Religious Lunacy

כִּי אֵין בָּֽנוּ מַעֲשִׂים — תפילות יומיות, נוּסח ספרד

For are these deeds not ours to act upon?! (Daily Siddur, Nusakh Sfard)

I subscribe to the perspective that religion is for those afraid of going to Hell — and spirituality is for those who have been to Hell!

The Talmud Bavli (Sotah 21b) records an interesting act that would horrify most of us: a woman bathing in the river calls for help. A nearby “religious” man heard her plea but refused to save her because it’s immodest for a man to gaze upon a naked woman. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sota 3:4) records similar but different perspectives. A “religious” man sees a child drowning and waits to rescue the child until after he has removed his tefilin — or, a  “religious” man refuses to save a girl from being raped because he does not want to commit murder.

The Talmuds call this man “chasid shoteh” — חסיד שוֹטה — literally, “stupidly pious”. In modern Hebrew, it means “religious lunatic”. I prefer the modern Hebrew idea.

There is no Hebrew word for “religion”. The closest word, “daht” — דת — is actually a Persian loan-word and means something close to edict; it bears no relation whatever to the similar-sounding Hebrew word “da’at” — דעת — know.

 

Pardon & Pettiness

אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, חָנֵּֽנוּ וַעֲנֵֽנוּ — תפילות יומיות, נוּסח ספרד

Our Father, Our Monarch: we are pardoned, we are petty. (Daily Siddur, Nusakh Sfard)

We almost always see “Av” — אב — as father but the halachic meaning is category or classification. “Malkénu” — מלכּנוּ — definitely means “our King”. Avinu Malkénu, however, does not mean “Our Father, our King”. It does not mean this because the author knew Hebrew.

G!d as Avinu? Isaiah 63:16. G!d as Malkénu? Isaiah 33:22. Isaiah does mean “father” and “king”. The Prophet means to personify G!d both times —

לג, כב כִּי יְהוָה שֹׁפְטֵנוּ, יְהוָה מְחֹקְקֵנוּ יְהוָה מַלְכֵּנוּ, הוּא יוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ

33:22 Because: G!d is our Judge, from whom our statutes derive.

סג, טז כִּי-אַתָּה אָבִינוּ–כִּי אַבְרָהָם לֹא יְדָעָנוּ, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יַכִּירָנוּ
אַתָּה יְהוָה אָבִינוּ, גֹּאֲלֵנוּ מֵעוֹלָם שְׁמֶךָ

63:16 Because: You Are our father. Do we know Avraham? Do we recognise Israel?
You Are G!d.Our father: Redeem our world for the sake of Your Name.

Avinu Malkénu’s author has an agenda distinct from Isaiah’s. Avinu Malkénu is call-and-response liturgy with a deliberately flexible structure: anyone can add anything. Avinu Malkénu’s call-and-response structure creates spiritual trigger points: every “Avinu” in this sense establishes, I think, a hermeneutic of worth — a category to interpret human behaviour.

Does every trigger applies to every person? Ridiculous! Yet every trigger applies to everyone sometimes. We need a hermeneutic of worth to determine if we are worthy of Divine favour.

Malkénu? Do not read Malkénu — מלכּנוּ — but rather mahl — מל — “seal” or “acknowledge” le’kavén — לכּון — “to intend”. The author means that we each acknowledge (“seal”) our worth through our intentions.

Avinu Malkénu is elegantly crafted: it may be understood by both the intelligentsia and those who are less-educated. The intelligentsia of any generation leads society to both progress and regress; Avinu Malkénu is intended especially for them — and for me.

The Fog of More

כב מָחִ֤יתִי כָעָב֙ פְּשָׁעֶ֔יךָ וְכֶֽעָנָ֖ן חַטֹּאותֶ֑יךָ שׁוּבָ֥ה אֵלַ֖י כִּ֥י גְאַלְתִּֽיךָ: — ישעיה מד, כּב

I Disperse the fog of your crime (pesha), the cloud of smoke your sins darken. Return to Me. I Am your redeemer. (Isaiah 44:22)

Many interpret pesha — פּשע — as iniquity, yet none of my Hebrew dictionaries support this. The synonyms for “iniquity” listed on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/iniquity) includes corruption, debauchery, depravity, and immorality. Such acts may be heinous but they are not necessarily criminal.

To interpret pesha as “iniquity”requires that I assume that G!d Is only interested in morality, which regulates transpersonal behaviours. The mitzvot establish both civil and criminal codes. Such mitzvot regulate interpersonal behaviours. To frame these codes only in the context of morality is clearly incorrect. An important aspect of the moral code established by the mitzvot is that ethics are no less important than morals.

The Jewish system of law, halacha — הלכה — does not much separate ethics from law.
The prophet Isaiah here tells us that neither should we.

The City I Imagine

Donald Trump does not frighten me much. His supporters, however, frighten me plenty. He and they are not citizens of the city I imagine.

The city I imagine equally values Chanuka, Diwali, Ramadan, and Christmas. Chanuka, the Jewish festival of light, ends on the 2nd day of Tevet, just one week before another Jewish traditional day is observed: the fast day of Asérah Be’Tevet – the 10th of Tevet. The nearness of these traditional days fascinates and teaches me.

Asérah Be’Tevet remembers the war between a majority culture – Bavli (Babylonian) – and a minority culture – Judaism. Chanuka remembers the war between a majority culture – Hellenism (Greek) – and a minority culture – Judaism. It never occurred to the Bavli to fight a war for cultural domination.

Nebuch’adnetzar, king of the Bavli, was content to let the folkways of his subjected nations predominate. This was not the way of Anti’ochus, king of the Seluecids, who led an empire in which Greek culture and a Greek political elite dominated. These wars, 350 years apart, are quite different from each other and the consequences of each are startlingly different.

The siege of Jerusalem was a tragedy. The Jewish traditional response to tragedy is to fast. Asérah Be’Tevet is a “minor” fast day (observed from sunrise to sunset). Chanuka is a minor holy day period of eight days which commemorate the re-dedication of the Second Temple by the Jewish priest-warriors – the Hashmonim (Hasmoneans, or “the Maccabees”) who refused to permit Hellenistic culture to predominate.

Jews observe Chanuka by lighting candles to be easily observed by passers-by. There are, I think, 74 Jewish traditional days each year on which candles are lit. None except Chanuka are lit publicly. I am taught, I think, that a dominant culture is one thing, and a predominant culture something quite different. The city I imagine is one culture, a dominant culture formed from many smaller cultures. The city I imagine is not the city imagined by Donald Trump and the people who support him. They city they imagine is one culture, American culture, whatever that means.

Donald Trump and his supporters represent the modern Anti’ochus. The city I imagine actively rejects everything Donald Trump and his supporters represent. No idea promoted by Donald Trump and his supporters is a good idea.

While Living Daily

ד אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהֹוָה֘ אוֹתָ֢הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵֽית־יְ֭הֹוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַֽחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הֹוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֽוֹ: — תה’ כ”ז, ד

I ask only this of G!d, a desire, a request: In G!d’s House, while living daily, to meditate upon You as if you were by my side, to learn what I have yet to finish. (Tehila 27:4)

This beautiful tehila is frequently sung (a new window will open for this version of a Carlebach melody). Here is a lovely instrumental version (a new window will open for Nina Perlov’s take on the “traditional” melody).

There’s quite a difference between desire and request, and our poetic storyteller seems to confuse means (a request) with ends (having my desire fulfilled). Knowing what I want must precede obtaining it, however, so it is my perception that is wrong; the storyteller has the order correct — but what is desire?

The Hebrew word O’tah — אוֹתה — means “symbol” and “letter” (e.g., a basic symbol of written language), but also “that one”. It conveys gender (in this case, feminine), as all Hebrew words do, but this is a storyteller’s trick: O’vah — אוֹה — is the base-form that actually connotes desire. A tav — ת — intervenes to make the word אוֹתה. Tav is the last letter of the Alef-Bet. The storyteller is saying that desire is an end in itself, but desire becomes a perverse notion unless a request is made.

In Ivrit Tenakhit avaqesh — אבקש — means “plea”. In modern Hebrew bevaqasha — בּבקשה — both precedes (“please”) a request and follows it (“you’re welcome”). Desire binds both the asker and the giver when it is associated with request.