for Kate Otting
& John Martinson
We began by talking about kosher wines, and how they could possibly compete in taste if the method of koshering wines involved boiling the grapes, but somehow my friend Mike Altman and I veered from that to whether the Jews believe in an afterlife, and from that to the mitnagdim and the hasidim, two competitive Jewish sects that lived in Europe during the 18th Century. The mind does wander.
The mitnagdim were traditional Jews, and the label, "mitnagdim," means "opponents," I believe. The thing they were opposed to was the sharp rise of new hasidic sects under a Jewish mystic affectionately called "The Baal Shem Tov," or "Master of the Good (Divine) Name."
The fight between the mitnagdim and the hasidim (which means pious) was, from time to time vicious. The crux of the fight was the primacy of mind versus heart as the path to God. The mitnagdim were very traditional, and stressed the intense study of Torah and Talmud (a Jewish text containing a cross-generational discussion among learned Jewish scholars enabling later generations to continue to learn from earlier scholars). Their founder, a rabbi from Vilna called the Vilna Gaon, had supposedly learned to recite the entire Talmud by seven years of age, and was said to have studied 18 hours daily. Over the years, it became custom for rich men to wed their daughters to prominent Torah scholars, and then to support the son-in-law's family so he could continue his studies. In poorer circumstances, wives sometimes worked to support the family so that the husband could forebear from work in order to continue to learn.
Of course, I wasn't there, but stories about The Baal Shem Tov say he offered Jewish mysticism to the masses as a substitute for intense study. He did this because many of the people realized they would never be in a position to pursue the sort of intense dedication to study that mitnagdim rabbis said was necessary for a true and meaningful relationship with God. The Baal Shem Tov roused his followers through music, dance, meditation, stories of miracles and other rituals into spiritual states, similar in effect to the sufi whirling ceremony or the sun dance ceremony of certain native american groups.
There are still descendents of the two groups. I may be wrong, but I believe Aish, a strong Jewish outreach organization, has its theological roots in the mitnagdim, while the Lubovitch, a sect of hasidim with an outpost in nearly every city and on nearly every campus, are descendents of The Ba'al Shem Tov. Interestingly, these two groups today have nearly identical goals - reaching out to Jews who are somewhat lost or disconnected from Judaism - and have moved closer to each other theologically, as the study of the texts has taken a more prominent place in the Hasidic teachings. Even so, Aish, like the mitnagdim of the 18th Century, eschews mysticism for all but a select few, while the Lubovitch still make the rudiments of mysticism available in the form of stories, music, meditative practices, to all.
I give you this little bit of Jewish history because one of the more entertaining things (to me) about my own brain is the way it often connects seemingly disconnected things. Below, I've shared with you a talk given by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist. Several years ago, she suffered a stroke that basically disabled the left lobe of her brain, and left her functioning about 95 percent from her right lobe. The distinction between her left and right brain functions, as she describes this in the video, strikes me as much the same as the distinction between the mitnagdim and the hasidim. The left brain ties the mind to the concrete and the rational, while the right brain "dissolves" into the broader universe in an intense, loving and spiritual way. Jill Bolte Taylor, in describing her right brain experience, uses terms like peacefulness, euphoria, and "at one with all the energy that was." By the same token, she could not intellectually separate herself from her surroundings, could not identify or hold onto the meaning of words against the background noises in the space she physically occupied. Meanwhile, the five percent of her left brain function that remained kept abruptly emerging into consciousness long enough, in what she thought of as a "wave of clarity," to say, "hey, you've got to pay attention; something's wrong, you've got to get help."
Ultimately, she experienced these feelings of "expansiveness" and "enormity" and "peacefulness" as nirvana. And further, she realized that the right brain held the key to peace among humankind, if only we could work on harnessing it. But, aha! We need the left brain to do the harnessing and directing.
My brain does another odd thing - it eventually ties together for me the two disparate ideas that seem crazy when I initially present them to myself as connected. So bear with me while I explain the connection between the mitnagdim and the hasidim, Jill Bolte Taylor's left and right brain functions, Judaism, and world peace. LOL (that's "laughing out loud," Mom). Yes, it's all connected.
"5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. 6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; 7 and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. 9 And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates."
Healing in the natural world is both physical and spiritual. As a physical act of healing, it might manifest as something like cleaning up an environmental spill. As a spiritual act of healing, one might empower a child to believe in her talents. Sometimes, an act of healing can be both physical and spiritual, like when we participate in micro-funding programs that enable the poor in third world countries to become small-time entrepreneurs, giving physical sustainance, power in the material world and a spiritual lift for both the lender and borrower. In other words, these mystical concepts have very powerful real-world repercussions. Like Jill Bolte Taylor realized when she acknowledged that she needed her left brain to harness her right brain, it is important to realize that tikkun olam requires not just the mystical, spiritual urge to liberate the sparks from the shards and to heal the world, but the concrete teachings of the texts, like the Ve'ahavta, to help us know how to act.
Jill Bolte Taylor, by sharing her experience, seems to be offering us a kind of a knowledge gift from God, a living, scientific proof in Taylor's experience that healing the world is entirely possible - because the spiritual healing capacity is within us all - and if we can figure out how to harness it - peace is within our grasp. To get the full possibility and power of what I mean when I say this, I urge you to listen to Jill Bolte Taylor's talk.
And one last thing. I labeled this post "For Kate Otting and John Martinson." This is another of my odd connections, but I hope, Kate and John, you will both instantly know why I connect you with this post. But in case you don't, let me thank you here and publicly for being my friends, but more importantly, Kate, for your dedication to peace-making, and John, for somehow managing to effortlessly find and liberate sparks on a daily basis, seemingly without even trying. May I learn to emulate you both.
More about The Baal Shem Tov: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal_Shem_Tov
More about the mitnagdim: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misnagdim
More about Isaac Luria's Kabbalah: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/kabbalah/section9.rhtml
Hasidic Stories: http://tzaddikim.blogspot.com/