Friday, October 19, 2007

Lamah: Why a way is hidden?

The parshat hashavua / Torah reading portion of the week is "Lech lecha - Go, march out, reach yourself" said to Abram in Bereishit 12:1-17:20. God insists to make him leave his native land; go out from his father's house and homeland. The words clearly mean that Abram is called by God to "become a great nation, be blessed... and all the families of the earth (mishpechot hadamah) shall bless themselves by you”. This also implies that these humans shaped and structured in families out of the earth - adamah like the Adam haqadmon, address themselves a blessing and not a cursing. They cannot restrict their benedictions to themselves but extend them to each other, nation to nations, family of the earth to any other nation of the earth.

"Lech lecha" sounds beautiful and like a challenge in Hebrew. "Halach - to go, march in/out, go forth" has this short imperative form and the shortened "l-" from "el, al, if not halach" shows something irrepressible. This is a major Shabbat and week in the Jewish cycle of the readings. In this portion, Abram accepts God's call to a move that, in his cultural and social environment could only look frightful, dangerous and hopeless, without significant goal.

Humans are like walkmen, people on a walk with a multitude of tunes: not used to wearing sandals, a tunic (at least some pants and a T shirt). Credit cards? A pocket toothbrush? Just call me Ape and my password is "God with us"; this can be declined from “Immanu-El” to "Gott mit uns" as it was written on the Nazi belts. Fear is worse than any anxious ignorance. Fear that we may discover when life can be set in a series of dangers imperiling our freedom, freewill, change our points of views or, on the contrary, widen them unexpectedly. There is much courage in Abram's response to God as he finally left his homeland and marched out. Did he come out as an adult? He did it twice because, when he firstly tried to leave his father's house, he got so scared according to the Tradition that he ran back or maybe did not even look too far.

Abram belongs to a male civilization. We know nothing about his mom. Let's even think that the man is a character composed of different personalities that lived at a certain period in the same region of Sumer, the cradle of reflection and conscience, culture, awareness that life is not vain. He had a mother like you and I and she might have been quite a character too! Abram does not leave his father's house, homeland. This is what we are told, but we know that he sent Eliezer to his father's home in order to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. And Jacob did the same. The third and last patriarch of Israel always chose his home tribe and parentage to prolong and develop Abraham's call to become a great nation.

The point is that Abram left his mom when he understood that he had to break the ties that existed in his father's house. He did not kill anyone, like Moshe, for instance, who killed an Egyptian, thus showing a bluffing solidarity with the Hebrews, his people. He accepted the price not to enter Eretz Canaan that had been promised to Abraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Indeed, Abram, leaving Ur-Kasdim and the area of Haran, firstly combated and overcame idolatry, destroying the mother-like natural nourishing and nurturing idols whose natural flavor he had suckled from his mother’s breasts. It is difficult to struggle and to go beyond the reach of this very gregarious experience. Abram has always been obedient to God… and to Sarai (Sarah) to some extent when he was not about to “give” her to Pharaoh as his sister. This kind of problem of fear lines with some existential anxiety that she could resolve for a while. Sarah made Abram really quit his father’s house and anticipate the serfdom bondage in Egypt when she proposed him to get a child with her maidservant Hagar, an Egyptian. From Mesopotamia to the Nile, Abraham and Sarah dug down to the heart of the Semitic and universal call: “Vehifreti otcha bimeod meod / I shall make you exceedingly fertile – unetatecha legoyim / and make nations of you” (Bereishit 17:6). This fertility is meant as “bimeod meod – in the very too much = totally human as Adam, using the same consonants as when God saw that His creation was “tov meod – very good” (Gen. 1:31).

The haftarah read for the Shabbat “Lech lecha” is a portion of the Book of Prophet Isaiah 40:27-41:16, common to the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions. There can be some differences between the various Jewish rites or minhagim. In fact, chapter 40 of the book begins with the famous consolation words: “Nachmu, nachmu ammi – comfort, comfort My people” (Isaiah 40:1). Some scholars presume that the Prophet was born around 765 BCE and was called to be a prophet in 740 in the Temple of Jerusalem. Isaiah was a talented prophet whose tongue profoundly imprinted the spirit of the nation. Prophets are men – and occasionally women – of speech. In his case, he summarized and “embodied” the vertical, transcendental call addressed by God to His people and to all the Nations. It is a time of danger for Israel that was seduced by idolatry and content with her own “self” and “divine Service”. The Babylonians would, in some short time of two centuries, destroy Jerusalem and the Temple and deport the Jews. Thus, it is usually considered that the haftarah portion read this week could not have been written by Isaiah. Instead, it is thinkable that chapters 40-55 were included because of the great zeal and faith shown by a sort of “gilgul acher – another shadow or double” of the great Prophet who always referred to sanctity and confidence in God. The scientific exegetes conducted by the Christian theologians suggested the existence of a “Second Isaiah” who produced this “Book of the consolation”. The Prophet Isaiah was supposedly slaughtered under Manasseh according to the Jewish tradition. His impact on the “revelation of the Messiah” – the coming in and out of the Mashiach/Moshiach – has been very powerful and continues to be of great importance in the debates between Judaism and Christianity.

On the other hand, “nachmu nachmu ammi” can also be read as “nachmu immi – comfort together with Me”. This sounds in harmony with Abram’s intercession and dialogue with God about the necessity of saving Sodom if there were a few righteous living in the city. We are God’s co-workers, co-builders. This might sometimes be a bit bizarre in Jerusalem. We c an often meet people who would contact us “because they need to minister in the Holy Land”. The kind of comfort that is suggested is an open-minded and realistic hope. “God gives strength to the weary, fresh vigor to the spent. Youths may grow faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but they who trust in the Lord shall renew their strength as eagles grow new plumes” (Isaiah 40:30-31; cf. Tehillim 103:3). “Melech shebe’ofot nesher – the king of the birds is the eagle” states Hagigah 13b. The animal is unclean (Hullin 60b) but very kind to his young ones (Peah I, 15d). “God shall give the righteous wings like those of the eagles and they shall soar” (Sanhedrin 92b), even if “nesharim” refers to “the powerful heathen Romans” (Sanhedrin 12a).

The person who is called to read the “haftarah – additional/completing (prophetic) reading” is called a “maftir – implementing/carrying out utensil-person”. His task is to break through – “patar” (Berachot 8, 1, 46a). He would seemingly discharge and dismiss the community with one more reading that would be related to some birthing (Ketubot 12, 5). “Petar” means altogether: “to free, dismiss, let go and divorce”. The maftir has the awesome privilege to be the last of those called up to conclude with the prophetic reading. During a very long period, the Book of the Prophets could conclude all the readings by a sort of personal choice made by the maftir (reader) himself. There was no specific order. Interestingly, Jesus of Nazareth acted as maftir when he read in the synagogue from the Book of Prophet Isaiah: “He was handed over a scroll of the prophet, unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, thus He has anointed me to bring good tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind and let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. Rolling back the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.” (Luke 4: 16-30; cf. Isaiah 42:1.sq). He then delivered a speech about the meaning of the text as the lesson that should be also given by the maftir.

The quotation makes sense in the context of New Year seasons as also the citation of the daily morning blessings kept in the Jewish tradition about the liberation of the captives and the recovery of the sight to the blind.

On the coming Monday, the Eastern Orthodox Church will celebrate the memory of the Righteous Abraham and Lot, showing the very ancient roots of how to quit oneself for God’s sake and redemption. I often wonder why there is no synagogue, no “ohaley shalom – tents of peace”, place of meditation or church, chapel at Sodom. Beyond this small ocean of salt (it preserves and revives at times) and its industrial importance, the place is at the heart of all ethical and spiritual combats for righteousness: from sex to societal rejection, moral blindness and fenced horizons for which Abraham interceded like a plume-renewing eagle.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Haftarot: a world of additions

We entered the month of (mar)Cheshvan which is typically after-autumnal, sweeping old things and trash away from our environment and daily embarrassments of all sorts. The Gospel has it in the words of John the Baptist: "The ax lies now at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Luke 3:9; Matthew 3:10). There was some snow a few days ago in Helsinki, around Karelia and Riga. In Finland, woods and lakes (Finnish Suomenmaa = country of the lakes) display immense landscapes with ever-green huge trees. You meet more trees than humans and humans are silent and nice as these arboreal plants: the one who studies the Torah is like a tree - hu ke'ets" that grows with harmony and experiences wisdom. And Psalm 1 adds: "shatul al-palgey mayim - (trans)planted in the middle of the waters". Would a tree survive if it were rooted directly in the midst of the waters? The allusion traces back to the Temple and the measures of waters that were overflowing, producing a surplus quantity of life and goods. At least, on Finland, trees are always very close to lakes and vice versa. Nature and humbleness may sometime be affected by the darkness or a forest environment that would totally cover and seize, restrict human breathing-in strangely by providing pure and more refreshing air.

For some days, anonymous believers as we should say in Israel gathered with some clergy in a Lutheran old country, previously Catholic and always steadily christened by the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was "obvious" for these people to hear the Eastern Orthodox Christian prayers in Hebrew along with the "legal" tongues of the "Republic, State or Riket (in Swedish)": Finnish, Swedish and some Russian, Romanian, Greek or other languages. The Finns are of course used to speak in Finnish whose origins are not precisely defined but definitely connected this part of Europe with the thinking ways of Hungarian, the Uighurs and Japanese. In the North, the Lapps add an all-Scandinavian touch of Sami and reindeer specificity. The nice aspect of the meeting was that Hebrew is absolutely "evident" for most Finnish believers. This is quite rare in the Churches. Therefore, this is a precious and valuable treasure that has nothing to do with any political statement. Good gracious, I guess God would make us feel full of shame - a shond - and real shame, if any soul would pretend that a speech is worthier than other parlances. What? God would not understand those we despise and cannot stand on a voluntarily irrational basis? Flemish vs French, Gaelic and Welsh vs English? Just as some people would run to dig out the mikveh (ritual pool) of Jesus of Nazareth, would we some day find the earthen DVD of Adam's family talks with the Lord, Eve and the snake. That would be such a poignant jerk! Some opine it was pure Aramaic...

At the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th century, the Jews of Finland spoke Yiddish and German, Swedish or Russian. How fascinating it is to jump through the clouds from a modern Finnish language (Amos Oz is a best there) to the official revival of Latvian and Lithuanian, among the most ancient languages of Europe along with Icelandic.

These days, the same questions were discussed: Do Jews have any place in the Churches? Let's put this in other words. Judaism is Jewish. Well, it may not be so evident at times and it is indeed possible to kid some new-old trends that undoubtedly consider themselves as some part of Jewishness. This is an interior affair issue of Jews quarreling with Jews. Long before the creation of the State of Israel, Hebrew Christians have been present in the Churches. This is also indisputable and patent. The Early Church of Jerusalem was entirely composed of Jews, very pious ones who used to go everyday to the Temple (Acts of the Apostles 2:46).

At the present, Jews do not exist as such in any historical Church and this is a very questionable historic factor. It is rather suspicious and intriguing that, during World War II, baptism has been considered as a possible way to be rescued from the peril of death in the concentration camps. A huge number of souls have perished as Hebrew Christians. Some of them, like Edith Stein for the Roman Catholic Church show the “borderline” situation of claims: a Christian martyr and a Jewish too? The Eastern Orthodox Churches have counted numerous Hebrew Christian martyrs during the Shoah. It is far too early for the Eastern Churches newly freed from communism and underscoring the ethnical aspect of their Christian faith to recognize to the full such martyrs as Christians and Jews or of Jewish descent. Still, there is one more problem. The “Church” corresponds to the “Qahal – the Great Assembly” as a one and unique body. Is this so visible and can we feel, taste that as the fulfillment of the commandment of love, in the mutual relationships of Jews and Gentiles? There might be a problem… The epistle of Paul of Tarsus to the Ephesians 2:14-21 firmly states that “from the two = Israel and the Nations, there is one body”. The whole of history has consisted in showing mutual drifting-away, estrangement, replacement attitudes founded on so-called theology and excluding the process of “oneness” and unity of humankind in the face of God and His likeness..

It is thus a spellbinding and mesmerizing challenge to study how Europe is at pains in trying to define in its legal Constitution the Christian roots of its existence. These fundamentals are not based on any power. The roots are like the trees, transplanted into various contexts that have nowhere been ethnically pure, clean, “DNA or blood test born again in the spirit”. The magnetism, exercised by this process of an ancient spiritual European Christian essential core, proceeds from faith, their capacities to say “amen” to God. Somehow, this corresponds to the “emunah shlemah – perfect faith” in Judaism. If we consider the individual and collective spiritual changes, Christianity took different aspects in Europe that is widely broken down into small denominations in the New World, weakening the essential meaning of “oneness”.

With regards to the Jews in the Churches, they mirror this estranging broken-down process of divergences, disunion and often abrupt ruptures. These breaches do exist in Judaism. Many current discussions about how to respect the Mitzvot come from the difficulty for a large number of Jews to resolve their own temptation of idolatry. This occurs in cultural contexts that do not refer to any principle of faith. Indeed, many Jews became members of historically separated Churches. It is an astounding and interesting cultural phenomenon. It also constitutes a paradox for the authentic unity of the Church.

The emergence of Israel does not allow multiplying the multi-faceted reasons that would lead some Christian denominations to back or reject Jewishness for mutual tactical advantages or convenience. Say that political options are deceitful and wrong on both sides. The heart of the problem resides in an efficient and trustworthy knowledge and respect of ways to combat idolatry. Curiously, idolatry shows both in the progressive decrease or absence of faith but also in renewed tendencies to ritual stiffness avoid too much understand of spiritual questioning.

This induces that we are on the move, en route to God and that true, respectful love, esteem and recognition are possible between Jews and the Christian Church. This has shown to be close to an “impossible challenge” and still a constant expectation, at least from the part of some Christians and some Jews.

During the past year, I tried to propose each week a special approach of the liturgical, i.e.
the Shabbat readings of the Torah and the Feasts with a positive and progressive view into the Christian tradition, mainly the Eastern Orthodox one. It allows starting from the “roots” and envisioning how the readings respond or interrogate our ethical way of living in Israeli society.

Since the most ancient times, the Jews have read “haftarah/ot – additional texts” written by the “Nevi’im – Prophets of Israel” who envisioned with much realism the future development of the Klal Israel as well as the relationship of the Nations to the living God. Traditionally, “haftarah” also means “a farewell address, goodbye toast party” (Gen. Rabbah 69). We are used to words like “hitpater – to leave, quit, dismiss” as concerns some politicians.

We live in a region that is inspirited at the source of the Prophets. Their texts have always been read by the traditional Churches. At the present, there are various customs but most denominations do insist on the words of the Prophets. The “haftarot – prophetic readings” (Megillah 30b) also pave the way to more spiritual flexibility.