Saturday, August 17, 2019 -
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Book review: It takes a special genius to make sense out of ?Purities?

Rabbit Martin Samuel Cohen's The Boy on the Door on the OxIn his newest book, The Boy on the Door on the Ox, Rabbi Martin Samuel Cohen takes his reader on an atypical journey. Not the journey where “the journey is its own destination.” That was the school of Jewish spirituality Cohen used to subscribe to.

Today, he writes in this Aviv Press volume, he’s lost his taste for journeys without destinations. Those kinds of journeys he likes to keeping a machine perfectly well-oiled, and not knowing what the machine does. He no longer wants to go on a journey just for the sake of saying he’s on a journey. Rather, he actually wants to go somewhere.

And Cohen’s destination, you may ask?


But not the Jerusalem that you drive to from Ben Gurion Airport, in Israel.

Not even the Old Jerusalem,that you enter from Jaffa gate.

Cohen’s Jerusalem is quite suggestive. It’s one that exists outside of time and space. And where exactly is that Jerusalem? How does one get there?

One must embark on the journey that Cohen describes in the opening of this deeply spiritual tome. And he’s willing to guide you, in a very specific way. His Jerusalem is the city of divine reality and human redemption, of plausible and attainable salvation. It is a journey that leads one to the center of the human heart and, simultaneously, toward G-d.

Sound deep? Wait. He’s got guides to help you get there. The first one is you, yourself.

And where does he find the other guides?

In the most unexpected place of places: the Mishnaic texts that deal with purities and impurities.

Cohen takes you through some of the most obscure texts dealing with Jewish law; most of which only applied during the time the temple stood in Jerusalem.

He explains how these texts served as a guide for him during pivotal points in his personal journey. It is in these texts that he found the insights he shares with the reader to create the principles he puts forth for a fulfilling spiritual journey.

Clearly, Cohen is a lover of textual study. Not only is that obvious from his palpable exhilaration of extending the logic of a particular text, but his footnotes also attest to a lifetime spent in the study halls of the Talmud and Mishna.

Cohen finds these texts to be filled with teachers, guides, or psychopomps, as he calls them. He explains that every character who appears in the text, even once, like the boy who stands at the edge of the cemetery holding flowers in the Tractate Tohorot, teaches a life lesson, therefore serving as a guide.

(The question in the text is whether the boy, and his flowers, are to be deemed pure or impure, since it is presumed he picked them at a cemetery. Impurities are derived from anything dead or from bodily fluids, and many things related to those two categories.)

If this sounds complicated, Cohen manages to break down his concepts into bite-size ideas. He also writes in a conversational style. Whenever he thinks the concept he’s presenting may be too complex to grasp for a simple, night-table read, he rephrases it in simpler terms. Or, by way of personal analogy, draws the reader in.

His insightful way of describing what journey is, also draws the reader in. “The journey can be imagined in different ways — as growth, as movement, as ever-deepening perception, or as everheightened sensitivity.”

Even though this may seem like a new way to create one’s journey, Cohen claims that it has always been Jewish tradition to learn ancient texts by stepping into them, “and to master them not by internalizing their detail, but by allowing them to internalize us and to make of us players in them.”

He says he chose these seemingly arcane texts, because “any journey toward Jerusalem must be an informed lifetime of Torah study, suffused with purposeful, mindful devotion to even the most nuanced details of ritual observance.” There are guides to be found, and profound lessons to be learned from texts that seem so distant, so removed from our reality.

He explains that every story, example or analogy in the text, opens up a halachic discourse that leads to encountering G-d through the informed contemplation of halachah. This way, one perceives the text not as a road or a door, but rather as a universe of symbols and a sacred context for sustained spiritual growth.

In other words, the text itself teaches concepts and insights to integrate into one’s life. For example, from the boy the reader encounters at the edge of the cemetery, halachah determines that one can have an opposing status of purity and impurity simultaneously. Therefore, one can be certain and uncertain of his status. From here Cohen deduces that, while on the journey, not only is it OK to be on a path of faith and simultaneously embrace doubt, it is actually the only way to honestly make the journey.

Thus, this text exists to teach us more than a legal principle, but also a spiritual one. The boy has come to whisper a secret about the journey itself — one must have intellectual integrity while on it. In order for any journey to be real, one must embrace honest doubt, the same way halachah embraces honest doubt to determine whether the boy and his flowers are pure or impure. We need to embrace faith in G-d without having to lie to ourselves.

Clearly, Cohen is inspired by the endless possibilities in halachah. He imports this idea into his journey, one possibility invites another, one insight begets another.

He builds one concept upon another, as he takes the reader through 11 texts dealing with impurities. He creates a grab-bag of spiritual tools.

At times the read can be heavy, following the intricacies and, often, seemingly negligible details that create the nuances which give birth to his insights. But Cohen’s writing and enthusiasm keep the reader engaged. His literary references and very personal writing moves the reader out of spiritual slumber. His insights challenge any assumptions or stereotypes the reader may have associated with the word “journey” or “purities” until now.

Cohen also hits on the two most pressing and obvious issues that crop up for a “modern” (what he calls a seeker) who seeks to journey honestly. Does one hermetically seal oneself from all impurities of the world in impurities being the decadence of degeneracy of today in order not to be a vessel through which impurities flow?

The other most pressing issue is, how does one embark on a journey that requires constant contact with the guides, the texts, and also live life? How does one devote a lifetime to Torah and try to live the normal life of a spouse and a parent?

The answers, of course, lie in the text.

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