Some Fine Books

In the last six months or so I have read several books on Jewish topics which have been excellent- some of the best I've ever read. I want to briefly describe them here to encourage others who haven't read them to take a look.

1) The Philosophy of The Hebrew Scriptures by Yoram Hazony

Amazing. This book transformed my ideas of the essential vision of the Chumash. Among Hazony's fascinating excursions are a look at the “shepherd ethics” of Ancient Israel; a study of the phenomenology of the word “davar” (thing, word, idea); and an exploration of what God really wants from Israel- and its not unthinking obedience. Also interesting is Hazony's contribution to the theology of “vulnerability”- the growing number of Jewish and Christian theologians arguing for a vulnerable, personal, and evolving God (Schroeder, Levenson, Heschel, Brueggeman all develop this idea to come extent).

 

2) Created Equal by Joshua Berman

Masterful exploration of the laws of the Chumash in their context. This book brought my admiration for Tanakh to a new level. Clearly and compellingly sets out the revolutionary nature of early Israeli law.

 

3) The Bible Now by Richard Elliot Friedman

Fabulous discussion of the “pshat” (literal) level of the Chumash and what it does or doesn't say about homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, women and ecology. Truly excellent, and should be read by all lovers of Torah and, I would add, all the descendants of Abraham.

 

4) The Jewish Gospels by Daniel Boyarin

Think Judaism and Christianity are as far apart as the moon and the sun? Think again, they are as interconnected as the moon and the sun. Did you know some pre-Christian Jews were awaiting a semi-divine Messiah whose career would include suffering for their sins? Did you know Jesus kept kosher, wore Tzitzit, and told his Jewish followers to listen to the Rabbis? Or that Christians attended synagogue services for centuries after Jesus's death, and many Jews were followers of Jesus without leaving Judaism? This book tells the story of what it was like before the “great divorce” of the 4th-5th century CE when the Church Fathers and the Rabbis drew firm lines demanding you be either Christian or Jewish.

 

5) An Unsettling God by Walter Brueggeman

A good book on the character of God as revealed in the Tanakh, and the relationship between God, Israel, Nature and Humanity. Thought provoking work from a Christian theologian.

 

6) Not In Heaven by Eliezer Berkovitz.

 

This is a masterpiece. It explains the character of traditional Jewish law (not the modernist fundamentalist version). Beautiful, provocative, and inspiring.

 

7) God According To God by Gerald Schroeder

 

Thought provoking and engagingly written exploration of what the Tanakh says about the character of God. Along the way some other interesting cosmological and theological excursions, and some great science writing about Creation.

If you haven’t seen this……”Women in Breslov Chasidus”

http://breslovcenter.blogspot.ca/2012/01/women-and-breslov-chasidus.html?m=1

Parshat Vayakhel: G-d’s Shadow

In this week’s parsha we find the divinely inspired craftsman Betsalel, who is “wise of heart”. Betsalel is put in charge of building the mishkan, the portable tent-temple which was to serve as the holy place for Israel in the desert. Betsalel’s name means “in the shadow of G-d”, which seems to suggest the very close relationship that this inspired artist had with Divinity (for further discussion of divine art see R’ Jonathan Sacks http://www.ou.org/torah/article/gds_shadow/?sms_ss=email&at_xt=4d67395b8ef5ed0c%2C0).

His name, Betsalel, points to a quality that all of humanity posseses. As it says in the morning ritual for putting on the Talis (prayer shawl):

מַה יָּקָר חַסְדְּךָ אֱלהִים. וּבְנֵי אָדָם בְּצֵל כְּנָפֶיךָ יֶחֱסָיוּן:

Mah yakar hasdecha Elohim uvnei Adam b’tsel k’nafecha y’hesayun

How precious is your kindness, Source of all Powers: the children of Adam in the shadow of your wings will shelter.

(Seder levishat tsitsit, Siddur Avodat HaLev p.128).

The reference here is explicitly to “the children of Adam”, ie. all of humanity. This is not exclusive to those with the holy spirit (ruah ha’kodesh) like Betsalel.

B’tsel c’nafecha: In the shadow of your wings. This imagery seems to combine the sense of a bird being sheltered within the wings of its parent and the sense of a bird flying high above, its shadow falling below as a guide and sign to those beneath it. Here we can read two ways in which being in the shadow of G-d manifests G-d’s kindness.

There is another verse which further develops this idea:

ה’ צלך על יד ימינך

Hashem tsilcha ad yad yeminecha

G-d will be your shadow at your right hand.

This verse, from Tehillim (Psalms), inverts the idea: here G-d is your shadow!  Rabbenu Yonah, z”l, comments:

“This is the meaning of the verse, ‘ה’ צלך על יד ימינך’—’G-d is your shadow upon your right hand.’ Just as a shadow mirrors our actions, so too does G-d act toward us as we act toward Him. If we cry to Him, He is right there crying alongside us. If we distance ourselves from Him, He distances Himself from us. And when we draw near to Him, He draws close to us.”

In what way does this manifest G-d’s kindness? One might wish it was the opposite way: when we pull way G-d pulls closer, giving us encouragement, and when we draw close G-d pulls back, spurring us on.

In Rabbenu Yonah’s image of the shadow dance  G-d’s movements act as a sign to us of our own spiritual state. When we feel the presence of G-d’s shadow- comforting presence and signs- it is a sign that we are drawing closer, when we feel distance and confusion it is a sign that we ourselves have drawn further away. Rabbenu Yonah says this is the way G-d inspires us to grow and change- this shadow dance acts a barometer for the state of our da’at– our consciousness. When we act, think, and speak in certain ways those things which we associate with closeness to G-d- more peace, more joy, a sense of flow and being in the right place, more virtue, more calm, more kindness, and the feeling of being led and being given signs, to name a few- these things increase. When we act, speak, and think in other ways then these same qualities decrease, to be replaced with their opposites. This is a sign to us that we need to do teshuva- return. We need to search our actions and see where we have drawn away from G-d and from ourselves.

Of course it should be remembered that even when the shadow of G-d is distant this is only an appearance.  Rabbi Nachman, zy”a, teaches that “No one should ever give up for himself, however fall they have fallen. Even if she is lying in the very pit of hell, she must never despair of G-d’s help. Even there she can draw close… for ‘the whole earth is filled with divine presence (m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo- Isaiah 6:3) ‘ [LM II.72]”. Further, “If a person falls from their level, he should know that it is something sent to him by the hand of heaven. The whole purpose of of this rejection is that she should be drawn closer. The reason for the fall is to awaken this individual so that she steps up her efforts to draw closer… (LM I.261)”. We see from these quotes that according to R’ Nachman G-d’s presence is never actually lessened, only our perception of it, or one might speculate, perhaps the way that G-d is manifest in our consciousness changes.

All of this seems true while we are in a relationship with G-d’ s “mere” shadow, the place where most of us can be found (at the best of times!) It is worth remembering, though, that when we have ascended to a higher level all this will be revealed as Godliness and Holiness. R’ Nachman teaches elsewhere (Sichot HaRan 136) that the “shadow” itself is created by our incomplete awareness and purification: “When you succeed in nullifying the shadow completely, turning everything into absolute nothingness, then G-d’s glory is revealed in the world. There is nothing to hide the light and cause a shadow. And then “The whole earth is filled with divine presence (Isaiah 6:3)”.

This is “the coming of the Messiah”, when “the knowledge of G-d will fill the world like the waters fill the sea” and “G-d will be one and His name will be one”, ie. there will be no perception of distance from, or absence of, divinity. As it says in the Talmud, ” ‘On that day G-d will be one and His name will be one’: is this meant to imply that right now G-d is not one? No, what it means is that in our present state we make a distinction between the different types of experiences that G-d sends us. …but in the time to come we will bless G-d for everything (Pesachim 50a)”.

We can understand this on a global level or as the time of individual attainment of this awareness. As one great tzaddik said (R’ Nachman?), “For me Moshiach (the Messiah) has already come.” This is because for him the boundary between G-d and not-G-d had collapsed, and ha-kol letova, everything was for the good.

These ideas are reflected beautifully in a recent song by Darshan (http://darshanmusic.com/):

As I wait, I will sing

I will take shelter of your wings

please do not be late

don’t delay the spring

we’ll celebrate

both Queen and King

The singer here waits for the full revelation of G-d that comes with the days of Messiah/messianic consciousness, and in the meantime sings (draws closer to G-d). He prays that the spring of renewal of the world/his own consciousness should not be delayed, for then the Queen (the Shekhina/ Shadow/Revealed, Immanent aspect of G-d, Teva/Nature, Elohim) and the King ( The Holy One, Blessed Be/G-d’s hidden, transcendent aspect/ YHWH) will be both celebrated as One.

Speedily in our days, amen.