Thursday, March 12, 2009

Amalek, free will and Purim... icons

The weekly reading portion is "Tetsaveh - תצוה", immediately followed this year by the parshat Zachor (Exodus 17:8-16 and as described in the additional Torah reading for this Shabbat, Deuteronomy 25:17-19 and in the special haftarah reading for this Shabbat, 1 Samuel 25:1-34) or the memorial of Amalek on this special Shabbat before Passover/Pesach 5769. The reading continues by describing how to clothe the priests. It is a sort of linen and silk fashion explanation of how to be correctly dressed (up) for the Service. The pending is question is to know what happens beside the vestments. This is a real problem. We are often totally cheated by the way people are clothed. This is true, in particular, in our Israeli society, in which there are specific signs for special groups. Hats, robes, coats, jackets mostly indicate to which spiritual or social group we are supposed to belong. It is not always exact. But it is relevant. In other societies, fashion and/or vestments will show a social stand. In Israel, hats, for example, can immediately tell a person about your appertaining: Breslover, Lubavitch, other chassidic groups have different hats or skullcaps; this is also the case for the Greeks, the Armenians, Syrian Orthodox, Russian or Romanian Orthodox. A very famous Greek metropolitan, Emilianos Timiadis, of Sylvestria (of eternal memory), who was the representative of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Geneva and the World Council of Churches invited by the Armenian clergy and honored by being given the title and the special head cover of the Armenian "Vardaped" (clerical rank). He went out into the street wearing this cover and he immediately met some Orthodox faithful who started to gossip pretending that the very Orthodox byzantine hierarch had converted to the Armenian Church!

This is a real problem in Israel since the beginning of the second Intifada. People look at each other to see if they wear the same signs. If they don't they get suspicious, but the interrogation is why they are so often mistaken. For example, during the many terror attacks, the "Palestinian terrorists" (men and women) often used to be dressed like very pious Jews (great prayer shawl, phylacteries, etc.). On the other hand, it never happened that the terrorists would be dressed like Christian clergymen, in particular they never were found wearing black or colorful cassocks and Eastern head covers. Nonetheless, the police used to immediately stop and question any "visible" member of the clergy. They simply could miss the real terrorists.

I had a "word" for that. The roots are definitely not confirmed but it is amazing: "beged\בגד = cloth(ing) = ) and "begidah\בגידה = treason, cheat". I even started my Israeli press blogs on that matter by answering in the daily HaAretz. It was by the time the second antifada began. I explained how much confused our ways of socializing can be at times. It is quite impossible for people in this country and cultural area to get astray of such habits. The matter is very intriguing: on the one hand, we live in a country full of contrasts, from the desert up to the mildness of Galilee. Mountains, hills, caves and sand, sea and salt, there is room for interiority, room for personal questioning and identification. It has proven to be the most challenging matter over the millenia in the Middle- and Near East. In fact, we are definitely not sure that there is a real linguistic connection between the two Hebrew words. Still, according to the Talmudic tradition, it does make sense to compare the two words and to establish a semantic link. This is the immense wealth of Hebrew and it can surprise a lot of non-Jewish people. I recently explained that to an artist friend and she was very astounded. In my teachings among the Christians, it has always been a very difficult exercise because consonants are scarcely perceived as meaningful each time they are put together in order to create a new word or concept.

The problem is that we are indeed betrayed by "external look". This is very sensitive at the present because of the existence of virtual and real worlds and envisioning. True that when God made clothes for Adam and Eve, the did not understand at first that they had disobeyed and had been tested by a very clever little creeping creature that humankind could get to the same might and power as God: do anything without having the same insightful capacities. We are supposedly able to discern between good and bad, good factor or bad Evil. We still think that we may get astray and mix up discernment abilities. This is the dangerous part. And how many of us do accept or get to the core of what is said by God: we have no access in the present to the "Tree of Life".

In the Near and Middle East people never used to mix up the vestments. In the weekly reading we should firstly note the absence of Moses. He is not the acting one. Those who are taught are Aaron and his sons; how to make and use the vestments for the Holy Service. What does it mean to serve in the Presence of God and inside of a "Mishkan\משכן - dwelling -"? The Jewish tradition has it as well: we are the place of the Shechinah = it means that we are the Divine Temple, a notion that Paul of Tarsus underlines in his epistle, in the same way (1 Corinthians 3:16 - 2 Corinthians 6:16). So why the living bodies that we are and so enspirited by the Holy Spirit and the Divine Presence should gather into a Mishkan and serve there? As different individuals, each of us is a "living treasure", a "nest of wealth - ken osher". Getting together allows us to reach to the fulfillment, from the small nest and the mitzvah never to remove the mother of the little birds (Deut. 22:6) till the huge tree that spreads its branches till into the high. This is the parable of the mustard seed that grows so much that the birds can all gather to make their nests and rest there (Luc 13:19; cf. Matthew 13:32). Our "one bodies" are isolated but have to gather together to shape the forms of this wide human body that is the visible and invisible Temple of the Divine Presence.

Good enough. But in the presence, we limit this space to who we are visibly. We are very "fashion", "fathom", "clothing and bling bling" and accessories. Strange, because Jews should never wear rings, for instance. The bridegroom gives to his bride a ring that she puts on her medium finger; he says that "she is "mekudeshet/consecrated consу we expect in accordance to our "principles". Women are welcoming men in order to give them discernment and contest. In return men come to women in order to fertilize them in many various aspects. This "connectedness" does not show so often in the present and constitutes a real societal problem in Israel.

This is the same issue we face with clothes. They disguise, cheat, betray who we are. Fashion can be wonderful, repeatedly the same over long centuries or innovating. Colors, forms, designs change. We love either somber and dark colors,simple dress or very warm, hot, sensual. Fashion shows the lines of our bodies or, on the contrary, it hides the limbs as for the tchador (women) and ghandurahs. Is nakedness a sin? It seems that human spirit requires some sort of cover since immemorial times.

Hebrew "arum / ערום " = "nakedness or shame" is a very interesting root. "Man should always be prudent or deliberate in the fear of the Lord and consider in what manner he can best serve the Lord" (Berachot 17a). "There are men who are clever in knowledge and yet conduct themselves humbly (wise in a evil way) like domestic animals without brains"(Hullin 5b). "Arum" has different and alternative meanings: "wise in an evil manner, subtle, naked and shameful". On the other hand, "He who handles a naked scroll of the Law and touches it directly with his bare hand) will be buried naked (Shabbat 23b).

The question is pending in the Talmud, it is real: 3When the dead will rise , will they rise naked or dressed?" (Sanhedrin 90b). On the eve of Purim, this commentary is also intriguing about Vashti, i.e. Esther-Hadas: "Would she -Vashti - appear undressed in front of the King?" (Megillah 12b). And thus: "Let the love-sick man die, but his woman should not appear undressed in such a moment" (Sanhedrin 75a).

Our shapes are without screen and protection. It would require a very special intuitive capacity to overcome shame of desires to seize what can be touched. It is maybe a part of "human solitude". The Talmud on the Scroll of Esther includes a lot of verses commenting whether it is or not fit for the queen to be dressed or undressed. And it is then mentioned that the Torah scroll has to be "dressed, covered" in order to be revealed.

In the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine tradition, it should be noted that the vestments of the clergy are usually magnificent. They are firstly "wedding garments" and therefore must be bright and wonderful. On the other hand, from the deacons to the priests and bishops, the clergy dress starting in simple cassocks, a sign of humility and "nakedness" and they progressively put on the vestments as clothing themselves with God's glory. This is why, during the celebration, the faithful do not really (or should not) pay attention to who the celebrant is. He "disappears, is hidden" by the clothes of the High Priest, i.e. in Christianity Jesus Christ (Psalm 110).

This is why we cannot be versatile. Our generation is going through this kind of temptation. Easy clothing, cheap, non-expensive and widely-distributed vestments allow to change all the time. We hardly value the price and beauty of clothes. This is moreover a source of confusion since modern styles do not formerly prohibit to dress by sex differencing ans it was the case in the Bible from old. Today, in Israel, most women would prefer to wear pants and jeans that are more "comfy" in their daily life. They would also switch to robes and skirts, just as the Scots are known for their kilts. One-sex or unisex is spreading, not in fashion. Fashion is the sign. Changing dress all the time and mixing male and female "appearance" may conduct to "androgynous, undifferentiated" looks. Is it only a look or something that is more significant in our spiritual and mental behaviors and choices. When the disciples are fishing on the Sea o Galilee and cannot take fish for a whole night, they discover in the morning that they are not alone on the sea-shore; they recognized Jesus though no one dared say a word. They were "convinced" he was with them, asking for some food, fish. Then, Shimon-Peter got ashamed because he was naked and he hurried up to dress (John 21:7).

In the present, it would be rather amazing to see a pope, a patriarch, a metropolitan naked on a beach and none of them would even think of fishing all the night... It is not a problem of nudism. Maybe, in a reversed situation, we are too much fashioned and would be afraid to get ashamed as Peter got afraid at the sight of the resurrected Lord. We are "overclothed". We are no more overshadowed by the Divine Presence, The Divine Presence is overclouded by what we have fabricated. It became so sophisticated that we can only feel compulsions in a negative way. I have a very talented friend in a group. She is a typical modern Israeli photographer. A lot of mental and spiritual search somehow, not very clerical and rather "through the mirror, self-mirroring"; a bit seeking for who people are in colors, ideas, fancies, clothes, fascinated by the power of bodies. This must be taken into account in the modern society, in particular in Israel.

I am convinced that Jews have a sort of very in-depth experience of "touching the borderline of sin" without being touched or harmed by sin. It can at times be worse than normal commitment with trespasses. In Hebrew, "light = or/ אור", but as we know, God changed the limpidity of nakedness into a vestment of "skins = or / עור" written with a "ayin\עין". The light turns into what has been understood as "darkness". There may be more. "arah\ערה = arum = stripped, naked bare, i.e. "to stir up and "heerah הערה = to stimulate, especially the sexual organ by contact (as considered when having the first stage of contact); this leads to the notion of "to be interwoven, entangled or captured, caught". It may also refer to the Temple Service: "the cherubim whose bodies were intertwisted with one another" (Yoma 54a). Indeed, skins and cover, clothes seem to veil. Just as "hitarer = to wake up, to stir up" out of a sleep to get into reality.

The real problem is to remain "clean" while turning into some cover to clothe oneself and then unveil things that we are not likely to discover about ourselves or others. We live in a difficult time and we are often trapped into our own look(s). Our image is not "iconic" and it is sometimes very difficult for us to discover the true image of holiness that should be unveiled in each human being. It needs a lot of search, a lot of understanding, beyond surface and appearance. Interestingly, the Russian Orthodox tradition has very quickly adopted the photographs as possible "icons" to be "venerated" as "written (painted) icons" can be according to specific traditions and rules. It means that "photographs" are "the light or enlightened writing/scripture" that allow us to memorize the spiritual interiority of the people we meet with. It may some day be extended to videos, films. At this point, nakedness can also bring "original nakedness or innocence full of light" just as some Ethiopian icons will show naked Adam and Eve under the tree or the Virgin breastfeeding the Child Jesus. There is no need to show this; the only reason is maybe to get to the core of incarnation and its initial clarity, sanctity and holiness. Our overmediatic world needs a repair in that sense.

Is it a coincidence that former Israeli President Moshe Katzav has been indicted on this day of the International Women Day for harassment and sexual assault. This is a terrible accusation. He is certainly not the only politician who could be prosecuted for such reasons. Israel and the Jewish tradition show a long "physical" commitment with trespasses. It also reveals, on the other hand, that the matter is a permanent interrogation about who we are in the great mystery of our call to be men or women. We are never entitled to infringe the reality of our call to be carnal and that we have been called to "take flesh". This is a flash of light, embodied in each individual. This is why Purim does not allow any soul to lose the call that has been shown by incarnation.

There is a moment when at Purim, it is allowed to drink alcohol to the point that it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish between reality and dream, normal stand and the state o being drunken. It is the same as with disguisement: man or woman, carnaval or reality? truth or fake? We have the same in our society, usually about sex. In reality, this is not related to sex. It is dealing with the hardship to get to our identity. It is a terrible search for a lot of youths. Once we try to correct and pray for the correction of those who get addicted to rape, perversions, the main issue that shows up is "dignity", and true combat against idolatry. True faith and confidence lead us to choose the Divine decision upon us.

av Aleksandr [Winogradsky Frenkel]
Original Adam and Eve under the tree

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