Saturday, May 4, 2013

Religion in the Modern Age

If I were teaching a bar/bat mitzvah age class with freedom to do my own thing, I would have them write down all the things they have been TOLD by other people or books or whatever about god/divinity. And then perhaps at the same time, perhaps after going through those, have them write down things THEY think about divinity, no matter what it is, even "there can't possibly be such a thing" or if there were, what qualities would it necessarily have (imaginary? subjective? good? neutral? etc.).

It is especially important to me to emphasize that the world is filled with people who will tell you What God Is And What God Isn't, and it's all bs. No one knows. It's about figuring that stuff out for oneself, figuring out if the word "god" is even RELEVANT anymore to the individual. What Matters To You? What Is Meaningful To You? Religion is supposed to be about giving meaning to what we know, and maybe pushing the boundaries of what we don't know with curiosity, but I don't believe it should be about defining and pretending we know what we don't know. That's why the religion vs. science debate is so ridiculous. If someone's religion/belief directly contradicts something empirically provable then the religion/belief is simply not tenable. If a religion/belief is framed in such a way that it CAN conflict with empirical data, then there's a problem already. The exception could be psychology since it deals directly with emotions and perceptions, and of course there is no One Right Way of pursuing psychology. From what I know at least, there's a LOT of different stuff out there from different people, that works well for some and not at all for others. And it all intersects with our current culture and norms, of course.

This idea that our very beliefs shift as our culture and norms shift is probably terrifying to someone who subscribes to an absolutist point of view of religion/belief. But of course that isn't even the biggest problem I have with absolutism in religion, since every religion I have ever studied (and I have a degree in it for what it's worth) only becomes absolutist in the hands and mouths of absolutist people. On paper (if there are writings) they never really are because religions are created by people, and they shift with people or they fail. Religions are concepts, institutions, traditions, communities which people create to fill a specific need, and when the need disappears or the expression changes, the religion changes or people find a new way to fill the transformed need. 

The discussion of what those needs can be, and how all this manifests in the current time, is one to be had when I have more time to verbalize my thoughts (and don't have piles of homework due). Suffice it to say that these are my observations, and not perhaps the most well-spoken version of my observations, but I want to leave this here as a placeholder to come back to, as part of an ongoing babble into the internets.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

The following massive commentary contains spoilers for the movie (although is it really possible to spoil a fairy tale?) and is long.

Short version: This movie subverts the useless princess trope AND subverts the trope that being feminine/caring/beautiful is something inherently superficial or weak. THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME.
Read more »

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

A few thoughts on domestic violence

So today I saw this video of Patrick Stewart:

And read this written by Patrick Stewart:
Patrick Stewart: the legacy of domestic violence
As a child, the actor regularly saw his father hit his mother. Here he describes how the horrors of his childhood remained with him in his adult life.

And I had some thoughts:

Until our society empowers people to feel entitled to justice...until the most common reaction to abuse is to speak out, speak up and LISTEN to those who do...we will continue to wring our hands and wish for a better world. The better world starts with us, with raising our children and expecting our peers to listen, to treat everyone with respect, not just decrying victimization, but empowering those who are victims to speak out for themselves, and empowering those who hurt others to seek help and believe in their own ability to do the right thing.

Not everyone who hurts others is a sociopath without empathy. It all starts somewhere, and I think it's fair to say that right now many people would rather live with hurtful, even violent tendencies rather than try to get help because we subtly train them to compromise themselves in exchange for not being considered "crazy." We as a society, in our media, talk about so many psychological issues as if they are diseases, and treat people who are mentally imbalanced as though they are either vying for attention or a time-bomb ready to blow up in our faces. There is not, as far as I know, a pathogen which creates domestic violence. There is, though, a prevalent social climate which finds excuses for the inexcusable and which can train children to manipulate the emotions of others while remaining blind to their own.

I grew up in a family free of violence, free even of most drama. And that foundation has helped me to overcome issues in my own life, some pretty deeply entrenched issues that at one point almost sent me into a downward spiral. I can only imagine how hard it is for those brave people who overcome issues far more problematic than mine who were even trained as children to see those things as "normal." When you grow up and one or both of your parents emotionally manipulates you, and you struggle free of their influence, it is an act of incredible strength. For those people who are overcoming issues of domestic violence, bigotry, sexism...I am always seeking out ways to help and spread information which could help such people. Because I believe that we have to try to help, or else nothing ever changes.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Late Night Conversations™: Letting Go

[edited slightly to be more readable]

Not Me:
Coincidentally, this is one of the reasons I've always been shy about the idea of pushing boundaries, pushing limits. I should think the best environment for letting go is one that is at all levels completely safe and comfortable, where you can know without question, or hesitation, where you can really feel that you won't ever be put in a place where you don't want to be, so you can surrender that need to protect yourself more comfortably. Do you have thoughts about that?

I think that the idea you describe is partly (partly, mind you) an illusion. No matter how well-meaning others are, and no matter how much they love you, they will sometimes push you too far, or in the wrong direction, or say something wrong. In that sense, there is no such thing as a completely safe environment. I have said things which unintentionally set you off before, but you feel no less safe with me.

The point being that safety is not really about being safe. Surrendering that need to protect yourself comes when you feel comfortable enough with your ability to communicate your needs. Because the whole point of lowering those barriers isn't that there is some guarantee you won't be hurt. It's the slow (as slow as it needs to be) process of realizing that hurt happens and what's important is that we are with people who listen to us when we say "hey, that hurt," people who will respond to our needs, try to help us and help themselves.

So I guess what I'm saying is that yes, in part one should of course do one's best to safeguard the environment in which one does this sort of work. But there is a cliff of uncertainty no matter what, and I posit that instead of only coming up to the edge and stopping and remaining completely safe, one should, when one is ready, bungee jump. Because that is how we grow.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I watched the Sherlock season finale and now I find myself desperately craving chocolate. Is that what it means to be human, to feel so deeply even though your mind knows that there is no real reason for it? Is that why we are storytellers and poets? We cannot help but feel, and attempts to suppress it bring most people sorrow.

It probably doesn't help that I just finished the book Foreigner which is literally all about a man trying to translate between two completely different sentient species: human and atevi...who don't have emotions in the way that humans do. And the main character spends pretty much the entire book trying to understand not only what it feels like to be an atevi, but also reflecting and seeking out what it feels like to be a human. What are we, really? Why do we feel the things we feel? What is feeling?

Sometimes it all swirls up and overtakes me and I wish I could curl up by a fire somewhere and lose myself in happy stories and never have to feel sad or afraid. But then, I wonder. Is it really so bad, to feel pain and sorrow? We are trained practically from birth to process sadness as 'bad' and happiness as 'good.' But many of my experiences in life have led me to question that foundational assumption. To be clear, I do not think that just feeling itself is enough, that sad and happy are the same. I still think that my objective in life is to seek happiness. But, in what may or may not be an unusual way of seeing things, I believe that sadness doesn't cancel out my happiness, and that in order to continue to pursue happiness I actually have to feel sadness sometimes.

Sadness fills me with compassion, sadness breaks down the walls of my inner self and opens me up to the sadness and pain of the universe. Sadness is not what creates shells around people, rather people build walls around themselves to try to keep out the sadness. But I think it's within all of us, walls or not. And if we brick ourselves up we're just locking ourselves in a room with our own fears. If I open myself up, and let myself feel sad, I gain new understandings about myself, and the world. If I tell myself not to be afraid of the intensity of my feelings, to let go the need to be in control of my emotions...I'm free of myself.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Two poems & thoughts jotted down

I was going through a bunch of poems I've collected, and re-reading this one it seems to me that one of the concepts Yeats is evoking is that of the meaning-generality from the Tibetan Buddhist ontology. In particular the lines: "I would have touched it like a child /But knew my finger could but have touched /Cold stone and water." This goes along with the last verse, which could possibly be a description of the meaning-generality of the same waterfall from the perspective of the woman with him.

Also the implications of the "law of heaven" he invokes seem to question reality in a way that is not dissimilar to the things I have been studying in my Tibetan Buddhist Reason & Debate class. There's a lot to more unpack there, but I'll leave it for now. Oh, and another poem I found below this one...

Towards Break of Day by William Butler Yeats

Was it the double of my dream
The woman that by me lay
Dreamed, or did we halve a dream
Under the first cold gleam of day?

I thought 'there is a waterfall
Upon Ben Bulban side,
That all my childhood counted dear;
Were I to travel far and wide
I could not find a thing so dear.'
My memories had magnified
So many times childish delight.

I would have touched it like a child
But knew my finger could but have touched
Cold stone and water. I grew wild
Even accusing heaven because
It had set down among its laws:
Nothing that we love over-much
Is ponderable to our touch.

I dreamed towards break of day,
The cold blown spray in my nostril.
But she that beside me lay
Had watched in bitterer sleep
The marvellous stag of Arthur,
That lofty white stag, leap
From mountain steep to steep.


I think I need to read the following poem about 100 more times, but my initial reaction was to think about emptiness, or selflessness. It has a Taoist feel to it in some respects, but I think especially in light of the end that it might almost be a visualization of a conception of selflessness in the Buddhist sense.

What Any Lover Learns by Archibald MacLeish

Water is heavy silver over stone.
Water is heavy silver over stone's
Refusal. It does not fall. It fills. It flows
Every crevice, every fault of the stone,
Every hollow. River does not run.
River presses its heavy silver self
Down into stone and stone refuses.

What runs,
Swirling and leaping into sun, is stone's
Refusal of the river, not the river.

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Friday, September 30, 2011

What Is Real?

Oh to be free and alone by land or sea
And what does it mean to be free?
To experience the vastness
The interconnectedness of all things?
To feel no pressure to conform to illusion
To be in touch with what is truly real
And what is real?

The dirt beneath my feet and in my hair and on my skin
The trees and grass I pass through on my way
The stars that wheel around in never-ending cycles
The dance of living things that has existed before each petty social agenda
And will in some form outlive them all
What is real?

Is it real to feel things for no tangible reason?
Is it real to love, to laugh?
What’s funny to one person is offensive to another
What is real?

Is it real to get upset for no good reason?
Is it real to cry, to lament?
What’s sad from one side of time is rationalized from the other

What is real?

And what is merely consciousness
Or is it something mere
Is perception any less a player in the cosmic game
Is it the referee, making the calls
Or perhaps perception is the game itself
And our senses are the refs
And our friends the fans
And our emotions and values and choices are the players
Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose
But as long as we enjoy the game
When the game ends we can say we truly lived

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A reflection.

Another Kallah, another two year cycle of spirituality comes full circle.

I have drifted significantly in the last two years, spiritually in particular. I have learned many things, some of them lessons I needed to learn, and some of them lessons I probably should have avoided with some applied common sense. Some were hard, and some were even harder. I have started to really See people, to See the events and dynamics around me in a way I hadn't before because I allowed myself to be too affected by rose-colored glasses. Some optimism is, I truly believe, an absolute necessity. But for optimism to be effective, you have to apply it to the real world. Not the world of potential, or the possible world, or the world you want things to be but they aren't quite there yet. I'm not sure of a way that this lesson can be taught verbally...I learned it in a very Zen way, actually. I was shocked into a state of higher awareness when I found out that someone I trusted and liked was not the person I thought he was. That the darkness I saw beneath the surface had far more hold than I believed, even unto beating up his girlfriend. They have reconciled since then, for better or for worse, but the lessons I learned were unforgettable, not just from this one event, but from observing and interacting with my environment after reaching this new awareness.

Three Lessons

First, that people give hints about the conditions of their insides. Just because you only see a tiny bit of insecurity, or cruelty, or immaturity, does not mean what you see is the totality. People are icebergs, and if you see a little, you cannot assume there isn't a lot. You can't assume there IS a lot either. But it is that uncertainty that should guide my consciousness. Often, you just don't know about people. And that should require more caution and observation before trust is earned, not less.

Second, that certain behaviors and perspectives are toxic, and there is nothing wrong with eliminating people from your social dance card who perpetuate toxicity in any form. Life is too short to be spending time and energy on people who reward loyalty with divisiveness, or friendly intentions with betrayals. And what's sad is that this lesson probably speaks to every single person who will ever read this. We have all experienced this. Sometimes it is a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover...anyone in your life can betray you. Your responsibility to yourself is to make every possible effort to choose your friends and lovers carefully. I am learning to minimize my risks through social triage.

Third, and possibly most important, is compassion. All of the above lessons are as dust and sand unless you simultaneously apply compassion and understanding. If I stop spending time with someone and then think in my head (or say to other people), "That person is such a jerk; they don't deserve nice things" then I am also being a jerk. Obviously when we are hurt by someone, there is a certain amount of venting and release of pain that has to happen, in safe and trustworthy contexts. But if several months down the line I'm still harping on the same people for being horrible, worthless people, then I need to take a step back and look hard at myself and my motivations for saying such a thing. Every person has their own story, their own perspective. Reasons for doing what they're doing. And even if their reasons don't make sense to me, I am not the one who is utilizing them. Figuring out where someone is coming from, why they act the way they do, is an absolutely essential part of coming into communication and healing with someone. Sometimes, this is not possible. Sometimes, the person does not themselves know why they do what they do; they act without deeper consideration. Sometimes instead of healing communication between two people, all you get are scars. But without that initial drive to understand, to understand without judgment or imprecation, all you get is bitterness. As Yeats said, "Gaze no more in the bitter glass...for all things turn to bareness...thy tender eyes grow all unkind /gaze no more in the bitter glass."

Aside from improving my vision and perception of the world and people around me, and adjusting my priorities in accordance with my refined principles, I am coming to really feel like I'm carving out my place spiritually. My future is now, almost. By the end of this year I will be done with undergrad, and hopefully starting next year I will begin my Cantorial training. Spiritual leadership. Music. Lighting the way for others and myself as best I can. Becoming a vehicle for the ideals and philosophies that I feel are the connecting lines between all us dots. I was awaiting this Kallah conference with some anticipation... I have felt for months that I am on the verge of some sort of breakthrough. I have been getting bombarded with the signs of it too, déjà vu all the time, and dreaming vividly every time I fall asleep. My brain is in overdrive, processing things subconsciously, figuring things out, creating new spaces and places for me to explore consciously. I hope.

We are just what we are. It is who we become that we can influence by our choices and our practices and our convictions. We each live in our own Now, and that Now cannot be changed. It's our Now. But, by acknowledging humbly the things about our Now that we would like to adjust, we can work each moment to create new practices and new habits. We can form ourselves into the person that we want to become. And that person is still us, taken in the context of the whole picture. Just because right now I have a problem with, say, a short temper doesn't mean that THAT is who I will always be, and I should just hate myself for being so terrible and uncontrolled. It means that I am dissatisfied with my Now. That I need to begin practicing patience perhaps by counting to ten before speaking when annoyed, or whatever works. There is no reason to hate myself because I am also the person who successfully moves beyond such problems.

We are not discrete particles divided up into seconds, minutes, hours, years. The me of two years ago is just as much ME as the me right now. What reason, then, would I have to hate myself knowing how much potential I have?! I have come so far, and fought so hard, and worked so much at making myself into the best person I can be. I will not ever be perfect. And I don't want to be perfect! I want to be in full communication with my potential, to be constantly working toward whatever new goals I set for myself, to be aware of how my perspective shifts with lessons and experiences gained throughout my life.

In this moment, I have friends I adore. I have family, both old and new. In this moment, even though there is much uncertainty and even fear, there is also the surety of knowing that I write my own story. In this moment, this deep breath before the next plunge, life looks good.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.


I can never, ever tire of Blade Runner. I can never hold it all in my mind; it's too much.

Is it a story about the future? About a cyborg's fight against death? A man's search for meaning in a vast, glittering, empty abyss of a world? A woman's discovery of her own darkness? About the rise and fall of genius? About something big, something small, something in between? Every single thing in this movie is rife with potentiality. Everything, everyone is pregnant, they have this glow about them of potential energy that cannot find a way to become kinetic. The world is too slippery, there isn't enough friction, the momentum of their lives carries them despite themselves. Even doing nothing is still doing something. And still the life inside them clamors, begging to be released, to be expressed. Every single eyeblink is fierce, every lick of the lips is a silent scream, invisible fists shaking against a cold darkness that spreads into every corner of their insides.

There is nothing good in this movie. There is nothing evil either. There are no extremes at all. Even death itself, supposedly the extremity of life, is transformed into something artistic, a statement about human conscience and consciousness. If a cyborg is "retired," is it still death? Do you have to be a human to be truly alive?

Perhaps the most important question this movie forces you to ask is: What is beauty? Is beauty sexual? Is it sensual? Is it innocent, jaded, drunk, scummy, sparkling clean, classy, horrifying, inspiring? Does beauty exist in the eye of the beholder, or is it merely an attempt, an idea relegated to cyberspace, to the action potentials firing off in neurons?

More than anything else, this movie makes me feel small. Not in an insignificant way...but in an awestruck way. I could be any one of billions, perhaps trillions of people that wander the back alleys, the fancy plazas, the multiple planets and constructs of an unendingly alive universe. Everything dies, everything ends, but to end it must exist at all. Everything IS.

And that is all we can ever truly know. I am, now. Will I be, tomorrow? Was I, yesterday? My memories could be false, my hope for survival unrealistic. But in this moment, this one moment, under rain that blots out the stars, surrounded by lights, glare, traffic of all sort, but utterly alone...I exist. There are pyramids of light surrounded by vast expanses of vacuum and darkness. And the light that I cast, when I spend my potential, and my life becomes kinetic, is insignificant to the point of nothingness when compared to all the lights of all the lives that have ever been. But none of that matters, because I am not them. I can only ever be me.

All we are is a collection of lights, speeding around each other, engaging and disengaging. We swirl around inside ourselves, we whirl amongst each other, we are living stars. And one day all our collective lights will disappear.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Never Again?

Yesterday (Sunday) was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. And as luck would have it, in my ongoing Holocaust curriculum with my seventh graders, we got to talk about the Milgram experiment, Obedience. Have a link: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 That's a 45-minute video © Milgrim about his experiment comprised mostly of footage from the experiment itself.

Milgrim designed this experiment partly as a reaction to the Eichmann trial, the 50th anniversary of which is this year. The Virginia Holocaust Museum had a film festival this weekend, playing these three films over three days: The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, Journey Into Life: Aftermath of A Childhood In Auschwitz, and The Man Who Scattered Eichmann's Ashes Into The Sea. I did not get to see any of these, and I'm disappointed by that. The VA Holocaust Museum always has fascinating stuff. The people who work there are all fantastic, honest, hard-working people. I adore them, and I strongly encourage people to visit the museum, as often as possible! I have been fortunate enough to receive several guided tours from the Museum's own Director of Education (once with my 7th graders), and their exhibits are generally speaking about half memorial/artifact display and half educational/interactive with applications and understandings beyond just remembering the past.

There is a movement within Holocaust museums at present to expand beyond just the European genocide of the Holocaust to include education and exhibits about all genocides, as well as programs to fight such injustices, or at the very least encourage being informed about them. When I visited Yad Vashem in Israel in 2008, our tour guide passionately spoke about his support for expanding the concept of Holocaust museums to include exhibits and education about genocides worldwide including the present day.

Tonight, my dad's synagogue held its annual Interfaith Holocaust Service. (I led two songs.) We had several presenters and speakers, including two Holocaust survivors. One of them, Alex, also gives tours sometimes at the VA Holocaust Museum, and he brought up the idea that these more recent and ongoing genocides make hollow the favored phrase of Jews worldwide regarding the Holocaust: "Never Again." Is it really Never Again? Did the world truly learn any lesson from the genocide during WWII? The Nazis imprisoned and killed Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, mentally handicapped, political opponents, etc. etc. The Jews were selected for mass extermination, an organized and chillingly orchestrated process that mainly occurred over the last few years of the war. But it all happened so long ago. A generation ago. I suppose I can see why governments can claim to be horrified but not lift a finger to help the women being systematically raped as a weapon of war in the Congo. What is going on there is horrifying to the extremity of my capacity to imagine, and it is happening RIGHT NOW. My intention is not to grandstand and guilt trip and make anyone reading this feel bad for not flying out to the Congo and single-handedly dealing justice to rapists. My point is that awareness is the first step in a long and painful process of achieving social justice, and I believe that one must spread awareness. Holocaust museums and exhibits, educational programs, news reports on current events and genocides, supporting lobbyists, supporting organizations who give aid or give voice to the helpless: that is a form of spreading awareness and taking action.

It is easy to sit back in your life and tell yourself that you'll start thinking about these things tomorrow, next week; that you care, of course you care, but that you're busy, that you have various more important tasks. And that's true. We should not sacrifice our own lives for others unless we truly feel called to it. I don't spend my every waking hour campaigning for those rape victims. But we should make time. More and more I come to believe that this world is one big neighborhood in the vastness of space. Safety issues aside, there is almost nowhere on Earth I could not travel if I had the proper equipment and supplies. That means that those women in the Congo are my neighbors. That the Bosnian Muslims killed in the 90s were my neighbors. That all people, everywhere, no matter their crimes or their vices or their hatreds are all my neighbors. That all those who have been victimized, who are hurt, who are suffering, who have been numbed to their own pains, are my neighbors.

It is easier to put off caring for those who suffer. It is hard, maybe the hardest thing a person can do, to offer legitimate and deeply-felt sympathy for someone who has been victimized. It forces you to acknowledge your own vulnerabilities, your own mortality. It fills you with vague apprehension, with guilt for not magically being able to help them when they "really" needed it, with fear that you have nothing useful to say, that there isn't anything you can do, that your involvement is pointless, that it's better for everyone if you just make a donation/take a flier/sign the petition/etc. and move on.

However, I believe that making the effort to face your fears, to confront your own mortality, to challenge your insecurities, to open yourself up to care, is a worthy cause in and of itself. Caring hurts. Yet that pain can ultimately be constructive. That pain leads us to break down the parts of ourselves which hurt others...and ourselves. That pain causes us to empathize with those we encounter in our lives. That pain encourages us to thwart our self-loathing tendencies. Opening our hearts to others necessitates opening our hearts to ourselves. It makes it harder to hang onto grudges, prejudices, us vs. them rhetoric, and any of a myriad of ways we have evolved as emotional creatures to cope with the overwhelming intensity of relating emotionally to others.

If you do nothing else in your lives to fight injustice and victimization I urge you to take time out of your lives to care. Have a good cry. Get mad and channel it into your workout. Bring up a relevant topic in a conversation with a family member, friend, or coworker. Express outrage, sadness, disgust, despair, frustration, discomfort. Post on facebook. Write in your blog. To express emotions is a healthy, human thing. It doesn't have to be all the time. Most of us, myself included, don't have the energy to feel so deeply and fully all the time. Judaism provides holidays and memorial days to facilitate thinking about these sort of different facets of social justice, relating to yourself and the world, coming to terms with your weaknesses and bettering yourself and the world. America has its own days to remind us of such things. It is up to us to make use of the opportunities for caring that we encounter. It is up to us to stop procrastinating. It is up to us to take a hollow claim and solidify it piece by piece into Never Again.


Related reading: The Line from Subnormality by W. Rowntree

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