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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 5. Zen Judaism

Chapter 8. Enlightenment without idolatry

The phenomenal self

The value of Enlightenment

Against idolatry

The phenomenal self. When Buddhists speak of one’s ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’ they are often referring to what could be described as one’s sphere of experience at any moment. Moment after moment, all around the central point where cognition actually takes place, there is a cloud of phenomena: bodily sensations and sentiments, appearances of surrounding sights and sounds, and mental images and sounds, verbal and non-verbal thoughts, and moods. It is important during meditation (and eventually, beyond it) to get to be and to remain aware of this totality of variegated experience, and to realize the great weight of this experience in one’s life.

According to Buddhists, this phenomenal mass is all there really is to one’s life – and thence they conclude that there is no self. This phenomenal cloud, they claim, is what we call the self, it is the whole of the self. Moreover, according to the Yogacara school, this cloud is only mind (since, they argue, all experience is necessarily mediated by consciousness). But I beg to differ on such views – and claim that we must pay attention to the center of that sphere of experience too.

At the center is the self, the one who is experiencing. This Subject experiencing the changing phenomenal objects is the real meaning of the word self. It is a non-phenomenal entity, who is not experienced outside itself, but is known to itself by intuition. That is the soul or spirit. Buddhists philosophers deny it, but I am not convinced by their reasoning. Even so, I am convinced that Enlightenment is (as they claim) the central goal of human existence – the meaning of it all.

The Jewish core value is, of course, service of God, i.e. fulfilling the commandments given in the written and oral Torah. But, it seems to me, the higher one tends spiritually, the better one can fulfill such a mission. Enlightenment means the perfection of wisdom. So there’s no contradiction between these values. The more perfect the tool, the better it does the job.

The value of Enlightenment. The Buddhist idea of Enlightenment (boddhi) is one of its great contributions to human aspiration and inspiration. I would like Judaism to more consciously value and pursue this goal, through meditation. Of course, Judaism would never accept the idea that Enlightenment makes one a ‘god’. I agree with this crucial caveat.

There are some significant points of similitude between the Judaic-Christian-Islamic group of religions and the Hindu-Buddhist group. One point all (or at least some schools in all) might agree with, is the notion that we are all rooted in an infinite God or Original Ground and that we will all one day return to this Source. Indeed, these grand religions may be viewed as teachings on how to prepare for or accelerate such a return.

Now, both groups would consider that when an individual human manages somehow to merge back into God (or whatever the Source is called), God remains unaffected, i.e. nothing has been added to Him. From the latter’s viewpoint there was never separation, no breach of unity. Where the two groups would differ, however, is in the status acquired by an individual who fuses with the Deity. The religions of Indian origin would regard such a person as having become a ‘god’, or even identified with the one and only God; whereas the Middle Eastern religions would consider the individual as ceasing to exist as a distinct entity.

I would refer to the tacit image of a drop of water flowing back into the ocean: certainly, that drop loses all ‘personality’, and moreover it becomes a mere part of and does not become equated with the ocean as a whole.

The Jewish religious way often seems like a constant hectic rush to perform countless rituals. It seems intended to keep you busy and stressed, as if agitation is proof of devotion. Set prayer sessions, some of them hours long, obligations to study without time limit, and many other demanding duties fill the days, evenings and weekends of those who faithfully follow this way.[1]

Although that way gives one some satisfaction, if only the feeling of having a good conscience, if one has done all that needed doing fully and correctly (which is not always easy), it cannot be said bring peace of mind in the sense of cessation of “running after” things. Indeed, some commentators boast of this:

The Jewish approach to life considers the man… who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest—to be someone who has lost his way. (Adin Steinsaltz, p. 99)

Such an attitude is, in my view, an unfortunate devaluation of Enlightenment. In fact, it is a sort of cop-out: the rabbis, admitting that the way they have developed is unable to deliver the inner contentment and illumination all human beings yearn for, present this restlessness as a virtue above peace.

The missing ingredient here, it seems to me – what is needed to slow things down and give us time to breathe is – still and silent meditation. I here quote the 6th century CE Indian mystic and founder of Chinese Zen, Bodhidharma (p. 49):

Not thinking about anything is zen. Once you know this, walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, everything you do is zen…Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness. Freeing oneself from words is liberation.

Traditional Jewish observances do on the whole perform their function, which is to bring us closer to God. I believe that sincerely, which is why I personally continue to practice Judaism and recommend it to fellow Jews. However, sometimes I get the impression that Judaism obstructs or blocks one’s natural personal relation to God.

The main problem in my view is the ‘commandment’ format of Jewish law, which results in its excessive ritualism and legalism and almost non-stop verbosity. Jews are constantly in the position of slaves receiving peremptory orders under threat, rather than of free men and women kindly advised to voluntarily act in wise, objectively good and naturally virtuous ways. The commandments seem too often of uncertain value, if not contrary to reason; and those who object to them are viewed with much disapproval. It is argued that since these are God’s orders, they must be wise imperatives; but their lack of evident wisdom in some cases makes their alleged source doubtful to some people.

At such times, it is actually meditation that keeps me going in Judaism. Thanks to it, I do not attach much importance to the imperfections I perceive in it, and remain focused on what seems to me the essential: getting personally closer to God.

Against Idolatry. Idolatry is clearly forbidden by God to Jews in the Ten Commandments[2]. God is to be the one and only object of worship – there is no other “god” by His side or in opposition to Him to worship.

Moreover, God does not “incarnate” in human form, or other material body or ghostly form of limited size; the very idea of incarnation is idolatrous. We are therefore forbidden to mentally worship any putative god or incarnation through belief, fear or love. All the more so, we must not physically worship any representations of alleged gods or incarnations, by bowing before statues or flat images or movies and similar acts. This interdiction obviously suggests that the worship of images of any alleged divinity or even of the true God is spiritually extremely damaging, in this world and/or the next.

According to the Rabbis, the interdiction of idolatry applies not only to Jews but also to Gentiles. It is one of seven Biblical commandments intended for the “Children of Noah” (i.e. the non-Jews, or Gentiles). This is stated in the “oral law” and subsequent rabbinical commentaries. In that case, Judaism may be regarded as categorically rejecting all religions that involve idolatrous beliefs and practices to any degree. Similar teachings are in principle found in Islam, no doubt thanks to Jewish influence.

With regard to Christianity, the issue is more complex, however. Some Jewish commentators (Maimonides comes to mind) appear to class it as a monotheistic religion. They argue that Christians intend to worship the formless one and only God, even as they worship alleged incarnations of God (the Son, the Holy Ghost) by prostrating themselves before images and similar acts. Most Christians would agree with this assessment, and class themselves as monotheistic. In my view, certain aspects of Hinduism and even Buddhism may be similarly classed as ultimately ‘monotheistic’ in intent or in effect.

It would clearly be preferable, however, from a purely rational viewpoint, if all religions eschewed all thoughts or acts that could be regarded as idolatrous from their curriculum.

[1] I should also mention, here, how we are sometimes (e.g. late at night at Pessach) required by the law to eat and sleep at unhealthy hours, not to mention the consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks (meat and alcohol). Moreover, little allowance is made for fresh air and regular exercise. The natural cycles and needs of the human body are too often overlooked.

[2] The issue of idolatry in Judaism is a complex one, and I do not pretend to know all its ramifications. The present remarks may well go beyond the letter, into the spirit, of Jewish law. They are intended as an independent, philosophical analysis, not a religious legal opinion.

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