This part 2 of the interview with Rabbi Yoel Glick. This part deals with the big questions of Vedanta philosophy and revelation. Please read it thoughtfully and offer comments.There are many original ideas here. Part I is here.
Rabbi Yoel Glick just released a book Living the Life of Jewish Meditation: A Comprehensive Guide to Practice and Experience. The book is billed as a “comprehensive guide to meditation as a way of life draws on the knowledge of the East to vitalize and illuminate traditional Jewish practices in a whole new way.” Glick will be on a speaking tour to promote his book-Here is an updated final schedule.
The comparison I make in the book between Hasidut and Advaita is not about two philosophical systems, but about two approaches to God. When we look at Hasidut and Advaita as two approaches to God experience, then there is a lot of similarity to their methodology, to their understanding of the inner processes that need to take place, and to their perception of the nature of the obstacles which stand in the way of achieving our spiritual goal.
The key link between these two approaches is their understanding of the need for the annihilation of the ego. Both approaches recognize that it is only by annihilating the little self that the big Self will be revealed. This is their common experience and the crucial idea in their teachings.
For example, Rebbe Yissaschar Baer of Zlotochov’s innovative reading of Deut. 5:5 “I stand between you and God” poignantly expresses this point. It is our “I”, our ego, the Zlotochover declares, that stands between God and us. If we want to bind ourselves to God, then we need to get rid of the ego.
Following a similar line of thinking, the Maggid of Mezertich compares the process of binding oneself to God to the process of joining two pieces of silver. All imperfections and dross must be removed from the two pieces, he explains, or they will not join together and become one. Similarly, if we want to join with God, he warns, there must be nothing separating us from Him. This removal of our “I” is necessary, he continues, because just as a seed needs to completely dissolve in the earth in order to bring out the power of a tree which is hidden within it, so our lower self needs to be completely obliterated for the full potential of the Divine Self within us to be revealed.
The passage from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov on bitul that I quote in the book concretizes this idea even further. He speaks of the need to go through a process of spiritual death in order to bind ourselves with God. He suggests that we actually visualize the death process – that we shut our eyes, close our mouth, and imagine we are dead.
These teachings parallel the Advaitic teaching that it is our identification with the body, the mind and the ego that prevents our true Divine Self from being revealed. If we can reach back to the source of the “I am the body” idea, then the ego will disappear and the presence of the Self will automatically be revealed.
The Hasidic methodology also parallels that of Advaita. Rebbe Nachman’s description of the simulated death experience of self-nullification (bitul) closely resembles Sri Ramana Maharshi’s description of the simulated death experience that preceded his own non-dual Self-realization.
So we have a common identification of the problem: the mind, the ego or lower self. A common explanation of the goal: reaching the state of Ayin (Nothingness), and immersion in the Ein Sof – the Unbounded Oneness of the Self. And a similar method of achieving the objective: bitul or annihilation of the lower self by stopping all thoughts, by surrendering to God, or by going through an inner death. So even though there are differences in the philosophical systems of these two spiritual doctrines, they have similar approaches and share many concepts in common.
14) To most people, Hasidut and Advaita appear to have completely different conceptions of this worldly reality. How do you understand this?
The philosophical systems of Hasidut and Advaita are less distant than it would at first seem. The determining issue is how we understand the Advaitic teaching that this world is an illusion.
When Sri Ramana Maharshi was asked whether Sankara really meant that the whole world is an illusion, he replied that as long as we perceive of the world that we see with our physical eyes as reality, then we are taking an illusion for reality. However, once we see everything in the world as a manifestation of Brahman or God, then the world and everything in it is real.
An analogy Advaitans often use to explain this truth is a desert mirage. As long as we are at a distance from the source of the mirage, we think that the mirage is real. However, once we approach the source, we see that the mirage was only an illusion and all that really exists is the desert sand. The sand itself, however, certainly is and always was real. In fact, it is a quality inherent in the sand which created the illusion of the mirage that we mistook for something that was real.
The idea that the outer world which we see with our physical eyes is not a true reality is common among many Hasidic teachers. In one of his teachings, the Baal Shem Tov states “one must be so bound with God that the main thing he sees is God – that his principal vision should not be of this world, and then God through the world, rather God should be the principal thing that he sees. And such a person will merit that the husks will fall away from him, because these husks create a darkness and separation between man and God, and block the eye or sight of a person’s mind from seeing God.”
Here the Baal Shem clearly states that we should see God as reality and not the physical world. Further, he states that if we strive to see God in everything, then the husks (klipot) – will fall off from us. And what are the klipot but the outer shell or form of this material world which covers the inner Divine reality.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov also puts strong emphasis on this point. In one of his teachings he tells us that we must always remember and be conscious of the next world, otherwise will fall prey to the power of illusion that covers this world. He urges us to firmly turn our gaze away from this world and to strive to only see the one true reality. To see this reality, he explains, we need to shut our eyes to the vision of this world. We accomplish this goal by habituating ourselves to go through a constant process of bitul or nullification of the outer reality, in the same way that we place a finger before our eyes in order to block out an unwanted view.
An even stronger statement of the unreality of this world comes from Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Commenting on Deuteronomy 4:39, “Know this day and take unto your heart that the Lord is God; in the heavens above and upon the earth below, there is nothing else”, the Kotzker explains that this verse comes to tell us that there is no reality to the things of this world other than the Divinity that is in them. All that we see with our physical eyes, he declares, is an illusion and does not really exist. God alone is the one true reality.
Nor is this teaching of the unreality of this world restricted to Hasidut. It has a powerful antecedent in the teaching of Chazal that the next world is the true world (olam haemet) and in the Zohar that this world is a false world, (olmah deshakrah) –a world of lies and illusion that is not real. So although the predominant view in Hasidut is the viewpoint of duality that focuses on sanctifying this life and this world, there is also a significant strand of thought within the tradition that questions the truth and reality of this world and everything that belongs to it, even if it may not be as radical in its total negation of this world as is pure Advaita.
15) How can you exhort us to simply assert, “I want to be one with God, or like the Vedantists we can exclaim, “Om Tat Sat—I Am That.”?
My principle perspective on the relationship between Judaism and Hinduism is not that of a scholar or theologian, but of a spiritual teacher who is trying to help seekers build a living relationship with God. The realm I deal with is the realm of experience. And so the connections I make are based upon the nature of inner experience.
This is the reason I use the Vedantic phrase “Om Tat Sat” as an affirmation in the book. OM Tat Sat is not a philosophical statement, it is a meditation technique. When a Vedantist says “Om Tat Sat – I am That”, he is striving to transcend his limited physical awareness. He is trying to identify himself with That which is Infinite and Eternal. This is the experience I am seeking to connect the reader to in the book.
I could have used the Kabbalisitic language of “I have a spark of God inside me” or “I am a spark of the Ein Sof” instead of “OM Tat Sat” as my affirmation, but I decided that using Om Tat Sat would be more effective. Incorporating Om Tat Sat with other more Jewish affirmations provides the meditator with a fresh way to reflect upon and understand our traditional phrases. It enables him to access the underlying reality that these phrases are meant to convey.
After all, religion does not begin with philosophy and dogma. It begins with a powerful transcendent experience that an individual then tries to put into words. His or her description of the experience will reflect their background, knowledge and time period. But it is the living experience which is at the heart of what they are trying to convey. And it is this experience that we want to access. All the rest is only a poor substitute for a true Divine encounter.
16) Is revelation content-less then?
There are several levels to the answer to this question. Let us explore them one by one.
The Experience of Revelation
First of all, there is the issue of the experience of revelation itself. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that the revelation of prophecy is beyond the capacity of the human mind to consciously hold. Therefore, in the moment of revelation, the separate self of the prophet is blown away and his actual experience is unknowable and indescribable. Only after he returns to physical consciousness is he able to integrate the experience and then try to put it into words. This is why so many of the prophetic experiences are written in allegory or poetic images. Otherwise, they could not be grasped.
The one exception, according to Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, is Moshe. Moshe was the only prophet who was able to remain conscious even during the moment of revelation. He literally could talk face to face with God.
In this sense, then, revelation is contentless. That is, it transcends any structure that the human mind can hold.
Processing the Revelation by the Human Mind
The second issue involves the processing of a revelation by the human mind. No matter who the instrument is, they can only integrate ideas into their physical consciousness based upon the world that they know. Whatever God may reveal to them, they must understand it with their human mind and brain.
We see this truth expressed by the Midrash, in relation to the instructions that Moshe received for building the Mishkan and its vessels. When God describes to Moshe how to build the menorah, the Midrash tells us, Moshe was unable to comprehend what the menorah looked like until God showed him an image of a menorah made out of fire, and then he understood.
According to this midrash, it was the limitations of Moshe’s physical mind/brain that got in the way of Moshe understanding the appearance of the menorah. He simply lacked the capacity to assimilate the initial image in his consciousness. The situation is the same for every person who receives a revelation. We cannot possibly understand something that we have no vessel for comprehending. And we can only describe an experience according to the images and memories that are stored in our brain.
For example, if God had shown Moshe a computer and then explained it to him, Moshe’s understanding of what he had seen would have been limited by the nature of his own experience and the development of his mind. He could never have understood what a computer is as we do. He simply did not have the same foundation of knowledge that is available to us today.
Our experience is the basis of our understanding of reality. It is the lens through which we see the world.
Revelation in Each Generation
Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, once again provides further elucidation on this point. Exodus 25:8-9 states: “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, the pattern of the Tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall you make it.” Rashi comments on the words “even so shall you make it” – so shall you make it throughout the generations. The Ramban and Tosefot challenge Rashi. How can this be so, they say? We know for a fact that Shlomo hamlekh made the altar of the Temple different than the altar of the Mishkan.
The answer to their question, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak explains, lies in the nature of revelation. Each generation and its prophet reach up into the higher realms and bring down a vision and spiritual power into the world. The Mishkan is the name the Torah gives to the spiritual vessel that they construct to hold this vision and energies. Each generation constructs a “Mishkan” according to the pattern and image that was shown to its prophet, thereby creating a spiritual vessel appropriate to their own generation.
When Rashi says: “so you shall do throughout the generations”, he does not mean that we should build the Mishkan exactly like Moshe did, but rather, like Moshe and the Children of Israel did in the desert, we should build the Mishkan that is appropriate to our generation and the vision of the prophet of our times. Therefore, Moshe built the altar in his day according to the vision he received, and Shlomo did the same in his day.
Transmitting Revelation that Goes Beyond Content
This teaching opens the door to a fascinating conception of revelation in Judaism. Not only is the traditional teaching being passed down from generation to generation, there is also a revelation that is received that goes beyond the information contained in the texts. There is a spiritual vibration, a higher wisdom that we plug into in each generation. This transcendent revelation is then translated into words and ideas by those individuals who have been given the spiritual mission of transmitting the Divine vision, the “builders of the Mishkan” in our time.
The Ari calls this greater revelation the supernal Torah. The supernal Torah is the source of all knowledge and wisdom within the Godhead. It is the blueprint for the world and the foundation of Creation. The written Torah that we have is only a small fragment of its infinite reality.
The revelation we receive of the supernal Torah is determined by our capacity to penetrate into its hidden realm. As the Maggid of Mezeritch teaches: “The Torah is clothed in all the worlds, in each world it is clothed in accordance with what that world is… And the tzaddikim, when they rise above body consciousness, can touch this Torah, each one according to his level… the higher the world he binds himself to, the greater the expansion of his understanding of the Torah will be, and the farther away from its source, the greater the contraction of the Torah.”
Revelation, then, is both with and without content. It is a spiritual experience that transcends all words and forms, as well as a direct transmission of profound insights and eternal truths. It is at once the unfolding of a whole world and also a sublime and inexpressible mystery.
17) Do you think this is a world of lies (alma dishikra) or an illusion? Do we tolerate suffering?
Answer: My view of life is encapsulated in the Ari’s dual concepts of shevirat hakalim – the shattering of the vessels, and tikkun olam – the repair of the world. As a result of this shattering, everything in this world is a mixture of light and darkness, good and evil, joy and sorrow, success and failure. Everything in our world is broken; nothing can be complete or whole.
So the first imperative is for us to realize the brokenness of our world. We need to open our eyes to the suffering that is all around us, to see the fragmented nature of people’s lives. We need to accept the truth of the imperfection and sadness in our world.
There is also the possibility of tikkun or repair. We accomplish this task by first discovering the spark of light within ourselves, and then fanning its flame until it becomes a spiritual blaze. We discover our own divinity by diving deep within through prayer and meditation. We fan its flame by developing within ourselves the Divine attributes of love, compassion and generosity, of wisdom, courage and faith.
We then use the power of these virtues to repair the world. We work to relieve the suffering of others. We strive to bring comfort where there is sorrow, joy where there is sadness, compassion where there is helplessness, strength where there is weakness, and hope where there is despair..
I see people with all of their faults, yet I strive to love them nonetheless. I see the world with all its cruelty and thoughtlessness, but I do not let the darkness obscure its tremendous beauty and wonder. I rejoice in the great diversity of life and being that is all around me. I am awed by the magnificent interconnectedness that binds us all together as one.