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Friday, June 28, 2013

In Search of Humanity:The Tradition of Jewish Thought

This latest series of lectures on what it means to be 'human' began with a thought-provoking lecture by the American theologian Professor Alan Mittleman from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Mittleman began by explaining why believing in God is more compelling than believing in science and how Jewish thinking can engage with present non-theist philosophical thought.

He presented an excellent review of the history of the philosophical view of God from the ennobling of humanity in the Renaissance toward the scientific point of view that humanity is not special, that science has no room for the soul.  So the question for the believer is how we can be part of and apart from nature. The challenge, he said, is to reclaim the idea that humans are made in the image of God.

Jewish texts understand that humans are special and problematic; that the nature of God is not random and accidental. We were given several texts for study that proved to be not only interesting but very instructive. Rabbinical scholars of the Talmud have a rich history of debate and argument. He gave us one wonderful text in which God and the angels argue about the wisdom of creating man. Somehow the texts became alive, often humorous and the debate and argument between scholars not one of enmity but of growth.

I particularly liked this example which began:

R. Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying,

‘Let him be created,’
whilst others urged ‘Let him not be created.’
Thus it is written, Love and Truth fought together, Righteousness and Peace combated each other...
The passage ends
While the ministering angels were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Holy One, blessed be He, created him. Said He to them: ‘What can ye avail? Man has already been made!’

What appealed to me about the entire passage  is the humanness  of the heavenly debate. I could see ourselves reflected in the arguing and debating, as well as in the resolution of the Final Authority! For me it was a new perspective in the nature of who we are and how we are: just below the angels and at the same time in the image of God.

Judaism, Mittleman said, is a work in progress. There is no dogma in Judaism – you cannot command belief, so there is tremendous openness about what you think. It is a proliferation of arguments because it is never clear as to what is the right thing to do. Human beings are complex; Judaism is a ‘Community of Interpretation’ asking questions instead of making assertions.

It is also in keeping with what I learned about Jewish thought a few weeks ago when I attended a lecture about Martin Buber : God is the “Eternal Thou”. The ‘sacred’ is here and now, and can be listened to in the present. God is to be ‘heard’ or ‘listened to’. God as a person is indispensible.  Event upon event calls upon the human person to endure and to be open to the demand of the Divine because “where there is a need there is an obligation.”

I came away with my Christian perspective but seeing Jesus very much as a rabbinical scholar. I remembered John’s Gospel, In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. So it seems to me that our humanity is involved in an on-going conversation of revelation, forever and ever, Amen...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

This Ancient Seer

On the 10th of June I made my way to the nearby eye clinic and had the cataract of my right eye removed. Now for the first time since the age of 9 or 10, I have perfect vision in that eye. On the 24th of June the second eye will be 'under the laser'!

I entered the clinic at 9 O'clock sharp and left at Noon. The procedure itself took all of 15 minutes! I experienced absolutely no pain, though the injection that left the eye numb and immobile was not exactly pleasant. During the operation my eye was focused on a very bright light that moved around and at one point I heard the very high drone of what sounded like a drill. Later it was a bit disconcerting to discover that the pupil of the eye was frozen in a position looking toward the upper right while the other looked pefectly normal! After lunch I took a nap and by the time I got up the anaesthetic had worn off and the eye was looking normal again.

I can now SEE CLEARLY with my right eye! The optician put a clear lens in my glasses and so I have pretty good use of both eyes now. The good eye is doing most of the work because cataracts really do make it difficult to see... I can now read the towns and temperatures on the weather map! And subtitles! Trees have well-defined leaves. I will, however, need reading glasses. The good news is that I will be able to use the same glasses for the computer as well as for the book. Yesterday, I went back to the clinic for a check up to ensure that all is going along well and they can proceed with the second eye on Monday.

It is astonishing how quickly the eye settled down. Things are a little weird because of the difference between the vision in the two eyes and the fact that the left eye still has a cataract. However, the day after the operation I attended a lecture about Buddhism and was easily able to take notes!

Now if only modern medicine would come up with a 15 minute treatment for the aches and pains of old age to go with my 'young' eye(s). It is quite bizarre to walk around with the vision of youth and the body creaking and groaning with every step...

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Part 2: Martin Luther King: I have a dream... Personal Reflections

It is worth remembering the stated demands of the event which led to arguably the greatest speech of the 20th century. The March on Washington represented a coalition of several civil rights organizations. Among the demands were the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation; the elimination of racial segregation in public schools; protection for demonstrators against police brutality; a major public-works program to provide jobs; and the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring.

The second part of Professor Hilary Russell’s lecture began with a film of Dr. King giving his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. A crowd of over 250,000 attended what was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation’s capital and despite worries of violence and a large police presence, the march is remembered for its civility and peacefulness.

Watching the speech again after many years, I was quite over-whelmed by my own memories of that time in my life. There was a great deal of coverage on television and the March on Washington was the major news event of the summer. I was 18 years old and as I watched the speech live longed to be there, too. Within 10 days or so, I would be leaving my New England home to attend George Washington University – only a few blocks away from where Martin Luther King was speaking.

I can remember watching the speech as it built to its astounding and mesmerizing conclusion. As Professor Russell said, “It was a sermon, a political treatise, a work of poetry, all rolled into one.” I remembered well how the speech began slowly and then seemed to swell in authority and excitement as the words “I have a dream” echoed and re-echoed in to an all-inclusive crescendo to “Let freedom ring”.

Midway through the speech,  the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, is said to have cried out, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” and that’s when he ad-libbed what followed. “This” said, Professor Russell, “gave ‘I have a dream’ its raw power and edge – King was living the words that he spoke.

As I listened to the power of the oratory so many half-forgotten memories of that time came flooding back. His words and the peacefulness of the movement he led inspired me to believe that all things were possible. I was on my way to the future filled with hope. Hope that came crashing down around me two months after my arrival in Washington, D.C. with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I remembered the evening of that day running to the White House – only a few blocks away – and seeing hundreds of black people, sobbing, walking aimlessly, as if a great dream had been destroyed. I saw the helicopter arrive with the new President – the man who it turned out was able to pass laws to uphold civil rights.

The decade of the 60’s was troubled and often violent. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both murdered – within weeks of each other. I witnessed riots in the streets not far from where I was living. Many more began to believe that non-violence would never succeed.

We still have work to do, but the words and work of Martin Luther King definitely started us on a better path to righteousness. As he said at the end of his speech, 

“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”