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Approaching the Great Questions ...

January 21, 2010 By:
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  As he was writing Judaism: A Way of Being, David Gelernter printed portions of the work as several long essays in Commentary magazine. Reading each new installment, I remember thinking that the completed manuscript would surely be a distinctive piece of work. But little could I have known from these samples alone just how exceptional it would be, unlike anything that's been done since the likes of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai Kaplan.

The work is not long. Even including its three appendices, it comes in at a little more than 200 pages. Still, it's as inclusive and evocative as works twice or three times its size. It will please those looking for a challenging introduction to the religion, and will challenge those who have read widely in the great books of Judaism.

Gelernter, who is perhaps best known as a professor of computer science at Yale University and the man who was severely injured by one of "the Unibomber's" lethal mailings, makes it clear at the start what Judaism is not: It's not a book about Jewish history, religious practices, teachings or doctrines, though all those things are discussed in the course of the work.

The author contends that his work is for those who have never been satisfied with the usual approaches to the "message" of Judaism, that is, individuals seeking a "firmer grasp" of the religion's "point or purpose or reason-for-being."

Gelernter's text looks to answer the great questions that have been asked throughout human existence, using traditional Orthodox Judaism as a guide. Such questions include:

How do we understand our place in the vastness of the world?

Is physical creation all there is, or is there something beyond what we see that gives life meaning, "and requires us to grasp not only matter and energy but justice and injustice, truth and falsehood, good and evil? And can this 'something' (also known as God) be known? Approached?

"How do I order my life as a human being, as a sexual being, as one part of a family?"

And does life have a purpose and a goal beyond mere survival? What is that goal? Are we all alone in the universe, or is God ready to help and intervene, willing to offer a helping hand?

The author admits that these questions have a philosophical tone to them, and that in discussing them, philosophy will at times intrude. But he also insists that what makes his book different is his conception of these questions and their answers. They will not be presented as philosophical propositions, but rather, as "themes that resonate throughout a lived Jewish life ... .

"These themes are presented in this book as they present themselves to practicing Jews: visually; as mental images."

The author states that none of his theme-images is "a principle that has been formulated by scholars. Each is a thought, taken from its natural setting inside the mind and put down on paper as faithfully as possible. My basic themes take the form of images because Judaism is less a system of belief than a way of living, a particular texture of time. Each of my four themes is a mental image that accumulates over time in the mind of a practicing Jew."

These themes, which are also tied to certain specific concepts that drive Judaism, both its thought and ritual, are Separation; Veil; Perfect Asymmetry; and Inward Pilgrimage.

Gelernter then translates the themes into specific images. For separation, he asks readers to think of a man in synagogue holding the Torah wide open above his head, one of the scroll's handles in each of his hands, in the ritual known as hagbah. The man stands on the bimah, his back to the congregation, with the scroll's lettering open toward the worshipers. Then Gelernter asks readers to imagine the facade of a grand type of synagogue, such as the Central Synagogue in Manhattan, framed by two identical towers.

According to the author, these two different towers -- the Torah scroll's two uprights and the synagogue's columns -- occupy the same space and even blend together. "As Jews enter the synagogue on Shabbat morning, they seem to disappear through the doors right into the Torah scroll that is stretched tight between the two upright wooden dowels on which the scroll's start and finish are wound. "

Next, you must imagine the Red Sea drawn apart to let the fleeing Israelites escape Egypt, a wall of water on each side. Then let these three images blend together, "one water-wall coinciding with each tower and each upright of the Torah." This means that the Israelites, passing between the walls of water are walking right into the Torah, or into (or toward) the synagogue -- "and these superimposed images give us a hint (only a hint) that forcing apart, or separation, with holiness appearing in the space between, is somehow basic to Judaism."

Consider "Veil." In synagogue, someone prepares to put on his tallit in anticipation of saying morning prayers. Writes Gelernter: "He holds it above his head and (if there is room) stretches it wide as he says the blessing before the sacred act of draping it round his shoulders. ...

"When he says Judaism's most fundamental prayer, often with the tallis draped over his head, a Jew is instructed in the Talmud to imagine himself in God's presence. The tallis separates him from the imagined presence of the Lord. Now picture the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Wall is the holiest site in Judaism, but makes for a remarkable shrine because it is blank and undecorated, with exactly nothing within or behind or beyond it; yet Jews feel near to God at the Wall, for many reasons. Tallis and Wall blend together. Each is a blank plane (or 'veil') that separates a Jew from (or connects him to) holiness."

Add to these images the picture of Moses returning to the Israelites after meeting God. Because he's somehow had an encounter with the deity, his face gives off light, and the people grow frightened until he covers it with a veil.

These are just hints again, says Gelernter, about certain sacred veils "that seemingly separate (but actually connect) the Jew and his ineffable God. As Judaism understands Him, God is inconceivable yet near at hand." That is just one meaning or purpose of the veil.

Women and the Family

For his third theme dealing with women and the family, Gelernter points to three loving marriages: Jacob and Rachel; Elkhanan and Hannah from the book of Samuel; and Rabbi Akiba and his wife, Rachel, from the Talmud. "Let all three men blend into one, and the three women too -- and what stands between this man and this wife? Nothing: They are as close as two human beings can be. Yet the rabbis tell us there is something between them: the actual (not imagined!) presence of God, the Shekhinah itself. In Judaism, a husband and wife who love each other are reactive agents so powerful, they virtually blow a hole in the cosmos when you bring them together -- and set God's presence right before you."

According to Gelernter, this image hints at his third theme: Judaism's ideal of "perfect asymmetry" between a man and a woman.

Summon up one last image: the Second Temple on a mountaintop. The author reminds us that it was organized as a series of courtyards that led to the innermost spot of all: "the empty, cubical room called the Holy of Holies. ... The Temple leads you inward, as Abraham's journey to Mount Moriah and Moses' to Mount N'vo [at the end of his life] must have led them into the depths of their own hearts and souls." This is just a glance, as the author states, into the last of his four themes, "Inward Pilgrimage."

If, in this brief and highly cursory summary of portions of Gelernter's brilliant book, I have made it sound obtuse or difficult, then I have done the author a disservice. The work has its challenges, but it's never less than clear and stirring, and should be read by all those who have the slightest interest in Judaism and its many layers of meaning and beauty.

 

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