Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Creative Destruction

by Susan Weinberg
We gathered tonight in a special Artists’ Lab done in conjunction with eighth-graders from Talmud Torah and led by facilitators from the In(heir)itance Project. The in(heir)itance Project last joined us in 2015 and performed a play that many in our lab attended. Their approach is to engage the community in dialogue and then use that dialogue in the creation of theater. Their theme on this visit is water. A return visit will be made in February in hopes that the seeds that were sowed through this visit might take root.

Teacher Kara Rosenwald and the eighth-grade students came together with a number of lab members in this exploration. Chantal and Ari from the In(heir)itance Project led us through an exercise of creating a word cloud around water. As they went around the room, each person offered up a word that they associated with water. 

Body, Source, Quench, Fluid, Lake, Silk, Trees, A Right, Rising, Flow, Hydration, Health, Clear, Ocean, Drink, Cloud, Wet, Dogs, Rain, Ice, H2O, Turtles, Survival, Ripple, Tea, Waves, Gills, Flood, Memory, Access, Precipitation, Evaporation, Runoff, Filtration, Wash, Fracking, Thirsty, River, Land, Light, Rift, Fish, Shark, Salt, Swamp, Pollution, Waste (water), Glacier, Iceberg, Mayim, Plastic, Reflection, Mermaids, Play, Sea, Well. . .

We began to find the common themes within the words. There were elements of water – fluid, wet, reflective. The forms or characteristics that it might take- ice, steam, rain and then there were the ways we interact with it. Many of the words represented consumers of water, including us as our body is 70% water. Another large consumer, trees.  A thirsty cottonwood tree can consume 200 gallons of water each day. 

“Where does water come from? “ they asked and drew our attention to the first story of creation in Genesis. There the first mention of water is in the second line of the Torah. Remember Ruach? the spirit or breath of God that hovered over the water. While we often think of God anthropomorphically, here the water is given a face as well.  Is it God’s face, reflected within the water?

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. 

So, was water primordial?  It seemed to always be there. Nowhere does it speak of its creation. We discussed its presence as elemental, a core element in all things and for God on the second day, a creative element. Just add water. Or perhaps just divide water into firmaments and ocean. Water is both a creative element and a destructive element. Often those two acts are related. Water carved out the Grand Canyon, destroying in order to create that negative space that evokes such wonder. 

Now that our wheels were well lubricated, we broke into groups to choose a descriptor and develop it into an artistic creation. The theme of our group was the cycle of both creation and destruction, often flip sides of each other. The eighth graders led the way without hesitation, drawing a wave and then another wave in reverse echoing the form. We used blue to represent creativity and grey tones to represent destruction. While our image came together in the last five minutes it was a satisfying creation that captured the contrary, yet complementary nature of our subject. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

To Serve and Preserve

Detail -Adam and Eve, 1526, Cranach, Lucas, the Elder
by Susan Weinberg

“What to you is Paradise?” asked Rabbi Davis. 

One person quickly responded, “A world where everybody is treated equally and all needs are fulfilled.”

“No,” replied another. “We really would have to exclude humans who have a tendency to ruin things. “

Yet another spoke of a rainforest she recently visited where animals were not afraid of people and there was a sense of dignity and peace.

“Timelessness,” tossed out someone else. “I don’t have to remember where I have to be!” We chuckled quietly in acknowledgement of the busy lives we all lead. 

Humans were invited back into the garden, as one noted that their Paradise would include not just what God has created, but also human creations such as music. Apparently, we don’t ruin everything.

“If it is a place, what happens there?” asked the rabbi.

I had been wondering the same thing. How would I occupy myself in Paradise? I was quite sure I would be thoroughly bored. I considered painting which can present a state of flow and timelessness, but it too comes out of some unease. If you take away the unease, what kind of art does one create? I wondered.

“I don’t know what happens, but I know what doesn’t,” replied one person.  “There are no cars, no freeways, no jobs, no stress. Things happen organically, conflicts are resolved, there is relaxation and tranquility. “And love,” added another. “A place to love and be loved.”

The conversation turned towards a sense of purpose and whether that was taught or innate in each of us. That was what was lacking from the picture we described and it was that missing piece that I needed. I was to learn that it was not neglected.

To consider a different take on Paradise, we turned our attention to the second creation story in the Torah in  Genesis 2:5-16. There we noted there were two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was only the tree of knowledge of good and evil that was forbidden, a negative rule, just the thing to tempt the then childlike Adam and Eve. In fact, the admonition preceded the creation of Eve, despite the bad rap that was permanently bestowed upon her. What was that tree doing there anyway? God was certainly not childproofing the garden. More like putting it there to create the ensuing action. Also, in this passage God indeed gives Adam a purpose – to dress and keep the garden of Eden. 

Our handout (Serve and Preserve)  presented different perspectives on this task assigned to Adam. Rashi believed that Adam was placed there to till it, enjoy its fruits and keep the animals out. Chizukini notes that Adam was formed elsewhere, a place of thorns and thistles, so by contrast he could fully appreciate the special nature of the garden. Several of the sages speak of the garden metaphorically as representing the Torah, but the Torah was not introduced until much later in the story. Perhaps the garden represented a discipline and a responsibility, something we were to learn from and carry forward to the Torah, approaching it with a sense of reverence as part of a holy relationship. We concluded that Paradise is not a gift, it is something we work on. In fact, we are the soil that we till.

One of the sources we kept coming back to was, The Way Into Judaism and the Environment by Jeremy Benstein. Benstein explains that one of the translations of the Hebrew phrase le’ovdah ulshomrah” is  “to work and to guard.” What exactly are we guarding the garden from?  Benstein posits that we are to protect it from our own avodah, the effect of our own work. He argues for a role of stewardship  with an emphasis on sustainability. One of the other translations from the Hebrew is “to serve and preserve, ” an interpretation that implies a level of humility necessary in the act of stewardship. (More from Jeremey Benstein)

And a few recommendations:

Article on Jonathan Safran Foer's new book We Are the Weather Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.

Rabbi Noah Greenberg's workshop at Beth El on Making Your Own Tefillin