A Venti Chai Latte with Adin Steinsaltz

Intermittently, I have deployed this blog site to display brilliant statements of some of the finest Jewish sages of all time. It is my hope that their ideas will prove to be of great value to all people of faith and that, if manifested in short quotations in the space of less than 850 words, they will be easily accessible, and thus actually read and used.

Today, we are “having coffee” with Adin Steinsaltz – teacher, philosopher, Talmudist, and spiritual mentor. Time magazine calls him a “once-in-a-millenium scholar,” suggesting what I believe to be true: Steinsaltz is probably the most significant Jewish mind of our time.

Here are pearls from The Sustaining Utterance:

 

1. The “speech of God” that “created the heavens” is “not only something that occurred in the past, but is taking place all the time; God speaks always…Divine speech is thus eternal in manifestation and is continually renewed.”

2. According to the Baal Shem Tov, “anyone can be privileged to stand on Mount Sinai and hear the Torah at any moment in his life.” “The world is sustained by the continuous “saying” of the same Ten Utterances forever.”

3. “The Ten Utterances are very inclusive forces creating whole worlds and general essences…Divine Providence is not a general expression for a total state of affairs; it is something very definite that belongs to every created thing in the universe.”

4. “On the one hand we feel God to be very near; on the other, as we see, He is very distant. We call Him Father. We also call Him “Ein Sof” (Infinite). Actually, I need both these…

God is close to us without ceasing…(yet) there is (also) God the Ein Sof, who gives life to all that is. In both cases we address Him with the same “Thou” or “You” – “You” is both the speaker and the speech, the Ten Utterances and the alphabet, Torah and world.”

5. “The question is always being asked of one: “What are you doing at this moment?” It is in this sense that God creates the world and the only one who can answer is man…God can say: “Let there be light!” and man can say: “I don’t want it,” or he can say: “Hear O Israel.”

6. A. “The Torah serves as a map that represents, not an existing reality, but an ideal one. The ideal reality is that which the world aspires to become.”

B. “When I busy myself with Torah, it doesn’t matter what the physical trappings the book are. The essential thing is the word of God that comes through. And as soon as Torah enters my mind, I become united with it.”

7. “There is no study of Torah without some degree of higher consciousness. To a corresponding degree, the Torah is thus internalized. So that Torah is always that which is here called food…It is nourishment in this life and food for the soul in the next life…”

8. “What God demands of us is to reach our own “beyond, our own infinite dimension, and not to reach His infinity…The meaning of the Creation of man and of man’s worship of God…rests on the fact that in spite of all the hiddenness of God, we do have a way of reaching the infinite. And it is even possible, in certain instances, to reach Him precisely within the hiddenness.”

9. “Why should man find God at the time of a crisis, out of the darkness in his life? Because there is a kind of finding that acts in the dark and not in the light.”

10. “Only the Divine is the knower, the known, and the knowledge all in one…God knows with the higher knowledge of “there is none besides Him” and with the lower knowledge of Divine unity, in which everything is filled with Him. He knows everything.”

11. “God is the source, the Creator, of all experience, and something of His essence is contained in all that man does and thinks.”

12. “The fact that we perceive things as tangible solids is a reflection of our own incapacity to see their spiritual essence…Both matter and spirit are modes of Divine projection, emanations of certain aspects of His being.”

13. “For man, wisdom may be considered the beginning of all things, but for God, Wisdom is part of the completed action.”

14. “God is the source of wisdom.” God is also “the source of all these attributes,” (mercy and kindness). “These attributes describe God’s actions and not God Himself.”

15. “God is united with His attributes inwardly as well as externally…In this way Chesed {Loving-kindness) is not at all external, like a hammer in the hands of the worker; it is rather like something that is acting like an instrument for an entity from which it cannot be separated from the will behind it…”

16. In studying how God’s attributes are revealed during the seven days of creation, we can see, among other things, a blending of chesed (loving-kindness) and gevurah (strength and constriction) into tiferet (splendor, harmony, compassion). “Tiferet shows how the world is conducted with righteousness and justice, for righteousness is law, justice is mercy (Tikunei Zohar). Both law and mercy are required for social justice and the ordering of human relations.”

17. “Justice is not merely the exacting of punishment or the passing of a verdict; it is also a matter of weighing all the factors involved, balancing the mitigating evidence, and so on.”

18. The revelation of chesed (loving-kindness) is associated with God’s utterance on the first day, “let there be light.” “In order for chesed to create light, a transformation of Divine power has to take place from the vast inclusiveness of Love to a specific thing, like light – just as any other acts of chesed,” (such as “the unthinking act of handing candy to a child”) “have to be defined in order for them to manifest.”

How the Bible Helps Us Do Politics

“Many solicit a ruler’s favor, but judgment for a person comes from God.” Proverbs 29:26

 

In this last of three Proverbs-based reflections on our society’s problems, I want to focus briefly on our role and responsibility in the world of politics.

First, let’s look at the surface meaning of the verse. We do often turn to powerful officials with requests. Sometimes we seek a favorable legal judgment. Sometimes we seek a favor or an appointment. And sometimes we seek action that squares with our view of how government ought to act, based on our values.

There’s nothing wrong with our petitioning government officials in any of these ways. In fact, often, we’re bound to.

The issue here, fundamentally, is whether our soliciting the ruler’s favor is in sync with God’s expectations. This is so because, for religious people, it is by God’s standards that we are judged in all we do.

Well, then, how do we know what God’s expectations are for us?

People of faith begin with the idea that we get significant direction from God’s words in the Bible. We get further guidance from sages and wise people who have lived, studied, and written about the meaning of these words. Finally, we get instruction from Proverbs and other texts on the ways we can teach and learn the wisdom that helps us in the knowing.

This business of knowing what’s right to do isn’t easy. Sometimes we have to act so quickly we don’t have much time to think about it.  But, generally, we have time before we act, to deliberate and come to understand the wisdom upon which we can base action.

A friend of mine lovingly accused me recently of instinctively urging a “rush to learn” before one starts up a “rush to act.” I plead guilty to that.

Now, what does all this have to do with politics?

Let’s begin, illustratively, with observations I’ve made in recent days about certain unfortunate ways in which the sensitive political matter of immigration has been handled.

Folks from both sides 1) have selectively pulled quotes from the Bible, mostly out of context, to justify their own political viewpoints; 2) have looked at pictures and news stories, sometimes fake, and developed full judgment about what’s right and wrong; 3) have come to black or white, one-sided views that cast the other side as unworthy, even evil; and 4) have either assigned total blame to the other side or grotesquely likened them to the most awful characters in history, such as Hitler and the Nazis.

Where’s the resort in any of this to the Bible’s truths, which, as in Proverbs, are usually complex and multi-dimensional? If the partisans had actually given it an objective look, they would have found a call BOTH to “love the stranger” AND to expect the stranger to live in accord with the community’s rules and laws. Wow. There might actually be some evidence here of the basis for God’s judgment and a path forward for us. But, since the answer is difficult and not fully in tune with any ideology, sadly, I’m guessing few will be interested.

What happened to following Proverbs’ instruction to work diligently to find guiding wisdom? “Heck,” some will say, “I can’t wait to study the issue. I’ve seen a horrible photo, and the time for a righteous statement on social media is NOW. Plus, I already know what’s right!”

And, what happened to the love and respect we’re supposed to show our fellow citizens in political dealings? When one side blames the other entirely for the problem, and the other side compares the one to Hitler, how can the God who has called us “to love your neighbor as yourself” do anything but cringe?

We can be involved in politics; indeed we should be. We should seek what is good and right from government. But, we must do so, willing to take on the demanding work of solving our problems in a just and compassionate manner. We must, also, do so with respect and equanimity for others in the process, including our political opponents.

For it will be then, and only then, as the Proverb teaches, that we will sense God’s favorable judgment and blessing.

Wordsworth’s Most Glorious Verses on Religion

Today we examine beautiful expressions in poetry of the sublime religious views of the fine English poet, William Wordsworth.

You are probably wondering why I’ve chosen Wordsworth. He is neither a Jewish sage nor a scholar, nor a person particularly known for a religious focus in his work. Yet, he is a profound thinker who developed extraordinary religious ideas along his remarkable path, and we have the benefit – in reading him – of understanding how one of the world’s greatest poets expressed such ideas in verse.

I. One of Wordsworth’s first significant explorations of the Divine came in “From Things Eternal.” Here he exquisitely describes God’s eternality and a lovely sense of our nearness to the Divine. Look especially at the poet’s account of the daily miracle by which God restores us upon awakening to the “powers of sense and Reason’s steadfast rule:”

“…Above our human region, or below,

Set and sustained; thou, who didst wrap the cloud

Of infancy around us, that thyself,

Therein, with our simplicity awhile

Might’st hold, on earth, communion undisturbed;

Who from the anarchy of dreaming sleep,

Or from its death-like void, with punctual care,

And touch us as gentle as the morning light,

Restor’st us, daily, to the powers of sense

And reason’s steadfast rule – thou, thou alone

Art everlasting, and the blessed Spirits,

Which thou includest, as the sea her waves:..”

 

II. In the same poem, Wordsworth writes of the Enduring God. Here, pay close attention to Wordsworth’s description of that which endures: “the motions of thy will” and “those transcendent truths of the pure intellect, that stand as laws…even to thy Being’s infinite majesty:”

“For adoration thou endur’st; endure

For consciousness the motions of thy will;

For apprehension those transcendent truths

Of the pure intellect, that stand as laws

(Submission, constituting strength and power)

Even to thy Being’s infinite majesty!”

 

III. The poet succinctly, yet elegantly describes prayer’s power in a poem of self-same name:

“Oh! there is never sorrow of heart

That shall lack a timely end,

If but to God we turn, and ask

Of Him to be our friend!”

 

IV. What is our obligation to God and our fellow human beings? Wordsworth answers: duty! And his characterizations of duty are sublime. While “possessions vanish and opinions change,” and passions “hold a fluctuating seat,” we find comfort and strength in the gift of duty that God grants as an everlasting blessing, “From Things Eternal:”

 “Possessions vanish, and opinions change,

And passions hold a fluctuating seat:

But, by the storms of circumstances unshaken,

And subject to neither eclipse nor wane,

Duty exists; immutably survive,

For our support, the measures and the forms,

Which an abstract intelligence supplies;

Whose kingdom is, where time and space are not.”

 

Also, from “Ode to Duty:”

“Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!

O Duty! if that name thou love

Who art a Light to guide, a Rod

To check the erring, and reprove;

Thou who art victory and law

When empty terrors overawe;

From vain temptations dost set free;

From strife and from despair; a glorious ministry.”

 

V. Nowhere does Wordsworth write more powerfully of how to live true to this call of duty than in the tribute he wrote upon the news of the death of Lord Nelson. (Don’t fret the verses’ length. They’re very accessible.)

“Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he

“Whom every Man in arms should wish to be?

—It is the generous Spirit, when brought

Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought

Upon the plan that pleased his childish thought:

Whose high endeavors are an inward light

That makes the path before him always bright:

Who, with a natural instinct to discern

What knowledge can perform, is diligent to perform, is diligent to learn;

Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,

But makes his moral being his prime care;

Who, doom’d to go in company with Pain,

And fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train!

Turns his necessity to glorious gain;

In face of these ditch exercise a power

Which is our human-nature’s highest dower;

Controls them and subdues, transmutes, bereaves

Of their bad influence, and their good receives;

By objects, which might force the soul to abate

Her feeling, render’d more compassionate;…

 

‘‘Tis he whose law is reason; who depends

Upon the law as the best of friends;

Whence, in a state where men are tempted still

To evil for a guard against worse ill,

And what in quality or act is best

Doth seldom on a right foundation rest,

He fixes good on food alone, and owes

To virtue every triumph that he knows:…

 

“And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws

His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause;

This is the happy Warrior; this is He

Whom every Man in arms should wish to be.”

 

VI. Here is an apt concluding idea from Wordsworth:

“We live by Admiration, Hope, and Love;

And, even as these are well and wisely fixed,

In dignity of being we ascend.”

Our Society’s Problems, Part 2

“Scornful men inflame a city, but the wise turn away wrath.” Proverbs 29:8

 

In this second of a series of blogs on lessons from Proverbs related to our society’s problems, I hope to shed some light on the profound wisdom in this proverb. But, to do so, we need to go deeper into the meaning of certain key words. Be patient. Exploring the vocabulary is a short, but essential detour.

At the outset, we encounter the idea that scornful people inflame a city. Who are these “scornful men?” What are they like? What is meant by the word, “scornful?”

If we were to rely only on the dictionary definition, we might be satisfied thinking merely that these are people who are derisive, contemptuous, snide, or disparaging. Close to that, the Hebrew word, latson, means one who scoffs, mocks, or scorns.

Well – that’s good, but I think it’s thoroughly insufficient for us to garner a proper understanding of what the Bible is worried about here. Indeed, it may lead us in the wrong direction.

There is another prominent place in the Hebrew Bible where we find this word, latson. It’s in Isaiah 28:14-15. Let’s see if we can attain a surer sense of the meaning of “scornful” by looking at these verses.

The prophet here is criticizing those “who rule this people in Jerusalem” for creating “a covenant with death” by which they will be protected from the upcoming scourge by making “a lie their refuge” and “falsehood their hiding place.”

So, based on this account, especially as it’s fleshed out, we shouldn’t be surprised that commentators on Isaiah have come to see scornful people more particularly as those who:

 

  • Are addicted to sophistry and deceit;
  • Are sharp but turn dexterity to cunning and hypocrisy;
  • Are puffed up with false belief in their own wisdom and rightness;
  • Are destructive and excite others to scorn and wickedness;
  • Dazzle others who are less clear sighted;
  • Blind others and inspire them to despise God and ridicule Divine doctrine;
  • Are ingenious in seeking to overturn religion;
  • Hope through witty devices and wicked practices to escape God’s judgment;
  • Have false confidence and vain hopes in their safety and wellbeing; and
  • Imagine their political schemes have given them immunity from the oncoming disaster

 

Now, let’s return to the proverb with this understanding of scornful people in mind. We’re taught next that one destructive deed of such people is to “inflame a city.”

Well – what does that mean?

Interpreting from the root word, puach, “to blow,” we can ponder several possible ideas – it may be to stir up a city, or set it aflame, or turn it into a snare. Many translators have settled on “inflame a city.”

Okay, now we come to that space in the blog where I invite you to think about what all this means to us in our modern society.

I suspect that many of you on the left will rush to assert that these words are perfectly descriptive of the ways of Donald Trump and his “hateful,” “ignorant”, and “insensitive” supporters. I am equally confident that many of you on the right will insist that these verses couldn’t more aptly describe the “irreligious,” “constitution-threatening,” and “culture-diluting” ways of those on the left and their leaders.

In these comments, I do not mean to opine about the relative worthiness of either side’s views. We know that some views are more just; some are less; and many are in the in-between. Further, all of us have, and are entitled to, our own views; I have mine. But, before we rally too boldly to the views of our own group, swearing all would be well with the world if it weren’t for our opponents, let’s take a look at the proverb’s last words: “the wise turn away wrath.”

Those wise in the ways of God do many things, but the teaching here is exclusively about the good work they do to soothe public passions, turn aside anger, bring on calm, and, thus, pave the way for the possibility of consensus, solution, and harmony.

So, instead of standing on the side of our own group too sanctimoniously, perhaps we should seek instead, in our inflamed city, to help turn people away from strife and back to each other. For it will be there that we have the best chance at justice, righteousness, kindness, and mercy.