Friday, September 30, 2011

Yichudim: The Many Meanings of Unity in Judaism, pt. 1

If you drop in the word yichud or yihud into your search engine, you will get a long list of links. Oddly, though, most of them take you to the issue of yihud in the sense of "seclusion," the norms governing when Jewish men and women can and cannot be together alone. In a related discussion, there is an element of a Jewish wedding called the yichud, during which the couple is allowed time alone and away from the guests. This actually fulfilled a Talmudic criteria for being married, that witnesses see the couple seclude themselves together for the purpose of marriage.

Ironically, what is much harder to find via search engine is the philosophical and mystical use of the term as it applies to God, which in certain circles is a far more critical issue for a Jew to know. It is even soterological - "salvation" depends on it (according to some). If one finds it used in its philosophic context, the site will discuss Maimonides (RaMBaM). This is wholly as it should be, because RaMBaM is really the first Jewish thinker to make understanding and affirming the unity of God a core issue of Jewish belief. That sounds strange, but it's true. Yes, Jews have recited the Deuteronomic declaration, the Sh'ma (Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God Adonai is one/alone/unique)[Deut. 6:4] since earliest times. But the Sages of the Talmud seem to make it's twice daily recitation mandatory because, well, the Scriptures says you should say it twice ("When you lie down and when you rise up"). They never say, for example, that the Sh'ma is "the essence of Judaism" or "the watchword of our faith," as becomes common in later centuries.

It's centrality is implicitly affirmed in an entirely other context, by Rabbi Akiba's decision to recite it at its designated time -- which happened to be the same time his skin was being raked off his back by a Roman executioner. Again, Akiba doesn't say - "Oh, this is the thing that must be affirmed at my death." Rather, he realizes that the time of day to recite the Sh'ma has arrived, and he's gonna do the Jewish thing, come hell or high water. Still, that commitment to say it at the moment of death gave affirming the unity of God a special significance. Akiba adds a coda, about finally understanding what the Sh'ma means in the following paragraph when it demands one must "Love Adonai your God with...all your being." (Elah Ezkara). Impending death both focuses the mind and makes what comes to mind seem very important indeed. Akiba's story certainly enhanced the significance of declaring God's oneness, but not on a philosophical level. Akiba's martyrdom highlights devotion to God, not any idea about God.

For centuries after Akiba, no one claimed that accepting/internalizing/grokking the oneness of the God of Israel was even a mitzvah until the RaMBaM said it was. In his list of commandments, this belief is the second mitzvah listed. In his Mishneh Torah, it is considered the first obligation and the foundation of the Torah.

Now this is a notable claim, given that the Torah lists a very limited number of commandments that demand of us certain thoughts - to love God utterly is one, to not covet other peoples' stuff is another. And the fact is....belief in God, or God's nature is not one of them, at least explicitly. But the RaMBaM turns a declarative sentence, "I am Adonai your God...." into an imperative, "[You must believe] I am Adonai your God..." He makes a great philosophic argument for that, though it remains contrived in light of what the Hebrew Bible actually does and does not say. But Maimonides goes even further, arguing that simply affirming the idea as creed is not enough - one must grasp it and all its implications on a philosophic level of understanding, one that erases all intellectual doubt. If this all sounds rather Christian, I agree, though historically speaking, the RaMBaM is mostly under the influence of Islamic scholastics who, like Christians, really made reasoned thoughts and belief the sina qua non of valid religious experience. So, more than any rabbi before him, RaMBaM is insisting Jews have to hold certain beliefs (at least 13 of them).


So, what does this have to do with Jewish mystical beliefs and rituals of power? I'll get to that next entry. Its just a steep learning curve for understanding what's coming. Key themes: For Akiba, the unity of God is linked to love, for Maimonides, its all about intellect.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Torah, Tarot, and Taos: The Alchemy of Symbols

So I'm in Taos NM for the Labor Day Weekend. On Shabbat I had a striking progression of encounters. I went to services and Torah study to the Northern New Mexico Jewish Center. What a lovely experience. The people have their own minhag. And for parasha ha-shavua, it seems everyone is invited to bring a drash to share. In some cases, these are meticulously researched and written, in others, the davar is printed off the 'net. While some struggled with the names of the gedolim and their time and place, I would describe their intellectual offerings as pure incense to the Blessed Holy One. These folks take Torah seriously and work hard to make yiddishkeit in La Tierra. And how often does a visitor to a shul get a hug? It was a great Shabbat experience.

An interesting thing struck me while we read through the portion, Shoftim. The portion begins by instructing the Israelites to tear the asherot and m'tzavot, sacred trees* and stone pillars associated with pagan (or, more likely, corrupted Israelite) worship. But then Shoftim ends with God instructing the people not to cut down fruit trees during a siege. It made me think of how the idea assigned to the object makes all the difference. After all, trees and rocks remain potent Jewish symbols. Deuteronomy itself refers to God as Tzur, "Rock." and centuries later Proverbs speaks of wisdom** as "a tree of life." The objects don't go away, they just undergo a symbolic transmutation.

Then, as if to reinforce the point, a few hours later I was wandering through a Taos bookstore when I was engaged by a fellow intrigued by my Hebrew language t-shirt. Jesse Rose ("and a stem shall sprout from the stump of Jesse"?) is a local Taos tarot reader. Realizing this, I made a passing reference to some Jewishly derived symbols I knew appeared on the Waite deck, and pretty soon he wanted to do a reading for me in exchange for some discussion of Kabbalah, a kind of quid-pro-revelation deal.

Jesse gave me an insightful, archetype infused reading, and then afterward we discussed some of the images on his deck. Much of it revolved around the Chariot and Wheel of Fortune cards, both of which lean extensively on Ezekiel 1 and 10 for their imagery.

I was particularly struck by the pair of sphinx (sphinxes?) on the Chariot card. Ezekiel and others describe God's merkavah as being drawn by cherubs. We know (now) from archeaology that these celestical creatures were portrayed as sphinx-like by the Israelites. I'm not so sure that was known in Waite's time. He might have been drawing purely on Egyptian/Hermetic iconigraphy, and in doing so serendipitiously arrived as this surprisingly authentic image. Another observation. The two creatures are male and female, which mirrors a Talmudic tradtion in Yoma that the cherubs represented the erotic structure of the cosmos. The ring-and-rod symbol on the Chariot over the the "cherubim"(see above) likewise parallels the kabbalistic notion the the divine order as kav u'maggel (line and circle).***

So this pagan > Biblical > kabbalistic > hermetic mental mini-tour just drives home the fact that fundamental symbols and archetypes never go away, they just undergo a kind of alchemical transmutation in meaning, revealing their hidden power over and over again.

*Totem poles, really. There might have been living trees in a few shrines and high places, but given the fickle fate awaiting flora in the Levant, a aspirational tree makes a more enduring icon.

**Later equated by the Sages with Torah.

*** OK, so in the movie I saw the next day, The Tree of Life, the viewer is beaten over the head with "men are lines/women are curves" imagery. This movie reminds me that a little recurring symbolism goes a long way. Like drugs, symbols can easily be used to excess, losing their therapeutic value in the process.