Today I consider myself, at least partially, a secular Jew who is trying to be fully religious. I am very dedicated to Judaism and every Halakha is of outmost importance to me. Still, I believe that my attitudes are often secular.
This was not always the case. There was a time, I believe, that I was genuinely a fully-religious person.
Coming from a non-religious and perhaps anti-religious background, I started to have an interest in religion—and foremostly in Judaism—due to my dear father. My father was a proud secular Jew, who introduced me to Spinoza’s anti-religious and often anti-Jewish writings that made me wonder what religious thinkers thought of his critique. Was Spinoza right?
The only way to find out was to study Judaism in depth.
Over the years, I grew closer to Judaism. What I most admired in Judaism was its emphases on the human being’s need to highlight the concept of wonder and amazement. About the Creation and human life, its beauty and perplexity.
One text by Maurice Nicoll had deeply impressed me:
“We can all see another person’s body directly. We see the lips moving, the eyes opening and shutting, the lines of the mouth and face changing, and the body expressing itself as a whole in action. The person himself is invisible… if the invisible side of people were discerned as easily as the visible side we would live in a new humanity…. All our thoughts, emotions, feelings, reveries, dreams, fantasies are invisible…. all that belongs to our scheming, planning, secrets, ambitions; all our hopes, fears, doubts, perplexities, all our affections, speculations, ponderings, vacuities, uncertainties, all our desires, longings, appetites , sensations, our likes, dislikes, aversions, attractions, loves and hates – all are themselves inviable. They constitute oneself…”
This text shocked me to the core. It made me shiver. Maurice Nicoll told me that my very being was totally invisible. Nobody, even I, ever saw myself. And when I would die, it would only mean that my physical surroundings in the form of my body would disappear—but where was my essence, the real me, my invisibility, going?
From that moment onwards, I was overtaken by a feeling of complete mystery, and therefore, by radical wonder. This, however, developed into a huge problem.
How is one to live with the invisible side of being, while trapped in the visible body, and not lose one’s mind? Afterall, the awareness of the invisible does not follow any logic; the invisible is untouchable and scary. I was overtaken by a panic of sorts: where was I to find a way of living in the invisible while simultaneously living in the visible and remaining “normal”?
I suddenly realized that Judaism by way of the Halakha taught me to handle this enormous problem. It was the art of bringing the invisible to the level of the visible and the visible to the level of the invisible. However, this was easier said than done: how could I translate the invisible to a level where I can live it in a visible way?
Judaism taught me that this could be achieved by performing mitzvot, the commandments, and minhagim, customs. Performance of these would allow me to penetrate into the invisible: Judaism claimed that it is the power of religious performances and rituals that make this possible. By doing the finite, I could perceive the infinite so that I could do more than I understand in order to understand more than I do. Every deed penetrates into my feelings and thoughts, i.e. into my very invisible being, so that my feelings and thoughts will break through and express themselves in my deeds (Heschel). Even those laws which seem to have little to do with the invisible will then ultimately reach an inner level that transforms my attitude towards the visible world.
Halakha is the art of revealing the non-human side, the meta-human, the divine dimension, through the medium of every human act. Judaism teaches that proper deeds lead to correct and genuine thinking: deeds create mentality—the act of murder creates a mentality to kill, the distribution of charity creates a mindset of caring for one’ s fellow. Likewise, certain laws have the power to make man walk through life with the awareness of the mystery of the invisible that exists behind all human existence.
What was so different with Judaism is the fact that it does not deny the importance of the visible, physical world. Other religions, even monotheistic ones, opted for making a choice between the visible and invisible. They decided to select the invisible and deny the importance of the visible. However, Judaism did something far more difficult: it did not make a choice between invisibility and the visible, it combined both. Denial is easy; harmony is demanding. In this sense, Judaism is less “religious” than other religions—for it did not solely opt for the invisible.
Emphasizing solely the invisible is much easier than also assigning much importance to the visible, yet this is exactly what Judaism did. It did not believe that the invisible was “trapped” by the body or the body by the invisible—they were to work in harmony and both are as important as the other.
One can easily fall into the trap of denying the importance and value of the body. However, Judaism believed that if God created a physical world—including the human body—it meant that the physical holds great value and must be taken seriously and constitute part of the religious experience.
This discovery was one of the greatest moments in my life. As a result, every moment became a moment of intense experience. This was a total eye opener to me. Whatever I did or wherever I went, my visible body and my invisible belonged together.
However, after time, living up to this balance lost its power. I could not hold on to it. The world in which I lived on a day-today basis—the world that views the visible as far more important—overtook me.
Often, the secular world is highly pragmatic. Matters are basically seen from the point of view of that what is purely utilitarian. Everything is measured by the standard of achieving results, and everything must “fit in.” This approach does not allow for surprise—surprise is considered as nothing other than the result of ignorance.
This is not the case with the invisible world. It is full of surprises—an aspect that is considered more important than the value of attaining (and enforcing) standardization of our physical world. Feelings, emotions, faith, love, fears, speculations, and uncertainties are not “issues” science is to address and resolve. They are to be experienced as ways to make our lives warm—they are not to be seen as the results of faulty “brain constructions” that may be rectified by medication or surgery. Rather, they provide us existential meaning far beyond the limits of scientific categorization and standardization.
However, instead of cleaving to this view that integrates the visible and invisible, I fell into the trap of making a choice, and I remained an observant Jew by maintaining ritual observance—yet, I lost the invisible dimension. On other occasions, I did the opposite—I chose the invisible and felt trapped by my body and believed that I should, as much as possible, deny its own needs.
Yet, the fact is that the flesh and spirit are interrelated—like a web of thousands of threads that are impossible to separate. To this very day I live with this tension, and I still have not figured out how to resolve it.
Perhaps this tension is the purpose of Jewish living and the ideal way to ascend the ladder of religiosity: not to resolve the tension, but to see it as the prime and essential challenge—and, hence, to fall in love with it. It is not the end station of religiosity that is important but the road we travel thereto.
 Maurice Nicoll, Living Time and the Integration of the Life, quoted in E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for The Perplexed, p. 33.
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