Report From Dublin

Rabbi Glazer recently participated in Philosophizing Monotheism, a conference at the National University of Ireland, Dublin. On his return to the States, he shared the inspiring report below.



The wonderful conference was the culmination of an ongoing relationship I have been cultivating with a group of Israeli academics. I've done so with a few intentions in mind.

Ireland2Firstly, I aim to increase the intellectual and spiritual exchange between Israeli and Diaspora scholars that has been challenged recently by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, especially the arm of the movement that calls for an academic boycott of Israel. Secondly, it is essential that we collaborate across our Jewish spheres on academic projects that will shape the future thinking of Judaism and monotheisms more broadly. Thirdly, to further the awareness and integration of these collaborations, I hope to publish and disseminate gleanings from the ongoing exchanges taking place in Israel, Europe, and America.

Aside from having the gift of focused time to present, listen, reflect, question, and dialogue with each other for uninterrupted hours on end, this was a unique meeting of scholars and philosophers of religion from many walks of life, all sharing a passion for what I call Critical Judaism and Critical Religion. To be able to interrogate the core of our respective monotheistic religions in freedom without fear of persecution is a relatively recent modern phenomenon. On the one hand, this gathering recalled the medieval, magical moments of Convivencia during a golden age of Spain (if not the one usually spoken of), when philosophers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were in constant fruitful exchange and allowed each other's theological thinking to challenge, influence, and inspire each other. On the other hand, as Irish philosopher Dermot Moran commented, my theological investigations (which coincide with his research on Dionysius and Don Scotus) put me in the good company of Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza and Giordano Bruno, both of whom were excommunicated for their heresies from their modern communities. Alas, today we live in a very different world. Such accusations of heresy would demand a kind of caring and religious literacy that seems to be rapidly dissolving, especially in the religious spheres of America.

Ireland1Over these days we were blessed to spend together, I came to realize the gift of scholarly exchange from my vantage point as a scholar-rabbi, especially with Israeli colleagues, living both in Israel and in the European Diaspora. They all equally appreciated my perspective, especially when it turned to questions of the future of religious institutions and applications of critical thinking. The quality of conversation and the feeling that our reflections about God, the world, and humanity matter could not be more urgent and inspiring. At this juncture, being in Ireland, presenting in English, and thinking through all the layers of monotheisms, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, mysticism, Hasidism, and its abiding influence on the big questions in philosophy of religion like ethics, justice, cosmotheism, conversion, and doubt will continue to resonate with all of us as we part ways. After a year of planning, we all experienced a light that only appears when scholars from across religious and philosophical boundaries come together in free exchange.

I am grateful as well as for my training at the Center for the Study of Religions at University of Toronto, which really paved the way for this kind of exchange. One of the most remarkable moments for me came in reuniting with a colleague from graduate studies at the Center for the Study of Religions, Mahdi Tourage, (an Iranian refugee to Canada in 1986) to see how decades later we both remained attuned to so many parallel theological concerns in our respective traditions of Jewish and Islamic mysticisms. It was both inspiring and alarming that Mahdi's courageous paper could only be accepted at a forum like this one given that his insightful, critical thinking remains on the margins of the Islamic academe. Ironically, as we discussed this situation at length, he shared with me the struggle that even renowned Jewish scholars of Islam like Aaron Hughes experience with their remarkable critical scholarship, most recently, with Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity. Clearly, the more opportunities there are to normalize and disseminate this kind of critical discourse on the philosophy of religions, especially in Islam, the better the world is poised to enable the evolution of monotheisms.

Gathered outside the conference center in the top photo (left to right) are: Ward Blanton (University of Kent), Itzhak Benyamini (University of Haifa), Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, Dermot Moran (University College Dublin), Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), Mahdi Tourage (University of Western Ontario), Raphael Zagury-Orly (Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design), and Joseph Cohen (University College Dublin). Elad Lapidot (Humboldt Universitat, Berlin) and Maureen Junker-Kenny (Trinity College, Dublin) participated, but were already off to other conferences by the time of this photograph.

Tai Chi Chuan For Every Day

CBS is pleased to announce that we are offering a new class this fall. Beginning in September 2016, instructor Irving (Irv) Rothstein will offer Tai Chi Chuan For Every Day in Makom Sholom. The classes will meet on select Wednesday evenings at 6:30 p.m.

Facebook_IrvRothstein_TaiChiPromo4 Chi (also written as qi) literally translates as "breath" or "life force." Like the Hebrew word ruach (meaning "wind" or "spirit"), chi is both the spiritual and physical energy of the body. Tai chi chuan, the meditative exercise form best known as tai chi, is used by an increasing number of people to develop awareness of and strengthen their mind and body. The long-term psychological and health benefits of the practice have been hailed in a great many studies. The quiet, gentle movements of tai chi increase one’s flexibility, develop strength and balance, and contribute to peace of mind.

Facebook_IrvRothstein_TaiChiPromo1 Irv Rothstein, a CBS congregant and tai chi sifu (practitioner or teacher), will instruct students in the Tai Chi Ruler, a simple and easy-to-learn Taoist approach to tai chi. This method will be supplemented by selected exercises from other meditative martial arts and adapted to everyday movements.

Irv Rothstein has been studying tai chi chuan and related chi techniques since 1976, working closely with Sifu Fong Ha, Irv’s si gung (teacher’s teacher), who serves as Director of the Integral Chuan Institute in Berkeley and also conducts workshops in the Bay Area, the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Irv has taught Tai Chi Ruler and tai chi chuan to young and old alike, working both as a substitute for Fong and with students of his own. He has led workshops in Arkansas and Massachusetts in addition to many in the Bay Area, and he has published articles about tai chi in both local and international magazines. Irv emphasizes ergonomic elements in his classes, focusing on the development of chi in our everyday movements.

As Irv observes, “To best understand chi, one must experience it.” Please join Irv this year in to do just that!

Fall 2016 dates: September 14 & 21
(No classes in October due to Jewish High Holy Days, Sukkot, & Simchat Torah)

Each class costs $10, with all proceeds supporting CBS. Drop-ins are welcome. Wear comfortable clothes and flat, comfortable shoes (or slippers) for the class.

Facebook_IrvRothstein_TaiChiPromo3

Kezayit: Micrography

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Waugh_FullBrooklyn-based artist Michael Waugh is best known for producing large-scale, ink-on-mylar drawings, but with a twist. From the artist's website:

"For the past few years, my drawings have utilized an ancient Hebrew form of calligraphy called micrography, in which minute words are written out so that when you stand far away, you see an image. Those ancient drawings typically employed a sacred text; the purpose of the drawings was either devotional or magical. The texts used in my drawings are neither sacred nor magical, and it is doubtful that they deserve any form of devotion. The text used in these drawings comes from government reports commissioned or headed by US presidents (i.e. presidential commission reports)."

Waugh_Detail2The image you see above is Waugh's The Grace Commission, part n, a 2007 work measuring 36 x 78 inches. Just to the left, we've included a detail of the work, which shows the handwritten script that forms the greyhound's head and the background landscape. As the title of the work suggests, this image was created using the federal report about President Ronald Reagan's Grace Commission, a 1982 investigation into governmental "waste and inefficiency."

Whereas Waugh uses micrography for conceptual reasons -- the imagery in his drawings is a comment on the texts he uses -- its invention was precipitated by a very different need. The second commandment, read strictly, prohibits religious Jews from creating artwork that may be deemed idolatrous and blasphemous. Although Jewish tradition has proven generally amenable to visual art, micrography ensured that Jewish artists wouldn't need to worry -- the potentially dangerous image was rendered harmless because it was formed by written sacred text that formed it.

Micrography arose as an art form sometime in 10th century Egypt and Eretz Israel. Although most scholars attribute its invention to Jews, it was heavily influenced by the surrounding Islamic culture and calligrams. From the catalog essay for Micrography: The Hebrew Word as Art, an exhibit at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

"Hebrew micrography was the creation of the Masorah scribes of Tiberias in the production of Bible codices (the book form of the Tanach that included marginal notes of the masorah and nikudot). The Leningrad Codice from 1009 written in Cairo, has sixteen diverse carpet pages presenting the small but fully legible masorah text in architectural and abstract designs surrounded by beautiful gold and red illuminations reminiscent of Middle Eastern carpets. This art form spread throughout the Levant, with Yemen as an especially important center, and then to north into medieval Europe. The Sephardic scribes of Spain utilized micrography, especially in some of the Catalonian Haggadot. The Ashkenazi scribes, with their micrographic specialty of medieval grotesques and bestiaries decorating the margins and front pages of luxury Bibles, and Haggadot also flourished from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. After the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, the use of micrography expanded to ketubbot, omer counters, amulets, and other independent works on paper, eventually to its use in portraits and secular Jewish illustrations. Throughout the centuries it has remained a predominately Jewish art form."

Yair Harel visits CBS for Kabbalat Shabbat

BethSholom_JimenaEvent109-1024x589Join Israeli performance artist, musician, and community organizer, Yair Harel, for a special musical Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening, April 8.

Piyyutim (Hebrew liturgical poems) were chanted for centuries throughout the Diaspora. The poems have been adapted to different melodies, evolving into a form of Jewish "world music" in Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East. This singing tradition, a core component of synagogue practice, has also entered secular life in Israel through public performances, workshops, and performing arts festivals.

Yair is active in the revival and contemporary interpretation of this ancient art of liturgical Hebrew poetry, and he will perform and teach a selection of these piyyutim when he visits CBS.

If you'd like to listen to some piyyutim before Yair's visit, click here.

Image details: Meirav & Yair Harel at CBS in October 2014, photo by Christopher Orev Reiger

The Dreidel -- Unmasked!

PlayingDreidel_CBSFamilyPreschoolHanukkahLunch_December2015Hanukkah is over. For a few evenings, we'll gaze longingly at the counters, tables, and ledges where our hanukkiot so recently glowed...and then our attention will shift to family debates about which movie and Chinese restaurant is right for Christmas Day. Today, though, we hope to extend your Hanukkah glow for at least a few more minutes!

Along with hanukkiot, latkes, and sufganiyot, visions of dreidels spin through our heads when we think of Hanukkah. Why the association? Chabad's website explains:

"The dreidel, known in Hebrew as a sevivon, dates back to the time of the Greek-Syrian rule over the Holy Land -- which set off the Maccabean revolt that culminated in the [Hanukkah] miracle. Learning Torah was outlawed by the enemy, a 'crime' punishable by death. The Jewish children resorted to hiding in caves in order to study. If a Greek patrol would approach, the children would pull out their tops and pretend to be playing a game. By playing dreidel during Chanukah we are reminded of the courage of those brave children."

That's a familiar story -- it's what we've been told our whole lives. But it's also a myth, and one created long after the days of the Maccabees.

In fact, the dreidel is a variation on an Irish or English top that spread over all of Europe during the late Roman Empire. Known as a teetotum, each of these four-sided tops was inscribed with letters that denoted the result of a given spin. For example, the German version of the game used N (Nichts, or nothing), G (Ganz, or all), H (Halb, or half), and S (Stell ein, or put in).

Dreidels&Gelt_CBSFamilyPreschoolHanukkahLunch_December2015Across Europe, teetotum was most often played around Christmastime; the reason for this seasonal popularity remain unclear but, just like their neighbors, Ashkenazi Jews played the game at this time. Yet Jews adapted the tops' lettering for Yiddish speakers, replacing German letters with Hebrew ones: Nun (Nit, or nothing), Gimel (Gants, or everything), He (Halb, or half), and Shin (Shtel arayn, or put in).

Over generations, as the dreidel game was introduced to far-flung Jewish communities that didn't speak Yiddish, various explanations for the letters' significance were put forth. One of the most famous explications is that the letters represent the four kingdoms that tried to destroy Israelites/Jews: Nun for Nebuchadnezzar, or Babylon; He for Haman, or Persia; Gimel for Gog, or Greece; and Shin for Seir, or Rome. But the most popular story -- probably because it's the only one that explains why the dreidel game is primarily played in the month of Kislev -- posited that the letters stood for the phrase "Nes gadol haya sham," or "A great miracle happened there." That's the Hanukkah miracle, of course, and the accompanying myth about the clever ruse of brave little Torah scholars caught on, too.

Sometime in the 19th or 20th century (CE), this mythic origin of the dreidel game became the officially sanctioned account. It's a compelling, fun story for children, but the real history of the dreidel is no less remarkable.

Indeed, the most marvelous of Hanukkah miracles is an ongoing one: the ability of the Jewish people to adopt the customs and ideas of their neighbors -- just filtered through a Jewish lens. Consider how many of our "traditional" Jewish practices are variations of customs adopted from the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans. We often toast the fact that those four "evil empires" have fallen while the Jewish people live on -- Am Yisrael Chai! -- but, curiously and counter-intuitively, some facets of those cultures live on in our Jewish traditions.

Culture is a wonderfully complex cholent.