Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Shake Your Earthquake Maker?

Do you blame disaster on miniskirts? Not as fashion police, but as divine retribution? Arrested development in our moral evolution, this rankles cleric Kazem Sadighi. He blames God's temblors on hotties who make us tremble: "Iranian cleric defends earthquake-promiscuity link".

It's easy to mock this childish cause & effect. I wonder how the trilobytes and dinosaurs sinned to merit their Creator's anger, in primordial chaos over eons of floods and tectonics. But when you consider (as I was raised) how many of us today carry within our own psyches this fear of divine retribution no matter our dramatic or subtle secularization after the often youthful formative fact, it's less amusing. Dissidents face death under Islamic theocracies.

Persecution's documented by Maryam Namazie. Her site "Iran Solidarity" depressingly fills the screen with evidence. For example, in response to Sadighi-- who waffled that in fact a just Allah held back rather than accelerated the pace of seismic revenge so as to lull humans into complacency in which they'd commit more sins and merit hellfire all the more severely once the ground did open and fire did fall-- read: "I would be executed in Iran if I did this." This pronouncement against sodomitical Cities of the Plain led to what "Blag Hag" Jen McCreight promoted: "Why Boobquake Failed: God's relationship with mankind is passive-aggressive and abusive".

My wife and I recently discussed French proposals to ban the burka. I agreed and she disagreed. I asserted its patriarchal imposition and reminded her that earliest Islam did not require veiling. I argued that women did not ask for this restriction, but that it had been imposed by a chauvinistic dictate. She countered that freed of the male demands, draped women could find respite from the constant expectations placed upon them-- similar to other religions and cultures that gave women, as it were, a break from the miniskirt, or at least the make-up, the leers, the pawing, the "attention." I think she likes the idea of a mandated big dress covering up perceived flaws. Many females may agree, I reckon! We agreed to disagree.

I've been mulling over what I regard as our capitulation in the name of tolerance to an increasingly intolerant mindset determined to make us conform to it. And one refusing to allow infidels or even reformers (can Islam permit any not fundamentalists and literalists to speak on its behalf?) a voice. While this oppression is far more severe in Europe due to its proximity and ties with the Middle East, I fear that church-state separations between public standards and private behavior will erode as liberal Westerners are trapped in a surrender to the radical ideologies and oppressive regulations that some Islamists, taking advantage of our "diversity" and laxity, campaign to establish in Europe's "advanced" nations.

Robert Ferrigno's trilogy, "Prayers of the Assassin," "Sins of the Assassin," and "Heart of the Assassin" speculates on how a fictional takeover of Islam might happen globally. In my review of "Heart," I noted its "convincing backstory that shows how not violent jihad alone, but gradual conversion by celebrities, a disgust with decayed Christianity and secular capitalism, globalization and our current economic downturn all could be logically seen, in deadly hindsight, as leading to a possible future not so improbable after all."

When I was under the dome depicted above and discussed below, I wondered if (as it reminded me of the Hagia Sophia), this Jewish monument would be remodeled as, in another half-century, a mosque. A strange thought amidst a ritual commemorating survival and continuity. Ferrigno's trilogy starts when a series of "dirty bomb" attacks across the West are blamed on Israel. After the service, my friend asked me my thoughts on Israel vs. Iran and the next nuclear showdown. Not so fictional.

I recall Emil Fackenheim's comment that the Holocaust happened when antisemites harnessed mass machinery. My friend mentioned earlier shares concerns with Islam allied to oppression. She became enmeshed in her own struggle for free speech when she and her husband edited"The Blanket", alone in Irish publications daring to show readers what the Danish cartoons criticizing the Prophet's atavistic violence looked like-- recommended Ferrigno to me. Last summer, I read (and reviewed here and on Amazon US) his novels. Not my usual genre, but I cannot resist a theologically-tinged thriller detailing a future dystopia. A few chapters based in my own hometown heightened its appeal (imagine Disneyland's ruined "attractions" as harboring Catholic prostitutes hiding from the morals police), in a post-nuked, fanatically patrolled America. I found Ferrigno's scenarios entertaining and disturbing; they conflated how Bible Belt and Islamist dogmatism might reign as sectarian death cults posed as if militant enemies.

What ticks me off in our earnestly "multicultural" groupthink? We lack the gumption to call out idiocy when draped in ideology, whether cruelly intolerant of beliefs or weakly capitulating to regimentation. Neo-atheists who diminish selfless believers spending their lives in the service of others, humbly and quietly. Faith-based efforts cloaked in hypocrisy. You don't need me to weigh in on clerical scandals.

But what rankles us who both respect religion's contributions and criticize its distortions are the lack of integrity so many institutions, once they codify and perpetuate beliefs, fall into. Today I read in the Jewish national paper "The Forward" about a Chabad-connected defense for Sholom Rabashkin, accused of violations for his kosher meatpacking plants in Iowa. Professor Samuel Heilman, an expert on ultra-Orthodoxy, explains the type of warped justification that can emerge when one lives within a distorted commitment to one's Law.“A man who is an observant Jew, who is a Hasid, who is a good Lubavitcher, can’t possibly be someone who breaks the law, because he lives by the law,” Heilman said.

I know Chabad does good works too. Yet they depend upon an us vs. them attitude, at least for those once taken into their confidences. As a veteran of Belfast's own divisive shibboleths, my Irish friend's husband and I have discussed more than once his contention. He reckons that a lot more good works might have (and have) been done with less collateral or direct damage-- by non-believers. That is, those who seek justice and spread mercy freed from such a tribal, inbred, intolerant accrual of merit largely for themselves first and Gentiles, non-haredi, goyim, Jews, Prods, Brits, Taigs, deviants, gays, sinners, heretics, infidels, heathens, witches, pagans, fill in the ever-expanding blanks.

I discussed this separation of good works from in-group solidarity last night with a friend; he wondered if in Reform Judaism the need for a personal God had nudged aside social activism this past generation. He figured that the Christian model of a loving friend as Deity filtered into what many Jewish seekers want for their post-post Holocaust guide.

My wife and I mused with him whether Jews who wanted to improve the world more likely did not show up at shul. We talked this over at a temple celebration under that great dome for a friend. Raised "a secular Jew," she grew up distrusting this personal God. Now, at my age, she celebrated her long-delayed bat mitzvah after years of resisting what she spoke of eloquently as her Creator's entry into her own life after an illness twelve years ago. As one who respects faith as well one who analyzes it, I acknowledge the comfort of tradition. We witnessed eight adults affirming their Jewish life before the congregants; one's an 89-year-old survivor.

Betty Cohen was barely older than-- would have been-- Anne Frank. And "would have been" says it all. Also from Amsterdam, she was deported to the same Dutch camp as Anne did; Betty hid two years in an attic with nineteen family members. Three returned from Auschwitz: her fiance who had been taken in the same raid on his hiding place in Hilversum also survived. Her daughter also became bat mitzvah alongside her. The Cohens came to L.A. after the war, and for fifty years were members of the splendid Wilshire Boulevard Temple, after other synagogues, unbelievably, had turned the Cohen family away for lack of ability to pay the dues.

During the long Shavuot service I looked at Hugo Ballin's murals. They circle from right of the sanctuary to the left, all the way around beneath the immense dome. Some of my earliest memories, I learned after I got home, were seeing his friezes and paintings. Earlier than I remember, for one's at my natal hospital. A few years later, I lived across the street from the Burbank DWP building and over the bridge from City Hall, while my childhood trips to Griffith Park Observatory, as I correctly guessed, showed me his other scientific frescoes that richly adorn another rounded dome.

The Warner brothers commissioned the ones at the Temple. Right to left in Hebrew fashion, from the Patriarchs to the pogroms, the story of the tribe unfolds over 320 gilded feet, seven feet high. It ends with the Torahs being taken from a burning shetl to a blue-tinged shore over the sea. The temple opened in 1929. I wondered if the murals were painted, and the series ended, while Anne and Betty were happy children back in the Old Country.

The Shavuot service was old-fashioned, for Reform, lots of organ music and choral singing. Celebrating the giving of the Torah to the Jews at Sinai, its melodies were more robust, less plaintive, than the ones I'd known. Cadences seemed Protestant; I admit no expertise on post-Reformation denominational liturgies! I realized how little I have been exposed to this grand style of worship, coming up and out of and away from a post-Vatican II stripped-down guitar Mass upbringing that never appealed much; I preferred my folk and rock music far apart from drab happy-face churchgoing.

After the ceremony, we spoke of our children and their own drift from Judaism after their b'nai mitzvot, We surmised that they may find their own way to meaning within our own complicated barrage of influences-- as we all had, even if still doubting. That is, we shift into some mature adjustment of our own heritage with our own predilections in a very different age from shetl and parish. I hope our children find happiness in their own search.

The Dalai Lama spoke at that Temple in 1999, where in a typical Angeleno cross-cultural gesture he addressed the American Buddhist Congress. Via Facebook (and obvious translation and editing, considering his limited English!), he observed today:
I believe an important distinction can be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another. Spirituality I take to be concerned with qualities of the human spirit, love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony, that bring happiness both to self and others.
I am not sure if the growing shift among many of my generation away from organizations to personally coherent melanges of practices and devotions will ease this tension between ecclesiastical monoliths and determined eclectics, but I do live in California, the historic heart of such syncretic searchers. Laughable or laudable, perhaps we are moving away from the grand structure to a humbler, less insistent interpretation.

We struggle to reconcile our spirits with our bodies, in the grooves worn down by millennia of our ancestral patterns of thought, behavior, and nurture. Betty Cohen's life ironically extended at the death camp as she was subjected to medical experiments by Dr. Mengele; she received more food and better shelter, if that ethical comfort can be imagined. Her fate reminds us-- and non-theists need to swear by this all the more-- that science devoid of morality, torn from culture, distorted by its own rationalizations, can bring down on us its own terrible fire from heaven.

We in an unstable city full of believers and doubters from every tribe gather under our domes. We fear earthquakes no matter how high we build our quake-reinforced towers. We may despite our skepticism learn to listen to my favorite line from Scripture, to the still small voice, heard after fire and rumble.

(Photo "Wilshire Boulevard Temple". Ballin's murals can be dimly seen; I could not find a decent reproduction of them on the web. Read my wife's take on the service at: "Choosing Choseness").

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