AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Wednesday, 6 December 2017


Every day is a "Jerusalem Day"
And now, at last, they stood before Jerusalem.
Passion, greed, ambition,
Even their chivalric pride,
They cast from their hearts at once.

For now, they stood before Jerusalem.
In their ecstasy and their fervor,
They forgot their squabbles with the Greeks,
They forgot their hatred for the Turks.

For now, they stood before Jerusalem.
And the bold, invincible Crusaders,
Impetuous in all their other attacks and campaigns,
Are nervous and faint-hearted, unable
To go forward. They tremble like small children.
And like small children they sob, all of them sob,
As they behold the walls of Jerusalem.
                                                                                                                  (C.P. Cavafy)
View of the Old Jerusalem
In vain you will look for the fences of barbed wire.
You know that such things
don’t disappear. A different city perhaps
is now being cut in two; two lovers
separated; a different flesh is tormenting itself now
with these thorns, refusing to be stone.

In vain you will look. You lift up your eyes unto the hills,
perhaps there? Not these hills, accidents of geology,
but The Hills. You ask
questions without a rise in your voice, without a question-mark,
only because you’re supposed to ask them; and they
don’t exist. But a great weariness wants you with all your might
and gets you. Like death.

Jerusalem, the only city in the world
where the right to vote is granted even to the dead.
                                                                                                             (Yehuda Amichai)
View of the Old Jerusalem and the Western Wall
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Let my blood be forgotten. 
I shall touch your forehead, 
Forget my own, 
My voice change
For the second and last time
To the most terrible of voices --
Or silence.
                                                                                                         (Yehuda Amichai)
View of the Old Jerusalem and the Western Wall at night
...I shall not forget Jerusalem

     which is always threatened

and more alone than ever.

     I am also alone.
                                                                                                          (Elaine Feinstein)
David's Tower, Jerusalem
Oh Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem, no longer shall I wait; 
Now, stand back and see what I shall do! 
I am bringing your children Home, 
they shall again possess their land; 
Watch them build Your cities strong, 
Taste their new sweet wine, 
Listen to their voices shouting My Song, 
'This is the City of God.'

Again, their music will fill your ears,
their dancing will make you glad, 
My People shall remain there forever, Jerusalem, 
For I have restored their land.
                                                                                                                        (Nell Zier)
Woman praying at the Western Wall
A crowd gathered in front of the kotel this morning
like a peaceful protest.

God hurled a canister of tear gas at them
but the weeping wailing women did not disperse.

I watched a woman with closed eyes
and open hands
brush her fingers over the ancient stone
as if God were braille
as if you could read him just by touching the surface

But we
had never meant to go blind
on purpose.
                                                                                                              (Rachel Stomel)Panoramic view of the Old Jerusalem
Jerusalem is a carousel spinning round and round
from the Old City through every neighborhood and back to the Old.
And you can’t get off. If you jump you’re risking your life
and if you step off when it stops you must pay again
to get back on for more turns that never will end.
Instead of painted elephants and horses to ride
religions go up, down and around on their axes
to unctuous melodies from the houses of prayer.

Jerusalem is a seesaw: Sometimes I go down,
to past generations and sometimes up, into the sky,
then like a child dangling on high, legs swinging, I cry
I want to get down, Daddy, Daddy, I want to get down,
Daddy, get me down.
And like that, all the saints go up into the sky.
They’re like children screaming, Daddy, I want to stay high,
Daddy don’t bring me down, Our Father Our King,
leave me on high, Our Father Our King!
                                                                                            (Yehuda Amichai)

Monday, 4 December 2017


The Kabbalah

or, The Religious Philosophy of the Hebrews

by Adolphe Franck

translated by I. Sossnitz

[1926, not renewed]

This is a scholarly study of the origin and evolution of the Kabbalah. Originally published in French in 1843, with a second French edition in 1889, this book traces the origins of the philosophical concepts of the Kabbalah to the ancient Zoroastrians. Franck goes into fascinating detail about the doctrine of the Kabbalah, as expressed in the Sepher Yetzirah and the Zohar. He uses internal evidence to trace the origins of these texts many centuries prior to their first known publication in the thirteenth century C.E.

Franck carefully compares the philosophy of the Kabbalah with Greek philosophy, the Alexandrians, Philo, and the Gnostics, and concludes that, although there are similarities, none of them can claim to be the source of the Kabbalah. However, he does find many more similarities with the ancient Zoroastrian beliefs. By this process of elimination, he comes to the conclusion that the doctrines of the Kabbalah had their origin during the Babylonian exile circa 500 B.C.E., which was also the time when Zoroaster was active in the same geographical region. This thesis is worth considering, and potentially adds more weight to the already numerous contributions of Zoroastrianism to world culture.

PRODUCTION NOTES: This text has extensive quotes in Hebrew and Greek. Viewing the Hebrew and Greek text requires that your browser be set up correctly to view Unicode: for more information, please refer to the Unicode instruction page. In particular, please follow the instructions on that page before firing off an email to me that the file is defective: it isn't, if you can't see the Hebrew or Greek text, the problem is your browser.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Sunday, 3 December 2017


Mozart and Beethoven
The Struggle of Faith (📢 soundcloud)
by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

There are Mozarts and there are Beethovens. Which are you?

I have only the most amateur knowledge of music, but the impression one gets about Mozart is that, from him, music flowed. There is something effortless and effervescent about his compositions. They are not “sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought.” He wrote at speed. He carried the worries of the world lightly.

Not so Beethoven, for whom it sometimes took years for an idea to crystallise into its final form, with countless drafts and revisions and crossings-out. This was a man who could be angry with himself and with the world, for whom creativity was a struggle from which he emerged triumphant with work that is rarely less than strenuous and full of conflict until its final majestic resolution. The ethereal, mystical, almost other-worldly quality of his last compositions, the sublime late piano sonatas and string quartets, are the creation of one who has finally found peace after a life of wrestling with his own angels and demons.

All of this is, for me, a way of coming to understand Jacob, the man who became Israel, our father in faith. Jacob is not the most obvious choice of religious hero. He does not appear – at least on the surface of the biblical text – as a man with Abraham’s courage or kindness, Isaac’s faithfulness and self-restraint, Moses’ vigour and passion, David’s politics and poetry, or Isaiah’s lyricism and hope.

He was a man surrounded by conflict: with his brother Esau, his father-in-law Laban, his wives, Leah and Rachel, and his children, whose sibling rivalry eventually brought the whole family into exile in Egypt. His life seems to have been a field of tensions.

Then there were his transactions: the way he purchased Esau’s birthright, took his blessing, and eventually outwitted his wily father-in-law Laban. In each case he seems to have won, but then his situation deteriorates. The episode in which, at Rebekah’s request, he dressed up as Esau and deceived his blind father, forced him to leave home and – as we see in this week’s parsha – left him traumatised with fear at the prospect of meeting Esau again. Almost the same deception he practised on Isaac, he suffered at the hand of Laban. Even his escape from Laban might have ended in tragedy, had God not warned him not to harm Jacob (Hence the passage in the Haggada: “Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob”). His life as portrayed in the Torah seems to be a constant series of escapes from one trouble to the next.

So who and what was Jacob?

To this there are two radically different answers. There is the Jacob of midrash who even in the womb longed for a synagogue,[1] who spent his years as a young man studying in the bet midrash,[2] who looked like Abraham[3] and whose arms were like pillars of marble.[4] His motives were always pure. He bought Esau’s birthright because he could not bear to see Esau offering sacrifices (the privilege of the firstborn) to idols.[5] As for his father’s blessing, the very reason Isaac became blind in old age was so that this could be possible.[6] Esau was the opposite, a violent and mercurial character who had deceived his father into thinking he was ultra-pious,[7] but who had – on the day he came in “tired” from the field – committed a whole series of crimes including murder.[8]

This is an extreme portrayal, but not without scriptural basis. Jacob is called an ish tam, which conveys the sense of simplicity, integrity and single-mindedness. The plain sense of the oracle Rebekah received before the twins were born was that “the elder will serve the younger.”[9] She knew Jacob was the son destined to prevail. Besides which, as Maharatz Chajes says in his Introduction to the Aggadic Literature,[10] midrash paints biblical characters in moral black-and-white for obvious moral and educational reasons. It is difficult to teach children how to behave if all you have to offer is a series of studies in ambiguity, complexity and shades-of-grey.

The other Jacob, though, is the one we read in the plain sense of the text. The obvious question is: why did the Torah choose to portray the third of the patriarchs in this way? The Torah is highly selective in the details it chooses to relate. Why not paint Jacob in more attractive colours?

It seems to me that the Torah is delivering, here as elsewhere, an extraordinary message: that if we can truly relate to God as God, in His full transcendence and majesty, then we can relate to humans as humans in all their fallibility. In every other religious literature known to me, heroes are idealised until they no longer seem human at all. They are Divine or semi-Divine, perfect and infallible. There is no one like that in the whole of Tanakh. Even Noah (righteous, perfect) is seen drunk and dishevelled. Even Job (blameless, upright) eventually curses his fate. The man who, more than any other, epitomises fallibility is Jacob.

And perhaps that is the point. Jacob was a Beethoven, not a Mozart. His life was a series of struggles. Nothing came easily to him. He, alone of the patriarchs, was a man who chose to be chosen. Abraham was called by God. Isaac was chosen before his birth. Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah: these were all singled out by God for their mission. Not so Jacob. It was he who bought the birthright and took the blessing, he who chose to carry Abraham’s destiny into the future.
Not until he was running away from home did God appear to him. Not until years later, alone, at night, terrified at the prospect of meeting Esau, did God or an angel wrestle with him. He alone was given, by God or the angel, a completely new name, not an enhancement of his old one but a completely new identity: “Israel.” Even more strikingly, despite the fact that he was told “Your name shall no more be called Jacob,”[11] the Torah continues to call him Jacob, suggesting that his struggle was lifelong – as, often, is ours.

Were I to choose a soundtrack for the Jacob I have come to know, it would be Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata or his Grosse Fugue, music of such overwhelming tension that it seems on the verge of bursting through all form and structure. Yet it was through these epic struggles that Beethoven eventually reached his own version of serenity, and it was through Jacob’s extended wrestling-match with destiny that he eventually achieved what neither Abraham nor Isaac accomplished: all his children stayed within the faith. “According to the pain is the reward,” said the sages.[12] That is Jacob.

There are saintly people for whom spirituality comes as easily as did music to Mozart. But God does not reach out only to saints. He reaches out to all of us. That is why He gave us Abraham for those who love, Isaac for those who fear, and Jacob/Israel for those who struggle.

Hence this week’s life-changing idea: if you find yourself struggling with faith, you are in the company of Jacob-who-became-Israel, the father-in-faith of us all.

The Sisyphus Myth - painting by Sergey Kolesnikov
[1] Bereishit Rabbah 63:6.
[2] Bereishit Rabbah 63:10.
[3] Midrash Lekach Tov, Bereishit 47:18.
[4] Bereishit Rabbah 65:17.
[5] Bereishit Rabbah 63:13.
[6] Bereishit Rabbah 65:8.
[7] See Rashi to Gen. 25:27.
[8] Baba Batra 16b.
[9] Elsewhere in past ‘C&C’s on Toldot, I have pointed out that this text is freighted with ambiguity.
[10] R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes, Mavo ha-Aggadot (printed at the beginning of standard editions of Ein Yaakov).
[11] He is told this twice, first by the angel, then by God Himself: Gen. 32:29; 35:10.
[12] Mishnah, Avot 5:23.