From Medieval Book Burning to Modern Internet Censorship

Image result for book burning pictures medieval              Image result for book burning pictures medieval

 Information is the currency of democracy. —Thomas Jefferson

When I was a young sixteen-year-old, I remember becoming involved in the Chabad movement in Los Angelos, CA. I remember purchasing a translation of Judah Halevi’s classic theological work, “The Kuzari” that was translated by the early 20th-centuryOriental scholar Hartwig Hirschfeld. When an Orthodox rabbi looked over the book, he declared it, “heresy”, and ordered me to burn my newly purchased book. At the time, I protested and asked, “Could I merely pull out the Introduction and burn that section, but keep the book?” He said that would be fine.

For many years, I felt ashamed of my behavior. Several decades later I decided to use this personal anecdote as a teachable lesson. Often, I have long since pointed out to my students, burning ideas is a cowardly approach to dealing with personal insecurities about faith, as Freud observed long ago in his book, The Future of an Illusion. The only way to defeat ideas you don’t like is to come up with better and more convincing ideas and solutions.

The historian Norman Bentwich (1883-1971) wrote, “Philosophers tend to be viewed with suspicion by a large part of the community. Philosophers, by the very excellence of their thought, have in all races towered above the comprehension of the people, and have often aroused the suspicion of the religious teachers.” [1]

Bentwich makes a valid point. In the history of Judaism over the last 1900 years, Talmudists often viewed Jewish philosophers with a measure of mistrust, accusing them of harboring beliefs that were too dangerous for the masses. Throughout much of the yeshiva world, from the 18th century to the 21st century, no rabbinic student dared pick up the Guide to study—at least during the daytime, but you could see students huddled in their rooms, or sometimes even under a table reading the Guide clandestinely.

Maimonides’ philosophical ideas met considerable resistance in his day, and in the year 1233, not long after his death, Jewish leaders solicited the Dominican inquisitors and claimed Maimonides’ “heretical” teachings threatened to undermine all faiths. As one might expect, they burnt Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed at Montpellier, in southern France.

But a change of heart even amongst Maimonides’ greatest critics occurred once they realized they inadvertently made themselves vulnerable to future Dominican incursions. Within almost a decade, Pope Gregory IX led a campaign to burn other books held sacred by Jews, such as the Talmud. In the year 1242, the Catholic clergy collected twenty-four wagons of the Talmud, which they burnt in Rome. Thus, a dangerous precedent became established.

This condemnation was all the more ironic, considering how the Dominican theologians Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) each appropriated many ideas from Maimonides.[2] In the Summa, Aquinas quotes R. Moses twenty-four times, always reverently referring to him as, “Rabbi Moses.”  Aquinas, in particular, was an Italian Dominican priest and Doctor of the Church.

After Aquinas’ death, William of Ockham (1285-1321) and John Duns Scotus attempted to ban Thomas’ works as dangerous to the Church. Yet, the quest for a pure and acceptable theology did not end with William of Ockham’s condemnation of Aquinas, for in 1324, the Catholic Church later condemned some of Ockham’s works as containing heretical ideas,[3] thus proving that Bentwich’s point was correct, as mentioned above.

Back to the Present

You may ask: Is this relevant? It definitely is! The above historical discussion about censorship proved to be one of many indictments for the medieval Church and rabbis who engaged in that kind of intellectual internecine warfare against their faith’s freethinkers and other intrepid intellectual explorers. But nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, it is all the atrocious for Facebook and Twitter to engage in blocking political content of ideas its leaders and engineers find “offensive.”

Today, James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas released a surprise but damning report on Thursday that shows Twitter employees admitting they censor people’s’ right-leaning accounts, including banning them from the network because they do not agree with their political views! Had this happened in Russia, Iran, or China, none of us would be surprised—but in the 21st century United States? This is truly an affront to our society!

One Twitter employee named Pranay Singh, admitted that the majority of their algorithms are geared in such a manner that they target people with certain political views. Their method is insidious, they “shadow ban” right-leaning accounts, which essentially bans them from the platform without letting them know that they have been banned while allowing left-leaning accounts to slip through without the same scrutiny.” And they unabashedly admit:

  • “Yeah you look for Trump, or America, and you have like five thousand keywords to describe a redneck,” Singh explained. “Then you look and parse all the messages, all the pictures, and then you look for stuff that matches that stuff.” “I would say majority of it are for Republicans,” he confirmed. [4]

Many friends of mine on Facebook often get in the Facebook jail for asserting political views that the Facebook leadership does not like or approve. Let us hope that a class action suit is initiated. This is a battle that anyone along the political spectrum ought to agree upon. The Left would not like it if the political right behaved this way. Ideas deserve to be heard and debated in the public forum.



[1] Norman Bentwich, Philo of Alexandria (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1910), p. 7.

[2] See Jeremiah M. Hackett (ed.), A Companion to Meister Eckhart: Brill’s Companions to the  Christian Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2013).

[3] Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), p. 350.

[4] https://www.projectveritas.com/video/hidden-camera-twitter-engineers-to-ban-a-way-of-talking-through-shadow-banning/

 

 

Rescuing Spinoza from the Depths of Hell

This past week, the Jewish Chronicle published a remarkable article that caught my attention that I would like to write about, which just appeared in the news for the first time.[1]

The time: 2012

The place: Modern day Amsterdam.

The event:  A group of university scholars and leaders of the Amsterdam Jewish community meet to discuss the possibility of lifting a ban of excommunication made against Baruch Spinoza. This ban has been in effect for 356 years.

The Amsterdam Chief Rabbi, Haham Dr. Pinchas Toledano was asked  to lift the 356-year-old ban of excommunication, but he refused to do so  for several reasons:

He gives many reasons for his position:

  • Spinoza never asked the community to rescind the ban despite the fact that the average excommunication [and there were many in those days] was lifted after 30 days. Therefore, “beyond any shadow of doubt, Spinoza never requested to rescind the herem.”
  • Spinoza never asked for forgiveness and felt his positions were justified within the matrix of Judaic thought.
  • Toledano explains that we do not wish to intimate that we approve of Spinoza’s heresies.
  • Judaism does not recognize the freedom of speech.

While one may or may not accept the first three reasons Toledano offers, the last reason about Judaism being against the freedom of speech is especially offensive and historically untrue. Throughout the medieval era, Jewish thinkers took umbrage with each of Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith. There has never been a catholicity of Judaic belief in Jewish history. This is an important distinction we make between the Christian faith that insists upon correct belief vis-à-vis  Jewish belief.

While one may or may not accept the first three reasons Toledano offers, the last reason about Judaism being against the freedom of speech is especially offensive and historically untrue. Throughout the medieval era, Jewish thinkers took umbrage with each of Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith. There has never been a catholicity of Judaic belief in Jewish history. This is an important distinction we make between the Christian faith that insists upon correct belief vis-à-vis  Jewish belief.

Perhaps the Ultra-Orthodox ought to take a lesson from the Catholic Church.

When Galileo first championed his heliocentric theories to Copernicus in 1610, the Catholic Church unleashed the power of the Inquisition, who ruled that such theories of the solar system were heretical. Galileo’s books were banned and burned. Nobody was allowed to even discuss his “dangerous” scientific ideas.  In 1633, he was tried and arrested for heresy and remained in prison until his death in 1642. Oddly, despite the scientific progress the world had seen since the time of his death, only Pope John Paul II finally freed Galileo from the tortures of purgatory in 1999.

People nowadays laugh that it took so long for the Catholic Church to finally honor a truly great figure in modern history. Today, many of the Church’s greatest theological minds are also physicists who believe that a symbiosis of science and religion is possible, as Einstein famously stated: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

In short, anyone who is familiar with much of what Spinoza writes about with respect to God, Bible, and revelation, one can more or less discover many of his ideas in the classical sources. Granted, we have every right to differ with many of Spinoza’s ideas, much like we would differ with Maimonides’s view of Kashrut, or Gersonides’ views regarding Divine omnipresence.

The real problem that we are witnessing today is the attempt of Ultra-Orthodox  (Haredi, Chabad, Haredi Light Judaism, etc.) seeking to homogenize Judaic thought so it will exclude any non-Orthodox form of Judaism. That is the problem that demands addressing.

Our problem boils down to a very human problem: the fear of new ideas. Carl Jung once referred to this problem as  “misoneism” and it is nothing new in the history of human civilization and progress. Stalwarts of the status-quo fear a loss of position and power that comes with the introduction of a new paradigm. History reflects such rigid and intransigent thinking. Unfortunately, it is a problem that is evident in many walks of life—especially when it comes to religion.

The way to fight heretical ideas is not by burning or forbidding these books to be read. We must combat questionable or debatable ideas by coming up with better ideas. This is a legacy that Spinoza tried to start in his own way, and we are greatly indebted for the questions he poses for modern Jews of all denominational movements to wisely consider answering.

 

 

 

Discovering the Supernatural in the Natural

Jewish mystical tradition has long asserted that the scientific and rational oriented mind tends to see the natural in the Supernatural, while the religious minded person tends to see the Supernatural within the natural.

The modern Jewish mystic and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed the same thought even better, when he exclaimed that the religious consciousness begins with our capacity to wonder, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” Science–can certainly inspire this sense of wonderment, whenever we probe the mysteries of life in the universe.

Modern cosmology has developed a remarkable approach to the origin of the universe that has very profound religious implications. This cosmological approach has been called by some as the “Anthropic Principle.” The Anthropic Principle suggests that there may be many regions of a single universe, each with its own structure and laws; only a few might have conditions that exist on this world for the emergence of consciousness and intelligent life. Even more amazing and miraculous is how our conscious sense of personhood could ever have emerged out of the cosmic processes that began eons ago with the Big Bang.

As remarkable, the appearance of life is even on the pristine level, it is even more astounding that human consciousness has the ability to contemplate itself in relation to the universe. The Anthropic Principle shows that the organization of matter in the universe is not a slipshod or haphazard affair the universe reflects symmetry and order. British physicist Paul Davies observes that there are seven essential prerequisites that must be satisfied if life is to exist on the earth:

1. There must be an adequate supply of the elements which comprise our bodies, e.g., carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus and calcium.

2. There must be little or no risk of contamination by other poisonous chemicals such as would be found in an atmosphere containing methane or ammonia.

3. The climatic temperature must remain within a narrow range of 5 to 40 degrees Celsius, which is a mere 2% of the temperature range from within the solar system as a whole.

4. A stable supply of free energy must exist, which in our case is provided by the Sun.

5. Gravity must be strong enough to keep the atmosphere from escaping into space, but it must be weak enough to allow us to move freely about on the Earth’s surface.

6. A protective screen must exist to filter out the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, which in our case is provided by a layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere.

7. A magnetic field must exist in order to prevent cosmic subatomic particles from raining on the Earth. Were the Earth’s circular orbit (a 3% variance) were like the elliptical orbit of the planet Mars, which varies from 50 million kilometers to 4.5 kilometers, the Earth would incinerate once a year when the Earth is closest to the Sun. [1]

Thus if the force of gravity were pushed upward a bit, stars would burn out faster, leaving little time for life to evolve on the planets circling them. If the relative masses of protons and neutrons were changed by a hair, stars might never be born, since the hydrogen they eat wouldn’t exist. If, at the Big Bang, some basic numbers the “initial conditions” had been shaken, matter and energy would never have formed into galaxies, stars, planets or any other platforms stable enough for life as we know it. And so on. At a 1981 symposium, Sir Fred Hoyle is reported to have said:

“The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way (through evolutionary processes) is comparable with the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.” Hoyle further said that “he was at a loss to understand” the compulsion of evolutionary biologists “to deny what seems to me to be obvious (i.e., that evolution is not tenable)–unless God utilized it as a means of creating the world we now know.”[2]

A Washington Post article by Eugene F. Mallove, an astronautical engineer, science writer, and Voice of America broadcaster, noted that “some cosmologists are proposing that the universe has been perfectly designed for life in a way that could not have happened by chance. There is an infinity of ways that the universe could have been set up that would have been more simple with fewer improbable coincidences. Of course in almost any of thesesimpler universes, the odds for the development of anything as complicated as life no matter how you imagined it would be nil.” [3]

Actually such odds may indeed be nil. One of my favorite early 20th century thinker was the French mathematician and philosopher, Pierre Lecomte du Noüy (1883-1947). He examined the laws of probability for a single molecule of high dissymmetry to be formed by the action of chance. De Nouy found that, on an average, the time needed to form one such molecule of our terrestrial globe would be about 10 to the 243 power billions of years. “But,” continued de Nouy ironically, “Let us admit that no matter how small the chance it could happen, one molecule could be created by such astronomical odds of chance. However, one molecule is of no use. Hundreds of millions of identical ones are necessary. Thus we either admit the miracle or doubt the absolute truth of science.”[4]’

For this very reason, Davies argues, “Orthodox Darwinian theory argues against the existence of intelligent life on other planet. On the other hand, if the answer is yes, we would arise again out of the biological soup, then it is pretty certain, Davies says, that intelligent life is not an unlikely accident but what he calls “a natural process of high probability.”

Therefore, life would almost certainly exist out there, not only on one or two other planets, but probably on thousands of them. It would also mean, Davies says, that conventional religious belief would face a challenge as serious as any in history. Such a discovery would force us to alter the Ptolemaic we have adopted about our uniqueness in God’s universe.

And it would also indicate that Darwinism, which is the reigning biological orthodoxy, is at least incomplete, if not wrong. “If human intelligence is just an evolutionary accident, as orthodox Darwinists claim.” Davies writes, “then there is no reason to expect that life on other planets will ever develop intelligence as far as we have . . .By contrast, if we ever did detect the presence of an alien intelligence, “it would suggest that there is a progressive evolutionary trend outside the mechanism of natural selection.” Davies’ opinion he calls it a conjecture that has some support is that Darwinism is indeed incomplete. He theorizes that consciousness is actually an inevitable product of nature, not the product of natural selection.

“After all,” Davies asks, “what Darwinian survival trait can be linked to the intelligence to do higher mathematics? None. Therefore consciousness must stem from other sources.” That idea, moreover, could bring great solace to those who feel alone in the inconceivable vastness of space. “The certain existence of alien beings would give us cause to believe that we, in our humble way, are part of a larger, majestic process of cosmic self-knowledge.” [5] Continue reading “Discovering the Supernatural in the Natural”

How We Won the Cosmic Lottery

SWAP View of Sun space wallpaper

When I read about the sun’s magnetic field reversing its polarity within the next several months, part of me felt a little nervous. How will the sun’s changes affect the earth? Does this mean that our earthly days are numbered? Actually, astronomers and meteorologists have indicated that we have little to worry.

The sun’s shift in polarity will not lead to more solar storms or other events that might spell doom and gloom for the residents of earth. Such an event occurs every eleven years—and given what we have seen in the past, we are still here—alive and well.

The change in polarity may actually have some positive benefits for all us. For one thing, the shift in the sun’s magnetic field will make our planet’s radiation belt more effective as a barrier against dangerous cosmic rays emanating from distant galaxies.

Not bad, no?

In practical terms, the earth’s storms should be less intense since the lightning storms will diminish comparatively.

At any rate, the changes in our sun’s magnetic field illustrate just how finely attuned the universe is calibrated to enhance life on this planet.

In spiritual terms, we may say that God carefully preordained the movement of the heavenly bodies in the cosmos. Had the Earth been closer to the sun or larger than it presently became, the sun’s rays would have incinerated the earth. Had the earth been just slightly farther away from the sun than its present orbit, life on our planet would have frozen. Had the earth’s circular orbit (with a 3% variance) been like the elliptical orbit of the planet Mars, which varies by 42 million kilometers in its distance from the sun, the earth would incinerate annually once it came closest to the sun. Nothing is fortuitous about the Earth’s orbit. Bar-Ilan University physicist Nathan Aviezer observes how fortunate this planet was in the cosmological scheme of the universe:

  • Our planet Earth is very hospitable to life, abundant with air and water essential to life. Our neighbors Mars and Venus, however, have no water or air. Yet shortly after they were formed about 4.6 billion years ago, all three planets (Earth, Mars, and Venus) had comparable amounts of surface water. In fact, the deep channels that are observed today on the surface of Mars were carved out long ago by the copious, fast-flowing Martian primordial surface waters. Venus was once covered by deep oceans which contained the equivalent of a layer of water 3 kilometers deep over the entire surface of the planet. Why, then, are the two planets so completely different today?
  • The difference in the subsequent development of Mars and Venus was due to their proximity to the Sun. Mars is somewhat more distant from the Sun than the Earth. This caused the temperature of Mars to drop in the course of time. Eventually, Mars became so cold that all its surface water froze, and as a result, the planet Mars has become completely devoid of all liquid water, thus preventing the existence of life as we know it on that planet. Venus, on the other hand, is somewhat closer to the Sun than the Earth, which caused it to gradually become hotter. As a result, Venus became so intensely hot, all its oceans and seas completely evaporated and then decomposed into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas, both of which later dissipated. Why did the Earth escape these catastrophes?
  • The answer is that the Earth escaped these catastrophes by sheer accident! The Earth just happened to be sufficiently distant from the Sun that the runaway greenhouse effect did not occur and therefore all our surface water neither evaporated nor decomposed. Moreover, the Earth just happened to be sufficiently near the Sun that it remained warm enough to prevent all the oceans from freezing permanently into ice caps. Therefore, the Earth alone, of all the planets of the solar system, is capable of supporting life. This balance in the carbonate‑silicate geochemical cycle is so delicate that if the Earth were only a few percent closer to or further from the Sun, the possibility for life could not exist. This enigmatic situation has become known among scientists as the “Goldilocks problem of climatology.”[1]

The recent discovery of extrasolar planets orbiting other nearby stars, has given us a new appreciation as to the perfect conditions that exist on this planet, which produce life. One interesting planet, classified as Upsilon Andromeda b, orbits a star that is approximately 40 light-years away in the constellation Andromeda. It is a Jupiter-sized planet that circles closely around its scorching star every 4.6 days—is a world composed of fire and ice. Some planets float eerily through space with heat sources that someday may produce a new solar system, while others orbit pulsar stars, which emit such powerful bursts of energy—life as we know it would prove impossible. Paul Davies refers to our world as hitting the “cosmic jack-pot,” and argues that the “cosmos” appears to have played a “conscious” role in the formation of life, and continues to play a pivotal role in the evolution of the cosmos.

 


[1] Nathan Aviezer, In The Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1990), 37.

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Hollywood Celebrities’ Faces Appear on Planet Mercury

   

For most of us, the planet Mercury looks like a little iron ball, wandering around the sun without much personality.

The Messenger spacecraft has changed that perception.

The photo comes from NASA’s Messenger spacecraft in orbit around Mercury and shows a giant crater topped with two smaller impact basins to create the recognizable shape of one America’s greatest comic iconic personalities—Mickey Mouse! The image of the crater might give a child the impression that Mickey Mouse does not live in Disneyland, but on Mercury!

This past week, the Messenger spacecraft sent back  an image of what appears to be a human-like figure on the surface of Mercury by the orbiting Curiously,  scientists point out a startling resemblance to the frozen Han Solo in Return of the Jedi.  Stuart Guthrie’s fascinating book, Faces in the Clouds.

On July 25, 1976, the Viking 1 probe took some unusual photographs of the Cydonian region of Mars, which presented land formations resembling human faces, and hence came to be known as the “Face of Mars.” Scientists soon dismissed this theory and said that the image was nothing more than a “trick of light and shadow.” Historically, several cultures across the world developed myths regarding the mysterious “man on the moon” images.

The human mind is always projecting images of its own likeness unto the universe.  For Guthrie, the same principle applies no less with respect to religion. For him, religion is the embodiment of anthropomorphism. Guthrie makes a thought-provoking point. Whenever people try to explain abstract processes they do not understand, the tendency is to use language that is metaphorical, for it alone helps people connect with ideas that are subtle and not easily defined. [i] According to Guthrie, the various branches of science, cognitive sciences, ancient and modern philosophy, along with the literary and visual arts abound with anthropomorphism, even though secular scientists and philosophers often criticize it.

In Stewart Elliot Guthrie’s book, Faces in the Clouds, the author theorizes that anthropomorphisms represent a perceptual strategy of how humanity perceives itself in an uncertain world. If, for instance, we mistake a dark shape in the forest it is better to assume it is a bear and not a boulder. Guthrie’s innovative idea is a patterned after the famous wager of Pascal. If what we are observing truly resembles human behavior, then our use of anthropomorphic language is correct; if we are wrong, what did we lose by employing anthropomorphism? In a world where scientific analysis fails or is severely limited, human beings consciously and unconsciously gravitate toward imagining the universe in the likeness of themselves.

Guthrie’s observation is right on target. Human speech uses metaphor for even inanimate objects or a when describing a force of nature as if it the object or force being described possesses human-like qualities and/or actions. Thus, we metaphorically speak of a storm as “vicious” or “threatening,” or “the wind howls throughout the night.” Even in scientific terms, physicians and biologists frequently refer to white blood cells as “fighting off” “invading” microorganisms, or the “selfish gene,” or “the blind watchmaker” (to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins’s popular book). Analogical language is not only vital for understanding religious language, it is no less essential for discerning scientific truths about reality.

In the final analysis, we are always using metaphors and images drawn from human experience whenever we attempt to describe non-human realities. As Voltaire was fond of saying, “In the Bible, God made man in His image and likeness . . . and human beings have been paying the Creator back ever since.”

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Notes:

[i] Stuart Elliot Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds—A New Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press; Oxford, 1993), ch. 6.

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The Mystical Wanderings of the Shekhinah (revised)

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.

 

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”

Are Animals Endowed with a Soul?

The just man knows the soul of his beast, but the heart of the wicked is merciless.

Proverbs 12:10

The author of Proverbs stresses an important ethical lesson: a humane person considers the needs of his animals and acts kindly towards them.[1] The world of Creation is full of sentient beings, which also experience many of the joys and blessings that people commonly enjoy: like humankind, these creatures also experience pain. Suffering is a common language that links humanity with other species of animal life.

Therefore, Jewish ethics take sharp issue with French philosopher Rene Descartes (ca. 1596–1650), who compares animals to machines that service people, stating that their suffering “means nothing more than the creaking of a wheel.”[2] In physiological terms, according to Descartes, what human beings and animals share is that their bodies function by the laws of mechanics. One might respond: How then do human beings differ from animals? Descartes argues that the Creator endows human beings with a divine soul and a moral conscience—qualities that are lacking in animals.

In addition, unlike animals, human beings possess the ability to conceptualize and verbalize ideas. Most importantly, only human beings are capable of conscious and rational thought since they are uniquely endowed with the ability to be self-reflective. Only a human being is capable of exclaiming, “Cogito ergo sum.” Continue reading “Are Animals Endowed with a Soul?”

A Hasidic Atheist?!

Generation X. You gotta love ’em. That’s my son’s generation. He grew up in a Haredi and Hasidic home with an overbearing step-father; and now he is an agnostic, in search of his own spiritual identity. Like Jacob, Moshe struggles with God. I am proud of the fact that he refuses the pat answers of religious zealots.

This takes us to the next part of our story . . . a man, who calls himself Pen Tivokeish–a rather ingenious and clever name. After being brainwashed by the Haredim, he is now very ambivalent about God. Who could blame him? Pen also happens to be a God-wrestler, just like my son.

Here is how his story began. While attending the Discovery Seminar at Aish HaTorah, Pen felt reasonably confident that the critical arguments justifying the belief in an historical Exodus, as well as the arguments refuting evolution and Genesis were unassailable. Or were they? Pen decided to refine his arguments on his own, and discovered that the answers he had ingested were no longer adequate. The more he investigated the issues on the Internet, the more the old Aish arguments began to unravel–along with his faith.

In the end, Pen decided to do what other Generation X-ers do–start a blog as a soliloquy for expressing their deepest spiritual yearnings.  By the way, he has a blog called Penned-In – a pun on both his own sense of confinement and his writing – has proved an outlet for “stuff I probably can’t say in any other settings”, he explained . . . .

Good idea, the spirit of Maimonides must be smiling on Pen Tevakashe.

Freud’s insights in the psychology of fundamentalists is especially poignant here. Freud writes in his Future of an Illusion, that any time people feel a compulsion to justify their faith by resorting to rational proofs, it is because they harbor an unconscious cynicism and really, deep down in their heart of hearts, do not believe in the theological rhetoric they have been forced-fed. Freud obviously describes what young people like Pen and Moshe have struggled with through much of their lives.

“Let us try to apply the same test to the teachings of religion. When we ask on what their claim to be believed is founded, we are met with three answers, which harmonize remarkably badly with one another. Firstly, these teachings deserve to be believed because they were already believed by our primal ancestors; secondly, we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primeval times; and thirdly, it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all. Continue reading “A Hasidic Atheist?!”

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)”