Bob Schwartz

God gives Abraham dancing lessons (Genesis 12:1)

Free range Bible study leads to some surprising revelations.

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27). It is the beginning of the Abraham narrative, which in a sense is the beginning of all that comes after in the Bible and in the three Abrahamic religions that now encompass about four billion people.

Genesis 12 begins with this command to Abraham:

Lech lecha

The Hebrew is variously translated, but a common English version is “go forth”.

As Richard Elliott Friedman translates and explains:

And YHWH said to Abram, “Go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I’ll show you.

Go. Hebrew lech lecha. Much has been made of the second word in this phrase, which means “for you.” No translation quite captures the sense of the Hebrew (“Go you,” “Get you,” “Go for yourself”)….I believe it is better to use no English term than to use any of the possible equivalents, all of which are clumsy English.

The Oxford Study Bible has an unusual way of explaining the command:

This is the first of three divine speeches in which a patriarch is given travel directions.

“Travel directions” seems a good way of describing it. This led me to Kurt Vonnegut and Cat’s Cradle, his novel most directly about religion, the fantasy faith of Bokononism. Among the teachings:

As Bokonon says: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

If we accept the wisdom of Bokonon, combined with the insights of the Oxford Study Bible, we can conclude that Abraham was indeed given “peculiar travel directions” and that God was offering him (and us) dancing lessons.

That sounds about right.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

45% of Americans say U.S. should be a ‘Christian Nation’

Pew reports that a large majority of Americans say the founders intended America to be a Christian nation, and 45% of Americans say it should still be. Meaning that we should be guided, or, according to some, mandated to follow Christian values.

As a student of Christianity, though not a Christian, I am interested in knowing which values those are, and how well they are being modeled by those who advocate for a Christian America. I start by turning to the teachings of Jesus, rather than the layers of add-ons that have distorted or contradicted those teachings.

For just one example, following is taken from the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, along with an annotation explaining that the golden rule didn’t begin or end with Jesus. It is basic and foundational, so those who claim we should be living according to Jesus but discard it as optional better go back to the source—or be labeled hypocrites.


Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Luke 10:25-28 (NRSV)

In the end, the parable [of the Good Samaritan] does not answer the lawyer’s question “Who is the neighbor?” but illustrates how to love. It shows the Jewish questioner what a neighbor does; it does not redefine who a neighbor is.

The matter of how to act as neighbor relates to what is often called the “golden rule.” This was a common teaching expressed in a wide array of pre-Christian texts ranging from Confucian to Greek (e.g., Herodotus 3.142; Isocrates, To Nicocles; To Demonicus) and Jewish (e.g., Tob 4.15 and Ep. Arist. 207), although Jesus may have been the first to connect the golden rule to Leviticus’s love commandment. Matthew, who records Jesus as saying that “the Law and the Prophets” “hang” or “depend” on Lev 19.18 (Mt 22.40), elsewhere quotes Jesus as making an analogous remark about the golden rule: “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (7.12). Luke cites the golden rule and then explains it with what seems to be an allusion to the love commandment (6.31–36). The Didache, another early Christian text, opens with a gloss on the two Great Commandments (Deut 6.5 and Lev 19.18) explained in terms of the golden rule (Did. 1.2). Paul may be combining the love commandment and the golden rule in Rom 13.10, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (cf. Gal 5.14). James likewise seems to allude to the golden rule, called “the royal law,” when citing the love command (Jas 2.8). None of this conflicts with Jewish teaching, and indeed canonical translators and commentators gloss Lev. 19.18 with the Golden Rule (e.g., Tg. Ps–J. ad loc.; Seforno ad loc; Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 14.1)….

Jewish sages cited the golden rule in similar circumstances. According to the Talmud, when Hillel the elder, Jesus’ contemporary, was confronted by a would-be convert who audaciously demanded to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one foot, the sage answered with the famous words: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.” (b. Shabb. 31a).

Michael Fagenblat in The Annotated Jewish New Testament

Most Americans don’t know much about history. But history is our great political teacher.

I don’t care about history
Cause that’s not where I want to be
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, The Ramones

Most Americans don’t know much about history. They may know highlight events, or events that are personal to them, or events that support their particular ideology. But the big, long-term picture—not just America, not just recent times—is outside their interest or learning.

Which is unfortunate from a political perspective, and especially in critical political times. Which these are.

One thing we learn is that history is neither a continuum nor a pendulum. It is messy and nonlinear. Leaders, movements and eras may last much longer than we think. Or they can be over in a wink. The only way to see that is the long and wide view.

China is a good example of this perspective. Over the course of thousands of years, China has seen, if not all, then most of everything. Some of its historical eras lasted longer than America has been a nation-in-the-making and nation. Chinese citizens may not be better studied historians than their American counterparts, but they don’t have to be. History is baked into Chinese culture, and not just in our Fourth of July way. If you don’t believe it, listen to Xi Jinping’s long policy harangue at the recent Communist Party Congress, where he became essentially dictator for life.

How does this fit into politics and the upcoming election?

We are living through a time when a formerly quieter movement, a regressive and reactionary one, has found its voice and its votes. How that plays out in elections and policies is an open question, and will be even after these midterm elections are over. Short-lived and reversible? Long-term and foundational?

As smart as we think we are, as smart as some pundits think they are, we don’t know. Even though we don’t know—because we don’t know—we are obliged to act, to do the best we can.

Which means, good or bad historians, in a democracy we vote and encourage others to vote. However it turns out, that’s our contribution to history.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

Not always so: Intellectual flexibility and stubbornness

“This is the secret of the teaching. It may be so, but it is not always so. Without being caught by words or rules, without many preconceived ideas, we actually do something, and doing something, we apply our teaching.”
Shunryu Suzuki

One may be very smart, somewhat smart, somewhat not smart or very not smart. One thing widely shared is intellectual stubbornness. That is: I’ve thought this through and I am unalterably sure I am right.

Some problems. Those who believe they’ve “thought things through” may or may not have. Even if they’ve thought things through, they or the situation or the world may have changed. In fact, they and the situation and the world have changed, for certain. It is the truth of everything changes.

Intellectual stubbornness is easy. Once you make the initial effort, your thinking can be locked down. Intellectual flexibility is hard. “I don’t know” and “I am wrong” are two phrases that don’t come easily to many people. “I know” and “I am right” is so much simpler. Even if they don’t and they aren’t.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

70 Ads to Save the World: An Illustrated Memoir of Social Change

There are good-hearted well-meaning 21st century activists who will ignore the new book 70 Ads to Save the World: An Illustrated Memoir of Social Change because it is an old-school throwback to an ancient time when full-page print ads mattered.

They miss the point.

The form of media of course matters, and those forms have evolved dynamically over the past couple of decades. But creativity, message, heart and soul also matter. And these are eternal.

For decades, Jerry Mander and his colleagues used the available tools to craft advertising aimed at changing minds and changing the world, one reader and one critical issue ad at a time. This book serves as a reminder, not just to those in the creative industries but certainly there, how much good their gifts—your gifts—can do. One creation at a time.

The New York Times, 6 December 1999
The New York Times, 3 January 1984
The New York Times, 31 October 1993; Los Angeles Times, 27 December 1993
The New York Times, 27 April 1989; The San Francisco Chronicle, 27 April 1989; The South Bend Tribune, 22 June 1989; The Miami Herald, 5 October 1989; The Tampa Tribune, 5 October 1989; The Orlando Sentinel, 5 October 1989; Tallahassee Democrat, 5 October 1989; The Naples Daily News, 10 October 1989

Words for Democrats from an iconic organizer: “The fundamental idea is that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values.”

I last wrote about legendary political organizer Saul Alinsky and his book Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971) in February 2016, months before the presidential election.

Alinsky’s thinking was informed by decades of organizing for change in an America that resisted change. He recognized the mistakes made in the 1960s and would recognize the mistakes being made right now.

Like it or not, the Democrats, as one of only two parties, are not just the primary champions for change, but are the current hope for defending and securing democracy in America. The 2022 elections are the next test of that, but not the last.

It isn’t easy to heed Alinksy’s call to communicate giving “full respect to the other’s values.” Maybe Democrats think there is a point beyond which those values are so abhorrent—or completely absent—that respect is out of the question. Maybe we’ve reached that point.

But Alinsky’s wisdom can’t be dismissed. Read the final paragraph, written more than fifty years ago. Americans who are “hurt, bitter, suspicious, feeling rejected and at bay”, whose “fears and frustrations at their helplessness are mounting to a point of a political paranoia which can demonize people to turn to the law of survival in the narrowest sense.” Sound familiar?


As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system….

This failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience….

The “silent majority,” now, are hurt, bitter, suspicious, feeling rejected and at bay. This sick condition in many ways is as explosive as the current race crisis. Their fears and frustrations at their helplessness are mounting to a point of a political paranoia which can demonize people to turn to the law of survival in the narrowest sense. These emotions can go either to the far right of totalitarianism or forward to Act II of the American Revolution.

Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

Ah. Aweland.

Standing Tulips (light photography) © Dean Chamberlain

To look upon and to touch
Oh gosh
Life is really too much
Donovan, Oh Gosh

The designated Jewish Days of Awe have passed, at least for this year.

The birds this morning overwhelmed me with their songs, so multiple and layered that if you tried to follow just one thread of notes you would be even more lost than you usually are.

It is awesome.

I think about experiences, some natural, some induced, some sought, some accidental, that are inescapable awe. Time stopping, time reversing and advancing awe.

That is what all the experiences are about, at their heart, at their core (couer). Once awed—by birds, love, drugs, god—the unawed will occupy us again, replacing awe with the agenda of our selves. Ah, but having visited there, Aweland, we may return.

Every day is a Day of Awe.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

Hannah Arendt: Comprehension means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality.

“That this called not only for lamentation and denunciation but for comprehension seemed to me obvious. This book is an attempt at understanding what at first and even second glance appeared simply outrageous.

“Comprehension, however, does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us—neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as though everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be or might have been.”

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Leonard Cohen x 3 for Yom Kippur: Who By Fire, Everybody Knows, You Want It Darker

It is easy to point to Leonard Cohen’s Who By Fire for Yom Kippur, as it is his take on the liturgical poem Unetanah Tokef, recited during the holiday services. The poem says:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

Here it is featured as one of three songs that cover kindred territory and decades of his creative and spiritual life: Who By Fire (1974), Everybody Knows (1988), You Want It Darker (2016).

Appropriate for Yom Kippur, you will read and hear the evolution that artists model for us as they—and we—face our world, our lives and each other. Cohen as a man in his thirties, in his fifties, in his eighties.

You Want It Darker, written as he approached death, is punctuated by an exclamation suitable for facing your god, your life, yourself: Hineni. Here I am.


Who By Fire

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of may
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt
Who by avalanche, who by powder
Who for his greed, who for his hunger
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident
Who in solitude, who in this mirror
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand
Who in mortal chains, who in power
And who shall I say is calling?


Everybody Knows

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Oh, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

And everybody knows that it’s now or never
Everybody knows that it’s me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
When you’ve done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there’s gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you’re in trouble
Everybody knows what you’ve been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
Everybody knows


You Want It Darker

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified
Be the holy name
Vilified, crucified
In the human frame
A million candles burning
For the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my Lord

There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idol claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

They’re lining up to prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggle with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission
To murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my Lord

Magnified, sanctified
Be the holy name
Vilified, crucified
In the human frame
A million candles burning
For the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my Lord

Politicians give us pause. Artists give us reasons to live.

Politicians and others in our worlds, public and private, do some good things. Politicians and others in our worlds, public and private, do some not so good or bad things. As much as they make our lives better, they are known to make our lives at various times worse.

Let us appreciate artists, who are trying, sometimes subtly, sometimes wildly, to make things that do make our lives a little better, or a lot better. When we are put upon or put down, they give us reasons to live. Also, do not forget that the people who love us are artists too. We are their art. And they are ours.