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Joey Rosenfeld

Mysticism | October 20, 2020

Listen to “Joey Rosenfeld: Can Mysticism Heal Us?” on Spreaker.

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we sit down with Joey Rosenfeld, social worker and kabbalist, to talk about the differences between mysticism and rationalism and the roles they should play in our lives.

Mysticism is often misunderstood and dismissed by rationalists without much thought, but what is mysticism? One might define it by what it’s not: reductionism, which combined with complexity is science. But what if we saw things as their whole instead of their constituent parts? Maybe we’re limiting ourselves by reducing the big picture to a list of atomic components; maybe seeing the unfiltered unity in all things would be freeing.

Joey Rosenfeld began to learn Kabbalah in depth in yeshiva, when he was supposed to be dedicating his time to Talmud, and found its ideas to be profoundly life-changing. He does not fit the stereotype of the secluded, white-bearded mystic, as he is a social worker and addiction counselor. As someone with a unique window into people’s vulnerabilities, Joey sees deep connections between Kabbalah and psychology, particularly in the theory behind Alcoholics Anonymous, which drew from the work of Carl Jung.

What are the differences between rationalism and mysticism? Are they compatible or incompatible? What approach should people take when learning Kabbalah? Are there parallels between mysticism and therapy? And how is or isn’t mysticism suited for a modern audience? Tune in to hear Joey discuss the role that mysticism plays in his life, and how one can find peace in transcending rationality.

For more, visit https://18forty.org/mysticism/#rosenfeld.

TRANSCRIPT

David Bashevkin:

Welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re exploring mysticism. This is going to be part of a larger exploration of the topic, so be sure to check out 18forty.org where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

David Bashevkin:

It’s hard to know where to start a conversation about what mysticism is, and I almost prefer to begin the exploration with a consideration of what mysticism is not. I would almost throw out the question: “What do you think the opposite of mysticism is?” And I think it really reveals a lot when we approach this subject to think about, well, it’s hard to define – and maybe we’ll get closer as we listen to more – what mysticism is, but maybe we could look at the inverse and say, “What’s the opposite of mysticism?” And I think this is a conversation and a topic that has some instinctive responses, and I want to correct one of them.

David Bashevkin:

When people think about mysticism, I think they look at it as a spectrum of rationalism all the way down to mysticism, where mysticism is this elevated, metaphysical approach, and rationalism is this very grounded, factual, more logical approach, and I think that’s totally incorrect. I don’t think rationalism is the opposite of mysticism, and I think correcting that perceived antonym will help get us closer to what we really want to talk about, and what I think this conversation is really about.

David Bashevkin:

There’s a very noted thinker – he’s a very popular writer, a fairly avowed atheist – and I was always shocked by the way that he concludes his book. His name is Sam Harris, he has this book called The End of Faith, and this is what he writes towards the end of the book, and if you check out the video on our website, it deals a lot with this misconception. He ends his book by saying: “Mysticism is a rational enterprise. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion.” Now this is somebody who’s obviously not religious, but he is grappling with the need or the instinctive intuition that a lot of people have towards mystical thinking.

David Bashevkin:

And to understand what the opposite of mysticism is – at least in my opinion, which will help us get us closer towards what mysticism in and of itself is, and what I think we will be discussing – I think the opposite of mysticism is actually something else that I learned, a word that appears very often in a wonderful book by E.O. Wilson called Consilience. And this book is about unifying all knowledge, and this concept of the unity of knowledge, the unity of experience, of taking all of our fractured moments in our life, feelings of distance, feelings of setbacks, of obstacles, and developing some cohesive lens that allows you to feel unified as an individual, as a community, as a society, is one of the hallmarks of mysticism. And in this book, E.O Wilson has this wonderful quote where he says, “The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science.” And I wanted to talk about this word “reductionism” and how it figures into this quote, because I think reductionism is the opposite of mysticism. Reductionism is about breaking phenomena, experiences, processes, down to their individual parts. It’s kind of showing all of the disparate mechanisms in, whether it’s a machine, whether it’s an experience, whether it’s in a community, break it down and show all of these individual mechanisms are at play that give to this larger whole.

David Bashevkin:

And I think that reductionist thinking is really important, and as in this E.O Wilson quote, the love of complexity with reduction is to make science. This is the hallmark of scientific discovery, is taking these major processes, biological, physical phenomena, and breaking it down into their component parts.

David Bashevkin:

But the first part of the quote is really why I think reductionism is in some ways the opposite of mysticism, and that is the love of complexity without reductionism, without breaking it down into all those individual parts, but appreciating that larger picture, that in E.O Wilson’s quote, “The love of complexity without reductionism makes art…” And I think in some ways that’s also true in the guiding force that animates mysticism, regardless of the school of thought, almost regardless of the religion. This is something that William James writes in The Varieties of Religious Experience. The most central phenomena that is common in all mystical thinking and experiences is this gravitation towards unity, of finding connection between disparate parts, instead of breaking down processes and phenomena into these individual pegs and nails and – I’m a terrible builder, so I’m going to run out of examples really quickly – but you open up an engine and you have all of these disparate parts, that’s reduction because we’re looking at each one. But then there is a larger totality that emerges, what I think is related to the Gestalt school of psychology, which is saying that the sum is greater than the whole of its parts.

David Bashevkin:

There are things that emerge when all of those parts come together, there is a unity that comes together, a larger perspective that emerges. And I think that that’s at the heart of mysticism, and it’s at the heart of a lot of the discussions that we have this month planned all about mysticism, in that they are people who are looking to cultivate and create, whether it is communities, or individuals, people who are suffering, or even in texts, in reading, trying to create the tools and the methodology for a mystical reading. That doesn’t mean that it’s an irrational reading, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a rational or logical foundation, it just means that the core of what it is coming to analyze is much more interested in the totality and the whole rather than in the individual parts. And we struggled a little bit about what to call it. Should we call this “mysticism”? Should we call it, maybe, “Hasidut”, “Chassidus”, which is at the heart of the modern day school of mystical thinking. Should we call it “Kabbalah”, which is the Jewish school of how it’s been spoken about. But I think there’s something larger, and I don’t want to be guilty of discussing mysticism itself with a reductionist lens, which is why the vague title of “mysticism” I think is fairly fitting for what we’re going to be discussing.

David Bashevkin:

And in this idea of mysticism as the engine, not just which allows you to see the engine rather than the sum of its parts, but the engine of mysticism being unity. I’m always struck by the words in which we describe things, particularly in Judaism. The words that we use to describe Jewish law versus Jewish mysticism are extraordinarily telling. The word that we use to describe Jewish law is “Halakha”. “Halakha” comes from the root word “hilukh”, to walk, to be active, to go out and to accomplish and to achieve.

David Bashevkin:

As opposed to the word for Jewish mysticism, we use “Kabbalah”, which means to receive. And I think contrasting these two words kind of gets to the heart of the differences between the two and what makes mysticism so unique. I think that the word “Halakha” for Jewish law is about that proactive, the ritualizing of Jewish ideas and Jewish memory into your daily life as you are achieving things. How do you remember the values of what Yiddishkeit is about? How do you remember the ideas, the thoughts? It’s great if you had an inspirational moment at one point in your life, but how do you concretize that so it stays with you as you go out into the world and achieve? And I think that we use the word “Halakha”, meaning movement, activity, achievement, because that’s what it’s meant to do, it’s meant to synthesize those foundational values into your everyday life. As opposed to “Kabbalah”, which means to receive, there’s something almost passive about the word “receiving”, and I do believe that there is some passivity in the very notion, and we’ll talk about this more in science and Torah. It didn’t always translate to passivity, but there is a passivity in reflection where you almost detach from the world and look at the grand unity underlying all of it.

David Bashevkin:

It reminds me of those wonderful Magic Eyes, wonderful and infuriating, I absolutely hated them because it took me years before I finally saw anything. But for those who don’t remember, there was a something called Magic Eye, which literally, it looked like it was an image, and you can Google it online, it looked like this very intricate, detailed tapestry that looked like absolutely nothing. And what you would have to do, and this was memorialized in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, there was this one character who’s just staring at the magic eye, waiting to see a boat emerge.

T.S. Quint:

What are you doing William?

William:

Looking for the hidden picture.

Brodie Bruce:

If you stare at these things long enough, you’re supposed to see some kind of hidden three-dimensional picture.

T.S. Quint:

Oh yeah, look, it’s a sailboat.

William:

You saw it too?

T.S. Quint:

What?

William:

I’ve been staring at this thing for a week, from opening till closing, and I can’t see a thing!

Brodie Bruce:

You’ve got to relax your eyes.

William:

Everyone sees this thing except me. Today is my day, I brought a lunch and a soda, and I’m not going to leave until I see the sailboat everyone keeps talking about.

David Bashevkin:

If you stare at it long enough, an image is supposed to emerge from this detailed, almost meaningless tapestry, and it requires you to just sit and stare and reflect and wait for the image to come out. There’s a way to train yourself to see the image faster, I didn’t get that training and it took me literally years. I remember I was at my friend’s house, who I’ve mentioned earlier, Yoni Statman. He used to have a lot of these Magic Eyes, and him and his brother allegedly would see them. The answers are in the back of the book, so you could always cheat and say that you see the boat or the flag or the kite or the sand castle before you actually do, if you cheat. But they would always see them right away, and I would never see them. And eventually, if I sat long enough, I finally began to learn how to see that 3D image jump out from the page.

David Bashevkin:

And I think in some ways this experience of sitting with a Magic Eye encapsulates what I think mysticism is all about. It’s looking at the world and at your own life and at Judaism, at religion, and instead of just seeing a lot of little details – not little because they’re unimportant, but all of these details that govern our lives, all these obligations that govern ourselves at work and at home – instead of seeing that, the Magic Eye allows this one holistic 3D image to emerge.

David Bashevkin:

And in the first perspective, I think that’s what happens in our day-to-day lives when we are hilukh, when we’re walking, so to speak. That’s the world of Halakha, when you’re walking around and you need to achieve and accomplish for your family and for your friends. Sometimes you do get stuck in those little details, but then there are moments of sitting back, that passivity of Kabbalah, of receiving, and waiting for that 3D image, that unity, to kind of bring together all of those reductionist moments that we have in our life, and unify them into one conciliatory whole, to have that love of complexity without reduction, which makes such beautiful art, such beautiful philosophy, such beautiful ideas.

David Bashevkin:

And that’s what we’re going to be talking about this month when we talk about Jewish mysticism. How do we train ourselves, so to speak, to see that Magic Eye, to see it on an individual level, in all of the brokenness in our lives, to see it on a scale inside of text when we open up a book, whether it’s Kabbalah, or Chassidus, or any of the books of great Jewish thought. How do we train ourselves to read in a way that doesn’t seem preposterous, that doesn’t seem irrational? Because that’s not what mysticism is coming to compliment, it’s coming to compliment the world of reductionism. And finally, how do you create a community, so to speak, that is founded on these values?

David Bashevkin:

And that’s going to be the conversation that we have this month, and I’m so excited about it because I have always been, and it’s infuriating because so many of my friends, regardless of where you are on the religious spectrum, I have a lot of, what I would call, very firmly, whether you want to call them rationalistic or reductionist friends, and they find me infuriating because I’ve always been, almost been forced to be a mystical thinker of sorts. It’s what animates and guides so much of the way that I think, and so much of the way that I approach the world. So I’m so excited for these conversations, and thank you so much for joining.

David Bashevkin:

On today’s episode, we are sitting down with a dear, dear friend, and I’m so appreciative that he made the time to sit down, with Reb Joey Rosenfeld. Joey is extraordinarily well-known, he’s built up a really remarkable following online, and it’s just amazing and inspiring to see his growth. I can’t assess his growth because he’s a thousand miles ahead of me. I don’t mean his growth as a thinker, because he has always been an extraordinarily profound thinker, but the growth of the following of people who are so moved by his ideas. Reb Joey is a therapist and a mystic, there’s no question about it, and you can find him online on Twitter, on his YouTube channel, and on his podcast, which we’ll all have links to online.

David Bashevkin:

Joey is a really extraordinary thinker in this world because he has fused the world of mysticism, of Kabbalah, with the world of addiction and self-help, and people who are finding a great deal of brokenness in their life. And I think it relates exactly back to our introduction of giving people the tools, regardless of the brokenness, whether it’s through drug addiction, which he has written and has a wonderful series on, which we will link to online, or any other areas of brokenness that people find in their life, and using so many of the principles of mysticism to build this cohesive whole.

David Bashevkin:

I want to begin, before I introduce and we jump into my conversation with Joey, I wanted to read something that Joey wrote in full, because I find it so moving, and gets to the heart of everything that we discuss. Joey has a blog online, don’t start with that because he’s got so many other great stuff, listen to his classes, which we’ll link to online. But he does have a blog at residualspeech.wordpress.com, again, residualspeech.wordpress.com. And he wrote a story there that I have found so hauntingly beautiful, and I want to read it to you now.

David Bashevkin:

An event is announced: “the vase will be on display for a limited time only”. The hall was set up for the showing. Ushers were called in; with partitions set to ensure the requisite distance between human and art. The vase was placed on a white concrete stand with a glass casing covering over the vase for protection. Being that the announcement was published in the magazine whose readership made up the who’s who of the rich and stable, the hall was packed on opening night. Dressed in their finest, they wandered around the room paying more attention to the expressions on each other’s faces than to the vase centered in the middle of the room. A subtle air of boredom suffocated the room. Suddenly, the back doors of the hall fly open and in stumbles the town addict (alcoholic, user, junky, crackhead, drunk etc. all dependent on the relative respect with which the rich and stable address the other). All heads turn towards the back of the hall, mouths gaping, audible shock. Now they have something to look at, something that draws their attention away from their preoccupation with nothing but themselves. The addict stumbles towards the center of the room. With guests moving quickly out of the way so as not to catch his illness (but not too far as to miss the excitement of it all), the addict quickly arrives at the center of the room. At this point the silence is palpable, what will he do next? Myriad questions (and assumptions) run through the minds of all those present, except of course the one question that would be helpful, namely: “can I help you in anyway?” The addict pushes the ushers out of the way. Knocks down the partitions (closing in on the distance that separates human frailty from the sublimity of art, albeit through the self-destructive repetition in which the addict loses themselves). Smudges his hands all over the glass casing, he casts it to the side. Picks up the vase and holds it for a moment. The crowd at this point is waiting with bated breath to see what happens next. The anonymous addict lifts the vase, and lets it fall from his hands, shattering into a million little pieces. The crowd goes wild. “It’s his parents fault!” yells one person; “it’s the schools fault!” yells another. “It’s the pharmaceutical companies!” cries the third; “it’s his own fault!” says the crowd in unison. Of course, nobody approaches the addict to see if they can help pick up the pieces. No one sits with the addict, quietly sharing his pain/shame/guilt/hopelessness about the destruction. The voice of the chorus continues to swell- until suddenly- the crowd gets bored again, slowly exiting the hall, back towards their lives in search of a less severe, less abject form of entertainment. Left alone, the addicted individual has two options. He can wander off in search of something else to break; or, he can sit amid the mess, amongst the broken pieces, and slowly try to put the vase back together. The addict sits, slowly and painstakingly putting the vase back together piece by piece. Making progress, it falls apart again. Cutting himself on the broken glass. Losing hope, finding hope. The addict slowly but surely puts the vase back together. He places the vase back on the concrete stand. Walking over to the glass covering, he cleans the smudges. Puts the partitions back in place, calling the ushers back for a new showing. A new showing is announced, the rich and stable return to look at the vase. The addicted individual puts on new clothes, vanishing- anonymously- back into the burgeoning crowd. At this point the crowd and the addict are gazing at the same vase. But while the crowd sees the same old vase in all of its boring banality, the addict sees something entirely new. Intimately aware of the delicacy of the vase, he is attentive to each and every detail that makes up the vase. Anxiously aware of the vulnerability that cuts through the heart of what appears stable, the addict enjoys each and every moment of the vase in its stability. Where the crowd sees the same, the recovering individual sees the perpetually new.

David Bashevkin:

And that’s Joey’s own story, and I find it so moving to read because in a way, and there was a wonderful cover story with Mishpacha magazine about Joey entitled “The Addict is Us”. And in many ways, this short story that he wrote is about all of us. All of us have had things precious in our lives, whether it was dreams, whether it was our own family members, relationships, that we have broken and had to stitch back together. And there’s something about that brokenness and stitching it back together that cuts to the heart of that cohesive whole that mysticism, and Kabbalah, Chassidus, whatever you want to call it, is trying to engender. Whether in that story you relate to the addict or the vase or the people in the crowd, we’ve all been in different places watching life deteriorate from the great grand idealistic plans we once had into the life that’s broken, smudged, as we know it today. And piecing it back together is part of the grand holistic consilience that mysticism tries to achieve.

David Bashevkin:

So it is my great pleasure and joy and really a privilege to have a dear close friend, somebody who has taught me an incredibly profound amount, both in terms of quantity, but even more so in the quality of his thought and ideas. It is my great pleasure to introduce my conversation with Reb Joey Rosenfeld.

David Bashevkin:

It is my absolute pleasure and joy to invite my very dear friend, a friend, mentor of sorts, Joey Rosenfeld, who’s a therapist based out of St. Louis who specializes in the treatment of substance abuse, and has developed a very broad following in the topic of mysticism. He has written a great deal on the Leshem, on academic mysticism, and we’re going to talk a little bit today about what mysticism is in general, how it relates to the human experience, and maybe how it’s manifested in the Jewish world and even outside the Jewish world. Joey, it is such an absolute pleasure to have you on today, thank you for joining.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Please, thank you for having me David, it’s a real joy and an honor.

David Bashevkin:

So I want to come back to your personal story, and we’ll come back to that, but it’s not where I want to start. When I was in rabbinic school, in Yeshiva University, getting Semicha, getting rabbinic ordination, I was an intern for an organization called JACS, which was for Jewish people who were struggling with substance abuse. It was the most amazing experience because there were Chassidim and there were… It was the most interdenominational, Reform rabbis, Chassidim, all there together struggling, and it was when I was introduced to a lot of the lingo, the jargon, surrounding AA. And I’ve always been fascinated with why in the steps, in the 12 step program out of The Big Book, there is a need to accept a higher power. And I know there’s a lot of discussion about this, and a lot of discussion that it’s not necessarily God, but I wanted to start with, what does submission to a higher power have to do with someone’s struggle with substance abuse? Why is that a necessary step?

Joey Rosenfeld:

First off it’s an amazing question, it’s a question that I ask my clients very often, and I think that one of the things that is lacking so much in a general understanding of the placement of Alcoholics Anonymous, not simply as a folk manifestation of religious observance or spirituality, but rather as a formidable contribution to the history of American spirituality as well as the study of mysticism, forces us to look a little bit at the context in which AA developed. And textually we’re not going to go too far into this because that’s not the topic, although it’s also the topic. Bill W., Bill Wilson, and we’ll use Bill as the figurehead, a straw man of sorts to represent to the origination of AA, although it was certainly not only him. He wrote a letter in 1961 to Carl Gustav Jung basically thanking him for planting the seeds that would eventually give birth to the alcoholic anonymous concept.

Joey Rosenfeld:

And Bill W.’s letter is remarkable, but what I want to focus on is really a language that Carl Jung describes, which is that, in encountering addicts and alcoholics of any time, of any kind, rather, what Jung describes is that these individuals are seeking a certain form of wholeness, and the analogy that Jung gives is from the language of a psalmist, like a deer or a doe pineth after water, so does my soul pineth after thee. Ke’ayul ta’arog al afikei mayim, ken nafshi sa’arog elecha. There’s an inversion that takes place in understanding the addict or the alcoholic. As opposed to looking at the addict or the alcoholic as somebody who has no content in their lives and is seeking drugs or alcohol to fill that content, Jung points out that the content of the addicted mind or the addicted archetype is craving, is a desire for something that is larger than this world, transcendent on a certain level. And that craving, when it’s not addressed properly or when it’s not satisfied, finds its satisfaction in the strongest intoxicant in the world. The only way forward is to attach that craving to something even more intangible, and by transitioning the craving that a person has for a substance and directing it towards something larger than oneself in whatever context that might be, what it creates for a person is an openness to the possibility that my will, my desire, my knowledge, my awareness, my phenomenological being in the world is not the sum total of things, but rather there’s something larger than me that annihilates my rationality.

David Bashevkin:

No, I’m thinking of this line, there’s this amazing book by Leslie Jamison called The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, where she says, “Yearning is our most powerful narrative engine, and addiction is one of its dialects.”

Joey Rosenfeld:

It’s a wonderful book. It’s a wonderful book because what it does is it humanizes the experience of craving, not as simply a symptom, but as constitutive of the addiction phenomenon. That contrary to popular belief, addicts and alcoholics don’t crave because they want drugs or alcohol, and then when they get their drugs or alcohol it satisfies the craving. There is a pre-original state of craving that exists within a certain personality type, and that craving goes unsatisfied for so long, and all attempts to fill it fail, until a substance comes along and the intoxication has the power to settle it, and the idea of recovering is redirecting that craving back towards its rightful path, which is for some form of transcendence.

David Bashevkin:

And what I’m curious about is, a lot of people resist AA, and they resisted kind of… And I know people who’ve been through the system, and they resist that step of the higher power, it’s a lot of jargon and words, and it seems too mystical to be realistic, like a realistic process. And I’m curious how you explain to people, to the skeptics, who say, look, I’m a successful person, I’m not a mess. I have this one issue with addiction, and why don’t we deal with it in a more reductionist way? Why do we have to insert this mystical language? And you just said it yourself, it seems so irrational. Is that a necessary part to get to the whole?

Joey Rosenfeld:

Within the context of alcoholics anonymous as a form of treatment, yes. But to state at the outset, AA is certainly not the only form of treatment, although in a disease where so little seems to work, it does behoove an individual to look at the place that has the highest statistical accessibility of actual help. Meaning, the ultimate question is, what is it about AA that works? Because there’s nothing particularly remarkable about it. Bill W. Was not a particularly remarkable person by any means. But I think that it’s in the very ordinary nature of its origins that actually allows AA to function as a functioning system, and I think it speaks to the question of this need for irrationality. The way that I define it –

David Bashevkin:

Tell me about that, the need for irrationality. And instinctively, for me, and maybe it’s because, I admit, thank God, it’s never been pathological, but I have an addictive personality without a doubt, and I connect to that need for irrationality. But where’s that coming from? Does everyone have it but some deny it, or it’s a personality type?

Joey Rosenfeld:

There’s a language that Bill W. uses in his letter to Carl Jung where he says, “And you should know that many of our members also engage with many of your students, Jungian Analysis, which is a novelty, a new idea to hear. And not only that, but they’re very interested in the books that you’ve written. And the reason,” he says, “that they’re attracted to you is because you see the sum total of the human being as something more than a body that weighs a certain amount, and the sum total of the brain functioning.” Which implies on a certain level that Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous recognizes the origin of the difficulty is irrational, and the cure needs to be in kind with the disease. And if the origin of the difficulty is irrational, or what The Big Book refers to as “cunning and baffling”, then the approach towards recovery needs to utilize those same weapons.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Like the statement in Chazal by the rabbis that I very much appreciate that, “mineh ubeh avey nargeh”, that “From the forest itself comes the handle for the axe.” Curing sickness out of itself as opposed to adding an additional ingredient, we need to utilize that same irrationality beyond our best thinking. Because as they say in the rooms, our best thinking got us here. These are people who attempted their entire lives to hold on to structure and order and to ensure that they had control over things, and lo and behold, they have come to realize that they are completely out of control. Powerlessness over substance is simply a stand-in for powerlessness in general. I think when the addict or the alcoholic admits powerlessness over alcoholism, what they’re also admitting is powerlessness over our capacity to be in control of anything in our lives. Our thinking has reached its limit.

David Bashevkin:

Which applies regardless of whether or not you have an alcohol or substance problem.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Exactly. The word “we admitted”, admission can be read in one of two ways. Admitting is almost like admitting a truth that I’ve known that I’ve withheld because of political or social reasons, which leaves a lot of people out of the possibility of finding hope in AA, but admission can also be a ticket of admission, almost like a buying in, an acting as if. The only thing that is necessary for a person to experience the benefits of the spirituality of recovery is to acknowledge that their lives have not gone the way they’ve wanted them to go as the result of something external, some object.

David Bashevkin:

So Joey, we know each other for a very long time, going back years and years and years, and I need to confess to you now that we lost touch probably, we knew each other a little bit in high school, I’m a little bit older than you. You knew me through my brother, my holy brother Eli. And then we got re-introduced by our mutual friend, Josh, to connect. And I remember Josh was describing you to me, and all of my competitive, jealous, cynical instincts bubbled up immediately. Tell me again what this person does? He’s like – I remember you were probably in your late 20s – this is a 20 something year old mystic who is an abuse counselor? You sounded – and I don’t use this word – you sounded like a crazy person.

Joey Rosenfeld:

And it could be I am.

David Bashevkin:

Meaning, all of my cynical instincts bubbled up, and we could psychoanalyze at a different time, maybe after the call.

Joey Rosenfeld:

We had pizza, I remember.

David Bashevkin:

And we had pizza in this little cramped office, but the more I’ve known you, the more real you’ve made the intangible, irrational, mystical experiences, those moments when you’re trying to reach out and grab something that is intangible, you’ve made that very real for me and for so many. So I want to move, and we’ll come back to the addiction questions, but I want to talk about how you became a student of mysticism. That’s not something that’s normally taught in Yeshiva, that’s not normally something that’s studied, and you did it in a way that’s far more serious than even those who would dabble in more theological works, you really immerse yourself in it. How did you find this?

Joey Rosenfeld:

It’s a great question, and I appreciate being given the opportunity to try and answer it. Although when I actually try and think about it, it’s very hard for me to find any specific experiential moment where I felt compelled to start looking in these books, or felt that I found my calling in these books, my calling or my interest. The deepest, most metaphysical thing that I will say tonight is the fact that my namesake was killed al kiddush Hashem in Auschwitz at a very young age. And I think that anything – my name is Yoel, Yoely was what he was called – and I think that anything that I have to say comes from that place, and whatever spooky action at a distance, that means anything. I’m not sure if we’ll hold that into the podcast or not.

David Bashevkin:

No, that’s going in.

Joey Rosenfeld:

But beyond that, I studied in Israel, and I’ve said to numerous people, the most important thing that I learned how to do in Israel in that post high school study year was learn how to read Hebrew fluently, because that allowed me to approach texts that I wasn’t being taught. And then it was after Shana Bet, after my second year, and I started learning the Maharal. And the Maharal, with the help of Reb Yehoshua Hartman Shlita, is a world unto itself, and I spent about a year studying Tiferes Yisrael – the book about Torah, or the five books of Moses – of the Maharal, intensely with the footnotes of Rav Hartman. And then I spent another good seven months studying Netsach Yisrael, his book about redemption and exile, deeply. And thankfully, one of the tenacious things that I do that have helped me in my path is that I reach out to authors or thinkers that I’m interested in learning more of, and I had the merit to spend some time with Rav Hartman. We went to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ohel together. It was a special experience.

David Bashevkin:

He’s a close friend of mine too, he’s a lot of fun.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Yes, he’s a lot of fun. And after the Maharal, I directed myself to this thinker that I had always known about, but I saw referenced in these footnotes a lot, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, and when I opened the Pachad Yitzchok, which I know you have an affinity towards as well, a deep affinity because of your teacher, but the Pachad Yitzchok did even more for me than the Maharal did, because he was applying the same theological, or I don’t even know if you could call them theological notions, philosophical and speculative mysticism, along with such a powerful usage and control of language, which is something that I’ve really, really tried to focus myself on, because I believe that the vehicle in which an idea is conveyed is almost as significant as the content of the idea. And then I spent, I don’t know, a year just learning Pachad Yitzchok. And again, I have to admit, that meant that the normal morning Seder of learning iyun Gemara was not really happening for me.

David Bashevkin:

You spent less time learning like a traditional Yeshiva…

Joey Rosenfeld:

I spent less time, I was caught numerous times by Rabbi Parnes and Rabbi Bronspiegel with a Rav Tzadok HaKohen MiLublin under my Bava Metziah in shiur. And different reactions, Rav Bronspiegel in his sweetness just shrugged his shoulders, and he’s like, all right, you do you. So I spent a lot of time –

David Bashevkin:

It reminds me of when I spent a summer in Sh’or Yoshuv, which I used to spend all my summers there as a more like Hasidically inclined Yeshiva in a Far Rockaway. I loved it, but I would tease them, and the Rosh Yeshiva there, the head, I would make the joke to him, I said, “In Sh’or Yoshuv, what’s the reason why you don’t go to the 9:30 AM Reb Tzadok Chassidus gathering chaburah? Why don’t you go to the 9:30?” I said, “In Sh’or Yoshuv the answer is because you go to the other 9:30 AM Chassidus chaburah.”

Joey Rosenfeld:

Exactly.

David Bashevkin:

There’s all that stuff is happening, but that’s not really traditional Yeshiva education.

Joey Rosenfeld:

No, it’s not a traditional Yeshiva education, but at a certain point, and I think this is going to be an idea that will animate anything that I have to say at any level, I had to make a decision for myself as to whether I was looking for what everybody else was doing, which I enjoyed. Look, I enjoyed learning Bava Metziah, I had tremendous rebbeim, and I loved chakiros and lomdus and all of those things, but as they say in Hebrew, zeh lo moshech oti, it wasn’t satisfying whatever itch that I had which I didn’t even have words for.

David Bashevkin:

So let me ask you a direct, a very simple question. Mysticism in Hebrew is referred to as Kabbalah. The word “Kabbalah” usually means to receive. Does that mean that you need a specific teacher to receive this information from, is that why it’s called Kabbalah? If I could rephrase the question, why is it called “Kabbalah”, and how did that play out in your connection to it?

Joey Rosenfeld:

Right. So I agree with your rephrasing of it because the equation between mysticism and Kabbalah is not necessarily something that’s agreed upon. Mysticism is somewhat of a, it’s an important phrase, but it’s somewhat, and hopefully if I can convey anything, it’s somewhat of a misnomer when it comes to what Kabbalah is trying to teach. But certainly “Kabbalah” means receptivity, and the idea that is expressed by the different tzadikim, and the different thinkers, is that it’s a tradition that is given over from mouth to mouth, meaning that it’s more esoteric.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Esotericism was, in the beginning, for significant reasons, a social or almost political element of the teachings, because to create a fraternity of secrecy you needed to hide the teachings. But there’s another way of understanding the esotericism that surrounds Kabbalah, and that’s that part and parcel of the very nature of the message that Kabbalah is coming to convey is the nature of esotericism, is the nature of secrets, is the nature of secrecy, is the nature that at best, you can only hide what you’re trying to convey, not because you’re trying to hide it from anybody else, but because of the failure of human logic and language.

David Bashevkin:

Can you explain, can you elaborate on that? Meaning, you’ve dropped a lot of truth there in a little bit of sentences.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Right. I think that ultimately, the grounding agent, the Archimedean point of the entire system that p’nimius haTorah and Kabbalah come to describe, is the ineffable presence of “God,” which remains infinitely removed from our experience, yet paradoxically and almost impossibly present in a way that we can’t fully describe. So the Aleph Beis of Kabbalah is that, the name of God, for example, that we utilize to describe what we’re relating with is “Ein Sof”, literally translated as “without end”. Now, there were certain tzadikim, in particular, The Leshem Shevo V’Achlama, Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, who worked very hard to cleanse Kabbalah into what aligned in his mind with the thought of the Rambam or Maimonides in Moreh Nevuchim to ensure that –

David Bashevkin:

Who were the rationalists.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Right, a profound rationalist. And what Rav Elyashiv did, I think more uniquely than most, and I think Rav Tzadok also, someone who we share an affinity with, also did something like this, a different, but similar project, was the attempt to cleanse the metaphysical husk of what Kabbalah was, which remains shrouded in mystery and magic, and really conveyed it as what Rav Adin Steinsaltz refers to as potentially the only legitimate theology that Judaism has claim to. So on the one hand, it’s an infinite remove transcendent points or an anchor, but at the same point, we’re forced to speak about it, and speech is demanded, and talking about it and writing about it and sharing those ideas about this infinite transcendent creation or being or godliness, all of those words fail, is tasked upon the individual who descends into these teachings.

Joey Rosenfeld:

And so the paradox that rests at the heart of it all is the fact that on the one hand, you can’t say anything, because the moment you open your mouth you’re already applying limitations and definitions, but at the same point, you have to speak beyond that. You have to overcome the impulse of being afraid of speaking, and you have to begin to speak in a language that simultaneously says what it cannot say.

David Bashevkin:

And that’s why it’s so interesting. We began when we were talking about AA and the centrality of yearning, the centrality of reaching out towards an almost impossible hole that you feel that you’ve lost, is really at the heart of mysticism itself. It’s that dialect between the tangible, the expressible, and the ineffable.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Exactly. And to bring it back to the AA analogy or the recovery analogy, what I try and import into my clients’ thinking… And again, I believe very deeply that knowledge is curative and awareness is curative. Meaning, these are not necessarily medicalized forms of treatment, but I believe that addiction and alcoholism is a human condition and it’s certainly an equal opportunity disease, and therefore you can speak to the mind of a person and try and shift the way that they think in a very cognitive based way. But I think that very often a client comes in thinking that there’s some destination that they can eventually arrive at wherein their problems will go away, wherein that craving will be satisfied, and what I try and show them is that you’ve just tried the biggest possible option for that.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Heroin is as strong as it gets. Alcohol, for the alcoholic, there’s nothing higher than that. And instead of thinking, “Maybe there’s something else that can satisfy my craving,” what I try and show, and I think it’s implicit in the step work and also in the theory of AA, is that recovery is about learning how to live with craving that doesn’t find satisfaction. And that’s what it means to be a recovering individual, and ultimately that’s what it means to be a human being: to live with a certain undefinable craving that seeks more than what it has, yet never really finds satisfaction, and I think leaning into that craving and leaning into that sense of lack is, on a certain level, the birthplace of what it means to – you use the word “submission”, the word I like to use is “acceptance” – of that which is.

David Bashevkin:

And just returning back to that original question, if you could articulate it briefly, and based on that, you would say Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, I know that’s an imperfect term.

Joey Rosenfeld:

No, you’re good.

David Bashevkin:

Kabbalah is called “Kabbalah” because…

Joey Rosenfeld:

Kabbalah is called “Kabbalah” because on a certain level, one has to respect the significance of the ideas, that’s on one hand. Meaning, any tradition needs to have a certain truth value. Now, the determinations of those truth values are not going to be discussed in the next hour or so, but that’s one part of it, meaning the typical religious consciousness of receiving from a teacher.

Joey Rosenfeld:

But I think more significantly, receptivity and accepting something from beyond oneself is typically a modality of experience that is associated with a hither side of being, receptivity is more passive, it’s more powerless. And I think that on a certain level, the birthplace of any relationship with these teachings is the willingness to stop trying to assert one’s own truth upon their world, but rather to accept that which is. And the posture, I believe, the posture necessary for entering properly into these teachings is a willingness to suspend those things which I feel define me, in particular my rationality.

David Bashevkin:

What I think is one of the most amazing things that you do is that you… I think it’s on your academia page, and I know that when I thank you in the back of my book, I identify you as such. You identify yourself as a translator, which normally is associated with somebody who takes the language of, I don’t know, French, and translates it into Hebrew or Spanish. You just take one language and translate into another. But translation, for you… It’s a much more central discipline, it’s much more descriptive than that. It’s not just taking it from one language to another, a lot of what you’re doing is translating disciplines, the larger discipline of mysticism and Kabbalah, and connecting it to all of these other fields. And I’m just curious, maybe in your own words: why do you identify yourself, maybe it was just because it was a fluke or an error, why do you identify as a translator?

Joey Rosenfeld:

I’ve always so appreciated that you appreciate that, because it does still remain to be one of the main ideas that are very close to my heart.

David Bashevkin:

And it’s a wink, it’s nowhere, it’s just on your obscure academia page. It’s for no one but me.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Right. But look, the Zohar Hakadosh, the primary text of Jewish mysticism, is written in Aramaic, it’s an already-translated text. Meaning, it’s not written in the original language. And to preface with a little bit of a tangent to come back to what’s so important about translation to me is that, the ideal language, at least as expressed in Torah, and especially in trends of Jewish thought and Kabbalah and certain trends of Lurianic mysticism, especially the world of Rav Yisrael Sarug: The Hebrew language, Lashon Hakodesh, represents a transcendental signifier, some pre-original language that was pure, where the word conveyed the essence of what was trying to be described, where experience was exactly what you hoped it would be. There was a certain immediacy present to the individual, as if you can have a full grasp of unity, or that life was meant to be lived 100% of the right way that it was meant to be lived. We can point to various signposts along the process of history, Migdal Bavel, the flood, et cetera, but that original language is shattered and lost, and human beings have lost the capacity, if we ever had the capacity, of immediacy. We’ve fallen into misunderstanding and miscommunication. In truth this goes all the way back to Adam HaRishon when he was placed into a deep slumber and unconsciousness.

David Bashevkin:

That original sin.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Which we’re told by our tzadikim, by the Arizal, Mei HaShiloach, that “tirdema”, that “deep unconsciousness”, is the same numerical value as “targum”, as “translation”, almost as if the world was descending into a state of a secondary translation. Translation is necessary when the original language is no longer understood, when I no longer have pure access to that immediate reality that is pure and essential, and I find myself flooding around or treading water in the darker spaces of misunderstanding. But the art of a translator and the act of translation is an attempt, as Walter Benjamin tries to point out in this very powerful, kabbalistic, almost, kabbalistically-infused essay, The Task of the Translator, is that translation is an attempt to bridge what is essential and what is inessential, what is pristine and what has fallen. The act of translation is walking backwards, it’s an attempt to work through the rubble and return back to the possibility of understanding. Translation is only necessary when I acknowledged that I can no longer understand the original language, and now my task is to work through that lost voice, and to try and find relevance and significance that speaks to me so that I can understand the original and essential language.

David Bashevkin:

Let me ask you a little bit about some of the worlds that you’ve, we began with substance abuse, and I want to talk about some of the other worlds that you have translated into, and one of them is not what would be known as “Kabbalah”, but what I would call the academic study of Jewish mysticism. And I’ve always been fascinated by your ability to discover and find truth in there. Allow me to begin with almost an inappropriate question, as somebody who’s spent so much time in the mysticism with a famous anecdote that you’re probably – for sure well aware of. There’s a great anecdote and exchange between Gershom Scholem and Saul Lieberman, I believe, where Saul Lieberman remarked – he was a famous Talmud scholar, taught in JTS – and he remarked at Gershom Scholem – who was a famous scholar, an academic who studied mysticism – he said, “Mysticism is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is academic.” I may have butchered that quote. Mysticism is non –

Joey Rosenfeld:

I think it’s something along those lines.

David Bashevkin:

This is nonsense, but when you talk about the history of nonsense, that’s scholarship, I think that was the line, “that’s scholarship”.

Joey Rosenfeld:

What I would say about that is maz lo chazi v’ihu lo chazli, or ihu lo chazi u’maz lo chazi, meaning, he’s right. “Nonsense” but in the most important sense of that word, it’s beyond sense. It’s a system of thought that no longer needs the rational senses to determine its value.

David Bashevkin:

Let me follow that up with a, I don’t even know if it’s a question, it’s something that I’ve always noticed. When a rationalist looks at mysticism, he looks at it as utter ridiculous nonsense, of no value. But when the mystic looks at the rationalist, the mystic understands the rationalist, they understand that perspective of where they’re coming from. There’s room for the rationalist in the world of the mystic, but in a world of the rationalist, there’s no room for the mystic. And my question is: is the academic study of mysticism, is it conveying anything? Is it true in that sense? Does it have that experiential depth that you were able to find in the works of more traditional scholars of mysticism? The Rav Itche Meyer Morgensterns, the earlier setting, the Leshem, and all these people. And then you’re studying this academic mysticism, and I wonder, what do you see in it? Is it not just jargon and invented terminology?

Joey Rosenfeld:

So I’m going to be honest.

David Bashevkin:

I hope I didn’t ask that question too disrespectfully.

Joey Rosenfeld:

No it’s perfect.

David Bashevkin:

You know it was said with a great deal of love.

Joey Rosenfeld:

It’s perfect. And I’m going to be honest also, I have a full library of academic texts about mysticism which I don’t read anymore, not because I have lost value for the ideas that I’ve learned from them, as I’ll return to. I happened to find myself at a point in my life where, when I’m reading a text, the relief that my anxiety so desperately needs is a belief in the text, a certain theme that is expressed in different tzadikim that, almost like the aura – and I use that word very specifically, at least in the way that Scholem understood it through Walter Benjamin – the aura of the author exists within the texts, and I don’t feel that that is true when it comes to academic studies, with a few people maybe that I would put in another category.

Joey Rosenfeld:

When I was reading these books very intensely, I would make Birkas HaTorah on them, I’m not going to lie. My gloss notes on them are in Hebrew, and there are ayin shams and ayin shams, it’s very much a question of context as opposed to content, because when a person reads Gershom Scholem, quite frankly – and I know this is somewhat out of style because Scholem is seen as the enemy of traditional Kabbalah – but I think that Scholem, in my humble opinion, is much closer to the heart of this kind of transcendent notion of negative theology that emerges out of mysticism than even, say, Moshe Idel is.

Joey Rosenfeld:

So I think that Scholem, who was trained in that Western European philosophical notion, very close with people like Walter Benjamin and in touch with wonderful thinkers, and giving birth to a lot of dialogue that still exists nowadays, I think that he did touch upon a certain thread of essentiality there. The problem was, I think, ego and power and jealousy, but those are all human failures, or human realities, that I think are symptomatic of a person, as opposed to the content of what they’re writing. There’s a lot of content to be found there, and I think that the language that is utilized very often has a way of conveying or translating these ideas in a more precise way than the typical sefarim that we have have the capacity to convey.

Joey Rosenfeld:

That’s obviously not true across the board, there’s certain tzadikim who wrote with a very precise language, like the Leshem, Rav Tzadok, things like that, but there is a value to these books, but I think it’s very important to know the context in which a person is approaching them. If a person is approaching a critical analysis of a text simply to deny the significance or the validity of a text, so then I think, yes, it’s going to cool a person down and it’s going to be, not only is it going to be antithetical to the process of understanding these texts, but it’s going to poison a person’s ability to look at these texts with any sense of vulnerability. But if you look at these texts as English translations that give insight and source texts and source materials for topics that you want to believe in, or that you’re at least willing to believe in, I humbly do submit that these texts do provide a certain value to them. They do.

David Bashevkin:

A lot of your patients, I assume, are not even Jewish, and –

Joey Rosenfeld:

They’ve never met a Jew in their lives.

David Bashevkin:

They never met a Jew in their lives, and then they bump into you. I was thinking a lot about my experience, I remember when Mother Teresa released her diaries, and in her diaries she has these confessions where she talks about how she feels like God, her God, she was Christian, obviously, had left her, and that she felt this emptiness. And I was looking at how different people would read that experience that she had. I said, a more rationally-inclined Jew, or even non-Jew, might say, of course you feel like God left you because the whole notion of a mystical experience, certainly one in a different religion than my own, is invented. It’s nonsense. It’s ridiculous. Like, well of course you don’t feel anything because the whole thing is just a construct in your brain, there is nothing beyond what we see, what is tangible in front of us. And I wonder what your approach is, especially as somebody who is conveying mysticism to a non-Jewish audience, what significance, if any, do you give to mystical experiences that occur outside of the context of religion? And by religion I mean your religion, Judaism.

Joey Rosenfeld:

It’s a great question, but on a certain level, and I’m afraid to do this, but the question doesn’t move so much beyond the beginning for me, because I don’t know what a mystical experience is. I’m somebody who studies texts and holds onto faith. But faith is, the Baal Shem Tov has a remarkable teaching, which I think my rest of the crux of everything that I choose to believe in, which is that, hadveikus ihi emunah, that cleaving to God, mystical annihilation of subjectivity, is faith. Now, when read carefully, that’s a paradox in terms. “Faith” is dependent on a lack of clarity, “faith” is dependent on an obstruction of truth on a certain level, and “dveikut”, or “cleaving”, or immediacy, seems to get rid of any possibility of confusion.

Joey Rosenfeld:

But what the Baal Shem Tov is pointing out, and I think that this is true throughout, the Vilna Gaon would, in my humble opinion, say the same thing in a different language, is that faith in a world that has lost its capital T truth, which shouldn’t be a surprise if a person reads “Bereishis bara Elokim es hashamayim v’es ha’aretz”, or reads the origins of at least the kabbalistic worldview, which is that the initial acts that God engaged in in this world were a form of negation and constricting his presence, so to speak.

Joey Rosenfeld:

And then this cataclysmic trauma that gives birth to chaos in the world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a mystical experience would be somewhat off-limits, at least for the lay person. And so, when a person speaks of mystical experience, it’s a phrase that rubs me the wrong way, it’s like somebody is selling something, or like somebody is peddling a certain good that they want people to –

David Bashevkin:

Like a new religion or cult or something like that.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Right, that people want to buy into. I think that, ultimately, what mysticism is coming to show us is that, at best you’re going to have spiritual experiences. That a person will have moments in their life where they find settledness, or a presence within themselves where they can truly say, “At this moment I am okay, at this moment I am enough, or the world is enough, or things have purpose.” And again, to return to the Bill W. analogy, which I think is significant to our discussion, the other origin of Bill W.’s thought, other than Jungian Analysis, was very explicitly William James. William James, that was the book that Bill W. got when he spent the night in an insane asylum as a result of his alcoholism when he experienced –

David Bashevkin:

I did not know that. He had The Varieties of Religious Experience?

Joey Rosenfeld:

He had The Varieties of Religious Experience, Ebby T., his good friend, brought it to him, who had gotten it from Roland H., who was a student of Carl Jung.

David Bashevkin:

Is this all in the big book, this story, or this is…

Joey Rosenfeld:

No, but there’s a wonderful book called Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous written by a wonderful thinker named Ernest Kurtz, who passed away recently, who was an alcoholic. He was a Franciscan monk, I think, and then he fell out of the order as a result of his experiences. He went to Harvard and wrote his dissertation on Alcoholics Anonymous, and then went on to teach at the University of Chicago Divinity School. And what he does more than anybody, and something that I think is incredibly important, and something I perhaps hope to do at some point, is place AA not only in the history of the democratization of spirituality, or the harbinger of the spiritual but not religious movement that so many people experience, but also as a real, relevant place in the history of religious and spiritual and even philosophical ideas of the 19th and 20th century.

Joey Rosenfeld:

But he points out, and what William James points out is that, throughout all mystical experiences or spiritual experiences, there are certain underlying themes that connect all of them across cultures. And for James, and the one that Bill W. picked up on most was, was that the birthplace of spirituality and the birthplace of a mystical experience is what they refer to as “ego collapse at depth”, or a sense of hopelessness. That without that, without that ABC or the Aleph Beis, then a person can’t expect to find anything in these mystical texts.

David Bashevkin:

Because what is vulnerability? What is that loss of hope a catalyst for in your experience?

Joey Rosenfeld:

If rationality is working very perfectly for you, and it makes a perfect worldview for you, there’s no need to look deeper. It’s only when rationality seems to break down when a person opens their eyes and says, there is suffering in the world, this isn’t the world that I was taught in fourth grade, this doesn’t align with the childish or almost infantile conception of good versus evil that I want to so desperately believe in. And therefore, I need to try and find answers to the questions that I’m asking. Vulnerability in the face of the breakdown of rationality breeds questioning. And ultimately, what is unique on a certain level in the Jewish mystical project is that questioning is the birthplace of it all. Mi bara eila? That’s the first question that the Zohar HaKadosh is asking.

David Bashevkin:

Who created this?

Joey Rosenfeld:

Right. Mi –

David Bashevkin:

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Joey Rosenfeld:

Right. It’s a sense of questioning and wonder as opposed to operating from a place of a need for seizure or knowledge. And so, when the surface breaks, or when the crack is revealed at the ground of it all, so a person can do one thing: so a person can move towards nihilism or meaninglessness, or a person can move towards a more affirmative stance of things, which takes into consideration all of that negation and nihilistic tendency, but elevates it to a place even higher than rationality.

David Bashevkin:

It reminds me – and I think you’ve written about this explicitly – of that very sweet saying of the Rebbe of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, that there’s nothing more whole than a broken heart. In this entire experience, it’s through the doorway of vulnerability that people are really able to confront the human experience.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Right. And what I wanted to say, b’mechilas k’vodo, you don’t want to mess with the Kotzker –

David Bashevkin:

No, we don’t.

Joey Rosenfeld:

The inverse is also true. I think that if there’s nothing more whole than a broken heart, there’s nothing more broken than a whole heart. Meaning, there’s nothing more broken than a person who feels that everything is b’seder.

David Bashevkin:

Everything is great, perfect, no other change is necessary. I have two other questions, and then we go into some of the rapid fire stuff.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Sure.

David Bashevkin:

You operate in the world of psychology, and we’ve been talking about this this entire time, but I want to ask the question more directly: what does mysticism offer that psychology doesn’t already answer? We have mindfulness, we have therapies, why isn’t that enough? What – especially in your own work – what does the layer of the tradition of, whether it’s Chassidus or Kabbalah, what does that add beyond the traditional language that you use as a therapist?

Joey Rosenfeld:

I wouldn’t say that it even changes in the language, because from an ethical perspective and from a clinical perspective I have to be very, very careful, naturally and also professionally, to ensure that I’m not placing myself into what I’m conveying to my clients or the people that I’m working with. And the reason for that is because my experience is very different than their experience, and it’s not my place to try and share that with them. If anything, there’s a certain teaching from Rav Kook that I utilize very often. Rav Kook says, “Sometimes my greatest thoughts are my heresies.” And so, I don’t have to be very careful about the limitations of Orthodox theology, so to speak, or the limitations of Jewish theology, rather, when I’m speaking to my clients, so I’m able to express things in a more open-ended type of way. But I think that what faith does do and what these teachings do do for me is that they give content to the vessel of these ideas. Otherwise language would be meaningless. They provide for me an anchor that grounds the entire thing, even though that anchor is inaccessible.

David Bashevkin:

The faith being psychology and the anchor being mysticism?

Joey Rosenfeld:

Mysticism or faith in an origin, faith in what mysticism is trying to convey, which is ultimately –

David Bashevkin:

That this connects to something real.

Joey Rosenfeld:

It connects to something real, and that’s the affirmative choice that I make on a regular basis, sometimes a thousand times a day.

David Bashevkin:

We call this website and this initiative, we named it 18Forty. I had spoken earlier about why we chose the year 1840, obviously there was a great deal of mystical significance to that year, being the sixth millennia, the sixth century of the sixth millennia, Rosh Hashana, which was really 1839, 1840. And it obviously played a role in the trajectory of some of the thinkers that I’ve been moved by. You were moved, and you’ve written a great deal on somebody that you’ve already mentioned, Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv, The Leshem. And you mentioned, and you’ve mentioned previously in classes that you’ve given, that he was born in 1840, 1841. That’s correct?

Joey Rosenfeld:

He was born in 1841.

David Bashevkin:

But you had mentioned to me that that year actually had significance for him, and he writes about it.

Joey Rosenfeld:

I promise you I didn’t prepare for this, but I have my Leshem right here. Let me do a rough translation very quickly of what the Leshem Shevo V’Achlama writes about the year 1840. What he basically says is that, from the year 1840 and on, there’s a statement from Rav Yisrael Salanter, the father of the Mussar movement, who was another remarkable figure who does not get nearly enough credit for his role in shifting the entire climate of Judaism. But what the Leshem Shevo V’Achlama writes in the name of Rav Yisrael Salanter is that, from the year of 1840 and on, based that Zohar in Parshas Noach, that the waters of above and the waters from below will open up, that all of the prohibitions, all of the limitations that were applied to the study of esoteric material – which were very real for very significant purposes, both political and esoteric reasons – that on a certain level, the year 1840 shifts the spiritual climate.

Joey Rosenfeld:

There’s no holds barred anymore. All permission is granted, a person can begin studying these texts. Those who are initiates in the texts will recognize that there’s access granted to them, and those who are novices in the text will recognize that there’s openings in front of them that allow these ideas to be more accessible. And there’s even this personal explanation, and he says that anyone who has learned since then should be aware of this. And it’s part and parcel of the Leshem’s conception of the development of mysticism, where there’s not going to be enough time to point this out, but he describes the historical process of the revelation of the Zohar, and different aspects of the Zohar, and how as time goes on, there’s a very different form of development between the revealed Torah, or Talmudic development and Halakhic development, and the esoteric development.

Joey Rosenfeld:

He says, “The more and more history moves forward in terms of the revealed aspects of Torah, it becomes more difficult to express anything new. We need more words to describe the same old ideas.” And this is also hinted to in the Hakdamas HaGriz, to his father’s, the Chidushei HaRambam, Rav Chaim Brisker, that one of the unique elements of his father was that he was able to write like a Rishon, that he was able to say something new in very short language.

Joey Rosenfeld:

But the Leshem says differently when it comes to mysticism, or esotericism, is that, not only is there going to be an influx of quantity, but there will also be a shift in quality. And that certain ideas as we march forward in this drudgery of history, that mysticism not only becomes more accessible, but new ideas are revealed. And I believe that means something different to each person. But for me, what it means is that these ideas are no longer going to be simply abstract, but they’re going to begin to have an impact on the soul of an individual itself and on their psychic makeup.

David Bashevkin:

Do you think that was a function of modernity, so to speak? Meaning, usually when I think of mysticism, I think of something very old, Kabbalah, like ancient, and when you recast it as, the more contemporary you become, the more permission has been granted… Is there something about the modern condition that mysticism is addressing?

Joey Rosenfeld:

Rav Kook, who was a student of sorts and a very close friend of the Leshem, writes as follows, he says that there will come a time in history where you will not be able to explain even the Aleph Beis of what Judaism means without utilizing the deepest concept of mysticism. Now, that could be because of miyut halevavot, or yeridas hadoros, or that the diminution of the hearts and minds of individuals are so sick that we need a nuclear blast. But the way I choose to see it is that, ultimately, the goal of mysticism and the goal of Kabbalah, especially through the lens of the Baal Shem Tov, is that the ideal is not to escape the real. Rav Soloveitchik, who was influenced by Hasidic teachings and mystical teachings as well, stresses this time and time again. The old style mysticism which seeks transcendence from the eminent plane of our experience is meaningless, it’s fantasy, it’s magical thinking, it’s unhealthy very often.

Joey Rosenfeld:

The mysticism that offers a rehabilitation of the modern condition, or the post postmodern condition, or however many posts we want to place in front of that, is that it allows us to find transcendence within eminence, to find something that transcends our capacity to rationally cognitize it or describe it within our daily experience, within the mundanity of this world. It’s much more about diving into the midst of life than it is about escaping this world in some flight of mystical fantasy. So on a modern level, the more and more we become aware of the holes in subjectivity, and the more we realize that those grand narratives that we’ve been fed as a culture for a very long time don’t stand up to the raging waters of reality, the more we need a rehabilitation of thisness, of being down here, of Olam Hazeh. And I think that that’s something that is profoundly relevant in all kabbalistic texts: the centrality of this place.

David Bashevkin:

That was beautifully said, and it’s been such a pleasure to have you. I usually close with some quicker questions, these are quick ones. I’m always fascinated, there’s a great book, the name escapes me right now, but it goes through the schedules of these great thinkers. I always ask people what their schedules are. What time do you usually go to sleep?, and when do you wake up in the morning?

Joey Rosenfeld:

Riboinoi shel Oilam. I usually go to sleep at around 1:30 or two o’clock.

David Bashevkin:

Same.

Joey Rosenfeld:

And I’m usually up by 6:00.

David Bashevkin:

Not same.

Joey Rosenfeld:

But it’s not because it’s a schedule, it’s chaos. Meaning, my Beis Medrish is my couch, if I’m going to be very honest. Somebody told me once, they’re like, “At least you’re sitting on your couch when you’re learning.” And I’m like, “No, sometimes I’m lying down.” And they’re like, “Don’t you think that’s not respectful?” And I said, “Bein kach ubein kach nikrah banim, either way we’re referred to as the children of God.” Rabbi Nachman has a beautiful teaching, and he says, “Kavati item l’Torah, have you established times for your Torah?” I don’t remember the textual evidence that he brings, but there’s a way of reading the word “k’vius” as stealing. Have you stolen time for Torah? And that defines what I do, I steal time. I don’t have any schedule that I can possibly convey.

David Bashevkin:

So this question is going to be, it almost hits harder for you because you were in the middle of a book, and you deliberately chose not to pursue a PhD. But I like to ask people: if you were to go back to school, and you’re fully funded, and you were to write a dissertation, what do you think the title of that dissertation would be?

Joey Rosenfeld:

Oy oy oy, Riboinoi shel Oilam, thank you for asking me.

David Bashevkin:

And I know you’ve got books and PhDs that are probably three quarters of the way done, several.

Joey Rosenfeld:

I would call it The Fullness of Lack, and there’s too many subtitles, but it would be The Rehabilitative or The Therapeutic Possibility of Confronting Absence.

David Bashevkin:

I hope we see it one day, that’s all I can tell you, because I love to read your stuff and it’s really a joy. Final question: you’ve already mentioned a few already, somebody who wants to enter into this world, they want to understand the substance, the value of this form of thinking, what is a book or books, plural, that you would recommend to enter into this world? And somebody who’s not fluent, obviously, in the Aramaic, the dense Aramaic language of this?

Joey Rosenfeld:

Absolutely. There’s a book called Inner Space, which is based on classes given by Rav Aryeh Kaplan, transcribed and written by another tremendous teacher who operates in the shadows, Avraham Sutton.

David Bashevkin:

Sure, I remember.

Joey Rosenfeld:

I would highly recommend – yeah, me too, a very special individual – I would highly recommend Inner Space as that first book. And then if a person is interested in the interface between these ideas, there’s a book called Kabbalah and Postmodernism written by Sanford Drob, which I highly recommend because that’s a really good place to be introduced to the possibility of utilizing modern Western philosophy as a lens through which to view the modern significance or postmodern significance of Kabbalah. From a psychological perspective, I would recommend Centers of Power by Schneider and Berke. I’m blinking on their first names, but it’s a very wonderful book about psychoanalysis and Kabbalah.

Joey Rosenfeld:

There’s a book that recently came out that is just tremendous. It’s called Nefesh HaTzimtzum, a two volume set, one is a translation of Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh HaChaim, and the second is an explanation and exploration of ideas that he understood working with one of the greatest kabbalistic teachers of our generation, Rav Moshe Schatz, who’s a contemporary Jew living in Givat Shaul. So those are the books that I would recommend off the cuff. And then there’s a lot more that I would recommend for someone who’s interested in a next level.

David Bashevkin:

Let me ask you on a personal level, this might be a next level question. You’ve written an essay with a very renowned academic scholar named Elliot Wolfson, and you spend time studying with him. He has a unique way of expressing stuff and it’s a little bit more academic. If you were to recommend one of his books, which one do you think you would recommend?

Joey Rosenfeld:

So first and foremost I have to say that Levinas writes in the introduction to his book, Totality and Infinity, which is a profoundly beautiful book, and he writes at the end of the introduction, he says, after explaining who he’s attributing his thoughts to, he says, “I’m not going to mention Franz Rosenzweig in this book, or his book The Star of Redemption, because if I were to quote him, if I were to quote Franz Rosenzweig, that would imply that the other elements of my thought were not rooted in Franz Rosenzweig.” So he says, “I’m not going to quote him because he’s everywhere.” Elliot Wolfson’s writings and his language and his approach to mystical texts have formed so much of what I do, so much of what I say, so much of what I share. He’s a very sensitive thinker. The book that I would recommend… It’s hard because the best book, and I think the most accessible book, is his book on the Lubavitcher Rebbe called Open Secret, which is demanding, but when read properly, I’m not sure anyone can disagree with the depth of his grasp of what Chassidus is trying to say. But ultimately, if I were to recommend a book it would be Language, Eros, Being, which is like a thousand pages of beauty.

David Bashevkin:

Joey Rosenfeld, my dear friend, I so appreciate the time, your wisdom, and just sharing ideas together. I wish we were in person, and I hope that time comes again soon. Thank you so much.

Joey Rosenfeld:

It will, God willing.

David Bashevkin:

For joining and speaking tonight.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Thank you David.

David Bashevkin:

It really means a lot.

Joey Rosenfeld:

Thank you. Real pleasure.

David Bashevkin:

It was an absolute pleasure speaking with Reb Joey Rosenfeld, my dear friend, and I think walking away from conversations with him, I’m always just drawn back to whatever sort of brokenness, whatever sort of fractured sense of self you may have in your own life. And what is the methodology that helps you piece it back together? When did you, in your own life, find some part of who you are, what you wanted to be, what you wanted to become fall apart, and what was the methodology, what was the strategy, what was the way of thinking that helped you piece it back together? And I think after talking to Joey, it’s a reminder that that world of mysticism, that world of Kabbalah and Chassidus, plays an important role in this. And that doesn’t mean that you are not rational or irrational, it means that when you are looking, so to speak, at the Magic Eye of your own life and sense of self, you are venturing to see that 3D image finally emerge.

David Bashevkin:

If you wanna hear more from Joey Rosenfeld, be sure to find him online. You can check him out on Twitter. On Twitter he is @jorosenfeld, that’s J-O-R-O-S-E-N-F-E-L-D, Joe Rosenfeld. You can also find him on his YouTube channel where he has amazing videos, usually these 10 part series. He has a 10 part series on addiction, he has a 10 part series on Chassidus, on the Baal Shem Tov, on so many of the great thinkers and concepts. I just finished listening to his 10 part series on Shabbos. It was absolutely astounding and beautiful, I would recommend it to everyone. And of course, he also has a podcast called Inward with Joey Rosenfeld, that’s part of the Shefa Podcast Network, which is so worth listening to, I am a subscriber. And I hope that you take a moment and listen to him. And of course, he also has a blog where he posts some stories, like we read in the intro, called residualspeech.wordpress.com. Check that out as well. He has so many amazing thoughts and articles and is the revolutionary thinker that our generation so desperately needs.

David Bashevkin:

Thank you so much for listening. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of shnorring, so if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and review, tell your friends about it, it really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered, be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s the number one-eight, followed by the word F-O-R-T-Y.org. You can also sign up to our weekly email list. So be sure to check out our website, 18forty.org, you’ll find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Thank you so much for listening today.

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