Then I thought I would talk about how I used to read Tarot cards, and about the Breastpiece of Decision.
Tetzaveh, in case you are too lazy to read the wikipedia entry on it, covers the priestly dress code. ( And some other stuff, including that priests are anointed with high-quality olive oil, and why John Ashcroft chose Crisco instead of olive oil when there’s no shortage of olive oil in this country is quite a mystery to me -- did he want to be tacky and gross? There, see, I fit the John Ashcroft joke in after all.) Included in the uniform of the high priest is an item called the “Breastpiece of Decision”. There’s a note about this in my Chumash. ( I use Etz Hayim, the Chumash put out by the Conservative movement. It was bequeathed to me by my uncle, of blessed memory, as we sat together in the hospital on the day it arrived, sent from home by a friend. “You can have this,” he said. “Thank you,” I said. “I don’t think anyone will be fighting me for it.”). Anyway, page 508, note 30, regarding Exodus 28:30 “Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord at all times.”
The editorial note about this enigmatic statement says “It is clear from the association with the ‘breastpiece of decision’ and ‘the instrument of decision’ that these two items [ the Urim and Thummim ] constituted a device for determining the will of God in specific matters that were beyond human ability to decide. Although the function of this device is clear, nowhere in the Torah is there a description of it or of the technique employed in its use... It remained in the exclusive possession of the priest and was used only on behalf of the leader of the people in matters of vital national importance.”
This reminds me of something I read in the autobiography of the 14th Dalai Lama. There was in his court a man whose occupation was to channel a spirit to provide guidance to the Dalai Lama in matters of national importance. The spirit would possess the man in a special ceremony, offer guidance, and then depart. It was in fact at the urging of this spirit that the Dalai Lama went into exile when he did, and the route that he and his entourage took over the mountains to India has also been specified, apparently, by this spirit.
Of course the Torah is against divination. My tarot cards are not sanctioned by Halacha. The sacrifices prescribed in the torah were always careful about entrails, because entrails were associated with divination and sorcery, and sorcery was no good. Sorcery was practiced by people who had not been properly anointed. They were not sanctioned by God, those people, with their predictions. The instruments of decision were all on the up-and-up: tools for use in matters of state, by the specially trained and the specially clothed.
It intrigues me, this difference. Of course like all cultures Jewish culture is chockfull of magic and superstition. Well, not your nice post-everything Jewish culture, very focused on the tikkun olam and the social justice and the yiddishkeit and oh, on radical theologies that basically boil down to different approaches to getting us modern Jews to stomach God. We’re not superstitious, us non-dualist god-in-your-body-ist mindfulness ground-of-being-ist Jews. We’re practical, deep-breathing, focusing-on-the-moment kinds of Jews. We accept our inability to predict the future, it doesn’t occur to us to ask either God or Tarot cards to help us decide anything. We don’t hike over mountains because a spirit said the Chinese were coming. We ask our LinkedIn networks, or perhaps we ask twitter. The lazyweb is our breastpiece of decision, or perhaps the coin flipping app on our phones.
Divination was proscribed because it was dangerous to presume we knew what came next, dangerous to usurp one of God’s powers as our own. Who needs to proscribe such things these days, when clearly the future is an indeterminate mess?
Anyway, I used to read my tarot cards all the time, whenever I had a decision to make, or felt at a loss of some sort, or simply when I wanted to know what would come next. I never thought there was either a spiritual power or a force behind the reading. You draw some cards, they give you themes, and then you have to make a story from the themes. You make the story up as you go. It helps you decide things, or perhaps it just helps you make things happen. The story you make up sinks into you. It becomes a part of you. Your subconscious mind fixes on it, devotes processing cycles to it, grows dendrites for it. You give it reality in your brain, and your brain works to make it reality in life. That’s all very neuropsychiatric: that stuff really does happen. When we make things real in our minds, then our minds devote more effort to making things real. So the cards are powerful for entirely materialist reasons.
A spirit who sends you over mountains, though, that’s something else.
How do we make decisions when we do not have enough information to make decisions? Donald Rumsfeld did have a point, we do live in a world of unknown unknowns. Nevertheless, we must leap. And most of the time, we must not leap with weak knees and doubt on our faces. We must leap strongly, like surefooted goats in the mountains. And yet, how?
It is not easy to leap strongly based on the recommendations of the lazyweb. It is not easy to trust in decisions arrived at via twitter. We can read all the medical literature, and still shoot the moon for that heart/bone marrow transplant. We can look at the data and question ourselves every night when we swallow our meds. Sometimes it wouldn’t be so bad to have a breastpiece of decision, would it? “We shall do this, say the Thummim and Urim. This is God’s will.” We would leap into the unknown, go into exile, swallow our meds, take the new job -- surefooted and confident that whatever came next, we had God at our sides.
Here is G.K. Chesterton, from Orthodoxy:
But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt--the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.There is something in that quote that feels real and true to me, and then I think of George W. Bush, deciding with his gut, going full speed ahead straight for the iceberg. But it was worse than that, really, for Bush invented the iceberg and then slammed full speed ahead into 30 million people. Given that, it’s not fair to blame Bush on Mr. Chesterton.
What Mr. Chesterton says, what he means, is that what God provides is a direction to go in, a relationship that guides you there, a confidence that there really is something right and true and good in the world, that we humans can, albeit poorly, access it, that at the very bottom of reality there is sense and goodness and order, and that we, mere mortals, have been offered a chance to participate in that. That whatever we do, wherever we go wrong, the offer stands firm. The center holds. We leap strong, breathe deep, suck the marrow out of life. It’s a beautiful vision. Can you feel it? Can you imagine what that is like, that center actually holding? The confidence and peace in it. That’s God, that center. Grab hold any way you can.