A “Little House” Thanksgiving

Yesterday on Thanksgiving Day, we did not eat turkey. Mom had not gotten a turkey because she did not want to have that much meat in the house after we ate our dinner. So I asked if we could have a dish I had made only once before from The Little House Cookbook for the day: Chicken Pie. I would make some substitutions to make it Kosher, but it would be great for the day, because Thanksgiving is about being thankful for what you have and honoring those who came before you. Plus, it is intended to be a patriotic holiday. So I made the following recipe to celebrate the day:

Chicken Pie

Pie Crust Ingredients

(You will make the following recipe 2x)

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup Crisco

1/2 teaspoon butter


  1. Mix Flour and salt.
  2. Knead in Crisco and Butter. If it it seems too “dry” add just a tad more Crisco and Butter.
  3. Press into the pie pan you are using.
  4. Then get the same amount of the above ingredients and do the same thing up to putting it in the pie tin. Make a ball and wait till you are caught up to with the ingredients with the pie filling.

Ingredients for the Filling

1 5-Pound Chicken

3 Hard Boiled Eggs

3 Slices Turkey Bacon

2 Tablespoons Flour

Salt and Pepper

1/2 Cup to a Cup Chicken or no-Chicken Broth


  1. Heat oven to 250 degrees.
  2. Boil the chicken until it is thoroughly cooked, around 30 minutes.
  3. Slice hard boiled eggs.
  4. Slice Turkey Bacon.
  5. Use Crisco in a skillet and then gradually add Turkey Bacon, Boiled Eggs, and Flour.
  6. Take Chicken out of pot and cut it into pieces.
  7. Then add pieces of chicken into the frying pan.
  8. Once it is cooked so that there are no raw pieces (but before it is browned), place chicken in open pie crust.
  9. Take ball of unused crust and cover the chicken.
  10. Put in the oven for 5 hours.
  11. Take it out; if the top crust is not hard, cook it a little longer. When it is solid, the meal is ready.
  12. Serve.

We served cranberry salad on the side with cranberry juice and our neighbor Sam came over to dinner. There were leftovers and today I shall have some pie.

Thanksgiving is an all-important American Holiday, teaching us to celebrate what we have. I know it is too late for the reader to cook this pie for Thanksgiving, but if they are Jewish, this Sunday Chanukah begins, and if they are Christian, Christmas is coming soon. Why not try something new? And by all means, read the Little House on the Prairie books to celebrate. This meal is mentioned in the second book, Farmer Boy, and Almanzo Wilder’s (Laura’s husband’s) family has a celebration that this pie is based on in my version or the version of The Little House Cookbook. This Thanksgiving we also had a pecan pie–but that is another Blog.

Comments on the Nature of Evil

I remember the words, “Each person is the protagonist of her own story.” It was at a writer’s conference, and I listened to the author discussing her work, about how one of her favorite childhood stories–the Mexican variant of “Snow White and Rose Red” became the text which she destroyed in a book as an adult. This story, she apparently decided, was racist, and favored light skinned people over dark skinned people, because though both sisters–passive, fair-skinned Snow White and active, rosy hued Rose Red– are usually regarded as the heroines of the story, only one gets to marry the Bear Prince, and this is Snow White. Now, I guess a person could ask whether it would be better if the Bear Prince married both sisters. Yet in this story which this woman loved as a child, all she could see as an adult was the flaw of being a classic Grimm fairy tale which condemned Rose Red to marrying the Bear Prince’s brother, who entered the story late so Rose Red could have someone to marry.

Now, truthfully, I don’t know how she could do it. I have stories I loved as a child, and I could not want to condemn them as wrong, illegitimate ways of looking at the world. One of them, incidentally, was “Snow White and Rose Red” from The Gem Fairy Tales, a book of retold traditional fairy tales. Yet even on the face of it I question her assumption: Are we really always the protagonists of our own stories, always doing right in our own eyes. If this were so, even Hitler, killing six million Jews and six million other people, could be deluded enough to see himself as “right.” And this reminds me of the name of a book this author mentioned called “Dark Triumph,” making one think how Hitler got remarkably close to achieving his goal where the Jews were concerned–most of the European Jewry was destroyed, and a third of the Jews worldwide.

Which leads to my point. I am not always the protagonist of my own life. I know that I have massacred no innocents, and yet I cannot see that in my own mind I have always lived the good life I was meant to live. I have come closer as I have lived onwards, but particular in my childhood, with Major Depression and inclined to be lazy, I am not sure I was always the heroine of my own story. Yes, there have been times when I did “come short of the glory of God,” though as a Jew I am not bound by a belief in Original Sin per se. This is even though, working at a mental health club, many of the patients there look up to me. Ha! If they only knew! There was a time when I had their problems, and it was only pills, therapy, and a lot of hard work that I got any better. They do not know it, but it is because I recognize my own failings that I can feel sorry for theirs.

Philosophically I know “evil” is hard to define. Christianity defines it as “Pride” whereas Buddhism defines it as “Selfishness.” Hinduism defines it as the failure to do one’s “duty” and though this is too often associated with caste, Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by this philosophy of Dharma. In Judaism, evil is a necessary part of existence, whereas I believe other religions teach that it’s acceptance leads only to moral corruption. All of these views probably have an element of truth.

Historian Norman Davies described St. Augustine as a “religious libertine,” for the immoral behavior he celebrates and condemns in his Confessions. Yet there is a sense in which St. Augustine is no fool. Elsewhere describing evil as the “absence of good,” he mentions in his writing a time when he was a child when he stole an apple from an orchard, enjoying the trick he played against the owner of the orchard, and the fact that the act was theft. Now a Catholic philosophy teacher I had explained that though small, this act was the epitome of what was wrong with human nature. And perhaps he was right.

In my own childhood, I did something similar to Augustine. I was with my family at the Botanical Gardens one day when I was ten years old. I noticed there was a wishing well, but also that there were candy and soda pop machines. Well, I knew my mother and stepfather would not give me the money to buy the candy and soda pop I wanted. So I took money from the wishing well, and bought my Dr. Pepper and two candy bars with that. There were even some other children there whom I offered to help steal, too, but virtuously they refrained from taking part in my evil deed. They did not, however, turn me in. Now, years later I hoped to make recompense to the Botanical Gardens for what I did and I made a gift of some fifty dollars to the organization. Yet they insisted on giving me recognition for the gift. I was very disappointed, because to receive the gift meant I had not paid back the wicked deed I had done as a child. That deed has never truly been undone, and I consider it in once sense a very wicked deed: I was so delighted at the time that I had done an evil deed, and that I had gotten away with it.

Now, I admit that I have not done any stealing since. More, Judaism does not teach that wicked deeds cannot be undone–through fasting and prayer on Yom Kippur, and through apologizing to the person wronged. Yet in terms of “evil deeds” stealing enough money for a can of Dr. Pepper and a candy bar (I forget which kind), may seem petty–and yet the small sin committed by a ten year old does have something in common with the larger sin committed by a bank robber. Both of us want what is not legitimately ours. Of course, I have probably even done worse things since. Yet there is a simplicity to that theft that illustrates sin. And there was a since in which stealing I became my own antagonist. Wicked people bring unhappiness upon themselves.

It is by conquering oneself that one becomes good. I know that “conquest” is a military term, that for some of us–and I was one–I had to accept that I was human before I could–to quote God to Cain in the King James Version of the Bible:

If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

A human can rule over her evil impulse. Yet this can be a difficult act, not one to be taken lightly. As it is, in modern times people too often believe that it is easy to be good. That there are not times when hard work involves pain, or when forgiveness involves the heart and not just the head. I remember I had a psychiatrist who did me very little good, because I remember having a “eureka” moment once when I thought I finally understood my psychological problems. And then I left the office, but when I came back, what we discussed was forgotten, and not even I can say what it was we discussed, or if it did me any good. I did discover, true enough, that as a human I had “evil impulses” that I could not simply condemn and they would go away. Yet I also discovered that in learning self-love I also had to learn self-discipline. I know as an adult I am a very hard worker, but as a child I tended towards laziness. I changed because I structured my time so that I did the things “I would need to get done first,” then the things I needed to get done next, and finally the things I want. Structuring my time took more than that, but that was a beginning.

That is why if I could I would tell each member of the Breakthrough Club, the mental health club where I worked, that the Jewish philosopher Philo spoke the truth when he said, “Be Kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Yet to deny that it is possible for a person to become their own antagonist risks sloth and laziness. Actually, it risks worse flaws in one’s character, for if a person is honest, very few of us are flawlessly kind or honest or good. No, to become good is a battle and a journey, which a person should not tread on lightly.

Protesting Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved”

I am going to make a bold prediction. If President Joe Biden loses either control over the legislative branch of the government, or if he loses the re-election to the Presidency itself, it will not be because of economics or COVID-19. It will not even be because of the environment or infrastructure. It will not even be because of the faults or unlikability of Joe Biden himself. I have even heard or talked to a few “right-wingers” who themselves admit they have nothing against the president himself. It will be because of cultural politics. Now, I understand that this is tremendously unfair. I am not arguing that, perhaps, if people were wise, they might pick material well-being over, say, making getting COVID-19 vaccinations a badge of political affiliation. Yet there is a lot of truth that the fuel that keeps the right wing of the spectrum going is cultural issues. The idea lodged in some hunter’s brain (I mean a man who hunts deer, to be clear) is that the government is going to “take away our guns.” Some of this might not be able to be helped, but I think that there are people on the left who pour gasoline on these hot-button issues, and that if Donald Trump is toxic masculinity itself, the radical fringes of the left make it just as many enemies as fans.

Which is why I decided to bring up a writer I privately dislike, and why though I might not vote Republican over, I do not particularly want taught in the school system any more than hunters want to give up their guns. Toni Morrison. Now I know what the reader will say, “Well, isn’t that awfully prejudiced, Hadassah? Didn’t she win the Pulitzer Prize and all?” Well, if somebody else is out trying to have Little House on the Prairie books; certain Dr. Seuss books; and thinks even Charlotte’s Web (because the beloved spider dies at the end of the book) are all bad for children, then I want to explain why I have never really liked Toni Morrison.

In High School I was in Barnes & Noble and I came across a book, The Bluest Eye. It was about a little black girl who was raped and who hallucinates about her desire to be white at the end of the book. I did not really hate the book at the time, but I did not find it particularly moving, either. I didn’t leave with any real desire to read more. However, I had only just had my first taste of Toni Morrison.

My next was in a night class for High School age kids. They were average kids, not really Honors English kids but alright for all that. However, I remember one girl read Toni Morrison for her book report. She was black and she commented that the book Song of Solomon involved adult incest between a middle class black man and his daughter. Now, I wasn’t quite clear on why Toni Morrison thought there was something perverse about being black and successful. However, from what I know of her books, there is kind of a trajectory: The Bluest Eye, though not well written by Morrison standards, is almost normal compared to the now infamous Beloved, and then she went out onto a pornographic frenzy–from what it sounded like–in Song of Solomon, diplomatically named after a book of the Bible about romantic love. The girl who wrote the book report did not seem to know why the book was written. Neither did our (black) teacher, “I know, when I read it I just could not believe it was on the best seller’s list.” I don’t honestly believe a single soul there knew why Toni Morrison was a writer.

Now, if somebody honestly wants to read Toni Morrison for herself, I guess it is their prerogative. Yet I am not sure I would want my kid to read it if I had one. More, I think maybe the kids in the public school system should have to take a slip home for their parents’ permission to read the book. I can think of a lot more harmless things that I took home permission slips for when I was a kid–one of them being anti-drug rallies. Now, I know that Morrison has the support of whoever gave her that Pulitzer Prize. Yet if I remember right, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind got the Pulitzer Prize, too, and as politically incorrect as that book is now, I don’t know if I CARE that somebody was sick enough to give Morrison an award.

What I am saying, in this acrimoniously written blog, is that before people who are perhaps well-meaning and liberal foist a new standard of ethics on society which it never wanted (one in which, ala Beloved, infanticide is right or wrong depending on the circumstances), they ought to consider that people may or may not choose to adapt to “the New Normal.” I didn’t really like Donald Trump, but the moment he was out of the White House is when a lot of new changes were made that I never wanted. I know this all sounds like an extremist rant, but I guess after watching enough cable television to last a lifetime, I wonder why the polarizing of politics is not just as present on the left as on the right.

The Little Iron Man

When I was in grade school, I remember Grandma Alderson reading “The Little Iron Man” to me. It was not my favorite story–perhaps I will write about my favorite stories, “The Donkey Cabbage” and “The Princess Who Flies Like a White Dove,” some other time. Yet it had a character who was emblematic about how I have always felt about fairy tales. So I will retell it here and then I will explain the tale’s deficiency.

The Little Iron Man

There was an orchardist who had three sons, the first two were very clever, with the shrewdness of Eve’s serpent, while the third was foolish and openhearted, and kind to all who met him. Now the orchardist, though not rich, prized his delicious apples. So it was that when the call came out into the kingdom, explaining that the king’s daughter was ill and the king was looking for a cure, the eldest son in the family was sent with some wine to drink and cake to eat along with a basketful of apples.

Now on the road, he saw a little iron man. And the little iron man said, “Where are you going? And what have you in your basket?”

“None of your business,” said the first son. “And it’s hog’s bristles to you.”

“So it is and so it shall remain,” said the little iron man.

Well, he got to the king’s castle and the basket was opened–and there were hogs bristles, instead of the gorgeous red apples he had been sent from his father’s house with. He was thrown out of the castle and beaten, and returned home humiliated.

Now the second son started out. And he met the little iron man. And the little iron man said, “Where are you going? And what have you in your basket?”

“None of your business,” said the second son. “And it’s frogs’ legs to you.”

“So it is and so it shall remain,” said the little iron man.

So it was the second son got to the castle and his basket was opened to produce–frogs’ legs. And the second son was cast from the castle in the manner of the first.

Now the third son insisted that he get his chance. Of course, neither of his brothers had mentioned the little iron man–out of embarrassment for their bad manners and the results–but the third son had a sincere faith in the effigy of his father’s apples to heal the princess. Finally, he was sent out, but whereas his brothers left with wine and cake, he left with water and bread.

On the road he met the little iron man.

“Where are you going and what is in your basket?” asked the little iron man.

The third son sat down, gave the little iron man some of his bread, and then told the little iron man whole story ending with the words, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the apples in this basket should cure the poor princess?”

“Good luck to you,” said the little iron man. “I am sure the princess will get well thanks to you.”

The youngest son laughed, “I hope so. I would not like to have the same fate as my two older brothers had. But they meant well, I am sure.” And so the youngest son went on to the castle.

Now at the castle, the basket of apples was opened, and instead of the beautiful red apples of his father’s orchard, the youth saw even lovelier apples made of gold. And one was taken to the princess, and she bit it, and she woke up, cured by the medicinal powers of the apple.

I will interrupt the story here to describe partially my point. This story does have a wholesome moral (the young man who is kind cures the princess) and the hero is easy for a child to identify with. More, there is a kind of majestic aura of the tale, set as it is in an almost medieval past. Yet when I was a child, what interested me most was the “little iron man” himself. I longed to enter the picture and travel, not to the castle, nor to the orchardist’s house, but to where the little iron man lives. In Road to Faerie, Tolkien–the granddaddy of fantasy–insists that it is the human realm that is most interesting in the folktale, and that the magic in the story merely illuminates the human world. Yet as a child I instinctively felt otherwise. I longed to get to know the “little iron man” apart from his good deeds toward humans in the human realm. I remember reading a book of old Irish myths and thinking that the concept of “Otherworld” where the ancient gods and their fellow magical creatures existed was where I wanted to travel in stories–if only I knew how. Anyway, I will return to the third son and the ‘little iron man’ in the story.

Now the King was very rich and looking at the orchardist’s son could tell he was not one of the nobility. So he said, “I have another task for you to do. Go and get the gold egg of the Phoenix and I will let you marry my daughter.”

The third son cheerfully agreed, and set out. Before he left the King put together some food and supplies for him to take into the woods where the Phoenix was supposed to live. The son was not expected to come back, but on the other hand the savior of the King’s daughter could not go totally without reward. Nobody ever went into the Forest of the Phoenix and came back alive. However, before the Orchardist’s Son could grow desolate and lose hope his friend, the little iron man appeared. Having gotten as far as he had, the Orchardist’s son almost expected the miracle. So he sat down and gave the little iron man a portion of the food that had been given by the King.

The little iron man asked where the Orchardist’s son was going, and on hearing about it acted as though he had known all along. The little iron man told the young man to go up to the cliff, and then the little iron man would distract the Phoenix, “Take two eggs, but no more, for the Phoenix will search for them if they are all gone.”

The Orchardist’s son agreed and with much difficulty climbed the cliff the little iron man took him to. As the young man waited, the little iron man distracted the Phoenix, and the Orchardist’s son, seeing six eggs, took two. Then he climbed down the cliff, and waited for the little iron man to return. After he returned, he walked the Orchardist’s son half way back to the castle. The Orchardist’s son walked the rest of the way back.

Now the King saw that the Phoenix eggs were there and was mystified. How had the Orchardist’s son gotten them? However, he decided to put the young man to another test, one he was certain not to succeed at. The King had a flock of rabbits which nobody could keep from wandering away from the castle, and which the King delighted eating individual rabbits from. So the King told the Orchardist’s son to go into the field with the flock and to come back with all 100 of them–if there were a mere 99, he would have the young man sent back home, empty handed. The Orchardist’s son agreed, believing Providence would intervene, somehow.

Sure enough, in the field, the little iron man listened to the young Orchardist’s tale, and gave him a silver whistle, “If a rabbit runs off, blow this whistle, and they shall all return.”

So the Orchardist’s son watched the rabbits.

Now, the King told the Princess to go out and get one of the rabbits from the young man, so he could not complete his task. The Princess did not want to: she was already in love with the young man who had saved her life. However, nobody–not even the Princess–dared disobey the King, so she went out and asked the Orchardist’s son for a rabbit.

The Orchardist’s son could not say know, smitten as he was with her grace and beauty. However, when she was half of the way back to the castle, he blew his whistle, and the rabbit jumped out of the Princess’ apron and returned to him. Since the cook saw the incident, and could explain that the rabbit getting away from the Princess was despite her good intentions, she left the Orchardist’s son to the fields.

After the Princess left the young man, the King found her crying and asked what the matter was. She wept forlornly, “Oh Papa, why can’t I marry him? He is so kind and handsome.”

So when the King found the 100 rabbits had been well kept, he decided he ought to keep “the royal promise” as he put it, and the Orchardist’s youngest son married the Princess. On his wedding night, he told his new wife about his special friend, and how he believed he saw him at the gateway watching their vows being said.

As readers of the original story can tell (it is a story of the Grimm fairy tale I first discovered in The Gem Fairy Tales), I made some editorial changes to the tale. My Princess is less “spoilt” and more in love with the Orchardist’s son, who in turn has greater faith in his ability to succeed in his mission. However, with fairy tales a person is allowed to do that. They began as Oral Stories, ideally passed down from Grandma to child, and the old lady gets to augment or downplay any parts of the story she wishes to change. In the old days, such stories functioned this way because they weren’t tied to a written text. This was because there was a time before widespread literacy in the West.

Anyway, my point with the little iron man remains the same. Where does the enigmatic saint of the story go afterwards? What does he do when he lives in the mysterious forest in which he spends most of his time?

A Final Note on Kierkegaard

To Kierkegaard each person has the same starting place on the same journey. Likewise, each generation also travels the same road as the generation before it. This journey is the journey of faith. “Faith is the highest passion in a human being. Many in every generation may not come that far, but none comes further.” All I can say is that I wonder why no “growth” is possible, no evolution in the meaning of the old stories… Yet Kierkegaard caricaturizes the belief that life is experienced as ever changing, in flux:

“One must go further, one must go further.” This need to go on is of ancient standing. Heraclitus the ‘obscure’ who re-posited his thoughts in his writings and his writings in the Temple of Diana (for his thoughts had been his armor in life, which he therefore hung up in the temple of the goddess), the obscure Heraclitus has said, “One can never walk through the same river twice.” The obscure Heraclitus had a disciple who didn’t remain standing there but went further and added, “One cannot do it even once.” Poor Heraclitus to have such a disciple! This improvement changed the Heraclitan principle into an Eleatic doctrine denying movement, and yet all that disciple wanted was to be a disciple of Heraclitus who went further, not back to what Heraclitus abandoned.

Reading Kierkegaard on this point, a person finds herself fumbling with the concept of change based on Heraclitus. Yet I will argue with him from a “common sense” position. If one claims faith but never practices it, it is never actualized. I had a friend for a while who put it another way, “Before I converted to Judaism, I had a Baptist friend who was always inviting me to her church. I went a couple of times, but it seemed like each week they preached the same sermon, ‘Believe.’ The thing was, though, that I couldn’t see that before each sermon they didn’t already believe and why they didn’t want to move on before that initial moment.” Without denying the need for God in our lives, we wanted to say that the conversion experience was not enough for us. We wanted more.

Of course, on the record, this friend and I grew apart, in part because of a rabbi I had. I am sure it is very much my fault, in fact, but perhaps it is an example of one of those experiences in life when somehow a particularly friendship is rendered incomplete. The brakeage of relationships proves that there is change, as much as the healing. And of course, without change there can be neither brakeage or healing. Instead all things would be harmonious, unchanging, and dead.

Another way of looking at is that there are two existing worlds, side by side: the World of Justice, which is unchanging, and the World of Mercy, in which brakeage and healing is possible. None of us would survive the World of Justice. We all live in the World of Mercy, where despite our sins we are continually given a second chance. True, there is suffering in the World of Mercy, yet in that World God works through humankind to bring about Completion–and Salvation–for human beings.

As for Heraclitus, I–like his student–would take his saying further: I never step over the same river twice. I am also never the same person twice. For I change as much as the river. And in my changing, my energy may pass over the changing river… though we are both changed by the experience, perhaps.

Kierkegaard: Agnete and the Merman

I find this portion of Kierkegaard curious without quite understanding it, but then it is about the folksong “Agnete from Holmegaard” by Jens Baggesen and made into Hans Christian Anderson into an unsuccessful play. It is a trifle sexist, but it is arresting nonetheless,

The merman is a seducer who rises up from concealment in the depts, and in wild desire grasps and breaks the innocent flower (Agnete) standing in all its charms by the shore, pensively bending its head of the ocean’s roar. That is what the poets made of it. Let us make a change. The merman was a seducer. He has called out to Agnete, with his smooth talk has coaxed from her her secret thoughts. She has found the merman what she was seeking, what she gazed down to find in the depths of the sea. Agnete is willing to follow him down. The merman has taken her into his arms. Agnete twines hers about his neck trustingly and with all her soul she abandons herself to the stronger. He is already on the sea edge, bending over the water to follow him down with his prey. Then Agnete looks at him again, not fearfully, not questioningly, not proud of her good luck, not intoxicated with desire, but in absolute faith, with absolute humility, like the humble flower she deemed herself to be; with absolute confidence she entrusts to him her entire fate. And look! The ocean roars no more, its wild voice is stilled, nature’s passion–which is the merman’s strength–deserts him, the sea becomes dead calm. And still Agnete is looking at him in this way. Then the merman collapses, he is unable to resist the power of innocence, his element becomes unfaithful to him, he cannot seduce Agnete. He leads her home again, he explains to her he only wanted to show her how beautiful the sea was calm, and Agnete believes him. Then he turns back alone, and the ocean rages, but more wildly still rages the merman’s despair.

Despite my cynicism of any young girl have Agnete’s level of naïveté or many seducers balking in awe of it where it exists, I still believe the story has this strength: every woman wishes for such a story. She wishes that there was a man over whom she has Agnete’s powers over the merman. This is why romances sell so well, I guess, and why the hero of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a bad man and not a good. Rothschild is more moving to women than Don Juan; it is men who bear “stud’s” a grudging respect, while women want to believe their hearts are like domestic gardens which contain the single rose planted by a man whose heart is good–but not too good. Why do we sympathize so with evil? I am not sure. I read the first two and last cantos of Don Juan and left hating Lord Byron for good, yet even my head is partly turned by “She Walks in Beauty.” Of course, his actual wife (his cousin) did not feel this way. She left making accusations of abuse. Chances are they were real. More, there is a Louisa May Alcott novel taking up the cause of Mrs. Byron. Though Byron could be a lover he was not good husband material. I personally hope he was lonely.

I guess I think of love as one “unlucky in love,” there have been no men beating down my door, with tears in their eyes, begging to be their beloved forever. Yet occasionally my imagination fools me about one… could the spark be there? Am I not forever destined to maidenhood? Conrad writes in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that the narrator meets the elderly spinster who asked her fiancé’s last words. In reality the rogue’s last thoughts had to do with money or escaping an angry mob of African tribesmen. Yet pity moved this man about this woman who waited half her life with nothing to show for it. “He whispered–your name!” She sighed, content.

I sigh in discontent. Yet I write a letter–besides this–to my beloved. Hopefully if he reads this on-line he shall not find it–or the letter–inconvenient or embarrassing.

Kierkegaard and Renunciation

I think I am nearing the end of my commentaries on Kierkegaard, of whom I have no special liking, but whom I feel has been influential on both certain religious groups and also existential philosophy. I want to say first that most religions require renunciation of a sort–Jews have Kosher; Catholics have lent; Muslims have Ramadan; Buddhist and Hindus are vegetarian. Though these involve different rites, I argue that the root idea is the same: to teach the faithful of their reliance on God. After all, to not eat all foods available (and certainly there are things a person could “give up” besides food) is a kind of mild privation, which forces a person to look inward when she picks out her groceries. Anyway, whatever renunciation is, Kierkegaard says,

It is said that faith is needed in order to renounce everything: yes, even more strangely one hears people complain that they have lost faith and on consulting the scale to see where they are, we find curiously enough that they have come no further than the point where they should be making the infinite movement of resignation. Through resignation I renounce everything, this movement is one I do by myself, and when I do not do it that is because I am cowardly and weak and lack the enthusiasm and have no sense of the importance of the high dignity afforded to every human being, to be his own censor, a dignity greater than to be Censor General for the whole Roman Republic…

Now, it is true that many religions do teach a renunciation of “the world.” I have mixed feelings about this: I feel like the religious believer has a duty to transform the world to God’s Kingdom on Earth. Judaism teaches this because Jewish religious law is the law of a Holy Covenant, in which the Jews live as a Holy Nation to be a model to other Nations. In Christianity, Jesus says in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven,” and the Puritans added the strain of their faith to United States tradition by believing they were “A City on a Hill,” a chosen people like God’s first chosen people, the Jews. Of course, Islam also teaches people to live as an ummah, a religious community. So to, Hindus gather to celebrate religious holidays, and I believe Buddhist monasteries function with the idea that Buddhism is not a solitary people. All of these religions teach against “selfishness.”

Yet there is a sense in all of these religion that, in monotheistic terms, the world exists in a “fallen state.” God created the World good, but humankind brought evil and death into the world. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the teaching is more extreme: suffering is the natural state of things, from which the believer tries to escape. So there is a tension: does one “save” the world by recreating it, or accept it as it is? Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov describes a philosopher who the more he loves the world the less he loves his neighbor. Dostoyevsky insists that the world itself cannot, maybe should not, be saved. In marked contrast, Camus is quoted by Joseph Telushkin as saying that if a person can save a single child in danger of suffering, though the world is not saved it is made better for that one child. These seems like a great, “Duh,” but Dostoyevsky leaves the reader wondering why a person would do anything for anybody besides herself.

With all due respect to Dostoyevsky, I think he would best look at the attempt of ancient Israel to be God’s Kingdom on Earth. I do not mean that Jewish law would make a great model for a Constitution today. I mean that the precept to “love your neighbor,” and “love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with your God,” were meant for today and not just in the past. “Thy Kingdom come,” should be the teaching of Christians, though it is a harder path than apathy. In this country there is the example of the many societies in the eighteen thirties pointing their activities towards social betterment. When America was young, many people believed that was the chance of the New World to show a perfected humanity. It is true that there was a slavery then, but there were also the first anti-slavery societies. Women did not vote, but the first feminist societies were set up to argue that women should be allowed to vote. And many of these societies had religion at their base. To overcome the woes of today, Americans need hope and optimism, rooted in the past and not rooted against it.

Anyway, speaking of renunciation, Kierkegaard quickly recants of his good intentions,

Through faith I don’t renounce anything, on the contrary in faith. I receive everything everything, exactly in the way it is said that one whose faith is like a mustard seed can move mountains. It takes purely human courage to renounce the whole of temporality in order to win eternity, but I do indeed win it and cannot in all eternity renounce that, for that would be a self-contradiction; but it is a paradoxical and humble courage then to grasp the whole the temporality on the faith in the absurd, and that courage is the courage of faith.

Then for the fateful misunderstanding of any scripture (after a brief mention of Abraham),

That rich young man [the rich young man who would not give up his belongings to follow Christ], by virtue of his resignation, should have given everything away, but once he had done so the knight of faith would have to say to him: ‘On the strength of the absurd you shall get every penny back, believe that!’ And these words should by no means be a matter of indifference to the one rich young man; for if he gave his possessions away because he was bored with them, then his resignation was in a sorry state.

This is merely stupid: if the rich young man gave up his wealth with no belief that the money was gone, it would not be a gift. He would be unworthy of Jesus’ compassion by the standards the Gospels set. That is why Jesus said, “It is harder for a camel to go through the head of a needle than for a rich man to go to Heaven.” This is despite the fact that in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, if a person is a keeper of wealth (as opposed to being kept by wealth) this is lawful. The distinction is subtle: does the rich person give, and are her cares primarily with his possessions, or does she care for others? A rabbi once told a group of us that to have money and not give is “a lack.”

In Judaism we are bid to “give justice to the poor,” the essence of “charity” to Muslims and Christians. Though many words have been spent in Christian circles about faith, Paul says of Charity (Love), Faith and Hope, “The greatest of these is Charity.” Yet Charity should not be held to mean merely giving. It should mean an outpouring of love for one’s fellow human being. Muslim’s “poor tax” is a nucleus of what welfare is in industrial societies. As for Jews, the Talmudic teaching is,

In a city where there are both Jews and Gentiles, the collectors of  alms collect from both; they feed the poor of both, visit the sick of both, bury both, comfort the mourners whether they be Jews or Gentiles, and restore the lost goods of both, mipnei darchei shalom: to promote peace and cooperation.

I admit that “to promote peace and cooperation” for Jews as well as non-Jews sounds selfish on the face of it, yet I deny that Jews have done less for society in America than Christians, whether serving in the army or in the Civil Rights Movement.

The point is that the Path on which one comes to God should involve renunciation; one should view ones belongings as being on loan from God, instead of your due. And this was the sin of “the rich young man” whom Jesus wanted to give away all of his belongings. Jesus believed the young man was kept by his possessions and not the other way around.

Kierkegaard’s ‘Knight of Faith’s Isolation

Kierkegaard describes his hero, “the knight of faith,” in the following terms:

As for the knight of faith, he is assigned to himself alone, he has the pain of being unable to make himself intelligible to others but feels no vain desire to show others the way. The pain is the assurance, vain desires are unknown to him, his mind is too serious for that. The false knight readily betrays himself by this instantly acquired proficiency; he just doesn’t grasp the point that if another individual is to walk the same path he has to be just as much the individual and is therefore in no need of guidance, least of all from one anxious to press his services on others. Here again, people unable to bear the martyrdom of unintelligibility jump off the path, and choose instead, conveniently enough, the world’s admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and in this lies the deep humanity in him which is more worth than this foolish concern for others’ weal and woe which honored under the name of sympathy, which is really nothing but vanity.

The above reminds me of a book I read which included the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, about, strangely, proselytizers of the Christian faith. In it he admitted to having had a prejudice against Christians in his youth. Why? Because he would find them at his school condemning, in no uncertain terms, the gods and vegetarianism of Hindus. Now, do not misunderstand me: I believe if he had seen the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, then even if he had not been converted, he would be deeply moved. Yet listening to these braggarts of the faith say all kinds of evil about Hinduism he felt only contempt for them. This was despite the fact that his father would invite people of different faiths to his house so they could discuss a variety of perspectives about religion. Apparently the only Christians Gandhi knew at that point in his life were either British colonizers or the brusque missionaries whom he saw while going home from school. He went on to say that the one Indian who did convert to Christianity acted in ways equally offensive: he donned Western dress and ate meat, including beef. There was a sense in which being “fully Christian” meant “to leave behind the culture and not just the religion of India.”

Now I find the same arrogance in Kierkegaard’s writing about the “Knight of Faith.” It seems to me that faith should be practiced with humility, and that using the Good Mother as our example, Jews and Christians (and perhaps members of other faiths) should make it a point to serve those who are least able to take care of themselves. More, religion–even the religion of nuns, monks, and priests (but of course rabbis who tradition require to marry)–requires the faithful to live in community. I remember learning about the Orthodox Church at Athos, where the monks are required to take a vow of silence. In the film about Athos, it was commented that even in silence the monks formed a sort of community. This fellowship is what true religion teaches, even in its ascetic branches. To use a religion far removed from monotheism, Buddhist monks and nuns also–though practicing their faith in hopes of extinction–practice their faith in community. More, they feel that whether as doctors or as teachers of the young, they are enjoined to act on behalf of the larger world.

More, to learn the path to salvation, a person must be willing to learn from the people they meet on the way. There is a Jewish midrash that has King David say, “I make every man I meet my teacher.” Similarly, Jesus and Mohammad learned from the religious people they knew before charting their own path, as did Buddha (and Gandhi). They did this because they were men, and though of great faith they wanted to learn from those who had come before them. True, Jesus is supposed to have had his transfiguration; Mohammad his illumination in the cave; and Buddha his first taste of enlightenment under a banyan tree. Yet all three went through a series of teachers before finally embracing their own path to salvation.

What is worst about Kierkegaard is his dismissal as “vain” those sympathetic urges which bind one human being to another. The point of true faith is love, whether it is Jew for Jew or members of the Catholic or Protestant folds. Perhaps in this stage of history, we can even say, “My duty as a Jew is to love my fellow, Jew or non-Jew, as though we were both pieces of the same great whole,” or the same words with “Christian” or “Muslim” or any number of faiths included. I think that the Hegelian absolute may even allow for this greater love, once a person acknowledges that idealism’s chief failure was that it predicted a Heaven on Earth in the Twentieth Century. Perhaps, recalling the tragedies of the 20th Century, we can see serving the Hegelian Absolute–understanding God philosophically this way–as an act commanded but which may be obeyed or disobeyed.

To quote a Christian catch phrase, “For God so loved the world, not God judged the world.” Though I am not Christian, I hold that God gave us our freedom for a reason. It is true that human beings have done terrible things to each other. Yet there have also been people who do deeds of rare and exquisite beauty: Rabbi Akiba, teaching when it was illegal in Rome and dying as a consequence; Polycarp, sacrificing his life for God; Rabia a slave granted her freedom because of her devotion to Allah; Ashoka, the emperor who became a Buddhist after seeing war and being repelled; St. Francis, who discovered a God of Love after recanting fighting in the crusades; the Baal Shem Tov, whose love of nature and the emotional life of prayer led to a new phase (for some) in Judaism; Gandhi, whose life was a prayer lived for the people of India; Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to the selfless love of lepers. These people were the poets of their faith; their lives were their heart’s prayers. It is as is said of the capable wife in Proverbs,

Many daughters have done valiantly,

But thou excellest them all.

Though most pious people never live up to Rabbi Akiba or Polycarp, St. Francis or the Baal Shem Tov, yet their lives are like shooting stars, capturing that flame of faith which is so elusive for those of us who would be like them and yet know we do not have to be. The Talmud says, “Some do more, some do less,” because the trashman is as necessary to society as the rabbi. Yet even the trashman is blessed in the name of those “great in the Spirit.”

Kierkegaard: The ‘Puny’ Sectarians

Reading Kierkegaard as he is quoted below I think of the irony that the New Testament says Jesus “had compassion on the People,” and that for the Jew God is worshipped as a community and not just as an individual. Both views of God and humanity emphasize the need of the faithful to “love one another,” as Will Durant insisted of Spinoza, there is nothing so lonely as a Jew without the company of other Jews. A large amount of faith is love for one’s fellows. Yet Kierkegaard says,

The knight of faith, on the other hand, is the paradox, he is the individual, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections and complicating. This is the terror that the puny sectarian cannot endure. Instead of learning from this that he is incapable of greatness and plainly admitting it, something I naturally cannot but approve since it is what I myself do, the poor wretch things he will achieve by joining company with other poor wretches. But it won’t at all work, no cheating is tolerated in the world of spirit. A dozen sectarians link arms, they know nothing at all of the lonely temptations in store for the knight of faith and which he dare not shun just because it would be more terrible still were he presumptuously to force his way forward.

Yet to pray in a group as one is precisely what faith is. It is not simply the individual on his mountain in a moment of existential angst. It is the love that Jews have for each other; it is the love Christians have for each other. It is the love which, coming from God, each group shares with those outside their group. This love seeks not so much to convert but to feed and clothe the needy, to give of the heart and not simply “testify” (as Kierkegaard says of his faith). Kierkegaard says testimony is all that help which is given from one believer to another, yet “ministering” means tending to the needs of others, and “rabbi” is literally “teacher.” Contrarily, a priest is somebody who “is to perform religious rites, and especially make sacrificial offerings” or in Christian terms a “person ordained to the sacerdotal or pastoral office” a clergyman or minister.

Yet even here a clergyman does more than “testify” his or her faith and then leave the flock to grapple in the dark to find God. He reads to them, teaches them about scripture, preaches to them, tends their private woes. A priest, minister or rabbi who cannot do these things is not worth his salt. In a healthy religious community, those who believe the most devote their energies to the care of those most in need–not merely in the sense of lacking faith, but in the sense of being ill or impoverished.

Kierkegaard apparently believes all there is to faith is wrestling with an angel in the dark. This is a part of faith for the most devout. Yet equally a part of faith is transcendent love, the fact that–to use Hegelian terms–the individual is sacrificed for the absolute, the absolute being the good of the community living in harmony with God’s command. The goal of the community is the realization of God’s love for humanity.

Of course, I have not read Hegel for himself… I shall have to read him if there is time before Thanksgiving. First I am going to read Thomas Mann: Joseph and His Brothers; Avivah Zornberg: The Beginnings of Desire; and Bill Moyers: Genesis. All of these have passages about Abraham. Then perhaps I shall read Hegel: Phenomenology of Spirit and finish Whitehead’s Process and Reality and Adventures of Ideas. I hope I can achieve all of this. Then I shall be able to write my three lectures for Abraham, Then and Now.

Kierkegaard and Petitionary Prayer

“God grant my heart held request for the good.” Those words are in the Orthodox prayer book. Reading about the “strength of the absurd” in Kierkegaard, I find there to be kernel of truth and a kernel of selfishness. The kernel of truth is that he mentions that faith requires a person to give up everything for the sake of that which she loves (God). The selfishness is the belief that she will necessarily get back that which she gives to God. The story he quotes in the Gospels–of the rich young man whom Jesus tells to give away all he has to follow Jesus–to the average reader means that if the rich young man had done as Jesus’ bid him, he would have been no richer than Peter or any of the other disciples, and perhaps like Peter the fate tradition would have had of him was that he was executed much as his lord (Jesus) had been. There are no guarantees in this life that we will “get back” that which we sacrifice for God.

Yet I have had one experience when I gave up all for God and yet received something back. A year or so ago, it turned out I had precancerous cysts on my liver. I had to arrange to go to Kansas City to talk to a doctor at K.U. Medical Center. For the first time in my life I was afraid to die, and the reason was simple: none of the things which I had wanted to achieve in my lifetime were done. I had written a good deal, but my novel had not been on the best selling list, nor did it appear that I was likely to be remembered in one sense: How could my book be recalled if nobody was making a pitch for it besides me? I did not truly believe that my mom or sister would do anything to sell The Bible According to Eve; it’s sequels; or anything else I had written.

So I called my rabbi. I talked to him, and he told me that in life there is uncertainty, and none of us are really promised a “fair shake” at it. Or so I remember. We read a piece of scripture that seemed relevant because it spoke of God leading the Israelites through the wilderness. I don’t recall everything he said, but only that I left filled with the conviction that if none of my dreams came true, I could say that in my heart I could accept that. I could accept whatever God’s decision was, and I could believe it was God’s.

When I spoke to the doctor in Kansas City, he said I might need surgery in 15 years. Getting the surgery right then was a bad idea: though the growth on my liver was likely to become cancerous with time, the surgery itself could create deadly cancerous cells. Yet there was the chance that medicine in the future would improve so that the cancer would not be what killed me. The overall good news was that I had at least 15 years to live. I had 15 golden years with which I could do whatever I pleased, hoping to make happen what I wanted to make happen.

I know the reader will wonder why this was such good news–I am only 42 and if I died 15 years from now (or, rather, 14) I would die in my late 50’s. Yet life is always precious. I believe life is a gift of God. So I will make a list of things to be grateful for/ things to pray for here. That way God will know–and the reader will know–that I am grateful for my circumstances continuation. If somebody reading this says, “This cannot help me; my straits are too dire for this person to understand,” I only answer that though the problem with describing suffering in personal terms is that one person’s suffering is another person’s whining, the strength is that it makes concrete what philosophy can unintentionally make vague and hence meaningless. So here is my list of things I feel grateful for and pray for:

1. I am alive. I pray to God that I shall be for a long time to come.

2. At present time we have an earth, and I pray to preserve the earth in terms of climate change, but also the upkeep of both the land and the ocean.

3. I pray for the many beautiful species of animals and plants, and pray that human beings do not destroy them, leaving humans to a great loneliness of spirit.

4. I thank God for the relative wealth which we have in America, but pray not only for Americans to continue to live in a land of plenty, but for us to both find a way to improve the situation of people at say, the Lord’s Diner (the homeless shelter) in Wichita, but also in places like India and Africa, where their impoverished state dwarfs our own.

5. I thank God for the fact that I have been given the COVID-19 shots, which make it less likely that I shall catch the disease. I pray for Uncle Charlie (who is mentally handicapped) and for my nephew Andy, that they may recover from this terrible illness. I also ask that the vaccine be taken to places like Brazil and not just the first world countries, and that rather than focusing on “enlightened selfishness” the people who spread the vaccine do it for the right reasons.

7. I pray that COVID-19 passes soon. However, I also believe it should lead to a challenge: that in its wake 1st World humankind should find a way to “spread the wealth” to 3rd World countries, whether by spreading vaccines to diseases like malaria or birth control or finding ways to feed the poor of these countries.

8. I pray to God to thank him for the fact that I have always been able to write, however self-indulgent it must seem when I live at my mother’s expense. I hope my books sell in the future, but I also hope that they do good things for people and not bad.

9. I have a man whom I would like to marry, but I do not know if my idea of marrying him is for “the good.” I won’t give all the details, but I hope God will neither fulfill the Russian maxim, “When God wants to punish us, he answers our prayers” nor leave me to live a loveless life. Granted, I could live if God answered this prayer with a “no.” Yet one of my fondest wishes is that I finally marry, even if I am too old to have children.