I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Stephen Johnson called The Invention of Air. On the surface it’s about Joseph Priestley, the Unitarian minister who “discovered” oxygen, and who also went on to help advise the creators of our republic on how to structure our government. But really it is about the story of how a series of amazing innovations happened in a short period of time, and some thoughtful reflections on what brought about that creative burst.
It turns out that Priestley was consumed by the question of what constituted air since he was a small child. He kept playing with the question in many different ways, experimenting, reflecting and experimenting again. But Johnson posits that what finally helped him make his leap into “discovery” was the community of innovators that he was surrounded by – people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. (Johnson offers this little interesting historical nugget: in the 165 letters that Jefferson and Adams exchanged in their lives, Franklin is mentioned 5 times, George Washington, 3 times, Alexander Hamilton, twice; Joseph Priestley on the other hand was featured no fewer than 52 times!)
My obsession with the question of covenant continues. Given that it is holy week, I want to try to take the question deeper into spiritual practice.
Many of us have been through the sometimes laborious and sometimes facile process of developing a covenant for group behaviors. Usually included are things like “speak from your own experience,” “avoid triangulating,” “assume best intentions,” etc. These are all really important and necessary concepts for how to be in community together, and it is easy to assume that everyone shares them – until you discover that they don’t. So I’m not trying to belittle this practice. Indeed, I lead groups in it all the time.
But it doesn’t quite bring us to the level of depth I think I desire for religious community, whatever the structure of that community.
I have always found the phenomenon of secular Jewish spiritual practice to be particularly poignant. So deep is the Jewish identity and practice embedded in some people’s lives, and yet how disconnected from organized religious practice. I believe it is the forerunner of contemporary spiritual expression, and reveals some interesting divergent directions of where people wish to take their faith.
Two novelists recently collaborated on writing a New American Haggadah – Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. Foer grew up secular, but had wonderful memories of practicing seder as a child. Englander did as well, though he grew up Orthodox. Both desired to create a translation that would speak to their contemporary experience, while maintaining the beauty and majesty of the original text. What they thought would be a short project (Englander says, “I thought we were making the Hipster Haggadah and it’d be six weeks or something and we’d be done) turned into a consuming project of several years. The result is stunningly beautiful – visually, textually, experientially.
I didn’t have time to watch Mad Men last night (though of course I taped it). Like millions of people I have avidly watched the show with both fascination and disgust. It’s a little like watching home movies of your parents doing things you really shouldn’t see.
On the one hand, it gives us evidence of how things have changed, particularly for women. In an interview with Susan Stamberg on Sunday morning, Eleanor Clift, the prize winning journalist talks about starting her career as a typist at Newsweek. As she said, “frankly, I was not unhappy with that. I have said many times over the years, I just wanted to be where what I typed was interesting.” How thankful I am that she is now the one producing what is interesting, not just recording it. Read more