Monday, November 27, 2006

Gilgul in Waco: Kabbalah and Reincarnation in Texas

[Illustration: Turned back from America, by E. M. Lilien]
I have returned from a speaking engagement in Waco, TX. at Congregation Rodef Shalom. It was lovely; Rabbi Moti Rotem was a gracious host and I addressed a great group of about 65 people. It's tough to try and give people a taste of Jewish esoteric thought and Kabbalah in 1.5 hrs., but I did my darndest and people were very receptive.
The second part of my program was entitled Sex, Food, and Death: Kabbalah Perspectives on the most Interesting Things in Life. The entire talk was really grounded in gilgul, the Jewish doctrine of reincarnation. I have found this is one of the topics that persistently intrigues Jews who are otherwise uninitiated in Kabbalah. While it is largely neglected today, there was a time when belief in transmigration of souls was widely accepted in the Jewish world. The 17th Century Dutch think Menasseh Ben Israel affirmed it to be a central teaching of Judaism in his magnum opus, Nishmat Hayyim. A few decades later no less an authority then the Vilna Gaon expounded on how the book of Jonah was nothing less then an esoteric allegory on the journey of the soul:
The name "Yonah," which translates as "Dove," is a standard reference to the human soul. The soul is called "Ben Amitai," "Son of the Truth," as the soul is a child of God, whose seal is Truth. God selected this soul, and sent it to our plane with a mission of informing the world - Ninveh - why we are here. He told the soul to go to the "large city," which is a reference to Earth, and tell people that they are put here on Earth to perform good rather than evil. The soul refused, though, and instead became distracted by desire....Yonah found a boat, which is a reference to a body, and he descended into the boat and embarked on a trip to sate his desires. The sea is a reference to this world, and it is often used thus in the Talmud (Tamid 32a). Storms begin, and the boat is threatened with destruction! The sailors, [representing] a person's organs, are unable to control the boat. The sailors go through the motions of prayer, but Yonah is resigned to death. The organs call to the soul, as the only entity capable of effecting change; they ask what its mission is, but the soul is beyond caring for this world at that point. The soul is thrown into the sea, and dies. The fish, symbolizing the grave, swallows Yonah. Yonah is in the fish for three days; [traditionally, the soul is understood to hover by the body for three days]. Yonah then calls out to God to bring it close to Him. Yonah is then regurgitated on to dry land - the Garden of Eden. This is not the end for the soul, though; he is reincarnated, and given his mission anew. This time he agrees to go to Ninveh/world and rebuke those who have gone astray. He carries out his task in Ninveh, and the people listen, and God decides to forgive them. (From the Vilna Gaon's commentary on Jonah).
Later Kabbalistic writings integrate the role of sex and food (and virtually everything else) into this model, revealing how all our actions are tied to advancing the journey of every soul toward her ultimate tikkun, her perfection and return to God.
There were two lovers, who were really into spiritualism. They vowed that if either of them died, the one remaining would try to contact the partner in the world beyond exactly 30 days after their death. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, the young man died in a car wreck. True to her word, his sweetheart tried to contact him in the spirit world exactly 30 days later.At the seance, she called out, "John, John, this is Martha. Do you hear me?" A ghostly voice answered her, "Yes Martha, this is John. I can hear you."Martha tearfully asked, "Oh John, what is it like where you are?" "It's beautiful. There are azure skies, a soft breeze, sunshine most of the time." "What do you do all day?" asked Martha. "Well, Martha, we get up before sunrise, eat some good breakfast, and there's nothing but making love until noon. After lunch, we nap until two and then make love again until about five. After dinner, we go at it again until we fall asleep about 11 p.m." Martha was somewhat taken aback. "Is that what heaven really is like?""Heaven? I'm not in heaven, Martha.""Well, then, where are you?""I'm a rabbit in Texas."

Sometimes like people, ideas too experience transmigrations to unexpected places. Kabbalah is pretty much a novelty in this part of Texas. Largely unaware of Jewish esoteric teachings, my audience was far from accepting every aspect of what I explained to be traditional Kabbalah. That being said, for one evening in Waco we did consider how these teachings can take on a new and more perfected incarnation for modern Jews.
To learn more, consult the entries Death; Eternal Life; Reincarnation; and Soul in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Does the curse of Cain live on?

[Illustration: a Late Antiquity incantation bowl meant to repulse demonic attack against a home. Note the two demons who are visualized as fettered by chains surrounding them. This one actually has pseudo-script rather than the proper incantation - a substandard product sold by an illiterate magician to an illiterate client? www.lib.umich.edu/pap/magic/images/39.jpg]

One reader writes:

My initial exposure to this [the idea of demonic changlings living among humans] was from a book by Elizabeth Clair Prophet called "Fallen Angels and the Origin of Evil." The book deals with a theory by Origen, which claims that not only did evil seed from the Fallen Angels resulted in the corruption of Man, but that the bloodline descendants of these early hybrids are still active today...Jaketheflake.

Mr. Flake has picked up on the fact that often specific occult beliefs extend across faith systems. Christians also embraced this idea of demonic-human couplings (hence, Rosemary's Baby). And it fact, the idea of spiritual-human unions has greater affinity to the basic theology of Christianity (Mary impregnated by the Holy Spirit, for example) then Judaism, but both inherited this idea from the Apocalyptic writings, which in turn is based on a text shared by Christians and Jews, Genesis 6. Elizabeth Clare Prophet was simply elaborating on this thread of esoteric tradition within Christian tradition.

The mainstream of Jewish esoteric tradition claims the line of Cain,

The 'Beasts of the Field' are the offspring of the original Serpent who had sexual intercourse with Eve . . . From them came forth Cain who killed Abel... (Zohar 1:28b)

was wiped out in the great Flood. On the other hand, there is another tradition that teaches that demons are actually formerly human - the souls of those who died in the Flood (PdRE 21; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan 4:1; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 34).

The most striking aspect of is the particularly Jewish inclination to explain the existence of demons as being a by-product of human misdeed. Rabbinic Judaism largely walked away from the "Fallen Angel" explanation found in Apocalyptic texts. Hence we have no Devil, no "anti-god" competing with God for souls, etc. For those Jews who believed in the demonic (and there have been many), since there is little room for an ontologically autonomous evil force, demons have to either originate from God Herself or from the only other spiritual force in the universe - us. Most have opted to identify the demonic with human transgression (a modern reiteration of this appears in Adin Steinsaltz's primer on Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petalled Rose p. 17).

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Occult Bible

Earlier I shared with you an example of finding occult meaning the Bible. What follows is another example that serves as the prooftext for one of the most common, if confusing, aspects of Jewish mysticism: Divine names of power. On another website devoted to the significance of the divine names, there is a disclaimer:

The name of the LORD [this refers to the Tetragramaton, the four letter name of God, YHVH] represents His power, actions, and reputation in the universe. Almighty God cannot be "conjured" or treated as an object...it is a chilul ha-Shem [a desecration of the divine reputation] to attempt to invoke the name of God for selfish or manipulative purposes (Exodus 20:7).

Everyone immersed in the various forms of Jewish esotericism agrees with the first sentence. It's regarding the second sentence that things become a little fuzzy. Fact is, the many names of God, whether exoteric or esoteric, have been used as emblems of power and passcodes to the Gevurah (the divine dynamis) of God. These names are incorporated into amulets, incantations, and prayers precisely because using them is believed to give one greater access to God. Properly applied, these names are "constructive," they allow you to do things. As the third line of the disclaimer seems to imply, the name can be used if the purpose is not "selfish" or "manipulative."

So where did this notion arise from? From the Bible itself, of course. The citation in Exodus cited above already cautions against using the Eternal's name "in vain," which invites the question, is there a non-"vain" use? The Exodus passage also invites speculation that the name is something more than just another noun, that it has a potential that must not be abused. But in what way?

Ps. 33:6 gives us the answer. There it says, Bid'var YHVH shamayim na'asu. Normally this translated as "By the word of YHVH the heavens were made." God creates via a "word-act," a kind of adjuration. Occult readers of the Bible, however, point out that an equally good translation is "By the word 'YHVH' the heavens were made." In other words, the name itself is the tool by which God creates things - indicating that it is the inclusion of the divine name that gives God's adjuration its creative power.

This reading gives the name of God a status separate from God. As a tool, it is subordinate to God, but like any tool, it presumably can be used by any artisan who understand how it works. Kabbalah maasit, "pragmatic kabbalah" is the discipline that attempts to make use of this tool. Again, we see throughout the Hebrew texts that document this practice the constant caution against using the divine name for purposes of witchcraft (variously termed mechashef, kosamim, or darkhei ha-Amori [Deut. 18:10-11]), yet still ascribing to the premise that the righteous, God-fearing adept is exempt from this prohibition.

Magicians and magical texts of antiquity even dispense with these Biblical scruples, regarding the Hebrew names of God to be yet another spiritual 'technology' and will use these names in combination with the names of pagan divinities and numinous beings, apparently on the principle that if one god is good, invoking all the 'brand name' deities is even better.

Magicians aside, a variety of divine names (many of them also occult in nature, in that they are secretly embedded in the Biblical text and also have to be 'revealed') have been used by Jews in their efforts to combat disease, fend off woe, or otherwise advance the cause of blessing for themselves, the Jewish people, and the world at large.

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books

[Illustration: an example of a "Seal of Solomon" amulet incorporating two divine names: YHVH and Shaddai]

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reading the Bible with an Occult Eye

(A magical text from the Cairo Genizah. It appears at www.mfa.gov.il/.../0/MFAJ060y0.jpg)
Like any other Jewish tradition, Jewish occult tradition looks to ground itself and justify its teachings in the language of Scripture. And certainly, the Hebrew Bible provides plenty of obvious examples of the fabulous: angels, giants (Gen. 6), miraculous staves (Ex. 7), and monsters (Ps. 74). But the logic of the occult assumes that for all the wonders and forces that are visible and revealed, there are much more powerful things in the text which are concealed and must be detected. The proof text for this is Ps. 62 - "One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard."
This is not a purely esoteric assumption. Virtually all ancient readers of the Bible regarded it as fundamentally cryptic. Whether the reader was Jewish, Christian, or Gnostic, prior to the Protestant movements (which insisted that the meaning was transparent to any and all who possessed simple literacy), virtually all readers of the Bible assumed that hidden meanings abound. Moreover they believed that the concealed meanings were the more precious.[1] Certain Biblical passages point toward life itself being an occult enterprise (Job 28; Proverbs 25:11; Deut. 29:29)
And as it turns out, the rabbinic genius for paying close attention to the language of the Bible (see for example, the discussion of Ps. 8 in "Moses and the Angels") is ideal for discovering occult meanings embedded in the sacred word. Take, for example, the verse in the Psalms which reads, sh'giot mi yavin, ministarot nakeini (19:13). Conventionally this is translated as "Who can be aware of errors? Clear me of my unperceived guilt" but another fair translation would be, "Whoever understands errors will reveal of Me My secrets". This hints at the importance of reading the text "as it is." The TaNaKH in its original languages is actually riddled with spelling and syntax errors. Emendations and corrective readings for these quirks have existed in Jewish tradition since antiquity, but many traditional readers do not take these errors to be mere scribal mishaps, but deliberate markers of esoteric import. Some remarkable interpretations hinge on the presence of a linguistic curiosity in a verse.
A sample of this is the concept of the "evil eye." There are many aspects to the evil eye, but for our discussion it is important to understand the eye can be unleashed when one person looks with envy or jealousy upon another. In this sense, it is a form of unintended witchcraft. Belief in the evil eye crosses both time and cultures. Yet Jews find explicit reference to it in the Torah. Specifically, there is a tradition that of all the sons of Israel, Joseph and his descendants are impervious to the ill effects of the evil eye, as is discussed in this passage from Babylonian Talmud Ber. 20b:
R. Yochanan used to go and sit at the gates of the mikvah. When the daughters of Israel ascend from the bath, said he, ‘let them look on me, that they may bear sons as beautiful and as learned as I.' Said the Rabbis to him: ‘Do you not fear an evil eye?' ‘I am of the seed of Joseph', he replied, ‘against whom an evil eye is powerless.' For it is written, Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a (Alay ayin) fountain, (Genesis 49:22) about which R. Abbahu observed: Read not "alay ayin [by a fountain]" but “oleh ayin [transcends the eye].” R. Jose b. Hanina said: [It is derived] from this passage, And let them grow [ve-yidgu] like fish in the midst of the earth, into a teeming multitude in the midst of the earth (Genesis 48:16; Jacob's blessing of Ephraim and Menasheh, the two sons of Joseph) Just as fish in the seas are covered by water and the eye has no power over them, so also are the seed of Joseph: the eye has no power over them.
So first of all, we have this strange behavior of R. Yochanan. He is the Brad Pitt of the Talmud, a man so beautiful that he arouses the "admiration" of both women and men. Apparently, when women would leave the mikveh, having purified themselves following menstruation and ready to once again sexually unite with their husbands, they would just have to look at Yochanan and it would fire their sexual imagination for the coming evening. Moreover, Jewish mysticism has long taught that one's thoughts and intention during coitus will be "imprinted" on any fetus conceived in that time (See Iggeret ha-Kodesh). So by fantasizing about him, a bit of his beauty would be transferred to the child. It’s actually a nice way to use the often problematic gift of sex appeal - rather then use it seduce women, Yochanan uses it to invigorate other people's marriages and to produce smart and attractive children. The potential downside being that all this desire and envy aroused by this man's attractiveness could backlash on him in the form of attracting the evil eye.
But not to worry. It seems that Yochanan is a descendant of Joseph (eye candy in his own right - Gen. 39:6) and on his death bed, father Jacob particularly blessed Joseph that he would be impervious to the eye. We know this because part of Jacob's blessing (49:22-27), usually translated as "Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a fountain" can be also be fairly translated as "Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough "transcending..." (the word here can mean "beside" or "rising over/transcending" depending on the vowels - and there are no vowels in the Torah)...the eye" (the word ayin means both "eye" and "fountain"). All you have to do is ask the next logical question, "What 'eye' is he transcending?" and the answer comes easily, "The 'evil eye' of course!" Who-lla, the evil eye appears in the Torah.
Not surprisingly, later magical adepts would be looking to make use of this attribute of Joseph. Hence we find an Aramaic/Hebrew amulet, which invokes the power of Joseph to protect the bearer again the evil eye:
In your name, O Eternal of Hosts, God of Israel, seated upon the cherubim, the 'explicit name,' in [all] the seventy names of God, merciful and compassionate, God who smites and heals; send healing and compassion to B'ninah daughter of Yaman....I adjure you...may she be healed of any evil eye...'Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough transcending the eye'... (TS.K1.127, a text published in Schiffman and Swartz, Hebrew and Aramaic Incantation Texts from the Cairo Genizah; the translation is my own).

Thus a Biblical verse of blessing for Joseph (and his seed) is also claimed as an incantation to protect any and all in Israel. In its own way, this occult reading gives new life to this passage – rather than being an antiquarian account of matters past or even a miraculous gift privileged for only a few by the accident of parentage, in this esoteric interpretation the verse becomes immediately relevant to B’ninah bint Yaman and the adept who is trying to ease her suffering. Schiffman and Swartz write, “These texts demonstrate a level of popular religion which coexists with and draws…upon…Jewish law and learning…The magicians and their clients reshape and reuse these materials.” Exactly so, and we see this kind of reading, interpretation, and re-application of the Scriptures again and again in Jewish occult traditions.
Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050
[1] Kugel, James, How to Read the Bible, pp. 14-16.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

God Live and Uncensored

A reader just asked me if there is a source where the curious could see the divine names used in the Charba de Moshe uncensored, as they were in Gaster's translation.

It's been quite some time since I've had Gaster's bound work in my hand, but I do not recall there being a Hebrew text accompanying the translation. One manuscript version of "Sword of Moses" is published in Dr. Peter Schafer's magisterial collection of Hekhalot texts and fragments. The scholarly apparatus is in German, but the Hebrew/Aramaic text is fully presented (though without vowels, making correct pronounciation of the names speculative) in sections 598-622. You just have to be able to zero in on it. Noah, the citation for Schafer is:

Schafer, P., Synopse Zur Hekhalot Lituratur, (Heb./German), Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1981

Two other sources of information:
Yuval Harari, Harba de-Mosheh. Hebrew University MA thesis, 1991.
Moses Gaster, Studies and Texts 1971.

(Illustration: E.M. Lilien Bookplate - the divine word breaks the fetters of ignorance)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Texas, Hell, and Governor Perry

This morning I read in the paper that our esteemed Texas governor, Rick Perry, has affirmed that all his non-Christian constituents are going to hell. If that seems like an odd thing for a governor running for re-election to say, well, then you don't know Texas. Hell is always close to our thoughts. Perhaps that because we just came through another Texas summer. I was privy to a conversation at the end of August that has really stuck with me. I was sitting in the waiting room of my doctor’s office, casually listening to the conversation of two elderly people, a man and women, sitting across from me. “It’s too damn hot!” the older man, said, half speaking, half shouting in the way people do who are losing their hearing. “It’s too damn hot, I can’t take the heat in Texas anymore –"I’m moving to New Mexico! Maybe Deming, some place in the mountains!”

I don’t know whether it was the fact that he used the word “damn” or whether the it was the weather its that inspired her, but the woman sitting next to him reached out with a reassuring hand, patted him on the knee and calmly said, “You know, the Lord has prepared a place for us far hotter then anything can we can know in this life. He’s warning us to get right with Him.”

There was a bit of a pause as the man processed her words. He looked at her intently and declared, “It’s too damned hot, I’m moving to New Mexico!”

Maybe its because I grew up in New Mexico, or maybe its because I’m Jew, but I felt more empathy for his position than hers. As far as I’m concerned, this is about as hot as its ever going to get for me, and that’s more than enough.

This little vignette just floated around in my head right up until I got a phone call from a young person, one of my former confirmands, who called me and started to talk to me about his concerns about eternity. Apparently he had been thinking about eternity quite a bit, and he was especially bothered because while he heard his non-Jewish friends talk about eternity all the time, he couldn’t recall much of anything he had ever heard about eternity from a Jewish perspective. He had even pulled out the book I had given him at his Bar Mitzvah, Jewish Literacy, and looked up “eternity” in there. I was delighted to hear this, as this is the first real verification I have ever had that one of our B’nai Mitzvah kids had ever read the book. But he went on to say that what he found was disappointingly vague. He was anxious to know what Judaism had to say about eternity, and he was beginning to feel that this was a shortcoming in our faith.

And this made me think about the little lady in the waiting room and how, truly, unlike Jews, even thoughts about the weather cause some people in other religious traditions turn so easily to thoughts of eternity, life after death, and how its going to all work out.

And as he told me about this, how it frustrated him and bothered him, I realized this was a RaSHI moment. What’s a RaSHI moment?

Well RaSHI is the great medieval Bible commentator. His commentary on the Torah is considered the first place any Jew should start if he or she wants to get a better understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. Now the student soon learns that normally, when RaSHI feels he has a grasp on the meaning of verse, he keeps his commentary short – one or two sentences, sometimes even just three or four clarifying words. But then there comes the verses when RaSHI goes on and on, two-three, four paragraphs on a sentence, a phrase, even a single word. In rabbinical school whenever we came to one of those protracted comments, our teacher would say, “So what’s bothering RaSHI?” And we knew what was bothering him – he felt like he didn’t have a really good handle on the verse. His inability to fix on an answer made him anxious, so he would marshal everything he could think of to make sense of the problem.

And I understood this young person was having a RaSHI moment. But on further reflection, I realized the issue was bigger than that. People, whether it be young adults in college or elders sitting in a waiting room, tend to talk about and talk through the things that make us anxious. The more bothered we are, the more we talk. And it occurred to me, in a way that hadn’t before, that this may be one of the reasons other religious groups talk about what will happen to us in eternity far more than Judaism does. It’s an anxiety issue.

Which is counter-intuitive. I mean many of these same religious groups assure the believer that if one is a member in good standing of that group, then one’s place in Eternity is absolutely assured. So presumably, having become safe for all eternity, the need to talk about it would subside. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. Having experienced salvation for themselves, the focus simply shifts over to the salvation of, or lack there of, of others. The anxiety remains, if not for one’s self, then for the people around the believer. But I don’t think that these folks lack confidence in their own deliverance so much as they are anxious about the afterlife in general; they worry about the suspended judgment of God directed against all humanity.

So, if this logic is correct, then the fact that Jewish teachers throughout the ages felt so little need to comment of eternity and the world-to-come is a sign of our confidence. When there is not much to be worried about, then there isn’t much that needs to be said.

Or so I thought. For, while we who teach and speak Torah may be confident because of our knowledge and belief, our disinterest in talking about such things can amount to a disservice to those who are not so conversant with what tradition believes. It is a disservice to our fellow Jews if we fail to explain the basis for our confidence, if we do not teach others why it is that we are not so anxious about eternity, death, or the World-to-Come.

Oh, we Jewish spokesman and women have some stock things we say. When asked about such things I often say something like this, “In some faiths, salvation is ours to be had. In Judaism, salvation is ours to be lost.” Or I’ll say, “Judaism teaches that if we take care of our business in this World, God will take care of us in the Next.” But I now understand that may not be enough for those of us who find ourselves talking about eternity with our friends and neighbors, or who have questions of our own. So I am going to tell you what our tradition teaches.

So why are we Jews not to fret about what happens to us after we die? Because, we believe, our existence precedes this existence. Judaism teaches there is life before life, and when this existence reaches its conclusion, God comes to reclaim what is His. Part of us lives on. Repeatedly the Hebrew Scriptures speak of us as God’s “portion” and God’s “inheritance.” Putting things in a financial idiom, we are God’s investment in this world; the human soul is God’s stake in creation. A creation that grows in goodness is God’s dividend, yielded through us, but we are God’s spiritual principle. As it says in Psalm 49: Their form shall waste away…but God will ransom my soul from the grave, for He will receive me.

That is why both the Chofetz Chayyim and Abraham Heschel describe death as a homecoming – it is surely an end, but also a return. As Eccelestates writes, “The dust returns to the earth as it was, while the spirit returns to God who gave it.” The Jewish presupposition is simply this: we are worthy of eternity because of our affinity to the divine – part of the likeness of God is to have some sort of share in God’s immortality. We are confident because of what we have in common with God; as the Wisdom of Solomon states: For God created man for immortality and made him in the image of His own particular nature. Yet, our confidence springs less from our thinking about our our own goldy attributes then thinking about God’s nature. We trust that God will not desert those who trust in Him. The Psalmist asks rhetorically, “Whither shall I go from Your spirit; O where shall I flee from Your presence.” The answer is: nowhere.

Now, for traditions that focus on the unworthiness of humanity, traditions that make our failings and frailty the principle feature of what it is to be human, this is the very crux of the problem: returning to God is a fearful thing, a fraught situation. But Judaism, affirming we are made in God’s image, has hope as to our fate because we have confidence that God values us – we are His inheritance.

As Heschel notes, Being human means we will die: our bodies will undergo organic dissolution and organic rebirth. But human being is not an organic substance, it is a state of energy – we are radiation of God, and as we know, energy is never lost, it is only transformed.

But what about this world and its relationship to the next? Because of the focus of other religious movements on getting into heaven, many people, even Jews, make the mistake of thinking that the reason we follow the commandments; that we are a religion of “deeds, not creeds,” is because it is only our good deeds that will bring us salvation in the World-to-Come. But as logical as that might seem, even that is mistaken.

Jewish mystics, in their own fashion, turn the whole question of salvation through commandments on its head with the Kabbalistic doctrine that when we do the mitzvot and do them with the right intention, what we achieve is less about helping ourselves then it is about helping God. When we do right, it strengthens God’s power in the world, it opens a door to God’s presence that would otherwise be shut; doing good creates a tikkun, a mending and improvement of God’s creation. Doing right, in other words, is less about escaping from God’s wrath and more about being joined to God’s cause, about doing right for the sake of right and doing good because it advances the cause of good.

Ultimately, the whole purpose of Torah is not to assure us salvation in the future, but to bring salvation to us now. Torah is about our tasting eternity sooner rather than later, about making this world now a fore-taste of what we expect in the World to Come. As Heschel writes, “The secret of spiritual living is that one gets a sense of the ultimate in each moment, in feeling its sacred uniqueness, its “once-and-for-allness.”

Our deeds today are a kind of language that allows us to conjugate eternity into the present tense; they are God’s seeds for re-planting the Garden of Eden, and each righteous act sows a garden of eternity in our midst, the fruits of which we can enjoy now.

So there it is. Judaism calls us to live by faith, not fear. It invites us to choose the joy of living over the anxiety of death. We should do what is right and just, good and beautiful, not because we dread what awaits us if we don’t, but because God is right and just, good and beautiful.
We do not fear the future becasue the faith of Torah demands instead we focus on what we have now – life – and in every moment we are living, Torah propels us toward even more life – life now, life for all, life everlasting.