Monthly Archives: March 2010

Drawings by David Chaim Smith- Thursday April 1, John Zorn at 6PM

A former student is having a gallery opening tomorrow and intimate concert at opening by John Zorn and friends.

Blood of Space: Drawings by David Chaim Smith
Special Music Performance by John Zorn, Trevor Dunn, and Kenny Wollesen- April 1st at 6PM
Presented by Cavin-Morris Gallery
April 1, 2010- May 15, 2010
Reception: April 1, 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm
David Chaim Smith is unstuck in time. David Chaim Smith makes drawings. These drawings are not about the art world. Yet he is not an Outsider Artist. In fact he is a perfect argument for the futility of any attempt to define O
utsider. They are not about Contemporary Art’s self-referential contexts. Nor are these drawing about David Chaim Smith. They are incandescent utterances from the nexus point of unutterable ecstasy. They are inchoate maps of the un-mappable places of Original Creation. Is it dangerous to document these things? Yes it is. Throughout the history of Man it has been dangerous for the Mediators between Tangible and Intangible to absorb and expose Esoteric Teachings.

There is nothing New Age about this mysticism. It isn’t at all user-friendly. These intricate beautifully rendered chart-like drawings compel you to give up your own time frames and become absorbed and changed. The images settle into your psyche as well as your aesthetic reference zone. But for some reason these involved mad dances through words and sacred geometries, biomorphic and astral thought forms, incantations and exhortations are not in the least solipsistic. No more so then the constellations are or wave patterns seen from the sky or the mating dances of bees, and that is because David Chaim Smith is also a great artist who, under the pretence of being narratively self-effacing, organizes and arranges non-visual information into amazing hyperbolic cascades of visual information and composition. His ever-present artistic micro managing is kept invisible. He is a Keeper of Mysteries but his desire is for you to enter them as well so there is a tremendous amount of generosity in his Vision.
Cavin Morris Gallery is proud to introduce the work of a true Mystic. He has thrown his artistic Body in front of us to take the Bolt of Lightning and transform its crackling hyper-intensity into black and white images of Primal Insight.
For further information, please contact Shari Cavin, Randall Morris or Mariko Tanaka by tel (212) 226-3768, or email: Blugriot@aol.com.
Website http://www.cavinmorris.com
Address 210 11th Ave, 2nd Fl
New York (Chelsea) NY, 10001
Website of Drawings by David Chaim Smith

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Hag Sameah

Have a Hag Kosher ve Sameah and א זיסן פסח

I have a backlog of about 12 posts ready to post but I realized that I should not put them up when everyone, myself included, is busy before the holiday.
So check back during Hol Hamoad and I will put up a whole batch of already written posts. Topics covered include more on Kugel and the Bible, Art Green’s new book, more on day schools, a few conferences, and the British movement of radical orthodoxy. There will be dates for more book signings. I will also have time to continue the discussion of Buddhism and Judaism.

Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi on Pour out thy Wrath

Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1513-1585), rabbi in Egypt, Italy and Poland, was a rational thinker and major influence in his era. He wrote an important Biblical commentary and defended the traditional medieval rationalism against Maharal. The following passage played a role in subsequent early modern legal discussions and seems to have been forgotten in twentieth century discussions. Ashkenazi removes his, and our, current gentiles from the curse.

“Pour out thy wrath upon the nations”

Some of the Gentiles among whom we are exiled under their protection have thought that God forbid we are cursing them.

It only applies to the nations that do not know Him, that deny the Exodus from Egypt because they don’t accept the miracles and wonders. It is quite clear that the Gentiles among whom we are exiled all know about the Exodus and believe in it, and know its details…We only curse the idol worshipers who don’t believe in creation and who destroyed the Temple, not the nations who became Edom and Ishmael (Christianity and Islam) because they were still not created…But now our Gentiles and the Ishmaelites know God, and acknowledge the Exodus, forefend for us to curse them from our religion.
And when we do curse those who afflict us and unjustly persecute us, that curse is not from our religion, forefend, but as a person who curses one who afflicts another…
Our holy Torah announces this in the name of the head of the faithful [Abraham] that God does not desire this, as it is written, “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” And the master of the prophets [Genesis 18:23] said, “One person will sin and the whole community should be cut off?” And from the writings it is clarified that we are not allowed from our religion to curse nations that acknowledge the Exodus from Egypt and know God even if they have not received the Torah…
That is why it was not permitted for Israel to conquer the land of Canaan until after the Exodus, that even after they know about God they did not believe or accept….

Rabbi Ashkenazi acknowledges that Gentiles accept God, creation and even the providential Exodus story. Ashkenazi draws a distinction between the negative attitude toward Gentiles in the Talmud and the attitude toward contemporary Christians by stating that Gentiles at the time of the Temple were idolaters without a belief in God. He further distances himself from prior teachings of contempt by stating that the curses that the Midrash heaps upon Rome have no connection to the later nations of Edom. Ashkenazi proclaims that Jews do not curse others. Even when Christians persecute Jews, the persecution stems not from their religion but from unfortunate occurrences between people. One cannot hold a people accountable for the injustice of some of them, and certainly one cannot hold their religion responsible for the injustice committed by certain members of it.

Ashkenazi also explains the four sons as the wise son is Isaac, the wicked son is Christianity, the simple son is Jacob, and the son that does not know how to ask is Islam. There is a recent dissertation written under the direction of Menachem Kellner on Ashkenazi, Neta Ecker, Universalism in the Thought of Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi” Unpublished Dissertation Haifa University 2010)

The importance of this passage of Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi is that it is quoted as a source text by R. Moshe Rivkes in the eighteenth-century as a general halakhah.

The rabbis of the Talmud meant by the term ‘idolaters’ the pagans who lived in their time, who worshipped the stars and the constellations and did not believe in the Exodus from Egypt and in the creation of the world out of nothing. But the nations under whose benevolent shadow we, the Jewish nation, are exiled and are dispersed among them, they do believe in the creation of the world out of nothing and the Exodus from Egypt and in the essentials of faith, and their whole intention is toward the Maker of heaven and earth, as other authorities have written…
So rather than a prohibition not to save them [if they were idolaters], on the contrary, we are required to pray for their welfare as Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi wrote at length on the passage from the Passover haggadah “Pour out thy Wrath.” King David prayed to God to pour out his wrath on the idolater who did not believe in creation from nothing or the signs and wonders that God performed for us in Egypt and at the giving of the Torah. The nations
In whose shadow we live and under whose wings we are protected do believe in all of this. Therefore, we are always required to pray for the welfare and success of the kingdom and the ministers, in all their provinces. Indeed, Maimonides ruled according to Rabbi Joshua, that the pious of the nations have a portion in the world to come. (Be’er haGolah to Hoshen Mishpat 425:5)

Translation and comments – Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Levinas: Mature Jewish faith and Conference on Difficult Freedom

This week I had the opportunity to teach this wonderful passage of Levinas again. Levinas exhorts his reader to have a mature faith and get rid of one’s primitive and childish views of God. A person needs to understand that God does not promise anything or follow one’s magical thinking about God. He asks: “What kind of strange magician did you project as the inhabitant of your heaven.” Only an empty heaven allows one to take on the responsibilities of justice in this world. Only a heaven empty of childish perceptions allow an adult’s God can have an inner sense to fight evil and seek good. The eternal covenant is a Divine demand for goodness and justice, the deepest significance of the covenant between God and Israel.

What is the meaning of the suffering of the innocent? Does it not witness to a world without God, to an earth where only man determines the measure of good and evil? The simplest, most ordinary response would indeed be to draw the conclusion that there is no God. This would also be the healthiest response for all those who until now have believed in a rather primitive God who awards prizes, imposes sanctions, or pardons mistakes, and who, in His goodness, treats people like perpetual children. But what kind of limited spirit, what kind of strange magician did you project as the inhabitant of your heaven – you who today state that heaven is deserted? And why are you still looking, beneath an empty heaven, for a world that makes sense and is good?

Yossel son of Yossel experiences, with renewed vigor, beneath an empty heaven, certainty about God. For his finding himself thus alone allows him to feel, on his shoulders, all of God’s responsibilities. On the road that leads to the one and only God, there is a way station without God. True monotheism must frame answers to the legitimate demands of atheism. An adult’s God reveals Himself precisely in the emptiness of the child’s heaven. That is the moment when God withdraws Himself from the world and veils His countenance. “He has sacrificed humankind to its wild instincts,” says our text. “And because those instincts dominate the world, it is natural that those who preserve the divine and the pure should be the first victims of this domination.”

But by the same token, this God who veils His countenance and abandons the just person, un-victorious, to his own justice – this faraway God – comes from inside. That is the intimacy that coincides, in one’s conscience, with the pride of being Jewish, of being concretely, historically, altogether mindlessly, a part of the Jewish people. “To be a Jew means… to be an everlasting swimmer against the turbulent, criminal human current… I am happy to belong to the unhappiest people in the world, to the people whose Torah represents the loftiest and most beautiful of all laws and moralities.” Intimacy with this virile God is attained in passing an ultimate test. Because I belong to the suffering Jewish people, the faraway God becomes my God. “Now I know that you are truly my God, for you cannot possibly be the God of those whose deeds are the most horrible expression of a militant absence of God.” The just person’s suffering for the sake of a justice that fails to triumph is concretely lived out in the form of Judaism.

Translation from the VBM shiur of Tamir Granot- Read full Version Here

This coincided with the web announcement of a great conference on Difficult Freedom, Levinas’ early Jewish writings. First published in 1963, with a second edition appearing in 1976, Difficile Liberté is considered Levinas’ most accessible book and constitutes an excellent introduction to his work: philosophy, Biblical and Talmudic commentary, a traditional yet new approach to Judaism, and an educational mission.
« Readings of Difficult Freedom» is the largest international conference ever devoted to Levinas and his work. For an entire week, more than 180 speakers from 41 countries will present and discuss the ideas presented in Difficult Freedom. In addition, during the entire conference week there will be lectures and debates in a number of cultural centers in Toulouse as well as screenings of movies and documentaries. The conference and events are all open to the public.

Here are the plenary sessions.
Here are the concurrent sessions.

Alan Lew Z”L – Between Paul Williams and Paul Knitter

Rabbi Alan Lew, (1944- 2009) was the spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom. He was in the forefront of attempting to cultivate a spirituality bridging Judaism and Buddhism.

Lew’s coming of age as a Jew actually happened as he sought to deepen his Zen Buddhist practice. Disillusioned by the Judaism he’d experienced as a child, Lew was considering becoming ordained as a lay Buddhist priest. But he found himself unable to sew a priestly garment while on a retreat in the 1970s at Tassajara, a Zen center in Carmel Valley. As he meditated on that resistance, Lew said that “there was some sense of conflict between my being ordained as a Buddhist with my being Jewish.” It became a turning point, leading Lew toward Judaism, and ultimately to rabbinical school.

Lew seems to have a Buddhist view toward reality, its root metaphors without the religion itself. Life is a great sea of Being, an endless flow, we are all interconnected, and feel other people’s suffering. He formulates Judaism as mindfulness using the metaphor of “layered grid of awareness” as a bridge idea, both Buddhism and Judaism have a layer grid of awareness. Jewish prayer is about energy exchange and mindfulness.

That we are afloat in a great sea of being, an endless flow of becoming in which we are connected to all beings.” (This is Real, 16)
We die to the world every time we breathe out, and every time we breathe in, every time our breath returns to us of its own accord, we are reborn, and the world rises up into being again. (Ibid, 17)

Every spiritual tradition I am aware of speaks of a kind of layered mindfulness, a sensibility that works up and out of the body, to the heart and then to the mind and then finally to the soul. The Buddhist sutra On Mindfulness describes this kind of layered grid of awareness, and the Kabala, the Jewish mystical tradition, speaks of it too. According to the Kabala, we start out with our awareness in Asiyah – the world of physicality, the world of the body, our most immediately accessible reality. Then we become aware of the heart, yetzirah – the world of formation or emotion, that shadowy world between conception and its realization in material form. From there we move on to the world of pure intellect, Briyah, or creation, and then to Atzilut, the realm of pure spiritual emanation. (Ibid, 190)

I would visualize the words as an energy exchange – the words going up to God and God’s attention coming down. Prayer began bringing me to the same place my Zen practice had taken me… Before I prayed, I would study, in a prayer shawl and teffilin, sitting in half-lotus (One God Clapping, 154)

So yoga and directed meditation became part of the practice I offered at my synagogue. The meditation group changed the whole tenor of the Friday night minyan. Suddenly the service had great density and feeling… My goal was to help Jews deepen their Jewish practice with Buddhist-style meditation techniques, (Ibid 287)
Meditation and Jewish practice lead us to experience the oneness of all beings. We are all connected; each of us is created in the divine image, and other people’s suffering is our own. (Ibid 296)
But the first noble truth is that everything is suffering, and both Judaism and Buddhism insist that the only appropriate response to this suffering is to turn toward it, to attend to it. Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is “The Hearer of the Cries of the World,” and the Torah God is repeatedly described as hearing the cries of the oppressed. (Ibid 297)

I am used to the critique that Bu-Jews remove the religion from Buddhism and only leave the meditation However, I found in one review of Lew compare him unfavorably with Paul Williams, The Unexpected Way. So I read the latter work. Williams was a trained professor of Buddhism, familiar with the languages and the religion of Buddhism, who converted to Catholicism later in life. Williams study of Buddhism lead him to reject a religion without a theistic God, revelation, redemption, reward, and providence. He wrote a coherent, rational, and theological critique of Buddhism from a catholic point of view. The book was not one of those bad books for Jewish outreach kiruv that know neither Buddhism nor Judaism, and have little rationalism. This was a defense of theistic religion. Reading Lew in light of Williams, one is struck by the lack of any engagement with the theology of Judaism or Buddhism, beyond the metaphors. Lew comes off as more pragmatic than grasping the path of enlightenment, in either tradition. Or here is the debate in another context:

Rabbi LEW: It’s perfectly all right to use elements of one practice to nourish another, but you have to have a sense of what your central practice is, and you have to have integrity about following that path.
Nathan Katz practiced Buddhism for 15 years, and thinks there are irreconcilable differences between the two religions.
Professor NATHAN KATZ: I would say the fundamental difference between the two traditions is one is theistic and one is not. And even if you take the most esoteric, Judaic concepts of God, they still don’t reconcile with the Buddhist criticism of all concepts of God.

On the other hand, I just read Paul Knitter’s Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian. Knitter as a progressive catholic, ex-priest, boldly proclaims himself a syncretic who follows two religions. Knitter describes how his seminary students see it as adultery. Buddhism lets him give up the traditional categories of God, religious language, and revelation. The book harvests the last quarter century of American appreciation for Buddhism as a contribution for religion. Alan Lew avoided Buddha, Buddhist ritual, and Buddhist holidays and created what he called “Buddhist style” practices for import into Judaism. Knitter is not satisfied with Buddhist style and feels that accepting refuge in the Dharma does not conflict with being a Catholic.

Are there other solutions for Judaism? Are there other places to make the division between Judaism and Buddhism? For example, one of the sometimes readers of this blog who lives a haredi life in Brooklyn wants to write a book on non-dual Judaism from the sources of Judaism- Chabad, Rav Nahman, Nefesh HaHayyim, and Ramak. This would directly present Jewish thought, in a way that Lew does not. But at the same time, it would not reject the insights of seeing oneself in the Buddhist mirror. A Jewish theist who knows Kabbalah may not have to throw out the best that they see reflected elsewhere. Any thoughts?

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Pour out thy Love Upon the Nations and Miriam at the Seder-Updated

Years ago before the computerized library age, I was asked to check if a certain library in Europe possibly had a copy of a small book “Shefokh Ahavatkha” by Chaim Bloch, the famous Neturei Karta forger. Bloch claimed in another work that he wrote such work and it provided evidence for a medieval tradition of “Pour out thy Love upon the nations.” Since he forged the Anti-Zionist letters and was involved in the Kherson forgeries, it was more of a wild goose chase. What is interesting is that in recent years both the Mekhon Hartman Haggadah and the Midrasha Oranim include the forged version in their haggadot, with a very mild caveat that “scholars debate the issue.” They like the universal sentiment regardless of its source. To see it in the Hartman’s Haggadah see pages 142-143 in A Different Night.

This year I noticed that in 2009 an Israeli paper helped spread the false story as true, So I was gratified to see there is a nice article by Rabbi David Golinkin on the topic. Golinkin also has a nice discussion of the custom of dressing up a Elijah, but his discussion of the forged Maharal Haggadah and the prayer for salvation did not catch that one of prime reasons for the forged Maharal Haggadah was to spread the Kotzker-Izbitz practice of drinking a fifth cup.

In Hatza’ah L’Seder, a new Israeli Haggadah published by the staff of the Midrasha at Oranim Teachers’ College in 2000, the following addition appears after the three traditional Shefokh verses:

A piyyut which exhibits a different attitude to non-Jews (found in a Haggadah manuscript from the early 16th century):

Pour out your love on the nations who know You
And on kingdoms who call Your name.
For the good which they do for the seed of Jacob
And they shield Your people Israel from their enemies.
May they merit to see the good of Your chosen}
And to rejoice in the joy of Your nation.

This prayer was first published by the bibliographer Naftali Ben-Menahem in 1963. It was supposedly discovered by Rabbi Hayyim Bloch (1881-ca. 1970) in a beautiful manuscript on parchment from the estate of Rabbi Shimshon Wertheimer (1658-1724).

The Haggadah was supposed to have been edited in Worms in 1521 by “Yehudah b”r Yekutiel, the grandson of Rashi”, but the manuscript was lost during the Holocaust.

However, a number of scholars have pointed our that this prayer was probably invented by Hayyim Bloch himself, who was born in Galicia and later moved to Vienna (ca. 1917) and New York (1939). He was one of the rabbis who published the Kherson letters attributed to the Besht and his disciples, which later turned out to be forgeries. He also published a letter from the Maharal of Prague, whose authenticity was already disproved by Gershom Scholem.

Finally, from 1959-1965 he published three volumes containing over 300 letters of great rabbis opposed to Zionism, but Rabbi Shemuel Hacohen Weingarten has proved that these “letters” were invented by Rabbi Bloch himself. Therefore, we may assume that “Shefokh Ahavatkha” was not composed in Worms in 1521, but rather by Rabbi Hayyim Bloch ca. 1963.

On the other hand, the traditions of connecting Miriam to the Seder are traditional as are customs connecting Bitya to the Seder. From an article in Ynet in 2006.

The most basic practice was a piece of fish placed on the Seder plate to commemorate Miriam.

We have two cooked foods on the seder table – an egg and a shank bone.The Talmud explains this as reflecting the holiday’s two sacrifices, the special Paschal lamb and the general holiday offering.

It turns out, however, that the number of dishes at the seder wasn’t fixed.

Rabbi Sherira Gaon of 10th-century Babylon noted a custom of putting three foods on the plate.
“Those three cooked foods are fish, meat, and an egg corresponding to the foods that Israel will eat in the Time to Come; fish corresponding to Leviathan, egg to Ziz (an enormous mythic and fabulous bird), meat corresponding to wild bull.” The foods symbolizes the mythic creatures from the realms of sea, air and land that will be eaten in the Meal of the Righteous in the Messianic times.

A second reason offered by R. Sherira , however, is one that resonates more strongly with our generation: “There are those who put an additional cooked food in memory of Miriam, as it says, “And I sent before you Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6, 4). According to this, Miriam and the role she fulfilled in the redemption from Egypt is represented by the third cooked food on the seder table.

Another rabbi cognizant of the importance of women to the Passover story was Rabbi Abraham Grate of Prague. His 1708 Haggadah commentary explained several seder rituals, including the initial hand washing, as referring to Pharaoh’s daughter Bitya and her rescue of Moses from the Nile.

And if these proto-feminist commentaries are from relatively forgotten sources, how to explain the fact that a basic interpretation of haroset revolves around women – and almost nobody knows it? According to the Talmud, haroset is in memory of the apple tree, and Rashi in his commentary makes reference to the midrash in which, the women would go to their working husbands and would conceive children between the fields. When the women were ready to give birth, they would leave their homes out of fear of the Egyptians. They would lie underneath the apple trees and give birth. Apple haroset, then, is about the fact that the Jewish women did not lose hope in those difficult times.

Update- It turns out that Jonathan Sacks also has the pc version of “pour out your love.” but he puts it below the line as an “there is a manuscript.” The Tabori JPS haggadah places this version in the introduction

The official source is Heichal l’divrei chakhamim upithgameihem (1948) where Bloch adduces this quote, and in the extensive footnote
says he published a reproduction of this page-and the shaar of the manuscript in his fictitious book Der Judenhas. Here is the source Look at both pages 591 and 592.

Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Haggadah

One of the most interesting commentaries on the haggadah of the last decade was the one by
Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Haggadah: The Passover Story (Paperback)

Ouaknin, a follower of Levinas and Lacan who teaches at Bar Ilan, when he is not busy writing profitable coffee table books, does some serious engagement with contemporary French thought, especially in his The Burnt Book. For him, the Talmudic project of the Eastern European beit midrash has no closure, ever changing, ever forgetful and driven by desire. He freely mixes R. Hayyim of Volozhin, Rav Nahman, Reb Zadok with psychoanalysis, symbolist poetry, and semiotics. Ouaknin has a reading of Judaism as indeterminacy. “Man must reject the illusion of thinking that life is already written and the way is drawn.” He are various fragments from the web that give some indiation of his approach to the Passover haggadah.

My favorite section is his explanation of Yachatz, breaking the middle matzah, as the Lacanian Real sending us on our quest through the seder for our ever receding Real , creating a symbolic order in the Lacan sense. Breaking the matzah creates an open space for our symbolic registry to occur. We are throw in the seder just as we are thrown into our quest for the recovery of the real.

On the telling of the Passover story, he writes:
“The words of telling emerge from that break, from the empty place left between the two pieces of matzah.”
The act of telling the story of the Exodus occurs through an exchange of conversation and ideas. We take the one whole matzah and break it in half because discussion and conversation occur when there is a minimum of two — me and the other.

On opening the door for Elijah, Ouaknin quotes the story in which Elijah goes alone to a cave on Mount Horev in the desert. God brings a great wind, and then an earthquake, and then a fire—but God was not in any of these. Instead, after the fire, he finds God in ‘a still, small voice.’ (1 Kings 19:11-13) Ouaknin comments that one must reach the level of Elijah, self-forgetfulness in the desert.

One must have sharpened one’s hearing, to be led to the absolute level of attention, to become capable of perceiving such a tenuous breath. One must have sounded oneself, have explored oneself in the darkest places of consciousness, to the furthest of thoughts, to have made the circuit of one’s inner domain many times, in constantly growing but nevertheless tightening circles, so as to attain the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness, to be able to be stroked lightly, touched, visited by such an inaudible sigh.
The point of concluding the seder with opening the door for Elijah is to signify that this journey in ‘the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness’ is the ultimate intention of the seder. While we aim to find ourselves on seder night, to reconnect with the story of our people and see ourselves as having personally left Egypt, remembering who we are paradoxically requires losing ourselves at the same time.

For his approach to “my forefathers worshiped idols” he quotes J.L. Marion about idols as false forms that distort reality and fill in the gap between us and the divine.
What the idol tries to reduce is the gap and the withdrawal of the divine… Filling in for the absence of the divinity, the idol brings the divine within reach, ensures its presence, and, eventually, distorts it. Its completion finishes the divine off… The idol lacks the distance that identifies and authenticates the divine as such–as that which does not belong to us, but which happens to us. (Ouaknin, The Burnt Book, p. 65)