A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Friday, January 28, 2011

What I'm Reading

Sometimes people ask me to recommend good books, so here's what I'm reading these days. I don't have the time right now to create links for these, but you can look 'em up. Shabbat Shalom.

The Bible with Sources Revealed by Richard Elliott Friedman. Color-coded Bible text to reflect scholarly consensus about which passages are written by which author/groups of authors (JPEDR theory).

Commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliot Friedman. A scholarly commentary on the Torah. As he writes in the intro, the purpose of the volume is to "be in the tradition of the classical [medieval] commentaries but to use...new learning" such as archaeological material, recent revelations about contemporaneous religious texts from other cultures, etc. Also there are some great literary insights as well.

A Responsible Life by Ira Stone. Familiar to those in my mussar class. A deep, contemporary Jewish theology grounded in mussar.

Lessons in Tanya. The Tanya by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi is the foundational book of Chabad and a chassidic text of great nuance, insight and beauty. This volume includes summaries and adaptations of classic chabad insights and the contemporary editor's explanations. I'm learning this in telephonic chevrutah with my friend Rabbi Matt Reimer.

Derech Ha-Melech. A work of stunning insight an psychological/spiritual nuance by Rabbi Kalman Kalonymous Shapira, known as the Aish Kodesh. Hebrew only. Also studying this in Chevruta.

Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow by Art Green. Powerful combination of insights from Kabbalah and modern theology. Green approaches both the mystical tradition and modern intellectual and ethical realities with seriousness and integrity.

The Adventures of Augie March. Saul Bellow.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Time Out for Fun - I and I

Dylan's interpretation of Exodus 33:20, lo tuchal lirot et panai ki lo yirani ha-adam vachai, "and God said 'You cannot see my face; no person can see my face and live.'"

Let me know if you think this song has any mussar insight....

By the way, if you think you hear Mark Knopfler here, you do (and even if you don't, you do):

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Moving Story

A beautiful teaching from Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev on this week's Torah portion. Moses' brother in law (oops! Thanks, Don) father in law Yitro (Jethro) is dumbfounded that Moses is trying to adjudicate every single issue that arises among the people. He says to Moses Why are you doing this all alone with the people standing in front of you all day and night? (Exodus 18:14) and he warns him that this is too great a burden for Moses. He goes on to suggest that Moses create a system of lower-courts that will be administered by others, while Moses will just hear the most difficult cases.

Focusing in on the notion that the people are always "standing" in Moses' presence, Levi Yitzchak turns this moment of administrative problem-solving into an insight into the spiritual quest. He writes,

A person should constantly be moving from one spiritual level to the next, and should not stand in one position, with a static quality [lit: with a single aspect/point of view].
Moses was challenged not by the work of sitting all day hearing court cases. It was that a person of his spiritual stature was speaking all day with people who were always "standing in one position" and who didn't seek to move from level to level.

The exhausting challenge for Moses - the reason Yitro tells him a couple of verses later this will wear you out....it is too heavy a task for you - is to spend all day trying to lift the spiritual state of others around him, trying to get them to go from one level to the next.

How often have we in our own lives reached a point of comfortable stasis. Everything is just right but so, so wrong (there's a song about that). We stop growing, stop becoming.

The tzadik (righteous person) Moses is presented here by Levi Yitzchak not as the dispenser of judgments about Jewish law but instead as the great nudge trying to push people to get moving, to leave behind where they are to go to the next level. To live, to grow, to ascend.

Torah tries constantly to move us from one level to the next, to get us to refuse to accept our lives, our identities, our world as "given." It is constantly to be renewed and uplifted.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I Have A Dream

Reverend Dr. King starts at about 1:08.

Love: Where Mussar Gets Mystical

Parts of Sha'ar Ha-Ahavah, "The Gate of Love" in The Ways of the Tzaddikim, are hard going (see my previous post on this topic).

Along with other religious traditions, Jewish teaching suffered under the illusions of patriarchal thinking for centuries. Passages like those on 108/109 and 122/123 are reminders that we have to be vigilant in fighting attitudes that denigrate the dignity and full humanity of any person groups of people. In the terms of Torah, this is the ongoing work of hitgalut, revelation.

There is nonetheless much beauty in this chapter. "The Gate of Love" is a doorway to contemplation of the bounds of love and the relationship between love and wisdom. Negotiation of such boundaries are central to the spiritual path of mussar - and central to the human experience.

This middah is also a gateway to mystical dimensions of mussar practice. Focus in particular on pages 124/1255 through 130/31. When the text refers to "knowledge" it is brushing up against a central idea in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). The word for "knowledge" is da'at and is one of the ways that Divine consciousness manifests in the universe. This is very far from our understanding of ordinary knowledge, which usually refers to information of some kind. Our awareness of da'at takes us to a realm of consciousness that is far beyond ordinary knowledge. We will have a chance to dwell deeper into these mystical dimensions on Thursday.

Love also plays a central role in the theology presented in Rabbi Stone's A Responsible Life. Here he talks in quite different way about the relationship between Divine-human love and love between human beings. Love is central to the idea of responsibility and embracing of ever-widening circles of love and responsibility.

I want to draw out one point in particular: in both Ways of the Tzaddikim's "Gate of Love" and in these first three Chapters of Stone's A Responsible Life we see the idea that the ethical (relationships between human beings) and the mystical (relationship between humans and God) are inextricably bound (see in particular Stone p 24-25). We must never choose between being seekers in the spiritual sense and being people who carry a sense of responsibility and obligation with regard to other people. Their integration is core to a true understanding of Torah.

See you soon.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Debbie Freiedman, may her memory be for a blessing.

Debbie Friedman has died. She was an important songwriter and creative force in American Jewish life and recognized internationally for her art. Somebody referred to her recently as the "Shlomo Carlebach of the Reform Jewish Movement." She was accomplished in her own right and on her own terms but here might be something to that. Her influence was so widespread and she was beloved by so many.

Like thousands of others, my family can claim a nice connection to her. When my father was the resident rabbi at Camp Swig in California, Debbie was just getting her start as a songwriter. Though in general Dad is more likely to go in for chazzanut (traditional chanting) than anything, he was supportive and encouraging of her because he could see (hear) the quality of her work and its integrity. She remained grateful to him for his support.

In any event, she opened doors to Jewish life for many, many people who were drawn to her music. May her memory and her music be a blessing.

Tribute page here: http://urj.org/debbiefriedman/