Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Demistyfing The Dead Sea Scrolls

I'm sure you will not regret buying and listening to this course created and lead by Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman. In 14 Lectures, narrated by the professor himself, one can listen about the most important archaeological discovery of XX century. For those who do not know, in 1947 in a place west to Dead Sea, called Qumran, the first from a set of ancient manuscripts was found. The set was later called The Dead Sea Scrolls. Over next almost 20 years, hundreds of manuscripts, mostly - parts of scrolls were identified. For long time the discovery was a bit secretive, with lots of all sorts of conspiracy theories about them. None of them proved true. And this is what Lawrence Schiffman says - this discovery is one of the greatest, but there is nothing that could "prove" or "disprove" religious believes !!!

The course author makes some interesting hypothesis about Qumran and its community. For example, contrary to popular views telling of Essenes as the Qumran community inhabitants, he convinces the listeners that it was rather created by a group of pious, priestly Sadducees who supposedly distances themselves from the practices of the Temple in Jerusalem.

What is very important in this lecture is the objectivity of its teaching. The author clearly states, that, though the discovery is very important, it does not question or break any of existing religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity. However, shedding light on the most interesting period in Judaism's history - i.e. the transformation from the Temple periods to later rabbinic or Talmudic period, it also sheds light on early Christian history.

The lecture ends with interesting summary of Dead Sea Scrolls presence in today's public culture, and this presence is said to bring a very positive effect on bringing closer the largest and oldest monotheistic religions of the world....

I listened to this lecture with great attention, also because several weeks ago I was blessed by the possibility to visit Qumran and to feel it's unique atmosphere. See my two pictures:

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Leonard Bernstein and his wand ...

My blog readers might have read my posts about Mahler ("Justice and tribute to Mahler", "Ken Russell Mahler - More then controversial - just going to far" and Gustav Mahler enchantment). In some sense, Mahler music is connected in my mind with his ingenious interpreter and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

So this time it is all about Bernstein and his conductor's wand...
Over last couple of weeks I was enchanted by the 5 DVD edition: Leonard Bernstein: Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Franck, Milhaud, Mozart, called also as "Celebrating Lenny".
This set is probably one of the best sources reflecting Bernstein talent as conductor.

I want to tell you about three recordings from this set:

Darius Milhaud - La création du monde - incredible connection of classical and jazz music, with a programme reflecting upon African myths of the creation

Anton Bruckner - IX Symphony - The last, unfinished symphony of the humble genius - Anton Bruckner. It's second movement (Scherzo) is really shocking and deep. You can feel (intentional ?) relation of Bruckner thought to Beethoven symphonies, yet it remains completelt original and deeply moving.

Ludwig van Beethoven - IX Symphony. I guess, writing about this piece of music makes no sense. However, I use the occasion to say, that its second movement (Molto Vivace) is such incredible piece of music, that when I return to it after some weeks, I always, always have the feeling of G-d presence in music. Try it - you will see. Now, the Bernstein conducting is great, but it is this recording where we can feel coming fate - it was one of his last recordings - several months after he left our world... When you watch this movie, you see tired, old man - but the man that still jumps, rejoice and is just happy with his life. And last but not least - this piece of music, played that year (1989) is something very important - the freedom came to us ....

And with these words I will finish this post ...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mister Thaddeus - or the Last Foray in Lithuania

I must admit, I read (i.e. listened to...) Adam's Mickiewicz "Pan Tadeusz" almost accidentally. I wanted to check how works, and I bought the poem. By and large, this is the most famous Polish epic poem. It is also one of the longest and almost the last real epic poem of the world. Composed in twelve books, it describes the events situated in Lithuanian village, than under the Russian command that happened in just few days of 1811 and one day of 1812.

I did not expect, that the reading of "Pan Tadeusz", the obligatory reading in all Polish schools, will bring so many warm feelings and tears to me...

First of all it refers to the most beautiful, yet tragically ended part of Polish history - i.e. its two hundreds of years long union with Lithuania - called Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The union, the unusual construction as for late medieval Europe, was an example of very advanced political system, having no precedence in the Europe of that times.
"Our state is a republic under the presidency of the King" or "Rex regnat et non gubernat" ("The King reigns but does not govern") were typical descriptions of its status. The country had a real parliament and in 1791 adopted the first European national constitution - with only one predecessor - that of United States....

It was also a country of amazing tolerance to people of all ethnicities, religions and political views.
Poles, Lithuanians, Jews and many other people living in peace as one nation.
"Pan Tadeusz" refers to it, telling, among others, the story of old Jew, Jankiel, who being trully religious Jew, was also a great Polish patriot...

The poem starts with words:

O Lithuania, my country,
thou Art like good health;
I never knew till now How precious,
till I lost thee.

There are English translations of it: by Marcel Weyland and Leonard Kress.

There was also the movie by Andrzej Wajda.

It's pity nations forget about their great past ...
Today, we often wittness almost total ignorance of that great past among many Poles....

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Secret of Life by J.D. Watson

The book "DNA: The Secret of Life" is one of the great popular books that J.D. Watson (Nobel Prize Winner (with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins) of 1962), wrote - this one with Andrew Berry. Watson, in really fascinating way, describes the history of the discovery of DNA structure and the role of the discovery in our understanding of life. The book has great passages, that are, surprisingly, very simple to understand, like that about the role of RNA, particularly in the evolution of living species. One of the most intriguing chapters says about efforts to create gene therapies, another one about methods to deliver genetic information to living cells, yet another one about the other applications of the knowledge. There, Watson goes from agricultural application, through the applications in forensic studies, to, last but not least, treatment of worst genetic diseases that plague humanity.

He is honest about his position about GMF (Genetically Modified Food) and other controversial applications of the science - i.e. - he supports the applications. Doing so, he certainly is a bit controversial in his opinions, but, he is not blindly "positivistic". For example, he describes his allocation of 5% of the total budget of Human Genome Project into exploration of ethical and philosophical issues related to genetic sciences.

What strikes me, however, is, sorry to say so, primitive materialism and reductionism, that emerges, mostly in the beginning of the book. Having discovered DNA, it seems he found a way to eliminate any kind of transcendental interpretation of biology. While the pure scientific approach, without resort to religion, is of course, of the great value, but when it comes to interpretation, for me and contrary to Watson, the discovery itself, clearly demonstrating the role of the CODE, of something that transcends the physical realisation and embodiment - is one of the greatest proofs of transcendence - revealing itself in the organization of life. Seems to me that Watson had quite old-style idea of G-d, religion and its relation to science.

Also, a bit embarrassing are his remarks like "Let's play God" or "Why be content with nature's design? (...) when little manipulation might yield something more useful" - that has some primitive tone. However, Watson seems to gain more humility with age and with the evolution of the science and its medical applications. In last parts of the book he admits to the limits of genetic science. More and more he sees and confesses to the mere fact, that life is still a great mystery to us. Failures of many of gene therapy application, resulted in famous tragic cases, seem to humble Watson's unequivocal faith in simple positivistic philosophy of science....

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Writing about Kabbalah - Charles Mopsik attempt

Charles Mopsik was French Jewish philosopher who specialized in general studies of Jewish mysticism and of Kabbalah in particular. The book "La cabale" which I read in translation to Polish, is an attempt to write about Kabbalah in both objective (say, "scientific") way and with passion characteristic for young French philosopher (Charles died at the age of 46 in 2003).
In fourteen chapters he explains is Kabbalah, what are its relations to Judaism, describes fundamental Kabbalistic authors and texts. His accounts about Abraham Abulafia stress the importance of linguistic and hermeneutical component of Kabbalah. There are parts of the book, that are historical and ... sorry to say so - quite funny - when the author writes about "Christian" Kabbalah.... Of course we had in history such mixtures (e.g. in Pico de La Mirandola legacy), but if someone had a little of Jewish mysticism - can only read such chapters with ... a smile.

Generally - the book is very good, and in the time when a hordes of followers (like Maddona) go after Rav Berg's Kabbalah Centre, like in blindness – it’s good to see Kabbalah from rather objective perspective.

Personal note: I spoke to one of the Orthodox Jewish Rabbi recently. After this incredible meeting I talked to one of his students, and I know that true Kabbalah is almost never spoken of. It exists, it is important, and is living. But there is no way to speak of its secrets without such deep knowledge and wisdom, that is hardly attainable by us mere mortals...

The far feeling of it I was able to experience in my recent trip to Tzfat...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Man's Search for Meaning

I read Frankl's books in reverse order - the first, "Man's Search for Meaning" for me was the last ... And for good reason - in some sense this book is the great summary of Frankl's view on life. Sold in 10 million copies - the book has two distinct parts - the first is a kind of memoir of the horrible time Frankl spent in at least four concentration camps during II World War, including Auschwitz. From all written stories about the life in camp - Frankl's relation is astonishing - there are no gruesome scenes, no ghastly relations - but through some cold description of prisoners shock, apathy, bitterness and finally deformation of morals - Frankl's account is one of the most fearful stories I have ever read. Yet, there is still a small light of humanness, still a germ of meaning in all these atrocities. Let's read: "We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

The second part of the book deals with his LOGOTHERAPY - the fundamental theory Frankl promoted in XX century. Logotherapy seeks the cure for neurosis and existential emptiness in the search for meaning in life. There are passages in the book, also those about love and its importance that make one shiver....

Let's read two citations from this great book:

"An incurable psychotic individual may lose his usefulness but yet retain the dignity of a human being. This is my psychiatric credo."

"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Unconscious Religiousness and the Men's Search for Ultimate Meaning

Victor Emil Frankl was one of the greatest psychiatrist/neurologist/philosopher of XX century. He was Holocaust survivor - prisoner of numerous concentrations camps, including Auschwitz, where his mother and brother were killed.

The book: "Men's Search for Ultimate Meaning" is his last book, for some it is a sequel to "Men's Search for Meaning" but it is rather his "credo" - and is based on his Ph.D. dissertation.
The book's main theme is the refutation of reductionism approach to human mind. In simple words he shows us that the human mind is a unique, irreductible phenomenon.
The ultimate force that drives human person, is according to Frankl, is its search for meaning,which in fact is a search of ultimate meaning, i.e. the search for transcendence.

The book has some great passages and amazing chapters. In one of them: "Unconscious Religiousness" Frankl shows how modern psychoanalysis (existential analysis) reveals the level of human mind - where the unconscious presence of transcendence becomes predominant...

There are also great passages about human love, freedom and responsibility.
He devotes a large part of the book to the problem of "existential vacuum" - the feeling of meaninglessness, that dominates our culture.

Across the book there is a lot of references to love and to its unique importance in human life. His words are stunning expression of the effort to humanize the sexual part of our life. Once we understand, that the sexual life is not a goal in itself (as it exists in modern culture), and that it is ultimate mean to be with, to know your partner - there is no longer any problem with pornography, debauchery, untruthfulness, prostitution and all other plagues related to the intimate sphere of our lives.....

What is also very important - the book has scientific character, in many places you read the language of professional psychology and psychiatry - but, even if you are not of these professions - you have no problem with deep understanding of all ideas the author expressed there.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

World without us - old prophecies in modern skin ?

Reading Alan Weisman "The World Without Us" is a terrific experience. The book contemplates the state of the earth after the human race is gone... The author is not giving us the another catastrophic theory - instead he speculates on how and what can happen to our mother earth if we are no longer there....

The prevailing conclusion is that the nature will manage the world without us much faster we could ever imagine. He gives examples that are so convincing - like the example of Puszcza Bialowieska in Poland - the last forest primeval in Europe, Chernobyl abandoned areas, Korean DMZ - the places where the power of nature prevails - only because we are not there.....

The author also suggests, that what could happen to us, in some sense already happened in the history - in the case of Maya civilisation. Although on a micro scale, what happened to Maya's - can happen to us - on much larger scale.

The book is fascinating and captivating - once you started - you can not stop reading.

It also relates to "end-of-time" predictions of major world religions.

The only criticism I may have - is in the "Coda" where author apparently apotheoses the idea of "one-couple - one child" idea. On this point, I dare to disagree, but I also think, the fantastic book would be even better if the author would not endorse the questionable idea....

Books over Books - Reading as the ulimate prayer

After spending one week in Israel, I am still transfixed. I knew a bit of the importance of Books - mostly the Torah - for the People of the Holy Land, but what I witnessed was unbelievable. Books, Books, Books. You go to a small prayer house somewhere in Galilee and there are hundreds of Books. You go to Ancient Zfat synagogue - Books.

You go to Western Wall, and turn left 50 meters - thousands of books. Everywhere - in small, bigger, large communities of people - Jews are reading, commenting, studying.

The Nation of the Book. The Reading as the ultimate prayer.
That week was the pivotal week for my life....