Sunday, 16 January 2011

Jewish spirituality: an introduction

Rabbi Zalman Lent speaking to delegates from the Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference in Terenure Synagogue last September (Photograph: Orla Ryan)

Patrick Comerford

Opening hymn:


The God of Abraham Praise (Irish Church Hymnal, 323)

Introduction

During your time here, you spend much of your time examining Jewish spirituality as it is presented to us in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, time looking at the spirituality of Jesus as a Jew, and some time – particularly in my tutorial group this year and last year – debating the clash of spiritualities in the Johannine writings and what is meant there by the Jews.

But recent and contemporary Jewish spirituality needs to be understood on its own terms as a modern current in spirituality and one that can both challenge and enrich us.

In our studies of the Scriptures, we sometimes forget that Judaism continued to grow and develop, and that there have been continuing, growing and evolving Jewish spiritualities over the past 20 centuries. An awareness of that will enrich our understanding of the traditions from which Christianity has grown, and contribute towards our own spiritualities.

The Jewish contribution to Western culture cannot all be compartmentalised into the wanderings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, the movies of Woody Allen, amateur dramatic stagings of Fiddler on the Roof, the novels of Chaim Potok or James Heller, the songs of Bob Dylan, the poems of Leonard Cohen, Erich Segal’s Love Story, the politics and conflicts around Israel, or Madonna’s dabbling in the Kaballah.

But over the centuries, European civilisation and our spirituality have been challenged by, have been enriched by and have engaged with innumerable Jewish thinkers and philosophers, including:

● Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who declared that religious faith “consists in honesty and sincerity of heart rather than in outward actions.”
● Karl Marx (1818-1883), who irreversibly changed political and social thinking.
● Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the father figure of post-modernism, who argued: “We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent and, what is more … capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of places.” Instead, he said, we should see God as “the structure of conscience.”

Later this month [Sunday 30 January], there are special commemorations for Holocaust Day. The spirituality that sustained a people and a faith through the dark night of the Holocaust must be very rich, deep and profound, and has to have something deep and beautiful to contribute to us today, and to say to us as we experience and live our lives spiritually.

There is a perception that Jewish religious activity is confined to concerns about the modern state of Israel or debates about the observation of kosher regulations. But there are other sources and strengths for the practice of Jewish spirituality today.

Any introduction to Jewish spirituality also needs to imagine the profound impact of the Holocaust on Jews collectively and on our society. And an introduction to Jewish spirituality also needs to take account of the Hasidic movement, which has influenced many writers outside its own circles.

In an addition, an introduction to eight key personalities helps to illustrate this: Martin Buber, Simone Weil, Elie Wisel, Lionel Blue, Jonathan Sacks, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Michele Guinness and Leonard Cohen.

Judaism in Ireland today:

Terenure Synagogue, Rathfarnham Road ... I was born a few doors away in 1952

There is a popular story that 55 years ago in New York, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, led the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on New York's Fifth Avenue. In 1956 Two Jews were watching the parade.

One Jew said to the other: “Did you know that Robert Briscoe is Jewish?”

“Amazing! Only in America,” replied said his friend.

Since the arrival of the first Jews here in 1079, a number of Jews have been elected to high office William Annyas was Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork in 1555; Sir Otto Yaffe was Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899; in 1956 and 1961, Robert Briscoe of Fianna Fail was Lord Mayor of Dublin; in 1977, Gerald Goldberg was Lord Mayor of Cork; Ben Briscoe, a Fianna Fail TD, followed in father’s footsteps when he was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1988. In my own lifetime there have been Jewish TDs for all three main political parties: Ben Briscoe (Fianna Fail), Alan Shatter (Fine Gael) and Mervyn Taylor (Labour).

James Joyce made Leopold Bloom the archetypal “Dub” of the early 20th century when he wrote Ulysses. But real-life prominent Irish-born Jews include Chaim Herzog, President of Israel from 1983 to 1993, who was born in Belfast in 1918, and his father Isaac was the first Chief Rabbi of the Irish Free State.

The present Jewish community in Ireland dates mainly from the 1880s, when immigrants from Lithuania fleeing pogroms in the Tsarist empire found refuge in Dublin and Cork. At its highest point, the Jewish population of Ireland stood between 3,500 and 4,000 from 1911 until 1948. By 1991, this number had dropped to 1,581.

According to last census (2006), the number of Jews in the Republic of Ireland today is 1,930, with probably another 150 in Northern Ireland. There are two synagogues in Dublin: one Orthodox synagogue on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure, and one Liberal- Progressive synagogue on Leicester Avenue in Rathgar; in addition, there is one small synagogue in Cork that rarely opens, and one synagogue in Belfast. Other synagogues in Dublin – including the ones on Adelaide Road, Walworth Road, and on the South Circular Road (Greenville Hall) have closed in the 1970s and 1980s. The synagogue on Walworth Road now houses the Irish Jewish Museum, which was opened in 1985 by Chaim Herzog, then President of Israel.

There are Jewish cemeteries in Ballybough, with graves dating back to the early 18th century, in Dolphin’s Barn, which opened in 1898, and close to the Orlagh Retreat Centre, which opened in the early 1950s. Stratford College, on Zion Road, is a Jewish-run school. But Dublin’s kosher bakery, The Bretzel in Portobello, has been owned by non-Jews for two generations.

Most Irish Jews are comfortably middle-class, many are professionals or in business, and many are third- or fourth-generation Irish-born. But they are asking themselves whether Jewish life is going to continue in Ireland? And if so, for much longer?

Emigration, an aging population, intermarriage and assimilation have all taken their toll, and some estimates say that within a generation or two only a handful of Jews are likely to remain in Ireland. Raphael Siev, who founded the museum, has estimated “there are more Irish-born Jews living in Israel than in Ireland.”

But when the Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference, which was held here last September, visited the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, Rabbi Zalman Lent speculated that the decline has been arrested. He pointed out there is a young Jewish population in Dublin, and some Jewish immigration.

Personal encounter

A stained glass window in the Terenure Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road

I was born on Rathfarnham Road, a few doors away from the Terenure Synagogue. In my youth, I knew the streets of Little Jerusalem, off the South Circular Road and Clanbrassil Street in Dublin. There, in Little Jerusalem, my grandfather had cousins who shared a house with Lithuanian Jewish immigrants and cousins who lived two doors away from the house where James Joyce says Leopold Bloom was born.

The Irish Jewish Museum is housed in a former synagogue on Walworth Road, off the South Circular Road, in Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem’

Over the years, I have visited the synagogues in Dublin at Adelaide Road and Walworth Road (both now closed), Rathfarnham Road and Leicester Avenue, Rathgar, and I have written about and visited synagogues and Jewish communities in Britain, Austria, China, Greece, Hungary, Hong Kong, Italy, Romania, Turkey, and Israel/Palestine.

Hasidism and the Lubavitcher movement

Rabbis from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement pose for a group photograph in Brooklyn, New York

The Lubavitcher movement is one of the largest Hasidic movements in Orthodox Judaism, and is based in the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn, New York. The movement runs thousands of centres around the world, including community centres, synagogues and schools. This movement has over 200,000 adherents and up to a million Jews attend or Chabad-Lubavitch services at least once a year.

Chabad is an acronym for Hebrew words meaning Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge, while the Lubavitch movement takes its name from Lyubavichi, a Russian town that was its headquarters for over a century.

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement was founded in the late 18th century by Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who developed an intellectual system and approach to Judaism. While other Hasidic traditions focus only on the idea that “God desires the heart,” Rabbi Shneur Zalman argued that he also desires the mind, and that the heart without the mind is useless. He argued that “understanding is the mother of … fear and love of God. These are born of knowledge and profound contemplation of the greatness of God.”

Shneur Zalman was instrumental in the preservation of Hasidism within mainstream Judaism. Avrum Erlich writes that he “allowed for some of the mystically inclined Hasidim to reacquaint themselves with traditional scholarship and the significance of strict halakhic observance and behaviour, concerning which other Hasidic schools were sometimes less exacting. Shneur Zalman also provided the opportunity for traditionalists and scholars to access the Hasidic mood and its spiritual integrity without betraying their traditional scholarly allegiances.”

Shneur Zalman emphasised that mysticism without Talmudic study was worthless – even dangerous. He taught that Torah must be studied joyously – studying without joy is frowned upon. He provided a metaphor: when a mitzvah (commandment) is fulfilled an angel is created. But if the mitzvah was joyless then the angel too will be dispirited.

More recently, his descendant, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), sought to unite the mundane aspects of the world with the aspect of godliness in the world. He emphasised the concept of creating an abode for God in this world. He felt that the world was not a contradiction to the word of God, and it was to be embraced rather than shunned.

Martin Buber

Martin Buber (1878-1965), right, was a leading Austrian-born Israeli philosopher, translator, and educator. Martin Buber was born in Vienna, where he spent much of his childhood. Reading Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche inspired him to study in philosophy, and his doctoral work was on Jakob Böhme, the German Lutheran pietist who influenced the Anglican mystic William Law and John Wesley. He resigned from the University of Frankfurt am Main after Hitler came to power in 1933. When he was banned from lecturing he moved to Jerusalem and died there in 1965.

Buber’s evocative, sometimes poetic writing style has marked the major themes in his work: the re-telling of Hasidic tales, Biblical commentary, and metaphysical dialogue.

He saw the Zionist movement as having the potential for social and spiritual enrichment. But he also admired how Hasidic communities brought their religious beliefs into their daily life and culture, and published collected stories of two Hasidic founding figures, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.

He valued the emphasis in the Hasidic tradition on community, inter-personal life, and meaning in common activities. For Buber, the Hasidic ideal was a life lived in the unconditional presence of God, where there was no distinct separation between daily habits and religious experience. This was a major influence on Buber’s philosophy of anthropology, which considered the basis of human existence as dialogical.

In 1923, he wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later published in English as I and Thou). In I and Thou, he introduced his thesis on human existence. He argues there that a person is at all times engaged with the world in one of two modes of being: one of dialogue (Ich-Du) or one of monologue (Ich-Es). Ich-Du (“I-Thou”) is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is an encounter in which infinity and universality are made actual, rather than being merely concepts.

Buber describes God as the eternal “Du,” and so one key Ich-Du relationship Buber identifies is that between a human being and God. He argues that this is the only way it is possible to interact with God, and that an Ich-Du relationship with anything or anyone connects in some way with the eternal relation to God.

On the other hand, in an Ich-Es relationship there is no actual meeting. Instead, the “I” confronts and treats the being in its presence as an object. The Ich-Es relationship, therefore, is a relationship with oneself; it is not a dialogue, but a monologue. In the Ich-Es relationship, an individual treats other things, including people, as objects to be used and experienced. Essentially, this form of objectivity relates to the world in terms of the self – how an object can serve the individual’s interest.

Buber argues that human life consists of an oscillation between Ich-Du and Ich-Es, and that Ich-Du experiences are few and far between. Buber argues that Ich-Es relations – even between human beings – devalue not only those who exist, but the meaning of all existence.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil (1909-1943), right, was a French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist, who was born in Paris into an agnostic Jewish family. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about the political movements she was a part involved in and later about spiritual mysticism. Her biographer Gabriella Fiori says she was “a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range.”

Despite her youthful pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War. After clumsily burning herself over a cooking fire, she left Spain to recuperate in Assisi, and there, in the church where Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed, she had an experience of religious ecstasy in 1937, leading her to pray for the first time in her life.

She had another, more powerful revelation a year later, and from 1938 on, her writings became more mystical and spiritual. She thought of becoming a Roman Catholic, but declined to be baptised until the very end of her life – a decision she explained in her book Waiting for God. During World War II, she joined the French Resistance.

After a lifetime of illness and frailty, she died in August 1943 in Ashford, Kent, at the age of 34. The 1952 book Gravity and Grace consists of passages selected from her notebooks.

Weil does not regard the world as a debased creation, but as a direct expression of God’s love – although she also recognises it as a place of evil, affliction, and sees the brutal mixture of chance and necessity. This juxtaposition leads her to produce an unusual form of Christian theodicy.

Weil also writes on why she believes spirituality is necessary for dealing with social and political problems, and says the soul needs food just as the body needs food.

Elie Weisel

Elie Wiesel (born 1928) is a Romanian-born modern Jewish novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor. He is the author of over 40 books. His best-known book, Night (1958), describes his Holocaust experiences in several concentration camps: “I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone – terribly alone in a world without God and without man.”

Elie Wiesel was the son of an Orthodox Jewish grocer and the grandson of a Hasidic farmer. In 1944, the family was confined to the ghetto and then deported to Auschwitz. From Auschwitz, they were sent to Buchenwald, where his father was murdered.

In one searing passage in Night, he recalls “the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky,” and says: “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever … Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

After World War II, he moved first to France, where he was persuaded him to write about his Holocaust experiences, and then to New York.

In 1955, Wiesel he moved to the US, where he has written over 40 books and was instrumental in the building of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In 1986, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism. His writing is considered among the most important in Holocaust literature, and he is credited by some with giving the term “Holocaust” its present meaning.

His statement, “... to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all ...”, stands as a succinct summary of his views on life and serves as the driving force of his work.

Jürgen Moltmann, in The Crucified God, was the first theologian to adapt Wiesel’s graphic and horrific story of a Jewish boy hung by the Nazis along with two men in a camp. It took half an hour for the youth to die and, as the men of the camp watched his torment, one asked: “Where is God now?” Wiesel heard a voice within him answer: “Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows.”

While Wiesel interpreted his inner voice as expressing what has now become disbelief in a loving and just God, Moltmann used the story to argue for a God who suffers in union with those who suffer.

Jonathan Sacks

Dr Jonathan Henry Sacks, right, is the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi in Britain, and is a well-known spokesman for the Jewish community, as a frequent guest on television and radio shows, and for his regular newspaper columns. Dr Sacks stirred controversy in the Jewish community some years ago when he refused to attend the funeral service of the Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn and wrote a private letter in Hebrew that suggested that Reform Jews are “dividers of the faith.”

On the other hand, a group of rabbis have accused Dr Sacks of heresy in his book The Dignity of Difference, in which he seems to imply that Judaism is not the absolute truth. He amended the next edition of the book, but refused to recall earlier editions. Some rabbis have also condemned him for engaging in dialogue with Christians.

In the 1990 BBC Reith lectures (published in 1991 as The Persistence of Faith), he argued that faiths must remain open to criticism, and while keeping alive their separate communities must contribute to national debates and moral issues.

Sacks also engages positively with Hasidic spirituality, seeing the Lubavitcher spirituality as “bridging the gap between spiritual insight and daily behaviour [that] had always been a problem for Jewish mysticism.”

Lionel Blue

Rabbi Lionel Blue, right, is an English Reform rabbi from the East End of London, a journalist and broadcaster, and the first openly gay British rabbi. He is well known for his wry, gentle sense of humour on A Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4.

Through those contributions to A Thought for the Day over the past 25 years, he has given hundreds of thousands of listeners their daily ration of spirituality and religion, and has bridged the gap between not only Judaism but all religion and the demands of the secular world.

“Well good morning Sue and good morning John and good morning everybody” is a typical opening for A Thought for the Day. He has said: “I don’t believe death is the end. This world is like a corridor, like a departure lounge in an airport. You make yourself comfortable and get to know people – then your number comes up and you’re called.”

Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is a Reform rabbi and Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Wales in Lampeter. Contrary to the official position of Reform Judaism, he is sympathetic to Messianic Judaism and Secular Humanistic Judaism, and is interested in Jewish-Buddhist and Jewish-Christian dialogue.

He argues that today Judaism is pluriform in nature, that it no longer has an over-arching authority that can determine correct belief and practice, so that the Jewish community has splintered into a variety of groups, ranging from the strictly Orthodox to the most liberal, with some groups borrowing in a syncretistic way from other religious traditions.

In The Crucified Jew (1992), he challenges Christians to face up to 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. In Glimpses of God (1994), he invites a variety of writers, Jewish and Christian, to say whether we can find a glimpse of God in the everyday life.

Michele Guinness

And we come full circle with Michele Guinness, right, who bridges Judaism and Anglicanism in her own life story. A vicar’s wife and a broadcaster for many years, she has written eight books and is a regular contributor to television, newspapers and magazines.

In her best-selling book, Child of the Covenant (1985), Michele Guinness talks about making sense of being both Jewish and Christian. She grew up in a traditional Jewish family, observing all its rituals and culture. An encounter with a Christian raised many questions for her, and she turned to the Bible for the answers. She was baptised a Christian, but argued that as a member of the Church of England she never lost her sense of being Jewish, and she continues to practice many aspects of her Jewish faith. She tells of a Jewish girl rediscovering her roots by finding Christ. As she came face-to-face with Christ as the Messiah, she tried to make sense of being both Jewish and Christian.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen on stage at Lissadell House last July (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I’m not going to spend much time discussing Leonard Cohen. Let me say, I have been a fan of his since the late 1960s, and first became a fan through reading his poetry.

There is more to Leonard Cohen’s spirituality than Hallelujah. Like most Jews, he has been irrevocably changed by entering into the shared, post-Holocaust experience. Like many Jews, he has tried to balance between a critical and an ambivalent attitude to the religious teachings of Judaism, but he has never abandoned it.

His poetry and his lyrics are deeply influenced by Hasidic ideas too, and even when he is apparently at his most bawdy he remains deeply mystical and spiritually challenging.

These days, all his concerts close with him singing his poem, “If it be your will” – itself a deeply moving prayer.

Closing music:

Leonard Cohen: “If it be your will”

The interior of the Irish Jewish Museum in a former synagogue on Walworth Road, off the South Circular Road, and close to Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem’

Handout 1:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

“Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

“Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.

“Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.

“Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself.

“Never.” – Elie Wiesel, Night.

Handout 2:

Leonard Cohen: “If it be your will”

If it be your will
that I speak no more
and my voice be still
as it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
if it be your will

If it be your will
that a voice be true
from this broken hill
I will sing to you
from this broken hill
all your praises they shall ring
if it be your will
to let me sing
from this broken hill
all your praises they shall ring
if it be your will
to let me sing

If it be your will
if there is a choice
let the rivers fill
let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
on all these burning hearts in hell
if it be your will
to make us well

And draw us near
and bind us tight
all your children here
in their rags of light
In our rags of light
all dressed to kill
and end this night
if it be your will

If it be your will.

Handout 3: Hymn 323

The God of Abraham praise,
who reigns enthroned above;
ancient of everlasting days,
and God of love;
to him uplift your voice,
at whose supreme command
from earth we rise, and seek the joys
at his right hand.

He by himself has sworn,
I on his oath depend;
I shall on eagle’s wings upborne,
to heaven ascend:
I shall behold his face,
I shall his power adore,
and sing the wonders of his grace
for evermore.

There dwells the Lord, our King,
the Lord, our righteousness,
triumphant o’er the world and sin,
the Prince of peace;
on Zion’s sacred height
his kingdom he maintains,
and, glorious with his saints in light,
for ever reigns.

The God who reigns on high,
the great archangels sing,
and “Holy, holy, holy,” cry,
“Almighty King!
who was and is the same,
and evermore shall be:
Jehovah, Father, great I AM,
we worship thee!”

The whole triumphant host
give thanks to God on high;
“Hail, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!”
they ever cry.
Hail, Abraham's God and mine!
I join the heavenly lays;
all might and majesty are thine,
and endless praise.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes for a seminar with NSM and part-time M.Th. students on 23 January 2011.