Is Mysticism Psychology?


Is Mysticism Psychology?


Search our Archives:

» Home
» History
» Holidays
» Humor
» Places
» Thought
» Opinion & Society
» Writings
» Customs
» Misc.

Is Mysticism really Psychology?
Or is it the Other Way Around??

By Yechezkel Gold

Mysticism’s Place In Judaism

Judaism, of course, holds that not everything is physical. Even anti-mystical trends in Judaism mainly contend only that Jews should not deal with supernal realities, following the mishna in the second chapter of Tractate Chagiga: “One may not expound... matters of creation in the presence of two, nor matters of the mystical chariot in the presence of a single individual, unless he be wise and understand these matters by himself. Anyone who looks at these (following) four subjects, it would be preferable that he had not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is within, and what is behind. And regarding anyone who is not careful with his (Divine) Master’s honor, it would be preferable that he had not come into the world.” The obvious deduction from this very dictum is that these forbidden mystical matters are real and serious. Most people, however, should not be dealing with them.

Jewish mysticism is distinguished by frank focus on the non-physical, and particularly, on directly experiencing that realm. Until about the last two hundred fifty years, these matters were indeed generally kept hidden except for the initiated elite. The saintly Rav Isaac Luria, about four hundred fifty years ago, held that this profound study should be more widely disseminated, and achieved some success in that direction. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidus, dreamt that he ascended to the chamber of Moshiach, and asked when Moshiach will come. Moshiach replied that he will come (and bring the final redemption) when the Baal Shem Tov’s mystical wellsprings burst forth outward. Accordingly, Baal Shem Tov and Chassidim undertook to spread those mystical teachings. Rav Eliahu, the Vilna Gaon, staunchly anti-Chassidic, nevertheless held that Cabalism should be taught widely, and that it will engender the perfection of the creation. These mystical leaders held that though mysticism had to be hidden in early generations, the time had come for that study to illuminate the world.

Traditionally, Cabalists were rather ascetic, exploring hidden realms which became accessible only through detachment from worldly matters. Though Chassidic teachings eschewed fasting and self-mortification, they too emphasized sanctity of thought, speech and action. Through lessening the hold of this world, supernal matters became reality.

The contemporary fascination with mysticism most often echoes something like the Chassidic approach, celebrating integration of the physical and mystical realms. However, in practice many people who are not fully observant of the commandments find this approach dissatisfying and frustrating. This is because mystical integration can not take place when affairs of the soul are subordinated to physical desires, as many people endeavor. To contact and delight in spiritual reality, one must accord spiritual matters - and life in general - great respect. Only living according to halacha, thereby bestowing composure upon the soul and shaping life in a manner consistent with spiritual realities, brings significant, worthwhile and lasting Jewish mystical attainments.

Cabala and Realism

Where is this hidden realm of which Cabala speaks? One of the dreams of Rav Moshe Teitelbaum, an early Chassidic master, provides a clue. In his dream, his soul ascended to the heavenly realm where the tanaim, hoary sages of the mishna, dwell. Strolling through that realm, Rav Moshe was somewhat disappointed; it seemed rather mundane. Finally, he encountered one of the tanaim sitting, absorbed in Torah study. Rav Moshe was even more disappointed, seeing no heavenly delights and rewards. Glancing up, the tana asked Rav Moshe: “Do you think the tanaim are in paradise? Paradise is in the tanaim!”

According independent reality to one’s inner world, as Cabalism does, is somewhat controversial. Some might consider it simply escapism, avoiding life by focusing on feelings instead of reality. Relegating some of the great minds and bright lights of Jewish history, including very insightful, creative men also intensely active and effective in communal and practical affairs, to the category of escapists is rather odd, to put it mildly. The matter is more complicated.

Let us examine the premise of those who consider mysticism escapism. They assume that one’s attention should be focused exclusively on external events in order to live fully and “properly”. This premise is based on values, personal preferences, and/or perhaps unquestioned education. It is not a fact. Like any assumption, it influences our perceptions and conclusions in an arbitrary manner, reducing our sensitivity to important areas of reality. Indeed, it is well accepted that people unable to spend time introspectively, who are uncomfortable with their internal world, often lack creativity as well as lacking what many consider an important dimension of personality.

This does not imply that one need force oneself to contemplate. Some people are more aware and more involved with their internal world than others. Moreover, circumstances such as adversity or a sensitive disposition dealing with insensitive others often bring people to focus inwardly. This may reduce one’s degree of social success somewhat, but knowledge of the great advantages of inner awareness should help sensitive individuals value their personality style, rather than considering it a liability as people judging from a superficial perspective may do. Indeed, this inner sensitivity can be the gate to mystical perception.

Moreover, what occurs within the mind is not merely a reaction to external circumstances. Just as some creative people have music in their soul, or art or poetry, so some creative people have a powerful ethical sense, a need to search and explore, and profound spirituality. These talents are characteristically Jewish. These gifts greatly enrich life and can contribute greatly to society. Attributing independent existence to one’s inner world, then, can be greatly beneficial. We may not be accustomed to think so, but essentially all specifically human phenomena, such as language, culture, clothing, and tools derive from attributing independent reality to what happens in the mind.

True, unlike these other phenomena, mysticism attributes independent existence to inner reality without necessarily trying to validate that inner experience in the extrinsic domain. The musical person, for example, produces music enjoyed by other people. Cabalists, however, though they strive mightily to express that mystical reality through good deeds, and generally by laboring toward perfecting the world and bringing Moshiach, also value inner, spiritual perception in its own right, without need to find some external use for that spirituality. How do they justify this occupation which is not externally productive? Not everything needs to have a use. Cabalistic contemplation and insight make conscious what happens in the soul, making explicit the very crux of the process of life.

Life, after all, asserts the primacy of the living creature almost unconditionally, and employs a variety of means to protect, nourish, and otherwise advance the interests of the living creature. That is, life requires no external justification; it need not be useful. It is an end in its own right. Detailed and intimate awareness of and delight in this internal truth is the epitome and pinnacle of life. It is the stuff of Cabala.

The only exceptions to life’s being the highest value are when the living being sacrifices its own interests for something else. Some examples of this are motherhood, the individual protecting the group, and altruism. Among living creatures, this phenomenon is particularly well developed among humans, enabling society to exist. Its pure, mystical expression is in religion, focused on God who is a supreme value to such an extent as to justify self sacrifice. Within the self one finds what is even more important than the self.

In other words, life itself is the assertion of the independent existence and primacy of inner reality. We living creatures subordinate the extrinsic world to those inner interests: for example, we eat other life. Most often this occurs on a simple level: we live without profound, explicit awareness of our inner reality. Thus, we usually react to hunger, which is an awareness of inner realities, by simply searching for food, without profound introspection about it. However, organisms are more complex than just drives for hunger. Indeed, people often err in how they translate subtle inner realities into behavior because their concepts - their philosophy of life - are too meager to accommodate the inner reality. They interpret most inner experience as materialistic drives, rather than appreciating the more creative, subtle spiritual and emotional nuances.

In the deepest sense, such people are unrealistic. They do not appreciate the realities of their inner world. Recognizing the importance of frank, inner cognition to enrich experience and thereby allow satisfying and effective life, the field of psychology deals directly with the realities of the soul, of inner life. As such, psychology would really be a form of mysticism, though the term mysticism is anathema to many psychologists. Let us examine some reasons for many psychologists’ opposition to their field being deemed mysticism.

Psychology's Relations to Religion

Originally, matters of the psyche were considered religious matters. Therefore, questions of religious behavior permeated explorations into the workings of the soul. They were considered inseparable. This is particularly true for Judaism, which considers health of the soul dependent on religious practice. (Modern psychotherapists too are increasingly becoming aware of the central role of behavior on psychological health. At least some important trends in modern culture, though, seem to have lost the sense of proportion in these matters, abandoning behavioral criteria of acceptability in favor of emotional self expression.)

When secular psychology began developing, however, it intended to separate itself from the religious outlook. Psychology therefore resisted classifying itself as a form of even secular mysticism. The secular outlook was founded on materialism, and received support from science with its purported objectivity. Psychology, with a non-material subject matter, was hard-pressed to qualify as materialism. Early thinkers such as Freud and Pavlov nevertheless tried mightily to bring psychology into the realm of positivist science. They were never very successful, and later practitioners largely have recognized the fallacy of their thinking. True, neurochemical studies and the use of psychoactive medications do point to a material component of psychic functioning. However, most practitioners recognize the great value and importance of psychotherapy, and generally, an appreciation of psychic functioning per se, in addressing life problems associated with the inner world. Nevertheless, in order to gain greater acceptance, as well as to increase their collective effectiveness, psychology nevertheless continues to attempt to become hard science, and spurns the label of mysticism.

Significance of the Mystical Outlook

Turning away from the religious format has profound implications. Thus, Deuteronomy states that God has presented us with a choice of life or death, of good or bad, and counsels that we choose good. It seems remarkable that we should be presented with such a choice: who would choose death over life?....

If we examine the difference between the outlooks of science and religion, particularly of mysticism, the reality and significance of the choice between life and death readily becomes apparent. Materialism asserts that physicality is the basis of all reality. Science explains all phenomena as the more or less complex behavior of inert i.e. dead matter. For science, life is qualitatively similar to death. Some chemical reactions occurring when the organism can provide a suitable environment cease to occur when the organism can no longer do so. The first state is commonly called life, and the second state, death, but on the level of essential understanding, the molecular level, this is not very significant. The hard facts of life are that an ultimately unbending, merciless and dumb extrinsic reality force compliance of all creatures who, at best, can grab a modicum of transient pleasure.

Mysticism, on the other hand, considers the material realm as mere substratum for real existence, which is spiritual. The soul does not live from the body. Rather, the body lives from the soul. The essence of reality is life, not physical material. Extrinsic considerations are primarily limitations on life, and even they exist by virtue of life, part of the Creator‘s design for the universe whose essence, purpose and meaning are life. For the mystic , then, realism means cherishing life: insight, meaning, spirituality, friendship, soul, beauty, creativity and exuberant celebration.

This is the choice between life and death with which we are all presented. It is the choice between a Godly reality, with a living, personal relationship to our surroundings, and an inert, indifferent reality, best dealt with from diffidence, impersonality and resignation.

Caught in the flight from God, determined to achieve approbation as hard science, secular psychology is striving to choose death. That choice is a bad one, Torah counsels. It is based on pessimism, on surrender, covered with a veneer of sophistication and pseudo-optimism. It distinguishes between much of psychology, whose realm, too, really is the spirit, and mysticism.

Deep down, we all know the right choice. Besides, what matter if “factually”, we err in choosing God? If we attain a life of genuinely experienced meaning and worthwhileness by pursuit of spirit, is that not better than being miserably “correct”? On a deeper level, indeed, this choice - and only this choice - brings us into the realm of the spirit. It is impossible to verify spirituality from a materialist vantage point because materialism can not grasp spirituality: spirit is life, and death can not grasp life.

The foregoing is not intended as an all-out attack on psychology. The dimensions of the argument were simplified to highlight the main points. Psychology is not entirely unmindful of matters of spirit, and mysticism is compatible with some schools of therapy. Even schools of psychology which are philosophically opposed to mysticism may have areas of considerable overlap with mysticism in details. However, the dichotomy between choosing life or death underlies important differences between mysticism and psychology.

Assumptions Influence Observations

One difference between considering inner perception to be mysticism or not regards what one expects - and thus, is prepared - to find in one’s inner world. Both mystic and psychologist know that our inner worlds contain a myriad of thoughts, impulses, desires, lusts, emotions, impressions, memories, insights, intuitions, wishes, associations and much more. The difference in their approaches is that most psychologists consider the selfish, animal aspect of the psyche to be the true essence of the person’s being, but the mystic considers man’s innermost nature to be Godly.

In this regard, it is interesting to note the words of Rav Moshe Cordovero that Adam’s sin and the impurity brought into the creation by the primal serpent transformed the world to appear that it is essentially bad, but in reality it is essentially good, the direct product of God. That is, our initial impression of our inner world may seem to validate the psychologist’s view of man as essentially animal more readily than the mystic’s view of man as essentially spiritual. A certain amount of inner work and refinement are often necessary to perceive the spiritual which underlies the animal veneer.

On a simple level, the mystic expects to find spirituality - the realm in which God’s presence is manifest -inside him, and the psychologist does not. From that perspective, one may postulate that the psychologist is more objective than the mystic who may be inclined to interpret whatever he finds within as spirituality. However, the psychologist under the influence of evolutionary theory and, generally, scientific philosophy expects to find only animalism and selfishness beneath what he considers to be the veneer of acculturation. These may blind the psychologist to spirituality.

This may occur in two ways. We find divergent interpretations of altruism, for example, for the mystic and the secular psychologist. The mystic regards altruism as evidence of the soul’s ultimate union with God and His creation to the extent that it is committed to the whole, perhaps even to the point of self sacrifice. The secular psychologist, though, explains altruism as learned behavior by association with positive reinforcements, or as internalization of parental and societal values out of fear in resolving the powerful emotional conflicts of early childhood, with development of an ego ideal using an abstracted version of the primitive childhood emotional energies which can no longer be allowed direct emotional expression. That is, for the psychologist, though altruism is important for healthy psychological development, it is really an outgrowth of selfishness. The mystic does not deny that selfishness exists, but views altruism as a genuine expression of the higher aspects of the soul, not as distorted or even enlightened self interest. As the classic mystical work, Tanya, teaches, there are two, separate souls within each Jew, a Godly soul and an animal soul. Thus, the psychologist’s expectations may lead him to classify matters of spirit as secondary to humanity and as relative to culture and values, whereas the mystic’s expectations will lead him to consider those matters primary and absolute.

The second way the mystic will perceive spirituality while the psychologist will not is in the realm of pure spirituality, above common human experience. Let us take the study of Torah as an example. A secular psychologist will be unable to access the sublime spirituality contained in Torah. In contrast, the Jewish mystics state that Torah is the realm of supernal reality. Nor is this limited to the study of the esoteric portions of Torah. The revealed and relatively rational aspects of Torah are part of the supernal realms, too. The reason secular psychologist can not experience this lofty realm is because they lack fear of Heaven. That is, they refuse to accept anything they are unable to verify, and generally deny what they consider arbitrary impositions on their behavior.

The Talmud calls fear of heaven the key to the outer gate of the (Heavenly) treasure house, and Torah the key to the inner gate. That is, in order to approach the sublime reality contained in Torah, to taste the delights contained in the supernal realms, one must first have fear of Heaven. In fact, this is so even for someone who has learned Torah: if he lacks fear of heaven, he will be unable to access the awesome, Godly magnificence within, as this passage (Shabbos 31b) illustrates: “ Raba ben Rav Huna said: ‘Any man who possesses Torah and lacks fear of Heaven can be compared to a treasurer who was given the inner keys and the outer keys were not given to him.’“

Fear of Heaven means not only anxiety for one’s well-being because of the threat of retribution. It means accepting and respecting a reality - the reality of Heaven and of Torah - beyond one’s ability to grasp them, and entering into that reality in its own terms, rather than insisting that one’s own, subjective, private point of view, even as it appears to be bolstered by the culture one lives within, be the standard by which all of reality is measured. It means developing an objectivity to see Torah as it is, rather than as it appears from a secular standpoint.

This does not entail foregoing one’s personal thought processes and reactions to matters. In fact, personalizing one’s relationship to God and Torah add an important dimension to Torah life and study. Rather, it means expanding one’s awareness through fear of Heaven so that the reality beyond secularism, contained in Torah, comes into focus. In the process, one’s personal relationship to life is enhanced, refined and broadened.

In this manner, the psychologist who lacks fear of Heaven will be entirely oblivious to the experience and reality of the supernal worlds. This is a reality comprised of a harmonious and beautiful blend of love and fear, of awe, dread and meaning, of intimacy, deep respect and majesty. These feelings are imbued with special and profound significance by the clarity and depth of intellect formed by the objectivity toward Torah demanded by the reverence and fear of Heaven which is the prerequisite to entry into the inner gates.

In fact, the secularist makes a serious logical error regarding Torah. Refusing to approach Torah with the requisite respect and awe prevents objective perception of the reality contained in Torah when it is addressed as holy. The secularist can only see, somewhat, the way Torah may look if it is addressed secularly, not how it is when approached as sacred.

Moreover, by refusing to acknowledge the aspects of fear, respect and dread, by refusing the attitude of reverence toward that which is above and beyond, that which is outside our control, by demanding that the internal world harbor only fair, comforting and comfortable thoughts and sentiments, even the would be mystic is denied access to the magnificence of the upper realms where all aspects of the personality can be integrated into majestic oneness. The fact is that all aspects of personality are not revealed through simple meditation because that contemplation induces awareness and refinement of only the comforting and comfortable dimensions of personality. In order to refine the entirety of personality, and thereby attain not only completeness but also a transcendent awareness, one must also accept outright fear of Heaven.

Access to Mystical Realms Through Torah

The notion of the fear of Heaven being the key to the outer gates of the spiritual palaces reveals a specifically mystical significance to the notion of G’d’s giving us the Torah: we gain access to the supernal, mystical realms through contact with Torah, whose reality and form do not come from us. They are given by God, and through interacting with Torah and the way of life it requires, by having fear of Heaven, we experience the light of Torah, the Divine interfacing with created reality.

Left to our own devices, however, contact with the God of Israel is largely denied us. Yes, the Jewish soul is responsive to that light, and in its absence, seeks it. This, in itself, may be meaningful contact with God. However, for the revelation of the God of Israel to stabilize within the soul, for it to dwell restfully within the personality and, more broadly, within society, requires the light and life of Torah and following Commandments, whose acceptance depends on fear of Heaven.

Absolutism vs. Relativism

One reason Torah and Mitzvos stabilize the revelation of God within the soul whereas the more direct revelation of God to the soul is usually fiery, passionate and unstable is that direct revelation of God in the soul is intensely subjective, not balanced by objectivity, fear and respect induced by encounter with a reality outside the self.

Generally speaking, this is a significant difference between Cabalism and psychology. For psychology, the contents of internal reality are essentially the self, albeit with the important impressions upon it made by extrinsic reality: learning. As one develops mystically, in contrast, especially through deep study of Torah and scrupulous performance of Mitzvos, the contents of internal reality are not essentially self. Refinement brings awareness of mystical realms, with Divine revelation permeating all. Elements of these mystical realms, such as the various levels, perspectives, and ways of being, are perceived as existing independently of self.

This is reflected in the Amida prayer which we pray at least three times daily. The first section begins with the words: Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob. Let us notice that this prayer, pinnacle of the services, commences with the thought that He is our God, an intimate and personal connection with God. This is the mystical perspective. Concomitantly, though, we do not say my, but our. From the mystical perspective, this indicates that even in this most intimate point in the service, often with our eyes closed in inwardly directed concentration, in the deepest recesses of the soul, visualizing ourselves standing in front of the King, we are aware of and concerned about community: the center of the soul is not solipsistic and selfish, but transcendent and balanced between inner and outer considerations.

Addressing ourselves to God means respecting a reality beyond ourselves. In this manner, we can understand the important difference between religion and other philosophies. Recently, I saw a poem written in Hebrew comparing certain people to flowers. They are beautiful and give off a pleasing fragrance without thought of recompense in any form, but simply because they are flowers. We understand that the poem is referring to ethical, altruistic people. Their meritorious deeds are without thought of personal gain. However, they seem not to believe in God. Therefore, their meritorious deeds derive from personal choice or predilection. They are not obligated to do good, but they choose to do so.

In contrast, the Talmud (Kidushin 31a) discusses Rav Yosef, who was blind. He states that as a young man, he would have made a celebration had someone demonstrated that a blind person is exempt from performing the commandments, but that as an older man, he would make a celebration if someone could demonstrate that blind people are obligated to perform the commandments. His first thought was that doing good without being obligated is preferable to fulfilling an obligation, but his more mature understanding was that it is better to do good as fulfillment of an obligation. That is, it is better to do good deeds because one considers oneself obligated than out of free choice.

It is clearly preferable for a society’s functioning that citizens have a sense of obligation than that they feel really free to act as they please. If they think they are “doing us a favor”, that it is voluntary and especially meritorious to act altruistically or even acceptably, and will do so only if they, themselves, wish to, they might indeed act otherwise, with dire social consequences. That, however, is the precise attitude of people who have the impression that their moral behavior is at their own discretion: they believe that internal reality is really nothing but self, has no independent reality, and that therefore, ultimately, they have the right to behave as they please.

This approach to ethics and spirituality reflects weakness of character. Let us illustrate this, for example, in the question of murder. It is clear to people of character that murder is wrong and forbidden. People who do not think so are psychologically, as well as morally flawed: sociopathic. Their excuse - when they provide one - for their behavior or opinions is that there is no proof that murder is indeed wrong, that it is a cultural issue, and that in fact, almost all cultures justify killing people in some cases, such as war or punishing serious offenders. Therefore, they reason, murder is a matter of cultural relativism, a matter of opinion. These people’s flaw is their weak ability to relate to the independent and important reality of other people. It derives from an overweening sense of self that interferes with relating to others meaningfully. Physical and especially emotional neediness prevents their seeing and relating to reality outside their own self. This extends inwardly, too: they are unable to relate to the independent reality of spirituality and ethics. It is the exact same phenomenon and for the same reason.

Thus, the overly pronounced sense of self deriving from a character weakness underlies the inability to relate to God and perceive the independent existence and significance of spirituality and morality. In mystical terms, this is referred to as the exaggerated sense of self concealing the light of God and spirituality.

Psychologizing Reality

One might remonstrate that our discussion is really focusing on the subjective sense of reality, which is different from what is really real. In that case, one might say, attributing reality to internal experience is quite different from coming to realize that what is extrinsic to self really does exist. This objection is specious, however. The ability genuinely to attribute independent reality to extrinsic phenomena is qualitatively identical to the ability to attribute independent reality to internal matters and, indeed, depends on that inner facility.

That is, the ability to view something in its own right, and not just in terms of how it effects oneself, is a function of one’s ability to relate to inner realities as existing independently. Let us take as an example the matter of emotions. If one is able to take the emotional reality of another individual seriously, to identify with them and feel their situation, then one is able to perceive their independent reality. This depends on regarding inner realities, such as respect for situation, then one is able to perceive their independent reality. This depends on regarding inner realities, such as respect for others and ethical considerations regarding them, as having independent existence. The Torah dictum of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” parallels these ideas. To the extent one views these internal considerations as subjective and not binding, one does not really perceive others as having independent reality. In that case, others exist only in terms of oneself.

This probably will not mean that one can not even perceive phenomena that one can not control. This perception may engender fear. However, that fear is not really viewing those phenomena as existing in their own right, but only in terms of how they relate to oneself. Such a self centered attitude would interfere with accurate intellectual perception of the phenonomenon being viewed. If one only perceives the external object in terms of self, one is unlikely to notice anything about it except what relates obviously to self. While simple fear, too, may motivate someone to relate more subtly to extrinsic objects, depersonalization still underlies one’s perspective: one does not really see the other as real because one does not see internal realities as real.

Different Goals for Mysticism and Psychology

For secular psychology, of course, though it deals with internal matters, the internal realm is not really real: spirituality is considered subjective and immateriality imaginary. Ideas and feelings are considered to have no independent, objective reality. This is the materialist paradigm. Thus, the internal world exists merely subjectively, and experience is nothing but the subjectivity of the self. Therefore, ultimately decisions about proper conduct are considered to be strictly at the discretion of each individual.

Of course, the psychologist too is aware that the mental process of attributing independent reality to the external world is not the same as that external world being real. Attributing reality is a mental process, partially cognitive, such as not expecting it always to follow one’s own wishes, and partially emotional, for example, taking that reality seriously and caring about it. Nevertheless, they make the assumption that the material world which they assume to be real is really real.

Moreover, the psychologist is also aware that healthy personality development entails proper formation of conscience, which is, precisely, the ability to attribute at least a certain reality to spiritual and internal realities and thereby, to others. However, the psychologist’s secular philosophical perspective prevents him from acknowledging the independent reality of spiritual and moral matters. Because such matters are not scientifically verifiable, his/her philosophical biases relegate them to an inferior category. The secularist prefers an attitude of cultural and ethical relativism in order to preserve the sense that spiritual matters are not real, affording them the “right” to refuse fear of Heaven and protecting the sense of choice and self which ultimately do not have to answer to anybody.

For Cabala, though, the realm of the spirit has independent reality which determines our reality. Metaphysics and experience are at least partially merged. The soul is refined by this very encounter with supernal realms, and develops awareness of transcendent realities. This refinement depends on addressing the internal world with the proper perspective, though. The non spiritually oriented psychologist - and it is not our intent here to negate the help psychology offers to people suffering emotionally - is denied access to Cabalistic realms because he does not approach them correctly. For psychology, the inner world is the world of the self, and depends on self. For the Cabalist, the inner world is the world of God and is independent of self. Torah has absolute, independent reality.

This does not mean that the Cabalist is unaware of or indifferent to cultural relativism. In fact, regarding disagreements between the sages, Talmud employs the phrase: “Both these and those are the words of the living God”, meaning that there may be more than one correct and authentic manner to view spiritual matters. For the Cabalist, though, all true perspectives coexist in the spiritual domains and reveal the light of God. Errors are also real and exist in the spiritual domains, but they hide the light of God and often lead to evil.

Discerning the truth or error of a set of ideas is a subtle and rigorous process. The constant Torah study by great minds through many generations has lead to understanding each perspective and how where it belongs - if at all - within the spiritual realms. Many people form an incorrect view of life, not because their notions are entirely flawed, but because they are insufficiently aware of the whole and put improper emphasis on one notion.

Moreover, because it reflects a true and absolute perspective to do so (an internal reality viewed as having independent existence), the Cabalist will relate to another human being as worthy of dignity, regard and respect, cherishing the person’s soul like his own even while, nevertheless, perhaps regarding that person’s values and ideas as mistaken.

Addressing elements of the inner world as having independent existence reconciles what superficially may seem like two disparate and contradictory elements of Torah. On the one hand, Torah is known for its deep, analytic intellectuality, focusing on Law and deducing the implications of texts. On the other hand, Torah includes Cabalism and, generally, the Aggadic parts, which seem more intuitive and humanly oriented. In fact, these two seemingly disparate elements exist side by side in the Talmud. They do not contradict each other at all, because in clarifying in detail the implications of Law, one comes to perceive it as an independent reality whose character becomes manifest through contemplation. That is, after the first and necessary step of didactic clarification of the text and its implications comes the meditative connection with Torah and the mystical light and reality it contains. This sequence is outlined in the writings of Rabbi Shalom Ber Schneersohn. If the first step is eliminated, the meditation focuses on something flawed and inaccurate, and only murky misperception can result. If the second step is omitted, formal information never develops into spiritual insight.

Perhaps the underlying dispute between Cabala and psychology is in the definition of objectivity. Clearly, both systems purport to seek objectivity, yet the nature of their subject matter renders that goal exceedingly challenging. Psychology has adopted the scientific paradigm as its standards of objectivity, with its emphasis on materialistic characterization and explanation of phenomena. These limit its ability to explore matters of the spirit, whose nature is not so consistent with psychology’s assumptions. Cabalism makes no effort to translate matters of the spirit into materialistic terms, characterizing internal phenomena as they are. True, the overall perspective is religious and assumes the truth of God and Torah, and spiritual phenomena are viewed in that context. Much of Cabala, though, describes the inspired experience of God and exaltation, assuming nothing. Besides, the entire system and report of phenomena describes what occurs in the spiritual realm when everything is related to those assumptions of the truth of God and Torah. It does not purport to describe nature, but rather the supernal worlds to which access is gained through the fear of Heaven.

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

from the February 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

The Jewish Magazine is the place for Israel and Jewish interest articles
The Current Monthly Jewish Magazine
To the Current Index Page
Write to us!
Write Us
The Total & Complete Gigantic Archive Pages for all issues
To the Big Archives Index Page