Rock The Casbah

A little tribute to a great song, with the lyrics and the original single artwork below:


Now, the king told the boogie men,
you have to let that raga drop
The oil down the desert way
has been shaking to the top.
The sheik he drove his cadillac
he went a cruisin down the ville.
The Muezzin was a standing
On the radiator grille.
Shareef don't like it.
Rock the Casbah. Rock the Casbah.
Shareef don't like it.
Rock the Casbah. Rock the Casbah.
By order of the prophet
We ban that boogie sound.
Degenerate the faithful
With that crazy Casbah sound.
But the Bedouin, they brought out the electric camel drum.
The local guitar picker got his guitar picking thumb.
As soon as the Shareef had cleared the square,
They began to wail.
Now over at the temple
Oh, they really pack em in.
The in crowd say it's cool
To dig this chanting thing.
But as the wind changed direction
and the temple band took five
The crowd got a whiff
Of that crazy casbah jive.
The king called up his jet fighters,
He said, you better earn your pay.
Drop your bombs down between the minarets
Down the casbah way.
As soon as the Shareef was chauffered out of there,
The jet pilote tuned to the cockpit radio blare.
As soon as the Shareef was outta their hair
The jet pilots wailed.
Shareef don't like it.
(Thinks it's not kosher!)
Rock the Casbah. Rock the Casbah.
Shareef don't like it.
(Fundamentally contagious!)
Rock The Casbah!

An Earth Prayer from Neohasid

This prayer is partially based on an old Kabbalistic seder for Tu B’shvat. It has been written by the folks at Neohasid and can be downloaded in a Hebrew-English version at the link at the bottom for personal use. Really all new siddurs should contain something like this, no?

A Prayer for the Earth

This prayer is focused on global climate disruption (aka “global warming”), healing the skies, and the original blessing of creation. It is partly based on P’ri Eitz Hadar (the first published Tu Bish’vat seder), and on the Sefardi liturgy for Sukkot. It can be used after the Torah service every Shabbat, after the prayer for the government or Israel. It could also be used many other times, e.g. after the counting of the omer or on Lag B’Omer. The liturgy is closely based upon the sun-blessing liturgy we used April 8th 2009. The PDF includes Hebrew with vowels, two copies per page. Notes follow the English text below.

Elohei Haruchot, God of all spirit, all directions, all winds
You have placed in our hands power
unlike any since the world began
to overturn the orders of creation.

Please God, give us wisdom and skillful hands to heal
the Skies and the Earth from our sins;
Y’kum purkan lish’maya ‘May salvation arise for the heavens’.
that the blessings of the sun flow over us
for life and not for death, for blessing and not for curse,
as it says, ‘I will open for you the expanses of the Heavens
and will empty out for you a blessing beyond what is enough
and Earth’s fruit will not be destroyed because of you.’

God full of compassion, remember Your covenant with all life,
the covenant of the waters of Noah.
Spread a Sukkah of compassion and peace
over us, over all Life’s species;
Surround all our relations, with Shekhinah’s radiance;
Water them with Your river of delights in all of their habitats.
Then ‘the bow will appear in the cloud’,
joyful and beautified with its colors,
and the Tree of Life will return to its original strength,
so that we and our descendants may merit to live
many days on Earth, like days of the Skies over the Land.
Blessed be the Life of the worlds!

~~~~~ Text notes for the curious:~~~~~

See the longer version of this liturgy for more notes and interpretations.

Elohei Haruchot” – Numbers 27:16 “skillful hands” – Psalms 78:72

Y’kum purkan lish’maya” – the traditional blessing for the congregation begins “y’kum purkan min shamaya“, may salvation arise from the Heavens.

“I will open for you expanses…” – Malakhi 3:10-11; “expanses”, arubot, is used to describe the release of the flood waters in the Noah story; in Malakhi it’s meaning is reversed from destruction to abundance.

“destroyed because of you” – usu. interpreted to mean “your produce will not be destroyed”, but new times reveal new meanings.

“covenant of the waters of Noah” – the covenant was not made with humans first, but rather with the land and with all the creatures, Genesis 9:9-12

“Spread a Sukkah over us” – a refrain found many places, but especially in the Sefardi liturgy for Ushpizin, where it is echoed several times.

“all our relations” – a Native American epithet meaning all species of life and all creatures, which as we know from Spirit and from science are truly our relations.

“Shekhinah’s radiance” – what the righteous enjoy in the coming world, but also in the Sefardi Ushpizin something we pray for in the here and now.

“Water them with Your river of delights” – Psalms 36:8

“the bow will appear in the cloud” – v’nir’atah hkeshet be’anan, from Genesis 9:14, quoted by P’ri Eitz Hadar as a sign of the restoration of original blessing. (Note however that for much of Kabbalah, the rainbow has the opposite meaning, that God needed to be reminded, k’v’yakhol, not to destroy the Earth.) The grammatical form is past tense with the Biblical vav hahipukh, which makes it future tense.

“joyful and beautified” — also from P’ri Eitz Hadar, its referent in the original context is ambiguous, syntactically fitting with the rainbow but grammatically (by gender) with “the whole”. Either way, it’s a good thing.

“Tree of Life” – in Kabbalah, the sefirot; in ecology and evolution, the process of unfolding and becoming which makes all living things our relations, a process whose diversity is overwhelming and wondrous.

“will return to its original strength” – a quote from P’ri Eitz Hadar, which reads “hakol the Whole will return to its original strength”. Tree of Life is another epithet for all the Sefirot, which “hakol” also stands for. This is one of the most deeply ecological sentiments I have ever encountered in any pre-modern text (i.e., before ecology was even a concept).

“like days of the Skies over the Land” — Deuteronomy 11:21, a more concrete translation of “like the days of the Heavens over the Earth”.

Fundamentals vs. Fundamentalism

In Sefer Bamidbar the daughters of Zelophchad, an Israelite man from the tribe of who died in the desert, approach Moshe with a complaint. The law Moshe has reported allots the land of a deceased man to his sons but Zelophchad had none. Therefore his five daughters will go landless. Moshe consults with Hashem and then changes the law: if there are no men in the family, a woman can inherit (Bamidbar 27:7). The Midrash all too tellingly explains: “The compassion of men extends primarily to other men, whereas the compassion of God extends equally to men and to women, as it is written [Psalms 145:9]: “God is good to all, Whose compassion extends to all creations.” [Sifri on Bamidbar 27:1] The Sifri goes further with a fascinating comment: “Hashem says, ‘[This response to the daughters] is exactly the way I have it written in my book'”  In other words, the more new, more equitable law was the truer, more primordial expression of divine intention! The law which only came about because of a complaint from a group of women and Moshe’s response is in fact the truer expression of Torah.

This comment of Sifri has wide implications. Yet it is not so radical: it is in harmony with many stories and rulings in the Talmud and in ancient Rabbinic responsa. The Rabbis recognized that the Torah as a body of law had certain over-arching principles, and sometimes in order to express those principles more clearly specific legislation had to be qualified or hedged in with new, transformative sub-legislation. As the story above shows the is not an abnegation of the Torah but a fulfillment of it.

The new law is one which is more generous and compassionate towards the daughters of Zelophchad. In other words it fulfills a mitzvah from this week’s parsha: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself, I am YHWH”.  This is not just “a mitzvah”. As Rabbi Akiva said, “zeh klal gedol b’Torah”: This is the fundamental priniciple of the Torah.

So why have modern day Rabbis refused to be more bold in legislating in favour of agunot, in integrating inter-married couples through conversion, in making a place for homosexuals, in making a place for women to more fully express their helek b’ Torah by wearing tefillin and tzitzit, becoming poseks, etc.? Not doing these things has not just failed to express love and compassion to many Jews and non-Jews but also hastened the disintegration of the Jewish people, caused Jews to have legal matters settled in non-Jewish courts, brought gentile scorn on Jewish practices and Jews themselves, and caused Jews to lose faith in the Torah and/or Rabbinic law. In other words, it has violated several overarching Jewish values, like: Jewish unity, being a light to the nations, loving your neighbour as yourself, loving the stranger as yourself, settling legal matters internally, and protecting the sanctity of marriage. None of this is worth it in order to preserve minor laws like divorce law or to preserve customs about what is appropriate for women to do or not to do- customs that are not even legally mandated. (The current conversion crisis is a whole other matter, on which see my post of a few weeks ago.)

It seems like the ancient klalim hagedolim, fundamental principles of Torah, have been replaced with new ones. These new ones seem to be: preserve ancient custom at all costs; preserve absolute control of halachic Judaism by haredim; maintain control over the Rabbinic courts; resist all aspects of modernity. Again and again we see concern for the Torah itself but not for human beings. In other words, we see concern not for living the Torah towards other human beings but a frightening willingness to sacrifice other human beings to an abstract idolization of the Torah.

This reminds me of a joke a Jewish bookseller in Toronto told me: “A very frum Hasid dies and goes to Gan Eden L’Maaleh (the Garden of Eden above). At the entrance he is met by Moshe Rabeinu himself smiling and offering him a plate of food as refreshment. The Hasid is nonplussed. “Can I see the heksher?” he asks.

What would happen if the daughters of Zelophchad approached one of these latter day Rabbinic courts? “The law is the law”, I’m sure they would say. “If we opened the law to allow you to inherit land, the next thing we knew Rabbis would be rewriting the laws wholesale in order to placate feminists and modernizers.”

But as Sifri says, in doing do they would not be defending the word of God but in fact preventing its full revelation in this world.

The Moon Viewing Party

I was recently at a Zen sesshin led by Norman Fischer in Bellingham where he gave a talk on the following koan. It reverberated in my mind afterwards and I wrote the following in the Greyhound station on the way home:

Here is the case as I remember it:

Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang Huihai, Xitang Zhizang, and Nanquan Puyuan went out to view the full moon.

“What should one do at a time like this?”, asked Mazu.

“It is a good time to cultivate practice”, said Baizhang.

“It is a good time to recite sutras [and make merit]”, said Zhizang.

Nanquan flapped his sleeves and left.

Mazu said:

Meditation returns to the ocean

Merit goes into the treasury

Only Nanquan goes completely beyond.

In Zen symbolism the full moon often represents the awakened mind: the Buddha nature which is luminous, free, and ever present beneath our ordinary grasping mind. The meaning of Mazu’s question, in Chan code, is: “At a time when the Buddha mind is evident, what should one do?”

Baizhang answers: “A good time to cultivate practice.” It is a good time to refine our minds further, to remove subtle obstructions to the clarity of our awakening awareness.

Zhizang answers, “It is a good time to recite sutras [and make merit].” This is a more indirect approach to developing awakening. Zhizang believes that the awakening mind must unfold naturally and that the chief obstacles to such unfolding are karmic obscurations. Therefore when the awakened mind does manifest, there is nothing one can do to develop it. One should instead engage in meritorious activities which purify one’s karma and the awakened mind will thus dawn naturally. Zhizang and Baizhang have diametrically opposed responses. Baizhang suggests willful refinement of one’s state of mind. Baizhang suggests making merit to remove the obscurations which prevent the awakened mind from unfolding naturally. And what of Nanquan’s abrupt and cryptic response?

Nanquan shakes out his sleeves and departs. This symbolizes simply dropping the idea of doing anything in particular and moving on without attachment. Nanquan says, in effect, “Do not cultivate the mind or engage in purification. Simply let things be and continue, neither pursuing nor rejecting.” These three views are reflected in Mazu’s poetic response to their answers:

“Meditation returns to the ocean” refers to Baizhang, and is a play on his Chinese name, which contains “ocean”. Meditation is helpful for Baizhang, but…

“Merit goes into the treasury” refers to Zhizong, whose name contains the word “treasury”. Reciting sutras is helpful to Zhizong, but…only Nanquan goes completely beyond. “Going completely beyond” is, of course, the purpose of Zen practice. The other answers are good, but it is Nanquan who embodies Zen.

What do we see through a Jewish lens? The full moon might be equated to the attainment of a direct experience of God’s reality. What should one do at such a time? Zhizang says: Deepen it. Refine it. Cleave to it in d’veykut.

Baizhang says: You yourself cannot bring on such an experience. Rather you merited it through your Torah and mitzvot. Increase your study, prayer, and good deeds. Through them you will draw the light of the sh`khina upon you and warrant perceptions of Godliness.

Both seem like good kosher advice, and wise too. What of Nanquan’s advice? At first glance his answer doesn’t seem to make much Jewish sense. You experience God’s presence and you just drop it and move on? You’re joking. Equanimity and non-attachement may be the ultimate goals of Buddhism but but they’re not the ultimate goals of Judaism. One doesn’t treat an experience of God as not better or no worse than any other experience and move on, prioritizing one’s freedom of mind!

But perhaps we are reading Nanquan superficially. Does Nanquan really believe that an experience of the awakened mind is no better and no worse than any other state of consciousness? Or is it that he understands that clinging to the experience and trying to perpetuate it is in fact an obstacle to its realization? The awakened mind is not a simple “peak experience” or samadhi, it is the experience of radical clarity and non-attachment itself. Similarly the experience of God’s presence is not any particular ecstacy or vision, although these may be included, rather it is a revelation of reality itself and of one’s place in it- from a Jewish point of view a revelation of truth.

It seems to me there are two ways to understand Nanquan’s approach in Jewish terms. The first way to understand Nanquan is that his gesture communicates that any attempt to perpetuate the experience of the ultimate is in fact an obstacle. An obstacle to what? To serving God in the next moment. Reb Nosson of Breslov points out that one must continuously renew one’s service of God. In Devarim 6:6 it speaks of the mitzvot “that I command you today”. Similarly Rashi writes, on Devarim 27:9, that one’s serving God should always be as though one were starting anew “today” (Likutey Halachot Tefillin 5:5). The Arizal taught that God does not just renew Creation every day, but every second, and that each second the universe is a completely different universe (The Seven Beggars, p. 12). Therefore one’s service must be new every second. It was for this reason that King David was compared to the moon, which is always changing and ever renewed. Like the moon so is life. Thus the Jewish calendar is based on the moon to teach us that we muct constantly renew ourselves and our service of God (Ibid). The insights of the last moment are not the insights of this moment.

A second way to understand Nanquan’s gesture is as communicating that when one experiences God, whether in Torah study, prayer, contemplation, in the face of another, or the unfolding of one’s life- is that a place where “God is” and other places where “God is not?” Perhaps Nanquan’s response is equivalent to a level of d’veykut where it is understood that every experience is God. Thus there is fundamentally nowhere to progress to. A dialogue I had with a (Jewish) Zen teacher comes to mind.

I commented to Peter Levitt, sensei of the Salt Spring Zen Circle, that a Sufi parable teaches that religions are like crafts which carry one to the other shore of a river. Some people disdain such crafts and sink in the water. Some love the crafts so much that they spend all their time maintaining them, repairing them, elaborating them, and forget about crossing the stream. Peter smiled and said, “How does the water cross?”

Water is of course already there. The water is the true basis of one’s travel, and God is the true basis of all experience and all practice (or non-practice). God is already there.

So, is Nanquan right then and Baizhang and Zhizang wrong? Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Soto Zen founder, comments on this case in the Eihei Koroku: “All of them together make a nice moon viewing party.”

The Curious Case of the Frum Punk

This story is not just a novelty- it highlights a real problem in the Jewish community: putting more value on externals, or on cautiousness, then on more subtle but perhaps more important issues. I think inclusion and compassion should trump almost every other Jewish value right now. It’s nice that the Chabadniks came over to apologize- next step give him an aliyah.

Hmmmnnnn…….A Word to The Wise (If Only)

I wish I could send the following passage to the right-wing Orthodox courts currently implicated in the conversion crisis, the aguna crisis, and even the Israeli kosher l’pesach crisis, which places greater and greater burdens on Israel and reduces our “wisdom before the nations”. Of course sending it to them would not be enough: they’ve seen it. I wish they would see it, hear it, place it upon their hearts. If taken literally it’s actually quite a scary passage: may it not be prophetic.

Taught Rabbi Yochanan: “Jerusalem was destroyed because they judged strictly by the letter of the law…they established their rulings strictly upon the letter of the law and did not judge within the margins of the law” (B. Bava Metzia 30b) Comments the Maharal: “In other words, even though the people had erred in their ways, the destruction would not have happened….But since they established their rulings strictly upon the letter of the law, destruction resulted as God reciprocated in kind with strict literal judgement…And if they would have ruled leniently, God in turn would have judged them with leniency…The distancing of compassion brings about destruction to the world” (Netivot Olam, Netiv Gemilut Chessed, end of Ch.3) [translation by R’Gershon Winkler]