I need to read about Gershom Scholem‘s life. Scholem, along with his best friend, Walter Benjamin, could be a Northwest Passage from Judaism into those aspects of Nietzsche which remain as compelling to me today as when they blew me to pieces in 2003. I can feel Nietzsche’s perspective(s) inside Scholem’s driest historical accounts. I fully expect to read another of one of those Nietzsche encounters, similar to Jung’s, which stimulated his beautiful but bonkers Red Book.
The book I have been reading for the last thirty or so mornings has been Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. I am currently reading the chapter on Isaac Luria, and it is sparking insights and connections with other things I’ve read, in particular with Bruno Latour’s philosophy of irreductionism.
Before I start quoting passages, I confess that I am doing what I always do: connecting mystical intuition of beyondness with mundane experiences of alterity (otherness) –including the experience of scientific inquiry on its outer edges — that region Thomas Kuhn famously labeled “crisis”, the phase of inquiry where the material, the symbolic, the logical/mathematical, the sociological, the psychological, the factual and the intuitive domains we ordinarily keep carefully compartmentalized blend together and interact unnervingly and chaotically. Boundaries redraw themselves and the terrain itself shifts with the lines. Smooth, solid ground of certainty becomes turbulent water which threatens to swallow and drown. New kinds of reality leap out of nowhere, revealing the fact that nothingness was concealing very real realities which had been staring directly into our eyes as we stared through them at objects we preferred seeing because we knew how to know them.
But I’ll let you judge for yourself whether I am abusing mysticism by shoehorning mystical answers into philosophical (philosophy of science) questions. Rather than pick through Scholem’s scholarly exposition in an attempt to summarize it all, I will instead quote from the overview of Luria’s life from Daniel Matt’s Essential Kabbalah:
…Luria wrote hardly anything. When asked by one of his disciples why he did not compose a book, Luria is reported to have said: “It is impossible, because all things are interrelated. I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and over owed. How then shall I express what my soul has received? How can I set it down in a book?” We know of Luria’s teachings from his disciples’ writings, especially those of Hayyim Vital.
Luria pondered the question of beginnings. How did the process of emanation start? If Ein Sof [Divine Infinite] pervaded all space, how was there room for anything other than God to come into being? Elaborating on earlier formulations, Luria taught that the first divine act was not emanation, but withdrawal. Ein Sof withdrew its presence “from itself to itself,” withdrawing in all directions away from one point at the center of its infinity, as it were, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum served as the site of creation. According to some versions of Luria’s teaching, the purpose of the withdrawal was cathartic: to make room for the elimination of harsh judgment from Ein Sof.
Into the vacuum Ein Sof emanated a ray of light, channeled through vessels. At first, everything went smoothly; but as the emanation proceeded, some of the vessels could not withstand the power of the light, and they shattered. Most of the light returned to its infinite source, but the rest fell as sparks, along with the shards of the vessels. Eventually, these sparks became trapped in material existence. The human task is to liberate, or raise, these sparks, to restore them to divinity. This process of tikkun (repair or mending) is accomplished through living a life of holiness. All human actions either promote or impede tikkun, thus hastening or delaying the arrival of the Messiah. In a sense, the Messiah is fashioned by our ethical and spiritual activity. Luria’s teaching resonates with one of Franz Kafka’s paradoxical sayings: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival.”
In particular I see a profound connecting between idea of divine sparks distributed throughout the world and the notion of forces and forms of resistance described in this gorgeous passage from Bruno Latour’s one purely philosophical work, Irreductions, included as an appendix to his sociological classic The Pasteurization of France.
…We should not decide apriori what the state of forces will be beforehand or what will count as a force. If the word “force” appears too mechanical or too bellicose, then we can talk of weakness. It is because we ignore what will resist and what will not resist that we have to touch and crumble, grope, caress, and bend, without knowing when what we touch will yield, strengthen, weaken, or uncoil like a spring. But since we all play with different fields of force and weakness, we do not know the state of force, and this ignorance may be the only thing we have in common.
One person, for instance, likes to play with wounds. He excels in following lacerations to the point where they resist and uses catgut under the microscope with all the skill at his command to sew the edges together. Another person likes the ordeal of battle. He never knows beforehand if the front will weaken or give way. He likes to reinforce it at a stroke by dispatching fresh troops. He likes to see his troops melt away before the guns and then see how they regroup in the shelter of a ditch to change their weakness into strength and turn the enemy column into a scattering rabble. This woman likes to study the feelings that she sees on the faces of the children whom she treats. She likes to use a word to soothe worries, a cuddle to settle fears that have gripped a mind. Sometimes the fear is so great that it overwhelms her and sets her pulse racing. She does not know whether she will get angry or hit the child. Then she says a few words that dispel the anguish and turn it into fits of laughter. This is how she gives sense to the words “resist” or “give way.” This is the material from which she learns the meaning of the word “reality.” Someone else might like to manipulate sentences: mounting words, assembling them, holding them together, watching them acquire meaning from their order or lose meaning because of a misplaced word. This is the material to which she attaches herself, and she likes nothing more than when the words start to knit themselves together so that it is no longer possible to add a word without resistance from all the others. Are words forces? Are they capable of fighting, revolting, betraying, playing, or killing? Yes indeed, like all materials, they may resist or give way. It is materials that divide us, not what we do with them. If you tell me what you feel when you wrestle with them, I will recognize you as an alter ego even if your interests are totally foreign to me.
One person, for example, likes white sauce in the way that the other loves sentences. He likes to watch the mixture of flour and butter changing as milk is carefully added to it. A satisfyingly smooth paste results, which flows in strips and can be poured onto grated cheese to make a sauce. He loves the excitement of judging whether the quantities are just right, whether the time of cooking is correct, whether the gas is properly adjusted. These forces are just as slippery, risky, and important as any others. The next person does not like cooking, which he finds uninteresting. More than anything else he loves to watch the resistance and the fate of cells in Agar gels. He likes the rapid movement when he sows invisible traces with a pipette in the Petri dishes. All his emotions are invested in the future of his colonies of cells. Will they grow? Will they perish? Everything depends on dishes 35 and 12, and his whole career is attached to the few mutants able to resist the dreadful ordeal to which they have been subjected. For him this is “matter,” this is where Jacob wrestles with the Angel. Everything else is unreal, since he sees others manipulate matter that he does not feel himself. Another researcher feels happy only when he can transform a perfect machine that seems immutable to everyone else into a disorderly association of forces with which he can play around. The wing of the aircraft is always in front of the aileron, but he renegotiates the obvious and moves the wing to the back. He spends years testing the solidity of the alliances that make his dreams impossible, dissociating allies from each other, one by one, in patience or anger. Another person enjoys only the gentle fear of trying to seduce a woman, the passionate instant between losing face, being slapped, finding himself trapped, or succeeding. He may waste weeks mapping the contours of a way to attain each woman. He prefers not to know what will happen, whether he will come unstuck, climb gently, fall back in good order, or reach the temple of his wishes.
So we do not value the same materials, but we like to do the same things with them — that is, to learn the meaning of strong and weak, real and unreal, associated or dissociated. We argue constantly with one another about the relative importance of these materials, their significance and their order of precedence, but we forget that they are the same size and that nothing is more complex, multiple, real, palpable, or interesting than anything else. This materialism will cause the pretty materialisms of the past to fade. With their layers of homogeneous matter and force, those past materialisms were so pure that they became almost immaterial.
No, we do not know what forces there are, nor their balance. We do not want to reduce anything to anything else. …
This text follows one path, however bizarre the consequences and contrary to custom. What happens when nothing is reduced to anything else? What happens when we suspend our knowledge of what a force is? What happens when we do not know how their way of relating to one another is changing? What happens when we give up this burden, this passion, this indignation, this obsession, this flame, this fury, this dazzling aim, this excess, this insane desire to reduce everything?
A disorderly spew of thoughts on the theory and practice of panentheism…
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, panentheism is “the belief or doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.”
How do you live toward being who contains you entirely and who exceeds you infinitely?
How do you relate to fellow beings who, like you, are finite organs of this infinitude?
When I say fellow beings this is not limited to fellow humans, nor even to fellow life, nor even to all being as we experience and understand it at any single moment.
The operative word is toward.
A proposed goal of religion: the attempt to live fully toward what is not only me, not only us, but toward what infinitely exceeds any and all of us. It is the practice of panentheistic relationship with reality on the whole and in every part.
Jesus of Nazareth presented the Shema and Leviticus 19:18 as
two facets of a single highest moral principle:
a twofold commandment to
a) love God with all my being — all my heart, all my soul and all my strength,
1) love my neighbor as myself.
This is a miraculously elegant and condensed crystallization of Judaism’s red thread as I experience it. It is the principle of participation in panentheistic life, beginning with our fellow human beings.
Panentheism means relating out, beyond, toward reality that exceeds the bounds my own being. Where are the bounds of my being? The bounds of my being are the contours of reality as I know it — the outer and inner limits of my own universe-sized soul — a soul overlapping and entangled with myriad fellow-souls. Every one of us is another instance of everything, each with a different size, density and topology.
Beyond these limits, intermingled with the being of those around us, is twofold surprise: compelling love and repelling dread.
According to my own peculiar panentheology, many of us have misconceived the terms of transcendence. To see transcendence as “climbing above” the sphere of mundane reality into a sphere of supernatural being attracts us toward exoticism, magic and thaumatolatrous religion.
It is far better to conceive transcendence as climbing beyond the sphere of reality as we conceive it it into spheres of reality as it can be known if we are willing to allow reality to be more than we know how to conceive. But why wouldn’t we allow reality to be more than what we know how to conceive? Because of the repulsion of dread — as much as we are drawn toward what is beyond us, we are repelled by intense anxiety of inconceivability. Beyondness fascinates, but it hurts.
(A maladjustment to the pull-push of love and dread, by the way, is at the heart of abusive relationships. When I “objectify” what I intuit as painfully more than I can possess in order to make it mine, I abuse an other as something that is no more what I’ve made of them, my idea of who they are or ought to be. Fundamentalism can be seen as an abusive relationship with the entirety of reality.)
This “more than we yet know” must every time be a new particular finitude — much as scientists forever expand their detailed theories, knowing they are fallible, but loving their knowledge no less for that fact. Beyond whatever comprehensive knowledge of reality we develop, inexhaustibly more reality and knowledge exists.
It is crucially important to resist the overwhelming urge to imprison potential particularities of “inexhaustibly more” inside our own souls by encapsulating “unknown” in the general category “mystery” idolized by so many mystics. The fact that the inexhaustible cannot be exhausted is no reason to stop accepting its abundance of particularities.
If an individual elects to be part of a political body, then that individual shares responsibility for those who act on behalf of that body. It is fair to hold people responsible for what their political bodies do.
But if you classify a person as belonging to some category of person, and on that basis hold that person responsible for the actions of others who (according to you) also belong to that category, you are committing a grave sin against liberalism.
The line between belonging to a political body and being assigned to a category is a blurry and crooked one. No simple formulas exist to sharpen it. The line is not traced along the boundaries explicit declarations of membership: people are often cagy or deluded about the political significance of their actions. But neither are the lines those gridded out by ideology: every theorist has his correct schema.
The lines must be surveyed case by case through dialogue between the disputants.
A successful philosophy leaves naivety in its wake.
A part of my autobiography that I had to compress into two lines was my experience with Jewish thinkers. Judaism only became a serious interest for me following my very strange experience of intensive study of Nietzsche starting in 2002 and extending to around 2006. During this time under Nietzsche’s influence I excavated the assumptions at the foundation of my understanding of the world.
Nietzsche was absolutely insightful on many points, but rarely as right as his here: If you want to get at the assumptions that matter, the most important thing to dig up is the ground beneath the warning signs that say “Do not dig here.” Those signs mark the pay dirt of self-transformation — at least if you begin with morality. (I believe this qualification is another insight of equal value to the first. Questioning values you do not actually hold — values which you have not internalized, that you do not live and that are not the the stand-point and vanishing-point of your perspective — is lazy nihilism or cynicism and it will do nothing or worse.)
From the Preface of Daybreak.
At that time I undertook something not everyone may undertake: I descended into the depths, I tunneled into the foundations, I commenced an investigation and digging out of an ancient faith, one upon which we philosophers have for a couple of millennia been accustomed to build as if upon the firmest of all foundations — and have continued to do so even though every building hitherto erected on them has fallen down: I commenced to undermine our faith in morality.
Hitherto, the subject reflected on least adequately has been good and evil: it was too dangerous a subject. Conscience, reputation, Hell, sometimes even the police have permitted and continue to permit no impartiality; in the presence of morality, as in the face of any authority, one is not allowed to think, far less to express an opinion: here one has to — obey! As long as the world has existed no authority has yet been willing to let itself become the object of criticism; and to criticise morality itself, to regard morality as a problem, as problematic: what? has that not been — is that not — immoral? — But morality does not merely have at its command every kind of means of frightening off critical hands and torture-instruments: its security reposes far more in a certain art of enchantment it has at its disposal — it knows how to ‘inspire’.
But despite what so many people say about Nietzsche, his goal is not at all to live an amoral and unprincipled existence. It is to reform one’s own relationship with morality. I believe his purpose is to re-establish one’s own values on realities that are less speculative and vastly more immediate, motivating and durable.
Nietzsche did a bang-up job with the demolition and ground clearing of my worldview. But it was a chain of Jewish thinkers who help me piece my soul back together, and to reassemble it toward a reality not confined to my own mind. And that realism most of all included the belief in the sacred reality of other minds.
Somewhere I made a list of the names of the Jewish thinkers who helped me, and I plan to expound on each, but for now I will just list some of them.
- Richard J. Bernstein
- Martin Buber
- Hannah Arendt
- Walter Benjamin
- Emmanuel Levinas
- Abraham Joshua Heschel
I was especially interested in the fact that whether the thinkers were religious or secular there was a distinct commonality among them, and I felt that this commonality connected with me in a vitally important way. It might have been an inheritance from lost Jewish ancestors, or maybe it was transmitted to me via Christianity, but the total experience of reading these thinkers made me want to enter and participate in the Jewish tradition.
As part of my conversion process I’ve been asked to write a 500-word spiritual autobiography, and to pick out a Hebrew name. I thought I would choose Israel or Yisrael, but then I found Nachshon, and it is perfect for me. I’m weirdly excited about it.
Reading back over my own autobiography, I feel a need to thank and apologize to everyone who has known me too much, especially my poor Mom.
Here’s the final version, 72 words over the limit, but OKed by my rabbi.
I was born into a religious vacuum. The worldview I inherited had no space for religion. My first memory of religion is my 4-year-old self sitting on the potty asking my mother what God is. Her answer: “God is love.” I became an atheist.
Once I could read I gorged on mythology and Mark Twain. This antithetical pair of threads drawn from my earliest reading — a strand of constellated meanings twisted around a nasty strand of critique — has run through my life and connected my various interests and activities.
When I was ten my family moved to a town with a Unitarian Universalist fellowship. I was made to attend Sunday services. I’d rant all the way home. According to adolescent me, UU was vapid! insular! a parody religion! a detox program for religion addicts! But when I charged UUism with hypocrisy, it backfired: attacking UUism with UU values, I internalized them, and infected myself with faith in reason, tolerance, self-criticism, pluralism, and dialogue.
My atheism ended after I met my future wife, Susan. She crushed me in an argument on the foundations of my morality, which resulted in 1) self-demotion to agnosticism and 2) love.
Before we were married, Susan joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. I went with her to liturgies, and that was my first exposure to Judeo-Christian scripture. I tried to get inside the perspective but I was unable to connect with the doctrines or practices. My wife and two daughters were enmeshed in a community who regarded me as blind, ignorant and possibly wicked. My devout agnosticism appeared to most people in my life as a blotch of nothing to be disregarded. I think this is why I embraced Vipassana meditation. I appreciated its focus on practice and its deemphasis of doctrine, and it dignified my outlook with a name. Plus, it made me nicer, and the insights gained in meditation have helped me understand mysticism.
Late 1999 we moved to Atlanta. I stopped meditating, got consumed with work and became depressed. I learned a lot from this. Coming out of it I re-centered my thinking on lived experience, rather than abstract ideas.
Then I was transferred to Toronto. I started reading Nietzsche — initially to understand the “slave morality” in my workplace, but it was soon obvious the critique applied to me. I interrogated my moral, philosophical, and religious conceptions until they dissolved. What remained was a new and odd mode of thinking. I found myself unable to convey what I was learning without resorting to symbols and metaphors. Religious writing now made immediate sense to me. My agnosticism became irrelevant. It was exhilarating but painfully isolating.
The urgent need to explain — and later, to exit — this state of mind, and to reintegrate with humanity drove me into phenomenology, hermeneutics, pragmatism, and eventually to Judaism. I kept noticing that Jewish thinkers like Richard J. Bernstein and Martin Buber were especially, distinctively helpful. The values I kept finding in Jewish thinking resonated — especially around the religious significance of intersubjectivity. As I continued, I came to see Judaism at the root of everything I care about — the values contracted from my childhood harangues. I felt room in the pluralism of Judaism for religious life as I know it. I am a contrarian, but that doesn’t mean I do not need a home; it just means I can’t live most places. Coming here, I feel home.