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Torah and Veda are two ancient sources of spirituality still vibrant today. Torah is conveyed through the sacred language of Hebrew and Veda is conveyed through the sacred language of Sanskrit. The focus here is on meditation, mysticism, philosophy, psychology and the underlying spirituality that has been incorporated into religions, and not as much on the religions themselves. Your comments and posts are welcome.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Two Jewish Sacred Cows: The Messiah and Tikkun Olam - Hope and Meaning

Two Jewish Sacred Cows: The Messiah and Tikkun Olam – Hope and Meaning

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Bill Maher, that abrasive atheist/agnostic comic/social commentator (whose mother is Jewish by the way, but who was raised in the Catholic faith of his father) who viciously attacks anything religious, and this I have gleaned just from an occasional viewing of his HBO show and the trailer of his movie, “Religulous”. I understand his viewpoint that religion of all kinds is “the opium of the people” steeped in anti-intellectual, anti-scientific infantile superstition that keeps people dumbed-down and has been the cause of a great deal of historical human suffering and political turmoil. I have a number of fundamental differences with him, one being that he does not seem to acknowledge the possibility contained in the motto of my son’s college (as translated from the Latin): “Religion and Science from the Same Source”; the other being that he doesn’t seem to acknowledge spirituality as distinct from religion, which is a significant distinction for me. Nevertheless, he does seem to make a lot of valid points critical of religions and the dogmatic doctrines they promulgate, regardless of what they are, and I wish to express my views of two such matters prevalent in Judaism that tend to transcend denominational differences, although they may be interpreted differently depending on the perspective of the various branches of Judaism: The Messiah and Tikkun Olam.

It seems to me that these two terms relate mostly with Hope (the Messiah) and Meaning (Tikkun Olam), two important and inter-related themes concerning our human condition. Hope seems to be a function of time, and more specifically of a sense of the future, as it looks towards the future. We can hope for all kinds of things, both big and small, from hoping for a good grade on that last test, getting into the college of our choice, to hoping for improvement in any kind of circumstance that is less than acceptable as it now stands. The Big Hope concerning the Messiah has to do with hoping for a Utopia, something that has not been limited to the realm of religion. There appears to be a very deep, strong, passionate longing on the part of human beings for life conditions that are better than what is currently being experienced. But not only better, but also Perfect or close to perfect. To varying degrees of definitions and interpretations, Utopian conceptions present the possibility of an attainable world community of near-perfect human beings carrying on their lives in a near-perfect world, with all of the virtues we have ever imagined being the rule of the day, with little or no vice of any kind. In many versions, even the usual natural circumstances of predator and prey cease to exist, e.g. “the lion laying with the lamb”, etc. I don’t know if this means that all animal life becomes vegetarian, or if there is no longer a need to eat for nurturance, but I’m sure there are explanations for it all. Many religions have posited that a new utopian age will be fostered in by some kind of agency such as the Jewish Messiah, the Christian Messiah, the Hindu Kalki, the Buddhist Maitreya.

I don’t claim to have exhaustively studied the Jewish origins or conceptions of the Messiah, but I have studied it about as much as I care to. Scholars point out that there is very little evidence or reference in support of it in the Torah itself, although there may be a few. References to it appear more in other parts of the Tanach and in the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism as it has evolved over the centuries. I doubt there was hardly any conception of it during the glory days of the First Temple, as that was a period in which We Had Arrived, and there was little need of hope for a better day. Upon its destruction, the longing for the glory days of the past became translated into an expression of a return to those days in the future, and eventually the Second Temple did arise, without the aid of a Messiah, but it was never the same as the days of the First Temple. The period of the Second Temple was mostly marked by foreign oppression and subjugation, leading to a concept of a Messiah that would free the Jewish people from this yoke and establish a Second Temple period as glorious as the first. There was no need for the Messiah at this point to build a new Temple, only to free the existing Temple of its subjugation. Then after the Second Temple was destroyed, an additional task was added to the mission of the Messiah. Now, in addition to freeing Zion from foreign rule, a new Temple also needed to be built. And so here we are today, still waiting for this Messiah to appear, although at this point of time, Zion, to some extent, has been freed from foreign rule. By many accounts, the appearance of the Messiah is due any time, if not overdue.

I have many concerns and questions about the various Messiah concepts that now exist. I was always intrigued by the title of a book popular in the 70’s called, What to Do Until the Messiah Comes. I admit that I was never intrigued enough to actually read the book, but I thought the title was catchy, and begs many questions: What are we doing until the Messiah comes? What would we be doing differently if we didn’t think the Messiah was coming? What should we be doing whether or not the Messiah is coming? I have a concern about attitudes, perspectives, and approaches towards life that are generated by the idea of a coming Messiah which is held dearly as a core value and belief. I realize that the religions which hold to the doctrine of a Messiah also teach values and virtues, but it seems to me that if they believe in this idea, that in the back of their minds, there may be an underlying sense of certain limitations on what is possible: “What can you expect? There is only so much we can do until the Messiah comes.” When the Messiah doesn’t come as hoped and expected, then what? We all know of many misdirected and tragic times over the centuries when some charismatic person or another predicted with certainty the date of the Coming. A lot of disappointment, frustration, disillusionment results when it doesn’t happen because a core belief is shattered. I see the great need for hope that many people feel, and a great power and influence that can be gained by appealing to this need for hope and exploiting it. I am also concerned about this waiting around until the Messiah comes to fulfill some hope of a vision of a utopian world of some sort that reason tells me in most likelihood will never happen.

I just don’t get it. I once went to a lecture sponsored by Chabad in which a leading authority on the Jewish Messiah made a presentation on the real definition of the Messiah and the Messianic Age, to dispel any misconceptions. To my disappointment, there wasn’t anything that new or different presented besides some more speculative details that maybe I hadn’t previously known. My first reaction was how could anyone be so sure of what and how the Messiah was going to do, and what the world was going to be like after the work was done? My other reaction was, so after the Messiah is finished, we all live happily ever after, and that’s it? End of story? I asked the speaker that question afterwards, to which he answered, yes, but he understood that inherent in my question was a question about stagnation, a static state. He further elaborated in his answer that it would not be a stagnant, static state, that there would still be room to grow and expand, but it would just be on a more highly elevated level of mind and intellect, with no concern for being prepossessed with hand-to-mouth, day-to-day survival needs. I still think that this happily-ever-after scenario for the rest of eternity is too far-fetched and over-stated.

I believe that the mystical teachings from many traditions, including Judaism, provide another, and more plausible, answer to the need for Hope. It first starts with a sense of accepting the Now in all of its fullness. “I Was What I Was/I Am That I Am/I Will Be What I Will Be” can also translate as “It Was What It Was/It Is What It Is/It Will Be What It Will Be”. One of the profound descriptions/interpretations of the mass Revelation at Sinai is that everyone attained a highly-elevated spiritual state in which they could see the Perfection of Being Right Now and make sense of it all. Everything that had occurred in the past led inextricably to that current point in time, and everything in the future would inextricably proceed from that point in time. And that would be true for every point in time forever. It was all Perfect right Now and Now and Now. There was nothing to be added and nothing to be taken away. Ah.

But Now, there is also work to be done, so get back to your families, your tents, your asses, etc. and get back to work! The avant-guard artist and musician, John Cage, who operated from an outer limits realm known only to him, once was asked, “Don’t you think there is too much pain and suffering in the world?” To which he responded in a ponderous, deliberate manner, “No, I think there is just the right amount.” Our mysticism reveals to us that we are in a constant state of equilibrium, but it is a dynamic, not a static equilibrium, which is also constantly in motion, constantly in change and flux. At any given time and place, we are exactly where we are meant to be (It Is What It Is), but we are also guaranteed that we won’t be there long. So if we are in need of Hope for any reason, we can be assured that things will change, and while there is always a chance of change for the worse, there is also always a chance of change for the better. But at the same time, at any given moment, everything is perfect, as it always was and will always be. That doesn’t mean we don’t strive and aspire, because that is part of what always is, to strive and aspire and participate in this Grand Scheme, just for the sake of it, because that is all there is to do, and it is always in process. There is no end point of perfection and then the work is done. You never reach the horizon that appears in the far-off distance. You come to realize from a different perspective that you are already standing on the horizon, and carry on from there.

So what about the Messiah? I’m not sure where it first appears in Jewish writings or liturgy, but the Hebrew word is “Moshiach” and is contained near the beginning of the Amidah (one of the most important parts of traditional Jewish liturgy) in reference to God, along with other attributes of God, and is usually translated as “Savior” (the other attributes in this context are Melech/King, Ozer/Helper, and Mogen/Shield). So what is the function of God as Savior? Perhaps, most importantly, is that God saves us from ourselves, the Good Inclination prevailing over the Evil Inclination, our internal enemies. Perhaps God also saves us from perceived external enemies. Ultimately, we return to That from whence we came, to the Divine Source of All, to Paradise. But some kind of Paradise on Earth separate from the Ultimate Paradise, ushered in by the agency of an earthly or other-worldly Messiah, whereby everyone who has died is going to raise up from the dead and physically regenerate their bodies, who is going to build the Third Temple and reinstitute all of the old Temple rituals, including animal sacrifices? I don’t get it, and I don’t buy it. It is certainly not necessary in order for me to have Hope, Meaning or be connected with spirituality. And I certainly don’t think it is necessary in order for me to be a good Jew, with my apologies to Maimonedes.

For the Christians and Messianic Jews who have taken this traditional Jewish ball and run with it, putting their own spin on it, the popular apocalyptic phrase, “End of Days” comes from the Hebrew phrase found in Genesis, “Vayehi Miketz Yamim”, which Jewish scholar Aryeh Kaplan has pointed out literally does translate as “It was the end of days”, but from the context for which it is utilized in the Torah, it has an obvious meaning as usually translated, “An era ended”, or “some time had passed”, or “in the course of time”, without any connotation as a be-all-and-end-all End of Time. It was the end of days of Adam and Eve, the end of days of Noah, etc. It marked a significant benchmark in the passage of time, but not the end of time itself.

So what about Tikkun Olam, this idea of repairing the world articulated, if not originated, by Isaac Luria, and embraced by many across the spectrum of many versions of Judaism? It is premised on a notion that the world is metaphorically (and maybe literally on some mystical literal level) a broken vessel. God made this perfect vessel, but somehow it broke into almost innumerable pieces, and it is our job to find these pieces and repair this broken vessel to bring it back to its proper and intended full glory of perfection. Thus our lives are imbued with grand Meaning, as we are co-creators, co-participants with God in this ongoing process of rebuilding what has been shattered. It is a beautiful, powerful and poetic image. Another traditional Jewish answer provided to the basic existential question of Meaning is that God instituted Creation as an expression of His Glory, and Creation exists for the purpose of praising God by both elevating earth to heaven, and bringing down heaven to earth. That is the purpose of human life and endeavor. It just seems to me that these notions require accepting a heavy dose of doctrinal dogma as a core belief that is just not necessary in order to find Meaning. This is also contrary to the notion discussed above that in one very important sense, everything at any given moment is already Perfect, and we proceed from there. Why do we have to have a core belief containing a premise of things being broken in order to find Meaning? I don’t think it is necessary, and my concern is that holding such a core belief may again generate a perspective and world-view that can lead to unintended, yet unpleasant consequences. Likewise, the traditional notions that we are here to praise God, elevate earth to heaven and bring down heaven to earth are also associated with the related idea that the Jewish people have been chosen for these specific missions for the benefit of not only themselves, but of all of mankind, including to establish a suitable dwelling for God on earth, and to instill the mundane with the Divine, all in proper praise of God and His Glory. It all smacks of overly-serious and over-stated self-importance and self-inflation in light of the perspective that our entire world is akin to the size of a pinhead within the vast expanse of the cosmos. Why does God need our praise? Well, God doesn’t need our praise, it is we who have the need to praise God. And why do we have a need to praise God? Because God created us so that we could praise Him. And so the circular reasoning goes. Bill Maher would not be impressed.

One interesting distinction I have discovered between the inter-related concepts of Hope, discussed earlier, and Meaning, is that Hope seems to wax and wane more depending upon external circumstances. During times of subjugation, oppression, and attempts at forced assimilation or annihilation, Hope in the form of Messianic longing comes forward. In times of relative well-being, focus on the Messiah and the related longing for a perfected utopian world tends to recede into the background. The existential unease caused by a search for Meaning is likely to appear during times of material well-being, when the need for Hope wanes due to relative external comfort, for instance among the beatniks of the 50’s and the hippies of the 60’s, fueled by the observation that many who are materially well-off are still unhappy because of an inner emptiness. During times of severe oppression, the luxury of pondering Meaning and repairing the world is overshadowed and consumed by the struggle to survive. The miserable conditions involved with the struggle to survive get coupled with grasping at the straws of Hope, from which emerges ideas of a Messiah, in order to have something to cling to as a means to emotionally endure.

Another Lurianic idea that parallels the Broken Vessel notion is the idea of Divine Sparks, that contained within all physical manifestations is a spark of Divinity. Our mission, the Meaning to our lives, is first to locate the Divine Spark within us, and then attempt to connect with and enliven the Divine Spark that exists in everything else. This is another beautiful, profound, and poetic expression. I feel a greater affinity with it than the “broken vessel” notion, as it doesn’t rely on the premise that something is broken that needs repair, yet still expresses that there is a common essence originating from the Underlying Unity that we all share by the very fact of our being. For me, it may be a little over-the-top to maintain that we’re not only supposed to discover and connect with these Divine Sparks, but we’re supposed to go one step further and “enliven” them, whatever that means. It seems to carry a flavor of a little bit too much missionary zeal for my liking.

What resonates with me spiritually is a sense of a Grand Scheme that is found in both Eastern and Western mystical traditions, and is consistent with many of the findings and theories of modern science, and even has some relation to traditional religious notions of “God’s Plan”. There are involutionary and evolutionary movements of vibrational energies moving through various degrees and grades into and back out of what we perceive as this manifest physical world. This seems consistent with Jacob’s vision of the ladder of the Tree of Life with its ascending and descending angelic beings. There is a dynamic equilibrium at play, somewhat analogous to the pendulum of a clock moving down a railroad track, but the movements are not always smooth. There can be fits, stops, starts and spurts, consistent with the ideas of quantum leaps, paradigm shifts, ends of eras, ages and epochs. Perhaps we are in the midst of one now, or approaching one, as so many apocalyptic prognosticators from all different realms are claiming. The latest in some circles is that it is coming in 2012. I just think it is overstated as The Last Best Forever Winner Takes All Big One. History tells us that just as there have been many major upheavals in the past, there likely will me many more in the future, so maybe we should just cool our heels a little bit and lighten up.

It is easy enough to conceive of a new level of being in which we wouldn’t need locks or security systems on our homes or businesses, because nobody would even conceive of taking something that didn’t belong to them, invading someone’s privacy, or intentionally doing harm. Isn’t that what is expressed on Christmas Cards every year, portraying the yearning for harmony and peace on earth? It is not that hard to conceive or imagine. It is almost palpable. It seems like all it would take would be a profound, yet subtle shift of some basic energies. Yet there are times that it seems very far off and unattainable.

I have my Hope, based upon my sense that in the long run, I know where I have come from and I know where I am going. As one of my teachers has put it, “Presume no necessary destiny other than Living Light Itself.” That is quite sufficient for me to endure whatever I have to endure. Thank goodness, I don’t know all of the details along the way, but I certainly don’t need as a core belief the dogmatic doctrine encompassed by most common conceptions of The Messiah and a Messianic Age to get me there or to bolster my hope.

I have my Meaning, based upon my deep sense that I am a conscious participant in an Awesome, Wonderfully Intelligent and Intricate Grand Scheme, and my mission is to discover, play out and adapt my part as called upon. Some swings or spurts of the pendulum are not pretty, and can be downright nasty. But as George Harrison has so simply expressed, “All Things Must Pass”; hang around and endure long enough, and things will change, as change is the only constant; change for better, and change for worse. Joseph’s inspired advice to Pharaoh was to prepare for the worst during the times that you are enjoying the best. We are immersed in Infinity and traveling through Eternity. We encounter them at every turn. I don’t need as a core belief some mission that I am repairing a broken world or vessel in order to bolster my meaning. My apologies to Isaac Luria.

In summation, I think there are simple, yet profound, notions we can entertain and relate with in order to find Hope and Meaning. We don’t need the convoluted and complicated notions manufactured by our theologians that rely on the abandonment of reason and wild leaps of faith.

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