Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Jewish Yoga, or Abrahman Linkin'

I apologize in advaitance if some of what you are about to read isn't exactly kosher. Certainly it has little in common with the beliefs and practices of the secular Jewish family I happened to marry into, which mostly revolve around eating and arguing, and arguing about where to eat. True, they are Jewish, but what they really are is Orthodox Democrats. Yes, I suppose they venerate the Torah, just not as much as the New York Times.

I was actually married by a rabbi at a time when I knew next to nothing about Judaism, but the unfamiliarity and novelty of the ceremony made it all the more meaningful for me. I was immediately struck in a completely unexpected way by the wisdom and holiness embodied in the rabbi's words, and ever since then I have always included Judaism in my coonfused and polymonotheistic approach to Spirit. And I have taken the rabbi's words to heart, for I always try to avoid paying retail.

I forget who it was, but someone once said that Judaism is an esoterism masquerading as an exotericism. What they meant is that Judaism begins where the ancient mystery cults ended, with the revelation of the one true God. In the mystery cults of ancient Greece, the experience of the One was only disclosed to dedicated initiates who had demonstrated an ability to receive and assimilate the teaching. But in Judaism, this ultimate One is simply declared from the get-go. Now let's eat!

Nevertheless, it cannot be forgotten that the positing of this (beyond) One is not merely a dogma, but an experience -- an experience vouchsafed to Moses on Sinai, as well as others before and since. In this regard, it is not dissimilar to Vedanta, in that the Upanishads simply record direct encounters with the ultimate Mystery. Religions are organized ways of remembering and celebrating these encounters, but according to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, "entrances to holiness are everywhere. The Possibility of ascent is all the time."

While religions formalize (and properly so) the entrances through which we may slip into these realms of experience, strictly speaking, they are always there. To cite just one obvious example, it is incumbent upon each Jew to personally have the experience of being liberated from enslavement to the death-cult of Egypt in the present moment. Nevertheless, most people require forms in order to enter the formless.

To become aware of these entrances into wholly liberation is to draw closer to the Creator. Allegorically, we enjoyed a continuous oneness with the Creator in Eden. However, this was not unity but oneness, something not really as lofty as unity, for unity requires our separateness from God, but then reconciliation at a higher, more complex and differentiated level, not a lower one of mere undifferentiated blending -- as children are first "blended" with their parents before becoming separate.

This gives human beings a special role in creation, as we become the link, or semipermeable menbrains, between God and creation -- but only if we meet the divine world halfway and are transformed by it herebelow. Again, according to Rabbi Kushner, returning to the source "means to unify the inner world and the outer world" -- that is, to unite the cosmos by actually bringing the upper world into the lower, and vice versa: "The name of God is the Name of the Unity of All Being." (Again, Unity, not oneness.)

In Vedanta there are actually "two" Brahmans, one called Nirguna Brahman, the other Saguna Brahman. Nirguna Brahman refers to the absolute, unqualified, impersonal divine essence itself, whereas Saguna Brahman is God with attributes, including the personal God (ultimately, of course, these are not two different beings).

As a matter of fact, this accords perfectly with kabbalistic Judaism, which posits the Ain Sof, or ultimate, unknowable, limitless and infinite Godhead. There is a God that manifests various aspects of itself here below, but an infinite unknowable Divine that is beyond all limits of name, form, or conceptualizing. For example, Torah may be thought of as the body of the unknowable God -- the bones, structure, blueprint, or DNA. It is a sort of Saguna Brahman, or God with attributes. (And this also accords with Orthodox Christianity, i.e., Gregory Palamas' distinction between God's essence and energies.)

According to Jewish tradition, there was both a written Torah and an oral one transmitted to Moses on Sinai. However, the oral one was partially lost, and had to be reconstructed by the sages on the basis of their study of the written Torah. While one Torah is written with black fire on white fire, the second Torah was written with white letters in the white spaces in between. This invisible Torah is "lit up" through the contemplation of a great sage in dialogue with the written one. As Schuon explains it, this clearly shows a kind of "vertical" gnosis operating on the horizontal continuity of the Torah.

Another legend holds that God gave the Torah during the "daytime," and the mishnah, or interpretation and commentary, at night. This latter can again be understood as a different kind of consciousness that is brought to bear on scripture -- a gnocturnal, dreamlike, or intuitive sort of consciousness that must be entered in order for Torah to disclose its hyperdense meaning to one who wishes to unlock its deeper secrets. While the Torah is literally infinite, beyond, time, space and eternity, mishnah is inexhaustible in a different, "relative" manner, in the sense that contemplation of the infinite Torah yields an endless bounty of wisdom in time. If Torah is the infinite ocean, mishnah is more like an endless river flowing out of it and back into it.

In other words, the sage inhabits the dialectical space between the infinite Torah and its inexhaustible expression of itself in time. Nothing is absolutely fixed, and there is no end to it. Yes, the Torah is Absolute, and yet, it has no particular meaning until a sage enters its world and particularizes it in time and space. This, I believe, is what it means to live in the desert bewilderness. Like Abraham, we are simply told to "go to a land I will show to you." This is that land -- or dimension. On the one hand, it is a world of doubt and uncertainty, and yet, on the other, it is a world of ceaseless truth flowing vertically through the Torah. It is to perpetually wrestle with God, which is the true meaning of Israel. Don't worry if you don't believe. Just keep wrasslin,' and you'll be fine.

The first law of Judaism is that (paraphrasing), "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and and all your strength." This is remarkably similar to what is expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, which essentially takes the Upanishads and outlines its principles in the form of a dialogue between the avatar, Krishna, and a prince, Arjuna. There Krishna describes the various ways to God, that is, the different yogas, which include Bhakti yoga, Raja yoga, Karma yoga and Jnana yoga. Each is suited to a particular personality style, but they all have the purpose of helping us to transcend our own limited egoic framework in order to know God.

Bhakti yoga, for example, is the practice of heartfelt, loving devotion to God, or "loving the lord with all your heart." Jnana yoga is the yoga of intellectual contemplation, essentially identical to "loving the lord with all your soul" or mind. Karma yoga is the yoga of works, or activities in the world. In fact, "loving the lord with all your strength" has been interpreted to mean working "for God" with hands and body, doing something to make the world a better place. For many rank-and-file Jews, their practice is one of Karma yoga ("Tikkun"), while Christianity often emphasizes the Bhakti element -- love of the personal Jesus. But the point is that both Judaism and Christianity are all-purpose religions, and it is easy to discern all of the yogas in each.

The last yoga, Raja yoga, is the yoga of meditation, and it too is present in both Christianity and Judaism, although perhaps not emphasized enough. Properly understood, prayer is precisely a way to stand in your heart before God, expecting nothing except for contact and intimacy with the Divine. According to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, prayer "is not only an articulation of certain words, but also a key and a sort of ladder on which a person may reach from level to level" toward the Divine.

At the highest level of receptivity, one may become an instrument of revelation, very similar to one who has recognized the Atman within. In Judaism, each person is believed to contain a divine spark at the center of his being, somewhat like a line of light between part and whole. As Steinsaltz describes it, this part contains the whole, but "the soul's essential wholeness cannot be achieved except through effort, through work with the greater whole." In other words, it must be realized.

In the Torah, God tells Moses that "you shall not see my face and live." Turning this around, it may be interpreted to mean that one must die in order to see God's face. However, this doesn't necessarily mean literal death, but the death of the ego's limited perspective of separation and self-sufficiency. Ultimate reality, or Ain Sof, means "without end," or utter nothingness. To achieve ego death means to enter this Divine Nothingness, which, paradoxically, is complete fulfillment.

In my book, One Cosmos Under God, there is a quote to the effect that sparks of holiness are imprisoned in the stuff of creation, and that these sparks yearn to be reunited with their source. Teshuva is the word for this urge to return to our source. Likewise, in Vedanta, all of our wishes, hopes and desires are really confused substitutes that mask the yearning of the Atman, our personal soul, to reunite with Brahman, the unitary source of all that is.

So when purusha comes teshuva, that's what life is all about.


These are wonderful books if you want to get a handle on Jewish esoterism in a remarkably accessible style. Although thoroughly Jewish, they are also, like Schuon, quite universal:


Van said...

"the soul's essential wholeness cannot be achieved except through effort, through work with the greater whole." In other words, it must be realized. "

"So when purusha comes teshuva, that's what life is all about."

There you go.

River Cocytus said...

Explains why the youth are so attracted to video games. When the society has stopped recognizing the soul's progress it is being visualized in the form of a game...

Magnus Itland said...

Role playing games are clearly mythic. It is probably no coincidence that they enter history at a time when society starts to dismiss mythic religion. After being revealed to my humble self around 1965 - to no avail, since I was like 6 at the time - the first role playing games appeared in Sweden in the 70es, probably the first country to instill in its children a distance to mythic religion.

This is all off-topic, isn't it?

Gandalin said...

As you have shown, the Jewish path encompasses bhakti yoga, raja yoga, karma yoga, and jnana yoga, and surpasses the Mysteries, taking up life in this world and the next where the Mysteries leave us. The Jewish path is a complete and perfect path, and to top that, (in contrast to the faiths that base themselves [some more and some less
] in its primal revelation, it does not demand that the entire human world accept it or adopt it, either partially or in its entirety.

Gagdad Bob said...

Not to mention the fact that if all the world were Jewish, where would we get Chinese food?

Magnus Itland said...

Back on topic, I find it ironic that Christendom has been so dismissive (to put it nicely) to Judaism until recently, since exoteric Christianity is in so many ways Judaism Light.

By this I mean that Christiany as a civilizing force - an axial religion - is closer to pre-Christian Judaism than to whatever Jesus was trying to instill in his disciples. Even today Jesus doesn't make much sense to most Christians. He is still just the sacrificial Lamb rather than also the High Priest.

coonfied said...

I wanted to see how much I don't know, so I wrote a creation story. Let the confusion begin:

What ‘is’ is Plotinus’s Fatherland, Brahman—indeterminate One without a second.

And there was Vishnu, most high saguna Brahman:

Once upon a time was the verb, and the Om dialectic was logos, and the logos [could be said to be] within the Father.

And Vishnu said, let there be Brahma (anabolism), and there was at once creation, but also Shiva (catabolism)—the monads writhed in the pain and self obliviousness of the Big sheBang; but Vishnu said all was well, for no monad should be necessarily Allone. With all of this Vishnu vanished into Suchness, and Brahma and the Legion were left with the question—what matrers? So, Brahma stared into the water and saw a faint image, and in a succession of increasing degree, the bleak necessary shined through the unnecessary: thus arose the Great Chain of Monads, and with it, an astral-nominal co-fusion. Brahma gnew that this was not good, no image should be so oblique, so given the projection of the situation, Brahma called for Vishnu: there was no-thing; suddenly Brahma fell into the world, and after the serpent of the body was subdued, he re-membered himself Atman. The astral-nominal co-fusion stared at Atman and saw themselves’, while on the contrary, Atman clearly saw Atman between the co-fusion. “Let me be a mirror for the co-fusion, and let them break it,” said Atman, for he gnew that they “no not what they do.” And “It [was] done.” The evil eye was caste upon the body of Atman and destroyed, but Atman remained. Suddenly, the astral-nominal co-fusion saw themSelves, and there was a great rebound, a reVerb; and here we are.

I'll just say, I'm not in the habit of believing me.

River Cocytus said...

exoteric Christendom (or more precisely only-exoteric Christendom) is like the wealthy heir who uses up his granddad's fortune. Like, um, Onegin.

But that's not real Christianity any more than wood finish is real wood.

lets be sure said...

What is the coon position on the Christian doctrine of salvation?

I mean, what happens to those who don't accept Jesus as their personal saviour?

The Christians say Jesus is a must have, but Bob seems to indicate that one might fare just as well after death without Jesus, if one is amply connected to Ain Sof or Vishnu or?.

Opinions, anyone?

Petey said...

Bring me the broom handle of the Wicked Witch of the Left, and I will grant you the answer to your question.

jwm said...

lets be sure said:
I mean, what happens to those who don't accept Jesus as their personal saviour?

This could well be the phrase that launced a thousand Jesus willies, and burned the tops off of a lot of serious seekers. I read the four gospels fairly recently, and I don't recall Jesus saying anything like "personal savior". Where, exactly does this notion of 'accepting Jesus' as sort of a spiritual ultimatum come from?
(not taking a shot at you, here. I am curious)


Anonymous said...

Sorry Petey I got it and I ain't giving it up without a fight.


Magnus Itland said...

Can't say I remember seeing Jesus mentioned as our savior anywhere in the New Testament. Paul does refer to the Father that way. Not saying there is any conflict between the two, just saying that people pull pious phrases out of their rectum and then get very upset if called on it. (An amusing and pointless game I used to play.)

Gandalin said...


I claim that nothing recorded as being preached by Jesus in the Four Gospels departs from the broad mainstream of Jewish theological teaching.

There is nothing in the Sermon on the Mount that a Jewish preacher would be embarassed to preach to a Jewish audience; which should not be surprising, since the Sermon on the Mount was preached by a Jewish Preacher to a Jewish audience.

The difference in the societies evolved in the Ummah and in Christendom can be derived from the observation that Christianity maintained a living and vibrant connection to the Tanakh, while Islam claimed that the Tanakh was a fabrication, and ignored it.

The Prophets indicate that in the Later Days, all peoples will acknowledge God as the one God, and all will worship at His Temple in Jerusalem, but each people will worship God in its own way, and according to its own forms.

We will have Chinese food, and Indian food, and all of the vast richness of all of the world's cultures.

jwm said...

Thanks. I recently read the Torah, as well as the Gospels, and that is the impression that I come away with. The people who have been most influential in my own growth have been those who emphasise a Torah based Christianity, or a Christ inclusive view of Judaism. I know that many Jews, and some Christians take issue with that approach, but it is the one that most powerfully resonates with me.


Gandalin said...


Thank you for your kind comment and your interesting insights. I think that the history of the spread of Christianity shows that the moral and ethical teachings of the Tanakh have great relevance and resonance for people in many, perhaps all of the world's cultures, when those teachings are presented clearly and succinctly, and perhaps without all of the behavioral accomodations which God expected from the Jews in terms of diet, dress, and so forth. The precious kernel is to be found, in my opinion, in the two principles that Jesus preached as most essential: 1)to love God with all one's heart, strength, and soul; and 2)to love one's neighbor as oneself. In the context of Western civilization, it is precisely when a social movement neglects or suppresses either one of these principles that real trouble ensues.

River Cocytus said...

JWM, the letter to Galatians is relevant to this discussion. While Judaism is the foundation of Christianity and its moral teachings are correct, Christianity is not simple morality but the Fullness of the Life of God Himself.

This is why no matter how encompassing a natural or revealed religion is of the moral teachings and the law it does not contain Christianity.

The 'personal savior' thing doesn't make any sense - mostly because it was never taught before the, um, 1960s? Probably. At any rate, Theosis would involve more than just accepting salvation from The Dude, since in a sense salvation was offered to all and making it personal doesn't add to it.

In fact, the insistence on personal salvation - or a personal style or idiom of salvation - would tend towards dismembering the faithful. It's like the idea of school uniforms. It is your own school uniform, but it is the same as all of the others. When you can no longer express yourself through your clothes you must express yourself through your natural inclination and action. Since you put on Christ...

Anyway, back to descending into Hades and preachin' the Gospel.

jwm said...

River: Thanks. I was looking forward to your feedback on this one.


Gandalin said...


With trepidation and respect, I wonder whether you find in the preaching and teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, the theology you bring from Paul's Letter to the Galatians?

River Cocytus said...

Gandalin: Properly understood, there is no distinction. The scripture is divine tradition, and is one. Proper theology and doctrine are form and shadow of one another. The teaching of Jesus did not start with the Incarnation nor did it end with it. Being that Jesus taught, when teaching morality (and not talking about eating his flesh, being before Abraham, or calling the most devout of his day vipers) straight-up Judaism is no surprise. It is as I said, the Law is correct.

But if we understand the Incarnation, 'God became man so man could become God' we realize that no man was saved by works of the Law. This includes all kinds of Yoga.

If anything, like the one Yogi had said, they work in you to transform you; but the salvation is ultimately a gift that you have to accept (or reject.) Accepting it is, really, truly, being destroyed. ('He who loses his life for my sake will save it.')

Gandalin said...


Thank you. If I understand your answer, then I may confidently continue to assert that nothing Jesus ever preached departs from the broad mainstream of the Jewish tradition.

River Cocytus said...

Gandalin, the only question I would have is, how much of the New Testament scriptures have you read?

Gandalin said...


I've read the Gospels, the Revelation, and most of the Letters of Paul and other Epistles. I don't claim to have ready every book. I have also read the Apocrypha.

NoMo said...

Respectfully, Biblical theology must be systematic. Scripture has to first be allowed to explain itself - both through the teaching of others and your own study (as I like to quote someone from hwom I learned a great deal, “A text without a context is a pretext”.) I can attest that the more time spent in the scriptures, the more amazing the discoveries and practical applications for living a more godly life (which is why it is forever my "mission" to encourage reading and comtemplation of the Bible).

Regarding salvation and “personal savior”, here is what I believe that scripture systematically teaches. In my natural-born, fallen state, I was lost/separated from any relationship with God. In that state I could do NOTHING righteous in God’s eyes. That's what I mean by “totally depraved” - LOST. Only God could take an action that would absolutely, once-and-for-all, deliver me from that state. That action was the atoning sacrifice of His only Son as propitiation for all my sin – past and future. My part in this was to believe / receive. Having done so, I am "born again" of the Spirit - a new, spiritual man before God, forever radically and profoundly changed. At the same time I believed, the Holy Spirit took up permanent residence within me. Once found, never again lost. Can I still sin? Of course. Must I still sin? No. The value of whatever "good works" I might do now are measured by the degree to which they bring glory to God. The indwelling Spirit performs all kiinds of roles - prays on my behalf, provides insight and wisdom, convicts when needed, etc. etc.

Although I've referenced no scriptures in my explanation here, everything I have said is the result of a systematic study of Biblical teaching. Do I have it down perfectly? Is my doctrine exact? No and no, nor will it ever be. But that is the process of living out one's freedom in Christ.