Monthly archives "August 2018"

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part 2

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part 2

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: http://www.roguesportal.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/semiosis-featured-rp-800×388.jpg

Do you enjoy science fiction? I find that it often provides a thought-provoking commentary on the society in which we live at present. And yes, on our own participation in creating the society we’d like to have. It requires a lot of patience and perseverance.

I have been reading a science fiction novel called Semiosis by Sue Burke, in which it takes seven generations of space settlers with an idealistic, pacifistic philosophy to develop a truly mutual relationship with the sentient but aggressive plant-life on their new planet.[1] In fact, just about everything on planet Pax (Latin for peace) seems to have a thinking, feeling capacity. Unfortunately, things go awry from the start. First of all, their spaceship’s super-intelligent computers decide to think for themselves and land the settlers on a planet very different from the one they were prepared to inhabit. As they learn to survive in an environment radically different from life on earth, the space settlers sense the presence of something beyond human knowledge and experience, perhaps beyond our imagination as a species.

“Grateful for this opportunity to create a new society in full harmony with nature, we enter into this covenant, promising one another our mutual trust and support. We will face hardship, danger, and potential failure, but we aspire to the use of practical wisdom to seek joy, love, beauty, community, and life. (From the Constitution of the Commonweath of Pax, written on Earth in 2065.”) [2]

The new settlers slowly learn that, as a human species – as invasive aliens on an inhabited planet – they will continually encounter diverse animal forms outside their earthly experience, as well as a dominant, intelligent plant life. Some of the hybrid animals (the lions, for example, have sharp digging blades for claws, helpful in planting crops) become domesticated aides to the humans. By contrast, their relationship with the infinitely superior plants slowly becomes antagonistic. Plants like the fast-growing rainbow bamboo and the enticing, flowering vines subtly and sometimes aggressively manipulate the humans to do their bidding. Eventually both humans and plants achieve a desirable “Duality” of co-existence. Simply stated, that means they agree to get along! Meanwhile the mysterious glassmakers who create and then then desert magnificent architecture turn out to be nomads fiercely protective of their land. Their breath-taking work in tune with the planet’s environment complements the awesome beauty of creation – and its essential importance to humanity. By the end of the novel, the human settlers no longer think of themselves as Earthlings; they are proudly from the planet they named “Pax,” and, as they enter their seventh generation on this planet, their moral ideology and way of life seems to be in synch at last. Seven generations (7 x 25) is not that long – it’s only 175 years, considerably less than the history of the United States and many other countries that certainly have moral room to grow!

“The name of this Planet and Commonwealth shall be Pax as a reminder to ourselves for all time of our aspirations. (From the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pax.)”[3]

Finally, the knife symbolizing the murderous intent of one person toward another, one species toward another, is placed in a museum for all time.

Good reading for contemplation of what is important to our own societies as we approach the High Holidays! And time to consider what values are most important to ourselves and our loved ones in our own life span.

[1] Sue Burke, Semiosis. (New York: Tor Books), 2018.

[2] Ibid., p. 9.

[3] Ibid., p. 223.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part I

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part I

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Image credit: https://www.draper.com/news/next-trip-inside-sun-s-atmosphere

As we approach Rosh HaShana 5779, endeavoring to wipe our slates clean before the mandated behavioral change deadline, Yom Kippur, I find myself turning to the first pages of the Torah, Bere’shit, the beginning, the creation of the world we know.

In Bere’shit, the first chapter of the Torah, creation seems so awesomely simple, so beautiful. An all-powerful, omnipotent, omniscient, Divine force, whom we Jews call Adonai or HaShem, simply “speaks” our world into being from the vast nothingness of the tohu va bohu, the watery void. In a timeframe of only six “days”(on the seventh day, God sees that the creation is good – tov—and thus rests), the first thing God does is to create light, separating it from darkness, so that Day and Night became new concepts. Then God separates the waters so that we have both dry land (“Earth”) and “Sky.” The next step is to create vegetation on the earth, seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees. And then comes the creation of the sun and moon, which brings set times of light and darkness (as well as years) into what is to become our world.

“God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day, and the lesser light to dominate the night and the stars” (Genesis 1:16).[1]

Told biblically in prose, this cosmic story of the world’s creation is echoed so movingly in poetry in Psalm 136. 

Who made the heavens with wisdom

His steadfast love is eternal;

Who spread the earth over the water,

His steadfast love is eternal;

Who made the great lights,

His steadfast love is eternal;

The sun to dominate the day,

His steadfast love is eternal;

The moon and the stars to dominate the night,

His steadfast love is eternal.” [2]

 

Now this beautiful world needs living creatures, so fish (even including great sea monsters) are brought forth to swim in the waters and birds to fly in the sky. Next come all kinds of animals ranging from creeping things to wild beasts to roam in the land — and finally Man. Adam, made in God’s image.

“And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”(Genesis 1:26).

Modern science has supplemented the Torah in showing that we all descend from one progenitorall living creatures start from the same basic cell. But what about Eve, the first woman? Was she really created at the same time as Adam, as Chapter 1 tells us, or, in Chapter 2’s differing account, was she made instead from Adam’s rib, which would make her the world’s first clone? Some biblical scholars think that the two accounts were written by different authors in different time periods and pieced together by skillful editors. Others believe that both accounts are true and simply augment one another, the first concentrating on the cosmos and the second on humanity. I prefer to think that man and woman were created equal from the get-go. In any case, whether we choose Chapter 1 or Chapter 2 as our preferred account (or a combo of both), once males and females were created, the divine goal of populating the world proceeded. [3]

There is also the question of how long a period a day actually was before the set times were created. So, if we consider the biblical account as occurring in indeterminate stages of time (rather than 24-hour days), it actually coincides with the much later developed scientific time frame of our world’s evolution. While our modern society craves scientific proof for something so mystical, so infinite, so powerful as creation itself, surely that process goes beyond being “proven” to the satisfaction of our limited human intellects. Certainly, our earthly mathematicians know that numbers are infinite; why not the limitless energy of the Divine? What we call God. To wax kabbalistic, underneath every letter of the Hebrew Torah is a number. Ironically, we speak in numbers.

Like the once ubiquitous slates in the schoolroom, our ideas about creation have moved light years from from the world we earthlings know into infinite territories. We no longer think about earth as unique among the planets and stars, although it is unique to us. We explore the concept of many universes. We search for other planets where life may be possible. Surely, as humans, we are not alone in a universe so large our human minds strain to encompass it.  

Traveling to the moon has already been accomplished. Now we talk about terraforming Mars so that human beings can live there, and already, as I write this D’var Torah, we are sending a probe to the Sun to better understand its energy. Unlike the mythical Icarus, who flew so dangerously close to the sun that his wings melted, today’s astro-scientists are unafraid, even as they speculate about multiple universes. For civilians, space tourism is becoming a possibility, provided they have the large pockets to afford it. For those who dare, will space settling become a reality? I am awed by what might be.

Awe, of course, is not a monopoly of religion nor of creative artists. Scientists experience awe too, as “a motivation to push them further,” explains Sara Gottlieb (working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo) in a recent interview with Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman on the website “Sinai and Synapses”:

Awe is traditionally seen as our reaction to things that cannot be reduced or explained…

[T]he  process of accommodation, in which we adjust our beliefs in light of surprising new information, is felt just as often by scientists as by people who experience awe in other situations. [4]

Of course. Scientists are human beings with wide-ranging human reactions. It is religion’s job to interpret.  In the awe-inspiring Torah account of creation, according to Richard Elliott Friedman, “the divine bond with Israel is ultimately tied to the divine relationship with all of humankind.”[5]. On a more mundane, current earthly level, we have do more than worry about over-population and feeding the planet in an era of climate change, we have to do, we have to work to make things better, all the while we continue to strive for an elusive peace between nations. I believe that, with God’s help and our own efforts, we will make progress, although it may take at least a couple of generations or more to see the results.

[1] Stein, David E. (ed.).  JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, 2nd ed.,  (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 1-3.

[2] Psalm 136. Quoted in Gunther Plaut, Ed. “Essays,”The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 2100.

[3] “The Torah begins with two pictures of the creation. The first (Gen1:1 – 2:3) is a universal conception. The second (2:4-25) is more down-to earth. The first has a cosmic feeling about it. Few other passages in the Hebrew Bible generate this feeling. The concern of the Hebrew Bible generally is history, not the cosmos, but Genesis I is an exception. There is a power about this portrait of a transcendent God constructing the skies and earth in an ordered seven-day series. In it, the stages of the fashioning of the heavenly bodies above are mixed with the fashioning of the land and seas below.”– Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text. (New York: HarperOne, 2001) 5.

[4] Sara Gottlieb (working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo) and Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, Interview. “Awe As A Scientific Emotion,” www.sinaiandsynapses.org.

[5] Friedman, Commentary on the Torah.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Everything is Cyclical: Listen

Everything is Cyclical: Listen

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

It’s a truism that just about everything is cyclical; eventually it all comes back into fashion, or history, or politics, or interest in who created the cosmos and what is there. Revival, recycling, regeneration: it’s a law of living. So I am not at all surprised at the new societal passion — in the midst of abundant visual imagery that has overwhelmed entertainment, merchandising, and education — for audio learning and entertainment, for audio books. Now once again, there is a thirst for hearing, for listening. Once again, individual imagination can exercise itself to see what isn’t there. Audio allows its audience to focus on the presentation to a greater extent, I believe, than when everything right in front of our eyes on a television or computer screen.

Television came to Canada (where I was born and lived most of my life) later than it did in the U.S. Up until then radio had been king, with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) the only national radio (with lots of local affiliates) heard across Canada. Everyone everywhere in Canada listened to the well-articulated, well-researched national news. In fact, the reliability of the C.B.C. was a source of national pride, a Canadian icon like the Mounties or the national railroad that connected the Western reaches of Canada with the Eastern ones.  From sea to shining sea.

If you were to take a trip across Canada in the still golden radio years, every house that could would be tuned into the CBC. In the days before television and later the Internet, it was a national connector. When, as a teenage actress, I performed in CBC International’s “School Broadcasts,” I was thrilled that the scripted words I was enacting (very slowly for comprehension by an overseas audience just learning English) were heard by people so far away. For example, in a “Western” sequence, I might be stretching out the emotional content and enunciation of the words “No-o-o, d’o-o-o-n’t SH-O-O-O-T!!!”

 

Most people don’t know that, in my salad days, I was a professional radio actress on many CBC dramas. I actually began my radio career at the age of ten on “Calling All Children,” produced weekly on CFCF, a local Montreal station, by the Montreal
Children’s Theatre (directed by Dorothy Davis and Violet Walters with an all-kid cast). I got my first professional role on the Lambert Cough Syrup Hour (CKVL, pre-union, it paid $5 for a 15-minute show), and by the time I was 12, I was auditioning – and getting cast in multiple roles – on the CBC (I was one of the first actors (#67) to sign up for ACTRA, our first professional actor’s association in Canada – and once we had a “union,” we got paid a magnificent $18 for a 15-minute radio broadcast, with an hour and 15 minutes rehearsal). Five days a week x $18 was good pay ($90) then for only one 15-minute radio serial when a man (not a woman) who was not an actor might be bringing home $25 for a week’s labor. Half-hour and hour shows (which we usually did on the weekends) were, of course, much better compensated. That’s how I got through university

The radio scripts were all accompanied by an organist live in the studio. Buddy Payne (who kindly played liturgical music at my wedding) led us musically from scene to scene, fading in the music for narrations and fading it out during the subsequent scene, or providing dramatic highlights to the script. For special radio productions – like “CBC Wednesday Night,” a much-listened to weekly show that produced quality scripts (more often from Toronto than Montreal) – a full, live orchestra accompanied the actors in the studio. What a great time we actors had with the fun-loving musicians in the CBC lounge we shared before the show!

But my radio and theatrical (I was active in local theatre too) career came to an end as, to our joyful surprise, my husband and I produced identical twins to augment the two young kids under five years old we already had. Wow, four kids under five! Acting had to take a back seat. Completely immersed in a joyful motherhood, I “retired” from show biz at 28 — for the first time. Radio would soon give way to television anyway, almost fading into the history books as visual entertainment and learning took over. Who knew that one day, so many years, and so many wide-ranging experiences later, I would become a rabbi, and that theatre experience is very useful in preparing and giving sermons?

 

In 5778, I wrote a D’var Torah for each weekly parsha and published them all on my website (www.rabbicorinne.com), where they can be individually accessed under the heading “D’var Torah”. You’ll find it on the home page’s sidebar.

Enter the Podcast.

In 5779, I plan to record these Torah commentaries as podcasts for, as they used to say in old-time radio, “your listening pleasure.” It was bound to happen. It’s cyclical, right? And people like to feel connected. So much of life in Los Angeles and other large cities is spent feeling isolated, non-productive, wasteful of time – on highways and congested streets. You can’t look at a screen and drive. The folly of text messaging has taught us that.  So listening to something worthwhile, something ofyour choice, perhaps educational, or funny, or just plain entertaining reduces the tension of “getting there.” It can also be a motivational experience.

Listening provides a space for thinking new thoughts.

As the Torah – originally taught orally and only written down much later — instructs us, “Shema!” Listen. Listen and do good things.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Sitting in the Garden of the Finzi-Continis: Time to Wake Up

Sitting in the Garden of the Finzi-Continis:

Time to Wake Up

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Finzi Contini poster

For the last twenty years, the members of my family and I – originally from the cooler climes of Canada – have been fortunate to be living in California, a landscape of uncommon beauty. Our garden is blessed with oranges, lemons, other delicious fruits, and the healthy vegetables we grow. Even grapes (rather small ones). Roses and other aromatic flowers bloom around us. We are shaded by tall trees and enjoy a solar-heated swimming pool. Just the other day, we drove my grand-daughter to the University of California at Santa Barbara, a stunning college complex overlooking a sandy beach. The campus is such a popular choice this year that a diversity of very bright students are inhabiting its residences three, rather than two, to a room. (In all fairness, I must mention here that my grandson is now in his second year at the highly-rated University of British Columbia, also a campus of great beauty.)

Yet increasingly, in the midst of all this natural and academic well-being, I am beginning to feel as if I am sitting in “the garden of the Finzi-Continis.”  As those who are old enough to recall, this excellent movie, produced in the 1970s and based on a book of the same name, depicted the gracious life of a leading, wealthy Jewish family in Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s. The refined family members are concerned with beautiful things, with their accomplished circle of artistic friends, with gentlemanly sports activities like tennis, and with a warm and welcoming hospitality that keeps the sinister political activity growing all around them at arm’s length. Until it encroaches on their own lives, ultimately destroying them.

Now it is 2018. And this is real life, not a film. What happened in the 1930s and 40s is, of course, history. Yet as a Jew and a Rabbi, I am shocked by the anti-Semitic “dog whistles” multiplying once again in the public sphere. In the U.S.A., welcoming land of liberty? How can I dismiss anti-Semitic sentiments when they come directly from the lips of a totalitarian Russian leader given free reign to express them on national American television. On CNN, for example, where I heard with my own ears Vladmir Putin insinuating that the Jews, not the Russians, were responsible for manipulating the U.S. elections. “Blame the Jews,” he said. “Maybe they were Jews with Russian citizenship.” The dual implication is that Jews in Russia cannot really be citizens, and, furthermore, that Israel is behind it all.

Putin’s despicable comments were REAL news. WHAT HE SAID WAS A LIE, BUT IT WAS REAL THAT PUTIN SAID IT.  And, yes, Putin has been asserting this canard for some time.

For those of us who have witnessed malevolent times, our collective memory springs into action. Certainly, various Jewish groups in the U.S. have already protested. They have “compared Vladimir Putin’s comments about the 2016 election to anti-Jewish myths that helped inspire the Holocaust, “ wrote Avi Selk in the Washington Post (March 11. 2018).

Unfortunately, Israel (read Jews as subtext or vice versa) has been the recipient of anti-Semitic attacks from both the political far-right and the political far-left. The infamous linguist, Noam Chomsky, an internationally-known far-leftist – and for years a virulent antagonist of Israel years — has recently contributed to the mix by maligning Israeli lobbying in the 2016 election.

On both television, and in a Gatestone Institute column,  lawyer Alan Dershowitz angrily referred to  Chomsky’s downplaying Russia’s interference in the  American elections, while, at the same time, Chomsky asserted that “the Israeli government’s influence operations are far more powerful [than Russia’s].”

The danger inherent in intentionally targeted words like Putin’s or Chomsky’s is that, as our Jewish history all too well testifies, they can and do incite evil actions. “Good” people — that is, those with ostensibly good intentions — usually don’t anticipate the malevolent actions that may result from those words. By the time, the “good” people wake up, it is often too late. The evil actions may have have progressed beyond what those with good intentions could have imagined, even in their wildest nightmares.

Even as I write this, even as I realize that there are gradations of good and evil, and that sometimes they intertwine, I continue to believe with all my heart that eventually good overcomes evil. The question is when. As humans, unfortunately, we have to adjust our time frame. The overcoming of evil actions takes time, sometimes generations Sometimes there is denial.  It takes time for an entire population to sufficiently understand, that no matter how you sugarcoat it with lies, what is evil is not good.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.