Reading Tomer D’vorah

As I previously mentioned, I am reading spriritual texts during each day of the omer. In particular, I’ve been reading a lot of Tomer D’vorah by Moses Cordovero. He is a mystic and a teacher of Mussar (albeit a few hundred years before the “Mussar Movement” came into being). As a result, I’m going in a direction I almost never travel in this blog: the theological. I should also give a “shout out” to Bram, who tweeted and asked me to share some of what I’m studying in the blog. So Bram, this one’s for you.

His basic thesis (at least as far as I’ve gotten), is that we live appropriately when we live in imitation of the Divine. That is, as God is forgiving, we should be forgiving; As God does not hold onto anger, neither should we (he is working off of a definition of God found in Micah 7:18 – 20).

I love the idea of imatatio Dei as an ethical basis on a number of levels. It serves us well in terms of thinking of ourselves as “God’s actors in this world” (which is the direction my theology tends to flow). It also connects nicely with a mystical mindview that sees any division between ourselves and the Divine as illusory. Finally, it takes Kant’s categorical imperative to a not necessary logical extreme*.

To the degree that we think of ourselves as God’s hands in this world, the idea that we act in imitation of God is almost tautological. For if God’s actions in this world are manifested only through our own actions, than our actions necessarily are related to Divine action (though not necessarily imitative). Rather, our actions may be almost definitional of Divine action, at least when we are at our very best.

When we adopt the mystical worldview, seeing ourselves and everything else which exists as part of a whole which we refer to as God, the case does not get any simpler. Rather, the question of us acting in imitation of God because even more complex. If we are a part of Divinity and act in imitation of Divinity, it is as though we are saying that our little finger may act in imitation of our entire body: I’m not sure it has any real meaning. We act, and by so doing, represent Divine action in the world (actually, the more I think about this, the less sure I am that it has any practical difference from the first case above).

Finally, looking at this from a Kantian lens (which is probably a terrible idea, because I never fully understood the Categorical Imperative, a fact which my college girlfriend who went on to get a PhD in Ethics bemoaned regularly) we find that ethical action is being defined as those actions which are generalizable not just to humans, but even to the Divine. While this is not (I’m pretty sure) where Kant went with this idea, it is a curious direction to go nonetheless. It raises the question of whether the same rules apply above and below (to use the mystical terms for the distinctions between the human realm and the divine realm), and suggests that the same rules do, in fact, apply. I’m not sure what that teaches us, except I’m pretty sure I don’t feel like it’s a useful direction to go, unless we are positing a God who is a product of humanity, rather than in some sense superior to humanity or having existence outside of humanity.

As I run through these ideas, I realize I’m clarifying my thinking a little, but not getting anywhere particularly new or useful. I guess it seems more like theological masturbation than anything else. Nonetheless, I believe that the value of what I teach lies more in what people hear than in what I say, and perhaps someone will read in my words something of use to them.

*Kant’s categorical imperitive, as I understand it, says that for an action to be ethical it needs to be universalizable. That is, if an action is ethical it must be ethical not just for me to undertake that action but for everyone to undertake that action.

Humility: You’re doing it wrong

After yesterday’s post on humility, I felt there might be a need for another look at the subject. Lest anyone think that humility implies a lack of humor, I thought I might talk about how not to be humble:

  1. While it may be okay to be proud of being humble, boasting about it to everyone you know seems like it misses the point.
  2. Telling your coworkers, “I can’t talk to you right now, I’m working on my humility”? Not so much.
  3. Deliberately screwing up so that you have things to be humble about (admittedly, there is a school of thought in Mussar that calls for making oneself appear foolish–for instance, walking into a bakery and asking to buy a hammer–in order to inculcate humility, but that’s different).
  4. Refusing to take a drivers test because you might pass, and after all, you know you’re not worthy of passing.
  5. Offering to teach a class in humility.
  6. Avoiding certain people because they “harsh my humility, man.”
  7. After beating someone else’s highscore, explaining to them that they shouldn’t feel bad, because really, you’re not very good.
  8. Printing up and wearing a t-shirt which says: “I got your humility right here, babe.”
  9. Going around all day and pointing out to everyone how they would act differently if they were as humble as you. (This is just a bad idea in general…it really will get you smacked a lot…which now that I think of it might lead to learning some humility…well, your choice on this one).
  10. Aspiring to be a Master of Humility.

If you’ve got more ideas, leave them in the comments:

Arrogance and Humility

I came to a realization this weekend. My humility? I lost it somewhere in the last year or so. Which is deeply upsetting, because I worked long and hard to become even somewhat humble. One might go so far as to say I was proud of having attained humility (and, as much as that seems an oxymoron, I don’t think it is).

Humility is one of the virtues that almost all religious traditions extol. That’s because it is, to some degree, a prerequisite for understanding our place in a universe which contains a God.

One part of a relationship to Divinity is understanding that next to Divinity, we have no significance, no value, no worth. Yet, despite that, we need to understand that the Divine does value us, and in most religious traditions, even loves us. We who are unworthy based on our own actions, based on any actions of which we are capable, and made worthy because we are loved (by being human and Divine).

Spiritual teaching tends to prize humility for another reason. Spiritual learning is often about self-transformation. If we are too arrogant (lacking in humility) we are unlikely to be willing to look at ourselves honestly and see  the need for change.

Finally, humility is important because it impacts the way we regard and treat others. When I come from a place of humility, I cannot judge another, because I know that I cannot do better. I am more generous in my opinions, choosing to understand the slights I may sense from others as unintentional. And I am much more careful in how I speak of others, being very careful not to criticize others behind their backs, or to tolerate in myself faults I condemn in others.

This is not to say that when I am humble I am perfect. I’m not. I’m nicer, more understanding, and a “better person,” but not perfect. I am less arrogant, which is important. I am slower to anger (or to become frustrated, because I’m assuming everyone is doing the best that they can).

There is a school of thought/behavior within Judaism called “Mussar.” Often it is translated as Ethics, but that isn’t quite right. It’s more about how one should behave, correcting one’s behavior to bring it closer and closer to the ideal. Closer to what we believe God desires of us and for us. It is in some ways very  similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, and can be a powerful tool for good (it can also be a powerful tool to beat down the spirit of someone who only hears the “you’re not good enough” message without the “you can do better because you contain the Divine within you”). And so, it is time for me to go back to looking in upon myself at the end of the day and evaluating my behavior. I need to ask myself whether I have failed to act as I should, whether I have hurt others.

Humility is, in the end, understanding that I am one of six billion or so humans, not to mention countless other animals upon this planet. And that I must act as such.  Not as someone special, but as someone who is seeking the way, just like everybody else.

As with much in life, the first step is recognizing the need. But we are all judged based on our actions, not our resolutions, and so it is time for me to re-examine myself, and seek to be the person I can be, and the person I wish to be.