Thoughts on Aging: From Abraham & Sarah to Satchel Paige

 

Isn’t it amazing that Americans are living longer than ever before in recorded history  More than 87 million Americans will be over 65 by the year 2040, according to the National Institute of Aging.  Today, the over‑65 group accounts for about 30 million people; the elderly make up over 15% of the nation’s population.  Life expectancy and other demographic trends will have a profound impact on health‑care costs in the future.

About 200 years ago, the average life expectancy in America was 35 years.  A child born today can expect to live to be at least 75 years. In a short 200 years, the average life expectancy has more than doubled.  The National Institute on Aging projects that in 2040 the average life expectancy will be 86 years for men and 92 years for women.  About 66% of all the people who have lived beyond 65 in the entire history of the world are alive today. Statisticians describe this phenomenon has as, “The senior explosion.” One wonders, what does Jewish tradition have to say about growing old?

This week’s parsha deals with the subject of growing old. A wise man once said, “There are three ingredients to the good life and they are: learning, earning, and yearning.” Let us examine the Midrash’s exposition of Abraham and Sarah’s life, “She lived 100 years and twenty years and seven years –so were the years of Sarah’s life” (Gen. 23:1).

Why did the sacred narrator use such an unusual configuration?

Rashi explains that the Midrash tells us that all the years of Sarah’s life were marked with the quality of goodness. When she was 100 years old, she still had the beauty of a 20 year old. When she was 20, she still had the child‑like innocence of a 7 year old.

Sarah  kept those qualities all her life, even into old age. Did Sarah hang out at the local salon to maintain her beauty? Did she have periodic face‑lifts? I doubt it. Sarah’s beauty emanated from within. Her life was truly remarkable when you consider it. Both Abraham and Sarah began their careers when most would have filed for Social Security.

In short, both Abraham and Sarah taught us that growing old does not mean we cannot achieve our dreams and aspirations.  Sarah’s personal narrative bears this truth out. For many years, she was childless. Sarah experienced many hard years of traveling in the desert. Sarah lived with famine; she endured the stigma of being a childless woman in a society that valued women solely in terms of their ability to bear offspring.  She was forcefully taken into the homes of Pharaoh and Abimelech. She had the thankless job of being a stepmother to a problem child. How did she do it?

Rabbi Zusa of Anapol explained that Sarah had an optimistic attitude about life.  For every uncomfortable situation, Sarah would always say, “This too is for the good.” Even in bad times, Sarah learned to view negative situations as opportunities for growth.

Unfortunately, many people forget that one’s life is not dependent on external circumstances. We may not always be able to control our circumstances, but we do have autonomy as to how we will react to the circumstances.

Sarah and Abraham teach us that we need to view life as something that is unconditionally meaningful. According to Erik Ericson, the primary problem facing us when we get old is simply this: Shall we face our twilight years with integrity, or shall we face it with despair?

Attitude is, indeed, important. Some years ago, I visited a woman who was celebrating her 99th birthday. As I left, I cheerfully said, “I hope I will be able to come back next year to celebrate your 100th birthday with you.” Her reply was unique and precious, “I hope you live long enough to make it.”

Since life is a gift, we must learn to treasure it at any age. Indeed, many great people of history have done exactly achieved great things in the last segment of their lives.  In the Bible we find that Abraham was 75 when he first went forth from his father’s home to start a new nation. He sires a child at 100, while Sarah becomes a mother at 90.

Moses was 80 when God called and, although he cited many excuses, he never mentioned his old age.   Socrates gave the world his wisest philosophy at 70; Socrates even managed  to learn how to play on musical instruments in the last years of his life.   Plato was only a student at 50. He did his best after reaching 60.   Michelangelo was still composing poetry and designing structures in his 89th year. He painted the ceiling of Sistine Chapel on his back on a scaffold at near 90.

The story of Sarah teaches us that we need to see every epoch in a person’s life as an opportunity to grow . Sarah was that kind of person.

This week, the Cardinals are playing the Red Sox for the World Series Championship. There is a wonderful story in baseball history about growing old. One of baseball’s most remarkable pitchers was Satchel Paige who played for some of the most prestigious teams of the oldNegro League.

After Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier in baseball in 1947, Satchel Paige became the oldest “rookie”  to ever debut in the major leagues, at the age of 42 years and two days. With the St. Louis Browns beating the Indians 4–1 in the bottom of the fourth inning, Boudreau pulled his starting pitcher, Bob Lemon, and sent Paige in. Paige, not knowing the signs and not wanting to confuse his catcher, pitched cautiously. Chuck Stevens lined a ball left field for a single. Jerry Priddy bunted Stevens over to second. Up next was Whitey Platt, and Paige decided to take command—and took command he certainly did!

In 1965, Kansas City Athletics owner Charles O. Finley signed Paige, 59 at the time, for one game. On September 25, against the Boston Red Sox, Finley invited several Negro league veterans including Cool Papa Bell to be introduced before the game. Paige was in the bullpen, sitting on a rocking chair, being served coffee by a “nurse” between innings. He started the game by getting Jim Gosger out on a pop foul. The next man, Dalton Jones, reached first and went to second on an infield error, but was thrown out trying to reach third on a pitch in the dirt.  Continue reading “Thoughts on Aging: From Abraham & Sarah to Satchel Paige”

How We Sometimes Lose and Rediscover Our Faith

victory of light over darkness........( right is always victorious )

Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox is someone I admire. As a clinical psychologist and researcher living in Israel, he has researched a social and religious phenomenon about a subject that many of us rabbis would sooner deny than admit: there are an increasing number of Orthodox and Conservative atheist rabbis! By “Orthodox,” I do not necessarily mean your typical Modern Orthodox rabbi. For Shrell-Fox, his list includes Zionist Orthodox and Haredi rabbis.

By now, I hope I have your attention.

These rabbis have something in common: they live religiously duplicitous lives. During the day, they function as icons of their faith, but when nobody is watching them, they live in an “atheistic closet.”

According to Shrell-Fox’s study:

  • Most of them are still there because they love community life, their friends, the Kiddush after the Shabbat morning prayer. Most of them are 40 and 50 years old – not exactly an easy age to start a ‘cultural emigration.’ Moreover, and that’s a very important parameter, most of them make a living off the profession, and their livelihood depends on their faith, even if [that faith is] just outwardly [observed].[1]

A ninth century Jewish philosopher named Saadia Gaon was the first Jewish thinkers to examine the question: Why do so many people have doubts about their faith in God? Although he was speaking to a medieval audience, his ideas are very relevant for the people of 21stcentury. Saadia writes:

  • My heart grieves for humankind and my heart is affected on account of my own people, Israel, who I see in my own time. Many who follow their faith, but they have a distorted understanding of their faith; consequently, their faith is replete with unenlightened views and absurd beliefs that are current among those who follow Judaism. Others, who deny their faith, proudly denigrate their unbelief, ridiculing those who truly believe . . . I also saw people drowning in a sea of doubt, overwhelmed by the waves of confusion with no diver to raise them up from the depths, with no swimmer to bring them to rescue . . .[2]

I wonder: If Saadia were living in the present, what would he say about today’s times? Had Saadia lived in today’s era, he most certainly would have spoken about the state of spiritual anarchy that is so pervasive in today’s religious societies.

Men and women of all faiths have abdicated their responsibility to care and shepherd their people. Every day, there are countless stories about clergy either participating or covering up crimes of pedophilia, fraud, or committing what seems to be an endless string of social crimes. Unenlightened views of God and religion are especially evident in communities around the globe where religious leaders often encourage their followers to commit acts of violence, terror and mayhem against its political foes.

Such amoral behavior hardly inspires belief in a kind or benevolent Deity, especially when God’s followers commit the worse kind of human atrocities and moral indecencies in God’s Name! Religious people are guilty of the worse kind of moral atheism that makes people proudly say, “I cannot believe . . .” Is it not any wonder why serious-minded people have arrived at the conclusion that religion is an illusion that has long outlived its contemporary usefulness?

While I commend Dr. Shrell-Fox for interacting with the disillusioned rabbis he has encountered, whose stories he has recorded, I would not really call these rabbis “atheistic.” The term “atheist” derives from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning “without god(s).” However, the Greek letter ἄ (alpha) may connote something oppositional and it could mean, “against God.”

The real atheist is not someone who is lost in a state of agnosia, “not knowing” whether there is a God or not. Grappling with the absence of God’s Presence and reality is a theological theme that permeates much of the Tanakh. Perhaps the most famous prayer is found in Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

Why so far from my call for help,

from my cries of anguish?

My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;

by night, but I have no relief. (Psalm 22:2)

Within the Jewish community, the real atheists are the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who use their religion to exploit the public for any kind of pecuniary gain—regardless how insignificant it might be. The real atheists are the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who seek to expand and dominate the collective psyche of their communities; such demagogues have no respect for contrary viewpoints. They wish to homogenize all Judaic thought into a monolithic formula that promises salvation to those who believe and damnation to those who won’t believe or vote for the religious candidate of their choice. [3]

The modern critics of religion since the time of Spinoza, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Hitchens, Dawkins and others, have done a marvelous job in pointing out the inner corruption and deceit that exists within the religious world of the “true believers.”

Religious minded people owe these secular thinkers a great debt of gratitude. They behave much like the biblical prophets of old, demanding that we throw our false idols out of God’s Temple. Rabbinical wisdom bears testimony to this obvious truth. Someone asked Rabbi Reuben: What is the most reprehensible act a man a person can possibly do? He replied, “to deny God’s existence. For no man violates the commandments, ‘You shall not murder’, ‘You shall not steal’, till he has already renounced his faith in God.” (Tosefta Shavuoth 3, end)

Maimonides would probably have more in common with an atheist like Christopher Hitchens than one might imagine. For Maimonides, before one can arrive at a belief of God that one can logically accept, one must first arrive at an understanding of what God is NOT (a.k. a. the via negativa — the path of negation.”) When we read about the religiously inspired violence of the religious fanatics of today’s generation, we are witnessing the atavistic power of religion that deflates and flattens religious consciousness.

We must not let these charlatans destroy all that is good and sacred.

Most importantly, we cannot let them destroy our faith in a moral and ethical God.

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Blessings & Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychological studies bear this truth out as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aesop may have made this point even more forcefully:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

WHY BE THANKFUL?

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

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.”

====

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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Where Greek Philosophy and Biblical Theology Differed . . . (new)

It is fascinating to compare and contrast the world of Greek and Judaic thought. Each people had a sense of purpose and manifest destiny. While Alexander sought to Hellenize the barbarian world, ancient Israel chose to bear witness to God’s Presence and Reality by introducing ethical monotheism to the world.

Unlike the Greek philosophers who sought to understand God as the Ultimate Reality of the logical order in discursive terms, Israel’s conception of God is mediated through her experience of the Divine, which always has ethical implications in the formation of the social values and precepts of the Torah. Knowledge of God is grounded in what Abraham Joshua Heschel terms, “the grammar of experience.” Biblical prophets, beginning with Abraham, taught the world that God is not some abstract or impersonal being who is indifferent to how human beings treat one another and the world. The manifestation of God’s Presence is visible in the actions of justice, integrity, compassion and liberation of the body and soul from the chains of degradation and bondage. Heschel cites an interesting proof text that illustrates the nature of “knowing God” that appears throughout much of the Tanakh:

King Jehoiakim, you are doomed!

You built a palace

with large rooms upstairs.

You put in big windows

and used cedar paneling

and red paint.

But you were unfair

and forced the builders to work

without pay.

 

More cedar in your palace

doesn’t make you a better king

than your father Josiah.

He always did right—

he gave justice to the poor

and was honest.

That’s what it means

to truly know me.

Jeremiah 22:13-16 (CEV)

Abraham Joshua Heschel adds:

  • Here knowledge is not the same as thought, comprehension, gnosis or mystical participation in the ultimate essence. Knowledge of God is action toward man, sharing His concern for justice; sympathy in action. Inner identification with God’s will and concern is the goal of the new covenant, “Here is the new agreement that I, the Lord, will make with the people of Israel: “I will write my laws on their hearts and minds. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Jeremiah 31:32 (CEV)

 Notes:

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 1962), 270.

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)”

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”

Meditations on the Nature of Biblical Spirituality

Unlike the Greek philosophers and poets of antiquity, the ancients of Judea did not perceive God as a philosophical construct, nor as a static timeless being, nor as an impersonal cosmic process, energy, force or intelligence and certainly not as a sentimentalized ethical ideal (as expressed by Feuerbach,  Freud, and M. Kaplan). Our spiritual ancestors never apologized  for using human language in describing God.

The writers of the Psalms never hesitated utilizing human language whenever depicting the mystery and Presence of the Divine. Beneath the biblical psyche is a realization that the human drama means something to the Heart of the Divine—even despite humankind’s occasional rejection of Him. God is paradoxically bound up to human history—and even limits His freedom in how He interacts with it (cf. Gen. 6:6).

When the ancient psalmists gazed into the heavens, they did not behold an endless abyss of cosmic nothingness; rather, they beheld a God with whom they could audaciously and personally address as “You.” Unabashedly, the spiritual teachers of Judea used a host of personal pronouns and anthropomorphic metaphors to convey something profound about the mystery of God’s Presence and closeness to the world, without which God could not be known. Martin Buber notes that in addition, anthropomorphic language reflects a deeper significance than most of us realize:

Our need to preserve the concrete quality is evidenced in the encounter. . . .It is in the encounter itself that we are confronted with something compellingly anthropomorphic, something demanding reciprocity, a primary Thou. This is true of those moments of our daily life in which we become aware of the reality that is absolutely independent of us, whether it be as power or as glory, no less than of the hours of great revelation of which only a halting record has been handed down to us. [1]

This same idea runs like a current throughout the literature of the Psalms. In keeping with his ancestors’ religious experience, the psalmist never tires of exclaiming how the God Who creates the heavens and the earth, is still very much still accessible to the prayers of the most ordinary human being. Clearly, “God is close to all who call upon Him, all who call upon Him in truth.” Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff cuts through the chase and remarks, “The psalms reveal the consciousness of this divine proximity.” The visceral language of the Psalms accentuates this closeness, “Praise the LORD, my soul all my inmost being, and praise his holy name “(Psa. 103:1). From the innermost depths of our physical being, we  can encounter God’s Presence and Being. Continue reading “Meditations on the Nature of Biblical Spirituality”

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?”