The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 1 Dec. 1998


An excerpt from a forthcoming booklet of mine on the essential teachings of Jewish Mysticism.

Spirituality and Intellectuality

What makes mysticism different from conventional religion? A mystic seeks to go beyond belief and observance to actual spiritual experience. It is one thing to believe in God and another thing to experience the sweetness, beauty, and holiness of the Divine Presence. Why was Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, able to revive Judaism? Not just because he was a "good talker" or because he developed a new conceptual scheme, but because in his own life and experience, he showed and proved that the promises of Jewish Mysticism for spiritual fulfillment were true: He achieved exalted levels of holiness and goodness and reached awesome mystical states of consciousness.

A Psalm says: "Taste and see that the Lord is good." Many people are attracted to mysticism because at some point in their lives -- often at the beginning of their spiritual quest -- they were given a taste of mystical consciousness. They experi- enced transcendent moments when they felt harmony, love, and so on. Depending on a person's religious and spiritual consciousness, he may or may not relate this experience to God. But at those moments he was actually aware of and felt God's presence. Many people experience, throughout their lives, occasional exalted moments -- perhaps with an intimate loved one or in the synagogue or alone, out in Nature -- when they feel close to God and His creation. But often it does not occur to them that these moments can be reproduced and extended, that the exalted consciousness and spiritual perspective they represent can last hours, days, or weeks. Indeed, there are holy people who live their lives in such exalted states of consciousness.

A person should understand the significance of these peak moments, for their purpose is to give him a taste of a deeper and sweeter reality, which he should work to make a part of his normal everyday consciousness. Often, when people first begin to become religious, and are filled with a fresh fervor and devotion, God lifts up the veil briefly to give them a glimpse of His light, but then that light is withdrawn so that they will work to recover it by their own efforts.

The Baal Shem Tov told a parable about this, comparing it to a person who enters a candy store. The shop keeper, to sell his merchandise, lets the customer taste some of the candies. But when he would like to try more, the shopkeeper tells him: "From now on you have to pay. At first I gave you a taste so that you'd know how good everything is. Now that you see you like it, you have to pay for more candy. I didn't treat you for no purpose!" So does God give a person a taste of the sweetness of the Hidden Light. But, after that taste, he must "pay," he must work hard to achieve and earn that delight in the future, to make it a spiritual possession, to win mystical consciousness.

According to a traditional mystic expression, God fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds, and there is no place where He is not present. But early hasidic writings repeatedly contrast those who merely know and believe this and those who experience it. A typical hasidic tale relates:

    Rabbi Elijah, the great Vilna Gaon, who strongly opposed Hasidism, had a relative who was a hasid of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. Once, when this hasid returned from a visit to his rebbe, he went to the home of his relative, the Vilna Gaon, who asked him why he needed to visit a hasidic rebbe. He was an accomplished Torah scholar himself; what did he need a rebbe for?

    The hasid relative answered, "One visits a rebbe to know that there is a Creator!"

    "How can you say that?" replied the Gaon. "We can call over my maid and ask her if there is a Creator. She also knows that there is a Creator and Ruler of the world!"

    "She knows that there is a God," replied the hasid, "but I actually experience His presence!"

Here are many levels of mystical or spiritual attainment and experience. The goal, however, is to not simply talk about these things but to attain them. The teachings of Jewish mysticism must not remain mere concepts and matters of scholarship; spiritually-oriented Jews should aspire to fulfill and experience mystical goals in their lives.

But there are barriers to our progress. One of these is a common and unfortunate confusion in Jewish religous life between spirituality and intellectuality. Many Jews are intellectual and they love to study. Intellect and study help a person in his attempt to become religious and spiritual. It shows the way. But then one must fulfill the teachings.

When taking a trip, you have to carefully check the map to know where to go, but after that is done, what you have to do is to get in the car and go. Torah study tells you where and how to go; but then you have to go. If you don't go, you won't get there.

One valuable way to understand the difference between spirituality and intellectuality is by considering the difference between perception and conception. Our senses and sense organs perceive and our minds conceive. Sense perception directly contacts the world. What the mind does is only systematize and organize sense data. It is only indirect knowledge of the world; it adds nothing new.

The spiritual goal we should seek is not of the senses or of the mind but spiritual perception, a direct intuitive recognition of spiritual realities, which is similar in ways to sense perception. Sense perception makes direct contact with the outside aspect of objects in the world. Spiritual perception contacts the inner reality of everything in the world, which is divinity. There is only One; there is nothing else but God. According to hasidic teaching, the path of the Baal Shem Tov is: Everything is God; God is everything.

Normal rational thinking involves a different part of the mind than the intuitive and perceptual part and can impede spiritual perception. When davvening or meditating, one is not interested in thinking. One must go beyond thinking and actually meet God.

When I was first returning to Judaism in my mid-twenties, I was taking classes in Boston with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. I was very impressed with Shlomo. At that time I had gone from being an atheist to an agnostic. I had come to realize that God is not like an object about which one asks: "Does it exist?" That was not the right question about God.

So, during one question-and-answer session after a class, I said to Shlomo, "Shlomo, I've never met God." Shlomo replied, "Brother, I'd like to introduce you." And he did. That must be our goal: to meet God.

We need a direct and immediate awareness of God's closeness and presence. When a person's eyes are opened spiritually, he sees that there is nothing other than God, blessed be He. Everything that exists is continuously emanating from God. The mystic has direct realization of this; he actually sees that all existence is alive with divine vitality and that the Divine Presence is everywhere.

Jews with spiritual aspirations need to move beyond their intellect. They must understand the difference between intellectuality and spirituality. One virtue of Judaism is its strong intellectuality. We have a great tradition of religious learning.

Jews are often intelligent and intellectual. This is an attractive part of Judaism. But it has its downside, because although intellectuality helps a person become spiritual up to a point, after that, it hinders. Intellectuality helps a person see that there are higher goals in life than materialism and worldly success. But even after studying Torah, a person must seek real spiritual experience. He must go beyond study to the fulfillment of action and experience.

May God help us to meet Him.

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Copyright 2004-2005, Yitzhak Buxbaum. All rights reserved.