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Open Secrets is a collection of letters by Rami M. Shapiro to his son, Aaron Hershel. Shapiro has turned the writings into decades-old hand-written letters from the fictional Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael to Shapiro's fictional great-grandfather, Aaron Hershel. The twist in time, place, and participants gives the book a timelessness, a striking Judaic modernity, and human interest when we realize these letters would not have been typed or sent by e-mail. It was the old days. You had to find paper, ink, a nib for your pen, an envelope, you had to walk a mile for a stamp and a mail box, then you waited a month for the letter to arrive and another month for a response. I call it oy-mail.
In the selection below, Shapiro talks about Judaism as being the inseparable qualities of tikkun (right action) and teshuvah (right attention). This is basic nondual Judaism.
If you like how the book reads, and it's hard not to, would it be a tragedy to order a copy? Besides, I can get it for you almost wholesale. It is only $10.17 at Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0974935921/monkfishpubli-so/102-4897241-9294530 .
The Letters of Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael
By Rami M. Shapiro
My dearest Aaron Hershel,
You are quite right that we need to begin at the beginning. A new land, a new start. But as to your suggestion of "a new Judaism," who is to say? That is not my intent. My intent is just to answer your questions.
So, the question is "What is Judaism?" You know, of course, the Talmud's section on defining Judaism (Makkot 23b): Rabbi Simlai began by saying that the 613 mitzvot (commandments) were reduced to 11 by King David (Psalm 15), to six by Isaiah (Isaiah: 33:15), and then to three by Micah (Micah: 6:8). Isaiah further reduced them to two: "Keep judgment and righteousness." Amos came and reduced them to one: "Seek Me and live" (Amos: 5:4). Habbakuk proposed an alternative: "The Righteous live by faith" (Habbakuk: 2:4).
And I am certain you remember Hillel's famous reply to the Gentile who demanded he teach all of Torah while standing on one foot: "Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself. That is the whole of Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study it" (Shabbat 31a).
I am partial to these one foot Judaisms. They are simple, direct, and profound. And they leave us free to shape a Jewish life around principle rather than tradition. I am not opposed to tradition. God forbid, but I do not think it superior to principle. On the contrary, tradition is our record of the way our ancestors lived these principles in the past. We should see them as catalysts to our own creativity and not as fixed forms to be imitated. This already is treif (not kosher, heretical) thinking on my part and I do not share this with my peers, but the teacher should not pretend before the student.
So here is my one foot Judaism: Judaism is the Jewish people's ancient and, God willing, ongoing effort to make tikkun and teshuvah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study it.
What do you think? On a par with Amos and Hillel? Probably not, Yerachmiel is no Habbakuk. But it is what I believe. Judaism is simply tikkun and teshuvah. Of course now I must be clear as to what I mean by tikkun and teshuvah.
Tikkun means "repair." The great saint and kabbalist Issac Luria, peace be upon him (1534-1572), was the first to use this term in a spiritual way. He believed that when God set out to create the world, God, being infinite, had to contract in order to make room for what would become the finite world. God intended to pour the divine energy into specially constructed vessels that would form the foundation of creation. Yet God erred, so to speak, in the construction of these vessels and when the divine light entered them they shattered, spilling God, as it were, all over the cosmos.
These shattered fragments of God became trapped in klippot (shells) and these became embedded in the world you and I inhabit. Reb Luria taught that it was the task of the Jew to free these trapped sparks of God and return them to God by treating all things with utmost reverence and respect. Since the sparks were scattered across the world, the Jews would have to be scattered across the world. Our loss of Israel and our holy Temple in Jerusalem was not a punishment for our disobedience to God, but essential to God's plan. Who among us would have left the Holy Land of our own free will? No one! So God had the Romans push us out. What appeared to us as a loss of holiness, turns out in Luria's mind to be the way of holiness.
As you know, his understanding spoke to so many of our people. Luria's teaching replaced the horror of exile with the hope for redemption. And hope is the sap of life; without hope there is only lifeless form.
But, I will tell you, Aaron Hershel, that I do not believe Reb Luria meant us to take his teaching literally. Or, if he did, I for one cannot do so. What Luria saw as a process happening in God and the world, I see as a process happening only in our minds.
Did God really shrink to make room for creation? No! God is infinite. Can the infinite become finite? Of course not; the infinite includes the finite. What happens is not that God shrinks, but that the Neshamah, the ego, imagines a distant God to allow for the illusion of a separate self. And, once it has established itself as separate it goes about exploiting others in order to maintain its selfish delusion.
This, the Neshamah's rejection of the fundamental unity of all life in, with, and as God is to me the real understanding of the breaking of the vessels. The ego was meant to be a way of knowing God in the relative and finite world of seemingly separate things. But it came to identify so closely with this world that it could no longer place itself in the larger context of the unity of all things in God. Do not think I am saying ego is bad or that we should eliminate it. Ego is vital to our daily functioning in the world. We need a self to interact with the world. But we must not imagine that this self is anything more than a vessel of something far greater than it.
You and I and all living things are the vessels of God, the embodiment of Elohut (Godhead). In this we are one with God, yet we imagine ourselves to be separate from God and this creates in us the idea of brokenness. The brokenness of the world starts as a process in the mind, but it doesn't end there. We go about the world breaking it up into smaller and smaller segments, each often at war with the rest, without ever realizing we are warring with ourselves.
Tikkun is the process of putting things back together again.
There are two kinds of tikkun corresponding to the two kinds of brokenness we humans imagine. The first is called tikkun hanefesh, repairing the soul. The second is called tikkun haolam, repairing the world. Both must occur if we are to set things right, and neither takes precedence over the other. Indeed they are two ends of the same rope.
We make tikkun hanefesh when we end the delusion of separateness that keeps us feeling alienated from God and creation. The truth is that God is creation. There are not two realities, the divine and the natural. If this were so, God would not be infinite. God's infinity includes and transcends the finite world. There is only one reality that manifests in different ways. It is all God. Tikkun hanefesh is awakening to the fact that you and I and all things are one in, with, and as God.
We make tikkun haolam when we engage the world with justice and compassion, what I call godliness. Tikkun haolam is repairing the damage we do to life when we engage it unjustly and cruelly. Tikkun haolam is ending the violence that comes with seeking to control others, repairing the rifts between people, and between people and nature, and treating each other and all life with the utmost respect and care.
Tikkun hanefish and tikkun haolam are two sides of the same coin. You cannot do one without doing the other: to end the divisions and violence around you, you must also end the divisions and violence within you. This is what Hillel meant when he said "If I am not for myself who will be for me?" This is tikkun hanefesh. "But if I am only for myself, what am I?" This is tikkun haolam. "And if not now, when?" (Pirke Avot) Tikkun of either type can be done only in the present. The past and future are beyond our reach. If you repair your world and your soul you must do so by entering fully into the present moment.
How do you do this? Through the practice of teshuvah. So many people now use the word to refer to a return to Halachah (Jewish law) and traditional ways of Jewish living but I use it differently.
Teshuvah means returning to God and godliness. When your mind is caught up in the delusion of separateness it is distracted from the present. The deluded mind dwells on the past or imagines the future, but is never at home in the present. Why? Because the delusion of separateness cannot be maintained in the present. Since separation is a delusion of the mind, it is imagined in the mind, and the mind cannot imagine in the present. Imagination is of the past or the future, never the present. We cannot imagine the here and now, we can only engage it. Teshuvah is returning the mind to the present, to God, for God is the eternal present; tikkun returns us to godliness, engaging each moment with the utmost respect and care. If you are interested we can discuss just how this is done, but in any case this is what I think Judaism is: tikkun and teshuvah.
I can almost hear your objections! What about God, What about Torah, What about Israel, What about Shabbat and Yontif (the Sabbath and Holy Days)? I am not ignoring these, and, if you ask, I will be happy to explore them with you. But we are talking about a one foot Judaism. Hillel, too, did not mention Shabbat. He said all the rest is commentary: now go and study it. I will say no less: Judaism is returning to God and godliness. All the rest is commentary. Come, let us study it.
(Reprinted with permission.)
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The Letters of Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael
By Rami M. Shapiro
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