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What It Means, Jewish-Wise, to Be Fully Alive
Charles Dickens gave us a tale of two cities. Here's a tale of two oceans.
Western civilization was born over two millennia ago in Greece and Rome, two cultures that emphasized the physical. The Greeks pioneered the sculpting of the human body. The Romans mastered the engineering skill necessary to construct roads and aqueducts in support of a massive empire. They also investigated matters of the mind. Plato believed in an entire realm of "ideas" beyond the slipperiness of sense perception. Both he and Aristotle stressed the importance of logical rigor.
This accent on the material and the mental traveled to Europe and, from there, to America.
The other ocean, the Pacific, brought us the spiritual, an aspect of human consciousness that Greco-Roman culture had largely overlooked. It was Eastern civilization that preached the ultimate unreality of the sensory universe and the limits to what the mind can comprehend. In the 1960s, America began awakening to the promise of the spiritual, our gift from across the Pacific.
Western religion, too, suffered from an unwarranted reliance on mind at the expense of spirit. As a product of the Roman empire, Christianity constructed a theological edifice dependent on systematic philosophical thought. Since Judaism also emerged in the West (either the Roman Empire or the Tigris-Euphrates basin, once called Babylonia), rabbinic thought developed with little overt concern for the spiritual.
Fortunately, Judaism was outfitted from the beginning with a healthy appreciation for change. Wherever it went, it adapted to new conditions, and developed insights into areas of life that its classical period had largely overlooked. As a reflection of human life in all its fullness, rabbinic literature had not been without spirituality; it had just fallen short of figuring out a vocabulary to talk about it, a deficit that was made up by medieval Kabbalah and its outgrowth, Chasidism.
Jews in search of spirituality can find it there -- but not only there. It's available in earlier texts as well, if we read them with later conceptual tools in mind.
This week's parshah is a brilliant example, when it promises, "You who hold fast to God are all alive today." The famous Kabbalist and talmudic scholar Or Hachaim interprets "all alive" not quantitatively (all the people), but qualitatively (totally alive). At issue is the spiritual question of how to appreciate life's fullness.
Yet Or Hachaim reverses the cause-and-affect relationship to arrive at what is startlingly novel. The lesson is not that by cleaving to God we experience full life, but the other way around: Only by becoming fully alive can we cleave to God.
Ethicists say that the interior landscape of every human being includes a conscience; psychologists add the unconscious as well. Neither one is visible, but we still advise people to look deep within themselves for insight. Or Hachaim adds two further entities to our interior landscape, each one called a makor, a "wellspring" or "source" -- the makor of life and the makor of death.
The makor of life is our natural inner resolve to seek life's fullness. The makor of death is the opposite, the tendency to despair. The makor of life is what we mean when we toast l'chaim! But l'chaim denotes spirit, not body and mind, so it entails something other than physical pleasures and mental acuity. Life at its fullest is the spiritual resolve to focus everything we do on values like goodness, justice and love -- what connects our wellspring of life to the wellspring of of others.
When that happens, we become aware of being part of the universal makor of life -- the universal wellspring from which all true values derive in the first place. That universal wellspring -- the makor of all existence -- is what we mean by God.
Judaism's route to God, then, is the recognition that only the values rooted in God are ultimates. A couple of months from now, the Torah will end with its capstone advice: "Choose life." No truism, that! It advises us to live every single day by those values, with the promise that we shall then have no trouble knowing a life connected to God.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual, and director of the Synagogue 2000 Initiative for synagogue spirituality at HUC-JIR.