Monday, August 22, 2011

John Shore responds to a reader

I very much enjoyed John's response to this letter; it's a good example of why I like his stuff.

One line in the writer's letter spoke to me: "Remember, we are the clay; God is the potter. HE made us."  Well first of all, the potter makes the pots, not the clay. So if we are the clay, then God just found us lying around on Earth and tried to make us into something prettier. Interesting metaphor for religion, but not, I suspect, what the writer intended.

Also, I don't have a lot of experience with potting, but the more I learn about every form of art (including fencing, science, and the "practical arts"), the more it's apparent that, at some point, the artist can only achieve what the medium will allow him to achieve. To use an image from my direct experience, every time I pick up a new sword, it tells me how it should be moved and what strategy it wants to use; I can choose to do as the sword wants, or spend my time fighting it instead of my opponent.

The same is true of cooking; I can use the food as it wants to be used, or fight it and wind up with flavorless mush (also known as the Fast Food technique). Same in music; I can only make the notes that the instrument is willing to make. So if we're going with the "potter and the clay" image, then God can only shape us into who we are meant to be and what we are willing to accept. But the potter is not the one in charge.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Old Bachelors in Metropolis

There has been a wave of big name super heroes having long-term pairings break up the past few years. This is going to come back around to Judaism soon, I promise. Couples established and strong enough that they have entered into the mainstream: Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, Cyclops and Phoenix (ok, this one might be less well known), and now Superman and Lois Lane. Moviebob has a good explanation why he thinks this is a good idea; his argument makes sense, but whether getting married was a good character idea or not, I have a problem with the way these super break-ups are happening. Or rather, not happening.

Spider-Man's wife made a deal with the Devil to erase their marriage from existence. Yes, literally. Granted, for a noble cause, but still. Cyclops and Phoenix's relationship ended when Jean Grey (Phoenix) died; Scott (Cyclops) had basically moved on to another woman, but they were still legally married at the time. And Superman and Lois are collateral damage of DC's continuity reboot. Their marriage, possibly their entire relationship, just...never happened.

Stick with me; this will be about religion soon.

There are probably other examples, because the major publishers are going through a bit of a Silver Age nostalgia right now, and striving to return their beloved characters to the form they grew up reading; usually this means single. But in all these cases what bothers me is not the change in the character so much as the efforts to write the marriage out of existence.

Character development, in my mind, should always move forward. That doesn't mean a character can never backslide, but that they should only move one way down their path even if that path loops back on itself. What that means here is if you really want the characters to be single again, have them get divorced. It's not like modern readers would have trouble identifying with that.

It can provide great dramatic tension: imagine two team members' divorce tearing their group apart as sides are taken. Or, if you just want to put it behind and move on, make it an amicable, no-fault divorce. Those do happen, I've been told. Instead, the writers just snapped their fingers and, poof!, no marriage.

What about Cyclops and Phoenix? Didn't she die? Yes, and granted dying seems to be Jean Grey's other super power, but that's still a way of getting out of the relationship without having to deal with marriage. As Dan Savage ironically says, a successful relationship means you stay together until one person dies. Plus, as I mentioned, Scott had already pair up with someone new; there was barely any mourning period, they just moved straight on with him and the new, edgier girlfriend instead of the stable, boring wife.

This got me wondering about the writers; what's going on with these people that they seem to hate marriage so much? Then I realized; most of the (primarily male) writers are right about the age that many marriages are breaking up. Superheroes have always been about escapist fantasy fulfillment, maybe that's what this is; acting out of their desire to "reboot" their own lives as young, single people, not stuck in bitter marriages or going through messy divorces.

Say what you will about these character decisions, but the writers are the ones making the choices. Everyone gets their own interpretation of the character, but the writer's is the one that becomes official.

This is where it becomes about religion.

One of the problems with retaining so much dogmatic history is we keep the laws independent of the context in which they were created. Many bizarre-seeming religious practices have very reasonable explanations in the period in which they originated. For example, there is a burial tradition of placing an egg inside the burial shroud. In the Middle Ages, it was illegal for Jews to bury non-Jews in their graveyards; if strangers showed up with an already prepared corpse, you needed an easy, subtle way to check its legitimacy. Pressing on the corpse's chest and feeling the egg crack provided such a test. Very clever, but does it still make sense now?

One of my former rabbis used to joke that Ashkenazic laws were harsher because they were written by rabbis that had nothing to do all winter but sit around, be miserable, and make new laws. Funny, but it really resonates; it would explain so well the drab, joyless approach to religion that tradition can take.

Still, it may have made sense at the time. But that begs the question: how much do laws that made sense to people living a certain lifestyle still apply to us today?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Harry Potter and the Chosen People

Much ink has been spilt over possible Jewish connections and stereotypes in the Potter-verse (personally I saw neither when I read, but I was mainly reading for the characters and narrative). One aspect I have not seen, though, is Rowling's perspective on what it means that Harry is "chosen".

There is debate about whether Jews should continue referring to ourselves as "the chosen people", both within and without the Jewish community. Some feel there is an implication of racism or superiority in the name, as we were chosen because we are somehow better or have special privileges because of that choice. Others see the name as a historical artifact, like calling Japan the "land of the rising sun", that has little meaning today. But what would Harry say?

One of the reoccurring themes of the later books and movies (spoiler alert!) is that Harry only became the "chosen one" when Voldemort chose him. Harry's classmate Neville is presented as another candidate that fills the prophesy as well as Harry (and to many would have made a better savior as well), but because Voldemort pursued the Potter family, Harry became chosen. It was the act of attacking, in fact, that created the situation that gave the "chosen one" his "powers".

This is supported by the arc of the books. Harry is never the smartest or strongest or best student. He barely has any defining heroic characteristics at all, except maybe for courage and leadership. And even those arguably are a result of his choosing, not something innate, and anyone that survived (by luck and support of his mentor) the same type of early adventures he did would develop those traits.

So what does that say about the Jews? This week's Edible Torah includes a discussion question about a verse that reminds us we were not the largest nation, but the smallest. The implication, reinforced by other midrash, is that we were the nation willing to accept what God offered and required. One could even argue that we needed the protection, so signing up seemed like a good deal. If there were any traits the Jews possessed they were faith and loyalty, and who's to say any nation that had received so much from God would not have developed the same traits to the same degree?

We became chosen because God chose us. Nothing more, nothing less.