"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.