Sunday, January 12, 2014

Yichudim: The Many Meanings of Unity in Judaism, pt. 1

Friday, September 30, 2011

Yichudim: The Many Meanings of Unity in Judaism, pt. 1

If you drop in the word yichud or yihud into your search engine, you will get a long list of links. Oddly, though, most of them take you to the issue of yihud in the sense of "seclusion," the norms governing when Jewish men and women can and cannot be together alone. In a related discussion, there is an element of a Jewish wedding called the yichud, during which the couple is allowed time alone and away from the guests. This actually fulfilled a Talmudic criteria for being married, that witnesses see the couple seclude themselves together for the purpose of marriage.

Ironically, what is much harder to find via search engine is the philosophical and mystical use of the term as it applies to God, which in certain circles is a far more critical issue for a Jew to know. It is even soterological - "salvation" depends on it (according to some). If one finds it used in its philosophic context, the site will discuss Maimonides (RaMBaM). This is wholly as it should be, because RaMBaM is really the first Jewish thinker to make understanding and affirming the unity of God a core issue of Jewish belief. That sounds strange, but it's true. Yes, Jews have recited the Deuteronomic declaration, the Sh'ma (Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God Adonai is one/alone/unique)[Deut. 6:4] since earliest times. But the Sages of the Talmud seem to make it's twice daily recitation mandatory because, well, the Scriptures says you should say it twice ("When you lie down and when you rise up"). They never say, for example, that the Sh'ma is "the essence of Judaism" or "the watchword of our faith," as becomes common in later centuries.

It's centrality is implicitly affirmed in an entirely other context, by Rabbi Akiba's decision to recite it at its designated time -- which happened to be the same time his skin was being raked off his back by a Roman executioner. Again, Akiba doesn't say - "Oh, this is the thing that must be affirmed at my death." Rather, he realizes that the time of day to recite the Sh'ma has arrived, and he's gonna do the Jewish thing, come hell or high water. Still, that commitment to say it at the moment of death gave affirming the unity of God a special significance. Akiba adds a coda, about finally understanding what the Sh'ma means in the following paragraph when it demands one must "Love Adonai your God with...all your being." (Elah Ezkara). Impending death both focuses the mind and makes what comes to mind seem very important indeed. Akiba's story certainly enhanced the significance of declaring God's oneness, but not on a philosophical level. Akiba's martyrdom highlights devotion to God, not any idea about God.

For centuries after Akiba, no one claimed that accepting/internalizing/grokking the oneness of the God of Israel was even a mitzvah until the RaMBaM said it was. In his list of commandments, this belief is the second mitzvah listed. In his Mishneh Torah, it is considered the first obligation and the foundation of the Torah.

Now this is a notable claim, given that the Torah lists a very limited number of commandments that demand of us certain thoughts - to love God utterly is one, to not covet other peoples' stuff is another. And the fact is....belief in God, or God's nature is not one of them, at least explicitly. But the RaMBaM turns a declarative sentence, "I am Adonai your God...." into an imperative, "[You must believe] I am Adonai your God..." He makes a great philosophic argument for that, though it remains contrived in light of what the Hebrew Bible actually does and does not say. But Maimonides goes even further, arguing that simply affirming the idea as creed is not enough - one must grasp it and all its implications on a philosophic level of understanding, one that erases all intellectual doubt. If this all sounds rather Christian, I agree, though historically speaking, the RaMBaM is mostly under the influence of Islamic scholastics who, like Christians, really made reasoned thoughts and belief the sina qua non of valid religious experience. So, more than any rabbi before him, RaMBaM is insisting Jews have to hold certain beliefs (at least 13 of them).

So, what does this have to do with Jewish mystical beliefs and rituals of power? I'll get to that next entry. Its just a steep learning curve for understanding what's coming. Key themes: For Akiba, the unity of God is linked to love, for Maimonides, its all about intellect.

What Works: A Labyrinth Changes Lives

Home / Spring 2012 /
What Works: A Labyrinth Changes Lives

Labyrinth made of bricks and sod at
Congregation Kol Ami, Flower Mound, Texas.
In 2010, Eric Kershner, 17, a member and recent confirmand of Congregation Kol Ami (CKA) in Flower Mound, Texas, wanted to do an Eagle Scout project for his synagogue. Reviewing a list of potential congregational projects, he became intrigued with the idea of building a labyrinth that could become a permanent part of CKA life.
He raised money by selling dedication bricks that would be included in the labyrinth’s outer ring. Then he, his family, CKA members including the temple youth group, and Eric’s Eagle Scout troop 256 began construction, laying bricks interspersed with sod. After six weeks of watering the newly planted lawn, CKA had a stable, mowable labyrinth.

On June 17, 2011 the labyrinth became an integral part of the congregation’s alternative Shabbat meditation service. Fifteen people gathered for the outdoor service seated in an arc around the labyrinth perimeter. “We began with focused meditation on the Shabbat candles,” Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis says, “focusing on the theme of the flame as a symbol of the soul. Then we had a period of silent meditation, after which I spoke about each of our lives as a sacred pilgrimage; rather than read the story of our 40-year wandering toward Israel as a historical account, we might think of it as an allegory for each person’s journey through life toward a promised land of our imagination—our goals, desires, and hopes.

“Then I discussed the meaning of Jericho, the biblical city that stood between our people and their entry into the Promised Land. In the Book of Joshua, Sar Tzeva, the warrior angel, speaks to the Israelite leader Joshua, who then tells the people Israel to go forward—but first, they need to march in seven circuits, traveling in a circle around the city (5:13-15). On the seventh circuit they shout and blow horns, the walls fall, and only then can they go up ‘every man, straight ahead’ (6:5).

“Jericho stands for all the miksholim (meaning “stumbling blocks” or “obstacles”)—the challenges we have to face if we are to go forward in life. The angel illustrates for us that the way past our obstacles is rarely ‘straightforward.’ Often we find ourselves going in circles, or having to make detours. As often as not, the best way to our goals is not the shortest way. So what does this have to do with our labyrinth?

“Medieval Jews who looked at the Jericho story imagined that Jericho was not just a walled city, but a seven-circuit labyrinth: that God had in fact asked the Israelites to walk the labyrinth to penetrate into the city and into the good land beyond it. Thus was born the ‘Jericho Labyrinth,’ a decorative motif found in medieval manuscripts of a seven-looped labyrinth, usually illustrated as a walled city, always labeled ‘Jericho.’

“Thus our ancestors grasped in the story of Jericho the metaphor that life is full of reversals: that sometimes the way toward your goal may actually take you further away from it for a while, as a labyrinth does.”

At the service Rabbi Dennis asked every participant to make a list of seven satanim (miksholim) in his/her life—either seven obstacles or seven negative character traits—and work with the list while walking the labyrinth. At each reversal in the path, he suggested, “pause, think about one satan (mikshol), and imagine what needs to happen to be able to continue on the journey. When you reach the center, see what insights into your life journey arise."

After the meditative walk, the service concluded with Kaddish and a niggun (wordless melody).

The congregation’s appreciative response to the innovative service has inspired CKA to offer up to six meditation/labyrinth walking services a year.

“I did not hesitate to accept the guidance I knew the labyrinth could provide,” says Violet Neff-Helms (better known as Tante Violet), a member of the congregation’s Membership Support Committee and its kindergarten teacher. “I work two jobs, both dealing with eldercare issues. My personal life has its lion’s share of emotional ups and downs, and a few physical difficulties I would rather not think about. I left my baggage at the entrance and took that proverbial step of faith.

“Once inside, my first realization was that this was a good symbol for most of our lives: going in circles.

“The first obstacle, an abrupt wall forcing a turn, caused me to stop short. Regaining my bearings, I continued forward. The next ‘wall’ was not such a challenge. I found I could concentrate less about anticipating difficulty and simply allow myself to think.

“I used the rhythm of the walk to consider where I was, and why. I found myself praying, being thankful for many things.

“When I stepped into the center of the labyrinth, I was surprised at how good it felt. It wasn’t so much that I had reached a destination—after all, I was in the middle of bricks on a lawn—but that the structure and gentle guidance of the measured path had given me time to pace myself, to shut out the noise of expectation and absorb ‘the moment.’

“I thought, too, about the very Jewish lesson of the labyrinth. One of God’s names is ‘I Am.’ He is in the present, but too often we are not there with Him. Here in the labyrinth, I am.”

Active CKA member Deborah Fripp says, “There is no place quite so calm as the center of a labyrinth. I find it the best place to meditate, perhaps because I have come there by a path, with some intention. When I sit in the center area of CKA’s labyrinth, directly on the Earth, and feel the air, I find myself connected to the world. It’s a remarkably calm, uplifting place I find difficult to leave.

“Walking the labyrinth is also a wonderful communal experience that’s entirely unspoken…a touch on the shoulder, a hug, a moment of eye contact, an acknowledgement that the other people on the labyrinth path matter to you, and you to them. It’s a very Jewish way of walking—both individually and collectively. You might be thinking about things that bother or depress you, and then someone reaches out to you and you remember: ‘I am part of something bigger. I matter to and am connected to the people in my community.’”

To learn more about how to create a labyrinth for your congregational community, please contact Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, 972.539.1938,

USS Indianapolis, 1945

The Sinking of the

USS Indianapolis, 1945

The heavy cruiser Indianapolis steamed out of San Francisco Bay just after dawn on July 16 wrapped in a heavy cloak of secrecy. In her belly, she carried the atomic bomb that three weeks later would be dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. She raced, unescorted, to the island of Tinian where she unloaded her lethal cargo on July 26. Her mission accomplished, the Indianapolis then began a journey into Hell that would end with the worst naval disaster in U.S. history. From Tinian she sailed to the island of Guam and from there she was ordered to the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Traveling without an escort, her voyage would take her through an oceanic No Man's Land infested with Japanese submarines and sharks.
The USS Indianapolis
At a few minutes past midnight on July 30 two Japanese torpedoes tore into her side, igniting an explosion that broke the ship in two. It took only twelve minutes for the ship to dip her bow, roll to starboard and slip beneath the sea. Of her crew of 1,196, an estimated 900 survived the explosion - but the worst was yet to come.
A few of those in the water were able to reach a raft or debris from the ship to cling to. Many wore life jackets that provided minimal buoyancy. Just as many, however, had neither raft nor life jacket and were forced to continually tread water to survive, finding relief only when a life jacket became available through the death of a shipmate. The sharks began attacking when the sun rose and continued their assault throughout the ordeal.
No alarm was raised when the ship failed to arrive at its destination. No rescue forces were dispatched to find the missing ship - its sinking went unnoticed. For four days a dwindling number of survivors fought a losing battle of life and death. Then, lady luck intervened. A Navy reconnaissance plane on routine patrol happened to spot the survivors and broadcast their position. Near-by ships rushed to the scene and began to pluck the sailors out of the water. A tally made at the completion of the rescue revealed that only 317 of the original estimated 900 who escaped the sinking ship survived their ordeal.
"I knew I was dying but I really didn't care." Dr. Lewis Haynes was the Chief Medical Officer aboard the Indianapolis. Shortly after his rescue, he dictated his recollections to a corpsman in order to preserve an accurate account of his experience. These notes became the basis of an article published in 1995. We join his story as his sleep is interrupted just after midnight on July 30 by the violent explosion of a Japanese torpedo:

"I awoke. I was in the air. I saw a bright light before I felt the concussion of the explosion that threw me up in the air almost to the overhead. A torpedo had detonated under my room. I hit the edge of the bunk, hit the deck, and stood up. Then the second explosion knocked me down again. As I landed on the deck I thought, ‘I've got to get the hell out of here!’ I grabbed my life jacket and started to go out the door. My room was already on fire. I emerged to see my neighbor Ken Stout. He said, ‘Let's go,’ and stepped ahead of me into the main passageway. I was very close to him when he yelled, ‘Look out!’ and threw his hands up. I lifted the life jacket in front of my face, and stepped back. As I did, a wall of fire went ‘Whoosh!’ It burned my hair off, burned my face, and the back of my hands. That's the last I saw of Ken.
I started out trying to go to the forward ladder to go up on the fo'c'sle [forecastle - The section of the upper deck of a ship located at the bow forward of the foremast] deck, There was a lot of fire coming up through the deck right in front of the dentist's room. That's when I realized I couldn't go forward and turned to go aft. As I did, I slipped and fell, landing on my hands. I got third degree burns on my hands - my palms and all the tips of my fingers. I still have the scars. I was barefooted and the soles of my feet were burned off.
Then I turned aft to go back through the wardroom. I would have to go through the wardroom and down a long passageway to the quarterdeck, but there was a terrible hazy smoke with a peculiar odor. I couldn't breathe and got lost in the wardroom. I kept bumping into furniture and finally fell into this big easy chair. I felt so comfortable. I knew I was dying but I really didn't care.
Then someone standing over me said, ‘My God, I'm fainting!’ and he fell on me. Evidently that gave me a shot of adrenalin and I forced my way up and out. Somebody was yelling, ‘Open a porthole!’ All power was out and it was just a red haze.
The ship was beginning to list and I moved to that side of the ship. I found a porthole already open. Two other guys had gone out through it. I stuck my head out the porthole, gulping in some air, and found they had left a rope dangling. I looked down to see water rushing into the ship beneath me. I thought about going out the porthole into the ocean but I knew I couldn't go in there."
The Ship Goes Down
With great effort, Dr. Haynes manages to climb the rope to the deck above. He and an assistant begin to distribute life jackets to those around them. We rejoin his story as the ship lists violently signaling that she is about to sink: "...I slowly walked down the side of the ship. Another kid came and said he didn't have a jacket. I had an extra jacket and he put it on. We both jumped into the water which was covered with fuel oil. I wasn't alone in the water. The hull was covered with people climbing down. I didn't want to get sucked down with the ship so I kicked my feet to get away. And then the ship rose up high. I thought it was going to come down and crush me. The ship kept leaning out away from me, the aft end rising up and leaning over as it stood up on its nose. The ship was still going forward at probably 3 or 4 knots. When it finally sank, it was over a hundred yards from me. Most of the survivors were strung out anywhere from half a mile to a mile behind the ship.
Suddenly the ship was gone and it was very quiet. It had only been 12 minutes since the torpedoes hit. We started to gather together. Being in the water wasn't an unpleasant experience except that the black fuel oil got in your nose and eyes. We all looked the same, black oil all over -- white eyes and red mouths. You couldn't tell the doctor from the boot seamen. Soon everyone had swallowed fuel oil and gotten sick. Then everyone began vomiting.
At that time, I could have hidden but somebody yelled, ‘Is the doctor there?’ And I made myself known. From that point on -- and that's probably why I'm here today -- I was kept so busy I had to keep going. But without any equipment, from that point on I became a coroner.
The Japanese sub that sank the Indianapolis.
This photo was taken on April 1, 1946
just before the US Navy scuttled the
sub off the coast of Japan.
A lot of men were without life jackets. The kapok life jacket is designed with a space in the back. Those who had life jackets that were injured, you could put your arm through that space and pull them up on your hip and keep them out of the water. And the men were very good about doing this. Further more, those with jackets supported men without jackets. They held on the back of them, put their arms through there and held on floating in tandem.
When daylight came we began to get ourselves organized into a group and the leaders began to come out. When first light came we had between three and four hundred men in our group. I would guess that probably seven or eight hundred men made it out of the ship. I began to find the wounded and dead. The only way I could tell they were dead was to put my finger in their eye. If their pupils were dilated and they didn't blink I assumed they were dead. We would then laboriously take off their life jacket and give it to men who didn't have jackets. In the beginning I took off their dogtags, said The Lord's Prayer, and let them go. Eventually, I got such an armful of dogtags I couldn't hold them any longer. Even today, when I try to say The Lord's Prayer or hear it, I simply lose it.
...The second night, which was Monday night, we had all the men put their arms through the life jacket of the man in front of him and we made a big mass so we could stay together. We kept the wounded and those who were sickest in the center of the pack and that was my territory. Some of the men could doze off and sleep for a few minutes. The next day we found a life ring. I could put one very sick man across it to support him.
There was nothing I could do but give advice, bury the dead, save the life jackets, and try to keep the men from drinking the salt water when we drifted out of the fuel oil. When the hot sun came out and we were in this crystal clear water, you were so thirsty you couldn't believe it wasn't good enough to drink. I had a hard time convincing the men that they shouldn't drink. The real young ones - you take away their hope, you take away their water and food - they would drink salt water and then would go fast. I can remember striking men who were drinking water to try and stop them. They would get diarrhea, then get more dehydrated, then become very maniacal.
In the beginning, we tried to hold them and support them while they were thrashing around. And then we found we were losing a good man to get rid of one who had been bad and drank. As terrible as it may sound, towards the end when they did this, we shoved them away from the pack because we had to.
The water in that part of the Pacific was warm and good for swimming. But body temperature is over 98 and when you immerse someone up to their chin in that water for a couple of days, you're going to chill him down. So at night we would tie everyone close together to stay warm. But they still had severe chills which led to fever and delirium. On Tuesday night some guy began yelling, ‘There's a Jap here and he's trying to kill me.’ And then everybody started to fight. They were totally out of their minds. A lot of men were killed that night. A lot of men drowned. Overnight everybody untied themselves and got scattered in all directions. But you couldn't blame the men. It was mass hysteria. You became wary of everyone. Till daylight came, you weren't sure. When we got back together the next day there were a hell of a lot fewer.
I saw only one shark. I remember reaching out trying to grab hold of him. I thought maybe it would be food. However, when night came, things would bump against you in the dark or brush against your leg and you would wonder what it was. But honestly, in the entire 110 hours I was in the water I did not see a man attacked by a shark. However, the destroyers that picked up the bodies afterwards found a large number of those bodies. In the report I read 56 bodies were mutilated, Maybe the sharks were satisfied with the dead; they didn't have to bite the living.
Help Arrives
We rejoin Dr. Haynes' story two days later:
Two survivors are brought
aboard the Cecil J. Doyle
"It was Thursday [2 Aug] when the plane spotted us. By then we were in very bad shape. The kapok life jacket becomes waterlogged. It's good for about 48 hours. We sunk lower down in the water and you had to think about keeping your face out of water. I knew we didn't have very long to go. The men were semicomatose. We were all on the verge of dying when suddenly this plane flew over. I'm here today because someone on that plane had a sore neck. He went to fix the aerial and got a stiff neck and lay down in the blister underneath. While he was rubbing his neck he saw us
The plane dropped life jackets with canisters of water but the canisters ruptured. Then a PBY [seaplane] showed up and dropped rubber life rafts. We put the sickest people aboard and the others hung around the side. I found a flask of water with a 1-ounce cup. I doled out the water, passing the cup down hand to hand. Not one man cheated and I know how thirsty they were.
Towards the end of the day, just before dark, I found a kit for making fresh water out of salt water. I tried to read the instructions, but couldn't make sense of it or get it to work right. My product tasted like salt water and I didn't want to take a chance so I threw it into the ocean. I then went to
I watched the PBY circle and suddenly make an open-sea landing. This took an awful lot of guts. It hit, went back up in the air and splashed down again. I thought he'd crashed but he came taxiing back. I found out later he was taxiing around picking up the singles. If he hadn't done this, I don't think we would have survived. He stayed on the water during the night and turned his searchlight up into the sky so the Cecil J. Doyle (DE-368) could find us. The ship came right over and began picking us up."

   This eyewitness account appears in: Haynes, Lewis L. "Survivor of the Indianapolis." Navy Medicine 86, no.4 (Jul.-Aug. 1995); Stanton, Doug, In Harm's Way (2001).