The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Lodge of Instruction: the 47th Problem of Euclid

Last night was Lodge of Instruction, and I gave a talk on the 47th Problem of Euclid, and its masonic significance. Here's a link to the paper I submitted along with my talk (Warning: this links to a PDF. If you click on the link, you will download a PDF document with my paper). I thought it went over really well. It's tough to explain mathematics without a blackboard, but the paper uses a diagram, and I had the brothers look at the diagram while I explained what it meant.

I really believe in Lodge of Instruction. Like so much of contemporary Freemasonry, it's a beautiful structure waiting for really dedicated brothers to fill it the way it deserves to be filled. Our brothers of centuries past gave us something so beautiful, so profound and permanent, and it is up to the current generation of masons to breathe life into it and make it glow. In the words of Rabbi Hillel: "If not me, who? If not now, when?"

Last week, I took a class with the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts that enabled me to register as an Official Instructor for Lodge of Instruction, and last night I taught about the Fellowcraft degree to five Fellowcrafts from my mother lodge. I love talking about symbolism and its meaning, and it was quite a challenge to cover as much as I could in a brief span of time before I was to give my talk. In my talk, I feel like I rushed through the detail; I figured those who were interested in the little details could read the paper I submitted.

I like the idea of masons submitting papers for the general edification of their brothers. We all have something to teach, and something to learn. My dream is a Lodge of Instruction that meets twice a month, once for the masons and degree candidates who want to learn their degrees, and once for the general public. Even though the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts holds two open houses a year, I don't believe the general public understands what we do or why we do it. A talk open to the public once a month on issues of general interest (with a masonic theme) would help the public understand who we are without us thumping our chests in an undignified manner. It would definitely encourage men in the community to learn about us, but it would also provide education and entertainment in a world that seems starved for it. Next year eight lodges will share Lodge of Instruction, and we will meet in the Arlington Masonic Apartments, a building with a beautiful lodge room, a few lovely sitting rooms, a wide-screen TV with Xbox, pool table, and a large dining room upstairs. I bet very few of the neighbors even know what's inside the building. And only one lodge meets there. If the public talks were sufficiently interesting, we could fill the lodge room with people, have a lovely festive board beforehand, and share some masonic light with the whole community.

In my grandfather's day, everyone know what a Freemason was. Today, there's far more misperception than understanding. I don't advocate vulgarizing the fraternity, but we could have more of a community presence than we do. We are treasures of the community, and if we are collecting dust in an attic somewhere, then maybe it's time we brushed off the dust, polished ourselves up and shined with our old luminosity.

Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins try to create a false polarity between themselves and religious fanaticism, claiming that reason is exclusively on their side. They go as far as to claim that reason and religion are mutually exclusive. It's a lie, and an insulting lie. Freemasons provide the balance between reason and spirituality that our culture sorely thirsts for. I'm not even anti-atheist (although I don't want to sit in Lodge with an atheist), but it's not the only remedy for fanaticsm and superstition, nor the best one. While I agree that silence and circumspection are truly masonic virtues, I wonder why previous generations understood that masons revere a worship of the Deity tempered with the highest reason, and today nobody seems to know that such worship exists.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

An article of mine published on another website

I've been listening to Greg Stewart and Dean Kennedy's excellent podcast "Masonic Central" for a while now, and I highly recommend it, not only for the remarkable guests they invite, but for the enriching discussions that take place with the guest and hosts after the program. Recently, they took some of the best masonic bloggers and made a website where they all have their own pages. Masonic Information is one of the most lively masonic websites I've seen, and the community of brothers who check in there and add to the discussions there have taught me a great deal.

That's why I was honored that one of the bloggers there, who blogs as "The Euphrates", invited me to write a guest article for them. Please read it, and while you are there, visit the other blogs on the site, click on a few ads, and help support these fine brothers.

Here's the link.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kabbalah: Permuting the Letters

Like being a good Freemason, being a good Jew requires education. I don't mind if non-Jews study Kabbalah (to be honest, I'm delighted). But if you want to learn, learn the real spiritual technology. Please don't mimic superstition and assign to your mimicry a profundity it does not possess. Masons go through the degree work, and then spend a lifetime figuring out what it means. If we did not, the degree work would just be mimicry. Jewish children cram for their b'nei mitzvah and then spend adulthood figuring out what it all means. If they did not, their Torah portion would just be mimicry.

Kabbalah is part (but not all) of "what it all means". Kabbalah is imbued throughout with meaning. There is a sense in most Kabbalah work that the Grand Architect of the Universe is trying to communicate with the practitioner, and most of the details of Kabbalah practice are how to clean up the input stream, because everyday consciousness is too crude to perceive the holy message from above.

Putting your head in a blue wooden box with gold letters painted on it is a good idea if it brings you closer to the GAOTU, and a stupid idea otherwise. If you do it without any real focus, feeling or understanding, it's probably a stupid idea. Please note that I'm not aware that anyone actually puts their head in blue boxes with gold letters painted on them. The purpose of spiritual practice is connection with Deity, and without that connection, it is either rehearsal for a future connection, or it is nonsense.

I thought I would share some real Kabbalah with my readers. Nothing too fancy, just something simple to start out with. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia had a method called tzaraf, in which the letters of a word are permuted, making new words. The Hebrew alphabet is actually an abjad rather than a true alphabet. The consonants are written down, and before the Masoretes of the 7-11th centuries, there were no vowels. In English, "tar" and "rat" are palindromes of each other. In Hebrew, there are two letters for "t", so they might not be. Also, assuming they are spelled with the right "t", "shirt" and "trash" could be palindromes, even though the vowels are different. Palindromes, anagrams, and letter transpositions fascinated the early Kabbalists.

Studying the weekly Torah portion a few weeks ago with a group of students, we noticed a fairly obvious example, but one I'm still meditating upon.

The passage I'm going to use is the verse Leviticus 16:2. In the story from Scripture, Moses and Aaron are at the debut of the Tabernacle. Moses ordains Aaron and his sons as priests before the entire congregation, all 600,000+ Israelite men, and even more women and children. The first sacrifices are offered, and the Glory of the LORD (K'vod YHVH) comes down and consumes the burnt offering on the altar. Two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, rush forward with fire pans full of "alien fire" and enter the Holy of Holies, and are instantly struck dead. The other sons drag their corpses away, and the ceremonies continue, sons unmourned. There is a long deviation from the plot of the story as Moses explains the dietary laws, postnatal cleanliness, the rules of leprosy, excema and psoriasis, and how to handle mold infestations in clothing or in a house, before the LORD explains to Moses the proper way to enter the Holy of Holies.

I'm sure that all the Master Masons reading this have pricked up their ears at the mention of how to enter the Holy of Holies. The LORD says to Moses:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְאַל-יָבֹא בְכָל-עֵת אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת--אֶל-פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָאָרֹן, וְלֹא יָמוּת, כִּי בֶּעָנָן, אֵרָאֶה עַל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת.
To translate: "The LORD said to Moses: 'Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the holy place behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the Ark of the Covenant, or he will die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.'" My grasp of Hebrew is weak, so please correct me when I'm mistaken.

Some words to point out: Aaron is אַהֲרֹן or Aharon, and the Ark of the Covenant is הָאָרֹן or ha-Aron. The first two letters are transposed in an odd (1 2) cycle. While the vowels are different, in this case, in Modern Hebrew pronunciation, they sound the same. Aaron is the High Priest, and his ritual takes him before the Ark of the Covenant. A man becomes a holy vessel, a container for the Ten Commandments.

Also, and even more interesting, the curtain is פָּרֹכֶת or parokhet, and the cover of the Ark of the Covenant is כַּפֹּרֶת or kaporet. The ת is fixed in this case, and the other letters are cycled rotationally in an even (1 3 2) cycle. ת is the final letter of the Aleph-Bet, the path from Malkut to Yesod on the Tree of Life, the "The World" card in the Tarot deck. It makes sense for this to be the final letter, and makes sense for it to be fixed, grounded on Earth in our waking reality.

In Kabbalah, the word parokhet is used to mean the veil between worlds, or between states of consciousness. Between waking consciousness, the world of Assiah, and the dream-state of Yetsirah, there is a veil, or parokhet. Between Yetsirah and the world of ideas, Briah, there is another parokhet. Between Briah and the world of archetypes, or Atsilut, there is a veil. The cover of the Ark is described as having two winged Cherubim sitting on top of it. In the Torah, Moses is able to listen to the Voice of the LORD coming from between the two cherubim atop the kaporet. That makes the kaporet a very holy place, the focus of an enormous amount of spiritual energy.

The LORD is telling Moses to tell Aaron (Aharon) when he is allowed to draw back the parokhet and enter the sacred space where the Ark of the Covenant (ha-Aron) rests, the holiest space inside the Holy of Holies. The cover (kaporet) of the Ark is covered by a cloud, and the LORD appears in the cloud. Aharon visits ha-Aron, drawing back the parokhet to reveal the kaporet. The energy released by this is so powerful that Aaron may not do this at will---this is why his sons were struck dead, because they did this heedlessly. It's clear that Nadab and Abihu were killed not as punishment for sin, but because of an accident of spiritual technology, like touching a live wire. There's no moral judgement (necessarily) in getting electrocuted; it just happens.

The scripture passage goes on to describe the ritual for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Hebrew calendar, and explains that only on Yom Kippur, dressed in the proper clothing, with the proper sacrificial animals may he enter the Holy of Holies, and only to atone for all of his sins, the sins of his family, and for the sins of the whole Israelite community.

Thus we can only pull back the veil and face the Holy of Holies when we do this not for ourselves, but for a higher purpose. This holy space is not ours in our mundane state of consciousness-- it would destroy us in our regular state. We have to purify ourselves and our motives, atone for our sins, and act for all humanity (v'al kol Yisrael often is taken figuratively to mean all of humanity in scripture). That is why not even a Fellowcraft may enter a lodge of Master Masons unless he is taking his third degree. We have to be someone duly and truly prepared, worthy and well-qualified, to enter the Holy of Holies, and must enter at the right time.

Notice that a simple transposition turns Aaron into the Ark of the Covenant, but a three-cycle is needed to turn the veil into the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. A simple transposition turns a man into a vessel for sacredness, but it takes a 3-cycle to turn the veil into the place from which one can hear God's voice. A 3-cycle can be decomposed into two transpositions, like switching the middle two letters, and then switching the first two letters afterwards. We can decompose the transformation from veil to cover into two steps by first sliding back the veil, and then putting your ears between the cherubs on the cover of the Ark. Thus it is takes a single transformation to convert oneself into a holy vessel but two transformations to hear the Voice of God.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Oldest masonic lodges in the USA

I don't vouch for the accuracy of this table. It's really a rough estimate, from data given by GL websites and the websites of some of the lodges themselves. The thing to do would be to write to the 20 or so oldest grand lodges in the USA and ask them for a list of all lodges over 200 years old, along with their charter dates. Unless that kind of list is lying around on the Grand Secretary's Desk (at least one grand lodge offers such a list as a PDF on their website), it might be some work to create it. I would like to see all of these lodges (and all masonic lodges) have comprehensive websites that have a page with their lodge history, but that's up to the lodges themselves to implement. Keep posted for more and more accurate listings. Please comment with more details if you have them.

Table of current masonic lodges chartered within 50 years of the the oldest lodge in the USA still in operation, listed roughly in order of age:

YearLodge NameNumberStateAffiliationNotes
1733St. John's Lodge, Boston

MAAF & AMClaims to be the oldest duly constituted and chartered lodge in the Americas; Benjamin Franklin's mother lodge.
1733Norfolk Lodge1VA

1734Solomon's Lodge1GAF & AMClaims to be oldest lodge in continual operation
1735Solomon's Lodge1SCAFM

1736St. John's Lodge1NHF & AMClaims to be oldest lodge in continual operation
1749St. John's Lodge1RI

1750Hiram Lodge1CTAF & AM

1752Fredricksburg Lodge4VA

1754St. John's Lodge2CTAF & AM

1755St. John's Lodge1



1756St. Andrew's Lodge

MAAF & AMPast masters include Joseph Warren and Paul Revere

1756St. Tammany Lodge5VA


1757St. John's Lodge1NYAYM

1757St. John's Lodge1PRI

I don't know what 1P means
1757Blandford Lodge3VA

1758Pennsylvania Meridian Sun Lodge2PAF & AM

1760Philanthropic Lodge


1760Independent Royal Arch Lodge2NY

1760Mount Vernon Lodge3NY

1761St. John's Lodge1



Pre 1762Fidelity-St. John's Lodge3CTAF & AM

1762Triangle Lodge1MEAF & AM

1762Wyllys-St. John's Lodge4CTAF & AM

Pre 1765Union Lodge5CTAF & AM

Pre 1765St. John's Lodge6CTF & AM

1765King Solomon's Lodge7CTAF & AM

1766St. John's Lodge, Newburyport


1766Mariner Lodge2SC

1766America- St. John's Lodge8CTAF & AM

1766St. Patrick's Lodge4NYF & AM

1767Royal White Hart2NC

1768Masters Lodge5NY

1768Winchester Hiram Lodge21VA

1769Washington Lodge1PDEAF & AM

Pre 1770Bonnie Blink Daylight1MD

1770Massachusetts Lodge

MAAF & AMPetitioned 100 days after the Boston Massacre
1770Tyrian Lodge


1770Washington Lodge3MD

1771Union Lodge, Nantucket


1772St. John's Lodge3NC

1772St. John's Lodge4NC

1773Williamsburg Lodge6VA

1773Botetourt Lodge7VA

1774Royal Edwin Lodge5NC

1774St. George's Lodge6NY

1775Unanimity Lodge7NC

1776American Union Lodge1OHF & AMOriginally from Roxbury, MA. Moved to Ohio in 1790.
1779Essex Lodge


Pre 1780Solomon's Lodge3PAF & AM

1780Richmond Lodge10VA

1780Tacony Masonic Temple9PAF & AM

Pre 1781Compass Lodge9CTAF & AM

1781St. John's Lodge2DEAF & AM

1781Wooster Lodge10CTAF & AM

Pre 1783St. Paul's Lodge11CTAF & AM

1783Alexandria-Washington Lodge22VA

First WM George Washington
1783King Hiram's Lodge12CTAF & AMChartered in March
1783Montgomery Lodge13CTAF & AM

1783King Solomon's Lodge

MAAF & AMChartered in September. Built the original Bunker Hill Monument.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Jewish Mysticism in Judaism

As a religious Jew, the study of Kabbalah is part of my religious devotion. I use Qabalah to describe Hermetic Qabalah and Kabbalah to describe Jewish Kabbalah, just to simplify and clarify what I'm talking about. While the tools are similar, there are significant stylistic differences. If you tell a religious Jew that you are studying Kabbalah, he or she may caution you about your priorities: learn Torah, then learn Talmud, and only after you are comfortable with these can you learn Kabbalah. There is an ancient warning that Kabbalah is to be studied only by married males over 35 who have made significant study of other religious writings first, but there is a contemporary qualification to this. The Holocaust wiped out the majority of Kabbalistic practitioners then living. Whole schools of Kabbalah were eliminated. We have such a severe knowledge vacuum that the old restrictions have been relaxed. This is a good thing, because in our time there are many Jews that leave their faith for Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, Unitarianism, and other spiritual paths because they don't find what they are looking for in their own faith. While I am sympathetic with these faiths, I think losing Jews to them is a shame, and a failure of contemporary leadership. Judaism has its own tradition of meditation, of dances very much like Sufi or Dervish dances, of something similar to Ceremonial Magick (but without the idolatry), of Solstice observances, observance of the Sun and the Moon, of contemplation of nature and silence. Judaism is astonishingly rich in a variety of spiritual practices, but most of them are on the down low. Why?

Two big reasons come immediately to mind. First, in most of the places where Jews have inhabited over the last two millennia, outsiders have oppressed and murdered them for very little cause. There was an intense antipathy between Greeks and Hebrews in antiquity, which has since been uncritically adopted by the Romans, the Seleucids, Byzantines, Helenized Christians and Muslims, and from there, Christians and Muslims in general. For most of the previous millenium, Christians were worse than Muslims in oppressing Jews, but just when the Christians became more humane (in the Enlightenment era--- and we Freemasons had a significant role in this), Muslims became crueler. While no Muslim regime has been as awful as the Christian Russian Empire (let alone Central and Eastern Europe of the middle of the last century: we rightly condemn the Germans, but Hungarians, Rumanians, Croats, Ukranians, some Poles and Italians, and others were pretty awful as well), since the establishment of the State of Israel, people in many Muslim countries have gone insane with anti-Semitic rage. If they are mad at the State of Israel, so be it, but to murder their own people who are Jews is another issue entirely. Yemen and Iraq, which have had Jews for thousands of years, are expelling their last Jews these days, and Jews are being abducted and murdered throughout the Ummah, from Pakistan to suburban Paris. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been bestsellers in Syria, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, (as well as Russia) and even made into a mini-series in Syria and Egypt. The Protocols condemn Freemasonry as well, so wherever people believe this forgery to be real, not only does hatred towards Jews increase, but hatred towards the Craft increases as well.

The result of this has been that Jews have historically felt less-than-comfortable appearing too strange to the majority inhabitants of the countries they dwell in. Polygamy, while historically part of Judaism, was outlawed by Rashi, a Medieval French rabbi. Public parades on Purim have historically inspired pogroms. While the Koran insists that a Muslim show some respect to believers of the other "Religions of the Book" (namely Christianity and Judaism, the other Abrahamic faiths), there is no such restriction in the Christian Gospels, and Jesus' intelligent critiques of Pharisaic Judaism have in the past been warped to convey a hatred for Judaism that Jesus never intended (himself being Jewish). Jews who chanted all night, or were found in the woods performing Hitbodedut were often exposed to violence as a result.

Deeper than this, Jews became deeply discouraged. They wondered why their Messiah did not come and save them through their awful hardships. Isolated in ghettoes, they became frightened and superstitious. Waves of false Messiahs arrived, seducing the populance with wild mystical techniques, only to be dashed down to ignominity, dragging their followers with them. Mysticism in general began to be associated with false Messianism.

The second reason is an internal censorship that is part of a long dialogue between mystics and clerics in Judaism, and has been the cause of many Jewish movements, like Hasidism, Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, and Jewish Renewal today. Mysticism is a powerful force to shake things up. Anyone who reads the Prophetic books of the Old Testament knows that the Prophets were not kindly received by the Kings of Israel and Judea. Reading Ezekiel and Elijah, we see the visions produced by their mystical schools. The earliest Kabbalah schools studied the Prophets intently, trying to learn their techniques, but this was deeply frowned upon by the authority figures of their day. Many of their techniques remind me of Kundalini Yoga.

There were three power structures historically in Judaism, none of which were sympathetic to such mysticism. The king, the Kohanim (or priesthood), and the Rabbis. Kings and prophets disagreed, so for people to adopt techniques that would generate prophecy was not in the interest of the monarchy. The Kohanim had a monopoly on ritual animal sacrifice, ritual holiday observance (which often included animal sacrifices, like the Passover lamb and the Yom Kippur scapegoat), and the control of the Temple, including the Sanctum Sanctorum, or Holy of Holies. Mysticism, in contrast, is egalitarian. The Hebrew Prophets were common-born people, sometimes poor or unlearned, and ran roughshod over tradition, especially when observed sanctimoniously or hypocritically. For those of you who are Christian, the image of Jesus casting the money-changers out of the Temple gives an example of the conflict between mysticism and the Kohanim. The rabbis were not as hostile as the other power groups, but they very clearly wanted whatever mysticism that took place to occur under their leadership and guidance, and would declare a mystic an apostate if the mystical practice looked too different from traditional religious practice.

In the last few centuries, two big movements have had mysticism or anti-mysticism as their focus. The first is Hasidism, and the second is Haskalah, often called "The Jewish Enlightenment". Hasidism was a response to the false Messiahs, Sabbatai Zevi, and Jacob Frank. While these men failed, their followers learned Kabbalah and other mystical techniques from them, and wanted to incorporate these ideas into their religious practice when they returned to traditional Judaism. A school of Kabbalists settled in Ts'fat (in modern-day Israel) and under the tutelage of Rabbi Isaac Luria, they created Kabbalah in its modern form (this is a controversial statement which the reader is free to disagree with).

There was an earnest attempt in Eastern Europe to fuse Lurianic Kabbalah and Orthodox Judaism, and Hasidism was the result. This was bitterly opposed by the rabbinical authorities at the time. The founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezar, the Baal Shem Tov (master of the Good Name), taught Kabbalah even to those unlearned in Talmud, which was very threatening to a Yeshiva structure that placed great importance on Jewish law. The Baal Shem Tov was more egalitarian, less careful with particulars, and demanded that passion be the center of religious devotion. His followers began to tell fantastic tales about him and his students, and this was very worrisome to the Mitnagdim (or opponents of Hasidism). While some Mitnagdim, like the Vilna Gaon, were themselves Kabbalists, they were very strict about who got taught their techniques, whereas the Baal Shem Tov and his students would teach to anyone who would listen. Hasids tended to be more superstitious, poorer, and certainly more oppressed than the Mitnagdim, who worried that Hasidic mysticism would ruin minds, dilute scholarship, and bring the wrath of the surrounding Christians upon all the Jewish people, not just the wild mystical ones. Indeed this division among the Orthodoxy between Hasidim and Mitnagdim only began slightly to abate when both groups became vastly outnumbered by non-Orthodox Jews, and still further when the Holocaust forced both groups to work together.

Haskalah was a response to Jewish integration and desegregation, which happened slowly as a result of the Enlightenment. Jews were being invited to become Freemasons, and from there were gaining civil rights and some freedom in Europe. Some Jewish writers were enjoying success and a readership among the surrounding Christians, and were finally being allowed to attend university, to own property and to socialize outside the ghetto. There was a sense that this opportunity might snap shut hard unless Jews were willing to conform to the societies they were being invited into, and much reflection took place about how deeply to integrate. While the biggest result was Reform Judaism, even the Orthodoxy was shaped by Haskalah. Reform Judaism sought to question the more fundamentalist aspects of the Jewish religion, and to have reason govern faith. The dietary laws were abandoned, prayers were translated into the language of the country of residency, and Yiddish was abandoned. There was a ruthless excising of superstition (or what was believed to be superstition, whether it was or not), and a lot of social conformity. In Germany and the USA, synagogues clamored to mimic the prominent Protestant Churches of the affluent, even putting in pipe organs and pews in the synagages.

Some of the methods of the leaders of the Reform movement were fairly hostile to other Jewish communities, such as holding a banquet for the Jewish community and feeding forbidden foods to everyone. This created a backlash, which formed into Conservative Judaism. The Reform movement, and to a lesser extent, the Conservative movement, was so ruthless about abolishing superstition and what were felt to be the side-effects of ghetto phobias, that they became very anti-mysticism as a result. If it didn't look analoguous to something their wealthy Protestant neighbors were doing, it often was abandoned.

Thus, by the 20th century, a majority of Jews had abandoned mystical and esoterical practices, and saw them as an embarrassing hold-over of more primitive times. But in Europe, this conformity and respectablity did not save them from the gas chambers. They died alongside the Hasids they saw as throw-backs from a more primitive time. When the survivors emerged on safer shores, they brought with them either the tiny fragments of what remained of the mystical tradition, or a new-found respect for those who held these traditions. With the spiritual crisis of the second half of the 20th century, there was curiosity about these traditions, and whether or not they had anything to say to a world thirsting for more authentic spiritual experiences. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a scion of a Hasidic family, and a survivor of the Holocaust, established a Mysticism department at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and Gershom Scholem did the same at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Both men were regarded very critically by their peers, and met with a great deal of resistance, but influenced generations of students, including my rabbis.

By the 1960s, two forces moving in opposite directions collided. In one direction, there were mystics seeking a modern audience. Chabad, a Hasidic movement from the 18th century, began doing a lot of outreach under the leadership of their last rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He believed that the Messianic Era was at hand, and that all Jews needed to be educated about their religion, to be brought back into Orthodoxy, and to be introduced to a mystical curriculum to enlighten them, in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. His outreach was enormously successful, but also inspired other Jewish groups to pay more attention to Jewish mysticism. Two of his emissary rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, began by doing college outreach, and ended up leaving Chabad and forming their own groups, more liberal and open than Orthodox Judaism, allowing Jews of the Reform and Conservative traditions to enjoy the mysticism they had learned as Hasids. The philosopher Martin Buber had romanticized Hasidism in order to describe a Jewish mysticism that Buber felt was vital for his time. While not accurate (and not intending to be accurate), his description was very evocative, and inspired many Jews to seek a deeper understanding of Jewish mysticism.

The other force were young Jews unhappy with the stale liturgical regurgitation pushed upon them in their b'nei mitzvot. Some looked to other traditions to find what the could not find at home. Others, thankfully, looked within Judaism for what they were seeking, and found it there in detail vaster than they had dreamed. The process of incorporating the rich history of Jewish mysticism back into regular worship is daunting, but fascinating. We have a nearby rabbinical seminary run by a Jewish mystic, with one of the largest collections of mystical writings outside of Israel. We regularly have rabbinical interns who are very well-educated in Jewish mystical traditions, and we encourage them to share with us what they have learned, and to show us parallels in other faiths.

At my synagogue, we have had rabbis who were Zen masters visit and show how Zen is similar to Jewish meditation. We have other Jewish Buddhists show how to be syncretist without violating either religion. We have had Sufis come, and show how much of Sufi tradition is actually Jewish originally. At a given Friday night service, or Saturday morning Torah Study, there will be Jews, but also a few Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Unitarians, syncretists of various stripes, all doing a specifically Jewish ritual that speaks to their conditions. The D'var Torah may do a textual analysis of the weekly parashah, a kabbalistic midrash, a funny personal observation, or a mix of all of them. While the liturgy is in Hebrew, and the traditional psalms are sung, we all enter with different levels of learning and different levels of observance, but all are welcome. We are actively involved in interfaith dialogue, and have active conversations with Christians and Muslims about our similarities and differences, treating each other as cousins rather than strangers. My synagogue is explicitly LGBTQ friendly, and when passages come up in the Torah that address them in a negative light, there is always a lively, humane, respectful discussion.

There is not much explicit instruction in mystical techniques, except for a Monday night Jewish meditation class. The layout of the main chapel incorporates the Tree of Life, and during the Amidah prayer, we are encouraged to stand near the s'firah that best resembles the condition we find ourselves in. There is a lot of encouragement to read Kabbalistic texts, and with the encouragement of some of the leadership of the synagogue, I have read some of the works of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. I am currently interested in the Jewish ethical practice called Mussar, and both authors combine mysticism and ethics in a compelling way. I will blog about Mussar in more detail, because it is fascinating, exports nicely into other traditions, making it something easy to share with non-Jews looking for an ethical practice.

I had originally intended to give an example of Kabbalistic textual analysis, but this post is long enough as it is. Hopefully I will share more later.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Lodge of Exemplification; Jewish Renewal

Last night was amazing. The officers of eight lodges met at the Arlington Masonic Temple. The Grand Lecturer and the District Deputy Grand Master held court as, over the course of the evening, the officers of each lodge performed the Entered Apprentice degree for mock candidates. The District Deputy Grand Secretary called the role for the officers for each lodge, and the attendance was noted (the higher the attendance among the officers, the better the lodge's evaluation), the DDGM gave us instruction as to how the evening would proceed, and then it began.

This is how it worked: our lodge was called up first, and we all took our places in the lodge room. As we did not have a full compliment of officers (no lodge had a 100% compliment of officers, for various reasons. One officer of ours is a police officer, and was on duty that night. Another was in a government meeting he could not avoid, etc.), officers from other lodges substituted for our officers. With this new line of officers consisting of mostly our officers, and a few substitutes, we opened the lodge on the First degree, and did the long form of the opening. When the opening was done, the Grand Lecturer stopped us and critiqued our performance, and then opened the lodge to questions about procedure. The Grand Lecturer is astonishingly knowledgeable about ritual, and it was astonishing to see him display that knowledge. I was fascinated to see the level of detail of the questions on very precise technical matters. I really felt like I was taken to ritual school. It is worth pointing out that Grand Lodge has a certain way they want ritual done, but that being said, there still is much room for each lodge to demonstrate their own particular style or customs. This is especially the case in older lodges. There are at least three lodges in my district that have enjoyed a bicentennial (I call them bicentennial lodges), and have preserved a lot of lodge-based customs. As long as this does not contradict the guidelines for ritual given by Grand Lodge, this is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged.

After a brief Q&A period, the next lodge was called up. They did not have an Inside Sentinel, so I stayed in my chair and continued with the ritual as an officer of their lodge. One or two other brothers from my lodge stayed in their chairs as well. After about ten minutes of ritual, the Grand Lecturer stopped us, and critiqued our performance. Then the floor was opened up to more Q&A. There were again very detailed questions, which led the Grand Lecturer to explain some very fine points of ritual. Then the third lodge was called up. They had an Inside Sentinel, so I was relieved of my post, and could watch the next six lodges exemplify from the sidelines with the rest of my lodge's officers.

With very few exceptions I will not relate, everyone did an excellent job. It is the duty of the Grand Lecturer to point out every single error made during the ritual. If the lodge being exemplified is doing a good job, there's nothing for him to say. If even one brother messes up his bit, he is called out in front of everyone and corrected on every erroneous detail. That can be very painful, but necessary because the ritual we perform is supposed to exemplify the correct ritual. It can also be uncomfortable to watch. There was not much of that last night, however. All of the lodges did a very good job.

One lodge in our district is a Spanish-speaking lodge, and it was very interesting to see the ritual being done in another language. In North American and British lodges, the ritual is memorized, but in Continental lodges, the ritual is read out of the ritual books. This lodge read their ritual, which was very confusing to a lot of brothers present who did not know that this was the custom. My Spanish is very weak, but I still could make out some of the ritual, knowing the English. I still don't know how to say worshipful in Spanish.

I got there a bit late (commuting from work) and I wish that I'd had more time to socialize. It was really remarkable to see so many excellent masons congregating in one place. It was also very satisfying to know most of the officers in three other lodges, and a few in two or three more. Some I know from Scottish Rite, others from visiting their lodge or they visiting mine, and some from meeting them at Grand Lodge communication. We really have a great district, and since the redistricting earlier this year, we lost two excellent lodges but gained five, so I would say we've come out ahead. I ended up driving home a past master of another lodge whom I know through Lodge of Perfection at the Scottish Rite (we were in the 6th degree ritual together).

If you are a Master Mason in the State of Massachusetts, even if you are not an officer, and your lodge is competent at ritual, I would strongly encourage you to attend the next Lodge of Exemplification in your district. You will learn an enormous amount and meet most of the active senior masons in your district. Our mock candidate was raised in March, and I could tell this was an eye-opener for him, and I'm delighted he got to see it. You get to support your blue lodge, and meet people from every other lodge in the district in the bargain. And they feed you dinner. What could be wrong with that?

This weekend, the president of my synagogue is stepping down, and we're having a celebratory oneg tonight, and kiddush tomorrow to celebrate his time in office, and to thank him for his service. He's a good man, and I really like him, and am very grateful to him for his extraordinary selflessness towards the synagogue. The synagogue has asked everyone to contribute something towards the oneg and kiddush, and I have have donated money towards them. Last Friday night, I sponsored the oneg on my own, to celebrate and express my gratitude for my new job.

My synagogue is in an interesting situation. The senior rabbi is on administrative leave until the end of this month, for reasons I'd prefer not to discuss. The junior rabbi just had a baby daughter the Tuesday before last, and is on maternity leave. That means we have no rabbi. We do not have a denomination, and we are very open to having people from differing denominations share with us the way that they enjoy ritual and learning. The Hebrew College in Newton has given us a rabbinical intern, and other rabbis throughout the area are stepping in to help until our senior rabbi returns. The Jewish chaplain at Mass General, the rabbi for MIT Hillel, some of the staff at Nishmat Hayyim: the Jewish Meditation Collaborative, and many congregant lay leaders have taken over Torah study, Psukei d'Zimra, Kabbalat Shabbat, Shabbat Ma'ariv, Shacharit, and Musaf services. It has been lovely having so many different Jewish perspectives presented to us, but I think everyone will be relieved when both rabbis return to work and everything gets back to normal.

I consider my own personal affiliation to be Jewish Renewal, and I regard Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to be my rebbe (although probably not in the same way a Hasid does). My synagogue is unaffiliated, with the senior rabbi being ordained through Ohalah, which simultaneously calls itself Jewish Renewal, and transdenominational. The Hebrew College rabbinical program also considers itself to be transdenominational. The rector is Rabbi Arthur Green, a Jewish mystic who was a big influence on the formation of Jewish Renewal, and the havurah movement. Both he and Reb Zalman are considered to be neo-Hasids. This idea is very compelling to me. I will most likely never be an Orthodox Jew, but I am fascinated with, and committed to Jewish mysticism. That being said, I worry that most forms of Jewish mysticism are tainted with superstition (which I mean in a pejorative sense). Please allow me to explain.

To an atheist, any theism whatsoever is superstition, and the avoidance of religion in any form is the avoidance of superstition. The problem with that attitude is that there actually is a God. One God. That God is more real than even ourselves, the universe, or the aggregated consciousness in existence. One cannot make that go away merely by wishing it to be so, or failing to perceive the actual situation one finds oneself in. Because we are created with free will, we can dismiss our perception of God, but we cannot dismiss God, any more than an atom can dismiss physics. Most atheists I know equate God with a big angry bearded man in the sky who is always pissed off and smiting people for following their biological impulses. That's so stupid a conception of God that anyone who believes that the image of God is an angry bearded man in the sky sitting on a throne and scowling, is a total idiot, an idolater, and pretty much hopeless in a conversation like this. I cannot stress too highly how wrong that image of God is. I'd much rather have someone be an atheist than believe in an angry anthropomorph in the sky.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine, which became the State of Israel, wrote:

“Atheism (heresy) comes as a cry from the depths of pain to redeem man from narrow and alien straights—to raise him up from the darkness of the letters and aphorisms to the light of ideas and feelings until faith finds a place to stand in the center of morality. Atheism has the right of temporary existence because it is needed to digest the filth adhered to faith for the lack of intellect and service.”
This is a fascinating idea. Atheism despises idolatry even more than any religion, and idolatry is absolutely unacceptable to any real monotheist. If you worship anything that isn't God, you are an idolater. Rabbi Kook would prefer an atheist to an idolater: even though he regarded atheism as a grave sin, he regarded idolatry as an even graver sin.

Two more quotes immediately spring to mind, one from a contemporary atheist, and one from a Hasidic rebbe.

"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
— Stephen F. Roberts
Once R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw the town apostate approaching. With a loving smile, he drew near him and embraced him: “Don’t worry,” he told him. “The G-d whom you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”

Stephen Roberts is performing the virtue of idol-smashing that the Prophet Elijah did before him. But he suffers from the arrogance particular to many contemporary intellectuals. He assumes that the believer does not understand his/her own process, and that Mr. Roberts understands the believer better than the believer understands himself. Talk to a college freshman who has had their first serious complicated idea penetrate their brain-pan, and they will project their previous ignorance onto everyone they meet, and assume that nobody understands their new idea (which usually isn't their creation) but themselves, and possibly their teachers and comrades who share their idea. If you happen to run into one of them in the fulmination of their fervor, it will not matter that you have read the same books that have inspired them as long as you do not entirely agree with their slant on this idea. You are ignorant and they alone have wisdom. People who grew up forced into a religion that never really spoke to their condition, who reject that religion and all religions as an adult, often have the same close-minded zeal. I'm perfectly aware that religious people often make even more annoying zealots but I'm addressing atheist zeal here.

Roberts assumes that we dismiss false gods because they are rivals to our false god. If all gods are imaginary, then there really is no difference between any two such imaginary gods. He forsees a day in which we contemplate why we don't worship any of the myriad of fetishes that people have bowed before, and realize that our current worship is similar idolatry, that worship of any kind is idolatry. He believes that when we understand this, we will abandon our silly attachment to the concept of deity and join him in enlightened atheism.

The problem with his argument is that God is real. There is one God, a real God, a universal God. Every monotheist worships the same God. Every monotheist worships the same God. Every monotheist worships the same God. Most polytheists worship different aspects of God differently, and the more enlightened polytheists believe in a Supreme Being. Thus Vaishnavites worship the one God, and call God Vishnu, and focus upon the aspects of the one God that their religion focuses upon. Krishna, as an avatar of Vishnu, is the embodiment of the one God upon the Earth, like Jesus is for Christians. Jews are very uncomfortable with the idea of avatars, because our religion is very drastically wired against idolatry. In our region of development, we saw idolaters murder their children in front of idols, or sell their daughters as temple prostitutes, and were horrified by what happens when people petition dead objects for divine assistance. Indeed, every religious sentiment runs a drastic risk of being directed at something less than God, because conceiving of God with our everyday mentality is not possible.

Please understand, I know that Christians also worship the one true God. I don't understand the concept of the Trinity at all, and historically, many Jews and Muslims have accused Christianity of polytheism; of having three gods instead of one God. I give Christians the benefit of the doubt that the Trinity is one God rather than three gods, even though I don't understand how that works. I don't need to understand it because I'm not a Christian.

Because there actually is one God, any being conscious of that fact needs to contemplate their relationship with God. That is why Freemasonry insists that every brother believe in a Supreme Being.

Some people have a blind idiot god hypothesis: that no connection with God can be formed; or even a retired god hypothesis, that God created the world and set it into being, and then retired from Godhood (the Divine Watchmaker hypothesis). But when you experience God's love for you yourself, those hypotheses are proven false. When you experience God communicating with you, you become aware that a conscious, present God earnestly seeks to connect with you, and have a Vulcan mind-meld with you. This will obliterate you or drive you insane if you are not ready to handle it, so you have to practice. God is really big, much bigger than you, and wants to do this gently, but you have free will, so you can do this any way you choose, or not bother to do it at all.

A few thought exercises for non-believers:

  1. Assume for the purposes of this exercise that telepathy exists, that two conscious beings can link their minds together somehow. What would that experience be like? Spend at least five minutes playing out in your mind a true experience of telepathy, leading to a total mental connection with another conscious entity. If you despised that other being, this would be horrific, but if you loved that other being, it could be ecstatic.
  2. Imagine if you could connect with a stone, or a lake, or a hill, or a tree, and share consciousness with it. In order to do this thought exercise properly, you have to focus your imagination intently upon this experience. Spend at least five minutes imagining this experience, and how it would play out.
  3. Imagine a house where a group of people live. There are different interpersonal dynamics at play, lovers, parents and children, friends, rivals, tensions. There are shared meals sometimes, and other times individuals in the house are in isolation. Imagine that there is a mental connection between all of the people in the house, that they are barely conscious of most of the time. If each individual really focuses, he or she can get a fleeting sense of some sort of consciousness superstructure linking the people in the house together, along with the pets, the plants, the furniture, and even the walls, roof, siding and doors of the house. Focus on the consciousness superstructure I have described and try to sense what it is, what are its dimensions, and how it perceives. Continue this exercise until you can perceive the house as an entity in and of itself, even for a brief snatch of a glimpse of such an agregate consciousness.
  4. Stare at an analog clock, one with three hands. Stare at the minute hand, and try to mentally hold it back. Ignore the second hand, and just try to make the minute hand slow down. Alternatively, try to make the minute hand speed up. Try to make it slide from one number on the clock face, to the next adjacent one, at your pace. Play with a computer software calendar, and look up various dates in history using it, and keep returning to the present. Move to dates in the future, either within your lifetime or clearly beyond it, and then return to today.
  5. At this point, you can make the units larger. What is the aggregate consciousness of your block, your neighborhood, your town? What is the aggregate consciousness of the spot you currently find yourself in, from the creation of the world to the present? What is the aggregate consciousness of your entire network of friends, and their friends, and their friends, and so on? What sort of entity is the Israel referred to in the prayer, "Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One"? Is the Earth conscious of itself as a whole? What about the sun? the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy?
  6. What is the aggregate consciousness of all of existence? How long is eternity? Imagine a consciousness capable of creating all of this but fine-tuned enough to zero in on you alone and engage you deeper than your current level of perception. An entity which includes everything and every consciousness in the universe but is not contained by it; which could in an eyeblink annihilate this universe and replace it with something totally different.
  7. Now imagine that the thing you imagined is trying to communicate with you specifically. It has watched you from your beginning and loves you with a love so deep it would literally kill you to feel so much love, and wants the best possible outcome for you, but respects your autonomy enough to leave you alone and let you figure out your own way. Who knows, maybe this entity is astonished by the choices you make (and only you in the entire universe could have made)? Maybe you provide a crucial component for this entity, and your purpose on this earth is to supply what only you can supply to this entity.

I strongly urge you not to worship the result of this thought exercise. But if any of this has any emotional, intellectual, or spiritual resonance for you, keep a channel open for you to continue these thought experiments.

I haven't told you what God is, because I don't know how to do that. I'm categorically not asserting that the result of your thought experiments is God. God is bigger than anything we can imagine. The Hebrew phrase Adonai Eloheinu is often translated as "The Lord is your God", but more accurately, the phrase is "YHWH who Gods you". See, the root Eloah, or God, is being used as a verb here. This is similar to R. Buckminster Fuller's idea: "I seem to be a verb." God is not really a noun, not even a proper noun. God is a quality that acts upon you.

All that being said, I define superstition as a behavior that steers one towards idolatry, a behavior that is not the result of being Godded but pretends to be. Jewish mysticism, as are all forms of esoteric knowledge, is laced with superstition like veins of mold in a blue cheese. Given a new spiritual practice, how can you tell the method that will bring you closer to God from superstition? I don't always know, but the rabbis tell us that if you take one step towards God, God takes two steps towards you, and if you lift an ounce to get closer to God, God will lift a ton to get closer to you.

I'll give you an example of what I feel to be superstition: the Hasids wash their hands before morning prayers. The opinion has been expressed by Chabad that when a Jew sleeps, demons perch on his/her fingers, so that the fingers are corrupted by sin, and the Jew has to wash that corruption off before doing anything devotional with the hands. I regard that as superstition, although I am willing to be proven wrong. Some mornings I wash my hands when I first wake up, because I'm willing to test the hypothesis, but my intuition about God does not urge me to wash my hands when I wake up, for the most part. I have a lot of trouble believing that demons perch on my fingers while I sleep, and I therefore regard this as a superstition. The Jewish tradition has a number of things like this, and they do not feel right to me. They feel like residual anguish from millenia of oppression, of living in ghettos in terror of the surrounding populace, of powerlessness and disenfranchisement, rather than a path towards God.

I want to have a religious life free of superstition. I believe that, within Jewish mysticism, there are techniques to bring me closer to God, and I want to master these techniques. But I don't want to assume the emotional baggage of a terrified, abused, traumatized people in order to master these techniques. And I don't feel I have to. What appeals to me about Jewish Renewal is it encourages me to know God better without insisting that I adopt a lot of superstitions.