You think that way because you’re a poet

The frame maker’s wife

My wife is avidly into jigsaw puzzle and painting by numbers.

Several weeks ago, she glued several of her completed puzzles unto backing boards; and I brought them to the local frame maker’s shop. Then, last week, it came time for me to pick them up. The frame maker cupped some cardboard around the wire on one of the frames, wrapped them together for me, and advised me to carry them by the wire. I was nearly at the bus stop when the wire broke.

I carried the three frames back to the shop with both hands (which is what I had intended to do originally), and the frame maker replaced the wire. I watched him working with great curiosity. “This is really interesting,” I said, “Most of the time we purchase things when they’re complete, and we have absolutely no idea what went into making them.”

“You think that way because you’re a poet,” responded the frame maker’s wife and requested a link to my website.


Living in poem

I constantly walk around mumbling words under my breath nowadays, attempting to articulate that which I am experiencing. This is something that I have been increasingly becoming aware over the course of the last year, ever since I started writing poetry.

I’ve also started looking more closely at the Jerusalem skies and at local flora. These are things that I never did before; I was usually in such a rush to get somewhere. Just yesterday, I noticed some fuzzy deep red flowers that had fallen from a tree and pointed them out to my six-year-old daughter. As soon as I drew her attention to them, I thought to myself, “Wow; what has happened to me?”

As writing poetry has become a passion, I haven’t only been noticing differences in how I think – I’ve been noticing that my more recent poems feel different to me. It’s difficult to explain, but when I write a poem, I feel that it expresses more than the words within it. It even expresses something more than my intended meaning. My poems are expressing – me. Poems are comprised of words, of course, but what they mean and how they are experienced go far beyond that.

When I a poem feels complete, I often experience a rush of relief – a sense of… it feels so lovely to have expressed myself!


Politics, religion, and…

I follow U.S. and Israeli politics very closely, and I enjoy political conversations with other well-informed people. Also, while I am no expert on religion, let alone Judaism, I enjoy theological discussions with others who are open to considering religious ideas critically from different angles. To a large extent, there is often a great deal of overlap between religion and politics, especially so in Israel, where the Chief Rabbinate is an official organ of the State. Of course, plenty of intelligent people are interested in neither politics, nor religion, but I often find that my conversations with such people on other subjects are relatively short-lived.

Now, this is not to say that I only think about religion and politics. In fact, that’s very much not the case, but at any given moment, I don’t necessarily know what it is that I am thinking about because many of my thoughts seem to defy my comprehension. Such thoughts are more like… impressions, perhaps. More like… sensations. And it’s precisely these sorts of thoughts that I am able to express in my poetry. Sometimes I find that crafting a poem helps me better understand that which is on my mind. Sometimes my poetry doesn’t directly relate to these hazy thoughts, but I am nonetheless left feeling that they had a hand in shaping my verses.

So when my conversations with others inevitably taper off, I often find myself reflecting inwards and mumbling words under my breath. I often find myself longing for my computer keyboard or, at the very least, a pad of paper and writing implement.

I was reminded of this at a recent family gathering for Israel Independence Day. It was terrific to see my cousins, all of whom I love and think of highly, but it didn’t take long for our conversations to die out. It wasn’t for lack of affection or curiosity, but we simply did not have very much to say to one another after hugging and catching up… and, as usual, I quickly found my mind brimming over with words that sought release.


Blogging & identity

Often, I reflect upon how well my blog represents me as a person.

There are many things that I don’t write [about] here at the Skeptic’s Kaddish, where I have full control over the subjects I raise and the comments I respond to. This leads me to feel that there is something inherently artificial about blogging… something… as though… it’s as though I’m fooling myself in a way. After all, this isn’t real life – it’s merely an imaginary realm that I’ve thrown myself into.

On the other hand, I very strongly feel that there is something more true about my poems and reflections here on the Skeptic’s Kaddish than I often have the opportunity to express to others in person. I may be presenting an idealized version of myself online, but it’s also a version that reflects deep feelings and notions of mine, of which I am often unaware or confused by until I run the tips of my fingers across my keyboard…

This heart, or: This mind

My 1st puente

In the form of two envelope quintets

This heart has no other blood known
than flowed through all past generations
linked one-by-one through space and time
by ancient Hebrew conversations
echoing through flesh and bone

~ ever more so as I've grown ~

This mind has grasped that nothing's known
though men cling tight to correlations
creating of them gods sublime
and altars built on false foundations
they worship while I stand alone

d’Verse poetics prompt:

Build a bridge

At d’Verse, poets were instructed to either:

  1. Write a poem about bridges that uses some form of the word ‘bridge’ in the poem or in the title, or:
  2. Write a puente (bridge) poem, which does not need to include the word bridge (but it can).

I opted for the 2nd alternative, and decided to make my puente poem out of two envelope quintets. Given the rhyme structure of my poem, I envision it as a suspension bridge.

Tradition: just do it?

Some axioms for life

  • Once an institution comes into existence, its top priority becomes perpetuating its existence;
    • If an institution achieves its stated goals, it will assign itself new goals in order to justify and perpetuate its continued existence;
  • All religions are institutions.

Kaddish: basic logistics

  • There are several different versions of the kaddish prayer (technically, it’s a doxology), but the best known of these is oft called the mourner’s kaddish, which is recited by Jewish mourners after they have lost close relatives;
    • Traditionally, the mourner’s kaddish is recited daily for 30 days following the death of a spouse, sibling, or child; and it is recited daily for twelve (or eleven) Hebrew months following the death of a parent;
    • Traditionally, the mourner’s kaddish is recited at each of the three daily prayer services – morning, afternoon, and evening.
  • Traditionally, one may only recite kaddish with a Jewish prayer quorum, which is defined as ten males of age (13 yrs old +) in Orthodox communities and ten humans of age in most non-Orthodox communities;
    • Prayer services with prayer quorums may be held anywhere, but they are most often held at synagogues.

Putting aside the metaphysical

For the purposes of this post, let’s put aside the metaphysical. Let’s put aside the purported effects of living people’s prayers upon their dead loved ones.

While I don’t deny that the supernatural may exist, I believe that all religious traditions and rituals originally developed, first and foremost, as reflections and outgrowths of individual and communal human needs, be they social, spiritual, economic, etc.

From the perspective of the Jewish mourner, our tradition forces us into our communities after we lose our loved ones. After all, the mourner’s kaddish, that doxology that we recite multiple times every day for an extended period of time can only be recited within a Jewish prayer quorum — that is to say: among other Jews.

From the perspective of Jewish communities, for which synagogue life has long been central to their existence, having a regular stream of participants attending communal prayer services is clearly a win. After all, plenty of Jewish people are disinclined to go to shul (synagogue) daily, let alone weekly or monthly. In fact, many daily Jewish prayer quorums are comprised of retirees with no family & work responsibilities; it’s fairly easy to understand why this is so.

Therefore, the tradition of reciting mourner’s kaddish, which compels many of even the most unaffiliated Jews, serves to keep synagogues stocked with congregants. In fact, the experience of reciting mourner’s kaddish (particularly for the duration of an entire year in the case of a deceased parent) is so powerful that many mourners continue attending prayer services long after their allotted kaddish periods have ended.


Tradition: just do it?

It’s fair to say that the more traditional the community, the less personal, creative religious expression is encouraged. The traditional message is, essentially: ‘There is a traditional way of doing things, which has been handed down to us through the many centuries, and it, by definition, meets all of our human needs, if only we commit ourselves to it fully and deeply.’

Nevertheless, it took me one no more than a single month of daily kaddish recitations following Papa’s death before I felt that Jewish tradition wasn’t doing it for me. I needed something more. I needed to feel that it was my kaddish, not simply the kaddish. And that’s when I started my kaddish writing project, which begat this blog.

I don’t think I can entirely qualify how much love, effort, time, and energy went into that project. I remain very proud of it, and I often wonder how the heck I managed to get through those 51 blog posts, which wove my personal kaddish reflections & experiences together with my memories of Papa and with the intensive research that I did throughout the course of that year. Seriously – how the heck did I do manage it?

But from the perspective of organized Jewish community, one might say that my kaddish writing project frustrated one of the primary, practical goals of the mourner kaddish institution. Not only did I find and create my own meaning in mourning, rather than derive it primarily from my communal experience; but, ultimately, I ended up convincing myself even more firmly of my religious skepticism. I went through the motions of tradition but simultaneously set myself apart from it and observed it from the side. Everything I read and wrote that year only served to further convince me of my preconceived beliefs.

After all, which part of my Jewish mourning experience has remained with me to this day? It certainly hasn’t been my synagogue attendance, which is currently non-existent… rather, it’s been my writing, which has evolved into something more than I’d expected and continues to define and shape my identity profoundly.

Monotheists? Not more moral.

Intro: Monotheism v. polytheism

Rather recently, I heard a young rabbi, a friend of mine, discussing monotheism with one of his Talmud students. She had been troubled by the line of religious reasoning that he’d espoused to the class; and she challenged him on the supposedly unique righteousness of monotheism.

His responses to her, I believe, were fairly reasonable.


Monotheism & me

The only concept of a supernatural being that I can wrap my mind or heart around is a single, omnipotent, and unknowable one. The existence of a creator of the universe is more plausible to me than a ‘Big Bang’, but I also put a very heavy emphasis on this being’s unknowable nature, far, far, far beyond possible human comprehension and our senses.

To be fair, I was born and raised a Jew, and my monotheistic beliefs (which are not entirely mainstream within the traditional Jewish community because I don’t much believe in a God who cares about anyone or involves himself in the lives of human beings) are clearly a product of my heritage and upbringing. If I had been born and raised elsewhere (India, for example), I very likely would have come to believe in polytheism. Still, this is where I stand.

Incidentally, this happens to be one challenge I have come to for those of any Abrahamic faith – why would God only be motivated to share Ultimate Truth (and therefore: Salvation) with a limited number of human beings in only one corner of the world? No answer to this question that I have come across has satisfied me.


Two arguments for pure monotheism

The young rabbi made several arguments for monotheism over polytheism, two of which especially resonate with me:

  1. Monotheism encourages personal responsibility because there is only one Divine address to which one can address one’s grievances and desires. If prayer and penitence do not bring the desired results, one can then only find solutions on one’s own;
  2. Pure monotheism rejects all images of God, whereas the majority of gods of polytheistic faiths have bodies that resemble those of human beings. In this way, polytheistic faiths encourage, albeit perhaps unintentionally, the worship of humankind itself.

These arguments, as I noted, work for me… but only intellectually and theoretically.

Why?


Monotheism in the real world

All of this theory utterly falls apart when I consider the behavior of human beings around the globe throughout all of history. Are polytheists more or less moral because of their beliefs? Are monotheists? Are atheists? Simply – no. No, not at all.

In fact, that’s not even to mention those people of all faiths who act horribly and evilly towards others. Anyone of any faith can perpetrate evil.

These have been my observations over the course of my four decades, and I consider myself a fairly well informed and well read person. Human beings have been arguing over and killing one another over faith for thousands of years, but ~ ultimately? What’s the point? What difference does it make in the real world? Who can truly claim that their chosen faith produces kinder, better people or a kinder, better world?

Thus, while I view existence through a strictly monotheistic lens, and while I can make some logical and reasonable arguments to support my faith perspective, none of that is to say that my beliefs are better than anybody else’s – neither I nor any other person who shares my religious views is inherently better than any other human being; and I wouldn’t necessarily assume that anyone who shares my monotheistic views is moral, kind, or just. Some are; others, unfortunately, are not.


And… then there’s professional monotheism

Disappointingly, I have found that I must always take everything that any religious leader espouses with several grains of salt.

This particular young rabbi, before he joined the clergy, was simply my friend; and he used to speak with others about his own deep doubts in his faith convictions (which he had been raised into, for his extended family is all Orthodox, and his father too is an Orthodox rabbi). He used to struggle with whether Judaism was indeed the Truest faith. He used to be forthcoming about doubting his connection to God and wonder about whether God was listening to him at all. This struggle of his over his religious views was profoundly compelling to me – it was relatable – it drew me… and I felt that it fed our friendship.

Then my friend became a rabbi and decided, it seems, that it was incumbent upon him to promote traditional Jewish monotheism as the most moral faith, regardless of the evidence…

And, ever since then, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to speak with him about matters of faith at all 😞

Leavened bread, or: Technology

On Jewish holidays I must
   draft poetry in my head

   For lack of laptop, I dare trust
      my memory instead

This Passover, I did not just
   hanker for leavened bread

   Still, all last night, I long discussed
      the Exodus instead...

And now I type, ere neurons rust,
   and soon I'm off to bed!

Possibility

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being, which is precisely why I cannot call myself an atheist. It is why I occasionally recite the appropriate Jewish blessings before eating and am jealous of those who believe in supernatural forces that imbue their lives with purpose. It is why, in part, I was driven to recite the Orphan’s Kaddish daily during the year following Papa’s death. After all, who the heck knows? I sure don’t.

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being, but I wish I could know the unknowable truth, one way or another. Is the universe ordered? Do our lives have meaning? Is suffering purposeful? I have not personally experienced anything to suggest that any of these possibilities are true; but would that they were…


d’Verse

It’s prosery time at d’Verse. The rules are simple:

  1. Use an assigned line in the body of your prose. You may change the punctuation and capitalization, but you are not allowed to insert any words within the line itself. You can add words at the beginning and/or at the end of the line; but the line itself must remain intact.
  2. Your prose can be either flash fiction, nonfiction, or creative nonfiction. YOU CAN NOT WRITE A POEM for this prompt. AND, your prose should be no longer than 144 words, sans title. It does not have to be exactly 144 words. But it can be no longer than 144 words.

The assigned line was:

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being.

Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012), ‘Possibilities’

A quick note:

Usually I respond to d’Verse prosery prompts with pieces of fiction, but the assigned line from Szymborska’s poem spoke directly to my heart, and I had been wanting to write a short piece like this regardless.

Some of my best friends are anonymous

On the one hand…

When I step back and think about it, the blogosphere seems such a strange realm; and I’m old enough to have grown up without the Internet so I have perspective on this. Still, one need not have been born before the Internet era to be struck be the notable differences between people’s “in person” relationships and “online” relationships.

For example, what would it mean to have an anonymous “in person” friend? Here on WordPress, on the other hand, it’s entirely normal that some of the people that I interact with most regularly are anonymous.

Also, for most who do not blog anonymously, there necessarily exist limits as to what we can comfortably post because our blogs are public. Would we write publicly about difficulties in our romantic relationships, careers, childhoods, etc., given that our loved ones, coworkers, and friends could read those posts?

Indeed, while I certainly believe that meaningful relationships can be birthed, developed, and sustained online, we must consider how much we actually know of our “long distance” friends. given that we have, essentially, no access to their lives other than the glimpses they grant us. What are they like offline? What are we like?


On the other hand…

Speaking personally, I tend to feel disconnected from many of the people I interact with in person, largely because my head is often very much in the clouds. So many others seem to be focused on practical, earthly matters that wear me out.

Despite my skepticism regarding anything supernatural, I find conversations about belief, the history of religion, the sociology of religion, etc., very stimulating. Also, politics – deep political analysis fascinates me. And, of course, poetry – the exploration of the human spirit and reality filtered through the human eye.

In a sense, therefore, when I think about this blog on WordPress, and when I find myself wondering how well it actually reflects who I am despite all that I omit from it, I feel that it actually reflects much of the real me. This is where I thrive, in the realm of words and concepts, which lend themselves to introspection, poetry, and musings. These are the kinds of interactions I wish I could have with people “in person” – I’d love for all of my conversations to be over images and verses.

Really, as I consider this further, I feel that one cannot possibly know me very well today without taking an active interest in my Skeptic’s Kaddish. Here is where I explore life’s meaning.