Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Angel of Death and the Choice of Life

Here's my latest op-ed to appear in the Jewish Standard, published in the April 22nd edition of the weekly paper. Published just in time for Passover, it's a reflection on the significance of the holiday, entitled, The Angel of Death and the Choice of Life:

Passover is a celebration of freedom, a holiday marking the defining moment in Jewish history, our liberation from bondage.

Passover represents the birth of a nation. The clan of Jacob, just an extended family, becomes a multitude, the children of Israel.

And the story takes us through a revolution against an unjust monarch and an escape from tyranny, to the framing of a constitution at Sinai. No wonder that the holiday resonates so powerfully here in the United States. The Jewish story of slavery’s abolition even includes a civil war of sorts, with the confederacy that turns to worship the golden calf.

The powerful injunction to remember that we were slaves in Egypt stands in sharp contrast to the mythologies of other peoples of the ancient world, which cast them as the descendants of gods or otherwise of supernatural origin. Passover establishes the foundation of Jewish ethics—not simply to value freedom, but in the words of Micah, “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” You can’t get much more humble than being a slave.

Birth is a common theme for holidays that incorporate the rites of spring, as does Passover, with the rebirth of nature symbolized by the green vegetable and the egg on the Seder plate. The other side of birth is death, a topic we don’t like to think much about. But death, unlike taxes, is unavoidable for each and every one of us, whether we acknowledge its existence or not. The very name of the holiday Passover, or Pesach, refers to the Angel of Death passing over the dwellings of the Israelites.

The escape from servitude only occurs after the escape from death. First there must be life. Only then can there be hope, and the potential for freedom. But what is left unsaid is that the escape from death is only a temporary reprieve. Does this imply that the same might be true of the escape from bondage? Certainly, there is no permanent liberation from the inevitability of death.

The Jewish-American anthropologist Ernest Becker, author of the 1974 book The Denial of Death, argued that we human beings are the only forms of life on earth that are aware of our own mortality, and that awareness represents a crushing blow to our self-esteem. The function of human culture is to provide some form of compensation, through beliefs in various kinds of immortality, and by providing us with heroic roles to play in the lives that we lead. Of course, when it comes to the denial of death, religious beliefs have played a major role, especially in the very specific conception of an afterlife that many provide.


Passover stands out from all of the other traditional holidays on the Jewish calendar in its direct confrontation with death. By way of contrast, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we pray that we may be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, with barely a mention of life’s opposite. On Passover, however, death is personified in the guise of an angel. Since an angel literally means a messenger, this implies that death is a message from God, the same God who exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to keep them from eating from the Tree of Life and becoming immortal.

The message is one of choice. In Deuteronomy (30:19) God tells us, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you may live.” While we do not choose to be born or to die, there are choices still to be made. The Pharaoh chooses death time and time again, beginning with his order to kill every newborn Hebrew male, continuing with his refusal to let the Israelites go, resulting in the death of the Egyptian firstborn. The Pharaoh’s choice of death culminates in the decision to pursue the escaping Israelites, resulting in the drowning of the Egyptians army.

Pharaoh’s choices come as no surprise, insofar as he represents an ancient cult of death. We may marvel at the pyramids and Sphinx as wonders of the ancient world, but we also should recall that they were built with the blood of forced laborers, and that they are enormous tombs carrying the embalmed remains of the Pharaoh along with those who served him in life and were sacrificed so that they might follow him in death.

While the Pharaoh chooses death, the Israelites must make an active decision to choose life. When it comes to the tenth plague, the Angel of Death will not discriminate automatically in favor of the Israelites, will not spare anyone by virtue of their descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or because they are circumcised, or because they worship Adonai. It is not Jewish blood that saves the Israelites, but the blood of the sacrificial lamb. This requires, first of all, being a part of the community. If you were not, how would you learn about what had to be done? It also requires choosing to follow the instructions.

We may have replaced the sign made with lamb’s blood with mezuzahs long ago, but the lesson remains: choose life, that you may live.

The Angel of Death who executes the tenth plague is no Adversary. It is not the equivalent of the Christian Satan or Lucifer, nor is it a lord of the underworld along the lines of the Greek god Hades. The personification of death quite naturally is a frightening figure. Its depiction as a creeping darkness in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments, usually broadcast on television at this time of year, has been the stuff of childhood nightmares for six decades now.

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I recall being disturbed, in my youth, by the image of this angel in a Haggadah that illustrated a Passover song, Chad Gadya. That the “Holy One, Blessed be He,” finally “smote the Angel of Death, who slew the slaughterer, who killed the ox…” clearly communicated the hierarchy, but this didn’t change the fact that both the slaughterer and the ox ended up dead.

Which brings me back to the point that Passover is a holiday that confronts death rather than denying it, and offers the alternative—to choose life. The Angel of Death is neither an object of worship nor the embodiment of evil. The personification of death is frightening, without a doubt, but as God’s messenger, it is at the same time an Angel of Justice, under certain circumstances an Angel of Mercy, and without a doubt an Angel of Humility.

Ernest Becker eventually came to the conclusion that in our contemporary culture, we have come to place too much emphasis on enhancing self-esteem. Humility serves as a counterweight to that tendency, the humility that comes from remembering that we were slaves, and the humility that comes from remembering that our lives are finite.

Passover is a celebration of redemption and renewal, but above all it is a celebration of life, whose meaning and value can only be understood through its contrast with death. So as we drink our four cups of wine at the Seder, let us also remember to say L’chaim! To life!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Space Travel and Religion

The March 18th issue of the Jewish Standard carried a feature article that I played a part in, in suggesting the topic and providing a quote and some background information. The piece, written by reporter Larry Yudelson, is entitled Bound for Glory (and yes, click on the title to read it online). It continued with the following subtitle: "Leonia rabbi, shul president contribute to anthology on space travel," shul being the Yiddish word for synagogue, the shul in question being Congregation Adas Emuno, in the town of Leonia, in Bergen County, northeastern New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, and the shul president is none other than your humble host here at Blog Time Passing. Oh, and the anthology you may remember from my previous post, Interfacing With the Cosmos.

Here's how the article looked in print, by the way:

Of course, it's a bit hard to read, that way, so let me help you out out by providing the text:

When Barry Schwartz was 11 years old, he begged his parents to let him stay up way past his bed time so he could watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

Outer space seemed close at hand in the summer of 1969. President Kennedy’s promise of landing a man on the moon within the decade had been fulfilled. Hollywood imagined routine Pan Am space shuttles to orbiting space stations by the year 2001.

That promise was not fulfilled. Pan Am went under, and the Challenger exploded, and though tickets have been sold to the optimistic and rich, tourist flights to space have yet to launch. The astronauts of Apollo 17 left the moon in the winter of 1972, and nobody has returned.

Barry Schwartz dreamed of being an astronaut as a child, but when he grew up he landed not on Luna but in Leonia, where he is rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno. This month, with the publication of Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion, a new anthology from Fordham University Press, Rabbi Schwartz finally finds himself bound up with astronauts both real and fictional, if only in the pages of a book.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The volume begins with an interview with astronaut John Glenn, conducted by one of the editors, Dr. Paul Levinson. Dr. Levinson is a professor at Fordham University’s Department of Communications and Media Studies. He has published several science fiction novels and was president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but it was a nonfiction work, 2003’s Real Space: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age, On and Off Planet, which was the springboard for this new anthology.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One of the topics he explored in that book, Dr. Levinson said, was “how come we made such little progress in getting off the planet since the ’60s? Even now no human beings have been back to the moon. We haven’t been to Mars.”

This got him thinking about people’s expressed motivations for exploring space. There was the military motive that fueled the Cold War space race of the ’60s, the pull of scientific curiosity, and more recently, the view that there is money to be made in orbit.

What was missing in these discussions, he realized, was “something that underlies all these motivations, the almost spiritual exploration of knowing more about who we are in the cosmos. Getting out to space satisfied the yearning every sentient being has, to learn a little more about what this is all about, what are we doing here, what part of the larger picture are we part of.”

And thus was born “an anthology where people from different religious backgrounds and people who are not religious at all write about this intersection of space travel and spirituality,” he said.

Dr. Levinson’s interest in space travel, like Rabbi Schwartz’s, goes back to childhood. “I was absolutely riveted when the Soviets launched the first sputnik,” he said. “I thought it was amazing.”

The book includes an essay from the Vatican’s astronomer, an anthropologist considering the symbolic meaning of objects taken to space by astronauts (including the Torah scroll taken by astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman), and scientist and science fiction writer David Brin giving an original midrashic reading of Genesis to justify scientific discovery and creativity. The book’s fiction includes a seder-in-space scene excerpted from one of Dr. Levinson’s novels and a story by Jack Dann, the editor of Wandering Stars, a 1974 anthology of Jewish science fiction, about a far-future rabbi on an alien planet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As for the actual rabbi in the book—Rabbi Schwartz entered the anthology via Dr. Lance Strate, Dr. Levinson’s colleague at Fordham who is president of Rabbi Schwartz’s shul. Dr. Strate—who is a Jewish Standard columnist—has an essay of his own in the volume, which mentions Maimonides but takes a somewhat more skeptical stance toward space exploration than the other contributors do.

In his essay, Dr. Strate suggests that the desire for space travel reflects a “longstanding desire to look upward, perhaps a returning to the trees,” he said. He quotes Lewis Mumford, who condemned the space program during the Apollo era as a rerun of ancient pyramid building, in which “a select few individuals were the subject of an extreme amount of labor and resources to send this select few to that culture’s conception of the heavens.” Mr. Mumford argued that “our time and effort and resources would be better spent dealing with our needs here on earth. The overall thrust of the essay is that space travel is about the search for transcendence but we’re not going to find it.”

Rabbi Schwartz, however, argues in his essay that astronauts found transcendence in space—and that they were able to bring it home with them and share it with the world.

“Our journey into space is really about our journey back home,” he writes in an essay that began as a High Holiday sermon in 1989, 20 years after the first moon landing. The essay looks at how the views from space changed our view of earth.

He quotes Saudi astronaut Bin Salman: “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”

When Rabbi Schwartz first delivered the sermon, he ended by holding up a photograph taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts that showed the blue globe of the earth.

“From outer space we have gained an inner understanding; a fresh perspective,” Rabbi Schwartz writes. “We are one community on one Earth; a dazzling bundle of interdependent life, hurtling through the void. We are one human race; and must we not join hand in hand across the globe, to care for this our home?”

That's how the article ends, but let's also note the little box that comes right after the piece's conclusion:

Yes, on Saturday, April 9th at 10 AM Congregation Adas Emuno will be hosting a special edition of our weekly Sabbath morning Torah study session, with Paul Levinson joining us for a discussion that's sure to be out of this world! I'm looking forward to it!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Happy Purim!

Tomorrow evening is the holiday of Purim, a minor holiday on the Hebrew calendar, often described as the Jewish mardi gras. I wrote about it in a previous post, My Purim Spiel, so you can read more about it there, if you care to.

In that previous post, I also mentioned how one of the traditional ways of celebrating Purim is to put on a Purim spiel, a play based on the biblical Book of Esther, which in turn is the basis of the Purim holiday. Purim spiels usually are humorous, loose adaptations that might include parodies of popular songs, movies, TV, Broadway shows, etc.

And in that previous post, I mentioned that I had written a Purim spiel, my first, which was performed last year at Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia. The title of the spiel is The Schnook of Esther, and we have since made it available to read online. You can click on the link to see a PDF of the spiel. (There's also a note about how anyone wishing to perform the play can do so, all we ask for is a donation to the Adas Emuno Social Action Fund. Most congregations purchase their spiels in this way, although usually without the opportunity to read them first.)

So, in celebration of Purim, you can read the spiel, and also read along with the admittedly amateurish performance we put on last year, twice, actually. The first version was also included in my previous post, but I'll include it here as well:

And here's the second version:

And just in case you're in the neighborhood, you can stop by Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia to see my new spiel, Shalom Shushan, performed tomorrow night, Wednesday, March 23rd. Here's a link with all the info: Purim Time! And I hope to share the new spiel here on Blog Time Passing before too long. Until then, Happy Purim!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sanders and the Yiddish Speaking Socialists

In my previous post, Grandpa Bernie and the Millennials, I made reference to another Sanders, Edward Sanders, no relation to Bernie, and not to be confused with the English movie star. The Ed Sanders I'm talking about is described on Wikipedia as, "an American poet, singer, social activist, environmentalist, author, publisher and longtime member of the band The Fugs. He has been called a bridge between the Beat and Hippie generations. Sanders is considered to have been active and 'present at the counterculture's creation'."

Originally from Kansas City, Sanders took up residence in Greenwich Village towards the end of the fifties, and among his many other activities, opened the Peace Eye Bookstore on the lower east side in the early sixties, an important center for the local counterculture. He also is the founder of the investigative poetry movement in the seventies. I pick out these points from his biography, which in truth are overshadowed by many other achievements, because they are relevant to the point at hand.

The point being one of his poems in particular, "The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side," which I quoted a few lines from in my op-ed. The poem tells the story of an important chapter in the history of the United States, New York City, American politics, and the Jewish-American experience. The focus is on the first two decades of the 20th century, and the rise and fall of a democratic socialist movement spearheaded by the Jewish immigrants living on the lower east side.

The poem concludes with the failure of that movement, but its influence was felt, in part through the participants that were still alive in the postwar period, in the protest and counterculture movements of the sixties, especially as one of the main centers of the movement, as it was called back then, was in Greenwich Village and New York's lower east side. Perhaps these things run in cycles, so we're seeing a revival of that sensibility from the turn of the 20th century and mid-20th century today in the teens of our new century.

Whether that's the case or not, the poem provides a quick and easy way to understand the milieu that Bernie Sanders come from, both the politics of his parents' generation and the political movement that he took part in as a young man.

The poem also communicates in a clear and stylish manner what democratic socialism is, and was, about. Not communism, socialist dictatorships, or totalitarianism. It was about human rights, many of them rights we take for granted today, rights denied to working people at the beginning of the century. In the spirit of general semantics, it is vital to avoid having knee-jerk reactions to particular words, and instead try to understand what people really mean by them, and that includes socialism. From that perspective, it is indeed heartening to see how that term has been rescued and resuscitated in Bernie's election campaign. In the words of that great socialist president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and that is especially true when it comes to words.

So, now, I am pleased to give you two options for accessing "The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side" right here and now. You can read the poem on the online Woodstock Journal that Sanders maintains, here's the link: The Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side.

Or you can listen to a semi-musical recording of Sanders reading the poem, accompanied by an electronic instrument of his own invention, the Bardic Pulse Lyre. The recording was originally put out on vinyl, but there is a nice YouTube version with the printed words as the visuals, so you can enjoy the best of both words worlds.

I would suggest that this poem is quite helpful in understanding where Sanders the candidate is coming from, and perhaps also why his campaign is not reducible to simply winning or losing caucuses and elections. As for Sanders the poet, over on the Woodstock Journal, as of this writing, his most recent post is a new poem entitled, One Reason Hillary Clinton Should not be President. I guess we can infer from that where he stands on the Democratic primaries...

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Grandpa Bernie and the Millennials

So, my most recent op-ed for the Jewish Standard came out on February 12th, under the title of Zayde for President, the link again going to the posting on my Times of Israel/Jewish Standard blog, just FYI and in case you want to see it in that context. Anyway, it was given the subtitle of, "Grumpy, cool, fun grandpa speaks to millennials," and here's the rest of it:

When Larry David hosted Saturday Night Live on February 6, Bernie Sanders made a surprise appearance during a skit about a sinking ship — an apt metaphor, some might say, for the state of the union.

With David playing the part of a rich man arguing that his wealth earned him a spot in the lifeboat along with the women and children, Sanders was given the opportunity to deliver a few lines about the one percent “getting preferential treatment,” and the “need to unite and work together.” A brief exchange regarding democratic socialism followed, leading David to ask, “Who are you?” Sanders replied, “I am Bernie Sanderswitzky — but we’re gonna change it when we get to America, so it doesn’t sound quite so Jewish.” “Yeah, that’ll trick ’em,” David shot back sarcastically.

And certainly there is no disguising the fact that Sanders is Jewish, although this was one of the rare moments in media coverage of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that any mention has been made of his ethnic and religious identity. And that arguably is odd, given how much emphasis was placed on the fact that Barack Obama became the first African-American president, and on Hillary Clinton potentially becoming the first woman to be president.

Maybe it seems that by contrast with African-Americans and women, Sanders becoming the first Jewish president would be less of a monumental breakthrough for the nation. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that some Americans believe that we already have a non-Christian president — that Obama is a secret Muslim. Or maybe it’s a matter of longstanding Jewish reticence, as reflected in the name change mentioned in the skit. Sanders is a traditional Anglo-Saxon name; interestingly enough, it originated in the same impulse that was prevalent among the Jews of antiquity, to name their children after Alexander the Great.

Of course, Sanders’ self-identification as a “democratic socialist” often is referenced by the news media, as it was on the Saturday Night Live skit, but would that make him the first socialist president of the United States if he is elected? Not according to Republican rhetoric, given that most Democrats have been accused of promoting socialist policies. More significantly, not according to Sanders himself, who positions himself in the tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and policies, as extended by John F. Kennedy and, significantly, by Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. Those presidents avoided the label of socialist, however, given American opposition, from the Russian Revolution on, to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, even during the brief period we fought together to defeat Nazi Germany.

To get a sense of the brief moment in our history when socialism first represented a serious political movement, we might turn to another Sanders, Edward Sanders. Perhaps best known as one of the founders of the 1960s rock band The Fugs, Ed Sanders also has distinguished himself as an activist, author, and award-winning poet. And his extended poem, called Yiddish-Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side, stands as a tribute to the likes of Meyer London, Morris Hillquit, Scott Nearing, Eugene Debs, and Emma Goldman:

To make a New World
inside the New World
at Century’s turn
the Yiddish speaking socialists
of the Lower East Side.

As the poem explains, they had, “a passion for Justice that never fades away,” although they failed in their efforts to translate their ideals into a successful political revolution. Ed Sanders, who is just two years older than Bernie, was an icon and leader of the counterculture of the ’60s and early ’70s. Although he was not Jewish, he took inspiration from the social justice activism of these early 20th century pioneers.

Movements like these seem to run in cycles, so it may well be that the socialism that arose at the turn of the 20th century and returned in the form of the counterculture over half a century ago is due to make a comeback now. Without a doubt, the counterculture movement also was a youth movement, and not surprisingly, Bernie Sanders has enjoyed widespread support among the youngest of our eligible voters, the generation referred to as Millennials. Indeed, this has been a frequently invoked theme in news coverage of the campaign, with the pundits often seeming at a loss as to why twenty-somethings would support a 74-year-old candidate.

The expectation that young people automatically should favor the youngest candidate perhaps has its roots in the fact that baby boomers venerated John F. Kennedy, who was the youngest person ever elected president, but this overlooks the fact that no one from that generation was old enough to vote in the 1960 election. As much as JFK’s appearance of youth and vigor seemed to resonate with the ascendancy of the boomers, we have no way of knowing how that generation would have regarded him had his career and life not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet. We do know that his successor, LBJ, was vilified for his escalation of the Vietnam War, and that happened despite his progressive domestic initiatives.

In the same sense that political movements may be cyclical in nature, so too are filial relationships. That’s why we often speak of traits and qualities skipping a generation. Millennial support for Sanders therefore should come as no surprise, as he easily fits into the role of America’s grandpa, or more accurately, America’s zayde. Often he comes across as a grumpy grandpa, as Amber Phillips of the Washington Post suggested last July. But Emma Roller of the New York Times labeled him “your cool socialist grandpa” in December, and just a few weeks ago, People profiled him as a “fun grandpa,” according to his own grandchildren.

Jeb Bush, who had been struggling to gain the slightest bit of traction, recently had his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, venture out into the New Hampshire snow to help him in his primary campaign. The news media has made frequent reference to her enormous popularity, referring to her as “America’s grandmother.” And there is no question that she fits the image, and did so even back when her husband was president. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has included the fact that she recently became a grandmother as part of her campaign rhetoric, but she has not been able to come across as particularly grandmotherly, drawing criticism this past December for comparing herself to an abuela (Latina grandmother).

Grumpy, cool, and fun are not mutually exclusive traits, and there is something about the image of older Jewish men that plays well in contemporary American culture, and especially on television. It is indeed a mixture of idealism and humor, impatience with injustice, and infinite patience with the young. Whether this is a wining formula for the Democratic primaries remains to be seen, but the source of his appeal to Millennials, as a socialist zayde, should not be a mystery.