Jewish Enlightenment

Several religions include the rationalist, panentheistic approach to existence. Others are incompatible with this view of existence. Judaism has long had a rationalist movement. Among the greatest of the Rabbinical scholars was undoubtedly Maimonides (the Rambam). His rationalist approach to faith is famous and well-studied by adherents of many faiths and by the academy. Likewise for Baruch Spinoza, certainly the most profound and visionary thinker of his time and possibly the greatest Jewish thinker of all time. Sadly, more primitive dualist ideas continue to prevail in the beliefs of many people. These higher, more sophisticated philosophies have not taken root among those who believe in the simplistic “blind faith” approach to spirituality. The idea of the oneness of all things often seems to be above the heads of many people. Many hold the outlook that one must have the intellectual prowess and strength of faith to understand the oneness of all things. Thus, true understanding or enlightenment, is the purview of a small elite.

A belief that all that exists is one substance, one conscious divine being, is to be found in many religious traditions. Among the other faiths that take on this approach are the Hindus of the Advaita Vedanta, for example. This school of Hindu thought eschews dualism and the direct worship of the Hindu “g-ds,” choosing instead to seek out the oneness of Brahman. Like the Hashem or Elohim of the Torah, this represents the one true creator of everything. The force that is the one substance that makes up all existence, the consciousness that causes all to exist. Although Hinduism and Judaism have a great deal in common, the differences largely emerge from divergent world views. 

Hinduism, like the Buddhism that grew out of it, looks at life as suffering. Sentient beings are trapped in a cycle of birth and rebirth in a system of suffering until they eventually achieve enlightenment and break free of the suffering. To find enlightenment, Hindus seek out ascetic lifestyles and pursue otherworldliness as a means to elevate their level of understanding. The mental disciplines, strictures, and routines of such a life help the pious individual achieve a certain transcendence of this world that leads to enlightenment. 

Hindu Sage Sri Adi Shankara 8th Century CE, regarded as the father of the Advaita Vedanta.

Judaism takes the rather opposite view that life is a sacred blessing, a gift given by Hashem, the creator, to us to be cherished and safeguarded. The ability to create new life is a further blessing bestowed by Hashem in giving us the ability to make more of ourselves and the right to take life is a grave responsibility. Justice must be very careful and meet the highest standards, for example, to bring a human life to an end. Responsibility for the world around us, for livestock, trees, and the land is likewise awarded to mankind, granted us in a sacred covenant (contract) that requires humans to be good stewards. Rather than seeking a transcendental enlightenment that relieves us from the burden of life, life is a blessing and Hashem requires only that we make an effort to make life better for ourselves, our offspring, and our fellow humans. 

Torah calls upon us to honor our parents that we will follow their traditions and continue to live by the law. In much the same way that the English philosopher Edmund Burke postulated that each generation owes the next a functional social tradition. In this way, a kind of simple enlightenment is passed from generation to generation. Without having to relearn in each generation the wisdom that is imparted from the previous, each new generation knows how to behave appropriately, what is expected of them, and how they can best use their talents for the betterment of the community. In this way, ancient wisdom, the enlightenment of past men and women, is passed on to future generations regardless of whether those generations have the inclination to or opportunity for higher intellectual pursuits. In some generations difficult times require people to be preoccupied with larger problems. The mid-20th Century, for example, for the Jewish people was largely consumed by the struggle to survive terrible tyranny and mass murder while also seeking the return to our ancestral homeland. The struggle of a displaced indigenous people to reclaim their homeland is no small undertaking. That the Jewish people succeeded at surviving the evils of the Nazis and the Soviets while also reclaiming Israel was miracle enough for one generation. Now that times are more comfortable, we have time to pine about larger questions. 

Nevertheless, Judaism maintains its “down to Earth” approach to learning. Far from a distant and abstract notion of enlightenment, righteousness is the ultimate goal of Judaism. To live a righteous life does not require asceticism, the ability to transcend reality, or a life of structures and privation. Neither does it require a great revolution or convulsion. Those raised within the Jewish tradition are already closer than they are aware. Righteousness requires only the obedience to Hashem and adherence to His laws. Hashem even declared as righteous men and women who did not always obey the laws so long as they were dutiful to Him. Perhaps knowing right from wrong, if not always being able to do the right thing, is the ultimate goal…?

A copy of the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) printed in Hannover in 1830.

The chief philosophical work of Judaism, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), tells us not to be too pious and devoted, neither to be too wise or knowledgeable. Kohelet tells is that he sought to build the greatest monuments that he might be remembered for all time; only to realize that people do not remember and that it does not matter. Likewise, a life of fun and hedonism is empty. Seeking to be the most pious is a selfish and self-defeating goal. To be too wise means knowing everything in the world that is wrong and how it could all work better if only most people were smarter or better disciplined. Yet, to drive everyone toward betterment that they do not understand will not achieve the desired goal. Vapor of vapors (or vanity of vanities) says Kohelet, all this is vapor. The book tells us simply to live our lives, obey the law, and enjoy what Hashem gives us. To love one’s wife, to sit beneath one’s fig tree and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor, to be just and righteous. 

The divine gift of a simple, righteous life is thus quite accessible. It is not in the sky that someone must fly to fetch it, neither is it beyond the sea that someone must chase across vast waters in search of it. It is easy to obey the laws, it is easy to be righteous. The simple man can access this life as easily as the greatest scholar. Indeed, the Rabbinical scholar Hillel boiled the path righteousness down to a simple phrase. A man purportedly came forward seeking conversion. He assured the sage that he would convert if only the sage could relate the most important aspects of the faith in the time that the man could stand upon one foot. Other Jewish sages had dismissed the man and sent him away. Hillel instead seized the moment relating: “What bothers you don’t do to others and the rest is commentary.” These profound words spoken two millennia ago give us an idea of just how simple the path of righteousness can be.

If Judaism can offer a set of simple rules for life that establish a path to righteousness accessible to the simple person as much as to the scholar, then perhaps it can also offer a path to the ultimate form and degree of faith that is likewise accessible. The key component to righteousness in Judaism is moral discipline. This involves building a lifestyle, a community, and environment that supports healthy, positive behavior that aids the individual in working toward their own betterment. This community already exists and the lifestyle is known, it is passed down one generation to the next.

The Neo-Confucians understood that as the individual betters themselves, as they gain wisdom and discipline, they improve their family and their community. As each individual improves and encourages improvement in others, so they create a better community; each person can engender the change they wish to see around them. As communities collectively improve, nations improve. As nations improve, so the world improves. Thus, a righteous person can inspire others to be better without pushing or driving them. It is a simple matter for those already raised in a tradition that fosters moral discipline and simple self-improvement. 

The Rambam (Maimonides) 12th Century CE

Making a better world is a path that, sadly, has been coopted in modern Judaism by mystics who have so distracted themselves from the true oneness of all things with their sorcery and diffusion of mystical deities and personalities that they daily drive themselves farther from righteousness. The beliefs and practices of Kabbalah distract them from truth and drive them away from understanding. It is one thing for a person to fail to understand because they struggle with the intellectual challenge or because it requires such a great strength of faith to believe in this truth, it is quite another to delude oneself and deliberately careen in the opposite direction. Surely, the rational path of the Rambam (Maimonides) is the correct one.

I will write more on the path of righteousness in future articles, in terms of human conduct. The Torah was written to govern the Holy Nation of Israel and to make it possible for the simple individual to be able to understand the law and live righteously without having to be a scholar. From its words, from its philosophical underpinnings, and from the prophets and writings that follow it, these ultimate universal truths can be gleaned. They are right beneath the surface screaming to be understood, calling out to the righteous, demanding to be heard. These are applicable beyond Judaism, ergo their universality, although they emanate from our simple outlook on life. Now, they can be heard and understood in a way never previously stated. They can be accessible to all along with a simple moral discipline by which everyone can achieve a righteous life and pursue enlightenment. 

The Seven Truths

1. All that exists is one. All things are made up of one substance. The substance is conscious and sentient. The substance is the divine. The divine substance causes all things to exist.

2. All that lives is sacred. The life of the sentient is sacrosanct, for the sentient is made in the image of the divine; it is the divine consciousness made manifest and self-aware. The perpetuation of life is the immortality of nations and families. 

3. The “ocean” of the substance becomes the “drop” of the living individual sentient; when the sentient dies the “drop” becomes the “ocean.” The sentient individual returns to the source.

4. All sentients are one. The other is a mirror image of the self. To harm the other is to harm the self. All sentient individuals should seek to achieve their greatest potential and help others to do the same. 

5. Moral discipline is essential for the self to achieve its full potential and to prevent harm to the other. To this end, there must be a legal codex that all can generally agree is just. Those who harm the other should be punished in order to protect the other and correct the one. 

6. Avoid distraction from the self. Do not worship the self, the image of the self or the other, do not revere any but the one divine substance that is to be found everywhere and in everything. 

7. Hearken to the voice of the divine, the divine is our ruler, the divine is one. (The Shema)

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