Nearly 2300 years ago the kingdoms of Judea and Israel were ruled by the Seleucid Greeks under the oppressive lordship of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. Not content with the tribute paid by the Jews, Antiochus initiated a series of decrees designed to wean the Jewish people from their own traditions and assimilate them into Greek culture. Torah study, circumcision and the declaration of the new month which determined the celebration of festivals were abolished. A rebellion ensued led by the Hasmonean priestly clan and, in its military aspect, the charismatic son Judah the Maccabean. Severely outnumbered and with weaponry inferior to the Seleucids, the Jewish fighters nonetheless waged a relentless campaign against their overlords.
In retribution, in 165 BCE Antiochus ordered that the Second Temple be ransacked and desecrated. This setback, however, only increased the motivation of the Jews, who ultimately vanquished their former conquerors. When the Hasmoneans entered the ravaged Temple, they wanted to light the seven lights of the Menorah, the “eternal flame” in the Sanctuary. All of the oils, however, which had been harvested and processed in the required state of ritual purity, had been desecrated. Only one small vial of olive oil, enough to last for one day was discovered; this little vial miraculously lasted for eight days, which gave the Kohanim (priests) time to ritually purify themselves and prepare new oil for the eternal light of the Menorah.
Of all of the Jewish holidays, it can be safely said that the celebration Hanukkah is the most widespread. Even amongst the most secular Jews who would scoff at the fast on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the lighting of Hanukkah candles is ubiquitous. This is part due to the perception that the holiday celebrates a military victory, and it has thus, in many respects, become erroneously intertwined with the secular-Zionist ethos.
In point of fact, the rabbis who instigated the celebration of Hanukkah did so not to commemorate the military victory, though it could well be argued that this too was a miracle, but rather as a commemoration of the little vial of pure oil which remained lit for eight days. Considering that the Hasmonean conquest led to the corruption of both priesthood and monarchy, it seems there was some foresight in the rabbinic decision to ignore commemoration of the military victory in its own right
In the Bnei Yissachar the brilliant 18th century kabbalist R. Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov states that the light from the Hanukkah candles is in reality the אור גנוז (or ganuz), the concealed light from the first day of creation. (For those unfamiliar with this concept, in Genesis 1:4 it says, “And God saw the light, that it was good.” The commentator Rashi brings the Midrash which declares that God saw that this “light”, a spiritual illumination which preceded the physical solar light created on the fourth day, was unworthy to be utilised by the wicked; He therefore separated and concealed this light for the benefit of the righteous in the world to come.)
The Bnei Yissachar does not claim that the Hanukah light symbolizes this concealed light; he asserts that it IS the light that was concealed at the onset of creation. It would perhaps be more understandable if such a claim were made regarding the light of the Sabbath candles, as these commemorate the completion of creation. What does Hanukkah, however, a minor festival initiated by rabbinic decree that celebrates the endurance of a small vial of oil following the victory of the Hasmoneans, have to do with the supernal light that is ultimately destined to illuminate the souls of the righteous?
To understand this, it is first worthwhile to have a closer look at some of the customs and laws associated with Hanukkah and the lighting of its candles.
1. The Torah portion Vayeshev, devoted mainly to the story of Joseph’s descent to Egypt as a slave, precedes Hanukah. The commentator Rashi provides an odd Midrash in explanation of the opening verse: “And these are the chronicles of Jacob: Joseph, [at age seventeen, was a shepherd…]” The flax merchant arrived with his camels bearing loads of flax. The smith wonders, “How will all of this flax get through?” One clever lad replies: “One spark from your bellows will burn it all!” So too, Jacob saw the legions of Esau’s noble descendents (mentioned in the previous Torah portion) and thought, “Who will be able to vanquish all of these?” What is written thereafter? “And these are the chronicles of Jacob: Joseph…” and it is written: “And the house of Jacob will be like a fire; and the house of Joseph a flame; and the house of Esau like straw…” (Obadiah 18). Moreover, this strange theme of the flax merchant is repeated in the brief section on Hanukkah that is hidden away in the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat. There, a shopkeeper who places his Hanukiah in the public domain is exempt if it causes the flax to be set on fire.
2. There is a dispute between the sages Shammai and Hillel as to how many candles we should light. According to Shammai, on the first night one lights eight candles corresponding to the eight upcoming days during which the oil miraculously burned; on the second night, one lights seven, etc. According to Hillel, however, we begin with only one light on the first night and finish with eight on the last because of the dictum “one should increase matters of holiness.” The law is as described by Hillel.
3. Hanukkah is one of the only commandments involving פרסומי ניסא, i.e. publicizing the miracle, and, for that reason, we are commanded ideally to light in the “public domain” (literally, רשות הרבים, the “domain of the many”). In “times of danger”, however, ostensibly during periods of persecution, this requirement is wavered and one “may light on his table, and this is enough.”
4. Ideally, the candles should be placed within 3 to 10 handbreadths from the floor, a law that is unique to Hanukkah. According to kabbalah, the Shekhina is said to descend to the level of 10 handbreadths. Below that, one finds the realm of kelipat noga (“the shining husks”) that can only be illuminated through human action.
5. According to the Talmud, the time for lighting the Hanukkah candles terminates when “the last leg has left the marketplace”, and there are no more people to whom one can broadcast the miracle. This expression in Hebrew, however, (עד שתכלה רגל מן השוק) is ambiguous and could also be read as “until habitude has vanished from the marketplace.”
6. Although the Talmud tells us that the word Hanukkah is an acronym for (“they rested on the 25th [of Kislev]”), its simple meaning is “dedication” or “inauguration”, as the actual nature of the celebration was the reinauguration of the Second Temple following its desecration by the Greeks.
The miracle of Hanukkah is our ability to illuminate the mundane domains of the material world, where the Divine Presence on its own does not reach. What does this mean? We are all aware of those spiritual moments in our lives when everything appears as connected and illuminated. Can we, however, retain that light in our dealings with the “real world”? Can we still feel the “light” when confronting issues of our health, relationships, jobs, finances, etc? Does all that material “flax” passing through the marketplace make us wonder if spiritual illumination is only a delusion of comfort in the face of a predominantly material world?
The name “Joseph” means “he will increase…” In the story told of Joseph, his brothers first dump him in a pit before selling him as a slave to Egypt, which our sages considered the paradigmatic “pit” of materialism. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the very name of Egypt in Hebrew can be read as meitzarim, or “narrow borders”, a worldview lacking any acknowledgement of Spirit (one that still tends to dominate human thought today). From the pit of his prison, Joseph becomes the master of dreams and eventually the de facto ruler over all of Egypt. As a symbol of the sefirah Yesod, Joseph represents the element of human consciousness that bridges the gap between upper and lower worlds, and, in so doing, creates a seamless unity between them.
One of the more enigmatic Talmudic stories describing this apparent gap between the upper worlds (spiritual) and the lower (material) involves R. Shimon bar Yochai, for whom a death warrant was issued following his scathing criticism of the Roman authorities. Rabbi Shimon and his son Elazar escaped for their lives to a cave, where a miracle occurred and a spring of water and carob tree materialised to sustain the two. They stayed in that cave for twelve years, donning their clothing only for the times of prayer (so that they wouldn’t wear out), and, the remainder of the time, studying the mystical Torah buried up to their necks in sand. After twelve years, a disguised Elijah the Prophet appears at the mouth of the cave, incidentally informing Rabbi Shimon that the Caesar is dead and the writ for his execution thus suspended. Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar leave the cave, but they are distressed to find human beings engaged in the normal course of mundane events that make up life. “They have given up the eternal for the temporal life,” says Rabbi Shimon to his son, and everywhere the two of them cast a glance is burnt up in fire. A Heavenly voice cries out: “Have you left your cave to destroy My world? Go back to where you were!” The pair returns to their cave, where they remain for another year, i.e. the length of time sinners in purgatory would normally be punished. Again, a Heavenly voice instructs them to leave the cave. “My son,” says Rabbi Shimon, “it is enough for the world with you and me.” When they emerge a second time, every spot upon which Elazar casts a glance burns up in fire as it did before; when his father, however, casts a look at the same spot, he brings to it complete healing. It is Friday afternoon, and they then see an old man carrying two boughs of myrtle. “One is for the command to remember the Sabbath; the other is to observe it,” the elder explains. The scene suddenly switches to Rabbi Shimon’s son-in-law Pinhas ben Yair (in the Zohar their relationship is reversed) nursing the wounds to the skin of the former from the many years immersed in coarse sand. “Woe that I must see you in this state!” says Pinhas Ben Yair. “Woe had you not seen me in this state,” declares Rabbi Shimon. (Meaning to say, had Rabbi Shimon not suffered the harsh physical realities in the cave, he would not have experienced the spiritual realizations either.)
What is going on here? Why do they both burn up everything in sight on their first exit from the cave? And why, after returning to the cave upon the Divine command, does Elazar emerge as he does before, still burning up everything in sight? And what is his father doing to effect the healing that undoes his son’s arsonist stunts?
What occurred is that after twelve years of intense meditation and spiritual discipline, the mundane world resembles that huge supply of “flax” that is just waiting to be illuminated with the fire of spirituality. It is for this reason that Rabbi Shimon is startled to see that people seemingly forfeit eternal life for temporal concerns. This perception of the world, however, condemns it to duality: there is a part of my life that is light and spiritual, and another part of it that is dark and mundane. This duality can also lead to spiritual vanity, where we see it as our mission to enlighten and illuminate the benighted world. Conversely, when we misconstrue the fire of our personal desires with this spiritual fire, it is possible to get stuck in the gravitational pull of this lower world, all of the while convinced that one is forging a spiritual path.
When they leave the cave for the second time, Rabbi Elazar’s gaze still causes things to catch on fire. After all, according to kabbalah, the material world is in fact laden with hidden, fallen sparks of light that are meant to be redeemed through human effort. His father, however, has added on a quality that restores the balance to reality and healing to all of existence. That quality is known as השתוות הנפש, or equanimity. This is clear from Rabbi Shimon’s comments on his skin wounds to his son-in-law. Equanimity was the minimum requirement to join the circle of kabbalists in 16th century Safed. With equanimity, it becomes possible to perceive “the fire of Jacob” (spirit) and “the straw of Esau” (matter) and to see each as part of an integral process rather than as ontological didactics.
This is why we are meant to light in the lower ten handbreadths, which is not ordinarily illuminated by the Divine Presence. In so doing, we connect that shadowy nether region to the supernal world of light that emanates through creation. This is the concept of “adding on to holiness” described by Hillel. Through our perception, the profane itself becomes the holy. This gives us the possibility to enlighten “the domain of the many”, the illusion of substance and multiplicity that accompanies Esau’s flax.
How do we accomplish this in practical terms? We all stand metaphorically in the desecrated ruins of the Sanctuary, where the sacred flame has been extinguished. Is it possible to take these shadowy depths ravaged by the karmic past and transform them into light? According to the Hanukkah story, all that we require is a small vial of pure olive oil. Since olive oil is itself the mystical symbol of awareness, the vial of pure oil stamped with the signet ring of the High Priest represents the element of pure consciousness present in any or all moments of existence. That level of pure consciousness is directly proportional to the trait of equanimity we have cultivated. The greater our emotional or mental attachment, the more that pure consciousness is strewn with the impurities that imbue it with the reality of substance, the load of “flax” atop the camel that seems so impenetrable.
By surrendering our dualistic perceptions of reality and resting only in that pure awareness symbolizing the vial of pure oil, one transcends that seeming obstinacy of nature (symbolized by the number 7) and transforms the real world into one that manifests that which is above nature—the supernatural signified by the number 8 (the Infinity symbol on its base).
This is why the Talmud states that the Hanukah candle should be lit “until the last leg has left the marketplace.” As mentioned before, the word רגל can mean both “leg” and “habitude”. What the Talmud is saying is that we have to light that metaphorical candle until our usual way of seeing mundane reality is absolutely transformed. It must become for us a source of light rather than shadows.
In essence, the Hanukkah story describes each human being’s mystical mission, to illuminate his or her own personal darkness in the material realms, as well as the collective mission of humankind and the specific mission of Israel as a “light unto the nations.” The gematria of Israel in Hebrew is equivalent to the numerical value of the Hebrew words for “light” and “darkness”. This is because Israel is meant to be a mystical station to process seeming darkness into the reality of light.
Sometimes this process is fraught with difficulties and dangers. When we fail to eliminate the dualistic split and still perceive the “real world” as something outside ourselves, we run the risk of looking at “reality” with bitterness and contempt. Conversely, we can also fool ourselves, becoming victims of our instincts and passions in the guise of spiritual rectification.
That is why in “times of danger’ we light the Hanukiah on the table, and “that is enough”. The table symbolizes our eating habits and, in general, our physical desires and appetites. Only when these are first balanced in a state of equanimity, when we achieve oneness from within, do we have the capability of creating oneness in the external reality surrounding us. Then, we can “inaugurate” our perception of reality to one that remains perpetually new, and our world becomes a different place.
The 18th century rabbi and scholar Rabbi Meshullam Feibush of Zabrizce suggests that many people mistakenly assume that the “primordial light” concealed by the Divine is inaccessible until we reach the World to Come (or, more precisely translated, the World that Is Coming). He goes on to explain that the Hebrew word for Torah translates as “Guide” and its Aramaic equivalent, ohraiytah, as “revealing that what is hidden inside of it” (דאורי וגלי מאי דסתים ביה). What is in fact concealed in the Torah is that very primordial light! Moreover, one does not need to wait for an eschatological event to access that light. As soon as a righteous person seeks it there, then, in “the world that is coming”, that is, the immediate future, that light is revealed to him or her straight away.
From this, we can better understand how the simple action of lighting a candle manifests that primordial light of Goodness. Since, from a mystical viewpoint, the Torah is a guidebook to illuminating the shadowy realm of the husks through human effort, the light from the Hanukiah becomes more than a concrete symbol of the concealed light—it becomes its very manifestation. May the meditative light of Hanukkah help us all in our search to transform the “domain of the many” into the “domain of the One” and, rather than fleeing from Esau’s flax and the shadows of the “real world”, may we all be blessed to find therein that pure vial of oil that will light up the darkness forever!
Welcome to Mystic Link!
This blog is dedicated to the exploration of mystical wisdom and life experience. It seeks to penetrate beyond the shadows and surfaces of our physical reality to discover vistas of unfathomable depth, beauty and meaning. These mystical realms are closer than you might imagine, for they exist in every multifold aspect of the observed empiricial world, as they do within the consciousness of the observer. In the infinite silence and contracted light, within the ethereal mirage of every passing moment, the eternal search begins and ends...
Monday, 10 December 2007
Thursday, 22 November 2007
Chaim, a new student, arrived at the Novardok Yeshiva. Being a novice and not knowing exactly what was expected of him, he simply observed what the other students were doing and copied them. When it was time for davening, observing his fellow yeshiva students engaged in fervent prayer and shokeling back and forth with great intensity, he did the same. During the period for Talmud study, he mimicked the others with their sing-song chants and exaggerated hand gestures. Finally, it was time for mussar self-examination, when each student retreated to a private corner, beat his fist remorsefully against his chest and repeated the refrain in Yiddish: “Ish bin a gor nisht! Ish bin a gor nisht!” (“I am a complete nothing!”) Observing the behaviour of these students, Chaim sat down and, pounding his fist against his chest, likewise repeated the same mantra: “Ish bin a gor nisht! Ish bin a gor nisht!” One of the veteran students seated nearby observed Chaim disdainfully, turned to another old-timer and commented, “Look at this one! He’s been here just one day, and he already thinks he’s a gor nisht!”
The concept of bitul ha-yesh, literally the “negation of substance”, first appeared in certain schools of kabbalah and came to prominence with Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the 18th century pietist Hasidic revival in Eastern Europe. The idea of “annihilating the ego” is well-known from different forms of Eastern mysticism as well as in Sufi and Christian mystical thought. It has resurfaced with contemporary spirituality, including the new pop kabbalah, so that once again many spiritual seekers are pre-occupied with this arduous task.
The questions addressed in this article are three-fold:
What does it mean to annihilate the ego?
Can it in fact be done?
Should it in principle be done?
As the American philosopher Ken Wilber has pointed out, the whole notion of “ego” is based on a mistranslation of Freud. In German, Freud used the 1st person pronoun “das Ich” (the “I”) to indicate the self-sense that one possesses in relation to others. The translation of this into the Latin “ego” has led to the misunderstanding that the “ego” is some kind of entity independent of self; applying this mistranslation to the mystical concepts mentioned above, the “ego’ is viewed as a negative force that somehow obstructs the perception of a higher Self.
A statement such as “I am working hard to get rid of my ego” is an inherent tautology, for the “I” that is working hard is, in fact, according to Freud’s definition, none other than “das Ich”, i.e. the ego itself.
Even the lesser effort to eliminate pride, an endeavour endorsed in the ethos of most exoteric religions, is still laden with paradox. It is said that the last words of the Baal Shem Tov, a paragon of humility whose heart was open to every human being, were from Psalm 36: “אל תבואני רגל גאוה” (“Let me not succumb to the habit of pride…”). The Hasidic manifesto Yosher Divrei Emes heaps scorn upon those who adopt a manner of humility, as this pretext itself is used to enhance one’s perception of self, thus fuelling the fires of pride through its supposed negation.
Another well-known story is told of Reb Dovid of Lelov, a paragon of humility in the panoply of Hasidic masters. In addition to being humble, Reb Dovid practiced an extremely ascetic lifestyle, fasting during the entire week and eating only on the Sabbath. On a Friday afternoon on a scorching hot summer’s day, he was wandering through the Polish countryside on his way back home to Lelov. After six days of fasting, his stomach ached and his throat was parched. Suddenly, he came upon a clear, gurgling stream of pure spring water. He was sorely tempted to have but one small drink of water to make the remainder of his journey bearable. After all, it was nearly the Sabbath; in a few hours he would be enjoying a meal in the comfort of his home, so what did it matter if he had a little drink of water now? Surely, God in his mercy would understand.
He knelt down beside the brook and cupped the cool, fresh water in his hands. At that moment, the voice of his own conscience spoke to him: “Oy, Dovidl! Oy, Dovidl! You have gone for six days fasting for the sake of your Maker and now, because of your lowly desires, you intend to discard it all? Have you not the power to overcome your personal needs and wait but another three hours to enjoy a meal on the Sabbath as is your wont?” Reb Dovid braced himself with resolve, let the water slide from his hand, rose up, and resumed his hike back to Lelov. All at once, he was overcome with a sense of great elation and self-satisfaction at having overcome his thirst. At that very same moment, he froze in his tracks, having recognized that emotion for what it truly was: spiritual pride. He then returned to the stream and drank freely from the crystal waters.
I often visit the Bodhinyana Monastery of Theravada Buddhists in Serpentine, not too far from my home in Western Australia. It is always a serene experience for me. I have a warm rapport with the abbot, Ajahn Brahm, and often engage in discussions with the monks. Once, I discussed the issue of celibacy with one of them. Most kabbalists would find general agreement with the first three of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha: life is suffering, suffering is caused by desire and negation of desire eliminates suffering. The theoretical disagreement lies in the application of one facet of the Eight-Fold Path, the ostensible Middle Way and the means to eradicate desire.
That facet pertains to the Buddhist view (shared by Catholicism) that abstinence from sexuality is a way to overcome its magnetic allure. Apart from the Torah commandments to produce offspring and for a husband to provide his wife with sexual pleasure, according to kabbalah the sexual act is both paradigmatic and reflective of the union between Divine transcendence and immanence.
My somewhat wistful comment to the Buddhist monk was that I envied the simplicity of the Theravada sangha: no monetary possessions, no home (or mortgage on one), no wife and children to deal with. It seemed to me far easier to reach spiritual fulfilment under such idealised conditions. The monk expressed profound surprise; he had never before considered the path of the Buddhist monk to be an easy one. The Jewish mystic, however, is expected to reach enlightenment through engagement with the physical world rather than renunciation of it. Although, on the one hand, this might seem like a far more pleasurable experience in temporal terms, in spiritual terms it appears on the surface to be a gruelling if not outright impossible task.
That, however, is only the view from the surface, where physicality seen in dualistic terms is an impediment to the sublime. Indeed, this was the view reiterated by many of the kabbalistic schools, particularly those influenced by the Gnostic perception of the physical world as a reality that had to be transcended. Even the kabbalah of the Ari was tainted by this perception; the kabbalists of Safed followed a path of extreme asceticism, where extensive fasts, self-mortification, flagellation and tearful prayers were par for the course. It was the innovation of the Baal Shem Tov that developed Lurianic kabbalah beyond this surface dualism to the absolute unity of panentheism, where everything that existed was a manifestation of the One. The very notion of evil, according to the Baal Shem Tov, was only so insofar as our relative perception of it imbued it with this negative quality. The physical world was more than just an emanation from God, as defined by previous schools of kabbalistic thought; it was an actual manifestation of the Divine, present in all created things.
Bitul ha-yesh, “the negation of substance”, was not a state that one needed to struggle in order to achieve. It was the state of things as they are. For if every physical manifestation is in reality nothing more that the presence of the ineffable Ayn Sof, then there was no “substance” or “yesh” to begin with. Rather than an arduous task to alter reality, one only had to perceive it as it truly is. What need was there to annihilate the ego, when it never truly existed? Like the Buddhist doctrine of “emptiness is form, and form is emptiness”, every aspect of the manifest world, including the perception of self, was in fact the Nothingness of Ayn Sof. Even more, without that vessel of the “I’ or the “ego”, no manifestation of the Divine was even possible. The two were mutually symbiotic. Godliness would not exist without an ego to both perceive and manifest it.
In the Tibetan school of Dzogchen Buddhism the “Great Perfection” is considered the natural state intrinsic to all beings. Only as a result of karmic flaws do we miss seeing the absolute goodness inherent in what we truly are. The ultimate goal is to clear the mind of the mental clouds that obscure this truth and to then maintain it in every aspect of physical existence.
Similarly, in Hasidism the aphorism בכל דרכיך דעהו (“Know him in all your ways…”) was foundational in establishing this material world, and the perception of self known as ego essential to it, as the meeting place of the Divine rather than the escape route implied by the earlier ascetic versions of kabbalah. One might argue that all of this is mere polemics. Is there any difference in the end between getting rid of ego and clearing away the mental flak that hampers a true perception of what ego really is? My contention, however, is that the difference is existential rather than semantic. By viewing the ego as inherently evil, one not only perpetuates a dualistic outlook but also runs the risk of falling into the trap of spiritual egotism, where the ego takes pride at its very efforts to eradicate itself. When, however, we relinquish not our ego but our mental pre-conceptions as to what that is, we arrive at the foundational understandings in both Dzogchen and Hasidism. Then, the ego itself becomes the “Great Perfection”, the mirror of Emptiness in which the divine Form is reflected. It is at that point that we can all heave a deep sigh of relief, sit back and, whatever we are doing, perpetually enjoy the blissful condition as the gor nishts we really are.
Wednesday, 14 November 2007
The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near.”
-- The Doors, Roadhouse Blues
In the spring of 1989 I was privileged to host a most distinguished guest in my home at that time in Safed. Then President of Hanazono University in Kyoto, Japan’s largest academic centre for the study of Zen Buddhism, the late Zen master Roshi Hirano had come to Israel with an intent to learn more about kabbalah. Professor Yoel Hoffman of the Asian Philosophy Department at the University of Haifa, noted author and a personal acquaintance, had arranged the meeting between us.
We had organised to meet first in the old Abouhav Synagogue around the corner from our former home. When he walked into that bastion of Sephardic tradition with his flowing grey robes, clean-shaven skull and furtive smile, he caused more than one head to turn in his direction. He watched the Kabbalat Shabbat service, a hallmark of the emotionalism in Jewish ritual, with that pristine equanimity so characteristic of Zen Buddhists.
After the service, I brought him to our home, as planned. In the vestibule we had one of David Friedman’s prints, Pardes Ha-Torah (The Torah Orchard), displayed on the wall straight opposite the entry. (The PaRDeS is meant to be acronym for the four basic levels of Torah: P for pshat, the literal meaning; R for remez, the allegorical meaning; D for drash, the exegetical meaning; S for sod, the secret or kabbalistic meaning.) Like a mandala, the print displayed the levels of the Torah orchard concentrically rather than hierarchically. On the outer ring were the surface layers of the 24 books of the Tanach (Bible); another level deeper displayed the six orders of the Mishnah, corresponding to the second allegorical level; further in were diagrams representing the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud along with the four tomes of the Shulchan Aruch, the main compendium of Jewish law, signifying exegesis; finally, in the centre was a picture of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his companions illuminated with the radiance of the secret Torah, the kabbalah.
Without any prompting on my behalf, Hirano walked straight into the vestibule and stood quietly in front of this picture for some time. Finally, turning in my direction, he pointed his wizened finger towards the print and said: “Zen!”
I thought that was amazing. It was even more amazing that after the Shabbat he returned to the art gallery where David Friedman sold his work to purchase a Pardes Ha-Torah for his meditation shrine at Hanazono. But that amazement pales in comparison to what I experienced, when, after being seated in our living-room Hirano asked me his first query, translated by Yoel Hoffman, in his quest to understand more about kabbalah:
“Does one who studies the kabbalah become stricter or more lax in the observance of outer ritual and commandments?”
Even way back then, nearly two decades ago, I was beginning to have a faint inkling as to the profundity of that question, though I had no idea back then of how much of my life in the years to follow would be affected by it. Even more puzzling though was that this question was addressed to me by a Zen master. Were there any such parallels in Zen itself? Would a reciprocal question have been: “How important are the Buddhist precepts once you have practiced zazen or experienced satori?” Somehow, it seemed to me that Hirano had touched on a dichotomy that, in many ways, was fundamentally applicable to Judaism.
One pole of that historical dichotomy had manifested itself right there in Safed four centuries earlier. At that time, when the master kabbalist the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) and his disciples walked the cobblestone alleyways of this Galilean town, a seamless integration occurred between the halachic (legalistic) and mystical aspects of Judaism. Simultaneous to the renaissance of kabbalah in the wake of the Spanish exile, Safed was also the centre of legalistic development. While most Jews are familiar with Rabbi Yosef Karo as the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative compendium of Jewish law, fewer are aware of the fact that he was also an accomplished kabbalist. His work Magid Mesharim is a mystical interpretation of the Mishnah transmitted to him by an angelic intermediary. At that point in history, kabbalah was universally accepted as central to Judaism. Many of the customs and much of the liturgy practiced today emerged from this mystical zenith. The esoteric kabbalah, however, in no way contradicted the exoteric aspects of Torah law; in fact, it only served to enhance it.
A century later the mass movement of Shabbtai Zevi, the self-proclaimed Messiah who ultimately apostatised at the command of the Ottoman Sultan, reversed this trend of integration. Gershom Scholem, the late pioneer in academic research on kabbalah, defined the Shabbatean movement as antinomian, i.e. opposed to the dominance of Torah commandments. Although many of Shabbtai’s whimsical breaches of Jewish law stemmed more from his personality than from any defined philosophic outlook, they were nonetheless rationalised as the Messianic materialization of the “new Torah”, one rooted in the spiritual revelation of the Messiah himself rather than the existing legal structure.
Although at its peak the Shabbatean faction succeeded in attracting many of the most prominent rabbis across the Jewish world, following the apostasy the practice and study of kabbalah were severely repressed by the rabbinic establishment. The esoteric and exoteric, once so effortlessly integrated, disconnected and finally drifted apart.
The dichotomy that had expressed itself in Jewish history has also displayed itself in my personal life. At the time of Hirano’s visit, I had already been studying Talmud and commentaries for close to a decade. Every month the students in the Klausenberg Hasidic kolel (an academy for married men) were tested on 30 pages of Talmud with Rashi and Tosafot commentaries; the amount of our monthly stipend depended on the scores of these tests. Although I also studied some kabbalistic texts during that time period, it was tangential to my primary studies in Talmud and Shulchan Aruch. In point of fact, the philosophy of the Klausenberger Hasidim was that the study of kabbalah was superfluous for most; a rigorous devotion to exoteric study alone would bring about all the purification necessary to lead a good and holy life. Only the rare tsaddikim, the spiritual pillars of the community, were supposed to engage in the esoteric domain.
Looking at my life today, the situation is precisely opposite. Although I still observe many facets of Jewish law, I no longer devote time to its study. After so many years, much of that observance functions, rightly or wrongly, on automatic pilot. These days my focus is on the centre of David Friedman’s Pardes: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai illuminated by spiritual fire and grasping the Tree of Life. By this, I don’t mean to imply that I study volumes of kabbalah, although I at least try and keep up with the monthly Zohar allotment for our group study. For me, that paradigmatic picture of Rabbi Shimon is not so much about the theoretical study through text but rather the experiential perception of the Divine in every aspect of life.
In the wake of the Shabbatean disaster, the rabbis who attempted to restrict the study of kabbalah confined it to “married men, over forty, whose stomachs were full from the Talmud and law codes.” In my particular case, although I cannot claim to have swallowed that prescribed quantity of Talmud that would make my “stomach full”, my ten years of Talmud study nonetheless managed to have that effect. (Incidentally, I have recently started again a daily page of Talmudic study for the sake of balance in my spiritual path.)
Obviously, however, I did not simply wake up one morning to find myself on the other side of the divide. It was a process containing many pivotal points: one, which I distinctly recall, involved the use of a toilet.
Before proceeding, it is important to explain that Jewish law does not shy away from any question, no matter how personal, that entails an aspect of life experience. The Talmud recounts how Rav Kahana hid in the outhouse to watch how his master, Rav, would defecate. When rebuked by Rav for this breach of privacy, Rav Kahana replied; “This is Torah, and to learn it, I have come here.” (A similar is story is told about Rav Kahana concealing himself under Rav’s bed to study the Torah implications of sexual intercourse.)
In the year 2000 my late father took our family on a kosher cruise of the Greek islands in celebration of my mother’s seventieth birthday. My wife and I had no sooner settled into our cabin, when the phone rang. It was my brother, a staunchly observant Hasid, phoning from his cabin on the same deck. He was very upset upon discovering that the toilets flushed electrically. How would we be able to use them on the Jewish Sabbath, when the usage of electricity was forbidden, akin to the lighting of fire explicitly forbidden by the Torah?
Although there was a mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) on board to oversee the meals, there was no ship’s rabbi to whom to address the question. Since the cruise boarded on a Friday morning, the question would become relevant in a matter of hours. I briefly discussed the situation with my wife. I was already somewhat claustrophobic in the confines of the cabin. To imagine being stuck in that room with the foul odour of unflushed faeces was unthinkable.
That night we enjoyed a scrumptious Shabbat meal together with my family. Upon arising the next morning, I made use of the toilet and made an unhesitating executive decision to flush using my elbow instead of my finger to press the “Flush” button. (This legal device, known as a shinui, or a change from the usual manner of performing an act, is actually of no avail whatsoever when making use of an electrical appliance on the Sabbath.)
My brother appeared at breakfast, looking quite happy and self-satisfied. He asked me how I had solved the toilet dilemma. I told him that I hadn’t; I had just flushed it. He was aghast.
“How could you do that? You violated the Sabbath!”
I asked him in return how he had solved the problem.
“Simple,” he answered. “I just used the public toilets on the deck.”
“But you still had to flush it,” I said.
“Says who?” he asked rhetorically.
When I expressed my disgust at his solution, he just shrugged it off. “Most of the passengers are goyim. What does it matter if a goy flushes the toilet?”
To me, it mattered a lot. If appeasing God meant that I would have to cause any kind of revulsion to my fellow human being, this was just not the God I was interested in pleasing. So I continued to wantonly flush, even without the shinui.
When the cruise ended, I took my wife and immediate family to Switzerland for a few days. There I had a meeting with a well-known rabbi, also a rebbe of Hasidic group in Jerusalem, who had been a friend and advisor for many years. I decided to ask him the question, even though it was by now post-facto. I described the situation with the toilets and told him what I had done and how my brother had approached the issue.
The rabbi was thoughtful and quiet for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, he said, “In such a situation, you were right to flush because of כבוד הבריות (kavod ha’briuth), the 'honour' due to all created beings.” I felt vindicated that my intuition had been correct. I then realized that it was only when one had a vision of the “big picture” that one could truly understand and properly apply the halacha.
As the word “halacha” has its etymological roots in the verb “holech”, meaning “to go”, I have often used the analogy of driving a car as a means of understanding this correct application.
When one first begins to drive, it is necessary to know exactly how the vehicle functions. The brakes, accelerator, steering wheel, shift, clutch, headlights and blinkers must be thoroughly mastered if one is to travel without coming to harm. Yet, once one has become familiarized with the vehicle and is ready to travel, it is necessary to keep one’s vision focused on the road. If instead, one were to concentrate on all those inner mechanisms that make the car function without regard to the big picture of where one is going, catastrophe is likely to follow. Furthermore, once the mechanics of driving has become second-nature, it behooves the driver to pay attention to the road ahead, not only as a means of getting to the proper destination but also to enjoy the passing scenery.
Returning again to Hirano’s question, the implied dichotomy has also manifested in the contemporary approaches to kabbalah. On the one hand, the elite group of rabbinic scholars engaged in the study of חכמת האמת (the wisdom of truth) practice Jewish law with a scrupulousness that borders on asceticism. On the other hand, the Kabbalah Centre, in opening its doors to all and sundry to spread the Messianic tidings of Jewish mysticism, has purposefully erased kabbalah’s quintessential Jewish nature and its inherent connection to Jewish law and Torah commandments. So, is there, in fact, an answer to Hirano’s enigmatic question?
When I first quoted from The Door’s Roadhouse Blues at the onset of this article, I was fully aware of the nihilistic tone of those lyrics. The Doors, after all, were the pioneers in the glorification of lethal hedonism. My interpretation, however, in relation to what has been discussed, is antithetical to the original meaning conveyed in that characteristically raunchy style Jim Morrison made famous.
“Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel” says that we need both the mystical vision to transmit the desired destination as well as the exoteric vehicle that provides the mechanics of the actual movement. “The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near.” In kabbalistic terms, the future is not only uncertain, it is non-existent. The only reality is Infinite Ain Sof manifesting in every mutable aspect of the Eternal Moment. The destination, or “the end”, towards which our vehicle must be heading, is that utter unity with the ceaseless Now wherein the Living God is revealed. That “end” is not only very “near”; it is actually inevitable.
The Ari declared that when one removed the final samech ("s") of the secret wisdom from the Pardes, what remained was the word pered, suggesting the “separation” between the human being and the Divine. I would also say that one could use that analogy in the reverse sense: when one neglects the exoteric levels of Torah and extricates them from its mystical wisdom, all that remains is the samech, which, on its own, resembles nothing more than a hiss, like that of the primordial serpent. Recall that that creature tempted Eve with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil by declaring that it would “open your eyes and make you like God, knowing good and evil.” Perhaps this is an allegorical reference to a certain type of antinomian narcissism that seems to permeate much of the New Age spiritual smorgasbord.
After twenty years of mentally churning and regurgitating this issue, and then writing this article, I have finally come to the conclusion that Hirano never even asked me a “question” to begin with. Instead, what he gave me, like the sound of one hand clapping, was a beautiful, meditative koan. For his supposed question has no fixed answer; rather, like his pointed finger, it merely signifies a dynamic process that ascends and descends both infinitely and infinitesimally. Only through an awareness of that process, however, can one fully understand the flawless unity inherent in the Pardes Ha-Torah and secretly embedded in Hirano’s monosyllabic proclamation: “Zen!”
Thursday, 18 October 2007
"I, HASHEM, have called you in righteousness, and will strengthen your hand and protect you; and I will establish you as a covenant for the people, for a light unto the nations."(Isaiah 42:6)
I can't remember when in my childhood I first heard about the idea that Jews were the chosen people of God. It must have been early on, either from my parents or first years in Hebrew School, but it was certainly before I had learned of the horrors of Jewish history. It made me feel flushed with pride to be one of those privileged people chosen by the Almighty, though I hadn't figured out at that point exactly for what purpose.
The picture began to shift in early adolescence. By then, through contact with gentile friends, I became aware that our Torah was called the Old Testament while theirs was the New; that our God seemed to keep busy with such vengeful feats of destruction like deluges, fiery brimstone, plagues and demands of filial sacrifice, while theirs was a Jewish preacher of love who had been murdered on the cross by Romans with the complicity of other Jews; that our history was an ignominious chain of exile, persecution, inquisitions, pogroms, ghettoes and holocausts, while theirs was the triumphant ascendancy of Western civilization and culture as we know it. A sense of discomfit began to surface, gradually eclipsing my naïve childhood pride at my special status.
One incident I recall in which this sense of shame was highlighted was the confirmation of my best friend Hayden Pearl (the Jewish name was from his father) at St. Ann's Church in Quincy, Massachusetts. As this was the first (and only) occasion that I attended an actual church service, I was filled with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. The confirmation was celebrated by the renowned Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston. I took an aisle seat towards the back, staring in awe at the elaborate decorations and statues, in stark contrast to the modest furnishings of our temple. The Latin mass, the strange perfume of frankincense, the flowing robes of the altar boys and the weighty tones of the organ conspired towards an ethereal experience, the likes of which I had never witnessed in any Jewish rituals. After some time, however, like most 11-year-old boys, I had had enough and was already getting a bit fidgety. Fortunately, the congregation at last rose to their feet, while one of the confirmed recited a concluding benediction in Latin. Just then, however, to my horror, Cardinal Cushing began his departure down the aisle, and as he walked forward, all the congregants before him dropped to their knees, while those seated on both sides of the aisle (like me) were offered his ring to kiss in an act of Christian devotion.
This was my first real test as a Jew. I remained standing, as the Cardinal approached. He looked at me with inquisitive eyes, as did numerous other parishioners who had turned around in their pews to watch the prelate's grandiose exit. As he extended his hand in my direction, I made an awkward hand gesture and muttered a polite "No, thanks!" As he passed by my seat like an ominous shadow, I looked up to take in the sea of hostile faces gazing in my direction. It was then I truly realised that the honour of being chosen, for a mysterious end which I still did not comprehend, carried with it a heavy price tag.
With the onset of puberty I was no more the wiser as to the Divine purpose of being one of the chosen, but I was now aware of a new commandment, one that seemed to acquire even more prominence than the ten received by Moses at Sinai: "Thou shalt not fraternise with a shiksa." I sensed correctly that the word "shiksa" seemed to have a derogatory connotation, although it was not until a decade later in the Talmudic academy (kollel) that I finally figured out its derivative from the Hebrew word "sheketz", the "detestable thing". As a teenage boy, however, it hardly mattered how the word sounded; like a character in a Phillip Roth novel, I was fatally smitten by the dazzling allure of these lovely creatures! The more that parents, rabbis and teachers tried to convince us of the dangers of interfaith dating and marriage, the stronger the attraction became to that luscious forbidden fruit.
The huge emphasis on preserving Jewish pedigree, however, provided a semblance of an answer to the burning question that still raged unsolved in the back of my mind. It seemed that we had been chosen simply to preserve our genetic status of being chosen! While that was possibly enough of an answer for most of the Jews I knew, it failed to satisfy me.
And then along came the sixties and with the ubiquitous sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, the question hardly seemed relevant. By 1970 I had already been expelled from High School for my radical sub-cultural politics and was living with one of those beautiful "detestable things" in Boston's Back Bay. Those were heady times, the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and Jewish identity seemed the farthest thing from my mind.
One of my close friends in those days was an Aquarius named Michael SanAntonio who shared my passion for the mystical. We used to sit around at my place, get high and listen to Led Zeppelin or the Stones, while discussing the future of humanity.
Michael explained his theory of the historical development of world religion in conjunction with the phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes. According to him, Judaism emerged in the Age of Aries, the Ram, a symbol frequently used in the Old Testament. As the Sun, ruler of the ego and consciousness, is exalted in Aries, Judaism's prime purpose was the stabilization of the ego and the reinforcement of tribalism. Along came the Age of Pisces, the Fish, symbol of the new Christian religion and a universal love preached by the Avatar Jesus that dissolved the previous egoic and tribal boundaries, creating a new covenant based on faith in Jesus Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The next phase, naturally, was the electrifying Age of Aquarius, of which we were sitting on the threshold. Faith was to be replaced with experiential knowledge, which would become the glue to bind a fractured humanity into a harmonious global whole. Peace and love would reign supreme, and it was only a matter of time before our world leaders were sporting pony-tails and tie-dyed T-shirts, and cannabis would replace the dollar as legal tender.
But there it was again! Even my best friend, a committed hippie, pronounced the unequivocal judgment: the Jews had been chosen for a cause that had long ago passed its use-by date.
I must have swallowed that theory hook, line and sinker, because in the years that followed I did everything possible to extricate myself from that primitive tribal identity of my childhood Judaism.
In 1972, however, I was provided an innovative glimpse at the meaning of the "chosen people" from an unexpected source.
Sandy and Lowell Williamson had lived on the top floor of our building with their nine-year old son, Jon. Though they were the same age as my parents at that time, the couple was a vestige of the beatnik era. Sandy was the first to help me comprehend the significance of the integral holism of the zodiacal cycle, which considerably honed my future skills as an astrological counsellor. She also liked a good smoke and knew that she could usually count on getting some at my place. One day she said, "You should go to Jamaica, man. You would really dig the Rastafarians!"
"The rust-a-what?" I replied. It was the first time I had heard the word. She had been to Jamaica years before and explained to me a bit about this strange group who apparently used cannabis in their rituals. To be honest, at the time, it was so foreign to me that it went in one ear and out the other.
In February 1972, however, I was ready to embark on that recommended voyage. With my backpack, a plane ticket, about $250 cash and a list of some addresses from a few of my Jamaican friends living in Dorchester, I arrived in Kingston on a warm, starry night. I had to wait a long time before finding a cabdriver willing to drive me to Trenchtown, where I was to meet my first contact, Ras Moses. Here is not the place to fill in the harrowing details of my arrival in that forsaken shantytown, where, as a "white boy", I attracted considerable attention, not all of it positive. By the end of that evening, however, I was brought to the abode of Ras Moses, and on one of the concrete slab rooftops I was inducted into the "brotherhood" with a massive spliff.
Early the next morning some of the brethren arrived at my hostel with the news that there had been two killings in the neighbourhood that night due to the urban violence generated by the approaching elections. All foreigners had been asked to leave the island. I refused to leave; after all, I had just arrived. The dreadlocks decided to drive me up into the relative safety of Saint Catherine Parish in the Blue Mountains, where I had an address from another of my Boston contacts.
For the next five weeks I lived in Belleview with the mother and family of one of these acquaintances. Most of my days, however, were spent in the shack of an elderly Rastafarian cobbler, Joseph Roberts, who lived on the ridge at the town's edge. As he went about his business cobbling, he would also expound the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the verses of which he knew by heart. Furthermore, all of the stories that I had learned as a child in Hebrew school—the exile, 400 years of slavery, the fall of Egypt, the exodus, the return to the Promised Land of Zion—had been appropriated in their entirety.
"Babylon a-go fall down, mahn, and Jah chosen people I-and-I come a-home to Zion," he would periodically interject into his bubbling exegesis.
On the evening before returning to the States I was invited to attend a Nyabingi, a sacred gathering of Rastafarians with lots of chants, songs and herb. Before lighting the "chalice", a water-pipe with a coconut bowl and cow's horn for a chillum, a member of the group recited Psalm 133: "Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity… Like the precious oil of the head, running down upon the beard, yea, Aaron's beard, running down upon his garments… so the dew of Hermon descends upon the mountains of Zion… for there Almighty God, Jah Rastafari, has commanded the blessing of Life, forever more!"
As the chalice made its rounds, I reflected on the bizarre set of circumstances I found myself immersed in. I recognised that song from Hebrew school as "הנה מה- טוב ומה- נעים", which I had sung hundreds of times before. Never in the past, however, did that psalm possess the profundity and meaning that it did in the circle of these descendants of African slaves. How, I wondered, had they succeeded in taking our Jewish paradigm and reworking it into a vital and viable model that exemplified the concept of a chosen people?
I was not to discover the answer to that question until six years later in another set of hills in the Upper Galilee in the holy town of Safed, the cradle of kabbalah, where I lived with my wife and family for fifteen years.
Prior to coming to Israel, I had become an avid searcher in the traditions of Sufism, Gnosticism, Taoism and Vajrayana. My background in Jewish mysticism, however, had been limited to the "qabbala" espoused by Aleister Crowley in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. (I was also conversant in Arthur E. Waite's works in conjunction with the Tarot tradition.) Now fluent in Hebrew, for the first time in my life I was able to explore kabbalah from authentic Jewish sources. What I discovered was no less than a sparkling treasure that all along had been buried in my own back yard.
The deeper I explored in this journey of the soul, the more questionable my previous assumptions about Judaism now appeared. Rather than a body of antiquated laws commanded by an authoritarian and patriarchal Deity, the mitzvoth suddenly transformed into miraculous opportunities of connection. The notion of God's Oneness, erroneously perceived as quantitative in exoteric Judaism (i.e. there is one unique God amongst many other forces and beings in the universe) suddenly became qualitative and absolute. As we concluded each prayer service daily: "You are to know this day and take it to your heart that HASHEM is the only God—in heaven above and on the earth below—there is none other." (Deuteronomy 4:39). According to the Ramchal the meaning of "…there is none other" is that "there is nothing else". This was amplified by the Hasidic masters in the simple Yiddish expression "allez ist Gott", everything is God. Indeed, the path of Hasidut, one of the more recent manifestations of kabbalistic development, was to achieve bitul-hayesh, the negation of substance, the dissolution of the illusory barrier between the self and the Divine.
The answer to that vexing question had been there all along. It was embedded in the prophetic verse that defined Israel's task as a "light unto the nations". I had heard the phrase used many times before but had been unable to determine what that "light" was that we had to offer. It didn't seem to be our predilection for pedigree, our proficiency with money, our complex set of legalisms nor our innate sense of inherent privilege. Our moral code had already been more or less adopted by the other monotheistic faiths, so it had to be something more than that as well.
The light that Israel had to offer humanity was the radiance concealed in the inner Torah, the kabbalah. For its knowledge and practice has the power to transform the gross material body into a vessel of spiritual light. When such a process takes place on a collective scale, the net result is an illuminated and enlightened humanity. In the epistle of the Baal Shem Tov he describes his ascent to the supernal realms and vision of the Messiah; he asks the latter when he intends to appear on earth. The Messiah replies, "This shall be your sign. It will be at a time when your teachings become widespread in the world, and 'your springs overflow abroad.'"
More than mere privilege, the attribute of being chosen carried with it a poignant awareness of responsibility. This is hinted at where the Torah first refers to the special status of the Jews: "And now, if you hearken to me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples, for Mine is the entire world. You shall be to me a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:5-6) There it was. I finally understood what it meant to be chosen, to be part of a ministry to rectify the world. In the words of the Blues Brothers: "We are on a mission of God."
The discovery of that mission, however, was the easy part. Implementing it has proven far more difficult. For how do you explain that spiritual mission to the vast majority of Jews who would prefer the inherent privilege to the urgent responsibility? How do you convince the rabbinic authorities that our spiritual legacy to the world is that mystical light rather than a national pastime of legalistic casuistry? How do you point out to the gentiles of the world that, rather than a relic from the ancient past, Judaism embodies the hope for humankind's future?
Moreover, most of the learned kabbalists perform their practice with modesty and privacy; they have no desire to leave their sphere of hermetic sanctity to go out and educate others, whether secular Jews or gentiles. The argument put forth (and I have heard this used against the outreach method of Chabad) is that one can achieve more to transform the planet by sitting in the Beit Midrash, studying and praying with true devotion, than can be achieved by natural effort. It is an argument that is impossible to disprove, particularly if one agrees that there are indeed spiritual realms that are influenced by our actions. These mystics concentrate solely on the cultivation of "the light"; getting it out there "unto the nations" is of no concern to them.
On the other side of the coin, we have the purveyors of popular kabbalah. By making Jewish mysticism accessible to the masses they have no doubt helped countless people imbue their lives with meaning and depth. This is vital in the times we live in, where the oppressive force of the materialist paradigm has engendered nihilism, gloom and despair. Yet, the obsession to promulgate these ideas "unto the nations" comes at the expense of the authenticity of "the light" itself! Attempts, for example, to blur distinctions by equating the Christian "qabbala" of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola with the Jewish kabbalah of the Ari are disingenuous, if not deceptive. Similarly, claims that the Zohar never refers to "commandments and prohibitions" but rather to "positive and negative energies" is patently false, as anyone who has studied the Zohar will attest to; the entire section of Raya Mehemna elaborates on the spiritual ramifications of various "commandments" and "prohibitions" of the Torah. Finally, I have met only a few non-Jewish students of kabbalah who are even remotely aware of the Seven Universal Laws, which, for them, should be the foundation of any mystical practice.
So where does that leave a Jew like me who would like to fulfil the mission and become "a light unto the nations"? In fact, it leaves me stuck in the middle, which is the worst place of all, a plight reflected in the well-known Yiddish adage: "You can't dance at two weddings with only one rear-end."
During the fifteen year period I lived in Safed, I was not pre-occupied pondering this implementation of the Jewish mission. Living in the spiritual heights of the Holy Land, this was just not a major concern. As far as our Arab cousins go, I suppose we first had to achieve peace, before we could convey any mystical secrets of the Torah, although I admit that perhaps these two goals are interdependent. Since our arrival Down Under in 1993, however, that question has been an object of much contemplation. In one sense, it is disheartening that in all that time I have not come up with a solution.
Perhaps the truth is that there is none. Perhaps, like Agent Ethan Hunt, we have been handed a "Mission: Impossible". We are, in the end, ultimately talking about a connection with Ohr Ein Sof, that light from a nameless, ineffable God who, solely out of convenience, we label "without limits". Perhaps any endeavour to adequately define how that sublime light should be conveyed is simply unattainable, in the same way that "the Tao that can be named is not the Tao."
When I first arrived in Safed back in 1979, it was a chance encounter with the Nadvorna Rebbe of Hadera, who was conducting a Hasidic tisch in the Old City, which impelled me to study Torah full-time. After one of his Hasidim spotted me in the alleyway and hauled me inside the darkened room, the Rebbe took my hand and said to me in his heavily-accented English. "Remember one thing! In this life, there is no such thing as standing still. Because if you stand still today, it means that tomorrow you will have fallen behind."
That teaching resonated with everything I had learned up until that point, and it is deeply embedded in my heart still today. The Jewish concept of enlightenment is dynamic, not static. It is based on רץ ושוב, "running and returning". Whenever we think we have found the truth, we have to remind ourselves that it is always something more than what we think it is.
Furthermore, in reality, illumination is not actualised through meditations on the sefirot, knowledge of the Zohar (or scanning it!) or even through the performance of numerous mitzvoth. Nor will all the red threads in the world, stacks of how-to DVD's or an ocean filled with blessed drinking water bring one any closer to enlightenment. The reason is that enlightenment is right here with us already, and all these other things are just external means to trip our awareness into recognising that which resides within us all along.
Perhaps, when all is said and done, that light that I have been referring to is not even ours to give but rather incumbent upon us to perceive. And it is in that Divine task that every one of us, Jew and gentile alike, becomes a part of "the chosen people" and a mission that culminates in eternity.
Monday, 8 October 2007
Immediately thereafter, I received a second Facebook message from another former student studying at yeshiva in Israel. He was sincerely concerned about the viability of Jewish life alone out here in the hills of Roleystone, away from the synagogue and the hub of Jewish community.
Inevitably, in answering both of these similar questions I lay bare some of the deep unresolved conflicts and contradictions in my own personal life. In that respect, it might be better to just let these issues lie dormant rather than expose discomforting questions that are often unpopular. Nonetheless, as a believer in the adage of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav that “truth is the gateway to Redemption” I am left with little choice but to try and answer as best as I can. I want to make clear, however, that what follows is only a brief sketch of a select set of events that have influenced my thinking. There are a number of other critical events I have not discussed, both personal and circumstantial, that have also had impact on my transformation.
Before leaving Sydney for Perth in 1995 I had been contacted by the Melton Foundation to be a panel member on a proposed seminar on the topic of theological views of homosexuality. The program, which involved a number of Sydney clergy, seemed intellectually engaging. I was somewhat surprised and disappointed, therefore, when several weeks prior to the event I was informed by a representative of the Sydney Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) that I was forbidden to take part, as I would be sharing the podium with a Reform rabbi. I argued the importance of having a voice representing an orthodox perspective. I had already prepared what I suspected would be an interesting presentation with elements from both exoteric and esoteric Judaism, not to mention a sprinkling of Taoism. Despite my protestations, I was instructed in no uncertain terms to pull out, which I did.
In Perth I was surprised to find that, despite the comparative lack of orthodox infrastructure at that time (it has grown tremendously since), attitudes were much the same. At Carmel I succeeded in starting interfaith programs involving Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. Yet, the school’s orthodox ethos would not allow me to invite the local Reform (Liberal) rabbi to speak on the principles of Reform Judaism.
Let me clarify that I was raised in the United States as a Conservative Jew. At least in America, the three major Jewish denominations were discernable. Each one knew where the other stood. Basically, Orthodox Jews held that the Torah commandments were of Divine origin, Reform Jews believed they were not and the Conservative Jews attempted a diplomatic “yes, but…” theological response to these polarities.
Here in Australia, however, where there is only Orthodox and Liberal, the situation is different. I once recall a mother of a student informing me that although she neither kept a kosher home nor observed the Sabbath, she considered herself staunchly orthodox. There are numerous others like her, too. Such a statement would be a tautology coming from an Orthodox Jew in New York or London. In practical terms, many of the congregants at some of the Orthodox synagogues here conduct themselves just like those in the Liberal, yet, strangely enough, an unbridgeable chasm divided the two communities religiously and socially.
As fate would have it, my next door neighbour in the unit in Perth which the school had procured for us was the rabbi at the Liberal (Reform) temple. He had been brought up in the US as Modern Orthodox but at some point rejected that; he “found himself” in later years with the theology of Reform Judaism. (My experience had been almost the opposite. I had rejected the non-committal stance of Conservative Judaism and discovered the profundity of Hassidism, studying for over a decade in the Zans-Klausenberg Kollel in Safed, Israel.) We developed a friendship, despite being an “odd couple”, and shared many interesting and challenging conversations.
Here I must inject that during my time period in Safed, I had also viewed and rejected the Reform movement as a heretical aberration. In effect, this view was more theoretical than practical, since at that time I had very little contact with any Reform Jews. In fact, the mutual rejection of these two streams is a very natural phenomenon. For Orthodox Judaism to give validity to the position of Reform would entail the nullification of its own platform; the same applies to the Reform position on Orthodoxy.
Yet, despite the inevitability of these perspectives, something in this divisive rut struck me as profoundly unhealthy. We are taught that the verse "ויחן העם" (“…and the people camped…”), where the verb is expressed in the defective singular, refers to the unity of the Jewish people at Sinai, a prerequisite to their receiving of the Torah (Rashi). The Talmud also teaches that the reason for the prolonged exile was needless hatred. Furthermore, it states that even the פושעי ישראל (the intentional Jewish transgressors) were filled with mitzvot like pomegranates. Finally, Pirkei Avot tells us in the simplest terms: "Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.”
There seemed to me to be a huge gap between these sentiments and the bitter reality on the ground. Of course, the standard answer to this contradiction in the Orthodox world was fairly simple and straightforward: this is galut, the exile. When the Messiah comes, everyone will return to God and Torah obedience, and there will be unity. (Reform Judaism, which, in its original platform rejected the idea of a Messianic era altogether, had no need at all to even address this fragmented state of affairs, since from a humanist perspective, fragmentation was in many respects an unavoidable existential reality.)
Yet, the idea of a future triumphant Orthodox theocracy as a solution to these issues was starting to unravel for me. First, the Rambam teaches that it is impossible to second-guess the details of the Messianic future. To interpret it narrowly through the lens of Orthodox hegemony seemed to me both reductionist and manipulative. Second, thanks to developments in the Islamic world, I was rapidly shedding any penchant I might have harboured for theocracies of any shade. Neither religious coercion nor hegemony seemed to hold the key to resolve the divide that was tearing apart my people (not to mention the rest of the world).
These were among the initial triggers that set me off on a search for a valid, more inclusive view that could somehow heal the rift and identify positive elements in each denomination. I cannot say exactly how long that search has lasted or that it is over: like everyone else, I am still a work in progress. I did not, however, have to look very far to find those signposts towards a more inclusive perspective. Within the Jewish mystical tradition those indicators are ubiquitous. Rav Avraham I. Kook, the Baal Shem Tov, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Rav Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, the Apter Rebbe and numerous others all pointed to the same self-evident truth of the intrinsic unity of the Jewish people (klal yisrael).
I am, however, jumping the gun here. I will return to this mystical component momentarily, but I first want to explain the “post-denominational” bit. I initially discovered the term “Post-Denominational” a few years ago in an article in The Jerusalem Post. To my delight, it described an unusual phenomenon occurring in Israel. Secular Israelis who previously wanted nothing to do with Judaism were suddenly flocking in substantial numbers to study Torah and Talmud. Unlike the various outreach movements that have been active in recruiting new baalei tshuvah, those who return to the faith, these Israelis had no interest in becoming religious. Their sole motive was reclamation of their heritage which had been circumstantially hijacked and monopolised by orthodoxy.
Simultaneously, a growing number of Orthodox Israelis had begun to explore the fascinating world of science and philosophy. Online forums such as the Israeli website Hyde Park gave these religious Jews the opportunity to exchange views in an open environment, many of them taking advantage of the Internet’s anonymity to express opinions they dared not utter on the streets of Bnei Brak or Mea Shearim. Furthermore, what was coined the Habakuk movement (after the prophet Chabakuk, but truly an acronym for Chabad, Breslav and Rav Kook), an eclectic, mystical revival indigenous to Israel, spanned the denominational spectrum in its constituency.
Up until I read that article, whenever asked about my denominational status, for a while already I had begun to reply: “unorthodox”. While that adjective is possibly suitable for my personality, it is less than adequate in describing my religious affiliation. Post-denominational works much better. So I began using that.
When I did a more recent Google search on the topic, I found the word post-denominational used critically towards Lubavitch in a JP article from July 2006 written by Marvin Schick, president of the Jacob Joseph Yeshiva, NY. Decrying the abandonment of halacha in the movement’s efforts to include Jews of all backgrounds, Schick writes: “As it grows, Chabad's options are in a sense limited by certain realities, primarily the wholesale Judaic abandonment that we are witness to, and which is accelerating. Increasingly, the movement operates in a framework of post-denominational Judaism.”
In the past I have been critical of certain aspects of Lubavitch, particularly of its extreme messianic element. In this regard, however, I have to vigorously defend them.
In 1981 I was employed as an English teacher in the Lubavitch Primary School in Safed. Nearly half of the school’s pupils were from families in Kiryat Chabad; the rest came from non-observant Israeli homes in the area. I recall how the Chabad families wrote the Rebbe ז"צל to request that they form their own school without the negative influences their children were encountering from their secular classmates. The Rebbe ז"צל refused; the positive influence inherent in the interaction between religious and secular children outweighed the potential negatives.
During our recent 18-month stay in the Byron Bay area, I had the good fortune to befriend the Chabad shaliach (emissary) for the Gold Coast & Northern Rivers area. Rabbi Mosheh Serebryanski epitomises the concept of Jewish unity as expressed by the Jewish sages quoted above and emphatically reiterated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Byron Bay, of course, has a culture all of its own, and the many Israelis living there are both secular and alternative. Though there are many who consider “kiruv” (bringing Jews closer to their heritage) a means to provide quantitative fodder for orthodox culture, Reb Mosheh comprehended a deeper, antithetical significance: the ability to identify and come close to the spark of innate goodness in every soul. Whatever the Jewish occasion, the gatherings he organised never failed to manifest a certain character unique to the Byron Bay sub-culture. No doubt Schick would object to the occasional erosion of halacha which could occur under such circumstances nor would he fully appreciate the concomitant and contagious sense of simchah (joy).
Two and a half centuries ago the Baal Shem Tov began a movement that was truly revolutionary in its day. It was a Jewish rebellion against a soulless rabbinate, an ivory-towered world of dry legalism insensitive to the peoples’ needs and suffering. Hasidism in essence shifted the Jewish focus from the head to the heart, allowing a larger number of Jews to connect to God, the Torah and commandments through heartfelt devotion and simple intent. In its early days the movement was actually excommunicated for what the rabbinic establishment viewed as breaches of Jewish law. Today, ironically, most of the Hasidic movement has itself crystallised into an exclusive establishment. Only Chabad stands out in bearing that original torch of inclusiveness, willing to guide the flocks in Byron Bay, Kathmandu, Dharamsala, Saigon, Bangkok and countless other remote places. Chabad has assimilated the Baal Shem Tov’s famous dictum, which Marvin Schick would no doubt find anathematic: “One can’t expect to save a person from sinking in quicksand without getting one’s hands dirty.”
With these prefatory remarks on the post-denominational, I can better explain why I have seemingly discarded my Jewish identity for that of a “mystic”.
The answer to that is that mysticism is the sole perspective that can include and integrate both mythic belief and rational knowledge; as such, it heals the gaping wound that has caused the aforementioned rift both amongst the Jewish people and the nations of the world.
For many readers, particularly those who think of mysticism as some fuzzy, spaced-out, Lucy-in-the-sky-with diamonds blur, the previous statement seems fanciful if not outright dogmatic. Indeed, kabbalah and other esoteric traditions inherently define the New Aeon as the epoch when Spirit is revealed in its full glory. “..I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy; your elders will dream prophetic dreams, and your young men will see visions…” (Joel 3:1). It is not, however, my faith in scripture that generates such a radical claim.
In fact, I have always intuited that mystical consciousness is the engine for the realization not only of Divine Unity but the unity of a fragmented humanity; to give credit where it is due, however, it is thanks to the pioneering work in Integral Theory by American philosopher Ken Wilber that that intuition was verified. More than a speculative philosophy, Wilber’s outstanding contribution is as a classifier of diverse systems. Using the Neoplatonic Great Chain of Being (the evolutionary and ontological “holarchy” of matter, body, mind, soul and Spirit) as a base, Wilber juxtaposes numerous psychological and spiritual developmental models from both the East and West alongside of it. The conclusion is inescapable: each and every one of us, and humankind as a whole, is on a remarkable journey whose destination is the same as its starting point: the revelation of Spirit. And even more remarkable is that at every point along the way, even right now as you read the words on this page, that very same revelation is occurring. The true mystic sees that revelation, experienced as Pure Consciousness or Simple Awareness, at every moment, in every event and in every sentient being. Therein is the soothing balm that heals the torturous illusion of fracture and separation.
The innovation of the Baal Shem Tov was to take the mysteries of kabbalah, which enabled the meditative ascent of the human being to the lofty heights of the supernal worlds, and to turn it on its head. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, the aim was no longer to rise up to the heavens, but to bring the heavenly domain right down here on earth.
Last year I attended a wedding here in Perth; also invited was the same Sydney rabbi who more than a decade ago had forbidden me to take part in the Melton program. In the interim years, this rabbi had had his share of woes with political machinations, communal strife and litigation. At the wedding, we had a long talk. I explained to him that I was now living outside of the Jewish community in the hills of Perth. I no longer went to synagogue except on the rare occasion; yet I still studied Jewish mystical texts and attempted to share my knowledge with those who were interested—these days mainly secular Jews and gentiles. Surprisingly, he heard me out with patience and understanding. He responded by saying how many people failed to grasp the core of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s message: inclusiveness. Then he said something that shocked me at first, particularly bearing in mind the Melton incident but no doubt reflecting his personal tribulations over the years. He said: “In the end, the level of a person’s religious observance has only a negligible effect on the type of human being they become.”
That, in brief, is the story of how and why I became a post-denominational mystic. But, hey, who do I think I’m kidding? With a name like “Moshe Yehuda Bernstein” and a face like mine, I might as well be wearing an oversized, flashing, fluorescent Star of David; and it is in reality because I am very proud to be Jewish that I have the chutzpah to cast off the external label and cleave instead to that internal form of what a Jew is meant to be.
Monday, 1 October 2007
The sukkah reminds us of our past: "כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל בהצאיי אותם מארץ מצרים" (“…because I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkot [booths] when I brought them forth from the land of Egypt.) The Sages dispute whether the sukkot in the verse refer to the natural huts the Israelites must have camped in on their sojourn through the Sinai or to the supernatural Clouds of Glory that protected them from all sides as well as from above and from below.
At the same time, the sukkah makes us think about our future and question the certainty of things. We leave our permanent domains and have a taste of impermanence, to remember how everything in this material world, no matter how good it may seem, is subject to the law of change. “Vanity of vanities; everything is vanity,” as King Solomon reminds us in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), read in the synagogue during Sukkot.
Yet, it is within this state of impermanence that our “eternal salvation” dwells. The special commandment of Sukkot ושמחת בחגיך והיית אך שמח (“And you shall rejoice on your holiday, and you shall be only joyful.”) entails a simple state of spiritual happiness to be experienced while under the canopy of palm fronds and branches.
At the mystical level, during Sukkot the “ingathering” facilitates an internal process that is meant to lead to the experience of unity consciousness, where the boundaries of duality—of self and other, of transcendent and immanent—those “permanent walls’ of the ego dissolve into Oneness. It is not coincidental that the word שמחה (joy) cited in the mitzvah of rejoicing is a euphemism for a wedding. Kabbalistic texts liken the sukkah itself to the wedding canopy and the seven days of the holiday to the seven circles the bride makes around the bridegroom, prior to the marriage ceremony and blissful union that takes place on the eighth day of Shemini Atzeret.
According to the Sefer Yetzirah, which ascribes each of the Hebrew months to a letter, astrological sign and function, the month of Tishrei is ruled by the letter (ל) Lamed, the sign of Libra and the function of coition. At the opposite time of the year Nissan is ruled by Heh, the sign of Aires and the function of speech. During Pesach the main mitzvah is with our mouths, the retelling of the story of the exodus through the Haggadah, literally “the telling”. During Sukkot we do not have to say anything in the sukkah; we only have to be there. That simple act of presence demanded of us opens up channels that are transformative and healing.
These channels are consciously accessed in the waving of the lulav and etrog. The three myrtles are channels for the sefirotic influences of Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet; the two willows for Netzach and Hod; the palm frond for Yesod. Only during the waving are these six, representing the masculine Expression of Zeir Anpin(the “Small Face”), joined together with the etrog (citron), embodying the feminine Malchut, or Shekhina, the immanent Divine Presence. They are the waved in six directions. According to the version of the Ari these correspond to the six points of Zeir Anpin: South=Chesed; North=Gevurah; East=Tiferet; up=Netzach; Down=Hod; West=Yesod. Each drawing of the species towards the heart, channelling the supernal flow into immanent reality, corresponds to the receiver of Malchut. The custom of the Ari was to wave the lulav inside the sukkah, as its encompassing three (mandatory) walls corresponded to the three upper sefirot of Keter, Chochmah and Binah, the mochin, the Supernal Mind. This is meant to open up a flow of the Or Ha-Makif, the Enveloping Light, through Binah and then through the merging of the lower seven.
On the level of physical reality, we are taught that this waving is to bring forth water. The theme of water, in fact, appears prominently in Sukkot in the unique ceremonial drawing and libation of water that took place on the altar of the Holy Temple. The celebration of this event the Simchat Beit-Hashoeva used to inspire the sages to perform astounding feats through Divine Inspiration. It is said that one who had never witnessed the joy of the Simchat Beit-Hashoeva in Jerusalem in the days of the Temple had never witnessed true joy.
According to kabbalah, the water refers to the spiritual Upper waters, the rivers of the Upper Gan Eden, rooted in Binah, which flow unhindered by the channels opened through the ingathering of forces below. This also surfaces in the Zohar segment we read in which Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Abbi meet Rabbi Shimon after their encounter with the soul of Rav Hamnuna. Rabbi Shimon, who claims they have become transformed from the encounter and nicknames them “Faces of God”, explains that these souls come from the Upper Gan Eden (Binah) through the Lower (Shekhina) to reveal their wisdom to human beings.
Our custom in Sukkot to invite the supernal guests (Avraham=Chesed; Isaac=Gevurah; Yaakov=Tiferet; Moshe=Netzach; Aaron=Hod; Yosef=Yesod; David=Malchut), the ushpizin, is more than a ritual formality. Each cosmic guest is an opportunity to absorb the special energy of each of the seven days and allow the higher wisdom it imparts to enter our lives.
Because our experience during Sukkot is more sensorial than verbal, the mystical intent and the foundation of the imperative simcha is an actual perception of Divine Unity. The name sukkah is rooted in the verb סוכה which means “to perceive”. There must be space enough in the roof covering for the stars, those symbols of the everlasting, to be visible. Even in our transient shacks the light of eternity must peer through; and even the ultimate “vanity of vanities” and exemplar of impermanence, the human body, becomes a remarkable channel of infinite light.
The gematria, or numerical value, of סוכה (sukkah) is 91. This is equivalent to the Divine Name YHVH (26) and the Name through which it is pronounced ADNY (55). The transcendent God, “who was, is and always will be” beyond spatial or temporal boundaries, and the immanent Goddess, the Shekhina, the light of holiness that radiates within all that is manifest, become truly one.
From this vantage point the Talmudic dispute over whether we commemorate the dwelling in simple huts or the supernatural protection of the Clouds of Glory is understandable from both angles. The natural experience of sitting in a sukkah is the same as the transcendent one of being transported on the Clouds of Glory. The atoms in the earth beneath our feet and in the sky we breathe from ARE the Clouds of Glory, carrying us through the myriad manifestations of One Eternal Moment.
So, sit back in your sukkah, invite your friends and loved ones, take a look at the stars and enjoy a good meal. While doing so, you can experience the Divine Inspiration reserved for prophets of the Messianic era; the exalted state where “God and His Name are one”; where the lines between Yin and Yang conjoin in the Tao; where Emptiness and Form become symbiotic.
And even if you don’t have a physical sukkah you are still invited to the celebration of Divine Unity. For even when we pack up our sukkah and return to the illusion of our permanent homes, absolute Oneness is still the only game in town.
Sometimes it requires stepping outside ourselves (into a sukkah) and shaking things up a bit (like the lulav) to know that. In the end, though, you just have to BE there.
Thursday, 20 September 2007
The event received due coverage in the media, particularly of the meeting between the pop icon and President Shimon Peres, where the former presented the latter with a copy of the Zohar. In return, the Material Girl was given a leather-bound copy of the Tanach (Bible).
Also prominently discussed in the media were some critical remarks made by certain rabbis who teach kabbalah within the restraints of halachic orthodoxy. One rabbi, who refused to utter the name of the diva-in-question from his lips, explained how the Hollywood fascination with kabbalah only proved how the kelipot, the “husks of evil”, are attracted to the holiness of the Torah’s hidden wisdom.
Rabbi David Batzri, head of the kabbalistic Shalom Yeshiva was more circumspect in simply calling attention to the halachic injunctions forbidding the teaching of kabbalah not only to non-Jews but also to Jews who have not met the prescribed requirements (married, over 40, with full knowledge of Talmud and legal codes).
These two responses, to imply that Madonna is from the “husks of evil” or to suggest that she is forbidden to study kabbalah in the first place, are valid and appropriate from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism, which tends to see the real world through the lens of duality: kosher/treif; holy/profane; muttar (allowed)/assur (prohibited); Jew/gentile. From that viewpoint, there is no doubt that teaching the sacred Torah to the stars from “that place of iniquity and lasciviousness” must be condemned.
Is that, however, the only possible perspective to maintain?
From a mystical viewpoint, we are taught, for example, that in the times of the Messiah, human consciousness will change in a number of ways:
1. We will then see as good all that we formerly thought of as bad.
2. The secret wisdom of Torah and spiritual knowledge in general will be widespread in the world
3. The realisation of Divine Oneness will promulgate
4. The Jews, and the Land of Israel in particular, will be a “light unto the nations”
5. The “wolf will lie with the lamb”, which means, according to Rashi, former enemies become friends and allies
Let us then look at the Madonna story in a wider context. Arguably the most renowned, successful pop- celebrity, she finds solace nearly a decade ago in the teachings of kabbalah. From producing films like In Bed with Madonna, she progresses to writing children’s books promoting spiritual and ethical values. Though many detractors initially mocked her declaration of faith in Jewish mysticism as a passing fad, it seems to have withstood the test of time to the point that finds her standing before the President of Israel proclaiming to be “a friend of the Jewish people.”
What if-- theoretically, of course-- Madonna was not just a kelipa, a “shell” from the husks of evil? What is she were just a person, a human being like all of us, with a good side and a bad? And what if she is being honest when she says that kabbalah has imbued meaning in her life? If you entertain these possibilities to be true, the result is nothing less than messianic. The “bad” girl who once waved the banner of licentiousness now becomes the “good” girl unfurling the emblem of Divine Unity. Through her, a large number of people, in the midst of a turbulent, fragmented world, are gaining insight into life’s inner meaning through Jewish esoteric sources. Even if one contends that it may be an adulterated and slickly packaged version for New Age markets, some of the core message apparently sifts through (trusting, as we are, in Madonna’s intelligence and integrity).
In this Age of Information Madonna cannot be blamed for revealing this Hidden Wisdom. Since the 70’s publications on kabbalah, many of them from orthodox publishers and some translated into English, abound. There are hundreds of websites on the subject as well. Nor can she be faulted if the version of kabbalah offered by The Kabbalah Centre is less than complete or authentic, as some decry. Since the orthodox world is so deliberately reticent on this matter, the Kabbalah Centre has been most successful in stepping into the vacuum and marketing this ancient wisdom to a new, broader audience. Apart from the point-blank “no”, is this the best answer that Orthodox Judaism can give to seekers of spirituality, whether Jewish or not, eager to tap the wellsprings of Jewish wisdom?
As to the most pertinent, yet unspoken, point of contention, Madonna’s flaunting of her sexuality onstage contradicts the ascetic moral values of traditional kabbalah. Before I retell a personal story in that regard, let me retell an even older one. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the 18th century Hasidic master, was known for seeing only the good in all people and events. Once he was walking home from synagogue with his shammos (beadle) in the morning, when they both spotted a wagon-driver who was greasing the wheels of his wagon. As they approached him, they realised that the driver, who had not gone to synagogue, was wearing tefillin (phylacteries) and davening (praying). The shammos, aghast at this disrespect, said, “Look at that! He’s greasing a wagon wheel while davening!”
“Yes, that is amazing,” Reb Levi Yitzhak replied, “he is even able to daven while greasing a wagon wheel!”
Years ago when Madonna first came out with the music video of herself wearing a very provocative outfit adorned with tefillin (the latter nullifying, for me at least, any potential seduction in the former), a friend remarked to me, “How can it be that someone who dresses like that is studying kabbalah?”
Similar to the story above, I answered: “Isn’t it amazing that someone who dresses like that is studying kabbalah?”
My point here is not to compare the “sin” of sexual immodesty with the “sin” of disrespect during prayers (nor to compare that both Madonna and the wagon-driver were wearing tefillin!) but rather to show that everything can be viewed in different contexts; and though the rabbis quoted in the JP article were unable to see it, there is a favourable context in which to see the Madonna story. (Of course, since the rabbis can neither look at Madonna nor utter her name, I concede that this wider context will be easily missed.)
Nonetheless, though the rabbis can be excused for their inability to adequately interpret the popular resurgence of kabbalah in this broader context, there is a foundational concept of Torah that I believe demands that they at least try to do so. That concept is known as Derech Eretz (“the way of the earth”) and refers to our ability to interact with the real world in a display of “proper conduct.” Derech Eretz is said to be both a prerequisite of Torah study and also a consequence of it. My rosh yeshiva (academy head) used to refer to it as the unwritten “fifth book” of the Shulchan Aruch known as “common sense”. For example, although halacha forbids physical contact between the sexes, if a woman falls and slips on the ice (this actually happened right in front of our yeshiva one winter in Tsfat), common sense only dictates that a man should give her a helping hand. This is not written explicitly into Jewish law, but someone who is too “pious” to assist this woman would be deemed a “chasid shoteh”, (“a pious imbecile”).
We live in a time period where Israel and the Jewish people face enmity not only from Arabs in the Middle East but a worldwide campaign to delegitimise the Jewish state. This political smear campaign is frequently accompanied by heinous remarks against the Jewish religion, looked at as a tribal, patriarchal and ethnocentric throwback. It is no small matter to have the hip Queen of Pop publicly proclaim her infatuation with Jewish spirituality and the Jewish people. Her trips to Israel, in contrast to so many pro-Palestinian Hollywood liberals, make millions of people think twice about the negative press that Israel invariably receives. After all, if Madonna raves about her visits there, how can it really be the “apartheid state” described by the left-wing media? To me, common sense dictates that when a person displays such philosemitic enthusiasm as Madonna does, she should be encouraged rather than branded a “kelipah”.
An important facet of derech eretz is gratitude. In fact, the name yehudi (Jewish) is rooted in the word “modeh” (“to be thankful”). The very essence of what it means to be Jewish is the acknowledgment of gratitude to one who bestows a favor. Madonna’s continued practice of kabbalah, at whatever level, and her support of Israel certainly merit that gratitude rather than the rabbinic scorn that is heaped upon her. Perhaps it is time for the rabbinate to acknowledge the thirst for spiritual knowledge that currently pervades the planet, and for the kabbalists amongst them to assist in guiding the general public in accessing Jewish mysticism from authentic and relevant sources. The current approach of point-blank “no” will not stop the tide of spirituality and will only increase suspicion against such an insular, negative relgious stance.