I love opinionated non-PC people. This blog is to vent my opinions on life, the universe and everything. Which is 42 which in gematria is "My Heart" (LBY) according to Rabbi Abulafia. The Divine Heart is the centre of everything.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Jewish and Marian reading of St John of the Cross

St John of the Cross was one of the greatest spiritual writers and mystics of the Catholic Church as well as a great reformer (in association with St Teresa of Avila) of the Carmelite Order. In my tutorial presentation I wish to focus on the Jewish background of St John of the Cross and the influence of Jewish teachings that in a hidden manner emphasizes the Marian dimension of his writings. In this tutorial I wish to focus on his concept of the Dark Night especially referring to the second book of the Dark Night and the 16th chapter.

            John was born as Juan de Yepes y Alvarez. His father Gonzalo de Yepes was of a wealthy converso (converted Jewish family) that like the family of St Teresa of Avila were silk merchants. These families of silk merchants had officially converted to Catholicism in 1391 and had spent much effort hiding their Jewish origins so they could pass for families of “pure blood” Old Christians.[1]  Gonzalo threatened this secrecy when he married Catalina Alvarez a Jewish conversa from a recently converted family from Toledo.[2] Toledo was known to have a network of Conversos families.[3] In fact St Teresa’s paternal family also came from a Jewish conversos family of Toledo who moved to Avila after they did penance in an auto-de-fe in 1485 for relapsing into Judaism.[4] Gonzalo and Catalina were cut off from the Yepes family and they became simple weavers.[5]

            Toledo was known as a centre of Kabbalah and the Church, encouraged by Popes, for over a hundred years had been advocating the study of Jewish Kabbalah as a way to explain more fully the Catholic mysteries. In fact some writers believe that it was the Catholic Church that helped spread the wisdom of the Kabbalah especially the Zohar. Sixtus IV ordered the translation into Latin of seventy works of Kabbalah and Pope Paul IV encouraged and supported the first printing of the Zohar. Both St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila used the writings of Bernardino de Laredo (especially the Ascent of Mount Sion) who was a known converso (as well as a doctor and a Franciscan) drawing on Jewish mystical traditions.[6]

            Bernardino de Laredo’s writings were able to be passed by the Inquisition only when he rewrote them emphasizing Scriptural quotes and Catholic sources. St John of the Cross followed his example by explaining his ideas with frequent scriptural references. Even then certain sections of his writings seem to have been removed. One who is familiar with the Jewish Kabbalah and mystical books can’t help but notice that St John of the Cross refers to the same Scriptural sources as the mystical writings of the Jewish rabbis and mystics. The Bahir seems to be one source, whether used directly or indirectly, for some of St John’s teachings.[7] My point is that it is only going back to the Jewish sources in order to understand St John’s concept fully that it is clearly reveals the deeply hidden Marian nature of John’s writings.

            St John of the Cross uses Psalm 18 to explain his concept of mystical darkness. The opening verses of the Bahir also quotes this same Psalm 18 in order to explain the spiritual darkness in a discussion of the two spiritual ways of darkness and of light.
Rabbi Nehuniah ben HaKana said: One verse (Job 37:21) states, "And now they do not see light, it is brilliant (Bahir) in the skies…[round about God in terrible majesty]." Another verse, however, (Psalm 18:12), states, "He made darkness His hiding place." It is also written (Psalm 97:2), "Cloud and gloom surround Him." This is an apparent contradiction. A third verse comes and reconciles the two. It is written (Psalm139:12), "Even darkness is not dark to You. Night shines like day -- light and darkness are the same."... (Bahir 1).[8]
The Ramban in his commentary on Genesis distinguishes between the “vakhoshekh” (and darkness) in Genesis 1:2 and the ‘hakhoshek’ (the darkness) mentioned in verses 4 and 5[9] which is also linked by the Jewish tradition to the darkness of Miriam’s Well.

            This second darkness is a created female darkness connected with the “face over the waters”. This is linked by the Kabbalists with the female created Wisdom of Proverbs 8 in regards to the circle (face over the waters) drawn over the face of the deep. They consider the vayhi or (and there was light) to be the created female light of the Celestial Mother which is hidden in the darkness of Miriam’s Well (well waters are primordial waters) on the twilight between the first and second day of Creation. This mother is called Miriam (Bitter Seas) and Zohar (dark light or splendour). She is associated with the concept of the tabernacle and house of God’s presence (Shekhinah). St John when speaking of the Dark Night of the Soul uses the term dark waters, dark contemplation, dark night, tabernacle, hidden, hiding place, tabernacle of David, divine Wisdom in souls[10] which are all allusions to this Dark Lady or Black Madonna who is the Lady of Carmel. Carmelite tradition associates the yad (hand or foot) shaped[11] dark water/rain cloud seen by Elijah on Mt Carmel with the Virgin Mary and the foot of the woman in Genesis 3:15.[12]

            The concept of the dark night in John’s writings refers to four kinds of dark night divided into two categories. The first dark night is the dark night of the senses and the second dark night is the dark night of the soul which is divided into three dark nights- the dark night of the memory, dark night of the intellect and the dark night of the will. This is also understood in the concept of the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways linked to hope, faith, and love.[13]

            This is also linked to the four worlds in Kabbalah of Assiyah (action), Yetzirah (formation), Beriah (creation) and Atzilut (nearness to God).[14] The dark night of the senses is an active dark night in which one uses the disciplines and good deeds given in the commandments to achieve ones purpose. At this stage the bride (soul) circles the bridegroom.[15] The dark night of the soul is a passive dark night. The passive dark night of memory (purgative) leads one to hope (tikvah) which is the bathing and cleansing of the bride (soul). The passive dark night of intellect (illuminative) leads one to faith (emuna) and is the dressing of the bride in her bridal pearl garments.[16] The passive dark night of the will (unitive) leads to love (ahavah) and the undressing of the bride by the bridegroom and consummation.  This is the level which culminates in divine coupling (cleaving /union/ devekut) of the soul and her beloved Lord. The dark and beautiful Lady of the Song of Songs, delights in her beloved one in mystical and virginal nuptial union. This is why St John of the Cross writes his concepts firstly in poetry that mirrors the poetry of the Song of Songs. After this he explains each verse of his poem in more detail constantly referring one to a mystical reading of Biblical texts and verses.[17]

            In order to more fully understand this wisdom one needs to understand the Kabbalistic understanding of the Divine Man (Adam Kadmon) or Tree of Life in regards to the sefirot or attributes of God. The left side of the Sefirotic array is classified as the female side and the side of the dark light (zohar) and the right side of the array is associated with the male and the brilliant light (bahir). The uncreated Sefirot described by the Ramban (Nachmanides) is associated with Adam Kadmon (Kingdom of Holiness or Divine Will) and the perfect or immaculate mirror or reflection that is the created Sefirot (described by Rambam/ Maimonides) is the female known as Shekhinah (female Presence) and Kavodah (female Glory of God).  
"What is his heart? He said: Mother (Imma), Ben Zoma is outside, and you are with him. The heart (Lev) in gematria is thirty-two. These are concealed, and with them the world was created. What are these 32? He said: These are the 32 Paths. This is like a king who was in the innermost of many chambers. The number of such chambers was 32, and to each one there was a path. Should the king bring everyone to his chamber through these paths? You will agree that he should not. Should he reveal his jewels, his tapestries, his hidden and concealed secrets? You will again agree that he should not. What then does he do? He touches the Daughter, and includes all the paths in her and in her garments. One who wants to go inside should gaze there. He married her to a king, and also gave her to him as a gift. Because of his love for her, he sometimes calls her “my sister,” since they are both from one place. Sometimes he calls her his daughter, since she is actually his daughter. And sometimes he calls her “my mother.”..." (Bahir 63).[18]
Hidden in the text of the writings of St John of the Cross is this Dark Lady of Carmel who is the burning bush and the dark fire that burns unto the heart of heaven. The Bahir (31) states  
...What is “God’s glory”? What is this like? A king had a matron [Matronita] in his chamber, and all his troops delighted in her. She had sons, and each day they came to see the king and to bless him. They asked him, “Where is our mother?” He replied, “You cannot see her now.” They said, “Let her be blessed wherever she is.”...[19]
The Song of Songs (7:5) refers to the head (rosh) over Carmel which can be linked with the word Be-ReSH-it (In the Beginning) read as the bat (daughter/lady) of the Rosh (Head). Flowing from this ‘beginning’ the creator reveals himself through the first three days of darkness which are the primordial dark nights of the soul unleashed from the ‘face over the deep’ by the power of the Holy Spirit (Ruach Elohim) hovering or overshadowing the ‘face over the waters’ she who is the blueprint (umanuta) of all Creation. The darkness hides the mystery of her Son who is God and man- the Primordial uncreated Adam (Adam Kadmon) who takes created flesh (from the Lady of Carmel) as the Messiah (Zer Anpin/ Little or Shorter Face). The soul of each man united with the Lady of Carmel and her Son the ‘Head (Rosh) over Carmel’ and the ‘Head (Rosh) of Creation (Beginning)’ must return through the darkness of the three days to its source in the divine Will.

            Our Lady of Carmel is this Dark Lady of whom Lord Byron, in the style of the poems of St John of the Cross, wrote of in his “Hebrew Melodies”.
SHE walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

And all that's best of dark and bright

Meets in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impair'd the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress

Or softly lightens o'er her face,
Where thoughts serenely sweet express

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek and o'er that brow

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,—

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent.


[1] Michael Dodd (OCD), “John of the Cross: His Person, His Times and His Writings” Carmelite Studies VI (Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2000).
[2]  Michael Dodd (OCD), “John of the Cross: His Person, His Times and His Writings”.
[3] Linda Martz, A Network of Converso Families in Early Modern Toledo: Assimilating a Minority (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003). 
[4] Gerald Brenan, St John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 94-95.
[5] Michael Dodd (OCD), “John of the Cross: His Person, His Times and His Writings”.
[7] Aryeh Kaplan, (trans), The Bahir (United States of America: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1979).
[8] Bahir 1
[9] Rabbi C. Chavel (translator), Ramban Nachmanides: Commentary on the Torah Genesis (New York: Shilo Publishing House, 1973).
[10] E. Allison Peers, The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross (Wheathampstead Hertfordshire: Anthony Clarke, 1974), 425-427.
[11] In ancient Hebrew ‘yad’ referred to any of the extensions of the limbs- hands and feet. In modern and Rabbinic Hebrew ‘yad’ refers to the hand.
[12] http://www.carmeldundee.co.uk/carmel-scapular.htm
[13] E. Allison Peers, The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross.
[14] Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation: In Theory and Practice (Boston: Red Wheel/Weiser, 1997).
[15] Psalm 19:5-8: "For the Sun he set up a tent in their midst, which is like a groom emerging from the nuptial chamber, like a warrior eager to run the course. The source is at the ends of the heavens, its circuit is to their end; nothing escapes its burning heat. The Torah of God is perfect, restoring the soul."
[16] Zohar Veyechi speaks of the garment as the ‘Splendour of Carmel’ made by the dripping of pearls.
[17] E. Allison Peers, The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross.
[18] Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, (trans), The Bahir (United States of America: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1979), 63.
[19] Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, (trans), The Bahir (United States of America: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1979), 31.


Berg, Michael.(translator) The Zohar New York: Kabbalah Center, 2003.

Brenan, Gerald.  St John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry, London: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Chavel, C. (translator). Ramban Nachmanides: Commentary on the Torah. New York: Genesis Shilo Publishing House, 1973.

Dodd, Michael (OCD). “John of the Cross: His Person, His Times and His Writings”Carmelite Studies VI. Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2000.

Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation: In Theory and Practice. Boston: Red Wheel/ Weiser, 1997.

Kaplan, Aryeh (trans). The Bahir. United States of Amercia: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1979.  

Martz, Linda.  A Network of Converso Families in Early Modern Toledo: Assimilating a Minority. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. 

Peers, E. Allison. The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross.Wheathampstead Hertfordshire: Anthony Clarke, 1974.
The Holy Bible. Douay-Rheims ed., New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2009.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Raza d’Razin: Storytelling, Mystery and Kingdom

In order to understand the“Mystery of Christ" in regards to the Church and Sacraments we need to focus on the wider historical and theological setting of a discussion of the Sacraments and sacramental theology. This includes a special emphasis on the Paschal mystery.  I have chosen four readings as the base of my discussion of this topic. These readings cover a wealth of material but I have chosen to focus on the elements of historical setting, storytelling or narrative, Mystery and Kingdom of God. One can only truly understand these elements if they are comprehended in the light of their biblical and Jewish roots or origins.

            The first reading is from “Dictionary of the Liturgy” by Lang[1] from a section titled “Select Chronology of Major Events in the History of the Liturgy”.  Lang gives a comprehensive chronology of the history of the liturgy, however for my purposes I wish only to discuss those earlier sections of the chapter that focuses on the Jewish background and setting of the liturgy. Understanding the Liturgy in its Jewish dimension is crucial for a fuller understanding of liturgy and sacraments and the very nature of the church itself. Louis Bouyer[2] was one of the most important theologians and scholars to write comprehensively on the origins of the Eucharistic prayers in the context of the Jewish b’rachas (berakhot/ blessings). It would seem that Lang is drawing on these insights of Bouyer.

            Lang correctly situates Jesus within his own Jewish culture as an observant Jew.[3] He also mentions how Jesus takes the Jewish prayers (such as the Shema) and the Jewish berakhot (blessing prayers) and adapts them to his own Messinaic use.[4] Lang effectively supports his understanding with frequent Scriptural references. Those familiar with the Old Testament and with the living oral tradition of Jewish life and practice almost immediately see these Jewish origins in the Liturgy and Sacraments.

            Lang also discusses how the Eucharist is connected to the Jewish Passover Seder (Meal) and how Jesus adapts those elements in his own Last Supper meal.[5] He also discusses it in connection with the other meals mentioned in the Gospels. N. T. Wright a famous Anglican theologian also mentions how Luke’s Gospels recounts 8 major meals which he links to the Essene Jewish emphasis on the sacred meal or banquet.[6] Lang also mentions that the concept of the Messianic Meal must also include the focus on the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. 
            The Eucharist is both meal and sacrifice. These two elements need to be kept in balance. The original Jewish Passover and the Sabbath meal itself, both include the Meal aspect and a sacrificial aspect. What would the Passover be without the concept of the Passover Lamb and the shedding of its blood for the protection/ redemption of the Israelites? The Sabbath Meal is full of Temple and Sacrificial symbolism and was part of the Pharisee endeavour to bring the sanctity of the Temple spirituality into the home of the ordinary Jew. When the sacrificial aspect is emphasised to the detriment of the meal aspect we can be in danger of turning the Eucharist into a magical ritual for good luck and prosperity that is self-focused rather than other-focused. This over ritualisation can lead away from personal intimacy and encounter and an inordinate concern with outward forms and customs.

            The second reading is titled “The Storytelling Rhythm” by Bernier from his book “Eucharist: Celebrating its Rhythms in Our Lives”. Johann Baptiste Metz a Catholic theologian mentions that storytelling is a Jewish trait that Christian theology needs to re-embrace especially since the Shoah. He sees Christian theology needs this “Jewish corrective”. [7]  Bernier also alludes to the Jewish dimension of storytelling in the context of Martin Buber (a famous Jewish writer on Hasidic folktales) telling a delightful story about his own grandfather who was a follower of the Hasidic teaching of the Baal Shem Tov and how this power of a good story, told well, has a therapeutic effect.[8]  This account about the Baal Shem Tov dancing and jumping for joy in prayer, alludes to the opening quote of the chapter about Jesus as the Jewish Lord of the Dance.[9]  
            Bernier is concerned that the story of Jesus is told in the most effective way in the Liturgy. He feels that sometimes the liturgy of the word in the Mass is seen as boring and unimportant compared to the reception of communion in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.[10] The liturgy of the Word reflects the synagogue service whereas the liturgy of the Eucharist reflects the Temple Divine Service.  In a sense this links us to the previous discussion about meal and sacrifice. The liturgy of the Word is a meal or banquet of the food of God’s Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist is a participation and partaking in the Sacrifice of the Cross that all the Temple sacrifices point to (see Hebrews).

            The third reading  emphasises the Mystery of the kingdom of God with a special focus on the parables of Jesus. This reading is by Robert L Browning and Roy A Reed and is titled “The Sacraments: Action Parables of the Kingdom of God”. They see that all the sacraments are meant to draw one into the kingdom of God.[11] They see this kingdom in strong eschatological terms. 

            Both the third and fourth readings discuss how the word sacrament is mysterion in the Eastern Greek Church. In the Syriac churches the Aramaic word Raza (in the singular) is used and Razin (in the plural) refers to the Eucharist. [12] The term Raza d’Razin (Mystery of Mysteries or Secret of Secrets) is also found in Jewish mysticism.[13] In Hebrew the term is Sod Sodot. The Gospels refer to these ‘mysteries of the kingdom’ and the parables seek to illustrate them.[14]

            In order to understand these ‘mysteries’ more fully it is necessary to return to what Emmanuel Levinas (a French Jewish post- modernist philosophy and Talmudic scholar) calls the immemorial past (Bereshit/In the Beginning) in Genesis. The Zohar’s section on Raza d’Razin speaks of the wisdom of the faces and the wisdom of the hand that are both alluded to in Genesis 1, read according to the mystical level (Raza/ Sod). The early Jewish Church applied these concepts to the encounter of the face of the Hidden Messiah in the Eucharist which was made manifest through the hand/hands of the priest. This was the lifted offering (terumah) of the New Covenant. The word ‘Terumah’ is hidden in the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1-3, beginning with the letter ‘tav’ of ‘Bereshit’ counting every 26 letters.

            Browning and Reed open up a truly universal Jewish dimension of understanding the sacraments and especially the Eucharist as ‘mysteries of the kingdom’ by not limiting them to the direct verses about the sacraments. They see the parables and many other parts of scripture being interpreted through a sacramental and Eucharistic prism and paradigm.[15]

            The fourth Reading by Mary Grey titled “From Mystery to Sacrament” is a delightful piece of literary bricolage which complements the third reading and its discussion on ‘mysterion’.  She links the idea of the liturgy as a Divine Song with the concept of Mystery. The idea of a Divine Song has Jewish roots in the immemorial past when God sang the Creation into existence in Genesis 1. This ‘Song of Creation’ later manifests as the ‘Song of Moses’ and the ‘Song of Miriam’ as well as the Song of the future.  This Song is associated with the coming of the Messiah.[16]  The Messiah’s liturgical Mystery is the Lord’s Song.

            Grey states that the consciousness of the Divine Mystery as holiness and transcendence “first surfaced and became explicit in the history of Israel”.[17]  She also links this to the idea of covenant and the mystery of God’s Love. [18] Thus the sacraments or ‘mysteries of the kingdom’ are an outpouring of God’s love and mercy. Grey talks about the teaching of the Eastern Fathers “God is thirsty for man”. [19] This reveals that the covenant is an intimate relationship between man and God. Thus the sacraments are like a Divine Kiss and Embrace drawing man into ever deeper intimacy with his Lover.

            She also discusses the very Jewish concept of Jacob’s Ladder in regards to Jesus proclaiming himself as Jacob’s Ladder in John 1:51. This is also an image found in St John of the Cross in regards to the Dark Night of the Soul. One of the central mysteries of the Jewish Kabbalah is the concept of the Divine Man (Adam Kadmon) in the form of the Sefirot (divine attributes or Emanations) as Jacob’s Ladder. The seven lower Sefirot could be linked with the seven sacraments of the New Covenant.

            There is much else that could be discussed from these readings. I have endeavoured to briefly touch on those aspects of these four readings that are open to a Jewish focus due to my own background in religious and Hasidic Judaism. When one perceives the Catholic ‘mysteries of the kingdom’ in the light of their Jewish roots a much deeper and enriching understanding is possible. This brief analysis seeks to reflect on the Jewish concepts of storytelling, mystery and kingdom in order to enrich our appreciation of the sacraments and sacramental theology. I also found that due to my Jewish knowledge and understanding that I could also appreciate and perceive levels beyond the obvious in these four writings that the authors themselves may never have perceived when they wrote them.

[1] Rev. Jovian P Lang OFM, Dictionary of the Liturgy New York; Catholic Book Publishing, 1989.
[2] Louis Bouyer, Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press), 1968.
[3] Rev. Jovian P Lang OFM, Dictionary of the Liturgy, 662.
[4] Rev. Jovian P Lang OFM, Dictionary of the Liturgy,  662.
[5] Rev. Jovian P Lang OFM, Dictionary of the Liturgy,  662.
[6] Nicholas T Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (USA: Fortress Press, 1996),  558.
[7] Sandra Heinen (editor), Roy Sommer (editor), Narratologia: Narratology in the Age of Cross-Disciplinary Narrative Research (Walter de Gruyter; Berlin, 2009), 275.
[8] Paul Bernier, Eucharist: Celebrating Its Rhythms in Our Lives (Notre Dame, Indiana; Ave Maria Press), 61.
[9] Paul Bernier, Eucharist: Celebrating Its Rhythms in Our Lives, 65.
[10] Paul Bernier, Eucharist: Celebrating Its Rhythms in Our Lives, 63.
[11] Rober L Browning and Roy A Reed, The Sacraments in Religious Education and Liturgy: An Ecumenical Model ( Birmingham, Alabama; Religious Education Press, 1985), 47.
[12]  Rev William Thoma “The Sacramental Theology of the Assyrian Church of the East” http://news.assyrianchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/The-Sacramental-Theology-by-Rev-William-Toma-1.pdf
[13] Zohar 70 a &b (Raza d’Razin)
[14] Rober L Browning and Roy A Reed, The Sacraments in Religious Education and Liturgy: An Ecumenical Model, 52
[15] Rober L Browning and Roy A Reed, The Sacraments in Religious Education and Liturgy: An Ecumenical Model, 51
[16] Rabbi Chaim Kramer, Mashiach: Who? What? Why? How? Where? And When?, (Jeruslaem/New York; Breslov Research Institute, 1994), 66.
[17] Mary C Grey, In Search of the Sacred:The Sacraments and Parish Renewal, (Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire; Anthony Clarke, 1983), 16.
[18] Mary C Grey, In Search of the Sacred:The Sacraments and Parish Renewal, 16.
[19] Mary C Grey, In Search of the Sacred:The Sacraments and Parish Renewal, 17.

Bernier, Paul.  Eucharist: Celebrating Its Rhythms in Our Lives Notre Dame, Indiana; Ave Maria Press.
Browning, Robert L and Reed, Roy A. The Sacraments in Religious Education and Liturgy: An          Ecumenical Model Birmingham, Alabama; Religious Education Press, 1985.
Grey, Mary C. In Search of the Sacred:The Sacraments and Parish Renewal, Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire; Anthony Clarke, 1983.
Heinen, Sandra (editor), Sommer, Roy (editor), Narratologia: Narratology in the Age of Cross-Disciplinary Narrative Research Berlin; Walter de Gruyter, 2009.
Kramer, chaim (Rabbi).  Mashiach: Who? What? Why? How? Where? And When?, Jerusalem/New York; Breslov Research Institute, 1994.
Lang, Jovian P. Dictionary of the Liturgy New York; Catholic Book Publishing, 1989.
Thoma, William (Rev). “The Sacramental Theology of the Assyrian Church of the East” http://news.assyrianchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/The-Sacramental-Theology-by-Rev-William-Toma-1.pdf
Wright, Nicholas T. Jesus and the Victory of God, USA: Fortress Press, 1996.

Messiah, Levinas and Mitzvot: A Reflection on Three Readings

The first reading I have chosen is “Theology in Rabbinic Stories” by Chaim Pearl. Pearl discusses some of the stories in Jewish writings and then interprets them from a practical theological aspect. This level of reading religious writings is called “Drash”.  Drash is a homiletical and/or moral ethical reading of the stories that can be applied to the practical life of the religious person.

            The story I found of most interest was the one titled “Clothes for the Messiah”.  Pearl reads back into the story the concerns of Rabbinic Judaism with living out a practical Jewish life in the light of the Galut (Exile/ Diaspora). He also reads back into the text the Neo-Orthodox fears of Messianic movements. This story appears in other forms in other Jewish writings. In these accounts the mother of the Messiah is called Hephzibah or Shekinat (see Raphael Patai’s “Messianic Texts”). Shekinat alludes to the Shekhinah (female Presence ). Some religious Jews recall that Tisha B’Av (the Day the Temple was destroyed) is the Birthday of the Messiah.

            The Rabbis knew that according to the traditional interpretation of the prophecy of Daniel (about the 490 years and the cutting off of the Messiah) that the Messiah had to have come a first time, before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The only major contender for such a position was the crucified Nazarene. This story may have been told to counteract the story of Jesus. Alternatively it may have been a story told by Jewish Christian followers of Jesus who remained hidden in the Synagogue. The cattle may allude to the birth of the Messiah in a stable and the Arab representing the wise men seeking the Jewish Messiah.  The clothes of the baby Messiah may represent the swaddling clothes of Jesus.

            In this version of the story the Messiah is called Menachem. Menachem means Consoler or Comforter. In Jewish tradition Noah is also called Menachem. The Messiah like Noah will save mankind. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “another Consoler”, alluding to the fact that he is Menachem or the Consoler himself. The Chabad Hasidim claim that their Rebbe is the Messiah son of Joseph. His name Menachem [Mendel Schneersohn] is seen by them as a sign that he may indeed be this Messiah Menachem of prophecy. The Jewish book of ‘Sefer Zerrubbabel’ also calls the Messiah Menachem  and his mother is called Hephzibah (the one in whom he delights). 

            Why is the Messiah’s father called Hezekiah? This alludes to the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 that a Virgin (almah) of the Davidic House would give birth to the Messiah. Some Jewish traditions and writings state that the Messiah was born in the reign of Hezekiah and then hidden away as the prophecy of this Virgin and Messiah was given to King Ahaz of the Royal House of King David, the father of King Hezekiah of Judah, as a unique, miraculous and prophetic sign. The modern day Jewish denial of almah meaning a virgin is taught by Amy-Jill Levine and a host of modern Jewish commentators. They claim that it only means a young woman. However,  almah is a young unmarried woman and all Jewish unmarried women of this period are virgins. If it meant a married woman the prophecy would have said “an ishah will conceive”. Of course as a Catholic I know that Matthew’s Gospel is written under divine inspiration and thus almah is the correct word for virgin in the 8th century BC. It is time more Christian theologians stood up to these pointedly partisan manipulations of Jewish texts in order to deny the truths of the Christian faith.

            This account of the “Clothes for the Messiah” states that the baby Messiah was taken away in a strong wind. Other traditions state that he was taken into Heaven or he was hidden in the Galilee or on the outskirts of Rome (see the famous story about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, Elijah and the Leper Messiah). Others state that the Messiah is hidden with his Mother in the Bird’s Nest (a type of heavenly Garden of Eden). This demonstrates that the  Jewish tradition teaches the Messiah has already been born and that his future appearance is a manifestation of the Messiah (as taught in the Zohar) and a revelation of his face. Thus unknown to most Jews and Christians is that not only are the Christians awaiting a second appearance of the Messiah but the Jews also wait for his second appearance or manifestation.

            I respect the interpretation of Pearl that encourages one to get on with life and not to get carried away with enthusiasms that can lead to disappointments. Nevertheless, I think that reading the text at the levels of allegory (remez) and mystical (Sod/ Raza) is more enriching and exciting for me and for many others. If one can’t get excited about the coming of the Messiah then it would be a dull old faith in a dull old world. It is interesting that the simple Jew in the story does find it exciting and goes off to seek the Messiah. It is the status of “Simple Jew” that the Jewish Hasidim consider the highest level of spirituality and the one I would like to attain.

            The second reading I have chosen is “The Archivist and the Precusors”  from Salomon Malka’s book “Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy”. The part of this reading I wish to focus on is its discussion of the Christian followers of the ideas and philosophy of Levinas. The chapter mentions that the ideas of Levinas has reached many diverse branches of Catholicism. Malka states that Levinas provides an inspiration and reference point for Christian thinkers rather than a path to follow. I think Levinas would be happy to hear this as he disliked ‘totalities’ and would be certainly horrified to see anyone goose-stepping behind him or his philosophy.

            Malka mentions that it was the Catholic and former Franciscan, Adriaan Peperzak, that introduced Emmanuel Levinas to American academia. It would seem that Peperzak’s encounter with the philosophy (and the man himself) of Levinas opened him up to a whole new way of doing Christian theology. Pope John Paul II also read Levinas and was influenced by him in some regards. Levinas’ insights and influence on Christian theology seems to be growing all the time. Levinas desired to universalise Judaism for the benefit of all and it would seem that his philosophical insights are helping that to come about. In a sense he has allowed Christian and Catholic theology in particular to return to its Biblical and Jewish roots in a deeper way than ever before. Hopefully with his influence among Jews and Christians we will see a greater desire to encounter Jews and Christians in the face of the ‘other’ and the ‘Other’ rather than an apologetical or argumentative debate. 

            This chapter also demonstrates to me that even the greatest of men have their faults and their hypocrisies. When it comes to the Hasidim and their enthusiastic and joyful piety Levinas seems to retreat from encounter with the face the Hasidic ‘other’.  Gershom Scholem who shares Levinas attitude to mysticism and Hasidim sees this hypocrisy in Levinas and states “he’s more litvak than he thinks” (p212). It is the very romantic, emotional and passionate characteristics of both the Russian culture and Hasidic culture that would have given Levinas’ ideas a down-to-earth joyousness which elevates, heals and repairs the soul.  However, for me (and to some others that I have spoken to about this), there is a Germanic solemness, seriousness and gloominess in reading Levinas that is in need of a shot of hope and faith in the form of Hasidic joyfulness (simchah). Do we encounter the ‘other’ only in his poverty, suffering, fears of death and marginalisation and not in his hope, love, dreams, visions and joy? Could we misread the human person or the ‘other’ by missing out on those aspects of humanness that make life exciting and worth living? Has Levinas been influenced by the Nazis sucking of all goodness and joy from human life and reality more than he realised? Has his experience of Germanic racialist enthusiasms and passions made him cautious and suspicious of any enthusiasm, even those that enrich us?

            The third reading I have chosen is chapter 4 titled “Levinas What is Demanded of Us” from the book “Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein” by Hilary Putnam. This chapter seeks to explain Levinas’ concept of ethics as first philosophy. Levinas is concerned that if metaphysics (or Being) or psychology  is made the first philosophy based on ‘sameness’ or ‘rationality’ then if one decides others are not the same or not rational then we have no obligation to them. This was what happened with the Shoah when the Nazis decided that the Jews were mere vermin masquerading as humans or those Australian settlers adhering to 19th century evolutionary science who decided that Aborigines were subhuman (lesser rationality) and could be hunted, poisoned and killed like animals and pests.

            I liked the section of the reading that talked about ‘moral perfectionists’. One needs to hold up to view absolute moral ideals that seem impossible for many to achieve so that one always has a standard of goodness to strive for and endeavour to attain. Putnam writes: “...these philosophers are ‘perfectionists’ because they always describe the commitment we ought to have in ways that seem impossibly demanding: but they are also realists, because they realise that it is only by keeping an “impossible” demand in view that one can strive for one’s “unattained but attainable self”...”. (p. 72)  This is exactly what the Catholic Church does in regards to its moral and ethical teachings. It holds up what seems to many an impossible standard so that the sinner wallowing in the mud has a shining light to strive for and hope that they can transcend the muddy state. The sacrament of confession is given so that the sinner struggling for ethical transcendence can get practical assistance and compassionate acceptance on the moral journey to the starry heights of perfect humanness. Man retains somewhere in him  a trace (reshimu) of that immemorial past, that we all share, of the perfection of our humanity in the garden of Eden at the immemorial or primordial beginning (bereshit) and as it is in the eschatological Eternity.

            The discussion by Putnam of the term “me voici” as equivalent to the Hebrew term “hineni” (behold) is fascinating to me. Putnam states that it is almost unintelligible to understand what Levinas means by ‘me voici’ unless one refers back to the Hebrew concept of the word “hineni” especially in regards to the Akeidah (the story of the Binding of Isaac). Levinas as a practicing orthodox Jew would have read the story of the Akeidah every day in his morning prayers. I believe that many of Levinas’ terms can only be fully understood if we take them back to their Hebrew prototypes. For example I think that Levinas’ term ‘Il y a’ (there is) refers back to the Hebrew term “yesh”.  The use of the word trace also alludes to the Hebrew concept of ‘reshimu’.

            The chapter also has an interesting discussion of Levinas in regard to universalizing the concept of Judaism for the Gentiles but of his wariness in universalizing Judaism for Jews. Levinas seems to think that what makes a Jew ‘orthodox’ is study and mitzvot. The commandment of Talmud Torah (study of torah) is important and its application in mitzvot essential for Jews. However there are also certain beliefs that one must hold in order to be considered ‘orthodox’ according to the Rabbis of Aish ha Torah Yeshivah in Jerusalem where I studied. 

            Rabbi Motti Berger of Aish ha Torah taught us four beliefs that one must hold to be considered an ‘orthodox Jew’. They were the belief in the one God, the belief that the written Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, belief that the oral Torah was given by God and the belief that the mitzvot are applicable for Jews for all times in this world. Of course to be a Jew at all one needs to be of maternal Jewish ancestry (if your mother is halachically Jewish) or be converted by an orthodox Bet Din. Others would add a fifth belief that one must believe in the ‘coming of the Messiah’. However if one studies Torah then it would focus one on these beliefs and their application in the mitzvot.  Breslov Hasidism stresses ‘beholding’ the inner light of each mitzvot rather than its outward form.  Mitzvot are not just commandments in Judaism but also good deeds. The concept of the mitzvot as good deeds would resonant with Levinas’ focus on ethical transcendence.