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The Everything, The Nothing, and Justice

Mar1

by: Jay Michaelson on March 1st, 2016 | 2 Comments »

In various mystical perspectives, there are two aspects to reality as we experience it: something and nothing. In Hasidic traditions, this is sometimes expressed as yesh (something) and ayin (nothing).

Since most of human experience is of yesh, there can be a certain mysterious allure to the ayin. Everything is empty! Sunyata! All is illusion! All is God! Indeed, any non-ordinary experience – a good drug trip, a beautiful view – can easily be associated with some verbiage about the numinous, the luminous emptiness, or whatever. The great rock critic Lester Bangs nailed it when he titled one review “I Saw God And/Or Tangerine Dream.”

I’m mocking the idolatry of ayin, but the truth is that transformative peak experiences are achingly beautiful, and do seem to give a glimpse – either of some non-thing transcending all that is, or at least of another way of being. I wouldn’t trade mine for anything.

Yet most every contemplative path also posits a return to the marketplace, a return to yesh. Many also insist, paradoxically, that the everything is the nothing; that everything is both empty and not-empty. Both-and is the coin of the mystical realm.

The forgotten Hasidic master Rabbi Aharon of Staroselse calls ordinary consciousness of love, sadness, pain, and shopping malls, simply “our point of view.” All of these things are experienced in the soul, mind, heart, and body, and are as real as anything we know. Our perspective is defined by a thousand cultural constructions, genetic accidents, and history. This perspective sees the world as yesh, as something.

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Torah Commentary- Ki Tissa: “Strong Leaders” and the Golden Calf

Feb25

by: on February 25th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

I. “Strong Leadership” as Communal Failure

These days, much of the world is surprised by the ascendance of extreme demagoguery within the US political process. We are shocked by the ascendance of a disruptive “strong leader” who wishes to make “America great again” through force, violence, and hate speech. It seems like another age, the return of a malevolence that we thought was suppressed many decades ago. In contemplating this week’s texts, which deal with the flawed demands of the recently liberated people for a new form of leadership (in this case a golden calf), we can see parallels to the current situation and a response.

When dealing with the repetitions of the mishkan (tabernacle) narrative in the book of Shemot (Exodus), we discussed the idea of boundaries, of distance introduced as a result of the sin of the golden calf. The mishkan structure itself, and the garments of the priests, act as signifiers of, and simultaneously as a means of overcoming the boundaries and distance introduced by the sin of the golden calf. In his discussion of these texts, R. Zadok Hacohen makes the following comment, which would be incredibly radical except that the source of the quote is the Talmud (BT Nedarim 22b)

“If it weren’t for the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jews would only have received the Five Books of the Torah and the Book of Joshua”.

It was only with the second set ofLuhot (tablets received by Moses at Sinai) not the first set smashed because of the golden calf, that we were given the Oral law. R. Zadok understands this to mean that had there not been the distance introduced by sin, our relation with the Torah text would have been an unmediated one, one that would not have required the supplemental hermeneutics of the commentaries and supercommentaries familiar to the student of Jewish studies.

Had this episode of the golden calf not occurred, our understanding of the Torah would have been akin to what Maimonides describes of Adam before his sin, that he would have had a pure objective relationship with God undistorted by subjectivity (which is why the forbidden tree in Eden was known as that of “good and bad”, good and bad being purely subjective categories, liking something or not liking something, as opposed to the tree of ‘life’, which Maimonides saw as symbolizing empirical, objective knowledge, as in science (science as a medieval thinker would have seen it, which included theology).

According to the biblical text, Moses’s absence is taken to mean that he is dead and the people demand a new leadership, this time in the form of a golden idol in the shape of a calf. Our thematic question is, what was the ‘allure’ of the golden calf, what kind of leadership were they looking for, and why would that error lead to a divine recognition that suddenly the five books of the Torah are no longer adequate, and that supplementation with a vast commentary is necessary?

The Meor V’shemesh has difficulty comprehending how a generation that experienced what it experienced could lapse so crudely into idolatry of the most primitive sort. What was it that the people wanted from this idol? His response is that it wasn’t a “god” they were looking for at all, but rather a “strong leader”, an authority figure.

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Monotheism as a Moral Issue

Feb24

by: George P. Fletcher on February 24th, 2016 | Comments Off

Source: r the Providence Lithograph Company

Part I. Domination Over Nature

And God said, let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness and they shall dominate the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and the cattle and every moving thing on the Earth. – Genesis 1:26

In this installment, the first of four, I will concentrate on the moral imperative of monotheism; in the next, on the implication of this passage for the principle of equality; in the third, on the moral limitations on equality that inhere in the principle of loyalty; and finally, in the fourth, on the implications of God’s Image for the concept of reason, an innate human characteristic.

Monotheism is taken for granted in the Abrahamic faiths and indeed in many other religions, even though the commitment to a single God is inconsistent with the use of the plural to refer to God, not only in the beginning but in the second clause this passage. We do not receive a singular reference to God until the tetragrammaton (Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh) is introduced in Genesis 2.

True, we are not bound by the text as some American constitutional lawyers think they are committed to the words written down on parchment one hot summer in Philadelphia. It would seem inevitable that not only the language changes over time but the moral grid that we bring to interpretation changes as well. Therefore, it is entirely plausible to read this text through the grid of accepted monotheism.

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Night and Day

Feb9

by: George P. Fletcher on February 9th, 2016 | Comments Off

Genesis 1:5
AND GOD CALLED THE LIGHT DAY, AND THE DARKNESS, NIGHT. EVENING AND THE MORNING: ONE DAY.

Source: Flickr (John Dill)

Reading this passage, we can incline toward pessimism or optimism. The down side is that the text literally says one day, not the first day. This one day could have been all there was – the source of the Mel Brook’s famous line – “That’s all there is, folks.” This one day — – first without light, then with light – could have been the creation. Are there hints in the text that there will be more? Yes, the very act of naming carries an optimistic message that there will eventually come a being who understands the names given. Only human beings understand not only their own names but thousands of others.

One day, then, but how long is this day? All units of time – except those that have specific astronomic references – are notoriously indeterminate. The week – a foundational concept in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic life – is our invention. Its value is that it generates the idea of the sabbath in all three Abrahamic faiths. Indeed we might say that the purpose of the creation story is to introduce the notions of work and rest into human culture. Without the notion of a limited day, however, we could never progress beyond creation to a time of rest.

Underlying this rhythm of the week is a deeper philosophical distinction between actions and omissions. We are responsible for the consequences but not necessarily those of our omissions. One of my favorite Talmudic stories explaining this point is the tale of the two travelers with the canteen in the desert. If there is enough water for one, does the possessor have to share with the other one who will otherwise die. The answer is no. This is poignant as compared to the treatment of killing one to save another in the same pages of Sanhedrin. That is not permitted: Is your blood redder than his?

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A Second Scientific Revolution Reveals the Mortality of the Modern World

Feb5

by: David W. Noble on February 5th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

In this essay I explain how I moved from a critique of a metaphor of two worlds, America and Europe, to a critique of a metaphor of two worlds, modern and traditional. I also now see America and the modern as symbolic representations of a limitless frontier. I see Europe and the traditional as symbolic representations of a limited home. Once I saw Europeans leaving home to come to an American frontier; now I see modern people leaving traditional homes to come to a universal frontier/marketplace. And I see this powerful modern prophecy of an exodus from a limited old world to a limitless new world as the major cause of our dangerous environmental crisis. We do not nurture our earthly home because we believe we are going to a frontier of unlimited resources.

During the summer of 1944 I became self-conscious of the fact that irony is a significant aspect of human experience. I had graduated from high school into the army in June 1943. Throughout my childhood and youth I was told that my German grandparents had left a European old world of economic scarcity and war and came to an American new world of plenty and peace. But now in an army hospital I began to question this metaphor of two worlds and the concept of a redemptive exodus to a new world. Before being injured in an accidental explosion I had experienced severe poverty from 1940, when our farm was foreclosed, to 1943, when I entered the army. Our home for my father, mother, and me during those years was a small barn that had electricity and running water. We could not afford morphine to ease my father’s pain as he was dying from stomach cancer.

My sense of irony was compounded, therefore, by my financial ability as a disabled veteran to enroll at Princeton University in 1945. Working with my older brother in the 1930s to deliver milk in Princeton, I had learned that Princeton University was a school for the sons of rich men. I was not grateful, however, that I could now sit in classes with young men who came from wealthy backgrounds. But I was grateful that I could begin to prepare for a career in teaching. I wanted to inform my fellow citizens that the metaphor of two worlds and an exodus narrative were not true. They were not an accurate description of human experience.


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A challenge to JNF on Tu B’shvat Planting Trees in Israel

Jan25

by: Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb on January 25th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

JNF trees in the Negev Desert. Man-made dunes (here a liman) help keep in rainwater, creating an oasis. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is offering a special deal for Tu B’Shevat on its website:  “Help celebrate TuBishvat by planting a tree in Israel…and you will be automatically entered to win a trip! Prizes include roundtrip airfare and two nights at the Carlton Hotel Tel Aviv for two.”

Meanwhile, since 1967, over 800,000 Palestinian olive trees have been destroyed by the state of Israel. In addition, tens of thousands of fruit trees, fields, wells and gardens have also been destroyed to make room for Jewish settlement. Having just received this year’s report from Palestinian farmer Daoud Nasser who’s family  suffered the Israeli Defense Force’s destruction of 1500 fruit bearing trees last year, I feel deeply disconnected to JNF’s rendering of its mission and its version of history.

The narrative on the JNF website resembles the United States’ narrative related to the historic site known as Colonial Williamsburg: an example of national distortions and lies that hide brutal histories.  Williamsburg was literally segregated throughout much of its history.  And, neither the genocidal histories of the massacre of Indigenous peoples, nor enslavement of Africans or their contributions to Colonial societies were anywhere evident.  Just as African American and Indigenous presence and contributions are erased in white America’s Disneyland like portrayals of the past at so-called historic sites, so, too are Palestinians completely erased from Israel’s historic narrative, as are Bedouins, and Mizrachi and African Jews.

The terrible dislocations, massacres and massive destruction of Palestinian and pre-1948 material culture and land has been swallowed up and regurgitated in ways that completely distort what actually happened, and is still happening. Jews on free trips to Israel, whether with birthright, or rabbinic school, or the JNF, will feel good about planting the obligatory tree, while pretending that Israel was a barren land before Jews got there and made the desert bloom.

They will be given to recite the biblical verse, “It is against Jewish halachic law to uproot fruit bearing trees”, give feel good talks about green Judaism, while completely ignoring a reality that contradicts these claims:  the ongoing destruction of Palestinian land, trees, fields, houses, wells, vineyards, and cultural institutions accompanied by Israeli killing fields in Gaza, the West Bank and other areas of Israel.  That is the reality which the JNF wants to bury in the ground.

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Scholarship and Provocation: A Response to Arthur Green’s Review of Hasidism Incarnate

Jan15

by: Shaul Magid on January 15th, 2016 | Comments Off

Arthur Green recently published a review of my recent book Hasidism Incarnate in Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations. The review raises some important issues in regards to the study of Hasidism and Hasidic literature more generally, and the nature of comparison in the study of religion. It also gestures toward the complex relationship between scholarship and theology that many of us, both in Jewish Studies more generally, and Jewish mysticism in particular, traverse in our work. I begin my discussion of the larger questions raised in the review with Green’s claim of omission. In his review Green notes that it is surprising that I chose not to invoke Psalm 90:1 A prayer to Moses, man of God (ish ha- Elohim) in my study as it would ostensibly support my basic contention about incarnational thinking. He is certainly correct that this verse stands out as significant to my argument. In fact, on page 18 in the first chapter I invoke this very verse, and a comment on it by the pre-Hasidic pietist Yaakov Koppel of Mezritch (d. 1786) to introduce the entire project. Whether or not Green’s comment about the absence of Psalm 90:1 was an oversight, I think the way he may understand the verse, and the way in which I discuss it using Koppel’s comment, illustrates  the differences between us, both in our reading of Hasidism and in our theological vision more generally.

Midrash Tehillim to Psalm 90:1 offers various readings of calling Moses “a man of God.” One such reading is as follows: “If he is a man he is not God, and if he is God, then he is not a man…When Moses went up on high he was a man. In the presence of God, how bright is a candle? How bright is even a Torah in the presence of God? When a mortal goes up to the Holy One, blessed be He, who is pure fire, and whose ministers are fire – and Moses did go up to God – he is a man, But after he comes down, he is called ’God’”. Yaakov Koppel reads Moses as a “man of God” quite differently. He writes, “If he is a man he is not God, and if he is God, then he is not a man? Rather, above he is called God (Elohim) and below he is called man (ish). Koppel (intentionally, I assume) reverses the order of the midrash. The midrash states that the divine status of Moses is only on earth, that is, in his vocation as a lawgiver. It is a divinely granted divine status not unlike an emissary of a king who speaks for the monarch. It does nothing to compromise the absolute transcendence of God. Koppel, however, suggests that the status of Moses as divine is precisely when he is in the presence of God. It is not a God-granted status as much as a state of being. One can understand the difference between Midrash Tehillim and Yaakov Koppel as a move from non-incarnational to incarnational thinking. The midrash explains Moses’s divine status as a vocation while protecting divine transcendence. Koppel problematizes that by granting Moses’ divine status with, or in the very presence of, God. When Moses comes back down to earth he is a man (ish) but a man who already is a God (Elohim). This is the precise reason I introduce Hasidism’s incarnational thinking with Koppel’s comment; I suggest Koppel introduces an incarnational motif that becomes indicative of Hasidism. Green may prefer the midrashic reading whereby Moses’ divine status is as a lawgiver, a much more conventional notion. This may also speak to Green’s insistence that we retain categorical boundaries between Judaism and Christianity. Judaism is the religion that retains the utter transcendence of God (the midrashic position) whereas Christianity deconstructs that transcendence through the incarnation (gesturing toward Koppel’s position). Green articulates this in his claim that the incarnational component of Christianity may be imported from Hellenism rather than endemic to Judaism.

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Torah Commentary- Perashat Vayigash: Confronting Societal Injustice, Confronting Ourselves

Dec18

by: on December 18th, 2015 | Comments Off

 

In these troubled times, when we see societal tolerance of speech approaching that of fascism, when open hate speech about anything or anyone approximating an “enemy”, where even the victims of oppression are treated with hostility and suspicion, one feels helpless in attempting to maintain a sense of justice and decency. How does one respond to what appears to be a situation of crisis? What kind of discourse is appropriate as a response?

This week’s perasha (Torah portion) begins at a similar moment of crisis- All seems lost. An innocent descent to Egypt to purchase food has ended up with youngest brother Benyamin imprisoned by the enemy authorities. To the brothers, it would seem that their own actions have put the children of Rachel at risk of total decimation (with Yosef believed dead and his only brother Binyamin in a place worse than death), an outcome which would compound their father’s already unrelieved grief to beyond mortal tolerance. The family appears helpless in a Kafkaesque trial situation which caught them entirely unawares.

In an act of desperation, Yehudah steps forward and begins to plead with the enemy leader for his brother’s life. The text uses some unusual language- the text reads:  Vayigash Elav Yehudah, literally Yehudah “encountered” him. The use of the term vayigash, from the root hagasha, (to come close, also to prepare) is somewhat unusual, both linguistically and even in terms of the action, given that they were in the same room. And to whom is the second word in the phrase,Elav, “to him”, referring to?

In fact, why does the text need to quote Yehuda’s speech at such length? This speech does not reveal anything new towards the linear development of the plot; we are given no new facts about the brothers’ history, and no new personal revelations. Yet this speech is clearly central to the story and thus extensively analyzed by the Midrashim. The Midrash choreographs entire dialogues lurking behind the words of Yehudah, referring to all sorts of hidden meanings within his every word, both conciliatory and threatening words; the prelude in the Midrash Rabbah (BR 93:3) insists that the words of Yehudah “can be interpreted from every angle”. We will find that the words of Yehuda teach us several useful lessons on mindfulness in the moment of apparent crisis.

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“Ba’nu Choshekh L’kadesh: Sanctifying darkness, seeding the light”

Dec10

by: Rabbi David Seidenberg on December 10th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

Every year at my boy’s school there’s a Chanukah concert that includes rap songs and other talent. A few years ago, it included the song the popular song, “Ba’nu Choshekh L’garesh“. I’m not so connected to modern Israeli culture, though, so it was my first time hearing it. Here’s a translation:

We come, the darkness to expel -
In our hands, light and fire.
Each one is a small light,
And all of us together – an immense light!
Flee darkness! Be gone black!
Flee before the light!

The school, Lander Grinspoon Academy in western Massachusetts, teaches great midot – moral qualities – and it’s also multiracial. (I shouldn’t need to say that because Jews are all races, but our prejudices can make us forgetful about who we are.) So the words “Be gone black/Hal’ah sh’chor” really struck me as the wrong thing to be singing, even though I know that no one who loves the song today or in the past – certainly not the Yemenite composer, Sara Levi-Tanai – would have intended any such thing. “Ba’nu Choshekh” probably represented pretty well what a lot of people imagine when they think about Chanukah – we are celebrating the triumph of light over darkness.

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For many Jews, anti-Arab racism hits home

Dec9

by: Keren Soffer Sharon on December 9th, 2015 | 12 Comments »

Following the devastating attacks in Paris, right wing forces have been fanning the frightening flames of anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. There have been calls for increased surveillance of Muslim communities, unconstitutional registration of American Muslims, and religious tests for Syrian refugees seeking safety in the United States.

A transit camp (maabarah) for Mizrahi immigrant refugees in 1952

I am Mizrahi. I’m a Jew, and like many Mizrahim, I’m also an Arab. We Arab Jews have a unique perspective to offer on the Syrian refugee crisis, and on the Islamophobic and anti-Arab backlash that we are seeing in this country and across the globe. For me, anti-Arab racism is not something abstract. It’s not something that needs a historical analogy to feel visceral. The hatred and fear directed toward our Arab and Muslim friends is an attack on the Arab heritage of Mizrahim and on our rich history as Jews.

Mizrahi Jews (meaning “Eastern”) are Jews who for over 2,500 years were indigenous to the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Asia and the Balkans. For much of this time, Mizrahim were deeply rooted in the Muslim-majority societies in which they lived. Our ultimate displacement was the result of several historical forces, including the establishment of the state of Israel by Ashkenazi (European) Jews with the support of imperial powers.

In the late 1930s, Ezra Haddad, an Iraqi Jewish author and historian, proclaimed, “We were Arabs before we became Jews,” in Al-Akhbar, an Iraqi daily newspaper. Before British and French colonialism, Arab Jews, Arab Muslims and Arab Christians shared communities, identities and homes – in the deepest sense. My mother’s maiden name is Soffer, which means “scribe.” My ancestors were Torah scribes in Basra, Iraq, dating as far back as anyone in my family can remember. There was no place my family would have called home before Basra. Like other Iraqi Jews, my family was part of a thriving Jewish community living among other religious minorities in a society that was widely tolerant of non-Muslims. We shared the physical, cultural and psychic space that made us all Arab. It is only recently, through the centralizing of the Ashkenazi narrative as the dominant Jewish story, that our identity as Jews is supposed to override our identity as Arabs.

There is no history to support the claim that Jews and Muslims are, or have ever been, perpetual enemies. Let us not forget that when both religious groups were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, it was Muslims who welcomed Sephardi Jews (meaning “from Spain”) into Morocco and parts of the Ottoman Empire. And contrary to the notion that Jews were never safe in Muslim-majority territories, it was actually the Christian territories where they faced the most virulent forms of Antisemitism. Jews and Muslims were both demonized and targeted during the Spanish Inquisition under the same system of Christian hegemony that would later form the political foundations of white supremacy as we know it today.

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