This happened recently when I had a "Torah in the Hood" salon at my place for about 20 Jewish singles.
The class was connected to Purim, and it was billed as "A mystical journey into a mysterious holiday." The speaker was the Chasidic mystic and philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman, author of "Doesn't Anyone Blush Anymore?" which on its back cover has a raving blurb from a fellow mystic named Bob Dylan.
Little did we know during the polite chatting over Moroccan tea that we were about to be ambushed by the rabbi's provocative riffs on the human soul.
With the glow of candles reflecting softly on his long white beard, Rabbi Friedman didn't waste any time. He started by telling us that the struggle in Judaism is not to find the truth -- because we already know it. The struggle is to realize we know it, and then make it compatible with our reality.
Argument is part of the noise that makes us forget we already know the truth. When we get drunk on Purim so that we can't tell the difference between "Blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman," it is to show us that beyond the state of knowing and reason -- when our minds are plastered -- our souls are intact and sober, and they know the truth.
The body might be drunk, but the soul is our designated thinker -- it never stops knowing the difference between Mordechai and Haman, between right and wrong, between holy and unholy.
Rabbi Friedman was talking about the human soul as if it had a mind of its own, a very confident mind.
The soul doesn't need argument or reason to make its point. It knows that this is wrong because it is wrong, and this is right because it is right. The soul doesn't need to explain why you should go to the gym or visit the sick or control your anger or resist gossip or be Jewish. It is our Godly instinct. It just knows. It just is.
It was a little disconcerting to hear something as nebulous and intangible as a soul being talked about like a human asset at our disposal. But the notion that we could mine -- even emulate -- this asset was exciting.
According to the rabbi, we suffer from inner conflict, in part, because we don't allow ourselves to enter the state of "soulful knowing." Our rational minds are taught to process everything -- to challenge, to argue, to debate, to struggle, as if those acts themselves had some overarching truth. In the process of all this processing, our egos become the heroes. We become self-conscious instead of soul-conscious.
When we're not in touch with our souls, we're also confused about our roles. Our egos make us worship uniqueness. But the Torah values roles above uniqueness. When we praise the Woman of Valor on Friday night, we don't praise her for being unique; we praise her for being trustworthy, respectful, resourceful and compassionate. We praise her knowing soul.
In this mode of living, there is little room for tortured debate, agonizing dilemmas or self-absorbed obsessions. The struggle becomes to lower the noise level in our minds, nourish our souls with Godliness and then allow our soulfulness to permeate our reality.
In short, the rabbi was telling 20 well-educated Jews to put their minds in the service of their souls. But wait, the real discomfort in our Torah salon was still to come, and it started when someone brought up a perennial hot topic in the singles world: Looking for a soulmate.
Rabbi Friedman explained that the biggest obstacle in romantic relationships is what he calls the "third thing." This third thing is the all-consuming question one asks of potential soulmates: Are they fulfilling our needs?
We are in love with our needs and, because love is blind, we are blinded by them. We're in love with love, status, security, sex, laughter, companionship, intellectual stimulation, spiritual inspiration or whatever else we might need at any point in time. When we meet someone, we don't see a real person; we see a potential need-filler.
But need-filling is not the same thing as soul-filling. Needs are noisy and shifty, while souls are quiet and eternal. When we care about each other's needs at the expense of each other's souls, we become needmates, not soulmates.
As the rabbi reminded us, our needs can play tricks on us. They can come and go and change without notice, and then what? Who is left facing us? Who is that person we are having dinner with?
In his soft, almost whispering voice, Rabbi Friedman suggested another way. Perhaps the path to true love is to lower the noise level in our minds and bring only one thing to the table: the desire to learn who the other person is, so we can touch their souls.
Romantic unions that are born in this fashion are not flashy, but they create real soulmates.
By now, after 90 minutes of this spiritual jazz session, Rabbi Friedman had challenged us to look at our minds and souls in a different way, and he turned our views on love and soulmates upside down. Not bad for a night's work.
What's more, he didn't let us off the hook by using obscure language that no one understands. As far as esoteric messages go, his words were remarkably clear. Maybe that's why they shook us up -- and also drained us.
The reaction was not polite enthusiasm. It was more like, "What was that?" People left slowly and silently, as if something deep and quiet inside of them had been touched.
Their souls, perhaps?
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