Believing in something vs. believing in nothing

Dorothy Sayers observes, “In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair… the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”

The absence of passion in the face of evil explains why evil is so virulent in the world. Such a listless existence is no way for a good person to live. Winston Churchill said it best, “The malice of the wicked is reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous.”

In terms of biblical theology, God’s ethos never occurs without pathos, as Heschel correctly observes. When the biblical prophets condemn injustice, they in turn mirror God’s own concern about societal evolution. Far from being a Deity that merely spends eternity reflecting upon His own Divine nature, the God of Scriptures incessantly demands ethical awareness and calls upon all of us to discover ultimate meaning by participation in the world’s redemption. In the Judaic consciousness, God’s role as Liberator is more important than His role as Creator. The One Who redeemed our ancestors, likewise expects us to emulate this role; paradoxically, the human hand resembles the Divine hand–not physically, but in terms of functionality.

Each person has a distinctive role to play and contribute toward this goal.  We cannot be good by simply avoiding evil; indifference toward human suffering only compounds it–whether we realize it or not. When a world stands begging for help, there can be only one ethical and spiritual response–Hineni–Here I am; I am ready to make a difference.

God expects all of us to embody the passion of liberation.

A “Priestly Kingdom” (Exodus 19:6)

What does it mean to be a “priestly kingdom”  in the Torah?

There was nothing  intrinsic holy about the priest, he was not spiritually superior when compared to ordinary Israelites by the virtue of him being a born into a priestly family. The priests’ vocation was not one of privilege but of obligation and responsibility–noblige oblige.

According to the philosophers Philo of Alexandria (ca. 1st century) and Moses Maimonides (ca. 12th century), birth alone doesn’t guarantee uniqueness.  So too, when classical Judaism speaks of Israel’s election as God’s “Chosen People,” this concept is not due to any sense of  racial superiority, but rather to the fact that we are the nation which lives in accordance with the  ethical and moral lifestyle prescribed by the Torah.  Indeed, any person from any race can become a member of the Israelite people through conversion.

Just as a nation is composed of all types of citizens from various walks of life and backgrounds, so too does every member of the Israelite commonwealth play a vital role in the spiritual life of the nation. Regardless of age, sex, background, or vocation; whether one  be a priest, a seer, a prophet, a sage or a commoner – plays a vital role as a “priest” of the Divine.

The life of a priest is rooted in personal consecration and dedication to the Lord. Priestly consecration demands that the priest consciously separate himself from anything that defiles and diminishes the respect and reverence for human life. As a priestly kingdom,” God requires that Israel guard herself from the forces of death, impurity and corruption that  petrifies its collective  heart and soul. Israel’s corporate vocation is both purely spiritual and socially transformative in that we bear witness to the reality of ethical monotheism.

The main purpose of the priesthood is mediate between the sphere of the divine and the ordinary world. A priest through his ritual conduct  facilitates communication across the ethereal boundary separating the holy from the profane.  Being a priest to the people demands vigilance and mindfulness in how the one carries out the  priestly duties. Every thought, word, and deed requires sublimation and holiness. By way of metaphor,  Israel  too must be conscious of how it acts in the realm of secular realm. Every holy thought, every considerate word, and especially every good deed–when performed with nobility of spirit–reflects sanctity.

Just as the priest conducts himself with grace and with dignity, so too does God’s holy people. Most importantly, just as the priest acts as a conduit for God’s blessing to the general community, Israel also serves as a  medium through which all the nations of the world become blessed (Gen 12:2-3). Israel’s recent involvement in Haiti and other places affected by natural catastrophe derives from her spiritual sense of priestly service and ethical responsibility.

Jewish law teaches that any priest who does not get along with his community is not allowed to bless his congregation with the priestly benediction, since the blessing demands that the priest feel love toward the people he serves. Given the mercurial nature of his community, this is certainly no easy task!

From Lisbon to Katrina to Haiti (Part 2)

Hello friends!

Here is the rest of the article I wrote on the theological implications of Hurricane Katrina. I hope the material will clarify our earlier discussion regarding the Haiti earthquake.

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According to the religious leaders cited in the previous posting, God never left the Flood Business–despite the Scriptural verse that says the exact opposite! “WHEN the LORD smelled the sweet odor, he said to himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start; nor will I ever again strike down all living beings, as I have done” (Gen. 8:21).

On the other hand, had Jean Jacques Rousseau witnessed Katrina, I have little doubt how he would have interpreted the disaster.  Katrina illustrates how the various bodies of government (e.g., the City of New Orleans, the State of Louisiana, the Federal Government, FEMA, the Mayor, the Governor, the President, the local residents, and so on) failed to make maximum use of the resources available. Local officials knew in advanced that this type of storm was possible and that the levees could break. Why was nothing done about it? Why were the monies allocated for rebuilding the levees not utilized decades after they were collected from the government? Why was there no effective evacuation plan? Why did it take so long for the relief agencies to respond? How the local inhabitants compound the problem with their disregard for the law. Although the weather was fierce, the onus of Katrina’s damage did not come from the weather but from the systemic breakdown of government.

The Lisbon earthquake and Hurricane Katrina characterize  only one kind of theological dilemma involving theodicy. On December 26, 2004, an undersea earthquake measuring 9.3 100 miles off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia produced the second largest earthquake in recorded history and generated massive tsunamis. Over 230,000 people lost their lives in just a matter of hours. Given the destructive force of the tsunamis, would Rousseau agree with Voltaire, and hold God responsible for the tsunamis?

Not necessarily.

One could logically argue that given the technology, wealth, and information we possess of weather patterns and seismic conditions, nations can now take steps to help minimize natural catastrophes. Tectonic plates will continue to shift; magma from volcanoes will continue to explode with fiery force; the wind will continue to generate hurricanes and tornadoes (which incidentally, were also detected on the planet Saturn—a place far removed from human habitation). Natural law will not change; yet, when these disasters occur, people of good faith can bring tikkun (repair) through a tsunami of compassion.

When God enjoins Adam to, “Fill the earth and subdue it!” (Gen. 1:28), the biblical narrator may have had this type of thought in mind. “Conquering the earth” may very well involve fixing nature’s many imperfections. A mature faith in God requires that we be responsive to the various mishaps and flaws of creation through a covenantal co-relationship with the Divine.

Back to the Future Redux

With respect to the earthquake victims of Haiti, it is vital that the Western nations helping see to it that no individual or organization, or government, profit from the help that is being sent there; strict accountability will help ensure that greatest number of people will  find the miraculous rescue they desperately need. When I saw pictures of the 85 metric tons airlifted to Haiti, the victims must have thought this was  manna from heaven. In a broken world, full of suffering, God calls upon his to act as His deputies and liberators.

“Lady Wisdom–the Firstborn Daughter of Creation”

Sometime during the fifth or fourth century B.C.E., the Wisdom/Sophia tradition began to infiltrate Jewish religious sensibilities. At first it was introduced as a series of epigrams containing proverbial wisdom; however, in theological terms, the notion of Sophia came to personify God’s own wisdom. Over the centuries, this new concept influenced generations of Jewish thinkers and mystics—especially during the medieval period when Jewish thought renewed its historic love affair with Greek wisdom. Abraham Ibn Ezra (c. 1089–1164) asserts that the creation of heaven and earth is preceded by the mystical appearance of Wisdom who is sometimes called רֵאשִׁית (rë´šît = “beginning”) (See Prov. 3:19; Ps. 104:24).

Kabbalists would later view Wisdom as the seminal seed and geometric point from which all creation emanates.[1] Their ideas were indirectly shaped by the early Judaic and Hellenistic texts which conceived of Wisdom poetically as being the “firstborn daughter of God” and “Mother of Creation.” According to the Jewish mystical imagination, wisdom truly personifies the “thought” of God that is ever-present in the universe. In light of this reason, Wisdom is plainly presented here as the first of God’s creatures and as God’s collaborator in the creation of all that was yet to be created, and it is Her presence that now suffuses the entire created order. In the book of Proverbs, “Lady Wisdom” is portrayed as saying:

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,

the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up,

at the first, before the beginning of the earth …

When he established the heavens,

I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep.

Prov. 8:22–27

A similar thought is also poetically expressed in the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus):

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people:

“Before the ages, in the beginning,

He created me,

and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.”

—Sir. 24:1–9

Both readings constitute an intrabiblical commentary on the original story of creation as depicted in Genesis. Wisdom acts as the foundation of the cosmos, and as the sole witness to God’s Creation of the world.  In the later Midrashim, the wisdom principle came to be redefined and personified as the Torah itself. “God looked into the Torah and created the world” (Gen. Rabbah 1:1).[2] Literary scholar Susan Handelman observes, “In the rabbinic imagination, the Torah is not an artifact of nature, a product of the universe; the universe, on the contrary, is the product of the Torah.”[3]


Notes:
[1] The difference between the Hellenistic and the Kabbalistic view of Wisdom is that the former views Wisdom as a feminine principle, whereas the latter views it as essentially a masculine principle.
[2] The Jerusalem Targum paraphrases בְּרֵאשִׁית as בחכמה “With [or ‘In’] wisdom God created . . .” Compare this text with the Targum Neofiti’s interpretive rendering (מלקדמין בחכמה ברא דייי), while the Targum of Onkelos translates the opening salvo as בֲקַדמִין בְרָא יוי (“At first God created . . .”). Likewise the Midrash also alludes to this same theme: “God looked into the Torah and created the world” (Gen. Rabbah 1:1). Wisdom acts as the foundation of the cosmos, serving as the sole witness to God’s Creation of the world.

[3] Susan Handelman, Slayers of Moses, op. cit., 37.

Who Is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises an Important Question

The Orthodox attempt to create a monopoly is not just a coercive religious force acting in Israel where the Haredi rabbis impose their will whenever they feel like it. Haredism is attempting to flex its muscle in Great Britain, as an English court is faced with one of the most important discrimination cases of modern times in English history.

Here’s the background to the case. A Jewish father married a woman who had a conservative conversion; by all accounts this family takes their Judaism very seriously but not seriously enough for the Orthodox Jewish High School, which denied their young man admission to the school on the grounds that his mother failed to convert in accordance with “Halacha,” as interpreted by the Haredi-Chabad rabbinic establishment.

But some religious (Orthodox does not have a monopoly on this term either) people have backbone and courage.

To the family’s credit, the parents finally decided to sue the school for discrimination and lost. However, the Court of Appeal, however, reversed that decision on grounds that question one of the foundational tenets of Jewish identity: that, short of conversion, the only way one can be Jewish is to have been born to a Jewish mother. Conversion to a non-Orthodox movement is also a viable path. As the Court of Appeal noted,

“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined. The same reasoning would apply to a Christian school that “refused to admit a child on the ground that, albeit practicing Christians, the child’s family were of Jewish origin,” the court said. Continue reading “Who Is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises an Important Question”

Can a woman serve as a Mohel?

Q. One of my congregants asked me a wonderful question. In Orthodox Judaism can a woman perform Brit Milah (ritual circumcision)?

I wrote back,

“ You have asked a great question! There is a controversy in tractate Avodah Zarah 27a regarding this very issue between Daru bar Papa who cites in the name of Rav and Rabbi Yochanan. 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 for others, whereas R. Yochanan felt that a woman can act as a Mohelet as indicated in the story of Tziporah (see Exodus 4:24‑26 for details). You could say she was a Moyhel of a goy’ol (pardon the pun!).”

In practical terms, R. Yosef Caro, the Halacha follows R. Yochanan and a woman may act as Mohelet (Yoreh Deah 264:1) but Maimonides adds one stipulation: this only applies in the event that a male Mohel is not available (MT, Hilchot Milah 2:1). However, Rema cites authorities who differ on this matter. Continue reading “Can a woman serve as a Mohel?”

The Halitzah Ceremony– And Its Modern Ethical Challenges

As mentioned earlier the levirate marriage takes place between a widow who’s husband died childless and his brother (known as the levir); halitzah (“removal”) is a ceremony that releases the woman from the obligation of Levirate marriage, allowing her to marry someone else.

Although Levirate marriage itself no longer is practiced, traditional Jews still require halitzah, formally releasing the widow from the biblically required union with her brother-in-law. The widow appears before a tribunal of five people–three of whom happen to be rabbis. After some initial questioning as to what the widow and levir intend to do, the court gives instructions that each must carry out.

Each participant must pronounce in certain phrases in Hebrew; the woman also is instructed to fast until the ceremony. The next day, a special shoe is removed from the levir’s foot. The woman approaches him and proclaims in Hebrew, “My husband’s brother refuses to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto me,” to which he replies, “I do not want to take her.” The widow then removes the shoe from his foot, tosses it away, and spits on the floor in front of him, saying, “So shall it be done unto the man that does not build up his brother’s house, and his name shall be called in Israel, the house of him that had his shoe loosened.” All present respond three times in unison, “he that had his shoe loosened.” Concluding prayers are read by the judges, and often a certificate that the widow is free to remarry is drawn up.

Even as late as the medieval era, rabbinic leaders like Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, ruled that nowadays, no woman would ever consent to marrying her brother-in-law, and the practice of halitzah was no longer necessary. However, in the State of Israel today, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis (known as Haredim [= “Tremblers”], a.k.a.  “Jewish Quakers”) refuse scores of women from remarrying without undergoing the traditional biblical ceremony—despite the humiliation this causes both the woman and her family.

In Israel, a most perplexing problem occurred that revealed the awkwardness of the halitzah ceremony as a viable religious practice. An elderly lady—about 60—wanted to register her marriage with the rabbinate after being widowed for four years and divorced from her second marriage. A clerk in the office observed that she never obtained halitzah from the brother of her first husband. Nevertheless, the rabbis ruled that she had to obtain permission from her former brother-in-law.

But here’s the catch. Continue reading “The Halitzah Ceremony– And Its Modern Ethical Challenges”

Creation as Novelty

In honor of the new Torah reading cycle, I thought I would explain some thoughts about the parsha as it pertains to the miracle of Creation.

Creation as Novelty

The verb  בָּרָא (bara) = “created”) connotes God’s absolute effortless creativity. In the Tanakh, this term is used exclusively with respect to Divine creativity, for human creativity is limited by the materials it has access to—this is not so with God. This distinction may also explain why many medieval rabbinic thinkers like Saadia[1], Maimonides[2], Ramban[3], Abarbanel[4], Seforno[5] and others believe this verb alludes to the concept of creatio ex nihilo (creation from “nothing”) since only God can create from the non-existent. Elsewhere in the Tanakh, בָּרָא’ introduces something surprisingly novel, wonderful, and awe-inspiring. [6] Continue reading “Creation as Novelty”

The Divine Feminine—The Theology of Immanence

The Divine Feminine—The Theology of Immanence

History has shown us time and time again how God-images impact the way a religious culture treats its female members. Cultures ruled by a misogynistic conception of the Divine, cannot help but treat its women in a barbarous manner. Indeed, a society that hates its women becomes incapable of loving anything else. Conversely, a religious culture that respects and values the maternal aspects of the Divine Feminine produces a community of believers where life becomes sacred and holy. The reverence for life—across the ideological spectrum—becomes the basis for all societal evolution and development.

Indeed, the new feminist theological movement offers to liberate men and woman from the shackles of a pure masculine anthropomorphic spirituality while expanding their theological horizons about the mysterious nature of the Divine that conceives, carries, and gives birth to all life-forms. Every metaphor of God in the Tanakh paints its own unique picture for how the divine interrelates with the world. The metaphor of God as Mother reveals relationships that in some ways go beyond the limitations of paternal imagery. Continue reading “The Divine Feminine—The Theology of Immanence”

Bringing Civility Back to Religion . . .

What we can we do to bring civility back to faith, and remove its thorn of toxicity? Decades ahead of his time, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber argued that one of the great spiritual challenges of our time is the process of purging our faith of all imagery that portrays the Divine as either vindictive or abusive. In his short but insightful autobiographical book, Meetings, Buber describes a meeting he had with a very pious and learned observant Jew. They had a conversation about the biblical story of King Saul and the war of genocide waged against Israel’s ancient enemy, Amalek. After Saul captures King Agag of Amalek, Saul does not kill him. The prophet Samuel becomes enraged at Saul, who places the onus of the blame on the people rather than himself. Perhaps he cannot kill his enemies with such reckless abandon, but Samuel will not hear of it; he personally hacks Agag to death. Afterward Samuel tells Saul to abdicate the throne, but Saul refuses. Buber tells the man sitting opposite him, that as a child, he always found this story horrifying. Buber recounts:

I told him how already at that time it horrified me to read or to remember how the heathen king went to the prophet with the words on his lips, “Surely the bitterness of death is past,” and was hewn to pieces by him. I said to my partner: “I have never been able to believe that this is a message of God. I do not believe it.” With wrinkled forehead and contracted brows, the man sat opposite me and his glance flamed into my eyes. He remained silent, began to speak, and became silent again. “So?” he broke forth at last, “so? You do not believe it?” “No,” I answered, “I do not believe it.” “So? so?” he repeated almost threateningly. “You do not believe it?” And once again: “No.”

“What. What”—he thrust the words before him one after the other—“What do you believe then?” “I believe,” without reflecting, “that Samuel has misunderstood God.” And he, again slowly, but more softly than before: “So? You believe that?” and I: “Yes.” Then we were both silent. But now something happened the like of which I have rarely seen before or since in this my long life. The angry countenance opposite me became transformed as if a hand had passed over it soothing it. It lightened, cleared, was now turned toward me bright and clear. “Well,” said the man with a positively gentle tender clarity, “I think so too.” And again we became silent, for a good while.[1]

Buber in the end of this anecdote mentioned how people often confuse the words of God with the words of man. To speak of God as “abusive,” is to speak of a man‑made caricature of God. Buber was well aware of the power such imagery has over people in the formation of their own personal relationships.


[1] Martin Buber, Meetings (Laselle, IL: Open Court, 1973), 52‑53.