to new heights,
enter a room
In its darkness
white light glows
I close my eyes
These days of awe are drawing to a close. Can we feel the awe, or is it perhaps dread? Do we want to feel it? Can we taste the spice of Shabbat? Can we feel the glow that pours into our closed eyes? We now participate in a delicate moment.
These past ten days we've shared many intense hours with one another. Hours during which we've searched our souls, evaluated our selves, and sought renewed direction and meaning for our lives.
Many of us have searched other paths before coming here: innumerable therapies, Transcendental Meditation, the 60's drug culture, various political movements, our own personal career advancement. Each road explored, we hoped would show us the answers we sought. But we are still seeking. We are returning here for many reasons. Sociologists tell us that it is no more than the fact that we've reached a particular moment in our lives. I believe there is more to it than that. Nonetheless we frequently still harbor doubts about the possibility of finding what we seek.
One of my teachers of those years of seeking, Rabbi Richard Levy has written honestly of our current state. His words are familiar to many of us from our Shabbat Siddur. "If our prayer were music only, we could surely sing our way into the world we want and the heaven we desire, for each would find his or her own words for the melody and from every song would pour a hundred different prayers, each the unique creation of its author, the prayer of the heart no different from the prayer of the lips. But the ancients who taught us music taught us words as well, and while we pray their music we cannot always pray their words. The urgent voices of our fragmented lives too often drown them out, and a prayer which says Yes we often bury in a storm of Whys and Hows, No Longers, and Not Yets.
"It was not always so. To speak the ancient words returns us to that simpler time when as children we understood that the world could be one, and that somehow it was ours. That understanding has become but a fragile hope, and yet to speak the words we used to speak is to give substance to that hope, which has remained though we and all our world have changed. Since that childhood time, other truths and many questions have found their home within our minds, but this truth we affirm today is the oldest we remember, and it reunites the person we are now with the person we were once long ago."
Once there were a couple of children who became separated from their parents, the king and queen. They yearned to be reunited with their parents, but they were too far away to be reached. Then one day, they received a letter from their parents. The letter filled them with joy and desire. "Oh, if only we could see our parents again!" they cried. "If only we could just touch them. If only they would stretch out their hands to us, we would gladly take these hands and kiss each finger. Oh, our parents! Our teachers! Our light! If only we could touch your hands!"
While they were yearning and wishing so, a thought came to them. "Do we not have our parents' letter? And is this letter not written by their hands? And is not their handwriting something akin to their hand?" They treasured and fondled the letter and said happily to themselves over and over again: "The handwriting of our parents -- the hand of our parents."
R. Nachman of Bratslav goes on to tell of a certain ruler whose documents are signed with the words: "A great and awesome ruler, a sovereign of truth and humility." We know that this ruler is in fact great. For the territory ruled is surrounded by a sea, and a fleet of ships with cannons roams this sea, keeping people from drawing near. And at the edge of this sea there is a swampy bog where people stand in danger of drowning. This swamp encircles the territory and the only way to walk through the mire is on a narrow path, wide enough for only one person. Here too, cannons are stationed. When one comes to approach, cannons are poised to shoot. And so, one cannot draw near this ruler. All this we know, yet, we don't know why this ruler's documents are signed "A sovereign of truth and humility." This remains a mystery to us.
We want to know this Ruler. We want to share in the greatness, truth and humility. We don't even know the way to the swamp. Too often it seems that we have even inadvertently sealed off our roads along the way.
A few years ago, the late R. Aryeh Kaplan was invited to speak in a small synagogue in upstate New York. The weather was bad that evening, and only a few people showed up, so instead of giving the lecture he had planned, he gathered everyone into a circle and just talked. Most of the people there had relatively little knowledge of Judaism. In the course of their talk, he began to discuss the Shema and how it can be used as a meditation. One of the women present asked if he would do a demonstration, and he agreed.
The whole meditation could not have taken more than ten or fifteen minutes. Ordinarily, it would have taken longer, but in that situation he felt pressed for time. Still, at the end, everyone present, including Kaplan, was literally breathless. Collectively, they had experienced a significant spiritual high.
"Why can't we ever do anything like this at services?" asked one of the men. It was a question Kaplan could not answer. The discussion turned to how cold and spiritually sterile their synagogue services were, and how a technique like the one tried which worked so well in their group, could make the service infinitely more meaningful. Together they discussed whether the synagogue service was initially meant to be a meditative experience.
A meditative spiritual high here in Ramona? It does sound a bit odd, if not at least a mixing of apples and... goldfish. Most of us probably think of our spirituality in terms of either intellectual or aesthetic activity or saffron robes and incense. Almost as though we know there is a Shabbat spice, but can't believe that it works. We hold the letter, but can't recognized the handwriting.
Sometimes I feel we do not even want to start out on the road to that swamp which protects the Sovereign from us. We are afraid, because our scientific world tells us that the swamp merely continues on forever, offering little more than perhaps a few opiates along the way. This has been the reigning idea for generations.
Thousands of years ago, Shai Amosson had a vision. This was one powerfully seductive vision. So much so that we continue to tell of it almost every time we meet.
In the year 734 Shai experienced an overwhelming presence on a high, hovering, as though seated. It was somewhat covered and the outer fringes of this garment filled the Temple. Fires surrounded its brilliance, each fire had at least six distinguishable flames: There appeared to be a face covered by two flames, at the base were two more flames and the fires flew about with the flickering of the last two. As they flew, Shai felt each of them call out to one another: "unique, special, extraordinary is..." "in unison they emitted a powerful, deep breath.... 'The divine presence fills the earth.'"
Just then, one of the fiery beings flew from the altar over to Shai, touched his lips and called out: "Now that your lips have been singed, your guilt is gone. All the heavy weight of the wrongs you have done has been lifted away."
The philosopher Rudolf Otto described Shai's experience and those moments of awe in the High Holy Day liturgy as "numinous." Sui generis encounters with something, if not supernatural, at least beyond our normal every day lives. These also are the kinds of experiences Abraham Maslow refers to as "peak-experiences."
According to Maslow, Shai's vision or revelation is one of these "peak-experiences" or "ecstasies," "transcendent" experiences which can be explained in secular terms today. However, just because they can be so explained, does not make them any less real. Perhaps the opposite.
The British zoologist David Hay has for a number of years been in charge of the Religious Experience Research Project in the School of Education at Nottingham University, financed by the Religious Experience Research Unit in Oxford. In his book Exploring Inner Space, published a few years ago, he identifies six dimensions of religion. These are the 1] social, 2] doctrinal, 3] mythological, 4] ethical, 5] ritual and 6] experiential.
1. With the social we are all familiar. We know of congregations with many committees devoted to making the congregation function. We also gather for purely social purposes.
2. The question of chosenness and the subject of the centrality of the Shema in our worship, or the role that the State of Israel plays in our lives as American Jews are all doctrinal issues. These we can appreciate on an intellectual level.
The first two aspects are common to all organizations, not just religious ones. But in religion, doctrinal arguments are concerned with the meaning of sacred stories or mythologies.
3. Every religion has as its centerpiece a collection of stories which treat the most mysterious and disturbing of human problems. "Why is there something rather than nothing? Where do we come from? Why do people suffer? What happens when we die?" By us Jews, most of these issues are dealt with in the second chapter of Genesis, the story of the Garden of Eden. Or, when we read the account of Moses bringing the tablets of the law down from Mount Sinai we feel we have a vivid basis on which to build a system of ethics.
But how different are these religious stories from all kinds of secular "truths people live by?" They are profound metaphors for life without which no one, religious or irreligious, could lead anything but an aimless existence. In this sense even "scientific truths" have mythological significance. Make no mistake about it, I'm not trying to suggest the validity of teaching "Scientific Creationism" as they call it. But curiosity about origins is provided for by physical theories of the cosmos. And our notions about an original "big bang" or of "continuous creation" have their own awesome strangeness.
4. The ethical is frequently the reason given by people for their involvement with religion. Religion is to inculcate a sense of right and wrong. It is not unusual for parents of any faith, who no longer practice, to send their children to Religious School on the assumption that the kids will be given a usable moral code. But aside from the fact that different religions frequently have different, sometimes opposing moral codes, it is possible to claim that religion itself is neither the only, nor the rational source of morality. Utilitarians believe that the basis of moral behavior should be those principles or actions that provide the greatest good for the greatest number. We could probably each come up with other examples.
5. So far, none of these dimensions of religion seem to be limited to religion itself. Perhaps when we turn to ritual, the fifth dimension, we have found something that can define religion. But what is ritual, if not "the symbolic use of words, bodily movement and gesture in a social situation to express and articulate meaning." Here we are engaged in a ritual that we believe helps alleviate guilt we've incurred throughout the year. Another kind of religious ritual, found in every culture is that connected with important transitions in our lives: Bris, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Marriage.... But need these "rites of passage" necessarily be religious? It certainly seems to be true that, whether they are formally religious or not people like to mark important phases in their life with ritual. When there was a Soviet Union the Communist party made many (and to some extent successful) efforts to construct secular ceremonies which appropriately express the seriousness of these occasions.
Song, Hassidism taught is a ladder, whereby we come to a heightened consciousness. It has many rungs and must descend into dark depths before it can rise to luminous heights. It unites what is above with what is below, and evokes forms yet unseen. Great is the song composed of words and melodies, greater is the song in which melody suffices, but greatest is the song that needs neither words nor music.
[Ruth Finer Mintz]
Secular institutions have doctrines, myths, ethical systems, even rituals. Where our gathering here differs from all secular institutions is in our intention, consciously expressed or not. We intend to be the social expression of an inner experience of the sacred or holy.
This is the crucial dimension. Without it, all the others retain their meaning, but they are not religious! For religious people the sacred is not a theoretical category. Our activities here are the public side of an initial inner religious experience.
"Yeah, sure... . I'd like to agree, but I just don't feel it. And I'm not sure I'd recognize such an experience if it were possible to be had! Sure I've had some fabulous times, but they sure happened far from the synagog.
And the farther the better. some of us add.
It was pretty hard to describe, but I don't know why I should call it religious.
Even though we may be speaking about purely physical phenomena we seem to use religious language. One of the reasons we do so is because the vocabulary we have available comes out of the religious world view.
Professor Houston Smith of Princeton once tried the following experiment on his students. He presented them with the descriptions of two experiences. One was what would be called a classic religious experience. The other was induced by a psychotropic agent. Which do you think was the "Classic" experience?
"Suddenly I burst into a vast, new, indescribably wonderful universe. Although I am writing this over a year later, the thrill of the surprise and amazement, the awesomeness of the revelation, the engulfment in an overwhelming feeling wave of gratitude and blessed wonderment, are as fresh, and the memory of the experience is as vivid, as if it had happened five minutes ago. And yet to concoct anything by way of description that would even hint at the magnitude, the sense of ultimate reality... this seems such an impossible task. The knowledge which has infused and affected every aspect of my life came instantaneously and with such complete force of certainty that it was impossible, then or since, to doubt its validity." [drugs]
All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire... the next, I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life... I saw that all men are immortal: that the cosmic order is such that without anything interrupting it, all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world... is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain. [R. M. Burke, quoted in William James Varieties of Religious Experience]
Which one is it? Can't tell?
So what. The experience can be described by the same terms, but don't tell me they are the same experience!
Well, yes and no. Each religious tradition has its own peculiar set of metaphors. The adepts of each group use their own particular metaphors to express themselves. But biologists and psychologists have been studying the electro- encephalographs (EEG's) of religiously active people and note that all contemplatives emit high amplitude alpha waves during their religious exercises, regardless of how they arrived at that state. Religious experience, the experience of the sacred is a natural state.
Well, if they're so natural, why can't I have them anytime I want them?
We get headaches, we experience stress, we are too busy attending to other matters. And that is why we've all been called here this evening. We are told to put aside all those mundane things, remove from our minds all the work and family related stress. We are reminded that we can taste the Shabbat. It is a special gift to us. But in order to taste it we must love it. We hold in our laps a letter from our parents welcoming us home. Its pages tell us we are loved, regardless of any wrong-doings, and certainly, we have done our fair share. The sovereign of the realm is willing to open the gates. All the cannons will be put aside. A broad path will be cut through the swamp, even a bridge over the seas will be constructed. The walls will be torn down. Now, as we turn to the Aleynu, it is upon us to rise and praise this sovereign, source of all goodness and energy.