Chag sameach! We hope you had a great Shabbat and now we are also back with our light-themed Chanukah series. This time around, we opted for something that examines light from an abstract perspective – discussing Jewish enlightenment. No, not the Haskalah (not this time at least!), but rather spiritual enlightenment.
This excerpt is from rabbi and LGBT activist Jay Michaelson’s Enlightenment by Trial and Error. (If you’ve been following our Twitter account, you might also know him as the author of a certain popular poem about David and Yonatan 😉 )
Also make sure to check out our previous instalments:
Day 1: Ra’u Or: Essays in Honor of Dr. Ora Horn Preuser edited by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Day 3: Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom: Awakening Through Kabbalah by Rabbi DovBer Pinson
Day 4: Here Is Our Light: Humanistic Jewish Holiday and Life-Cycle Liturgy for Inspiration and Reflection, edited by Miriam S. Jerris and Sheila Malcolm
Day 5: An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales from the Torah, by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons, with illustrations by Pete Williamson.
Day 6: The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2021 by Rodger Kamenetz
And now for today’s reading…
What’s Different About Jewish Enlightenment? (Excerpt)
Earth’s crammed with Heaven
And every common bush afire with God
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Enlightenment” is sometimes regarded as a purely “Eastern” concept, foreign to the Western monotheistic religions. Yet the most important book of Kabbalah takes its name (Zohar) from the prophet Daniel’s (Daniel 12:3) prediction that “the enlightened (maskilim) will shine like the radiance (zohar) of the sky.” Who are these maskilim? The Zohar says that the enlightened are those who ponder the deepest “secret of wisdom” (Zohar 2:2a). What is that secret? The answers vary from tradition to tradition. Sometimes the secret is the substructure of reality, the human, and God, organized in the sefirot. Other times it is that the Torah’s literal meaning is not its true meaning. And sometimes, the deepest secret is nonduality: that, despite appearances, all things, and all of us, are like ripples on a single pond, motes of a single sunbeam, the letters of a single word. The true reality of our existence is One, Ein Sof, infinite. The appearances of separate phenomena–you, me, the book, the table–are just temporary arrangements of the letters of the alphabet, momentarily arrayed into words–and then, a moment later, gone.
One common Kabbalistic formulation of this principle is that God “fills and surrounds all worlds”–memaleh kol almin u’sovev kol almin. This formulation is found in the Zohar (for example, in Zohar III:225a, Raya Mehemna, Parshat Pinchas) and other medieval texts, such as the twelfth century “Hymn of Glory” which says that God “surrounds all, and fills all, and is the life of all; You are in All.” For example, Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, part of the circle of medieval mystics thought by scholars to have composed the Zohar, is recorded as saying “he fills everything and He is everything.” His colleague Moses de Leon wrote that his essence is “above and below, in heaven and on earth, and there is no existence beside him.” Leit atar panui mineha, “There is no place devoid of God” (Tikkunei Zohar 57).
Similar utterances occur throughout Jewish mystical history, particularly in the writings of Lurianic Kabbalah and Hasidism. In the words of the sixteenth century systematizer, Rabbi Moses Cordovero, “Everything is in God, and God is in everything and beyond everything, and there is nothing else besides God.” “Nothing exists in this world except the absolute Unity which is God,” the Baal Shem Tov is reported to have said (Sefer Baal Shem Tov, translated by Aryeh Kaplan in The Light Beyond). A later Hasidic master, Rav Aaron of Staroselye, wrote that “Just as God was in Godself before the creation of the worlds, so the Blessed One is alone [l’vado] after the creation of the worlds, and all the worlds do not add to God (may he be blessed) anything that would divide God’s essence (God forbid), and God does not change and does not multiply in them, and the worlds (God forbid) do not add anything additional to God” (Shaarei haYichud v’HaEmunah, 2b).
Such statements may be quite familiar to followers of other mystical traditions, and students of the “perennial philosophy.” Yet there are some distinct, and related, features of the Jewish conception of enlightenment, both in content and presentation, that distinguish it from others. The one I want to focus on here is that “all is one” is not the end of the spiritual journey, but in fact, precisely at its middle.
Whereas some traditions regard the knowledge of nonduality as the ultimate wisdom – enlightenment is the last stop of the road, so to speak; the final teaching – in the Jewish mystical tradition, nonduality is, in a sense, the beginning rather than the end of the wisdom. Jewish mystics begin with the shocking, and proceed to the ordinary. The Zohar, for example, spends much less time describing Ein Sof than it does with the details of the sefirot (emanations), not to mention angels, demons, and the mythical stories of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his circle. Likewise Cordovero, who devotes many pages to parsing the details of emanation and cosmology. Ein Sof is the basis, rather than the conclusion, of Jewish mystical theosophy. Nonduality is also the ground of religious practice, rather than the culmination of it. Never antinomian except in its heretical movements, Jewish conceptions of enlightenment do not end by transcending the conventional.
Hasidim, in particular, understood the enlightened consciousness not as a ‘steady state’ but what they called ratzo v’shov, literally “running and returning.” This phrase, from Ezekiel 1:14, has come to stand for any number of oscillations in spiritual life – for example, between expanded and contracted mind, being and nothingness. And it was understood that a mystic would have to experience such oscillation, as he (always he) contemplated the highest unity at some times, tended to the needs of his family and community at others. Often, the tzaddik, the leader of the Hasidic community, was expected both to enter the highest states of what we might call God-consciousness, and to provide for the community’s material and spiritual needs.
Jay Michaelson goes on to explore differences and similarities further, but we will stop here for now. Our last excerpt for the holiday goes live tomorrow (G-d willing). Thank you for following along! Also make sure to check out our buy 2, get 3 holiday sale – there is still some time…