My Jewish Seminary
וְנָהָר יֹצֵא מֵעֵדֶן לְהַשְׁקוֹת אֶת הַגָן
"kissing" mezuzah, Poland, 1930s
photo by Roman Vishniac
"The spiritual quest wishes for contact with divinity, symbolized by a kiss. Spiritually understood, the kiss is the co-infusion of spirit between one being and another. It is thus an overcoming of transcendent distance by immanent presence. The kiss is the desire to transcend individuality for a Higher Unity. The yearning for transcendence is not a nullification of the world but rather its transfiguration through a consciousness of divinity infusing all things. This is a spiritual transformation of the everyday. A seeker strives to see the world in the light of the divine radiance."
Michael Fishbane's book, JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs, is the finest exegesis I know: writing skill of the highest order combined with wide-ranging, original, provocative insights. Among the latter, Fishbane explains how the Song of Songs addresses the longing for God's presence: What's the path, the direction to God, especially for those who are lost, disoriented, and adrift? One path forward is to "go forth from your own limitations and heed other seekers...follow the examples of others who perceived the flow of Being. This is a going forward with discernment, guided by shared wisdom. Other seekers may give assistance. Follow the clues and tracks that have guided their way."
Below are religious perspectives (Jewish and non-Jewish) of friends and acquaintances. Their inclusion is
an acknowledgement that we are all "instruments in the universal orchestra" (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi), we are all vessels into which the One "pours its light and through which it comes to be refracted in different ways...like mathematical fractions contained within the whole." (Rabbi Art Green) I am grateful for the time these individuals spent organizing their thoughts, and their willingness and generosity in sharing. My plan is to continue adding to this page.
A sofer (scribe) in London, Mordecai has been a very friendly, helpful online acquaintance as I've pursued my interests in safrut (the writing of Torahs, mezuzot, and tefillin) and Hebrew calligraphy. His websites, www.sofer.co.uk and www.kulmus.co.uk, are superb resources that showcase Mordecai's extraordinary creative output and important contributions to the perpetuation of Judaism.
Where have you worked and where do you currently work? I have worked in marketing communications for over 30 years, 26 of those for the Central Office of Information (London) as head of Direct Marketing and Evaluation, and the last eight years at Paragon Customer Communications (private sector) as its Strategy and Creative Director.
Describe your religious education? In 1995, I completed an M.A. in Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College. I also apprenticed to a sofer for five years and studied the halacha (law) of safrut. I'm currently studying for a PhD at Cambridge University (Fitzwilliam College) related to my scribal work and Hebrew manuscripts. I've had lots of teachers and learned from many people and countless books,. Aside from parents, probably the biggest single influence on the direction of my life was a sofer named Vivian Solomon (may his memory be a blessing). He was at one time the only scribe in Britain helping the progressive movement to maintain their Torahs. Vivian had been looking for an apprentice for ten years without success. Then he found one: me. My first lesson was in early August 1998. Vivian was an amazing person, 75 years old, but full of energy and enthusiasm and determined, as he says, "to pass on before he passes out."
To what places of worship have you belonged and do you currently belong? I've been a youth leader, lay leader, and Torah reader in various synagogues. Currently I belong to a Sefardi synagogue, though at present, given the age of the community and the risk from Covid, I pray at home and have been doing so for many months now. When we recently moved buildings and the main synagogue was closed, I donated some money to procure one of the old lecterns to have a memory of the building; this has turned out to be my main prayer space during the lockdown.
What has your religious practice (prayer regimen, charitable endeavors, social action, or any other disciplines, etc.) been in the past and what is it currently? Judaism has always been a very large part of my life. I have served communities across the United Kingdom and internationally for decades. I have presented at various Jewish and interfaith institutions on the subject of safrut, to both adults and children, as well as in three British Broadcasting Corporation programs. I authored a book on Jewish business ethics based on Psalm 15. I helped design a prayer book and Passover haggadah for the Reform Movement. I undertake a fair private amount of study and I have also written a number of books on safrut and biblical related themes and written/illustrated children’s books. I wrote "Thoroughly Modern Moses," combining Torah, science fiction, art, and music, all of which have been large influences on my life.
What do you see as the overarching, grand principle (e.g., love thy neighbor as thyself) of your religion? I just think people should be nice to others. Judaism had a large part in my upbringing and informing my behavior, enabling me to have an ethical stance on life and pass that way of thinking onto others. In my job in government I ran the place on the basis of Jewish business ethics. While writing my book on that subject it became very apparent that--while one may have personally striven to reflect and maintain the personality traits that King David in Psalm 15 exhorts--it isn’t something that you actually can do all of the time. I have no doubt that some people who have dealt with me over my career will say "you didn’t do that when x, y or z happened." But equally others will (hopefully) say, "yes, that sounds just like how Mordecai handled it." It isn't necessarily a case of "do as I do" or even "do as I say" but rather "here’s what King David said, let’s all learn from it and if feels right, let’s put it into daily practice as best we can."
How do you define God and soul? Does your theology impact your daily life? Does it influence how you approach daily life situations? Does it shape your interaction with other people? I don't tend to think about definitions. I'm not that keen on labels. My connection with God is a bit different and is probably brought about through the scribal work I undertake. While I've studied commentaries, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash etc. and read countless books, I spend large slabs of my time directly in front of a Torah scroll, reading and repairing letters with a quill and ink. My scribing is also part of my study and opens a very individual connection between myself and God and the meaning of the words. When I’m fixing a Torah, quill in hand ink to my side, bent over the parchment, bearing witness to the 'black fire written on white fire' it’s just me and the Torah. I am undiluted, unencumbered, unconstrained by thousands of years of commentators whose views were colored by their times, their society and their mores as they reworked the plain meaning of the text. They layered hints, allusions, stories and mystical musings that perhaps were never there when first these words were written down. I'm in a fortunate position to just have the words directly speaking to me. That can open up new ideas and new thoughts and new connections (which no doubt someone has thought of before since there is 'nothing new under the sun'...but they are somehow mine). Safrut opens up a channel and is, in part, meditative when you are transported to a different world. I often get flashbacks of positive places and people when I'm writing or fixing that I don't otherwise get in my crowded day. When I am 'in the zone' I guess I am closer to God.
I have personally known Andy as a competitor in local chess tournaments since the 1990s. In recent years I've encountered Andy away from the board as a great friend and fellow traveler along spiritual paths.
Where did you grow up? Louisville
Where have you lived over the years? Louisville, Birmingham, Southern Indiana
Where do you live currently? Southern Indiana
Where have you worked and where do you currently work? many different jobs over the years, but have been a professional secondary educator for 25+ years (self-employed)
Age & family: 52, married for 28 years, one son
Hobbies: running, chess
Were your parents religious? yes
What was your religious education as a child? Christian grade school and undergrad, church Sunday school
What is your current religious affiliation/identify? Christian
To what places of worship have you belonged and do you currently belong? Charismatic, Southeast Christian Church, Baptist
What has your religious practice (prayer regimen, charitable endeavors, social action, or any other disciplines, etc.) been in the past and what is it currently? I have always been devout in my faith since very young childhood, to one degree or another. Prayer (I would describe it as an “attitude of prayer” daily, along with more formal prayer time almost every day), regular giving at church, regular Bible reading, scripture memorization/meditation, personal evangelism, weekly church attendance
What do you see as the overarching, grand principle (e.g., love thy neighbor as thyself) of your religion? We are hopelessly lost sinners who cannot save ourselves, and only by God’s grace can we enter His presence through the sacrifice of His perfect Son, Jesus. “Obey God and keep His commands, for this is the whole duty of man.”
How do you define God? Omnipotent, omnipresent, personal Creator, perfectly just and perfectly loving at the same time, and very interested in each of His human creatures.
How do you define soul? Tough one – maybe as “the real self,” the spirit of a man that lives on even after the body withers away.
How did you arrive at these definitions (i.e., which books, clergy, professor, friends, informed your thought)? The Bible – my ultimate source of authority on all matters pertaining to life and godliness, and to an understanding of God Himself. The Bible is God’s inspired word, and so there is no other source for this information that trumps it in authority (including clergy who contradict it)
What is your conception of the interplay (however you wish to define it) between science and theology? God created the world and everything in it. He established the laws of science in such a way that man is able to discover, explore, invent, etc. But the physical world is only one dimension; there is also a spiritual dimension that does not lend itself so easily to the purview of scientific discovery (which relies heavily on the five senses). I reject materialism (the notion that the material world is all there is) since that worldview contradicts not only the Bible but also my own experience. I also reject outright any notion that true science and true religion are in conflict with one another
Does your theology impact your daily life? Does it influence how you approach daily life situations? Does it shape your interaction with other people? Yes, profoundly so. I believe every human being is created in God’s image. I get this belief directly from scripture and therefore take it as a basic truth. This belief profoundly impacts my perspective on my fellow man, compelling me to treat him with respect and dignity. I do not always succeed in this endeavor, but I strive towards it. Because I believe God is omnipresent and omniscient, my behavior – of mind and of action – is kept in check according a biblical standard of ethics and morality (again, of course I do not live out my faith perfectly, but without question my sinful tendencies would be kept far less in check without this belief system!). I believe with every fiber of my being that my life has ultimate purpose specifically because God Himself has given that purpose to me, so I live every day with the attitude that I am here on this earth to accomplish God’s will through my efforts – not to imply that He needs me, for none of His purposes can be thwarted regardless of my own success or failure in obedience to Him. I strive to seek God’s will for my life in the decisions I make, the way I treat my fellow man, the effort I marshall, not because I believe my actions will somehow earn God’s favor, but rather because I believe He has saved me by His grace and I want to please Him out of gratitude to Him!