The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

First First Degree

Last night I had my first degree work (actually 1st degree work, pun intended) as an officer. It really is a different perspective, being involved in the ritual rather than watching from the sidelines. I sponsored my neighbor, and he seemed very pleased by the result. Grand Lodge sponsored an open house for all lodges in Massachusetts in March, and in our case, it happened after our lodge met. So although we inspired a bunch of men to pledge our lodge, we could not vote on them until April, but we originally had our Entered Apprentice Degree scheduled for April. So we voted on these new men during our regularly scheduled lodge meeting. We had to get permission from Grand Lodge to meet on another night for the degree work (and also because there were six candidates), so we did the degree work nearly two weeks after voting. We will have to hold a special Lodge of Instruction for these brothers ourselves, and then things go back to our regular schedule. We will conduct the Fellowcraft degree in our regular May meeting, the candidates will visit the district Lodge of Instruction in May (where I will give a talk on the 47th Problem of Euclid), and hopefully something similar will happen for the Master Mason degree in June, so that the new brothers who show themselves to be qualified will be Master Masons before the lodge goes dark for the summer.

The degree work was fun, and I believe we have a good group of Entered Apprentices. I'm really looking forward to watching them come into their own in the lodge. I got some good-natured ribbing from the other officers about spending too much for the tuxedo, but I don't mind. The only down side to last night was that, because we were meeting on an unscheduled night, there weren't a lot of people besides the candidates and officers (current and former). There was no festive board, just pizza from a brother's pizza shop after the degree work. I hope the candidates realize that turn-out is usually better than it was last night, and the food is usually more involved than just pizza.

Tonight the district is doing exemplification on the First degree. All of the officers of all the lodges in the district have to appear at a specified lodge building (not ours this time) and perform the First degree in front of the Grand Lecturer and the District Deputy Grand Master. This ensures that each lodge is performing the ritual at sufficient proficiency. I have no need to be nervous about my performance because I'm going to be representing the candidate tonight, and the candidate is supposed to be confused and clueless. There will be a lot of friends from other lodges, and dinner, so I'm looking forward to it.

Wow! This has the busiest month I've yet had in Freemasonry. I had a dress rehearsal on April 1st, and performed the 6th degree for Lodge of Perfection on April 4rd at the Scottish Rite one-day class. I visited another lodge in the district on the 2nd of April for their three Master Mason degree ceremonies, elections, awarding of a past master's jewel, and birthday party. On the 9th I went to our lodge's Officer's meeting, and on the 14th I was part of the District Deputy Grand Master's suite for his fraternal visit of yet another lodge in the district. On the 16th, our lodge met and voted on candidates. On the 23rd, I went to Lodge of Instruction and gave a brief talk about Holocaust Rememberance Day. Yesterday were six Entered Apprentice degrees, and tonight is Lodge of Exemplification. That's nine masonic events in one month, a new record for me.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Wilmshurst: The Positions of the Officers of the Lodge

In consideration of my new office of Inside Sentinel, I thought I would share what W. L. Wilmshurst has to say about the positions of the officers in the lodge. W. L. Wilmshurst was an English Christian mystic and Freemason, a regional lecturer for the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), who wrote many books and essays about the esoteric side of Freemasonry. His book, The Meaning of Masonry, should be encouraged reading for all new Master Masons. I don't consider him to be authoritative, but he is so insightful, and often so profound, that every mason should know about him.

Here is a passage from The Meaning of Masonry (in this link).

It is important to point out that the Senior Deacon in Wilmshurst's description performs the duties that in a North American lodge are shared between the Senior Deacon and the Marshall, and most of the work done by the Inner Guard (or Inside Sentinel) in his description is done by the Junior Deacon in a North American lodge. That makes his analogy a bit skewed for an American audience, but I think the principles still hold, and to my mind, the function of the three senior officers is more important to the analogy, and pretty much the same here as in England.

I like this psychological approach, and The Meaning of Masonry is full of examples of this. Wilmshurst is of the opinion, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the three degrees of Freemasonry describe the initiatory journey of any seeker of enlightenment. Wilmshurst posits that very few men in all of history have truly earned the Master Mason degree, that only a few in each generation are truly Fellowcrafts, and that only a small subset of the population are true Entered Apprentices, but that with some applied consciousness, Freemasonry can increase these numbers. This assertion of Wilmshurst's may seem crazy to a lot of masons, but read his book before you judge.

Last night was Lodge of Instruction. I stood up during the announcements and gave an abbreviated version of the previous post about Holocaust Remembrance Day. I don't know how other grand lodge jurisdictions do things, so please allow me to explain what Lodge of Instruction means in the context of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. While many more traditional grand lodges require every candidate to memorize his catechism or lecture for each degree, in Massachusetts, that is at the discretion of the Worshipful Master. To ensure that masons are well-educated in their degree work regardless of whether they memorize their degree lectures, each masonic district has a Lodge of Instruction, and candidates must take instruction there with a certified (certified by Grand Lodge) instructor on each degree. Let me give you an example.

Let's assume that Mr. A. B. petitions St. John's Lodge (considering that there are hundreds of lodges so named, and two in Massachusetts, I'm hoping this is sufficiently generic) in February. The brothers vote on him in March's regular communication, and he receives a clear ballot. In April, he is initiated an Entered Apprentice at St. John's Lodge and given a cipher book with the EA lecture. Depending on the lodge, he may be assigned a more senior brother to teach him the lecture, but in any case, he will attend the Nth District Lodge of Instruction at the end of the month, and a certified instructor there will teach him the details of the EA degree he just went through. When the instructor is satisfied, the Secretary of the Nth District Lodge of Instruction will sign a book the candidate receives the night of the EA ritual. This may happen before or after any exemplification for the EA degree the Worshipful Master may require for the candidate. In May, Brother A. B. will pass to his Fellowcraft degree at St. John's Lodge. Later that month, he will attend Lodge of Instruction, be instructed on the FC by a certified instructor, and get his book signed by the Secretary, before or after any exemplification for the FC degree. In June, he will be raised to the Sublime Degree of a Master Mason in St. John's Lodge. Later that month he will attend Lodge of Instruction twice, and have two lessons about the MM degree, and each time get his book signed by the Secretary, with exemplification for the MM happening at the pleasure of the Worshipful Master. Only after he gets those four signatures can he sign the by-laws of St. John's Lodge, receive a dues card, wear a blue-bordered apron when he sits in his mother lodge, and gain the privilege of visiting other lodges.

Each of the lodges in the district rotates who hosts the Lodge of Instruction in a given month. Each Lodge of Instruction has a Worshipful Master (usually a Past Master of one of the lodges in the district), Wardens and Deacons, a Chaplain, a Secretary, a Marshall, and a Tyler. I'm not sure if the other officers are required. Dinner is handled by the hosting lodge. The hosting lodge also suppiles a speaker for the evening's entertainment, who usually gives a talk on a masonic and/or historical theme. This speaker need not be a mason, in which case the Lodge of Instruction can be opened not on any degree, and guests may attend. Otherwise, the Lodge of Instruction is opened on the highest degree of the brethren present, including the candidates. Members of the hosting lodge wear blue-bordered aprons, and everyone else not an offier of the Lodge of Instruction nor a Past Master or Grand Lodge officer wears a white apron. Candidates, and the officers of the lodges in the district are required to attend, but any mason of first degree or higher in the district may attend.

This structure has an enormous amount of potential on several fronts. If there were time and interest, I would love to see one tyled and one untyled Lodge of Instruction a month. The untyled Lodge of Instruction would be open to the general community: men, women, children, whoever wanted to come. There would be a lecture or performance of some kind of general interest to the community. The tyled lodge would cover masonic instruction on a deeper level, involving history, ritual, and other masonic interests. If they were sufficiently interesting, the attendance would take care of itself. I would like to see more Lodge of Instruction events, and see them well attended with masons and the general public. We have a lot to teach.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah. This is the day it is observed in Israel, and in the rest of the world among most of the world's Jews. I'm not aware what day the Soviets remembered their dead (the USSR tried to downplay the Holocaust as separate from the invasion of the USSR by the Wehrmacht), nor what day the Poles, Romani, the disabled, masons, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other victims of the Nazis chose. As a Jewish Freemason, and the grandson of a Jewish Freemason, this hits close to home for me. My grandfather, Brother Louis Barron, MD., was a surgeon in Patton's army, which helped liberate Buchenwald, and attended to the survivors, and he came back to Lynn, Massachusetts to find anti-Semitism still prevalent in his community. He was initiated, passed and raised a few years later in Mount Sinai Lodge in Lynn (a lodge which has since gone dark), founded a synagogue, and studied Torah every day in his later years, until his final years of severe illness. A proud man, he never told his lodge about his condition, and was suspended for non-payment of dues a few years before his death. I'd love to pay his dues for the last four years of his life and posthumously reinstate him, but his lodge has gone dark, and I have no idea whom to pay.

Many Jews regard themselves as the central victims of the Holocaust, because two out of three European Jews were extinguished from the earth. However, it should be remembered that 2-3 million Soviet POWs, about 2 million ethnic Poles, between 220,000 and 1.5 million Romani people (sometimes crudely called gypsies), half a million Yugoslavs (mostly Serbs), about a quarter million physically and mentally disabled people, between 80 and 200 thousand Freemasons, between 5 and 15 thousand gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered people and people questioning their sexual orientations, and between 2.5 and 5 thousand Jehovah's Witnesses were murdered systematically by the people of the Third Reich. I couldn't get a number on the trade-unionists, left-wing and right-wing groups that opposed Hitler, or those who were unlucky enough to be be mistaken for one of the above groups. Even if you belong to none of these groups, and have not a single person whom you love who belongs to one of these groups, you can still feel the chill of horror at the awfulness of this crime.

There is no consensus among Jews on how to remember this atrocity, only a consensus that it must be remembered for all time. The ultra-Orthodox believe that it is wrong to create a new memorial day, because the ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of Solomon's Temple, also the anniversary of the destruction of the Second Temple, also the anniversary of the Bar Kochba revolt, the razing of Jerusalem by the Romans, the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the mass deportation to Auschwitz of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, should also be the day we remember the Holocaust. They believe that modern rabbis do not have the power to create new days of religious observance.

Europeans and the UN choose January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I was unable to learn why the Israeli Knesset chose 27 Nissan (today) for the day. It was originally going to be 14 Nissan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, but that is too close to Passover, so it was moved forward 13 days.

In a small concentration camp in Lower Saxony, a group of Freemasons who were prisoners there formed a lodge, Loge Liberté chérie, in the camp. Worshipful Brother Paul Hanson, the Master, established a lodge room in Hut #6 using an empty ammunition box as the Altar. A Catholic priest who was not a mason tyled the lodge. Most of the brothers died before liberation, but two brothers survived, Fernand Erauw, who was initiated, passed and raised there, and (later Right Worshipful) Luc Somerhausen. The two later found each other at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and never were separated until the end of their captivity. In the spring of 1945, they were Death Marched together away from the Allied liberating army, and by the time they landed in hospital in Brussels, Brother Erauw, who was over six feet tall, weighed less than 71 pounds. In August of 1945. Brother Somerhausen sent a report to the Grand Orient of Belgium, detailing the lodge records of Loge Liberté chérie to the best of his memory. Right Worshipful Brother Somerhausen died in 1982. Brother Erauw died in 1997, the last survivor of Loge Liberté chérie.

As a mason, I thought I would point out that the masonic symbol of remembrance of the Holocaust is the forget-me-not. A German pin manufacturer who made masonic emblems also made the forget-me-not pin for a group within the SS which disbanded in 1934. The factory continued to make the pins, so German masons began buying them and using them as a secret symbol of membership in the Craft. As lodges across Germany were raided, their records and valuables confiscated, and their brothers imprisoned and murdered, German Brothers continued to shine the light of masonry in secret using these forget-me-not pins. Another story suggests that the forget-me-not was a common symbol of many charities in Germany. In any case, when the Grand Lodge of the Sun, in Bayreuth, was opened again in 1947, the forget-me-not pin was officially adopted as a symbol of masonic remembrance of the Holocaust.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hillel and Shammai

Rabbi Hillel the Elder was one of the most important sages of the Mishnah, the first redaction of the Oral Torah written down in the Talmud. Emmanuel Bronner, the soap-maker, regarded Hillel as one of the teachers of Jesus Christ. While that is debatable, they lived at the same time, and their ethical teachings have a lot of parallels. Considering that Jesus was a gifted student of Torah in the time of Hillel, it is impossible for Jesus not to have been influenced by Hillel.

At the time of Hillel, the latter days of the Second Temple, the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people was in the hands of pairs of scholars, called Zugot. Hillel, and his arch-rival, Shammai, were the last of the Zugot. Hillel had a liberal, loving interpretation of the Torah, while Shammai was harsh, strict, and exacting. The two were involved in many disagreements, and both formed Houses of Study that continued to be rivals. The House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagreed on many points of law, and their dispute was so polarizing that their houses could find no compromise. The Babylonian Talmud tells us that their dispute was solved when "a voice issued from Heaven announcing, 'The teachings of both are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the School of Hillel.'"

Hillel believed conversion to Judaism should be easy, divorce should be easy (Hillel ruled that a man can divorce his wife for burning a meal), that anyone should be allowed to study Torah, and differed with Shammai on many technical aspects of worship. In the Pirkei Avot, from the Mishnah, Hillel is quoted as saying, "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?".

Shammai made it very difficult for non-Jews to convert to Judaism, felt that divorce should be severely restricted, demanded that even tiny children fast on Yom Kippur, and usually interpreted the law in the most severe way. And yet, in Pirkei Avot, Shammai is quoted as saying, "greet every man with a cheerful countenance." Despite this last saying, the Talmud warns us "to be as humble as Hillel, and not short-tempered like Shammai." Later on in the Talmud, it is added, "Shammai's strictness could drive us out of the world; Hillel's humility brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence."

My favorite story of Hillel and Shammai has a masonic component to it. In the Tractate Shabbat in the Talmud, the following story is told:

Another story of a non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him: "Convert me [to Judaism] on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot." Shammai pushed him away with a builder's ruler that was in his hand. The non-Jew came before Hillel who converted him. Hillel said to him, "What you hate, do not do to your friend. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn!"
Everyone who has taken the Entered Apprentice degree pricks up his ears at the mention of the builder's ruler, the 24-inch gauge. As I am preparing to perform my first Entered Apprentice degree as an officer, I am thinking about the 24-inch gauge and the common gavel. I may save the common gavel for another post, but right now I am considering why Shammai used a 24-inch gauge to strike the potential convert.

The language of the Talmud is often cryptic and eccentric. This should not intimidate a mason. Why did the convert want to stand on one leg while being taught? At a first pass at an answer, it is more difficult to stand on one leg than on two, and one can only stay balanced on one leg for a short period of time. The convert is challenging the rabbis to be as succinct as they can be. The convert is demanding a sharp time constraint upon the Torah lesson. If I were going deeper, I would consider why the Tarot card of the Hanged Man has the hanged man suspended by one leg, why the angels in the vision of Ezekiel appear standing on one leg, study the letters of the Hebrew word leg to see if the numbers associated with them add up to a significant number, find scriptural passages that refer to one leg, and continue from there.

For the purposes of this post, the time constraint is my focus. The convert wants to learn the whole Torah, the law of the Jews, which many devote their entire lives to study, in a very brief period of time, much shorter than the time period we refer to as "at a sitting". Shammai is clearly convinced that one cannot learn the Torah that way. Shammai understands that the Torah takes a lifetime of daily study, and that a serious student of the Torah will schedule hours of study into his day. The rabbis of this period were lay people. They held secular jobs as well as being sages. Some of the rabbis of the Talmud were doctors, blacksmiths, brewers of beer, many different occupations. How were they able to do this, study Torah, and be the heads of households, father children, and hold court and judge legal cases?

The operative tool of the builder's ruler, the 24-inch gauge, is divided into three segments of eight inches each, representing a 24-hour period divided into three periods of eight hours each. This metaphor is used in exactly the same way by other groups than the masons, such as the eight-hour-day movement among labor unions of the last century. so this knowledge can be acquired outside a masonic lodge. Therefore I am not betraying any obligations if I discuss this metaphor further.

Eight of the hours of the day are to be devoted to the service of God, and a worthy distressed Brother. Labor unions regarded these eight hours as eight hours of recreation. Eight hours are to be devoted to one's usual vocation, or labor, and eight hours are to be devoted to sleep and refreshment, or rest. Shammai was teaching the convert to schedule time among his daily hours of recreation to study Torah.

As a modern working man, I struggle to balance the three parts of the 24-inch gauge. I am in my office for more than eight hours most days. I commute by public transport, and I give myself an hour in each direction to get to work. These eat away at the time devoted to the service of God and a worthy distressed Brother.

The Jewish religion asks its adherents to pray three times a day, for Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma'ariv. On the Sabbath, a fourth time, the Musaf, is added after Shacharit. Both Shacharit and Ma'ariv include the Sh'ma prayer and the Amidah prayer, and Minchah includes the Amidah but not the Sh'ma prayer. These are the modern parallels of the ritualized animal sacrifices scheduled daily in the Temple. When sacrifice was replaced with prayer, the prayers were aligned to the times in which the sacrifices were mandated to occur.

I do not pray as often as I am commanded to, and my prayers are somewhat abbreviated. On weekdays, I wake up, don a tallit and kippah, and recite a half-hour version of the Shacharit prayers: usually Ashrei, the Sh'ma, the Amidah, and then Aleinu, punctuated by Kaddish. I usually skip the Minchah entirely, except on Sunday, where I will often skip the Shacharit, and only recite the Minchah, with just Ashrei, the Amidah, and then Aleinu, punctuated by Kaddish. On weekdays, I recite a bedtime Sh'ma, but usually not a full Ma'ariv prayer.

I don't own tefillin and don't know the prayers associated with them. I've been meaning to visit a Chabad House and learn how to use them. They are expensive (about a thousand dollars), and I'm not sure that my level of commitment to this particular mitzvah is up to the task of owning tefillin and tying them daily.

I visit my synagogue almost every Friday evening and almost every Saturday morning for their services. On Saturday mornings, I don't recite the Amidah a second time during the Musaf (to be perfectly honest, I often visit the bathroom during Musaf, since I've been in the synagogue for three hours at that point), but only a few people in my synagogue do recite the Musaf Amidah.

When I was unemployed, I made an effort to recite Shacharit and Minchah, and to include a bedtime Sh'ma at night. The commandment to recite Sh'ma at night and in the morning is part of the Sh'ma prayer, and is in the Torah, whereas the commandment to recite the Amidah prayer three times a day is rabbinical. When I'm not working, I pray more. It's funny: compared to my friends who are secular or non-observant, I do a lot of religious activity, but compared to an Orthodox Jew, I'm hopelessly lax in my observance. Living with non-Jews means a kosher kitchen is impossible (and I would not demand that of them), and a mezuzah is not going to happen. My girlfriend is Buddhist, so I don't often pray in front of her. I brought her to Friday night services once, but I'm not sure that they speak to her condition. My Hebrew is not good enough to know most of the Berakhot. I recite Modeh Ani when I wake up alone.

Sometimes I feel bad that I don't do more, but to be honest, I've only been observant to any degree for one year, and I've learned an enormous amount in that time. I was raised without religion, and only started my religious practices in March of last year. I figure that if God lets me live a full life, I have plenty of time to learn Hebrew (and possibly Aramaic and Yiddish) and expand my practice.

An astute observer will notice that "what you hate, do not do to your friend" is the converse of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." While Christians believe that this maxim, called the Golden Rule, is theirs, it actually appears often in the Jewish tradition. Leviticus tells us to "love your neighbor as yourself," and later, "The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God." A similar sentiment also appears in Buddhism, the Baha'i faith, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Taoism. It comes as close to a universal ethical creed as probably exists among humankind.

My girlfriend came with me yesterday to buy a tuxedo. It was a lot of fun. I went with a conservative, tasteful outfit, and got a business suit for free for buying the tuxedo (although I had to buy a shirt and tie for the business suit, and ended up buying a second shirt and tie, and a few other accessories--- these men's shops know what they're doing). We have degree work on the 29th of April, where I will debut my tuxedo. I sponsored one of the candidates, a neighbor, who was elected in our last lodge meeting. I'm really looking forward to it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Inside Sentinel and Kabbalah

I have been installed as the Inside Sentinel of my lodge. I'm now an officer. I've been going to the officer's rehearsals intermittently, but now I'm required to go. I need to acquire a tuxedo. Sitting in one of the officer's chairs, with the jewel of my office around my neck, is a change of perspective. Looking at what happens inside the lodge from the perspective of guarding the lodge from things that get past the Tyler changes one's focus. Especially because he has a sword and I don't. Traditionally, the Inside Sentinel gets a poignard, or ceremonial dagger. I'm not sure that I get one, but I'd love to. I would imagine that, come September, I will have a different role to play in the lodge, but for now, I'm very pleased with my new responsibilities.

I was invited to go to a recruiting dinner for the Shrine tonight, but I've declined. I wanted to bring my girlfriend (who was also invited), but she had final exams this week and is wiped out, and I don't like missing Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services unless overwhelming gravity pulls me away. Even though I had a lovely Passover seder, and really enjoyed the Birkat HaChamah, I've been feeling spiritually out of sorts for the last week or so, and need to cleave to the Lord a bit to straighten myself out. Some time tomorrow afternoon I should feel better, after Saturday morning services and the Men's Group meeting. I'm not sure what it is. I'm not keeping to my diet, I've been eating leaven during the latter days of Passover, and even though I'm not skipping my morning prayers, I don't have the time to pray before work that I would like, and if I did, I'd want to spend it in the gym I'm not visiting.

Last year, I didn't learn how to count the Omer before it was time to count the Omer, and I resolved that this year I would count the Omer. This year, the first night of the Omer was Friday night, so I figured that I'd learn how in synagogue on the first night. But the rabbi leading services didn't count the Omer, and I forgot about it until the following Monday, which was the 4th night of the Omer, and I figured I'd missed too much to start.

The counting of the Omer is a mystical tradition in Judaism. Starting on the second day of Passover, and continuing until Shavuot, fifty days later, Jews are commanded by the Torah to count each day, 49 of them. 49 = 7 x 7, and seven is a mystical number in Judaism. God created the earth in seven days. Also, in the Tree of Life, there are ten s'firot. The three top ones, Keter, Chokmah, and Binah, exist in a higher realm, an ineffable existence. I don't really understand them very well, so I'll be silent about them.

The bottom seven are more concrete and tangible. Chesed is translated as "lovingkindness", and G'vurah is translated as "Severity". These are polar opposites that get balanced in Tiferet, or "Adornment". That's not a good explanation of Tiferet. Tiferet is where blissful gentleness and righteous action are harmonized into into something as cool as the other side of the pillow. The next polarity is between Netzach and Hod. Netzach, or "Victory", is leadership, righteousness, endurance, while Hod, or "Majesty" is being part of a community, intellectuality, ritual. The rabbis assert that Moses was Netzach and Aaron was Hod. It is when Netzach and Hod are balanced that we get Yesod. Yesod is the province of the Moon, of sexuality and dreams.

Finally, all the S'firot condense into the final s'firah, Malkuth, or "Kingdom", the realm of matter and earth. The Shekhinah, or Bride of God (the feminine aspect of God) dwells on earth, in exile with us. The Tabernacle, and later the Kodesh HaKodashim, or Sanctum Sanctorum, or Holy of Holies of the Temple, was the dwelling place of the Shekhinah, that portion of God that lives as God-on-earth. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the Shekhinah was exiled along with the Jewish people, and our suffering is Her suffering. On Friday night services, the Kabbalat Shabbat ritual invites her into the synagogue, as the Bride of God. A wedding party is organized, and we run to the front door to greet her with song and dance, singing Lekha Dodi, the bridal song of the reunification of the male and female aspects of God. The Sabbath is the one day of the week in which the male aspect of God reunites blissfully with the female aspect of God in an explosion of joy that every religious Jew basks in. The kabbalists warn us that there is Keter in Malkuth, the same way the Hermeticists claim "as above so below".

I have to be careful here not to offend. Jewish husbands and wives are invited to imitate what is going on above. Indeed, it is the holiest time in which to do so. But just as one can have a lot of fun at a wedding without being the bride or groom, everybody gets to enjoy the bliss of Shabbat, merely by noticing that Shabbat is occurring, but more especially by greeting the Shabbat with candles, prayer and song, bread and wine, and meals with friends and loved ones, and by saying goodbye to the Shekhinah in a significant way a sundown later.

I digress. Because there are 7 x 7 days counting the Omer before Shavuot, we get a week with each S'firah. The first week of the Omer, we contemplate Chesed. One the first day, we explore the Chesed aspect of Chesed, the second day, the G'vurah aspect of Chesed, the third day, the Tiferet aspect of Chesed, and so on until the seventh day, in which we contemplate the Malkuth aspect of Chesed. Day eight, today, we contemplate the Chesed aspect of G'vurah, and so on, until the 49th day, in which we contemplate the Malkuth aspect of Malkuth.

This is supposed to be a very profound experience for those who commit to the practice. Because I worry that I'm not giving the Kabbalah its due, I feel bad that I've missed the first few days of the Omer.

For those of you who know Kabbalah through the system spelled out in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, or later by the OTO, the indigenous Jewish system is a little bit different from what you understand, but your understanding of the S'firot is most likely solid enough to understand this version. Jews don't really care about the paths between the S'firot, and you do. Jews almost never regard s'firah on their own, but rather but them in chord arrangements of two to seven.

It is worth noting that the Jewish liturgy mentions all of the S'firot either explicity or implicitly. Rachamim is usually Chesed, and Din is usually G'vurah. Remember that "and" is a prefix in Hebrew, so "Chokmah uVinah" is Hebrew for "Chokmah and Binah". The B becomes a V when the Beit loses her dagesh before the shuruk. I see "uVinah" in the liturgy a lot more than I see "Binah". Also, there can be suffices, so that הַלְלוּהוּ בִגְבוּרֹתָיו from Psalm 150 could really be translated as Praise Him in His G'vurah rather than "Praise Him for His mighty acts," as King James translates it.

Other masonic stuff: I accompanied the District Deputy Grand Master on a Fraternal Visit to a lodge. I've visited that lodge twice before, and I like them very much. It was fun to be part of the visiting suite. He awarded 3 50-year medals, and I hate to say it, but I left when his suite was over, rather than staying for the four 2nd degrees they were performing that night. This lodge really takes care to give excellent ritual, and it's always a delight to see. I meant my brothers there no insult, but with lodge on Thursday, a new job that is demanding more of me as I learn its parameters, and a hungry dog waiting at home, I felt I should leave when the DDGM did. I've seen their lodge give the 2nd Degree before, and they really did an stellar job with some ritual that can be difficult if done imprecisely. Another brother from my lodge stayed to see their performance, and was very impressed. He missed it the last time I went, and he'll have a large part in this degree soon enough.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Masonic Quadrivia

While the word trivia has come to mean "useless knowledge", its original meaning was nearly the opposite. A similar word is elementary, which has come to mean "easy" rather than fundamental. Euclid's Elements is not an easy book to understand, and Jerrold Marsden's Elementary Classical Analysis is a book that someone who just finished a year of university calculus with an A grade would have difficulty understanding fully (which does not mean that it is not a great book).

The opposite of trivial is non-trivial, a word which can have savagely ironic meaning. I heard a lecture by the great number theorist Ken Ribet, in which he sketched Andrew Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Fermat first stated the conjecture, without proof, in 1637. Fermat claimed "I have discovered a truly marvellous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain." For more than 350 years, hundreds of mathematicians scrambled to find any proof, to no avail. Finally in 1993, Andrew Wiles submitted a proof about 150 pages long, in which several new branches of mathematics had been invented just to prove this result. The proof was flawed, and it took Wiles and a graduate student two years to fix the flaws in his theory of Galois Representations, which trimmed the proof down to a manageable 100 pages or so. In 1995, a team of experts declared that this new proof was correct. At his lecture, Ken Ribet wrote the proposition of Fermat's Last Theorem on a blackboard, and then said, "The proof of this result is non-trivial."

But nobody uses the adjective quadrivial. The Quadrivium consists of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. Arithmetic is the study of number. Geometry is the study of number in space. Music is the study of number in time. Astronomy is the study of number in space and time. These subjects were considered to be more difficult than the subjects in the Trivium.

By Arithmetic, the modern subject of Number Theory would be more appropriate. This includes the theory of prime numbers, factoring, divisibility, continued fractions (a fun subject hardly anyone studies anymore), Diophantine equations (or algebra restricted to whole numbers). The modern subject includes a lot of cryptography. If you use a credit card on the internet, chances are that it is being encrypted with a public key encryption as well as symmetric encryption algorithms, which involve factoring massively large prime numbers. Not many masons still use the Pig-Pen Cipher, but any simple substitution cipher can be cracked in milliseconds by a decent computer. Because of the easy availability of computers millions of times more powerful than the computers that fly the Space Shuttle, almost anyone has access to cryptography so powerful that no government or military agency can crack it within the time frame of human lives. Depending on your temperament, that's either thrilling or terrifying.

Geometry is what is today called Synthetic Geometry, which starts with Euclid's Elements, but continues into a study of Conic Sections. It could be argued that, after Newton, this would include Analytic Geometry and the Calculus, especially after Descartes. Nobody today studies Conic Sections the way the Greeks taught the subject, and the way that it was studied up until Kepler. A little bit of algebra makes a very difficult subject much simpler, and most high school students study Conic Sections using algebra, rather than straight-edge and compass.

Music would today be called Music Theory, especially the theory of harmony and harmonics. Pythagoras' treatment of music was mathematical in nature, showing the ratios of the lengths of strings of various musical intervals. A taut string one half the length of a given taut string will sound at one octave higher in pitch. Considering the original string to be the tonic, a string 3/4 the length will sound at a major fourth, and one 2/3 as long will sound at a major fifth. One 8/9 the length will be a whole step higher. The classical theory of music uses these ratios to derive scales, modes, harmonies, counterpoint, and other ideas in music theory.

Astronomy would today probably include Physics. We know so much more than the ancients did about this subject that the modern subject is totally different from the classical subject. The ancients believed that the sun orbited the earth, which seems pretty obvious except that it is not true. Explaining why this is not true is not easy (informal exercise for the reader: come up with a convincing argument why the earth actually orbits the sun, rather than the reverse. It is much harder than you think!). Because there's no immediate reason or evidence for the actual state of affairs, the ancients kept the geocentric model. To improve upon it without giving up the basic premise, they had to come up with little mini-corrections, called epicycles, to get the theory to match the data. Mercury, for example, has an orbit that requires Einstein's General Theory of Relativity to plot accurately. From the point of view of all the planets and the sun orbiting the earth, it appears to stop in its orbit, and go backwards from time to time, then stop again, and go forwards again. The culmination of ancient knowledge about Astronomy is the Almagest of Claudius Ptolemy, which is Arabic for the The Great Book (Al- usually means "the" in Arabic). It fails in the accuracy department, but is very elegant. The Catholic Church fused the Almagest into their cosmology in medieval times, and both Saint Thomas Aquinas and Dante treat this theory as a general fact. Copernicus discovered that the math gets much easier if you assume that the earth and other planets orbit the sun. He was careful to warn his readers that his model did not describe reality, but was a convenient fiction to make the calculations easier. When Galileo dared to assert that the solar system actually was heliocentric, the Holy Inquisition invited him to tour their torture chambers and inspect the instruments there.

Masons are told that of the Quadrivium, we should have an especial love for Geometry ("or Masonry" the Preston-Webb Monitor cheekily asserts). As one of the few Freemasons I know who can take a compass and straight-edge and use them to construct and prove the 47th Problem of Euclid, I'm aware that not all masons take this admonition to heart. It is worth pointing out that the future President Garfield, while Chaplain of Garrettsville Lodge #246 in Ohio, invented a new proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.

The Trivium and the Quadrivium together comprise the Seven Liberal Arts. Today we use the term Liberal Arts to mean the Humanities. Ask a Liberal Arts major to reduce a rational number to a continued fraction, to inscribe an ellipse in a parallelogram, to compose a melody in G Mixolydian, or to predict the next perihelion of Venus, and you might get smacked for your trouble.

I'm not as firmly convinced that the study of the Quadrivium is as central to Freemasonry as the study of the Trivium. While masons had a large influence on the creation of the Royal Society, and much of the Scientific Revolution, there's not much of the Quadrivium that is essential for every modern mason to learn. Certain numbers show up again and again in our rituals, and an understanding of these numbers and their relationships is very illuminating. I personally believe a mason should know the proof of the 47th Problem of Euclid, and know why the dimensions of the lodge room are what they are, but one can be a fine mason without that knowledge. At least one person in a lodge should know how to play the organ or a similar instrument, because every lodge needs music. While our ritual mentions a few heavenly bodies, I'm not sure a mason needs to know more about them than a basic public school education teaches. If anything, the symbolic meaning of these things is more important than a scientific understanding of them.

Every mason must be a friend of science, an ally of true knowledge. A mason sees no conflict between science and religion. We understand that the Grand Architect of the Universe leaves information for us to perceive for our own edification, and if a passage in a particular Volume of Sacred Law contradicts what the GAOTU is showing us, we know how to sort out these little discrepancies without insulting either source of knowledge. The value in studying the Quadrivium comes from a improved epistemology: by learning a myriad of things we can know, we learn how it is we actually know what we know.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Masonic Trivia

The Ahiman Rezon instructs new Fellowcrafts:

Grammar is the science which teaches us to express our ideas in appropriate words, which we may afterward beautify and adorn by means of Rhetoric; while Logic instructs us how to think and reason with propriety, and to make language subordinate to thought.
These three arts are collectively known as the Trivium, the initiatory phase of a Classical education, to be followed by the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. As the latter four are more technical than the former three, and taught with these as their prerequisites, the Trivium was considered to be more basic than the Quadrivium, and is where we get the modern word trivial from.

It was assumed that an unlearned person would begin by mastering these three arts, Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, and from this basis would be able to handle more specific concepts explored in more detail in the Quadrivium. Thus the ability to think rationally, to order these thoughts coherently, and to express them persuasively were abilities that an educated person had mastered.

That brilliant educator, Sister Miriam Joseph, wrote a book about the Trivium and what it means to education. She wrote:

Logic is the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.
This quote is worth exploring in more detail. Humans think. Animals probably are able to cobble a few impulses together into something more profound. My dog hears my footsteps in the stairwell, and can distinguish mine from my roommates and neighbors, and has an emotional response: his tail begins wagging vigorously with enthusiasm. He likes to sleep by the front door, and my footsteps alert him so that, without getting up, he wags his tail, slamming it into the floor with a resounding thump that I can hear as I ascend the stairs. When I take his leash off of the hook on the wall, he dances with enthusiasm, because he can deduce that we are about to go for a walk. Is this a thought he is entertaining? I'm not really sure.

But humans think, and most of it do it without any explicit training. Why, then, is there an art to thinking? Because we can think things that are false. And those false thoughts can get us into trouble. Without training, we can make leaps of thought that are unsound. In the study of logic, we learn about fallacies, common errors in deduction that humans are prone to making. There is hubris in learning about logic, because one cannot learn about logic without learning how often one has failed to apply logic. Learning logic requires self-examination, and this threatens the ego. It takes an evolved human to examine errors one has committed, and by implication, their consequences. Therefore it takes humility to learn logic, and logic teaches humility to some degree, but it can also instill arrogance as well. Logical failures are ubiquitous, and the student of logic, in spotting these errors in the field, can conclude that most people are stupid, or worse, duplicitous, and feel superior as a result. People who hold logic above all other arts can become misanthropic and disdainful of those who order their values differently. So the student who learns logic first and will learn other arts learns a two-fold humility: one humility upon learning that one is frequently erroneous, and another from sitting in fellowship with others who are frequently erroneous. Logic is Wisdom.

Grammar is the art of infusing words with meaning. Sister Miriam Joseph tells us that grammar consists of "inventing symbols and combining them to express thought". We may think that inventing symbols is something our ancestors did, a finished task, but that would be short-sighted. Each new learner recreates the world anew. A word becomes ours when we own it as if we had invented it ourselves. Any student may put a string of words together that have never been put together before, and in this, there is invention. But the crucial concept in this phrase is the expression of thought. What we think is trapped in our brains, and others can only infer what thoughts we think. This is the basis of human liberty. Our thoughts are our own, and only ours unless we choose to share them with others. That transfer may be orderly, but it rarely is. Too often we fail to convey what we really think, and each word we utter is recontextualized by our hearers, to the detriment of what we intend to mean. Because thoughts are impulses cobbled together, it could be that we don't really understand our own thoughts until we can trap them into structures that have meaning in them, like rounding up wild mustangs, and taming them one by one.

We can observe that there are different types of words. Some words convey objects, some actions, some relationships between other objects or actions, and some color the actions or objects we mean to describe. By knowing how these different kinds of words fit together, we can ensure that our words convey the meaning we intend for them as suitably as possible. Without a mastery of grammar, we do not know if our utterances actually convey what we intend them to convey, but our confusion is even worse that that: until we concretize our thoughts through writing or deliberate speech, our thoughts have no form, no transferability, no existence outside of our own minds. Grammar is Strength. It takes logic and grammar for us to become effective thinkers.

No matter how polished our thoughts may become through the arts of logic and grammar, they will not be accepted by others until we make an effective study of rhetoric. We have to train how to shape our thoughts into a form that others will receive with meaning intact. It is useless to formulate ideas that cannot be shared, and useless to have thoughts that do not fit into the circumstances one finds oneself in. Circumstances change. The people we find among us will vary. We need to be able to tailor our ideas to each and every new situation we are in, in order for them to be effective. Rhetoric is Beauty.

Mastery of the Trivium is essential for any mason. It is not only an intellectual imperative, but a moral imperative. Masons are distinguished by the self-discipline that our obligations put upon us. A mason should be a man of his word, and it takes study to master thought enough to organize thought, to shape thought into words, and to shape words so that they are appropriate for the occasion. A mason cannot fulfill his obligations without a commitment to a life-long study of the Trivium.

We do not assume that an Entered Apprentice has these skills when he is challenged to learn them upon taking his Fellowcraft degree. But we do assume that a Master Mason has, by virtue of being found worthy to take that degree. The responsibility to ensure that these skills have been mastered is balanced between a Lodge that finds a Fellowcraft worthy to take another degree and that Fellowcraft who stands before his lodge and takes the Oath of a Master Mason for the first time.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Next Year in Jerusalem

I found out more about this particular Birkat HaChamah, in the year 5769, this year. Yesterday was Erev Pesach, the day before Passover. This day for the Birkat HaChamah as only happened twice before in Jewish history: once before the original Passover, when Moses led the Israelites from Goshen out of Egypt, and the other was when the Jews defeated Haman at the first Purim. A Kabbalistic source claims that another Erev Pesach Birkat HaChamah was the fourth day of Creation, when God made the sun, but I'm not sure that last one is easily verified.

My family does not observe Passover. We did when my grandparents were alive, but not every year. I still remember my grandmother's Matzah-ball soup, which was delicious. My brother is in Malaga, in Spain, celebrating Semana Santa (Holy Week). A good friend of his belongs to a group, possibly more than a thousand years old, who carry a heavy statue of a saint down the streets of Malaga. The statue has gold and silver on it, and is very heavy. The group carry this statue every year on Semana Santa. My brother is the only Jew to ever join this group, as far as I'm aware. It's an honor he greatly enjoys. I'm not sure he's religious, either Jewish or Christian, but he likes the camaraderie.

I was so busy with Scottish Rite last week that I never gave myself enough time to find a seder, so on Monday I sent an email to the Men's Group that meets at my synagogue asking if anyone had a spare seat at their Passover table for me, for the First Seder. Observant Jews celebrate two Passover seders, on two consecutive nights. I usually only go to one. This week there are seders on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Thursday night is the officer's rehearsal at my blue lodge, and while I'm not an officer, there was a chance I might be called in to be present for reasons I'm not sure I'm at liberty to divulge (although nothing bad, I assure you, gentle reader), so I only looked for a Wednesday night seder. I didn't take any time off of work, even though the first day of Passover is a Yom Tov, or holy day, in which work is traditionally forbidden. I just started a contract job. If I were on salary in a job I've had for a while, I'd take a paid vacation, but I feel it's too soon to take unpaid leave from my new job.

A woman from my synagogue who I'm friends with invited me to her Passover seder. Her mother was there, and a few people from our synagogue, along with other friends of hers. It was a lovely evening. We used a Haggadah edited by Elie Wiesel, and I really enjoyed the way we went through the seder ritual. I brought a bottle of red wine from the Golan Heights, and a bottle of raisin-flavored kosher vodka. The ritual involves four cups of wine, or literally, four cups of a grape product, so the vodka was a legitimate substitute, which I enjoyed for the third cup. I had a great time, and was really touched that she would invite me.

The climax of the Passover seder is the toast for the fourth cup of wine:

לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בִּירוּשָׁלָיִם׃

or "Next year in Jerusalem!" Taken as a political statement, it has troubled me in the past. I struggle with my relationship to Zionism. I'm neither a Zionist nor an anti-Zionist. I'm grateful for the existence of the State of Israel, that the millenia of wandering for the Jews is over, but the Palestinian situation is unresolved, and I understand that Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) is their land, too. The Prophet ascended to Heaven from the Temple Mount, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque is a fitting celebration of that event. That means that if a Third Temple is to be built, either the Al-Aqsa Mosque will be destroyed (which I would regard as an atrocity), or it will have to be incorporated into the scheme of the new Temple. The implications to Freemasonry that the rebuilding of the Temple would have are enormous and fascinating, especially since we have regarded the Temple as a metaphor for the relationship between the soul, the body, and the world we inhabit. A real Temple would change the way we regard the Temple in our ritual.

Orthodox Jews, and some Conservative Jews feel that the Jewish religion is in some kind of suspension until there is a Temple in which the presence of God can dwell (the Shekhinah). Some want to resurrect the ancient Priesthood, the Kohanim, and start animal sacrifices again. There are rabbis in Israel who are planning the building of the Third Temple (although they represent an extreme fringe), and the Orthodox version of the Amidah prayer, recited thrice daily, asks God to help us rebuild the Temple and go back to regular animal sacrifices. Some fundamentalist Christians, especially post-Millenials, are offering to help rebuild the Temple because they believe that the Rapture will not occur until the Temple is rebuilt. They believe the Jews will convent en masse when Jesus returns, or spend eternity in Hell. Christian Zionists help on the assumption that the majority of Jews in Zion will convert to Christianity, which is kind of creepy, in my opinion.

When the Second Temple was destroyed, it was the most significant catastrophe for the Jewish religion in its history. The Jewish religion up until that point was centered around a central location, a single Temple. The three great festivals, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, required that Jews make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Passover included a sacrificial lamb, who had to be sacrificed in the Temple courtyard in order to be kosher.

The rabbis of that era responded by replacing animal sacrifice at the Temple with prayer. They wrote the Amidah prayer as a substitute, to be recited at the times where the Torah commands the Priesthood to sacrifice animals. The Kohanim lost their considerable power, and the rabbi replaced the priest as leader of the Jewish people. The rabbi is a lay person, like everyone else. Rabbis are more learned than the general population, but there is nothing inherently sacred about a rabbi, the way there is for priests in Catholicism.

Prayer is better than animal sacrifice. Let me repeat that: prayer is better than animal sacrifice. Once more: prayer is better than animal sacrifice. A well-developed spiritual technology does not need animal sacrifice, but it cannot exist without prayer or meditation. When we lost the Temple, Jews evolved into something better than we were before. When we lost a central edifice, we became universal in space, which is better than being local. We developed the Sabbath as a "Cathedral in Time" to replace the Temple we lost. The Sabbath is one of the greatest pieces of spiritual technology ever invented, and the loss of the Temple helped craft it into what it is today. We needed to lose the Temple and lose Eretz Yisrael to become the people we are today, stronger, deeper, and far more spiritual than we were before.

Zionism, as a movement, has had two very distinct forms. Secular Zionists were looking for a homeland for the Jewish people to stave off the horrible oppression Jews found in Europe and the Middle East. It started as an one of many other Nationalist movements throughout the world. Religious Zionists were looking to fulfill their destiny, and to bring about the Messianic Redemption. Religious anti-Zionists, like the Satmar Hasids, object to the State of Israel because it was not founded by the Messiah. They feel that a secular State of Israel is a blasphemy. Secular Zionists make no Messianic claims about the State of Israel. They just want a modern nation-state centered around the Jewish people, a Jewish homeland. Because being Jewish can be considered a religion, an ethnicity, a nationality, or a civilization, these lines get very blurred when deciding who is a member of a Jewish nation-state.

I am of the opinion that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world in which to be a Jew. While there was some oppression in Spanish America, and even under the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, the First Amendment gave Jews freedom of conscience. Moses Michael Hays was made Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in 1792, and in 1825, Solomon Simson became Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. While there has been anti-Semitism in the USA, and still is to some extent, there have never been pogroms here like there have been everywhere else in the world. Worshipful Brother George Washington addressed a synagogue in Providence, RI, when he was President. Our current President is hosting and attending a Second Seder, so that his Jewish employees can spend the First Seder with their families. There are dark moments in our history, such as the lynching of Leo Frank and the Jewish quotas. The Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman was accepted to Columbia University, and then later rejected because they had exceeded the number of Jews they were willing to matriculate that year. Many boats loaded with Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism and Fascism were turned away at our ports in the 1930s and 1940s. That being said, Jews have been able to live a life here in the USA that is better, freer, and happier than they have in any other country in the world, including the State of Israel.

So I don't thirst for a return to Zion as many Jews do. I have to admit that the Hatikva affects me emotionally:


Transliteration English translation
כֹּל עוֹד בַּלֵּבָב פְּנִימָה

Kol ‘od balleivav penimah As long as in the heart, within,
נֶפֶשׁ יְהוּדִי הוֹמִיָּה,

Nefesh yehudi homiyah, A Jewish soul still yearns,
וּלְפַאֲתֵי מִזְרָח, קָדִימָה,

Ul(e)fa’atei mizrach kadimah, And onward, towards the ends of the east,
עַיִן לְצִיּוֹן צוֹפִיָּה;

‘Ayin letziyon tzofiyah; An eye still gazes toward Zion;

עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִּקְוָתֵנוּ,

‘Od lo avdah tikvateinu, Our hope is not yet lost,
הַתִּקְוָה בַּת שְׁנוֹת אַלְפַּיִם,

Hatikvah bat shnot alpayim, The hope of two thousand years,
לִהְיוֹת עַם חָפְשִׁי בְּאַרְצֵנוּ,

Lihyot ‘am chofshi be’artzeinu, To be a free people in our land,
אֶרֶץ צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלַיִם.

Eretz-tziyon vy(e)rushalayim. The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

But I think it's a terrible national anthem. No non-Jewish citizen of the State of Israel can sing this song, and I believe in freedom of conscience.

That being said, while I can find that stirring in my nefesh yehudi, my Jewish soul, when I search for it, I'd rather be a free person in the USA. I believe in the separation of Church and State. My patriotic loyalties are to the USA and not to Israel. There was a case a few years ago of a Jewish citizen of the USA spying for Israel, and I regard him as a traitor. I regard Israel as a valuable, if troubled ally of the USA. I know that the Right of Return waits for me there, but I cannot imagine that I will ever make Aliyah, and become an Israeli. I thank God the State of Israel exists, although I know that God will destroy the State of Israel if it ends up offending Him, just as He has done before.

This has been a long post, but I want to justify why I feel that "Next year in Jerusalem" is an appropriate toast to end the Passover seder. I'm reading a book right now, "Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust", by Yaffa Eliach. There's a story in there about Passover in Auschwitz. A group of Hasidic Jews risked their lives to scrounge together a few pieces of matzah in order to have a Passover seder in their barracks. They mixed unraised flour they bribed a Polish employee of the camp to obtain, mixed it with water, and burned it over an open fire to produce blackened panes of something that while technically matzah, was pretty nearly inedible. At any stage of this process, if a guard had spotted them, the would have been murdered. They had no wine, no charoset, no bitter herbs, no roasted egg, no shankbone. All they had was this improvised matzah. For them to say "Next year in Jerusalem", those who were facing imminent death, is an optimism that verged on madness. For me, a free Jew in a free country, to echo even an iota of their faith is the very least I can do. Someone survived that seder, and now lives in Jerusalem. His prayer came true. That's the power of faith.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Blessing of the Sun

This morning the sun returned to its starting place. The Jewish calendar is lunisolar, defined both by the sun and the moon. The Muslim calendar is lunar. Months don't neatly divide into years, so there's a procession of months compared to seasons in the Muslim calendar, which means that Ramadan can occur in mid-summer (which is harsh), or mid-winter (which is relatively easier). The Jewish calendar has lunar months (traditionally, someone had to witness the new moon in order to declare a Rosh Chodesh, or new month), but instead of leap days in a leap year, we have leap months. The month of Adar doubles up into Adar I and Adar II. This fixes the seasonal drift: Passover is always in spring, Shavuot in summer, Yom Kippur in fall, Hanukkah in winter.

I was born on a Jewish leap year, 5730, and my brother was born two years previously. While, in the civil calendar, our birthdays are two days apart (me February 3, him February 5), in the Jewish calendar, we are three weeks apart (me 27 Shvat, and him 6 Shvat).

There's a dopey joke about this kind of thing. Two Jews are talking. One asks the other, "What date is Passover this year?", and the other replies, "15 Nissan, the same as every year."

Anyway, this morning was the day the sun is in its starting position for this 28-year cycle. Every 28 years, the civil calendar and the Jewish calendar sync up again, and the ancient rabbis understood this. Well, at least to the degree that they understood that a solar year is not exactly 365 years, but 365 years with a remainder. Back then, they thought a solar year was 365 1/4 days, but today we know it to be roughly 365.24219 days, and we adjust the civil year accordingly. Because the Jewish year has religious significance, making adjustments for astronomical data has to be approved by a Beit Din (a council of rabbis) and due to the Diaspora, no such contemporary Beit Din would be considered definitive.

In the Talmud, there is a blessing the ancient rabbis wrote to celebrate the start of this cycle, the place the sun was when it was created. They wrote a blessing for us to say at dawn of April 8th of any BCE year that divides into 28 with a remainder of 7, or any AD year that divides into 28 with a remainder of 21, to greet the sun at the start of its cycle, called the Birkat HaChamah, or Blessing of the Sun.

Because it's so rare an occurance, most Jews (and even most rabbis) have absolutely no idea what the proper ritual is for the Birkat HaChamah. A Jew would be very lucky to have performed the Birkat HaChamah four times in his or her life. So last night I did a Google search, and ended up printing out a ritual booklet that Chabad prepared for today.

I am not a Chabadnik. I am not Orthodox, and I do not use the Ashkenazic dialect of Hebrew when I pray, as they do. I am totally opposed to Chabad Messianism, and while I admire their Jewish outreach, I do not intend ever to join them. But I am grateful that they published a guide to one of the rarest Mitzvot.

I woke up at 6 AM this morning, put on my kippah and talllit, and dressed in a new pair of pants. Why? Because one is supposed to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing, and the poor Chabad rabbi who wrote the booklet could not find scriptural or talmudic authority to justify the Shehecheyanu being recited for this occasion. One is allowed to say the Shehecheyanu when one puts on a new garment for the first time, so by wearing a new garment for the first time while performing the Birkat HaChamah, one makes sure to absolutely justify saying the Shehecheyanu. Welcome to the complicated world of Orthodox blessings.

One is supposed to look directly at the sun for a brief moment, but it was cloudy this morning. The sun was behind the buildings across the street, and I could not see it. It has been cloudy all morning, and I still haven't seen the sun, but I would imagine that the same God who put a cloud between me and the sun will forgive me for not seeing the sun directly after really trying to.

I went back in and started the ritual, using the booklet as my guide. My Hebrew skills are still fairly weak, so I started using their transliteration, but the Ashkenazic pronounciation really threw me off, so I read the Hebrew, really slowly. First there were a few lines of Psalm 148, then the actual Birkah HaChamah, then the Shehecheyanu, then Psalm 19. All of which I was not familiar with, so it was pretty rough going.

Then came Psalm 121 (I lift mine eyes up to the mountains. From whence will my help come?). A rabbi somewhat associated with my particular affiliation, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, wrote a very beautiful tune to this psalm, which I sang. Then Psalm 150, which is a favorite of mine. I used a tune I got off of YouTube.

After a passage of the Talmud I had trouble pronouncing, and Psalm 67, there was the Aleinu prayer. I'm used to saying the Aleinu prayer as the very last prayer, so it was weird to say it before my usual morning prayers. I backtracked and recited the Shema Yisrael prayer and the Amidah, and finished off with another psalm for good measure.

It was a very interesting ritual, and I look forward to doing it again on April 8, 2037. Happy Passover, everyone.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Busy week

Wow, a lot has happened since my last post. I've worked six days on my new job, visited another lodge in my district, and performed the 6th Degree with the Lodge of Perfection cast in a one-day class for the Scottish Rite. I still haven't found a Passover seder for Wednesday night.

I'm in training at my new job, learning the presentation I'll be giving to new clients, learning my way around the user interface our clients use, and how to handle the various errors that happen during setup. The official training schedule has me learning new things for at least another week, then sitting along with an experienced analyst through each step in the setup procedure, then I'll be doing it solo. I'm really excited, and feel really confident that I can do a good job here. The commute is manageable with public transport, and allows me easily to go to my lodge, my synagogue, and Grand Lodge after work.

I had to leave early the third day of work for rehearsal at Lodge of Perfection, and got outed as a mason. I bought a gold and onyx masonic ring on eBay. It was a steal: a 1930s estate piece, retailed for $1499 but I got it for $160, and they would only deliver it to me if I signed for it in person, so I had to have it delivered to my new job, and everyone saw it.

Please understand that I'm proud to be a mason, but don't really want to tell everyone I work with that I'm in the Craft before they know anything else about me.

The Valley of Boston meets on the 7th floor of the Grand Lodge building downtown. It's easier to get to Grand Lodge from work than it is to get home from work. I only had a walk-on part, credited as "Tribesman" in the program. The dress rehearsal was pretty much flawless, and I was really excited to put on the actual performance.

The next night, I visited the lodge of a few brothers I met at the Grand Lodge communication. My District Deputy Grand Master is still the Worshipful Master there. I came straight from work, taking the subway there. The building is old, late 19th century, and was built to be a York Rite building, and still has an active Royal Arch Chapter there. I'm not yet a York Rite brother, but I intend to be in the future. The walls are full of Royal Arch and Blue Lodge memorabilia, some of which is nearly 150 years old. The lodge is the oldest of five that meet in the building, which has two lodge rooms. The larger one has a working pipe organ, and is enormous. This is the mother lodge of my lodge's organist, and he's the organist there, too (as well as being the Grand Organist).

It just so happened that they were electing on five petitioners and an affiliate member, had a huge chicken dinner, were raising four brothers to the Sublime degree of a Master Mason, were awarding a Past Master's jewel, and had a birthday cake for the lodge secretary, so it ended up being a long night. That being said, it was a delight to sit with a great group of brothers. I knew the brother who was affiliating, because he is a Past Master of another lodge I have visited, and a friend. I got to talk to the four Fellowcrafts before their raising, and I liked them all very much. The ritual was expertly done, and even though I was totally exhausted by 11:30 PM, at the end of the night I was happy and exhausted. The brother who drove me and the new affiliated member home was taking the Scottish Rite one-day class that weekend, along with another brother at his lodge.

Two days later, I awoke at 5:30 to be at the Grand Lodge building by 6:30 AM to wolf down breakfast before rushing upstairs for costumes and makeup. At breakfast, the brother who sponsored me in the Scottish Rite, a police officer, noticed my antique jewel. It turns out that a jewel just like it was stolen around the time I bought mine on eBay. We brought it to the Consistory secretary for him to examine, and it turned out not to be the missing jewel. I would have happily returned it, but it was a different jewel, so I wore it proudly for the rest of the day. It looks a lot like a modern Masonic Service Award (MSA) jewel (think of it as a 32.5°), which caused a bit of confusion, but nobody objected.

We hit the stage at 8:30, and by 10:00 I was out of makeup and my costume, back in a business suit, and ready to celebrate with the cast at a nearby restaurant. I came back afterwards for the other degrees. My DDGM was in the cast of the 18th Degree with Rose Croix, and one of the brothers who had a speaking role in my cast was the lead in the 23rd Degree. The Consistory cast did an excellent job. When it was over, I went home on the subway with the brother who drove me home two nights previously. I love these one-day classes, but they are exhausting. I can only imagine what they are like for those who are in more than one degree, or more than one Scottish Rite body. Our valley does two of them a year, and the neighboring valleys do a monthly or bimonthly offering.

There was a Shrine recruiter with a card table at the Collation, and I signed up for a nite for potential Nobles, on a night I probably can't make. I'm interested in joining the Shrine, but I'm wary that it will take up even more of my life than I'm already giving to other branches. But I really want the fez. If my girlfriend bought me a fez, she could wrap me around her little finger. Good thing she doesn't read this blog.