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Archive for Desembre de 2013

Parashat Vaera

The Presence of God

 

In the opening weeks of reading from the book of Shemot, we come across Judaism’s three major ways of understanding how God works in our lives. The first two appear in last week’s parashah, the third in this week’s. First, Judaism defines God as the creator of all existence of which we are part; second, Judaism reasons that as aspects of the infinite, we can communicate on a certain level with it, and thirdly, we

have responsibilities within this life. Traditionally, these three aspects of God are known as Creator, Revealer and Redeemer, and they have been adopted by Christianity and Islam as well.

 

Last week, standing at the burning bush, Moshe encounters God for the first time who when asked for a name, says “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”, which is virtually not translatable but essentially means “I Am that which I Am” or “I Am becoming that which I Am becoming”, or a permutation of those ideas. In other words, Judaism teaches that God is a verb, a form of “to be”, and thus God=Being. I am always puzzled when people say “I do not believe in God.” It is as if one says, “I do not believe in being”, which considering we are being is a hard position to hold. Either all that exists manifested out of nothing, or out of being. In humility, we must at least acknowledge the mystery of it all.

 

Assuming God is being, and we are part of that being since we exist, then it follows that on one level each of us draws down the smallest aspect of God’s being or consciousness. This is what we mean by God Reveals – as in the communications that happen between God and Moshe, or in a few weeks time, the communication that happens between God and the ancestors of the Jews, the children of Israel who stood at Sinai to receive the commandments. Most of us today question not so much God, or even the possibility that God can communicate with humanity, but the content of the revelation from God to humanity. Outside of Orthodox understandings of religion – no matter what the religion – practitioners choose to follow the received traditions as the valued ancestral attempt to draw down God’s consciousness. The Torah is our story of how we have understood and choose to live that life.

 

Each religion has its own story. The essence of the story of our ancestors, the path of redemption that we are called to walk, is told at the beginning of this week’s parashah, where God again reveals in a speech to Moses that famous passage that makes its way to our Haggadah and forms the basis of the four cups of wine plus the cup of Elijah. God tells Moshe (and the children of Israel), “I will free you…I will deliver you…I will redeem you…and I will take you … and I will bring you into the land. In other words, the crucial event of our past is the being freed from the slavery in Egypt in order to come to the land of Israel where we are to serve God as a model nation.

 

We can always discuss the finer parts of the story, the details of what has been revealed, but we should understand that our conversation is not as much about God Itself, as to what it means to serve God. Each individual has his or her way; each people its. These crucial stories at the beginning of Exodus establish that the story of Israel is one that takes us from servitude to humans to service to God, and thus humanity and life.

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El teatre del mon

 

 La gran roda de l’alfabet hebreu està destinat a proporcionar fins a tres vegades el vertigen d’un motor que no s’atura. El llibre de la figura és una obra inquietant, que ha romàs com un dels textos més inaccessibles de la Cabalà catalana. En aquesta obra les imatges són d’una riquesa exuberant, tot i que, en una lectura més atenta, veurem que el conjunt del text obeeix a una lògica rigorosa, una simetria precisa perfectament equilibrada.

 

 El llibre no conté una, sinó tres figures: lletres en tres rodes que es mouen amb moviment frenètic; tres alfabets que apareixen als nostres ulls com la repetició del mateix alfabet, tres cicles que caven solcs cada cop més profunds en la matèria del cosmos. Les mateixes lletres passen i tornen a passar sempre aportant un significat nou, cada vegada més carregat de símbols, cada vegada més “ocult i terrible,” repetint dos dels adjectius més emprats en el llibre.

 El lector que entra en la tercera figura no és el mateix que va obrir el llibre, sobretot perquè ja no està en el mateix lloc, i això que està lluny de la revelació, però està a punt d’entrar directament en el compartiment més secret de la maquinària mística: és portat al darrere de l’escena del gran teatre del món, i pot veure la porta per on els actors entren en escena. Tot i que la metàfora teatral no apareix de forma explícita en el text, tota l’estructura obeeix a una lògica d’etapes, interpretat en la sèrie de pauses i entrades dels actors.

 És un teatre rigorós i abstracte en el qual el paper dels actors és confiat a les lletres de l’alfabet hebreu, que al seu torn es componen i es descomponen, es disfressen i es capgiren tot seguint un guió que no és altra cosa que la vida humana i del mons. Les lletres fan la seva entrada a través de la porta de la tercera sefirà – Binah, la intel·ligència – i al principi només són traces molt subtils, gairebé indistingibles en un gran centelleig de llum, per a convertir-se, a poc a poc, cada vegada en quelcom més pesat, fins que arriben al punt d’assumir l’aspecte de l’ànima i fins i tot el dels cossos .

 Els set cicles còsmics marquen el moviment de la roda de l’alfabet, set edats que es caracteritzen pel domini alternat de les set Sefirot inferiors: l’escena canvia en set ocasions, amb set colors, set emocions, i set profunditats diferents. Cada acte dura set dies divins – set mil anys de l’home – i descriu el pas del temps, el pas de la clemència al rigor, de la bellesa i l’eternitat, en la brillantor dels atributs divins.

 Cada set dies, una pausa porta a la representació momentània de la quietud absoluta. Per un instant les accions queden interrompudes i les passions romanen suspeses. Un instant i tot comença a girar de nou, ja que la roda de les lletres, amb cada pas, és més pesada i està més carregada, de manera que les ànimes estan donant voltes sense descans, de cos a cos, a través de plantes, minerals, animals i persones, amb la seva càrrega de sentiments, de pecats i amors, mitjançant la força de les bones accions rectes o amb el pes de les transgressions, fins a la setena i última pausa, que anuncia la quietud final. Els actors surten tots per la porta per on han entrat en sonar el xofar, el corn que proclama el jubileu, el cinquantè dia diví, el dia de l’alliberament. Set cops set portes han estat obertes, així com les vint-i-dues lletres de l’alfabet hebreu es combinen fins a arribar al nombre quaranta-nou: la cinquantena porta és la porta celestial d’on tot prové i a la que tot torna. És el santuari celestial que fa que tot sigui sant .

 El llibre de la figura va ser escrit cap el 1250 a Catalunya. Molt possiblement a Girona, per un autor jueu que va voler romandre en l’anonimat. El Llibre de la figura va ser considerat des de la seva primera aparició com un dels més difícils de la mística jueva. Qui el va escriure dominava, de manera extraordinària, les Sagrades Escriptures així com tota la tradició rabínica. També té una capacitat molt refinada per a capturar les imatges i les textures més inusuals de la prosa Jueva menys coneguda.

 Aquesta particular sensibilitat visual per les paraules dóna a aquesta obra un dinamisme estilístic que dóna vida fins i tot les parts més àrides i abstractes de la Torà, el Pentateuc, transformant fins i tot els passatges legals en espurnes inesperades de la revelació mística .

 Des de fa un any estic treballant en una traducció d’aquest text. Ara per ara tinc traduïda la primera de les tres parts. No comptem amb cap traducció a una llengua moderna, a excepció d’una versió llatina mai no publicada encarregada pel cardenal hebraista Egidi de Viterbo, un aristòcrata amant del somni humanista que buscava en el misteri de la mística jueva de la clau de la seva fe cristiana.

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The significance of this story is that it is the first recorded instance of one of Judaism’s greatest contributions to civilization: the idea that there are moral limits to power. There are instructions that should not be obeyed. There are crimes against humanity that cannot be excused by the claim that “I was only obeying orders.” This concept, generally known as “civil disobedience,” is usually attributed to the nineteenth century American writer Henry David Thoreau, and entered international consciousness after the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials. Its true origin, though, lay thousands of years earlier in the actions of two women, Shifra and Puah. Through their understated courage they earned a high place among the moral heroes of history, teaching us the primacy of conscience over conformity, the law of justice over the law of the land.

This recognition of the ability of women to transform society provides an excellent background to the discussion in congress on sexual assault in the army. Let’s remember the findings in the case of the Air force academy in 2013 in which 12% of women reported they were victims of rape or attempted rape while at the Academy. Also in 2011 published a report that made clear that women were more likely to be sexually assaulted and that of a total of 19,000 assaults only 575 were processed and only 96 went to court. It takes lots of value for a victim of sexual assault to come forward and acknowledge it. The strengthen these women have shown is impressive.

Ironically, Judaism developed so that greater rights were given to men in society – only men could be the political leaders through the dynasty of David or religious representatives through the priesthood of Aaron. Further, certain privileges in law were denied women as well.

While the tradition has rationalized those discriminations as a consequence that “women are spiritually superior” and thus do not need these positions, there is a vast difference between honoring someone and precluding them from paths they would choose to follow to the benefit not just of themselves, but more so community and society. This week, when we celebrate women’s bravery and the courage of the women of yore, we must recall Moses taught justice is at the heart of Judaism and recognize far more needs to be done, especially by men, to ensure that all are treated fairly and equally in law and society.

 

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Aquestes setmanes he acabat d’estudiar una de les obres mes llargues d’un cabalista gironí que no ha tingut tant anomenada com Ezra o Azriel però la obra del qual presenta una complexa teologia per la seva voluntat de presentar una alternativa completa al discurs maimonideà que s’anava imposant a mitjans del segle XIII. Com és que la controvèrsia contra les obres de Maimònides va ser tant ferotge? Realment la comunitat jueva medieval era una comunitat de filòsofs?

 

L’autor del que us parlo es Jacob ben Šešet i la seva obra es diu Mešiv devarim neḵohim a l’abast gràcies a una edició crítica feta per Georges Vajda. A mesura que he anat llegint la obra, he començat a sospesar la visió que tenim de la controvèrsia que podem resumir en 4 postures. La més antiga i més estesa és la de Henry Graetz i els primer acadèmics dels estudis jueus que van presentar-la com una lluita entre la raó i l’obscurantisme. En aquesta línia, Charles Touati ho explica com una dicotomia entre el profà i el sagrat. La tercera explicació és de I. Baer en la seva obra Els jueus a la Espanya cristiana que ho presenta com una lluita política entre Naḥmànides, representant l’status quo religiós, i la família aragonesa dels Alconstantini, estretament lligada a la cort. Pel final he deixat la proposta més moderna feta per Daniel J. Silver que ho explica com una reacció a la disputa amb la església i com un intent per part de les autoritats religioses de mantenir la política del “no fer-se notar.”

 

La raó de ser de la societat jueva d’aquell moment es centra en ser font d’identitat interna i externa, proveir serveis socials i per col·locar al seu centre el text como a principi de coherència i legitimització amb el resultat d’una intel·lectualizació del text i la vida al seu voltant. El text esdevé igualment central per a les parts en disputa fent que sigui el seu marc de referència però atribuint-li significats diferents. Per a uns el text ha d’adequar-se a les categories del logos mentre que pels altres el significat del text no deriva d’una coordinació amb el pensament grec, sinó de la obertura del text a la intenció de l’autor diví universalitzant-lo sense necessitat de la filosofia. Un exemple en la diferència en la estratègia hermenèutica la podem veure en la aproximació als sacrificis (compareu per exemple la Guia III,45 amb Naḥmànides Lev 19.)

 

El discurs filosòfic representat principalment per Maimònides i els seus seguidors va canviar el nivell de la discussió i per a combatre la seva expansió la creació d’un altre discurs que fos capaç d’un gran nivell d’abstracció i que alhora pogués ésser marc de referència fonamental del pensament jueu.

 

La obra de Jacob ben Šešet és un gran exemple de la creació d’aquest pensament alternatiu. Al llarg dels seus escrits queda clar el lloc preponderant que dóna a la revelació per damunt de la filosofia amb constants referències al text bíblic, però amb una estratègia hermenèutica, o interpretativa diferent. Una segona característica del seu pensament és la seva universalitat que el fa capaç de competir amb les categories filosòfiques.

 

El pensament maimonidià era percebut com un perill per part de l’status quo perquè fragmentava l societat en posar l’individu com a font d’autoritat per damunt de la comunitat. Els primers problemes venen de la ma del Mišneh Torah, la primera codificació dels continguts legals del Talmud en hebreu. És a dir, feia accessible a l’individu tot un cabal de coneixement legal que anteriorment només es podia assolir a través de l’aprenentatge mestre-alumne.

 

La càbala va néixer com un moviment condemnat igualment per l’status quo religiós, però en les properes dues generacions deixaria de ser marginal per esdevenir un moviment central en el judaisme perquè gràcies al seu discurs la comunitat podia mantenir la seva integritat, autoritat i legitimitat que el model filosòfic posava en perill al convertir en voluntarista.

 

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Parashat Vayehi

The saga of Joseph’s life concludes in this week’s parashah along with the end of the book of Genesis. Joseph has traveled a long road through the past few weeks’ parashiot. He has gone from favored son to slave, from the degradation of jail to the second highest authority in Egypt, from losing his family to finding them and reconnecting with his beloved father. Life, with all its ups and downs has not been easy for Joseph but the last years with his father were seemingly happy ones. But with the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers become concerned he will now seek revenge for the crimes they committed against him. So they appear before Joseph, fling themselves to the ground and plead for mercy. They lie, telling him that Jacob’s dying wish was that Joseph forgive them and then they offer to be his slaves. In response Joseph says:

Have no fear. Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result the survival of many people. And so fear not, I will sustain you and your children. Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:19-21)

How remarkable is that? Joseph has had a difficult life because of his brothers’ actions, yet instead of being angry with them he says, essentially, it was all part of God’s plan for me and for us.

Many factors lead to us finding ourselves on the path on which we travel and many of them are beyond our control. We don’t have the power to choose what happens to us but we what we do have control over, is how we react to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And that is where we see Joseph and his life story being so powerful. Joseph could

have spent his time being angry with his brothers, plotting his revenge, hating and blaming them for his circumstances but instead of dwelling in the negative, Joseph tried to find something which could lead him to let go of his anger towards his brothers and live his life as best he could.

How remarkable is it that we read this parashah on this Shabbat where we remember Nelson Mandela. In so many ways, he is the modern Joseph. Thrown into a pit and jail where he remained for 27 years just for protesting the discrimination based on the color of a person’s skin.

He could have, upon his release, unleashed a barrage of fury at the injustice, been filled with hate and anger. But he did not. Instead he channeled his energies into forging reconciliation, creating a new South Africa. Like Joseph, he was a dreamer, a man who hoped and believed that the world could be different and he worked to make that dream a reality. He did so, like Joseph, by letting go of hurt, anger and pain and it was his example which led, in large part, to the changes which came about. When asked about revenge he said “I have already had nearly thirty years taken from my life, I do not want to lose another minute focused on revenge and hatred. I need now to live.” And that is what he did, like Joseph, he lived and brought people together in truth and reconciliation. Not to pretend the past did not happen but rather to find a way to move forward. I imagine that at times it must have been so hard, but Nelson Mandela’s courage and heroism is that he did not allow the anger and hurt to win, he continued to dream and to create the tomorrow of his dreams and for that he will always be a hero, a hero who fought to not have war and instead to have peace.

This Shabbat we can learn from Joseph and Nelson Mandela about forging a new tomorrow, dreaming big dreams and making them real.

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Parashat Vayigash

This week we continue the story of Joseph and his brothers and we read the following verse about Jacob’s lineage: “These are the sons of Leah to whom she gave birth with Jacob in Paddan Aram together with his daughter Dinah.” (Genesis 46:15) We are taught that there is no extraneous language in the Torah and that every word is chosen precisely to convey an intended meaning or meanings. Rabbi Shira Stern draws attention to the wording of this passage and notes that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, is described here as bat Ya’akov, the daughter of Jacob, but earlier in the Torah she is referred to as bat Leah, the daughter of Leah. This leads Rabbi Stern to ask why? What has changed that Dinah is now the daughter of Jacob and not of Leah. She provides this answer. 

In between the two descriptions, Dinah is raped. Her attacker, Shechem, then seeks to marry her and approaches Jacob and his sons for her hand in marriage. The sons trick Shechem and murder all the men in his community as revenge, not for Dinah’s rape, not for the pain and torment she has suffered but because he made a “mockery of Israel” (Gen 34:7) They did not feel compassion for their sister but rather they were concerned about their own reputation. Rabbi Stern suggests that Leah, Dinah’s mother, was similarly unresponsive to her daughter’s pain and suffering and instead angry with her for what happened and she turns away. The only one who did not chastise Dinah, who stood with her in her pain and her silence was Jacob, and so Dinah shifts from being the daughter of Leah to the daughter of Jacob, the one who was able to see her for who she was and embrace her, love her and help her to heal. 

In 2005, 1,181 women were murdered by an intimate partner. That’s an average of three women every day. Of all the women murdered in the U.S., about one-third were killed by an intimate partner. Too often the reality of domestic violence is shrouded in secrecy and silence. Its victims, like Dinah, are not seen or heard and they suffer from the violence perpetrated against them as well as the reactions of the people around. They are blamed, accused, not believed. People do not want to get involved, they turn away, pretend they do not hear. The statistics are horrifying.

Much of the underreporting is connected to a fear or concern about the reactions of others. Victims do not feel supported or safe to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. It is our responsibility to help them all to be daughters of Jacob, to be seen, heard and healed with our words, our actions, our support and understanding.

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