This past weekend, Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN hosted Rabbi Art Green as their scholar in residence, to teach about Jewish mysticism and Neo-Hasidism. Jewish mysticism is enjoying a resurgence in interest, due in part to the Jewish Renewal movement, as well as the yearning of younger, often unaffiliated Jews who see contemporary synagogues as legacies of their grandparents and want to know if that’s all there is.
My personal interest in Jewish mysticism goes way back. There were definitely signs of my interest when I was a young child, and by my high school years, I was meditating daily, asking Big Questions, and searching for signs beyond Uri Geller‘s spoon bending.
Add to this the fact that I’ve interviewed my characters, some more than once. These interviews would be part of what I’ve always thought of as the “bonus material” on a DVD—the deleted scenes, interviews with the director and actors, and how-it-was-made videos. So it should come as no surprise that I have an interview (albeit brief) with my rabbi character David about mystical experiences.
When I attended Rabbi Green’s talk Friday night about how he came to be a scholar on Jewish mysticism, during the Q&A I asked him the same question that I’d posed (fictionally) to David. What I found most intriguing is that Rabbi Green’s answer was, in its essence, the same response.
Here’s the fictional interview, from April 2006:
I knocked softly on the mostly closed door, feeling a little hesitant.
“Come in,” came the response.
I entered the small study and saw him behind his desk, a legal pad full of doodles in front of him, along with the stubby end of a roll of Tums and enough other books and papers that I feared they’d tumble down onto the floor. An immediate grin brightened his face.
“Sheyna! What a pleasant surprise! What brings you here?”
“I was wondering if you had a few minutes.”
“For you? Of course. Is this business or pleasure?”
I considered the question. “Depends on how you define them. But I suppose the short answer is a bit of business and a bit of personal.”
He set down his pen and stood up, and I was suddenly aware of how much taller than me he was. When I write, I’m seldom in the same room, and observers aren’t nearly as cognizant of height. “Let’s sit down,” he said, his arm indicating the chairs across from his desk.
We sat and I knew the ball was in my court. “I’m sorry for the unexpectedness, David. Let me do some explaining. Or at least try.”
David cast a curious look at me but remained quiet.
“First of all, I have some questions for you regarding the next book. That’s simple enough. Second, I have some personal questions for you. And third, I have a confession to make.”
David raised his eyebrows. “You realize you’re in the wrong religious building for confessions?”
I smiled. “My confession is directly related to the personal questions I have for you.”
“Where do you want to start?”
“How do you feel about Jewish mysticism?”
Surprise was evident on David’s face. “That’s a question I wasn’t expecting. How do I feel about it? Well, I haven’t had much personal experience with it. But my own psychology training leaves me open to it. There’s so much we don’t know about the human brain, about the development of the personality, about where body ends and soul begins. So, do I think it’s possible to have spiritual experiences? Absolutely. Do I believe in reincarnation? I don’t know, but there’s a precedent for it, and I’m comfortable leaving it as a possibility. Do I believe in alternate realms and journeys to Pardes and conversations with Elijah?”
He let out a long breath. “I believe strongly in God – obviously, or we wouldn’t be sitting here. As far as I’m concerned, alternate realms and the existence of Pardes in some form comes with the territory. As for the rest, I believe that people have encounters with the Divine all the time, usually without knowing it. And I’m sure sometimes people are quite conscious of it, though I think it takes a certain level of spiritual understanding to not just be aware but interact with what’s going on and not be psychologically injured by it.”
I nodded. “I figured you were pretty open-minded. What do you think about angels and other messengers of God?”
“I’ve never met one to my knowledge. But to deny their existence is to deny part of God, don’t you think? I don’t take the Torah literally; you know that. But angels and other divine messengers and helpers are so central to religious Judaism that I have to accept the possibility, if not the probability. Where are you going with this, Sheyna?”
“I’ll get there, David. I promise. If a congregant came to you and said they’d had a mystical, spiritual experience—been visited by an angel or had some encounter with God’s presence or had a conversation with an ancient Tzaddik—what would you tell them?”
“Not a congregant scenario I’ve anticipated, but on the spot, I’d have to evaluate it in context. I’d be very concerned, and very doubtful, if this hypothetical congregant’s life was in chaos, if there were other red flags: difficulties at work, in relationships, legal troubles, isolation, self-harm or threats to others. But if this experience somehow enriched the person’s life, led them to greater self awareness or connection with God, brought them closer to community in a healthy way, I’d take them at their word. It’s not my place to judge someone else’s experience. I’ve heard stories of people who, after having a profound religious experience, suddenly also experienced a resurgence in their business and a new commitment to religious observance and the needs of their community. I can’t in any way consider that a bad thing. And to reduce their experience to a skeptic’s scientific explanation might somehow take away from the good it did in their lives.
“The bottom line, if I may, is that when your life’s work centers around religion, you have to be open to all the ways in which people experience that religion, and when your primary goal is to bring people closer to God, you have to be open to all the possible ways that God might also approach those very same people. If I wasn’t open, I couldn’t believe that we have a covenant with God, that Torah is somehow God speaking to us, that our prayers mean something to someone other than ourselves.”
“But you have colleagues who would disagree,” I prompted.
“Of course. There are rabbis who got into the business in spite of the spiritual aspects. I personally don’t think you get to pick the pieces you like about Judaism and reject or label the rest as impossibility. Becoming a rabbi, in my opinion, means accepting the gift handed down through centuries, even if you don’t understand it all, even if you have doubts. It means committing to a lifetime of learning, and being willing—even eager—to say that God is so far beyond our understanding that we can’t possibly say that an experience of God’s presence is out of the question. We should be seeking them, not trying to explain them away.”
Hopefully, as a result of Rabbi Green’s visit, and an openness to those Big Questions, we will be doing more seeking. I know I will.