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.

===================

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?”

The Odyssey of a Prodigal Son

I personally know of many prodigal sons and daughters of Lubavitch, people who left the famous Hasidic movement for a variety of reasons.  Their stories are all too familiar to me. Some became disillusioned with its values and philosophy; others could no longer reconcile the contradictions of a modern vs. pre-modern lifestyle. In each of these personal narratives,  it is always the individual who redefines his or her own identity.

For members of any closed society, it is typically the community that does the defining.  To leave this kind of world within a world takes a virtual Kierkegaardian leap of faith– into the realm of the unknown, where one undergoes a new kind of genesis. Or perhaps to use a more platonic metaphor, leaving Lubavitch is a lot like the man who left his fellow prisoners in the cave, only to discover a  different kind of reality (The Republic, Book 7). Yes, life  is a series of miniature rebirths. Here is a story about one man’s rebirth that I think many of you will find fascinating.

Shmarya (Scott) Rosenberg  is the owner of the Failedmessiah website. Shmarya’s spiritual journey is a remarkable one. He, like many of us, has taken the road less traveled.  His story began when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe refused to get involved with the rescue of  Ethiopian Jews. The Rebbe’s refusal ultimately resulted in Shmarya’s exodus from Lubavitch.

In a personal letter he received from the Rebbe to Shmarya, the Rebbe wrote that “spiritually” rescuing American Jews from assimilation was an  urgent matter that took precedence over rescuing the “Jewish” community of Ethiopia. Rabbi Schneerson probably felt that  saving American Jews was a matter of triage. However, most of the other great rabbis of that era like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rav Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, supported the rescue efforts regardless of the practical Halachic doubts some of them  had concerning the “Jewishness” of the Ethiopian Jews. Even as of today, Lubavitch still refuses to have any kind of outreach with Ethiopian Jews, despite the fact they underwent Orthodox conversions in Israel.

It is difficult to blame Shmarya for his animus against the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, but his alienation from the movement has led him to a renewed sense of personal and spiritual discovery. Shmarya has long since  become a voice of Jewish conscience. He routinely holds the Orthodox world accountable for its countless misdeeds and foibles.

Much in the spirit of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, Shmarya reveals the Monty Python-esque characteristics of nearly all the great Orthodox rabbis of our present generation, and most of these anecdotes are outrageous. After reading his blog, one gets the inescapable feeling that the age of Gedolim (authentic rabbinic scholars who embody the best qualities of Judaism) has become either of thing of the past, or is an endangered species.

In a century or two from now, future generations will find this material historically valuable; students will read Failedmessiah much like we now study the 17th century diaries  of Samuel Pepys from London. Anyone interested, may want to read Shmarya’s critique of Rabbi Shafran, who recently blamed the Haiti earthquake on Jewish cartoonists who dared to castigate Orthodox outreach programs. His stories  on the  “holy Kabbalists” usually depict them as con-artists, who prey (pun intended) upon the gullible public. For the most part, Shmarya exposes a ruthlessness that exists within the Lubavitcher organization itself which its supporters never see. Frankly, Chabad can gain great wisdom from his criticisms.

To his credit, the Failedmessiah has literally forced the entire Orthodox world to become more circumspect and responsible with its members’ group behavior. Without his website, it is doubtful whether the yeshiva world would ever have taken ownership of the pedophilia cases that exist within their rank and file members and spiritual leadership. Really now, shouldn’t  the Orthodox members police their communities for everyone’s sake?

Historically, such issues have always plagued Jewish traditional observant communities. Prior to the Internet and blogging, these scandals would have most certainly been swept under the rug, away from public scrutiny. However, thanks to Failedmessiah and other bloggers that he has inspired, a conspiracy of silence is no longer possible.

Sigmund Freud was one of the first modern secular Jewish thinkers to see the profound spiritual and ethical disconnect of  the “religious” people of his era. He realized that it is far easier to worship God through mechanical ritual than it is to behave as an ethical human being. Freud subsequently viewed religion as a neurosis–and probably for good reason. When one observes the kind of shenanigans the Orthodox in Israel perpetuate daily in Israel, it is obvious that we do a pretty good job creating our own brand of anti-Semitism without the help of David Duke and his ilk. Shmarya Rosenberg provides an invaluable service for the Jewish community by forcing all of us to examine our shadow side. Continue reading “The Odyssey of a Prodigal Son”

Modern Orthodoxy at the Crossroads . . .

Gender roles continue to challenge the Orthodox world of Haredi Judaism in Israel–and elsewhere in the world today even now as women continue to be arrested for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall.

A  Primer on the History of Torah Reading

The idea of women’s aliyot (being called to say a blessing over the Torah) continues to pit the world of the past with the world of the present. I guess we could call it , “The Halachic War of the Worlds.”  That being said, one ought to ask, “Have rabbis always been so rigid?” The answer might surprise you—no! One Talmudic discussion reads, “Our rabbis taught: all are qualified to be among the seven (who read the Torah)–even a minor and a woman, but the Sages said that a woman should not read because of the esteem of the congregation (kevod ha-zibbur).” [1]

How are we to understand the concept of “communal respect”? We will examine a couple of other  interpretive possibilities.

(1) In ancient times each person called up to the Torah, had to also read the section of the Torah relevant to his her aliya. This of course differs from what we see in most synagogues today. Nowadays, it is usually customary for one individual to read the Torah for the entire congregation. Usually, it is the rabbi or the cantor that has this duty since it requires considerable skill.

Now in ancient days, most communities were illiterate. If a woman came from a wealthy home and was privileged to have an education, she could read the Torah for herself. However, since many males were incapable of reading, the woman’s skill made the men feel inferior. The issue became all the more acute if the men who protested happened to be the individuals who took the greatest amount of economic responsibility in running the synagogue. Simply put, money talks. Once these wealthy men made a ruckus in the synagogue, the Sages decided not to call women up to the Torah anymore in the interest of peace.  It had nothing to do with whether a woman was “ritually impure,” for even men were never required to maintain ritual purity. Some Hassidic savants argued that the words of Torah are beyond impurity and can never become ritually impure through human touch.

(2) On the other hand, it is possible that the Sages feared the possibility of sexual distraction. Maybe a lovely woman with a beautiful voice might have distracted the men to the point where they were no longer focusing on the Torah reading, but instead chose to focus on the woman reading from the Torah! This problem may have influenced the Sages to equate a woman’s voice with “nakedness,” thus becoming a sexual transgression (Ber. 24a).Those old rabbis always seemed to think a lot about sex.  Once the women were forced to stay behind the partition, the role of female participation became a non-issue and has remained so for many centuries. Continue reading “Modern Orthodoxy at the Crossroads . . .”

Rabbinic Altered States of Consciousness?

The subject of demonology has fascinated me ever since I first began reading scary stories as a child. In our culture today, the belief in demonic spirits continues to play a role in literature, movies, and religion. The recent stories about Rabbi Batzri and his exorcisms show that in Haredi and Hassidic communities, the belief in demonic possession is still very much alive and well–irregardless whether such malevolent entities exist or not.

In the world of the psyche, the imagination runs amok in our unconscious and conscious minds. Our dreams bear witness to this mysterious reality where the line between the real and the unreal seem to conflate. The Talmud actually has a pretty sophisticated treatment of demons. In one of the more remarkable passages of the Talmud, we find:

Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the Mazikin [the “damagers”]

Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field.

R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left and ten thousand on his right (Psalm 91:7).

Raba says: The crushing in the Kallah lectures comes from them.  Fatigue in the knees comes from them. The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them. The bruising of the feet comes from them. If one wants to discover them,  let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a rooster. If one wishes to see them, let him take the placenta of a black she-cat that is the offspring of a black she-cat that is the first-born of a first-born, let him roast it the placenta in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him put some into his eye, and he will see them. Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they the demons should not steal it from him. Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm.

R. Bibi b. Abaye did so,  saw them and came to harm. The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered.[1]

Most of you reading this probably think some of the rabbis may have been taking hallucinatory drugs. This is one interpretation we cannot rule out. As we suggested above, the rabbis might have been describing frightening dreams or nightmares they experienced. We do not really know the original context that fueled these interesting discussions. In the spirit of open-minded discussion, it pays not to rush and invalidate points of view that we make find disagreeable.  Continue reading “Rabbinic Altered States of Consciousness?”

Con-Versing with Jewish Mysticism: Maimonides’ Understanding of the Mezuzah’s Purpose

Philosopher Moses Maimonides believed that superstition undermines Judaism as a rational belief system.  For him, the purpose of mezuzah has nothing to do with protection, but rather, serves as a didactic device that teaches us about the importance of making ethical monotheism a part of our daily lives. There can be no doubt that Maimonides would have considered the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mitzvah campaign of promoting the mezuzah as well-meaning, but theologically foolish–and perhaps even pagan-esque, since it devalues the purpose of God’s commandments.

The Psychology of Amulets

Maimonides contrasts religion and superstition in his discussion about using incantations to heal a wound:

“Anyone who whispers a incantation over a wound and reads a verse from the Torah, or one who recites a biblical verse over a child so he won’t be frightened, or one who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over an infant to enable him to sleep, are not only included in the category of sorcerers and charmers, but are included among those who repudiate the Torah. They use the words of the Torah as a physical cure, whereas they are exclusively a cure for the soul, as it is written, ‘they will be life to your soul.’ On the other hand, one who is enjoying good health is permitted to recite biblical verses, or a psalm, that he may be shielded and saved from affliction and damage by virtue of the reading.” [1]

He further states:  The ancient Sages said, “Whoever has tefillin on his head and arm, tsitsit on his garment, and a mezuzah on his door can rest assure that he will not sin,” for he has many reminders, and these are the “angels” who will save him from sinning, as it is said, “The angel of the LORD, who encamps with them, delivers all who fear God” [Ps. 34:8].” For Maimonides, the rituals of Judaism serve one purpose only: to teach the worshiper how to become mindful of God’s commandments. [2]

For Maimonides, the power of the mezuzah, tefillin (phylacteries), or other ritual items rests in their ability to convey the meaning of faith to its faith community. They are not magical amulets, nor do they have holiness in and by themselves.  Maimonides took a dim view of men who, in his generation, claimed to use God’s Names for theurgical (magical) purposes. In referring to the writers and hucksters  of magical healing amulets, he writes: “Do not let occur to your mind the vain imaginings of the writers of amulets or names you may hear from them or what you may find in their stupid books, names they have invented and… they think work miracles. All these are stories that it is not seemly for a perfect man to listen to, much less to believe.” [3]

Much in the same spirit as Maimonides, Josephus, (c. 37-100 C.E.) also attests to antiquity of the mezuzah,  and speaks of it as well-established custom. Inscribed with passages of the Torah which emphasize the unity of God, His providence, and the resulting duty of man toward Him, the mezuzah is an emblematic representation of Israel’s belief and practice. Thus Josephus says in speaking of the mezuzah (l.c.): “The greatest benefits of God are to be written on the doors . . . in order that His benevolent providence may be made known everywhere” [4].

The Nature of a Fetish

There is an interesting anthropological term that may shed some light on our discussion–the fetish. According to the ethnology of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term “fetishism” was used to describe the veneration of certain objects (rocks, trees, teeth, and so on ) that were thought to possess spirits or to have special powers. Such veneration is said to be one of the defining qualities of the so-called tribal societies.

Other thinkers argue that the “fetish,” refers to  “irrational” modes of conduct in our own society. Thus, for example, I. Kant (1724–1804) said that a fetish is any form of worship that consists essentially not of moral principles but of mere rules of faith. We might add that any faith can become a fetish when its participants merely follow the rituals without ever contemplating the deeper meaning of what they are doing.

Even the Tablets Can Become a Fetish

Like Maimonides before him, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (ca. early 20th century) recognized the dangers in transforming Jewish ritual objects into a fetish.  The writer raises an important question: How could Moses destroy  the Ten Commandments? Surely if one destroyed a Torah scroll, such an act would be considered sacrilege; how much more so with the Tablets, since the Tablets were written by God Himself!?  Rabbi Meir Simcha explains in his Torah Commentary:

“Torah and faith are the main aspects of the Jewish faith and all its sanctities, e.g., Eretz Yisrael (“the Land of Israel”), Jerusalem—are  only a means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. Do not think that the sanctuary and the Temple are holy objects in their own right. Far be it! God dwells among His people and if they were like Adam who violated the covenant, all their sanctity is removed and they become as profane objects. . . . Moreover, even the Tablets which were written by God Himself, are not holy per se, but are so only because of you–if you observe them. When the Israelites acted disgracefully under the bridal canopy by consorting with the Golden Calf,  the Tablets became as mere pottery. By themselves, they have no sanctity. The Tablets become holy only if it inspires a religious life suffused with ethical behavior.  There is nothing in this world that is holy except for God. Nothing in Creation is holy in itself; through Torah, Creation becomes sanctified and made holy. I wish these words would be written on the walls of every synagogue!” [5] Continue reading “Con-Versing with Jewish Mysticism: Maimonides’ Understanding of the Mezuzah’s Purpose”

Is the Mezuzah an Amulet?

The ancients believe that an amulet is supposedly charged with magical power that can ward off misadventure, disease, or the assaults of malign beings–whether demonic or human. A talisman is an object similarly used to enhance a person’s potentialities and fortunes. Amulets and talismans are two sides of the same coin. The former are designed to repels evil; the latter, to attracts blessing and prosperity. Historically, the mezuzah combines both features in rabbinic folklore and history.

The Mezuzah as an Amulet

Since Late Antiquity, our ancestors believed in mezuzah’s ability to supernaturally protect a Jew no matter where he or she happens to be.  The mezuzah combines both the aspects of the amulet and talisman that we mentioned above. In one well-known Talmudic passage, we discover that some of the Sages believed that the biblical promise of a long life depends upon the observance of the mezuzah. As a proof text, the rabbis explain the verse  “And you shall teach them your children … and you shalt write them upon the door posts of your house (mezuzot) … that your days may be multiplied and the days of your children” as a conditional promise. That is to say, if someone wants to enjoy a long life, then he had better be scrupulous in his observance of the mezuzah.[2]

In another Talmudic passage, the King Artaban of Parthea one day sent a gift to Rabbi Judah.  The gift was an exquisite and quite expensive pearl.  The king’s only request was that the rabbi send a gift in return that was of equal value.  Rabbi Judah sent the king a mezuzah. Artaban was displeased with the gift and came to confront the rabbi.  “What is this?  I sent you a priceless gift and you return this trifle?” The rabbi said, “Both objects are valuable, but they are very different.  You sent me something that I have to guard, while I sent you something that will guard you.” [3]

Pagans Once Wore Phylacteries

As a side note, the meaning of the original Greek term φυλακτήριον ( “phylacteries”) a preservative or safeguard, an amulet: (cf. Demosthenes, p. 71, 24; Dioscorides (ca. 100 C.E.) 5, 158f (159f), and appears often in the writings of Plutarch.  The ancient pagans believed that the wearing of phylacteries (as seen in some of the pictures of the goddess Ishtar), helped keep the evil spirits away. In all likelihood, ancient Jews were influenced by these pagan practices but later came to redefine their religious significance in light of Judaism’s sacred teachings. Archaeologists discovered these boxes in the caves of Murabbaat, which further confirms literary evidence of the ritual practice existing sometime in the century preceding the Common Era. Whether the members of Qumran actually wore such things is by no means clear. It is possible certain Pharisees who joined this sect, brought them with them to Qumran.

Fortunately, no Jew calls tefillin “phylacteries” today–but in the days when Jews spoke Greek, they called tefillin by a different name.

The Ancients Lived in a Demon Haunted World

The  ancients believed that they lived in a demon-haunted world. They probably had good reasons to do so. The average human lifespan was dramatically less than what we now enjoy. Infant mortality probably resembled what it presently in the Third World countries. Yes, the world was  a much more of a dangerous place. The belief in demons seemed only natural and even logically plausible to the pre-modern mind. Despite the advancements made in science and technology, we often find ourselves unconsciously believing in the protective power of these ancient tools. If for nothing else, they serve as psychological props for people undergoing psychological difficulties in their lives. Seeing a mezuzah on a door offers a feeling of protection.

Given what the ancients had to work with, it is only fitting we judge charitably when evaluating their belief systems. However, we have every right to expect more from our modern rabbinic scholars–especially in light of Jewish rational thought as championed by Maimonides and Gersonides (ca. 14th century). Even in the Israeli news media, rabbis boldly promote the use of the mezuzah as an amulet as though we are still living in the Dark Ages.[1] Continue reading “Is the Mezuzah an Amulet?”

Beyond the Five-Sensory Zone of Consciousness

Redefining the role of prayer in a modern age is  one  of modern Judaism’s greatest challenges. This is true not only of Judaism, but of all religion as well. I see prayer primarily in existential terms.

Prayer is rooted in the conviction that there is more to human life and consciousness than just the five-sensory world we experience. Our hunger and yearning the meaning of the universe and our lives  prompts us to move from the ordinary to a reality that is extraordinary and profound. It is precisely when this impulse is frustrated, we feel alienated and apart from the deepest spiritual dimension of our lives. Human loneliness can be transcended if we can discover the Ultimate that is not only Present within the world, but beyond it as well. Sufi tales, like the Hassidic stories, touch upon the universal truths that bind us together.

Once somebody dared the Sufi master Halqavi to go before the presence of a certain king and say a disparaging remark that would most likely cost him his life.  Without hesitation, he accepted the challenge. As soon as he was shown the throne-room, the king–a capricious character said, “Since you are reputed to be so clever, for my amusement, to say something which nobody who is  present can say.” Once again, without the slightest pause, the Sufi said, “I am not in Your Presence.”

This Sufi story has its parallels in the old Midrashic stories depicting the ever-closeness of God. When we pray, we become aware that we are  standing in the Presence of God, before Whom, our tradition says, “There is no place that is void of the Divine Presence.”

It is funny how our language is couched in the geometry of time and space. Sometimes we imagine that God is “out there,” when we pray “to” God. However, in truth,  our prayers do not have to travel through some ethereal space to God.  God’s Presence is much more non-localized then we ever imagined possible. He is here at this moment and not here at the same time — Hidden but yet revealed — all at the same time. Prayer awakens within us a sense of unity we feel in the heart of our soul.

Although God transcends the world, He infuses it with soul and existence. He is paradoxically close and yet infinitely distant. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is not perceivable even when His Presence is encountered, yet He is present even when His absence is most felt. He is inherent in the world and but not contained in it; He embraces it and nevertheless is not confined by it. God’s Presence surrounds us in ways we can never fully know or understand.

Now, thus far I have used masculine imagery to explain God’s relationship to the world. Let’s use  feminine metaphors to convey the same truth, which should present to the reader an altogether different perspective.

Although God transcends the world, She infuses it with soul and existence. She is paradoxically close and yet infinitely distant. She is closer to us than we are to ourselves. She is not perceivable even when Her Presence is encountered, yet She is present even when Her absence is most felt. She is inherent in the world and but not contained in it; She embraces it and nevertheless is not confined by it. Her Presence surrounds us in ways we can never fully know or understand.

The time has finally come for us to realize that our concepts of God are invariably mediated through human language, which reveals concepts much like a prism refracts light. We cannot help but conceive of God through our unique cognitive and cultural lens. The Zohar certainly intimates this truth in one of its more profound statements concerning the gender inclusiveness of the Divine,“High mysteries are revealed in these two verses ‘Male and Female He created them’ (Gen. 1:27) to make known the Glory on high, the mystery of faith, out of this mystery, Adam was created. . . . Any image that does not embrace male and female is not a high and true image.”[1]


Notes:


[1] Daniel Matt, Zohar, The Book of Enlightenment (Philadelphia: Paulist Press, 1983), 55.