Reading Elie Wiesel's memoir, And the Sea is Never Full, a bright straight line in my mind linked one of its chapters with a book by Jean-Paul Sartre. After years of drawing straight lines among countless books, interviews, and lectures by a variety of thinkers, it was time to stitch the lines together while I could still remember them. As Wiesel said at the end of his memoir, "I am afraid of forgetting." The most influential of those thinkers are listed in the "Faculty" link above. To the right of "Faculty" I've highlighted specific members who've given me profound epiphanies. To their right, I've highlighted topics that are key to explaining my Jewish faith. In retrospect, I now see much of my life has been spent creating my own personal seminary in Judaism, thus the title and format of this website.
The links above address the "why?" and "how?" of fulfilling a twofold spiritual quest prompted by those thinkers' impact on my life:
experiencing joy and serenity through attachment (devekut - דבקות) to the One that "underlies, overlays, precedes, follows, fills, and surrounds all things" (Rabbi Art Green)
helping other living beings survive and flourish by "applying science and reason to explain phenomena and solve problems, and applying political, economic, and legal forces to drive evil down and bend the moral arc upward." (Michael Shermer)
WHAT CAN BE SAID ABOUT THIS QUEST?
The quest is for your soul to become--through peace, love, kindness, mercy, compassion, gratitude, humility, honesty, slowness to anger, justice, and avoiding despair--"a throne for the light of the Presence that rests upon you. The light spreads forth around you, and you, at the center of that light, tremble in your joy." (Ba'al Shem Tov) The Hebrew text (Genesis 2:10) at the top of this page offers a metaphor for that Presence: a river watering the Garden of Eden. That river is a "divine wellspring gushing forth at each instant. The flow is constant, and its nature is to do good and give blessing. Become a channel for that spring, bringing its blessing and goodness to the entire world." (Rabbi Dov Ber)
The quest is a choice to be joyful: even though we know that "earth has endured for millions of years, and that human existence occupies but the last geological millimicrosecond of this history...that humanity arose just yesterday as a small twig on one branch of a flourishing tree...we may seek meaning in human life with joy in the challenge if our temperament is optimistic." (Stephen Jay Gould)
Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield's song below, a beautiful melody sung by a mellifluous voice, captures the quest's essence: peace and joy. Its lyrics include metaphors similar to the "river watering the Garden of Eden" and connect with these Torah verses:
"They have forsaken Me, the source of living waters, and hewed out of them cisterns, broken cisterns, that cannot hold water." (Jeremiah 2:13)
"Isaac returned and dug wells of water, which had been dug in the days of Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham's death. The servants of Isaac, digging in the valley, found a well of living waters." (Genesis 26:18-19)
"Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock." (Genesis 29:10)
Explaining the water metaphor, Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (1730-1797) moved from the verses' plain, literal sense to this symbolic interpretation: after the death of Abraham the wells were sealed by the Philistines, who represented the evil in humans that overtook the world. Abraham's son Isaac taught the people of his generation how to dig again into those wells of living waters. Isaac's son Jacob did likewise for his generation in Haran. The point is that every generation has to dig new wells. From the One's side there is no interruption of its flow to us. The separation occurs on our side. All of Judaism's symbols, rituals, customs, laws, language, liturgy, music, and literature are designed to teach and remind us how to dig within ourselves a well of living waters, to draw out the life that lay trapped within obstacles.
CAN THIS QUEST BE PURSUED RATIONALLY?
The Jewish seeker accepts that "the truth comes from whatever source it proceeds" (Maimonides), meaning that where the Torah is incompatible with science, it is not to be read literally. "We can't apply Torah to the world, or speak to the world, if we don't understand the world." (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) Judaism's myths, metaphors, parables, and rituals are not an "ultimate, final formulation of truth." (Fishbane) Yet they are stabilized and preserved--across millennia and cultures--because they can convey foundational accounts about existence, the nature of life, "the very ground of being" (Fishbane), in a more profound, memorable way than flat declarative statements. Judaism "refashions the Torah into verbal prisms in the hope that primordial wisdom might be refracted through them into the heart of the seeker. So viewed, the mythic imagination is a tool of the spiritual quest, and mythmaking a ritual of divine disclosure." (Fishbane) Judaism is a proven means of transmitting that wisdom globally and passing it down from generation to generation.
If the Torah is just fiction from which we cherrypick the parts that make us feel good, then we could write a better book in our own day. But to do so would ignore vast historical experience: Judaism has spent 2,500 years interpreting the Torah, “opening its outer form in order to find the wisdom within, lifting the veil to see beyond the surface appearance of the text. What’s inside? Can it help me see beyond the surface appearance of the world and other people? Can it help me relate to other people, and myself, on a deeper level? Does it help me understand God and soul? Can it help me see people as being in God's image, and help them see themselves that way? What do I do with these insights on a boring Tuesday afternoon? How do I live with them in this world and integrate them into my life? How do I create a bridge between peak moments of insight and ordinary life? All of Judaism is a response to these questions." (Rabbi Art Green)
"But that is not religion, say people of today. The question of religion is settled. It is ancient ignorance that is incompatible with reason and knowledge, ridiculous, contradictory, superstitious, incomprehensible, frivolous, useless, and harmful. It was a particular phase in the development of humanity that is long outdated and interferes with progress. There is a great delusion in such assumptions. To claim that the supernatural and irrational form the basic characteristics of religion is much the same as noticing only the rotten apples and then claiming that the basic features of the fruit named apple are bitterness and a harmful effect produced in the stomach." (Leo Tolstoy)
I cannot stress enough what Maimonides, Sacks, Fishbane, Green and Tolstoy are saying: religion need not, and does not (in the best forms of Judaism), contradict science and archaeology. Judaism, as described on this website, in my "seminary," does not tolerate ignorance. It is a straw man argument to paint all of Jewish practice with one brush, reducing Judaism to the belief (not held here) that Moses at Sinai was God's unerring stenographer and every word of the Torah is to be taken literally. Rather, Judaism--understood and practiced intelligently, especially in today's Neo-Hasidism--is a means of awakening and living with the wonder described by Albert Einstein: "Mystery is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness."
Crucially, as Paul Fleischman said in his book Wonder: "Although I experience the wonder of life and want to convey why, I do not want to be misunderstood as promoting ideas that purport to know the long-term goal of our universe. I have not gotten close enough to the universe's embryonic start or to its senescent demise to issue proclamations about the intentions or the destiny of the exploding billion-galactic cosmos. Neither as scientists nor as theologians can we claim privileged access to statements about the universe's origins, intentions, or goals. Knowledge of the meaning and end of the universe would require measurement from an external platform. We are cameo players in a drama whose heroes include plate tectonics and supernovae. Our ability to trace the gossamer of wonder is shattered by the bad breath of our self-important bombast. Self-appointed narcissism is not religion. It is pseudo-religion to cage the universe in security-seeking fatuous explanations. Authentic worship contains reverence for what is."
Carl Sagan (whose deep, challenging thoughts stimulated my theological readings in the first place) provides, in the video below, an astronomical context for the quest described above. I know what Sagan's response to this website would be, because he wrote it in The Varieties of Scientific Experience: "My response to the claim that humans aren't just physical beings but spiritual entities, too, is that it remains to be proved. What is the evidence that we are more than material beings? What is the compelling evidence that matter is not all of our makeup? First you have to show that spiritual faculties exist before you can have a major program to encourage them." I answer with all of the links above.
I wish I could have a conversation with Sagan. I'm confident it would be cordial and robust since we agree, 100%, on a bedrock idea of his: "In the sense of seeking the deepest interrelations among things that superficially appear to be sundered, the objectives of religion and science are identical or very nearly so. But the question has to do with the reliability of the truths claimed by the two fields and the methods of approach." Furthermore, as his wife wrote in the introduction to The Varieties of Scientific Experience: "The varieties of Carl's scientific experience were exemplified by oneness, humility, community, wonder, love, courage, remembrance, openness, and compassion." Anyone who increases these qualities in the world--through religion or not--is someone I want to know, help, and highlight.
WHO SUMMED IT UP BEST?
Martin Buber explains the comprehensive nature of the quest:
"We must strive for nothing less than the concrete transformation of our life as a whole. The process of transforming our inner lives must be experienced in the transformation of our outer lives. It spells the destruction of our existence to divide our life up so that in private life, for example, we feel obligated to be truthful but can permit ourselves lies in public. Judaism is about the unity of life under one divine direction that divides right from wrong. Do not make a practice of setting aside a certain sphere in which God’s command does not hold. Do not dare confine God to a circumscribed space or division of life, to 'religion.' Do not let yourself be deceived by the plausibility that there are places excluded. Do not tolerate the dualism of spirit and 'world,' rather grasp its unity. A divided person can never affect anything but division; only a unified person can establish unity.
"There is no special formula or procedure—nothing other than the ordinary life of a person concentrated and directed to the goal of unification. Overcome the fundamental separation between the sacred and the profane. The profane is only a preliminary stage of the holy; it is the not-yet-hallowed, that which is to be sanctified. I possess nothing but the everyday, out of which I am never taken. Judaism is just everything: simply all that is lived in the trivial mysteries of everyday. When you pray you do not thereby remove yourself from this life but, in your praying, refer your thought to it. No factory or office is abandoned. The individual stands in each moment before concrete reality that wishes to reach out to him and receive an answer from him. The wretchedness of our world is grounded in its resistance to the entrance of the holy into the lived life. Ecstasy catches fire again and again from precisely the most regular, most uniform events. The habitual is eternally new. All the deeds, gestures, and affairs of a person—speaking and looking and listening and going and remaining standing and lying down—are vessels of holiness.
"Judaism is not static but dynamic. It neither belongs to, nor is finished, with any single historical moment in time. Every moment is one phase. Judaism is not a maxim but a way; it is not a thesis but a process, still uncompleted, of spiritual creativity. It is in this process that we participate with our active life. Personality and performance are one.
"Revelation is not a fixed, dated point. Such perception is possible at any time. It is a present experience. I experience revelation if I am there. Sometimes we have a personal experience capable of opening the way, making us aware of a certain apperception within ourselves that was lacking but a moment ago. And we set foot on the path that will reveal our life and the life of the world as a sign communication. Suddenly we feel a touch, as if a hand. It reaches down to us, it wishes to be grasped. Take the hand. Turn your whole being. No leap from the everyday into the miraculous is required. With every act a person can work on the figure of the glory of God that it may step forth out of its concealment. At each place, in each hour, in each act, in each speech, the holy can blossom forth. All that a person possesses conceals sparks which belong to the root of his soul and wish to be elevated by him to their origin. Bind things to their higher root. God dwells where one lets him in. Let God in.
"God speaks to a person through the life that God gives that person again and again. Therefore, a person can only answer God with the whole of life—with the way in which that person lives this given life. The whole of life is required, every one of its areas and every one of its circumstances. Judaism holds out against attempts to assign a circumscribed part of life to God. One does not serve God with the spirit only but with the whole of his nature, without any subtractions. There is only one growing realm, the complete unity of spirit and nature."
בְּכָל דְרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ - "Know God in all your ways" (Proverbs 3:6)