Jewish Perspective #3

Response to Questions on Mysticism and Spirituality

Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Coming to Marakesh is for me a circle that is beginning to move towards consummation. Many years ago, as an undergrad at Columbia, I chose to study comparative religion out of a sense that there is much truth spread in humanity and much to be learned, by sharing and by contrast. My own life, as a religious Jew, has undergone some very significant changes, especially with the inclusion of meditative practices that have become a significant part of my life. In the ”economy” of my tradition, the typical practitioner is primarily focused on praxis, on a world of deed which guides and focuses almost every act in the context of divine command. It took me many years, and a profound confusion, to discover another side to Judaism.

When I first came to Israel, after completing my undergrad, I immersed myself in an environment whose entire orientation was intellectual textual exploration. Although my teachers were personable and kind, they seemed to offer little of an inner experience of God that I thirsted for. One night, crying alone in a Jerusalem park, I was calling to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in when, for want of better words, I was quite suddenly ”visited” by what seemed a total immersion in light. I have not shared this with many at all, and only in thinking back now for this paper does the memory return to me as relevant to my own transformation. I remember sitting there ”saturated”, thinking, when it was over, yes it is true.

I continued my studies diligently, but something had changed. I exposed myself to kabalistic texts and teachers but, honestly, did not find the deeper, personal, existential meaning I yearned for. I won’t try you with too many details of my journey, but it was nearly a decade later that, after becoming a Rabbi and head of a Yeshiva , where I was teaching Talmud and Hasidic teachings that I began teaching in what was a very heightened inspired state. One of my students approached me after one of them and told me ”you don’t have to be ‘there’ alone.” The truth is, I was quite lonely in that experience and his words hit a resonant chord. He had spent eight years in a Zen practice and was my first contact with the East as a practice. In learning simple practices of silence, among a very few others, much changed in my life. I began to notice things in our tradition that now spoke differently, most significantly in that they had become descriptions and guides to things I had begun to experience. Silence, focus on Divine names, ”sitting alone and yearning” , ”climbing the ladder” and other practices of communion have become basic parts of my life and teachings .

I think it has been contact with this inner wellspring of Presence, which first appeared that hard and marvelous night in Jerusalem, that has opened me much more to the depths of my own people’s path and has also returned me to the sense of the light present in those of others. In our teachings there is an explicit distinction between praxis as outward practice, as opposed to the inner life of the heart and emotive mind, and, thirdly, that of a being ”at one” ”bound and embraced in one binding with God” (Zohar). Though all these regions are meant to interact, it really is the rare practitioner who is able to harmonize them together, acting in love and yearning for God, aware of His Unity. These different elements are seen, in my tradition, as reflections of different aspects of the soul and its path towards knowing God: the first aspect, generally focused on practice, is the vitality of the body (nefesh); second, the medium of emotion (ruach); ”higher”, the realm of intellect (neshamah); and, ultimately the transcendent connection to the universal Life which God spreads through creation (chaya) and ultimate union and ”at-one-ness” (yechida). I think that what’s being called ”spirituality” in your questions best aligns with ruach and practices associated with it include contemplation of God’s greatness as a path to the arousal of ”an intense pleasure, which leads to a profound, enlightened, love” (Maimonides, Book of Mitzvot, 3), music and song, the development of awe of His greatness, also through contemplative activity and certain aspects of prayer. Almost all Jewish teachers and literature emphasize the centrality of this realm, though few practitioners dedicate themselves to its personal evolution. I think that’s changing some, but just how is yet to be seen. Regarding the issue of inter-faith sharing, some of these realms are quite universal in their intention, but, generally have specific ritual or sacramental aspects to them which make them more particularistic.u

My sense is that what you have called “mysticism” would most likely be associated with chaya and yechida. Here there is a seeking of unity, of ”the One Who stands behind all diversity” and, I believe, on some levels there may be more room here for sharing. My people has evolved, as has all life, from the simple point of beginning, shared by all, which itself emerged from the unmanifest ground of all existence which all that exists continues to share. It has specifically been the practice of silence, called, in Jewish teachings shéhiya, which has given me so much depth in access to God’s Presence. The Rabbis tell of this practice, lived by the ”early devotees of life (my translation of chassidim) who would sit in silence [until their thoughts subsided, Maimonides; and they would be stripped of attachment to manifest form, the Tur, an early Rabbinic legal writer] for an hour, to align their heart with the Place” (Mishnah, Berachot, Chapt.5). In practice, for the most intense devotees, this sitting would fill six hours of the day. In my (belief) sense, this practice embodied an earlier devotional technique, that of our first guide, Abraham, who is also described as chasid, and, the Rabbis teach, was the first to ”attach himself to place in prayer”(Talmud Berachot 7a, Maharal “The Path of Prayer” pg. 86, based on the verse in Genesis Chapt.19:27.) As one who knew Primary Existence, he was the first to use the name YHVH correctly, an appellation which is taken by some of our teachers to mean ”Simple/Primary Existence” (havaya peshuta). I believe that it is that access to the ”undressed” Presence which mystic consciousness brings forth, whose reality is common to all. and which offers a great deal that we can share. There is an ancient Midrash (with a Hasidic interpretation; Sheim MiShmuel, end of Vaýeira) which teaches that before Abraham underwent circumcision, he went to his comrade Aner to share his concern that in ”becoming different” he would lose his connection to other people and compromise his connection with the One. Indeed, specification does that and our differing practices, and expressions do that. But there is a common root in the mystic connection and my sense and experience is that there are practices which lead there which can be shared. There are also clear common expressions in life which emerge from that “place”, such as compassion, love, caring, integrity, commitment and devotion to the Divine and seeking His will and living it. Where those principles meet, there is much to be learned from each other. Where more particular beliefs and practices become expressed, there is learning by sharing and also by contrasting. One guide which has been a somewhat useful enunciation for me is an article called “Thoughts” (Eider HaYakar, p. 122-5) by an important teacher of mine, the esteemed Rabbi Kook (Israel’s first chief Rabbi), though his openness regarding this is somewhat unique.: “There are great and holy thoughts and experiences which are not particular to any one nation and all wise, spiritual and devoted among all of humanity share them, as one, and for everyone’s gain. …These lofty things, because of their supernal power, do not suffer any difference resulting from changed times, locations or cultures….These sorts of things glow and harmonize as long as they stay supernal and do not descend into the particular cultural milieu of different lands. From these insights and experiences, all the great teachers have always received with love…Then there is a second sort, teachings which, in their essence, are so universal that there is no real difference which language you say them in or from which nation you come, but which are, nevertheless, close to the feelings of the heart of the individuals saying them and open to the practical impacts of the particular nation they have come through…There are unique, great individuals who can bring these after filtering them and cleansing them so that the essential universal teaching can be brought to Israel [without tarnishing her unique identity and wisdom]. Then these teachings are a blessing…Finally, there are thoughts and teachings of truth and holiness which are unique specifically to Israel, not just because of their style or language but because of their content, and any mixing in of influences from the outside into these saplings would confuse and damage them…Even here there is that which can be incorporated, but it is the work of rare individuals…who have a rare sensitivity to the inner wisdom which guides them, a wisdom guided by simplicity and ingenuousness.”

One issue that I know that I face is how to attribute source. Judaism is a very rich tradition and very open to varying interpretations. In fact, the Rabbis teach that there are ”seventy facets to the Torah” which are parallel to the ”seventy nations of the earth” and that, indeed, much of what others teach is ”hidden” in Torah’s multifaceted wealth. As a teacher of the religious, I know that most of my listeners are very reluctant to hear teachings from ”foreign pastures” but are quite thrilled to discover resonance with a spiritual zeitgeist that is current and impacted by a sophisticated spiritual literature that is increasingly synthetic. I wonder sometimes, how ”honest” to be, that I realized this emphasis or uncovered this truth thanks to readings and practices I learned from other faiths. I think we of different traditions differ much, and need to be vigilant about those differences, but often the differences, when stripped of their particular language, become more about varying emphases rather than denials of each others truths. Nevertheless, it seems to me that practitioners of different faiths do not like the idea of ”borrowing” from one another. Instead, what seems to happen, is that truths from other paths are ”discovered” as being a part of ”one’s own”. One question which surely needs to be explored is that of honesty regarding shared understandings .

Another question I have, primarily for myself, is how do I overcome my own tendency towards harmony and engage in discourse that is not afraid to accentuate difference. I would like our interaction in Marakesh to yield not only what is ”common” to all paths, but also openly explore how different we are and yet manifest a participation in a greater whole. I’d like us to be able to argue too, and not just agree, not with the purpose of proving right or wrong, but for the purpose of clearing the way for a more enlightened sense of the grandeur of all this together and, yes, the greatness of each in their own.