Animals in Jewish history.

I live on Land for Wildlife, just one acre near the south east coast of Australia. Many creatures live here from snakes and lizards to possums and some of the most beautiful birds in the country. It is rolling hills, very green in winter and dry in summer. There is a woodland and a wetlands. The garden is full of trees and beautiful wild flowers with the occasional rose because I can’t live without my roses. It was while walking through the woodlands on the property that I began thinking about the animals in Jewish history. There are many, too many for one painting. Nevertheless, I and decided to gather a few creatures together on a canvas 60 x 80 cm .The work is in oils. It is a reminder to be kind to all creatures.


Recycling soft plastic.

For decades now nations have being going to war over the need for oil. Almost everything we use in this modern world requires oil. Most mining and manufacturing also requires huge amounts of water. We reached a point in history where we were told oil would peak and it would not be available at a price people could afford. There were predictions of a return to the Dark Ages. There was no mention of the water. We took the water for granted. The apocalyptic oil depletion discourse was truly mind blowing, we all started to collect our plastic and we began recycling it. In rich countries we recycled water with desalination plants, but they are expensive to build and to run. Water across the world is becoming scarce. The cost of water is rising. The fight over oil has become a fight over water. It can only get worse if we in the rich world do not help those who are poor. We will both be at war. This will be the real and final apocalypse. We cannot live without water. How we take our clean water for granted. I have been to places where there was only one well to serve a whole village and the water came up brown and full of sediment. The situation is much worse. The entire world is running out of clean drinkable water. It is happening in places where water was abundant. The oceans are being polluted, the mountains and springs are running dry. We must change our priorities and take care of our world, we must better assist our poorer nations and we must preserve every single drop of water and not waste it on frivolous goods and entertainments. Clean water is a gift. We must honour it.

Hebrew Magic in the Mandala.

Any history of the mandala should include Hebrew magic. Talismans were made and sold to clients to bring good luck in love and business. Even the renowned Israel Baal-Shem-Tov, the founder of Chassidism made a living from selling talismans. There were various magical alphabets used including one said to be connected to angels. The texts were often incorporated into symmetrical mandala patterns with circles and suns that had shapes pointing from the centre outward into the universe.

What is Pure Love?

This question was post to me recently in a tutorial. What  is pure love?
For me pure love has a deep spiritual connection. By this I mean, it goes beyond the physical, but it can also contain the physical. One is able to feel close enough ( and willing) to take on the other’s pain (or pleasure). I believe there are different levels to pure love. There is the human level where one takes responsibility and exercises a duty of care free of self-interest. Another level is the deep and meaningful relationship that grows between friends and/or family. The third level I would describe as almost telepathic where a person can tune into the other’s soul and thereby becomes connected to it. Instinctively, the mother knows when the child is in trouble, this can happen with adults too. Something tells you when someone close is sick, they might be on the other side of the world, but you feel the change due to the level of love and caring. In neurological terms we can separate romantic love and lust from the deep and meaningful relationship. Most romantic fantasies are like drugs and directly target the brain’s reward system with dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation and feelings of pleasure. Dopamine energizes activities that feel emotionally positive, this can include applauding your favourite film star or cheering on a football team, as well as succeeding in romantic conquests. Dopamine triggers testosterone, which is the major factor in the sex drive of both men and women. This feeling is an ancient primal instinct, which comes from the oldest part of the human brain, the hypothalamus and the amygdala. These are the same areas that govern the fight and flight responses when the brain signals danger. These responses are not designed to last and they can be exhausting. When there is a deep sense of love and bonding the chemical oxytocin is released in the brain. This is the same chemical that promotes bonding between mothers, children, solid partners and very close friends. Unlike dopamine, oxytocin dampens the stress responses of the sympathetic nervous system. It feels good, calming and it encourages a deep and meaning love, which appears spiritual and needs no explanation.


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Thoughts on Purity, Judaism and Passover.

                                         Microscopic virus.
I have always had trouble with the concepts of purity and impurity. Not only is it an intrinsic form of “othering”, it goes against all natural laws of transformation and transmutation. It has also had dire consequences in history, not just in the form of Eugenics and other genetically modified projects, but in wider discrimination as well as in Judaism itself. Women have been deemed impure after menstruation, a perfectly natural event. The virgin is pure, but what does that make of the married woman? Various illnesses have rendered people impure, particularly those mentioned in the religious texts. Seriously, how can anything be defined as pure or impure without the imposition of personal fear, bias or bigotry; and of course health, there are many religious rituals around health. Nothing in nature can be said to be pure, everything is constantly changing. Almost everything has contaminants, so purity is something of an illusion. Yet, purity is given a very wide lot. The spread of disease and its impurities depends largely on the levels of immunity, but the focus is always on the disease not the improvement of immune systems. As for pure love, I am still searching for it. When it comes to relationships, devotion, dedication, endurance and commitment make more sense to me than pure love. The evidence suggests that love is essential for good health and well being, but the evidence also suggests that romantic love is more popular than pure love, albeit more stressful. Romantic love is more exhilarating, which speaks to the notion of humans enjoying a life of big risks. Perhaps we can link this trend to our archaic past and the risks taken in hunting, gathering and survival. Statistically, romantic love lasts approximately twelve months before couples burn out on high emotions. So why not aim for pure love? Because, statistically, many are not seeking love, but compensation for feeling incomplete. Why do we feel incomplete? The answer lies in bonding. Bonding involves certain rituals that take place over a lifetime, from the first suck at the breast to the many religious festivals, which often demand that we discard something either as a offering or as a contaminant, this bonds us to systems of belief as well as to other people. The very act of carrying out these rituals builds new pathways in the brain. Our brains run on memories, which we use to push life forward and as Jews we have managed to turn this into fine art, literature and intrigue even over a few stale crumbs. Remarkable!

What is meant by “self-interest?” A philosophical view.

The Holy Land.  Oil painting by Yishkah.


I have been stydying the Talmud  for almost a year now. I takes seven years to complete the course.  There are many interesting questions to be addressed, but the issue of good deeds and self interest is one that has captivated my mind for some time.  Here is a daily lesson, this one on mitzvot and self-interest.

It was taught: One who says “I am contributing to charity so that my son will live,” or if he says “I am performing the mitzvah so that I will be destined for the World to Come,” this person is a fully righteous person 

This teaching affirms that what really matters is the outcome of our actions, not our motivations. In philosophical terms, this is a consequentialist position. 

But this is not the only rabbinic view on this ethical dilemma. Pirkei Avot, that famous mishnaic tractate of pithy statements and ethical maxims, offers this:

Antigonos, man of Sokho, learned from Shimon the Righteous who would say, “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward, rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.” (Pirkei Avot 1:3)

This mishnah suggests that acting in order to be rewarded is by no means laudatory, and would in fact disqualify someone from being characterized as a fully righteous person. According to this teaching, good deeds should be motivated purely by obligation to the almighty God who commanded them. 

So which is it? Does Jewish tradition expect us to perform good deeds purely because it is the right thing to do, or can we factor in a dose of self-interest without counting ourselves any less righteous? The Talmudic commentators known collectively as Tosafot address this question directly in their commentary on our page.

“The statement in Pirkei Avot refers to a situation when if the good that one hopes for does not come, one regrets the charity that was given. However, one who does not regret, such a person is completely righteous.”

In other words, Tosafot understand that wanting a reward does not detract from the good of giving tzedakah (or doing some other good deed) — and doesn’t even detract from one’s character— as long as the person doesn’t regret giving the tzedakah in the event that they do not receive the anticipated reward.

Tosafot’s harmonization recognizes that human nature may often (always?) incline people to desire a reward for their actions, and that in and of themselves, these instincts and desires are not bad. In fact, the prospect of a reward can be a motivating factor that leads people to do good. Yet we must also take satisfaction in the deed itself — there is clearly something dangerous about regretting the good we have done in the world when we are not rewarded for it.

Perhaps the concern here is not about what happens in the moment, but rather how our motivations impact our character, who we are as people. Wanting a reward is not a character flaw, and may even contribute to the development of positive traits such as generosity. Hence one can ask for a reward and still be considered a full-fledged righteous person. But if we regret our good actions when they are not rewarded, we may choose not to perform mitzvot or act kindly in the future — and this means that our self-interest has morphed into selfishness. We can no longer claim the mantle of righteousness.

Rabbi Shuli Passow is the director of community engagement at B’nai Jeshurun in New York, where she teaches a weekly Daf Yomi class.


Having trained in psychoanalysis and therapy and having had to deal with the worst kinds of human behaviour, I take a psychological and philosophical view of righteousness. If we believe G-d acts through people, as I do, then all actions are motivated by self-interest. We have animal instincts and, like it or not; our main priority is survival. If I do not survive a trauma, how might I help my fellow human in his or her difficult times? This does not mean we take on a hedonist view of life. It simply means we submit to our failings with humility and seek to improve. We have a G-d given duty to survive and relish the life we   have, but not at the cost of others. How do we mediate these circumstances? The question for me is this, is self-preservation a selfish position? Or is it a gift of independent thinking and free will that allows us to take responsibility and better ourselves, which in turn encourages others to do the same. Our mistakes are our lessons. It comes down to an age old philosophical question of what “is” or what “ought” to be. What “ought” to be does not account for those painful pathways that help us build our character and values. Healthcare workers do a brave and outstanding job, but they could not do it if they were not rewarded – paid. How else would they survive? Altruism has its place, but it is not always the appropriate answer to serious problems. Suffice to say, we are all answerable to our own conscience, which is guided by our learned values and experiences. If we are lucky we have had good teachers, but not everyone has had this privilege. Sometimes we must learn to stand in the other’s shoes.

The Lion of Judah.

The Lion as an emblem has been used and usurped by many and we hear little about its tribal origins. How important is it to bring the past into the future for a better understanding of our world and those who inhabit it? I think it is very important. We cannot dwell on the negative events of the past, but it is crucial to remember our histories, otherwise humanity is simply destined to make the same mistakes over and over again. I have had the good fortune of spending several years in South Africa where I witnessed lions in the wild. They are monumental creatures, they are predators that are both fierce and gentle. The lion reflects much of the human character, it charts its territory and guards it fastidiously. It lives in communes when the collective suits it and knows exactly when to move on. The lion can be both friend and enemy, but it always commands respect, simply for its grandeur. The Romans threw people to the lions for sport. Daniel sat peacefully among the lions unharmed by them. The lion can remind us of our options. How we approach a situation will determine its outcome.

The Marriage of Asenath and Joseph.


One of the first stories to inspire my study of the mandala was the telling of the marriage between Joseph and Asenath. There are several versions of this story, but I chose to depict the mystical one, which is slightly more complex in structure than most. The story is an astrological allegory, in which Joseph represents the Sun and Asenath the Moon. The most common version of the story was written in Greek making the marriage the “hieros gamos” or the union of Helios and Selene. The symbolism is clear, Joseph represents the Savior and Asenath, the Fallen Wisdom.  The text is similar to many of the mystery cults that juxtapose good and evil.  The story, gleaned from the Jewish Virtual Library proceeds like this:

The entry of the proselyte into the community is marked by a sacred feast. The neophyte eats “the bread of life,” drinks from “the cup of immortality,” and is anointed with the “function of incorruptibility” (15:4). He is then “renewed,” “reformed,” and “revivified” (8:11; 15:4)”. Joseph and Asenath are then viewed as the representatives of “mystical Judaism,”hitherto endorsed as viable amid much controversy. The text is the product of Egyptian Jewry, but is not necessarily the work of a Therapeut (Essene). The author may have been an Egyptian of the Chora (“region,” i.e., outside of Alexandria) converted to Judaism, or, more probably, the Jewish issue of a mixed marriage. Joseph and Asenath must have been composed shortly before the Jewish revolt against Trajan. Joseph and Asenath is also of interest, since the story is repeated in the passions of Saint Barbara, Saint Christine, and Saint Irene. Joseph and Asenath is also the basis for the Persian tale Yūsufo Zuleikhā. There is an English translation by E.W. Brooks, Joseph and Asenath (1918). 1

For me the story is about the marriage between Earth and the Universe, Heaven and humans. In each age we create a new reality out of the ancient stories. As it states in the Siddur.

In each age we are challenged by our ancient teaching.

At each age we stand face to face with truth.

In each age we add our wisdom to that which has gone before…