Sunday, December 14, 2008

By special request (More mysticism)

My friend Mar Gavriel has asked me to post the following remarks:

DovBear -- you're right that there is a distinction between highbrow "mysticism" and lowbrow "magic". However, they are connected inasmuch as they have always been associated with each other, and often expounded by the same people. (It's a short way from saying "I can teach you my understanding of how otherworldly things work" to saying "I can do otherworldly things.")As much as you, I wish it weren't so -- and often it isn't -- but often it is, and this is not at all a new thing.

And yes, I am interested in the value of discussions of the powers of the letters of the alphabet (whatever that is supposed to signify about the teacher's understanding of language), and not interested in the value of a statement such as: "In order to become rich, write the letters Kuf-Alef-Yud on your hand, and inhale eight cigars as deeply as you can". However, I do see the connection between those two.

Years ago, I saw someone in a shul pour HUGE quantities of water on her hands for Netilas Yodayim. I asked her: "Why are you wasting so much water and time?" (I was one of the people waiting in back of her in line.) She said: "It's kabbalistic --the more water you use, the more money you make." I said: "That's not kabbolo."Was I right? It depends. If it is from a work which has a kabbalistic or otherwise mystical outlook, then it is tangentially related to kabbolo. If it is from a work which is purely devoted to these "segullôs", then no, I don't see anything kabbalistic about it. Does it matter? No -- either way, it's "magic".

I'm of a different mind. I have no patience for anyone who imagines religion as a sort of technology that can be used to manage the world or alter events. I don't believe in charms or spells of any kind, and tefilla that is intended as a charm, or presented as a spell, is a disgrace and a denial of God, not a true prayer.

I confess, though, to having a bit of mystic in me, but I mean it in what I think is a different sense. I like being among Jews when they are at serious prayer. I enjoy the hum of devotion, and I enjoy adding my own voice to it. I take pleasure in stumbling over obscure Hebrew poems, just as I find contentment in the act of reciting the ones I find as familiar as my own face. I have no hope that these acts matter metaphysically, nor do I believe that my mumblings bring any benefit to the Creator of Heaven and Earth, or impose upon Him any obligations - the idea that words have such power is just imagination mixed with arrogance. Still, the thrice daily devotions ground me, and center me and give me an awareness of the history the runs through me, and the forces that have brought me to this point in time.

Why this works is a mystery but a mystery of psychology, not theology.

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