Archives for the month of: January, 2013

“The point which I would like to make first of all is this: Mysticism is a definite stage in the historical development of religion and makes its appearance under certain well-defined conditions. It is connected with, and inseparable from, a certain stage of the religious consciousness. It is also incompatible with certain other stages which leave no room for mysticism in the sense in which the term is commonly understood.

The first stage represents the world as being full of gods whom man encounters at every step and whose presence can be experienced without recourse to ecstatic meditation. In other words, there is no room for mysticism as long as the abyss between Man and God has not become a fact of the inner consciousness. That, however, is the case only while the childhood of mankind, its mythical epoch, lasts. …

The second period which knows no real mysticism is the creative epoch in which the emergence, the break-through of religion occurs.Religion’s supreme function is to destroy the dream-harmony of
Man, Universe and God, to isolate man from the other elements of the dream stage of his mythical and primitive consciousness. For in its classical form, religion signifies the creation of a vast abyss, conceived as absolute, between God, the infinite and transcendental Being, and Man, the finite creature. For this reason alone, the rise of institutional religion, which is also the classical stage in the history of religion, is more widely removed than any other period from mysticism and all it implies. Man becomes aware of a fundamental duality, of a vast gulf which can be crossed by’nothing but the voice; the voice of God, directing and law-giving in His revelation, and the voice of man in prayer. The great monotheistic religions live and unfold in the ever-present consciousness of this bipolarity, of the existence of an abyss which can never be bridged. To them the scene of religion is no longer Nature, but the moral and religious action of man and the community of men, whose interplay brings about history as, in a sense, the stage on which the drama of man’s relation to God unfolds.

And only now that religion has received, in history, its classical expression in a certain communal way of living and believing, only now do we witness the phenomenon called mysticism; its rise coin­cides with what may be called the romantic period of religion. Mysticism does not deny or overlook the abyss; on the contrary, it begins by realizing its existence, but from there it proceeds to a quest for the secret that will close it in, the hidden path that will span it. It strives to piece together the fragments broken by the religious cataclysm, to bring back the old unity which religion has destroyed, but on a new plane, where the world of mythology and that of revelation meet in the soul of man. Thus the soul becomes its scene and the sours path through the abysmal multiplicity of things to the experience of the Divine Reality, now conceived as the primordial unity of all things, becomes its main preoccupation. To a certain extent, therefore, mysticism signifies a revival of mythical thought, although the difference must not be overlooked between the unity which is there before there is duality, and the unity that has to be won back in a new upsurge of the religious consciousness.”

From Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem (1941).

Having grown up in Israel in the 1980s and 1990s, I have a complex relationship with judaism as a religion and as a culture. As a young child I enjoyed studying the stories of the bible at school and would even read through the bible on my own occasionally. In later years, around middle-school or high-school, we took a more critical and analytic view of the bible, looking at it as an important text but not taking it for granted. This approach fit very well with my rational mind and I found the different layers it revealed to be interesting. Looking at the bible as a constructed artifact as opposed to a God-given text served to solidify my secular stance in regards to judaism and religion in general.

Later in life, some sociopolitical shifts in Israel pushed me even farther away from religion. I watched the ultra-orthodox parties grow in power and then use that power in order to gain unfair advantages to benefit small segments of the population and to promote a way of living that I did not agree with. This became the beginning of a new split in Israeli society and in this split I chose to be squarely and without a doubt on the secular or modern side.

In later years I’ve come to find a way to relate to spiritual matters that was not as dogmatic and seemed to allow more room for me to be the way that I am. It may have taken moving to California and discovering Buddhist practice but through this practice I was able to come to terms with a part of myself that had very little opportunity for expression until this point. A large part of my practice over the last year has been to integrate the rational and spiritual aspects of myself. Decades of conflict between these two forces just about convinced me that this kind of integration is not possible but I’m finding that to be false.

Today, I am more interested in looking back at my own roots as represented by jewish religion and israeli culture. Through my spiritual and psychological practice and probably as a result of growing older, I find that I’m more easily able to come into relationship with those aspects of myself that I’ve left behind. I could see that in my recent visit to Israel and I see that in a new-found interest in the jewish view of the mystical experience.

I first learned about Kabbalah through the story of the four sages who entered the Pardes: one died, one went insane, one became an apostate and only one – Rabbi Akiva – exited in peace. This story serves as a warning that it not enough to be wise and studious before studying the Kabbalah, one must also be psychologically grounded, pure and able to withstand the subtlest temptations. At the time, I doubted the message of the story but, still, did not explore further. Today, I know that there is at least some truth to this story as I’ve experienced some of the difficulties of the spiritual path. Having done so, and finding my self ready to come back into relationship with my jewish roots, I think this is a good time to venture in.