Making a Photo versus Taking a Photo

As I’ve ventured ever further into the world of photography, I begun to conceptualize a distinction in my mind between “making a photo” and “taking a photo.” Taking a photo is what we all do when we snap a picture of friends, or take a quick shot of pretty sight. Then we print it, email it, post it to the web, whatever it is we do with our photos now.

Making a photo is a more intentional process. It begins with seeing something, and saying, “wow, that could be  a cool picture.” Then we “compose” the photo (try to figure out what we want in the frame, and where). Then we take the picture. A case in point:


When I took this photo, I was intrigued by the flow of the rain over the car window. I thought it might make a pretty cool photo, especially Photo before editingwith the green background. I focused on the window itself, rather than what was visible through the window.

Unfortunately, you’ll note it looks kind of boring, washed out even. Frankly, just kind of gray.

So I began working on it with my editing software: I punched up the contrast so you could really see the impact of the water flowing over the grass. I added a bit more saturation and vibrancy to the colors.

Is this cheating? Shouldn’t photography be about faithfully representing what the eye sees?

Edited photo

I don’t think so. The camera cannot faithfully reproduce what we see with the naked eye. Our eye sees a wider range of light than a camera, a greater contrast than camera can capture. For me, one goal of photography is precisely not to replicate nature exactly, but to show something that we might not normally see, whether that be an image of flowing water stopped in time, or an examination of a smaller part of the light spectrum than our eyes would normally focus on.

As I said, there are those who think of this as cheating. But for me, this is the distinction between making a photo and taking a photo.

Elul: A Time of Preparation

Elul, the month before Rosh Hashahnah, is a time of preparation in the Jewish year. Unlike Passover, for which we prepare by cleaning, and engaging in physical change of our environment, Elul is about spiritual preparation. It is a time of spiritual/life  inventory.

As the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) approach, we take stock of our lives. We look back at where we were at the beginning of this Jewish year, and where we are now, at the end. We take note of the habits that make up our lives, and we judge them, and ourselves.

Much like making resolutions before New Years, Elul is the time when we look forward to who we want to be. It is a time of reflection and potential. Change is hard and frightening, yet having a time for change built into the year forces us to confront ourselves with the need for change. There is the story of Zusya:

Reb Zusya, a righteous rabbi, lay dying. His disciples surrounded him, and were astounded to see that their teacher and sage, a man whom all regarded as a model of appropriate thought and deed, shook with fear at the prospect of death and judgement.

“Master,” said his disciples, “why do you fear God’s judgement? You have lived life with the faith of Abraham. You have been as nurturing as Rachel. You have feared the Divine as Moses himself. Why do fear judgement?”

Zusya took a deep, shuddering breath, and replied: “When I come before the throne of judgement, I am not afraid that God will ask, ‘why were you not more like Abraham?’ After all, I can say, ‘O God, you know best of all, that I am Zusya, not Abraham, how then should I have been more like Abraham?’ And if God should ask, ‘Why were you not more caring, like Rachel?’ I can respond, ‘Master of the Universe, you made me to be Zusya, not Rachel. If you wanted me to be more like Rachel, you should have made me more like Rachel.’ And should the True Judge say, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ I can respond, ‘O Mysterious One, who am I, Zusya, that I should be like Moses.’ But, I tremble in terror, because I think the Eternal will ask me another question. I believe I will be asked, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’ And when I am asked his, how shall I respond?”

During Elul, we seek not to become the perfect person, but to be the person we are meant to be.

The Olympics and Spirituality

Sports, perhaps especially the Olympics, are somewhat similar to religion. I’m not the first to point this out, by any means, but from time to time, I’m reminded of the similarities:

  • We identify with a group/team based on certain beliefs/desires (we want our team to win, or to achieve salvation).
  • We participate in group rituals (prayer, coming together to watch sports).
  • There are sancta of the group–sacred objects that are invested with special meaning (ceremonial cups/souvenir  cups).
  • There are teleological hopes (achieving salvation/wait ’til next year).

But beyond this listing of similarities, I have a feeling that sports and religion function similarly in fulfilling a spiritual purpose. While this isn’t an unusual claim for religion, it’s less common for sports. Yet, spiritual engagement in sports is the best explanation for why we become so invested in sports (and particularly the Olympics).

We identify our own fate/fortunes with that of our team. Why does it matter to me if the Red Sox win? It doesn’t change my life in any material way. Yet when the Red Sox win, it makes me happy. It gives me joy. Somehow, I’m identified with the team, at an abstract, maybe even Mystical level. When a U.S. gymnast beats a Chinese or Romanian competitor in the Olympics, we celebrate. Why? Not because it will impact our quality of life, or the trade deficit, or anything “real.” And yet, it does seem to make a difference to us.

As with prayer, some of us participate alone in our homes, while others go out into public groups (I’ve been noticing a variety of pubs advertising that they’ll be showing the Olympics). During the “services”, there is both the set order of prayer/events, as well as the “sermons” (either commentary, or those feature stories about the locale of the games). There is even the “wisdom literature,” whether that’s a scriptural reading, or clips of USA Hockey beating the USSR in 1980.

Why does this matter? It matters because we are willing to give great importance to our spiritual lives, while trivializing the attention we pay to the Olympic games. Perhaps we should be more generous to ourselves around our Olympic habits (or addictions, as the case may be). The Olympics provide us with an opportunity to feel good about being Americans, without any partisan bickering, without any caveats (“I’m patriotic, but not pro-military,” for instance). Instead, we are all able to root for our athletes, who, in some way, represent us, and to feel pride in their achievements. And through that pride, to feel connected to all the other Americans who also feel pride.

Things That Shouldn’t Need to be Said

There are certain things that one assumes don’t need to be said. Or even, that to say them would be insulting to the listener. For instance, telling the photographer at the wedding that they aren’t allowed to get between me (the officiant) and the couple during the ceremony. You know, you kind of assume anyone with some common sense knows not to do that. To tell the photographer not to go there implies that you think they might. Nonetheless, I do tell photographers this, while apologizing profusely, and explaining that I say this only because I had a colleague who once had a photographer of the phot0-journalist style at a wedding laying on the ground between the couple and herself, taking photos upwards. But most photographers look aghast when I tell them this story, which is good, because it indicates that most photographers at weddings have common sense.

Another example: If you are hired to babysit for the rabbi’s family, you don’t try to proselytize the children and tell them how wonderful it is to have Jesus in your life. Just a guess, but that probably doesn’t go over well with your employer (true story–I was the child in question).

Now, I thought that I was pretty much inured to anything the American media could throw at me. I may even have said that the media couldn’t do anything so outrageous it would shock me (which may be like a Buffy character saying, “it sure has been quiet lately…”). I was wrong. I was wrong.

Another of those things that you would think go without saying? Don’t use ethnic cleansing, or participation in ethnic cleansing, as a background for a minor character in a sitcom, no matter how edgy you think you are. It’s not okay to make jokes about ethnic cleansing, even if they are supposed to fall flat. It’s certainly not okay to do it when the genocide in question happened recently enough that both perpetrators and victims still live. (There is a possible exception here for people of that ethnic population being darkly comical on the subject–viz. Springtime for Hitler in the Producers).

“Community”, a sitcom which I normally enjoy, somehow decided it was okay to create a character who loves playing war video-games, and is really good at them…because he used to massacre people in the Baltic. Not okay. Not funny. Especially not okay when this isn’t the focus of a “very special espisode”, but rather a subplot in the episode.

So, apparently the American media can do things I find shocking. I just wish they wouldn’t.

Gratitude: A list

Gratitude is a spiritual practice found in many traditions. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to focus on what we don’t have, or what’s going wrong. We often fail to take note of all that is going right in our life, and even more, we fail to be grateful for the good things in life. So, here’s a (very) partial list of things I’m grateful for this morning:

  • My body: it basically works, no chronic pain or debilitating illness. Were my body not to function as it does, everything else in life would seem harder.
  • When and Where I live: Ovid (43 B.C. – 18 A.D.) once said, “Let other’s praise ancient times, I’m glad I was born in these.” We are less subject to hunger, the vagaries of the environment and disease than any people in the history of the world. I live in a house which is adequately heated in the winter, and can be cooled with fans or air conditioner in the summer. Not having food means needing to go to the grocery store, not needing to go hungry.
  • Being married to my best friend.
  • The Internet: Admittedly, a mixed blessing, but I am able to write this blog, and distribute it myself without any outside review process, without the costs which have traditionally been involved. Furthermore, when I wanted to check the wording for the Ovid quote, above, I just wiki-ed it. It has never been easier to learn or to share ideas than now.
  • Coffee: The flavor, the aroma, the warm morning goodness of it.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list (thank God there’s so much more!). Which makes the question of when to stop writing somewhat arbitrary, so, arbitrarily, I stop here, and invite you to think on some of your own reasons for gratitude (both great and small), and, if you are so moved, to share them in the comments.

The Fragility of Life

Rabbis have an odd perspective on life (at least, this rabbi does). We see people at their extremes:

  • Extreme joy: Wedding, bar/bat mitzvah
  • Extreme sadness: funerals
  • extreme exhaustion: baby namings

We experience on a regular basis events that for others happen occasionally over the course of a life (case in point: at a wedding last weekend someone told me it was the loveliest wedding she’d ever been to–then noted that it was only the second wedding she’d ever been to; for me, it was my first wedding (of the year), but will be one of at least 7 or so I am present for between now and October). I am present when families experience the death of a loved one. I’m visiting in the hospital as a person realizes his mortality is not quite so abstract as he had assumed.

Rabbis listen to the stories of people’s lives. We are allowed into their lives in ways which others aren’t: people put up fewer filters, and are more likely to tell us how they’re really feeling when we ask. Which is good, because otherwise we (or at least, I) can’t respond to them usefully.

All of the above is preamble to this: I’ve been very aware of the fragility of life during the last week. Teaching an adult education session on Yom Kippur, I was found myself speaking of how the liturgy of Yom Kippur seeks to remind us of the fact that each of us might die in the coming year. Calling someone I hadn’t spoken to in months about returning some tiki torches I borrowed for a congregational event, she answers the phone from her husband’s hospital room, where he’s been for the last month since being in an accident. And, of course, there’s the basic experience of aging, which is to say, more of our own friends fighting cancer, losing parents, etc.

So, last weekend, when I got into the car to drive 3 hours to a wedding, I brought a certain awareness of how fragile our existence is: how easy it is to glance away from the road, and drive into a tree, for instance. After all, it happens all the time–just not to us (at least, not on a good day).

I leave you with the point I was making in the class I taught: it’s not that we should live every day as though it were our last, but that every now and again, we should think about whether we’re living our life in such a way that if it were to end tomorrow, we’d be pleased with the life we’ve led.

Creation: How it Really Happened

We are taught that when God created the world, it was by saying, “Let there be light!” And there was light.

Anyone who has ever been involved in a remodel knows that this isn’t how it happened.

First, God said, “Let there be light!”

Then the contractor responded, What kind of a light would you like?”

“You know, one that will be different from the dark.”

“Oh, there’s darkness, too? Then you need to have a light that will complement the darkness. What color is your darkness?”

“Darkness has color? Really? It just kind of looks dark to me.”

“Oh, yeah. You’d think all darkness was just the same. But really it’s not. And if you get the wrong color light to go with your darkness, it will look all wrong, and bother you whenever you look at this universe.”

“Okay, if you say so. Are there swatches or something I can compare my darkness to?”

The contractor pulls out a big book of swatches, thousands of swatches of darkness and hands them to God. “Here you go, come back when you know which one best matches your darkness.”

Some two and half weeks later, following many conversations with the heavenly hosts, many repetitions of the “there are different kinds of darkness?” conversation with each seraph, God got back to the contractor.

“I think we’ve selected “tenebrosity” as the shade of darkness that best matches what we thought.”

“Great,” the contractor responded. “Now, which kind of light would you like?”

“Oh, you know, a good basic light that goes well with tenebrosity,” said God, feeling sophisticated.

“Well, that’s good. That narrows down our choices. In fact it eliminates several infinite sets of light, leaving us with only this infinite set.” The contractor thumped another sample book down in front of God.

“I’ll get back to y0u,” God sighed.

And so God sorted the lights, dividing the neons from the incandescents, the full-spectrum from the infra-red. And God said, “let there be ‘resplendent’ light.” And the contractor placed the order, and some month later, the after the order arrived, and contractor’s workers were done with a couple of other projects they had been working on, there was light.

And God called the light “day”, and the darkness God called “night”. At which point God noticed that while there was light, there didn’t seem to be any particular sources for the light. So God called the contractor.

“Umm. The light seems to be sort of abstract, not actually coming from any particular point. It just sort of drifts around, getting mixed up with the darkness.”

“Of course it does. You didn’t order any light fixtures.”

“Light fixtures?”

“You know, lamps, or chandeliers, or fixtures set into the ceiling or something.”

“I kind of just assumed that when we ordered light, it would come with those.”

“Oh, no. That would never work. People get very picky about their light fixtures, so they need to be able to choose their fixtures separately.”

“Okay,” sighed God, “is there another catalog to look at?”

“Here you go.”

And God took the catalog, and he saw the catalog, and God saw that the catalog was big. And eventually God chose a sun, a moon, a strobing pulsar and stars of light for fixtures. And the contractor saw the selections, and said they were good.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament, a great light and a lessor light–”

“Just a second,” interrupted the contractor. “What firmament? And besides, you just ordered these lights. It’s going to take a while for them to get here. Which is just as well, really, cause if you want them put into a firmament, we’re going to need to build the firmament first. Oh, and by the way, they’ve discontinued strobing pulsars. Do you have a second choice?”

And God sighed, vowing never to create a universe again.

Teaching the Unteachable

Teaching mysticism is difficult. Mysticism deals with direct experiential knowledge of God, while affirming that the nature of that God is beyond human expression (and perhaps even understanding). Mystics then attempt to use human expressions to describe this experience and the understandings they have gained, using metaphor and analogy. To make it all the more complex, the mystic (at least in Judaism), sees the lines between metaphor and reality as blurry, and perhaps even non-existent. Other than that, it’s an easy task.

Traditionally, Jewish mysticism (of which I consider Kabbalah to be one type, while others consider the entire history of Jewish mysticism to be included within the bounds of Kabbalah) was taught one on one, over the course of years. The students who studied mysticism were already learned in Torah and Talmud, and knew all biblical text intimately. In my case, I have two hour-and-a-half sessions in an undergraduate classroom with students who will be three-fourths of the way through a semester long course on an introduction to Judaism. Somehow, I find this daunting.

I have spent years studying Jewish mysticism, and at times even consider myself a mystic, in the tradition of Art Green (while hurrying to add that I am neither nearly as learned as he, nor do I have the depth of his understanding of reality). Most days, I still struggle to understand Jewish mysticism. Most days, I am completely confused as to what the authors of a text I am reading are trying to say. Sometimes, I get it. Now, I am to teach it.

Many teachers of Jewish mysticism distinguish between teaching about mysticism and teaching mysticism. Teaching about mysticism is to teach the terminology and the beliefs held by their practitioners as an outsider, an anthropologist looking in. But for the mystic, whose understanding of the world is that we are all part of the Oneness which is Divinity, to teach from the outside view seems to ensure a lack of understanding of the subject. How can one understand something from the outside, when there is no “outside”?

And so, as I prepare a pair of class sessions, going through possible readings, debating the merits of Gershon Sholem’s German-style modernist scholarship about mysticism as opposed to Larry Kushner’s or Art Green’s experiential accounts of Jewish mysticism.  And I am confronted with a basic paradox (upon which paradoxes, after all, mysticism is built): how does one teach about something experiential in a non-experiential way?

Teaching is Fun

After two weeks of teaching at Willamette University, I’m ready to declare teaching fun. I’m sure I won’t always feel as positive about it as I do right now, but I just finished going over my students first set of  “response papers,” an every-other-week writing assignment in which I ask them to react to the readings, the lectures, or their own reactions to the course. Designed to be more blog-post than academic assignment (my instruction was that it should take 10 – 20 minutes), the responses have been as diverse as my students, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

It’s my first chance to see what students are connecting to in the course, or being challenged by in it.  One reason I love teaching is that I love forcing people to think beyond preconceptions, to explore ideas at a deeper level, and many of these students are doing exactly that. Whether reflecting on how what they are learning affects their own faith (non-Jewish), or thinking about the contrast between studying history and studying the mytho-historic account of a culture (in this case Judaism), to reflecting on teaching style, or a very detailed reaction to a specific page in the reading, it’s all been great.

I’m having so much fun with these response papers, I’d love to make them weekly (relax, students, I’m not going to do it). Even though I suspect it takes me as long to write notes on these as it took many of the students to write them in the first place, the thoughtfulness shown in the writing, and the connections made between material we’re covering and the rest of the world makes it a fabulous exercise. Judaism teaches that we learn as much from our students as we do from our teachers. I’m honored to be learning from my students.

Rabbi David, Now as a Professor

Tomorrow, I embark on a new adventure. I will be teaching a college course on Judaism at Willamette University.

Now, I’ve taught about Judaism in a variety of settings for years. I’ve taught pre-schoolers. I’ve taught kids in elementary school. I’ve taught middle-schoolers (the pre-schoolers were way easier). I’ve taught high-school students. I’ve taught adults. I’ve even taught classes at retirement homes. But, until now, never have I taught at a college.

The good news is that I have a fair amount of experience as both an undergraduate and a graduate student. The even better news is that, in some ways, this will be the educational setting that is the best match for my style, which is challenging people to think about ideas, and to question easy answers.

So I’ve selected textbooks, put together a syllabus and begun to outline lectures and class sessions. I’ve been to the university HR office, and been officially hired as a part-time Visiting Assistant Professor. I know where my classroom is, and have enjoyed fabulous support from the departmental secretary. Admittedly, I’m still somewhat confounded by the internal websites for the university, but that might be because I don’t have everything setup right yet.

And tomorrow, I drive down to Salem, and I enter a new classroom, with a new group of students, and together, we’ll learn something about Judaism.