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: http://altishalioti.blogspot.com/2011/03/game-of-chess-explained-chassidicly.html

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.

Read more: http://www.cross-currents.com/#ixzz1Fz17L5ig
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