Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Particulars of Rapture

I'm only fifty pages in, but already I can tell that The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus is going to be one of those books that stays with me for life.  Let's just start with the title.
Two things of opposite natures seem to depend

On one another, as a man depends

On a woman, day on night, the imagined

On the real.  This is the origin of change.

Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace

And forth the particulars of rapture come. 

(Wallace Stevens)
So Avivah Zornberg calls our attention to the ways the Exodus text works deeply in our minds. It has hidden elements on which the meaning of the whole depends: for instance, the deeply important role of women in a narrative that on its surface is about Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, and a masculine God.  Our job as readers (and as Jews) is to pay attention to both, the revealed and the hidden, to make meaning come forth like new life in the growing season.

I could quibble about the metaphysics of this.  Instead, let me appreciate the poetics.  "Embrace" is just what I have done with Torah over the year, and "rapture" (which is always particular) is just what I have felt when I have felt that, for the moment, I understood.  The passion of these words is true to life.  As Arthur Waskow has written, reading Torah is wrestling with the text, and with God's own self, and "wrestling feels a lot like making love."

For my friends who ask why I would spend so much time with an ancient text, here's an answer.  It's erotic.  It's the life force of the universe breaking out in words.  Why wouldn't I embrace it?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

And When It Is Too Hard, Cry Out!

Suffering in silence is not a Jewish virtue.

When our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, according to the book of Exodus:

The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried: their shriek for help from the bondage rose up to God.  God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew. (2:23-25)
Avivah Zornberg, in The Particulars of Rapture, points out that there are four synonyms for crying out here, in the short space of two sentences.  And God responds in four ways.  God hears, remembers, sees, and knows.    Our silence is what had allowed God to "hide God's face"--a terrifying expression the Rabbis use for "the human experience of being abandoned by God"--up to that moment.  Our crying out is what evokes God's response: a response of empathy and compassion. 

"And God knew."  What did God know that God, in God's omniscience, had supposedly not known before? At the Burning Bush, God tells Moses this: "For I knew their pain" (Exodus 3:7).  In Christian  thought, it takes divinity being incarnated in human form for God to know human pain.  For Jews, all it takes is an anguished cry by us, frail human beings.

All it takes?  What am I saying?  How easy is it to speak of our deepest pain, to recognize how far we are from freedom?  Far easier to dull one's pain, but far more dangerous as well.  Zornberg writes (paraphrasing the commentary Sefath Emeth):

The basic requirement of freedom ("redemption") is the awareness of "exile," the groan of conscious alienation.  To be in exile and not feel it--this needs a "great salvation."
Some biblical commentators trust that God will give us the capacity to feel our oppression and to cry out against it.  I grew up with the saying that God helps those who help themselves.  Suffering in silence is not a Jewish virtue.  Crying out against injustice is, and always has been, since the days of Pharaoh.  There is plenty of injustice today.  Let us not be silent!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What "Means Testing" Means for Average Americans

Usually, giving more to people who have less already is considered a progressive idea.  But according to today's Boston Globe:
  1. Romney wants to give fewer Social Security and Medicare dollars to higher-income people.
  2. Obama wants to keep  the benefits the same but make higher-income people pay more for them up front, in taxes.
  3. Many progressives don't want to see either!  How can this be?
 "Means testing"--basing our eligibility for benefits on our income or wealth--is a great idea in the abstract.  Why give either millionaire who's running for President any benefits that they don't really need, for instance?  We could certainly find other uses for the money.

Historically, though, Social Security and Medicare were popular precisely because everyone paid in and everyone took out.  These "social insurance" programs look more like cooperative saving for the future than like handouts, and that's made them politically strong.  When Tea Party types hold signs that say, "Keep your government hands off my Social Security," they are terribly confused (since Social Security IS a government program)--but at the same time, they are showing how powerful the appeal of universal programs can be.

Means testing Social Security and Medicare would make them look more like programs for the poor, including food stamps, Medicaid, and TANF.  Now, I am all in favor of these programs, but many Americans are not.  So, means testing the programs would deprive them of political support.  That's why many progressives will fight to keep them universal--even if that means an older Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will be entitled to Medicare.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Can't Eat? Probably Won't Learn

Stop blaming the teachers.  The biggest education reform this country could undertake would be to make sure all students have a place to live, enough food to eat, and the other necessities of a dignified life in the U.S.