#102 Yosef Wosk
January 29th, 2016
LOCATION: 2, Street of Light, Israel Torah Research Institute, Jerusalem [Yeshivas Itri]
The Vancouver-born poet, philosopher, rabbi, philanthropist, scholar, educator and community leader Yosef Wosk has had an enormous cultural impact on his hometown–where he has founded the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars and SFU’s Philosophers’ Café, and served as a director in Continuing Studies at SFU–but his literary and cultural associations with Jerusalem are also prodigious.
Wosk lived in Yerushalayim (as it is called in Hebrew) for six years: one as a student at Hebrew University (1969-70); three-and-a-half years as a student at Israel Torah Research Institute: Talmudic Academy for Religious Studies from which he received a B.H.L. [Bachelor of Hebrew Letters] (1972-75); one year on sabbatical (1992-93); and numerous other visits for shorter periods of time. His three-and-a-half-year stint at the Torah Research Institute was at 2 Rehov Ha’Or (2, the Street of Light) in the Romema neighbourhood on a hill behind the Tahanat Ha’Merkazit (Central Bus Station), one block from the Allenby Memorial. Known as Hartman’s Yeshiva when he attended, the school has since moved and morphed into other institutions.
While studying written and oral traditions, Wosk has also been a writer, editor, public speaker, mentor, curator, researcher, art exhibit collaborator as well as a book, art and antiques collector in Jerusalem. Hence he simultaneously views himself “as a struggling pilgrim in search of his emotional and spiritual bearings.” Beyond the city he travelled throughout the Altneuland, exploring the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, climbing desert mountains, hiking through pomegranate orchards, descending to the lowest point on earth, and meditating in ancient olive groves.
Along his spiritual path, Wosk not only conceived and funded the 100,000-tree Morris J. and Dena Wosk Peace Forest just outside of Jerusalem, he also sponsored the creation of over three hundred small libraries throughout Israel including portable units for the IDF, collections for the Ethiopian community, and a Spanish language branch. Donations were also made to the national library as well as to social science, neighbourhood, history, and holocaust libraries.
In 1993 the Yosef Wosk Computer Center was established at the Bostoner Yeshiva in Har Nof, Jerusalem, and 2001 saw the dedication of the Yosef Wosk Children’s Synagogue Library at Shalva in Jerusalem, an organization for mentally and physically handicapped children and their caregivers.
Beyond his activism within galleries, museums, schools, gardens, hospitals and social services, Wosk has been active in the literary realm. He first made his mark in 1973 when he wrote “A Journey to the Heart of Tradition” in Hartman’s Yeshiva Bulletin (Jerusalem: Israel Torah Research Institute, 1973).
As a religious philosopher, he subsequently edited Petach: A Journal of Thought and Reflection, Israel Torah Research Institute: Hartman’s Yeshiva/Shapell College Center for Jewish Studies, Jerusalem (1973-75), contributing “Can you say where I am and where I am not? Creation has arrived—it inhabits the universe” (Petach: A Journal of Thought and Reflection of The College of Jewish Studies, Israel Torah Research Institute, Vol. i, p. 75-79, Jerusalem ), as well as “Torah Revelation: Then as Now” (ibid., Vol. ii, p. 49-72, Jerusalem ).
Besides personal journals, notebooks and correspondence, other Jerusalem-based publications include: Nachum Tim Gidal: The Polish Photographs, 1932, with Nissan Perez, senior curator of photography, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem & New York, and Aryel Publishing House, Vancouver (2016)
I Don’t Need Any More Students, But I Could Sure Use a Friend: Letters to a Photoman, three years of correspondence between Nachum Tim Gidal [Jerusalem] & Yosef Wosk [Vancouver], with selected photographs (pending).
Yosef Wosk has also donated funding towards the publication of:
As a lecturer he has presented:
— “Two thousand years before creation: a book collector’s journey from Jerusalem to New York and from distant auctions to the used bookshops of those occasional cities.” In this presentation he discussed his extensive travels as a book collector throughout the world. The presentation [available on DVD] was part of ‘Share the Enthusiasm’ series of book collectors talks sponsored by Special Collections, Simon Fraser University Library, in conjunction with The Alcuin Society; at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, SFU Vancouver campus (March 23, 2005)
— “Edenic Asymmetry,” Twelfth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, (August 1997)
— “A Rededication to Life and Torah in the Aftermath of War.” An address delivered two months after the Yom Kippur War before an assemblage of hundreds of students and colleagues as well as rabbinical, military and government officials including Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel. Israel Torah Research Institute, Jerusalem (December 1973)
In the realm of film, Yosef Wosk is interviewed for My Father’s House, a film by Mark Benjamin, producer, B’nai Brith, distributor, Jerusalem (1974). He also donated support for Peace It Together, a project to bring Jewish and Arab, Palestinian, Israeli and Canadian youth together for dialogue, camping and film-making in a neutral environment [Vancouver] and The Adam Institute [Jerusalem] (2004 and 2008). Wosk has also been a donor to The Original Promise, a documentary film that seeks to discover the heart and soul of Israel (2012), and to the SHEKEL Film Festival, “Reframing Reality – Films that Challenge the Concept of Disability”, Jerusalem (2015).
In theatre, he appeared on stage for Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” at the Kahn Theatre, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1970) and in yeshiva Purim Shpiels (1972-75). In the field of music he studied traditional cantillation of Torah and liturgy, learned both Western and Eastern melodies for Sabbath hymns (1972-75) and sang in a yeshiva choir (1973-74). In addition, he has been a significant donor to the Dena Wosk Music Therapy Program at the Residential Treatment Centre for children from abused backgrounds at the Children’s Home and Canada Group House. Programs include instruments, song writing, children’s choir and social skills through music. The program is coordiated via B’nai Brith, Jewish Women International of Canada, Jerusalem (2002-present).
In literature, Yosef Wosk is an ongoing supporter of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement, presented annually in association with the Vancouver Public Library, as well as the annual George Ryga Award for Social Awareness.
Not all of his enthusiasms and beliefs have born fruit. Wosk contributed to yet-to-be-realized plans to create The Center for the Preservation of the Hebrew Book at the Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem (1994-96).
On the home front, where he tends to remain relatively inconspicuous, Wosk took inspiration from Lilian Broca’s mosaics to create a lyrical prose poem in the voice of the Biblical figure of Esther for his artistic contribution to The Hidden and the Revealed: The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca (Gefen Publishing, 2011). Wosk’s prose poem is accompanied by notes illuminating his extensive investigation of biblical and mythological aspects of the Esther story. [See Lilian Broca entry on the ABCBookWorld reference site for details]
This was followed by Wosk’s poem and essay for the book-length catalogue Heroine of A Thousand Pieces: The Judith Mosaics of Lilian Broca (Vancouver: Italian Cultural Centre 2015), inspired by Broca’s use of mosaic tiles to reinterpret the story of Judith that was first recorded around 163-142 BCE. This book-length catalogue—with contributions by Rosa Graci, Sheila Campbell, Angela Clarke and Adolfo Roitman—accompanied the debut of Broca’s new Judith mosaics at Il Museo (Italian Cultural Centre) in Vancouver from November to March, 2016; followed by a Toronto exhibit at JD Carrier Art Gallery, May to July, 2016.
Painters throughout history have depicted how a chaste Jewish temptress beheaded the oppressive invader Holofernes to save her people from oblivion.
As an amalgam of Scheherazade, Mata Hari, Salome and David vs. Goliath—depicting a femme fatal as a saviour of the Jews—the fictional story of Judith connects on levels beyond religion.
Inspired by Lilian Broca’s stunning mosaic cycle in seven parts that depicts Judith’s heroism Yosef Wosk has outlined the deeper meanings of the Judith story—including Judith as the personification of Israel itself.
In a Jewish city called Bethulia, soon to be overrun by Assyrians, there once lived a beautiful young widow named Judith who was mourning the loss of her husband, Manasseh. When the town fathers show they are unwilling or unable to take responsibility for defence of their city against the marauders led by Holofernes, Judith dresses herself in opulent robes and jewellery.
The elders are astounded by her beauty. “May the God of our ancestors grant you favour,” they say, “and make your design successful for the glory of the Israelites and the exaltation of Jerusalem.”
So Judith sets forth for the enemy camp, accompanied only by her maid. General Holofernes and his troops are similarly impressed. “They marvelled at her beauty, regarding the Israelites with wonder because of her, and they said to one another, ‘Who can despise this people who have such women among them?’”
The Assyrian soldiers leave Judith unharmed and allow her to observe her Jewish rituals for several nights until Holofernes, intending to have her as his concubine, invites her to dine with him. He intends to rape her, if necessary, but the wiley and alluring Judith succeeds in getting him drunk.
Judith beheads Holofernes with a sword when he is inebriated and asleep. The unsullied heroine and her maid hurry back to Bethulia with Holofernes’ head in a bag. [Images of this decapitation have been immortalized by the likes of Caravaggio and Getileschi.]
Shocked by the assassination, the Assyrians flee.
Judith takes the head of Holofernes to the Temple of Jerusalem where she is accorded the honours of a male hero. Instead of accepting riches, Judith chooses the independent life of a devout widow, refusing to remarry, remaining childless.
It doesn’t matter that the city of Bethulia never existed or that Assyrians in the story were said to be ruled by King Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian. The power of the story lies in metaphor.
“Judith lived the rest of her long life, 105 years, in pious integrity and dignified nobility,” Wosk concludes, “She became a legend in her own time but the concept of personal happiness was as rare as it was foreign to her generation.
“Happiness was contingent upon the nation, the people, the family, deity and the dedication to duty. The book’s twin engines—wrapped in drama and charged by suspense—are patriotism and piety.
“May we continue to be inspired by the study of Judith’s exploits and the telling of her story—mosaic and archetype, real or imagined. May her actions, and ours, be made of such memory that will be handed down to our descendants from age to worthy age.”
Judith is Hebrew for Jewish woman. Betulia in Hebrew is virginity. As depicted by Broca and articulated by Wosk, it was Judith’s virtuous self-discipline that triumphed over the excess and debauchery of Holofernes as much as it was her beauty.
By downplaying the sensationalism of the story—seduction and murder—the character of Judith has been revered as the mother of the Hebrews, in Wosk’s words, “as if it was she who had given birth to all she had saved.”
Heroine of a Thousand Pieces is not only visually splendid; it is an original, feminist interpretation in which Judith’s moral qualities are given equal emphasis to the seduction and homicide.
Judith is shown meeting the town’s elders, praying in the desert. She is not a voluptuous assassin; instead she has a modest demeanor when she displays her trophy. In this way, devoutness, chastity, ingenuity and courage are celebrated.
Vancouver artist Lilian Broca has now depicted the lives of three legendary, wise and fearless women—Lilith, Esther and Judith.
Around 2002, Broca starting importing high quality glass from Orsoni in Venice. Over a seven-year-period she created ten glass and mosaic tile panels in the Byzantine style to tell the Biblical story of the lowly-born Esther who disguised her Jewish faith in order to be become Queen, enabling her to save her people from annihilation. Co-published in New York and Israel in 2011, The Hidden and the Revealed: The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca also included texts from Sheila Campbell and Yosef Wosk.
For her depiction of the story of Judith, Lilian Broca has opted for the Baroque style of the seventeenth century to better incorporate theatrical gestures and emotional expressions of an even more audacious heroine.
The subject matter of Judith was suggested to Broca by Adolfo D. Roitman, Curator of the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, who has contributed an introductory essay on theological themes. Roitman views the story as a confrontation between paganism and monotheism, as well as between faith and disbelief; and he traces the appeal of Judith’s activism to the power of the Maccabees’ revolt that gave rise to Hanukkah.
Yosef Wosk’s ability to combine wisdom, writing and teaching is also evidenced in the provocative convocation speech he delivered to graduands at Simon Fraser University [http://www.sfu.ca/video-library/video/522/view.html] when he received a degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa on June 14, 2012.
His address at Sam Sullivan’s Public Salon on June 5, 2013 can be viewed at
The Hidden and the Revealed: The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca by
Lilian Broca, Sheila Campbell, Yosef Wosk. Israel and New York: Gefen Publishing House Ltd., Israel and New York 2011) 9789652295606
Heroine of a Thousand Pieces: The Judith Mosaics of Lilian Broca by Lilian Broca, Sheila Campbell, Angela Clarke, Adolfo Roitman, Yosef Wosk. Foreward by Rosa Graci (Vancouver: Italian Cultural Centre 2015) 978-0-9948658-0-9
Reflections on Art & the Artist, based on honorary doctorate oration for the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, text by Yosef Wosk, preface by Ron Burnett, two tipped-in colour illustrations, chapbook designed by Robert R. Reid, ed. of 500 and 50 deluxe copies. Aryel Publishing House, Vancouver (2005)
As a school girl in Bucharest, Lilian Broca knew her Jewish identity was better left hidden. In 1958, her family immigrated to Israel, then onto Canada in 1962. Since the late 1960s, having married and moved to Vancouver, Broca has frequently looked to mythological and biblical stories of courageous females to inspire her art.
Broca’s The Lilith Series, about the legendary character created before Eve, served as the basis of a book co-authored with Joy Kogawa. Now Broca, as a mosaic artist, has been inspired by the story of Esther, a young Jewish girl who became queen of Persia, saving her people in the fifth century BC.
With a preface by Judy Chicago, The Hidden and the Revealed: The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca (Gefen $35) is a 200-page coffee table book designed, in Chicago’s words, “to put the woman’s voice back where it should have been in the first place.”
A lyrical prose-poem by Yosef Wosk, using Esther’s elder-sage voice, has been added to this lavish reinterpretation of Esther’s story about both sacrifice and female empowerment. Broca’s Queen Esther Mosaic Series, seven years in the making, also benefits from contributions by Sheila Campbell and Linda Coe.
Grudgingly competing in a beauty pageant to select Persia’s new queen, in accordance with her foster father Mordechai’s wishes, Esther is chosen by King Ahashvayrosh (aka Xerxes) and placed in his harem. She does not divulge her Jewish upbringing and beliefs, as advised.
When the evil Haman plans to exterminate Jews without the king’s knowledge, Esther agrees to Mordechai’s request to risk her life by approaching the king uninvited—an act for which she is liable to be sentenced to death.
For Broca, Esther’s story also “exemplifies a successful intermarriage of two people from different cultures, namely Jewish and Persian…. My unexpected discovery that one of the earliest if not the earliest written reference to mosaics occurs in the biblical Book of Esther, in the passage describing King Ahashvayrosh’s palace, further contributed to my decision to return to this powerful, singular art form.” 978-965-229-560-6
Response to Graduands offered by Yosef Wosk upon being presented with the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa
by Simon Fraser University
Thursday, June 14, 2012
I dedicate these words to Milton Wong, one of the kindest men this world has ever known; to my father, Morris J. Wosk, who encouraged and supported me throughout my life; and to Jack Blaney, former president of this university and mentor extraordinaire.
“Who knows what I’m going to speak about today?
That was the question that Nasr’udin, the Sufi mullah, asked as he prepared to deliver a sermon in the packed village mosque.
Stunned, those assembled answered, “No, no, of course we don’t!”
To which he replied, “Well, then, I refuse to waste my time on a bunch of ignoramuses like you,” and he turned and left the pulpit.
The next day Nasr’udin was invited back.
Once again he asked: “Who knows what I’m going to speak about today?”
This time, afraid that he would leave, they called out: “I do; we do!”
To which he replied: “If you already know, then I don’t need to waste my time repeating it.” And he left the building.
Even though the people were perplexed, they still wanted to hear the teacher’s wisdom and so they invited him back a third time.
“Who knows what I’m going to speak about today?” he asked.
This time they had a plan, so half answered, “Yes, I do, we do” and the other half answered, “No, no we don’t.”
To which he replied: “Good! Then let those who know tell those who don’t.” And with that he left for the last time.
Madame Chancellor, President Petter, faculty, staff, family, friends, and especially graduates —
I am going to speak about what I have learned, presented as some hard-earned advice in the guise of five surprising blessings and a dare. I will give only headlines, speak in exaggerated terms, enthuse you to live your life with a kind of soulful brilliance, and trust that “a hint is sufficient for the wise”.
THE FIVE BLESSINGS
Today I advocate that you all become Beggars, Thieves, Fools, Arrogant and Masters of Destruction. I realize that these may be rather shocking offerings, but here they are.
Beggars are not just the poor and downtrodden but also holy beggars, those who realize how inconsequential they really are compared to the fullness of the universe. They may be professional beggars who claim a corner, or itinerant beggars who wander the world. Constantly humbled, forever in exile, they experience the essential nature of life. But they, too, are continually giving. This is what I’ve learned from beggars: that we are each other in disguise; I’ve learned how to ask and how to receive; and how to beg for knowledge, love and life because there are so many things that we just cannot accomplish alone.
It is those humble ones that I refer to when I wish we could all become like them and share a meal at the Beggars Banquet to come.
I trust that this graduating class will be the most honest and ethical, and yet to truly succeed in your studies you must also learn from thieves who are always looking to profit from what is not yet theirs.
This applies, of course, only to learning. It is a category referred to as kinat sofrim “jealousy of the scholars”, for when you see someone of greater learning or accomplishment you may desire to be like them. Not everything can be transmitted from teacher to student: some things must be seized by the student alone. Listen how the Taoist teacher, Sat Hon, explains it.
I tell my students the best mode of learning is to pretend you are a thief. If you come with a sense of entitlement because you’ve paid for the lesson, you will be passive. You can wait for ten years and say, “How come you didn’t show me that?” and I can say, “I have been showing it to you but you haven’t been skillful enough to steal it from me.”
I wish that you become not only domesticated and highly trained scholars but that you also embrace the Crazy Wisdom of those who live life large, those who are intoxicated with ideas and eager to see them realized.
To accomplish this, you sometimes need to play the fool, to stand on your head, to see things upside down and sideways, inside out and from a distance. If you are fortunate, you may slip into a state of mystical union where the knower, the knowledge and the known are one.
Being a fool is when you can devote yourself wholeheartedly to achieving a worthwhile goal. You are meshugah le’davar echad, “crazy for one thing”.
Yet the Fool does not just live a life defined by hard-edged results. His path is paved with poetry and filled with humor; her story is garbed in spontaneity, garlanded with bells, and electrified by an infinity of alternatives.
The fourth blessing is that you proclaim your arrogance, not just your humility. Everyone has two pockets: one carries the egotistical attitude of me and mine, of bishvili invar ha’olam, “the world was created for me.” The other pocket balances the first. It carries the attitude of feeling insignificant, of “I am dust and ashes”.
There are times when the first pocket, that of arrogance, is called for. It is an intense experience — often accompanied by thanksgiving — that can strengthen your thoughts and transform your visions. It can also save your life as it did Buckminster Fuller’s when he was a young man and depressed by a series of disappointments. A second before suicide he heard a voice urging him instead to embark on “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”
That humble man was saved by an outburst of arrogance and became one of the most original thinkers of the past hundred years. May confidence be your ally and a reminder that you are exceptional and a type of genius in your own right; that you have a gift, like no other, to benefit the world.
If you still insist on belittling yourself, hiding in the pocket of distorted humility, then pay attention to this ancient story of just how much the Life Force demands our growth:
Ul kol aisev ve’aisev, yaish lekhah malakh sheh’omaid alav
Over every blade of grass there is an angel that hovers above
with a stick in its hand;
And it strikes the grass
and calls out,
5. MASTERS OF DESTRUCTION
This last blessing is that you become iconoclasts, breakers of false beliefs and destroyers of delusions.
I’m not referring to violent destruction but rather to creative destruction that clears the way for renewal. I’m referring to personal beliefs and even to our dreams that can impose their unconscious tyranny over our lives. Our days may be passed in sleepwalking; in yearning but never doing. I have learned that to fulfill my dreams, I must wake up. All birth requires prior destruction: the waters that break, the pod that splits, the earth that parts, the shell that shatters.
Entire civilizations sometime need to be defied. My teacher, Ha’Rav Dovid Lifshitz, once stopped our class and challenged us: “You students,” he said, “are too impressed with the idea of civilization. During the last war, who was the most civilized of all nations? The Nazis emerged from a culture of composers and philosophers, of authors and scientists, and yet what did they do with it? With one hand they played the piano and with the other they strangled children.”
That is why I encourage you to become great builders when you can but dauntless destroyers when necessary.
The most difficult subjects are our selves. The illusions are more complex for they insulate our sanity and yet, if we don’t dispel them, we remain barricaded prisoners of our own minds.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have teachers who urged me to fling open the Gates of Perception and not to wait for Kafka’s doorkeeper to declare: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was meant only for you. I am now going to shut it.”
Ten thousand barriers stand in our way; we will need ten thousand and one strategies to overcome them, to arrive at our destination transformed by our efforts as Masters of Creative Destruction.
THE UNYIELDING JOURNEY
Today you are what might be referred to as UAOs, “Unidentified Academic Objects”; tomorrow you will pursue your future and consolidate your reputations. It is like kindergarten déjà vu where completing one level only puts you in kindergarten of the next.
The path is long and the journey unyielding. I spent most of my life being lost, climbing, searching, falling, finding and struggling to arise.
I discovered that brains can be awakened no matter our age, and hearts, however closed, can be reinvented; that arms, even if passive, can reach out; and that souls, even if wounded, can soar, unbound, once again.
Now you, along with Nasr’udin, know what I spoke about today.
I urged you to be brazen thieves and holy beggars, inverted fools and arrogant masters of destruction. May you be further incited to live your lives with the passion of lovers and the stamina of athletes to achieve your goals “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”.
And finally, the dare. I conclude with a compelling parable by Apollinaire in which we overhear a dramatic discussion between a teacher and students. Not just a teacher of facts and fictions, but a teacher of life. I have learned that there is no corner of the cosmos where wisdom does not dwell. Guides are everywhere — in the winds and waves, fires and fields. Listen and they will speak.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We are afraid,” they said.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
He pushed them.
And they flew.
See Douglas Todd’s 700-word review of much of this speech, also available on this abcbookworld entry [below]. It appeared in the Vancouver Sun on June 16, 2012, and in a slightly different version in his online blog
The full text is hidden in my heart and in the recesses of my mind. These endnotes add another dimension to my intentions. They offer a short commentary to the main text. A chapter could be written about each theme: indeed, entire books have been researched, and specialized libraries assembled, on each of the subjects introduced above. It is a privilege to spend a few hours in a Temple of Knowledge, aka a library, or on the Internet, exploring these matters. Hopefully, it will be edifying and curiosity will be aroused. Perhaps you will be disturbed enough, as I was, to turn an hour into a day and a day into a life; perchance it will lead to action and we will meet—alone, yet together—on the path over There.
Translation of the ancient Aramaic term: Die le’hakima bi’rmiza. Variations of this aphorism are found in most cultures worldwide.
Literally translated as “jealousy of the scribes” but to grasp its intention the full term kinat sofrim tarbeh hokhmah (Baba Batra 21b), is better translated as “competition among scholars increases wisdom.” The term kinah is found in Isaiah 11:13. In a second century rabbinic mishnah, its pernicious quality is reinforced: “Jealousy, lust and honor remove one from this world” (Pirkei Avot 4:21). The positive use of potentially negative traits, however, is a well known, if somewhat dangerous, pedagogic technique.
This will stimulate your learning and help propel you to the next level. This kind of stealing knowledge—not academic plagiarism—is permitted by the great teachers of Eastern and Western esoteric traditions who understand that not everything can be transmitted from teacher to student. Some things are too subtle, immaterial and intangible: they must be seized—or suddenly realized—by the student alone. Classic Buddhist literature contains a number of examples of disciples who attain enlightenment in such ways.
Also cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlightenment_in_Buddhism, especially the section on “Sudden and gradual.” These sudden transformations may be facilitated by master teachers but can only be completed after great discipline and sustained practice—and even then, almost accidentally—by the student.
Nachmanides, or Ramban (1194-1270), however, cautions dilettante students from wrongly supposing that they have uncovered the mysteries. He writes: “Now behold I bring into a faithful covenant and give proper counsel to all who look into this book not to reason or entertain any thought concerning any of the mystic hints which I write regarding the hidden matters of the Torah, for I do hereby firmly make known to him [the reader] that my words will not be comprehended nor known at all by any reasoning or contemplation, excepting from the mouth of a wise Cabalist speaking into the ear of an understanding recipient.” This translation is from “Torah on the Web–Virtual Beit Midrash” (http://vbm-torah.org/archive/ramban/introtothetorah-scan.htm) but also see Ramban (Nachmanides): Commentary on the Torah, especially his Introduction to the Torah, (Hebrew original first written in the mid-1200s and available in a number of editions; important five volume English annotated translation by Charles B. Chavel, Shilo Publishing House, New York, 1971-76).
“The Dark Illumination of Sat Hon,” Parabola, Summer 2009, p. 48 – 55.
A fool, in its highest manifestation, is one who is given over completely to a spiritual belief or secular principle. We find examples among some of the prophets in ancient Israel, in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, the North American First Nations and among shamanic traditions worldwide. In a modern secular or psychological sense, one could be a fool for an idea or a particular project. For some examples of “Fool Literature” see The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy, Harvey Cox, Perennial Library, Harper & Row, New York (by arrangement with Harvard University Press), 1969; God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi, Julien Green, translated from French by Peter Heinegg, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1985; and Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, Robert Linrothe, editor, Rubin Museum of Art, New York, and Serindia Publishers, Chicago, 2006.
June McDaniel, in her work on the divine madness of the medieval bhakti saints in Bengal, also mentions other similar traditions: “Divine madness is not unique to Bengal, or even to India. It has been explored in various traditions: in both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christianity, among the Hasids of Eastern Europe, among the Sufis, in possession and trance dancers around the world.” She then describes how Plato, in his dialogue Phaedrus, distinguished between pathological and divine manias and proceeded to list four types of divine madness: that which brings divination; that which opens one to possession trance; the third madness is the poetic; and the fourth, the erotic, which brings frenzied love. He then concluded: “In reality, our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, which indeed is a divine gift.” June McDaniel, The madness of the saints: ecstatic religion in Bengal. University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 7. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crazy_wisdom.
Using Tarot as a metaphorical guide, Janet Ossebaard describes, Le Mat, The Fool, as a pilgrim on an open-ended journey that culminates as he is transformed into the inverted figure of the Hanged Man. She writes:
According to the Tarot, the Fool is the card of infinite possibilities, total renewal, number zero and thus a new beginning. It also represents important decisions and optimism. The Fool is both the first and the last card, alpha and omega. He reminds us of sacred things that we have either forgotten or suppressed. He recognises his own ignorance and thus becomes the wisest of all. Tarot expert, June Kaminski, describes the Fool as follows: “The Fool represents the Negative space above the Tree of Life, the source of all things. It is the Qabalistic Zero, the Equation of the Universe, the initial and final balance of the opposites, both the father and the mother—male and female, in an abstract sort of way. The Fool is intricately linked with all 21 cards of the Major Arcana—in fact, many theorists maintain that the other Major Arcana cards are parts of the Fool’s whimsical journey of self-discovery, culminating with the Number 21 World Card, bringing successful completion, accomplishment, and fulfilment. Because the Fool is trusting and open to all experiences, he provides the perfect role model as we, too, embark on our life journey. The Fool coaxes us to walk our own path, not the path of the “herd”. To trust our own inner voice, our intuition and our inner knowing and to embark on our life course with faith and a stout heart. We need trust, faith in the goodness of life and people, and an undying belief that “all will work out exactly as it should”.
In his search for his spiritual Self, the Fool sits at the foot of a tree where he remains motionless for nine days. After nine days (there were nine days between the Fool and Transformation of Spirit into Matter) he rises and hangs upside down on one leg from a branch of the tree. He becomes the Tarot’s Hanged Man. He completely surrenders and notices how his perception of the world starts to change. He floats between two worlds, the spiritual and the physical, and he can see both clearly. Suddenly, he sees all connections; mysteries unfold before him. The Fool is the last stage but one before the ultimate insight.
© Janet Ossebaard, September 1, 2006. http://www.circularsite.com/gedachten10-eng.htm
The Sacred Books of the East are nothing but words,
I looked through their covers one day sideways.
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something, it is not true.
(Kabir: Ecstatic Poems, English translation by Robert Bly, Beacon Press, Boston,  2007). Kabir (1440-1518), a mystic poet and saint of India, is uniquely revered by Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities. His writings have been discovered by Western spiritual seekers.
A dedicated fool can achieve much, perhaps even accomplish what others thought impossible, whereas the rest of us are relatively scattered and our powers are dissipated.
According to Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha (1765–1827), everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: “I am but dust and ashes,” and on the other: “The world was created for me.” Occasionally you reach into one or the other pocket. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into which one [for many make the mistake of using them in their opposite applications].
The phrase ve’anokhi afar va’eifar, “I am but dust and ashes,” was spoken by Abraham in conversation with God (Genesis 18:27). The concept of “the world was created for me”, originates in the mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 in a discussion regarding the sanctity of life, and in the subsequent talmudic discourse in Sanhedrin 37a-b.
Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century and creator of the geodesic dome. I had the good fortune to hear him speak on three occasions. At one of the gatherings—in Philadelphia in about 1981—I was able to spend some personal time with him and asked his permission to recite a rare Hebrew blessing on his behalf. The blessing is recited upon encountering an individual of great wisdom in a secular discipline. He looked at me, gave permission, slightly bowed his head, and heard these words, first in Hebrew and then in English translation: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Master of the Universe, who has given wisdom to flesh and blood.” And the great man responded, “Amen.” I recited that blessing only one other time, in 2007, when I was part of a delegation to Paris to meet the eminent Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Travelling with me were the anthropologist Guy Buchholtzer and Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) Chief William Cranmer. I represented the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars and Lévi-Strauss, then almost 99 years old, had agreed to be our honorary patron along with John Ralston Saul. Deeply spiritual but not religious, he, too, consented, bowed his aged head filled with wisdom beyond measure, and received the ancient invocation.
He related that there was a time in his life when he was bankrupt and jobless, living in rundown housing and suffering terribly from the death of his young daughter. He blamed himself and this drove him to drink and to the verge of suicide. He told us how he stood on the docks overlooking Lake Michigan and, feeling worthless, was about to jump to an icy death.
Another favourite quote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” See the Internet for a cornucopia of pithy Fullerisms.
We often arrogate the term “genius” to the exclusive realm of the intellect but it could just as legitimately refer to physical, emotional or spiritual attributes. Phenomena as diverse as time and place can have a genius (genius loci), as can an entire nation or biological species. Genius was traditionally used to describe an external tutelary deity, spirit or guardian of a person or place. Although sometimes still utilized as such, the common use of the term has now been internalized. In a secular sense, the deity/spirit is no longer an external phenomenon but rather an internal one. As the outer, previously mysterious, realms have been demystified—as aircraft and telescopes have invaded the abode of the gods—the individual has replaced the sacred distant heavens with secular outer space and theology with scientific observations. Genius—formerly appreciated as a guiding spirit that attends a person throughout their life—has now been transformed into a characteristic or quality of an individual person. Genius could be used to describe a person’s highest or most outstanding qualities in any number of realms such as being very smart (intellect), beautiful, athletic or strong (physical), sensitive (emotions), or mystical (spiritual). According to these various usages, it could be argued that everyone—even every thing—is born or exists with a guiding genius (genie, djinn or jinn). Human consciousness, however, has the power to accentuate, cultivate and stimulate its native born genius into expressions of exceptional output.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) once quipped: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” Another of his relevant quotes: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation” (De Profundis). An equally witty example, probably borrowed from Wilde, emerges from one of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips (8-28) in which Lucy asks Snoopy: “I’ve always wondered how you decided to become a dog.” “That’s a good question,” Snoopy replies. “I remember going down the list . . .. Everything else was taken.”
This Hebrew text is from Midrash Rabba, Beraisheet 10:6.
There is a difference between “creative destruction” that is purposeful and leads to improvement, versus a purely destructive act with no positive purpose. For a fuller discussion based upon rabbinical definitions of labour on the Sabbath, see http://www.ou.org/chagim/shabbat/concept.htm, “The Concept of Melachah.” Examples of creative destruction are editing, pruning, and recycling, or demolishing a building to make way for a new one. Acts of psychological editing can become painfully personal as when we confront the peculiar addictions each one of us secretly nurtures as an antidote to the burden of consciousness and the restrictive rules of any given civilization. Cf. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (1930). At times, the choice of when and how to react, if at all, to untenable situations is unclear and the issues are often ill defined. In other instances, however, we may be called upon to speak out and act up, to defend the victim and champion justice.
Ones that have us worshipping such forces as power or money, objects of desire, charismatic individuals, institutions or governments.
Although an entire civilization may seem like a chaotic collection of individual phenomena, it could also be appreciated—like a galaxy of a trillion stars or the micromolecular structure of a common object—as a gestalt. It depends on the degree of perspective as one moves through macrocosmic and microcosmic modes of observation. The greatest macrocosm might be the universe itself [beyond even that—beyond all time and space, and even infinity that is dependent on physicality, beyond words, thought and description—another Transcendent Reality may “exist”]. The trajectory towards the smallest microcosm may travel in the opposite direction but its conclusion is the same [a concept that may suggest either a curvilinear or parallel transcendent universe]. Meanwhile, human beings—those temporary inhabitants of a bejewelled life-clinging planet—are endowed with self-reflective consciousness that can consider such thoughts. Thomas Berry expressed this attribute as the Earth awakening to consciousness of itself in its human mode of being, i.e. human beings are the Earth made conscious of its self (see a web search for numerous references and elucidations to this idea). The Book of Genesis refers to humans as not only encompassing the Earth—the Hebrew name “Adam” is a derivative of “Adama” (Gen. 2:7; 3:19), the Earth, and could be translated as Earthman; an English equivalent would be “George,” derived from “geo”, the Earth—but also as reflecting the Heavens and even the Creator, i.e. as “being created in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27; cf. Gen. 2:7). In the Hindu Upanishads, the Atman—the inner essence of the human being—is similarly identified with Brahman—the supreme Universal Spirit and origin of the universe. World religious literature and oral traditions are replete with such analogies.
On the other hand, we dare not arrogate consciousness, or soul, as the unique prerogative of humanity. All that exists has consciousness and swims within it. There may be millions of perceptions of consciousness: the rocks and minerals have their portion; vegetation absorbs and expresses its soulful share; as do the insects, birds, reptiles and mammals; fire, water, air and earth each relate to consciousness in their unique way. It, along with other cosmic forces, pervades the universe; we are merely a local iteration of both its generation and perception.
A single person is an entire world (Sanhedrin 4:8 [37a]). Our minds, like larger aggregates of human gatherings, contain multitudes of conflicting voices and creative—though often equally destructive—tendencies. At the other end of the spectrum, cultures and then civilizations are merely amplifications of individual psyches engaged in both intra- and interactive conversations. Civilization is the recapitulation of a single human being; each individual encapsulates a cosmos. For some further discussion see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recapitulation_theory.
A civilization, like an individual, is not an absolute cosmic construct but rather one of innumerable potential manifestations. Stephen Weil, a seminal thinker in the fields of arts, law and museums, and former Scholar Emeritus in the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Education and Museum Studies, exemplified this point: “Museums are our own human creation—neither based on any changeless ideal nor occurring as a fact of nature—and they are a creation that we are free to shape and reshape as may best suit our needs.” (Rethinking the museum and other meditations, Stephen E. Weil, see Chapter 2, “A Meditation on Small and Large Museums,” Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1990).
Cf. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (and Heaven and Hell), Harper & Brothers, New York, (1954) 1956, and a number of other editions. Also see the excellent web essay at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Doors_of_Perception.
There are times when we must disregard the guardian and look past the barrier as just another obstacle to overcome. Some, when they see a wall, simply turn back. Others will try to pass to the left or explore the right. Some will climb over and others dig beneath or batter their heads, like Aries, against it until they are filled with scars and broken horns (but at least they may have broken through to the other side). Some will transform the opaque barrier into a translucent glow or transparent window but a window, no matter how clear, still suggests a barrier [I Corinthians 13:12], something that may serve as necessary protection [Exodus 33:20]). Then there are those—searching for the path of least resistance or a mediated compromise—may abandon the path before them to examine alternate routes. Some great leaders, it is said, don’t even see the wall. What is a barrier to some is an opportunity to others. These are the Masters of Creative Destruction.
Kafka expressed it the best in The Trial where the doorkeeper does not permit the traveler to enter, not even the first of many gates. After waiting for too many years, and now upon his deathbed, the pilgrim is informed by the guardian, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was meant only for you. I am now going to shut it.” (Franz Kafka, The Trial, Chapter Nine, “In the Cathedral.” The original German-language text was written in Prague in 1914 and is available in a number of editions and various translations, including The Trial: A New Translation Based on the Restored Text, translated by Breon Mitchell, Schocken Books, New York, 1998).
There are portals that no one else can enter, and keys that no one else can hold, for doors that others cannot even see. Most of us become attached to the limited identities that we call ourselves and to narrow definitions that we mistake for reality. In an attempt to dismantle those limitations, I learned to live in multiple realms simultaneously. With some issues, I have had temporary success; with many others, I stumble every day. Give yourselves permission. You have authority simply because you exist.
And yet, even if you find your path and dare to enter the gate that was meant only for you, it is still not enough. There are others to nurture, a community to grow, friends to cultivate and family—biologic or of choice—to recognize as home. You are called upon to not only be yourself but to also demonstrate greatness of soul by identifying with others, by serving a purpose greater than yourself, more profound than your encapsulated ego; a purpose that is at once boring and mundane and, at the same time, is aware of, and inspired by, transcendent realms and a profusion of possibilities. Cf. Hillel the Elder (c. 110 BCE–10 CE), who taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am [only] for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14).
But do not wait until you are dying to wish you had lived. We imagine that we are eternal (the mind can imagine eternity but the body cannot go along for the ride), and yet “life is like the shadow of a passing bird” (Psalms 144:4; Bereisheet Rabbah 96). In a hundred and twenty years no one at this convocation will still be alive and yet we sit here fooled by the fantasy that we will live forever.
There are hundreds of examples of “the journey” in pilgrimage literature. My favourite description of the few who persevere is from the 12th century Persian writer Attar. In his Conference of the Birds, the Sufi epic poem of the Quest, he describes how just thirty birds out of thousands who began the pilgrimage arrive at their sacred destination completely transformed—unrecognizable even to themselves—“without feathers and without wings.” Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds, translated by C. S. Nott, Shambhala Press, Berkeley, 1971.
I came across this amusing term in the following article: “Unidentified Academic Object” by Asad Syrkett, Architectural Record, January 2012, Vol. 200, Issue 1, p. 36.
During your years of study here you experienced many moments of inspiration, you were guided by distinguished teachers and dedicated tutors, and made friends for life. But you also worked through lonely nights and doubtful days when you were ready to quit, to walk away. Some of you wrestled with addictions and disease; some were isolated, far from home, family and friends, while others always seemed to be popular and partying hard.
These examples represent the Four Archetypal Worlds suggested in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Comparisons are also found in other contemplative literatures. These four bear multiple metaphysical meanings only one of which is: Atzilut, the Realm of Spirit; Briyah, the Kingdom of Intellect; Yetzirah, the Heart of Emotions; and Asiyah, the Manifestation of Action.
Deuteronomy 6:5; and cf. Mark 12:30; Matthew 22:36-38
Often attributed to Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), it may actually have been penned by the English poet Christopher Logue (1926- ). For a discussion on this matter see
In a number of ancient teachings, including Babylonian, Greek, Hindu and Buddhist, we find the concept that all matter—and by extension, much more subtle spiritual energies—is composed of earth, water, fire, air, and ether. For a general overview of these concepts in various cultures see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_element.
Rabbi Yosef Wosk is one of the rare scholars who can inject spiritual values into both academia and the wider secular culture.
The Vancouver-born educator and philanthropist did so again this week in a soulful speech, laced with cheeky Muslim, Taoist and Hebrew wisdom, while receiving an honourary degree from Simon Fraser University.
Wosk had for 15 years been SFU’s director of continuing studies and founded the hugely popular Philosophers’ Café program, through which more than 70,000 people have engaged in lively discussions on important issues.
Along the way, Wosk has been teaching around the world and spearheading an incredible array of philanthropic endeavours – hundreds of projects supporting the visual arts, museums, libraries, heritage preservation, inter-faith dialogue, medicine, rare books, public gardens and more.
Earning five postgraduate degrees in theology, psychology and other fields, the Vancouver polymath was once a teaching assistant to Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel. He speaks several languages and has received the Order of B.C. and a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.
As one of the offspring of furniture-store owner and philanthropist Morris Wosk, who immigrated to Vancouver from Ukraine in 1928, Yosef has begun projects that link the Wosk name with many educational spaces and creative efforts at SFU and beyond.
The five other luminaries receiving honourary degrees this spring from SFU are South Asian community leader Jack Uppal, United Way director Saida Rasul, groundbreaking aboriginal lawyer Louise Mandell, former York University president Harry Arthurs and South African pediatrician Glenda Gray, acclaimed for her pioneering work in preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission.
Yet when it came Wosk’s turn to address the afternoon convocation ceremony in the out-door plaza of SFU’s Burnaby’s campus, students and faculty appeared riveted as the rabbi gave them advice in the form of what he called five “surprising” blessings.
“Today I bless you that you all become beggars, thieves, fools, arrogant and masters of destruction,” Wosk began, acknowledging his pleas might seem shocking.
Since Wosk had said earlier at lunch that it is incorrect to believe a “secular” university should bar spiritual concerns, he went on to urge the graduates to become “holy beggars – who learn how to ask and how to receive; and how to beg for knowledge, love and life.”
Wosk said he trusted the graduating class to be honest and ethical. So he also called on them to pretend to be “thieves,” who avoid passivity to steal learning and accomplishment from their teachers.
Then Wosk – an active businessman who endowed the City of Vancouver’s position of poet laureate – urged the arts and social science graduates to not only become trained scholars – but “fools – who embrace crazy wisdom.”
A real fool turns things upside down and “may slip into a state of mystical union.” The path of the fool, Wosk said, is filled with poetry, humour, devotion and spontaneity and “electrified by an infinity of alternatives.”
The rabbi seemed to stun some in the audience with his fourth blessing: Calling on the grads to not just proclaim their humility, but their arrogance.
Wosk described how the visionary Buckminster Fuller, moments before he was ready to commit suicide, “heard a voice urging him instead to embark on ‘an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world.’ “That humble man was saved by an outburst of arrogance and became one of the most original thinkers of the past hundred years.”
Finally, Wosk wrapped up his mischievously spiritual speech by urging the young graduates to become masters of destruction.
“This last blessing is that you become iconoclasts, breakers of false beliefs and destroyers of illusions,” Wosk told the crowd of graduates as they prepared to step into their futures.
“I’m not referring to violent destruction but rather to creative destruction that clears the way for renewal.”
Sometimes, he said, people are too impressed with so-called “civilization” as they know it. So they “sleepwalk” through life and society, barricaded in their own minds and habits.
“I have learned that to fulfill my dreams, I must wake up,” Wosk said.
“All birth requires prior destruction; the waters that break, the pod that splits, the earth that parts, the shell that shatters. That is why I urge you to become great builders when you can, but dauntless destroyers when necessary.”
Happiness makes me sad. I’m not referring to genuine happiness, but rather to the phenomenon of commercial happiness that is marketed from every conceivable media niche. Happiness is big business, retail therapy, a temporary fix, an emotional drug. “You want to be happy?” they ask. “Then buy this car, wear those clothes, go on vacation, give to my charity, save our planet, lose that weight.” Happiness has become a burden, a dizzying series of magical resolutions and commercial panaceas. In its shadow lurks a recipe for stress and depression.
What is happiness anyway? In our rather young secular culture, we have abandoned much of the traditional wisdom of the past but have not yet developed the stories that give meaning to our lives. It takes time to mature; it is a generational process of shared experiences that must patiently ferment. Most of us are satisfied with a conditional happiness that is dependent on small victories and fortuitous coincidences. But there must be a deeper sense of happiness.
Does happiness come with meaning, with a coherent explanation for everything? Is it something to be achieved, or felt, or is it a state of being? There are many kinds of happiness. There is temporary happiness like falling in love or winning gold; a medium contentment that reflects a general satisfaction with life; and then there is a sense of eternal ecstasy based on cosmic metaphysics. Members of various world religions can mean vastly different things when speaking about the paths to happiness: the path to salvation for one leads to hell for another.
I wonder why the human psyche is so addicted to happiness. What evolutionary function does it perform? When we are feeling down we look to artificial stimulants, hedonistic pleasures as well as other psychological addictions to make us happy. That generally seems to be tolerable behaviour, a reprieve from the necessary laws that bind society, but often the repercussions are filled with regret.
Until that day when world peace permeates the Earth, I can be happy but only for a moment; I can laugh, but not fully. My joy is anchored in your suffering, and until we can be happy together, I would rather cry with you than be happy by myself.
[Vancouver Sun contribution, 2012, for a series conceived and edited by Doug Todd]
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