Various Thoughts of the Past Week
Having listened to some youtube videos describing various people’s “spiritual experiences,” I have been led to think that it is possible that one cannot say that the Jewish people have the most spiritual experiences, because other people of various faiths or of no faith have reported marvellous experiences.
However, I think it is fair to say that the Jewish people have the most Jewish spiritual experiences.
Where do we see in Jewish teachings brought to the ordinary person practices that lead or may be meant to lead to intense spiritual experiences?
I think that the answer is Breslov Hasidism.
In the modern understanding, there is a concept of spiritually intense experiences that are not “pure” but mixed with misunderstandings: spiritual emergencies, spiritual experiences with psychotic elements, delusional “insights” including grandiosity, etc.
There is now an emerging field of transpersonal therapists who help a person going through such an experience to weather it and understand it properly.
Are there such teachers in Breslov? (If you know the answer, please share them!)
Are there other schools besides Breslov that help lift a person out of “ordinary” reality?
Having marvelous psychedelic experiences is not a stated value in Torah. (Having marvelous delicatessen experiences can be.)
Rav Kook expressed his feeling that descending from higher realms to the confines of halachah was challenging and painful. Nevertheless, it was something necessary. One might speculate that one of the purposes of halachah and Gemara is precisely to deal with people who have a tendency to be so spiritual that they are not in contact with this world and to ground them. One might go even farther and speculate that this is one aspect of the function of those parts of the Torah that are morally difficult. That really grounds a person.
The Torah does an excellent job, then, in grounding a person. But too much grounding creates its own problem, because it then is boring to the person who is seeking something deeper or something more experiential.
In sum, I think it is fair to say that the Jewish people have the most Jewish spiritual experiences. The texts of Jewish spiritual experience, to the extent that I am familiar with them, blend spirituality with so much wholesomeness, groundedness and “orthodoxy” that they are safe and lead to a life of true spiritual and moral well-being and value. The side-effect is of course that the person who wishes for something to touch him on what he feels is a deep level can find it hard to find that.
Apropos of that, generally I have seen that the “fear” of God is described as fitting into either of two categories: the lower fear of God, which is the fear of being punished for one’s sins, and the higher fear of God, which is a sense of awe in His presence. What about a blend of these? In other words, a person could feel that he is in the presence of an Entity so powerful and pure that just naturally in the presence of that Entity he will be toran apart and cease to exist, in modern parlance that he will suffer an ego-death.
So I propose that we go out and do what we can do better than any non-Jew can do, which is to be Jewish.
The Hasidic sefer Mei Hashiloach is particularly famous for its passages describing how biblical figures struggled with taking action that apparently or actually transgressed halachah. One of the factors involved is their sense that they are on an unalterably high level, such that the action they wish to take must indeed be the fulfillment of what God wants of them.
Do not imagine, heaven forbid, that Zimri [who publicly had relations with the Midianite princess, in consequence of which Pinchas killed them both] was licentious, heaven forbid, because the Holy One, blessed be He, would not make a parshah in the Torah regarding a licentious person. But there is a secret in the matter.
There are ten levels in lewd behavior. The first level is a person who adorns himself and proceeds purposefully to commit a sin—i.e., he himself draws his evil inclination onto himself. And following that there are another nine levels. And on each level when a person’s power of choice is taken away from him he cannot save himself from sin, until the tenth level—i.e., a person who removes himself from the evil inclination and guards himself from sin with all his might until he cannot guard himself any more against it. and then, when his evil inclination overcomes him and he commits the act, then that is certainly the will of Hashem, and as with Judah and Tamar, for she was truly his marital partner.
And that is what was here: for Zimri in truth guarded himself from all evil lusts, and now he had the idea that [the Midianite princess] is his [marital] partner, since he lacks the power to remove himself from that act. And Pinchas said, on the contrary, that he still has the power to remove himself from that….
Mei Hashiloach: Parashat Pinchas
Now we move 2500 kilometers west, from Izbica, Poland, to Edinburgh, Scotland, where the writer James Hogg lived.
The following information is gleaned from Mr. Hyde & the Epidemiology of Evil by Theodore Dalrymple, which appeared in The New Criterion (September 2004).
In 1824, James Hogg published anonymously The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
In this book, the protagonist, Robert Wringhim, is persuaded by his father, a Calvinist churchman, that he is one of the saved, according to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.
This is very different from what the Mei Hashiloach is discussing, which is a person who comes to a state of sinlessness due to his own prodigious efforts.
Nevertheless, both Wringham and (lehavdil [?]), Zimri, share the view that, being faultless, their actions must so be as well.
Wringham, unlike the Mei Hashiloach, does not countenance the idea that such a state must be possible, and so it is the devil who tells Wringham that whatever he does must be definition be the right thing to do.
Despite the differences between the Mei Hashiloach and James Hogg, it is intriguing that there is this shared interest in this theme by two men who, although contemporaries, might be thought to be living on two different planets in terms of their environment, influences, outlook, and spiritual station.
In many places, the Mei Hashiloach places many conditions on any human being aspiring to being like Judah and being able to know that his seeming desire to act in a non-halachic manner—so many conditions, in fact, that practically speaking no one is capable of attaining that level. People have therefore been puzzled as to why he posited this theoretical model in the first place. Perhaps (as indicated in his disciple’s Tzidkat Hatzaddik) it is to offer comfort in retrospect to those who look back upon their actions and reflect that despite their greatest efforts they fell: to tell them that on some level they were walking upon a path that had been immutably set forth for them. That attitude itself can make it possible for a person to acknowledge what he has done and thus take responsibility for it and engage in a more genuine teshuvah.
Apropos of making available my translation of Hitbodedut Meditation by Rabbi Avraham, son of the Rambam, it would be valuable to analyze people's actual practice of hitbodedut a la Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It would make a wonderful graduate study.
Some sample questions could be:
The details of people's hitbodedut: How many times a week? How long each time? How many times a day? The place. The time. The nature of the hitbodedut: speaking, singing, screaming, crying, dancing, clapping. How long has one been doing it? How many women and how many men do hitbodedut?
What has the person prayed for? Has he [or she, and so for the rest of the text] prayed for things and gotten them, or prayed for things and not gotten them?
And then, the more interesting questions. How has it affected a person's life? Has it made him more spiritual? Has it made him closer to God? Has it made him more intelligent? Has it improved his character traits: is he less angry, more kind, a better parent?
Conversely, has he seen any negative effects: If he has prayed and not received what he wanted, has he grown bitter? Has the fact that he does hitbodedut made him feel better than others? Has it created or exacerbated personal, spiritual or character problems?
How has the experience of hitbodedut changed over the years?
What has his purpose been in doing hitbodedut? Has hitbodedut done what he expected it to do or more, or less?
How does his hitbodedut experience compare with other forms of spiritual work, whether Jewish or non-Jewish?
I would be very interested to hear about people's experiences and perhaps share them with others (of course preserving confidences when requested). You can click "contact me" at the right of this blog post to get in touch. I look forward to hearing from you.