Tag Archives: religion

A Christmas Greeting

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Merry Christmas

For the last three months or so, it has been very hard to for me to write my usual Friday blog post. What has been going on here in my country… a post modern war… has provoked thoughts and feelings that I’ve been unable to share with any but my closest friends who live here and understand the paradoxes that are part and parcel of coexistence with a hostile minority that takes advantage of all the many comforts of our free and modern society, while trying to destroy the state at the same time.

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Especially, because my view of how to deal with the situation differs from the policy of our government, and because I know that the ‘enemy’ is listening, I dare not discuss the issues while we are still at war. And I won’t hide the fact that what’s been happening on the streets of my beloved city cause me great pain and sadness. This too, limits my ability to express myself… to the extent that I didn’t even reply to the generous comments of my friends on my posts. Last week, I had intended to post an article about how I deal with this depression and sadness. But then there was another insane attack, and once again I was struck dumb. I just posted a picture I had composed during the week, and let it go at that.

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I see my lunch… how’re you doing?

This week too, there have been a number of news items that radically influenced my state of mind. Not just on the subject of the war. There were a number of subjects I could have discussed, had I been in a more positive mood. But unhappy as I felt, it seemed best to say nothing. I thought I’d just publish a photo I like to let my friends know that I’m still alive. But then, this morning, I looked at the calendar, and realized that it was Christmas day. Unexpectedly, I desired to send my heartfelt good wishes to my Christian friends for a very happy holiday.

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we see the spirit of creation in all nature

You know, I’ve spent some time in Europe, and in the Americas, where Christianity was the religion of the majority, in many of the places that I visited. And I was aware of certain characteristics that might be criticized, when the establishment is identified with religious morality. But this was half a century ago, and since then religion has become much less imposing, and many young people pay it no mind regardless of their cultural heritage. And that is even further complicated by the commercial abuse of the traditional holiday. But in my country, Christians are a small minority. And those I’ve gotten to know exemplify forbearance and modesty as well as a desire to do good deeds and act out their love for their fellow man. They remind me a bit of an animal who is native to our country, but seldom seen because he’s shy; the rock badger, of whom I’ve written on a number of occasions.

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cuddles from Jerusalem

Since my neighborhood is at the very edge of Jerusalem, rock badgers often come and visit. And when I go off to meditate or collect my thoughts in a park or nature preserve, and sit quietly for a length of time without moving, I have the opportunity to see them and watch as they relate to one another and to the wild life and lush vegetation in our fair city. They are exceptionally intelligent, and different members of their community have different roles to fulfill within the framework of their organized life. I am often amused at the thought that they are related to the elephants, for they are quite small, between the size of a cat and a dog, and have very small ears compared to those of an elephant. In any case, I’ve chosen to share some pictures of them together with my wishes for a Merry Christmas.

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the Sabbath approaches

Oh how beautiful it is in Jerusalem, as the Sabbath approaches, and each of us, in his own way prepares to welcome her, to embrace her, and accept her. Whatever we were doing all week comes to the end of the chapter. There is a break now. We are aware of time and a freedom that transcends most human affairs. But it is not all spiritual. There is bread and wine, and the finest delicacies prepared for the palate. And the song of one’s heart is translated to a song from the throat… welcome to the ear. Even when we are in mourning, there is a break for the Sabbath. The clothing is different, we wash ourselves, and reboot our minds, and bless our friends and ourselves… Sabbath be blessed, blessed be our children, blessed be our friends, blessed be our aged… blessed be the queen Sabbath.

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an alley in Jerusalem

Succoth 2015

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At the synagogue in Mazkeret Batya

going back to school

Since I like to think that a great many of my readers are students in elementary and high schools around the world, it seems only appropriate for me to dedicate this blog post to ‘going back to school’… an international phenomenon, usually timed for September 1st. And it seems fitting to start out with a prayer. ‘Cause you know, whether it’s allowed by the courts or not… the school year usually starts out with a prayer. It’s called ‘the prayer of pupils’. And even if it’s not mumbled into the mustache, as we say… even if it only goes from the heart to the mind, and from there to god almighty.. what’s said is this: “please don’t let me die of boredom.” No matter if the proverbial notebooks have been replaced by laptops or tablets. Nor is there salvation in the classroom just because half the students have gotten their daily dose of Ritalin. You sit in a class with 30 other human beings who have been randomly assembled on the basis of the date of their birth, and try to absorb the wealth of information offered by the teacher at the head of the class… a person who has had only minimal exposure to the entertainment industry.

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fish may swim in a school… but these fellows don’t

The clever kids catch it the first time around. But then… they have to listen to the good news explained over and over again, in a variety of ways, till the second from last dumbbell understands. Now that can be boring, no matter how hard you’re trying to keep a positive attitude. And those at the back end of the bell curve have given up long before the classy illustrations come into play. Listening to a teacher talk can be like your first taste of meditation. It can work like hypnosis. Your mind wanders freely. You watch the light refracting on the very edge of the nose of the girl in the row in front of you, a little to the left… as the words continue to flow meaninglessly, on and on. It’s soothing. If you’re not careful, you can fall asleep. Then teacher asks a question and someone drops whatever gadget it was they were playing with… and the sudden noise is a distraction. You look around to see if folks are smiling or sleeping. A few have their hands raised. Bob asks if it’s okay to go to the bathroom. There’s a lone fly moving slowly through space overhead. It makes you wonder if nano technology has developed a tiny camera which is strapped to the chest of that fly… and recording right now… you scratching your elbow… or something else. Time is relative, you think. Who said that? Einstein or Muhammad Ali? The class lasts less than an hour, but it can seem like three hours if you take it seriously. Muhammad Ali is 191 centimeters tall.

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portrait of a graffiti artist; extra curricular activities

Students in Israel have it easy. The first of September usually arrives just before the High Holidays. You meet your teachers and your fellow students and get reminded of all the rules, find out where you’re going to sit… and then it’s vacation for the Jewish New Year. You come back and listen to a few introductions to subjects you’re going to be learning, and then it’s time to take off for the Day of Atonement. If you happen to belong to a religious family, you know that atonement is mainly for adults. Children get to do whatever comes into their heads while the adults are busy all day in the synagogue. You can just play around. Or if you like to read, that’s fine. It’s a great holiday for reading. And you get to eat while the adults are fasting. If you come from a secular family, it’s even better. For seculars, the day of atonement is national bicycle day. Everyone gets on a bike and rides around on the freeways. Because no one drives a car on that day. And there are no buses or trains either. Just an occasional ambulance, coming for someone who’s fallen off his bike. And then you can always throw rocks at the ambulance for disturbing the peace. You’re not supposed to, of course… but since most of the police are atoning too, it’s not very likely you’ll get caught.

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a weed in a meadow; worth looking at

A few days after the day of atonement, comes Succoth, the holiday of booths. We move out of our homes and into temporary shacks with fancy adornments on the inside, to remember just how frail and temporary life itself is. That lasts a week. For those who don’t like temporary shacks right outside their homes, there’re always tents and camping in nature, so long as a little rain doesn’t bother you. The whole business called ‘the holidays’ lasts about a month. And just a few days of school, all that time. You get a whiff of it, that comes and goes. And you break into it easy. Of course, once the holidays are over, that’s really it. No getting around it. School every day. No teachers’ strike till towards the end of the school year. But you keep hoping for something that’ll break the routine. And you know, that can happen too. We’ve got to think positively…

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a man eating his lunch in a temporary booth in honor of the feast of Succoth

idolatry

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In my previous post last week, I mentioned that the study of sculpture had been neglected in our culture because of the prohibition of idol worship. And this raised the question of why. Many in the west have accepted the concept of monotheism. And many are atheistic or agnostic. Because of the free thinking attitude towards faith and belief, many believe that the issue of whether it is proper or not to pray to, or worship an image seems irrelevant in our time.

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My dear friend Janet reminds us often that ‘everything in this world is interconnected’. This is the basis of monotheism, and one of the most important tenants of our religion. There are those who see powerful forces in this world as gods. The sea is a god to some, and there is a god of reproduction to others. Some people have a need to relate to an inspiring picture of a saint or a prophet in order to remind themselves of the virtues they believe in. There are so many pictures of saints, and medallions, and symbols of all kinds, that we have become accustomed to seeing such things. But our sages warned us that focusing on an image might distract us from our awareness of a god who is an intricate being reflected in all we sense in the world around us.

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I believe that those who coined the expression, ‘the almighty dollar’, meant to laugh at the phenomenon. But there is no doubt that a large portion of the population in the west has raised the importance of money to god-like proportions. Is it important? To some it is. To others not. For those of us who believe in god, it is important to consider what we receive from him, what sort of inspiration or example we envision when contemplating his presence in this world of ours, and how or if we choose to worship him.

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I have studied a bit of other religions, and found wisdom that has enhanced my own beliefs and worship of god in my religion. I have also found things that I cannot accept. Today is Friday, and this evening my Sabbath begins. And an essential part of my religion is not to work on the Sabbath. That is a day of freedom and appreciation of life, and it is set apart for contemplation and joy. This Sabbath is called the ‘Sabbath of consolation’, for on this last Sunday, we remembered the destruction of our holy temple. It was a very sad day for all. My best wishes to my readers for inspiration and delight from life. We all have our ups and downs. And how important it is, to maintain our perspective, to remember that there is beauty and pleasure in this life, despite the disappointments and pain.

Sculpture and the Jews

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We have a problem with art. In Hebrew, art and craft are almost the same word. They come from the same root, which is also the root for the word ‘faith’, from which the English word ‘amen’ is a derivative. Amen simply means ‘(I) have faith’. It is a Hebrew word. And though sculpture of a certain kind was found in the holy temple, it has most been associated with idol worship. And there are specific laws found in the bible prohibiting making reproductions of men or women, animals, or even objects found in nature. Throughout our long history, the plastic arts have been avoided by most of our people and those artists who did produce something, were always the exception to the rule.

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During the 18th century, there was a movement that gained some popularity among our people who were living in Europe, called ‘the enlightenment’, which tried to import some of the cultural standards and the knowledge which had been accepted in the west into our own culture. Despite the opposition of most of the religious leaders of the time, the movement became quite popular, and is credited with easing some of the anti-semitic laws which severely restricted us, as well as promoting greater integration between Jews and non Jews in Europe. It also brought about the modernization of a great many Jewish communities. Scientific and literary texts were translated into Hebrew, and absorbed into our common culture.

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But influenced by cultural prejudices an ingrained attitudes, even the non religious, secular, and highly educated creative souls among us were reluctant to express themselves in the arts. And when they did, they often chose some sort of abstraction or embedded a flaw in the image so as to make it clear that the work could in no way be interpreted as idolatry.

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The concept of one god who could not be represented by any image was in direct opposition to art as understood by other cultures. Sculpture suffered the worst. And to this day, one can find numerous abstract works of sculpture on some of the streets of Jerusalem, but the more realistic, representative pieces are hidden away in private spaces.

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One of the most interesting sculptures in modern day Israel was created as a memorial to the holocaust, and is hidden away in a forest, and completely unknown by most of the citizens of Jerusalem. It presents images from the history of our people and particularly from the holocaust in a series of reliefs found on a large column.

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Aside from the religious injunction prohibiting idolatry, modesty is considered one of the most important virtues. This too, has dissuaded many artists from using nude images. Even so, the restrictions inspired a creative spark as well, and I have seen fascinating two dimensional sculpture, and other variations on the use of three dimensional media by a number of our local artists.

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The conflict between the arts and our traditional view of the world is felt in other areas as well, including music. I hope to write about that one of these days. And because I feel limited regarding how many images to show on a blog post, I might add another post regarding the many ways Jewish artists have tried to express themselves in sculpture while still respecting the prohibitions of our culture.

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love and ego

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Many years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, was visiting with friends and students in Jerusalem. Word of his presence in our city soon spread among his followers, and one by one and then in small groups, people started showing up at the apartment where he was staying. Outside, the sun was setting. Inside, it was beginning to get dark. A friend went to the light switch, about to turn on the electric light. But then Shlomo said, I would prefer a candle. A candle was placed in a single candlestick and lit. The sun went down completely, and more people came. After evening prayers, Shlomo asked for more candles.

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Rabbi Shlomo singing with friends

Friends melted the base of a candle and stuck it to a little plate. More and more candles were lit and placed on shelves and on the tops of high book cases. The apartment filled with people and Shlomo encouraged them to light more candles. A few friends went out to get more candles, and soon there were more candles than could be counted. They provided a soft light that filled the room. Friends pulled guitars out, bells and drums, and other musical instruments. We told each other stories, and sang songs together. Though each particular candle offered just a modest amount of light, all of the many candles together filled the apartment with light.

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At one point, when there was a natural pause in the conversation and the music, Reb Shlomo waved his hand, signifying the many candles, he said, ‘You see, each candle is like a human soul radiating its own particular light. But when we are all together, the space is filled with light, and it is difficult to attribute this great light to any specific source’.

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This week began for me with a visit to the rose garden opposite the Knesset, our parliament here in Jerusalem. The newly elected members of parliament were trying to organize a new government. And the news media was filled with dire warnings about what might or might not happen. But now, in the height of spring, the rose garden was filled with flowers, and the sun was shining overhead, and the sky was blue.

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Yesterday was the holiday of Lag B’omer. A day dedicated to the memory of the great mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who was born and married and died on this day, and taught us a mystical understanding of the light in this world. It is also a day in which we remember the struggle of our ancestors against the Romans. It is a holiday which is marked by bonfires and celebration in the middle of a very serious period of time, during which we progress from our exodus from slavery and aspire to the acceptance of enlightenment. And that is such serious work for the soul, that it is a great relief to have a day of fun and joy to offer release from our contemplation on the fact that true freedom is found only when one has a framework of values and intentional behavior.

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dancing around the bonfire

While watching the revelry around the campfires, I was reminded of Reb Shlomo’s words in praise of the candles. Let us remember the unique character of each and every human being, and value his individual contribution to our society. But remember too that the light that we generate is not held within, but is shared by all, lighting up the world around us and bringing us the warmth and happiness of love.