Friday, April 29, 2005
Passover, followed by a dreadful head cold. Soon, I go home and take a nap.
In the meantime, I'm going to recycle old stuff. I wrote something last year about counting the omer that, if I say so myself, I rather like. We're counting the omer again, so here's a link to it. Anyone have any ideas on where I might send (a reworked version of) it for publication? Tried First Things; no dice.
Oh, a couple of other matters.
I see that John Debyshire has belatedly joined Caesar's Bath Game. Philosophy he and I have discussed; I can resort only to Chopin's retort (on an entirely other matter): sir, you have never been Polish. As for his other choices: basketball is exciting mostly for the last 2 minutes of the game. But baseball is never exciting at all. And soccer (football to those on the other side of the pond) is mind-numbingly dull. Actually, I don't get the point of watching sports at all. Football and hockey are OK, I guess. Saul Bellow: I blogged some weeks ago my disappointment with Humboldt's Gift and my deeper disappointment with Ravelstein. But I did like Henderson the Rain King, so I'm going to reserve judgement on him generally until I've read at least one of Herzog, Sammler's Planet or Seize the Day. But I'm not all that optimistic. I'm not sure I like fiction that tells me how significant it is all the time. I'm not sure I like authors who are so present. Beaches: no argument from me. My ideal coastline is Maine. Or British Columbia. But I will make a stand for cinnamon! Not only was it part of the spice mix used before the Ark of the Covenant (see Exodus 30:22-25) but it's used to this day (along with whole cloves) in the spice box we sniff at the close of the sabbath, to recall the sabbath's sweetness that it should linger into the workweek. It's one of those rare flavors that works with sweet and savory dishes, and softens the tartness of dishes made with tomatoes or fruit. Long live cinnamon!
Next: I've been attempting to read two books simultaneously that do not go well together, and I'm not sure if each is making me like the other less or whether I've just been in the wrong mood for either. The first is a collection of essays by Eliezer Berkovitz, which comes to me courtesy of the Shalem Center. Now, I don't actually dislike the book, because Berkovitz's positioning is very congenial to me. He's what I'd have to call a progressive traditionalist. He's also a nationalist without being a chauvanist and a religious Zionist without being a messianist. These are all good things, from my perspective. And there are things in the book I like. But I keep wanting to hear a real knock-down argument for a position I already agree with, and finding myself at the end of the argument feeling a kind of vague dissatisfaction. I'm also troubled by the degree to which Berkovitz fails to recognize the larger Western tradition that he's drawing on, particularly the ethics of Aristotle (he tends to reduce all of Western philosophy to Plato and Rousseau, which is deeply unfair) and the 19th century nationalists (how can you talk about Jewish nationalism without talking at all about nationalism per se?) all of which make him seem frankly quite provincial. The most intriguing part of the book is the discussion of how Jewish law works, and how the law has been distorted by the loss of Jewish sovereignty and the commitment of the Mishna to writing. This is a path long-trod by Conservative Judaism, but I don't know that it's been trod well, and I would love to understand better how Berkovitz's approach differs from that of, say, Solomon Schechter. It's not 100% obvious to me how it is. This is all terribly important stuff to me, because I am convinced that (a) Ahad Ha'am was wrong, and the Jewish people exists because of the Covenant at Sinai, not the other way around (good essay - actually more of a reminiscence - on this topic by Hillel Halkin in the latest issue of Commentary, not on-line); (b) the foundation of the State of Israel cannot avoid theological significance if only because it raises the question of what a Jewish State *is* beyond the banal fact that many Jews live there; (c) the messianism of the Rav Kook school of Orthodoxy and the anti-Zionism of the ultra-Orthodox have each proven disastrous; and (d) my own "stream" of Judaism - Conservative Judaism - has mostly forfeited any reasonable claim to representing the "vital center" through a lack of seriousness about the responsibility inherent in claiming the right to re-open settled halachic issues. So I am very interested, as I say, in the positioning of someone who appears to be avoiding these traps. But I don't, ultimately, see *how* he avoids them, or how his thought would convince someone not already congenial to his point of view.
The other book: Paradise Lost. I'm afraid that, so far, theology is making for unconvincing narrative and flat characterization. I'd be tempted to say that the project is inherently hopeless, that trying to make a character out of the divine is a foolish project doomed to precisely Milton's failure. God comes off as vain and pompous tyrant, Christ as a fawning toady, Adam as a simpleton who deserves to fall, and Satan, according to Blake the unintentional hero of the poem, as a blustering, strutting loud-mouth. I'm unpersuaded by Stanley Fish's interpretation (no I haven't read his book yet - I wanted to read Milton first - but I've read enough about his book that I think I get the gist) that we as readers are supposed to be seduced by Satan, thereby reenacting Adam's Fall, because I find Satan seductive only against the background of an unpersuasive account of the divine. If God were really the way Milton depicts Him, then yes, I'd be tempted to buy Satan's arguments. But not because Satan himself is especially persuasive. So I count this a failure. In any event, I'd be tempted to say that this failure was inevitable . . . except that the Bible doesn't fail similarly. And, to skip over questions of authorship, I don't just mean the Torah; books like Jonah, Job, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalms, the Song of Songs: God figures as a *character* in each of these books to a greater or lesser degree, and He is convincing as such. Two things above all feel missing to me in Milton: any sense of God's love for His creation, and any sense of God's uncanniness, His deep strangeness and unknowability. Milton's God seems very easy to know and very hard to worship. That makes Satan's argument easier than it should be. I feel the poem would have been vastly stronger if we never heard God's voice, if everything was related by the angels on either side - either by Satan and his minions or by Michael and his cohorts. Anyhow, the edition I'm reading has lots of critical material included, so I'll read some of it when I'm done with the poem and see if it changes my mind at all.
(As an aside: I believe I'm reading Milton's poem in the spirit that it was intended, that is to say, as a religious text, albeit not a text of my own religion. So if it fails to be persuasive to me on those terms, I count it a failure.)
And finally: if Marilyn Quayle actually runs for Governor of Arizona, that would be just spectacularly tremendous. This is a gal who knows how to shout and shimmy. I've always liked her. She really could have gone places if it weren't for her doufus of a husband.