2009/05/18

I've Got a Crush on Maimonides

If you've been paying attention you know that I'm falling in love with Maimonides. So, when I saw a little biography at Half-Price Books I snapped it up.

Maimonides, or The Rambam, is one of the truly larger than life figures on the stage of world history. Between Moses and Moses there was none like Moses, goes the saying. The Jews have long accepted the near equality of Moshe ben Amram and Moshe ben Maimon, and for good reason. Just consider:
  • Both lived during a time of persecution,
  • Both lived in Egypt,
  • Both did miracles,
  • Both had siblings who were significant in their lives/survival,
  • Both had powerful ememies,
  • Both were close to the king,
  • Both were leaders of their people.
Thus, it's hard to understand why Sherwin B. Nuland focused almost exclusively on Maimoides' life as a physician.
I mean, it was interesting. I still recommend it. But, it seems like we can't really call it a biography, maybe a partial biography, or a refraction of a certain light. But, not a true biography.

One of the things I do like about the way Sherwin B. Nuland put the book together is that he spent as much time telling us about the things that influenced Maimonides as he did about what Maimonides himself said and did. And, while I knew a lot of what he told me, it was helpful to have it gathered up in this way and made part of one single story. I feel like I understand the times and the culture of Maimonides much better than I did before.

For example, there's this from the section on how ancient medicine merged with religion, and how the Hippocratic practitioners, along with the Jews, rejected such merging:
...but some of the leading practitioners of Hippocratic medicine saw the study of their art as a way of understanding the divine, just as the Jews did. And they went even further, Galen of Pergamon, the most imfluential physician who has ever lived, believed that the proper way to worship the Divinity is not with prayer and sacrifice but with experiment and observation. Late in the second century C.E., he described his greatest anatomical work, De Usa Partium, as "the sacred discourse which I am composing as a true hymn of praise to our Cereator." To him, learning about the body was the sure way to learn about the godhead. He wrote:
And I consider that I am really showing him reverence, not when I offer him unnumbered hecatombs of bulls and burn incense of cassia worth the thousand talents, but when I myself first learn to know his wisdom, power and goodness and then make them known to others. - 1
And this big discussion of Galen and his beliefs helped me understand how Maimonides thought about both science and religion. A few other little gems on that subject:
To them [Hypocratic practitioners] and to Maimonides, the physician's skills may have been God-given, but they were to be applied independently of any direct divine intervention. It is not a prayer that one should rely on when sick, he argued, but medical aid; the means of curing disease are provided by God, but "He has given wise and skillful men the knowledge of how to prepare and how to apply them." It is to these wise and skillful physicians that one should turn when disease strikes. - 2
And in his Discourse on Fits, written for Al Afdal (Fatimid vizier in Cairo) Maimonides said,
"Religion prescribes all that is useful and forbids all that is harmful in the next world; while the doctor indicates what is useful and warns against what is harmful in this world." - 3
Some have argued that this statement speaks to Maimonieds' life-long quest to integrate religion and science. But, when you stop to realize that such a dichotomy didn't really exist until later, and when you take into account the various other influences on Maiomonides, especially Galen and the Greek physicians, it starts to seem more and more like Maimonides was simply placating his patient, not trying to justify science to religion or vice versa.

I am glad to have gained a better understanding of this, and Maimonides' formation in this area for three reasons.

One - I just love him and want to know everything about him. Like a little girl, I have a crush on Maimonides. I admit it. And,

Two - It makes me think about worship and how silly it is to spend hours chanting, and praying, and staring at candles and then to go do something else. Because, it's not something else. If Bishop Rowan has taught us anything it's that every thing we do is worship. I think Maimonides got that, and it feels refreshing, and validating to me to hear him say it.

Three - Same thing in reverse. It makes me think about work in a different way. Maimonides helps me to see that we don't worship on the mountain or in the temple. We worship at work, at play, at home, with friends, in the car, all the time. Look, I will still light a candle this evening, and I'll kiss my icon, and I'll say my prayers. I did it just this morning too and prayed for many of you. We still do that, all of us. But, there's no big line marking off "holy" time from... let's call it "ordinary" time since that's coming up. These "times" to the extent that they exist at all are pretty much the same I think. And, it seems like Maimonides thought that too.


Despite the death of his brother, which left Maimonides depressed and in his bed for nearly a year, and the resulting financial crises in his family, Maimonides steadfastly refused to take money for his work as a rabbi.
Being committed to a principle that the talmudic sage Rabbi Zadok articulated with the words (later reiterated by Maimonides), "Make not of the Torah a crown wherewith to aggrandize thyself, nor a spade wherewith to dig") and also stated by the great Hillel, who said, "Whosoever derives a profit for himself form the words of the Torah is helping in his own destruction"), the scholars of that period and afterward rejected payment for their religious services and sought secular employment. - 4
Surprisingly, I am not going to go on one of my usual rants about the clergy. Instead, I want to talk about the many ways that even an imbecile like me can make a spade out of the Torah. In fact, I'd like to see some kind of multi-session study group on this because I think it would be very interesting. I am not going to give you all the answers. I don't have them anyway. But, I'll tell you what questions I'd like to explore:
  • What's the point of Torah study anyway?
  • What -- besides money/benefits -- can we acquire from Torah study? (knowledge, understanding, prestige, self-importance...)
  • How do those things (above) help/hinder us in knowing God?
See, lately I've seen quite a lot of people who are real impressed with all they know. And, they may actually know quite a lot. I don't know. But, what I do know it that the point of Torah study is not to be able to puff yourself up like some kind of puffy thing and be all big about it. That's not it. Jesus, you'll recall, was more of a humble guy. And he told us that if we want to know God, we should try to be like him. "Just look at me," he says. And you hardly ever see Jesus strutting around like a peacock.

Moses Maimonides could very easily have made a comfortable living from his Torah knowledge, his writing, and his judgments, the vast work he did on behalf of the Jewish people. But, he was absolutely committed to this idea that to benefit from Torah was its own destruction.

I don't have to worry about making a living from Torah, or the Bible. You all don't even want me in church, remember? But, like all of you, I want to be very careful that I don't accrue any little foxes of profit. Maimonides is a reminder to us that all we know came from God and belongs to the whole community. It is not our private information to dole out to those on whom we smile and to withhold from those whom we deem unworthy.

My rabbi once said that if you know something, and you refuse to teach it to others, you are steeling. I think he was right. In fact, that's the main reason I started my blog, lo these several years ago. I wanted a place to share the things I learned. I know, I know, it often turns into post after post about what I think about various things. But, once in awhile, I share something worth knowing too.

Regarding Torah itself, the Rambam was very clear that it's not to be taken literally.
"Literal interpretation, Maimonides believed, is only an adornment to attract those who are incapable of conprehending the comples truths that lie beneath. "Employ your reason," the Rambam exhorted those capable of doing so, "and you will be able to discern what is said allegorically, figuratively, and hyperbolicallym, and what is meant literally."" - 5
I don't know to what extent the Jews of today have this problem of literalists in their midst but it is a big problem in Christendom. I really do believe that we've got to stop being so very accommodating of these "differences" in thought and just call it what it is: childish nonsense.

Of course we have stories. How else can we speak of the ineffable? How else to communicate God's goodness and love to children? The stories help us see the unified whole of religion. They are very, very, good. But, they are not the literal truth of God once delivered to anybody.

Maimonides was concerned with preserving the faith of his people. And, given that it was under attack from many corners, that was a reasonable approach. But, he also understood that religion moves and changes. The temple sacrifices had been abandoned, he argued, because the people had grown up, matured, and the sacrifices were no longer needed. Maimonides understood Rabbinic Judaism to be a new paradigm, and that there would be others as well.

Like a primitive people, we too may have been attracted to stories and myths of our religion. We use them to teach children and the simple minded, we think about them because they contain the seeds of truth. But, they are not the truth itself.

Maimonides often used charms or rituals in his healing. He knew the value of the placebo effect well. And to be healed by placebo is no less healing than to be healed by medicine. But, the doctor knows that the medicine, the stuff of health, is in the application, not in the charm. So it is with the actual words in Torah. If we apply the truth well, we can enjoy the stories without placing ourselves in the position of being anti-science. Maimonides, and his times, show us that science and religion are compatible. Rightly understood, they don't ever contradict. They just don't. But, I suppose this will remain perplexing for the literal minded. ;)

I want to read more from Maimonides. Not sure I am ready to tackle the Mishna Torah. But, maybe. I don't know. I am taking recommendations from the audience. What's your favorite Maimonides book? What should I read next?
______________________________________
1 - Sherwin B. Nuland, Maimonides (New York: Shocken Books, a division of Random House, 2005), p. 7, 8.
2 - Ibid, p. 177
3 - Ibid, p. 210
4 - Ibid, p. 12
5 - Ibid, P. 134

2009/05/13


Now that Rowan has posted about his day at the beach, let me tell you what it was like from my perspective.


As soon as the Sun was up Rowan was ready to go.  He must have brought me his leash a dozen times before I even got out of bed.  Thus, I didn't take time for my own breakfast and, frankly, I was barely dressed when we got out the door.

Rowan woofed down his Flint River Ranch.  He did not chew each bite fifty times, I'll tell you that.  He went back and forth between his new bandanna and his gay pride bandanna, finally settling on the former.

By the time we got to the beach I was starving.  Rowan was wiggling.  Despite his joyful anticipation I made a stop at the Jetty Shack, a Surfside bar and grill, more bar than grill, near the jetty.


I ordered a sandwich and much needed Soda. Took a bowl of water to the dog who looked at me ruefully and unappreciatively. Honestly, what does he want? Human food?

After a nice meal -- really, you can't beat the Jetty Shack -- and a visit with the waitresses who report that it's getting too expensive to live in Surfside, I used the facility.  As you can see it was...
 
well supplied




And, oh so tastefully appointed.  






The Jetty Shack anticipates it's customer's every need... fancy, eh?

I scoff but the truth is, I love the place.   Just like I love Surfside, and the beach, and really all the swampy mess of southern Brazoria County.

I am proud to say that the little bishop had very good behavior.  He did roll on some stinky stuff, and I guess I just have to live with that.  But, otherwise, he was a dreamy little dog.




I was lucky to find a cocoanut on the beach.  It wasn't good for eating, which I figured when I saw it.  But, that didn't stop me from picking it up and taking it home.  It was very stinky inside, just so you know.


We also drove by my brother's place to see if anyone was home.  They weren't.  The place looks good, though, doesn't it. New HardiPlank, and all.  

All Surfside has been sprucing up since the hurricane.  Surfside is not like New Orleans.  Surfside is rebuilding.  Better.  Without FEMA.


After running and playing for awhile we came home and took a nap.  You can see why I don't deny this little dog anything.  He is really a living vision of true love and unbounded joy.  His attention is steadfast, his loyalty sure.  There's nothing like this dog, that's for sure.


2009/05/12

Carrie Prejean is The Devil.  There.  I said it.  And, lemme tell you, it needed saying.  You want me to tell you why?  Because you know I'm going to.

First Carrie Prejean, who is The Devil, said that she did not win the Ms. America contest because she is not in favor of marriage equality.  Well, that's just not true.  If her second-place status is due in any part to her answer on marriage equality, it was not because she failed to give the answer Perez Hilton would have liked.  It's because her answer was wrong.

Here are her exact words:

"Well, I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or another. Um, we live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And, you know what? In my country and in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that's how I was raised and that's how I think that it should be—between a man and a woman. Thank you!"

Let's just break that down into smaller pieces.  First there's this:  "Well, I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or another. Um, we live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage..."   No kidding.  That's what she said.  American's have a choice.   Americans can choose same-sex marriage, or "opposite marriage."  Hummm.  That's news to me because we don't have marriage equality in my state, nor do we have marriage equality in any adjacent state, nor in any of the states adjacent to them.  In fact the nearest place I could marry the woman I love is Iowa which is four states and about 850 miles away.  Maybe it's just me, and I surly do not want to be one of those difficult lesbians, but that doesn't seem like much of a choice to me.  

And, I'll tell you something else.  You knew I would.  Even if I went all the way to Iowa, and if I  somehow found a woman who would agree to marry me, and if we actually got married, even then, there are over ELEVEN HUNDRED federal rights and benefits from which I'd still be excluded.   So, really, not only does that not seem like much of a choice, it makes Carrie Prejean, who is The Devil, wrong... just plain wrong.

But, of course, the good news is that Ms. Prejean didn't mean to offend anyone.  She actually said that.  Here it is:  

No offense to anybody out there,..."  

Nice touch, don't you think?  I have three things to say about that:
1. Bigotry is offensive.  It doesn't really matter much if you want it to be or not.  It just is.  Nice people agree on this.

2. Saying that she doesn't intend to be offensive did not magically make the answer correct.  It's still wrong.  There is no choice.

3. It is disingenuous to claim that you don't want to be offensive and then continue to be offensive.  Based on more recent statements, I don't think Carrie Prejean cared one wit about whether or not she offended anyone.
That seems like a flat-out lie to me.  And we all know who the Father of Lies is.  That's right, The Devil.

After the Ms. America Pageant, Carrie Prejean went on the James Dobson Tee Vee Show and claimed that she had been tempted by The Devil.  Who else?  

If you don't believe me, and I totally understand if you don't, here's a link to it.  She actually said that The Devil tempted her to give a namby-pamby answer.  But then, "  God was in my head and in my heart saying, "Do not compromise this. You need to stand up for me..."  

When I read that, I heard God in my head... Oh, wait... never mind.  It was just one of the voices.  

But, seriously,  you know what?  I'm OK with that.  People have their own relationship with God and I don't want to get into that.  It's for everybody to work out for themselves.  I am not even going to get into it, and you all (mainly) are smart enough that you don't need me to parse it out for you.  

The telling thing, though, is that she doesn't really seem to care whether or not she was offending anyone.  It sounds to me like once she decided on the man/woman answer she no longer really cared about anything else.  I think she knew that her answer was offensive and just didn't care.  I wish she would just tell the truth about that.

After she went on James Dobson and displayed her nutty and dualistic theology in front of all the world, Carrie Prejean wrapped herself in the flag claiming that she had been punished for exercising her right to free speech.  "This should not happen in America," she opined.  There were almost tears in her eyes.  But, guess what?  It didn't happen in America.   If she's been punished for exercising her undisputed right to free speech then I am Ms. America.   It just didn't happen.  She wasn't punished.  Didn't happen.

The reason Carrie Prejean didn't win the Ms. America is because her answer was wrong.  

The other reason Carrie Prejean didn't win is because she made people, lots of people, boo.  That's never happened during a pageant before.  Ms. America is supposed to be Ms. America for all Americans, not just the bigots.  It seems like if people are booing, that's a good sign that you aren't Ms. America material.  Just me.

After the pageant, Carrie Prejean crafted her image to appeal to a certain brand of Christians, Republicans, anti-choicers, marriage bigots, misogynists, and patriots.  You've got to hand it to her, that somehow includes just about everyone.  The future looks bright... and lucrative.  But, I tell you, this woman is The Devil.  Write down the date so you can remember when you first heard it, Carrie Prejean is The Devil.

2009/05/02

Sweeny Pride Day

This is the day we observe the most sacred feast of Sweeny Pride Day.   I can't tell you when Sweeny Pride Day started, and I most certainly can't give you any reason for its existence.  I have my doubts as to whether or not this information is even available.  In any event, like the trinity, the nature of Christ, and the smoky undertones of PokeE Joe's BBQ sauce, I am unable to explain it.  

What I do know is that on the first weekend in May, come rain or come shine, the good citizens of Sweeny have a festival.  Most years there is a little carnival too.  And, in the old days, when I was a kid, there was a circus.   I wish we still had the circus.  I liked the circus.

You know it's a special day because the shops had sales.  They are mainly re-sale shops.  I sometimes wonder why anyone in Sweeny ever buys anything new.  It seems like with all the re-sale shops in town we should be able to just trade for whatever we need or want.  I have some lights in my study, for example, that Mrs. Narin gave me.  It was a good trade.  Only I didn't give her anything back.  But, if she ever wanted anything of mine.  Shoot, I'd probably give it to her.

Last night I posted some photos of the little carnival.  The carnival isn't getting much business. I think the $4 per ride price tag is keeping people away.  We are not an affluent community, after all.   In any event, I doubt that people are staying away in protest of the giving of live animals as prizes.  There's no PETA chapter here.  Not many protests either.

Some of you may never have seen a real live small town, least ways not one way down here south of the Mason Dixon Line.  This place has slave blood in its soil, and the complexities of white guilt and black pride that come with it.  On my way to Houston, I pass by at least three former plantations.  And, by plantation, I mean a place that had slaves on it.   I am not dealing in abstractions.   There's the Levi Jorden just up the road, the Mims Plantation a little further up, and the Abner Jackson Plantation over in Lake Jackson.   

Several years ago, when I was a student at the illustrious Sweeny High School, I thought it was enough to simply not be a racist.  I have learned a lot about race, being an outsider, and bigotry since then.   I've read a little more of the Bible and spent some time on The Mount, as in Sermon On The Mount. I know better.  You know, now.   I wish I had been a better advocate for  my black friends in High School.  In my defense, I was only a kid.  I truly didn't know.  And, during the teenage years, a little ignorance can be forgiven.  

I  don't think it's so easily dismissed when we are older though.   Shouldn't we be putting away childish excuses?   Yet, let me tell you what I noticed this afternoon when I downloaded my photos.   First there was a cluster of white people, then eight or ten shots or black people, then more white people, then a cluster of black people.  So, despite the fact that I've created a slideshow which reflects the diversity I'd like to show.   The reality is that as I walk
ed through the festival I was essentially walking through a segregated park.  It was a stark reminder to me that in Sweeny we still have a long way to go.

Some of what you may believe about small
 town America is true.  
We have the Second Amendment, for example.  And, as you can see, we are proudly passing it on to future generations.  Even I own a gun.  Yeah, I do.  I didn't take it to Pride Day, though.

Sweeny is not a center of academia, nor do we do innovative liturgy, and there are no theological controversies to discuss.  The theological spectrum is so narrow that it seems like all the Christians should just form one big church.  They all believe pretty much the same things:  God is angry about sin, Jesus will save you with his magic blood, atonement is a mere theory... there's about four of them there spiritual laws.  I get lost around about number two.  

The people you'll be seeing aren't the movers and shakers of the world.  They are the workers and the doers.   They teach school, refine petroleum, and  shop at Wal-Mart.  This is where life meets the road.  And look at them... they are shining.  Look at their faces, so full of life.

We are somewhat removed from the cutting edge down here.  The hair is from the eighties, and some of the thinking is too.  I saw a Pallin/Jindel/2012 bumper sticker yesterday.  Seriously. Oh well, I heard on The History Channel that the world was going to end in 2012 anyway.      

Despite everything, though, I think these people are beautiful.  So full of energy.  There's divinity in each eye.  

Maybe just getting together to remind ourselves how beautiful we all are is reason enough for this day.  Happy Pride everyone.  Make a feast all you beautiful people.  Happy Sweeny Pride Day!


There are a couple shots of the little bishop at the end.

I added some photos after the initial posting.

And I found one typo that was SO blood awful that I HAD to correct it 

and so i published yet again... Sorry for so many updates.  

If I'd update my blog more often maybe I'd get the hang of it.