June 18, 2019

Literalists Don’t Go to Heaven – Symbolism and Metaphor on Shavu’ot

Literalists Don’t Go to Heaven

Shabbat Bamidbar – Thoughts on Shavu’ot

Our practice of Judaism is not derived from biblical religion. All Judaism today is founded on the Bible, but developed by the understandings of the Bible shaped by the Sages of the Second Temple and Talmudic period, who used the Bible as their raw material. You can even say that ancient sages taught the generations after them the skill of using the Bible as come kind of volatile plastic, dynamic energy.

The same tradition that produced Maimonides, who tried to square the Bible with Aristotle, produced the Kabbalah, a disturbing and brilliant interpretation of the Bible that takes the Bible into unknown universes.

Our tradition is volatile and shape shifting – held together by some set of practices and beliefs that cover over a turbulence of religious texts. Asking “what Jewish belief is” is almost always the wrong question. The term “Jewish Belief” is like a signpost at the entrance to a vast cave system.

Think of the upcoming holidays of Shavu’ot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah, which begins Saturday night. From a biblical perspective, God spoke the 10 Commandments on that day. From an very traditional Orthodox perspective,  one is required to believe, generally speaking, that the entire five books of Moses were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, or to Moses at other places before his death.

The rabbinic tradition, however, reflects deeply on this idea of “Torah from Heaven” much more than it tries to supply any creed. That tradition of reflection shapes our religious lives up until today.

Instead of asking what exactly did God say, we might ask ‘what does it mean to be addressed by the Soul of Universe.’ We might ask, ‘how does a human being absorb the speech of the divine?’ ‘And once the divine word enters us, how do we translate the experience of having been addressed by the Soul of the Universe into words that can communicate this experience to another human being?’

The rabbis of the Talmud encountered a mystery. They understood the Five Books of Moses as a poor reflection of the Upper Torah, the divine wisdom. They understood our written Torah as a doorway into the Divine Mind. They uttered poetic images – the Torah in the Divine Mind is “black fire written upon white fire.”  They saw the event at Sinai as God revealing something of the essence of the divine existence, carried in the vehicle of Divine speech.

Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher, teaches us how to read a metaphor. The speech of God does not imply vocal chords. Hearing God does not happen with our human ears. We use these words all the time metaphorically; “that painting really speaks to me” we say. When we inally understand what someone is trying to tell us, we say  “I hear you”.  Speaking and hearing do not always mean what they seem to mean.  The Kabbalists, who flourished a bit later than Maimonides, create an entire belief system from symbols and metaphors. This is crucial:  we are not just the people of the book; we are the people who know how to read books.

Problem is, when moderns come to the Bible we turn into shallow literalists. We forget what speaking and hearing can mean.

Most of us modern Jews don’t have the benefit of having been immersed in the Talmud and Midrash, of having studied the brilliance of Maimonides, of having gazed into the enchanted orchard of the Kabbalah. That is understandable.

What is harder for me to accept is that when many modern people today approach our religion, we tend to forget our capacity for poetry and metaphor. If anything, the Talmudic rabbis and those who came after them taught that one cannot understand the Torah if one reads it literally. The Zohar teaches that if you confuse the real Torah-as-mind-of-God with the literal meaning of words written in the Five Books of Moses, that your bones should burst and you will have no portion in the world to come. “Literalists Don’t Go to Heaven”. It would be like thinking that music is dots and squiggles on a lined page.

Shavu’out, therefore, cannot be understood literally as the holiday of the “giving of the Torah”, as if you can just be given white fire on black fire, the structure of the universe in the divine mind, the substance of the existence of God.

A non-literal meaning of Shavu’ot, and therefore a truer meaning, might be, ‘the holiday when the portal into the divine mind was opened, a portal that can re-opened to those willing to encounter a mystery.’