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

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Boundaries of Peace and Prosperity

Originally posted August 6th, 2009 and updated on August 18th, 2009.

My brother just returned from Iraq this weekend. He is not in the Armed Forces, nor is he a contractor. He’s the lead singer and songwriter for a rock and roll band, and they were invited to go there to entertain the troops. I don’t talk about my brother much in public. It’s not that I’m not incredibly proud of him; its that he’s famous, and during a decade of the peak of his popularity, I found myself living in his shadow, whether I wanted to or not. I’m my own man, and in comparison to living under his umbrella, being my own man gives me a higher self-worth as a man. There are many people who only know me as my brother’s brother (some who would address me as his brother, rather than by my own name), and I’d rather be judged on my own merits.

Stewart Brand wrote that every American should go somewhere where real poverty exists, and see it firsthand, to better understand how good we have it in the USA. While there is some poverty in our cities, and in the Appalachian Mountains, and elsewhere, you are unlikely to find much real squalor here in the USA. We think we have real poverty, but truly poor people don’t have cars, TV sets, X Boxes, or household electricity, running water and food for that matter. I saw some real poverty in Jamaica, but the worst desolation I ever saw was in Africa.

I was touring South Africa with my brother’s rock band in 1996. We had a 16 day tour with only one performance on the second night, in Johannesburg. We spent the rest of the time touring various parts of the country, sightseeing. We had one night in Sun City, a casino resort in the middle of the bush. Two hours of driving from Johannesburg took out of the city and suburbs, and through townships, to a pretty remote area. At one point, I was looking out the window, and I saw an unforgettable sight.

Imagine a shack hastily erected with two-by-fours, pieces of corrugated tin, tarpaulin and sheet plastic, held together with nails, staples and duct tape. Now imagine a city of them. At least a mile of these shacks flanked the road, and spread back away from the road for about half a mile at least. The whole city was teeming with people, and yet I saw no running water, nor any sign of electricity. There was a cloud of flies hovering over the entire complex, and the people there looked utterly miserable. I couldn’t imagine how these people were able to live in such squalor, but I imagine they didn’t have much choice. Our tour guides seemed to regard such misery as commonplace and insignificant, but I will never forget it. “These aren’t our Blacks,” one of them said, “They’re migrant workers from Botswana. We’d never treat our Blacks this way.” He didn’t understand that whomever else these miserable people belonged to, they belonged to God, and were made in His image. If I saw such misery every day, I wonder how long it would take me to forget that.

Half an hour later, we arrived at what looked like a toll booth, except that our car was immediately surrounded by soldiers with assault rifles trained upon each of us in the car. The man in the booth asked us for our passports, and upon checking them against a list and returning them to us, waved our car in as the gate was lifted. On the other side were exquisitely landscaped gardens, with drunken German tourists staggering around bemusedly. Sun City has four hotels and two 18-hole golf courses. The amount of water needed to keep the place running is unimaginable. The whole place, deep in the African bush, is themed “Darkest Africa”, like a later Tarzan movie where Tarzan finds a lost city, and cavorts with Jane and Boy and Cheetah among its ruins. Except this place had bars, casinos, movie theaters, restaurants, and luxury hotels with big swimming pools. The contrast between inside and outside could not be more drastic.

Whatever gates exist throughout the world, we Americans live inside of them, so much so that we are not even conscious these gates exist.

We masons work inside a tyled lodge, with a brother outside the door, armed with the proper implement of his office. It has to be that way, because if the squalor of the outside were to intrude upon our business, we couldn’t function as we do. We have been doing this since that squalor was the uniform existence of mankind. Indeed, anything other than that squalor is an indication that the mission of Freemasonry has been successful. I’m not saying that repelling squalor has been the work only of Freemasons, merely that it is our mission to create something better.

Strife is poverty of a different kind, and my brother got to witness, if not the immediate violence of strife, a place where the boundaries keeping strife away from important work can be seen, a place where these boundaries are not impenetrable. Outside of the gates are men who are drunk on murder and fanaticism, who gladly relinquish their time on earth in order to take out as many of their enemies as possible.

Speaking as a mason, I will not speculate upon whatever justice compels us to be in their land. I will not offend my brothers who have a wide spectrum of opinion about this conflict by stating one particular perspective as the right opinion about what we are doing there. But, again speaking as a mason, I would be remiss were I not to point out that there is a barrier within which we live in peace, and outside of which people live in strife and misery. And that committed men and women give their lives to shield the inside from the outside, to the best of their abilities. These are our tylers, tyling the lodge that is our everyday lives. And that someone with an earnest and sincere heart, who wishes to live in peace, can knock on the West Gate, and with the consent of those inside, can join us if they are willing to do the work necessary to earn their place inside. This is not the place to say whether our foreign policy has increased or decreased the amount of strife in the world. But I will say that Freemasonry has ever sought to cultivate the gentler arts that are only possible when strife has been kept at bay.

When I first became a mason, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be a tyler. They miss a lot of what happens inside a lodge. It must be lonely. And a real lodge in the USA today does not have cowans and eavesdroppers just waiting for the tyler to lose focus to sneak by him the moment his sword is no longer at the ready.

The tyler is there to remind us that not all of the world is like the inside of our lodge, and until it is, we need a guard.

Freemasonry developed in a world torn apart with strife and ruined by misery and squalor. The idea that there could be peace, plenty, good humor, health and cleanliness is a masonic idea. Freedom requires peace, otherwise we are at the mercy of whoever is the most brutal. A good portion of humanity lives in a world where brutes make all the rules, and good men starve and die. It has ever been our mission as Freemasons to create safe places where good men can persist in their goodness, and ultimately to make the whole world that way.

A man has to know what the outside is like to appreciate the inside. A man has to tire of the darkness before he will seek the Light.

My brother talked to soldiers from private to general, both American and Iraqi. One Iraqi soldier had never seen a rock concert before, and my brother got to talk to him afterwards. My brother offered to take a photo with him, but the Iraqi soldier blanched with horror at the prospect. Afterwards, an intelligence officer told my brother that if anyone from Al-Qaeda in Iraq were to see the photo, the soldier along with his entire family would be murdered, to warn others not to collaborate with the Americans. That the soldier would continue to work with the Americans nonetheless shows incredible bravery.

Here is what Americans fail to grasp: the whole country sits on a large percentage of the world’s petroleum. In Kuwait, every citizen gets a large check from their government for their share of petroleum sales, and as a result, they are the richest citizenry on earth. There is so much oil in Iraq that something similar could take place there, if the citizenry there were to form a consensus that they wanted the money. Most of them don’t want the money. They are not motivated by wealth. They are not motivated by peace or safety or the opportunity to build. Those with any power are motivated by grudges against other tribes or ethnicities or religious sects. Those without power are motivated by sheer terror and immediate self-preservation.

Patches of ground, neighborhoods, small regions are controlled by men with assault rifles and improvised explosive devices. They would rather keep the Sunnis, or the Yazidis, or the Kurds, or the Shiites down than lift themselves up knowing their enemies would be lifted as well. When Saddam Hussein was in power, he lifted the Sunnis up and crushed the others, murdering anyone who challenged his status quo. He kept the minorities at each other’s throats until they were too busy hating each other to hate him enough to depose him. In a sick way, it worked. By having the market cornered on violence and terror, the state was able to get things done, albeit slowly and inequitably. Today, nobody is strong enough to dominate the rest, and peace cannot gain a foothold when mutual cooperation is too fragile to persist. Men with the ability to enforce peace are instead enforcing the domination of their group at the expense not only of all the others, but of themselves as well. When everybody loses, nobody wins.

The US military personnel that my brother spoke to talked in terms of acceptable levels of violence rather than of peace. If there are say 50 incidents of violence that take at least one life per day, that is horrible, but much less horrible than two years ago, when there were say 150 such incidents. I’m making up these figures, but the concept is there. The Iraqis have asked us to leave so that they can sort out their future for themselves. Time will tell how a lasting peace will form, and in the meantime, the military is more concerned with the immediate goal of reducing acceptable levels of violence. I read the police blotter in my town, and murders, rapes and robberies occur here, but very infrequently. We live with an acceptable level of violence. The question in Iraq is how much the violence has to be reduced for any nation-building to occur, and the answer is beyond my ability to reckon.

Again, this stresses why Freemasonry is so important, and why its goals are the goals of a world that wants to live in peace. Saddam Hussein outlawed Freemasonry, and today many of the religious fanatics in Iraq are hysterical anti-Masons. Imagine if the principles of Freemasonry had general support over there. Imagine if Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Yazidis and minority Christians and Jews lived in benign tolerance of each other, respecting each other’s beliefs and sitting in lodge together in Brotherly Love, spreading Relief and Truth. Imagine if the virtue of voting for one’s leaders had widespread support. Imagine if men there thought of themselves as builders, working on the great edifice of their nation, working diligently on shaping their rough ashlars into smooth ashlars, meeting on the level, living upright by the plumb, and trying themselves by the square. Imagine if men there lived by the 24-inch gauge, working so hard on perfecting themselves that there would be no time to worry about judging their neighbors.

Now imagine if a tiny fraction of Iraqi men meet in secret, in shops after hours, or in someone’s apartment. Imagine they set a guard by the door to keep out those who would destroy them and their cause, and shared ritual and fellowship together regardless of religious sect, political bent or social class. Imagine them eating a meal together, and pledging to remain brothers, and supporting the widows and orphans of their departed brethren. Imagine a small group of such men, committed to peace, and dedicated to rebuilding their ruined country. How bad would that be?

If you wonder why masons conduct their business in secret, it is because Freemasonry was born in conditions similar to the one I have described. I write these words in Charlestown, MA, in the shadow of the Bunker Hill Monument, originally built by the brethren of my lodge, King Solomon’s Lodge AF & AM, in memory of those who sat in lodge at a time where the tyler was not a mere ornament, with men who included those who faced fire at the Boston Massacre, who dumped tea into Boston Harbor, who fought in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill, putting their lives on the line for what they believed in. We should not forget that the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, General Joseph Warren, gave his life on those slopes in the hope that his sacrifice would lead to our freedom. How do you think an effective resistance to British rule was organized, if not by men experienced at keeping silent about the work they were engaged in, no matter how noble that work was?

Anti-masons in the USA talk about how too many of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutions were masons, as if these two documents were bad things. They talk about how the Presidency and the Supreme Court had too many masons in their ranks, as if the history of these officers has been an endless string of disasters. I don’t believe that masons dominate our history the way that they do, but if you look at how masons have influenced the development of the USA, it looks like those who share our values have done a pretty good job. Masonic values are American values, and when we look at the misery of countries overwhelmed with anti-masons, I happily compare a nation that holds our craft in high regard with a nation that despises us. We should not thump our chests and point to the work we have done. Such boasting is unseemly. Most of the work has been done by non-masons who, if they behave like masons, only do so because they have discovered our virtues on their own without knowing that we exist, or what we stand for. However, every once in a while, we need to point out what happens in a region where masonic virtue is absent.

My brother had to wear a bulletproof vest and helmet whenever he went outside, and got to see bullet holes and barbed wire and other remnants of violent conflict. He was rudimentarily trained to respond if the armored vehicle he traveled in was ambushed. He is not a soldier, and neither am I, but he got a good glimpse of the commitment and professionalism of these men and women who face peril because their duty demands it of them. He came away awestruck by their service.

To those of you reading this blog from overseas, from a conflict zone, I want to thank you for tyling our lodge. Thank you for devoting yourselves, facing horrors I cannot imagine to do your part to ensure that I never have to face these horrors myself. Every mason should be mindful that the peace under which he lives exists because men and women have labored for centuries to make it so, and a generation’s carelessness can make it disappear. He should pity those who through no fault of their own live on the outside of the peaceful region in which we dwell, and we should strive to extend the interior of that region until it covers the globe. We owe a debt of gratitude to the current generation of people maintaining the barrier keeping peace within its borders, and we should shoulder whatever portion of that duty of which we are capable, each of us striving for a world of peace.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Foreskin of the Heart

Originally posted on August 6th, 2009
Please forgive me for the unpleasant mental images that spring from the title of this post. Jews around the world are approaching the second Shabbat of Consolation after Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. Yesterday was Tu B’Av, the Jewish St. Valentine’s Day, and so it is not inappropriate to consider matters of the heart.
The weekly Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is Eikev, the third piece of Deuteronomy, or D’varim, the last book of the Pentateuch. Moses stands on Mount Pisgah, and can see the Promised Land he may never reach. His six-score years of life on this earth are over, and his last mission before he dies is to give his people the final portion of his take on God’s wisdom before they cross the Jordan River and enter the land without him.
In Eikev, Moses lays out the virtues of obedience to Deity, the rules for entering the Promised Land, an entry that will come with a swath of blood in the book of Joshua, reminds the Israelites of their sin of the Golden Calf and to warn them about idolatry in the new land, and exhorts them to serve their God in their new home.
We find the following line, standing on its own, outside the context of what comes before or after it, in Deuteronomy 10:16:
וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם; וְעָרְפְּכֶם–לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד
The King James Bible translates this as: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.”
That’s pretty much the literal translation. If you want to cringe at this metaphor, go right ahead. But don’t end there. There is something beautiful in this ugly metaphor.
What was circumcision to the Israelites? It is described as a b’rit milah, or covenant of circumcision, colloquially called a bris by the Ashkenazi Jews. The word milah refers to the circumcision, as the first word (umal’tem) in the passage above, and the b’rit refers to a covenant, specifically the Covenant between the Lord and Abraham. The whole nature of the relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham is described by the word b’rit. This is the basic agreement to have a God-people relationship, and the nature of the mutual benefits such an agreement will have. Among Jews and Muslims, male circumcision is a de facto standard, so much so that outsiders are routinely referred to as the “uncircumcised”.
So what could a circumcision of the heart entail? While it is not obvious whether a man is circumcised or not without a high level of familiarity with him, it is impossible to tell if a person has circumcised his heart. Why is Moses asking us to do this?
Throughout the Torah, Moses talks about the sin of hardening one’s heart. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened against the Israelites, which ends up ruining his country when plague after plague hardens rather than softens his heart. The rebellious Israelites are described as stiff-necked and hard-hearted. It is almost as if a thick layer of calluses has grown over the heart and blocks out all empathy.
What if, with a sharp scalpel, all of the calluses and gunk could be stripped away, leaving the heart soft, pliable, and available? It would hurt, but afterwards, the heart would be free to feel its full range of emotions.
Later, in Deuteronomy 30:6: “And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.” This time we’re not asked to do it ourselves– God will do this to us whether we want Him to or not.
And in Jeremiah 4:4: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.”
Here’s the important part: wickedness hardens the heart, and a hardened heart is able to be more wicked without conscience intervening. A mason is obligated to remain virtuous, and his conscience should prod him into doing what is right. We know that if we stray too grievously from the right, we will fall into tragedy, and in the midst of tragedy, the buffers around the heart get stripped away, and we suffer heartache. In that heartache, we feel emotions we’ve prevented ourselves from feeling for a long time, and in the suffering we feel, there is opportunity not only for genuine contrition, but for the heartache we feel to teach us compassion for others in similar straits, and to make us better men.
In sudden tragedy, the GAOTU circumcises the foreskins of our hearts, but it is less painful if we do it ourselves, at our own speed. Most of us can remember a dead friend or family member who never found out how much we loved them, and it stings the eyes with tears to know this. How much less painful is it to remember a dead friend or family member who lived fully aware of how much we cherished them. It takes a bare, softened heart to love another, and it is better that we should keep our hearts so conditioned than for fate and the GAOTU to suddenly rip the outer layers off of our hearts in sudden tragedy. It is also wise to know that most of us are carrying such griefs, with varying levels of capability. Where one man sees another’s anger, a different man sees another’s grief, and this man is better equipped to alleviate the distress of his brother.
Think of the event in your life that has hurt you the most deeply, and understand that almost everyone else has been wounded that deeply some time in their life. Let your circumcised heart teach you compassion for the sufferings of others, even those sufferings that are invisible to you.
As masons, we are called upon to embody the Masonic Virtues of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. How often do we ask ourselves if we are treating our brothers with the Brotherly Love they deserve? How often do we ask ourselves if we have contributed liberally enough to the relief of a distressed brother mason, his widow and orphans? With a circumcised heart, one is better able to see where he can be of service to others. Circumcision is a sign of a Covenant with our Creator. The circumcision of the heart ends up being vastly more important than the lower circumcision.
In the martial art of aikido, the practitioner engages in physical combat with his heart wide open to the emotions of his attacker. This is terrifying, but ultimately more powerful, and all the most profound examples of the art of aikido show a practitioner able to connect his heart to his assailant’s heart, and thereby to turn an attacker into a brother. One of my old senseis used to say, “Aikido is the art of turning your attacker into your friend, whether he likes it or not.”
Terry Dobson Sensei was a student of the Founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei. He writes:
I hate the samurai. I think the samurai suck, and you can quote me. It’s not that they were without virtue, or nobleness. But they didn’t have a lot of heartfulness. One of the first steps to being a samurai was to get beyond love and grief. All this romance about samurai life ignores the fundamental truth that it was a very heartless existence. Japan gave us this wonderful art of Aikido. It gave me my life. But you have to be judicious about it. You have to include the heart stuff. Realize that what you’re dealing with is a warm. live human being whose body and spirit may be easily hurt, easily crushed. You must throw another person in the context of love. This is hard to do, especially when you’ve had a lousy day or when you owe back taxes. So you must continually come back to the fact that there is no separation between you and the other person.
There’s nothing cool about this, because a cool heart is a numb heart. Contemporary culture tells us to be cool, but the heart tells us that there’s something more important than being cool, something realer than cool. Brotherly love isn’t cool. Loving your Creator isn’t cool. Love isn’t cool. That’s why Freemasonry will probably never be cool. The grips and tokens and passwords and rings and such may look cool, and our buildings may look cool on the outside, but the heart of Freemasonry is warm, not cool.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Relevancy of Freemasonry Today

Originally written on September 30th, 2009
Let’s imagine we want to start a new fraternal organization. Interfaith groups are popular these days, and when we look at the Middle East and see religious people fighting each other, we long for a place where people of different faiths can share common ground. We look at our political landscape and see different political groups at each other’s throats and wish we could sit down together and talk to each other, connecting as human beings rather than as advocates of a particular political position. Almost immediately, we begin to worry about how the fragile peace of the group we are creating might be disrupted.
We decide to choose our members really carefully, investigating them to make sure they are people of good character, and we make sure that there is total consensus on choosing new members. We intend to become very close with each other, so we have to trust each other. We are going to open up in this space, so before long. one of us guards the door to make sure that no stranger barges in when we are trying to meet together.
We set a few ground rules. No talking about partisan politics or sectarian religion. What happens with the group stays with the group. No gossiping. If we’re really going to take the fraternalism seriously, we pledge mutual assistance with all the group members. Any fraud or deceit, messing with each other’s spouses or children, or betrayal of what happens inside the group leads to being supended or kicked out of the group. We also worry that the group meetings will turn into a free-for-all, so we decide to elect a leader. We worry that the group will become a dictatorship, so the leadership will change year by year. We allow the leader considerable freedom to lead in their own way, and pledge to honor the current leader, and be compliant with them while they sit in the leader’s chair. We decide that the leader will need assistants, and we create a structure, based on service to the fraternity, of successive leadership positions, enough of them so that everyone feels that they can, if proven worthy, be part of the leadership structure.
Here’s two tough decisions this group is going to make, and they may be misinterpreted and may cause offense, but we are going to make them anyway. First, because we are an interfaith group, we are going to ask members to join only if they are willing to profess to a belief in a Supreme Being. Discussions about whether God exists are interesting in the abstract, but in our group seem to drag us too far afield. This will almost certainly offend our friends who are atheists and agnostics, and ethical humanists, and we regret the pain this choice is going to cause these friends, but we need some kind of common base to start an interfaith group, and belief in a Supreme Being is that base.
Second, searching our hearts, and having had experiences in other groups in the past, we decide that the dynamic between men and women interferes with the way we want the group to work for us. Because the initial members are men, we decide to be a male-only group. We want to work on what it means to be men, with other men in a supportive group, and we fear that work may not be done in a mixed-sex group. We ask our female friends, our spouses and girlfriends to forgive us for excluding them from this particular group, but we have manhood issues to work out in a non-competitive environment. We have healthy connections with the women in our lives, and we cherish the women in our lives, but in this one group, we want to work with other men to explore the mysteries of masculinity in a supportive setting. Testing the idea out, we find that outsiders sometimes snicker when we bring up the idea of Brotherly Love, or αγάπη, so we decide to close the group to those who mock this idea.
We want the group to explore some deep issues of spirituality, gender identity, leadership, fraternity, connection. We know that not everyone is comfortable diving into these issues and tackling them head-on, so we decide to use ritual and symbolism to help the newer members get to the deep levels of the more experienced members of the group. We find a rich tapestry of symbols to reflect upon. We use these rituals and symbols to get at a deeper truth.
It works. Our group is highly cherished by its members, who bring in more good men to join us. Eventually it gets too big to stay cohesive, and other groups are formed under the same principles, using the same ritual and symbolism, upholding the same values, customs, and usages. We come up with simple ways to show members of other such groups that we belong to such a group. We visit other groups to show our support.
Ultimately, other groups form based on ours, to explore the ritual and symbolism in greater depth, or just to get together and be silly. Some require membership in our group as a prerequisite. Some are open to the women in our lives. Others imitate what we do, but come up with different themes, different symbols and different rituals. A challenge presents itself in that there are groups that have spun off from our group but no longer require belief in a Supreme Being and talk about religion and politics inside their group, and groups that allow women or are composed of women only. Both of these new groups call themselves by our name, use our symbols, and use ritual based on ours, but modified to handle their changes. There is some concern that these new groups will be confused with ours, and that people will think we adhere to their principles or structure. Some members of our group are vehemently angry at these new groups, and make strong statements disavowing and delegitimatizing them, while others seem content to let them be as long as the distinction between them and us is clear enough.
A group like I describe has its appeal to men. In a world troubled by a false dichotomy between science and religion, it’s nice to find a group that believes that science and religion can be allies. In a country disturbed by partisan conflicts, it’s reassuring to call a man “brother” regardless of his politics. In a cultural climate where a striving for equality between the sexes has degenerated into shaming and denigrating men, it’s nice to be somewhere where every man present has dignity as a man, whether rich or poor, regardless or race, ethnicity or religious creed.
Ultimately, who knows? A man may lower his rifle on the battlefield, or turn his bayonet thrust away after seeing a fraternal pin on the enemy’s uniform. Someone might demonstrate he belongs to the group and thereby save his family farm from looting in an invasion. Men at war might cross enemy lines to bury an enemy soldier they didn’t know, with customary honors because he belongs to their group.

Now imagine someone formed this group so long ago that none can agree on when, but certainly more than four centuries ago. Imagine it has spread throughout the world in places where free men gather. Imagine that the ideas of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth remain, that brothers feast together and share ritual with each other in buildings erected for this purpose. Imagine that all you had to do to join was to make known to a group member your intent to become a member, and if after suitable investigation every member of the group agreed, you’d be welcomed to start the process of joining the group, work your way to full membership by three degrees, after which you would be greeted as a brother by millions of other men. Would such a group have any appeal to you?
If so, find a Freemason and talk to him. Ask him whatever questions you want, and understand that he alone might not have all the answers. Visit a Masonic Lodge, or contact the lodge secretary. If you can, visit the Grand Lodge building in your state. But remember, the group you join is only as good as the men who comprise it. The building might be not be in full repair, the tables and chairs might be scratched and cracked, and it might not look like you imagined it would, but if the bond between the brothers is close, none of that will seem important.