I’ve just started teaching a new course at my congregation on Jewish mysticism. There are many ways to engage with this sizable topic: we could focus on the intellectual history of mysticism from Ezekiel’s vision of a holy chariot through Merkavah mysticism, the Zohar and Kabbalah, Lurianic Kabbalah and Chassidism, to name just a few eras and genres of literature. But I have found that the theory can get in the way of what really draws people to want to learn more about mysticism.
Mysticism, in its essence, is about the experiential. It points to direct experiences of that which others have then sought to do the impossible with – to put those deeply felt and powerful experiences into the limiting vessel of words. We need words to try and convey something to someone else. But words will never enable another to truly get inside the experience.
Take the biblical account of the Burning Bush. I don’t know if I can believe in that account in a literal manner. A bush that burned with fire yet was not consumed. And a voice spoke from out of the bush. But here’s what I absolutely do know from the story that is recounted. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in the sense of historical accuracy, but rather in terms of what the essential message of that moment in the story conveys to me. Moses, who had left his people and could have spent the rest of his life tending sheep and living among the Midianites, has a life-course altering experience. He is ‘called’ to do something else with his life. So powerful is the tug that he is willing to go back into the lion’s den, so to speak, to confront Pharaoh and lead his people with whom he has had so little contact. Perhaps it was the earlier interaction that he had had with a slave driver that weighed on his conscience for all those years until he could bear it no more, realizing that he had a responsibility to change the situation for the enslaved. Perhaps it was a dissatisfaction with his simple life and the question that had gnawed at him as he wondered what his purpose on earth truly was. But out in the wilderness with his sheep he had a mystical experience that caused him to entirely change the direction of his life and, with it, the history of our people.
How do you explain that to someone else? How do you express in words the power of such a transformative moment? There is no question that the image of the burning bush is a powerful one that conveys not only the extraordinariness of the moment, but also conveys that this is a God experience. Whether it actually happened that way or not is almost irrelevant – the transformative power of the moment is undeniable.
When I started my Jewish mysticism course this past week, I asked attendees if they could think of personal moments when an experience was so deeply felt that it seemed to point toward the existence of something beyond the here and now. A moment, if you like, when you ‘peered behind the veil’ of material existence, if only for a moment. The examples shared were not hard to find. Personal experiences of healing, or working with the sick and the dying, were particularly prevalent, perhaps because at these moments of greatest vulnerability we are more likely to let down our own defenses and be open to something larger than ourselves. And, as people shared, there was an emotion that came with the sharing; that lump in the throat and the tearing up of eyes as, through re-telling about the moment in words, the power of the original experience was felt all over again.
That’s the experience that we need to pay attention to. So often, we get caught up on the ways that others have defined God for us. We get caught up in philosophical debates about whether God is all-powerful or all-knowing. We may find the intellectual exercise an engaging one but, ultimately, it will not bring us any closer to truly understanding the nature of God. The most we can hope for are the brief glimpses that emerge in the fabric of our everyday lives. And we can learn, through awareness and spiritual practice (meditation in particular, but not uniquely) to pay attention to these moments and let them teach us and guide the path of our lives.
Kabbalah is an attempt to understand the brokenness of the universe.The other night, my chevruta (Study partner) and I were reading a section of a work by the Magid of Mezritch, in which he about what it means to “rule” or have dominion.
In the version of kabbalah that the Magid is discussing, we understand God as being essentially unapproachable and beyond understanding. But there is a little piece of God, called the shekhina, which is just, just approachable, just barely comprehensible, by human beings. This, the lowest “level” of godliness, is a kind of conduit. If we do mitzvot, commandments, we help repair the essential brokenness of the universe, and we open a little flow – like a faucet almost- into the human world of time and stuff, that allows God’s animating principle to bring wholeness and blessing into the world. But this lowest level also has another tap – not just hot water, but also cold – if we don’t do mitzvot, or if we do evil, then this other tap is opened, and not only doesn’t blessing come into the world, but brokenness – the brokenness we create by not doing God’s will, does.
This is a roundabout way of saying that our actions affect the universe in profound ways, and are reflected even in the divine realms. The magid says that this brokenness comes because the sitra achra- the “other side” which plugs up blessing, says to itself, “Ana Emloch,” I will be king. This is interesting when you consider that the other name for the shekhina is malchut – dominion, or kingliness. The sitra achra is made up of several discrete parts, but when each one says, “I will be king,” the brokenness comes not because they wish to be king, but because they cannot join together – each one is a thing unto itself, alone, complete unto itself. But even more, each piece is complete unto itself, and thus doesn’t need anything else.
This, he says, is the negative aspect of dominion. In its utter completeness, and lack of need for others, it shuts out the very thing that could make it godly and truly whole.
There is a blessing after food, somewhat less known than the rather long bircat hamazon, which we say after foods that are sort of snacky and don’t really come under any other category. This blessing blesses God who, borei nefashot rabot v’chesronan, is the “Creator of many souls and their lacks.”
The late 19th-early 20th century rabbi known as the Chofetz Chaim explains the blessing in terms of a verse in psalms (89:3) olam chessed yiboneh “the world is sustained by kindness.” He says that the borei nefashot blessing is unique in thanking God for “having created numerous living things with their lacks” and that we say it because of the deep and essential importance of acknowledging that God did not create people to be self -sufficient. Rather, we need to remember that everything with a soul is in need, and that this is a good thing, because it means that we must reach out to one another, thus building into the very foundation of society the need for us to help one another, and for society to build “passing it forward” into its very structure.
We acknowledge God and bless God for creating us in need – because it allows us to help one another. What greater blessing is there than that? True brokenness is not lack – a lack can be filled. True brokenness is thinking that one is complete unto oneself and doesn’t need anyone else. That tendency to think of oneself as self-sufficient leads to the desire to dominate, because the truth is that when one doesn’t ask for help, one prevents blessing from entering, from other people, and from God.
Today saw the spreading of some enticing rumors regarding a soon-to-be-announced ordination program out of the newly-created Kabbalah Institute (KIRR – Kabbalah Institute for Reincarnated Rebbes). The program has already been running in pilot phase for 7 weeks, hence the rumors that the first ordination class is about to be announced.
When contacted for further details, KIRR would not divulge the full details of their program of study. However, it is believed to include sleeping with a volume of Zohar under your pillow for 40 nights, a daily mikvah, and the learning of a series of daily affirmations designed to align the sephirot within you. Rabbis ordained by KIRR will be qualified in the supervision, cutting, and wrapping of red string. They will be able to determine if string that has been worn for some time is still kosher or in need of replacement. All are expected to complete an Advanced course in Powerpoint, due to the centrality of glossy and impressive visuals that accompany the various curriculum they are trained to teach about where to find the secrets of life, the universe, and everything (Douglas Adams is a compulsory text for the first 7 days of the program).
But the biggest potential game-changer in this new rabbinic program lies in the promise that, when the first class of ordained KIRR Rabbis are revealed tonight, it will include their first woman. While the identity of this woman has not been confirmed, many are postulating that it no other than Madonna Ciccone. Evidence from her recent performance at the Superbowl points to this conclusion. A cleverly-orchestrated choreography, provided in partnership with Cirque de Soleil, has been analyzed using the most sophisticated Gematria and Torah code software on the market today, and was found to reveal the secret message, ‘I am a Rabbi Without Borders’. Asked for official comment at CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), Rebecca Sirbu, the Director of the Rabbis Without Borders program simply said, ‘Madonna is not currently one of our RWB Fellows, but we have just put out a call for applications for next year’s cohort (at http://www.rabbiswithoutborders.org).
Upon hearing the news, the Rabbinic Council of America (Orthodox), expressed outrage at the use of the title Rabbi for women ordained by KIRR. However, they were willing to tolerate the use of an alternative title, Baalat shum davar, (Mistress of absolutely nothing).
Yesterday morning, in a weekly class on Jewish mysticism that I teach in the local community, we were concluding our study of the ten psalms that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav selected for the practice of the Tikkun haKlali – the Complete Repair. Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) was referring to a spiritual repair – healing at a cosmic level – in which all that was broken would be healed and the flow of Divine energy through the sephirotic system found in the teachings of Kabbalah would come down to us unhindered.
This system consisted of 10 Divine attributes which, together, form the kabbalistic Tree of Life. There are a multitude of explanations and allegorical images used in kabbalistic tradition to try and convey something of the nature of these 10 attributes. Among them, Rabbi Nachman spoke of 10 melodies – 10 kinds of sound resonance that, when unblocked, would vibrate in perfect harmony with each other, bringing perfection and wholeness to the world.
I sometimes liken the teachings of Kabbalah to that of theoretical or particle physics, not only because there are some truly amazing resonances between some of the teachings in each discipline, but because Kabbalah is very abstract and requires translation into something that we can respond to in the here and now. Rabbi Nachman, by proposing a ritual practice of the recitation of 10 psalms, sought to provide a spiritual methodology by which even an individual could make a small contribution to the greater Tikkun by speaking words that he believed carried the resonances of the ten kinds of melody. At the very least, these might help to release some of our own blockages as we seek to be more ‘in tune’ with ourselves and with others.
The last of the ten psalms is Psalm 150:
In the context of Rabbi Nachman’s Tikkun HaKlali, this psalm literally vibrates with the sounds of the instruments played in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. Rabbi Nachman taught about the spiritual importance of fostering joy, and the power of music and of singing to lift oneself up, even from the most difficult of circumstances. Our study group considered the power of song and of music at multiple levels.
It was in this context that a member of our study group thought of the example of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the role that music and song has played quite literally in her physical healing. If sound has the power to shatter glass, might it not also have a literal potential to heal, in addition to the emotional and spiritual sustenance that it can provide?
Rep. Giffords has been working with a music therapist, among others also tending to her treatment and recovery. Music has had the power to tap into her memory, and assisted with regaining language mastery, as the music appears to help the brain to access new ways to communicate. Her therapist, Morrow, explains:
“It’s creating new pathways in the brain … Language isn’t going to work anymore, so we have to go to another area and start singing and create a new pathway for speech…”
The article went to say, “Music is also linked to brains areas that control memory, emotions, and even movement. ”The thing about music is that it’s something that’s very automatic — part of our old brain system,” Morrow said. ”If I play a rhythm, I can affect the rest of the body. The body naturally aligns with a rhythm in the environment.”
Throughout my childhood I often accompanied my mother who would go and sing at Assisted Living and Nursing Homes. And time and time again, I would witness residents who would not or could not easily speak or communicate any more literally return to full life when the music began. Intentionally singing a repertoire of music that would be familiar from their youth, my mother would have residents singing along, moving their bodies – even getting up to dance.
The enormous power of music and sound, working at the physical, emotional and spiritual level, has always been evident to me. It has been an integral part of my Jewish spirituality as I have found ways to access the meaning of our rituals and our prayers through the vehicle of the melodies we bring to them. Rabbi Nachman understood this two hundred years ago. We’re just beginning to tap into the potential that vibration, sound, and song have to bring healing to our lives.