not turn to God for His opinion they had to rely on themselves. For better or worse, they had cast aside seeking his guidance for their own understandings. When God was questioned about their action, he responded laughingly, “My children have defeated me. My children have defeated me.” In other words, humans had made God irrelevant; all of life had to be decided by humans trying to understand what made sense. Divine law only had meaning provided by human understanding.

You must understand that a Midrash is a story designed to get at some truth about Jewish theology, or law or daily existence. They usually begin with some trivial issue and come to conclusions about major topics that are often clearly fantastic. The word, Midrash, means search; a Midrash is an exploration.

The story is ostensibly about a power struggle between the rabbi and his colleagues, but the stakes are quite high. It is not about the stove or ritual cleanliness but about how Jews should orient themselves to the universe. That is a big issue indeed, but the sages, never daunted, took it on.

Understanding the relationship between humans and God must have been a major struggle between the sages. Where was truth? Did God provide it or did humans have to stumble around it to try to get some semblance of divine reality. Was the universe understandable or did humans have to rely on themselves to circle around it, make mistakes before finally reach some approximation of it. And, did the one man who spoke in God's name control everything or were decisions reached by a vote. If the former, it presaged tyranny. Rulers notoriously ruled as gods, in god's name or by divine right; their dicta could not be challenged nor could they be deposed. If the latter, there could be no such leaders.

The rulers created parliaments or similar bodies who voted to raise taxes for whatever enterprise the ruler wanted. In spite of the despots’ attempts to eliminate them, they began to place conditions on providing funds and ultimately they were successful. (Actually, it was chancy. The British Parliament was the only such European body to survive. It took a long time for other countries to create viable alternatives)

More important, science became possible. The days when Truth was dispensed by God or His representative were numbered. Science doesn't seek the truth but knowledge and the knowledge is always conditional awaiting new ideas and new evidence to supersede it. The difference between received knowledge and discovered knowledge is profound and understanding the difference has produced what we call science.

Wow, all of that packed into one Midrash. I don't know whether any of the above can directly be traced back to it, but it does speak about a Jewish perspective that raised important questions about humans’ relationship to the universe. Not all Jewish religions would adhere to the above, and certainly, other religions might take umbrage, but the sages, hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago knew what they were about.

Sunday, August 21, 2011



Curmudgeon: An aging male, who grows crankier and more irritable each year. Well, I admit it, that's me. Philosophical popshit warns not to sweat the small stuff, but it I the small stuff that stifles us. It is easy to forget or ignore that life is a pretty thwarting enterprise. Where can you go where that is not the case? Alas, hardly anywhere because life is cluttered with people. Unless you choose to live a hermit's life, you are surrounded by people who have their own way of doing things and the more people the worse it is. Yes, everyone has her or his way of doing things and rarely, if ever, do they mesh.

Marriage, the culmination of the excitement of the pleasure of another's company itself is a hotbed of sorting out the details of the ceremony. Sure, some people go to the county clerk, but most want the presence of family and friends and the more of them, the greater opportunity for conflict. Sometimes the conflict is open and accompanied by shouting and screaming. Other times it is so low key the unwary observer is, well, unaware of the hidden tensions. But, in either case, there are always winners and losers. The honeymoon is, at least one hopes, the time for sexual exploration and pleasure and accommodations. Shall we do it this way or that way and who is really in charge. Of course, when the honeymoon is over awareness creeps in. In a movie, the recently married Judy Holliday said, with great surprise when her husband belched, said, “Oh, animal noises.” That honeymoon was over.

Consider the forthcoming baby. It gets popped out of a lovely oceanic existence aware of no social needs and no responsibilities. After rudely thrust into reality its parents immediately start the process of thwarting it. Obviously, such training is necessary because the infant has to learn the difference between toilets and diapers and assume responsibility for its actions. The infant learns there are goodies in reality and wants them. As it ages, it learns the word “mine,” in its mad desire to own everything. Growing up requires massive thwarting of human desires in service of civilization. Kids quickly find out that if they act right their parents (really, giants who control their lives) will do nice things for them, but self-control is the key. It is a clumsy way to produce the next generation, but what can you do?

A woman I knew, who loved her husband literally danced with joy when he left on a trip so she could be alone and free. Free? Free to do what? Whatever it was, she didn’t think her husband would approve. How’s that for a sense of marital stuckness?

I'm sure you can see how being thwarted is a major aspect of civilization. We suppress ourselves, we don't punch others for whatever slights have occurred. We smile in the face of others dullness and express delight at being fed detestable food by our hosts. I want a hamburger, why am I given cold zucchini soup? Bah, humbug!

Or consider restaurants. We pay for food and service and ambiance adds to the pleasure. But, often enough, the food is indifferent and the service sparse and most, yes most of us stoically put up with such indignities. And, we even provide a generous tip!

So, the aging process has led me in a somewhat different life path. I notice, without any specific intent that I am becoming more curmudgeonly. Actually, it started many years ago in an Italian restaurant. Our waiter spoke with an Italian accent, no doubt to impress us. He obviously was not Italian and the accent was phony as a street corner Rollex. At the end of the meal, he disappeared, taking much too long to provide the bill. When he finally presented it to us with a supposedly Italian flourish, I said something how long he had taken to supply what we needed to get the hell out. He became instantly insulted and said not to leave him a tip; I acquiesced. My wife, as was her wont, became enraged, chided me for this, that, and last year’s accumulated sins. Her vision of life was to supinely accept others rudeness . . . except mine to her, which I never engaged in. In those days, I wasn't so sure of how I wanted to deal with all the crap, so remained mute.

But now, no longer. India's restaurant had reopened near a retread-movie theater and Shirley and I ate there. The food was miserable and the service worse. I left no tip and calmly told the owner what I thought of such treatment.

Folks, I've had it with people who clog supermarket aisles with their carts not permitting others to pass. It is the total indifference that galls me. I've had it with shopping in department stores with no sales clerk in sight. Everywhere I go, when things aren't right, I complain. I don't shout, curse or carry on, but I express my annoyance at how the place is run. Once, a restaurant manager apologized and gave us a $25 card for our next visit.

 I’m doing my best to make the world a more livable environment. I hope you join me.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bonnie and Clyde: Why do we love them?

Many, many years ago, when the movie Bonnie and Clyde appeared both the critics and public went wild for it. As I did. But my sister, brighter than me was irritated by such enthusiasm. Four years older than me, she had been aware of the real villains they were and she resented the notion that killers should be so lionized. Of course, I was annoyed with her because she, gratuitously, had demolished my pleasure in the film. OK, the many many years have passed and the other day I briefly glanced at a movie about Billy-the-Kid and my sister's frown flashed into my head. Another sympathetic portrayal of a killer. Of course, I could not watch that film but this time my brain held on to the reality that some really bad people have gotten amazing public approval.

Recently, a flight attendant, miffed by a passenger's behavior opened an escape hatch and slid down the inflated ramp to get away. In a minor way he had run amok, but his behavior surely was inappropriate. But, a segment of our peace loving law abiding public cheered for him, praised him for “sticking it to the man.” And there was the young man who committed petty crimes and eluded the police for a very long time. Again, the people cheered. Jesse James had admiring songs written about him: “He robbed from the rich and gave to the poor” enlightened the world about his nobility. Forgot that he was a robber and killer. The ancient general, Alexander, went off and killed people over a wide swath of the earth and is called “the Great.” The great killer would seem more appropriate.

With the advent of popular media, in particular movies, we have thrust upon us the same sorts of hero, all cut from the same cloth. First, they are loners, isolates. They have little regard for the general run of humanity but often wind up, albeit reluctantly, eliminating social miscreants. 007 is licensed to kill whenever he deems it appropriate because his cause is just. Second, they have little regard for the laws of the land or common concern for ordinary social behavior. Car chases are fun to watch, but try counting up the laws they break and the property they damage. If their supervisors take note, they can put up only feeble objections. Watching police dramas is hair-raising. Dirty Harry has little regard for anything except his own version of justice. And, The Godfather glorifies criminal behavior. Show the good guys in the worst possible light and the bad guys as if they are paragons of virtue.

What is it about the public, you and me, that gets us to pay money to see such stories. Clearly, the “good guys” act almost without restraint and in the real world would face significant jail time; why do we always want more?

I think that Americans have a powerful sense that their lives are constrained by forces outside their control and long for “freedom.” Get up, breakfast, clean up, go to work, come home deal with wife and kids and go to sleep. This is repeated day after day until whatever end is in store. Thoreau said that most people live lives of quiet desperation and have no way to change that existence and why should this be so?

The human animal came into existence in wildly different circumstances from current existence. Life was dangerous and was physical. Hunting occupied much of its time, and it was dangerous. Evolution shaped us to fight or run,
procreate and survive. It is hard to imagine that early humans were ever bored. We are engaged in the same demands, but in civilization which has separated us from what our bodies were designed for. We need action, but our lives are designed to keep us under control lest we upend the social contract. So, we love the outlaws, we smoke, drink, dope ourselves up, get on campaigns to remove life's restrictions i.e. Tea Party, anything for freedom. London is in flames as is the Near East. American soldiers are coming home from war and cannot find jobs, a dangerous mix.

We better wise up. Civilization is all we have and we better learn to love it.