by Yechezkel Gold
Part 1: Assessing where we have been
Wars, plagues and weather conditions do greatly influence human affairs. History's real content has much more to do with what people think and feel, however. We like to think we progress as time passes. Other perspectives see the direction of change differently, though.
For example, Jews think that passage of time and generations continually obscures the Divine imprint on our lives. Thus, being the "product of the Divine hands" bestowed a special quality on Adam that no subsequent man matched. Likewise, Divine revelation was at its peak when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Since, the Godly light seems to progressively dim.
The fall of the Roman Empire opening the Middle Ages is another example of varying the direction of historical change. By many standards, the Roman Empire's demise meant a return to more primitive times after a period of great cultural flowering around the Mediterranean basin. Art, science, politics and literacy decreased in sophistication. On the other hand, ethically and intellectually superior monotheism replaced idolatry throughout the Middle East and Europe.
Physics parallels the expectation that time brings decline rather than progress: entropy, as an example, is the universe's inexorable loss of organization and hence of the ability to use energy effectively. This decline should gradually narrow our possibilities for universal expansion. It is a sort of cosmic aging. Perhaps more pertinent to us in the same vein, technology has reduced our world's degree of "naturalness".
These are progression in the sense that as our world's natural spiritual potential is used up, we approach the days of Messiah. We now live in a very exciting era that will profoundly transform life. Knowing where we are and toward what we are heading can prepare us to meet this new, exciting challenge with zest and intelligence. Let us begin by recognizing, then, that the old ways are fading.
Our thinking about who we are and where we are going can greatly influence our future course. In the early decades of the 19th century John Stuart Mill hypothesized two opposing universal cultural trends needing to be brought into balance. One emphasizes law, discipline and structure. The opposing trend favors spontaneity, openness, creativity and exploration. Mill thought his society overly emphasized the structured dimension. He favored cultivating greater spontaneity and openness instead.
Coming after the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the exodus of European Jewry from the ghettos, the American and French Revolutions, the broadening of democracy and entitlement to include larger segments of the population in many European countries, the nascent awakening of nationalism and national consciousness, and the scientific and industrial revolutions, Mill's thoughts seem to reflect man's natural desire for greater ease and fewer restrictions rather than being an accurate assessment of history. Economic well being, and not necessarily a cogent grasp of the facts, seems to facilitate this sort of thinking.
Nevertheless, Mill's influential assessment helped speed the Western world to greater openness and discovery. Perhaps his essay mainly addressed the moralistic and hypocritical Victorian epoch whose impending arrival he foresaw. Nevertheless, globally, Western civilization continued to hurtle toward the asymptote of liberty.
Today, too, ideas of openness, individual rights and freedom occupy us. Foremost in our minds is to break the tiresome shackles of the past. Thereby, we hope to achieve the true liberty and happiness that the entire western world today pursues. Though racing headlong with this infatuation, history seems to have reached a point of inflection and circumstances may soon force us to change course. Therefore, we should carefully take stock of where we are, how we arrived here, and where it would be best for us to go.
Where we are today
For at least five centuries individual liberty has progressively increased. The material realm always limits our liberty while our souls, imagination and passions seek a higher, more ideal world. Religion, entertainment and art forms address our spiritual sides and render life greatly more meaningful, but the body's demands and constraints of physical possibility frustrate our soul's yearning for unfettered flight.
Accordingly, one of society's most important goals has been improving our material status. Industrialization guided by science greatly increases availability of goods and services. Superior medical sophistication renders formerly cataclysmic illnesses and disabilities less problematical. Spectacular successes in material matters achieved considerable liberation from our physical barriers. Concomitantly, we have diminished interest in spiritual and moral matters. Our forefathers prayed for rain but we merely turn on the tap. They prayed for health but we take antibiotics, insulin, or have open-heart surgery. We even may think religion a sign of weakness.
Considering the extent of material gains, however, the depth of persistent personal discontent is surprising. Let us face it: something important is still missing. Intuitively, we know our ancestors addressed these concerns with religion but we may impatiently reject this approach, thinking it outmoded and, worse, hypocritical.
In our superior position of material comfort we may disparage of our forefathers praying for rain, health, and other material benefits. If we were to turn to God, we may think, it would be much more altruistically. This generation may indeed be historically unique, affording the opportunity to relate to God with purer motivations. We should not judge our forebears overly harshly, though. They experienced dependence on God much more cogently. People often discover that they believe and beseech God in times of dire trouble.
But our troubles often are more vague. It is unclear just what is missing. Most everything seems in place yet we remain uneasy. The solar system, the galaxy, the universe remain unexplored. Is this the problem? Would eliminating death and disease eliminate the problem? Psychology frees our emotions but we still fear certain issues. Does a profound social conscience disturb us unconsciously? Probably so, but is that the whole story? Psychology has attempted unsuccessfully to sidestep or dismiss these matters. Something essential eludes us. We may consider our remaining problems primarily existential.
We view existentialism as an unsolvable predicament: feeling in the dark with no choice but to assert and create our own meaning. This assertion agitates us because true meaning cannot be our own creation. On the other hand, we commend ourselves for achieving and withstanding this seemingly ultimate level of bleak realism.
Existentialism and science
Existentialism coincided with modern Western and scientific culture. We may wonder why earlier thinkers did not deal with these thorny life problems. Perhaps, we may think, the lack of realism hampering our forebear's scientific progress also obscured perceiving the human predicament.
Let us consider an alternate explanation. Our ancestors were more concerned with religious, spiritual and philosophical issues than our generation. They extolled rigorously exploring these matters, facing human issues with scrupulous honesty and courage and developing proper character qualities and attitudes. If existential issues per se did not arise then, they either did not consider them genuine life issues, or the context in which they viewed the different aspects of what we consider the existential predicament cast a different light on these issues.
The scientific and industrial revolutions have depersonalized how we think of ourselves and how we interpret our experience. The very notion of scientific objectivity removes us from our inner humanity. Standardization by assembly line and by mass media has a similar effect. Our assumptions and concepts undermine our ability to see the light, and we experience existential darkness.
To achieve scientific
objectivity we pretend to be uninvolved, merely observing from the outside. Heisenberg and other quantum mechanics theorists debunked that pretension. Let us notice however the psychological and philosophical impact of attributing reality exclusively to what is verifiably outside and beyond us. Science bids us to consider our selves, our human experience, as the dark. If we assume we are in the dark of the existential predicament, we can not see past that. The anguished existential perspective did not emerge until our assumptions about ourselves and reality artificially created this perspective.
Not all aspects of existentialism are entirely artificial. Some of its emotional and perceptual components are genuine and greatly predate the modern era. People always respond to circumstances humanly. The Book of Psalms is replete with motifs reminiscent, at least to our modern ears, of the loneliness, doubt, and insecurity we associate with existentialism. "What is a human being that you should remember him and a son of man that you attribute importance to him?" (Psalms 8). "Till when, oh God, will You forget me eternally; till when will You hide Your face from me? How long must I seek counsel within myself and find only sorrow in my heart by day?" (Psalms 13, 2-3). And in Lamentations (3,6) "He placed me in darkness like the dead of the earth".
These authentic expressions of emotional desolation are in profound Scripture writings. Psalms usually resolves these issues with faith and hope. The Scroll of Lamentations mourning destruction of the First Temple, however, achieves a different awesome resolution. It renders the material and emotional desolation supremely powerful religious experiences. Far from being in the existential dark, Jews of that epoch, with Jeremiah their prophet, saw Divine Presence in their golut (exile). They experienced - (I refrain from using the word "assumed" here) - God intimately present in all of reality. He was with them in the darkness of exile.
For someone not closed mindedly despairing of his soul's genuine experience, God is often more powerfully present in the dark, painful challenges to faith than in times of beatific calm and trust.
Our culture's main difficulty is inability to deal with spirituality. Defining that realm out of existence, we consider it imaginary, arbitrary, subjective, and lacking consistent form and structure. Indeed, this may often be our experience. Our assumptions, categories, and personal desires interfere with seeing spiritual reality. Rather than accepting that our thinking may be flawed, though, we prefer the ostensible security and superficiality of remaining in the dark.
Part 2: The frontiers of reality
Western materialist bias makes us uneasy considering reality not primarily rooted in physicality. However, circumstances, science and technology forced upon us an encounter with this unknown. With computers we produce virtual reality, creating virtually whatever we wish. Within steadily shrinking practical limits, real problems in engineering now are what innovation to envision, not how to achieve it.
Medicine raises difficult issues like defining states of life and death and the moral rightness of cloning. The issues are not simply adhering to a preconceived moral sense, but discovering moral right and wrong and charting a proper course in the almost totally unexplored spiritual unknown.
Scientists, doctors and psychologists must not decide our future direction. The realm of psychologists, doctors and scientists is bound to materiality, and its immediate experiential correlates. The legal system shapes life by creating a formal reality to which we accommodate ourselves, but it too often is based on politics, not spiritual insight. Lawmakers trained in law, political science and history have too little appreciation of spiritual conditions and values to give meaningful direction to life. They need access to higher domains but they are uncomfortable with the notion of a true right and wrong. Spirituality, hence, has become a new frontier.
Even acknowledging this new frontier, we may think spiritual exploration and attainment require unusual sensitivity and intellectual sharpness. This ostensible barrier may deter those whose interests are primarily practical. This is probably just a convenient excuse for many people. More important for worthwhile Torah exploration, particularly in its mystical dimension, is courage and determination to seek honestly. Our culture, and we as individuals, have exchanged truth, meaningful adventure and ultimate satisfaction for a disappointing fantasy of material security and pleasure.
Perhaps many people can not accept what seems an impossible, insurmountable challenge. However, though spiritual exploration presents unmistakable challenges, with time and patience we progress significantly. Let us examine how to commence exploring this exciting frontier.
Dealing with the indefinite
One important impediment to approaching spiritual matters is unfamiliarity. Spirituality seems nebulous for two main reasons:
1. We are unaccustomed to focusing on form which is relatively independent of material manifestation (except for philosophy, higher mathematics, and perhaps psychology and some other fields of study).
When science began systematically exploring the material realm, popular perception and paucity of accurate concepts made the material world seem nebulous and unreliable, too. With time, scientists discovered reliable patterns and achieved clarity in areas they scarcely imagined before. The same is true for spirituality.
Vast, profound and carefully elucidated data about spirituality already exist in the realm of Torah. As in science, we can appreciate the Torah properly only by truly studying it. Results in technology and medicine testify to the underlying scientific content. Adherents'of personal qualities and wisdom, their concerned community life and good deeds attest to the Torah's underlying content. People who had real contact with serious Torah sages have been awed. Among dedicated Jews, the degree of mutual aid and philanthropy together with erudition is unparalleled. Studying Torah coupled with observing its teachings produces unmistakable results.
2. Our sense that spirituality is formless despite the Torah derives from faulty perceptions and assumptions. Liberal, democratic education's cultural theory of relativity undermines our sense that values can have real validity. Moreover, we coyly avoid comparing different ways of thinking for the sake of equality and mutual acceptance.
As the Talmud abundantly illustrates, the Torah approaches this matter much more openly. The Talmud is replete with differences of opinion. Each receives serious attention, its inner content and implications scrutinized. Regarding differences of opinion among the sages, the Talmud declares: "Each one constitutes the words of the living God." In aggregate, these ideas and opinions encompass an important dimension of the world of spirituality. This world's fluidity, vastness and depth gave rise to the expression: "the sea of Talmud". After careful examination, the sages decide which opinion is correct.
A mystical analysis discerns this issue metaphorically in the Torah. In Genesis (30 and 31) the Torah describes Jacob's tending his father- in-law Lavan's sheep. Lavan was notoriously deceitful, substituting Leah for Rachel, Jacob's intended wife on their wedding night and modifying the conditions of Jacob's salary numerous times. Lavan lacked reliable form. Even the name Lavan means white, lacking specific form and color. Even Lavan's sheep were all white. His agreement with Lavan was that Jacob would keep any spotted, striped or colored sheep born to them. Logically, this seemed impossible; white sheep bred with white sheep would produce exclusively white sheep. Nevertheless, Jacob grew very wealthy because many patterned and colored sheep were born. Metaphorically, Jacob was struggling with the seeming formlessness of spirituality. Dealing with the infinite and unknowable, he achieved a rich and satisfying, graspable integration. In areas of material success and satisfaction, we remain relatively
open and positive but we avoid other areas of experience, blocking
Discovering graspable and reliable form in seemingly chaotic and nebulous spirituality is not entirely unfamiliar. Rules of logic figuratively hover over material existence and explain or predict a wide array of phenomena. Though often borne out by experience, however, the rules refer to nothing in particular. Logic's internal consistency leads to inferences extending the system of logic without ever encountering a material counterpart to our reasoning. Mathematics, particularly higher mathematics, shares these characteristics with logic. They are precise realms of human endeavor not defined by materiality.
Though a self-contained, relatively independent system, logic is phenomenon-bound. It purports to describe behavior but simplifies and abstracts. Even more abstract and fanciful branches of mathematics are phenomenon-bound. Though no person has seen the square root of a minus number or any dimension of infinity, the theoretical phenomena described follow the assumptions and the dictates of intellect.
Becoming aware of infinity
The Torah renders reality differently, although there are some parallels. Unlike logic, its point of departure is outside even spiritual phenomena. Like the material universe, the spiritual realm was created and has characteristic phenomena. Torah, however, is not phenomenon-bound and refuses that narrow view of reality. God is the Torah's point of departure. We can not know God, but we can know that we can not know Him. Thus, the Torah bids us take heed that we saw no image at Mount Sinai when God gave us the Torah.
The Torah helps us come to terms with the infinite and ungraspable (the Ein Sof or Infinite Light, in Cabalistic terminology) which is the truest manifestation of God. It elegantly integrates God's ungraspable manifestation with stable human life.
Torah was given on Mount Sinai with a backdrop of awesome conflagrations and powerful voices and shofar blasts that made the People of Israel flee and swoon. Moreover, "All the people saw the sounds and the fire and the shofar blasts" (Exodus 20, 15). The sages commented: "They saw what is (ordinarily) heard". We know that miracles and wonders were created just as more common created beings are. They are not more "difficult" for God than the more usual direction of the world we call nature. The wonder of creation ex nihilo of our usual, mundane world far exceeds the miraculous and highly unusual miracles that transpired during the awesome signs at Mount Sinai during the giving of the Torah. In fact, creation ex nihilo is entirely beyond our ability to comprehend.
Since Torah includes the miracle of creation, which far exceeds any other miracles, what did these wondrous signs at Mount Sinai accomplish? Some miracles, such as the ten plagues and parting the Red Sea, were necessary goals of that time: to force Pharaoh to release the People of Israel and achieve their final liberation, psychological as well as practical, while punishing the Egyptians. The purpose of miracles accompanying the bestowal of Torah, however, remains unexplained.
The Midrash relates that while God gave the Ten Commandments, the People of Israel heard His "voice" coming from all directions. All of creation, all of reality, including the spiritual realm, participated in giving the Torah. Another Midrash tells of utter silence when God gave the Torah. How can we reconcile these two ideas?
Experientially, the most powerfully significant aspect of spirituality is transcendent, ungraspable and beyond us. The transcendent and ungraspable manifest God in a manner that the mundane and ordinary conceal. The awesome signs and wonders at Mount Sinai presented a full picture of reality in the Godly way. Utter silence throughout the world resoundingly proclaimed God's transcendence in - and through - every corner and aspect of the universe. Torah continues to integrate this most significant element of reality, God's manifestation as ungraspable and awesome, with human life. By manifesting the Divine Presence in life through Torah, we perpetuate the miracles of Mount Sinai.
We may not often realize it, but what is transcendent, ungraspable and beyond our abilities to comprehend constitutes a large portion of our reality. This awareness contradicts our need and expectation to be in control so we often attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to rationalize or otherwise deny it. By attributing difficulties, unforeseen occurrences, errors and failures to natural, expectable phenomena we assuage our frustration and sense of powerlessness. These ego defenses reduce perception of reality to a manageable size, but greatly diminish the depth and richness of life experience and prevent important dimensions of being human from reaching awareness. We dissociate from experiencing what is beyond us.
Wonders in our midst
Our desires, passions, fears and ultimate goals are larger than manifest reality. Like wonders that accompanied giving the Ten Commandments, feelings reveal something of the Infinite and ungraspable to us. Absolute infinity is far beyond our ken, but wonders bring the ungraspable to our minds. We mentally attenuate the power of internal experience to keep secure. In the process, we shrink ourselves.
This does not mean we could or should give free rein to our desires. External constraints prevent that. But scaling our personalities to the diminished size dictated by external circumstances as our cultural assumptions interpret them distorts and impoverishes life. Even if we are unable to satisfy fully our true material desires, blocking inner reality to fit an external picture is unnecessary and detrimental.
Our souls and our potential for living are far greater than the straitjackets that our expectations and worldview permit. We have a secret longing to know, for real meaning, worthwhile deeds and genuine faith and contact. Our culture's simplistic and distorted view thwarts pursuing true goals.
In other areas of success and satisfaction, we remain relatively open and positive but we avoid difference areas by blocking authentic awareness. Excising significant portions of experience from consciousness diminishes spiritual awareness, and in particular awareness of what is beyond.
A good example is humility. Genuinely experiencing powerlessness - when appropriate - enables us to glimpse the awesome and transcendent realms beyond common awareness. Humility, the ability and readiness to acknowledge powerlessness, is a prerequisite for fuller awareness of the One God, the King of the universe. The problem is that most of us flee from feeling small and inadequate even when these feelings are appropriate. Communal flight from feeling God's hand in our lives when conditions are beyond our ability to control it, shrinks reality. We prefer to feel only ourselves and to ignore the universe's
fundamental oneness and the reality of others.
Judging or categorizing others results from this psychological
dissociation from our true inner being. Some hidden level of our being,
though, still appreciates reality's essential oneness. Rather than
judging or categorizing our fellows it views them sympathetically,
mindful of our essential oneness with them. Even if we consider their
actions terribly wrong, even when obliged to oppose and condemn them, we
feel pain and sorrow rather than indignation and self-righteousness. We
realize that their problem is our problem, that their reality is our
reality. We accept that much is beyond our grasp or control and become
humbled by this contact with God.
Part 3: Adam's Real Sin
God created man and placed him in the Garden of Eden. All was perfection then. The prohibition to eat from the Tree of Knowledge was meant to show Adam and Eve that they are not divine. Paradoxically, this limitation on their liberty was meant to reveal the ungraspable Divine Presence to Adam and Eve. By humbly knowing that they are not divine, Adam and Eve could know God. Their sin was to deny this reality, to dissociate from what is beyond, and thereby to become self centered and selfish. By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve strove to bring reality under their control. They strove to deny God and substitute a false oneness, a myth of their own Divinity. Like Nimrod, Nebuchadnezar, Alexander the Great, though more subtly, they tried to make themselves into an idol. All along, however, they remained subconsciously aware of the truth.
We all share underlying awareness of truth, of the universe's essential, transcendent oneness greater than any one of us, expressed in us as love, mutual concern and responsibility. On some preconscious, unarticulated level, we all have awareness of God. Dissociating from this awareness of God is the root of sin.
Three different levels of transcendence
1. An early, important step in relating to God's presence in our life is accepting more fully what is beyond us. Noah in the Torah personified this approach to Divine service. "Noah walked with God" (Genesis 6). He was totally open and utterly accepted reality, the entirety of how God directed the world in his days. He saw God's hand in all that occurred. Even when God commanded him to construct the ark because of the impending flood and mankind's doom, he acquiesced unquestioningly. It was God's will and wisdom. This was Noah's manner of transcendence.
2. The Torah describes Abraham somewhat differently: "God, before whom I walked" (Genesis 24). Rashi explains: "Abraham reinforced his own righteousness". When God informed Abraham that He planned to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham prayed for them. After Noah perceived God in everything throughout the creation, Abraham advanced further, adding to Noah's basic conception. Opening himself still further to God's ungraspable reality, Abraham discerned Divine "attributes" above what Noah revealed by openly accepting experience. Above how the creation reveals God, Abraham discovered that God is just, truthful, omnipotent and compassionate. Praying for the people of Sodom, he implored God to reveal these still more transcendent, more exalted, attributes.
In prayer, we too turn to God and implore Him to reveal these exalted attributes. In the process, these Divine attributes are reflected in our souls, inspiring us with God's transcendent greatness and guiding us to act justly, truthfully, and compassionately. Thereby, we can rise above impatience or even desperation and neediness to be calm, wise, kind, happy and more fully human. This is the realm of the Godly soul. We gain insight into the perspective from which Torah sprung.
Although Abraham discovered a Godly reality higher than that revealed by the creation, this reality still has roots in experience, such as in the pain and wonder about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Both Noah and Abraham lived before God gave us His Torah. They found God through His creation. In giving us His Torah, God introduced something quite different.
3. Though the entire universe participated in God's giving us the Torah, the most important aspect of the Torah transcends creation. It creates a different reality which we could not anticipate starting from the material domain. For example, without keeping the laws of Sabbath, we would have no inkling of the sublime experience of Sabbath. It is a sublime reality not rooted in the mundane world.
Similarly, without the laws of keeping kosher, we would be oblivious of the categories and life view implicit in them. Regarding food as kosher or non-kosher or as ritually dairy or meaty transforms a quite prosaic activity into meaningful Divine service.
On a level beyond our ken since the destruction of the Temple, the laws of ritual purity and impurity sanctify experience in a manner we can scarcely imagine. Nothing in the physical world suggests these categories, yet they engender powerful and meaningful contact with God.
More broadly, no one could anticipate the deep delight and meaning in Torah study. The transcendent reality that Torah creates exceeds Noah's perceiving God through openly accepting His ways and even Abraham's perceiving Divine attributes above the created reality.
Evolution of music
This does not mean that the new reality that Torah creates does not interface with the world. Rather, it fashions something distinctive and new, evoking something special of which we would be unaware without Torah. We can liken this to music. The composer's musical ideas fashion a new reality that interfaces with experience first on an auditory level, then affecting our minds, feelings and bodies. The experience is unique. No other piece of music produces the same effect. Nor will anything else. The music creates a unique and special reality.
Western music of the last three and a half centuries, paralleling our cultural evolution, has reversed the Biblical spiritual progression described above. Baroque music, though not lacking in emotional and sensory repercussions on the audience, is primarily cognitive: It creates a somewhat ideal reality not much echoed in banal mundane life. Classical music is somewhat more fluid and natural, but it too conjures a gladder, more ideal sphere than everyday life. These musical modes created a reality of their own. Romantic music, however, focuses pointedly on evoking and describing emotional experience. Impressionist music seeks to evoke also physical sensation. These last two, like science and philosophy, turned away from a pure spirituality to concentrate on and describe, rather than create, human experience.
This analysis is not intended to detract from the greatness of the Romantic and Impressionistic modes of music, but rather to point to some of the limitations of their approach. They try - often ingeniously - to mimic reality rather than to create something higher and experientially new.
More recent serious music has an abstract, non-melodic air. Most people have grave difficulty relating to it. The arts anticipated the evolution of science to where describing and mastering materiality led to uncertainty and lack of meaningful direction. The new music groping for new form and meaning reflects this. Contemporary music apparently feels it has essentially exhausted the possibilities of close adherence and focus on everyday life but has not succeeded in creating a new reality.
The reality that Torah created
Torah created a new reality that has worked successfully for 3 1/2 millennia, through all of us Jews' turbulent and challenging history. Individual life and society conducted according to God's commandments and the wisdom of His Torah, contains God, as the Ramban wrote at the beginning of Terumah: "I have given you the Torah, and given Myself to you inside it."
Though the universe evokes awareness of God, as Noah and Abraham discovered, each in his own way, Torah creates and evokes a higher, new awareness which could not be discovered taking human experience as a point of departure. We needed to receive the Torah from above.
The commandments create an exquisite harmonious balance. The graceful elegance of living a life of spiritual awareness does not exist without the Torah. It gives awareness larger than life. Awareness of God independent of the universe renders people's dealings more spiritual, more balanced, and more effective: we are less "caught up" with the world. The Torah's injunctions and prohibitions promote positive familial and communal relations and structure beautiful and meaningful individual life. Orientation toward commandments brings alertness that greatly assists to maximize spiritual achievement.
On a deeper, more personal level, life focused on the commandments induces awareness of God's presence in every circumstance. This awareness enthralls and elevates the person. It induces love and fear of the Almighty. These emotions produce high motivation and greatly enhance functioning. Simple awareness of God's transcendent presence, not only generally but in the specifics of every circumstance, perfects those circumstances: each encounter is infinitely meaningful and we accept the God-given challenge to meet it properly. The Zohar describes this notion with the expression bechochma isbereeru, meaning "they are perfected by mystical wisdom". Each circumstance is perfected by mystical wisdom, i.e. by being aware of God's presence in those circumstances.
As an example, the commandment to wear a fringe on the four corners of our garments (Numbers 15) alludes to this idea. The fringes serve as a reminder of all God's commandments; seeing them brings awareness of God and of all His commandments. The Talmud tells us that this commandment represents all of the commandments. This means that each commandment serves to induce awareness of God's presence.
The Torah molds a personally meaningful as well as communally effective reality. Thus, Rabbi Judah the Prince stated (Avos, 3, 1): "Which is the path that a man should choose? That which is both personally and communally elegant."
History has come to a point where the limitations of materialism and its psychological root, dissociation from objective spirituality where God is in control, are becoming clear. The scientific paradigm has led to impressive developments, but its premises are an incomplete, inaccurate view of reality. Worse, its essentially impersonal perspective easily becomes cruel and callous. Materialist and mechanistic thought led to excesses such as Darwinism's contribution to fascist thought and utter disregard for man's spirit in communism. We in more "enlightened" countries find it necessary to interfere with the cold materialist logic to make its application more humanly acceptable. Our efforts have been less than satisfying. Moreover,
scientific and technological achievements now force us to deal with the intangible. We may feel reluctant and inadequate for the task, but failure to deal with this situation could easily deepen the continuing tragedy.
Man's flight from God, ever since Adam and Eve denied and dissociated from their reality not under their control, is becoming untenable. As science and technology approach the limits of what man can control, the cogency and urgency of dealing with this absolutely transcendent aspect of life, which he can not control, is becoming obvious. The tumultuous results of our culture's lack of spiritual insight need serious attention.
The Torah created and restored a new universe; integrating the ungraspable, a major dimension of human experience, with everyday human life. Torah study and contemplation reveal a transcendent realm with a definite and complex form. Acknowledging that situation - to go beyond materialism and existentialism and to acknowledge God - is the key to building a meaningful and harmonious future. The exciting possibilities to heighten life's value and interest through spirituality afforded by man's new abilities to affect the environment arouse great hope in our hearts. Judaism calls this enhancement, to elevate and sanctify God's name, to recognize God's greatness, through man's efforts in God's universe.
We have arrived at a new frontier where spiritual exploration and discovery will be paramount. The Torah, a guidebook and road map through otherwise unfamiliar territory, can make our journey a rewarding adventure. Petulantly, we might refuse to consult it, preferring to rely on our own devices. There is a danger we might get lost and never see the best and most worthwhile sites.
Taking stock, we have a fair idea of where we are, and though we are pressing full steam ahead, we have little idea of where we are going. Torah is the way to make this exciting exploration of the new, spiritual frontier.
from the February 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine