On Censorship and Toni Morrison

I never know if I am left of center or right of center anymore. I cannot claim to feel good about either Donald Trump or AOC being in politics; I personally dislike them both. If Donald Trump represents not so much the past but what is worst about the past, than AOC represents a future in which the past plays little to no role in it. As such I really wish they would both go away. If it were possible to find the right deserted island to leave them both on, in would be a damn fine thing to do to leave them there to duke it out.

With that in mind, I wish the left would not assume it has a wider mandate than it does. I believe in even such “left wing” positions as the ones President Biden has on the importance of climate change and health care.

Yet then some left wing nut has to open their mouth about how Dr. Seuss needs to be censored in such a way that involves books that just a few years back would have been mainstream are not considered unfit for children. It is the sheer harmlessness of Dr. Seuss to most of us that makes it offensive: Who has ever objected to Dr. Seuss? Hasn’t he even been considered liberal? So I figured, “What the heck?” What other “right wing” books have been censored.

First, the Little House on the Prairie series, for its positive portrayal of the pioneers. Now, my own Grandma Williams–deceased as of 1994–grew up on Kansas in the late eighteen hundreds before going to college at Washburn in the 1920’s. Now, because of this I take it a little personally that there is nothing a person can say good about the Pioneers without some jerk claiming that they are a racist bigot. Then there is Charlotte’s Web, because the spider Charlotte dies, and this might be disturbing to children. Yes, and when I was eight or nine, my Great Aunts Verna and Aleen died that year. It was my first brush with death. At what point is it that every person is forced to deal with death? Then there was Peter Pan, whose reference to Indians as “red skins,” has made the book controversial. Of course there is Where the Wild Things Go, a childhood story “too dark” with Max not receiving his supper as punishment and supernatural elements deemed too scary for children. And of course, the book of all books to be banned left and right: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The idea is that racist language harms black children. Again, the point comes up that there are disturbing in life–and that when Huck Finn was written the use of the n-word was common and hardly unique to Mark Twain himself.

Now, with all this in mind, I have read only one Toni Morrison book, and it was not the one that is in the school system: Beloved. I have, however, read The Bluest Eye, and more–I read it in high school. I think I did find it disturbing, but not so much from the point of view of race but in its portrayal of incest. However, I did not really think about it a lot (I did not read it for a class), until a black girl read Song of Solomon for a night class that I was attending. She mentioned that in Song of Solomon there was “adult incest” between a middle class black man and his daughter. The teacher (also black) said, “I know what you mean. I read it and after it was through I remember thinking, ‘And this was on the best seller’s list?'” I remember from The Bluest Eye, I had gotten the impression that Morrison disliked those Middle Class or “successful” black people in her book almost as much as white people. I remember wondering, “Well, yes, but if you never work hard to succeed, you never will succeed. A person can manufacture their own failure if they are not careful.”

I can’t help wondering why if it was necessary to teach African American fiction to kids, it was necessary to teach the book justifying infanticide (Beloved). I know I am risking making these authors sound like Uncle Tom’s by suggesting them: John Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones or Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Juneteenth; or some of Maya Angelo’s poetry. My friend Jamie says that in school she read Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison. I didn’t get to, but I picked up the books on my own, with the exception of Angelo. Why teach the most offensive book ever written by a black woman? If white people have to move on eggshells about Peter Pan and Charlotte’s Web, why not admit that perhaps just being white and normal is enough to want to boot Tony Morrison out of the school system.

That being said, I will make a concession to the other side about Morrison which is perhaps only honest: I will reread The Bluest Eye and read Beloved and Song of Solomon for the first time. And then I will sit down, and tell the world–whether it really wanted to know or not–what I actually thought of each book.

The Many Faces of Abraham, Finis

I began with the idea of a lecture series because I told my rabbi that though I seemed to have a great deal of Jewish knowledge, I never seemed to share it. I felt guilty about this, because in reading the Sefer ha-Aggadah (the Book of Legends) for Yom Kippur, I noticed that the book seemed to take a negative view of those who collect a great deal of knowledge but then fail to do anything with it. Rabbi Pepperstone suggested to me that I teach a class, perhaps on a Biblical personality. I began researching in late October, and started writing for the class just before my first class lecture to my friends at the synagogue.

Yesterday I gave my last lecture for a series that evolved under multiple titles including Abraham, Now and Then; Abraham, Past and Present; and finally The Many Faces of Abraham. Originally, the classes were to be: “The Call of Abraham”; “Sarah and Hagar”; and “The Akedah and It’s Aftermath.” Eventually, I stretched the class to four classes. The final lecture series ended up being: “The Call of Abraham”; “The Midrashic Abraham”; “The Muslim Abraham”; and “The Akedah and It’s Aftermath.” As such, it was not what I hoped. This is especially so because my use of too many sources in the first one; extensive use of the Midrashim in the second class; the Quran and its interpreters used extensively in the third; while the secondary sources like Søren Kierkegaard; Ellie Wiesel; and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg were used in the forth and final class. Nonetheless, I did learn a lot to teach a class, and perhaps someday I can teach The Many Faces of Abraham again so that afterwards I can even produce a book.

In this projected book The Many Faces of Abraham, I would focus on material from: the Bible, Midrash, New Testament, Christian Sources, the Quran and post-Quran sources. Yet I also would like to have a section covering “Modern” thinkers: Søren Kierkegaard; Thomas Mann; Ellie Wiesel; Avivah Zornberg; Bill Moyers; Bruce Feiler; and Jon Levenson. If I could also find it, I would like to look at a book I have misplaced: The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. The idea of doing this is kind of remote, though.

I know reading all of this may have been ponderous to the reader. Nonetheless, I guess it was cathartic for me. Why? Because for each lecture I worked the entire week, the longest one churning out a 21 page paper and the shortest a 12 page paper. I believe I shared my knowledge, and I will share more: after editing my lectures, I shall send copies of them to my rabbi because I have two friends who want copies. My Aunt Margaret also wants copies of my work, just to see how it went. I hope they are not disappointed.

Kierkegaard: “One Must Go Further”

Two-thirds down in the first paragraph of the Epilogue at the end of Fear and Trembling down to the first words of the second paragraph, and a few sentences of the third, the summing up of a fundamentalist creed is formed:

Whatever one generation learns from another, it can never learn from a predecessor the genuinely human factor. In this respect every generation begins afresh, has no task other than that of any previous generation, and comes no further, provided the latter didn’t shirk its task and deceive itself. This authentically human factor is passion, in which the one generation also fully understands the other and understands itself. Thus no generation has learned from another how to love, no generation can begin other than at the beginning, the task of no later generation is shorter than its predecessor’s, and if someone, unlike the previous generation, is unwilling to stay with love but wants to go further, then it is simply idle and foolish talk.

But the highest passion in a human being is faith, and here no generation begins other than where its predecessor did, every generation begins from the beginning, the succeeding generation comes no further than the previous one, provided the latter was true to its task and didn’t betray it…

Faith is the highest passion of a human being. Many in every generation may not come that far, but none comes further.

Of course, as a Jew I have an obvious grudge against this way of thinking: for Jews faith is the Call to Action. Our beliefs are not concretized if we merely think pious thoughts and never act on our best intentions. Yet I have a bigger problem with this thinking that may ring true even for Protestants. I believe that it is anti-Thought, and that it insists that a nine-year-old’s faith is as mature as a fifty-year-old’s faith need be either. To believe in Faith this way is to never learn.

A philosopher I like better, Whitehead, taught that God is an Evolving Being, and that humankind is in a sense God’s partner: for God is not defined as omnipotent and cruel to Whitehead. No, in Whitehead’s thinking it is God’s Creativity as well as God’s love that defines God. Therefore if a person studies the Bible–and Whitehead recommended the Jews as a very spiritually creative people–with the Commentaries of the Bible–his or her understanding deepens with time. This is whether their understanding is based on Talmudic sources; Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed; or books like Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament. More, a person’s life outside of the scriptures informs how a person reads them.

Is faith the highest passion? Though Jewish I will quote the Christian scriptures first,

 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (Cor. 13:12-13)

In a world in which humankind lacks knowledge, says Paul, the defining trait of a Christian is love, not faith. Love can make up for all things; if a person loves, than even great character flaws can be ignored. Or to quote the Hebrew Bible,

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:5)

Love of God is not simple belief, “There is a God,” no, it is to embrace God with one’s intellect (the heart in Hebrew is the intellect); all one’s life force (the soul); and your earthly possessions (your might). Rabbi Akiba discovered the true meaning of this sentence when he was executed for illegally teaching Judaism to other Jews. Or at least, in the Ten Martyrs, which we read each year on Yom Kippur, it says so. He says that all of his life he wondered what it meant to love God “with all my soul,” and now in death he knew that giving his life back to God before his time was due was that. And so he recited Sh’ma before dying, “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” i.e. “Hear Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” His last words went beyond the mere abstract credal statement: he loved, not he merely believed.

So it is that belief is only a part of what it is to be a Jew: practice of the religion is necessary. I have heard the claim made that Jews can ignore philosophy because for Judaism abstract belief is less important than the practice of Judaism. I hold this is wrong: though for the Jewish person belief is only part of our practice, to ignore the mind altogether is contrary to our tradition: the Talmud uses reason to explain and justify the law besides to quote verses from the Bible. Other Jewish philosophers like Maimonides try to defend faith and propound reason.

Yet Kierkegaard’s claim that reason be rejected–this is not Judaism. One “must go further” than simply believe to be a Jew.

Kierkegaard on Abraham’s Faith

Because I am writing my last lecture for The Many Faces of Abraham, I am reading Kierkegaard’s famous (or is it infamous?) Fear and Trembling. As I paged through Kierkegaard I noticed the central thesis of his book, dealing as it did with the “why” Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac:

[Abraham’s] faith was not that he should be happy sometime in the hereafter, but that he should find blessed happiness here in this world. God could give him a new Isaac, bring the sacrificial offer back to life. He believed on the strength of the absurd, for all human calculation had long since been suspended.

I always find Kierkegaard troubling–his description of Isaac crying for mercy causes no doubt causes more people to lose faith than many writers who admit to atheism or agnosticism cause–yet nothing is more troubling than his claim that love is basically the belief that the lover (in this case the Knight of Faith) “gets something back” from the beloved (God). Even in college this seemed a little wrong to me.

“Wouldn’t real love be about loving the other person for their own sake?” I asked.

“That’s an awfully naïve view,” my teacher said.

Yet I stand by it. True love is like St. Francis “Prayer for Peace” (Even being Jewish doesn’t stop it from being one of my favorite prayers):

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.

Another Catholic poet (and priest), Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote a poem about his gratitude towards Jesus on the Cross.

O God, I love thee, I love thee—
Not out of hope of Heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
In the everlasting burning.
Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails, and lance,
Mocked and marred countenance,
Sorrows passing number,
Sweat and care and cumber,
Yea and death, and this for me,
And thou couldst see me sinning:
Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu, so much in love with me?
Not for Heaven’s sake; not to be
Out of hell by loving thee;
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do love and I will love thee:
What must I love thee, Lord, for then?—
For being my king and God. Amen.

I am embarrassed to admit I am not as familiar with the Jewish poetic tradition as I am the English and American ones. Yet the yearning to love and be loved that represents the deepest poems of the Christian tradition still appeals to me. I find it moving that Mother Teresa’s “Way to Love” served the purpose for her hospital that the Rule of St. Benedict serves for Benedictines.

Despite my being unable to accept the Catholic faith for myself–for reasons that are personal and that I won’t go into–I have always felt the lives of certain Catholic saints moving and wished that my faith was somewhat like theirs. By contrast, the love Kierkegaard felt for Regina–the woman whom he was engaged to, whom he broke off the relationship with because he said that God demanded the sacrifice–sounds pathological and sick, especially when, as my teacher put it, “When you read Isaac’s pleas to Abraham, you can hear Regina’s pleading with Kierkegaard on his breaking off the engagement.” And then, everyone knew who Fear and Trembling‘s author was, despite the penname, and what his relationship to Regina had been. I will let the reader look it up themselves if they want to know exactly what Kierkegaard’s Abraham told Isaac, but I am convinced that it was Kierkegaard who convinced everyone that Abraham was the worst father in World Literature.

Though I do not believe there was a “Historical” Abraham–I personally believe he began as a religious story either told by priests or average Israelites–I believe that in a sense the True Abraham is the man who lives inside each believing Jew’s heart. More, I believe what he teaches us is to give with our hearts, which is why Jews are taught to believe in Abraham’s “Chesed” or “kindness.” His love for Isaac was deep, his love for his God profound, and his sacrifice a painful ordeal. Yet he needed to live up to that ordeal so that future generations would see what it was to believe in God and practice that belief. Abraham, a Christian friend once pointed out, made mistakes: he passed Sarah off as his wife twice, and then there was the matter of Hagar and Ishmael, a second family he neglected. Yet in the Akedah, he made the final sacrifice which proved that his priority with God was absolute. More, he did so even though it would seem to mean that all of his dreams would die, and that besides honoring God, his life would achieve nothing save the slaughter of the son he loved. Yet he passed the test, the test that his love for God went beyond his love for himself.

“Geek Love”

I find myself thinking about what it is to write. Some authors discuss this subject ad nauseum in interviews–I have only had one interview–or in situations like Writer’s Clubs, or–and in this case they are lucky, for it shows they have had some success–in magazines like Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers. For myself this is a difficult subject, perhaps because for me the relationship between pen and paper is so intimate. Those pages are the world on which I experience freedom. To put it in terms which the reader may be uncomfortable, it is like the name Jazz for Jazz music: it represents sexual orgasm. I don’t want to risk vulgarity, but writing is like that. It can be erotically charged. That is why so many people resent Dickens as an author: the only problem with those bodacious books is that there is no sex in them. So people mine the poor guy’s work searching for his problems with his mother and the whole nine yards. What they need to realize is that for all his prudery, those books are an expression of how he thought but especially felt. All of us, if we used our deepest wounds and biggest flaws as people to paper, would inevitably reveal that we had a dark side, or at least that there were days when we were not kind and decent and God-fearing.

With that in mind, I just wrote about Geek Love, a book in my last blog… I wrote about it because I found myself thinking about a guy I am in love with, but whom I do not know if he is in love with me. Will he understand? I can’t mention his name here for reasons I don’t want to get into. Almost every time I believed there was a guy who might be “the one” it turned out I was dead wrong. Can I ask him out?

Perhaps whether or not things work out I could write the book… Geek Love. The story about a guy who is not handsome but is kind and sweet… He left the Catholic priesthood for reasons that are odd. He doesn’t have any money because when he joined up he took a vow of piety. Yet he has not lost faith in God. He is in his late thirties and his long face and puppy dog eyes reveal a gentle spirit. One of his first acts after leaving the clergy was to get a sheltie puppy. When he finds the girl, he will learn that she keeps a DVD of three Lassie television episodes in her collection on her desk. She also has a copy of Lassie Come Home, the book which probably ignited the spark for the television series. When they hook up, they watch these two episodes together… before she admits that although she likes children’s books she never married and so never had a child. That is even though she is forty.

“My reason was that I was a Catholic in the cloth,” he says. “Why didn’t you ever marry?”

“Nobody ever wanted to marry me.”

“Nobody? Why not?”
“In college I was kind of immature. Afterwards… well, I worked for different charities, but I never really found what I was looking for… or it never found me.”

“Well… even though I work for charity, I always wanted somebody who thought a little deeper than the average bear. You know: they wondered what life was for, or if the choices we make really make a difference.”

“Yeah… do you know, I wondered the same thing when I found out about some abuse issues with a priest who worked in the same diocese as me. I never thought I was close to him, but when it happened, I wondered, ‘How did I not know? And how many children were hurt by this man?’ Don’t get me wrong, I am still Catholic, but I had my illusions taken away from me at times…”

And so on… actually, what I wrote is only so good: a person can overdo dialogue in a book. Though as Alice put it in Alice in Wonderland, “What is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?” Yet a person must find other methods to bring about past knowledge in an adult novel… if I ever write Geek Love.

My Funny Valentine

For years of my childhood I thought “My Funny Valentine” was an unbearable torch song, heavy and ponderous with meaning. Then I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing it and I found that it was funny and sweet. So before the reader goes on-line to find it, here are the words,

Behold the way our fine feathered friend,
His virtue doth parade
Thou knowest not, my dim-witted friend
The picture thou hast made
Thy vacant brow, and thy tousled hair
Conceal thy good intent
Thou noble upright truthful sincere,
And slightly dopey gent

You’re my funny valentine,
Sweet comic valentine,
You make me smile with my heart.
Your looks are laughable, un-photographable,
Yet, you’re my favorite work of art.

Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak, are you smart?
But, don’t change a hair for me.
Not if you care for me.
Stay little valentine, stay!
Each day is Valentine’s Day.

(This last stanza repeats.)

I have often thought there was something about these words that express a kind of archetype: “True love is blind.” I longed as a child to believe that someday I would find him: he might not be handsome; he might not be well-dressed or have money; he might not have extraordinary ambitions… yet–to quote Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”–“To my heart he carries the key.”

When I was still honestly looking for the guy who I could call my own, I wanted him to be unique. He would be different than other guys; smarter, eccentric, and intellectual. Some of the guys I asked out turned out to be huge disasters. I remember one in particular–I won’t describe him in any detail–who turned out to be downright abusive after his liberal pose. Yet sometimes I find myself daydreaming about that “Funny Valentine” who I could really tell things like, “What I love about you is not your body, I love you. I love your spirit, your gentle kindness and thoughtfulness.”

If I could write his love story without be trite and conventional, I might call it Geek Love, except another book has that title. I have often thought that the flaw in most romance novels is that they have a particular heroine and a particular hero following the same pattern to marriage. Mine would no doubt fall into this pitfall, save that the girl would be obese with wiry glasses and the guy would be… a Geek. And they would realize (drumroll) that love didn’t have to exist only for people who were beautiful or rich. And “their song” would be “My Funny Valentine,” because they both see their pedestrian ordinary looks and difficult route to love–just as without the right singer, the song is a piece of crap. Yet I have the bad feeling that if I wrote the story, it would be a romance like other romances… and I always insist my novels be unique–like Ella Fitzgerald’s singing of “My Funny Valentine.”

On “Inside of a Dog”

I came across Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz because I am a dog lover. I am also, by the way, a cat lover. And I love birds, too. I still long to read a truly great book on elephants, and another on wales. And I have read The Marvelous World of Bugs and hope to read The Soul of the White Ant and Innumerable Insects. Yet this book was special because I have had special dogs in my life–Rosebud or Buddy, to name two–and this book tried to understand that seemingly impossible question to answer: What is it like to be a dog?

A dog is an expert sniffer; that much is certain. It can tell where you have been by sniffing you. It also greets people by sniffing them. It also communicates by licking people–that and wagging its tail is a way of being friendly. A dog’s brain–because of how it was domesticated by humans–has a child’s plasticity, with an ability to quickly learn things. And it is evolved in such a way that it can read human emotions with ease. When ancient man and dog hunted, they used their evolving ability to “read” each other to chase large prey. A dog’s sense of hearing, by contrast, is not very good (I think that is right). Yes, in its evolution from wolf to dog, man’s best friend learned to read the human heart. This is despite the scientific cynicism which says that we cannot truly know if a dog can “love” his or her owner. Scientists who study dogs look relentlessly for evolutionary explanations for apparently altruistic behavior towards human beings on the dog’s part.

I have to admit: to get the material in Inside of a Dog mastered I would have to read the book a second or perhaps even third time. (This was what I used to do with the pre-I.B. U.S. History textbook in High School. If I read a chapter three times, I would have it down pat.) I hope to do this sometime…

Yet I do have to admit one regret: as wonderful as it is that humans can study dogs or cats I wish we could study elephants and elephant seals the same way. I have even wished for the book that charts evolution from its earliest days to the different families, genus and species. I admit that this project might be over-ambitious for a scientist: there are enough bugs to fill an encyclopedia, for instance. Yet to have a book that explained the elephant and the lion, the polar bear and the ant… oh, what a splendid undertaking it would be. Of course, I have only a rudimentary understanding of the evolutionary theory, but to actually have it on a chart that the hippo evolved from the whale and uses sonar underwater. (I learned that late one night watching TV.)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the now extinct wooly mammoth had somebody love it as passionately as some children love dinosaurs? I had a book Dinosaurs put out by Scientific American. That is another book I should reread, when I have time. Yet–alas–the science in it is difficult for me to digest. I only remember a few details, like the fact that the vegetation which the dinosaurs lived upon was the same as the vegetation native to the region in which they would have lived. For instance, dinosaurs may have lived among the red woods of California. Of course, reading Oceans of Kansas, it is possible that during dinosaur times, the land of Kansas (where I live) was under water and it was elsewhere in the continent where the land Dinosaurs lived. Of course, there are portions of the earth where the cold caused by the ice age that led to the dinosaurs’ extinction caused a change in the vegetation. However, this was not so in the middle regions of North America. I also learned in Dinosaurs that birds did in fact evolve from dinosaurs. Yet much of the information in the book was too technical for me to make much out of. This said, I believe if it was written in easy, accessible language, books about dinosaurs and other animals would sell to ordinary people, and the general public’s knowledge of the sciences would improve. That said, I read two adult books: The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science and The Bone Hunters: The Heroic Age of Paleontology in the American West. By combining history with science it made it a little easier for me to understand the intellectual currents of the 19th Century and today.

However, this Blog was to be about Inside of a Dog. Anyone who has loved a dog can see the appeal. Yet each of us also wishes the author could take that leap of faith: our dogs do love us, Gosh darn it. Instead she leaves us in the zoologist’s agnostic position of not understanding what goes on behind the soulful eyes.

The Question of Faith

On this Erev Shabbat, I was thinking about the issues based on which I became a Jew. I was raised Protestant, and on my father’s side a fundamentalist. (My mother was a Methodist but not very devout. Her second husband, Jim, was agnostic.) Over the years I had to shuck a lot of what Dad believed by the wayside: Gloom and Doom beliefs about the End of Times; the Belief only Protestants of a certain stripe were going to Heaven; Biblical Literalism (i.e. the inerrancy of the Bible; Intelligent Design Theory; and more. I ended this process, more or less, by the time I graduated college. By then I had left Christianity behind me and become a Jew–in the Conservative, not the Orthodox, branch. In grad school I discovered some of the implications of Biblical Criticism, and while I found it troubling at first, ultimately I came to believe that to really understand Jewish theology today a person ought to understand the Source and Literary Criticism of the Bible. As I left behind the different ideas of my childhood behind, I kept in mind the Biblical lesson inherent in the story of Lot’s Wife and the story of Sodom: Never look back.

Yet I also had some thorny theological issues–besides my paternal family’s beliefs–that I wanted to work out. Some of them–the relationship between faith and reason–I am still working on. Others–like the meaning of the doctrines of the Christian religion–are largely irrelevant because I changed faiths. So I will admit to a central one which I believe meant so much to me when I finally untangled it in my head. This is the Protestant theological position of Justification by Faith. Now, granted I did not exactly have its most sensitive exponent teaching me. Grandma literally told me, “I hope Mother Teresa doesn’t believe it is her good works that will save her. She isn’t going to Heaven if that is so.” Grandma Alderson persevered in the belief that only faith alone could save a person, and that if a person swerved in that position, they were going straight to hell.

So it was that one of the questions that became what William James called a “live issue” was what it meant to be a good person, but also a good Christian. I wondered this because I came to the conclusion in High School that simply wanting to be good is not enough to make you good. The reason I would say a person who wants to be good may fail is what philosophers call “weakness of will.” I don’t really believe it is a sin to be fat, but here it goes: everyone either has dieted or known somebody who has, who cannot seem to take the pounds off. Usually the problem is that however well meaning they are, the cannot seem to exercise or give up fat or sugar or simply overeat. I, myself, have this problem and I will explain it in a nut shell: I would like to lose weight but lack the will. A similar problem is one I had in High School: perhaps I would like to Volunteer or do something great for other people or God, but somehow I never seem able to fit it into my schedule. Or perhaps I have no idea where I would start if I wanted to be a better person, despite my best intentions. The truth is that sense I became a Jew, and sense I worked at Breakthrough, I feel sorry for many of the people who philosophers say “simply lack the ability to do good.” I feel many of them want to do good things–as I did for years–but somehow were never fortunate enough to find the oppurtunity.

Now, that said, there are forms of evil which have nothing to do with weakness of will of this sort: a womanizer may be a slave to his desires but have no wish to be celibate; a counterfeiter or thief may in fact be skilled in doing evil deeds; a murderer may pre-plan his evil deeds so as not to be caught; and even lying on the average person’s part may be fully intentional. The law deals a great deal with this class of crimes especially, though there are of course cases when “weakness of will” crimes are within their parlance, too.

With all that said, I came to believe that my Grandma’s and father’s religion was a great burden. I felt it made me less good and not more, perhaps because of its essential nihilism in caring nothing about other people in its quest for a form of salvation based largely on fear of punishment or hatred of others.

After my Freshmen year of college I gave up on Christianity for good. That said, the idea crystalized in my head that it was works alone that led to a person being good or bad. You will see that later I would modify this belief, but when I first believed it I was reading Benedict Spinoza and edging my way towards Unitarianism. I came to truly believe that the way to be good was to do good. Now, I admit, my Sophomore Year of college I was severely depressed and except for reading books in the library I got little honest work done. Yet I came to wonder if my salvation could not be formulated in five assumptions:

1. God is the Creator. Though the opposite of Spinoza’s idea I got it studying Spinoza. I found myself believing that there was no reason to believe that God is a “totally infinite being” though in later years I would come back half way to the idea by believing in a form of panentheism which believes that God Exists in Creation. I think the reason that I failed to be convinced by Spinoza here was partly because I could not accept that God would be passive and not acting.

2. Self-interest is a part of virtue. Spinoza would say that enlightened self-interest was entirely what virtue is. According to him self-control came from the realization of God within, and the value of other people came from the belief that “Man is a God to Man.” In other words, “no man is an island unto himself” save that to Spinoza it is selfish motivations rather than unselfish motivations that drive this. Nonetheless, in my head I believed that while such virtues as hard work, honesty, and chastity might be simple self-interest, the social virtues came from the love of other people first and not the other way around.

3. Spinoza’s ideas about God were too limited for me. Though I knew that the real Spinoza was both known for his saintliness and inspired both Goethe and Einstein, I could not feel it in me that I could love a God whom did not love me back. (Spinoza believed that those who truly loved God “did not need God to love them in return.”) Despite admiring the man Goethe called “that intoxicated man,” I could not be him.

4. Spinoza’s ideas about human behavior were too limited for me as well. I wanted to believe that there were transcendent acts of kindness and courage–among other virtues–that could not be explained by self-interest or vice as Spinoza understood it. There were even people whose lives were so saintly–like Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi–that self-interest could not explain their behavior, but only the desire to do good.

5. Despite the limitations of Spinoza was concerned, studying his psychology helped me return to health. Though I wanted to believe there was “more” to being good than Spinoza allowed, I knew that believing in a kind of consequentialism about the virtues he discussed in the section of his psychology was a much better basis for ethics than I had been taught by my father or Grandma, who taught simply: “Be good or you will go to hell.” From Spinoza I learned that virtue could be learned in practical terms. Today I see teaching practical virtue to children as “teaching them to be good the way one teaches a person to bicycle. First they learn to ride with the training wheels of punishments and rewards, then the those “wheels” are removed and they become–hopefully–really good people.

Later on, I would study Whitehead (I am still trying to figure him out), having gotten a 3.8 for the first time in my educational career–with five classes. This may not sound that great–places like Harvard and Princeton and Yale want their students to be 4.0 students–but it was the best I ever got. For much of my career in school I was a “B” student. Anyway, I was talking with one of my professors and he said, “Studying is a Process.”

Then I had a Eureka! moment. I thought, “Yes, and just as studying is a Process, involving incremental steps, so Goodness Itself is a process, involving incremental steps. Whatever one’s task is, a person should break it down to its minor building blocks and then work on the task block by block and not all at once. And the end of that Process leads to God.”

So it is that I recognized in the basic teachings of Judaism–I never sought to believe in every last passage of the Bible again after leaving Christianity–what I believed. I believed that as one writer put it, “Acts of Faith” are what Works are. A person does good, not simply is good. More, I appreciated that Judaism taught that its God was the Creator of the Universe and of humankind. I believed God loved humankind and would come to believe that God loves all of Creation. At that point I did not have it worked out if there was an afterlife or not (I have since decided there is one).

Since I did this thinking, I have come to the conclusion that works alone are not sufficient to truly love God. God deserves your whole head and heart. It is not that a person who gives less is going to hell. No, God loves many people who do not fulfill their best intentions in this life. I cannot accept the belief that God does not love the average person as greatly as God loves “the saints,” the Mother Teresa’s and Mahatma Gandhi’s. Such a belief would underestimate both the goodness of God and assume that being good is something that every human being can be, when actually that path is quite difficult. Without knowing what balance God uses, I know that God dwells among us, and urges each of us to “do our best.” As I read in Telushkin’s Jewish Wisdom (he went a little conservative on me after this book, but I found it useful anyway), “Some do more, some do less.” A rabbi discussed a friend who collected garbage for a living, and had no time to study the Talmud, “I know we will get the same reward in the afterlife.” I believe that. I believe that God, who is compassionate, longs to forgive every soul, and that if a person is trying, than probably they are on the right path, or getting there.

Writing “Fraud on the Fairies”

I filched a title Charles Dickens wrote an article under defending fairy tales. Dickens deplored the dreary moralism in stories whose goals were to institute in children such traits as sobriety, vegetarianism and pacifism. He also–I believe–fought the remnants of the Puritan belief that children were innately evil and that fairy tales encouraged the evil within them to run amuck. Dickens argued that their childish imaginations were given reign to healthy play by these stories, and that anyone who denied children the simple joys of a good story, with its simple encouragement towards kindness, honesty, hard work and curiosity, was denying the children what they needed to grow to adulthood. Of course, today there are those who make the claim that stories like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and “Puss in Boots,” are no longer suitable for children. Some of them make an especial target out of Walt Disney films, of which I believe that though they can be illuminating experiences for children can also be overindulged in. Usually the person who makes the claim is an ideologue of some sort: Marxist, feminist, or some other ism. Not all of these “isms” are bad in and of themselves, but the fact is that most of them are capable of taking a partial truth too far. I will not go into why I think so tonight; perhaps I will someday.

Anyway, over time I have written books to try to counter the position that stories like those edited by the Brothers Grimm or Perreault or Joseph Jacob should be disbanded. I am not, of course, arguing that later stories, like the current day work of Maurice Sendak’s, Kate DiCamillo, Grace Lin or William Steig, cannot delight young readers just as much. I am just suggesting that not educating children based on past classics can leave them with a truncated sense of history, and also that the older, established classics deserve to be loved anew on their own right for the same reasons Leon Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen do.

However, the three largest successful compilations were A Child’s Haggadah; A Pocket full of Stories; and The Magic Orchard and Other Stories. All of these are collections of children’s stories. The Magic Orchard and Other Stories in particular aims towards stories like the traditional folktales. A Child’s Haggadah are Jewish stories for children. And A Pocketful of Stories is a small collection of stories I also wrote, some Jewish and some not. Of course, successful is a relative term: none are published, and I have even more trouble finding a publisher for original children’s stories than adult ones if they are written in fairy tale or similar format. I do have some longer adolescent’s novels which include magic and magical creatures: Grace; or, in Search of the Leviathan and it’s sequel The Cycle of Ahriman.

My magnum opus, though, for children’s writing is a children’s book it may take some years for me to get to: Jeanie and the Gentle-Folk. It is a story about Jeanie, an orphan, and her escape from a malicious creature, Father Ogre. In her escape she is rescued by some fairies, and then sent on a magical journey involving meeting figures like St. Francis, Rabia (a female slave who founded Sufism) and “the Besht” (the Baal Shem Tov). Traveling in “Other World” where she meets them, she also meets such figures as Judge Ooka (a Japanese judge known for his wisdom). All of the people she meets are followers of their faith, not its founders–she never gets to meet Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, or the Buddha. Even God, though his reality is implied, does not speak directly to Jeanie ever. Instead, the people Jeanie meets are guides on a mysterious path to salvation. They may not know all of the answers, but they are doing the right thing to walk that path. At a key point in the book Jeanie will be called upon to destroy two evil dragons: the red dragon of hatred and the black dragon of indifference. They have been let out into the world in which Jeanie lives, and it is up to her to stop them.

When I write this story, I hope to write a preface defending the folk story as the oldest kind of fiction, and the legend as the oldest kind of history. I hope to say that Dickens was right and that as one awful book tried to disprove Wonders Will Never Cease. I think that Wonders Will Never Cease was intended to be a frontal attack on God, focusing on–of all things–the Arthurian Legends. I don’t know if many people outside of England are really heartbroken that Thomas Malory is portrayed as being an even worse person than he probably was. I myself believe the view that I think Wonders Will Never Cease mocked, that Malory probably wrote his last (he was a murderer) believing that it redeemed a life that was not, admittedly, well lived. I guess all I would say to the book’s author is that in reality if the real King Aurthur turned out to be a really bad person, I was an American enough that I am not sure I felt the pain that deeply. It was only British people whose faith I guess could have been hurt. I am ashamed to say that I read all the way through Wonders Will Never Cease. It was a good read in terms of its entertainment value, but I couldn’t help wondering how the author missed that his book’s main appeal was the books it was based on. If you really hated the Arthurian Legends, this book would have been just as tiresome.

After reading it, I decided it needed an answer. I am not sure why I thought it needed an answer, save for those famous lines in Proverbs,

Answer a dullard in accord with his folly,

Else you will become like him. (Proverbs 26:5)

It is true–for all sceptics reading this–that Proverb 26:4 begins “Answer not a dullard in accord with his folly,” but it explains in the Talmud that the first case is when a dullard is inviting you to become involved with sinful doings, whereas if the dullard in the second case is arguing theology, you have a duty to correct him.

Hence, I started work on Jeannie and the Gentle-Folk.

However, before I get to Jeanie and the Gentle-Folk–a children’s book, I admit–I am now working on Oz Revisited. Oz Revisited is a “fantasy” novel, based on the Oz books–but unlike the other books I have written about it is for adults. I need to get back to working on Oz Revisited–but cannot until–alas–I have finished my work on The Many Faces of Abraham.

In the meantime, I am writing tonight that I hope someday to prove in writing–insofar as such matters of the heart can be proved–the value of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. I want to prove it as badly as I want to prove that there are transcendent values that do not need to be measured in laboratories or in the language of mathematics. I want to prove that because of these unmeasurable things, human beings were made to live.

In Defense of Public Altruism

I remember some years back I read an article in the New Yorker in which the claim was that the efforts to do good in 3rd World Countries, as in the examples of foreign efforts in countries like Somalia, Rwanda and Kosovo, does not alleviate suffering but in fact prolongs it. It seemed odd that somebody on the left would be promoting this argument. Firstly (and most obviously) because every person I had ever met who said that “our country should keep its nose out of other countries’ business.” This was, of course, before President George W. Bush. The isolationism of certain sections of the right has always been with us, rearing its ugly head in the 1930’s and then being revived after Vietnam in the form of a certain national defeatism. Secondly, though, it seemed as though it was similar arguments I have also heard of the right at home: that the welfare state as a whole hinders more than helps the recipients of the aid it offers. However much I may disagree with these two sentiments–and I do, immensely–I do have to admit a certain symmetry in them: there is no money to give to poorer or unfortunate people at home or abroad. Except for its cultural issues, this does make a person wonder why the New Yorker is on the left at all. Before I explain why I believe it is also wrong, I am going to outline why I think it thinks like it does.

I had a psychiatrist years ago–not one I liked particularly–who taught the philosophy that before you loved others you had to love yourself. If I understood him, he might ultimately not believe, however, that outside of psychiatry a person who was healthy could actually help a person who was not in any meaningful way. Because of that, his theory went, if a healthy person met an unhealthy person, it was best to avoid them. He told me once about a doctor who he knew who was a case in point. He liked him when they first met because he was all pep and enthusiasm. Yet the second time he met the man, the man barely reached out to him: he was too depressed to reach out of himself. Then my doctor said, “His wife committed suicide. It was really because of him. Avoid people like him, people who have mood swings like that. They can only hurt you.” Not long after I left this doctor for good I was re-diagnosed with Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder. I was like that man, but somehow my doctor never noticed. I wondered at the time how the fool had not noticed my moodiness, as my depressed states were increasingly alternated with “happy” (read: manic) moods.

Well, this fool believed his insights were not just personal but political. He never doubted that the average prison inmate was incurable (“can’t be treated anymore”) or that his grudge against socialized medicine was based purely on what was best for the patients. More, he admitted that he believed racism–including what Serbians and Croats felt for each other in the latter 20th Century–represented a kind of disease which was not really curable either. He said he preferred treating kids, which I suppose was nice–except that he seemed to have an odd prejudice which said that adult mental patients were not really curable, and he certainly never tried to take cases for the state. Intrinsic to “loving yourself first”–as far as I could tell–was that others always came second and that capitalism without the “safety net” was the best economic system because it promoted health. More, just as there were sick and healthy people, there were sick and healthy countries. He told me at one point that the reason Hitler killed the Jews was because the Jews had “rejected Hitler.” Without wanting to know what it meant to him, I will give my response.

Anyway, years later I worked at Breakthrough, a mental health club. All of the members were mentally ill, and though they could not be hired as staff, I always felt as a “high functioning” patient (I even had a college degree) I held a kind of “in-between” position. I therefore worked as somebody who was a tutor and later cook. I don’t want to brag, but I guess I have to in order to prove my work helped the members.

My first patient was a man who was in a car accident, whose head hit the dashboard which caused him amnesia in terms of–among other things–his ability to do basic math and read on a grade school level. The driver in the other car was drunk; he was the designated driver in his car. So it was that I figured out how to teach him multiplication first. The first attempt was not very successful. I would use equations like 3+3+3 = 3×3. Yet he could not do it. Yet then I saw him counting: 3, 6, 9, 12… And I had an epiphany: “Larry, multiplication is counting. I will recite the equations while you recite the answers. Now count by threes: 3×1, 3×2, 3×3, 3×4…” And it worked. Within a few weeks time he learned how to multiply 1-5, and then we used flash cards to get him through 6-9.

After that, I got workbooks by the now defunct Kelley Kincaid (it is a shame; they were very helpful) grade school worksheets for both basic grammar and math. Now, in math he never made it beyond fractions. Yet in grammar, he was eventually able to do something he could not after his accident before we met: he could get through the first book of the Challenger series for GED students without any help (including mine). Over time I read to Larry from different books: Ellie Wiesel’s Night; A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Sheltering the Jews; Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures; Burying the Chains (about the British anti-Slavery campaign); and The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Larry particularly liked “Sherlock” to “while the time away.” The way our work day worked was simple: 10:00 AM-12:00 PM Math; 1:00 PM- 2:30 PM Grammar; 2:30 PM-3:30 PM Reading.

I worked with other students on the side, albeit sometimes only as moral support. I remember one woman who came each day to learn to type using the computer and a textbook the club had. She would eventually become a secretary. There was one woman I explained the Holocaust to, even using a globe to do so, so she could see the difference between where the U.S. and Europe–particularly where Germany (the perpetrators) and Poland (one of the central European countries where most of the camps) were. I also worked on a collage with one student to help her get her high school diploma (it turned out to be a small task; she would have to do many larger tasks with a staff member to do it).

Eventually after Larry was declared “cured” (he moved out of his parents’ house and traveled to the places he wanted to go by bus), I got burnt out on teaching. (I am rather ashamed to say that, but it is true.) However, I did get to do other things with the Clubhouse. For Hanukah parties I fixed latkes and bought jelly donuts. For Pesach (Passover), I would make a seder plate’s materials for whoever came: matzo, horseradish (to go onto the matzo), a sweet dish called charoset (also to go on the matzo), celery, eggs and grape juice. (Each of the Pesach dishes have a symbolic meaning.) One year for Yom Kippur I even made a Honey Cake to go with whip cream and coffee. (It is hard to make a honey cake.) I did all of this to teach about my religion, and when doing so, I included speeches (for Yom Kippur), a Haggadah (for Pesach), and Hebrew music (for Hanukkah one year). Of course, I knew that they were not going to convert (there was only one other Jew) but I thought that since I celebrated the other members’ Christian holidays with them, they could celebrate my Jewish holidays with me–as long as I did not involve them in saying Jewish prayers or learning hard core Jewish theology or law.

I occasionally fixed the members non-religious foods. One thing that did not work out so well was the time I tried to make them Ancient Mexican (Aztec) cocoa. One time that went better–surprisingly–I made butternut squash and chickpea stew. Everyone made that particular vegan stew. And everyone also liked it the two times which for Valentine’s Day I made chocolate cup cakes and then decorated the cupcakes using some help from Williams-Sonoma and a book Hello Cupcake!, the store from which I bought it from which no longer exists.

My theory behind the parties/food is that if you create a happy experience in time for somebody who is sick, then when they are not feeling happy, they can look back in time and say, “That was a wonderful Hanukkah I had. And good times will come again.” I really believe that.

Anyway, the larger point in all of this is that I believe I did good working for Breakthrough. More: I believe most good deeds involve at least two people, the giver and the receiver. Now this being so, the good that either international aid or the welfare state do involves the person working as a aid worker or social worker. It is true that politicians have to work hard to create functioning programs to take care of, say, the mentally ill. Yet the less glamorous work of working with the sick is where a person is helped or failed to be helped. The tragedy that people hear about New York–and I hope it is not true–is that apparently there is this huge, burgeoning bureaucracy that gets so little real done. Either the system itself is rotten to the core, or the people working for it no longer help to ease the suffering of the poor in New York City. I am lucky I worked in Kansas! Though our programs are underfunded, the one thing Breakthrough did supply were large numbers of places within the Breakthrough where I could make myself useful and no pile of files for me to work my way through first. I am sure–despite what the New Yorker says–that this is how it is for societies like Doctors Without Borders (a charity I highly recommend to those with money who want to give). The doctors try to save as many people as they can, but–alas–they cannot know the ultimate fate of each and every patient.

This last, by the way, is like Larry’s fate. I was gone taking classes at W.S.U. one semester after I finished working with him. When I came back, I had died. I felt as though I had abandoned Larry. Yet I really had no choice. Years later one of the staff members gave me a picture of him that Breakthrough had among its’ things. I still have his picture, and a lock that had been the only possession of his that he owned jointly with Breakthrough. This was, alas, an unhappy ending. Yet that is the point. Not every patient saved by Doctors Without Borders is going to be saved in the real way–by not going on to fight whichever side he may have fought on to become injured. Yet can we really accept the conclusion that it is better to look at the dying person we could help, and do nothing? I believe not.

I have read the biography of that Great Lady who makes my own efforts on behalf of the sick seem like a pittance: Something Beautiful for God, about Mother Teresa. I will comment here on the bizarre truth that Mother Teresa has critics. They ask if her work with the lepers cures more than a few. Yet to anyone who ever gave to anyone, that is not the point: the issue is to live with those who suffer, and suffer with them, and to heal them thereby. Many more than were literally cured found comfort and hope in Mother Teresa. Because if she saved only a few from death outright, she was the Good Mother of Calcutta to all of them who came to her. Similarly, organizations like Doctors Without Borders can never really know how much good they are doing. But in doing good for others, even if only in their intentions, they have won those words that I will quote–Jew though I am:

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:

Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. (Timothy 4:7-8)