of noah’s ark, cathedrals in time and jewish ships – parshat noach

Shabbat is a “cathedral in time” suggested AJ Heschel by which he meant that Judaism emphasizes the sanctity of time over space.  In making a distinction between the Sabbath and the cathedral, the iconic edifice of institutional religion Heschel was following a time-honored Jewish tradition.

The Torah follows the laws regarding the building of the Tent of Meeting (Mishkan) with an admonition to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 31: 12-17) from which the rabbis learnt that any of the 39 tasks used to build the Mishkan, were forbidden as work (melacha) on the Shabbat. The lesson is clear: The Mishkan and later the Temple were built as an accommodation to our need for edifice and to accessorize… or as Mel Brooks would say: merchandising.  The Sabbath – a sanctuary in time – with its aspiration to sanctify time, activity and state of mind supersedes any temporal temple.

The Mishkan was not the first biblical construction commanded by God. Moses & Bezalel were not the first master builders.  Biblical scholars have noted the parallels of the divine architectural specifications to build the Mishkan to similar specs provided to Noah to build an ark.

See: R. Jonathan Sacks: The Architecture of Holiness and a Mormon scholar who recently wrote an extended article on the subject: The Ark and the Tent: Temple Symbolism in the Story of Noah [especially notes 134-]

If Noah’s ark is the first biblical temple then as such it represents our tradition’s first clear compromise and recalibration to the shortcomings of humanity and our need for building campaigns, clergy, chapel and sacrifices to the Gods (see previous blog post honor thy sources and Genesis 8:20 ; the first biblical sacrifice burnt by Noah).  Noah was the first religious leader who had to quantify the message … (see: Bill Cosby’s “What’s a Cubic”)

But if Noah’s Ark was the first cathedral, where is the offsetting “Cathedral in time”?  Where is Shabbat and it alternative and aspirational message of the sanctity of time over thing?

Here at the emergence of organized religion where one man; Noah, was chosen from amongst others to lead, where sacrifices were brought and institutional religion and government, with corrupt (or at least, drunk) leaders were born… Where was the reminder that these were all accommodations, that the real ideal, the real prize … was the Shabbat?

Fortunately, there are those like me, who have Shabbat on the mind and who read the story of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 8) and found Shabbat:

ח  וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, מֵאִתּוֹ–לִרְאוֹת הֲקַלּוּ הַמַּיִם, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.

8 And he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground.

ט  וְלֹא-מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף-רַגְלָהּ, וַתָּשָׁב אֵלָיו אֶל-הַתֵּבָה–כִּי-מַיִם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו אֶל-הַתֵּבָה.

9 But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him to the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth; and he put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her in unto him into the ark.

י  וַיָּחֶל עוֹד, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִים; וַיֹּסֶף שַׁלַּח אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, מִן-הַתֵּבָה.

10 And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark.

יא  וַתָּבֹא אֵלָיו הַיּוֹנָה לְעֵת עֶרֶב, וְהִנֵּה עֲלֵה-זַיִת טָרָף בְּפִיהָ; וַיֵּדַע נֹחַ, כִּי-קַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ.

11 And the dove came in to him at eventide; and lo in her mouth an olive-leaf freshly plucked; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.

יב  וַיִּיָּחֶל עוֹד, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִים; וַיְשַׁלַּח, אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, וְלֹא-יָסְפָה שׁוּב-אֵלָיו, עוֹד.

12 And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; and she returned not again unto him any more.

As if the reference to the dove not finding Menucha “rest”, the fact that the name Noach is a cognate of the word rest-menucha and the repeated seven day intervals were not enough, the Rabbis calculated that by the calendar the dove actually landed on Shabbat.

Based on this tradition, we sing a song  called Yom Shabbaton attributed to Yehuda Halevi  on shabbat afternoon (see verse 11 above “eventide”) which celebrates the magnificence of the Shabbat with a refrain that connects Shabbat to Noah’s Ark:

The day of rest should not be forgotten: On it the dove found rest, there shall rest exhausted​​ ones.

For Halevi, the Shabbat was not only a sanctuary in time; it was also a refuge in time that transcended the daily humiliations and exhaustion of his particular time and space.  Shabbat was a weekly refuge from the Inquisition and the indignities of the exile from his beloved land of Zion. (press to hear my favorite melody for this zemer).

For Halevi and for generations of our people, the Shabbat was a life raft…. The Shabbat provided relief not only from a misreading or compromise of the world of the spirit, but more critically, it provided a refuge from physical persecution, poverty, hunger and pain suffered by a people. It was a Jewish boat.

The father of my VERY good friend Eileen Posnik was a Yiddish writer named Usher Penn who lived in Cuba and in 1943 wrote the following poem called Di yiddishe shif.  It is about a ship that was not built in time to save the six million, but is a ship… a fleet of ships, that represents the power of an ideal… the ideal of the weekly Shabbat and the ideal of the return to the Jewish homeland.  Heschel’s Sanctuary in time, Halevi’s ark of refuge and Penn’s Jewish boats represent that which transcends time and space, institutions and edifices, persecution and insult.  In them lies the secret of our survival.  After all the necessary accommodations, humiliations and physical and moral exhaustion of the work week and the construction of institutions, structures and states (and associated compromises and accommodations) we need to refresh ourselves with Shabbat menucha …Shabbat rest

The Jewish Boat – Usher Penn 1943

I have learned to design ships

Pleasure ships and warships

Now, after thousands of years, the time has come

To build a ship for the wandering Jews

A wondrous ship, a new design

With all the latest modern techniques

A ship that can swim deep under water

And soar over the stars

A new ship for a very old people

Whom the sea has swallowed more than once,

Hounded from shore to shore

And drowned like disease-ridden rats.

I will build you a ship, my brothers,

Refugees from the Shturme and the St Louis

You, upon whose heads has fallen the rage

Of all the vampires and wild beasts

I will build you a ship,

An entire fleet,

And I will hide it deep it the depths of the sea;

It will come to save you,

When it hears the cry of the ancient wandering Jews.

Di yiddishe shif

Ich hob gelerent tzu shifn, tsu tsaich’nen

Shifn far kreig un far frid’n.

Di tzeit iz shoyn raif

Efshr toizenter yor’n

Tzu boyen a shif

Far farvoglte idin.

A shif gor bazunder

A plan gor a nayer

Loit der letzter technik un modern,

A shif, vos zol shvimen tif unter’n vaser

Un zol kenen oich fliyen

Heit iber di shter’n

A shif gor a naiye

Far a folk gor an alten

Vos hot shoyn nit einmol

In yam zich getrinken,

Getrib’n gevor’n fun alerlay breg’n

Vi kretzike shtoshures

Gevor’n gezinken

A shif vel ich boyen

Far eich, meine brider

Ir vogler fun  “shturme” un fun “st louis”.

Vos oif ayere kep

Iz gefal’n der tzor’n

Fun alle vampir’n

Un chayus royus.

A shif vel ich shaf’n

A flot gor a gantz’n,

Tif oif dem opgrunt

Vel ich im bahalt’n

Er vet kum’n aich dinen

Ven er vet derher’n

Dem ruf fun dem idish’n vogler

Der alten.

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go for broke

The Fast of Gedaliah

Messianism is a go for broke technology.  “The Messiah will come in a generation that is totally righteous or totally guilty”  (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98a).

  אין בן-דוד בא אלא בדור שכולו זכאי או כולו חייב

סנהדרין צח,א

Making the best of a bad situation or a bad deal hinders the coming of redemption.

During the siege of Jerusalem in the Great Jewish Revolt, the Zealots in control preferred that no deals were made and that the destruction would be total.  Fortunately, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai staged his own death and his students were able to smuggle him out in a casket.  Once on the other side, he was able to negotiate with Vespasian that Rome give the Jews “Yavne and it’s sages” (Bavli Gittin 56b) thus permitting the survival of Rabbinic Judaism.  For those who opposed him, Zakkai was a compromiser and a traitor.

After the destruction of the First temple, Gedalia was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon as governor of Yehud province.  This province was the last refuge for Jews to remain in Judaea.  It’s formation was the only thing that stood in the way of making the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth utterly complete. On hearing of the appointment, the Jews that had taken refuge in surrounding countries returned to Judah. But the zealots were incensed since only total destruction could bring the rupture and necessary disruption to force God’s hand and bring the ultimate redemption.

Ishmael, and the ten men who were with him, murdered Gedaliah, together with most of the Jews who had joined him and many Babylonians whom Nebuchadnezzar had left with Gedaliah (Jeremiah 41:2-3). The remaining Jews feared the vengeance of Nebuchadnezzar (in view of the fact that his chosen ruler, Gedaliah, had been killed by a Jew) and fled to Egypt. Although the dates are not clear from the Bible, this probably happened about four to five years and three months after the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple in 586 BCE. (see)

The day that was chosen to assassinate Gedaliah was the Jewish New Year and by tradition a fast of Gedaliah is held on the day after Rosh Hashanah.

In a few weeks we will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the ideologically driven assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  This assassination is exceptional not only because, like that of Gedaliah, it is a rare instance of Jew on Jew violence but also because the assassination was so successful.   Along with Rabin a process of reconciliation was killed and arguably, Israel, driven by messianic ideologues has embarked on a go for broke strategy.


For further reading on the catastrophic nature of the redemption see The Messianic Idea in Judaism by Gershom Sholem 1971 pp 10 -17. For further reading on the character assassination that preceded the actual assassination of Rabin and his comparison with Philippe Pétain Chief of State of Vichy France and the ultimate collaborator 1 see: Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007 by Idith Zertal  and Akiva Eldar . And preorder: Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel by Dan Ephron

Subject of a future blog post: Forcing the Hand of God in Jewish Messianism and Martyrology in post Temple Judaism…


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Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashannah, social commentary, Torah, yom kippur, Zionism

Fight your own battles

Rosh Hashanah

The message of Rosh Hashanah is that God and only God is our King.   –  א’ן לנו מלך אלא אתה – No human official will fight our battles; no flesh and blood savior will come to our rescue. Given that the New Year festivals in ancient Babylonia and Egypt made kings into gods, the Hebrew New Year is a disruptive paradigm shift which constitutes a rejection of any authority-figure other than God.  In the Hebrew New Year it is God who is annually crowned as King. Ultimately, if God is the only external authority, that leaves ultimate responsibility for the failures and successes of each and every one of us squarely on our own shoulders and souls… God help us!

Our father our king, have mercy upon us and answer us for we have no deeds; do us right and kindly and save us.

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ חָנֵּנוּ וַעֲנֵנוּ כִּי אֵין בָּנוּ מַעֲשִׂים עֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ צְדָקָה וָחֶסֶד וְהוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ

Here’s the backstory:

God’s Kingship is so fundamental to Judaism that the first prayer of the day (said before the Lords name can even be mentioned), uses “King” as the primary place-holder:

מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים

I give thanks before You, Living and Eternal King

Elsewhere God is referred to as a father, spouse and creator amongst other metaphors, but it is as King that He greets us every morning and….. in every benediction.  The seminal importance of God as King is part and parcel of the formula for a standard blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-להֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם

Blessed art You Lord our King of the universe

The emphasis on God as King increases as we approach the New Year. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we substitute “King” for “God” in the third blessing of the Amidah.  Kingship takes precedence over Godship

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ הא-ל הָקדוש

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ המֶלֶךְ הָקדוש


The first section of the Musaf Amidah on Rosh Hashanah is called Malchuyot  מלכויות   (Kingship) and provides ten citations from Scripture, all of which contain a reference to Kingship.. except the last which is the Shema

שְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל: ה’ אֱ-לוהֵינוּ, ה’ אֶחָד

Hear Oh Israel the Lord your God, the Lord is one.

This is surprising, because the 10 verses brought as proof-texts for the other sections of the service (   זכרונות ושופרותzichronot and shofrot) have 10 proper proof texts which all contain a reference to “memory” or “shofar” as would be expected.

The 9th proof text brought for malchuyot (kingship) is the verse from Zechariah  14, 9 used to close the Aleinu prayer.[1]

 וְהָיָה ה’ לְמֶלֶךְ, עַל-כָּל-הָאָרֶץ; בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, יִהְיֶה ה’ אֶחָד-וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד

And the LORD shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the LORD be One, and His name one.

The verse from Zechariah is used to deliver a radical message.  We were all taught to believe that the Jew’s greatest contribution to the history of ideas was the concept of monotheism – God is one as branded in the iconic Shema affirmation. In fact, the utilization of the Shema as a proof-text to God’s Kingship introduces the Shema in a new light.  God’s oneness is not a theological declaration as much as it is a political and moral affirmation… there is only one King, one ruler, one external authority that we are bound to.  The flip-side of God’s oneness has always been that we shall take no other gods.  And this negative-affirmation is central to our theology.  The flipside of God’s Kingship is that we shall take no other kings or authorities or saviors. This negative is also a positive…

Similarly, the verse that is whispered all year after the recitation of the Shema, is enunciated out loud during the High Holidays.

ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד

Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.

All year we encounter God’s Kingship is hiding in plain sight.  On Rosh Hashanah we are obliged to re-affirm what should be obvious. We answer only to God.  God’s Oneness is powerless unless it translates into a kingship that suffers no other kings.

The high point of the daily Selichot services leading up to Yom Kippur and of the Yom Kippur service itself is the Avinu Malkeinu prayer.  The Avinu Malkeinu is actually the closing prayer of the Neilah service and was composed by Rabbi Akiva to break a drought.  The original was considerably shorter than our version:

ירד רבי עקיבה אחריב ואמר
אבינו מלכנו א’ן לנו מלך אלא אתה
אבינו מלכנו רחם עלינו
וירדו גשמים

Rabbi Akiva led after him (the previous Rabbi Eliezer) and said:
“Our father. our king we have no king other than you.
Our father, our king, have mercy on upon us.”
And the rain fell. [Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 25b)

Over the generations, many other stanzas have been added, but the core of this iconic prayer is not so much that God is King… as much as that we shall take no other Kings.  We have only ourselves and God’s grace to save us.

If God’s Kingship is the Bible’s core message, it befits us to aticulate the attitude towards Kingship in Scripture itself.

(Samuel I 8: 4-22)

Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah.
And they said unto him: ‘Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways; now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.’
But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said: ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed unto the LORD.
And the LORD said unto Samuel: ‘Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee; for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them.
According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, in that they have forsaken Me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.
Now therefore hearken unto their voice; howbeit thou shalt earnestly forewarn them, and shalt declare unto them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.’
And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king.
And he said: ‘This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them unto him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots.
And he will appoint them unto him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots.
And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. …..
And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king whom ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not answer you in that day.’
But the people refused to hearken unto the voice of Samuel; and they said: ‘Nay; but there shall be a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.‘ And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he spoke them in the ears of the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel: ‘Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king.’ And Samuel said unto the men of Israel: ‘Go ye every man unto his city.’

(Samuel I 8: 4-22)

 וַיִּתְקַבְּצוּ, כֹּל זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל-שְׁמוּאֵל, הָרָמָתָה. וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, הִנֵּה אַתָּה זָקַנְתָּ, וּבָנֶיךָ, לֹא הָלְכוּ בִּדְרָכֶיךָ; עַתָּה, שִׂימָה-לָּנוּ מֶלֶךְ לְשָׁפְטֵנוּ–כְּכָל-הַגּוֹיִם. וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר, בְּעֵינֵי שְׁמוּאֵל, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמְרוּ, תְּנָה-לָּנוּ מֶלֶךְ לְשָׁפְטֵנוּ; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל שְׁמוּאֵל, אֶל- וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶל-שְׁמוּאֵל, שְׁמַע בְּקוֹל הָעָם, לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יֹאמְרוּ אֵלֶיךָ:  כִּי לֹא אֹתְךָ מָאָסוּ, כִּי-אֹתִי מָאֲסוּ מִמְּלֹךְ עֲלֵיהֶם. כְּכָל-הַמַּעֲשִׂים אֲשֶׁר-עָשׂוּ, מִיּוֹם הַעֲלֹתִי אוֹתָם מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, וַיַּעַזְבֻנִי, וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–כֵּן הֵמָּה עֹשִׂים, גַּם-לָךְ. וְעַתָּה, שְׁמַע בְּקוֹלָם:  אַךְ, כִּי-הָעֵד תָּעִיד בָּהֶם, וְהִגַּדְתָּ לָהֶם, מִשְׁפַּט הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִמְלֹךְ עֲלֵיהֶם. וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל, אֵת כָּל-דִּבְרֵי ה’, אֶל-הָעָם, הַשֹּׁאֲלִים מֵאִתּוֹ מֶלֶךְ. וַיֹּאמֶר–זֶה יִהְיֶה מִשְׁפַּט הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר יִמְלֹךְ עֲלֵיכֶם:  אֶת-בְּנֵיכֶם יִקָּח, וְשָׂם לוֹ בְּמֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ וּבְפָרָשָׁיו, וְרָצוּ, לִפְנֵי מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ. וְלָשׂוּם לוֹ, שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים וְשָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים; וְלַחֲרֹשׁ חֲרִישׁוֹ וְלִקְצֹר קְצִירוֹ, וְלַעֲשׂוֹת כְּלֵי-מִלְחַמְתּוֹ וּכְלֵי רִכְבּוֹ. וְאֶת-בְּנוֹתֵיכֶם, יִקָּח, לְרַקָּחוֹת וּלְטַבָּחוֹת, וּלְאֹפוֹת.  וְאֶת-שְׂדוֹתֵיכֶם וְאֶת-כַּרְמֵיכֶם וְזֵיתֵיכֶם, הַטּוֹבִים–יִקָּח; וְנָתַן, לַעֲבָדָיו. וְזַרְעֵיכֶם וְכַרְמֵיכֶם, יַעְשֹׂר; וְנָתַן לְסָרִיסָיו, וְלַעֲבָדָיו. וְאֶת-עַבְדֵיכֶם וְאֶת-שִׁפְחוֹתֵיכֶם וְאֶת-בַּחוּרֵיכֶם הַטּוֹבִים, וְאֶת-חֲמוֹרֵיכֶם–יִקָּח; וְעָשָׂה, לִמְלַאכְתּוֹ. צֹאנְכֶם, יַעְשֹׂר; וְאַתֶּם, תִּהְיוּ-לוֹ לַעֲבָדִים. וּזְעַקְתֶּם, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, מִלִּפְנֵי מַלְכְּכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּחַרְתֶּם לָכֶם; וְלֹא-יַעֲנֶה יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא. וַיְמָאֲנוּ הָעָם, לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל שְׁמוּאֵל; וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹּא, כִּי אִם-מֶלֶךְ יִהְיֶה עָלֵינוּ. וְהָיִינוּ גַם-אֲנַחְנוּ, כְּכָל-הַגּוֹיִם; וּשְׁפָטָנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ וְיָצָא לְפָנֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם אֶת-מִלְחֲמֹתֵנוּ. וַיִּשְׁמַע שְׁמוּאֵל, אֵת כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הָעָם; וַיְדַבְּרֵם, בְּאָזְנֵי ה’. וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-שְׁמוּאֵל שְׁמַע בְּקוֹלָם, וְהִמְלַכְתָּ לָהֶם מֶלֶךְ; וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל אֶל-אַנְשֵׁי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְכוּ אִישׁ לְעִירוֹ.

See also I Samuel 12 where the people beseech God to stop a destructive rain storm during the wheat harvest… and notice how it connects the concept of God saving his subjects for His name’s sake as does Akiba’s prayer…

And all the people said unto Samuel: ‘Pray for thy servants unto the LORD thy God, that we die not; for we have added unto all our sins this evil, to ask us a king.’ And Samuel said unto the people: ‘Fear not; ye have indeed done all this evil; yet turn not aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and turn ye not aside; for then should ye go after vain things which cannot profit nor deliver, for they are vain. For the LORD will not forsake His people for His great name’s sake; because it hath pleased the LORD to make you a people unto Himself. Moreover as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD in ceasing to pray for you; but I will instruct you in the good and the right way. Only fear the LORD, and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider how great things He hath done for you. But if ye shall still do wickedly, ye shall be swept away, both ye and your king.’

וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָל-הָעָם אֶל-שְׁמוּאֵל, הִתְפַּלֵּל בְּעַד-עֲבָדֶיךָ אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ–וְאַל-נָמוּת:  כִּי-יָסַפְנוּ עַל-כָּל-חַטֹּאתֵינוּ רָעָה, לִשְׁאֹל לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ. וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל אֶל-הָעָם, אַל-תִּירָאוּ–אַתֶּם עֲשִׂיתֶם, אֵת כָּל-הָרָעָה הַזֹּאת; אַךְ, אַל-תָּסוּרוּ מֵאַחֲרֵי יְהוָה, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֶת-יְהוָה, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם.  וְלֹא, תָּסוּרוּ:  כִּי אַחֲרֵי הַתֹּהוּ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יוֹעִילוּ וְלֹא יַצִּילוּ–כִּי-תֹהוּ הֵמָּה. כִּי לֹא-יִטֹּשׁ יְהוָה, אֶת-עַמּוֹ–בַּעֲבוּר, שְׁמוֹ הַגָּדוֹל:  כִּי הוֹאִיל יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶתְכֶם לוֹ לְעָם. גַּם אָנֹכִי, חָלִילָה לִּי מֵחֲטֹא לַיהוָה–מֵחֲדֹל, לְהִתְפַּלֵּל בַּעַדְכֶם; וְהוֹרֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם, בְּדֶרֶךְ הַטּוֹבָה וְהַיְשָׁרָה. אַךְ יְראוּ אֶת-יְהוָה, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֹתוֹ בֶּאֱמֶת–בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם:  כִּי רְאוּ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-הִגְדִּל עִמָּכֶם. וְאִם-הָרֵעַ, תָּרֵעוּ–גַּם-אַתֶּם גַּם-מַלְכְּכֶם, תִּסָּפוּ.


As presented in I Samuel, the rejection of the Kingship of God was the penultimate failure of the Exodus-Sinai Project.  The Hebrew word for “rejected” (מָאֲס ) means “despise” “reject” “abhor” .  According to Strongs Lexicon  H3988 “מָאַס is a primitive root; to spurn; also (intransitively) to disappear:—abhor, cast away (off), contemn, despise, disdain, (become) loathe(some), melt away, refuse, reject, reprobate, utterly, vile person.”.  It is the root of the Yiddish word for real ugly – meeskite.  God was taking this real personally.  The rejection of God as King and the acceptance of other authority is THE piece of unfinished business and reconciliation that stands in the way of the Israel Project.  This acceptance of God as King and this radical rejection of any other human authority is the work of Rosh Hashanah.  Rejecting God as King comes from a smallness of spirit born out of a desire to have others to fight our battles.  Accepting God as the only authority, places the obligation and responsibility to make ourselves and the world a better place squarely on our own shoulders.



In rejecting human kingship as a rejection of Divine Kingship, we cannot ignore the organic connection between a human king and a human savior… the “anointed” king and the Messiah  מלך המשיח :

Then Samuel took the vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said: ‘Is it not that the LORD hath anointed thee to be prince over His inheritance. (1 Samuel Chapter 10, 1)

וַיִּקַּח שְׁמוּאֵל אֶת-פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן, וַיִּצֹק עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ–וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר–הֲלוֹא כִּי-מְשָׁחֲךָ יְהוָה עַל-נַחֲלָתוֹ, לְנָגִיד.

And Samuel said unto Saul: ‘The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over His people, over Israel; now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD.  (I Samuel 15-1)

וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל, אֶל-שָׁאוּל, אֹתִי שָׁלַח ה’ לִמְשָׁחֳךָ לְמֶלֶךְ, עַל-עַמּוֹ עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְעַתָּה שְׁמַע, לְקוֹל דִּבְרֵי ה’.

The anointed savior – Mashiach – was Kingship Ver 2.0.  The Mashiach as the Savior was a perversion of the early institution of human Kingship, which itself was a terrible perversion of the greatest and most liberating idea that Judaism introduced to humanity.  God is King, God was King and God will be King for ever and ever….


[1] Some believe Aleinu was written by Tanna Rav in 3rd century Babylonia for Rosh Hashanah services.


Filed under Bible, divine right, Israel, prayer, Religion, Rosh Hashanah, social commentary, Torah

the first fashion statement


I will be launching the LoBa kippa soon and just realized that I made this post on fashion crimes exactly a year ago…

Originally posted on madlik:

parshat korach

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when clothing designers wouldn’t dare put a logo, let alone a product endorsement on clothing.  It’s all the fault of a French tennis star named René Lacoste, nicknamed “The Crocodile“ who, in the late 20’s developed a shirt that was more accommodating to movement.  According to the Smithsonian, Lacoste “had a logo of the reptile embroidered onto his blazer. It became his personal brand before there was such a thing.”


According to Wikopedia “One of the earliest examples of T-shirts with a logo or decoration can be found in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”. Three men attending to the Scarecrow at the Wash & Brushup Company in Emerald City are seen wearing green T-shirts with the word “Oz” printed on the fronts.”


The rest, as they say, is fashion history.  Nowadays, every commercial and celebrity brand…

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the practice of prayer

kavanah – madlik goes to shul

What’s the logic of repeating the same prayers, daily, weekly and mindlessly?

Abraham Joshua Heschel answered this question with a story:

“There is a story, told by Rabbi Israel Friedman, the Rizhiner, about a small Jewish town far off from the main roads of the land.  But it had all the necessary municipal institutions; a bathhouse, a cemetery, a hospital, and a law court; as well as all sorts of craftsmen – tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and masons.  One trade, however, was lacking; there was no watchmaker.  In the course of years many of the clocks became so annoyingly inaccurate that their owners just decided to let them run down and ignore them altogether.  There were others, however, who maintained that as long as the clocks ran they should not be abandoned.  So they wound their clocks day after day, though they knew that they were not accurate.  One day the news spread through the town that a watchmaker had arrived, and everyone rushed to him with their clocks.  But the only ones he could repair were those that had been kept running – the abandoned clocks had grown rusty!

Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays By Abraham Joshua Heschel, Susannah Heschel p. 352 [1]

Take this as the Jewish version of the idiom:

“Even a broken clock is right twice a day”

If there are moments that prayer adds meaning to our lives, we probably should not wait for that moment …  to cultivate the art-of-prayer.

Heschel was undoubtedly thinking about moments of wonder, tragedy, joy and radical amazement. I’d like to focus on something more mundane – moments in the cycle of the year.

There are daily prayers that we say which provide the vocabulary and rhythm for special days of the year.

The most obvious example is the Exodus from Egypt

זכר ליציאת מצרים

We say “as a token to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt” for so many commandments and occasions that in the Kiddush for holidays, recited on Passover, the formula creates the irony of remembering to remember, as we remember.  We create a token, when we have the coin in hand…. We remember the Exodus.. even as we celebrate and re-live it!

“Praised are You…. You have given us .. this day of Passover, season of our liberation… as a token recalling the Exodus from Egypt..”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר… תִּתֶּן לָנוּ … מוֹעֲדִים לְשִׂמְחָה חַגִּים וּזְמַנִּים לְשָׂשׂוֹן אֶת יוֹם חַג הַמַּצּוֹת הַזֶה, זְמַן חֵרוּתֵנוּ מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם

I suppose this might be considered an example of rehearsing during the performance or winding the watch even when it is keeping good time… But it does confirm the importance in Jewish prayer for practicing for the moment… even in the moment.

Another example of prayer as a practice is the most basic blessing formula.  “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe.”


Kingship is the central theme of the Jewish New Year, where unlike the Babylonians who crowned their king as a god on their New Year, we crown God as our King … the only king.  The King of Kings.

“God is King, God was King, God will be King for ever and ever!” [repeat as necessary…]

ה’ מלך, ה’ מלך; ה’ ימלוך, לעולם ועד

As the early Christian followers of Jesus would tell you, there is something seditious about proclaiming anyone king besides the ruling king of the day … and we Jews, on our holiest days proclaim God (and not King George, Caesar or Jesus) to be our only King. In the context of the ancient near east, this was a powerful statement.

We practice for this climactic moment of Kol Nidre every day when we make the most trivial blessing:  “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe.”

We also practice for this crowning moment when we finish our daily prayers with the Aleinu prayer

We bend the knee and bow, before the King, King of Kings,  the Holy One blessed be He….

Thus it has been said, Adonai will be King over all the earth, On that day, Adonai will be one, and God’s Name will be one.

וַאֲנַֽחְנוּ כּוֹרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים וּמוֹדִים לִפְנֵי מֶֽלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים
הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא


וְהָיָ֧ה ה’ לְמֶ֖לֶךְ עַל־כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ

בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא יִהְיֶ֧ה

ה’ אֶחָ֖ד

וּשְׁמ֥וֹ אֶחָֽד

Here too, Jewish liturgy doubles down.  Even though every blessing uses a formula that includes Kingship and therefore prepares us for the High Holy Days, nonetheless, during the High Holy Days the Rabbis change the third blessing of the Silent Amidah from “The holy God” to “The holy King”

האל הקדוש  – המלך הקדוש

But the daily preparation for the holiest day of the year goes beyond God’s Kingship.

Listen to this prayer we recite daily after the “Blessings of the morning”.

Preserve me from misfortune and from powers of destruction. Save me from harsh judgements; spare me from ruthless opponents, be they members of the covenant or not. We should always revere God, in private as in public. We should acknowledge the truth in our hearts, and practice it in thought as in deed.

On arising one should declare: Master of all worlds! Not upon our merit do we rely in our supplication, but upon Your limitless love. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our attainment, our power, our might? What can we say, Lord our God and God of our ancestors? Compared to You, all the mighty are nothing, the famous nonexistent, the wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason. For most of their actions are meaningless, the days of their lives emptiness. Human preeminence over beasts is an illusion when all is seen as futility.

But we are Your people, partners to Your covenant, descendants of Your beloved Abraham to whom You made a pledge on Mount Moriah. We are the heirs of Isaac, his son bound upon the altar. We are Your firstborn people, the congregation of Isaac’s son Jacob whom You named Israel and Jeshurun, because of Your love for him and Your delight in him.

רִבּון כָּל הָעולָמִים לא עַל צִדְקותֵינוּ אֲנַחְנוּ מַפִּילִים תַּחֲנוּנֵינוּ לְפָנֶיךָ כִּי עַל רַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים. מָה אֲנַחְנוּ מֶה חַיֵּינוּ מֶה חַסְדֵּנוּ מַה צִּדְקֵנוּ מַה יְשְׁעֵנוּ מַה כּחֵנוּ מַה גְּבוּרָתֵנוּ. מַה נּאמַר לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ הֲלא כָל הַגִּבּורִים כְּאַיִן לְפָנֶיךָ וְאַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם כְּלא הָיוּ וַחֲכָמִים כִּבְלִי מַדָּע וּנְבונִים כִּבְלִי הַשכֵּל כִּי רב מַעֲשיהֶם תּהוּ וִימֵי חַיֵּיהֶם הֶבֶל לְפָנֶיךָ. וּמותַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן כִּי הַכּל הָבֶל:
אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ עַמְּךָ בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶךָ. בְּנֵי אַבְרָהָם אהַבְךָ שֶׁנִּשְׁבַּעְתָּ לּו בְּהַר הַמּורִיָּה. זֶרַע יִצְחָק יְחִידו. שֶׁנֶּעֱקַד עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. עֲדַת יַעֲקב בִּנְךָ בְּכורֶךָ. שֶׁמֵּאַהֲבָתְךָ שֶׁאָהַבְתָּ אותו וּמִשּמְחָתְךָ שֶׁשּמַחְתָּ בּו. קָרָאתָ אֶת שְׁמו יִשרָאֵל וִישֻׁרוּן

The similarity of the themes and motifs in this simple prayer and the prayers of the High holidays are too obvious to miss.. here are a few examples:

O my God, before I was formed I was nothing worth, and now that I have been formed I am but as though I had not been formed. Dust am I in my life: how much more so in my death. Behold I am before thee like a vessel, filled with shame and confusion. O may it be thy will, O Lord my God and God of my fathers, that I may sin no more, and as to the sins I have committed, purge them away in thine abounding compassion though not by means of affliction and sore diseases. O my God! guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile; and to such as curse me let my soul be dumb, yea, let my soul be unto all as the dust. Open my heart to thy Law, and let mv soul pursue thy commandments. If any design evil against me, speedily make their counsel of none effect, and frustrate their designs. Do it for the sake of thy name, do it for the sake of thy right hand, do it for the sake of thy holiness, do it for the sake of thy Law. In order that thy beloved ones may be delivered, O save with thy right hand, and answer me. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before thee, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Ne’eilah Service, Yom Kippur)

And what about the iconic Unetanneh Tokef:

Our origin is dust, and dust is our end. Each of us is a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust floating on the wind, a dream soon forgotten.

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר
וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר
בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ
מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל
כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה
וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף

For those fortunate to have mumbled through the daily prayers, these words and tropes are old friends who roll off the tongue. When the special moment comes.. we are free of the letters and syllables to focus on the heart and emotions.

When at the concluding prayer of Yom kippur we plead: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before thee” it is a phrase that is used three times daily to introduce the silent prayer.

So now… let’s wind our watches for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot

After the introductory Psalms (Pesukei DeZimra) as the Shabbat morning service proper begins.. pay attention to the Nishmat prayer:

Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently, HaShem our God and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us.

אִלּוּ פִינוּ מָלֵא שִׁירָה כַּיָּם
וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה כַּהֲמוֹן גַּלָּיו
וְשִׂפְתוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁבַח כְּמֶרְחֲבֵי רָקִיעַ
וְעֵינֵינוּ מְאִירוֹת כַּשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְכַיָּרֵחַ
וְיָדֵינוּ פְרוּשׂוֹת כְּנִשְׁרֵי שָׁמָיִם
וְרַגְלֵינוּ קַלּוֹת כָּאַיָּלוֹת
אֵין אֲנַחְנוּ מַסְפִּיקִים לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ
וּלְבָרֵךְ אֶת שְׁמֶךָ
עַל אַחַת מֵאָלֶף אֶלֶף אַלְפֵי אֲלָפִים וְרִבֵּי רְבָבוֹת פְּעָמִים הַטּוֹבוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ עִם אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְעִמָּנו

This is one of my favorite prayers of the weekly Shabbat service, not least because it foreshadows the most famous piyyut (liturgical poem) recited on Shavuot.  Akdamot were every line ends with a taf and an aleph.. the last and first letter of the hebrew alphabet. (see also E-Hazzan Blog).  This like the Nishmat prayer is an “A-Z” prayer proclaiming the limitation of human communication to describe and praise God’s infinite glory.

Before reading the ten divine commands,
O let me speak in awe two words, or three,
Of the One who wrought the world
And sustained it since time’s beginning.

At God’s command is infinite power,
Which words cannot define.
Were all the skies parchment,
And all the reeds pens, and all the oceans ink,
And all who dwell on earth scribes,
God’s grandeur could not be told….







The Akdamot poem, one of the high points of the Shavuot service and the Nishmat prayer recited every Shabbat are cut from the same cloth.  Jewish prayer as a practice is ultimately possible only because of the uniform messaging in Jewish prayer.  The same themes appear in different intensity and on different days, but whether it is on a sleepy tuesday morning or the closing prayer on Yom Kippur those who enjoy the practice are prepared for those rare moments where prayer is in the air.

broken clock

[1] See also:

“Once, in a village far from the noise of the world, the only watchmaker there died.  One after another, the villagers stopped winding their watches.  All except one man who, although he knew without a doubt that his clock was not working well, continued winding it every day.  Years later, another watchmaker finally arrived in the village: he was unable to repair any of the broken clocks because their delicate mechanisms had rusted, except for the man who had diligently wound his watch day after day.  The same happens with prayer.  We must continue praying even when we don’t always feel that we are really concentrating in our prayer, because the delicate mechanism of the human spirit can also easily become rusted.”  (You Are My Witness, pg. 79)


“The uniqueness of their (the Jewish People’s] relationship is reflected in the vision of God wearing tefillin as a parallel to .. the people of Israel.  God’s tefillin are said to contain the verse “Who is like your people Israel, singular on earth?” (See Siddur Sim Shalom p. 526)

[3] “Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book” edited by Morris Silverman with Robert Gordis, 1946. USCJ and RA, 185-88 see

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Filed under Hebrew, Judaism, prayer, Religion, shavuot, yom kippur

Where is God?

Parshat Terumah

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.  (Exodus 25, 8)

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם

As the commentary in Etz Hayim notes: “The text does not tell of God dwelling “in it,” i.e. in the sanctuary, but “among them,” i.e., among the people of Israel.

Similarly, with regard to the First Temple and as memorialized on the Haftorah selection:

in that I will dwell therein among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel.’

וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא אֶעֱזֹב, אֶת-עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל

This resonates with us moderns:  God does not inhabit an edifice of bricks and mortar; he dwells in the hearts and minds of his faithful.  For a humanist this translates into God lives inside of man. Dare we attribute such an enlightened interpretation to our forebears?

For classical  theologians and mystics the question posed by a temple was more basic… how can it be that God can be confined to one place… any place?

By tradition, Jacob’s dream of the ladder with ascending and descending angels  occurred at The Place (מקום) of the future First and Second Temple.  the Rabbis assert:

“God is the place (makom) of the world, but the world is not His place” [1]

“שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו”

For the mystics the bigger problem is how to explain a finite physical world when God is infinite.  If God is the Eyn Sof … an existence that suffers no beginning and no end, how is a created world with beginnings, ends and finite dimensions, let alone “evil” permitted to exist.

The standard answer in the kabbalah .. the Jewish mystical tradition, is that of the 10 sefirot.  Everything is contained in God, but there are different emanations that shine and are reflected, in various degrees of physicality, which ultimately create a perception of a created world.

The same holds true for the temple.  There is an eternal and entirely spiritual temple which God inhabits and which inhabits God… our material temple is simply a reflection of that celestial temple.

When Moses is commanded to build the tabernacle in Exodus 25:9, God instructs Moses:

And see that thou make them after their pattern, which is being shown thee in the mount. (Exodus 25: 40)

וּרְאֵה, וַעֲשֵׂה:  בְּתַבְנִיתָם–אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה מָרְאֶה, בָּהָר


As the Etz Hayim notes:  “Exactly as I show you The tabernacle and its furnishings are conceived of as earthly replicas of heavenly archetypes… ”

According to this approach, the earthly temple is a reflection or emanation of a Celestial Temple. [2]

This concept of our Temple and services mirroring the Celestial Temple and prayer services of the Angels is institutionalized in our prayers especially the Kedusha where:

“We proclaim Your Holiness on earth as it is proclaimed in heaven above.” (see Siddur Sim Shalom p. 357)

נְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת שִׁמְךָ בָּעוֹלָם
כְּשֵׁם שֶׁמַּקְדִּישִׁים אוֹתוֹ בִּשְׁמֵי מָרוֹם
כַּכָּתוּב עַל יַד נְבִיאֶךָ


In the Pesikta D’Rav Kehana, which contains material that dates back to the times of the Midrash (3rd and 4th century) we find an fascinating rendering of this theology.

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: If you pattern the tabernacle here below after the one in heaven above, I will leave My heavenly counselors, come down, and so shrink My presence as to fit into your midst below. (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 1:3)

כך אמר הב”ה למשה, משה אם אתה עשה מה של מעלה למטה אני מניח סנקליטין שלי של מעלן ויורד ומצמצם שכינתי ביניכם למטן.

For anyone who has heard of Lurianic Kabbalah and the system of Tzimtzum this is a truly revolutionary midrash and the only Midrashic/Talmudic reference to the Tzimtzum of God in Rabbinic literature.

Let me explain…  According to Gershom Scholem, the preeminent authority on the development of the Kabbalah, the de facto solution to the infinite God creating a finite world conundrum; not to mention His dwelling in a wordly temple, was the theory of emanation. In the theory of emanation God’s totally spiritual and infinite presence is reflected through a series of increasingly degraded and physical illuminations and reflections until the physical is possible.

This solution is philosophically unsatisfying since it literally kicks the can down the road… but it was the best that the mystics could do and it survived from the earliest days of the Kabbalah and Zohar until the expulsion from Spain in 1492… close to 1,000 years after our Tzimzum midrash was written.

The expulsion from Spain disrupted Jewish thought and sensitized the mystics to the dialectic between Exile and Return and suffering and redemption.

Isaac Luria who lived only to the age of 38 turned the theory of emanation on it’s head.  According to Luria, God didn’t so much as create the physical world as He contracted Himself into Himself in order to permit the existence of a physical world, including matter, evil and … a temple.

In my view, this emanation on-it’s-head approach is as philosophically unsatisfying as emanation.  It begs the same question.  But from a poetic, humanist, existential let alone pedagogic perspective it is stellar.  Any parent who learns to step back in order to permit a child to move forward will appreciate Tzimtzum!

According to Scholem, Tzimtzum (contraction) “is one of the most amazing and far-reaching conceptions ever put forward in the whole history of Kabbalism.  Tzimtzum originally means “concentration” or “contraction” but if used in the Kabbalistic parlance it is best translated by “withdrawal” or “retreat”…

“Instead of emanation we have the opposite, contraction. The God who revealed himself in firm contours was superseded by one who descended deeper into the recesses of his own Being, who concentrated Himself into Himself, and had done so from the very beginning of creation.

צמצם עצמו מעצמו אל עצמו

To be sure, this view was often felt, even by those who gave it a theoretical formulation, to verge on the blasphemous.  Yet it cropped up again and again, modified only ostensibly by a feeble ‘as it were’ or ‘so to speak.’ (p 260-261)

Another way of phrasing contraction would be diminution.  In a very real and radical way, tzimtzum implies that God commits the ultimate blasphemy/sin.. he diminished Himself.. the Godhead.

Tzimtzum is a variation on the old conundrum… If an all powerful God can make anything… can He make a weight that is too heavy for He Himself to lift?  In the case of tzimtzum the answer is Yes.  God can diminish himself to a point that He alone cannot repair the damage…. As it were.

It is clear to me that tzimtzum is a dialectical process.  As in our original midrash, God withdraws from the celestial temple to concentrate into the temporal temple. And, according to Luria, when God withdraws He leaves [concentrated] traces of His holiness called Reshimu or residue similar to the residue of oil or wine in a bottle the contents of which have been poured out.  The process is not smooth, it is disruptive to the point that Luria coined a term “Breaking of the vessels” Shevirat haKelim to refer to this big bang of contraction.

When God contracts, the vessel that holds Him is ruptured into pieces.  Both the residue and broken pieces contain remnants of the infinite. God is removed, exiled (c.f. “the Divine Presence in Exile” –  שכינתא בגלותאand separated from these remnants and only man can unite God by repairing these broken pieces and this is redemption – Tikun.

This is the mystical concept of Tikkun Olam, fixing the world. What it has in common with the social-action concept of Tikkun Olam is that both are thoroughly dependent on Man.

Getting back to our Temple…

We now come full circle and have a radically humanistic conception of God’s presence in our world.. hinted at first by the Rabbis of the Fourth Century Midrash and flushed out in a radical theology by a 30 year old decedent of refugees from the Spanish inquisition in Safed.

God’s dwelling in the Mishkan is dependent on man.  The tabernacle and Temple represent a poetic dance between God and man, exile and return, suffering and redemption… for both parties.  The vision of Jews and God outside of the temple, willingly withdrawing from the temple appears less absurd.

The Kotzke Rebbe’s answer to the question “Where is God?” is both empowering and obligating.

“Where is God?  Wherever we let Him in.”



 “ר’ הונא בשם ר’ אמי אמר: מפני מה מכנין שמו של הקב”ה וקורין אותו “מקום”? שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו” – בראשית רבה, ס”ח, י’

[2] For a comprehensive review of this literature see:

The Celestial Temple as viewed in the Aggadah by Victor Aptowitzer found in Binah: Volume I; Studies in Jewish History (Washington Papers) Paperback – June 6, 1989 PRAEGER, NY Westport, CT, London






tzimzum -pesikta drav kehana 1


tzimzum -pesikta drav kehana 2
tzimzum -pesikta drav kehana English


Filed under Hebrew, Judaism, kabbalah, social commentary, Torah, tzimtzum

graven images and caricatures of the prophet

You don’t hear of Jews blowing up giant Buddhas.  It’s not as though their sacred texts don’t rail against such graven images.  In fact, we invented idol smashing.  You remember. It was Abraham, the founder of those so-called monotheistic religions who, when left alone in his father’s idol shop, slashed inventory.

3rd -4th century A.D, 37 meter high,(Shakyamuni) Buddha demolished by Taliban with 50,000 kilograms dynamite on March 12, 2001 in Karachi, Afghanistan.

3rd -4th century A.D, 37 meter high,(Shakyamuni) Buddha demolished by Taliban with 50,000 kilograms dynamite on March 12, 2001 in Karachi, Afghanistan.

The midrash is so well known that most Hebrew-School graduates think it’s part of scripture and not simply a literary fiction of the Midrash (B’reishit Rabbah 38:13).  The Midrash is so well known that it appears in the Quran (Qur’an 21:51-70).  Both renderings have Abraham leaving the largest idol untouched to support his claim that “the big guy did it”. (see comparison of the midrash and Quranic accounts here).

So why don’t Jews smash idols?

It may be that we have bigger problems and it’s just low on our punch list. It may be that smashing idols beloved by billions is not prudent for those whose numbers are counted in decimal points…

It may also be that Jews don’t believe that these images represent real idols and correspondingly, that Jews don’t believe that worship as practiced by Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists etc, corresponds to the idol worship portrayed in the Bible.  This last approach is the one offered by Classical Rabbinic texts. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b) which argues that the idolatry referenced in the Bible had a force and efficacy that no longer exists and which we moderns have no way of comprehending. “The drive for idolatry was so strong in my [ancient] time that, had you been there, you yourself would have caught up the skirt of your garment and done the same!” (see)  Mosts Buddhists and Hindus will tell you that they are worshiping the spirit through the lens of a visual image.

A variation on this view is echoed by iconic Hebrew University Biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889 -1963) who argued that the Ancient Hebrew’s paradigm shift to monotheism was so complete that: What idol-worship the Scriptures speak of was only “vestigial fetishistic idolatry,” and not a genuine attachment of the people to such forms of worship… (see)

So why don’t Jews blow up Buddhas?  Is it because they have more pressing matters? Is it because we would prefer not to antagonize billions of believers?  Is it because the worship of images of Buddha, Brahma, Vishnu,  Shiva,  etc do not constitute the Idol worship of ancient Old Testament times?

Or, is it because we actually don’t take our monotheism that seriously?

Let’s face it, Jews (and Christians, for that matter) may wail against graven images, but whether it be widespread reference to God’s human features (outstretched arms, face, image etc.) and emotions (anger, jealousy etc) or calling the Godhead by different names (as in El, Yahweh, Shadai, or respectively; Father, Son, or Holy Ghost).. there are plenty of images in our texts and liturgy to go around.

I admit that in our daily speech, we Jews don’t refer to God by any of His given names.  We use a moniker: “Hashem” in the daily vernacular, but by the familial way we use it, you’d think that “Hashem” was a Jew’s best friend.

If you want to take the no-name approach seriously, you should follow our Abrahamic brothers and sisters in Islam.

Muslims do not use “Allah” the way Jews use the “Hashem”, in fact proper muslim practices suggests that one should use the word “Allah” only when speaking Arabic.  When one speaks English one should use the word “God”.  “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God”.. not the name of the Muslim God.

It is surprising to notice that many Muslims do not realise that the word “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for the word “God”.  Many of them believe that “Allah” is the actual name of the Muslim God! They do not realise that it is wrong to “personalise” God as He is not a person. God is much greater than to be confined to a single name.

Neither do they realise that the word “Allah” does not belong exclusively to the Muslims and that it has always been used before (and after) the revelation of the Quran by the Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians when they speak about God.

Talking to English speaking people about God using the word “Allah” is very much the same as speaking to Arabic speaking people about “Allah” using the word “God”. It makes better sense to use the equivalant word of each language. (see)

So if we Jews took our no-name approach more seriously, we would say “The Name” instead of “Hashem” when speaking English.. But let’s face it “Hashem” is so much more personal and Haimish.

So let’s be real….  we Jews don’t take our Monotheism that seriously… Baruch Hashem.

Our’s is a monotheism, full of anthropomorphisms and warmth.  It is what I like to call “Monotheism with a wink”.

As the author of a book on the Big Ideas responded when asked by a NY Times reporter what was the single worst idea in history?

Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on earth determines how we will go in the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history. (see)

Monotheism with a wink, maintains that duality in thought (if not in action) is not only possible, but to be encouraged.  According to the Talmud in Eruvin 13b the Schools of Hillel and Shamai argued the law for three years until a voice from heaven issued announcing, “These and these are the words of the living God … but the practical law follows Hillel

(אלו ואלו דברי א-להים חיים הן, והלכה כבית הילל (ע’ש

Monotheism with a wink supports a radical pluralism of opinions and interpretations.

The Midrash said it this way: there are 70 “faces” to the Torah (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15 and Talmud Sanhedrin 34a  see)

שבעים פנים לתורה . מה פטיש זה מתחלק לכמה ניצוצות – אף מקרא אחד יוצא לכמה טעמים

Jewish humor summarized it this way:

Max and Isaac come to the Rabbi’s study to settle a dispute.  The Rabbi’s wife is also seated in the room.

Max explains his complaint to the Rabbi:  …. The Rabbi declares, “You’re right, Max.” Next, Isaac presents his side.  He speaks with such passion and persuasion that the Rabbi says to him, “You’re right, Isaac.” After they leave, the Rabbi’s wife is distraught and says to her husband, “..  How can you say that both of them are right?  … The Rabbi thinks long and hard and finally says to his wife, “You know, you’re also right.” (see)

Monotheism without a wink is a most dangerous thing.
But monotheism with a wink leads to humor, caricature, satire, curiosity, experimentation, innovation, invention, accommodation, conciliation, compassion, compromise and probably mixed dancing… and Baruch Hashem for that.

May the memory of those killed in the name of a monotheism without a wink, be forever a blessing.


Filed under art, Bible, humor, monotheism, Religion, Torah