Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Perennialism
Mystics from all sorts of times and places seem to describe similar things. Do you think there might be a universal mystical experience at the core of all religion?
I really have no idea. Some people who have had these experiences are convinced of this. I would like to know the answer with every fiber of my being -- but I’m still slogging my way through the reek!
As for the scholars who talk about this issue, I never studied comparative religion, and only picked up a little knowledge here and there, in the course of researching different topics and through dialogue with people of different backgrounds. But I know that the idea you mentioned is the basis of the view known as “mystical perennialism,” popularized by Alduos Huxley’s “Perennial Philosophy” (which I read when I was still young and searching for a derekh). Nigel Wellings writes: “What characterizes Huxley's perennialism is the conviction that the single Truth of the perennial philosophy can be found at the heart of the mystical teachings of the world religious traditions”. The opposite view, called “constructionism,” contends that each religion and spiritual system is unique to its devotees in their specific culture and belief-system, and we can’t make facile equivalences. I once saw an essay that took this position by a brilliant academic named Steven Katz, who heads the Jewish studies department at Boston University.
First of all, for a frum person the study of other religions is a she’eiloh in halakhah. Because it can be a double-edged sword. For one person, it might be a way of finding the truth, while for another, it might be a way of becoming even more confused. (There may be heterim, though – ask your local Posek.)
In Rabbi Nachman’s story “The Master of Prayer,” he describes in mythic terms how the world became divided into different sects with divergent ideas about the meaning of life. One group chose happiness, another chose wealth, still another chose wisdom, etc. However, the Rebbe didn’t want to tell his followers any of the reasons behind the dogmas of these various groups, because they were so sophisticated that he knew that even his followers could be ensnared by them (see Likkutei Halakhos, Tefillah 4:2). Now, the Rebbe’s close talmidim were all great Torah scholars and ovdei Hashem, whose devotions were quite awesome. How much more so would this danger apply to people like ourselves!
The Rebbe states in Torah 64 that if a person’s emunah (faith) is strong enough, he can transcend the Chalal HaPanui, the “Vacated Space” that is the source of all erroneous ideas about reality. But it has to be very strong – emunah at the level of the Ohr Ein Sof, the Infinite Light. Then he is connected beyond the dualistic realm, then he can get through the spiritual Bermuda Triangle unscathed.
In another lesson, the last public teaching he delivered two and a half weeks before he passed away, the Rebbe described the stages by which the Final Redemption would unfold. Converts and baalei teshuvah begin to increase, then prophecy is restored, the Song of the Future World is sung / heard by all creatures, the holiness of Eretz Yisrael extends throughout the earth, etc. The last thing he mentions is the perfection of faith – because this is actually the highest level. Faith is not just where we begin, but where we end up. Until then, we can easily be misled. So we have to be careful.
The bottom line is the “mission statement” of A Simple Jew: “tamim tehiyeh, be simple!” All we have to do is follow the guidance of the awesome tzaddikim who paved the way for us: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the ARI zal, the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezeritch, Reb Pinchos Koretzer, the Kedushas Levi, the “ohr ha-oros” Reb Nachman, etc., They knew their way through these dark forests. If there is a universal core experience that we share with all religions and spiritual paths, G-d willing, in the zekhus and ko’ach of the tzaddikim, we’ll get there. And if not, we’ll still arrive wherever we truly belong.