Question. Why does Judaism seem so earthly and practical? Why does it not focus more on mysticism?
Answer. It is true that mainstream Judaism seems to emphasise day-to-day religious practice, but this is not for lack of a sense of spirituality. On the contrary: it is, as Max Kadushin put it, “normal mysticism”, in which every seemingly banal religious act is a precious moment of communion with God in the midst of our daily affairs.
However, many of our great religious leaders were both practical men and women of action and also people of deep feeling and poetic personality. For them religious practice and sometimes esoteric meditation and speculation went together.
A well-known example is Yosef Karo, editor of the Shulchan Aruch, whom a modern author calls “lawyer and mystic”. But long before this, there are mystic currents in the Tanach (the Book of Ezekiel is an example), and Biblical events were given a mystical significance, e.g. the secret knowledge imparted to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the inner meaning of the four-letter Divine Name. Some of the best-known figures in the Mishnah, such as Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Rabbi Akiva, entered the “pardes”, the garden of mystical knowledge.
There is a mystical tradition that sought to delve into the secrets of nature, grappling, for instance, with the origins of the world, the nature of energy, and similar issues that later ages developed into physics, chemistry and other branches of science.
But in a wider sense, any truly spiritual person has always felt there were realms above and beyond the commonplace and that being earth-bound did not prevent us from being Heaven-bent, that there were things which were timely and things which were timeless. Prayer, meditation and other means of communing with the Creator, in particular, bring us into touch with that which really matters, and with the realm of perfection which is so much higher and more inspiring than the often fallible and frustrating world we inhabit on earth.
This is not for everyone; for them it may be enough to try to be “frum and good”, as a correspondent once wrote in the Jewish Chronicle. But even the so-called ordinary person still has moments when everything clears and, like the handmaid at the foot of Mount Sinai, as the sages say, they see even more than Ezekiel did in his visions.
THE TEMPLE & THE FAST OF 17 TAMMUZ.
The historical fasts of Tammuz and Av have been faithfully observed by Jews for countless centuries. They commemorate the destruction of the two Temples at this time of year – first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 in CE.
It is said that the only remnant of the sanctuary is the Western Wall, but there is another sense in which the Jewish people themselves are the historical remnant of the time of the Temple. Long before the emergence of Islam, for whom today’s Jews are interlopers who have more or less invented a narrative that endows them and their Temple with historic veracity, Jews and Jewish worship were enshrined in the holy site. Centuries of Christian pilgrims confirm that fact.
In 1842, George Fisk, an Anglican minister, wrote,
“It is heart-rending to see these people, deprived of all rights in their ancestral homeland, looking on with longing eyes at a distance, at this holy place to which the Jewish heart always yearns”.
It had not always been thus; for centuries there was not only a Jewish indigenous presence in the Holy Land, but Jews were actually visiting the Temple site, as Rabbi Menachem Me’iri reported.
Jews who fast and pray on 17 Tammuz and 9 Av attest to the unbroken Jewish connection with the Temple and its Jerusalem location.
PURPOSE OF FASTING.
Question. Why do we observe sad events by not eating and drinking? In what way does fasting express our emotions?
Answer. One answer is that when a tragedy happens we can’t eat, we don’t want to eat. In contrast, when it is a happy moment we eat (probably too much).
The Psalmist says that wine gladdens the heart of man (Psalm 104:l5); like wine, food gives us a feeling of happiness and fullness. So surely the opposite should also hold true.
Denying ourselves food and drink makes us feel uncomfortable, uneasy, depressed and deprived. Unless we have that unpleasant feeling we cannot appreciate the depth of the catastrophe.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.