Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 1)

Hello everyone,

I thought it would be nice to focus on a topic that I think many of us struggle with–prayer. Here are a few of my meditations.

In our modern age, it is not uncommon for people to think of traditional prayer as childish, if not absurd. Many years ago, I came across an interesting theological objection to the enterprise of petitionary  prayer: If God is allegedly “Omniscient,” then surely God knows what we mortals need, without having us to remind Him!” The question gets even more complex. The individual of the 21st century generally believes more in the physics of natural law than the metaphysics of mysticism.

In a universe governed by natural law, is asking God to alter the laws of physics even appropriate? To petition God in prayer, or to suggest that God can somehow be persuaded to “change His mind,” or show “sympathy” and “mercy” is, from a strict Maimonidean perspective, theologically pointless—even ridiculous. Following Maimonides’ attitude on this subject, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Lord Jakobovits plainly admits:

“What purpose can be served by formulating our pleas to God? Does the all-knowing God, who knows our needs better than we do, require their articulation of what we feel in our hearts? Still more difficult theologically, how can we hope by prayer to change His will? Our very belief in the efficacy of our petitions would seem to challenge God’s immutability, and even questions His justice, since we should assume that whatever fate He decrees for man is essentially just; why, therefore, do we seek to reverse it?…  But such questions are based on a false, indeed pagan, understanding of prayer as a means of pacifying and propitiating the deity and thus of earning its favors. It was against these perverse notions that the Hebrew Prophets directed their denunciations so fiercely when they fulminated against the heathen form of sacrifices, the original form of worship later replaced by prayer. Like sacrifices, prayer is intended to change man not God. Its purpose is to cultivate a contrite heart, to promote feelings of humility and inadequacy in man, whilst encouraging reliance on Divine assistance. Through prayer, the worshiper becomes chastened, gains moral strength and intensifies the quest of spirituality, thereby turning into a person worthy of response to his pleas.” [1] Continue reading “Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 1)”

The Divine Indwelling of the Shekhinah

As I prepare myself for Shabbat, I enjoy using the time to commune with God. Usually, I imagine myself as a being surrounded by God’s light, the mystical light called, “Shekhinah,” “The Indwelling One.” Prayer is all about transparency; it is about being honest with one’s own soul and with God. Prayer is not so much about “speaking to God,” it is more about listening to God. In the silence of our being–the Shekhinah dwells and speaks. I often like to write down the words that I imagine Her saying to me. In moments of peaceful solace, comes a radiance where the Shekhinah speaks to the human heart–without words, without sound—but with a serene Presence.   The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that God speaks through the voice of conscience—and I think he is correct.

Note that I am speaking in anthropomorphic terms. God really doesn’t have a gender, I am merely using feminine imagery to prove the point that theological language about God is always mediated through culture.

When basking in Her Presence, all I perceive are images that flutter across the horizon of my mind. She speaks in the language of feeling, intuition, and conscience. One cannot help but perceive a luminescence in prayer. Continue reading “The Divine Indwelling of the Shekhinah”

When Haredim go drag

Whenever I celebrated Purim in Me’ah Sharim, the Haredi epicenter of Jerusalem, I always marveled at the costumes the Haaredim used to wear. Every year, the Haredim participate in cross-dressing. Haredim in drag. What a sight to behold. Haredim and Hasidim literally let their hair down.

Any good Christian bible reader knows that cross-dressing is forbidden in the Torah. Men are forbidden to dress as women, since the proscription reads, “neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment, neither may a man wear a woman’s garment ” (Deut. 22:5).

The law aims to maintain gender distinctions, while preventing potentially licentious behavior.  Cross-dressing during Purim is nothing new in Halachic literature; pious Jews have been cross-dressing on this holiday for several centuries.

In the 16th century, somebody asked Rabbi Moshe Iserseles (a.k.a., “Rema”), whether cross-dressing on Purim was permitted or not. Rema cites two opinions, one says, “Yea!” while the other says, “Nay!” (and the cross-dresser says, “Hurray!”). Rema rules that it is permitted to follow the more lenient opinion. [1] Continue reading “When Haredim go drag”

The Hasidic origin of “Simcha Monica” formerly known as, “Santa Monica”

Some time ago,  I had a friendly discussion with Rabbi Yisrael Goldberg, a young Chabadnik who lives in Israel. In the course of our talk, he mentioned that in California, the late Rabbi Avraymo Levitanski   (a former teacher of mine) had recently died. Avraymo was a great man; he was a brilliant scholar as well and an exceptional human being. He was definitely one of the finest Chabadniks I have ever known. On a light note,  Yisrael told me how Avraymo always referred to Santa Monica as “Simcha Monica,” and San Diego, or, San Francisco as “S. Diego and S. Fransisco.” The name, “Simcha Monica” was a new designation I hadn’t heard before; Avraymo’s designation actually made me chuckle. Where did these ideas originate in the first place? If my memory serves me well, I believe the late Rebbe was fond of using these unusual designations.

By the way, “Simcha Monica” roughly means, “Monica is happy.” I am not sure whether this name was given during the time of the Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal, I suspect Monica Lewinsky is not too happy about that chapter of her life.  Actually, the real reason Monica is happy has nothing to do with Bill Clinton. Historically, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the ORIGINAL  Monica  (331 – 387 CE ), Monica was both the Algerian Christian saint and  mother of Augustine of Hippo, the greatest Christian theologian of Late Antiquity. Augustine, ex-lover and whore-monger extraordinaire, loved extolling his mother’s virtues in his Confessions.

No, I don’t think the Chabad rabbis are referring to St. Monica either.

If my sense of humor seems off-colored, it’s because God speaks to me in the language of humor and irony.  Let us return to our topic at hand. At first blush, it seemed there might be some scriptural support for this unusual practice among the Chabad rabbis. Consider two verses: “Give heed to all that I have told you. Never mention the name of any other god; it shall not be heard from your lips” (Exod. 23:13) and “There must be no foreign god among you; you must not worship an alien god” (Psa. 81:10).

Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

But then I started thinking; it seems that the Chabad rabbis are rather inconsistent because the names found in the Gregorian calendar are actually based on the names of pagan deities of antiquity. If  no other gods or goddesses are to be  mentioned, how can Chabad rabbis refer to the name of actual deities whenever they use a secular calendar or at least refer to it in their daily conversation? The inconsistencies ought to create some cognitive dissonance among the steadfast among the Chabad rabbis; maybe they will say in the privacy of their homes: Could it be that we are wrong?

Here are some examples:

May derives from the Roman fertility goddess named Maia.

April is traditionally identified with Venus. April  may possibly derive from Aprilis, the Etruscan Apru, which is also a diminutive of Aphrodite–the Greek goddess of beauty and fertility. The Latin verb aperire, “to open,”  and is related to the Greek name for spring  ἁνοιξις (opening),  the time of the year when spring begins bloom with flowers and trees.

June alludes to Juno, the Roman goddess who served as protector and special counselor of the state.

Indeed, several other examples can be mentioned, but I believe we have made our point perfectly clear. If the Chabad rabbis used Hebrew names for the months, that would make a lot more sense. Then again, even the Hebrew calendar refers to the Sumerian and Babylonian deity known as Tammuz, who is mentioned in biblical times (cf. Eze. 8:14).

Who exactly was Tammuz? He was the chief Sumerian deity, also known as Dumazi–the god of fertility, of vegetation and agriculture, of death and resurrection, and the patron of shepherds. Dumzai was both the son and consort of Ashtar (Inanna). In the Sumerian mythic pantheon, Tammuz represented the annual vegetation cycle of death during the heat of summer and the rebirth of life with the coming of the fall and spring rains, as mythically recounted in the Akkadian poem, “Inanna’s Descent into the Netherworld.”

When our ancestors went to Babylon, they adopted the Babylonian names of the months during the 70 year exile in Babylon, which also  included Tammuz!  The 17th of Tammuz is a special fast day in Jewish tradition. I suspect that the ancient Jews either viewed Tammuz much like we now view the days of the week.  If it didn’t historically bother our people in times of antiquity, then why should it bother us whether S. Monica is Santa Monica?

Continue reading “The Hasidic origin of “Simcha Monica” formerly known as, “Santa Monica””

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”

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”

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”

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”

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?”