Posts Tagged 'book'

Finally, Some Jewish Self-help Books

Parasha ve’isha: Limud Nashi Leparashat Ha’shavua, Yemima Mizrachi. Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 143 pp., NIS 118

Neviot: He’arot, Etzot vetovanot Hameshivot et Harua’h Al Pi Mishnato shel Harav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, edited and elucidated by Yuval Freund. Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 150 pp., NIS 98

Tzohar Le’asakim: Parashat Hashavua b’re’I Iski, Nihuli umanhiguti, edited by Itamar Mor. Danny Books, 408 pp., NIS 118

At the beginning of the 20th century a new and original genre became widespread in the United States: “Self-Help” books. These books offered readers a colorful array of useful advice, and outlined paths to scoring achievements in a particular field that was generally mentioned in the title. The most famous of these books was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which has sold more than 15 million copies to date and gave rise to many successful imitations.

Quite a few of these titles, which star on bestseller lists to this day, deal with financial advice, but there is no need to turn to these to understand that the capitalist, utilitarian logic is the spirit blowing through the genre as a whole. Life is presented in Self-Help books as a development project, with the reader as its facilitator and operational contractor. He must attack his life vigorously, mine its resources and get as much net profit out of it as possible. If need be, he can and should lay off useless departments such as moderation, sensitivity and common sense. “Democracy introduces an industrial spirit into literature,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed back in the mid-19th century, and de Tocqueville is right, as usual.

Most Self-Help books relied on the assumption (whose roots are to be found in the Romantic movement) that man possesses inner resources he must discover and exteriorize. Therefore the advice they offered usually revolved around the ways and methods to dredge up those hidden treasures. A human being is called upon to find within himself courage, determination or creativity, which he or she had no idea existed, but which the book explained that even if these had gone undetected until now, the hidden stores are nothing less than their deepest, innermost self.

The notion that redemption begins from within built its home on the basis of the modern individualism and ideal of independence and economic initiative characteristic of American culture. Together with the spirit of invention and technological innovation, Self-Help books gave their readers a feeling that not only in the economic sphere, but in each and every area of life is to be found “a method” that will make it possible to manipulate the data, and ultimately maximize profits.

Inevitably, self-help books began to be written in the religious-spiritual realm as well. This domain is not limited to systematic instructions for the most effective ways to communicate with the upper worlds, but often involved advice that is based on religious and traditional sources, but is actually meant to assist us in secular areas. As an example of this we can cite more than 50(!) different titles in English alone that proclaim they teach “the Tao of” (parenting, gardening, sexuality, cooking, business). These books profess to glean insights from the ancient Chinese tradition to improve the quality of our Western lives in the present.

Everything, as you know, makes its way to us belatedly, but the good news is that not only hath Israel not been forsaken by his God, but he has been bequeathed a fortune. In recent years it appears that Israeli Judaism has finally joined the trend, and self-help books based on the wisdom of Jewish tradition crowd bookstore shelves. Yedioth Ahronoth Books is the clear leader in this market segment, a fact that corresponds to its overall, and praise-worthy, efforts to enrich the Jewish bookcase with many and diverse offerings. Two years ago this publisher came out with a book (in Hebrew) bearing a subtitle that leaves no room for doubt as to the book’s role in the genre in question: “Once a Week: Insights and Self-Empowerment from the Portion of the Week,” by Aharoni Berenstein. The ways to draw insights and self-empowerment from the weekly Torah portion have only grown more numerous since then.

The Stress of Women’s Liberation

Yemima Mizrachi's bookThe new book by Rebbetzin Yemima Mizrachi, :“Parasha ve’isha: Limud Nashi Leparashat Ha’shavua” (“Portion and Woman: Feminine Study of the Portion of the Week”) is a fine example of this. Mizrachi is one of the most prominent of the popular spiritual women leaders in the field of Judaism in Israel. She is a lawyer and rabbinical pleader by training, and today she gives lessons on Jewish tradition and the weekly Torah portion all over the country. Thousands of women subscribe to her mailing list, and the gatherings she holds always draw a big crowd. As may be learned from her new book, the weekly portions serve her as a pliant and productive base on which to offer advice and insights that contribute to the empowerment of her disciples.

This is Mizrachi’s first book on the weekly Torah portion, and it is limited to the first two books of the Pentateuch – Genesis and Exodus. The motto may be distilled from the introduction: “Everyone is a treasure of wisdom, but it must not remain hoarded. In order for the wisdom to be affected and to affect connecting feminine study is required.” Our inner wisdom can be uncovered, then, with the help of the weekly portion, and Mizrachi does this with great wit and creativity. But the study required here, as stated, is feminine. According to Mizrachi this refers to study “that emerges from the chambers of the heart and hearth, different from the hum of studying that rises from the benches of the yeshivas. Women simply study differently.”

What does this feminine study look like in practice? According to Mizrachi’s book it entails using the Biblical narratives to understand how one ought to await a match, manage relationships and raise children. The portion “Hayei Sarah,” for example, deals with problems of couples’ relationships, “Toldot” – with parenting, “Miketz” teaches us that being chubby is perfectly fine, and “Vayigash” elucidates the importance of crying. In general, feelings and managing them are the main topic one can learn from the weekly portions, and eliciting them from the Biblical text known for its stinginess when it comes to sentimental expression is no mean feat.

Mizrachi delivers her commentary with great talent, and it is not hard to understand why she is so popular. On several occasions in her book she emphasizes women’s superiority over men, and yet at the same time never for a moment challenges the traditional division into gender roles. A Woman’s business is in the home, and the home is the business of women. When “women’s liberation” is mentioned, we learn that this process is responsible for our stress and fears. But this too is for the best. “What is the role of fear? First of all, to reveal to you how much strength you have. You are awesome!”

Rav Kook’s Wisdom du jour

Yuval Freund’s edition of Rav KookThe very same bit of advice may be learned from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook: “Many times the cataclysmic situations teach man about himself (….) The acquisition of new traits in the difficult periods causes a great and sophisticated increase afterward.” That is Yuval Freund’s interpretation of an excerpt from “Orot Hakodesh,” in which Rav Kook explains that, “from the depths of the abyss you must draw forth precious pearls. Then you will rise and renew your abilities, in strength and tranquility.”

The title of the book “Neviot: He’arot, Etzot vetovanot Hameshivot et Harua’h Al Pi Mishnato shel Harav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook,” makes it clear that here too is a self-help book that culls its life wisdom from the field of religion. This time not the weekly Torah portion but Rav Kook has been chosen to restore our spirit. Freund’s explications look out upon the rabbi’s words on the facing page, whereas the words of Rav Kook are arranged in short lines and centered, like poetry. Here too the guiding principle is mining the treasures hidden in the depths of the soul: “In man (…) there are great and enormous spiritual powers of an entirely different order, which he must appreciate and respect,” Freund writes.

Rav Kook is easy to translate into romantic selfhood, for he himself was greatly influenced by the Romantic movement. However, for decades the message that was delivered from his letters was purely national and messianic. The reason for the transition to the language of sentiment in this case is not merely the awakening of this genre – religious Self-Help books – but also the growing competition between Rav Kook and Rabbi Nachman for the hearts of youngsters in knitted-skullcaps. The emotional language and psychological insights of the tzadik from Breslov are winning over many souls in religious Zionist circles, and the latter have decided to fight back. Envy among scribes generates wisdom – in this case it’s more like street smarts

Rav Kook is a giant thinker and outstanding poet, and his words presented in this book are inspiring. Praise is due to the compiler, Yuval Freund, who was not afraid to bring also excerpts that might jeopardize the readers’ automatic allegiance to the Halakha, or Jewish law. Rav Kook calls, among other things, for deviating from the familiar structures and listening to our inner voice. The tension between the inner voice and obedience to the heteronomic Halakha should be obvious, and for anyone interested in unquestioning loyalty to tradition a certain risk is inherent in bringing such things from the mouth of such an authority. Advice on coping with this inner conflict, incidentally, is not included in the book.

The Spirit of Capitalism in the Weekly Torah Portion

Tzohar Le’asakimWe return to the weekly Torah portion with another title that represents a similar spirit: “Tzohar Le’asakim: Parashat Hashavua b’re’I Iski, Nihuli umanhiguti.” This book is a collection of short articles by some of the rabbis from the Tzohar organization, including its stars: Rabbis Yuval Cherlow, David Stav and Shai Piron (currently the Israeli Minister of Education). It should be mentioned that women are not absent from this volume and have penned several of the articles in it. As the book’s title suggests, in this case the weekly Torah portion serves as a source of insights into the business world.

The book is essentially an anthology of articles that were sent over the past decade to a list of Israeli businesspeople. The mailing list in question is the brainchild of Eran Rolls, a businessman who describes himself as someone with “a transparent skullcap” or “a religiously observant secular person,” and is himself one of the varied fruits of the Jewish renaissance in the country. Rolls initiated a weekly mailing of the portion of the week to his distribution list, which kept growing as the years went by.

The advice is nothing you could not guess in advance. Initiative, persistence, creativity, determination, taking advantage of opportunities, and originality – the weekly Torah portion teaches us all of these to assist our success in business. To the Tzohar rabbis’ credit, they seek to advance not only the personal success of their readers, but also the employment conditions of those employed by them. Many articles emphasize the moral dimension of the business world, and demand that the reader turn his attention also to the ethical implications of his actions.

The Utility of Sentiment

The examples cited above indicate a gradually expanding trend of Jewish Self-Help books, or in other words: the assimilation of Jewish tradition into the main trends in the global book market. Moreover, the books mentioned here are not only representatives of Self-Help books, but also expressions of a broad cultural movement that presents increased preoccupation with our emotional life, and an emphasis on a utilitarian worldview. It is a crossbreeding of the romantic inclination to find uniqueness, authenticity and meaning within us with the instrumental logic of the capitalist market. This match leads to a rich supply of “methods” and “systems” with whose help we will put into practice the hidden lights in our inner selves.

That isn’t necessarily bad, of course, and perhaps there really are within us hidden dimensions and unseen potential powers. But we should pay attention to this process, in which both tradition and the Jewish bookcase become raw material in the hands of the market, and translate themselves into the patterns of that same familiar utilitarian logic. Interestingly, fundamentalist religion, in Afghanistan or Mea She’arim, is one of the few foci today of stubborn resistance to capitalist globalization. It resists a lot of other things too, but it is possible that precisely by posing a determined alternative, which expresses a different worldview and a different logic, it invites us to learn something very important about ourselves; something no less important than how to wait patiently for a decent match or how to close the next deal.

Published in the literary supplement of Haaretz.

The Impossible Exists – an interview with Jeffrey Kripal

On October 17, 1917, sixty thousand people gathered at a field outside a town called Fatima, Portugal, in anticipation of an appearance of Mary, Mother of God. They did so after such revelations occurred on the previous five months. The first time the Madonna appeared, in May, she was seen by three little children. Since she promised them she would appear again over the next few months on the same date, in June they brought the people of their village. She did indeed show up. In July the audience numbered in the thousands, and she appeared again. The audience kept growing until by October there were tens of thousands in attendance, and they were not disappointed. Just as she promised, the Blessed Virgin appeared on the top of a tree.

Or did she? Many did indeed see the figure of a woman atop the tree, but others actually saw a cloud, or a ball, or an airplane, or a disk, or something large descending from the sky, emitting sounds akin to prolonged thunder, or lightning and flames and fireworks. Some saw “a large cross emerging from the sun”, and others “an illuminated boulevard” in the sky. There was also multi-colored fog. Some of the witnesses – and, as mentioned above, there were thousands of them – testified that “the earth divided into squares, each in a different color.” Some felt the earth move. Some saw a white matter falling from heaven and accumulating on the ground.

artwork by Michael Brehm of the University of Chicago Press, used with permissionSo what happened at Fatima? For the Catholic Church, there was no question. It was divine revelation. The site was declared holy and today it is the location of the church of Our Lady of Fatima. Some thought the end of the world had come. Some tried to explain it as a novel natural phenomenon, and, as of the 1960s, many associated the matter with UFOs, seeing it as evidence for aliens visiting earth.

So what did happen at Fatima? According to Prof. Jeffrey Kripal, one of the foremost living scholars of religion, we really don’t know. All attempts to explain the apparition are nothing more than projections of our symbolic world outward onto the phenomenon. According to Prof. Kripal, the UFO narrative is also nothing more than a translation of the supernatural into the technological age in which we live. But that’s less important. What is significant is that something indeed did happen there which simply cannot be explained without turning to the realm of what Kripal terms “the impossible”; and Kripal wants us to understand that even if it is difficult – or actually impossible – to define, “the impossible” does exist. And it impacts us. And it’s a very essential part of us.

Kripal himself is hard to define as well. He is a professor specializing in the study of contemporary spirituality, but his readership is not limited to academics. Nearly every book he published has become a story in and of itself, and his research has ranged over the years from an analysis of the tantric-sexual motives of the great Indian saint Ramakrishna, through a summary of the history of one of the mainsprings of new-age and counterculture in the US, the Esalen Center, to the study of the paranormal – which is to say, “the impossible.”

“the impossible” is the name Kripal gives to various phenomena of the paranormal, supernatural, religious and sacred realms. These phenomena, he stresses, arise as a sort of dialog between one and the world, perhaps between one and existence itself, and will therefore always manifest as a reality one can relate to (for instance, the Holy Mother). Later on one will interpret them accordingly, and add description from one’s own imagination. This is the moment at which the impossible becomes a narrative, and in essence a myth. It is in this form that we receive it through the stories of all religions. But in its essential form the impossible is always inexplicable, always alien. Those arriving at Fatima today will hear about a revelation of the Madonna, although from testimonies gathered later it is clear that many did not understand it this. Did not, in fact, understand it at all.

In the modern, Western secular world the impossible is twice-removed from us. Firstly, because, as usual, we do not understand it. Secondly, because we deny its existence. We won’t even accept the religious myths about it. Both the impossible and the symbolic story it’s wrapped up in are rejected by modern secular society, so that we are left with no contact with the mysterious dimension of life. In his most recent book, Mutants and Mystics, Kripal points to the last place that allows us contact with the impossible: Fantasy and Science Fiction novels. According to Kripal, in modern Western society the impossible has been exiled and marginalized to the spheres of literature and cinema.

Kripal finds it in particular in the superhero stories of American comics. These develop super-powers due to exposure to radiation (Spiderman, Hulk), or sometimes they are creatures from another planet who actually lose their powers upon exposure to radiation (Superman); at times they are simply humans who have mutated (X-Men) and thus acquired powers which anywhere outside the confines of the comics universe would be considered spiritual and even holy. Adolescents today dream of becoming superheroes and not saints or spiritual guides. They immerse themselves in fantasy tales such as “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars” which talk of epic battles between absolute good and absolute evil, while religious myths of the exact same nature are left to collect dust.

The paranormal is something that occupies Kripal’s life. In fact, while writing his PhD dissertation, he himself underwent an out-of-body experience in which he felt “electrocuted by God” and began floating above the ground. He claims that this experience has influenced all of his research since, and the fact that he is willing to speak of it is exceedingly rare in the academic world. Most researchers maintain a strict separation between their personal lives and their studies, and discussing personal mystic experiences is almost taboo.

In late May Kripal will be coming to Israel, to speak at the opening of The Fifth Israeli Conference on the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality, to be held at Tel Aviv University on May 28-29. The conference will feature over seventy lectures, which will touch upon a wide range of topics (spirituality and philosophy in India, spirituality in economy and business, spirituality in psychology and more), and will particularly examine the (paradoxical) process of the creation of new traditions. Kripal will give the opening keynote lecture. I used the opportunity to speak with him a little about his research and ideas.

Jeffrey Kripal - photo by Michael Stravato, used with permission

Let’s begin at the end: Looking at the books you’ve written, one gets the odd feeling you are not interested in simply producing academic knowledge. What, if I may ask, is the hope you hold concerning your research? What might be added to the lives of your readers from it – or to our cultural life in general?

It has certainly felt to me like the books were orbiting around a something, a kind of “black hole,” if you will. As the dark metaphor suggests, I do not claim to be entirely clear or even conscious of what that work might mean. If I had to say, I would suggest that my books are, first, about challenging false religious and cognitive dualisms (sex/spirit, mind/matter, human/divine), and, second and more speculatively, about the cosmic dimensions of human nature as that supernature is glimpsed in extreme religious experiences.

Now about the sex/spirit dualism… In your writings one can note a leitmotif that connects the sacred with the sexual. What do you think is the connection there? Why do you think sex especially prominent in encountering the sacred (and not food, property/money, social status etc’)?

This is an immense and complicated subject, but, very generally, I think it comes down to “energy” and the ways that erotic energies can mediate and morph between the material and spiritual dimensions of our experience, from the most carnal to the highest flights of religious ecstasy. I do not think we actually know what these energies are. They have something to do with the secret of life, with biological evolution, and with cultural, artistic, and religious creativity. They are certainly more, way more, than we imagine.

I think you might have heard the word “controversial” attached once or twice to descriptions of your work. Why do you think such work is at this time “controversial”?

Yes, I’ve heard that. Part of this, I think, is a function of the fact that much of our religions depend on the dualisms that I seek to challenge and move beyond. My early work was “controversial” because it denies any ultimate difference between the mystical and the erotic (sex/spirit). My later work is “controversial” because it denies any ultimate difference between consciousness and the material world (mind/matter). It’s really the same project in two different forms. In any case, to the extent that any intellectual project in the study of religion gets at important matters, it is bound to be “controversial.”

I want to understand better: you say that you oppose false cognitive dualisms – now what’s so irritating about that? What does our (Western? Modern? human?) culture have invested in these dualisms as to make them so dear to it, and make any change of them “controversial”?

It’s not that I oppose them. All human cultures work out of cognitive dualisms. They appear to be necessary for social life. As a member of society, I live them by them, too. It is simply that I do not think they are finally true. Whether something is necessary is one thing. Whether it is true is quite another. I am after truth, not functional necessity.

Following that, you talk a lot about “the human as two” (from your first answer it can be understood you mean that us humans have both a nature and a supernature) – why isn’t that a false cognitive dualism?

By this phrase, I do not mean that there are two things in a human being, say, a body and a soul. Not at all. I mean that the human being is far, far more than the social ego or conscious self. We tend to think of ourselves as one thing, as a stable singular body-self. But this is not what extreme religious experiences reveal at all. They reveal that this singular body-self is fundamentally an illusion, and that there are other dimensions, other states of consciousness, matter, and energy just “below the surface” or “beyond the physical ego.” I do not claim to know what these other forms of self and body are; only that, if we are to take comparative mystical literature seriously, that they exist and are us, too. Hence my little four-word poem: “the Human as Two.”

artwork by Michael Brehm of the University of Chicago Press, used with permission

In your book Authors of the Impossible you described the paranormal as semiotic dialogical events, collapsing the subject-object structure. Now that certainly sounds good, but I wonder if you could explain it in a way understandable by a teenager. Is there any simple way to “get” what you mean, short of experiencing it?

I do think real understanding requires actual experience, but I would guess that about a half to two-thirds of the people I lecture to have known just such an event, so this is hardly a minor “knowing” audience. In any case, the basics are quite simple to explain, even to someone who has never had such an experience. A paranormal event is one in which the world “out there” and the world “in here” manifest themselves as the same world. It is as if the mental and material dimensions of our experience have “split off” the same deeper Ground or One World. The physical world now begins to behave like a story or a series of signs. Hence the common descriptors of these experiences: “It was as if I were a character in a novel” or “It was as if I were caught in a movie.” These sensibilities, I suggest, are very accurate perceptions, because, of course, we all are caught in novels and movies, which we call culture and religion. A paranormal moment is one in which we realize that this is so. What we then do with this realization is up to us.

As such, I think you would agree that any question about the actuality of paranormal events is very difficult to phrase, since the paranormal is not – it’s a dialectical hermeneutical occurrence, not a thing. Yet, you claim it holds something real. Pray tell, what???

If by “real,” you mean “that which can be measured and controlled as an inert object,” then, no, these events are not “real.” But what if that is not what reality really is? What if there is some deeper dimension of the world that is fiercely alive, super-conscious, neither an “object” nor a “subject,” but something Other and More? This, it seems to me, is precisely what paranormal events suggest or point to.

And why should we care about it?

Because thinking that your “subjective” experiences “in here” are separate from an inert and dead “objective” world “out there” is (a) likely false and (b) depressing; while realizing that you are an intimate part of a living conscious universe is (a) likely true and (b) really, really cool.

It definitely is cool, though what people have done with the intuition of this is about as uncool as it gets, beginning with religious hierarchies and wars, and ending with low-brow New-Age mambo-jambo. It is almost as if this deeper dimension has a real knack for making us act like total asses. Dear God, why???

Yep. I couldn’t agree more, Tomer. And this is why we so desperately need a way of addressing these states that is free of any traditional religious authority or tradition. We need a new way of talking and thinking about them that is at once deeply sympathetic and radically critical. My own answer here is simple: we need to think and speak of them comparatively. Once, after all, we realize that these special states are in no way unique to any particular religion or culture, that they are globally distributed and appear to be universal human potentials, we are well down the road of addressing their most problematic, and frankly dangerous, characteristics.

What about experiencing the paranormal, or the mystical for that matter? Should we try to? Why? Have you noticed that some people are better at it than others, and do you think that may be part of the reason for experiences being a taboo in academic circles?

Although some people appear to be more gifted when it comes to such states, I do not think these events are reliably replicable, not at least in their most robust forms. They tend to occur in moments of life-crisis, trauma, or physical danger. Individuals who are more “open” to such gifts are often more open because they have themselves been “opened” by some previous trauma, injury, or near-death experience. This is one reason that rational people rationally reject them. Reason and science depend upon publically verifiable and replicable truths. But the paranormal simply does not play by these rational rules. Studying paranormal events in the light of pure reason is like studying the stars in the middle of the afternoon, and then claiming that they don’t exist. As long as one can only know things in the afternoon, that is a perfectly reasonable conclusion. It is also perfectly false.

Let’s ask the opposite as well: if experiencing IT is revelatory in terms of the awakening to truth is can bring to our lives, what is the value of academic research? Why bother spreading and spending your intellectual and spiritual strength and capacities all over, and not just enter into an esoteric tradition, delving with all of your dedication into its depths? Surely with this intensity you will enhance your chances at “getting” the paranormal (I know a number of Kabbalah schools here in Jerusalem if you want a quick conversion and career change).

I tried this. I began my youth in a monastic seminary. It was wonderful, but I ultimately decided that my vocation was an intellectual one. I understand that vocation to involve engaging matters of great importance in a more or less public fashion and free of any religious or political control. I see my own specific task to be about carving out “safe spaces” within public discourse—in this case, my books—into which thoughtful people can enter to engage in discussions that are otherwise impossible. As for esoteric communities, I deeply admire them, but there are two problems here. One is that such traditions are, by definition, esoteric and so generally against open, public discussions of these matters. They thus tend to shut down, deny, or censor conversations that I want to begin and help develop.

The other problem is that these communities too often conflate their own histories and symbolic mediations of the real with reality itself. That is, they fail to see that their specific experiences of revelation, salvation, or enlightenment are conditioned and shaped by their place and time and can never be universally true for all human beings.  The basic paradox of the history of religions is that every manifestation of the sacred reveals and conceals, illumines and distorts, at the same time.  It is as if the real can only show itself to us in forms that are limited and finite, and so fallible.  Any religious tradition that does not understand this basic truth and communicate it to their faithful in honest and open ways I find both unhelpful and unconvincing, if not actually dangerous, at this historical moment.

In your book Mutants & Mystics you write about the paranormal’s (and parts of the sacred, and the religious) exile to the fantasy worlds of pop-culture. Let’s return to the above mentioned teen. She has a fascination with vampires. What can you tell her about her love for blood-sucking misfits? What is lurking in its dark depth?

Well, I don’t do vampires. Or zombies. But I suspect what is lurking here is a spiritual eroticism (the vampire) and a critique of a materialist worldview that understands the human being as a walking corpse without real life or true consciousness (the zombie).

Would you then say that what attracts us to these myths is our own inability to put up with the materialistic-secular worldview forced upon us by hegemonic scientific (and, I might add, bourgeois-protestantish-religious) discourse?

Yes. That is what I am trying to say. This is basically my thesis in Mutants and Mystics. The paranormal migrates into popular culture because it has been exiled from both the religions (which want to demonize it) and elite science (which wants to demonize it). It goes where it can get away with being something of itself—fiction, fantasy, and film. And it makes billions of dollars there, since these genres speaks so directly and beautifully to that part of us that has been denied by orthodox religion and orthodox science.

Where does contemporary spiritual culture come into all this? What do you think is the New Age’s business vis-à-vis the paranormal, the mystical and the religious? Certainly, aside from the more superficial masses, there are some very devoted and serious spiritual seekers out there. What is their place according to the way you understand current western culture?

I understand paranormal phenomena (telepathy, precognition, apparitions, out-of-body experiences) as proto-religious, that is, as “building blocks” of future religious systems, to invoke the language of my colleague Ann Taves. So too with the New Age movements. Many of these are quite profound and very sophisticated, but they have not had enough time to take stable forms and become recognized “religions.” Most interesting to me is the fact that they tend to locate divinity in the human being, and so they are much more comfortable with psychical and paranormal phenomena, which point in the same direction.

Concerning the paranormal, Modern-Orthodox Judaism must be one of the most schizophrenic religions on earth. It tries to uphold a distinguished, (divine-)law-abiding and “moral” front, while at back, and down under, and really all over, it carries the symbols and effects of the Kabbalah, the esoteric, magical-mystical tradition. Why, the major Halakhic lawyer, on whose books most of contemporary halakhic law is based, Rabbi Joseph Karo, held a diary in which he recorded his daily talks with a female angel – talks which are of course never discussed by contemporary rabbis. What do you make of this? What is your assessment of Judaism as one looking from outside?

Well, on one level, I doubt that modern Orthodox Judaism is any different than other established religious systems. Similar public/esoteric splits could easily be found in any of the other established religions. On another level, however, Orthodox Judaism probably shares the same “mystical challenge” that any theistic tradition does: as a public religion, it wants to locate the divine outside the human being, in an external or transcendent “God,” but as a tradition of countless human beings extending over centuries and millennia, it is always stumbling over cases in which the divine manifests in and as the human being. One way to handle this disjunction is by creating what amounts to a dual tradition, with both a public and an esoteric face. Christianity, of course, handled the problem differently: it embraced the divine human, but restricted it to a single historical case. I don’t find that particularly helpful either.

What will you be talking about in your keynote address in the 5th Israeli conference for the study of contemporary spirituality and religion?

I will be giving my lecture “Authors of the Impossible: Telepathy and the Study of Religion.” I’ve honed this at various universities in the States and Europe. I hope it finds an appreciative audience here. In any case, I am honored and grateful to be invited to this event.

My lecture Is about how paranormal events so often manifest in narrative or textual forms (hence we still speak in English of “psychical readings” and “automatic writing”), that is, how they work like stories that appear to be written (by whom, it is not at all clear).  Basically, I will focus on how the paranormal is a kind of writing and reading and, to flip this, how writing and reading are potential paranormal powers.

Inside the mind of Rav Kook: Redeeming not only the world, but one’s soul

“Tzadik Yesod Olam: Hashlihut Hasodit Ve’ha’havaya Hamistit shel Harav Kook” (“Tzaddiq Yesod Olam: Rabbi Kook’s Secret Mission and Mystical Experience”), by Smadar Cherlow. Bar-Ilan Press, 435 pages, NIS 135

Considering the immense influence that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook ‏(1865-1935‏) has had on the fate of the State of Israel in our day, it is surprising how few scholarly books have been devoted to him. The thinker who lay the foundations for the national-religious viewpoint that sees in the state the beginning of the budding of Jewish redemption − and in its sovereignty over its territory reliable signposts marking the progress of this redemption − has indeed been the subject of several doctoral theses. But in bookstores the number of titles about him and his philosophy does not exceed a single digit, and approximately half of these are more than 20 years old.

As the subtitle of Smadar Cherlow’s book attests, her work presumes to expose a hidden and secret dimension of the life and importance of the figure known popularly as Rav Kook: his mission as a tzadik yesod olam, literally, a righteous man who serves as a foundation of the world. This mission led him to view himself as one who had been endowed with prophecy − and ultimately also as a tzadik in the role of a messiah waiting for revelation.

Cherlow introduces these characteristics of self-perception from a close reading of Rav Kook’s diaries ‏(which were made public only a dozen or so years ago in the volumes “Shmona Kevatzim”‏), and via a reading of the words of his close students Rabbi David Cohen ‏(“The Nazirite”‏) and Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harlap. Delving deeply into “Shmona Kevatzim” enables Cherlow not only to suss out what is hidden in Rav Kook’s heart, but also to weave his statements into a chronological axis of development.

Messianic expectations

After publication of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the subsequent end of World War I, messianic expectations from Rav Kook reached their height. These hopes emanated from Rav Kook’s own view of himself as a tzadik, and in fact tzadik hador− the righteous man of his generation. Cherlow brings a variety of his statements, which point to the mission to which Kook saw himself as enlisted as early as his tenure as the rabbi of Jaffa, starting in 1904.

Rav Kook determined that the secular immigrants of the Second Aliyah ‏(wave of immigration‏) − “the impudent transgressors of roads and fences,” as he put it, who came to the Land of Israel between 1904 and 1914 − were the ones who, by their actions, were implementing the divine plan that called for the return of the people of Israel to its land. If to date the preoccupation focused on these views, then in the new book the emphasis is on the mystical intuitions behind them. With the help of assorted quotations from his diaries, Cherlow shows how Kook’s self-perception as tzadik hador led him to perceive himself as responsible for “raising” the pioneers’ enterprise and inserting it as another stone in the evolving tablet of the priestly kingdom that was taking real shape.

About his own times, Rav Kook asks: “Then what are tzadikei hador to do?” and answers himself: “Rebelling against the spirit of the nation … that is something one cannot … but they have to perform great work, discover the light and the sanctity in the spirit of the nation, the light of God that is inside all these” ‏(“Shmona Kevatzim,” 1:71‏).

Kook expresses himself in the third person, but his writing style elsewhere tells us that he is referring to himself, and from his view of himself as tzadik hador, he rolls up his sleeves to try to discover the light of divinity in the actions of the heathen Jews.

It is worthwhile juxtoposing these statements by Rav Kook with the position taken at the same time by Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the first rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox Edah Haredit in Jerusalem. With reference to Kook, Sonnenfeld stated that, “the path of this one is not straight in my eyes. What have we got to do with their inner lives? The Lord sees into the heart, but we, human beings, we have but things that are visible and to rule according to the law and the halakha ‏(traditional Jewish law‏).”

Sonnenfeld recognizes that the venerated rabbi is developing his theological method in accordance with “inner sight,” and finding in the secular pioneers a divine spark that is not evident in their actions. From the Haredi rabbi’s standpoint, however, we are talking about a presumption to vision into the Holy Spirit, and he refuses to play on that field. In contrast to him, Rav Kook saw himself as a lead player on that same field.

Later on, Kook exhibits a prophetic and even messianic self-perception. The rabbi’s diaries contain a wealth of terms that describe religious revelation, starting with tzefiyah ‏(vision‏), through tiyul bapardes ‏(a walk through the orchard; pardes, lit. orchard, signifies mysticism), and ending with ruah hakodesh ‏(the holy spirit‏) and nevuah ‏(prophecy‏). Cherlow points out the increasing frequency of these phrases following Kook’s immigration from Russia to Israel and the start of his tenure as the rabbi of Jaffa, based on the assumption that a complete prophecy is only possible on Israeli soil. That was when the rabbi wrote: “… and I shall listen and hear from the depths of my soul, from the heart’s emotions, the voice of the Lord calling” ‏(“Shmona Kevatzim,” 4:17‏). Because of its audacity, the sentence was censored when Kook’s words were transferred from his diaries to the book “Orot Hakodesh.”

Rav Kook’s self-perception as a tzadik and prophet developed into a self-perception as messiah with the end of the Great War. The terrors of World War I inspired him to hope that it was in fact “the war to end all wars,” as it was dubbed at the time. In similar fashion to the impact that the horrors of the Holocaust had on Chabad rabbis, the sensation grew on him that out of such great darkness must burst forth light, and he saw himself as responsible for spreading that light. To that end he worked to found a spiritual-political movement and to revive the Sanhedrin.

Contact with the divine

Rav KookCherlow’s formulation of these insights was done based on things − explicit and insinuated − contained in Kook’s diaries. This method is dangerous sometimes, since scholars tend to find in writings whatever they are looking for. But in many cases there is no other choice, for rarely will a mystic ‏(let along a Jewish mystic‏) relate in a simple manner what he feels and the image he has of himself. Cherlow is aware of these dangers. She focuses in her book on Kook’s experiences, at the expense of looking at his activity or his philosophic and halakhic writings. This choice underscores the mystical dimension in his life − i.e., his constant striving for immediate contact with the divine.

One of the interesting insights that arise from this study pertains to the image of Kookian mysticism, which focuses on one’s subjective inner life. The prophetic source as far as Kook is concerned lies in the depths of his psyche. His world is divided into the subjective interior and the objective exterior. This also gives rise to the tension between the inner revelations and hovot ha’evarim − the duties to be performed by the bodily organs, which is to say the mitzvoth and social ties by which he is bound.

Cherlow devotes two chapters to examining the strains in the rabbi’s life between his inner identity as a mystic and his social role as a public leader. Again and again, Kook writes about the sorrow caused him by the necessity to go out into the world, and even by the obligation to be a stickler for halakha. His words suggest that his mystical self-perception is utterly different from that shared by mekubalim ‏(mystical masters‏) in the past, in whose eyes the mitzvoth are the mysticism − i.e., that their mystical journey ‏(which includes mating of spheres or impregnation of souls, prophetic revelations or elevation of sparks‏) takes place by means of the mitzvoth, and out of an affiliation with a group of mekubalim around them.

Rav Kook presents a modern mystical consciousness, which he shares with other Jewish figures who were active in the early 20th century, such as Martin Buber, A.D. Gordon, Hillel Zeitlin and the Grand Rabbi of Piaseczno. In a spiritual world such as theirs, mythic thinking, which unites inside and outside, and above and below, gave way to a modern consciousness and a perception that makes a harsh distinction between consciousness and action, between the subjective world and the objective world. Their reunification is precisely the challenge facing the mystic, and meeting it is perceived as the height of mystical accomplishment.

In the eyes of the Jewish mystic, that is a new situation, the first signs of which appeared in the Hasidic movement. From Cherlow’s book emanates Rav Kook’s passion not only to redeem the world, but to redeem his soul as well, through the total unification of the aspects of his life − the mystical, the halakhic, the social and the national. Rav Kook, a dedicated optimist, was convinced it was possible.


Published in Haaretz, 23.1.13

Tomer Persico

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