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

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Destruction of the Temple

Tomorrow night begins Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath immediately preceding Tisha B'Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. Jews remember the destruction of Solomon's Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. It is also the anniversary of the destruction of Zerubbabel's/Herod's Temple by the Romans. It's also the anniversary of:

  • The twelve scouts of Canaan returning from their mission with exaggerated tales of how mighty the Canaanites were. Because of the general panic of the Israelites in the desert over these false tales, God doomed the Israelites to wander in the desert for an additional 40 years, and condemned them all to death in the wilderness, allowing only those born in the desert to reach the Promised Land (except Joshua and Caleb).
  • The failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, the last Jewish king to rule in Palestine.
  • The razing of Jerusalem by the Romans, and the final ancient exile of the Jewish people from their homeland.
  • The expulsion of Jews from England in 1290.
  • The Alhambra Decree of 1492, expelling the Jews from Spain.
  • The expulsion of the Jews from Vienna, 1670.
  • The start of World War I, 1914.
  • The mass deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews to Treblinka Extermination Camp, in 1942.

Some of the later anniversaries were not accidents. The Tsarist Russians and Nazis would often time their massacres for Jewish holidays to further demoralize the Jews, and the irony of exiling or murdering us on Tisha B'Av was not lost on many of the Jews' historical enemies.

Oddly enough, the Messiah is supposed to be born on Tisha B'Av. This strange midrash is supposed to provide encouragement, that even on the Jews' saddest day, there is a glimmer of hope.

Because Solomon's Temple was destroyed on Tisha B'Av, this anniversary is a Masonic day of mourning as well. Every mason, and especially every Scottish Rite Prince of Jerusalem, would do well to have a moment of silence on Thursday to remember what we lost.

Orthodox Jews are prohibited from observing Holocaust Remembrance Day (post-Talmudic rabbis do not have the authority to create new days of observance, not until the Messiah gives them that permission), so they remember the Nazi Holocaust on Tisha B'Av.

This year, Tisha B'Av falls on a Wednesday night, and continues until an hour after sundown on Thursday. Traditional observance includes the harshest kind of religious fast for these 25 hours:

  1. No eating or drinking of any kind, save life-saving medicines.
  2. No washing or bathing.
  3. No applying of creams or oils, except if medically necessary.
  4. No wearing leather, especially not leather shoes.
  5. No sexual relations. Some refrain from physical gestures of affection of any kind, even going so far as not to greet others during this time.

Reading the Bible is forbidden (because that can be joyous), except for the books of Lamentation, Job, and parts of Jeremiah that address the destruction of the Temple. One is forbidden to sit in a chair until after noon, sitting on the floor instead. Some people sleep on the floor without a pillow the night of Tisha B'Av. Old or damaged prayer books and Torah scrolls are given a funeral and buried, the same way that old or damaged flags are burnt on Flag Day. Work is to be avoided, if possible.

There is an evening synagogue service, and the entirety of the Book of Lamentations is sung. The cantor we had last year began sobbing in the middle, and someone else had to take over. Like I said before, it's a very sad day.

Last year, Tisha B'Av fell on a Saturday night to Sunday night. I observed all of the mandatory rules, which was easier because of the weekend. This year, it falls on a work day, and I'm more conflicted. My heart wants to follow all the observances, but two things interfere. One: I have a go-live with a major medical practice at my job, and I'm a contractor, so I don't get holidays. Our client has 9 branches, all of which are going live on Thursday, and I'm the project lead. If I fast, I'm going to be a mess when I need all my mental acuity. Two: I'm moving this weekend through next week, and I don't want to fast and do heavy lifting. I'm really conflicted as to what to do. I need a good night's sleep for my go-live, so I might go to services, but not observe the fast. I feel like a bad Jew, but I'd rather not be an unemployed, homeless Jew on top of it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pike gets me thinking

I'm reading Albert Pike's Magnum Opus, or the Great Work for The College of the Consistory. I'm enrolled in the School of Perfection (4° to 14°) for the next two years, but since I've mailed off my initial assignment for the School of Perfection, and am waiting for my next assignment, I thought I would read ahead.

It is important to note that I am in the Valley of Boston, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction (NMJ) of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR), and Albert Pike was Sovereign Grand Commander of the Southern Jurisdiction (SJ). We respect Illustrious Brother Pike in the NMJ, but he was never our leader, and our ritual and degree titles are different from his vision of what they should be. The Southern Jurisdiction is the mother jurisdiction of all Scottish Rite jurisdictions in the world, but this was established before Pike was born, and it is not at all clear that SJ exerts any authority over other jurisdictions. The book he is best known for, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, or Morals and Dogma for short, is a difficult read and compares a lot of different faiths without singling any one out for special praise. That makes fundamentalists very uncomfortable, and anti-Masons love to misquote Morals and Dogma to make their point about Freemasonry in general, falsely claiming that Pike was the world leader of all of Freemasonry, an office that does not exist. In the NMJ, we can side-step the controversy by pointing out that Pike did not write our degrees, and that he has never had any authority over the NMJ. I'm not sure our bitterest enemies, especially the proponents of the Taxil forgery and the Three World Wars crowd, care very much about facts.

In any case, Morals and Dogma gives the reader the following warning:

In preparing this work, the Grand Commander has been about equally Author and Compiler; since he has extracted quite half its contents from the works of the best writers and most philosophic or eloquent thinkers. Perhaps it would have been better and more acceptable if he had extracted more and written less.

Still, perhaps half of it is his own; and, in incorporating here the thoughts and words of others, he has continually changed and added to the language, often intermingling, in the same sentences, his own words with theirs. It not being intended for the world at large, he has felt at liberty to make, from all accessible sources, a Compendium of the Morals and Dogma of the Rite, to re-mould sentences, change and add to words and phrases, combine them with his own, and use them as if they were his own, to be dealt with at his pleasure and so availed of as to make the whole most valuable for the purposes intended. He claims, therefore, little of the merit of authorship, and has not cared to distinguish his own from that which he has taken from other sources, being quite willing that every portion of the book, in turn, may be regarded as borrowed from some old and better writer.

The teachings of these Readings are not sacramental, so far as they go beyond the realm of Morality into those of other domains of Thought and Truth. The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite uses the word "Dogma" in its true sense, of doctrine, or teaching; and is not dogmatic in the odious sense of that term. Every one is entirely free to reject and dissent from whatsoever herein may seem to him to be untrue or unsound. It is only required of him that he shall weigh what is taught, and give it fair hearing and unprejudiced judgment.

I have to be very careful here. My brothers at the Guthrie Scottish Rite Temple have been very generous in letting me study their courses, and I am very grateful to them for their gift of masonic light. I am also loyal to my mother valley and mother jurisdiction. SJ has its Master Craftsman program, and the College of the Consistory is a SJ program, but I'm not aware the NMJ has anything similar. If I were aware of a NMJ program that invited a brother to study their degrees in depth, I would take that program in preference to a SJ program, because I'd be studying my own degrees instead of an extra-regional variant. A visit to both jursidictions' websites reveals nearly 50 books for sale at the SJ website, and only one at the NMJ website, and that book is not about Scottish Rite Freemasonry. I'm still very new to the Scottish Rite, so I assume that we at the NMJ are a bit more guarded about masonic education, and I will be invited to study and learn when I prove myself worthy. Until then, I am glad that other opportunities have been afforded to me, and it is my sincere hope that the light I gain from these SJ programs will go some way towards making me worthy of whatever educational program the NMJ offers its brothers. It is most sincerely not my intention to offend my NMJ brothers by studying SJ ritual, and it should not be interpreted as a preference for SJ practices over NMJ practices.

In Sovereign Grand Commander George Newbury's history of the NMJ, he notes that the NMJ at one time made the Rose Croix (18°) degree Christian-only, a restriction that Ill. Bro. Newbury rejected and dropped. He also notes that Pike was deeply unhappy about this restriction. Pike writes in Magnum Opus: "If, anywhere, brethren of a particular religious belief have been excluded from this degree, it merely shows how gravely the purposes and plan of Masonry may be misunderstood. For whenever the door of any degree is closed against him who believes in one God and the soul's immortality, on account of the other tenets of his faith, that degree is Masonry no longer. No Mason has the right to interpret the symbols of this degree for another, or to refuse him its mysteries, if he will not take them with the explanation and commentary superadded."

It is fascinating how Pike expounds on Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, with one Council of Kadosh degree in the explicit idiom of each, and insists that Knights Kadosh have to learn about each of the major Abrahamic faiths and go through a degree in the mode of each faith in order to achieve the title. He also speaks about Masonry's compatibility with Buddhism and Hinduism, even calling the Buddha a mason. His liberties with masonic history rankle the more historically-minded Freemasons I know, but he is careful to explain that he is being allegorical, and he is expounding on archetypal truths, not historical truths.

(UPDATE: I found this explanation in the Master of the Symbolic Lodge lecture (20°):

We teach the truth of none of the legends we recite. They are to us but parables and allegories, involving and enveloping Masonic instruction; and vehicles of useful and interesting information. They represent the different phases of the human mind, its efforts and struggles to comprehend nature, God, the government of the Universe, the permitted existence of sorrow and evil. To teach us wisdom, and the folly of endeavouring to explain to ourselves that which we are not capable of understanding, we reproduce the speculations of the Philosophers, the Kabbalists, the Mystagogues and the Gnostics. Every one being at liberty to apply our symbols and emblems as he thinks most consistent with truth and reason and with his own faith, we give them such an interpretation only as my be accepted by all.)

This little nugget from the Secret Master (4°) lecture I'm sure would rankle other masons:

If you have been disappointed in the first three degrees; if it has seemed to you that the performance has not come up to the promise, and that the common-places which are uttered in them with such an air, the lessons in science and the arts, merely rudimentary, and known to every school-boy, the trite maxims of morality, and the trivial ceremonies are unworthy the serious attention of a grave and sensible man, occupied with the weighty cares of life, and to whom his time is valuable, remember that those ceremonies and lessons come to us from an age when the commonest learning was confined to a select few, when the most ordinary and fundamental principles of morality were new discoveries; and that the first three degrees stand in these latter days, like the columns of the old, roofless, Druidic Temple, in their rude and primeval simplicity, mutilated also and corrupted by the action of time, and the additions and interpolations of illiterate ignorance. They are but the entrance to the great Masonic Temple, the mere pillars of the portico.

As someone for whom the Middle Chamber lecture, as I received it, stole my heart, this does not sit well with me. How many of my brothers actually study the seven liberal arts? How many masons do you know still put an apostrophe before every final s? Brother Esquire insists that Pike loved the first three degrees, but was deeply critical of the Preston-Webb versions of them. I'm also aware that the Morals and Dogma version of this lecture is less harsh than this. But even still, I don't reject this paragraph out of hand. While any contemporary mason will tell you that there is enough in the three Craft degrees to satisfy a lifetime of curiosity, I understand the yearning to explore further degrees and bodies, and the Scottish Rite has a marvelous opportunity to satisfy this yearning in its brothers.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Biblical Inerrancy

This was written in response to what The Euphrates wrote about Inerrancy and Homosexuality in the Episcopalian Church at Freemason Information, but I am reposting it here.

The Orthodox tradition in my faith starts with inerrancy of the Five Books of Moses, but provides extensive commentary and interpretation through the Mishnah (Oral Torah), the Talmud, and nearly two millennia of commentaries upon them. Thus, while Scripture unfiltered tells us, "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them [Leviticus 20:13]," there must be at least two witnesses [Deuteronomy 17:6], and the Talmud tells us that a court of 23 judges had to vote, and the vote could not be unanimous (which would hint at a conspiracy to execute the condemned), and that the two witnesses could not corroborate their testimony before testifying, but would have a moral obligation to intervene, warning the accused that their behavior carried the death penalty. Only if the accused acknowledged each warning, but continued their behavior after each of two witnesses warned them to stop could they stand trial. Thus while the Mosaic Law says put them to death, the Rabbinic Law requires that the two men have sex somewhere where a person could come upon them in flagrente delicto, warn them to stop or face the death penalty, and continue even after having been warned and having replied that they were going to continue regardless, have another person do the same thing, and then have the two witnesses, independent of each other, report the transgression to the authorities, and have a tribunal non-unanimously vote for their execution in order for the sentence to be carried out.

So while the Law is inerrant, the Rabbis in their wisdom made it nearly impossible to extinguish two lives for loving each other in a non-standard way.

Interestingly, the word abomination in the Levitical law is תּוֹעֵבָה, the same word used to describe eating the flesh of swine, hares and hyraxes, as well as fish without scales, and shellfish; having sex with a menstruating woman, using a rigged scale to cheat a customer, wearing women's clothing, remarrying a wife after divorcing her, possessing gold or silver taken from an idol, and for a woman to crush the testicles of one of her husband's assailants.

The death penalty is also assigned for a lot of offenses in the Torah: Fortune telling, blaspheming, violating the Sabbath, disobeying or publicly cursing one's parents, a woman losing her virginity before marriage, adultery with one's daughter-in-law, false witness, contempt of court, allowing a dangerous ox to gore a neighbor through negligence, prostitution by a daughter of a priest, worshiping Baal Peor or sacrificing to any other god than YHVH, and adultery with a married woman all carry the death penalty.

Execution took place via stoning, decapitation, strangulation, or being forced to drink molten lead. Moses orders people to be impaled, as does other leaders in the later books, but YHVH never proscribes that as a legal penalty.

The Talmud mitigates this severely by making it very difficult for a court to put anyone to death. The Talmud tells us that if a court executed one person in seven years, it was considered an excessively "bloody" court.

Because I'm not a Christian, I don't understand why a few Christians fixate upon the homosexuality of others; and yet eat pork, allow their children to curse at them at the mall, have pre-marital sex, and enjoy the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. Maybe Jesus or Paul says more about homosexuality that I'm not aware of. If the New Law trumps the Old Law, which Levitical sins still apply?

P.S. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because their inhabitants were cruel to strangers, and lacked basic hospitality. While they tried to bugger the Angel of the Lord that visited Lot, they had already been condemned to death for their previous sins of cruelty and inhospitality.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Albert Pike Warns Us in 1857

I edited this from my initial post.

I'm reading the ritual book of the Scottish Rite degrees as Albert Pike revised them for the first time, in 1857, recently republished as Magnum Opus, or the Great Work. I recommend this book to any Scottish Rite Mason. The degree work really is astonishing, and the brave soul who endured these versions of the Perfect Master (5°), Confidential Secretary (6°), Knight Elu of Nine (9°), or Royal Arch (13°) degrees must have been mind-blown by what he experienced (I'm currently reading the 14° ritual, so I would imagine that there are further surprises up the road).

Reading the "Legend, History, Etc." for the Grand, Elect, Perfect and Sublime Mason (14°) degree, I came upon the following passage:

They admitted many into the order, made known to them its truths, and taught them its duties. For a long time they were wisely cautious to admit none but proper persons, who could appreciate the true purposes and objects of the Royal Craft. But by degrees the inferior grades of Masonry were so spread abroad, that men were indiscriminately admitted without due inquiry; and it was forgotten that Masonry was not a popular, but a select and exclusive institution. Improper men gained admission. It became no privilege, nor any mark of honour, to be even a Master Mason; dissensions grew rife among the members; ambition, entering in, coveted rank and honours, the secrets were improperly divulged, and Blue Masonry fell into contempt.

...Masonry continued to degenerate; candidates were admitted without due inquiry, and for the sake of revenue alone; the degrees were conferred with too great rapidity, and without a knowledge of the principles, or even of the work of the preceding degrees, on the part of Candidates; men of little intellect and information swarmed in the order, and debased and degraded it; others joined it merely through idle curiosity, and wholly degraded and set at naught their obligations; frivolous ceremonies were multiplied and new degrees invented, and large bodies of men calling themselves Masons threw off their allegiance, pretended to a knowledge of the True Word, and invented new Rites; so that the Temple of Symbolical Masonry became a mere arena of strife and a house of contention.

This is powerful stuff. Pike wrote this in 1857, a decade after the clamor from the Morgan Affair had died down. The Anti-Masonic Party had folded back into the Know-Knothings and other Nativist movements, and men were nervously, tentatively re-inhabiting their lodge rooms and doing degree work again. Why was Pike so angry at this time? In the ritual of the previous degrees, he mentions the York Rite, the French Rite, the Rites of Misraim and the Rite of Perfection without disparaging any of them (although he claims the Scottish Rite is "uniting the excellencies and rejecting the defects of the others."), so he doesn't object to extra-3° degrees per se. I wonder what he would think of one-day classes, PR campaigns, and such. I also feel a need to defend the Shrine here: there is a place for frivolity in Masonry.

Pike is walking a knife-edge danger of hypocrisy here, it should be pointed out. In the lecture, he explains that the purpose of the Perfection Degrees (4°-14°) is to safeguard Masonry that has knowledge of the True Name (or the Lost Word) from vulgarization and trivialization. But there is nothing stopping his Scottish Rite, or any other appendant body, from being exactly what he warns us against here. Also, every contemporary mason is taught that the Master Mason degree (3°) is the highest degree in masonry, and that no degree offered by any appendant body is superior to the Master Mason degree. We have all met masons who disagree: who tell us as soon as we are raised that the York Rite, or the Scottish Rite, or the Shrine is where true Masonry exists, and that the Blue Lodge is a joke. These brothers do no credit to their appendant body, nor to their Blue Lodge. Without the Blue Lodge, men aren't masons.

I'm fascinated with this passage by Pike, but it also makes me uncomfortable (not the only thing he wrote that does). It almost reads like a more fiery version of Dwight Smith, or his contemporary successors, except I'm much more sympathetic to them in this task than to Pike because they seek to fix the root of Freemasonry rather than the branch. Pike is taking me on a journey, and I'm not sure where it leads, but I cannot imagine that my loyalty to my Blue Lodge will wane before I get there. I trust that when his whole course is revealed, it will harmonize with my Blue Lodge work, rather than conflict with it.

Anyways, it got me thinking, and I wanted to share.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Traditional Observance Scottish Rite Freemasonry

I have enrolled in the College of the Consistory at Guthrie Scottish Rite in Guthrie, OK. Because I live in Massachusetts, I am taking their correspondence course, a five-year course in the Scottish Rite degrees, Southern Jurisdiction (SJ) version. I belong to the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction (NMJ), and we've taken more liberties with altering the degrees than our Southern brothers have. I don't know what Albert Pike (who never had any formal authority over NMJ degree work) would think of our current Master Traveler degree (4°, which in the SJ is called Secret Master), but I think our version of the Chief of the Tabernacle degree (23°) is very moving, even though no Tabernacle is ever mentioned in it, and it does not possess the esotericism of the SJ version.

I am grateful that Guthrie Scottish Rite have allowed me to cross jurisdictions to take this class. I am studying a copy of Albert Pike's Magnum Opus, and Dr. Rex Hutchen's book, A Bridge to Light, is on order from the Scottish Rite Headquarters, SJ. This has been a fascinating read thus far. I envy the brothers who got to experience the degree work that Pike describes, and I wonder what kind of Valley would have the budget to hold degrees faithful to Pike's vision. In each degree there are different costumes and sets, and they take place in rooms of different shapes and sizes. The Knight, or Sovereign Prince of Rose Croix, of Heredon degree (18°) takes place in four rooms, and the description of the degree work extends over thirty pages, including two pages of Statues and Regulations of Sovereign Chapters of Knights of the Rose . It would take a Scottish Rite Temple with many different lodge rooms, a vastly well-stocked costume and prop room, and a line of officers in each body who were astonishingly good at ritual to pull off what Pike describes.

It's clear that his version parallels the York Rite more closely in the first three bodies of Scottish Rite, with Lodge of Perfection paralleling the Royal Arch Chapter, the Chapter of Rose Croix paralleling the Commandery of the Knights Templar, and the Council of Kadosh paralleling the Council of Royal and Select Masters, with the Consistory providing a synthesis and culmination of the preceding degrees. Please forgive me if I'm mistaken in observing these parallels.

It is so refreshing to have the whole structure explained to me, and to have in-depth instruction in each of the individual degrees. I feel a bit sheepish being called a Sublime Prince after one day of degree work, and I want nothing more than to feel like I deserve without suspicion the degrees I've earned. How can I call myself a Grand Elect Mason when I'm not proficient in the tokens, grips and passes of the preceding degrees?

Maybe in future, if there is enough demand for it, the NMJ will create something similar. I would love to see a Traditional Observance (TO) Scottish Rite Freemasonry emerge, where the Lodge of Perfection actually sits as a tyled lodge, with the officers in their proper chairs, and the other bodies behaving similarly. The current structure is very popular, and provides many brothers with what they want from the Rite, and I would be hesitant to rob them of what brings them meaning and joy. Instead, I see TO Scottish Rite as a smaller group within our Valley who meet to study and perform the degrees in more depth, in a smaller setting.

Scottish Rite became, and remains popular because of the theatrical nature of the degree work, and I would never consider eliminating or diminishing that component of the work. But in a class of 150 candidates, your chance of being an exemplar is nil. I would be willing to pay extra to take the slower path. Imagine if one tenth of the candidates were like me. Fifteen of us would take the degrees one at a time, not in an auditorium but in a tyled lodge room. We would pay suitable degree fees per degree for the privilege, and have a Festive Board afterwards. Later, we would have a Lodge of Instruction, and have to exemplify the degree to move on to the next one, maybe even having to write a paper on each degree to demonstrate our understanding of the lessons learned. We would meet with each other and with the officers of the body whose degree we were working in, and learn the degree in depth. This would take officers deeply committed to this work to accomplish, but imagine how rewarding the experience would be. Imagine what the Rite would be if even a tenth of us were going through this process.

Right now, we have one-day classes that are exciting and fulfilling. We have great rehearsal dinners, and have a lot of fun performing the degrees. It is entirely sufficient for most of us, and should remain as is as long as that continues to be the case. But there should be a deeper layer underneath for those of us who seek the Light inherent in these degrees. The Light should be the core of the Scottish Rite, not the fringe. There should be no prejudice in favor of TO Scottish Rite Masons over the others, and no privilege coming from taking the slow route other than the education received. This work should not invalidate the fast-track route, or make brothers who choose the easier way feel that they are lesser Scottish Rite Masons for their choices.

In the status quo, the majority of Scottish Rite Masons in my Valley do not participate in Scottish Rite after they receive the Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret degree (32°), except perhaps to visit sometimes when other one-day classes take place. They pay their dues year after year just for the honor of putting "32°" after their name. They are the financial engine fueling what we do. They are pure revenue without cost, and I worry that such a revenue stream may prove untenable over time, especially during economic hardship. I would imagine that many of them will be dismissed for non-payment of dues over the next year or two, unable to justify in hard times paying into something they don't participate in. TO Scottish Rite Freemasonry will not fix that.

Two things will fix that. One, the idea basic to psychology that men value more what they invest more in; and two, a strong impression that they have joined something of value, that is willing to invest as much in them as they are in it. If it takes time and effort to earn the degrees, a brother will keep coming back to further his progress, and once he has reached the summit, he will value his accomplishment more than if it were easily handed to him, and he will stay devoted to the body that challenged him again and again before he gained his mastery. If the esprit de corps of the Scottish Rite is obvious to every witness, others will want to join such a body. If upon receiving the Master Traveler degree (4°), the Lodge of Perfection welcomes him with overwhelming hospitality, and if upon receiving the first degree in each subsequent body, he is shown similar hospitality, so that by the time he becomes a Sublime Prince (32°), he is revered with honor by other Scottish Rite Masons, and welcomed into an exclusive fold, he will cherish his degrees and titles. This is present in Pike's vision as described in the Magnum Opus, where there is special protocol for welcoming a Knight of the Rose , or a Sublime Prince into a lodge. Men respond to such things. Make the degrees feel important to a man, and they will be important to him. Remember, that's what outsiders already think the Scottish Rite is. How many of you have been told by non-masons that someone is a 32° mason, as if that were a crowning accomplishment? What if it were?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Shriners vote to keep all 22 hospitals


The Imperial Shrine session has voted to keep all 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children, including Galveston, which was destroyed in Hurricane Ike and needs to be completely rebuilt. Thanks to Brother Chris Hodapp for pointing out this news.

The Shrine has voted to keep the philanthropy, lock, stock and barrel. While the compassion exhibited by this is exemplary, I worry what will happen to our cable-tow stretched as tautly as it will be for making this commitment. Does the Shrine have the resources as it stands now to honor this commitment, or will we have to change who and what we are in order to keep the hospitals open?

I don't have any objection to this vote, but I also see the recent history of the Shrine as one of declining membership and diminishing revenue. Will we have to drop the masonic requirement for membership in order to stay afloat? Will each Shriner double his financial commitment, or will we generate the revenue some other way? Will the aspects of Shrinedom that do not relate to the hospitals suffer through this? Will other appendant body philanthropies go the way of the Shrine in tough times, or will the Shrine become the focal point of masonic philanthropy, and other masonic philanthropies will disappear?

In my Shrine Temple, we have erected a bulwark against diminishing membership, which threatens to drop below 5000 Shriners. A campaign by the Illustrious Potentate, "5K No Way," is trying to swell membership, and I was swept up in this drive, and crossed the sands as a consequence. In the interest of full disclosure, my work is in medical data IT, and my interest is primarily in supporting the hospitals, but this campaign of Potentate Robert Smith moved me to join. Also, the interview with Brother Peter Millheiser on Masonic Central showed me how useful the Shrine can be for hosting informal masonic groups outside of blue lodge.

We have some difficult challenges ahead. I think having more Shrine units like the Hibiscus Unit Brother Millheiser describes in his interview might get more masons to cross the sands. I hope we have enough energy and determination to keep the hospitals afloat, keep the Shrine Temples afloat, keep the spirit of the Shrine strong, and strengthen blue lodge participation among Shriners.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Masonic Charity and the Shrine

Originally, the Ancient Arabic Nobles of the Mystic Shrine required their members to be either 32nd degree Scottish Rite masons, or Knights Templar. This worked as a policy for over a century. It ensured that only men serious about masonry would enjoy what the Shriners had to offer. The assumption was that a Noble worked hard in his blue lodge, and also worked hard in his Valley, Orient, Chapter, Council, and/or Commandery, and wanted a place where he could relax in merry fellowship with other brothers whose commitments to masonry were as serious as his.

This had significant appeal to many workers in the quarries, and the Shrine Temples proved to be social centers for many Freemasons, among those who had earned the privilege. So many worthy men joined the Shrine that they had a great deal of attention and devotion focused towards these Shrine Temples, and the Shrine in general. These were men who were deeply committed to their blue lodge, often forming the officer core of their lodges, and their more accomplished past masters. They were officers in Scottish Rite and York Rite bodies, and deeply committed to these bodies, too, often involved in many different such bodies. They knew and understood their ritual, and took their work very seriously, but also understood that they were not seeing the merrier side of men they worked with, and loved the company of their brothers enough to want another place, on top of all the other places, to congregate with these brothers in a more light-hearted setting.

Brothers flocked to the Shrine in sufficient numbers that they were made aware of the power to do good that such an assemblage of good men could generate. In the earnest attempt to concentrate the power to do good, these men created the Shriners Hospitals for Children. In this current age of medical insurance and health care reform, it is hard to see what an incredible gift these hospitals were and are. Any child under the age of eighteen, stricken with horrific injuries and diseases, could visit a Shriners Hospital and receive total medical care, free of charge, for life. The level of generosity implicit in such an institution is staggering. Shriners are hardly exaggerating when they describe their hospitals as the "Greatest Philanthropy in the World".

The Shrine was so successful with their hospitals that every appendant body began their own charity or charities in imitation of the Shriners Hospitals. The Scottish Rite built two hospitals, but eventually got out of the hospital business. Instead, they worked on schizophrenia research, and learning disability tutoring. The York Rite supported eye injuries, the Grotto performed free dentistry for severely handicapped people, the Tall Cedars supported muscular dystrophy research, and Grand Lodges across the USA formed their own external charities.

I am not aware that the question was ever asked, as these hospitals were created, if it were appropriate for the Shriners to devote so much labor to such a thing, something pretty far afield from the original intention of the Shrine. Instead, we kept making hospitals, and kept making Shrine Temples, and grew, and grew.

Half a century after the Shrine was first formed, one in four men in the USA belonged to at least one fraternal organization. It was the general consensus that the Free and Accepted Masons were the gold standard of fraternal groups. So much so that many new organizations sprung up in blatant imitation of Freemasonry: the Knights of Pythias and Columbus, and the Independent Order of B'nai Brith come to mind. As the Shrine would only take its members from masons who had made a deeper commitment to masonry than the average mason, it began to be seen as an elite organization within Freemasonry. But, to keep the average Shriner from being too conceited, the entirety of Shrinedom is laced with gentle self-effacing humor, from the induction ceremonial onward.

It should also be noted that, as the Temperance movement spread across the USA, blue lodges became abstinent of alcohol, but the Shrine did not. Whereas 18th century Freemasonry was generous with libations and merriment, in the 19th century, Grand Lodges across the USA forbade alcohol in open lodge. Some have gone so far as to ban alcohol from anywhere on the premises of a masonic building, whether or not lodge is in session, whether or not masons are using the building at the time. At the time, it was felt that this was an appropriate public relations response to the Morgan scandal: the cliché of the drunken mason staggering home after a lodge meeting proved too embarrassing for Grand Lodges, and in an attempt to appear more respectable, grape and grain were dismissed from the lodge room.

Other fraternal bodies felt no need to ban alcohol. Indeed, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks incorporates the use of alcohol in their ritual, and were originally founded to use a loophole in the liquor laws of New York. I'm sure other fraternal organizations are similar, with the Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles being an extreme example.

The Shrine originally met in a restaurant in New York City, and always centered itself around a well-stocked festive board. After getting to know a brother in lodge, chapter, council, consistory, commandery, and such, it was always a familiarity to see what he was like with a few drinks in him. That and the fact that only a small fraction of men in the USA have ever fully endorsed the Temperance movement made it inevitable that some appendant body of masonry would allow for alcohol in their meetings. In masonry, besides the Shrine, we have the Grotto, the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, and High Twelve as well who allow alcohol in their meetings.

Prohibition came and went, and the Depression hit, and fewer men participated in fraternalism. The structures we built when fraternalism was in its ascendancy could no longer be sustained in the same manner, at least until the Second World War ended, and our numbers swelled, peaking in 1960. A new generation came into being that rejected the values of their fathers, and preferred more counter-cultural expressions of belonging than fraternalism could provide. By the 1990s, things had reached a nadir. The Shrine was a heavy platform resting on two platforms that rested on a platform. Without a healthy blue lodge membership to select from, the Scottish Rite and York Rite could not have the same numbers, and the Shrine therefore had fewer brothers to choose from, and yet had nearly two dozen Shriners Hospitals for Children to support.

A few trends emerged to swell the ranks. The most controversial was the concept of the one-day class, in which a candidate would take all three degrees of craft masonry in one day. Also, Scottish Rite and York Rite bodies began their own one-day classes. Thus, a man who wanted to become a Shriner could enroll in a one-day class at their Grand Lodge one weekend, enroll in a one-day class at their Scottish Rite Valley or Orient the next weekend, and then attend a Shrine Ceremonial the third weekend, and be a Shriner in three weeks. As long as he continued paying dues to whichever blue lodge took him, and to his Scottish Rite group, he could remain a Shriner. Blue lodges and Scottish Rite bodies gained a source of revenue without incurring any expenses, and the Shrine got a new member.

Eventually, in 2000, the Shrine dropped the York or Scottish Rite requirement for membership. This was a shock for the York Rite and Scottish Rite. It was also a shock for the Grotto, which did not require anything above blue lodge membership in its members, had also allowed alcohol, but had never gained the fame or numbers that the Shrine had. The Shrine membership had a bump after this, but then continued its decline, following the decline in fraternal participation across the board.

What is the result of all of this? The Shrine is deeply worried about declining membership. My Scottish Rite body still does one-day classes exclusively, even after the Shrine requirement was lifted. There are still craft lodge one-day classes, although I don't know anyone who has participated in one. Every appendant body is being crushed under the weight of their philanthropies while their numbers decline. Accusations are being made of poor management of these philanthropies, and some bodies are asking if it still makes sense for them to imitate the Shrine's generosity, or whether they should focus their financial power on making a quality experience for their members, in order to retain them.

The Shrine leadership is meeting in San Antonio as I write this. Six, (or some would say, nine) Shriners Hospitals for Children are facing imminent financial collapse, and in the panic, rumors abound. There are murmurs that the Ancient Arabic Nobles of the Ancient Shrine may drop the requirement that their members be masons. I don't know what to make of rumors, and I only repeat this one to ask what would happen if the Nobles meeting in San Antonio take this drastic step. Are there men out there who are waiting to be Shriners, but Freemasonry is a barrier for them? Are men thinking "I want to be a Shriner, but I could never be a mason. What a shame!"? On the other hand, the Shriners Hospitals for Children might be a philanthropy too large for masons alone to maintain. But if we get rid of the West Gate, what follows? I personally have no objection to women becoming Shriners, if the masonic requirement is lifted, but I'm sure not everybody agrees with me. The length of the Shriner cable-tow is being stretched to its limit, and it may be its cruel fate this week to have to choose between its philanthropy and its masonry.

I am a Shriner, and I'm proud to be a Shriner. It makes me deeply proud to know that, about a mile from where I type this, children are sitting in a burn ward in a state-of-the-art hospital getting world-class treatment, and that their parents have no financial burden to bear. I love the special bond I feel with my brother Nobles, and love to meet in fellowship with them, both inside and outside the Shrine Temple. The Shrine is not for everyone, and I fully respect the opinions of those brothers who are more critical of the Shrine than I am. It's not for everyone, and it's not nearly as solemn nor as esoteric as the other bodies, and should never be a substitute for the blue lodge.

I am also a 32nd degree Mason in the Scottish Rite, and proud to be a Sublime Prince. I worry that I may not have sufficient knowledge to call myself such; my up-to-date membership card, and participation in degree work at the Lodge of Perfection does not make me feel like I possess knowledge I lack about the higher degrees. With no disrespect to the leaders of my Valley, I would gladly hand in my pocket jewel temporarily until I have actually earned all 29 degrees in the four bodies, and had suitable education in their meaning, even if that took many years to accomplish. I wouldn't want the ghost of Albert Pike to despise me for my ignorance.

My obligation as a mason extends to distressed brother master masons, their widows and orphans, they making application to me as such, and I finding them worthy, so far as I can without injury to myself and my family. In this respect, all of these philanthropies are extra-masonic. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that we are not masonically obligated to perpetuate the philanthropies that are crushing us. Are we saving the philanthropies while allowing distressed master masons, their widows and orphans, to suffer? Are the Rites bodies being injured by their philanthropies? Put more simply, are we offering the best degree work and education we can to our brothers and candidates in blue lodge, in the York Rite, and in the Scottish Rite, before we extend our arm to do charity, or are we doing charity at the injury of our brothers and candidates? If by doing them, we diminish the core of what we are, what use are the philanthropies to us? I'm not saying that this is necessarily my assessment, merely that before this becomes a risk, we should hold fast to that which makes us us.

My grandfather died in 1965 after a long battle with cancer. While fighting his illness, he failed to pay his lodge dues, and was suspended for non-payment of dues just before he died. His widow was never contacted by a mason until I joined Freemasonry, four decades later, and only on my insistence. In contrast, my lodge (different from my grandfather's, which has since merged with a larger lodge and has lost its name) sends flowers annually to masonic widows, and calls them from time to time to see how they are doing. Before we suspend a brother for non-payment of dues, the lodge secretary and the Worshipful Master have talked to him and asked what we can do to help him continue with the fraternity. We telephone elderly and disabled brothers and arrange rides for them to and from lodge. We visit sick brothers in the hospital. That's just part of being a mason, as far as I'm concerned.

The rallying cry has been made by other masons: "Leave Philanthropy for the Shrine". While that may not be the correct policy, I do urge us to see if we are providing our best to our brothers and candidates without injury to ourselves before we worry about others. How the Shrine manages this they will decide this week in San Antonio.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Thursday, July 2, 2009

God and reason

I was going to write this when I first created this blog, but the story is much older.

I was raised without religion. I was made aware that I was Jewish, but I've lived most of my life outside of the Jewish community. My mother's side of the family has been secular for at least five generations. My mother's mother has a letter that her grandfather wrote to his father. In the letter, he describes meeting a Hasidic Jew on a train, sitting next to him, and asking him about his religious beliefs. It is clear in the letter that my great-great grandfather had no religious education of his own. My mother's side of the family were wealthy German Jews, who moved to the USA some time in the mid-19th century, not as refugees but from a position of strength. They did very well over here. The author of the letter was invited to President Garfield's inauguration, and my grandmother still has his invitation in a scrapbook. They had rather a poor estimation of their less wealthy, more pious coreligionists from Eastern Europe. In this, they shared the prejudices of the mainstream.

My grandmother married a Polish Jew who became very religious later in life. My grandmother had no objection to this, but did not share in his piety, nor did her children. My mother married a Galitzianer from a working-class family, and her snootier relations were mortified.

My father's father's father was rousted from his bed, in his shetl in the Ukraine in the middle of the night, as Cossacks were burning the village to the ground, murdering men and raping women. He and his pregnant wife ran for their lives and made it to a safe haven many miles away. He had stored some emergency money there, and they used the money to buy passage to Boston. My grandfather was born in Lynn, Massachusetts a few months later. He worked in a dress-making factory, then he was a foreman at the factory, then he ran the factory. My father's mother's father also ran a dress-making company, Siren Dresses. His eldest daughter was born in Moscow, and the rest of the brood were born in Lynn and Swampscott. My grandparents were born in the midst of the Great Depression. It took them several years after their marriage to afford wedding rings.

For my father's side of the family, being Jewish was a means of mutual protection rather than a spiritual thing. They could find protection, solace, company, and assistance from other Jews. The first two generations here in the USA spoke Yiddish, and could travel throughout the Jewish world this way. My great-grandfather still kept his business contacts in Russia, and my grandfather had business in New York, and later in Brazil, all through speaking Yiddish. I doubt my mother's side of the family spoke Yiddish after the Haskalah. My grandparents observed Passover, but it was more of a dinner with a story than a religious event for them. My grandparents would take me to their synagogue for the yahrzeits of relatives, but that was the only time they ever went. I doubt my grandfather owned a tallit, let alone tefillin.

So it's somewhat odd for me to be a religious Jew, who prays twice a day and goes to synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning. My father's mother's brother Morris was devoutly religious, as was my mother's father, but I can't think of any others in my family.

My father is a strongly rational agnostic, and my brother and I were raised that way. I thought my father was an atheist, but he objected to being called an atheist when I called him that, saying that he respected the religious beliefs of others (including his devout Catholic third wife, and their children), and that he wasn't willing to assert the non-existence of God. He has been very supportive of my religious life, which frankly came as a surprise to me. His second wife was a hostile antitheist ex-Catholic who aggressively mocked any show of piety anywhere near her, and my father never voiced any objection to her behavior in that regard, so I assumed he shared her attitude.

I always had a clear sense of my Jewish identity, as most secular Jews in the USA do, but we never lived in a predominantly Jewish community, never belonged to a synagogue, and never observed any Jewish holidays except the occasional Passover Seder with the grandparents. When I was about ten years old, my father gave me the choice of Hebrew school, or Pee-Wee hockey, and I chose the hockey. I went to two or three Bar Mitzvahs as a boy, but never wanted one myself.

I grew up regarding myself as a spiritual agnostic. I dabbled with Unitarian Universalism, mostly because most of my teenage sexual experiences happened at YRUU retreats. I also tried Quakerism, for which I will always have a deep respect. I was active in Young Friends, and gained a lot from going to Quaker meetings, but I was kicked out of Young Friends for a reason I will blog about later.

I bought my first Tarot deck when I was twelve, a Rider-Waite deck. As I got older, I became interested in Ritual Magick, first through Wicca, and then through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the work of Aleister Crowley. I deeply distrusted the OTO, and never joined them (no offense to OTO brethren out there, but your priority disputes and court cases are not very good advertising), but I knew people in the OTO and A.˙.A.˙. and learned a lot from them, but never felt comfortable entering their hierarchy. I also fundamentally distrust the cosmology Crowley published, and the law of Thelema does not speak to my condition. The best thing I gained from all this was a deep and abiding love for Hermetic Qabalah.

I first began to consider the actuality of God in graduate school. I was working on the Comprehensive Exams for my MS in mathematics. These exams are hard. It is difficult to describe how hard they are to someone who has never experienced something like them, but I will try. There were four subjects: Real Analysis, Complex Analysis, Algebra, and Topology. Each subject exam was two hours long, and had four problems on it. You submitted your best three answers, and had to get two of them right to pass the exam. That meant you scanned the test for the "zinger", the problem that was deliberately too hard, and skipped it, and then you had 40 minutes to solve each remaining problem. Each problem took about a week to solve. That meant that if you didn't already see the problem and solve it while you were studying for the exam, you probably would not be able to solve it at the exam. You had to remember the solution to every problem you solved while studying the prior exams going back about 10-15 years, and regurgitate the answer on the day of the test. At your first try, you could take as many exams as you wanted, but you had to pass at least two exams in order for your passes to count. You had to pass all four exams to graduate.

I was studying for the algebra exam, and I was working on an old test problem from a previous exam. I worked on the problem from 9:30 PM to 1:30 AM, and I got too tired to continue, so I reluctantly went to bed. That night, in bed, I dreamed the solution to the exam problem. I felt a rush of euphoria, which made me snuggle into the bed and ride out the feeling of bliss. I was rudely interrupted by a voice that told me, "Schmuck! That's the real answer! Wake up and write it down!"

I did, and went back to sleep. In the morning, I looked at what I had written. It was elegant, succinct, direct and powerful. With a minimal about of exposition, it attacked and immediately solved the problem. I was amazed. And that problem showed up on the exam I took.

My advisor had a theory that the mind we walk around with most of the time is not particularly smart. It can follow orders, and at can memorize and shuffle facts it knows, but it is not equipped for bursts of genius. If we find an interesting problem, we can attack the problem with the mind we walk around with most of the time, but if the problem is sufficiently interesting, our waking mind cannot solve it by itself. It works and works and works on it, and with one's will, one can drive the waking mind to continue its pursuit of a solution. If the waking mind sufficiently exerts itself, a deeper mind will notice that the waking mind is working on something. That deeper mind, its interest piqued, will decide to involve itself in the problem. There is a blinding flash of inspiration, and the deeper mind generates a solution. Then it is up to the waking mind to shape that solution into something workable, conveyable, capable of being printed and shared with others.

The job of the waking mind is to be disciplined enough, to work hard enough on a problem that the deeper mind pays attention to its exertions. The waking mind has to have all of its tools in perfect working order. It has to know all working definitions down cold, and make clear cognitive leaps that obey the laws of logic and reason. But for any truly interesting problem, the waking mind is not equipped to find a solution. The world of knowledge is full of really hard problems, problems the solver has to live with for days, weeks, and even years. The waking mind can work on the same problem day after day if properly disciplined, and it can tackle the easy sub-problems associated with the problem at hand, and it can clear away everything that is not the kernel of the problem, but it cannot get at the heart of the problem. It's just not smart enough. Nobody is smart enough.

The waking mind has to realize when to step away, and leave room for the deeper mind to work its magick. Afterwards the waking mind has to leap into action, molding and shaping the solution into something that truly fits the problem, and has to justify that the solution delivered by the deeper mind actually solves the problem.

There are many smart people in the world, but nobody is smart enough to solve the most difficult problems with their everyday consciousness. The most successful problem solvers know how to do the ground work for the deeper mind, and then know how to shape the work of the deeper mind into something that covers every aspect of the solution. The deeper mind is totally disassociated with ego. This is somewhat akin to what Ouspensky calls the "False Intellectual Center" and the "True Intellectual Center". Ouspensky also talks about the "False Emotional Center" and the "True Emotional Center".

Using the language of Kabbalah, I would say that, starting in Malkut, one ascends to Yesod. From Yesod, an intellectual problem is tackled in Hod, by the False Intellectual Center. The False Intellectual Center struggles with the problem (G'vurah), and attracts the attention of Chokmah, the True Intellectual Center, channeled through Da'at and Tiferet. Similarly, from Yesod, an emotional problem is tackled by Netzach, by the False Emotional Center. The False Emotional Center tries to relieve the emotional distress (Chesed), and this attracts the attention of Binah, the True Emotional Center, channeled through Da'at and Tiferet. If someone has a better explanation of these processes, I would love to improve this theory. A good argument could be made that Binah and Chokmah should be switched here, but I'm sticking by my original assessment.

The point is not that the voice that visited me in the dream is God, nor that the deeper mind is God, but that all higher consciousness flows from God. Once you encounter an consciousness greater than your own, that dwells not where you dwell, but is accessible in certain circumstances, after much preparation and exertion, it is not hard to allow for other such consciousnesses, cascading upwards until a single, supernal Consciousness is reached, from which all lesser consciousness flow. A river of light that immerses you when you make yourself available for such an immersion.

Without reason, this experience is drastically limited. Without the ability to feel deep emotion, this experience is drastically limited. And yet the prime mover of these experiences is beyond emotion or reason. Reason is very high, very nearly the highest form of consciousness. But not the apex. That is why a belief system that puts the False Intellectual Center (or the False Emotional Center) at the apex is patently absurd to me. We are small fishes, and there are big fishes out there that want to share their wisdom with us, and all fishes are just fragments of God, who is the entire world of oceans and everything in them, and beyond ocean, and who wants us to glow with the light He has to share with us, but wants us to find that light through our own exertions.

Tom Robbins gave the advice that, in seeking a spiritual tradition, the first place one should look is in one's people's tradition before looking at other traditions. We carry ancient racial memories that are much easier to awaken than the memories universal to all beings. A Jew should learn Kabbalah, a Celt should learn Celtic paganism, a Greek should study the Greek mystery traditions, a Hindu should study the Vedic tradition, etc. (This is deeply unsatisfying to people with universal faiths like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Baha'i, etc. Having never been raised in such a tradition, I can only sympathize from afar. From an intellectual standpoint, I agree that universal faiths are an improvement on tribal, parochial faiths, but I will blog about this debate elsewhere).

When I pledged my lodge, I listed my place of worship as First Parish Unitarian-Universalist Church in Cambridge. My former roommate is a member there, and I had visited many times with him, and liked that community. There is a sizable Jewish presence there (or Junitarian) as well. But upon reflecting about that choice, I realized that I was being disingenuous. A voice in my head asked me: "Why did you say you were a Unitarian? Schmuck, you're Jewish." (My inner voice calls me schmuck a lot). The next Friday night, I walked into Havurat Shalom for Kabbalat Shabbat services. I visited a number of synagogues over the next month or two, and chose Temple Beth Zion as my congregation, and have been a member ever since.