MEMRA – WORDS, Meaning And Faith
A new 2018-19 series of articles shared on the roots and the prospects that unite Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions to the realm of Jewishness and Hassidism,
Compared semantics and exegetical “paysages” by archpriest Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel (Patriarchate of Jerusalem).
Some years ago, we went on a tour around Jerusalem with some former Soviet newcomers. We were speaking Russian, mainly because of the parents. Their children were definitely not reluctant to speak Hebrew. They had learnt to discuss quite well. This was part one of the “quarrel”. For the parents, Hebrew was then a sort of social Esperanto. They did not really care about finding their roots here in the revival of the national tongue.
The children were nice boys and girls, strong-minded and a bit over-protected. They felt in need for the tenderness and cultural backgrounds from “tam/там = there”, i.e. some former Soviet region. They were captivated by the quick development of the Hebrew culture and the street westernized culture. They were chewing some gum ready to explode out of their mouths plus a lit cigarette hold in manicured fingers.
They were aggressive: dad and mom were totally unplugged and should understand that the local youths had a deep desire to speak Arabic fluently. The parents were in shock. Good gracious, lesser British it sounds “Bozhe, izbavi/Боже избави!” (G-d preserve), why Arabic? Because it is a must, they answered! Millions of Arabs live around Israel as also in or along our cities. It is a Semitic tongue as Hebrew, with an immense scientific and literary prestige, the native tongue of many Jews but of course Arabs, both Christians and Muslims.
“Bubele-Babushka/Бубеле-Бабушка = granny” was on the verge to faint. The educated part of the band explained how the Mongols had attacked the Ukraine and Russia. Correct! Russia has always been a protection wall against violent conquerors : Russians had resisted and saved the many nations of Central and East Europe that had never showed very grateful for the help.
Our Ottomans (the same that occupied Eretz Israel/Palestine for centuries) stopped at Vienna (leaving croissants, viennoiseries and Turkish/Arabic or Greek coffee). From the 13th to the defeat of Kulikovo in 1380, the Mongol Golden Horde ruled over Russia and only disappeared in 1480.
The Ukraine and the main Russian cities were profoundly marked by the Tatar and Mongol Golden Horde conquest. The Mongols allowed the immense country to benefit from a social and fiscal, post system. The Russians, the White Russians and the Ukrainians have been pinched between the Tatar-Mongol rulers coming from the East. They were far more frightened by the Western invaders, in particular the crusaders that often deeply threatened Christian Eastern Orthodoxy and their lifestyles.
This suspicion against both East and West does explain some sort of border protections from ethnic aggressions. These protections often developed into the deportation of numerous nations, especially affecting the Tatars, but also some Baltic peoples and the Jews, displacing some nationals from West to the Far East, along the Chinese border.
The Jews have been traditionally enclosed in borderland regions, in micro-societal “shtetlech/שטאטלעך – ghettos” with “strach-touha: attraction/ repulsion” relationships as Franz Kafka described in Czech such postures made of some interest and love and profound repulsion on both sides.
Most former Soviet citizens living in Israel have directly landed in Israel. They had left a sort of mental prison system. They arrived in Israel, discovering a multicultural and new country without having ever experienced any system of freedom in different countries.
The second generation has somehow partly or totally assimilated. it depends on the lifestyle, the cultural background. Those who were born in Israel or arrived very early feel they have a total clutch with Israel and the Jewish-Israeli style. Some other people, especially the youths are tormented, cannot find their place, take all possible benefits from the country but they hate the culture and the language.
Over the many decades, in particular the past twenty years, I saw all sorts of situations. It started long before the fall of communism and the rebirth of the Church in Eastern Europe and the Slavic “block”, mainly the former Soviet “Empire” or Union of “free republics”.
At the present, many newcomers from the former Soviet Union are glad to discover a world that is connected to the planet. It is much easier for them nowadays to move and travel, inside of the country and abroad. As numerous migrants, they also exercise a kind of selection. Some decide to settle in Israel. Others prefer to go on a trip to the Western part of the world. Many cannot break the profound ties with Russia or the Ukraine.
Over the specific period of the past twenty years, I encounter a lot of “true Israelis”. Others wander on their own trip, journey to egos that are pretty difficult to find. Many would acculturate in the society by mixing up with the Arabs, especially in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Christian Arabs need women and many “non-halachically recognized Jewesses” prefer their society. They get baptized in the Arab milieu. Men and women will integrate among the Galilean Arab Christian youths. Or they will choose to leave the country for North America, Australia or Europe (Germany or Scandinavia, Italy or Spain).
Basically, the process of integration in Israeli society proceeds from the very powerful capacity of the “society as a body” to assimilate all kinds of human backgrounds and to insert them into the reality of Judaism. There are also personal “lifepaths” where the Jewish authorities continue to accept that newcomers find their road or cross-roads through the many possible options, inside or outside Jewishness. The whole process can be a real “way of the Cross”, with immense personal sufferings and “mal-d’être”, “Unbehagen in der Kultur”.
This is also due to the exceptional flexibility of Israeli society. Some people are trained to follow the right path. Others will make their way(s) as through a jungle and think that everything is permitted, which is definitely wrong. For some reason, numerous “Christians” come around and can spend years as true “anti-Semites and anti-Judaic “true” believers” without being bothered by any “social or national system of control”. In the meanwhile, the Churches that had been present locally for centuries are at pains with the new and rather unexpected Israeli and Jewish State rules in force.
Thus, the Jewish tradition is wider than any kind of limitations and rejections.
This week, the reading portion of the Torah accounts how God tested Abraham again. Early in the morning, Abraham swiftly left his home with his son Isaac (the boy was supposedly 37 years-old) and they quitted the servants telling them they will soon come back. Abraham gathered the wood to bind his “only son- b’no yechido\בנו יחידו” as a “olah\עולה – burnt offering”, which removed – for this special time – any reference to his first-born Ishmael\ישמעאל. But Itzchak\יצחק (“God laughed”) is the son of pure Providence, beyond any natural patterns, a laughter to challenge generations – toledot\תלדות = history and perduration.
Abraham seems to accomplish God’s goodwill as if he were blind. Talmud Taanit III:65d points out that the Lord “yire\ירא– shall see and provide” because of this total act of confidence in God that has been disputed at length by the monotheistic traditions (Quran 37:99-111). God provided a ram – ayil\איל: in Hebrew the root is powerful and energizing. It comes from “awal\אוו\א\ל = to circle, to rise (cf. olah\עולה-אולא), beginning, early season” as in Targum Hosea 9:10 in Aramaic.
Divine Providence supplies and replaces in order to generate tiny seeds of life. But “ayil\איל” is linked to the beginning of “olam\עולם = the universe, world” as a visible and consistant project, with a switch from consonant “one, alef” to consonant “ayin, multitude”.
It seems that Abraham is submitted to special series of tests. They seem to be beyond all rational views, dragging slaughtering and high-violent impulses with total trust in God’s capacity to preserve life. This challenge is that of a deathproof experience among groups fascinated by their own destroying abilities or their will to killing. On the third day, Abraham returned to Beer Sheva.
The text of the “binding of Itzchak – Akeidat Itzchak\עקדת יצחק” is read every day in the Jewish tradition during the morning Shacharit Service. It is the most developed prayer, rising from early archaic prayers to sophisticated phrases of fulfillment.
In the account of Genesis, chapter 22 the binding of the “ben yachid\בן יחיד – only son” summons us every day to take into profound consideration Abraham’s call to constant survival.
This last and seemingly inhumane “good deed or mitzvah” to obey would be and has been compared to and considered as ancient and pagan men sacrifices. It reaches out to trust that life respect can indeed be stronger than any compulsion to death or extermination.
Curiously, it is so close to the text that Christianity considers as an early example of envisioning Jesus as being put onto the wood (the Cross) that is defined as an “altar” in the Christian traditions. The question has been discussed and analyzed for centuries.
The point is that Judaism does consider that this chapter unveils God’s good and positive projects of rescuing all mankind from death and destruction.
In the Gospel, it is stated that “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called” (Hebrews 11:17-19). At this point, the “act of faith” should never evolve to some evil and corruptible spirit of rivalry. Some modern Jewish authors have depicted how God only could be reluctant to putting to death the “only begotten son”. This is also clearly mentioned in the last verse that was added lately to Psalm 51 (50): “Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar” (Psalm 51:19) in which “bull/parim-פרים” corresponds to the traditional “offering accepted by the Jew(s) as “strong-minded and complying with the meaning of sacrifice”.
Interestingly, the reading portion of the week also includes the reading of Sodom’s and Gomorrah that precedes the binding of Itzchak. The “binding\עקדה” is a climaxing event that supersedes all trials. The outrage of the two cities came to mainly refer to sexuality and handling of our human carnality.
True, we see how inflaming these matters can be, in particular in the “complicated” contexts of imperiled social or structural destinies. The great sin of the inhabitants was that they showed their total absence of hospitality to Lot and Abraham’s kin. Rejection and systematic exclusion are part of a recurrent and very trendy socio-cultural tendency.
There maybe more than cultural outrages. It can be provoked by geo-physical circumstances such as tellurium melting processes or temblors, unpredictable earthquakes that still can affect our minds with much violence, beyond our control. We are in a period of great and averall planetarian revolving process that affects the Earth, the weather, climatic changes…
Israel is a land that intertwines all sorts of individuals and identities without tearing them up. They can only lash themselves and be reduced to nil.
On the other hand, God wants to bless, to save and to sow. This is why we can be bound to Him like Abraham, Isaac and the Son of Man for the sake of life and love. It may cost a lot. The price of hope beyond hope.
Before they split into a multitude of separate groups, Judaism as Christianity had envisioned a full-openness that is called “hospitality”. We live in a guest-homeland. We are praying and grace-begging guests, often dazzled by the power of our uncontrolled passions.
In this country, people can ask anywhere and anytime if they see you having a suitcase “where you are leaving to…” “Chutzah\חוצה – To outside”. This can be heard in all languages. That was not Abraham’s choice: “he was sitting by the terebinths of Mamre, at the entrance of his tent “bechom hayom\בחום היום” as the day was growing very hot” (Genesis 18:1).
This shows the profound impact of long personal journeys, exiles and dispersions as a pedagogical training to welcome everybody.
It is a miracle that, in a context like ours in which most elements are likely to collect and clutch to some powers of evil and wrongdoing – we can’t help; yet we accept a simple fact: “God makes rise His sun on the bad and the good and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? If you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that?” (Matthew 5:45-47).
These days are special in the North Hemisphere: wintertime shows again, darkness. The Western Christian tradition chose the period to commemorate the departed. This is the meaning of the Latin “All Saints Day” followed by the “All Defunct Day”. In the Eastern Byzantine traditions, Saints are remembered throughout the year with special memorial services celebrated on a regular basis. November 1st and 2nd is parallel to the St. Dimitri’s memorial service on November 3rd this year. Millions and millions of individuals, souls, humans of blood and flesh have lived over generations and generations.
Who said we are born to die? How do we show hospitality? How do we feel that humans are not to be killed, but rescued, saved? Let’s just try to act adequately.