Preparing for the Ninth of Av

Well it’s that time of the year again! Tisha B’Av – the time of the year when we remember the tragic loss of the Temple. Recently, there was news in the Jerusalem Post about a group of Chabad rabbis getting together to discuss the specific plans that would have to take place in order to rebuild the Temple of old. Obviously, as the article pointed out, the Muslims were quite upset. Understandably so, I might add. It seems paradoxical in many ways, but I must confess: I myself am reluctant to see the Temple built at this time, or for that matter—anytime within the near future.

So long as the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel act as though they are the only true Jewish leaders, I think rebuilding the Temple would only serve to divide and not unite the Jewish people. With a fractured Jewish polity, what good would rebuilding the Temple be if Jews continue to be discriminated in the Holy Land? Although certain rabbis—most notably represented by Maimonides—held that human beings much initiate the rebuilding the Temple, one must wonder: Should rebuilding the Temple occur if it is going to only add to the division that divides Jews from other Jews? Rashi—medieval Judaism’s greatest commentator, explains that in his opinion, God Himself would have to make the new Temple appear—literally out of the air, for it to have his support. Given the Jewish/Muslim problems we experience in this age, that probably is not an unrealistic solution—especially when compared to Maimonides’s alternative!

At any rate, it is important to the Jewish people to work on building bridges for better communication and not use the opportunity to tear them down. In our own community, there has been some effort to reach out to the local Chabad. Obviously, many more compromises will have to be made for every synagogue in the Quad-Cities to get along better. I remain hopeful that some sort of solution will be forthcoming . . .

A word about Jewish history that everyone ought to know . . . The Ninth of Av is a sad day for many reasons. This day is a haunting reminder that we have a long way to go when it comes to learning from the mistakes of our collective past. The two temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on this day. According to tradition, the first took place in the year 586 B.C.E. and the second in 70 C.E. and the crushing of the Bar-Kochba Revolt in 135 C.E.

When compared, of the two destructions, the loss of the Second Temple was for the Jewish people—a much more serious blow—one which has taken the longest time for our people to get over.

One of the greatest heroes to emerge in Jewish history, was Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai lived through the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman general Vespasian, and, when Vespasian became emperor, by his adopted son, Titus, who burned the Temple in 70 C.E. During the siege by Vespasian, Rabbi Yohanan made his way to the Roman, who granted his request for “Yavneh and its Sages.”

For this and regulations he issued and principles of conduct he laid down, Rabbi Yohanan is credited with having preserved Judaism and, hence, Jewry after the destruction. It remains somewhat unclear: Was Rabbi Yohanan a part of the “peace party”? Was he a Jewish liberal? I personally think he was just a realist. To date, there is no incontestable evidence proving actual political view. Yet, compared to the fanatics of his era, R. Yohanan stands out as a voice of reason and reconciliation.

What we know, from four variant accounts, is that when all seemed lost, Rabbi Yohanan made his way to Vespasian—the soon to be future Roman Emperor—and asked for Yavneh, the seat of a beit din (a Jewish court) and the home of a group of leading Sages, and there he reconstituted the Sanhedrin.

There is a fascinating but cryptic story about an incident when Rabbi Yohanan lay critically ill. When his disciples called on him, they found him weeping and asked him why. He replied:

I am about to be brought before the Supreme King of Kings, the Blessed Holy One, Who lives and exists forever and ever and ever … and two paths lie before me, one to Gan Eden [Paradise] and one to Gehinnom [Hell], and I don’t know along which one I shall be led to.[1]

Did Rabbi Yohanan really believe that he was destined for retribution in the World of Eternity? Perhaps he should have asked Vespasian to quit his assault on Jerusalem. Perhaps he settled for too little, too late. In all probability, he made the right decision for the Romans wanted revenge. If the Jews could intimidate the mighty Empire, surely all the vassal states of Rome would do the same! Therefore, the Romans decided to make an example out of the Jews, and indeed, they killed 2,000,000 of our people—the largest number to be killed prior to the Holocaust. Great people can have great doubts, but Rabbi Yohanan definitely made the right choice! Well, so much for the history lesson!

.[1] See T.B. Gittin 56a-b; Avot deRabbi Natan, Schechter edition, A, 4 and B, 6; Eicha Rabbati 1:5.

When Speaking of the Ineffable


When Speaking of the Ineffable

Like Philo of Alexandria over a millennium before him, Maimonides boldly asserts that the negative attributes of God represent the true attributes.[1] Thus, when we say that “God exists,” that means to say that He is not nonexistent; when we say that “God is wise,” that is another way of saying that God is not foolish. When we describe “God is knowing’” that is another way of saying that God is not ignorant, hearing and seeing excludes ignorance, and so on; in no way is God ever circumscribed by the qualities that mortals project unto Him. This approach is sometimes called the via negativa (“the way of negation”). Maimonides regards all Biblical predicates about the personality of God as homonyms, i.e., when speaking about God, all anthropomorphic descriptions connote an entirely different reality than is commonly assumed.

Maimonides writes that we cannot know anything about God per se; God’s essential character is completely incomprehensible to mortal minds. Human beings at best can only describe what God does in the world but will never be able to discern what God is.[2] In all likelihood, Maimonides would have agreed with Otto’s language that God is “wholly other,” in that the Holy utterly transcends the bounds of human reason. Maimonides concurs, for him, God cannot be categorized by human thought per se. The way we represent God to ourselves cannot adequately describe the nature of the Divine reality. Maimonides’s”negative theology” emphasizes the discontinuity between God and the world, Though God’s Presence (Shekhina) is intimately and organically related to the cosmos, God is also sovereign over the world. “If the Heavens cannot contain You” (1 Kings 8:27), how much less can philosophical categories hope to represent the nature of the Divine continuum! According to negative theology, every idea—however lofty and spiritual—nevertheless remains a mental picture and thus limiting. Without it, God becomes a creature of the human imagination. Maimonides warns his readers about the dangers of defining God in any image or metaphor.[3] All positive affirmations of God when pushed to the limit must always bow in silence before God’s mysterious nature and being. Maimonides recalls a Talmudic story about how once the rabbis heard a man praying: Continue reading “When Speaking of the Ineffable”