Something’s been lost. It must have been, because when it was passed to me, I could have sworn the box was empty. Oh, I sang the proper songs, heard the history and the heartache; at thirteen I recited the proper scriptures to be declared a Jewish man (quickly, so the catered affair could begin), and then retired from Jewish life. Like most of the suburban American Jews of my generation, what was meant to be the beginning seemed to me the end. No need for active rebellion; when all you see are the laws of bagels-and-lox, one simply learns to look elsewhere for inspiration. And look I did. I stared at the world until it seemed to sparkle, embraced spiritual traditions East and West, and began to sense in each the same spark of holiness. Except one; I couldn’t quite forgive the empty box.
But still, nagging questions. Where was the life-blood of a tradition that has sustained so many for so long? Where was the frightening joy that set Jews dancing even in the cattle cars going to Auschwitz? Where was the universal spark in the peculiarly idiosyncratic ways of traditional Judaism? Three thousand years without a spark? Unlikely. And all the time, stooped over his prayer book in one inward corner of myself, that whitebearded Jew, head covered in reverence, eyes ablaze with messianic fervor — waiting. He has boxes also — on his head and arm ritual tefillin filled with scrolls of holy scripture, symbolically binding him to God’s service. I peer at him apprehensively, and lean forward to hear his whispered words. “Just remember,” he says, his body shimmering and fading, “the bush still burns. . . . Have you looked?”
This was an odd trip to be taking with my father. I was born in Brooklyn; he lived most of his life there, but has hardly looked back since moving the family to New Jersey more than 20 years ago. We got a bit lost on the way to Rabbi Dovid Din’s house. Dad remembered the street names but couldn’t quite place them.
“I have one question,” he said, as we wove through New York streets lined with double-parked cars and over-full dumpsters, Italian groceries, kosher meat markets, and beer joints. “Why do they have to dress that way?” He meant the Chassidic Jews and their distinctive broad brimmed hats, long black coats, black shoes, and hair grown in long locks over the ear. But behind the question was much more. There’s little love lost between the isolated communities of Chassidic Jews and their more assimilated brethren. The traditional ways and ultra-orthodox stance of the Chassids make them embarrassing reminders to many, like vestigial organs whose very purpose has been forgotten. Though Chassidism was founded in the early 18th century as a revitalizing current in Judaism — stressing joy, heartfelt prayer and mystical fervor — now it seems the rigid keeper-of-the-flame. I had never met Rabbi Din, and had no answer to my father’s question. But I would ask it — and many more questions of my own.
The interview was recommended by a friend in Berkeley, whose glowing words of praise were hard to ignore. He had told me that Dovid Din was a kabbalist — one who studies the inner teachings of Judaism — who had recently opened a public center for Judaic and mystical studies in Manhattan, called Sha’arei Orah (“Gates of Light”). He said he was a man whose very presence walking down the street made heads turn.
Two blocks from his house the neighborhood changed. It was much cleaner, obviously well-kept. Children with skullcaps played on the sidewalks, bantering with each other in Yiddish. My father dropped me off, and I climbed the narrow steps to Rabbi Din’s second floor apartment, where his wife Bracha met me with a sweet smile. “Dovid’s resting,” she said. “He’s been out working since early this morning.” She poured me tea while I waited. The Din’s youngest child joined me at the kitchen table, and, repeating after his mom, in Hebrew, the blessing for bread, gobbled a piece of cake. (There are four children in the family, aged three to eleven, who in the small apartment seemed omnipresent.)
Soon Rabbi Din appeared, and escorted me into his book-lined study. What struck me first was a certain gracefulness about him. Tall and slender, he seems to glide rather than walk. When he talks, his hands dance in front of him, tracing gentle elaborations in the air. His words are careful and probing. Though by nature intellectual, he seems constantly aware of the slipperiness of words, and their inability to adequately express deeper meanings. His perspective is sharply honed, his manner light, modest, and exactingly courteous.
Dovid Din was born in 1941 in northern England to Jewish but non-religious parents. Over the years he carved his own path into the Jewish tradition, and eventually studied in yeshivas [religious schools] both in Israel and America. Seven years ago, he brought his family to this Brooklyn community. Beyond that scant outline, Rabbi Din prefers to be none too specific about his past. While he draws great inspiration from the Chassidic master Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, he claims no allegiance to any specific Chassidic branch.
While Rabbi Din is at the forefront of the current Jewish mystical renewal, there is nothing updated or new-agey in his approach. He stresses the importance of not compromising the laws and norms of the tradition. “It’s not as people think, that there is a normative Judaism and then a mystical side,” he said in our interview. As we spoke the picture became clearer: in Rabbi Din’s understanding, the laws of Judaism are precise mystical teachings designed to bring man into alignment with God. “You are not apart from your environment, from the cosmos,” he said in one of his classes, “and to align yourself with it is 98 percent of the work toward enlightenment.” While acknowledging that “we all want to lick the spoon from the honey jar of mystical experience,” Rabbi Din attaches the greatest importance to individual actions in the world. “All the mechanisms of daily life are the hinges of holiness,” he says. This understanding creates “a truly religious awareness that doesn’t force one out of the context of reality.” It is this grounding of illumination in the details of daily life that gives Jewish mysticism its distinct flavor.
I found myself both attracted and repelled by the obvious power and coherence of his vision. My running hypothesis has always been that the key to right action lies in following the stirrings of my own heart and conscience. In orthodox Judaism that still, small voice is indeed one to be reckoned with, but its dictates are decidedly within the context of the traditional laws. This seems to be a contradiction, but I sense the possibility that it doesn’t have to be (or isn’t).
The second part of our interview was taped on the front porch, with the elevated subway roaring overhead, and children scurrying noisily around us. (“Raising kids is my life,” Rabbi Din said. “Teaching is just a side job.”) As sundown approached, I still had more questions; Rabbi Din invited me to come with him for evening prayers — perhaps we could talk more later. It was bitter cold as we walked briskly through the neighborhood toward the temple. Rabbi Din cautioned me not to feel intimidated if the other worshippers ignored me. They’d have nothing to say to an outsider, especially one who didn’t speak Yiddish. I marveled at the ease with which Rabbi Din straddled both worlds. Obviously. this was his home — this community set in the heart of New York, yet living almost entirely by its own rules, relatively untouched by the tumult all around it. Brought up outside the community — with both an early secular and later religious and kabbalistic education — Rabbi Din is in the unique position of knowing both languages, and being able to translate the inner workings of the tradition to those outside. While this in itself is a trifle unorthodox, it seems apparent that the people here love him and respect what he is trying to do. The sincerity in his work is unquestionable. At the temple I clumsily washed my hands in ritual fashion, and read the prayers through in English, watching the swaying, impassioned praying of the others.
I had wanted to follow up our interview with more personal questions, but there wasn’t time. “Besides,” Rabbi Din said with a smile, “I’m sure I would have found a way to fill them with hot air also.” Well, abstract as the following interview tends to be, it is full of anything but hot air. The glimpse of living Jewish spirit and wisdom moved me profoundly. No, the encounter didn’t answer all of my questions, but I can say that now I’ve begun to take a look.
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: I’m told that the two intersecting triangles in the Star of David imply an understanding of “As above, so below.”
DIN: That’s a phrase from the Zohar [The Book of Splendor].
SUN: The idea that every action and event on earth has enormous implications — could you speak about this?
DIN: You spoke about it so well. What more can I say?
SUN: To get more specific — in Judaism there are laws governing the way you eat, the way you wear clothes.
DIN: Now I sense the direction you mean. Judaism conceives of the universe as a vastly integrated system. That’s a philosophical point that our present scientific tradition also endorses, but it’s still a platitude there. That same scientific and psychological tradition has worked very hard to fragment the image of man, with very disastrous results. People have sensed that fragmentism and have come away with problems of identity, and alienation, and just not knowing who they are and where they are going.
Now, the whole system of the Torah [traditional law] is one that places the greatest possible emphasis on life in a very real context. It does not seek to “spiritualize” at all. Of course it does, but it’s like a wave which instead of breaking straight on the shore, will hold back in order to gather more water. The Torah insists that all the mechanisms of daily life are the hinges of holiness. So there is a vast system of sanctification of food called Kashruth, concerned with what is kosher and what is not. The Torah is also very concerned with the sanctification of time — through the Sabbath and the holidays, through certain periods of prayer — which to some extent all religions are, but Judaism has it worked out to a dance. And thirdly, it is concerned with the holiness of various kinds of actions and functions and objects of daily life.
The whole purpose behind it is that a person must deal with the world as it is, and out of that can be distilled a true religiosity. Across the board, among the common people, it will produce an extremely high level of ethical sensitivity. For this I can only give you a word in Yiddish — Ehrlich-Keit — a certain kind of basic, high level integrity. That means a kind of purity. Not what you or I would think of from deeper studies in other areas as enlightenment, but something that approaches it, and has about it one extremely conspicuous authentic characteristic — it is not self-conscious. It’s not a postured, “I have to sit and look spiritual. I have to move like a lily.” That’s also a discipline, but the problem is that when such things are too self-conscious, there is too much self-attention on achieving something, rather than having it flow out of what’s happening, out of the core of one’s real being.
Judaism is very concerned with the natural rhythms of things, and is therefore prepared to deal with all the realities of life, like crying children, and the pulse of family life. It insists on family life, and is very cautious of the ascetic or celibate life — which may be an important route, but it’s not real. Normally life does not flow like that. In practicing Judaism, Jewish orthodoxy is very careful not to tamper with the naturalness of family life, not to inhibit the birth of children or use birth control, because it believes in a very essential way that the family is a sacrament of divinity. The Western religious traditions, and the Far Eastern also, have implied that a person who seeks religious depths must isolate himself in order to commune with God in the pure realm of spirit. Judaism would say no, maybe at some point, but the first step is through the natural processes of nature, which are in effect the processes of Torah. The Torah is an extrapolation of the laws of the universe in a kind of artistic mosaic, but the processes are the same. The vicissitudes of life in a large family, the crying, the screaming kids, are really a means within nature toward achieving the balance necessary on the human level to perceive the divine.
The Torah in its spiritual discipline is like yoga. The person comes to a yoga master and says, “Swami, I want to learn yoga.” And the Swami — whose name might well be Schwartz — looks him straight in the eye and says, “Go home and do this and that exercise. Then come back.” The boy looks back at the Swami and says, “But I don’t want to do this exercise.” So the Swami says, “Good, don’t do the exercise, but this result you won’t have. You might get something better, but this result you won’t get, for the plain reason that you didn’t do what it takes to get this result. You won’t get water unless you turn on the faucet.” The Torah as a system compels one to do the exercises and guarantees the results. Guarantees it. And the result truly authenticates its nature as a religion; it produces a truly religious awareness that doesn’t force one out of the context of reality.
SUN: What is kabbala — or Jewish mysticism — and what is its relation to traditional Judaism?
DIN: Kabbala is the esoteric side, while Torah, as we normally think of it, is the exoteric. It is not other than Torah; it is part of the Torah. The Zohar says that everything possesses an esoteric nature and a more exoteric nature — like the soul to the body. Judaism understands that it is inherent in the nature of man to turn inward — that man, by his nature, tries to understand the universe and everything that happens in it by reflection in the self, a way at best somewhat unbalanced. It is the vision of kabbala, as an applied theoretical spirituality, to turn the being outward, Godward.
Now you have to understand one particular problem that Judaism has. When we try to understand Judaism, we are reading its truths in terms of the Occidental mind. But Judaism, when all is said and done, is an Oriental tradition — not from the Far East, but Oriental. The underpinnings of Western culture are from the Greek, the Latin, and finally from Christianity, but Judaism is very different in its understanding, not simply of what reality means, but of how it works. The Western mind has largely arrived at a dualistic competitiveness about things — that everything is subject to judgment and that judgment means something is better or worse than something else. And Judaism doesn’t really know from that. Now the best of practicing Jews, and many more who are not practicing — with the possible exception of those who were raised and learned their Judaism in a Yiddish environment still connected to the Eastern European tradition, the last great exemplar of European Judaism as an integral cultural vehicle — think through their Judaism in terms of Western culture. That creates many problems. The difference in cultures is really very vast. It has to be understood that the Hebraic mind, as the mind of the Far East, works as a totally different camera taking totally different pictures and producing totally different impressions. The Semitic mind saw the integration of all the paths of knowledge that the Western mind sees as compartmentalized. The Hebraic mind understood truth as essentially the face of God that is truly One presence in all knowledge and meaning — which we may have come to see in a fragmented form. We should not lose sight of the fact that this is only a spark in a bigger fire.
SUN: In kabbalist terms, all the actions and things in our lives are said to contain Holy Sparks, so by the way we approach our life . . .
DIN: We release the sparks of holiness. Meaning that holiness is inevitably hidden, in the kabbalistic frame of things, under the appearance of non-holiness. Now the choice of terms here is very important, and very unimportant, because Judaism, like the Torah itself, would much rather deal in the mythos than in discursive textbook explanations. So there is an abundance of texts in kabbala but they are really discussing something that can only be known in a direct, existential mode. I don’t mean that it can all be reduced to a contemplation or practices or postures, but that it is only knowable in an inspirited, intuitive mode. The other things can stoke the engine, or turn up the gas, but they can’t light the fire. The fire can only be lit by the intuitive spark. All the rest is to bring the rational mind into gear and to disperse the process throughout the corridors of the being.
SUN: What kinds of practices does kabbala teach to bring the mind into this gear?
DIN: It uses practices that are deeply meditative in character. It has a vast array of meditative practices that are the equal of practices in the Far East. They are of all different sorts, different hues and colors, and there are a vast array of different steps in the process.
SUN: If somebody wants to find a way into Jewish mysticism, is there a place you can point them?
DIN: True entry has to come gradually but with genuine commitment to the path of the Torah. It is absurd to think of trying to immerse oneself in the profundity of Jewish mysticism without accepting and integrating the normal tool — practices, disciplines and postures of spirit and character which the system offers. There are many guideposts where the journey can begin, but a true teacher is necessary for the whole process — one who can contain and reflect the material and who is solidly and soberly linked to the tradition he represents.
If you go to India you’ll see that the great mass of people are involved in their tradition in a rather petty way. This is not a problem particular to Hinduism or Judaism, it’s a problem in human nature. The number of illuminated ones in any tradition — the people who really know what it’s all about — is a very minute minority. Now, the Hinduism or Buddhism we find in America is, you might say, packaged for export. People here were searching deeply and discovered that the East had great spiritual riches and a great effort was made to make them available. Now, in Judaism the process is reversed. Here it’s the home-grown variety. There’s no question of making it a little different so it will be more palatable for people somewhere else. So, consequently, there is the main structure of Judaism that presents something of a problematic entry. However, there is more and more a rising sensitivity within the main structure to the needs of people to get to the meat of the thing. In this a really great advantage is preserved; the authentic structure is not being undercut to produce some sort of device for the moment, and yet that structure is being largely overhauled to bring up its riches and match them to people’s needs. That goes hand in hand with the fact that you cannot divorce kabbala from normative Jewish practice. While I understand and respect what they seek to do, I have to disagree with this attempt. To depart from the norms of the tradition is to do violence to its fabric. It is a bit of an arrogance. I don’t say that of the people, but of the intrinsic posture of a culture that empowers people to sit in relatively uninformed judgment on any great, venerable spiritual system.
SUN: You’re saying that it’s not appropriate to approach kabbala without also embracing the laws and holiness of the Torah.
DIN: Right, it will not work. It is like the boy who comes and says, “Teach me yoga but I don’t want to do the exercises.” It’s not as people think — that there is a normative Judaism and then a mystical side to Judaism. The Torah by nature is a mystical system. It’s not as if there were separate compartments. Perhaps it is just that most do not penetrate to that level. Now to cut away part of it, like Shabbos [the Sabbath], is simply the influence of contemporary America, which is afraid of commitment and discipline, and has justified that as an alternative position in a tradition that is obviously rich, profound, and has been created by many generations. People mean well by it, but it’s an arrogance. You can’t expect the harp to produce its music when at the same time you’re pulling its strings out.
Judaism is very concerned with the natural rhythms of things . . . like crying children, and the pulse of family life. It insists on family life, and is very cautious of the ascetic or celibate life — which may be an important route, but it’s not real.
SUN: Let’s look a little at the inner meaning of the Shabbos.
DIN: First keep in mind what I said before, that Judaism seeks to evince out of reality its spiritual texture. So, as one of its peculiar practices — parallel to the peculiar genius of every tradition — once a week there is an immersion in holiness. That’s really what Shabbos is, an immersion. It creates a space in which things are no longer happening. Since nothing is happening there is no demand on us to define who we are in terms of what we do, so we must then define who we are in terms of who we are. We must define who we are in terms of God becoming in us more and more, not in terms of the camouflage of illusory meaning in our actions and masks. We cannot hide under having to go to work or do this or that. I can’t busy myself with all kinds of activity. I just have to be. If you’ve ever spent Shabbos in a religious atmosphere, then you’ve seen that Shabbos doesn’t have at all the restrictive character that people would suppose it does when they hear that you can’t do this and you can’t do that. You really don’t notice what you can’t do. You run up against it occasionally and realize, “Oh, I can’t drive around in my car, I can’t smoke a cigarette today, I can’t turn on an electric light,” but you don’t want to. You might at the beginning stages, but that recedes into the background, as do the perimeters for holding the tapestry on the loom. The colors of the tapestry are much more important than the pegs holding the threads of it.
Judaism creates this space. It understands space and time as the sacraments of God in the universe. Now, what happens when a person enters Shabbos? Everything stops in terms of the feeling that I can hide from who I am or who God is becoming in me. And the next thing is that I am released. I am released from the necessity to do anything, and I’m therefore released from anxiety, because I know the character of the next 25 hours. It is simply whatever is. There’s no compulsion to do this or that; everything just is. This is the essential posture of a meditative stance. Judaism always wishes to understand that a meditative practice can never leave behind the physical component. You can never say to the body, “Shut up and sit in the corner while the spirit goes someplace.” It must always take the whole being with it. Always. The body must also be trained in the path of spirituality to contribute whatever it has to the process of meditation or contemplation. And that’s magnified many times over in the Shabbos, which is repeated week after week. Now people need not carry it that far. Most don’t. But still it produces a level of awareness. For the common people that is a basic transformation of consciousness — at a level they are able to digest.
SUN: In kabbalistic thought the phrase, “There is no place empty of Him,” keeps coming up. In terms of tradition, how does one get to see this?
DIN: Something happens in the process of being — propelled by the force of energy the lifestyle of Torah creates — where one gradually comes to see that there is a richer texture to events that otherwise would seem ordinary. And once that is seen, the next step is wondering what is giving them this greater depth. What is it but the presence of something supernal within? Then it is the question of growing with and nurturing that basic insight in moments of stress, using it even in times where it would suit the shortness of spirit to avoid it. That is hard work, but the supportive structure of the lifestyle does that for you. It doesn’t release you from responsibility, but it provides the oars for the boat by insisting on the sanctity of everything. Sanctity not because the thing possesses anything outside of itself, but because it is what it is. Since it doesn’t possess anything outside of itself, it can’t frustrate you; it can’t tantalize you with a vision of things being other than they are and then let you down when you see that’s not so. It insists that what is, is, but is deeper than it looks. You must invest the effort to seek that further, and when you do that, it in turn will support you. The frame of that is the lifestyle — the rhythm of prayer and observance and holiday. All of which are saying, “This is not just one more ordinary time after another. This is this moment and this particular enrichment, which even if you do it in a non-enriching way, still affects you.” But there is more. Gradually, as the spiritual process unfolds, a totally new dimension of being and awareness emerges. The truth is that this is a new metaphysical perspective: the prior state of the being was one in which the self formed the lens of perception. The self was perceived to be the subtle focus of reality and meaning. Now the being has been transformed by turning outward toward the cosmos and the divine presence. It cannot be adequately emphasized that this is not a romantic vision, but the description of a precise metaphysical process of transition.
SUN: Were you raised in this tradition?
SUN: How did you get involved?
DIN: That happened 20 years ago. I got into it myself. Of course I was born to Jewish parents, but I came to it myself. My upbringing was probably not unlike yours. I had a very broad education. I grew up in England and was always interested in religion and spirituality. I became more and more interested in my own roots, studied a great deal, and really put it together for myself over a long period of time. On that path I knew Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach well, at a formative time, and Rabbi Zalman Schacter also. I don’t want to say that the formative time is over, but my position differs from that of some of my companions and teachers in that they have taken liberties with the ritual and orthodox belief structures. My own path is clearly aligned with a very traditional position. This is because I feel the Torah is oracular in nature. The path that I have chosen and teach my students seeks to restore the traditional patterns of belief and practice to the levels of their full and pristine integrity. This infers clearly, then, the problem with traditional orthopractic structures; they have maintained the forms but have fallen short of being able to sustain the deep inner spiritual content. Nevertheless, the apparently secondary vessels of a secondary societal nature which characterize traditional Jewish lifestyles shouldn’t be dismissed; they have successfully translated the profound values of the spiritual inner core to the group as a whole. And they have passed the tests of cultural endurance, sustaining profundity of vision and context over centuries of remarkable adversity and difficulty.
SUN: Were there any particular important turning points or moments of awakening for you?
DIN: I can honestly say to you that all moments are. I don’t mean that as a flip rejoinder. I have many weaknesses of many kinds, but I have one strength — a very strong spiritual focus that is central, and it seems to always percolate.
SUN: It seems that in many spiritual traditions and communities in this country, the majority of members were born Jews. It makes me wonder why so many Jews are seeking, and why they are looking for the spark outside of Judaism.
DIN: Let us talk a little bit about that. There is a very deep teaching in kabbala that I’ll try to simplify, one that’s really at the heart of the kabbalistic idea of how the world and God are put together. The Ari, a very great kabbalistic master of the sixteenth century, taught that in the proverbial beginning, there was something like a tremendous explosion of Godness that at once created the universe and filled it; it sort of created it one moment before it filled it. Now, looked at one way this was a disintegration — as the language of the text says, “a descent of sparks of holiness into the outer darkness.” Looked at another way it was the expansion of holiness to enlighten the darkness. The difference between these two ways of looking at this is that one way it’s as if you are in the mind of the darkness; what you see is that the light is being fragmented. Now if you think it out calmly, and are patient with what’s going on, then you see that it’s not necessarily that the light is being fragmented; it is that the light is spreading, in order to redeem and reintegrate the darkness.
Now again we have to keep in mind the vast difference in cultures. The Ari was not really erecting some kind of quasi-scientific explanation of things, but it is perhaps the closest we can come to describing it. This was his grasp of a vastly intuitive mythos — a mythos that is a truth in cosmology, in sociology, in philosophy, in psychology. It was an attempt to locate the centrifugal process of meaning. In this way the Ari understood one of the mysteries of the presence of the Jews in the world as the presence of meaning in the universe. In one sense they have been scattered and dispersed and exiled; that’s the plain history of the thing. In the other sense, it’s only from the perspective of history that it is a tragedy; from a more ultimate transcendent perspective it is a redemption. What appears to be moving away is in fact gaining momentum in order to return.
To bring that down to the practical aspect. I think that in many ways Jews are a people of light — not by what they know, but what they are. That’s not to say that no one else has any light; that’s not the question. The light at once seeks the darkness in order to illuminate it by its spark and bring about its redemption. And that is in fact what is going on. Jews are a very spiritually conscious people.
Now what remains is the question of why didn’t Judaism provide this. That’s a problem in history which we could discuss. Largely the Judaism in America didn’t. At the time of the Second World War Judaism in Europe, just at the point when it might have produced an Aquarian Age of Judaism, was obliterated. So who was left on the scene? There were no Jews practically except in America. And the ones who had come to America were not the cream of the crop. They were those who had come a generation or two earlier trying to get away from Europe. They were people who needed to make a better living, or found it too hard in Europe, or whatever. And the Judaism they brought was basically a “circumcize them, marry them, bury them” brand. The generation that came after that wanted the deep things, but it did not possess the depths to search out its own storehouses. That I think is the practical answer.
I think we will see in the next generations many Jews returning from where they have been — which is not to imply that where they have been is so bad — enriched in a peculiar way that darkness can enrich light. I don’t mean to say that judgmentally — that over there is darkness and over here is light — but darkness is the image system that I’m using. Today there is a tremendous resurgence of practicing Judaism. A tremendous number of young people are returning to the practice of Judaism, though nowhere near the number who might.
If you go to India you’ll see that the great mass of people are involved in their religion in a rather petty way. This is not a problem particular to Hinduism or Judaism, it’s a problem in human nature. The number of illuminated ones in any tradition — the people who really know what it’s all about — is a very minute minority.
SUN: That metaphor of scattered light coming back enriched by the darkness is hard not to hear judgmentally. When I spoke to Schlomo Carlebach, I also had the feeling he was saying that Judaism is the best way, the right way, the chosen way. Can there really be any validity in one people being called a chosen people?
DIN: Of course there is, only it has to be said without arrogance and with a great deal of love. Everything in nature is chosen. This blade of grass is chosen to grow in this place, the other is not. This person is in this place. This happens on this day. Choice is the mechanics of the universe. Our culture is terrified at the notion of judgmental selectivity, but what we’re not hearing is that just as the blade of grass is chosen for this, the other is chosen for something else. The choice of this is not the rejection of that. It is the rejection of that for this purpose, but it’s the choice of that for something else. Everything is chosen to its purpose. Now if what you need for your nutrition is grass that grew in this place, with this kind of soil and this kind of moisture, then that blade of grass is the best for your purpose. Are you prejudiced against the other blade of grass? No. That is a judgment, but what’s wrong with that? I would suggest that it doesn’t feel right to you, but that feeling won’t stand up under scrutiny. When you choose to wear a blue shirt, you are in essence saying to the world that you believe that blue shirts are the best. If you don’t then why are you putting it on? But you do not mean that it has to be the best for someone else. Maybe he needs a yellow shirt. Well, Judaism says the same — Judaism is for the Jews. It’s not for anybody else. Not that we would throw people out, but we’re not coercing anybody to come in. Judaism is emphatic in saying that all men have a path to God. It will affirm and protect the right of others to go to God in their way. It doesn’t discount the other venerable traditions of mankind; it respects them.
Nonetheless, Judaism affirms that the Torah is the clearest focus on God. Implicitly all faiths are saying that. What they may not be saying, and what Judaism is also not saying, is that no one else possesses any validity. Let me give you a little insight into this. Judaism is adamant, almost fanatical, in its insistence on monotheism. To suggest that there is more than one God or that God is tangible in any way is not even discussible. Reform, conservative, orthodox, all agree that God is one, transcendent, and non-tangible. That is in effect saying that the image of God must remain accessible to all. As soon as I say that God is wearing a green shirt and a blue jacket, and he combs his hair this way, then everyone who likes that will get along well with that image of God, and everyone who doesn’t won’t. Judaism is saying that the focus of the Torah is clearest. What is that focus? That absolutely nothing may interpose between the direct perception of God and man — no images, no idols, no coloration, nothing. The lens must be absolutely clear. To carry the analogy to its conclusion, the implication is that the lenses in other places, through which there comes an abundance of light, are somewhat cloudy. The Torah is, however, adamant in its condemnation of idolatry because it senses that the idol is a projection of the “self” of man — sometimes a very dark or questionable aspect of his nature — and thus is a perversion of the religious process completely.
SUN: In the Eastern traditions, there is a striving for union with God. I have a feeling that in Jewish thought there is not this union in the same sense.
DIN: Not in the same sense, I think. But then again I would stress that unification is a very dominant concern in kabbala. It’s very clearly expressed in the language. The system of the Torah presents a path and its practices as an end in itself. It requires that a person come to it and say, “I submit to it. I do it because I realize that it has a power to do something to me, but I have to give myself over to it.” What happens in that practice is that anything that would otherwise be involuted — turned inward — is turned outward. All the energy goes into it. I have to do the exercises like this and not like that. Why? I don’t know exactly. “Why” is the Western mind asking that question. But I have to do it if I want this result.
Now, going a step further, all the practices in Judaism are designed to take the person out of the arena of self-concern, into another arena. If not carefully understood this could also seem a platitude. It doesn’t simply mean that I shouldn’t be concerned with the self. The Torah understands that the implicit, unconscious illusion under which man operates is that he is the measure of the universe. It is an illusion on the existential, philosophical, metaphysical levels. I feel that I am the universe and therefore everything goes inward. I walk around my whole life thinking that’s how things are — “me” cars to drive, “me” food to eat, “me” things to do. The system comes and forces everything outward, which means that the unity that Judaism is looking for is the point at which, without losing this brain, a corridor of correspondence is opened between this brain — the individual identity — and the transcendent identity. But it isn’t that I become annihilated and flow into the great river; it’s that I am maintained in a scale model relationship to the transcendent. I stay here, but I grow outward. I stay here, but I use my here only to be positioned onto there. So I become that without ceasing to be this, and that becomes this without ceasing to be that. This sets up a perpetual interflow; both are the same and yet they are not.
There’s one point that requires a little digression. If you examine the whole thrust of Occidental culture that we’re living in, you see that for the past two or three hundred years there has been a great emphasis on the individual. That’s what came out of the rationalist enlightenment of two hundred years ago and all subsequent intellectual and philosophical history in the West. Today, the only “Thou shalt not” is “Thou shalt not say no.” Everything is good, everything is cool, everything is wonderful, everything is fine — except don’t hurt the other guy, and even that sometimes. Why is it good? Because I want to do it, and my primary task is the fulfillment of my individuality. What that means is that we gear everything to the fulfillment of the individual self, and therefore we interpret and align all experience and all the inner workings of reality toward that unspoken end.
Following that, the danger would be that I would conceive of my spiritual practice as a means of achieving fulfillment. It sounds wonderful and just as it should he, but the truth is that it’s a tremendously false position. I would go around arranging my spirituality so that I get a charge from it all the time, so that I know that I’m being “fulfilled.” Then the whole superstructure is in danger of being discarded. We say, “I don’t have to do all this. It isn’t turning me on. All this is from the dark ages.” Now the truth is that all the superstructure is not superstructure. It is in effect spreading out the ripples and insuring that the development is balanced and whole and that all parts of the being — the intellect, the emotions, even the physical being — are syncopated in their spiritual development, and that the lust for the sweet taste doesn’t get out of hand and distort the whole thing. Intuition is the heart of the whole thing, but that heart needs all the rest of it for the circulatory system to work. The deep essential truth of spirituality is present in the folds of other levels of reality — the cognitive and functional modes — which don’t seem at all as glamorous.
SUN: To pin it down, if it’s not to fulfill myself, what is it for?
DIN: It’s to align me with God. That mode that I induce for myself, which could be made to sound very good, matches the kabbala’s essential understanding of evil, which is illusion. Illusion is the root of evil.
We gear everything to the fulfillment of the individual self, and therefore we interpret and align all experiences and all the inner workings of reality toward that unspoken end. . . . It’s a tremendously false position.
SUN: Now in kabbalistic terms it’s not that the world is illusion, like the Hindu concept of Maya.
DIN: Well the world is illusion, but it is, so to speak, a necessary illusion. It’s true, but it is ultimately not true. It is a functional necessity.
Let me illustrate this business about illusion in a different way. There is no one that we can conceive of as evil. Let’s say — God forbid — that someone kills someone else. In the moment that they pull the trigger, they have to be saying that this is good. In their twisted mind they are saying it is good that this person should be dead, and it’s such a good that I’ll do it. Now that is a very vast illusion. Other illusions that are not so far-reaching, but are also quite vicious, are the little illusions with which we grease the corners of our lives. We manipulate people to illusory ends. What is the root of this illusion? What makes me think that shooting this guy is a good thing? Because it is what I want. The self sees itself extended to become the universe, to become the context of reality. Rather than having to force me out of me to accept reality as it is, or to align with the universe, I’d rather live the illusion that I am the universe, and in my universe you should be dead. Notice that the crossing point there is between what is good and what gives me pleasure; that’s the hitch in the train. When we want our mind-frame to be the universal mind-frame, we prevent ourselves from being at rest in who we are by nature, from seeing that we have to open to alignment. To avoid that we people our illusion with all kinds of things that will convince us that we are everything. It’s easy to extend yourself and say that the world should run according to what you say, but to return to the truth of one’s being in which one is at rest and therefore aligned is more difficult.
SUN: When you speak of Torah stories in your classes it’s from a seemingly deeper level at which it’s easier to see them as precise mystical teachings. How is the Torah meant to be understood, differently than how we normally approach it?
DIN: The Torah is perhaps not necessarily to be understood as much as it is to be experienced. The Torah is fundamentally a means of affecting this process of turning man’s vision outward, toward God. Judaism’s preponderance is actual, experiential, though it is well-endowed with the conceptual. We, in the West, essentially regard the conceptual before the experiential; we think and then we act. We conceive of what we want and then we act upon it. Judaism sees that as having a high probability of lending itself to illusion, because there is a long distance between conceptualization and actualization, a long process between the two that does not always go smoothly.
SUN: It seems that inner Judaism is both very much a path of the heart and also quite intellectual. Let’s talk about this relation between mind and heart.
DIN: The kabbala understands that what we know as the heart is the synthesis of awareness and sensitivity — the point at which I know something and my knowledge becomes something I work with in dealing with things. I know the truth intellectually that God is one, but then there is the point at which I can move in that and be aware of it. The heart is really the doorway, and becomes also the end — the way in and then you go around and come back. Now the path of the heart very often involves what we think of as emotion. Kabbala is very careful to know the proper relationship between the mind and the heart, otherwise the heart will pull the being away into an emotional vertigo of one sort or another, or the mind will freeze it into a theoretical abstraction. Interestingly enough, the Chassidic movement is set up to deal with that problem exactly — to touch the richness of ideas and bring them down to a safe, tangible, emotional level. Chassidism preserved these values, producing an amazingly rich tradition of music, stories, and richness of life.
SUN: How do you keep your heart open and in balance with your mind?
DIN: My family keeps my heart open. In Christianity there is a whole system of sacraments, acts that are construed as bringing access to the divinity. I think that in a very special way the family is that in Judaism. The sacramental dimension of the family is very precise in Judaism: family life is a recognized and exalted spiritual practice, and protected as such in the details of Judaic life. Tampering with the primacy of the family and any form of artificial control is strictly forbidden. The union is sacred and broken only in circumstances of the greatest duress. The family sometimes drives you crazy, but it holds you, embraces you, makes you laugh. There’s nothing like being crawled over by all your children while they’re tickling you. They are the frame of the life that Torah creates, which is centered in the family and which it healthfully, wholesomely reinforces.
We talk about the abstraction of the Torah and its system, but the Torah is in fact a way of life. That is part of the uniqueness of Judaism. In the West we have the notion that religion is a thing that is superimposed on a given reality. Judaism does not understand religion as a system of beliefs, but rather as a practice of being. Judaism is a way of life, not a religion at all in the theological sense. Its emphasis is on creating a lifestyle and, at certain points, it does that by sharply dividing from the world. So it has produced an insular culture, especially among the Chassids. It is by choice an insulated culture that has very little to do with the world outside. And in return for that what does it have? It has a world where there is no crime; there is virtually no psychological disorder or breakdown; there is no pushing of the old into rest homes — the old are maintained in the family and treated with respect in the community. It produces a very, very wholesome existence. The perimeters and nuances of this cultural enclave — the Shabbos, celebrations for the seasons of the year, observances and weddings and bar-mitzvahs, circumcisions — stoke the heart and keep it very healthy, very responsive, very integrated. And all of it is done in terms of the community. One must always function in terms of others.
Now the cost of that is an exclusion of the world. As you see right here, I talk with my children in Yiddish. In our home there are no newspapers, no magazines, no television, no radio, no influence of the secular world — because we do not need to teach our children such a disturbed and troubled civilization. They can see what the world is all about. They walk on the streets; they see what is going on. But that does not mean it should be in the fabric of the home.
SUN: What is Chassidism all about?
DIN: Chassidism is a popular, pietistic movement that arose in Judaism about two hundred years ago. It attempts to encapsulate the truths of kabbala at an accessible, experiential range for everyone. Accordingly, it is possible to be a Chassid who knows nothing of kabbala, but nonetheless lives it. This movement has certain characteristics that have endeared it to a very large segment of the Jewish people, and, mainly through the work of Martin Buber, to some extent to the world at large. It is characterized by a philosophy of joy, and an attempt to make the transcendental immediate — not by hocus-pocus or recourse to the metaphysical, but in the texture of life and the fabric of everyday things.
Now, two hundred years have passed since the movement began. A historian might look at Chassidism and say, “Well, like all movements, it had its hey-day when it began, and today it has stratified.” Well, that’s undoubtedly true to some extent, but it misses the point. Everything that Chassidism started to do, it is accomplishing today. The molds have shifted somewhat, because the sands of time and history have shifted, but it has not lost its vigor. It may have lost a vigor that makes it romantically attractive to the outside world. That is the coinage with which the outside intellectual world approaches such a thing.
SUN: Still, there seems a large split between the Chassidic community and the assimilated Jewish community. Where I grew up, Chassids were definitely looked on with suspicion.
DIN: That’s a nice way to put it.
SUN: Why do you think this is?
DIN: Chassidism today represents the ultra-conservative point of view — and this we’re saving about a movement that was innovative in its time. While it is true that Chassidism has stratified, it has done so because it has chosen to resist certain changes in the society at large. We could largely characterize those changes as promiscuous — not promiscuous in the sexual sense, although that’s surely included, but promiscuous in the intellectual, the emotional, the cultural, and the spiritual senses.
For example, it is fashionable in the spiritual terrain to flit around from here to there and there to here, all in the name of liberty of the human spirit. Chassidism, whose spiritual underpinnings are very authentic, regards that as a suspicious and fictitious attitude. It therefore appears to have adopted an ultra-conservative stance, and that accounts for its antithesis to the society at large. It has retained habits of life and dress and ways of being which appear to be archaic and delimiting. They are, rather, conscious choices to preserve a certain way of life which they feel is spiritually healthier. This is no different from taking a plant that won’t grow in the snow, and putting it in the hothouse. Admittedly the hothouse is artificial, but the alternative is the death of the plant.
Zionism is wrong because it is a rather clever attempt to trade on the thousands of years of aspirations of the Jewish people. It asks Jews . . . to jump into a small pool of cheap third-world nationalism.
SUN: You mentioned a philosophy of joy. David Zeller said something recently about always remembering the oy within joy. In Judaism there seems to be an embracing of sorrow, even within joy. So you don’t move above or beyond the sorrow . . .
DIN: You move into it. There is a holiday called T’sha B’av, which is the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. It is a public full-day fast, and comes at the climax of a period of three weeks which at the most external level is intended to redramatize the historical period that led up to the destruction. From the beginning of the three weeks we don’t have weddings, we don’t make music or cut the hair, we don’t make a blessing over anything in joy, we don’t buy any new clothes. When the Hebrew month of Av begins — in the third week — then not only those restrictions are enforced, but we also don’t take showers or baths — if you can stand it — and we don’t sing, drink wine, or eat meat. Finally T’sha B’av afternoon we don’t even study Torah — because the texts say that the study of Torah rejoices the heart — and we eat what is called the meal of consolation, the traditional meal that is served to mourners. We sit on low stools on the floor, ashes are put on the head, and we sit as if we were in mourning that whole day. It’s very dramatic; you cannot get away from the heaviness of it. In the synagogue they intone the Book of Lamentations the whole day and the next morning also.
Then in the afternoon, at the end of this long series of public lamentations, suddenly the cantor gets up, goes to the reading desk, and intones a melody. Then we straighten up the benches, straighten up the house, in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. The text says that the Messiah will be born on T’sha B’av. The day that is the very heart of sorrow is the day on which redemption will come. The psychology of the observance apparently is that you cannot get to the joy unless you enter the sorrow. You have to enter that whole drama and go with it. It is the only way out, and the coming out is splendid. That afternoon the silverware is put back, the tablecloths are put back on, the pictures are put back on the walls, and at night we light candles and have the Feast of the Messiah.
That’s one answer. I’ll tell you now a story. On Passover I prayed in a synagogue full of European Chassids who came here after the war. Very simple, non-sophisticated people, very “unspiritual” people, but golden people. At the holiest part of the service on Passover morning, a point where everyone stands perfectly still and you’re not allowed to do anything, there’s a dialogue between the congregation and the cantor saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the eternal of hosts. His glory fills heaven and earth.” Now that little statement is sort of the consummate statement. That is the basic reason for all religion — not because God will do good things for me, but because God is holy, altogether removed, altogether approachably unapproachable. They all sing this to a melody, a very beautiful, lilting melody. I noticed that when they were singing all the men in the front row were crying. At the end of the service I asked my friend next to me why it was that they cried. He told me that this melody was composed by the rabbi in a concentration camp Passover afternoon when his two sons were taken to the gas chamber. To what did he compose it? He composed it to a prayer that was sung in the temple when the Passover sacrifice was brought. He understood in the moment that his sons were being killed in the gas chambers that it was like a sacrifice, an occasion of joy.
I have nothing to say about that. I cannot fathom how someone could be able to do that. I can fathom how someone might want to, or think it an exalted level, but it takes something that is extremely far-out to do it. This man obviously knew that only in the midst of tremendous sorrow could true joy come — free from the sorrow because one has a direct connection to God.
SUN: I’m told that there’s a Jewish teaching that one should live as if the Messiah were always about to walk in the door. Let’s reflect on that teaching. Are you personally awaiting the Messiah?
DIN: Every day. There’s a story of a great teacher who always had his Shabbos clothes by the door, so that when the Messiah would come he could quickly throw on his Sabbath finery and go out to greet the Messiah.
There is another anecdote that preserves an important aspect of this. It is the law that when the Messiah comes, he may not disturb the small children learning Torah. Even though the Messiah comes to rebuild the temple and gather the exiles, he may not take the small children from learning Torah. Also it is said that the Messiah will not come on Shabbos. Why not on Shabbos? On Shabbos of all days the Messiah should come. He will not come lest he throw us into confusion as to whether the Shabbos law applies to the coming of the Messiah.
Now Judaism means to say by this that the messianic dimension, dear as it is to the hearts of the people who have suffered so much in history, will nonetheless grow organically out of the structures of spirituality. Life won’t be reversed in mid-stream. So the observance of the normative law is not something that goes against the grain of the dramatic moment of the coming of the Messiah, and all that will mean, but it will flow and grow into it.
SUN: It seems that one of the major blocks to peace in the world is every religion feeling itself the one way to God and not accepting anyone else. What steps would it take to bring people from different paths together?
DIN: I think that the first step is to recognize the validity of each tradition for its people. It does not do a service to spirituality to suggest to everyone that they should all blend into an homogeneous milkshake on the spiritual landscape. It’s not realistic. It is not in the nature of man to do that. People and cultures differ. So to tell everyone to put away their differences is not realistic and not true. It must be that the equation works the opposite way; when a person is truly grounded in the best that his tradition has to offer, he will from that point be accessible to others because he has passed the first gate of being true to himself.
SUN: Where do you look for a way of averting nuclear war?
DIN: I’ll tell you an interesting thing I was discussing with someone this morning. There is a law in the Torah that if you wage war against a city you must leave an exit for people to get out. You cannot close the town off and just kill everybody. And in nuclear holocaust there is no exit. That, in a way. summarizes the attitude of Judaism — that a destruction so lethal and so total cannot be valid. War might be. There are times when war may be justified, however much we may wish that conditions did not warrant it, perhaps even an offensive war that has a defensive mentality. But it cannot just be destruction.
As to avoiding war, I think that the machinations of politics will never avoid it, because politics means the abuse of the power of the people in the hands of the tyrannical few. Under whatever guise, it always boils down to the same neurotic distortion that results in despotism. Avoiding war will only happen, I think, because the people of the world will prevent it. That also does not seem really likely. It seems desirable, but it doesn’t seem as though that will work, because tyrants will always get in power and will always manipulate. So maybe we may never solve this problem. It may be in the nature of man’s fallen state that he has to endure the scourge of war. I don’t like to say that but it may be so. We could have a world of goodwill, but need only one deranged tyrant someplace with his hand on the button — only one — and the probability is that there is more than one.
Now Judaism seems to answer this question by saying that the ultimate resolution will be in the hands of the Messiah, which means that supernatural intervention is the only answer.
SUN: Let’s look at modern-day Israel. Its image in the media has gone from paschal lamb to neighborhood bully. What are your feelings?
DIN: That is a complicated question. It would seem clear to me that contemporary Zionism is wrong — not wrong because it happens to be pushing the Palestinians out of the land they have lived on for centuries. I don’t mean to say that’s all right either, but that is not the whole thing. Zionism is wrong because it is a rather clever attempt to trade on the thousands of years of aspirations of the Jewish people. It asks Jews baptized in a sea of blood and yearning and suffering to jump into a small pool of cheap third-world nationalism. Zionism by nature is the translation into political philosophy of the ideals of secularism and materialism. That’s almost what gave it its impetus. The cultural milieu of assertiveness and acquisitiveness and the capitalistic emergence in western Europe reached the Jews, at which point they said, “What are we sitting here getting hit on the head for? We should get our act together, get ourselves a piece of land and do the same thing that the English, French, and Americans are doing.” The next question was where. The answer seemed to them obvious — our historic land. If they take that option instead of getting a few thousand square miles on the coast of Africa or South America — which were some of the options of original Zionism — they could capitalize on the spiritual thrust of 2,000 years of exile. To the little Jews in the ghettos up in Europe, Africa wouldn’t have the appeal that the land of Israel would. There was a very subtle process by which the proponents of secular Zionism took over the spiritual armament of traditional Judaism, to fan its own fire. A lot of problems arise from that.
Now, while that is obviously something of an indictment, at the same time we have to realize that God moves in mysterious ways. Quite apparently a number of Jews who would not otherwise have been affected by the religious option have been affected by their relationship to Israel. So it might be that in a way that we cannot fathom or chart directly, thousands or millions of Jews have now been brought back to a point of relatedness to their heritage, who otherwise would have run themselves off the rolls. To regather the Jewish people to its land (at the time of the Messiah) is the messianic vision, and we see that perhaps God’s ways are not ways that we can fathom so easily. Purposes that appear to be at opposite ends from the stated purposes, in the greater wisdom, dovetail into those purposes. It appears that secular Zionism is the antithesis of spiritual Judaism, but it may be that for God’s purposes he alone put the two together to reap a harvest of spirituality out of the seedbed of materialism.
SUN: In working with kabbala, there’s a great deal of looking behind the words of the Torah to the inner meaning. Could you speak about the relation of inner truth, which is unspeakable, to the words we can speak?
DIN: You should have asked me that first, because then we would have begun and stopped. The Ari, the great teacher of kabbala, wrote almost nothing; he wrote three poems, set to beautiful melodies that we sing on Shabbos. But he wrote nothing on any of the texts. And yet there are eight very large texts that are called “The Writings of the Ari” that his disciples wrote. When he was once asked why he didn’t write anything he said that he couldn’t —he opens his mouth and it’s just like (shrugs) Whewww! That says it. All the rest is to prime the engine.