September 16, 2004
Works of Renewal and Celebration
The Chasidic masters had a custom of creating short lists of practical spiritual advice for their followers, and some of the devotees would write these on small pieces of paper and carry them in their pockets as frequent reminders. These spiritual practices, or hanhagot, is a genre of Chasidic literature that hasn't received much attention from scholars or seekers, as Or Rose explains in the introduction to his new book, "God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters," edited and translated by Rose with Ebn D. Leader (Jewish Lights).
"These brief teachings are designed to aid the devotee in applying the Hasidic ideals to daily life," he writes, noting that Chasidic rebbes emphasized the possibility of encountering the Divine everywhere, whether in traveling, the marketplace or in conversation.
Often, these hanhagot -- dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries -- are found appended to other texts. Rose, a doctoral candidate in Jewish thought at Brandeis University, culled, selected and translated them from Hebrew, and organized them thematically, from "Awakening and Renewal" to "In Speech and In Silence." Translations appear on one page, and a facing page includes commentary. Rose says -- using contemporary language -- that the hanhagot would be used for spiritual centering. Included is guidance on dealing with conflicts, fear, arrogance, sexual relations and prayer; the reader sees that even the most righteous people sometimes have problems with concentration in prayer.
At present, the tradition or writing hanhagot continues. At the back are two neo-Chasidic hanhagot, by Hillel Zeitlin, a writer and martyr of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Arthur Green, a contemporary scholar and theologian, who is the author's mentor.
Rose speaks of the power of these texts, particularly helpful at a time of introspection, like this period of preparing for the holidays. This might be a good book to tuck away and bring to synagogue as supplementary reading.
While there have been many books on the subject of forgiveness, there are few focused on apology. Aaron Lazare, chancellor, dean and professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, has written "On Apology" (Oxford), a wise analysis of the vital, powerful interaction that is transformative, a process at once simple and entangled. For Lazare, apology is the acknowledgement of an offense followed by an expression of remorse and, often, expressions of shame and acts of reparations.
Lazare quotes the talmudic teaching that says that God created repentance even before creating humankind: "I take this statement to mean that the sages who authored this sentiment were acutely aware of the fallibility of humankind and the need for religion's prescriptions to heal offenses. Repentance (or its secular approximation of apology), therefore, would be so important for sustaining a just and livable society that an infinite and all-powerful God would put it in place before creating mankind."
His own interest in the subject grew out of an unpleasant personal experience. He looks at the relationship between apology and forgiveness, and focuses on both the individual level of apologizing and also at groups and nations, citing Abraham Lincoln's apology for slavery, and the German government's apology to the victims of World War II.
In China, as he notes, there are several apology companies and radio talk shows centered on apology on state radio. It's possible to hire a paid surrogate to write letters, deliver gifts and offer explanations.
"Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah" by Rahel Musleah, illustrations by Judy Jarrett (Kar-Ben) is a book for the holiday table. Musleah, who grew up in Calcutta (her family traces their ancestry to 17th-century Baghdad), presents the seder that her family would conduct on the eve of Rosh HaShanah: saying blessings and eating traditional foods in a prescribed order. The tradition dates back 2,000 years to a custom suggested in the Talmud, that at the beginning of the new year people eat certain foods that grow in abundance and symbolize prosperity. The Rosh Hashanah seder is practiced in communities around the world, particularly in Sephardic communities from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East.
The book includes blessings, folk tales, activities, crafts and recipes for pumpkin bread, beets in ginger and honey, fruit salad with pomegranate, roasted leeks and other dishes featuring traditional foods. In her introduction, Musleah explains that the blessings may be based on a particular characteristic of the food to be emulated (i.e. the sweetness of the apple) or wordplay. She includes the traditional Hebrew blessings, although in the translations, she adds "positive wishes for peace, friendship and freedom."
She writes: "You might have to wait a few extra minutes before you eat dinner, but in that time you can literally 'count your blessings.'"
Musleah, a Jewish educator, singer, writer and storyteller who lives in Great Neck, suggests these wishes for friendship in connection with leeks: "May it be Your Will, God, that our enemies be cut off. (She points out that karti, the word for leek, sounds like yikartu, the word for "cut off.") Without enemies, we hope for the blessing of friendship. Like we eat this leek, may our luck never lack in the year to come."