Category Archives: travel

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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Filed under Angkor, art, Bible, Buddhism, Cambodia, Hebrew, Judaism, Linga, Religion, Torah, travel, Vietnam

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

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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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make-believe Judaism

Parshat behalotcha

If there’s one Jewish holiday and ritual that is rooted in time, it is Passover.  It’s the Festival of Spring that commemorates the night of the Exodus on the 14th of Nisan.  As it says in the Torah (Numbers 9 2-3 :

Let the children of Israel keep the passover in its appointed seasonבְּמוֹעֲדוֹ  . In the fourteenth day of this month, at dusk, ye shall keep it in its appointed season בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה …

So it comes as a surprise that of all the ordinances in the Torah, the only one that God offers a second chance at a more convenient time, is Passover.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
‘Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If any man of you or of your generations shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey afar off, yet he shall keep the passover unto the LORD;
in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs;

 וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.
דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר:  אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי-יִהְיֶה-טָמֵא לָנֶפֶשׁ אוֹ בְדֶרֶךְ רְחֹקָה לָכֶם, אוֹ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח, לַיהוָה.

  בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם, בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם–יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ:  עַל-מַצּוֹת וּמְרֹרִים, יֹאכְלֻהוּ.

This make-up holiday is called Pesach Sheni (The Second Passover) and it intrigues me.

You see, the Passover Seder is the one holiday when we are asked to not only observe, but to re-enact and imagine we are actually experiencing the Exodus.  As the Hagadah says: “In Every Generation One Must Look Upon Himself as if He Personally Has Come Out of Egypt”  Mordecai Kaplan said there are three kind of believers: Believers, Non-Believers and Make-Believers…. at the Traditional Seder, we are all make-believers.

This is why this make-up seder intrigues me so.  In the second month, at the Second Pesach Sheni Seder, we are make-believers who make-believe that we are at a Seder… making believe that we are leaving Egypt!

To be sure… the Rabbis probably had their fill with Jews who make-believe so they did not want to encourage a new movement of Jews who make believe that they make believe so…..  they limited Pesach Sheni to individuals.  (Talmud Pesachim 66b from  אִישׁ אִיש).

There are groups that nonetheless celebrate the Second Passover, the most prominent being the Chabad Hasidim who view the 14th of the month of Iyar as a celebration of second chances.  This is certainly a valuable lesson worth commemorating, but my good friend Frederic Brenner discovered another group who celebrated the dialectic of Pesach Sheni that is less known and embodies a more complex message.

Frederic is currently completing an ambitious project where he invited world renowned photogrpahers to come to Israel for the first time and photograph it.  The project which will begin touring the world is called This Place  and you can read early reviews here. But in his younger years, Frederic traveled the world photographing vanishing Jewish communities and one community he cataloged were a group of isolated Conversos in Portugal.  He published a book called Marranes (in French) and a movie was made based on the book called The Last Marranos Les derniers Marranes.

Despite their deep aversion to the Church, these New Christians who will only choose a mate amongst themselves go to the church and have the local priest marry them publicly after a private secret marriage ceremony. (see: The Last Marranos, Commentary Magazine May 1967 by Anita Novinsky)

Frederic took many pictures of them celebrating Passover which, they celebrated on the 14th of Iyar, Pesach Sheni.

Frederic spent much time with them and even made the aquantance of the local priest who complained that while he liked these people, they should really get themselves a Rabbi.

Needless to say, they did eventually get themselves a traditional Rabbi.

They no longer go to the Priest to get married, no longer light their Shabbat candles in specially designed hidden cabinets, and needless to say, they no longer celebrate Passover a month after the holiday was meant to be celebrated.

This loss of the Pesach Sheni of the last Marranos makes me sad.  Their Pesach sheni was a tribute to the commitment of their predecessors for their heritage, it was an artifact of God’s commitment to give second chances and it showed the radical ability we humans have to survive, persevere and to make believe that we can make believe.

morranos 3 morranos 1 morranos 2

 

——————-

In 1985,1 visited one of their villages a month after the Jewish Passover. The timing was intentional. They don’t know the Hebrew calendar, but they know that Passover falls 14 days after the new moon in March, which is approximately the
start of the Jewish month of Nissan. As part of the tradition meant to fool the spies of the Inquisition, they postpone the holiday until what Jews call “Pessah Sheni” – one month later. Therefore I knew that it was Passover for them now.
Passover being their most sacred and secret ritual, I had always been asked not to come at that time of the year. From the moment we arrived we felt that we weren’t being received in the usual manner. People avoided us. Even my best friends weren’t inviting us to visit them. Knocking at their doors, we were not asked in. They apologized and asked us to come back at a different time. From the door we saw the women of the house – busy cleaning the floor. From Passover with the Anussim in Portugal, By ©Inacio Steinhardt, Saturday, May 21, 2005

Picture of famed photographer Frederic Brenner reading Madlik blog

Picture of famed photographer Frederic Brenner reading Madlik blog

 

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the hiker’s guide to zionism

Parshat Vayishlach [i]

Genesis could be read as the recurring tale of exile and return.  Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, Cain is marked as a wonderer on the earth and the flood removes Noah from the face of the earth and famine causes the temporary migration of both Abraham and Isaac.  Sin is usually associated with, or the cause of exile.  In the case of Adam and Eve and Cain, the sin is Original Sin or fratricide, respectively. In the case of Noah, the sin is of humankind, and in the case of Abraham and Isaac, it is exile itself that makes them into liars as they both claim their wives are their sisters.

If the purpose of a grim fairy tale is to help the reader master a difficult subject, then the repetition of the exile and return motif may be designed to help the reader internalize a core component of the Jewish pathos.

It is with Jacob that the return to the homeland takes gets some meat on its bones.  Maybe because Jacob is exiled as a child, without a wife, without a profession and without any possessions, when he returns with all of the above, it is a true return from exile.  In any case, one could argue that Jacob was the first Zionist.

Zionism as a 19th century movement, was not simply a migration ideology or even as some of it’s critics would argue, a movement of physical or cultural imperialism.  Rather, Zionism, at it’s core, was a 19th century articulation of an earlier Jewish (Hebraic) belief that Judaism could be practiced only in the historical land of Israel and by extension, that Jews (Hebrews) could only be themselves (normal) in the land of Israel.

This view did not emerge in the 19th century, it actually lies at the heart of the word Zion.

Deuteronomy 11, 18 (the 2nd paragraph of the Shma prayer recited twice a day and containd in both the tephilin and the mezuzah):

And you shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.

 וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה עַל לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל נַפְשְׁכֶם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם אֹתָם לְאוֹת עַל יֶדְכֶם וְהָיוּ לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם:

Rashi:    And you shall set these words of Mine: Even after you have been exiled, make yourselves distinctive with My commandments: Put on tefillin and make mezuzoth , so that these will not be new to you when you return. Similarly, it is said, “Set up markers for yourself” (Jer. 31:20). – [Sifrei]

ושמתם את דברי: אף לאחר שתגלו היו מצויינים במצות, הניחו תפילין, עשו מזוזות כדי שלא יהיו לכם חדשים כשתחזרו. וכן הוא אומר (ירמיה לא, כ) הציבי לך ציונים:

There have always been a category of the commandments which are only practiced in the land of Israel (מצוות התלויות בארץ), but Rashi (based on the Sifrei Deuteronomy 43) is saying something much more radical here…. Namely, that Judaism can only be practiced in the land of Israel!

This is also the position of the Ramban which is that the fulfillment of even personal obligations in the Diaspora is meant to serve as training for fulfilling those same mitzvot in Israel; rituals, rites and commandments fulfilled in exile serve as signposts, leading the way back to living in the Land of Israel according to the Torah.  Rabbeinu Bachya similarly holds with regard to all mitzvot for which the essential obligation is in Israel, “These are the statutes and judgments which you shall observe to do in the land” (Devarim 12:1) — for all the mitzvot are the judgments of the God of the land.

It is interesting that none of the commentaries note the play on words of Zion and signposts… markers.

The word Tzion[ii] is usually taken to mean a sunny or parched place… another name for Jerusalem especially in the prophetic books… but as Rashi notes, it can also mean a signpost, monument, market[iii]… some have suggested: migration paths…

Only fro mthis perspective are statements in the Talmud such as:

Whoever lives in the Land of Israel may be considered to have a God, but whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who has no God. For it is said in Scripture, ‘To give you the Land of Canaan, to be your God’ (Leviticus 25:38). Has he, then, who does not live in the Land, no God? But [this is what the text intended] to tell you, that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who worships idols. Similarly it was said in Scripture in [the story of] David, ‘For they have driven me out this day that I should not cleave to the inheritance of the Lord, saying: Go, serve other gods’ (First Samuel 26:19). Now, whoever said to David, ‘Serve other gods’? Rather, [the text intends] to tell you that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who worships idols” (Ketubot 110b)

Clearly there are other religions and cultures that have holy sites at which special rituals need be fulfilled.  Think of Mecca for the Hajj.  The Parsis in India who consider certain geographical locations critical to rights such as burial, do not accept converts and have a healthy diaspora.

One can certainly imagine the original Zionism as the belief of a migrating tribe in the holiness of the land of Canaan, where rituals practiced outside of the land were only previews and rehearsals and were the real show opens and runs only in the Holy Land.

Jewish thinkers, leaders and masses carried these notions through two thousand years of diaspora and nineteenth century secular Zionist thinker simply adopted this primal concept into a modern, but unique ideological movement.  Zionism was neither imperialism nor racism.

For those of us who live outside of the land of Israel and consider ourselves Zionists it is humbling to know that Zionism (and Judaism) is not an ideology but rather a zip code but it is also radically exciting.  Location specific Judaism confirms what we feel as we drive around this country and meet Israelis of every variation.  It is confirmed when we take a hike on the clearly marked Israel trail with a secular Israeli pointing out ancient aqueducts, iconic kibbutzim and modern day borders…and without a hidden agenda or political lesson to be learnt. This is truly the holy land and one of the best ways to feel it, breath it and experience it is to follow the markers and take a hike.

israel trail


[i] For a previous Madlik post on parshat vayishlach, see appeasement first.

[ii] Strong’s H6726 – Tsiyown

Tzion-1

[iii] Strong’s H6725 – tsiyuwn

Tzion-2

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parshat behar sparks

  • With Peace talks, boundaries and land swaps in the headlines again, take a look at my previous (2011) post on parshat Bahar: We are all Settlers where I explore Biblical concepts of land ownership.
  • My friend Amichai Lau-Lavie in his weekly WORD blog makes a similar argument this week..  YOUR LAND IS NOT YOUR LAND: WORD #30
  • Since returning from a trip to Eastern Europe I am struck by the vibrant lack of homogeneity of past and present Jewish communities.  If one were to view Roman Vishniac’s iconic photo book: A Vanished World, one would think that all Jews in Eastern Europe were of the Orthodox variety.  In fact an exhibit at the International Center of Photography entitled Roman Vishniac Rediscovered shows a more diverse picture made up of  Zionists (labor/revisionist), socialists, Bundists and everyone in between.  Maybe its time to rediscover our own links and definitions of being Jewish….
  • Here’s a fascinating post from Hirhurim about a little known book  written by a Hungarian Rabbi who perished during the last days of the Holocaust and who was known as a vehement anti-Zionist.    He wrote the book to  admit that he and histeachers were wrong about Zionism  He retracts his previous anti-Zionist statements, and criticizes, albeit respectfully, his mentor the Minchas Elazar, and others, for their anti-Zionist views.  A Rare Book

Maybe its time to re-evaluate those positions we hold to be a Law given to Moses as Sinai… after all the parsha is call BeHar.. at the mountain.

zionist building

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first refusnik

parshat vayetze

As suggested in an earlier post, much of the Genesis narratives relating to the patriarchs/matriarchs serve as a mythical paradigm for what befalls the Jewish People in Exodus and beyond.  “The stories of the patriarchs are to be taken as signs for their decedents” (Ma’asay Avot Symon LeBanim  מעשה אבות סימן לבנים).

It is in this context that we can best understand the multiple accounts of Abraham and Isaac going to a strange land (Egypt and Gerar respectively) as a result of a famine (Genesis 12: 10 26:2), causing a plague on the ruler (Pharoah and Avimelech respectively) and leaving with much wealth and prestige (Genesis 13: 2 15: 14 26: 12) …. A clear parallel to the latter Jewish People who, as 70 souls (Exodus 1: 5) went down to Egypt because of a famine, caused plagues to fall on Egypt and its Pharaoh and left with great wealth (Exodus 11: 2).

What’s missing from these patriarchal premonitions is the subjugation and internment that the Jews suffered in Egypt.  These elements appear only in the Jacob story.

In many of their exiles, the Jews were expelled or killed.  Jews being forcibly held as  in Egypt and later in the Soviet Union occurred only with one patriarch.

Jacob was the first Refusnik.

Jacob is forced to work for Laban for a total of 20 years before he utters the iconic “Let my people go” line. (Exodus 7: 2 and 26):

25 And it came to pass, when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said unto Laban: ‘Send me away, that I may go unto mine own place, and to my country.
26 Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served thee, and let me go; for thou knowest my service wherewith I have served thee.’ Genesis 30: 25-26

וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה רָחֵל אֶת-יוֹסֵף; וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-לָבָן, שַׁלְּחֵנִי וְאֵלְכָה, אֶל-מְקוֹמִי וּלְאַרְצִי

תְּנָה אֶת-נָשַׁי וְאֶת-יְלָדַי, אֲשֶׁר עָבַדְתִּי אֹתְךָ בָּהֵן–וְאֵלֵכָה:  כִּי אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ, אֶת-עֲבֹדָתִי אֲשֶׁר עֲבַדְתִּיךָ

Through repeated lies and tricks, it was clear that Laban had no intention of permitting Jacob, his wives and family to leave (Genesis 31: 41).

41 These twenty years have I been in thy house: I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy flock; and thou hast changed my wages ten times.

זֶה-לִּי עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה, בְּבֵיתֶךָ, עֲבַדְתִּיךָ אַרְבַּע-עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה בִּשְׁתֵּי בְנֹתֶיךָ, וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים בְּצֹאנֶךָ; וַתַּחֲלֵף אֶת-מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּי, עֲשֶׂרֶת מֹנִים

So Jacob escaped (Genesis 31:20) and Laban (as Pharaoh after him Exodus 14: 5) gave chase.  Finally, after being visited by God (Genesis 31: 29) Laban has a change of heart and agrees to let Jacob go. *

What makes the refusnik component of the exile/exodus model so important, is that unlike the other components (famine, plagues, riches and freedom) which are outside of the control of the protagonists, it is in experiencing physical and economic abuse and showing an unwillingness to make a deal that the refusnik finds his/her own redemption and serves as an inspiration to us all.

Jacob did not settle.  Even at great physical cost, he did not compromise.  Jacob was the first refusnik.

Unlike Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s struggle for freedom is commemorated with a monument (Genesis 31: 45), because it was Jacob’s struggle for freedom and unwillingness to give up or compromise that was to be a model for us all. It was Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, and who fathered a people.

In a previous post a journey – russia to the promised land, I describe my family’s trip to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1974. On that trip, our first stop was Leningrad and the first refusniks that we met, the first refusniks to host us at their home, were Ida and Aba Taratuta.  We had not heard from the Taratuta’s  all these years until this summer, when in my capacity as President of PEF Israel Endowment Funds I received a receipt from one of the 1,000 plus charities we support in Israel: Remember and Save.  As I reached the bottom of the letter, my heart skipped a beat…. It was signed by Aba Taratuta who has established this amutah (charity) to archive the Jewish Aliya movement in the USSR.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Haifa and met with Ida and Aba….  my first refusnik.

I took this video in which the Taratutas describe our family’s visit as well as the various jobs they were forced to take after being fired from their respective positions as government translator (Ida) and astophysicist (Aba).  [Once they were fired a refusnik had to find other work so as not to be arrested as a parasite.]  The Tratutas were refused exit from the Soviet Union for 15 years.  After arriving to Israel, they moved to Haifa were Aba became a professor of astrophysics at the Technion.   When Aba retired from the Technion he became a math teacher in an Israeli High School. In retrospect, he says, teaching High School math was more taxing than being a refusnik in the Soviet Union!

Aba has established the Remember and Save organization to collect, catalog, archive and make available the records of the alya movement from the Soviet Union from 1967-1989, including :

  • Lists of Movement activists and refuseniks
  • Petitions, and appeals of Jews to the Soviet officials; and appeals to Jewish and public organizations, to the media and to Western leaders and governments
  • Letters of the Movement activists, prisoners of Zion, refuseniks and letters to them from Israel and from the West
  • Official documents on the Aliya Movement
  • Photo, audio and video documentation
  • Jewish Samizdat (underground publications) in the USSR

Aba is concerned that time is running out and that refusniks are passing away and their memories and artifacts are being lost.  Just as Jacob commemorated his struggle with a monument to bear witness, Aba is working to preserve the memory of the soviet refusniks as an important academic resource and as an inspiration for us all.

Here are some pictures I took (then and now).

Ida Taratuta 1974 Leningrad

Ida and Aba Taratuta November 2012 Haifa

Ida and Aba Taratuta November 2012 Haifa

Aba Taratuta – 1974 – Leningrad

Aba Taratuta stands next to the mezuzah at his apartment in Haifa – November 2012

Aba Taratuta and Soviet Jewry activist Jerome Stern in Leningrad 1974

Michael Stern singing Jewish songs with refusniks in Soviet Union July 1974

Aba Taratuta with Geoffrey Stern – Haifa – November 2012

Aba Taratuta reviews book “a journey – russia to the promised land”

 

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* I have searched, unsuccessfully for corroboration in Rabbinic literature or the commentaries for what I believe is  an obvious parallel between Jacob’s personal exodus from Charan (servitude, internment, chase before a river/sea and final release to the homeland) and the national Exodus.  I do note that the Haftora for parshat Vayetzeh is from Hosea 12 and begins by establishing just such a parallel  (for Ashkenazim) with verse 13-14.
13 And Jacob fled into the field of Aram, and Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he kept sheep.
14 And by a prophet the LORD brought Israel up out of Egypt, and by a prophet was he kept.

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walking without pretext

parshat lech lecha

In his book, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, by Thomas Cahill the concept of pilgrimage does not appear.  I am surprised, because pilgrimage is seminal to the Jewish narrative and calendar.  Three times a year Jews made the trek up to Jerusalem on their major festivals called Regalim (foot festivals).  The very word for festival; Hag comes from the same Semitic root as the Arabic Hajj which means  pilgrimage and is the core of a Muslim’s life.  Many of us were introduced to English literature with a reading of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, which is about pilgrims on the way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral… telling tales.  Every Christian and Muslim understood the obligation of pilgrimage as a core component of a life well lived.

Pilgrimage does not rate as a gift of the Jews, because pilgrimage has disappeared from mainstream Judaism and our collective culture. [UJA Missions, Birthright and tourist trips don’t count… too much baggage, pre-arranged accommodations, supervision/guidance and too little walking]

It may be, that we Jews lost our taste for pilgrimage when it was adopted by competing religions.  Certainly the fact that so many Jews were slaughtered during the Crusades would not have endeared them to this variant of active vacation.  The anti-Semitism associated with pilgrimage kinda takes the bounce out of your step. The triennial pilgrimage may have also fallen into disuse after the destruction of the Temple and associated exile.  A pilgrimage is a trip away from home, the yearning for a return to Zion and aliyah is a return home.  Pilgrims buy a return ticket.

In a book that I just finished  and will quote more extensively below, the author Gideon Lewis-Kraus suggests that Jews for the most part don’t do pilgrimage: “because pilgrimage has largely been for sedentary people, so the Jews of the Diaspora didn’t have much use for it. The last thing they needed was yet another reason to keep moving.”

It seems to me, that we lose if we ignore pilgrimage… the institution, the tradition, the narrative and most of all the state-of-mind. … and it all started with Abraham in Genesis 12.

1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.

This is usually translated as “Get thee out (from your country and your birthplace and your father’s house. . . .)” But it literally means, “Go to yourself.” Rashi, understands lech lecha to mean: “go for yourself”. Lecha, he explains, means “for your benefit and for your good”. The Siftei Chachamim writes that lecha actually means li’retzoncha, according to your desire or will. According to the Pri Ha’aretz, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk  “Go to find your true self. Go to develop yourself to its utmost. Go where? To the land that I will show you. To the place of the origin of Man’s body and soul.”

I am particularly intrigued with the concept of pilgrimage, because of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s book; A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful.  Kraus; a secular Jewish writer in his early 30’s living a bohemian life with other expats in Berlin decides on a lark one early morning at a bar to go on a 500 mile Christian pilgrimage to the El Camino de Santiago. He becomes addicted to pilgriming and on completion of the Camino, does The Shikoku; a multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kūkai (Kōbō Daishi) on the island of Shikoku, Japan.  His third and last pilgrimage is to Uman where he joins Hasidim (and his estranged gay-Rabbi father )  to visit the Beslever Rebbe’s grave.

In his irreverent, sometimes hilarious and always thought provoking musings, he struggles to find the essence of pilgrimage and, to my mind, reveals what we may be missing.  Here are some excerpts that try to provide a pretext for taking a pilgrimage…

“There are a lot of reasons, and that’s part of what this book is about, figuring out what it means to want to make a pilgrimage, and then what it feels like to be on it, and what it does and doesn’t do to your life afterward, but it all has something to do with leaving your home, leaving comfort and responsibility behind, and putting yourself and your usual desires aside to concentrate on doing this difficult, painful trip that a lot of other people have done for a long time, and to be in the company of other sufferers who are doing it now. While you’re on it, everything feels so simple, even if you’re in pain, and you make these instant friendships based on a shared sense of need and vulnerability, and it’s a sense of need and vulnerability that are beyond explaining— there’s no real need to be able to say why you hurt or why you’re doing it, you just sort of trust that everyone is doing it for some reason or another and that’s enough.” It occurred to me it was strange that I’d brought my father to do exactly that— to explain himself— and what he’d ended up showing me was that these explanations are always evolving. [p 323]

But the thing about this sense of order is that it’s provisional, this sense of coherence that it’s evanescent. This makes it a bounded experiment in the as if, a few weeks of coming to terms with difficulty and disappointment— and cost— in terms of their necessary existence. It’s a vacation to a land where life has meaning— the meaning of moving forward, of getting to Santiago— and things, in the broadest sense of the term, make sense, in the broadest sense of the term. Its fixed points allow you to deal with the fact that everyone is in motion. It’s so easy to feel this way on the road because it’s provisional. This is its strength and its limitation. It is to be used and discarded. Its remove from the past, from conflict, from real life affords you the chance to form relationships with wonderful people from whom you expect nothing, whom you begrudge nothing, whom you owe nothing, people who haven’t ever had the chance to hurt you, and probably won’t, and if they do or you do you just walk away, you stay in motion. The stakes of communitas are low because everything is taking place in the present. The grace comes easy. And the sense of coherence that seemed so vital and inalienable while you were on the Camino, the sense that you’re simply spending your hours the way you’re spending them and, for the moment, not worrying too much about the costs, disperses into the air like incense the moment you’re no longer on the way. But a life cannot be lived, at least by most people, walking up and down the Camino, or walking the circuit of Shikoku until death. The real trick, then, is to find some way to recall these feelings of grace and coherence and meaning and forgiveness— for what we gain with this coherence is the ability to forgive, ourselves and others— when the as if has run its course, when Santiago is achieved and you are returned to a world where all is conflict and nothing makes itself plain to us, where there is no hope for miraculous intercession and the people you love most will hurt and disappoint you and you, in turn, will hurt and disappoint them. Where the ground is shifting and we rarely know where we stand. …. If you’re able to believe that there is a God and that God acts in the world, if it has never occurred to you that this makes theodicy a problem, if you have that true gift that is faith, you ought to count yourself inordinately blessed. For the rest of us, there is one Camino or another, and then, perhaps more important, there is the memory of that Camino. These are brief encounters with radical acceptance that we do our best to secretly save up in our hearts. [p 327]

The neutral word “pretext”— as opposed to the loaded words “reason” and “excuse”— suspends, for the moment, the question of moral responsibility, and makes way for the final fact that, as Wittgenstein says, we just do what we do. We’re all going to find pretexts for doing what we’re going to do anyway, for having our adventures and doing our demmij along a road in northern Spain, or in a broken-into temple in rural western Japan. There is no such thing as the life we deserve, just like there is no such thing as a prophylactic against regret. There is the life we live. There is the series of crises we do our best to muddle through. No sacrifice now will make the future effortless or the pain we will inevitably cause easier for others to forgive. The thing that can be so hard about my dad’s life, about anyone’s life, is that he caused so much pain and is somehow happy now. He is happy and has come to tell a story in which the pain he caused was worth it. But we all do our best, and we hurt some people and get hurt by others and what’s as terrible as it is wonderful is that we endure, we endure and find ways of looking back and, if we are able to manage the trick of perspective, if we are able to hold on to our memories of Santiago, we find a way for it to have made sense. [p 332]

These conversations always make me think of a line in Wittgenstein where he’s talking about the chain of reasons we give for doing something. If you ask someone “Why?” enough times— if every time they provide a “Because…” you respond with another “But why?”— they get to a point where no further account is available, where they are doing something that seems to them self-evidently worthwhile. You must then simply say, “I have hit bedrock. My spade is turned [i.e., turned back on itself, can dig no more]. This is what I do.”
People say, “I’m doing this because I’m in pain.” But the more I heard that, the less sense it made: the causal connection isn’t at all obvious. Nobody can say why this experience, rather than, say, a spa trip, or marathon training, ought to provide solace. I think Wittgenstein points in the direction of an answer. There’s something satisfying about having to throw our hands up, acknowledge our final inscrutability to ourselves. It’s a relief that there’s only so far we can take an explanation, and a comfort to be thrown back upon the nontrivial fact that we have preferences— preferences— that custom and idiosyncrasy and accident have given us the desire to do something instead of some other thing, or instead of nothing. It short-circuits the usual chain of accounting and gets right to the part where you have to shrug and say, “This is what I do.”  [p 223]

Sounds like lech lecha to me……

El Camino de Santiago

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