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Torah and the Uniqueness of the Moment
By Yechezkel Gold
The Zohar, ancient core book of Jewish mysticism, foretold that beginning in the year 600 of the 6th thousand, about one hundred sixty years ago, the world would experience a great increase in wisdom., both in Torah wisdom and in wisdom of the world. We have clearly witnessed an explosion of knowledge and understanding of the physical universe. However, somewhat paradoxically, this period has witnessed a decline in most people's understanding of the spiritual dimension and its role in reality. As our understanding and control of the physical universe has become more detailed and comprehensive, we have lost the ability to see spirituality with the same cogency and appreciation that our forefathers did. Their world view was unencumbered by a sense of the world of relatively rigid scientific rules operating independently of considerations of the spiritual.
Since the Zohar's prediction has been so abundantly fulfilled regarding scientific intellectual development, we might wonder what has happened in the spiritual dimension. Perhaps the answer is that there has been, indeed, great ideational development in Torah during this period, which was shortly preceded by the profound and prolific writings of Rav Moshe Cordovero, and of Rav Chayim Vital based on the teachings of Rav Isaac Luria. The Baal Shem Tov and his followers not only produced a new understanding of mystical material, but popularized it so that it has become accessible, at least potentially, as the property of the common man. New clarity and detailed insights were achieved by the Vilna Gaon and his followers, and by the last generation of legal codifiers in the more revealed portions of Torah.
If so, however, much of the tremendous gain in potential understanding has been more than offset by ignorance of these matters, and even disinterest, among much of modern man. How sad that when creativity and accessibility of Torah has peaked, and particularly when Torah mysticism, the clearest and most intimate relation between God and man, has become potentially most available to people, humanity is unable or unwilling to encounter the spiritual reality and answer the nagging spiritual questions we each harbor in our soul.
Chassidim tell of a Rabbi who, while walking, deep in thought, heard a child's weeping from an unknown source. Following the sound, he discovered a small boy hiding. Gently, the Rabbi inquired why the boy wept. Whimpering, the child said he was playing "hide and seek". He had found a good place to hide, but nobody was seeking him. The Rabbi, sensitive to the spiritual nuances of the encounter, burst into tears: So it is with the Master of the Universe! He has hidden, but people do not look for Him!
Interestingly, this process of spiritual decline may have reached a nadir about 40 years ago. Since then, two new phenomena have emerged. Science has begun to appreciate the limits of its own formerly positive perspective and begun to seek alternative methods of understanding physical phenomena. There is a far greater appreciation of the flexibility of the physical universe and the intellectual richness which underlies it. Also, and more pertinent to our essay, many people have become disenchanted living according to a materialist notion of reality, and seek spirituality and meaning.
Coming to terms with God and with oneself has always been a great personal struggle, even when the reality of spirituality was taken for granted Now this difficulty is compounded. The tremendous influence of the dated scientific perspective is still bolstered by philosophical schools which developed in relation to that perspective, such as positivism, nihilism and existentialism. This renders the search for spirituality a struggle also to justify and validate one's inner world because one's mind set, dominated by the scientific perspective, tends to deny its validity.
The problem is the philosophical perspective which underlies science. It made the unwarranted assumption that all of reality is somehow independent of our conception of it. It viewed the physical world as unfolding independently of our thoughts about it,. It attributed reality exclusively to that physical realm to the extent that we abandon awareness of our inner world, or dismiss it as "primary process", as immature mental functioning.
This outdated scientific perspective is like a caricature of Piaget's theory that with age and experience, a child develops notions of object constancy and judges quantity according to the principle of conservation of mass, abandoning the perspective that if we can not see something it does not exist, and if it appears taller it does not miraculously become more. Similarly, but somewhat distortedly, for positivist philosophy the wishes and hopes of the inner psyche which do not conform to the regular workings of outer reality should be abandoned and forgotten and one will remain with an utterly "realistic" and practical view and expectation of life. Those unable to satisfactorily complete this transition and for whom basic questions of existence, such as trust, hope, belief, purpose, free choice, choice and acceptance of role, spontaneity and effort, remain major life issues are regarded as flawed. They are consigned to psychotherapy to attempt to be freed of these encumbering matters.
In a culture dominated by scientific philosophy, this is indeed a radical statement. As this essay will argue, however, modern Western culture has a hardened stance against spirituality which blinds it - much to its own detriment - to the exquisite inner dimension of man's being. While orientation toward practical effectiveness in extrinsic reality is, indeed, a worthwhile goal, the exaggerated importance this assumes in modern times has obscured precisely those elements of people's reality - the inner dimension - which link the soul to God, to matters of spirit, to essential issues. The modern tendency to view these matters as interfering with healthy functioning defines spirituality as contradictory to mental health. The undeniable malaise and underlying depression characteristic of modernity, however, force us to consider the notion that this artificial flattening of reality for the sake of practical efficiency has taken considerable toll.
The root of this attempt to deny God and spirituality is truly ancient. The incident of the Tower of Babel is perhaps the first mention of it. Mankind banded together to free itself from the vicissitudes of nature and interference in the orderly progress of human affairs. Why did God find this endeavor, which modern man may find even noble, anathema? The Rabbis inform us that they wished to place an idol atop the Tower to make war on God.
Idols are man's attempt to reduce God to a size and form that man can grasp and control. Man seeks a life of ease and contentment. For us, the struggle of existence is often a bother with which we would rather dispense and move on to pure pleasures and satisfactions. But as the Prophet Isaiah (55) stated: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, the utterance of God". God's plan for the creation is not for man to have effortless and mindless bliss. Anyone who believes that the hand of God directs the universe must conclude that He wants us to deal with the myriad difficulties, and sometimes hardships, which life imposes.
When we are truly challenged, we confront the basic issues of existence, personally as well as intellectually, as the verse in Psalms 18 states: " The sources of water were perceived, and the foundations of the world were revealed by your rebuke". That is, God's rebuke, bringing difficulties upon man, forces man to reveal, confront and explore the spiritual bases of life. Dealing with the meaning of life, personally encountering and addressing God, occurs most poignantly and profoundly when man is fundamentally challenged. Under trying circumstances, he must justify his existence to himself and consciously come to terms with life: to develop his spiritual side. Thus, the Tower of Babel was an attempt to thwart man's spiritual nature, to insulate man from the ingredients of life which force him to confront spiritual issues.
Unlike the sin of the Tower of Babel, which sought to reduce reality for man to gain a false sense of security and power, the study of Kabbalism broadens reality and augments our ability for realism. As the basis of the Jewish personality, this spirituality has enabled Jews to survive - spiritually, emotionally and communally - throughout two thousand years of hostile exile and oppression. One may speculate, indeed, that the inability of our hosts to assimilate the much greater and deeper world view and experience underlying our forefathers' way of life led them to fear and subsequently oppress our ancestors. This is probably similar to how Nimrod, the king of Babel, tried to kill, and after he was unsuccessful, banished Abraham for his iconoclasm. Dealing with these issues is more aptly described as a psychological, rather than a philosophical process. Not only the mind, but the soul must grapple with these issues and thereby, come to terms with reality in which spirituality is central.
A true realist is not necessarily , or at least primarily, practical. Pragmatism without spiritual depth impoverishes life, subjectively as well as objectively. Therefore, it is unrealistic. A true realist is intensely aware of his inner life, the Psalms' creative "sources of water" and the "foundations of the world", faith and truth hewn in spiritual stone. Since it is the struggle of the soul rather than merely of the intellect, this process does not depend much on whether or not one deems oneself to believe in God. The intellectual component, to conceptualize and phrase one's profound hopes, values and commitment to life explicitly, aids man to reveal and realize the truth about what is occurring within him on a deeper, less conscious and not yet verbal level. Making this process explicit helps man maintain an accurate awareness of the inner reality in which all of us are equally confronted by God, and respond with faith.
This may be the reason that God thwarted the designs by the people of the Tower of Babel: they wished to eliminate this profound, spiritual dimension of existence. The more complicated, personal , and challenging spiritual version of life envisioned by God would undoubtedly be less efficient than the smoothly running civilization envisioned by men. Nevertheless, it would be more true and more fulfilling, more of what life is really about. Similar to the error of the generation of the Tower of Babel, science makes certain assumptions which underlie the contemporary view of reality but do not necessarily correspond to reality. They merely are assumptions and categories modern intellectual man has created to organize his reality, and the order they create, as virtually all assumptions and systems of organization, imposes something on pure reality, colors our perceptions, and shrinks our awareness.
One assumption concerning the contemporary view of reality is that for something to be true, it must be universal. This assumption underlay scientific reasoning until quite recently, and caused scientists to posit universal laws to understand reality. As awareness of what truly occurs, even on a physical level, has become more subtle, the notion of universal physical laws have given way to a more fluid, situationally specific description which highlights certain elements of an event. In the vague, general pattern apparently discerned among events, diversity and variation, not the sameness posited by earlier scientific theory, are the rule.
From a Kabbalistic perspective, however, each event, each experience is unique. Even in a laboratory, nothing ever happens twice; the time, circumstances, thoughts and feelings of the event, render each occurrence special. From a mystical perspective, reality is always new: the act of creation is continual, each moment equally, directly emanating from God. Universality, then, is at best an approximation, a theory not truly born out by reality. Basic to the specialness of each event is the uniqueness of experience which is inseparable from the rest of the event. The notion that the physical occurrence exists independently of our experience, artificially constricts of reality. Our experience is as much a part of the event as its physical parameters.
Torah and Jewish law, unlike the scientific approach, do not purport that any two events are the same. Rather, the law tells how to address each element of reality in order to connect that experience to God. Indeed, we are bidden to regard Torah as always new, as if it were given today.
One may remonstrate with two objections to this approach. First, it is not obvious that the experiential and spiritual dimensions, plus particularly the specific parameters of these issues as they appear in Judaism, are truly intrinsic to reality. Perhaps they are mere expressions of a particular culture or even genetically based mind set without universality.
Second, even granting that the said spiritual issues are intrinsic to the human, or at least Jewish psyche, they constitute only a portion of our inner reality. As the episode of the Tower of Babel itself illustrates, and human history amply demonstrates, people have a great variety of interests and desires, many of which seem conflicting, and it is not clear that one of these interests need be given primacy. Why must spirituality be the guiding, integrating light of human experience?
The first objection really posits those early scientific assumptions about underlying sameness of the course of creation which underlie the contemporary view of reality. These assumptions, themselves, are not universal and do not necessarily correspond to reality. Each event is unique. Even in a laboratory, nothing ever happens twice; the time, circumstances, context, our thoughts and feelings of the event, render each occurrence special.
Hence, the underlying assumption of the scientific paradigm is flawed: life is not organized according to rational, underlying principles. It does not fit into a neat box. Rather, life occurs always in the present, albeit with a certain experience of continuity, and the present defines what is true. What is universal is transcendent, not a basic principle from which all else follows, and hence, which greatly limits that which follows. In other words, logic and rationality do not grasp, can not grasp reality. Therefore, it is fruitless, for example, to try to prove the existence of God. That endeavor is to try to subordinate reality - in all of which God is manifest, as we have described - to logic, to subordinate the mistress to the handmaiden. From where do we know that God exists? It is in all of our experience, and those moments when God is most manifest to us are the moments of truth, the momentous moments, the moments of greatest clarity, insight, and transcendence. It is those moments when we rend the shackles of bondage to picayune logic and small-minded mind-set. The focus on universal laws reduces reality.
In contrast, Torah and Torah law enhance, highlight and shape life. They add the dimension of depth, beauty and meaning to experience, making life joyful, poignant and clear, thereby liberating aspects of soul hitherto concealed.
By bringing God into each event, we are more fully human. That we have difficulty perceiving the Divine in all of our experience is because we do not know how to see clearly, we know not enough about how the Divine may be manifest; we are narrow minded. Study of Torah, generally, and specifically of Jewish mysticism, together with performance of God's commandments, helps free us of the conceptual and emotional restraints limiting our ability to glimpse Godliness in our daily experience and gain access to the Divine light suffusing reality
Gentile civilization, originating in the sin of the Tower of Babel, has deprived man of the fullness of reality, of wholeness of personality. We are unaware of vast aspects of personality, deprived of great unplumbed depths of soul by the choice we have made - individually as well as collectively - to escape the struggle of directly facing life and rather to embrace the banal security of idol worship. Intrinsically, man is a profoundly special, spiritual being, but a pathological, dissociative process has reduced many of us to spiritual and experiential barrenness.
In short, Judaism makes no real claim to the scientific type notion of universality. Rather, fully embracing Torah and its perspective and living according to the Commandments connect the Jew to God. How do we know? Most purely, we know in the present, not based on anything external. Thus, we do not seek converts: we do not purport that Torah life is meant to be universal in the scientific sense. Rather, we serve the God of Israel, who is God of the Universe. We serve the God of Israel, and thereby encounter and live under the God of the universe.
The second objection, challenging the perspective that spiritual considerations must be the guiding, integrating light of human experience, may be addressed as follows: In Kabbalistic terminology, reality in each domain is defined by six directions. Thus, physically, the six directions are right, left, front, up down and back, in that order. Emotionally, they are love, fear, beauty, ambition, acquiescence and "yesod" (connectivity), the active basis of involvement. These six directions define the basic parameters of all levels of reality. However, they only define what exists most minimally and starkly. That perspective on existence is lacking until one adds to that experience, eliciting from the encounter the level of "mokhin", intellectual perception.
Mokhin is not only simple knowledge of spiritual ideas. Rather, it is openness and sensitivity to the spiritual message, the special character, meaning, context, and significance of the experience. Only by adding what the person him/herself contributes to the experience, is experience complete. This is true experientially: it is not a mere formal definition of completeness, but a description of what renders the experience of experience complete. That is, the impersonal encounter and grasp of experience, without adding to it the human perspective profoundly rooted in our relationship to God, is to view only the empty shell of life. The extrinsic view of reality propounded by the obsolete scientific perspective focuses on what is meant to be only the potential backdrop of life.
By developing Jewishly, we live life fully. Then, with thought, we become aware that not to bring this intensely personal, meaningful aspect of ourselves into all of our encounters with reality is to deprive ourselves and impoverish our world. Contributing mokhin does not mean limiting our interests to formally spiritual matters, but rather that we are truly alive and personally involved with every life encounter. Judaism has several strategies for eliciting mokhin from our life encounters. We shall focus on three, reciting blessings, mezuza and tzitzit. It is not my intent here to claim that eliciting mokhin fully accounts for these commandments. Rather, these three serve our purposes of explanation more easily than many other commandments.
The Divine commandment to recite a blessing after eating bread, and according to some opinions, before we begin Torah study, was supplemented by Rabbinical ordinances to recite a blessing before performing many commandments, before eating, after eating other foods, and on certain special occasions. By doing so, we become aware that these encounters with life, with all of the details of these experiences, are taking place in the context of God. Provoking that awareness is eliciting mokhin.
After all, our natural awareness does not necessarily spontaneously experience Godliness. In fact, that is because our spontaneous awareness is usually on the level of the six directions previously mentioned. What is missing is mokhin. A general strategy, Torah takes to remind us that we must contribute the Godliness of our souls to our encounters with life in order to live maximally, is to give commandments. Thus, we approach life, and are reminded by each encounter, of our obligations to God, to do the best we can in the present circumstances. The commandment to wear tzitzit on our four-cornered garments specifically serves this purpose: it reminds us of God's commandments and brings us to act accordingly, as the verse states: "And you shall see it and you shall remember all the commandments of God and you shall do them". Evoking this remembrance is eliciting mokhin.
The mezuzot on our doorposts contains the two paragraphs of Shema, pledging dedication to God and His commandments. We may compare the mezuza to the benediction at the start of the evening prayer, which describes that God changes the times and constellations, thus issuing the new day which, of course, begins in the evening in Jewish law. A message of that blessing is that though, indeed, a new day has begun with different circumstances than any of the previous days, God is present in these new conditions, too. We begin our new day by seeking God in the new circumstances, attributing those new circumstances to God.
Following this blessing, a second blessing focusing on Torah tells how to connect these new circumstances to God, followed by reciting Shema, the soul's commitment to and personal encounter with God. Thus, these prayers elicit mokhin, induce awareness of God and the spiritual in the new day. Otherwise, in encountering the unfamiliar, we might forget ourselves and not contribute the inner beauty and personal approach of our souls to these life events.
Similarly, the mezuza at the doorpost, where we emerge from one situation and enter a new one, reminds us of our personal connection and commitment to God at a juncture where we might otherwise forget and lose this opportunity to elevate ourselves and the deeds of our lives. These commandments help to elicit mokhin and thereby complete our experience. This affirmation of truly spiritual life elicits from the soul a deep caring, profound ethical feelings, and reverence for God and for each participant in His creation. We can connect with this inner reality shared by all of us through studying and individually contemplating Torah, and in particular, its mysteries. What this adds to life is not a bonus: it is what life is really about.
from the July 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine