Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Navigating an Unpaved Road

by Susan Weinberg

Where or when have you felt God’s presence?  That was the question with which we began our Lab.  Our assignment was to have that discussion with another person starting ten feet away and then gradually closing the distance.  I  began by considering what “God’s presence” meant to me. In fact I often find that sense of something beyond myself in the act of creation, when a kind of magic takes over and results in a creation that surprises me, leaving me somewhat amazed that it was done by my hand.  When we reconvened we were asked how it felt as we closed the distance.

Some reported that they felt God’s presence getting thicker as they got closer, some preferred closeness, others a more comfortable distance. For many physical closeness felt more appropriate for an intimate topic.

With that warm up we entered the gate of our topic, that of fences. We began with a passage on our handout (Four Cubits of the Law) from the Berakhot 8a which talks of how since the Temple was destroyed, God’s presence is only revealed in the four cubits of Halakha.  Halakha is Jewish law and represents a house of learning or the teachings of Judaism.  Four cubits is about six feet. Not a very large house.  

But wait a minute, we don’t follow all of those laws anymore.  What about sacrifice? The rabbi suggested with some bemusement that some would claim that is only on pause until the temple is rebuilt.  What about additions to the Seder service, a glass of wine for Israel?  Perhaps it is a distinction between Halakha and traditions offered another of our group.

Halakha is pretty restrictive.  A rather entertaining spoof imagined Xmas as a Jewish holiday and what restrictions might surround it.  Are we to be bound by countless rules? And what happened to Jews questioning, isn’t that in our DNA? Rabbi Marc Angel noted that Judaism respects and encourages dissent within the boundaries of normative Judaism, but not outside of it.  So what does that mean?  To be within it must evidence respect for sages, substantiated positions and a commitment to the Divine origin of Torah. 

Deuteronomy 4:1-2 specifies that we are not to add or delete anything from God’s word. Sounds like God was a strict constructionist.  Rashi chimes in and say, “Not to worry, that means you shouldn’t add a fifth text to tefillin or a fifth species to your lulav and etrog.”

Rambam says, “Not so fast Rashi, it also means you can’t make up a brand-new commandment.” No more innovation by the prophets.  He goes on to say that fences are permissible if they allow us to preserve the Torah.

So what about those fences?  In the Pirkei Avot 1:1 after the Torah was transferred, the “Men of the Great Assembly” noted we should “make a fence for the Torah”.

What do we mean by a fence?  Rabbi Irving Greenberg described it as cordoning off a broader area so people will stop before they enter forbidden territory.  Hmm, perhaps filling up the gas tank when it is down to one bar rather than beeping at me.   In a more religious vein we are to light Shabbat candles at sundown, but we create a fence of 18 minutes before sundown in which we light the candles.

Up until this point, I must confess that this all felt rather foreign to me as a secular Jew.  I don’t concern myself with Halakha and I don’t live in a world of absolutes.  Then we entered the world of practicality where I live.  In 1 Macabees 2 after Jews were murdered while refusing to fight on Shabbat, Mattathias and his friends considered the value placed on living as overriding Shabbat observance. Those beliefs were drawn on during the Holocaust when practice was not always possible. 

Rabbi David Hartman in A Living Covenant wrapped it up by noting that the Torah is not a complete finished system. We were given an arrow sign at Sinai. Halakha translates to "walking". It is an unpaved road and does not expect passive obedience to the wisdom of the past. It is through the oral tradition that we become a partner and divine Word was only a beginning point to be elaborated on through analysis and interpretation. Ah, this I can live with.

 It occurred to me as we had this discussion that I come to this from the background of a secular Jew. When grappling with material that is outside my experience and orientation, I often try to find a framework that makes sense to me. That may be a different perspective than someone who lives in that world. In many ways I am a bridge between the world of secularism and my heritage, finding points of connection where possible and considering ideas that frame the values of Judaism. And a bridge between worlds seems quite appropriate to our theme.

The second half of our session was led by Artist Lab member Jonathan Gross who brings us a marriage of science and art.  With his interests spanning both realms it was a natural attraction between him and the work of Joseph Cornell who studied science and created art with scientific concepts interwoven. The theme Jon explored was crossing boundaries and focused around Cornell's work in a series on Celestial Navigation and specifically the piece called the Celestial Navigation by Birds.  This glass fronted box contained a number of objects related to the concept of navigation.  Jon introduced us to wind roses which line the background of the box. A wind rose chart looks at the direction of the wind, the probability that it would be blowing in a given direction and its intensity.  At one time these were much valued and highly guarded charts and few survived.  

Cornell was a bit of a punster and created puns both visually and with words.  Many of his artworks make use of the word "Rose", some are called Roses des Vents, literally wind roses and a painting of his friend Marcel Duchamp dressed as a woman named Rose Selavy (Rose C'est la vie -it's life).  Cornell made visual puns by using a rose with a spiderweb within it to power a boat in one of his images.  The rose was a probabilistic symbol and was about navigating one's way through life.  

Jon shared the concept behind the Celestial Navigation by Birds which was documented in a 1958 Scientific American magazine with which Jon was coincidentally familiar. The experiment was to show that birds navigate by stars at night.  To test this, birds were placed in a cage with blotter paper and the cage was in a planetarium.  An ink pad was on the bottom so the birds would get ink on their feet when they jumped in the direction they wanted to fly.  By changing the stars above in the planetarium and seeing how the birds followed this change,  they were able to document that birds do in fact navigate by the stars. 

On the back of this piece is a celestial map with someone with a telescope and another person with binoculars.  Jon noted that we impose patterns on the stars, not unlike the way we view artwork. Cornell signed his work backwards, signifying that it was in code, much as Leonardo da Vinci wrote his scientific work backwards. 

In closing Jon shared with us a quote from a letter to the editor of a German magazine that noted we engage in art when we communicate "through forms whose connections are not accessible to the conscious mind, but are recognized intuitively as meaningful."  (click for Jon's presentation)