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Jewish Journal

Atheism, mysticism and ladders

by Rabbi Mordecai Finley

September 16, 2013 | 6:41 pm

I had a new insight about atheism this week.

Though my ongoing studies of Chasidism, I am encountering again a refutation of the supposed opposition of philosophy and mysticism. Moses Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher, who is understood rather firmly as being shaped by Plato and Aristotle, described the further reaches of human consciousness. At the highest levels of consciousness, language, words, and images run out. We apprehend the Divine in a completely trans-rational way. This is a rare experience among us; only a few, he would hold, have the natural capacity and the serious will it takes to transcend the rational mind and experience Nothing, no-thing. To put this is in the odd jargon of philosophy, the “thing-ness” of the Divine becomes absent.

We are attached to thoughts when we think about sublime things; love, justice, truth, beauty, holiness, and so forth. To pierce into the essence of the Divine, however, we have to experience something where the will to know simply becomes a silent will. One knows No-thing. This idea of that at further reaches of human consciousness we experience “Ayin”, No-thing, is a teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, who is teaching from long series of texts and teachers in the Kabbalah.

When an atheist says to me that there is nothing out there, no source or standard of love, justice, truth or beauty, that there is nothing outside of us that infuses life with meaning, I find myself in odd agreement. “You are right”, I think. “There is No-thing” Ayin, in Hebrew. Atheists perceive the No-thing, and of course give it no name, because it is Nameless. Perhaps some atheists experience what the greatest philosophers and mystics experienced. Atheists know, as do, I think, all serious spiritual seekers, that religion can be filled with so much noise, superficiality, moral nonsense, misguided thinking, and distractions from truth that many are rarely led to truth.

Which bring me to Rosh HaShanah. If the higher reach of religion, spirituality and mysticism is the experience of the pure will of No-thing (as Maimonides and the Kabbalah would teach), why do have so many words, concepts and names of God?  To put it simply, why do we have religion, Torah, Judaism or any other spiritual path? Why do we have the High Holy Days?

I think because consciousness is like a ladder. On rare days I have the ecstatic experience of the No-thing. More often, I have the abysmal feeling of the empty-thing. “I read the news today; oh boy”; ‘four thousands new graves in Syria . . .”  I think of the lonely, the desperate and the lost. My heart breaks for them, for us.

And in that breakage, according to an odd calculus that I don’t quite understand, a light comes through. And in the lyric beauty of our poetry, our liturgy, our holy stories, the deep, veiled layers of our holy ideas, I know that our spiritual path, our religion, is not to be literalized, petrified, or embalmed. It is to serve as a ladder though the great cloud of unknowing.

Immersed in our path, I am elevated. Perhaps not to the No-thing, but definitely to the Some-thing. 

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