Tuesday, August 15, 2017

HEEDING THE VISIONS OF HUXLEY AND MCLUHAN: COUNTERACTING RACIST PROPAGANDA ON THE WORLD WIDE WEB

I wrote this paper for an English class I took at City College of San Francisco in May, 2004. It rings far too true today, as I see white men walk through a town in the US carrying torches and Nazi flags, shouting, "The Jews will not replace us"
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 Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958 after witnessing the power of using modern technology to spread propaganda. He quotes Albert Speer: “Hitler’s dictatorship . . . was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country”(37). Marshall McLuhan published The Medium is the Massage in 1967 when the boom of the technology age was on the horizon. He saw how the images and the processes of the media could influence society in a subconscious manner—“Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change”(41). Although both these men died before the World Wide Web came into existence, they have much to teach us about the dangers this new technology can bring.
There are many examples of the positive influence of World Wide Web as a resource for information and communication. Access to medical databases and the most up-to-date information available gives health care providers the ability to better serve their patients (NorthWest Net). Non-profit organizations can use websites to recruit volunteers without having to spend much money (Ellis). Families of soldiers stationed in Iraq can connect with their loved ones through video conferencing (Clarke). But we cannot ignore the dark side of the use of this technology. The same aspects of the World Wide Web that serve to unite civilization are being used by hate groups to divide society. We need to give students an education in media literacy to counteract the ability for a dangerous few to greatly influence a generation with their hate propaganda.
   In Brave New World Revisited Aldous Huxley defines two types of propaganda: rational propaganda and non-rational propaganda. Rational propaganda encourages actions that correspond with “the enlightened self-interest of those who make it and those to whom it is addressed”(31). The Declaration of Independence is an example of rational propaganda, written by Thomas Jefferson to clarify the position of the American Revolutionists (MSN Encarta). Non-rational propaganda “is dictated by, and appeals to, passion”(Huxley 31). Advertising is a prime example of the power of non-rational propaganda, appealing to desires rather than facts (Russell). According to Huxley, this type of propaganda “. . . avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals”(32)
Huxley identified the tools of propaganda and noted the advancement in technology since Hitler’s reign. Broadcast television and the ability to distribute both sound and images on magnetic tape had the ability to increase a propagandist’s sphere of influence. The cost of running the mass communication industry put its power in the hands into an elite few, dictated by politics or economics (Huxley 34). This cadre of the powerful could use the force of mass communication to distract the populous from seeing a threat to their freedom. Huxley stated: “A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it”(36).
Huxley also addressed the susceptibility of children to messages of propaganda. Instead of children reciting nursery rhymes and hymns taught in his childhood, Huxley heard commercial jingles from the mouths of babes (54). This conditioned them for the next step, where “. . . hundreds of millions of children are in the process of growing up to buy the local despot’s ideological product and, like well-trained soldiers, to respond with appropriate behavior to the trigger words planted in those young minds by the despot’s propagandists”(55).
In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan showed us that the modern propagandists’ tools go beyond just the words. The graphic format of The Medium is the Massage is designed to illustrate how the medium influences the message. In McLuhan’s words, “[The Medium is the Massage] is a collide-oscope of interfaced situations”(10).
“The medium is the message” is a phrase penned by McLuhan which he used as the title of the first chapter in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan meant that phrase to be the title of his 1967 compilation of observations, photos, and graphics, but the typesetter made a mistake. According to McLuhan’s son Eric, “When Marshall McLuhan saw the type he exclaimed, ‘Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!’ Now there are four possible readings for the last word of the title, all of the accurate: ‘Message’ and Mess Age,’ ‘Massage’ and ‘Mass Age’”(Goux).
McLuhan died in 1980 before the age of the Internet, but The Medium is the Message certainly foreshadows the format of that technology. The book is not only words, photos, and drawings artfully arranged in pages, it is also non-linear. You can open to any place for your start point, and work forward, backward, or in a random order. The message, or “massage,” will still be evident. The type is black on white then white on black; there is small print then large print then no print at all; two pages have the words in mirror image, the next two pages have the words upside down. These techniques force the reader into a relationship with medium, illustrating McLuhan’s point by becoming part the message not simply the messenger.
Like Huxley, McLuhan saw television as the new age for mass communication. He saw the way it changed the political environment: “The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television in Freedom Marshes, in war, revolution, pollution, and other events is changing everything.” (McLuhan 22). He believed that electronic circuitry would influence the transmission of information with instantaneous acquisition to all corners of the globe, shrinking the boundaries of the world around us. Over a photo of an African tribesman addressing villagers gathered around him, McLuhan writes: “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village”(67).
Although the technology of the World Wide Web is more digital than electronic, it is the fulfillment of Marshall McLuhan’s vision of making the world a global village. Unlike Aldous Huxley’s view of the mass communications industry controlled by few, the World Wide Web is an anarchistic medium, virtually unregulated and uncontrolled. However, its use as an agent to spread non-rational propaganda fits perfectly with Huxley’s paradigm. This is evident when looking at the spread of racist propaganda on the World Wide Web.
In 1958, Huxley saw broadcast television as a major step in the wide scale distribution of propaganda. The reach of the World Wide Web makes television distribution limited in comparison. On a page giving the communication conditions in Tibet, TravelChina.com boasts, “There are dozens of internet cafes in Lhasa”; and the grandson of Sherpa Tensing is planning to open an Internet café at Mount Everest (Burubacharya). While I don’t think anyone planning to climb Mount Everest will be spending time looking at a racist website, this shows the far reach of the medium, increasing its potential for global influence.
Websites can be produced inexpensively without any technical knowledge. With easy-to-use software available for website creation, there is no longer any need to learn HTML, the coding language of the World Wide Web; server space and domain name registration are obtainable at a low cost (Rajagopal and Bojin). The ease of producing and publishing websites enables hate groups to create different sites to target specific demographics. The World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist group, has become an umbrella for many sites including World Church of the Creator Kids! which entices young users with activities such as coloring pages and puzzles (ADL). Hammerskin Nation and Aryan Nations Youth Corps are websites created to appeal to teens (Ray and Marsh). “Those directed at teenagers may offer free plug-ins to popular video adventure games, using persons of various religions, races, or sexual orientations as prey. Some offer "hatecore" and "white power" music featuring a contemporary sound and invective-laden lyrics”(Lamberg).
There are no regulations or restrictions governing information on the World Wide Web. While private Internet Service Providers (ISP) can prohibit users of their servers from creating hate websites, there are always other ISP’s that will host those sites (Rajagopal). An example of hate groups taking advantage of this lack of regulations and restrictions can be seen in a recent controversy involving the search engine Google. When you enter in “jew” as your keyword, the third website that appears on the list is JewWatch.com, an anti-semitic website. A complaint was lodged, but Google would not change the results, which are automatically determined by computer algorithms (Google). Alexander Linden, a research vice president at Gartner Research, noted: “Through the use of clever website-farming and self referencing (techniques), and also through purchased cross-referencing, one can build up a considerable page rank. . . . This problem is more about ethics, and sometimes even about compliance to certain national laws.” (qtd. in Brandon) The ease in which one of these sites can be discovered by casual web surfing and the ability to disguise their message when catering to children is a dangerous combination, increasing their potential to influence young minds.
We are now over forty years forward from Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, over thirty years forward from McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. Huxley’s warnings about the potential for the use of mass communication and modern technological advancements in the spread of propaganda coupled with McLuhan’s understanding of the power in the form of the media have been realized in the racist websites created on the World Wide Web. How can we combat the inevitability of the influence of these sites on the present and future generations? Huxley brings us an important starting point: “Education for freedom must begin by stating facts and enunciating values, and must go on to develop appropriate techniques for realizing the values” (101).
It is essential to teach students how to think and train them to evaluate the knowledge they gain (Friedrich 199). There is also the need to show students how to separate the content from the packaging. The pervasiveness of computer technology into the fabric of modern life has influenced how information is received. Perceptions of what is true have become more important than the truth itself (Reeves/Nass, 253). Giving students media literacy skills will allow them to analyze the information they receive and teach them to maintain control of their thoughts rather than relinquishing that power to someone else.
The same World Wide Web that hosts the racist websites contains the tools for teaching media literacy which are crucial in the fight against the spread of racist propaganda. The Center for Media Literacy offers a wide range of information and materials for teachers to use in their curriculum and parents to use when in the home environment. The Community Learning Network is a curriculum site “designed to help K-12 teachers integrate technology into the classroom”(CLN homepage). Here teachers can find lesson plans for teaching media literacy as well as links to resources for topics such as the influence of television and advertising on kids today. The Media Awareness Network houses a “comprehensive collection of media education and Internet literacy resources”(Media Awareness Network About Us).
Aldous Huxley realized the need for education to combat the spread of propaganda—“The effects of false and pernicious propaganda cannot be neutralized except by a thorough training in the art of analyzing its techniques and seeing through its sophistries” (Huxley 109). Marshall McLuhan saw the importance of teaching students to recognize the form of the new media as well as its informational content—“The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival with the immensely persuasive ‘outside’ world created by new informational media. Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discover—to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms” (McLuhan 100). Education in media literacy is critical to counteract the use of the World Wide Web to spread racist propaganda. We need to heed the voices from the past and use the resources of the present in order to ensure that the future will not be controlled by those who preach hatred.


Works Cited
“Bertrand Russel on Pragmatism, Power, and related issues”
<http://www.sonic.net/~halcomb/Russell_Pragmatism_Power.html>
Brandon, John. “Dropping the Bomb on Google.” Wired News  May 11, 2004
<http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,63380,00.html?tw=wn_1culthead>
Burubacharya, Binaj “Internet Café Opening on Mount Everest” Red Nova.  March 7, 2003
<http://www.rednova.comnews/stories/5/2003/03/07/story001.html>
Center for Media Literacy.  ©2002 – 2004 
Clarke, Dave. “New video conferencing center for troops, families now operational at Galva Armory.” Kewanee Star Courier Online. May 19, 2004  
“Communication.” TravelChinaGuide.com  April 14, 2004
<http://www.travelchinaguide.com/essential/tibet/communication>
The Community Learning Network.  Open School BC 
Ellis, Susan J. “Turning a Gift into a Powerful Tool: The Internet’s Impact on the Volunteer Field” Energize Inc. July 2003.
Friedrich, Otto.  “Five Ways to Wisdom.” The Borzoi College Reader. 7th ed. Eds. Charles Muscatine and Marlene Griffith. New York:McGraw-Hill, 1992.
195 -205
“Google: An explanation of our search results”  Google. 2004
Goux, Melanie. “McLuhan”  brushstroke.tv. October 13, 2003
“Health Care Providers Discover Advantages of Internet Access.” NorthWestNet Node News. Vol.3, No. 1 May 1994. 
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World Revisited. New York:Perennial Classics,HarperCollins, 2001. ©1958 Aldous Huxley
Lamberg, Lynne. “Hate-Group Web Sites Target Children, Teens” Psychiatric News. February 2, 2001  <http://www.psych.org/pnew/01-02-02/hate.html>
McLuhan,  Marshall and Fiore, Quentin. The Medium is the Massage. Corte Madera, CA:Gingko Press, 2001. ©1967 Jerome Agel
Media Awareness Network. ©2004
<http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/index.cfm>
“Propaganda” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2004
<http://encarta.msm.com ©1997-2004 Microsoft Corporation>
Rajagopal, Indhu and Bojin, Nis. “Digital Representation: Racism on the World Wide Web” First Monday. volume 7, number 10. October 2002
<http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_10/rajagopal/index.html>
Ray, Beverly and Marsh II, George E. “Recruitment by Extremist Groups on the Internet” First Monday. volume 6, number 2. Febrary 2001.
<http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_2/ray/index.html>
Reeves, Byron and Nass, Clifford. The Media Equation:How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1996

 “World Church of the Creator: ‘Racial Holy War’ on the Web” Anti-Defamation League <2001 span="" style="mso-spacerun: yes;">  http://www.adl.org/poisoning_web/wcotc.asp>

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Count is Accounted for

היום תשעה וארבעים יום, שהם שבעה שבועות ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-nine days, which is seven weeks, of the omer
מלכות שבמלכות
A day of leadership in a week of leadership


With this post, the account of the count of this year's omer is complete.

We take note of the contemplations, of the seeing from different perspectives, of gaining new awarenesses. And when the next reflective time in our sacred calendar comes around--the month of Elul, those days leading up to the spiritual intensiveness of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur -- we can make them our teshuvah, our returning, as we look for the next guides for our life and our path.


Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day Remembrance - My Uncle Eddie

היום שמונה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות וששה ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-eight days, which is six weeks and six days, of the omer
יסוד שבמלכות
A day of foundation in a week of leadership

This morning at minyan I commemorated the yarhzeit of my uncle Eddie. Eddie was a bombardier during World War two--one of those who did not make it home. Although I never met him, I feel a close tie to him and need to honor his memory--not just for me, not just for my dad, not just for my family. Because of records that have now been made public and available on the internet, we now know the date and circumstances of his death. But at the insistence and support of my minyan community,  I share this commemoration and these words so we remember the reason we mark this Memorial Day.


"Pa - so you thought I forgot your anniversary. Well, at least Ma stood by me. I'm glad you liked the card. . . I received a letter from Seymour on Tuesday and he tells me that he made P.F.C - You can't imagine what a kick I got out of hearing this. I went around and passed cigarettes to the boys just like a father passes out cigars when he gets a baby"

"You ask what's new with me. There is still nothing definite to tell you. We may as well not kid each other - when I finish my training here I will be due to go over. . . Please don't start worrying about me - there is still plenty of time for that. . . I'm not worried about anything except that you are worrying about me. This is a great experience for me and I'm sure I will benefit by it. Why, there must be a million fellows who would do anything to trade places with me and get on a B-29 crew"




Those words were written by my uncle, Lieutenant Edward Heiss, US Army Air Force, in letters to his parents, my grandparents, in January and February, 1944. He signed off, as he did all his letters, with "I am feeling fine. So long. Lots of love, Eddie." One year later, on January 11, 1945, his B-29 fell to the ground in pieces somewhere over Malaysia. Of the eleven crew members, only three made it out alive---he was not one of those three.





When I was growing up, a colored version of this photo was on my grandmother's dresser. I was curious who it was, but somehow, never asked. I don't remember when or how I found out who he was. Once I did, I wondered how my family's life would have been different if he had come home.





I wonder about this man--the one so often photographed with a smile. The one who, as my father tells it, convinced my dad to go with him to Yankee Stadium one Rosh Hashanah.








The commanding officer of his squadron wrote my grandparents, "No matter how fatigued he may have been, or how he felt personally, Edward always had a laugh and a word of encouragement, to cheer the other members of his crew and squadron. . . He undoubtedly was one of the best liked officers in this organization."







My Uncle Eddie received a Purple Heart, posthumously.
I would have rather had him in my life.







On Memorial Day we need to remember that war, justified or not, will always take its toll.

Zichrono L'vracha
His remembrance is a blessing to my dad, to me, and to all with whom I share his story.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Moment a Day

היום שבעה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות וחמשה ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-seven days, which is six weeks and five days, of the omer
הוד שבמלכות
A day of humility in a week of leadership

When we read and study about the 40 years the Israelites traveled bamidbar--in the wilderness, we usually look at the generation that had to die off before they entered the land. We rarely focus on those who grew up during that time, coming into their own as they enter the land. They needed that time to hear the stories of their people; learn the laws and rituals of their community; receive the teachings of their sages. They also needed that time to process those stories, laws, rituals, and teachings to both make them their own and bring them forward.

We have a chance to go through that process each year as we travel through our "wilderness," counting the daily sheaves of the omer. From yesterday's recognition of the perseverance needed to continue the journey comes humility in the realization that making the commitment, of taking that time to reflect--even if it's just for a moment a day--is what the process is about.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The spiral of our life

היום ששה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות וארבעה ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-six days, which is six weeks and four days, of the omer
נצח שבמלכות
A day of perseverance in a week of leadership

The day of perseverance falls on Shabbat this year, which gives us the space this week to stop and reflect on what it meant to keep up this count, as that first rush of intention and that second rush of determination wears off.

It's a long journey from liberation to revelation, with twists and turns and sometimes a drop off along the way. But ritual is about perseverance, and wherever we get this year, we can build to the next. The spiritual cycle becomes an integral part of the spiral of our life.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Shavuot Explained

היום חמשה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות ושלשה ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-five days, which is six weeks and three days, of the omer
תפארת שבמלכות
A day of compassion in a week of leadership

We are getting very close to the milestone of our journey, Shavuot. It is an important biblical holiday; one of the Shelosh Regalim, the three times of the year Jews were to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But with no compelling rituals there is no mass appeal. It is the most major holiday no one knows about.

Thanks to the team at BimBam, here's your guide to Shavuot, in all it's Torah glory.
Enjoy!



Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Strength of Sound

היום ארבעה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות ושני ימום, בעמר
Today is forty-four days, which is six weeks and two days, of the omer
גבורה שבמלכות
A day of strength in a week of leadership

I spent this day of strength & leadership in song at a workshop led by Joey Weisenberg organized by The Jewish Studio Project. While some of the songs had words, much of the music made with our voices were niggunim--wordless melodies.

Letting go and just creating sounds, blending them with others in harmony and counterpoint, can be a powerful entrance into prayer. It brings deep connections, reaching out in all directions and cycling back within us.

Voice connects us to creation which, in the Torah, starts with, "וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹ - God said let there be light, and there was light"  And in the text we studied today, led by Rabbi Dorothy Richman, the receiving of  עשרת הדיברות, the 10 Utterances, the 10 Commandments, in the familiar parlance, was preceded by an intensity of light and sound that would rival any over the top rock concert special effects.

Sound has the power to wake us up and lull us to sleep; scare us and soothe us.
Sound can motivate us and block us; hurt our ears, and heal our souls.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wisdom of Age

היום שלשה וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות ויום אחד, בעמר
Today is forty-three days, which is six weeks and one day, of the omer
חסד שבמלכות
A day of loving-kindness in a week of leadership

As I grow older, I'm discovering that my perspective contains the perspectives from younger eras of my life -- and the sum is, as it's said, greater than the whole. Calling up those earlier perspectives, I see the similarities with those who are the age I was at that time and hopefully, acknowledge and be aware of our differences. Taken together, the similarities and differences bring connection as we relate to each other while learning from each other.

The wisdom of age is the ability to bring together these different perspectives of time and culture, helping, with loving-kindness, to lead the next generation into their age of wisdom.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Roman Holiday

היום שנים וארבעים יום, שהם ששה שבועות, בעמר
Today is forty-two days, which is six weeks, of the omer
מלכות שביסוד
A day of leadership in a week of foundation

Once again, the leadership days are just a reminder that we have no leadership in this country.

I will just breath through the day and enjoy seeing Roman Holiday tonight, enjoying the Cole Porter tunes.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Minyan is for your sake

היום אחד וארבעים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות וששה ימים, בעמר
Today is forty-one days, which is five weeks and six days, of the omer
יסוד שביסוד
A day of foundation in a week of foundation

Practice has become my theme of this week of foundation. So on this double day of foundation, I honor the most foundational of the foundations of my Jewish practice---minyan. To do that, I once again share the words of my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, who gifted me with this practice.

There have been many times in these past 15+ years, for many different reasons, that I've wanted to just stop going to morning minyan. But each time, I could hear Rabbi Lew in my head, "Marilyn, you can't just give it up because you don't like it now."

Keeping up the practice is the practice. It both renews and strengthens the foundation.

Minyan is for your sake - Rabbi Alan Lew, Nov 1996
Our daily minyan is one of the great treasures of our congregation. It provides our members and people all over Northern California with a place to mourn, to observe yarzheits, or to simply turn to God in the traditional Jewish way at times in their lives when they feel an urgent need to do so. 
But the greatest beneficiaries of the minyan are the people who attend every day. Why is this so? According to the Midrash Ein Yakov, Yehudah HaNasi once asked three of his students, "Mah Hapasuk Hakolel Biyoter Batorah-- what is the most inclusive verse in all the Torah?" Ben Zoma chose the Shema -- "Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, The Lord Alone!" Ben Azai made another obvious choice -- "Vi-a-havta li-reacha kamocha -- You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Then Ben Pazi, a much more obscure rabbi then either Ben Zoma or Ben Azai, chose a verse which was also much more obscure -- one of the laws of the Temple Sacrifice from the Book of Numbers: "You shall offer up one lamb every morning and one lamb every night."
"I agree with Ben Pazi," Yehudah HaNasi said. His students were dumbfounded. How could he prefer this apparently trivial verse to a fundamental statement of principle like the Shema, or a great ethical concept like the commandment to love one's neighbor. The reason, I think, is precisely because they were principles and concepts. The implicit message of this Midrash is that it isn't principles or concepts which really count-- rather it is what we do every day. "You shall offer up one lamb every morning and one lamb every night." If we express our faith in specific, concrete deeds, and if we do so rain or shine on a regular basis, then we are engaged religiously in a way that mere thoughts and good intentions can never engage us. 
Daily minyan is the modern version of the single lamb our ancestors offered up every morning and every evening. Praying every day we come to know the full range of human spiritual potential; from transcendant exaltation to stultifying boredom; from the frustration of not quite knowing what we're saying to the joy of being swept up in a spiritual energy larger than our own. Praying every day with others we get a very real sense of how difficult it is to join in real communion with others, and how wonderful it feels when we finally manage to do so; praying every day with others we come to explore that tenuous boundary between self and other which is always the real locus of the spiritual experience. 
The holidays are great; they lend a sense of spiritual structure to the cycle of the year. Shabbat is wonderful. Our practice of Judaism deepens precipitously when we begin to take Shabbat seriously. But daily minyan represents another quantum leap altogether. As both Ben Pazi and Yehudah HaNasi affirmed, it's what we do every day that builds a sense of Jewish spirituality into the warp and woof of our lives. And in the Jewish tradition, daily minyan is the principal medium of daily spirituality. 
This is why we have mounted a campaign to get more of you to minyan this year. Not for the minyan's sake; the minyan is doing fine, and will continue to do fine for the foreseeable future. We are mounting this campaign for your sake. We want you to get a taste of what a daily spiritual practice can do for your soul. Judaism, after all, is a religion of life, and life is what happens every day.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

God -- On One Foot

היום ארבעים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות וחמשה ימים, בעמר
Today is forty days, which is five weeks and five days, of the omer
הוד שביסוד
A day of humility in a week of foundation

A couple of months ago, half-way into a tutoring session, my student asked me, "Marilyn, do you believe in God?" And there went the rest of the session :)

As a professional Jew with a firm Jewish personal practice, that question, in several variations, is one that I'm often asked. I don't have a definitive answer. Often I just say, "define God." Do I believe in the picture of God as often presented in the books of my youth--the old guy with the white beard in the sky? Certainly not. Do I think of a puppet master who controls the strings of our lives? Nope, not that. God is not a person, or any kind of being. While God is a character in the Tanakh, in the stories of our people, one understanding I have is that God is a representation of the power of the universe.

אל רגל אחת – al regel akhat – on one foot – my concept of God lies in the unknown. When I talk about God with a class of students, I often start with having them make a mobius strip, a twisted cylinder that only has one side. If you take a strip of paper, put one twist in it, tape the ends together, and start to draw a continuous line, you will end the line where it started. Untape the ends, and the line is on both sides of the paper.  I have no idea how this works, and yet it does. Somewhere in there, for me, is God.

There is a lot of unknowns in the world, lots of places for me to find that transcendent spirit.



Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Continuum of Practice

היום תשעה ושלשים יום, שהם חמשה שבועות וארבעה ימים, בעמר
Today is thirty-nine days, which is five weeks and four days, of the omer
נצח שביסוד
A day of perseverance in a week of foundation

While my Jewish practice is always evolving, koshrut continues to be the one that is most challenging. I guess it would be easier to just accept the traditional constraints, but that works for neither my practical nor spiritual life. When asked about my practice, I say, "I eat kosher." Sometimes that is just accepted; sometimes I'm asked what that means. I explain that it means I have my own way to follow the constraints of the practice as set out by the Torah and the rabbis who interpreted the laws as given there.

Once, when talking to someone about my kosher boundaries, I was asked, "So, do you get to pick and choose which 'rules' you follow?" I'd never thought about it that way, so it took me a moment to reply, "Well................yes."

The whole idea of a practice is that it is constantly moving as your perspective changes with knowledge and time and place and circumstance. It is the continual mindfulness and awareness and critical thinking is makes the practice. I learned that from my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew.

There is no goal in my practice, there is just a continuum of thinking and action. It is a form of perseverance that serves as a foundation for my life.