Jewish Perspective #2

Response to Questions on Mysticism and Spirituality

Rabbi Art Green

Dear colleagues,

I have chosen to write this paper in the form of a letter addressed collectively to you. In part, that is due to the need for some story-telling as part of my response and a sense that as a story-teller I should address my audience directly. But I will also confess to being an unreconstructed disciple of Martin Buber when it comes to inter-personal and inter-faith dialogue, hence a believer in the importance of the face-to-face and the use of the first and second person in the conversation. I look forward to the important things that will emerge in the space that opens up between us, both before and following our upcoming time together, and I write in the spirit of hoping to help create that space.

“I make mention of my sins today (Genesis 41:9)!” I bear some responsibility for the growing acceptance of the term “spirituality” in Jewish parlance. In 1987 I edited a two-volume collection of essays by leading scholars called Jewish Spirituality, a portion of a twenty-some volume series World Spirituality series edited by the late and much lamented Ewert Cousins and published by Crossroad Press. Tellingly, both Cousins, a longtime professor at Fordham University, and Crossroad represented progressive post-Vatican II forces within the Roman Catholic Church.

Perhaps two years earlier, as I approached various Jewish scholars to request their participation in the volume, I met quite a bit of initial resistance. “There’s no such thing as ‘Jewish spirituality!” I heard from several distinguished senior colleagues. “You are immediately acceding to Christian categories of thought!” As a student of Hasidism and one familiar with the Hasidic language of discourse, I disagreed with them. Ruhaniyyut (or rukhniyes, in the East European pronunciation, precisely translating “spirituality”) is very much a part of that authentic inner Jewish vocabulary. Nevertheless, I think it important to explain to you what their objections were and why they felt an instinctive resistance to participating in an enterprise called by this name.

It is true that the term “spirituality” most likely entered English from the French, where it indeed existed largely in a Catholic context. To many Jewish ears it bore association with otherworldliness and asceticism, a neo-Platonic denigration of the material universe. This would inevitably lead to a distinction between “flesh” and “spirit,” with an accompanying sense that Judaism, especially in its concern for traditional halakhic praxis, represented the former, hence a lower or passé form of religion, while Pauline Christianity, in shaking off the shackles of “worldly” religion, rose to the more “pure” realm of spirit. Indeed this rubric for elevating Christianity at the expense of Judaism has a long history. While such a biased presentation was the furthest thing from the mind of those progressive Catholics who commissioned the series – from their point of view it was precisely the opposite they were seeking to demonstrate – the claim was that the very term bore within it a bias rooted in anti-Judaism, and in entering a conversation on those terms we would inevitably come out the losers.

In part because of this objection, I felt that I needed to create a clear working definition of “Jewish Spirituality” to establish the parameters of this project. As I look back at it these couple of decades later, I find myself significantly re-writing what I said there. Here are the opening paragraphs of that introduction, if I were writing it today:

“Give thanks to Y-H-W-H, call out His name! Tell of His deeds among the nations.

“Sing to Him, offer hymns, speak of all His wonders.

“Be in praise of His holy name; joy to the heart of those who seek Y-H-W-H!

“Quest after Y-H-W-H and His strength; seek His face always.” (I Chron. 16:8-11, recited in the daily morning service)

Seeking the face of God always, striving to live in God’s presence and to fashion a life of holiness befitting that quest, for both individual and community – these constitute the core of that religious civilization known to the world as Judaism, the collective religious expression of the people Israel. To build such a life requires us to turn to our two great sources of inspiration, the created world (or the natural world as seen through the lens of divine creation) and the Torah, the body of text and commentary in which we find God’s presence and continue to hear the divine word addressed to us. Embracing both of these with an open heart gives rise to the twin religious emotions of love and awe. It is these, when extended to their fullest, that challenge us to reach for a vision of holiness within human life. That vision is then to be concretized in forms and deeds embodying holiness, creating our religion.

I begin with this phenomenological description of devotion rather than with a specific theology. The intent is a wide scope, a presentation of Judaism that could encompass Biblical, rabbinic, and later forms of piety, including those inspired by both philosophy and mysticism. It needs to have room for priest and prophet, Pharisee and Essene, halakhist and hasid. Indeed, variety and diversity of religious types within a small and clearly identified community has marked Judaism over the ages. This approach does, however, depend upon an important unstated claim: the life of inwardness, that which Scripture calls the “heart,” is the dwelling-place of religion, and indeed of God.

“They shall make Me a dwelling-place and I will dwell within them (Exodus 25:8).” The word be-tokham (“within them”) originally meant “in their midst,” meaning that God would dwell amid the people Israel. But it has long (since Philo of Alexandria!) been read in an internalized way to mean that the dwelling of God is to be found within the individual as well as in the community. Ruhaniyyut (“spirituality”) thus comes to mean penimiyyut (“inwardness”), a sense that it is the inner life, the seat of both awareness and emotion, that is at the core of religion. Outward forms are there to nourish and give expression to that which lives within.

Choosing a single Biblical text today to characterize the Jewish vision of the spiritual life, I would opt for Exodus 29:45-46: “I shall dwell amid (or: ‘within’) the children of Israel and become their God. Then they will know that I am Y-H-W-H their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell amid them. I am Y-H-W-H their God.” This means that our task, as Jews, but also as religious persons, is to make a dwelling-place for God in this world, in a certain sense to “welcome” the shekhinah, the Presence, into its natural home within the human heart.

The fact that we have multiple religious communities in the world, each with its own sancta and sacred language, does not ultimately mean that God has more than one home. God’s home is in the core of the human heart, and I do believe that all hearts are at their core one, a One that transcends lines of differing traditions and symbols as it transcends and bridges all other differences. God is One and the heart is one! But I do recognize, of course, that there are multiple doorways into that single heart of humanity. Since opening the door – or keeping it ajar – is often more difficult than anything else, cultivating those doorways is no small matter. “I rose up to open for my love…but my love had slipped away…(SoS 5:4-5).” How hard it is to keep that door open! How much we have to learn from one another – and how much we need one another’s encouragement – about opening the many doorways to our single heart!

is also a term that comes to Judaism from the outside; there is no precise way of rendering it in Hebrew. The classic term kabbalah refers to a received esoteric tradition, a body of secret truth. It contains mystical elements, as will presently be defined, but much of its content is theosophical or speculative and not directly linked to mysticism.

I understand mysticism to be a specific variety of spirituality, but not fully synonymous with it. The Psalter, for example, is a highly spiritual text, but mostly non-mystical. The same is true for most of the Hebrew Bible. Mysticism shares with spirituality the commitment to interiority and an understanding that the life of the inner self is the most essential field in which religion is to be played out. It also insists that the border between this inner self and the Self of the universe is somehow permeable, that in moments of elation, intimacy, or contemplative immersion, that border may be overcome. Some mystics may claim such experiences for themselves and describe them in great detail; others attribute them to the spiritual giants of former times, perhaps only to Moses (or Jesus or Muhammad) himself. But the possibility of such a crossing of the border is transformative. After it, the world (at least potentially) is never the same as it was before.

I understand the mystic as one who claims an alternative reality to that which we perceive with the outer mind or senses. This inner realm is one in which the singular Self of God, or the oneness of being, embraces all that lives, but particularly the human soul, creating a single continuum of being through which the mystic might hope to overcome the isolation of individuation. This realm of experience, the chief focus of the mystic’s aspirations, is elusive and difficult to access. Special trainings of the mind and symbolic vocabularies are needed in order to achieve the goal.

Much of the Jewish mystical oeuvre is devoted to theosophy, or a metaphysical description of the mystical universe. Its hierarchy and complex structure can seem overwhelming, and not only to the novice. But its purpose is to serve as a mediating realm between the domain of absolute, undifferentiated oneness and the “world of separation” in which we mostly live. The channels of energy that flow back and forth between the One and the many is their most essential concern.

Many years ago, two of my great teachers and mentors, Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and (long life to him!) Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, began to speak of the need for a dialogue of devotion. By this they meant to express dismay that interfaith dialogue was often conducted with essentially political goals (in our case, ending anti-Semitism and, more recently, defending Israel and Israeli policies) in mind rather than true religious communication. They also felt that the religious conversation itself had to be conducted not in the realms of formal theology and dogmatics, where barriers were firmly set in place, but rather in examining the inner life and seeking there for commonality of experience. Jews and Christians share a Scripture, and our devotional life around the Psalter in particular offers an ideal platform for such conversation. Muslims do not share the same involvement with those texts, but reflections on the great body of Sufi poetry might serve a parallel function. They meant (and I am a faithful follower in this regard) that reflection on the texts should serve as a springboard for talking about our own inner lives, our life of prayer and relationship with God. I should say that conversation about these matters is not a habit among Jews and does not always come easily to us. But the fact that we need to struggle for it may lend greater depth to the word as it comes forth.

Over the decades I have been involved in several such undertakings. Most have lasted for a few years and then petered out, due to lack of funding or some other external circumstance. Some of the best partners in those conversations are alas no longer with us on this plane of existence! So I very much look forward to a renewed effort at this sort of communion of spirits in Marrakesh and beyond…

Hopefully yours,
Arthur Green