Beyond logic and nonsense
As we come closer to the Feast of Shavuot, the Jewish communities get into more intense and pregnant "scanning" of the TaNaCH and the reading of the Psalms/Tehillim. Some people will read the whole of the Scripture during Shavuot/שבועות. And the Christian denominations - in particular the ancient local Churches - will gather, for the Feast of the Ascension (Jesus ascended to heaven and blessed his disciples), at a round mosque located at the top of the Mount of Olives.
Eastern Orthodox, Armenians, Syrian-Orthodox, Coptic faithful and the clergy of Oriental Churches will also somehow be joined with the Roman Catholic of different rites for this special day. The Jewish tradition is on a permanent move to some perilous human or physical survival that obliges us to face climbing challenges. The better part of it are certainly the "shirey hama'alot/שירי המעלות = the psalms of ascents (Tehillim 120-134)”. They are not called "ascent" in Hebrew, but "ma'alot/מעלות - degrees, ascents" - a plural form. And they look like degrees, temperatures, levels to attain. They corresponded to the steps that were in front of the Temple (Yoma 23a) and these psalms are said on Shabbat (mainly at Vespers in the Byzantine Christian Orthodox traditions, in various ways in the West).
“The rise of the righteous is a rise without decline (BeMidbar Rabba 15). “Ma’alei shmisha\מעלי שמישא” (Aramaic in Daniel 6:15) means “sunset” which corresponds to the “coming in and entering of the sun, or for a husband the visiting of his wife (Targum Yerush. 2 on Ex. 21:10). In opposition to “neilah\נעילה – closing, ending” (end of Yom Kippur), the Aramaic word does not presuppose and end, but a rising development that would seemingly go forth without ending.
As often in the Jewish tradition, paradoxical elements are connected etymologically or make sense because of their multi-faceted connotations. Thus, “he made improper use (ma’al\מעל) of sacred properties” (Meilah 14b).
The word is linked to “ma’il\מעיל”(coat, cover, covering from above) and means “to defraud”, in particular in sacred matters or marriage. It firstly seems evident to go up, climb, ascend. “Aliyah\עליה” covers a wide range of realities in the Jewish and monotheistic realm. From birthing to immigrating to Eretz Israel, go up – make an aliyah to read at the bema/lectern in the middle of the synagogue. On the other hand, Modern Hebrew has “yordim\יורדים – those who descend = leave the country”. The word sounds negative and judgmental. “Yeridah\ירידה – descent” matches with the spiritual downfall that leads some people to specific mental or faith tests, temptations or questioning.
The ancient Greek, Indo-European, Germanic, Slavic and Sanskrit mythologies are profoundly interwoven in a pattern that also shows the linguistic and cultural connections. It is rather strange that the collection of the German “fairy tales” by the Brothers Grimm, the scientific comparative surveys carried by Georges Dumézil about Indo-European rites and divinities (as also his studies about the Caucasian and Georgian backgrounds) were made only recently, as Martin Buber, by some insightful intuition collected the Chassidic tales. The patterns are similar in the Jewish and the Gentile civilizations. Well, say that everywhere 1 + 1 = 2, more or less.
Yiddishkayt and Talmud would explore other footsteps: say that 1 + 1= 3 or 4, though, okay, we agree about 2. Or that writing from left to right is abnormal, on the verge of a mental borderline irrationality, but still, why not? And who can or cannot write that way? For a Jew, it is evident that we write from right to left. Would it make sense to do otherwise? Trebitsch Lincoln was a very special man, a Russian Jew who became British and served in the Army in China. He became a Tibetan monk and explained that Chinese as Japanese are wisely written from right to left and from the top to the bottom of a page. Vu iz di chochme/ווו איז די חכמה – why would it be correct? The same as the manuscripts and steles in Manchu and Syrian-Orthodox or Nestorian chart rooted in the Hebrew alphabet: right to left but top to bottom.
Judaism has often been fractured and it is such a challenge to mending the bones and giving the opportunity for the marrow to circulate and be active. A Jew is a male or female, baby, teen, young adult or grownup whose ocean of traditional backgrounds and futurist envisioning bounce to flourish in numerous ways. Before getting to his own view, any Jew is supposed to inquire into all the sayings of the Oral and Written Laws and the sheilot\שאלות (questions) – teshuvot\תשובות (responses) all throughout history, in all time and place.
Wow! Today, just click and you get all that stuff with a good series of CDs and DVDs (Bar Ilan University made a mammoth and pilot work in that field). Still, there is a know-how. It may take decades for a Jew to understand that, in his brains from right to left primarily. It is a sort of spiritual non-substantial Presence of the Torah. It may cost a lot to leave this orientation to adopt a foreign style. Many Jews are fascinated by alien identities and would put on whatever clothing to escape who they are. On the other hand, some would feel the broken down or fractured, split elements with intensive lifetime pain. But how to make the difference when things would seemingly be equal? Ahavah-אהבה/love but mainly “kibbud-כבוד/respect” that failed to exist among R. Akiva’s students. Oh, we have tons of students here, in different parts of the world. Learning for competition does not make sense; Jews can quarrel at length and even pronounce “cherem\חרם – exclusion from the community”, this remains healthy as long as it does not harm our pretence to be one whole community.
Some two years there were still, in Kabul, two Jews. They could not stand each other and prayed alone in there own synagogue. Logic or irrationality? Both passed away, each in his superb isolation. On the other hand, it seems that the Israeli society is never dramatically interrogated about its future. Other Jews would always secure themselves elsewhere in the world, out of fear of real mass destruction. Israeli citizens may spend some years or more abroad; basically the society will endure. We were born here. Nothing may affect us. It is indeed difficult explaining such a cool stand to foreigners… and the press. But, as decades pass, the number of Jewish citizens born in the country increases, augmented by those who came back three centuries ago. The prodigious transfer of people, mixing into a new Israeli soil that corresponds to the Father’s choice, allow much more stability and reason than many Jews would firstly apprehend from abroad.
Is it wit or folly that, the fall of the communist regime in the former Soviet Union corresponded to a full and open renewal of the Eastern Orthodox Churches (as in all communist states, with various other Churches and denominations). And, at the same time, a lot of Jews first thought to get baptized – then they discovered, out of a sudden, that as Jews they could make their aliyah to Israel. The same appears with some Christian movement based in North America. How things combine in order to avoid mind-splitting, cultural estrangement and full disparity in the civilization of Jewishness? Or is it a sort of financial + spiritual opportunism when money, cash or power would avoid participating in the immense travail of grafting back to the homeland? “Ayyekkah/איכה – what – where are you?” called God out to the man at the breezy time as He was moving around in the cool (Bereishit 3:9). The word should be translated as “How! How can it be explained?” It sounds like a bunch of interrogations, astonishments, fears, lamentations. All the tribulations and turbulences that the Jewish faced brought them back to this divine question and statement. How? How can you explain such things? Was the nachash\נחש (snake) wise or shrewd, prophetic or seductively betraying God’s projects? The “nachash nechoshet\נחש נחושת – copper serpent” made by Moses in the desert cured anyone who had been bitten by a snake (Numbers 21:9).
Semitic brains function by paradoxes, constant questioning. The coherence of events or situations that would be foolish, mad or rational are not important for the Jewish tradition. This is precisely what R. Yeshayahu Leibowicz described as the tragedy of Modern Judaism: the loss of the daily acceptance or study of the Mitzvot. It was his German cultural response to a defect that is much sensitive at the present. The Rebbe Menachem Mendel deployed the Lubavich Chassidic movement by referring to the basic prayer: “(Lord) You give the grace of knowledge (da’at/דעת) to human being, You teach discernment (binah\בינה) to the weak human, and give us wisdom (chochmah\חכמה), discernment (binah\בינה) and knowledge (da’at\דעת)”. This embodies the capacity to “distinguish, make distinction, appraise”.
There still can be a lot of confusion in our appraisals, but God allows the humans getting discernment, i.e. to make a distinction “beyn leveyn\בין לבין – between and between”. The root is “bun\בון – pierce” = to piercing what is not clear to get to what is real, substantial”. Targum Job 32:8 has more: reflection induces teaching, thus wisdom and “yevaynun dina\ויבינו דינא = to exercise a correct and full explanation of the Law”. This is at the very core of the Jewish soul and Christian faith. “Nithbonan\נתבונן” underscores that understanding obliges reflecting upon things and persons carefully (Bava Kamma 27b).
Paul of Tarsus wrote: “That, rooted and grounded in love (= God, God’s Attributes), may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones (inhabitants of Jerusalem) what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” (Ephesians 3:8). Indeed, “Understanding – binah\בינה” leads to comprehensiveness. The root is also linked to “build”, i.e. make a project nice, beautiful, meaningful.
av aleksandr (Winogradsky Frenkel)
Emmanuel Levinas was a Russian Lithuanian born Jewish and French philosopher who would, quite often, speak Yiddish and Russian, which was not evident for his French students. His “Nine Talmudic Teachings” are published in Hebrew. In the after-war desert of true Judaism in Western Europe, in particular in France, his reflection was essential to confronting sense and nonsense. It would thus be difficult to compare his open-minded lectures to Israeli thinkers. As already mentioned in another context, he was very surprised (which would have not astonished any simple Yiddishland rabbi) that the first morning prayer is God’s blessing / “Who gave to the sechvi (rooster) to distinguish between night and day”. How come that that animal is God’s alarm to wake up?!! At times it does not crow in time or too often and repeatedly. E. Levinas was a great philosopher, but to trust God’s time via a cock or a rooster seemed irrational or absurd to him, not evident. Maybe animals are more on alert than humans? “Watch, you don’t know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight or at cockcrow...” (Mark 13:35). Jesus thus said to Peter-Kaipha: “This very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” (Matthew 26:34). “Peter began to curse… and immediately a cock crowed.” (Matthew 26:74). “Sechvi” also means “conscience” in Hebrew. It is less humiliating than a cock in the prayers translations. Ayyekkah… How to explain?
Within some days, Israel reached, for the first time as a free state, the Holy of Holies, the Temple Mount. It was 45 years ago. It was a moment of stupor, incredulity… These 40 years are today like the time spent in the wilderness during the exodus for a tiny state that merges all the spaces of the world with our so specific Israeli time. And who would really understand the degrees, steps or levels of blessings, sufferings, God’s Providence and injustice? Faith implies to confide in time-building.