Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Discovering the Old World and Rediscovering the New

The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. Even if just for a moment every now and then each day. For it is the only way to begin. --Lawrence Kushner, Honey From the Rock

Not sure if there will be any posting for a few days. Mrs. G. is going to be visiting her ailing father in Florida, so Future Leader will be remanded to my care for the duration. Between picking up pizza three times a day and letting him outside to pee, I don't think I'll have the time.

Someone asked yesterday if I can give a full racoomendation to this extremely condensed version of the Zohar that we've been discussing. I'm not yet sure. But if you're looking for a good introduction to Jewish mysticism in general, you can't do better than Lawrence Kushner, including works such as The River of Light or Honey From the Rock.

In my admittedly limited experience, the majority of books on Kabbalah tend to be either very scholarly and not written by mystical practitioners, or else they are of the vulgar new-age variety. I am quite sure there are exceptions, but I'm just not familiar enough with the terrain. Perhaps Gandalin can help us. I can say that in his suggested readings, Daniel Matt agrees that Honey From the Rock is "quite simply the easiest introduction to Jewish mysticism you can read."

And I wouldn't say "easy" in terms of being facile or simplistic. It's just that Kushner has a gift for vividly expressing the inexpressible and using words to say what mere words can't say. In reading his works, I was struck by the similarity to Meister Eckhart, not just in substance, but style and tone. And of course, one of Eckhart's main influences was Moses Maimonides, whom he held in the highest esteem and cited often.

So there is a dimension in which all of this comes together. However, I don't like to express it exactly in the manner Schuon does, because it can come off sounding a little too schematic when it's really more of a... I don't know, an "adventure in God." Kushner agrees that religions can "become ossified," so that "holy encounters" become "hopelessly encrusted by centuries of mindless repetition." The Light, of course, is still there, but buried beneath the leaves of custom and habit. "And for this reason every spiritual discovery is but a rediscovery."

That may be a good way of expressing it, because not everyone is an adventurer, and there's nothing wrong with that. Some people prefer to settle down in the mapped out and well lit territory -- to ski on the groomed slopes. A few extreme seekers prefer to venture into the ungroomed areas, but this is inherently risky, because you're plunging into the bewilderness.

In any event, the whole innerprize is much more analogous to a painting that we ourselves have to paint than a pneumagraph we can receive from someone else's darkroom.

Also, if you are to survive here, you will have to obtain your own food, and know what to eat and what to avoid. But this is where we can find a drop of spiritual nourishment in "something as mundane as a rock": "And so we eat a little and are satisfied and go on our way" for another day (Kushner).

The point is, on this adventure, there is no supply line back to the base, nor can you take many provisions with you. Rather, you must locate the essential vertimins every day, enough to get you from one day to the next. More generally, you must not only discover, but "discover the way to discover." For the discovery of discovery is the state of unknowing that precedes the knowledge -- or the hunger that precedes the food. Why eat, you'll only get hungry again? Why learn when you'll only be ignorant again? That's why.

In fact, I'm looking at Honey From the Rock right now, and the first chapter is called "The Wilderness of Preparation." Even before that, in the introduction, he expresses ideas that tell you right away that this man is a full-blooded Raccoon. For example,

"It is to begin with, all inside us. But because we are all miniature versions of the universe, it is also found far beyond." (Note right away that he strikes the correct balance between God's radical transcendence and immanence.) "And because we are all biologically and spiritually part of the first man, the place preceded us. And because we all carry within us the genotype and vision of the last man, the place foretold us."

Inside, outside, first man, last man, alpha and omega, "becoming" the self that always was and will be -- as I said, this man is a son of Toots and brother under the pelt.

Note also what Kushner says about the location of the adventure being anterior to our entrance into it: "We have all known it since before we were conceived," "so do not be confused if sometimes the place seems as real as your house or as illusory as your happiness." He notes that there is the explicit Torah that is written with black letters on white paper. But there is a hole other Torah -- and a vaster one -- in the spaces between the letters. This is again a primary locution of our off-road bewilderness adventure.

Kushner also emphasizes that the ultimate meaning of scripture is that it is your narrative. It is not just about what happened "once upon a time," but what happens every time. Again, as we mentioned yesterday, the only thing that keeps you from realizing it is a failure to take the plunge. If Moses "had your definition of spiritual, he would have remained an Egyptian too. Never entered the wilderness. For you see, we are the stories." If you want your old new self back, you first have to go to the lost & found.

About this bewilderness, the wild godhead -- it is not merely a "place" but "a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you.... Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past." You're on your own, baby! Just like me and Future Leader, except without the pizza.

If you think you know what you will find,
Then you will find nothing.
If you expect nothing,
Then you will always be surprised.
And able to bless the One who creates the world anew each morning
--Lawrence Kushner


sehoy said...

I have loved these last two posts.

I wish I could show you the bits and pieces of stories I have written that correspond to so many things you have written in this latest post. It's just that I don't even know what it is I'm trying to say.

"For you see, we are the stories."


Gandalin said...


Thank you for mentioning me again in your post today. I am not really qualified to offer guidance about the Kabbalah to seekers of Truth, but I agree with your perception that most published works on the Kabbalah in English are either difficult scholarly works by authors who are not themselves mystical practioners, or New Age tomes by mystical practitioners who may or may not know anything about Kabbalah.

Kabbalah means the received tradition, and traditionally it was only taught to worthy and properly qualified individuals, who had previously mastered the written Torah, the Mishnah, and the Talmud, and whose personal practices were known to be within the boundaries of the practical tradition.

I don't see the Kabbalah as purely religious, per se. To me, the Jewish religion consisted in the sacrifical activities of the priests in the Temple, which has now been replaced by the liturgy, that is, by prayer. The traditional Jewish way of life is just that, a way of living, and is only "religious" in the sense that it understands all of its practices to be derived ultimately from the Creator's explicit and implicit instructions. The Kabbalah then is a sort of philosophical science, which describes the real vertical/horizontal world in a manner akin to the way the conventional secular sciences or natural history, if you will, describe the natural world. But the Kabbalah does serve to tie religion, practice, and natural history together.

I tend to see the texts of this tradition as musical scores. I am not sure that merely posessing a musical score and a musical instrument enables you to produce music. Hence I am not sure if studying a Kabbalistic text on your own will necessarily reveal to you the traditional meaning. In this day and age, however, I do not think exposure to the material is actually dangerous, and I think that the individual perusal of Kabbalistic texts may lead to great wisdom and insight, even if not entirely traditional.

Remember that the only real Teacher is everywhere accessible to the prepared student. Ultimately, one can, I believe, learn from the Source from which the Masters themselves learned. But it is much easier and much better to be instructed by a master. The ArtScroll publishing group, interestingly enough, one of the largest English-language traditional Jewish publishing projects with advisory leadership from Haredi (God-fearing or "ultra-Orthodox") scholars of repute, have been advised not to publish anything from or on the Kabbalah.

There are authors whose works in English do provide a glimpse into the world of traditional Kabbalah. I am away from my bookshelf at the moment, but I will think out loud about some of these texts later on today, if I can.

julie said...

Future Leader will be remanded to my care for the duration. Between picking up pizza three times a day and letting him outside to pee, I don't think I'll have the time.

lol - that reminds me...
I'm guessing he's a little faster these days. That poor pizza doesn't stand a chance.

Back to reading...

Ricky Raccoon said...

Thanks Bob and Gandalin.

Gandalin said...


Here are a few authors whose works in English on Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah are certainly consonant with the tradition: first I would cite the works of the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in particular his books on Jewish meditation and his annotated translation of the Sefer Yetsirah (a Kabbalistic text attributed to Abraham). The works of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz are certainly without error. (I think you are familiar with his "13-Petalled Rose.") Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag's school of Kabbalah is well-represented by the works of Professor Michael Laitman, and an introductory volume translated by Mark Cohen. Rabbi Lazer Brody has translated some of the works of Rabbi Shalom Arush, and his website also contains features that are directed at non-Jewish seekers, and not at all with the intent of proselytizing. There are other sources of great value, but I think that short list would provide most people with an excellent start.

walt said...

Julie's illustration is seared (SEARED!) into the Raccoon Unconscious!

robinstarfish said...

I haven't had time to read much lately, but I'll make an exception for Kushner. Strong gong.

But this is where we can find a drop of spiritual nourishment in "something as mundane as a rock" (Kushner).

I couldn't agree more.

Also, any post that references tree skiing automagically grabs my attention. ;-)

Fantastic post today, Bob. Enjoy your time alone with FL.

Northern Bandit said...

I was thinking more about what Bob said concerning the Orthodox aversion to erasing separation or blending. David P. Goldman reviews Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal
by Dana Evan Kaplan
, a depressing book which celebrates this very blending and erasing quite openly.

This whole concept also caused me to recall Eric Drexler's seminal book Engines of Creation from the 1980s where he predicted a nano-technological revolution. This "revolution" has indeed been achieved on a very limited scale, but the theoretical soundness of his more spectacular predictions remains very controversial.

Assuming for a moment Drexler was more or less correct, he warned of a possible future total catastrophe which has come to be known as the "grey goo scenario". In a nutshell, self-replicating nano-bots capable of disassembling matter at the molecular level somehow get out of control and proceed to do just that. They literally blend all material on the surface of the earth into one grey goo (destroying all life in the process of course). This is NOT science fiction. The accuracy of these scenarios are unproven in practice of course, but his predictions are based on physics as it was understood in 1986. Nothing fundamental has changed to rule all of this out entirely.

From a Raccoon perspective the interesting thing here is how man unmoored from God can at least conceive of (unintentionally) extending the blending beyond mere cultural depravity to the very material substrate itself. (Drexler of course warned against allowing this to happen -- he considered it to be a massively dangerous threat to the earth)

Ricky Raccoon said...

What do the nano-nano robots get out of all this?

Northern Bandit said...


Heh. There is TONS of nanotech all around us today that didn't exist even 10 years ago. Lots of the stuff is military, and most of it so far is materials (tubes, crystals, catalysts, filters, composites, etc). Nano-machines exist mostly in the laboratory.

I question whether the runaway nano-machine hypothesis is possible not because we can't create the necessary machines, but rather because there is no conceivable way to deal with the heat generated by such a explosive scenario. Either they'd be too slow, or burn up.

Gandalin said...

David Gelernter's new book might be more interesting than Kaplan's. Gelernter identifies four underlying themes or images in Jewish thought: separation, asymmetry, the veil, the inward pilgrimage. His meditations on these themes are not without interest.

Ricky Raccoon said...

What's their power source?

The whole techno-take-over-word-thing obviously reminds of the matrix, terminator, etc.

Why do the machines have any motivation at all? Aren't they just mechanical atheists?
Waitaminute. That's redundant.
(No offense atheists)

But seriously, if you could achieve consciousness, self-awareness, this is what it would do with it?

Jack said...


I think it's part of a leftist worldview that clarifying and even maintaining distinctions (i.e. prevent indiscriminate blending) is seen as some "theo-facist" conspiracy against freedom. It is seen as the height of cultural enlightenment to be supportive of such blendings.

(though note that these same people would balk at, say nambla-type "blendings"-and properly so, of course...but seem to be at a loss as to why exactly they justify the line being drawn there. Since Thailand doesn't seem to mind it, and woe unto them who thinks they are culturally superior!)

I recently reread "Radical Evolution" by Joel Garreau which goes into various scenarios of technological development predicated on the continued reality of Moore's Law (that computing power doubles every 2 years). He goes into the "grey-goo" possibility amongst others. But the upshot to me is that the trend/temptation to start "blending" is going to be one that we may face on a much larger scale in the relatively near-future.

What is it stake is the very meaning of what it means to be human. If we take Nietzsche's view that Man is "a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss" (and this existentialist view is increasingly the norm on the left. Sartre's "existence precedes essence" writ large and unexamined) then there is no grounds to claim that one form should take precedence...only the "stronger" form will win, no matter how horrific and debased.

For those of us who believe that there ARE distinctions and that though these do evolve and deepen are not to be transgressed, a much deeper acknowledgment/response to the issue is warranted. A tepid response is a losing one.

Ricky Raccoon said...

Sorry, NB. Jack’s comment is more to your point, obviously.

julie said...

Gandalin, that book does look interesting. Both reviews on Amazon indicate a Raccoonish perspective, imho.

walt said...

Ricky -

An example of "compassionate" technology.

Gandalin said...

Speaking of separation, and drawing distinctions, I would be remiss if I failed to mention a old love from my youth, the book "Laws of Form," by G. Spencer Brown. I do not think it still enjoys the esteem it did in that more naive time. However it does begin with what Brown considered the fundamental process of all algebras: "Draw a distinction."

Without a membrane to separate the living individual from the world, there can be no life. And that may be what defines life. The ornithologist Alexander Skutch has written some very interesting things about that, too.

Ricky Raccoon said...

More proof PETA is their own worst enemy.

jwm said...

The anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion deals with that exact theme: the ultimate blending of the human race into one homogeneous bio-entity. It's been some years since I watched it in its entirety but it's definitely worth the time. Giant monster stuff notwithstanding, it is a superb, though flawed work. Some parts of it are actually terrifying, others transcendent, and deeply moving. If you have nineteen or twenty hours to spare, check it out.


Gagdad Bob said...

This whole subject of blending is extremely deep. I recently read Theodore Dalrymple's In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, and as good as he is, being a secular man, he just can't reach to the cosmic consequences of what's going on with this satanic inversion of hierarchy and distinctions....

Gandalin: Concur about Laws of Form. It's been a while, but the book is Gödelian in its implications, even if I only understood about 10% of it....

jwm said...

I checked your link. Too funny. I think they ought to stick a PETA member in a hole somewhere, and if he sees his shadow at midnight they can let him out for six weeks in the winter.


Van said...

"Kushner also emphasizes that the ultimate meaning of scripture is that it is your narrative."

A particular sticking point for our scientistic aninnies who choose not to believe in free will or consciousness (!).

"It is not just about what happened "once upon a time," but what happens every time."

24/7, 40 days and 40 nights or 40 years... or for a three hour cruise, bewilderness awaits you....

Van said...

Ricky said "What do the nano-nano robots get out of all this"

Shazbot! Truly nothing Na nu Na nu under the Orson.

(sorry... rootcanal painkillers... it's all blending together...)