“One must also learn to read books against their declared intention.” - Gershom Sholem
“The task of Judaism is not to make everything anew but to set everything on fire.” - Chassidic saying
“Waves from the higher realm act on our souls ceaselessly. The stirrings of our inner spiritual sensibilities are the result of the sounds released by the violin of our soul, as it listens to the echo of the sound emanating from the divine realm … All our endeavors in the Torah and scientific studies are only to clarify whatever comprehensible words are possible to distill from the divine voice that always reverberates in our inner ear.” - Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook z.l. Lights of Holiness, 2:346
“To Live Outside the Law You Must be Honest” - Bob Dylan, ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’
“For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men, and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents whom one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and did not grasp it (it was a joy for someone else); to childhood illnesses that so strangely begin with such a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars – and it is not yet enough if one may think of all this.
One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again.
For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance, and gesture, nameless, and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves — not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.” - Rainer Maria Rilke (famed poet, 1875-1926), Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge.
Prologue, Part One
This is a first and provisional attempt to write a spiritual autobiography in a series of short essays also called Faith and Defiance, the Spiritual Journey of a Religious Rebel. A Contemplative Autobiography. I have been asked to do so by many of my readers and students after the publication of my short autobiography, Lonely but Not Alone (published in 2013 and accessible online). In that booklet I tried to reveal something of my unusual history and my unconventional thoughts on Judaism. It sparked much debate and received much approval and strong opposition. Thousands of copies were distributed or sold.
This new extensive autobiography divided into short chapters is not a book of memoirs, but a window into my soul. Besides the request to write it, it was also an assignment I had to undertake because an inner voice told me to do so. I could not escape the challenge.
I do not know how it will turn out and whether I will fully succeed in this endeavor. Time will tell. The reader should, however, be aware that this first attempt will only reveal one highly unusual layer of my life and my thoughts. Later on, when my spirit broadens, many more tiers will be added to this account of my experiences, reflections and insights.
These thoughts and experiences are not written in a logical, chronological sequence. They are written as they come to me. There is “no earlier and there is no later.” So you, my reader, will be thrown in the middle of all this and will need to place these reflection within your own life experience.
The life of every human being is a history of self-expansion, specifically of that which takes place in the subconscious. It is the great reservoir from which most of our thoughts and deeds emanate. As such, a spiritual autobiography can never be objective or scientific. We cannot see ourselves as a scientific problem. We are much more. Science works with general criteria and is therefore unable to penetrate the subjective, multi-dimensional sphere of a human being.
The problem with a spiritual autobiography is that there are no real criteria to work with. One does not have an objective way to judge what is happening within oneself and why one believes what one believes, or rejects what one rejects. One may make some good arguments, but they seldom convince anyone contrary to her or his inclinations.
There are no points of comparison or contrast, so I can only tell my story as I experience it. I can see myself “sub specie aeternitatis”, from the perspective of the eternal, but it is incomplete. I can’t know whether my autobiographical insights are objectively true. Nor is it important. What is important is only one question: Is this my story, my truth?
This autobiography was partially written in the early days of the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic in which I, like so many others, was confined to my “study,” but as the essays will reveal, on a deeper level, it was written as an expression of my existential loneliness, which is not always easy to live with, but has become the foundation of my life and thoughts. Still, I am surrounded by a great family, many friends and students. This is an enormous blessing that has made it easier to bear this existential solitude.
I know that I am unlike others, the product of an unusual life, a psychic process, which I control minimally. But I do not know how to describe this difference since I have no clear picture of who I am. Nor can anyone else, because much of the inner composition of my psyche is also unknown to them. The truth is that I have lived and still live a deviant life, which some people will have difficulty relating to. There are too many conflicting, disturbing and mysterious layers.
I do not even know when my life began. At my birth, while growing up, or now that most of my life is behind me? Life probably starts with the first memory; by chance. And all one knows is that it is complicated. What really happened? I am not sure. There are some external moments that I remember, but how did they affect me? I do not know. I only see and feel some results. Not much more.
So, I can only relate the experiences of my inner life and thoughts as personal, subjective encounters with myself. Even now that I am writing these essays, trying to formulate my thoughts and experiences, I know that I can only write the feelings, thoughts and moods of this moment. Tomorrow, when I continue to write, the thoughts and feelings will probably be different. True, my external story remains the same, but the way I experience it will, in all likelihood, be radically different.
What constantly surprises me is that our consciousness tries desperately to make sense of our experiences. Quantitatively, some of us deal with our lives as if our lives go on for a very long time, or even forever, but life’s moments pass much too quickly and are completely unreachable on a qualitative level. It is a complete miracle that something can come of it and that it can actually develop. Life is a process of the soul’s development, nourished by dreamlike appearances that create our inner lives. It is like a plant whose life is in its roots, which are unseen and hidden underground. All we see are a few leaves making short appearances, which quickly wither away. But “*Das Ding an Sich” (the thing itself) is unknown.
When thinking about this, one sometimes gets a feeling of meaninglessness. But we simultaneously sense that we are connected to the eternal roots underground, and these are of infinite meaning. What we see is the blossom, which is sometimes beautiful and other times ugly. But both disintegrate. Only the roots underground hold their own.
To be continued.
In memory of a very special friend Cilly (Sarah Bat Leah) Eitje-Richheimer z.l. Amsterdam, 1946-2019, 30 Nissan, 5706 - Tamuz, 5779.