“A god whom one could serve only in one set way – what kind of God would that be!”

The Seer of Lublin [1]

“Just as people’s faces are different one from the other, so their opinions are also different one from another.”

Midrash Tanchumah [2]

“The Midrash is telling us that in the same easy manner in which we accept that another person’s face is different than ours, we should also accept that another person’s opinion can be different than our own.”

Menachem Mendel of Kotsk [3]

When we start out on the spiritual path, we think that we know everything. We are sure that we have found “the truth” and that our way is the only way. It is difficult for us to be open to the opinions of others. The more we advance along the path, however, the more we come to understand that life is a continuing unfolding of the truth. The more wisdom that we gain in our lives, the more we realize that we really know nothing at all.

It is this spiritual humility which leads us to be open to other opinions and ideas. It is this trust in God which allows us to open our hearts and our minds to other people and other points of view.

This spiritual openness is the hallmark of all great spiritual figures. This is because an evolved soul is multi-dimensional. He or she knows that there are many ways to approach God. In fact, the extent of his development can be measured by the breadth of his catholicity. The more evolved the soul, the more paths he will encompass in his embrace. Even if he is in a traditional religious setting, he will still exhibit this openness. This is often what marks him out as unique.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that this is because there are two types of tzaddikim (spiritual masters). One type of tzaddik lives a saintly life, but for himself alone. He cannot guide others along the path. He does not see with a breadth of vision.

Then there is another type of tzaddik. This tzaddik is more open and expansive. He appreciates all of the different spiritual paths. He can give spiritual nourishment to everyone according to their needs.

The Baal Shem believes that this is the hidden meaning of Psalm 92:13, “The righteous shall flourish like a [date] palm tree, grow tall like a cedar in Lebanon.” The cedar represents the first type of tzaddik: a strong tall tree but which bears no fruit. The date palm represents the second type of tzaddik: a tree that is both tall and strong, and also bears fruit in abundance. The Baal Shem leaves no doubt which tzaddik he thinks is the greater of the two. [4]

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was a perfect example of this second type of tzaddik. He insisted on the universal perspective as one of the pillars of his thought. He had an immense love for both religious and secular Jews. He believed in the need to be both spiritually strong and also expansive. As he writes in Arpelei Tohar:

 A Jew’s soul must grow broad. It must be aflame and grow mighty.

We must remove all obstacles upon its path, everything that does not help it proceed on its way.
Moreover, we must help it so that spiritual content will be available to it, and so that every mixture of temperament will help it blossom.

This is the secret of Torah in this world, and of all the paths of life of faith and holiness.  [5]

Encouraging the creation of many different paths will not undermine our faith, nor will it lead to spiritual chaos. True freedom does not bring religious anarchy. True freedom cultivates inspiration, creativity, vitality and joy in God.

We can see how this works in Hinduism. Hinduism encompasses many different paths to God. It grants enormous personal freedom in religious practice and worship to its practioners. This approach has fostered incredible spiritual creativity and it has produced numerous spiritual masters and saints.

The time of the early rabbis is a good example of a period when there was both substantial spiritual freedom and also tremendous creativity in Judaism. The early rabbis were open and relaxed in their approach to the religious life. Especially in the period before the compilation of the Mishnah, there was a profusion of paths and ways of living Judaism. In fact, the rabbis were considered to be radicals and heretics by the Sadducees, the religious establishment of their day. It is only later on that they became the normative approach within Judaism.

Even when majority rule was instituted by the rabbis, minor opinions were still kept in the record as an acknowledgement of the importance of seeing different viewpoints and the need to make space for the individual. This was one of the guiding principles of law and practice for them, part of their particular approach to the religious life.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that this diversity of approach is the outward expression of a profound spiritual ideal. When we truly accept that all the different opinions are part of one single indivisible Truth, we are revealing the unity behind the multiplicity of physical manifestation. The more that we can hold different opinions, and at the same time work together with a sense of unity and love, the more God’s Oneness will be revealed in the world. This unity in diversity, Rebbe Nachman believes, represents a superior Divine revelation than if everyone followed the same spiritual path. [6]

Reb Gedalia Koenig, one of the modern-day leaders of the Breslov Hasidim in Israel, had a beautiful way of expressing this vision. The people of Israel are like a great tree. The tree has one main trunk from which spring a multitude of branches with an abundance of leaves and flowers on every branch. Each branch is different than the other, each leaf and flower has its own individual shape, color and fragrance. They all contribute their unique character and personal qualities to the tree. This is what gives the tree its beauty and its grace. [7]

Reb Gedalia’s tree is a symbol for the Soul of Israel. It reflects the infinite ways in which God has manifest His Divine Being through the millions of lives that make up the people of Israel. The more each of us can reveal that Divine spark that is within us, the more radiant our flower or leaf will be. The more we can see that Divine spark in others, the more glorious the entire tree will become.



Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1.  Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Book I, p. 313 
  2.  Midrash Tanchumah, Torah portion Pinchas # 10 
  3.  Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, Emet veEmunah, p. 95 
  4.  The Baal Shem Tov, Tsavat Revash, p. 20 
  5.  Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Arpelei Tohar, p. 18, translated by Yaacov Dovid Shulman (rav kook.net) 
  6.  Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Likutei Etzot: Shalom # 5 
  7.  Reb Gedalia Koenig, lecture at Har Tzion Yeshiva in Jerusalem in the mid 70s.