Bob Schwartz

Infinite Jugglers

Infinite Jugglers

Juggle balls and knives
Fruits and vegetables
Jewels and poison
Planets and stars
Three to infinity.
It is a skill and a trick
Admired and applauded
When the circle stops
Objects laid on the ground
What is performance
Who is the audience
Who is the performer?

Between the rational and irrational and between the religious and the irreligious

Between the rational and the irrational is the place that so many traditions point us to, though not all who follow want to go. It is not in the middle, in the sense of being halfway in between, or to applying each one half the time. It is the entire space, with the wholly rational and irrational merely on the outside borders, a thin outline.

This does not sit well with many, who want to have it one way or another. Extreme rationalists frequently work hard to make ordered sense from evidence, rejecting the rest, and particularly vexed by those apparently too lazy or heedless to see how essential the rational way is. Extreme irrationalists may be driven by visions that may be delusions, or by personal preferences, and may indeed avoid the rational because it is hard work or because it may not suit their needs.

This plays out on a bigger social scale. With increasing frequency, the irreligious base their perspective on a loosely rationalist view, not only because there is no evidence of and for the religious, but because the religious seem to discard or ignore the rational in a disordered and possibly self serving way.

No one is right or wrong here, in the sense of winning an ultimately unwinnable argument. Instead consider the field where all things grow, neither rational nor irrational. The place, if we listen to the best of the traditions, where we are born and where we die.

Wisdom House

Wisdom House

I see those
Who visited the house
Some knocked
Stopped for a chat or meal
Stayed for a weekend or season
Or never left.
There is no guest book
But some signed it anyway.
One left a note:
You know
This isn’t your house.

 

The Book of Ruth: Ivanka and Jared, Donald and Charles

It was reported that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner celebrated the Jewish holiday of Shavuot this week, though without much other detail given. It would be interesting to know more, given the connection between the holiday and their own current situation.

Shavuot began as an agricultural festival, celebrating the “first fruits” of the harvest season. It evolved into the holiday marking the giving of the Torah. Among the traditions associated with Shavuot is reading the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth is considered one of the literary treasures of the Bible. It is often referred to and analyzed as a short story or novella. What a story it is. A woman and her daughter-in-law are separated by culture and religion but bound together—forever—by family. When their men die, what connects them is stronger than any force that might tear them apart. It is about loyalty, love and faith above all else, through the hardest times. These strong women are not an ancillary sideshow; they are the main event. They alone assure continuity and the future. No wonder it is thought possible that among the biblical books, this one might have been written by a woman.

We expect that Ivanka and Jared, as faithful Jews, read the Book of Ruth this week, but we can’t know what they make of it. Do they also feel that unbreakable obligation that overcomes the greatest adversity and testing? Before the current events, each of them probably faced some difficulties with their respective fathers. Now the stories of Donald Trump and Charles Kushner are entangled through their children. Those children, Ivanka and Jared, might well believe and say to those fathers, as Ruth said to Naomi, “wherever you go, I go.”

For more about Shavuot and the Book of Ruth, see this earlier post.

Letting Off Steam: Jokes About Hitler in Nazi Germany

Did German citizens tell jokes about Hitler during the Third Reich? Actual jokes like this:

Hitler and Göring are standing on top of the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on the Berliners’ faces. Göring says, “Why don’t you jump?”

Were these people punished? Did the jokes have any effect?

These are some of the questions addressed in Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany by Rudolph Herzog. Herzog explains:

Contrary to a common myth, targeting Hitler using quips and jokes didn’t undermine the regime. Political jokes were not a form of resistance. They were a release valve for pent-up popular anger. People told jokes in their neighborhood bars or on the street because they coveted a moment of liberation in which they could let off a bit of steam. That was ultimately in the interests of the Nazi leadership. Consequently, the Führer and his henchmen rarely cracked down on joke-tellers and if they did, the punishments were mild – mostly resulting in a small fine. In the last phase of the war when the regime felt threatened by “dissenters,” though, this changed. A handful of death sentences were handed down to joke-tellers, though the true reason for this was rarely their actual “crime.” The jokes were taken as a pretext to remove blacklisted individuals – people the Nazis feared or detested because of who they were rather than because of what they had done. Among others, these included Jews, left-wing artists, and Catholic priests. As I show in my book, a staunch party member could walk free after telling a joke, whereas a known “dissenter” was executed for exactly the same quip.

We can’t deny the significance of laughing and humor during the hardest times, personal and social. Jokes, like other subversive art, have a way of digging deep and even encouraging change. There is the example of the king’s fool, who was allowed to say things that others feared to say. But make no mistake, when the king was unhappy, not even the fool was protected from retribution and punishment.

Fire

The same story about the Desert Fathers, told two ways. Why not fire?

Lot went to Joseph and said, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?’ Then the hermit stood up and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten flames of fire, and he said, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’
The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks by Benedicta Ward 

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?
The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

Recite

Recite

Morning
After dreams
These are the words
That wake:
Hear
Listen
Light
One
Heavens
Earth
Beings
Delusions
Chaos
Desolation
Formless
Void
All is
Hevel.

Note: The word hevel is Hebrew, found in the famous first words of Ecclesiastes. “Hevel hevelim, amar Koheleth, hevel hevelim, kol hevel” is best known in English as something like “Vanity, vanity,  says the Teacher, all is vanity.” But as with so much mysterious biblical Hebrew, translators still work on English approximations, of which “vanity” is only one attempt. You will also find hevel translated as air, vapor, breath, mist, smoke, futility, meaningless, pointless, useless. This can put the supposed pessimism of Ecclesiastes in a different light. How can breath be useless?

Sigh

Sigh

Stop your sighing
You will scare away
The birds

Naked Religion

All religious traditions dress you up so that you can go naked.

Take Zen, which contains the most stripped down of all practices. No concentration on a word or phrase or image or thought. Just sitting and breathing, and not even concentrating on that breathing. But even Zen has developed other aspects, including work on koans—stories to be considered and answered or not answered—along with other approaches. Not to mention other Buddhist traditions, which have plenty of added colorful elements, practical and textual, aimed at cultivating the individual.

The same goes for other traditions: Judaism, Christianity, etc., in various forms and versions. Lots of things to do, read, think and look at, some it very complex or spectacular. There can be confusion engendered by the complexity and spectacle, as if those are the point and the object.

The point and the object is none of that, as a careful listen and glimpse will tell you. Naked you come and naked you go is more than an apt description of your life on earth. It is the mission of the religions, though even the traditions themselves can get lost. Whatever your tradition, whatever you behold and hold dear and essential, that is not it. You were never meant to be dressed in the particular costume, though it may seem fitting and attractive. You were meant for the humble simplicity of spiritual nakedness. Just the way you came.

Wisdom Is Where You Find It

Wisdom Is Where You Find It

Wisdom is here
Where you find it
Collect everything
Discard everything
Still everything remains
One thousand and one sages
Advise you
Then disappear
Leaving you with empty shelves
And the world