Isaac’s Spiritual Initiation as a Biblical Patriarch (new)

 

Popular culture often adds its own midrashic spin to famous biblical stories. The episode known as the Akedah, “The Binding of Isaac” illustrates the harrowing chapter when Abraham almost saw his future go literally, “up in smoke.” Bob Dylan and Woody Allen both add a remarkable subtext to the story where Abraham nearly ritually slaughtered his son as a sacrifice to God.

Dylan sees a dark side to God’s behavior. In his song, Highway Sixty One Revisited, Dylan writes:

  • “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’ God say, ‘No.’ Abe say, ‘What?’ God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me comin’ you better run.’”

Some people experience God as a demonic being that is out to “get us,” if we fail to worship God properly. In the Midrashic imagination, God’s behavior in this instance is reminiscent of Job’s experience. Job, as you probably know, experienced God as an adversary. In fact, the name, “Iyob” means “enemy,” and the identity of this “enemy” remains an enigma throughout this particular biblical book.

Woody Allen offers a neo-Kantian approach to the Akedah story. Like Kant, Allen contends that Abraham actually fails the test.                                       

  • God: “I jokingly suggest you to sacrifice Isaac and you immediately run out to do it.” And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.” And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.” “But does this not prove I love you, that I was willing to donate mine only son on your whim?” And the Lord said, “No, Abraham, that doesn’t prove anything at all. All it proves that lunatics and fanatics will follow any order no matter how asinine, as long as it comes from a resonant and well-modulated voice.”

Woody Allen’s interpretation is one that even some Hassidic Rebbes have embraced. Emil Fackenheim, one of the greatest  Jewish theologians of the Holocaust, recalls the following story told to him by a Hasid:

  • A Hasid once called me: “I want to see you.” I asked, “Why?” He said, “I have something to teach you. So he showed up, about 25 years old, in his black garb and payot [side curls]. What I remember was his question: “Did it ever occur to you that the God who asks Abraham to do the Akeda [binding of Isaac] as a sacrifice, sends an angel to stop it?” And he said, ‘God was fed up with Abraham: when he asked him to sacrifice his son ‑‑ that was the test ‑‑‑ He wanted Abraham to say NO!” [The Hasid might have been surprised to know that Immanuel Kant made the same observation over 2 centuries ago!]

Yes, the story of the Akedah creates cognitive dissonance in us.

How do we differentiate between the voice of God and the voice that mimics and parodies God, but is in reality, the voice of cruelty and evil?

If one examines Midrash Rabbah on the Akedah, the Sages intimated that Satan is the one who instigated this ordeal for Abraham. In symbolical and psychological terms, Abraham’s test consists of differentiating between the true voice of God and the voice that parodies God (Satan).

I believe that the Midrash offers a profound insight.

The Akedah teaches us that there are two types of religiosity. One is authentic and life affirming, the other type of religiosity is a cheap imitation because it doesn’t inspire people to live in accordance with Judaism’s highest principles.

Discerning God’s voice isn’t too hard, for any God who would demand that we sacrifice our children, is hardly worthy of our love or our devotion. God did not want Abraham to kill Isaac ‑‑ He wanted Abraham to just say NO! The prophet Jeremiah makes this point abundantly clear in his condemnation of Molech worship, which had taken root in ancient Israel:

  • Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the shrines of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Tophet, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter (Jer. 19:4-6).

The Talmud adds an important interpretation of the above Scriptural text:

And it is further written, “which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind.” —   This refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, the king of Moab, as it is said, “Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall” (2 Kings 3:27) –  This portion of the verse refers to the daughter of Jephthah. (Judg. 11:13) “nor did it enter my mind”  —  This refers to the sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham.[1]

Unfortunately, we have witnessed the horrors of 9/11 and countless acts of terrorism in the world where parents send their children to maim and destroy in the Name of God. Too often, religious people use God to justify every conceivable evil.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook once said that a great amount of the world’s suffering is because people have a confused conception of God. As religious people, we must make sure that our thoughts of God are clean and free from the dross of deceptive fantasies that are based on human inadequacies.  Faith in God must enhance human happiness and promote a  reverence for life. Continue reading “Isaac’s Spiritual Initiation as a Biblical Patriarch (new)”

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”

Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 2)

Let me apologize if the following material seems obtusely worded. Some rabbis have a serious problem expressing coherent thoughts that appeal to common sense. Clearly, some of our ancestors were lacking in this department. The Talmudic style of reasoning called, “pilpul” (“peppered” didactic reasoning) can appeal to the inner sophist we all have. At times, I like to refer to this style of argumentation as, “rabbinicspeak,” and to understand or argue with it, you have to almost think like a mental contortionist.

Continuing with our last thought, how could Deborah in the Bible (Judg. 4:4) serve as a judge, according to the Talmudic and medieval rabbis?  The 13th century of scholars known as the Tosfot, try to make sense of the problem posed. To their credit, Tosfot offers at least adds fluidity to much of its interpretation; they are a lot like the girl with the curl, when they are good . .  . you know the rest of the story. The same may be said of the Tosfot interpretations.

Ba’ale Tosfot discuss the problem from a variety of perspectives:

A. One answer proposed suggests that that Deborah was a judge because her community accepted her. Tosfot also admits that a woman is considered to be an equal in every matter of jurisprudence, except when it comes to serving as a witness. [1]

B. The Jerusalem Talmud rules that a woman is not allowed to act as a judge [2]; the case of Deborah is the exception–and certainly not the norm. Deborah was chosen by virtue of the Shekhinah resting upon her.[3]

C. Alternatively, one may accept a woman to serve as a judge, just like two litigants may accept a relative to serve as a judge–provided each party agrees. [4]

D. Some scholars say that Deborah could only “teach,” but she could not render legal decisions–only men could do that.[5] Continue reading “Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 2)”

Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 1)

This past week, the Jewish Star updated its article about the maverick Modern Orthodox named Rabbi Avi Weiss, who recently backed down from a confrontation with the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) over his decision to offer ordination to a Sara Hurwitz, as an Orthodox rabbi.

Frankly, I am not surprised at all by the series of events that ensued. Surprisingly, Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran admitted that the issue whether women may become rabbis or not is not a matter of “Torah law,” or not; in his opinion, it is morally wrong. Shafran remarked, “[If] Weiss had the backing of a world-class posek (halachic decisor) he would have a claim that he’s not departing [from the mesorah], but he does not have any such backings on the recognized Orthodox spectrum, chareidi or central. He’s changing the face of mesorah without anyone of stature behind him.”

I am curious: Where does the Torah speak about rabbis in the first place, since “rabbis” did not exist in biblical times?

But wait, it gets more interesting than just that.

Rabbi Shafran further argues that the ordination of a woman ran counter to the concept of tzniut, (modesty). It includes the idea that women are demeaned, not honoured, when they are placed in the public eye,” said Rabbi Shafran, “and that a position like the one suggested here is violative of that concept.”

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck, NJ, expresses a similar position in his blog: “There are two greater objections: the utter disregard of norms of tzniut, with which ModOs generally struggle, and the corruption of the methodology of psak that transmits the Mesora and Jewish cultural norms and societal values. The only way to consider in this context the compelling Jewish value of “the glory of the King’s daughter is within” (kal kevuda bat melech penima- Tehillim 45:14) is essentially to discount it and say it has no relevance in the modern Western world. Thus, this ideal of Jewish femininity – the disinclination to seek a public spiritual role, cited by Chazal hundreds of times – is simply written out of the Torah system. And why ? …” Continue reading “Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 1)”

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?”

Creating a Pathway toward Reconciliation

The Middle East has often been synonymous with the metaphors of despair and angst. This story began about six years ago, when a young Israeli Arab law student and musician named George Khoury, was accidentally killed by a drive-by Palestinian terrorist, while jogging in East Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood. The terrorists exclaimed afterward, “Oops, we thought your son was Jewish. Sorry . . .”

To most people, a victim of terrorism is just a statistic–unless you happen to personally know who the victim was. George was an  Israeli who lived among Palestinians, in a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem. While he was a high school student, he participated in interfaith projects with fellow Christians, Muslims and Jews. His death was so tragic because it was so unnecessary.

George’s father, Elias, is a respectable attorney in Jerusalem, has fought for Palestinians clients that had their lands confiscated by the Israeli government. Elias Khoury believes violence is a poison that is harming the Palestinian people. In memory of his beloved son, he made an unusual decision that has stirred controversy among his fellow Palestinians and Arabs–both within Israel–and well beyond Israel’s borders.

Elias decided to pay for an Arabic translation of Israeli writer Amos Oz’s autobiography, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”Amos Oz is beloved as a moderate and a dove, and Elias wanted the Palestinian community to learn about a different kind of Israeli, whose vision might help co-create  a new and more tolerant peaceful co-existence for Israel and the Palestinian people. Perhaps this new literary project would also give redemptive meaning to his son’s tragic death so that other young people might be spared from the endless cycle of violence.

The Arabic version of the book, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” went on sale late last month in Beirut, Lebanon. So far it has received pretty favorable reviews–especially by Abdo Wazen, cultural editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat. As to be expected, some have reacted critically toward the book’s publication as well. The book is due to be distributed more widely in the region in the coming weeks. The book will soon be released in Egypt and Jordan.

Perhaps the pen is mightier than the sword.

You can be sure this literary work will send shock-waves throughout the Muslim world–from Algeria to Tehran.

Elias writes in his preface to the Arabic translation, “This book tells the history of the rebirth of the Jewish people,” he said as he sat in his law office. “We can learn from it how a people like the Jewish people emerged from the tragedy of the Holocaust and were able to reorganize themselves and build their country and become an independent people. If we can’t learn from that, we will not be able to do anything for our independence.” [1] Continue reading “Creating a Pathway toward Reconciliation”

Haredi Rabbis “declare war” on the Internet (Part 2)

Understanding the “Real” War Against the Internet

Strangely, Rosenblum neglects to mention the most important aspect about the  Haredi war against the Internet–they fear its self critiquing and self-examination much more than the erotic websites.  Banning the Internet promotes the conspiracy of silence it desires.  Ynet news uncovered a document where the rabbis denounce the websites – the majority of which are daily news publications unsanctioned by the ultra-Orthodox establishment – on grounds that they “pursue all manners of news and gossip that defame our public” and “spread slander, lies and impurities to thousands.”

Haredi rabbis want to create a hermetic seal that will prevent their people from critically examining its community’s leaders, many of whom have been exploiting their flock in almost every conceivable way for decades.

In the same Ynet issue, Jerusalem “modesty squads” says computers containing “abominations” found in apartments rented by yeshiva students, calls on capital’s residents to “stand guard” and have forbidden the ownership of computers in the yeshivas.

The real animus against the Internet is not so much toward the erotic sites, it is toward the news services that openly criticize Haredi power and undermine their authority. Micromanaging or lobotomizing its Haredi community cannot solve the problem here.

What the rabbis are really trying to prevent is the emergence of self-reflective Haredim who are willing to take a hard and serious look at the level of dysfunction within its community. There was a time when child-molesters in the Haredi community could hide and get away with a cloak of unanimity. The Internet has made it virtually impossible for pedophiles to hide. Nor will the Internet hide the financial shenanigans we see among many of the most prestigious leaders of the Haredi community–they too, are now accountable. Continue reading “Haredi Rabbis “declare war” on the Internet (Part 2)”

Haredi Rabbis “declare war” on the Internet (Part 1)

JONATHAN ROSENBLUM is a fine and articulate Haredi columnist for the Jerusalem Post. In one of his most recent articles, Rosenblum writes about the Haredi rabbinic decision to “declare war” on the Internet. “Declare war” you say? Ah, them’s fightin’ words!

On the surface, the Haredi Guardyoureyes looks like an organization that has some positive potential. After going to the website, the webmasters state its purpose in unambiguous terms:

Welcome to GuardYourEyes, a vibrant network and fellowship of religious Jews of all affiliations, struggling to purify themselves and break free from inappropriate behaviors stemming from Lust addiction. With the advance of technology and the ease of availability and privacy that the internet provides, it has become a daily struggle for many religious Jews to remain erlich (morally and ethically upright) even in their own homes. Jewish Leaders, Rabbis and Experts worldwide, are beginning to speak out about this serious problem more and more. Our network is comprised of a website: www.guardureyes.com, a dynamic blog-site at …

Rosenblum supports the goals of the organization and thinks that this type of self-policing is a good thing for members of the Haredi community. Many Americans in this country are also concerned about the problems and challenges posed by the Internet for their families–especially considering that the average adolescent spends more time on the Internet than watching traditional television.

In addition, Rosenblum also complains about the “various chat rooms, or erotica Web sites, or instant communications devices that make it easy to establish illicit relationships.” I know many Christian believing families in this country who would concur.

So, what’s so bad about this type of organization? Actually, the Guardureyes.com does not bother me  in the least. I think the issues of pornography addiction are a serious problem for the repressed world of the ultra-Orthodox, which has yet to teach its people how to relate to women as people and not as sex objects. For whatever the reason, the yeshiva world has done a poor job in instilling proper impulse control in their students–as evidenced by their students frequenting the erotic websites. In this respect, religious adolescents will behave like adolescents do in the secular world. This  particular website at least tries to help its followers get a better grip on their behavior. The fact that Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, M.D  is a part of this organization, speaks very well of its goals. Rav Twerski is one outstanding Haredi.

Kudos deservedly go to Guardyoureyes. Continue reading “Haredi Rabbis “declare war” on the Internet (Part 1)”

A Halachic Reductio ad absurdum

One of my favorite concepts in logic is the reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to the absurd”)  argument, which is a logical method of argument that proves the falsity of a premise  by following its implications to a logical but absurd conclusion.

“Fortifying the Walls of Conversion” ?

Today, at a conference dedicated to “fortifying walls of conversion,”  the Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger expressed moral support for Rabbi Sherman, who annulled thousands of conversions carried out by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who has been the past acting  director of the National Conversion Authority in Israel.

In the past couple of years or more, Haredi politicians in Israel have on a number of occasions tried to oust the rabbi, most notably under the corrupt leadership of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert , but Rav Druckman refused to go and there was nothing his critics could do to force him to leave. Even after his departure from the directorship, Haredi politicians and rabbis are still trying to overturn all of his conversions, which may affect the status of about 15,000 converts in Israel.

Explaining Why Revoking Conversions is Wrongheaded

The concept of revoking a conversion is a recent innovation in rabbinic law. As we have posted in other places, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) does not sanction revocation of conversions at all. Should a convert return to his former gentile roots, the halacha still considers him as a “sinful Israelite.” [1]

Simply stated, revoking conversions is risky business and can cause unspeakable harm to countless innocents who are indirectly or directly  triangulated in the rabbinic web the Haredi rabbis have woven.

Reductio ad absurdum in Action

Say, for example, a woman converts from Catholicism and becomes a pious Haredi Jewess at the tender age of 20; she then raises a Haredi family and has  20 children of her own–all who live pious Haredi lives. Now each of those 20 children of the second generation have 20 children of their own, and they too, remain pious and God fearing Haredim.

As time passes, each person of the the third generation of 20 children produces  20 children–all who remain within the Haredi community. Continue reading “A Halachic Reductio ad absurdum”

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)”