February 28, 2005

Christo's Spiritual Gates

It was a wonderful experience to be in New York in February to see the hundreds of saffron "gates" erected in Central Park by the Bulgarian-born, French-educated and now American artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude. He has previously covered the Reichstag building in Berlin and the Pont Neuf in Paris and set up visually stunning, temporary artistic artifacts all round the world. They go up, are seen by millions, then come down, are recycled and, to all intents and purposes, disappear.

There is always a great debate about what art is. Art lovers and experts and pompous cognoscenti for generations have argued against any new trend in art (a bit like religion if you ask me--if it’s not old it can’t be good). It’s silly to confine art to picture postcard imitations of a good camera lens. I would argue that anything which stimulates one visually, in one way or another, can be called art. Of course, as with everything, there are good and bad examples, and some that work and some that don’t.

I have heard plenty of contrarian views, but I found the effect of the gates stunning. The color was just right for a winter parkscape. The brilliance of selecting just one and not several colors was, in itself, a significant artistic decision. As excited as I was to witness the laborious process of setting them all up, so it is sad to see it all come down.

As one walked around and under the saffron curtains, the wind currents played all sorts of fascinating games with them, blowing in and around from all directions. One line of several hundred yards might be static, while a few yards away the curtains would be billowing furiously. Within a few paces, one would be flapping to the south and the other to the north. The wind currents were complex and unpredictable, like invisible children jumping up and down playing games, or like imaginary kittens springing up to try to catch the trailing threads.

Most city dwellers only notice the harsh cold winds that funnel across town from the Hudson or up and down the wide avenues, usually from north to south. But rarely does one sense or feel the constant play of subtle breezes that ebb and flow and swirl and curl through the open spaces. Sometimes when I look down from the thirtieth floor I can see pieces of paper blown up and around on the currents of air just as birds ride the thermals. They rise, fly and then fall and disappear. But most of the time it is the rush of cars passing, or subway trains pushing waves of air ahead of them that one feels, rarely the gentle switching and weaving currents of air.

The actual saffron-colored vinyl gates, that support the material, vary in size according to the widths of the paths and their cambers. The bases of the gates are often supported by extra little pieces of wood and stone to get the balance right. And they are set apart sometimes in regular sequences and sometimes not. Hardly anyone I talked to noticed the varying sizes of the gates themselves and the way the frames were slightly altered to deal with the cambers.

And there is a whole team of what look like "priests" with their special tunics and long poles capped with tennis balls. Their task, amongst others, is to unfurl the material when the wind blows it into a twist. But some of them just wander around and ignore the twisted material and seem not at all interested in doing what they are supposed to or in rectifying what is "wrong". Just like some religious functionaries I know.

But, as you might expect, to me all of this is a metaphor for religion. Genuine spirituality involves sensitivity to Divine and human currents that are everywhere around us, except that we rarely stop to look or to feel or to allow the air to brush us or caress our faces and bodies. We have taught ourselves to be impervious to signs of others around us, signs of pain or anxiety. We pass people by as though they were objects instead of souls. We shrink into our own shells instead of expanding to encompass and enfold or show care and concern for others beyond our own walled gardens.

Sometimes it takes a work of art to stop us in our tracks and make us ponder. And that is what the festivals and Sabbaths and daily rituals are supposed to be doing. "The Gates" does, indeed, get us to stop and stare and feel winds and enjoy the view, regardless of our race or religion or financial position, and then reach out to others to spread a little warmth and care because the wind blows for everyone not just for us. Yet without the boring mechanism of a base and stanchions and screws and bolts we wouldn’t get the impact of seeing the curtains hang or fly in the wind. If they were not securely grounded they would soon fall over.

When you look carefully you see there is a logic in the way the gates are placed with sudden gaps according to the width and the camber of the paths or the trees or the terrain. But often there is no discernable pattern to the gaps at all. Yet there must have been some master design that Christo knows about, even if it has not been explained to us, just like religion.

Art, like religion, stimulates us and makes us aware of our surroundings and the universe and ideally draws out the best in us. But for others it is simply a skill, a way of making money or a name, another opportunity for corruption. It all depends on how we relate to it and whether we allow it to affect us or not.

Form without spirit is not enough. We need God’s wind, or spirit, to play on and around the structures that we put up to make them really come alive!

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February 06, 2005

Kiddush Clubs

The Orthodox Union (OU), which represents over 1,000 so-called Centrist or Modern Orthodox synagogues in North America, has decided to ban kiddush clubs!

So what are kiddush clubs? Kiddush clubs are informal social gatherings in Orthodox synagogues on a Shabbat, that go on in rooms out of the main sanctuary during either the reading from the prophets, the rabbi's sermon, or both, to tipple whisky and snack of schmaltz herring (or, if you're lucky, single malt and smoked salmon).

Not only do I think this is a good idea because it encourages socializing and underlines the informality of Jewish prayer, but in the shtiebel I attend in Antwerp there's a drop-in kiddush club where you can sidle in for a quick schnapps and chat and go back again anytime during the service, so there's no need to talk and disturb others' praying when your attention wavers. That is one of the reasons I really love praying there. Quite a few other Chassidic services do the same. Besides, on a day that's supposed to be a delight and a pleasure why should you wait three to four hours before breakfast?

It's a rather alien approach to Jewish worship that requires sitting decorously through boring hours of sonorous worship. Besides the reality is sitting, talking about goodness knows what (usually profane) topic and setting a thoroughly bad example to children and others. And as for skipping sermons, frankly, if the rabbis can't make them interesting enough for people to want to stay, I think it is much healthier to associate synagogue with social pleasure rather than religious boredom or intellectual banality. Too many services are long and boring and anything that shakes them up or makes them more attractive must be a bonus.

As for missing the Haftorah (the reading from the prophets), this is pure and unnecessary duplication, like the repetition of the Amidah.

The Amidah was originally repeated for the benefit of those who could not know the words. Nowadays those who don't know the words tend to talk throughout and pay no attention. And those who do know the words, said it all first time around.

The Haftorah was added at a time when reading from the Torah was forbidden, so a prophetic substitute that hinted at the weekly portion was introduced. Once we were allowed to read from the Torah again, we continued to include the substitute, following the "tradition" that anything that prolongs is good and anything that shortens is bad.

Actually, I wouldn't change it if I could--I like the Haftorot. The beauty of the language and the magnificence of the prophetic message more than make up for the time often spent listening to ill-prepared recitations and interminably off-key singing. But many attendees don't share my enthusiasm and rarely even glance at the text. Besides, you can read it yourself in a quarter of the time the average reader takes.

The truth is that prayer is an amalgam of personal, private and communal. Sadly, they too often merge and we lose the personal. But the main purpose of synagogue in Jewish Law is, indeed, social. The need for a quorum proves that. And, of course, one must listen and concentrate, but why not share it out a little more evenly? For some reason religious authorities always wade in and forbid things. Killjoys, the lot of 'em.

I have heard it said that kiddush clubs can be selective and exclusive. There's a simple answer to that. Let the synagogues organize the kiddush clubs and throw them open to all-comers. Why not offer a pleasant drink and nosh in the company of congenial friends after about an hour's worth of serious business? That is much more likely to encourage people to come back than spirit-stifling pomposity. At Yakar we do just that, breaking half way through the service to have an official Kiddush Club before we study and then go on to round things off.

Come on guys, lighten up a bit. Our religion teaches us to sanctify everything, rejoice in God's gifts, and worship through joy and pleasure rather than through pain and suffering.

My serious objection is to mixing good malt Scotch with water. Now that's what I call heresy!

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Follow-Up to "Doing It"

Regarding a previous post on the rabbinic response to premarital sex in the Orthodox community:

I've heard of a case in Baltimore where the rabbi of one shul gave a sermon that was directed (though I don't believe he mentioned names) toward a couple who weren't married. They, of course, were offended and left the shul; but the next shul they went to they sought to be married. This was a few years ago, and I heard about this third-hand or so, but I got the impression that the hard line stance that the first rabbi took encouraged them to tie the knot.

You are absolutely right--there can be occasions when strictnness is required and, although I would not want to comment on specific cases, this one certainly appears to have warranted a tough line.

My position is not that one must never be strict! I think everyone needs a blend of both. But I believe that there need to be varieties, just as Hillel and Shammai (to give the obvious example) offered different approaches while still falling within the halachic system.

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