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Divine embodiment and the mysteries of phylacteries, fringes, and the rosary.

The Gospel of Matthew (23:5) depicts Jesus as inveighing against "those who make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long." (1) Matthew's familiarity with the rabbinic injunction to don phylacteries and garments with fringes leads one to wonder whether he had worn them himself at one time as an observant Jew. Moreover, his mockery of those making their phylacteries broad and their fringes long echoes a similar caution in the Talmud against this show of arrogance and ostentation, thereby strengthening that assumption. (2) Matthew's reputation as the most Jewish of the Gospels remains a source of debate among scholars. Some are of the opinion that the pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish passages that are there reflect his personal struggle over his abandonment of rabbinic Judaism. Others assert that the pro-Jewish sentiments in the text are the work of one redactor and the hostile pronouncements that of another. (3)

The term "phylacteries" or tefillin (pl.), which are worn by traditional male Jews to this very day, is derived from the Hebrew tefillah (sing.), meaning prayer. They consist of two black boxes, one for the arm, usually the left, and one for the forehead. Both contain a series of biblical verses from Ex. 13:1-10 and from Dt. 6:4-9 and 1 1:13-21. Exodus 13:9 states: "And they shall serve you as sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead in order that the teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt." This injunction is repeated in the other citations as well. In Deuteronomy it is part of a selection in which the Shema, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One" (Dt. 6:4), the central tenet of Judaism, appears for the first time in the Hebrew Bible. Subsequently, the Deuteronomic passages were incorporated into the liturgy of the daily worship service in the synagogue.

The placement of the phylacteries conveys their special purpose. That of the arm is a reminder that God delivered the Israelites from Egypt with an outstretched arm. It is also to be situated as close to the heart as possible, the repository of one's feelings, indicating love and devotion. Since the forehead is seen as the site of one's intellect and capacity for understanding, it is where the phylactery of the head is to be worn. Their location on one's body satisfies both the affective and cognitive components of human knowledge and comprehension. The Talmud (BT Menachot 35b) suggests that God also wears phylacteries and that the knot of the straps connected to the phylactery of the forehead refers to the back of the divine head as revealed to Moses in Ex. 33:23. "Then I will take my hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen." Fulfilling these obligations leads to more than the literal adherence to the biblical commandment that they be a sign upon your hand and reminder on your forehead. They afford the wearer a direct physical identification with the divine Presence on a daily basis. (4)

This personal connection is then cemented by winding the straps attached to the phylactery of the arm around it seven times, corresponding to the seven blessings recited during a Jewish wedding ceremony, then three more times around one's middle finger, where the wedding ring is placed, forming the Hebrew letters, shin, daled, and yod, which comprise the Hebrew word "Shadday" or Almighty. As this is done, the verses from Hos. 2:19-20 are recited: "I will betroth you to myself forever, I will betroth you to myself in righteousness and in justice, in kindness and in mercy, I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord." The ceremony affirms the eternality of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, whatever the latter's faults and transgressions. Not only is this union's irreversibility reiterated each day, but its consummation is experienced as well.

The special status of the phylacteries is further emphasized by their inclusion within the rabbinic category known as "Tashmishey Kedusha," that is, ritual objects that, along with their containers or receptacles, are of such sanctity that they must be treated with care and respect even when no longer usable due to age or deterioration. They cannot simply be thrown away. (5) The only times that phylacteries are not worn are on the Sabbath and the festivals of the Jewish year, since these occasions are themselves regarded as signs of the unbroken covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. By contrast the talit or prayer shawl with its fringes is considered an extension of the body. As such, it is to be worn every day.

The wearing of fringes is stipulated in Num. 15:37-41. There the Israelites are instructed to make fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments in order to "recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them so that you do not follow the desires of your heart and your eyes in your lustful urge" (vs. 39). Once again the passage ends with a reminder of their deliverance from Egypt by God. This passage is also recited as part of the daily synagogue liturgy where it is customary to gather the fringes in one's hand and kiss them each time they are mentioned as these verses are read. In doing so, not only is the divine injunction vividly remembered, but it is almost as if the fringes are inhabited by the divine spirit, and the kiss is reciprocated. The fringes are also kissed when one is invited to recite the blessings prior to and after the reading of selections from the Torah in the synagogue. They are put to one's lips upon touching the designated place in the Torah scroll from which the passage is to be read and then once more at its conclusion.

The kiss is an emphatic physical sign of commitment to the Divine, this time in a most intimate manner, a manner restricted to one's beloved or one's parents. It is also a way of showing deference to a king or ruler--the God of Israel assuming all three roles. Donning the prayer shawl not only enhances that intimacy, but it also affords the worshiper an even greater sense of liaison with God, who, in Ps. 104:1-2, is described as wearing a celestial prayer shawl: "You are clothed in glory and majesty, wrapped in a robe of light."

Little wonder then that in the Talmud (BT Nedarim 25a) the rabbis declare that the wearing of a fringed garment is tantamount to the fulfillment of the 613 commandments stipulated in the Torah, since the numerical value of the Hebrew word for prayer shawl, talit, is 600, to which one adds the number of strands (eight) tied to each corner of the garment and the number of knots (five) at each corner, equaling 613. Moreover, for the mystics the very act of gazing upon the fringes enables one to contemplate them all. Since blue is the color of heaven, the fringes were originally made of blue thread. When that became difficult to procure, white was substituted.

In actuality there are two kinds of prayer shawls. The first, a garment worn daily under one's outer clothing, known either as a Talit Katan, small prayer shawl, or Arba Kanfot, four corners where the fringes protrude and are visible to the naked eye. The second is larger and is draped over one's outer clothing in the synagogue during a formal service of worship and then removed when the service is over, although in some communities they are worn to and from the synagogue. It is unclear in Matthew which of these garments is being mentioned, perhaps both. Apparently, the wearing of fringes was not uncommon in other Semitic cultures where it also served as a sign of distinction and was worn by kings, warriors, and even deities. (6)

The bodily and tactile significance of phylacteries and fringes and their effect upon the wearer in achieving communion with the Divine and facilitating a sense of actual Divine embodiment bring to mind the comparable role of the rosary with its fifteen mysteries denoting the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious episodes in the lives of Christ and Mary, as well as the five luminous mysteries added in recent years by Pope John Paul II for Marian devotees. In what follows I propose to show how these key symbols of Judaism and Catholicism relate to one another in enabling individuals to undergo this unio mystica. I will examine the function played by mystery not only in Christianity as enunciated by Paul in Eph. 5:32: "This is a great mystery and I take it to mean Christ and the Church," but also in Judaism where it enjoys more prominence than is normally recognized--a prominence that comes to fruition in the works of the Kabbalists. Among others, its biblical and rabbinic precursors include Ezekiel's vision of the divine chariot in Ezekiel 1, to which Gershom Scholem attributed the foundation of mysticism in Judaism; (7) God's taking of Enoch in Gen. 6:24; and the famous Talmudic tale (Hagigah 14b) of the perils attendant to Rabbi Akiba's ascension to paradise with his three colleagues, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, and El-isha Ben Abuyah. All of these earlier precedents, which were well known to them, would be fully embellished in the works of the Kabbalists.

The mysteries of Judaism did not initially refer to phylacteries, fringes, or the Shekhinah. Their attribution as such did not occur until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with the advent of the Kabbalah with its extensive elaboration of their unique mystical roles. During the same time period, the rosary became a staple of Catholic practice. When first introduced, the mysteries of Judaism were explicitly defined and employed for a totally different purpose as a polemical response to the emerging faith of Christianity. Jacob Petuchowski observed that the Greek word "mysterion" entered the vocabulary of Palestinian Judaism in late antiquity. There it was applied to those doctrines and truths reserved for Jews only, which were inaccessible to others. Five mysteries were delineated, all intended to counter the supersessionist claims of Christianity: the mysterion of Israel as the vineyard of the Lord, the mysterion of Israel as synonym for the divine name, circumcision as mysterion, the Paschal sacrifice as mysterion, and the fifth, Israel's sole possession of the Mishnah, defined as the mysterion par excellence.

According to the Rabbis, the giving of the oral tradition in the form of the Mishnah, along with the written Torah on Sinai, was incontestable proof that Christianity's designation of the Hebrew Bible as "old" and as prelude to the coming of Christ was unfounded. At Sinai, Moses wished to write down everything that God had communicated to him. However, he was forbidden to do so, since God foresaw the time when the written Torah would be translated into Greek in the form of the Septuagint, and as a result the other nations of the world would claim to be the true Israel. The mysterion of the Mishnah, the oral law, was the only way to understand the true meaning of the written Torah, and it was to be the sole possession of the Jewish people. (8)

The concept of the Shekhinah as the indwelling, manifest aspect of God is as ancient as the Jewish people. It is based upon Ex. 25:8: "Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." God's presence was experienced through prayer, the study of Torah, and the performance of good deeds. The omnipresence of the Divine would become an indispensable component of Kabbalistic ideology.

However, in stark contrast to its earlier formulation, where it was neither personified nor hypostasized, the Shekhinah was not only feminized but also sexualized, a transformation that horrified traditionalists who viewed these doctrines as having distinct christological overtones, particularly the similarities between the Shekhinah and the figure of Mary. Phylacteries and fringes were also associated with the persona of the Shekhinah in much the same manner that the rosary was identified with Mary. Feelings became so intense that in the late thirteenth century some Kabbalistic manuscripts were actually burned by their rabbinic opponents because of their heretical notions in the hope of precluding them from public disclosure. (9) One that escaped the pyre is this excerpt from an anonymous fifteenth-century Kabbalistic text written shortly before the Jewish expulsion from Spain:

The Holy One Blessed be He was reconciled with Israel, and these are the days of acquittal and forgiveness [referring to the days of the Hebrew month of Elul prior to the onset of the High Holidays], and this is the mystery of the virgin "neither had any man known her" [a reference to Rebecca at the well as described in Genesis 24:14].... There is an actual virgin made of fire, and she is sexually receptive, and this likeness was created for Israel, as a wife and a virgin ... This is the mystery of "a virgin neither had any man known her." At the time of redemption the mystery of the Messiah will come forth for Israel. Until that time she will remain a virgin, and then the supernal spirit will enter her mouth ... and this is the meaning of the verse "Rise, the virgin of Israel" [Am. 5:2]. (10)

The Shekhinah is the last in a series often divine emanations known as "Sefirot," from the Hebrew word meaning "to count," which enable one to breach the otherwise impenetrable distance between mortals and the ineffable One. They first appear in an esoteric Jewish text known as Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Formation, whose composition some date between the third and sixth centuries. The Sefirot would become a foundational principle of the Kabbalah. Closest to humans, the Shekhinah dwells with the Jewish people, goes into exile with them, and is ever a source of comfort, hope, and inspiration. (11)

In what follows, I will attempt to demonstrate that the introduction of the rosary, also known as Our Lady's Psalter, into the Catholic Church in fourteenth-century Europe with its attendant mysteries and those associated with the phylacteries and fringes--particularly their theurgic role in hastening the reunification of the Shekhinah with her supernal spouse, another daring innovation of Kabbalistic thought--are more than coincidental. Moreover, just as phylacteries and fringes were to be worn by the common person without regard to rank or station, Mary's designation as Theotokos, mother of God, by the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. did not preclude her portrayal in mortal terms, thereby making her accessible to the masses. On the contrary, great effort was expended in insuring this identification. (12)

As evidenced in Matthew, the wearing of phylacteries and fringes is much older than their resymbolization by the Kabbalists. Similarly, the use of beads by Catholics was also of much earlier origin than their subsequent tie to the rosary, which, according to legend, is attributed to their presentation to St. Dominic, along with his habit, by the Virgin in a thirteenth-century vision. (13) They were used as a means of counting accurately the devotional repetitions of the Ava Maria, Paternoster, and Gloria Patri. It is noteworthy that for the post-Tridentine church the emphasis on Mary's human persona and the spread of Marian devotions were not always viewed comfortably by those in the Catholic hierarchy who were concerned by the excesses and liberties that might be taken by the ordinary Christian without supervision. Some historians use the term "disciplinamento" "to describe efforts to establish regularity and order in ecclesiastical institutions and devotional behavior," such as the rosary, which could be controlled by church authorities through the encouragement of parish-centered confraternities. (14)

During the Middle Ages, despite attitudes toward Jews by the Christian majority that were often hostile and acts that at times were violent and even murderous, there were periods that have been frequently overlooked during which relationships were relatively peaceful, cordial, and friendly. Voluntary conversions to Christianity by Jews were not unknown, much to the despair of the Jewish community, a despair that turned to fear when, in more than a few instances, converts were willing instruments of anti-Jewish polemics. (15) Jews and Christians engaged in multiple commercial and personal contacts with one another to the extent that both the church and the Rabbis denounced them.

The practice of Jewish families' employment of Christian midwives and wet nurses was apparently so widespread that in the twelfth-century Alexander Ill issued a papal bull forbidding its continuation. Those midwives, as well as Christian maidservants working in Jewish homes, who persisted in doing so were threatened with excommunication:
   And we command ... and forbid the tending of Jewish children by
   [Christian] midwives and wet nurses in their [the Jews] homes. For
   the customs of the Jews and ours are completely dissimilar, and
   ]motivated by their hatred of the human race], they may easily
   influence the simple souls to come to their faith and heresy
   through extended contact and familiarity." (16)

Ivan Marcus has suggested that in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe the traditional custom of commencing a Jewish child's study of Torah with the book of Leviticus--a practice based upon the verse in Midrash Leviticus Rabbah that reads, "let the pure ones occupy themselves with purities"--took on added significance, for it now served as a Jewish equivalent of and answer to the medieval Christian belief in the baby Jesus as eucharistic sacrifice. The innocence of the Jewish child possessed sufficient redemptive power to be a vicarious atonement for the sins of the community. (17)

The daily interaction between Jews and Christians enhanced the probability that each faith would adapt various forms of the customs and rituals of the other in ways consistent with their own practices, a phenomenon Jews were reluctant to acknowledge. In his study of Christian-Jewish interpretations of the Song of Songs, Arthur Green has captured the spirit of the age in noting:
   As long as the Jews are the giving partner in this relationship,
   most scholars of Judaica remain untroubled. Recognizing Jewish
   indebtedness to Christianity, especially on the level of popular
   piety, is often much more difficult, beclouded by a long history of
   martyrdom, persecution, and unwanted, often forced, missionary
   efforts. But there are well-known examples where the flow does go
   that way. (18)

The thirteenth to sixteenth centuries witnessed a growing appreciation and desire for the esoteric and an apparent hunger for novel, often daring insights into traditional texts and teachings. It was in this conducive environment that the books and ideas of the Kabbalah spread throughout Jewish communities in Europe. Kabbalistic works, their availability enhanced by the invention of the printing press, appear in numerous locales such as Spain, Italy, Province, and the Rhineland, as well as in Ottoman Palestine. The Kabbalah found a particularly receptive audience among Christian scholars, church leaders, and intellectuals, including Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, as well as such Jewish converts to Christianity as della Mirandola's mentor, Flavius Mithridates, and Rabbi Abner de Burgos, who took the name of Alfonso de Valladolid. (19)

For Christians, the Kabbalah was not merely a new and daring form of biblical exegesis. It was also the key that unlocked the "core of truth that lay hidden in Judaism," an antidote to what they saw as "the polluted talmudic commentary," and reinforced their hope that at long last Jews would see the folly of their ways and embrace the truths of Christianity. (20) These hopes were encouraged as they read the exegesis offered by Kabbalists for the threefold mention of God in the Shema--Adonoy, Eloheinu, Adonoy--and felt free to replace it with their own. They concluded that three was hardly accidental but was indisputable proof of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The closed Hebrew letter, mere--normally found only at the end of a Hebrew word, but appearing as the first letter of the first word in Is. 9:6, following the prophet's prediction in 9:5-6--was seen as signifying the closed womb of the Virgin, from whom Jesus had emerged. For, did not these two verses read: "For a child has been born to us, a son has been given us. And authority has settled on his shoulders. He has been named The Mighty God is planning grace; The Eternal Father a peaceable ruler. In token of abundant authority and of peace without limit upon David's throne and kingdom." So, too, the opening words of Genesis, "In the beginning God created," "Breishit bara Elohim," were read as "God the father created the son." (21) Abner of Burgos pointed to Is. 6:3--"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts"--as another validation of the Trinity. (22) Writing in Hebrew, he would go on to develop his own incarnational theology by combining Kabbalistic themes with Christian teachings. (23)

Many examples of the relationship between Mary and the Shekhinah are to be found in the Zohar or Book of Splendor, sometimes called the "canonical text of the Kabbalah," written in thirteenth-century Spain. (24) Not only is the terminology strikingly similar, but the mediating influence and power of the Shekhinah in rendering access to the God of Israel bears a distinct resemblance to the interaction between Mary and Jesus: "Any message from below that is sent to the King arrives first at the house of His Lady, and from there proceeds to the King. The Lady is thus the universal go-between, from above to below and from below to above. She is the emissary of all ... So the blessed Holy One, out of His great passionate love for Community of Israel, placed all in her hands." (25)

In a related passage, the Shekhinah is entrusted with the weapons of the Divine, enabling her to go forth in battle against evil: "'Henceforth, all affairs of the King are entrusted to matronita.' He placed in Her control all His weapons--lances, swords, bows, arrows, catapults, fortresses, stones ... The King said, 'From now on, my battles are in Your hand.... From now on, You will guard Me.'" (26) In a dramatic parallel, the Christian victory over the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in October, 1571, is attributed to Mary's intervention, because members of the Rosary Confraternity in Rome had gathered at the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva during the battle to pray for victory. The liturgical feast of the Holy Rosary was instituted in her honor. (27) Just as Mary assumes multiple guises depending on need, time, and circumstance, including Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor, Warrior and Coredemptrix of humankind, the Shekhinah also assumes a variety of forms. She appears as the Assembly of Israel, Kenneset, the female consort of God, Earth, Moon, Queen, Apple Orchard, the matriarch Rachel, and even as King David because of David's royal pedigree. (28)

The function of phylacteries and fringes in the service of the Shekhinah, the heavenly queen, is not dissimilar from the fifth glorious mystery of the rosary, Mary's coronation as queen of heaven, which has been described as the "climax of Mary's life story." (29) Fourteenth-century depictions of her coronation show her crowned by Jesus, her son, sometimes her bridegroom, in scenes on altar pieces, paintings, and statuary. In one, the Canon of the Church of St. Agricol in Avignon contracts with an artist for a panel painting. The contract is most specific regarding the artwork: "There should be the form of Paradise, and in the Paradise should be the Holy Trinity, and there should not be any difference between the Father and the Son; and the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove; and Our Lady in front as it will seem best to Master Enguerrand [the artist]; the Holy Trinity will place the crown on the head of Our Lady." (30)

In keeping with rabbinic custom, the phylactery of the arm is put on first while seated and that of the head afterward while standing. The Zohar adds another dimension corresponding to the Marian tradition: "Sitting prayer corresponds to tefillah of the hand, adorning Her [the Shekhinah] as one adorns a bride, bedecking Her to enter the canopy.... Once she enters--approaching the Supernal King--and He comes forward to receive Her, we rise in the presence of the Supernal King, for then male unites with female." (31) According to the text, the wearing of the phylacteries enables the Shekhinah, the "queen," to unite with her husband.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when English Catholics were persecuted and often denied access to the sacraments, especially to the eucharist, they were encouraged to acknowledge their own bodies as sacred space. Meditative texts were composed that would result in these bodily transformations. The rosary became a eucharistic site through which spiritual communion and sacramental grace could be achieved. One devotional treatise, Jesus, Maria, Joseph, by Benedictine monks Arthur Crowther and Thomas Vincent, reads in part: "I am not only yours, not only by you, but I am in you; ... I am bone of your bone, and flesh of your flesh, let me also be spirit of your spirit ... let me participate ... of the Spirit of your Mysteries." (32) This designation of the human body as sacred space was linked to Paul's message in Rom. 12:1: "Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God your spiritual worship." (33)

Once again the different circumstances notwithstanding, the Zohar offers the wearer of phylacteries and fringes a similar prerogative. In doing so, it laments the spiritual poverty of those who choose to deny themselves a privilege open to anyone so inclined:
      Now [the people of] Israel hold fast to Her with mysteries of
   commandments of Torah as when every single day a person fortifies
   himself with tassels.... enveloping himself in them; with
   tefillin, placing them on his head and arm, a fitting supernal
   mystery. For the blessed Holy One appears in a person who crowns
   himself with tefillin and envelopes himself in tassels--entirely a
   mystery of supernal faith. So one unenveloped in this--uncrowned,
   unfortified with tefillin every day--feels abandoned by faith,
   divested of the awe of his Lord, his prayer improper. (34)

Some 700 years have passed since Marian devotions and the celebration of the rosary were introduced into the body of faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church, yet the power of the rosary and Mary's beneficence continues to influence the lives of millions of Catholics. Today it is estimated that twenty percent of all Catholics living in the United States pray the rosary at least once a week. Although there are no statistics available regarding the frequency of its use by men as opposed to women, the custom of placing a rosary in the hands of the deceased prior to burial remains widespread regardless of gender. Gary Wills wrote of the tactile memory evoked in the use of the rosary's "helping recall other times of prayer." Further, "The fingers' transit along the beads ... can help put one in a prayerful mood." (35) In accordance with the 1979 call of John Paul II, that "the image of Mary will 'illuminate the entire world,'" 220 replicas of the Lady of Guadalupe were consecrated in Mexico City and were taken on tour throughout the world. (36)

Yet, it is doubtful that more than a few of the faithful, even the most devout, with the possible exception of clergy and seminarians, have any awareness of the sometimes turbulent history connected to "our Lady of the Rosary." Despite her adoration as Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, and Lady of Miracles, Mary's immaculate conception did not become church dogma until 1854 under Pius IX, even though the Council of Trent had exempted the Virgin from original sin, and the Feast of Mary's conception was included in the liturgical calendar in 1570. It was only in 1950 that Plus XII in his Munificatisimmus Deus declared that "the immaculate Mother of God, Mary, ever Virgin, having completed the course of earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." (37) There are Catholic feminists, echoing the concerns of Jewish feminists regarding the Shekhinah, who are troubled by the Marian tradition as being too closely linked to the history of female subjugation and oppression within and outside of the Church. (38) It remains to be seen what the effect of their criticisms will be in years to come.

Over the centuries the furor over the teachings and modes of worship introduced by the Kabbalah has not only been forgotten, but many of them have even been incorporated into Jewish liturgy and practice and are accepted as completely normative. Few Jews other than rabbis and scholars of Judaica have any awareness of this historic struggle, let alone of either the mystical powers attributed to phylacteries and fringes or of the relationship between Mary and the Shekhinah as portrayed in the Zohar. It is also safe to assume that the same holds true for most Catholics, who would find parallels between the reading of the beads and the rosary with the wearing of fringes and phylacteries unimaginable. One hopes that insights such as these will open yet another long-sealed door into the ever-expanding horizons of serious interreligious dialogue between synagogue and church.

According to Jewish law, phylacteries and prayer shawls are the sole prerogative of men. Today, increasing numbers of women in non-Orthodox synagogues are now wearing them and donning skullcaps as well. As another sign of the times, serious courses, lectures, and books on Jewish mysticism abound, even as selected vignettes from Kabbalistic literature and the sale of good-luck charms and amulets have now become a popular, lucrative, almost faddish attraction appealing to a vast audience of Jews and non-Jews alike, including Hollywood personalities.

Perhaps the most challenging question to be derived from a look at this fascinating record of the past and its meaning for Judaism and Roman Catholicism is whether and how esoterica and the creative impulse can give new purpose and renewed vigor to faith and community in our day, while not lending credence to superstition and the occult. In his provocative analysis of the esoteric in Jewish thought, Moshe Halbertal wrote that "[u]nder the cloak of esotericism, radically conflicting positions were integrated into the heart of Judaism." (39) While beyond the purview of this discussion, he has offered a theory of ideas as relevant to other faith communities as it is to Judaism that is well worth considering.

While Halbertal is fully cognizant of the dangers posed by the excesses of esoterica and the paradox of the modern political state that proclaims its openness and candor, even as it deliberately engages in secrecy and the dissemination of misinformation, still he laments what he views as the rigidity of contemporary representations of both liberal and Orthodox Judaism in their rejection of the esoteric. The former prides itself on its rational approach to faith and the latter on its adherence to Halakhah, to Jewish law. They do so, from his perspective, to the detriment of both, a concern applicable to both Christianity and Islam as well.

Halbertal has proposed a reassessment of the medieval mindset, which, whatever its shortcomings, allowed space for the cultivation of the innovative and the radical and their entrance into mainstream Judaism: "Secrecy enables the absorption and integration of new elements, because its very existence expands the receptivity of authoritative texts to new meanings by an immeasurable quotient.... The absence of an element of secrecy from modern Jewish thought deprives this thought of a powerful hermeneutic tool, which endowed medieval thought with extraordinary flexibility." (40) The mysteries of phylacteries, fringes, and the Shekhina are part of this heritage, as are those of the rosary and Mary.

(1) Biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1951); and Tanakh, a Modern Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985).

(2) Jeffrey H. Tigay, "On the Term Phylacteries (Matt 23:5)," Harvard Theological Review 72 (January-February, 1979): 46-47.

(3) Michael Cook, "Interpreting 'Pro-Jewish' Passages in Matthew," Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 54 (1983), pp. 138-140.

(4) The thirteenth-century mystic, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, declared that the letter shin, which is inscribed on the phylactery of the head, is the acrostic for the Hebrew words of Dr. 28:10: "the name of the Lord is proclaimed." The phylactery is placed on the forehead between one's eyes since the eyes are like the two Cherubim upon which the Eternal was enthroned. See Elliot R. Wolfson, Along the Path: Studies in Kabbalistic Myth, Symbolism. and Hermeneutics (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), pp. 37-39.

(5) Max Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1952), p. 171.

(6) See Stephen Bertman, "Tassled Garments in the Ancient East Mediterranean," The Biblical Archaeologist 24 (December, 1961): 128: "Within this context ... it would be understandable why such appendages would be chosen as reminders for the children of Israel of God's commandments. For obedience to the commandments was inextricably bound up with the special status of the children of Israel as God's own treasure [Ex. 19:5; Dt. 26:17-18]."

(7) This comment is found in Gershom Scbolem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead." Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah, tr. Joachim Neugroschel, ed. and rev. Jonathan Chipman (New York: Schocken Books, 1991 [orig.: Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit: Studien zu Grundbegriffen d. Kabbala (Zurich: Rhein-Verlag, 1962; Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977)]), p. 20. See also idem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, tr. Ralph Manheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1965, 1994). In addition to these, there is an extensive bibliography dealing with all of these themes, which are interrelated. They include, but are hardly limited to, the following: Elliot R. Wolfson, Through a Speculum that Shines: Vision and imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 1994); Rachel Elior, The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism (Portland, OR, and Oxford, U.K.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004); and Alon Goshen-Gottstein. The Sinner and the Amnesiac: The Rabbinic Invention of Elisha Ben Abuya and Eleazar Ben Arach (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2000). See also John J. Collins and Michael Fishbane, eds., Death, Ecstasy, and Other Worldly Journeys (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995).

(8) Jacob J. Petuchowski, "Judaism as 'Mystery'--The Hidden Agenda?" Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 52 (1981), pp 151-152. See also Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, tr. Israel Abrahams (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1995 [orig.: Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975, 1979]), pp. 305-307.

(9) Moshe Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation: Esotericism in Jewish Thought and Its Philosophical Implications, tr. Jackie Feldman (Princeton, N J, and Oxford, U.K.: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 136.

(10) Moshe Idel, Kabbalah and Eros (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 47-48. Idel believes that the author was a former Marrano who was well acquainted with Christian theology.

(11) Again, lengthy accounts of the Shekhinah and detailed explanations of all ten Sefirot are available in numerous sources; see note 5, above. Also see Elliott R. Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005); and Elliot K Ginsburg, The Sabbath in the Classical Kabbalah (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989). See also Arthur Green's introduction to Daniel C. Matt, tr. and commentary, The Zohar, Pritzker ed., vol. 1 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. xxxi-lxxxi.

(12) Miri Rubin, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. xxiv-xxv. Nathan Mitchell has observed that Caravaggio's paintings of the Virgin sought to convey an image of care and concern for the poor and the downtrodden so that they could readily identify with her: "Here was a Madonna who not only lived and breathed among poor pilgrims but whose attitude toward their plight seemed suffused with ready warmth and acceptance. Mary gazed down on the weary travelers as a solicitous next-door neighbor might" (Nathan D. Mitchell, The Mystery of the Rosary: Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism [New York and London: New York University Press, 2009], p. 68). In a similar vein, Carol Bynum argued that in the medieval world physical, tangible humanity might be understood as female. Therefore, "Mary, the source of Christ's physicality and humanity, is in some sense the reliquary or chest that houses Christ's body.... she was explicitly the tunica humanitatis, the clothing of humanity which God put on in the Incarnation" (Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption. Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion [New York: Zone Books, 1991], pp. 148-149).

(13) Mitchell, Mystery of the Rosary, p. 24.

(14) Ibid., p. 49.

(15) Elisheva Carlebach has detailed these incidents: "The deep suspicion of Jewish converts held by medieval Christian society resulted in a persistent drive by converts to prove their loyalty to Christianity by attacking Jews and Judaism. Converted Jews initiated some of the worst manifestations of medieval anti-Judaism" (Elisheva Carlebach, Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany, 1500-1750 [New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2001], p. 45).

(16) Elisheva Baumgarten, Mothers and Children; Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe, Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World Series (Princeton, NJ, and Oxford, U.K.: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 135-136. Baumgarten noted the familiarity of Jewish women with Mary's role as a protector at birth and the possibility that they appealed to her to safeguard them against evil spirits and the healthy delivery of their babies. She cited the plea of a Christian who, in seeking the intercession of the Virgin, cried, "Do not banish me from your presence, for I am not like those Jewesses who invoke the Virgin's aid in giving birth and then go through their homes with white napkins crying: 'Be gone Oh Mary from this Jewish home'" (Baumgarten, Mothers and Children, p. 114).

(17) Ivan G. Marcus, Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 95-96.

(18) Arthur Green, "Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in Its Historical Context," AJS Review 26 (April, 2002): 52; emphasis in original.

(19) See Frank E. Manuel, The Broken Staff" Judaism through Christian Eyes (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 24-45. Manuel's list of converts also includes Pablo de Santa Maria, born Solomon ben Levi, Archbishop of Burgos, whose accusations against his former co-religionists were published in a volume titled Scrutinium Scripturarum libris duabus contra perfidium judaeorum (Scrutiny of the Scriptures in Two Books against the Perfidy of the Jews) (Mantua, 1475). See note 13, above.

(20) Manuel, Broken Staff, p. 39. Manuel added: "The Cabbalab was seized on as fitting in with the myth of a primeval theology that could shelter tinder its canopy the writings of Pythagoras, Plato, neoplatonists, and Hermes Trismegistus; the Sibylline Oracles; and the works of Dionysius the Areopagite" (Manuel, Broken Staff, p. 39).

(21) Yehudah Liebes contended that Christian influence played a significant role in the Zohar's interest in why three names of God were listed in the Shema. He quoted the passage from the Zohar that asks: "How can the three Names be one? Only through the perception of faith: in the vision of the Holy Spirit ... Even so it is with the mystery of the threefold Divine manifestations designated by Adonai Eloheinu Adonai--three modes which yet form one unity.... This is the daily unification, the secret of which has been revealed in the holy spirit" (Yehuda Liebes, Studies in the Zohar, tr. Arnold Schwartz, Stephanie Nakache, and Penina Peli, SUNY Series in Judaica: Hermeneutics, Mysticism, and Religion [Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993], p. 140). He then cited the response of the Zohar's author, Moses de Leon, to a fictitious questioner who asked for an explanation about the relationship between the threefold unity in the Shema and the Trinity that "a person should guard his words and thoughts from consideration of this lest the foundation [of his faith] collapse and his thoughts bewilder him" (Liebes, Studies, p. 143). Judaism's position regarding the open and closed Hebrew letter mem was that an open mem represented an open or revealed statement; a closed mere, a concealed statement. Further, the mem of Is. 9:6 was closed at the time of the destruction of the Temple and would be reopened at the time of redemption (Liebes, Studies, pp. 148-150). The refutation of the Christian interpretation of Gen. 1:1 is found in the work of Rabbi Yore Toy Lipmann of Muelhausen: "Here the heretics have erred in saying that bereshit is the Holy One, who is called the First One, and that he created Elohim [God]--which they interpret to mean as Jesus. This is a malicious fabrication" (Liebes, Studies, p. 153). See also Matt's commentary, n. 22, on Zohar 1:15a in Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker ed, vol. 1, pp. 110-111.

(22) See Liebes, Studies, p. 141.

(23) Moshe Idel, Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism (London and New York: Continuum, 2007), pp. 329-330. Idel commented that Abner of Burgos was the first to combine Kabbalah and Christianity openly.

(24) Daniel C. Matt, comp. and tr., The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 1.

(25) Green, "Shekhinah," pp. 32-33.

(26) Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker ed., vol. 4, p. 254.

(27) "Not only was she Christ's gentle mother and 'mistress of heaven' ...; Mary was a fiercely aggressive warrior queen who guaranteed an emboldened, militant Christianity victory over 'alien others'" (Mitchell, Mystery of the Rosary, p. 22).

(28) In Kabbalistic lore, the Shekhinah is the symbolic incarnate of David. She is also called "'Malchut," which is the feminine Hebrew word for kingship or dominion. She becomes the terrestrial kingly mother and, as such, is masculinized. See Wolfson, Language. Eros. Being, pp. 84-88, for his subsequent discussion of the reactions of Jewish feminists to what they term the androcentric subservience of women as epitomized by the Shekhinah.

(29) Rubin, Mother of God, p. 307.

(30) Ibid.

(31) Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker ed., vol. 2, p. 244.

(32) Lisa McClain, Lest We Be Damned' Practical Innovation and Lived Experience among Catholics in Protestant England, 1559-1642, Religion in History, Society, and Culture (New York: Rout[edge, 2004), p. 134 (cited in Mitchell, Mystery of the Rosary, p. 166).

(33) See Mitchell, Mystery of the Rosary, pp. 165-169

(34) Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker ed., vol. 2, p. 282.

(35) Mitchell, Mystery of the Rosary, p 213, quoting Gary Wills, The Rosary (New York: Viking Press, 2005), p. 11.

(36) Rubin, Mother of God, p. 421.

(37) Mitchell, Mystery of the Rosary, pp. 278 and 263.

(38) Rubin wrote: "In the churches some feminists see in Mary a barrier to liberation, but others seek to seize Mary as a powerful example for women and for the churches: of love, of charity and nurture" (Rubin, Mother of God, p. 422).

(39) Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation, p. 135.

(40) Ibid., pp. 138 and 140.

Sanford Seltzer (Reform Jewish) is retired and living in Arizona. He served as a Congregational Rabbi in Memphis, TN (1959-61); New York City (1961-63); Worcester, MA (1971-73); Montreal (1987-88); and Brookline, MA (1997-2005). He was the Executive Director of the lnterreligious Center on Public Life, a forum for addressing critical issues from a Jewish, Christian, and Islamic perspective, in Newton, MA, from 1999 to 2010. He held a variety of positions on the regional and national staff of the Union tor Reform Judaism, 1963-97. He has taught at St. John's Seminary, Brighton, MA; and at Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School, both in Newton Centre, MA; he served as Associate Dean for Rabbinic Congregational Relationships at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, 2005-07. He has written or edited eight books and monographs, most recently When There Is No Other Alternative: A Spiritual Guide for Jewish Couples Contemplating Divorce (URJ Press, 2000). He wrote eight "Horizon Reports" for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and six articles for the Journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, most recently "The Message of Eleh Ezkerah'" (Winter, 2008). More than a dozen other of his articles have appeared in journals or edited collections. He has served on several bodies including the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Divorce, the National Interfaith Coalition on the Aging, and the boards of trustees of the Mass. Council on Family Mediation and the Jewish Family and Children's Service in Boston. He holds a B.A. from the University of Cincinnati and an M.H.L from Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, OH (where he was ordained a rabbi in 1959). He did graduate study at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute and was a pastoral fellow at Mclean Hospital (a Harvard Medical School teaching affiliate), 1973-75. Hebrew Union College awarded him a D.D. in 1984.
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Date:Mar 22, 2011
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