Cubism and the Seventy Faces of Torah

Last week a Picasso painting sold at the record price of $160 million. The cubist painting “Women of Algiers” was auctioned off by Christie’s in New York to an anonymous buyer for $20 million more than its $140 million pre sale estimate.


This news item caught my eye not because I am in the market for expensive art but because I recently returned from a trip to Madrid where I became reacquainted with some of Picasso’s most famous paintings, in particular “Guernica” which hangs in the Reina Sofia museum. While Cubism is only one of Picasso’s diverse styles he is credited, along with the French painter Georges Braque as being the creator of this unique and radical early twentieth century style.

Cubism is influenced by such early twentieth century discoveries as the x-ray and radio wave. Cubists were inspired by these hidden dimensions and sought to portray them in highly unconventional and often disturbing ways. In short, cubists portrayed reality as consisting of multiple angles and dimensions simultaneously. Such art is not to everyone’s liking but one cannot deny the sheer force of its expression.

As I viewed some of Picasso’s pieces I began to reflect on a well known midrashic adage:

“There are seventy faces to the Torah.”

The full context of the midrash is a discussion about the offerings of the tribal princes at the inauguration of the tabernacle. The midrash picks up on the passage that describes each prince offering a silver mizrak, or drinking bowl. The midrash says:

“The wine [contained in the drinking bowl] symbolises Torah. Just as the numerical value of the Hebrew word for wine (yayin) is seventy, so too does the Torah have seventy faces.”

While first appearing in midrash rabbah (Numbers 13:15) the concept has its antecedent in an earlier Talmudic passage:

“Behold, My word is like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that shatters rock!” (Jeremiah 23:29)

“In the academy of Rabbi Yishmael it was taught; Just as a hammer shatters rock into many splinters, similarly may one single verse [of Torah] be split into many interpretations.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 34a)

As it becomes apparent to anyone who studies Torah, every passage, verse and even word lend themselves to multiple interpretations. This multiplicity is captured in the phrase “seventy faces” of the Torah.

How are we to understand the multifarious nature of Torah?

There are two ways of approaching this.

One way is to see the multiplicity within Torah as an invitation for each individual to seek the interpretations that best sit with them. Universalists, for example will gravitate towards interpretations with a universal bent while particularists will be drawn to interpretations of a more particularist nature. The same goes for mysticism and rationalism or any other perspective that one come to the text with. This way of understanding the purpose of the Torah’s seventy faces is given expression in the blessing one recites at the very end of the amidah prayer in which we ask the Almighty to give us “our share” in His Torah. The implication being that each individual has their own particular share in, or perspective on, the multi-dimensional Torah and they are invited to discover it within the vast range of available rabbinic interpretations.

Talmudic argument

But I think there is another, more challenging way to understand the Torah’s seventy faces and that is as a form of intellectual cubism. The Torah’s multiple meanings are not there for us to choose from but rather, as when looking at a cubist painting, to hold in awareness simultaneously. It is too facile to reduce Torah to any particular perspective or outlook. Is the Torah universalistic or particularistic? The answer is it is both. Rationalist or mystical? Again, both. Does the Torah celebrate personal autonomy or conformity? Both. And how could it be any other way? If the Torah is mind of God it must by its very definition contain multitudes.

Perhaps this is what the midrash is getting at when it derives the seventy faces concept from playing with the numerical value of wine. A connoisseur of fine wine will tell you that what makes for an excellent quaff is the complexity of flavours all hitting the taste buds at the same time. Cheep wine delivers a simple, easily identifiable flavour. Its in the rarer stuff that one finds complexity.

For those seeking simple answers the Torah of seventy faces can be challenging, discomfiting, disturbing even. Yet for those who want to be awakened to new perspectives and broader intellectual horizons, for those who want to glimpse the limitless nature of the divine as it is manifest in Torah, for those who can appreciate complexity, encountering the seventy faces can be truly exhilarating.

Shavuot is an ideal time to cultivate an appreciation for this most extraordinary gift. For a Torah that provides so much more than simple instruction and easy answers, but rather provokes, stimulates and seduces those who carefully study her ever changing seventy faces.






The Limits of Language: A Rosh Hashanah Meditation

blowing of the shofarThe highlight of tomorrow’s service and the central ritual of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the Shofar. Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon famously listed ten different reasons for this Mitzvah. These range from the trumpet-like sound invoking God’s coronation, to the more human sounds of sobbing or crying apparent in the Shofar’s plain notes which are the result of the deep introspection undertaken on this day.

The Hasidic masters build on the theme of crying and explain that the deepest form of human expression transcends language. The call of the Shofar then represents the deep inner call of the human soul calling out to God as the Psalmist put it: “deep calling unto deep.” The idea is that on Rosh Hashanah we gain access to, and so are able to express, our soul’s deepest yearning for God and its expression as captured in the sobbing of the Shofar, is wordless.

This powerful idea always resonated with me but it was given particular poignancy in 1988 when as an eighteen year old Yeshiva student I had the privilege of spending Rosh Hashanah in Crown Heights and praying with the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.

It was his custom to blow the shofar for the first set of thirty notes while another Ba’al Toke’ah sounded the notes during Musaph. I can recall the scene as though it were yesterday. I stood in a packed synagogue amongst thousands of Chassidim. One could hear a pin drop as the Rebbe ascended the Bimah and put the Shofar to his lips. The sound that emerged was the most haunting I had ever heard or heard since. His notes were not a triumphant blast but an ethereal sound that one had to strain to hear. If there was such a thing as a sobbing soul it would sound like this. To this day I yearn to hear such soulful notes on Rosh Hashanah and I find the self-confident, clarion blasts of most Shofar blowers to be deeply discordant and I am invariably disappointed.

While the Hasidic masters emphasised the wordless nature of the soul’s longing, that is to say the soul’s reaching out, something I heard the other day gave rise to a thought that perhaps the non-language of the Shofar also travels in the opposite direction. That somehow it reaches in to the soul transforming our perception of reality.

I was listening to Radio 4 in the car on Thursday night and the Jamaican poet and writer Kei Miller was talking about how language shapes one’s perception of reality. As an example he took the word “scroop” which denotes a scrapping or rustling sound of material sweeping along the floor. “How,” he asked, “can you hear your bride’s dress as she walks towards you if you don’t know the word scroop?”

I wonder if the sound of the Shofar is meant to take us back to a primal, pre-language state on Rosh Hashanah. So much of what we experience in life is mediated through the words we routinely use that it becomes almost impossible to experience reality in new ways, to see the world through fresh eyes, to genuinely be surprised, to experience awe, wonder and gratitude. By using the word “sunrise” to capture the moment when night gives way to day we objectify, capture and contain an extraordinary moment, and in that containment we impoverish it. We create a common currency for what otherwise might be an intensely powerful subjective experience.

The same is true with human interactions. When we meet a person for the first time we immediately – and subconsciously –  try to fit them into our existing vocabulary (the person is kind, clever, insincere or arrogant) but in doing so we limit our own ability to be truly open to what could be an entirely new perception of another human being.

This can also  be true in our relationship with God. We inherit a rich metaphorical vocabulary which we invoke when thinking about, and when praying to God. Yet this vocabulary is by definition severely limited.  The notion that God can be captured in terms like Father or King becomes problematic if those become the only terms in which we can conceive of the infinite Creator.

Language is useful to help us make sense of our reality but it can also severely limit our perception of reality and inhibit fresh perspectives.

So could the Shofar, that primal pre-language cry, be telling us to suspend, at least for a crucial moment, our language-shaped reality?  Could it be leading us through the threshold to a renewed reality? Is it a coincidence that the Shofar is sounded on the same day that Adam and Eve were created? When on that first day of human life Adam names all the animals using his God given ability of language to shape and so to experience his new reality?

Could the Shofar be telling us that in order to experience the world anew, we need to suspend our old vocabulary for only then can we begin to fashion a new vocabulary and thereby form a new reality, a new existence, a new world?

I believe the Shofar points us in this direction. It urges us to step beyond the comfortable signposts of language, if just for a moment, so that we can encounter reality starkly without reference to pre-existing frameworks. In the moment we transcend language we plant the seed that will give rise to new language enabling us to enrich our perception of reality, deepen our relationships with others and open up new possibilities in our quest to connect with the infinite Creator.

What is Ethical Finance from a Jewish Perspective?

The following is my keynote address at the Interfaith Ethical Finance Roundtable.

Houses of parliament across River Thames

The Interfaith Finance Roundtable was held at The House of Lords on the 24th September 2013. It was sponsored by the Islamic Finance Council in association with the Arab Financial Forum (AFF) and the University of Cambridge inter-faith program. Other keynote addresses were given by The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Sheikh Ruzwan Mohammed.

Good afternoon,

Rather than talk about the specifics of ethical finance from a Jewish legal perspective I think it would be more beneficial and illuminating to describe the underlying philosophy that undergirds its many emergent laws. Laws address circumstances and as circumstances change so too does the application and interpretation of law. However the underlying Jewish philosophy and value system is the bedrock upon which all subsequent law is built and so with only twenty minutes allotted to this presentation. I would prefer to describe the general Jewish value system which gives rise to numerous laws.

So what is the Jewish value system that undergirds ethical finance? I think it is the same value system that undergirds all of human behaviour and it is brilliantly, albeit cryptically, set out in the following mishnaic teaching. The Mishnah is the first recorded book of Jewish law redacted by Rabbi Judah the Prince in the early part of the third century Common Era. It’s a lengthy passage so, in the interest of time, I will read only the most pertinent part.

A human being creates many coins from the same die and they are all identical; the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed is He, coins all people from Adam’s die and not one looks like another. This is why every person must say ‘The world was created just for me (Mishnah, Chapter IV Sanhedrin)

As I said the mishnaic langue is terse and so let me explain what it means.

Ancient coinage carried the imprint of the sovereign; a human head. The Mishnah observes that despite the production of thousands of individual coins, the head imprinted on each of them is identical since they are all minted from the same die. The Mishnah contrasts this with the human phenomenon that no two people look alike. The conclusion drawn from this is that in the same way no two people share an identical outward appearance so too it must be that not two people share identical inner qualities either. There are no duplicates. Each human being is a unique creation, an original. And not just during one’s own lifespan but in historical terms as well. There never was another you nor will there ever be another you. Given how unique we each are the Mishnah concludes that we must each say/believe that “the world was created just for me.”

However there are at least two major problems with this teaching:

Firstly, in theoretical terms it’s extraordinarily narcissistic. How can a religious text teach such self-absorption? One would expect a core religious text to promote humility, awareness of one’s own limitations, the notion that the world does NOT revolve around me. And instead we get a text that emphasises the exact opposite.

Secondly, in practical terms what is the likely outcome of EVERY individual thinking this way? If every person woke up in the morning believing that the world was created just for them what kind of world would we end up fashioning for ourselves? Some might argue that this is exactly the world we are currently living in and it is precisely because too many people wake up in the morning believing that they are at the centre of the universe!

The truth is the mishnah is making the exact opposite point to what it appears to be making at first glance. The mishnah is not giving one licence to take from the world with impunity but rather to give to the world out of a deep sense of responsibility.

Because each of us is unique we each possess the unique opportunity to contribute something novel to our world and to society. The Mishnah is trying to combat a nihilistic tendency in which the individual despairs of making any real difference because he is so insignificant. The Mishnah address this first with rich imagery pointing to the fact that no two people are alike and then by persuading the individual to think of the world as though it were created just for him – to make a unique contribution that no one else in human history can and will make.

In other words the Mishnah asserts that each of us possesses a unique purpose to be fulfilled with our lives. In this context “The world was created just for me” implies the world is waiting for my unique contribution.

The holocaust survivor and great humanist Victor Frankl was aware of this truth when he wrote in his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning” that:

Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it

This foundational idea, that every human being has a unique purpose to help shape our world is at the heart of Judaism and it is captured in the phrase Tikun Olam – which means to repair our fractured world. What does this have to do with ethical finance you might ask? The answer is everything. Ethical finance is Purpose-driven finance.

Let me explain.

Throughout human history there has always been a tension between rights and responsibilities. I think it is fair to say that prior to the enlightenment the emphasis was on responsibilities or duties at the expense of individual rights. Post-enlightenment the bias has turned in the other direction, and this is certainly true of the post-modern world we currently find ourselves in. The discourse of politicians, educators and moral philosophers revolves around finding the right balance between Rights and Responsibilities so that whenever one pole is dominant they react by pulling society in the other direction. The result is that we vacillate wildly between these two poles and this is not constructive.

The financial world in particular finds itself caught between these two poles. Many bankers assert their right within a free-market society to maximise short term profits regardless of the long term cost – provided it is within the letter of the law. They in turn are challenged by, amongst others, groups like the occupy Wall St Movement that invoke the language of responsibility. Responsibility beyond the letter of the law; responsibility to community, to the planet, to future generations.

The problem with this discourse is that it is a conversation of the deaf and that is largely because given the choice between right and responsibility most people prefer to assert their right. Responsibility, at least, in our post-modern individual-centric society is not something most people instinctively relate to. And that is why the only effective way to maintain it is through legislation.

But what if there was a third way? A model that combined both right and responsibility?

I contend that this is the Jewish model of purpose. Embedded in the mishnah’s teaching that we each have a unique purpose in the world is the notion that we have both a right to discover and articulate this purpose as well as a responsibility to do so.

By shifting the discourse from responsibilities to purpose, I believe we can get behind the defensive stance of those who don’t want to be told by outsiders what their responsibilities are because they are afraid that these responsibilities will erode their rights. Even if some could be convinced of their responsibilities there is little joy or enthusiasm in addressing them. At best it’s seen as a price to pay for the right to remain in business. After all the term used to describe addressing responsibilities is to discharge them. We discharge our responsibilities but we fulfil our purpose. The challenge of purpose speaks to us on an entirely different level. It touches our being in a way that responsibility cannot. Deep down we all crave for our lives to have some greater purpose. We instinctively recognize the insignificance of our all too brief lifespan and we want to know that our lives mean something. A.J. Heschel a great twentieth century rabbi, philosopher and human rights activist wrote:

Sophisticated thinking may enable man to feign his being sufficient to himself. Yet the way to insanity is paved with such illusions. The feeling of futility that comes with the sense of being useless, of not being needed in the world, is the most common cause of psychoneurosis. The only way to avoid despair is to be a need rather than an end. Happiness, in fact, may be defined as the certainty of being needed. But who is in need of man?

Ethical finance is purpose-driven finance. One is that enables the financier to contribute something purposeful to society, to the environment, to future generations. Purpose-driven finance, if done correctly, avoids the compliance-based box ticking of responsibility, or worse the hollow, opportunistic, synthetic CSR, and in its place unleashes a positive, proactive drive to fulfil potential and to be a blessing to others.

In typical Jewish fashion I conclude with a story:

Once, a man came to see the great Hasidic master Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

“Rabbi” the man sobbed “I have so many problems. I need to marry off my eldest daughter but I haven’t enough money for the wedding. The landowner from whom I rent my tavern is pressing me for the rent which I can’t afford. My youngest child is ill and I have no access to a doctor. Oh Rabbi, pray for me!”

The rabbi sat in silence for several minutes, resting is head in his hands. Finally he looked up at the poor man and said “my good man stop thinking about what you need and start thinking about what you are needed for!

Ethical finance, from a Jewish perspective, is just that. A financial system operated by those who think a little less about what they need and a little more about what they are needed for.