Standing on One Foot

Another story for liberal religious kids. This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sabbath 31a.

A man came to talk with Rabbi Shamai, one of the most famous of all the rabbis, nearly as famous as Rabbi Hillel.

“I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew,” said the man. “But I don’t have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot.”

The Torah is the most important Jewish book there is.How disrespectful that this man wanted to learn it while standing on one foot. Why, people spent their entire lives learning the Torah. It was not something you can learn in five minutes! Rabbi Shamai grew impatient. He pushed the man away using a builder’s yardstick he was holding in his hand.

The man hurried away, and found Rabbi Hillel. “I would like to convert to Judaism and become a Jew,” said the man. “But I don’t have much time. I know I have to learn the entire book you call the Torah, but you must teach it to me while I stand on one foot.”

“Certainly,” said Rabbi Hille, who was a very patient man. “Stand on one foot.”

The man balanced on one foot.

“Repeat after me,” said Rabbi Hillel. “What is hateful to you, don’t do that to someone else.”

The man repeated after Rabbi Hillel, “What is hateful to me, I won’t do that to someone else.”

“That is the entire Torah, the whole law,” said Rabbi Hillel.

The man nodded.

Rabbi Hillel continued, “Everything else is there to explain this simple law. Now, go study.” And because of Rabbi Hillel’s patience with him, the man spent the rest of his life studying the Torah.

Seiji Ozawa

Seiji Ozawa, long-time music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), has died.

From 184 to 1987, I had subscription tickets to the BSO — Thursday nights, the so-called “jump seat” in the second balcony, one of the cheapest seats in the house. I remember several transcendent experiences with Ozawa on the conductor’s podium.

The Mahler symphonies; as I recall I heard the second, third, fifth, seventh, and the ninth. Although I can no longer remember the specifics — I have a terrible musical memory — I remember the emotional and spiritual effect Ozawa’s Mahler symphonies had on me.

Three Tableaux from Messiaen’s opera “St. Francis of Assisi,” complete with bird song written into the score, had a tremendous effect on me as well. I hadn’t realized that music could do that — could draw directly on the natural world, could bring the non-human world directly into the concert hall. Messiaen was in the audience that night, which added to the magic.

I mostly remember Ozawa conducting twentieth century music. I had little interest in music from the Baroque, Classical, or Romantic eras. But that’s what Boston audiences wanted: Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mozart, over and over again. I still remember attending one of the Friday afternoon concerts (I must have gotten a day off from work), and watching as the rich old blue-haired ladies deliberately stood up and pushed their way out of their seats five minutes into some piece of new music, their nasty way of stating to the whole world that They Did Not Approve. And the hell with the concert-goers whose toes they crushed on the way out.

The self-proclaimed cognoscenti in Boston were exactly like the rich old blue-haired ladies in that they never approved of Ozawa. Take Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe — he seemed to hate Ozawa, and never missed a chance to badmouth him. Sometimes my father and I would attend the same concert, and we’d read Dyer’s review and wonder if he went to the same concert as we did. Even after Ozawa’s death, Dyer couldn’t resist taking potshots at him in the obituary he wrote for today’s Globe — if you only read Dyer’s obit, you’d wonder why in hell the BSO kept such an incompetent socially awkward idiot as their music director for so many years. (I wish I hadn’t read Dyer’s obit; it only served to sully the memory of a brilliant, charismatic, dynamic musician.) Why did the Boston cognoscenti hate him so much? Probably because he was dashing, charismatic, exciting, innovative — all of which are character traits which Boston has historically despised. Plus he wasn’t White. I still say Boston is the most racist city I’ve ever lived in, and hating on Ozawa seems to me to be yet another manifestation of that racism. God knows why Ozawa put up with it for so long, but I’m grateful that he did.

I’ll end with a brief memory of the most memorable concert I ever experienced.

It was Thursday night, November 29. On the program: one of the greatest of all symphonies, Mahler’s Ninth. I took my seat at the back of the second balcony in Symphony Hall, excited to hear the Ninth live for the very first time in my life. The orchestra was much larger than usual, filling the entire stage. Ozawa entered to the usual applause.

The first movement was mind-blowing — I just didn’t realize how huge the sound of a Mahler orchestra was, and I didn’t realize how deeply moving Mahler’s music got towards the end of his career. Looking back, I think my brain was being rewired by what Mahler was saying. The movement ended, and Ozawa stepped off the stage. And we waited. And waited. For nearly twenty minutes. Ozawa’s brother Katsumi had died of a stroke the day before, at age 56, and Ozawa must have been crippled with grief. But he came back on stage. He finished conducting the Ninth, and somehow all the emotion and grief and feelings of love for his brother came through. No doubt Richard Dyer wrote a scoffing review of the performance, but it remains one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life. Ozawa had created music with the deepest feeling possible.

Ozawa wasn’t able to conduct the performances of the Ninth on Friday or Saturday; the BSO had to bring in a substitute. We who were there on that Thursday were the only ones to hear music from Ozawa’s deepest soul; at what cost to him I cannot imagine. But I’m eternally grateful to him for that gift he gave us that night; I’ve never forgotten it; it change me and made me a better person. What more can we ask of the arts?

Noted without comment

It may not surprise you that the data show that people who regularly participate in faith communities are likely to live years longer than those who do no. People connected to communities of shared purpose are less lonely, more motivated, more hopeful, and more fulfilled. Even still, I don’t know anyone who ever joined a church because of advanced metrics.

— Rabbi Sharon Brous, The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom To Mend Our Broken Hearts and World (2024), p. 41.

The Fox and the Fish

Another story for liberal religious kids. This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakoth 61b.

Once upon a time, the wicked Roman government issued a decree: no more would the Jews be allowed to study the Torah and the law.

But Rabbi Akiva seemed to ignore the decree. He gathered people together quite openly, and taught them the Torah and the law. Pappas, the son of Judah, took him aside and said, “Rabbi Akiva, do know what could happen to you? Aren’t you afraid the Romans will punish you?”

“Let me tell you a story,” said Rabbi Akiva, and he told this story….

Once upon a time, there were many small fish who lived in a stream. One day, fox walked alongside the stream, and noticed that all the fish were darting to and fro, as if they were afraid of something.

“O fish, o fish,” said the fox, “why are you swimming around so? What is it that you are trying to escape?”

“We are trying to escape the nets that the humans have put in the stream to catch us,” said the fish.

“Oh, ho,” said the fox. “Then perhaps you should come up here and walk on dry land alongside me, just as your ancestors used to walk beside my ancestors years and years ago. That way you can escape from the nets of the humans.”

“What, go up on dry land!” said the fish indignantly. “You have a reputation for being smart, but that is a stupid thing to say. We may be afraid of what’s going on here in the water where we feel comfortable, but it would be much worse for us up in the thin air where we would surely die.” And so the fish stayed in the water, and did not try to walk beside the fox on dry land.

Rabbi Avika said, “Now you can see that we are just like the fish in the stream.”

Pappas asked the rabbi to explain.

“It’s like this,” said Rabbi Avika. “If we neglect the Torah, if we neglect what is central to our religion, we would be like fish out of water, and we would die. It is written in the Torah, ‘For that is your life and the length of your days.’ Perhaps we will suffer if we do study the Torah, but we know we will surely die if we don’t.”

Not long after that, the wicked Romans arrested Rabbi Akiva for teaching and studying the Torah. He was roughly thrown into the Roman prison, and there to his surprise he found Pappas.

“Pappas, what are you doing here?” asked Rabbi Akiva.

“O rabbi,” said Pappas, “you were right. I have been thrown into prison for nothing important. At least you have been thrown in prison for something worth dying for.”

And when Rabbi Akiva was killed by the Romans, he died in peace with the words of the Torah on his lips.

Botany in winter

I spent most of this past week at a retreat center in western Massachusetts where there was no internet service, and my cell phone service was spotty. I was staying in an isolated cabin. And there was hardly anyone else at the center the whole time I was there. Just me and the wood stove and the outhouse, and a hundred acres of woodlands.

I went there to do some reading, but I also found time to do some winter botany. Turns out you can identify trees in winter by looking at their bundle scars, stipules, and bud scales. Then I had to learn what bundle scars, stipules, and bud scales were.

Close up photo of a bud on a twig

There was only an inch or two of snow on the ground, so I could also look at moss. I found Dicranum sp., Thuidium sp., Callicladium haldanianum, and several others.

So even though it’s winter, you can still do botany.

Tiny moss plants
Moss growing on the bark of an Eastern Hemlock

Dream world

I woke up early, decided it was too early, and went back to sleep. I seem to have had a lot of dreams, none of which I remember. But I have vague memories of a dream involving my mother, during the years she had dementia. My mother died twenty-five years ago this month, and for the last few years of her life had gradually increasing dementia associated with supranuclear palsy, Parkinson’s, and the side effect of the drugs she was taking. She didn’t know who I was for the last couple of years of her life, and I didn’t have much in the way of real conversations with her for a couple of years before that. The mother who appeared in my dream last night was the person who had dementia — not always making sense, sometimes hallucinating. It’s funny how vivid my memories of that time still are, vivid enough to reappear in my dreams from time to time.

Plant morphology

I’ve been doing a deep dive into plant morphology. I went down this rabbit hole while doing planning for some ecojustice workshops I’m planning this summer. One of the activities I like to lead is dissecting flowers— it helps participants see things from a new perspective, and a great deal of ecojustice is learning how to see things (like society) from a new perspective.

If you’re going to dissect flowers, why not dissect non-flowering plants as well? However, ferns, green seaweeds, red seaweeds, mosses, etc. — differ in their structures from flowering plants, and thus they have their own terminologies. Even grasses, which are a flowering plant, have their own peculiar terminology.

I quickly decided the terminology of grasses was too complicated to present to casual workshop participants. Awn, floret, panicle, pedicel — I could envision everyone’s eyes glazing over as they heard those terms.

The basic terminology for ferns and seaweeds, though, was easier to present. And there were some interesting contrasts with flowering plants. For example, flowering plants have stems; seaweeds have stipes. Flowering plants have roots; ferns have rhizomes.

There is a transcendent point in all of this. Life on Earth is filled with incredible diversity. Our human language really can’t encompass that diversity. But we can use words to help us see some of that diversity a little better.

A drawing of a seaweed with the parts labeled.
Parts of seaweed, shown on Bladderwrack, Fucus vesiculosus

The ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis and us

Today brought another news story about the ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis: “A Southern Baptist leader hid decades of abuse. Will his fall doom SBC abuse reforms?” Why should Unitarian Universalists pay attention to this? Because we can learn a great deal from what’s going on in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Like the Southern Baptists, we Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have a history of sex abuse. (Nor are we alone: nearly every American institution, from schools to sports to health care to entertainment, has its own history of abuse.) I’ve mostly heard allegations about male UU ministers and lay leaders targeting women over the age of 18. But I’ve also heard allegations about powerful men targeting legal minors.

And like the Southern Baptists, we have a decentralized structure. Each local congregation is theoretically autonomous. If a local congregation wants to hire a minister who’s known to have a history of abuse, there’s no way to stop them.

From today’s news story, it appears that the Southern Baptists have used their decentralized structure to avoid taking responsibility for dealing with their sex abuse crisis:

“…Southern Baptist leaders boast of their power to spread the gospel but take little responsibility when things go wrong. And local congregations have little power to fix things that are broken on a national level. ‘The beauty of SBC is that we’re local and autonomous,’ said Adam Wyatt, a Mississippi pastor and member of the SBC Executive Committee, recently. ‘The challenge is, we’re local and autonomous.”

A lawsuit against Paul Pressler, one of the most powerful Southern Baptist leaders over the past fifty years, alleges that Southern Baptist leaders might talk about local autonomy, but they have also been evading responsibility.

This is what we Unitarian Universalists can learn from the Southern Baptists. We, too, like to talk about the autonomy of local congregations. To what extent do we (and I mean all of us) use local autonomy as an excuse to evade our responsibility to protect against sex abuse?

I think we Unitarian Universalists have made more progress at dealing with sex abuse than have the Southern Baptists. But we have lots more work to do before we really address the problem. At least we can learn from the Southern Baptist debacle that local autonomy is no excuse.

Teacher of the year

De’Shawn Washington, teacher of the year in Massachusetts, came to Cohasset at the 20th annual breakfast honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Washington is a fourth grade teacher at Maria Hastings Elementary School in Lexington, Mass.

His was one of the best talks I’ve heard in a long time. He spoke about how Martin Luther King’s message continues to inspire and inform his own teaching practice. But he really shone during the question and answer period after his talk. Of course you’d expect a fourth grade teacher to be able to think on their feet. What I really appreciated, though, was that he kept his focus on children and their families. His worldview is both humane and child-centered.

Washington is speaking frequently across the state this year. If you get a chance to hear him, go. We’re luck to have him representing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as our teacher of the year.

Washington’s talk was sponsored by the Cohasset Diversity Committee and the Cohasset Clergy. The hosting congregation this year was First Parish in Cohasset.

Man standing at a podium draped with the Pan Afrian flag.
De’Shawn Washington at the podium

(I had this post written then got caught up in work responsibilities and forgot to post it on Wed. So the post is dated Wed. but was actually posted on Sat.)

Parental rights, parental consent

An article in today’s Boston Globe by Dana Goldstein, “New school laws have unintended consequences in Fla.: bureaucracy,” reports on unintended consequences of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Act.” The Globe picked up this article from the New York Times, which ran it on Wed., Jan. 10 — here’s a free version of the article.

Under Florida’s new law, many school districts are now requiring permission slips for what used to be routine matters. For example, some school districts are now require permission forms for putting a band-aid on a child, because the new law requires that parents be able to opt out of health care services for their children.

The result, according to Goldstein, is increased paperwork: “Educators across the state say recent laws and regulations around parental consent have created an entirely new bureaucracy, filled with forms and nagging phone calls to parents.” Goldstein goes on to report: “While no state has gone as far as Florida with parental consent requirements, dozens of states are considering bills inspired by Florida’s laws.”

I don’t expect many new laws requiring parental consent for religious education programs. Nevertheless, one result of law like this is that parents are coming to expect to be allowed to exercise more granular control over their children’s experiences. Congregations are going to have to be increasingly sensitive to parent expectations — and congregations are going to face an increasing paperwork burden as they track parent consent on a widening range of matters.