A Mystical Vision

world trade center croppedLast week, I had a mystical experience.

As I took my seat on an airplane flying from Toronto to Vancouver, the man next to me put on large headphones. He then actively avoided noticing me for four and a half hours.

His behaviour bothered me.

He had his reasons for wanting to be alone and they had nothing to do with me. Still, what he did sparked something for me.

Despite the walls he put up, we were not actually separate. His actions, and the thoughts and feelings behind them, affected me.

And I saw:

His psyche is inside him, and also outside of him.

Consciousness is both inside and outside each of us.

To imagine my consciousness centred in my body, as I usually do, is an illusion.

The source of experience lies beyond my body, brain, or mind.

What I am, what we are, is not bounded by our bodies.

Of course there is life after death, because the source of life does not die.

My old view of an “I” centred within me and generated by my brain is a false product of unclear thinking.

Just as gossip makes it hard to see people truly, so the conventions of language and dogmas of science make it hard to see myself truly. 

To see clearly, I have to lift veils of opinion over and over again.

I sat in my seat, typed a report on my laptop, entertained someone’s bored baby, walked through the airport, and endured the chaotic crush at baggage claim. I just did it all with a beatific smile on my face. Many people smiled back, delighted to be lifted for a moment out of their traveler’s stress.

The words I choose to describe this experience are not unique. I seem to have learned them from great teachers before me.

In his book Republic (c. 380 BCE), Plato tells the allegory of the cave. We live as if we are prisoners in a darkened cave, seeing shadows cast on a wall, and imagining them to be real objects. If a person were to break free, exit the cave, behold the real world in sunlight, and return with a magnificent report, the prisoners would still prefer to live in their shadowy reality. The cave is everyday human thought; the prisoners are you and me.

The Alter Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, in his Kabbalistic work Tanya (1797),  describes God’s light emanating through successive screens. Some screens, such as the human experience of identification with a body, cannot be removed. But we can increase our awareness of the screens, and thus of the Divine light showing through them.

Some religious traditions label mystical experience subversive.

This week, I understand why. In this type of experience, gossip appears as a veil. Models of the self appear as a veil. Religious theories about the nature of God and the soul appear as a veil, too. At best, they seem to be partial metaphors; at worst, they seem to be mistakes and lies.

Not just everyone else’s religious theories; the ones I was raised with, too.

No, I won’t be abandoning Judaism. My parents raised me with religious and cultural Judaism as a natural habitat and I did the same with my children. For me, connection with ancestors and a chain of tradition 3,000 years old is another kind of mystical experience. It’s an experience rooted in body, culture, and personal identity — quite different from last week’s transcendent experience.

From a personal and cultural perspective, Judaism is “mine.” At the same time, from a spiritual perspective, I am part of something much larger than “me” or “mine.”

So when I encounter choices, like Susan Katz Miller’s decision to raise dual-faith children described in the New York Times article “Being Partly Jewish,” I understand. I understand both the negative and positive responses to her decision.

I understand, profoundly, the fear of Jewish civilization disappearing. If that happened, a lot of what I am, too, would disappear. It might even seem as though I had lived in vain.

And I also understand, profoundly, that Judaism is only a civilization. Its religion is only a set of symbols pointing beyond themselves. By enjoying two faith traditions, one might compromise everything on the cultural level. But, at the spiritual level, one might well compromise nothing at all.

The prophet Zechariah speculated that Judaism might ultimately transcend itself. “On that day, God will be one and God’s name will be one” (Zechariah 14:9).

Maybe it will. I don’t ultimately know.

And that’s okay, because ultimately, there may be no “I.”

And, ultimately, true spiritual knowledge may not belong to the “I” at all.


Image: One World Trade Center, a structure mirroring the sky, photo by Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2013.

Cross-posted at RabbisWithoutBorders at MyJewishLearning.com.

  1. My high school English teacher, who was Jewish, once sarcastically questioned why we’re stuck with the Wall to pray at. “Why a Wall? Why not, say, a window? A frosted window or something that we can all gather around and squint at and exclaim, ‘Oh, I see an aspect of God through it!'”

    At a party recently someone was trying to explain that the sheer devastation to the populations of Jews in Eastern Europe post WWII, left the survivors with no choice but to inter-faith marry, or risk becoming extinct.

    So, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Maybe if Judaism is meant (is Designed?) to transcend itself, it can only do so with the aid and support of other faith traditions, who themselves are also seeking transcendence. Maybe to fully cast off the veils, to clear the foggy glass of God’s Window, we need to become more than Christian households, or Jewish households, or even Half-Jewish, Half-Christian households, and instead become an unique thing, beyond the ‘I’ and beyond what all previous symbols have only hinted at.

  2. Wonderful Reb Laura! Fresh & real and touching many bases, as usual. Yes, why else is the Golden Rule Golden? Or is it eminently practical to live by recognizing that “all that goes around comes around”? How can Adonai Echad apply only to a transcendant Hashem and not to each “Tzelem Elohim? And so, now, how, exactly to guide others in experiencing all “this” (Zeh Eli) directly for themselves, and not merely reading or thinking about it?

  3. Once we have received an essential experience such as this one, it is ours forever. We only have to remind ourselves that it is part of what we are. For me, there is always the desire to ” live there”. Mostly, though, where I live is behind the veils. Preparation and study help, but ultimately, I think these experiences come to me through Grace.

  4. Thank you so much for these multiple perspectives: interfaith, education, grace – all avenues to explore as this continues to unfold.

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