Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Wisdom Stew

December 8, 2015  by Susan Weinberg

When I return from a lab, I often feel as if my task is to create a stew, so many different ingredients that somehow must blend into a whole.    My job is to cook them down into something that complements and blends into a savory mix, a wisdom stew.

Rabbi Davis began our discussion with a brief introduction to the Wisdom of Our Parents

Proverbs 1:8 My son, hear the instruction of your father, and forsake not the Torah of your mother.

What exactly does this mean? Rashi hazards a theory, understanding "the Torah of your mother" to mean the Nation of Israel and the sages' words who renewed and added to the Torah, creating fences.

Fences?  Our guest Jon Adams Ross offered a useful explanation of fences from acting parlance.  An instruction to act might cause one to freeze he noted whereas some acting prompts inspire action.  Fences allow freedom.  Boundaries define a playing field enabling us to act.

So are there different teachings from fathers than from mothers?   Some suggested fathers focused on the specifics, mothers applied it to the family.  Fathers addressed how to behave in the outside world, mothers understood the internal person and set the standards for how to interact with others.  Some saw it less as fathers and mothers, more as feminine and masculine energy.

Our attention shifted to our guest, Jon Adams Ross, also known as JAR.  Jon had joined us last spring as part of his work on a Covenant Foundation grant to create five new plays for five cities each inspired by a different patriarch or matriarch.  His way of working is through interaction with others.  Next week he will be doing a play on Abraham, later a play on Rebecca, then Jacob as part of the InHEIRitance project.  This is different than that book you may have inherited that stayed on your shelf, he noted.   His objective is to bring life to this inheritance.

"Let's talk about transmission," he said.  How does that happen in 2015?  How do we transmit wisdom without words?

He started us off with cave paintings.  Music was quickly added.  Food said another... kissing, crying, smiling, handshakes, dancing, eye contact, posture, image, all were added to our list.

He then moved us into an exercise with the assistance of David Sherman.  He whispered a brief instruction into David's ear and David walked briskly across the room.   What did he just do he asked?  This exercise was repeated with David looking over his shoulder and running, checking his watch, screaming and running away.  

Jon made the point that with transmission without words we can't control the story.  We as the actor or artist may have one idea, but it gets filtered through the experiences of the viewer.  They may see something else entirely.  He put this to the test with an exercise where we were to think of something we would want to pass on to the next generation. 

For me that something is family history as my Jewish family is rapidly diminishing.  As the family historian I hope to share that history with nieces and cousins who have some interest in our Jewish heritage.  Now we were asked to draw something that represents that.  I had already done a series of paintings on family history, one that included my grandmother blessing the candles, an image that was filtered through my mother's memory in its creation.  I quickly sketched this image.  We then traded our images to others who wrote what it said to them.  Keeping tradition, routine, consistency was the perception through someone else's eyes.  I chuckled. Totally foreign concepts in my family. I'd be happy with simple awareness.

As we went round the room to determine how each interpreted each other's drawings, a theme of connection was repeated again and again.

We are beginning our artist led sessions and the balance of the session was led first by Jonathan Gross and later by David Sherman. Jonathan’s focus was on the intuitive nature of wisdom, the origin of both hakima (wisdom) and yira (fear/awe).  He started us off with this quote from Albert Einstein.

Where the world ceases to be the scene of our personal hopes and wishes, where we face it as free beings admiring, asking, and observing, there we enter the realm of Art and Science. If what is seen and experienced is portrayed in the language of logic, we are engaged in science. If it is communicated through forms whose connections are not accessible to the conscious mind, but are recognized intuitively as meaningful, then we are engaged in art. Common to both is the loving devotion to that which transcends personal concerns and volition. 

Jonathan’s premise was that if wisdom is an adaptive characteristic it will persist.  His perspective was through evolutionary psychology and examined the complex mix of innate and learned behaviors that make up human behavior.  One aspect of the brain on which he focused was the temporal lobe that has the ability to infer intentionality.  Remember that viewer who may come up with a different scenario than was intended?  That’s the temporal lobe at work trying to decipher intention.  This is the part of our brain that comes up with both conspiracy theories and religious experiences.  And it is a touchy creature.  The cost of a false positive, detecting intention where none is meant is low, whereas the failure to detect intention could be much more serious.

One of the questions Jonathan posed was whether hakma (wisdom) was the effect of natural selection?  Judaism has survived through much of history without a common territory.  Has wisdom been essential to that survival?  If so, has it developed as a trait through natural selection? Did a tradition that valued wisdom, harbored within our religion, enhance the survival of those who employed it?  As an example of this wisdom, Jonathan referenced Solomon’s Wisdom, the recognition that ensuring survival of our offspring is a fundamental adaptive behavior.  (click here for a copy of his presentation on the Intuitive Nature of Wisdom).

David then spoke with us about Artistic Wisdom and posed three sentences for us to finish.

Artistic wisdom is….

My last moment of artistic inspiration was …

My last moment of artistic self-doubt was….

Just as the viewer who gets to impute their own perspective, the blog writer gets to do likewise.  So here were my responses….

Artistic wisdom is telling a story that reveals deeper truths and understanding.

My last moment of artistic inspiration was when I reached into my pocket on the way here and felt my mother’s glove.  Now I realize that takes a little more explanation.  As I was tackling the home of my late mother I ran across some fur lined leather gloves we had gotten in Italy years ago.  I took those gloves, molded to her hands and stuck them in my pockets. Now I discovered them once again and thought about how putting my hand in the glove was like holding her hand.  Which then took me into a mental riff on things and the presence they hold of another person. Perhaps that will show up in a blog or painting.

And my last moment of artistic self-doubt was yesterday as I re-read a writing project and debated if I could take it to the next stage.

So quite a savory stew of parents, fences and temporal lobes all blended richly into the wisdom encoded in our DNA and expressed creatively even in the face of doubt.

 Happy Hanukkah!

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