Book Offers Seeds of Spiritual Wisdom

by Elan Divon, Special to The Canadian Jewish News

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Rabbi Yoel Glick’s Seeking the Divine Presence: The Three Pillars of a Jewish Spiritual Life is an ambitious and rather unconventional book that provides insight into the foundations of a spiritual practice.

Why unconventional? Because although written by a Jewish rabbi, a person we tend to associate with tradition and Orthodoxy, the book surprises in its inclusion of other religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, and moreover, challenges us to rethink the very purpose of religion in our day-to-day lives.

Written in a somewhat dry but straightforward manner, the book is a worthy read for anyone seeking spiritual insight, wisdom and a deeper understanding of religion’s highest function.

Not surprisingly, Rabbi Glick’s worldview is a mystical, kabballistic one. He sees religion as a vehicle for moving the individual closer to God consciousness and to an experience of unity with the Divine. God knowledge is something that comes from experience, Rabbi Glick writes, not from intellectual pursuits. In other words, studying the Torah or other religious texts will only take us so far – we are going to have to live in the world and transform ourselves through the inner reaches of outer experience.

At the heart of Rabbi Glick’s theology lies the notion that religion is about expanding our consciousness to the point where our perspective becomes totally inclusive and undifferentiated. Where we embrace the good, the bad and the ugly, and realize that everything in this world, even our enemies and nightmarish struggles, comes from the same Divine source that created us.

Spiritual growth, he explains, is equivalent to an expansion of consciousness, developing an inclusiveness in our perspective that enables us to see and feel with the whole arc of human experience – and this leads us to the recognition of the underlying unity of all religions and peoples. After all, is this not what religion literally means? To rejoin (from the Latin ligare)… ourselves with God.

Fair enough. But how do we arrive at this wonderful undifferentiated place within? This question consumes the majority of the book, as we are guided, somewhat unpredictably, by a variety of theoretical and esoteric teachings from across the religious spectrum. Drawing upon a barrage of anecdotes from the Baal Shem Tov to Saint Francis of Assisi and the Indian seer and sage Ramakrishna, Rabbi Glick weaves his way between East and West as he describes the virtue of humility, surrender and sacrifice, and how these must be cultivated together with discipline, courage and mindfulness in the evolution of our consciousness.

And for those of us left wondering what is distinctly Jewish about this transformative process, Rabbi Glick dedicates the final chapters of his volume to a mystical interpretation of the Jewish holidays, describing how each holiday (or holy day) functions as an instrument for spiritual growth.

One dimension of the manuscript that I particularly appreciated is its brutal honesty. Unlike most quick-fix, feel-good spiritual guides available today, Seeking the Divine Presence provides a sobering account of the pains and difficulties required of the spiritual practitioner. Indeed, the spiritual journey is not about finding peace and contentment, Rabbi Glick explains. It’s about self-transformation. And this transformation can only arrive through great pain and tumult.

Like the patriarchs of Israel who are tried and tested, even humiliated, before achieving their exalted status, or the people of Israel who must first taste the bitterness of exile before inheriting the land of promise, each of us has to contend with our own demons and personal exiles. A wonderful Hindu metaphor is used to drive home this point: The dhobi (washerman) when washing clothes, beats them against a rock. But he does so only to remove the dirt from the clothes. Similarly, all sufferings are given for the sole purpose of purifying the mind of the devotee.

Now, this is where things get a little tricky. After reading the book from cover to cover, I realized that two competing arguments are at play. On the one hand, we are told that struggle is the hallmark of the spiritual devotee. You have to discipline your mind, struggle with your desires, tame your ego. This is a world of battle, Rabbi Glick reminds us. We come to this world to evolve and grow. If we do not constantly struggle, then we will have wasted the great opportunity that life in this world presents. This makes perfect sense. After all, struggle is what the patriarch Jacob encountered to warrant his transformation into Israel; it’s what Adam and humankind were made to experience in their banishment from Eden, and it’s what the Jewish people encounter time and time again.

Okay. But in the same breath, we are also charged to surrender our ego and our will to the Almighty. Contentment arrives from submitting to God’s will and accepting with joy what He has given us, Rabbi Glick says. In fact, throughout much of his book, he talks about aligning our will with the will of God and following God’s directives, even when these are painful and destructive. Abraham’s submission to God in the famous story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, can be taken as a case in point.

So, on the one hand, spirituality is a constant striving against our nature in an effort to cultivate and control it, but on the other hand, it’s about our total surrender to God and His will. Do I sense a contradiction? But that’s just the point! Although largely implicit in Rabbi Glick’s writing, this paradox, I believe, speaks to the heart of spirituality in its unpredictable fluctuation between struggle and surrender and our requirement to choose between each in every moment. For within this tension lies a powerful message regarding the attitude we must cultivate, one that is quietly unattached to the whims of reality as we strive to do the best we can in this world, while accepting that the outcome, the fruits of our actions, are always beyond our control. The important Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita, the binding of Isaac and the Buddha would certainly agree. Contradiction resolved.

There’s no question that Rabbi Glick “gets it,” as Seeking the Divine Presence offers many valuable seeds of wisdom. And although the style may limit the book’s audience to the most disciplined of spiritual seekers, the substance is solid, enlightening and enriching, and promises to make you think.

Elan Divon is a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and Brandeis University, and author of Reaching Beyond the Religious, available April 2010. He currently serves as senior campaign consultant for United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto.


Seeking the Divine Presence

by Rabbi Yoel Glick


Seeking the Divine Presence is about how to live Judaism as a spiritual path that leads to God knowledge. Its approach encompasses the teachings of the Rabbis, Hasidic Masters and the Kabbalah, as well as wisdom taken from the teachings of other faiths and mystical traditions.
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