Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections
Lawrence Fine, Eitan Fishbane, and Or N. Rose
Jewish Lights 256 pgs. $24.99
We may consider ourselves fortunate to have the many personal reflections on mystical texts offered in tribute to Arthur Green, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. “Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections” contains 26 essays, each consisting of a translated Hasidic text accompanied by a spiritual reflection. Arthur Green taught two generations of graduate students how to read Hasidic texts and produce from them approaches to contemporary spirituality. Here, his students go forth, continuing the path he has laid out for them.
The book’s title reflects the fact that mysticism naturally generates comments on traditional Jewish religious life. “It is, however, important to emphasize that the mystical dimensions of Judaism do not separate easily, if at all, from the traditional structures of the religion,” write the editors. This volume presents the academic study of mystical texts as a resource for those practicing traditional customs incorporated with 21st century spirituality. It also presents a wide range of authors from America and Israel who share neither communal nor theological associations, so that few generalizations can be made.
Reading in the mystical classics is a traditional way of contemplating one’s inner religious life. Many literary greats have produced gems motivated by the mystics. The striking quality of this volume is the unfortunate underlying assumption that if one teaches graduate studies in Jewish mysticism, one can create spirituality because one knows the philology of the mystical texts. The book could be called “Spirituality and the Graduate Seminar.” Some of the essays, especially those by non-academics, did not need the translated Hasidic text in order to discuss spirituality. Conversely, for those academics who sought to provide background information and explicate a Hasidic text, the spiritual message was woefully underdeveloped.
The book was edited as a collection of explicated texts for the beginner, yet many of the essays leave terms and ideas unexplained. Most people, moreover, seeking Jewish spirituality want non-academic teachers — such as Renewal teachers, real Hasidic rebbes or those who lead ecstatic worship — for the same reason that people who want Buddhist spirituality do not want academic lectures on the history of a Tibetan text and would rather meditate or read Shambala Sun, a leading Buddhist magazine.
There is a further issue with the project: What does “contemporary” mean here? The authors represent a wide variety of different and unrelated approaches of the past 40 years, as if all roads of contemporary spirituality are the same, or at least have their roots in the Hasidic texts. The book may be a tribute to Arthur Green, but each author writes from his or her own unique perspective.
One group of authors advocates spirituality through aesthetic contemplations. For living a Jewish life, they recommend first reading a snippet of a classic text of spirituality and using it as springboard for a personal reflection. Some of these contributions are noteworthy. Jonathan Slater contemplates compassion, reminiscent of Buddhist compassion meditations; Chava Weissler translates an Eastern European women’s tekhina (or petitionary prayer) as a model for contemporary personal prayer; and Ethan Fishbane proposes contemplating a Hasidic teaching every week before lighting Sabbath candles.
Other authors treat the reader to short excerpts from their much larger projects. Award-winning author and rabbi Lawrence Kushner instructs the reader to embrace the messiness of daily life and grow by facing new situations. Nancy Flam suggests that we work on wholeness and a seamless life of connection. Short pieces by Gordon Tucker, Michael Fishbane and Sheila Peltz Weinberg basically present selections from their own volumes.
Some essays reflect an academic offering in an informal adult education setting. Daniel Matt discusses how he finds meaning in the Zohar’s approach to evil, while Melila Eshed-Hendler explains prayer in the Zohar and Ron Margolin teaches how to overcome the metaphysical dualism in the Hasidic text and take a message of mitzvoth as connection to God.
My favorite essay in this volume is by Shai Held, who presents the teachings of the Slonimer Rebbe (who died in 2000). In the 1990s, the Rebbe spoke about how contemporary religious people do not have religious experiences anymore, therefore this cannot be the sole criteria for religiosity. Held asks whether this means that people who cannot count on regular religious experiences may need a regular discipline, such as halakha, to maintain their religious identity.
Some of the essays are bothered by authenticity and attempt to explain the author’s own relationship to the Hasidic text. Many of the authors seem to accept a romantic view of Hasidism, without having a feel for living Hasidim, and accept that the true transmission of Hasidic learning and lineage takes place in the seminar room. They conflate their own observations on the Hasidic text with the continuity of Hasidism.
Because of its diversity, this book should not be treated as representative of Jewish renewal, neo-Hasidism or even Art Green’s teachings. Green, for one, teaches a radical view of God, in which God is no longer envisioned as a patriarchal Biblical image but rather as present in the inner self. This panentheistic view is toned down by Green’s students and friends. These academics struggle with serious doubts about the existence of God but nonetheless still seek to recapture, in their inner voice, belief in the great and mighty God.
After reading this volume, one may ascribe Arthur Green’s success more to his own charisma and theological insight than to a reproducible method. Nevertheless, reading this book is like attending a variety of classes at Limmud, in which one gains a wonderful overview of how an eclectic group of teachers find contemporary meaning in what they teach.
Alan Brill is the Cooperman/Ross Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering, Seton Hall University, and author of “Judaism and Other Religions” (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010).