About Von Cello: Spirituality
To find out about Aaron Minsky's book, Beyond Faith: click here.
One Composer's Spiritual Journey
by Aaron Minsky (Von Cello)
I had a sheltered childhood. It wasn't sheltered in the typical sense. I was certainly not sheltered from the realities of modern urban life, such as sex, drugs, and violence. No, my childhood was sheltered in that most everyone I knew was Jewish. Of course I had some friends who weren't Jewish, but religion never came up for discussion. In our neighborhood people kept their religion to themselves, and most didn't think much about religion anyway. For most of us Jews, it never dawned on us that we were Jewish, or that our beliefs or ways
of looking at things were any different than anyone else's. Does a fish know he's a fish? That is why it was such a shock to me when I went away to college and suddenly found myself in a majority Christian environment, surrounded by evangelical Christians trying to convert me.
Actually, my first experience with a conversion attempt happened during high school. I was befriended by a boy who was new to my school. A New Yorker by birth, he had been abandoned by his parents, forced to live in foster homes, finally running away to California. After a couple of years out west, he had returned to live with his mother and finish high school. We never spoke about religion but it was obvious that he was Jewish. The first religious shock of my life came when he revealed that he had become a Jew for Jesus. He explained that while he was on the road, he was taken in by born again Christians who showed him the love he never received from his Jewish parents. After much reading and praying, the spirit of Jesus entered him and he became born again. He used all his powers of persuasion to pull me away from the beliefs of my friends and family...to "save" me. Though this was very upsetting to me, he was only one person in a sea of Jews among whom I found much support. College in Boston was my first experience of being on my own, and being in the minority.
Not having had a thorough religious upbringing, I was unprepared as to how to respond to Christian ideas and the challenges they presented to my own beliefs. Suddenly I was being told that I would end up in a terrible, frightening place called "hell" if I did not accept their strange ideas about a man being born of a virgin, and rising from the dead. This was very disturbing stuff to be confronted with as a teen away from home for the first time. I wasn't even sure if I believed in God, let alone that He became a man and rose from the dead, and I didn't know how to react to this concept that God set up a situation in which you had to believe unbelievable things or go to hell!
Being immersed in music in those days (after all, I was attending a music conservatory) I turned to the great composers for guidance. I noticed that all of them seemed to believe in God. Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms...all the greats wrote music praising God. I became influenced to believe in God because of their wonderful music. I felt that if all these geniuses believed, who was I not to? And it did not go unnoticed that they were Christians. The great J.S. Bach, in particular, devoted much of his writing to Christian themes, leading me to wonder if perhaps Christianity really was the "truth". Otherwise why would God have given so much talent to someone, allowing him to create such wonderful music about something false?
Upon deeper research I noticed that Beethoven, while writing music praising God, seemed to shy away from the specifics of Christian theology. He seemed to have a more open view of God as the "heavenly father" of all mankind. Beethoven's more universalist view of God seemed to imply that there was not one way to God but many. This inclusiveness made me feel better about the beliefs of my upbringing, but I still hoped to find Jewish spirituality reflected somewhere in the annals of classical music.
As I dug further into my musical studies, I became aware that some of the great composers were Jewish...to some extent. For instance, Felix Mendelssohn was Jewish according to Jewish law, but his father had converted to Christianity and raised Felix as a Christian to further his music career in the anti Semitic climate of Germany. Though he remained supportive of Jewish causes, Mendelssohn did not let Judaism enter his musical output. He even wrote a symphony that he called the "Reformation Symphony" that was full of Christian symbolism. Despite this, he was still looked down upon because of his Jewish ancestry by none other than the famous composers Schumann and Wagner!
Studying the music of the late Romantic period, I discovered that Gustav Mahler had Jewish melodies in his symphonies and he seemed to express in his music the conflicts and searchings of a Jewish soul. It turns out that he too had converted to Christianity to further his career. He would not have been allowed to conduct the Vienna State Opera as a Jew! So he did convert, but he made it clear to friends that it was strictly for business. After his conversion he said he had "changed his coat", implying that the inside had stayed the same. Nevertheless, he was hardly in a position to proclaim an overt Jewish message in his music (though the covert message can be clearly heard).
I found out that there were other unlikely Jewish classical composers such as Giachomo Meyerbeer and Jaques Offenbach, though there was little if any Jewish sound to their music. Meyerbeer did, however, set some Jewish texts to music and remained a committed Jew despite the intense anti Semitism of his times, including attacks on his music by Wagner and other anti Semites.
There were modern American Jewish composers such as Aaron Copeland and George Gershwin who wrote music as American as apple pie. They sometimes borrowed heavily from African American styles, such as jazz. Though one can detect some Jewish influence in the melodies of Gershwin, neither composer seemed to write music reflecting a Jewish spirituality. In Russia, Shostakovitch wrote music that could have been expressive of a Russian Jewish spirituality, but he too, didn't deal overtly with Jewish subject matter except in rare cases such as in his Symphony #13, which includes the poem Babi-Yar, a poem about the mass murder of Jews at a site in Russia, by the Nazis. I think he probably would have dealt more with Jewish themes had he not been under the watchful eye of the Soviet state and its "godless communist" leaders.
Ernest Bloch has the honor of being the first classical composer to make his reputation writing overtly Jewish music. He wrote several short pieces for cello and piano like Scenes From a Jewish Life. These pieces used Jewish sounding melodies to create musical portraits. His magnificent rhapsody for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, expressed very deep levels of Jewish feelings: the stirrings of a restless soul, the anger at the centuries of oppression, and the will to survive. Block did set some Jewish texts to music too, but generally, he seems to express the emotions of spirituality, rather than the specifics of theology.
Other modern Jewish composers, such as Schoenberg and Bernstein, occasionally dealt with Jewish themes, ex. Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron, and Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony. In these works, the composers created music that reflected their own commentaries on traditional Jewish texts. Schoenberg created a twist on the Torah's recounting of the relationship between Moses and Aaron, changing the story line to make his own point about sublimating the physical aspects of religion into a solely spiritual relationship with God. Bernstein used the positive statement of faith known as the Kaddish, to question God and even question the existence of God. Questioning is certainly in the Jewish tradition, but I was looking for an affirmation of the Jewish religion, not commentaries questioning its traditional outlook.
I was saddened that I could not find what I was looking for. I wanted to find a Jewish classical music that moved beyond portraits of Jewish life, arrangements of Jewish sounding melodies, and expressions of the Jewish soul. I wanted to hear music like Bach's religious music; music that dealt directly and positively with religious beliefs. Though there are a few examples of such music in classical music history, they are pretty obscure, and most require getting an orchestra and chorus together to perform them. I rarely came into contact with such music, and since that was the case for me, I knew that most other people had even less of a likelihood to do so.
Just as I had once noticed that there were no pieces for solo cello in the standard repertoire utilizing American popular styles, and took it upon myself to fill that void with my Ten American Cello Etudes, I decided that I would try to do the same in this case. I would write music for solo cello that reflected traditional Jewish beliefs. I began this journey by heading to the source: Israel. I went there with the express purpose of digging to the roots of my Jewish heritage, culturally and spiritually. I wanted to understand what it was about that land, and the Jewish religion in general, that had such a hold on the imagination of not only Jews, but the whole world. I spent much time delving into religious discussions and visiting holy sites, and I listened to the music; especially the religious music. After absorbing as much Jewish spirituality as I could in Israel, I came back to New York and immediately wrote what was to become the last movement of Judaic Concert Suite, Sound the Shofar.
Inspired by my trip, I continued my religious studies and my musical research into Jewish spiritual melodies. I became a regular attendee of the Synagogue service, and celebrated every Jewish holiday. It was during these years of steady religious practice that I wrote the Variations on Adon Olam. I had first heard this melody as a teenager, emanating from a synagogue located at the end of the driveway in my back yard in Brooklyn. I remember sitting and listening to the way the melody rose and fell, as it was sung by a congregation of old Jewish men. Even then it seemed to express something deeply spiritual, though at the time I didn't understand the words or the meaning behind them. As my knowledge of Judaism increased, my admiration for that melody and the words attached to it only grew. I knew that Max Bruch had written a popular piece for cello and orchestra based on the melody of the famous prayer known as the Kol Nidre. I felt that Adon Olam also deserved to be transported into the cello literature. It was a perfect vehicle to express in sound my spiritual awakening.
A few years later, I began working with the top Orthodox Jewish bands in New York City, playing at hundreds of Orthodox weddings. Through this process, I became intimately familiar with the modern melodies and rhythms of contemporary Jewish music, from deeply heartfelt ballads, to up tempo dance medleys that would go on for an hour at a time. It was through this experience that I developed the tools to compose Entrance of the Bride and Groom.
Though these three pieces were written several years apart, and were inspired by events in different parts of the world, they seemed to flow together in an uncanny way, as if they were meant to be together; as if they were, as they say in Yiddish, "beshirt". I believe this is the case because they each reflect my spirituality, which has a core that has continued through many years, even as it has changed, developed, and moved in and out of focus. I suppose the composing of this suite could be compared to the writing of a book, which can take years to complete, yet still makes a unified statement.
Aside from using Jewish type melodies and rhythms, I wanted my pieces to go beyond descriptions of Jewish life, to express religious principals in sound. These would not be pieces about a rabbi praying, or a Chasid dancing, etc., these pieces would reach below the surface and express specific ideas from the traditional Jewish faith.
The following is a brief explanation of each piece, written for the sheet music, published by Oxford University Press:
"Entrance of the Bride and Groom - portrays a traditional Jewish wedding. After the ceremony, the bride and groom go into seclusion while the guests mingle about quietly. When the couple finally emerge and enter the reception hall, the guests break into wild song and dance, as if a king and queen had entered the room. Spiritually, the bride and groom united, are symbolic of the unification of God and mankind, so the dancing is also a form of prayer, demonstrating the hope that one day God and man will be as one.
Variations on Adon Olam - is a set of variations on one of the most famous melodies of thetraditional Jewish liturgy. The words of the prayer speak of God as the "Lord of the universe, who reigned before anything was created", and they speak of a time when "after all things shall cease to be, the Awesome One will reign alone". This mood of awe and timelessness is reflected in the musical variations.
Sound the Shofar - begins with the call of the ram's horn, known in Hebrew as the shofar. The shofar is blown during the Jewish High Holidays. It's soulful cry is believed to bring the listener closer to an experience of the divine. After dancing at the unification of God and man, and praying to the Lord of the Universe who exists beyond time, it is time for us to open our ears to the shofar and find our own path to the King who reigns over all humanity."
One can see that there is a core belief expressed in this suite. It is a universalist belief, of the type expressed by Beethoven, but it is viewed through a different prism. Many people think of the Jews as a group of people who see themselves as "the chosen" and who look down upon the rest of humanity. This is not true. Judaism proposes a world where all peoples can approach God, despite cultural and historical differences. Though the traditionalists do see themselves as having been "chosen" to be the ones to receive the Torah, and to spread its ideas to the rest of humanity, the Bible makes it clear that Jews must show concern for all of God's children. In fact, the Messiah (Moshiach) in Jewish thought, will become not just the "king of the Jews", but the king of all the nations, and will dispense justice to all the peoples. Furthermore, in Jewish belief, God judges everyone based on actions, whether he be a Jew or gentile. The Jewish world view is in fact highly equitable and inclusive.
If truth be told, traditional Christianity is a religion that sees its followers as "the chosen", and all who do not follow its precepts as doomed. Traditional Christianity says, "Accept Jesus as your savior or else!" Traditional Islam says, "Accept Mohammed or else!" Of course there are many people in each faith who have modernized their beliefs to be inclusive of other views, but historically each of these religions proclaimed its path as the one and only way to God, and there are still many adherents of each who preach that all other paths lead to hell. Yet in Judaism the belief has always been that the righteous of all nations go to heaven!
It is this message of inclusively that pervades my Judaic Concert Suite. The first movement is about dancing for joy at the symbolic representation of God and man uniting as one. The second movement is a prayer to the King of the Universe, who is the God of all mankind. The final movement is a representation of the shofar, which creates a sound capable of bringing
the listener into a feeling of communing with the divine. There is nothing divisive here. Anyone can dance for, pray to, and commune with God, no matter what they conceive God to be.
The Variations on Adon Olam also deal with the concept of resurrection. The last variation is based on words which allude to a faith beyond death: "Into His hand I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake. And with my soul, my body too, the Lord is with me. I shall not fear!" (The word "wake" can be interpreted to mean regaining consciousness in the afterlife.) This final "funereal" sounding variation expresses the feeling of "passing on". In fact, the final measures portray the spirit ascending, just before the body's final "deep sleep".
The middle choral section of Sound the Shofar is based on the famous Jewish prayer, the Sh'ma: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Praised be His name whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever". This prayer, though addressed to Israel, is about the oneness of God, implying the oneness of man as well. And though the shofar is only played in Jewish services, through the representation of it in this cello piece, it will now be "heard" by people of every race and creed, and the message of a single world, under God, with liberty and justice for all, will be spread everywhere this music is performed.
My main goal in writing this suite was to express this largely unknown, yet wonderful, aspect of Judaism: this concept of oneness, and the belief in the ultimate unfolding of a world of peace and love for all peoples of all nations. Yet there was also the motivation from my childhood to create music to help young Jews who may be confused about their faith, to see the beauty of their tradition; a tradition as beautiful as Bach's tradition and Beethoven's tradition.
It is my fervent hope that all people will move more and more into an acceptance of other people, and they will move away from beliefs that condemn "the other" to horrible places like "hell", or condone and glorify the murder of those who refuse to accept a certain set of beliefs. I hope my Judaic Concert Suite will help move humanity, if ever so slightly, onto the path of universality and inclusivity!
As I sit here staring at my just published Judaic Concert Suite, with its beautiful blue and white cover, with a Jewish star made out of clouds surrounding the title...I can only wonder what the future of this music will be. Where will it be played? Who will hear it? Who will be affected by it? Might it remain in the cello repertoire for centuries? Though I will not receive much of a financial reward from the publication of this music, it is the right to day-dream like this, that is one of the great rewards of publishing music, particularly music about one's own spiritual journey.
For those interested in obtaining a copy of Judaic Concert Suite, ask your local music dealer to order it from Oxford University Press, or send an email to Oxford with your request.
Click here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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We all know that anti-Semitism is widespread, yet almost no one admits to being an anti-Semite! I believe this is because most people don't really understand what anti-Semitism is. Yes, the classic "anti-Semitie" is someone who hates Jews and wants to do them harm. But just like the serial killer, who may be "the guy next door", anti-Semitic ideas and attitudes are often found amongst otherwise reasonable people.
Whereas in the past anti-Semites attacked "the Jews" and blamed them for causing instability, anger, unrest, etc., now that the Jews are no longer living as helpless individuals in hostile countries but have their own country, the same exact comments are made about "Israel". "Israel is causing instability, anger and unrest in the middle east", "Israel is fanning the flames of extremism", "Israel is responsible for the violence emanating from its enemies". Just replace the word "Israel" with "The Jews" and replace the Muslims with the European Christians, and you will see what I mean. It's the same old anti-Semitism in a new garment.
Attackers of Israel are quick to point out that criticism of Israel is political and therefore not anti-Semitic, but that is not always true. It is one thing to criticize a certain Israeli policy, it is another thing to criticize virtually every policy and never defend any. It is one thing to understand the grievances of the enemies of Israel, it is another thing to not also understand the grievances of Israel. It is one thing to attack a certain behavior, it is another thing to only attack Israel for a behavior that is done by many countries. It is one thing to look at the arguments of both sides objectively and seek a solution, is is another thing to take sides. It is one thing to seek to redress current political problems, it is another thing to be unwilling to take into account the history of the situation, which goes back thousands of years. It is one thing to question the way the Jews returned to power in Israel, it is another thing to question Israel's right to exist.
The essay below is a collection of comments that I have heard over the years made by people who said they were not anti-Semitic. Whereas, any one of them may not be anti-Semitic, it becomes clear that there is a mindset out there that seeks the destruction of Israel, supports those who kill Jews, and would put the Jews back into the vulnerable position they were in before the Holocaust. We all know that history tends to repeat itself and those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past. Therefore, if one holds positions that would put the Jews back into the vulnerable position they were in before the Holocaust...what is that? If that is not anti-Semitism, then we need a new word!
The Anti-Semite's Pledge*
© 2006 by Aaron Minsky
Just because I oppose the state of Israel, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I believe that Israel does not have a right to exist, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I support those who would destroy Israel and "throw the Jews into the sea", I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I support those who teach the hatred of Jews to their children, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I support those who actively plot to murder, and actually murder, Jewish women and children, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that hundreds of thousands of Jews fled for their lives from Arab countries and the Soviet Union, finding asylum in Israel, yet I still feel that there never should have been an Israel for them to flee to, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that during World War II Jews were turned away from many countries, including the United States, and sent back to Germany to certain death, yet I still oppose a safe haven for Jews in this world, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I find it irrelevant that the Jews existed as a nation in the land of Israel for 1,500 years, and are the only people in history to ever have had an independent state on that land, and to ever have had Jerusalem as a capitol, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I do not feel that after 2,000 years of expulsions, persecution, and pogroms in Europe and the Middle East the Jews deserve a homeland, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I do not feel that even after the Holocaust the Jews deserve a homeland, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I oppose the right of the Jews to have a land, an army, and the ability to defend themselves from those who would finish Hitler's work, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I call the victims of the Nazis: Nazis, and compare their leaders to Hitler when they defend themselves against Palestinians who were allies of Hitler, and still openly call for their destruction, and actually murder Jews today in horrific terrorist acts, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that Jerusalem is not mentioned even once in the Koran, yet is mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible, and that Muslims bow toward Mecca when they pray, while Jews pray toward Jerusalem, and that the return to Zion figures prominently in the daily and festival Jewish prayer services, and not at all in the Muslim services, yet I still believe that the Muslims who knowingly built a mosque on top of the site of the Jewish Temple should have the eternal right to possess that land and prevent Jews from ever returning there, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I call Islam "a religion of peace", even though Muslims are constantly killing Jews (and others) and glorifying those who do, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I call Islam "a religion of peace" even though it calls for perpetual Jihad against all non Muslims and claims that those who kill non Muslims (derisively called "Infidels") will go to heaven to have sex with 72 virgins, while I call Judaism a "primitive" religion even though it calls for a world of peace, and claims that entry into heaven is based on moral behavior, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I am constantly calling on Israel to give back land it has won in defensive wars, land from which it was attacked, while not calling for any other country on earth to give back land, even land won in offensive wars, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because Israel was given back to the Jews by a vote in the United Nations, yet I claim they "stole" the land from the Arabs, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I accuse Israel of human rights violations, massacres, and indiscriminate bloodshed, while turning a blind eye to the never ending murder of Jews by Arabs since 1948 and before, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I raise the killing of any one person by a Jew higher than the millions of people worldwide who are killed by Muslims, Christians and others year by year, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I call all military actions by Israel, even if they are in self defense, "barbaric", "terrorism", etc., yet never call the actions of Arabs against Jews by those names, even if they are unprovoked and cause extreme pain and suffering, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I call those who attack America or Europe "terrorists", but call those who attack Israel, or kill Jews throughout the world "militants", or "combatants", or "the resistance", I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I would not allow one bomb to fall on my country without demanding a strong military response, yet I expect Israel to allow itself to constantly be bombed, and if it does respond, I demand that it respond "proportionately", I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I believe the figure of 6 million Jews is too high for the amount of Jews killed in the Holocaust and think that this is really important, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I believe there were many "Holocausts" and the Jews have turned their suffering into an industry to take advantage of the guilt of others, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because school textbooks in Saudi Arabia contain the following quotes, "The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus", "They are the Jews, whom God has cursed", yet I blame the Jews for the hatred that exists in the middle east, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I accuse Israel of being an "apartheid state", even though Israeli Arabs are full citizens and even serve in the government, while no Jews are allowed to serve in any Arab government, and most Arab states kicked out all of the Jews who did live there, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that many Arabs do not want Jews, or any non Muslims, to even set foot on "Muslim soil", and that all non Muslims are banned from Mecca or Medina, yet I don't accuse any Arab states of "apartheid", I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that under Jordanian rule, Jews were banned from East Jerusalem, yet under Jewish rule people of all faiths are allowed to visit and live in Jerusalem, yet I did not call for the "internationalization" of Jerusalem under Jordanian control, but call for it under Israeli control, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because the PLO and Hamas charters call for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews, yet I support these groups, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because the Hamas charter contains many anti-Semitic canards taken directly from the Czarist Russian forgery, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", accusing the Jews of controlling the media and the banks, and being behind of all of the world wars, yet I support Hamas in their "struggle" against "the Zionist entity", I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that the land of Israel is as important to Judaism as Mecca is to Islam, and Jesus is to Christianity, yet I still feel that the Jews should not be allowed to have a country there, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that the land of Israel is filled with Jewish historical sites such as the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Massada, the tomb of Rachel, the graves of the Jewish prophets, yet I call the Jews "Europeans" and accuse them of "colonialism", I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that most of the Arabs who fled Israel, did so because they were told by the leaders of the surrounding Arab countries that the Jews would all be killed and then they would be able to return to an Arab Palestine, yet when that did not occur, they were not allowed to immigrate into the Arab countries of their brethren, but were kept in refuge camps for generations, in order to fill them with hatred, and keep them as pawns to attack the Jewish State, yet I ignore all that and blame "Israeli intransigence" for the problems in the middle east, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I support the "right of self determination" for the Tibetans, the Nicaraguans, and virtually every other ethnic group in the world, except the Jews, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that without a Jewish State the Jews will be in the same helpless position they were in before World War II, and I oppose the continuance of a Jewish State, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that without Israel, the Jews could be rounded up again in the future and genocide could be carried out against them, and I oppose the continuance of Israel, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I know that history tends to repeat itself if precautions are not taken, yet reject allowing the Jews to take the precautions necessary to prevent a future Holocaust, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I think that Judaism has no place in the modern world, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I think Jews have no place in the modern world, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I think the Jews are behind most, if not all, of the world's problems, I am not an anti-Semite.
Just because I tell stereotypical Jewish jokes, and call Jews names, I am not an anti-Semite.
Let's face it...just because I hate those damn Jews and wish them all dead, I am STILL not an anti-Semite!
* Aaron Minsky (aka rock cellist Von Cello) is the author of "Beyond Faith", a book that explains the rationale behind Orthodox Judaism and compares traditional Judaism to other religions, philosophies. and disciplines. He is also a published composer with Oxford, a Yamaha Artist, and in Who's Who in America and the International Who's Who. See http://www.voncello.com for more information.
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From Aaron Minsky's book, "Beyond Faith":
1. INTRODUCTION: FAITH VS. RATIONAL INVESTIGATION
Should one accept a religion on faith or should one first make a rational investigation? The same could be asked about other subjects, like philosophy or science. In those fields, it would be considered ignorant to come to conclusions based on faith. Yet many people give religion a free pass.
According to the Torah, before the Jews left Egypt they saw ten wondrous plagues fall upon the Egyptians. Each plague was foretold by Moses. These included the turning of the Nile river into blood, fireballs and hail stones falling from the sky simultaneously, and the killing of the first born of all Egyptian human and animal life on the same night. When the Jews left Egypt, the sea split, allowing them to cross it on dry land. When the Egyptian army entered the seabed in pursuit, the sea closed in on them and drowned them all. During their wanderings, a cloud led the Jews by day and a column of fire by night, showing them where and when to travel or camp. Food, called "manna", miraculously fell every day from the sky. They lived in a world in which they were constantly surrounded by miracles. Only then did God appear to them from the midst of a gigantic ball of fire on a mountaintop, and, with a booming voice that shook the ground, asked them to believe in Him and accept His laws! They weren't asked to take a leap of faith, they had ample evidence to make a rational decision. Indeed, they had overwhelming evidence! "You have seen what I did", says the Lord (Shemos/Exodus 19:4).
Most of us have been taught to believe that religion is not a rational subject. There are even famous philosophers (like Kirkagaard) who argue that it's the very irrationality of religion that gives it its validity. To the extreme contrary, the Torah says again and again, "and you shall know that I am the Lord". Judaism clearly places knowledge over faith.
Before making a rational investigation of a subject, we must define "rational". Webster's Dictionary defines it as "pertaining to reason", and it defines "reason" as, "intellect, the faculty of understanding, inferring, deducing". Rational thought or action, therefore, is not based on absolute certainty. There is nothing of which we can be absolutely certain. Most of what we know we were told by other people, whether we're talking about history, politics, science or religion. We believe George Washington was the first president of the United States because we have been told this by teachers, who have been told this by authors, who have been told this by various historical accounts. We don't know for certain that this is true, but there is so much evidence to support it that it becomes irrational to doubt it. We don't even know if our parents are our biological parents. How many people live years of their lives before finding out that they were adopted? Yet we can investigate the question and come to a reasonable conclusion, without complete certainty. Since we do not live by absolute certainty it is unfair to judge the Torah, or belief in God, by this standard. Conversely, we shouldn't judge these by a lesser standard. We should rationally investigate everything before we accept it. Anything else would be... irrational!
What does an atheist and a believer in blind faith have in common? They are both irrational and closed-minded. They have ceased to search for the truth, therefore they have no hope of finding it. An intelligent person will analyze a system before accepting it. While any one piece of evidence may not be convincing, if all the evidence taken in total is convincing, it becomes rational to accept it. Even after accepting a system, an intelligent person will continue to search, study and compare, discarding those things that don't make sense and looking further into those things that do make sense.
When investigating a subject, if we discover a new phenomenon which is contrary to all other phenomena, we should seek to understand it. If no known force can explain it, it is rational to postulate a new force. Astronomers did this when they noticed strange orbits of certain stars. They postulated the existence of "black holes," collapsed stars of such strong gravitational pull that even light can't escape. Then they searched for evidence to verify this theory.
When investigating mankind in nature and history we observe that civilizations grow, reach a peak, and then die out, as in the case of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, as well as the Aztecs, Mayans, and Mongolians. We also find that the larger and more powerful the group, the more influence they exert on the world. Furthermore, none of these civilizations knew its history before it happened. In light of this how do we explain the one exception: Israel?
After some initial growth, the population of the Jews remained relatively constant over thousands of years. Outside of minor adaptations to local conditions, the basic laws of this people remained unchanged for thousands of years. Their religious beliefs remained unchanged in the face of tremendous challenges from world conquering religions and ruthless political regimes which tried to destroy and even annihilate the Jews. When every other group of people would either accept or incorporate the beliefs of a strong conqueror, this one people would not budge. In time the conqueror would pass from history while they would remain. Representing less than 1/4 of 1 percent of the world's population and remaining powerless through much of its history, they have had a tremendous influence on the world, arguably more than any other group. They have produced leaders in many fields - (Einstein, Freud, Marx, Schoenberg, Gershwin, Chagal, Seurat, Heifitz, Bernstein, Salk, Maimonides, numerous actors, writers, businessmen, politicians, and educators, and of course, Moses, David, Jesus and many others). Two of the world's major religions are direct outgrowths of Judaism. And, unlike any other people, the history of this nation was outlined in astounding accuracy in a book, before it happened! Israel defies the laws of nature and history.
Judaism is centered around the Torah because of its amazing qualities. One of the central prophecies of the Torah calls for an explanation. It speaks of the Jews gaining control of Israel, getting exiled off the land, regaining it a second time, getting exiled a second time, and regaining it a third and final time. It says the first exile would be done by a neighbor (which it was, Babylon). The second would be done by a distant power (which it was, Rome). It says the Jews would be scattered all over the world in the second exile but not the first (which happened). And who could know this? The Romans didn't exile other peoples like the Greeks or the English, Why the Jews? It says the Jews would be persecuted wherever they went yet never die out (which happened). It says the Jews would get Israel back (and they did, after almost 2,000 years!). (The secular Zionists spoke of Argentina and Uganda as alternative sites for a Jewish homeland, but the course of events led them back to Israel as predicted.) The Torah also predicts many other specific things related to this overall outline which also came true.
If you really ponder this you will see the uniqueness of it. There is not another nation on earth with a similar history. Can all of this really be just a large series of coincidences? Is there something in the physical makeup of these people that allows them to do what no other people has? How do you explain the complicity of the other nations to Torah prophecy? Isn't it worth considering, as a possible explanation of this contrary phenomenon, the existence of some type of "'force" that exerts control on the events that surround this people? I am not saying that this is the answer, but as with the case of the black holes, it is certainly rational to postulate a new force to explain an unusual phenomenon. What we call this force is a whole other discussion, but for now, we are establishing the rationality of considering the possibility of such a force. Yet, even if one were not inclined to postulate a new force, the utter uniqueness of the history of the Jews still cries out for an explanation!
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From Aaron Minsky's book, "Beyond Faith":
20. GETTING BACK TO NATURE, MEDITATION, AND THE SEARCH FOR INNER PEACE
To many people Judaism seems to not be very spiritual. These days, a lot of people, especially young people, yearn to get back to nature or to get in touch with their spiritual nature through meditation. Many Jews who have these desires seek out answers in ancient eastern religions or philosophies, or in new-age alternatives. Judaism can seem like a primitive physical religion concerned with butchering chickens, sitting around the dinner table on Passover getting stuffed on food and wine with an extended family of people fighting over how much of the seder book ("Hagadah") to read, putting on a suit and sitting in a synagogue endlessly reading meaningless prayers telling God how great He is, and sitting in an unpleasant room with dozens of groups of men studying the Talmud and debating each other on whether or not one can take a widow's garment as a security on a loan or whether a mezuzah must be placed vertically, horizontally, or somewhere in between! I will not deny that all of these things are important parts of Judaism. Indeed, Judaism encompasses every part of life from praying to going to the bathroom. Unfortunately, many people don't realize that Judaism is also very involved with nature and meditation. One has only to look, to find it.
Where should one look? Why not start with the first commandment that God gave to the Jewish nation. One would expect this commandment to be particularly important since it came first. What do you think it could be? ... "The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, 'This month shall be for you the beginning of months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year"'. Doesn.t that feel like a bit of a let down? What's so important about this? We must look a little deeper to understand. The Hebrew word for month "chodesh" has the same word root as the word for renewal "chidash". The reason why this commandment was so important, as to be placed first, is because God wants Israel to learn something very important from the months. In Judaism the months are determined by the moon. Unlike the sun which barely changes, the moon constantly goes through cycles. At the new moon "Rosh Chodesh" it appears as a tiny sliver, then it grows until the 15th day when it becomes a full moon, then it wanes again only to disappear and reappear as a new moon once again. The gentile nations are compared to the sun: they don't fall too far or rise too high in relation to holiness. The Jews on the other hand rise above all nations when they follow the Torah and dwell in the land of Israel, yet they fall below the nations when they go against Torah and are exiled off the land and become subservient to their gentile hosts. This cycle was predicted in the Torah and has come true in Jewish history, and for this reason the Jews are compared to the moon.
One of the beautiful ways that Judaism brings Jews back in touch with nature is that it makes them be aware of the moon. On the Sabbath preceding a Rosh Chodesh (new moon), a blessing is made during the Torah service, on the new month. On the day of Rosh Chodesh, special prayers are added to the service asking God to renew Israel to its highest status. Then at some point after the 3rd day of the new moon up until the full moon (usually the first night after the first Sabbath, after the 7th day of the new moon) a long series of prayers and psalms are read to sanctify the moon. It is preferable that these prayers be done outside under a clear evening sky. It is indeed a beautiful and other-worldly experience to go outside with a prayer book, look at the waxing moon, and pray. This is not in anyway to be confused with worshipping the moon. Idol worship is strictly forbidden. The prayers bless God. One says to the moon, "Blessed is your Molder; blessed is your Maker; blessed is your Owner; blessed is your Creator". The prayers also speak of the renewal of the moon as compared to Israel. "To the moon He said it should renew itself as a crown of splendor for those borne (by God: the Jews) from the womb, those who are destined to renew themselves like it, and to glorify their Molder for the name of His glorious kingdom."
The prayers also bring up another concept discussed in the Talmud about the symbolism of the moon. The Torah calls the sun and the moon "the two great luminaries" (Bereshis/Genesis 1:16), however, we know that the light of the sun is greater. It is thus explained that at the time of creation the light of the moon was equal to that of the sun. This must be understood symbolically. The moon is symbolic of spiritual light, and the sun of physical light. At the time of creation the spirituality of world was as apparent as the physicality of it. God, however, concealed the true reality of the spiritual world when He saw that man did not prove worthy of it. The story of Adam and Eve confirms that man did not prove worthy. It is believed, however, that humanity is destined to merit that spiritual light again in the future, through the efforts of religious Jews with the help of the moshiach (Messiah), a descendant of King David. Thus the light of the moon will once again equal that of the sun. As the prayer says, "May it be Your will, Lord, my God and God of my fathers, to fill the flaw in the moon that there be no diminution in it. May the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the seven days of creation, as it was before it was diminished, as it is said: 'the two great luminaries'. And may there be fulfilled in us the verse that is written: 'They shall seek the Lord, their God, and David, their King'. Amen" (Verse from Hoshea 3:5).
Judaism not only puts Jews in touch with the cycles of the moon but it also puts them in touch with the cycles of the earth moving around the sun, the year. Christians ignore the moon and base their calendar solely on the sun, thus their holidays always fall on the same solar day. Moslems ignore the sun and base their calendar solely on the moon. Since the Moslems have a 12-month year, and since there are approximately 12 1/2 lunar months to a solar year, Moslem holidays fall several days earlier each year. Over time, the same holiday will travel through every season. Jews don't ignore either heavenly body but base their calendar on both of the great luminaries. Though Jews use a lunar month, they are also commanded to have holidays fall in their seasons. Therefore Jews have leap years, when a 13th monthly (called "Adar II') is added to the calendar, to keep holidays from drifting into other seasons.
Judaism also has the "Three Festivals", which, in ancient days were times when all of the grown males of the country went to Jerusalem to celebrate. (Since the Temple in Jerusalem cannot be rebuilt until the Moshiach comes, these festivals are currently celebrated by Jews in their own host countries.) The first festival, Passover ("Pesach"), is celebrated at the full moon on the first month, which must fall in spring. Passover celebrates the Jews' initial freedom from bondage in Egypt. At this time they were at their full spiritual strength, and they became renewed as a nation. It therefore must correspond to the moon at its fullest point and the earth at its time of its renewal, spring. It is also the time when the first offering of new barley was brought to the Temple.
The second festival Shavuos celebrates the coming to fruition of God' s liberation of the Jews: the giving of the Torah. This holiday falls 50 days after Passover and hence is in the summer when all of nature comes to fruition. During this holiday the Synagogue is decorated with flowers and greenery, everything in full bloom, symbolic of Israel in full bloom as it stood at Mount Sinai receiving directly the word of God. The Talmud states that the whole desert bloomed at the same moment. The word Shavuos means "weeks" because this holiday is not reckoned by its own day but the Jews must count the 49 days, or 7 weeks from the second day of Passover until Shavuos. This not only puts Jews in touch with this most important period of time for their ancestors, it is also a time for modern Jews to eagerly count the days until the holiday, when they can receive, once again, the Torah in their hearts. It also puts Jews in touch with days and weeks, and an increased awareness of the passing of time, which, after all, is also a part of nature.
The last of the Three Festivals is Sukkos which is called the "Season Of Our Rejoicing". It corresponds to the harvest, which comes in autumn. This holiday brings Jews into contact with nature in a way beyond most other religions. For instance, during the morning prayers, four types of specific plant life are held together, and waved in the 6 directions, north, south, east, west, and up and down. (The 4 plants are symbolic of the 4 types of Jews: those with good deeds
and learning, those with only good deeds, those with only learning, and those with neither. On Sukkos
all Jews, no matter what their level of religiosity are commanded to unite in joy.) The
commandment, however, that brings Jews most into nature is the building, on Sukkos, of a "Sukkah". A Sukkah is a temporary shelter which must have a roof made of plant products through which light may pass. Jews must eat all their meals in it for the full 7-day holiday (except when it rains). What can bring a family more into nature than to eat all meals for a week outdoors in a flimsy shelter? On a deeper level, the Sukkah is symbolic of God's protection which surrounded the Jews in their wanderings through the desert. It also teaches Jews to become conscious of how lucky people are to have homes to protect them on the one hand, while also reminding them of how pleasant it can be to commune with nature.
In the winter there is no festival that forces all Jewish men to go to Jerusalem. What there is, however, is Chanukah, the "Festival Of Light". On this holiday candles are lit. Each day one more candle is added so that by the 8th day, 8 candles burn brightly along with the 9th which lit the rest. What could be more beautiful in the cold, barren winter than to get in touch with another part of nature: fire! How pleasant it can be to sit and watch the candles spread their special light. The candles are placed by a window to teach that Jews must spread the light of Torah even in the coldest and darkest times.
There are many other laws and customs that bring Jews into nature. On Rosh Hashana (which is in the seventh month of the year, but considered the new year, in a spiritual sense) Jews dip challah bread and apples into honey and eat it as a symbol of hope for a sweet year. This brings them in contact with some of nature.s bounty. They also must recite prayers for forgiveness at a body of water which contains fish. (Water symbolizes kindness, and fish symbolize the ever-open "eye" of God.) This makes a Jew have to visit a river, a lake, or an ocean. There, by the water.s edge, he prays and contemplates the beauty of the water ways of the earth.
On other days Jews fast, which brings them into an awareness of those who are starving, and an appreciation for the gift of food. There are also prayers for the winter's rain and prayers for the summer's dew. And then there are the blessings: blessings over wine, over bread, over other grains, over fruits, over vegetables, over other food or drink, over fragrances, over trees, over lightning, over thunder, over a rainbow, over a comet or an earthquake or a large natural formation, over the ocean, over a beautiful person or animal, over a strange looking person or animal, over fruit trees at the start of their bloom, and even over the unusual natural phenomenon of seeing 600,000 or more Jews gathered together! How much more aware of nature can a person become?
As for ecology, Judaism is full of lessons. No farming may be done in Israel once a week, on the Sabbath, and during every seventh year no farming may be done at all! This gives the land rest and a chance to rejuvenate. No fruit trees may be destroyed, even in a war! In general, Judaism teaches that man must have respect for nature. It's true that the Torah gives man dominion over the earth and its creatures (Bereshis/Genesis 1:26), and some people have used this as a proof that Judaism teaches disrespect for nature (for instance, former American President Ronald Reagan said that Jesus was going to come soon, so it was not necessary to protect the environment) but these people are lacking in their understanding of the Bible. Anyone well versed in Judaism knows that Hebrew words are related to their word roots. The word root for dominion also means descent. If man is worthy, he can dominate nature; but when he is unworthy, nature dominates him, therefore man must respect nature.
Finally it must be noted that the word root for nature also means sunken. Here again, this may seem disrespectful to nature but as we've seen, Judaism has a great respect for nature. There are, however, religions and philosophies which exalt nature to a god-like status. This is considered idol worship in Judaism. As wonderful as nature is, it is still sunken compared to the higher spiritual nature of God. Just as a statue cannot compare to the human being that created it, the created universe cannot compare to its Creator.
Judaism relates to nature in many other ways, but at least one can start to see the beauty and wisdom of its approach from the examples cited. Just as Judaism's approach and relationship with nature remains unknown to many people, so does its involvement with meditation. According to Aryeh Kaplan in his book "Jewish Meditation", there is much evidence of Jewish meditation throughout Jewish history except for the last 150 years. The reason it fell out of favor was because of the influence of the Enlightenment Movement which tended to discredit any type of mysticism, including meditation. Nevertheless, meditation was very common in biblical times. The Bible describes how people would use chants and music to attain higher states of consciousness. The Talmud and Midrash state that over a million people were involved in meditation during the time of the prophets. In fact, the prophets had schools of meditation. Not anyone could join these schools. Only people with a through background in Judaism and who were accustomed to following Torah law, were allowed to practice this very demanding form of meditation. Those who were successful in mastering it could attain prophecy themselves.
Because Jewish meditation was so disciplined and difficult, there was always the temptation for Jews to be inf1uenced by the less restrictive meditations of other religions. The lust for these meditative experiences could actually lead Jews away from Go-d. While the prophets were around to supervise things, this situation was held in check. The Jews, however, went through an exile to Babylon. When they returned, and the Second Commonwealth was established, many Jews remained in the Diaspora. When the august group of prophets and rabbis called the Men Of The Great Assembly convened to set down the standards of Judaism they had to make a difficult decision. They knew the spiritual benefits of Jewish meditation but they also realized the risks of allowing meditation to continue without proper supervision. In the end, they chose to ban large scale teaching of meditation, for fear that people might be misled into the practices and beliefs of other religions. Meditation became the secret of a select few. They did, however, legislate a meditation into the three daily prayer services called the "Amidah". Though most Jews today think of it as prayer, it was originally instituted as a meditation for the masses.
Though many of the secrets of the original Jewish meditation appear to be lost, meditation did continue amongst small groups of Jews throughout the centuries. It became especially popular among Chassidic Jews. It also seems to be going through a revival in recent times. The seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe (Menachum Schneerson) was among those who encouraged this. One can read books on how to do Jewish Meditation. The most important thing is that the meditation remain Jewish. For instance, if one wants to chant in their meditation, they should not chant phrases from Buddhism or Hinduism or some other gentile system: they should chant Hebrew from the Bible: Common chants include, "Adon Olam", Lord of the Universe, and "Ribbono Shel Olam", Master of the Universe. Another is the wonderful word "shalom" which means hello, good-bye and peace, all wrapped into one. This word includes in it the "om" sound that exists in certain eastern meditations. It begins with the "sh" sound which can be thought of as a hissing sound, like white noise from a television or radio, or the sound of the sea, or someone asking for quiet by putting a finger to their lips and going "shhh". It represents an external earthly sound. Shalom ends with "om" which ends with the internal and meditative "m" sound. "Shalom" said slowly over and over again with the thought of converting the noisy energy of the earthly world into the inner peace of the meditative world can provide a meaningful Jewish meditation. "Shalom" is also interesting for what it physically does to the mouth. To begin with, the "sha" sound forces the mouth wide open, representing birth. Then to get the "L" sound the tongue must travel all the way from the bottom of the mouth to the roof of the mouth, representing a soul rising up to seek out Godliness. Then the mouth closes for the "om" sound, representing death but the tongue is now in position for rebirth with the next "shalom". A meditation on "shalom" can also be approached through its letters. (All Hebrew letters have meanings. See Chapter 4: "Hebrew: A Wise Language?".) The first letter, "shem", the "sh" sound, represents a gate. The second letter, "lamed", the "L" sound, represents learning. The third letter, "vav", the "o" sound, represents connection. The last letter, "mem", the "m" sound, represents kingship, the moshiach and the messianic era. Therefore, the letters of "shalom" seem to say the following, "come through the gate of wisdom and learn the secrets of the Lord which will connect you to the knowledge of the Lord's kingship and His plan for a future of peace, a future of shalom". After all, what is peace if not the comfort that comes from the knowledge of God and His plan for peace for all humanity? Finally, let us not overlook the most obvious thing about "shalom", its meaning. It means peace, and this alone is good to meditate on, but it also means hello and good-bye. It therefore also represents the life cycle. Ultimately, hello is birth and good-bye is death, but with the knowledge of God the whole cycle is accepted with peace. As one can now see, whether we consider "shalom" for its sound, or its physical effect on the mouth, or its letters, or simply its meaning, it provides a wonderful multi-faceted basis for a thoroughly Jewish meditation.
If one prefers to meditate on a visual image one can visualize the Hebrew name of God or some other Jewish image (such as the star of David, or the menorah). If one prefers to try to clear the mind and meditate on nothingness this is also acceptable as long as one does this with the knowledge that behind the nothingness is God. One must be careful not to get lost in nothingness. It is the Buddhist way to believe in nothingness rather than God. Jews see nothingness as a step toward the everythingness that is God.
Meditation can be incorporated into Jewish practice in less obvious ways. It can be combined, for instance with Jewish nature observances. After sanctifying the moon, one can linger and stare at the moon, meditating on the wonder of how such a massive object can float freely in space, or on how God promised Israel to renew itself like the moon. After eating in the Sukkah, one can linger and meditate on God's love surrounding and protecting him, or the miracle of the harvest year after year. Of course prayer services in the Synagogue needn't be just the recitation of boring, endless, empty words. The prayer service can be visualized as a ladder on which one climbs higher and higher up to God. Sometimes you may not get too far, sometimes you may fall off; but with consistent, sincere effort, you may find yourself climbing higher than you ever dreamed possible!
In essence, the whole Jewish lifestyle is a meditation. With three prayer services a day, daily blessings pronounced over many things, a weekly Sabbath of meditation and prayer and family communion, festivals for every season, fasts and feasts, commandments and study & there is a rhythm that one taps into. There is a subtle shift that one feels over time. There is nothing to be found in ancient eastern, or modern new-age religions. or philosophies, that can bring inner peace to a Jewish soul like good old-fashioned Judaism!
In closing, allow me to make a recommendation to those who need some more proof of Judaism as a path to nature, meditation and inner peace. Sit down, get relaxed, shut your eyes, start taking slow and deep breaths, visualize a beautiful sunset, or a crisp clear evening sky, or a cool stream in a quiet wood. ... now take in a very deep breath and when you exhale, slowly say sssshalommmm ... sssshalommmm ... sssshalommmm ... sssshalommmm .......