Saturday, November 30, 2013

Reclaiming Lost Judaism !

It seems likely to me that one of the attractions of Hellenism to Jews during the era of Chanukah might have been the presence of "lost Torah wisdom" contained in Greek Philosophy.

The Maimonides' "Guide for Perplexed" is a work of Judaism styled on an Aristotelian thought template. In Part 2, chapter 11, he explains that these ideas originally belonged Judaism. Due to persecution, the Jews lost touch with these notions, while the Greeks retained them. Therefore, he felt that by digging into Aristotelian philosophy he can reclaim lost Judaism.

Truthfully, Aristotle predates the story of Chanukah. So it's likely that whatever Aristotle had was already lost to Judaism then. The Jews of that era may of had a fuzzy feeling that there was something undefined, yet very familiar in Greek philosophy. Their souls must have heard the voice of Torah ideas calling out to them from a state of exile, like someone hearing the voice of a dearly beloved calling out for rescue from prison.

Truthfully, something like this happens in every generation. The trick is to learn how to distinguish between the prison and the prisoner.

Chag Chanukah Same'ach

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Inner Chasid

This past Saturday night, Rabbi Altein told me that the measure of a "Chasid" (a follower of the ways of the Ba'al Shem Tov) is the extent to which s/he believes that the withdrawal of the Creator's Infinite Light is not literal. Rabbi Altein was referring to the rolling back of the Infinite Light at the dawn of creation to make room for a finite reality. He continued that the stronger one's belief in the literal ever-presence of the Infinite Light, the stronger one's inner "Chasid" is.
This also applies to the ever-presence of every past, present and future expression of the Infinite Light as well. As the Infinite Light did not literally withdraw, neither have his expressions ~ as they are inseparable from him.
So in this sense, all the expressions are still happening: the Torah is still being given at Mt. Sinai, all the holy teachers of Torah throughout the ages are still here, the Messiah was always here, the world is still being created by the "ten utterances", the miracle of Chanukah is happening now, etc.
Chag Chanukah Same'ach :)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

All Contribute

Today, I learned from Rabbi Meir Soloveichik (at his inaugural address at Congregation She'arith Israel) that there's an interesting connection between Chanukah and Thanksgiving. Both were inspired by the Biblical event of King Solomon thanking the Creator for allowing the Holy Temple to be finally built; thereby, fulfilling a deeply seated milestone in humanity's spiritual growth.

Additionally, Rabbi Soloviechik pointed out that the Temple's master craftsman was a Jew who was culturally and religiously estranged from his Jewish roots. He lived in Phoenicia and had a Phoenician name "Hiram" (very unusual during the first commonwealth era). So it turned out that the building of God's Holy Temple was a collaborative between Jews on all levels of the religious/spiritual spectrum - from the most religiously immersed Jew, King Solomon, to the least immersed, Hiram the craftsman.

It seems only logical to me that the such collaboratives between all kinds of people (on various levels) will normally occur on the eve of the messianic era - bringing forth a new dawn.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Divine Strength: Clothing the Highest in the Lowest

Background Introduction:

The following excerpt is translated from “Explanations on the Zohar” written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789 – 1866) [1]. The excerpt is short selection embedded in the midst of an extensive discourse discussing the Torah’s role in the creation and maintenance of the universe. I selected this excerpt to translate because of its ability to stand alone as a teaching in itself. I feel that it fits nicely with my ongoing project to translate meaningful selections of Jewish spiritual thought into English for the benefit of others.

Mainly, the excerpt is about the Creator’s “strength”, which is defined as His ability to bring the highest spiritual lights down into the lowest realms. By doing so, the Creator demonstrates that limitations found in lower levels don’t ever present a barrier to His designs. His ability clothe the highest in the lowest extends to the Torah as well and is the main subject of this excerpt.  In the Torah, the sections where the Creator cloaks the highest spiritual mysteries are in the stories and mundane teachings.

The excerpt refers to two spiritual realms Adam Kadmon or Primordial Man and Atzilut or Emanation. Truthfully, there are five basic realms. In Hebrew, from up to down, they are Adam Kadmon, Atzilut, Briyah, Yetzirah and Assiyah. In English their names translate as (in the same order) Primordial Man, Emanation, Creation, Formation and Action. Since humans are microcosms of the universe, humans and the universe parallel each other. The universe can be loosely said to be a “giant human being” with these five realms roughly tracing his/her contours to outline a body and multileveled soul. The body is the parallel of the earthly realm and each level of the soul parallels a different spiritual realm. Therefore, we can use the human body and soul as a springboard for understanding something about the five realms of the universe. Please note that we commonly experience illuminations of our souls via our psychological side. For example, our thoughts and feelings flow from our souls. In Jewish mystical thought the psychological and spiritual are intertwined.

The core driving impulse in a human being, which is often referred to as will or volition, is a sampling of Adam Kadmon.   Here, exist the core impulses used by the Creator to direct the universe. The subconscious and near-subconscious thinking associated with the right hemisphere of the human brain is a sampling of Atzilut. Here, exist generalized sweeping concepts which will later become more defined, so as to serve as the divine blueprint for the universe.

The next three realms down, are not mentioned in the excerpt. However, they are worth mentioning in this introduction for the sake of clarifying context. The defined left brained thinking is a sampling of the realm of Briyah. Here’s where the divine architectural design of the universe exists.

Emotions and personality are samplings of the realm of Yetzirah. I think of this realm as where the “packaging” happens. Here, the higher blessings on their way down are “packaged” to be presented into the next realm down - namely, Assiyah.  Yetzirah is where proportions, relationships and presentations are fashioned. This is a realm of art more than of mind. It’s the realm where the angels sing.

The human bodies, along with their attending biological souls, are samplings of the realm of Assiyah – the earthly realm and its immediate spiritual level.

Lower realms are said to be layered over higher realms or alternatively, described as “dressing them”. In the excerpt, Atzilut “dresses” Adam Kadmon from the waist down. This anthropomorphic language is not intended to be taken literally. There are no human forms in the higher realms. Being the initial impulse behind the creation of the universe, Adam Kadmon certainly does not have a literal “waist” any more than a human impulse has one.  This has to be understood as the point of demarcation where the initial impulse of creation moves from being Creator oriented towards becoming creation oriented.

It is my sincere hope that with the above introduction the translated excerpt will become an easier read. If there is any practical lesson I derived from this selection, it’s that strength is not about domination, destruction or control. It’s about successfully reaching across seemingly difficult barriers.

The Excerpt:

The Zohar states, “All higher inaccessible mysteries are found in the Torah.” [2]  To explain this quote, Etz Chaim [3] states on the topic of “you are permitted to ask about the mysteries from one edge of heaven to the other” that you are permitted to ask questions up to the region of Adam Kadmon’s waist [4].  Above the waist, however, it is impossible to ask [5]. Regarding this, we are taught, “What is too wondrous for you, don’t seek.” [6]

To further explain, much of Adam Kadmon is far above the realm of Atzilut [7]. All the spiritual structures of Atzilut, even the very highest (like the “Crown”[8], also called “Ancient of Days” and “Patient Faced” [9]) only dress Adam Kadmon from the waist down.  Since only this area is dressed by Atzilut, this is why it’s only possible to ask questions in the region up to the waist. However, what is above this region of Adam Kadmon it is impossible to ask about at all, as it is not dressed by Atzilut. The “higher inaccessible mysteries…” mentioned by the Zohar, refers to mysteries and matters of Adam Kadmon which are above the waist, a region not covered by even the highest reaches of Atzilut. Yet, even such mysteries are found in the Torah. They are dressed and hidden in the letters of the Torah; indeed, very covered and hidden.. (When the Torah relates stories, in them are hidden these higher mysteries which are far higher than Atzilut.)

“In the Torah are found all higher matter, both revealed and concealed.”  The meaning is consistent with what was just mentioned, that the spiritual structures of the realm of Atzilut are referred to as “revealed”, while what’s above Atzilut is referred to as “concealed”.

(It’s also possible to say that Atzilut itself contains many aspects of both “hidden” and “revealed” realms; namely, aspects of the spiritual structures respectively referred to as the “Cosmic Parents” [10] and “Cosmic Couple” [11] - yet, another of understanding “revealed” and “concealed”.  Alternatively, “revealed and concealed” can refer to aspects of Atzilut which contain both a revealed and hidden side, sides which are open to questioning, but, not to answers - see the Zohar and commentary “Mikdash Melech” [12] to the Introduction of Genesis. )

Therefore, “Who can recount God’s strength?” [13]  To explain: After all the supernal mysteries are dressed and hidden in the Torah, both those which are too beyond Atzilut for even Atzilut to clothe and those belonging to Atzilut proper, God’s strength is His ability to dress up these supernal mysteries in mundane teachings and stories.  His ability to bring down what’s high up into lowly expression [14] is an aspect of “His strength”.  Indeed, His “strength” is in dressing these mysteries in the mundane teachings of the Torah.

[1] Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch was the third Grand Rabbi of the Lubavicher Chassidic dynasty. His work explaining the Zohar is called in Hebrew “Biurei HaZohar”. This particular excerpt is from Volume 2 of the work, Parshat Toldot, the very first discourse, paragraph 3.
[2] Zohar, Volume I, Parshat Toldot, 135A
[3] A classic of Lurianic Kabbalah compiled from the writing of Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543 – 1620).
[4] See introduction for an explanation of Adam Kadmon or in English, “Primordial Man”.
[5] For the sake of simplicity, I referred to the sefirot of netzach, hod and yesod as “below the waist” of Adam Kadmon. I did not want to unnecessarily encumber the body of the translation with concepts which aren’t directly central to the topic.
[6] Chagigah 13A
[7] See introduction for an explanation of the realm of Atzilut.
[8] The Sefira of Keter
[9] Atik Yomin and Arich Anpin
[10] The Partzufim Abba and Ima
[11] The Partzufim Z”A and Nukvah
[12] A commentary on the Zohar written by Rabbi Shalom ben Moshe Buzaglo (1700 – 1780).
[13] Psalm 106:2
[14] Tzimtzum (divine contraction)

Friday, November 8, 2013

Before One ...

"Before One what do you count?" This is a quote from the ancient Jewish mystical text "Sefer Yetzirah". Since this question is referring to the Creator, the intended answer is not "zero". The intention is to point to beyond the numerical. In other words, since logic is just another creation (just like mountains, trees and sky are), the Creator is beyond any kind of logic, including mathematics and numbers. If this is the case, how do we refer to the Creator as being One, which is seemingly such a numerical idea?

It seems to me that the idea of calling the Creator "One" is really an elimination of multiplicity. The word “One” is merely being borrowed as a convenience of speech. What is really being said is that the Creator is not multiple. This fits "hand in glove" with how Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda describes the Creator's Oneness in his classic "Duties of the Heart". His explanation moves towards the direction Oneness by first explaining that the Creator has no parts or pieces. Namely, that He's seamlessly One. Ultimately, he never really tells his audience Who the Creator is, but, rather Whom the Creator isn't. By eliminating multiplicity, he points to the Being beyond the numbers.

The Soul Knows

I recently realized that there's tangible evidence that the soul knows so much more than the conscious mind. There are many bodily processes we undergo involuntarily second to second which must be guided by an intelligence found in the soul. This includes everything from fetal development to digestion and circulation. Yet, the conscious mind has to grope in a university classroom for a glimmer of what's already known by souls since the dawn of creation.