I came across the story of Joanna Southcott and her box in a biography of Mabel Balthorp, founder of the Panacea Society. At the age of 64 Southcott proclaimed she was pregnant and would give birth (she was a devout Christian) to the ‘returned’ Messiah on 19th October 1814. That didn’t happen. But she did, on her death, leave behind a sealed box which contained, she claimed, great prophecies that could save the nation. The box was only to be opened in the presence of the arrayed Bishops of the Church of England at a time of great National Crisis. The Panaceans have been campaigning for the box to be opened ever since. I’ve been thinking about this notion of a box which contains great secrets that could save a Nation in a time of Crisis.
On the one hand I believe in the revelatory power of Torah. I also acknowledge, and love, the esoteric corners of my Jewish faith – the sorts of teachings that are only supposed to be shared with initiates. But the idea of a box which produces ‘The Answer’ – like some kind of supercomputer programmed to solve the answer to the Great Question of ‘Life the Universe and Everything’ strikes me as profoundly unjewish.
Max Kaddushin came up with the term ‘normal mysticism’ to describe Jewish faith. We find meaning and even salvation not through hocus pocus, but everyday action, not through miracle but through the elevation of humdrum; a loaf of bread, a candle, an acknowledgement of a passing season or new moon. Even the esoteric corners of Judaism don’t contain much in the way of practical magic. The point is that Judaism’s great secrets don’t live in boxes, waiting to be exposed, at which point anyone reading them will slam their palm to their forehead and cry, ‘of course, that indeed is the answer to all the world’s woes.’ Judaism’s great secrets lie exposed before us. Respect parents. Observe Sabbath. Keep Kosher. Give charity. Behave kindly. The magic of Judaism, and magical it is indeed, comes in the way these resolutely practical actions creep inside us crossing some Pauline threshold that connects a simple physical deed with an emotional, spiritual and religious gestalt. Judaism is not a faith of Damascene conversions. It is a faith of gentle uncovering. The process of deepening a relationship with Judaism is the process of practicing with more intensity and commitment and understanding from a deeper and deeper place these acts of practice lift and elevate our selves and our souls.
The English word ‘observant’ carries a twin valence no single Hebrew word can match. With observance we become more observant. We see more clearly, we see more deeply, we understand more profoundly. These are insights we gain from ongoing commitment, not from opening boxes.