Meaning, Purpose and Truth

Shabbat_Challos

Exploring some of the ultimate questions that confront humanity, and responding imaginatively to them;

 

The ups, downs and meaning(s) of life’s journey.

 

Religious Experience and the Kabbalah

It could be argued that, as all life is worship, so every aspect of life might be seen as a religious experience. Community events such as festivals and rites of passage reflect the emotions of the individual and the community. Feelings such as awe, worship, wonder, praise, thanks, concern, joy and sadness are all expressed in these events and are shared by the whole community.

The scriptures recount many examples of religious experiences. The patriarchs, for example, have many meetings and conversations direct with G-d. As the scriptures progress the Prophets continue to receive revelations from G-d.

In recent times there have been accounts of religious experiences from the period of the 20th century Holocaust. However, Judaism is not a religion which expects that sort of relationship with G-d.

One of the most significant portrayals of religious experience and its quest can be found in Kabbalistic Judaism.

Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism. It dates from the first centuries CE and developed further in Spain and Provence in the 13th century with the Sefer ha-Zohar – The Book of Splendour.

In its earliest forms, followers sought an ecstatic version of G-d’s throne, the chariot seen by Ezekiel:

Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form. From what appeared as his loins up, I saw a gleam as of amber-what looked like a fire encased in a frame; and from what appeared as his loins down, I saw what looked like fire. There was a radiance all about him. Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance (Ezekiel 1:26-28a).

Spanish Kabbalah was more concerned with esoteric knowledge about the nature of the divine world and its connections with the world of creation.

Medieval Kabbalah draws on Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism and is expressed in symbolic language.

The Sefer ha-Zohar gives a cosmic-symbolic interpretation of Judaism and of the history of Israel. Therefore the observance of the mitzvot has cosmic significance.

This cosmic aspect is developed further in the 16th century Lurianic Kabbalah, developed by the Rabbi and mystic, Isaac Luria (1534 – 1572).

G-d

Judaism has an almost unique view of the relationship between humanity and G-d.

Jews know that their role is to live an halakhic life according to G-d’s will which is expressed in the Ten Commandments and the 613 mitzvot.

The undertaking to obey G-d and to worship G-d is found in the Covenants (agreements) of the Jewish Scriptures, in particular the first covenant with Abraham:

The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

I will make of you a great nation,

And I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

And you shall be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you

And curse him that curses you;

And all the families of the earth

Shall bless themselves by you.” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Some time later, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision. He said,

“Fear not, Abram,

I am a shield to you;

Your reward shall be very great.”…

He took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.” And because he put his trust in the LORD, He reckoned it to his merit (Genesis 15:1, 5-6).

Jews put their trust in G-d because of the promises of the Covenants and because of their role as a chosen people:

For I provide water in the wilderness,

Rivers in the desert,

To give drink to My chosen people,

The people I formed for Myself

That they might declare my praise (Isaiah 43:20b-21).

The G-d of the Jews is transcendent and some people suggest that this is more so since the time of the Torah as G-d has seemed more distant from humanity and less involved.

Suffering, Life, Death and Beyond

Judaism teaches that G-d gives all life and only G-d can take it away, but for many Jews the experience of the 20th century Holocaust posed a very real challenge to their view of G-d. Some theologians argued that as G-d did not prevent the Holocaust, G-d must be dead or non-existent. Conversely, some argue for a strengthened faith in the light of such as disaster. Whilst others look for a different way of believing:

We cannot sustain the old belief in man, nor the old belief in G-d … but we can search for new beliefs (Albert Friedlander).

Judaism is a religion that rejoices in and celebrates life rather than concerning itself overmuch with questions of the after-life; there is no clear teaching about what happens after death.

Religion and Science

Whether there is a real tension between religion and science in Judaism depends to a considerable extent on the tradition of Judaism being considered.

Judaism has very few problems in relation to modern scientific discoveries, particularly in relation to medical science. However, many Orthodox Jews may consider that some of the developments relating to issues embryo research are unacceptable interference with G-d’s will.

Also, although science may suggest that there is no evidence for an afterlife, this poses no significant problem as Judaism has no specific teachings on the issue.

The real area of debate is in relation to the creation of the world.

Because Judaism teaches that the Torah is the revealed word of G-d and is literal truth, this sometimes makes it difficult to reconcile scientific theories of cosmology and evolution with the accounts found in Genesis 1-3.

The creation accounts in Genesis show that G-d created the world in seven ‘ayin’ or periods of time. The translation of ‘days’ is unhelpful but unsurprising in that the text says:

God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day (Genesis 1:5).

The Jewish calendar starts with the year 1 dated from the creation of the world in the book of Genesis. 1 Tishrei 1 AM (anno mundi), is equivalent to Monday, October 7, 3761 BCE. 1st September 2013 is 26 Elul 5773.

This reiterates a literal belief in a timescale calculated from the scriptures which means that the earth was created just over 5,700 years ago. It is clearly not possible to take a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts and marry them with scientific theory and dating for the beginning of the world and of life.

Some areas can be reconciled to a degree. It is perhaps possible to accept the Big Bang Theory and then to suggest that the Big Bang needed a Prime Mover in the form of G-d. However, it is not possible to reconcile the whole of the accounts.

The story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a places humans as the last part of creation. The order is:

Day One: darkness and light

Day Two: separation of water and sky

Day Three: earth, sea and plants

Day Four: sun, moon and stars

Day Five: sea creatures and birds

Day Six: land animals, insects and humans

While some people have argued that this is very like the scientific belief about the order of creation, a bigger issue arises in relation to the second account in Genesis 2:4b-25. In this account G-d made man before there were any plants or animals created.

From a non-Orthodox Jewish perspective where the creation stories may be regarded as myth, scientific theories do not pose a problem.

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