6.22.2010

Re: Jewish Mysticism

"In Jewish mysticism, it is not always understood that union with God is but a temporary experience. Hence, there are warnings against allowing oneself to be dissolved into nothingness due to an assumption that returning to the state of a separate existence is not a subsequent step. But clearly in the above passage, it is accepted that at least some do come back to their former separate being."
That's an excerpt from a chapter titled "Ethnohermeneutics II: West," from a book called The Mystic Experience: A Descriptive and Comparative Analysis, by Jeshua ben Yosef (Jordan Paper), 2004.

And the passage referred to as "above" comes from A disciple of the Great Maggid, Levi Isaac of Berdicheve, who wrote in Kedushat ha-Levi:
When the Zaddik cleaves to the nought, and is [then] annihilated, then alone he worships the Creator from the aspect of all the Zaddikim, since no division of the attributes is discernable there at all.... There is a Zaddik who cleaves to the nought and nevertheless returns afterward to his essence. (qtd. in Paper)
Maybe this explains Levinas's reluctance to talk about religious experience? The author goes on to say, "In the main, the contemporary Jewish attitude toward mysticism, let alone the mystic experience, is to ignore if not deny its relevance within Judaism." Seems odd to me, given the nature of the stories in the Talmud, which practically all involve religious experience (Moses, Abraham, Noah, certainly). Even this seems like an insufficient reason to ignore the testimony of those who claim to have mystical experiences. Certainly most religious traditions have warnings: my Kundalini Yoga DVD comes with a warning that says, basically, "Careful: you might not be ready for this," and mainstream Christianity can hardly be said to encourage mysticism -- indeed, Philip K. Dick wrote his best books understanding that admitting to mystical experiences might land one in the nut-house.

Anyway, hmph.

4 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

In the diss, I looked at how Levinas practiced Judaism. He was particularly interested in the Talmud's stories. But he didn't seek to interpret them in the mode of explication. Rather, he highlights and amplifies the questions, tensions, controversies of the text.

What I also found interesting was his move toward inclusion. He would translate the text into as many languages as necessary for whomever he invited to attend (I gathered from my research that this was a rare practice). Also, he would balance his lecturing with Q&A--something else that seemed rare for his time.

Unfortunately, I don't own a copy of his Nine Talmudic Readings, but that's pretty much the go to text for his theological-philosophical theory. I would say Levinas scholars remain somewhat divided upon whether you can read his philosophy without his theology. Personally, I think they are complimentary. But, I reiterate, I don't have mastery of his theological writings other than God Who Comes to Mind. Here's the guiding question of that work, laid out in the foreword:

"One wonders whether it is possible to speak legitimately of God without striking a blow against the absoluteness that his word seems to signify. What is it to have become conscious of God? Is it to have included him in a knowledge which assimilates him, in an experience that remains--whatever its modalities--a learning and a grasping? And is not the infinity or total alterity or novelty of the absolute thus given back to immanence, back to the totality which the "I think" of "transcendental apperception" embraces, back to the system to which knowledge leads or tends across universal history?"

Levinas intimates an answer to this question later in the foreword (and this is probably my favorite line in Levinas): "It is not in the finality of an intentional aiming that I think infinity" (xiv).

Casey said...

I especially like the way you described the way Levinas reads the text: not through explication, but through... what I might call "exegesis." It's my view that the whole problem with literature since the 1930s has been that people are reading it to explicate it, rather than to do exegesis. This goes both for "holy" texts and those that aren't considered holy (but then, that's the problem, isn't it?).

And I completely assent to that quote at the end there... indeed, I have thought before that it is the world's aimlessness, and not it's infiniteness, that makes it so worthwhile.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

One of the foremost Levinasian critics, Richard Cohen, titled his book Ethics, Exegesis and Philosophy. I think Cohen over-emphasizes the distinction between Levinas and Heidegger (I think it legitimate to say that Cohen's distate for the latter borders on hatred), but he does offer this:

"...what is the status of ethics in a post-metaphysical age? Does the end of onto-theo-logy at the same time mean the end of metaphysics? Was metaphysics only onto-theo-logy, philosophy of presence? Levinas's unique place is to say no. His unique place is to insist that, quite to the contrary, ethics only comes into its own with the collapse of onto-theo-logy." (127)

So here's where you and I, Levinas and Plotinus, ride different buses, so to speak. For my team, the self (the fragment) can never claim to be a piece of the One. Precisely because metaphysics are absolutely other to the experience of Being. (b)eings can only exist and experience within the medium of Being. But God is otherwise than Being, and hence, always beyond our reach.

From what I understand, your team plays differently. You contend that individuals can have a concrete/direct experience of the beyond. Am I articulating this correctly?

Levinas would argue that we can have an experience that attunes us to the existence of the beyond (Facing). But this is not the same thing as an experience of the Other. I can never be other(wise) than as myself.

Of interest to you: for Levinas the language that best attunes us toward an experience of the beyond is poetry. (This is why I think Cohen overlooks Levinas's debt to Heidegger and Derrida--the later Levinas, the Levinas of Otherwise than Being, is much more interested in poststructuralism and radical poetics as a may of breaking up monolithic ontology, but this is another point for another day).

Casey said...

Right: my team sees an inherent (linguistic) problem with the view that "God" is, but isn't Being.

That doesn't make sense to me. If G-d is otherwise than being, then he doesn't exist.

Now, I understand much of this in a very different way than I think many academics do/have-for-a-long-time. It's my view that things like Plato's supposedly "transcendental" ideal forms actually exist, but that we don't perceive them... and so the dialectic (and so many other spiritual disciplines) aim at getting us to see that what is happening is the ideal form. And there's nothing but that.

If, when our sophomores ask us to summarize Plato, we say that there's "this life," and then another where the ideal forms reign, then I think we've misled the student. The fact is, there's only the ideal. There's no separation. There's only G-d. Only the One. That's always been the point, from Parmenides through Plato and through Spinoza and the more modern mystics. What you have taken for "transcendental" you realize--usually all of a sudden--to be actual.

But I know that probably sounds bizarre. How about we continue from the other direction: can you say more about what it means to be otherwise than being?