These Are the Words: A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580231077
  • Publisher: Jewish Lights Publishing
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Language: Dutch
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.03 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Read an Excerpt

These Are the Words

A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life
By Arthur Green

Jewish Lights Publishing

Copyright ©2001 Arthur Green
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1580231071


Chapter One


Y-H-W-H


We begin out of order. All the other words in this book will proceed in English alphabetical order, each within its own category. But this is the word beyond all words, the word that has to come first, the source of cosmic and verbal energy that underlies the existence of all the others.

The Torah* calls Y-H-W-H the name of God. When the Lord appears to Moses at the burning bush to send him on his mission (Exodus 3:15), this name is revealed to him. He is told that this is God's name "forever," though that word is written in a way that also could mean "secret" or "hidden." The commentaries take it to mean that [SYMBOL OMITTED]/Y-H-W-H is the hidden, mysterious name of God.

What is its mystery? First, it has no vowels. Without vowels, which usually appear as dots beneath or alongside the letters, it is impossible to pronounce a word. But Y-H-W-H also has no real consonants! Y, H, and W really are blowing sounds, rushings of air through the mouth. There is nothing hard or concrete about them, no "B" or "K" sound that requires a definite action of the lips, teeth, or throat. The point is one ofelusiveness or abstraction. The name of God is so subtle it could slip away from you. Y-H-W-H is not a God you can grab hold of and be sure you've got firmly in your mental "grasp."

Y-H-W-H, like most Hebrew words, appears to be derived from a three-letter root. H-W-H is the root for "being" or "existence." The Y at the beginning of Y-H-W-H could indicate the imperfect tense, so that we could translate the name to mean "that which is" or "that which will be." But Y-H-W-H is more likely to be an awkward conflation of all the tenses, and it is really best to translate it as "Is-Was-Will Be." In fact, the Hebrew word for "being" is HaWaYaH, which is simply a switching around of the letters in Y-H-W-H. The commanding verb of Genesis 1, yehi or "Let there be," is closely related to it. Y-H-W-H, in fact, is not really a noun at all, but a verb caught in motion, artificially frozen by our simple minds into noun form, a movement conceived as though it were a "thing." This occurs in the same way a still camera might frame an action shot, giving you the impression of having "captured" something motionless.

Not only can we not properly pronounce this word; we are not permitted even to try. This "explicit" name of God was to be pronounced only once a year by the high priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur*. No lesser setting was considered adequate for its utterance. After the Second Temple was destroyed (in 70 C.E., by the Romans) its pronunciation was forbidden altogether and various other terms, beginning with adonai*, were substituted for it.


Adonai


Literally "My Lord," a word by which to address one's superior, like "m'lord" in old English usage. Since very early times this term has been used to replace Y-H-W-H*, which may not be pronounced. When the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek (around 200 B.C.E.), it was the word adonai that the Greek translators rendered as kyrios or Lord.

Midrashic tradition offers an illuminating explanation for the origin of this term as a substitute for the name of God. When God created Adam, it is told, the angels were filled with jealous wrath. "A mere earthling!" they said, denying that Adam had any special worth. But God loved Adam and wanted him to display his wisdom. So God brought forth the animals, one after another, and asked the angels what they were to be called. Having no experience of the animal world, the angels did not know. Then God called Adam and asked him to name the animals. Adam did so in short order. "And now," said God, "what should you be called?" Adam answered, "I should be called Adam, for I was taken from adamah ('earth')." "And what should I be called?" asked God. "You," Adam replied immediately, "should be called adonai, for You are Lord over all Your works."

A twofold lesson can be learned from this Midrash*. One part is that being Lord over us is not God's most essential Self. The divine essence is better expressed by the name Y-H-W-H*, for God's presence permeates all of being. It is we humans who ascribe lordship to God, out of our need for submission. Lordship is a projection from human society onto the mysterious, unknowable, divine Being. Even though that is true, however, we call God adonai even in our most intimate prayers. We use this word as though it really were a name, and those prayers are acceptable. This is the second part of the lesson. Saying "Lord" puts us into relationship with Y-H-W-H. This desire for relationship, even with so abstract a being as Y-H-W-H, is a sign of our love. God responds to our love and chooses to be called by this name we made up for God in our infancy, rather than by the Explicit Name itself, Y-H-W-H.


Atah


The Hebrew word for "you" (in the second person masculine singular) may seem like a strange choice for an entry in this spiritual vocabulary list. In modern spoken Hebrew, it is used constantly in conversation without a second thought.

But "you" is also "You"—the pronoun we use when addressing God in prayer. This provides us a good place to reflect a bit on Hebrew, a language in which even the shortest and simplest of words cannot be spoken without profound theological overtones. Because Hebrew was preserved for so long as the language of the synagogue, most Jews for more than 1000 years learned atah as the word that followed barukh (in the phrase "blessed are You ...") in the opening to all traditional Jewish blessings.

The philosopher Martin Buber's great insight, in his classic I and Thou, is that every "you" we speak contains within it echoes of "the eternal You." This insight came to him because he was thinking in Hebrew. Every atah, for the hearer sensitive to Hebrew rhythms, bears within it the atah we say when we turn to God in prayer. Every atah, then, contains within it some hidden fragment of prayer. Speech is inevitably holy speech, if we look deeply enough into its root. Buber's genius lay in universalizing the Jew's experience of this primal Hebrew word.

The first two letters of atah are aleph and tav. These form the beginning and the end of the Hebrew alphabet. Since the mystical masters believe that God created all the worlds by combinations of letters, aleph and tav can be seen to stand for all Creation: All that ever was or will be comes about only through the letters from aleph through tav. (This is something like Jesus' saying, using the Greek alphabet, "I am alpha and omega," meaning "I am the beginning and the end.") But combining those two letters gives us only the word et, a particle used for the direct object. Aleph to tav by themselves refer to the world only as object.

The third letter in atah, heh, is used here to stand for the name of God. Add God's name to aleph and tav and the word comes alive. With the heh added (even though heh is really nothing but a breath!), the word is no longer "it," but "You"! The "aaahh" sound at the end draws us out, connects us to the other. With atah we address the living Subject, not the inanimate or abstract object.


Din


Din is the most common Hebrew term for "judgment." A court is a bet din ("a house of judgment"); a judge is a dayyan, a person who renders din.

One of the best-known depictions of God in Jewish folk tradition is that of the Judge Who presides over the heavenly court. This imagery is especially connected to Rosh Hashanah*, which is known as yom ha-din ("the day of judgment"). Judaism's strong sense of moral accountability calls forth this image. Each of us is responsible for our actions and we are all called before God to account for them.

But the attribute of judgment (middat ha-din) is only one side of the Divine Self. God has an equally strong sense of compassion for us since we are all God's children. We thus call upon God to judge us as our Divine Parent, as one Whose love can always be trusted, even when it is punishment that we require.

The precise balancing of these two divine attributes—din and rahamim* ("compassion"), sometimes referred to as the "left" and "right" hands of God—is important in the special symbolism of the Kabbalah*. There din, the judging and punishing side of God, has a fierce and nearly uncontrollable character. When not tempered properly by the force of compassion, it becomes the root of evil, the source within the one God for all that opposes divinity. Evil is thus divine judgment run wild. To put it differently, the Kabbalah teaches that judgment, when not aligned with love and compassion, can be demonic rather than divine.

Dinim, in Kabbalistic language, are negative forces, sparks of evil. They must be restored to God by our acts of worship and "sweetened" as they are returned to their root. These dinim should not be confused with dinim in halakhic literature, where the word simply means "laws" or "judgments."


Elohim


Elohim is the generic Hebrew term for "god." The Bible uses it when referring both to the "God" of Israel and to the "gods" of other nations. The word is also occasionally used in the sense of "great one," referring to a respected human authority.

The most interesting thing about Elohim is the fact that it is a plural form. The Bible acknowledges that fact by using it when speaking of "other gods." Then plural verbs or adjectives are used with it, as required by the rules of proper grammar. But when the same plural word is used to refer to the God of Israel, those rules are intentionally violated and Elohim is treated as though it were singular. Thus the Bible's opening words, Bereshit bara' elohim ("In the beginning God created ..."), are something of a grammatical abomination! Every time the Torah* says va-yomer 'elohim ("God said") the rules of grammar are broken.

This is, of course, no accident. The point is that Elohim in this context is used as a collective. All the powers that once belonged to all the deities of the pantheon—such as love, power, wisdom, war, fruitfulness—are now concentrated in this single Being Who contains them all. The blessings needed for every aspect of human life are now all seen to come from a single source. This is the essence of the monotheistic revolution, embodied in the language each time you use this common Hebrew word for "God."

The Zohar, the great compendium of Kabbalah*, opens with a profound interpretation of the word Elohim. It reads the word as composed of two shorter Hebrew terms: [SYMBOL OMITTED]/eleh and [SYMBOL OMITTED]/mi. Eleh means "these," referring to all the images and attributes of God available to us through the sefirot*. Mi means "who?" always in the interrogative form. Despite all our thinking and imagining, the Zohar teaches, God remains a mystery. If you think you understand God, you lose the "Who?" Then you become an idolater, worshipping your own images, just like those who made the golden calf and said: "These are your gods, O Israel!" (Exodus 32:4).


Emet


Truth or emet is God's own seal, according to the rabbis. The three letters of the word constitute the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Truth has to be broad and open enough to encompass all letters, all words, all of existence. By contrast, [SYMBOL OMITTED]/sheqer or "lie" consists of three letters huddled together near the end of the alphabet. They make their own closed little circle, and do not allow the light of truth to shine in.

God's seal of truth commands us to be honest and to live with integrity. This has to do with every aspect of our lives, from our business dealings to the way we express our faith in God. What we do and say should be out in the open, accessible to all who want to see it, and capable of passing common human tests of truth.

In the Bible emet refers to a deeply held and unshakable belief; it is closely related to the word emunah* or "faith." The truth of one's position is shown by how firmly it is held. Ultimately that which we are willing to live for and die for becomes our personal truth. It is in this spirit that our liturgy adds the word emet to the conclusion of the shema'*, affirming our personal witness to God's truth.

For the Jewish philosopher, beginning in the Middle Ages, emet also means the truth that can be demonstrated by philosophical reasoning. This tradition attributed such truth to Plato and Aristotle, the philosophical giants of ancient Athens, and to the many thinkers, non-Jews as well as Jews, who came in their wake. This meant that there were two sources of truth, the revelation of Sinai and the reasonable conclusions of philosophy. The relationship between these, especially with regard to such difficult questions as Creation or the nature of prophecy, forms the content of Jewish philosophy.

In modern times, such thinkers as Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel were given similar status. Much of the German-Jewish philosophical tradition, from Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) to Martin Buber (1878-1965), revolved around responses to modern Western philosophies. Again, Jews affirmed in this way that we have no monopoly on truth and that we recognize truth's value no matter from where it comes.

A postmodern Jewish theology emerging in our own day will also have its external "pillars" of truth on which to rest and against which to react. These will probably be derived partly from the new contact of Judaism with Eastern philosophies, especially Buddhism. Jewish-Buddhist dialogue on such topics as the nature of oneness, reality and illusion, and the purpose of human existence may be among the most important sources of truth as Jews pursue it in the coming years.

In dealing with the relationship between Jewish commitment to tradition and the search for truth, we need to constantly reevaluate the meaning of our Jewish religious language and the ways it can continue to evolve. Jewish thinkers since the Middle Ages have understood that Biblical tales and especially depictions of God are to be taken nonliterally. But what is the nature of that nonliteralist faith? Are we to see the language of the prayer book, for example, as myth? Can those mythic images be replaced, particularly if we find them to be in conflict with our truer contemporary beliefs and values? Or does the language have a holiness and canonical status that requires it, like the Bible, ever to be re-interpreted but never changed? Freedom to re-interpret ancient texts is essential to Judaism and provides one of its greatest strengths. But is there a point where re-interpretation flies in the face of intellectual honesty? How do we get by such points and continue to live as thinking and searching Jews?


Eyn Sof


This phrase means "no end" or "endless." In its original meaning, it is not a noun or noun phrase; it might be used rather as an adverb to describe an endlessly long story or a scene of endless beauty. In Kabbalistic (Kabbalah*) writings of the 12th and 13th centuries, however, it is used to designate the unknowable God. Eyn Sof refers to the endless, unaffected, unchanging aspect of existence, that which "was" (although tense is inappropriate to Eyn Sof) before the beginning and that which "will be" after the end.

Since it is beyond knowing, Eyn Sof may be designated as "transcendent" to the human mind, but that does not mean that it exists "outside" the universe. Eyn Sof is no more "beyond" the world than it is "within" all things, for any assertion of boundaries, any assertion of a "two" or an "other" following the one that is Eyn Sof would necessarily violate the meaning of this term. It may thus be seen as the "one" of the monistic side of Jewish mysticism, that which knows (but resists admitting!) that all is one.

The Kabbalists did distinguish between Eyn Sof and the sefirot*: The ways in which the sefirot and ultimately this entire world emerge from within Eyn Sof are essential themes of mystical contemplation. So too is the ongoing relationship between the sefirotic universe, depicted in the most colorful imagery, and this endless but indescribable font of being.


Kavod


Kavod or "glory" is the Biblical term for God's presence as manifest in the world. It is especially found in priestly sources, the parts of Torah* dealing with the mishkan* ("tabernacle") and the sacrificial system. Sometimes (as in Exodus 24:17) the kavod takes on the appearance of a "consuming fire."

Elsewhere, however, kavod is a presence that is more intuited than seen. Once the mishkan is completed, we are told, Moses cannot enter it "because the cloud had rested upon it and the glory of God filled the tabernacle" (Exodus 40:35). Kavod is related to the root [SYMBOL OMITTED]/k-b-d, which can mean "heavy"; there is a sense of weightiness or filling about the Divine Presence that leaves no room for Moses to enter.

When the prophet Isaiah has his initial vision (Isaiah 6), he hears the angels proclaim of God that "His glory fills all the earth." This is a great universalizing of what had earlier been just a sense of localized Divine Presence in a holy place. Ever since Biblical times, Judaism has sought to maintain both senses of this term in religious experience. The presence of God indeed is everywhere: Any place, as the Hasidic masters so well taught, can become a holy Temple and gateway to heaven. But this sense can only be maintained by a tradition that remembers specific holy places and records concrete experiences of them.

Kavod tends to be replaced in post-Biblical Judaism by the term shekhinah* or "indwelling presence."


Kelipah


Kelipah literally means "shell," but idiomatically in Yiddish and in late Hebrew it came to refer to an "evil spirit" or demonic force.

Jewish mystics in the Middle Ages were fascinated by the nut as a symbol of truth. This association was partly based on Song of Songs 6:11: "I have gone down into the nut-garden." The outer shell and membranes of the walnut appear to parallel the cranium and the tissue surrounding the brain. They were seen as protections that kept the unfit away from penetrating the deeper truths of wisdom.

This image of the kelipah as protective insulation surrounding the core was transformed by the new Kabbalistic (Kabbalah*) myth of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572). Luria claimed that creative energy, in the form of divine light, was sent into this newly-emanated world from the mysterious core of divinity. The light was contained in certain "vessels." The emanated world was not sufficiently holy to contain God's light, however, so the vessels smashed and the sparks of light were scattered. The broken shards of the vessels, which are now called kelipot, cover those sparks or keep the divine light hidden. As such, they become active enemies of those who seek the light.

In the popular imagination, the kelipot also become tempters, leading humans to do the sorts of evil deeds that will keep the light of God hidden from them. The Ba'al Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1700-1760, the first rebbe* of Hasidism) well understood that the kelipah's best weapon in this war is guilt: The more you are filled with and obsessed by your own guilt, the less you are able to see the sparks of divine light that radiate everywhere and throughout all the worlds.


Mal'akh


Yes, Judaism believes in angels. The Bible is filled with them. Cherubim block the entrance to Eden after Adam is expelled, Isaiah sees seraphim surrounding God in the Temple, and mal'akhim, which translates simply as "messengers," appear as the three humble strangers whom Abraham and Sarah fed in their tent.

Angels served as an outlet for compromise or flexibility in the face of ancient Israel's very severe dose of monotheism. What happened to the gods of all the other nations? Were they simply "sticks and stones," as the Torah* (Deuteronomy 4:28) suggests? What about such cosmic forces, long personified in human imagination, as the god who brings rain or the god who causes the winds to blow? These were allowed to abide in the mythic imagination of Judaism in the form of angels. They are granted no real power of their own, of course; all they can do is God's bidding. Unlike humans, they are ever conscious of their status as divine messengers and they have no evil urge to stray from their Master's service.

Angels play an especially great role in the various Jewish mystical traditions. The divine throne is flanked on one side by Metatron, chief of all the angels who, in an earlier life, was a man named Enoch. On the other side of the throne stands Sandalphon, whose height reaches from earth to heaven. Each day he weaves a new crown for his Creator out of the prayers of Israel. (Miss a prayer one day and you are diminishing the crown of God!)

Most modern Jews live far from this rich fantasy world of archaic religious imagination. Still important, however, is the idea that angels sometimes come disguised in the garb of humans: The angels who visit Abraham are in fact called "men" in the Bible, and it is only tradition that says they were angels. Real human messengers, on the other hand, are sometimes referred to as mal'akhim, or "angels." When you meet someone inhabiting a human body, in other words, never pre-judge whether it is a person you are about to encounter or an angel. That's the tradition!


Melekh


The depiction of God as melekh or "King" was a key part of the legacy of symbols and images that ancient Israel received from the surrounding cultures. As human kings were revered as gods in the ancient Near East, so too were the gods depicted amid the trappings of royalty.

Post-Biblical Judaism continued to cherish the royal metaphor, perhaps more so than ever once historical circumstance denied the Jews earthly sovereignty. The idea that God is the only true King, and therefore that all flesh-and-blood rulers are more or less usurpers, was widely if quietly believed among Jews for a very long time. An emperor might dare call himself "king of kings," but God remained beyond him, since God was called melekh malkhey hamelakhim, "King over kings of kings"! The liturgy, and especially that of Rosh Hashanah* and Yom Kippur*, is especially enamored of royal imagery.

Depicting God as King did not necessarily make for the remoteness and grandeur generally associated with this image. Rabbinic literature is studded with hundreds of parables comparing God to a human king. Often they show the king struggling with the most normal of human situations: the king having trouble disciplining his son, the king whose dear friend gives him wrong advice, the king whose wife is unfaithful, and so forth. In the course of humanizing God, Jewish texts depicted the Deity in the role of the king who, despite having seemingly unchecked powers, often confronts limiting situations that require acting with restraint, wisdom, and compassion.

Contemporary Jews are often uncomfortable with the royal metaphors they find in so many Jewish sources. These images seem outdated and "irrelevant," hierarchical and repressive. Some Jews have called for such changes as replacing melekh ha-'olam ("universal King") in the frequently used blessing formula with ruah ha-'olam ("universal Spirit"). Those who argue against such changes note the widespread fascination with royalty still seen in children's fantasies and in products of the creative imagination. To delete kingship from the symbolic repertoire of Judaism might lead to a spiritual impoverishment of the tradition, just the opposite of what is needed in our day. The debate goes on, in this writer's soul as in many others.



Continues...


Excerpted from These Are the Words by Arthur Green Copyright ©2001 by Arthur Green. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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