Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1–24:18

Facebook_CoverDesign_MishpatimConsider this audacious claim: halacha is inextricably intertwined with Kabbalah or, put another way, the law is intertwined with mysticism. Could this really be so? Are there many areas of Jewish life in which kabbalistic practice entered mainstream halachic practice? If so, what effect might this reality have upon this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperative and 30 prohibitions?

As Jewish historian Jacob Katz (born November 15, 1904, in Magyargencs, Hungary, and died May 20, 1998, in Israel) insisted in his book Halakhah and Kabbalah: Studies in the History of Jewish Religion, its Various Faces and Social Relevance (1984), Jewish law is indeed intertwined with Kabbalah. As we have been learning in our second year of Zohar study in our Lehrhaus Philosophy Circle of the Bay Area, a fruitful way to address this legal layering of Torah is to turn to the Jewish mystics, also known as Kabbalists. The Zohar is a mystical masterpiece that is set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings, and the mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body at once hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Keep that parable in mind, then, and return to this week's parsha, when, upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah. Only then can we, if we so desire, express that love in a deeper commitment as critical kabbalists…

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a response to Exodus 24:10: "...and they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity." What does it mean to perceive G-d as a Jew? Just as some of us write "G-d" with a hyphen to represent the grand and incomprehensible essence of deity, so, too, can abstraction gesture toward that which is unfathomable and profound. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayishlach — Genesis 32:4–36:43

facebook_coverdesign_vayishlachI recently had the pleasure of sitting with a Bay Area Jungian analyst who also happens to be Jewish. In a trialogue with a colleague of mine who also teaches Zohar through Lehrhaus Judaica, we together sought another way into our respective readings of scripture as a journey of the psyche, of the soul.

I've always been suspicious of how a Jew could reconcile his or her study of Carl Jung with the analyst’s apparent anti-Semitism – yet I continue to be surprised. This verse jumped out for us: "The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau." (Genesis 27:22) Israelis today are only beginning to appreciate the influence of the remarkable psychologist Eric Neumann, who devoted much of his early thinking in Eretz Yisrael about the Jacob and Esau story in Parashat Toldot, as a pair of opposites that reflect the division between the inner voice of the spirit and the outer hands of action. For Neumann, this story of sibling rivalry is archetypal insofar as it also reflects the sense of inferiority, fear, and threat that invisible interiority experiences in relation to the hands of action symbolized by Jacob, and the skills of the extraverted symbolized by Esau. Having learned much from Jung, Neumann challenged his teacher’s understanding of the archetype that is the innate tendency, which molds and transform the individual consciousness.

This matrix influences the human behavior as well as ideas and concepts on the ethical, moral, religious, and cultural levels – Jung often referred to the archetype as a "primordial image." If such archetypes are inborn tendencies which shape human behavior, then how might this archetypal story in scripture explain the nature of human consciousness?

Neumann’s Zionism caused him to take leave of his teacher and return to the Holy Land. In so doing, Neumann experienced his own inner conflict that was captured most poignantly in this story of Jacob and Esau, leading him to conclude (but never publish) his feeling that what Jungian analysis misses is imbedded in this very story. Namely, that the one who wrestles with their conscience, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, is attempting to come to terms with what it means to be an "intuitive introvert." Neumann’s upbringing in the particular narrative of Zionism instilled a deep loyalty and passion for Israel, culminating in his aliyah. But while in Israel, Neumann struggled with his conscience, in attempting to formulate a way of balancing the particular pull of Zionism with the universal calling of the collective unconscious now living the dream in the Holy Land. Now that he and this early wave of pioneers were in the Holy Land, how were they going to tap into the richness of the collective unconscious that is liberated once the particularity of one’s identity is fulfilled?

Hopelessly hopeful for a reconciliation with his brother, Jacob returns to the Holy Land after his twenty year extended stay in Haran. While gifts and prayers are offered to appease his estranged brother, Jacob remains restless.

As he ferries his family and possessions across the Jabbok River, Jacob tarries behind and encounters the figure with whom he wrestles till daybreak. Jacob suffers a dislocated hip, but vanquishes this supernal creature who renames him as Israel, meaning "the one who struggles with the divine and prevails." (Genesis 32:29) This new name, Israel, suggests Jacob was struggling with no ordinary being, not merely with his conscience or the archangel of Esau, but with the divine itself.

To really be present to the community of Israel, henceforth, is for every one of us to dare to be engaged in our relationship with the divine as a holy "god-wrestler" like Jacob and to acknowledge that longing itself can be redemptive.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by Jacob's mysterious nighttime encounter. I understand the story to be a metaphor for the clash between humanity's aspirational, metaphysical identity and our brutish, animal core – the vital and intimate relationship between the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara. The dynamic tension between the yetzer tov and hara drives all life, and, in this illustration, the abstracted faces of the interlocked combatants form an atomic nucleus. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit: Not Every Jew Looks Like You

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Kone-Miller-family- Writing recently in Tablet Magazine, author David Margolick acknowledged the Jewish people's chauvinistic tribalism.

"Why is it we Jews are not only quick to claim someone as our own, but insist upon claiming all of him? For better or worse, though, we do: our fierce feeling of specialness is something we don’t want to share with anyone else. [...] Our chauvinism knows no bounds, and tolerates no asterisks."

Margolick made this admission in an essay exploring the Jewish antecedence of Supreme Court Justice nominee Merrick Garland, which he penned after reading a New York Times profile of Garland that included the following biographical detail.

"Friends say Judge Garland’s connection to Judaism runs deep. His father was Protestant, but he was raised as a Jew — he had a bar mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue — and he spoke movingly Wednesday of how his grandparents left Russia, 'fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.'"

Upon learning that it was "only" Garland's mother who was Jewish, Margolick "felt instantly deflated," and became determined to dig deeper to see what could be turned up about Garland's paternal ancestry. In fact, Margolick learned, Garland's father is Jewish; the Times piece had reported Garland's father was Protestant in error. When the Gray Lady printed a correction, according to Margolick, "everywhere, Jews cheered."

Actually, this Jew didn't. If Garland identifies as a Jew (and is halachically Jewish as well!), why does it matter whether or not both of his parents are Jewish?

Louis-Jeff-used-for-BART-ad_smallerMargolick's article is a reminder that, for many contemporary, secular Jews, ethnic and genetic "purity" -- or yichus -- matters as much if not more than one's behavior or personal identification. Moreover, many members of the tribe (M.O.T.s) tend to prioritize our particularistic "subtribe" (e.g., Ashkenazim discounting Sephardic practice as alien or misguided rather than simply different, or Modern Orthodox Jews looking askance at their Reform brethren), further eroding the virtuous notion of klal Yisrael (the interconnection of all Jews).

Disappointingly, I can recall numerous conversations with fellow Jews, friends as well as relatives, who observed that Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel), Indian Jews (including the Bnei Menashe), and all manner of converts (gerim) "aren't real Jews." When I blanche, they'll often add something like, "You know what I mean, not genetically."

To be fair, whereas Judaism, the religion, and Jewishness, our ethnic/cultural identity, used to be inextricably intertwined, the two are now viewed as distinct by a large majority of Jewish Americans, and the comments of my friends and relatives reflect their prioritization of Jewishness over Judaism. They accept that Ethiopian Jews are Jews in the sense that they practice Judaism, but they lack any yiddishkeit, which is what qualifies them as "real" M.O.T.s.

Enter Debbie Rosenfeld-Caparaz of Lehrhaus Judaica and Dawn Kepler, Director of Building Jewish Bridges, who co-curated the photography exhibition, This is Bay Area Jewry, currently on view at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Kepler, quoted in a J Weekly article about the exhibition, points out that "many refer to the Bay Area as a diaspora of the diaspora," a region where Jewish identity is complex-compound. Kepler states that the exhibition aims to “[push] folks to think more deeply about what Jewish heritage means and to realize that there are lots of Jews, and not very many of them fit into that Ashkenazi stereotype.”

If, as some leading sociologists contend, the Bay Area offers a portrait of the future of American Jewry, Margolick will need to accept the fact that many dedicated and active Jews look very different from him and/or have very different origin stories. Moreover, a great many of us may have only one Jewish parent...or none!

Kol HaKavod to Rosenfeld-Caparaz and Kepler for conceiving of This is Bay Area Jewry, and to photographer Lydia Daniller and writer Robert Nagler Miller for their efforts, as well. For more information on the exhibition, click here.

Image credits: Both photographs by Lydia Daniller for This is Bay Area Jewry, 2016 -- Top: The Kone-Miller Family, members of CBS!

Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1-24:18

CoverDesign_MishpatimWhat is the deeper story woven into this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperative and 30 prohibitions?

As Jewish historian Jacob Katz (born November 15, 1904, in Magyargencs, Hungary, and died May 20, 1998, in Israel) insisted in his book Halakhah and Kabbalah: Studies in the History of Jewish Religion, its Various Faces and Social Relevance (1984), halacha is inextricably intertwined with Kabbalah. In other words, Jewish law is intertwined with Jewish mysticism, and there are many examples of mainstream halachic practice being informed by Kabbalistic customs.

As Lehrhaus Philosophy Circle of the Bay Area participants have been learning through our study of the Book of Splendor known as the Zohar, the mystical masterpiece is set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings. The mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Last week, CBS launched a new Shabbat pamphlet that features original cover art inspired by mid-20th century graphic design. The artwork that accompanies this post is an abstract representation of Exodus 24:17 ("And the appearance of the glory of G-d was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses came within the cloud.") Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

One Tough Rabbi -- Talmud Study Update

144109317_4844d4ef26_zHenry Hollander, leader of the CBS Talmud Study group, would like to introduce you to One Tough Rabbi!

Over four Monday evening sessions, October 19 and 26 and November 2 and 9, the Talmud Study shiur will spotlight an important aggadah (rabbinic tale) featuring Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is also the central figure in the Zohar.

We will consider how Shimon bar Yochai is depicted within the Talmudic aggadah in which we find him inside a cave, buried up to his neck in sand for twelve years along with his son Rabbi Eleazar (when Eleazar is not on the lam or destroying things with his laser vision!). After studying the aggadah, we will pull back to look at the larger portion of Talmud text that the story of Rabbi Shimon is nested within. We will try to understand the story on its own and as the conclusion to a larger, seemingly unrelated body of laws, stories, and theological inquiries.

Understanding the Talmudic Rabbi Shimon should be helpful for those studying his Zoharic role with Rabbi Glazer in his Lehrhaus Zohar class.

Image credit: Photo by TikkunGer (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Rabbi Glazer Teaches The Zohar @ JCCSF

pid_21111This Fall, CBS invites you to learn with Rabbi Glazer at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (JCCSF). In partnership with Lehrhaus Judaica, Rabbi Glazer will teach a nine-session course centered on The Zohar: Pritzker Edition.

The Lehrhaus Philosophy Circle, an engaging adult education series that studies texts from some of the greatest minds in Jewish thought, will explore the Zohar for the 2015-16 academic year. In honor of the completion of Professor Daniel C. Matt’s epic translation and annotation of the first nine volumes of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, they will discuss selections from this groundbreaking work.

Matt describes the Zohar as “a challenge to the normal workings of consciousness [that] dares one to examine one’s assumptions about tradition, G-d, and self.”

In addition to The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 3, all students should have A Guide to the Zohar, by Dr. Arthur Green. Green writes, “The Zohar is the great medieval Jewish compendium of mysticism, myth, and esoteric teaching. It may be considered the highest expression of Jewish literary imagination in the Middle Ages. Surely it is one of the most important bodies of religious text of all times and places.”

Working with Lehrhaus Judaica, Professor Matt has chosen the texts as well as the teachers of this exciting new series. CBS is delighted that Rabbi Glazer was tapped to teach the San Francisco course, and we encourage you to take advantage of the learning opportunity!

For more information and to register, please visit the Lehrhaus Judaica course page.