- Rabbi Mordecai Finley
We, Who Are on the Road
Seeking the Good - Weekly Thought
I knew very young that the Bible was not the word of God. Growing up in the home of Marxists who became Socialists who became Democrats but who remained secular atheists probably influenced that knowledge. Until one day, when historical forces conspired to land me in Hebrew school in September 1967. You might think that some kind of crisis ensued, secular Marxism hitting religious Judaism head on. Nothing of the sort. My parents had not joined the synagogue because they had discovered God. They joined because they had discovered their Judaism (my mom born into it, my dad enlisted).
I think that just about everyone in the little synagogue we joined (the Compton Jewish Community Center) was similar to my parents. Politically, hard to center left, but people who loved their Judaism. Mostly military veterans and their wives; a large minority of Holocaust survivors. Their synagogue was the way to be Jewish. Why Conservative Judaism? I think because, simply, Reform was not Jewish enough for these folks. We never discussed God, the meaning of prayer, the soul. We certainly never discussed the divinity of Scripture.
Like many of my generation, I had authentic mystical and spiritual dimensions, but never worked out these dimensions in synagogue. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have been mentored by a high school teacher who was a closet mystic. My mentor introduced me to mysticism, hence to philosophy, hence to religion.
The mystic has an experience that leads to a perception that things are not the way they seem. Reality looks pretty static. Chairs and tables. Dogs and cats running around. Many human beings running around, lost and focused at the same time. Focused on not feeling lost, mostly unsuccessfully. Searching for ways to fill up the time they have left. Terrified of the clock, but resigned to it.
The mystic feels like one who can see light move, who can see electricity flow. Those are metaphors. A person who can see that light is a garment of a reality that is unspeakably immense and awesome, and that the light runs through us and that light is our ultimate nature. And that nothing in this world seems to affirm the existence of that unseen light, except when you meet other people of a mystical bent and you share the aching wonderment that nothing of this world makes any sense but here we are nonetheless. Now what?
Being skeptical about how things are leads to philosophy. Not accepting the answers of the tradition regarding what we are obligated to do leads to the study of ethics. For some, religion is the study of the dogma of yesterday. For others, religion is the way for a community to enter into the mystery.
I think that in the 100,000 or so years that people like us first appeared on the earth that people such as Plato and Newton and Kant and Hegel and Einstein (I am adding Whitehead to the list of the cognoscenti) always existed. People around them said "Too smart for their own good" and "what the hell are they talking about?" Imagine being Plato, Kant or Hegel without the language to express yourself and without anyone to talk to anyway (you only knew a couple dozen people max so what were the chances?)
Or imagine Newton or Einstein without a millennium of math behind you so you could stand on the shoulders of giants. Schopenhauer said (so I read), that talent can hit a target no one else can hit, and genius can hit a target no one else can see. How many geniuses saw what no one else can see, and died never really able to tell anyone?
Once my mentor had inducted me into the ultimately real world of the unseen, I discovered, to my profound delight, that a great library existed of those who had perceived the unseen through their own apertures. I read without much of a plan and certainly no community, but I read a great deal. When I arrived at university, I accepted the plan of truly talented people and even a genius or two, people touched by some light.
I have spent a better portion of my life trying to organize what I have seen and what I have studied and reflected on experiences that opened up new paths for me. For example: A particularly glorious moment was an experience I had studying Midrash in rabbinical school. For a flash, the text sank into me and I sank into the text. I saw myself looking into my own eyes. I experienced the inter-referentiality of sacred text and human identity. I knew in a flash that the Bible and the texts that the Bible generated were not words of God, but texts through which the light of God might flow and into which we might flow. Texts bursting with God and humanity, seeing each other with the same eyes.
I have been reflecting on this road, from Marxist parents to actually studying Marx, himself influenced by Hegel and Kant and ultimately Plato. I feel like reflecting on this road out loud, so what better place than the morning study sessions at Ohr HaTorah? Please join me in my reflections. I would love to hear your responses.