Preface

Martin S. Cohen

 

In its famous opening chapter, the Hebrew Bible describes creation as consisting of twin acts of making and separating: God creates light on the first day and then separates it from the darkness, just as on the next day God creates the firmament and then sets it in place to separate the waters above from the waters below. And so it follows, at least in theory, that when human beings seek to create through the medium of their own artistry, creativity, or industry—and are obviously unable to mimic the uniquely divine act of creation ex nihilo—they seek to do so through the one part of the process they can imitate: separation. Indeed, the famous quip that the correct way to make a statue of a horse is to take a huge block of marble and then to chip away the parts that don’t look like a horse is just an amusing way of suggesting the same idea: namely, that the human creative process involves the perception of something embedded within something else and then the subsequent liberation of that thing from its former setting so that it may exist on its own and in its own right.

For Jewish readers, the notion of creative separation will be most familiar in the many commandments that seek to instill reverence for the Creator by honoring the categories of creation. This is a notion that manifests itself throughout the rich panoply of rules set forth in Scripture and understood collectively to constitute the path the righteous may travel toward the knowledge of God. Indeed, the very notion that humankind can best approach God through behavior that shows respect for the categories imbedded in the world from the time of creation—and that the concept of separation can be brought to bear productively and fruitfully in this context—will be familiar, and can hold tremendous spiritual potential, for those who hew to the commandments. Even something as ordinary (and seemingly non-spiritual) as showing respect for the boundary stones that set off a neighbor’s private property (Deuteronomy 19:14, cf. Proverbs 22:28), for example, is treated in the Torah not as merely a point of property law, but rather as a sacred obligation in which we can find embedded the ancillary obligations to respect and honor dividing lines of other sorts, to recognize differences between neighbors, and to maintain societal separations insofar as they reinforce and bolster our own integrity and well-being. And the other forms of ritual separation familiar to those who live a Jewish life—keeping separate dairy and meat foodstuffs and utensils, for example, or avoiding garments made of a mixture of linen and wool—are all similarly rooted in the same notion: that one can seek to know the Creator by showing respect to creation and the categories woven, some overtly and others subtly, into its warp and its woof. To worship in a synagogue, one may have first to choose from many available options. To find God in the world, however, one has no real choice but to live one’s life in the one created world, ever cognizant of the design imprinted on it by the Creator…which effort can only bring us closer to finding the Creator in creation, in the world.

Most familiar of all separation rituals is Havdalah itself, the ceremony that formally marks the end of the Sabbath and the onset of the workweek. (The word havdalah means “separation” and is merely the nominal version of the verb used in Genesis to denote God’s creative effort to separate that which was priorly mixed together.) And it is thus the Havdalah ceremony that naturally serves as the focus for most of the essays in this volume. Indeed, for most of our authors, the concept of havdalah manifests itself the most meaningfully and interestingly in Havdalah, with both its ritual and its liturgy deemed representative of its core concept of sacral delineation. But other authors have taken the concept in different directions, considering what it could possibly mean in a world that more often values integration and cross-cultural fertilization.

Our authors in this volume form a varied group, but they all embrace the simple notion that the great path forward toward an enhanced, rich sense of what it means to be a Jew in the world leads through the studied contemplation of the rituals and prayers that are the stuff of traditional Jewish life. But although this book is about the Jewish ritual and Jewish ideas, I hope that it will appeal not only to Jewish readers but to many others as well. In the digital age, to imagine that the high road to learning about anything at all is through the studied contemplation of the written word is a bit of a daring idea seriously to put forward. But that is exactly what I and the other editors of these volumes actually do think: that the high road to understanding Judaism and Jewishness is through the thoughtful consideration of the commandments and their attendant liturgies and rituals, as well as through the study of the classical texts that together form the corpus of ancient and medieval Jewish literature. I can only hope that readers of these books come to agree with those basic suppositions.

Unless otherwise indicated, all translations of classical Jewish texts quoted in this volume are the authors’ own work. Biblical citations footnoted to the NJPS derive from the complete translation of Scripture first published under the title Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia in 1985.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the authors who have contributed to this volume for their time and their energy, and also for their boundless creativity. And similarly must I also acknowledge the other senior editors of the Mesorah Matrix series, David Birnbaum and Benjamin Blech, as well as Saul J. Berman, our associate editor. They and our able staff have all supported me as I’ve labored to bring this volume to fruition and I am grateful to them all.

As always, I must also express my gratitude to the men and women, and particularly to the lay leadership, of the synagogue I serve as rabbi, the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, New York. Possessed of the unwavering conviction that their rabbi’s book projects are part and parcel of his service to them (and, of course, also to the larger community of those interested in learning about Judaism through the medium of the well-written word), they are remarkably supportive of my literary efforts as author and editor. I am in their debt, and I am pleased to acknowledge that debt formally here and wherever I publish my own work or the work of others.

 

 

 

Martin S. Cohen
Roslyn, New York
May 19, 2016/11 Iyar 5776