Bob Schwartz

Month: December, 2017

A Sense of Wonder: The Greatest Research Question Ever

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”
― Abraham Joshua Heschel

As part of its epic Religious Landscape Study, the Pew Research Center asked Americans what may be the greatest research question ever: How frequently do you feel a sense of wonder about the universe?

Possible responses were: At least once a week; Once or twice a month; Several times a year; Seldom/never; Don’t know. The results were analyzed and reported according to a variety of factors, including by religious group, generation, gender, race, ethnicity, immigrant status, income, education, marital status, belief in God, frequency of prayer, frequency of meditation, belief in heaven and hell, party affiliation, and many more. The results were also reported by state.

Within religious traditions, the highest percentage of those who feel a weekly sense of wonder about the universe are Jehovah’s Witness (62%), Muslim (56%) and Buddhist (55%). The highest percentage for seldom or never are Historically Black Protestant (29%), Catholic (27%) and Mainline Protestant (25%).

Among the states, the people of Nevada (54%) and Arizona (53%) lead the nation in weekly wonder, with Oregon (51%) and New Mexico (50%) not far behind. Delaware has the distinction of having the lowest percentage of people who feel a sense of wonder once a week (37%). The state with the highest percentage of people who seldom or never feel a sense of wonder is Alabama (34%).

This is just one of the many questions that Pew and other researchers ask about religious beliefs, attitudes and practices. What makes this one question so special?

It gets to the heart of what makes religion and spirituality so essential. Whatever your beliefs, whatever your status, and whatever your experience, this is what you should have learned by now—or eventually will: We are part of the universe, not masters of it, even if our ego, power and learning lead us to believe otherwise. Wonder is the acknowledgment and realization of that.

How frequently do you feel a sense of wonder about the universe?

 

 

 

 

 

Saints and Sinners: Balancing Faith, Policies and Character

Saints are in short supply—in your family, in your community, at work, in politics, in your mirror. So if the search for them is likely to come up empty, what’s the point of looking?

In the intersecting realm of faith, policies and character, it is balance we seek, not absolutes or perfection. You stand certain on a line, maybe informed by your god and your traditions, and believe that everything else stands closer or farther on that line, in one direction or another. You can measure the distance and decide when someone has gone too far.

In the case of faith, policies and character, there are at least three dimensions. Trying to evaluate people in that space is hard and uncertain. Some think this gets us creeping toward relativism, where suddenly everyone and everything is acceptable. But it is no such thing. It just means that we are asked to look at everyone and every circumstance on its own, for itself, eyes wide open, in our own well-considered light. That is a lot of work, and so we want a shortcut. We may think we are able to take shortcuts, but there are no shortcuts, only understandably lazy paths.

Saints are in short supply because even saints are not saints. That is the point. Go easy on yourself and others, or go hard. Do the work, if you have the time and inclination, and don’t depend simply on a bible verse, a rule or an ideology. You are gifted, so use those gifts wisely.

A Hanukkah Gift from Isaac Bashevis Singer

The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet—whom Plato banned from his Republic—may rise up to save us all.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize Lecture (1978)

Among his many incomparable stories, Isaac Bashevis Singer left a number that take place at Hanukkah. I had planned to excerpt one of those as a Hanukkah gift—his gift to us.

But then I came across the lecture he gave when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. I’ve included an excerpt below. It is a bit long, but with eight days of Hanukkah, you could just read one paragraph each night.

If you are someone who writes, as a profession or a passion, you naturally wonder whether you are wasting your time, or worse, wasting the time of your readers. Singer suggests maybe not.

Happy Hanukkah!


The Nobel Prize in Literature 1978
Isaac Bashevis Singer – Nobel Lecture
8 December 1978

The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social or political ideals. There is no paradise for bored readers and no excuse for tedious literature that does not intrigue the reader, uplift him, give him the joy and the escape that true art always grants. Nevertheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation. He cannot but see that the power of religion, especially belief in revelation, is weaker today than it was in any other epoch in human history. More and more children grow up without faith in God, without belief in reward and punishment, in the immortality of the soul and even in the validity of ethics. The genuine writer cannot ignore the fact that the family is losing its spiritual foundation. All the dismal prophecies of Oswald Spengler have become realities since the Second World War. No technological achievements can mitigate the disappointment of modern man, his loneliness, his feeling of inferiority, and his fear of war, revolution and terror. Not only has our generation lost faith in Providence but also in man himself, in his institutions and often in those who are nearest to him.

In their despair a number of those who no longer have confidence in the leadership of our society look up to the writer, the master of words. They hope against hope that the man of talent and sensitivity can perhaps rescue civilization. Maybe there is a spark of the prophet in the artist after all.

As the son of a people who received the worst blows that human madness can inflict, I must brood about the forthcoming dangers. I have many times resigned myself to never finding a true way out. But a new hope always emerges telling me that it is not yet too late for all of us to take stock and make a decision. I was brought up to believe in free will. Although I came to doubt all revelation, I can never accept the idea that the Universe is a physical or chemical accident, a result of blind evolution. Even though I learned to recognize the lies, the clichés and the idolatries of the human mind, I still cling to some truths which I think all of us might accept some day. There must be a way for man to attain all possible pleasures, all the powers and knowledge that nature can grant him, and still serve God – a God who speaks in deeds, not in words, and whose vocabulary is the Cosmos.

I am not ashamed to admit that I belong to those who fantasize that literature is capable of bringing new horizons and new perspectives – philosophical, religious, aesthetical and even social. In the history of old Jewish literature there was never any basic difference between the poet and the prophet. Our ancient poetry often became law and a way of life.

Some of my cronies in the cafeteria near the Jewish Daily Forward in New York call me a pessimist and a decadent, but there is always a background of faith behind resignation. I found comfort in such pessimists and decadents as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Edgar Allan Poe, and Strindberg. My interest in psychic research made me find solace in such mystics as your Swedenborg and in our own Rabbi Nachman Bratzlaver, as well as in a great poet of my time, my friend Aaron Zeitlin who died a few years ago and left a literary inheritance of high quality, most of it in Yiddish.

The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet – whom Plato banned from his Republic – may rise up to save us all.

The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language – a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews. The truth is that what the great religions preached, the Yiddish-speaking people of the ghettos practiced day in and day out. They were the people of The Book in the truest sense of the word. They knew of no greater joy than the study of man and human relations, which they called Torah, Talmud, Mussar, Cabala. The ghetto was not only a place of refuge for a persecuted minority but a great experiment in peace, in self-discipline and in humanism. As such it still exists and refuses to give up in spite of all the brutality that surrounds it. I was brought up among those people. My father’s home on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw was a study house, a court of justice, a house of prayer, of storytelling, as well as a place for weddings and Chassidic banquets. As a child I had heard from my older brother and master, I. J. Singer, who later wrote The Brothers Ashkenazi, all the arguments that the rationalists from Spinoza to Max Nordau brought out against religion. I have heard from my father and mother all the answers that faith in God could offer to those who doubt and search for the truth. In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation. To me the Yiddish language and the conduct of those who spoke it are identical. One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.

There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way. Aramaic was certainly a dead language for centuries but then it brought to light the Zohar, a work of mysticism of sublime value. It is a fact that the classics of Yiddish literature are also the classics of the modern Hebrew literature. Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists – rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.

https://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1517

Mrs. Roy Moore: “One of Our Attorneys Is a Jew”

At a final rally before the Alabama special election, Roy Moore’s wife Kayla denied the portrayal of the couple as anti-Semitic:

“Fake news would tell you that we don’t care for Jews. I tell you all this because I’ve seen it all, so I just want to set the record straight while they’re here. One of our attorneys is a Jew.”

Be an American Maccabee

This Hanukkah in America we are all called to be Maccabees. Not only Jews, but everyone.

Our highest values are under siege, from powerful outside forces and from our own choices. We aren’t necessarily certain of our own values. We are busy and distracted. We don’t know how to respond. It is inconvenient and risky. What if we make things worse for ourselves? What if we lose? Even when the temple is desecrated, we may stand by and feel helpless.

Jews among all people know this situation. Instead of standing by we stand up. The history is mixed and messy, the results not always ideal. But since days of old we do it because we are called.

This Hanukkah in America the lights are still burning, if dimming. We can’t depend on others, or even God, to make sure the lights don’t go out. That is up to us, the Maccabees.

American Nazi Rally, Madison Square Garden

This post was drafted a month ago, but I decided that maybe I had been mentioning Nazi Germany too frequently. If you’ve read some of those earlier posts (here and here, for example), you see that I have never made an explicit connection between the current situation and that one.

Now President Obama has been bold enough to speak of this expressly:

“We have to tend to this garden of democracy or else things could fall apart quickly.…That’s what happened in Germany in the 1930s, which despite the democracy of the Weimar Republic and centuries of high-level cultural and scientific achievements, Adolph Hitler rose to dominate. Sixty million people died. . . .So, you’ve got to pay attention. And vote.”

Naturally, the reaction has been swift from Trump apologists—who already hate Obama—claiming that it is heinous to compare Trump to Hitler, and no such death of democracy is in the offing. On the contrary, they say, we are finally on our way to reviving our past glory.

The message in a democracy is inarguable: know your history, pay attention, and vote. Part of not knowing and not paying attention is the delusion that “it can’t happen here.”

Above is a picture of the American Nazi Rally at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939. It was a full house of 22,000 “patriots”, with a giant god-like image of George Washington on stage, thought of as the father of their White Christian America.

Those who tried to disrupt the Madison Square Garden rally were arrested. Which is worse: being silent knowing that something is horribly wrong, or not being believed—actually being arrested—when you speak up?

 

Roy Moore Blues: Good Morning Little Schoolgirl

Mississippi is on my mind, as it is always in my heart.

There is the controversy surrounding Trump’s visit to the wonderful new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

Then there is Alabama, the neighbor to the east, suffering through the unending untender political mercies of Roy Moore.

This led to my listening to the blues this morning, and the blues standard Good Morning Little Schoolgirl came on. As cosmically unbluesy as Roy Moore is, this is his song:

Good morning little schoolgirl
Good morning little schoolgirl
Can I come home
Can I come home with you
Tell your mama and your papa
I’m a little schoolboy too

Hillel on Buddhism

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?
Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers 1:14

Hillel didn’t know the Buddha and probably didn’t know those who followed the Buddha’s philosophy. Jesus didn’t know Hillel, but knew people who knew Hillel or who followed Hillel’s philosophy.

This is one of the most famous of all Hillel’s wise sayings, and contains the essence of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and all religions aimed at assisting human evolution.

One of the seeming divisions in Buddhist thought—a division in the thought of most religions—is whether the primary mission is individualistic or communitarian. Should I be enlightened first so that I can help others be enlightened? Should I be saved first and go the heaven first so that I can help others get there? Or should I work on the community first, and then I might achieve that aspirational state and status.

Or both at the same time? Yes, both at the same time.

Hillel could not be more Buddhist if he was in India, China or Japan rather than Palestine.

It’s not just a matter of one making the other possible. These are not just dependent conditions. Your enlightenment does not exist without the enlightenment of others. Your well-being does not exist without the well-being of others. Simultaneously.

We see those who proudly parade their faith around yet, aside from aggressive proselytizing, leave others to fend for themselves. It is as if they stopped at the first Hillel question and felt justified making it all about themselves. When they skip the second question—“If I am only for myself, who am I?”—the possibility of their enlightenment, salvation, heaven, or whatever prize they seek is a delusion, as distant as the diameter of the universe.

Bodhi Day Is Here Again

One who recites many teachings
But, being negligent, doesn’t act accordingly,
Like a cowherd counting others’ cows,
Does not attain the benefits of the contemplative life.

December 8 is Bodhi Day, commemorating the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha

It is marked in many ways. Some communities hold multi-day sesshins for practice and ceremonies. Some individuals sit all night the night before. There are many sorts of celebrations across the Buddhist world.

A blog post invites different opportunities, including images, videos, sounds and, of course, words. There are plenty of texts to choose from—Buddhist and not-Buddhist, wise and not-wise.

I considered including a Buddha joke or cartoon. Not that I know any off the top of my mind, but it turns out there are lots online. I have always loved jokes featuring religious figures, such as, “Moses, Jesus and Buddha go golfing…” (You will have to finish that one yourself.)

Then there is always silence, the one-size-fits-all Buddhist message.

This Bodhi Day, I gifted myself a bodhi tree, just like the one that the Buddha was sitting under when he was enlightened. Almost just like it. This bonsai ficus religiosa (above) is about 8 inches high, so I will not be sitting under it. Or on it.

I can’t leave this post without letting the Buddha speak for himself. This is from the Dhammapada, a brief (423 verses in 26 chapters) collection of the sayings of the Buddha, the most succinct summary of the heart of Buddhism.

In keeping with the power of randomness, even on (or especially on) Bodhi Day, this is a random chapter from the Dhammapada:

ONE
Dichotomies

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

“He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those carrying on like this,
Hatred does not end.

“She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred ends.

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.

Whoever lives
Focused on the pleasant,
Senses unguarded,
Immoderate with food,
Lazy and sluggish,
Will be overpowered by Māra,
As a weak tree is bent in the wind.

Whoever lives
Focused on the unpleasant,
Senses guarded,
Moderate with food,
Faithful and diligent,
Will not be overpowered by Māra,
As a stone mountain is unmoved by the wind.

Whoever is defiled
And devoid of self-control and truth,
Yet wears the saffron robe,
Is unworthy of the saffron robe.

Whoever has purged the defilements,
Is self-controlled, truthful,
And well established in virtue,
Is worthy of the saffron robe.

Those who consider the inessential to be essential
And see the essential as inessential
Don’t reach the essential,
Living in the field of wrong intention.

Those who know the essential to be essential
And the inessential as inessential
Reach the essential,
Living in the field of right intention.

As rain penetrates
An ill-thatched house,
So lust penetrates
An uncultivated mind.

As rain does not penetrate
A well-thatched house,
So lust does not penetrate
A well-cultivated mind.

One who does evil grieves in this life,
Grieves in the next,
Grieves in both worlds.
Seeing one’s own defiled acts brings grief and affliction.

One who makes merit rejoices in this life,
Rejoices in the next,
Rejoices in both worlds.
Seeing one’s own pure acts brings joy and delight.

One who does evil is tormented in this life,
Tormented in the next,
Is tormented in both worlds.
Here he is tormented, knowing, “I have done evil.”
Reborn in realms of woe, he is tormented all the more.

One who makes merit is delighted in this life,
Delighted in the next,
Is delighted in both worlds.
Here she is delighted, knowing, “I have made merit.”
Reborn in realms of bliss, she delights all the more.

One who recites many teachings
But, being negligent, doesn’t act accordingly,
Like a cowherd counting others’ cows,
Does not attain the benefits of the contemplative life.

One who recites but a few teachings
Yet lives according to the Dharma,
Abandoning passion, ill will, and delusion,
Aware and with mind well freed,
Not clinging in this life or the next,
Attains the benefits of the contemplative life.

The Dhammapada translated by Gil Fronsdal

First Fire

First Fire

In the desert
The first fire of winter
Comes late
A cold morning
A colder night
Sneaks up
Shivering you realize
Sun and season
Pass the job of heat to you
Ready or not

©