Kabalistic and Mystical Insights

    June 1998         
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Kaballa, Mysticism and the Individual

By Yecheskel Gold


  Our picture of the great Kabbalists is of original, colorful personalites, openness, broad interests, and warm, sincere, free emotions, growing out of profound humanity and insight. Concomitantly, they are devoutly religious. We can be sure that in such personalities, devoutness is genuine. This may seem somewhat surprising to us. Usually, we associate freedom of expression and individualism with nonconformity. If these Kabbalists are strictly religious, there must be an intrinsic link between their individualism, mysticism, and devout religion.

  To understand that connection, we must explore the mystical-philosophical perspective from which this genuine, personal devoutness develops. It is a very general, fundamental perception of the nature of reality:

  At a certain stage in our intellectual and emotional development, we all wonder about the origin of the universe. We intuit that it must be caused, that it does not just exist by itself. This wondering is not just an intellectual problem. More fundamentally, it is part of the way we experience life. One of the main problems of life is to figure out what it is about - why we live. Often, people feel that they lack the leisure to address these issues. The intensity of life's challenges, though, sometimes renders these burning questions - even if we prefer to keep them in the background.

  Grounded in total objectivity toward experience, Kabbala views the creation as the expression of a hidden Creator. This is not a dogma. Rather, it describes the experience we have been discussing of the world's origin and purpose being hidden. Intuitively, we sense that there is something "behind" the universe, for which the creation exists. Cosmological theories of big bangs and such like, while very interesting, do not help in solving the mystery. They can only try to explain by what process the physical creation was formed. Our wonder at the origin of all existence is not diminished by information about the mere physical sequence of events. We wonder where it all came from, and why. This wondering, itself, is the intrinsic sense that there is an original source which we neither know nor grasp. That Source is the Creator.

  We understand that the Creator is not physical, as we have described. Therefore, He is not bound by the rules of nature. This brings us to the conclusion that the universe, including each one of us, is the free expression of the Creator. Not bound by any pre-existing rules, He "behaves" as He chooses. Therefore, the natural, spontaneous, gradual unveiling of the universe is directly connected to God.

  Through our theories and cultural conditioning, people thwart that Divine free expression, substituting something petty, unnatural, and stereotyped. Our minds and personalities are caught in an artificial mold which prevents the expression of the Divine through us. (How it is possible to interfere with the Divine expression is a broad topic which is only tangential to our main subject. It is the same as the question of how sin is possible.)

  Judaism cultivates total objectivity through challenging study and intense self-scrutiny. Recognizing the falseness of arbitrary constraints liberates the personality from its artificial bonds. What remains is spontaneous humanity. It is revealed by re-establishing of the natural connection between Creator and man.

  Study clarifies one's thoughts so that one's conceptions are more accurate. However, the main step in this process is to arrive at true, inner perception. One's fundamental character does not depend on what one thinks one is. Rather, an inner dynamic state takes form spontaneously, independent of one's thoughts.

  The Rambam writes: "The goal of all learning is to not know". Besides making one humble, profound learning will make one unprejudiced. Hence, one can perceive reality - inner and outer - clearly, without imposing preconceptions on one's perceptions. Then, one perceives the free Divine expression we call the individual soul.

  After viewing the internal reality, one's thought processes can be organized accordingly. This reorganization of thought processes is an important step in one's religious development. If reality must fit Torah, proper understanding of Torah also must be in terms of what is real. False perspectives lead to improper understanding. Thus, only through being truly realistic, in the way we are describing, can one understand the message of Torah, and see that - and how - it shapes life in a Divine manner. If, instead, one impels life to fit one's narrow conception of how Torah expects one to feel and think, one is missing the message of Torah by covering up what life really is. Torah does not come to blot out reality, which is complex, where we are not always sure, where we have a variety of perceptions, emotions and passions, (even about serving God). Rather, it functions to render all of these Godly, by giving insight into how each of these is the expression of God.

  While non-mystical Judaism also works in this direction, it concentrates on fulfilling God's will as specified in the Torah. It does not direct us to consciously re-establish the natural connection between the soul and God. This is, however, a primary concern of Kabbalism. Awareness of this connection means seeing each unique, liberated soul as the true, spontaneous expression of the Creator. This is the link between mysticism and individuality. It makes Kabbalists' individualism intensely religious.

Application in Halacha

  The application of Halacha seems to contradict the above discussion. Living according to Halacha seems to leave little room for independent, spiritual expression, and takes little consideration of one's emotions and opinions. Hungry or not, on Yom Kippur one may not eat. On Shabbos one simply may not turn on the light. On Pesach one must eat matzo.

  Ramban in Parshas Nosso implies a partial reconciliation of mysticism with Halacha. In that chapter, all of the heads of tribes brought identical offerings to inaugerate the Tabernacle. Twelve times, the Torah reiterates the same list, instead of detailing the inventory just once and saying that each head of tribe brought the same offering. Ramban explains that rather than lumping all of the heads of tribe together, the Torah emphasized the importance of each one by enumerating his offering individually. Moreover, each leader had a different intent in bringing this specific offering; each offering meant something else to the leader who brought it.

  Similarly, each time we pray, each time we perform a Mitzvo, the inner content is different. If we are serious about Divine service, we rarely, if ever, repeat ourselves. The Mitzvos have an amazing capacity to accommodate a broad range of different intellectual and emotional contents and depths. These grow and progress as one's insight increases. In this manner, Halacha leaves much room for individuality; in fact, it is a superb vehicle for a personal expression which is unduplicated by any other individual.

  Besides endless possibilities of insights and emotions finding expression in standardized Halacha, much room remains for choice and emphasis among the Mitzvos. Various Talmudic sages emphasized one commandment or another particularly. Also, the Rabbis counsel: "A man should always focus his learning in the area that his heart desires". In this manner, Torah and Mitzvos are broad enough to accommodate a wide range of spiritually acceptable human interests.

  True, certain activities are forbidden, which limits free expression by the soul. Interdiction does not contradict our thesis, though. It, too, is part of direct experience of the creation. Neither the outside world, nor the Torah, automatically allow free expression to the soul's impulses. The Kabbalist's goal is to be real in that context, not to deny the real restraints that are there. This is the genuine, free expression of the Creator.

  Prohibition applies to man's improper interests. Dealing with these impulses sensitively according to Halacha will bring them, too, into the realm of Godly expression through limiting what is undesirable. Effort and vigilance to prevent destructive behavior is a constructive spiritual pursuit, affording positive expression to the soul's moral energies. An important spiritual dimension is given expression only by having to deal with these improper impulses. Though the animal in us feels frustrated by these restrictions, our spiritual side certainly appreciates the merits of guarding against wrongdoing. Thus, we see the expression of the Divine by relating to our improper interests in the perspective of Torah.

  Moreover, an insightful person can find areas of Halachically acceptable activity which will channel the same energies in a fulfilling manner, true to the character of these energies. In fact, finding the proper outlet for these impulses is a primary concern of Kabbala.

The Mystic's Inner Life

  Precisely the great flourishing of the mystic's inner life brings him to follow Halacha strictly. Progressive liberation of internal energies from artificial conceptual and psychological constraints leads to a state of intensity little restrained by outside considerations. In such a state, strict adherence to Halacha expresses a commitment to remaining, nevertheless, in this world. Besides being a practical consideration, which at this stage has secondary importance for the mystic, this commitment is a spiritual statement. It means sacrificing immediate, intense expression of the soul in favor of effectiveness.

  Really, most people share this need. It is the source of human conformity and compromise. We all want to belong. However, unbridled emotions and fierce intellectual exploration threaten the soul's very participation in the creation. Then, this need is starker and perceived more clearly.

  Active participation in outer reality demands a certain accommodation of natural and social norms. Unlike the conformist, however, the mystic's intent is to express his religious individuality and liberated mind and emotions in outer reality. For him or her, conformity is the way to give, not just to belong.

  Stated otherwise, the Kabbalist discovers that the intrinsic goal of all the energies of the soul is to find effective external expression. This means that this energy must take form in reality outside the individual, beyond mere feeling. In order to arrive at this, one must channel the energy into behavior effective in terms of outer reality. Often, this entails making concessions to outer reality, but through this one really arrives at the ideal.

Inner Liberation

  In the inner liberation we are discussing, the soul breaks the normal link to accepted reality, to allow its own, independent reality to emerge. Emotional dissatisfaction with conventional life often provokes this process, to seek meaning elsewhere. Having challenged all accepted norms, the soul pursues true knowledge rather than facile dogma. Accordingly, it is forced to delve profoundly into reality to orient itself properly in the job of life.

  (Ideally, this is accomplished without veering from Torah. One must function on two levels. Outwardly, one maintains faithfulness to Torah through simple faith. Inwardly, one embarks on the intense exploration we are discussing.)

  Soon, the soul finds philosophy inadequate. It prefers to rely on the experience of reality, rather than on mere speculation and logic. Then the job begins of ascertaining the soul's intrinsic, internal reality, which can not be questioned because it obviously does exist. This is the process described earlier, of coming to connect with God by revealing and being one's true self.

  This process deals with the very fundamentals of existence. Religious and mystical terminology are natural for describing it. Indeed, this is the realm of genuine, mystical religion. We are dealing with the spiritual underpinnings of the world as it is experienced by man. Inner realities have an importance beyond the individual level: people's inner make-up is the spiritual pathway through which the world exists (for them, at least). Experientially, the world is not mere physical reality. Rather, it exists in terms of our attitudes and feelings. These constitute the spiritual pathway leading to the world's existence, which we are describing.

  This spiritual pathway, people's link to participation in the world, (which in most cases takes the form of conformity) is a psychological fact. It is premised on the intrinsic, spiritual need to perform positively in outer reality. This need is absolute. One arrives at it in spite of oneself and in spite of intellect; it is not the product of speculation. It is a spiritual fact.

The Soul of Israel

  The mystical name for this intrinsic psychological need for - and commitment to - the outer world, is: Israel. The soul feels the idea of Israel. It needs to belong to a society dedicated to serving God. That is, the soul feels in itself that Israel is the (vehicle for) spontaneous Divine expression.

  The need to belong to such a society comes from discovering the inner sense that the course of the world - outer reality - matters greatly. Therefore, one can not be content with only personal liberation. By participating in this society, one can better the world.

  The soul wants to belong to something greater and broader than itself, with ultimate, rather than just private significance. Therefore, it is willing to sacrifice selfexpression and accept the yoke of the commandments. Halacha forces virtually everyone (with the possible exception of Moses) into a mold not quite congruent with free expression. Thereby, the soul fulfills a deeper need than individual expression - to belong to something transcendent. This craving for the Absolute is the spark of Divinity in the soul.

  Israel fulfills this need because it is a society with a mission through history. Through participation in Israel, one is automatically part of something greater than oneself. Success or failure in this mission can not be measured in individual terms. If one contributed to the mission of Israel, and they are ultimately successful (which, we believe, we certainly will be), then one was successful in life's mission.

  The very lack of fit with one's natural inner state emphasizes that the commandments reflect a perspective above the individual soul. This perception, itself, fulfills a sensitive soul. The soul feels that the self-sacrifice of living according to Halacha affords it a higher sanctity than it can attain by itself. Through fulfilling the Halacha, the soul feels that it transcends itself and connects with God.

Exploring a bit Deeper

  To explore this idea properly, we must describe it in Kabbalistic terminology. According to Etz Chayim, the first step in creation was to form the level called Adam Kadmon, commonly abbreviated AK. In AK, all of the creation, with all spiritual levels, including all emotions and thoughts, and all of the course of history down to the smallest detail, are subsumed in one "thought".

  This thought, or blueprint, is not analogous to what the "Duties of the Heart" describes in the first chapter. It is not like one principle, or First Cause, which includes all the details of the creation. Still broader, it includes the whole of the spiritual and physical universe as a unit, as we shall explain:

  Some religious philosophers consider God to be the "First Cause" of the universe. While Kabbalists concur that the First Cause is a level of Divinity, it is Divinity operating in a certain context. The entirety of reality, a context in which Divinity operates as the First Cause, is also created. This creation is AK, the Divine conception of what the universe, including the Divine operating in it, should be. AK includes the creation of spirituality. Lower spiritual levels, like First Cause, are only the functioning of spirituality.

  The plan that there be spirituality, and of what form, is in AK. For example, before there can be a First Cause, there must be causality. That is, there must be the notion of cause, of effect, and of a relation between them. The cause is not the effect, it only causes it. The "decision" that God be a First Cause was made above causality, in AK. There, the decision that the universe, in the form that it is, should come from this First Cause, was also made. Indeed, since both cause and effect are part of the overall plan, both have to be conceived of in the original plan. Thus, their levels are equal from the perspective of AK. That is, there are no levels in AK, only the whole, with all its parts subsumed in one "thought". Only in the actual functioning of spirituality (or physicality) does hierarchy and sequence come into play, with cause being superior to effect.

  In AK, all creations are viewed in terms of their purpose, that is, in terms of the role they play in the whole of creation. This is a perspective in which the importance of the part is only in terms of the whole.

  Individualism exists in the context of hierarchy. It asserts the value of an individual at the expense of other elements of reality. The individualism of the mystic emphasizes the superiority of spirit over material, of detail over generality, of specialness over the ordinary. As this process develops, the character of the mystic becomes increasingly heartfelt and sincere. As we have delineated, this continues until it approaches an extreme.

  This pattern is apparent in the life histories of several of the great Kabbalists, whose young manhood was a time of relative isolation from community and intense personal exploration. During these periods, the tendency was to shun human companionship and contemplate the mysteries of God in natural settings.

  Only after this process, the soul begins to recognize the great value of participation in shared reality. That is, it reveals the level called AK, where it appreciates that the value of any individual is to be gauged in terms of the overall purpose of the whole.

  At the extreme of individualism, then, as the mystic approaches the very roots of his being, the extreme of his intellectual and emotional liberation, comes the paradoxical perception that individual importance, rather than being intrinsic, derives from one's role in one's community, in history, and for one's people.

  Faithful membership in Israel, then, even at the expense of full expression of soul and individuality, is the true purpose of life, expressing a still deeper level of one's being.

  In Kabbalistic terminology, the root of Tikkun is higher than the root of Tohu. Tikkun means correction and properness. Achieved through reasonable compromise, it represents a reduction of the full expression of the soul's energies. Tohu, a state of chaos, results from giving full vent to the soul's energies. Tikun is higher than Tohu, because the world was created to be stable, not chaotic. Nevertheless, the root of Tohu is higher than Tikkun; there is more spiritual potential there. However, Kabbalistic literature discusses how the root of Tikkun is still higher. Our discussion, above, explains this idea. The ultimate fulfillment of individualism (Tohu) is in positive, effective expression in the external world: in Tikkun. This is not simply Tikun, though. Through the process we described, the soul achieves wholeheartedness. The energies of Tohu are channelled effectively into a state of Tikun. This differs greatly from Tikun without liberation of the soul's Tohu energies.

The Soul and Halacha

  The ritual aspects of Halacha allow expression to the the soul's Tohu energies which emerge through the selfliberation we described:

  Before this self-liberation, the world dictates the soul's investment and allotment of energies. Somewhat passive, this allotment of energy conforms to the person's understanding of social and natural norms. We compromise whole-heartedness for appropriateness. Besides a reduced energy level, our intellectual and emotional openness is suppressed, even repressed. The result is that one is unimaginative, docile and servile.

  The true expression of these energies is in mastery, though. Not accepting what is given, one is creative and assertive. One's standards change. The world's standards determine a servile person's outlook and behavior. A masterful person's energies, though, are intent on full expression. Artificial constraints imposed by social assumptions are rejected. A new attitude toward reality develops, where one endeavors, at least, to see the world on one's own terms, rather than on its terms. One becomes, at least inwardly, uncompromising. This is the situation when the soul's energies are fully released.

  Obviously, one can not overcome real constraints. These force the soul into some practical compromises, which helps maintain a sense of proportion. When reality dictates the terms, the soul is made aware of being created. This, too, brings a heightened awareness of God, but in a different manner than what we have discussed.

  In this article, we have mainly treated the positive energies of the soul, which are directed outward. Generally, these energies are associated with Kabbalistic love and kindness; God's love to us is expressed through our being able to express ourselves. Balancing these energies is fear, where the soul restrains itself because of considerations outside of itself. This, too, is an essential aspect of personality. Without it, the individual tends too much toward self-indulgence. One might lose sight of how great God is, thereby veering toward solipsism. Imposed outside considerations strongly suggest that one can not identify the self with God. They force one to deal with a God greater than oneself.

  However, if the soul is governed by fear, alone, it can not attain genuine religion. One is too inhibited to cultivate a personal relation with God. Thereby, one's perception of outside considerations is not genuinely religious. Theoretically, one might adhere to the notion that the external constraints on one's freedom derive from Divine Providence. However, one lacks the courage to truly relate to life in that manner. Thus, one does not really experience a Godly world.

  The individual who considers the energies of the soul to be the Divine expression, though, regards limitations on those energies as also Divine. Then, one inhabits an experientially Godly world. One is aware of the God-created balance between the powers of love and fear as being the force giving form to the universe.

  When these energies are liberated, one's perspective changes. For example, rather than trying to get by in the creation, one questions what it is for. One addresses the world mainly in terms of what one can do with it. This attitude reflects intellectual and emotional independence. Mental independence from one's situation is achieved through focusing on the soul and its energies.

  Through this attitude, the importance of the purpose of life is magnified, and the mechanics of mere functioning become secondary. Purpose is above the world, not in it. Taking this stance toward life, one begins to express things in the physical world to which only the soul has access. For example, one's energies become oriented around a sense of the purpose of life or of the sanctity of Israel.

  Looking at the world from outside it, and "using" it for purposes not dictated by the terms of the world, is the perspective of ritual. That is, the actions of ritual make sense in terms of a reality removed from the strictly physical.

  True, cultivating such a perspective runs the risk of developing an antisocial attitude. Indeed, without prior commitment to Halacha, the process of self-liberation we have been describing probably would have this result. Only at its culmination would one really find the fulfillment of the soul's energies in participation in the outer world. For this reason, it is imperative to maintain strict adherence to Halacha during this whole process. Only at the end, one arrives at something like the Halachic perspective by oneself. Then, Halacha is not so much imposed from the outside.

  At any rate, for great Kabbalists, who have substantially liberated the soul's energies, individual selfexpression, mystical religion, and Halacha form one entity. The liberated soul is the free expression of the Creator, and the ultimate expression of the liberated soul is in commitment to the community of Israel and to Halacha, even at the seemingly paradoxical cost of compromising the free expression of the soul.

Yechezkel Gold is a psychotherepist who lives with his family in Jerusalem


from theJune 1998Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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