Thanksgiving List: 2009

As Thanksgiving comes around, I try to spend a little time actually thinking about what I am thankful for (radical as that idea may seem). So, here is the list I’m coming up with this year:

  • A great life partner, Eva.
  • Health.
  • Health Insurance (at least for now).
  • Food.
  • Shelter.
  • Living in a great city (Portland, Oregon).
  • Multiple sources of meaning in my life.
  • The ability to discover, or rediscover, skills.
  • The ability to hope for a better future.
  • The ability to live satisfied in the moment.
  • Great Portland food carts.
  • A large and strong community.
  • Being able to use my voice for good.
  • Having reached another Thanksgiving.

The Danger of Trying Terrorists in Civilian Court

I, like so many others, am deeply concerned about Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to prosecute 9/11 plotters in civilian court. My fear, like that of many critics, is that they might be acquitted. Eric Holder said today that “failure was not an option.” This concerns me, in that the U.S. legal system begins with an assumption of innocence. While prosecutors clearly do not begin with a presumption of innocence, I do not believe that there is any way to go into a trial with absolute certainty of a conviction.

My problem is, what happens if the suspects are acquitted. My concern is not that terrorist might go free (though I see that as a problem also), but the far graver threat to the United States that might arise if we are unwilling to accept a “not guilty” verdict from a civil criminal trial.

Our system of justice is constructed to protect the rights of the citizens of the United States. It is, at times, overly complex, and seems to release people on technicalities. Yet those technicalities exist for a reason. We cannot allow them to be discarded. Moreover, we cannot allow them to ignored when the crime is sufficiently heinous or high-profile. If these rights are not absolute rights, they are not rights at all.

The danger of trying suspected terrorists in civil court is that we may damage our very system of justice in the attempt to ensure that they are found guilty. If that happens, we truly have let the terrorists win.

Building the Writing Muscle

I’ve referred previously to writing as being like a muscle that you build. I’ve always known that as opposed to physical strength, my writing strength is actually pretty high. I’m never entirely convinced of the quality of the writing, but in terms of quantity and speed, I’ve always felt okay.

In the past two plus weeks of NaNoWriMo, however, I’ve been getting feedback from people suggesting I’m underestimating my speed (still not sure of the quality, and frankly, that strikes me as much more relevant). Writers whom I respect, who make their living off the written word, apparently are impressed by my writing totals. Which I find a little weird. Because, if this is impressive, shouldn’t it be work?

But it’s not. In the last week, I’ve had at least three days of 5000 word plus production. And if anything, it’s getting easier to write more, not harder. Perhaps a little addictive, as well. So what am I going to do once I finish the first draft of my NaNoWriMo project? Will I be able to settle in to editing, or will the drive to produce new writing overwhelm my ability to go back and fix the stuff I’ve already written?

I ask this now because I’m about a day away from finishing the story. One more chapter and maybe an epilogue, and I’m done. And I’m pretty sure that’s happening either tonight or tomorrow.

One other thing. I happen to know that one of the problems with my writing is that I assume things that are obvious to me (because I’m imagining the story as I write it, so I know what I mean) and forget to put them down on paper. I’d love to have a couple of people who would be willing to read what I’ve written and tell me where I need to fill in the gaps. If you’re interested, let me know.

A NaNoWriMo Excerpt

For the first time ever, I present an excerpt from my #NaNoWriMo project. I figured I’d been talking about the writing enough that I really should share a little.  The background you should know is that the protagonist is Rabbi David Zimmerman. I’m not sure anything else is necessary.

I walked into the building at about 10:30, said hello to Trudy, the temple secretary, checked my mailbox, and headed back to my office. As I dumped my briefcase on my desk, pulled out my laptop and fired it up, I pressed the voicemail button on the phone.
“Next new message, left today, at 3:46, AM. ‘Good morning, Rabbi, you don’t know me, but my name is Robert Jones. I’m not Jewish, but I read the Old Testament a lot, and I’ve got some questions. Could you give me a call at 555-0873? Thanks a lot, and Shalom.'” Robert could be a sweet guy, but a lot of these calls came from folks who were Christian evangelicals who decided to get closer to Christ by practicing his religion. Most often, they were also a little mentally unbalanced. I’d have to return the call, so that the Jews in town wouldn’t get a reputation for being stuck up or rude, but it was times like this when I wished there was more than one congregation in town, or that I wasn’t the only rabbi for fifty miles in any direction. It would be okay if there were at least someone to split the nuts with, rather than having to deal with them all myself.

Fortunately, August is a somewhat slower time at synagogues, so I had the time to return the call to Robert immediately. “Hello, may I speak with Robert Jones please?”

“This is he.”

“This is Rabbi David Zimmerman, returning your call.”

“Rabbi,” his voice lit up, and I could hear the smile through the phone cord, “thanks for calling me back. As I said in my message, I’m not Jewish, but I believe in the bible, and believe we worship the same God. And I was reading in the Pentateuch about all the sacrifices, and it got me thinking. I did some things when I was younger, when I was in Vietnam. Some things I’m not so proud of. I was young, and wasn’t a God-fearing man then, but that’s no excuse. So I was reading the bible, like I said, and I came to the sacrifices. And I realized, that I owe a guilt sacrifice. So I was wondering, would it be okay if I brought you the goat for you to make the sacrifice for me on your altar? I’d do it at my church, but we don’t have an altar for animal sacrifice.”

Now, every month or so I have a conversation with someone who is under the misconception that Judaism still looks like biblical Israelite religion. They sort of missed the last 2,000 years of change in the tradition. But this was the first time I’d had anyone actually want to offer a sacrifice (though every now and then someone had wanted to come watch us do the sacrifices).

“Robert, we don’t do animal sacrifice in Judaism. Haven’t for the last 2,000 years, almost, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”

“So who does your sacrifices for you? ‘Cause the bible is real clear on this, when you have to do it, what you have to bring, how many of each animal.” He sounded puzzled.

“We believe that prayer replaced sacrifice when the Temple was destroyed.”

There was a silence on the other end of the phone, and then Robert began again, slowly, clearly trying to wrap his head around this as he was talking. “Ah, okay, then, so ah, then could you help me with the prayer thing?”

I sighed to myself, hoping the phone wasn’t picking it up. “Yes, we pray every Friday night at 8PM for the Sabbath. You can join us for that service.”

“Okay, rabbi. And do I just bring the goat to the service and you’ll pray over it then?”

Apparently I hadn’t been quite as clear as I thought. “No, Robert. No goats. We don’t pray over goats, we don’t sacrifice goats. We pray the same way Christians do, using words to talk to God.”

“Well, umm..okay. But rabbi, I know you’re the only synagogue in town, and I know your Temple isn’t, ah…the most religious kind of Judaism. Do you know where the nearest temple that could do the sacrifice is?”

For a moment, just a moment, I was tempted to give him the phone number of my Orthodox colleague 75 miles to the south. For a longer moment, I was tempted to give him phone number of HABaD in Portland, and let the ultra-orthodox black hats deal with him. But much as I may have my issues with the ultra-orthodox, I behaved myself and explained to him that, really, no Jews, anywhere practice animal sacrifice today. As he hung up, he thanked me for my time, but I’m not sure he believed me about no one doing sacrifices.

Planning is the Secret

You would think I would have known better. After all, whenever I work with an individual, company, congregation or other organization, I always stress that I can help them achieve whatever their goal is, but we both have to be clear about that goal before we start. We have to know where we’re going before we start driving there, so to speak. So, as I said, you would think I would have known better.

Yet here I am, half way through National Novel Writing Month, already 50,000 words into the novel, and do you know what revelation I just had? I don’t know how the book ends.

When I started writing, I had a premise. I figured that I would figure out the plot as I went along. It would emerge organically. Which was working quite well for me, until I reached the 50,000 word goal, and realized I didn’t know how much more I had to go because I didn’t know where I was going. Oops.

A long walk later, some thinking, and I think I have the an ending. It’s somehow “bigger” than I was imagining. More over the top, but I think it sort of fits the tenor of the story. As I write towards that goal, I’m sure it will shift some, that it will morph a bit, change in ways both small and large.

What I find most fascinating about this whole process is how far I got without a coherent  plot. Most of what I’ve already written will, in fact, be used. In fact, one or two pieces that I couldn’t quite figure out why I was putting in when I wrote them now make far more sense. Most of what I wind up tossing will probably be things I wrote in the last day or two, when I felt a little like I was beginning to spin my wheels.

And while I’m enjoying keeping you all updated on my blog, I’m afraid I have to go now. You see, I have a novel to finish.

Rebekah and God: A Torah Study

I don’t usually include Torah study or sermon type things in this blog, but thought I would give it a go today, mainly because I wrote this for a different purpose and wanted to reuse it. So, in a departure from my normal style and subjects, here is a bit of Torah commentary:

In the Torah portion, Chayei Sara, which Jews all around the world will read this weekend,  Abraham sends his servant to his homeland to find a wife for his son, Isaac (Gen: 24). The servant goes and as he comes into the city, says to God, “I will go to the well, and ask for water to drink. The woman who not only offers me water, but also water for my camels, she will be the wife for my master’s son.” Immediately thereafter, Rebekah comes down to the well, She is not only of Abraham’s family, but when the servant asks for water to drink, she offers for him and his camels.

The question I ask is this: why does Abraham’s servant use the offer of water for the camels as the sign? Surely he might have asked God to indicate the girl in another way, for example, by her clothing. Or, he might have asked God to give a sign in which she approached him, rather than he asking her for water. Why does he ask for a sign in which he must first ask the question?

The servant, whom the ancient rabbis tell us is Eleazar, a servant of Abraham mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, has set up a system that ensures that Isaac’s wife will be a woman who will serve help build the family. When he asks for water, she is concerned not just with his needs, but also with those of his animals. If she will do this for a stranger, how much the more so will she be concerned with the welfare of his master’s son’s household? She responds to the need which she perceives, not just what is asked of her.

In a later, Torah portion, when Isaac is getting ready to distribute blessings, Rebekah acts to deceive Isaac and to get the blessing for Jacob instead of Esau. She organizes the family for the good of the Jewish people. She acts, without needing God to tell her to act. She sees the necessary action, and she takes it. In this way, she is exactly what Isaac needs as a wife: not a someone who communes with God, but someone who sees what needs to be done, and does it.

Walking New Paths

For my exercise, I’m once again walking. My goal is an hour of walking, three times a week. I started today.

I went walking in the neighborhood, never more than a mile from the house, but for over 90% of the walk, I was walking on streets I’d never before walked (or driven, for that matter). It’s not like I don’t walk a fair amount, but I tend to walk to get someplace, and tend to have somewhat set routes. Today I was walking for the sake of exercise, and wandering wherever my feet took me. After a time, I deliberately sought out streets I hadn’t walked before, looking to see some new things. Which I did (I wish I’d had my camera with me today, I saw some odd houses).

It all made me wonder, how many walks can I take while walking new streets? Today, there were many other choices I could have made in the same general direction which would also have been new. And that was in only one direction, and arguably, one I know most well. So I’m thinking, I am, that I will set out to explore this neighborhood more thoroughly, and see what I see. Ideally with a camera, but even if not, just to know the neighborhood better, to get to know the little eccentricities of the side streets is well worth the time exploring.

Portland is a great town for walking and looking. I’ve just got to remember to do it.

Trying to Teach Mysticism

Last week was a busy week rabbinically. I performed a wedding, spent an hour and a half consulting with an organization trying to decide what to become, visited a world religions class as the guest speaker about Judaism, spent most of Thursday hanging out with rabbis for the Oregon Board of Rabbis meeting in Eugene and taught an introduction to Judaism class about Mysticism. In between all of this, I wrote about 20,000 words of fiction, in which the protagonist is a rabbi doing rabbi-like things. It’s the mysticism class, however, that I want to focus on right now.

You would think that teaching a class on Mysticism would be fairly easy for me. After all, I self-define as a mystic. I have a fairly clear definition of mysticism (the belief in the essential oneness of everything). And, on a good day, I’m somewhat articulate. Yet, as I set out to plan the class, and also as I was teaching it, I found I was having  trouble explaining something I understand fairly well.

I discovered that teaching mysticism is difficult not because the basic ideas are difficult, but because the background those assumptions are built upon is fairly extensive. Mysticism is not, in general, a way into religion, but rather the “upper level course,” as it were. While it is a simpler theology than many other forms of religious theology, it does, to some degree, require familiarity with those theologies to make sense. It also requires familiarity with secular philosophy.

As I was teaching, I discovered I had to back up and teach Plato’s metaphor of the cave. I discovered I had to back up and teach some basic theory about the academic study of religion: the separation between elite understanding and folk understanding of religion. I discovered I needed to teach a bit of history, to put events into context.

To me, most surprisingly, I found that I was teaching in a less linear way than I prefer. Rather, I was circling around, teaching the same ideas over and over again, hoping that by using different words, different examples and different metaphors, people would begin to get what I was talking about. I’ve often described theology as a process of pointing in a direction, and as you use multiple different accounts to point at the same place but while standing in different places, you begin to sense where it is those theologies point. I’ve never felt it so clearly as during this class.

By the end, I think about 80% of the students had a fairly clear idea of what I was talking about. All in all, that’s not too bad. After all, at least one of the students was asleep by the end. For me, however, it was a humbling experience. I think of myself as a good teacher, especially of abstract subjects, like theology or philosophy (or religion, for that matter). I’m not used to having to struggle this hard to explain something I understand. Yet, in that struggle, I begin to appreciated the struggles of those who tried to teach this to me. I don’t know how many times I had Jewish Mysticism explained to me before I began to get it. I assumed it was a function of me not being able to understand what was being said, or perhaps of teachers who were not as clear as they should have been. I begin now to see that we all struggle to explain something that verges on being beyond explanation, and is truly clear only through direct experience.

* * *

By the way, for those who were wondering about the question from my previous post, I decided not to write on Shabbat. Because I was working towards a 50,000 word goal, it was too much about accomplishing, not enough about the spirituality of writing. And besides, I might have been a little obsessed with the writing thing, and a day off from obsession is a good thing.

Shabbat and NaNoWriMo

As I’m working feverishly on my novel for National Novel Writing Month (18,000 words, thanks for asking), I’m approaching the first Saturday of the month. Which raises a question for me. Do I work on the novel on the sabbath?

On the one hand, I try not to use a computer on Shabbat, because it’s too work like. And in some ways, this writing really is work, in the sense of productive labor.

On the other hand, I’m having a lot of fun writing, and it’s a spiritual activity, especially given the spiritual themes of the novel. And, after all, I’ve got 50,000 words to get done before a deadline.

I really don’t know where I’m going to come out. There is work I’m willing to do on Shabbat (like lead services, for instance). But without boundaries, Shabbat ceases to have true meaning. Studying spiritual text is very traditional as a Shabbat activity. But writing it isn’t. I’m balancing, weighing the questions, trying to find a comfortable result.

I’m trying hard not to let the target of 50k words drive my decision. That’s not what Shabbat is about, and frankly, that drive is the most compelling reason to me NOT to write on Shabbat: the goal oriented nature of 50,000 words is very much not shabbastik (doesn’t feel like shabbat).

A more traditional Jew doesn’t wrestle with these questions. There are clear boundaries that one adheres to. For those of us who seek to live by finding our own path through the tradition, creating meaningful ways of celebrating and observing, the questions are tougher. Competing values come into play, and the decisions are up to us, not the rabbi we ask for a ruling.

For now, I remain undecided, but leaning towards writing. But tune in next week for the answer.

 

NaNoWriMo Begins

Ever since Sunday morning rolled around, I’ve been working on my new project: NaNoWriMo. Just a reminder of what that entails: 50,000 words of fiction during the month of November. Which comes out to 1667 words a day. No problem, right?

Except…I’m flying to the East Coast to see family on November 20th. I suspect my writing time during the last third of the month is going to drop off considerably. So, ideally, I’d love to be done by November 20th. Which brings the necessary daily word total to 2500. Still not too bad. I can knock that out in a couple of hours most days probably. Assuming I don’t have to do anything like think about plot.

I write pretty quickly and comfortably. In general, I don’t tend to suffer from writer’s block, per se. When I’m blocked, it’s usually because I don’t know what to write, not that I don’t know how to write it. If I get stuck, it’s going to be because I haven’t figured out where I’m going with the story…and sometimes I just need to take time and do something else while the story works itself out in my mind. Which is normally okay. But I’m on a deadline here.

We’ll see how this goes. If I don’t make the 50,000 words by the end of the month, so it goes. Frankly, I won’t be terribly surprised. It’s an ambitious goal. If I reach the end of the month and have written 50,000 words, and discovered they have no redeeming social importance, I really won’t be surprised. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’ll learn something from the process.

I’m thinking I might give out bits and pieces of what I’m writing about here over the course of the month. Basic theme: God confronts Rabbi. Hilarity ensues.

By the way, for anyone keeping track, as of the end of yesterday, I was at 7700 words.