Bad Girls of the Bible and Beyond

Image result for rahab bible imagesImage result for Tamar Judah imagesblackandwhite, lilith, and snake imageImage result for Gomer Hosea images

Anyone who really knows the Bible, probably knows that it is a book that is full of sexual themes—from one end of Tanakh to the other. Lot sleeps with his daughters; Reuben’s affair with his stepmother Bilhah, and the biblical version of Romeo and Juliet are evident in the Shechem and Dinah story. Rabbi Burt Visotzky candidly called the Bible “one ugly soap-opera” and while I do not agree with his sweeping characterization, I will admit that human sexuality plays a dramatic role in many of the biblical stories.  We certainly know about the exploits of Madame Potiphar and Joseph—a story that tantalized the imagination of many young teenage yeshiva students. Then there are the sexual exploits of King David, who like Bill Clinton, found it hard to resist the temptations of feminine beauty and strength. He never met a beautiful woman he didn’t desire or want. Rabbinic literature feasts upon stories involving Adam’s first wife, Lilith, a marriage that ended horribly, resulting in the world’s first divorce.

Temptation, seduction, and yielding to the flame of sexuality is basic to the biblical psyche.

You might be surprised to know that prostitutes in the Bible are actually sympathetic personalities; some of them have been known to be quiet brave and heroic at times. This revelation might come across as peculiar and strange to many people in the Jewish and Christian communities.

  1. TAMAR

In the Book of Genesis, we read about Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar, who waited for her father-in-law to provide her with a brother to perform the levirate marriage. After losing two of his other sons, Judah felt reluctant to give Tamar his third son, Shelah. After Shelah grew older, it became clear to Tamar that she would have to take matters into her own hands, and she laid a trap for her single father-in-law Judah, one which he fell hook, line, and sinker. She dresses up as a prostitute and makes an offer that Judah could not refuse; for the price of a goat (goats are very popular in the Genesis stories), she would be his for the night. After consummating the deal, she mysteriously disappears. Soon she discovers she is pregnant, and so do the people of Judah’s family. Tamar anticipated her father-in-law’s moral duplicity, and she announces she has evidence that will completely exonerate her innocence. Confronted by the truth, Judah had no choice but to admit he was at fault.

Tamar emerged as the ancestress of the House of David.

  1. RAHAB

One of the most famous cases involved espionage. Two Israelite spies are looking to find out how to conquer the Canaanite people. A prostitute named Rahab, aids and abets both these strangers, whose mere presence set the local Canaanite peoples ill-at-ease. Although she risked her life saving them, it was not without strings attached—“red strings,” you might say. She exacts a promise that the invading Israelite armies will not harm her or her family in any manner. Although the people of Jericho would meet a violent death, her family would be spared.

Before the spies left, they instructed her to leave a red cord hanging down from the window through which they had escaped. The “dangling red cord” would be a visible cord for the Israelite soldiers to keep their distance.

According to the Talmud, Joshua married Rahab (BT Ta’anit 20a) thus becoming an ideal proselyte and was also considered one of the four most beautiful women (with Sarah, Abigail, and Esther) and one of the four most seductive (with Ruth, Jael, and Michal). In one of the more bizarre passages in the Talmud,

Rabbi Isaac said, “Whosoever repeats the name “Rahab, Rahab” experiences an orgasm.  Then  R. Nahman replied, “I have repeated it and was not in any way affected.” R. Isaac replied: I speak only of one who knew her intimately and recalls a woman in her likeness.” I suspect Sigmund Freud would have had a field day psychoanalyzing both of these rabbis.  Freud spent much of his career analyzing men who struggle with sexuality and often view women either as debased whores or as saintly individuals.

The famous Madonna-Whore archetype captures the contradictory waves of male uncertainty, who desires a woman who is as virtuous as a Madonna, but as sinful as a whore in the bedroom. Whereas the man loves women in the former category, he distrust despises and devalues the latter group. The Talmudic rabbis like men in general probably felt uneasy about both these tensions, and therefore transformed sexually free women like Rehab, Tamar into virtuous women.

  1. Gomer

The third story involving prostitute involved a prophet and God. God tells the prophet Hosea to take a prostitute for a wife. The woman he marries is Gomer. There is scarcely a rabbinic commentary that accepts this reading at face value. Rashi, for example, sounds more like Maimonides and says that the story occurred only in a prophetic vision. The scandalous implications of a pious prophet marrying a “fallen” woman probably not only entertained the listeners and readers of this story, Gomer became a metaphor for the Jewish people—who went astray by worshiping other gods. Thus, idolatry and adultery—two similar sounding words, though different seemed to have a common thematic ethical message. Gomer became a symbol of penitence.

  1. Mary Magdalene

In Christian tradition, one of Jesus’ most favorite disciples was the mysterious Mary Magdalene, whom many scholars believe might have been the wife of Jesus. Curiously, three gospel narratives mention her as the only witness of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Four gospel narratives say she was present at Jesus’ alleged resurrection. Whether she or some other woman might have been a prostitute who might have had a similar first name remains unclear. But in the popular imagination—especially as fueled by the Jesus Christ Super Star production, many Christians like depicting Mary Magdalene has a fallen woman who repented.

As you can see, prostitutes have fared remarkably well in the biblical canon—both for Jews and for Jews.

Why am I mentioning all of this?

Partly because the archetypes of “Bad Girls” of the Bible are psychologically alive in modern society—especially in the way men perceive feminine sexuality.

Against this backdrop, when the country watched the Stormy Daniels interview on the Sixty Minutes program, the once well-known lady of porn probably made some Christian people think of other women like her from the Bible. Her alleged relationship with Candidate Donald Trump over ten years ago shows that our society’s fascination with prostitutes still remains a permanent part of the Americana political landscape.

We all know that Donald Trump is a challenged person in many ways, but what he did ten years ago really doesn’t concern me. I am only interested in how he is doing his job now as President. 

Time will tell whether Stormy’s allegations will have any meaningful impact on President Trump, but based on the sexual exploits of President Clinton and Kennedy, it is doubtful. Unfortunately, powerful men often succumb to desire.

Just ask King David.

The Talmud itself says, the greater a person, the greater their temptation for the forbidden is. This theme runs like a current of electricity in the pages of the Bible itself. Human behavior being what it does not change—unless one is willing to learn wisdom from temptation and desire.

The biblical stories teach us a valuable lesson, namely, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

A Rabbinic Commentary on Trump’s Tallit

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This past weekend, Detroit pastor Bishop Wayne Jackson draped a tallit around Donald Trump’s shoulders at service. What was the Jewish reaction? Well, that takes us to the rest of the story that I am about to tell you.

Most Jews I know are probably confused about seeing Donald Trump wearing a tallit. Some of my congregants said, “He looks ridiculous!” Another said, “Non-Jews are not supposed to wear a tallit!” One old friend of mine from San Francisco reacted with righteous indignation: How dare these Christians co-opt our religious symbols and heritage!

One Conservative Rabbi, named Danya Rutenberg twittered: “You guys, a Jewish prayer shawl–a tallit–is a ritual garment. Meant to be worn only by Jews. This is the worst kind of appropriation,” Conservative Rabbi Danya Rutenberg wrote on Twitter. She also called the move “disrespectful” in subsequent tweets. “Yes, my people also suffer cultural appropriation,” Twitter user Andy Rivkin added.

Let us flip this question on its proverbial head: What if Bishop Jackson had given the tallit to Hillary, or Barak Hussein Obama to wear? Would our reaction as a community be the same? In all candor, Rabbi Rutenberg would probably qvell and wish Hillary or Obama a hearty, “Yashar Koach” with  raucous applause–especially if she were in the picture!

One question that most people haven’t asked yet is, “Why do some Christian evangelicals insist upon wearing a tallit in the first place?” Some Christian evangelical ministers I know have told me that they wear the tallit because Jesus wore a tallit in the first century during his ministry.

Interestingly, one of the oldest references to the wearing of tsitsit outside the Talmud or Midrashic literature can be found in the Book of Matthew, where Jesus criticized some of the Pharisees of his day, “They perform all their actions to be seen by men. They broaden their phylacteries; they wear outsize tassels” (Mat 23:5). Yet despite Jesus’s criticism of what he felt was a gaudy display of religious piety, Jesus wore tsitsit (Mat. 9:20). Evangelicals often feel that more of their people should try to practice the Judaism that Jesus practiced in his day, so that they may become more like him. A lot of evangelical ministers actually sound the shofar at the beginning of their services.

Frankly, that’s not a bad idea.

Their motivation in my view is not a sign of disrespect, but actually a sign of respect that we should all admire. Evangelicals believe that by blessing the people of Israel, they too will be blessed:

 Those that bless you I will bless,

those that curse you, I will execrate.

All the families on earth

will pray to be blessed as you are blessed.’

(Genesis 12:3).

The phenomenon of Christian Zionism has proven to be a tremendous source of moral and financial support for our brothers and sisters living in Israel. Orthodox rabbis like Shlomo Riskin heaps praise upon the Evangelical community every Christiams. Palestinian merchants too are glad to see these Christian pilgrims as well. During the war with Hezbollah, one of my Reform colleagues from Illinois felt deeply moved when he saw the number of Born-Again Christians and evangelicals travel to Israel in the middle of the war to assist the country any way they can.

Are they not infinitely superior to the self-righteous Presbyterians, Methodists, and  the United Church of Christ who often demonize the State of Israel in their weekly Sunday services?

Beyond that, in praise of the Evangelicals, I will go one-step further.

It is this writer’s opinion, if Christians wish to observe certain Jewish customs, they have every right to do so, moreover such a view is actually well-attested in traditional rabbinic sources.

Now some of you might be surprised to know that the Talmud speaks about Gentiles following Jewish traditions.

In one Talmudic passage, the King Arteban of Persia 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 Persian king a mezuzah. King Arteban 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.”[1]

What kind of protection was Rabbi Judah alluding to? The divine Name Shaddai is written on the back of every mezuzah. Shaddai is an acronym “Shomer Dalatot Yisrael” “Guardian of the Doors of Israel” and not people like King Arteban!

One might wonder: What good is sending a mezuzah to a Gentile King who is not a member of the “Jewish tribe”? Yet, the Talmud seems to suggest that just because a non-Jew is not obligated to observe Jewish rituals, if he did observe Jewish rituals, he certainly receives a reward for doing so! Non-Jews are not necessarily excluded from observing Jewish traditions–contrary to Rabbi Rutenburg.

Maimonides makes a remarkable point in his Mishnah Torah, for he writes: We do not prevent a non-Jew who wishes to perform one of the Torah’s mitzvot in order to receive a reward for doing so—provided that he performs it properly.[2] Unfortunately, Maimonides was not always consistent in this regard, for Torah study is meant for Jews only—not non-Jews.[3] He also felt the same about non-Jews wishing to observe the Sabbath.[4] Despite some old rabbinic attitudes that prohibit non-Jews from studying Torah, in practice most rabbis will probably acknowledge that non-Jews (often along with their Jewish spouses) are certainly permitted to study Torah in a synagogue class.

In practice, most Jews are open-minded when it comes to inviting non-Jews to a Passover Seder, a Bar Mitzvah, or a Shabbat service. Even Chabad invites gentiles to light a menorah during Hanukkah!

Perhaps most importantly, how can perspective proselytes know how to observe the mitzvot if we do not grant them access to much of our sacred traditions?

In short, during the medieval world, positive and respectful Jewish-gentile relations were rarer than they are today. When Trump received the tallit from Bishop Wayne Jackson, instead of getting irritated, we should feel proud that Trump gladly donned the tallit. We should feel the same whenever anyone in the non-Jewish community wishes to show respect to our faith and heritage.  Sometimes in our zeal to be “self-righteous” we often demonstrate a lack of broad-mindedness and generosity of spirit.  Only God knows what is in the hearts of mortals, and we would be wise to recognize that everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.

 


[1] JT Peah 1:1; 15d.

[2] MT Hilchot Melachim 10:10.

[3] BT Sanhedrin 59a. Cf. Tosfot on BT Hagigah 13a s.v. Ein.

[4] MT Hilchot Melachim 10:9.

Unleashing the Artistic Imagination

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When you look at the history of Islamic art, it’s inclusion in the Islamic faith has not been without periods of repression. Among those singled out for the most severe penalties of the afterlife, are the artists, and other “makers of images or pictures.”Although the Quran did not prohibit artistic expression, the subsequent Hadiths (oral traditions) do attribute considerable hostility to the artists of Muslim lands.

As the art historian Daniel Boorstin notes:

  • Sultan Firuz Shan Tughluk (c. 1308-1388; reigned 1351-88) left his mark in Muslim history not only by building his own capital city, Firuzabad, and by constructing mosques, hospitals, baths, bridges, and the Jumna Canal, but by mutilating and destroying innumerable works of art. His autobiography boasted that he had erased all pictures from the doors or walls of his palaces and “under the divine guidance and favor” had even removed the figured ornaments from saddles and bridles, from goblets and cups, dishes and ewers, from tents, curtains, and chairs. Sometimes pious Muslims economized efforts by merely scratching or smearing the faces of the images they happened to be on.[1]

The Jewish influence on early Islam is pretty obvious. The Second Commandment has often been interpreted as a ban against all graven images—a point of contention we experienced when the Temple refused to take the Roman coins bearing the likeness of the Emperor, who was often deified by the Roman society. Hence, money changers served an important function in the Temple whenever people coming from afar wished to purchase animals and other offerings. However, in Islamic history, the artist was often perceived as an “imitator” of God, trying to usurp God’s role as Creator. As Boorstin later observes: [2]

  • Islam, by affirming the “stark monotheism” of a God who had a monopoly on creation, abhorred the temptations to compete with God by man’s pretended acts of creation. On the Day of Judgment when God calls upon the painter to breathe life into the forms he has made, the painter’s mockery of God’s acts of “creation” is exposed. Then he is sentenced to the worst punishments of hell. The artist by pretending to be a creator has denied the uniqueness of God and commits blasphemy with every stroke of his brush. According to the Koran, God alone is the “fashioner” (musawwir).

As Islam gradually evolved, the Abbasid caliphs (750-1258) cultivated a reputation for strict piety, Muslim rulers slowly disregarded the old taboos against art and hired their own artists to glorify the Islamic faith in cities like but Baghdad and cities in Persia that were under Muslim control.

Fortunately, there is no known chapter in Jewish history where artists were routinely harassed or persecuted.  In one famous Mishnah, we read about how a famous 1st century rabbi used to frequent a bathhouse that had a statue of Aphrodite inside:

  • Peroklas, the son of a philosopher, asked once R. Gamaliel at Ako, who was then bathing in the bath of the goddess Aphrodite: Your law prescribes [Deut. xiii. 17]: “Let nothing of the devoted objects cleave to your hands”; why, then, do you bathe in the bath of Aphrodite? And he answered: Such questions are not answered–at a bathing place. After he had left the bath, he said: I did not come into her domain, but it is she is the one who came into my space! Truly, people do not say: The bath is erected to adorn the Aphrodite, but the Aphrodite was added in order to beautify the Roman bathhouse. Moreover, you would not agree for any amount of money to appear before your idol when you are naked or urinating. The Aphrodite, however, stands on the channel, and everybody urinates in front of her. The law says their gods, i.e., to say such toward whom one behaves with dignity inspired by something divine; while whatever does not inspire such a behavior, is allowed.[3]

I doubt very seriously, whether today’s Haredi or Hassidic rabbis, or even Modern Orthodox rabbis would be caught dead in a Roman bath house that had Aphrodite as an ornament for the bathhouse.  Yet, religious traditions evolve, as do their followers.

Today, there is scarcely a Muslim leader—even someone as extreme as Osama bin Ladin, who would refuse to have his picture taken. Yet, when depictions of Mohammed the Prophet are depicted by Western artists in a manner that is not complementary, the Jihadists view such disrespect as “blasphemy.”

While the old restrictions regarding art or music (as it was in the case of rabbinic tradition) have been cast into the dustbin of history, comedic and satirical depictions of faith still rub many of us the wrong way–whether the person being depicted is Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed. The problem occurs when people wish to use satire in explaining religiously venerated texts such as the Tanakh, New Testament or the Quran. Yet, in a free society you will not see other religious groups murder others who “blaspheme” their religions. Christians and Jews have learned to accept this, Muslims must accept it as well.  While many of us may not like the artistic depictions of our religious traditions, (e.g., the new movie, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), the majority of us will avoid what we do not wish to see or allow it to enter into our consciousness. Death by the polls is the best medicine here for all faiths to consider instead of using violence to suppress unpopular thought.

The award-winning author Salman Rushdie, who once received numerous death threats for portrayals of Islam in his work, expressed his support for the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo after an attack that killed at least 12 on Wednesday.

  • “I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity,” he wrote in a statement posted by the Guardian. Gunmen killed at least 12 people in the paper’s offices before fleeing the scene in France’s deadliest terrorist attack in recent memory. “Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms,” Rushie wrote. “This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today.”[4]

Is there room for an alternative view within mainstream Islam? Actually, there is. As Hassan Nasrallah said a few days ago,“Islamic extremists have insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad more than those who published satirical cartoons mocking the religion.” He added, “The Islamic extremists who behead and slaughter people have done more harm to Islam than anyone else in history.”[5]

For once I must agree with Nasrallah. However, it’s a pity he does not apply this to the villainous mullahs of Iran. Simply put, we cannot control how other people think. In a free society, every religious group enjoys the freedom that comes with free speech. It is criminal for anyone who suppress the fundamental democratic life—even this speech seems barbed at times.

Maybe the time has come for religious people to redefine blasphemy in a manner that is not inconsistent with Western values. What is blasphemy? It is taking something beautiful and turning it into something ugly. When viewed from this perspective, killing people in the name of Islam—or any faith—now, that’s true blasphemy.

No cartoon is worth killing over.

======

Notes:

[1] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 194.

[2] Ibid., p. 195.

[3] Mishnah Avodah Zara 3:4.

[4] http://time.com/3657541/charlie-hebdo-paris-terror-attack-salman-rushdie/

[5] http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4612771,00.html

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

 

Newest Review on Torah from Alexandria: Philo as a Biblical Commentator Volume 1 Genesis

 

 

Philo Commentary Blurb
          About two decades before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, another Jew, Philo of Alexandria, was born and destined to   became the most prolific writer of Hellenistic Judaism. Philo’s thought is primarily centered on Scripture and theology, yet his works have often remained, unknown, unread, inaccessible or obscure to many Jewish and Christian readers. Thankfully, in this modern commentary on Philo and the Torah, Rabbi Michael Samuel, himself a master of texts and their meaning, has provided a very readable, creative, scholarly work on Philo.
This commentary “cuts to the chase.” Torah from Alexandria helps clarify much of the mystery associated with Philo’s rambling, allegorical “airborne” style by conveying the thinking of Philo in a relevant, down-to-earth manner that both scholar and layperson can grasp and appreciate. Enhanced by an abundance of notes, cross references and indexes, this commentary on the Torah will prove a valuable companion for Torah studies and provide new insight and angles of theological conversation useful to Jews and Christians.
Philo is one of the great thinkers of the ancient world, he need no longer remain an enigma to biblical interpreters. I enthusiastically recommend Torah from Alexandria.

Marvin R. Wilson, Ph.D.
H. J. Ockenga Professor of
Biblical and Theological Studies
Gordon College
Wenham, MA

Rabbinical Thoughts on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly


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Our society seems so bent upon the politics of personal destruction. When people fall–as famous and powerful people often do, there is a certain delight and comfort many folks experience in knowing that even the great ones have “feet of clay.”

But where is our reverence for human life? Is not every human being made in the Divine Image? As I write this new article, I wonder: What are the ethical implications of being made in God’s image?

Obviously killing somebody in cold blood is something that fills us with horror. But what about killing somebody’s soul?  What about killing somebody’s reputation? What about destroying a human being’s life dream? Yes, murder comes in many different forms–and our penchant for violence often blinds us from realizing just how barbaric and cruel we really are as a species.

I recall hearing a story about a Christian missionary who spent many years while working with cannibals. When asked about his success, he replied, “Before I arrived, they used to eat their meat with their hands, but after I worked with them, they now eat with forks and knives instead!”  I often think this aphorism describes the violent impulses that permeate our contemporary society. We may appear to be “civilized,” but the shadow nature of our souls remain uncivilized.

Jewish tradition teaches that murdering a human being is considered like one who has harmed the figure of the king; i.e., the likeness of God. R. Tanchuma points out the relational dimensions of the Divine image have important practical implications: Anyone who despises his fellow man is considered as though he despises the Creator, in Whose image he is created.[1] Going one step further, there is a poignant rabbinic story that illustrates this important idea:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, returning from a trip in Migdal Eder, from his teacher’s house met a certain man who was exceedingly ugly. Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Raka (simpleton), how ugly are the children of Abraham our father.” The other man replied, “What can I do for you? You may want to speak to the Craftsman Who made me.” Rabbi Shimon immediately alighted from his horse and bowed before the man and said, “I apologize to you, please forgive me.” He replied to him, “I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman Who made me and say, “How ugly is the vessel which You have made!”

Rabbi Shimon walked behind him for three miles. When the people in town heard of Rabbi Shimon’s arrival, they came out to meet him and greeted him with the words, “Peace be unto you, rabbi.” The other man said to them, “Who are you calling Rabbi?” They answered, “The man who is walking behind you.” Thereupon he exclaimed, “If this man is a rabbi, may there not be any more like him in Israel!” He told the people the whole story, and the townspeople begged him to forgive the rabbi, and he agreed, only on the condition that he never act in this manner again toward anyone. [2]

The story highlights an important truth: the willful mistreatment of another human being, in effect, devalues the image of God because we are all created in the Divine Image. The human face—regardless how disfigured it may be—commands that we show a respect to the uniqueness of the human person which transcends one’s physical attributes. True beauty emanates from goodness and a love of ethics. Without these traits, we might as well be living in caves.


[1] Genesis Rabbah 24:7.

[2] Tractate Derech Eretz (Chapter 4).

 

Creating an Inner Space for God to Dwell

 

 As Creator, and the Source of our being, God continuously brings our existence out of the abyss of nothingness, and is renewed with the possibility of new life.  God’s love and compassion is bio-centric and embraces the universe in its totality.  God’s power is not all-powerful (in the simplistic sense); nor is it coercive in achieving this end, but is all-relational in His capacity to relate to the world—even suffer with it as well. God’s love initiates new beginnings and endless possibilities ex nihilo to a suffering people. In the Exodus narrative, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה   (´e|hyè ´ášer ´e|hyè) “I will always be present as I will always be present.”

The early rabbis referred to God’s indwelling among mortals by the designation of שְׁכִינָה (“Shekhinah”), which signifies, “that which dwells.” The root word שָׁכֵן, (shakhen), or שָׁכַן, (shakhan) “to dwell,” “reside,” cf. Isaiah 60:2). Rabbinical wisdom traces this epithet of God to the well-known biblical verse,  וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם   “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 25:8). Most biblical translations overlook a more literal meaning that conveys a mystical meaning, “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that  I shall dwell in them.” God dwells not outside the human heart, but within the human heart. Hence, the idea of the Shekhinah best means “Divine Indwelling.”

Throughout much of the Jewish midrashic and mystical literature, the rabbis depict the Shekhinah in feminine terms; this aspect of the Divine personifies God’s maternal love. Although the Shekhinah freely embraces suffering, She is not overwhelmed or defeated by human evil and stubbornness. Whenever the Shekhinah sees suffering, She identifies with the pain of her errant children, “My head is heavy; My arm is heavy.  And If God grieves  over the blood of the wicked whose blood is justifiably shed,  how much more so is the Shekhinah grieved over the blood of the just!”[1] The Shekhinah represents the part of God that each human being possesses. In William Blake’s famous depictions of Job, the observant reader will note that the face of God and the face of Job are the same. This aspect of God corresponds in biblical terms to the “image of God” that each of us bears inside us.

One Midrashic text connects the Shekhinah with the opening passage of Song of Songs 1:1, which speaks about the Lover (God) entering into the Garden (symbolizing Eden), to be alone with His beloved (symbolized by Israel):

I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.

According to the Midrash, all of Song of Songs is an extended metaphor about God’s love for Israel. The word “my garden” has Edenic overtones and significance. The term “gani” (“My garden,”) implies not just any “garden,” but specifically to “My garden,” i.e., the bridal chamber where a bride and groom consummate their love for one another. By saying “My bridal chamber,” the text mystically suggests a return to a time when God’s Being was originally present and revealed.

The Midrash teaches that when Moses built the Tabernacle, the Shekhinah returned to co-inhabit the earth just as She did in the days of Eden before the primal couple’s great fall. In Eden, God “walked” alongside mortals (Gen 3:8). However, after the primal couple sinned, the Shekhinah began retreating Her Presence from the earthly realm. Bereft of Her divine intimacy, Adam and his wife hid themselves because they felt alienated from the deepest dimension of their souls.  Adam’s spiritual stature underwent a radical reduction.

However, the Shekhinah’s mystical ascent was far from finished, for when Cain murdered his brother Abel, the Feminine Presence felt disgusted with human violence and retreated unto the second level of Heaven in a panic. Alas, Her ascent away from the earth still continued;  Enosh forgot his Creator when he worshiped idols, so the Shekhinah retreated to the third level; after watching more of man’s inhumanity to man, a flood occurs, and the saddened Shekhinah retreats because She could not watch Her children perish. With the passage of time, the Shekhinah develops revulsion for violence. Once again, human cruelty chased Her, one more degree away from the earth.

After the Tower Builders announced their designs to conquer the heavens, the Shekhinah retreated yet another degree because she found human arrogance repugnant. The violence of the Sodomites upset Her even more, as she wanted nothing to do with men because of their barbarism and sadism. The Shekhinah’s withdrawal from the world reached Her zenith after the Egyptians mistreated their fellow earthly brothers and sisters, by enslaving the Israelites to a life of suffering and pain. She could not bear to watch. She wondered, “Could the rift with humanity get any worse than this?”

However, the Shekhinah could not remain in a permanent state of estrangement from humanity—despite its errant ways. Abraham was the first to recognize the Shekhinah’s reality and he sought to make her more intimate with mortals once more. Isaac’s willingness to die for Her, as a show of his love and devotion, made the Shekhinah yearn yet more for intimacy with mortals. Through his many struggles within himself, Jacob comes to discover the Shekhinah’s luminosity and beauty and finally understands the true meaning of blessing.

In an effort to purge himself from the violence that defiled his life after he and his brother Simeon massacred the inhabitants of Shechem (Gen. 34-31), Levi sought to renew his relationship with Her. The Shekhinah pitied this pathetic excuse for a human being and granted him a peacefulness of mind. She was determined to make Levi’s descendants do penance for their forefather’s crimes against humanity  by making them serve as priests to their Maker. She mused, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future–this applies even to Levi!”

The Shekhinah brought Yochebed and Amram together, and they became the parents of Moses—the liberator of Israel.  Mysteriously, She finds herself drawn back to the earth. With Moses, the Shekhinah found a lover who decided to build a new home for the Divine—The Tabernacle–a place that would permanently restore Her Presence to our world, where She would walk once more with humankind. [2] From the various rabbinical texts written about the Shekhinah, She appears in a world that suffers from the ruptures of history. She is vaguely Present when the fullness of God’s reality seems absence of God in human history because of radical evil and senseless suffering. Yet, the Shekhinah is the often associated with the Spirit of God that gives shape to the chaos of Creation, forming it into a cosmos. In the Midrashic imagination, the purpose of the Creation is to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Creation. However, only human beings can create the space for the Shekhinah to dwell.

[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5.

[2] Numbers Rabbah 12:13.

A Medieval Story: A Stroll through the Cemetery

There is a charming medieval story about a certain low-life who once became infatuated with a beautiful maiden. Once there was a low-life who became infatuated with a beautiful woman. He used to fantasize about her in his dreams. Each day, he flirted with her, telling her how much he wanted to “get to know” her better. She ignored his overtures. One day, when he asked her out again, she told him to go to the cemetery—there, they would meet. Little did he realize the girl’s real message, namely—“Drop dead!”

Feeling jubilant about the prospects of romancing her, he went to the cemetery and waited. But she did not come. The hours had turned into days, but still, she did not arrive. As he began wandering from grave to grave, he saw how others had distinguished their lives by performing good deeds for the betterment of their communities.

He began wondering, “How will others remember me?” Then he decided that he too wanted to live a life that would earn him the respect and admiration from others. He began working on his character, and eventually became known for his piety—despite himself. [2]

The moral of the story is simple enough: the lure of forbidden pleasures has proven to be the downfall of many great people throughout human history.

Strangely enough, maybe the awareness of our mortality and legacy in this world—symbolized by the cemetery—may serve to help reign in one’s powerful sexual energy. The rabbis and their students studied the entire day in the hopes that they would exert self-control. However, sometimes Torah study by itself is insufficient.

Self-control does not come easy for a lot of people. The lure of temptation can topple even the greatest individuals.

Perhaps a stroll through the cemetery can act as catalyst for personal growth and change.

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Notes:

[1] BT Berachoth 5a.

[2] Reshit Chochmah, Sh’aar Ahavah.

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Blessings & Gratitude

Once upon a time, some American tourists went to Mexico on a vacation; they toured some hot springs, where they saw the natives washing their clothes! One tourist said to his guide, “My, isn’t wonderful how Mother Nature provides her children with hot water to wash their clothes?” The tour-guide replied, “So you might think, Senor, but the natives complain that Mother Nature doesn’t provide the soap!”

It’s been said that the hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.

Chinese wisdom teaches, “When you drink from the stream remember the spring.”

This truth may help explain why the theme of recognizing blessing versus curses is so important in last week’s Torah portion, (Parshat Ki Tavo):

  • All these maledictions will come upon you; they will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed because you did not obey the Lord your God by keeping the commandments and statutes which he gave you. They shall be a sign and a portent to you and your descendants for ever, because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and with a glad heart for all your blessings. Then in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and extreme want, you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, and they will put a yoke of iron on your neck when they have subdued you. (Deut. 28:45–48)

The absence of joyfulness in our lives leaves us in a perpetual state of misery and want. Yes, attitude has everything to do with our capacity for happiness and self-actualization in life. Nature abhors a vacuum and when we relinquish the positive, it is inevitable that the negative attitudes will take its place.

Psychological studies bear this truth out as well.

Research has shown that people who regularly practiced grateful thinking were more than 25 percent happier, slept better, suffered lower levels of stress and even spent more time exercising. People sure like to complain.

According to one recent author, who wrote a book on Gratefulness, Prof. Richard Emmons explains that” Preliminary findings suggest that those who regularly practice grateful thinking do reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits. […] Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism […] The practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.”

Unfortunately, politicians and the czars of Hollywood love to create and perpetuate the mythos of class-warfare that occurs between the haves and the have-nots. These misleaders try to seduce us into thinking that creaturely comforts hold the key to our inner and spiritual state of mind.

The focus upon negativity and materialism is the end result of such a twisted point of view.

In Yiddish, we have a word for such a mindset, it’s called “Kvetching,” or chronic complaining. It’s as old as the Bible itself. It seems that many folks for whatever the reason, have an innate bias towards being or feeling negative. In other words, for some of us, being a grouch comes naturally. Therapists and psychologists alike tend to focus on the ethos of victimization, and narcissism, rather than engendering a life-attitude of thankfulness.

No society in human history has ever been as medicated with anti-depressants such as ours. Yet, developing an attitude of gratefulness can not only make us happier, it can also protect us from heart attacks, lessen physical pain and confer other physiological benefits.

It is no coincidence that the Founding Fathers looked to this week’s Torah portion pertaining to the first-fruits as the antecedent and inspiration for the American holiday of Thanksgiving.

For our spiritual and psychological healthiness, we need to be thankful for all that is good in our lives; the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus once wrote, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.”

Aesop may have made this point even more forcefully:

  • Once there was a Dog who had gotten himself a piece of meat and was carrying it home in his mouth to eat it in peace. On his way home, he had to cross a plank lying across a running brook. As he crossed, he looked down and saw his own shadow reflected in the water beneath. Thinking it was another dog with another piece of meat, he made up his mind to have that also. So he made a snap at the shadow in the water, but as he opened his mouth, the piece of meat fell out, dropped into the water and was never seen more. The moral: Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow. — AESOP, Fables, The Dog and the Shadow

 

When we lose sight of what we have, by grasping after shadows, we risk losing everything we already truly have.

In a strange and paradoxical way, the cartoon character Bart Simpson illustrates the nature of this problem; who was asked to say grace over the meal. He prays, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing!” Does that shock us? It shouldn’t. The world doesn’t have a clue to the essence of Thanksgiving.

What applies to the life of the individual, applies no less to our nation as a whole.

In words that could have been penned today, Abraham Lincoln knew that the need for remembering God in prosperity is imperative for any time, and constituted a requisite for our nation’s integral character and identity.

  • We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, for many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self‑sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.‑‑ April 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation for a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer

WHY BE THANKFUL?

One might wonder: When we look at the evil that engulfs the world with war, famine, and fear, it might seem as though “Thanksgiving” is self-deceiving. Despite the abundance that we have at our tables, it’s also easy to wonder, what should we be thankful for? When we see the ugliness in the world and in our society, it seems like a Herculean task to express happiness and blessing. Continue reading “Blessings & Gratitude”

BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect

Over the years I have noticed that when it comes to the recitation of the Shema prayer, most Jews readily chant the first paragraph of the Shema with enthusiasm. The first paragraph reads:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates (Deut. 6:4-9).

The recitation of the second and third paragraph of the Shema  generally fails to inspire the same kind of enthusiasm. Here is the passage in question:

“If, then, you truly heed my commandments which I enjoin on you today, loving and serving the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain, that you may have your grain, wine and oil to gather in; and I will bring forth grass in your fields for your animals. Thus you may eat your fill. But be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them. For then the wrath of the LORD will flare up against you and he will close up the heavens, so that no rain will fall, and the soil will not yield its crops, and you will soon perish from the good land he is giving you. “Therefore, take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead. Teach them to your children, speaking of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. And write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates, so that, as long as the heavens are above the earth, you and your children may live on in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers he would give them” (Deut. 11:13-21).

Simply put, actions matter. Actions have consequences. Moderns might feel uncomfortable with the carrot-and-stick approach of Deuteronomy, but its message is still compelling.

Our scientific age is certainly far more sophisticated than anything the ancients might have imagined, yet the meaning of the second paragraph of the Shema conveys an idea that is surprisingly modern and contemporary.

An ecological appreciation of the world reveals that all lifeforms are interconnected. The old paradigm of Newtonian and Cartesian physics conceived of the world through the metaphor of the clock. The universe was once seen as  a set of simple systems resembling a well-tuned ticking pendulum. These systems, if disturbed, may malfunction if their behavior is veers from normalcy. Their movements seemed predictable and manageable in its very nature.

Now we have discovered that there are in a manner of speaking, clocks within clocks–exponentiated. The inner workings of our world are so  exquisitely sensitive to circumstance that even the smallest disturbance produces large and ever-growing changes in their behavior that are difficult to fully calculate.

The meteorologist Ed Lorenz observed while studying  the earth’s weather systems that the smallest variation in the input to his equations produced exponentiatingly large deviations in the behavior of his solutions.  He referred to this cascade of changes as the “butterfly effect.”  Thus, a butterfly stirring the air with its wings in the African jungle today will generate consequences for the storm systems affecting Boston within three weeks. Since our knowledge about African butterflies is limited, detailed long-term weather forecasting will prove to be difficult to anticipate–but the effects are nevertheless in a perpetual state of causality. (By the way, this same kind movement can also be applied with respect to economics, as seen this past year’s gyrations of the stock market.)

Actions matter–and what applies to the realm of natural events especially applies to the moral events we as individuals make. With the recent BP oil spill disaster, we can see an ecological impact that effects not just the Gulf region, but ultimately the lifeforms of the entire planet! Continue reading “BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect”