Category Archives: social commentary

in defense of jewish universalism and liberalism – a rampage

This past week I was assaulted twice by attacks on Jewish Utopianism.  I am not blameless.  I choose to expose myself to briefings and podcasts that run the gamut of Jewish and political thought, but I was nonetheless taken aback by a similar message from disparate sources all on the same day.

Daniel Gordis, during an AIPAC briefing and latter in a Jerusalem Post Op-Ed [i] argued that the problem with Europe, the EU, The Left, our college youth and/or Conservative and Reform Rabbinic students (pick any or all of the above) is that they have missed or forgotten the core message of Judaism, Zionism and the State of Israel.  Gordis is actually coming out with a book in August; The Promise of Israel (I have not read but see pre-publication review here). According to Gordis, these misguided leftists believe in a utopian universalism best optimized by John Lennon in his anthem “Imagine”.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Gordis is not original in his distaste for this, one of my favorite songs. His colleague at the Shalom Center, Ze’ev Maghen wrote a whole book, or in his words; rampage on it. (see: Imagine John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage)

I have also heard Michael Oren make this argument and Lennon reference. The water at the Shalem Center might be a tad bitter. [ii]

Gordis sets up a false dilemma by arguing that the opposite of Universalism is Nationalism.  He and those making the argument are either ignorant or disingenuous in suggesting that Judaism and Zionism, at their core are Nationalistic to the exclusion of Universalistic.

In a wonderful example of reduction ad absurdum, Gordis argues that any movement, political or cultural uprising which rejects any form of universalism (such as the EU, the UN, NATO etc.) is a de facto vote for Israel.  Ergo…. the vote for Brexit and the popularity of Trump …. is good for the Jews.

An understandable reaction to Gordis’s remarks would be to sit our college kids down, pull our Rabbinic students out of class and explain (with pained sensitivity) that their problem is that they are too idealistic.  Given the holocaust and continued enmity faced by our people, not to mention, a careful re-reading of Judaism and Zionism, Gordis would have us instruct our youth to spend more time defending the nation-state and less time imagining.

After listening to Gordis I drove home only to listen to the next podcast in my que from the Tikvah Fund: Norman Podhoretz on Jerusalem and Jewish Particularity .  Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary Magazine discusses what he calls the “scandal” of Jewish particularity.  Podhoretz argues that the Western Liberal world is scandalized by the Jewish idea of particularism. One would be excused if one left this interview believing that the Jews introduced the world to excessive paternalism, tribal pride and nationalism.

Hasn’t Podhoretz seen My Favorite Greek Wedding I and II?  The truth as Gordis and Podhotetz well know and as is easily demonstrated by the exploits of the Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Muslim, Nazi and Soviet empires… nationalism was alive and well before and without the Jews.  To the contrary…. with their eschatology and non-cyclical concept of history the Jews may have actually introduced Utopianism and Universalism to the world (for better or worse…. mostly worse).

That the Hebrew Bible talks about a nation state, boundaries, military conquest and defense is hardly exceptional…. That it talks about a day when man will learn war no more, where boundaries and languages will disappear and all mankind will worship one God in peace… that was a novel idea.  And yes… where in addition to a physical Jerusalem there was and will be an ideal Jerusalem and an idealized temple (see Ezekiel 40 – 44 especially 43:11) and where the commandments of the Lord will be written not on tablets but on the heart of all man… That all predated Christianity and came from the Hebrew Bible and that was the scandal of Judaism . [iii]

I am not a big fan of eschatology and messianism but I am not guilty of the intellectual dishonesty required to proclaim that these utopian and universalistic ideas did not originate and grow in Judaism.

As to Zionism, for anyone to argue, as does Gordis, that for the majority of the secular Zionists (and the overwhelming majority of Zionist thinkers were secular if not downright anti-religious) the Jewish State was not some version of a utopia… is crazy. [iv]

Gordis and anyone who argues for Jewish particularism over Jewish universalism are misreading the real innovation of Judaism and setting up a false binary and a straw dummy.

The opposite of universalism is not nationalism. Nationalism is only the flip side of the coin… the opposite of both of these isms is realism, rationalism, compromise, nuance, common sense, critical thinking and in all other ways an appreciation of the crooked timber of humanity.  The opposite of Universalism is liberalism.

This middle way had no better spokesman than Isaiah Berlin who argued in the “steadfast defense of liberal values against their rivals both on the Left and on the Right.” Illiberals like Podhoretz critique Berlin’s Liberalism for authenticating relativism [v] and who am I to defend Berlin, but I do believe that if Nationalism can be critiqued for being tribal and Universalism can be critiqued for being naïve then Liberalism should have a place at the table. If we are to see a brighter future and connect with our youth (and the youth within us) then surely more focus and critical thinking need be brought to bear on Liberalism… with all its potential detours and warts.

I would prefer to engage our college age youth and young rabbinic students with respect for their idealism and to challenge them to subject their universalistic aspirations to the rubber of reality.  To follow Berlin in recognizing nationalism “with the insight that belonging, and the sense of self-expression that membership bestows, are basic human needs” and as Jews we/they more than anyone should appreciate these needs by our own people and by others. [vi]

There is a ten-year-old institute in Israel The Jewish Statesmanship Center which is systematically revising Jewish and Zionist thought in line with the Nationalism and particularism reflected in Gordis and Podhoretz… and successfully educating a new generation of leaders.  Those of us who have a more nuanced understanding of Jewish and Zionist thought need to support those who wish to establish a similar institute to educate and spread the best of liberal thought where universalism and nationalism, chauvinism and multiculturalism, heaven and earth       שָּׁמַיִם עַל-הָאָרֶץ are given equal weight and permitted, nay encouraged to dialectically advanced as the Jewish State prospers. (stay tuned).

One of the lectures that institute might offer could be on the utopian vision in Judaism and Zionism of a world without religion too… The lecturer might review the majority of Zionist thinkers who thought that religion was an archaic tool, the outgrowth of an unnatural life of a people deprived of country and language to be tossed once we have our state.  She might guide us through Talmudic texts that claim in the end-of-days there will be no mitzot (religion).

The commandments will be abolished in the future world (Babylonian Talmud Niddah 61b)

מצוות בטלות לעתיד לבוא – במסכת נדה דף ס”א ע”ב

We might even learn that the reason a pig is called a Hazir is because in the utopia of the future it will again be permitted (hozer) to the Jewish people….

“למה נקרא שמו חזיר שעתיד הקב”ה להחזירו לישראל” [vii]

Ahh … but I digress…

All I know is that on Shabbat I sing of Shabbat being a little taste of Imagine

Like the World to Come, the restful day of Shabbat (Mah Yedidut, Shabbat Zemirot)

מֵעֵין עוֹלָם הַבָּא, יוֹם שַׁבָּת מְנוּחָה,

And let myself indulge momentarily in an Imagine day that never ends…

May it be Your will that we merit a day when it is always a restful Shabbat – (Birkat Hamazon, Shabbat)

הרחמן הוא ינחילנו יום שכולו שבת ומנוחה –  ברכת המזון של שבת

And that I would feel very comfortable singing Imagine at my Shalosh Suedot…

Getting back to my week in podcasts…. Fortunately, the next podcast in my que was from Machon Hadar on a prayer that even Daniel Gordis says every Shabbat and at the apex of his celebration of our particular national deliverance from Egypt during the seder. [viii]

Nishmat Kol Chai, The breath of every living thing …. A prayer that while leaning universal, nonetheless seamlessly integrates the particularism of the Jewish people into a utopian and universal vision of the future….

The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name, Lord our God, the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King. From this world to the World to Come, You are God, and other than You we have no king, redeemer, or savior. He who liberates, rescues and sustains, answers and is merciful in every time of distress and anguish, we have no king, helper or supporter but You!

God of the first and the last, God of all creatures, Master of all Generations, Who is extolled through a multitude of praises, Who guides His world with kindness and His creatures with mercy. Hashem is truth; He neither slumbers nor sleeps. He Who rouses the sleepers and awakens the slumberers. Who raises the dead and heals the sick, causes the blind to see and straightens the bent. Who makes the mute speak and reveals what is hidden. To You alone we give thanks!

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, Lord 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. At first You redeemed us from Egypt, Hashem our God, and liberated us from the house of bondage. In famine You nourished us, and in plenty you sustained us. From sword you saved us; from plague you let us escape; and from severe and enduring diseases you spared us. Until now Your mercy has helped us, and Your kindness has not forsaken us. Do not abandon us, Lord our God, forever. Therefore the organs that you set within us and the spirit and soul that you breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue that you placed in our mouth – all of them shall thank and bless and praise and glorify, exalt and revere, be devoted, sanctify and declare the sovereignty of Your Name, our King. For every mouth shall offer thanks to You; every tongue shall vow allegiance to You; every knee shall bend to You; every erect spine shall prostrate itself before You; all hearts shall fear You; and all innermost feelings and thoughts shall sing praises to Your name, as it is written: “All my bones shall say, Hashem who is like You? You save the poor man from one who is stronger than he, the poor and destitute from the one who would rob him.”

The outcry of the poor You hear, the screams of the destitute You listen to, and You save. And it is written: “Sing joyfully, O righteous, before Hashem; for the upright praise is fitting.”

By the mouth of the upright You shall be exalted;

By the lips of the righteous shall You be blessed;

By the tongue of the devout shall You be sanctified;

And amid the holy shall You be lauded.

And in the assemblies of the myriads of Your people, the House of Israel, it is the duty of all creatures, before you O Hashem, our God and God of our forefathers to thank, laud, praise, glorify, exalt, adore, render triumphant, bless, raise high, and sing praises – even beyond all expressions of the songs and praises of David, the son of Jesse, Your servant, Your anointed.

And thus may Your name be praised forever- our King, the God, the Great and holy King – in heaven and on earth. Because for you it is fitting – O Hashem our God and God of our forefathers – song and praise, lauding and hymns, power and dominion, triumph, greatness and strength, praise and splendor, holiness and sovereignty, blessings and thanksgivings to Your Great and Holy Name; from this world to the World to Come You are God. Blessed are You Lord, God, King exalted through praises, God of thanksgivings, Master of Wonders, Creator of all souls, Master of all deeds, Who chooses the musical songs of praise – King, Unique One, God, Life-Giver of the world [universe הָעוֹלָמִים  ed].

נִשְמַת כָּל חַי תְּבָרֵך אֶת שִׁמְךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ וְרוּחַ כָּל בָּשָׂר תְּפָאֵר וּתְרוֹמֵם זִכְרְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ תָּמִיד. מִן הָעוֹלָם וְעַד הָעוֹלָם אַתָּה אֵ-ל. וּמִבַּלְעֲדֶיךָ אֵין לָנוּ (מֶלֶךְ) גּוֹאֵל וּמוֹשִׂיעַ. פּוֹדֶה וּמַצִּיל. וְעוֹנֶה וּמְרַחֵם. בְּכָל עֵת צָרָה וְצוּקָה. אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ עוֹזֵר וְסוֹמֵךְ אֶלָּא אָתָּה: אֱ-לֹהֵי הָרִאשׁוֹנִים וְהָאַחֲרוֹנִים. אֱ-לוֹהַּ כָּל בְּרִיּוֹת. אֲדוֹן כָּל תּוֹלָדוֹת. הַמְּהֻלָּל בְּכָל הַתִּשְׁבָּחוֹת. הַמְּנַהֵג עוֹלָמוֹ בְּחֶסֶד וּבְרִיּוֹתָיו בְּרַחֲמִים. וַה’ אֱ-לֹהִים אֱמֶת. לֹא יָנוּם וְלֹא יִישָׁן. הַמְעוֹרֵר יְשֵׁנִים וְהַמֵּקִיץ נִרְדָּמִים. מְחַיֶּה מֵתִים. וְרוֹפֵא חוֹלִים. פּוֹקֵחַ עִוְרִים. וְזוֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים. הַמֵּשִׂיחַ אִלְּמִים. וְהַמְפַעֲנֵחַ נֶעֱלָמִים. וּלְךָ לְבַדְּךָ אֲנַחְנוּ מוֹדִים: וְאִלּוּ פִינוּ מָלֵא שִׁירָה כַיָּם. וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה כַּהֲמוֹן גַּלָּיו. וְשִׂפְתוֹתֵינוּ שְׁבַח כְּמֶרְחֲבֵי רָקִיעַ. וְעֵינֵינוּ מְאִירוֹת כַּשֶׁמֶשׂ וְכַיָּרֵחַ. וְיָדֵינוּ פְרוּשׂוֹת כְּנִשְׁרֵי שָׁמָיִם. וְרַגְלֵינוּ קַלּוֹת כָּאַיָּלוֹת. אֵין אֲנַחְנוּ מַסְפִּיקִין לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ. וּלְבָרֵךְ אֶת שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. עַל אַחַת מֵאֶלֶף אַלְפֵי אֲלָפִים וְרוֹב רִבֵּי רְבָבוֹת פְּעָמִים. הַטּוֹבוֹת נִסִּים וְנִפְלָאוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ עִמָּנוּ וְעִם אֲבוֹתֵינוּ

מִלְּפָנִים מִמִּצְרַיִם גְּאַלְתָּנוּ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ. מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים פְּדִיתָנוּ. בְּרָעָב זַנְתָּנוּ. וּבְשָׂבָע כִּלְכַּלְתָּנוּ. מֵחֶרֶב הִצַּלְתָּנוּ. מִדֶּבֶר מִלַּטְתָּנוּ. וּמֵחֳלָאִים רָעִים וְרַבִּים דִּלִּיתָנוּ. עַד הֵנָּה עֲזָרוּנוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ וְלֹא עֲזָבוּנוּ חֲסָדֶיךָ. עַל כֵּן אֵבָרִים שֶׁפִּלַּגְתָּ בָּנוּ. וְרוּחַ וּנְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּפַחְתָּ בְּאַפֵּינוּ. וְלָשׁוֹן אֲשֶׂר שַׂמְתָּ בְּפִינוּ.הֵן הֵם. יוֹדוּ וִיבָרְכוּ. וִישַׁבְּחוּ. וִיפָאֲרוּ. אֶת שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ תָמִיד.כִּי כָל פֶּה לְךָ יוֹדֶה. וְכָל לָשׁוֹן לְךָ תְשַׁבֵּחַ. וְכָל עַיִן לְךָ תְצַפֶּה. וְכָל בֶּרֶךְ לְךָ תִכְרַע. וְכָל קוֹמָה לְפָנֶיךָ תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה. וְהַלְּבָבוֹת יִירָאוּךָ וְהַקֶּרֶב וְהַכְּלָיוֹת יְזַמְּרוּ לִשְׁמֶךָ. כַּדָּבָר שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר כָּל עַצְמֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה ה’ מִי כָמוֹךָ מַצִּיל עָנִי מֵחָזָק מִמֶּנּוּ. וְעָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן מִגֹּזְלוֹ: שַׁוְעַת עֲנִיִּים אַתָּה תִּשְׁמַע. צַעֲקַת הַדַּל תַּקְשִׁיב וְתוֹשִׁיעַ. וְכָתוּב רַנְּנוּ צַדִּיקִים בַּה’ לַיְשָׁרִים נָאוָה תְהִלָּה: בְּפִי יְשָׁרִים תִּתְרוֹמָם: וּבְשִׂפְתֵי צַדִּיקִים תִּתְבָּרַךְ: וּבִלְשׁוֹן חֲסִידִים תִּתְקַדָּשׁ: וּבְקֶרֶב קְדוֹשִׁים תִּתְהַלָּל: בְּמִקְהֲלוֹת רִבְבוֹת עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל. שֶׁכֵּן חוֹבַת כָּל הַיְצוּרִים, לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ וֵא-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְהוֹדוֹת. לְהַלֵּל. לְשַׂבֵּחַ. לְפָאֵר. לְרוֹמֵם. לְהַדֵּר. וּלְנַצֵּחַ. עַל כָּל דִּבְרֵי שִׁירוֹת וְתִשְׁבָּחוֹת דָּוִד בֶּן יִשַׁי עַבְדְּךָ מְשִׁיחֶךָ:

וּבְכֵן, יִשְׁתַּבַּח שִׁמְךָ לָעַד מַלְכֵּנוּ הָאֵ-ל הַמֶּלֶךְ הַגָּדוֹל וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ כִּי לְךָ נָאֶה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ וֵא-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד  שִׁיר  וּשְׁבָחָה. הַלֵּל  וְזִמְרָה עֹז. וּמֶמְשָׁלָה. נֶצַח. גְּדוּלָה. גְּבוּרָה. תְּהִלָּה וְתִפְאֶרֶת. קְדֻשָׁה. וּמַלְכוּת. בְּרָכוֹת וְהוֹדָאוֹת לְשִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ. וּמֵעוֹלָם וְעַד עוֹלָם אַתָּה אֵ-ל. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה מֶלֶךְ גָּדוֹל וּמְהֻלָּל בַּתִּשׁבָּחוֹת. אֵ-ל הַהוֹדָאוֹת. אֲדוֹן הַנִּפְלָאוֹת. בּוֹרֵא כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת. רִבּוֹן כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים. הַבּוֹחֵר בְּשִׁירֵי זִמְרָה מֶלֶךְ אֵל חַי הָעוֹלָמִים.

Shabbat Shalom

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[i] See: A Dose of Nuance: Brexit and the validation of Zionism, By DANIEL GORDIS  07/02/2016 see also The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism by ERIC COHEN APRIL 6 2015 Mosaic.

[ii] especially when drunk by 60-something expat American immigrants to Israel… for more on this see Alan Argush’s fine analysis here.

 

[iii] And it shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2: 2-4

וְהָיָה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים, נָכוֹן יִהְיֶה הַר בֵּית-יְהוָה בְּרֹאשׁ הֶהָרִים, וְנִשָּׂא, מִגְּבָעוֹת; וְנָהֲרוּ אֵלָיו, כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם

 וְהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים, וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל-הַר-יְהוָה אֶל-בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב, וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו, וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו:  כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה, וּדְבַר-יְהוָה מִירוּשָׁלִָם

וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגּוֹיִם, וְהוֹכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים; וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים, וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת–לֹא-יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא-יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; forasmuch as they broke My covenant, although I was a lord over them, saith the LORD.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the LORD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people; and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: ‘Know the LORD’; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more. (Jerimiah 31: 30-33)

 

[iv] Gordis, in a verbal response to my point that most of the Zionist thinkers were socialists was that he had said universalists and not socialists which is mute… all of these political movements called for a disruption in the existing capitalist and political structures in order to herald in a new age based on communal ownership and governance.  According to Gordis the only universalist Zionists were Buber, Einstein and the early Ahad HaAm (??)

[v]https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/a-dissent-on-isaiah-berlin/

[vi]  See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/berlin/#5.5

[vii] See footnote 30 http://www.aharit.com/A-12.php

[viii]https://www.mechonhadar.org/torah-resource/nishmat

imagine_peace_by_mcullenhightopp-d4fnfxf

 

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Be a visionary – pay your bills

In Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), an order of the Mishneh dedicated to Wisdom,  Rabbi Yochanan said to them: Go and see which is the best trait for a person to acquire. Said Rabbi Eliezer: A good eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: A good friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: A good neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To see what is born [out of ones actions]. Said Rabbi Elazar (the son of Arach): A good heart. Said He to them: I prefer the words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours. (2: 10)

I was always impressed by Rabbi Shimon’s definition;

The best trait …. He who sees what is born

הרואה את הנולד

I thought that R. Shimon had the “vision thing” and like Herzl understood that

אִם תִּרְצוּ, אֵין זוֹ אַגָדָה

If you will it, it is no dream.

Turns out R. Shimon was more prosaic and his advice relates more to home economics, start-up financing and debt service. As the wonderful Hazan of my Westport Connecticut Conservative Synagogue; Cantor Luis Cattan, pointed out, the first part of our mishneh (the Raisha) is contrasted with the second part of the mishneh (the Seifa).

The opposite of a good eye, might be a bad eye, but the opposite of someone who does not envision the future is not a realist or short sighted pedantic …. It’s a deadbeat, maybe even a tax and spend progressive.   Oh well…

He said to them: Go and see which is the worst trait, the one that a person should most distance himself from. Said Rabbi Eliezer: An evil eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: An evil friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: An evil neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To borrow and not to repay; for one who borrows from man is as one who borrows from the Almighty, as is stated, “The wicked man borrows and does not repay; but the righteous one is benevolent and gives” (Psalms 37:21). Said Rabbi Elazar: An evil heart. Said He to them: I prefer the word of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours.

Visionary

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in thy blood do not live

parshat shemini

Please feel free to visit previous Madlik posts:

keep it short where I argue that the sin of Strange Fire brought by Aaron’s sons was that they made the service too long!

be still where I argue that the sin of Nadab and Abihu was of being holier than Thou…

But who said that these two sons of Aaron sinned and that their death was a tragedy? The simple reading of the text, amplified by Rashi, is that they were sanctified; they were holy sacrifices, child sacrifices…

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר משֶׁ֜ה אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹ֗ן ה֩וּא אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר הֹ | לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַֽהֲרֹֽן

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ ” And Aaron was silent.

Rashi:

 אל תקרי בכבודי אלא במכובדי. אמר לו משה לאהרן אהרן אחי יודע הייתי שיתקדש הבית במיודעיו של מקום והייתי סבור או בי או בך, עכשיו

רואה אני שהם גדולים ממני וממך

Do not read בִּכְבוֹדִי, “through My glory,” but בִּמְכֻבָּדַי, “through My honorable ones.” Moses said to Aaron, “Aaron, my brother! I knew that this House was to be sanctified through the beloved ones of the Omnipresent, but I thought it would be either through me or through you. Now I see that they [Nadab and Abihu] were greater than I or you!”- [Vayikra Rabbah 12:2]

My friend and teacher Amichai Lau-Lavi has offered an alternative translation for Aaron’s Silence:

Never mind right now what Moses meant. I want to focus on Aaron’s reaction. ‘Silent’ is elsewhere translated as ‘speechless’, or ‘calmed’ or ‘held his peace’. These are very different descriptions – or suggestions – for handling grief. What does ‘holding one’s peace’ mean? Is it noble courage or emotional constipation? And does the (Orthodox) translator who used ‘calmed’ mean to say that Aaron was soothed by the theological explanation given to him by Moses – ‘only the good die young’? The Hebrew word argued here is ‘Va-yidom’ – a word that has in it both the allusion to great silence – ‘demama’ but also the word ‘da-am’ – Hebrew for ‘blood’.  It is one of those loud Hebrew words, loaded with many meanings. (here)

It is clear that human sacrifice, and child sacrifice in particular is something that our tradition and human-kind has, and continues to struggle with.  Whether it is Abraham and Isaac, Moloch, Baal and the cult of martyrdom in all Abrahamic religions.. Nadav and Abihu and the ambiguity of Aaron’s silence remind us that the struggle to rid ourselves of this cancer is ongoing.

We need to address our liturgy, especially in this holy month when we children of Abraham recall the drowning of the First Born, the passion of Jesus or the Day of Ashura and the assassination of Hussein.  Death can never be glorified… it does not bring a resurrection or a redemption.  When a child is born we ought not think it a blessing or predilection when we welcome him with the chant.. “In thy blood, live, in thy blood, live”  וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי, וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי.  When these words appear in Ezekiel 16:6 there is no ambiguity… they are not a blessing… They are a promise that even if in your primal past there is blood, sacrifice and martyrdom, I God will raise you up and wash you off and help you live. 16:9 Then washed I thee with water; yea, I cleansed away thy blood from thee, and I anointed thee with oil.” (see also)

For further reading on the struggle in Abrahamic religions with child sacrifice see: The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity Revised Edition by Jon D. Levenson

child sacrifice

 

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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…

goin-broke-going-for-brok

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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.

 

Epilogue

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….

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

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

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.”

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[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

 

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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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