Help, Thanks, Wow

Now, it gets heavy — but it’s Thanksgiving, when we do that…

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Day to day, I am not an overtly religious person — certainly nothing like “traditional”. On the other hand, I studied with a Reform rabbi and became a Jew after years as an atheist; a Jew in the style of Einstein, who I just lately learned was a Jew in style of Spinoza.

I maintain a very low tolerance for superstition in all of its forms (emspar and I call it “booga-booga”), but I also wouldn’t have taken the course I did, or be who I am, were it not for the inescapable fact that there is Some Thing Bigger Out There. It’s called the Universe. It has no direct relation to, or influence on, us — nevertheless (weak anthropic principle) we happen to live in it, trying to make sense of how it works.

How the Universe works — the Laws of Physics, melech ha’olam — is what Einstein called God, and so do I.

So… listening as I always do to NPR’s Morning Edition, I heard an interview with Anne Lamott, the author of a book about prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow. No need to listen to the full segment: the printed excerpts are good enough. Simplistic, surely — but that’s the point.

God, or Nature, or “Shit Happens”… Formal prayer, or wordless exclamation at the shit happening… What we say, if only silently, boils down to those three, especially when we take the sectarian language out and just blurt. I found the idea early in my Judaic studies; I cannot think of a religious tradition that wouldn’t arrive at the same conclusion.

You don’t lose any atheist cred for exclaiming, either. Shit happens; you react: human nature.

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It’s Thanksgiving — in the face of all the shit, why am I still thankful? Most of all for emspar, naturally, but also for you all.

And why am I still “Wow”?

I’m alive; I can see the night sky; I know what’s in it.

Baruch ata, Adonai Elohenu, melech ha’olam, schehechianu, v’kiamanu, v’higianu, l’azman hah zeh.

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Carcinoma Angels

Forty-five years ago — yes, 45! — what may still be the most famous anthology of short science fiction was published. It includes “Carcinoma Angels”, a story by Norman Spinrad (synopsis here, and you can read the full text here).

Last Friday, I met my anti-carcinoma angels.

They were gamma rays: high-energy photons aimed at extremely precise 3D coordinates in my brain, where the tumors had been found. Some of them were sent to the occipital lobe, quite near (if not actually in) the visual cortex — and, like the earliest astronauts who reported the phenomenon, I saw them. Fleeting, bright white, amorphous; tracking across my closed-eyed field as the scanner opened and closed its tiny shutters.

Of course, I didn’t really see them… they were cascades of neural stimulation running from deep inside to the retinae. But, where else does the brain know to associate things visual but the eyes? (Hint: reverse the direction of the arrows on that cover illustration.)

Maybe not the most important event in this all-too-self-examined life, but I doubt I will forget it… and in three months, another MRI may reveal that the angels have been successful.

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Let there be Lights!

Hag semeach ~ It’s Hanukkah!

Maybe you’ve heard the story about the miracle of the lamp oil? Here’s an excellent summary of the whole deal, but – just to re-cap: As was common in ancient times, certain rulers got so full of themselves that they insisted their subjects worship them as gods. One such was Antiochus IV “Epiphanes”, who ruled one of the fragments of the Hellenistic empire founded by Alexander, and which happened to include Judea. In short, he caused the Temple in Jerusalem to be defiled with unclean deeds and things, including a statue of himself as Zeus, and forbade the practice of Judaism. An uprising followed, by traditionalist Jews collectively called Maccabees. Antiochus was busy elsewhere, fighting the Parthians, and the general he sent to put down the rebellion lost. The Temple was cleansed and restored, and proper worship could resume according to the commandments in Torah.

One of those commandments has to do with the menorah. You’ll find it in the descriptions of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-40), which was the portable temple carried by Moses’ people before they crossed the Jordan, to house the Ark. Although, according to that Wikipedia article, the fate of the original menorah is unknown, possibly the Maccabees had a new one made as part of the Temple restoration. That’s the “lamp” for which consecrated oil was needed.

Did you know that the Books of Maccabees which appear in the Roman and Orthodox Christian versions of the “Old Testament” are not part of the Jewish Bible? Back when I was studying to become a Jew, my rabbi explained why: the descendants of the Maccabees, whose dynasty was eventually called Hasmonean, did not preserve the tradition and became as Hellenistic as their former enemies.

The 8-day miracle? That’s what we call midrash — an allegory. Another fancy word for it is apochryphal. It’s most likely derived from the Megillat Antiochus, which is at least 400 years younger than the events it alleges to recount, and may have been written as much as 300 years later than that! One suspects that the ritual of lighting candles, and the Hanukkah menorah itself, comes from that bit of apocrypha, too.

So why is the holiday 8 days long? “Because Sukkot is,” said my rabbi. The Maccabean decree was for a feast of thanksgiving, and the pre-Hebraic harvest festival which became codified as Sukkot was the obvious example to follow. And why is it in what we now call December? First of all, one does not restore a holy place to its ritual cleanliness merely by scrubbing it. These things take time, especially if you’ve commissioned, among other things, a new menorah of (literally) Biblical proportions. Much more importantly, however — the Hebrew date of 25 Kislev was chosen deliberately to coincide with the Winter Solstice.

There are deep psychological reasons why every civilization of every age has a festival during the darkest part of the year, no matter how they justify it terms of religion, “pagan” or otherwise. It goes back tens of thousands of years, maybe even before anyone thought of gods… but the smart ones, even then, watched the sky and counted days and figured out when the sun would start rising earlier and setting later again. Placing our Festival of Lights at the same time gave us an officially-sanctioned Jewish reason to celebrate the same thing in our own way, without being seduced into idolatry.

Hanukkah is not “the Jewish Christmas”. It is older than that event by at least 164 years. And it has nothing to do with a day’s worth of oil lasting for eight. It commemorates, as do Passover and Purim, a victory over religious tyranny… and it sheds needed Light into the Darkness.