Deconstructing a Biblical Text through Midrash–A Derridean Approach

Studying the philosopher Jacques Derrida is never for the squeamish of heart.  When you read his writings, you have to wonder why he can’t seem to formulate his ideas in a more straight-forward language. Derrida almost  always writes in the idiom of  “doublespeak.”  What exactly is “doublespeak,” you might ask? Doublespeak  is language constructed to disguise or distort its actual meaning—it is the language of ambiguity; it is also the language of punsters.

Well, one of my friends thought that Derrida sometimes wrote his ideas while he was under the influence of drugs. But like his friend Emanuel Levinas, both of  their philosophical writing styles invite the reader to think more deeply into what they are attempting to say. Philosophers, since the time of the Greek mystic Heraclitus, love speaking in the language of enigma. Kant and Spinoza are not much different. Sometimes I have to take an Excedrin tablet or two whenever attempting  to plow through  their obtuse ideas.

Derrida’s Spatial Philosophy

Derrida argues that all Western thought is based upon the idea of a center, or an origin, a Truth, and Ideal Form, a Fixed Point, an Immovable Mover or Essence, a God, a Presence, all of which are capitalized. The problem with centers, is that they all tend to exclude, repress and marginalize anything that is Other. Thus, in male-oriented societies, man is central, while the woman is the marginalized “Other”; she is repressed, ignored and pushed to the margins. Deconstruction is a tactic which the center is “decentered” which enables the marginalized to become central thus overthrowing (at least temporarily) the hierarchy. Thus there is no truth, only interpretation — and all interpretations, Derrida asserts, are socially constructed.

I often thought about Derrida’s idiosyncratic  idea whenever I study the Talmud, a work that this full of thousands of rabbinic discussions; it is a pity this great work of Jewish literature almost never included rabbinic dialogues with women within the  margins of the text. Sometimes the boundaries of the Talmudic text almost appear like a fence or hedge. Continue reading “Deconstructing a Biblical Text through Midrash–A Derridean Approach”

Getting Caught in the Web of Desire . . .

The covetous road often entangles numerous other prohibition in its web. Below is a famous medieval parable about the dangers of coveting, and how the covetous person may ultimately get much more than he originally bargained.


On Shabbat eve, he went and broke down the wall between them, thus transgressing “Remember and observe the Sabbath.” As if that weren’t enough, he then rapes the woman whom he lusted after, and in the process he violated the proscriptions of “Do not covet,’ and “Do not commit adultery.”

Alas, his appetite for the forbidden knew no bounds. After having his way with his neighbor’s wife, he helps himself to the family jewels.  The woman cried out, “Is there no end to your base character?” To silence her, the sinful man murders her, thus violating the law, “You shall not murder.” Continue reading “Getting Caught in the Web of Desire . . .”

Thou Shalt Not Covet: Can a Feeling be Legislated?

Continuing the theme of desire that we introduced in the last posting, Judaic commentaries have often wondered about the famous proscription of the Decalogue: “You shall not covet” (Exod. 20:17). What exactly is Moses speaking about? This question has led many great rabbinic scholars to conclude that the Torah is not legislating a mere feeling; it is actually more concerned about action. Like many fleeting thoughts that come to our conscious mind in the course of a day, coveting is merely one feeling that our unconscious produces. Maimonides spells this point out:

“Anyone who covets a servant, a maidservant, a house or utensils that belong to a colleague, or any other article that he can purchase from him and pressures him with friends and requests until he agrees to sell it to him, violates a negative commandment, even though he pays much money for it, the Torah states,  “Do not covet” (Exod. 20:14). This is not the kind of commandment that would be subject to corporal punishment, for the thought of coveting does not involve a deed. However, once a person takes possession of the article he covets, “Do not covet the gold and silver on these statues and take it for yourself” (Deut. 7:25), then he has transformed the thought of coveting into a deed . . .

Anyone desiring a home, a wife, utensils, or anything that belongs to another that he can acquire from him, is guilty of violating the biblical proscription regarding coveting–-from the time he thinks in his heart, “How is it possible to acquire this from him?” and his heart is aroused by this matter, as the Torah states “Do not desire” – “desire “ is directed only within the human heart.”

Thus according to Maimonides, there are two prohibitions: the covetous desire and the act that is involved in obtaining his neighbor’s property. Some rabbinic scholars differ. [2]

Maimonides adds, “The moment one entertains the thought how to obtain a neighbor’s possessions, e.g., a  home, a wife, utensils, he violates the injunction against coveting, for the Torah makes it clear: “Do not desire….”  (Deut. 5:18), for desire belongs to feelings of the heart and nothing else. Coveting is so serious because it leads to  robbery. Should an owner refuse to part with his property, the one who covets may act upon his desire and decide to rob his neighbor of his belongings, as it is written, “They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and they take them; They cheat an owner of his house, a man of his inheritance” (Micah 2:2). In the event the victim stands up and attempts to rescue his property, the covetous man may decide to murder his victim, as we see in the story of Ahab and Naboth in  1 Kings 21:1-29.” [3]

On the other hand, Ibn Ezra asks a famous question: How can the Torah forbid a person to covet? Actions are surely easier to control, but how can one control a feeling? If one has a desire for something that another person has, is it reasonable to expect him to banish that desire? Continue reading “Thou Shalt Not Covet: Can a Feeling be Legislated?”

A Buddhist Version of the Edenic Fall?

While there are several versions of the Fall narrative in ancient Semitic literature, it is not widely known that a mythic memory of a primordial Fall is also recorded in the Oriental world and this phenomenon is especially interesting when examined from the perspective of Jung’s theory of the archetype; i.e., the common and universal patterns of thought that spontaneously appear in the stories and myths gathered from all around the world.

Although the Buddhist tradition does not speak of a Fall in the Western theological sense, it does speak of a state of Original Ignorance that occurred at the dawn of human creation. From ignorance came greed, anger, jealousy, and pride; and from these emotional energies come misdeeds that lead to suffering. The first sin among the ancients that perpetuated the Fall was the prejudice of appearance—those of brighter skin began to look down on those with darker skin. Ignorance led to the formation of gender, which eventually gave rise to desire and passion. Continue reading “A Buddhist Version of the Edenic Fall?”

Shadow Projections & the Psychology of Scapegoating

Carl G. Jung writes a lot about the nature of “shadow projection” in his writings. Individuals will often project their shadow unto someone else they know well. Just look at any divorce trial, the tendency is to project blame unto the Other, rather than taking personal responsibility for the death of a marriage.

I am reminded of the old story where a marriage therapist was counseling a young couple that were having difficulties in their marriage. The husband says, “She is to blame for everything wrong in our marriage!” The therapist asks the husband, “Do you really believe that SHE is really to blame for EVERYTHING?”  The husband pauses, “Well, not really; her mother is to blame for at least 50% of our problems!”

What happens on the individual level occurs with the collective shadow as well. Typically, it is an ethnic or religious group that is blamed for the woes of society. Men and women often blame the opposite sex for the current state of disarray that we mentioned earlier. It becomes much more dangerous when entire populations become blamed or persecuted because of existing social ills that exist in a society.

Whenever one feels oneself or one’s group superior to another one is engaged in shadow projection. This “other” thus becomes the “scapegoat” to carry away the “sins of the Other.” But do the sins really go away once the scapegoat is destroyed? Not really. The social wrongs or inequities simply go unconscious where they breed more hatred and shadow material. It sets up a vicious cycle. Shadow projection is nothing new to the human race; it’s been practiced in rituals throughout ancient history. Continue reading “Shadow Projections & the Psychology of Scapegoating”

Meetings: My Close-Encounter with a Presbyterian Professor

In 1996, I received my doctorate from the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo (SFTS), California.  SFTS is really a gorgeous school, nestled in the foothills of Marin County. One could hardly have asked for a better place to study and engage so many thought-provoking teachers. I believe I was the first rabbi ever to go through their Doctorate of Ministry program. It proved to be a wonderful learning experience that introduced me to Biblical Greek, Christian biblical exegesis, history, ethics, spirituality, and theology.  For that, I will be eternally grateful.

By the way, SFTS is a Presbyterian seminary.

Walter Davis was one of the Seminary’s most important leaders while I was there. Walt, (who fought in Vietnam) and I became pretty good friends. I remember him taking me aside after I finished attending a lecture given by Lewis Rambo (he is no relation to Sylvester Stallone ). During one 1995 summer session, Walt said to me, “Michael, I really must apologize for the Presbyterian Church’s failure to come to the Jewish people’s aid during the Holocaust.”

Surprised, I thought about his remarks and said to him, “Walt, if you really want your Church to atone for their apathy during the Holocaust, there is something important your Church can do.” He asked, “What can we do?”  I replied, “Be a friend of the State of Israel—have your Church do everything in its power to make a difference in ensuring Israel’s health and stability. Your Church’s work would go a long way in making up what the Church failed to achieve in the dark days of the Holocaust.” Walt promised me that he would see to it that the Church would become a good friend of Israel.”

Martin Buber often wrote about the spiritual meetings people have and how they sometimes function like miniature epiphanies from God in our lives. I believe Buber’s insights are correct. I might have forgotten about this mystically-directed conversation had it none been for the Presbyterian Church’s animus against the State of Israel.

In 2004, the Church wanted to approve a policy of divestment from Israel. Unpopular with church members, it was later rescinded.

In 2008, church leaders attempted to re-engineer the Church’s Middle East policies and created a committee that unabashedly maintains anti-Israel policies. One supporter of Israel who served as a member of this committee, quit in protest after he saw their radical agenda. Continue reading “Meetings: My Close-Encounter with a Presbyterian Professor”

Life is a Series of Rebirths

As I have written on other occasions, life is a series of rebirths. What we start out in life is often different from what we ultimately become. Let me tell you a well-known story that illustrates this point about the life of Moses. The origin of this story is unknown, but I have seen it mentioned in many books containing medieval rabbinic tales about the famous personalities of the Bible.

Here is how it begins . . .

The whole world was shaken and enthralled by the miracle of the Exodus. The name of Moses was on everyone’s lips. Tidings of the great miracle reached also the wise king of Arabistan. The king summoned to him his best painter and bade him go to Moses, to paint his portrait and bring it back to him. When the painter returned, the king gathered together all his sages, wise in physiognomy (the art of judging human character from facial features), and asked them to define by the portrait the character of Moses, his qualities, inclinations, habits, and the source of his miraculous power.

“King,” answered the sages, “this is the portrait of a man cruel, haughty, greedy of gain, possessed by desire for power, and by all the vices which exist in the world.” These words roused the king’s indignation. “How can it be possible,” he exclaimed, “that a man whose marvelous deeds ring through the whole world should be of such a kind?”

A dispute began between the painter and the sages. The painter affirmed that the portrait of Moses had been painted by him quite accurately, while the sages maintained that Moses’ character had been unerringly determined by them according to the portrait.

The wise king of Arabistan decided to verify which of the disputing parties was right, and he himself set off for the camp of Israel. At the first glance the king became convinced that the face of Moses had been faultlessly portrayed by the painter. On entering the tent of the man of God he knelt down, bowed to the ground, and told Moses of the dispute between the artist and the sages.

“At first, until I saw thy face,” said the king, “I thought it must be that the artist had painted thy image badly, for my sages are men very much experienced in the science of physiognomy. Now I am convinced that they are quite worthless men and that their wisdom is vain and worthless.”

“No,” answered Moses, “it is not so; both the painter and the physiognomists are men highly skilled, and both parties are right. Be it known to thee that all the vices of which the sages spoke have indeed been assigned to me by nature and perhaps to an even higher degree than was found by them from my portrait. But I struggled with my vices by long and intense efforts of the will and gradually overcame and transcended them within myself until all opposed to them became my second nature. And in this lies my greatest pride.” Continue reading “Life is a Series of Rebirths”

The Origin of the World’s First Biblical Translation: The Septuagint

Every Apocryphal Story Has  a Germ of Historical Truth

According to an apocryphal legend,[1] Egyptian King Ptolemy Philadelphus (who ruled 285-246 B.C.E.) sent a delegation to a high priest named Eleazar in Jerusalem, who  organized  a group of 72 scribes  to write a new translation of the Bible for the city of  Alexandria.[2] These men purportedly translated the Hebrew Pentateuch into Greek in only seventy-two days.

A Jewish philosopher named Aristeas, records how the scribes felt inspired and arrived at a synchronous translation. Philo of Alexandria also claims that each of the translators, working under divine inspiration, arrived at identical phraseology as though dictated by an invisible prompter (Moses, 302).

Historians know that this apocryphal tale does not represent the composition of the Septuagint that we have today. Rather, it was composed over a sustained period of time from approximately the  middle of  2nd B.C.E. to the 1st century C.E. In any event, the name “Septuagint,” actually derives from the Latin septuāgintā, “seventy” (from the traditional number of its translators) : septem, seven; see sept in Indo-European roots + –gintā, ten times; see dek in Indo-European roots]. [3]

Sleuthing One of the World’s Great Mysteries

Scholars and lay-people often wonder what inspired the first translation of the Bible? Why was the first translation of the Bible written in Greek? What was the motivation of the early translators of  the Bible? What did they hope to achieve?  The real story behind the Septuagint almost reads like a good detective novel.

Actually, there were many practical reasons why the Alexandrian Jews embarked on this most ambitious literary project. First and foremost, the Septuagint made it easier to educate a generation of Jews who had partially forgotten their ancestral language after having settled in Egypt. Alexandria rapidly became known as the Athens of the Ancient Near East. In fact, by many accounts, Alexandria rivaled Athens in brilliance.

Established by Jewish merchants at the time of Alexander, Alexandria became the world’s first cosmopolitan city–comparable to what Paris now is in Europe. The world’s very first university was built in Alexandria; libraries containing the works of many great Greek thinkers and other famous non-Greek thinkers found a home in a society that was remarkably tolerant of different ethnic groups. Alexandria was proto-modern in a way that was unique.

The Commonalities Between Jewish and Greek Cultures

Obviously, the Greeks and Jews of Alexandria realized that both of their cultures had much in common. Greeks believed they had a chosen vocation to spread Hellenistic culture throughout the world; the Greeks were “chosen” by the gods to achieve this task. The Jews also believed that they have a chosen divine destiny to spread ethical monotheism throughout the world. Obviously, the Greeks were very curious about the Jews and their traditions. A new translation of their works made a lot of sense.

Practical Reasons for Writing the Septuagint

For the Jews who lived in Alexandria, Greek was for these Jews much like what English is today for American Jews, the “lingua franca.” Greek was the language of commerce which made communication in the diplomatic and business world possible. Jewish masses forgot how to speak in Hebrew.

Recognizing that without a translation of the Torah in Greek, the Alexandrian Jewish community would further assimilate, something had to be done.  A Greek translation would make the Torah service at the synagogue more meaningful and relevant. With such a translation, the Alexandrian Jews now had a key to understanding their own religious heritage. The Septuagint also served as a guide for everyday instructional usage. Continue reading “The Origin of the World’s First Biblical Translation: The Septuagint”

Is it time to revise “The Seven Deadly Sins” for the 21st century?

This afternoon, I concluded my winter lecture series on “The Seven Deadly Sins–A Comparative Study” at St. Ambrose University. This posting is a brief summary of some of the salient points we discussed during our last session.

The Vatican posted the following list of modern sins that characterize our era’s for evil.

(1) genetic modification, (2) human experimentation (3) polluting the environment (4) social injustice (5) causing poverty (6) financial gluttony (7) taking drugs.

A Brief Analysis of the Vatican’s List

It is interesting to note that in the original seven, each of the sins were attitudinal in nature; the  fact that the Vatican switched from an attitudinal model to a behavioral model is pretty interesting–even somewhat Judaic–for Jewish moralists have long viewed sin in behavioral terms. Take coveting for example, for the biblical proscription, “You shall not covet” does not pertain merely to the feeling of coveting, but acting upon the impulse that covets. Two of the best examples is the story of David and Bathsheba and when King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard. In both of these cases, the end result was deadly for the victim whose property was coveted.

Yet, make no mistake, the attitudinal sins championed by some Jewish moralists–especially according to the anonymous author of the Orchot HaTsadikim (ca. 15th century)–believe (like the Christian moralists of his time) that the attitudinal sins are by far more serious because they provide the seeds that give rise to evil behavior.

Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican body which oversees confessions and plenary indulgences, said that “new sins which have appeared on the horizon of humanity as a corollary of the unstoppable process of globalisation.” Whereas sin in the past was thought of as being an individual matter, it now had “social resonance.” “You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbor’s wife, but also by ruining the environment, carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos,” he said. Bishop Girotti said that mortal sins also included taking or dealing in drugs, and social injustice which caused poverty or “the excessive accumulation of wealth by a few.” [1]

A Catholic Critique of the New Deadly Sins

Some Catholic scholars expressed some disappointment with the new list of sins. One pundit writes:

If one believes that these transgressions did not exist in feudal Europe when the power of the Vatican was at its zenith, then one is turning a blind eye to history. Environment pollution and taking drugs are punishable by law therefore need not be left to Divine retribution. To call genetic modification and human experimentation “sins” is myopic. It is a step back to the ages when Galileo was tried for heresy and had his eyes put out. If the new seven deadly sins are baffling, then the reasons for declaring them are even more so. If the Catholic Church wants to stem its dwindling flock, then it has to take a more inclusive approach to diversity rather than brand diversity as heresy. It needs to take a leaf out of Hinduism in this regard. Continue reading “Is it time to revise “The Seven Deadly Sins” for the 21st century?”

From Haroses to Neurosis — A Freudian View on the new Haredi “Personal Mechitza”

Who says religious people aren’t funny? Where is Jay Leno when you need him?

From the rabbinic savants who introduced separate sidewalks, segregated buses, and separate shopping hours for men and women in Israel, their rabbis are now encouraging Haredi airline passengers to hang a new type of mechitza – a halachic barrier to separate the sexes – around the top of their airplane seats, to shield their eyes from immodest clad female neighbors and in-flight movies. [1] From what I have read in the newspapers, there is a considerable marketing campaign to encourage the Haredi community to purchase the new and improved–Traveler Mechitza.

The designer of this new device, says that the Velcro and nylon mechitzah goes around the head and is mostly in front of the passenger’s face, protruding only a little to the sides. Look out Calvin Klein, there’s a new fashion designer in town!

By the way, I think I just found my new Purim costume!

I can just see the folks of Hamastan or the Taliban saying to themselves, “Why didn’t we think of that first?” Some psychologists might refer to it as either “Haredi envy,” or “Taliban envy,” as both of these fanatical groups compete in the never-ending game of, “I Am More Frum Than You!” One friend of mine wrote, “That’s why I call them the Tallitban. It’s exactly the same monstrous pathology. This reminds me of a saying I once heard from  one of my favorite religious teachers, “Mystics recognize each other. Fundamentalists see only themselves and sin.”

Personally, I think the Haredim are obsessed with sex, 24/7. Maybe the rest of the human race is also obsessed with sex, but the majority of our planet doesn’t seem to have a problem with at least admitting it–unlike the Haredim or the Taliban. Frankly, I am surprised the Haredim are not demanding separate planes with Haredi stewards (Oops, I almost said “stewardesses’) walking down the aisles praying.

We must wonder why did it take over 2000 years for our great rabbis to come up with a new device to keep the sexes apart?

Most modern psychologists and therapists probably are not deeply in love with Freudian psychology, but I have a pretty healthy respect for Freud’s view of religion as an obsessional type of neurosis. Unlike Jung, Frankl, Rodgers, Fromm, and others who saw religions as serving a potentially positive function in society and in the life of the individual, Freud only concerned himself with the pathological aspects of religion that constricts rather than liberates the human spirit from its shackles.

Continue reading “From Haroses to Neurosis — A Freudian View on the new Haredi “Personal Mechitza””