Monday, June 6, 2011

"To infinity and beyond!" / Shavuot

When Buzz Lightyear trumpeted those memorable words, “To infinity and beyond!” in Toy Story, the absurdity delighted us and the phrase instantly became iconic in our household. When it appeared in the title of an article published by a prestigious university, however, we were not laughing. One of my kids remarked sardonically, “Someone’s not quite clear on the concept.”

Infinity means without limit. What does “beyond infinity” mean? In the realm of engineering and science it means, “Someone’s not quite clear on the concept.”

Perhaps in the realm of religious experience and belief, which of necessity we speak about metaphorically, the phrase has meaning. “Infinity” can pertain to space or time.

Imagine with me a God that is the Ground of Being. Imagine a God that makes existence possible – not just your life and mine, but the existence of anything at all, as well as everything that is. And because this God makes existence possible, God also makes possible emergent life and phenomena that never before existed: genuine novelty. (Is that what a miracle is?) And because this God makes existence and emergence possible, this God makes morality, creativity, beauty, and love possible. We experience what God makes possible all the time: us, our ability to experience the world, our ability to make moral decisions, our ability to love, our continuous change and evolution as individual people, our fundamental and inseparable connection not only to this gloriously beautiful blue marble, but to the entire universe. All that is and all that is possible reside in God. All that is and all that is possible are God. God is the infinite possibilities of our world, and also beyond: the very Ground of Being that makes those possibilities possible.

This is not how God is described in Hebrew Scripture. There we meet a God who is a Being with a will, who exerts power, who interacts with this world, and who prescribes that we be just (yet fails to rain down justice from heaven).

This is not the neo-Platonic God of medieval thinkers like Saadia Gaon and Solomon ibn Gabirol: perfect, distant, wholly immaterial and transcendent, at a great remove from our world, emanating the universe through a series of lesser beings. God is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful).

This is not the neo-Aristotelian God of Maimonides – the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, the Active Intellect – that is wholly removed from our world and utterly disinterested in us.

But perhaps this is the God of Rabbi Akiba (~50 to ~135 C.E.). Perhaps.

The Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 29b) describes the very moment Moses stands at the peak of Sinai and God is poised to give him Torah. Moses is suddenly and mysteriously whisked to heaven (“to infinity and beyond”) where he sees God “tying crowns” on the letters of the Torah (these are the only decorations permitted in a scroll of Torah – please see the graphics attached to this blogpost for examples). Moses asks why God is delaying matan torah (the Giving of Torah). God explains that in the future, a man named Akiba ben Yosef will interpret not only the words, but also the letters and even the crowns. He will enlarge on the meaning and possibilities of Torah. The letters may be said to have meaning, but the decorations? Infinite possibilities. Moses is astounded. He wants to see such a man. God says, “Turn around,” and when Moses does he finds himself sitting in the eighth row of R. Akiba’s academy. R. Akiba is teaching his disciples Torah – with interpretive possibilities unimaginable to Moses. Poor Moses cannot understand a single word or concept he hears. Moses’ spacial journey to “infinity and beyond” is now also a temporal journey “to infinity and beyond.” He has transcended linear time; he sees that all that is, and all that is possible, is contained in God’s Torah because it emanates from the God of possibility.

Moses is the “lawgiver” because he transmitted God’s Torah to Israel. For Moses, Torah is a sacred book of God’s will for Israel. R. Akiba was, to our Sages, the “new Moses” because he could delve into the text in order to go beyond the text through interpretation and creative application. For Moses, Torah is the moment and place where infinity irrupts into our lives and takes us to possibilities beyond.

Who hasn’t sat daydreaming and wondered what else they might do and be. Our imaginations are limited to our experiences and our minds. But there exist possibilities we have not imagined and that do not yet exist, yet they abide in God, the author of Torah.

For some, Torah is a book, a text given long ago on one particular occasion in one particular place that forms the basis of Jewish law and practice. It is static. It simply is and it is our job to find out what it already means. But for R. Akiba Torah is a relationship between Israel and her God, a process of becoming Israel, for we are always remaking ourselves as humans and as Jews. Plato reports (Cratylus 402A) that Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” So too you are not the same person you were a moment ago. Our experiences and our decisions change us continuously. The same is true of Torah. Torah is dynamic because it is relational – the ever-evolving relationship between Israel and her God. God understands this – God ties crowns on the letters of the Torah to insure that Torah will not become calcified – fixed in time or space – thereby reduced to a mere text.

For so many, Torah is merely “the instruction book of life” or “God’s revelation of how we are to live our lives” (actual quotes from actually rabbis). That’s the Moses approach. A friend told me recently of her brother, who rejected religion in college, and is now part of a rigid Orthodox community. Despite an Ivy League education that would have taught him to be intellectually curious and analytical, everything now is a matter of permitted and forbidden. There is neither inquiry, nor inquisitiveness, nor creativity in his Torah. His parents, who have always kept a kosher home, have adopted greater and great stringencies to accommodate him, yet he keeps finding more. They can no longer meet his needs. He no longer eats in his parents’ home. Where is kibbud av v’em (honor your father and your mother) in this? How is this a living Torah? Recently at a family gathering on shabbat, another rabbi began to make Havdalah, and the brother objected because it was one minute away from the time he calculated to be “correct.” Does he think that our Sages could measure time to the minute? Does he think they thought that important? Does he think that they would have condoned his disrespect for another rabbi for the sake of one minute? His Torah is a “God’s little instruction manual” and no more.
Torah is so much more. Yes, we study Torah to help us make decisions about how to live our lives because we are always becoming who we will be. Torah is the People Israel’s living, breathing covenantal relationship with God. It is our way of being Jews in the world and becoming better Jews. This is the R. Akiba approach.

For R. Akiba, the Revelation at Mount Sinai that we celebrate on Shavuot is a moment outside time. Torah is a relationship outside space. Because God is both within time and space, and also beyond time and space, when we experience God, we too experience “infinity and beyond.”

Because Torah is relational, it was not given once at Mount Sinai. It is given again and again – in every moment – a flow of divine energy, love, creativity, and moral possibility. The river flows on, always changing, never the same. We have but to dip our buckets in and savor the sweet water of Torah – mayim chaim (“life-giving water”).

Chag sameach!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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