On Suicide, from a longer piece

From Suicide and Other Difficult Subjects

In the group that I lead on Thursday nights, Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew) we are familiar with the subject of suicide and whenever it comes up it tends to take over the meeting.

The meeting is basically a teaching and a sharing, support in the simple sense that we show up for each other. We listen, we understand, we are understood. We get why we need each other. Also true: we need each other because we get each other. The first thing we learn in the group is to listen. From there we come to understand each other – to know and to be known — and that may be the most important element of our success.

I feel the proximity of laughter and tears at our meetings, they are right next to each other at the table of human responses to the challenges of living. Tears are sitting in one seat at the table, right next to tears is laughter and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and a moment later you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat laughing. We are alternately serious and silly, sometimes at the same time, one eye laughing one eye crying.

Every suicide is a trigger for the discussion of the group, a kind of wrinkle in the cosmic order for all, because everyone around the table has stood at the crossroads of life and death and every person at the table has chosen life. And we all know people who have chosen otherwise.

But taking one’s own life is always a challenge, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table is vigilant. Daily.

I didn’t know him but I knew him. I bet his interior was painfully soft and vulnerable, sometimes hidden and unknown. I look at his sweet face and I see his soul.

Our group has heart for the stranger because we are all strangers. We do not judge. We show up for each other. I really don’t know what was in that poor man’s heart but I do believe he died alone. At the moment before it became irreversible, he didn’t call someone. His beloveds will suffer from that for a long time.

We don’t have an antidote. We have each other. I think lives are saved around our tables but we have no certainty. We have the group. We do not practice aloneness, and we talk about a spiritual thing, not a religious thing. We have today, and that becomes enough.

james stone goodman, rabbi, human being

I Was Present for the First Tikkun

I Was Present at the First Tikkun Layl Shavuot

Note: all melodies are from Salonica

There is only one medieval text that mentions a tikkun layl Shavuot
Zohar – book of Illumination — classic text of Jewish mysticism
Parashat Emor (sefer Vayikra)
Zohar mentions Hasidim Rishonim
First Pious Ones
Who did not sleep in the night of Shavout
Occupying themselves with Torah.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his chaverim
Rabbi Shimon and his friends sat and studied Torah all night
As the bride about to be united with her beloved.
 
The Tikkun is not mentioned by the holy Yosef Caro himself
Not by the Rama
[Yes by the Magen Avraham, citing the Zohar],
 
Though it could be inferred from the yearning of the Shekhinah
For Tiferet for Hakadosh Barukh Hu
For Kenesset Yisrael the people of Israel
The anticipated meeting
The longed-for betrothal of G*d and Israel
The integrating notion the marriage of Israel and G*d on Shavuot
The cosmic coupling of Shekhinah and her love
Tiferet and Malkhut
Shekhinah and HaKadosh Barukh Hu
Amen v’amen.
 
The first certain tikkun
the first all night session of study in honor of the holy integration
Has been preserved in a secret letter
Iggeret Alkabetz
The letter of Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz.
 
I wrote the letter
I am the word merchant of Lekha Dodi
The wedding song welcoming every Friday night
Shekhinah
Malkhut
Kallah the bride
As she comes looking for her beloved
HaKadosh Barukh Hu
Tiferet
K’nesset Yisrael
The community of Israel
On the occasions when we allow ourselves to be
Found.
 
I sing Lekha Dodi
 
In the secret letter
Mid sixteenth century
Circulated through Europe
Written by me
Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz
Recalling a Shavuot night in 1533
Salonica [now called Thessaloniki]
In the polyglot Ottomon world
Salonica — conquered by the Sultan Murad II a century earlier [1430] —
It would remain Muslim until 1912
And a good 1/5th Jewish until 1943
When its entire Jewish population was carried off to Auschwitz.
 
Between the Wars
Salonica was the only port on the Mediterranean
Closed on Shabbat.
Living in Salonica in 1533 were myself – Alkabetz —
And my teacher Rabbi Yosef Caro (HaMeChaber of the Shulkhan Arukh,
— the Well Set Table)
Who I refer to as He-Chasid
The Pious one
Caro Spanish for dear the dear one the pious one
He was already known for his first halakhic work Beit Yosef
He came to Salonica in 1530 and indulged his fascination with Che”N
Chokhmah nisteret, the hidden wisdom
Kabbalah –
Cagey Yosef Caro.
 
Caro would be visited for over fifty years
By a maggid
A spirit a voice that spoke through him
He read Mishnahs
Mishnah an anagram for neshamah
And through his being spoke a maggid
It was an angel that spoke through him
Sometimes masculine
Sometimes feminine
Sometimes masculine and feminine.
 
I sing Shalom Aleikhem
 
The darshan the kol the dibbur
The mishnah the Ima the Shekhinah
He/she was called all these names
This from the compiler of the central text of organizational halakhah
Masculine halakhist
Feminine kabbalist
Yosef Caro
Whose descendant is buried in the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery
White Road, Chesterfield Missouri,
Rabbi Stone Goodman buried him there himself in the year 2000.
 
I sing Shalom Aleikhem
 
When Yosef Caro spoke
The angels appeared in an invisible ring of fire around him.
Amen.
 
Yosef Caro imagined himself as Moshe Rabbeinu
And myself Alkabetz 
I was his Aharon.
 
This is how I described the preparation
For the first Tikkun Leil Shavuot:
 
 
We agreed — the Hasid and I — to stay awake
Three days before the holiday
We immersed in the mikveh
We purified ourselves properly to accompany the bride.
 
We agreed not to stop learning for even one second
Thank G*d we were successful.
 
I prepared verses from the Torah
We chanted aloud in a spirit of great awe
With melody and verve
What happened next will not be believed.
 
After all the verses
We recited out loud all the Mishnahs of Zeraim
The first of the Six Orders
And then we started again
Learning it in the way of true learning
We completed two tractates.
 
At midnight
The Creator graced us
We heard a voice coming from Rabbi Caro:
 
Listen my beloved those who most glorify the Creator
My loved ones shalom aleikhem
Happy are you and happy those that bore you
Happy are you in this world
And happy you will be in the world to come
Because you took upon yourselves to crown Me on this night.
 
It has been many years since My crown has fallen
There has been no one to comfort Me
I have been cast to the dust embracing filth
But now
You have restored the crown.
 
I sing Lekha Dodi
 
Strengthen yourselves my dear ones
Forge ahead my beloved
Be joyous
Know that you are among the exalted
You approach the King’s palace
The voice of your Torah and breath of your mouths
Arose before G*d and pierced through the many firmaments
Until the messenger angels were quieted
And the fire angels hushed
And all G*d’s lofty retinue listened to your voices.
 
I am the Mishnah that advised humankind.
I have come to speak with you.
If only there were ten of you
You would have ascended even higher
Still you have elevated yourselves and those who bore you
I have been summoned this night through those gathered in this great city
You are not like those sleeping
You cleaved to the One and have pleased G*d
My children, strengthen yourselves and push forth in my love
My Torah
My awe.
 
With a loud voice as on Yom Kippur
Say with me
Barukh Shem Kevod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.
Sing it again in the melody of our Salonica
Sing it slowly
Close your eyes and sing it in a melody rescued from Our Salonica
Where I sit in 1533 with seven of the dear ones
Who sat and began the tikkun on this night 2,845 years since Sinai
The repair of our past
Take a deep breath and sing with me now
Barukh Shem Kevod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.
 
I sing melody from Ir Me Quero
 
We recited verses until daybreak
In the morning we went to immerse ourselves
As we had on the two previous days
And at the mikveh we met the three others
Who we had been waiting for —
Now We made the minyan.
They promised to join us on the second night of the chag.
 
On night two we did the same as the night before
Except this time we were ten
And the voice did not wait to begin at midnight
As it had the night before
But it made itself heard immediately
And it began to teach:
Listen my dear ones, those most glorifying G*d, arise and raise those who are
lying in dust, through the mystical secret of the dust from Above.
 
 
Many matters of wisdom were taught
And afterwards the Voice said
Happy are you my dear ones that raise me
How high you have been elevated now that you are ten
As is proper in all matters of holiness.
If permission were granted, your eyes would behold the fire
Surrounding this house.
Strengthen yourselves and do not break the bond with Above
Say aloud with me
Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.
Barukh Shem Kevod Malchuto L’olam Va-ed.
 
We sing Melody Ir Me Quero
 
After another half an hour, we returned to studying the secrets of Torah
Exactly at midnight the Voice returned a second time
Teaching for over an hour and a half
It praised the learning and said:
 
See and hear this voice speaking?
Ask your elders and know that for hundreds of years
You are the only ones to merit such an experience
Be alert to help each other and to strengthen the weak
Hold yourselves as leaders
For you are the princes of the King’s palace
And you have merited to enter the hallway
Now come into the inner chamber
But do not forsake the entry
For one who leaves the gate
His blood is on his head/[is a dummy].
 
Behold the day is coming when men and women will abandon the Exile
And their silver and worldly pleasures their gods of gold and desires of wealth
And they will travel to the Holy Land
It is possible
You have merited what others
For many generations
Have not.
 
 
I sing last verse Shalom Aleikhem
 
 
On the following Shabbat
The Voice again came to my teacher Rabbi Caro
He again gathered the ten together
[I am one of the originals, Alkabetz]
Urging them to enter the inner palace
They agreed to set aside every desire
To refrain from meat and wine
And mourn the Exile of the Shekhinah.
 
We held the tikkun layl Shavuot the next year, 1534
A few months later plague broke out
Pious Yosef Caro lost his wife, two sons, and a daughter
The angel stopped speaking from his mouth
At the end of the year of mourning
He remarried and moved to Nikopol
On the banks of the Danube in Bulgaria.
 
Caro became ill
By 1536 he had declined so that I –
Alkabetz, his student,
came from Salonica
— To say goodbye.
 
When I arrived, Rabbi Yosef Caro revived.
He would live another forty years.
The voice from heaven returned
And on a Sabbath in February, 1536
The angel appeared in my presence
And asked that the two of us keep their oath.
I then wrote my famous letter
Recording the events of the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot in Salonica
That had taken place almost three years earlier.
 
In 1536, during the Hebrew month Elul,
Caro and myself, Alkabetz, sailed from the port of Constantinople
Ten days later we landed in Eretz Yisrael.
We set up residence in Safed
Rabbi Caro became the chief rabbi of Safed from 1546
To his death in 1575.
 
Safed — In the north
The holy city on the hill
So began the golden age of Kabbalah in Safed
The ascendance of the imaginative circle
Who gathered around the holy Ari
I would create Lekha Dodi
Become a teacher to my brother-in-law Cordovero.
 
Rabbi Yosef Caro and everyone in his circle
Honored the Voice of the maggid the rest of his years
His spirit would move through his ancestors
One whom Rabbi Stone Goodman buried
On an October day in St. Louis –
 
I feel the poets of the Diaspora speaking through me now
The halakhists and the kabbalists
The Caros and the Alkabetzes
All the dear pious ones –
 
When you open your mouth
Whose voice do you hear
When you open your mouth
Who speaks through you.
 
Be a mouthpiece
Be a poet
Be a prophet
Be a teaching
Be a vessel
Be a voice
Be a Torah
A maggid
A Mishnah
Be a neshamah
An anagram for the soul
Be a listener
Be nothing
 
An empty vessel for G*d
 
 
 
Amen.
 
 
Alkabetz, through
James Stone Goodman
 

Death Row part 1

 

Death Row part 1

This institution is the location of Death Row in my state. That sentence is an attention-getter but I found out when I visited at that time Death Row was integrated into the rest of the prison. It was not segregated, so to speak.

You mean the guys who are on death row are in your, uh, living area? I asked the inmate sitting across from me in the visiting room. I didn’t have the correct language.

Yeah, the next guy to go is right below me. I saw him this morning. As a matter of fact, he was just outside the door there. He refused a visit this morning.

He refused a visit? Why?

I don’t know. Just now.

Maybe it was his lawyer.

I walked in with a lawyer, he had a carrying case and a rolling file box full of documents and I offered to help him (he was older than me) but he told me he could bench press more than these bags and he does this all the time. In the hallway later as we were walking in together he opened with an irrelevant story about coming into the institution once with [horse] riding boots and how difficult it was to take them off, etc., I suppose his way of trying to roll off the rudeness with which he rejected my offer.

How many on death row would you say? I asked the fellow I was visiting. This was the first time I had met him and the first time I was given entry inside this institution.

About twenty eight, I think. It’s about one a month.

We were well into our conversation when death row came up, and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, etc., was all wrong. Frequently I am all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison.

No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them are of calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I read them through their eyes.

Later I looked it up. There was a challenge to the death penalty in my state in 2006, on the grounds that the lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because the instructions, the protocols around lethal injection were too vague, and were not administered by a qualified anesthesiologist.

The attorney general then, who later became governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and it does seem that the frequency approximated one a month. I don’t know if this was deliberate but it was mentioned by the man I was visiting as if it was.

I could see that executions happened with more frequency than under the previous two governors, but with even more frequency three and four governors ago, during the last decade of the twentieth century. The last decade of the twentieth century: more frequency of executions, anyone could see this with a simple search.

I didn’t want to dwell on the death row aspect of the institution, I had talked to this man several times on the phone but this was our first meeting. He had a lot to say.

He launched into his story though I don’t ask about their stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen, if it doesn’t I’m fine with that too. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit to this particular institution and I wasn’t approved for a class here, I could bring no materials with me. He had plenty to talk about and I listened and we talked a few things through, about the complexity of identities that he was working through, about what goes on inside himself and the institution, what it’s like for him, what he was looking to in the future, there were no silences as we sat head to head for several hours.

The details were rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice, but it is his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it is his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way.

On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains, I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of NO so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep coming back? I run into obstacles of no here and there and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? What sustains?

I was telling someone I know who has been in prison this story and he interpreted it for me. In prison you live in a reduced world, he said, it’s a small space and you came into it sat and listened to someone who gave over his expertise. It’s what he knows about. You listened.

jsg

#freethestories

 

Attentive to Mental Illness-Mental Health

 

On Suicide

She wrote me a note before we did a community session on suicide. She was not in a place, she said, to come to the session but she wanted to make a contribution.

She gave me permission to use her words as a prompt for the participants to write about their experiences. The following is from the original piece she wrote to me, her words:

I am a survivor I suppose. I have attempted suicide several times in serious ways and I believe I am alive to share a few things I’ve learned. I feel some sort of purpose, I am always looking for that but here goes — I hope this helps someone.

People could listen more with their eyes as well as their ears. When you are contemplating suicide, you don’t conceptualize it. You may not express it.

 Be observant. Don’t ignore anything. Take everything seriously. I wanted someone to hold my hand – I’m not going to leave you, God will not leave you, I’m with you, I will never leave you, that’s what I wanted to hear.

And most importantly: this feeling is going to pass. You don’t think it’s going to pass. You think it’s never going away. It feels permanent.

 I wanted someone to say to me: I wish I could be there with you. Call me. Don’t be alone.

Some time later I met with her at a coffee shop.

I’m starting to feel like I want to get out more, she said, to be of service to others. I often feel a terrible negative energy running through my being, but I think I can offer something. If I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

Version: I love this piece for the wisdom it contains and because it came from such a difficult place in this person’s life. This was not an easy piece to write.

She was at a low enough place in her struggle that she couldn’t make the session, still she felt the necessity to give away some of what she knew. She wanted to help someone else. Where does this kind of compassion come from? All she wanted was to give a little away from what she had learned from her living.

What she wanted most was to be of service to others. And she knew that because of her life, she had some secret wisdom to give away: what it’s like to live with what she lives with, what it feels like from the inside, what she would have liked to hear from others, what someone else could have given her when she needed it most.

It think this is a remarkable document because it has a giving sensibility and because it has real wisdom about what it feels like when a person is struggling to stay alive, to find a way in the world when the inner world goes dark; to come back from the edge and describe what it felt like there.

It has strategies for living that come from the crucible of a person’s life. I think it’s a remarkable piece for all these reasons and every time I see the writer I remind her how much her piece has helped others because as she wrote: if I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

jsg, for No Shanda*

Jews Attentive to Mental Illness-Mental Health

*Shanda means shame, there is none

#freethestories

Out-siders

Out-siders

We were debating how to bring everyone into the camp

when someone said, there is no one outside the camp tonight,

there is no other, no them, only us – all of us – within.

This from J, maximum security prison, Missouri:

I am quite ashamed of my past. There’s no way I can’t be. And, I repent me mightily of the deeds of my past. I was only 18 when I became incarcerated in Illinois. I was young and scared. The Illinois prisons are quite different from Missouri ones. Illinois has hundreds of gangs and is much more violent . . . Probably because of my poor choices in the past, I am strongly committed now. Please accept my apology.

 

This from P, on parole from Missouri DOC:

Isolation, fear, suicidal –I was giving up on life.

I had no intention to live — once I got out.

I felt very weak, the officers knew I felt weak so they picked on me, the others picked on me too.

I eat slow so — I never got to eat a whole meal. Horrible food.

It was just horrible, did I say that? I never wanted to go back. My only solution: Suicide.

One thing positive – I had a friend. She would visit me. I never saw my family, maybe once, I had lost a family.

We got out on December 30th. My room mate was dead by January 3rd.

She was half my age.

 

JP:

We measure our grief

In years

One year, two years, twenty.

I am softening to my sadness

Daily

In a year of days

I remember I don’t remember every minute.

I want the seconds back

I remember and cry for all

I love the most.

 

DP:

I was married a long time ago. Had three kids. My wife took them and left. Been in and out of treatment programs. Been in jail a few times too. I just couldn’t stay clean.

I died on August 4th. The report reads heart failure, but I died of drug addiction. I hope my children remember the better days.

 

On the wall of the synagogue was written this: do not give in to despair.

I taught that there was no way around the darkness within, there is only the center. There is always the possibility of moving through, but through the center only. Takes courage.

 

jg:

He asked me
Are you sad today or unhappy?

What’s the difference?
If I feel bad sad or bad unhappy.

With unhappy you are attached to Sadness
With sad you are not attached.

Sad may be the condition of your Existence
We all know people like this.

And often they are great Creators
Or they find a way

To redeem the core of sadness

they build a life of beauty or service.

Many of the old Greeks were like this
Aristophanes never told a joke

Though he created many
So too the Hebrews Akiva was always laughing

Though he was as serious as dirt
About his purpose.

Sadness may be a condition
A response to the nature of things to disappoint.

We all imagine the world better
Don’t we?

But with unhappiness
you may be attached to your Version Of Yourself.

Tell a joke

Especially today.

Tell a joke and let me know
You’re pushing through Daily

And you’re neither a fool
Nor are you Numb.

jsg

#freethestories

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heschel King

 

On the Yahrzeit of Heschel and birthday of King
Invocation

 Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak
and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.

– Deuteronomy 32:1

Listen, O earth, to these wounds,
We have been pounded on the peaks,
elevated and alone.
Who ascends these holy mountains,
and why?

We have bled all over our back packs,
descended at the penultimate moment.

Snatched away from the precipice,
we descended into the valley
where we sat quietly with our eyes closed,
waiting for a bus, nothing loftier,
and we would have remained there
if not sitting next to us was the prophet Amos
watching for the light to change.

His skepticism, as always,
was an inspiration,
justice rolling down like water
and righteousness like a mighty stream.

All that was holy entered through our wounds,
the last place we expected.

Listen to the wounds, O earth,
pay attention to the bleeding sky,
brother elements, sister flesh,
pay a little attention will you,
at least give ear to these words.

These wounds.

 

Part 1

 

There is a picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel,
rabbi, human being, interpreter of inner Judaism and the prophets,
walking with Martin Luther King, jr.,
preacher, prophet, activist, redeemer,
walking together in the front row of the marchers,
Selma, 1965.

King and Heschel and Ralph Bunche walking arm in arm,
Ralph Bunche who received Nobel Peace Prize in 1950
for mediating armistice between Israel and the Arab states.

Look at the picture of Heschel, King and all of them,
this emblem of deep connection
bound at the arms they are, bound by the legs they are
the pictorial story of history and a return to coalition,
good intention, hope, hope, hope.

Our freedom stories have been told
in the same narratives,
we are characters in each other’s freedom story.

 

Part 2

 

“The day we marched together out of Selma
was a day of sanctification. That day
I hope will never be past to me—
that day will continue to be to this day”

— Heschel in a letter to King.

In that letter Heschel wrote he felt
“as though my legs were praying.”

Both men read their story into
the freedom narrative of Exodus.

The freedom arc of Exodus
and the prophets
two stories that transformed and guided their lives
for Heschel and King,
the Exile story was not theoretical.

We will not be satisfied, preached King,
quoting the prophet Amos, until justice rolls down like waters
and righteousness like a mighty stream.

This verse is engraved into the King Memorial
Atlanta, Georgia.

Exodus every day.
Freedom the daily struggle.
Justice justice justice.

 

jsg

Secret History of the Zohar

The Secret History of the Zohar at the Hebrew Union College

I sat in the library. I stayed late. I loved the open stacks and the easy access to my particular interest the kabbalistic texts. I stacked them on my desk by the window that faced the back parking lot where I studied. I stayed until closing, almost every night, trying to make sense.

One evening I went out for something to eat at Pop’s Lebanese on Calhoun Street. When I returned, there was an older gentleman standing at my desk, paging through the books I had left there. I startled him. It was as if I had caught him going through my dresser.

Oh, excuse me, he said, please, I’m sorry, but – are you interested in these texts?

Yes, I said.

They are beautiful, aren’t they. Come, I’ll show you some things.

He took me into the stacks and pulled down text after text, also took me to the reference shelves where he introduced me to resources.

I have to go back to work now, he said. He padded quietly in and out of the adjacent wing to the library where the rare books were stored.

Who is that man? I asked at the desk.

Dr. Lehman. He works for the library.

Dr. Lehman was Israel O. (Otto, he used his middle name only as initial) Lehman, a manuscripts expert who spent almost all his time cataloging the many manuscripts in the rare book room of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He often worked late into the night.

I sat at my desk in the library. I watched him come quietly through the corridor to and from the rare books. Sometimes he stopped at my desk, said hello, introduced me to other texts and reference resources, helping me to penetrate the texts I had taken to my desk. He always wore a suit, tie, his pants were too short and he often wore bright red socks. In winter, he carried Altoids in his jacket pocket that he offered me. I had never seen Altoids before.

We spoke often. Always about the texts: Zohar, Bahir, Yetzirah, he loved the classical Kabbalah. He often mentioned several names well known to me who were his former students. I taught these texts for many years, he said, in Europe. Not here.

Dr. Lehman was a student at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums founded in Berlin by Abraham Geiger in 1872 and closed down in 1942, from where he graduated in 1936. He often cited his teacher Dr. Baeck. Dr. Lehman called himself a Semiticist. He stayed in Germany until 1939. From there he went to England where he told us he learned to tend a proper English garden and raised up a few students.

He curated the Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He taught liturgy and Medieval Jewish philosophy at the Leo Baeck College in London. He offered to teach Arabic (Arabic was part of the curriculum at the Hochshule) but the College elected not to offer it. He was vague about his English experience but he brought with him to America an English affectation that was laid on top of his more central European roots.

I introduced Dr. Lehman to my girlfriend (we would later marry). She had dinner with him one night and asked him if he would take on students.

The next time I saw him, I asked again. Would you teach us?

Yes, of course, but – I work for the library.

Ah.

I went to the Dean.

I’ve been speaking with Dr. Lehman. He has some background in kabbalistic texts. I wonder if we could set up a course.

Mmm, the Dean said, well, you know, he works for the library. No, I don’t think it would be possible.

I returned to Dr. Lehman. If I can secure a room, would you begin teaching us?

Certainly.

My friend’s mother supervised the dorm. Could I get a key to a room in the dorm where we could hold an, er, informal class? No one needs to know.

No problem honey.

In the beginning, there were four of us. We sat with Dr. Lehman every Tuesday evening and learned. We began with the Zohar. Dr. Lehman pointed out which elements of the text had a Spanish feel and which a Palestinian feel. He moved between languages – Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, Greek – untangling texts that would have been impossible without his background. We learned that a knowledge of some combination of half a dozen languages was often the key in unlocking these texts.

The first piece in the Zohar Dr. Lehman taught us was a midrash on Mishpatim (Exodus 24:18), responding to the question — what did Moses see — when he arrives at a certain place.

So holy we must not speak about it. Up to a certain place – we have arrived at the limits of language, said Dr. Lehman. Here Moses enjoys the pleroma – a sense of Everything – about which we can say too much.

We later went through much of the Zohar, sometimes in the Aramaic, sometimes the Hebrew of the Mishnat HaZohar, and then the Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer Bahir.

We sat with him for three years. There were sometimes three, sometimes four, never more than five of us. We read commentaries as well as the texts, Dr. Lehman unlocked all sources for us. He suggested we learn Arabic as some of the commentaries that would be useful to us had not been translated.

I took a year of Arabic with Dr. Yerushalmi and soon we were reading Saadya ben Yosef (known in Arabic as Sa’id ‘ibn Yusuf al-Fayyumi, tenth century) commentary on Yetzirah in the original Arabic. Dr. Lehman brought us copies of the texts. We went deep.

Often the pieces were mysterious and lost to interpretation from the various versions of the texts. One of the Mishnahs of the Bahir, for example, was impenetrable until we unraveled the paronomasia from an Arabic cognate to the Hebrew that was the missing element to our understanding.

Paronomasia, Dr. Lehman explained, drawing out every syllable from a word I was not accustomed to hearing but like that and pleonastic, pleroma, pericope, they entered my vocabulary through my teacher. I often hear myself describing a pericope, a text a word a phrase as pleonastic, or an example of paronomasia and I explain it, citing my teacher Dr. Lehman who was precise and elevated with language.

He always began with the text. He prepared the texts carefully for us, sometimes bringing samples from several sources when a critical text of a certain piece had not yet been assembled. He repeated this often: You have to promise that when you leave here, you will teach what you have learned. He reminded us that the material we studied should only be approached with the greatest respect.

He was especially keen on the Zoharic sense of interpretation. The pericopes we studied from the Zohar always reflected a careful reading of the source text. He taught us that the imagination of the Zohar began with a clever reading of the Biblical text and a reluctance to reveal too much. It was written in half tones, he called it.

He also taught us from the beginning that the kabbalistic literature was a colorful, lively, as well as a visionary literature. This was imaginative material, but not at all unapproachable, and he was certain people would be hungry for it. He reiterated that we were entrusted now to be its teachers.

We all nodded our heads and promised him that we would teach what he had given us. We met weekly and though I tried to draw other students into our circle, no one was as committed as the core group of four or five and there was something in the secret nature of our meeting that contributed to the enchantment of the lessons.

That’s as much as has been written of the secret history of the Zohar at the Hebrew Union College. I often tell this story, the story of Dr. Lehman and our secret class, when I teach Kabbalah, the classical Kabbalah, as revealed to me by Dr. Lehman of blessed memory.

I have a picture of Dr. Lehman and our little class at ordination. He looks proud.

jsg

 

The Mercy of Truth, part 3

Chesed shel Emeth

Is the name of the Cemetery in University City, Missouri, that was desecrated the weekend of February 18, 2017

Part 3: I look at the language

Chesed Shel Emeth, it means something like the mercy of truth, these are hard translations because the terms are fluid in one sense and in another they have depth, nuance. Truth is a harsh standard; standing alone with truth, nothing would qualify. Truth however with a measure of mercy, that’s a recipe we can live by; in the phrase chesed shel emeth the dominating noun in this expression is truth. The mercy within truth, truth modified by mercy.

In the Torah chesed and emet appear differently, as two equal nouns connected by a conjunction “and,” mercy and truth. One does not serve the other, there is no hierarchy as there is in the phrase chesed shel emet, shel indicating possession. In Biblical Hebrew it doesn’t appear at all, only as sh … and in later Mishnaic Hebrew it becomes a preposition shel, as in the mercy of truth, merciful truth, something like that. Mercy and truth is the Torah version, and an implied equality of the two terms.

And not as in hendiadys (from the Greek, “one through two” as in two notions becoming one notion as in flesh and blood for a person etc.) indicating one concept; in the Torah chesed and emet are two separate nouns connected by a conjunctive “and” mercy and truth put them together and you have what Ezra Pound referred to as the ideogrammic method that supposes a fundamental relationship between the two words. Think: mercy and truth. Mercy and truth.

What does it mean, mercy and truth? It might be like what Rashi is referring to at the beginning of Genesis when he cites Chazal that God created the world out of the standard of din, law, and it wouldn’t stand so God added mercy and we have a living breathing organism of Existence. Truth alone too demanding a standard it needed a little flexibility to endure.

Plus there are multiple standards of truth, some may be too demanding for life, so truth needs a diluting, a little cream in its cup so to speak. But the dominating noun in the phrase chesed shel emeth is emeth, the mercy of truth, truth’s mercy a possessive, and it becomes attached to our dealing with death. What I’m thinking is that it’s a worthy phrase to think of in thought, not just about death, about everything.

That’s what I was dreaming at the cemetery as I visited after the crime of desecration, I was feeling myself through the complexity of responses I was experiencing when the holy ceremonial ground was violated — the voices of the ancestors, the respect we give to those who have passed before us, our loyalty to them, to holy — all of this was a complex bundle of feelings and thoughts as I stood waiting for the ceremony at the desecrated site.

Then there was a complexity of responses from those who were or weren’t present, but to me the first response is always silence. I ascended into silence and waited for the truth to rise, this I learned from one of my heroes, ibn Gabirol the greatest of the 11th century Jewish Andalusian poets.

The chesed in the story was the cooperative effort of good-hearted people who showed up in overalls and with rakes and field tools to clean up a cemetery that on its best days needs a good cleaning, who were then delayed by the Secret Service who warned them that many of their tools could not be brought into the cemetery because the Vice President (whose name can be mentioned, Pence) was going to make an appearance.

That to me was the emet in the experience: the news story that this Administration clearly needs in a rush of almost 30 days of negative stories. Was it dominant? Emet, truth, is the dominant noun, I thought, though the mercy or the good intentions that the Governor and the Vice President appropriated was not lost on me. It was not an either-or notion, it was both beautiful in its spirit of cooperation (chesed) and it was also a sell-out in the dominant emet of the appropriation of the event by what I consider to be the voices that contributed to the atmosphere in the land that made room for such criminality.

No one can convince me that there is not much difference now than there was eighteen months ago when the current President (whose name will not be mentioned) announced his candidacy with a negative diatribe against Mexican immigration and a vocabulary of Other-ing that opened the gates in my mind on the kind of ugliness we are now experiencing as minorities in our beloved country.

That’s what I was thinking as I ascended into silence in the desecrated grave-yard of the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery, University City, Missouri. Into that silence was a sound that broke my reverie, a kind of rhythm I have come to recognize in my community. It was the sound of my landsmen patting each other on the back for the good work we were demonstrating there. Pure chesed.

We are good at patting each other on the back so I recognized the sound right away. My community loves to reward itself, each other, for obvious or even sub-standard activities, it makes us feel good. I myself have been rewarded several times the same way (the one I have most earned is Best Dressed Pain In the Ass).

I think I’m done writing about this for now, I have identified my dissatisfaction on that day: On the ritual level, too much blah blah blah, all chesed, that sound of patting each other on the back for a job well done, but the emet the truth in the Chesed Shel Emeth is that the Governor and the Vice President breezed in and out made some standard remarks and took over the event and the rest of us chesed-niks got pooked (I may have made up this word, I mean we were fooled because we had only good intentions), and what hurts is that I believe this officialdom contributes to the atmosphere that made room for this ugliness.

As I was leaving the cemetery, a young girl all chesed came up to me and gave me a lovely round piece of rose quartz. I love rose quartz, my son is a gemologist and he has taught me that rose quartz has a deep healing quality. It’s a love stone, it’s all chesed just like the young lady who gave it to me with tenderness and hope in her eyes, so I left with a good omen and the sense that the notion that may rise from these two nouns – chesed and emet in proximity – may be a matter for the future. Who was she? The future.

What will become of the energy at play in the graveyard that day, from recent months, and into the future? What will we do with what we feel, with what we know? What will rise in our time in our communities in our country that will take shape in weeks months and years to come that will demonstrate the play of these two nouns: The tough dominant standard of truth moderated by the flexibility organic sense of chesed of mercy, the trans-action of the two that will save us, or not.

 

jsg

Satire Writing Itself, pt. 2 about a Cemetery

Satire Writing Itself

 

I heard the repetition of what sounded to me like jargon: first name it. As of this writing, we have been practicing covert talking on the naming theme. What is it? Anti-Semitism. Is it vandalism? Is it a hate crime?

Does it make a difference? It makes a difference when we mark the rise of such events within an eighteenth month or so window that if you’ve been breathing you know corresponds with the rise of Trump in our country and the atmosphere of Other-ing that he with the complicity of his changing co-conspirators capitalized on in our country. And when the Vice President showed up to sweep around a few leaves we have a story more symmetrical than I could have written. It’s satire writing itself.

So we haven’t named it, that for starters. The Republican infatuation with power and its complicit cowardice has now filled in the story, add a glee to proximity to power at the local level and we have the media romp at the desecrated Jewish cemetery the other day. Gogol. Tom Wolfe. Philip Roth.

Standing next to me was a visitor from [what looked like] another planet. He kind of followed the crowd and wandered in because he was hanging out on the street that day and thought something big was going down. What’s happening here? He asked me.

What do you mean? Is it a party? He asked. It was a good question. If you were a visitor from another planet and landed there that afternoon you might not know that a crime had been committed: Almost two hundred graves desecrated, a kick in the stomach of an already vulnerable minority, so far no arrests, several days into the story and it’s beginning to recede from the news.

A crime, I said, he looked confused. Cemetery never looked so good, he mumbled (this was his corner).

We have a name for our enemies. In the tradition, we have a mythic designation: Amalek. What is it about Amalek that the name has punch in every generation? Amalek attacked at our most vulnerable place: the edge of the moving camp, where the infirm and the old and the children tried to keep up. Here Amalek attacked our memories our inviolable story our sacred relations who rest at the foot of the Throne of Glory.

Not here, I said to my new friend thinking out loud, we’re in a new era. New era, old story. We haven’t named it. We should all be crying, ripping our clothes, sitting on the ground.

Stay tuned. More at ten.

jsg

Jewish Cemetery Desecrated in University City

Traditional Jewish Cemetery

Desecrated in University City, Missouri

Clean-up and Ceremony scheduled for Wednesday, February 22, @ 3 PM

More News at 10

Well, it seemed like a media event to me. I was driving home when I saw a thickening of traffic, uh oh if I don’t go now I have a notion I won’t be able to go at all. I was dressed in a tasteful charcoal grey suit and a sandy brown fedora, white shirt Jensen silver cuff links and a gold jacquard cravat which becomes relevant to the story follow me. I walked through security (more than for the governor I was suspicious), busted for excessive obsession by the Secret Service (are these all pens?) I entered the cemetery relatively easily.

The cemetery is holy ground. I feel that. I spend a lot of time in cemeteries and it is always humbling and sacred and quiet and inside beautiful to me. I was standing around leaning against a tombstone when one of my pals introduced me to one of the half a dozen imams who showed up in solidarity.

What can we do together? This is hate and we have to do this together, several of them said to me. Exactly what I was thinking. They were still talking vandalism from the microphone, even in the newspaper this morning, this is another deal I said: this is hate. The Imams agreed.

When the Vice president showed up, that cinched it: Media event. They need some good press. Nobody said much though from the back of a truck like a campaign event was tasteful and accurate I suppose. The governor was expected but the Vice was in town for a visit to a company in Fenton and certainly they need some good news. Today they got it. It’s not a story; it’s a desecration of holy ground.

Nobody said much. The word hate was mentioned, in addition to vandalism, but it was much weighted toward vandalism. How this is vandalism eludes me. As an amateur armchair sleuth (reader of mysteries) and a former private detective (a story told elsewhere) I figured all by myself that toppling over almost 200 gravestones in the middle of the night that weighed way more than the topplers took some muscle, some organization, some equipment.

One imam after another came up to discuss the situation with me. Why me? I was thinking. There’s a dozen rabbis here and I’m dressed for Niemans not clean-up at the cemetery though I believe with my long departed beloved parents that everything is about fashion. They were in the business and I am committed to fine merchandise.

The imams first wanted to compare burial customs. I told them what I knew: Though there seems to be no unanimity about which direction to bury a body in a Jewish cemetery, I did see that the Chatam Sofer cited a custom that in many communities bodies were buried with their feet facing the entrance, in confidence of the ultimate resurrection and the avenue of exit. In some cemeteries, the feet are facing east, toward Jerusalem. This was common in Europe, for the feet to face east, or south. In the Talmud, it seems that graves were placed in a cemetery in many configurations (cf. Baba Batra 102a).

Then the imams wanted to talk about hate, about hate crimes, about the vulnerability we are all feeling as minorities these days, about bringing that vulnerability to the attention of the local, the state, and the Federal government. We need to be working together on this, they said, we all agreed. We exchanged numbers.

Then two guys from the Justice Department came up to me. Why me? I was thinking (suit, silver cufflinks, etc. see the story I Wore a Suit to a Riot). You’re just the guys I wanted to talk to, and we discussed how this could be referred to as vandalism with the climate in the country right now. This is hate.

An interfaith service followed that was as boring as anything I’ve attended and there was a helicopter hovering so hardly anyone’s words could be discerned anyway. There was a prayer for healing that I saw from a hand-out. It was unsatisfying so I wrote my own:

 

A Prayer for Healing

All the accompanying angels appeared for them it takes a squad

A conspiracy of angels

A Mezuzah of the spirit guarding the entrance

To make a complete healing.

 

And later in the night when everyone is asleep

Just as it was desecrated it was restored

The angels parachuting in from the east and west

Angels ascending and descending

They wander in from the coast

Both coasts

Some have satchels slung over their shoulders filled with amulets

All the energies converge for this community

And the others who throw in with them.

 

The desecration restored

And by day

A cleaning.

 

Then a prayer for healing and gratitude

A specially created voice howling in the square

These words suspended between horror and grace

An expression of thankfulness

Why not after grieving

Honoring the dis-respected dead

With our hands clutched to our chests

Right hand buried in the left.

 

The desecration restored.

Sneak away for a chat with God –

 

Come on God

Show up for us and

Bring all your people —

And God said

Sure.

 

I felt better once I wrote the prayer. As of this writing, it is an unsolved crime. There was a little too much tilt toward the celebratory for my taste; a cemetery had been desecrated, it feels to me like a hate crime, the language today wasn’t correct, the balance was off, and the appearance of those who were contributing to the atmosphere of fear and Other-ing in the country had co-opted the event and turned it into a media romp.

I went home and wrote this.

 

jsg