Thomas Merton on Two Forms of The Spiritual Life


“He who is spiritually “born” as a mature identity is liberated from the enclosing womb of myth and prejudice. He learns to think for himself, guided no longer by the dictates of need and by the systems and processes designed to create artificial needs and then “satisfy” them.”

“This emancipation can take two forms: first that of the active life, which liberates from enslavement to necessity by considering and serving the needs of others, without thought of personal interest or return. And second, the contemplative life, which must not be construed as an escape from time and matter, from social responsibility and the life of the sense, but rather, as an advance into solitude and desert, confrontation with poverty and the void, a renunciation of the empirical self, in the presence of death, and nothingness, in order to overcome the ignorance and error that spring from the fear of being nothing.” (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, 17-18)



El Chai: The Living God v. Religion and the State

In The Undiscovered Self Jung argues at length for the importance of individuation as a protection from totalitarianism and fundamentalism. Rather then merely being an argument for an ethic of the individual, Jung’s analysis is a passionate and intriguing discussion of the psychodynamics of state, community, religion, and the individual psyche with interesting lessons about the dangers both of religion and of irreligion.

For Jung individuation consists on the one hand of the attainment of a conscious, vital and honest individual consciousness which is not dominated by collective norms or instincts.  On the other it consists  of freedom from domination by elements of the personal unconscious as well.

A person should be grounded both in individual instinct and in collective norms, but a true individual has a conscious, free and discerning relationship to this soil in which their consciousness grows.

Jung felt that the best defense against domination by collective societal norms was a personal experience of God. Only a transpersonal, unworldy ground could give the individual strength to resist the belief that they could be fulfilled by externals. Only being grounded in God could straighten the spine to resist being dominated by the pressure of collective norms.

Jung argued that in the absence of religious experience society would tend towards the deification of abstract concepts like “the state” or “the people”. If not grounded in a healthy and direct experience of the transcendent this would result in a dangerous deification of the State like he saw in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. A world without God will serve abstractions, and since abstractions like the “State” or “the Fatherland” do not exist they will in fact end up serving ruthless individualists who manipulate their allegiance for their own benefit.

This type of government is reminiscent of the ancient states of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Rome at times in their history. Here the ruler was a divine being- son of a god or a god himself. The state was itself  holy and the will of the government the will of the god/gods. The individual had no rights before the divine government.

By contrast, Pharoah’s mythic opponent, Moshe (Moses), was not divine. His mission was to free people from slavery, not to enslave. In this sense he can be seen as an opponent of political idolatry.

Moshe did not establish a government in Eretz Yisael: Israel existed as a tribal collective. The collective only had leaders in times of great neccesity, as exemplified by Yehoshua, who led the conquest of Canaan, and the charismatic prophet- warriors of the Book of Judges. Israel was not spiritually strong enough for this arrangement and things degenerated into political and moral anarchy, at which point Israel chose a King. Hashem (G-d) was not portrayed as happy with this request, pointedly saying to the charismatic prophet leader of the time, Shaul, “It is not you they are rejecting but Me.” The ideal was not a divinely appointed monarchy, and certainly not a divinized monarchy, but what Jose Faur has described as a “horizontal society”, the people led by God.

Thus Israel’s  government was not Holy. Though righteous Kings such as David and Shlomo (Solomon) were divinely chosen they did not speak with the voice of God and were not themselves gods, has v’shalom, nor divine children. This is contrasted with the nearby governments of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Assyria and Rome.

This may help to explain a mysterious moment in the story of Purim, a Jewish holiday which just passed. Mordechai, one of the heroes of the story, is a Jewish man living in Shushan (ancient Persia). One day he meets with Haman, the newly appointed minister to the King. Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman, and this “insolence” results in Haman convincing the King to issue a genocidal decree against the Jews , who he portrays as subversive elements in the Kingdom.

What is hard to understand about this story is why Mordecai refuses to bow. It is not against Jewish law as we have it now to bow down to another human being in general or to a government minister in particular, if that’s the custom. The Midrash famously explains that Haman was wearing an idol on a necklace and that’s why Mordechai refused to bow. This explanation always seemed evasive to me, but it may be pointing in fact to a deeper truth.

The Midrash also says that Mordechai thought in the past Jews had bowed down to a statue of Nebechadnezzar, the god-king of Babylon, and if he bowed down to Haman and his necklace-idol he might encourage things to move in that direction again. It seems to me that this midrash may be pointing to what the pshat (simple text) of the story suggests to me anyway. This is that Mordechai still carried within him a deep Jewish tradition that was averse to deified government, and that was why he did not bow to Haman, a minister of a deified King of Persia. It was not that Mordechai refused to bow down to a government official: Mordechai refused to bow down to deified government.

Returning to Jung;s thoughts, we must be clear that by the protection offered by a relationship with “God” Jung did not mean “religion”. Jung thought that religions did a great service to the individual in providing meaning and guidance as well as a source of enriching and psychically balancing and protective narratives and rituals. Jung saw myth and ritual as essential for psychic well being. He also saw religion as having great negative potential to disrupt healthy individuation and to enable unhealthy structures of power similar to the power of the deified State.

Jung warned that when individuals in a religious community yeild all personal autonomy to abstract religious concepts like the Church (or in the Jewish case, we might say Halacha, Minhag Kehilla or the Gedolim) they make their own individuation- their birth as truly intelligent, morally whole individuals- incomplete. This weakness makes them vulnerable to possession by irrational forces in the “collective religious unconscious” or by unscrupulous, ignorant or arrogant leaders. In the least it may blind them to what is really happening in their community. The complete abdication of moral and intellectual responsibility, Jung said, re-creates the infantile paradise of total reliance on the parent- but at a cost.

The direct experience of G-d, according to Jung, also serves as a protection from the deification of the will of the religious community or its leaders.

There seems to me to be a parallel here to what is happening in some segments of the Orthodox Jewish community today, where abstract concepts rule and the community and the law are exalted considerably above individual consciousness and reasonable amounts of diversity of opinion in matters of law and philosophy, as existed more in the past. The argument is popular that individual reason and conscience are not up to the task of learning how to live according to Jewish thought and law. If Jung’s analysis is right this poses a considerable danger. It endangers the psychic health and discernment of observant Jews, and makes both individuals and community members vulnerable to possession by irrational forces and unrecognized manipulation by authority figures for their own ends.

Certainly one needs to take seriously, and to study deeply tradition, halacha, and collective norms, and to be humble before those more knowledgeable. I think this must be balanced, however, by respect for individual reason and conscience. One can only hope that voices of reason, diversity, and respect for the dignity of  the individual’s yirat shamayim (awe of God, or conscience), take firmer root and spread broader leaves under which to shelter those children of Israel who follow the ancient ways of the Sages.

The Chess Game

Originally blogged here:

Once, at a Sabbath gathering (farbrengen in Yiddish), in 1948, the Rebbe, in recognition of the presence of Sammy Reshevsky (world-famous chess master), explained the spiritual meaning behind the chess game.

The Chess Game

There is one king. All of the other pieces revolve around him and their entire mission is to protect and serve him. G-d is the King, all else was created by Him, given the opportunity to connect to His truth and to serve Him.

The queen represents the feminine manifestation of the divine, known as the “shechinah,” intimately involved with every aspect of creation, granting vitality and substance to every existence. The queen is the most practically affective piece, often sent into the lines of fire, even placed in danger. Likewise, G-d risks His own dignity, as it were, by investing Himself in every creature and existence, subjecting Himself to the vicissitudes of the human condition.

Then there are bishops, rooks, and knights. They are swift, free, not limited by the squares immediately surrounding them; they can “fly” around freely, without constraints. These are symbolic of the angels-in their three mystical categories we discuss in the daily morning services, “seraphim,” “chayos” and “ofanim,” represented by the bishops, rooks, and knights.

In order for there to be free choice in the world, there are two teams, the white and the black. One team representing G-dliness and holiness; the other team representing everything antithetical to G-dliness and holiness. The teams are engaged in fierce battle. And for the confrontation to be meaningful each team contains, at least on the surface, all the properties contained in the opposite team. Both teams pretend to have a king, queen, bishops, rooks and knights.

Finally, there are the pawns. They are very limited in their travel, moving only one step at a time, only in a singular direction, and they constantly get “knocked off.” But… when they fight through the “board,” arriving at their destination, they can be promoted even to the rank of the queen, something that the bishop, rook or knight can never achieve.

The Pawn represents the human being living down here on earth. We humans take very small steps, and we are so limited in every aspect of our journey and our growth. We also constantly make mistakes and get “knocked down.” But when man perseveres, and overcomes the angst and despair of his or her own failings and mortality, when we fight the fight to subdue darkness and to reveal the presence of the “king” within our own bodies, our own psyches and the world around us-the human being surpasses even angels; the pawn is transformed into a queen! The human life reunites with its source above, the queen, the Shechinah, experiencing the deepest intimacy with the King Himself.

The bishops, rooks, and knights, though spiritually powerful and angelic, are predictable, and limited by their role. There is no room for real promotion, no substantive growth, no radical progression. Yes, they fly around, but only within their own orbit. The angels on high, as well as the soul alone on high, before entering the body, are powerful yet confined by their own spiritual standing. It is the limitations of the human person that stimulate his or her deepest growth. The limits of our existence create friction, causing us to strain against the trials and disappointments of life.

(From Rabbi YY Jacobson)

Finding A Window: Thoughts On Grief and Love

By Guest Contributor, on March 7th, 2011

By Rivkah Moriah

As my son’s third yartzeit approaches, I can hardly believe it has been three years already. It seems like just yesterday I would wait in anticipation for him to arrive home from yeshiva, my ears pricked to hear him walk in the door. But sometimes it seems like an eternity since I last saw him.

Avraham David was one of eight boys and young men killed in a terrorist attack on Rosh Chodesh Adar, March 6, 2008, while learning in the library of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav. He was one of five of them who were high school students from Yashlatz.

So much has changed since then. The most obvious, for me and my family, is that Avraham David is gone. Grief never goes away, but it changes over time. Initially, there was great shock. Just hanging in there was an act of faith that, if God had a plan, He would be there for us. Now, three years later, life has a lot more routine. His brothers get to school on time, supper gets cooked, there is even time and energy for extracurricular activities for the kids and a dance class for myself.

I actually cry more frequently now. The greatest shock has passed, so now when I think of how much I miss Avraham David, what I feel is intense sadness. That feeling is always somewhere in the background, informing my decisions, and that is precisely why most of the time I am just busy living.

There is an expression, “When God closes a door, a window opens.” Going through a door is a way of getting someplace, or, metaphorically, not being “stuck.” When a door is closed to us, it is hard not to feel both lost and trapped. When Hashem opens that window for us, He is providing us with a way of getting un-stuck. But it is our decision whether we take that window.

When leaving a room, people almost always choose the door. Not only is it convenient, it is habit. When a person takes the window, chances are they need to be a little more creative than usual. Who knows if this metaphoric window is even on the first floor? Not only that, but it forces a person to challenge his or her conventions, his or her expectations of what “ought” to be the way to leave a room, demanding a kind of emotional creativity, too.

Sometimes it is tempting to stay next to a door, hoping, crying and even praying that it will open again. The decision that most helped me and my family to cope with our loss was the decision to accept that the door had been closed: a big, important door had been irrevocably slammed in our faces. I made a firm decision to accept what we still had and to cherish its blessings. I decided to take the window.

This helped me enable my other kids to go on living, to grow and thrive, despite their own grief. Also, it opened up new possibilities for me. I no longer felt as limited by convention, and I found I cared a lot more about other kids, as well. I realized I wanted to connect with Avraham David’s classmates at Yashlatz. On the one hand, it is symbolic. They are “the boys who lived,” but it is also genuine. It is conventional for a mother to care mostly about her own children, but, as long as I’m taking the window, why not buck convention and care about other kids, as well, if I’ve got love to spare?

Proof that this was a good path was not long in coming. Approaching the first Shavuot after the attack, I was overcome with grief to think that Avraham David’s seat would be empty during Shavuot learning. It dawned on me that the high-school students would probably feel even worse, with five of their fellow students missing. So we baked cakes. My kids and I baked cakes in Avraham David’s memory for his friends to eat in the Beit Midrash on Leil Shavuot. Grief is a kind of love, so we expressed it in love, in a way that nurtured Torah and life.

For the sake of Avraham David’s memory and for the sake of life, I continue to invest as much as I can in my family, and also in Yashlatz. It is no coincidence that my pet project at Yashlatz is the new dining hall that is still in the planning stage, but that we hope to begin building soon. “Without flour there can be no Torah,” and if some of that flour is turned into cake, all the better!

Avraham David’s yartzeit falls on Rosh Chodesh Adar, the day on which we proclaim, “Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’simchah – from the beginning of Adar, joy increases.” This injunction falls upon me no less than on all Jews. How does one experience great joy on what for me is the saddest day of the year? There is not one short answer to this, but the beginning of an answer lies in the change of path I have been forced to take. Although the day is associated with sadness for me, I am also discovering that there is simcha in so much more than I would ever have realized.

Of course, this does not mean that we are happy Avraham David has died. It just means we can be happy even though we are sad that Avraham David has died. The window did not lead me back to the path that the door led to, but to someplace else that is full of my love for Avraham David, even though he is not in this world to receive it.

I believe that Avraham David’s soul is now in the light of the Divine Presence, and I also believe that somehow he still knows how much we love him and miss him. As for us, the window we took is full of the light of his memory.

Rivkah Moriah (mother of Avraham David Moses Hy”d, a student at the Yashlatz high school who was killed in the terrorist attack at Mercaz HaRav on March 6, 2008) grew up in rural New Hampshire and studied at Oberlin College in Ohio. She moved to Israel in 1989 and studied at Machon Pardes, during which time she completed her conversion. Rivkah currently lives in Efrat with her husband, Rav David Moriah, an educator at Yeshivat Chorev in Jerusalem.

To learn more about Yashlatz (The Mercaz HaRav High School), please visit: Yeshivat Yerushalayim L’Tzeirim or The Pigua. To make a contribution, please visit: Yashlatz Donations.

This article first appeared on the Orthodox Union’s Shabbat Shalom website and newsletter.

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Loving Eyes, Hurtful Eyes

By Miriam Adahan (re-posted from

“As in water, face reflects face, so the heart of a man to a man” (Proverbs 27:19). This statement has a biological basis. Deep in the lower brain is a tiny almond-shaped area called the amygdala (ah-MIG‑dala), which is the fear-processing center. The amygdala contains “mirror cells” which cause us to reflect what others are feeling. If someone smiles at us, we tend to smile back. But if someone is hostile, we tend to feel scared and defensive, often wanting to hurt back due to the pain we are feeling.”

Other than people’s body language, the main way we have of tuning into people’s feelings is through their eyes. The eyes are truly windows of the soul. When people look at us, they either heal us or harm us. Eyes have power. Eyes filled with love, understanding and acceptance are healing. This is why we love to be in the presence of truly holy people who accept us as we are, with all our faults and foibles. The more we practice loving others, the more pure this conduit becomes.

The eyes are truly windows of the soulWhether we like it or not, this means that we are also affected by eyes which radiate disapproval, scorn or hatred. Even if we tell ourselves, “Don’t take offense and don’t be bothered by these harmful rays.” If we have a strong sense of self-worth and we encounter such eyes only briefly and rarely, such as at the supermarket or on the bus, we are able to shrug off the effects and return to a state of emotional equilibrium. But those who are emotionally fragile can suffer greatly, even from these minor encounters.

We “switch” eyes throughout the day, depending on circumstances. When people are happy to see us, we feel safe; but when we are criticized or ignored, we withdraw or attack back. This instinctual response to hostility is a survival tactic we all need. Those who live or work with people whose eyes exude negativity will inevitably suffer both physical and emotional damage. Research shows that our stress hormones soar, and the level of T-killer cells—the cells which destroy invading viruses and bacteria—plummets, within seconds of being criticized or yelled at. There is also damage to our sense of self-worth and security. People really do get sicker around hostile individuals. Pregnant women who live or work with hostile people give birth to babies with more health and behavioral problems.

Imagine the damage suffered by children who must sit for hours in a classroom with a teacher who conveys, in words, grades or gestures, “You are a failure! You are so slow! You did so poorly on the test! Your backpack is such a mess! You are not performing up to par!” Imagine if the child comes from a home where eyes often tell him, “Shame on you! You tracked mud onto the floor! Idiot! Look at these grades! You are a pest, a slob and a brat. You only listen when I yell at you!” Or, “Leave me alone! I am overwhelmed! I have no time for you! You’re such a bother!”

Marriage, too, can heal or harm. When a spouse rages frequently or shows contempt in looks, gestures or words, the victim will soon begin to suffer all kinds of physical and emotional illnesses, such as chronic anxiety and depression, auto-immune illnesses, thyroid dysfunction, fibromyalgia and digestive disorders. The body attacks itself, mirroring the hateful eyes of the attacker. It is impossible to maintain a sense of security and stability if one is told day after day, “You are a failure, a disappointment and a loser.”

Obviously, we will not always feel loving, especially when we are exhausted, overwhelmed or frustrated. If the “love bank” is full, an occasional withdrawal will not be harmful. However, if there is not enough in the love bank, people will adopt various protective behaviors, called defense mechanisms, to avoid “evil eyes” and help them feel safe. For example, some people learn to go numb and dissociate from what is happening. Others adopt OCD behavior, such as cleaning excessively or being “super-religious,” hoping that being perfect will keep them from being judged as unworthy. Some become super-achievers in the hope of winning praise from outsiders, yet feeling, deep within, “Nothing I do is ever good enough.” Codependents become compulsive people-pleasers and approval seekers, so terrified of seeing disappointment in people’s eyes that they will do anything to please people, including allowing themselves to be exploited and abused. Teens may be so used to disapproving eyes that they provoke contempt with weird clothing, body piercings, or rebellious and repulsive behavior. Some escape the loneliness with addictions, or become bullies, building themselves up by tearing others down.

Our immediate, instinctual emotional response is not in our direct control. Just accept what you feelUnfortunately, when people complain to advisors about feeling scorned, their pain is often trivialized as they may be told, “It’s just words. Ignore it. Don’t take it seriously.” Often, they are blamed and told, “You must be to blame. It must be because you’re not respectful enough. You have to be more organized/submissive/kind.” Thus, in addition to the pain they are feeling, there is now added a sense of failure at not being able to ignore the insults or change the other person’s behavior. If they tell a doctor about chronic fatigue, depression or panic attacks, they are apt to be given psychiatric medication to shut down the amygdala. So now they think, “I must be crazy for feeling bad.”

Ona’as devarim, which is the Torah expression for scorn, belittlement, contempt and ridicule, is compared to spiritual murder. The effects can be tragic, as evidenced by the teenage suicides which can result from hostility. Since we all experience “evil eyes” at times, we must learn to maintain our sense of self-worth despite people’s hostility. This requires that we temporarily disable the amygdala (fear center) and activate a portion of the brain known as the anterior cingulate, located just behind the eyes. This is the center of compassion and understanding. Each time that we practice the following exercises, we actually strengthen the anterior cingulate and weaken the primitive amygdala:

  • Validate your feelings. Fear, shame and guilt arise in the amygdala. Don’t tell yourself, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” Or, “It’s my fault for not being able to please them.” Our immediate, instinctual emotional response is not in our direct control. Just accept what you feel.
  • Do not take responsibility for other people’s anger (unless, of course, you have purposely done something to hurt them). Instead, disable your mirror cells and activate your anterior cingulate by feeling compassion for yourself, for the pain you feel and for people who need to be sarcastic, nasty and critical in order to gain a sense of power and superiority. They will never know true love.
  • Do not internalize their scorn. People will sometimes think you are stupid, uncaring, crazy and inept. Remind yourself frequently, “InG‑d’s eyes, I have infinite worth. I am good enough for Him. He loves me, even if others don’t.” Instead of thinking, “I’m not good enough,” think, “I give myself permission to see myself with loving eyes.”
  • If you are a sensitive, vulnerable type, keep a list of your daily acts of kindness and courage. This has enormous benefit.
  • With unreasonable people, do not try to be reasonable! Be polite, but avoid explanations, justifications, excuses or defenses. Use your silence as a time to pray to G‑d for healing for yourself or others.
  • Stop trying to change people. Just do your own inner “compassion work.” Those who have the ability to respond will do so. Those who can’t, won’t.
  • If you must be in the presence of critical people, try to have “buffers” around you to soften the blows and “absorb” some of the hostile emotional charge.
  • Train yourself to look at the world with loving eyes. Practice with nature—flowers, sunsets, trees, etc. Then practice smiling at people with these same unconditionally loving eyes. This is true “eye power”—and “I power.”
  • Forgive yourself and others for being imperfect.
  • Hostile people are very touchy and easily offended. If you are a codependent, you try anything to please them, fearing to trigger their rage by saying “No” to a request. Start small. Learn to say, “I’m sorry, but I cannot handle that right now.” Or, “It’s not convenient for me to do that.” Understand that if you suffered rejection or abuse as a child, you may still fear being rejected or abandoned. You may still think that other people determine your worth. Now, as an adult, you can acquire new tools. If people reject you for not always being generous, available or perfect, protect yourself by keeping your distance.

When we feel hurt by people, we can turn to the words of the Psalms to remind us of how King David dealt with such situations. Despite the pain, we can trust that G‑d views us with loving eyes and wants us to experience these events to strengthen our relationship with Him. Validate your need to be loved, to be looked at with caring eyes. Nutritious people are similar to nutritious food. Just as junk food destroys the body, there are those who will destroy our souls if we let them!

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro and Organic Torah (via Organic Torah)

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, “The Piaseczner Rebbe” (1889 – 1943) is also known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto because he remained in the ghetto and continued to offer his leadership during the excruciating years of the war. He was from a renowned rabbinic family and was known for his progressive educational ideas and his profound psychological and spiritual insights. I have been deeply moved by his writings contained in his book Aish Kodes … Read More

via Organic Torah