Monday, April 25, 2011

The Secrets: Not Your Run-of-the-Mill Kabbalistic, Lesbian Yeshiva Coming-of-Age Movie

So, while in Israel with my congregation this past December, I had many phenomenal experiences. But one that took a little time to rattle around in my head was our Shabbat evening in Jerusalem. As we made our way through the Jewish Quarter after Kabbalat Shabbat at the Western Wall, we were overtaken by a a group of two-score Dati (Orthodox) school girls. And these teens were singing. Beautifully. Sounds like no big deal to the uninitiated, but sadly, the first thing I thought to do when I realized who the singers were was to look around at the mass of Dati men flowing around them and gauge their reaction. There were, without question, sneers and hostile looks, but mostly there was indifference; men chatted with men, seemingly unaffected. What a sea change. Twenty years I ago when I lived and moved among the Dati, I never heard women seminarians sing, under any circumstances. A revolution had started between then and now. It was, in retrospect a hopeful highlight of my trip.

So I was excited to discover a great 2006 Israeli film, Sodot, or in English, The Secrets, that captures the struggle for women's spiritual equality in Orthodoxy. Set in a woman's yeshiva, it's the story of two girls: a brilliant but emotionally closed down daughter of a rabbi, and a disaffected wild-child sent to Safed the way we send troubled children to military school. As you can tell, forbidden (sort of) love blossoms between the two, but that really isn't the most compelling element of the story. As the film truthfully reveals, these kinds of relationships, self-discovery for some, transitional for others, are pretty commonplace in such same-sex institutions for the young. This is not a film about Lesbianism (not that there's anything wrong with that).

For me the real meat of the story is the involvement of the two girls in helping a terminal woman, recently released from prison, seeking absolution for her past transgressions. Too out-of-the-box for the Orthodox community to embrace her, she finds solace in these girls guiding her through a series of rituals of teshuvah and kabbalistically flavored tikkunim ("soul repairs"). I can't vouch for the pure authenticity of these scenes, but what I loved was the reverence shown to the process. It was genuinely moving. Unlike many Hollywood portrayals of the Ultra-Orthodox world, the script and director showed not only a serious respect for the culture of Dati Judaism, but were able to capture much of its beauty on film. The director had a discerning eye for the spiritual power of Dati life, even as he offers a strong (but not brow-beating) feminist critique. I'm sure many Orthodox viewers would find plenty to object to, from the naked women shown in a mikvah to the repeated, uncensored speaking of Elohim and Adonai, but as someone who bridges the religious ans secular world, I found this movie both compelling and, at times, inspiring.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sheol, Gehinnom, Gehenna: Hell in Judaism

A Place of Remorse, not Despair.

Many times on this site I have mentioned that Judaism does not teach a doctrine of eternal damnation. Now I've noticed more Christian ministers are very publicly having these same Judaic thoughts - Bishop Drew Pearson a few years back, Paster Rob Bell more recently, for example. Welcome back to Torah, guys!

Since I have inquiries about this, let's look at the sources. First, in most of the Hebrew Bible there is only sheol ("the grave"), the destination of all souls, regardless of their moral state.

[Bookplate by Ephraim Lilien]

It is not until the later books fo the Hebrew canon that we start to hear the idea that there are different destinations in the afterlife. Now if you search non-canonical Jewish sources (apocalyptic literature, for example), the theme of the wicked being fated to eternal suffering in fire and ice appears repeatedly. Indeed, it is from this thread of Jewish thinking from around 100BCE - 100CE that Christianity, and later Islam, derive their doctrines of eternal damnation. But Judaism ultimately rejects this idea as incongruent with a God who both just (infinite punishment for a finite life of sin?) and compassionate. There is also an element of God being conscious of sharing responsiblity for our moral shortcoming. God designed us with this potential to sin built in, so how can the Creator totally fault the creation for acting within specs? (see RaSHI's commentary on Hagigah 15b,* for example, or the famous parable on Cain and Able in Genesis Rabbah 22:9). So what you find in rabbinic texts is the notion of Gehinnom (Gehenna in Yiddish/English), a kind of purgatory in which the soul confronts its sins and is purified before it returns to God.

What is Gehinnom? R. Joshua b. Levi stated: Gehinnom has seven names, and they are: Nether-world (or 'Sheol'), Destruction, Pit (or, 'pit of destruction'), Tumultuous Pit, Miry Clay, Shadow of Death and the Underworld. 'Nether-world', since it is written in Scripture: Out of the belly of the nether-world cried I, and Thou heardest my voice (Jonah 2.3); 'Destruction', for it is written in Scripture: Shall Thy Mercy be declared in the grave? Or thy faithfulness in destruction (Psa 88.12); 'Pit', for it is written in Scripture: For Thou wilt not abandon thy soul to the nether-world; neither wilt Thou suffer Thy godly one to see the pit (Psa 16.10); 'Tumultuous Pit' and 'Miry Clay', for it is written in Scripture: He brought me up also out of the tumultuous pit, out of the miry clay (Psa 40.3); 'Shadow of Death', for it is written in Scripture: Such as sat in darkness and in the shadow of death (Psa 107.10); and the [name of] 'Nether-world' is a tradition. But are there no more [names]? (to Gehinnom) Is there not in fact that of Gehinnom? — [This means,] a valley that is as deep as the valley of Hinnom and into which all go down for gratuitous acts. Is there not also the name of Hearth, since it is written in Scripture: For a hearth is ordered of old? (Isa 30.33) — That [means] that whosoever is enticed by his evil inclination will fall therein (Erbin 19b) Is there a duration to the punishment? Beit Shammai taught: There are three groups – one is destined for eternal life, another consigned to eternal ignominy and eternal abhorrence (these are the thoroughly wicked) while those whose deeds are balanced will go down to Gehinnom, but when they scream they will ascend fro there and are healed…but Beit Hillel taught: [God is] rich in kindness’ (Ex. 34:6) [He is] inclined toward mercy (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:3) This argument is reiterated elsewhere in the Talmud over the most wicked people the Rabbis could imagine – the generation that drove God to undo creation: The generation of the Flood have no share in the World-to-Come (M. Sanh. 10:3) 'The judgment on the generation of the Flood was for twelve months, on Job for twelve months, on the Egyptians for twelve months, on Gog and Magog in the Hereafter for twelve months, and on the wicked in Gehinnom for twelve months. (M. Eduyot 2:10; Gen. Rabbah 28:8) In the end, Hillel’s opinion prevails (as it always does).

The punishing afterlife is temporal; there is no eternal punishment. Jewish hell is about remorse, whereas Christian and Islamic notions of hell are all about despairRabbi Akiba said:…The duration of the punishment of the wicked in Gehinnom is twelve months. (Shabbat 33b) If there are any unredeemable souls, their fate is annihilation and non-being, not eternal torment: After 12 months, their body is consumed and their soul is burned and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous (Rosh Hashanah 17a) In addition, the tradition tells us that souls in Gehenna also get Shabbat and holidays off (thanks to the reader who reminded me of that)

A Medieval dissent (but its still not forever):

The wicked stay in Gehinnom till the resurrection, and then the Messiah, passing through it redeems them. (Emek Hammelech, f. 138, 4)

How to avoid Gehenna:
He who has Torah, good deeds, humility, and fear of heaven will be spared from punishment [in Gehinnom] (Pesikta Rabbati 50:1)

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

* It's a little obscure, so here's the gist. Hagigah describes God grieving over the execution of a criminal - "My [God's] arm is too heavy for me (Hagigah 15b)" [why is God so distressed?]...for I have created this one who died on account of sin (RaSHI).

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tsorekha Gevoha: Jewish Theurgy in Kabbalah

In my earlier post of the desires of God, I indicated that Jewish mysticism assumes God 'needs' humanity. This goes beyond the theological question of the passiblity of God (whether God is affected at all by human action). The Kabbalists believe God is, in a very real sense, 'dependant' upon us. This overlaps with another aspect of Jewish thought (one that extends well beyond the mystical), the taamei mitzvot, the 'reasons for the commandments.'

[For healing, apply mitzvot here - repeat as necessary. Illustration from Illan Gadol]

The TaNaKH is fickle about explaining the purpose of commandments. Sometimes an explanation of an individual command is offered (why for example, taking bribes is forbidden), sometimes the reason approaches the self-evident (why we shouldn't murder), but often, no explanation for a particular commandment is forthcoming at all (much of the sacrificial system, for example, is mandated without any clear rationale).

The Rabbis attempt to explain the rationale for many of the mitzvot, but again, there is not a lot of effort to offer a systemic theory of the mitzvot, except perhaps this: "Israel is beloved by God, for He surrounded them with mitzvot: tefillin upon their heads and arms, tzitzit upon their garments…This can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who said to his wife: 'Adorn yourself with all your jewelry [I gave you] so that you will be desirable to me” So too the Holy Blessed One says to Israel, “Distinguish yourself with mitzvot so you will be desirable to me.” (Sifrei Deut. 36) In other words, the Rabbis include the mitzvot in their erotic theology: In love God gives us the commandments as ornaments of His love. When Israel wears (performs) them, it enhances God's desire for us.

The rationalists, who generally assume God's impassiblity (God is not subject to human influence) regard the commandments to be entirely for our benefit - they mold us into virtuous people, maintain our social and unique identity, etc. Maimonides is the apotheosis of this approach. Moreover, RaMBaM believes that the rationale for every commandment is discernable. If we can't come up with a logical moral, social, or intellectual purpose for a particular commandment, we simply haven't applied enough brain power to the question. This is the attitude toward the commandments that gives birth to the 'hygiene' theory of kashrut - we separate meat from milk to make better distribution of available proteins, or we don't eat pork, shellfish, etc, because we intuit that these food contain harmful substances.

The early mystics found such rationalizations troubling, because once you figure out how to address the 'rationale" (i.e., cook your pork thoroughly and render it safe), the commandment loses its force. And they were all about keeping the fabric of the commandments a whole cloth. So they made an entirely different argument. No only is God subject to human influence, there is a tserokha gevoha - 'a need on high.' The mitzvot don't just help us, they help God. This is baldly stated in the 13th Century mystical treatise Sha'arei Orah, Gates of Light, when Joseph Gilkatilla, the author, asks rhetorically, "Doesn't one see that the lower worlds have power to build or destroy the worlds above?"[1]

This is grabbing the other end of the stick from the radically transcendent and immutable God of much rationalist philosophy. But, rational or not, what this does, religiously, is make the commandments really compelling. It is the cosmic equivalent of Jewish mother's guilt: "So, if you don't do what I ask, it's not like the world's going to come to an end....except it will!" "Go ahead, don't worry about Me, I'm only your Creator!" Thus in Sefer Bahir we read: We learned: There is a single pillar extending from heaven to earth, and its name is Righteous (Tzadik). [This pillar] is named after the righteous. When there are righteous people in the world, then it becomes strong, and when there are not, it becomes weak. It supports the entire world, as it is written, "And Righteousness is the foundation of the world." If it becomes weak, then the world cannot endure. Therefore, even if there is only one righteous person in the world, it is he who supports the world. It is therefore written, "And a righteous one is the foundation of the world." [102] This logic of sustaining and healing God through righteous deeds creates great incentive for zealous, precise, even exuberant observance. On the other hand, it somewhat stifles innovation (change may diminish the potency of the ritual act) and create a certain degree of religious OCD.

1. Gates of Light, Avi Weinstein, trans. (Harper-Collins, 1994), p. 62.

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Friday, April 08, 2011

Adam Kadmon II: The Human Cosmos, Conduit of Light

We learned in my earlier post that the Rabbis believed Adam Kadmon embodied and exemplified the creation. The medieval Bible commentator Abraham ibn Ezra wrote, One who knows the secret of the human soul and the structure of the human body is able to understand something of the upper worlds, for the human body is the image of a microcosm. (Commentary on Exodus 25:40). [Illustration from the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism]. While he plays a mythic role in rabbinic thought, Adam Kadmon occupies an even more important place in Jewish mystical cosmology. This ‘heavenly man’ of antiquity becomes a prominent aspect of many subsequent Kabbalistic systems. In some, Adam Kadmon is a macroanthropos that signifies the totality of the Sefirot. In classic Kabbalah, the ten sefirot are often shown superimposed on the figure of the Adam Kadmon to represent his mediating role between God and creation – he is simultaneously the embodiment of divine attributes as well as the place of the universe (Zohar II:48a, 70b). In Lurianic Kabbalah, he is the first force that fills primordial space after the supernal light of God is withdrawn. Chayyim Vital elaborates on this theme, seeing Adam Kadmon as a kind of “world soul” and finds repetitions of him at each stage of the chain of creation (Etz Chayyim). He also teaches that various facets of the all subsequent human souls are derived from different “limbs” of Adam Kadmon and that the traits and qualities in a given soul reflect the location from which they were derived (Sefer ha-Hezyonot). Most mystics who include the Adam Kadmon in their system see the Jewish project as bringing a restoration of humanity to the state of Adam Kadmon. Mythically, the concept of Adam Kadmon has served Jewish mystics in their efforts to exalt and emphasize the divine aspect of humanity. Conversely, the concept has also elevated the status of the human body. Seizing upon a verse from Job, "In my flesh, I see God," the Kabbalists see the human body as a potentially supernal vessel, the ultimate theater in which the drama of divine redemption unfolds. Rather then retreat from the body and its appetites and its functions, as some religious traditions do, Jewish mysticism encourages us to cultivate an embodied spirituality. To learn more, read the EJMMM, available at amazon.com. Click here - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books

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