Plain in the city

A plain Quaker folk singer with a Juris Doctorate in his back pocket, salt in his blood, and a set of currach oars in the closet, Ulleann Pipes under his arm, guitar on his back, Anglo Irish baggage, wandering through New York City ... in constant amaze. Statement of Faithfulness. As a member of the Quaker Bloggers Ad Hoc Committee I affirm that I will be faithful to the Book of Discipline of my Meeting 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Walking with Hillel and Yeshua on a journey to divide commentary from Torah

Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge

I've not been writing much these days. More than the struggle to get the computer to work... I have been looking and listening ... and walking. An email from my dear dear fFriend Pam made me feel I have neglected fFriends in not writing for a while, and I know how I worry about some friends when they are not writing...

I've been working on my journalistic photographs, street fights, arrests, overdoses, and gentle young people living in the park. But, I am also drawn away, drawn to a peaceful place, a walk often of almost eight miles round trip, to another world, another pace at which people live and work, I am drawn to Williamsburg ... where I am finding Satmar Hassidim.

Coming to Lee Avenue is like, in many ways, spending time among the old order Amish and Plain Mennonites ... but not quite. There is a huge difference. In one of my many conversations in Williamsburg, on finding that my mother's mother was a nonobservant Jew, he asked me what my Hebrew name was.

"Oh, I haven't got one." I told him. We had been speaking about Jewish and Satmar history.

"Sure you do. You read the bible ... what is the first name that comes to mind?"

Without a moment's hesitation I said, "Hillel."

"There you are. Your Hebrew name is Hillel."

Naming is a powerful thing. Naming is claiming, and in this, without meaning to, I had claimed a little bit of my mother's tribe, and had been claimed by that tribe. But more, in that moment of asking who do I think of when I think of my relation to the Bible, I found I was claiming some of my self.

Why Hill el? Hillel said, "Do nothing to another, that which is abhorrent to thyself, that is the Torah and all the rest is commentary." All the rest is commentary is what makes the difference between sojourning among deeply observant Jews and most other people. All the rest is commentary accepts thee and me as equal in the sight of God, something other faiths sometimes do not do.

In these times of the fourth wave of Christian fundamentalism, when some in the Religious Society of Friends speak of the need to again split, I think of Hillel saying, the rest is commentary. We are living in times which can weigh heavy on the soul. The Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, my wife's church, has allowed for a prayer abandoned after Vatican II calling for the Jewish people to convert. I have heard Quaker pastors speak of Judaism as an unfinished faith. I have heard Friends question if we Quakers all can worship together if some worship a God complete without a unique relationship to Jesus Christ and some worship the "truth that Jesus is the salvation of humanity."

This is a profound difference. I have not ever heard a Satmar Hassid say that God has made heaven for the Satmars, or Jews alone. Rather, well, be righteous, love God with all your heart, be humble, and do nothing to another that is abhorrent to thee ... the commentary does not get you into heaven anymore than wearing our dark clothes and broad brimmed hats...

I think there is more than wisdom in this, there is truth. We approach that of God within us, when we are complete in acceptance of God in others. This does not mean that all religions are true. Rather, when we deny the truth in others, we loose the truth in ourselves.

Some point to miracles to prove their faith. Some say, "I know" ( on the basis of human art, books which have been copied, edited, fought over), "that Jesus literally raised the dead, and this proves he alone can show me the road to heaven."

The miracles which speak to me are gentler, and for me, at least, more easy to prove. God, one day, seemed to break the covenant, and factories of death were built in Europe in the middle of the last century. And as they did, in the face of thousands of years of being the object of genocide, Jewish people did not loose their faith. They loved God with all their hearts and hold as the central statement of their faith to do to others nothing that is abhorrent to themselves. Such is the miracle of Mary Dyer walking with confidence to her execution, or Tom Fox saying that he would not want to be rescued by violent actions.

This is not to say that any of us live our faith to perfection. Today, as I sat with my cousin and a friend of his in a cafe in Williamsburg, Jacob, a Hassid and funny force of nature of a man, sat down with us, and introduced himself by saying, "So, you have come to see the Hassids! Well, we are some of us good people, some of us crooks, some of us crazy ... just like everyone else." He proceeded to take us around, in and out of shops showing us wonderful things. He asked me if I had ever seen a Kosher hardware store. I had not, and could not imagine what he meant.

He breezed us past the cashier, "They are on a tour!" he called to the fellow ... and took us through the shop showing us candles, and other things to make a home ready for worship. This, he explained did not make the shop Kosher. He took us to the back of the store, where to my amazement, there was a bath, like some I had seen in photographs of archeological digs in the middle east. It was deep, and fed by rain water from the roof, and kept circulating like a natural stream. "When you buy dishes or eating utensils," he explained, "they are dipped into the water to wash them, to make them kosher."

As you keep the little laws, you keep the big ones. It is not my plain clothes that keep me on a path to a righteous life, it is that they remind me of where the path is found.


For me, the path to being a Quaker Quaker, as a fFriend says on his blog... is to not have to deny the completeness of the path of others. It is not to fortress ourselves in the conclusions of past Friends, but rather learn and seek new light which leads us to the true worship of God, that worship which accepts God's work and God's light in others.

In these days of new fundamentalism, I sometimes see evangelists trailing along next to Hassids, who are politely, but firmly not wishing to be evangelized to... One I heard saying, "But what if you are wrong?" I felt a deep sense of emptiness for that woman. I felt I should say to her, "Stop speaking at these people and listen awhile! They might well show thee ways THEE has been blind to God, blind to the God who speaks to us the same message in many languages ... do nothing to another ... the rest is commentary."

In the park with Papa - Shabbat in Williamsburg

I have nothing to teach this child about God. I have much to learn by accepting that God speaks the complete truth to her and her people as much as he spoke to George Fox, and to me in the moments of my convincement.

Dear love to all the fFriends I have neglected in my sojourning.


At 12:25 AM, Blogger David Andrew said...

Inspiring post - thank you

At 2:49 PM, Blogger R. Scot Miller said...

Dear Loran, I enjoyed reading your post, and it has provided for a lot of thinking. As a Christ-centered Friend, I am equally troubled by the "fourth wave of fundamentalism," as well as recent proclamations by the current Pope. Any person who denies the wholeness (or completeness)of those worshipping within the realm of Judaism, or Islam, or any other faith, does an injustice to the human endeavor that leads us toward fullness, or unity with the creator.
However, I do not believe that most Friends (though some certainly do) are saying that Jesus is the only salvific truth in the universe. I believe that some Friends are suggesting that if Jesus is not at the center of the Quaker Faith, it is simply no longer Quakerism. Also, it is equally unjust to cherry pick from Judaism or Islam or Buddhism only those things that appeal to us, leaving behind those tenets that seem rather inhospitable to our faith preferences or intellect.
While I have a wonderful respect for those Hassids that you talked with, and their belief that heaven is not reserved for the Hassids, I doubt that they would be welcoming to members of their faith community attempting to make space in the community for those who identified themselves as Muslim-Jews, or Jesus-as-Messiah Jews.
Also, your concern that we are fortressing ourselves in the "conclusions of past Friends" does no justice to those Jewish and Amish, or Hutterite and Quaker beliefs that we are indeed given our identity by the early insistence upon semper reformata by our forebearers. Such a credo means reforming within the traditon, not betraying it.
On another note, I admire your ability to find such integrity and beauty in a world where most Americans simply find fear or caricature. We are all better informed about our own faith, and the need for semper reformata, when we are confronted with our own inconsistencies and bigotry by those "others" who see us for what we are. Blessings, Scot Miller

At 3:53 PM, Blogger Taylor Giacoma said...

When you take a personal journey to grow, you don't neglect your friends. You come back with more to give and therefore it is as much a service to your friends as to your self.

I liked your post...lovely and also thought-provoking. I'm not sure where I fit into within the Quaker spectrum, or anywhere for that matter. I tend to think more inclusively than exclusively; I would rather focus on the things we have in common than the things that divide us. The more I learn, the more I tend to think that the former tend to be far more important than the latter.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

"In these times of the fourth wave of Christian fundamentalism, when some in the Religious Society of Friends speak of the need to again split, I think of Hillel saying, the rest is commentary."

Exactly so. Exactly so.

At 7:43 AM, Blogger Lorcan said...

Dear fFriend Scot:

Thee and I are completely in agreement that most Christocentric Friends do not hold that Jesus is the only salvific truth in the universe. Some do, and I am smiling as I think of one in particular, who I sometimes describe as providing Gurnyite translations of my Hicksite messages as soon as I hit the bench. Not that I feel my messages are Hicksite, but if I do not say that the inner light is Jesus Christ this Friend has risen to define that light of which I speak as the living being of Jesus within us. In fact, I am not completely adverse to that understanding, as I hold the resurrection to have been a resurrection in spirit, and not at all a unique happening. I believe that Martin L. King, Jr., fact rose powerfully from the grave and lives in those who carry his message of love forward. However, in saying this, I am rather sure my friend of whom I speak, would shake his head and say only that of Christ rose from the fallen Martin King ... and I would nod and say, yes, and in fact, I would divide the Christ nature of Yeshua from being solely one with Yeshua alone, and say that Hillel was Christ, as was King, and any who God teaches us through, Jesus a Christ, rather than Jesus the Christ.

Now, is this still Quakerism? We are caught between several defining traditions in Quakerism. There is the continuing revelation as well as the dedication, not only to truth, but to honesty. So, I remember the point in my childhood when I began to become worried that Jesus as God was being presented to me by my Quaker elders, in the same spirit that other sects taught their children that Santa and the Easter bunny was bringing gifts. It was a profoundly disturbing start to a deeper journey into honesty and truth for me. I began to find answers when I meditated on the phrase from Hillel, "the rest is commentary."

I began to feel that this phrase on commentary was the deepest telling of the story of the fall of the Tower of Babel ... that the light is expressed through the commentary, but the light is not the commentary. When the commentary becomes the light, we can make the error of worshiping the image of God, the commentary, a definition paganism, rather than worshiping God in full. So, is Quakerism the commentary or the light for which we reach in continuing commentary as well as continuing understanding of that which can't be understood, only accepted -- a God beyond description and limits of human commentary.

Thine dearly in the light

At 7:55 AM, Blogger Lorcan said...

Oh my... Cat, I've been unthinking... Pagan, in a scolastic definitional term, not used to name a particular faith...

Thine in the light, and under the Oak and ash and thorn trees of the frith grove


At 10:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon your where the picture of the williamsburg bridge caught my eye and of course the chusid who crosses it, I have some very good friends there, and used to live in Boro Park another chassidic community with other groups as will never find such "warmkeit" as you do in williamsburgh, the people there are so wonderful!
So you do have some jewish background? I thought I read that you thought of your name to be Hillel?

Zei Gezunt

At 11:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this magnificent post. I'm writing with a much shallower question--where did thee get the magnificent hat (and suit) that can be seen on Quaker Jane's blog?

Patrick Nugent
Friends Theological College
Kaimosi, Kenya

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Lorcan said...

Been covering the explosion in Midtown, so excuse that I am late responding.
Yes, I have some Jewish background, three generations back, was raised Quaker, my mother's mother was non-practicing Jewish. I conceder it a powerful aspect of my religious understanding...

And Patrick ... my wife is part Nugent from the Nugents of Cavan, (at the foot of Mount Nugent or some other place ... as the song goes) =)

The hat is from Flying Cloud Hats, made by Kore Stoltzfus, and Amish hat maker who will put just the right Quaker bend into the brim, and much of my clothing is made by Weefox Tailors, both of whom are in New Holland, Lancaster Co, PA. early in my blog there is a post about them. They are wonderful folks!

I never consider plain dress to be a less than deep discussion!

All the very best und, Zei Gezunt, Landsman !!!

At 5:45 AM, Blogger Anders Branderud said...

Hello! I found your blog and read your post.

The website of Netzarim ( proves that the instructions of the Creator are found in Torah; and it proves that the Creator is perfect.

Quote: "It defies the orderliness (logic / mathematics) of both the universe and Perfection of its Creator to assert that humanity was (contrary to His Tor•âh′ , see below) without any means of rapproachment until millennia after the first couple in recorded history as well as millennia after Av•râ•hâm′ , Mosh•ëh′ and the Nәviy•im′ . Therefore, the Creator's "Life's Instruction Manual" has been available to man at least since the beginning of recorded history. The only enduring document of this kind is the Tor•âh′ —which, interestingly, translates to "Instruction" (not "law" as popularly alleged)."

The fact that the Creator is perfect implies that He isn’t self-contradictory. Therefore any religion that contradicts Torah is the antithesis to the Creator.

Have a nice weekend!
Anders Branderud


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