David is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Chicago 2006, a financial advisor on the North Shore of Chicago and teacher of spirituality classes in the Jewish community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What I’ve been thinking about lately is my enduring need to connect my lifelong study and practice of Judaism with spirituality. By way of background, I feel like I woke up one day to a world in which “why” I did things didn’t matter as long as I performed dutifully. I still live a life infused with ritual. But it has forever changed for me as if I were now living in some parallel universe. If you feel stuck in a habitual, dry or empty life I want you to know there is a way out. The journey begins by taking one step at a time into the unseen world.
In the 1999 movie The Sixth Sense, the character Cole, a boy who communicates with spirits that don’t know they’re dead, seeks the help of a dispirited child psychologist. Among the most chilling scenes in the movie is when Cole opens up and tells the psychologist, played by Bruce Willis, that he sees dead people. Cole is coming to terms with the unseen world, a realm that remains hidden from others. The movie is entertainment of the supernatural variety, not scholarship. But scholarship has its limitations too. And movies do help to elicit feelings and foster introspection.
Knowledge does not assure one of insight or enhance feelings. We need to feel to connect to a more complete reality. In the Woody Allen movie the Purple Rose of Cairo, set in 1930’s New Jersey, a movie character played by Jeff Daniels, walks off the screen and into the real world. The actor discovers that he is an actor on screen and wants to participate in the world beyond. He awakens to a truer picture of reality.
Our Torah narrative is replete with supernatural events including Creation; a talking snake; visits by angels to Abraham and his nephew Lot; a massive flood of epic proportions; a splitting of a sea and manna from heaven. While following the weekly reading of Toldot several months ago I was struck by a line that read “And he called it Shevah. Therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheva unto this day”. Genesis, 26:33. Much like Jeff Daniel’s character in the Purple Rose (la’havdil), the narrative momentarily leaps from its historical recounting to a statement of present tense import. The text informs us that this is what the place is called today. As if it is talking to us in the now.
We all have the potential to wake up to a deeper understanding of our own reality. From why does this feel like a dead-end job to does it really matter now that I was abused as a child. It all matters. Prior life events color our perspective and bias our reactions; and in turn they affect our current relationships and the decisions that we make. To this day.
When I survey the broad spectrum of modern day Jewish practices and philosophies, from the big league established denominations to others less established, what I feel resonates with me in this post- denominational world are the spiritual insights taught by the Rashbi and his students found in the Zohar. This wisdom has been passed down to many great Rabbis and Tzadikim (completely righteous individuals) through the centuries. From the Arizal to the Ramchal to the Baal Shem Tov and his students and to those who walk the same path today. They teach that there is a metaphysical aspect to all of our rituals. We have both a body and a soul but connecting to the soul requires real work. That above all we need to love all our brothers and sisters as we would want to be loved. A Torah lifestyle is not about disconnecting, but about connecting, everyone and everywhere. Without judgment or coercion.
As I study the texts of these lofty channels of Torah insights I feel their energy and their presence oozing through the words they chose on the pages that I read. Their message is that our prior lives have relevance to our current one. Our Torah in the broadest sense is here to help us individually and to help the world in general, identify, remove and get protection from the sources of pain and negativity that find their way into our lives. We need to connect to the unseen world because that’s where the information about what we need to work on is residing. It’s in our blind spot. When enough of us can move in this direction, we are reminded by them that we can and will achieve a removal of pain and suffering in this world, today.
In Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book Chassidic Masters, we learn that back in the 1700’s, Jewish spiritual insights (Kabbalah) were restricted due to scandal, politics and control exerted by a powerful establishment. It was out of this dark period in our history that the Baal Shem Tov ushered in a rebirth of our universal spiritual heritage. While today many keep these teachings within the confines of an insular society, they are completely relevant if not crucial to creating a more tolerant, loving and peaceful world.
In my journey, I have encountered many who find my perspective either uninteresting or irrelevant. That is of course fine. In jumping off the screen I have hurtled past the idea that spirituality is some New Age phenomenon or deserves to be whitewashed as inauthentic or marginalized by labeling it the superstitious influences of other cultures. Like the experience of the Bruce Willis character above, a deeper reality has emerged for me one puzzle piece at a time. Jewish spirituality, Kabbalah, is a rediscovery, part and parcel of our Torah. And I daresay our message for the world.
I continue to wake up too much deeper feelings about myself and the world than I knew were possible. The more pertinent question is…what do you feel and why?