Jewish Perspective #4

Religion, Mysticism, and Spirituality: The Issue of Interreligious Understanding

Haviva Pedaya

In all religions, there exists a phenomenon in which mysticism provides a more spiritual dimension to religion itself, a dimension that strives for directly revelatory experiences and direct contact with G-d. The mystic, as opposed to the average religious person, aspires to a deep connection and direct contact with divinity through the experience and sensation of presence or revelation. For the average religious person, observing commandments, the contact with the law as the word of G-d that has “frozen” and is present is sufficient for him, whether as something that he has been taught should be done, or whether out of rejoicing and great happiness. Mysticism is connected by nature to the power of original experiences and characterized by a drive toward a connection with the source of these experiences, spontaneously or through special practices. This experiential affinity that mysticism offers to the source, or the “feeling of source” — this direct affinity with the divine source — can be the basis of freedom and openness, as well as the basis for the opposite — conservativeness and closedness. In other words, it can be the basis for revolutionary mysticism on the one hand, or for conservativeness, on the other. One of the explanations for the difference between the two kinds of phenomena has to do with the attributes of the perception and sense of the source: is the “source” perceived as an intrinsic, free, divine mass, or is the primary source identified with ancient law or an intrinsic kernel that is the genealogical basis of man’s existence? The first instance may lead to revolutions in interpretation, and the second to closures and even fundamentalism. Thus, the relationship between mysticism and religion is two-faced, and can be conservative or revolutionary.

I would like to now clarify my understanding of the notion of spirituality. “Spirituality” is a notion that existed in the Middle Ages and passed between the three great religions, perhaps influenced by Suffism. Its meaning: spiritual entities through observation of the heavens in the hidden stratum of experience, where worldliness is its shell. According to this approach, reality has a spiritual source. Today, the notion of “spirituality” serves the New Age, and thus has retained a specific, narrow definition. I myself do not identify with the New Age spirituality, which is a characteristic product of postmodernism; I do not denounce it, but I am more interested in a conscious processing of the notion of spirituality.

The most prominent difference between modernity and the spirituality of postmodernism/New Age is remaining with the one-dimensional, monolithic aspect of the language. Techniques, rituals, objects, and talismans taken from all the religions — these are not unacceptable in themselves, but often they remain on the surface of existence. Mysticism and Kabala, like yoga once did, have become the “foam on the water” and are bent to purposes that reflect the “I” approach of the global, liberal, ambitious, the business-oriented Western world, such as: how to succeed in society and business, or how to relax at the end of an exhausting business day in order to begin another, similar day tomorrow.

The spirituality that I am talking about is different, and it might better be called “spiritual mysticism” in order to characterize the difference between spirituality in itself and conservative mysticism in itself, as long as we are talking about mysticism characterized by spirituality aiming for a common source. It is the recognition of the existence of a transcendent layer, exalted in relation to human existence, found beyond us and allowing for the inclusion of everything; renouncement of the attempt to find immanent expression of divinity in the political and national-political; commitment to repair and sharing. In all this, the emphasis is not simply on individual peace, found in the heart of the crazy Western race to succeed.

In short, I am talking about the construction of a deep common language — a language that must be like a sort of universal chain that carries the links of particular memory systems of religions that are the channels that lead to the mystical depth without which and without the full complexity of each religion in itself, there is really no complex and challenging mysticism.

I suggest that we see in the “spiritual mystical” approach a broader expression of the connection between at least the three religions and specific structures in Judaism and the Far East. This expression is suitable for the, essentially modern, aspiration for exaltedness, when exaltedness is the goal of those who are attempting to aim for the essential mystic quality, beyond any specific religion.

Thus, it is preferable to focus on the notion of spirituality if we define mysticism as something that can strengthen in the name of spiritual yearning the relationship between source and ritual. Spirituality may be considered the type of approach, the type of key to things, while mysticism sits on generations-old traditions of foci of the problematics and contents common to the different religions, and therefore opening up to dialogical opportunities between them. By contrast, I see in spirituality something that is not constructed with the goal of anchoring specific religious understandings, practices and legal systems, in an understanding of a transcendent source that is connected to a particular religious language. Rather, it expresses an open source approach, beyond all particular languages, methods, and appearances of religion.

I would like to clarify here my approach to universalism and particularism by pointing to the approach of Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol, which is reflected in the following excerpt from his poem “Kingdom’s Crown”.

You are the God of gods
and the Lord of lords,
the ruler of all that’s above and below

You are Lord
as all of creation bears witness,
and the Name in whose honor
all men are obliged in worship to serve.

You are Lord,
and every creature serves you as slave
and nothing detracts from your glory,
not those who worship without you —
for the drive of all is to reach you —

although they resemble men who are blind,
walking along the way of the king
and going astray

sinking in the pit of destruction,

slipping in the trap of deception —

certain they’ll reach their haven,
as each one labors in vain

But your servants are wiser and walk in their own integrity,
turning neither
to the right or left,
and coming to the court of the king:

You are Lord,

all creation relies on your godliness;
all creatures feast on your oneness.

You are Lord,

And there is no distinction between
your being divine and one;
between your past and the real,

between what you were and will be.

All is a single mystery:

though its name might alter in aspects,
all toward a single place move on…

I see Ibn Gabirol as a mystic, despite the fact that he was not a Kabbalist. The definition of Jewish mysticism is broader than the definition of Kabbala. With his words, and it may be that this was their hidden purpose to begin with, in light of his philosophical-mystical neo-Platonic book Source of Life, the new interpretation that I will suggest here is as follows: “the drive of all is to reach you” – meaning, I suggest, all religions aim to arrive at G-d and are, in fact, capable of reaching Him. Those who are blind are those who divert religion from its pure role: the creation of a connection between the soul and G-d and educating broad sectors in ethical values, with the tools of concepts and symbols — and instead use it for political and power-oriented goals. Thus, the differentiation between the sharp-sighted and the blind is not between one religion and another, but rather between the character of one use of religion and another. It follows from this that G-d joins all of the creatures and all the creations in his unity. The different languages of the different religions come equally from the divine source that embraces all creatures: “All is a single mystery: though its name might alter in aspects, all toward a single place move on…” — Ibn Gabirol explicitly sets up the model of mysticism as a source that contains all the religions; religion is a language, a changing name, but all names, all religions are like rivers spilling into the great sea, everything is going to one place, to the divine source.

I would like now to use this mystical paradigm of source and the extension of language, which can serve us in constructing the relationship between universalism and particularism, and to show that it can be useful to us in moving from the religious to the ethical. Taking Neo-Platonism from the cosmic realm to the ethical realm, from the point of departure of the one, shared source, we must once again make manifest the harmony that unites the religions from within an awareness of the critical importance of the specific, particular language to humanity’s collective memory and to the uniqueness of the messages of a given nation or religion. It is not possible or correct to strip a human collective from the resources of religious memory and language that are unique to it in the name of universalism. At the same time, though, the internalization of the awareness of the one source, the source as a universal thing, must serve as the foundation for peace, brotherhood, and friendship. It must constitute the focal point from which stems the projection of peace and brotherhood within humanity.

The openness between religions during the Middle Ages and even in the Renaissance was in many respects greater than in modernity, despite the frequent persecutions, excommunications, and expulsions that took place; throughout the Middle Ages, borrowing from religion to religion was backed up by the idea of a common truth; Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet notes many times that “We will take the truth from he who says it.” We can return to this model. There was an open textual space in which the searches of members of all religions took place. Modernity brought with it many problems that burdened the relationship of borrowing, influence, and reciprocity between religions.

Processes of borrowing between religions and cultures always take place both consciously and unconsciously. Today we already share through the media and globalization much more than we realize. This is actually the foundation for New Age spirituality. On the other hand, another kind of unconscious influence, reciprocity, and unconscious borrowing takes place in a negative way with the borrowing models of fanaticism through the growing fundamentalist trend, subject to the unifying dynamic in the global world.

The primary problem is the total identification of religion with nationalism and with territory. The secondary problem is the definition of self-identity by means of negating the identity of the Other, which has become, increasingly in modern times, the basic guideline of the fundamentalist movements in all the religions. We must also provide tools and structures that will make it possible to contain religious particularism with universalism. Religious communities must not feel that the path to universalism threatens to efface them. The path to universalism must contain the circle of religious, as well as national, particularity and identity. A further structure could relate to national-political conflicts and the ability to offer compromises in this world, by suggesting clear relationships between this world and imaginary, mythical utopias. This too is blurred by fanatical religion.

Theoretical agreement on basic, common philosophical principles is not sufficient; even if different religions arrive at an agreement regarding the nature of the sublime or shared principles of faith, this agreement could still remain in the realm of lip service only.       We must strive for such agreement leading to clear consequence regarding the limits of applying the sublime within concrete immanence, within the political and national order. Once religions are able to reach such a fundamental common understanding, one may further reflect upon the value of specific practices that can be shared and unite the diverse religions.

The combination of the different religious paths in a common ritual language, formulated from within the existing ceremonies of the various religions, could contribute to active and creative understanding, bringing about a consolidation of the understanding that the different ways of worshiping G-d all aim at one source (“and every creature serves you as slave”). The path of the servants who turned “neither to the right or left,” is promised. Thus, the consolidation of “spirituality” as the unifying religious element between the fundamental common principles of faith and the ways of life and ways of worship could deepen the practical understanding between the religions. All this, of course, without any effort to synthesize in an all-encompassing way all the elements of praxis of all religions.

Regarding the attempt to advance interreligious understanding, in the direction of tolerance, by means of to ceremonies and texts, I would suggest focusing first on moderating the wording included in the ritual traditions of each religion that are connected with expressing hatred of the Other (the gentile, the woman, the slave, the Jew, the Ishmaelite, the Edomite, the animal, etc.). And it is also necessary to mold a common way of relating to peace and brotherhood in those ritual contexts that are most appropriate, such as in the daily prayers and blessings, for example the blessing over food. Such formulas, that already exist in the traditions, may be brought together in novel ways, in contexts such as an opening for an interreligious meeting. In other words, we should not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to take an existing kernel such as prayers that express the belief in one G-d from Islam, “our Father who art in heaven” from Christianity, and something beautiful from the Jewish blessing on food, and process them into one declarative text.

Music is a tool that unifies and consolidates traditions. Within one common liturgical creation, that might function a common hymn, elements from all the religions could be combined in a creative manner. At the top of common mystical purification ceremonies, I would locate ritual immersion as a kind of ritual that represents a return to the source, and as a gesture that points to the desired symbolic referent: the drawing of all the religions from one source that includes all the languages, the memories, and the traditions, allowing each its unique voice, while embracing them in harmony. It is this sublime harmony that we are demanded to represent in this world.