The Text Defeats Me

Recently, I’ve been doing more “spiritual” stuff. You know, classically spiritual, like meditation and text study. Which is all well and good. But one of the “texts” I’ve been studying is Sefer Yetzirah. Now, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation) is considered esoteric, complex, even difficult. But I’m a rabbi. I have six years of graduate education in this stuff. If I slow down enough, I should be able to work with it.

And I can. Sort of. I’m even working with a translation and commentary. And therein lies the heart of my problem. I’m beginning to think that the translator/commentator (Aryeh Kaplan), while clearly brilliant, may be, umm, shall we say, “less than correct” in rendering the author’s original intention. It’s not that I think he’s all wrong. It’s just that I think he’s gotten so hung up on the tradition which came before him, and so hung up on his own knowledge of physics, that it’s getting in the way of his (or at the very least, my) mysticism.

The clearest example of this I’ve run across today is from his “clarifying” note explaining how the  ends of  various lines will always meet at the same point at  infinity (note 149 to chapter 1):

To prove that they all meet at a single point, we can imagine the three-dimensional continuum as the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. When the hypersphere becomes infinitely large, the continuum becomes flat. Still, all outgoing line, making “great circles” on the hypersphere, meet on its opposite side. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the curved space of general relativity, since the entire discussion here assumes an idealized flat space.

Now, I hear you saying, why don’t you just skip over that detail and continue on with his main argument. The issue is that, if I’m understanding him correctly, the point where all of these points meet is God. Which point, by the way, is both infinitesimally large and small simultaneously. And regardless of the dating of the text, I’m pretty sure the original author was not working from a vantage point that included non-euclidean geometry.

And then Aryeh Kaplan continues to build on this theory. And some of what he says makes sense, and some of it seems like it only works if you were following the argument about the ends of lines. These lines, by the way, are continua labeled Up and Down; East and West; North and South; Before and After; and the problematic one: Good and Bad. So the argument runs, that at the ultimate edge of “Good”, where it meets the ultimate edge of “Bad”, at that point we find God.

All of which goes to say, I’m feeling a bit like the text may have won this round. But then, if there is no struggle with the text, you’re not doing it right.

Trying to Teach Mysticism

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.

* * *

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.

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.

Weekend Rabbi

I spent an amazing weekend with Temple Beth Tikvah in Bend. It’s one of the few times when, as I rabbi, I did something that really made a difference that I can talk about. Most of the time, when I make a difference in my rabbinic work, it involves a person, and is their story to tell. When working with a group, I’m able to talk about it a little more.


The congregation is just starting out, having hosted spectacular high holiday services last month, is beginning to get around to thinking through what they do the rest of the year. They have about 30 families, which is amazing for a congregation that is only 6 months old and doesn’t really have much going on regularly yet. This weekend, I led services for them, taught some adult ed, and also taught a class for the kids. In addition, we talked a lot, and I did some organizational consulting.

The group of people in Bend is great, and are developing a really strong organization. However, this is a group that doesn’t have much experience starting a new congregation. In fact, the group doesn’t have a lot of experience with startups in general. In contrast, I’m immersed in startup-land, and have worked with a number of congregations in the early stages of development. As a result, I was able to give some advice that they were excited to recieve. How weird is that? I gave advice and it was valued!

Some of it came from knowing a thing or two about startups: you need a vision. You can’t build something unless you know what you are building. Some of it was based on congregational experience: get the religious school

central-oregon-3 online as early as possible, because that’s a big motivator for people to join. Some of it was based on marketing experience: it’s easier to sell a product that exists than vaporware.

The giving advice part of the weekend was fun, but maybe not the most exciting thing I did. This weekend, for my adult education session, I took a risk. I decided to try to teach mysticism.

Mysticism is really difficult to explain, but a fascinating philosophy of life. Mystical texts tend to be very technical, and hard to find a way into without a whole lot of context. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a shot. I taught Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook on love–and it worked! People understood both the text and mysticism by the end of an hour and a half. And I got to teach a text I really love.

I had a lot of fun this weekcentral-oregon-2end, and sense the congregation did too. I also got to drive into Central Oregon, which is beautiful high desert. I took a few photos on the way back…of the point and shoot variety, since I was driving at the time. But take enough shots, and some will turn out, even if you don’t look at what you’re photographing (and post-production helps a lot, too). So, for those who don’t know the beauty of Central Oregon, there are a few photos accompanying this post.