Archive for October, 2019

A Great Disclaimer

October 17, 2019

Please note: a gun is used onstage, and gunshots are heard offstage, during the show. Additionally, herbal cigarettes are used in this production.

Post-Script from Friday

October 16, 2019

Just a little update to my Friday post: My husband generously pointed out to me that while my post was “good,” I flubbed one thing, which is that Jesus did not say outright he had come to supplant the law.  Rather, he said, during the Sermon on the Mount, that he had come to “fulfill” it.  What exactly does that mean?  Of course, Jesus liked to speak in parables, so the enigmatic statement was left to be clarified by his Apostles later: in Acts 15, when Paul and Barnabas go to the Council at Jerusalem, long story short, they proclaim that the laws of Moses have been abolished (to put it heavy-handedly) and that people shall be saved “through the grace of our Lord Jesus” alone.  So, while the point of my phrasing was correct––most Christians (save Seventh Day Adventists) do not consider Hebraic law to apply to them (nor do Hebrews!)––the literal phrasing of it––that Jesus said this outright––was wrong.  Sorry!  I am going to leave up my mistake for all to see because that’s how big a person I am!

Good-Natured Rant Friday

October 11, 2019

So I stayed up too late last night, and I’m waiting to hear back on about ten things that I’d rather be doing than the things that I’m attempting to plug through that lack external motivators (that is confusing but it’s not really interesting enough to clarify) which means I have to come up with something else to do.  Herewith, an attempt:

Probably about two weeks ago, my husband was walking through midtown when he passed a church, or something––I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but he somehow ended up faced with some non-denominational Christian literature.  Knowing me as well as he does, he grabbed a little pamphlet entitled Keeping Sabbath, by The Reverend Doctor Donna Schaper, prolific author and senior minister at the Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, which is a Baptist institution with a long history of artistic parishioners and institutional support for the arts.

The Reverend Doctor Schaper is a wonderful writer (I’ve visited her website); the power of her spiritual thought is evident even in her obligatory biography.  It’s really great to see literally anyone grappling with issues of faith in modern life.

And yet and yet and yet… her little pamphlet Keeping Sabbath is really kind of ridiculous!  Let me break down why, using her full text and inserting my comments throughout:

“The scariest thing I ever touched was not a spider or a snake or my family’s frog or a jellyfish in the ocean.  The scariest thing I ever touched was my power to choose wellness or illness, peace or anxiety, chocolate or black raspberry, to sleep longer or to wake sooner, to live for myself or others, to live by the tyrannical ticking of the clock or with a deeper sense of longer time.”

So far, so poetic.  Some might quibble with the idea of choice vis-a-vis “wellness or illness” but I see what she’s getting at.

“Keeping Sabbath is about choosing to live and not just exist.”

I suppose in a 21st century Instagram graphirmation-sense, sure.*

“We live in a time famine––a culture that starves us for time.  Technology encourages us to work 24/7, and the boundaries between home and work have dissolved.”

Yes, 1000%.  But…

“We need to discover some new ways of keeping the Sabbath.”

“New”?  This deserves further investigation.

The Biblical Understanding”

This part is mostly background, so won’t require much explication.

“The Biblical Sabbath is a weekly day of rest commanded by God in the Old Testament.  It is first mentioned in the book of Genesis, where God rests on the seventh day of creation.  The fourth of Ten Commandments calls God’s people to imitate God by keeping the seventh day holy (Exodus 20:8-11).  It is also understood as a remembrance of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).  It is a day when the Israelites were commanded to stop all work.

“Sabbath observance helped Jews retain their distinctiveness during the Diaspora, a time when they lost their land and homes.  For centuries, Jews, Christians and Muslims continued to set aside a day of the week for rest.  For Christians, this became the first day of the week, in celebration of the resurrection of Christ.

“Six days we work, on the seventh day we rest.  This might be the Biblical ideal, but it is nearly impossible in the world today.”

This, I fear, is a big overstatement.  Just ask me or any member of a religion that adheres to a strict version of the Sabbath, which includes conservative Anabaptists like the Amish, some Mormons, and Orthodox Jews.  Perhaps the Amish are a bad example here, as they are not interested (broadly speaking) in participating in “the world today.”  But within Orthodox Judaism, even from the stringent, insular Satmar world all the way down through people like my family, who are Modern Orthodox, many manage to hold down real jobs in the “secular” world and still uphold the laws of the Sabbath.

“Most of us no longer work agriculturally or even industrially.  Instead, we work online more and more, and our work extends into all of our waking hours.  Even days off can be consumed with busyness, housework, and errands.  We find ourselves ready for a spiritual transition for the realities we face.  We find ourselves seeking––and needing––new ways of keeping Sabbath.”

True, there is an enormous hunger for the peace and sanctity and separateness of the Sabbath.  And there are many, many ventures that attempt to re-package the Sabbath for the spiritual dabbler/burnout millennial/techno-skeptic, many of them engineered by the very people who are responsible for the systemic burnout we’re experiencing: Digital Sabbath, National Day of Unplugging, Camp Grounded and other digital detox retreats, 5:2 Digital Diet––the list goes on and on.

The Essence of Sabbath”

“Sabbath is a time when we are down, not up; receiving, not giving; being, not doing.  It is time set apart that is different from ordinary time.  It is special time, when we reflect on our actions and let their meanings seep into our souls.  Sabbath is moving into the eternal from the daily, to a little bit of heaven from a lot of earth.  It is departure from our biologically allotted time into God’s time.  Sabbath provides the space to remember that all we have comes from God, and our lives are dependent on God, not our own labor.”

Yep, true.

“This time-outside-of-time can be different for different people.  For example, one person might experience gardening as work, whereas for another, it is precious Sabbath time.  Some might be able to set aside a whole day.  For others, Sabbath hours or Sabbath moments throughout one’s week might be more realistic.”

Uh, no.  Of course, a big caveat here is that I’m speaking from an Orthodox Jewish perspective; technically, the rules of Jewish Shabbat do not apply to non-Jews (Jesus famously declared himself as arriving to uproot and supplant halakha).  However, as she made the point about Shabbat being a major factor in Jewish continuity, I feel that it’s important to examine why we’ve been so successful at it critically and thoroughly.

While the Sabbath is characterized by a sense of serenity and freedom, it is not a time during which we relax for relaxation’s sake, or indulge in activities that fit our own personal definitions of relaxation.  What qualifies as appropriate conduct on Shabbat is actually extremely regimented: myriad activities categorized as one of the 39 melachot (“work”), some of them wholly pleasant and totally appropriate during the week, would not be permissible on shabbat.  This includes gardening, for reasons that aren’t worth getting into here (there’s probably a rule of thumb one could come up with, which is like, “If you wonder whether it’s allowed on Shabbat, the answer is likely no”).  Of course, picking your own time for shabbat, and deciding on the duration of said shabbat, would not be allowed, either.

The dirty little secret in religion is that when there are clear expectations of conduct, people rise to the occasion.  We are seeing this play out in religious life all over the world: in Judaism, the more liberal denominations, which emphasize how adherents are not beholden to ___ (insert halakhic stricture here), are essentially hemorrhaging members, while the Orthodox world is booming.  Of course, there are many other factors for this that I don’t mean to deemphasize (the major one being high birth rates) but you cannot discount the fact that an expectation of consistent involvement results in consistent involvement.  Because so much of what is required of us is communal––praying in a group, particularly but not limited to on Shabbat, being just one example, which necessitates living in proximity to a synagogue––we naturally band together, in order to continue to uphold those expectations.  We become an island in a vast sea of cultural difference.  It is because of those clear expectations, and because of that separation from the dominant culture (relative, depending on your sect/denomination), and not in spite of these things, that the Sabbath is for us a lived reality (not a modern “impossibility”) while for others, its value is much coveted, but the thing itself remains out of reach.

“Sabbath Observance Today”

“We may continue to live a frazzled, harried life, or we may decide to live a more peaceful one.  We have choices, not full choice or total freedom, but choices within the narrow places that work and life have become.”

Even as someone who is shomer Shabbat, I’m guilty as charged on this one.

“How might we live optimally in the midst of this twenty-first-century time famine?  How might we experience the gift of Sabbath?”

You do it by… observing the Sabbath!

“If we can’t keep Sabbath the way our ancestors did, perhaps we can figure out something new.  Consider these options, spiritually and practically.  Do not think of them as yet another ‘should’ or obligation, but as options to consider––a quiet ‘may.'”

Uh well, for Jews it is actually a pretty clear obligation.  I’ll admit here to being a Shabbat enthusiast and, if I had it in me, I’d proselytize for it.  I don’t care much when my unaffiliated Jewish friends (of which I have many) don’t keep kosher, but I will admit to finding it sad when they eschew Shabbat.  I think Rev. Dr. Schaper here is pandering, insofar as people in the 21st century very intensely dislike being told they *have* to do something.  But being obligated is not necessarily a bad thing: it increases your chance of follow-through if you feel beholden to a person or a force outside of yourself.  If you make the rules and only you know if you break them, then you are probably not going to care very much if/when you waver.

“1. Give yourself permission to take some Sabbath time.  Tell yourself that you may keep Sabbath, not that you must.  Take Sabbath off your ‘to do’ list and let it emerge from a deeper place in you.”

Counterpoint: think about exercising.  Lots of us (myself included) dislike it.  We dread doing it.  In the minutes before our class begins, we’re asking ourselves why we ever thought this would be a good idea.  But we feel––correctly!––obligated to do it, because we know it’s good for us.  The beginning of the class, we struggle, then in the middle––usually for me this comes around three-quarters of the way through––we reach a place of transcendent focus.  We’re all muscle, no mind.  Afterward, we are always glad we went.

Shabbat is kind of like that.  The lead-up is often very hectic: scrambling to finish the food, rip the toilet paper (it’s a thing), strategically turn off and on the lights, etc.  When we first start observing it, we might find it annoying to abstain from so much, or lonely not being able to call or text anyone.  But as the hours pass, and we move naked through the world, existing with a mindfulness even a Goldman Sachs meditation teacher can’t attain, we rise above.  The feeling COMES FROM the doing, not the other way around.  As the Jews said at Sinai, na’aseh v’nishma: we will do and we will listen.  Scholars have interpreted this to mean that for Jews, the primacy of law takes precedence over understanding.  This is a very anti-millennial idea, but it gets the job done, trust me.

“2. If you have two ‘free’ days a week, designate one for errands and personal maintenance and the other for spiritual leisure.”

If you are not Jewish or don’t have a Shabbat practice, this seems like sound advice.

“This spiritual leisure could be tennis, yoga, or walking, or it could be sitting, reading, or mindlessly watching TV.”

SO.  This.  Well.  Yoga, walking, sitting and reading are all fine by me (and Hashem)!  Tennis could be problematic, depending on certain factors.  TV, though, is wrong by any faith identification.

Obviously for Jews, you cannot watch TV on Shabbat, because it’s muktzah (literally “set aside”).  But I think there’s an argument to be made for outlawing TV even in your DIY Shabbat.  Recall the exercise analogy above.  This is useful here.  A lot of times, the things we *think* will be restorative end up contributing to the problem in the first place.  We don’t want to exercise because we’re tired, so we don’t go on a run, even though it’s been shown that exercise improves overall energy levels.  We want to watch TV because it seems relaxing, but when we’ve finally closed our Netflix six hours later, we feel gross.  To switch analogies, it’s a bit like indulging in cake: it looks delicious and we think it will make us feel nice, and it does in the immediate moment, but when we overindulge (which we do often, as sugar and television––particularly streaming services––are designed to keep us coming back) we feel worse.

There’s another issue here, and that’s the long arm of commerce.  On Shabbat, you get a break from thinking of yourself as a consumer (this is especially important in purchase-happy America); television, to contrast, actively encourages consumerism.  Even on a streaming platform, where you’re often spared commercials or ads, you’re still being prompted to continue to pay for the privilege of watching.  On Shabbat, to contrast, we get to see ourselves as creatures who do not need to deal with money in order to live happily, thereby elevating ourselves onto a higher, less earthly plane.

“3. Practice living intentionally in the present moment, noticing the sounds and sights of the world around you, but also noticing your own thoughts.  The goal of Sabbath keeping is to empty the mind of its obligations and let the non-obligated or seemingly useless flow in.”

Yeah, sure.  Technically speaking, we should be talking about and focusing on spiritual matters, but we’re not perfect (yet) so that doesn’t always happen.  And she’s right to say you should “empty the mind of its obligations”: generally speaking, work-related chatter is frowned upon.

“4. Try imagining the week as twenty-one units––morning, afternoon, and evening each counting as a unit.  Instead of one full day of Sabbath, set aside six units, a couple of afternoons, a couple of evenings, a couple of mornings or even parts thereof.  Reflect on your spiritual accomplishments and do so in a very gentle way.”

This is nice.  I do wonder, though, if you’re setting up your own system, whether or not it would end up falling apart because the demarcation between serendipitous relaxation and “Sabbath-level” relaxation are just too blurry.  When are you idly daydreaming, and when are you having a micro-Sabbath?  This might not matter in the long run for many, but I think if you aren’t a naturally regimented person, you might lose the focus required to sustain a practice with these kinds of vague prompts.  Or you could just think anything nice is Shabbat.  I could see someone arguing, “Well, why can’t you just decide what you like and what works for you?”  Honestly, it’s not nice, but my answer to this is: because generally speaking people are not good at this.  They do all kinds of things in the name of pleasure that are frivolous or pointless or even actively harmful: being lazy, drinking too much, smoking, scrolling through Instagram for hours at a time, and on and on.  I don’t trust people on the whole to make good decisions, without at least some direction.

“5. Custom design your Sabbath practice to fit your job, your family, and your commute.  For example, you might even keep Sabbath on your commute.  Rest, pray, or listen to music.”

Oh boy.  I think we basically covered this one already, but let me say again: Shabbat is not for the sake of your work!  If you engage in this kind of thinking, you are not committing to the paradigm shift necessary to step away from the system that created this burnout-inducing time-famine in the first place.  A Hasidic story, but I don’t know the exact provenance: “A small congregation procured Torah scrolls, but they were too big for the synagogue’s ark.  ‘Should we cut the scrolls to fit the ark?’ parishioners asked. Of course, the answer was no: you build an ark to fit the scrolls.”  And such as it is with the Shabbat: you don’t change it around to fit your life, you change your life so you can have the sabbath.

“6. Ritualize your life.  Do email at set times in the morning or afternoon––or when you decide––and live free of it the rest of the day.  Tell people what you are doing: ‘You can expect an answer after 4:30.'”

Good advice, not really Shabbat-specific though.

“7. Turn off your cell phone and stay away from other technology while on your custom-designed Sabbath(s).”


“8. Ritualize your weekly exercise program.  Let your body and soul say hello to each other in a morning or evening walk.  Take yoga.  Schedule weight lifting.  Make a plan for you.”

Again, good advice, but not about Shabbat.

“9. Eat at least one sit-down meal a day, perhaps with a tablecloth or cloth napkin you keep in your desk drawer.  Refuse to eat take-out food or ‘grab and go’ meals.”

This is a big part of our Shabbat actually!  Observant Jews make an effort to clean their houses before sundown and set out tablecloths or use placemats for the meals.  Meals tend to be formal and leisurely.

“10. Take your time doing something you don’t have to do.  Write a letter to an old friend, clean a corner of your apartment, or dress up really beautifully.  Look at an old photograph album.  Turn the pages slowly and remember yourself at an earlier stage.”

This is confusing to me, but maybe because I don’t find cleaning restful.  It’s also just a definition issue: when are you cleaning for your Sabbath, and when are you cleaning because your house is dirty?  What separates the experience of writing to an old friend because you should from the experience of writing to an old friend because you want to––and what if both things are true?  If you decide what Sabbath is, and it could be anything, isn’t it then really… nothing?

“Sabbath keeping is a way for us to live more deeply, within the constraints that are clear in our lives.  Those who observe a regular Sabbath say that it brings greater presence and depth to their work and to the rest of their lives.  Sabbath is an invitation to grace and peace, each with its source in God’s original time and ways.”

Then there is a short closing prayer which I’m not going to include here because I don’t have anything to say about it.

The ending reiterates some problematic points from earlier in the pamphlet: the idea that we have to accept modernity’s overreach as at least somewhat inevitable, and that the Sabbath is a way for us to renew ourselves for those lives that we are finding difficult enough to seek refuge from in the first place.  To which I say: no.  Shabbat should not be thought of as an exercise in hashtag-wellness, in which we do whatever we feel will best rejuvenate ourselves for the grind of the week ahead, nor should it, or any other faith-based ritual, be thought of as something that can be tailored beyond recognition to fit the zeitgeist, particularly when the zeitgeist is as baldly and grossly capitalistic and dehumanizing as ours is.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel summarized it so eloquently in his book on the subject, Jews consider Shabbat the culmination of the week, the true essence of our lives, not a caesura in our being; we don’t have shabbat for the sake of work, but rather the other way around.  Without experiencing that dramatic shift in valuation, you will not experience true sabbath rest.

And with that, I’m off to shower before candle lighting!  Just want to reiterate that I really admire Schaper––she seems like a profound writer and thinker, seriously!––I just think dumbing down religion and casting off faith’s obligations in the name of filling the pew seats actually backfires in the end!  The numbers bear that out!  Ok, Shabbat Shalom, friends!

*”Graphirmation: my personal portmanteau for artful social media posts that include an affirmation statement, such as, “You’re worth it!”  Example, below:

Screen Shot 2019-10-11 at 2.59.50 PM


Sorry, Christopher Hitchens

October 8, 2019

Okay so I know Christopher Hitchens made a fairly compelling case against Mother Teresa, but I really do like this anecdote about her and I feel the same:

Once, on New Year’s Eve, a reporter asked Mother (now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta, “If you could change one thing in the world this New Year, what would it be?” Her reply: “myself.”

Amen, Teresa, Amen.  Gmar chatima tova, everyone!

Amended for absence of any doubt: If I could change anything about the world this year it would be myself, NOT Mother/Saint Teresa.