December 27th, 2005

The Kabbalah

You remember how it was when you were a small child? How everything was new and full of wonder? Even if you had a hard childhood, your mind would open from time to time, everything around you would fall away, and you felt yourself joined with something higher. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t tell me you don’t remember.

Even as a young adult, when you were first exploring new books and music, love and sex, you had the nagging feeling that there was something behind it all, some kind of secret – not quite like the secret codes you played with as a child, but still a way of changing and hiding a deeper message. And maybe you tried to find clues to this message in your Scriptures, or in science, or in art and literature, and you felt you almost had it, but it still eluded you.

And there were bills to pay, kids to raise, endless meetings and interviews and hasty late-night dinners in front of the television before you dropped off to sleep exhausted. You found the answers that worked for you, and they worked well enough, and you stopped asking the questions, not because you didn’t care anymore, but just because you had other things to do.

So here you are. Maybe now you’re at what they call middle age (whatever that means) and you start counting your birthdays in terms of how many down, how many to go. You wonder what comes next. In those private moments you’ve never spoken of to anyone, you wonder why you bother at all. You’re tired – tired of everything, all the time. You catch yourself thinking that if something happened to you, and you didn’t have to do this anymore, perhaps it wouldn’t be an altogether bad thing. An early retirement, you could say ... and then the alarm clock rings, and it’s time to do it all again.

What brought us here, and why? We’ve looked for answers to these questions in books, you and I, and we know that none of the answers we’ve found have been satisfactory. What we need is not for someone to hand us a diagram with our place clearly marked in the Master Plan (although let’s admit it, that would be nice, woudn’t it?) – what we really need is to learn a new way of thinking. Or maybe it’s an old way of thinking. Or maybe it’s a way of not-thinking.

Or maybe ...

There’s someone inside, behind the mind, behind the feelings. This is the soul, the deep self. It strives and struggles to make its way through the world, knowing that this is its only way back home.

It knows what you’ve always suspected, that there is a deep underlying order, far below what the eyes and ears can find and far beyond what the mind can grasp. You’re dimly aware of this deep self, but if you think of it at all, you treat it as a problem to be solved, or a figment of your overworked imagination. You tell yourself you really need to get out more.

But still, you wonder ...

You’re not the only one:

“Rabbi Isaac said, ‘The light created by God in the act of Creation flared from one end of the universe to the other and was hidden away, reserved for the righteous in the world that is coming, as it is written: Light is sown for the righteous. Then the worlds will be fragrant, and all will be one. But until the world that is coming arrives, it is stored and hidden away.’

“Rabbi Judah responded, ‘If the light were completely hidden, the world could not exist for even a moment! Rather, it is hidden and sown like a seed that gives birth to seeds and fruit. Thereby the world is sustained.’” – The Zohar (translated by Daniel C. Matt in The Essential Kabbalah).

Depending on who you listen to, the Zohar was written in the First Century by Rabbi Simon bar Yohai, or around 1280 by Rabbi Moses de Leon. Don’t worry about it. The Kabbalah is the unfolding story of the soul’s search for itself, and the Zohar is one of its chapters.

This is the literature of the soul’s journey. It is often chaotic, sometimes contradictory, always symbolic and usually opaque. Is the Kabbalah Jewish? It can’t seem to make up its mind. It wants to be quintessentially Jewish, but it also wants to be universal – which is perhaps the most Jewish thing about it.

But isn’t it that way with all of us? Don’t we all have to struggle with that tension, the conflict between our uniqueness as individuals and our universality as human beings? And isn’t that what makes us human?

No one is watching you, and yet you feel you're being watched. Maybe you've had this feeling from time to time; maybe you have it now. You don't believe in God - you gave up this guy named "God", this old man in the clouds with a white beard, long ago. So you subtract things - prophets and saints, churches, synagogues and mosques, you subtract the body from the soul and the soul from the body, and you subtract everything but the random interaction of subatomic particles. And this is the only truth you're left with, but because it has no meaning, none at all, you subtract even that.

And yet you are still left with something.

Where do you go from here?

Do you turn back to the guy named God? That was where the process started, after all; so perhaps you can begin there. But He always disappointed you - because you expected Him to be human, like a man, and idealized, powerful, all-good and all-compassionate man, but somehow human nonetheless. And God failed you; he failed your expectation. He failed to be human.

But God is not a man. You always knew this, intellectually, but it only hits you now. The guy named God is an illusion, but there's something else that is more than real. It is not human, and you hesitate to call it "He". You hesitate to give it any name at all, but you have to come up with something, so you write the word with letters missing - G-d - because the whole enterprise is futile anyway. Or you could use another word, something neutral, Spirit, or Light, or Mystery, or The Way.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who lived in Warsaw at the time of the Nazi invasion, saw more death and cruelty than anyone should ever have to see. And yet - somehow - he kept teaching Torah, and he left a record of his teachings from the years 1940 to 1942. Unearthed by a construction worker after the war, this last work of Kalonymus, titled "The Holy Fire", is the spiritual diary of a man watching his world being destroyed.

In an entry dated Parashat Mishpatim, 5702 (February 1942), Kalonymus writes: "We learn from the commentaries that the voice of G-d at the giving of the Torah [on Mount Sinai] traveled from one end of the Earth to the other, and that Israel heard the voice of G-d in all the winds of the world. This comes to teach us that we must not think of the physical world as being far from the Torah, nor in opposition to it: it is not so. The voice of the Torah is heard from the whole world, because the world too was created by the word of G-d and the word of G-d is the essence of the world; it is only that human beings use the world in an evil way, and destroy the world that was 'created with ten commands' (Avot 5:1). And whoever uses the world for good, the world itself helps them in their study and deeds. ... For the world was created by the word of G-d, and the Torah is the word of G-d, and in fact the Creator is one with the Divine Word; and the whole Torah is contained in the Ten Commandments, and all the Ten Commandments were spoken as one word. And the Word of G-d in the creation of the world, and the Word of G-d in the Torah, are one."

Near the end of "The Holy Fire", shortly after the passage quoted above, Kalonymus (himself a kabbalist) returns to the Jewish mystical doctrine one more time. He is discussing the configuration of the ten Sephiroth, the potentialities or dimensions which kabbalists (and now physicists) tell us underlie the fabric of creation. In a conundrum going back at least to the sixteenth century, scholars have offered various ideas as to how the Sephiroth might best be schematically represented. Interestingly enough, Kalonymus eschews the familiar "Tree of Life" diagram (which can be found in any popular book on the Kabbalah) and returns to the older model of concentric rings. He presents two alternative views: "In the configuration of 'circles', each higher level encircles its [lower] neighbor, so that the Divinity surrounds all of them, and the World of Action [i.e., the lowest, material level] is at the center. In the 'direct' configuration [so called even though it is also circular], every lesser level enwraps its [higher] neighbor, so that the ray of the Infinite is found at the center, and the World of Action is outside." The first configuration, in which the greater surrounds the lesser, represents the body, for we stand surrounded by ever greater mysteries. The second, in which the greater is concealed within the lesser, is the way of the soul, for "there the soul, not the body, is of the essence."

Let's picture this. Warsaw is in ruins and Nazis are prowling the streets. Kalonymus' whole family have been murdered, and his people are being shipped off to the gas chambers day by day. He himself will make that trip in a few weeks. And here he is, writing about the unity of the world, and the soul, and G-d.

Our problems seem small when we compare them to the sufferings of holy martyrs like Kalonymus. But the thing is, they are our problems - they are not happening to somebody else!

And this is the point. No one else must endure our suffering, and no one else can solve our problems for us.

We grow older, and sometimes we feel we are being groud down by the hardness of living. But it is that very hardness that compels us to meet the challenges that were given to us alone. Your life is your own and your choices are your own.

The word kabbalah means receiving. It is the task of a lifetime to receive this life - to understand it, to welcome it for the gift that it is.

cross-posted here:

My Magic Moment with TechnoDyke

Wow, TD. I thought you'd forgotten.

I saw you on that little coffee shop on the corner of Trinity and Burnside. Or rather, you saw me. I was just minding my own business, going in for a single espresso like I always do, and you called out from the corner, "Hey, blue nail polish with that blouse ... WOW!"

I blushed, but you knew you had me. I sat down next to you - on that fancy couch they have that looks like the "Curious Sofa" from Edward Gorey - and we chatted for a long time. Then you took me for a drive up to Washington Park and we sat under the statue of Sacagawea, looking out over the city.

You put your arm around me, and even though I knew it wasn't going to be "like that", I was excited. Turns out we'd both lived in San Francisco at the same time but never met there. We swapped horror stories of the 38 Geary and the N Judah, and you talked about the time you'd slept at Baker Beach in January.

I asked you why you'd moved to Portland. You said, "Free wi-fi," but I knew there was more to it than that. You kept it to yourself, though ... you always were mysterious.

That was our only time together, but I've never forgotten. I still have the grass stains on my skirt to prove it. Glad you remembered ... I was afraid you'd forgotten me.

For the rest of the story - and to find out what that stain really was - read fatfeistyfemme.