Locked in an Eternal Embrace

In this week’s Torah reading (Exod. 25:18-12), we find a precept instructing Moses to make two cherubim of gold:

“You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat  with their wings. They shall face one to another; the faces of the cherubim shall be turned toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat  on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.”

Western art since the time of the Renaissance traditionally depicts the cherubim as chubby-faced angel-children with wings, but such a description hardly seems to fit the contextual meaning of the of the earlier Genesis reference  (Gen. 3:24) which indicates they appeared to Adam and Eve as frightening creatures![1]

Where did this notion come from? Actually, it derives from the Babylonian Talmud. The Sages ask, “What is the derivation of a cherub? “R. Abbahu construes כְּרוּב, as כְּרָבְיָא, a contraction of כּ “like” and רוֹבֶה, “like a child,” for in Babylon they call a child רָבְיָא, rabia, i.e., thus, a cherub is an angelic being that had a face resembling a child (Rashi).[2] This rabbinic conjecture gave rise to the medieval imagery of chubby little angels, which appealed to Christian artists.

The actual origin of the cherubim remains controversial. It has been proposed that the cherubim may possibly be related to the Akkadian kurabu, denoting celestial interceding beings. Later in Israelite history, the cherubim guard the sacred objects housed in the Ark of the Covenant. A representation of the cherubim was fastened to the mercy seat of the ark[3] in the Holy of Holies[4] and functioned as the bearers of God’s heavenly throne.[5]

During the time of The First  Temple, Solomon placed two enormous and elaborately carved images of winged  cherubim, inside the innermost sanctuary of the Temple.[6] When placed together, they covered one entire wall; their outstretched wings providing a visible pedestal for the invisible throne, serving as a heavenly chariot from which the Divine ascends. Continue reading “Locked in an Eternal Embrace”

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 2)

Shmarya Rosenberg posted a correspondence he had with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on the plight of Ethiopian Jewry. It is a valuable historical document–one that will most likely be studied by future generations. Here is the record of  his correspondence with Rav Moshe  Feinstein.

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Recently, I found Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s 1984 teshuva-letter on Ethiopian Jews stuck between two file folders. (You can click the thumbnail image for a larger, more readable image or download a PDF.[1]) This letter was written in response to a question I asked through Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rav Moshe’s son-in-law. He referred the question to his son, Mordechai, who then served as Rav Moshe’s secretary-assistant. What follows is a (rough) translation:

With the Help of HaShem

26 Sivan 5744

To the honored, my beloved grandson ha rav ha-gaon moreinu ha-rav Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, shlit’a, with blessings of peace and blessing and all good:

With my best regards,

Here as per your request, I reaffirm what you wrote in my name several years ago regarding the “Falashas,” that it is known what is written in the Responsa of the Radba”z, section seven, §9, that it is understood he considers them to be Jews; however for practical application of the law it is difficult to rely on this, for it is not clear if the Radba”z knew well the reality regarding them, nor is it clear whether up until our time their status has [remained the same and] not changed. But in regard to practical application of the law they are not mamzerim or the like, for the Radba”z mentions there that many many doubts apply to them. Review my responsa where I detail at length the qualifications of the rabbinical prohibitions regarding the legal status of ‘an illegitimate child of unknown fatherhood’ and ‘a child found in the street whose parents are (both) unknown’. Continue reading “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 2)”

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 1)

When I was looking at the numbers of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, I felt very proud of those rabbis and Jewish leaders that knew how to respond in times of great crisis. Jewish ethics teaches that anyone who saves one life is considered as though he saves an entire world.

The collaborative effort of Jewish leaders across denominational lines accomplished one of the great feats of Exodus in our day. Rarely has the Jewish community of Israel and the Diaspora shown such unity–I only wish we could replicate the experience in other areas of Jewish life today.

One particular American rabbinic leader, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1885-1986, Lithuania), acted as a catalyst  in mobilizing other rabbinic leaders to come to aid. This Lithuanian  rabbi proved to be the real Moses of his day. Here is a little bit of background information for readers who may not have heard about this great man. Widely regarded as America Orthodoxy’s greatest Halachic scholar, Rav Feinstein’s  humanity exceeded his vast encyclopedic grasp of Jewish law. When he died, over 300,000 people in Israel attended his funeral–the largest number seen since the Mishnaic era. He will long  be remembered as one of Haredi Judaism’s greatest leaders.

Rav Feinstein also distinguished himself as an expert in Jewish medical ethics; in addition, he was famous for knowing how to resolve labor and business disputes; he was the first Haredi rabbi to accept brain death as a viable definition of death at a time when no other rabbi did. Although he was not a religious pluralist, Rav Moshe (as he was affectionately called by many of his students) knew how to respond to the endangered Ethiopian Jewish community and added his voice to those participating in their rescue. Thinking ahead, Rav Moshe also worked with other leading Israeli rabbis in  laying out a practical Halachic plan that would accelerate their reintegration within the Jewish people. [1]

Perhaps Rav Moshe’s best legacy is his multi-volume exposition dealing with the thousands of questions people asked concerning Jewish law  that rabbinic and historical scholars refer to as “Responsa.”

What exactly is Responsa? Here is a brief explanation.

Without the aid of an Internet,  rabbis managed to develop a literary  phenomenon, viz. the rabbinical correspondence that is better known today as “Responsa.” About 1700 years ago, the great rabbinic scholars known as the “Geonim” (savants) of Persia corresponded with the rabbis of North Africa and Spain, and exchanged ideas and thoughts on a variety of topics affecting their communities. This genre of literature constitutes one of the most fertile sources of information for Jewish life in the middle ages. Maimonides, Rav Hai Gaon, Ramban and countless other luminaries sustained an ongoing relationship with other Jewish communities that were across the ancient world. Continue reading “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 1)”

Why did God create the ego?

Someone sent an interesting question the other day in an email: What is the most logical reason why the ego exists?

Why do people ask me only the easy questions?

Here is a thumbnail sketch. The answer to this question probably depends on how one wants to define the term “ego.” Philosophers, psychologists, theosophists and mystics each have their own perspective on what precisely constitutes the “ego.” According to Plato, which he identified with also identified with Nous (‘Mind’) and Descartes likewise had a similar view, namely, the ego is the personal identity of an individual that can exist independently of the body.

British skeptic David Hume was puzzled as to the nature of his core self, while other philosophers like Hobbes felt uncomfortable with anything that was so mysterious and non-physical.

Some thinkers believe that the ego pertains to the conscious areas of the personality associated with self-control and self-observation.  On the other hand, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) taught that the ego refers to a certain area of the psyche that stands at the center of the person and involves the individual’s attributes and functions. Without the ego, we would be incapable functioning. One of Freud’s best known quotes, “Where id was there shall ego be”—that situated Freud as the father of modern psychology.  Freud asserts that consciousness is the ego’s awareness and mediation of the unconscious. This awareness in turn lets the ego realistically to allocate a part of the sexual force (libido) for sexual activity and love and productively, as well as sublimate the remainder for meaningful work. Without ever explaining why, Freud contends that reason enables the healthy ego to perceive a close approximation of reality. Thus, science and reason are indispensable for the individual’s salvation.

Another psychologist, Heinz Kohout,  views the ego in a somewhat different light. He argues that the ego [or what he prefers to call “the self”] refers to the principle that gives unity to the mind without which we could not function. According to the French psychologist Piaget, the term egocentric does not denote a sense of self that is differentiated from the world but quite the opposite—the self is NOT separated or distinguished from the world; the ego has no sense healthy sense of separateness apart from the world. Often the word “ego” carries nothing but the most preparative connotations, but the simple truth is we would have no identity were it not for the ego. Continue reading “Why did God create the ego?”