Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wachtel's Van Gogh Weather Map

My longtime friend and colleague, Ed Wachtel, came up with this bit of pattern recognition, and kindly gave me permission to put it on my blogs. McLuhan would have enjoyed this bit of visual punning, which is based on Ed's recognition of the similarity between Vincent Van Gogh's unique and brilliant style of painting and the look of the contemporary satellite weather map. The added touch of the reference to the Weather Channel is more cleverness on Ed's part.

I believe this would count as an example of formal cause, one of the four types of causes identified by Aristotle, a concept that inspired both Marshall and Eric McLuhan (I published a major piece that Eric wrote about formal cause in the Media Ecology Association's journal, Explorations in Media Ecology). In formal cause, rather than the cause-effect relationship that we are accustomed to, which is one of the four Aristotelian causes, specifically efficient cause, it is the form itself that leads to the effect, and this seems to apply especially to art. So, for example, it is the similarity in forms that motivates and is the cause that led to Wachtel's visual mash-up presented below.

But if none of that makes any sense to you, than never you mind, just enjoy the show, and it's one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and here we Van Gogh:

Saturday, November 24, 2007

More Thoughts on Thanksgiving

So, last night we had our special Thanksgiving service at Congregation Adas Emuno, and I was one of the lay leaders, along with my friend Eric Fisher, due to the fact that our spiritual leader, Cantor Shapiro, was out of town visiting family. As expected, attendance was very low, as many others were out of town or simply too exhausted from the holiday. We had about ten or so show up, enough for a minyan, including three newcomers, two ladies visiting from New Orleans, and the daughter of one of them who lives a block or two away. Needless to say, it was a delight just hearing the Southern accents. Can you say, shalom, y'all?

So, I should begin by acknowledging that having a Thanksgiving service is itself unorthodox, as more traditional and conservative Jews have no problem celebrating the secular holiday, but do not incorporate it into religious observance. In a sense, for Jews, everyday is Thanksgiving. That is, three times a day we are supposed to recite prayers giving thanks to God.

But Reform Judaism is liberal, progressive, flexible, and adaptable to the modern world and to life as citizens in modern nation-states, so we have no problem adding extra prayers in light of the Thanksgiving holiday celebrated the day before. So, I prepared a few items, and I'd like to share then with you here.

First of all, after the candle lighting which begins our Sabbath service, I thought it would be appropriate, albeit unusual, to begin with the grace after meals. As I said last night, many of us are still full from Thanksgiving meals, and the words are quite meaningful in light of the holiday. I took the English translation, from the Reform version of the prayer, which is a bit abridged, read the first paragraph, and had everyone join together in reading the rest:

From Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals)

A song of ascents. When Adonai brought the exiles back to Zion it was like a dream. Then our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with song. Then was it said among the nations: “Adonai has done great things for them.” Truly, Adonai has done great things for us. And we rejoiced. Bring us from exile, Adonai, as the streams return to the Negev; those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing sacks of seeds, shall return with joy, bearing their sheaves.

Let us thank God. Blessed is the name of God now and forever. With your permission, let us thank God whose food we have eaten. Blessed is God whose food we have eaten and through whose goodness we live. Blessed is God and Blessed is God’s name.

Blessed is Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who sustains the entire world with goodness, kindness and mercy. God gives food to all creatures, for God’s mercy is everlasting. With abundant goodness we have never lacked, and may we never lack sustenance forever in God’s great name. God sustains all, does good to all, and provides food for all the creatures created. Blessed is Adonai, who provides food for all.

For all these blessings we thank Adonai our God with praise. May God’s name be praised by every living being forever, as it is written: “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you.” Blessed is Adonai for the land and its produce.

May God rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, speedily in our lifetime. Blessed is Adonai, who restores Jerusalem with mercy. Amen

May the Merciful One Rule over us forever and ever. May the Merciful One be blessed in heaven and on earth.

May the Merciful One send abundant blessing upon this dwelling and the table at which we have eaten.
May the Merciful One bless all of our brothers and sisters of the house of Israel who are now oppressed and bring them from darkness into light.

May the Merciful One grant us a world that shall be entirely Shabbat and eternal rest.

May the One who makes peace in the heavens let peace descend on all us, and let us say Amen.

May Adonai give strength to our people; may Adonai bless our people with peace.

After this prayer, I thought it appropriate to say the Shehecheyanu blessing that we say whenever we have a special occasion or milestone:

And the translation I used was:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has granted us life and sustenance and permitted us to reach this season.

And then, I led a responsive reading adapted from Psalm 100, which is specifically identified as a Psalm of thanksgiving:

Psalm 100

A Psalm of thanksgiving. Shout to the Eternal, all the earth

Serve the Eternal with gladness

Come before God's presence singing praises

Know that Adonai is God

The Eternal made us, and we are God's people, and the flock of God's pasture

Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courtyards with praise

Give thanks to the Eternal and bless God's name

For Adonai is good

God's kindness is forever, and until generation after generation is the Eternal's faith
I took elements of two different translations to get what I thought was the right effect. Anyway, from there the service proceeded as usual, until right before the prayer for peace, at which point I made a brief statement about how there are people who experience the Thanksgiving holiday as a time of mourning, specifically the native American peoples, and that we, as Jews, should feel a special kinship with them, and given that we have celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving, I asked for a moment of silence on behalf of the first peoples of our land. Following that, I had us read together a native American prayer of thanksgiving. We all took turns reading each paragraph, and between each paragraph, we all said the short line together. The specific source was A Haudenosaunee "Thanksgiving" Prayer From Native American Poems and Prayers, and here is how it goes:

GREETINGS TO THE NATURAL WORLD! Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People.

Now our minds are one.

We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

We give thanks to all the Waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms - waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of water.

Now our minds are one.

We turn our minds to all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come.

Now our minds are one.

With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them a greeting and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

Now we turn to all the Medicine herbs of the world. From the beginning, they were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are still among us those special few who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines.

Now our minds are one.

We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here and we hope that it will always be so.

Now our minds are one.

We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many peoples of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life.

Now our minds are one.

We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the Birds - from the smallest to the largest - we send our joyful greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength. With one mind, we send our greetings and thanks to the Four Winds.

Now our minds are one.

Now we turn to the west where our Grandfathers, the Thunder Beings, live. With lightning and thundering voices, they bring with them the water that renews life. We bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to our Grandfathers, the Thunderers.

Now our minds are one.

We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest Brother, the Sun. Each day without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the fires of life. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Brother, the Sun.

Now our minds are one.

We put our minds together and give thanks to our oldest grandmother, the Moon, who lights the night-time sky. She is the leader of women all over the world, and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time, and it is the Moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Grandmother, the Moon.

Now our minds are one.

We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered together as one, we send greetings and thanks to all the Stars.

Now our minds are one.

We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring Teachers.

Now our minds are one.

Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.

Now our minds are one.

We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.

Now our minds are one.
I think that everyone found it to be a beautiful and meaningful, and of course spiritual experience. Immediately after saying this prayer, we sang "Shalom Rav," a prayer for peace in the world.

After the silent prayer, in place of a sermon or Torah reading and interpretation, we had prayers for thanksgiving, and everyone was invited to participate, but only Eric and I wound up doing so. Eric gave a moving extemp0raneous talk about all that he was grateful for. And I wrote a prayer, which I had actually posted on MySpace at the beginning of the week on my poetry blog, so I guess you could call it a poem of prayer or a poetic prayer, or whatever. I'll just include it here rather than make you run over to my other blog:

Prayer for Thanksgiving

This time of year is set apart
As a time of Thanksgiving in our land.
And we certainly ought to give thanks
For living in a land of great abundance.
But we can only give thanks
When we give thanks to someone,
When we give thanks to a higher power,
So we give thanks to You, God,
We give thanks to You.

And it is easy enough to give thanks to You,
For those of us who live comfortable lives,
Who have our health, and the love of family and friends,
Who have clothing to wear and a roof over our heads,
And more than enough to eat,
Not to mention some measure of material wealth.

And for those of us whose lives are not blest by such abundance,
Or whose lives are touched by sickness, tragedy, or isolation,
It still may be easy to give thanks,
If we have found spiritual fulfillment,
Inner peace and outer contentment.

For all of us who feel some form of satisfaction with our lives,
It is a time when we ought to be recalling our good fortune,
And recounting our blessings,
And giving thanks for all that we have received,
It takes so little effort
For us to do it for ourselves,
We need no one else to speak on our behalf.

And that is why, God,
That I do not want to speak now
For the self-satisfied and the satiated,
And instead I want to give voice
To those among us who are angry at You,
Yes, angry at You, God,
And for that reason find it hard to give thanks,
At this time of year, or any other.

I want to give voice for those among us who are angry at You,
Because some of us seem to get more than our fair share
Of sadness and affliction,
More than our share of pain, hardship, and tragedy,
Because the burden You have placed on some of us
Seems so much heavier
Than what You have asked the rest of us to carry,
Because the world that You created
Sometimes seems so unjust, arbitrary, even cruel.

And I want to speak for those of us who are angry at You, God
Because we see evil triumphant,
Oppression and murder rule the day,
Because hate, aggression, and violence go unanswered,
Because there seems to be no punishment for the wicked,
No reward for those who do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly,
Because the innocent go to unmarked graves without number,
And because even at the best of times, Your angel of death haunts our days.

And I want to talk to You, God, on behalf of those of us who are angry with You,
Because our prayers seem to go unanswered,
Because Your silence is overwhelming,
Because Your eclipse leaves us in the dark,
Because Your absence leaves a void in the human soul
That no science, philosophy, or politics can hope to fill.

I want to say a prayer, God, on behalf of those among us who are angry at You,
And find it difficult to give thanks,
Wanting instead only to ask You,


In our tradition,
It is no sin to question God,
To debate God,
To argue with God,
So why should it be a sin to be angry at God?

And just as there are times
When we ask God to put aside his anger,
And grant us forgiveness,
There are times when we too need to put aside our own anger,
And forgive God.
To forgive You, God, for not living up to our expectations and fantasies,
To forgive You, God, for not being the God that we want You to be,
For instead being the God that You are,
To forgive You, God, for not being an overprotective parent,
And instead being a partner,
And leaving it up to us to finish what You started,
To complete Your creation,
To repair reality,
To heal the world.

And if we find it in our hearts to forgive You, God,
Then maybe,
Maybe then,
We can all of us find it in our hearts to give thanks
For what we have received.

For the gift of life, however brief and troublesome, still, life itself is a miracle.

For our bodies, through which we can enjoy pleasure and delight.

For our senses, through which we can encounter great beauty, and wonder.

For our feelings, through which we can know love, and joy, and hope.

For our minds, through which we can learn and grow,
Acquire knowledge
Gain understanding,
Seek wisdom,
And find meaning.

For our spirit, through which we can experience
The sacred and the sublime,
The holy and the holistic,
Transcendence and communion.

For the universe, through which we can experience
Connection across time and space.

For others like ourselves, from whom we can draw comfort and strength,
With whom we can form communities, gaining commitment and purpose.

For the chance to make things better than they were before,
To contribute, even in the smallest of ways,
To be a part of something greater, so much greater, than ourselves.

And so, it is for these gifts above all else,
Which You have provided to all of us
To each and every human being,
We give thanks to You, God, we give thanks to You.

And there you have it. And maybe it needs some explanation, but I think I'll let it stand on its own. And afterwards, the service concluded as usual, followed by an intimate oneg.

It was an evening and a Shabbat to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

I had a few free moments this morning to start on a post about Thanksgiving, and now I'm returning to it. My wife and daughter had a chance to go see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade this morning, a friend from my daughter's school had a couple of extra tickets for reserved seating, lucky ducks that they are. Then we all went out to eat at Charlie Brown's, my son and mother as well, and for a small group this sure beats working like hell to make a big meal and then staring at leftovers for a week. But that's neither here nor there.

In some interactions I've had about this holiday, some of the controversy that surround it has come up, and that prompts this post. At the core of the trouble is how we react to Thanksgiving as a symbol, and the meaning we attach to it, making it a problem that general semantics might mitigate to some degree. And the first thing to be said is that Thanksgiving is a symbol, not a "thing" in and of itself, it has different meanings for different people, and we probably need to separate out the historical realities from the myth and ritual it represents today. And we probably need to understand that the holiday is not the same "thing" as the mistreatment of native Americans by European settlers in the New World, and at the same time that criticism of the holiday is not the same "thing" as a personal attack on us as individuals.

We Americans set aside this day to take a break from work, which we most certainly need to do, and to express our gratitude for all that we have, which we also very much need to do, and to get together with family and friends, which is a good thing. As a ritual, it is a national, secular substitute for the kind of harvest holidays, which generally involve feasting, which can be found in cultures all over the world. I have heard tell that it actually was based on the Jewish Festival of Sukkot, our harvest holiday.

The American Thanksgiving myth itself is a good one, one of peaceful coexistence and community, and we also very much need messages about community to counter the heavy emphasis on individualism in our culture. Every society has its sacred symbols and rituals, and this is one of the main ones in American culture, and ought to be respected as such. And it may be that the story of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving is something of a myth, but no society can survive without a set of myths to bind it together.

Many myths have some connection to history, though, and this one certainly does. And somehow, we have never reconciled our history of warfare against native Americans with the present day. It's easy to say, that happened centuries ago, and has nothing to do with me--it would be especially easy for me to say so, my parents immigrated to the US in 1955, so we had nothing to do with it, so pass the cranberry sauce please.

But maybe we do need to do something more, like add a ceremony to this holiday, a period of silence and mourning to remember the price that was paid for our present-day comfort? And when you think about it, we have this holiday about the Pilgrims, we have Columbus Day which is also controversial, we even have Martin Luther King Day, but we don't have a national day of remembrance that recognizes the first peoples and nations of our land. If you really think about it, it is hard to explain why we don't have anything like that? Doesn't it seem conspicuous by its absence?

To move forward, we do need to achieve some kind of reconciliation with the past. And we have yet to achieve that.

Tomorrow night, I will be one of the lay leaders for a special Thanksgiving service at Congregation Adas Emuno, and everyone will be invited to say their own prayers of thanksgiving. And I intend to ask for that moment of silence to remember the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere, and all over the world. When Eurpoeans first discovered the Americas and encountered the native peoples, some thought it might be the ten lost tribes of Israel. And there certainly is much that our people have in common with indigenous peoples, so we of all people should acknowledge them, as we also acknowledge the American ritual of giving thanks for all that we have in our lives.

I'll write more on this in my next post.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Shuffling Off to Buffalo

Sorry to have been quiet on here for so long, dear blog, I promise to pick up the pace of my posts soon. Right now, though, I'm getting ready to fly up to Buffalo, New York in a few days to give a public lecture about Neil Postman in general, and specifically his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. First, I'll be meeting with a small group of honors students for a seminar discussion about Neil. Here's what the poster for that looks like:

And now this, the poster for the big lecture:

This second one is open to the public, so anyone in the area who might be interested is very welcome to attend.

Last weekend, I participated in a general semantics symposium, and I will blog about that, with pictures, after the dust settles.