Yesterday, we carried on with the course on Judaism and the Meaning of Life. We discussed the meaning of Teshuva, or repentance, and the Jewish idea that Teshuva is so important that it actually preceded the creation of the world. Why is Teshuva so important? Because it provides us with the opportunity to transcend the strict order of things. It predates the creation of the world, because all creation has has parameters and is therefore limiting. True repentance goes beyond all the limits.
This is expressed in the midrash, Leviticus Rabbah, in the following way:
If a person repents, it is as if they had gone up to Jerusalem, built the Temple and the altar and offered on it all the sacrifices ordained in the Torah
What an amazing way of dealing with loss of one's home, religious symbolism and raison d'etre, which had been the experience of the Jews of Israel shortly before that piece was written. Which is why they allude to it. A lesson in that for other religions and peoples maybe, especially today.
Then there is the idea that God has built a 'door' between worlds. The question is how to operate that door. The mechanism involves study of (i.e., 'wrestling with') the Torah, prayer and Teshuva (which also means 'return' as well as repentance) by means of the hidden door to the higher world.
The one who is wise penetrates the ways of our world, realizes that wrongdoing brings about consequences that eventually rebound on the perpetrator, and finds that only through Teshuva can the cycle be broken.
With this in mind, the festival of Simchat Torah, which ends and also begins the yearly cycle is relevant. During this festival the first and last letters of the Torah, bet and lamed, are joined together and reversed to read the word lev - heart.
Like the heart, the Torah is a living organism which depends on renewal. Its end really is its beginning. Simchat Torah is also a time of great rejoicing - as its name implies: 'the Joy of the Wrestling with the Text'.
Some don't understand this at all. They separate religion and the rest of their lives. One of the most famous to object to Simchat Torah was the diarist, Samuel Pepys, who visited one of the first authorized synagogues after Cromwell allowed the Jews back to England. This was in the reign of Charles II, of course, as Pepys is most famous for his accounts of the Great Plague and the Great Fire, which took place during that King's reign. This is what Pepys had to say about Judaism's joyful festival:
But Lord, to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like Brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more; and indeed, I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.
You will see from accessing Pepy's Diary at random here
the entry for Christmas Day 1664, in which the great diarist attends the service at Church after giving his wife a black eye, and then on Boxing Day excuses her absence from visiting friends as being the result of her 'sickness'. No repentance there at all, it seems!
But, In its better moments, nevertheless, Christianity, Pepys' own religion, understands that joy is the key. The Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem spoke about joy at the St. George's Cathedral Christmas Concert for Peace last Saturday:
And then there's always this carol, written by the great Isaac Watts (who lived around the same time as Pepys), based on the Psalms of David, which he would have known in Hebrew:
Which brings me on to Latin at the University of Haifa. Having learned that canere means 'to sing', a whole welter of possibilities opens up. Apart from the obvious canary, the epitome of the singing bird, we have cantata as well as chant and the intriguing enchant.
What is the link between song and enchantment? No wonder that strictly Orthodox Jews have banned men from listening to female voices.
However, banning is not the answer. And here in Israel, the injunction seems to be overlooked. I don't know how we could possibly sing Borodin and Ramirez without male input. I used to belong to an all-female choir in Manchester, and always felt something was missing. Not just the sounds, but also the sense of completeness. It's the difference between prissy and pure. For purety you need wholeness and you can't obtain wholeness without embracing the entirety of life and the total clash of opposites.
And this, ultimately, is the teaching of Simchat Torah, Teshuva and the Torah itself.