Spirituality and Social Justice: Insights from the Jewish Mystical Tradition

Rabbi Or N. Rose (Friday, 4 Dec., 2:30–4:00 PM)

This presentation was of particular interest, since I’ve read a fair amount about Jewish mysticism and have spoken about it in relation to Hindu teachings and practice on several occasions. When I arrived after lunch, the room was already nearly full. The chairs had been rearranged from the normal rows into concentric circles, and the one next to the presenter was still empty. The rabbi welcomed me and said, pointing to the chair, “Here, this one has your name on it.” An auspicious beginning.

Rabbi Or N. Rose is an associate dean at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Boston and co-director of the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE), a joint venture of Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological Seminary. He has written extensively on Jewish spirituality, interfaith cooperation, and social justice.

To begin, Rabbi Rose asked us to follow along while he intoned a nigun, a wordless chant that would help us to center. Once a mood of quietude was established, he began his presentation.

First he explained what Kabbalah is. The word has two meanings. The first is “that which is received,” in other words a whole body of teaching that has come down through a succession of illustrious Jewish thinkers. This called to mind the Sanskrit word sampradaaya, meaning a preceptorial lineage by which knowledge is passed along from guru to disciple, generation after generation.

Nowadays the Kabbalah is defined as a body of esoteric spiritual teaching and practice that has recently become the focus of renewed attention and is being disseminated around the world. The rabbi explained that in early decades of the past century Jews in central and western Europe who were trying to assimilate felt some embarrassment about the ideas and practices of Kabbalah, which they thought outmoded or superstitious in the light of modernism. Kabbalah, having been taught and practiced more openly at various stages of history, once again became re-esotericized. Now there is renewed attention that can be seen as part of a larger process. After a hundred years of scientific and technological advancement, people everywhere are returning to ancient wisdom traditions.

The second meaning of Kabbalah is “a receiving,” which is to say a mystical experience. Kabbalah is both the body of spiritual knowledge and the direct, inner experience of that knowledge.

Although the history of this tradition is very long, Rabbi Rose next drew our attention not to its beginnings but to a flowering that took place between the 12th and 14th centuries in Provence, Catalonia, and central Spain. Again in the 16th century there was a veritable renaissance of Kabbalah in the city of Safed, located in the hill country of the Galilee. Yet another flowering took place in Eastern Europe in the 18th century with the Hassidic movement that began in Ukraine and rapidly spread outward.

The Zohar [Book of Splendor] is the crowning work of all Kabbalistic texts. It began to appear in manuscript form in the 1290s. It is considered the third greatest Jewish text after the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament) and the Talmud (a vast collection of ancient rabbinical instructions). Tanakh—

Rabbi Rose had prepared a handout that contained a diagram of the Tree of Life (etz ha-hayyim), along with six passages quoted from great Jewish mystics and a letter written by Abraham Joshua Heschel to President Kennedy in 1963, calling for “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity” in the struggle for African-American
civil rights.

He directed our attention first to the diagram. What he said next was revelatory. “Look first at the white space on the page.” Who would ever think of that? Of course the eye (and then the mind) would be drawn to what is on the page, in this case the diagram of ten circles interconnected by 22 lines. “Look at the white space.”

How do the many come from the One? That is the primary philosophical question, and now the rabbi posed another question: how do we understand the tension between the unity and the diversity? That is indeed a point to ponder.

Kabbalists talk about the unfolding of divinity as “no-thingness” and as limitlessness

The Kabbalists talk about the unfolding of divinity, and that is the reason for this diagram of the Tree of Life. What is the divinity that unfolds? The Kabbalists call it by two Hebrew names. One is Ayin, the other is Ein Sof. Literally Ayin means “nothingness,” and it is an apt name for the Divine, of which nothing can be said. (I qualify this by inserting a hyphen: it is “no-thingness” and not an absence or extinction of being.) Any articulation of no-thingness is a futile attempt. Why, because it is infinite. That is the meaning of Ein Sof—limitlessness. Being infinite, God transcends conceptualization, the limitation of thought and language. The names Ayin and Ein Sof are two ways to indicate the ineffable, transcendental One.

Aware of this, Maimonides, the great Jewish thinker of the 12th century, developed a negative theology. Too much talk of God traps us in our own conceptions; that is a form of idolatry that limits our capacity for growth. Other traditions have also employed this same technique. Its oldest expression is in the Brihadaaranyakopanishad, in the formula neti netyaatmaa, “the supreme Self is neither this nor that.” This Hindu practice of neti neti is known in Western theology as the via negativa or the apophatic approach. It is exclusive to no one religion or philosophy.

The Kabbalists of the Zohar maintained that God is always and ultimately Ein Sof. Granted, God is always Ayin, the indefinable no-thingness, but as humans we crave a rich theological language to capture our own encounters with the Divine. And so there are two approaches—the negative one already considered and a positive one that, conversely, floods the mind with images. The latter is a lush symbolic system that stimulates growth and transformation.

Back to the Tree of Life. The diagram represents the matrix of the cosmos. The white space of the page is the ultimately inconceivable Ayin, infinity itself. The diagram contains ten sefirot—“spheres,” “illuminated bodies,” literally “countings” or “numbers.” (The Hindu philosophical system that developed an analysis of the universe and its workings is the Saankhya, a name that also means “enumeration.”) The rabbi did not go into the origins of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life but suggested that it possibly was influenced by Pythagoras and other earlier thinkers. The One and the many are inseparable, he said, pointing to the interconnecting lines, which are open lines of communication. If I understood correctly, the number one is the unmanifest Infinite and ten is symbolic of its countless manifestations.

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