What this Topic Means to Me:
By: David Bashevkin
Ever since I was a little child, I was fascinated by mysticism. In third grade, I used to lie to my friends that my grandfather, a rabbi (this part was true), was also a Jewish mystic (not at all true). What drew me to mysticism? I think it was a fairly simple, dare I say childish, commitment that there is more to the world than what we can rationally see or explain. That was the way I saw the world then and continue to see this world. With time, mysticism became a more formal system and approach through which I applied that founding principle to God, Judaism, texts, and – most importantly – myself.
Mysticism can seem like a troubling proposition for those committed to purely rational thought. Particularly as analytic philosophy and it’s more practical cousin, computer programming, become more prized forms of thinking. Mystical thinking has been discarded by many as a relic of a more ignorant human past in favor of computation as representative of a more idealistic future. While I appreciate the advancements that the modern world has achieved, I do think it can at times obscure what is, in fact, real.
In twelfth grade, I had a brilliant art teacher named Darren Singer. He had a striking artistic mind and a very warm spiritual soul. He taught me how to charcoal and introduced me to the musical sounds of Medeski Martin & Wood. His most lasting influence on my life was from a small book he recommended called The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I later discovered that my distant cousin, Stacy Schiff, wrote a biography on the author that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The Little Prince is a profound book. While it is written for adults, the book is actually dedicated to a childhood friend and reads:
I ask the indulgence of the children who may read this book for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a serious reason: he is the best friend I have in the world. I have another reason: this grown-up understands everything, even books about children. I have a third reason: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs cheering up. If all these reasons are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child from whom this grown-up grew. All grown-ups were once children—although few of them remember it.
In many ways the entire book proceeds from the sentiment within this dedication. It is a book about recovering the lost innocence and wonder of childhood. Each chapter shares a different short story of the fantastical travels of the mysterious Little Prince as he tries to understand why the adult masses in the world seem to occupy themselves with such trivial behavior. In one of the most famous and moving passages in the book, the protagonist explains how he has kept his childlike wonder:
Here is my secret. A very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.
I think this moving line captures much of what mysticism tries to cultivate: learning to see with your heart. Mysticism begins to articulate what otherwise would be ineffable.
Shalom Carmy, in a powerful essay entitled Forgive Us, Father-in-Law For We Know Not What to Think: Letter to a Philosophical Dropout, describes the difficulty of seeing that which is otherwise invisible to the eye:
C.S. Lewis says somewhere that if you point at something, a normal human being will want to know what you’re pointing at; a dog will come up and sniff your finger. That is how a dog thinks. Adopting this perspective, you can consistently assert that a painting has no transcendent meaning—that it is no more than an arrangement of colors on a surface, one which people happen to interpret as a picture of another thing, and you can argue that the fact that people ascribe depth and meaning to this visual image is to be explained fully through reference to the arrangement of these persons’ nervous system. You can dismiss spiritual insight the same way: our supposed experience of God is nothing but a physiological reaction to mundane sensory input—keep your eye on the finger, not at what it signifies.
The difference between staring at a finger versus what the finger is pointing towards is an apt metaphor for how Jewish mysticism refocuses our perspective. Jewish mysticism in particular is less about a confined set of texts than a reorientation of sorts towards understanding what Jewish law, Jewish texts, and, most importantly, life itself is pointing towards.
I recently wrote an article for Tradition, as part of their symposium on Jewish thought, entitled, “Jewish Thought: A Process, Not a Text.” In order to introduce my approach to Jewish thought, I introduce readers to the three role models who in turn introduced me to the works of Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (1823-1900), a Hasidic thinker who played an essential role in my personal development. Each of my teachers – Rav Moshe Weinberger, Dr. Yakov Elman, and Dr. Ari Bergmann – highlighted a different component of how Jewish thought should impact our thinking. Rav Moshe Weinberger, whose introduction to the works of Rav Tzadok I have discussed in other contexts, modeled the importance of experiential resonance: mysticism that both reflects and elevates personal experience. Dr. Yakov Elman introduced me to the importance of omnisignificance: “the basic assumption underlying all of rabbinic exegesis that the slightest details of the biblical text have meaning that is both comprehensible and significant.” And Dr. Ari Bergmann introduced me to the world of consilience, a jumping together of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. Each of these animate the world of Jewish mysticism ensuring that it is not reduced to a body of texts, but can become a life-guiding perspective. As I write:
Studying Jewish thought—with a focus on this unifying process, rather than on learning a specified body of texts—is an antidote for the drawbacks engendered by the push towards immediate practical application. Jewish thought, then, is not a text—it is an orientation. Experiential resonance, the search for omnisignificance, and a search for consilience can transform a focus on the formal study of texts about Jewish thought into a life filled with moment of meaning, that ultimately become a more thoughtful life, and a more meaningful Judaism.
Talmud says that prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to children (Bava Batra 12b). At some point in all of our lives the childlike wonder we each had begins to diminish. The Little Prince was frustrated that adults mistook his drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant for a hat. C.S. Lewis bemoaned those who looked at a finger instead of towards where it was pointing. And Jewish mysticism helps restore our wonder and focus our perspective on what is truly essential. “It is not what is on the page; it is what is within us.”
Wonder Post-Wonder: Topic Introduction
By: Yehuda Fogel
Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and He gave it to me. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)
In the late 15th century, Japanese shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), 8th shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate, sent a damaged bowl for repairs. When the bowl was returned, it was mended but ugly and stapled, motivating local craftsmen to try their hand at more elegant styles of repairing broken objects. And so kintsugi was born. Kintsugi, literally “golden joinery,” is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with a resin developed to look like solid gold (and often using real gold).
Through kintsugi, cracks and breakages do not spell the end of a pot or bowl, rather they set the way for a deeper adornment. As the Jewish bard Leonard Cohen murmured in his epic song “Anthem”:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
The kintsugi method treats this literally, as cracks birth golden rivers streaming through the broken ceramic. Brokenness is no longer hidden or thrown away; instead, the possibilities and power hidden in the cracks shine in full relief. This is a matter of design – kintsugi is related to the broader Japanese value of wabi sabi, a world view that emphasizes the impermanence and imperfection that comprise the state of reality. Adorning the very imperfections of this world with gold is a subtle yet powerful choice to live with greater beauty, in spite of it all.
In the twentieth century, our world cracked. Like a simple clay pot, fallen and in pieces, the world shattered. Systems of truth and power, ethics, art, and culture could not stop the atrocities of the 20th century. For many, this was the age of the death of men, with the death toll rising ever higher and higher. Others insisted the world lost even more than the catastrophic loss of life. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “In Auschwitz died, not only man, but also the idea of man.”
An innocence was lost in the 20th century. Facing the catastrophe, humanity now knew uncomfortable truths about what both man and God could do. The act of faith, and particularly the wonder of mysticism, are in many ways built upon a foundation of the kind of innocence now lost.
Where can a people go, a person go, a world go, after the death of innocence? Enter second innocence. Second innocence, or second naivete, is a position that affirms innocence in the face of all the challenges to innocence. Second innocence is the affirmation of innocence, of truth, of beauty, in the aftermath of a broken world. This is the decision to live a life of wonder, even though one knows all the ways that the world may not be filled with wonder.
Why does modernity need mysticism? It is no small coincidence that some of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of Jewish mysticism have occurred in the immediate aftermath of catastrophe. In the wake of the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, suffering the consequences of the inquisition, the Arizal and a group of his friends, teachers, and students in Safed led an intellectual revolution that profoundly shaped the future of Jewish thought.
In the aftershock of catastrophe, perhaps mysticism is most needed. The mystical impulse is not easily defined, as there are many qualities and aspects to mysticism. Even Jewish mysticism has been practiced and studied in many different matrices. But we can turn to the wealth of words and ideas within the many mystical texts of the Jewish people to find wisdom and wonder in the modern era. We can look to our mystical thinkers to better appreciate the unseen aspects in a world in which everything is seen, everything is visible.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs invoked the words of English poet Elizabeth Barret Browning when exploring the mystical impulse. Her words offer a window into what we might hope to see:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more from the first similitude.
In the past century – and in the past year – we have seen the world aflame. Perhaps it is time to look with wonder at the fire. It is not for nothing that as the world has aged, the mystical tradition has opened up. Texts and philosophies that were once secret, obscure, and impenetrable – esoterica studied only by the most righteous – have been opened up to contemporary readers. Perhaps the rarefied thought of Jewish mysticism has opened up in the modern era – from 1840 until today – specifically to address the needs of our disenchanted world. In a world lacking adornment, in which every crack is seen, we can turn to mysticism to remember that there is something more, under the surface of ourselves, our world, and our religion.
Joey Rosenfeld: Can Mysticism Heal Us?
By: Yehuda Fogel
Franz Kafka, the Jewish-German writer who understood well the complexity of engaging with the suffering of the world, once wrote in a letter:
You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.
Kafka is saying that the suffering that occurs from holding back from suffering is the only truly avoidable suffering; the pain of avoidance is the avoidable pain. So often in our lives, it is our desperate attempts to not engage with our own pain and the pain of our world that lead to untold further suffering, greater complications than we first encountered.
Torah, particularly the Torah of mysticism, provides both an exit and an entrance to the sufferings of this world. One route a mystic of any faith can take is world-negation, dismissing pain and all of this world as a false reality that pales before the true, spiritual reality. This perspective chooses to dismiss the sufferings of this world, in favor of a deeper, truer, spiritual reality. A different path mystics can take is engaging with the suffering of the world, encountering the fullness of the brokenness of the world. This path allows the presence of God despite the suffering of the world, and perhaps even because of it. Friedrich Neitzsche once said that “nothing decisive is ever built except on a ‘despite everything.’” In the idiom of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one must find joy and meaning with it all, in spite of it all, despite it all – אף על פי כן. The thoughts and path of Joey Rosenfeld move beyond ‘despite the brokenness,’ into ‘precisely because of the brokenness.’ Joy and meaning can be found not only despite, not only אף על פי כן, the brokenness, but even דווקא, precisely because of the brokenness.
Beauty and meaning and joy are present in the world not only despite the brokenness of our fragile world, but precisely because of it. In a lecture on “despite” and “precisely”, Joey cites a line from the Mittler Rebbe, the second leader of Lubavitch, followed by his own commentary:
“I heard from my father who heard from his teacher [the Maggid of Mezritch]: It is impossible to understand the secrets of the Torah unless one has a natural darkness in their nature.”
Joey Rosenfeld: If a person wants to understand the benefit of secrets of the Torah, there has to be an acknowledgement that things aren’t fine on a surface level. If a person doesn’t recognize that things aren’t fine on the surface, there is no need to descend into the reservoirs of what lies underneath. Somebody who feels like everything is in order on the outside has no need for interiority. One who wants to understand the secrets of Torah, must have a proclivity towards the brokenness of life.
Joey works with the very human ground of suffering, as an addiction counselor and spiritual director in a drug rehab clinic. In a touching profile of Joey’s work and thought in Mishpacha Magazine, Joey explains this process, and the wellspring of hope that is buried in the depths of suffering:
While I’m not affiliated with any particular chassidus, to my mind Rebbe Nachman of Breslov speaks most closely to this recognition that it’s specifically within a person’s pain or suffering or discomfort that he can come closest to Hashem. Not because that recognition forces you to do teshuvah and become better, but because it forces you to acknowledge that G-d is so large that He’s even found in those places as well. And I’ve found that my ‘clients’ in the center where I work — heroin addicts, hardened alcoholics, and other people who you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley — can relate in a very real way. You see, Rebbe Nachman says two things: that it’s forbidden to give up hope, and that really, there’s no such thing as giving up hope. That even when a person reaches a place where it seems he’s lost hope, even there there’s hope. That’s because that deep, G-dly part of the soul is never detached from Hashem, and can never really give up. I call it the irreducible part of the soul, that no matter how low we fall, as long as we’re still breathing, it’s there.
And on a certain level, all addiction, from both a psychological and spiritual perspective, is an attempt to numb the anguish of losing hope, to quiet that voice that drives the discomfort by telling you how things should be different, that you’ll never find your place, instead of being totally okay with who you are and where Hashem put you.
Hope – in spite of it all. Hope – because of it all.
For many contemporary thinkers and spiritual seekers, Kafka represents a kind of modern mystic, or as Robert Altar puts it – “Kafka as Kabbalist.” This identification, like Kafka himself, provokes without providing easy understanding or interpretation. To think about it, read Kafka’s short story “Before the Law”, and the correspondences between Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem about Kafka. On one level, it is the very desperate drive for meaning and hope beyond the fractures of this world. However, it is through the fractures of this world that truly highlight the mystical impulse of Kafka. Walter Benjamin wrote this of Kafka:
To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain of eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure.
Encountering and engaging with the suffering world – from within the world – and discovering hope and beauty on the very ground of failure: such is one doorway to mysticism; such is one doorway to the world that mysticism offers.
Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, once said that “earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope.” Albert Camus, philosopher and author, felt that Kierkegaard’s line was true of Kafka as well. While we often think of Kafka as a writer of literature of despair, Camus sees in Kafka the death of early hope, as well as the audacity of true hope. In his lecture on the impossible hope of Kafka, Joey paints a picture of the desperate, impossible, moving hope that constitutes humanity, and that has moved the Jewish experience.
Joey Rosenfeld seeks healing and hope in this fractured generation – a generation seeking hope after hope, a generation seeking wholeness in a broken world. To get a sense of the deep learning and humble wisdom that Joey brings to Twitter (and the world), look at his popular “Is” series of lists, in which Joey puts diverse thinkers across time and space in conversation about one topic. Listen to Joey to understand that the fractures of life constitute the ground of joy, and that we can find hope within hopelessness. Joey joins us to talk about his experience with mysticism, his path, and what mysticism offers a broken world.