Daily Archives: September 21, 2017

A rabbi in hurricane land

Abs sent me a link to a Washington Post article about Rabbi Michael Feshbach, an old college friend of mine who is the new rabbi at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Yes, St. Thomas, one of the islands hit by two Category Five hurricanes this month.

The Post article was written before Hurricane Irma hit, and the good news is that Mike has posted on Facebook that he and his family made it through Irma safely. Not only that, but the congregation’s Torah scrolls came through both storms with minimal damage. A curfew has been imposed on St. Thomas, so they’re having to adjust the times of their services; but at least they can hold services.

Rabbi Michael offered one of the best progressive theological readings of these two disastrous hurricanes in the Post article. Asked by the reporter what the meaning of the hurricanes was, he gave a thoughtful response:

“‘I come from a progressive religious tradition that takes spirituality and God seriously but not necessarily always in traditional ways,’ Rabbi Feshbach said. ‘I do not think that things happen for a reason, as sacrilegious as that may sound.’ God, Rabbi Feshbach said, doesn’t control the weather. God doesn’t direct some of us onto a plane doomed to crash and others into a traffic jam that keeps us from boarding that plane. ‘That’s not a God I can live with,’ he said. For Rabbi Feshbach, God is there for how we react to tragedy and how we help each other get through it.”

I concur with all my heart. And if Unitarian Universalists in the Bay Area of California can react by helping in any way, all Rabbi Feshbach and his congregation have to do is ask.

A minor deity

Here’s a small figure, probably a deity, from the Ifugao people of the Philippines. This figure sits on top of a small container used for holding agriculatural lime (a misture consisting primarily of calcium carbonate), one of the constituents used in preparing a mild stimulant from betel leaf (Piper betle) and the nut of the areca palm (Areca catechu).

This figure, made sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, is probably an ancestor deity, or a guardian deity — akin, perhaps, to the household gods of Rome, minor deities which have retained a place in the collective memory of the Western tradition.

In the West, we tend to assume that a deity by definition is unitary (or unitary-but-triune), and transcendent. We forget that for much of human history, there were a multiplicity of deities that lived quite close at hand; and we forget that a significant percentage of humans today still live in a world where many deities live close at hand. And perhaps these close-at-hand deities have never really left our collective consciousness; today we keep our glowing smartphones always with us, just as the ancient Romans kept the statues of their Lares or household gods close at hand so that they might consult them constantly, to ensure good fortune.