A Hasidic Atheist?!

Generation X. You gotta love ’em. That’s my son’s generation. He grew up in a Haredi and Hasidic home with an overbearing step-father; and now he is an agnostic, in search of his own spiritual identity. Like Jacob, Moshe struggles with God. I am proud of the fact that he refuses the pat answers of religious zealots.

This takes us to the next part of our story . . . a man, who calls himself Pen Tivokeish–a rather ingenious and clever name. After being brainwashed by the Haredim, he is now very ambivalent about God. Who could blame him? Pen also happens to be a God-wrestler, just like my son.

Here is how his story began. While attending the Discovery Seminar at Aish HaTorah, Pen felt reasonably confident that the critical arguments justifying the belief in an historical Exodus, as well as the arguments refuting evolution and Genesis were unassailable. Or were they? Pen decided to refine his arguments on his own, and discovered that the answers he had ingested were no longer adequate. The more he investigated the issues on the Internet, the more the old Aish arguments began to unravel–along with his faith.

In the end, Pen decided to do what other Generation X-ers do–start a blog as a soliloquy for expressing their deepest spiritual yearnings.  By the way, he has a blog called Penned-In – a pun on both his own sense of confinement and his writing – has proved an outlet for “stuff I probably can’t say in any other settings”, he explained . . . .

Good idea, the spirit of Maimonides must be smiling on Pen Tevakashe.

Freud’s insights in the psychology of fundamentalists is especially poignant here. Freud writes in his Future of an Illusion, that any time people feel a compulsion to justify their faith by resorting to rational proofs, it is because they harbor an unconscious cynicism and really, deep down in their heart of hearts, do not believe in the theological rhetoric they have been forced-fed. Freud obviously describes what young people like Pen and Moshe have struggled with through much of their lives.

“Let us try to apply the same test to the teachings of religion. When we ask on what their claim to be believed is founded, we are met with three answers, which harmonize remarkably badly with one another. Firstly, these teachings deserve to be believed because they were already believed by our primal ancestors; secondly, we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primeval times; and thirdly, it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all. Continue reading “A Hasidic Atheist?!”

Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 2)

The Scarab’s Tale of  Death and Renewal

Here is the story how Jung arrived at this original concept. One of Jung’s patients had a strong rationalistic bent to her personality. Indeed, she challenged and may have even frustrated Jung on many different levels. Jung describes her rationalistic temperament:

My example concerns a young woman patient who, in spite of efforts made on both sides, proved to be psychologically inaccessible. The difficulty lay in the fact that she always knew better about everything. Her excellent education had provided her with a weapon ideally suited to this purpose, namely a highly polished Cartesian rationalism with an impeccably ‘geometrical’ idea of reality.

After several fruitless attempts to sweeten her rationalism with a somewhat more human understanding, I had to confine myself to the hope that something unexpected and irrational would turn up, something that would burst the intellectual retort into which she had sealed herself.

Well, I was sitting opposite her one day, with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She had had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab – a costly piece of jewelery.

While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned round and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window-pane in the obvious effort to get into the dark room.

This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab.

I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, ‘Here is your scarab.’ This experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results. [1]

Why was Jung so effective in dealing with this type of individual? Maybe because  Jung recognized that modern people have an ontological hunger  for mythic meaning in their lives. Freud would have considered such thinking as an illusion, but Jung believed that the archetypal patterns and symbols reconstellate themselves within the psyche in the form of myths and dreams.

Archetypal Reverberations

The scarab is a good case in point.  In archetypal symbolism, the ancient Egyptians believed that the scarab  symbolized the self-renewal of the sun’s rays upon the earth and also resurrection. Re, then, characterizes the powerful and bright noonday sun, while Atum symbolizes the old and worn-out evening sun. The Egyptian word for this beetle was kheper, a homonym for their word meaning “to come to be” or “to happen,” and the word also became the name of the early-morning sun deity. Continue reading “Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 2)”

Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 1)

A Bridge Across Time?

You have probably heard of  this  story before.  Every time I come across this citation, it makes me pause and wonder. American presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were both tragically assassinated during their terms in office. Despite the difference in time, both of these men share a number of unusual circumstances–or more precisely, coincidences. Consider the following.

– Lincoln’s name has 7 letters
– Kennedy’s name has 7 letters

– In Lincoln’s & Kennedy’s names the vowels & consonants fall in exactly the same place, in the order of c, v, c, c, v, c, c

– Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846
– Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946

– Lincoln was elected president in 1860
– Kennedy was elected president in 1960

– Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln
– Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy

– War was thrust upon Lincoln almost immediately after inauguration
– War was thrust upon Kennedy almost immediately after inauguration

– Lincoln gave Afro-Americans freedom and legalized equality
– Kennedy enforced equality for Afro-Americans

– Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863
– Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963

– Lincoln was loved by the common people and hated by the establishment
– Kennedy was loved by the common people and hated by the establishment

– Lincoln was succeeded, after assassination, by vice-president Johnson
– Kennedy was succeeded, after assassination, by vice-president Johnson

– John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, was born in 1839.
– Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy, was born in 1939.

– Both assassins were known by their three names.
– Both names are composed of fifteen letters.

– Lincoln was shot at the theater named ‘Ford.’
– Kennedy was shot in a car called ‘Lincoln’ made by ‘Ford.’

– Lincoln was shot in a theater and his assassin ran and hid in a warehouse.
– Kennedy was shot from a warehouse and his assassin ran and hid in a theater.

And the lists goes on and on . . . .It definitely sounds like Fringe or X-Files type material.

Are these parallels just an urban legend, which break down upon deeper and more sober analysis? The skeptic in me would probably answer that question in the affirmative. On the other hand, I am fascinated by the psychology that seeks to discover anomalous parallels.

Faces in the Clouds?

While our minds are hardwired to look for patterns and order in the universe,  sometimes our minds sees things of its own fabrication and invention. It’s a little bit like the stories one reads in the National Inquirer about people in Mexico seeing the face of Satan in the clouds, or like pious Christians who see the face of Jesus etched in the snow. The mind can play tricks on itself–as we know all too well. Just ask David Copperfield, the illusionist extraordinaire. Continue reading “Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 1)”

Tales From the Hollywood Zone: Was Jesus actually married?

You probably heard the story before a hundred times before.

A Catholic scholar, devoted to the Church and its doctrines throughout his life, died and went to Heaven, where he was greeted by St. Peter. For his heavenly reward, the scholar asked to see the heavenly archives where he could examine the original manuscripts of the New Testament. Hours later, St. Peter discovers that the scholar is distraught by what his eyes had discovered. One of the main tenets of the manuscript that was believed to state that all members, “…should stay celibate in all matters of sex…” has been found to be in error. The new translation has found the phrase to more accurately read that members, “…should stay, and celebrate in all matters of sex…” In other words, “Celebrate,” not “Celibate!”

The Church and sex . . . it sort of reminds me of the biblical prohibition against mixing meat and milk together–well, guess what? They don’t mix!

Well recently at my Introduction to Judaism class, one of my conversion students asked me the following two questions: “After reading the Da Vinci Codes, I began to wonder: Was Jesus actually married? Was a rabbi of that era supposed to be married? Secondly, what did you think of the movie’s overall premise?”

Let me say from the outset, that in ancient times, there was no official office of the rabbinate in the first century; generally speaking the epithet “rabbi” was an honorific title. Oftentimes, a wise person was called a “Chacham” (a Sage), or “Abba” since a spiritual teacher was considered to be like one who had given birth to a child or a disciple. Let us now examine the issues this person raised.

Now with respect to the old question, “Was Jesus ever mary-ied?” (great pun on “Mary”) The Talmud records an interesting question about Rav Huna (216-296) of Babylon. He is recorded as saying to one of his student, “‘See to it that you do not appear before me again before you are married,’ said he.” The Talmudic redactor observes, that R. Huna felt that “A man who has reached twenty years of age and still has not married, he will spend all his days in sin. ‘In sin’ — can you really think so? — But say, spends all his days in sinful thoughts.”

Another teacher, Rava (Abba ben Joseph bar Ḥama, ca. 280-350) adds, “The Academy of R. Ishmael also taught until the age of twenty, the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and waits. When will he take a wife? As soon as one attains twenty and has not married, he exclaims, ‘Blasted be his bones!’”  In the discussion that immediately follows, the Talmud cites a view from R. Hisda, who got married at a much younger age than 20. He recalls, “The reason that I am superior to my colleagues is that I married at sixteen. And had I married at fourteen, I would have said to Satan, ‘An arrow in your eye.’” [1]

It would be fairly safe to say that many Jews in the first century generally got married at a fairly young age so that they could fulfill the precept of raising a family. One rabbinic aphorism attributed to Ben Azzai (ca. 2nd century) reads: “Whosoever abstains from the precept of procreation is considered as if he shed blood” (T.B. Yebamoth 63b). Despite Ben Azzai’s endorsement of marriage, Ben Azzai remained a bachelor for all of his life, although some rabbinic traditions claim that he was married for a short period of time and got divorced. When accused of not practicing what he preached, he answered: “What shall I do if my soul yearns for Torah? The world can be performed by others” (Ibid.).

After Ben Azzai died, people used to say, “With the passing of Ben Azzai, diligent scholars passed from the earth” (Sot. 9:15). His intellectual pursuits were intensely passionate; he never wanted to be distracted from his Torah studies.

Perhaps Jesus had a similar attitude; and for that reason, he never married. On the other hand, perhaps he did get married; in all likelihood we cannot  know for sure. New Testament scholars readily admit that we know practically nothing about Jesus’ formative years.  This question is of little importance to Jews per se, but is obviously important to Catholics who have long rejected the idea of marriage as a biblical ideal for all of its spiritual leaders, which would explain why celibacy is so important in the Catholic faith.

Now, with respect to the Da Vinci Codes, Brown seems to take the goddess imagery a bit too far.  The protagonist Professor Langdon, observes, “The Grail,” Langdon said, “is symbolic of the lost goddess. When Christianity came along, the old pagan religions did not die easily. Legends of chivalric quests for the Holy Grail were in fact stories of forbidden quests to find the lost sacred feminine. Knights who claimed to be “searching for the chalice” were speaking in code as a way to protect themselves from a Church that had subjugated women, banished the Goddess, burned non-believers, and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred feminine.” [2] Continue reading “Tales From the Hollywood Zone: Was Jesus actually married?”

What Inspired the Rabbis to say, “Thank God for not making me a woman!”? (Part 2)

A Greek Should be Thankful for Three Things . . .

At this point one could ask: What sort of teachings might have inspired Rabbi Judah to formulate these three blessings? There may be two possible sources: Greek or early Christian writings. Of the two choices, I believe the Greek influence is more dominant. However, as we shall soon see, the liturgical texts found in the Cairo Geniza  suggest that the early medieval liturgical scholars may have had Christianity in mind, since the  Graeco-Roman culture was supplanted by the Catholic Church. This, I think, is pretty historically plausible.

The 3rd century biographer Diogenes Laertius  writes,  “In his Lives, Hermippus refers to Thales (what has been sometimes attributed to Socrates) . . . .He thanked fortune for three things: first of all, that he had been born a man and not a beast; secondly, that he was a man and not a woman; and thirdly, that he was a Greek and not a barbarian.” [1]

One could argue that the negative rabbinic statements concerning women must be seen within a broader social context; that is to say, the rabbis’ opinions were formed to a certain extent by the dominant cultural attitudes of its time, which happened to be decidedly Graeco-Roman.

Moreover, the originator of this liturgical blessing, Rabbi Judah HaNasi, (ca. 135-219) used to frequent the company of many of Romes’ high society members, and was believed to even been intimate with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (ca. 122-180 CE.).

Charles Carlston sums up the Greco-Roman world’s view of women: “ . . . on balance . . . the picture drawn is a grim one. Women . . . are basically ineducable and empty-headed; vengeful, dangerous, and responsible for men’s sins; mendacious, treacherous, and unreliable; fickle; valuable only through their relationships with men; incapable of moderation or spontaneous goodness; at their best in the dark; interested only in sex–unless they are with their husbands, in which case (apparently) they would rather talk. In short, women are one and all ‘a set of vultures,’ the ‘most beastly’ of all the beasts on land or sea, and marriage is at best a necessary evil.” [2]

A Second Possible Source of Rabbi Judah’s Statement

As we mentioned above, Rabbi Judah may have been directing his criticism to new Christian faith. According to Paul, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian,  slave, free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11-13). In Paul’s vision of the new Christian faith, the traditional distinction that characterized the old rabbinic view of Judaism no longer applied. For him, the gospel doesn’t confer on one class of people a privileged position in the social order–God doesn’t play favorites; God saves us all in the same way and for the same end.

Do not think for a minute that Paul was necessarily a social liberal–he definitely wasn’t. But he did know how to appeal to perspective converts! For the record, Paul had no problem encouraging slaves and women to mind their societal places–all of which he wholeheartedly endorses. Paul was the world’s greatest salesman–he knew what to say in order to sell his faith–but we shall have to return to this point in another discussion.

This passage is interesting because if we read the Geniza texts of the Siddur, we find language that is very similar to the Pauline passage cited above: ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר בראת אותי אדם ולא בהמה ואיש ולא  אשה וישראל ולא גוי מל ולא ערל חופשי ולא עבד “Blessed are You …who has created me a human and not beast, a man and not a woman, an Israelite and not a gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave.”

Early rabbinic passages also do not reflect particularly well on women: Continue reading “What Inspired the Rabbis to say, “Thank God for not making me a woman!”? (Part 2)”