Monthly Archives: October 2018

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on Experience, Consciousness, and Method

In this post, we will look at Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s views on consciousness, experience, and visionary mental images. His broad view of altered states of consciousness incorporated 4-D and 5-D space, hallucinogens, and learning to form steady mental images. In his discussion of forming a mental golem, he puts many of these ideas together.  He also describes the goal as seeking spiritual energy though mizvot or through attaining the non-verbal consciousness of hokhmah. His discussion of Ezekiel incorporates many of his broad views on the topic of consciousness incorporating removing the static of the mind, sensory deprivation, the flood of past memories, bright light, and then the state of nothingness and synesthesia.  Finally, we discuss his rejection of non-Jewish meditation even as he is busy mastering books about it and we conclude with his willing to re-script the Kabbalah for women.

This is part VI in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- see Part IPart II, Part III , Part IV and Part V for prior biographic discussion much of which has already been incorporated into Wikipedia.

aryeh kaplan pic
(Oil painting by Rabbi Kaplan)

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan during one of his classes mentions how as a child he saw colors when people spoke, a common altered state of consciousness called synesthesia. In his book Jewish Meditation, he mentions his own eureka moment of figuring out a physics problem while taking a bath, and elsewhere he discusses how he uses “rebbono shel olam” as a mantra (he really meant japa). All of these, Kaplan called meditation. In general, he called any altered states of consciousness, synesthesia, telepathy, psychic powers, hypnosis, and opening the door of perception as meditation. Mediation is not mindfulness but the higher states of consciousness.

This is similar to the classic Moody Blues album, In Search of a Lost Chord (1968) where the lost chord of meditation is about attaining a higher state of consciousness, which includes music, art, LSD, philosophy, spiritual states, Eastern religion, and visualization.  Writing with a sense of this counter culture, Kaplan proclaimed that his works on meditation is only to be practiced by those pure and elevated. Yet, “we are living now in a time of breaking barriers. Everything that people always assumed to be impossible is becoming possible in our time. God may be teaching us a very important lesson with this: we are capable of doing things we never thought possible.” (Innerspace 167) Our age needs to know about the higher wisdom, the lost chord.

Kaplan treats Kabbalah as a meditative state, by which he means an altered state of consciousness. This generally means, for Kaplan, the ability to form mental images, whether in physics or kabbalah. Hence, his discussion of visualizing the divine name in his book Jewish Meditation becomes a synecdoche for a wide range of mental imagining.

The previous section explained how to use the letter arrays together with the divine Name as a meditative device.  One of the manifestations of higher meditative states (as well as some drug-induced states) is hallucinogens, where one can voluntarily form mental images.  These mental images appear to be real and substantial.  When a person is in a normal state of consciousness, he may be able to form mental images, but they are weak, transient, and blurred by mental static.  In contrast, the images formed in a meditative state appear solid, substantial, and real. (Sefer Yetzirah 133)

Kaplan’s works repeatedly refer to hallucinogens, which he does not primarily mean drugs, even though they are mentioned, but the ability to reach these states of forming images. He even asks at the start of Meditation and the Bible, whether prophecy is due to hallucinogens. Kaplan claims hallucinogens give the ability to “voluntarily form mental images.” For Kaplan, forming images is best done in a meditative state

However, when Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was teaching Sefer Yetzirah, he said of the images of the kabbalah “it’s like tripping on LSD, grooving on black. If you do not have familiarity with these states of consciousness, then you wont understand what I am saying .” Several of those attending the class called out that they had familiarity. (taped class with psychologists – Jan 22, 1979). . Then, in such a state, one can imagine arrays of letters and divine names.

Jeffrey Kripal, the Rice University scholar of religion describes the approach to religion of the Romanian scholar of religion, Ioan Couliano (d. 1991) who taught at University of Chicago,  in ways very similar to Kaplan’s approach. For Couliano, the study of these practices has to be done from within, which means the leaving of three dimensional space toward four dimensions and beyond, these phenomenon brake our normal categories of time and space, leading us to the fantastic, complex, and strange. Kaplan consistently described kabbalah as five dimensional space and giving powers

The study of Kabbalah is a study of consciousness not a study of cultural texts, hence Kaplan gathered around him a core group of psychologists to understand these texts, not textual scholars or rabbinic scholars. And his method was to read a passage in a Kabbalistic text and translate it into terms of psychological and paranormal consciousness without seeking to contextualize that passage in the rest of the medieval kabbalistic book or in other kabalistic books.  His working assumption is that the original fantastic prophetic meanings were lost and the only way to find them was by discussing the passage with people who knew about consciousness.

Kaplan found the texts of the Sefer Yetzirah, Rabbi Abrhaam Abulafia, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Isaac of Acco and Hayyim Vital’s Shaar Ruah Hakodesh and Shaar Gilgulim as most valuable for this project. He did not find early kabbalists or much of the theosophic kabbalah as spiritual. Surprisingly, he did not find Chabad as mystical or meditative because, in his opinion, it had no higher wisdom or working with spiritual energy. In his classes, he claims to be able to derive all of Zoharic from Sefer Yetziarah. He also said in one of his 1979 classes that he had not looked at the Ari’s Etz Hayyim since 1970.

Golem of the Mind

The prime example of a meditative use of imagery is the creation of a golem. Moshe Idel in his book, Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid describes how for members of the ecstatic school of Kabbalah, most notably Abraham Abulafia, the creation of the golem was a mental act of creation. Kaplan uses the ideas of Abulafia and applies them to texts elsewhere that took the creation of the Golem literally, such as Rabbi Eleazar of Worms. Kaplan uses this imaginary approach of Abulafia to describe the creation of mental images, the most important one being a golem, which he identifies with the astral body, as described by Eleazar of Worms and Hayyim Vital. Kaplan actually gives instructions for this process based on his idea that hokhmah is non-verbal and binah is verbal and confused. One enters the real of Nothingness at the height of hokhmah, there one can create things.  The magical is a sign of entering the higher states of consciousness.

It is out of this Tohu, this state of confused Binah consciousness, that one must create a palpable image.  There are many images that can be produced, but the most common is the mental Golem, the astral body.  The initiate thus “forms palpable substance (mamash) out of chaos.”  This implies attaining a state of Chakhmah consciousness.  The Kabbalists thus note that the word Golem has a numerical value of 73, the same as that of Chokhmah. In the process one visualizes the sefirtot by a process of carving hem in one’s mind as a form of visible air. Notice again the point that I am making that he treats the word meditation as the activity of carving sefirot in the mind.  The golem is the background for the carving of the sefirot.

In order to accomplish this, one must enter fully into the realm of Nothingness.  This is the highest level of Chakhmah consciousness, bordering on Keter.  One therefore begins with “nonexistence,” which is Nothingness.

When one reaches this level, he can actually make something “that actually is” (yeshno) or “existence.”  He can actually bring about results in the universe of Asiyah, which can then be reflected in the physical world.  In making a Golem, this would correspond to the state of consciousness required before the metal image could be imposed on the clay, bringing it to life. (Sefer Yetzirah 134)

]It is in this state of consciousness that one can visualize the Sefirot as “great pillars.”  One “carves” them out, this meaning that the image of the Sefirah is seen separately, totally filling the consciousness.  Even though the Sefirot are totally ineffable and indescribable, when a person is in this state of consciousness, he can “carve” them out.  They are then perceived as solid pillars, made of transparent air.  Like the air, the Sefirot are still invisible, but in this state of consciousness, even the air can become visible. (Sefer yetzirah 135 )

For Kaplan, in this process of visualization, one mentally forms each of the 22 part of the body culminating in putting them together as a golem. Kaplan thinks the ultimate goal is to combine the 22 visualizations into a full body. Notice that he turns Abulafia and Eleazar of Worms into a sense that these are instructions for today and he describes how to do it. One carves letters int he mind, the way he descbied carving the Tetragrammaton in other places in his writings. He concludes with the potential for still creating a physical golem.

He used each of the 22 letters to form a mental image of a different part of the body.  Each part of the body can thus be formed separately.  The ability to complete separate parts, however, does not prove mastery of the method of Sefer Yetzirah.  The final proof of mastery is the ability to assemble all these 22 objects into a single body.

This is the process of completing a mental Golem.  The initiate must not only form all the parts, but he must actually assemble them.  This means that while he is engaged in the meditation to create one part, he must not lose his mental image of the parts that he formed earlier.  As each part of the image is formed, it must be retained in the mind, with subsequent images added to it, part by part.  The amount of mental discipline, as well as the advanced nature of the meditative technique required for this, is virtually beyond description.

The creation of a mental Golem is therefore a culmination of the arts of Sefer Yetzirah, as well as a test to determine if one has mastered them.  This did not involve the actual creation of a physical Golem, sine this was only done on very special occasions. (Sefer Yetzirah 136)

For many, Kaplan’s writings were an Orthodox version of Moshe Idel’s ideas about Abulafia’s views.  Kaplan clearly did not rely on Idel because of the older and inferior texts used and the many weak readings of Abulafia in Kaplan. But an example of a an Abulafia truism, quoted in the name of Kaplan, is that for Kaplan similar to Abulafia and Idel divides “the kabbalah is divided into three categories, the theoretical, the meditative, and the magical.”  Thereby rejecting Scholem’s focus on the symbolic sefirot. Once again note the definition of meditation used by Kaplan, “meditative kabblah deals with the use of divine names, letter permutations, and similar methods to reach higher states of consciousness, and as such, comprises a kind of yoga.” (Sefer Yetzirah ix) But Kaplan delivers excitement for his readers through also using descriptions similar to the Tibetan material about an astral body made in mental visualization described by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (1935).

Spiritual Energy

In general, Kaplan is looking for the power and spiritual energy of the Kabbalah, the way that 1950’s American books on Indian thought picked out the passages on kundalini and chakras. When he was writing, the then current English writings on kabbalah did not emphasized these aspect of spiritual energy at all. For example, Kaplan notes that the position of uplifted hands played an important role in the priestly blessing. As a source, he gives the Bahir, which explains “that the reason for this is because the ten uplifted fingers parallel the ten sefirot and can therefore draw spiritual energy from them. This same position is also used by Rabbi Abraham Abulafia…”  (Meditation and the Bible, 70).  Elsewhere, he reiterates this as  “raised hands to focus spiritual energy.” He translates the theurgy and concern for sefirot into a more generic “spiritual energy”  moving quickly from sefirot to meditative kabbalah allowing the reader to think of kundalini or tai chi.

This is also the way Kaplan paints Rabbi Isaac Luria. “Very often, the Ari used to take a passage from the Zohar and meditate on it, perhaps repeating it over and over like a mantra, until the inner meaning was revealed to him.” (6) Kaplan skips from Abulafia and Rabbi Isaac of Acco to the writings of Rabbi Hayyim Vital, with little attention to the Zohar and theosophic Kabbalah which he finds too poetic and too anthropomorphic, but he credits this poetry to our not understanding its secrets. For him, Zohar is only poetry without the Ari. “The Ari’s teaching could be called the atomic theory of the Zohar: everything begins to make sense. One can go deeper and deeper, as far as the human mind can delve, and it will always yield new treasures. “(6)

Even the concept of sefirot, or the sefirah of malkhut, he makes into spiritual energy. Based on a passage in the Pseudo Raavad (Yosef ben shalom Ashkenazi) commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, he considered the word sefirot and the Livnat haSapir under the divine throne as based on the jewel sapphire, which is the jewel of the third eye, where humans can see visions.

Reaching Non-Verbal Consciousness

In all of his discussions, he accepts the known opinion of Aldous Huxley that the goal of altered states of consciousness is to remove all the noise of everyday life blocking the higher wisdom, a super normal perspective. The goal is to get to non verbal hokhmah consciousness that is higher than verbal binah consciousness.

Try for a moment to stop thinking.  You remain completely conscious, but there are not verbal thoughts in your mind.  If you are an average person, you may be able to maintain such a state for a few seconds, but immediately your mind begins to verbalize the experience.  You might say to yourself, “I am not thinking of anything.”  But as soon as you do this, of course, you actually are thinking of something.

For those few second, however, you have experience nonverbal Chakhmah consciousness.  If you work at this exercise, you can gradually learn how to extend the time in which you are in this state.  It is like a heavy pendulum, the longer you push it back and forth, the further it will swing.  Similarly, the more you learn to oscillate between verbal Binah consciousness and nonverbal Chakhmah consciousness, the deeper you will reach into the latter, and the longer you will be able to maintain this state. (Sefer Yetzirah 40)

It is very difficult to experience pure, nonverbal thought.  As soon as a person attempts to clear his mind of thought, he immediately begins to think, “Now I am not thinking of anything.”  The state of Wisdom or Chakhmah consciousness is one of pure nonverbal thought, which is very difficult to attain.

It is in an attempt to attain the state of Chakhmah consciousness that the various meditative methods are used.  Thus, mantra meditation attempts to clear the mind of reverie by filling it with the repeated words of the mantra.  Similarly, contemplation pursues the same goal by filling the mind with the contemplated object. (Sefer Yetzirah 39)

Theosophic Kabbalah is really about consciousness of knowing the harmony or resonance of sefirot and the word.  He gives a method or path of meditation-magic. First one binds oneself to the object, then one perceives its spiritual nature and evaluates the object.

When a person has an awareness of the Sefirot, he can then “examine” anything in creation and determine the Sefirah to which it pertains.  As he becomes proficient in doing this, he can use various things to strengthen his attachment to their associated Sefirah.  When the Sefer Yetzirah was first written, each individual had to do this on his own.  Now, however, there are many lists which associate various things and ideas with their appropriate Sefirot, and these can be used as aides in binding oneself to them.

The Sefer Yetzirah is also indicating here that when a person perceives the true spiritual nature of a thing, he also elevates that thing spiritually.  “Standing” refers to such elevation.  The expression, “make each thing stand” therefore says that when one “probes from them,” he elevates the thing that he probes. (Sefer Yetzirah 40-41)

kaplan-ncsy 1975-shelly lang
(At a 1975 NCSY Shabbaton with Shelly Lang)

Turn on, Tune in, and become a Prophet

One has to go within to activate one’s neural equipment in order to become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness. One needs to “Turn on” to the higher consciousness, and then one is to “Tune in” to interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. He reflects Aldrous Huxley description of the need to “Turn on and Tune in” (using Leary’s phrase).

Meditation does two things: it relaxes the mind’s reactions to all external stimuli and thus quiets down all the internal thought processes and normal reverie. In an ordinary state of consciousness the mind is filled with static. If you wish to see this static, just close your eyes for a few minutes. You will see a rapidly changing series of superimposed images which constitute a steady stream of internal stimuli. As long as you are seeing and hearing your own reveries, as long as you are talking to yourself, you are not going to hear God’s voice.  You have to quiet down all the mind’s internal messages to itself, which is a very difficult undertaking…

This is like trying to get a very weak radio signal and picking up a lot of static. If you have a good radio, you can tune it, cut down the static, and pick up a clear signal. Similarly, high-level meditation requires that you first eliminate all mental static. You may then be able to pick up a very faint signal that you cannot really hear. The next step is to carefully start tuning up the volume. Now imagine what will happen if your mind is not controllable yet when you turn up the volume. You will get your signal…the static will actually cause a devastating shock. (Innerspace 149-150)

Kaplan gave classes on the opening chapter of Ezekiel based on this approach. “Ezekiel saw five things: a storm wind, a great cloud, a fire, a Glow and Chasmal. According to the Zohar, the first four were Klipot, husks or barriers that Ezekiel had to experience before getting the vision. (Innerspace 149). For Kaplan, the storm wind is the aforementioned static.

The cloud  is sensory deprivation and the deautomation of complete focus. The psychologists Charles Tart and Arthur Deikamn were in their research working on these states in the 1960’’s.

“You have to quiet your mind even more. What do you see, then, when you get rid of all internal stimuli and quiet down the mind completely? Nothing, A very frightening nothing, an empty nothing.” “A sensory deprivation that is amplified a million times. You feel this overwhelming frightening nothingness.” (Innerspace 151)

It has been said that the best way to describe absolute nothingness is to speak of it as “what you see behind your head.”  Since vision does not exist in the back of the head, what one sees there is absolute nothingness.  If I ask you what you see behind your head, you answer that you see nothing.  Contemplating on what one sees behind one’s head is therefore a good way to learn how to visualize absolute nothingness. (Innerspace 89)

The fire is the experience of being flooded by all of one’s past memories; once again ideas based on Huxley.

Imagine you start feeling a closeness to God and realize that God knows everything about you and everything you ever did.  You are standing naked before God, with your memory wide open, completely transparent, without any jamming mechanism or reducing valve to diminish its force.  You remember everything you every did and see it in a new light.  You see it in the light of the unshaded spirit, or, if you will, in God’s own light that shines from one end of creation to the other.  The memory of every good deed will be the sublimest of pleasures and most delightful bliss imaginable. (Innerspace 151)

But your memory will also be open to all the things of which you are ashamed.  The wrongs you committed burn; they are very painful, but it is worse than physical pain.  It is not even like a psychological pain that you could hide or run away from.  There is no possibility of rationalization, no dismissing it, no escaping it.  It is a pain that is there. (Innerspace 152)

The glow is according to Kaplan, a brilliant black light

Imagine a black that is as vivid as a blinding sun.  Now in an ordinary state of consciousness you could not imagine it.  In a meditative state you can.  You can imagine a black that becomes deeper and deeper and glows and radiates and becomes blindingly bright. (152)

Finally, the vision of the Chasmal  is the speaking silence of the top of hokhmah, which is keter as a speaking silence  or the often discussed synesthesia, or the Buddhist Nothingness, (which I discussed in the last post). Most discussions place synesthesia at a lower stage of consciousness, but Kaplan places it at top. He situates his own childhood experience as within the prophetic.

Meditative Mathematics

A completely different form of meditative experience are his forays into the visualization of complex analysis in math, his discussions of the topological concept of a Rieman Sphere. As a given throughout his writings, Kaplan assumed that the Kabbalah was up to date about the physical world and working with five dimensional space, in practice four dimensional. Math problems and topology were treated as meditations and a vital form of forming mental images.

When we view the Sefirot as being ten directions in a five-dimensional continuum, we can also interpret this in another manner.  Every pair of Sefirot defines an infinite line, extended infinitely in both directions.  The end points of such an infinite line, however, come together and meet once again in the “point at infinity.”  This is a fact recognized by mathematicians, and considerable use of the “point at infinity” is found in complex analysis, the calculus of complex numbers.

In our three-dimensional continuum, we can likewise extend all lines outward infinitely.  The end points of all these lines would then be an infinite sphere surrounding all space.  However, each opposing pair of lines would meet at the point at infinity, and therefore, all ongoing times must meet at this point. Thus, in one sense, the entire three-dimensional space continuum can be seen as surrounded by an infinite sphere.  In another sense, however, this entire infinite sphere can also be represented by a single point- the point at infinity.  A point, however, is infinitely small.  Thus the point at infinity can be seen as being both infinitely large and infinitely small at the same time. (Sefer Yetzirah 58- 59)

One can use this as a meditation.  Try to imagine the sphere at infinity and the point at infinity, and attempt to perceive how they are actually one.  You will then see that your usual conception of space and extension are not as simple as you believe. (Sefer Yetzirah 59)

Other Religions and Meditation

Kaplan was adamant and unyielding to all those who asked him about TM and other Eastern techniques that they were “foreign worship” (avodah zara).

Kaplan, however, saw the practices of other faiths as deriving form Judaism. He popularized the statement of Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (17th century Amsterdam) that the gifts of Abraham to his concubines were the Asian religions. He thought that the ancient Canaanite practice of worshiping a sacred grove or asherah was based on the Kabbalistic tree. Or that Rav Hai Gaon’s statement that the hekhalot were done by placing one’s ead between one’s legs became the ancient pagan worship of dust.

Realizing the importance of the tree symbolism in prophetic meditations, the idolaters attempted to emulate it. They actually planted trees which would serve as the object of their meditations and visions…. Through such Asherah trees, they hoped to ascend the spiritual Tree, which they most probably saw as the Tree of Life.” (107) In his speculative etymologies, Ashera is from the root shur- to see or have a vision of the tree.  “This ‘tree’ is often said to refer to the entire array of the Sefirot…ascending through this array plays a key role in prophetic meditation.”

“We often find counterparts of prophetic methods in idolatrous practices, since in many cases, the idolaters attempted to emulate the prophetic schools. A possible hint that this position was used among the idolatrous prophets is found in the Talmudic teaching that certain pagan Arabs used to “bow down to the dust of the feet….However, it would appear that some pagans viewed the prophetic position, where the great mystics sat with their head between their knees, and assumed that they were contemplating their toes, or the like. They adopted this practice and it gradually degenerated to the worship of the “dust of their feet.” (71)

Yet, Kaplan held that “Idolatrous and other occult practices often shed light on the prophetic methods.” (Innerspace 109, 115). Hence, he often used books about practices in other religions to figure out Jewish practices. We read books about Asian religions to reclaim Jewish practices which were primary.


Finally, Perle Besserman, one of his long time students, and the one who promoted him for his radio and TV interviews, asked him about the role of gender in these experiences in that it always was a male mystic who identified with the male zeir anpin making love to female shekinah. Kaplan answered that after we figure out the visualizations for men, we can figure out a useful visualization for females. It should be noted, that in the 1970’s, Kaplan was one of the few teachers within the Orthodox world who regularly taught women and encouraged them to study the Talmud, Oral law, and Kabbalah.

As a side point, Perle was among the cadre of his students who complained that Kaplan was more interested in theory than meditative practice, that he was not teaching meditation rather explaining Ezekiel. She therefore  returned to Eastern practices becoming a Buddhist practitioner and teacher.

Judging from the overtly sexual language reminiscent of a Tibetan tantra text, I noted that the Sefer Bahir seemed to suggest that the union of male and female sefirot not only be visualized but literally enacted in sexual intercourse. Informing Aryeh that I was uncomfortable with the idea of a female Kabbalist visualizing herself reflected in the “great bearded male continence” and making love to her husband in the form of the shekhinah, I asked if there was a way we might re-configure Rabbi Nehumiah’s meditation for women.

“Sure,” Aryeh replied. “But it’ll have to wait until we’ve deciphered all the meditations in their original form first.” (Perle Besserman, A New Kabbalah for Women 73)


Kaplan interprets the four elements of medieval thought- fire, water, air, and earth-in modern terms. Fire is the electromagnetic force, water is the strong nuclear force of mesons, air is the weak nuclear force, and earth is gravity. For him, these, in turn, correspond to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton. The forces of physics are the meditative forces. (Sefer Yetzirah 145-146). How does he make such leaps of connection?

This is not just our question, but was already a question when he was giving the classes. When discussing the Kabbalisitic image of the “Black Fire” of the Torah, Kaplan explained it as a black hole of negative energy. To which, one of the psychologists in the class asked: “Where are you finding this in the text?”

In the next class this question comes up again to which he answers with a verbal wink. Kaplan defined the sefirot as a three-dimensional spatial continuum of spiritual, time, and space implying that our goal is to get to the four dimension.  After this definition, he was asked: “Is that your own original analysis? To which Rabbi Kaplan answered: “A little bit  …. But it is Sefer Yetzirah”

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s God

To continue with the discussion of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s method, we turn to his view of God.  In these passages we see Kaplan portray God as computer system, as a cloud containing the data of our memories, and as a system of providence in which God does not reveal himself. God is also portrayed as an abstract principle similar to math. But ultimately, he thinks God is beyond our categories, similar to Buddhist Nothingness, and is only know through an expansion of consciousness. Should we follow his method and take the medieval philosophy and Kabbalah and adapts them for 21st century cosmology. Kaplan remains a theist with the traditional attributes of God including volition, but he uses computers, consciousness, and Buddhism to explain God instead of Aristotle or Kant.

This is part V in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- see Part IPart II, Part III  and Part IV for prior biographic discussion much of which has already been incorporated into Wikipedia. There will be Part VI within the next two weeks.

if you were god

I listened to the audio of the classes on which the book Sefer Yetzirah was based. In the discussion, he defined meditation as an expansion of consciousness, alternately he said “I believe that meditation is the channeling of the spiritual energy.” This expansion of consciousness is not mystical or intellectual but a third item called expansion of consciousness. That consciousness give the adept knowledge of God.

In the tapes, he discussed the Rabbi Elazar of Worms, Sodei Razaya meditation I discussed in the last post. comparing Sodei razaya to complex analysis in calculus, where according to him, infinite lines come together. At that point of infinite, there is insight. He compares it to the expansion of consciousness in  Zen Buddhism when is hit by one’s teacher.  One of the people in the class said this consciousness is like the force from Star Wars. Kaplan added it is was similar to hypnosis and they discussed the bio-feedback levels. Kaplan quoted in the discussion to explain consciousness Alan Watts, Andrew Greeley’s book on Ecstasy and Aldous Huxley.

Huxley’s two essays appear as a single book “The Doors of Perception”  “Heaven and Hell”, they both played a major role in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s thinking. Whereas most Jews who learned to meditation in the 1970’s tended to mean practices like TM or Zen, Kaplan definition of meditation was about opening to a higher consciousness, a unified state bringing everything together allowing a new insight into reality, an opening of windows to a deeper understanding. In various places, Kaplan used the word meditation as a synonym for mysticism, magic, and altered states of consciousness.  But the fact that he talked about meditation was enough for many in the 1970’s even if he did not teach meditation techniques beyond visualize letter, rebono shel olam and the slow shema. His practice was basic but letting people know about the extent of advanced texts and the potential within Torah was eye opening.

Before I go further, I must point out that Huxley points out that the way to maintain this consciousness with human relations, chores, charity, and compassion is by the right living and constant attention shown in the religious life, properly understood.  For Huxley, “Ideally, everyone should be able to find self-transcendence in some form of pure or applied religion.”  This seems to be an influence on Kaplan’s view of mizvot.

I am also finding that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s NCSY pamphlet “The Real You” is predominantly based on Aldrous Huxley’s Door of Perception /Heaven and Hell discussion of mescaline and consciousness opening. It seems the strategy was that we are going to keep kids off of drugs by saying they can have altered states of consciousness, synestheia, and opening their door of perception by knowing about Kabbalah. Huxley sees our minds as holding more data than we are aware of and the goal is to attain a higher consciousness to gain access to these levels of self.

In his pamphlet, The Real You, Kaplan asks the big questions about the soul and afterlife. Few ask those questions in Orthodoxy and fewer give cogent answers.

Here we see Kaplan’s contribution of reading and translating Kabbalah into modern cosmology. In this case, the nature of our souls as presented by R. Hayyim Vital is entirely digested and explained that for our era when the medieval kabbalah means that our minds are computers and God is the backup of the data.  In 2018 terms, our minds are mother boards that can be removed from one computer and placed into another one keeping the data intact. God is the cloud where we keep our data.  So that after we die, God holds our memory and personal identity the way the cloud holds your data after your devise dies. In everything that follows in this blog post, ask yourself if you think that was a good way to put medieval cosmology into 20th century terms. If he had lived longer, he probably would have loved string theory.

Kaplan turns reincarnation and gilgul into more modern theory of memory. This definition allowed him to completely reject Indian forms of reincarnation because those do not keep your memory and personality intact.  He was adamant to reject the opinions of those students coming to his classes with a more TM universal sense of soul that reincarnates without memory and personality. Kaplan, in contrast, argues that Judaism is about personality.  Since we are memory, Kaplan found it useful to explain heaven and hell as based on confronting our memories of past events, similar to Huxley.

A brain transplant raises enough questions. How about a memory transfer?


What happens then when a person dies?  God does not forget, and therefore all of this information continues to exist, at least in God’s memory.

(An allusion to this is also found in the Kaballah. Gan Eden or Paradise is said to exist in the sefirah of Binah — the divine understanding. This may well be related to the concept of memory. Souls, on the other hand, are conceived in the sefirah of Daas — knowledge. One may say that while we live, we exist in God’s knowledge; after death we exist in His memory.)

This sum total of the human personality existing in God’s memory is what lives on even after man dies…


In “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley quotes Prof. C.D. Broad’s comments on this. He says that every person is capable of remembering everything that has ever happened to him. He is able to perceive everything that surrounds him. However, if all this information poured into our minds at once, it would overwhelm us. So the function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us and prevent us from being overwhelmed and confused by the vast amount of information that impinges upon our sense organs. They shut out most of what we perceive and remember. All that would confound us is eliminated and only the small, special selection that is useful is allowed to remain.

Huxley explains that our mind has powers of perception and concentration that we cannot even begin to imagine. But our main business is to survive at all costs. To make survival possible, all of our mind’s capabilities must be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain.

Much of what we know about this static is a result of research done with drugs that eliminate it. According to a number of authorities, this is precisely how the psychedelic drugs work.

The disembodied soul spends much of its time learning how to focus. It is now seeing without physical eyes, using some process which we do not even have the vocabulary to describe. The Kabbalists call this frightening process Kaf HaKela

If God is guarantor of memory, a form of a data cloud, then where does a theory of God fit into all of this? For Kaplan, God wanted to bestow goodness on the world through letting human have freedom and make moral judgement on their own. Hence, he had to hide himself, only operating the world by means of the Kabbalist system of four world and sefirot.

If we were to imagine the spiritual domain, therefore, it could be described as an infinitely huge spiritual computer. This computer is programmed to fulfill God’s one ultimate purpose of bestowing good upon his creation. The main difference between the spiritual domain and a computer is that the components of the former consist of intelligent, sensitive, spiritual beings. (Innerspace 8)

Below, God is portrayed as computer, specifically as a computer feedback system where God as the highest world of Atzilut is the CPU and the lower divine worlds are the memory, program, and peripheral equipment of the computer. Providence works only through this Star Trek type deity. Yet, if you read the passage slowly, you will see that Kaplan is, in his mind, working with Ramchal’s Derech Hashem, a volume he had translated a few years before.

A computer system can provide us with an analogy to the constant interplay between the spiritual and the physical.  The programmer sitting at the console corresponds to the “Man” of Atzilut.  The CPU, Central Processing Unit, is the brain and memory bank of the computer, corresponding to Beriyah, the world of thought.  Suppose that the computer is programmed to control traffic lights throughout a large metropolitan area.  Transmission lines would then be coming out of the CPU, connecting it to traffic lights all over the city.  These transmission lines correspond to the universe of Yetzirah.  The traffic lights themselves are the peripheral equipment.  These lights correspond to the world of Asiyah, controlling traffic in the physical world.

We mentioned that the relationship between the physical and the spiritual is always dynamic.  Accordingly, God’s providential direction of the universe never ceases.  He is always acting in the world, guiding events based on our actions.  In effect, therefore, this is a “two-way” process with a built-in feedback loop to allow for changes in programming.  On the one hand, God is directing an ongoing input into the universe, irregardless of our actions.  On the other hand, God looks at what we do, judges it, and puts into the universe what He decides is appropriate relative to what we do.

In our model of the computer, the peripheral equipment will also contain this feedback loop.  On the one hand, the traffic lights are programmed to control traffic automatically.  On the other, sensors will record traffic flow.  For example, if the traffic on one street is blocked, the sensors will detect this, giving rise to a green-light command from the CPU to get the traffic flowing again. (Innerspace 34)


Later in the same volume, we are offered contrasting views of God. The first, God as Being to whom we relate to personally as an at of anthropomorphism. The second is God as an ever present immaterial Principle, the same way 1+1=2. A principle valid everywhere that avoids anthropomorphism and exists outside of time and space.  This is a God of mathematics. Kaplan concludes, that God as Principle is also inexact and only a mental construct. Instead, Kaplan seeks an image of God via meditation as a ground of existence. God is only know in this higher state of consciousness between verbal and non-verbal. Here is where computers meet Huxley and Buddhism.

We can speak of God as the Creator of the universe, thus conceiving of Him as a “Being.”  On the other hand, we can speak of God as the creative Force that gives existence to the universe, thus conceiving of Him as an abstract “Principle.”  The main thing that characterizes God as a being is that we can relate to Him personally. When we view God as the Creator and Master of the universe we are ascribing anthropomorphic concepts to Him that are most fitting to an omnipotent sentient being. (Innerspace 98)

The main thing that characterizes a principle, on the other hand, is that there is no place where it does not exist. This is like taking a mathematical principle such as 1+1=2. This simple equation is a good example of something that does not exist in space, and yet, at the same time, exists everywhere.

For many reasons, therefore, it would be useful to think of God as a principle rather than a being.  For one thing, it would make it readily understandable how He exists outside of space and time and yet fills all space and time.  For another, an idea such as this breaks down the stereotyped anthropomorphic concepts that people have about God. (Innerspace 98)

Actually, both “principle” and “being” are approximations that we use because the mind has no categories into which it can place God It may be that third, intermediate category would be a better approximation, but the mind has no example of it. Nevertheless, through meditation, one can gain a glimmer of the nature of this third category.  This involves a deliberate oscillation between verbal and non-verbal states of consciousness.  It is alluded to in the Sefer Yetzirah’s statement that one should emulate the living angels (Chayot) who are constantly “running and returning” (Ezekiel 1:14). (98-99)

Thus, when we commune with God, it is as if we are in touch with existence itself, but at the same time speaking to it as if it were a being to whom we can relate. Still, we realize that God is more than this. He is the infinite Being and absolute Principle that allows existence to be. (Innerspace 99)

Even within this system, we have still cannot grasp this God who is beyond our understanding, called  Atik Yomin, the Ancient of Days. We only know the lower  aspect of the divine called Arikh Anpin, the Long Face of mercy and compassion

Even if we say that God can place restraints on Himself, we still have an unknown will that transcends our understanding why He is placing restraints on Himself.

In essence, therefore, we see that God’s will has two aspects in relation to us.  On the one hand, we cannot fathom God’s will because it originates at a level that completely transcends our logic.  This is the level of Atik Yomin, the Ancient of Days, which is totally unknown and goes back before anything can be thought of.  On the other hand, there is a part of God’s will that operates through logic.  This involves God’s constricting His will so that man can have some understanding of Him.  This is the level of Arikh Anpin, the Long Face of mercy and compassion. (Innerspace, 100)

Kaplan identified this unknown aspect of God who is beyond our understanding with the Buddhist concept of Nothingness. He said that the ideas of Ayin and Effes was Nothingness. He did this years before Daniel C Matt wrote a famous article making that equation. Kaplan’s sources were books on Zen Buddhism, where the Nothingness is the emptiness of satori, a higher consciousness. He did not seem to know Theravada Buddhism.

As the text notes, this represents the unity that preceded the concept of number.  It introduces a device very much like Zen koan, asking, “Before one, what do you count”?  What is the number that precedes all number?

Both the point at infinity and the koan are meant to train the mind to visualize absolute nothingness.  The Ari notes that Keter, the highest of the Sefirot, is often designated by the word Ayin, meaning “nothing.”  The Infinite Being, the level above Keter, cannot even be designated by this word.  The only word that can be used is Effes, which, according to the Ari, denotes a nothingness that thought (Binah) cannot grasp at all. (Sefer Yetzirah 89)

As in many places in his book, the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria was used to explain a word in Sefer Yetzirah and the entire Kabbalistic concept needs to be grounded in modern categories.

Rabbi Kaplan was strict to keep his entire discussion within a rational framework of Saadiah’s and Maimonides’ rational theology of avoidance of anthropomorphisms. God does not sit as we do, rather sitting means God lowers his providential power to interact with the world.

As discussed earlier (1:4), when we speak of God as “sitting,” it means that He is lowering His essence so as to be concerned with His creation.  His Throne is the object upon which He sits, and hence, it denotes the vehicle of such lowering and concern.

While “sitting” is a lowering that one does on one’s own initiative, prostrating oneself and bowing is a lowering that one does because of a higher power.  The tools of God’s concern are the Sefirot, since it is through them that He directs the universe.  As a result of the concept of God’s Throne, the Sefirot must also lower their essence and interact with the lower world.  The Sefer Yetzirah therefore says, “before His Throne they prostrate themselves.” (56)

These quotes are from his Kabbalistic works. For his more popular views, see As if you were God and Handbook of Jewish Thought




Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan – Creating 20th Century Jewish Meditation

This is part IV in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- see Part I, Part II, and Part III for prior biographic discussion much of which has already been incorporated into Wikipedia. There will be Parts V and Part VI within the next two weeks, maybe even later this week.

How did Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan take an obscure medieval Ashkenaz description of the Godhead and turn it into a meditative practice of infinite space similar to the 1960’s understanding of meditation? Answer: The same way Swami Vivekananda took the medieval Kurma Purana and turned it into modern meditation about sitting straight and focusing. Should we follow his method and take the plethora of kabbalsitic texts published by scholars and adapt them as 21st century meditation? What if this had been the path into modernity for Judaism the way it was for Neo-Hinduism? What if the Reform and Orthodox movements of 1910 had turned to transcendental idealism to create a meditative Torah?

SY- cover

Kaplan’s approach to producing a Jewish meditation is what he calls the “practice of verbal archaeology.”  He assumes the prophets were meditating to reach prophecy, which basically stopped after Ezekiel. Now, one can only do verbal archaeology by looking at meaning of words as translated in older commentaries which may preserve the true meaning. (Meditation and the Bible). Among the older commentaries are the works of the Kabbalists.

The early 13th century Sodei Razaya by Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (also called Rokeach) describes God’s Glory and the limitless Creator above. Within the book are a few paragraphs about the infinite of the Creator and the need to direct our hearts to the ten limitless dimensions when addressing God. They are the Sublime, depth, above and below, east west, north, south, past, future, good, evil), a spatial approach to God, rather than the more familiar scholastic philosophers who discuss God’s essence and attributes. The next paragraph after the ten dimensions moves quickly to the relevant point that God does not appear to us as these limitless dimensions but rather as the ever changing shekhinah. Most academic scholarship focuses either on the abstractness of the Creator or on visualizing the shekhinah/kavod. In contrast, Kaplan turns the presentation of the creator into a meditation on Infinite Space. I specifically choose this passage rather than the hundreds of other possible passages in Aryeh Kaplan because it shows the gap between the scholarly reading of a cryptic text and Kaplan’s reading.

The creator has no limit, boundary or appearance. If He possessed a limit the way every creature has limits, how could he be in the midst of all and not be touched by all…

Every blessing requires one to think in one’s heart for intention to Our Father in Heaven. To consider the unity of the ten directions and there is no other. By what means? Consider the sublime (lit. above) without giving end to ones thoughts. Rather, think of the creator as sublime (above) and none else and the impossibility of understanding Him. Similarly, below into the depth, the depth who can fathom, and none else. He is impossible to understand.

Think of the expanses of the sky and below as well as the directions of east, west, north and south. Think about before the world from the beginning until the end [lemaaleh]. Do not place a limit to your thoughts that you think about the creator. Rather, He exists from the primordial past until now, there is none other. Similarly, for the end of days, from now until forever.

Begin thinking from the beginning of time without limit to your thought except He is God and there is none else. Similarly, for the ends of the depth of good and depths of bad, which show beneficence to the good and to destroy the bad. To exist in exaltedness and variations. The creator is completely desire and filled with knowledge and power.

We find changes in the Shekhinah [appearing] sometimes as a young man and sometimes as an old man. Know that the reason is because the Kavod (glory) appears to the prophets according to the needs of the moment.   (Sodei Razaya 40-41)

Aryeh Kaplan in his book Sefer Yetzirah turns these intentions to the infinite Creator- Father in Heaven into mental and nonverbal meditations on infinite.  The Sefer Yetzirah speaks of depths of the world in Mishanh 1:5. Kaplan identifies those depths with the Kabbalistic sefirot and with the depths described by Rabbi Eleazar of Worms.

Kaplan converts Eleazar of Worms into meditation by adding the imperative “to picture” and the instructions about letting “the mind travel.” Kaplan in his introduction to the book wrote that he is translating the book as statements but that he really feels all statements of Sefer Yetzirah are imperatives. He also places the ten dimensions as a temporal sequence. He also removes reference to this as done at the time of prayer or to the personified Father in Heaven.”

The Sefer Yetzirah does not speak of directions, but of depths, an idea that if difficult to understand and far from one’s comprehension, is also said to be deep….

Although the depths of these directions is infinite, it can be described mentally. The first technique involves verbal thought… Gradually, then, once can learn to depict these infinite depths non-verbally.

The first exercise is to try to depict the “depth of beginning.” Attempt to picture an infinity of time on the past. Let the mind travel back to a moment ago, and an hour ago, a day ago, a year ago, continuing until you reach a level where you are trying to imagine an infinity ago. Then do the same with regard to the future.

The next exercise involves trying to imagine good and infinite evil. The limits are pure ideas, which cannot be verbalized.

Finally, one must imagine the limits of the spacial [sic] dimensions. One must perceive the height of the sky and beyond the sky. The depth of the earth and beyond the earth.

In this manner, one gradually trains the mind to depict the infinite.  (48-9)

These exercises are actually described by R. Eliezer of Wormes [sic] (355 ftnt 112)

Kaplan took an obscure medieval text and made it sound like a 20th century meditative path.

His idiom was contemporary for the 1970’s in which the higher states of meditation were about infinite space. The American scholar, Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman in his pioneering works on meditation portrayed meditation “the need for the meditator to retrain his attention” not the softer forms of mindfulness currently practiced. Goleman also focused on Buddhist meditation on infinite space as starting in the 5th level of Buddhist meditation.

Just as important, Anagarika Brahmacari Govinda in his Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (New York : Samuel Weiser, Inc., [1958, 1975] p. 117 also portrays this infinite space. This was not the era of meditation as mindfulness, rather meditation was considered as great acts of mental focus.

However, Kaplan did not actually teach these techniques in his classes nor did he practice them. He did not create a meditative school. Most of those who came to him because they were interested in Asian meditative techniques returned to their Hindu and Buddhist teachers, even among some of his closest students. His accomplishment was presenting texts only known by scholars and only discussed in their harder to find articles in the public domain. And for the last forty years, English language books on Jewish spirituality are indebted in his popular presentations and adaptations.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s method of popularizing obscure and cryptic texts, for example taking a 13th century text and presenting it in 20th century terms should be seen as part of broader methods. Instead of contextualizing that maneuver in the culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s, where NCSY meets TM,  his texts are similar to the work of Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu teacher who revolutionized the way the West thought of Hinduism with his appearance at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions. Vivekananda’s works took millennium old texts and breathed new life into them by creating a modern method of meditation. He argued that Hinduism is not temple worship to statues but a modern cultivation of the mind, an activity eminently progressive form of New Thought and philosophic idealism. Largely because of him, we use the words mantra and yoga in English. Almost anything taught by today’s Ashram leaders is based on Vivekanada’s method of modernizing prior texts.

Vivekananda took a few pages of the medieval work Kurma Purana, a long work of legend, mythology, geography, pilgrimage, and theology, as his base by which to abstract a system of meditation. According to the Kurma Purana, yoga (which in this context means meditation as purifying the mind) gives knowledge and identity with God.  Here is the medieval version.

From yoga comes knowledge; knowledge, again, helps the yogi to obtain freedom. He who combines in himself both yoga and knowledge─with him the Lord is pleased. Those who practice maha-yoga [meditation on the Self] either once a day, or twice, or thrice, or always─know them to be gods. Yoga is divided into two parts: one is called abhava-yoga, and the other, maha-yoga. That in which one’s self is meditated upon as a void and without qualities is called abhava-yoga. That in which one sees one’s self as blissful, bereft of all impurities, and as one with God is called maha-yoga. (Quoted in Raja-Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda)

Vivekanada turns the medieval work into directions for modern people by telling them to sit straight, have positive thoughts, chant a mantra, visualize space, flames, one’s heart, and God. Rather than a medieval language we have a modern physics language of “makes one’s mind a channel for thought waves.”

Sit in a straight posture. The next thing to do is to send a current of holy thought to all creation. Mentally repeat: “Let all beings be happy; let all beings be peaceful; let all beings be blissful.” So do to the east, south, north, and west. The more you practice this, the better you will feel. You will find at last that the easiest way to make ourselves healthy is to see that others are healthy, and the easiest way to make ourselves happy is to see that others are happy.

Another meditation is given: Think of a space in your heart, and think that in the midst of that space a flame is burning. Think of that flame as your own soul. Inside the flame is another effulgent light, and that is the Soul of your soul, God. Meditate upon that in the heart.

Then the wise man should meditate upon the luminous, benign form of the Lord…Then he must meditate upon his oneness with the luminous form of the Lord.  Lastly, he must let the form vanish and meditate upon the Atman. (591, 620)

Meditation is cultivating a single thought reminiscent of the subject of meditation by repeating it over and over again. By following the same method and concentrating on the same subject at the same center of consciousness, that single thought becomes a giant thought-wave. In course of time the mind develops a channel for that thought-wave and the practice becomes effortless. No practice, however mechanical or intermittent, is ever lost.

Kaplan used the language of mantra and meditation that Vivekanada bequeathed to the English language. Many of these same adaptation techniques in his translations of a medieval text were done by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.

Now imagine, if Kaplan had lived in 1900 and wrote works against Western and Eastern European Jewry arguing that a modern Judaism should be meditative and about the elevation of the mind. Further imagine if he had established in 1910 dozens of meditation centers and centers for Jewish Innerspace or a modern denomination of meditation. If he had done this, then we would now know Judaism as a meditation religion. Modern Jewish thought might have been about consciousness and mind cultivation.

However, Kaplan himself would have not actually done this since he did not practice or teach the meditations, such as the one above. He would as part of a public presentation teach his audience to say the shema slowly, to visualize the divine name, and/or repeat ribono shel olam. But the 1000’s of meditations in his work, he did not practice or teach as meditative paths. If he had not died, he would have been more interested in string theory in the kabbalah than a Jewish ashram.

Now let us return to Kaplan’s interest in visualizing the infinite where verbal and non-verbal meet. As noted above, much of this comes from the psychologist Goleman and Lama Anagarika Govinda’s work on Tibetan Buddhism. But was the latter a valid source of meditative knowledge? Why did Kaplan gravitate to that work? Lama Anagarika Govinda (1898-1985), polymath scholar, mystic, writer, painter and poet, was not a real lama, rather a German philosopher and artist who moved in India and thought Buddhism was the path to enlightening our minds and leading to creativity. Govinda thought Buddhism was the best form of German Lebensphilosophie “philosophy of life” to produce a superior person.

Govinda wrote essays on the relationship of time and space and the need to reach a point of infinite space above these categories. For Govinda, “all the powers and faculties of the universe are within us, unless we have activated them through practice or made them accessible through training they will never become realities that influence our life.” He wanted us to combine the potentials of the unconscious mind or depth conscious mind with that of our rational conscious mind.  For him, “as little as we can live by the intellect alone, can we live by the “unconscious” alone.” For Govinda, meditation means “putting ourselves into a state of intuitive receptiveness, in which the gates of the past and the present are open to the mind’s eye. “

The above foray into Vivekananda and Govinda offer a basis for understanding Kaplan’s amazing adaptation of Rabbi Eleazar of Worms. Hoever, Kaplan has many more influences including Aldrous Huxley, Charles Tart, Werner Heisenberg, Sir John Woodroffe, and W. Y. Evans-Wentz.

Academic scholarship in its discussions of Ashkenaz Piety and early kabbalah translate many passages about contemplative visualization done in that era. The soul must visually imagine or think about the creator, the glory and images of sacred space.

If we were to continue Kaplan’s method, how would we modernize these other passages? Here are some passages from E. Wolfson’s Through a Speculum that Shines- Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism, Princeton University Press, 1994. How would Kaplan have read them as imperatives and as about cultivating the mind?  Kaplan did not read texts as visions, he did not a visionary path but one of internalization and mental contemplations. Kaplan also removed as much as possible any anthropomorphism or direct visions of God. So, if we wanted to apply his method, how would he have scripted the following texts?

Eleazar of Worms,

A person should not think only about the glory that appears opposite the exalted throne but rather about the Creator of all who manifests His glory to those who are righteous in their hearts, for He is one and nothing resembles Him, blessed be He, and thus He ‘is near to all who call Him’ (Ps., 145-18).

The Creator is outside the images (mar’ot) and within them..

Since it is written ‘For I fill both heaven and earth’ (Jer. 23-24), why does one need to pray in a Synagogue or in the Temple? Yet, there is a place in which the Holy One, blessed be He, shows the created glory to the prophet according to the need of the hour. One might ask- how can one bow down to something created? And consider these verses- It is written, ‘For I granted many visions, and through the prophets was imaged’ (Hosea 12-11)… Rather the [vision] is nothing but a wonderful image (dimyon) and it appears as if he actually saw but it is nothing but a strong image. It is written, ‘upon this semblance of a throne there was the semblance of a human form’ (Ezek. 1-26); so too here [in the case of Isaiah] it is only an image.

Two responses to Rabbi Shai Held- Prof Sam Fleischacker and Rabbi Zach Truboff  

Welcome back after the holidays. Before Rosh Hashanah, I posted an exceptionally good interview with Rabbi Shai Held on his moral musar as shown in his Biblical commentary- Torah of the Heart. A Torah of chesed- compassion, gratitude, responsibility, respect for others, loving the stranger,and hearing the pain of others. Rabbi Shai Held presented a journey to develop our moral character until we are ethical beings like Abraham. Here are two responses to the interview. I wanted to post the responses before Sukkot for continuity but it was not to be.


The two responses both appreciate the turn to ethics and musar but have opposite premises about the nature of ethics.

The first response of Prof Sam Fleischacker, who has posted on this blog before, agrees with Held’s message but wants a more rigorous grappling with the philosophic issues.  (1) What is the role of justice in the system? He is especially emphasizing the cold role of law, din, and justice. (2) Why Jewish love of fellow? Every great teacher has a similar message, so what resources does Judaism offer to make us good that other traditions do not. (3) How can we overcome self-deception? How can we move from knowing what to do to actually doing it?

The second response of Rabbi Zach Truboff lauds Held as grounding morality in a covenantal theology of God’s love thereby rejecting a purely autonomous ethic. Truboff also likes the emphasis on gratitude, lovingkindness, and a renewal of moral language. However, Truboff finds that there are times where Held’s approach downplays Divine command and the land of Israel, both themes of his own teachers.


#1 Response of Prof Sam Fleischacker

I am very sympathetic to Rabbi Held’s project.  I have argued in my own work that, as Held puts it, “Torah without ethics is not Torah at all, but … Torah that’s only ethics is … incomplete” (that’s the core idea in my Divine Teaching and the Way of the World and The Good and the Good Book, discussed here and here on this blog).  I also agree whole-heartedly that this aspect of Torah tends to be missing from (Orthodox) day-schools and yeshivot today, which “accentuate the particular to such an extent that the universal human [is] often lost.”  Held brings out the universal beautifully and he has a gift for close readings that unearth rich and subtle implications:  his use of Ibn Ezra on Exodus 22:21-3, and interpretation of Ezekiel 29:3, in the interview, are especially nice examples of this.

My own local rabbi has also been using Held’s commentaries in his drashot:  a terrific one on the word tzur, for God, in Haazinu formed the basis of his talk recently. From what I heard, and from the readings in the interview, I look very much forward to acquiring and using The Heart of Torah.

But there were places in the interview where I felt a deeper grappling with the tradition of non-Jewish moral philosophy could be helpful.  Below are some examples.

1) Held talks in the interview about our duties to the poor and the stranger entirely in terms of chesed:  love, kindness, compassion — the warm, emotional virtues.  What happened to justice — the cold, rational virtue that can sometimes lead to far more comprehensive and effective ways of helping people on the margins of society than any warm feelings towards them?  In his lectures on ethics, Immanuel Kant writes that giving alms to the poor “flatters the giver’s pride” while “demeaning” those to whom the alms are given, adding that beneficence to others should “be commended as a debt we owe, [rather] than as a piece of kindness and generosity.”  I’ve always found this admonition very powerful.  It makes clear, among other things, that we owe aid to poor and oppressed people whom we don’t particularly like as well as to the ones who touch our heartstrings.  (For a fascinating non-Kantian version of this thought, see Sarah Pessin’s critique of a politics of love at  Perhaps we could say that helping people out of justice is a form of love (chesed), but it’s probably better to distinguish din from chesed and appreciate the great moral value of the former as well as the latter.

2) Held is understandably annoyed by people who respond to his teachings by saying, “So, basically, you’re saying I should be a good person.”  But I’d like to hear more about how he means to fend off this dismissive reaction.  In the interview, we are given some wonderful readings of texts, but at the end of the day, they all seem to say, “Be loving” (or at most:  “Devote yourself to a loving God, which will enable you to be loving.”)  And if that is the end of the story, a dismissive shrug seems not inappropriate.

To be sure, it’s highly intriguing to present Judaism as centered around love:  that’s how we Jews usually think of other religions, not our own.  But by the same token, Judaism is hardly the only religion or philosophy that teaches the importance of love.  Christianity teaches it, and Buddhism teaches it, and Frances Hutcheson and Gandhi taught it.  What is distinctive about Judaism that should lead Jews, or anyone else, to turn to it for a message of love?  Why bother with Torah as a source for such a teaching, rather than just cultivating a kind heart — or turning to the Gospels or Gandhian satyagraha?

In a way, this is one instance of a larger problem faced by all moral teachers, whether in a religious or a philosophical context:  how do we make what we have to say interesting?  The most important ethical prescriptions are fairly obvious, after all.  Don’t deceive;  don’t be violent;  be kind;  help those in distress.  None of this is exactly news.  What is interesting, what is deeply disturbing, is that we all, regularly, fail to live up to these prescriptions — often rationalizing our failings to ourselves rather than correcting them.  Why do we do this?  How can we stop doing it?  What can a text or tradition teach us that will help us carry out the duties that we all know we should carry out?  If Held can answer these questions, he will do us a great service.  Telling us just what we ought to do, by contrast, is not very exciting.

3) One issue that can make a moral teaching interesting is the way it deals with the issue of self-deception — a pervasive source of our failure to live up to the demands of morality.  (“I don’t need to be honest to him,” I tell myself, “He did _______ to me”, where the blank is filled in with a self-serving description of a harm that I have blown up into an excuse for bad behavior.)  Self-deception is also a particular danger for moral philosophers themselves.  All too easily, we who teach morality convince ourselves that the fact that we talk a good game is enough to excuse us from actually behaving in decent fashion to the people around us.

That said, there are fascinating discussions of self-deception in moral philosophy.  Søren Kierkegaard makes the danger that one’s teaching will come apart from one’s life a central theme of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript.  Before him, Bishop Butler gave two wonderful sermons on self-deception (one of these focused on Balaam) and Adam Smith devoted a brilliant chapter to it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Kant also makes illuminating remarks on it and I think it is an subterranean, but crucial, theme of Plato’s Republic.  I’m curious about whether Held takes up this theme, and if so, how.  There are characters in the Torah who seem to exemplify self-deception:  Pharaoh, of course (see, especially, Exodus 10:7-11, for a paradigm of bad behavior rationalized as good), and perhaps also Korach and Dathan and Abiram.  It would be interesting to see if the Torah’s way of dealing with self-deception contributes to a distinctive moral philosophy — and a moral philosophy that helps us actually carry out our duties rather than telling us simply what they are.


#2 Response of Rabbi Zach Truboff  

The German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant vehemently argued that the moral law was not be found in Divine revelation or religious traditions, rather was accessible to any rational agent. An act was good if it could be applied universally. Kant had little use for the

God of the Bible who commands subservience. Once it could be shown that morality was not dependent on religion, doors were opened even wider for those who wanted to abandon traditional Judaism.

Shai Held often cites a statement coined by Michael Wyschograd that the story of Judaism in the last two centuries is predominantly a “Judaism of self-liquidation” (Body of Faith, 181).  If the most important aspect of Judaism is its ethical message and that message can be found outside of religion, then why would one remain committed to outdated religious beliefs and practices? If anything, Wyschograd argues, modern thinkers assert that the “liberation from God constitutes the purification of the ethical. The ethics of religion it is maintained, is an ethics of punishment. But without God, the ethical is obeyed for its own sake, and this is surely a higher stage of the ethical” (181).

Even for those who ostensibly choose to remain committed to Judaism, Kant’s shadow lingers.

However, a Jewish theology authentically rooted in the Bible’s world view must by necessity push back against the revolution initiated by Kant.

The Biblical narrative repeatedly shows us that God can never be divorced from the good. Held’s shows that the story of the Torah begins with a God of life who creates human beings in His own image and affirms their unconditional dignity. Most importantly, the God of life is also a God of love who chooses to share His love with the descendants of Abraham. God’s love means “we are asked to love God in return. More than that, we are asked to love those who God loves: the neighbor and the stranger” (xxx). The Bible singles out God’s love for the vulnerable and oppressed, asking us to do the same.

The moral imperative created by God’s love is not limited only to the life of the individual but rather penetrates all aspects of society. For the God of love, there can be no separation between the moral and religious realms. Rather, “To embrace the covenant between God and Israel is to be summoned to embody the good and the holy” (xxix). God’s love is also essential to understanding that the good must always be at the heart of Torah.

Held cites the midrash, which emphatically states that, “The beginning of the Torah is lovingkindness, the middle of the Torah is lovingkindness, and the end of the Torah is lovingkindness” (296). The Torah begins with God clothing Abraham and Sara after exiling them from the Garden of Eden and it ends with God burying Moses after his death. In the middle, God visits Avraham while he is in need of healing after undergoing circumcision.  In effect, this expresses the idea that “The very essence of Torah, the sages thus insist, is a God of love and kindness who calls Israel to love and kindness” (296).

Deeply aware that such statements often end up as little more than empty platitudes, Held instead argues that it must be read as a radical challenge to all those who hold the study of Torah to be among the highest of Judaism’s ideals.  With powerful prose, he explains:

“Torah can elicit staggering degrees of goodness and generosity of spirit; it can motivate us to love when hate seems much easier, to care for the pain of others when indifference seems the surer path. But Torah can also be made to serve the opposite ends: It can serve to deepen selfishness and self-involvement; it can be cited to bolster chauvinism and cultivate hate… The Torah we learn and teach should help us become kinder, more generous, more empathic and willing to give; if it merely buttresses our biases and hardens our hearts, then it is simply not Torah” (298).

Mussar and Middot

Throughout nearly every essay in The Heart of Torah, Held contemplates various ways in which the Bible helps point us towards moral transformation. Held’s focus on ethics has coincided with a renewed interest in Mussar by many segments of the American Jewish community. At a time when most Jews lack a common moral language, an emphasis on character enables a broader discourse that transcends denominational boundaries.

Held draws inspiration from the Biblical interpretations of the Mussar masters famous for their harsh critique of traditional Jewish practice. For example, when God demands of Moshe that Israel must be annihilated for the sin of the Golden Calf, God highlights the stiff-necked character of the Jewish people even more than the transgression of idol worship (Exodus 32:9-10). Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka, explains that, “From here we see that defect in character is even worse than a defect in action- more serious even than a grave sin like idolatry” (203-204). According to Held, “What Finkel is suggesting- in the most dramatic possible terms- is that Judaism is concerned not just with what we do, but also with who we are. Jewish ethics is focused not just on conduct but also on character. From a Jewish perspective, character matters, and the cultivation of good character lies at the heart of religious life” (204).

Held returns often to the idea of gratitude. For the Bible, gratitude is fundamental to the religious personality. Unlike other attributes, it is inherently relational and therefore is always directed towards another, whether it be our fellow human beings or God.

I found myself particularly drawn to a close reading that he offers of the narrative of Leah, a reading that  illustrates the complexity and significance of gratitude. Held is aware that it is all too easy to see Leah as a pathetic character in the context of the narratives of Bereshit. Despite the knowledge that she was not chosen by her husband, she still yearns for his love. It is her hope that by providing him children, she will finally win Jacob’s affection.

Held cites a strange Talmudic claim that until this moment no human being had truly expressed authentic gratitude. He explains that this makes sense if we recognize that Leah’s gratitude is unique because it is accompanied by terrible disappointment. With the birth of Judah, she has come to the conclusion that Jacob will never love her as she desires. Nevertheless, in the midst of her pain she has also come to recognize with gratitude the good she has experienced.

From her example, Held draws an important lesson, one that resonates with me more and more as the years pass.

“Disappointment need not preclude gratitude, and nor need gratitude crowd out the very real possibility of disappointment. Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other, but rather makes space- indeed, seeks to teach us to make space- for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience. Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness” (63).

Can the God of Love also be a God of Law?

A focus on “loving the stranger” and character can be morally uplifting, but does the Bible have anything to say about the role of Jewish law in moral life?

For a religious thinker such as Held who focuses on the idea of covenant, it is surprising that command is minimally addressed in his essays. Held’s call for a return to a God centered morality is to be lauded, but one must question whether such an approach is even possible without repeatedly emphasizing that the God who loves is also the God who commands.

For Held, God’s love is so foundational to the covenant that it precedes and at times takes priority over and above God’s commandments.

However, Held’s own teacher, Jon D. Levenson, makes clear that the love of God can never be separated from obedience to God’s commands. After carefully analyzing a series of Biblical verses that describe the Jewish people’s love for God, Levenson explains that “’Those who love [the Lord],” it would seem, are synonymous with those who “keep His commandments’… Love, so understood, is not an emotion, not a feeling, but a cover term for acts of obedient service” (The Love of God, 4).

Levenson also turns to the writings of Franz Rosenzweig to show that on an existential level, God’s love can never be separated from a sense of command that accompanies it.  Rosenzweig asks: “Can love then be commanded? Is love not a matter of fate and of being deeply touched, and if it is indeed free, is it not sheerly a free gift? (Galli, 190.) Rosenzweig answers with the following: “Yes, of course, love cannot be commanded; not third party can do so, but the One can. The commandment of love is not an alien commandment; it is nothing other than the voice of love itself” (Galli, 191.)

Levenson writes that “love makes man com[e] out of the boundaries of his ego.” (Levenson, 190.) We live at a time when a rampant culture of social media combines with a pervasive philosophy of radical individualism to trap so many within the walls of their own ego.  We would do well to remember the ways in which Divine love at the heart of the covenant serves not only to inspire us but also engenders a sense of command that can help us transcend our selfishness.

Covenantal Morality and the Land of Israel

One particular line of thought also deserves further development within Held’s writing. As stated by Prof. Alan Brill in his original interview, there are times when Held’s philosophy seems to “desiccate the elements of historical narrative and collective nationalism from the Biblical text.”

It is hard to claim that love is at the heart of covenant without also making clear that the Land of Israel is an essential part of it as well.

This is clearly the case from even just a straightforward reading of the Torah in which the land of Israel serves as both a symbol and guarantee of God’s covenantal relationship with the Jewish people. However, this is also true on a philosophical level as well.

In the words of Yitz Greenberg, another mentor of Held’s, “God calls his covenantal people into existence to serve as a paradigm and witness to the true nature of and destiny of human life… This people needs land, security, health; it is affected by war, drought, death; it must meet the challenges and temptations of existence as best as it can” (Land, People, and Faith: A Dialectical Theology, 62.) In the end, Held’s Biblical theology of morality tends to focus on the individual, and in doing so, ignores the ways in which the Jewish people’s collective moral development is rooted in the attempt to build a just and moral society together in the Promised Land.

What exactly is to be found at the heart of Torah?

Held’s essays are full of penetrating insights into the Biblical text, and his covenantal vision of God’s love is a perspective that many will find stirring. However, there is an additional reason that makes “The Heart of Torah” a compelling work, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that his own philosophical and theological explorations of the Biblical text are at the end of the day an attempt at “finding my own acute problems and questions, my own torturing anxieties and fears, my own inspiriting hopes and aspirations in the story of Biblical heroes. The detection of one’s own self in Biblical man is an exciting experience… It is a redemptive and enhancing awareness” (4). Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words remind us that while God and morality may be found at the heart of Torah, we must also find ourselves there as well.

Shai Held’s essays retain a quality rarely found in most contemporary Jewish scholarship, because they are infused with his own fears, his dilemmas, his hopes, and his dreams. Reading his writings is an exciting experience, and if it helps nudge even just a few to open their hearts a little wider to both God and the good, it is perhaps a redemptive one as well.