Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

God, mighty and small

Monday, January 8th, 2007

Saturday afternoon, T mentioned to me that a man had rung the doorbell earlier wanting to talk about God, and that he had had a good conversation with him.  "We talked about the problem of evil," he explained, shrugging.  "I don’t get to have that sort of conversation very much anymore."

The problem of evil, is of course, how can a just God allow terrible things to happen to good people.  A few hours later, I read Phantom Scribbler’s post about the Belarussian beekeeper whose answer to the problem of evil was that God is weak, powerful enough to strike with lightning cows left to graze in the Jewish cemetery, but not powerful enough to prevent the Holocaust.  (Go read her post, then come back here.)

Baylor University released a study a few months back about Americans’ religious practices and attitudes toward God.  Among other things, they divided believers into four groups based on whether or not they believe that God is angry and will punish sinners and whether or not they believe God is active in their daily lives and the world in general.  Given those options, I fall into "type D" those who believe in a distant God — one who set the world in motion, but does not intervene and is not particularly judgmental. 

Looking at the crosstabs, I see that Jews are the religious group most likely to believe in a Distant god (41.7 percent).  I’d guess that is in part because of the problem of evil — it’s hard to explain how an involved and just God could have let the Holocaust happen.  But the survey also found that ZERO percent of Black Protestants believe in a Distant god, and I find it equally hard to explain how an involved and just God could have let slavery happen.

One obvious question if you believe in a Distant god is why pray?  The survey found that nearly two-fifths of those who believe in a Distant god don’t ever pray, the same fraction as atheists.  I pray because I believe that the act of prayer is healing, even if it doesn’t cause God to intervene in any way.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but T’s right, we don’t get to talk about these things enough.  And I’d rather talk about them with Phantom and with you than with the guy who rings our doorbell.

A zen story

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

From Quev at Mobtown Blues:

A man was arrested and falsely charged with murder.  Despite his
protestations of innocence, he was condemned to be executed at dawn.
Resigned to his fate, he called for a Buddhist priest to give him
comfort him in his last hours.  The priest told him that if he recited
the prayer to the Bodhisattva of Compassion
12,000 times before dawn, he would be released.  The condemned man
stared at the priest in confusion and terror, since the night was
already half gone and there was no way that he would be able to get
through that many repetitions of the Enmei before the sun rose on the
day of his execution.  Nevertheless, he bowed to the priest and began
chanting.  He had only gotten to the 4,000th repitition when the cold
light of dawn broke into his cell and he heard the jailer’s key turning
in the iron door.  With one final prostration on the cold stone floor,
he rose and turned to meet his fate, only to find that the door was
open and he was free to go.

Or, as is said in Pirkei Avot, "Lo alecha ha-m’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateyl mimenah." (It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to refrain from doing it.)

Latkes, etc.

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

We had our big almost-annual Hanukah party yesterday. (Almost annual because there have been a few years when we haven’t had the energy to make it happen.)  We wound up with a nice mix of people, none of whom knew each other — which I think actually makes for a better party than ones where some people know each other and others don’t know anyone but us.   At one point when the RSVPs were trickling in, I thought that no one Jewish but us was going to attend, but Jews wound up being about 1/3 of the attendees.

As always, I wound up wishing that I had more time to talk with everyone.  That’s true about throwing parties in general, but is even more true for our Hanukah parties, where one of us is pretty much always in the kitchen working on the latkes.  I just don’t think they taste as good made in advance and kept warm in the oven.

We made both standard latkes and the curried sweet potato ones from Jewish Cooking in America.  For my standard latkes, I grate both potatoes and onions in the food processor, and don’t even bother peeling the potatoes.  Instead of adding matzoh meal, I use instant mashed potatoes to soak up the extra liquid.  I tried making a batch on the griddle, but the insides weren’t getting as cooked as I think they should be, so we then reverted to the high-greese method.  (I may try Elswhere’s idea of parboiling the potatoes some time, which might make the griddle work better. (via Crunchy Granola) The sweet potato ones are really good, and also have the advantage that they’re not competing with the platonic ideal of latkes that you grew up with.

Tonight we went to our congregation’s Hanukah party, and had some amazing latkes.  The cooks said that their tricks are to a) squeeze out all the excess liquid through cheesecloth and b) separate the eggs and beat the whites until stiff before adding them back to the mixture.  My mother always squeezed out the liquid, which makes for lovely crispy latkes.  But it’s an awful lot of work for a crowd.

My boys are not the paragons of restraint that Phantom’s kids are, but they’re doing reasonably well.  When D started to pout over not getting to open ALL his presents on Friday night, we told him that he was making it hard for us to have a happy Hanukah, and he did a pretty impressive job of controlling his attitude.  And when N opened his present from my folks tonight, he told me that he’s always wanted a blue robe with clouds and moons.  (Yes, we’ve been reading A Pocket for Corduroy; how did you guess?)

I seem to have relaxed a good bit about the whole Christmas thing this year.  I’ve decided that I’m not allowed to complain about the public school teaching "Santa Claus is coming to town" in music class when I’ve shown the boys Miracle on 34th Street (the original, of course).  I’m more disturbed that the celebration of holidays around the world scheduled for this week includes "America, Israel, Mexico and Africa" as countries.  D got a reprimand for talking too much in class on Friday; he was trying to explain to his classmates that Santa Claus wasn’t going to come to our house for Hanukah.


Thursday, November 23rd, 2006

The pie (apple) and muffins (pumpkin) are baked, the stuffing is prepped, and the turkey is drying in the fridge after being brined (according to the NYTimes recipe that Libby recommended).  I’ve got two batches of cranberry sauce — I let the first one burn last weekend when we unpacked the Wii and I forgot it was on the stove.  I sort of like how that batch tastes anyway, but I don’t think anyone else will, so I made another batch last night. T is in charge of the mashed potatoes and I’ll make brussels sprouts in the afternoon.

My parents and one of my siblings and her husband are coming down to spend the holiday with us.  I am so very grateful that they’re coming.  The line that keeps running through my head is "bless this house, for we are all together."  I’m also grateful that after the boys woke up at 5.30 am from coughing, I managed to get them back to sleep and they slept until nearly 10 am.

Like Dawn, I accepted the UCC blogad even though I’m not Christian.  I’m embarassingly ignorant about different Christian denominations, but I can’t object to a request that we "pray for ‘all the people’ — our friends, family and coworkers as well as the vulnerable, the lonely and the outcasts."

May we all be filled with blessing this Thanksgiving.


Monday, September 25th, 2006

Sorry, didn’t mean to leave you hanging.  No, we didn’t all fit into our dining room, not all at once.  But we borrowed a children’s picnic bench from friends, and set it up in the living room, so all was well.


I’ve been trying to run in the mornings a few times a week.  I need to be out the door for my run by a few minutes after 6 in order to be back, showered, dressed, and ready to go in time to get D to school by 8.  This time of year, that means I’m heading out into the dark, with the sun coming up while I run.  I often linger over my stretches to watch the sun rise over the river.  It makes up for the pain of having to get out of bed so darn early (o’dark hundred, as one of my buddies used to call it).  The past few weeks, the moon has also been visible on most of my runs.  I’ve watched it fade into a sliver as the new moon approached.

As Rachel (the Velveteen Rabbi) noted, by a convergence of the lunar and solar cycles, this weekend was Rosh Hashana, the start of Ramandan, and the fall solstice.  Both the Jewish and the Moslem calendars go by moon cycles, but the Jewish calendar inserts "leap months" in order to keep the holidays roughly aligned with the seasons, so that Passover is always in the spring and Sukkot always in the fall.  The Moslem calendar does not make such adjustments, so Ramadan can land in any season.  And they’ll align with the solstice only when it happens to fall on a new moon.

Andrea, at Beanie Baby, is Wiccan, so she celebrated the solstice, or Mabon.  She wrote recently about her relationship with the annual cycle:

I seem to make this annual journey. Down into the underworld for six months of introspection and quiet and inaction. Up into the real world for six months of activity and learning and noise. Pull inward, push outward, pull inward, push outward, and all the while I feel like things are starting to come together, making sense, like it all fits.

For me, the fall has always felt like a time of new beginnings, of fresh starts.  In part because of Rosh Hashonah, but more because that’s when school starts.  And yes, I’m stuck on that cycle, even though it’s been 10 years since I last attended school on a full-time basis.  (My husband laughed this fall at how excited I was to buy D’s school supplies.)  Summer is for lolling around and living in the moment; fall is for making plans.


That said, I think I am going to take some time to turn inward for a bit. I don’t have a physical retreat to go to like Jo(e)’s, but I’ll do what I can to find some quiet.  I’ll be back after Yom Kippur.

L’shanah tovah

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

May your year be both good and sweet.

(Tune in tomorrow to find out whether 7 adults and 6 kids can really fit into my dining room for Rosh Hashanah lunch.)

More Passover musings

Monday, April 17th, 2006

Sorry for the light posting — between Passover, a crazy workweek, and a visit from my mother-in-law, something had to give, and this blog was it.

Overall, we’ve had a very mellow and pleasant Passover.  While it always makes me a little sad not to see my parents and siblings over Passover, I must admit that there’s something nice about not schlepping anywhere.  And we didn’t host our own seder either — went to a friend’s one night, and the shul’s community seder the second.  So relatively little stress.

It also simplifies things that I’ve decided that it doesn’t make any sense for me to make myself (and my family crazy) to avoid kitniyot for Passover (beans, corn, rice) given that I don’t keep kosher, don’t have separate Passover dishes, etc.  Not that I require absolute consistency in my religious practice — I don’t eat pork, but I do eat shellfish, even though both are equally treif.  (My logic is that no one was ever martyred for refusing to eat shrimp.)  But it’s not particularly meaningful to me to avoid rice and tofu.  I’m fairly sure that whatever the ancient Hebrews ate on their way out of Egypt, it looked more like pita bread or tortillas than modern matzah, but I haven’t quite been ready to follow that argument to its logical end.

Phantom Scribbler linked to a sermon by a reform Rabbi on the real meaning of Passover: "When we badger ourselves or one another about a drop of corn syrup in a Coca-Cola, but fail to work for freedom, we are in violation of Passover."  Or, as another teacher once put it:

   Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
       only a day for a man to humble himself?
       Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
       and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
       Is that what you call a fast,
       a day acceptable to the LORD ?

    Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
       to loose the chains of injustice
       and untie the cords of the yoke,
       to set the oppressed free
       and break every yoke?

Saturday morning, D woke up and asked if it was Easter.  We said, no, it’s tomorrow, but we don’t really celebrate Easter.  He insisted that we had to have an Easter egg hunt.  Ok…  We assumed that he had figured out that this often involved chocolate, so we told him that if it was really important to him, we could dye some eggs, and then he and N could look for them on Sunday. This sounded like a great plan to him, so off we went to pick up some dye.  (Mostly we dyed hard boiled eggs, but I blew a few, and used the insides to make matzoh balls, much to my own amusement.) Both boys had great fun dying eggs and finding them, and then we let them trade the eggs they had found for chocolate bunny pops left over from the Max and Ruby birthday party of two months ago.  And later we let them egg joust.

But somewhere in all of this, D wanted to know why we don’t celebrate Easter.  We sort of tiptoed around this one, not wanting to get into the details of the cruxifiction (remember, this is the kid who cried over March of the Penguins) but generally explaining that people believe lots of different things about God.  But he’s at the stage where he likes there to be RIGHT answers and WRONG answers, and wasn’t too convinced by our answers about uncertainty and tolerance.  Oh well, I figure we’ll have a lot more chances coming up…

A few more links:

  • Susan at Crunchy Granola’s got a bunch of Passover posts up.
  • For some thoughtful Jewish-Christian dialogue, see Sue at Inner Dorothy’s post about Christian Seders (via Phantom Scribbler).

Passover Links

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

I’m not the only one for whom "For we were strangers in the land of Egypt" is resonating particularly loudly this year.

Jews in America are not as solidly left as they once were, but most are pro-immigration, both because many of us are not that many generations removed from the immigrant experience (both my grandmothers came to this country as children), and because we know that thousands — maybe tens of thousands, maybe more — of the six million might have survived if America and other countries had been willing to let them in.

Or as Marge Piercy writes in a poem that was read at many seders tonight:

"We Jews are all born of wanderers, with shoes
under our pillows and a memory of blood that is ours
raining down. We honor only those Jews who changed
tonight, those who chose the desert over bondage,

who walked into the strange and became strangers
and gave birth to children who could look down
on them standing on their shoulders for having
been slaves. We honor those who let go of everything
but freedom, who ran, who revolted, who fought,
who became other by saving themselves."

Purim and justice

Monday, March 13th, 2006

I’ve been reading JT Waldman’s graphic novel of the Megillat Esther, the book of the bible that we read at Purim (discovered via the Velveteen Rabbi).  It’s reminded me of what a very strange story it is.  There’s an old joke that all Jewish holidays can be summed up as "They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat."  That’s certainly the heart of the Purim story, with the added vengeful twist that Haman falls into his own trap, and is killed on the gallows he had prepared for Mordechai and that the Jews fall upon their oppressors, killing tens of thousands.

The Purim story has been racing around my head the past few days, bouncing up against the news of Slobodan Milosevic’s death, and the possibility of the judge calling off the Moussaoui trial.   While we like to think of "law’ and "justice" as synonyms, they’re really not.  And sometimes following the rule of law means that evil people will get off.   It stinks, but it’s better than the alternatives.

God is never mentioned in the Megillat Esther. There’s no promise here of infaliable judgment in a world to come.  All we’ve got is this world, full of drunken kings, conniving queens, and scheming counselors.

The endless to-do list

Friday, March 10th, 2006

I’ve been thinking about that NYTimes article on mother’s labor force participation.  The article suggests that the slight recent drop-off in women’s labor force participation in recent years is because we’ve pushed unpaid work — housework and child care — about to its lower limit, and there are only so many hours in the day and something has to give. 

Bitch, PhD thinks that makes sense.  She wrote:

if, broadly speaking, we’ve wrung about all we can out of the 24 hours in a day, then it makes sense both that some women would step back from the grueling regime in favor of a more balanced personal life, regardless of the possible risks they run in doing so: when you’ve reached the limit of your energy, you can’t keep going and that’s all there is to it. It also makes sense that women who are still trying to hang onto the stressful balancing act of career, children, and coupledom would feel that they’re singlehandedly carrying the world on their shoulders. And given the pressures on all of us, of course we’re all defensive and insistent and argumentative about our choices.

But one of her commenters, Steve Horwitz, points to this Economist article (based on this paper by Aguilar and Hurst) which uses the same underlying data as the Times article and comes to the conclusion that total leisure time for all groups — including working moms — has increased significantly over the past 40 years.  Is this possible?  And if it’s true, why do we all feel so tired?

I think there’s a bunch of different things going on.

If I’m reading the papers accurately, the biggest issue is whether you consider time spent with children doing generally recreational activities — reading to them, taking them to parties, watching school plays, even going to the park — as leisure.  Aguilar and Hurst do, while I think Bianchi (whose data the NYTimes uses) counts them as child care.  Conceptually, I think these activities somewhere between true leisure and work.  They’re not in the same category as changing diapers or attending parent-teacher conferences, which you do because they’re important, but no one really considers fun.  But they’re also at least semi-obligatory —  you feel guilty if you don’t do them enough, and you often have to do them even if you’d really rather be doing something else.  So they add to the modern parent’s endless to-do list.

While the time-use studies clearly show that the amount of time spent on housework has dropped significantly, they don’t account for the fact that people’s expectations  haven’t fallen as much.  So even if we only vaccuum once a month, we feel like we ought to do it more often, and it stays on our to-do list, even if we know that we’re never going to get to it.

Aguilar and Hurst also point out that there’s been an increase in inequality in leisure time, with more of the gain in leisure concentrated among less educated individuals.  If you believe Annette Lareau, the parents with more education are also spending more of their "free" time in intensive parenting activities.  And if you’re reading this blog, or Dr B’s, the chances are high that you’re in that group.

As the Economist article acknowledges, the blurring of the lines between work and free time are also a factor in our perception of overwork.  If you have to carry a blackberry to your kid’s soccer game, and check your voice mail over the weekend, it’s hard to leave the office behind.  And I don’t think it’s coincidence that Dr. B and Sandy Piderit are academics.  It’s not just that professors work long hours, but that their hours of work are unbounded — there’s almost always something else that they could/should be working on.

Overall, I think it’s that sense of things left undone, rather than the total number of hours worked, that makes people feel overwhelmed.  When I started work after getting my masters, I remember how excited I was at the concept of the weekend.  Look, it’s Friday, and I get to go home!  And I don’t have to think about work, or feel guilty about not doing it, until Monday morning!  What a concept.

But at this point in my life, my personal to-do list is a lot longer than my work one.  Some days are busier than others at work, but I generally leave the office having accomplished most of what I need to do.  At home, I almost always feel like I’m running behind.   Therefore, I need to make a conscious choice at times to let go of the endless to-list.

Or, as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

"The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world."

Shabbat Shalom.