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.”

——————————

[1]

 “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

tzimtzum

 

 

 

 

tzimzum -pesikta drav kehana 1

 

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

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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.

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

rounding the corner

Thoughts on religious iconography from Cambodia and Vietnam

There is an impressive and seamless continuity between texts, mythologies, art, ritual objects, and architecture within Hinduism and Buddhism.  A perfect example is the lotus.  In mythology and sacred Hindu texts the lotus grows from the navel of Vishnu,  the sleeping god whose dream is the universe. Brahma sits on the lotus, the symbol of divine energy and divine grace.

Reclining Vishnu at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

Reclining Vishnu at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

This theme of the lotus growing from the navel of the deity is echoed in Buddhist literature.  Siddharta dreams that a lotus tree rises from his navel up through the worlds to the Heaven of the “Final Limit of Form” and the very summit of the cosmos of formal manifestation… In this symbolic formula the flowering of the lotus is the attainment of Enlightment: the petals open to disclose the Buddha seated on the lotus, and in the “lotus position”. (see The Symbolism of the Stupa,  By Adrian Snodgrass pp 205

Brahma sitting on Petals, at Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam

Brahma sitting on Petals, at Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam

Brahma sits on Lotus flower, Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

Brahma sits on Lotus flower, Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

In fact, the design of the Temples at Angkar follows the pattern of the lotus flower (un-open) emerging from a base representing the lotus petals.

Banteay Prei Temple in Angkor Cambodia

Banteay Prei Temple in Angkor Cambodia

The complex Angkor Wat with it’s central lotus surrounded by four lotuses is no exception.

Layout of Angkor Wat

Layout of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

At its core the image of the lotus plant arising from the navel and the flowering of the lotus is the essence of creation and sexual in nature. The phallic nature of the temples at Angkar are oblivious.

In its most minimalistic form the lotus flower/petal motif  takes the shape of the linga and includes the mountain iconography most noticeable in the structure of the Angkar temples.  The lingam is often represented alongside the Yoni, a symbol of the goddess or of Shakti, female creative energy.

Linga assembled into square Yoni at Mỹ Sơn Vietnam

Linga assembled into square Yoni at Mỹ Sơn Vietnam

 

Round Yoni at Mỹ Sơn Vietnam

Round Yoni at Mỹ Sơn Vietnam

The yoni is the creative power of nature and represents the goddess Shakti. The linga stone represents Shiva, and is usually placed in the yoni. The lingam is the transcendental source of all that exists. The linga united with the yoni represents the nonduality of immanent reality and transcendental potentiality.

Buddha on Yoni, at Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam

Buddha on Yoni, at Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam

The Yoni represents the petals out of which the Linga emerges and rests and more ancient specimens from matrilineal societies are square, while later versions, have their power reduced by rounding.

 

Square Yoni with multiple Lingas at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

Square Yoni with multiple Lingas at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

Round Yoni with multiple Lingas at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

Round Yoni with multiple Lingas at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

In fact this combination of Famale petals and male lotus flower is the brand of Buddhism and I might add, a lot of Cambodian and Vietnamese companies.

IMG_2340

This brand is called the Linga and nowhere more apparent than at the River of A Thousand Lingas a 40 minute drive from the temples at Angkor.

Judaic Iconographic Tour 1.01

So I get it.  Judaism does not condone images.  It hardly has a brand mark.  Unlike the menorah, the Lion of Judah, the shofar and the lulav (our lotus?), the Star of David, considered by most to be the Trademark of Judaism, was never a uniquely Jewish symbol.”  Our ancient art is limited and mostly derivative of other pagan cultures in the neighborhood (see: signs of the Zodiac).

But certainly there must be some iconography which a tour guide of Judaism could point out.  Are there primal and seminal shapes and messages hidden in our texts and rituals, that we just ignore or have left buried under the surface?

So here’s a stab at giving such a tour…

Enter the SQUARE…

I have always been intrigued by the ambiguous relationship of the Hebrew Bible to corners and squares.

The word in Classical and Modern Hebrew for square is ribu’a (ריבוע) which really just comes from the word 4.  This word, along with the word for Circle (עיגול) do not to my knowledge appear in the ancient biblical texts. Geometry was not the Bible’s favorite subject… But we do have the word for corner “Payah”  (פֵּאָה) which not only appears, but appears to play an important role.

Keeping the “corners” of the beard is the source for Jewish beards and side curls.. called Payot (corners).

You shall not round off the corner of your head, and you shall not destroy the edge of your beard.(Leviticus 19: 27)

לֹא תַקִּפוּ פְּאַת רֹאשְׁכֶם וְלֹא תַשְׁחִית אֵת פְּאַת זְקָנֶךָ

The word for “round” used in the verse is (נָקַף ) which means to go around, surround, encompass, enclose, to make the round, complete the circuit. [1]  (Compare: Hakafa הקפה  “[to] en/circle” or “going a/round” in Hebrew, referring to the times when celebrations in Judaism have its adherents dance or walk or celebrate by moving in circles.)

For the Torah, the corners seem to be holy or consecrated, which means that they need to either be dedicated to God or to his chosen on earth… the poor and the stranger.  The biblical editor establishes an obvious thematic link between the corners of the beard and the corners of the field. Just a few verses earlier in Leviticus 19 we read:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not fully reap the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. .. You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord, your God.     (Leviticus 19: 9 – 10)

וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט

לֹא תְלַקֵּט לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

And of course, what discussion of sanctifying the square or corner would be complete without mention of the four-cornered garment and the requirement for fringes.  The word Kanaf (כָּנָף) usually means wings as in the Cherubs in Exodus 25:20

who shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, ….

 וְהָיוּ הַכְּרֻבִים פֹּרְשֵׂי כְנָפַיִם לְמַעְלָה, סֹכְכִים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם עַל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת, וּפְנֵיהֶם, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו; אֶל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת–יִהְיוּ, פְּנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים

It is tempting to suggest a connection between wings/corners and the Hebrew creation myth which begins by God fluttering (rä·khaf’) over the abyss.

Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱ-לֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם

Writes Rashi:

and the spirit of God was hovering: The Throne of Glory was suspended in the air and hovered over the face of the water with the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He and with His word, like a dove, which hovers over the nest, acoveter in Old French, to cover, hover over.

ורוח א-להים מרחפת כסא הכבוד עומד באויר ומרחף על פני המים ברוח פיו של הקב”ה ובמאמרו, כיונה המרחפת על הקן אקוביטי”ר בלע”ז] לכסות]

Similarly, the bird hovering/fluttering metaphor is used for both the Exodus and Revelation myth as well:

He [God] found them in a desert land, and in a desolate, howling wasteland. He encompassed them and bestowed understanding upon them; He protected them as the pupil of His eye.   As an eagle awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings, it spreads its wings, taking them and carrying them on its pinions. (Deuteronomy 32: 10-11)

כְּנֶשֶׁר יָעִיר קִנּוֹ עַל גּוֹזָלָיו יְרַחֵף יִפְרֹשׂ כְּנָפָיו יִקָּחֵהוּ יִשָּׂאֵהוּ עַל אֶבְרָתוֹ

Writes Rash:

He encompassed them: [Rendered by Onkelos :] “He made them encamp round about His Divine Presence”-the Tent of Meeting [where the Divine Presence rested] was in the middle [of the camp] and the four divisions [i.e., the tribal camps, surrounded it] from all four directions.

hovering over its fledglings: [The eagle] does not impose its [whole] body upon them. Rather, it hovers above them, touching them and yet not quite touching them. So too, is the Holy One, Blessed is He. [As in the verse:] “We did not find the Almighty great in power” (Job 37:23). When He came to give the Torah to Israel, He did not reveal Himself to them from one direction [thus concentrating His power at one point, as it were], but rather, from four directions, as Scripture states, “The Lord came from Sinai, and shone forth from Seir to them, and appeared from Mount Paran” (Deut. 33:2). [This accounts for three directions.] The fourth direction is referred to in [the verse], “God comes from Teman” (Hab. 3:3). – [Sifrei 32:11]

spreading its wings, taking them: When it [the eagle] comes to move [its fledglings] from place to place, it does not pick them up with its feet, as do other birds. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, which soars very high and flies above them. For this reason, it [the other bird] carries them with its feet because of the eagle [above them]. The eagle, however, is afraid only of an arrow. Therefore, it carries its young on its wings, saying, “It is better that an arrow pierce me, rather than pierce my young.” So too, the Holy One, Blessed is He, [says]: “I carried you on eagles’ wings” (Exod. 19:4). [I.e.,] when the Egyptians pursued [the children of Israel] and overtook them at the [Red] Sea, they cast arrows and catapulted rocks [at Israel]. Immediately, “The angel of God moved… [behind them… and the pillar of cloud] came between the camp of Egypt [and the camp of Israel]” (Exod. 14:19-20) [for Israel’s protection]. — [Mechilta 19:4] (see for hebrew text)

Not only does the hovering wings motif include the trifecta of Creation, Exodus and Revelation, but according to the sources that Rashi references, the Biblical hovering “kenafim” wings is a four cornered force field of tenderness and protection.

If we are discussing holy squares and rectangles, we need to mention the Mishkan – Tabernacle  (מִשְׁכַּן) and the Beit HaMikdash – Temple (בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ ) which, like Hindu and Buddhist temples was to be situated on the top of a hill/mount (הַר הַבַּיִת).

soltemp

Solomon’s Temple

Mishkan1

The Mishkan – Tabernacle

 

 

The shape of both were rectangular.  Of interest for our discussion is that the word used for side is actually our friend corner-Peyah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And thou shalt make the boards for the tabernacle, twenty boards for the south side southward (Exodus 26: 18)

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַקְּרָשִׁים, לַמִּשְׁכָּן, עֶשְׂרִים קֶרֶשׁ, לִפְאַת נֶגְבָּה תֵימָנָה

 

In addition to corner, Peyah can also mean extremity, edge or border.

As Rashi writes:

for the southern side: Heb. לִפְאַתנֶגְבָּה ךְתֵּימָנָה. [The word לִפְאַת is derived from פֵּאָה, which usually means “corner.”] This [use of the word] פֵּאָה is not an expression meaning “corner,” rather the whole side is referred to as פֵּאָה, as the Targum [Onkelos] renders: לְרוּחַ עֵיבַר דָרוֹמָא, to the side toward the south.

לפאת נגבה תימנה אין פאה זו לשון מקצוע, אלא כל הרוח קרויה פאה, כתרגומו לרוח עיבר דרומא

 

We will conclude our survey of ambiguous sanctification of the corner/square with the one object in Judaism which cries out for a contextual reference, and whose cries have been met with a deafening silence. This ritual object are strange to the extreme.  I am referring, of course,  to the Tefillin (תפילין )… The fact that this pair of black leather boxes with black leather straps do not really have a name [2] might point to their ancient origin.  In any case, they are so distinctive in the eye of the beholder that they carry a Greek name which has survived until today – phylacteries (from Ancient Greek φυλακτήριον phylacterion, form of phylássein, φυλάσσειν meaning “to guard, protect”).  The first use of this name is in Matthew 23:5 in the New Testament where Matthew complains about the Jews: “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long;”  [2a]

A_set_of_Tefillin

We know that their square shape is ancient since Yigal Yadin found a pair of tefillin in a cave belonging to 1st century Jewish partisans serving under bar Kochba. (see)

For a wonderful scholarly treatment on Tefilin feel free to visit Probing the Earliest Origins of Tefillin (phylacteries) in a blog called Yomin D;min Alma which includes a picture of tefillin found in the Cairo Geniza that are conical in shape (so much for corners and squares!) and look a lot like our Lingas (Lehavdil)…

tefillin-from-geniza

 

Whenever I have thought about a context for odd shape of tefillin I have always thought of the Kaaba in Mecca [3] … not only because they look so similar, but also because the tefillin are also referred to as a Bayit or house… or Battim in the plural.  Since the Jewish temple is also referred to as a Bayit, (as in Beit HaMikdash and Har HaBayit), it seemed to me natural to think of it as a miniature temple and to look to our rectangular temple for context.

Fortunately, I am not the only one who has thought of this comparison.

Billy Phillips, in his blog kabbalahstudent.com argues for a connection between tefilin and the Kaaba (here)

His picture is worth a thousand words (or maybe lingas):

kaba tefilin

 

Granted that he shows a traditional tefillin box and not uncovered tefilin, but I think his visual comparison is well taken.

He goes on to argue that the Sephardim  wrap the tefillin around the left arm seven times, counter-clockwise and compares this to Muslims circumventing the Ka’ba at the end of the Haj.  Whether he is guilty of sharing too much detail or not, his point is well taken.  There seems to be a tradition of circumvention when it comes to our squares.    Today’s Jewish custom of dancing in a circle (Hora dance) and of circling the alter in the Synagogue on Sukkot (Hoshanot) comes from ancinent times.  “It was customary to make one procession around the altar on each day of Sukkot, and seven on the seventh day” (Sukkah 4:5)

It may even be that on each of the three Pilgrim festivals, ancient Jews ascended to the temple and completed their pilgrimage, by circling the square Temple.

hakafot3_text(1)

 

Think also of a bride circling the groom under the square wedding canopy (Chuppah).

The Female shall circle the male נְקֵבָה תְּסוֹבֵב גָּבֶר Jerimiah 31:21

The Female shall circle the male נְקֵבָה תְּסוֹבֵב גָּבֶר Jerimiah 31:21

This post is more of a question than a statement.  It is more of a request for further comment and research.  But certainly students of Judaism need to explore this interest in sanctifying the corner.

Comments and suggestions are welcome!

 

 

 

 

———————–

[1] See Rashi

You shall not round off the corner of your head: This refers to someone who [cuts his hair in such a way that he] makes [the hair on] his temples even with that behind his ear and on his forehead [i.e., the front hairline], thereby causing [the hairline] surrounding his head to become a circle, since the main hairline behind the ears is at a much higher level than [the hair on] his temples. — [Mak. 20b]

the edge of your beard: [meaning:] The end of the beard and its borders. And these are five: two on each cheek at the top [edge of the cheek] near the head, where [the cheek] is broad and has two “corners” [i.e., extremities, one near the temple and the other at the end of the cheek bone towards the center of the face]-and one below, on the chin, at the point where the two cheeks join together. – [Torath Kohanim 19: 74; Mak. 20b]

לא תקפו פאת ראשכם זה המשוה צדעיו לאחורי אזנו ולפדחתו, ונמצא הקף ראשו עגול סביב, שעל אחורי אזניו עקרי שערו למעלה מצדעיו הרבה

פאת זקנך  סוף הזקן וגבוליו. והן חמש שתים בכל לחי ולחי למעלה אצל הראש שהוא רחב ויש בו שתי פאות, ואחת למטה בסנטרו מקום חבור שני הלחיים יחד

[2}

The ultimate origin of Hebrew “tefillin” is uncertain.[3] The word “tefillin” is not found in the Bible, which calls them ṭoṭafot. The Septuagint renders “ṭoṭafot” ἀσαλευτόν, “something immovable.”[2] Some believe it refers to a charm, similar to the Hebrew neṭifot, “round jewel.”[2] The Talmud (Sanhedrin 4b) explains that the word ṭoṭafot is combination of two foreign words: Tot means “two” in the “Caspi” language and Fot means “two” in the “Afriki” language,[4] hence tot and fot means “two and two”, corresponding to the four compartments of the head-tefillin.[5] Menahem ben Saruq explains that the word is derived from the Hebrew Ve’hateif and Tatifoo, both expressions meaning “speech”, “for when one sees the tefillin it causes him to remember and speak about The Exodus from Egypt.”[6]

The first texts to use “tefillin” are the Targumim and Peshitta[2] and it is also used in subsequent Talmudic literature, although the word “ṭoṭafah” was still current, being used with the meaning of “frontlet.”[2] “Tefillin” may have derived from the Aramaic palal, “to plead, pray,” a word closely related to the Hebrew tefillah, “prayer.”[3] Jacob ben Asher (14th century) suggests that “tefillin” is derived from the Hebrew pelilah, “justice, evidence,” for tefillin act as a sign and proof of God’s presence among the Jewish people.[7]

The only instance of the name “phylacteries” in ancient times occurs once in the Greek New Testament (Matthew 23:5) whence it has passed into the languages of Europe. “Phylacteries” derives from the Greek phulaktērion – φυλακτήριον, “defences,” and in late Greek, “amulets” or “charms.” Neither Aquila nor Symmachus use the word “phylacteries.” see

[2a]  Interesting to note that the Jews are identified by two square shaped “cornered” wearable objects… the Talit and the Tefillin.  This charge of the demonstrative nature of the commandment is, in fact, confirmed by the rabbis, who interpret the verse “and all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon thee” (Deut. 28:10) to refer to “the tefillin of the head” (Ber. 6a). (see Encyclopedia Judaica Tefilin).  Imagine a Jew walking by wearing talit, tefillin and sporting a beard and/or payos… that would make three sanctified squares all identifying the individual as a Jew!

For more on tefillin see: Yonatan Adler, The Content and Order of the Scriptural Passages in Tefillin: A Reexamination of the Early Rabbinic SourcesIn Light of the Evidence From the Judean Desert

[3]

The Kaaba

The Arabic word Kaaba comes from the Arabic ka’bah meaning “square house,” which in turn comes from ka’b meaning “cube.”… According to tradition the Kaaba was built by Ibrahim (Abraham). It is stated in the Qur’an that this was the first house that was built for humanity to worship Allah (God).

In her book, Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong asserts that the Kaaba was at some point dedicated to Hubal, a Nabatean deity, and contained 360 idols that probably represented the days of the year. In Guillaume’s translation of Ibn Ishaq, an early biographer of Muhammad, the Ka’aba itself was addressed using a feminine grammatical form.[25] Circumambulation was often performed naked by men and almost naked by women,[26] and linked to ancient fertility rites.[27]

Also of interest, is that reference is not made to the four sides of this cube, but rather to its four corners: Corner of the Black Stone (East), Corner of Yemen (South-West). Corner of Syria (North-West). Corner of Iraq (North-East).

 

For more on what the Jewish/Hebrew God looks like see: Seeing God(s) in Temples, the Heavens, and in Model Shrines: A Problem in Ancient Metaphysics by Ziony Zevit, American Jewish University, Los Angeles and Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor

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the many faces of god and man

Bayon Temple, Angkor, Cambodia

When I walk down a city street, find myself in a crowd, an over-filled subway car or visit a foreign land…. my favorite activity is not people watching, but face watching. There’s nothing like looking at the face of a stranger.

I am drawn to the fact that I have never, and most likely never will again… see that face. I am fascinated by the infinite diversity.  I imagine a story, background and trajectory of each face I view.  If there is a G/god, and if S/he creates every human being then the infinite variation of our face is the only proof I need.

Of all the anthropomorphisms in the Hebrew Bible, the least bothersome to me,  is the first… God’s image .  Twenty six verses into the Bible we hear God say: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness;

נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ

Writes Rashi on the next verse:

And God created man in His image: In the form that was made for him, for everything [else] was created with a command, whereas he [man] was created with the hands (of God), as it is written (Ps. 139:5): “and You placed Your hand upon me.” Man was made with a die, like a coin, which is made by means of a die, which is called coin in Old French. And so Scripture states (Job 38:14): “The die changes like clay.” – [from Letters of Rabbi Akiva , second version; Mid. Ps. 139:5; Sanh. 38a]

ויברא א-להים את האדם בצלמו בדפוס העשוי לו, שהכל נברא במאמר והוא נברא בידים, שנאמר (תהלים קלט ה) ותשת עלי כפכה, נעשה בחותם כמטבע העשויה על ידי רושם שקורין קוי”ן בלע”ז [מטבע] וכן הוא אומר (איוב לח יד) תתהפך כחומר חותם

“in the form that was made for him” literally means with a [printing] press that was [specifically ] made for him [each individual wo/man] or a one-off die.  God’s printing press was the first on-demand digital press where every image was unique.

Although it doesn’t specifically say it, the metaphor of the coin-press conjures up the image of the “heads’ side of the coin.  I have always assumed that what makes each wo/man unique was first and foremost their face.

If Jews have an image of nirvana or dharma where a human achieves oneness with the godhead, it is in Moses who sees God “face to face”.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. Exodus 33: 11

 וְדִבֶּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהו

The one molten image permitted, nay commanded by Biblical law (Exodus 25: 18) was the two golden cherubimּ facing each other on top of the ark of the covenant…. According to Rashi, the face of the cherubim was the face of an innocent child.

cherubim: Heb. כְּרֻבִים. They had the features of a child. — [from Succah 5]

כרבים דמות פרצוף תינוק להם

That image (דמות) that is referred to relates to the face (פרצוף) of a child.

Similarly, in Ezekiel’s mystical visions of the Chariot of God (see Merkabah mysticism), the first of the four divine “image” that he imagines, is a human face. (Ezekiel 1: 10)

As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and they four had the face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four had also the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces; and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.

וּדְמוּת פְּנֵיהֶם, פְּנֵי אָדָם, וּפְנֵי אַרְיֵה אֶל-הַיָּמִין לְאַרְבַּעְתָּם, וּפְנֵי-שׁוֹר מֵהַשְּׂמֹאול לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן; וּפְנֵי-נֶשֶׁר, לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן

וּפְנֵיהֶם, וְכַנְפֵיהֶם פְּרֻדוֹת מִלְמָעְלָה:  לְאִישׁ, שְׁתַּיִם חֹבְרוֹת אִישׁ, וּשְׁתַּיִם מְכַסּוֹת, אֵת גְּוִיֹּתֵיהֶנָה

It is in the face that both the mystics and doubters can find God.

As seen in Ezekiel, it was not beyond ancient and classical Jewish thinkers to put an animal’s face on a divine or human being.

After all… the Hebrew word for face “panim” is found only in the plural… no being (divine, human or animal) has only one face.

While the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud did not count years as the Chinese do, with animals, it was not beyond them to characterize a generation or age with the face of an animal.

Characterizing the evil generation that will precede the coming of the messiah, the Rabbis write:

“The face of the generation will be like the face of the dog, the son will not feel ashamed before his father (alt. will not be embarrassed by his father)…” (Mishnah Sotah, 9: 16, Talmud Sotah 49b)

(בן מנוול אב בת קמה באמה כלה בחמותה אויבי איש אנשי ביתו פני הדור כפני הכלב הבן אינו מתבייש מאביו ועל מי יש לנו להשען על אבינו שבשמים” -מסכת סוטה, פרק ט’, משנה ט”ו.

In latter Jewish tradition, it was a new face (פנים חדשות) that is required in order to have the quorum necessary to bless a newlywed couple.

תנו רבנן: “מברכים ברכת חתנים [“שבע ברכות”] בעשרה כל שבעה. אמר רב, והוא שבאו פנים חדשות“.

I’d like to think that a new face could contain within it both the evil of a generation, but also the possibility of the presence of the divine. Like a visitor at a Sukkah or a guest at a meal of thanks, a new face represents a placeholder for the divine presence.…

It was coming form this context that I was able, nay driven to connect to the many faces of god that I have seen in the Far East.  Nowhere was this more powerful than at the Face towers at Bayon temple at Angkor in Cambodia.

The Bayon Temple, constructed in the late 12th – early 13th centuries  stands at the near-exact center of the Angkor Thom complex. Symbolically, it represents the center of the universe, the point at which the worlds of the divine and living intersect.

The decorations in this temple, as in all the other temples at Angkor have undergone significant alterations over its history. The original decoration was Mahayana Buddhist, consistent with the original builder-king’s; Javayarman VII’s beliefs. Decoration was then altered to meet Vaishnavite Hindu religious requirements. As part of this scheme, all of the temple’s Buddhas were converted into rishis (Hindu ascetics) and Shiva lingas. Decorative elements were given a Buddhist makeover in the 16th century to suit the new requirements of Theravada Buddhism, which prevails in Cambodia today. As you might expect, the Buddhists similarly scratched out the rishis and lingas.

The only images that were not touched… were the most striking…

IMG_1746

Nearly 200 faces — up to 1.8 meters (6 feet) tall — grace the towers rising above the Bayon. While most towers hold four faces, oriented toward the cardinal directions…. [ cf  Ezekiel’s Chariot]

 

The positions of these face towers are shown with red highlights; those that are missing or destroyed are shown with white highlights. Their position emphasizes the cardinal four directions.

temple layout

The faces’ decoration and iconography — virtually identical throughout the temple — are minimal, yet there are some distinctive features

IMG_1747

IMG_1748

Open eyes. Unlike many of Jayavarman’s earlier Buddhas who have downward-looking eyes, with lids that cover most of the pupil, the eyes on the Bayon’s faces are wide open and look directly outward.

 

Headband. Interestingly, the ornate floral headband lacks an image of Amitabha, which would have immediately identified the image as being that of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion; this has not stopped the image from being identified as such, however.

Smile. It’s infectious… and cherubic

IMG_1714

 

According to my guide book (which I have quoted extensively and italicized:  Cambodia Revealed: The Temples of Angkor,David Raezer; Jennifer Raezer (2014-08-11) While there is historical precedent for temple towers with images (even faces) pointed in the cardinal directions, there is something that makes Bayon’s face towers entirely unique. Similar four-faced images in other parts of the Hindu-Buddhist world are enclosed within frames, recreating the concept of an all-knowing god in his mountain home, the temple. This changes profoundly at the Bayon: the absence of a frame around the face has a powerful effect of personalizing the structure by blending sculpture with architecture. At the Bayon, the temple is no longer just the residence of the god, but rather the god itself, a god with 200 faces.

IMG_1726

 

 

Perhaps what spared the faces the desecration suffered by other Buddhist icons at the hands of Jayavarman VIII was their enigmatic identity: what might have been viewed as the face of a Buddhist figure under Jayavarman VII (Avalokitesvara or Vairocana) could easily be reassociated with a Hindu figure under Jayavarman VIII (Brahma or Sadashiva).

What has always fascinated me about sculptures and paintings of God and gods is the fact that human models were undoubtedly used.  In the case of the Bayon faces, scholars speculate that the face is perhaps a portrait of the builder-king himself, Jayavarman VII, assuming the form of Avalokitesvara. If this is the correct interpretation, Jayarvarman is positioning himself as the compassionate gateway to the divine.

Man depicts god by depicting man… depicting god…

IMG_1742

The other intriguing aspect of the Bayon is that relief sculptures throughout the temple are exclusively secular in nature with an emphasis on everyday life. There are more scenes depicting everyday life and historical events at the Bayon ; this compares versus a focus on mythological stories, largely from the Hindu epics, at the more famous Angkor Wat.

IMG_1734

 

Of course, the most engaging element of so many of these faces…. is the smile, and that face of Cambodian (Khmer) culture, and their image of the divine, is irrepressible and survives even unto today.IMG_1735

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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,900 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 48 trips to carry that many people.

If you have any suggestions for how to make this blog better…. let me know!

I’ve been told that I should try to keep my posts shorter, a suggestion that I agree with and try to honor… But in many cases what makes the posts long are the quotes in the body and/or the notes to the post.  This blog is as much a way for me to preserve and offer (on the web) some of my favorite sources as it is a platform for me to say anything original… so I probably will continue in my verbosity…

It has been suggested by one of my favorite readers (she admits that she usually only gets through the first paragraph) to post the blog as a podcast.  In fact, the recent post “holy crap” served as the basis for a class I led.  I realized that I base my delivery approach of my blog on shmoozen from Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, the mashgiach at Beer Yaakov who would bring out a stack of books (sefarim) which contained the sources that formed the basis for his talk.  All the books had page-markers duly inserted and he would march through the smooze one source at a time.  If you could re-construct the sources then all you had to do was connect the dots!  his shmoozen were all delivered audibly so maybe I will try to deliver some of the posts in parallel as podcasts…

In the meantime, thanks for your readership and happy new year from Hong Kong!

Click here to see the complete report.

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jews, buddhists and extraterrestrials

some thoughts before I go to the Orient  …. on jews, buddhists and extraterrestrials 

I’m leaving for the alien shores of China, Cambodia and Vietnam and reminded of a dialog in Rodger Kamenetz’s jewel of a book: The Jew in the Lotus:   The book tracks the journey of “eight high–spirited Jewish delegates to Dharamsala, India, for a historic Buddhist–Jewish dialogue with the Dalai Lama”

Early on in the narrative, the Jewish protagonists realize, to their dismay, that while many of the 300+ million Buddhists have heard of Islam and Christianity, they have not, for the most part,  heard of Judaism. For someone who has dedicated his/her life to a belief system that claims to be the word of the Master of the Universe (ריבונו של עולם) … this is a demeaning experience to say the least….  For a Jew, confronted with someone who has never heard of Moses to have to use the “Have you heard of Jesus.. he was Jewish?” calling-card it is no doubt humbling.  Writes Kamenetz:

Our Sikh driver had heard of Muslims and met some Christian tourists. To him, Jews were news. That pricked my vanity. I didn’t like to think that in vast areas of the planet, the story of my people is unknown. … After all, Jews make up less than half of one percent of the world’s population. There are as many Sikhs in the Punjab as Jews on the planet. … Just outside my car window there was enough human tragedy, comedy, and heartbreaking struggle to fill a dozen Torah scrolls.

He continues:

I decided that the most important baggage Jews carry is an absolute conviction of our significance because we are Jews, because we have survived. On Route One, the whole grand story of Jewish survival, the tremendous importance I attach to my history, my Torah, shrank in perspective: to a single line, a single letter. I felt absurd: in the middle of India, did it really make any difference that we were Jews?  (pp. 26-27)

Kamenetz and his band of Rabbis were not the first Jews to be asked the question: “Who is a Jew and who is this God of which you speak?.  Remember in Exodus 5: 2 Pharaoh challenges Moses and Aaron:  “Pharaoh said: ‘Who is the LORD, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go.'”

  ‘וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה–מִי ה’ אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל: לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-ה

In a recent article in the Science section of the New York Times, Dennis Overbye asks Do Aliens know it’s Christmas – How Possibilities of Life Elsewhere Might Alter Held Notions of Faith.  For those interested in this new track in theology called astrotheology, the Times article provides a comprehensive survey of opinions and (primarily Christian) opinionators in this field.

I was struck by a comment from Geoffrey Marcy, an exoplanet explorer and holder of the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley.

Surely, earthlings were not the only beings in the Milky Way blessed in God’s eyes, he elaborated, saying that he liked to tease public audiences with the question. “Conversations about religion with intelligent beings from an exoplanet might jolt humanity into realizing how parochial our beliefs are,” he said.

For a Christian the question becomes, how do extraterrestrials get “saved” if they were never visited by Jesus or if their ancestors had not participated in the Original Sin in Eden?  For Jews who believe that non-Jews need follow only  the seven laws of Noah, the question is less intense but still nagging….  How can there be fully developed religions and cultures who have not heard of the Flood, an Exodus from Egypt and a return to a geographical Zion?

With travel being so costly and with Virgin Galactic suffering a recent setback, how fortunate am I.  As a Jew, I don’t need to visit outer-space or await  the arrival of extraterrestrials to discover those who have not heard of my God, His prophets or His chosen people and their escapades…

So, I’m off to the Orient and looking forward to being both humbled and enlightened…

On another, yet related note, I cannot help but ponder the attraction that Buddhism has on Jews… to the degree that there’s even a word (Jewbu) and Wikipedia page for Jewish Buddhists.

A fascinating explanation for this affinity was given by Shlomo Carlebach in a rare interview recorded by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi at the Torah and Dharma Conference in Berkeley in 1974. [1]

Please listen….

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From Rabbi David Zeller book “The Soul of the Story” (see)

In 1974, there was a conference – “Torah and Dharma” – in Berkeley, California, focusing on the connections between Judaism and other traditions like Sufism, Zen Buddhism, and Yoga. Representatives of the different traditions were invited, including Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman. Shlomo, as often happened, was double-booked and couldn’t come. There were keynote talks, smaller seminars, and panel discussions. The final panel had all the teachers together for the last questions and answers.

Someone in the audience asked the question: “It appears to me that the Sufis, the Yogis, and the Zen teachers on our panel are all Jewish! Can anyone explain what’s going on?”

There was a murmur from the audience and from the panel. Zalman rose to the occasion. “Before I left for the conference, I called up Reb Shlomo and said, ‘Shloimele, I’m about to go to the conference in Berkeley. I know you really wanted to be there, too. Do you have anything you want to say to them? The tape recorder is hooked up to the phone and recording.’ And this is what he said in answer to your question.” And with that Zalman pressed the start button on a tape recorder sitting on the table in front of him.

This is a paraphrase of what Shlomo said. It is one of those classic teachings of his that I have been retelling ever since: My sweetest friends, I’m so sorry I couldn’t be with you for this holy gathering, but I’d like to share with you one thought I have, so please open your hearts. The Torah teaches that a Cohen, a priest, must remain in a state of purity if he is to serve God in the Holy Temple. Among the things that would disqualify him was contact with a dead body. The question arises: What was the nature of the impurity? Did the dead body have cooties or carry disease? It appears that the problem was quite different. The impurity stemmed from the confrontation with death: its concept and its reality and the thoughts and feelings around it.

Coming in touch with death, a person can’t help thinking, “What kind of God makes a world with death in it? If I were God, I’d do things very different; I’d do things better.”

Let’s put it this way. When you come in contact with death, you can’t help being a little angry with God. And if you are a Cohen, how can you be angry in your heart with God, and then go into the Holy Temple to serve Him? It just doesn’t go. So the priest had to wait until sunset, and take a mikvah, a ritual bath, and then he could return to serve God the next day.

These laws of the priesthood regarding serving God became the basis for many of the Jewish laws of mourning. If your father or mother, brother or sister, son or daughter, husband or wife died, from the time of their death until they are buried, you are technically exempt from most positive commandments. For example, you don’t have to say blessings, because that’s a form of thanking and serving God, and right now, you may be in a frame of mind of being a little bit angry with God. So you aren’t obligated to say those blessings.

And you know, my sweetest friends, today we don’t have a Beit HaMikdash, a Holy Temple, and although we still have Cohanim, priests, we don’t have animal or incense offerings to serve God in the Holy Temple. Today we serve God through offerings of words of Torah study and words of prayer. Today our rabbis are like our priests, serving God through teaching Torah. But if you are angry with God, you can’t teach Torah. You can say the words, but the love and light within them do not flow through them.

So please open your hearts. The saddest thing is that today our teachers and rabbis haven’t just touched one dead person. They’ve been touched by Six Million dead people. And they are so angry with God, so angry with God. Gevald, are they angry with God! And because they are so angry with God, all their words of Torah are just that: words. There’s no light, no taste, no meaning, no melody in them.

But young people today are so hungry for that light, for that meaning, for that melody – for the deepest inner dimensions of truth. And if they can’t get it from Judaism, they’ll go anywhere that love and light are to be found.

Thank God our hungry, searching, younger generation found some traditions that weren’t so angry with God, and they could get the love and light and meaning that they so craved. And today in Judaism, Baruch HaShem, thank God, we have a whole new generation of teachers who haven’t been touched directly by the Six Million (or maybe they have taken Six Million mikvahs from tears of sadness and then another Six Million mikvahs from tears of joy). And their words are filled with light and joy and love.

God willing, now people can come back to Judaism to quench that deep, powerful, longing for God’s love and from our own tradition. I bless us all that we should find that beauty in Torah, in Shabbos, and in the deepest depths of the heart of our holy and ancient and living tradition.

Thank you so much. God bless you all. Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos.

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as good as it gets

hanukah

Confronting the December Dilemma I have always felt that Hanukah never had a chance.  Christmas is an “Imagine” holiday where we are invited to aspire to a world of Peace-on-Earth and Goodwill-to-Man.  Hanukah is a (nother) Jewish survival holiday… They tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat.

In my first post on this blog Imagining Shabbat, I argued that to have a winning horse in the “Imagine” race, I would suggest Shabbat; a Jewish holiday that actually comes 52 times a year and aspires to Peace-on-Earth and Goodwill-to-Man as well, if not better, than any holiday I know.

That being said, conflicting feelings about the Hanukah remain.

Certainly the Maccabees serve as a wonderful model of Jews standing up for their rights and fighting…. literally fighting, for their independence. I also admire Judah the Maccabee’s pragmatism for establishing the precedent that Jews can defend themselves on the Shabbat.  But certainly tolerance and pluralism is not a word associated with the Maccabees and later generations of Maccabee priests/rulers were known for their corruption. The Hasmonean dynasty was a precursor for King Herod and the Herodian dynasty.  The Maccabees thrived on power and we all know the power of power to corrupt.

I have always figured that it was a pacifistic strain in Rabbinic Judaism that was responsible for emasculating the Maccabees and modulating the militaristic nature of their victory by providing a cute story of miraculously energy efficient oil.  I attributed this pacifism with the Rabbi’s decision not to include the Book of the Maccabees in the Canon of the Hebrew Bible.

It turns out that the Rabbinic ambivalence to the Maccabees was for another reason… a reason that actually makes me a fan of the Maccabees and gives me added reason to celebrate Hanukah.

Since I love going to the sources, I bought myself a copy of the Anchor Bible‘s Book of First Maccabees and it turns out that this book which we now have only in Greek, but which was originally written in Hebrew may have included a heresy that the Rabbis wished to hide.  It turns our that “First Maccabees, rejects Daniel 7-12 [1] and the belief in the resurrection and suggests that martyrdom can be in vain”. It turns out that Judah the Maccabee’s real ideological polemic was not with the Jewish Hellenists,  but rather with compatriot Jews who wished to conquer the Greek Hellenists and curry God’s favor (and redemption) by way of martyrdom.  (see Jonathan A. Goldstein, I Maccabees, a new translation with introduction and commentary, The Anchor Bible 1976, p 56)

First Maccabees is actually a first class work.  “The author is generally well informed on Seleucid institutions.  He probably intended to add his work to the sacred scriptures of the Jews.  However, it was destined to be rejected. The later history of the Hasmonaeean dynasty proved false our author’s claim that God had chosen mattathias’ line to be both high priests and kings.  Belief in the resurrection, denied by our author, became a fundamental of Judaism. Already Josephus was amending the text of First Maccabees and departing from its narrative as he would never have done with sacred scripture.  In the times of Origen and Jerome, when the Hebrew was still being read by Jews, First Maccabees was clearly outside the canon of the Jewish scriptures.  The book is never mentioned or quoted by the tannaim and the amoraim.  Medieval Jews begin to know its contents from the Latin and Greek versions and from Josephus.” [Goldstein ibid. p 26)

According to Goldstein, what is blatantly missing from I Maccabees I 50 -64 is any glorification of the death of the Jewish protagonists:

50 Whoever refused to act according to the command of the king was to be put to death.
57 Whoever was found with a scroll of the covenant, and whoever observed the law, was condemned to death by royal decree.
60 In keeping with the decree, they put to death women who had their children circumcised,
61 and they hung their babies from their necks; their families also and those who had circumcised them were killed.
62 But many in Israel were determined and resolved in their hearts not to eat anything unclean;
63 they preferred to die rather than to be defiled with food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die.
64 And very great wrath came upon Israel. (see)

Writes Goldstein: “Pietists before had tried to rouse God’s vengeance against the persecuting gentiles by displaying helpless martyrdom, …. Martyrdom was unnecessary, they held; display of mere helplessness by the pious would rouse God to act… (Goldstein ibid p. 262)

Compare also I Maccabees 2: 29 – 41

29 At that time many who sought righteousness and justice went out into the wilderness to settle there,
30 they and their children, their wives and their animals, because misfortunes pressed so hard on them.
31 It was reported to the officers and soldiers of the king who were in the City of David, in Jerusalem, that those who had flouted the king’s order had gone out to secret refuges in the wilderness.
32 Many hurried out after them, and having caught up with them, camped opposite and prepared to attack them on the sabbath.
33 The pursuers said to them, “Enough of this! Come out and obey the king’s command, and you will live.”
34 But they replied, “We will not come out, nor will we obey the king’s command to profane the sabbath.”
35 Then the enemy attacked them at once.
36 But they did not retaliate; they neither threw stones, nor blocked up their secret refuges.
37 They said, “Let us all die in innocence; heaven and earth are our witnesses that you destroy us unjustly.”
38 So the officers and soldiers attacked them on the sabbath, and they died with their wives, their children and their animals, to the number of a thousand persons.

39 When Mattathias and his friends heard of it, they mourned deeply for them.
40 They said to one another, “If we all do as our kindred have done, and do not fight against the Gentiles for our lives and our laws, they will soon destroy us from the earth.”
41 So on that day they came to this decision: “Let us fight against anyone who attacks us on the sabbath, so that we may not all die as our kindred died in their secret refuges.” (see)

To appreciate how Mattathias and his friends disparage the martyrdom of these pietists we need to contrast this account in I Maccabees with the (originally) Greek II Maccabees 2: 6: 18 -31 (Martyrdom of Eleazar)

18 Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man advanced in age and of noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork.
19 But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture,
20 spitting out the meat as they should do who have the courage to reject food unlawful to taste even for love of life.
21 Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king.
22 Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them.
23 But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood. Above all loyal to the holy laws given by God, he swiftly declared, “Send me to Hades!
24 “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion.
25 If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age.
26 Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty.
27 Therefore, by bravely giving up life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age,
28 and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.” He spoke thus, and went immediately to the instrument of torture.
29 Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness.
30 When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned, saying: “The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him.”
31 This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of nobility and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation. (see)

And II Maccabees chapter 7  Martyrdom of a Mother and Her Seven Sons

1 It also happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law.
2 One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to learn by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”
3 At that the king, in a fury, gave orders to have pans and caldrons heated.
4 These were quickly heated, and he gave the order to cut out the tongue of the one who had spoken for the others, to scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on.
5 When he was completely maimed but still breathing, the king ordered them to carry him to the fire and fry him. As a cloud of smoke spread from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, with these words:
6 “The Lord God is looking on and truly has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song, when he openly bore witness, saying, ‘And God will have compassion on his servants.’”
7 After the first brother had died in this manner, they brought the second to be made sport of. After tearing off the skin and hair of his head, they asked him, “Will you eat the pork rather than have your body tortured limb by limb?”
8 Answering in the language of his ancestors, he said, “Never!” So he in turn suffered the same tortures as the first.
9 With his last breath he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up* to live again forever, because we are dying for his laws.”
10 After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put forth his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely stretched out his hands,11as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disregard them; from him I hope to receive them again.”
12 Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s spirit, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.
13 After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way.
14 When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”
15 They next brought forward the fifth brother and maltreated him.
16 Looking at the king, he said: “Mortal though you are, you have power over human beings, so you do what you please. But do not think that our nation is forsaken by God.
17 Only wait, and you will see how his great power will torment you and your descendants.”
18 After him they brought the sixth brother. When he was about to die, he said: “Have no vain illusions. We suffer these things on our own account, because we have sinned against our God; that is why such shocking things have happened.
19 Do not think, then, that you will go unpunished for having dared to fight against God.”
20 Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who, seeing her seven sons perish in a single day, bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord.21Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly reason with manly emotion, she exhorted each of them in the language of their ancestors with these words:22e “I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of.
23 Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”
24 Antiochus, suspecting insult in her words, thought he was being ridiculed. As the youngest brother was still alive, the king appealed to him, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office.
25 When the youth paid no attention to him at all, the king appealed to the mother, urging her to advise her boy to save his life.
26 After he had urged her for a long time, she agreed to persuade her son.
27 She leaned over close to him and, in derision of the cruel tyrant, said in their native language: “Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age.
28 I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way humankind came into existence.
29 Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers.”
30 She had scarcely finished speaking when the youth said: “What is the delay? I will not obey the king’s command. I obey the command of the law given to our ancestors through Moses.
31 But you, who have contrived every kind of evil for the Hebrews, will not escape the hands of God.
32 We, indeed, are suffering because of our sins.
33 Though for a little while our living Lord has been angry, correcting and chastising us, he will again be reconciled with his servants.
34 But you, wretch, most vile of mortals, do not, in your insolence, buoy yourself up with unfounded hopes, as you raise your hand against the children of heaven.
35 You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty and all-seeing God.
36 Our brothers, after enduring brief pain, have drunk of never-failing life, under God’s covenant. But you, by the judgment of God, shall receive just punishments for your arrogance.
37 Like my brothers, I offer up my body and my life for our ancestral laws, imploring God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by afflictions and blows to make you confess that he alone is God.
38 Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”
39 At that, the king became enraged and treated him even worse than the others, since he bitterly resented the boy’s contempt.
40 Thus he too died undefiled, putting all his trust in the Lord.
41 Last of all, after her sons, the mother was put to death.
42 Enough has been said about the sacrificial meals and the excessive cruelties. (see)

If Goldstein is correct and the Hebrew original of First Maccabees was sentenced to the dust heap because it failed to show any enthusiasm for martyrdom, an eternal life or resurrection of the dead then our celebration of the Maccabees becomes a celebration of a Judaism free of the eschatology of end-of-day Armageddons and Messiahs, both real and false.

As troubling to our modern ears as the violence and intolerance of Judah and his band may be, at least it was not informed by a desire for a New Jerusalem or a Greater Israel.  Theirs was a battle for cultural, religious and physical independence, and nothing more.

In the final analysis, it may be that Hanukah is actually the perfect antidote for a messianic Christmas.

If the Peace-on-Earth and Goodwill-to-Man of Christmas is of the Second Coming variety, then the Hanukah of the Maccabees can be taken as a rejection of such change of world orders through martyrdom (whether of a god or a foot soldier) ideologies.

If so much vitriol and violence in our world is the result of this insane desire to harken a savior, messiah, hidden Mahdi or second coming, then the Maccabees that I celebrate, for all their faults, at least believed that independence is as good as it gets and that, my friends, is worth its weight in hanukah gelt.

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[1] Especially Daniel 12: 2 “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence.” and further discussion in II Maccabees, Anchor Bible pp 63.. and see full discussion pp 293 .. and pp 303

 

 

 

 

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