Reflections on the Descendants of Abraham
Parsha Chayei Sarah, 2006
To the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still alive, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East (Genesis 25:6)
The Zohar gives us an indication about the attraction and the danger of encountering the wisdom of the “children of the East”. “Rabbi Abba said, ‘One day I happened upon a certain town formerly inhabited by children of the East, and they told me some of the wisdom they knew from ancient days.’” (1:99b) The Zohar continues to quote R. Abba, “My children, this is close to words of Torah, but you should shun these books so that [100b] your hearts will not stray after these rites, toward all of those sides mentioned here; lest – Heaven forbid – you stray from the rite of the blessed Holy One! For all these books deceive human beings, since Abraham, who bestowed it upon the sons of the concubines, as is written: To the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still alive, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East (Genesis 25:6) Afterward they were drawn by that wisdom in various directions. (Pritzker Edition. V.2, P. 123.
The relationship between the traditions of the East and the Jewish tradition seem to be hinted at by this reference to the children of Abraham’s wife, Keturah, whom he married after the death of Sarah. The phonetic similarity between the word denoting the unity of all reality “Brahman” and the name “Abraham” seem to suggest a similar theme, especially since the accepted view is that the Vedic or Hindu tradition was brought to the Indian subcontinent from the West – Iran or West Asia – about 3,000 years ago.
Perhaps the words of Torah made their way East with these children of Abraham, just as most of the Jews spent two millennia living in the West. In each environment the basic notions of Torah may have experienced certain drift, and I would like to review some basic concepts of Torah thought as they appear in the East and in the West, with the purpose of clarifying the essential Torah concepts.
I would like to focus on three notions: Olam, Ehad, and Shalom.
The Hebrew word “olam” is translated as “forever”, or the “world”, as in “melech ha’olam” which could be translated as “ruler of the world”. We also say in the Shema, “malchuto l’olam va’ed”, which we usually translate as “His kindom is forever”. However, the root from which the word olam derives is elam which means hidden or concealed.
The Bahir, one of the primary sources of Jewish mystical thought, is traditionally ascribed to Rabbi Nehuniah ben HaKana, a Talmudic sage of the first century. Although the text was not widely circulated, it was apparently known by some before the year 1000. A history of the text can be found in the translation and commentary by Aryeh Kaplan, published in 1995. The 10th numbered paragraph of the Bahir asks, “’What is the meaning of Me-Olam?’ This means that it must be concealed (He-elam) from the world. It is thus written (Kohelet 3:11), “He has also placed the world (Ha’Olam) in their hearts [that they should not find out the work that God has done from the beginning to the end].” In other words, the world is called “Olam” because there is something about the world that is essentially hidden.
In the Vedic tradition, there is a similar concept called “Maya”. The concept is similar to the idea that the world is essentially an illusion. Maya is the veil that covers our real nature and the real nature of the world around us. Maya is fundamentally inscrutable: we don't know why it exists and we don't know when it began. What we do know is that, like any form of ignorance, maya ceases to exist at the dawn of knowledge, the knowledge of our own divine nature.
Here is the concept as expressed by Rabindranath Tagore in his collection of songs, Gitanjali:
That I should make much of myself and turn it on all sides,
thus casting colored shadows on thy radiance
---such is thy Maya.
Thou settest a barrier in thine own being
and then callest thy severed self in myriad notes.
This thy self-separation has taken body in me.
The poignant song is echoed through all the sky in many-colored tears
and smiles, alarms and hopes; waves rise up and sink again,
dreams break and form.
In me is thy own defeat of self.
This screen that thou hast raised is painted with innumerable figures
with the brush of the night and the day.
Behind it thy seat is woven in wondrous mysteries of curves,
casting away all barren lines of straightness.
The great pageant of thee and me has overspread the sky.
With the tune of thee and me all the air is vibrant,
and all ages pass with the hiding and seeking of thee and me.
If this is what happened to the notion of Olam when it traveled eastward, what happened in the west? Olam became either “world” or “eternity”. “World” has the connotation of the entire creation, as God is the King of the entire created world, but it misses the sense of the inherent hiddenness of the Creator. “King of the Universe” is easily said, easy to handle, but it misses some of the majesty of “all ages pass with the hiding and seeking of thee and me.”
Now let’s look at Ehad, the special kind of oneness that pertains to God.
In the Vedic tradition, the concept of the essential oneness of the universe is given a very strong meaning. This time I am going to quote from sources that I do not claim to grasp. Nevertheless, I hope they will give a sense of the strong sense of unity that pervades the Eastern (Vedic) tradition:
“All fear and all misery arise from our sense of separation from the great cosmic unity, the web of being that enfolds us. ‘There is fear from the second,’ says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Duality, our sense of separation from the rest of creation, is always a misperception since it implies that something exists other than God. There can be no other. ‘This grand preaching, the oneness of things, making us one with everything that exists, is the great lesson to learn,’ said Swami Vivekananda a century ago.
. . . . The Self is the essence of this universe, the essence of all souls . . . You are one with this universe. He who says he is different from others, even by a hair's breadth, immediately becomes miserable. Happiness belongs to him who knows this oneness, who knows he is one with this universe.” http://www.vedanta.org/wiv/philosophy/oneness.html
In the strongest case, the Hindu or Vedic position asserts that everything, the Creator as well as creation is a unified Divine Ground called Brahman. This position could be called Monism, and invites us to contemplate a unity from which there is no exception or alternative except for mere illusion.
In the West, the Torah of Oneness has taken a quite different path. For some, Hashem Echad seems to mean simply that there is only one god. Some laud the Jewish tradition as being the pioneers of monotheism, the idea of one god. However, this is a pale interpretation of the Oneness that is applied to HaShem, as is evident in the versification of Rambam’s attributes of G’d by Shlomo Ibn Gvirol, in the song we know as “Yigdal”. Ehad v’ayn yahid k’yichudo, n’elam v’gam ayn sof l’achduto. [G’d is] One and there is no Unity that resembles his Unity, it is hidden and there is no limit to his Oneness”. This sounds closer to the Eastern elaboration than to mere monotheism.
A second Western interpretation of G’d’s Unity is a kind of pantheism, the doctrine that for all practical purposes, G’d is merely the sum of all of creation including the rules by which it operates. The unity of this god, is merely the unity inherent in the created world.
Another variation on a weakened Oneness is the Deist position. Deism does away with the duality by neglecting the Creator, or at least His involvement with current events. This has been an attractive position for Western rationalists, but a serious crippling of the notion of Oneness inherent in the traditional Torah view.
The Oneness of the Torah tradition is not quite so absolute as the Vedic unity that subsumes all of existence into the Brahman Unity. However, it is certainly much a much stronger sense of unity than mere monotheism, Pantheism or Deism usually suggests.
As usual, the Torah view is comfortable with the paradox. God is Unity, HaShem Ehad, and the Creator is distinct from His Creation. Again, permit me to quote from Gitanjali because Tagore’s paradoxical dualism is so close to the Torah view:
When I bring to you colored toys, my child,
I understand why there is such a play of colors on clouds, on water,
and why flowers are painted in tints
---when I give colored toys to you, my child.
When I sing to make you dance
I truly now why there is music in leaves,
and why waves send their chorus of voices to the heart of the listening earth
---when I sing to make you dance.
When I bring sweet things to your greedy hands
I know why there is honey in the cup of the flowers
and why fruits are secretly filled with sweet juice
---when I bring sweet things to your greedy hands.
When I kiss your face to make you smile, my darling,
I surely understand what pleasure streams from the sky in morning light,
and what delight that is that is which the summer breeze brings to my body
---when I kiss you to make you smile.
The final concept that shows a divided path between East and West is the idea of shalom. In English translation, shalom has been virtually equated to the English word “peace”. However, this is an artifact of the westernizing of Torah concepts. Of course, the long interlude of Jewish life in Christian Europe has brought even Hebrew speakers to think of shalom as meaning peace.
However, if we look at the root words associated with shin-lamed-mem, they relate to a different family of concepts. M’shalem means to pay or repay. Shlemut means wholeness or completion. Shalem means complete, full, entire or perfect. In contrast, “peace” comes from the Latin “pax”, which shows up in English as “pact”, a truce between warring parties, and hence “peace”. Peace is better translated into Hebrew as “shalva”, tranquility or quiet. When shalom went West, it was misconstrued as peace.
What happened when shalom went East? It became a perfect sense of ethical payment, a kind of reliable mechanics of the moral universe, a cosmic “what goes around comes around”. In the Vedic tradition, this equates to the concept of karma. Shalom is karma, as simple as that.
It is interesting to try to retranslate many of the familiar uses of shalom out of the Western bias, and through the more Eastern prism. For example, oseh shalom b’mromav, who makes perfect repayment in his heights, may repayment be evident down here as well; sim shalom, tova, u’vracha, assign appropriate consequences, goodness and blessing. The goal we seek in shalom is not comfortable tranquility, but a fairness in the realm of moral outcomes.
The search for moral fairness de-emphasizes traits that are associated with divine intervention in the Christian and Islamic worldviews. Jews are less pre-occupied with forgiveness, divine wiping away of our sins, or intervention by a powerful intermediary – such as Jesus or Mohammed. The Torah suggests that creation is grounded in a robust moral physics, where punishment and reward are less fundamental than the actual consequences of our moral choices.
There is an insightful commentary by the RAMBAN on Lech Lecha 15:2 where the text reads, “And Abram said, O Lord Eternal, what will you give me?” Ramban comments, “It had not occurred to Abraham that this great reward would be in the World to Come for there is no necessity for such a promise; every servant of G’d will find life in the hereafter before him.” (Chavel, Tr. p. 194). The lesson seems to be that in the Torah view, it simply does not make sense to pray for a better outcome in the World to Come. That is a mechanical, automatic result. We get shalom, not peace (as the Western influence would lead us to believe), but perfect repayment. In other words, the western influence on the notion of shalom has led to a notion that it would make sense to pray for a different outcome of our life than we deserve. Is this not what has resulted in the elevation of the images of Jesus and Mohammed to the level of intermediaries with a god that can be influenced by such intervention. This is a concept that is foreign to the Torah view.
All of this has an interesting corollary in the notion of the recycling of souls. The notion of reincarnation is well established in the Hindu tradition. For example, in the Badgavad Gita, Lord Krishna observes,
Just as the self advances through childhood, youth and old age in its physical body, so it advances to another body after death. The wise person is not confused by this change called death (2,13). Just as the body casts off worn out clothes and puts on new ones, so the infinite, immortal self casts off worn out bodies and enters into new ones (2,22).
In the Vedic or Hindu tradition, this notion of recycling of souls corresponds to the idea of “karma”, a robust, reliable moral physics that tracks the course of the moral actor even beyond death.
In contrast, both Christianity and Islam reject the idea of the recycling of souls. In the New Testament, there are some passages that indicate that upon death there is a final judgment and eternal consequences.
According to the New Testament, "It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). God's judgment is described in Revelation 21:8, "But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."
"And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, who worship the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of his name." (Revelation 14:11).
In Islam, passages from Koran and Hadith are similar, equally one dimensional and harsh. The Talmud also has passages that suggest that the punishment for wrongdoing may be severe, but on the whole the concept is of a much more multi-dimensional moral calculus.
This view of one terrifying chance, which can only be mitigated by pleading with the intermediary, could be called the Western perspective; it permits no recycling of souls. That would sound like a second chance, and undermine the reliance on the intermediary who has exclusive power to intervene and ask for a lighter sentence, or for a reversal of the judgment altogether. In the Western traditions, the judgment that follows life is final, and the only way around an eternally bad outcome is to ask for the mercy of God and forgiveness of sins.
In the Vedic tradition, the other side of the coin of karma is the recycling of souls. Karma entails a moral physics that governs the world; each person bears the consequences of his moral action.
By the Middle Ages, especially in the more mystical texts, it was evident that the notion of recycled souls was compatible with the Jewish notion of justice in the created world. Just outcomes are not always apparent within a person’s lifetime. The Torah notion of afterlife, including the recycling of souls, is only implied in the written text of the Torah. The notion of a perfect system of justice is elaborated in the Talmud, and the notion of recycled souls is spelled out in the writings of Isaac Luria and in the Zohar.
These three concepts – Olam, Ehad and Shalom show us that it may be important for us to carefully redeem from the East some of the wisdom that was sent by Abraham with the children of Ketura, the wife he took after the death of Sarah. The Torah concepts may not be identical with the concepts of the Vedas and the Unpanishads, the Badgavad Gita or even Gitanjali. However, looking at the worldview of the East may save us from thinking that Olam is merely the universe, that Ehad means that we have only one God, and that Shalom means that we are primarily concerned with our search for peace.