Bob Schwartz

Category: Judaism

The Hanukkah Guest, Told by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

Artist: Xul Solar (1887-1963)

Hanukkah begins on the evening of Sunday, December 2, and continues for eight nights and days. One candle is lit on the first night, with a candle added each night. Light increases.

Every story has something hidden. What is concealed is the hidden light.
Reb Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810)

The Hanukkah Guest

On the first night of Hanukkah, a poor man, who lived alone, chanted the Hanukkah blessings and lit the Hanukkah candle. He gazed at the candle for a long moment, and then there was a knock at the door. When he opened it, he saw a stranger standing there, and he invited him in. They began to discuss things, as people do, and the guest asked the man how he supported himself. The man explained that he spent his days studying Torah, and that he was supported by others, and didn’t have an income of his own. After a while, their talk became more intimate, and the man told the guest that he was striving to reach a higher level of holiness. The guest suggested that they study Torah together. And when the man discovered how profound were the guest’s insights, he started to wonder if he were a human being or an angel. He began to address the guest as Rabbi.

Time flew by, and the man felt as if he had learned more in that one night than in all the other years he had studied. All at once the guest said that he had to leave, and the man asked him how far he should accompany him. The guest replied, “Past the door.” So the man followed the guest out the door, and the guest embraced him, as if to say goodbye, but then he began to fly, with the man clinging to him. The man was shivering, and when the guest saw this, he gave him a garment that not only warmed him, but, as soon as he put it on, he found himself back in his house, seated at the table, enjoying a fine meal. At the same time, he saw that he was flying.

The guest brought him to a valley between two mountains. There he found a book with illustrations of vessels, and inside the vessels there were letters. And the man understood that with those letters it was possible to create new vessels. The man was taken with a powerful desire to study that book. But when he looked up for an instant, he found himself back in his house. Then, when he turned back to the book, he found himself in the valley once more. The guest, whoever he was, was gone. The man, feeling confident, decided to climb up the mountain. When he reached the summit, he saw a golden tree with golden branches. From the branches hung vessels like those illustrated in the book. The man wanted to pick one of those vessels, as one picks fruit from a tree, but as soon as he reached for one, he found himself back in his house, and there was a knock at the door. He opened the door and saw it was the mysterious guest, and he pleaded with him to come in. The guest replied, “I don’t have time, for I am on my way to you.” The man was perplexed, and asked the guest to explain what he meant. The guest said, “When you agreed to accompany me beyond the door, I gave your neshamah, your highest earthly soul, a garment from Paradise. Now, when you bring your thoughts to Paradise, you are there, on that holy mountain. But when your thoughts return to this world, you will find yourself here once again.” And that is how it remained for the rest of that man’s life, and the story has still not come to an end.

A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav by Howard Schwartz

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Dogen and Heschel on Time

Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) would have understood each other, liked each other, despite the seven centuries that separate them. Brilliant, visionary and overwhelmingly articulate, they were heirs to two rich traditions, Zen Buddhism and Judaism, which they further refined into pure essence. Their inspired prose is poetry, the poetry of the thing itself.

Both wrote about time in ways that exceed our comprehension by a step or two, so we run to keep up: Dogen most astutely in his essay Uji: The Time Being; Heschel in his book The Sabbath.


When you are at this place, there is just one grass, there is just one form; there is understanding of form and beyond understanding of form; there is understanding of grass and beyond understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time being is all the time there is. Grass being, form being, are both time.

Each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment….

Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If they were not time, there would be no mountains or oceans. Do not think that mountains and oceans here and now are not time. If time is annihilated, mountains and oceans are annihilated. As time is not annihilated, mountains and oceans are not annihilated.

Zen Master Dogen, Uji: The Time Being, translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi, in The Essential Dogen.


Every one of us occupies a portion of space. He takes it up exclusively. The portion of space which my body occupies is taken up by myself in exclusion of anyone else. Yet, no one possesses time. There is no moment which I possess exclusively. This very moment belongs to all living men as it belongs to me. We share time, we own space. Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings. We pass through time, we occupy space. We easily succumb to the illusion that the world of space is for our sake, for man’s sake. In regard to time, we are immune to such an illusion.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath.


 

“Honoring Pittsburgh synagogue victims, Pence appears with ‘rabbi’ who preaches, ‘Jesus is the Messiah’”

 

Washington Post:

Two days after the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, Vice President Pence bowed his head at a rally on Monday in Michigan as a religious leader who casts himself as a “rabbi” offered a prayer for the victims in Pittsburgh.

But the man who shared a stage with Pence, Loren Jacobs, preaches Messianic Judaism, a tradition central to Jews for Jesus, a group condemned by Jewish leaders as faux Judaism that seeks to promote Christian evangelism. The major Jewish denominations join the state of Israel in viewing followers of Messianic Judaism as Christian, not Jewish.

His appearance drew outrage on social media.

When I read this story, my reaction—I am not kidding—was: Oh Jesus!

I haven’t covered this issue of messianic Judaism much, though I’ve talked with others about it plenty. The last time I wrote about it was in discussing Roy Moore.  You may recall that his controversial and unsuccessful run for the Senate, along with including questions about Moore’s inappropriate behavior with a young woman, also included claims that Moore was anti-Semitic. To counter the charge, Moore’s wife pointed to their having a Jewish attorney. It turned out that the attorney was a messianic Jew.

The Post story does a good job of outlining the issue. Suffice it to say that if you believe that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, you are free to believe that. But according to any accepted normative theology held by any Jews, Jesus was not the Jewish messiah, and believing that he was makes you by definition not Jewish. (To go into a little more detail, a number of Jews historically gave up on the coming of any messiah, while a small minority still believe in the future possibility of a messiah. Jesus has no place in either of those schemes.)

Along with the question of whether the “rabbi” Pence invited was actually a rabbi or a Jew, the whole approach is inappropriate by any spiritual or humane lights. That is, under the tragic and sensitive circumstances, bringing this person to that event and having him say what he said (including endorsing Republicans) was about as un-Jesus-like as anything imaginable. Pence’s “rabbi” is no Jew, and with this stunt, neither Pence nor his “rabbi” appear to be very good Christians either.

“Will Pittsburgh Shooting Be A Wakeup Call For Jews Who Enable Trump?”

The Forward today includes an opinion piece, Will Pittsburgh Shooting Be A Wakeup Call For Jews Who Enable Trump by Ben Faulding, that ends like this:

Now that Jewish blood has been spilled, will the leaders recognize the threat they’ve been ignoring for so long?

Trump’s behaviors and policies continually contravert practically every core principle of Judaism. But even when white nationalists in Charlottesville directly expressed their anti-Semitism with chants like “Jews will not replace us,” important Jewish supporters and White House staff didn’t object to Trump’s equivocation of “good people on both sides.” We have a transactional president in transactional times, so if ignoring even anti-Semitism is the price you pay for support of Israel, tax benefits, etc., well, that’s the art of the deal.

The answer to whether this horror will be a wakeup call is mostly No. Jews who have cast their lot with Trump, from billionaires like Sheldon Adelson on down, either don’t know what Jewish principles actually are or have rationalized their support in relation to those principles. They aren’t asleep so they can’t wake up. They are just not very good Jews, if Jews at all.

Nationalist in Chief

“I am a nationalist.”

Oseh shalom bimromav,
hu yaaseh shalom aleinu,
v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teiveil,
v’imru. Amen.

May the One who makes peace in the high heavens
make peace for us, for all Israel and all who inhabit the earth. Amen.

Great Doubt: Zen and the Baal Shem Tov

Doubt is a powerful and necessary tool. Wonder, mystery, unresolved and unresolvable puzzlement. Greater than doubt is Great Doubt. Great Doubt and the Great Secret.

Great Doubt:

The ancients spoke of three essential conditions for Zen practice:

First: great faith; second: great doubt; third: great determination. These are like the three legs of a tripod.

Now, what is great doubt? The type of doubt being referred to here is not intellectual doubt, such as we have when asking about the meaning of a koan. Instead, we can think of great doubt as utterly becoming one with our practice—whether we are counting the breath or practicing with the koan “Mu”—to the point that our entire body and mind are like a single mass of inquiry….

The great root of faith naturally activates this great ball of doubt. If the root of faith appears, the great ball of doubt will arise without fail. Spurred on by great doubt we continue the practice of [the koan] Mu, without seeking or expecting awakening. The quickest way to awaken when completely absorbed in Mu is to throw away all thoughts about it. Awakening has nothing to do with any kind of intellectual knowledge or discrimination.

Koun Yamada, Zen: The Authentic Gate

Great Secret:

In the Hour of Doubt

It is told:

In the city of Satanov there was a learned man, whose thinking and brooding took him deeper and deeper into the question why what is, is, and why anything is at all. One Friday he stayed in the House of Study after prayer to go on thinking, for he was snared in his thoughts and tried to untangle them and could not. The holy Baal Shem Tov felt this from afar, got into his carriage and, by dint of his miraculous power which made the road leap to meet him, he reached the House of Study in Satanov in only an instant. There sat the learned man in his predicament. The Baal Shem said to him: “You are brooding on whether God is; I am a fool and believe.” The fact that there was a human being who knew of his secret, stirred the doubter’s heart and it opened to the Great Secret.

Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

Day of the Purge: The Random Goats of Yom Kippur

No matter how many layers and centuries of rabbinic interpretation and tradition overlay Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holy days, we are educated by going back to basics and to the foundations. In the case of Yom Kippur, that means back to the Torah.

“And it shall be a perpetual statute for you: in the seventh month on the tenth of the month you shall afflict yourselves and no task shall you do, the native and the sojourner who sojourns in your midst. For on this day it will be atoned for you, to cleanse you of all your offenses, before the LORD you shall be cleansed. It is a sabbath of sabbaths for you, and you shall afflict yourselves, an everlasting statute. And the priest shall atone, who will be anointed and who will be installed to serve as priest in his father’s stead, and he shall put on the linen garments, the sacral garments. And he shall atone for the holy sanctuary and for the Tent of Meeting, and he shall atone for the altar, and for the priests and for all the assembled people he shall atone. And this shall be an everlasting statute for you to atone for the Israelites for all their offenses once in the year.” (Leviticus 16:29-33, Robert Alter translation)

We refer to Yom Kippur (short for the Hebrew yom hakippurim) as the Day of Atonement. But some offer the English translation “the Day of Purgation.” It is the day, according to Leviticus, on which the high priest was allowed to enter the holy of holies of the Tent of Meeting to purge it of the transgressions that had accumulated over the course of year—a dirty accretion that can be thought of as a sort of a dense smog.

Leviticus prescribes a detailed purgative procedure for Aaron to perform. It involves, among other things, a bull, a ram and two goats. Only one of the goats will be sacrificed. But which one?

And from the community of Israelites he shall take two he-goats for an offense offering and one ram for a burnt offering. And Aaron shall bring forward the offense-offering bull which is his and atone for himself and for his household. And he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And he shall put lots on the two goats, one for the LORD and one for Azazel. And Aaron shall bring forward the goat for which the lot for the LORD comes up, and he shall make it an offense offering. And the goat for which the lot for Azazel comes up shall be set live before the LORD to atone upon it, to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:6-10)

Who is Azazel? Why is he being sent a wandering goat in the wilderness? And why is the goat being chosen at random by lottery?

Robert Alter:

one [goat] for the LORD and one for Azazel: As countless seals and other ancient inscriptions unearthed by archeologists attest, the use of a proper name or title, prefixed by the letter lamed (“for”) as a lamed of possession, was a standard form for indicating that the object in question belonged to So-and-so (as in lamelekh, “the king’s”). These words, then (in the Hebrew, each is a single word, leYHWH and la‘azaz’el), are the actual texts written on the two lots. Much ink since Late Antiquity has been spilled over the identity of Azazel, but the most plausible understanding—it is a very old one—is that it is the name of a goatish demon or deity associated with the remote wilderness. The name appears to reflect ‘ez, goat.

for which the lot for the LORD comes up: This translation renders the Hebrew verb literally. The use of that verb may be dictated by the fact that the lots were in all likelihood pulled up out of a box or urn.

to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness: Approximate analogues to the so-called scapegoat ritual, using different animals, appear in several different Mesopotamian texts. The origins of the practice are surely in an archaic idea—that the polluting substance generated by the transgressions of the people is physically carried away by the goat. Azazel is not represented as a competing deity (or demon) rivaling YHWH, but the ritual depends upon a polarity between YHWH/the pale of human civilization and Azazel/the remote wilderness, the realm of disorder and raw formlessness. An unapologetic reading might make out the trace of a mythological plot, even if it is no more than vestigial in this monotheistic context. It is as though the goat piled with impurities were being sent back to the primordial realm of “welter and waste” before the delineated world came into being, but that realm here is given an animal-or-demon tag. The early rabbis, extending the momentum of the ritual, imagined the goat as being pushed off a high cliff, but in our text it is merely sent out, or set free, in the wild wilderness that is the realm of Azazel.

Jewish Study Bible:

The use of the two goats is similar to that of the two birds in Leviticus 14.4–7, 49–53. The lottery determines at random how each goat is to be used.

Azazel: The Rabbis cleverly divided this name into two words “ʿez ʾazel,” “the goat that goes away,” from which the traditional “scapegoat” is derived. It literally means “fierce god” and as intimated by the medieval exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra is evidently the name of a demon or deity believed to inhabit the wilderness. Thus the sins of the people are symbolically cast into the realm beyond civilization, to become the property of a being who is the antithesis of the God of Israel. Though Azazel accepts the goat bearing Israel’s sins as a sacrifice to him, this is no disloyalty to God since He Himself commands it, as Naḥmanides (Ramban) says: It is as though a king ordered “Give a portion [of this feast] to my servant so-and-so.”

Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism by Howard Schwartz:

The custom of sending a scapegoat out into the desert as an offering to Azazel is clearly a remnant of a pagan ritual.

In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 51, God identifies the scapegoat as an atonement for Himself: “This he-goat shall be an atonement for Me, because I have diminished the size of the moon.” See “The Quarrel of the Sun and the Moon,” p. 112, which concludes with God diminishing the moon. We should not overlook the strangeness of God feeling the need to atone. This is reminiscent of Jung’s portrayal of God in Answer to Job. This is one more example of the kind of personification of God so commonly found in rabbinic sources, where God also studies Torah, suffers, mourns, puts on tallit and tefillin and prays.

Who was Azazel, to whom the scapegoat was sent? This appears to be a remnant of a pagan myth in which Azazel was some kind of desert god. Thus the scapegoat represents a sacrifice to the forces of evil. In modern Israel, the phrase “Lekh le Azazel” means “Go to hell!”

A description of the sacrifice of the scapegoat is found in B. Yoma 67a: “On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) a goat was thrown off a high cliff in the desert, to atone for the sins of the Jews. A red ribbon was hung up in the Temple on that day. When the goat was thrown off the cliff, the ribbon turned white.” This description links the Temple and the sacrifice of the scapegoat, viewing it as a kind of remote Temple offering. The transformation of the ribbon from red to white confirms this.

What to make of all this, in the year 5779/2018? There is no Temple, no Tent of Meeting, no holy of holies. For most of us, there are no goats being chosen by lottery and sent to Azazel, and no Azazel.

Today we live and worship in the interpretation and symbolizing of these Torah stories and ancient roots. But at Yom Kippur, one thing to pay attention to in this is the role of randomness on this solemn occasion. It is not the only instance where randomness plays a part in the Torah.

In the Torah, of course, the seemingly random is no such thing. The lot pulled out of the box is supposedly pre-arranged by God (to quote from Leonard Cohen, as I did in my previous post, “everybody knows the dice are loaded.”)

Yom Kippur is arranged as a soul-searching transaction. Consider what you do, because when you do this that happens. Adding the element of randomness doesn’t change that; it just adds another dimension of reality. Things happen by cause and effect. Things also happen at random. The two are inextricably integrated. You can’t pick the “wrong” goat to send to Azazel, not because God fixed the lottery, but because it is always up to you, wandering like that goat in the wilderness. Just much more aware and thoughtful.

 

Leonard Cohen on Yom Kippur: Who By Fire

A signature prayer of the Days of Awe is Unatenah Tokef:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah [return and prayer and righteous acts]
deflect the evil of the decree.

Unatenah Tokef inspired Leonard Cohen to write the song Who By Fire. He restates the prayer poetically, and adds this question:

And who shall I say is calling?

On Yom Kippur, some number of Jews who don’t usually attend services will find themselves not only at a service, but at one on the holiest day of the year, being asked to consider their lives in light of a theology of divine judgment. Some will believe that individual acts are weighed, some will believe that the whole year or a life are taken into account, and some will not believe in any of it at all.

That is where the question comes in. If you engage in the communication on Yom Kippur, or at any time, who is on either end? Is there someone here, is there someone there? Who shall I say is calling?

Who By Fire by Leonard Cohen:

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt
And who by avalanche, who by powder
Who for his greed, who for his hunger
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident
Who in solitude, who in this mirror
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand
Who in mortal chains, who in power
And who shall I say is calling?

Rosh Hashanah 5779 – Abraham Joshua Heschel on Repentance

In the realm of spirit, there is no difference between a second and a century, between an hour and an age. Rabbi Judah the Patriarch cried: “There are those who gain eternity in a lifetime, others who gain it in one brief hour.” One good hour may be worth a lifetime; an instant of returning to God may restore what has been lost in years of escaping from Him. “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life in the world to come.” (Avot 4:22)
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

More About Compassion Toward Things

These are the creatures and objects that are spoken of as the possessions of this individual: his animals and his walls, his garden and his meadow, his tools and his food. In so far as he cultivates and enjoys them in holiness, he frees their souls. “For this reason a man must always be compassionate toward his tools and all his possessions.”
Martin Buber, The Legend of the Baal Shem Tov

I earlier wrote about the concept of compassion toward your things. Here is a bit more.

What does it mean to be compassionate toward your things, to be “feeling with” them? This is easier to conceive if the thing is something alive like a pet, or something once growing but now picked like some of the food on your plate. But a chair is just a chair; does it really need your compassion to set its soul free?

Could it be that by stretching to find compassion for those things—for all those other things, no matter how insignificant they seem—we are exercising our practice and ability to be compassionate toward everything and everyone all the time? Could it be that by stretching to find the reality of those things, we are exercising our practice and ability to understand everything and everyone all the time?

The Buddhist concept of the trichiliocosm (also known as trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu) “posits that any given thought-moment perfectly encompasses the entirety of reality both spatially and temporally…. the microcosm contains the macrocosm and temporality encompasses spatiality. Thus, whenever a single thought arises, there also arise the myriad dharmas; these two events occur simultaneously, not sequentially.” (Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism):

Trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu. In Sanskrit, literally “three-thousandfold great-thousandfold world system,” but typically translated as “trichiliocosm”; the largest possible universe, composed of (according to some interpretations of the figure) one billion world systems, each of which have a similar geography, including a central axis at Mount Sumeru, four surrounding continents, etc.

In his translation of The Diamond Sutra, Red Pine reflects on a related point:

Chapter 1: One day before noon, the Bhagavan put on his patched robe and picked up his bowl and entered the capital of Shravasti for offerings. After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat. After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.

In ancient India, the main staple was glutinous rice, which was eaten with the hands by forming it into balls. The term pinda occurs again at the end of the sutra in Chapter Thirty, where it includes the biggest of all lumps: a universe of a billion worlds. This is not accidental, for the practice of charity and the concept of an entity, either compounded of smaller entities or compounding a greater entity, run throughout this sutra. In the chapters that follow, the Buddha takes us through a series of synonyms for the entities of reality and compares the results of offering such things as a ball of rice, a universe of jewels, numberless existences, or a four-line poem.

The Buddha said, “Subhuti, what do you think? Are all the specks of dust in the billion-world-system of a universe many?”

The Buddha turns from this teaching to the sanctuary where this teaching was being taught, namely, the vihara outside Shravasti where both he and Subhuti were sitting. If the teaching of prajna is no teaching, what about the world in which it is taught? The Buddha begins with the smallest perceivable constituents of matter and the largest conceivable entity that they comprise.

Chapter Thirty: “Furthermore, Subhuti, if a noble son or daughter took as many worlds as there are specks of dust in a billion-world universe and by an expenditure of limitless energy ground them into a multitude of atoms, Subhuti, what do you think, would there be a great multitude of atoms?…The Buddha said, “Subhuti, attachment to an entity is inexplainable and inexpressible. For it is neither a dharma nor no dharma. Foolish people, though, are attached.”

All things big and small are locked in an endless sleight of hand in which each negates the reality of the other. And yet we all look for something to grab. Sometimes, we grab the biggest thing we can find. Sometimes, we grab the smallest. The people of Shravasti offered the Buddha balls of rice. Were the balls of rice real, or the grains of rice? The Buddha ate what he found in his bowl. So, too, do Zen masters swallow the world and all its mountains and rivers. And the reason they can do this is because mountains and rivers do not themselves exist but are simply names we give to momentary combinations of causes and conditions that are themselves momentary combinations of causes and conditions: universes made of specks of dust made of specks of dust made of specks of dust that form universes that form universes that form universes. Zen masters swallow names and concepts, while the entities they represent change. Mountains and rivers and the ten-thousand things all change. If they did not, we would be in trouble. We would have no hope of liberation. But because nothing exists as an independent, permanent entity, there are no obstructions on the path to enlightenment. Foolish people, though, refuse to walk this path. They see nothing but obstructions. Buddhas see offerings and turn these offerings into dharmas.