On Shabbat, I try to do at least some reading. This Shabbat I read about 60 pages of Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood. I plan to finish the book tomorrow. I still have not finished those parts of the Bible dealing with Abraham, but I hope to do that tomorrow also. However, I found myself thinking about a story from the Sefer ha-Aggadah about the Jewish belief that God picks matches for people. I have to admit that if this is true he has been holding out on me for a long time. On the other hand, perhaps when I was young I was not ready to get married. It seems like I was immature even in college, and have not met the man I would want to marry since who was available to date. Anyway, here is a story from the Sefer ha-Aggadah about God making matches–much like a story already quoted about Solomon’s daughter and her bashert (intended one):
A Roman noblewoman asked R. Yose ben Halafta, “In how many days did the Holy One create his world?” R. Yose replied, “In six days.” She asked, “And what has He been doing since?” R. Yose replied, “The Holy One has been busy making matches: the daughter of So-and-so and So-and-so.” The noblewoman said, “If that is all He does, I can do the same thing. How many menservants and how many maidservants do I have? In no time at all, I can match them up.” R. Yose: Matchmaking may seem like a trivial thing in your eyes, but for the Holy One, it is as awesome an act as splitting the Red Sea.”
R. Yose ben Halafta left the noblewoman and went away. What did she do? She took a thousand maidservants, lined them in a row upon row facing on another, and said, “This man shall be married to that man,” and so she [came the next day to the couples she matched], one with his head bloodied, one with his eye knocked out, one with his shoulder dislocated, and another with his leg broken. She asked, “What has happened to you?” One replied, “I don’t want that woman.” Another replied, “I don’t want that man.”
The noblewoman promptly sent to have R. Yose ben Halafta brought to her. She said to him, “Master, your Torah is completely right and worthy of praise.”
What I like about these little stories about romantic love in the Sefer ha-Aggadah is that they emphasize the element of a God interested in the intimate details of our private lives. In this respect they remind me of a tradition I read that God nurses the souls of every human in Heaven before sending them to earth. Of course, then we are given a drink of forgetfulness, so that we will not pine for Heaven here on earth. I have often wondered if, perhaps, some souls having drunk deep of the Divine Milk God gives each soul, remember Him when they are in this earth. Perhaps what they recall is so firmly trenched in them that they have a special kinship with the Holy in this world. Of course, Plato believed something similar in his Republic: that in Heaven above people are chosen by lot to pick who they will be reborn as on earth. However, the drink of forgetfulness is necessary before the soul is reborn on earth (only saints get to stay forever). Those souls who drink too much are destined to be boorish knaves, while those who drink only a little are destined to be Philosophers.
I don’t believe every soul is reincarnated, but I do believe that some souls are. I believe there are souls of people who are wicked, who because God pities them are given a second chance at life. Of course, there are also wicked people who suffer the pains of Gehenna. I will admit that I am not sure for myself what the punishment is: whether it be the torments traditionally believed or whether it will be more like a modern prison. I know some people will spend a few years time there and others will be there forever.
One thing I did like about Jon Levenson’s book–I know I was harsh in my criticism of it the last time I spoke of it–was his insistence that the Jewish God interacts through the intimate personal details of human life. He said this was in contrast to the “God of the Philosophers,” but I do not really believe it. In Process Philosophy, for instance, God is describes as wooing humankind to do Good in the World, but is bound by such limitations as the physical laws of the universe to prevent humans from doing evil. I am still working out in my head the details of how God operates in the world, but I believe God is “Pure Spirit” as Maimonides did, but that he acts through matter not as an Omnipotent Being but as a Creative Spirit limited by Matter. I believe, however, that all living beings have a spirit given to them by the Creative Spirit–even animals and even plants, and perhaps to a lesser degree rocks and other naturally existing objects (such as the sun and the planets).
Someday I hope to write a book explaining my ideas about the Creative Spirit (God) and the way in which he acts within human beings. I also hope to write about the ethical obligations he enjoins on human beings. I must admit one thing: I find the ethical belief systems of modern human beings disappointing. Mill’s belief that “the good of the majority” is what is good seems severely limited, especially because he seems to say only those who govern need think about enough. I also dislike Mill’s insistence that the “good” of a person is only that which “feels good” (which in some people’s minds could be cocaine, if every individual could choose their own “good” and pretend it hurt nobody except him or herself). Kant’s more sophisticated idea that people have rights, but that for a deed to be good or bad it has to be in every single circumstance in which it can be done, is also severely limited. Aristotle had a more complex theory (Darwin admired it). I will discuss it some other time, when I have read his Nicomachean Ethics. (I know, the dodge is awkward.)
Yet I believe that the ethical belief systems of the world’s religions, though they do not agree on all issues, provide more meaningful answers to the question, “What is good?” then modern philosophers have. I say this without embarrassment. I think that the words, “Love thy Neighbor” begin in the sacred scriptures in varying forms of all the world’s major religions. I am not saying they are perfect guides, but that Mill and Kant are not as accurate in describing what an ordinary person would call “Ethics.” Anyway, I will try to prove my ideas another time. For now I will only say, “Goodnight.”