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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, 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.


Anonymous said...

just sounds like s a shtick..
but wish you all the best.

Michael said...

Having watched the movement towards a post demoninational perspective over the last two decades, I can see the evolutionary process demanding the move beyond normative religion. After al the religious notion stands at the base of the evolution of the human organism, not at its pinnacle.

Anonymous said...

Loved your piece! Enlightening to say the least. Well written, eloquent and explains the concept nicely. I'm with you in some of your views. Having lived in Byron Bay for 8 years (I met you and your lovely wife when you lived here), I fully embrace the inclusiveness here. Like you, I'm proud to be Jewish. I practice only in spirit. I like my life without the dogma of what I should or shouldn't be doing.

Please write more!

Byron Bay

Anonymous said...

As a transgender female on my path to the Kabbalah, I find your story fulfilling. I am post-denominational myself, for obvious reasons... You are an awesome person.

Nerina said...

Keep up the good work.