Bible Wrestling

Before I began rabbinical school in Jerusalem this summer, I did something my tradition generally frowns on — I read the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses or the Torah) from cover to cover, without commentary.

At the time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was quoting scripture to justify separating families at the Southern border. This served as a grotesque reminder of why the Jewish tradition generally frowns on reading the Torah alone and without context. There is so much one misses reading the Bible this way — on a what Jews would call the pshat or surface level, in terms of the richness of the text and also in terms of morality.

Still, I had never read the Pentateuch straight through, and I wanted to familiarize myself with the parts of it I knew less about and to get a sense of its sweep. So I dove into my project, unsure of where it would take me.

As I began reading, I stumbled on a tweet that changed the way I thought about the Pentateuch:

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While I don’t want to say the Pentateuch is one thing, the perspective offered by Rabbi Regan provides a unified way of understanding the complicated and sometimes confusing narrative from Genesis to Deuteronomy. God and the people Israel are bound up in a changing, fragile and impassioned relationship.

I found it wondrous to read the Bible this way: by reading the Pentateuch, one encounters the changing way people long ago conceived of God. Of course the writers of the Pentateuch thousands of years ago lived in a patriarchal and slave-owning society that was flawed in a myriad of ways — and that is reflected in how these people saw God. But above all else, as the tweet suggests, the Pentateuch tells the story of an ancient step in an ongoing struggle to understand and to be in relationship with God.

The Pentateuch contains many surface-level examples of this struggle between various characters and God: there’s Abraham trying to convince God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Sarah laughing at God, Jacob wrestling with the angel, and Moses pleading with God on behalf of the people Israel. Although the conception of God seems to change within the Pentateuch, God is consistently an entity with whom the characters of the Bible can struggle and grow.

But more importantly, the broad sweep of the Pentateuch tells the story of a relationship between God and the people Israel in which the two parties yearn for a stable and productive relationship, but struggle and have trouble relating to one another.

Heschel makes it clear in his writing that he believes God needs humanity (or “man” in his language) just as much as humanity needs God. “This is the mysterious paradox of Biblical faith: God is pursuing man,” he writes in God In Search of Man. “It is as if God were unwilling to be alone, and he had chosen man to serve Him.” In The Prophets Heschel adds to this the idea that God is deeply implicated in humanity’s welfare — Heschel uses the word “pathos” to describe how God cares deeply for humanity.

Heschel’s description of a God who is deeply implicated in human morality and well-being resonates with me deeply. But regardless of whether it describes most contemporary people’s relationship with God, it seems that people in the twenty-first century can connect to this biblical theme of wrestling with God. Many people today experience some kind of spirituality, but aren’t sure how it connects to organized religion or theological belief — and people’s connection to the divine often changes over the course of their lives.

After reading the Pentateuch cover to cover, it seems that for a very long time humans have felt the presence of something bigger than them, something like God, and they’ve struggled to make sense of what exactly that thing is, and what it means for them to be in relationship with it. Read more

How could someone who wrote beautifully about an innate human proclivity for the divine brutalize slaves?

In 2015, I took a class on the Enlightenment at American University. For my final project, I spent hours scrolling through the digital archives of the Affiches Américaines, the newspaper that existed in colonial Saint Domingue (Haiti before the revolution). In the Affiches Américaines I clicked through lists of escaped slaves, classified ads for horses, news items from around the world, arrival logs of ships and event listings for the privileged of the island. The newspaper was at once fascinating and horrifying. Classified ads for horses appeared next to a seemingly routine announcement of an escaped mother and her five-year-old. 

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The cover of the newspaper Affiches Américaines of Saint Domingue (pre-revolution Haiti). This issue begins with a digest on escaped slaves.

The writing of a doctor named Charles Arthaud stood out. In addition to a spiteful rivalry he had with another doctor on the island that played out week by week in the newspaper, Arthaud caught my eye because he was very clearly an intellectual. He cited Rousseau, he insisted on using the scientific method and he played a pivotal role in creating the island’s learned society. As I clicked my way through the newspaper and read his other writings, a picture of Arthaud began to form: He was a doctor who moved to the colony from France in the early 1770s. He owned a plantation and slaves near the town of Limbé. His writing was juicy, and very eighteenth-century. Topics include the nasty tropical disease yaws, large phallic monuments the Taino indigenous people had built years before (they were all massacred before Arthaud arrived on the island) and the mystery of the skeletal remains of a group of indigenous people who all had flattened skulls.

Arthaud also wrote beautifully about natural religion and the proclivity of all humans to experience divinity. In explaining why the natives built their phallic monuments, Arthaud’s prose came alive with enthusiasm for natural, and seemingly universalizable, religion (the translation below is mine):

l’homme […] est conduit à l’idée d’une cause supérieure, au sentiment d’un Etre suprême, par la séduction de tout ce qui le frappe et l’étonné, lorsqu’il ouvre les yeux sur la nature et lorsque tous ses sens sont émus par toutes les merveilles qu’elle produit

A higher power guides man to the apprehension of a supreme Being; he is guided by the seduction of everything that strikes him and astonishes him when he opens his eyes in nature, and all his senses are overwhelmed by the marvelous things that nature produces.

And yet at the same time, Arthaud owned, and presumably brutalized, human beings.

*

At its heart, the Enlightenment — and Arthaud’s thought — embraced empiricism. When Arthaud sought to demonstrate that natives with flattened skills belonged to a different human species (it didn’t occur to him that they were strapping their babies to boards that flattened their heads), he incorrectly and painstakingly applied the scientific method through a medical examination of skulls. When Arthaud criticized Charlevoix, a French Jesuit Priest, who wrote about the laziness and idolatry of ingenuous people, he criticized Charlevoix for not being more empirical.

Arthaud’s affinity for empiricism and science also extended to his views on race. During a brief stint back in France, he was one of many doctors who conducted a “scientific” examination of an African albino. In his pamphlet on yaws, he mentions that the slaves’ black color was caused by a “mucous tissue.” Arthaud took part in the beginnings of the hardened, scientific racism that became pervasive in the nineteenth century and eventually evolved into eugenics.

(I won’t get into some of the other stuff I researched, like Buffon and views on race before Arthaud, but it’s worth noting that Thomas Jefferson also participated during this time in the growth of more “scientific” racism.)

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In a research paper I wrote for my class, I tried to wrestle with how someone who was so intellectually curious and who wrote about universal human religion could be so dead wrong about race and could presumably have behaved horribly toward his slaves. Ultimately, as I immersed myself in Arthaud’s writing, I came to the conclusion that his racism and his intellectual greatness came from a similar part of himself, and more importantly, a similar part of his era. Arthaud, this Enlightenment thinker par excellence, believed above all else in his power to reason and his power to apprehend truth. He believed in his logic, and tragically, his logic became, among other things, the horrible logic of racism and white supremacy. This I believe is the ironic flaw at the heart of the Enlightenment, the ironic and tragic flaw we’re still grappling with today. The Enlightenment empowers us to upend our previous ways of thinking and to think for ourselves. Unfortunately when we think for ourselves and when we construct our own morality, we can be so tragically wrong.  Read more

A Painting

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A frustratingly low resolution version of Thomas Hill’s “Picnic by the Sea”

Sometimes I have this feeling that is part angst and part inspiration that leads me to want to get a little more life out of a given day. I have lived a long and full day, but I want a little more connection, a little more vitality, a little more beauty, before I go to sleep. This happened a few weeks ago, and so I googled Hudson River Valley School paintings and looked through the search results.

After clicking through images of spectacular sunsets, cliffs, waterfalls and arctic explorations, some of them familiar to me, I was struck by a painting I had never seen before. Charles Hill’s “Picnic by the Sea” shows a small group of people calmly picnicking in the bottom right corner of the painting while the rest of the painting shows the ocean loudly crashing into rocks and cliffs right next to them.

The audacity, I thought. These people are calmly going about everyday human recreation as this awesome and raging sea dominates the landscape. I don’t know if I have ever seen a work of art of any type so evocatively capture this fundamental reality of being human. Here we are in this mighty and chaotic universe, and in this small corner of the painting, there are the humans, picnicking.

I often think about how in the American society I grew up in and inhabit, we hide from ourselves the extent to which the universe is out of control, chaotic and more powerful than us. We cloister death outside of what we encounter in our everyday life, and from the clean linoleum floors of our chain restaurants to our engrossing TV shows, worrying about the chaotic nature of the universe would generally come across as…odd. 

That night two weeks ago, after I first found a low resolution version of the image, I googled furiously to try to get a better look at the painting. I soon discovered that it isn’t actually a Hudson River Valley school painting — Charles Hill came later, mostly painted the West, and this painting is obscure and only available in high resolution on stock image websites that charge a handsome fee.

But never mind that; two weeks ago as I wanted a little more out of my day, and now as I reflect on this beautiful painting, I am reminded that despite the terror and complexity of the world, sometimes we get it, and we humans have the gall to just spread out our blanket, and picnic.  

Answers

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Socrates had all the questions

When I was working as a journalist, I had the privilege of interviewing a Georgetown University scholar who had recently completed a 600-page tome of a book on the history of Jewish art from antiquity to the twenty-first century. More than a year later, I keep thinking back to that interview.

As I mentioned in my eventual Washington Jewish Week article, the scholar told me that his life’s work is to ask questions. He said that when he first read Socrates in college, the endless questioning of the Greek philosopher initially left him feeling dissatisfied. But gradually, as he matured, he learned to accept what he called a “sensibility” of questioning. Now his mission as a teacher and a scholar is to ask questions without seeking definitive answers.  

As I listened on the phone, I felt a strong reaction against what the scholar was saying. My gut feeling is that endless questioning amounts to something like an epistemological ponzi scheme; if our goal is to endlessly ask questions, do we ever get anywhere?  How do we find meaning when one question simply leads to another, and so on?

When looking into matters like these, the correct response, naturally, is to turn to Heschel. Reading over Heschel’s God In Search of Man, I realized that I am coming up against a distinction Heschel makes between religion and philosophy. “Philosophy,” Heschel writes, “is a kind of thinking that has a beginning and no end. In it, an awareness of the problem outlives all solutions. Its answers are questions in disguise; every new answer giving rise to new questions.”

As the 600-page book the scholar produced demonstrates, this type of inquiry can be useful. By asking again and again “What is Jewish art?” he produced a lot of thought provoking information and analysis.

It seems then that the philosophical approach is useful certainly for philosophy, and also for certain modes of scholarship like this one. But if we use only the philosophical mode of inquiry, I believe we will be fundamentally unsatisfied. And very often, it seems like intellectuals in the secular world are content to keep questioning without ever arriving at answers.

Recently, while reading a New Yorker article on Paul Simon, I stumbled on a description that applies what the scholar called the “sensibility of questioning” to life more generally. In an article on Paul Simon’s most recent album, critic Kelefa Sanneh concluded that in asking questions, Paul Simon “doesn’t sound as if he expects an answer. In fact, he seems to feel that if he keeps asking questions, following his curiosity wherever it leads, he may never have to find out.”  

Heschel contrasts philosophy — and this endless questioning — with religion. “Religion,” he writes “is an answer to man’s ultimate questions.” For me at least, there is something very appealing in how religion provides answers. But it is important to say from the outset that robust contemporary religion doesn’t provide easy answers. As Heschel writes, “The fundamentalists claim that all ultimate questions have been answered; the logical positivists maintain that all ultimate questions are meaningless.”

So what then are the answers that robust, modernity-embracing religions provide?   Read more

Our Stunted Celebration

In the last minutes of the last public interview he ever gave, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that people have an inherent need to celebrate.

“Man cannot live such a shallow life,” he said, referring to the crisis of drug addiction. “He needs exultation, he needs moments of celebration.”  

In the United States today, it seems that more often than not this latent desire to celebrate surfaces outside of religious contexts: people communally express celebration at sporting events, through alcoholic revelry, at joyous occasions like weddings and by going to concerts.

But when I recently listened to Macklemore’s relatively new hit song “Glorious,” it occurred to me that very often Americans today experience celebration alone with the help of music.

“Glorious” is fundamentally celebratory in both content and form. The beat, piano riff and horns are jubilant. The backup vocals add an uplifting spiritual feel to the song, and the lyrics of the hook speak for themselves:

Photo/wikicommons

I feel glorious, glorious

Got a chance to start again

I was born for this, born for this

It’s who I am, how could I forget?

I made it through the darkest part of the night

And now I see the sunrise

Now I feel glorious, glorious

I feel glorious, glorious

Read more

Popeye’s Paradox

A few years ago, a friend of mine from college, Andrew Forsthoefel, walked across the country. I had the privilege of being there at the Pacific Ocean when he finished his 5,000-mile journey and jumped into the Pacific Ocean.

Andrew wrote a brilliant book about his experience, Walking to Listen, and although I read the book nearly two years ago, one passage in particular has stuck with me. Andrew writes:

I sat down, my reflection staring back at me [in the mirror], and for a few seconds, before the self-consciousness of my ego scrambled up the purity of the message–Don’t look at yourself in the mirror, you fucking narcissist!–I understood what Archie was saying. It was simple: I was what I was looking for, not someone else, some teacher or lover or friend, some epic epiphany. Not some other version of myself, either. Just me, exactly as I was seeing myself now. There was nothing inside me to fix or get rid of. Nothing to add. “I exist as I am, that is enough,” Whitman wrote.

As I see it, Andrew’s big epiphany in his book is that there would be no epiphany. Instead, he needed to accept himself for what he is.

I believe there is deep wisdom in this. As I’ve grown older, I have come to realize that I won’t undergo some radical transformation that comes with adulthood; instead I strive to accept myself for who I am. I want to linger for a moment on just how important this message of self-acceptance is — I believe it is one of the most important things I have to work on. As I go about my days, I find myself repeating the purest articulation of this idea — which naturally comes from Popeye The Sailor: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”

And yet, particularly in mainstream American culture, this aspiration for self-acceptance can be dangerous. This message of self-acceptance can lead to too much of a focus on the self at the expense of one’s obligation to others. It is easy to think of Americans, particularly affluent ones, who focus on themselves at the expense of what should be there obligation to others. And besides, a singular focus on the self seems to be a recipe for unhappiness.

But on a deeper level, I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s neo-Orthodox belief that sin is an inherent part of human nature. In this view of humanity, there is a problem with becoming our true selves because are true selves are in part fundamentally defective. I am also reminded of one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ insights that I have quoted before; Coates believes that we should look at the horrors of history not as examples of other people doing terrible things, but instead as examples of the horrible things we could do. Together, Niebuhr and Coates could come up with plenty of examples of the horror humans can perpetuate in the name of what they think is right.

And so I think Andrew is absolutely right about the need for self acceptance  — but this need for self-acceptance brings up a fundamental paradox (dare I call it Popeye’s paradox?). We should strive to accept ourselves for what we are, but at the same time we should be eternally vigilant about who we are and the injustices we are capable of.

The Immersive World of Basketball Hermeneutics

Stephen Curry
Steph, via the Creative Commons

To the uninitiated, it can sound strange to hear people talk about basketball this way.

“It’s been really interesting to watch the intellectual journey the Portland Trail Blazers have taken,” ESPN writer Kevin Arnovitz said on an episode last season of the basketball podcast The Lowe Post, describing the team’s long-term strategy in a lower-revenue city.

While it may seem that Arnovitz is analyzing basketball the way critics describe a great artist or a deep thinker, Arnovitz’s remark is actually standard fare for a cadre of basketball analysis. For many NBA fans, myself included, the advent of robust statistical analysis in sports, podcasts, the internet and Twitter has meant that following basketball these days means submerging oneself in an ideal world of analysis. Of course we’re talking about basketball here — any healthy fan understands that the stakes are low. But these low stakes actually make following basketball great. For many, being a basketball fan means voluntarily suspending one’s disbelief and diving into an ideal and exciting universe in which the objective is purely to understand basketball. This project of knowing is at once safe (basketball is ultimately just a game) and it is incredibly rich. To really know basketball, one has to acknowledge that there is no one way of knowing basketball. Understanding basketball means taking into account statistics, intuition, personalities, strategy, luck, physical gracefulness and swag.

Contrast this unadulterated world of understanding with the real world in which analysis is high stakes, there is an infinite amount of material available for examination and anti-intellectualism abounds. It is easy to see why one would want to tune out the broader world and spend one’s commute immersed in an analysis by the former lawyers Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux, who draw regularly on regression analysis and break down the nuances of NBA personnel decisions.

In this parallel universe of basketball analysis it’s not uncommon for people like Bill Simmons to talk about “what we’ve learned.” In this revealing turn of phrase, it is significant that Simmons wants to learn about basketball. It’s also illuminating that Simmons refers to a “we.” This is because the world of basketball hermeneutics (or interpretation) exists in a veritable public sphere. In large part thanks to Twitter, one enters the world of analytical basketball fandom with the understanding that the best analysis will prevail (admittedly this public sphere may be somewhat of an illusion since some analysts have larger platforms than others).

Still, in the parlance of political philosophy, the openness of basketball analysis creates what Jurgen Habermas calls a “a public sphere.” In Habermas’s public sphere people “disregard status altogether” in order to come together to “engage in rational-critical debate.” Both historically and currently, an ideal public sphere has never existed in the political world; I can’t think of a situation in which all citizens can put to the side his or her political status and engage in a debate about politics governed by pure reason. But thanks to Basketball Twitter and podcasts, NBA fandom offers a glimpse of what could be.

Of course analytical basketball fans enjoy the sport for more conventional reasons, too — aside from the most heady fans, people who follow basketball still care about whether their team wins. The same people who dabble in the world of high-brow NBA analysis also care about the sport in a stereotypical talk radio fashion.

And basketball remains very much about the players. One of the virtues of basketball is that since there are only ten players on the court at the same time, individual exploits matter an incredible amount. But this dynamic — in which one player can take over a game or series — actually enriches the quest for a totalizing understanding of the game. Understanding basketball isn’t only about dry math; one must take into account the players’ heroics (and their capacity to choke).

In fact the significance of individual players makes the process of understanding basketball more dynamic. Think of LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Steph Curry as giant paradigm smashers. Through their ferocious heroics, they defy the squirly math geniuses.

curry-slick-moves-vs-spurs-stephen-curry-gifs.gifUnderstanding basketball also means understanding art — there is little that is more poetic than watching Steph Curry put a defender back on his heels with a dribbling foray — and understanding basketball also means understanding drama. After the defender stumbles, the crowd holds its breath to see whether Curry’s shot will go in.

Put it all together and analytical NBA fandom offers an escapism that is rich and immersive. Of course this is a universe that should be entered in moderation, but these days a little escapism is certainly warranted. Bring on the 2017-2018 NBA season.

Éloge de Manu Chao

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Photo from the creative commons (Flickr user Tom Van Ghent)

As they do, the French have a highfalutin word for a literary genre that doesn’t exist in the United States. The éloge, in which a writer unabashedly praises something, is alive and well in France. The éloge doesn’t exist in the United States and I believe this absence says a lot about our era and surroundings. Writers are likely afraid that gushing about something’s greatness would come across as corny or overly sentimental — the opposite of what most publications are going for in this age of cynicism and irony.

But for a while now, I have wanted to write an éloge about the musician Manu Chao. I’ve wanted to write about Manu Chao in this way because I really, really love his music, but more than that, Manu Chao and the éloge are both fabulous counters to the cesspool of cynicism that pervades the internet, breeds disillusion, generally bums people out and — dare I say it — brought us Trump. Both the éloge and Manu Chao are optimistic in a world that is pessimistic. Both the literary genre and the musician prize straightforwardness while the world around them is increasingly convoluted and complicated. And both strive for a poetic sensibility in a world that decidedly does not. So consider my admiration of Manu Chao and my desire to express it to be a statement of resistance, gosh darnit, a counter-cultural effort at sincerity and optimism adrift in the swamp of the internet.

In more ways than one, Manu Chao is the ultimate anti-Trump. A French-born musician of Spanish heritage, Manu Chao sings from the perspective of people migrating from Mexico to the United States, he protests the agricultural company Monsanto and he is the rare artist who can bridge the Europe-Latin America divide (and he produced an awesome album for Amadou and Mariam, the musicians from Mali). While Trump doubles down on his Make-America-Great-Again base, Manu Chao sings in French, Spanish, English, Italian, Arabic, Catalan, Galician and Portuguese.

But to really understand what makes Manu Chao great, one should start with his compassion. His empathy for the downtrodden is hard to miss; this is, after all, the musician who recorded a music video outside of an immigrant detention center in Arizona, produced an album with patients in a psychiatric hospital in Argentina and wrote a song honoring prostitutes who work the streets.

But I think Manu Chao’s sense of compassion comes across best in his song “La Vida Tombola,” which is about Diego Maradona, the Argentinian soccer player who is generally considered to be one of the best ever at his sport.

Now in his fifties, Maradona has lived a life of ups and downs. In addition to leading Argentina to the World Cup and dominating European club soccer, Maradona’s Wikipedia page lists his cocaine addiction, his struggles with obesity, his divorce and his financial problems.

In “La Vida Tombola” (“The Lottery of Life”), Manu Chao describes how if he were Maradona, he would live just like the superstar. “I’d live like him,” Manu Chao sings, “a thousand rockets, a thousand friends,” “in front of any goal,” “lost someplace.” The Maradona described in the song is a Maradona who is flawed, obstinate and passionate, and through it all Manu Chao conveys a profound understanding and sympathy for the man. Oh, and he does this all with simple language and in a lighthearted tone (the translation is mine):

If I were Maradona

I’d go on Mondovision [TV]

To scream at FIFA [the soccer federation]

And say that they are big thieves

Read more

Reconstructing Masculinity

Like being hit in the head after one is already concussed, Trump’s ascent is a painful reminder of something we already knew: mainstream American masculinity can bring out the worst aspects of human nature. It is easy to list the wrongs that have been associated with various forms of American masculinity — from the role discourses of manliness played in slavery and the slaughter of native Americans through Teddy Roosevelt’s “manly” colonial conquests to contemporary and historical misogyny. Various conceptions of masculinity have been part of some of the most vile aspects of the history of the United States.

It can therefore be tempting for progressive male-identified people to chuck out masculinity altogether or to try to rebuild masculinity from the ground up. While these radical steps work for some, many progressive men, including myself, want to identify as men in ways that are rooted in mainstream masculinity. This is because conventional maleness is a fundamental part of our identities; it is an integral part of who we are and who we want to be.

But beyond progressive male-identified people, men in the United States of all backgrounds are searching for ways to live as men while traditional modes of masculinity have crumbled. Not only has there been an awakening to the aforementioned vices that masculinity has so often brought with it, but cultural changes in the past half century have hobbled traditional conceptions of masculinity. Wars that society generally saw as morally virtuous no longer play a significant role in shaping masculinity, fewer men work in manufacturing or agricultural jobs, gender roles within families have changed as women have joined the workforce, and the stoic, emotionless affect of mainstream 1950s masculinity is out of place in a culture in which people openly talk about their emotions.

There can be little doubt that the present-day crisis of masculinity helped Trump win last year — if we had popular alternatives to the aging archetypes of American masculinity, Trump’s boorishness would have been a deal breaker for the millions who voted for him. Instead, I believe Trump’s cartoonish masculinity helped him by furthering his image as a bull in the China shop of the Washington status quo.

Within this context, the need for updating masculinity is greater than it ever has been. This is certainly a massive project — and an undertaking that men across the country succeed at everyday outside of the limelight of mainstream culture. In thinking about how to recast masculinity, I would like to offer two frameworks for thinking through this — one drawn from the thought of the Jewish thinker Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan and another from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ approach to history.

Reconstructionism

In his writing on Judaism in the twentieth century, Kaplan, a founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, presented the idea of “revaluation” as an approach for Judaism in the modern era. In his book The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, Kaplan describes revaluation in the following manner:

Revaluation consists in disengaging from the traditional content those elements in it which answer permanent postulates of human nature, and in integrating them in our own ideology. When we revaluate we analyze or break up the traditional values into their implications and single out for acceptance those implications which can help us meet our own moral and spiritual needs; the rest may be regulated to archaeology.

This framework of revaluation is valuable to the project of updating masculinity because it acknowledges that there is wisdom in tradition, while also acknowledging that there are aspects of tradition that should indeed be chucked out. Admittedly, it is easier for me to apply this framework of revaluation to religion than to masculinity; with Judaism, for example, this time of year presents a litany of examples of the wisdom in the thought and practice of the High Holy Days.

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A French soldier during World War I

Still, there must be knowledge we can glean from the centuries of discourses around masculinity, even if much of that discourse is vile. For example, there is surely a lot we can learn about bravery from traditional thought about manliness.

This concept of revaluation is certainly heady, and I don’t expect many men to pick up World War I literature on courage, for example, although I think that is certainly valuable work. Instead, I think revaluation could be useful for men in an everyday way — it means adopting a posture that says that I, a man, reject certain aspects of traditional masculinity, while I want to hold to certain parts of traditional maleness.

How to read history

A few years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates explored a thought on his blog that really stuck with me. In thinking about the darkest parts of history — particularly the Holocaust and slavery in the United States — Coates argues that instead of simply vilifying historical actors who did abhorrent things, it is more fruitful to think about how one is similar to those people. He writes:
Read more

What reading Heschel did for me

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“In the Mountains,” by Albert Bierstadt, 1868

When I tell the story of what brought me to rabbinical school, my story comes out differently every time, but I always mention a crucial moment — reading Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in a coffee shop in San Francisco after I graduated from college.

From a young age, I had experienced what Heschel describes in God in Search of Man as awe and radical amazement. In peak moments in my life — staring up at the hundred of light bulbs in Congregation Sherith Israel or taking in a beautiful sunset on a beach along the Sonoma coast — I had become overcome by the splendor of what I experienced. These moments had a lasting effect on me, although, as Heschel describes, they are ineffable (they defy explanation).

Growing up, I generally didn’t share these experiences with other people and although I knew intuitively that Judaism could offer me access points to spirituality, I didn’t understand how a connection to the divine functioned in Judaism. I rarely talked about God or spirituality in Jewish contexts, and although I felt a deep connection to Judaism, I knew little about how Judaism actually worked.

Reading Heschel’s description of awe and radical amazement in God In Search of Man offered me a vocabulary with which to explain some of the most important moments of my life. It also placed this experience of awe at the center of Judaism; as I understand Heschel, he believes Judaism is at least in part a system for bringing to the fore this experience of awe, guiding the times when one is not connected to awe and moving from awe to community, discipline and ethical action.

In college, I had often felt frustrated by the philosophy and cultural criticism that I had read. Although I thought thinkers like Derrida and Foucault were brilliant, the project of analysis and deconstruction that these thinkers — and my academic courses more generally — were engaged in left me unsatisfied. Despite how these analyses often seemed correct to me, their aim seemed to be to rip the world and what we understood to shreds, without describing exactly what was intended to be left standing.

I remember one afternoon in college I sat in the office of my favorite philosophy professor who told me that everyone eventually has to make a decision; they have to decide whether there was something greater in the world or whether there was not. In Heschel I had found a way to recognize that I believe that there was something greater in the world without surrendering critical thought and analysis. (Heschel doesn’t provide easy, clear answers, but he provides some solid footing upon which to stand.)

Now, about six years after reading God in Search of Man, I continue to be impressed by the extent to which Heschel is true to traditional Judaism. Growing up in a milieu of liberal Judaism with a surrounding culture that was generally hostile to organized religion, I had thought that when people made general statements about religion, they tended to highlight certain streams that were present in religious discourse, but they ignored contradicting opinions and they tended to not actually describe what historically was considered to be most important. But as I have learned more about Judaism and Jewish liturgy, I have found that this sense of awe is indeed a central preoccupation of Judaism. Thumbing through the morning prayer section of an Orthodox siddur (or Jewish prayer book), I encounter lines in English such as:

God is One, and there is no unity like His.

Unfathomable, His oneness is infinite

and

Lord of the universe

who reigned before the birth of any thing —

And when all things shall cease to be

He alone will reign in awe

But beyond Judaism, reading Heschel also clued me onto the extent to which this discussion of awe is present throughout cultures. Just yesterday, when I listened to Lorde on Marc Maron’s podcast, the two of them described the “beauty and trembling” they feel when they walk into grand European cathedrals. (As is so characteristic of the era in which we live, they also described how mainstream organized religion was unwelcoming and stale.)

One of my favorite explorations of awe lies in the motif of the sublime in landscape painting of the nineteenth century. Painters like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt (see above) saw a distinction between the picturesque (what is aesthetically pleasant), the beautiful (which Kant and Burke related to love and saw as being characterized as promoting satisfaction and delight) and the sublime, which provokes an experience of awe or terror.

Although I think one should be very careful about making universal statements about religion or culture, it seems that Judaism offers a specific way of tapping into this widely encountered experience of awe, and perhaps more importantly, Judaism offers a specific way of directing that experience into an ethical and deeply celebratory life.