Monday, December 08, 2008

I am not a Mystic

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.


Eruesso said...

"Uproot your questions from their ground and the dangling roots will be seen. More questions!" — Mentat Zensufi admonition

Mano said...

This is a great articulation of something profound and important - although I was, however, surprised at your turn of phrase "from the Zen teacher's mind" - I'd like to think (dam! can't get away from that word)that what is transmitted coms from way beyond the monkey mind, which is addicted to thought as a way of escaping the apparent boredom and emptiness of no thing ness.

I plan to send this post to all the Jewish Studies teachers at my school (I've often mentioned your blog to them) and also to Dr Michael fagenblatt, the head of Darsheini, an infomal education institute based at Monash university in Melbourne.

Tevorachna Yadecha - may your hands be blessed.

By the way what I love is conversations - with or without words

Rabbi Rami said...

Regarding the mind of the Zen Master. I didn't mean the monkey mind. I meant the orangutan mind. Way more spiritual. Or maybe I meant the no-mind, whatever. The fact is whatever I meant I was, am, and will forever be wrong.

roy said...

I am saddened to read that this is happening in Judaism. I love your phrase - "creatively misread Torah in order to midwife new wisdom from ancient texts" which of course, is not misreading the Torah at all... That perspective is one piece that I have envied in Judaism and mourned it's loss in my tradition - Christianity of the Baptist persuasion.

Mysticism and the direct experience of the holy is wonderful... but even more so when it is married to a keen and questioning mind.

Rabbi Rami said...

Roy, I love your idea of marrying mysticism to a "keen and questioning mind," and I think the best mystics did just this.

I also there is a need in every religion for what I call the midrashic imagination that allows the creative readings to flower. My Baptist pastor friend Dr. Mike Smith calls it (in his tradition) the Christian Imagination. It is the way Christians read Hebrew text and find Jesus hidden in it.

If you don't know Mike you can read his thoughts on the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount on the blog that he and I run called Mount and Mountain--

Patti said...

This conversation has left me wondering about my own experience. At first I thought, yes my experience has been one where questioning is frowned upon. But as I thought about the influential people in my history; pastors, mentors, authors, I realized there is no want for questioning. Questioning is welcomed and encouraged. God forbid however, that you come up with an answer that does not fit in their lexicon.

I can only think of one man who would allow us to question freely and not feel a need to fill the void left by the unanswered. He got fired. The story goes that he allowed a senior high class to question the existence of God and did not “tell them the truth.” Out with you! We want answers, damn it! We want our children to have the same answers. They can ask whatever those foolish young minds will ask, but we pay you to tell them what we want them to hear. And you better deliver.

Don’t all people ask basically the same questions? Does God exist? Am I important? Am I loved? Does my life serve any purpose? It is the answer to those questions that brings diversity and the true nature of God. And that is what scares the bejesus out of us.

Rami, I have been thinking a lot about “walking humbly with your God.” Our questions are not where the haughtiness lies. Our insistence that we own the “right” answer is the vessel for our arrogance. Our endless search for apposite answers fatigues the questioner to the point of abandon. We want everything our own way or we give up in a heap of complacency. However, if we let go of the need to have an answer while holding firmly onto the need to keep questioning, maybe we will be onto something.

Jeff said...

Re: creative reading of text.

How do we know that Jacob, our ancestor, whom we have been reading about in the synagogue, was the first of a long line of Jewish commediens?

He went on the road with only his shtick.

rearden215 said...

Our quest for the mystical experience bespeaks our fundamental desire to explain all that surrounds us.

Therese d'Avila met the god of her tempering spirit and I hope that I should meet a god of that importance in my life's way.

I should chant Yofiyah's Dodi Li, as well.....

Anonymous said...

I found myself thinking about "Mystical" things this morning, so of course I came to Rami's blog, so although it's related, I'm going to go a bit off topic.

I was thinking about an analogy I heard Rami use once to talk with children about death. He used a rope with a knot in it, untied the knot to show that the rope was the same, just in a different configuration. I found myself thinking about the knot that is now gone. The analogy that came to mind was that of a diamond. It sparkles and shines, it’s not even that it creates its own light, it just has properties that allow it to reflect light from outside, and we experience that sparkling as beauty. If you crush that diamond the elements still exist, they are even still in crystalline form, but they no longer shine, they just appear as powder. Now I know that Rami’s original analogy wasn’t intended to negate the loss involved in death, but I found it leaving me missing something important, I’m just not sure what.

Not surprisingly these thoughts were triggered by a loss. Not big loss, really in the grand scheme of things, quite a small one. My daughter had a baby ferret, just a few months old. He somehow managed to get up onto the bathroom counter and into some medication and died. I certainly feel the loss of this sparkly little life, even though I didn’t have the chance to spend much time with him. But I also grieve over the pain and loss that my daughter and wife are feeling, more so since I am away from them at the moment, so I’m not there to comfort them.

No real point to this post, or even a question. It may not be Blogito Ergo Sum, more Blogito Ergo I feel better.

Judy said...

Do not despair, my friend. Should the pendulum swing a little too far toward pseudo-mysticism, it will achieve balance on its way back. I am meeting more and more Jews who are trying to bring the quest of the mystic into the doubt of their study. I believe this in in large part thanks to you and your teaching. There are a few others and I have confidence that the numbers will gorw.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

There are so many wonderful ideas here! I just want to make two brief comments.

First, Rearden mention Yofiyah. If you have not listened to her kabbalistic kirtan chanting, please do. She is blazing a new trail in Jewish spirituality that transcends religion and invites all listeners to take refuge in the heart of God.

Second, Patti's mention of "walking humbly." The religious world needs two things: humility and hospitality. We should see pastors, priests, imams, rabbis, and swamis speaking from each other's pulpits regularly. People need to hear what others believe, and how others understand the religions of their neighbors. I am often pained by the way Gentiles understand Judaism (of course the way most Jews understand it pains me as well), but I learn from them nevertheless (if only how better to share Judaism with them).

As the economy declines and suffering increases, there is always the possibility of religious and ethnic and racial scapegoating. We have to be on guard to resist this in ourselves and our communities. Inviting one another to our houses of worship would go a long way in defending us against our evil inclinations.