Torah from Alexandria is now available on Amazon.com!

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe that the birth of a concept I had when I was about 18, has finally come to fruition! The rest of the series is moving at warp speed and Exodus will be coming out sometime in November or possibly December. It looks to be a longer work, perhaps the longest of the series.

Leviticus will be out around Purim and Numbers will be out in the early spring of 2015. By summer of 2015, Deuteronomy will be out as well.

For anyone who has ever studied the weekly parsha with Rashi, Ramban, or Ibn Ezra, you will discover a new but long forgotten Jewish exegete–Philo of Alexandria.

Philo has a unique way of making the simple meaning of the Torah come alive! Volume 1 of Torah from Alexandria has lots of notes and comparisons between Maimonides and Philo, not to mention many other unique insights long forgotten by Jewish tradition. Arguably, Philo could be considered one of the very first Torah commentators of the 1st century. If nothing else, he certainly composed the first philosophical exposition of the Torah.

Enjoy!

http://www.amazon.com/Torah-Alexandria-Biblical-Commentator-Volume/dp/0692291725/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1412303037&sr=8-3&keywords=Philo+of+Alexandria+2014

 

Book Review: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Brilliant Torah Commentary on Genesis

 

Chumash Mesoras Harav – Chumash with Commentary Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – Sefer Bereishis by Dr. Arnold Lustiger: OU Press and Ohr Publishing; First edition (2013) ISBN-10: 0989124606. Price: $38.24 Rating: 5*

As one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of his time, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (a.k.a. the “Rav”) frequently combined classical Talmudic concepts with insights drawn from the great secular thinkers of Western Tradition.  The ensuing synthesis of his thought makes his theological worldview existential and challenging to Jews of all denominations.

Unfortunately, in his lifetime, the Rav never wrote a systematical commentary on the Torah. However, Dr. Arnold Lustiger, surveyed the vast corpus of the Rav’s writings and put together one of the most remarkable Pentateuch commentaries I have ever read. The name of his magnum opus is entitled, Chumash Mesoras Harav – Chumash with Commentary Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – Sefer Bereishis.

This volume speaks in a single voice—a rarity when one considers how committees of scholars typically write most of  today’s contemporary expositions on the Torah.

Here are a few examples of how the Rav creates a timeless ethical lesson from the familiar stories of the Torah. A reader of a the Torah might wonder: Why does Noah later curse Ham so severely? R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains:

  • Ham wanted to find deficiencies and defects in his father, to reveal his nakedness to the entire world. According to Ham, it was incumbent to show the world that Noah was in fact not as righteous as his reputation might have suggested. Despite the fact that the Torah itself testifies that Noah walked with God (6:9), Ham was nevertheless interested in demonstrating that this was not the case, that Noah was hypocritical. . . [as if to say] ‘Look at Noah, the vaunted savior of the world as he wallows in a drunken stupor . . .’ One must remember that Noah had experienced an extraordinarily difficult time, responsible for the tempest-tossed ark and all its inhabitants while the outside world was being destroyed. After his travail, he drank a little too much wine. It was in Noah’s interest that this incident be forgotten, that his shame not be publicized. The Torah attests that Shem and Japhet did not see their father’s nakedness. Why didn’t they see what Ham saw? Because they, in contrast to Ham, did not want to reveal Noah’s impetuous mistake.”[1]

In another well-known passage in the story of the Fall, God informs Eve that her husband shall exert authority over her (Gen. 3:16).

  • The wondrous personal confrontation of Adam and Eve is turned into an ugly attempt at depersonalization. Adam of today wants to appear as master-hero and to subject Eve to his rule and dominion, be it ideological, religious, economic, or political. The Divine curse addressed to Eve after she sinned, and he shall rule over you, has found fulfillment in our modern society. The warm personal relationship between two individuals has been supplanted by a formal subject-object relationship, which manifests itself in a quest for power and supremacy. [2]

I would add that the subjection of women described by the Rav is not necessarily a new phenomenon as the Rav thought it was. Men have been using the biblical text to justify the institution of patriarchy for thousands of years. The exploitation of women in much of the Islamic and Ultra-Orthodox world today reflects a social reality that derives its inspiration from Genesis.

While most married Orthodox women cover their hair, the Rav’s wife did not. The Rav respected his wife’s choice to embrace a post-Genesis social reality where women would never have to show their inferior social status ever again.

After Abram’s debacle in Egypt, the Rav explains why Abram returned to the place where he had dedicated his original altar (Gen. 13:4).  The Rav explains:

Re-Paganizing Phylacteries and Mezuzah: An Example of Retrogressive Religion

 

Rabbi Kamin’s interesting article on the subject of Halloween reminded me of many of my own childhood experiences.

Is Halloween “permitted”? Is the children’s ritual of “Trick and Treating,” considered forbidden because it emulates the practices of the non-Jewish world?

Many years ago, a learned colleague of my from Yeshiva University once mentioned to his Young Israel congregation in Binghamton, NY, something that I have never forgotten. He claimed to have come across an Italian responsa dating back to the 17th century that claimed that the ritual had no religious significance whatsoever, and he concluded that there was nothing Halachically forbidden for Jewish children to dress up and collect candies on the night of Halloween.

Unfortunately, I have never been able to locate the source of this mysterious responsa. I have attempted many times to look it up in the Bar Illan University database, but with no success. However, the logic of the responsa makes sense to me. Rabbinic scholars have also pointed out the pagan roots of Halloween, which has its roots

Many Jews seem to forget that many practices in Jewish tradition had their origins in pagan culture and beliefs. For example, the practice of wearing tefillon (not to be confused with Teflon) originated in the pagan world of Babylonian magic. In one issue of the Bible and Review Magazine, the author showed a picture of a Babylonian prostitute wearing golden phylacteries! The word “tefillin” is better known in English as “phylacteries,” which derives from the Greek word φυλακτήριον (phylaktērion), meaning “defenses,” as in charms and amulets.

One late 19th century scholar correctly noted:

  • [Among the Jews] It was customary to tie certain kinds of phylacteries into a knot. Reference to this ancient practice is found in certain Assyrian talismans, now in the British Museum. Following is a translation of one of them: “Hea says: ‘Go, my son! take a woman’s kerchief, bind it round thy right hand; loose it from the left hand. Knot it with seven knots; do so twice. Sprinkle it with bright wine; bind it round the head of the sick man. Bind it round his hands and feet, like manacles and fetters; sit down on his bed; sprinkle water over him. He shall hear the voice of Hea. Darkness shall protect him, and Marduk, eldest son of Heaven, shall find him a happy habitation.'”[1]

The famous Assyriologist A. H. Sayce (1846-1933) cites another reference that may explain why Jews wind the tefillin straps seven times:

  • Even medical science, however, was invaded by superstition. In place of trying the doctor’s prescription, a patient often had the choice allowed him of having recourse to charms and exorcisms. Thus the medical work itself permits him to ‘place an incantation on the big toe of the left foot and cause it to remain’ there, the incantation being as follows: ‘O wind, my mother, wind, wind, the handmaid of the gods art thou; O wind among the storm-birds; yea, the water dost thou make stream down, and with the gods thy brothers liftest up the glory of thy wisdom.’ At other times a witch or sorceress was called in, and told to ‘ bind a cord twice seven times, binding it on the sick man’s neck and on his feet like fetters, and while he lies in his bed to pour pure water over him.’ Instead of the knotted cord [121] verses from a sacred book might be employed, just as phylacteries were, and still are, among the Jews. Thus we read: ‘In the night-time let a verse from a good tablet be placed on the head of the sick man in bed.’ The word translated ‘verse’ is masal, the Hebrew mashal, which literally signifies a ‘proverb’ or ‘parable.’ It is curious to find the witch by the side of the wizard in Babylonia. ‘The wise woman,’ however, was held in great repute there, and just as the witches of Europe were supposed to fly through the air on a broomstick so it was believed that the witches of Babylonia could perform the same feat with the help of a wooden staff.

Historians of ancient Near Eastern culture and religion have taught us much about the practice of phylacteries among the Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations. In the marketplace of ideals, every culture has influenced its neighboring culture and religion. The ancient peoples of Egypt also were phylacteries as protective symbols of the deity. Cultures around the world used phylacteries for a variety of magical purposes.

So, what does all of this prove? Nobody has ever lived in a cultural vacuum. Subsequent Jewish tradition managed to detach the pagan roots of this custom. Maimonides heaps criticism upon anyone who thinks the mezuzah and tefillin are designed to ward off evil spirits. In a rationalistic manner, he writes:

  • It is a common custom to write [God’s name,] Shaddai, on the outside of a mezuzah opposite the empty space left between the two passages. There is no difficulty in this, since [the addition is made] outside. Those, however, who write the names of angels, other sacred names, verses, or forms, on the inside [of a mezuzah] are among those who do not have a portion in the world to come. Not only do these fools nullify the mitzvah, but furthermore, they make from a great mitzvah [which reflects] the unity of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, the love of Him, and the service of Him, a talisman for their own benefit. They, in their foolish conception, think that this will help them regarding the vanities of the world. [3]

Elsewhere he adds:

  • A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah, who recites a verse over a child so that he will not become scared, or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is considered to be a soothsayer or one who cast spells. Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah, because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as [Proverbs 3:22] states: “And they shall be life for your soul.”[4]

Maimonides sums up the essential purpose of the ritual:

  • For as long as one wears them on his head and arm, he is obliged to be humble  and God-fearing; he will not allow himself to be carried away by laughter or idle talk, nor indulge in evil thoughts, but must turn his attention to the words of truth and justice.[5]

Toward the end of his life, Maimonides reaffirms the purpose of the mezuzah in his Guide for the Perplexed.  He notes that the express goal of this precept and others aims to instill a love for God that produces a God-consciousness that is permanent:

  • The precepts of the ninth class are those enumerated in the Section on Love. Their reason is obvious. The actions prescribed by them serve to remind us continually of God, and of our duty to fear and to love Him, to keep all His commandments, and to believe concerning God that which every religious person must believe. This class includes the laws of Prayer, Reading of Shema, Grace, and duties connected with these, Blessing of the priests, Tefillin, Mezuzah, Zizit, acquiring a scroll of the Law, and reading in it at certain times. The performance of all these precepts inculcates into our heart useful lessons. All this is clear, and a further explanation is superfluous, as being a mere repetition and nothing else.

Despite Maimonides’ attempt to redefine the precept of mezuzah and tefillin, subsequent rabbis like R. Menachem Mendel Schnersohn (a.k.a. Lubavitcher Rebbe) did his best to restore the precepts of tefillin and mezuzah as modern day talismans and amulets for the modern era.

Throughout his lengthy career as the leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schnersohn always instructed his followers to check their tefillin and mezuzot when they were ill or had any number of problems in their lives. Schnersohn’s followers believed that hundreds and thousands of Israeli soldiers’ lives were saved due to the tefillin campaign the Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated during the six-day war. This brought protection and salvation to the soldiers.  The Rebbe’s theological position became internationally known shortly after the terrorist attack of the northern town of Ma’alot on May 15st, 1974. The massacre of seventeen children was due to the fact the school building did not have any “kosher” mezuzahs. Continue reading “Re-Paganizing Phylacteries and Mezuzah: An Example of Retrogressive Religion”

The Castration Complex and the Halachic Mind

At one of my classes, some student asked a pretty interesting question: In Orthodox Judaism, can a woman perform brit milah (ritual circumcision)?

A Talmudic Discussion

There is a controversy in the Talmud  regarding this very issue between Daru bar Papa who cites in the name of Rav, and Rabbi Yochanan, who differs with Rav. Here is the substance of the argument. Daru b. Papa held that only someone who is obligated to observe the precept of circumcision can act as mohel (the one who performs the circumcision) for others, whereas R. Yochanan felt that a woman can act as a mohelet as indicated in the story of Tziporah (see Exod. 4:24‑26 for details). [1]

In practical terms, R. Yosef Caro, the Halacha follows R. Yochanan and a woman may act as mohelet [2] but Maimonides adds one stipulation: this only applies in the event that a male Mohel is not available, however, she is certainly permitted to do so as a religious duty.[3] However, Rema cites authorities who differ on this matter, and discourages a woman from doing acting in this capacity. In fact, the same passage in the halacha states there is no legal obligation on the part of the mother to even circumcise her child, for the duty falls upon the father.

To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single Haredi or Hasidic scholar living today who would literally endorse such a scandalous halachic position. Were such an opinion like this considered halachically normative, many young Jewish men would choose never to get circumcised.

By the way, some rabbinic commentaries assert that Tziporah merely started the act of circumcision on her son, but it was really Moses who completed it.

Adding a Psychological Perspective

From a psychological perspective, the reluctance to utilize a female mohelet may have something to do with Freud’s theory of the “castration complex.” Freud theorized that castration anxiety is based on a deep‑seated fear or anxiety in boys and men said to originate during the genital stage of sexual development; Freud asserts that a boy, when seeing a girl’s genitalia, falsely presumes that the girl had her penis removed probably as punishment for some misbehavior. The young boy then becomes anxious lest the same happen to him.[4]

It is worth noting that in some cultures, notably 19th century Europe, it was not unheard of for parents to threaten their children with castration, or to otherwise threaten their genitals, a phenomenon Freud documents several times.

Freud’s Castration Complex in Patriarchal Religious Societies

Freud’s controversial theory may also help clarify why some Halachic authorities are reluctant to go along with a female mohelet. Freud’s controversial theory may even help explain why male dominated societies like the Muslim and Haredi fundamentalists fear women’s liberation.

The fear that the patriarchal conceptions of masculinity being broken, may explain in part why there exists such an animus directed toward women in these closed societies. Basically, male dominated cultures are fearful of appearing “impotent,” and will do almost anything to promote the image of strength and virility–the trademark of mullahs and Haredi Gedolim (“Giants” ) alike (obviously, another example of Freudian wish-fulfillment, or the Nietzschean “will to power”).

The unraveling of the patriarchal order frightens men, perhaps on a very primordial level. Some scholars suggest that the ascendancy of the patriarchal religions of antiquity was because of their unconscious fear of the goddess religions. Whether this theory is correct or not, remains to be seen. However, it does fit a Freudian castration theory quite well. Continue reading “The Castration Complex and the Halachic Mind”

Deciphering the Symbolism of the Burnt Sacrifice

Whenever I teach a class on Leviticus, inevitably my students ask: “What is the psychology that inspires one to offer a sacrifice in general, and the burnt offering in particular? Why is the burnt offering mentioned first in the opening chapter of Leviticus?”

To the modern mindset, the mentality that believed in animal sacrifices must seem very strange. Even Maimonides viewed sacrifice as a form of retrogressive religion, tolerated in the Torah only because of the unsophisticated spiritual maturity of the Israelites.

Ironically enough, in Israel, today many students are studying Maimonides’ Laws of Sacrifice on the hope and expectation that Jews will at some point rebuild the Temple and offer the animal sacrifices just like their ancestors did in ancient times. Right . . .

I can just imagine Maimonides turning over in his grave. Maimonides would have undoubtedly have been surprised to see that we have evolved so little over the past 800+ years.

If you think the money changers made a killing when Jesus created a ruckus that chased them out (obviously, many other pilgrims must have felt the same way), just imagine what today’s Haredi rabbis would do today if he had a new Temple, replete with animal sacrifices.

No thanks, but no thanks.

An anthropological approach demands that we view a society’s customs through the eyes of those individuals who practiced animal sacrifice. There is a symbolism and significance that moderns can learn and may even apply in their own spiritual formation and development.

An analogy from human behavior might serve to answer this question. The giving of a gift, even between human beings, is not a purely external transaction but at the same time establishes a personal relation between giver and recipient. This would explain why bribery is morally offensive; by accepting a bribe  the judge becomes, at the very least, psychologically beholden to the litigant  (cf. Gen.32:14-19).

Many scholars in the field of anthropology note that archaic man often offered sacrifices as a bribe to the gods for personal enrichment; or to placate the gods from harming the worshiper. Think of it as a form of divine “protection money.” Personally, I think that in the story of Noah, Noah offers the olah shortly after the ark rests upon dry land. He brings the olah as bribe because he is uncertain whether God might change His mind and will eventually bring a new flood on Noah’s descendants.

Perhaps the most forceful antecedent to the Israelite practice of the burnt sacrifice is from Isaac’s near sacrifice of Isaac at Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22ff). Illustrating this eternal truth, God beckons Abraham to offer Isaac “as an olah.” More than any other incident in Abraham and Isaac’s life, the Akedah taught both of them how to be wholly given over to the Divine. Continue reading “Deciphering the Symbolism of the Burnt Sacrifice”

Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 2)

The Scarab’s Tale of  Death and Renewal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archetypal Reverberations

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

Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 1)

A Bridge Across Time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faces in the Clouds?

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

A Pre-Shabbat Meditation: “When Shift Happens . . .”

Byline: March 5th, 2010 — 5:45 PM

Life’s Unexpected Upheavals

With all the economic upheaval and uncertainty we face these days, it is important to not lose faith in the possibilities of today’s momentous hour. Nobody can afford the luxury of a negative thought—whether we like it or not, we are on a journey. Where exactly the road is taking us, is anyone’s guess, but the boundaries that have for decades been intact are in a state of movement. When I think about the earthquakes that have devastated Chili, Haiti, and other places in recent times, it reminds me of the economic, psychological and spiritual earthquakes that are forcing us to reinvent ourselves anew.

So far, this has been one real unusual year. It is amazing that life brings us on the threshold of new experiences whether we are ready for it or not.

Shift Happens

A professor once lectured how the borders of the various European nations were all in a state of shift after the cold war was over. The borders of the Czechs, the Hungarians, Russians were changing and so on; all changed. One fellow, with a wry sense of humor, offered the following double entendre: “I hear that even the Poles were shifting (e.g., the North and Southern Pole),” to which the professor quipped, “So what does all of this prove? It proves that “Shift happens.”

Attitude and Change

Indeed it does. Shift happens, whether we like it or not, one must learn to embrace the changes, because if there is any one constant in the universe, it is that change is—and  will forever be—inevitable–except when it comes  from pay phones and vending machines. The evangelical scholar Charles Swindol once said something I can actually agree with, “The remarkable thing we have is a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.”

The Eternal Flux of Creation

My favorite modern Sufi thinker, Hazrat Inayat Khan, wrote about the ontological nature of change–from the macro–to the micro:

“Life is full of inconstancy, at least so much of life as we can see. It is constant changing activity. A mystic calls life motion. It is constant motion in every aspect, both fine and gross, and in all its planes. Where there is motion there must be change and diversity. If there was no motion there would not have been creation and without change, there could not be diversity. The first two aspects of nature are male and female and the significance of them we can notice by keen observation in all objects and even plants, so that we may see the outcome of motion and diversity in life. Colors and sounds are due to rays of light and the changes of vibrations. The diversity of sounds come from uneven and invisible vibrations, while those of colors are even and visible. So that all that is visible and perceptible in form is constantly changing. It is nature which makes them intelligible and we recognize them as life  . . .”

Our attitude colors the way we experience change. A negative attitude can cripple us, a healthy and buoyant attitude can make all the difference in the world.

Yes, change is inevitable. The boundaries of our lives are always in a state of shift and change. Sometimes we have to touch the nothingness and void in order to experience the miracle of resurrection and renewal. All of this is doable, provided we have but the courage to embrace the impossible, and She [the Shekhinah] will do the rest.

The Three Princes of Serendip

Let me share with you a caveat.

In the medieval period there was a legend about the “Three Princes of Serendip”  (the ancient name for Ceylon). Three young noblemen take off to discover the hidden treasures of the world before them. Rarely did they find the treasures they were actually looking for. But as Providence would have it, these three princes constantly found themselves discovering other treasures that were equally great or even greater which they were not seeking.  In looking for one thing, they found something else.

It dawned on them, that this was one of life’s clever and wonderful tricks. When they realized this, they developed a whole new slant on life, and every day resulted in a new and thrilling experience. Continue reading “A Pre-Shabbat Meditation: “When Shift Happens . . .””

Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 4)

The 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart writes that true love must transcend selfish interests; love begins by being genuinely concerned with the welfare of the Other.

Whoever dwells in the goodness of his [God’s nature dwells in God’s love. Love, however, has no “Why.” If I had a friend and loved him because of all the good I wished came to me through him, I would not love my friend, but myself. I ought to love my friend for his own goodness and for his own virtue and for everything that he is in himself. . . .This is exactly the way it is with people who are in God’s love and who do not seek their own interest either in God or in themselves or in things of any kind. They must love God alone for his goodness and for the goodness of his nature and all the things he has in himself. This is the right kind of love.” [1]

Rav Dessler arrives at a similar conclusion. If a person’s love for God does not produce a loving or awaken a loving response, then the love we profess in our prayers to have for God is powerless and ineffectual–the love of God must translate into a love for life.  Anything less is a love of that is based upon receiving rather than giving. If the goal of prayer is to promote our capacity to take, then the ultimate concern of prayer is not the worship of God but the worship of the human ego and desire.

The only way we can ever come to the sincere realization that God is truly a dispenser of love and mercy, occurs when we emulate God by giving of ourselves towards others.  This is the attitude we must cultivate in Jewish life today–especially in the synagogue, for if we continue promoting a philosophy of consumption, we may die from spiritual obesity. Creating a spiritual community takes hard work, caring, sharing in creating ambiance of mutual support. Continue reading “Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 4)”

Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 3)

Now, there are several reasons why modern man finds it difficult to relate to such a personal view of God. Much of this problem is because of the technological and secularized world we have embraced since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, if not several centuries much earlier beginning with the Renaissance. Urban living has seriously impacted our collective and individual capacity to experience personal prayer in a variety of noticeable ways.

Prior to the 18th century, it was easier for the farmer to realize to that the success of his crop depended upon weather conditions that were completely out of his control. In a matter of minutes, a severe rainstorm or hail could cause damage to both crops and freshly cultivated soil. Hence, early man’s keen sense of vulnerability led the farmer to humbly rely on a Supreme Being who would look after him and his needs.

In contrast, the majority of the modern world has access to local supermarkets, purchasing whatever he needs. In the event of a shortage, assignment of blame and responsibility falls not on God, but on human agents, after all it is human beings who do all the sowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting. In short, our perceived sense of self-sufficiency makes us feel as though we are no longer dependent upon a benevolent Shepherd Who looks after our well-being.

For this reason and more, petitionary prayer reminds a worshiper just how depends upon God’s tender mercies.

Judaic wisdom teaches that although it is  physician exercises great skill in carrying out an operation, it is God Who grants the physician the skill and wisdom in facilitating healing for his patient, much like it is still God who grants wisdom to modern farmers in developing technology to combat the effects of drought or insect infestations. With each human skill we employ in our technological world, it behooves us to be thankful to God for giving mortals the ability to improve upon nature. Petitionary prayer can instill an attitude of gratitude.

Along these lines, Ramban (1195-1270) writes: God demands naught of the lower creatures with the exception that man should acknowledge and be grateful to his God for having created him. Aside from the advantages of communal prayer, people should have a place to assemble and express thankfulness to God for having created and sustained them, by simply saying before Him, ‘We are Your creatures.'” Ramban’s point is well taken; petitionary prayer prevents people from idolizing themselves as the source of their prosperity and blessings. Continue reading “Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 3)”