treading where angels never were

Will the messianic era ever reach fruition, or as the hard-core Secularists maintain, Hitchens style, that this absurdity is like pissing in the wind.There are a lot of empty spaces to fill in, and perhaps we are just not seeing them, or as some say, seeing him; no change at all in essence, only the change in perception.

Figures like Maimonides and the Bal Shem Tov from the jewish tradition were advocates of the messianic position,imbued with a belief that all individuals were equally created in the image of god and that somehow, through the divine cosmic energy of the unseen hand, the messianic era could not see jews and gentiles remain  distinct or as distinct; and the idea of “chosen” would become blurred with more subtle nuances than generally acknowledged; with ethnicity falling into the realm of the accidental or of marginal significance, not essential to the main spirit of the changes foreseen, and not central to Judaism itself absolving it of the baggage of culture and its fragile connections with pantheism and other potential pathologies that they could have perceived. Needless to say, both men were persecuted in their time by their brethren, had their writings burnt and in the case of Maimonides branded a heretic and hustled out of his home turf. Call it a “chosen” fear that upset god’s apples from the cart.

In addition to  seeing the presence of the Divine Hand in everything, the Chassid view emphasized serving the Creator with joy and simple piety, and not acting out of a fear of god or fear of divine recrimination and punishment. This way of thought brought the mystical sides of Judaism within reach of common folk, something positive  for  a people oppressed by poverty and outbursts of persecution. In effect, Baal Shem Tov empowered the masses by validating a less sophisticated but sincere service of god, and avoiding elitism at that level; even though there was risk of superstition and excesses of messianism in the populist vein, pure escapism and even strains of romantic bohemianism. But the idea was that everything a person saw or heard in their life was to to be taken as a lesson in serving the Creator with no event occurring at random or the product of chance and coincidence. As he said,  all the myriad of life variables  are in fact a complex set of circumstances presented to us only so we may use their potential to construct a world in which Godliness can dwell and abound, something that we cannot even begin to comprehend. Forget salvation, it was redemption as the prize to be attained…

—The person reciting Psalms may not understand the words, but he recites them with total selflessness.
On the other hand, the scholar who understands what he is learning is liable to be inflated with feelings of pride.
And then it might have been preferable had he only been reciting Psalms without understanding them.
This was one of the issues that caused the persecution of the Baal Shem Tov’s first Hasidim.
Because they stressed the essential value of studying Torah for the sake of unification with the divine will, their opponents believed that they were denigrating the value of scholarship. —Read More: image:

One of the controversial issues which led to the persecution of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples was his assertion that “everything is Godliness, and Godliness is everything.” Mystics have their own way of speaking – sometimes to the chagrin of rationalists, who, after all, account for the greater part of the population. To some of his rabbinic contemoraries, the Baal Shem Tov’s statements sounded dangerously like pantheism.

Of course, the Baal Shem Tov never identified God with nature – it is a fundamental belief of Judaism that, before or after creation, God is immutable, infinite, and transcendent. What the Baal Shem Tov wished to communicate was the oneness of all things within God and the presence of God’s Oneness within all things….

—In their early years, the Hasidim were actively persecuted by the Mitnagdim, who feared they would become another heretical sect, similar to that of Shabbetai Zevi. But in its formative stages, Hasidism wisely put its primary emphasis on personal religious growth rather than on national salvation, and it downplayed the messianic element. This was not enough, however, to appease the Mitnagdim. Other Hasidic traits, such as their laissez­faire attitude toward the appropriate hours for prayer, bitterly provoked their opponents. The Hasidim answered that they couldn’t legislate precise hours for reciting each of the three daily prayer services; they prayed with such intensity (kavannah) that they couldn’t do so while looking at a watch.—Read More: image:

(see link at end) …the Maimonidean view of Judaism as a rational faith whose central goal is to facilitate the perfection of the human intellect is fundamentally at odds with almost all subsequent traditional understandings of the meaning and purpose of the Torah and its commandments, which have been so deeply informed by their more romantic and mystical interpreters.

Kellner’s central argument, … is that Maimonides offered a philosophy of Judaism deliberately meant to challenge the mystics of his era, whose theology was rooted in a belief in the ontological reality — that is, the actual objective existence — of spiritual and supernatural forces, both holy and demonic, in the created universe, and also rooted in the accompanying conviction that the performance of the Torah’s commandments constitutes a complex and elaborate engagement with those very forces. In his analysis of hundreds of passages from Maimonides’s major works, Kellner demonstrates that Maimonides took an instrumental, as opposed to an essentialist, view of Jewish law, according to which all the people, places and things deemed holy by Judaism are so regarded only as a result of their sanctification through religious practice.

“… prove that holiness is not a property but an institutional status for Maimonides; that Hebrew, the holy language, is not holy in any essentialist, ontological sense; that the distinction between ritual purity and impurity reflects no extra-halakhic reality; that Jews and non-Jews are distinguished by nothing beyond history, belief and behavior….”

—The Haredim, who make up approximately 10% of the country according to government figures, are the fastest growing segment of the population and constitute a powerful voting block in Israel’s coalition government. They have used this power to maintain government subsidies for working-age men to study the Torah full-time and protect the ability for ultra-orthodox Israelis to win easy exemptions from compulsory military service.
These arrangements have prompted a growing sense of resentment and anger among other Israelis, says author and columnist Bradley Burston.
“What people are thinking is that this is absolutely unsustainable,” says Burston.
“They can’t go on providing these kinds of subsidies for this kind of lifestyle, especially if it seems that the same people you are subsidizing are going to turn on you and turn on Jews everywhere because they don’t like their behavior.”
While the t

ons between the ultra-orthodox and other Israelis are not likely to result in a major schism anytime soon, Burston believes the Haredi community needs to do a better job at integrating into Israeli society. If not, he says, the schism could become a major crisis for Israel in the years ahead.—Read More:

…“Halakha for Maimonides does not describe an antecedent existing reality; rather it constitutes or constructs a social reality. This point is important for Maimonides, since it assists him in protecting God’s transcendence.” Since God is utterly transcendent and radically other than anything in the physical universe — and since God alone is “the Holy One” — actual, ontological holiness can inhere in Him only. But what then, for Maimonides, can the Halacha possibly mean when it categorizes people, places and things as being divrei kedusha, or holy objects? The rabbis have, after all, deemed so many things to be holy, from ritual objects like Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot to the Hebrew language (lashon ha-Kodesh), the Land of Israel (Eretz ha-Kodesh) and, not least, the people of Israel, whom the Torah commands to be a Holy nation….

—I shouldn’t have been surprised. At the Forward, JJ Goldberg has translated portions of an interview of Woody Allen that appeared in Hebrew in Yediot Ahronot last week. Allen’s attitudes are very conventional, and generational. He isn’t religious, loves Israel, has never bothered to go there, doesn’t understand why those Arab countries didn’t embrace it, and expresses the mildest criticisms:
“…I don’t believe in organized religions. Most of them exploit people, and I think these clubs have nothing to do with God. Today I feel Jewish mainly when people attack me because of my being Jewish.”
About Israel, on the other hand, he has only good things to say. In practice, when Allen starts talking about Israel it’s hard to stop him. So hard that even his assertive, energetic publicist merited only a dismissive wave of the hand, indicating that she should wait until he was finished gushing about his love.
“I support Israel and I’ve supported it since the day it was founded. Israel’s neighbors have treated it badly, cruelly, instead of embracing it and making it part of the Middle East family of nations. Over the years Israel has responded to these attacks in various ways, some of which I approved of and some less so.—Read More: image:

…In a series of chapters dedicated to such subjects as “Ritual Purity and Impurity,” “The Hebrew Language,” “Jews and Non-Jews” and, of course “Angels” (which, for Maimonides, do not actually exist), Kellner demonstrates the startling thoroughness and consistency of Maimonides’s utilitarian anti-mystical worldview. So, for example, there is for him nothing intrinsically or essentially holy about a Torah scroll, or a mezuzah, or a pair of tefillin. The holiness of these objects derives solely from their consecration and use for the sacred purpose of regularly reminding Jews of their covenant with God. In other words, their sanctity is a byproduct of their function as educational instruments. The same instrumentalism — sharply contrasted by Kellner throughout his book with the mystics’ essentialist view — is applied by Maimonides to explaining the potentially chauvinist notion that the people of Israel, along with their language and land, are uniquely endowed with sanctity….

…For Maimonides, then, ritual paraphernalia are not magical amulets; they are simply didactic devices. Tefillin and mezuzot are only as sacred as they are effective — not the reverse, as the mystics insist. Maimonides reserved particular contempt for rabbinic faith-healers, later known as Baalei Shem, hawking a mystical view of the Hebrew language and the supernatural powers that they claimed inhered especially in the names of God. In referring to the writers and salesmen of magical healing amulets, he writes:

*“Do not let occur to your mind the vain imaginings of the writers of amulets or names you may hear from them or what you may find in their stupid books, names they have invented and… they think work miracles. All these are stories that it is not seemly for a perfect man to listen to, much less to believe.” *

…When reading Kellner’s lucid account of Maimonides’s de-sacralization of these ritual objects, I was reminded of the many miracle stories about flawed mezuzot leading to terrible misfortunes, particularly popular among the Hasidim (my personal favorite: the hunchback who was cured when the Lubavitcher rebbe divined that the word “walk” was misshaped in his mezuzah). One can only imagine what Maimonides would make of the magical tchotchkes, from red strings to Hebrew tarot cards, for sale in the Kabbalah Centre’s gift shops, to say nothing of Madonna’s form-fitting T-shirts emblazoned with the Lord’s ineffable name.

…Similarly, for Maimonides, the holiness of Israel — both people and land — is not due to any innate, supernatural or divine quality that inheres in Jewish individuals or in soil and sand, but is rather the consequence of Israel’s becoming sanctified through the observance of the special laws of her covenant with God. Halachic obedience serves, both historically and socially, to construct holiness. Conversely, when the Jews do not behave in accordance with the Divine will, they relinquish any advantage over other nations, as well as their entitlement to the Land of Israel. “Holiness, in people, is a function of what they do, not of what they are,” Kellner writes. “To say that a person, or nation, is holy is to say nothing ‘ontological’ about them; it is to say much about how that person or nation acts. Similarly, to say that a place is holy is to say nothing ontological about it; it is to say much about the history of the place and about how the place must be treated in a halakhic framework.”

… the importance of Maimonides’s worldview as a corrective to what he views as the unsettling excesses of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. The mystics’ essentialist view of Jewish law, he argues, lends itself to an uncritical reverence for the rabbis, and a sanctification of their opinions on all matters — including those that are purely political, as unassailable da’at Torah, the Torah’s pure opinion. This uncritical approach to the role of halachic authorities is not limited to the fervently Orthodox. It now dominates the once modern and moderate religious Zionist community, much to the consternation of Kellner — himself an Orthodox Zionist and a veteran professor of Jewish philosophy at Haifa University. He understandably takes a dim view of this political empowerment of the rabbis, and looks to Maimonides’s rational, instrumental understanding of the halakhic process for a remedy…. Read more:


(see link at end)…The founder of Hasidism, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, was the hero of very different sorts of tales. The Hasidim told of how he spent his teenage years working in a job with low status, as assistant in a Jewish elementary school, a cheder. He would round up the students from their homes each morning and lead them to school singing songs. Later, after he married, he and his wife went to live in the far­off Carpathian Mountains. There, the Ba’al Shem Tov worked as a laborer, digging clay and lime, which his wife then sold in town. The couple later kept an inn.

During these years, the Ba’al Shem Tov spent much time in the nearby forest in meditation and solitude. His Hasidic followers subsequently likened this period to the years of isolation and meditation that Moses spent in Midian, tending the flocks of his father­in­law….

…Because the world was full of God, the Besht believed that a person always should be joyful. Indeed, the greatest act of creativity comes about in an atmosphere of joy: “No child is born except through pleasure and joy,” the Besht declared. “By the same token, if one wishes his prayers to bear fruit, he must offer them with pleasure and joy.” This doctrine was a strong challenge to many ideas current among Jews in the Besht’s time. Many religious Jews, particularly among the kabbalists, preached asceticism, and advocated that Jews fast every Monday and Thursday. The Ba’al Shem Tov warned people against such practices, fearing that they would lead to melancholy, not joy.

To outsiders, unaccustomed to the Besht’s teachings, Hasidic prayer services sometimes seemed undignified, even chaotic. In fulfillment of the Psalmist’s ecstatic declaration, “All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like You?” (Psalms 35:10), worshipers were capable of performing handstands. Characteristically, the Besht defended such practices at Hasidic services with a story. A deaf man passed by a hall where a wedding reception was being celebrated. When he looked through the window, he saw people engaged in exultant and tumultuous dancing. But because he could not hear the music, he assumed they were mad….Read More:

By Howard Altmann
An old man with a new hat
is running out of pride.
I want to tell the truth
but I don’t know how.
The wind is our best pen
and it blows poetry out of the water.

I wait for days and weeks to enter
a feeling that’s had years to leave.
The ocean keeps throwing questions
it has all the answers to.
A candle lights a room
and dims the stars.

When all that consoled consoles no longer
loneliness finds a room inside the one it knows.
I am shrinking from the light
and turning into space.
An old man with a new hat
wears his smile in the dark.

Source: Poetry (October 2009).

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