General Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality

Teaching the Unteachable

Teaching mysticism is difficult. Mysticism deals with direct experiential knowledge of God, while affirming that the nature of that God is beyond human expression (and perhaps even understanding). Mystics then attempt to use human expressions to describe this experience and the understandings they have gained, using metaphor and analogy. To make it all the more complex, the mystic (at least in Judaism), sees the lines between metaphor and reality as blurry, and perhaps even non-existent. Other than that, it’s an easy task.

Traditionally, Jewish mysticism (of which I consider Kabbalah to be one type, while others consider the entire history of Jewish mysticism to be included within the bounds of Kabbalah) was taught one on one, over the course of years. The students who studied mysticism were already learned in Torah and Talmud, and knew all biblical text intimately. In my case, I have two hour-and-a-half sessions in an undergraduate classroom with students who will be three-fourths of the way through a semester long course on an introduction to Judaism. Somehow, I find this daunting.

I have spent years studying Jewish mysticism, and at times even consider myself a mystic, in the tradition of Art Green (while hurrying to add that I am neither nearly as learned as he, nor do I have the depth of his understanding of reality). Most days, I still struggle to understand Jewish mysticism. Most days, I am completely confused as to what the authors of a text I am reading are trying to say. Sometimes, I get it. Now, I am to teach it.

Many teachers of Jewish mysticism distinguish between teaching about mysticism and teaching mysticism. Teaching about mysticism is to teach the terminology and the beliefs held by their practitioners as an outsider, an anthropologist looking in. But for the mystic, whose understanding of the world is that we are all part of the Oneness which is Divinity, to teach from the outside view seems to ensure a lack of understanding of the subject. How can one understand something from the outside, when there is no “outside”?

And so, as I prepare a pair of class sessions, going through possible readings, debating the merits of Gershon Sholem’s German-style modernist scholarship about mysticism as opposed to Larry Kushner’s or Art Green’s experiential accounts of Jewish mysticism.  And I am confronted with a basic paradox (upon which paradoxes, after all, mysticism is built): how does one teach about something experiential in a non-experiential way?

General Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality

The Text Defeats Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality

Trying to Teach Mysticism

Last week was a busy week rabbinically. I performed a wedding, spent an hour and a half consulting with an organization trying to decide what to become, visited a world religions class as the guest speaker about Judaism, spent most of Thursday hanging out with rabbis for the Oregon Board of Rabbis meeting in Eugene and taught an introduction to Judaism class about Mysticism. In between all of this, I wrote about 20,000 words of fiction, in which the protagonist is a rabbi doing rabbi-like things. It’s the mysticism class, however, that I want to focus on right now.

You would think that teaching a class on Mysticism would be fairly easy for me. After all, I self-define as a mystic. I have a fairly clear definition of mysticism (the belief in the essential oneness of everything). And, on a good day, I’m somewhat articulate. Yet, as I set out to plan the class, and also as I was teaching it, I found I was having  trouble explaining something I understand fairly well.

I discovered that teaching mysticism is difficult not because the basic ideas are difficult, but because the background those assumptions are built upon is fairly extensive. Mysticism is not, in general, a way into religion, but rather the “upper level course,” as it were. While it is a simpler theology than many other forms of religious theology, it does, to some degree, require familiarity with those theologies to make sense. It also requires familiarity with secular philosophy.

As I was teaching, I discovered I had to back up and teach Plato’s metaphor of the cave. I discovered I had to back up and teach some basic theory about the academic study of religion: the separation between elite understanding and folk understanding of religion. I discovered I needed to teach a bit of history, to put events into context.

To me, most surprisingly, I found that I was teaching in a less linear way than I prefer. Rather, I was circling around, teaching the same ideas over and over again, hoping that by using different words, different examples and different metaphors, people would begin to get what I was talking about. I’ve often described theology as a process of pointing in a direction, and as you use multiple different accounts to point at the same place but while standing in different places, you begin to sense where it is those theologies point. I’ve never felt it so clearly as during this class.

By the end, I think about 80% of the students had a fairly clear idea of what I was talking about. All in all, that’s not too bad. After all, at least one of the students was asleep by the end. For me, however, it was a humbling experience. I think of myself as a good teacher, especially of abstract subjects, like theology or philosophy (or religion, for that matter). I’m not used to having to struggle this hard to explain something I understand. Yet, in that struggle, I begin to appreciated the struggles of those who tried to teach this to me. I don’t know how many times I had Jewish Mysticism explained to me before I began to get it. I assumed it was a function of me not being able to understand what was being said, or perhaps of teachers who were not as clear as they should have been. I begin now to see that we all struggle to explain something that verges on being beyond explanation, and is truly clear only through direct experience.

* * *

By the way, for those who were wondering about the question from my previous post, I decided not to write on Shabbat. Because I was working towards a 50,000 word goal, it was too much about accomplishing, not enough about the spirituality of writing. And besides, I might have been a little obsessed with the writing thing, and a day off from obsession is a good thing.