A BASIC TRAINING IN JEWISH SPIRITUALITY: DIVINITY IN OURSELVES. That was the name of the class offered by the SFJCC (San Francisco Jewish Community Center) institute for Jewish Living and Learning. The instructors were Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ms. Eve Ilsen.
The ad promised exciting results from the weekend’s lectures:
Whatever your life path has been until now, this series will meet you where you stand and help bring you home to yourself. Come…and be prepared to pin the joyous community for Jewish renewal.
What we know about the G-d within the self and the group teaches us on the inside. How to access this intuition” can be learned. The schools of Jewish Mysticism taught these processes. We will practice some of them and make them portable for our use.
The processes mentioned above are part of a tradition called Kabbalah. A brochure from the Research Centre of Kabbalah describes the tradition as follows:
Kabbalah has been the hidden knowledge of Judaism. It…defines the cosmic laws of the universe and delineates how to apply these principles practically into daily life. Through applying this knowledge into our lives, not only can we achieve personal fulfillment, we can also achieve global harmony.…Kabbalah invites each individual to experience directly the vast inner spiritual power available to each of us. With the knowledge of these inner resources and the application of fundamental Kabbalistic principles, we can actually achieve mastery over our destiny and fulfillment in our lives.
In the past, many dismissed mysticism as a false security blanket which some draw over their heads to escape the cold winds of reality—as though these people somehow lack the intelligence or courage to deal with life’s problems in a reasonable way.
Samuel J.B. Wolk, author of the entry on mysticism in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia says, “Mysticism derives from man’s sense of inadequacy in dealing with life’s problems.”1
Nevertheless, more and more Jews are attracted to mystic religion—whether to the “traditional” mysticism of the Kabbalah, or the eclectic mysticism of the New Age. These seekers and teachers are not unsophisticated, less gifted members of society. Many are bright, professional, highly skilled, highly analytical and highly persuasive people.
Martin Buber, hailed as one of the greatest 20th Century Jewish theologians, wrote, “The tendency toward mysticism is native to the Jews from antiquity and its expressions are not to be understood, as usually happens, as a temporary conscious reaction against the dominance of the rule of the intellect.”2
The character and destiny of the Jewish people produced Jewish mysticism, according to Buber, but it was Isaac Luria who revolutionized it through his approach to Kabbalah.3
The other great landmark on the map of Jewish mysticism was the rise of Hasidism:
Arising about the middle of the 18th century, Hasidism at once continued and counteracted the Kabbalah. Hasidism is the Kabbalah become ethos.…It brings the transcendent over into the immanent.…4
Hasidism was founded by Israel from Mesbisz (Miedjyborz), known as the “Baal-Shem-Tov,” which means “Master of the Good Name.” This appellation described him as possessing the powerful, efficacious knowledge of how to use the name of God, as well as having a “good name” in the sense of having a good reputation.
Then the movement was opposed and overshadowed by “the Haskala” (enlightenment). It viewed Kabbalah and Hasidism as precisely the kind of superstition which needed to be eradicated.
Buber felt the Haskala could not have successfully challenged Hasidism had there not already been a decline in the movement.
…Hasidism demanded from the people a spiritual intensity and collectedness that they did not possess. It offered them fulfillment, but at a price they could not pay.5
To make Hasidism more “affordable” for the Jewish person of average spirituality, an institution of mediators called “Tzaddikim” (righteous ones) developed. Thus,
The theory of the mediator who lives in both worlds and is the connecting link between them, through whom prayers are born above and blessing brought below, unfolded ever more exuberantly and finally overran all other teaching.6
The focus on the relationship between the individual and God shifted as the Tzaddik, who was accepted as God’s mouthpiece, became central. Buber pointed out that the position of Tzaddik was corrupted by some who were not so righteous and this weakened the movement.
Gershom Scholem, in his book Jewish Mysticism, also suggested that it was not the outward pressure of the Haskala which pushed Jewish mysticism into the background, but rather the abuse to which the movement opened itself. He blames the mystic scholars who did not see to it that their movement was properly understood and transmitted:
…since the authorized guardians neglected this field, all manner of charlatans and dreamers came and treated it as their own property…the most eccentric and fantastic statements have been produced purporting to be legitimate interpretations of Kabbalism.7
Scholem would probably dismiss much of what is viewed as Jewish mysticism today on the grounds that it does not properly adhere to or observe the Jewish religion. According to Scholem, true mysticism seeks to bridge the gap between the finite and the infinite within the context of a specific religion.
…only in our days has the belief gained ground that there is such a thing as an abstract mystical religion. One reason for this widespread belief may be found in the pantheistic trend which, for the past century, has exercised a much greater influence on religious thought than ever before…the prevailing conception of the mystic as a religious anarchist who owes no allegiance to his religion finds little support in fact.8
This almost certainly rules out making some of the Kabbalah “portable for our use.” Still, the majority of people who take an interest in the Kabbalah are unlikely to practice it within its given context with all of the constrictions of orthodoxy. Nor does it seem Scholem should complain of pantheistic trends, since the man who was perhaps the most highly respected Jewish mystic of all left the door wide open to exactly that kind of thinking:
God, so the Baal-Shem teaches, is in each thing as its primal essence. He can only be apprehended by the innermost strength of the soul.9
Traditional Jewish mysticism has paved the way for today’s eclectic mystic thinker who may or may not choose to identify with the Jewish religion. These are seekers and wanderers who don’t limit themselves to a prescribed religious code. They are gatherers of teachings and rituals which aid their search for truth and the discovery of their higher selves.
Some Jewish people seek to identify with their “birth religion” while mixing in bits of Hindu and/or neopagan teachings.
A good example of this is Congregation Beit Shechinah in Northern California, led by Leah Novick. Novick, who holds rabbinic ordination, described the congregation as a “Jewish spiritual renewal group,” and said that she is excited about the opportunity to bring people together “to return to Judaism.” Yet in stating her goals, Novick says she wants “to help people find God within themselves, and therefore teachings will include guided visualization and meditations.” “We feel people are reached with teachings that open them up to their own spirituality,” Novick explained.10
Novick’s teachings are not Judaism as much as they are New Age principles. Telling people to focus inward to discover God in self contradicts the Jewish Scriptures, which reveal a Creator who is utterly and emphatically distinct from creation and all creatures. Yet the symbols and ceremonies at Beit Shechinah are apparently Jewish. This allows Jewish people to accept pantheistic or non-theistic dogma and yet somehow remain “in the fold” of Judaism.
A Kabbalistic interpretation of the priestly blessing
This kind of “spiritual renewal” is Jewish like Chinese food is Jewish. No matter how much we like Chinese food, and no matter how much we may eat it, it is still, by its very title, victuals from a foreign source. So if a Jew eats Chinese food and it goes into a Jewish stomach and it nourishes a Jewish body, maybe we can think of that food as having become Jewish by assimilation.
Other Jewish people, probably the majority of those interested in the New Age, forgo the religion of Judaism altogether. Many change their names, (Richard Alpert became Ram Dass and Jack Rosenberg became Werner Erhard, to name two of the most famous) and divest themselves of any Jewish distinctives which might be seen as hindrances to the world unity which the New Age seeks to usher in.
The serious Jew must ask, “Why are so many of us attracted to New Age teachings?”
New Age teachings are truly religious doctrines even though many proponents avoid that designation because, to them, it sounds narrow-minded. But these are religions that do promise what people want connectedness, power, spiritual experiences and comforting solutions to the problem of death.
People long for spiritual connectedness: to be accepted and to feel joined to something good. Intuitively people realize they are disconnected from the source of life.
The Bible teaches that our sin separates us from God, which is not what one wants to hear. New Age religions explain away our separation from God by saying that evil is really just ignorance. They say connectedness is available through enlightenment, which we can accomplish if we apply ourselves.
Another promise of New Age religions is power through knowledge. Whether by meditation, divination, channeling or special rituals, adherents believe that special knowledge will help them find personal fulfillment. Many hope to bring healing and harmony to the whole world and believe this is possible through each person realizing their own deity. These are wonderful hopes and promises.
New Age religions also present us with an assortment o spiritual experiences. This is particularly attractive to those who know they cannot be satisfied with material gain. Many have witnessed their parents’ failure to be fulfilled in this way; others exhausted their own supply of “things” and found they were yet restless and wondering “what else is there?”
As people learn that there is more, many find it exciting and enjoyable to explore spiritual dimensions of reality. Some toy with these experiences for a thrill while others are genuinely searching for life’s deeper meaning.
Today’s mysticism offers what seems like a viable solution to the problem of death as well. Reincarnation or transmigration is a possibility in traditional Jewish mysticism, but it has recently gained wider acceptance through eclectic teachings.
A notion of reincarnation has become popular in the West because we don’t see the social ramifications of this doctrine in places like India. There, a privileged class feels religiously justified in ignoring the sufferings of the masses. To them, people who suffer are merely working out their karma. Millions are supposed to believe that they should tacitly endure a subhuman existence because of something they did in a past life. Even death does not hold the promise of relief because they have no guarantees of peace in the next life. Nor do they know what wrong they did in past lives to warrant their present state of misery. This is not one of the brighter aspects of Hinduism which is now presented to us as New Age religion.
But today’s mystic religions offer something in addition to the promises of connectedness, power, spiritual experience and a solution to the problem of death. They offer a welcome departure from specific social and philosophical structures which people deem either distasteful or downright dangerous.
The most detestable “F-word” of the ’80s is Fundamentalism—not the particular fundamentalism of the Jerry Falwells or the Pat Robertsons. It’s the fundamental fundamentalism which says there is something absolutely true about God: a wholly, holy “otherness” that we cannot comprehend much less master. The party line is to object to anyone arrogant enough to think that they are right and (by inference) everyone else is wrong. Arrogance aside, the real objection is to the idea that anything could be right to the exclusion of whatever else we’d prefer to believe.
The idea of a transcendent God with whom we may commune but not merge into or emanate from is unpopular because it teaches an irrefutable and unchangeable hierarchy between the Creator and the creation. We have learned to despise hierarchy as a tool of the oppressors against the oppressed. Our human hierarchies always seem to produce some kind of abuse: sexual, social, ecological, and the list continues. Rather than admit that there is something wrong with humans, we conclude that there is something wrong with hierarchies.
The resurgence of pantheism makes perfect sense when viewed as not only spiritual but also as a political and social phenomenon. We long to be part of a power that cannot overpower us. In fact, the “F-word” of the ’80s is also seen by many as the epitome of sexism. Annie Gottlieb underscores this in a fascinating book tracking the religious/political trends of the ’60s into the ‘8Os.
In her book, entitled Do you believe in magic?, Gottlieb states: “It’s significant that the concept of one transcendent God, separate from the world and superior to it, is a male problem.”11 In other words, “Another quality our ‘religion’ and politics share is a mistrust of centralized structures, a conviction that father figures, fixed hierarchies, and institutions inevitably become corrupt. For many of us, it’s a conviction based on bitter experience.”12
Although many of the New Age trends follow a distinctly feminist agenda, one need not be a woman to realize that hierarchy tends to hand an all-too-corruptible power to people who must inevitably misuse it. Women may be more sensitized to the problems of exploitation from “bitter experience,” but men, too, have been exploited and outraged by corrupt authorities.
More and more people feel they must reject structures which seem responsible for the rape of our planet as well as outrageous social injustice, not only against women, but against all oppressed peoples. Included among those structures is a transcendent Creator, considered by many to be an archaic concept which fosters oppression and prevents people from respecting the god and goddess in one another.
At the heart of the New Age is a presumption of willingness to learn and to exercise, or to sacrifice on the altar of our choice, to do just about anything to find truth. Yet belief that we are created by Someone who will always be higher than we are, Someone who has a supreme right to be obeyed, is the one idea which must be rejected. We want to be one with the divine, not ruled by “it,” for every other power which has ruled over us has been corrupt.
What some fail to see is that God is different. God’s is the only non-corruptible power that exists. The Almighty does not need to prove superiority, being superior to all by definition. God will not use us as others will, for God does not need anything we have to offer and is therefore Someone who really can be trusted.
Those of us Jews who trust in Jesus and believe he is the Jewish Messiah and the (only) way to God might well be considered “F-ists.” But that doesn’t mean we think New Agers are wrong to want a connection with God, or to want power and spiritual adventures. Moreover, all people need an answer to the problem of death. God created us to have all those things—but in a proper way through proper sources.
The Jewish people were created by God to show others the path out of paganism, animism and pantheism.
Messianic Jews see ourselves as fulfilling that destiny. It is certainly not a matter of being better or smarter than Jews who believe differently. Perhaps it’s just that we are simpleminded enough to trust that our faith is in God and not our own ideas: that beyond the notion of “your way/my way” there actually is a “God’s way.”
Messianic Jews are concerned for those who seek to master spiritual powers. People cannot master God, so any force which allows a person to think that he or she has mastered it is unholy and unhealthy. It is unGod and antiGod. Unfortunately, most people expect evil to be ugly, so it’s hard to believe that what seems bright and beautiful could be anything but good.
Yet, if some evil being was trying to seduce a person away from their true love, would it come cursing, with bad breath and body odor? Would it come covered with the slime of death’s decay? What would it take to stage a spiritual seduction?
The concept of gaining access to hidden knowledge for the purpose of realizing your divinity is old. It dates back to the first “sin” or infraction of the divine order.
The original people created in God’s image, both male and female, were, for a time, fully human as no one has been since. They were excellent in intelligence, health, beauty, at peace with all of creation and at peace with their Creator. They had no reason, none whatever, to ever feel ashamed.
When our first father and mother bit into the forbidden fruit they were not merely stealing a snack. They were trying to wrest away something more that belongs only to the Creator-Person: namely, the right to decree what is real and what is not real, what is true and what is not true. God had said, “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) Yet the man and the women chose another “truth” than God’s truth; their “truth” was that when they had this “hidden” knowledge they would not die, but would be “as God.”
What a dehumanizing effect it had on our parent beings when they rejected God’s truth. They did cease to live on that day, at least to live as God intended. The death-decay principle (devolution) came into being as “the dominant force” of human existence.
Fear, mistrust, abuse of one another and of the garden planet began then and has not ceased. We cannot reverse our death and dehumanization merely by proclaiming ourselves divine; we cannot reenter the garden by eating that fruit which caused our original alienation.
If we deceive ourselves about our nature, if we strive to be divine and create our own truth, we are doubly confused: confused about who God is and confused about who we are. When we mistake “secret knowledge” for wisdom, we poison ourselves and our environment with the intoxicating yet toxic juice of forbidden fruit. This alters the consciousness but we gain illusions, not illuminations: destruction disguised as power.
We can never approach God through what is knowable and controllable by humans. We are easily deceived when we reach to attain what must be bestowed by a caring God, not a controlled force.
The Bible teaches that wisdom, not mere knowledge, is the way of life. “She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are all who hold her fast.” (Proverbs 3:18) How does one get wisdom? According to Scripture, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)
Fear in the biblical sense does not connote a mistrust or revulsion as in the ordinary sense of the word. Fear of the LORD has to do with the reverence and awe we should have as creatures before our Creator. It is not an attitude one has toward impersonal energy with whom one will someday merge. It is the attitude of submission—not submission which robs one of dignity, or denies distinct personhood, but submission which finally grants amazing dignity and leads one into a glorious destiny beyond our presently limited notions of delight.
Only by admitting that we are not gods can we hope to have fellowship with God. The New Age begins for each of us when we are willing to give up the old rebellion. Connectedness with the Almighty can never happen for anyone who will not first admit the separation which exists due to God’s holiness and our againstedness.
The solution to that separation is not hidden knowledge that can only be imparted by a guru or a special teacher. It is found throughout Scripture and is simple enough for a child to understand. God doesn’t demand that we train for some sort of spiritual olympics. There are no spiritual hoops for a channeler to help us jump through to get us where God wants us to be.
We just need sense enough to see that the human race cannot pull itself up by the bootstraps—and faith enough to accept that God was willing to come in the person of Jesus to do for us what we have not been able to do for ourselves. Only in the Messiah is our deep longing to merge humanity with the Divine truly met.
Those who accept this good news have been promised that one day we shall know as we are known.13 For God is not a cosmic killjoy who wishes us to be left ignorant and unconnected and powerless. The Creator who made us also loves us and delights to see us reach our highest potential!
Footnotes 1The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Isaac Landman, Editor (NY: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1969), Vol. 8, p. 73.
2Martin Buber, The Tales of Rabbi Nachman, (NY: Discus Books of Avon, 1956), p. 4.
3Ibid, p. 6-7.
4Ibid, p. 10.
5Ibid, p. 16.
7Gershom Scholem, Jewish Mysticism, (NY: Schocken Books, 1941), p. 2.
8Ibid, p. 6.
10The Northern California Jewish Bulletin, March 31, 1989 “New congregation in East Bay to focus on Shechinah principle” by Peggy Isaak Gluck, p.43.
11Annie Gottlieb, Do you believe in magic? (NY: Fireside of Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1988), p. 206.
12 Ibid, p.212.
13 I Corinthians 13:12.