Q. Can a Jew be an existentialist?
A. In order to answer your question I looked up the word in one of the dictionaries in my study. It told me, "Existentialism: a modern philosophical movement stressing the importance of personal experience and responsibility and the demands that they make on the individual, who is seen as a free agent in a deterministic and seemingly meaningless universe".
There are Jewish existentialists like Buber, Rosenzweig and Herberg, but there is no one existentialism and some versions may not accord with Jewish teaching.
One brand of existentialism has a strongly christological approach; think of the names Kierkegaard chooses for his books, names like "Fear and Trembling", "The Absurd", "The Crisis", based on mistrust of human reason and nature.
The idea that out of despair man comes to God has its reflections in some Jewish sources, but whilst Judaism is fascinated by the nature of human experience it does not as a whole go along with a doctrine that man is lost in a cold, unfeeling world.
Contrast Kierkegaard’s books with those of Abraham Joshua Heschel: "God in Search of Man", "Man’s Quest for God", "Man is not Alone", etc.
As a Jewish philosopher Heschel looks at God and man yearning for one another but finds pathways to God in more "normal" aspects of the human condition such as the feeling of amazed, wondering awe and the mind’s capacity to be stretched.
Additional questions and answers:
THE KOHEN’S LOVE
Q. Why does the kohen praise God who "commanded us to bless His people Israel *in love*"?
A. One possibility: God lovingly commanded the kohanim to pronounce the blessing. He must love the kohanim very greatly to entrust them with this responsibility.
A more probable interpretation: the kohanim must love the people. Kohanim are as likely to have quarrels with others as the rest of us are. But when they bless the congregation they have to rise above any personal issues and love their fellow Jews both collectively and individually.
The congregation must reciprocate and love the kohanim collectively and individually: as the kohen must rise above personal issues, so must the congregation.
A further question: when the kohanim bless the people, who blesses the kohanim?
The answer is implied in the words of the Biblical verse, "They shall place My name upon the Children of Israel, and I shall bless them" (Num. 6:27), i.e., "When they bless the people, God Himself blesses them".
WHERE WERE THE WOMEN?
In its narration of events the Torah tends to focus on the men and does not always indicate the piety and good sense of the women.
Yet it was because of women’s merits that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt (Sotah 11b). They did not join in the sin of the making of the Golden Calf (Midrash Tanchuma). On the other hand, when it came to building the Tabernacle, the enthusiasm and generosity of the women were outstanding (Ex. 35).
What a pity it is that Jewish history does not always acknowledge the greatness and piety of the women.
Some thinkers argue that women are more naturally spiritual than the men and hence they need less rituals to show their love of God.
These days the women of the Jewish people are often remarkably committed to religious worship and Torah study.
GOD & RAV KOOK
The name of the sidra Vaera literally means "And I appeared". Since God has no corporeality or physicality it cannot mean that human beings are able to see God’s appearance. But many things on earth, many aspects of earthly culture, are perceptible refractions of God.
Rav Kook, the poet-philosopher and chief rabbi of the Holy Land, said that special people can perceive spiritual things wherever they look. The great artists, musicians and writers are spiritually sensitive.
Rav Kook himself saw spiritual light in great works of art like the Rembrandts at the National Gallery in London, which he visited when he was in England during the First World War.
No wonder there is criticism of people who do not want Israeli children to learn "secular" subjects; Rav Kook would have said that you can often find the holy in the supposedly unholy.
PLAGUES FROM GOD
The Almighty gave ample warning of the coming plagues (Ex. 8). In the Torah text it says that God would lift His finger in order to bring about the plagues.
Why not His full hand?
The references to God’s finger and hand are of course metaphorical (Targum Onkelos makes this clear by adjusting the terminology to "a plague from before the Lord"), but even so we wonder why in acknowledging the Divine might the Egyptian magicians only say "finger" and not "hand".
One possibility (Ramban) is that the magicians were belittling God and telling the Egyptians not to take Him too seriously.
Another approach is to say that God was not employing His full might against Egypt. It was bad enough for Egypt to receive His finger of punishment: how much worse it would have been if He had come down more harshly and used His full power.
Rabbi Dr. Raymnd Apple, AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective..