Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Light of Four Philosphers

I'm in my early 40's. Rather recently I've asked myself if the Creator had given me an opportunity to briefly revisit my youth what scenarios would I like to have a second chance to re-experience? Truthfully, my college years were mostly splendid and full of stimulating experiences. It was a time when I really discovered life. However, a couple of experiences really stand out among the rest. The reason is not necessarily because they were my favorites, though they were very high on that list. Certain favorite experiences are off this list because I still regularly experience them. They lack the nostalgia factor. Other youthful experiences aren't on this list because while I enjoyed them at the time, I regret having done them. They weren't right for me. 

Two experiences seem to dominate this list, a Shabbat with Congregation Shearith Israel and to sit once again in Rabbi Strickman's Medieval Jewish Philosophy classes. What seem to tie both experiences together is that they are the spiritual, intellectual and emotional fruits of the Medieval Sephardi world. I used to sit on the maroon cushioned bench in Shearith Israel, close my eyes and sway to the voices of the choir, imagining myself transported back in time to a synagogue in Medieval Spain. I recall Rabbi Angel's sermons and classes as offering me seasoned insight into the psycho-social currents of the contemporary world within the framework of a sensitive and nurturing Torah outlook. I often wake up in the morning, especially on Shabbat and festivals, to the recurring dream of finding myself in the main sanctuary of Shearith Israel.

In the course of my four years in Touro College, Rabbi Strickman led me through an intellectual journey exposing main highlights of four central works of Medieval Jewish Philosophy. They were the Maimonides' "Guide for Perplexed", Rabbi Judah HaLevi's "Kuzari", Rabbi Saadia Gaon's "Beliefs and Opinions" and Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda's "Duties of the Heart". Interestingly, each of these works were originally written in Arabic, the vernacular of the Sephardi world in Medieval times.

The other day I found myself in the midst of an inner debate over why I would want restudy these works. At first I thought that it was for their philosophical content. Then I realized that I'm not exactly jumping to study other works of philosophy, like Plato or Aristotle. So while I may have a definite philosophical side, it's not strong enough to draw me into voluntarily studying ponderous works of world philosophy. Then I thought to myself, "Maybe my real interested is in history and I'm simply making a mistake. What I think is a philosophical interest is really a historical interest. Maybe, I'm interested in the thought processes of these great Jewish Sages for their historical value. After all, I've been pretty diligently studying world history since childhood." 

"Yeah, but that was in bite size encyclopedia entries", I answered myself. "I haven't recently  gravitated to any serious works of history. I am satisfied with just knowing my general way around humanity's historical landscape. Then my interest in restudying these four sages must have different motivation."

"If it's neither a philosophical quest nor a historical quest then what is such a yearning called? What is it called when I admire someone so much for making a such special contribution that I want to feel the stream of his thoughts flowing in my mind and I want to feel his loves, fears and compassion pulsate in my heart? What do psychologists call this? What's the real nature of such a yearning? When I really think about it, I feel this way about studying Jewish Mysticism as well. It's just that since I study this topic regularly, I don't feel the thirst. It's like having a glass of water nearby. So real thirst never has a chance to develop."

"Maybe, if I am having difficulty defining these feelings psychologically, it's time to examine them in religious/spiritual terms. Maybe, this kind of definition is more readily available to me."

"Maybe, I'm drawn to certain areas of Torah because that is what I need to learn in this incarnation. This is the spiritual food I descended into the earthly realm to eat. My soul was hungry for just such a meal and still is. This explains my deep attraction to Torah subjects which are today loosely classified as Mach-shah-vah or "Thought". This kind of thinking draws both from Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism to build a picture of the real nature of the world we live in. I recently chuckled with someone about how some explore the universe by peering into a telescope, while I explore the wider universe by peering into Jewish Mystical works. Really, it's the same quest, but, from a different direction."

"So it stands to reason that every Torah sage who channeled teachings along the lines of this topic is dear to me. They're offering me my soul food. Each is a living repository of teachings perched within the context of Torah's vast landscape. I view each sage's teachings not merely as a book knowledge, but, rather as a living spirit, capable of nurturing my own growth in Torah and helping me nurture the growth of others as well. This transmission is a living consciousness. When computers transmit knowledge to each other, this knowledge is about as alive as a stone is. However, when souls transmit Torah, this knowledge might be on a level that's even more alive than people are. When that knowledge becomes part of us, we become more alive ourselves. This is why I want to once again partake in the soul food offered by these four sages."

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