Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): Man As Technicolor Dreamcoat

In the wake of David Bowie's passing, we're sharing another Kezayit feature here. What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.


On Sunday, January 10, the world lost a great pop culture trendsetter and zelig, David Bowie (1947-2016).

Bowie, born David Robert Jones in South London, wasn’t Jewish, but he was among the first celebrities to dabble with Kabbalah. In the title song of his 1976 album, Station to Station, he sings,

"From where dreams are woven
Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle
Here am I, flashing no color

Tall in this room overlooking the ocean
Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth
There are you, you drive like a demon from station to station

At the time, even Bowie’s most ardent fans were confused — what are Kether and Malkuth? A clue was provided by the photograph that appeared on the back cover of Station to Station. The picture shows Bowie at his most androgynous drawing the Tree of Life, the diagram representing the relationship between the Ten Sefirot, the Divine Emanations of G-d according to Kabbalah. Kether (or Keter, crown) and Malkuth (or Malchut, kingdom) are the top- and bottommost sefirot, respectively. Bowie’s lyrics seem to suggest that he and his companions "overlooking the ocean" had tapped into some esoteric knowledge that allowed them direct access — “one magical movement” — from the realm of the Earthly (Malkuth) to the realm of the supernal (Kether), a channel not accessible to most of humanity, who need to “drive like demon[s] from station to station.” There are, of course, both healthy and unhealthy ways to tap into mystical revelation, and according to many sources, the Station to Station portion of Bowie’s career was informed by his being “bombed out of his mind on cocaine.”

Bowie’s legacy, though, will not be his flirtation with Jewish esoteric traditions, his battle to overcome drug addiction, or his acting and painting forays. As Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times obituary, "Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called 'plastic soul,' but it was suffused with genuine soul. […] Throughout Mr. Bowie’s metamorphoses, he was always recognizable. His voice was widely imitated but always DB-Transformation-Colourhis own; his message was that there was always empathy beyond difference.”

We leave you with an animated representation of Bowie’s metamorphoses by illustrator Helen Green.

Lead image credit: "David Bowie draws the Tree of Life," photographed by Steve Shapiro, 1975

Shul School: "Thinking Matters" Resumes

Our "Thinking Matters: Modern Jewish Philosophy"
course series continues this winter!

thinker Join an impressive line-up of teachers to wrestle with the exciting and challenging questions of modern Jewish philosophy! Can there be such a thing as a Jewish philosophy, or a philosophy of Judaism? How have Jewish traditions participated in the philosophical canon? How are Judaism and Jewish ideas relevant to the modern relationship of ethics, theology, and philosophy?

For an introduction to Jewish modern thought and philosophy, we recommend Steven Katz's essay, "Eliezar Berkovits & Modern Jewish Philosophy."

Details and readings for the "Thinking Matters" mini-courses taught in January - March 2016 are included below.

s51-benjamin-540x304 January 7
People of the Book (1 session w/ Henry Hollander)

Henry Hollander's class will meet on Thursday night in the CBS Board Room from 7-8:30 p.m.

January 7: People of the Book, Modernity, & Philosophy of Book Collecting

Reading: Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting," Illuminations, pp. 59-67

January 14, 21, 28, & February 4
Walter Benjamin: A Jewish Nietzsche? (4 sessions w/ Michael Loebs)

Michael Loeb's classes meet Thursday nights in the CBS Board Room from 7-8:30 p.m.

January 14: On Friendship As Metaphysics

Reading: Friedrich Nietzsche, "of the Three Metamorphoses," "Of War and Warriors," and "Of the Friend," from Thus Spake Zarathrustra, Part I
Reading: Walter Benjamin, "Dialogue on the Religiosity of the Present" (1912)

January 21: Morality and the Critique of Violence

Reading: Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Part I

Reading: Walter Benjamin, Zur Kritik der Gewalt (Critique of Violence, 1921)

January 28: Art, Culture, & Technology

Reading: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Book 2, pp. 57-59, 78-89, 107)

Reading: Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936)

February 4: Redemption from History & Messianism

Reading: Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage & Disadvantage of History (Forward, Sec. 1-3, 6-7)

Reading: Walter Benjamin, Über den Begriff der Geschichte (On the Concept of History / Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940), w/ "Theologico-Political Fragment"

February 11, 18, & March 17, 24
Philosophy of Purim: Modernity & Perennial Parody (4 sessions w/ Rabbi Aubrey Glazer)

Rabbi Glazer's classes meet Thursday nights in the CBS Board Room from 7-8:30 p.m.

February 11: Philosophy of Purim in Woody Allen, Part I: God, Suicide, & the Meaning of Life
Source Sheet: Beyond Good & Evil: Philosophy of Purim & Hypernomianism
Source Sheet: Source in the Ethical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant

February 18: Philosophy of Purim in Woody Allen, Part II: Zelig, Inauthenticity, & Personal Identity

Source Sheet: Costumes, Masks, & (in)Authenticity

a-texas-judge-cited-the-big-lebowski-in-a-legal-decision March 17: Philosophy of Purim in The Big Lebowski, Part I: “I don’t roll on Shabbos," Jewish Identity, & the Philosophy of History
Source Sheet: Beyond Good & Evil: Philosophy of Purim & Hypernomianism

March 24: Philosophy of Purim in The Big Lebowski, Part II: “That Ain’t Legal Either," Rules, Authenticity, & Hyper-nomianism
Source Sheet: Beyond Good & Evil: Philosophy of Purim & Hypernomianism

February 25, March 3, 10, & 31
Ghetto Thinking: From the First Ghetto in Venice to the Last Ghetto in Lodz
(4 sessions w/ Dr. Michael Thaler)

Dr. Thaler's classes meet Thursday nights in the CBS Board Room from 7-8:30 p.m.

February 25: The Venice Ghetto

Source Sheet: Venice: The first ghetto

March 3: The Venice Ghetto

Source Sheet: Venice, 1616

March 10: The Lodz Ghetto

Source Sheet: Lodz: The last ghetto

March 31: The Lodz Ghetto
Source sheet: Lodz ghetto, 1942

Image credits: uncredited photo of Walter Benjamin; Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Hans Olde, 1899/1900; Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, and John Goodman in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski (Courtesy of Universal Studios)