Monday, February 21, 2011

"A Mystical Approach to Judaism"

A few weeks ago a friend and former colleague, who is Jewish, came over for lunch and brought me some books to read as I had been telling her that I wished to know more about Judaism. Today is the first opportunity I have had to crack one of these books and the one I opened immediately struck my heart with a resonance that I experienced with few of the Catholic or Christian books I have read.

Here is a good part of the Introduction to Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice, by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi:

A spiritual seeker is a person whose soul is awake, whose spirit has experienced -- whether the mind knows it or not -- that slap that gets the first breath going in a newborn. Such a soul is not content to stay on the level of mere observance, ritual, and dogmatic belief that it encounters in most Jewish settings. It needs a more personal and mystical approach. It wants an open-sky Judaism: a Judaism that invites the infinite and operates at a higher level of spiritual consciousness. It senses the divine just beyond the surface of everyday existence and wants to connect to that. It yearns to achieve for itself those inner experiences that lie at the heart of religion's external forms. A mystical approach to Judaism is therefore less dogmatic and more experimental. It doesn't have a low ceiling, capping the mind and frustrating its desire to unite in love and awe with a vital, living universe. It is open-minded, open-souled. It says, "Try this. If you feel it as a living reality, we're getting somewhere."
A mystical approach also recognizes that no static philosophy, no one-size-fits-all Judaism, can express the entire range of our inner growth. As we progress and develop, our spiritual needs will change. I grew up with Judaism in my mother's milk, but before committing myself intellectually to the Jewish path, I had to shed the religion I learned in the cheders, which spoke to me in almost superstitious ways. In my teenage years "the old man in the sky" was like a straitjacket. I couldn't think, or feel, or know anything about that kind of God.. I grew to adolescence during the Holocaust. I witnessed the persecution and humiliation of our people, including my own family. By the summer of 1939, when I was fifteen years old, we had to flee our home in Vienna, where I grew up, and cross the border illegally into Belgium, where we lived a precarious existence. I was so angry with God, with Yiddishkeit, with everything I'd been taught. Where were all the rewards God promised us? These, my cheder teachers said, were reserved for olam ha-ba, the world to come. In olam ha-ba there would be rivers of wine, and clothes would grow on trees, and the Mashiach would come; we'd be on top and the goyim on the bottom, and all the graves would open up and the dead would live again. I couldn't swallow these notions. My higher mind's immune system rejected them.

One weekend in Antwerp I said to myself, this Shabbos I'm going to get even with all that big rock-candy mountain nonsense. That afternoon I went to the local Orthodox youth study group, the same sort of group I used to attend in Vienna. I knew they were learning "Ethics of the Fathers," and sure enough a student began to read the introduction: "Every Jew has a portion of the world to come." "Pie in the sky!" I shouted. "Did anyone ever come back from there? It's all narishkeit, all rubbish. The opiate of the masses." I poured it all out -- standing by the door for a quick getaway. The other students wanted to tear me apart, but the man sitting at the head of the table said, "Let him talk." When I finally had nothing more to say, the teacher said, "Would you like to hear from someone who agrees with you?" He asked for someone to bring Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud, turned to Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnah in the back, and started to read aloud. People have no idea what olam ha-ba is all about, Maimonides says. A blind man doesn't understand color; a eunuch doesn't understand sex. How could people living in this material world understand the pure godliness and spirit of the next?

This was so freeing. The teacher showed me that debunking foolish ideas was kosher, that our tradition had some precedents for that. He later introduced me to a group of young men who worked in Antwerp's diamond cutting trade and who, like him, had become Lubavitcher Hasidim. They would sit around cutting diamonds on those special lathes and studying Torah, and I joined them for a time. They listened seriously to my adolescent questions and encouraged me to find answers that rang true for me. Not only did they initiate me into the study of Hasidic texts, meditation, and introspection; they also gave me Romain Roland, a French writer and an exponent of Hinduism, and Johannes Anker Larsen, a mystical Danish novelist and playwright. Instead of being confused, I was in-fused. My soul always seems to have felt the need to hang in tension between polar opposites, and this tension my mythical mentors provided with generosity. So even in the midst of teenage hopelessness I began to get glimpses of the Presence to which I ultimately devoted my life.

I once brought some college students to see Reb Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe spoke to them for a little while, then asked if they had any questions. One young man raised his hand: "What is a rebbe good for?" he asked. Far from being offended, the Rebbe said: "That is a very good question. Let me tell you. It is written: 'You shall be unto me a land of desire' [Malachi 3:12]. The Earth contains all kinds of treasures, but you have to know where to dig. If you do not, you will come up with nothing but rocks or mud. But if you ask the geologist of the soul where to dig, you might find silver, which is the love of God; gold, which is awe before God; or diamonds,, which is faith. A rebbe can only show you where to dig. You must do the digging yourself."

Throughout my life I have revised and adjusted my beliefs. I grew slowly, through study and prayer and God-wrestling and standing in the presence of great souls. I did not experience one seismic and pivotal moment, but a long series of epiphanies, which often seemed unrelated to one another. Like a Zen student, I needed meditative and contemplative training to make sense of these "Aha!" moments. Ultimately, just as I grew into the world of the Lubavitch, I moved beyond it. I wanted to learn from the spiritually experienced of other fields: Sufi sheikhs, Buddhist monks, Christian contemplatives, American savants. I received something from all of them. Today, once again I find myself in suspension between two polar opposites. To modern Jews I am one of the last Mohicans of pre-Holocaust Jewish mysticism. As such, I am concerned about the continuity of our tradition and lineage and making it come alive for my own children, who, with so many Jews today, are searching for the balance between the values that are specific to Judaism and those that are universal. On the other foot, I stand on concern for the future -- the future not only of our people but of the planet as a whole -- and for the survival of the human race on our way to a great and divinizing transformation.

In a world where such a universalist spirituality is possible, why be Jewish? So many of my values connect me to nature, to the planet, to compassion for all living beings, that my Judaism at moments feels like a confinement -- unless I begin to see that my Jewish values are the very ones that produced my universal concern. Today, I feel more than ever that we Jews are integral and necessary to life in the larger body of nations on planet Earth, that we need to be the healthy vital organ of the whole Earth that we are meant to be. By being the best and most enlightened Jews we can, we place ourselves at the service of all other beings with whom we share the here and now.
There is here an open-mindedness, an open-heartedness, the embrace of a universal spirituality expressed through a single, yet very rich, religious tradition, that is seldom seen in such a public display by a Catholic cleric. Yet one cannot help but think that the tension Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi speaks of in this introduction is felt by many thoughtful Catholic priests. It is a great pity and a great loss for thinking, questioning, doubtful Catholics that such healthy - even joyful - tension is kept behind the dark and heavy curtain of Catholic orthodoxy.
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