1. Hmmm . . .
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    A MIDRASH ON EXODUS 13:18

    This midrash is a playful dancing with a single Torah text, done in a contemplative manner (perhaps a bit like imaginative Ignatian-style lectio divina), presented somewhat in a “traditional” midrashic style, but also with some more modern movements. Midrash is not generally used to exegete that “plain meaning” of a text, but to dig deeper, to uncover spiritual dimensions. It uses close readings with sometimes little regard for context, allegory, puns and other word-play, metaphor, imagination and sometimes wild juxtaposition of texts.

    Those of you who know me, know that I generally read the scriptural texts allegorically, that I am not a “supernatural theist,” and that I am not—for some of you who might jump to conclusions based on the following references to Genesis—a creationist. (My side-mention of the Tao, below, might give a hint. The “perennial philosophy” is also found in Judaism, and I play with the Hebrew as a contemplative/meditative exercise.)

    Maybe some of you will like this; maybe some of you won’t. No matter. It is offered as a Shabbos meditation on this Sabbath.

    NOTE: The following has a complex word-association play between “wilderness” (midbar), “word” dabar (same root), Wisdom and Beginning (reishit); it’s a bit of a crazy-quilt, but midrashically permissible—as the Talmud says, “The words of Torah are fruitful and multiply.”

    ______________________________________

    Exodus 13:18 “So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness (derek ha’midbar) toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle.”

    What is this “way of the wilderness” (derek ha’midbar)?

    In the Midrash,* it is written:

    “Rabbi Joshua says, ‘Way indicates that He intended to give them the Torah, as in the verses Follow only the way that YHVH your God has enjoined upon you (Deut. 5:30), and For the commandment is a lamp, the Torah is a light and the Way to life (Prov 6:23).”

    From this we learn that when we see derek, way, we can read Torah. So God led the people by the Torah of the wilderness. But what is this “Torah of the wilderness?” What is this wilderness? On one level (the plain reading, or p’shat), it is the desert leading to the Sea of Reeds (yam suf, not “Red Sea” ). But we are searching out (d’rash) a deeper, allegorical meaning.

    In the Midrash,* Rabbi Joshua says wilderness refers to the fact that YHVH would feed the people with manna; Rabbi Eliezer says it refers to the fact that God wanted to humble the people, citing Deuteronomy 8:2, “Remember the long way that YHVH your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.”

    But I offer a different “spin.”

    ____________________________________

    Proverbs 8:22 says, “YHVH created me the beginning of his Way (reishit darku), the first of his acts long ago.”

    As we have seen, following Rabbi Joshua, we can read this, “YHVH created me the beginning of his Torah.” (darku/derek = Torah.)

    In this verse, it is Wisdom that is speaking, and according to the kabbalistic text the Bahir, “The word ‘beginning’ (reishit) is nothing other than Wisdom. It is thus written (Psalm 111:10), ‘The beginning is Wisdom,** the fear of G-d.’ (Bahir, trans. Aryeh Kaplan)

    Wisdom (hochmah was the fount of creation, as it is written in the first words of Torah: “With beginning (b’reishit created God the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) With beginning—that is, with wisdom.

    Wisdom is the beginning of Torah and the wellspring of the emanation of the heavens and the earth. (Think the Tao.)

    Thus far in the word-associations: Way = Torah, and Wisdom = Beginning.

    ___________________________________

    Back to the “wilderness.”

    It says in Proverbs 18:4, “The words dobrey of the mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a gushing stream.” We see, then, in the parallelism of this verse that “word(s)” and “wisdom” are associated.

    The word for word is dabar. Psalm 33:6, “With word (dabar) of YHVH the heavens were made....”

    Now midbar (wilderness) can also mean “out of (from) word” (read as a contraction of min dabar, and no other spelling change in the original Hebrew).

    So, “Way of the wilderness” becomes “Torah of the wilderness” becomes “Torah out of word.”

    And this word is nothing other than Wisdom, which is reishit, beginning, as we have seen.

    So, God led the people “by the roundabout Torah of Beginning”—the Way of the wilderness.

    The Talmud indicates that God led the people into the wilderness, and that they wandered there for 40 years, in order to learn Torah (not just the written Torah, but the oral Torah as well; not just the outer words, but the inner dimensions).

    _____________________________________

    Some modern commentaries on the spiritual dimension of the wilderness:

    “The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself, without regard to the cost of personal anxiety. A Place that demands being present with all of yourself.

    “In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preoccupations cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.” (Lawrence Kushner, Honey From the Rock, 1994)

    ...as if for the first time—that is, from the continual perspective of reishit, beginning. A traditional Hebrew blessing goes: Baruch atah Adonai melech ha’olam oseh ma’aseh v’reishit—“Blessed are you Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who makes the making of in-the-beginning.”

    In Hasidic tradition, the “world to come” (olam ha’ba) is translated as “the world that is always coming.” That is the world seen from the perspective of reishit, in the wilderness.

    “If you think you know what you will find here [in the wilderness], then you will find nothing. If you expect nothing, then you will always be surprised. Then, you will be able to bless the One who creates the world anew each morning". (Avraham Yehoshua Heschel)

    “ ‘Lech Lecha’ - This is the setting out. The leaving of everything behind. Leaving the social milieu. The preconceptions. The definitions. The language. The narrowed field of vision. The expectations. No longer expecting relationships, memories, words, or letters to mean what they used to mean. To be, in a word: Open!” (Martin Buber)

    ____________________________________________


    * From The Classical Midrash, translated by Reuven Hammer, Paulist Press, 1995.

    ** reishit hochmah yirat YHVH: literally, “Beginning - wisdom - awe/reverence - YHVH (the unpronounceable name of God).”

    _____________________________________________

    Good Shabbos to you! See you at the end of the Sabbath.
  2. Territories Unknown
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    11 Feb '06 04:55
    Good stuff. Keep it coming. Kushner never ceases to inspire.
  3. Hmmm . . .
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    12 Feb '06 18:47
    Originally posted by FreakyKBH
    Good stuff. Keep it coming. Kushner never ceases to inspire.
    Thanks. I've read most of Kushner's books.
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    13 Feb '06 16:54
    Originally posted by vistesd
    [b]A MIDRASH ON EXODUS 13:18

    This midrash is a playful dancing with a single Torah text, done in a contemplative manner (perhaps a bit like imaginative Ignatian-style lectio divina), presented somewhat in a “traditional” midrashic style, but also with some more modern movements. Midrash is not generally used to exegete that “plain meaning” of a text, ...[text shortened]... ___________________________________

    Good Shabbos to you! See you at the end of the Sabbath.[/b]
    Is Judaism relativistic?
  5. Hmmm . . .
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    13 Feb '06 17:231 edit
    Originally posted by lucifershammer
    Is Judaism relativistic?
    I don't understand. Can you flesh that out a bit?

    EDIT: Rabbinical Judaism is fundamentally a hermeneutical religion, and an argumentative religion.
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    13 Feb '06 17:521 edit
    Originally posted by vistesd
    I don't understand. Can you flesh that out a bit?

    EDIT: Rabbinical Judaism is fundamentally a hermeneutical religion, and an argumentative religion.
    This is really a cross-thread question. You have, in the past (and correct me if I'm wrong here) warned against definitive interpretations of the OT as being un-orthodox (hope you understand what I mean). Now, it seems to me that if, in Judaism, no interpretation or viewpoint is accepted as authoritative, then it must be relativistic (i.e. claim that there is no absolute truth). If not that, then it must claim that absolute truth is unknowable (because, if it were, then the possibility of an authoritative interpretation must be conceded).

    I've probably made a mess of explaining my nascent thoughts.

    EDIT: There is a third possibility (which seems to be the perspectivist view you hold) that absolute truth is knowable but incommunicable/ineffable. However, if that is the case, then what was the point in God communicating anything to the Jewish people at all?
  7. Hmmm . . .
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    13 Feb '06 19:41
    Originally posted by lucifershammer
    This is really a cross-thread question. You have, in the past (and correct me if I'm wrong here) warned against definitive interpretations of the OT as being un-orthodox (hope you understand what I mean). Now, it seems to me that if, in Judaism, no interpretation or viewpoint is accepted as authoritative, then it must be relativistic (i.e. clai ...[text shortened]... s the case, then what was the point in God communicating anything to the Jewish people at all?
    Okay, I think I understand the question--but I've got to run; will try to cobble together a response later. 🙂
  8. Hmmm . . .
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    Okay—this is going to be a bit of a jigsaw puzzle approach: let’s see if I can fit the pieces well enough to make a picture.

    (1) There are divisions within rabbinical Judaism as there are within Christianity: specifically Orthodox (and for this discussion I’m going to place the Hasidim here), Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. The latter three recognize each other (and the Orthodox) as valid branches of Judaism, though with some disagreements—that is, they do not hold that the others are “heretical.” At least some (most?) Orthodox do not view the others as valid expressions of Judaism.

    (2) Although the distinction might be a little too sharp, most people note that “Orthodoxy” in Judaism is really “Orthopraxy.” The main difference between the different groups is not doctrinal, but on how they view and keep the mitzvot, the commandments—e.g., whether or not and how they keep kashrut.

    (3) Everything I have to say is based on my own studies, both “academic” and to some extent “participatory,” as I study Torah and Talmud (and Midrash and Kabbalah) contemplatively. I am probably closest to Reconstructionism, generally.

    (4) All rabbinical Judaism is religion of the “dual Torah”—i.e., written (Tanach) and oral (Talmud); also Midrash and (for many) Kabbalah are also parts of the rabbinical tradition.

    The Talmud* (Mishna + Gemara, commentary on Mishna) has two elements: aggadah and halakha; the first is commentary (generally midrashic) on the narrative portions of Torah, the second is rabbinical commentary and discussion—read argument—about the mitzvot. The two are not separate sections of Talmud, but are woven together.

    Halakha (often translated as “law” ) really takes the form of rabbinical argument and interpretation about the mitzvot, carried down orally until written down between the third and sixth centuries. The Mishna generally presents a halakhic conclusion; and the Gemara, (extremely complex) dialectical discussion about it. Even where these arguments reach a conclusion about interpreting Torah (and they often do not), the discussion is not closed—what is written in the Talmud serves as a springboard for further study, argument, etc. There are rules of argument and interpretation—the most common being the thirteen rules of Rabbi Ishmael, but there are other sets by other rabbis (notably Akiva) as well.

    (5) Here are what I would tentatively argue are the “absolutes” of Judaism:

    (a) The Shema: Sh’ma Ysrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is one.” This statement may be interpreted monotheistically, monistically (Hasidism) or panentheistically (a strong strain in Reconstructionism). Polytheism of any degree or kind is excluded, as is idolatry.

    (b) Shabbos (or Shabbat—i.e., Sabbath). All religious Jews keep Shabbos; they disagree on how to do it. (Again, this is really about orthopraxy.)

    (c) Dual Torah, as described above, and the open hermeneutical approach to Torah (again, the Orthodox may be somewhat more strict about hermeneutical “fences” ).

    (d) The principle of a covenantal relationship with God, though the nature of that covenant is interpreted variously (and may become more allegorical in the monistic versions).

    Note that one thing that is absent from this list is any doctrine about an after-life, heaven and hell, etc. Some Jews believe there is an after-life, some do not; some believe in a heaven and hell, some do not; the Talmud has different opinions about who is eligible for the olam ha ba, the “world to come,” by different rabbis.

    Again, I would argue that the continuous hermeneutical approach to scriptures is also a basic principle in Judaism; Reform Jews admit historical-critical analysis and the like; Orthodox do not; Reconstructionists I’m pretty sure do; I think the Conservatives do with some limitations. Below, I will succumb to citing again my favorite Talmudic story on that subject (and some of my favorite quotes). Here I will quote (again) Ouaknin:

    “To avoid the trap of idolatry—the illusion of possessing the meaning—Hebrew tradition has introduced the idea of levels of meaning.” (Marc-Alain Ouaknin, The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud) This is based on the language itself. Hebrew is more of a “depth language” than a “precision” language. Words have layers of meanings, which deepen and expand in association with other words, phrases, etc. My argument is that it really is impossible to derive a unitary meaning from the Hebrew in nearly all cases. This does not mean that we simply shrug and say, “Oh well, then why bother with that old language.” We look at all the possible meanings, we search them out, we argue over them. And, at least on the Sabbath, that must all be done with passion but without rancor (only joy on Shabbos).

    There is no central authority in Judaism to tell everyone what they must believe about, say, Torah.** As you can see from my various attempts at midrashim, a literalistic/historicistic reading of the scriptures is not prominent in Judaism. That is why David S. Ariel refers to Torah as the “sacred myths” of Israel.

    Now with regard to your comments about whether or not one can know the absolute truth. It seems to me there are three positions: Yes, no, and some but not all. The last admits of arguments about what and what not, and degrees of certainty/uncertainty. (These same three viewpoints could be applied to the question of effability.) In addition, from the perspective of Judaism, there is an element of “existential truth,” named, e.g., lucifershammer, without which the “whole truth” of the cosmos is incomplete; and if lucifershammer does not bring his torah to the Torah, Torah remains incomplete.

    I may have meandered around here too much, but I think I’ve touched on your questions. If you want to describe Judaism as “relativistic,” that’s okay—but I would suggest you append something like this post as a footnote. 😉

    * Actually, there are two Talmuds: the Babylonian and the Jerusalem, which are similar but not exactly the same; I believe that the Bavli is usually considered more “authoritative” than the Yerushalmi.

    ** There may be some exception to this in Hasidism, where the charismatic Rebbe becomes an authority. However there is a question of how much hermeneutical, “doctrinal” authority a given Rebbe might claim. And there are currently at least two groups of Hasidim who do not have a Rebbe: the Bratslavers, whose Rebbe Nachman died in 1810; and the Chabad-Lubavicthers, whose last Rebbe died in 1994 without a successor, and the Lubavitch have not yet sought one (and that whole thing is very controversial).

    ___________________________________________

    There is a Talmudic story: Some rabbis are arguing over an interpretation of Torah. Rabbi Eleazer put forth an interpretation that all the other rabbis disagreed with. R. Eleazer therefore called forth a series of miracles to prove his point—“If I am correct, let this stream run backwards!” etc.—but the others were not impressed. Finally, R. Eleazer cried: “If my Torah is correct, let a voice (echo) from heaven descend and declare it so!” Whereupon a heavenly voice said: “Why are you arguing? The Torah has always meant what Rabbi Eleazer says it does.” At that point, Rabbi Joshua jumped up and shouted, “It is not in heaven!”

    Meaning? Torah was given to men to interpret without any heavenly meddling. Later, one of the rabbis died and met Elijah in heaven. He asked Elijah what God’s response was when the rabbis declared, “It is not in heaven”? Elijah said, “The Blessed Holy One just laughed, saying ‘My children have bested me! My children have bested me!!’”

    “Why are the words of Torah like fire? A fire is built of many logs and the words of Torah survive only through many minds.” (tractate Ta’anit)

    “Whenever a man studies words of Torah, he is certain to find a meaning in them.” (tractate Eruvin)

    Rav Hisda said: “To learn Torah…it is better to go to several teachers. The many different explanations will help to give you understanding.” (tractate Avodah Zarah)

    “The words of Torah are fruitful and multiply!” (tractate Hagigah)

    “He who toils in Torah and discovers in it new meanings that are true contributes new Torah which is treasured by the congregation of Israel.” (the Zohar)

    “A place has been left for me to labor in it [the Torah].” (tractate Hullin)

    --Talmudic quotes from The Talmudic Anthology, Louis I. Newman, ed.
  9. Territories Unknown
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    14 Feb '06 00:43
    Thanks for the post. I've often been struck with the song-like nature of these lines of thought, especially the structure of music, without losing the playfulness and warmth of making noise, joining voices, answering answers. Good.
  10. Hmmm . . .
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    14 Feb '06 01:02
    Originally posted by FreakyKBH
    Thanks for the post. I've often been struck with the song-like nature of these lines of thought, especially the structure of music, without losing the playfulness and warmth of making noise, joining voices, answering answers. Good.
    I've often been struck with the song-like nature of these lines of thought, especially the structure of music, without losing the playfulness and warmth of making noise, joining voices, answering answers.

    What an apt and poetic description! (And rec’d for that!) That is the exact metaphor that Rabbi and talmudic scholar Jacob Neusner used in his wonderful book, Judaism’s Theological Voice: The Melody of the Talmud! The one book where I think his prose reached the poetic levels of A.J. Heschel. I think you have exactly captured his descriptions of talmid torah in the bet midrash!

    Thank you.
  11. Hmmm . . .
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    14 Feb '06 03:501 edit
    LH, I just wanted to add two addenda to my long post above:

    (1) In answer to your question about a definitive interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures being “unorthodox’ (and I did understand what you meant)—I just want to put in bold what I said above: I think it is impossible in nearly all cases to arrive at a “definitive” singular interpretation, because the Hebrew language itself disallows it. Rabbinical Judaism not only accepts this, it embraces it expansively (well, some more expansively than others).

    (2) Re Freaky’s insightful post: The midrashic/talmudic approach to spirituality (and especially as expressed in Hasidism) may be far more akin to music, and improvisational music making, than to propositional logic. Freaky’s statement captures it exactly, to my mind. The unique thing about it, I think, is that it moves beyond lectio divina as a contemplative reading of scripture, to actually making argument a contemplative exercise.*

    (For some reason am thinking here of a wonderful CD I have of Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar playing ragas together.)

    Freaky’s comment sent me to the bookshelf to get Neusner’s book. Here are a few excerpts:

    _______________________________

    For, in Torah study in a yeshiva [school; bet midrash is “house of midrash,” i.e., study], argument takes the form of song, reasoning is reinforced in the upward and downward movements of the melodic line, and conclusions are drawn in crescendo. Tables are pounded, hands swing about, a choreography not so gentle as the synagogues but as formed and in context also as graceful and expressive. The antiphonal sound of argument carries music for not only debate but dance, with much physicality and many fixed gestures, as much of body as of voice.

    True, what you would hear in a yeshiva would be music of an other-than-conventional sort, hot music, not cool music. You need listen only briefly to grasp that the sound is organized, with rhythms, with measures and beats, with upward and downward passages, with hesitation and movement, words spoken largo, allegro, adagio, sostenuto, then agitato—yes, always agitato.. But it is composed music, not chaos; the alternation of sound and silence such as music requires follows an aesthetic of its own, one that, as we shall see, conveys theological truth in its way as much as words do in theirs.

    ...In the synagogue God speaks to Israel. In the Yeshiva Israel talks back to God...

    ...For argument forms the highest gesture of respect: it means each takes the other seriously. Argument becomes possible only when minds meet, becomes palpable when general agreement leaves space for particular points of contention. And contention for the sake of Heaven [a particular Jewish phrase] forms an act of sanctification, by the intellect, through passion...

    ...All serious learning in yeshivas takes the form of antiphonal argument: if you say this (voice up), then how about that (voice down). Then bang the table. It is organized sound, shouted theology.

    __________________________________

    A liturgy of argument! Even argument with God. “[A]n act of sanctification by the intellect, through passion.” And remember the form of the Jewish blessing: baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, “Blessed are you Adonai, our God...” Somewhere in the Talmud, this is discussed—who are we to bless the Nameless Holy One? This is part of the Jewish chutzpah, perhaps we could speak of a chutzpah of sanctification.

    But it can only happen where there is space for points of contention. Part of my argument is that the Hebrew itself guarantees those spaces.

    (BTW, I think Neusner is a conservative rabbi.)

    _____________________________

    * Real talmid torah takes place as argument between at least two participants. Unfortunately, I have not (yet) had the opportunity to do that. However, I have listened to some rabbinical homilies in which you hear the rhythms; and I have found it impossible to really read Talmud without imagining them.
  12. Hmmm . . .
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    17 Feb '06 18:28
    Happened across this quote a couple days ago. Thought I’d use it as an excuse to bump the thread—

    “The scroll of the Torah is written without vowels, so you can read it variously. Without vowels, the consonants bear many meanings and splinter into sparks.* That is why the Torah scroll must not be vowelized, for the meaning of each word accords with its vowels. Once vowelized, a word means just one thing. Without vowels, you can understand it in countless, wondrous ways.”

    —Bahya ben Asher (13th-14th centuries), quoted in Daniel Matt, The Essential Kabbalah.

    Also: “The Torah scroll may not be vowelized—so that we can interpret every single word according to every possible reading.” (Jacob ben Sheshet, quoted by Matt in a footnote to the above quote.)

    Of course, the Masoretes, by deciding on vowel-pointing, decided the standard or conventional interpretation for the “plain reading” ( ha p’shat). This vowel-pointing shows up in the printed texts, but the Torah scrolls remain unpointed.

    There are lots of examples in Midrash and Talmud and Kabbalistic texts such as ha Zohar that go something like: “Do not read [word with standard vowel-pointing]. Rather, read [alternative word with changed vowel-pointing].”

    * Probable reference to the netzotzim ha’kodesh, “sparks of holiness” or holy sparks—splinters of the Or ein sof, light (or energy) of the divine-infinite, hidden in the husks or shells kellipot of the physical world. Spiritual tikkun (repair, healing) consists of “releasing the sparks”—in the Hasidic tradition of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, this can only be done from a state of joyfulness.
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