There’s a neat little barbeque over the mountain from me that has the following sign above the urinal:
“Best Bar-B-Q you can get in a building that hasn’t already been condemned”
You can’t just stand there staring at the wall with bits of sauce unwashed off your hands without looking up at the ceiling and then laughing.
We were there because of a recommendation and we needed a trip out of our own woods for a change of scenery. It’s been a long winter and a slow spring, with snow still scattered about. Time to make some choices.
So when my wife Jody and I got to the spot, it was little more than a shack with a pipe stack sticking through the roof and a pile of split wood used for fuel. In summer, I’m sure people sit at some of the picnic tables out front. This time, though, we were able to squeeze inside where a few people gathered around the four tables chatting and eating.
The customers were mostly young students from a local university. They had their backpacks and a few books on the tables and floor.
One of these books that caught my eye dealt with the Kabbalah, the book of esoteric Jewish teachings meant to explore mystical religious interpretations. At its foundation, the Kabbalah tries to explain the relationship between the unchanging, eternal and mysterious, and the mortal and finite universe. For want of a better explanation, it is meant to examine the nature of the universe and of human beings, the purpose of existence, and various other ontological questions.
Pretty vague stuff and no clearer than what I had “learned” from discussions during a recent class given by Rabbi Joe at the Harrisonburg, Virginia, synagogue.
In listening to the friendly young students, I asked the one with the book what he was getting out of it. He beamed at the opportunity to tell us about how he had been attracted to some of its ideas, since he was exploring different approaches to living a full and meaningful life. I told him I had just finished reading a biography of Leonard Cohen, the great Canadian-born singer-songwriter, musician, poet, and novelist, who also is deeply committed to understanding Kabbalah. As Sylvie Simmons says in her book I’m Your Man, Cohen uses Kabbalah “not so much as a theology but as spiritual psychology and in a way to mythically represent the Divine.”
He showed interest in what I was saying and admitted he was still at some beginning steps and wasn’t quite sure where he was going. We laughed again and I told him that Leonard also admitted to stumbling around in search of something that he knows will always remain elusive. It’s the old story about the journey, not the destination. As Cohen acknowledges, we’re always at the beginning of our understanding, since we are creatures who live in a linear world. Besides, he’s not always able to find his way, either. One of his comments that stuck with me was: “If I knew where all the good songs come from, I’d go there more often.”
When I got home, I decided to reread my notes from the class, which was formally titled The Kabbalah: What Madonna and Julia Roberts Got Wrong.
One thing that stands out is that you go on this journey only when you’re ready and prepared to be responsible. As the student and I laughed, we agreed that no topic is off limits in the study of Kabbalah–sex, violence, murder. It’s not all about death, betrayal, and God, though, juicy as these are. As the name suggests, it also includes the stuff that pushes all of us to want to understand our lives: desire, regret, suffering, love, hope, even yukking it up on occasion.
A common theme throughout Kabbalah is the sense of mystery. I had written in my notes that one should not think it will lead them to any sense of certitude. It simply is there to give us more options to understand the text of our lives. What it says to me is never final. It simply opens an entryway to a different view in order to see with new eyes. Perhaps next year the message will be different still. As the Rabbi says, it’s like an adornment on the bride’s dress. If we’re patient and hard working, we may even be rewarded with a peek into the impenetrable darkness.
Another way of putting it is that the Kabbalah provides us with a perch on God’s shoulder to get a glimpse of the whole picture. But, of course, this view will always be obscured, forever luminous but never transparent. These are the visual sounds of silence.
But the mystery will never be revealed. We are only to be in awe of it. The Kabbalah cannot be divorced from its Jewish beginnings and traditions. Above all, it should be studied with appreciation of Talmudic flexibility. It certainly is no strict dogma without change. And it should never be abused by being wrapped in cultish “magic” or tatoos as practiced by Madonna and her ilk. In sum, it’s not a pinball machine assuming it can manipulate God.
As the student and I parted, I found a passage out of the Cohen biography that captured the kind of Kabbalah life outlook that appeals to me:
“…it is a journey to gain permission to locate a self, a self that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence.”
As Cohen says,
“If one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty…in the Jewish tradition one is cautioned against trying to comfort the comfortless in the midst of their bereavement.”
When we link hands with our fellow human beings in their hour of need– which is perhaps what our “sole and soul” real responsibility should be in this life– then we must learn never to lament casually.
The answer lies within the mystery.