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Religion & Mysticism by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz installment one from The Strife & The Spirit

Our generation has been inclined to approach religion through psychology, to see religion as a problem of the human soul, essentially unrelated to the concrete world of reality. In this general modern approach two different attitudes are apparent. One of them thinks of religion as an insubstantial dream, something the intellect and the emotions consider otherworldly. People who have such an attitude may even admire religion (or adhere to it) as one admires a work of art, and this is the way they would like to understand it or feel about it. Also, the use of religion for subsidiary purposes, or the lukewarm tolerance shown to it, all come from a view of religion as something pallid and indistinctly imaginative, a feeling that believers are dreamers of odd romantic fantasies.

On the other hand, there are people who seek a cartain reality in religion and in doing so reach different sorts of supernatural experiences - inner experiences that give one a feeling of reality, accompanied by perceived unnatural phenomena, which science cannot (or does not wish to) explain. In short, a kind of metapsychology, which has become a modern psychological substitute for metaphysics. The mystical experience and the supersensual experience have become matters of keen interest among broad circles of intellectuals who hope to find in such revelations of the soul something new and firm to cling to. They look for something beyond the known and the commonplace, which will provide man with the chance to contact G-d; they want to experience religiosity directly, without religion.

In any case, this contact with the subconscious (or if one prefers, with the superconscious) makes modern man feel that he is in touch with the untouchable beyond, with G-d. Then the religious reality seems clear and apparent, almost substantial enough for scientific experimantal confirmation. And G-d Himself is made more real, so to speak, with the assistance of the most scientific investigation and statistical analysis.

With all this, there is room for another reflection. These depths and heights of mystical experience open up vast realms of being, raise man to a level beyond and higher than himself toward... what? And indeed, does this inspired sensation, which overwhelms all the other sensations of the being and which seems to be altogether too overwhelming, does it truly lead to something? Does it lead to G-d?

In other words, the question being raised is: What is the relation between religion (as the expression of the bond to G-d) and the various mystical experiences? Are they identical, do they supplement each other, or do they belong to entirely different levels of being? More specifically, these questions lead us to inquire into the place of mysticism in the Jewish tradition.

In Judaism there is nothing extraordinary or unacceptable about extrasensory experience. It is quite natural for people to have the capacity to rise above the usual human level of functioning and to reach a higher spiritual consciousness. Judaism even recognizes different forms and levels of this capacity, such as prophecy, magic, and mystical power.

The attitude toward each of these various forms, however, is very different. Prophecy in Judaism is a basic source of religious knowledge, and the prophet is a person on the highest level of being. On the other hand, magic is strictly forbidden, on pain of death. What interests us here is the attitude Judaism takes toward the superhuman capacity for the mystical experience - that which is still very individual and fairly common and which does not properly belong to either prophecy or magic.

- to be continued


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