Opening to the Mystery

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October 5, 2009
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Eitan P. Fishbane

If, as Plato and Aristotle suggested, human nature is characterized fundamentally by the ability to reason, by the rational processes that distinguish us from other animals, it is equally true that we are a species blessed with the ability to intuit a dimension that lies beyond rationality, beyond the arguments that the logical mind can assert. For in addition to our remarkable ability to solve the puzzles and problems of empirical reality, to employ our rational faculties in the service of human understanding, and in pursuit of the good — we are also filled with a sense of the mysterious character of life and Being, with an awareness that there is so much that eludes our capable rational minds. This powerful sensation vibrates in the soul of the visual artist, the poet, and the musician. And the immediacy of this intuition beats in the heart of the mystic, irrespective of his or her religious tradition and affiliation. It is an eruption of Presence — divine, otherworldly. It is a moment of spiritual revelation, when the overwhelming power of the ungraspable rushes into the terrain of an everyday moment, transforming the ordinary into a sanctuary of wonder.

This sense of mystery is captured by Walt Whitman in one of the greatest paeans to nature in all of American verse. A lyric celebration of the grass and the earth (situated within his song of individuality, of sensuality), Leaves of Grass is the poet’s reflection on the power of an encounter with the natural world to evoke that palpable awe, that awareness that there are certain deep elements of our experience that resist our ability to explain and to quantify; these elements stand before us instead as markers of the transcendent located radiantly in the domain of the here-and-now. In Whitman’s description of the touch of grass, the feel and sensuality of the natural world opens the heart of the innocent; it mystifies the poet who comes before the wonders of the earth as a supplicant in religious devotion. The object of experience is elusive, unknown, and impenetrable; it awakens love in the embrace of the naturalist, it suggests the ethereal presence of Divinity someway in the corners. The poet stands in the radiant temple of grass and soil with hands opened in prayer, with a mind alert to the world’s majesty and a quest for the sacred.

The mystic shares in the perception of the poet, in the intuition of the artist, and in the inspiration received by the maker of music. Across the spectrum of religious traditions, and within Judaism in particular, the mystic approaches the world as a reality charged with concealed meaning and purpose — life as we know it is just the outer surface of Being, so much more glows beneath the rim of first glances, beyond the edge of our rational minds. Every element of the world holds a trace of Divinity, serves as a marker for the sublime and the transcendent. The spiritual seeker enters through these doors of perception, these portals into a transformed state of consciousness; from the forms and things of this earth we are led to the upper chambers of Divine light. Mi-besari ehezeh elohah, says Job. “From my flesh I will see God.” The physical is the opening into the metaphysical; through this world and its embodied nature we come to understand the spiritual depth that lies within.

This is one of the core meanings of the kabbalistic use of the word sod (secret), and of its Aramaic rendering as raza in the pages of the Zohar. To the mystic, the world is wrapped in a garment of mystery: from out of the darkness of an infinite expanse there comes the spark of illumination, the promise of ultimate perception. The words of the Torah, the life of mitzvot, the rhythms and shapes of the natural domain — these vibrate with the force of Divinity, veils of otherworldly incandescence. And we who come before the mystery of the All, aware of a depth beyond our grasp — we stand in the open field of a new twilight air that streams into us with the rush of solar birth. We can feel the immensity of Being on our shoulders — the weight of the past, the present at once sublime and tragic, the hope for a future, some unseen redemption. In this fragile and mortal body there is a mystery almost unspeakable; it is the realization that our time is fleeting and soon gone, that many have walked this path before us, only to return to the absorbing oneness of the earth — mute, perhaps remembered, and then speaking to us in the texts that survive.

The Zohar and other kabbalistic texts frequently represent the moments of mystical experience and insight as a flash of lightning, as a blinding radiance that consumes the present, and then, in an instant, is gone — leaving the person in a state of wondrous confusion, touched by the light of God, cloaked in the mystery that brims with the intrigue of birth and death. What is before, and what will be after? From where does this evanescent self emerge, and what will be left of us in the time to come?  Standing in prayer, eyes closed and heart open, we may feel the chasm of mystery that fills all of Being — the presence of God that is not a father, not a king, but a fullness: a light that revives the soul and brings us back to our distant center.

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Dr. Eitan P. Fishbane is assistant professor of Jewish Thought at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He is the author of As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist (Stanford University Press).

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