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...

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Can Somebody Please Turn On the Light?

"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

How I Became a Post-denominational Mystic

I was recently challenged by a former Carmel School student, currently a Friend in Facebook, why in my profile I have listed my religious views as “post-denominational mystic”. This particular student, who was never really enthused about Jewish Studies while at Carmel, messaged me from Israel. It seems that, like many former students, age and maturity have increased his Jewish awareness. In between the lines, I could sense some disappointment that his former rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies, always a proponent of Jewish self-respect, seemed too embarrassed to list his religious views as “Jewish.”
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

On Seeing Stars & Assorted Sukkot Reflections

Above all, Sukkot is a time of ingathering; it is the time of harvest in the Land of Israel. The Sukkah itself brings family and friends together. Furthermore, the mitzvah of gathering together the four species reinforces this idea of binding disparate elements. The Midrash teaches how the four species alludes to four types of people: those with both knowledge and deeds (good scent and taste, i.e. the etrog, or citron); those with knowledge only (taste, i.e. the lulav, or date-palm); those with only deeds (scent, i.e. the hadas, or myrtle); and those with neither of the two (the aravot, or willows). Sukkot brings them altogether as one.

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.