Posts Tagged 'religion'

Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions – On Michael Walzer’s New Book

The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, by Michael Walzer, Yale University Press, 192 pages, $26

“[They] saw that the cherished ideals of their race – their thrones and their families and the very Gods that they worshipped – were trampled underfoot, the holy land of their love devastated and sacked by hordes of barbarians, so inferior to them in language, religion, philosophy…” Thus wrote the Indian nationalist and fighter for independence V.D. Savarkar in 1923, but if he had written “God” instead of “Gods,” his anti-colonialist thoughts could easily be attributed to the Zionist Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or to ideologue Israel Eldad. Like them, Savarkar was secular, and like them he too enlisted symbols and conceptual structures from religion in his struggle against the foreigners who ruled his country.

Something else the three had in common is that, although they were in the political minority during the struggle for national liberation in their countries, their ideas still resonated decades after independence was attained. Now, however, their ideas were invoked by religious leaders, who viewed their words not only as metaphorical banners that could spur unity, but as dogmatic and comprehensive frameworks for life. It is this process – the rise of the shunned and silenced religious element in nation-states that were founded as secular – that Michael Walzer addresses in his new book.

An expert in ethics and political science, and one of the leading public intellectuals of our time, Walzer examines three cases: Israel, India and Algeria. All three gained independence after fighting a colonial ruler – Britain, in the cases of Israel and India; France, in that of Algeria. All three countries made an attempt, with varying degrees of success, to introduce democracy, and all three have experienced a significant awakening of religion that is undermining that democracy. Walzer wants to understand why.

Europien Elites

His starting point is the differences in worldviews. Walzer notes that even though the three liberation movements struggled against European forces, those who waged the struggle were also European, if not in origin then in outlook. In other words, they were secular nationalists who set out to forge democratic regimes. As such they were very different from large parts, if not the overwhelming majority, of the oppressed population on behalf of whose independence they fought.

Like Moses in the house of Pharaoh, the leaders of the liberation movements grew up differently from most of those they were fighting for, and they were also educated differently. In fact, they were educated in the culture of those who subjugated their nations.

For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, spent no less than eight years studying in Western institutions. India’s first minister of justice, B.R. Ambedkar, who was also instrumental in formulating his country’s constitution, held doctoral degrees from both Columbia University and the London School of Economics. For their part, Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann were European in origin and education. Frantz Fanon studied psychiatry in France, and Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president, served for many years in the French army and was even awarded its highest honor.

In contrast, the society being liberated was non-European and traditional (even to an extent in Israel). Thus, the leaders of the national-liberation movements were very different from those they were bent on liberating. Decades later, that same population – this time, as citizens of democratic nation-states – would vote for religious or traditionalist forces that would undercut the ideological descendants of the state’s founders.

The Paradox of Liberation

However, it was not only separation but also overbearing arrogance that characterized the relations between liberators and liberated. The former demanded that the latter shed their traditional ways. They believed that only a total transformation in the character of those who had been oppressed would allow them to escape their downtrodden condition.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, talked about “the worker in the Land of Israel” as a new offshoot unconnected to the ancient tree of Diaspora Jewry. Fanon wrote about a “new Algerian” who underwent a “mutation” that made possible the struggle for national liberation. In India, the complaint about the submissive, kowtowing character of the masses was a regular refrain in the battle of the aspirants to independence, at least from the start of the 20th century.

Thus, not only were the leaders of the national independence movements a different breed – they also demanded that the masses who were to be liberated transform themselves. They perceived them as inferior and lorded it over them as a superior elite, intellectually as well as in terms of character and willpower. Zionism’s “negation of the exile,” Walzer reminds us, was more than an admonition to put an end to the Diaspora: It constituted an aggressive denial of everything the Diaspora stood for, of the whole Jewish manner of being that it cultivated and supported. The creation of the new Jew (and the new Indian, and the new Algerian) entailed putting an end to the existence of the old.

However, the old Jew, like his Indian and Algerian counterparts, was dear to the hearts of multitudes. They delighted in the fruits of liberation, but were disinclined to part with their past, their culture, their way of life. The liberators’ condescending demand that they do just that, and their pride and their silencing of the voices of the masses – these brought about disparities between the groups, but also tension and antagonism. That, Walzer writes, is the “paradox of liberation” (hence also the book’s title). The subsequent religious revival sprang from that very disparity and antagonism.

Historic irony

And here’s another paradox or, rather a historic irony: The return of tradition and religion is taking place in an untraditional way. In fact, it’s draping itself like a robe over the national body, and coming back in the form of national-religious fundamentalism. In Israel there was Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) and now its paler offspring, Habayit Hayehudi. In India there’s the RSS, a Hindu nationalist movement that wants to reconstitute the kingdom of Rama, a mythological entity in which Hinduism enjoys its zenith under the earthly dominion of the god Rama. Similarly, the nationalist Islam of the Islamic Salvation Front, which as a political party almost took power in Algeria in 1992, but was blocked by a military coup, triggering a civil war in which about 100,000 Algerians died in the 1990s.

Religion, unsilenced, has reentered our lives in recent decades, through the democratic political system, drawing a large following in its wake as it made its appeal in the name of nationhood no less than in the name of God. In the next phase, it assails other religions as well as the old elites: “‘Westernizing’ leftists, secularists, heretics, and infidels – traitors, it is said, in our midst,” Walzer writes, summing up a familiar process.

The old, diasporic Jew is replaced by the young Zionist worker. Art by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1901

Marxists ans Post-Colonialists

Walzer devotes part of his book to refuting those viewpoints that see no paradox in religious revival springing from secular nationalism. Thus, according to the Marxist or the post-colonial approach, there is no real struggle or contradiction here, but a direct continuation of two forces that deep down feed off each other. Marxists will argue that religious beliefs and identities are the products of a false consciousness that is utilized by the hegemony of big capital to rule the masses. The national liberators don’t understand this and substitute nationalism for religion as a new smokescreen for the exploitative mechanism of the market forces.

Post-colonialists will long for a pre-colonialist past, when religious tradition was supposedly moderate and nurturing, indeterminate and dialogic. In their view, the modern expressions of religion are no more than the monstrous offspring of colonialism itself. Thus, the fighters for independence were merely continuing colonialism under a different cover and are thereby encouraging the growth of fundamentalism. In both cases, a religious resurgence is not a paradox but a logical outcome.

Walzer reminds Marxists that nowhere in the world, ever, has pluralistic universalism succeeded in supplanting national identity, and that foreign rule has been experienced in every case as national – not class – oppression. In addition, he notes, all the national liberators sought to create democracies, however flawed and imperfect, but their ambition was definitely to be accepted as legitimate members of the family of nations.

Contrary to them, the agents of religious revival challenge democracy, if they don’t actually reject it. They are not interested in universal values of human rights but in particular religious laws, whether of sharia or halakha or dharma, and they always rely on a fundamentalist interpretation of those laws. They have no wish to be part of the family of nations, but rather they counterpose themselves to it, like a charming teen with special needs. It is illogical, Walzer claims, to think that religious fanaticism springs naturally from democratic nationalism, as the two are utterly different. “Labor Zionism doesn’t produce religious zealotry; we might better say that its most authentic product is the Palestinian national liberation movement,” he writes.

The writer reminds post-colonialists that religion before modernity was not so moderate and accepting, but quite oppressive – toward adherents of other religions, for example, and toward women. On the contrary, the rise of religious fundamentalism is actually a reaction to liberalism, and above all to women’s liberation. What generated fundamentalism is not national suppression but the freedom spawned by democracy.

A Need for Dialectics

In the end, Walzer argues, the secular-liberal frameworks are too weak. They are unable to create a stable identity, sources of inspiration and, by the same token, continuity. They surrender in the face of religious revival. Walzer blames the liberators for not acting to bolster ties with the religious elements. If religion were accorded a larger place from the outset, the emergence of a religious contrarian character could be avoided. “Traditionalist worldviews can’t be negated, abolished, or banned; they have to be engaged,” he writes. What’s needed is a dialectical process in which the two poles are brought into contact and interact with each other to the point of creating a third entity. That did not happen, Walzer maintains, and we can see the results.

This, then, is his answer to the paradox of liberation: A total rejection of religion and a condescending attitude toward the religious public are the seeds that engender a fundamentalist religious revival. It is impossible to escape the past, and a tree cannot be made to grow without roots. Engaging tradition in a deep dialogue, Walzer writes with a measure of hope for Israel, “might still improve the odds – for the eventual success of Jewish national liberation.”

On Christianity and Other Religions

Although I agree completely with Walzer that an ignored past will return and make its presence felt sharply, and that it is of surpassing importance, even now, for secular society in Israel to enter into an intensive dialogue with Jewish tradition – I want to propose a different direction for thinking about religious revival, using his examples. This direction seeks to apprehend that revival in the three countries under consideration as a reaction not to detachment or to condescension, but to a foreign political and social superstructure. That is, simply, we should note that in each of the countries – Israel, India and Algeria – the religion that returns to center stage is not Christianity.

This is a significant point, because secular, democratic nationalism – of which an essential element is the separation of religion from state and the rendering of religion as a private matter for each citizen – is a phenomenon that derives from Protestantism and that is shaped by its religious model. In the cases under discussion, then, the reaction is not only one of a tradition that was forgotten, whether in a natural process or by force, and is now rising to the surface again: The reaction is that of a collectivist religion that harbors extreme ambitions for the public space, and that rises to the surface in contradistinction to a secularized, privatized political body that is structurally based along the lines of a foreign religious model.

Judaism, Islam and, to a lesser degree Hinduism, are incapable of fully digesting the process of Western secularization, which sprang from Protestantism. (Even Catholicism had a hard time accepting secularization, not recognizing it in essence until the 1960s in Vatican II.) It should be clear that any attempt to secularize the religions according to that model will generate a challenging response. Indeed, no fundamentalist resurgence occurred in Christian countries that were liberated from colonialism.

In a postscript to his book, Walzer surveys the liberation movement that transformed 13 British colonies into the United States of America, and admits, as in passing, “The idea of a secular state did not challenge the deepest convictions or feelings of (most of) the future citizens of the American republic.”

This is the core of the matter. As Walzer notes, the separation of religion from the state even gained the support of evangelical Protestants, because one’s relationship with God was perceived from the outset as a private and individual matter – not as communal, social or national. In short, the evangelicals view the state as a threat to religion; religious Zionism views it as the earthly foundation of the seat of God.

Consider, for example, Ireland, which gained its independence from Britain after a struggle. It’s always been a Catholic country, but the recent referendum approving same-sex marriage by a large majority indicates that the state is definitely not moving toward a revival of religious fundamentalism.

Similarly, the East European countries that attained freedom after years of Soviet domination are not spawning radical religiosity – whereas the movement for the liberation of Palestine is coping with a Muslim religious resurgence even before achieving its goal.

Prof. Walzer’s new book analyzes one of the fateful questions of our generation: why young democracies constitute fertile ground for the rise of extreme religion. He cites a great deal of evidence and presents the considerable resemblances in the three examples he writes about. Undoubtedly, the alienation between the liberating elite and the liberated masses played an important role in the return of tradition after its suppression. This is a spectacle we are witnessing today. However, it is not the whole story. The causes of religious revival need to be sought in religion.

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Published in Haaretz

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Gandhi, Sartre, the Depths of Violence

Between the years 1893 and 1914, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (later known as the Mahatma, or “Great Soul”), was living in South Africa, and it is then he formed his personality and his political and spiritual path, becoming a social and spiritual leader. Gandhi’s book, Satyagraha In South Africa, recently published in Hebrew (Babel Press, tr. Matan Kaminer) was written about the struggles he led as a local labor leader of the Indian migrant worker community there. It was through these activities that Gandhi consolidated his non-violent struggle principles, which he called Satyagraha. Decades later he would use this path in the fight for Indian independence from British rule. In South Africa he uses Satyagraha to force the British imperialist machine to acquiesce to the demands of the local Indian laborers for fair treatment.

Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore

Satyagraha means “Holding on to truth”, and is a principle rooted in ancient Indian culture, and to which Gandhi gave a modern rendering. The idea is that the truth – which here is not just the facts as they are, but the proper deed, action according to one’s karma, preordained role and ego-less work – has a power of its own, and those who hold on to it steadfastly, even at the cost of personal suffering, are assured of victory. In fact, the suffering which the holder-on-to-truth is willing to accept is an integral part of this path: By internalizing pain and sorrow the individual gathers inner power which is translated into effective force with which to change the world. This is a force that derives not only from the righteousness of the individual’s moral position and not only from his or her ability to bring their interlocutor to recognize this righteousness. In the end it is also a super-natural power employed upon the world by one who is at once within it and outside of it, concurrently in the conditional field and the absolute field, charged with the fire of justice and endowed with the lever of absolute truth.

According to Gandhi:

Satyagraha is soul-force pure and simple, and whenever and to whatever extent there is room for the use of arms or physical force or brute force, there and to that extent is there so much less possibility for soul-force. […] not only has hatred no place in satyagraha, but it is a positive breach of its ruling principle. […] In passive resistance there is always present an idea of harassing the other party and there is a simultaneous readiness to undergo any hardships entailed upon us by such activity; while in satyagraha there is not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent. Satyagraha postulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one’s own person.

Gandhi led the Indian laborers in South Africa on various campaigns and time after time managed to force the British rulers to capitulate to his demands – without, as mentioned above, resorting to any violence whatsoever. Gandhi’s critics would claim that his method is only successful against an opponent capable of appreciating courage, nobility and fairness, an opponent like British colonialism and unlike one founded upon totalitarian ideology or fundamentalist religion. This is probably true, although one should keep in mind that Gandhi was perfectly willing to die for the truth he held, and to him this would not have proved that he had lost the struggle, but rather that he had upheld the truth to his death – a priceless achievement according to him.

Sartre with Che Guevara

In the preface to Franz Fanon’s book The Wretched Of The Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre brings a completely different approach to the struggle against oppression. Sartre states that the duty of the oppressed is but one: “to thrust out colonialism by every means in their power.” According to Sartre the irrepressible violence of the oppressed is “neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself.” For Sartre:

…no gentleness can efface the marks of violence; only violence itself can destroy them. The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms. When his rage boils over, he rediscovers his lost innocence and he comes to know himself in that he himself creates his self. Far removed from his war, we consider it as a triumph of barbarism; but of its own volition it achieves, slowly but surely, the emancipation of the rebel, for bit by bit it destroys in him and around him the colonial gloom […] The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity. For in the first days of the revolt you must kill: to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man.

Like the pod of a thorny thistle about to burst, this text holds within it the seeds for several fertile post-colonial vectors currently eating away at the moral and ethical spine of various Western intellectual circles. Sartre not only shows tolerance for anti-colonial violence, but puts it on a pedestal, seeing its deployment as the personal realization of the occupied person, his final release. Sartre’s existentialism-is-humanism gives a license to kill anyone by any means, provided that the killer be in the midst of a struggle for political liberation. According to Sartre, en route to achieving political freedom the violent person will also achieve his or her own personal liberation, for he or she is fulfilling their duty and obligation toward themselves, indeed recreating themselves.

It is important to see that while Gandhi’s path is different, opposite in fact from that of Sartre, it aims at the same outcomes. Not only does Gandhi, like Sartre, wish to remove the yoke of the oppressor from the neck of the oppressed – that goes without saying – but like Sartre, Gandhi also sees the consolidation and liberation of the oppressed individual the essence of his struggle. The struggling individual, with his duties towards himself as well as towards the surrounding society, are at the heart of the liberation journeys depicted by these two thinkers, and they both forge an ethical framework within which the individual is supposed to act in order to realize his goal – which is to say, his self-realization.

In addition, note that for both violence is the axis around which one must align throughout his or her journey. For Gandhi violence is the weapon of the weak, the oppressor, and the ability of the oppressed to make him employ it unopposed, the ability of the oppressed to persevere in non-violence and the willingness of the oppressed to endure the oppressor’s brutality, are supposed to bring about a transformation on both sides: The oppressor will realize the immorality of his actions, whereas the oppressed, through his holding on to the truth, will enhance his moral image and gather power (political, and as mentioned above, super-natural as well). For Sartre it is incumbent upon the oppressed, in response to the oppressor’s violence, to retaliate in violence and destroy him. For Sartre, as well, a transformation occurs on both sides: “There remain a dead man, and a free man.”

The different directions to which the two thinkers point the violence – Gandhi inwardly, Sartre towards the other – are replications in miniature of divergent cultural directions in East and West (speaking in a schematic and simplified manner). Major schools of Eastern religions provide their adherents with a path of spiritual progression based on looking inward to the soul. The individual is required to direct his actions – or his refraining for various actions – towards a transformation that is mostly internal. On the other hand, the Western religions turn away from man, to a divinity that is inherently different from him. Here the individual is required to direct his actions towards the “complete Other”, the source of truth and good as far as he is concerned, to refrain from that which this supreme source forbids and to try to get closer to it, or become more like it, inasmuch as he can. While India and China will give us different kinds of “spiritual paths”, Rome and Israel will give birth to different ways to stand before heaven, to pray.

These two paths translate into a relationship with the violent element in life. While the West will use violence as part of the dialogue with the divinity – sacrifices, crusades, jihad – the East will teach itself to internalize violence, use it upon itself in various forms of asceticism and self-denial. As said, this division is highly schematic, and there are more than two ways to address violence in both hemispheres. But I think this division is well illustrated in the cases before us, of Sartre and Gandhi. Sartre turns outward to deal with the problem he encounters. Gandhi turns inward. Sartre is in a dialogue – that turns into a monologue. Gandhi is in a monologue, which is intended to produce a dialogue.

Gandhi’s and Sartre’s thinking, with the central place they accord to violence in the individual’s spiritual/existential journey, raises the centrality of violence in man’s search for meaning. We must note how different this idea is from our typical approach to violence as modern people. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out how far mankind has come since the days when violence (along with sex) was a central means of religious ritual. Killing and intercourse were means to achieve intimacy with the divine. Through the offering of sacrifice and through sacred orgies the basic urges served as steps to the Gods.

A great change took place with the rise of religions which distanced the spiritual or sacred realm from the world and from nature. Upanishadic Hinduism, Buddhism, Rabbinical Judaism and then Christianity and Islam all turned the desire for violence into a negative thing, and violence itself into a necessary evil at best. Violence ceased to be a way to worship the divine, and sometimes turned in and of itself into a taboo, something forbidden (at least in theory).

After the Protestant revolution the West underwent another phase, in which violence became something despicable, a sin. In fact, in the modern perception we have become accustomed to writing off violence as nothing more than a malfunction, something that happens when proper order is upset – a nuisance. But if we recall the roots of the human attitude to violence, perhaps we can better understand what excites so many young people about violence, from brawls over football to enlisting in wars they have nothing to do with.

In his book Humanity, philosopher Jonathan Glover brings testimonies of soldiers (mostly Russian and American) who describe taking part in war as nothing short of ecstatic. Beyond the intensive activity and the blood-ties forged between the fighting men, the encounter with death – and with killing – placed the individual face to face with the yawning chasms of his soul. He quotes a Vietnam veteran who testifies that war

is for men at some terrible level the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: the initiation into the power of life and death. It is like lifting off a corner of the universe and looking at what’s underneath.

One may wonder whether, in the course of our diligently cultivated bourgeois respectability we haven’t lost something, some direct contact with the underbelly of things, some deep intuitions regarding the forces that drive humans. We may have forgotten that they are not only the aspiration for freedom and goodness, but a yearning for the absolute, for life and death. Of course, these very sentiments were sounded from fascist throats in the early 20th century. They also mocked bourgeois refinement and glorified violence. I have no intention of joining them. I wish only to offer another vantage point on the desire for violence – and most certainly not to approve it.

Both Gandhi and Sartre, I think, treat violence with the respect it deserves, as a deep element around which various forces are arrayed in the human soul, as an essence in reality through our relationship with which we learn about ourselves – and about the truth. It seems to me that without denying many other reasons (religious, cultural, social, economic), only through such an understanding can we properly evaluate outbreaks of mass violence, be they in the West during the world wars, or these very days, in the Iraq of the ‘Islamic State’.

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Published in Hebrew on Makor Rishon newspaper.

Post-Humanism, Post-Theism – Religion and Ethics in the Trans-Human Project

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is the beginning of the sixties, the first sixties ever, and St. Paul is disclosing his own personal transcendence, which he understands as redemption from Original Sin. He is no longer himself, but another lives in him – or is it through him? His very self is transformed and altered – it is no longer “he” who lives. Something very dramatic has happened to his spirit or his soul. As for his bodily life, the life he lives “in the flesh,” it is also changed: It is now lived “by the faith of the Son of God,” sustained, perhaps even animated, by a higher power.

2014-06-07_192818There is nothing new, then, in humanity’s attempts to transcend itself. Quite the contrary: Religion and post-humanism have been intertwined, sometimes even synonymous, since what has been called “the Axial Age” – in other words, the era, around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., when religion and philosophy became self-reflective, universally inclusive and emphasized self-cultivation through ethical rites and processes. Indeed, the Moksha of Upanishadic Hinduism and Jainism, the Nirvana of Buddhism, the Ataraxia of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, and the redemptive “putting on” of Christ for early Christians – these are nothing if not post-humanist and trans-humanist visions thorough which the individual transcends and transmutes his or her self.

The Ecstacy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin, Oil on Canvas 1643

Truth be told, for almost 2,000 years, the West has turned its back on post-humanist projects, and busied itself with the proper construction of man. Partly due to its Judaic heritage, partly inspired by the Hellenistic traditions (especially the Aristotelian and Platonic), the Christianized Roman Empire sought to establish its association with Truth not through rejection of man, but by placing him (and sometimes her) in a proper dialogical relationship with God, or The One.

Being the ultimate Other, the transcendent divine of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism held within itself the Truth , and required any who wished to partake of it to look to “Him” for answers. This yearning “upward,” toward the transcendent, ceased in the first centuries of the Common Era to be actualized through mystical ascent and apotheosis for all but a very select elite, and for most believers meant instituting an inter-subjective and dialogical connection with the great Other, often through sacred texts and rituals.

Through a process that Hegel would later refer to as the master-slave dialectic, this double-ended relationship intensifies and empowers not only the master – in our case, the transcendent God – but also the slave – in our case, the religious human. The Western perception of the human being was configured as an autonomous individual in large part through its understanding of itself as a dialogical partner engaged in an intentional relationship with the divine Other.

Humanism thus owes many of its roots to the religious traditions of transcendent monotheism. It is against and toward the transcendent divine that Renaissance man, and later the Protestant reformers, laid down the first tracks of the humanist project, a project that even at its highest ideological point, arguably at the end of the 18th century with the American and French revolutions, relied on God for the origination and continual securing of (what was beginning to be called by then) human rights.

It is not hard to understand, then, why the decline and final fall of the transcendent, monotheistic God has presented the humanist vision with a fundamental challenge. The destruction of the transcendent idea, brought about by the consolidated processes of the rise of the naturalistic perception of the universe, the de-mystification of life caused by the scientific revolution and the augmentation of inner-worldly and subjective sources of morality and authority (such as rational-analytic thinking, or inner – “spontaneous” and “natural” – feelings and passions) made the idea of a transcendent God either unnecessary or unthinkable, and brought about wide-ranging unbelief, on the one hand, and a different kind of religion, on the other.

It is to that last kind of religion that I will turn now, as I would like to propose that it is the basis for both the modern spiritual search, as displayed in the contemporary spirituality milieu (sometimes referred to as “the New Age”), and to the different groups engaged in a trans-human soteriological quest, based on technological achievements and scientific, or quasi-scientific, assumptions.

Singularity and monotheism 

Now, when referring to the religious characteristics of the technological quest for the improvement and transcendence of man, I am not just addressing the obvious points of resemblance between ideas such as Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” and monotheistic Messianism. As can be understood by the title of Kurzweil’s 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” there is not even an attempt to camouflage the clearly Messianic patterns of discourse.

I am also not speaking about groups such as the Raëlists, the Immortalists, the technopagans or the Luciferians, all of which have distinct religious themes and characteristics, and display clear and even conscious use of religious symbols and ideals.

I am referring rather to the structure of this religious quest, its form more than its content. For it is the form of religion that has fundamentally changed over the last few centuries in the West, leading to a process of secularization that is much more post-theism than a-theism. By post-theism, I mean a religion that is not centered around the grand old monotheistic transcendent king, but one that is concerned with what Foucault would call “the care of the self.” It is a religion that manifests itself less as a communal faith, based on collective rituals and rules of social conduct, and more as a personal spiritual quest, or in a word: an ethic.

It is not, then, only a matter of free choice and the private fashioning of the faith. The turn from traditional organized religion toward an individual voluntary one is also the turn from traditional ritual and law toward the individual’s concern with his or her own spiritual perfectibility. It is this change that we must note well, for it is this which ties the contemporary spiritual scene to the post- and trans-human projects at this time.

Now, to understand this religious metamorphosis, we must appreciate the dramatic consequences of the loss of the transcendental monotheistic god. Note that the assumption of a transcendental source of authority and truth is closely associated with a binary view of reality that presents clear dichotomies between presumed opposites such as this world and the next, nature and man, matter and spirit, body and soul, and man and woman. Moreover, in order to appropriately obey our God, we must fully embrace only one part of each binary couple, and seek divine truth by rejecting the latter and yearning, as it were, up and away from our earthly existence.

The elimination of the transcendent God has made this-worldly reality the focus of our religious life. It is in our present condition that we seek truth and redemption, through the phenomenal world as we see it, be it nature, our body, our mind or our feelings. A system of ethics, which regularly includes moral tenets and meditation practices, is supposed to bring us, by adherence to it, to full realization of religious redemption (whether spiritual liberation, emotional balance, or unification with nature).

In a way, this is a return to the transformative type of religiosity displayed by St. Paul, as mentioned above, and by Hellenistic Epicureanism and Stoicism, Upanishadic Hinduism and some strands of Buddhism. It is also the type of spiritual life we can sometimes find in the mystical traditions of the West, such as Sufism, Kabbalah, neo-Platonism and Hermeticism. What makes the current state of affairs in the West revolutionary in this respect is the magnitude and prevalence of this religious logic. From being the esoteric approach of a distinct elite, it has become the obvious and evident religiosity of the masses. Indeed, it is the dialogical “covenant” made with a transcendent God that has become a rarity in contemporary Western culture (though more in Europe than in the U.S. and Israel, of course).

I see trans-humanism, being the view that humans can and should (be permitted to) use technology to transform the human organism, as a specific creed within this major religious current. As with many New Age spiritual paths, it aimes to improve the individual condition in order to achieve superhuman goals, such as extended memory, bionic strength, full immunity to disease and even immortality. It thus offers a way towards private redemption, the difference from most of contemporary spirituality being that instead of a practical rule of ethics, it uses advanced technology for that purpose.

But the effort to improve and transcend the human condition is mutual. As Patrick Hopkins writes in an article entitled “Transcending the Animal: How Transhumanism and Religion Are and Are Not Alike”:

I see transhumanism as a reaction to the perceived oppressive and disappointing limitations of given human nature. Like religion – but unlike accepting or coping secular humanism – transhumanists want strongly to transcend the animal and actively work toward doing so. Unlike merely hoping that transcendence can occur, transhumanists aggressively pursue the physical practices, the technologies, that could make transcendence a reality.

What I would add to Hopkins’ account is that this specific type of religion, in which active effort is made to transcend the human “animal” in this very life, was, as stated earlier, quite rare in the West during the last two millennia, and has only since the second half of the 20th century become a wide-ranging, mass phenomenon. I wish to note that trans-humanism is located as a specific stream within this mass phenomenon.

The strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor

And yet, there is a fundamental difference between the varied trans-humanist projects and the various spiritual paths, and it is this difference that eventually directs these enterprises toward quite opposite routes. We must remember that for almost all the religious mystical paths, transcending the human body was closely tied with transcending the human self. As St. Paul proclaims in the opening quote: “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

For Epicureanism, Ataraxia was achieved by understanding that the self is no more than a conflation of material particles, and not an ethereal soul. For strands of Hinduism, Moksha was realized when the individual understood that the Atman was in fact not the personal self, but identical with the one universal Brahman. For Buddhism, the goal was to realize that there is no separate self at all, and for different Hasidic courts, the self was the Godhead itself. Indeed, one could define the mystical quest (and I heard this brilliant definition from Moshe Halbertal) as the very process of gradual or abrupt de-selfization and de-individuation. These patterns of purpose and intention are still maintained within contemporary spirituality circles today.

In contrast to this, the trans-humanist project seeks to maintain the very same human self that exists at the outset of its path. That self may be improved upon, made stronger or smarter, may even be immortalized, but it will not be essentially changed, and definitely not annulled. I see this as a principal distinction between these two projects of “care of the self,” and as a strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor.

The reason I see this as a fundamental mistake on the part of the trans-humanists (judging from their point of view, at least so long as they want to forward human freedom), is because the self that is imagined to be improved upon and immortalized is no more than a particular human cultural construct, specifically being the rational analytical self of the Enlightenment, itself a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul. This view of the human self was presented explicitly first by Rene Descartes, and fully developed in the works of Emanuel Kant. Taking this self to be the true or real human self is erroneous, and disastrous for any work built on that assumption.

To give a quick example of this assumption I would like to take two recent movies: “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze, and Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence.” In both these films, a human or human-like intelligence is “uploaded” or created to or in a computer. This intelligence acts as a sentient being, or in simple words – a self. On the other hand, this trans-human self has no physical body, and “moves” through cyberspace at will.

I propose this view of matters, shared by many post- and trans-humanists, is totally false, and is built, as said, on the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul. As with the Judeo-Christian soul, it does not take into account the unbreakable bond between our mind and our body. I am not arguing that only brain tissue – and not silicon chips – can produce consciousness. I’m not a substance chauvinist and certainly believe that, as the saying goes, “it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.”

What I am saying is that our consciousness is dependent on our body to understand itself as well as to function. I cannot go into this in proper length, and will just stress that we are embodied creatures and only through the body can we make sense of ourselves and our world. That is why we use our hands while talking, even on the phone. That is why we think better while walking. That is why our languages are filled with metaphors of space and time in order to comprehend mind and spirit. Indeed, even words like “superhuman” and “trans-human” are spatial metaphors, and “post-human” a temporal one.

In the film “Her,” the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes love to his artificial intelligent partner, and she actually has an orgasm – without a body. I think the very fundamental ways in which our body affects our feelings, emotions and consciousness and in which these are dependent on it are mistakenly ignored in this post-human fantasy.

To understand how much we are indebted to the Judeo-Christian soul when we imagine an out-of-body consciousness, I would like to suggest we try to imagine a cow’s consciousness being uploaded to a supercomputer. At first glance, it must be considered easier to upload a cow’s consciousness to a computer than that of a human, a cow’s consciousness being that much simpler. But we are unsuccessful in imagining a cow’s “self” living a virtual life within cyberspace. I believe we are unsuccessful in this because we grant special status to the human mind, and that because our view of it is, as said, the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul.

When the female protagonist in “Transcendence” (played by Rebecca Hall) talks about her partner (Johnny Depp) and claims that “his mind is a pattern of electrical signals … we can upload his consciousness,” she is simply using pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to secularize the idea of a separate soul, able to disconnect from the body. When her partner accomplishes said uploading and claims “my mind has been set free,” he is plainly delivering the trans-human secularized version of the “hallelujah” shouted by the religious individual reborn in Christ.

The view of the self in much of trans-humanism, is, then, no other than a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul, thrust through the prism of the Enlightenment and “technologized,” as it were, to update it for the 21st century. It is a particular view of the human self, time and culturally bound, and quite oblivious – as its archetype, the soul, was – to the fundamental and unbreakable tie between the mind and the body.

Following this philosophical blunder – another. This view of the human self is static within the trans-human project, meaning it is not to be changed or transformed, even while the human body is changed or transformed “around” it. This is fundamentally different, as stated earlier, from the dynamic view of the self in different spiritual traditions, a self going through metamorphosis.

Here we come to another principal difference within these two currents of the contemporary endeavor for the transcendence of man. As C.S. Lewis put it as early as 1944 in his The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

Or, we would say today, technology. And it is those wishes of man, subduing reality, that also disclose the ethical bankruptcy of trans-humanism, for when those wishes are fulfilled they will set human life in one determinate direction. Thus, changing reality instead of ourselves, we will perpetuate the dictatorship of our self as it is today, reducing choices and options for alternative lifestyles and setting the standard for any human existence to come.

As C.S. Lewis says, these future men will be “weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands, we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.” Without changing our selves, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

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The article was presented as a lecture last month in a conference titled Oh Man Oh Machine: The Politics & Aesthetics of Posthumanism, Tel Aviv University. It was published yesterday in 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.

Spirituality, Athletics, Yoga, Pizza

At the end of February this year a woman named Ronnie Abramson went to a yoga class. Amidst the positions and stretching exercises she was dismayed to realize that the instructor was telling her about the month of Adar, the Book of Esther, the feast of Purim and the Almighty. Abramson, who sought only a standard yoga class, felt that she was not getting what she paid for, and was in fact suffering a minor assault of religious coercion. She wrote a short account of the experience for ‘Haaretz’ in which she asks that secular folks be allowed to practice yoga without being forced to listen to religious sermons.

In a certain sense she is absolutely right – what does yoga have to do with Purim? Why must she serve as a captive audience for the creative homilies of the yoga teacher? In another sense, the history of yoga allows us to appreciate the deep irony of this situation. Yoga, which originated as a spiritual, even religious discipline, has undergone a radical process of secularization and has turned in the West into a series of exercise techniques. The gulf between what yoga once was and what it is today is as deep as it takes for Westerners wishing to purchase a yoga class as just another product in their shopping cart to be totally devoid of any awareness whatsoever as to its roots, and so are shocked when someone tries to add God into the mix.

The Living Point of Conception

So how did we get from this...Swami Vivekananda is widely considered to be the father of modern, non-traditional yoga. Vivekananda grew up in Bengal, in Northeastern India in the late 19th century, in a family belonging to the region’s rising middle-class. The Bengalis were the most Westernized of all Indians under British occupation, and were deeply influenced by Western culture. Accordingly, Vivekananda planned to become a lawyer. But in 1881, upon meeting Ramakrishna, one of the greatest Indian saints of all time, his life changed forever and he assumed the habit of a monk. As a Hindu monk Vivekananda sought to revive religion in his homeland, but his karma had a different fate in store for him. He was among those chosen to represent Hinduism in the “Parliament of the World’s Religions” held in Chicago in 1893.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was one of the first attempts at ecumenical symposium, and attracted many representatives of religions. Vivekananda was not the sole representative of Hinduism, yet he quickly became its most famous. But then again, how can Hinduism even be represented? After all, more than a religion, it is a colorful amalgam of beliefs, schools, customs, laws, competing philosophical approaches and several thousand gods and idols. Vivekananda’s solution to this problem was simple: He presumed to present the American audience with “the very centre, the very vital conception” of Hinduism, as he put it. And what is this center, this point of conception? This is nothing less than the living experience in which the individual soul comes face to face with the divine. This, said Vivekananda, is Hinduism itself. For those seeking to reach this living point, he added, Hinduism had developed yoga.

A Universal Technique

Vivekananda claimed that yoga is a universal technique beneficial to all – men and women, Occidentals and Indians – and that there is even no need to convert to Hinduism in order to reap its benefits. He stated, in so many words, that it is the heart and essence of all religions, and that Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) can become better Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) by practicing it. He explained that yoga is the gift of spiritual India to the materialistic West.

And he reaped thunderous applause. Americans couldn’t get enough of him. Vivekananda promptly embarked on a series of lectures throughout the US, which in turn led to the writing of books that became international best-sellers, and these led to the establishment of instructional and spiritual centers. Due to his popularity in America Vivekananda became a national hero in his native India. The Indians, who were accustomed to being the target of scorn from Westerners due to their supposedly primitive and idolatrous Hindu religion, could thanks to him proudly raise their heads and feel that they, of all people, have the deepest religion and philosophy. Here, even the Americans admit that yoga is the universal spiritual path!

Modern yoga centers, inspired by Vivekananda, were opened both in the US and in India. Yoga became the flagship of Indian spirituality seeking renewed legitimacy, and Vivekananda was the captain at the helm. The problem was that in order to enter the fast lane the skipper was forced to jettison most of the cargo. Therefore, it is perhaps worthwhile to return for a moment to the roots of yoga in order to understand how Vivekananda’s version of the practice and of Indian philosophy differs from traditional yoga.

Who’s in for Kaivalya?

The canonical text of yoga is called ‘Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’. This short text was composed sometime around the 3rd century CE, and it presents yoga as an intricate spiritual path which starts with the assumption that our pure true self, our ‘Purusha’, must disengage from the world and all that is in it, which are known as the ‘Prakriti’. This Purusha, mind, is different from everything we usually define as a ‘self’. It has no thoughts, memories, aspirations or any characteristics whatsoever. In short, it is not a ‘self’ in any accepted sense. Everything we are accustomed to seeing as a ‘self’ is considered a Prakriti which we must leave behind on our spiritual journey.

The over-arching goal, the supreme ideal of yoga according to Patanjali, is therefore not seeing the divine or even communing with it, but what is called Kaivalya, which means “alone-ness”. The yogi is supposed to reach a state in which their Purusha is completely detached from the Prakriti, and “they” exist in shining eternal solitude as pure, content-free awareness. It is hard to find anyone who is much tempted by such an existential state nowadays, and perhaps that is why Vivekananda did not mention it much to his American admirers.

It should be said that since the 3rd century yoga has undergone many changes and broad alterations, and a goal such as meeting or communing with the divine has become accepted within its circles. On the other hand, until the 19th century it has never been conceived as a neutral and universal technique applicable to believers of all religions. It most certainly was never conceived as a series of exercise drills meant to bring helath and proper posture to its secular practitioners.

The Pizza Effect

...to thisHinduism scholar Agehananda Bharati coined the phrase “The pizza effect” back in 1970 to describe what has happened here. Pizza, in its Italian origin simply a sort of bread, arrived in the US along with Italian immigrants. In the land of opportunities the pizza became a doughy tray of cheese, vegetables and meat, and became immensely popular. When Rome saw how much people love the American version of their traditional dish, they also began to bake pizza as we know it today, and Italian pizza integrated the American innovations. Today, not only are we blind to the process undergone by this popular treat, but we also know for certain that pizza as pizza should be – original pizza – can only be had in Italy.

The pizza effect, therefore, describes a process of acculturation – that is, change, integration and cultural customization – in which a traditional item undergoes Americanization, and then returns to its homeland and wins popular acclaim in its new form. This form then becomes the authentic form of the item not only for Americans (or Westerners in general) but also for the local culture, due to a naivete eager to buy anything the global market offers for sale. Agehananda Bharati shows that many Indians practice modern yoga, which is not traditional at all, a yoga that returned to them following “adjustments” in America (and at this point we may note that Bharati himself was an Austrian Catholic named Leopold Fischer who became a Hindu monk).

In the case before us the pizza effect works both ways. Vivekananda brought yoga to America, where it met with phenomenal success and has become an export item that fills the hearts of Indians with pride (‘Look at us, teaching the decadent West what true spirituality is all about!’). On the other hand, Vivekananda’s yoga wasn’t the ancient yoga, but a modern, white-bread version of Indian tradition, which gives up the traditional context of its beliefs and customs, and adds to the original dough base various goodies such as humanism, feminism, materialism and empiricism. Vivekananda learned all of these from the British colonialists. The Americans who fell in love with Vivekananda’s gospel fell in love with a westernized version of yoga, even before changing it further themselves, each according to their own lights. They bought Indian goods which even on Indian soil had taken on more than a bit of the West’s image and likeness.

Jewish yoga, Yogi Judaism

The yoga we find before us today, therefore, is a modern product presuming to distill a universal technique from the Indian tradition. Sometimes it still preserves spiritual pretensions, and its practitioners treat it as part of their spiritual journey. At other times it has turned into nothing more than a light athletic endeavor, in which case it is seen as the ancient Indian method of keeping tight skin, a firm butt, and finding a mate with similar attributes. All this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good that different people find use in a foreign cultural heritage, and that they have the freedom to choose and adjust themselves to whatever advances them by their own lights. We call it democracy.

On the other hand, the wonder at God being mentioned in a yoga class is misplaced. Yoga was a religious matter from the start, and there is no reason that it shouldn’t continue to be so. True, it was never associated with Purim, but that is only one of the changes yoga is undergoing these days. And at this point we meet one of the changes Judaism is undergoing these days. Here we have a new-age Judaism seeking to utilize a foreign spiritual technique in order to enrich its world. Jewish yoga produces yogi Judaism. Like yoga in the modern age, Judaism is changing, and often turns from a covenant between a certain god and a certain people, or from a tribal nationalism, into a ‘spiritual path’ for the seeking individual. And that is also not a bad thing at all.

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Published in Maariv newspaper, 19.4.13. Translated by Rechavia Berman.

How Kabbalah shaped the Mormon faith

Joseph Smith

Mormonism is a subject of fascination to Americans and the rest of the world. Its unusual sets of beliefs were widely discussed and studied long before U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney strode onto the national stage. Less well known and studied is the way the doctrine is shot through with kabbalistic beliefs.

In a book from the early 1990s, "The American Religion," literary critic Harold Bloom mourned the transformation of respectable American Protestantism into a Gnostic dispensary of fundamentalism. To Bloom, the religion of Europe’s Puritans had grown wild and unrestrained in the liberated soil of America. This, he said, led to the flowering of all sorts of strange religious movements, like Christian evangelism, various New Age movements and, of course, Mormonism.

Bloom was particularly interested in Joseph Smith, the religion’s founding prophet. He had created a truly “American religion,” writes Bloom, which taught religious devotion to family, community and financial success.

In addition to being a talented and original theologian and a highly charismatic figure, Joseph Smith was the source of many of the esoteric theories pervading the North American continent in the first half of the 19th century. And, his theories were colored by the supernatural-theological worldview of the kabbala.

Citing the many points of similarity between Mormonism and kabbala, Bloom posits the “more direct influence of the kabbala on Smith than what we know.”

This would help explain the extreme divergences between Smith’s views and those of the conventional Protestant denominations that were his jumping off point.

The opening page of 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700), from which Joseph Smith studied Kabbalah

God’s wife

According to Smith’s theology, the God who controls our world was once a human like us. He had a spouse and the two of them had corporeal bodies of flesh and blood. God is a model for men on earth in that every Mormon is also capable of becoming a deity of his own star along with his wife. This, of course, implies that there are many gods who rule over many stars.

Smith held that his doctrine was the recounting of the esoteric knowledge revealed to the first human, Adam, by the deity of our star. From Adam, God’s wisdom was passed down through the generations, passing through Noah, Abraham, Moses and the ancient Hebrew priests and finally, was revealed to Smith’s followers.

The purpose of the doctrine is to facilitate the realization of human potential by transforming men into gods. This notion is not just foreign, but in fact, antithetical to the Puritan Christianity from which it emerged.

Puritanism saw man as a vessel full of guilt and disgrace. Born into sin, the best this wretched creature could hope for was to claw his way toward salvation through shamefaced submission to the Son of God. Man was light-years away from being some sort of galactic deity.

What Smith was offering his followers was a stark alternative to the severe and ascetic Christianity of Puritanism. He promised them the renewal of prophecy, the building of paradise on Earth and ultimate personal empowerment. As an added bonus, he threw polygamy into the deal.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

Jesus’ second coming, in America

Joseph Smith was born in 1805, the fifth of 11 children from an impoverished family in Vermont. When he was 14, following a period of severe mental distress, Smith had his first vision where the deity himself assured him that his sins had been forgiven. Along with this, God warned him not to join any of the churches in the vicinity because they all distorted the true word of the Bible.

In 1823, three years after his first vision, Smith fell to his knees again and called out to God for guidance in the depths of another mental crisis. This time the angel Moroni appeared before him and told him that he was the last survivor of an ancient Hebrew civilization that arrived on the shores of North America at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. These ancient Israelites did what Jews always do and fought amongst themselves until one sub-group among them (henceforth known as the evil ones) put to the sword the members of the other group (the good ones) and annihilated them.

The evil ones, after being cursed by God, developed over time into the different tribes of American Indians. All that was left of the good ones were the tablets of gold upon which were engraved their history in the ancient Egyptian language.

The angel Moroni directed Smith to the spot where these tablets were buried and instructed him to dig them out of the ground. After Smith laid his hands on the tablets he immediately began translating the ancient Egyptian writing on them. The result was an impressively broad volume containing hundreds of pages of narration that told the history of the bad ones and good ones.

Perhaps even more importantly, this narrative also included the second coming of Jesus Son of God to humanity – an event that occurred on American soil before these very same ancient Hebrews who had reached America. This was “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” as was proclaimed in the sub-heading of the Mormon’s holy book. Clinging to his holy book, Smith went out to acquire believers. He succeeded well beyond his expectations.

In order to understand the secret of Smith’s success – and the success of his bible – it is worth taking a step a back and gaining a bird’s-eye view of the above-mentioned occurrences and placing them in their proper context. This period was the peak of the Second Awakening in the United States, a period of religious revival during which many Americans joined various Protestant denominations. Around Smith, the religious muses were ubiquitous, with new prophets popping up seemingly from under every tree.

Not far from the home of Smith, Jemima Wilkinson exhorted sexual abstinence and fidelity to the Ten Commandments. Handsome Lake, a Native American prophet, preached fiercely against alcohol, witchcraft, gambling, violence against women and homosexuality. There was Joseph Dylkes, who announced that he was the Messiah who had come to rebuild Jerusalem; George Rapp, who established a community of religious hermits and announced the approach of the Second Coming of Jesus; Bernhard Muller, who dubbed himself the "Lion of Judah" and declared himself the messiah; William Miller who founded the largest messianic movement in U.S. history and declared that Jesus would return to this world by March 1844; John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the early socialist Oneida Community, who preached about sex without ejaculation as means of achieving spiritual elevation; and of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who left his position as a reverend of the Unitarian Church and commanded, “Cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with the Deity!” He was a clear precursor of New Age spirituality.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

An age of prophets

The age was ripe for prophets and their followers, and Smith was no exception. His was an attempt to create a new society in which sexuality served as an important source of spirituality. He preached neither sexual abstinence nor sex without ejaculation, but polygamy. Instead of a faint promise of the future coming of the messiah, Smith’s prophecy was a megalomaniac attempt to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in the present, on Earth.

Where did Smith derive his inspiration? He was undoubtedly an exceptional person, with a vivid imagination and enormous creativity. But every creative spirit needs raw material. Smith found his in the esoteric literature of his era, which led him to the Kabbalah.

As a curious teenager, Joseph Smith was able to read a fair share of Western esoteric literature at his neighbor’s homes or in different public libraries. The esoteric literature of the period included the legacy of the Renaissance, Hermeticism, the Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, alchemy, astrology and Magic.

Hermeticism was an esoteric practice based on ancient texts that were apparently written by a god/king/prophet/ master sorcerer named Hermes Trismegistus. This Hermes was, apparently, a contemporary of Moses and revealed to humanity the secrets of the universe at the exact same time that Moses gave the Torah to the Israelites. The historical source for the more ancient parts of the hermetic corpus is found in the early centuries of the Common Era, in Greco-Egyptian Alexandria, and therefore contains a mixture of Greek and Egyptian myths.

In contrast to many Western tracts, the Hermeticism emphasized the greatness of man and the ability for the complete synthesis of spirit and matter. Based on this doctrine, the soul is a refined type of matter, and therefore this materialist and sordid life is not a thing unto itself; there is even the possibility of achieving divinity without separating from life.

"You are the light and the life, as God the Father from which man was born," states Hermes, echoing similarities with Mormon theology.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

Kabbalah for Christians

With respect to the Kabbalah mentioned here, this wasn’t the same Kabbalah diligently pored over by the students of the Vilna Gaon or the Lubavitch Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Hasidism, during this time period, but rather the Kabbalah translated into the vernacular for a Christian readership. In the eyes of the Christians who were interested in it, the Kabbalah was thought to be the secret Torah that Moses gave to Joshua, and from him to the elders of Israel, and from them to the prophets. But unlike traditional rabbinic Judaism, the Christians believed that the Kabbalah was also given to the Israelite priests. The inclusion of the ancient Israelite priests was likely due to every story about the Temple in Jerusalem being seen by Christians as having some esoteric and mystical value (this was also true for the Freemasons, another movement that flowered around the same time). The Christian Kabbalah included different translations of the Hebrew texts into vernacular with additional commentary that presented it as a universal bible that in practice was philosophically Perennialist (meaning, that it stands at the base of all human knowledge).

Smith’s interest in the Hermeticism and the Kabbalah alone are enough to shed light on the sentence found at the beginning of the Mormon cannon, in the Book of Nephi, the first volume of the Book of Mormon. After the first verse in which the narrator presents himself, the second verse states: “I will make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” The Jews were a muse to Joseph Smith. The use of “the language of the Egyptians” ties the Book of Mormon to Hermeticism.

The comprehensive research of Michael Quinn — a historian of the Mormon religion and follower himself whose research findings led him to be kicked out of the Mormon church — paints a portrait of Smith as a fairly committed esotericist, despite his eclectic and autodidactic education. The world of the young Mormon prophet included astrology, Magic, the preparations of talismans, trading in holy relics, remote viewing and especially, prophetic visions.

Quinn demonstrates different links between Smith’s prophecies and the book, “Traditions of the Jews," written by the anti-Semite Johann Andreas Eisenmenger that was translated from German into English in the 18th century. It appears that this book taught Smith that the Hebrew word for God (elohim) is actually written in plural form, an understanding that aided the development of his anti-monotheistic theology, which explicitly acknowledges a plurality of gods.

Other books in Smith’s environment hybridized the kabbalistic meaning of “original man” (the first emanation of the divinity after its contraction) and the biblical meaning of “Adam” (as the first human, in the Garden of Eden). This compound meaning was passed onto Smith, apparently leading him to view the first human as a being with godly powers, and Adam’s descendants – that is, today’s humans — as having a latent potential for godhood.

from 'The Traditions of the Jews' (1742, originally in German, 1700)

A Jewish convert to Mormonism

Above and beyond the books Smith read, it appears that much of his education on the secret Jewish Bible was acquired from a Jew named Alexander Neibaur, who arrived on the shores of the U.S. from London and converted to the faith of the Mormon prophet. As Moshe Idel writes in his book “Olam Ha’malakhim” (“World of Angels”), we have in our hands a list of Neibaur’s books, which include several important works of Kabbalah. The encounter between these two figures occurred in 1841, and between 1842 and 1843 the official Mormon newspaper published articles on Kabbalah, some of them written by the Jewish convert, mentioning, for example, the book “The Sohar” (referring to “The Zohar,” widely considered to be the most important book of Kabbalah.) It seems Smith learned from Neibaur to take the first verse of the Bible, “At first God was created” and to interpret it in one of his last teachings as the invitations issued by the chief god to the other gods to a supreme council in which the creation of man and the transfer of the secrets of eternal life to him and his descendants were discussed.

Smith had one purpose, to renew the Israelite nation of yore. For this purpose, prophecy was renewed, priestly orders were established, and temples (not churches) were built. Even the polygamy of the Patriarchs was renewed. Smith wanted to build "Zion" on American soil. Smith spoke of a new society, where people would share their property, and were faithful to the true Bible coming from the lips of their leader. The same leader, Smith, pretended to rule this utopia as a “prophet, priest and king” entrusted by God to be responsible for the fate of his subjects.

In 1844, after they were chased out and expelled from Missouri, tens of thousands of Mormons moved on to Illinois. There, Smith established the city of Nauvoo, which grew rapidly and soon numbered more than 10,000 inhabitants, approximately the size of Chicago at the time. Smith himself was the city’s mayor, and when the harassment of the Mormons began again he announced his candidacy for the U.S.presidency. in elections scheduled that year. His secret plan was to annul the separation of church and state after his election and to establish a kingdom of priests, with himself at its head. Several months later, he was killed in a lynching.

In his book, Harold Bloom writes that “If there is already in place any authentic version of the American Religion then, as Tolstoy surmised, it must be Mormonism, whose future as yet may prove decisive for the nation, and for more than this nation alone.”

Bloom perceived with his sharp senses that the esoteric path to godhood (or at least to economic success) in our days added up to much more of an ethos than penance for Original Sin.

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Published in Haaretz, 5.10.12


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

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