Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 2)

The Scarab’s Tale of  Death and Renewal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archetypal Reverberations

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

Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 1)

A Bridge Across Time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faces in the Clouds?

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

Can a Golem be counted as part of a minyan?

Childhood Memories

As a child, I used to love reading the golem stories attributed to Rabbi Judah Lowe, a.k.a., the famous “Maharal of Prague” (1525-1609).  Since my father came from Czechoslovakia, I grew up hearing many family tales about the golem. These stories were especially delightful since my father was a naturally talented storyteller.  The golem was something like a medieval super-hero who protected the Jewish community from pogroms in its time.  It is interesting to note, that despite the numerous tracts Maharal wrote on various philosophical, talmudic, and mystical themes, never once does he ever refer to the golem that is associated with his name.

What is a Golem?

The term gōlem is a “shapeless mass” (Ps. 139:16), but according to Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature that is made from clay, and is animated by magical and mystical means. One of the more apocryphal stories of the Talmud relates how a 4th century scholar named Rava, magically created a man through the Sefer Yetzirah and sent him to Rabbi Zera. The latter tried speaking to him, but the poor golem could not speak. When there was no response, he declared: ‘You must be a  product of our colleague. Return to your dust!’ and so he died (BT Sanhedrin 65b).

Ironically, it is with no precedent in the Bible, except for the creation of Adam–except, now, it is man who is attempting to act as a mini-creator. How could such hubris not fail?

Indeed, in nearly all the golem legends, it appears that anytime mortals attempt to create human life, it is an activity that is fraught with danger. It seems that our ancestors felt suspicious about the full extent of man’s creative powers. In many of the stories, the golem goes out of control, destroying everything in sight.

Adaptations of the Golem in Western Literature and Cinema

The Frankenstein story is a European re-adaptation of the golem legends. In J. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Hobbit Gollum devolves into a treacherous shape-shifter under the malign influence of the Ring, it seems obvious that the author had these legends in mind.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Data personifies  the golem legend. When attempting to integrate the emotional chip, he becomes capable of erratic behavior–even violence. Countless sci-fi films have developed this theme in numerous tales about humanoid-like robots turning against their masters, i.e., like the Terminator series. Even the X-Files had an interesting episode of a betrothed woman who turns her murdered husband into a golem, in order to avenge his death.

According to some medieval tales, the golem is indestructible; if the golem had been created by writing the Hebrew word “אמת” (emet; “truth”) on its forehead, it could be destroyed by erasing the first letter to produce the word “מת” (met; “dead”). If one had created a golem by placing the name of God in its mouth, all that was needed was to remove the parchment. Continue reading “Can a Golem be counted as part of a minyan?”

Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 1)

Hello everyone,

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

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

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

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

Disputed Origins of Idolatry: Pre-modern Views (Part 1)

The origin of idolatry is a fascinating study in and of itself. Maimonides traced the origin of idolatry to  the pre-Diluvial era of Enosh. Maimonides writes:

During the days of Enosh, humankind made a serious mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave foolish advise. Enosh himself was one of those who erred. Here is what developed: They said for as much that God created the stars and the celestial planets with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Therefore, it is only fitting to praise and glorify them and to accord them with honor. The ancients perceived this to be the will of the Blessed Holy One, that they aggrandize  and give homage to those whom He magnified and honored. Just as a king desires to be honored by the servants  who stand before him. Indeed by doing so, they thought they were in fact honoring the King.  After considering this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offered sacrifices to them. The ancients would praise and glorify the heavenly hosts with words while prostrating themselves before them, because by doing so, they thought they would be fulfilling God’s will. This was the essence of idolatry, and the  justification given by  those who worshiped them.  Originally, the ancients did not say there is any other god except for this star. . . .[1]

Maimonides contends that  the ancients eventually forgot about the one true God. It was far easier for them to believe in what was visible rather someone or something that was invisible.  They assumed that all the celestial powers were vested in whatever representation they chose to worship.

Some theories dating back to the ancient Greeks proposed an equally intriguing theory about the origin of religion. The founder of atomism,  Democritus (ca. 460?-370? BCE), was among the first thinkers to suggest that the gods were nothing more than physical phenomena that appear to mankind, and only  “appeared” to speak. This belief arouse from early man’s terror of the solar eclipse, thunder, and so on.  The belief in these “deities” made it necessary for the ignorant, ethically stunted to refrain from wrongdoing only through the fear of punishment, and not because they regarded morality as essential for their happiness.

In some of Plato’s writings, the famed philosopher felt that the belief in gods were necessary, in order to curb human wickedness and corruption. The belief in gods presupposed there is an order to the universe, and if there were indeed no gods, then the order of the heavens must be an accident. [2]  Several other Greek and Roman thinkers saw a kinship between superstition and religion. In its earliest Latin literary usage by Plautus and Ennius, superstitio was already a negative term describing divination, magic, and “bad religion” in general. Cicero gives a concrete example, explaining that “those who spent whole days in prayer and offered sacrifices, that their children might outlive them, are called superstitious” [3].

For classical Roman observers like Seneca, Lucretius, and Cicero, and Livy superstition meant erroneous, false, or excessive religious behaviors stemming from ignorance of philosophical and scientific truths about the laws of nature.  Such ignorance was associated with the common people (vulgus) and with the countryside (pagus), so that superstitious behavior as practiced by simple old men and women.

In Cicero’s On Divination, the philosopher concludes that religion was useful because it helped to control human behavior and could be used as a tool for public policy; and in this context divination could be useful too (as when an unwise political decision was prevented by the announcement that the omens were unfavorable). To many of these thinkers, the ancients “invented” the belief in gods as “a noble lie,” a necessary crutch (or as an “illusion” as formulated by Freud) or simple and ignorant people to believe that these deities have the means for securing blessing and avoiding disaster. Continue reading “Disputed Origins of Idolatry: Pre-modern Views (Part 1)”

“Monkeying” Around with Evolution & Thoughts on Global Warming

Debating Evolution in Israel

The United States is not the only place where creationists attempt to redesign the science curriculum in textbooks. Israel’s chief scientist in Israel’s ministry of education, Gavriel Avital, “sparked a furor” by questioning the reliability of evolution and global warming, leading to calls for his dismissal, according to Haaretz (Feb. 21, 2010).

Avital asserts, “If textbooks state explicitly that human beings’ origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don’t believe the evolutionary account is correct,” he was quoted as saying. “There are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else. Part of my responsibility, in light of my position with the Education Ministry, is to examine textbooks and curricula.”

Of course all thus sounds quite familiar to those of us who are debating the merits and demerits of the Intelligent Design theories in this country. Frankly, I personally see nothing wrong with raising the issues that science confronts today. For those who argue that Intelligent Design is bogus science, wouldn’t it be interesting for students to at least participate in a scientific debate  and understand why it is bogus science? If science is to be relevant to students, then it should take on the issues that confront its accepted wisdom.

I wonder: how many students really understand why the geocentric view of the solar system is scientifically incorrect? Physicists have long argued whether light functions more like a wave or like a particle? The history of science is fascinating. Why shouldn’t students see how scientific views of universe evolves?

Now, with respect to the Anthropic Principle, this is a theory in modern physics that does have very interesting theological and philosophical implications. Why should this theory be banned from discussion? Are we so insecure in our beliefs that we are afraid to entertain the great questions that have puzzled many of the world’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and thinkers since the time of Aristotle? What ever happened to the love of learning? Continue reading ““Monkeying” Around with Evolution & Thoughts on Global Warming”

Why did God create the ego?

Someone sent an interesting question the other day in an email: What is the most logical reason why the ego exists?

Why do people ask me only the easy questions?

Here is a thumbnail sketch. The answer to this question probably depends on how one wants to define the term “ego.” Philosophers, psychologists, theosophists and mystics each have their own perspective on what precisely constitutes the “ego.” According to Plato, which he identified with also identified with Nous (‘Mind’) and Descartes likewise had a similar view, namely, the ego is the personal identity of an individual that can exist independently of the body.

British skeptic David Hume was puzzled as to the nature of his core self, while other philosophers like Hobbes felt uncomfortable with anything that was so mysterious and non-physical.

Some thinkers believe that the ego pertains to the conscious areas of the personality associated with self-control and self-observation.  On the other hand, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) taught that the ego refers to a certain area of the psyche that stands at the center of the person and involves the individual’s attributes and functions. Without the ego, we would be incapable functioning. One of Freud’s best known quotes, “Where id was there shall ego be”—that situated Freud as the father of modern psychology.  Freud asserts that consciousness is the ego’s awareness and mediation of the unconscious. This awareness in turn lets the ego realistically to allocate a part of the sexual force (libido) for sexual activity and love and productively, as well as sublimate the remainder for meaningful work. Without ever explaining why, Freud contends that reason enables the healthy ego to perceive a close approximation of reality. Thus, science and reason are indispensable for the individual’s salvation.

Another psychologist, Heinz Kohout,  views the ego in a somewhat different light. He argues that the ego [or what he prefers to call “the self”] refers to the principle that gives unity to the mind without which we could not function. According to the French psychologist Piaget, the term egocentric does not denote a sense of self that is differentiated from the world but quite the opposite—the self is NOT separated or distinguished from the world; the ego has no sense healthy sense of separateness apart from the world. Often the word “ego” carries nothing but the most preparative connotations, but the simple truth is we would have no identity were it not for the ego. Continue reading “Why did God create the ego?”

Con-Versing with Jewish Mysticism: Maimonides’ Understanding of the Mezuzah’s Purpose

Philosopher Moses Maimonides believed that superstition undermines Judaism as a rational belief system.  For him, the purpose of mezuzah has nothing to do with protection, but rather, serves as a didactic device that teaches us about the importance of making ethical monotheism a part of our daily lives. There can be no doubt that Maimonides would have considered the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mitzvah campaign of promoting the mezuzah as well-meaning, but theologically foolish–and perhaps even pagan-esque, since it devalues the purpose of God’s commandments.

The Psychology of Amulets

Maimonides contrasts religion and superstition in his discussion about using incantations to heal a wound:

“Anyone who whispers a incantation over a wound and reads a verse from the Torah, or one who recites a biblical verse over a child so he won’t be frightened, or one who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over an infant to enable him to sleep, are not only included in the category of sorcerers and charmers, but are included among those who repudiate the Torah. They use the words of the Torah as a physical cure, whereas they are exclusively a cure for the soul, as it is written, ‘they will be life to your soul.’ On the other hand, one who is enjoying good health is permitted to recite biblical verses, or a psalm, that he may be shielded and saved from affliction and damage by virtue of the reading.” [1]

He further states:  The ancient Sages said, “Whoever has tefillin on his head and arm, tsitsit on his garment, and a mezuzah on his door can rest assure that he will not sin,” for he has many reminders, and these are the “angels” who will save him from sinning, as it is said, “The angel of the LORD, who encamps with them, delivers all who fear God” [Ps. 34:8].” For Maimonides, the rituals of Judaism serve one purpose only: to teach the worshiper how to become mindful of God’s commandments. [2]

For Maimonides, the power of the mezuzah, tefillin (phylacteries), or other ritual items rests in their ability to convey the meaning of faith to its faith community. They are not magical amulets, nor do they have holiness in and by themselves.  Maimonides took a dim view of men who, in his generation, claimed to use God’s Names for theurgical (magical) purposes. In referring to the writers and hucksters  of magical healing amulets, he writes: “Do not let occur to your mind the vain imaginings of the writers of amulets or names you may hear from them or what you may find in their stupid books, names they have invented and… they think work miracles. All these are stories that it is not seemly for a perfect man to listen to, much less to believe.” [3]

Much in the same spirit as Maimonides, Josephus, (c. 37-100 C.E.) also attests to antiquity of the mezuzah,  and speaks of it as well-established custom. Inscribed with passages of the Torah which emphasize the unity of God, His providence, and the resulting duty of man toward Him, the mezuzah is an emblematic representation of Israel’s belief and practice. Thus Josephus says in speaking of the mezuzah (l.c.): “The greatest benefits of God are to be written on the doors . . . in order that His benevolent providence may be made known everywhere” [4].

The Nature of a Fetish

There is an interesting anthropological term that may shed some light on our discussion–the fetish. According to the ethnology of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term “fetishism” was used to describe the veneration of certain objects (rocks, trees, teeth, and so on ) that were thought to possess spirits or to have special powers. Such veneration is said to be one of the defining qualities of the so-called tribal societies.

Other thinkers argue that the “fetish,” refers to  “irrational” modes of conduct in our own society. Thus, for example, I. Kant (1724–1804) said that a fetish is any form of worship that consists essentially not of moral principles but of mere rules of faith. We might add that any faith can become a fetish when its participants merely follow the rituals without ever contemplating the deeper meaning of what they are doing.

Even the Tablets Can Become a Fetish

Like Maimonides before him, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (ca. early 20th century) recognized the dangers in transforming Jewish ritual objects into a fetish.  The writer raises an important question: How could Moses destroy  the Ten Commandments? Surely if one destroyed a Torah scroll, such an act would be considered sacrilege; how much more so with the Tablets, since the Tablets were written by God Himself!?  Rabbi Meir Simcha explains in his Torah Commentary:

“Torah and faith are the main aspects of the Jewish faith and all its sanctities, e.g., Eretz Yisrael (“the Land of Israel”), Jerusalem—are  only a means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. Do not think that the sanctuary and the Temple are holy objects in their own right. Far be it! God dwells among His people and if they were like Adam who violated the covenant, all their sanctity is removed and they become as profane objects. . . . Moreover, even the Tablets which were written by God Himself, are not holy per se, but are so only because of you–if you observe them. When the Israelites acted disgracefully under the bridal canopy by consorting with the Golden Calf,  the Tablets became as mere pottery. By themselves, they have no sanctity. The Tablets become holy only if it inspires a religious life suffused with ethical behavior.  There is nothing in this world that is holy except for God. Nothing in Creation is holy in itself; through Torah, Creation becomes sanctified and made holy. I wish these words would be written on the walls of every synagogue!” [5] Continue reading “Con-Versing with Jewish Mysticism: Maimonides’ Understanding of the Mezuzah’s Purpose”

A Famous 20th Century Hassidic Rebbe Endorses Ptolemaic Science!

Why did the early rabbis of Late Antiquity believe that the sun revolves around the earth?

On the surface, the Sages wanted to uphold the belief that the earth is still the center of God’s universe.  However, in all honesty, one cannot blame the ancient rabbis for thinking that way; the majority of them were unacquainted with the science of the Greeks, many of whom (like Aristotle)  believed that the earth revolves around the sun. One would be hard pressed to find a modern rabbi of the last five centuries who would argue otherwise, yet, in modern times there is one famous rabbi who unabashedly believes in the science of Ptolemy over Copernicus–the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Here is an extraordinary letter the Rebbe wrote (dated: September 16, 1968):

I am in receipt of your letter of September 10th, in which you touch upon the question of whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa, in view of the fact that you heard from a college student that the truth is that the earth revolves around the sun. It greatly surprises me that, according to your letter, the student declared that science has resolved that the earth revolves around the sun. The surprising thing is that a person making such a declaration would be about one half a century behind the times insofar as the position of modern science is concerned. This belief is completely refuted by the theory of Relativity, which has been accepted by all scientists as the basis for all the branches of science.

One of the basic elements of this theory is that when two bodies in space are in motion relative to one another (actually the theory was initiated on the basis of the movements of stars, planets, the earth, etc.), science declares with absolute certainty that from the scientific point of view both possibilities are equally valid, namely that the earth revolves around the sun, or the sun revolves around the earth.

Cited from Herman Branover, Joseph Ginsburg, and Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (trans. Arnie Gotfryd) Mind over Matter: The Lubavitcher Rebbe on Science, Technology and Medicine (Jerusalem: Shamir 2003), 75-77.

Creation as Novelty

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

However, Ibn Ezra is less convinced and contends that the linguistic evidence does not support such an interpretation.[7] The verb בָּרָא’ may also mean to fashion something out of already existing materials (e.g., the creation of man, whose body came from the dust of the earth, and whose soul issued forth from God’s breath).[8] Ibn Ezra’s comments could also suggest the universe was constructed out of pre-existent matter. However, pre-existent matter need not imply a dualism; it may imply that this ethereal substance is “pre-eternal” only in relationship to the Creation as Novelty. Continue reading “Creation as Novelty”