Thursday, December 20, 2007

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Perennialism

(Picture by Elana Chaya)

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.


At December 20, 2007 at 7:03:00 AM EST, Blogger Gandalin said...

Rabbi Sears, this is a very nice and thoughtful post. There is something to both perennialism and constructionism. The human condition presents each and every one of us with some of the same horizons: birth, death, a bilaterally symmetric vertebrate body, male or female sex, a sun that rises in the east and sets in the west, the moon with its phases, the process of eating and digestion, and so on and so forth. All human societies have to take those factors into account, and all spiritual or religious traditions are expressed more or less in terms of those horizons. So it would not be surprising if there did appear to be certain similarities. It may even be that the experience of the human soul reaching upwards towards the Divine is more or less similar in all spiritual or religious traditions. We all live in the same material world, and within the same framework of the same heavens. On the other hand, we all come to consciousness through the medium of one of those spiritual or religious traditions, and it is indeed difficult to know if what we experience inside is the same as what someone from another tradition experiences inside. So the constructionists have a point, too. (Without going too far into philosophic digressions on intersubjectivity.) There are indeed important differences. The Jewish tradition differs, for example from the Buddhist tradition, which you have so respectfully and carefully described in the past week, in that there is in the Jewish tradition, in addition to the search of the human soul for its Divine Source, the actual self-exposure or revelation of that Divine Source to the human soul. That the Jewish path is appropriate, and particularly appropriate for the Jewish people, can be deduced from the fact that it was explicitly revealed and given to us by Hashem.

At December 20, 2007 at 8:11:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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..." Come on Rabbi David !!! First of all, let me say I love you and really appreciate your posts and insights... But why "etc.." should be written instead of "Rabbi Shhneur Zalman, haTzemah Tzedek, and the last Lubavitcher Rebbe...

At December 20, 2007 at 8:47:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...

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.)

this is one of the subjects of Today's Tanya.

At December 20, 2007 at 9:42:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Addendum to ending:

"as well as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Mittler Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, and all the Chabad rebbes including the last Lubavitcher Rebbe..."

Is that better?

At December 20, 2007 at 2:25:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Gandalin: Could you please contact me via e-mail? Thanks.

At December 20, 2007 at 3:40:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabbi Dovid, that's now perfect!! Really always enjoyed your posts... a gud shabess !!!

At December 20, 2007 at 6:43:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful posting as always! Thank you!

At December 20, 2007 at 9:52:00 PM EST, Blogger Gandalin said...

Dear Rabbi Sears, please let me ask you a different question. We know that Rav Soloveitchik was against any sort of theological dialogue with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, and I am wondering whether you think that his avoidance of that kind of philosophical "confrontation" should also apply to other traditions, traditions which have had very little contact with Yiddishkeit, such as Ch'an Buddhism, and which do not have a difficult history of contending with and then trying to suppress Yiddishkeit?

At December 20, 2007 at 10:21:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If other paths happen to overlap with the Jewish path here and there, well and good. However, each other path contains characteristic concepts foreign to the true, Jewish understanding of the world, man's duties in it, and its Creator. When such misconceptions threaten to, or actually do, take root among Jews, our spiritual leaders need to refute them appropriately. Otherwise, our leaders' engagement with these foreign ideas (and, all the more so, ours) seems pointless.

At December 20, 2007 at 10:24:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Above, I should have written "(and, all the more so, our engagement with these)", for greater clarity.

At December 20, 2007 at 10:36:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabbi Golshevsky

Thanks for the chizuk! I see that you are doing great work in Eretz Yisrael and via your website "A Fire Burns in Breslov."


Thanks for your kind words, too.

As for Rav Solveitchik's shittah, I believe that he was speaking about person-to-person interfaith dialogue, which he (like other Gedolim) feared would be used for covert missionary efforts, or at least pro-missionary PR.

To extend this to intellectual and scholarly pursuits doesn't sound like the Rav, who was an expert in Western philosophy. This was one of the controversial things for which he was criticized by more traditionalist rabbonim.

Not only were members of the Sandhedrin required to be baki in these inyanim, but many sages in Jewish history ventured into these realms for constructive purposes, among them Rav Yaakov Emden, Rav Eliyahu Benamozegh, and Rav Kook.

But this does not mean that this field of study is shava le-khol nefesh!

At December 21, 2007 at 11:40:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father,who is a university professor who has taught comparative religions for many decades, told me that the idea of the "perennial philosophy" -- the alleged shared core belief system of the great religious systems-- is not taken seriously by scholars. It is a mistaken (and ethnocentric) conception of the beatniks.

At December 26, 2007 at 8:03:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Son of Comparative Religion Prof:

The Tibetan Dzogchen and Japanese Zen (mahamudra) traditions assert that the realizations they transmit are of a perennial nature. This has nothing to do with the beatniks.

In a linear historical way, the Jewish tradition that all prophecy goes back to a common root in the early generations of humankind is also a kind of perennialism -- and even possibly in a prophetic or mystical sense. We don't really know what they were teaching in the yeshivah of Shem v'Ever... Tzorech iyun!

At December 30, 2007 at 4:25:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perenially Uncertain

I think that "mahamudra," too, is a Tibetan practice, according to what I have read in researching this subject. But there is such a shared feeling in the Zen world.

Some Sufis also believe that their core teachings and practices are universal (although most probably would disagree, or at least have a more nuanced view of this).

So you're right, this can't be dismissed as an invention of the beatniks.

(Not that I necessarily object to the beats, without whose influence most American Orthodox Jewish men still might not be wearing beards -- take a look at the Agudath Israel convention photos from the late 40s-early 50s!)

The point you raised about the yeshivah of Shem v'Ever is very interesting.

The Midrash describes Ever as a "great prophet" who named his children by ruach ha-kodesh (Bereishis Rabbah, 37:10 -- or 7 in some editions).

On the verse that states "And he went to inquire of G-d..." the Midrash states that this could only mean the study house of Shem and Ever.

There are other mekoros that connect the yeshivah of Shem v'Ever to prophecy, too (Bereishis Rabbah 85, 13 -- or 12 in some editions; etc.).

And we know that according to the Gemara in Nedarim 32b, Shem is identical with Malki-Tzedek, King and Kohen-Priest of Shalem (later Jerusalem), who blessed Avraham Avinu (Bereishis 14:18-20).

So it sounds like the mysteries of prophecy were probably the main curriculum of the yeshivah where Yaakov Avinu studied...

At December 31, 2007 at 12:23:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reb Dovid and Perennially Uncertain--

Most (maybe all, I wonder) religions prefer to view themselves as heir to a universal ancient wisdom.

My father taught me that there are stages in comprehending something new. The first stage is where you recognize things in the new material that are similar to things you already know. This is necessary to begin to come to grips with new knowledge. The danger inherent in this stage is that you might begin to think that you already know all the new material. This would mean that you will not really learn anything new at all.

It's only when you go more deeply into the new system, and give up your projections on to it, that your eyes are truly opened and you realize it really is teaching you something you didn't already know--something really new. Only then are you truly learning.

Those who believe in the Perennial Philosophy are at the first stage. They haven't grasped the profound, radical, core differences between the great religious systems, says my father.

Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, are not teaching the same thing at all about reality. They may both claim lineage from a universal wisdom, but the content of their version of it is actually profoundly distinct.

In the particular case of the 'Perennial Philosophy,' the form this alleged universal wisdom took was the product of Western counterculture.

At December 31, 2007 at 2:46:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this articulate clarification, which is consistent with what I remember of Steven Katz's position. As I said when the boat left the dock, I really don't know where the truth lies. But I guess the bottom line for perennialists by temperament, if not by philosophy (like myself), is that one can't "dance at all weddings." Like many mystical systems, the Kabbalah points toward an enlightenment experience, which it describes in its own terms. As a Breslover, I can supply a few footnotes from the seforim I know best; but I'm sure these ideas may be found all over the place in "pnimiyus ha-Torah." To arrive at the goal, the wise student will follow the path of his teachers / Rebbes, and not try to mix teachings from multiple systems -- in which case he doesn't have any teacher or Rebbe at all but himself.

At November 19, 2008 at 10:51:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I found this Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's book, Letters to a Buddhist Jew.

In it, he mentioned that there are some similarities between Buddhism and Judaism and other religions and philosophies. He pointed to the verse in parshas Chayei Sarah:

"Abraham gave everything that he had to Isaac. And to the children of Abraham's concubines, Abraham gave gifts, then he sent them from Isaac his son, while he was still alive, eastward to the land of the east" (Bereishis 25:5-6).

How could Abraham give everything he had to Isaac, and then still have gifts to give to the children of his concubines? This would have been impossible if 'gifts' referred to physical possessions, so the 'gifts' must have been intellectual and spiritual, because such gifts can be given over and over again.

Thus we find many kernels of Judaism scattered throughout the faiths of the East. And that is why studying these faiths is so perilous to a Jew. Recognizing in these faiths something that the angel taught him in his mother's womb, a Jew might become ensnared by them and accept other ideas from those faiths that are alien to Judaism. History has shown that the most potent and misleading ideas are those mixed in with truth, and that is why a Jew must be careful not to delve too deeply into them unless he is very strong in his own faith.


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