3. Jewish Understandings of the Spiritual and Mystical Life


Jewish Understandings of the Spiritual and Mystical Life

Conducting the Lesson


Lesson Opening:
Depending on the levels of the knowledge in the group, it is recommended that participants listen to the ‘Fundamentals of Judaism’ interview on the Elijah website in preparation for this lesson.

Text-based discussion: Look at the line ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One’ with commentaries.

Discuss the idea of ‘oneness’ – grapple with the idea of God as experienced by humans and the understanding that God is much greater than what humans experience yet is still ‘one’.

Ensure that the following glossary is accessible prior to viewing the video.

•  Chassidism

•  Halachah

•  Kabbalah

•  Burning bush

•  Mt Sinai

•  Drash (PaRDeS)

•  Ruach

•  Abraham Joshua Heschel

•  Ezekiel’s chariot

•  Rav Nachman of Bratslav

View the video.

Text study in groups: 1. Four Worlds of Kabbalah; 2. Abraham Joshua Heschel; 3. Ezekiel 1; 4. Nachman of Bratslav

Feedback from groups in ‘jigsaw’ exercise.



Multiple Understandings

Dr Haviva Pedaya: There are many configurations in Jewish mysticism. Some of them are talking about God as infinite or even nothingness. So there is no one specific configuration of talking about God. God could be perceived as imminent in the world or even nothingness – pure nothingness. So it’s a matter of several configurations.

Dr Haviva Pedaya: We have in the Tibetan or the Hindu tradition the idea of ‘nothingness’. We have it in also in Judaism, but in another proportion. So each tradition can shed light about our tradition, to use a kind of game of the different proportions of this set of ideas in order to make the whole world ‘symphony’.

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg: Even within Jewish tradition there are a multiplicity of categories. Chassidism – it’s a tradition that, some of the masters will say ‘What is the essence of Chassidism?’ ‘It’s working on yourself’ and another will say ‘All is God’. It’s the same tradition. How do you hold the two together – one where there is no ultimate self and one where the whole way that you might even get to the no-self is through refining your spiritual-ethical qualities? How do you work with a tradition that takes you beyond good and evil, beyond halachic categories, then brings you back to those very halachic categories? And that’s only one tradition.

Dynamics of the Spiritual Life

Rabbi Daniel Kohn: The Jewish teaching has a great deal that is in a dynamic which gets a representation of a ladder, where there is a heightened state that can be experienced as a complete and utter loss of self in the Divine presence and a return down the ladder, with its rungs, into embodied life and practice, which in some sense is meant to be a sign for that contact that was in the heightened state.

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg: In Hebrew we talk about a movement from ani to ain and back to ani– the same letters in Hebrew, from ‘I’ to ‘no-self’, back to self, which is an altered self. And the way in which the world looks and an individual and a community and the Divine being looks at a different level of consciousness or at a different ‘world’, if you want to use the ‘four worlds’ model from Kabbalah, looks very, very different.

Rabbi Daniel Kohn: What God says to Moses at the burning bush, the very first time that the Revelation of Sinai is described, is that what’s going to happen is that you are going to come back here and what will happen here will be a sign for what you just experienced. It will be an ‘ot’. An ‘ot’ in Hebrew is a ‘sign’. In other words, that the revealed word and law will become practices that are a sign for something else, which they point towards but are not the thing itself. The task forever will remain to  live in embodied reality, bringing Divine experience into Divine reality, but it’s always a sign. In Hebrew, and this is a drash, a deeper reading that’s not confined to strict linguistics, but an ‘ot’ is also from a word which is ‘avat’ which means a ‘desire for’. So that a person in living an embodied practice must also be with a desire for that which lies beyond that practice. [fade out]

The Mystical as the ‘Secret’

The ‘mystique’ or ‘mystic’ probably most corresponds to what we call ‘sod’. ‘Sod’ means a ‘secret’ and in some of our great teachings ‘sod’ is actually a ‘secret’ in the sense not that it is something that is exclusivist, but something which by its essence cannot be shared with another – a meditative community is something of great meaning and power and also of paradox, because something of the world of ‘sod’ is in its essence is not shareable because it is not communicable. It has a very, very personal and internal meeting. This world of sod was probably what is meant by the ‘mystical’, even though we have a tremendous corpus of literature that is usually described in the Kabbalah as the ‘esoteric literature’, I don’t think that is what we are talking about here in terms of mysticism. Even though it is describing fundamental realities, it still is not the world of the mystical. The mystical is best described in Jewish teachings as ‘sod’.

Then there is another realm, that realm which is a very alive realm, where there is a meeting of practice with profound and enlightened emotion – the area of ‘ruach’ is a place of the meeting and I would say that that would be something which might be called ‘spiritual’.

Although, I must make a point: ‘spiritual’ is a very problematic word, because ‘spiritual’ on the one hand means something which is non-material and on the other hand, a person who is a very ‘spirited’ person is very alive and real and in the present and in the body. So what do we mean by ‘spiritual’? Are we talking about an excitement that happens when we dance, when we sing, when we explore the Divine and become excited and enamored of Him? Or are we talking about the transcendent ‘spiritual’ as opposed to ‘material’?

But that realm of ‘ruach’, which is a place of meeting and spirituality; and finally the world of practice or praxis, which is simply following the law.

The Circle and the Line

Rabbi Daniel Kohn: There’s a circle and in the circle is a line.  And this line is actually the line which is called in the Kabbalistic teaching ‘the line of the ruach’. This realm actually has a hierarchy. It’s a line. Religion belongs in this place.  It’s measurable, it’s shareable. When we educate, we can educate a person to be of good character, and we can measure is he or not. We can measure a person’s reactivity. How much into anger is he? How much in passion is he? How much in un-seeking is he; how much in power-seeking is he? Is he performing the commandments properly; is he not performing the commandments properly? Where is he? Is he high up, is he low down? These are measurable realms, that the world of religion generally proposes a way to evaluate and some of the world of ruachbelongs to.

The world of ‘sod’ is circular. You can enter anywhere. And there is absolutely no way to evaluate where you are because it is a matter of a very individual and personal contact.  It’s beyond all this sense of hierarchy. Therefore it is a completely common, available possibility.

The hierarchy can take you to a certain point and then it will either be given to you by what you call ‘grace’ or what we call ‘matana’, a gift that is given.

It’s something which can happen whether or not you are participating in that line or not participating in the line.

What is ‘Reality’?

In my sense, our teachings have the life of work and of submission and of obedience as being pointers towards; that the heart of the reality is in

Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad. [Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, The Lord is One]

There is only One. Not only that there is only One but that there is a perfect unity that is between our soul and God.

That is our ultimate declaration.

The world of the ruach is ‘v’ahavta et Hashem Elokeicha’ that you should come to love Him. That is the world of the spiritual and the ruach, which is the beginning of the embodiment of that contact. And the world of practice, which then comes after that, ‘v’haya im shamoa’ [Deuteronomy 11] if you listen and are obedient is the place where it becomes real in this world. And that is God’s desire.

But then what happens is when it’s real in the world, the consciousness which needs to be maintained is that what’s here is the world is actually pointing all the time at a contact, with a very intimate and personal contact, with the Divine.

This model is Jewishly expressive of a dynamic unwillingness to solidify, because there is a movement that is always going on.

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg: It was said, a deeply American reference, that when Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian, activist, mystic marched in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King – a civil rights march, and every marcher, their life was under attack – they were non-violent folks moving into a violent crowd that was opposed to civil rights for African Americans  –  it was said that he marched in Selma with a Chassidic niggun – a  melody in his heart – he says ‘my legs were praying’. There’s something that keeps you connected to something larger than you that gives you some sense of larger purpose and connection.

Rabbi Daniel Kohn: In the prophecy of Ezekiel there is a description of the life-force of the cosmos which is called ‘Hashmal’.

In Hebrew ‘hash’ ‘mal’ – this life force of going up and coming down – ‘hash’ means silence and ‘mal’ means speaking. So there is a speaking-silence all the time. ‘Hash’ also means to contact and touch something. So in the silence there is a touching, and then it becomes spoken and then as soon as it becomes spoken, it must be recalled in the speaker that he is speaking a silence. And the hashmal becomes the energy of life.

It’s a dynamic. I can’t draw it in a static picture. There’s a movement going on among these different elements.

But if there is a static picture I would draw, it would look something like that.

It is twirling.

The Heart and a Parable about Reality

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg:  I’m thinking of a midrash now that says that when the Torah was given there were two angels present for each person there, one to keep the heart from flying out of the body; the second one, to keep us face-to-face with the Presence.

Dr Alon Goshen-Gottstein: So we can simply take the heart as a key word. What we have spoken about is the fullness of what it means to be human. We have spoken about the fullness of human potential. Processes of self-transformation – a person changes – after going somewhere you reach somewhere – you go beyond your effort – you attain something that you don’t really have the power to make – it happens. There’s the base-line of outward religion, there’s a process of striving to reach a goal, to bring you to the point of eventual breakthrough. ‘Religion’ is either the totality of it all or the external part, ‘spirituality’ are all those things that happen along the way, and ‘mysticism’ is when you reach the goal

Rabbi Daniel Kohn:  In my understanding of Jewish teaching, that contact isn’t the GOAL.

Dr Alon Goshen-Gottstein: The goal is God, not mysticism.

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg:  ‘Mysticism’ seems to me to be a different type of term than ‘spirituality’. I would never say ‘mysticism is the goal’.

Dr Alon Goshen-Gottstein: Mysticism may be beyond the reach of the conversation. It’s legitimate to agree on conventions once you’ve [discussed them].. I’ll give you an example: I think the term ‘Abrahamic traditions’ sucks. It shouldn’t be used. I use it all the time. Everybody uses it, so I also use it. We may have to do the same thing. That’s reasonable.

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg: That’s a Nachman of Bratslav story.

Dr Alon Goshen-Gottstein: How so?

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg: About the tainted wheat.

Once, in a faraway land, the king told his adviser that he had had a prophetic vision: “I see that whoever eats any of the wheat that grows this year will go mad. Let us think of some solution.”

The adviser answered, “Let us have some of last year’s wheat set aside for us so that the two of us will not have to eat the tainted grain.”

The king replied, “If we do this, we alone will be sane in a mad world. Then it will be as though we are the ones who are mad and the others sane. But it isn’t possible to set wheat aside for everyone either. So we will also have to eat the tainted wheat. But you and I, we shall make a mark on our foreheads, so that when we look at each other, we will know that we are mad.”

One cannot be in the world without taking its illusions to be reality. Even the righteous mystical person must enter the worldly reality for the purpose of helping others. But righteous people need to remind themselves that the worldly reality is illusory.