Friday, February 29, 2008

Miriam: Prophetess, Diseased and Well

[Miriam, by E.M. Lilien]

Another reader inquired about Miriam, the prophet and the sister of Moses and Aaron:
hi this is off the point, but I was wondering what your take is on Miriam...have got your book, love it, however, there seems to be a lot missing from the Miriam story, what were prophesies and why was she struck with leprosy or is it albinism when Aaron was not...

The disease in question aside (not that it's not important, but it's not the focus of the EJMMM), the fabulous traditions of Miriam are piquant but minimal. Unfortunately, the brevity of my entry in the EJMMM is a reflection of the limited material to be found on Miriam. Beyond the Bible itself, there are tantalizing yet cursory accounts of her miracles and death, but there is little elaboration on the essential statements. Longer narratives, complex intertextual readings are all but non-existent when it comes to Miriam. Here's the summary of everything I could find:

The Sages claim she had multiple names and titles, including Helah, Azubah, Efrat, Naarah and Puah (Ex. R. 1:21). Through her name "Puah" (One who coos) we learn she was one of the midwives who spared the lives of the Israelite newborn males. She was the third member of the prophetic triumvirate that led the Children of Israel through the Exodus (Micah 6:4). Unlike her brothers Aaron and Moses, nothing miraculous is explicitly credited to Miriam in the Biblical text. She is the unfortunate recipient of a miracle, however; an affliction that turns her “white as snow,” imposed as a divine punishment for attacking her brother’s authority (Num. 12).

Post-Biblically, however, she is associated with a number of miraculous feats. She prophesizes the coming of her brother as the deliverer of the Israelites (Megillah 14a; MdRI 10; Ex. R. 21:13) Through her, God manifest the miracle of the well of Miriam (Ta’anit 9a), a supernatural water source that appeared whenever the Israelites encamped during the forty-year sojourn in the desert. The death of Miriam at the end of the Book of Numbers causes the well to disappear (Rashi's comment on Numbers 20:2). The Sages credit this deprivation with causing the confrontation between Moses and the people at Meribah (Num. 20:2 >).

In one tradition, she is identified as the mother (or grandmother) of Bezalel, the mystical artisan:
Bezalel's wisdom was through Miriam's merit...Miriam received royalty and...wisdom [prophecy]. She produced Bezalel, and [eventually] from her issued David (Shemot Rabbah 48:4. Also see: Ex. R. 1:17).
Her death served as an atonement for the entire generation of the Exodus (PdRK 26:11), she died by the kiss of God (B.B. 17a; Zohar II:151b) and her body remains perfectly preserved to this day. In the afterlife she oversees one of the six palaces in paradise where the righteous souls of women reside (Seder Gan Eden; Zohar III:167a-b).

Practitioners of Hermetic arts believe she was an alchemist, though this may arise from confusing the biblical figure with Maria (Miriam) Hebraea of Greco-Roman times.
That's about it. If someone knows of a traditional source I have overlooked, I will gladly amend this to include the new material. I'd love to see more on this fascinating figure.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

God of TaNaKH, God of Kabbalah

[Moses encounters God in a humble bush - from the Golden Haggadah]

Having followed the Berditchev Rebbe explaining God is "the All," essentially a monistic doctrine of existence, a reader asks:

Question...I like the abstract aspect to your concept of God. "God is the All, etc..." Although, my question is how do we reconcile this transcendent/ metaphysical understanding of God with the rather immanently involved personal God displayed in the Bible?

Excellent question. Buber and Scholem argued on precisely this point, the concern that God as envisioned by the Kabbalists was an abandonment of the personal God of the Bible (Scholem embraced it, Buber felt like it was a denial of a fundamental part of Judaism). Buber argued that Hasidism, while using the monistic language and ideas of Kabbalah, stepped back from a total abandonment of the divine "Thou." I certainly think Buber is on solid ground when it comes to the teachings of Yitzkhak Levi. The Hasidic master expounds on God as simultaneously "No-thing" and "The All." We are part of the All, and therefore nothing in ourselves. And yet...

Yitzkhak Levi's song, with which I concluded the discussion, "....everywhere - You!..." is itself a paean to the unity of all things in God, yet it is premised on a dualistic POV; there is myself and there is You (God). We live in this paradox. In addressing God as a subject (or Buber's I- Thou), the Berditchev Rebbe acknowledges that we cannot escape experiencing the world as multiplicity (Buber opens his magnum opus by saying that the world is "two-fold").

This paradox is always with us. The rabbis of antiquity taught that the reason God appeared to Moses in a burning bush was to teach him no place is devoid of divinity. Yet Moses still experiences the presence of God "outside" himself and it is described as a personal encounter with a personal God, with dialogue, disagreement, and command.

I think the Berditchev Rebbe would say there is nothing wrong or false in experiencing God in personal terms, as described in the Bible. God is "outside of us," for there is Yesh, being (and all being is bounded and limited), and God is Yesh (See first entry). But in meeting the personal God, we are only seeing one side of the coin, as it were. Our understanding of God is incomplete if we see God only as separate and outside ourselves. Most Kabbalah-based metaphysics embrace both the experience of duality and reality of God is All.

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Friday, February 22, 2008

Monism, Unity, and Duality in Judaism

[The labyrinth of existence unfolds within God: A perspective diagram of the sefirot which appears in Pardes Rimmonim ]
In the past two weeks we've looked at two excerpts from Kedushat Levi by Rabbi Yitzchak (or Yitzkhak, or Isaac) Levi of of Berdichev (or Berditchev) in which he explores the kabbalistic/Hasidic teaching that God is The All. We'll finish this exploration (I may come back to him) poetically, with a song that Rabbi Levi Yitzkhak would sing, as cited in in Buber's Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters:

Where I wander--You./ Where I ponder--You./ Only You, You again, always You./ You! You! You!/ When I'm gladdened--You./ When I am saddened--You./ Only You, You again, always You./ You! You! You!/ Sky is You. Earth is You./ You above. You below./ In every trend, at every end/ Only You, You again, always You./ You! You! You!

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kedushat Levi: Bridging between Void and Fullness

[The Bar Mitzvah reception reveals the truth of our existence]

In a previous entry we read Rabbi Levi Yitzkhak expound on the being and nothingness of God; how the spiritually developed person understands from this that he himself is part of the great All and, therefore, paradoxically, also nothing. Yet Levi Yitzkhak refuses to dismiss the universe as we experience it as a mere illusion. Physical reality is, as I suggested in an earlier analogy, the walls of the cup which, combined with the necessary void in the middle, that makes a cup a cup. So too, reality is both material existence and nothingness, limits and boundlessness, combined. What ties these paradoxical and antithetical realities together, he now argues (in a very clever manner, indeed), is the divine commandmant (mitzvah). The performance of the commandments simultaneously points toward the higher reality in which we are nothing, while affirming that there should be existence through action; making our experience of a limited existence both livable and desirable. The translation continues:

...And behold, the Ain, it conducts everything supernatural above the natural [order].[1] But it is the Yesh that conducts the natural order.[2] Truly! It is all bound up, that that we are intertwined, positive existence in nothingness[3] by means of the commandments and Torah, as is written: And the [holy] beasts ran back and forth (Ezekiel 1:14).[4] And this is what is written in the Zohar: For the commandments and the Torah, it is both hidden away and revealed, so the hidden away hints at the [divine aspect of] Ain, while the revealed hints at [the divine reality of] Yesh; it is a fusion of positive existence in nothingness, and nothingness in position existence. Therefore [the word] mitzvah [itself] is written [to demonstrate this principle], for [the first two letters of the word mitzvah] mem and tzadi, in atbash code[5] are yud-hay,[6] this signifying the aspect of Ain. And the [last two] letters [of mitzvah], vav-hay, signify positive existence.[7] Therefore the letters yud-hay is hidden away [in the word mitzvah] because Ain is hidden away. And this explains how the secret and revealed are [joined] in a commandment.[8] [Because] of this we labor with the commandment [which often have no obvious personal benefit], for we are acting, guided of the spirit, to the Name, The Blessed One – this is it in concealment, that it is not evident to us; but [even so] when do we do good works for our selves [the commandments often do reward us in this world], this is evident to us.

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[1] The aspect of divinity that is no-thing knows no bounds and is not delimited by the laws of an ordered universe. It is the source of the gracious, the miraculous, and the unpredictable.
[2] Positive existence, cosmos, is the aspect of divinity that makes for a bounded, predictable and lawful universe.
[3] “…existence in nothingness” is carefully chosen wording. No-thing is the matrix from which positive existence emerges. Ain has ‘priority’ over Yesh. But positive existence is not an illusion, it is just contingent. Just as it is the void in the middle of the material that makes a cup a cup, so too existence needs nothingness to be realized.
[4] This is from Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot (Merkavah). This is a difficult prooftext to unpack for those not already steeped in the assumptions of Jewish esoteric thought. This is the parabolic meaning of the "chariot": in early Jewish mysticism, Merkavah is the metaphor for the godhead, the divine superstructure. For Levi Yitzkhak, the holy beasts which pull the chariot, then, stand for action and/or commandments, and he takes “…running back and forth” to refer to the performance of the commandments as creating a constant interaction between the aspects of nothingness and positive existence, joining the two.
[5] One of the world’s earliest forms of encryption, atbash employs a chiastic substitution of letters for each of the 22 Hebrew letters: one substitutes the last letter for the first letter, the second to last letter for the second letter, etc.
[6] Yud-hay is the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God, giving these first two letters occult meaning.
[7] Unmodified, they are already the last two letters of the Tetragrammaton. They signify ordinary, positive existence because they require no esoteric mechanism to reveal their godly association, their meaning is already established plainly.
[8] This passage is too schematic by half (get it?). Levi Yitzkhak means that by combining the decoded first half of the word with the plain-sense last half of the word, one gets the complete name of God! The word ‘commandment’ itself fuses, and therefore embodies, the dual Ain and Yesh nature of divinity. This is why the commandments can serve as a bridge between the reality of the All and the experience of positive existence. Commandments can have a utiliterian value (a more serene life, social order, the admiration of others) but can also have no apparent reason or benefit (does avoiding eating lobster make us better people, or materially benefit the Jews?) but still serves a concealed yet cosmic function. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words hold the universe together.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Ain and Yesh: Being and Nothingness in Judaism

[The Yin and Yang of Jewish Existence: Illustration from http://tzvee.blogspot.com/]

Along with a dozen of my Dallas colleagues, I had the delightful experience of studying with the illustrious Rabbi Lawence Kushner this month. In one session, Rabbi Kushner had us read excerpts from the Hasidic Torah commentary, Kedushat Levi, written by Levi Yitzkhak of Beirditchev, one of the luminous minds of 19th Century Hasidism.

What follows is my translation of part of the passage we discussed (I'll continue it for the next couple of entries), which speaks of what Levi Yitzkhak claims is the essential teaching of Bereshit, the first Torah portion. The footnotes include numerous interpretations, some of which were offered by those in attendance, though weeks after the fact I cannot give due credit to each individual who originally offered them. Given that, I also cannot claim any credit for these insights, excepting perhaps the bad ones:

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth (Gen. 1.1). Everything (ha-klal)[1] – that the Creator, the Blessed One, created all (ha-khol), and is all (ha-khol), and His influence/emanation, it never ceases from the universe, because in every moment His emanation flows to creation, and all the [material] worlds, and to all the celestial precincts, and to all the angels, and to all the holy beasts.[2] Thus we read: Forming (yotzer) light and creating darkness,[3] -- [but] not, He formed (yatzar) light and created darkness. [We] only [find] yozter, in the present tense, because in every moment He is forming, that in every moment He is flowing life-force to all life. And everything from Him is blessed, it is complete, and it is comprised (k’lul) from The All (ha-khol).[4] And thereby when a person comes to No-Thing (Ain or Ein),[5] then he knows that he [himself] is not anything (aino klum),[6] [there is] only the Creator, the Blessed One, placing strength/existence in him. Only then can he call to the Creator, the Blessed One, by the aspect yatzar [the past tense], namely, that He has already created him. Therefore we can read: Who has formed [yatzar] humanity with wisdom[7], that Chokhmah (Wisdom) that is the level of Yesh (positive existence),[8] therefore [in this context] it is fine employing yatzar and not yotzer. Therefore it is stated in the writings of the Ari[9], may his memory be a blessing, that the Tetragrammaton is sovereign in the aspect of Ain [nothingness] – because ‘Adonai Melekh’ (the Lord is king, i.e., 'absolute') – [There is nothing besides Him in] that He is currently giving us life-force. So it is [in] the aspect of Ain that we are not anything, only that the Blessed Name gives us existence....

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[1] This also means, “The principle,” as in, “[what follows is] the great principle.”
[2] This list is arranged counter-intuitively. One would expect it to read “…and all the holy beasts, and all the angels, and all the heavenly precincts, and [even] all the [material] words,” working “down” the chain of creation. Why he opts to arrange it thus is not clear.
[3] This is quoting the daily prayer known as the gevurot.
[4] Which is God. It is hard to capture in English the playful interaction of the related terms ha-khol, ha-klal, k’lul and klum. There is also a built in linguistic curiosity. Khol means “all” in the most boundless and limitless sense. Yet the ha- attached to the front is the definite article, which is both specifying and delimiting - “the all” (not be mistaken for another boundless and limitless all), is essentially a paradox, one that captures the paradox of God's all-being and nothingness in a word.
[5] The greatest reality of God, that God is “no-thing.” So if God is All and Nothing, then every creation too is both [part of] all and is nothing.
[6] If God is everything, then our sense of self means nothing. One reader has complained about the persistent use of the masculine third-person pronoun for both God and humanity. In actuality, this translation has already eliminated many of the masculine pronouns that pepper the Hebrew text. As was conventional in his day, Levi Yitzkhak referred to God primaily using masculine terms. Hopefully the thoughtful reader can see past these words and recognize his essential argument, which is that what we term "God" simultaneously contains and transcends all categories, including those of gender and sex.
[7] Citing from another prayer, the blessing for the functioning of the body.
[8] This refers to a formal teaching of kabbalistic metaphysics – that existence emanates from the sefirah of Chokhmah, a higher aspect of the godhead labeled “Wisdom.” Above that stage/level in divinity, there is only ain, that which is “no-thing.”
[9] Rabbi Isaak Luria, the most famous Jewish mystic in history.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Cherub: American Idol/ Israelite Foundation

In this week's parasha (portion) for liturgical reading of the Torah, Terumah, we learn about the construction of the Mishkan [the Tabernacle] and its furniture. One of the striking features is the ark (aron) and, especially, its decoration:

[the ark and its cherubs - a modern interpretation. Bookplate by E. M. Lilien]

Exodus 25:18-20 And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. 19 Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. 20 The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, And the cherubim shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy-seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; towards the mercy-seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.

Every year we read about these golden cherubim (that's Hebrew plural - cherubs), virtually unique examples of statuary art in the otherwise aniconic tradition of ancient Israel (these and the bronze snake), and every year one of my shocked congregants will ask me, "Isn't that an idol?"

It's a great question, quite logical really, but the answer is - no. Why not? For the same reason that circumcision is not a violation of the Deuteronomic prohibition against making permanent marks on the body (people worry about that seeming contradiction also) - - if God tells us to specifically do these things in the face of other commandments, that simply makes them exceptions rather than violations.

Virtually all seemingly absolute rules have their exceptions: despite the garaunteed and seemingly unfettered freedom of speech vouchsafed us in the bill of rights, we are not free (legally) to speak or print knowingly print defamatory falsehoods (slander/libel). The law makes express exception for those types of speech. Despite the prohibition against murder, every human society makes an exception for homicide committed as part of lawful combat. Likewise, cherubs and circumcision are God's specific exceptions to otherwise blanket prohibitions.

So what were these cherubs? Well, they're not gods, they're part of the divine retinue, maybe even part of God's throne:

Psalm 99:1 The Eternal reigns, let the peoples tremble; He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!

Based on the description found in Exodus, we construe that they actually constituted a representation of God's "throne" in the inner sanctum of His house (the Temple). This indeed feels very literal to us, perhaps too much so - even if the statuary cherubs were not idols, does this mean God has a tushie?

Not to worry (too much - if we didn't worry we wouldn't be Jewish). Later tradition takes the cherubim on the ark to be more metaphor than model. For example, the Talmud teaches the cherubs symbolized the cosmic reality of divine love upon which the world stands and is sustained:

Rav Katina said, ‘When the Israelites would ascend (to the Holy Temple) on the Festival, the Priests would roll up the curtain for them, and display for them the cherubs, who were intertwined. The Priests would then tell them, ‘Behold, the beloved feelings for you on the part of the Omni Present. Are like the beloved feelings of a male for a female’”(BT Yoma 54a).

God created all things male and female (Baba Batra 74a). The Sages thought this bi-sexual structure to life is the foundation of creation, the great essence and secret of life. The cherubs are zoomorphic (they probably didn't actually look like humanoid angels in the First Temple, they were kind of sphinx-like hybrid creatures) symbols for that secret.

By contrast, in Kedushat Levi, a Hasidic commentary, the Cherubs signify something equally fundamental as love or bi-sexuality, but even more abstract: the two-fold reality of God as the All and No-thing. What the heck does that mean? Hang tight, we'll do an extended reading of Kedushat Levi on Bereshit to make sense of that paradox.

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050