Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A Christian Dialogue With A Kabbalist pt.1

Rabbi Yeshuda Lev Ashlag was perhaps the greatest 20th century philosopher of Kabbalah. Himself a Hasidic mystic of deep spiritual insight, the Rav dedicated his life to making the Kabbalah available to the masses of Jews and thus displaying what he considered the inner soul (pnimiyut) of the Torah to its people. Christians believe that the Torah, as well as being the gift of God to Israel for its guidance and identity, points in its essence and details to its ultimate consummation in Yeshua, the anointed King of the cosmos and teacher and deliverer of all humanity, Jesus Christ.
It might be an interesting exercise then, provided we find compelling Rav Ashlag's claim to unveil the soul of the Torah, to see whether and to what extent we can see the face of Jesus illuminated by the Rav's revelation of revelation's inner radiance.
My contention is that we can, which I hope to demonstrate in this series of essays. They will serve as an introduction to Rav Ashlag's thought, which I consider interesting in its own right, as well as a beginning foray into contemplating what the Rav reveals and how it does, or does not, point to the suffering servant who Christians consider himself to be the incarnate Word, or in other words, the soul of the Torah in the form of a man.
In order to begin looking at the thought of the Rav I will summarize and comment on his brilliant essays "Matan Torah" (The Giving of the Torah) and "Arvut" (Mutual Responsibility) which are parts one and two of one teaching where the Rav lays out his vision of the inner meaning and purpose of the Torah and mission of Israel. These essays were originally distributed by the Rav in Israel as pamphlets early in the century as the Zionist project was gaining steam.
Matan Torah
In the beginning of the essay Matan Torah the Rav begins by quoting the mitzvah (commandment) to "love your fellow as yourself" (Lev 13:9) and R' Akiva's comment that "zeh klal gadol b'Torah" ("this is the great principle of the Torah"). Rav explains that "klal" (principle) here means "inclusive" (from the same root as "kol" for "all"). So the Rav translates Akiva as saying "this is the great inclusive principle of all Torah". The other 612 mitzvot are included in it, writes the Rav. He further quotes Hillel's famous statement in the Talmud (Shabbat 31) summarizing all Torah with this one prinicple for the sake of a prospective convert, and then telling him: "The rest is commentary. Now go study." The Rav writes that this means that the rest of the Torah is just commentary on, or elaboration of, this commandment to love the other as yourself. "How could this be?", he asks. Can the mitzot bein adam l'makom (between humans and God) also be included in this miitzvah (which is technically in the class known as bein adam l' chavero- between people)?

Rav Ashlag touches here on a traditional Jewish teaching: that all the mitzvot can be classified into two categories, those between us and God and those between us and other people. Christians will immediately recognize the twofold "great commandment" of Jesus to love God and to love your fellow as yourself, which He said, in concert with general Jewish sensibility, to be the essence of the Torah (Matthew 22:36-40). The Rav is perplexed by the statement, made by two of the greatest teachers of Torah according to Rabbinic Judaism, that these two commandments can in fact be reduced to the one of loving your fellow as yourself.

Further, Ashlag says, we should understand that the principle is to love everyone "like yourself", ie to care for everyone in Israel's needs just as your own, which is tantamount to saying before your own. Note that at this point Rav Ashlag takes "your fellow" to mean "your fellow Jew". This understanding is normative in Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism, and contrasts with Jesus's famous parable of the good samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Rav Ashlag will not leave the issue quite to stand this way, however, as we will see later. Taking up his thread again, the Rav asks, "How can it be practically possible to do put others before yourself?" And it is really meant, he says, as the Talmudic text Kiddushin 20 shows on the treatment of the slave: if you cannot give your slave a pillow as good as your own you must give him the better, so that he be "happy with you".

The Rav then takes one step backward and says, "To understand all of this we must ask why the Torah was given to Israel specifically. Nationalism? No, he says, "one would have to be insane to think that". All of the Nations were offered the Torah and Israel was given it because she accepted. In other words Israel was not elected due to an arbitrary decision of God or because of God's love for Abraham: Israel became the carriers of the Torah because they chose to be and other nations did not. This explanation references a Midrash where God is said to have offered the Torah to all the nations who refused it because of their attachment to one sin or another. The original parable may be seen as another form of glorification of Israel, but Rav Ashlag is using it to make a different point. The Rav is saying that there was nothing special about Israel except a ripeness for the Torah. He will explain below what this ripeness consisted of.

The Rav then takes another cosmic step backward and asks, "What is the purpose of creation?" Every act is done with a purpose even among us, he says, how much more so is this the case with the Creator. He created to reveal His godliness to an other, which is a pleasant bounty He wishes to give. "Our sages tell us about that, that the world had not been created but for the purpose of keeping Torah and Mitzvot, meaning, as our sages have explained, that the aim of the Creator from the time He created His Creation is to reveal His Godliness to others. This is because the revelation of His Godliness reaches the creature as pleasant bounty that is ever growing until it reaches its full measure."

What the Rav is saying is that God created in order to give the goodness of Himself to another. In other words, God created out of love. Here again we see echoed two core Christian teachings: that God created in order to share His trinitarian life of love with another, or as John the evangelist says, "God is love (1 John 4:8). This corresponds closely to Catholic teaching as represented in the current Catechism (293-295): "St Bonaventure explains that God created all things "not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and communicate it", God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: "Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand".......We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God's free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom and goodness...."

As the Rav will explain, the purpose of Torah and Mitzvot (ie. learning and practice of the Torah) is to became capable of receiving the bounty that God wants to give us in His love. What the Creator want to give is in the Rav's kabbalistic-hasidic language "dvekut", which means something along the lines of "clinging/intimacy/union" with Himself and which corresponds well to the Christian idea of both union and, as we shall see, deification. The Rav does have a specific idea of what union, or closeness, with God would entail, which God willing we will explore next week.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Facing Our Sins and Passions

Have recently been reading John Newton's Cardiphonia. This is quite an amazing collection of letters. Despite my hesitations to affirm his theology (which I don't see a clear picture of yet, but I suspect is too Lutheran for me) I am hypnotized by his ruthless honesty. Amazing that he wrote in the 18th century in England! His self-lacerating and raw description of his mind and actions reads very modern, the key difference being that today people affirm their depravity in a vacuum of ideals, safe in a cozy nihilism of the impossibility of great virtue and the illusion of meta-narratives. Newton, of course, does not- he has mountain high, crystalline ideals and is a follower and worshipper of Christ, sinless lover of humanity and unimpeded incarnation of God's very own wisdom and Word. This makes his ruthless sin exposure truly laudable and bracing, especially when one considers that he was also writing as a Pastor!


All of this has inspired me to take a harder look at my own sins special and habitual, which are sadly numerous despite my tendency toward Pelagian hopes for my own moral accomplishments. This is spurred on by watching a relative of mine, now in his 60's, suffering from a series of humiliating and painful develeopments in his life which unfortunately follow straightforwardly and predictavly from the sins he has nurtured in his breast for decades. It reminded me of CS Lewis' The Great Divorce, with its depictions of the crooked, lost souls we make for ourselves and prefer, in the end, to the heaven whose price is humility, honesty, and the abandonment of our obsessive drives. How well, I wondered, do I really know my sins and their likely results? How well do I see the shape of my life? Perhaps it is time to sit down with oen and paper and huny myself before I am hunted.