Sunday, December 27, 2015

Reflections on Jewish Monism

I think about the mystics of the world religions, such as Rumi, who were true monists. In passionate bursts of ecstasy they sought to annihilate themselves in a Divine loving embrace. They were ready to be gone! They seemed ready to abandon what they viewed as the confines of earthly existence, what they viewed as walls or barriers between themselves as the Supreme Being. This sentiment can be heard in Rumi’s poetic quest, “Why do I seek the door, when the whole wall between us is but an illusion?”  

The attuned reader gets the sense that he’d rather just meditate away the wall than bother with a door which leaves intact what he viewed untruth or illusion. This is Sufism, mystical Islam, not mystical Judaism. So there’s probably no tradition (at least that I am aware of) of “vessels” or stated differently, the protracted process of developing stable channels of revelation. Rumi is ready to literally disappear with a burst of ecstasy in the Seamless Oneness - without as much as a  thought about returning to earthly life. He’s literally ready to abandon it all.

His is not the Jewish path. Why? Isn’t what Rumi suggested simply the logical outcome of monism, that specialized version of monotheism which believes that only the Creator truly exists and were it not for the limits on our senses and sensations we’d all be dissolved in the continuity of Seamless Oneness? Following along this line of logic, the fact that we are not dissolved and feel ourselves as separate entities is not really a fact at all. Rather, it’s an illusion.

So when Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi introduced the notion of monism to Jewish society, centuries later, why didn’t he also suggest along with it the path that Rumi already plod? It would only seem so logical. If Seamless Oneness is the truth then separation is a lie. So meditate away the lie. Play some music, trance out and reach where human identity merges with it’s source in the Creator’s Identity. Yet, for all Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s insight and erudition, he never seemed to have made such a suggestion.  

One cannot say that such an idea never occurred to him. Firstly, it was too easy not to. Secondly, I remember the discussion of such a possibility when I was 18 years old, almost 30 years ago, in a Rabbinic school which followed Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s path. It was explained that generally speaking Jews and non-Jews naturally have differences in their respective spiritual paths. These differences are sanctioned and even celebrated by the Creator. Jews are largely called upon to bring sanctity to what’s earthly. When this mission reaches a certain state of success, the earthly realm becomes sufficiently sanctified for the revelation of the Messiah - at which point earth starts taking on the characteristics of paradise. In contrast, non-Jews are largely called upon to transcend the earthly. They’re generally called upon to reach beyond. This is why monasticism and withdrawal from the physical often plays a strong role in their spiritual efforts. Of course, these distinctions are just sweeping generalizations of spiritual orientations and are not intended to be taken as absolutes.

These distinctions are reflected in the sacrifices brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Non-Jews brought burnt offerings, sacrifices which were entirely burnt on the alter. Every aspect of the sacrifice transcended into the spiritual realms. In contrast, besides bringing burnt offerings, Jews also brought peace offerings. Peace offerings leave over earthly portions which are to be eaten by the owners and priests.

It seems likely that Rabbi Shneur Zalman arrived at a more advanced understanding of monism than his predecessors. He communicated that if Oneness is truly Oneness than nothing contained within it can truly block it. This would be tantamount to something blocking itself from itself. Nothing can block the reality of the Oneness. However, what can possibly be blocked is the perception of Oneness.  

To Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the real priority is to live in the reality of Oneness, even if one remains closed to the perception of Oneness. The perception of Oneness can wait. It’s only human perception. And if chasing the perception blinds one from living in the reality, then what’s the point?

A person’s entire life situation is a passage happening within the reality of Oneness. To meditate away one’s necessary concentration on his/her life situation in order to chase greater perceptions of Oneness is a huge lie. Then the Oneness notion itself acts as bait to lure people away from living in the reality of Oneness. Ultimately, people can become addicted to a bliss which interferes with real life.

This could be why monism became a public teaching in Judaism much later than it had in Sufism. Since “vessels” are a feature of the Jewish spiritual style, when this teaching became public in Judaism it had to come with “vessels” - stable pathways of thought and practice to handle the notion correctly. Since “vessels” take time to develop, the notion waited centuries to become public.


So what does it mean to live in the reality of Oneness?

I suspect that Rabbi Shneur Zalman and the line of Chassidic masters who followed in his path intended to bring humanity to this state. Part of what makes this question difficult to answer is that there’s no such a thing as an “outside” to the reality of Oneness.   So no matter what one thinks, speaks or does, it all happens within the reality of Oneness. One can’t help but live inside the reality of Oneness. It just goes with existing.

While one can’t shut off or on the reality of Oneness, one can choose to live his/her life actively responsive to the Creator’s Oneness. So effectively, to some extent, one can modulate his/her own relationship level with Oneness.

Our life situations serve as stages upon which we are given the choice to become active partners in this relationship. Our attitudes and behaviors can be either reflect acceptance or rejection of the reality of Oneness. In the long run (and possibly even in the short run) blessings follow the choice to live in relationship with Oneness.

All this follows from what the ancient sages teach are the only two utterances of the Ten Commandments which the Jews heard directly from the Creator. The other eight were conveyed by Moses. These two commandments are the first two. First, “I am God, your Lord, who took you out of the land of Egypt.” Second, “You shall have no other deities before me.” What these first two statements are effective saying is firstly, “Live in the reality of My Oneness” and secondly, “Don’t reject the reality of My Oneness”. An idolatrous perspective is a fragmented view of divinity for there’s a deity for everything. It’s the very opposite of the acceptance of Oneness.

The rest of the Torah’s commandments are essentially commentaries of these first two, for they are instructions to a Jew (and in some ways the rest of humanity) on how to live in a relationship with Oneness. Each commandment is somehow a vehicle in this relationship. With some commandments it’s easy to see. For example, those which are centered around social justice and kind behavior bring humans to interact with each other with an attitude of shared overall life force, like right and left hands of the same person or as two dream characters sharing the seamless mental space of a single Dreamer.

Those commandments which are centered on property rights (like Sabbatical year, Jubilee, ownership issues and property rights) bring humans to interact with each other in a way which is aligned with the Will of Oneness. If we’re in an active relationship with the Oneness then how the Oneness wishes to run His earthly realm should be reflected in us.

Of course, there’s a lot more to explore on the topic of how the Biblical commandments bring us into relationship with Oneness. The above examples are only intended as nascent probings. One can clearly sense that Rabbi Shneur Zalman had unwittingly fashioned a new Jewish mysticism based on Oneness and living in relationship with Oneness; i.e. Jewish monism and its implications.        

This doesn’t supplant any earlier expressions of Jewish mysticism which predate him. It’s relationship with the earlier expressions is something akin to the relationship between Quantum Mechanics and Newtonian Physics; where the new actually validates the old as an important region within its larger landscape. Since the Creator’s Oneness is all encompassing, logically it would include any of the spiritual dynamics which dominate the discussions of any other mystical systems of thought and practice. For example, Lurianic Kabbalah mostly focuses on the spiritual dynamics occurring in the realm of “Atzilut” (Emanations). Though this is a very transcendent realm, it is still contained within the Creator’s Oneness. So any discussion of Oneness has to also incorporate it.

In a sense by reaching higher Rabbi Shneur Zalman, as appropriate for such an all embracing topic as Monism, has also reached lower. Consequently, he achieved a more user friendly mysticism, a mysticism applicable just by living one’s standard daily life. Furthermore, he demonstrated that Abraham’s work of declaring to humanity the Creator’s Oneness has found a very fresh and contemporary expression.


1 comment:

  1. Face Book Message exchange:

    Batya: Thank you for sharing this wonderful insight on Hashem's oneness. I had been exposed to many different meditative ways and much ideas of who and what God is. It is astonishing how easily one can loose heaven forbid their own true perspective of who we are and what our purpose is. The knowledge sounds alike but it is very clear, that the goals are most definitely not.

    Choni: It's because of the "sounding alike" that the confusion happens. Some five years ago a Sufi woman was introducing me to Rumi. She wanted cross cultural conversation. So rather than fully accept Rumi as she presented it, I scoured professionally written books of his prose and poetry. It was a very interesting experience for me. I certainly learned new ideas. But I also learned that make no mistake, the man was more entrenched in Islam than in universalism. For example, he felt at ease with annihilation of self or anything which seems to stand in the way of his spiritual goals. He sacrificed the needs of his students to engage for hours a day with Shams, his own spiritual master, leaving his students very frustrated. This is something which seems to me to come from his Islamic culture. I am not saying that he wasn't following the path God intended for him. All I am saying is that I agree with you. It's important to know the difference between what sounds alike and actually is alike. smile emoticon

    Batya: Perhaps more important is to recognize the intention behind the knowledge. Then one can distinguish the difference between the two.

    Choni: Right. Is the intention to stabilize or to destabilize? That's the genuine quick and easy litmus test.