“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation
There’s something very compelling in this—a way to put to rest some of the issues that often threaten to tear us apart. What a comfort to let go of all our trials and tribulations, all our unresolved conflicts and vanished hopes, all the things that pull us down into earthly reality. To see it all from the standpoint of eternity, and realize that so many of our dilemmas and moral struggles really don’t exist once the ties that bind us are cut. I have sometimes thought that the greatest—and most painful—tie of all is the tie to life itself.
I’ve had two very strange experiences that gave me a glimpse of what I can only call transcendence. Both involved near-death (or after-death) experiences. In the case of the more recent of these, I was floating above my own body, and though I can’t now recall the sense of freedom and “knowing” that accompanied it, the experience itself left an indelible impression on me. I came out of it wide awake and mentally very alert. I spent the next three days reading Spinoza’s Ethics—all three volumes—from cover to cover, almost without a break. I don’t think that I slept more than a few hours the whole time; and to this day, I remember the “Ethics” almost word-for-word!
I also came out of the experience with a feeling that I could “see” the patterns of how present things would pan out in the future—as if I was in touch with the hand of fate. This feeling lasted for some time, before fading away; or perhaps it didn’t fade, but I just got so used to it that it no longer seemed strange to me. The overall effect of that experience was a new appreciation of both death and transcendence.
Is there a connection between this “letting go of life” and the religious goal of transcendence, the letting go of the material world? I think there is.
Jewish religious imagery often makes use of the concept of the “Heavenly Jerusalem” and the “Earthly Jerusalem”. The idea is that our material world is an exact reflection of the spiritual world: “Nothing happens in the world above that does not have its counterpart in the world below.” Interestingly, this dualism eventually made it into early behavioral psychology via the works of Spinoza, who basically took the Cartesian mind/body split and re-hung it on the scaffolding of Jewish mystical thought. The Heavenly Jerusalem became the world of ideas; the Earthy Jerusalem became the material universe of Extension—the mind and body of God.
Spinoza followed the Jewish tradition in seeing a total parity of the two realms. But he took it a step farther: the two realms are in fact the same Entity, “comprehended” now by the mind, now by the body. While Jewish mysticism says: “Nothing happens above that does not have its counterpart below,” Spinoza would simply say that every physical phenomenon has some mental equivalent: “The order and connection of things is the same as the order and connection of ideas.”
There is much fuel for speculation here, many threads in this tapestry. The one I want to follow here is where transcendence fits into Judaism.
Virtually every religion includes the concept of transcendence. It is always posited as a goal for the more advanced soul, if not for all adherents of the faith. In Judaism, however, transcendence was almost always a very marginalized goal. It was always there, but was seen as a goal in its own right by only a fairly small number of people. These people tended to form fringe groups, often living in isolation from mainstream Jewish society. The Essenes come to mind as representative of an early “transcendence-oriented” Jewish society.
In more modern times, the same yearning for transcendence has been embodied in the Kabbalah, and later in the Hassidic movement which grew out of the attempt to actualize the Kabbalistic worldview. Interestingly, while this mystical tendency has had a tremendous influence on the imagery and vocabulary of modern Judaism, it is still marginalized in practice. There are plenty of Hassidim around today, but the movement has for the most part been reintegrated into mainstream Orthodoxy. There are some that are more mystical than others—for example, the Breslovers. There are others, like the Chabadniks, who hold some ideas that set them apart from the mainstream. But even the most mystical or “ecstatic” of the Hassidic sects are recognizably Orthodox. And in all of them, transcendence is seen as a desirable goal only for a very few, not for the majority. More exactly, transcendence is seen as a state of being that even the few should aspire to only at certain times.
Why is this?
Here is my take on it—and, of course, all this is just my own speculations.
Judaism is a way of dealing with life on its own terms. Every aspect of Judaism revolves around life: family, food and drink, social interactions…everything that a full life entails. Life is embraced for its own sake and on its own terms. There is a short Bracha (blessing) said, or thought, for just about everything you do: from getting up in the morning to washing the hands after urinating; from seeing an attractive human being to being saved from death; as well as for the more obvious life-affirming actions such as eating and drinking.
Every aspect of life has meaning, and the Jewish rituals don’t let you forget that for a moment. If you were to ask what is the most sacred thing in all of Judaism—the thing that all Jewish rituals and rites hold up as holy, the answer is clear: this most holy object is not God, but life. As Jews, we are enjoined to really “get into” life. And not only its more pleasant aspects either; there are rituals that are designed to dredge up feelings of grief, guilt, and shame, and expose them to the light of day. Even when we may prefer to simply sweep them back under the rug, such feelings are part of life, and need to be felt in all their intensity. There is a very healthy psychological basis to all of this: in getting such deeply felt things out into the open, we probably end up healthier than had we tried not to consciously feel them.
Implicit in all of this is the idea that we are useful to God simply in the act of living. We are God’s way of interacting with the material and spiritual world. We are the sensory apparatus and the nerve endings that allow the Universe to communicate with itself. As such, the more we participate in the world—the more intensely we live—the more we serve God. This doesn’t mean that we are to pursue pleasure or material gain for its own sake; it does mean that we are to revel in the state of being human and make the most of it. And since humans are social animals, the social contract has supreme importance in Jewish law. Finding ourselves on earth in human form, our duty is to be the very best human beings we can be.
This is why suicide is seen as a serious sin in Jewish law. Even in conditions where life is unbearable, or where survival strips us of every last vestige of dignity and humanity, we are still commanded to live. We aren’t allowed to abandon our posts, no matter what holding to life costs us. There are only three instances in which we are allowed to choose death over life; one of these is if we are told to take someone else’s life as the price of keeping our own. One life cannot be valued against another.
This life-seeking tendency is reflected in Jewish prayer. The Jewish liturgy is mostly a kind of scaffolding upon which the individual is invited to hang his/her personal aspirations. Much of Jewish prayer centers on gratitude for the means of life, and for the ability to be useful to God in some capacity. Implicit in this is the understanding that we are useful only so long as we participate actively in life.
Prayer is also a means of expressing what is going on inside of us. Sometimes, we don’t consciously know what we really want, and we gain awareness of our true desires through prayer. For the most part, the fulfillment of these desires, once we’ve gotten them out in the open by means of prayer, is our business, not God’s.
At the same time, there is a very clear prohibition in Judaism against asking for miracles. After all, one of the reasons behind all these little life-noticing observances is to teach us that there is a pattern to things, so that we will learn to be content with whatever that pattern offers us in terms of opportunities. While we are not supposed to ever let an opportunity to live more deeply go by, we are also not supposed to get hung up on those opportunities that do pass us by. The golden mean: live, but not at the expense of life!
Over and above all this, there is the understanding that we are most fortunate when we are able to make God’s will our own. This is most beautifully expressed in the Kaddish, which affirms the rightness of the way the world is put together. It is no coincidence that the Kaddish has come to be associated with those times when we might be most tempted to request that things be contrary to the will of God. The same sentiment is expressed more succinctly, and a good bit more abruptly, in how we are supposed to meet news of the death of a loved one: Baruch Dayan Emet (blessed is the True Judge).
There is a seeming paradox here: request all that helps you fulfill your mission of living; do not request that things be different than they are. Out of paradox comes balance. The transcendent notion of “Your will is my will” does find expression in Judaism, though by a very “earthy” route.
But what about the next step: true transcendence? Is there room in Judaism for “letting go of life”?
Truthfully, there’s a bit of a doctrinal wrangle here: the whole essence of Judaism is geared around life, and this includes embracing the material world in all its gritty reality. On the other hand, Kabbalistic beliefs include the cycle of rebirth and the goal of spiritual attainment, by which we can be freed from this cycle. Such beliefs would seem to be diametrically opposed to the very essence of Judaism. If we can only serve God on earth, why should we try to avoid being reborn? But, like the character in Alice in Wonderland who has no problem believing seven impossible things before breakfast, there is always room for paradoxes and seeming contradictions.
One way of integrating these opposing beliefs goes something like this: Once we are born, we have a duty to serve God in whatever capacity we can, and this means to participate as actively and as intensely as we can in life. In a sense, we should see our lives as a kind of “professional posting”—a place where we can make an impact. As such, we should make use of every possible opportunity to leave the world a better place than we found it. However, once our lives are over, we are “off duty”, so to speak. At that point, we may have other ways to “make an impact”—which is just another way of saying, to be active co-creators of reality. So while we should see life as a duty, a privilege, and an obligation while we live, it isn’t viewed as the only possible way to serve.
And what about the analogy of transcendence and death? It seems to me that transcendence is the spiritual analogy to death—as transcendence is to the “world above” so death is to the “world below”. Death is a letting go of life; transcendence is a letting go of our emotional ties to the world.
Just as we aren’t allowed to voluntarily leave our posts by choosing death over life, so we are not encouraged to sample transcendence if it blocks our ability to feel. Death cuts off our usefulness as living beings; transcendence cuts off our usefulness as feeling beings. I think this may be one of the things that sets Judaism off from many other faiths, which view transcendence as a goal in its own right. Perhaps it is also what sets Jews apart from other nations. Perhaps our particular task as a nation is to live wholly in this world, and experience to the utmost all that comes of it. Well, we can only speculate….
So in Judaism, transcendence is a glimpse of something that we aren’t allowed to keep. In striving for it, we are aware that the state of ecstasy and oneness with God that we experience as part of this transcendence doesn’t cancel our obligations to life. We can aspire to spiritual ecstasy, but only in our private dealings with God; it isn’t allowed to impede our participation in the human condition.
At the same time, transcendence is a uniquely human phenomenon; and as such, it is part of the human condition. Thus it does have a place in Jewish religious life—just not a very prominent place. In short, Jewish tradition doesn’t allow us to cut our ties with the world; we have too much to do!