Monday, May 20, 2019

On Jewish Theology and Abortion



Stand up for religious freedom
Religious freedom applies to ALL religions
not just Christian fundamentalists

To begin: Judaism permits abortion


That is a given.  Different rabbis might rule differently as to when it is permitted (usually handled on a case-by-case basis) but all agree that there are circumstances where it is kosher.  In  some cases it might actually be required by Jewish law; cases which, if  abortion is universally outlawed, might infringe on the religious freedom of Jews.

The main thesis of this essay is that, because Jewish theology interprets the abortion issue differently from fundamentalist Christian theology, the US government should not be deciding questions about when the soul joins the body.  To do so violates the First Amendment.

WARNING: If you plan to hit me with antisemitic crap over this about how "wrong" the Jews are according to your religion, don't bother.  Been there, done that.  But if you are seriously interested in my more mystical take on this regarding body and soul, then read on.

When does human life begin according to the Torah? 


 Genesis 2:7 says that God "formed Adam from the dust of the earth, breathed a breath of life into his nostrils, and he became a living soul" (or a living being: Hebrew nefesh chayah) .  So we have two aspects of humans: body and soul.  The body comes from the material world, the soul from the "breath of God" or spiritual world.  For literally millennia, the first breath was considered the beginning of life as an independent human being. This is still the way that Jewish law views it. (For more details on that, see this excellent article by Danya Ruttenberg "Why are Jews so Pro-Choice?")

Anti-abortion Evangelicals quote Psalm 139:13 and Job 31:15, which speak of God saying, "I formed you in the womb." These verses are regarded as poetry by Jews and play no role in Jewish law which, as I said above, we base on Genesis in the Torah.  While Christians see the Bible as a single book, and give equal weight to all material in it, Jews understand that the Bible is really a library, with different categories of material: Torah, Prophets, and Writings.  The Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) forms the basis for Jewish canon law (halachah.)  The other books are considered to be various genres of literature: mostly history, sermons by the prophets, and inspirational writings like Psalms and Proverbs.  These materials are secondary to the Torah and are not cited in legal decisions.

I actually had an Evangelical tell me that Job is the oldest book in the Bible - trying to prove that it overrides the idea that life begins with the first breath as in Genesis - but that is wrong. The literary style of Job is like a Greek play (more on that) which puts it way later than the Torah.

So lines from Job and Psalms do not count in determining the Jewish stance on abortion.  But for the sake of argument, if we are going to discuss "knew you in the womb" verses, then what about Jeremiah 1:4-5, where God says, "“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you..."? Some Christians also cite this verse to oppose abortion.  But read it again: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you..."  How could God know Jeremiah before he was in the womb?  How can he be synonymous with an embryo that does not even exist yet?  What did God know of Jeremiah BEFORE gestation? His soul.  Which we can probably assume was "breathed in" by God at birth.

The bottom line is, the question of when the soul joined the body is theology, and gets into First Amendment issues.  Should the govt be deciding a theological question over which various religions disagree? No.

Influence of Roman Catholicism


The Catholic Church was more deeply concerned with the question of ensoulment than were the Jewish scholars.  "Life begins at conception" was not always their official doctrine (read more on that) but they were moving in that direction, and in 1974 it became official.  Pope Paul VI ratified the "Declaration on Procured Abortion," making it required doctrine for all Roman Catholics that abortion is forbidden because the soul joins the body at conception.

So why do I, a Jew, care about Roman Catholic theology?  Because, with the Pope's declaration, the political debate heated up. Back in the 1970s and 80s, the anti-abortion protesters were almost always Roman Catholics.  But gradually, their theology jumped denominational lines into fundamentalist Christian groups.  Although Catholics today still oppose abortion, it is the Evangelicals who are leading the charge to legally ban it.  As Cynthia Ozick once put it, we should oppose anyone "who proposes that the church steeple ought to begin to lean on the town hall roof."  Which is exactly what is happening now.  Hence the reason that Jews are concerned.

Today, the Catholic stance that "life begins at conception" has pretty much taken over the Pro-life movement. As an outsider looking in, I find it ironic that fundamentalist Christians, who have historically been anti-Catholic, are now basing their argument against abortion on a declaration by the Pope. Or are they?

The impact of embryology and DNA studies


Parallel to the Catholic Church's decision on abortion was the science of embryology.  Even in antiquity, people had seen miscarriages at various stages of development, but the process was not well understood.  When Watson and Crick unraveled the double-helix mystery of DNA in 1954, which led to the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, we suddenly had a better understanding of how the human body develops.  We could finally explain, scientifically, exactly what happens when the sperm and egg unite.   And we understood, at least to some extent, how genes carry our hereditary traits.

So the Pro-lifers seized on conception as the moment of full personhood, claiming that everything you are going to be is created in the union of sperm and egg through your DNA.

Again ironic, because we now have very religious people -- many of whom are anti-science in other areas -- relying on science to argue that the fetus is fully a person either at physical conception, or when there is a heartbeat.  Both of these are purely materialistic arguments. If you believe you are nothing but your physical body, that your DNA is all there is to your human existence, then the heartbeat argument works. An odd stance for a religious person. no?

Body and soul -- again


But what if you believe a human being is not simply a matter of biochemistry? What if you believe there is such a thing as a human soul?  Then we are back in the realm of theology.  When does the soul join the body? And how do you prove that?  You can't, really.  Which is why Jewish law bases life on the first breath, which can be observed without the use of theology or mysticism.  Even atheists can agree whether a child is breathing or not.

I suspect this is also why Republicans focus on the heartbeat benchmark, because it, too, can now be measured by ultrasound.  But what about the brain? Nowadays brain activity is a better marker for life. Does a six-week-old embryo with a heartbeat think?  A brain dead person has a heartbeat, but are they still alive?  Is there a difference between an adult kept alive by machines and a not-yet-viable fetus kept alive by a womb?

In the case of the brain dead person, family members get to decide, along with their doctors and clergy, whether to terminate life support - even though the patient still has a heartbeat. So why is that not also true of an embryo in the womb? Why is it murder to end the life of an embryo without a thinking brain but not an adult who is brain dead?

In fact, Judaism does not consider the death of an unborn child to be murder, based on  Exodus 21:22-25, which the New American Standard Bible (NASB) renders this way: "And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no [further] injury [to her], he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him; and he [the guilty one] shall pay as the judges decide."  Fined, not executed for murder.  "Thou shalt not murder" simply does not apply here.

In conclusion 


We are back to the original questions once again: When does the soul join with the body? When does it leave? Is the body the whole essence of a person, or is it a merely a garment for the soul? These are questions we should leave to the clergy, not the politicians. True, abortion is ultimately a woman's choice, sometimes along with the father of the child or other family members, sometimes not.  Religious women will also take their faith's teachings into consideration.  And they should be free to do so according to their own theologies, not dictated to by fundamentalist Christianity.

* * *

Addenda: Seems I am not the only one thinking in this vein.  A recent New York Times article discussed whether Jewish and Muslim doctors and women should get religious exemptions in Alabama under their new strict anti-abortion law.  After all, Christians have claimed exemptions from Civil Rights laws (such as refusing to bake cakes for gay couples) based on their faith.  So why shouldn't religions that allow abortions also get similar exemptions? Good question.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

On Why I No Longer Do Speaking Engagements


"Hello.  I'm Rabbi Gershom, and I'm autistic..."

This is how I often introduce myself to a group nowadays, because I find that being upfront about my autism helps people get beyond my personal quirks.  Those of you who dislike labels should try being me without any kind of explanation.  Believe me, owning the label is much better.

Back in 1992, when my first book, Beyond the Ashes: Cases of Reincarnation from the Holocaust came out, I did not yet have a diagnosis.  Asperger's Syndrome (now considered a form of autism) wasn't even on the radar yet.  I was aware of my lifelong struggle with clumsy social skills, but nothing could have prepared me for the humiliating experiences I had on the speaking circuit.  Once the book came out, everybody and anybody wanted to meet the author -- and were deeply disappointed that a jabbering nerd like me was the guy who wrote it.

Within the Jewish community, I had functioned reasonably well, since we tend to be intense debaters who sway a lot and wave our hands around when we talk.  During worship we pace, shout, rock to our own inner rhythms -- what autistic people now call "stimming."  I have often joked that if  an uninformed person walked into an Orthodox study group, he or she might mistake it for a support group for autistic adults.  Which is probably another reason why my own autism went undiagnosed for so long.  In Jewish culture, rocking and swaying are considered normal.

And it was in a Jewish context that the book was written, where I was seen as a Jewish teacher talking about Jewish kabbalah.  Most of the reincarnation interviews were done one-on-one, which I'm good at.  Some people sent me written stories of their past-life memories, too, or copies of their past-life regression tapes.  Plus there were many phone interviews, also one-on-one.  From this material and my own academic research, the book Beyond the Ashes was born.

But when the book came out in 1992, everything changed  People read books in their own inner voice.  They form an idea of what the author is like, based on their own feelings and impressions.  This image becomes a sort of idol that they expect the author to live up to.  When it comes to spirituality, the New Age image is one of a calm mellow, laid-back personality, a sort of guru sitting cross-legged on a pillow, chanting "Om."  Google "spirituality images" and you get this:


An image that I do not fit at all.  Not one photo in there of Orthodox Jews dancing, swaying, rocking back and forth in ecstasy.  Which is why I was mostly a one-gig speaker.  A guy who disappointed his audience and was rarely invited back.

At one workshop, a participant flat out told me that if he had known I was a "typical New York Jew," he would never have signed up.  (I am not from New York. And yes, I do see the antisemitism in this attitude, but that's a whole other story.)  At another workshop, my bluntness was seen as insensitivity.  In Germany, where my book had just been translated, my mannerisms were mistaken for nervousness.  As for the written feedback forms...  I could go on and on, but you get the point.

 There were times when I regretted writing Beyond the Ashes, this book that took over my life and typecast me so completely that nobody wanted to hear about anything else  Yes, it helped many people, but it also left me tired and drained.  I came to understand why Leonard Nimoy wrote I Am Not Spock after the original Star Trek series ended.  I began to see myself as something separate from the "Rabbi Gershom" who wrote about Holocaust reincarnations.  He became a role I was playing -- not very healthy, to be sure.  I was disassociating from myself as author of the book.

The final straw came in the late 1990s, when I was castigated in front of the audience by a program organizer for not being "spiritual enough," and for going "off topic" on a question that didn't have to do with reincarnation per se, but which was relevant to explaining the Jewish worldview.   He actually said, "This is not what we hired you to talk about."  All they wanted to hear was Holocaust reincarnation stories, without much Jewish context. I came home from that gig emotionally drained and vowing never to do that again.  Dayenu!  Enough already!

The diagnosis changes everything...

It was during the 1990s, in the middle of all this chaos, at the age of 55, that I was diagnosed, first with ADHD, and later Asperger's (which I now believe can overlap each other.)  Suddenly a light went on in my head.  Things began falling into place.  I went online and read everything I could find on autism, joined numerous discussion groups and began putting my life back together.   Had I known more about my autism during those years on the speaking circuit, had I been able to give a name to the mannerisms that the audience found so uncomfortable, things might have gone differently.  Heck, if I had known about it in childhood, my whole life might have been different.  But that is, as they say, water under the bridge.

In the year 2000, as my millennium resolution, I pulled out of the spirituality workshop circuit altogether.  I had given 20+ years of my life to this
topic and it was time to move on.  There were now plenty of therapists and psychiatrists who were getting paid way more than me to do this Holocaust reincarnation stuff.  So let them have it. My book opened the door. Others walked through.  My role was over. And I was, quite frankly, tired of being typecast as “The Holocaust reincarnation rabbi.” I was tired of getting calls in the middle of the night from people who wanted free counseling and did not bother to check time zones. It was time to pass the torch to the next generation and begin a new chapter in my own life. So I did.

What is "spirituality" anyway? 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "spirituality as "The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things."  There is nothing in that sentence about body language, eye contact, voice inflections -- all of which are, after all, the very "physical things" that spirituality is supposed to leave behind.  So why judge me for not fitting into the New Age stereotype?

Nevertheless, that's what happened.  It traumatized me to the point that I no longer want to do workshops and have pretty much become a recluse, living with my wife and my animals in northern Minnesota.  What I have to say, I communicate through my writing.  It was, after all, a book that originally started all this, and, if I may say so myself, I'm a darned good writer.  Let people read in their own inner voice, without the distraction of my autistic personality.  Maybe in that way, I can get something of my true spirituality across.

There are probably readers out there now thinking to themselves, "Well, he can't be much of a spiritual guide if he can't even handle a little criticism."  First of all, I never claimed to be some sort of guru.  And second of all, there is no reason I should have to put up with emotional abuse.  Constructive criticism of my work I can take, but all this personal rejection did very little for my self-esteem.  If anyone is being "unspiritual," it's those people who insist on projecting their own expectations on me.

Today, I find myself wondering how many other autistic people have been rejected because of New Age stereotypes about what it means to be spiritual. We are frequently misread as "having no empathy" or being "unable to love" because we don't look people in the eye or enjoy being spontaneously hugged.  Many of us are unable to sit still without fidgeting, which pretty much rules out Zen meditation.  I was also seen as "unsocial" at all those speaking events because I didn't hang around the hotel bar to chitchat afterward.  After the intensity of doing a speech and/or leading an intense workshop, I need solitude to recharge.  The last thing I need is to be surrounded by the audio-visual chaos of a party.

I  puzzled for years over why God would have chosen me to be the person to write Beyond the Ashes.   I finally came to the conclusion that God did not want this thing to turn into a cult.  So he chose an autistic nerd with zero charisma, a guy with a memory for details who could put it all together with a certain amount of emotional detachment, but not become a cult leader.  The Aspie tendency to hyper-focus on one topic at the exclusion of all other interests served me well in making Beyond the Ashes a useful book that remained in print for 18 years.

Not many people get to "write the book" on a topic.  I did exactly that, not only opening the door to talk about Holocaust reincarnations, but also, as so many people have told me, opening up Jewish spirituality.  At the time Beyond the Ashes first came out, there was very little available in English about Jewish reincarnation teachings. This made it a groundbreaking work in the spirituality field. The book has had a profound and positive effect on how people in the New Age and past-life therapy communities are now interpreting the “karma” of the Holocaust.  Today it is a classic.

Yes, I can see the irony in that.  "Autistic nerd writes major book on spirituality."  If I were a true New Ager, I would claim that I channeled it, that some other entity besides Yonassan Gershom is the true author.  But I know differently.  The book happened precisely because of my autism, which provided a perfect storm of just the right abilities at just the right time.  That is my genius.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Give your cat a cage of catnip

"Why is that plant in a cage?" my grandson asked. " Is it dangerous?"

Not exactly. Here's the story.

Every cat person knows how much kitties love catnip. But anyone who has ever tried to grow it for them also knows how quickly they will crush the plants. Well, a couple years ago I hit on a solution that is not only useful, it's fun for both cats and people:  Put a pot of catnip in a cage!

Any cage will do, as long as it is strong enough to support a cat or cats sitting on it. Because sit on it they will, as well as roll around in glee.  I found the one pictured here at a garage sale for $2 and it has served us well.

The catnip plant I got at a garden center. (Previous attempts to start seeds indoors met with disaster, as cats ate the seedlings and knocked over the pots.) Plant it in a pot that fits in the cage.  Water and fertilize regularly. No need to pinch back or prune: cats will do that for you.  They can nibble leaves that grow through the wire, but won't kill the plant.

Set the cage in an open sunny place outdoors.  Then sit back and enjoy the fun!


Monday, November 20, 2017

Franken's Apology: A Jewish Perspective

By now the whole world has heard about Leeann Tweeden's accusation that, in 2006, not-yet-Senator Al Franken kissed her too aggressively during a skit rehearsal and later posed for an embarrassing "joke" photo where it appears he is groping her. There is plenty of discussion about these events all over the Internet, so I'm not going to go into more details here.

Rather, I want to look at the ethics of his apology from a Jewish perspective. Why Jewish per se?  Because Franken himself is Jewish and has said that his Jewish roots are part of his approach to public service. (Read more on that...)    Although I am not his rabbi, I did know Rabbi Shapiro of Temple Israel in Minneapolis (who was), and can attest that Al Franken grew up in a positive Jewish environment. So I think it is fair to look at the issue from the standpoint of Jewish law & ethics.

But first, three disclaimers:

(1)  I do not speak for Senator Franken, and I have not discussed religion with him.  Therefore,  all opinions in this post are my own.

(2)  I am not in any way, shape, or form trying to claim that what Franken did to Ms. Tweeden was OK.  If I thought that, there would be no need to discuss apologies.

(3) I have been a Franken supporter since his first campaign in 2008 and I still am.  However, this does not mean I am blind to his faults, or that I enjoy raunchy sexual humor (Not!)  No leader is perfect.  Even Moses made mistakes.

Forgiveness and apologies in Judaism

Judaism teaches that for sins between human beings and God, it is enough to simply pray to God for forgiveness.  So, for example, if I eat a ham sandwich, all I need to do is acknowledge the sin, ask God for forgiveness, and hopefully not do it again.  However, if I harm another person - whether physically, monetarily, or through embarrassment --  I cannot be forgiven by God until I have made amends directly to that person.  In this, Judaism recognizes the right of victims to have their pain and suffering directly acknowledged.

This is exactly how Franken has handled the Tweeden accusation against him. Within 24 hours of Tweeden stating her case on CNN, Franken issued a full public apology to reporters, as well as sending an apology directly to Ms. Tweeden, which she read and discussed on The View.  During that interview she said she accepted his apology and stated, "I sincerely think he took it in and realized that -- man, he looks at it now and says 'I'm disgusted by my actions'..." She also stated that it is not her intent to get him to resign, that the people of Minnesota should decide this.  All in all, she accepted his apology and change of heart as genuine. (Watch the full interview on YouTube)

Unlike Weinstein, Moore, Trump and others, Franken did not retreat into denial.  There was no degrading of Tweeden, no calling her derogatory nicknames, no threats of defamation lawsuits,  no Twitter storm attempting to divert attention from himself, no coverup.  Franken fully owned his guilt and manned up to apologize. Twice.  I respect that.

Publicly humiliating someone is a sin

Let me point out that Jewish law takes a very dim view of embarrassing someone in public; it is, in fact, a serious sin that the Talmud compares to shedding blood (Bava Metzia 58b).   So even if Franken did intend the now-infamous photo to be a practical joke, the fact that it humiliated her made it a sin that he must atone for.  The same goes for the kiss, about which he says, "I certainly don't remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann." Some people have nitpicked this statement, claiming that he is denying her story.  I don't see it that way.  It is perfectly possible for two people to remember the same event in different ways.  What seems trivial in one person's mind can loom large in the mind of another.  For him it was probably just a rehearsal.  To her, it was devastating and made her angry for years.

So why didn't he apologize back in 2006?  Because apparently he did not realize the seriousness of its impact on her until she told her story last week.  Some people have implied that he only apologized because he got caught, but this contradicts her own story on CNN, where she says she saw the photo after they got back from the USO trip.  For whatever reason, she did not confront him about it back then.  What matters now is that as soon as he became aware of the impact on her, he owned it.

However, we should note that pillorying Franken  in a social media feeding frenzy is also wrong.  Ms. Tweeden has stated that it was not her intention to get him fired, she simply wanted to tell her story and get an apology.  She got that and has accepted it.  If the victim does not want to press it further, shouldn't we respect that?  Must we continue to drag both of them through the media?

Loshon hara (evil gossip) is also a serious sin: "You shall not go back and forth as a talebearer among your people." (Leviticus 19:16) Reporting the news is one thing. Vicious gossip is quite another.

Is "joking around" an excuse?

This brings us to the question of whether "it was clearly a joke" could be an excuse. The Jewish answer is no, not if it causes harm to the brunt of the joke.  In a discussion about embarrassment and nicknames, the Talmud (Baba Metzia 58b) says that one who calls someone a derogatory nickname -- even if he or she is used to it -- will spend eternity in Gehenna.  This may be hyperbole, but it does indicate the seriousness of humiliating somebody in public. (President Trump should listen to this.  Although he is not Jewish, one would hope that his Jewish daughter and son-in-law would point out it him.  Maybe they have but he doesn't listen?)

Humor is always tricky.  What is funny to one generation can be downright disgusting to another.  Even from group to group or person to person, what is acceptable can vary widely.  To be sure, much of Franken's humor back in his Saturday Night Live (SNL) days was very raunchy and misogynist.  (Read more...)  SNL today remains a venue where comedy often crosses the line into offensiveness.  This is not to make excuses, it just is what it is.  Perhaps we should all take a long hard look at ourselves and how we feed into this national obsession with raunchy sexist humor.

Again drawing on Jewish thought, Psalm 1:1 tells us not to "sit in the seat of the scorners," i.e., those who mock others. Good humor does not put others down.

Franken's humor and the 2008 Senate race

Here in Minnesota, when Franken ran for the Senate in 2008, his humor became an issue during the campaign.  The Republicans jumped on various articles and skits he had written or participated in (or sometimes just pitched but never produced) as "proof" that he was morally unfit to lead.  Even among Democrats, there was concern about his public image . Focus groups said loud and clear that they did not want Minnesota represented by a clown, especially a raunchy one.

Here again, Franken looked at his behavior and sincerely apologized: “For 35 years I was a writer," he said at his nomination speech. "I wrote a lot of jokes. Some of them weren’t funny. Some of them weren’t appropriate. Some of them were downright offensive. I understand that. And I understand that the people of Minnesota deserve a senator who won’t say things that will make you feel uncomfortable."

So a lot of the bad comedy material from the past that his enemies are now dredging up is old news to us Minnesotans, who elected him in 2008.  In 2014 he won the Democratic primary with 94.5% of the vote and the general election with 53.2% of the vote.  Obviously, Minnesota feels he has grown beyond his past off-color humor and is now doing a good job representing us.

Unfortunately, the rest of the country apparently hasn't followed Minnesota politics that closely.  A whole new generation, who weren't even born in 1975 when SNL began, are discovering anew that Al Franken the comedian wrote offensive jokes before he became a senator.  What they are missing is that during the campaign he promised to turn over a new leaf --and he did.  He went so far as to not tell jokes -- even acceptable ones -- suppressing his inner clown to take on the seriousness of governing in the Senate.  (Read more...)

Is Franken unfit to lead?

Now that the Tweeden story is out, certain people are calling for Franken's resignation.  Abby Honold, the Minnesota rape victim who helped Franken craft a bill that would help train First Responders to better help victims of sexual assault, called Franken to say he was no longer fit to sponsor it.  For the good of the cause, Franken turned it over to Senator Amy Klobuchar.

But I find myself wondering if Honold is really right.  Is Franken really unfit to lead on women's issues or anything else?

Recall again that the Tweeden case, as well as his sexist humor in general, occurred before he was elected to the Senate. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 14 women staffers who worked for Franken signed a statement saying that he never acted inappropriately towards them:

“Many of us spent years working for Senator Franken in Minnesota and Washington,” their statement read. “In our time working for the senator, he treated us with the utmost respect. He valued our work and our opinions and was a champion for women both in the legislation he supported and in promoting women to leadership roles in our office."

(UPDATE 11/21/2017:   Three dozen women who worked with Franken on SNL also signed a letter defending him: "Saturday Night Live" Women Defend Franken after Groping Allegations, stating "not one of us experienced any inappropriate behavior.")

So it would seem that he really has turned over a new leaf.  I find myself thinking about how, in many recovery programs, the best outreach counselors are those who have been there.  Ex-alcoholics, ex-addicts, ex-gang members, ex-convicts -- the list goes on of people who can speak convincingly to offenders precisely because they once were offenders themselves.

In a follow-up interview on CNN, Tweeden herself blames our culture, and said that change is going to come "not from the victims coming out, and talking about it, I think its gonna come from the people who may be doing the abusing that don't even realize they are abusing because it is so a part of the culture..." . (Watch the  video)

Take Alan Alda, for instance.  If  you watch the early seasons of M.A.S.H., there's a great deal of material that comes across as sexual harassment.  Then, partway through the series,  Alda became a feminist. And if you watch the episodes in order, you can see the show evolve into a more respectful treatment of female characters.  Having followed Franken's career here in Minnesota, I have seen a similar evolution in Franken's attitude.

So why can't Franken be an advocate for women's rights?  It would seem that a man who himself once degraded women on the stage and in his writing -- but who has since repented and reformed -- would be the ideal person to convince other men to do the same.  In other areas we support --even praise! -- ex-offenders who do such education and outreach.  Why should  this be any different?

As I write this, the news just broke that Senator Franken does not intend to resign.  Frankly (pun intended), I'm glad.  So far, he is the only one of the many powerful men recently accused of sexual misconduct who has had the guts to take full responsibility and admit his mistakes.  That shows  courage and strength of character. We need more of that kind of leadership.

*  *  *

UPDATE: Listen to Al Franken's Full 18-minute interview with Cathy Wurzer on NPR, Sunday, November 26, 2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Kabbalistic Musings on "Life of Pi"

On the first page of the novel, Life of Pi, the main character, Pi Patel, states that one of his two academic majors was in religious studies, with his thesis focused on "certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed."  Luria, also known as the "holy Ari" (Lion), is still revered as one of the greatest of all Jewish mystics.

In the movie, Pi does not mention Luria by name, but he does say that he lectures on Kabbalah at the university. Given this reference (and a few others I will explain below), I feel justified in assuming that there are Jewish mystical themes encoded in the story, even though they are presented mostly in terms of Hinduism.  As I am a visual-oriented person (one of my autistic gifts), I will focus primarily on the movie, while using the book for more background references as needed.

(Warning: If you read beyond this point, you will encounter spoilers, so if you have not read the book and/or seen the movie, stop here or proceed at your own risk!)

In both the book and the movie versions, Pi Patel's father owns a zoo, so he grows up with a lot of practical knowledge about animals.  He is also very interested in religions. In addition to his mother's Hinduism, he  explores Christianity and Islam, finding truth in all three paths and combining their practices in his daily life. His brother ridicules him for this, while his father tries to convince him that "religion is darkness" and that rational thinking -- science -- is the way of "the new India."  Pi replies with the words of Mahatma Gandhi: "All religions are true."

The book goes into considerable detail about the three theologies and the differences among them, while the movie relies more on visual scenes of worship to get this point across. The book has a poignant -- if hostile -- marketplace encounter, with Pi's three religious teachers each claiming him for their own faith.  The movie leaves this scene out, perhaps because it might offend viewers, or else be over the heads of children in a PG audience.  It is well worth reading if you haven't already.

Pi is especially puzzled by Christianity, because he cannot understand why God would allow his innocent son to suffer for the sins of the guilty.  To him this makes no sense at all. The question of suffering recurs throughout the story.  How can a God who loves us still allow us to suffer?

The shipwreck

Because of political changes in India (during the administration of Indira Gandhi), Pi's father decides to close the zoo, sell the animals, and move the family to Canada. They will travel with those animals headed for North America on a Japanese-owned freighter named the Tsimtsum.  Which brings us to the second Kabbalistic reference in the story.  Although Tsimtsum might look like a Japanese name, it is in fact Hebrew, and means "contraction" or "withdrawal."  It refers to the teaching of Isaac Luria which says that, before the Creation, everything was infinite God-essence.  In order for God to create the universe as we know it, God first had to create a vacant space -- a void -- for it to exist in.  God did this by withdrawing -- contracting  -- Him/Herself.  Within this void, God is hidden, allowing for free will and for independent creatures like us to exist. 

That's all very interesting, but why did author Jann Martel name the ship Tsimtsum?  

In a blog article on this topic, David Sanders quotes Martel on this question: “I wanted a representative scoop of religions in the book – Hindu, Christian, Islam. I would have loved to have Pi be a Jew, too, but there are no synagogues in Pondicherry [where the family was from in India]. So I chose Tsimtsum as the name of the Japanese cargo boat because, although it sounds Japanese, it is a Hebrew word.”

 So my intuition was correct: Martel wanted to include Jewish mysticism in the mix, but like God in the cosmic tsimtsum, it is hidden. However, I think the symbolism goes deeper than that.  Genesis says that the world was "void and formless," with the spirit of God moving upon "the deep," often visualized as a vast ocean. The Zohar describes Creation as beginning with a primal point (singularity?) within the void, which then expanded.  When the ship sinks, Pi's world is contracted into a single point -- the lifeboat -- on a vast formless ocean, reversing Creation to chaos, so to speak. The imagery in the movie shows this in several scenes, with Pi's boat a mere speck upon the ocean. Director Ang Lee has stated that he specifically researched the philosophy of Isaac Luria to understand the concept of tsimtsum and incorporate it into the film. (source)

"As above so below" -- the clouds reflecting in the water
make it appear  as if the boat is in the sky
The movie also uses another common Kabbalistic theme: "As above, so below." This is the idea that the physical world "below" is a reflection of the higher spiritual world "above."  In numerous scenes we see the sky reflected in the water to the point that there is no horizon, no differentiation between the two. In the contraction of Pi's world, everything blends into one.

In one scene, Pi looks into the ocean and sees the whole universe reflected -- reminiscent of a childhood story told earlier by his mother, about how the Hindu god Krishna opened his mouth and the universe was seen within it.  (The CGI graphics of the two scenes are very similar.)   Once again, we are reminded of the spirit of God moving upon the waters in Genesis. 

The voyage

Pi makes it to the lifeboat, along with four animals: a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker, a name he got through a mix-up of paperwork.  There is a lot of focus on name changes in this story.  Pi's first name is Piscine, from the French. But the bullies in his school take to mispronouncing it as "Pissing," so he re-names himself Pi. (In the movie he impresses everyone by writing out the number Pi to hundreds of digits.)  The Tiger was supposed to be called "Thirsty," but ended up as Richard Parker instead. In both cases, a less dignified name was replaced by a better one.  In the Bible, a number of characters are given new names to reflect a new status.

The zebra and orangutan are killed by the hyena, which in turn is killed by the tiger.  This leaves Pi alone with a vicious, hungry predator.  At first Pi is terrified, but he soon realizes that he and the tiger must co-exist.  He therefore works to establish his dominance and define their territories, using the methods of a circus trainer.  Various interpretations for this relationship have been put forth, most centering on some form of the tiger being his animal self.  This also fits with Jewish thought, where we have both a good side (yetzer tov) and a bad side (yetzer ha-ra.)  One cannot destroy the bad side, but one can learn to control it, as Pi does with the tiger.  In the book he considers various ways to destroy the tiger, but comes to realize that they need each other to survive.  "My fear of him keeps me alert, tending to his needs gives my life purpose," he explains. Jewish mysticism would say the same thing about the yetzer ha-ra.  Properly controlled, it motivates us to keep going in this world.

The carnivorous Island

One of the strangest episodes in Pi's voyage is the floating island full of meerkats.  Safe by day, the island becomes carnivorous at night.  This is so weird that many readers see it as pure fantasy.  I would like to suggest it is a combination of reality and imagination.  No, there are no ecosystems like the one Pi describes. However, there are many small islands in the Pacific, and floating islands of volcanic pumice -- some with trees -- have been reported. (Read more...) Carnivorous plants also exist in some places. So these elements do have a ring of truth.

By the time Pi gets to this island, he and Richard Parker are so close to death as to be delirious. In the movie they have just gone through a terrible storm where Pi cries out to God, "I lost my family, I lost everything. I surrender. What more do you want?" He has reached the depths of despair, the deepest dark night of the soul.  He fully expects to die.  So why couldn't there be a real island with some sort of animals on it, that Pi mis-remembers in this state of confusion?  If you compare the images of the island trees with the banyans he walked among back in India, they are very similar. And the meerkats do look more ratlike as they run up into the trees.

Screen shot of The Island, enhance by me to make the
reclining Vishnu shape stand out more clearly. 
Another aspect of the island is mystical. In the beginning of the movie, we are told that the Hindu god Vishnu "sleeps on the boundless ocean of consciousness" and the universe is his dream.  After Pi learns about Christianity, he thanks Vishnu for leading him to find Christ, and touches a small statue of Vishnu reclining.  When we see the island from afar, it has this same shape, formed by the outline of the trees. This suggests the possibility that the island may be some form of miracle, that God is watching over Pi and Richard Parker even if hidden. 

But although the island suggests sweet repose, it is a false peace.  All that the island gives in the daytime, it takes away at night.  And it is lonely.  Pi could have stayed there forever, eating plants by day and sleeping with the meerkats in the trees by night, but it was an empty existence. When he finds a human tooth embedded in a fruit (which opens like a lotus in the movie) and realizes that some previous castaway had died there, he decides to leave and takes the tiger with him.

The two stories
Richard Parker walks off into the jungle

After 227 days of survival on the high seas, Pi is washed ashore in Mexico.  As he lies exhausted on the beach, Richard Parker walks off into jungle without even looking back  The tiger is never seen again. This deeply saddens Pi, who even years later wishes there had been some sort of final look or growl in parting.  

In the book, during the first part about life in a zoo, Pi told the story of a black panther that escaped the Zurich zoo in winter and survived on its own for several months.  Now we know this was to lay the groundwork for the possibility that Richard Parker also survives in the South American jungle. Still, Pi misses him deeply.

Once back in civilization, parts of the voyage sound too strange to be true. The two Japanese insurance investigators don't believe him, and ask for an ordinary story to put in their report, one that their company will believe. So he obliges them and tells a more common type of lifeboat survival tale, one of treachery, murder and cannibalism, in which only he survives. In this second story, the zebra is a wounded sailor, the hyena is a barbarous cook, the orangutan is his mother, and he is the tiger.  In its own way, this tale is also hard to believe, because his mother and father can't swim, his brother refused to get up to investigate the loud noise or explosion, and all three were down below when the ship sank. Only Pi was on deck because he went up to see the storm.

So which story is true?  In both stories the ship sinks, Pi loses his family, suffers for 227 days at sea and is the sole survivor.  In the end, neither story explains why the ship sank. Neither explains Pi's suffering. Neither can be proven true or false.  The only witness other than Pi is Richard Parker, who disappeared into the jungle, so Pi cannot prove he ever existed. On a pragmatic level, does it really matter?

Pi then asks, "Which is the better story?" The writer who is interviewing him says that the one with the tiger is better.  The Japanese insurance men apparently agree, because in the end, they include the tiger story in their report. I myself also agree: the first story is the best one. 

As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once said, "Not all the stories are true, but when the people tell them, they are holy." One cannot prove religion one way or another.  Is rationalism really better than mysticism?  What if life really is a random jumble of meaningless events?  Can we live with that?  It is the nature of human beings to seek meaning in life, to bring order out of chaos.  Whether or not Richard Parker was real, without the tiger, Pi would not have survived.

"Above all things, don't lose hope," read the survival manual in the lifeboat. 

"Never despair!" taught Rebbe Nachman. 

The better story is the one with hope.


(This post was updated by the author on 11/1/2017)