Bob Schwartz

Tag: Judaism

The Torah Begins Again: A Big Nothing or A Big Something?

Whether or not you believe in religion, God, Judaism or the Torah, it is exciting that the annual cycle of Torah reading begins again with the first words of Genesis. A Big Nothing? A Big Something that becomes a different Big Something? Who knows? Who even knows what it says?

Here, a few different translations and comments from some brilliant scholars.


GENESIS 1:1-2

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

הַמָּֽיִם׃ וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י


When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters

Note:

welter and waste. The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

hovering. The verb attached to God’s breath-wind-spirit (ruaḥ) elsewhere describes an eagle fluttering over its young and so might have a connotation of parturition or nurture as well as rapid back-and-forth movement.

Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Translation with Commentary


When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—

Note:

A tradition over two millennia old sees 1.1 as a complete sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the 11th century, the great Jewish commentator Rashi made a case that the verse functions as a temporal clause. This is, in fact, how some ancient Near Eastern creation stories begin—including the one that starts at 2.4b. Hence the translation, When God began to create heaven and earth.

This clause describes things just before the process of creation began. To modern people, the opposite of the created order is “nothing,” that is, a vacuum. To the ancients, the opposite of the created order was something much worse than “nothing.” It was an active, malevolent force we can best term “chaos.” In this verse, chaos is envisioned as a dark, undifferentiated mass of water. In 1.9, God creates the dry land (and the seas, which can exist only when water is bounded by dry land). But in 1.1–2.3, water itself and darkness, too, are primordial (contrast Isa. 45.7). In the midrash, Bar Kappara upholds the troubling notion that the Torah shows that God created the world out of preexistent material. But other rabbis worry that acknowledging this would cause people to liken God to a king who had built his palace on a garbage dump, thus arrogantly impugning His majesty (Gen. Rab. 1.5). In the ancient Near East, however, to say that a deity had subdued chaos is to give him the highest praise.

The Jewish Study Bible (Second Edition)


In the beginning of God’s creating the skies and the earth —when the earth had been shapeless and formless, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and God’s spirit was hovering on the face of the water—

Note:

the earth had been: Here is a case in which a tiny point of grammar makes a difference for theology. In the Hebrew of this verse, the noun comes before the verb (in the perfect form). This is now known to be the way of conveying the past perfect in Biblical Hebrew. This point of grammar means that this verse does not mean “the earth was shapeless and formless”—referring to the condition of the earth starting the instant after it was created. This verse rather means that “the earth had been shapeless and formless”—that is, it had already existed in this shapeless condition prior to the creation. Creation of matter in the Torah is not out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), as many have claimed. And the Torah is not claiming to be telling events from the beginning of time.

shapeless and formless: The two words in the Hebrew, th and bh, are understood to mean virtually the same thing. This is the first appearance in the Torah of a phenomenon in biblical language known as hendiadys, in which two connected words are used to signify one thing. (“Wine and beer” [Lev 10: 9] may be a hendiadys as well, or it may be a merism, a similar construction in which two words are used to signify a totality; so that “wine and beer” means all alcoholic beverages.) The hendiadys of “th and bh,”plus the references to the deep and the water, yields a picture of an undifferentiated, shapeless fluid that had existed prior to creation.

Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah


At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean,

Note:

At the beginning…: This phrase, which has long been the focus of debate among grammarians, is traditionally read “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” B-R agrees. I have followed several medieval commentaries, and most moderns, in my rendition.

When the earth…: Gen. 1 describes God’s bringing order out of chaos, not creation from nothingness. Wild and waste: Heb. tohu va-wohu, indicating “emptiness.” Ocean: The primeval waters, a common (and usually divine) image in an ancient Near Eastern mythology.

Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses


When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness.

Note:

When God was about to create (b’reishit bara elohim); other translations render this: “In the beginning God created.” Our translation follows Rashi, who said that the first word would have been written (ba-rishonah, at first) if its primary purpose had being to teach the order in which creation took place. Later scholars used the translation “In the beginning” as proof that God created out of nothing (Latin: ex nihilo), but it is not likely that the biblical author was concerned with the question of matter’s origin.

W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition)


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Note:

In the beginning when God created, or “When God began to create.” The grammar of this temporal clause was clarified by the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, who noted that the Hebrew word for “beginning” (reshit) requires a dependent relation—it is the “beginning of” something—and can be followed by a verb. The traditional rendering, “In the beginning, God created,” dates to the Hellenistic period (as in the Septuagint), when these details of classical Hebrew grammar had been forgotten. The idea of creatio ex nihilo (Latin, “creation out of nothing”) is dependent on the later rendering. In the original grammar, creation is a process of ordering and separation that begins with preexisting chaotic matter.

This disjunctive clause portrays the primordial state as a dark, watery chaos, an image similar to the primordial state in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek traditions. Unlike these other traditions, the chaos here is not a god or gods, but mere matter. The wind from God is he only divine substance and seems to indicate the incipient ordering of this chaos (cf. the role of God’s wind in initiating the reversal of watery chaos in 8.1).

The HarperCollins Study Bible


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Note:

Scholars differ on whether this verse is to be translated as an independent sentence summarizing what follows (e.g., “In the beginning God created”) or as a temporal phrase describing what things were like when God started (e.g., “When God began to create . . . the earth was a formless void”; cf. 2.4–6). In either case, the text does not describe creation out of nothing (contrast 2 Macc 7.28). Instead, the story emphasizes how God creates order from a watery chaos.

New Oxford Annotated Bible

Yom Kippur: Martin Luther King, Jr. on Repentance

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) begins this evening. It is the final day of the Jewish Days of Awe.

“Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)

Rosh Hashanah 5780: Re-Creating the World

Solomon ben Joel Dubno (1738–1813)

Every year, on Rosh ha-Shanah, everything returns to its very beginning. Creation is renewed. All that was created in the beginning comes into being again. Thus each Rosh ha-Shanah the world is re-created.
Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom, commentary by Solomon ben Joel Dubno (1793)

Passover: Let’s Get Lost

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
We’re on a road to nowhere
Come on inside
Taking that ride to nowhere
We’ll take that ride
Talking Heads, Road to Nowhere


Let’s Get Lost

Passover
Americans are lost
Jews are lost
Jews are used to being lost

Wake up wandering in the wilderness
Wanting guidance assurances
That it will be all right
Promises will be kept
A land will be found

No assurances
No promises
No land
No turning back

Tell the story
Then like the afikomen
Broken and lost
Let’s get lost

©


Living under an American Pharaoh: What’s a Jew to do?

It’s almost Passover, so Pharaoh is our minds. Also on our minds because we are living under an American Pharaoh—or at least a wannabe Pharaoh.

Don’t let him fool you. Just because his chief henchman is Jewish, or his son-in-law is Jewish, or some of his rich donors are Jewish, or because he says and does things that make it seem that he understands and cares about Jews and Israel (he doesn’t), he is nothing less than a Pharaoh.

So where does that leave American Jews, particularly at Passover?

It is actually not that surprising that some Jews have joined the Pharaoh’s cause. There are dramatic moments in the exodus story where Jews are willing to throw away freedom and principle for a golden calf and the comfort of the Pharaoh’s harsh protection.

And Aaron said to them, “Take off the golden rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the golden rings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he took them from their hand and he fashioned it in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” And Aaron saw, and he built an altar before it, and Aaron called out and said, “Tomorrow is a festival to the LORD.” And they rose early on the next day, and they offered up burnt offerings and brought forward communion sacrifices, and the people came back from eating and drinking and they rose up to play.
Exodus 32:2-6

So where does that leave the Jews who do not believe in Pharaoh? We can stay and argue with those who support Pharaoh, though that has so far proven pointless. We can escape to the wilderness in search of a Promised Land of freedom and light, although by many conventions America is already the Promised Land of freedom and light.

Or we can all be tiny Moses, telling fellow Jews at Passover that worshiping Pharaoh and a golden calf and unprincipled conduct is ungodly and unholy. We cannot wait for God to intervene because God leaves it up to us. Let us not disappoint.

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

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.