Mystical, intellectual and emotional harmony in Jewish thought


   
    June 1999         
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Intellectual, Emotional and Mystical Harmony

By Yechezkel Gold

The central issue of religion in our generation, and probably in all generations, is really not whether the world was, indeed, created. After all, Darwinism and geological theory are based only on inductive logic, and, generally, scientific theory is still evolving. We would all be true believers in the orthodox* understanding of the Bible if not for a more compelling problem: if there is a God, we expect Him to be good, and this is difficult to verify by experience

(Footnote: Alternatively, one would ascribe to authoritative, but less accepted Rabbinical and/or Kabbalistic opinions which are more consistent with current scientific theory.)

The idea of God is not only that all of the universe follows a unified, consistent set of rules, forming a single domain. Even nonbelievers ascribe to that idea. Rather, we mean that the conduct of the universe should be harmonious, and, more profoundly, that we should perceive the purpose in all that occurs.

Instead, the second verse of the Torah is an apt description of affairs: "And the land was chaos and desolation, and darkness over the surface of the depths, and the spirit of God hovering over the surface of the waters." It probably has seemed so through the ages. Torah, from its opening phrases, communicates fundamental truth, the context in which we live. Though the Torah addresses this central issue, immediately repudiating a simplistic approach to life and religion, we still feel distant from the perspective of religion if the experience of meaning and harmony is lacking. Anguish has ever been the lot of man, with pain, frustration, and doubt, the spiritual components of relentless entropy. The Talmud states that no man leaves this world with even half of his desires fulfilled. "Man is better off not being created", the House of Shammai said. The House of Hillel contended that man is better off being created, than not. Ultimately, though, the House of Hillel conceded the point.

Instinctively, we protest: Not true! Life is meant to be wonderful! We consider satisfaction our right, and looking around us, we think we see it in others, or just beyond our reach. In fact, this is an expression of man's religious nature, but life's experience often brings disillusionment.

As our title suggests, this essay is not intended as a lament. We must recognize our reality so we may come to terms with it and achieve peace and satisfaction. Ignoring our situation condemns us to remaining as we are.

True, some people find refuge in complacence. Nobody is entirely spared life's frustrations, though. At the very least, we are almost perpetually aware, subliminally, of the ideal of the good and meaningful life we seek, but which eludes us. Sometimes, we are denied even the small comfort of resignation, and must respond to this "divine" prodding by taking up the quest. Serious religion, and especially Kabbalism, are (guided) explorations of reality in quest of connection to God, and the accompanying harmonious meaning.

Mystical contemplation soon brings the discovery that chaos and desolation are not limited to impingement on us by the world outside of us. Within us, the stark, unbearable emptiness and utter disarray are more profound, generally, than extrinsic disharmony. One must go beyond conception to consciousness, refraining from thoughts that divert one from clear, accurate perception. Not meditating on anything, one merely dwells, at length, on what is there, inside. Exploring one's inner world perceptively, determined to learn the truth, one discovers this reality.

This process can be unbearable. The intensity of the void, the anguish of the emptiness, unleashes profound, fiery, wild emotions. Unable to resist this intensity, we are driven to find refuge, solace, and means of containing and expressing this overwhelming spiritual energy. It must not remain in the chaotic, desolate state in which we discover it. Our isolation provokes poignant desperation. Unable to cope with this extent of being alone, we instinctively reach out beyond, for Something to give meaning, goodness, purpose and order.

Merely knowing, in this manner, intuitively, that God must be there is existentially unsatisfying. We require verification. Therefore, if we are courageous, and the pain is intense, we take up the quest to find God, to come to terms with the infinite and ungraspable.

This is the deeper significance of the end of this verse: "and the spirit of God hovers over the waters," present despite, indeed, because of the chaos, but beyond reach. Creation is not mere chaos and desolation; it is chaos and desolation impelling us to search for God, for meaning. God is present, implicitly, in the universe.

Faith is the conscious assertion of the soul's inner reality. It exists implicitly in the chaotic desolation of our core state; essentially, they are one. The sages implied this idea when they said that in the beginning, the potential for everything was created, and the continuation of creation merely expressed that potential. Chaotic desolation, created at the beginning, was the potential for faith and confidence in God, and, as we shall see, with God's help, their positive expression, which is the entirety of life.

Confidence, or, at least, faith, in God is the basis necessary for the soul's existence, experientially as well as logically-existentially; the soul's existence and energy derive directly from this connection with God.

Despite its root, deep in the soul, this connection to God may not permeate one's being with trust in God, and the concomitant confidence. Instead, faith may function only as a theoretical basis for proceeding with life with greater confidence and energy.

Moreover, faith may be very general. Life is too complex for this general fact to suffice. The specifics of the task of refining the soul, to achieve mystical, intellectual, and emotional harmony with God and His creation, remain. In fact, confidence may only strengthen impulses and drives whose direct expression lead to conflict, whereas doubt preserves, at least, superficial harmony with one's surroundings. One is forced to refine one's approach, to attain wholehearted, intellectual, emotional, and mystical integration.

A problem confronts the soul. It is religious, knowing its existence to depend on God, but it does not experience, nor express Godliness. This remains implicit.

One discovers the reason for this through contemplation: the soul is composed of a duality. Psalm 148 alludes to it: "Hallelujah! Praise God from the heavens; praise Him from the heights.... Let them praise God, for He commanded, and they came into being." This higher, more spiritual aspect of soul spontaneously experiences God and its dependence on Him.

A second, more mundane level of soul, feels that God is far above it, inaccessible: "Praise* God from the land.... They shall praise the name of God, for His name is exalted and alone. His glory is above earth and heaven." The Godly level is too lofty to be expressed directly, here. Rather, this second, less Godly level of soul must deliberately mediate between dimly perceived, and therefore, chaotic, spontaneous impulses of the Godly, and their expression. This second level experiences a certain independence of its Creator.

(Footnote: The praise comes with refinement of the soul.)

For most people, the aspect of soul which feels independent of God and spirituality dominates. It has free will. Worldly considerations influence it much more than spiritual ones. This is disturbing. It is a state of golus, (of exile). Clinging to God, the source of all good, through faith, we endure golus. However, if we can not express this good practically, we remain spiritually uncomfortable. The exile of the Shekhina (the Divine Presence) is felt most intensely when all sense of good and spirituality have withdrawn from the world, receding to a remote, inner point of faith.

This point must be the base for extending outward, to bring the creation into the rof the Godly. To permeate one's being, each aspect of soul must become a vehicle for the Shekhina in its own, unique manner, thereby bringing the Shekhina out of exile, and extending the Divine Presence into the mundane creation.

Let us turn our attention to these two levels of soul. The first, a profound, spiritual level, emerges through studying Torah, together with contemplation. This leads to perception of the light of Torah, Torah as the emanation of the Divine Source. By forming a cogent awareness of spirituality, one experiences a higher connection with God, rather than just faith or theoretical knowledge.

Faith, after all, is an assertion. One of the fundamental functions of the soul, faith takes the existence of God for granted. It does not deal with, nor require, verification of its premises. As such, it is extremely powerful, almost absolute. However, it specifically operates in the context of God's being concealed. Where God is revealed, one does not require faith.

Torah, in contrast, reveals God, just as light reveals its source. Vision tangibly connects us to an object, rendering it real to us and revealing something of its character. Analogously, spiritual perception makes God real to the mystic, revealing something of the Divine Light.

Different sections of Torah reveal different aspects of the Divine Light. The Bava tractates, for example, which deal with civil law, elucidate the parameters of justice. Justice reflects Godliness. Logically, our sense of justice is premised, consciously or not, on the existence of God, the only defensible basis for moral right and wrong.

More importantly, our sense of justice has a divine character, beyond personal considerations and stemming from absolute truth. We experience profound, objective, moral justice as inspiring. "Inspiring" means that it evokes the Divine: when we are inspired, we glimpse, momentarily, the absolute, eternal truth, repository of all true value.

Thus, insight into profound justice through study of the Bava tractates is an example of Torah revealing Divine Light.

Torah indicates and clarifies the spirituality of every aspect of the creation. Every event, all objects, and each atom has its significance for the universe. Some dimension of spirituality applies to each element of the creation. Torah is the spirituality of the universe, illuminating the entire creation with spiritual light.

Through Torah study, Divine Light radiates into man's perceptions. Man's entire experience is spiritual, colored by attitudes, values, emotions, and ideas. Even objectivity is a spiritual stance. Stones have no attitudes or goals. They are not objective. They simply exist, devoid of personal spirituality. For man, this spiritual dimension is the principal ingredient of the creation. Primarily, material is merely a vehicle for it.

Through man, spirituality flows into the creation, largely molding the course of history. Every invention, each political movement, mobilizing people and their property, originated in an idea, in a perspective which regarded the creation not only in terms of what it is, but mainly, in terms above physicality, in terms of what it means, what it is for, or what it could be.

Man's spirituality determines his relation to reality. It contains, potentially, true and false perspectives. True perspectives do not reveal only what is factual. Proper grasp of values leads man to essential truths; what is really meaningful is the essential truth of creation. False perspectives have bad consequences, not least of which is to disguise Divinity. Torah study distinguishes between true and false, providing concepts which reveal the Divine in creation.

On a more profound level, the essence and goal of Torah is insight. Experientially, insight, especially mystical insight, removes the barriers of materiality and grants access to matters at their spiritual source. Through insight, we no longer require faith, nor its kin, ideas imposed from without, supported only by logic. Mere logic, like rote learning, does not guarantee truth. If we accept the logic, it is still, on some level, an act of faith.

Through insight, though, the reality behind the idea is clear and obvious. We perceive it spontaneously and effortlessly, imposing nothing on it. Insight brings one out of dogma, and into the reality of spirituality.

Torah study shapes one's conceptions and clarifies one's perceptions, so that they can accommodate insight, the Divine Light. This requires careful analysis, to form true conceptions which can properly direct and orient the flow of spiritual energy. Without having developed one's ideas properly, one's intellectual slant is apt to be erroneous, and one will miss essential truths.

However, another ingredient also is necessary to come to genuine spiritual perception: contemplation. Contemplation transforms conception into insight, and idealism into mysticism.

To understand how contemplation accomplishes this, we must first distinguish contemplation from normal intellect. Normal intellect relies on premises and logic. Premises ordinarily originate in perceptions, but normal intellect deals with them as intellectual constructs, removing them from experience. Therefore, the ensuing logical development is removed, largely, from perception, hence, from reality. Normal intellect tends toward deduction, which, hopefully, will be born out; but it is blind. False premises or perspectives lead the logical process astray. Since premises and logical steps leading to deduction are taken as axiomatic, it is difficult to detect the falsehood of the deductions.

Spiritual premises are extremely abstract. Therefore, it is especially difficult to verify logically the truth of spiritual conclusions, even for simple matters.

Contemplation, on the other hand, makes no assumptions, and relies (almost) entirely on perception. Whereas analysis requires an objectivity which rules out all considerations external to the matter at hand, contemplation is an objectivity which rules out nothing except what is not perceived naturally.

To contrast the two processes, let us compare their perspectives on a specific issue, one quite central, at any rate, to the matter at hand:

From the vantage of intellectual analysis, the basis for morality is problematical. Unlike scientific analysis, based primarily on observable phenomena, moral thinking is premised on assumptions one would be hard pressed to demonstrate. The result is that many people, including some well-known thinkers, question all of morality. Nietze, Ayn Rand and Engels, and their many followers of various degrees of extremism, consider morality a product of imagination, abjured by realists. This opinion is a modern phenomenon of considerable dimensions. A large percentage of westerners espouse amorality.* For them, the only deterrent for crime is its penalty. Felony still might be worthwhile if the reward is greater than the punishment. At the extreme, they may consider indifference to the suffering of others a sign of true inner self-liberation, which they may demonstrate with callous acts of cruelty.

(Footnote: By the way, an approach like Rousseau's, viewing morality as a social contract which serves the selfish interest of a group of individuals desiring to live together, is really amoral; logically, when morality no longer serves selfish interest, it would appear proper, even advisable, to cast it off.)

Certainly, intellectual analysis does not necessarily lead to evil. If one accepts the premises of morality, and thinks through the issues properly, the conclusions and concomitant actions will be moral. Evil derives more easily from an analytic approach, however, and morality is easier to reject, because the premises are accepted axiomatically, without firm basis. In this manner, it is similar to dogma.

In contrast, contemplation approaches the matter of morality without making assumptions. The result is that there can be no basis for rejecting morality as groundless.

Rather, morality grows from spiritual perception. The uncritical objectivity of meditation generates morality spontaneously. (, it emerges only gradually and slowly.) By removing the mold that extrinsic reality imposes on mind and emotion, contemplation allows one to perceive matters as they really are.

On one level, this means attaining clarity which reveals spirituality as reality. For example, contemplation develops awareness of reality beyond physicality. Primarily, this entails a change in perspective:

Our assumption that existence depends on materiality is really a state of mind. Mostly, we suppress even awareness that this is an assumption. Thereby, we do not endanger ourselves from the threat of freedom. Fear for our bodies makes us cling desperately to physicality. We feel far safer avoiding the awareness of independence from material. Through contemplation, though, we perceive this truth. Then, we can and must choose how to deal with the physical.

True, without a body, we are unable to function in the world. However, this need not overwhelm our perspective of really being free. In this manner, we can live much closer to our ideals, not according to terms dictated by overbearing, dictatorial materialism.

The perspective that material is not the absolute standard of reality yields the knowledge that it is created. Moreover, since material does not exist absolutely, creation must be perpetual. Reality is always new.

Removing the hold of materialism releases the true spiritual structure of the soul. Then, one's true values emerge spontaneously. We discussed earlier how human experience naturally has a spiritual dimension. Attitudes are central to our perceptions. Each individual has a unique set of spiritual tendencies. Fear and conformity may suppress these natural values. The emergence, through contemplation, of these natural, God-given attitudes is the basis for morality.

A mystic regards the basis of morality quite differently from a rationalist. Relying on pure faith, the rationalist might assert that God would not create us with intellect and free choice without communicating what He wants us to do. We require values.

The mystic takes an experiential approach. How do we know that murder is morally wrong, for example? For the mystic, this is a God-given reality, emerging from objective contemplation, requiring no other justification. This is not blind faith. Rather, it is in the spiritual experience, issuing from the objectivity of contemplation. Human beings simply have intrinsic value and sanctity.

By contrast, the Nazis could find no real justification for prohibiting murder, at least for a liberated superman. Trapped in false rationalism, they thought they were liberating themselves from morality.

In true spiritual perception, the acts and attitudes of the Nazi are repulsive and painful; they are simply, intrinsically, evil. No logical justification is required to revile murder; it is an evil act, a desecration. A modicum of spiritual sensitivity reveals this to be so. To place rationalism above this spiritual regard for life is a callousness, tantamount to spiritual death. If one is not pained by the actions and attitudes of the Nazis, one is truly removed from the soul's natural connection to God.

Murder's being intrinsically evil, requiring no proof, is an example to which many people can relate easily. All of the Torah's commandments are said to follow this pattern, though we may lack sufficient spiritual sensitivity always to perceive it.

For example, many spurn the laws of kashrus. They rationalize them as having provided some mere health benefit. Today, modern sanitary techniques yield superior results.

In truth, though, kashrus is a set of moral laws. Eating effects the soul:

Usually, people are unaware of how eating affects them. We attribute so much importance to food that we are desperate for it, subconsciously, even when well nourished. As if our lives immediately depended on it, we may attack our food. Lowering our dignity, we become servile toward food and money, its economic source

This craven attitude may affect our whole being. Like animals, we are driven by external circumstance, passion and fear. Our actions are motivated by a narrow, selfish, survival perspective, because we feel we must utterly submit to material reality.

Nevertheless, our potential for spiritual refinement, Godly interests and ethical pursuits, does remain. Their emergence requires our having distance from circumstances, yielding a spiritual/aesthetic perspective. These exalted matters are, intrinsically, the proper occupation of man. The sensitive soul knows that it exists for higher matters. We have no right to thwart our spirituality. Indeed, we must eat, but in a manner which reflects that eating is primarily a means to an end. By wantonly absorbing oneself in food, one sacrifices something too precious and holy.

One can gain insight into this question through an analogous one. Does a great genius have a moral obligation to use his talents constructively, or may he waste God's gifts? A modicum of spiritual perception reveals that a person sins if he does not employ his talents for something worthwhile, especially, if he deliberately suppresses and ruins them. Similarly, one is obligated to cultivate one's great potential for morality and spirituality. One has no right to eat just anything, and in any manner one pleases, since this suppresses spiritual sensitivity.

An incident in the Book of Judges illustrates this idea. Gideon decided to deploy only three hundred soldiers to attack the huge, marauding Mideonite camp. Since thousands gathered to assist him in his cause, he had to choose among them. After a long march, they descended to a river, and Gideon observed how the thirsty soldiers drank. Most threw themselves into the water, and began to gulp directly. Only three hundred lowered their hands, instead, into the water and raised it to their mouths. They did not lower themselves to the level of water, desperate for its sustenance. Instead, they elevated it to their own level, refusing to abandon their spirituality and moral distance from material existence merely because they are thirsty. Gideon selected these men, as they demonstrated the spiritual steadfastness he sought for this conflict with the Mideonite forces, symbolic of animal abandon.

This perspective does not oppose genuine emotion and involvement. Rather, it seeks to preserve the finer aspects of the soul by refusing to capitulate to the anxious demands of materialism.

Nor does concern only about the health value of food suffice. This remains a materialist approach, and does not escape the animal effect on the soul. There must be a moral, religious dimension to eating, so that one uses food for its proper ends, and does not fall prey to crass materialism. This is one of the spiritual bases for kashrus which emerges from contemplation.

For the mystic, morality is essentially the sensibility of the soul. It permeates all of human existence. Insight and perception through Torah study and contemplation develop this sensibility. Progressively, this sensibility approaches perfect congruence with the commandments. Disciplined adherence to Halacha keeps one on course.

The uncritical objectivity we are describing in contemplation is an objectivity of the heart, not only of the brain. To the extent it is perfected, one has achieved true harmony with the creation; one's perceptions and actions are perfectly appropriate in every situation. This does not mean that one is always placid or happy. Rather, one responds selflessly and spontaneously to good with pleasure, and to evil with loathing.

This level is exceedingly difficult to achieve. Perhaps, one can perceive the reality of spirituality and morality, with the concomitant emotions lodging very deep, almost inaccessible, in the heart. One's spontaneous emotional involvement with life, however, generally does not express this inner reality.

On a slightly higher level, one is disturbed that inner spiritual perception is not reflected in emotion and action. In that case, the inner spirituality at least influences the outer level of personality and emotion. However the influence is ind, not a direct expression of the inner spirituality. It is the state of duality to which we alluded.

The aspect of the soul which does not perceive or react to spirituality naturally, does respond to contemplation. During meditation, it feels forlorn and empty, instead of being totally engrossed in materiality. This emptiness is the state of inner chaos with which we began our essay, whereas the natural harmony of spiritual perception, in the higher level of soul, directly reflects the spirit of God hovering over the waters.

The forlorn feeling, as we said, is a response to contemplation. Presented with spirituality, the natural (second level of) soul feels its great distance from God, from spirituality, and from the ideal of the first level. Feeling this weakens the hold of materiality on the soul; physicality is no longer satisfying enough to rivet the soul's attention.

However, the soul still can not attain the spontaneous, harmonious expression of Godliness it craves. The result is desolation, a passive, immobile state.

The first step to elevate desolation to harmony is to yearn for connection with God. This fiery longing is true emotion. It does not merely lodge in the inner recesses of the heart. Rather, it mobilizes the body to do something about the unreachable distance. This energy needs to be harnessed and directed, but the personality, meanwhile, is unable to do



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