Thursday, October 26, 2006

Hope Springs Eternal

There's been a lot of existential issues going around the J-sphere lately, so I thought to introduce people to a most excellent poet: Alexander Pope, who like so many of us, struggled with these same issues.

Excert from "An Essay on Man: Epistle I"

"Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher death, and God adore.
What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come


All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul;
That, chang'd thro' all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in th' aethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives thro' all life, extends thro' all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent;
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
As the rapt seraph that adores and burns:
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.

Cease then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav'n bestows on thee.
Submit. In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing pow'r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, 'Whatever is, is right.'

-Alexander Pope

I posted this little bit on ex-Godol Hador, who has lately been completely wracked by existential issues, but I guess it need no comment there.

Monday, October 23, 2006


Looky what I found:


1. The state of being paradoxical (Webster's)

2. In theological terms, it is the act of believing in something you know to be completely untrue. eg. people who follow the norms of a religion, believing that it will make them more worthy in the eyes of a god(s) that they do not believe actually exists. Examples are most Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and other less popular religions.

"My father was a believer of Jewish Orthodoxy. I, on the other hand, am a believer of Jewish Paradoxy. I don't believe in this stuff, I just wear the duds to get chicks."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Throwing Truth to the Ground

I know this isn't my usual style, but I heard a really nice d'var Torah today that I'd like to share.

It starts off with with the consideration in this week's parsha where that famous line where God says "Let us make man in our image." So the question is, who is "us"? If God is all alone up there doing his creative work, who is he talking to? The most common answer given, as it is expounded in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) is that God is conferring with the angels, his heavenly court, regarding the decision whether to create man.

So there is a midrash which relates that conversation. In the midrash, there are four angels conversing with God. The first, Chesed, says that man should be created because he does good deeds. The second, Emet, says that man should not be created because all he does is lie. The third, Tzedek, says that man should be created for he does act of righteousness. And the fourth, Shalom, says man should not be created for all he does is fight.

So the score is two votes for and two votes against. Seems deadlocked. So what does God do? He throws Emet to the ground. (We might call it a divine veto.) Now with the score two to one, God creates man. But another angel comes up to God and says, how can you throw your seal of Emet to the ground? So God responds, "Let the truth grow up from the ground."

As is common in many midrashim, the meaning behind this one is far from clear. Rabbi M. who gave the d'var Torah just kind of left it there with just the appellation that it was something to think deeply about.

Now I thought this was a neat midrash. Obviously you can't take it literally but there does seem to be a deeper message. To me it seems to speak even more than others because the connection between Judaism and truth is an especially interesting relationship to me. That God would throw truth to the ground for the sake of creating mankind is a very symbolic. But symbolic of what?

On one level we could see it as God making the building of truth man's work. Truth is not in heaven, it is on earth waiting for us to build it up. This would be appealing for a scientist because it basically describes how he'd go about doing his work. And really for any of us who pursue truth, this would be a meaningful interpretation.

But on a different level we can also appreciate the degrees of importance in God's (or the midrash writer's who was speaking for God) perspective on reality. Out of those four key elements, it is truth which God throws down. Presumably God wanted to create man and his reasons seemed to flow around the ability of man to do acts of compassion and righteousness so these are clearly important. But he chooses peace over truth to keep in its ideal position. So while I wouldn't say the Midrash is promoting the idea that truth unimportant, but that in comparison to peace and righteousness it comes out on the bottom. We may never know truth fully, and it would be presumptuous of any man to say that he knows the Truth (TM), but what is key to life are acts of kindness and peace. In the order of values, truth has been humbled.

In Pirkei Avot 3:12, it is written, "[Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa] used to say, 'He whose works exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but he whose wisdom exceeds his works, his wisdom will not endure.'" A testament to the idea that the key to life is doing good deeds and not just the goal of becoming 'wise.'

But on a third level we might be able to understand this midrash as a description of the ethic of Judaism entirely. Us skeptics realize that large swaths of the traditional faith cannot be reconciled with what we have learned through modern scholarship. And if one studies the works of some famous rabbis, there are hints that they suspected as much themselves. Not so much in terms of modern scholarship, naturally, but that the basic thesis had a some problems. Hamayvin yavin.

Yet even though there are issues with questions of fact, the basic values that Judaism progresses in terms of tzedek, chesed and shalom are unmistakable. Truth, in Judaism, according to this midrash, is not something received from above, but grown from below. Like God, we, as a community, may need to sacrifice truth as we think we know it and rely on our basic values to bring Judaism foward. We ought to embrace the truth, whatever it may be, within the basic values of Judaism. That will be the true test and the real challenge for Judaism as we engage these modern times.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Celebrate Succos the Old-Timey Way

From Nehemiah, Chapter 8:

13 On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. 14 They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month 15 and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: "Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths"-as it is written.
16 So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.
18 Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.

A few comments.

One, check out passage 15, specificially the supposedly quoted portion, i.e. "'Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths' - as it is written."

Here it is in Hebrew:

צְאוּ הָהָר וְהָבִיאוּ עֲלֵי-זַיִת וַעֲלֵי-עֵץ שֶׁמֶן, וַעֲלֵי הֲדַס וַעֲלֵי תְמָרִים וַעֲלֵי עֵץ עָבֹת לַעֲשֹׂת סֻכֹּת, כַּכָּתוּב

Now, note how curiously they left out the whole 'pri etz hadar' section from Vayikra. The etrog has a pretty prominent place in modern observance of Succos, rather strange that they left it out, hmm? It seems to have been replaced here with olive branches. Could 'pri etz hadar' have meant olives in Nehemia's time? Think about it.

Also note how the Israelites are using those four species, not to shake about in a bundle, but to construct their Succot. The whole shaking ritual of the lulav and etrog is actually absent from the entire Tanach. It is not mentioned in Vayikra or here in Nehemiah or anywhere else in the Bible. Curious, no?

In fact, using the four species as building materials is the traditional understanding of the Biblical instructions as far as the Karaites are concerned. To this day, observant Karaites will build their Succah roofs with olive branches, along with myrtle, willow, and palm fronds. Typically they also reject the 'four wall' ideal of Rabbinic Judaism and build them tent-like as well.

Lastly, I'd like to point out passage 17, about how they had never celebrated like this and in passage 14 how they apparently discovered this festival in Ezra's Torah. For a group with a supposedly perfect transmission of data from the moment at Sinai, they seem to be awfully forgetful. What does this say to the Kuzari argument?

Just a few things to think over. And, of course, have a happy Succos.