Monday, June 14, 2021

Reuven's Vow: Published in Windmill, The Haunting of Writers' Past, October 2017


        Safed is called the town of a thousand mystics. Thrust a rod out, the saying goes, and hit a Cabbalist. But it is also said that Safed is a town where Jews scream out their prayers, and mumble their heresies.

In a town where everyone’s nose is between the pages of The Zohar, it is said that men often fall over even tiny stones in the road. When a man’s head contemplates the ten divine sephirot, he often fails to see a mound of manure in his path. This was the case with Reuven ben Sosa and his terrible vow. 

Reuven ben Sosa, at seventeen, was already a noted Cabbalist. He knew vast tracts of The Zohar by heart and  he wrote amulets which could cure all manner of ills, from a tooth ache to a tumor. If someone was possessed by a dybbuk or demon, no one thought of calling anyone else but Reuven ben Sosa. He would walk right up to the possessed person, and speak to the demon in a strange language. He would cajole, threaten, scold or even praise it to leave the unfortunate body it had stolen, for he, at such a tender age, spoke the language of demons. He came from an old family who had lived in the land of Israel as long as anyone could recollect. In Safed, Reuven ben Sosa’s family were leading citizens.

If Reuven ben Sosa had one fault it was frivolity. He enjoyed practical jokes and humorous tales. His father frowned upon it, but what could he do? The boy had great gifts from the Almighty. People said “A diamond has some flaw.” Safed needed Reuven ben Sosa even with his little pranks.

As Reuven approached his eighteenth birthday, the date of his wedding was set. On the day before his wedding, Reuven and two young companions took a stroll through the hills around Safed. It was early spring, and in the evening it had snowed. Safed was muffled in a blanket of white, but the sun was warm, and the southern slopes of the hills quickly melted, revealing spring’s first swaying flowers. The ground thawed, and the mud was churned. The young men walked to the banks of a stream and sat on a large stone. One produced a bottle of sweet red wine and the young men all drank to Reuven’s marriage. They teased him about the great beauty of his betrothed and the prospect of joy on the wedding night. One of the young men rose to relieve himself. Near an exposed embankment, he saw a strange thing thrusting out from the ground. He called over Reuven and his other companion.

    “What is it, Yitzhak, did you find King Solomon’s treasure?” Reuven asked.

“I don’t know, Reuven,” the young man answered. “It looks like a finger stuck in the ground.”

Reuven bent down. It did indeed look like a human finger thrusting out of the earth. The three young men began to joke. One dared Reuven to place the ring destined for his betrothed, and engraved with his initials, onto the finger. Reuven, never shy about a humorous dare, placed the ring on the brown, chalky finger. He then recited the benediction. “Harai at m’kudeshet li,” you are betrothed to me, three times. Nothing happened. One of Reuven’s friends chuckled. They all listened, but all they could hear was the rushing of the stream. 

Suddenly, the stream stopped roaring. The birds, who had been chirping in the trees above them, fell silent. It was as if a great veil had been thrown over the land. A cloud moved across the sky and the spring sun and the hills were smothered in cold. A great roar then peeled, like a wailing cry. Reuven bent over to remove the ring from the finger and the finger twitched. The moan was now was clearly coming from the finger. The hole grew in depth and width until an arm, shoulder and then quickly, a torso and legs emerged. The figure was clad in a tattered funeral shroud. Shredded and caked with mud that covered her head; only the blank orbit of her eyes were visible. The corpse howled and moaned.

They all bolted back to Safed, and all the while the horrible moaning and wailing trailed behind them until they reached the village. 

Reuven’s companions begged him to tell his father about the corpse,  but he refused. He told them the dead do not have long memories like the living. The corpse would grow confused in the hills and stagger away from Safed. Reuven found another ring in his young sister’s room, and readied for the wedding. He was confident that yesterday’s experience was a trick. He had been exorcising dybbuks and demons for years, and now, on the eve of his wedding, one was trying to play a joke on him. 

Reuven stood under the chuppah next to the rabbi. All of Safed turned out for the wedding. The veiled bridegroom was escorted to the canopy, and the rabbi was about to begin the service when a wind suddenly kicked up. Men’s hats flew off their heads and women’s dresses flared. The day was warm, but there was the unmistakable smell of snow and ice held aloft. Then, the wind turned into a shrill, sustained hiss like a scream. People at the back of the crowd began to wail, and the crowd fainted or scurried away in a quickly disappearing mass. The corpse with the shroud was making its way to the chuppah. Reuven’s bride fainted. The corpse screamed, and then found her voice. Her shroud moved as if breath was issuing from her mouth. She lifted her arms as she spoke and the shroud rustled like a curtain flying off its rod.

“Why do you marry, Reuven ben Sosa, when you are betrothed to me?” she said, her voice was high and reedy, as if a breath of air was squeezed through a narrow crag in a rock. On hearing this, the people standing near the chuppah wailed.  Reuven, never at a loss for words, could not find his tongue. All eyes went from him to the corpse and back again. It was the rabbi who spoke.

“Dead woman,” he asked with a quiver in his voice, “why do you rise from your grave to aggrieve the living?”

“This man is my betrothed,” the corpse answered without hesitation.

“How can this be?” the rabbi stated, his tone firm. “A corpse cannot marry the living.”

“He gave me his ring,” the corpse answered, holding aloft its bony left hand. The rabbi took a reluctant step toward the hand. The ring clearly bore Reuven’s initials. People continued to screamed and shouted. To the Jews of Safed, it was as if the sun had stood still in the sky.

Reuven’s father smacked his son’s cheek. He stood silently in front of his father, the shame dripping off him like lather from an overworked mule.

“Fool,” his father hissed. “This is what you get from joking. This is what you get from pranks.”

The rabbi met with Reuven’s father and the elders of Safed. No one knew what to do. The corpse stood in the town square, next to the chuppah, stock still. No one dared approach it. Life in Safed ground to a halt. The elders poured over the responsa to find a precedent for the case , but they could not find one. They would need to convene a rabbinical court to decide the case. 

All seventy prominent rabbis from the four sacred cities in the land of Israel, Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberas, quickly gathered in Safed.  Not since the days of the Great Sanhedrin had such an august body been assembled. The court did not meet in the synagogue, for there was not enough room to accommodate the judges and the great crowds of spectators. The large hall in the old crusader castle was employed. 

The rabbis first called Reuven’s two companions. Meekly, they told the story of what happened on that terrible day: their merriment and drinking; the finger jutting out of the ground; the dare that Reuven ben Sosa should place his wedding ring upon it and his compliance; and finally, the horrifying flight from the mad, pursuing corpse. Most of the rabbis on the court, aged men who had heard many strange cases, shook their hoary heads in amazement. Reuven was then testified. He confirmed the details of the story. Several members of the court scolded him for his frivolity and arrogance. He hung his head low.

Finally, the court called in the corpse, and in a few moments, the body entered through the door. Her shroud trailed behind her like a flitting shadow. The people closed their eyes with their hands, and moaned and wailed as the corpse entered. Several people fainted, and had to be carried out. Only with great effort was the order of the crowd restored. The great Rabbi Simcha of Jerusalem addressed the corpse first.

“Is it true that Reuben ben Sosa placed a ring on your finger?”

“It is true,” the corpse hissed, shifting her weight, and rattling her bones like loose stones in a sack.

“Were there two witnesses in attendance?” Rabbi Gershom of Hebron asked, waving a yellow finger aloft.

“Yes, and he recited the vow in accordance with Holy Law,” the corpse answered, and on hearing this, the people cried. Rabbi Menachen of Tiberias held up his hand to restore order.

“You must relinquish your claim!” he yelled sternly at the corpse. “You are dead, and the defendant is living!”

“I died before I could marry, esteemed rabbi,” the corpse moaned. “I died before I had my hour of joy. I demand it now, even in my cerements. I demand that the vow be fulfilled and the marriage be consummated!”

A great uproar arose. Some of the oldest rabbis in the court fainted. People tried to revive them with smelling salts. Men and women tore at their hair. That such a thing could happen, they cried, must be birth pangs of the coming of the Messiah!

Later, the court met behind closed doors and debated.

“The case is clear,” Rabbi Gershom of Hebron stated. “The dead have no claims on the living, especially in matters of marriage. The vow is null!”

“But,” the rabbi from Safed explained. “A vow is a vow. Even if made in jest, and even to a corpse, it must be fulfilled, and it abrogates previous vows.” The assertion had strong precedent. The rabbis erupted and everyone began to speak at once. Eventually, Rabbi Menachen of Tiberas was able to make his voice heard above the rest.

“Good Jews, if we allow this corpse its claim, bodies will rise from the hollowed ground to redeem all manner of things, from marriage rights to property claims, and there will be no end to this madness. This court will never adjourn. The earth will shake to its very foundations and God, blessed be his name, will damn our generation. A way must be found to annul the vow!”

There was heated discussion. It seemed the case could not be resolved in Reuven’s favor. He would have to marry the corpse and, God forbid, consummate the marriage. A rabbi from Be’er Sheva burst into the chambers with an old book of rabbinical responsa, crumbling in its bindings. 

“Holy men,” he proclaimed, “I have found a way out!”

The court reconvened. The whole town was crowded into the crusader castle to hear the verdict. Reuven was brought in, followed by the corpse. When it appeared again, there was a fresh round of fainting. It was no less terrifying from repeated exposure.  Rabbi Simcha of Jerusalem spoke for the court:

“A vow is sacred,” he started, “and should not be entered into frivolously. Japheth vowed to sacrifice a human being and was forced to slay his own daughter! Reuven ben Sosa has committed a grave sin and vowed a binding vow in jest…” and here the crowd gasped, thinking Reuven would have to marry the corpse.

“In such a case,” Rabbi Simcha continued, “the conclusion is forgone. The most recent vow is the binding one… it abrogates all previous vows, whether it was made in seriousness or in jest, or to the living or the dead…” There were many screams. Reuvan’s mother collapsed, imaging a corpse for a daughter-in-law. When the turmoil ceased, Rabbi Simcha continued.

“However, this is a special case. The bride and groom were betrothed before each of them was born. The vow was made not by the bride and groom, but by their parents even before they were born. There is a precedent: Rabbi Meir bar Pinchas, the great sage of Babylon, wrote that such a vow can’t be rescinded unless one of the party dies before the day of the wedding. Such a vow is ordained in the chambers of heaven, since the souls of the bride and groom were still dwelling in Our Father’s Mansion. Therefore, this court annuls the vow of Reuven Ben Sosa to this corpse, and commands this poor body to return to the earth!”

The corpse let out a wail in one moment and in the next fell to the floor in a jumbled heap of bones and shroud. Half the Jews in the hall fled in terror while the other half wailed and cowered. When things calmed, the Burial Society was summoned to claim the remains.  They carefully removed Reuven’s ring from its finger.

The next day, Reuven was summoned before the court. They ordered Reuven to do penance. He was to pay a certain sum to charity. He was to lay on the threshold of the synagogue until each congregant touched him with their shoe, a symbol of his disgrace. All his charms and books of magic were to be collected and burned. Rabbi Simcha of Jerusalem scolded Reuven, and by implication, the Jews of Safed, for their mystical excursions. Such activities, he explained, make a man perform heresy with his body and speak blasphemy with his lips. The court, before they disbanded, ordered that the corpses’ remains be buried according to Jewish law. They commanded the keeper of the graves to sit near the tomb every night for two years and recite psalms, lest the corpse emerge again to make claims on the living.

And Reuven Ben Sosa? He married his betrothed. He no longer made amulets, recited spells, or studied the Cabbala. Considering his experience, this was not surprising,  but his penance went even further. He banished all frivolity from his life. For the rest of his days he never smiled, laughed, or told a joke. What can you expect from a man who betrothed a corpse in a moment of jest, and then got off on a mere technicality? For Reuven Ben Sosa the earth became but a dark ante-chamber to the world to come. To him, this was no joke.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons


Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons by Sylviane A. Diouf explores the little know phenomenon of “maroonage” in what is or would become the United States.  

In Jamaica and South American countries, escaped slaves (maroons) formed large settlements that were more or less self-sufficient.  In the period of Diouf’s study, the early British colonies and early United States, escaped slaves formed smaller communities, and did not live in such total isolation from the white world.  

Diouf provides us in numerous examples of maroon existence.  In the end, we realize how resourceful and robust escaped slaves were in order to maintain their freedom, often at a cost none of us can imagine.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Walking the High Wire

I find it difficult to criticize The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today by Rabbi Evan Moffic.  It is sweet book.  But I will do so anyway. 

Rabbi Moffic takes a portion of the morning Jewish liturgy and makes these statements into a stand-alone prayer and declaration of existence that will guide us toward happier lives.  

The problem is that this section of the Jewish liturgy, Eilu D'varim, has a deeply Jewish content.  Rabbi Moffic more or less dismantles this.  Take the last statement in Eilu D’varim.  In the English translation of the siddur it reads “and Torah study is equivalent to them all” or in Hebrew talmud torah keneged kullam. Rabbi Moffic renders this: look inside and commit.  

When we combine these kinds of midrashic moves and many statements about faith, generally not a major Jewish preoccupation, this book lacks a strong Jewish sense.  The book favors a Christian audience.  I am in favor of taking our Jewish texts and promoting the universal elements found within in them, and connections with other religious traditions.  But this book goes too far off the cliff.  

Rabbi Arthur Green does a far better job balancing Jewish vs Universalism.  Just read his recent book Judaism for the World.  He balances the particularly Jewish with the widely Universal as if he was walking on a high wire.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love


Rabbi Arthur Green is 80 years old (ad me'ah ve-essrim shana!) and is still going strong.  As one of the most influential religious thinkers in the twentieth and twenty-first century, he has been particularly prolific in the last ten to twenty years, and his Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love is a reflection of this.  Read this book, and you will see his over fifty years of Jewish engagement at work, presented in new and reflective ways.

As a neo-Hasidic proponent, it was interesting for me to read his experience visiting the graves of Hasidic masters in Ukraine.  He is distinctly uncomfortable with the practice of praying in saint’s tombs, although he is obviously taken with visiting the cradle of Hasidism.  This essay, I believe, shows the fault line that run through Rabbi Green: the skeptical academic and the religious devotee.  There is nothing wrong having these often opposing sides.  In Rabbi Green’s case, we can read how fruitful this divide is in his capable hands.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Joseph Smith and the Origins of The Book of Mormon


If you are a dedicated Mormon then Joseph Smith and the Origins of The Book of Mormon, by David Persuitte, will strike you as false, and perhaps even an attack on your religion.  But if you compare this book to work in the last hundred years on the sources of the Hebrew Bible, like Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic by Frank Moore Cross, then Persuitte’s work is well in line with historical studies of the birth of religions.  They are a product of their times.  Just as Cross sees elements of Ba’al and El worship from Canaanite religions in the Bible’s depictions of the deity, so too is the Book of Mormon a product, in part, of a book called "View of the Hebrews" written in the years before the discovery of the golden tablets.

The Hebrew Bible has the benefit of its great antiquity.  We know so little about its composition, that even the most well researched and erudite works are just very good guesses.  The Book of Mormon lacks antiquity.  Joseph Smith was a “prophet” in the modern world, and many people were interested in disproving his calling.  This book amply documents this grounding Smith and his book in the real world. 

Smith was someone who dug for buried treasure in his year years.  Persuitte explains how this pursuit was little more than a confidence scheme, and the “discovery” of the Book of Mormon was a confidence scheme on a grander scale with more lasting impact.  More generously we can say that Mormonism began as part of the folk religious practices of the eastern United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  LDS sources confirm this, like Smith's use of a "peep stone" to both find treasure and translate the Book of Mormon.  Yet this admission bolsters Persuitte's point that is work is a product of its time – before evolving, after all religions that take root, into a more institutional plant.

For me, the fatal flaw of the Book of Mormon is its lack of context.  The Hebrew Bible may not be literal history, but it has a cultural context in some early entity, a people called Israel.   The Merneptah Stele – an inscription by the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah (1213–1203 BCE) - documents battles with a people in the Canaan, and one is called Israel.  Far later extra-biblical references, like the Mesha Stele, dated around 840 BCE,  refers to the northern Kingdom of Israel and its king.  The world portrayed in the Book of Mormon has no such context (at least to non-Mormon scholars and historians).  You have little choice but to accept on faith that the events in the Book of Mormon occurred even in the most cursory sense - even as folk expressions or legends - as the people depicted in the book have no historical or cultural context.   

All and all this is an excellent book to examine at length one of the sources that probably one of the sources of the Book of Mormon.  This work goes into great detail, so if you only want to skim the surface of the topic, this is not the book for you.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession


Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession by Craig Childs is a remarkable story of what it means to remove the human past from the ground.  Childs is a purist, believing that nearly nothing should be removed  –  certainly not from pot hunters, and most of the time not by archaeologists.  But he is also a realist.  As the population has exploded in the American Southwest, finds have been discovered at a rapid pace.  Inaction is not possible.

As in all his books, Childs just wraps himself around this subject, seeming to inhabit every topic and area.  He has such passion and drive and he takes his reader along like a seasoned expert, and all is draped in remarkable prose.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Played Out... The Knife of Never Letting Go


The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is very standard post-apocalyptic, sci-fi YA fare, with a twist.  In this world, men’s thoughts can be read.  This “noise” accompanies them everywhere, and in some areas of this New World it has led to catastrophic results.  This is a good premise, but Ness has a far longer novel than he needs to get his work done.  There is a great deal of repetition, therefore the plot gets lost.  The central idea of men and violence also gets overplayed, and therefore watered down. We are also stuck in Todd’s first person narration for the entire novel, which is not a pleasant place.  His naivete more often than not sounds like whining.