Monday, December 31, 2007

Gibbon, Post-Modern Polymaths & Jay Michaelson

This year winds down frugally. Few movies that I've seen, and nearly as few records premiered. Remodelling, tossing out trash and boxing up books for charity, and a general dearth of intriguing releases either proves my aging or the boredom that permeates much of the media today. The Writers Guild strike has cut our discretionary budget to austerity measures. I started reading a massive, albeit abridged, volume of Gibbon's "Decline & Fall" yesterday, as I had opened it at random, plucked from the sorting that precedes the division into wheat and chaff, sheep and goats and found myself both overwhelmed and taken by its orotund prose. "The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was usurped by the sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste." (end of ch. 2) Same as it ever was, since Plato, perhaps. Yet applicable, perhaps to such as me blogging away, as a contemporary near faraway colonial shores.

That citation is immediately preceded: "But the provincials of Rome, trained by a uniform artificial foreign education, were engaged in a very unequal competition with those bold ancients, who, by expressing their genuine feelings in their native tongue, had already occupied every place of honour." I feel that lag, as I find out who among my college classmates now chairs the department where I earned my doctorate, and as the tenured critics and the published compilers among my po-mo au courant grad school Derrida'd and Deleuze'd colleagues darken the face of knowledge but fill the pages of the Chronicle. I, the commentator here, shuffle through frosh comp essays and prepare to teach six classes a week for what will soon be 48 weeks a year. I confess the sin of envy.

So, I bow out this year-- which has been on the other hand full of longed-for blessings in a family reunion, my first glimpses of the Puget Sound and my second of Donegal, daily sight of my two strapping sons, and waking up in a home that thanks to my wife with her inherited patience of Job (or Rachel, or Noah's wife) will be splendid-- by nodding to another talented scribbler, who rivals Gibbon if only in a breadth of knowledge that might have given the rotund gentleman pause. I doubt if that historian knew the Zohar. Jay Michaelson's somebody I'd go green with my sin of envy contemplating: Boston U. law professor, doctoral candidate at Hebrew U. in Kabbalah, award-winning fiction and non-fiction writer, GBLT activist, and a Buddhist to boot. He calls himself "Jewish cultural entrepreneur" and "a venture-funded software entrepreneur." His column, logically labelled "The Polymath," expresses much I and my wife, for once, agree with.

His editors at "The Forward" introduced it:A polymath is someone who has multiple fields of interest and expertise, and we think Jay certainly qualifies. Integrating culture and religion, sense and soul, the critical and the curious, the new column aims for a truly postmodern perspective: one that is neither a part of a continuous tradition nor wholly apart from it, and one that includes both theory and practice, breadth of perspective and depth of seriousness. In the age of the iPod, when all of us build our playlists from different styles and genres, is there any alternative?

Read him, no matter your denomination or lack of, and judge for yourself.

Here's a representative sampling, following perhaps Gibbon in variety, backward through his columns. He has five to date. I look forward, pun intended, to many more:

On "Thinking Green": Just as it’s hypocritical to be ritually pious but never give tzedakah, so, too, it’s fundamentally inconsistent to pray three times a day but still lead a wasteful, Styrofoam-laden lifestyle. We’re not talking here about political correctness or being a vegetarian. This is about waking up to the way our society transgresses ethical norms, defaces the Divine creation, and pretends that it isn’t to blame or that it doesn’t know any better.

On Christmas: I understand that neither Jews nor Christians will welcome my pagan interpretation of their winter holidays. But imagine if we did. Imagine if we saw our varying traditions as different responses to the same mystery, and as elaborations of the same basic human needs. Might we reconfigure our senses of self and other, of holy and not-holy, of enemy and friend? I’m not suggesting a bland universalism; I’m arguing for a psychologically mature, intellectually honest and fearlessly embodied post-religious consciousness of guts, earth and sex, right alongside with, and mutually enriching, a serious ethical commitment.

On keeping Shabbos: Personally, however, I’m interested in religion on functional, not mythical, terms: What does it do, how does it transform, in what ways does it loosen, and bind. If Shabbat works, in the ways I’ve described, I’m not so concerned with what God commanded and didn’t. If your Sabbath consists of reading a good book Friday evening, and it accomplishes the goals you’ve set for it, then I don’t care what Good Book you read, or whether you bless the kiddush wine afterward. What matters is the result.

On Michael Steinhardt, an enterpreneur who after dispensing $125 million wonders where the money's gone: Steinhardt, an atheist, has spent a decade funding synagogues and religious institutions — and now he complains that they aren’t reaching atheists like him. Why is this a surprise? What’s needed is a belief in culture: artists, arts organizations, magazines, independent publishing, cultural education. These are projects that will, over time, create a Jewishness worth affiliating with even if you don’t believe that God wrote the Torah. Of course, it takes time for this to happen; you can’t measure the effects on evaluation forms, and some cultural products will, of necessity, be of interest to only an elite. But then, we all understand that when it comes to the Met and the ballet, investments in culture are long term, and often work in a trickle-down way. Why expect instant results, and mass appeal, when it comes to Jewish life? And one more thing: culture succeeds when it’s allowed to flourish for its own sake, not as a tool to get Jewish couples to mate. Let’s stop demeaning ourselves, and undermining our own cultural efforts, by forcing Jewish culture to pimp for Jewish continuity. Nobody’s being fooled anyway.

On "The New Atheism" of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and especially {Jewish atheist himself with Buddhist sympathies} Sam Harris: (the whole article's essential) I prefer to address the world as You rather than It. I love my relationship with God, even though I have no idea what that word means. That said, I share with the neo-atheists a serious doubt not only of my religion’s dogmas but even of my own religious sentiments and mystical experiences, which I have had thanks to serious spiritual practice. At the end of the day, whatever God is, It must be closely related to truth, and so certainty is the enemy of true religion, not its support.

But I find, when my mind is quiet enough to let the rest of me be truthful with itself, that the movements and notes of religion cause me to be more loving, more compassionate and more insistent upon justice. I don’t believe the nonsense that our religion often spreads about God, Torah and Israel. But I’ve found that there is something deeper than belief.

[Image: photo accompanied "The New Atheism" on the Forward's website.]

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