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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Vayeitzei: Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.

Fearing for his life from his brother Esau, Jacob flees from his parents' home in Beer-sheba, hoping for sanctuary (and a possible future bride (or two)) from his maternal uncle Laban. Jacob has been fighting his brother since they were in their mother's womb; indeed, although Esau was born first, Jacob was born clinging to his brother's ankle. This archetype of feuding twin brothers exists in many legends in many cultures. Rome was founded by one of two feuding twin brothers. Gilgamesh and Enkidu were twins in the Sumerian epic, as were Ahriman and Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism. In this case, Jacob has extorted Esau's birthright and has stolen his blessing from their father through fraud, and his mother warns him that Esau will kill him unless Jacob flees the country, so he flees.

After the end of last week's Torah portion, the reader must be wondering how ethical and how spiritual this scoundrel could possibly be. It doesn't take long before the sun sets and Jacob is forced to find a place to sleep. Fetching a stone for a pillow, he lays down in a familiar place (The King James Version calls it "a certain place" [Genesis 28: 11], but from the Hebrew, it seems the place is familiar to Jacob). Although his life to come, for decades, will be in a foreign land surrounded by people he cannot trust, for his first night away from home, he can sleep in a familiar place, even if in the wilderness.

In his sleep, he has a vision in his dreams. In the Jewish tradition, very few prophets behold God while awake. Most behold God or have visions in their dreams. The rabbis of the Talmud therefore regard Divine visions in dreams as being less definitive than Divine visions had while awake. Nonetheless, Jacob's vision has entered our collective psyche, and has had great influence on Kabbalah, as well as Freemasonry.

In the vision in the dream, a ladder is standing on the ground, and the top of the ladder reaches up to heaven. As he watches, God's angels (malachey Elohim) are ascending and descending the ladder. Suddenly he notices that God (YHVH) is standing over him. God introduces Himself as the God of his father and grandfather, and tells him that He will give Jacob's descendants the land he is lying upon, and they will be as numerous as the dust of the earth. They will spread forth in the four cardinal directions, and all the tribes of the earth (kol-mishpechot ha'adamah) will be blessed through Jacob and his descendants. God tells Jacob that he is under His protection through his journeys and until he returns to his homeland.

This image of a ladder to heaven cannot fail to catch hold in the psyche, and many traditions have been fascinated with this metaphor. In the Kabbalah, there is a diagram of the Tree of Life, with ten steps going from the material world (in Malkut, or the Kingdom) to the highest reality distinguished from non-reality (Keter, or the Crown). I have blogged about this diagram many time previously. There is a tradition that suggests that ascent up or descent down the Tree is the same as the angels ascending and descending the ladder, showing us how to do it.

Interesting then that Freemasonry has two differing traditions about Jacob's ladder, one of which has three rungs and one of which has seven rungs (7 + 3 = 10).

In the York Rite Entered Apprentice degree, the candidate is told that Heaven is accessible by Jacob's ladder, and that it has three rungs, called Faith, Hope and Charity, the three Theological Virtues from 1 Corinthians 13. Much of the description of these virtues is taken from Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians. I regard this chapter as having some of the most beautiful language of the New Testament. It is important to note that Charity refers to caritas, rather than the modern conception of charity. The parallel Hebrew concept is chesed (חסד). The parallel Greek concept is agápē (ἀγάπη). It can be translated as lovingkindness. The Kabbalists regard chesed as the highest intellectual consciousness, acting without any cause except love.

In Preston's original lectures, and also in the Emulation ritual, the ladder rests on the Volume of Sacred Law sitting on the altar, rather than on the ground. Thus the Mason has access to the ladder only through the study of scripture, or through attendance in a tyled lodge with the Volume of Sacred Law open.

In the 30th degree (Knight Kadosh) of the Scottish Rite, in Albert Pike's version of the degree, the candidate is shown a ladder with seven rungs, one for each of the three Theological Virtues, and one for each of the four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. He gives them Hebrew names:

  1. צדקה, (tsedakah) a word that means charity (in the modern sense), but also truth, justice and righteousness.
  2. שוה לבנה, (shavah lavanah) literally, "merit the white", which Pike translates as "Pure or perfect Equity".
  3. מתוק, (matok) pleasantness or amiability.
  4. אמונה, (emunah) faith, or as Pike translates, "Good Faith".
  5. עמל שגיא, (amal saggi) a lofty effort, or as Pike translates, "Much Labour or Exertion".
  6. סבל, (sabbal) a word meaning a bearer of burdens, or as Pike translates, "Patience or Endurance".
  7. Three words: גמול, and בינה, and תבונה. (gemul, binah, tevunah) The first is deed or action, which Pike translates as "Elaboration". The second is wisdom or insight, which Pike translates as "Prudence". The third is understanding, which Pike translates as "Discrimination" [Thanks to my friend Shawn Eyer for these translations from Tom Worrell's excellent article in Ahiman, Vol. 1: A Spiritual Vision of the Liberal Arts and Sciences].
Pike also associates these seven rungs with the Seven Liberal Arts, in descending order.
  1. Astronomy
  2. Music
  3. Geometry
  4. Arithmetic
  5. Logic
  6. Rhetoric
  7. Grammar.
Since the three Theological Virtues are in both the three-rung and the seven-rung versions, I don't think the Masonic rungs added together correlate with the Tree of Life in any simple manner.

When Jacob wakes from his dream, he exclaims, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." This to me is the most meaningful line in the whole Torah portion. God is everywhere. We say that so glibly but we rarely sense the full extent of this. Jacob is suddenly aware of the full extent of this. Genesis 28: 17 tells us that Jacob was afraid, but the Hebrew uses the word יירה, (yirah) which means both fear and awe. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi describes this word not as the fear one feels when his life is threatened, but rather the fear that comes when you think you are alone, and you suddenly realize that someone else is in the room with you. This is the fear in Psalm 110: 10 (Psalms 111 in the Christian reckoning): "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." In the Hebrew, it is Yirah YHVH. Rather than being afraid that God is going to harm you, it is the sudden awareness that the Ineffable One is in your presence, and you in His. This is what Jacob feels when he wakes from his dream. He says, "How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." [Genesis 28: 17].

The gate of heaven (sha'ar hashamayim) appears a lot in Kabbalistic literature. There are great books called "Sha'arei Or" (the gates of light), and "Shaarei Tzedek" (the gates of righteousness), and "Sha'arei Emunah" (the gates of faith). Indeed, by the word "gate", the Kabbalist refers to a sudden transition to another state of consciousness or an alternate reality. This concept of gates reminds me of the famous quote of William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes, though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region, though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.
Here is a gospel choir singing Psalm 118: 19: Pitchu li sha'arei tsedek, avo vom odeh Yah. Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the Lord.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Toldot: Usurpation of primogeniture

The Book of Genesis has two great themes that run throughout. The first is the usurpation of primogeniture, or the second-born son stealing the birthright of the first-born son. The second is a man, fearing for his life in a strange land, pretending that his wife is his sister, and the consequences of that deception. In this week's Torah portion, we see both themes played out.

Cain is the first-born son of Adam, but Abel gets God's blessing. After Abel's murder, Seth is given Adam's blessings usually received by the first-born son. Ishmael is the first-born son of Abraham, but Isaac receives Abraham's inheritance and his blessings. The Talmudic rabbis interpreted Ishmael to be the progenitor of the Arab people, and the Koran agrees with this interpretation. By being born of Hagar, Sarah's servant, he loses the privileges of being first-born when Sarah demands that Abraham expel Hagar and baby Ishmael from Abraham's household, sent into the wilderness to their probable deaths. God saves Hagar, and promises her that he will create a mighty kingdom from the descendants of Ishmael. Meanwhile, Isaac, after a certain awkward moment on Mount Moriah, becomes the inheritor of Abraham's wealth, land and servants. When Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael cooperate in burying their father. Ishmael transcends his rejection by the household, and honors his father, and his brother in this process. Abraham had imperiled the lives of both brothers, and yet they both work together to honor their father's last wishes.

In this week's Torah portion, Isaac and Rebecca have children after twenty years of struggling with infertility (just as Abraham and Sarah struggled with infertility). Rebecca has twins, who fight each other in her womb. God tells Rebecca: "And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger." [Genesis 25:23].

The first son was born hairy, with red hair all over his body. The parents name him Esau. The second son is born holding onto Esau's heel with his hand, and is named Jacob ("he will heel" in Hebrew). Esau becomes a mighty hunter and traveller, and Jacob is scholarly and never roams far from his home. Isaac favors Esau, and Rebecca favors Jacob.

An important note should be stated here that colors all that follows. Jacob is later renamed "Israel", and will be the progenitor of the Jewish people. Esau, in the Rabbinic tradition, becomes the progenitor of the people of Edom ("red" in Hebrew), and is later considered to be the father of the Romans by the rabbis of the Talmud. To the rabbis of the Talmud, Rome is the source of everything that is wrong with the world. The antipathy towards the Romans and towards Roman oppression is consistent throughout the Talmud. For mediaeval rabbis, Rome was the Catholic Church, which was ungentle to European Jews. The Talmud was heavily censored in Catholic countries, and the rabbis could complain about being oppressed if they used code words, and Esau became a code word for Ashkenazi Jews for oppression by the Christians in Europe (including the Russian Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe, which often perpetuated blood libels and pogroms in the areas they controlled).  Therefore, the rabbinic treatment of Esau is harsh; it seems insanely harsh today taken out of historical context. What we see in the rabbinic commentary is not so much that they are villainizing Esau as the actual brother of Jacob, but rather a catchphrase for all oppression the Jews have subsequently suffered in history.

Secondly, Jacob gets his fortune, his favor and his authority through guile, deceit and extortion. If Jacob is Israel, that makes the father of the Jews look really bad. His place in his family (and therefore in the world) comes through extorting his brother and deceiving his father. The rabbis often defend Jacob by attacking Esau.

So when Esau comes in from the field famished, and begs Jacob for a bite of the red stew (literally, "red stuff") that he is simmering, Jacob demands Esau's birthright as the price for food. The Torah depicts Esau as on the verge of death from hunger. Jacob insists that Esau swear an oath to grant Jacob his birthright before he is willing to feed Esau. Esau gives up his primogeniture, and only then, Jacob feeds him lentil stew and bread.

Previously in the Torah, Abraham twice ventured into foreign lands due to famine in his land, and each time, he insisted that Sarah pretend to be his sister rather than his wife. He explains that if the people knew that the beautiful Sarah is his wife, they would kill him in order to have Sarah for themselves. To modern sensibilities, this seems very cowardly, especially since in each instance, Abraham prospers because of the deceit. Both times, the king or Pharaoh tries to marry Sarah, and gets visited upon by plagues and disasters as Divine retribution for adultery. In each case, the monarch figures out that Sarah is Abraham's wife rather than sister, and angrily expels them both (but not before they amass great riches).

Continuing this trend, Isaac and Rebecca experience famine, and go to Abimelech (Hebrew for "father-king"), king of the Philistines, for relief.  Again, Isaac imitates his father, and to protect himself from the Philistines' attraction to the beautiful Rebecca, pretends that she is his sister rather than his wife. This time, Abimelech catches the two of them in flagrente delicto. He is furious. He is outraged that through Isaac's deceit, his own people might have been subject to Divine retribution for adultery. This time, the deceit is detected before any plagues or disasters happen. Abimelech protects them from harm, and their household grows very prosperous. This prosperity provokes jealousy among their Philistine neighbors, and there is an ongoing conflict over the wells that were dug by Abraham a generation ago, and plugged up by the Philistines after Abraham's death. Isaac digs two new wells that his neighbors squabble with him over, and then a third that goes uncontested.

The symbolism of the wells is fascinating. There is a contemporary book called Our Fathers' Wells about the symbolism of the wells you inherit from your father and of the ones you dig yourself.

Isaac moves to Beersheba, and is visited by the Lord in the night. The Lord introduces Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac's father, and tells him not to fear, that He will bless Isaac and provide him with many descendants for his father's sake. Isaac builds an altar and digs a well on the spot.

Esau marries two Hittite women whom Isaac and Rebecca dislike. The Torah notes that these two wives were a source of spiritual bitterness (מֹרַת רוּחַ) to them, giving rise to endless "Jewish boy who marries gentile women" jokes.

The Torah portion ends with another usurpation of primogeniture. The now blind Jacob is on his death-bed, and asks Esau to go out into the field and hunt game for him, to feed him a final meal, so that Jacob can give Esau his dying blessing. Rebecca, overhearing this, gets Jacob to fetch her two goat kids from the flock for her to prepare. She cooks a goat stew for Jacob, and has him dress in Esau's clothing while Esau is in the field, and she covers Jacob's hands and neck with the goat skins so that he  feels hairy to the touch, as Esau is hairy.

Jacob brings the meal to Isaac, pretending to be Esau. Isaac asks him, "who art thou, my son?" Jacob replies, "I am Esau thy first born; I have done according as thou badest me: arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me."

Doubting him, he asks Jacob to come closer. Touching his son, he determines that the voice is Jacob's but the hands are Esau's. Isaac asks again: "Art thou my very son Esau?" and Jacob replies, "I am."

With this assurance, Isaac eats the food and then blesses Jacob: "God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee." [Genesis 27: 28-9].

Following this, Esau returns from the field and brings his prepared game, cooked as his father liked it, to Isaac. Isaac demands to know who is addressing him, and when he finds out that it is Esau, he has a fit of violent trembling. He tells Esau that he has put all his spiritual focus into the blessing that he has just given, and has no power to make a second blessing. "And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father." [Genesis 27: 34].

But Isaac cannot. Sadly, he tells his weeping son, "Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.". [Genesis 27: 39-40].

I find tears welling up in my eyes as I write this. I feel tremendous pity for Esau. But the rabbinic commentaries do not.  The kind ones mention that God's prophecy from Genesis 25:23 once spoken is here made manifest. The others feel that Esau deserves his fate and worse. I'm very uncomfortable with the scorn heaped upon Esau (and there will be more next week) in the commentaries. My rabbi likes to gently remind us that the Torah is more than a literary work, and more is going on than just the narrative. If Esau = Edom = Rome = The Inquisition, then it is justified that Esau is defeated here, and that, even if not, the prophecy stands.

The Patriarchs of Genesis are not saints. They lie, they cheat, they extort and they deceive. They have petty squabbles. The great astonishing fact of Genesis is not that holy men met and were blessed by God. It is that human men met and were blessed by God, with all their flaws intact. A morning prayer says that it is because of God's Divine goodness that we are blessed, and not by our deeds, actions, thoughts and intentions. In a sense, the abuse visited upon Isaac from Abraham at his binding carries over into another generation, and God is present at the worst as well as at the best of times in their lives.

The Torah portion ends with Esau determined to kill Jacob (once Isaac dies) for stealing his blessing. Jacob flees for his life, and at the advice of both of his parents, joins his mother's family to live with his uncle Laban (and hopefully find a wife from that family). Jacob gives him a further blessing for the journey (or is it the same blessing reiterated?): "And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham." [Genesis 28: 3-4].

Esau, seeing how upset his parents are with his exogamy, marries one of Ishmael's daughters.

Next week: Jacob's ladder.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Chayei Sarah: Walking After the Lord

In the Talmud, Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Haninah was asked about Deuteronomy 13:5 (13:4 in the Christian Bible) says, "Ye shall walk after the Lord your God". How are we supposed to walk after the Lord when Deuteronomy 4:24 says, "For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire"? Rabbi Hama's answer is central to Judaism, essential to how to act and how to live considering that we are created in the image of God (בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, b'tzelem Elohim) [Genesis 1:27].

Rabbi Hama suggests that when we emulate the attributes of the Lord, we walk after the Lord. For example, we should clothe the naked in emulation of the Lord in the Garden of Eden: "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them" [Genesis 3:21]. We should visit the sick because God sent angels to visit Abraham when he was recovering from his circumcision [Genesis 18:1}. We should comfort mourners in emulation of Genesis 25:11: "And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac". We should bury the dead since God buries Moses after he dies: "And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day". [Deuteronomy 34:6, although the King James Bible uses an uncapitalized "he" without referring to whom the "he" refers to. In Jewish tradition, it is God who buries Moses].

All of which goes to show that "the image of God" is more about a wider ontological frame of reference than merely the corporeal. Kabbalah teaches that the higher worlds are realms where patterns, ideas, impressions and archetypes are the building blocks, the way that atoms and molecules are in the physical world. God is pandimensional, and therefore the image of God is as well. The worn-out metaphor (which to everyone's horror, some people take literally) of God as a king on a throne does not work here. God is woven into the fabric of the way that consciousness interacts with the material world, but it is not productive to consider the physical existence of God as separate from nature. The Talmud regards the physical metaphors, such as the hand of God, the face of God, or the eye of God, as metaphors not meant to be taken literally. The metaphor is important, sometimes crucially important, but we must not confuse the map with the terrain. There is a lot of rabbinic writings about what the different anthropomorphic manifestations mean, but Maimonides warns us stringently not to consider them as having material existence.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Vayeirah: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

At the end of the last Parashah, Abraham and all the men in his extended family, their servants and employees all get circumcised. Recuperating, the Lord in the image of three angels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, visit him. This is where the Jewish mitzvah of visiting the sick comes from. Interestingly the angels in the Torah are referred to as "men" or "strangers", but very rarely as angels. And yet it is understood that they are angels. Even in his recuperative pain, Abraham leaps up and runs to receive the angels as his guest, which the Talmud explains by saying that the angel Raphael healed Abraham. He gives them bread and water, tells Sarah to make them wheat cakes, wanders into the flock to select a young calf to slaughter, and gets milk, cheese, and butter to serve the angels. From this, Jews are taught to be hospitable to strangers, who might secretly be angels.

The Lord has two astonishing pieces of news for Abraham. The first is that his wife, in her nineties and well past menopause, will give birth to a son. Sarah hears the angel Michael telling Abraham this, and she laughs in surprise. This startles the angel: "Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh."

I love this exchange. It's so human, and shows that God back then was still unused to interacting with humans.

Because of Sarah's reaction, the boy will be named Yitzchak (laughter in Hebrew), the name which is Anglicized as Isaac.

The second piece of news, given by the angel Gabriel, is that the Lord intends to destroy the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah, because their citizens are cruel and inhospitable. The midrash tells a story that Abraham's servant, Eliezer, went to visit Lot in Sodom and was caught giving food to a beggar on the street. A Sodomite threw a stone at Eliezer, making him bleed. The Sodomite took Eliezer to court over the incident, and the Sodomite judge found Eliezer guilty of receiving a bloodletting without paying the bloodletter. In response,  Eliezer then struck the judge in the forehead with a stone and asked the judge to pay the Sodomite.

Another midrash tells that Lot's daughter, Paltith, encountered a poor man who entered the city who was now starving to death because he had no money for food. Each morning as Paltith went to collect water, she would hide bread in her bucket and sneak it to the starving man. After a few weeks, the Sodomites were astonished that the man had not died, and began to suspect that someone was feeding him. The caught Paltith giving bread to him, and as a punishment, stripped her naked, smeared her all over with honey, and strung her up at the gates of the city until the bees had removed her flesh. Her piteous cries were what the Lord was referring to in the Scripture when He told Abraham, "Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know."

Despite the notoriety of these wicked cities, Abraham intercedes on behalf of the people of the cities of the plain. "And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
 Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
 הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט

"Hashofet kol-ha'arets lo ya'aseh mishpat." The three letter sequence in Hebrew Shin-Peh-Teth is given as "shofet", meaning judge, and also, with the prepositional prefix "mi", gives "mishpat", meaning justice. Abraham is challenging God, ha-shofet kol ha'arets, or the Judge of all the earth, to do (or make) justice, or mishpat. This is the first time in the Bible that God has been challenged by a righteous man. Mishpat might need more explanation. There are three types of laws in the Torah:

  1. Mishpatim, or ethical laws. These are the laws that any ethical, rational person or society might come up with on their own. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal.
  2. Zakhorim, or laws of remembrance. Jews are commanded to connect with their ancestors and to remember their tribal history. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that God freed you from slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
  3. Chukim, or esoteric laws. These are more mysterious, and do not make sense at face value. Do not wear linen and wool in the same garment. If you become ritually impure through exposure to a human corpse, the priests will, in preparation for this circumstance, have prepared a mixture of the ashes of a red heifer, with herbs and other ingredients, and a volunteer will smear the mixture on you, and a day later, you will be ritually pure, but the volunteer will become ritually impure by doing this.
Of the three, the Chukim are the most controversial, and some rabbis do not accept that any rules are Chukim, but rather put them in the other two categories. The more rational Jews are slightly uncomfortable with Chukim, and the more mystical ones (like the Hasidim) tend to deep-dive into the Chukim.

Abraham pushes the issue:
And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it. And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake. And he said unto him, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the LORD: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake. And he said, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake. And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.
Abraham challenges God to be merciful. The rabbis claim this is what differentiated Abraham from Noah. Noah accepted God's genocidal judgment without question, but Abraham demanded that God spare the cities of the plain for the sake of ten righteous people. This is the courage of Abraham, and why he is the ethical ancestor of three of the world's major religions. He did not accept God's judgment  without challenging God to be more merciful. He moved back the Prime Mover.

For this, Rabbi Abbahu in the Talmud says, "God rules humankind, but the righteous rule God, for God makes a decree, and the righteous may through their prayer annul it." This is what it is to be a Jew: we will even argue with God when we think God is being unjust.

Why does Abraham stop at ten? Maybe because ten make up a minyam, the quorum needed for group prayer? Maybe because there were ten humans on Noah's Ark, and therefore we know that ten survivors can rebuild civilization? Even Donovan gave Atlantis twelve survivors.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Truth and Fact

I wrote to Andrew Sullivan, and he used what I wrote in a blog post. This was in my original email:
As my friend, Dr. James Tresner says, there is a difference between truth and fact, and fundamentalism and fanaticism stems from a confusion between the two. Evolution is a fact. The story of the Fall is true. Interestingly, the Fall is treated very differently by Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who each have their own truth about the Fall. Religious truths can differ from poetical truths, but both truths resonate in the person who contemplates the truth in question. The legends of Hamlet, Luke Skywalker, and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker are true, even though none of them are factual (although the existence of Amleth of Denmark was most likely a fact, if Saxo Grammaticus is to be believed). Forcing the Fall to be factual is crazy, and makes for craziness. When believers try to force fact to succumb to truth, or force truth to succumb to fact, they can leave a trail of blood in their wake.
The sign of a civilized person is to allow others to have different truths than themselves, and to respect the truths of others, even when they differ from their own, especially when that respect is reciprocated.
Ignorance is ignorance of fact. A Pashtun soldier who does not know how to count to ten is ignorant. Superstition is ignorance of truth. People who think their Creator created their daughters with flawed genitalia that require clitorectomies or worse in order to be presentable are superstitious. Fanaticism is confusing the two and insisting that others do as well. David Barton is a fanatic, as was Lenin. Notice that the fundamentalist and the militant Atheist both confuse truth with fact, the fundamentalist by insisting that truth overwhelm fact, and the militant Atheist by insisting that fact overwhelm truth. Neither, usually, have solid epistemological grasp of truth or fact.
On another blog, this quote, selectively edited, has sparked a new discussion.
On that blog, I wrote:
I am the writer of the quote listed as “Sullivan’s reader.” Jerry quotes me partially, cherry-picking that portion of my comment that supports the argument that Sullivan is an idiot, and removing the rest. This is intellectually disingenuous. A defense that the mental contortions of religious believers is equally mentally disingenuous does not mean that selectively editing what someone wrote in order to win an argument is not disingenuous.
I am not a Christian. I blog a lot about belief and atheism. While personally a theist, I feel at home among atheists and agnostics as long as they are not antitheist, and therefore hostile to my personal practice. I regard the story of existence from the Big Bang, through the formation of the sun and the earth, through the evolution of life on earth and the emergence of humanity to be a Creation Story more profound than that in the Bible. I have a math and science education, and my work is in medical software. I have never read this blog previous to someone notifying me that I got quoted here.
I place value in spiritual progression, which is hard to define. I would regard our consciousnesses as evolving over time, and just as vertebrates would be unimaginable in a world of blue-green algae, the further scope of higher consciousness is unimaginable to those who dwell in the righteous indignation of bivalent value systems (us vs. them). If you asked a paleolithic hunter-gatherer ten millennia ago to describe a skyscraper, they would have trouble doing so. Similarly, humans have always had trouble describing the future evolution of consciousness. That narrative is deeply flawed, and has often led to brutal ideological wars. At my current level of understanding, it makes subjective sense for me to work with the God metaphor in analyzing the trajectory of consciousness, both personal and global. I do not insist that anyone else does, except insofar as to show how it has been useful to me. The Christian metaphor does not make sense to me, and I don’t use it. I often find in conversations with antitheists that they argue with my religious beliefs as if they were Christian, projecting Christian belief onto my belief as if Christianity were the only possible theism. I think that is sloppy.
Jerry’s omissions in quoting me are striking.
Most of the posters vehemently object to any distinction between fact and truth. I call this a flat epistemology. It flattens truth until it is congruent with fact. My understanding is that truth and fact overlap, but are not congruent. As a theist, my understanding is theocentric. As annoying as that might be for an atheist who wants to argue with me, I cannot come up with a definition of truth that excludes Deity, just as I cannot adhere to an ontology that excludes Deity. Truth to me is a bridge between ontology and epistemology, whereas fact is entirely epistemological (and mostly phenomenological). When William Preston writes about Masonic ritual "imprint[ing] upon the memory wise and serious truths," he does not mean that it adds to the phenomenological data gathered in the mind of the candidate. Freemasonry depends upon the distinction between fact and truth, since Masonic legend contains many factually untrue propositions (which has often driven Masonic historians to despair), none of which falsify Freemasonry.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lech Lecha: Mechizedek and Initiation

This week's torah portion, Lech L'cha, gives us the start of the story of Abraham, back when he was young, when his name was Abram. I wrote about this back in May. Bereshit Rabbah tells the story that Abram's father, Terach, made pagan idols for a living. One day, Terach went away and left Abram to mind the idol store.  A woman came to the shop with a plate of flour as a sacrifice for the idols. Abram took a stick and smashed all the idols in his father's shop, and put the stick in the largest idol's hand. When his father returned, he demanded that Abram explain what had happened. Abram explained that the idols had fought amongst each other over the plate of flour, and the largest idol smashed the others with the stick. His father said, "Do you take me for a fool? Are these idols sentient beings?" Abram responded, "Listen to what you just said. You deny they are sentient, and yet you worship them."

The rabbis considered Abram to be the first monotheist, but the story the version in the Torah is a bit more subtle than that. The early Hebrews were henotheists, worshipping one God but allowing for the existence of others. This will come into play later in this blog post.

When Abram was seventy-five years old, God spoke to him and told him to leave his father's house, and for doing so, God would make him a great man, and the progenitor of a mighty nation: "I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." [Genesis 12: 2-3].

He took his cousin Lot, his wife Sarai, and "and the souls that they had gotten in Haran" and left for Canaan, to the city of Shechem. The men who worked for Abram did not get along with the men who worked for Lot, and in the interests of peace, Lot agreed to leave Abram's household and moved to Sodom, on the cities of the plain. Left alone, Abram got caught up in a regional war after the combatants captured Lot in his new city. Defeating the captors, he put an end to the war, and rescued the king of Sodom. The Bible describes the celebration:
And Melchizedek king of Salem [Jerusalem] brought forth bread and wine: and he [was] the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed [be] Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. [Genesis 14: 18-20].
There is a tradition that Melchizedek (literally, righteous or saintly king) initiated Abram into the Mysteries, and converted him from a henotheist to a monotheist. He initiated the ceremony of blessing with bread and wine. There is a midrash that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Adam, who did not die as the Bible suggested, but lived on far longer, initiating selected people worthy of the highest Mysteries.

The York Rite places great value in this legend (as does the Latter-Day Saints movement). In Psalm 110, David writes about the future Messiah: "The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent: 'Thou art a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek.'" Since then, Christians have used this as the basis for a legend that Melchizedek initiated Christ. Paul writes of Melchizedek: "First being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace; Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was." [Hebrews 7: 2-4].

I think a lot about Melchizedek, and what comprises the Melchizedek initiation. In the Jewish tradition, Melech (king) is one of the names of God. The word for saint in Hebrew is Tzaddik, and Deuteronomy 16: 20, which in English is "That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee," in Hebrew is "צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.". The first two words, "צֶדֶק צֶדֶק", are transliterated as "Tsedek, tsedek," and is often translated as "Justice, justice." When words are repeated in the Torah, it is used for emphasis, and the Kabbalists pay special attention to words that are repeated, believing them to hold special information to those who meditate on their significance.

Saintliness is attributed to the highest form of humanity, but both God and certain men are described as righteous. In a sense, the name Melchizedek is a formula that bridges the gap between God and man, through righteousness and justice. I interpret the Melchizedek initiation as the revelation that God and man collaborate in establishing justice in this world, and the revelation that that thread that connects each man to his Creator is always in place, and is tangible to those who reflect upon its existence.