Dovid Sears Review of Yoel Glick – part III

Here is a third installment of Dovid Sears’ review of Yoel Glick’s new book. In another day, I will post someone who takes issue with Sears’ critique of Glick.
The original Yoel Glick posts are here part one and part two, the first three Dovid Sears posts are here one, two, meditation.

Wisdom or Torah? Dovid Sears

This is the third posting in a series related to Rabbi Yoel Glick’s recent book, “Living the Life of Jewish Meditation” (Jewish Lights).

In the interview with Yoel Glick, we find the following Q & A. The discussion is based on a Midrash from Eikhah Rabbah: “If someone tells you that other nations possess wisdom, believe them. If someone tells you that other nations possess Torah, do not believe them.”

Additionally, I would like to cite two relevant halakhot from Maimonides, as they are fundamentals of Judaism and are relevant to any discussion of the nature of Torah:

Moses, our teacher, is the master of all prophets … Unlike all other prophets, Moses, our teacher, would prophecy while fully awake … He would perceive a matter clearly, without metaphor or allegory … in a calm and composed state of mind … and whenever he desired … The skin of his face radiated beams of light, and he was sanctified like the angels (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Yesodey HaTorah 7:6).

It is clear and explicit in the Torah that it is a mandate that stands forever, without change, whether by diminution or addition… (as stated in Deuteronomy 13:1) We are commanded to fulfill all of the Torah’s words forever (as stated in Deuteronomy 29:28) (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Yesodey ha-Torah 9:1).

So much for the preamble.

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photo (c) D. Sears

Q: Why is Indian meditation only wisdom and not Torah?

A (YG): In the context of the modern world, our understanding of the teaching that there is wisdom among the nations but no Torah needs to be reassessed… Even a few hundred years ago this statement may have seemed self-evident…Today, however, we have to answer this rhetorical question by admitting that there are other nations to whom God has given teachings as righteous and inspiring as the Torah. The Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, the Dhammapada of the Buddhists, and many other texts all provide teaching with profound wisdom and moral righteousness. Today, we have to admit that there is not just wisdom but Torah among the nations. The Torah is God’s special revelation to the Jewish people. A gift made no less meaningful or significant by the acknowledgement of the gifts God has given to His other children. (source here)

I was quite surprised to read such a statement. Read superficially, Yoel’s response seems to imply that Chazal made the distinction between “wisdom (chokhmah)” and “Torah” either out of religious myopia or naiveté. Are these the same sages of whom we learn that “even the the least disciple of Hillel,” namely, the legendary Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, could resurrect the dead, and whose knowledge spanned the Mishnah, Talmud, law, exposition, grammar, scribal analysis, logical inference, astronomy, gematriyot, incantations for both angels and demons, the “speech” of palm trees … a “Great Matter” and a “Small Matter”—the former being the prophetic mysteries of Ma’aseh Merkavah and the latter, the profound scholarly arguments of Abayye and Rava (Sukkah 28a, Bava Batra 134a)? Sages so intellectually adept that Rabbi Akiva, who single-handedly regenerated the Oral Law after the death of 24,000 disciples, could derive “mountains of legal rulings (tilei-tilei halakhot)” from every jot and tittle of the Written Torah (Menachot 29b; Eiruvin 21b)? And if Midrash Eikhah was compiled by the Amoraim, what would we reasonably expect from the foremost successors to the Tannaim we have mentioned?

Moreover, did Chazal lack knowledge of contemporaneous or earlier Indian religious teachings such as those Yoel quotes, when Jews had already long-established communities in India and had likely conducted trade there for centuries? Philo’s Alexandria, well before the redaction of the Mishnah, was renowned for its “Mouseion,” its all-encompassing library and research facilities (in Latin, “Museaum,” of which “museum” is a variant); thus it was an international forum for diverse religious and philosophical knowledge and discussion. I have read that the philosophers of Athens welcomed sages from all over the world, including India (where Hellenism’s influence also reached), creating the model for what came to be known as the “university.”

According to some Jewish traditions, both Plato and Pythagoras conferred with the prophets of Israel (Josephus, “War of the Jews” and “Against Apion”; Reishit Chokhmah, Sha’ar ha-Yirah 13:80, Sha’ar ha-Ahavah 6:42; Sefer Chareidim, chap. 13, et al. I seem to remember mention of this somewhere in Seder ha-Dorot, as well); and the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 10-11a) tells of the dialogue between Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi and Antoninus (although this probably was not Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, author of the Stoic “Meditations”). Were Chazal completely out of touch with what went on in the two greatest intellectual centers in the ancient world?

For that matter, was our Patriarch Abraham, who rejected the idolatry of the East some 4,000 years ago, similarly out of touch? (Hindus attribute the Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata, of which it is but one part, to Vyasa, who according to their traditions lived long before Abraham.)

The distinction Chazal make surely is meant to underscore the uniqueness of the Torah in comparison to “wisdom.” Yet Rabbi Glick would extend the definition of Torah to other religious doctrines—even if they were entirely free of any trace of idolatry or heresy, which in one way or another these scriptures are not. The word “Torah” would become all but meaningless.

There’s another well-known Aggadah that tells how God offered the Torah to the various nations, who refused it for one reason or another; but when God offered it to Israel, they declared, “Na’aseh vi-nishma, we will do, and we will understand.” Would Yoel rewrite that Midrash to say that some of the other nations accepted it after all—or parts of it—and called it the Bhagavad Gita or Dhammapada? If so, do we find that these three doctrines largely agree, or do they fundamentally contradict one another?

As I mulled over these conundrums, I realized that Yoel couldn’t mean anything like this. It would be too bizarre.

Rather, he evidently follows the view of Advaita Vedanta, which finds a common core to all religious experience which transcends doctrinal differences—while affirming that each religion has truth and value for the group that upholds it. For Jews, that is the Torah—while for Hindus it is the Bhagavad Gita, or Dhammapada for Buddhists, or another body of religious teaching that bears spiritual treasures for another faith community. Yet according to this view doctrinal religious values are all on the relative plane; ultimate truth leaves behind the dissipating, billowing dust of worldly concerns and dualistic thinking.

Yoel Glick means something else by “Torah” than most of us do. I think he means that other nations not only possess common-sense wisdom and scientific know-how, but spiritual knowledge—something of the Divine. For he has sensed this in the Eastern paths he has explored and which he deeply esteems. He is certainly entitled to esteem spiritual knowledge from other traditions, and so are like-minded “fellow travelers.” I too can appreciate Eastern mysticism. But the fact that there is truth and beauty in other traditions does not contradict or impinge on the uniqueness of the Torah as a God-given mandate to the Jewish people of a different order entirely. Maimonides takes great care to underscore the uniqueness of the Sinaitic Revelation in world history. So does Rabbi Nachman in his Shir Na’im, which his scribe Rabbi Natan placed at the beginning of Likutey Moharan:

No other religions compare to our faith
Contrivances of mortal intellect their sages conceived
Moses, however, ascended on high, cloud-garbed
Necessary Existent spoke with him at any time
So he distanced himself from his wife

Religious Jews study both the laws and extra-legal teachings of the Torah every day, “for they our life and length of days” (Liturgy), and we are prepared to lay down our lives for them, if need be – as historically has too often been the case.

If my understanding of Yoel’s position is correct, our argument is primarily over the concepts of “Torah” vs. “wisdom.” Yoel would extend the meaning of the former, while I would extend the meaning of the latter.

Non-Jewish wisdom can go beyond the mundane—and although Chazal don’t explain their terminology, this might not be such a radical idea. Especially when we consider that Chazal propose an ancient pre-Israelite monotheism passed down from Adam to his son Seth, who transmitted it to Noah, and Noah to Shem and Ever, the teachers of the Patriarchs (see Sefer Halakhot Gedolot 76, Hil. Hesped, p. 688; Abarbanel on Genesis 11:1; et al.). If some of this religious wisdom continued to proliferate throughout civilization, surely other nations possess righteous teachings too.

But what Jews mean by “Torah” is not one line of spiritual transmission among others. As we have cited above from Maimonides, it is a cornerstone of Judaism that the Torah is a unique Divine revelation to the Jewish people, communicated through Moses, “the master of all prophets,” at Mount Sinai, which was passed on to Joshua, and from generation to generation, as stated in the first mishnah in Pirkey Avot.

If both “wisdom” and “Torah” express truth, what is the distinction that Chazal wish to make in Eikhah Rabbah? In the spirit of Rabbi Nachman’s verses above, I would venture to say that “wisdom” means human wisdom, which the kabbalists would define as an “awakening from below to above” (mi-lematah le-maalah), while Torah is “min ha-shamayim,” thus an “awakening from above to below” (mi-le-ma’alah le-mattah). Certainly all of humanity possesses human wisdom in one form or another, and to one degree or another. But that is not the same as “Torah.”

We must also ask whether the Advaitan mystical-pluralist position is consistent with the foundations of our faith. (I’m sorry, Alan, I tried to avoid treading on your turf, but here we are.) If that theology were acceptable, how could conversion be allowed, much less encouraged (though not through missionary activities since ancient times)? Why would there be any need for conversion or advantage to be gained by it? I once read in Prof. Nathan Katz’s wonderful autobiography how a non-Indian student of an Advaitan professor in Bombay was so moved by what he or she learned as to seek conversion to that school of Hinduism. The teacher retorted that the student had missed the whole point and severed their ties thereafter.

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photo (c) D. Sears

And what of Jewish inclusivism? What of Zekhariah and Isaiah and Zephaniah, who envisioned all humanity serving the One God of Israel with a common accord and “flowing” to Jerusalem? What of the teachings of Chazal about the ultimate reconciliation of all nations with Israel and the Torah of Israel? If this denotes a perrenialist there-really-is-no-difference “new testament,” substituting a universalist revelation for the more particularist (although qualifiedly so) revelation entrusted to Moses, why should anyone pack up and go to Jerusalem at all? What need would there be for such a focal point? And if the Great Mandala of human consciousness requires a focal point for some reason, why Jerusalem?

I share Yoel’s view about a phenomena that some academics have called the “Pure Consciousness Experience” which seems to be shared by otherwise widely differing spiritual paths. I can even sense it in Rabbi Nachman’s major hitbodedut teaching, which I quoted in an earlier posting, Likutey Moharan I, 52, particularly in the Rebbe’s remarks about the Necessary Existent as the ultimate reality and the foundation of consciousness. What I question is whether this category of mystical experience may be taken to be the very essence of all religion and the “bottom line” of all prophecy (see Interview Part II, Q & A ##15-16; also Living Jewish Meditation, Introduction p. xviii; Chapter 12, p. 189, where Yoel reiterates this concept).

Our sages (Sota 14a) did not share Yoel Glick’s viewpoint, for they describe how Moses, our teacher – who Yoel acknowledges must have experienced Pure Consciousness and attained enlightenment to the ultimate degree – at the very end of his life begged God that he be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael only so that he could perform the mitzvot related to the land – tithe his produce, bring bikkurim (first fruits) to the Holy Temple, leave a corner of his field for poor, etc. Clearly, Moses didn’t feel that after attaining the PCE such ritualistic mitzvot are trivial!

Neither can I accept the notion that all other aspects of prophecy merely reflect cultural diversity, or are later accretions by interpreters of the cryptic remarks of those privy to the Pure Consciousness Experience, as Yoel indicates. This would similarly deny the foundational beliefs of Judaism, and in so doing, our entire mesorah (aside from bordering on the ridiculous, and even breaking through Customs).

It sounds like what began as laudable good will and respect for others and the discovery of truth both near and far have led the author down a slippery slope. And this is the fatal flaw of the syncretism of Living Jewish Meditation, where all boundaries between the plurality of religions dissolve in the clear white light. Please, Yoel, let’s be content with Chazal’s use of the word “wisdom” and thus preserve what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “the dignity of difference.” Surely at the level of the Absolute, there are no distinctions—not between doctrines, not between anything. “After Creation” has been reabsorbed into “Before Creation” (Likutey Moharan I, 51, 64), and “water into water” (Chagigah 77a). But in this manifest world of olam-shanah-nefesh, with all the distinctions that apply to each category, there surely is—and whether we like it or not, that’s how it must be down here in the trenches, which the Zohar calls (and we can almost hear Rabbi Shimon sigh) the “alma de-peruda,” the World of Division.

***

Yet when all is said and done, there is something within us that constantly yearns to transcend this state of division and to experience the underlying Divine Unity – as in Rabbi Nachman’s story-within-a-story of the Heart and the Spring in his Tale of the Seven Beggars. Yoel Glick eloquently speaks of this yearning in his meditation on the “Shema”: “The essence of the Shema is a proclamation of the intrinsic unity of all creation. It is a declaration that everything arises from the same divine source. The Shema is a testament of our undying love for the Power at the heart of existence. Love is the path that will lead us to union with the Supreme Reality.”

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