Candles Flickering

Photo Credit: Dey


By Marc Gafni

This post concludes the “Protest as Prayer” series. It is continued from post 14.

It was late one Friday night, with the Sabbath candles flickering in the darkness, when the Rebbe stood up. He had been especially pensive this night: wrapped in thoughts and prayers of his own. He walked purposefully to the table, spat on his hands and snuffed out the Sabbath candles. In the sudden darkness the shocked Chassidim heard the cold fury and despair in their Rebbe’s voice resounding in the gloom as he intoned: “There is no Judge, and there is no Judgment.”

Rebbe Menachem-Mendel of Kotsk then walked out of the synagogue, locked himself in his room, and never came out. For over twenty years until his death he remained in isolation and spoke not another word. But his Chassidim did not reject him as a blasphemer, nor a madman. In his silent solitary rage the Rebbe of Kotsk became more respected, more loved than ever before, as the Kotsker Chassidic tradition flourished in all its contradictions.

Somehow the Chassidim understood that ultimate Doubt, ultimate challenge, when conducted from within deep relationship, paradoxically can become the ultimate service, the ultimate worship.


Job

By Marc Gafni

This post is continued from Part 13.

We began with three truths. God is good. God is powerful. Good people suffer. These are the three truths of Job. We hold all three. We can live in the deep and painful uncertainty of not always knowing how all three fit together. Those unable to hold the uncertainty emasculate God. This is Harold Kushner’s basic move. God can’t do anything about evil — God is nice but not powerful.

Others, unable to hold the uncertainty, emasculate man. That is pious orthodox thinker Gottlieb’s move. He has theo-logically solved the problem of suffering. He denies the rage, the protest, the unanswered question which defines Jewish text. He cannot live with the uncertainty of the question so he must argue that certainty has been achieved and the question answered.

Wisdom

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney


By Marc Gafni

This post is continued from Part 12.

One of the most striking formulations of the Yehuda Moment in Chassidut is the movement's founder, the Baal Shem Tov's, teaching on a verse in the Book of Job. The verse in Job reads "There is a spirit in man -- the breath of God -- which gives wisdom."

These words, which appear towards the end of the book, are spoken by Elihu in rejection of the ”˜punishment for sin' theodicy offered as a certainty by Job's friends. The Baal Shem Tov interprets the verse: ”˜The breath of God is the spirit of man'.

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Secret

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By Marc Gafni

This post is continued from Part 11.

That this is true is mystery and mystery is esoteric -- it is secret. Secret, not because, as it is usually explained, it is forbidden to reveal the mysteries to the uninitiated; rather, secret because it is not possible to reveal the mysteries at all. For if the soul is not ready to receive the mystery then the secret cannot be transmitted. The holy energy of uncertainty is in the realm of mystery. I cannot fully explain. Yet two guidelines for those who would struggle to understand are in order.

The Rebbe of Kutzk teaches about the old man and the young baby. They both ask the same questions. ”˜How, When, What, Where - Ayeh?'

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Hebrew Books

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By Marc Gafni

This post is continued from Part 10.

The Zohar writes that the Shechina is called "I". This is a particularly dramatic way of expressing the idea that the Shechina speaks through the human voice. This means that whenever a person finds their voice on the deepest level, they are finding the voice of the Shechina. The human cry to God “Please be King” is also God crying out through the same voice, “Please I am trapped -- bound in chains -- free me and let me be King.”

God's voice and our voice are one. The language of God is man.

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God emotions

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By Marc Gafni

This post is continued from Part 9.

To go one step further -- God feels the pain of the sufferer through the agency of human beings who feel the pain of other. God feels, not only but also through, human agency. We are God's emotions.

Based on this understanding a number of mystical writers provide us with the vocabulary to re-think the idea of God's Kingship. It was with this quandry that I introduced the problematics of God-language in a world that suffers. How can we call God King?

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Doorway

By Marc Gafni

This post is continued from Part 8.

The implication of this Kabbalistic strain of thought needs to be unpacked more fully. One of the core ideas in the Lurianic understanding of the religious act is the need to identify with the pain of the Shechina in exile. According to the Talmudic masters the divine presence  -- the Shechina -- is exiled with the Jewish people. In one of the most daring affirmations of divine intimacy, the Talmudic teachers and later the kabbalistic masters insist that the transcendent God of the Bible becomes incarnate in the suffering of the Jewish people (and, I would add, of all people).

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Sefirot

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By Marc Gafni

This post is continued from Part 7.

An early Kabbalistic text, Bahir, declares that there are ten levels which link the world of the divine with the world of man. Each one of these ten levels of divine presence represents another dimension of God in our world. They are referred to as the Ten Sefirot. When we perform a commandment, says Luria, we participate in one of these levels of the divine.

Indeed the mystical writers point out that the word ”˜Mitzvah’ has more than one meaning. Simply of course it is man’s commandment. The human in doing a mitzvah is thus seen as responding to a divine command which comes from outside the human being.

There is however a second sense of the word Mitzvah. It means Tzavtah — to be together with. When one performs a mitzvah one literally merges with divinity. One is together with God. In the mystical understanding, each Mitzvah moves me toward merger with a different Sefira, a different level of divinity. However, says Luria, we are only able to participate in the lowest seven levels. The human being, trapped in mortality, can never touch the highest three levels of divinity in this world. And yet one word can reach the heights. Ayeh.

Ayeh in Hebrew has three letters, alef, yod, hey. Alef, says Luria, is the letter that represents Keter — the divine crown, the highest sefirah – the level of divinity in the world. Yod represents Chochmah — wisdom, the second highest level. And Hey is Binah — intuitive understanding, the third highest level. When the human being cries out to God in uncertainty — ayeh — he expresses the highest three levels of divinity and in so doing reaches beyond his mortal limits to touch “the highest.” Luria affirms that the expression of uncertainty in God does not contradict spirituality, but rather is the highest expression of the human search for divine connection.

Ayeh — where are you — the ultimate uncertainty — is then the highest level of religious authenticity!


Sacrificial Lamb

By Marc Gafni

This post is continued from Part 6.

The pinnacle of Ayeh cries out in the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. Isaac turns to his father and asks, “Ayeh? Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Many commentators recognize that in asking this question Isaac is beginning to understand the nature of his silent journey with his father. For three days he has walked beside his father in tense silence, and now without even meeting his son's eyes, Abraham asks the servants to stay behind as the two of them climb the mountain alone. Laboring up the incline with the kindling weighing heavily on his back, noticing the knife and firestone in his father's hand, Isaac feels a terrible darkness approaching. Can his father truly be intending to hurt him? When Isaac speaks we feel the shattering inside, the destruction of the child within, the death of the child's innocence: ”˜Father!' - he says - and father answers, ”˜Yes my son.' ”˜Here are the firestone and the wood; but where - ayeh - is the lamb for the burnt offering?'

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This post is continued from Part 5

By Marc Gafni

R’ Nachman, I would suggest did not originate this understanding of Ayeh — rather it emerges out of a tradition of Biblical ”˜Ayeh’ stories.

In the book of Judges, a messenger of God comes to Gideon at a time in which Israel has suffered greatly at the hand of the Midianite nation. The messenger of God offers certainty to Gideon: “God is with you, hero of valor,” and Gideon rejects this pat offer of security: “You tell me that God is with us? Then why is all this…” He cannot even give it a name. The silent questions ring out in the spaces between the words: ”˜Why has all this suffering, why has all this pain, defined our lives for so many years? Why are men killed? Why are children orphaned?’ And the text goes on: “”˜Ayeh’- where are all of his great wonders of which our Fathers told us, saying God took us out of the land of Egypt. And now, God has abandoned us.”

Gideon the Judge, in the tradition of Abraham, turns to God and says, “Does the Judge of the entire world not do justice?” Gideon the Judge challenges God, challenges the messenger and challenges the message. The divine response seems unclear, enigmatic and troubling; but also powerful, inspiring and deeply directive. God answers Gideon: “Go with this strength of yours and save Israel … behold, I have sent you.” (Judges 6: 12-14)

What “strength” is God referring to? I would suggest, and at least one Midrash implicitly supports my reading, that God meant: ”˜Go forth with the power of your uncertainty.’ God is confirming that if Gideon has the ability to doubt that this is the best of all possible worlds, this means he shares a common moral language with God. The wrestling with God in itself implies messengership on behalf of the divine: “Behold, I have sent you.” God confirms the Chassidic tale that initiated this chapter: to grapple with God is indeed to touch God, and to enter into the wrestling ring is to be a representative of all Israel, to plead redemption for all the world.

Gideon says to God’s messenger: “Where, ayeh, are all of His great wonders?” — echoing Moses’ and Abraham’s uncertainty about God’s dealings in the world.

Photo Credit: dariuszka


This post is continued from Part 4

By Marc Gafni

Said differently, by holding uncertainty and not settling for explanations of suffering that our soul intuitively rejects, we reach a higher certainty — the certainty of rage. It may well be that in a century that has seen one hundred million people brutally killed the only path back to God is the certainty of rage. Those who deny the holiness of our anger deny God.

Babies are part of our core certainty. They remind us of all that is pure. They somehow cut though our posturing and touch something deep inside us. Have you ever seen a baby brought into an office — no matter how serious the office — grown men and women almost immediately revert to baby talk, to goo goo gaga. Babies cry out for our protection. They call us to rise to our highest selves. Perhaps this is what Leah understood for the first time as she looked down at little Judah. Until Judah’s birth Leah had been so intent on using her children to get Jacob that she hadn’t really seen them. Only when she gives up her need for Jacob is she able to see her baby. It is from this place she cries out — “I have found myself before God.”

Babies being ripped apart — my mother’s youthful vision — destroy that core certainty. “Where Is God” writes Weisel, “he is hanging on the gallows”…. In the body of a young boy. Incarnation is reversed in the horror of suffering. God becomes human and dies on the gallows. In the reversal is the death of God about which some post-holocaust theologians wrote with such pathos. The Biblical response is different. Biblical men and women work their way back to God, not through pious imprecations justifying God nor through pathos-filled announcements of God’s demise, but through the certainty of rage.


Angst

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney


This post is continued from Part 3.

By Marc Gafni

R. Nachman of Bratzlav, in a profound and daring teaching, reveals the light shimmering in Alyosha's speech. It is a teaching on the word ”˜Ayeh'. Ayeh in Hebrew means where, in the sense of 'where is God?

Ayeh encapsulates in one word Alyosha's entire oration. I want to share with you R. Nachman's teaching directly, in my trans-interpretation of the original Hebrew text. The bracketed words are my additions:

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Dostoyevsky

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By Marc Gafni

Note: This post is continued from Part 2.

It is this paradox that Dostoyevsky in Brothers Karamazov does not fully grasp. He does not understand that the rage of Ivan is the rage of ”˜heresy that is faith.' Ivan, responding to Alyosha's certainty of belief, has just described to him the brutal murder of a child torn apart by dogs for sport. Ivan's uncertainty burns with the fiery anger of faith:

Although the passage is longer than what one would usually expect in a quoted text, it is so germane to our theme and so compelling that I did not shorten it. Thus I invite my dear reader to experience the truth and power of Ivan's plea. He needs to be read as a modern echo of Abraham's cry “Will the judge of the entire world not do justice?”

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Japan Prayer

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By Marc Gafni

Note: This post is continued from part 1.

It is to this paradox that we will now turn. We dance in the paradox of certainty and uncertainty. As we hear of recent tragedies in the world — hurricanes, earthquakes, and last year’s catastrophe in Japan — we enter into a space of desperately grappling with God within the uncertainty.

Where are you God? Where are you within me and within the word?  Within the very recesses of the uncertainty however is a powerful experience of certainty — of the non-dual realization of I Am.  It is in I Am, when I experience the core certainty of self, and therefore of my divinity — of my being loved by God.  This experience is not only not in contradiction to the question, it wells up from the question itself. In the question is God. The question is the answer.


AIDS Quilt

Photo Credit: enric archivell


By Marc Gafni

The mandate of biblical consciousness demands that the human being enter into partnership with God in the task of perfecting the world. The classical expression of this in the lineage of Kabbalah is the obligation of Tikkun. Tikkun means not merely to hear or to fix but to be co-creative evolutionary partners with the divine.

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