Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rest in Peace, Theodore C. Baker

I went to the wake for Theodore C. Baker today, well it's yesterday now. He was one of my students, in the Interactive Media class that I taught this past spring, the class that I mentioned in some of my posts a few months ago--we even had a cool little class blog, Interactive Rams, which Ted contributed to in a major way, being the most computer savvy of the group. I learned a lot from him myself, and I am so sorry that he is gone, only 22 years old, just having graduated.

I remember when I was younger and the loss of a peer reminded you of your own mortality. Nowadays, I need no reminders, I know I've lived longer than I'm going to live, and the person I identify with is Ted's mother (his father passed away less than a year ago). Losing a student is a little bit, just a little bit mind you, but a little bit like losing a child. I wish there was some way to comfort her.

But there's no way to be philosophical about losing a child, the world is turned upside down when the young die and the old live on. I can only imagine what that must feel like. All the usual clichés come to mind about the tragedy of a life cut short, much too young, a life hardly begun.

All I can say is that I'm glad that I knew you, Ted, and I thank you for all that I learned from you. Your life had an impact, your life had meaning, your life will be remembered. I hope that you have found peace.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Footnote to Decalogue, Take Two

A footnote being a hyperlink before there were hyperlinks, I just want to add a brief post to let you know that my last post, Decalogue, Take Two!, about one of the services I was lay leader for at Congregation Adas Emuno, wound up being the topic of a post by blogger Ari Herzog, where he reflect on the power of social media. The name of the blog post is Leonard Cohen Inspires Social Media and of course that title is hyperlinked to the actual blog post, so you can go ahead and read it, and the little comment I left there. This completes the circuit, as befits this marvelous electronic medium! So what are you waiting for? Go check it out!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Decalogue, Take Two!

So, in my last entry, I was talking about how I was the lay leader for Friday night services at Congregation Adas Emuno two weeks in a row, on August 8th and 15th, and gave you a run-down on what I did on the 8th. Well, as luck would have it, the parsha or Torah portion for the 15th, the second from the Book of Words, aka Devarim or Deutoronomy, is the portion that contains the second appearance of the Decalogue, aka the Ten Commandments. And as luck would really have it, I was lay leader for one Friday night last year in July when this was the exact same Torah portion. And in case you're wondering about the July/August disparity, the cycle of Torah readings follows the Hebrew calendar, which is a lunar calendar, which is why Jewish holidays sometimes come earlier or later relative to the secular calendar, or why secular holidays come earlier or later relative to the Jewish calendar, as do most Christian holidays, Easter being a notable exception.

So, anyway, the point being that I didn't have to do a whole lot of new preparation for the service, and as luck would have it (seems to be a lot of that going around), I also blogged about it. In fact, I did three blogs last year, starting by discussing the Ten Commandments, and ending with a summary of the service I led. So, for your convenience, here are the links in their correct chronological order:

The Ten Commandments


And I Prayed

There were just a couple of changes that I should note. First, this time I did read the section from Chapter 4 of Deutoronomy (in And I Prayed I explained that I had wanted to do it but decided not to because it would take too long; this time I wanted to make the point about how much repeated emphasis there is on the ban against graven images).

This time, I also added a reading before the Mourner's Kaddish, lyrics from a song by Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises
they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises
they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning
hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will.

Now of course I had heard of Leonard Cohen growing up, who back in those days didn't know the song Suzanne? But it wasn't until I started hanging with the poets on MySpace that I learned that he also has produced an extensive body of poetry, in addition to a large library of recorded music. He's kind of Canada's answer to Bob Dylan, and like Dylan, his work often draws on Jewish liturgy, themes, and sensibilities. That's certainly apparent in this song.

But what really got me hooked was the Leonard Cohen concert documentary, I'm Your Man, which features a variety of artists performing his songs, along with interviews and biographical material. And there was an amazing rendition of If It Be Your Will by a singer named Antony, reminiscent in his nonverbal kinesics of Joe Cocker, that was probably the highlight of the film, certainly of its most memorable moments. And through the miracle of YouTube, I can share this with you now:

Of course, there was no way to reproduce this kind of performance when all I did was a simple reading. But I was very pleased to learn, after services at the Oneg Shabbat (where we have wine, hallah, cake, and fruit), that two of my friends from Adas Emuno who were there that night, Michael and Fanny Fishbein, were also familiar with the documentary, and were also thinking of Antony singing this song. It was a fitting end to my two week run with the Book of Words, I think (and Michael did an excellent job of leading services this past Friday night, I should add).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Book of Words

So, I was the lay leader for Friday night services at Congregation Adas Emuno two weeks in a row, on August 8th and 15th. So I thought I'd share with you the creative parts of the services. But maybe I'll just deal with the first week in this post.

As you no doubt know, traditionally each week a section of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, otherwise known as the Five Books of Moses, is read. And by August 8th the fourth book, Numbers had been completed, and this was the first week that we started on Deuteronomy.

So, after we completed the main part of the prayer service, I added some additional material. First, I adapted traditional gospel spiritual lyrics, and made them into a responsive reading. It went like this:

Just like the Israelites, who were Pharaoh's slaves
They suffered in bondage and they prayed for days
The Lord said, "Moses, go set them free"
"I am the Lord, thy God, and I'll go with thee"

Through the water
Through the flood
Through the fire
Through the blood
I am the Lord, thy God
And I'll be with thee

Just like old Joshua at Jericho
The Jericho walls, he wanted to overthrow
The Lord said, "Fight, and I'll give you victory"
"I am the Lord thy God, and I'll go with thee"

Through failure
Through success
I'll understand
When you done your best
I am the Lord, thy God
And I'll be with thee

In the interests of full disclosure, apart from moving things around a little, my adaptation involved deleting the first verse, which was about the prodigal son,, a Christian parable form the New Testament. And I do think there is a decided difference between that story and the rather momentous events depicted in the other two verses. I should also confess that my familiarity with the song comes from the version recorded by the Jerry Garcia Band, with Maria Muldaur and Donna Godchaux sharing lead vocals (and Jerry in the background). It's a bonus track on the version of the Cats Under the Stars album that's included in All Good Things Jerry Garcia box set. More information than you needed, no doubt, but then again, you never know, and it is my blog after all.

In any event, I explained that the events depicted in Deuteronomy fall in between the two main events in the lyrics, Moses freeing the Israelites, and Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho.

And then I proceeded with a sermon, or Devar Torah, literally, Word of Torah, a little talk about the parsha or weekly Torah portion. I didn't have time to write it out, as my old mentor Neil Postman would insist I do, but I did make notes and will use them to tell you what I talked about.

I began by acknowledging that this week we began reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, and that Deuteronomy, like all books of the bible, was originally a single scroll, a byblos, from which Bible is derived. That's why they're called books, rather than say chapters or sections. And back in the ancient world, books didn't actually have titles, but were referred to by their opening words. The Book of Deuteronomy begins with aleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe el kol yisroel, These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel. The actual, original title of Deuteronomy was therefore Aleh HaDevarim, translated as These are the Words, but the title was abbreviated to Devarim, meaning Words. Deuteronomy is the Book of Words, which I think is a wonderful title. The Jewish people are a people of words, which suggests on the one hand that we talk a lot (that was a laugh line). But it also means that we believe in words, not images--no idols, no graven images. God is a God of words. Creation begins with words, as God says, Let there be light, and only after the words comes the act, the actual creation of light. And Creation is completed with us, with human beings, made in God's image, and we are the only form of life that really uses words.

The sages referred to Devarim as Mishneh Torah, which was translated as Second Law, and that is the basis of the Greek name for the book, from which we get Deuteronomy. A more precise translation, however, is a Review of the Law or Torah, as it goes back over some of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers--it is a review, but hardly a duplicate.

Historians believe that this book is of later origin than the first four books of the Torah, and trace it back to the reign of King Josiah in the late 7th century BCE. The book differs from the first four in tone, and traditionally it's said that Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers were composed by God, and transcribed by Moses, but Deuteronomy was authored by Moses on his own, in his own words. In this book, we hear a personal tone, as Moses says, "And God spoke to me," whereas previously there was a third person point of view, for example, "And God spoke to Moses."

The Book of Words consists of the words of Moses, as he addresses the Israelites. He reminds them of how, before they left Mount Sinai, he realized that they were too numerous for him to lead on his own. So, they had agreed to let him appoint a system of judges to preside over them, to mete out justice and teach the people about the Law. They then quickly traveled through the desert and reached the border of the Holy Land. The people demanded that Moses send spies in before they enter, so he sent 12, one from each tribe. And they came back in terror, reporting that the land is unconquerable. Despite Moses telling them that God would be with them and would make sure that they were successful, they were too fearful to enter. So God decided that that entire generation would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land, including Moses himself. Not too long afterward, the Israelites realized their mistake, and some of them tried to enter and take the land, even though Moses told them not to, and they were defeated and killed. And so the Israelites had to wander the dessert for almost 40 years before they could try to enter again. (The Deuteronomy version contrasts with the version in Numbers, where God not the Israelites says to send in the spies; also the reason why Moses cannot enter the land of Canaan is elsewhere explained by the fact that he had committed murder--the Egyptian overseer who was whipping a Hebrew slave--and that he struck the rock out of anger to get water).

The Book of Words begins with a rebuke from Moses. The Israelites have been punished for being cowardly, filled with doubt, lacking in faith, and obstinate. They have suffered for their failing and sins. This may seems harsh and authoritarian to modern ears, but I think there are lessons for us. For example, we should not think we have all the answers, we should understand that there is something more than us, greater than us, that we need to have faith that there is something greater than us, and through faith, to have courage.

But more than anything, I am struck by the poignancy of Devarim, the Book of Words. These are the last words of Moses, his final address to the people of Israel. He knows that he will not be allowed to enter the promised land, he can only view it in the distance. He knows that the amazing journey of his life, from an infant floating precariously on the Nile, to being raised as a prince of Egypt, to exile and the reluctant call to serve God, to his confrontation with Pharaoh and his role as liberator, leader, and law-giver, is coming to an end. In effect he is saying to the Israelites that the story goes on for all of you, but this is where it ends for me.

He speaks to them over the course of 37 days, and the book of words ends with his death. In the end, Moses, the greatest of all the prophets, was still just a man, a fallible human being, and we don't worship him, don't pray to him for help, we don't make statues of him or invoke his name, or venerate him the way many other religions do with their central figures. Moses was the greatest of us, but he was one of us, only human.

At this point in the service, I noted that this was also the Sabbath before Tisha B'Av, traditionally observed as a fast day, mourning the destruction of the first and the second Temples in Jerusalem (and the great loss of life that accompanied these events). Since Eric Fisher was leading a Havdallah Talk the next evening on the subject of whether there is room for observing Tisha B'Av in Reform Judaism, given that our movement does not have the same longing for the restoration of the Temple that has been maintained among the Orthodox. I should add that Eric's talk was excellent, highly informative, and he took the reasonable position that we should observe Tisha B'Av, not because we want to rebuild the Temple, but because it is a day of mourning for the loss of life, and because the events it represents did serve to define our religion as we know it today (the destruction of the first Temple led to the Babylonian captivity and the beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, the destruction of the second Temple to the ascendancy of Rabbinic Judaism). So, I asked Eric to read the Haftarah (a reading selected from the other books that make up the Holy Scriptures, typically from the Prophets, that complements the Torah portion) in English, because it is meant to connect to Tisha B'Av as well as the first portion from Deuteronomy. And here's the reading, from the beginning of the Book of Isaiah:

1. The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, [and] Hezekiah, kings of Judah. 2. Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord has spoken; Children I have raised and exalted, yet they have rebelled against Me. 3. An ox knows his owner and a donkey his master's crib; Israel does not know, my people does not consider. 4. Woe to a sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, evildoing seed, corrupt children. They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards. 5. Why are you beaten when you still continue to rebel? Every head is [afflicted] with illness and every heart with malaise. 6. From the sole of the foot until the head there is no soundness-wounds and contusions and lacerated sores; they have not sprinkled, neither have they been bandaged, nor was it softened with oil. 7. Your land is desolate; your cities burnt with fire. Your land-in your presence, strangers devour it; and it is desolate as that turned over to strangers. 8. And the daughter of Zion shall be left like a hut in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. 9. "Had not the Lord of Hosts left us a remnant, we would soon be like Sodom; we would resemble Gomorrah." 10. Hear the word of the Lord, O rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, O people of Gomorrah! 11. Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and hegoats I do not want. 12. When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My courts? 13. You shall no longer bring vain meal-offerings, it is smoke of abomination to Me; New Moons and Sabbaths, calling convocations, I cannot [bear] iniquity with assembly. 14. Your New Moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates, they are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing [them]. 15. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood. 16. Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. 17. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow. 18. Come now, let us debate, says the Lord. If your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow; if they prove to be as red as crimson dye, they shall become as wool. 19. If you be willing and obey, you shall eat the best of the land. 20. But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of the Lord spoke. 21. How has she become a harlot, a faithful city; full of justice, in which righteousness would lodge, but now murderers. 22. Your silver has become dross; your wine is diluted with water. 23. Your princes are rebellious and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes and runs after payments; the orphan they do not judge, and the quarrel of the widow does not come to them. 24. "Therefore," says the Master, the Lord of Hosts, the Mighty One of Israel, "Oh, I will console Myself from My adversaries, and I will avenge Myself of My foes. 25. And I will return My hand upon you and purge away your dross as with lye, and remove all your tin. 26. And I will restore your judges as at first and your counsellors as in the beginning; afterwards you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City. 27. Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitent through righteousness.

We then returned to the regular service, with the traditional Aleinu prayer, but following that, and before starting on the Mourner's Kaddish, I added one more reading, again a responsive reading adapted from song lyrics, this time from Bob Dylan's Forever Young:

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
And may you stay forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
And may you stay forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
And may you stay forever young,
May you stay forever young.
Dylan took the opening line, May God bless and keep you always, from the priestly benediction that was traditionally made by the Cohenim (the House of Aaron, brother of Moses, who were the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, from whence the Jewish last name of Cohen and variations such as Kahn), and that first appears in The Book of Numbers:

The Eternal spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

The Eternal bless you and keep you!

The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you!

The Eternal bestow favour upon you and grant you peace!

Thus they shall link my name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (Numbers 6:22-27)

This is a contemporary translation, but the older wording that I grew up with was more along these lines:

May God bless you and keep you;
May God shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you;
May God turn His countenance towards you and place upon you peace.
Anyway, I've been wanting to use the Dylan lyrics in a service for some time now, and my son, who I had introduced the song to a while back, was eager for me to do so as well, so I'm happy I had the chance, and that he was there to see and take part in it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Where We Live?

Where do we live? Well not in Connecticut, or at least I don't, maybe you do, but that's besides the point, as I recently made an appearance on Connecticut Public Radio. Well, appearance isn't the right word, after all, radio being an acoustic medium, so I guess you could say that I recently sounded off on Connecticut Public Radio, which describes itself as follows:

WNPR - Connecticut Public Radio

Hartford/New Haven: 90.5 FM
Norwich/New London: 89.1 FM
Stamford/Greenwich: 88.5 FM
Southampton, NY: 91.3 FM
Storrs: 99.5 FM (translator)

WNPR offers news, information and entertainment programming that is available to listeners both on the radio and online. The award-winning WNPR news department originates in-depth news reports on issues and events of importance to Connecticut – such as politics, technology, business, the environment and the arts – that frequently are selected for national broadcast on NPR.

The name of the program I was invited to participate in--it was originally framed as an interview, but it was a bit more like a discussion, is Where We Live, hence the title of this post, and the host is John Dankowsky, and here's what he looks like:

Not that you need to know what he looks like, since this is radio after all, but that's what the web does to radio, for good and mostly ill I would say. Not that there's anything wrong with the way this fellow looks, mind you, just that it ruins the whole mystique of radio, with its disembodied voices from the ether... but what can you do, that's the way the media environment crumbles, so they say, and ether way you look at things, there's nothing much to be done about it. So, for good measure, here's another picture for ya:

So, anyway, I do want to say that I very much liked this guy, John Dankowsky, I thought he was a bright and articulate host, and needless to say, I was very pleased to discover that he has an interest in media ecology. Very cool. So anyway, John's program, Where We Live, is described as follows:

This WNPR-produced, interactive program explores important issues and ideas that affect where, how and even why people live in Connecticut – and how Connecticut fits into a global society. Using the award-winning producers of WNPR News, Where We Live expands in-depth, original reporting, creating conversations that will draw in newsmakers, opinion leaders and engaged citizens.
Not too shabby, eh? And you can get this and more on the Where We Live website, which I've linked to here, so if you had just clicked on Where We Live you'd be home by now. But you might miss the rest of this blog post. And there really isn't that much more to it, so stick around just a little bit more, whydon'tya?

So, the program I participated in aired on Wednesday, August 13, 2008, and if you're reading this blog post soon after its posting, there will still be a link right on the
Where We Live page, under the heading of Episodes, the episode bearing the title Media Ecology: Is Technology Helping? If not, you may have to go back through the archives from that page. Or... just click here to go the episode's very own page.

The episode begins with the author, Dick Meyer, talking about his recently published book,
Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millenium. Dick is the editorial director of digital media at NPR, and was a longtime columnist and reporter for CBS News. His book is very much in line with other cultural critiques familiar to media ecologists, such as Daniel Boorstin's The Image, Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, and more recently Tom de Zengotita's Mediated. The critique is about the decline of civility and community, and the tendency to be divisive and argumentative, in contemporary American culture. It's basically a rant, with some sense that media play a role in what's happened--after all, he's a journalist/columnist, not a scholar's in-depth study. Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death is listed in the bibliography, but not discussed in the book itself, missing out on Neil's cogent explanation for the decline of discourse. McLuhan is mentioned, misquoted actually, but does not appear in the bibliography. Overall, Meyer provides a good overview of the symptoms, which can be useful to someone employing a media ecological framework to provide an explanation for why things have changed.

As you can tell, I actually went out and bought the book prior to the show, and read it. But as it turns out, the part of the show I was involved with, while continuing the discussion on whether technology is good or bad (a good question for generating a lot of heat, but not much light), did not directly address Dick Meyer's Why We Hate Us. Oh well, reading it certainly did no harm!

So, Meyer was on for about 15-20 minutes, and then he was gone and they turned to me, and to Alex Halavais, a professor at Quinnipiac University, who I know through communication, and media ecology circles, and they also had folks calling in. I had the pleasure of sitting in one of WFUV's studios at Fordham University--WFUV is our own outstanding public radio station. The discussion itself was quite good, I thought, given the limited time that even a public radio program affords.

On an interesting side note, I mentioned that I was getting tweets on Twitter during the program, although unfortunately no one tweeted anything worth mentioning, and not long after the program aired, several new people started following me on Twitter.

So, on the Media Ecology: Is Technology Helping? page you can listen to or download the entire program, there's an area to leave comments, they have a link for the Media Ecology Association, and a link to a page they set up for me! Check it out by clicking here! I am very pleased to be included on their website as well as their program, so I'll stop yakking here so that you can go listen to me yakking there. And why not leave a comment on their Media Ecology: Is Technology Helping? page, if you feel like it? I'm sure they'd appreciate you utilizing the technology to its fullest.