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Rahel
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Community Conversation

Here at the Jewish Encounters book club, we're happy to discuss not only books, but anything and everything that is happening in Jewish culture today. See an interesting film or play? Hear some great new Jewish music? Read a controversial or thought-provoking article? Tell us about it!
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Robert_Pinsky
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Re: Community Conversation

I invite other participants to my recent conversation in the "David's Women" thread with Lynn Somerstein.

(I must say I like addressing Lynn with an actual name-- and using mine! There's something mannerly and humane about not using Web-nicknames, for me. Though I'm happy to address people by monickers as well!)

RP


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marcialou
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Re: Community Conversation

Thanks Robert. I'm Marcia, by the way. Marcialou is my logon name just about everywhere I go, because some boards have a Marcia already. Having one logon name helps me remember who I am wherever I go. Some sites allow you to control what name is visible to others so nobody confuses you with your logon name. B&N doesn't.

Some people use a logon name as a moniker or pen name. For me, it's more like a social security number.


Marcia
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Re: Community Conversation

Yes, Marcia-- I am the same, "rpinsky" most places.

(David, among other things, has this extraordinarily appropriate name-- "beloved one" apparently. Which in his case has shadowy undertones for me, associated with the idea that he is one of those people who "get away with murder"--perhaps literally in his case?-- because they are so likable.)

Robert


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Re: Community Conversation

Robert,

I like your use of dance imagery to describe the gruesome bloodletting that takes place between Joab and Abner's soldiers. Last night I was at an intergenerational contra-dance*, where I had the chance to observe a much more peaceful version of young male exhuberance. During the break, something between a wrestling match and break dancing broke out. It was quite a spectacle. I thought of your description then.

Speaking of contra dancing, like the dancing of Saul and David, it can be ecstatic. Although it's probably more like a runner's high than mystical, it is one of my main sources of spirituality and a metaphor for much of life. The music is usually English, Irish, Scottish, Anglo-American, and French Canadian, but last night they did a bit of Klezmer. It turns out that Klezmer music works very well for contras.

Contra-dancing is a great outlet for all sorts of impulses that might otherwise get us in trouble. Some say it's the most fun you can have with your clothes on. With it's custom of changing partners throughout the evening, I consider it a healthy antidote to monogomy.

Marcia


*Contra is like square dancing but in longs so that you usually face your partner.
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Robert_Pinsky
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Re: Community Conversation

Marcia, you remind me of an experience last spring at Boston Arts Academy, a public high school near BU and Fenway Park. I have a bit to do with the school. (My graduate student poets staff a creative writing elective there.

At lunch time, students (all sexes and sizes) do a confrontational, funny dance where two people face each other. Then they do a kind of mock-combat and aggression that parodies or mocks aggression. Tremendous laughter and applause from those watching. Sometimes it might be a short girl and a big guy, etc.

Clearly combat and dance are related in many cultures. (I know professional athletes have studied ballet for balance, etc.) In David's world, he dances to express victory or emotion, and in his first, famous combat one imagines him dancing toward his baffled and doomed opponent.

I must refresh my memory of what those inner-city kids call that dance-battle. "Yacking" or "Catching" or "Baking" or something. They laughed every time I said it.

RP


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Re: Community Conversation

I also do an offshoot of combat dancing, called morris dancing. It's taught at BU by Tony Barrand (or at least used to be.) There are a number of groups who perform in the Boston and Cambridge area. "The Morris" is an old English dance form that is thought to be both mock combat and fertility rites. The clashing sticks can be thought of as either swords or phalluses. It's traditionally done by men and it caused a bit of a stir when women started doing it at the turn of the last century.

Actually there are more hankie dances than stick dances in the repetoire. The hankies, along with the ribbons and bells worn, are supposed to scare away evil spirits, or so we think.

I imagine that there might have been fertility and combat dancing among the ancient Israelites. They clearly hadn't abandoned their pagan roots by the time of David. Does anyone know of any biblical references to such things?

Robert,

I'd love to see that dancing you describe Is it polished enough for the New England Folk Dance Festival in April? They might be able to get a 5 or 10 minute slot as urban folk dancers.

Marcia
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Rahel
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Re: Community Conversation


marcialou wrote:
I imagine that there might have been fertility and combat dancing among the ancient Israelites. They clearly hadn't abandoned their pagan roots by the time of David. Does anyone know of any biblical references to such things?




Marcia, thanks for introducing the topic of the dancing in the David story. I'm aware of several instances of dancing in the Bible -- I'd categorize most of them as celebratory. A common thread among them seems to be rejoicing and showing thanks to God after a victory.

After crossing the Reed [Red] Sea, Moses sings the great "Song of the Sea," and the following verse reads: "Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them:
Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea." (Exodus 15:20-21

In the book of Judges, there is the tragic story of Yiftach (Jephthah). Jephthah makes a vow before going into battle against the Ammonites that if he is successful, "then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering" (Judges 11:31). To Jephthah's great despair, when he arrives home he is greeted not by a farm animal but by "his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrel and dance" (Judges 11:34). This seems like a celebratory dancing not unlike Miriam's; the result this time is very different, and devastating.

There is of course David's own dancing before the Ark of the Lord when it is returned from the Philistines.

The Mishnah records that in the time of the Temple, the Water-Drawing Festival during the holiday of Sukkot was celebrated with dancing. This festival is connected to the prayers for rain on Sukkot, and marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, which was especially important in an ancient agricultural society (and also in contemporary Israel).

The holiday of Simchat Torah, which marks the completion of the annual cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses, and the beginning of the next cycle, is celebrated with joyful, even ecstatic, song and dance. Also, the dancing at traditional Jewish weddings often takes the form of a face-off between two dancers or groups of dancers -- although some of that may be due to the influence of Jerome Robbins's choreography for "Fiddler on the Roof."
Rahel
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marcialou
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Re: Community Conversation

Rahel,

Thanks for the comprehensive listing. Of those you mention, only the water drawing festival at Sukkot sounds like a fertility ritual. Eons ago when I did some Israeli folk dancing, I seem to remember that the motions of one dance was supposed to resemble sheaths of wheat. The dance, Shibolet Basadeh, apparently means "sheaths of wheat." I have a vague memory that the dance movements were based on older dances that might have had roots in fertility rituals, but I'm not sure.

Marcia
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Rahel
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Re: Community Conversation

Marcia --
Yes, I think the harvest dances are probably the closest things to some sort of fertility dances, although I don't know how directly they can be traced to ancient Jewish dances -- Israeli folk dances are also strongly influenced by local traditions from around the Jewish diaspora. But I think they come from an ancient impulse to celebrate the harvest in dance.

Certainly the urge to tell stories in dance is quite powerful. There are some fabulous examples of contemporary dance coming out of the Jewish tradition, including Jerome Robbins's stunning ballet, "The Dybbuk" (with score by Leonard Bernstein), which I was lucky enough to see at the New York City Ballet last year.

Rahel
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mildone
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Re: Community Conversation

Thank you Rahel for your thoughtful insights and clarity of ideas. This has been and continues to be an exciting an informative class.
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Robert_Pinsky
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I've learned that the mock-aggressive dancing I've seen at the Boston Arts Academy (and mentioned in response to Marcia) is called "Krumping." It is a national phenomenon and is featured in a film-- I'm told a very good film-- called _Rise_.

Like David's singing and harp-playing, and lke the Psalms being "of" him or his court, this link of combat and dance suggests a central fact about him: his joining of action and imagination, art and power.

RP


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Happy New Year

***HAPPY 5768 FOR THOSE WHO ARE ABOUT TO CELEBRATE THE NEW YEAR.***

Marcia
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Rahel
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Re: Happy New Year

My best wishes for a Happy New Year to all those who will be celebrating it. And if you are in synagogue, keep an eye out for David's Psalms, and the various roles they play in the services.
May 5768 be a year of peace for all the world.
Rahel
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This weekend saw a lot of coverage in the New York Times on James Kugel's new book, How to Read the Bible.
The review, by David Plotz, and the Beliefs column, by Peter Steinfels, are both fascinating articles that relate to the issues of Biblical interpretation with which we've been grappling. I'd love to hear what you think, particularly about Kugel's conclusion, as related in the review.
I'm guessing that many of you, like me, are eager to read the book, and please do share your thoughts on it here.
Rahel
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marcialou
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Rahel,

Thanks for telling us about the book. It sounds fascinating. I'd like to quote and respond to what David Plotz said about it in his review.;

Kugel spends the final chapter trying to salvage the Bible for rational believers like himself. And give him credit: he refuses to take an easy way out. He won’t say — as many Reform Jews and Christians do — that the Bible is just a series of excellent moral lessons. (After all, Kugel asks, what then are we supposed to make of all the ugly, morally repellent laws and stories?) He also won’t say that Jewish observance is enough, that following God’s laws — independent of accepting their truth — is satisfactory. Instead, Kugel tries to separate scholarship and belief. At bottom, Kugel seems to conclude that, scholarship be damned, there is some seed of divine inspiration in the Bible, even if he can’t say exactly where it is. The fact that we can’t prove any particular passage isn’t important, and the fact that it’s a pastiche of myths and plagiarized law codes doesn’t extinguish the holiness that’s in it, and doesn’t diminish how it still inspires us to love and serve God. That’s a humane and humble conclusion, but it won’t reduce the delight of Bible skeptics, cackling with glee about Chapters 1 through 35.

As a life-long secular Jew, I've never understood the Bible as anything but a collection of fascinating family stories that show my ancestors' attempts to explain the world around them, impose some kind of moral order on what seems to be the natural human tendency towards violence and disparity, and bring a sense of purpose and connection to their lives. I think the Bible sometimes succeeds in promoting good values and other times merely rationalizes bad behavior. The prohibition against killing is an example of the former; the command to exterminate the Amalekites, the latter.

Even so, I used to think assume that much of the Bible was based on history, with the details embellished to show the mighty hand of God. Therefore I was shocked some years ago when I learned that many scholars (apparently a majority) conclude that the Jews did not even live in Egypt at the time of the Exodus, let alone build the city of Ramses and Pithicus (sp?) as slaves. However someone by the name of Moses did lead a group of Hebrews into Canaan some long time ago, but that was after Joshua led another group there also. So what is it we celebrating every Passover? I wondered.

I eventually concluded that it doesn't matter whether the Exodus story actually took place. What matters is that the story has been told by my people and believed for thousands of years. It has defined that Jewish people as underdogs and determined survivors. This understanding has given the Jews hope in their struggles against numerous tyrants. Many modern Jews, myself included, have interpreted the story as a near-commandment to work for the freedom of those who are oppressed and enslaved. The Exodus story remains important to me even without a belief in God.

Marcia
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Re: Community Conversation

Jim Kugel very generously responded with useful help when, in the course of writing THE LIFE OF DAVID, I wrote to him with some questions.


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SabrinaBJE
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Re: Community Conversation

[ Edited ]
Hi Rahel!
I work for the Bureau of Jewish Education in Orange County where we run a program called One Book: Jewish Orange County Reads (a community wide program where we discuss Jewish topics connected to a chosen book each year). This year we are reading Not Me by Michael Lavigne. How can I get involved with the Barnes and Noble message board? Is there a way we can create a discussion forum for this book as well?
Thanks so much!
Shanah Tovah!
Sabrina

Message Edited by Rahel on 09-20-2007 11:47 PM
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As Yom Kippur approaches, my best wishes to all for a Gmar Hatimah Tovah -- a signing and sealing in the book of life
Rahel
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The Binding of Isaac

The Jewish community I belong to is secular rather than religious, so we may have an unusual take on things. Here's the interpretation of The Binding of Isaac that I heard at services today.

The speaker suggested that Abraham, the idol smasher, was too independent a thinker to take orders from a malicious god. He bound Isaac and prepared him from sacrifice, not because he was willing to kill his son, but because he was testing the voice to see if it truly was that of God. God passed the test by not requiring the murder. If he hadn't, Abraham and Isaac would have descended the hill together in search of an object more worthy of their worship.

It's a little fanciful, I admit.

I like what Rabbi Michael Lerner has to say about the story better. According to him, the Bible was written by people who sometimes heard the voice of God but other times heard only the pain in their own hearts. In other words, not everything you read in the Bible represents the word of God.

Abraham thought it was God speaking to him when he heard a voice telling him to sacrifice his son, but really it was his own compulsion to re-enact his childhood experience of being thrown in the fiery furnace. According to Lerner, God would never command anyone to kill an innocent child. Abraham finally realized this when he heard the true voice of God telling him to sacrifice the ram instead. Therefore, Abraham's glory was not his blind obedience to God, but his ability to move past his personal pain to hear God's true voice.

Does that sound fanciful too? Maybe it is, but I see these two interpretations as another example of layers of meaning that can be found in the Bible.

At the services I attended, much attention was given to the subject of peace. We didn't sing the song I'm about to quote, but here's a chorus that takes another slant on the Binding of Isaac.

Like lambs to the slaugter
We sacrifice our sons and daughters.
Oh Lord, give us a ram,
Like you did for Abraham.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace to All.

Marcia
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