Posts Tagged ‘God’s Others’

PASSOVER AND PARADOX

Tonight, Jews observe the first night of Passover. Sunday, Christians celebrate Western Easter. Christians will declare, “He is risen.” For a week, Jews will forego eating anything risen—bread, bagels, cake. Calls will go out to unify Jews and Christians by following the commandment in Leviticus to love thy neighbor. There’s a paradox here. 

Linked as two of the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Judaism hold different theologies. Christians hail Jesus as the Messiah—the anointed one—who rose from the dead after being crucified by the Romans (or, as some Christians have it, the Jews). To Jews, Jesus was a fellow Jew, perhaps in the mold of the prophets. Christianity views Jesus as humanity’s savior from original sin. Judaism believes sin not to be inherent—humans possess good and evil inclinations, and must make choices. 

There’s nothing wrong with having different beliefs. History hasn’t always agreed. I write in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible, that Christianity saw itself as the universalistic religion of a particularistic God. Universalistic: the only true religion. Souls could be saved only by accepting Jesus. Particularistic: God will damn nonbelievers to hellfire. Not all Christians still believe this. Many do. 

Judaism is the particularistic religion of a universalistic God. Particularistic: Only must follow the Torah’s commandments. Universalistic: God created us all. Monotheists who follow a few basic universal moral principles will share the World to Come—whatever it is—equally with Jews. 

Condemning Jews as Christ-killers, the early Christian West decided to let Jews live to endure exile and whatever punishments Christendom chose to inflict. The infamous blood libel arose: Jews mix Christian children’s blood into their Passover matzahs. This despite the Torah’s strict prohibition against consuming blood. What resulted? Read James Carroll’s frightening Constantine’s Sword.

Has America outgrown historic Christian animus towards Jews? Many millions of Americans embrace Jews as fellow citizens. But we’re hardly there. Witness, among others, Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism rears its head in such statements as those by the arch-conservative Ann Coulter. In 2007, she told Jewish talk show host Donny Deutsch, “We just want Jews to be perfected.” Deutsch asked if all Americans should be Christian. Coulter answered, “Yes.” 

Paradoxes also abound within Judaism. In the Diaspora, we conclude our Seder (home dinner service) with “Next Year in Jerusalem.” On May 9th, Israel celebrates its 71st anniversary, but as many Jews live outside Israel as in. “Next Year in Jerusalem” may now represent a yearning not to return to the land—beyond visits—but to Judaism and its values. For decades, North American synagogue involvement has declined among non-Orthodox Jews. 

Paradoxes abound within Israel. From bondage in Egypt through the monarchies of Saul, David and Solomon, Israel consisted of 12 confederated then united tribes. Modern Israel is home to at least as many political parties, and the Jewish world to many more religious and cultural streams and sub-streams. In effect, we’re still wandering in a wilderness, this one consisting of questions: How do we gain peace and security? Achieve unity while respecting diversity? Survive a seductive secular culture?

From my perspective, paradoxes cast a shadow of uneasiness over Passover and Easter. Yet what better time to recommit to respecting the integrity of every human being.

To all observing Passover, Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday). To all celebrating Easter, may you find renewed joy and love. To everyone: Peace be upon you.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

LARRY

I lost my friend Larry Raphael last Sunday. I’m writing about Larry because he deserves it—and I need to.

Larry became Congregation Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi in July 2003 after three decades at Hebrew Union College in New York. It was his first pulpit. He was ready. A dedicated and accomplished teacher, Larry immediately led Torah Study Saturday mornings before services. Several friends and I were regulars. We loved it. A bond formed. After a while, Larry asked me to lead the group when he had to be away. I was honored.

Larry taught evening courses about various subjects. The classes were great, including those on one of his passions, Jewish mystery and detective stories. He’d edited two volumes. Larry never displayed an ego and encouraged everyone’s opinions. 

Occasionally, Larry joined some of us for dinner before class or for lunch after teaching Talmud downtown—another great success. Discussions covered many topics, including baseball—another passion (he also loved photography). The two of us started going to lunch and did so monthly after he retired in 2016. Occasionally, we’d go to a Giants game. When he left his seat, I filled in his scorecard. 

Larry was a private person and I’m an introvert, but we shared stories—he loved stories—about our families, congregations he served part-time in retirement, my writing. He related travels in Europe, Israel and Guatemala, as well as living in Brooklyn—we had a mutual friend there—and growing up in Los Angeles. I detailed growing up in Queens, army service, Texas, travels in Europe and Asia, and caught him up on Carolyn and our kids.

Larry wrote a column for the Sherith Israel newsletter, which I co-edited. When he was busy, including fundraising for our successful $16 million seismic retrofit, I’d suggest ideas and write first drafts. “I couldn’t have written it better myself,” he’d say. “But you did,” I’d answer. “I’m only channeling you since you taught this idea and we talked about it.” Larry’s trust meant so much to me.

At my request, Larry wrote a blurb for the cover of my 2009 book, God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. I’m not a rabbi or academic, but Larry read some of the manuscript and responded, “Great. What would you like me to say?” 

Let me get one thing straight. Although soft-spoken, Larry was nobody’s fool. He could get angry with those who acted badly. But he was incredibly welcoming to everyone who came to Sherith Israel and people he met elsewhere. He also was a wizard at remembering names. (I’m terrible at it.) He could have created a memory act for Las Vegas. 

Larry spent most of the last three-plus months in the hospital and rehab facilities, so we chatted periodically on the phone. He gave me some details on his illness, but I emphasized my calls as “Hi, we’re all thinking of you” moments. We hoped to have one last get-together. It didn’t work out. 

I don’t regret not having a final in-person goodbye. The end of a life doesn’t define a person or a friendship. What counts is all that takes place in the years before. Larry inspired so many students—rabbinical and lay—congregants, more than 50 converts, and me. His memory is a blessing. 

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

THE SMALL THINGS

This Thursday, Americans will consume meals that leave us more stuffed than our turkeys. Hopefully, many will actually give thanks for the big things in their lives. Me? I’ve been lucky. But I’ll also give thanks for the little things.

Admittedly, I’m boring. (Read “The Least Interesting Man in the World.”) My day starts with a bowl of cereal topped with banana, blueberries and strawberries. Plus the sports section. I love it.

Then I take a walk of about a mile. I’m grateful I can still do that and pick up coffee, which I take home in a 49ers mug my son Seth bought me. I drink while I read part of the weekly Torah portion. I love that, too.

Then I write. It’s not about fame (yes, I fantasize) but passion. I had an earlier fiction-writing career decades ago, but in the face of constant rejection—even my agent couldn’t sell anything—I took a break to meet the demands of a growing family and the growing business supporting it. Years later, I wrote two non-fiction books. Solo Successwas published by Crown, New York. I independently published God’s Others—a fabulous learning experience. Then, moving towards retirement, I turned back to fiction and wrote Slick!

Another highlight of my exciting day. Carolyn and I eat dinner watching the news. (Are you nodding off yet?) Sometimes, we have leftovers. I’m thankful we can prepare enough food to have leftovers. Also to have meals delivered by Munchery for Friday night.

Shabbat delights me no end. I put the week, such as it is, to rest and seek new perspectives on life—the big picture if you will. At unfinished Friday business meetings, clients often said let’s continue tomorrow. I explained I didn’t work on Saturdays, but Sunday would be fine. We always continued on Monday.

I’m tickled about TV shows we enjoy. Cable unleashed myriad creative opportunities enabling many series to equal top independent films and novels. (Just finished Homecoming.) And reading. Especially in bed. I have a friend in Connecticut who was director of the Norwalk Public Library and sends or recommends outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction. Not everyone has their own literary curator.

I love having friends. As I’ve written before, I’m an introvert. But introverts can have very close friendships. My week’s highlight? Torah Study with my friends on Saturday morning followed by coffee and conversation ranging from deep (theirs) to inane (mine).

On Thursday, Carolyn and I will host family and friends for Thanksgiving. The sites I’ve seen include Stonehenge, the Colosseum, the Western Wall, Petra, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, Waimea Canyon and Yosemite. The most awesome? Family and friends around the table.

And I haven’t yet mentioned 30 years of The Simpsons, the view of Lobos Valley and the Pacific two blocks north of my house, praying in my synagogue Friday night followed by ice cream for dessert, doing research on the Internet (an author once told Terry Gross the Net is catnip for writers; true!), sunning (with a broad-brimmed hat) in my backyard and having ten people reading the second draft of my current novel.

Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a day to give thanks for the small stuff. To me, that’s a pretty big deal.

I’ll be teaching Torah Study tomorrow morning at Congregation Sherith Israel, 9:15–10:15 am. Join me. (Bagels and lox include.) It’s going to be “magic.”

The post will take off next weekend. It will return November 30.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

MONOTHEISM AND MYTH

Jews, Christians and Muslims know that monotheism began with Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch whom Torah students have studied these past three weeks. But like Elvis sightings, that’s an urban legend.

Secular scholars point to monotheism’s birth in what Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age—700 to 200 BCE. Karen Armstrong writes that as urban civilizations developed, “people ultimately began to find that the old paganism, which had served their ancestors well, no longer spoke fully to their condition.”

The biblical narrative offers a third view, as I detail in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Genesis plants monotheism’s roots in the sixth day of creation, presenting Adam and Eve as the original pair of monotheists long predating Abraham. They enjoy a personal relationship with God, Who instructs Adam not to eat from a specific tree and makes clothing for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after they do. And yes, He also expels them from Eden.

Their sons also know God. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain sulks. God offers parental advice: “Surely if you do right, / There is uplift. / But if you do not do right / Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master” (Gen. 4:7).

With Abel dead and Cain banished, Adam and Eve have a third son—Seth. Genesis makes no mention of Seth’s relationship with God, but there’s every reason to believe Adam and Eve informed Seth about their Creator. Why?

When the earth becomes populous, Genesis states, “It was then that men began to invoke the Lord (YHVH) by name” (Gen. 4:26). This induces Nahum Sarna to write, “This text takes monotheism to be the original religion of the human race, and the knowledge of the name YHVH to be pre-Abrahamic.”

Humanity descends into wrongdoing and idolatry. Still, Enoch, the seventh in Adam’s line and great-grandfather of Noah “walked with God 300 years” (Gen. 5:22). Noah, in the tenth generation, receives God’s instruction to build an ark.

After the Flood, people again turn away from God. The Talmud (Berachot 33b) explains, “Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Eden now consisting of only of a myth as humanity drifts into various forms of polytheism and idol worship. Monotheism, like a buried seed, lies dormant. Still, as God’s Others relates, pockets of monotheism lived on.

Twenty generations after Adam and Eve, Abraham appears. The biblical text never explains why God chooses him, but it now seems clear that Abraham rekindles monotheism rather than discovers it. Yehezkel Kaufmann writes that primeval mankind from Adam on “appears to have been monotheistic.” Gunther Plaut notes of Abraham, “The Torah does not depict him as the founder of a new religion.”

From the biblical perspective, monotheism constitutes humanity’s natural religious state. This prompts us to consider a corollary. All people contain the Divine spark. The Parent loves all His children. In a nation—indeed a world—torn by hatred and violence, we would do well to remember that to which Abraham sought to return us, however we might define God and the unity of the universe.

You can order God’s Others from Amazon, your local book store or—such a deal!—from me.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

MISGUIDED EXCEPTIONALISM

Who among us does not feel special? See himself or herself at the center of the universe? Think that if everyone does what I do, the world will be a better place? The answer: precious few. Which explains why not only individuals but also nations often come to grief.

The belief that I or “we” are different and thus better seems near universal. In “Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016), Stephen Kotkin of Princeton, and Stanford’s Hoover Institution, explains that “Russians have always had an abiding sense of living in a providential country with a special mission — an attitude often traced to Byzantium, which Russia claims as an inheritance.” Essentially, God made Russia spiritually greater than its neighbors. Russian dominance of Eurasia represents the natural order.

But Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite its considerable nuclear arsenal, plays a limited role on the world stage. (For my earlier take on Russia, see “Irrelevance.”) According to Kotkin, Russia shares much with England and France—once great powers—as well as Germany and Japan. The former pair came to terms with the erosion of their prominence. The latter “had their exceptionalism bombed out of them.”

America and China also claim heavenly mandates. This, I propose, is based on ego fostered by historic power. Now, don’t get me wrong. While I oppose the idea of American exceptionalism—which often translates to “we can do no wrong”—I believe that America is an exceptional country. Although exceptional is not a synonym for perfect.

The United States, unlike its European forebears, never saw itself as a tribal or ethnic state. True, some people define real Americans as white Protestants. But the nation ultimately opened its doors to everyone and defined American as citizen. Yes, our history of slavery and racism is shameful. Still, America evolved under the rule of law. If the law has not always been adhered to, it nonetheless has offered great protection to citizens and non-citizens alike. Lack of perfection does not negate great accomplishment.

Exceptionalism can also be claimed on the religious front. I wrote in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters with God in the Hebrew Bible that Christianity and Islam often see themselves as universalistic religions of a particularistic God. Translation: there is only one way to believe, and God loves only adherents of whichever specific faith makes such a claim.

Judaism takes a different stance. It sees its exceptionalism not in being chosen for privilege but for responsibility. Performing the 613 commandments (many impossible since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) does no more to earn a Jew a place in the World to Come (of which there are multiple concepts) than a monotheist who follows the seven Noahide commandments established by the Sages. Judaism thus stands as a particularistic religion—only Jews need follow all 613 commandments—of a universalistic God not concerned about which religion people follow, as long as it’s monotheistic.

During the presidential campaign to come—or at least its final segment—I hope both major candidates will refrain from references to American exceptionalism. Flag waving often conceals a bent for tyranny. Of course, humility is not a trait that impels individuals to seek the White House or voters to put them there. Still, downplaying exceptionalism could help the winner be a better president.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. It won’t take an exceptional effort.

The post will take off on May 13 and return on May 20.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

PASSION

Long ago, a client asked me a difficult question: “What’s your passion?” His was the piano. The question stunned me. I loved spending time with my family, and my work kept me busy and fulfilled, but I had no answer. Things have changed.

I’m proud that my family is filled with passion. Carolyn loves acting, takes classes and auditions for film, TV and commercials in San Francisco and Los Angeles. She loves singing, too, and takes lessons. She has a lovely voice and really knows how to sell a song. I know. I hear her in the house every day.

My oldest, Seth, is passionate for science fiction in movies and on TV. He also loves video games. Seth is an incredible Star Wars aficionado. That’s why Carolyn and I, with Aaron and his husband Jeremy, flew to Los Angeles for a traditional Jewish Christmas Eve. We joined Seth to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the TCL (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Sharing Seth’s excitement and observations—about the story and the technology—made the event special.

My middle son, Yosi, loves music. You expect that from the fiddler for the band Hurray for the Riff Raff. (They play Carnegie Hall on January 29.) A percussionist at San Francisco’s School of the Arts, Yosi taught himself to play violin then followed up with lessons by outstanding professionals—lessons he still takes when he has time. You know the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.” Passion can make things happen.

My youngest, Aaron, developed a passion for modern dance at Humboldt State. He took a dance course as a freshman theater tech major wanting to better understand how to light dancers on stage. Everything changed. He majored in dance and became an accomplished professional, touring all over the United States as well as Europe and Southeast Asia. He holds a B.A. in dance from St. Mary’s College.

Me? I started writing fiction over forty years ago. That “after hours” career went nowhere. With a young family and a growing business, I stopped. Yet I wrote a nonfiction book about the business side of freelancing, Solo Success, which Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, published in 1998. Then I discovered a passion for the Hebrew Bible and independently published God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible in 2009.

A decade later, transitioning to retirement, I returned to fiction on a whim. That produced Slick! Passion grew. I love telling stories. Just as important, fiction helps me make sense of the world. Of course, when a reader tells me he or she enjoyed one of my books, I’m thrilled.

What’s new? Reed, the literary/arts annual of San Jose State University, recently accepted my short story “Beautiful!” about a retired astronaut on his eightieth birthday. It will appear in May. And I completed my second—but hardly the last—draft of a new novel. I have more novels—and stories—waiting in the wings.

What your passion is doesn’t matter. Cats? Running? Baking? Sailing? Fixing old toasters? The Warriors? Carpentry? Knitting? Collecting souvenir spoons? They’re all good. To be passionate about something is to be fully human. Today, I’m passionate about being passionate.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

 

COMIC STRIP WISDOM

I read comic strips. As a kid, my favorites included “Dick Tracy” and “Li’l Abner” (Daisy Mae, yes!). Today, it’s “The Knight Life,” “Rhymes With Orange,” “Zits” and “Garfield.” Occasionally, I read “Sally Forth.” A few weeks ago, a particular “Sally” inspired me.

In a fantasy sequence, it’s 2025. The dad, Ted, counsels his adult daughter Hilary (12 or so in the present) about her music. She’s having a tough time. A musician’s life constitutes hard work and exhausting travel. I get it. My son Yosi plays fiddle for Hurray for the Riff Raff. Fortunately, they keep moving up through will, effort and, of course, talent.

Ted’s advice—in the present he’s rather childlike, but he’s matured—resonated. My novel Flight of the Spumonis just became available at Amazon as I began a new and very different book. Ted asks rhetorically if Hil knows why musicians make music or writers write or actors act. Then he answers, “It’s about having a voice. And if you don’t pursue your art, you may lose that great opportunity to have your say.”

It’s not about money. I know. Many years ago, I hoped to break through as a writer of fiction. I had a few stories published in small magazines. Won third-place in a contest. I wrote a novel and found an agent. Editors were complimentary but didn’t buy. I wrote a few more novels, including the first version of Spumonis. Nada. No more agent, either. I stopped writing. I had a growing family and a growing business. I chose not to feed Carolyn and the kids scraps so I could pamper my ego as a struggling artist. I figured I could always write later in life. It all worked out.

I wrote two non-fiction books. Solo Success found a home at Crown Publishers (Random House). I had my 15 minutes—okay, seconds—of fame. The money wasn’t much, but I loved the emails and letters I received from freelancers around the world. I published God’s Others myself. Close to 65, I got back into fiction after telling a wild story to my friends Dan and Ira over coffee. Dan said, “That would make a good novel.” It became Slick!

I’ve always been a storyteller, and fiction gives me a voice. Slick! mocked corruption and hypocrisy—Middle Eastern and American. Kirkus Reviews named it one of the 25 Best Indie Books of 2012. I followed up with San Café, set in Central America. Then I switched gears. The Boy Walker examined the impact on a father and son of losing a wife/mother and daughter/sister. My research included both oncology and stand-up comedy. Now, Flight of the Spumonis looks at 1980 America struggling with a damaged economy and geopolitical frustration. We see a time much like ours through the eyes of a 13-year-old trapeze artist who runs away from the circus and journeys across the continent.

It’s not easy making sense of life, but fiction offers readers a uniquely empathetic look at other people—and themselves. In doing so, it helps bring people and cultures closer. So in “Sally Forth,” Ted rightly tells Hil that through their art, artists can interpret the world. Which demonstrates that comic strips can be very serious.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or go to Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.