Friday, October 20, 2006

Dvekus for Dummies

I want to talk today about a topic I feel uncomfortable addressing …religious feeling, and in particular the virtue of dvekus or cleaving to something larger than oneself. Freud addresses this sentiment when he discusses the oceanic feeling involved in the religious and mystical experience. He traces it back to the separation- individuation phase of human development, when the child has not yet fully separated from the mother. My feeling of discomfort stems from my commitment to writing a naturalistic blog about Jewish life. I can’t really talk about dvekus to God with the implication that the intention to encounter God has any hope of success. To do so would violate my self imposed naturalistic constraint.

Yet dvekus is an important part of all lives, not just religious lives. We all have the experience of losing ourselves by becoming so immersed in something, a book, music, a movie that we forget for a moment where or who we are. The success of the movie- going experience rests on the darkness of the room, the large size of the screen and the power the movie has to force us to suspend our ordinary common sense beliefs and immerse ourselves in a fantasy. When we emerge from the movie we always are a bit dazed and frequently smiling, happy to see our partner. We lost ourselves for a moment and our mazal has helped us find the way back. It is exciting and enjoyable.

Religious Jewish life has three areas where dvekus figures in an important way.

In prayer. A Jew who knows how to pray, and it is not an easily acquired skill, loses herself in prayer.

In learning. A Jew, who learns Torah for its own sake, with the desire to read the text in accordance with its correct meaning, becomes immersed in the Torah and experiences over time a certain merger with Torah so that the learning becomes internalized. He becomes at the highest level a breathing walking Torah.

In thought. Rationalist Jews find elements of dvekus in philosophical contemplation of metaphysical ideas. I would think in our time all serious systemic thinking creates the possibility of dvekus. A thinker becomes so involved in thinking, the material world fades and the thinker enters the higher world of thought.

Mystical Jews conceptualize dvekus more as a hamshachath haoroth, a drawing down of the supernal lights, through study of Torah, now including mystical texts, tefila, (prayer), and maasei hamitzvoth, performance of mitzvot and good deeds. The intuitive idea is that we can influence the quality of our time by drawing down the heavenly sparks (light,warmth). An absence of such light leads to dark times, times of war and famine and disease. The literature on dvekus and the hamshachat haorot model is abundant and truly wonderful. The model is flexible and works as a framework for understanding much of religious Jewish life.

Dvekus is open to every Jew including secular Jews. Hypnotic deep nigunim/songs, texts, works of art are all vehicles. I have serious doubts about the neo-chasidus that is found in liberal Judaism, especially in Jewish Renewal. At the same time, I applaud their attempts to teach Jews how to daven, how to sing a nigun with feeling, how to aspire to a deeper religious life. It would be best, in my opinion, if these mystical aspects were also grounded with the sort of deep thought available in Talmud, metaphysics or some serious discipline of their choice. A concentration on joy and mystical unions leads quickly to New Age spirituality, which in my opinion is more often than not pablum warmed over.

Here is the punch line: The opposite of dvekus is self absorption. Religious narcissism frequently leads to a self absorbed type of Judaism that is most concerned about how the chosen subgroup is really better than all others. For narcissistic Jews, no one but members of their small group is quite good enough, and even within their group, they are not quite sure. Instead of embracing the diversity of Jewish life, such Jews are full of complaints. For them most Jews are either too religious or not religious enough, sometimes both. Kvetching, carping and in- fighting follow. Oceanic feelings, mergers with transcendental objects outside one’s self are inclusive. The narcissistic perfection of being part of a chosen group is not. Instead of yearning for something great outside, they fall in love with their own and their group’s religious perfection. Once narcissism dominates, the narcissism of small differences takes over, and people begin to fight about minutiae.

Rather than give examples I ask readers to decide for themselves if my characterization of religious perfectionism corresponds to their experiences.

I’ll close with a little fun story for shabbus. Reb Leib Malin z’’l, the legendary Mirer lamdan, once visited the Satmar Rav, Reb Yoel Teitelbaum z’’l. As was the style in those days, Mirer yeshiva bochurim were clean shaven while in Satmar, of course, they only allowed Chasidim who never cut their beards. The Satmar greeted Reb Leib very warmly and they spoke at length in learning, as is the custom when Torah scholars meet. When Reb Leib had taken his leave, the Chasidim were all beside themselves. How could the Rav be so warm and welcoming to a young bachur who was clean shaven? The Satmar Rav said to his Chasidim like this: ''When Reb Leib gets to heaven, they will ask him ''Reb Yid, where is the beard?'' When you simpletons get to heaven they will ask ''Reb Beard, where is the Yid?''

Even in Satmar, the greater the dvekus, the more inclusive the vision of Jewish life.


At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

True story but it was Mike Tress not R Leib Malin by the way R Leib had a beard once he came to America

At 10:58 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

May I ask how you know ut was Mike Tress ? I heard the story from a chashiver rosh yeshivah whose father was an alter Mirer, Shanghai and all.

Didn't everyone acquire a beard once they came to America. It must be something in the water or air.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Either way, like the famous story about the Chofetz Chaim coming to be a witness in court for someone, "They don't tell stories like that about you and me." Gut Shabbos Kodesh!

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many Mirrer talmidim still did not sport a beard - evenin the U.S.

At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does this mean that if we fight among eachother about the BIG issues like mesorah and kefirah, you would not take this as narcisissm?

At 12:21 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

I voiced two complaints. The second is the fight quickly degenerates in to small issues. I call that the narcissism of small differences. When there are big issues involved, most certainly everyone is entitled to disagree strongly. Whether it counts as narcisstic or not depends on how it's said,including the ability to think through the other person's position. I try to give some telling-signs in my subsequent posts on narcissism and empathy.


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