I’m not a mystic. A mystic is someone who seeks a direct unitive encounter with God, one who wants to get beyond discursive thought and experience the death of the self in the great sea of the soul. I admit to having had such experiences, or at least to suspecting I have had them since there is no “I” when the “having” occurs. But as amazing as such experiences can be I don’t place them at the heart of my life.
What I really value are great thoughts, questions, and ideas. I love ideas. I love thinking about ideas, arguing about ideas, comparing, contrasting, and creating ideas.
When I was a senior at Smith College my Zen master Sasaki Roshi visited our zendo for a sesshin, a meditation intensive. He had just come from a week at Spenser Abbey where Fr. Thomas Keating was the abbot. He mentioned that he loved the library at the abbey, and that what he loved the most about it is that it was empty. Lots of books, no monks.
I understood what he was saying: Zen is not about books but about direct transmission of wisdom from the mind of the master to the student. And I appreciate the truth of his insight. But I love libraries. I love walking among the stacks and discovering books I never heard of before. I love pulling them off the shelves and curling up in a chair to discover what surprises the book holds for me. And one book leads to another, and another and another and another.
Judaism is going through a spiritual renaissance, but I worry that our quest for the mystical is at the cost of the intellectual. Jews want to chant and meditate, rather than learn how to creatively misread Torah in order to midwife new wisdom from ancient texts. And when they do study Torah they are apt to defend the text, and to accept simplistic answers rather than ask deep philosophical questions.
Even many rabbis have abandoned the deep learning at the heart of Jewish civilization. It is one thing to dumb Judaism down for their congregants (I am opposed to this as well), and quite another to assume that they themselves don’t have to learn more than the superficial Judaism they will inevitably be called to teach.
We need to focus our education not on holidays and liberal ethics and social action, but on the Jewish art of questioning and argument. We need to teach Torah at an adult level, challenging students to grow into the text rather than out of it. We need to reclaim the Jewish love of Jewish learning. We need to teach our students how to deconstruct the Torah with traditional tools for creative misreading, finding insights in the text that the authors themselves never imagined. Alongside the Jewish challenge, “justice, justice, you shall pursue” we need to add the equally Jewish imperative, “learning, learning, you shall pursue.”
Most religions are about answers. Judaism is about questions. We don’t seem to ask good questions any more, and I find that very troubling.