...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Monday, April 30, 2007

Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding: Cha-Ba-D

Friday I presented and defended my thesis before all the Religious Studies faculty, my advisor, and other seniors (and a few others who came out of interest). (Thesis title: "To Heal the World: Tikkun Olam as Interpreted by Chabad-Lubavitch and Jewish Renewal." If you want to read it, feel free to live a comment or facebook me and I'll send it to you as an attachment.) In my case, it was more "presentation" than "defense:" since I didn't type out a script, but rather spoke from an outline I made the night before, I didn't know how long it was going to be and Rob had to cut me off after twenty minutes or so (we were supposed to speak for fifteen minutes then answer questions for five). One student asked a quick question about the degree to which my Weberian framework was appropriate--he understood how I was using the categories of "inner-worldly" and "world-rejecting/world-fleeing" religion, but wasn't sure how applicable the "ascetic" and "mystic" categories were. I was a little nervous about getting thrown a curveball by one of the faculty, so I was glad that the only question I got was such an easy (but pertinent) one. I chatted more with some of the faculty and students at lunch.

I think the presentation went well. I hit all my main points, but afterwards I realized I could have been clearer and more concise about the ways that Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, adapted Lurianic tikkun olam in the Tanya: the nefesh elohit, or divine soul, of the Jew is connected to God by 613 strands representing the 613 mitzvot, or commandments; the work of tikkun, or healing, is realized through observance of the mitzvot, which restores the relationship of the nefesh elohit with the Divine.

Afterwards, I was talking with my advisor Sylvia and she told me how gratifying it was to her to see how far I've come in my knowledge of Hebrew, Judaism and Jewish history, especially since I knew next to nothing when I took her Intro to Judaism class two years ago--I mean, I'd taken the Hebrew Bible class, but that's not Judaic Studies and it's pretty unfortunate that that's the extent of most Religious Studies students' knowledge of Judaism. In particular she complimented my Hebrew and said that I sounded very natural in my usage and pronounciation. (She actually told me too that she wondered if people understood all of the Hebrew phrases I used--in my topic, there's no way to get around a lot of Hebrew--because I generally only translated things like halakhah, sefirot, nefesh elohit, mitzvah and Mosiach the first time I said them.)

It's a little hard to believe that my undergraduate thesis is complete. Part of writing a long paper (and my final draft turned out to be 43 pages) is reaching that point when you realize that you could just keep researching and writing and reading and working indefinitely, and keep adding layers upon layers. New lines of investigation open up, and dozens of possible tangents become clear. I didn't have time to pursue all of them, but I made a note to myself about ideas for graduate research, and obviously I'm going to continue attending P'nai Or and thinking about tikkun olam...really, rather than being complete, my thesis is To Be Continued.

* Chabad is an acronym of "Chochkmah, Binah, Da'at," or "Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding," three of the ten sefirot within the system of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Each sefirah is like a different emanation or energy level of God's being. Chabad prizes mystical knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of God, so it takes its name from the acronym for those three sefirot. In older literature, like the Tanya, and particularly things that were written for those literate in Hebrew, the name of the dynasty is sometimes spelled HaBaD or ChaBaD, emphasizing that it's an acronym for the Hebrew words. ("Lubavitch," like all other names of the different Hasidic dynasties, refers to the town in Eastern Europe where Chabad-Lubavitch originated.)