Authentic Mysticism vs. McMysticism

A true Jewish mystic doesn’t need to use hype or self-promotion like  Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri’s snake-oil charms. Any self-respecting Kabbalist shouldn’t live for the next photo-op.

Martin Buber has always been a great inspiration to me. His views on Jewish mysticism are grounded in the interpersonal realm of the ethical. We meet God when we respect the Other who is before us. Emmanuel Levinas expresses a similar thought in many of his writings as well, but Buber still remains my favorite.

Historically, people have often tried to control God through any kind of magical means at their disposal. The scriptural prohibition against making graven images is predicated upon the belief that man can control God; only in one’s imagination is such an absurd thought possible. Buber touches on this theme in a number of different works, but in the interest of time, I will cite one of my favorite quotes Buber is best known for concerning the danger of gnosis and magic that I think cuts to the heart of our problem today among certain types of hucksters like Rabbi Batzri.

“The two spiritual powers of gnosis and magic, masquerading under the cloak of religion, threaten more than any other powers the insight into the religious reality, into man’s dialogical situation. They do not attack religion from the outside; they penetrate into religion, and once inside it, pretend to be its essence. Because Judaism has always had to hold them at bay and to keep separate from them, its struggle has been largely internal. This struggle has often been misunderstood as a fight against myth. But only an abstract-theological monotheism can do without myth, and may even see it as its enemy; living monotheism needs myth, as all religious life needs it, as the specific form in which its central events can be kept safe and lastingly remembered and incorporated. Continue reading “Authentic Mysticism vs. McMysticism”

Adding Misogyny to a Modern List of the “Seven Deadly Sins”

Yesterday, I began teaching a new miniseries at St. Ambrose College on the Seven Deadly Sins. With thirty + students in the class, we had some great discussions. One of the assignments I gave the students was to think about composing a more modern list of the Seven Deadly Sins. Well, I started composing my own list and at the chief of the list today, I would have to say misogyny probably is one of the most serious sins of our age–and who could deny its ubiquitous effects?

In Turkey today, the Turkish police discovered a grizzly sight.  They discovered the body of a young 16 year old girl who was buried alive by her relatives in the city of Adiyaman, southeastern Turkey. Her name for the moment remains for now, anonymous. The police found her body in a  sitting position with her hands tied, in a two-metre hole dug under a chicken pen outside her home in Kahta. Police believe it was an honor killing because she “shamed” her family by talking to teenage boys. So far, the father and and grandfather  have been arrested and held in custody pending trial.  The girl’s mother was arrested but was later released. An autopsy shows that she was alive and conscious as she was being buried. Even more shocking is the fact that 200 such honor killings take place in Turkey a year. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that the annual worldwide total of honor-killing victims may be as high as 5,000, however even these statistics may not reveal the actual number of cases since most families who commit these crimes do not  exactly volunteer information to the local census Bureau.

When I discussed the incident with my good friend named Gloria, who lives in San Fransisco, she made several some poignant remarks relevant to our story.

What punishment was given to the boys who she supposedly consorted with? Probably nothing…fits right in with what I was saying about how men feel they have to control women at any cost…even to destroy one’s own child if she gives any appearance of impropriety. No issue is as important to men as that of controlling the sexuality or what passes for the sexuality of women…I got that message loud and clear when the orthodox rabbi once told me to stop singing…you probably remember how that ended up…I told the imperialistic rabbi at a boy’s hair cutting event I attended once (I also recall how he likened the boy’s hair to the first fruits. Really? Since when is hair a fruit?!) to wear ear plugs or to leave if he could not stand how he was aroused by the sound of my voice. It is always the men who want to control the women. As far as charm goes, these men have nothing to worry about, for it is highly unlikely any women will find these men the least bit appealing. ”

My friend Gloria also thinks one of the reasons why men hate women so much in these cultures is because men are wholly dependent upon women for their lives. Without a mother, they could not exist; they depend upon a mother’s care for the most vulnerable part of their lives. In addition, a woman’s sexual ability far exceeds a male, making these men feel inferior in so many other ways. So, they commit themselves to controlling the feminine because they resent their dependency on women. The image of God as “Father,” may indirectly contribute the exploitation of women, according to some scholars.

Carl G. Jung writes that every man has a feminine aspect to his personality that is in touch with the  inner feminine side of a man he refers to as the “anima,”that is always present in the unconscious of the male. The “anima,” stands in contrast to the animus, which represents masculine characteristics. Assertive women, according to Jung, are generally more in touch with the masculine aspect of their hidden personalities.

Misogyny is a transcultural and transhistorical phenomena. Among many religious societies, we see how gender barriers tend to be reified and rigid. Men are men, and women are women; a psychological integration of the genders is considered taboo because it is so threatening to the  diminished male ego.  Consequently, when we observe the conflicts in Israel between the Haredi, Hassidic communities and the secular world, in almost every instance we find men attempting to control the women of their lives; weak people with puny egos will always try to exert power over people they perceive to be “weaker” than themselves. Continue reading “Adding Misogyny to a Modern List of the “Seven Deadly Sins””

Respecting the Human Face

Martin Gilbert in his book on the Holocaust tells the story about a young sixteen year-old named Zvi Michalowski. On September 27, 1941, Zvi was supposed to be executed with 3,000 other Lithuanian Jews. He had fallen into the pit a fraction of a second before the Nazis shot their guns. That night, he crept out of the pit, and fled to the closest village. He knocked on a door of a peasant, who saw this naked man, covered with blood. He begged the elderly widow and said: “I am Lord Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in.” The widow threw herself at his feet and begged for forgiveness and she hid him for three days. The young man managed to survive as a partisan (The Holocaust, [London and New York, 1986]) 200f.

One cannot help but compare this anecdote to the passage one of the most famous of the pastoral parables:

“You may remember, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ ” (Matthew 25:35-40).

What does the human face say to me when no words are ever verbally said? The human face says, “Look at me; treat me with humanity; I am like you.” In the parable of Jesus, the 1st century rabbi gently reminds his disciples that kindness and compassion must find tangible expression in the language of good deeds.

When we look at the children who Hitler killed in the millions, what do their faces say to us from their pictures? The human face, as you know, is capable of almost infinite expressions; the face is the mirror to the soul. According to the French philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas, the human face always challenges us to respond ethically toward others. No commandment even need be given, when I see the human face looking back at me, I cannot deny his humanity without destroying my own in the process. In the age of push-button warfare, it is so easy to kill millions without ever having to look at the human face that commands us to be aware of our mutual humanity.

Remembering the victims of the Holocaust must be more than a brief recollection. The act of memory in the Bible is always dynamic as it is transformative. How we remember the death of the six million is important, for as the philosopher George Santayana said, “He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it.” But are we really faced with a similar menace like the Jews were in the days that led to the Holocaust? Most certainly!

The ghost of Adolf Hitler is alive in well in Iran’s dictator Mahmud Ahmadinejad—whose Holocaust denial is has made him a cult-hero to many of his fellow religious fanatics—even as he develops the nuclear weapons to someday create a new Holocaust in Israel. The world cannot afford to take a passive or indifferent attitude toward the one country that has done more to export international terror than any other terrorist organization in the last several decades. No other country in the civilized world has vowed to wipe another country off the map like Iran’s leaders. Yes, the human face demands a response. But how we ultimately respond to the bellicose threats of this demented regime will determine the fate of millions in the world today.

As always, the choice is in our hands.

How does one build an “I and Thou” relationship?

Q, I am currently working on my thesis for an MA in counseling psychology. My thesis is on applying Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” relationship to the therapeutic situation. Although deceptively simple, an I – Thou relationship seems to have many elusive characteristics about it.

How does one build an “I and Thou” relationship?

A: Before answering your question “How does one build an “I and Thou” relationship?”, I think it is important to first answer the question: What is the “I and Thou” relationship? For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Buber’s concept of the ““I and Thou”,” here is a brief synopsis:

It is believed by many scholars that Buber is said to have influenced general culture more than any other Jewish thinker since the times of the prophets. Paradoxically, his own contribution to Judaism pales in comparison to the impact he has exerted in Christian theology as well as psychotherapy in general. In a sense, this is indeed tragic, for Buber intuited one of Judaism’s most profound teachings concerning revelation: the ““I and Thou”.” Though he wasn’t the most observant Jew, I do think Buber’s “I and Thou” will neatly fit within a Halachic lifestyle and philosophy.

A piece of biographical might serve to make this matter clearer. For a good part of Buber’s life he was involved heavily in the study and practice of mysticism. Many types of mysticism posit the belief that man must find his purpose in being absorbed in the Divine. Mysticism involves lost of self, a quiescence of the soul of man. To Buber, the mystic was one who surrendered his individuality. It was only later Buber came to reject this brand of mysticism.

One autumn morning, Buber experienced what he believed to be a powerful mystical experience. On a July day in 1914, a young man named Mehe’ soon to enter the army came to see him for guidance. Those were difficult days. Buber politely answered all of his guest’s questions. After the young man left, Buber felt troubled. Although he answered most of his questions, he felt that in has self-centered happiness he ignored the unarticulated question that was really troubling the young man, who didn’t know how to express his soulful query. Shortly afterwards, the young man died in battle. Though Buber managed to convince his guest of the God of the philosophers, he felt that he failed to teach him about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Buber’s private joy kept him from being intimate with the stranger. This incident led Buber to abandon mysticism as a way of dealing with the reality of the world.

This experience led Buber to reflect on the mystery and dynamics of dialogue. Buber wrote: “There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent – where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them.”

Genuine dialogue, in Buber’s understanding goes beyond an exchange of words or information and establishes a mutual living relation between the dialogue partners. Authentic dialogue in this understanding is more than just a possibility in life: it is the deepest and basic way persons develop, how human life unfolds and evolves. To Buber, understanding the nature of relationship to others is essential if we are to develop an authentic human existence,

Buber pointed towards the basic dialogical dimension of human life and rejected every attempt to explain human reality in a purely I-centered interpretation: “There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and the I of the primary word I-It.” The I of the human being cannot develop without fellow human beings and the world around it, but comes into existence always through experience and relation. In the meeting with the world and fellow human beings it is, according to Buber, the attitude of the human being that plays a decisive role in the event of the two primary words I-Thou or I-It: “To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.”

This sentence about the correlation of the attitude of the human being and his experience of and relation to the world is the introductory sentence in Martin Buber’s poetic-philosophical work “I and Thou” , the first of his writings in which his dialogical thinking comes clearly to expression. It is the attitude of the human being which is co-decisive for the expression of either the sphere of I-It or I-Thou.

In the meeting of “I and Thou”, for Buber, the walls which the human beings construct thus separating one from the other are abolished, frontiers which imprison him in his ‘Weltanschauungen’ and separate him from his fellow human beings. In the thinking of Buber, the I-centered dimension of human life is the It – world of the primary word I – It, where the human being clamps himself to the armor of his concepts and systems without meeting the last and deepest dimension of human life, isolating himself from his fellow human beings and the world around him. This limiting isolation is overcome according to Buber in the Thou – world of the primary word I – Thou, in the meeting of “I and Thou”. In this meeting the human being becomes a person in the face of the Other , real dialogue takes place and the eternal Thou of God speaks to the human being in the reality of the world.

The essence of the meeting of “I and Thou” happens in the sphere of the between. This is for Buber a primal category of human reality. According to Buber, what is essential does not take place in each of the participants or in a neutral world which includes the two and all other things; but it takes place between them in the most precise sense, as it were in a dimension which is accessible only to them both.”

The event of the between is, as Buber sees it, a phenomenon which is not sufficiently explicable in psychological or sociological terms. For Buber it is an ontological event.

In poetical but nevertheless precise language, Buber describes his ontological understanding of the between: the dialogical situation can be adequately grasped only in an ontological way. But it is not to be comprehended in purely ontological categories pertaining to the nature of being of personal existence, or of that of two personal existences, but of that which has its being between them, and transcends both. On the far side of the subjective, on this side of the objective, on the narrow ridge, where “I and Thou” meet, there is the realm of ‘between’.” What transpires in the realm of the “between” determines how the Divine unfolds in our discovery of God within the Other. I should add that Emmanuel Levinas develops this particular theme much more clearly throughout his writings. Encompassing and transcending both, “I and Thou”, in the midst of the between, is the presence of the eternal Thou –Buber’s metaphor for God.

Buber came to realize that meaning come from what transpires between two people. Ideas, even spiritual ecstasy per se, and rationalism are no substitute for a direct person-to-person encounter. All meaningful God-human relationships are forged through the medium of encounter, not in the self-satisfaction of a mystical experience. The Eternal Thou is also present is present in every “ordinary” Thou we encounter in the course of a day. The spiritual-minded person must learn to see the Divine Thou is yearning to unfold within his neighbor as we shall soon see.

I and It — The Relationship of Utility

There is a big difference between the knowing of an object vis-à-vis the knowledge of person. Buber describes the knowledge of objects as an example of an “I and It” type of relationship. This type of relationship is based on the scientific knowledge of the thing comprehended. The object can be quantified, observed and manipulated at will. The person deliberately places a distance between the object being observed and himself. The level of encounter is invariably seen whenever one deals with a bureaucracy for bureaucracies aim to depersonalize the people who fall under its sway. In such a world, the only reality that matters is the realm of the “I and It.”

That is not to say that an “I and It” relationship is somehow inherently bad in and of itself. Science especially uses knowledge and objectivity to analyze and comprehend the world. Scientific reductionism to its credit has done a remarkable job in making the world a healthier place. Without an “I and It” relationship, many discoveries in medicine and other disciplines might not have developed as early as they did. Without the I and It relationship, humankind would have fallen prey to magic and superstition; he would have become a denizen of a demon-haunted world. The problem arises when the I and It relationship affects all of our relationships. When it does, our lives become very insular and lonely indeed!

In a capitalistic society such as ours, we become “consumers” whose whole lives are dedicated to the pursuit of utility and consumption. We are focused and intent not on consuming in order to live, but on living in order to consume. As Americans, we are a nation of consumers and consumption is our way of life. The spiritual problem consumerism poses is that we tend to see life and relationships (physical, emotional and spiritual) in terms of the I and It — the philosophy of utility.

The I and It relationship and wield a very destructive power that cannot see, nor understand, the Thou that of a blind, egoistic, basic attitude, which does not understand, nor sees, nor loves the Other, the Thou, is manifested. With the background of such destructively, but also remembering the genuine understanding of the Other in dialogue, remembering the true meetings contributing to the development of the persons in dialogue.

Discovering the “I and Thou”

Let’s say you go to your wife to discuss something important, and all the time you are talking, she is observing your mascara, or your lipstick, or your unkempt hair. Such an encounter can be very frustrating, since one feels shut off from this person’s love and attention. Here’s another example: People will often ask their neighbor “How are you feeling today?” and yet when they ask the question, their minds are certainly elsewhere. You know that if you try saying how you really feel, the other person will simply ignore you, so you merely reply “fine.” Even though there is some measure of social contact, genuine communication is at a bare minimum.

To experience Buber’s “I and Thou”, one must be willing to really open up to the other person. Here’s another analogy: Let’s say you’re talking a friend who really cares about your welfare and happiness. A genuine friend is emotionally present with the person he’s with. You may be inarticulate in expressing what is deeply on your mind. Your tongue is stuck to the palate of your mouth, yet you know that your friend is really listening to you. You know that his heart is attuned to your needs. This is certainly an encounter. “I and Thou” relationships frequently transcend words. Relationship demands participation, but not distance; the “I and Thou” demands the giving of heart and presence. Buber was convinced that no meaningful relationship can occur between two people if there as high degree of personal detachment. As human beings, we all share the need to have our existence confirmed and validated.

Moreover, Buber uses the “I and Thou” to describe a relationship that is intimate and personal. In such a meeting may be characterized by vulnerability, affirmation and being essentially nonjudgemental and understanding. With every authentic ” and Thou” there is a profound disclosure and revelation of the Other person. Martin Buber was convinced that life’s most “ordinary” daily encounters with people may provide the setting for appreciative spiritual growth.

Buber went on to describe how the mutual experiences of reciprocity of shared relations in which the self discovers itself in relation to the other as we see in the process of love. Love is the mysterious quality that enables two people to be intimate and one with one another, yet maintain their own sense of individuality. In an “I and Thou” relationship, one person affords the other the ability to freely grow and develop rather than using one’s influence to mold and control the other person to fit the pattern s/he would like to be True love does not demand that the beloved surrender his or her own individuality in order to be loved; this is not love but servitude. Parents do this quite a bit with their own children. “If you love me, then do such and such a thing….” Love is frequently marketed like any other commodity; book stores contain many works on how to have fulfilling sexual experiences. Love-making has frequently been reduced to a mere mechanical technique rather than a medium through which lovers truly and emotionally experience the Other.

Something very magical occurs when people really begin to experience the world of the Other. Buber’s notion of the “I and Thou” helps us clarify how one sees the self in relation to others in the pursuit of life and happiness; it also sees human-interaction with other persons as necessary for a genuine self-understanding. Through the “I and Thou”, we learn to understand feelings experienced by another and lastly it helps us identify what you demand of others when you accept them as a person.

The same may be said of theology — the “study of God.” History has tried to scientifically study God as if He were an inanimate object or thing, as a result, both God and His creation are left in a mutual state of estrangement, for how can one love a theological idea and construct? Buber once mused: can one explain the concept of a mother-in-law or a sweetheart? Just as people cannot be conceptualized and be reduced to the level of objects, the same holds true with God. God cannot be reduced to any sort of theological construct. Theological knowledge of God pales when compared to the actual experience of God, as Job himself stated:

I had heard of you by the
hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;

Job 42:5

I hope this answers some of your questions.


Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel

The Postville Kosher Scandal — May 2008

The True Meaning of Kosher

Slaughter houses are not for the squeamish of heart. I have personally worked as a Kosher Supervisor in my twenties, and for a long time afterwards, I gave up eating meat. Many people probably would become vegetarians if they knew how their meat was obtained. From this perspective, Kosher slaughter is no worse than any other kind of slaughter.

The Kosher laws were designed to minimize pain to the animals; the blade must be so sharp, the animal loses consciousness immediately. Kosher laws are detailed and exact. In binary terms, kosher laws differentiate between the forbidden and the permitted. Just as there are permitted animals that we may eat, such as cows, chickens, sheep, and so on, so too, there are animals that are forbidden to consume, such as the pig or the rabbit. Yet, the concept of Kosher is not limited to just the Jewish dietary laws. It isn’t just what comes in the mouth that defiles; it’s what comes outside of the mouth that defiles as well. The way we communicate towards others is important. The spoken word can bring healing and strength, or it can bring death and ruination to a person’s reputation. Business also has a kosher dimension: there is a permitted way of doing business; there is a forbidden way of doing business. How we treat our workers is also governed by the same principle. There is a permitted way of how we ought to relate to workers, there are forbidden ways of treating a worker.

In light of this, the recent scandal coming out of the Postville AgriProcessors meat packing plant is offensive for many reasons. Although exploiting workers may be a common practice in many meat packing houses or factories, for a Jewish business that calls itself “kosher”, such behavior is indeed offensive. Even the appearance of impropriety is shameful in our faith. Unfortunately, Rabbi Aaron Rubashkin, a leading Chabad Hassidic rabbi of the Postville community allowed for many abuses to occur under his watchful eye.

The workers in AgriProcessors tried to unionize, but Rubashkin would not allow them to do so, for they were after all—illegal immigrants! There are many other alleged infractions that will be evaluated in the weeks to come. As a rabbinic leader in the Quad-Cities, I must say that the Jewish community is outraged and embarrassed by how AgriProcessors violated both the spirit and letter of Jewish Law—and secular law.

People were not the only victims. PETA uncovered a number of practices Rubashkin instituted that frankly, violated many of the Kosher laws governing how animals are to be morally treated. Jewish tradition teaches that animals are not machines—they are sentient creatures and how we behave toward them matters. We are forbidden to cause senseless pain to God’s creatures.

In summary, “Kosher” must be more than a method of how animals are ethically slaughtered, it ought to incorporate a dimension that is equally sensitive to the rights of the poor and marginalized members of our communities. Taking advantage of migrant workers is a moral outrage. As Kosher consumers, I think we have every right to expect that any Kosher business live by the ideals that Judaism is supposed to represent.

Rabbi Michael Samuel