Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies - Jewish Thought: New Challenges

Alan Brill – Is There Still a Mystery to Mysticism after Modernity?

You can find the full lecture at Fordham. This is just a small piece that deals with Judaism. Today mysticism has dropped off the map. Instead we tend to use words that are more descriptive. There are five major schools in thinking about mysticism.

The first school treats mysticism as a series of texts that offers images. This is the view you can find in Bernard McGinn and the Chicago school. Michael Fishbane is a Jewish representative of this school. For him mystical texts are a continuation of midrashic interpretation. The second school focuses on the lack of divine presence. This is very useful for people who do not want to talk about God anymore. An example of this is Arthur Green. According to Green, God withdraws from a dimension and allow us to engage in our own interpretation. You can use god language without dealing with the implications of it. The third school is the political. I will not deal with it here, considering where we are. The fourth school sees mysticism as esoteric writing and knowledge. This covers a wide range of people. Moshe Idel, for example, treats Kabbalah as esoteric knowledge, a map that one becomes familiar with. The goal of Kabbalah is to unpack the text using a number of methods. He downplays negative theology and Neo-Platonism in Kabbalah. Moshe Halbertal now follows this. In a strange way the Kabbalah Center also works like this. They have hidden secrets, technology of sorts, to understand the universe. To go to the other extreme, Haredi Kabbalist Moshe Shapiro works within this school. This allows him to go against science. From his perspective, he knows the secrets of reality and you in the university are just grasping at it. The fifth school focuses on meditation. Mysticism is not secret but an open practice that one learns how to do. The Dalai Lama and Mary Carruthers of NYU operate within this model. Carruthers even looks at medieval texts like this.

Many of us are used to looking at the Zohar from twentieth century categories. The first model looks at the metaphors for their own sake. What do they mean? The second model would try to deflect the theist language. If God is a tree it is not as scary. The fourth wants to ask about how you go from the plain meaning to the esoteric. The final model looks at the pragmatic elements. In the last twelve years there has been a turn away from devekut. Texts have become resources in of themselves. To make the comparison of the spider and the silkworm. In the Ingmar Bergman film, Through a Glass Darkly, a woman sees God as a spider. In the Zohar God is a silkworm spinning the universe. In post modernism we are no longer interested in the experience but in the image itself, god as the spider, god as the silkworm.

(See here for a series of clips of Dr. Brill teaching meditation. I will leave it to the reader to come to their own conclusions as to where Dr. Brill stands in terms of the various models he outlined.)

Eric LaweeAdam’s Mating with Animals: New Data on Christian and Jewish Receptions of a Strange Midrash

And now for something completely different. According to the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, Adam mated with every species of animal but was not satisfied until he mated with Eve. Midrashim can have an effect even centuries after it was written. Rashi modified the midrash, but did not view this as strange that the first man engaged in bestiality. It only becomes a problem once Christians pick up on it. In the thirteenth century this Midrash was used by Nicholas Donin to attack Jews. Pablo Santa Maria also used this Midrash to mock Judaism. One solution for Jews was to read this non-literarily. Shem Tov, for example, argued that one should interpret such things according to their allegorical meaning in the way of Maimonides. Moshe ibn Gabbai interpreted this Midrash as saying that Adam investigated every animal with his intellect.

There is new data from the sixteenth century. This is the start of print and a wider diffusion of rabbinic writing among Christians. Sixtus of Siena, an apostate, used this Midrash. Johannes Reuchlin defended Rabbi Eliezer by saying that he only felt desire when he came to Eve. Rauchlin’s Jew, Simon, quotes Sefer Nizzahon (See David Berger’s Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages.) arguing that Adam could not have had intercourse with insects. Censorship was one Christian solution for such a problem. In the third Bamberg edition we see a denuded Rashi that does not refer to this midrash.

In modern times we have Pastor Cohen G. Reckart in the role of Nicholas Donin for the internet age. He says about the Talmud that “No Christian could read this book in a true heart of faith in Jesus and not come away from a study of it shocked and alarmed.”Rabbi Shimon Schwab distinguished between higher order versus lower order animals. Adam might have had intercourse with high more human like animals. The Schottenstein Talmud goes in a different direction of earlier Artscroll references to Rabbi Eliezer, which acknowledged different opinions on the matter. The Schottenstein Talmud simply follows Maharal and says that this should not be taken literally.

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