Thursday, August 2, 2007

Shmiyah: Love, hear, memorize and not forget

Ingmar Bergman passed away. The son of very strict Lutheran pastor of the Swedish Church, he wrote the story of our human days and feelings with much perspicacity and insights. A man who always clutched to the women he was creating his films with in a move that could resemble love. In his book "Laterna Magica, Images", he explains that the big part of our education (he speaks of his generation but this is still real for most of us) is based on concepts like sin, extraction of confession.

This is alien to Judaism and to the Eastern Orthodox Churches and thus penetrated Jewish culture as Orthodox Christian new styles. In the relationships between parents and children, punishment could lead to atonement and ultimately to grace (inspirited as "dinim" in Judaism though not so submitted to vidui/confession). He has been a man of four women-actresses, among the most beautiful creatures of the Swedish movie wildlife face book.

I remember the fresh summer takes of "Hon dansade en sommar/she only danced one summer" that showed the nudity of a pure Scandinavian girl bathing in the sun. But I. Bergman mainly aimed at underscoring that such inter-generation relationships, stiffed and framed, could only be governed by clear-headed people thought they would understand and control but, indeed, it may have allowed inducing Nazism without opposing or condemning the system. "In hierarchical systems, all doors are closed", he said. The film master approached life and ethical changes "like the wind rusting through the leaves", dealing with the main “up-to-the-century” mal-etre of repeating crisis process: marriage, men-women relationships, fancies and neurotic clashes, sex and (ascetic) self-abnegation that, in the end, get rusty and out of space. The frightening scenes of "Fanny and Alexander" showed how the Western civilization prolongs its route with the foolhardy forlornness of the so-called "death of God".

This lines with the parshat hashavua/reading portion of this week: “Ekev- Subsequently, if you hearken these judgments…” in Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25. God insists on a specific commandment, given to the Israelites and constantly repeated, again and again, for the sake of their faith in God as humans living among humankind. Devarim 6;4: “Hear Israel/ Shma’ Israel” that links obedience to the Only One, accepting to hear and listen to His words, accomplishing them with love.

Let’s say that Ingmar Bergman powerfully depicted how the Western society drifted from the purity of the Commandments, emptying their raison d’etre till some deep nonsense and social disease.

A second major filmmaker died this week. The Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni belonged to the same generation, focusing on life and uneasiness in love. Major films on how frail and unstable human nature and feelings can develop into real malaise (as in the introspective movie “L’Avventura” with Monica Vitti in 1960 or “La Notte/The Night”). It climaxed with “Blow up” which reinforced this malaise by inserting sexual takes while unwillingly shooting in photos of a murder, in London.

This allows envisioning a world of images caught with perspicacity and figuring out the greatness and tragedy of a society. Today, images replace reality or subdue individuals into the mal-etre or difficulty to live, love and breathe. Thus, we are totally “mirroring us” into the memorizing system of cuts and takes, screens and images, moves as if to stop or circumvent despair, shortsightedness.

We are all actors directed by cameras of security protection. Any fish-eye lens can sink down to the surface of our intimacy. We desperately need to smile, laugh or answer with a pout. The Actors Studio turns to “Youtube’ing”and instant self-contentment.

It is evident that these new techniques prodigiously enhance our cultural attitudes and prospects. Pre-birth photos widen our family albums back to few weeks’ existence. Takes and films store actions, events. “Cinema” from Greek “kinein – to move” copes with the Hebrew tradition that praises dynamics. Hebrew “kolno’a – cinema = move/tottering (Niddah 25b) of the voice”.

The reading portion of this week profoundly insists on the fact that humans must love God to the full, via all their flesh and bone, intellectual and emotional capacities joined to their financial and economical assets. Again, after the destruction of the Temples and the Feast of love on Tu Be’Av, how can we sketch out what love implies?

Let’s get further and again scrutinize whether “love/ahavah” is humanly evident. The mitzvah is focusing on God alone. We often think as if it would suffice to ascertain our love to the Most High. This mitzvah does not imply any expectation of promise or reward from God. Because when Jacob woke up at Bethel, he vowed in a down-to-earth way: “If God will be with me and keep me in this way I go and give me bread to eat and raiment to put on so that I come back home in peace, then God shall be my God” (Bereishit 28:20).

I like this vow very much. It is not ecstatic… Jacob is the son of his mom who coached him to cheat his father Isaac, a normal nudnik and so many of us behave as if El Shaddai would be some Bituach leumi/national medical care and social assistance + first aid + recurrent money basket provider. But this is so humane. So real.

Now, the “shmiyah/obedience” means we do not dare expect anything but accept to lift all our being to the One God. There is more as regards any Jew: Abraham and his descent have nothing to do with any kind of ethnic or tribal or sub-tribal distinctive features. “In you, all the Nations (and generations) will experience how blessed they are” (Gen. 12:3). This relies on true love. Love is more than justice and righteousness, which are included in “ahavah”. Love obliges to do and give always more, much and even too much.

Still it is not enough. Look, Abraham was a sort of Moshe Rabbenu. He argued to save some inhabitants of Sodom: he disputed with God about the number of righteous, if any. But the Zohar (Book of Splendor) still considers that he did not accomplish his real duty: no use to count the just. There was more to do, said R. Eliezer ben Azariyah, and he did not push God into that: Abraham did not require God’s pardon and loving-kindness (Zohar 106a).On the other hand, Moses had intervened for the sake of the Israelites after the golden calf.

This is why it is important to “Understand that the Lord Your God does not give you this land to possess it for your righteousness; for you are a stiff-necked people (am-koshey-oref). Remember and forget not how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness: from the day you went out of the Land of Egypt till you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord (mamrim haytem im HaShem)” (Deut. 9:6-7). “Mamre” has different meanings, from the place of hospitality to rebellion. Strangely enough, the Israelites are called to serve as a priestly nation of tribes.

Still, it hardly can reach out to their own fellowmen, especially in the present situation of split culture. Hillel said: “Love the humans” (Avot 1,2). Similarly, “When you hurt your fellowman (reacha) even very slightly, do reckon this as something important, but if you show him much loving-kindness, consider this is a tiny thing” says the Abot deRabbi Nathan (B, 27a). Indeed, there is no difference between human beings but this too often turns to be a parrot-fashion speech – God “does execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loves the stranger in giving him food and clothes. Thus, love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Devarim 10:18-19).

When faith is distorted to some administrative or political issues/challenges, modern inter-tribal relationships are spoiled and defile God’s Oneness. The rules in force in the State of the Jews seemingly have a certain know-how and experience of how to save the fundamentals of the inspired Mitzvot and divine warning given in the wilderness.

Let’s be “movie”; it is indeed a serious Jewish quest to know whether filmmaking is ethically kosher or not. In 1987, the Danish film “Babette’s Banquet” (Feast/seudah) showed the life in a remote Jutland village in the 19th century. Two sisters scrupulously observe with the local inhabitants the stiff sectarian laws defined by their deceased father, a pastor who had created the sect. Refrained envies, frustrating self-control, spiritual narrow-mindedness have turned temptations (beauty is so beautiful, nu! Nu?) to routine loss of vitality.

By the time the sisters want to have a nice memorial day for the 100th anniversary of their father and community prophet, they give refuge to a French woman, Babette (French actress Stephane Audran performs a real feat in wonderfully pronouncing Danish and its famous glottal stop/stoed). The housekeeper who came from the south (cf. as out of Egypt) won 100 Francs and decided to order, in secret, special supplies for a refined French meal, sort of real “side (Yid.) – festive meal”.

And she got exceptional wines, liquors, living quails, turtles, dried cod and cakes with grapes and figs… The sisters got scared. A Swedish general, a French libertine writer full of lust, show the sensuality-addicted aspect of the Western ambiance. Babette cooked “quails in sarcophagus”, i.e. the Providential food from heaven: quails in “flesh-eater = Gr. sarco-phagus”, which refers to the manna and to Jesus’ words that “he is the bread of life” (John 6:35.48.51) who was buried to resurrect. And the guests silently started to stare at the dishes, slowly began to smile, talk, laugh and even dance.

This is how God works wonders. Love consists in welcoming and feeding any visitor, fellow people or strangers, enemies. Indeed, it enhances and stimulates freedom.

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