Jewish Mystical Thought and Values


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Mystical Thought and Values

By Yechezkel Gold

The notion of eternal reward for good deeds permeates Torah thought, both in the Talmud and on a grass-roots level. Children are educated to live according to the commandments with promise of an exalted place in heaven for positive acts and threat of suffering and damnation for transgressions.

Modern man rebels against this concept, doubting its veracity and eschewing such egoistical motivations for moral conduct. Over eight hundred years ago, Rambam wrote that such considerations are useful for directing actions of children and simple uneducated adults, but improper for anyone with more spiritual aspirations. Rather, one should do good simply because it is right.

Nonetheless, Rambam did not doubt the reality of eternal life. Indeed, he considered the bliss deserving souls achieve after separation from the body the pinnacle to which a human can aspire. At first glance, this seems contradictory.

While Rambam considered heaven accessible only after death separates the soul from the body, Kabbalists regard heaven as the abode of the souls even during life. In particular, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, conceived that bodily acts immediately elevate or lower the soul's heavenly position.

Heavenly cosmology is an elaborately developed mystical topic which the uninitiated may regard with disdain and a sense of moral superiority. Let us bear in mind, however, that some of the finest minds of the ages were occupied with these ideas. It just might be that obtuseness born of our cultural limitations closes this world to us.

Let us endeavor to approach these ideas which, if true, have tremendous significance, with an open mind. Rather than commencing in the unfamiliar realm of mystical cosmology, however, let us explore territory in which intuition guides us more readily: our own moral sense.

Ethics and Spirituality

Most people have an ethical sense. On a low spiritual level, we may ask what renders an act morally laudable or reprehensible. Strictly, unless one accepts there being an explicit, absolute Divine law, there seems to be no real standard. Logically, there can be no true ideals unless God renders them absolute. Ethics, otherwise, reduce to personal preferences. For instance, some people morally disapprove of murder while others do not.

Purely practical, societal considerations as in Rousseau's social contract are not really morals. This does not prevent one from supporting or opposing certain acts, but one should be aware that one's position is one of self interest, not of conviction. Logically, all morality is premised on the existence of Divine law.

This argument, though logical, does not prevent people who profess no religion from having a conscience. They rely on an intuitive ethical sense. If aware of a contradiction, they feel little need for total rational consistency. Besides, conscience acts on us mainly from above. We do not choose to have pangs of compunction. Rather, they descend upon on spontaneously, arising from an implicit spiritual sensitivity, which individuals have to varying degrees. (Whether this sensitivity is natural, nurtured, or a synthesis of both, is moot, for us.)

The Basis of Spiritual Knowledge

This intuitive spiritual sense, independent of logic, derives from the realm of the soul. This does not imply that reason does not affect it, but even for those whose rational sense does not extend beyond questions of self-interest, the soul still often imposes an altruistic perspective.

Having understood that the moral sense functions from above, with rules and considerations different from the rational ego, we can now investigate the nature of the soul as a spiritual entity in its own right.

Objectivity and the Soul's Reality

Objectivity is the basis of the soul's reality. Indeed, the ego, too, knows how to be realistic and objective, but it adopts this perspective merely as a strategy for subjective success. Subjectivity is the true foundation of the ego's existence.

The soul's objectivity, though, is fundamental. It regards matters in terms of pure good and bad, without distorting that perspective with personal interest.

This is not to say that the moral sense is indifferent to self. Rather, the soul objectively weighs claims of ego against the claims of others, to arrive at the proper ethical verdict.

Nor is this objectivity a state of indifference. Rather, the soul's reality is a deep concern for the common good. The soul struggles mightily to promote and express its views against the often recalcitrant ego.

Utilizing the Soul's upper window

For mystics, the soul is a window to upper, spiritual worlds. Inhabiting that realm, it naturally reflects a perspective above our reality.

For example, through investigating the soul's nature, we develop the ultimate realism, becoming aware of reality independent of the material world, Then, we realize that our world does not exist intrinsically. Rather, it is created. Thereby, we become aware of God's kindness in creating each of us, since we did not have to exist.

Further contemplation reveals other attributes which whatever Force generates the world must employ. We see the impartiality of the Creator in consistently giving existence to all creatures, "deserving or not". True, He chose a creation where all that lives must eventually die, but that pattern, too, is impartially applied. The whole universe functions according to impartially applied laws.

Such ideas are also accessible to rational reason. However, the soul's knowledge of such matters is spontaneous, clear and sure, while our conscious mind must cogitate long and hard, and still remains unclear about these matters.

Soul Knowledge and the Rational Mind

Moreover, the soul knows things the rational mind can not grasp. Let us illustrate this with a graphic example. The reader can substitute a personal experience for this one:

One is sitting on a bus, weary, busy with important reading, and middle aged. pregnant woman enters, carrying a baby and several packages. All seats are occupied, mostly by lively, idly chatting high school students. They all look up and see the pregnant woman, but nobody stands to give her a seat. One feels that, surely, one of them will do the proper thing, but after a minute of glaring insinuatingly, one realizes that they will not. Adamant, one resolves not to surrender the seat, when many others have conspicuously less excuse to retain theirs. After a moment, though, one is propelled from the seat by a mysterious, inexorable force of conscience.

Focusing on the inner process by which the conscience imposes its will, one sees that immediately preceding one's reaction, the soul revealed something of its hidden reality. For an instant, without verbalizing it, one knows that nothing really exists except God, that nothing is important except to further the good of the world, and therefore, that one has no choice but to comply. Rising above time, space and circumstance, the soul ascends to transcendent reality. The rational mind is unable to comprehend these perceptions, integral to Chassidic mystical theory, but they speak cogently to the soul.

The irresistible character of the experience demands that one takes it seriously. Two conditions are necessary to connect with this level of reality. One must make oneself consciously, even verbally aware of it, and trust it. It is somewhat frightening to break with the norms of material existence. Besides, we are not used to trusting our feelings; too often, they are inappropriate. However, a brief incursion into the upper realms like the one described will not harm. Clearly, effects of constructively reconnecting the rational mind to its unconscious roots are salutory, restoring zest, insight, confidence, and genuine purposefulness. Yielding to doubts and fears of a limited rational mind, however, undermines one's inner being and leaves one empty and confused.

Through episodes like the one described, the soul glimpses the nexus of mysticism and ethics:

Radiation of Divine Influx

In Kabbalistic , the unknowable God radiates an Infinite Light, the Or Ein Sof, transcending yet subsuming all of existence, spiritual and physical, potential and actual. Though it is beyond ability to grasp, this Light is reflected in all that is holy. It is reflected in Divine attributes which give rise to creation, in the impartiality of Divine law, and in the kindness which God extends to each individual creature. It is reflected in the objective caring of the soul, and in its resolve to do good. It is the ultimate good, the ultimate purpose, and all that matters.

Kabbala describes the process of reflections which gave rise to creation. There are different levels of reality, with varying abilities to grasp even a reflection of the Or Ein Sof. Mind, for example, is capable of objectivity, but emotions are not. However, a reflection of the mind's objectivity can be expressed through emotions. If one loves what is objectively good and fears what is objectively bad, these emotions reflect the mind's state, which ultimately connects them to the Or Ein Sof. Actions are still less capable of objectivity, but when actions reflect emotion or attitudes grounded in the objective perceptions of the soul, the body and faculties leading to those actions connect to the Or Ein Sof.

Differences between lofty levels of soul and the mundane faculties only regard their level of grasping the reflection of Or Ein Sof. The significance of a good deed, though it is a mere physical act, often far surpasses profound insights by exalted levels of soul.

Thus, by radiating and re-radiating progressive reflections of the Infinite Light, God did a great kindness to the creation. Although insignificant by itself, each creature can come to really matter, to have true significance, by expressing something of the Or Ein Sof.

Attitudes flowing out of transcendent objectivity reflecting the Infinite Light are called ethics. As experience confirms, though we are free to act morally or not, ethically, we are not free; we are obligated to do what is right. True to this, Torah presents ethical attitudes as imperatives: the commandments. Experientially, the main differences between our ethical sense and the commandments is that our moral sense is general and intuitive, whereas the commandments are explicit, and not always intuitive. According to Kabbala, though, explicitness only makes conscious what is implicit in the Infinite Light, and lacking intuitive understanding of a commandment merely signifies spiritual insensitivity in that area.

Connecting to the Source

As Rambam pointed out, serving God out of conviction, that is, having outer behavior reflect genuine connection to the Infinite Light, is superior to acting for selfish motives.

Let us remark, though, that not everyone is capable of exalted connection with God, and few people can maintain that state continually. Often, we act morally quite matter of factly, with little inner conviction. God's kindness extends down to even those levels of creation, enabling them to connect to Him. Only a general belief in Torah and desire to do God's will are required.

There may be a limit, though. If an act is moral but the intent selfish, it seems not to connect with the Or Ein Sof. Modern man, too, may decry this element of Torah practice, which encourages good deeds even for selfish motives.

However, this is a point of contention in the Talmud. Some authorities, such a Rambam, hold that an act is considered fulfillment of a commandment only when there is altruistic intent, to perform it because it is a commandment. If one intends to gain social approval, or even an exalted place in heaven, but without altruistic intent, it is not considered fulfilling a commandment. As the Talmud states: if one hears the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, but did not intend to fulfill one's obligation, it does not suffice. We can deduce from this that without altruistic intent, this act is unacceptable

If one intends to fulfill the commandment, but also with selfish considerations, the obligation is fulfilled, but marred by external motivations.

Other authorities, both in the Talmud and among the medieval authorities, think otherwise, however. They say that fulfillment of a commandment requires no altruistic intent.

In view of the idea of ethics emerging as a reflection of the Or Ein Sof, this idea may seem puzzling. If an act does not reflect the mystical Source, it appears even evil. Evil hides and contradicts the mystical truth that the basis of reality is good. Similarly, if an act is really a sham, inconsistent with its intent, it is false, and seems evil.

Case in Action

The Talmud, however, discusses the commandment of forgotten sheaves. If reapers or harvesters forget a small amount of grain in the field, it becomes the property of the poor. We see, states the Talmud, that one can perform a commandment without intent. Thus, if someone drops a coin and a pauper finds and uses it, it is considered fulfillment of a commandment.

To understand this opinion, we must return to our discussion of the psyche's organization. The selfless, spiritual soul occupies upper spiritual realms, and an egoistic element occupies the body. Most of the time, the inspired, selfless component is dormant, and ego holds sway over our being. If we always acted true to our inner state, the vast majority of our acts would not fulfill commandments. While this is the case, anyway, for most of mankind, there is a better approach.

To understand this better approach, we must first study one of the Talmud's discussions about eternal reward in heaven, paying close attention to our own perceptions and feelings. The Talmud states: "Regarding those murdered by the (oppressive) authorities: no creature can stand within their boundaries." That is, their place in heaven is so exalted as to be (virtually) unattainable. The Talmud then queries: To whom is this referring? If it refers to Rabbi Akiva and his friends, why single out only that they were murdered by evil authorities? After all, the value of their Torah learning already earns them an awesome position in heaven. Rather, the text refers to Lulianus and Papus from the city of Lod.

Rashi explains that the daughter of the Roman emperor was riding in her carriage on the outskirts of Lod when she was ambushed and killed. All investigations to discover her murderers failed so the Roman authorities demanded that the city of Lod itself turn the killers over to them. They threatened to annihilate the entire city if they failed to do so by a certain day. As the deadline approached and the murderers were not found, the threat of doom hung over the city. At the last moment two brothers, Lulianus and Papus, stepped forward and admitted guilt. The Romans killed them brutally and painfully. The sages knew, however, that Lulianus and Papus were innocent and had stepped forward only to save the city.

This inspiring story reveals more to us than the sages' concept of eternal reward. We actually glimpse the reality of Lulianus' and Papus' afterlife. Reacting to this story, our souls ascend to view eternity and glean intuitive spiritual knowledge that their act, even if largely forgotten by history, has eternal significance. Truly, few can approach their level of merit! Perhaps a cynical ego will deny the experience, but really, the awareness is there: each soul has a place in eternity determined by its actions in this life, there are very different levels, and those who achieve a sublime place are truly privileged!

Actions and NOT Words, Count

With this perspective, let us inquire about meritorious acts in which the agent did not have altruistic intentions. It is a rare privilege for someone to save an entire populace even inadvertently. The Rabbis say one must have considerable merits for such a great privilege to come one's way. In fact, even if the intentions were selfish, such an act exalts the soul to a transcendent level. The selfish motivations fade, leaving the act's eternal significance.

Thus, even if one acts meritoriously because of aspirations for an exalted position in the afterlife,it is eternally worthwhile. Certainly, purely altruistic motivations are preferable, but if ulterior motives lead to meritorious acts, the ulterior motives are justified.

In fact, on a deeper level, the soul's demand for an altruistic act comes from its knowledge of eternal reality and desire to participate in it more fully, as we discussed above. Therefore, the motivation for an exalted place in the afterlife is quite proper, strictly.

Even for individuals for whom awareness of the soul's considerations is hidden, the sages are justified in using other means to induce them to perform the commandments, which will bring them, nevertheless, to their rightful eternal status. Moreover, the Jewish people function as a single entity, and these acts add to the greatness of our people.

Self Knowledge

Another factor in our analysis also comes through self-knowledge. By perusing our inner functioning, we become aware of how rarely we perform a good deed selflessly. This happens only when the soul takes charge. When ego is involved, as it generally is, there are selfish motives. Even altruistic ideology usually derives from covert personal considerations. This egoistic level exists, not because of its own merit, like the soul does, but because of God's kindness, which extends to it the privilege of serving what is truly, eternally worthwhile. Serving as an indirect vehicle for the Infinite Light does not convert the ego to a state of intrinsic good, but it does justify its existence.

Moreover, there are advantages in ego involvement. Whereas the soul acts sporadically, so that truly moral acts are rare, the ego is almost always present and consistent, going beyond sensitivity to ethical imperatives to a more absolute state: good deeds are obligatory whether or not one is inspired.

Besides, as the Talmud points out, if someone gives charity so that his son shall live, he is considered perfectly righteous because really, his inner intent is altruistic. When we do a good deed, even with explicitly selfish motivation, we are considered perfectly righteous, because more profoundly, the soul's intent springs from connection with the ultimate good of the Infinite Light.

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