The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Kedoshim: Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbour As Thyself

This Torah portion continues the Holiness code from the previous portion. This portion is mostly a list of rules, introducing two different types of capital punishment, and the punishment of cherem, or excommunication.

There are some lovely mitzvot here as well.

  1. Revere your mother and father
  2. Rest on the Sabbath day and keep it holy
  3. Not to reap all the way to the edges of a field, thereby depriving the poor and the homeless of teh possibility of gleaning from your fields, and thereby feeding themselves
  4. Do not pick your fruit trees clean, so that the poor have some fruit to eat
  5. Pay your laborers on the day they work, so that they do not go home hungry or unpaid
  6. Do not put obstacles in the way of blind people (the rabbis debate whether this is meant literally or figuratively, i.e. putting moral obstacles in the way of those without much moral foresight)
  7. Love your neighbor as you love yourself (unfortunately, some Christians think this originally came from Jesus. This is where Jesus got it.)
  8. Show deference to the elderly
  9. Love the stranger as you love yourself, for you were a stranger once in Egypt (some would interpret "stranger" as "foreigner")
  10. Treat the convert exactly the same way you would treat someone born Jewish
Two forms of capital punishment are introduced: stoning and burning. The Talmud describes stoning as a procedure where the condemned is thrown from a height of at least two stories to the street below. If they survive, a massive rock (so big that it takes at least two people to carry it) is dropped on them, crushing them. That's pretty barbaric, but not nearly as barbaric as the current version of stoning used in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen, UAE, and Iran today. The contemporary version of stoning involves burying the condemned in the ground (men buried up to the waist and women up to the chest), and pelting them with rocks. The Iranian penal code forbids the use of any stones that individually could kill the condemned outright in one or two throws. It often takes a long time to die this way.

Burning, according to the Talmud is having molten lead poured down the throat.

The Talmud proscribes two other methods: decapitation and strangulation. Decapitation is with a sword, and strangulation is with two strong men on opposite sides pulling cords around the neck of the condemned until death.

In Jewish law, two witnesses had to see the crime for the death penalty to be in effect. These witnesses had to be fully educated in the law, had to be fully employed at the time of the crime, and could not be related to each other or to the accused. They had to each give a warning to the accused that the crime they were committing carried the death penalty. The accused had to acknowledge that the crime carried the death penalty and had to continue committing the crime anyway. The two witnesses could not have had a conversation afterwards about the offense, and thereby have corroborated their testimonies. The jury had to be in a strict majority, but could not be unanimous in their decision (to prevent a rigged jury). The two witnesses were required to be the executioners.

As a result, a Sanhedrin that executed more than one person in seven years (and some say seventy years) was considered to be excessively bloody.

  1. What sins carried a potential death penalty?
  2. One who gave a child to Molech
  3. One who insulted his father or mother
  4. A man who committed adultery with a married woman, and the married woman with whom he committed it
  5. A man who lay with his father’s wife, and his father wife with whom he lay
  6. A man who lay with his daughter-in-law, and his daughter-in-law with whom he lay 
  7. A man who lay with a male as one lies with a woman, and the male with whom he lay 
  8. A man who married a woman and her mother, and the woman and mother whom he married 
  9. A man who had carnal relations with a beast, and the beast with whom he had relations 
  10. A woman who approached any beast to mate with it, and the beast that she approached 
  11. One who had a ghost or a familiar spirit
Now imagine that two men were having sex. Two witnesses, who are fully employed, and well-schooled in the law witness them in flagrante delicto. Each tells the two men to stop, that what they are doing is listed in the Torah as an offense that carries with it the death penalty. Each time, both men tell each witness that they know this, but are going to continue anyway. The two witnesses never talk to each other until after the Sanhedrin meets to decide the fate of the two men, and they decide for death by stoning, although not unanimously. How often do you think that occurred?

There are other rules in this Torah portion that seem bizarre to us today:
  1. Not to interbreed different species, or sow fields with two different kinds of grain
  2. Not to wear garments from both wool and linen (unless it is the High Priest's garment and you are the High Priest)
  3. Not to eat the fruit of a newly-planted fruit tree for three years
  4. Not to trim the hair on the sides of the head
  5. Not to destroy the side-growth of the beard
  6. Not to mourn for the dead by scarifying the flesh
The penalty of excommunication is also explained, and given as punishment for the following:
  1. One who turned to ghosts or familiar spirits (but presumably did not possess them)
  2. Marriage between siblings (including half-siblings, but not step-siblings)
  3. Sexual intercourse involving a menstruating woman (both people would be excommunicated)
So, the Holiness code can be very harsh, and somewhat arbitrary by today's moral standards. With the exception of some of the ultra-Orthodox, there is nobody today who follows every jot and tittle of it. The point of it all was to ascribe towards some sense of holiness as a means of emulating God. The word kadosh in Hebrew means holy. It is where the title of the 30° in the Scottish Rite, Knight Kadosh, comes from. We are created in the image of God. The Holiness code is an early attempt to set the ground rules for holiness.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Acharei Mot: The Holiness Code

In this Torah portion, the observance of Yom Kippur is discussed, as well as a discussion of the sacredness of blood. Various forbidden sexual practices are discussed, including one of the only lines of Leviticus many Christian Fundamentalists read and observe. After listing a series of forbidden incestuous relationships and somewhat incestuous relationships like marrying your stepmother or marrying two women who are sisters. Other sexual sins are listed, like having sex with a menstruating woman (yeah, I know. Read the previous blog post), and committing adultery with your neighbor's wife. Then, suddenly, the rhythm of the passage falls off a cliff: "And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD." [Leviticus 18: 21]. What?

There was a practice in Semitic paganism of sacrificing children to Molech, a god worshipped during that time. It was thought that an iron statue of Molech with its arms outstretched was heated with fire, and the infant was placed in the arms of Molech until it burned to death. By so doing, the person believed that they could transform their fortunes for the better. What does this have to do with the previous rules? The Egyptian aristocracy had incestuous marriages, and the Philistines had child sacrifices. Moses is commanding the Israelites to behave differently than the Egyptians and the Philistines. And it is in this context that we can put the next verse: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." [Leviticus 18: 22].

It's right there in the Bible, right? What else does the Bible refer to as תֹּועֵבָה (to'evah), or abomination?

  1. The Egyptians regarded shepherds as to'evah.
  2. Hebrew animal sacrifice in the land of Egypt was to'evah.
  3. Idolatry
  4. Remarrying a person you have divorced.
  5. Haughty eyes
  6. A lying tongue
  7. Hands that shed innocent blood
  8. A heart that devises wicked schemes
  9. Feet that are swift in running to mischief
  10. A false witness who utters lies
  11. One who spreads strife among brothers
  12. Incest
  13. Adultery
  14. Temple prostitution
  15. Money earned from prostitution
  16. Child sacrifice
  17. Transvestism
  18. Cheating in the market by using crooked weights
  19. Dishonesty
  20. Eating non-kosher food
  21. Stealing
  22. Murder
  23. Breaking covenants
  24. Usury
  25. Armed robbery
  26. Oppressing the poor and needy
This list includes behaviors we still take as taboo, like murder, child sacrifice, armed robbery, and incest. But eating rabbit makes this list, as does lying (which appears three times on the list). While transvestism was shocking years ago, nobody picketed the Milton Berle show for the occasional comic drag scene.

Maybe those who are so affronted by homosexuality should go after the other items on this list. When was the last time you saw a demonstration against usury? When was the last time that people waved Bibles in the air to protest the oppression of the poor and needy? When indeed.

Incidentally, the next line goes after bestiality, which is why some Fundamentalists equate homosexuality with bestiality. And yet they never equate homosexuality with adultery, like in the previous line. Go figure.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Metzora: Why Does The Torah discuss such things?

In this Torah portion, the priests are instructed in how to ritually cleanse one stricken with tsara'at, often mistranslated as leprosy, but when it affects people is closer to plaque psoriasis, and when it affects clothing or houses is closer to mildew or dry rot. There is instruction in how to recognize if a house is afflicted with tsara'at, and when it should be demolished to ward off the affliction. The rest of the Torah portion discusses male and female genital discharges, and how they make a person ritually impure.

For men, genital discharges, both from semen and from gonorrhea, are discussed. For women, menses, and non-menstrual bloody discharges are discussed. It is enough to have a nocturnal emission or a discharge of pre-seminal fluid to render a man in a ritually unready state, but sexual intercourse leading to a male ejaculation, or a discharge resulting from gonorrhea will also cause a man to lose his spiritual readiness. In the case of gonorrhea, he will remain unready for a week after the last discharge. Also, if a man has intercourse with a menstruating woman, he is regarded as being in the same state of ritual unreadiness as a menstruating women for a week after the intercourse. In each case, ritual bathing and sacrifices are necessary to put them back in a state of spiritual and ritual readiness.

For women, their menses renders them in a ritually unready state for a week after the last discharge. They are also rendered unready by any bloody discharge, even if outside of her menstrual cycle. After bathing and bringing turtle doves to the priests to sacrifice, they are ready again.

This stuff is crazy at first glance. What is going on here? Why is this in the Bible?

The common factor is the intermediation of the priests. When something strange and probably unhygienic happens, bring in someone who is experienced in dealing with such things (read "doctor" here), and let them examine it. Then bathe and disinfect. Not bad advice. This was a superstitious age. To bring in an objective party and to stress bathing, quarantine for contagious afflictions, and a clear, delineated way to get back to normal is a big improvement for a people used to moral panics, child sacrifices, and mad eruptions of violence.

The Torah portion ends with the reason for all the purity laws. The Tabernacle is pure, and the people who come into the Tabernacle are unleashing powerful spiritual energies, powerful enough to kill the unready. Those who come into the Tabernacle should be in a state of spiritual readiness. When you enter the tyled lodge, you should be in a similar state of spiritual readiness.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Tazria: What "Leprosy" Actually Is

This week has the second double portion, of both Tazria and Metzora. Tazria is about tsara'at (צָרָעַת), which usually gets translated as leprosy. But any reading of the text will demonstrate that the disease being described is nothing like Hansen's disease. When it affects humans, it is more similar to plaque psoriasis, although perhaps not identical. But tsara'at also affects clothing and houses.

Let's step back a moment and put this in context. When I was a child, I was raised without religion by secular Jewish parents. When I was old enough to begin Hebrew school, my father offered me the choice of either spending my weekend mornings at Hebrew school, or playing pee-wee ice hockey, and I chose hockey. When my friends who attended Hebrew school began having their Bar Mitzvahs, I was invited to all of them, but I really had no context for what I was observing. The first Bar Mitzvah I went to was a friend who was in hockey with me (so he was doing both). His Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah was Tazria, this Torah portion. I was given a Chumash (a book with the five books of the Torah in Hebrew with all vowel points and cantillation marks printed, and an English translation alongside the Hebrew text, with Torah commentary at the bottom of the page), and I followed along with my friend as he recited the passage. And I was horrified. It soured me on Judaism in general for a long time to come.

I am not unique in this. A lot of Christians, and even a lot of Jews, are mortified that the Bible puts so much detail into describing a disease, which in English often gets mistranslated as leprosy, and describes it as a Divine retribution causing the sufferer to become an unclean outcast who is removed from the community and blamed for his affliction. It is hard to reconcile with our understanding of a loving God, and goes against our contemporary concept of fairness. As a result, the entire Book of Leviticus is reduced to being "the leprosy book", and many Christians (and atheists) dismiss the whole Old Testament as "leprosy and stuff".

So, how does a contemporary Jew reconcile the ugliness of Tazria with a modern theological sensibility? My rabbi really enjoys teaching this Torah portion, because it illustrates many things about the Bible that are not well understood today. One year, my rabbi brought in a dermatologist to analyze the Torah's description of the skin disease, and diagnose it based on current medical understanding. In my community, we embrace textual ugliness rather than shy away from it. We haven't even gotten to the genocides Moses leads against the Midianites (that will have to wait until the Book of Numbers), but there will be a lot more that is disturbing in the weeks to come. How do we handle that which is disturbing in the Torah?

By taking in what is said with a critical eye, not rejecting the text, but striving to understand these things are in the text. There is often much subtlety in this approach. Judaism is one of the rare cultures that has a continuous history of many millennia, and in that time, we have gone from a pastoral or agrarian society from the early Bronze Age; to an urban culture in the Iron Age; to an ancient civilization in the midst of other ancient civilizations like the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans; to a small urban minority in medieval, feudal society; to a modern religion. Jews have connections to all aspects of this historical continuum, being simultaneously ancient and modern. Being a Jew means having an identity that spans most of recorded history. So when we find our Scripture mired in antiquity, we can recognize that we traveled through that portion of space and time, and reflect upon where it fits in our long journey.

We can easily imagine that in the time of the Torah, contagious diseases were not well understood, and that sanitary conditions in the encampment of the Children of Israel were not especially good. In the desert, there was a constant shortage of water, which means that bathing was infrequent. Most people had the clothes on their back and no other clothes. The Torah tells us that one of the miracles in the desert was that the clothing of the Children of Israel never wore out, which means they were wearing the same garments for forty years of wandering in harsh elemental conditions. One can imagine that skin diseases like psoriasis broke out with some frequency.

How would an ancient and primitive people handle such outbreaks? Most likely by ascribing such afflictions to Divine retribution, and possibly mass panic. To deflect against this, the Torah describes skin diseases in a great deal of detail, and then insists that the sufferer be brought to Aaron or to the Priests for inspection. This would immediately diffuse a panic, since the Priest as mediator would protect the sufferer from the panic of the general populace. The immediate prescription is a week of quarantine. This would keep the affliction, if contagious, from affecting other people, and keep the sufferer out of the way of the crowd who might panic at the sight of such an affliction.

The Torah describes when tsara'at affects clothing (and houses in the next Torah portion). By a modern understanding, this could be mildew or dry rot. We know that these things can spread, and that they have to be treated early before they do more damage. Again, the affected garment should be brought to the priest, which is then quarantined if it proves to have tsara'at. If after seven days, the blemish has not gone away, a garment is to be burned.

All this is fairly reasonable medical treatment for a Bronze Age physician. So why is this in a holy text? The Torah is intended to be all the laws for the Children of Israel. Unlike other religions, Judaism intends to cover every aspect of life, the ugly and material as well as the sublime and spiritual. The Talmud is intended to be a whole document that covers every possible judgment that could be made, and this includes such issues as well as a myriad of other examples far stranger. When we get to the Sotah in the Book of Numbers, we are going to see things far less reconcilable to a modern sensibility, so get ready.

As I have mentioned previously, the word that gets translated as unclean might better be translated as unready. Someone overcome with skin lesions might not be ready for social intercourse, let alone the spiritual demands of temple services. Clothing eaten away by mildew might not be ready to wear.

The Talmud interprets tsara'at as the Divine punishment for harmful gossip. This metaphor of dry rot or skin lesions for the effects of gossip is effective. When we gossip maliciously, we cause real damage with our words, harming the reputations of others, and turning amicability into emnity. Many a social organization, including more than one Masonic lodge, has been destroyed by harmful gossip. The Talmud suggests that tsara'at might not even be visible, but merely the residue caused by lies and malicious rumors. There is a Hasidic tale of a woman who has spread mean-spirited rumors who, feeling some contrition, asks the rabbi how she can fix the damage she has caused. He tells her to go home and take a feather pillow, tear it open with a knife, and scatter the feathers out her bedroom window, and then to return to him. When she does this, she goes back to the rabbi and asks him what she should do next. He tells her to retrieve every feather that she scattered.

"That's impossible," she tells the rabbi. He replies that it is equally impossible to reverse the harm caused by malicious rumors.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Shemini: Ye Shall Therefore Be Holy, For I Am Holy

I gave hints of the horror of this Torah portion last week, and now it is here. Nadab and Abihu rush forth into the Tabernacle with incense pans filled with alien fire, and are struck dead by fire from God. This tragedy is all the more stunning because the Tabernacle is in the midst of being consecrated for its first use. Moses' immediate response is enigmatic: "This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified." [Leviticus 10: 3]. This line is sufficient to silence Aaron.

The rabbis who comment on Torah are of two different minds about this incident. One camp, the more mundane camp, see this as Divine punishment, and scramble to find an offense. Thus the Talmud cites Exodus 19: 22: "And let the priests also, which come near to the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break forth upon them." The next commandment listed in the Torah after this incident is "Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations." [Leviticus 10: 9], causing some rabbis to speculate that Nadab and Abihu were drunk, and are struck dead for being drunk inside the Tabernacle. There's quite a lot of speculation as to what offense the two boys committed that caused such a swift and immediate punishment, none of which strikes me as convincing.

Others regard this incident in a more esoteric way, claiming that Nadab and Abihu either consciously sacrificed themselves to God to consecrate the Tabernacle, or that God brought them too close, and they were unable to withstand the spiritual intensity of that peak moment. Rashi cites the following: " the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD: where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee. There I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by my glory." [Exodus 29: 42-3].

My own understanding of this tragedy is that God, through Moses and Aaron, was implementing a brand-new spiritual technology, and like any new technology, its safety margins were not well understood. The Tabernacle was the devotional focal point of an entire nation of millions of people. The intensity of that focus was sufficient to incinerate a person under that lens who did not have sufficient protection. It was similar to touching the third rail during the dedication of a new subway.

Moses' comment seems to suggest that Nadab and Abihu were sanctified rather than punished, and his comment silences Aaron, who just watched his two eldest sons die. Moses summons two of Aaron's cousins to drag away the corpses of the two boys (touching a corpse would desanctify Aaron), and Moses warns Aaron and his surviving sons that if they mourned the death of the boys in the usual manner customary to Israelite custom, they would also be struck dead. Instead, the entire community of the Children of Israel are to mourn the death of the two boys for the immediate family.

In their shock, Eleazar and Ithamar burn the sacrifice that should they should have eaten, and Moses is very angry with them. Aaron responds to Moses: "Behold, this day have they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD; and such things have befallen me: and if I had eaten the sin offering to day, should it have been accepted in the sight of the LORD? " [Leviticus 10: 19]. This is the closest that Aaron comes to complaining about or mourning the death of his sons. There is so much grief and pain in that line that it melts the heart. We get a sense of the agony with which Aaron would have internalized the metaphor, ingesting the meat of the roasted sacrificial lamb while his own lambs were roasted and sacrificed.

This is sufficient to make Moses back off: "And when Moses heard that, he was content." [Leviticus 10: 20].

The Torah portion ends with a discussion of kosher dietary laws. The animals that are regarded as unclean are mentioned, and prohibited. One who eats unclean animals makes himself "abominable" in the sight of the Lord [Leviticus 11: 43]. The purpose of such restrictions is as follows:
For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. [Leviticus 11: 44-5].
This strikes me as very curious and unique. God wants us to be holy, as He is holy. What does that kind of holiness mean? Other religions have buildings, books, artifacts that are holy, but here, God wants people to be holy. We sanctify the holiness of God by being holy ourselves.

As Masons, we are engaged in building that spiritual building, that house not made with hands, eternal in the Heavens. That building is holy, and the Deity to whom it is directed is holy, so we have to be holy in order to build it. Masons understand that the Temple of Solomon, so stately and magnificent, could not withstand the ravages of barbarous force. Freemasonry notwithstanding still survives. It survives because we are building the new Temple not in a place where fire, ram, wrecking ball, or bomb can harm it. We are building it out of our immortal souls, as living stones, which have to be holy if they are to make a holy structure.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Another Visit to the Scottish Rite Valley of Guthrie

I am a member of the Scottish Rite. I knew I wanted to be a Scottish Rite Mason before I became a Mason. The reputation of the Scottish Rite as the University of Freemasonry extends into the profane world, and a person who might know nothing else about Freemasonry knows what the 33° represents, and that a man who has earned the 33° is worthy of respect. When my father heard that I had earned the 32° six months after I took my Entered Apprentice degree, he told me that the Fraternity must have been profoundly impressed with me to have given me such a high honor so quickly. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I took a one-day class, and had only taken six of the 29 degrees under the Scottish Rite's jurisdiction.

I joined the Scottish Rite in the Valley of Boston, Massachusetts. I took the 4° (Secret Master), 14° (Grand Elect Mason), 16° (Prince of Jerusalem), 18° (Knight Rose-Croix), 21° (Prussian Knight), and 32° (Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret) in a full day. The Scottish Rite degrees are theatrical, and I was not an exemplar in any of them. They are performed in a theater, by actors on a stage, and in many of the degrees, a candidate, called an exemplar, is selected from the class of candidates and brought onto the stage to be part of the drama. I was given a passport with a page for each of the 29 degrees, and the six degrees I observed were stamped and dated in my passport. Years later, I still have not filled more than half of the pages in my passport. Many degrees are difficult to perform, and the rituals of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction change often, so it is difficult to observe all the degrees without years of hunting down the more obscure degrees. Boston will perform the 17° (Knight of the East and West) degree for the first time in many years this April, and we anticipate a very large turnout to see this rare degree.

In the Southern Jurisdiction, the degrees are arranged in story arcs, sometimes forming a single narrative, but more often in thematic blocs. The choice of the arrangement of the degrees is very deliberate, and is designed to initiate and instruct the candidate in a particular way, revealing many subtle concepts in a precise order to maximize the effect it has on the candidate. So the Southern Jurisdiction degrees, which come from Albert Pike, the most influential Sovereign Grand Commander in their history. He intended the degrees to form a complete system, and they do.

Because of this, the Scottish Rite Masons in the Southern Jurisdiction study their degrees long after they have first taken them, in order to sound the depths of what they have experienced. Because the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction degrees are more individuated, and change often, fewer people study their degrees, and it is harder to do so even if more people did. Books on the degrees would be obsoleted very quickly, and so the South is at an advantage when it comes to Scottish Rite Masonic education.

Learning this, I became a student of the Southern Jurisdiction degrees, even though my mother Jurisdiction is Northern. I took a correspondence course through the House of the Temple, called the Master Craftsman program, and completed it six months later. I then took a course through the Valley of Guthrie, Oklahoma, called the College of the Consistory, which is far more in depth. There is a 1500 word essay required for each of the 29 degrees, with a minimum completion time of five years, although I am not aware that anyone has yet completed the course in its entirety.

It was as a student of the College of the Consistory that I was invited by my instructors to visit Guthrie, Oklahoma, and see the all of the degrees performed over a three-day weekend. I talked a few friends into joining me, and last year, we arrived and observed all 29 degrees in a marathon session over several days. Very few Valleys perform all the degrees, and still fewer do so every year. It is an astonishingly difficult task. Over four hundred men work on the degrees, including actors, costumers, make-up artists, set designers, musicians, and set crew. There are innkeepers who manage the hundreds of beds where the brethren stay, there are men managing the shops that sell books, regalia, gifts, and a snack bar, there are service groups that manage the registration of the hundreds of Scottish Rite Masons who visit, educators who instruct the candidates, and many more people who work very hard to put on 29 excellent performances over the three-day weekend.

Guthrie has become the Alexandria of Scottish Rite Freemasonry, and Scottish Rite Masons from all over the USA visit every Spring, along with some foreign Scottish Rite Masons as well. It is not unusual to meet in Guthrie men who have seen all the degrees in succession a dozen times or more. The level of Masonic knowledge, scholarship, understanding and wisdom is unparalleled anywhere else. It was my great honor after my first visit to be made a member of the Valley of Guthrie, and I wear my membership badge with deep pride. I say this with all due love and respect for the Valley of Boston, but the two organizations are providing different experiences, and neither would presume to deliver what the other one does so well.

This year, I brought five new brothers from the Valley of Boston with me so that they could experience the degrees for themselves. Brethren attended from 19 different US States, 24 arriving from the Valley of Pasadena, California alone. I made such good friends on my last visit, and we have stayed in touch via phone, email and Facebook, so it was very easy to pick things up where we left off last year, and my friends from Boston found it just as easy to make friends as I did, and we made a lot of new friends this year as well.

In the basement of the Scottish Rite Temple at Guthrie is a smoking room, and on a given evening after the degree work is done, it is not unusual to see a group of brethren, in leather chairs and sofas, with cigars in hand, discussing together some subtle point in William Preston's ritual, or in the writings of Albert Pike, or in the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, or the theology of Origen. Or telling a hilarious story of something funny that happened to them over the last year. There is a lot of philosophy and a lot of laughter in the smoking room. Things I discussed last year gnawed at me all year, and I was very pleased to have, in a year of study since, some answers to the questions generated by last year's conversations. And it is ironic that I came home last night with an entirely new set of questions to ponder for another year.

This year, there were roughly fifty candidates. The candidates are required to attend every one of the 29 degrees offered, and attendance is taken before every degree. The result is a marathon experience that they never forget. There was candidate education, member education, and meditation classes in the mornings and during the lunch breaks and in the evenings. The most venerable and distinguished scholars in the Valley stayed around after the degree work each night to take questions from the brethren about anything in the degree work, and whatever could be gleaned about their deeper meanings.

Leaving the Temple after the degree work has ended is like the last day of summer camp. Brothers exchange contact information and stay in touch over the year, eager to be re-united the following Spring.

Men have sold all their possessions, and journeyed to the remotest parts of Tibet or Samarkand or Timbuktu in search of knowledge and wisdom. They have devoted years of study and meditation in remote monasteries and ashrams, or in universities. Pythagoras traveled to Asia, Africa, and Europe, and was initiated into several orders of priesthood. How much simpler it is to persuade one's employers to let him take Thursday and Friday off and travel to Oklahoma (and if he is truly wise, the following Monday to decompress). There is a renaissance in Freemasonry, and there are places where the Craft zings and hums with zeal and fervency and penetrating Masonic light. It is only fitting that we travel to where the light shines brightest, and bring home with us what light we can bear and convey.