Last week was a busy week rabbinically. I performed a wedding, spent an hour and a half consulting with an organization trying to decide what to become, visited a world religions class as the guest speaker about Judaism, spent most of Thursday hanging out with rabbis for the Oregon Board of Rabbis meeting in Eugene and taught an introduction to Judaism class about Mysticism. In between all of this, I wrote about 20,000 words of fiction, in which the protagonist is a rabbi doing rabbi-like things. It’s the mysticism class, however, that I want to focus on right now.
You would think that teaching a class on Mysticism would be fairly easy for me. After all, I self-define as a mystic. I have a fairly clear definition of mysticism (the belief in the essential oneness of everything). And, on a good day, I’m somewhat articulate. Yet, as I set out to plan the class, and also as I was teaching it, I found I was having trouble explaining something I understand fairly well.
I discovered that teaching mysticism is difficult not because the basic ideas are difficult, but because the background those assumptions are built upon is fairly extensive. Mysticism is not, in general, a way into religion, but rather the “upper level course,” as it were. While it is a simpler theology than many other forms of religious theology, it does, to some degree, require familiarity with those theologies to make sense. It also requires familiarity with secular philosophy.
As I was teaching, I discovered I had to back up and teach Plato’s metaphor of the cave. I discovered I had to back up and teach some basic theory about the academic study of religion: the separation between elite understanding and folk understanding of religion. I discovered I needed to teach a bit of history, to put events into context.
To me, most surprisingly, I found that I was teaching in a less linear way than I prefer. Rather, I was circling around, teaching the same ideas over and over again, hoping that by using different words, different examples and different metaphors, people would begin to get what I was talking about. I’ve often described theology as a process of pointing in a direction, and as you use multiple different accounts to point at the same place but while standing in different places, you begin to sense where it is those theologies point. I’ve never felt it so clearly as during this class.
By the end, I think about 80% of the students had a fairly clear idea of what I was talking about. All in all, that’s not too bad. After all, at least one of the students was asleep by the end. For me, however, it was a humbling experience. I think of myself as a good teacher, especially of abstract subjects, like theology or philosophy (or religion, for that matter). I’m not used to having to struggle this hard to explain something I understand. Yet, in that struggle, I begin to appreciated the struggles of those who tried to teach this to me. I don’t know how many times I had Jewish Mysticism explained to me before I began to get it. I assumed it was a function of me not being able to understand what was being said, or perhaps of teachers who were not as clear as they should have been. I begin now to see that we all struggle to explain something that verges on being beyond explanation, and is truly clear only through direct experience.
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By the way, for those who were wondering about the question from my previous post, I decided not to write on Shabbat. Because I was working towards a 50,000 word goal, it was too much about accomplishing, not enough about the spirituality of writing. And besides, I might have been a little obsessed with the writing thing, and a day off from obsession is a good thing.