Discovering Myself in Arcane Talmudic Arguments

Bookcase of Jewish books

I subscribe to a number of email lists whose content challenge my mind and set me thinking in directions I might never have traveled without their stimulation. For instance, I enjoy receiving twice weekly emails of Maria Popova’s BrainPickings essays for their poetic and insightful curation of the writings of great thinkers, writers and artists.

I initially subscribed to MyJewishLearning‘s daily Talmudic interpretations as part of my research for my current work-in-progress, a new novel (Women of a New Moon). As a secular Jew, I’ve never really studied Torah or Talmud or any of the sacred texts beyond the cursory attention I gave to lessons at Sunday school. (Nor do I remember much Hebrew from then.) But I find myself intrigued by these emails, not necessarily for the Talmudic interpretations (which I often find irrelevant and boring). but more for the thought processes behind them. Those processes — the instinct to question and probe rather than just accept whatever is stated — is key to what I cherish about my Jewish heritage, and what has defined my life of intellectual and creative restlessness.

Today’s passage (Daf Yomi) that was up for discussion was Beitzah 33, which is a typical legalistic debate over what the Mishnah (an ancient collection of laws) says is forbidden on the Sabbath or festival days. Like many such Talmudic discussions, it’s nitpicky. It centers on the following passage: “One may not prop a pot (that does not stand straight) with a piece of wood (in order to prevent it from falling). And similarly, with a door.” But, asked the ancient sages, does that law mean to say it is forbidden to prop a door with a piece of wood, or to prop a pot with a door?

See what I mean about irrelevance? These laws come from a time when the Temple in Jerusalem still stood. (The Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE.) Judaism was transformed by that loss, and in many ways, that pivotal tragedy gave Judaism the freedom to grow and become what it might never have been otherwise. Certainly, many if not most of the laws from the Temple are alien to modern Jews as our smartphones would have been to Moses and Miriam. As a result, I can’t imagine any of the Jews I know giving a fig about what’s involved in using a lopsided clay pot, though some of my friends are exquisite potters.

But just as I was about to dismiss the email, I came to the last paragraph which starts by asking what the original intent of the ambiguous passage was. Rabbi Elliot Goldberg (the author of the email) answered, “It’s an interesting question, but not necessarily the most relevant one for Talmud study, which is more concerned with how the Mishnah was interpreted over the centuries.”

And there it was — the gem of thought and process that has my mind exploring and wondering. And now, I’m thinking not only about Jewish law but law in general and then traveling further to thoughts and feelings that might, at first glance, appear to be completely unrelated to the discussion at hand.

Law is a cold, meaningless entity all by itself. It’s nothing more than a collection of constructs, the skeleton of a society. And much like the framing of a building, it has no real purpose until we add whatever is needed for human habitation. This human ingredient — the various interpretations and interactions over the years or even the ages – breathes life into the law, and like all life, it needs to be malleable, changing in response to growth and new needs.

The lawyers in my family and among my friends will probably say, “Well, duh, Sally, of course law is an interpretive process.” And yes, I have recognized that fact ever since I first learned how the U.S. Constitution divided government into the three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The ladder of courts — case decisions from local courts all the way up to the Supreme Court — define what our laws mean, until new contradictory decisions are handed down. That how the 1857 Supreme Court could uphold slavery in the infamous Dred Scott decision, while the 1957 Brown v. Board of Education decision gave momentum to the civil rights movement.

But today, as I read the MyJewishLearning daf yomi email, I understood this not only as a fact but as part of a wider truth that touched something within me, igniting my mind and my heart. I can’t say what that something is, because it isn’t under the control of my intellect which can come up with the right words and definitions. But I know that unspecified something drives my creativity. It’s the part of me that sees threads wherever I look, the connections that hold us together and those that unravel, so that we drift so far apart that we sometimes can’t even see each other. And then there are those threads that seem out of reach no matter how much we yearn to hold them in our hands. But when we stretch outward, sometimes pushing ourselves far beyond comfort, they will weave about us a new vision and understanding.

The human dimension imbues our laws with flesh-and-blood relevance (and sometimes with justice), just as it gives substance (and sometimes beauty) to our art. How could it be otherwise when it’s what we see in a child’s smile and in the pain of another’s suffering? It’s the self-recognition mixed with our empathic projections that sustains through the rollercoastering joy and anguish of day-to-day living. It’s how we’ve learned to interpret who we are over the ages and through the minutes of our lives. And it’s why I continue to look for and sometimes find myself in arcane arguments over pots and doors and other all too human nitpicks in the Talmud.

My Day of Awe: Dressing the Torah for the High Holy Days

Torah scroll open on a golden background

All my life, the turning of the year has seemed to be something that would sneak up on me. Existing outside of everyday, it was beyond the reality that shaped my life, a pause imposed on the “real” world. One day I’d be playing with other kids on the jungle gym, or studying for an exam, or working on a story deadline. Then suddenly, the new year would appear on the calendar, and the clock reset to the beginning. Incrementally, life changed over time, almost unnoticed, unmarked except by momentous highlights: weddings and births, bar/bat mitzvahs and anniversaries, deadlines and book launches, and deaths.

This year is different.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, time seems to be slowing down, giving me the luxury to wonder and wander, touching places in my mind and heart that I haven’t visited before.

That isn’t to say that deadlines aren’t looming, laying on the pressure professionally. Nor is the world any less hectic or demanding. But something in me was broken this past year of isolation and fear. Broken then healed, broken and healed… over and over again. In some ways, I feel like a piece of Kintsugi, a Japanese work of art created by using gold dust to rejoin the pieces of something that’s been damaged, creating beauty out of pain. But instead of gold, it’s light and lightness that is shining through the cracks in my universe. Shining on the stories within me, because stories are the gold, the light that keeps me together, and creates a new me with each character born and plot woven.Read More

Welcome to the (soon to be) New Roaring Twenties

Flapper dancing at 1920s party100 years ago, the world erupted into the mayhem and creative verve of The Roaring Twenties. Given the popularity of gangster and jazz movies, we’re all familiar with the frenzied world of 1920s wild parties and speakeasies. Liberated from the horrors of World War I and the terror of the Spanish flu pandemic, the world went crazy. The sexually charged sights and sounds of what F. Scott Fitzgerald called ‘The Jazz Age” were emblematic of a sense of pure abandon. Social relationships, personal constructs, public behavior and political philosophy became fair game, as people broke through at traditional boundaries and constraints.

The 1920s were also a time of great art adventures and experimentation that altered the nature of creativity not just Read More

Renewing My Creativity with a Little Help from My Friends: Van Gogh, Cezanne, Bob Dylan… and You

Please click this image to read the full newsletter.

I was very gratified how many folks sent me emails and notes in response to my most recent newsletter, in which I invited people to share what inspires their creativity. I’m reprinting the cover letter below and providing a link to the full newsletter (please click the image to the left), in the hopes that even more of you will share the experiences that helped you “reach deeper and wider” within yourself.

“A couple of weeks ago, I spent Wednesday evening wandering around the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a new friend, sharing some of our favorite works of art as a way to get to know each other. So we visited a few of my old “pals” — Cezanne’s Bathers, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase, the chapel-like room of Brancusi’s sculptures, and other works of art that are my current points of reference. These are among the artists whose pieces I visit when I need to be pulled outside myself, to find new paths into my own creativity.

“I crave the fellowship of artists, writers and all kinds of creative thinkers, the many who came before, as well as those who “walk” beside me. I need them almost as much as I need air and water and chocolate. Read More

The Creative Magic of a Darkened Theater

"Girl from the North Country" at the Belasco Theater, New YO
Girl from the North Country at the Belasco Theater, New York City

Is it un-American of me to admit that spectator sports leave me cold? Sure, I can get a contact high from my young nephews’ excitement when one of their heroes sinks a perfect 3 point shot into the basket. And I used to enjoy sitting with my father while he watched an intense rally between tennis champions. But that has more to do with being with the people I love when they’re happy. 

Intellectually, I can appreciate athletic virtuoso performances. It’s impressive how a well-trained mind can control every muscle, every fractional movement, how those powerful (and beautiful) bodies can do things I couldn’t even dream of achieving. However, for me, passively sitting on my duff, watching baseball, basketball, football or any similar game can be as boring as watching the minute hand on an analog clock ticking away the hours. I’d much rather be doing something… well, almost anything else. That applies not only to watching sports on TV, but also attending sporting events in person.

And yet, sports fans would probably be just as bored by one of my favorite pastimes: sitting quietly in a darkened concert hall or theater. The difference is that nothing within me is engaged by sports. On the other hand, a great play or fine piece of music fills my mind, awakens all my senses and sends my thoughts and emotions on unexpected journeys. In that darkness, fed by the creativity of others, ideas and words percolate out of me, often Read More

Thank you Toni Morrison… and Trapeta B. Mayson

Trapeta B. Mayson, Philadelphia's Poet Laureate, speaking about Toni Morrison at The Rosenbach
Trapeta B. Mayson
This past Tuesday, I attended my first Rosenbach lunchtime talk. The Rosenbach museum and library is one of Pennsylvania’s hidden treasures, though it is open to the public and is now affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia. The elegant Delancey Street double townhouse contains a remarkable collection of rare books and documents originally assembled by the Rosenbach brothers, famous dealers in books, manuscripts and art. It’s also the site of frequent public discussions, readings and lectures that fill the intimate rooms with interested and interesting people from near and far – such as the monthly lunchtime talks. I didn’t know what to expect, except that the topic was one of my favorite authors – Toni Morrison – and the speaker would be Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson. I was sure that it would be a hour well spent. Besides, I needed to get away from my writing for a bit. I’d been struggling with the first draft of my new novel’s second chapter, and the more I fought the words – the more I wrote, edited and deleted – the more frustrated (and, yes, self-doubting) I was becoming. Perhaps, I had finally bitten off more than I could chew with this ambitious project. "I never asked Tolstoy to write for me." Toni Morrison Throughout the hour, Trapeta interspersed Morrison quotes and her own poems, a weave of words and ideas that illuminated the ideas she shared, until they shimmered with energy and life that could not be denied. She spokeRead More

Living the Creative Life: Embracing Reciprocity Failure

On the razor-edged border between the possible and the impossible, creativity flourishes.

When I was a young photographer, I enjoyed experimenting with reciprocity failure.

While it may sound like a philosophical or psychological concept, reciprocity failure relates to the chemical limitations of film. Back in the 20th century, photographers quickly learned that each type of color film (known as its emulsion) was rated for certain light parameters. Push an emulsion beyond its rating by using a longer than acceptable shutter speed (to capture a picture in low light situations), and you’d end up with false colors. Those were the barriers inherent in the technology that pro photographers just didn’t overstep.

But… well… I never did color within the lines.

When I toyed with reciprocity failure, I purposely pushed beyond what was “correct” to seek new creative visions. I remember one moonless night Read More

Gesundheit! Catching & Spreading the Creativity Bug

 

My most recent newsletter opens up a discussion about how creativity is contagious. It leaps easily from one person to the next, generating a feedback loop, as well as flows over from one area of our lives to another.

Please read the letter, then respond here on this blog or via email, sharing similar experiences that you’ve had. Once creativity is part of a single aspect of your life does it infect everything else, inspiring you to try novel solutions, or to attempt something that you might not have previously considered possible? What circumstance or person has caused you to catch a particularly fervent case of the creativity bug?

Also in this newsletter are links to an essay about how my photography and writing inform each other, a video and other information about my American Hands portrait project, and an invitation to do guest blogs/essays on this website.

What Photography Has Taught Me About Writing… and Vice Versa

Behind the Veil by Sally Wiener Grotta
Behind the Veil by Sally Wiener Grotta

I am often asked what I mean when I say that my photography and writing inform each other. Photography, storytelling, and, yes, life… it’s all about what we see, how we convey it to others and whether we can make it meaningful.

When I look at the world through the lens of my camera, I see so much more. My field of vision might be more limited, but everything becomes more focused, limned with greater clarity of shadows and light. Life resolves into aesthetic patterns and colors, giving definition and meaning, and making the ordinary everyday more noteworthy and memorable.

It’s as though my lens has the magic ability to see through to the essentials of a moment or of a personality, to tell me a story that I might have missed if it weren’t for my camera’s eye view.

I often think about my photography when I’m writing… visualizing what I want my readers to see, focusing my words as I would my camera lens. To go even further,Read More

Is Your Creativity Driven by Dissatisfaction?

When I first read Anges de Mille’s retelling of a discussion with Martha Graham about the role of dissatisfaction in creativity, I recognized myself in it, as I expect most artists do. And I took Martha Graham’s advice to heart, hoping I would remember it during times of uncertainty in the value of my work.

When I shared it on Facebook, it hit a resonant chord with many of my friends, a number of whom reposted it. However, Rita Ashley replied, “Hmmm. Let me ponder this. Am I less of an artist if I am satisfied with a work I produced? If I cannot see a need to change, improve or correct?… Is dissatisfaction a requirement to be a good/great artist?

 I realized that Rita has a very healthy pride in her creations that I sometimes also feel. But that doesn’t make my dissatisfaction less of a driving force in all my creativity.

It’s a discontent not just with my art, but with the world around me, and my uncertainty about my ability to find the words or images that can help me (and others?) understand, deal with it, perhaps explore the questions that might — if we’re very lucky and persistent — find solutions.

Or, if I’m to be precise, I’m driven by a combination of confusion, concern, and dissatisfaction. I can be pleased with a single creation (sometimes), but my body of work is very incomplete. I have so much more to say, to try to understand.

 What drives your creativity? When, if ever, do you feel you’ve reached a point of completion?