Roland Nikles

Roland NiklesCommunity Contributor

Roland Nikles is an attorney and writer based in San Francisco, California. You can follow him on Twitter @RolandNikles. He blogs at News, Reviews & Views.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Rappers And Rabbis Are All Singing The Same Song

…I wanna rock your gypsy soul
Just like way back in the days of old
Then magnificently we will float
Into the mystic.
—Van Morrison

Pop singers waxing eloquent about love and sex freely borrow from the religious vernacular. Religion returns the compliment. In many synagogues these days, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has been adopted as a sort of Jewish anthem. Hallelujah is a song about love (and its limitations) and sex — and infidelity. For those attempting to kindle a mystic connection with God, earthly love “may be the first symptom of the real thing,” suggests Robyn Creswell in the NYR in an article about a new translation of the epic Persian poem “The Conference of the Birds,” by Attar (1145-1220).

A friend recently asked on Facebook “What are some good songs that are spiritual, but not religious?” She received a deluge of suggestions in short order, although most of these songs had overt or implicitly religious connotations. “Spiritual” seems to imply, foremost, non-adherence to organized religion. About 20 percent of Americans don’t identify with an organized religion, according to a 2012 Pew Research poll. But of that 20%, two in three still claim to believe in God. In 2014 Pew found that a mere 3.1 percent of Americans identify as atheists. Sitting in the middle of San Francisco, that seems surprisingly low to me.

What do pop singers mean to express when they borrow religious language and metaphors while singing of earthly love? What do the religious mean to express when they borrow pop songs of earthly love for religious ritual?

Three Stages of Religion

Gershom Scholem, in his opening lecture (chapter) that makes up the book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, (1946) identifies three stages of religion:

1) Initially, he says, the world was full of gods whom man encountered at every step and whose presence can be experienced without recourse to ecstatic meditation. Primitive man had an immediate consciousness of the interrelation and interdependence of things, an immediate consciousness of the essential unity of nature. This is the stage of man, says Scholem, which preceded our sense of duality. It was a truly monistic universe of man’s mythical age.

What’s so primitive about that? we might ask. It is a stage we seem to be coming back to, this time armed with a great deal of understanding about how the universe works. A drop in the bucket, still, compared to omniscience, but then what good is an omniscient God who hoards his secrets?

Man has always needed to explain the world, of course, to make sense of it somehow. To that end we’ve always had creation stories, like those formed around “coyote” or “raven” in Native American cultures, but these explanations were not with reference to gods somehow outside of nature. Coyote and Raven are very much part of nature.

2) The creative epoch of religions, says Scholem, was ushered in when man formed perceptions of a vast abyss between God (infinite and transcendent) and man (finite and earth bound). Man became aware of (began to imagine?) a fundamental duality. We began to conceive of a vast gulf between us and the divine. Let’s call it “The Gap.” The Gap, our rabbis and priests said, could be crossed by nothing but the voice of God—directing and law-giving, and by the voice of man in prayer. The scene of religion was no longer nature, but the moral and religious action of man and the community of men, whose interplay sets a stage on which the drama of man’s relation to God unfolds across the Gap … , and which was mediated by rabbis and priests.

In the meantime, we learned some of the laws of nature—for example Pytheas figured out that the tides were somehow related to the moon in 330 BCE; three centuries prior to that, the Babylonians identified an 18 year cycle in lunar eclipses; during the Seleucid empire (332-60 BCE) astronomers began to calculate the orbits of some celestial bodies. Who is responsible for all this order, we wondered? Plato and Aristotle abstracted nature into theoretical forms, and we were off and running with substance dualism: the world is made up of two kinds of substances, material substances, and mental substances, and we began to conceive of God as a kind of mental substance (a being without physical extension or fixed duration). It gave us the idea of soul, and the idea that souls—like God—are eternal, and that souls and God can mingle on some spiritual plane on the other side of the Gap.

Formal religions tended towards the legalistic, says Scholem. In the Talmud, the rabbis worked out Jewish law and Jewish observance. In a very similar process, Islam worked out the Sharia and Islamic observance.

But legalistic religion became unsatisfying for some. After all, many religious rules are arbitrary. (“Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” anyone?) As we learned more and more about how the natural world works, our metaphysics about God became less and less convincing. Philosophers tried and failed to come up with a proof for God. [They also tried to turn base metals into gold!] It’s one thing to sacrifice an animal and smell the odors of flame consuming flesh, and watch smoke rise and mingle with the heavens; it’s quite another thing to say prayers and blessings across a Gap to a distant and abstract deity that has no physical qualities, or physical existence. Is that why Christians are fixated on the cult of Jesus—a historical flesh and blood man—rather than on the Trinity?

A philosophic approach to formal religion has its limits. For Maimonides (1135-1204), a philosopher and the author of the Mishneh Torah (an important synthesis and compilation of Jewish law), says Scholem, “the whole world of religious law remained outside the orbit of philosophical inquiry, which means of course, too, that it was not subjected to philosophical criticism.” Which is to say, rational reasoning is a limited tool for formal religion. It all takes place on this side of the Gap, whereas God is entirely on the other side. Maimonides studied philosophy, and he was an orthodox practitioner of Judaism, but these were separate worlds for him, says Scholem.

[We should note that the development and implementation of halakha (Jewish law) lends itself to rational reasoning, as described in Roberta Kwall’s The Myth of the Cultural Jew. But this is a limited inquiry; the reason for the laws, and their ultimate meaning does not lend itself to philosophic criticism]

This fact, that religion cannot fruitfully be subjected to the rigors of philosophy, leads us naturally towards mysticism, suggests Scholem.

3) Mysticism acknowledges (still assumes?) the abyss between God and man (the Gap), says Scholem, but in mysticism man looks for the secret of how to bridge this Gap. Mystics seek to transform dogmatic knowledge (of God) into a novel and living experience and intuition (of God). They want to feel God across the Gap.

It’s what Van Morrison does when he sings about earthly love transcending “into the mystic.” It’s what religious Jews do when they adopt Hallelujah as an anthem.

The Quest of the Hoopoe

Attar’s poem “The Conference of the Birds,” says Creswell, “is widely understood to illustrate and allegorize Sufi teachings.” The early Sufi mystics of the ninth and tenth centuries “preached austerity in response to the corruption of rulers in Baghdad and the Islamic east, and they countered the strict legalism of the clerics with esoteric, often symbolic interpretations of religious texts.” “By looking inward,” she continues, “believers were taught to recognize the affinity of their soul with God.” What they were seeking was “a self-annihilating union with the divine.” They sought to eliminate the Gap.

The “Conference of the Birds” “is an allegory of Sufism’s central drama: the soul’s quest to unify itself with God.” The birds are led on a quest by the hoopoe, a small bird with a spikey crest, to find the home of the Simorgh. A great multitude of birds left on this quest, but only 30 reached their destination: “There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw/Themselves, the Simorgh of the world—with awe/They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend/They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.”

“The birds were the very thing they searched for,” says Creswell. [“Simorgh” is a pun on 30 birds] “It is an eloquent summary of the Sufi teaching that the divine lies within each believer’s soul.” The soul is a wormhole across the Gap.

Late in his life, relates Creswell, the Spanish writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, composed a short poem—The Unending Rose—that imagines Attar in his garden meditating on a Rose (“like one who thinks, not like one who prays”) as the Mongol armies close in on his city. “Borges projects his own blindness onto the Persian poet,” says Creswell, “who is free to imagine that the rose he holds and smells is white, or gold, or red.” And in the poem’s last lines the rose loses all specificity, and in a core mystical move, “is transformed into a bottomless allegorical sign.” A sign that knows no Gap.

Everything
is an infinity of things. You, you are music,
Rivers, firmaments, palaces and angels,
O endless rose, intimate, without limit,
which the Lord will finally show to my dead eyes.

For the poet, like the mystic, a rose might become the symbol of any other thing. “‘Give up the intellect for love,’ the hoopoe urges his disciples more than once, ‘and see/in one brief moment all eternity.’”

The Jewish mystics (the Kabbalists) too, says Scholem proceed with allegory. Allegory in skillful hands can provide an infinite network of meanings and correlations in which everything can become a representation of everything else. “To that extent, it is possible to speak of allegorical immanence,” says Scholem. The Gap between us and the infinite can disappear.

For the Jewish mystics, the halakhah (the law) from the outset was the performance of a secret rite (or mystery); it raised the halakhah to a position of incomparable importance and strengthened its hold over the people. This is not law as conceived in any traditional sense. Every mitzvah (religious obligation) became an event of cosmic importance. “If the whole universe is an enormous complicated machine,” suggests Scholem, then for the Kabbalist “man is the machinist who keeps the wheels going by applying a few drops of oils here and there, and at the right time. The moral substance of man’s action supplies this ‘oil,’ and his existence therefore becomes of extreme significance, since it unfolds on a background of cosmic infinitude.”

I don’t know what that means: “unfolding the background of cosmic infinitude!” But I don’t think understanding is the point. Mystics are not in the business of “understanding how the world works;” they are in the business of making poetic and literary associations in order to dull the alienation they feel from God across the Gap. Like Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, and Attar, they are after a feeling … a feeling that the Gap between our finite existence and an infinite and transcendent God has been bridged.

In the ’60s we tried this with drugs.

Tools of Religion

In addition to three epochs of religion, says Scholem, there are three domains of Jewish religion: halakhah (law), Aggadah (stories), and liturgy (prayer and song).

In putting these tools of the Jewish religion to work, suggests Scholem, “Philosophy came dangerously near to losing the living God; Kabbalism, which set out to preserve Him, to blaze a new and glorious trail to Him, encountered mythology on its way and was tempted to lose itself in its labyrinth.”

Scholem concludes: “As long as nature and man are conceived as His creation, and that is the indispensable condition of highly developed religious life, the quest for the hidden life of the transcendent element in such creation (attempts to bridge the Gap?) will always form one of the most important preoccupations of the human mind.”

The Culture of Religion

And as I read the Scholem lecture and the Creswell article it occurs to me: whatever Jewish religion is, this religious culture is much deeper and broader than halakha. Roberta Kwall, in her excellent book “The Myth of the Cultural Jew,” argued that halakha is at the core of Judaism and that Jewish culture cannot exist (or long persist) without the halakha as its central referent. But when halakha is viewed predominantly as a mystical rite of entry, along with Aggadah and liturgy, it seems clear that there exists a Jewish culture that is infinitely broader and more expansive, and rich, than halakha. This culture entails stories from many sources, and who is to say where those stories cease to be Jewish?

We borrow from Torah, Talmud, and liturgy and our stories spill over into thousands of weekly drashes, popular culture, the Marx brothers, Lenny Bruce, Jon Stewart, and Hollywood. All of these stories and the wider culture based on these stories are a palette to draw on for the perpetuation of a rich and vibrant culture that ultimately has very little to do with formal halakha.

And what if there is no Gap? What if there aren’t two types of substances in the world, no abyss between us and a transcendent infinite God? What if nature and man are not conceived as His creation? It seems to me none of these stories go away, and the culture continues as long as we continue to draw from the palette. And why would we ever stop drawing from this rich and multifaceted palette?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Rappers And Rabbis Are All Singing The Same Song

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