Monday, August 4, 2014

A Recovering Zionist: Approaching the Starting Point

A few additional words of explanation are in order here.  On July 28, 2014, my daughter Rebecca Riyana Sang began a weeklong blogging workshop called The Big, Beautiful Summer Blogging Challenge. I signed up for it with the hope of blogging about other topics or even starting a couple of new blogs.  That didn't seem too likely as the week progressed, seeing as I've been consumed by the ongoing carnage in Gaza (Operation Protective Edge) and its horrifying moral implications for the Jewish people and the world.
Along with the daily emails that are a standard feature of any online workshop, there is also a Facebook page where participants are encouraged to introduce themselves and share their latest blogging efforts.  It’s a closed group so I’m not going to post the link, but it’s available to all participants who sign up for the workshop. The following is a revised version of the introduction I posted on the Facebook page yesterday.  It turned spontaneously into a new blog post somewhere near the end.
The picture above shows a Palestinian boy in Gaza in July 2014.

August 2, 2014
Belated introduction: My name is Linda Sang and I'm Rebecca's mom. And yes, she gets her writing talent from me. I'm not going to link to my sad little dormant blog yet, but I'd like everyone to know that earlier today, against all odds and to my total amazement, I started a new blog post with the intention of actually posting it.  It will be my first new post in over two years.*
The problem I've been having all week is somewhat unique--but then again, maybe it isn’t. For the past few weeks I've been obsessed with the war, or more accurately the massacre in Gaza, called Operation Protective Edge.  Especially since the ground invasion began, the dominant emotion I've been feeling is rage. Along with everyone else I’m horrified by the carnage and destruction, by the relentlessly mounting body count, but more than anything I’m enraged by the deceptive rhetoric used by the legions of Israel apologists to justify this atrocity and even sanctify it.
This rhetoric is called hasbara in Hebrew. Hasbara literally means "explanation," but the word is used by friend and foe alike to mean pro-Israel propaganda. A lot of it involves the dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims and lying by omission. Or just plain flat-out lying.
Often it felt like every instinct in me wanted to let fly— to write a blog post or at least a long email from that place of rage, not holding back but pouring it all out.  At the same time another higher instinct, as well as past experience, told me that was the worst thing I could possibly do.  Sadly, I’ve been here many times before.  Whenever Israel engages in one of its “mowing the lawn” offensives (the last one was in 2012) or some other act of military insanity like the Mavi Marmara incident in 2011, Diaspora Jews immediately form a circular firing squad, something we are very good at doing since we've been practicing for centuries.  It’s a very paradoxical thing. Through it all, we maintain our solidarity and always have each other’s backs, but that doesn't stop us from cannibalizing each other.
So this was my dilemma: I couldn't afford to cut loose even though it hurt so much to hold back, and it was hard to distract myself with other interests.  If I told the world how I really feel and what I really think, there was a good chance I might hit someone I care about with flying shrapnel, possibly damaging a precious relationship beyond repair. Three years ago in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident, aka "Operation Make the World Hate Us," with one relationship it was really touch and go for a while. It eventually worked out, but only because the deep bond between us proved stronger than our overwrought emotions and hurtful words. But that isn't the case with every relationship.
Since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge on July 8th, even my off-the-cuff expressions of disgust in the form of Facebook comments, etc. have done some damage. One of my Jewish friends un-friended me after I posted a status update announcing that I am now a recovering Zionist.  Last night another one threatened to do the same when I stood by my right to make Holocaust analogies if they seemed applicable. I got off easy with the guy who went into meltdown during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009.  He only took a few drive-by potshots, but when I told him I have an acquired immunity to the self-hating Jew label, he knew I meant it and backed off.
So how to find the authentic voice I need in this emotional minefield?  I have been through a major transformation this past month in response to Operation Protective Edge.  It’s one I didn’t ask for and never wanted, even though I've known for years I couldn't postpone it forever--or even for much longer.  I would really, really like to be able to talk about it.
The breakthrough came this morning in the form of an image. It’s the image that's been flickering at the edges of my consciousness as I've been riding this storm of outrage, formulating dozens of arguments and refutations in my frontal lobes but somehow never writing them down. The image is a particular scene from J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. In the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf tells the Council of Elrond the story of Saruman's attempt to recruit him to the Dark Side. No matter what else I was thinking about, the last line of Gandalf's refusal has been echoing in my mind: "Surely you have not brought me all this way only to weary my ears."
So this morning I dragged out my well-worn paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, found the passage I was looking for and transcribed it. Then I did a search on Google Images for a still from the movie. The corresponding scene in the movie isn't the same as in the book, but I picked the closest image I could find and pinned it to a new board on Pinterest. Then I wrote one short paragraph.
I had found my perfect metaphor for hasbara, and that's my starting point.

*It will now be the second post in the series, since this one is the first.  I have no idea how many others there will be after that.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jewish Identity: The Battle for Self-Definition - 2

(NOTE: This is the continuation of an essay originally written to be posted as one long blog entry.  I had to break it into two parts because of technical issues I'm having with the Blogger draft window.  Part 1 is here.)

The reason they so desperately wanted us to rebuild the Temple for them was so that the Antichrist could defile it.

THAT was the fulfillment of the prophecy they were trying to fabricate.  It originates in the book of Daniel, specifically Daniel 9:27.  Google that verse and you will turn up more paranoid crackpot websites than you could possibly deal with in several lifetimes.  I suppose I should have been grateful (at least a little bit) that they believed the magical goose still had one more golden egg in her, and was therefore worth keeping alive in order to produce it for Redemption 2.0. After all, only Jews would be capable of rebuilding the Temple and re-instituting the animal sacrifices--assuming we were interested.  And of course only certain Jewish males belong to the hereditary priesthood, now clearly identifiable by the “Cohen gene” on their Y chromosomes.  But even if the starring role remains within the tribe by necessity, the High Priest is reduced to just another bit player if the script is written by the adherents of another religion, who claim to derive their legitimacy from us but who have all too often been our enemies.

For me that was absolutely last straw, the final insult—that they appropriated to themselves the authority to write the script.  I said so to anyone who would listen, and I wasn’t tactful about it either:  “They are trying to turn the Jews into bit players in our own messianic drama, extras straight out of Fundie Central Casting,” I said about a couple of my more obnoxious sparring partners.

That was what enraged me more than anything--that our enemies would try to co-opt the ultimate meaning of our long and tragic history, to twist and distort it into something that had nothing to do with us.  But underneath that there was a deeper injustice that filled me with sadness more than anger.  They never asked me what Judaism was or what it meant to be Jewish; they told me!  They not only would not, but could not, ever grant me the right of self-definition because they could not grant it to any Jew, or to Judaism itself.  That’s how cognitive dissonance works, after all.  If to hear and understand something would unravel your entire belief system, well…you simply don’t hear it.

I didn’t express my frustration in those words at the time, but I found a closely related frame in the language of existentialism, and specifically in the I-Thou philosophy of Martin Buber.  My friend and unofficial debating partner Barry considered himself a Catholic existentialist, although I don’t know if he’d still describe himself that way.  He had read Buber and had no problem understanding me when I told him the fundies were incapable of entering into an I-Thou relationship with me or even approaching it.  That is to say, they were incapable of a subject-to-subject relationship with me, where they saw me as another person like themselves.  The stereotype of “Jew” always got in the way and so they always saw me as an object, not as a person.  Even when they claimed to be awestruck by my perceived status as a member of the Chosen People—and believe it or not, some of them did!—it only turned me into a glorified object.  It still didn’t make me a person in their eyes.

When I first conceived the idea for this post, which has been incubating for several months, I felt a strong need to get Barry involved if only for moral support.  In our Prodigy days we engaged in an extensive email correspondence, trying among other things to understand the fundies and their manifold forms of cognitive dissonance.  Barry has never lost his addiction to the interfaith debate boards, and I knew where to find him.  So about two weeks ago I signed up with his home board again and began posting on a topic he started.  Although I haven’t been active in that forum for a couple of years, a few of the regulars who have been there for a long time still vaguely remembered me.  One of these regulars immediately started interrogating me—not about Judaism per se and how it differs from Christianity—but about being Jewish and why did I self-identify as a Jew?  That was the start of the mini flame war I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Although there was no overt hostility, I call it interrogation because that’s what it felt like. Right from the beginning I sensed a note of challenge.  This created a feeling of tension that made me very uneasy, but I tried to ignore it and answered her questions as straightforwardly as I could.  As it turns out, my instincts were right and I really was being baited.  In retrospect, I realize that it was just a turf war, a struggle for dominance.  She’s been a regular on that forum for years and has a lot of seniority.  She has an established position there as the resident alpha female.  As soon as she registered the presence of a newbie “challenger” on her turf she just had to challenge me; it was almost a conditioned reflex.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize she was doing it until after she pushed me too far.  Then she discovered she was taking on another alpha female even more territorial than she is—and with much more reason to be.

So do you consider being Jewish as your ethnicity or your religion?  Is there a difference?  Have you ever known a fellow Jew who is an atheist? If so, does he/she still self-identify as Jewish?  Also, if you don't ID yourself as religiously Jewish, why do you self-identify as a Jew at all, especially if you live in the USA?  IOW, what does being Jewish mean to you personally, and why is it so important to you that people know you are Jewish?

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with those questions.  As a matter of fact, they are very good questions, but they are open-ended questions.  They don’t allow for sound-byte answers.  And before I can even begin to answer them, I need to know something about the person asking them, especially if that person is a Gentile.  What does this individual know or think he or she knows about Judaism?  Or as Mark Twain famously said:  “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.  It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

As a rule it’s the more fanatical evangelical types who are most likely to shout me down with “what they know for sure that just ain’t so.”  But in the past I’ve also had plenty of trouble with secular types, usually over questions like “if you aren’t religiously Jewish, why do you self-identify as a Jew at all?”  It became clear as the interrogation proceeded that my challenger had picked up some negative stereotypes from somewhere, even though she said she had never met a Jew.  And that meant I had to put my foot down.

“Defensive? Oh absolutely, although personally I think of it as protective. My screen name, Raksha, has a curious double meaning in Sanscrit. It means both demon and protection. Raksha was also the name of the she-wolf who adopted a human baby in Rudyard Kipling's “The Jungle Book.” Kipling made it clear that Raksha would fight to the death for her cubs both wolf and human. I have very similar instincts in certain areas, as I'm sure you've noticed. When anyone makes an insensitive or borderline anti-Semitic remark they are encroaching on my territory, so they shouldn't be surprised if I bare my fangs at them.”

By then we were both getting pretty tired of the whole thing and agreed to call a truce.  It became clear to me however that if I really want to explore the questions she asked me, and all the other questions that branched off from them, that I would have to do it on my own turf.  And that can only be here on my blog, where my right to define myself in my own terms is unquestioned and unchallenged.  I can’t explore them in any depth and guard the boundaries against intruders at the same time.  And they deserve to be explored in depth, which can’t happen in the combative atmosphere of an interfaith discussion board.  Also, Jewish identity is itself in a state of flux or transformation, as it has been for most of my life.  We are moving into uncharted territory now, which gives those questions new relevance and urgency.  So I’m going to take a deep breath and take them on one at a time

Jewish Identity: The Battle For Self-Definition

I don’t know why I never got around to saying this in so many words before.  For years I’ve believed that the foundational freedom, the one essential right that precedes and supports all the others, is the right to self-definition.  By that I mean the right of any identifiable group to define itself in its own terms, rather than being defined by outsiders--often hostile outsiders--but in any case outsiders who never seem to question their own right to make authoritative pronouncements about the inmost nature of a category of humans to which they do not and cannot belong.   I’m acutely sensitive to this issue of self-definition because I belong to two such identifiable groups:  Specifically, I am Jewish and I am female.

My frustration in both areas is roughly equal.  I’ve asked myself many times which stereotypes are more infuriating, the ones men project onto women or the ones Christians project onto Jews.  It’s always a toss-up.   I guess it just depends on what I’ve been reading in any given week or who I’ve been arguing with.  Last week I found myself unexpectedly challenged on the subject of my Jewish identity.  Oddly enough, my interrogator wasn’t the usual Christian fundamentalist who wanted to debate the old and new covenants, but a self-proclaimed atheist living in the buckle of the Bible Belt who claimed she had never met a Jew.  During the brief flame war—a skirmish, really—and the intense email post-mortem that followed, I have been trying to understand why she was able to push my buttons so easily.

“What does being Jewish mean to you personally?”  A seemingly innocuous question, and yet personal to the point of being invasive—not so much because of the question itself but because no matter what your answer is, it’s almost always going to be judged by somebody.  It could be somebody who knows a lot about Judaism or somebody who knows next to nothing.  But somehow the questioner always feels perfectly entitled to measure you against some arbitrary yardstick.  And so especially if you are a nonobservant or only marginally observant Jew, you can find yourself locked in a battle for self-definition whether you asked for it or not. 
At least that has been my experience.  You could say that I’m sensitized and it’s true.  I could have avoided taking on the stereotypes if I had really wanted to, but instead I went out of my way to confront them.  I don’t know why exactly, but I guess I was on a one-woman crusade to raise consciousness.  In the 1990s especially, after my husband’s death and after I got my first computer with a modem, I spent endless hours on the Prodigy Debates/Religious Issues board debating religion with Christian fundamentalists and others.  These debates could get quite heated, and occasionally I’d be confronted with full-blown anti-Semitism of the most toxic variety.  It’s well known at this point—or it should be-- that the Jews have been the primary focus for Christian shadow projections for close to 2000 years, and that these projections can be and have been secularized without losing any of their toxic and dangerous quality.  As a member of the first post-Holocaust generation, I have always been acutely aware of these negative projections and was to some extent prepared for them.

What I was absolutely not prepared for were all the other kinds of projections about Jews I would encounter on the interfaith boards.  Not all of them were negative, although many were.  Some were quite positive on the surface.  Often they were completely bizarre and very personal, although the personal ones usually turned out to be the fever dreams of some deranged cult leader.  But to me they all seemed equally bizarre.  The main difference between the obviously cultish projections and the more mainstream ones by Christian standards was the number of adherents.  All of them centered around one major piece of cognitive dissonance:  God made an everlasting Covenant with Israel and the Jews are God’s chosen people...BUT at the same time Jesus is the fulfillment not only of biblical prophecy but of the Torah itself, which became obsolete at the Crucifixion.  So there is no longer any need for the Jews to observe the commandments.  No more reason for our continued existence, come to think of it, since we had already served our purpose in God’s plan of redemption.  From the standpoint of orthodox (post-Nicene) Christianity, we were the theological equivalent of the goose that laid the golden egg.  (I just now thought of that.)

This glaring contradiction--together with the fact that the Jews were emphatically unconvinced by any of it and refused to cooperate in their own extinction whether physical or religious—gave rise to a whole new set of bizarre theological fantasies, mostly centered around Christian eschatology, i.e. the End Times or Second Coming.  The fact that the year 2000 was rapidly approaching gave these fantasies an additional boost of hysterical urgency that manifested on all the religion boards.  I called it “Millennial Fever” and the late 1990s were the height of the epidemic.  We could very well be dealing with a newer and even more dangerous outbreak this year, but that’s a subject for another post.
It was on the Prodigy Debates/Religious Issues forum, that I first encountered Christian Zionism, and I haven’t fully recovered from the shock yet.  The nakedly imperialist, power-seeking aspect of it was very much a reality but it was still somewhat camouflaged, not quite as overtly political as it is now.  On the interfaith board the regulars thought of the millennialists primarily as religious nuts.  I don’t think the term “Christian Zionist” even existed at the time.  But whatever they were or weren’t called, I still found them unbelievably offensive the first time I encountered them.  Their belief system, or at least that part of it that concerns the Jews specifically, centers around a crudely literal understanding of certain prophecies in the book of Daniel.  It is a recent interpretation, predicated on certain crucial historical events of the 20th century, especially the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, reinforced by the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.  Without the existence of an actual Jewish state, it would be impossible for even the most delusional Christian millennialists to imagine this particular end-times scenario.  And they not only imagine it but act on it, with the cooperation of certain extreme right-wing elements in Israel.

Roughly summarized, the preconditions for the Second Coming involve the building of a new Temple in Jerusalem on the site of Herod’s Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  Then the re-instatement of the sacrificial cult.  Never mind about what’s supposed to happen to the Dome of the Rock that already exists on the site.  God and Gush Emunim will take care of that.

This unholy alliance between the most extreme and fanatical of the Christian fundamentalists and their equally insane Israeli counterparts terrified me then as it does now.  But my overwhelming emotion when I finally understood what the Christian Zionist end-times scenario was all about was rage—overwhelming rage such as I have rarely felt before or since in my life.  That’s saying a lot because I have a famously short fuse, and when it finally sank in I went totally ballistic.

The reason they so desperately wanted us to rebuild the Temple for them was so that the Antichrist could defile it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Raise High the Roof Beam

On Friday, January 13th, I decided at the last minute to light the Sabbath candles for the first time in about a year.  I also bought a loaf of challah at the bakery, and this time I asked David to leave it unsliced.  “Last one,” he said as he slipped it into a plastic bag.  It was long after sunset by the time I got it home, along with the box of utility candles from the outlet store.  But I knew from experience that it would work, and it did.  The atmosphere in the room changed and I felt peace for a few minutes.  I have always been surprised at the power of this small ritual, and the immediate sense of Presence it always brings.

Then on Saturday morning I received a notice from Congregation Emanu El in my email and made another last-minute decision.  The construction of the new temple in Redlands is proceeding very rapidly, and on Sunday we were all invited to sign the massive ceiling beam destined to support the roof of the sanctuary and the social hall.  It reminded me of the construction of another Reform temple, where it really all began for me 50 years ago.  The confirmation class of 1961 was the last one to be confirmed in a rented hall.  After that the congregation moved into the new building in time for the High Holiday services and the beginning of religious school in September.

What does being Jewish mean to you personally?

Even if I can't answer the question verbally I can answer it graphically.  It suddenly became very important to place a design symbolic of my karma and my Jewish identity on that roof beam.  I wasn’t sure I could pull it off at the last minute because of the usual transportation problems, but on Saturday afternoon my son agreed to drive me there.  I made a point of wearing the filigree Star of David my sister sent me from Israel years ago.  It was important to get the design for my symbolic graffiti just right, so I worked it out on paper first on Saturday night and Sunday morning.  When we arrived at the construction site, I discovered there was plenty of room on the beam to write whatever I wanted, so I added a last-minute inscription:  To the Jewish community of San Bernardino & Redlands from Linda Siegel Sang—her own private gate. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times

NOTE: My daughter sent me this beautiful essay by the very wise teacher, storyteller and neo-Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes several years ago. It isn’t new; it was originally published in 2001 as Letter To A Young Activist During Troubled Times: with the subtitle, Do Not Lose Heart, We were Made for These Times. What I believe originally inspired it was the selection of George W. Bush to the presidency of the United States by the Supreme Court, an unprecedented event which many people called “a bloodless coup.”

On October 18th Dr. Estes reposted this essay on her Facebook page, adding the Creative Commons license so it could be reposted anywhere. I believe it was reposted in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement because she added the following note: “I would be made especially happy if you were to post it in places where those struggling in the streets across the world, might see it and be heartened.”

Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times

Mis estimados:

Do not lose heart. We were made for these times.

I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world right now. It is true, one has to have strong cojones and ovarios to withstand much of what passes for "good" in our culture today. Abject disregard of what the soul finds most precious and irreplaceable and the corruption of principled ideals have become, in some large societal arenas, "the new normal," the grotesquerie of the week.

It is hard to say which one of the current egregious matters has rocked people's worlds and beliefs more. Ours is a time of almost daily jaw-dropping astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

…You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet ... I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is - we were made for these times.

Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement. I cannot tell you often enough that we are definitely the leaders we have been waiting for, and that we have been raised, since childhood, for this time precisely.

…I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

I would like to take your hands for a moment and assure you that you are built well for these times. Despite your stints of doubt, your frustrations in arighting all that needs change right now, or even feeling you have lost the map entirely, you are not without resource, you are not alone. Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. In your deepest bones, you have always known this is so.

Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

…We have been in training for a dark time such as this, since the day we assented to come to Earth. For many decades, worldwide, souls just like us have been felled and left for dead in so many ways over and over -- brought down by naiveté, by lack of love, by suddenly realizing one deadly thing or another, by not realizing something else soon enough, by being ambushed and assaulted by various cultural and personal shocks in the extreme.

We all have a heritage and history of being gutted, and yet remember this especially … we have also, of necessity, perfected the knack of resurrection.

Over and over again we have been the living proof that that which has been exiled, lost, or foundered - can be restored to life again. This is as true and sturdy a prognosis for the destroyed worlds around us as it was for our own once mortally wounded selves.

…Though we are not invulnerable, our risibility supports us to laugh in the face of cynics who say "fat chance," and "management before mercy," and other evidences of complete absence of soul sense. This, and our having been 'to Hell and back' on at least one momentous occasion, makes us seasoned vessels for certain. Even if you do not feel that you are, you are.

Even if your puny little ego wants to contest the enormity of your soul, that smaller self can never for long subordinate the larger Self. In matters of death and rebirth, you have surpassed the benchmarks many times. Believe the evidence of any one of your past testings and trials. Here it is: Are you still standing? The answer is, Yes! (And no adverbs like "barely" are allowed here). If you are still standing, ragged flags or no, you are able. Thus, you have passed the bar. And even raised it. You are seaworthy.

…In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. Do not make yourself ill with overwhelm. There is a tendency too to fall into being weakened by perseverating on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn't you say you were a believer? Didn't you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn't you ask for grace? Don't you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the Voice greater? You have all the resource you need to ride any wave, to surface from any trough.

…In the language of aviators and sailors, ours is to sail forward now, all balls out. Understand the paradox: If you study the physics of a waterspout, you will see that the outer vortex whirls far more quickly than the inner one. To calm the storm means to quiet the outer layer, to cause it, by whatever countervailing means, to swirl much less, to more evenly match the velocity of the inner, far less volatile core - till whatever has been lifted into such a vicious funnel falls back to Earth, lays down, is peaceable again.

One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair - thereby accidentally contributing to the swale and the swirl. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts - adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take "everyone on Earth" to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.

The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires ... causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these - to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both -- are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

…There will always be times in the midst of "success right around the corner, but as yet still unseen" when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it; I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours: They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.

In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But … that is not what great ships are built for.

…This comes with much love and prayer that you remember who you came from, and why you came to this beautiful, needful Earth.

--Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Copyright ©2001, 2003, 2004 Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, All rights reserved. Creative Commons License by which author and publishers grant permission to copy, distribute and transmit this particular work under the conditions that use be non-commercial, that the work be used in its entirety word for work, and not altered, not added to, not subtracted from, and that it carry author's name and this full copyright notice, including email address as below. For other uses, Permissions:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Random Thoughts on Judaism, Paganism and Genocide

Very often I catch myself using the comments section of other people’s blogs as a launching pad for my own ideas, an excuse for ranting about whatever I happen to be thinking about at the time. I did it again this morning. This time the unwitting soapbox provider was Rabbi Rami Shapiro, and the springboard was a recent post of his called Interfaith and Abrahamic Faith.  It’s a very good post and I agree with everything he said. That’s precisely what inspired me to write a spin-off on it in the comments section.

After I spent about two hours writing and editing the comment, it suddenly occurred to me that I have my own blog where I can rant to my heart’s content, so there is really no need to hijack someone else’s blog.  So I decided to repost my comment here, adding a few lines to explain the context. If my focus on Judaism appears to single it out as being somehow more intolerant than the other Abrahamic faiths, that would be a total misreading of what I actually believe. Historically, Judaism has had far less opportunity to exercise its triumphalist and repressive tendencies than the other two Abrahamic faiths. It’s just that Rabbi Rami lists them in chronological order, the order in which each one first appeared on the stage of history: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.  And then each one comes in for its share of criticism.  I simply didn’t get any further than Judaism.

As usual I started with a short quote from the post I was responding to, and then went on from there.

Re The Hebrew Bible makes it clear that there is only one true faith, and the Jews have it. If biblical Jews had any interest in other religions it was to destroy them...

Yeah, sure they did. This is yet more evidence that just like history, Scripture is written by the winners. Or at least it's heavily edited, rewritten and censored by the winners. I'm currently reading The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai, which paints a VERY different picture of "biblical Judaism" than what the official monotheistic party line tries to tell us has "always" been the case.

Anyone who didn't have an inkling of it already would be shocked at how "pagan" the religion of our forefathers and foremothers (very important!) actually was. I don't mean only the folk religion of the villages, but also the royal cult as practiced in Solomon's temple, and later in Herod's temple right up until its destruction in 70 C.E. The archaeological evidence, which can't be edited or censored, bears this out.

One part of the standard disclaimer concedes this point, but condemns the behavior at the same time: "Oh yes, our ancestors did all that pagan stuff, made all those graven images of naked goddesses and stuff like that. The prophets tell us all about how they were constantly backsliding. But they were bad, bad, BAAAADDDD and God punished them for it."

Am I really supposed to accept that kind of simplistic orthodoxy at face value? Pretend I don't know that it was that very same Semitic paganism, which after going through many transformations, eventually became the heart and soul of esoteric Judaism?

But even with all that in mind, I think it's very unfortunate that the commandment is still on the books to wipe out all the seven nations of Canaan down to the last man, woman and child, and that many people still pay lip service to it. Is that in Deuteronomy? Sorry, but I don't know the Torah all that well.

I'm familiar with all the official apologies and disclaimers, such as the fact that by the time that passage was written it was already too late for any such "final solution" to be possible, assuming that anyone had actually wanted it. By the time that passage was written, the Israelites had already been intermarrying and interbreeding with the Canaanites for generations. So what it really amounts to is nothing more than wishful thinking on somebody's part about something that "should have" happened generations earlier. "If only we had killed them all, we wouldn't have to put up with all this freakin' idolatry now." Sound familiar?

I don't find that kind of explanation very satisfactory or reassuring at all. It still presents what is commonly understood as a divine sanction for genocide--with tragic and bloody consequences I don't have to spell out for anyone. I've had Christian fundamentalists throw it in my face that the Israelites disobeyed "God's" command to wipe out the Canaanites, and that was the beginning of all our troubles for the next 2000+ years. To which I can only answer, "God does not command genocide. Period."

I have no choice but to say that to anyone, Christian or Jew, who cites that as a precedent or rationale, even if they further distance themselves by saying the commandment was impossible to carry out and was therefore null and void.  Because anyone with a genocidal mindset is sure to identify their favorite scapegoat as the physical and/or spiritual descendants of the seven nations of Canaan, making it not only necessary but actually virtuous to exterminate them. That's guaranteed, and we can see many examples of that kind of thinking right now.

The image at the top of the page is an ivory relief depicting the complex and paradoxical West Semitic goddess Anath, also known as Astarte. It shows her in her fertility goddess aspect, as Lady of the Wild Things, but she is primarily a goddess of love and war, as indicated by the skulls under her feet. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about Anath lately, and I’ll have more to say about her down the line.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Broken Glass

Broken Glass

I saw the shattered light on broken glass
Reflected in your eyes when we were young,
Though you were still unborn
The night the glass was broken.
I could not name it in those vanished days--
Some of it, yes—but not all of it,
Yet I vowed to keep the flame alive,
To bear witness to what I could not name.

Now, having learned better how to translate
The unspoken knowledge of the heart--
More of it, yes—though never all of it,
Today I renew that vow
Looking north through the plate glass window
of a bakery on Highland Avenue.
It isn’t quiet here, but the background noise
Consoles me with its mundane normalcy:
The loud hum of the air conditioner,
The sound of the passing traffic
fifteen feet from the unbroken window.

At two degrees of separation
I recall the sound of the sledgehammers
Crashing through the plate glass windows,
And the stained glass windows as well.
Afterwards the sidewalks were covered with it:
Broken glass, broken glass,
Blood and broken glass—
As memory turns to foreknowledge
A cold shadow passes over me.

It seems so peaceful here, yet I remain on guard.
Beneath the growing avalanche of hatred,
I hear the staccato crack of breaking glass.
The day draws near when this false peace,
Brittle and fragile as any window
Whether of plate glass or stained glass
will lie shattered on the sidewalks of the world.

“Get over it!”  they say.
“How much longer will you Jews
Keep obsessing over your private tragedy?
Do you really think no other people
Has ever suffered genocide?
Time to move on,” they say.

Let them believe I’m picking at old scabs
Or getting paranoid over nothing; I don’t care.
It should be self-evident that the scars remain
After your heart has been pierced by broken glass,
Even at two degrees of separation.
But no matter what they think I’m saying
Or why they think I’m saying it,
The pain itself is beside the point.

And so we bear witness to what matters most:
That the echo of the sound of breaking glass
Spreads through the intricate web of love,
Past the boundaries of space and time,
Relentlessly out to infinity. And as it spreads,
It changes. Yes, I’m talking alchemy here--
Just so we’re clear on that.
This is our secret strength and hidden truth:
That empathy begins as shared grief,
but ends as shared knowledge.

© 2011 by Linda S. Sang

In one very significant way, this poem is very different from the two previous ones I’ve posted on this blog in the past. Both of those poems were written within a few weeks of each other over 25 years ago, in the spring of 1984 shortly after my sister’s death. This poem was started two days ago, in a bakery on Highland Avenue on Wednesday, August 31, 2011. I did the final revisions a few hours ago.

I went to the bakery with the intention of writing, but what I was planning to write was something very different from what I ended up bringing home with me. What I had in mind was prose, for one thing. Until Wednesday, I had not written any poetry for years and pretty much assumed I never would again. I started writing what I originally had in mind, but my heart just wasn’t in it and my mind kept wandering.

I had a folder with me containing some printouts of recent e-mails, and in an attempt to regain my focus I began reading them over. A response to one particular communication began shaping itself in my mind after I read it for the second or third time. To my total astonishment, instead of being a standard prose e-mail reply my response seemed to be trying to take the form of a poem. So I decided to let it go where it wanted. I grabbed a blank sheet of looseleaf paper just like I used to do in the old days, and followed my thoughts and feelings wherever they wanted to take me.

What is so amazing about this experience, once so commonplace in my life, is that I haven’t even tried to write a poem in years. That’s why the only poems posted on my blog are old ones—because there simply haven’t been any new ones. I have often wondered if I’d ever write another poem again in my life. This one didn’t come easily. I wrote three longhand drafts at the bakery over a period of about three hours. Fortunately, the owner of the place likes me and is more than happy to let me hang out there as long as I want to. Even though there are only two tables, I don’t recall that the other one was occupied the whole time I was there.

Although they got successively better, my handwritten drafts were sloppy, imprecise and out of focus--but then first drafts usually are. Fortunately, the notorious inner critic who plagues all writers didn’t get into the act too early in the game with her usual deflating put-downs. I felt that in spite of the amateurishness I had something worth pursuing. So I came home and transferred the poem to the computer.

I also made a point of checking out the Wikipedia entry for Kristallnacht as a precaution against any glaring errors of fact. If I had made any in my first drafts, I wanted to be sure I corrected them fairly early in the revision process. That involved another three drafts yesterday, plus a final one this afternoon. Wednesday night was the first time I’ve ever read a historical account of Kristallnacht, although of course I’ve read references to it in other works on WWII and the Holocaust. I was especially struck by one short paragraph:

The number of emigrating Jews surged as those who were able, left the country. In the ten months following Kristallnacht, more than 115,000 Jews emigrated from the Reich.[33] The majority went to other European countries, the US and Palestine.... As part of government policy, the Nazis seized houses, shops, and other property the émigrés left behind.
Among those 115,000 Jews who left Germany in 1938-39 in the 10 months following Kristallnacht were the parents of the beloved friend whose childhood memories were the inspiration for this poem.