Authentic Mysticism vs. McMysticism

A true Jewish mystic doesn’t need to use hype or self-promotion like  Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri’s snake-oil charms. Any self-respecting Kabbalist shouldn’t live for the next photo-op.

Martin Buber has always been a great inspiration to me. His views on Jewish mysticism are grounded in the interpersonal realm of the ethical. We meet God when we respect the Other who is before us. Emmanuel Levinas expresses a similar thought in many of his writings as well, but Buber still remains my favorite.

Historically, people have often tried to control God through any kind of magical means at their disposal. The scriptural prohibition against making graven images is predicated upon the belief that man can control God; only in one’s imagination is such an absurd thought possible. Buber touches on this theme in a number of different works, but in the interest of time, I will cite one of my favorite quotes Buber is best known for concerning the danger of gnosis and magic that I think cuts to the heart of our problem today among certain types of hucksters like Rabbi Batzri.

“The two spiritual powers of gnosis and magic, masquerading under the cloak of religion, threaten more than any other powers the insight into the religious reality, into man’s dialogical situation. They do not attack religion from the outside; they penetrate into religion, and once inside it, pretend to be its essence. Because Judaism has always had to hold them at bay and to keep separate from them, its struggle has been largely internal. This struggle has often been misunderstood as a fight against myth. But only an abstract-theological monotheism can do without myth, and may even see it as its enemy; living monotheism needs myth, as all religious life needs it, as the specific form in which its central events can be kept safe and lastingly remembered and incorporated. Continue reading “Authentic Mysticism vs. McMysticism”

A British Synagogue Bans a Famous Hassidic Text!

As of late, I have taken interest in reading the British Jewish news. After perusing through a number of articles, I came across a fascinating new-story. It isn’t every day a synagogue bans a classical Jewish book, but in one of Britain’s largest synagogues, that’s exactly what happened.  Several students at an adult education class took offense to a mystical tract on self-improvement, better known as the “Tanya,” because of “racist” comments found in its early chapters.  For newcomers, the Tanya is the Bible of the Lubavitcher movement. This book was composed toward the last half of the 18th century, at a time when Russian Jews struggled mightily against the czarist governments who showed little love or tolerance when it came to the Jews. Despite the questionable passages we are about to read, it was one of the 18th century’s first self-help books and most of its teachings are for the most part fairly appealing.

Here are the controversial passages that have created the controversy this past October.

In the Tanya.  the author attempts to explain why the souls of Jews are different from the gentiles: “The explanation of this matter is according to what the Rabbi Chaim Vital OBM wrote … Every Jew, whether righteous or wicked, has two souls, as it says, ‘And the souls I have made’ — that is, two souls: one soul deriving from the side of the kelipa and the side that is antithetical to holiness… also naturally good character traits that are found in every Jew, such as mercifulness and charitable deeds, stem from it, for in a Jew, the soul of this kelipa derives from kelipat noga which also contains good…But it is not the case concerning Gentile souls, for they stem from other impure kelipot which contain no good…and the second soul of the Jew is surely part of G-d on high…” [1]

And shortly afterward, the author adds, “The kelipot are divided into two levels…the lower level consists of three impure and completely evil kelipot which contain no good whatsoever … from there the souls of the Gentiles are influenced and drawn, as are the bodies and the souls of all impure animals which are forbidden to eat…However, the vital animalistic soul in the Jews, which stems from the kelipa…and the souls of pure animals, beasts, birds, and fish which are permitted to eat…are influenced and drawn from the second level of the klipot…which is called kelipat noga…and the majority of it is evil, combined with a slight amount of good…”[2]

As I have pointed out in earlier posts, it is the nature of oppressed peoples to bolster their self-esteem and image by putting down the Other. While this is certainly not the kind of behavior any moral person ought to endorse, it helps to see this passage from the writer’s perspective. Often, tragic circumstances distort the way one spiritually looks at the world. Continue reading “A British Synagogue Bans a Famous Hassidic Text!”

“There’s a Cat in the Library!” William James and Albert Einstein’s spiritual insight

One of the best parables told by America’s greatest psychologist of the early 20th century, William James, who tells a story about a  cat that loved to hang out at the library. The cat knows all the comfortable places; he knows how to get in and get out; he knows how to identify all the individual nooks and crannies. To the cat, the library is familiar territory; it probably feels quite proud that it masters all that it surveys—except for one thing: the cat hasn’t a clue that the library is a place where readers expand their knowledge of the universe, or enjoy reading as a delightful pastime.

William James likens the materialistic scientist of his age (but the analogy would apply no less to many of the scientists of our present day as well), to the cat of our parable. James explains further, “‘Here is the universe,’ he says to himself. All of its phenomena are determined and defined by the laws of nature. There are no longer any mysteries or secrets; a few questions here and there may still remain unanswered, but ultimately we know what lies behind it all, because we know the fundamental laws of physics.” But not all humanistic scientists share this kind of attitude; there are those who view science as never-ending search, and who believe that the universe has a great many aspects of which we are still unaware, or which at least have not yet been formulated scientifically.”

James’ idea is thought-provoking. Yes, the universe is like a library full of knowledge and consciousness is the key to self-knowledge.  The mysteries that suffuse the universe–especially from a Maimonidean perspective–seems to strongly suggest us that the universe does not necessarily revolve around puny humanity. Of course many Jewish thinkers like Saadia Gaon and Nachmanides see the cosmos as an essentially anthropocentric enterprise, but personally, I find Maimonides’ attitude much more intriguing and realistic. Could there be parallel earths? Several scientists and quantum scholars seem to think this is a distinct possibility–even though there is no empirical evidence that this is so.

Einstein may have had James’ parable in mind when he wrote, “The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books – a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects.”[2]

The human child may not have a real grasp of the library is either, but at least he realizes or senses that the library contains more information than he can possibly imagine. Unlike the cat, the human child realizes that each book tells a story—whether he understands that particular story may not be so clear to the young person at his age, but he knows that as his mastery of language and ideas improve, eventually he will be able to enjoy any book he desires to read. The cat, on the other hand, will always remain a cat.

Einstein’s advice for laypeople and commoners is especially relevant today:

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery–even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our  minds—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” [3]

[1] Cited from Ephraim E. Urbach, Robert Brody, Moshe D. Herr, Collected Writings in Jewish Studies (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1999), 29.

[2]  Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions.

[2] Albert Einstein, The World as I See It (New York: Philosophical Library, 1934), 15.

Why Does Job Suffer?

Many medieval commentators—both Christian and Jewish—often attribute Job’s suffering to all sorts of divine, satanic, karmic, and physical causes.[1] Most modern commentaries seldom attribute Job’s suffering to a human origin. However, an examination of his complaints reveal that much of Job’s pain was directed at a public’s failure to express compassion toward him when he needed it the most.[2] Simply put, Job did not have a community; he lived in a city where its citizens practiced a rugged ethic of individualism—every person lived for himself. Job’s community people  measured God’s blessings solely in terms of wealth and property. For them, to be without financial resources rendered a person as marginal–even disposable, for in prosperous societies the wealthy frequently directed their rage towards those who could protect themselves.

While this may sound like a new deconstructive reading of the text, it actually has antecedents in Rashi’s commentary (12th century). Strangely, the entire book seems to be empty of metaphors depicting human or Divine compassion.[3]  This would seem to substantiate Rashi’s view that the entire book is a parable about pastoral care as an antidote to the mind-numbing and senseless suffering people often experience. From a pastoral perspective, Job stresses how empathy and tenderness are essential ingredients in healing the heart of the sufferer. The general attitude espoused by Job’s friends was “Woe to the wicked, and woe to his neighbors!” Or, “Stay away from an evil person; otherwise, you may end up like him.” Job experiences this kind of rejection  firsthand. One might wonder: “Why does Job put up with such friends?” The Talmud notes that human beings need friendship in order to live. Death itself is preferable to not having any friends at all—even if they are happen to be schlemiels, much like the friends  of Job.[4]

More to follow…

[1] According to some rabbinic legends, Job lived during the time the Jews were originally enslaved by the Egyptians. At that time, he served as an advisor to Pharaoh.

[2] Rashi explains that the book of Job teaches us two important things: (1) that we may learn from it a response to those who condemn God’s attribute of justice (2)  Job also serves to instruct us that no person ought to be blamed for words that he utters because of personal pain (Rashi’s commentary to TB Bava Batra 15a).

Elsewhere Rashi adds on the verse in Job 42:7, “For you did not comfort me with your ‘verbal defense’ as did my servant, Job.” His only sin consisted of saying ‘He destroys both the innocent with the wicked…’ (Job 9:23). And whatever else Job said came from his suffering which weighed heavily upon him and forced him to speak thusly. But you [the friends], on the other hand, were wrongful to accuse him of being wicked. In the end, it is you who are now silent and defeated before him. Instead of attacking him, you should have comforted him as Elihu did. As if Job didn’t have enough suffering, you added guilt to your sins by angering him.

[3] The absence of human compassion is most conspicuously present in the Jobian tale. For example, the word hesed (loving-kindness) appears only three times in the entire Jobian narrative and only when Job implores his friends for help. Likewise, the Hebrew word for nechama, (“comfort”), appears only seven times in the entire book. Only twice does Job ever receive nechama from his friends–the first occurs at the very beginning of Job 2:11. At this stage, Job’s friends express no verbal criticism of him. The second instance appears at the very end of the Jobian narrative (42:11)—after Job is finally vindicated.

[4] TB Taanit 23a;  TB Bava Batra, 16a.

Chesterton on Private Religion

Chesterton on Private Religion

G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936), “Introduction to the Book of Job”:

The modern habit of saying “Every man has a different philosophy; this is my philosophy and it suits me”—the habit of saying this is mere weak-mindedness. A cosmic philosophy is not constructed to fit a man; a cosmic philosophy is constructed to fit a cosmos. A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.

Any comments?

What did Cain “say” to his brother, before killing him?

The verse in question reads:

Genesis 4:8: “Cain said to his brother Abel; Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.”

The biblical narrator does not disclose what was actually spoken between the two brothers. Ibn Ezra suggested that Cain spoke to his brother about the words YHWH had said to him. However, one might argue that it is doubtful Cain would have told his brother everything God disclosed to him, namely, the divine reprimand. Abel’s silence is striking. The Jerusalem Targum offers a moving Midrashic paraphrase of the narrative:

And it was when they went out to the field, Cain answered and said to Abel his brother, “There is neither justice nor is the world accountable to an Ultimate Judge, nor is there another world [beyond this one]; neither is there a good reward given to the just, nor will vengeance be exacted of the wicked. Nor was the world created in goodness, nor is the world conducted with goodness. Therefore this is the [real] reason why your sacrifice was accepted with good will, and mine was not accepted with good will [The universe is a capricious reality, and God is indifferent to the welfare of humankind –MS].” Abel replied to Cain, “There is justice, and there is a Judge: there is another world, and a good reward is given to the just, and vengeance taken of the wicked. The world was created with goodness and it is governed with. But ultimately, everything goes according to the quality of the deeds. Because my works were superior to yours, my offering was accepted with good will, and yours was not accepted with good will.” And as they two disputed on the field and Cain arose against Abel his brother, and killed him.

Midrashic interpretation adds a nuance that does not appear in the original biblical story that is suggestive. The absence of brotherly concern and empathy on the part of Abel toward his brother’s failure only made Cain feel more resentful toward his successful brother. Instead of de-hostilizing his angry and resentful brother, Abel’s self-righteous attitude only added more fuel to the fire. Whereas at first Cain felt anger at God, now he directs his anger toward God via his brother, who has now given him an excuse to “even the score.” So long as Abel lived, Cain thought he would live the most marginal kind of existence. Once Abel was dead, Cain thought that his low self-esteem would cease.

More Reflections on Abortion

Abortion, as such, is not discussed in the Tanakh. Explanations  as to why it is not legislated or commented are at best speculative. The biblical world was much more concerned with the survival of its members, rather than with the willful termination of its unborn. Archaeological evidence suggests that in ancient Israel the infant mortality rate was about 50%.

Discussions concerning abortion are ancient indeed. The Torah imposes a fine on the assailant for causing abortion of a woman’s fetus in the course of a quarrel, and the penalty of death if the woman’s dies as a result of the assailant’s attack. “When two people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod. 21:22-23).

Ancient Discussions

If the Code of Hammurabi is of any indication, the Torah had in mind only financial damages but did not advocate the death penalty for the death of the fetus—regardless how premature or maturely it was. In Section 209: Hammurabi writes, “If a man strike a free woman and cause her fruit to depart, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fruit.” Continue reading “More Reflections on Abortion”

Early Jewish and Christian Views on Abortion: A Comparison for Discussion

The question regarding abortion in our modern era continues to be one of the most important topics of our age; given the complexity about questions pertaining to the beginning of life, along with the technological advances that are constantly being made, no one religious tradition can be reduced to a particular perspective. Christians and Jews alike each struggle with this matter. Rather than arbitrating the issue concerning abortion, I would much rather present the texts and let the readers along with their friends debate the topic with passion. As with any intellectual discussion, it is always important to be respectful of the Other’s position. We can disagree without being disagreeable. That being said, one of the questions that ought to be raised is, “How does an individual’s personal theology affect the way s/he views abortion?” Context is everything! Another question readers might want to argue is, “What are the points of convergence and divergence among the ancients regarding abortion?”

* Judaic Sources on Abortion

Philo says: “But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct shape (Exod. 21:22) in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, the man who injures the pregnant woman shall die; for such a creature as that is still considered a human being, whom he [the assailant) has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue lying in a sculptor’s workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world” (Special Laws 3:108:3).

Josephus says, “The Law orders all of the offspring to be brought up and forbids women either to abort or to do away with a fetus, but if she is convicted, she is viewed an infanticide because she destroys a soul and diminishes the race” (Against Apion, 2.202).

On the authority of R. Ishmael it was said: A heathen is executed even for the murder of an embryo (Sanhedrin 57b).

If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth [and her life is in danger], one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life [nefesh] for that of another (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6).[1]

“When a pregnant woman is about to be executed, one does not wait for her until she gives birth; but if she has already sat on the birth stool, one waits for her until she gives birth… Rav Judah said in the name of Samuel: If a woman is about to be executed one strikes her against her belly so that the child might die first, to avoid her being disgraced” (T.B. Arachin 7a-b).[2]

Elsewhere in the Talmud, we find a remarkable conversation that is purported to have taken place between the Roman Emperor Antoninus (believed to be the famous Roman philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, who once visited the Holy Land in 175 CE, not long after the failed Bar Kochba revolt)[3] and Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah. The question posed is especially fascinating: When does the soul enter the human body? Is it from the moment of conception, or is it from the time the embryo is formed? At first Rabbi Judah argued for the latter, but Antoninus offers an ingenious counter argument:  He objected: ‘Can a piece of unsalted meat go for three days without becoming putrid?’ (i.e., Likewise, if the sperm-cell is not immediately endowed with a soul, it would become putrid, and then could not fertilize the ovum.) Rather, one must say that life begins from the moment of conception.’ Rabbi Judah conceded this point and even cited a scriptural reference supporting Antoninus’ point of view  (T.B. Sanhedrin 91b). It is a pity that Rabbi Judah did not cite a more explicit verse from the book of Jeremiah 1:4-5:

The word of the Lord came to me [Jeremiah]:

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you;
Before you were born, I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet concerning the

I would just like to add that unlike Christianity or even Islam, Judaism is much more comfortable with the ambiguity of a biblical text’s meaning. Interpretation is never something that is black and white. With respect to the abortion question, one can find a liberal view permitting abortion; one can find restrictive views that condemn it. Much depends upon the specific context of what a rabbi is dealing with–there are no clear cut answers. As is often the case, the interpretation is very subjective and in the eyes of the beholder.

Continue reading “Early Jewish and Christian Views on Abortion: A Comparison for Discussion”