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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Antidote 
"To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction"  -- Sir Isaac Newton

Idolatry is the result of an excess of self-awareness.  This excess comes about as we see the world more and more in our terms.  Our imagination determines what the world and God must be.  We cease to be the observer that we were intended to be, and project our imagination on to the world.  In this way, we create gods in our image.

The gift of self-awareness that made it possible for us to acquire knowledge of God and God's creation must be limited in order for us to fulfill its promise.  In all things, metaphysical and scientific, we must be able to "step aside" from what we are observing.  However, if we put too much "distance" between ourselves and the observed, then the observed becomes increasingly nebulous.  As a result, we are driven to fill in the lost information with our imagination.  It is necessary to limit the "distance" between the observed and the observer.  This is particularly difficult when the observer is also part of the observed.

It is at this point metaphysics and physics join.  Newton's third law states "for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction".  Kabbalah teaches that for every created attribute there must be an equal and opposite attribute.  The opposing attribute that limits self-awareness is "other-awareness".  Other-awareness is the recognition that there is an observable world that exists beyond your imagination.  We are a part of the observed in that world.  If being the observer provides the knowledge that leads to dominion, then being the observed leads to humility and respect for others. Humility is not self-depreciation or submissiveness. These are the excesses of humility, just as arrogance and narcissism are the excesses of dominion.  Humility is the antidote for narcissism, arrogance and idolatry.  It is respecting others as you respect yourself.  Alternatively, to put in biblical terms, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself".

Like the opposing actions in Newtonian physics, the opposing actions of dominion and humility ensure that our actions remain within the boundaries of God's creation.  It sustains the harmonious balance of that creation, and avoids the chaos of excess.

What if Cain had recognized that Abel was a human being like himself?  And, that both he and Abel were striving to please God.  Then he might have understood that his shortcomings were his own, and Abel bore no blame for them.

What might have happened if the people of Noah's time had recognized that everyone deserved the same respect for their person and property?  Finally, what might have happened to the people of Babel, if they had acknowledged that there is an entity that governs creation and they were subject to its boundaries?

When humility is carried to the extreme, it leads to a loss of self.  Consequently, we lose the power to take responsibility for our actions.  In terms of the Anthropic Principle, we lose the capacity to be an observer.

It is this tension between dominion and humility that permits us to acquire knowledge of God through God's creation, not our imagination.  The concept of action - reaction in metaphysics is essential in Kabbalah, just as its counterpart in physics.  It is essential to the Kabbalistic model of the Sefirot.  Some call this model "the Tree of Life" or "the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil".  I would like to add a third name, the "Tree of True Self-Empowerment".  It also addresses the meaning of Gen. 1:27, "And God created man in His image".  The action - reaction pair of dominion - humility is one of the elements that are part of the Sefirot.

From this, we learn that true self-empowerment comes when we learn to balance the opposing actions within ourselves.  In this case, we must become aware that dominion and humility in ourselves are not mutually exclusive.  We can recognize the talents and capabilities that make us special.  At the same time, we can recognize the talents and capabilities that make others special.  Being able to maintain this balance is, indeed, empowering.
Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated."  --  Voltaire

Kabbalah teaches that anything positive, taken to excess, becomes a negative.  When we achieve the self-awareness needed to become an observer, we acquire knowledge of everything we observe.  Knowledge is power, and it enables the observer to achieve dominion over the observed.  This is the dominion that God promised in Gen. 1:26 and 1:28.  However, when this is misdirected and taken to excess, it leads to narcissism, arrogance and idolatry.

This is demonstrated by the events after Eden.  First, there was Cain who murdered his brother in a fit of narcissistic rage.  He blamed his brother for his own faults.  Nobody had the right to be better than him.  Then, there was the generation of Noah whose arrogance gave them the right to take whatever they deemed theirs. 

Finally, there were the people of Babel who choose to elevate themselves to the status of gods.  They brought about the ultimate denial of God - idolatry.  Then we become so self-engaged that we see everything as an extension of ourselves.  We cease to be an observer.  We create a barrier between ourselves and the acquisition of knowledge of God, and trivialize our purpose in creation.

What is idolatry?  For the answer, we need only turn to the second Commandment:  "You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness (underline mine) which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth" (Ex.20:4).  We normally think of idolatry as having to do with graven images, but the second commandment includes a second category: "any likeness" that exists in all of creation.  That includes the likeness we create in our imagination. 

This theme is echoed across the history of religion.  It appears as Ishvara in the ancient Hindu Taittiriya Upanishad.  "He created all this, whatever is here. Having created it, into it, indeed, he entered. Having entered it, he became both the actual and the beyond, the defined and the undefined, both the founded and the unfounded".

Maimonides argued that God was beyond human conception, and that any effort to conceive of God in material terms was idolatry.  He conceded that very few humans had the capacity to think in the abstract and they required concrete representations of God.  For this reason, he agreed with the Sages that the Torah was "written in the language of man".   However, he warned that accepting these representations as actual descriptions of God was idolatry.  This thinking was the same as that which brought idolaters to their belief by false imaginations and ideas.  John Calvin summed up these ideas in stating: "Man's mind is like a store of idolatry and superstition; so much so that if a man believes his own mind it is certain that he will forsake God and forge some idol in his own brain."

The Hebrew root of the word for sin means deviation or departure.  Sin is then departure from the ways of God or God's creation.  Idolatry is the absolute departure from God.  As Calvin asserted, if we accept the false images of our minds, then we replace God with gods of our own making.  This is why Maimonides insisted that the source of all evil is idolatry.

This particular example of how a positive can be transformed into a negative also provides insight into freedom of choice.  We obtained the opportunity to become an observer and acquire knowledge of God's creation and, ultimately, of God.  However, we chose to create our own god.  Perhaps this is the warning of Deut. 30:19, "This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life".

It might be worthwhile to consider the idolatry that pervades our own lives.


Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist

Thursday, February 14, 2013

And God said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, and let it be a separation between water and water."
--  Gen. 1:6

The book of Genesis describes the creation process as a series of separations: light from darkness, Earth from the heavens, day from night, the various life forms and humans from other life forms.  However, the final separation did not occur until after the creation.  That was the separation of humanity from God.

From the perspective of metaphysics, there are aspects of Torah that cannot be revealed in terms of simple language.  The Sages tell us "The Torah speaks according to the language of man", that is to say, expressions, which can easily be comprehended and understood by all, are applied to the Creator.  In addition, Maimonides asserts, "For this reason the prophets treat these subjects in figures, and our Sages, imitating the method of Scripture, speak of them in metaphors and allegories; because there is a close affinity between these subjects and metaphysics, and indeed they form part of its mysteries."

The separation of humanity from God began with the first commandment given exclusively to humans.  When God told humans "you shall have dominion", humans were separated from the rest of creation.  Then humans acquired speech.  Speech is the necessary component of intelligence.  When humans were tasked to name the animals, they obtained the capacity for choice.  Choice is required for creativity.

In an earlier post {12/25/13), I referred to Maimonides' attributes of God.  Three of the six were intelligent, creates and governs.  If you compare them to the ones that we just identified with humans, this raises an interesting question.  Is this what was meant when Gen. 1:27 states, "God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them"?

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  As a result, a barrier is placed between them and God (the cherubim with the flaming sword).

After the creation of Adam and Eve, we are told, "Now they were both naked, the man and his wife, but they were not ashamed." (Gen. 2:25)   After they ate the fruit we find, "And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves girdles." (Gen. 3:7).  Historically, this has been interpreted as a tale relating sexuality and sin.  I beg to differ with this opinion.  This literal interpretation contradicts the creation story itself.

 I will follow the guidance of Maimonides and the Sages and view the creation story as allegorical, containing profound wisdom for those who seek it.  The references to "nakedness" cannot apply to sexuality as a sin.  At the time of the creation, before the Tree of Knowledge incident, God commanded Adam and Eve (humanity) to "be fruitful and multiply".  Nakedness can have another connotation: to be exposed.  That is, they had become aware of themselves.  In Freudian terms, they had acquired an ego. When combined with intelligence and creativity, self-awareness / ego provide us with the capacity to separate ourselves from the world beyond ourselves (i.e. the observed) and become an observer.

However, as Kabbalah teaches, anything positive, taken to an extreme, becomes a negative.  The negative of self-awareness is narcissism and idolatry.  Then we become so self-engaged that we see everything as an extension of ourselves.  We cease to be an observer.  We create a barrier between ourselves and the acquisition of knowledge of God.  As Maimonides asserted, "we can only obtain a knowledge of Him through His works".


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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Observer
"Torah enables a spiritual person to engage the
world and find there all for which his soul thirsts."
-- Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Most of us have been raised to believe that the purpose of metaphysics/mysticism is to take us to a world beyond the world we live in.  This is misdirection.  As Rabbi Schneerson asserts, the place to acquire knowledge of God is in this world. 

 This is echoed throughout history.  When Moses was told that he could only see God's back (Exodus 33:23), it meant that he could only see the consequences of God's presence in this world.  Later, Maimonides declared that "we can only obtain a knowledge of Him through His works; His works give evidence of His existence, and show what must be assumed concerning Him, that is to say, what must be attributed to Him either affirmatively or negatively."  Variations of this idea are found in many metaphysical systems, such as Zen Buddhism and Yoga.  Then, in order to acquire knowledge of God, the metaphysician must seek evidence of God in this world.

In previous posts, I have tried to develop the idea that science, economics, national philosophy and even swimming in the ocean can demonstrate metaphysical principles.  Furthermore, I have addressed some of the issues of our own perception of the world that are barriers to our recognition of the metaphysical realities of our world.  If we choose to take the Anthropic Principle seriously, then all of these examples address our role as an observer.

Both the kabbalistic and the scientific approach to ourselves as observers recognize a paradox.  We are both the observer and the observed.  The role of an observer is to separate her/himself from the observed.  But, we are a part of the creation that we are trying to observe.  This causes a confusing complexity to our role of observer.  

The scientific method has demonstrated its ability to provide us with an extremely good method for approximating that separation.  The teachings of kabbalah contain the potential for achieving a similar level of approximation when applied to this world.  This is exactly what Rabbi Schneerson was referring to in the above quote.

To illustrate this paradox in concrete terms, I will go back to the results of a calculation that I did many years ago.  The problem was to determine the optimum body temperature for a living creature required to achieve maximum ability to perform work in the external world.  The result, relative to the Earth's average ambient temperature, was 98.6°F.  This is the average body temperature of a human being.  For creatures of higher temperature (e.g. birds), they have to use all their available energy for feeding and survival.  For creatures of low temperatures (e.g. snakes), they need heating from the sun in order to feed and survive.

It is this optimum temperature, relative to ambient temperature, that provides humans with the excess energy needed to acquire knowledge, and to build pyramids and spaceships.  It offers a profoundly personal demonstration of how the environment determines our behavior.  Furthermore, our acquisition of knowledge demonstrably affects our environment.

When we acquire knowledge of the external world, we are the observer.  When we apply that knowledge to influence the external world, we become part of the observed.  This creates a cycle of observer - observed that leads to growth and adaptability.  This is the path to Truth / God.  The challenge to the metaphysician is to maintain the delicate balance between observer and observed.
Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist