Sunday, 27 March 2016

Re-Integrating – Part 3

“Halakhic Man”, by Rabbi Jospeh B. Soloveitchik pp99-105. It's a bit long, but contains some important ideas (imo) about the integration fo Kabbalistic thought (e.g. Book of Creation / Sefer Yetzirah) and Jewsih laws.

Halakhik man is a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original. The study of Torah, by definition means gleaning something new, creative insights form the Torah (hiddushei Torah). “The Holy One, blessed be He, rejoices in the dialectics of Torah” [a popular folk saying]. Read not ‘dialectics’ (pilpul) but creative interpretation’ (hiddush). This notion of hiddush, of creative interpretation, is not limited solely to the theoretical domain but extends as well into the practical domain, into the real world. The most fervent desire of Halakhik man is to behold the replenishment of the deficiency in creation, when the real world will conform to the ideal world and the most exalted and glorious of creations, the ideal Halakhah, will be actualized in its midst. The dream of creation is the central idea in the halakhik consciousness – the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as creator of worlds. This longing for creation and the renewal of the cosmos is embodied in all of Judaism’s goals. And if at times we raise the question of the ultimate aim of Judaism, of the telos of the Halakhah in all its multi-fold aspects and manifestations, we must not disregard the fact that this wondrous spectacle of the creation of worlds is the Jewish people’s eschatological vision, the realization of all its hopes.

The Halakhah sees the entire Torah as consisting of basic laws and halakhik principles. Even the Scriptural narratives serve the purpose of determining everlasting law. “The mere conversations of the servants of the fathers are more important than the laws [Torah] of the sons. The chapter dealing with Eliezer covers two or three columns, and [his conversation] is not only recorded but repeated. Whereas [the uncleanliness of] reptile is a basic principle of Torah law [gufei Torah], yet it is only from an extending particle in Scriptures that we know that its blood defiles as flesh” (Gen. Rabbah 60:11). Our Torah does not contain even one superfluous word or phrase. Each letter alludes to basic principles of Torah law, each word to “well-fastened”, authoritative, everlasting halakhot [laws]. From beginning to end it is replete with statues and judgements, commandments, and laws. The mystics discern in our Torah divine mysteries, esoteric teachings, the secrets of creation, and the Merkabah [the chariot of Ezekiel’s prophecy]; the halakhik sages discern in it basic halakhot, practical principles, laws, directives, and statues. “The deeds of the fathers are a sign for the songs” [cf. Nachmaniddes, Commentary on the Torah Gen. 12:6]. And this sign – i.e. the vision of the future – constitutes a clear-cut halakhah. Halakhic man discerns in every divine pledge man’s obligation to bring about its fulfilment, in every promise a specific norm, in every eschatological vision an everlasting commandment (the commandment to participate in the realization of the prophecy). The conversations of the servants, the trials of the fathers, the fate of the tribes, all teach the sons Torah and commandments. The only difference between the conversation of Eliezer and the Scriptural portion concerning the reptile is that the former extends over two or three columns while the latter is but a brief passage.

Therefore, if the Torah spoke at length about the creation of the world and related to us the story of the making of heaven and earth and all their host, it did so not in order to reveal cosmogonic secrets and metaphysical mysteries but rather in order to teach practical Halakhah. The Scriptural portion of the creation narrative is a legal portion, in which are to be found basic, everlasting Halakhik principles, just like the portion of Kedoshim (Lev. 19) or Mishpatim (Exod, 21). If the Torah then chose to relate to man the tale of creation, we may clearly derive one law from this manner of procedure – viz. That man is obliged to engage in creation and the renewal of the cosmos.

Not for naught is Judaism acquainted with a Book of Creation, the mastery of which enables one both to create and destroy worlds. “Rabba said: If the righteous desired it, they could be creators of worlds, as it is written, ‘But your iniquities have separated between you and your God’ (Isa. 59:2). (Rashi explains: We may infer from this that if they would not have any iniquities, there would be no distinction [between man and God, in the matter of creation]). Raba created a man… Rabbi Hanina and R. Oshi spent every Shabbat eve in studying the Book of Creation and created a third grown calf” (Sanhedrin 65b).

The peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires is a man as creator.

When God created the world, He provided an opportunity for the work of His hands – man – to participate in His creation. The Creator, as it were, impaired reality in order that mortal man could repair its flaws and perfect it. God gave the Book of Creation – that repository of the mysteries of creation – to man, not simply for the sake of theoretical study but in order that man might continue the act of creation. “As soon as Abraham had understood, fashioned, engraved, attached and created, inquired and clearly grasped [the secret of creation], the Lord of the universe revealed Himself to him, called him His friend, and made a covenant with him between the ten fingers of his hand...” Man’s task is to “fashion, engrave, attach, and create,” and transform the emptiness in being into a perfect and holy existence, bearing the imprint of the divine name.

“The earth was chaos and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep… And God said: ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.. God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness He called Night… Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters… Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear… God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering of waters He called Seas, etc.” (Gen. 1:2-10).

When God engraved and carved out the world, he did not entirely eradicate the chaos and void, the deep, the darkness, from the domain of His creation. Rather, he separated the complete, perfect existence from the forces of negation, confusion, and turmoil and set up cosmic boundaries, eternal laws to keep them apart. Now Judaism affirms the principle of creation out of absolute nothingness. Therefore, the chaos and the void, the deep, the darkness, and relative nothingness must all have been fashioned by the Almighty before the creation of the orderly, majestic, beautiful world. “A philosopher once said to Rabbi Gamliel: Your God is a great artist, but He found good materials which helped Him: chaos and the void, the deep, the wind [ruah], water and darkness. He replied: Let the bones of that person [who so averred] be blasted! For the Scripture affirms that all these things were created. With regard to chaos and the void it is written: ‘I [God] make peace, and create evil’ (Isa. 45:7); with regard to the wind [ruah] it is written: ‘He formeth the mountains, and createth the wind [ruah]’ (Amos 4:13); with regard to the deep it is written: ‘Out of nothing I carved out the deep’ (Prov. 8:24)” [Gen. Rabbah 1:12]. All of these “primordial” materials were created in order that they subsist and be located in the world itself. Not for naught did He create them. He created them in order that they may dwell within the cosmos!

However, the forces of relative nothingness at times exceed their bounds. They wish to burst forth out of the chains of obedience that the Almighty imposed upon them and seek to plunge the earth back into chaos and the void. It is only the law that holds them back and bars the path before the, Now the Hebrew term for law, hok, comes from the root h-k-k- (which means “to carve, engrave”). Thus the law carves out a boundary, sets up markers, establishes special domains, all for the purpose of separating existence from “nothingness,” the ordered cosmos from the void, and creation from naught. “When He carved [hok] a circle [hug] upon the face of the deep” (Prov. 8:27) – hok, the carving, the engraving, the law = hug, the circle = an all-encompassing boundary. The perfect and complete ontic being extends until this divinely carved-out boundary; beyond that border is in the deep, chaos and the void, darkness, and the “nothingness,” devoid of image and form.

However, this relative “nothingness” is plotting evil, the deep is devising iniquity, and the chaos and void lie in wait in the dark alleyways of reality and seek to undermine the absolute being, to profane the lustrous image of creation. “Thou didst cover it with the deep as with a vesture; the waters stood above the mountains. At They rebuke they fled, at the sound of Thy thunder they hastened away… Thou didst set a bound which they should not pass over, that they might return to cover the earth” (Ps. 104:6-9). “When He assigned to the sea its limit, so hat they waters might not transgress His command, when He carved out the foundations of the earth” (Prov. 8:29). The deep wishes to cast off the yoke of the law (hok), to pass beyond the boundary (hug) and limit that the Creator set up and carved out and inundate the world and the fullness thereof. However, at the rebuke of the Almighty, it flees in retreat. From the sound of His thunder it is driven back and hastens to its “lair” - the lair of nothingness. The sight of tempestuous sea, of swirling, raging waves that beat upon the shore there to break, symbolizes to the Judaic consciousness the struggle of the chaos and void with creation, the quarrel of the deep with the principles of order and the battle of confusion with the law.

The mysterious power of the delineated law and the limiting boundary which the Almighty implanted in existence presented itself in all its awesomeness and majesty to King David, the sweet singer of Israel, as reflected in the natural phenomenon of the orderly ebb and flow of the sea (caused by the gravitational force of the sun and the moon and the rotation of the earth). The sea at high tide and the sea at low tide appeared in their whirl of colors as a symbolic elemental process, as a bewitching spectacle of an eternal clash of forces. It is as though the sea at high tide, rushing to meet the shore, desires to destroy the boundary and the law, as though the disorder of the primordial forces, of chaos and confusion, desires to cleave asunder the perfect and exquisitely chiselled creation and lay it to waste. Only the mighty strength of the law of the Almighty bars the path before them [the waves] and shatters them. “Thou rulest the proud swelling of the sea; when the waves thereof arise, Thou dost shatter them” (Ps. 89:10).

“R. Johannan said: When David dug the pits, the deep arose and threatened to submerge the world… David thereupon inscribed the ineffable name upon a sherd, cast it into the deep, and it subsided.” “When David began to dig the foundations of the Temple, he dug 15 cubits and did not reach the deep. Finally he found one potsherd and sought to lift it up. Said [the potsherd]unto him: You may not. Said [David] unto it: And why not? Said [potsherd] unto David: Because it is I who am restraining the deep. Said [David] unto it: And for how long have you been here? Said [potsherd] unto him: Since the Almighty proclaimed on Mount Sinai ‘I am he Lord they God’ (Ex. 20:2). At that moment the earth trembled and began to sink and I was placed here to restrain the deep. David, nevertheless, did not listen. As soon as he lifted it up, the waters of the deep arose and sought to inundate the world.

Thus the deep desires to burst out of the enclosures of the law and shatter the realms of orderly creation, the cosmic process, the regular course of the world, and plunge them all back into “nothingness,” into desolation and ontic emptiness. However, it is held firm in the grip of the mighty laws and principles.

All of kabbalistic literature is imbued with this idea. The “other side”, the “husks”, the “mighty deep”, and “angels of destruction”, the “offspring of chaos”, etc. all symbolize the realm of emptiness and the void, the domain of “nothingness,” devoid of any image or stature, that does battle with glorious existence enveloped by the luster of the image of the Divine Presence.

However, this view, which threads its way through the entire course of Jewish thought is not just a mysterious theoretical notion but a practical principle, a fundamental ethico-halakhik postulate.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Re-Integrating – Part 2

At the moment, amongst the many books that I am reading is “Halakhic Man”, by Rabbi Jospeh B. Soloveitchik. Truth be told I struggle with some of the ideas in his book. Not their understanding as such, but more whether I agree with them or not. The back of the book states:

“Rabbi Jospeh B. Soloveitchik has ordained more rabbis than anyone else in history; his student and followers in all branches of Judaism have shaped the character of modern Jewry; his teaching have stood as paradigms of philosophical insight and religious sensitivity.”

Anyway, he sums up very nicely in this book my growing understanding of how all levels of interpretation play an integral part in day to day activities. Kabbalah is not something foreign grafted in to the religion but a core strand that weaves its way in and out daily practices and observation that make up a way of life. Rather than a system of religious practices with a mystical spin, that form a separate part of people’s lives.


“...We have already emphasize earlier that Judaism does not direct its glance upwards but downward. The Halakhah [Jewish law] does not aspire to a heavenly transcendence, nor does it seek to soar on the wings of some abstract mysterious spirituality. It fixes its gaze upon concrete , empirical reality and does not allow its attention to be diverted from it. Halakhik man does not compartmentalize reality – this is the domain of eternal life and this is the domain of temporal life. On the contrary, he brings down eternity in to the midst of time. He does not enter in to a hidden, pure, transcendent realm even in his intimate prayer-colloquy with his Creator Even when Halakhik man enters the synagogue or house of study he does not leave his this-wordly life behind. His prayer is replete with requests regarding bodily needs: healing, prosperity, political freedom, a good and peaceful life, and such…”


“...The Halakhah declares that man stands before God not only in the synagogue but also in the public domain, in his house, while on a journey, while lying down and rising up. ‘And thou shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down and when thou risest up’ (Deut. 6:7).
The primary difference between Halakhic man and homo religious is that while the latter prefers the spirit to the body, the soul to its mortal frame, as the main actor in the religious drama, the former, as has been stated above wishes to sanctify the physical-biological concrete man as the hero and protagonist of religious life. Therefore, the whole notion of ritual assumes a special form in Judaism. The standard notion of ritual prevalent amongst religious men – i.e. ritual as a non-rational religious act while whole purpose is to lift man up from concrete reality to celestial realms – is totally foreign to Judaism. Acording to the outlook of Halakhah, the service of God (with exception of the study of the Torah) can be carried out only through the implementation, the actualization of its principle in the real world. The ideal of righteousness is the guiding light of this world-view. Halakhik man’s most fervent desire s is the perfection of the world under the dominion of righteousness and loving-kindness – the realization of the a priori, ideal creation, whose name is Torah (of Halakhah), in the realm of concrete life. The Halakhah is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries but penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop of religious life. The synagogue does not occupy a central place in Judaism...”

I think that it is important to understand this context to gain an insight in to Kabbalist teachings and practices.

Whilst the Kabbalists of 13th century Spain where busy studying the Bahir and Zohar to build up a framework for how the observance of religious obligations had a theurgical effect on the world – Rabbi Abaraham Abulafia seems to fall in to the category of homo religious mentioned by Rabbi Soloveitchik.

But whilst Rabbi Abraham Abulafia’s writings were placed under a ban by the Rashba – he was not declared a heretic. He operated in the same Halakhik framework and was part of main-stream rabbinic Judaism at the time. Centuries later his works are referenced and quoted by some of the great Kabbalists such as Rabbi Chaim Vital and Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulay.

Rabbi Soloveitchik has some very interesting things to say (in my opinion) on chaos and void (Tohu and bohu) mentioed in Genesis and Sefer Yetzirah – as well as time in the realm of the spiriti and unidimensional time. So in parts 3 and 4 we’ll hopefully be exploring a depth of beginning & end as well as a depth of evil and good.

Re-Integrating – Part 1

When I started this journey just over five years ago, I was coming from a place of interest in Jewish Magic & Mysticism from a narrow angle. Trying to plumb these mysteries without much knowledge of Hebrew or core Jewish texts, there was only so far I could go. Don’t get me wrong, authors such as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Prof. Moshe Idel, Prof. Gershom Scholem, and a whole host of other authors took a quite a long way in to this vast area of study.

However, as I started trying dive deeper – the main barrier that I kept coming up against was my inability to read primary source texts due to my lack of knowledge of Hebrew. Rather than focus on just learning the language, the path that I took was to study the core texts and try to build up a small portion of knowledge that many of the great Kabbalists over the centuries assume their readers have already gained in their early years.

What I have discovered since then is that when not dealing with the complex realms of Jewish laws, there is a huge wealth of opinions, philosophies, and world-views that have flourished. Since the exile following the Roman conquest there has not been a central religious authority (Sanhedrin) to impose uniformity. There is a main stream current of Rabbinic laws, but even within that there is room to manoeuvre as each ruling is judged on an individual basis. Traditions and customs carry a lot of weight too.

Four levels of Interpretation

When I mention that there is plenty of leeway for creativity, interpretation, and innovation of thought in interpretation of texts – I am of course referring to the four levels of interpretation. These are referred to as PaRDeS.

Here are some handy links:
  • Chabad link on PaRDes 
  • Ohr Sameyach link on PaRDes
  • Wikipedia link on PaRDes
The four levels of intepretation of the Torah are:

  1. Pshat: is the simple interpretation of the Torah
  2. Remez: is the different hints and allusions which are contained within the Torah.
  3. Drush: expounds upon the deeper meaning of the verses of the Torah.
  4. Sod: is the esoteric, mystical part of Torah.
The last part, Sod, contains within it Kabbalah.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Choice of trees and books

Just over a year ago I wrote about a plan being like a 'path of dots'. Specifically I wrote:
A plan is particularly useful for mapping out a 'path of dots'. It helps me figure out how to get from a known starting point to a theoretical next level. Although the plan is a nice fiction, it's a very useful tool for putting ideas in to a coherent order and testing whether it is achievable or not. Benjamin Franklin supposedly once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
Also in that post was a mention of my daily study regime. Here are some details of my current study regime.

  1. On commute to work read 10 Paslms and study Torah with Aramaic translation.
  2.  On the way back from work, study Mishnah (now up to Sefer Moed, Ta'anis)
I also used to study Rabbi Moshe Cordovero's commentary on  Sefer Yetzirah, but in recent weeks I have started trying to translate and study the writings of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia starting with Ve'Zot Le'Yehuda ("And this to Judah", the response to being put under ban by the Rashba). I'm using the books published by Amnon Gross.

But now I have a choice to make... to continue studying all the writings of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia and become a full-time student of Abulafia's teachings. Or to follow his example and study a dozen commentaries on Sefer Yetzirah. So the choice is become a student of Ecstatic kabbalah or a student of Ma'aseh Bereishit (work of creation).

Which ever path I choose, I know which path of books will lead me in each direction.

The other seeming junction that I was pondering recently about which tree to explore first - the Tree of Life or Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil - was confirmed by my teacher. Before delving in to the depths of the Tree of Knowledge, it is important to first delve deeper in to the Tree of Life in other words the written law (Torah) and oral law (Talmud) .

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Project update: 10 Psalms for 10 Days

This project is officially completed, but none the less I have continued with reciting 10 Psalms as outlined in the Tikkun Klali (General Rectification) from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

One of the tricky parts to measuring success (or lack thereof) is to work out what measures to track. For example, schools in UK had numbers tracked on pss rates of exams. These in turn changes form measures in to targets. Now it’s all about getting the right results as opposed to producing well-rounded individuals. Parents in turn have come to see the school as service providers and relationships are breaking down between the community and schools. This in turn leads to those who can afford it hiring tutors and the circle gets more viscous with each iteration.

Anyway, getting back to the results of the 10 Psalms in 10 Days. The aim of the exercise was to have a “significant impact on behaviour patterns”. It did, but not in the way that I was expecting.

Previous to this exercise I was commuting 4 hours a day to a job that was stressful but not overly demanding. Since the 10 Psalms in 10 Days has started I have moved to a different job with slightly reduced commute time and the number of change-overs between trains, buses, and tube trains has also significantly reduced. On the other hand, the amount of stress and work has increased by a significant amount. I’ve had a couple of evenings where I did not have to catch-up on the work, but for the rest of the time I now spend my train journeys and evenings doing more work.

One of the primary effects that this has had is that I simply do not have time to invest in any of the behaviour patterns that I am trying to remove. When I do get the time late at night, the desire is reduced. This to me is the critical part of the success. It was not about trying to change behaviour loops through techniques outlined in “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. Rather the aim of the working was to change the desire itself which triggered the patterns. Using that as a measure of success, the change in the desire levels, the working was a success.