Friday, April 18, 2008

Spiritual Technology: "Outside the Text: Non-Textual Sources of Meaning in Rabbinic Civilization " Lectures at NYU by Professor Michael D. Swartz

After work, over the last couple of weeks, I attended a series of public lectures at NYU's Skirbal Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies entitled "Outside the Text: Non-Textual Sources of Meaning in Rabbinic Civilization. " This represented the Inaugural presentation in a new annual series at NYU, the Benita and Sigmund Stahl Lecture Program in Jewish Studies, which combines special graduate seminars with public lectures. The program's first lecturer was Professor Michael D. Swartz, of Ohio State University. Since Professor Swartz is a former NYU doctoral student who also has co-published academic works with Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Professor and Chairman of NYU's Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department, it seemed to represent a sort of homecoming for him, as he was greeted warmly by the Department.

The lectures explored the ideas that the Jewish people, commonly viewed as a text-centered civilizaton and faith, with the Torah at its center, also has profound roots that are non-textual in nature. That in fact, the Torah, as an object, or an abstract, was created before the world. I am no kabbalist, but esoteric Judaism and "Scholastic Magic" (the title of a book by Dr. Swartz) suggests the deeper structures of Jewish life and culture. The program comprised 3 lectures by Dr. Swartz:

"The Signifying Creator" explored "alternative creation myths in Jewish interpretation (Midrash) and synagogue poetry (Piyyut). Whereas in the classical rabbinic myth the Torah was used as a model for the creation of the world, some sources state that the sacrificial rituals, the Tabernacle, and the Jerusalem Temple were created before the world and serve as the focal point for the act of creation. This myth then yields a more general teleological conception of creation, in which each created thing has a purpose in future history." Professor Swartz cited Genesis Rabbah that the Torah was created first by G-d, that the Torah was created before the world, and served as the blueprint from which the world was created.

"The Semiotics of the Priestly Vestments in Ancient Judaism," another fascinating lecture, explored "how the elaborate golden and jeweled vestments worn by the High Priest in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem served as the subject of an intricate semiotic system in Midrash and liturgical poetry. This system attaches moral and cosmological symbolism to each article of clothing. According to this method of interpretation, each garment symbolizes an Israelite tribe or an episode in biblical history and at the same time serves as an active instrument in achieving the ritual goals of the sacrifice." Professor Swartz discussed the 4 garments of the common priest and the 8 garments of the High Priest, which the High Priest would wear and inquire of the Urim and Thumim which were a form of (my term) spiritual technology, that were used to communicate with G-d..A passage of the Books of Samuel mentions three methods of divine communication - dreams, prophets, and the Urim and Thummim. When the powerpoint presentation on the priestly vestments crashed, one wag, an acquaintance from Park Slope who works at NYU, commented "They've got to reboot the Urim and Thumim."

"Divination and Its Discontents: generating Meaning in Talmudic and Esoteric Judaism", the final lecture of the series concerned "the ancient art of divination in Jewish culture and how the rabbinic class in late antiquity participated in it and responded to it. Some historians have argued that divination was the first form of hermeneutics. Divination systems involve such activities as scrutinizing the natural world for signs of signification, developing techniques for generating random results, and reading personal significance into such disparate events as the chanting of children in a schoolhouse and the arrival of barges at a riverbank. In this lecture these techniques were explored, along with related legends in which animals, stars, the earth, and other elements of nature are sentient and communicate the divine will." This cruised along, tweaking dichotomies, for example, as to how Ancient Judaism could condemn divination and magic -- except when it was acceptable. Professor Swartz mentioned a story about driving in a car with Professor Schiffman at about the time they were working on a book relating to ancient Judaic magic. Schiffman's kids were in the backseat, riffing on magic and Judaism. One child gave the example of when Moses appeared before Pharoah, and his staff turned into a snake. The other child said "No, that wasn't magic, that was an example of the power of G-d." I, too, always thought that scene (whether Charlton Heston on film or in Exodus on the printed page) was a fascinating moment, almost a duel between light and darkness, in some abstract sense, a duel between magicians' except for the fact that, indeed, Moses was not the author of this transmogrification, he was a conduit for the power of Adonai.

Also present in the audience for the lectures was Professor Elliot Wolfson, of NYU's Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department. Professor Wolfson, who at first I mistook for a postgraduate student, asked some deep and challenging questions of Professor Swartz which seemed to be at the core of scholarship and the continuing search for knowlege. I had read some excerpts from works by Dr. Wolfson regarding Jewish history, spirituality, and the Lubavitcher movement. He noted to the audience that, at the conclusion of the series, it was bittersweet, in that the series had been so enjoyable but that it indeed had ended. Professor Wolfson mentioned a lovely quote from his father, that (I am paraphrasing, I hope correctly) when something wonderful ended, it was like awakening from a dream. Professor Wolfson also has a fascinating website of his painting, poetry and scholarship, but I will leave it to the interested reader to research and discover, just as this lecture series offered this writer some spiritual nourishment, a few small steps in a long journey, in the days leading up to Passover in the Jewish year, and spring in the natural world around us.


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Current Reading

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  • David Bowie: Starman bio - Paul Trynka
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  • Studio A - The Bob Dylan Reader

Current Listening

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  • Wilco The Album
  • Carmina Burana - Ray Manzarek (& Michael Riesmann)
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