By Ran Lahav | 19/11/2009
A course for philosophy students at Haifa University on the connection between man and God led Dr. Ran Lahav to realize the great thirst in Israel for spirituality that is not linked to any kind of religious establishment. Ran Lahav searches for a refashioning of the types of the religious experience
In the run-up to the beginning of the academic year at Haifa University, I was asked, as in previous years, to define the subject of the undergraduate course that I would teach in the Philosophy Department. I thought about being daring this time, and diverging from the safe academic topics and engage in a topic that is close to my heart: belief in God. God is not a promising subject in a secular university, and might dissuade many in our skeptical, rational, and pragmatic age. Nevertheless, I decided to take my chances, hoping that I would find enough students to reach the minimum class size. I wrote the title "Man and God" on the form, and I explained in brief that the course would examine the different conceptions regarding the relationship between man and his God.
When registration began, the Philosophy Department secretary called me and asked if I would agree to increase the number of students in the course beyond sixty, because of the many applicants. I agreed, of course, but I was surprised: optional courses in philosophy are usually taken by between twenty and thirty students. Who's interested in God?
I simply thought that they must have come back from India, the graduates of the ashrams and the drug parties in Goa, and maybe members of New Age cults. I sighed and thought that I would have to devote the first classes to an academic discussion that would anchor these students in rational modes of thought, and clarify for them that God is more than a momentary "high."
At the beginning of the semester I stood in the large hall facing about sixty young people, who looked like regular students. None of them wore white linen Indian clothing. After I explained the framework of the course and its obligations, I asked them to write in a few lines why they came to the course and what was their personal connection to the subject. When I read what they had written, I was amazed. The great majority related that they do not believe in God, and that they had never had any affiliation to any religion or cult. Why, then, did they sign up for the course? The common explanation was: in order to understand what motivates people to adhere to their beliefs and to conduct themselves accordingly.
The First Religious Twinge
In light of these surprising findings, I changed the class plan of the first lectures, and expanded the discussion beyond the bounds of rational analysis. We began with reading material on religious experiences (we read from William James' classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience), since the topic illustrates, graphically and dynamically, the first religious twinge in a person's heart. At the beginning, many of the students expresses their vigorous opposition to God. They frequently knocked religion as a human invention, and God as a consoling illusion. Even though my response was always that we don't have to decide if God exists, but rather come to know the characteristics of the religious experience before we can decide if it is real, many declared almost obsessively that such experiences are self-deception.
The students' opposition waned only after three or four lectures. It seemed to me that they simply learned to place in parentheses the question of whether God exists or not, and to ignore it for the purposes of our discussion. The more time that passed, however, I noted a change. Some of the students expressed their amazement at the descriptions of religious experiences, others advocated some religious conception or another. Several students even told me, in the exercises that they submitted or in personal conversations after class, of spiritual experiences that they had undergone.
After we finished discussing the religious experience, we continued with three additional topics: religious wonder and awe, religious longing, and religious belief. The study material for each of the four course topics combined personal stories from the professional literature with general theories by major thinkers. I was surprised by the depth of the change in the students' attitude, and only in hindsight do I understand what was the main factor that opened their hearts: the discussions and reading material were concerned with God, without the rabbinical load of commandments and prohibitions, or Talmudic casuistry. We spoke of the experience - not of God who split the sea and commanded us to put on tefillin, but about the divine reality that touches man's heart. We read about longing - not for the God of kippot, ritual fringes, and prayerbooks, but for the presence in our innermost selves that gives us meaning and security; and many students could sense a true connection to this personal God who touches us and to whom our hearts turn.
At the end of the semester, when I asked the students to describe in writing (either anonymously or signed, as they wished) what they had learned during the course about religiosity, I received many "religious" answers, and the quotations here are all with the consent of the authors. One of the students, Oren, wrote: "Practically speaking, the course served as a 'trigger' for what I had and have inside. After coming to understand the religious experience, for the first time I succeeded in connecting everything that I had undergone, and therefore the connection to the course was actual and personal. On the one hand, I listened to you and to the other students, and I succeeded in connecting all the pieces that were scattered within me. On the other hand, the connection to me was automatic, and the soul within me began to draw the information that flowed and ran amuck in the room, as if, finally, it receives answers." In a conversation afterwards Oren related that, following the course, he realized that there had always been "something" spiritual inherent in him for which he had always searched, but until now he had not paid so much attention to it. "Western society encourages the race after degrees and achievements, and this running conceals from us that we are searching for this 'something.' This spiritual thing is inherent in a lot of people. I personally know several people like this, although they don't show it externally, because they are afraid of the responses, But each one possesses a part of God within him."
Hila, who grew up in a secular kibbutz, wrote: "God is within me. This way it's easier for me to find a place to believe in Him." When I asked her to explain, she told me that once she had undergone a religious experience, but she had explained it away as just some emotion. "God was covered with layers upon layers of 'eat kosher' and 'don't drive on the Sabbath,' that always aroused 'anti' in me. The course removed these layers from God. I always thought that God belonged to people who observe commandments. Now I know that He's here inside, and that I can receive from Him strengths, liberation, confidence."
Another student, also named Hila, wrote: "After a long period of neglect, faith once again assumed a central position in my consciousness ... each person's unique private faith is always there with him, in his soul, and the difference is the attitude it receives and the place that the individual decides to vacate for it in his life ... following the course, I returned faith to a central place in my life. It's no longer a neglected child."
Nir wrote: "I found myself completely believing in the divine spark that exists in each of us, a spark that seeks and searches for the spiritual bond with the 'completely Other'" (that is, with the divine reality, in the terminology of the thinker Rudolf Otto, from whose writings we read during the course), and added orally: "It is hard for me to call this thing, that has no form and no face, God. I am revolted by institutionalized religion, and it is difficult to detach the spiritual aspect from the religious establishment."
The great majority of the feedback sheets that I received, like the conversations that I had with the students, were in this spirit. As a result of the course, I was told, they came to know something that beforehand had never been given the opportunity, words, or legitimacy to be expressed. The course did not implant any new religiosity in them, but helped them to reveal the religiosity - the "belief," the "divine spark," "something spiritual" - that had already been concealed in their hearts.
There were, of course, those who did not find belief in their hearts, but those, too, apparently learned that religiosity is not just the nonsense of the feebleminded. Thus, Eddy, who was one of those most strongly opposed in the first classes, wrote to me about two weeks after the end of the course: "Thank you for the interesting course, that caused even an extreme materialist like me to rethink things. Rationalization against religion is as easy as shooting a sitting duck. Surprisingly, the duck continued living happily and unscathed."
Religiosity without Religion
It may be assumed that the students in the course are not unique in Israeli society, and represent many others. If so, then this is an inner position common among the "secular" public. It is not "religious," in the sense of institutionalized religion, since a person perceives his position as expressing his personal and intimate encounter with a "higher power," a "divine spark," or "God," "substantiality," "a presence," "light," and the like - an encounter that is totally divorced from the rules and beliefs of some religious group or other. Notwithstanding this, this is a "religious" position in the sense that it expresses addressing the absolute, the sacred, the divine, the root of substantiality.
This religiosity without religion is different, not only from traditional Judaism, but also from the spirituality of the New Age and Eastern religions, since it does not include theories ("knowledge") about the soul, the afterlife, etc., it has no defined meditative and ritual practices, no guides and communities, nor recipes to improve the individual's life. This is religiosity without techniques, without bodies of knowledge, without holy books, with no guru or rabbi, without ritual rules. This is the religiosity of the heart.
Despite its spread, we do not hear a great deal of this religiosity, both due to its intimate nature and because the "secular" world is filled with a suspicious mindset, and even revulsion, regarding religion, on the one hand, and, on the other, regarding anything that seems to exceed the bounds of rationality. The consequence is that it is not easy to tell about religious experiences or religious belief, even to a good friend, for fear of criticism or derision. Nonetheless, this "secular" religiosity exists, and apparently is the hidden reason why so many students streamed to a course with such a religious title.
Lu: An Inner Encounter
The personal encounter with the divine presence is expressed in diverse ways: inner silence, waves of emotion that arise from somewhere, wonder in the face of nature, inner confidence, repose, and liberation, an inner conversation with that presence, uncomprehensible weeping that springs from the depths of the soul, effortless flowing, a feeling that everything is fine, clear, and correct, and even holy. Due, however, to its internal nature, it is difficult to define such an encounter in universal characteristics. One can speak of it, as it is expressed in the life of some person, and I can tell only of myself.
In my book Lu: An Inner Encounter, I called this inner presence "Lu" (a name I borrowed, because of its sound, from the language of a remote tribe). In the book I described a journey that includes spiritual experiences, inner struggles, meetings with clerics, and prolonged periods of seclusion. Initially, I kept the manuscript to myself, and shared it with only a few friends. But when I realized that "Lu" is in many other hearts, too, I decided to publish the book.
I felt "Lu"'s first nudges during a trip I took to Alaska by myself, in a break from exhausting and frustrating work in a university in Texas, where I was teaching at the time:
"Something continued to touch me in my heart, not from my side, the one I know, from its outer, hidden, side, from the outer wall. Something is pushing and wants to enter. A sort of clingy and crying feeling, that pushes to ascend and burst through from below, under the floorboards inward, into me, from an unknown depth, and from there upward, to the chest and the throat. And perhaps this isn't a feeling at all, it isn't coming from the familiar direction of regular emotions. I feel it at times in the empty grayness of the roads: a sea of sweet and cleansing pain, warm and broad" (Ran Lahav, Lu: An Inner Encounter [Hod Hasharon: Astrolog, 2004], p. 32 [Hebrew]).
The presence, that penetrated into me by surprise, tore me away from the academic race after publications and ranks. A new longing sprouted within me, to approach the substantiality that touched me. I learned of a monastery of silence near where I lived, and the idea of quit solitude in nature attracted me. I wrote to the head of the monastery, told him of my experiences, and I explained that I was not a Christian. He invited me for a week, "to test what God wants to do" in my life.
Ever since, I frequently seclude myself in different places, but a single experience I had in a forest that first week remained within me for years, as a pillar of fire that would mark my path:
"And here, in the ascent, a tremendous Lu descended on me ... and from that moment the words fall silent as they come to describe the divine infinity that enveloped me in its compassion. The world opened wide within me for another substantiality. A tremendous presence came, enwrapped, and filled me all to overflowing, something greater than any possibility of human imagination, completely different, with indescribable force, compassion, and sanctity, drowning and nullifying all. 'For His compassion is great to us.'
"Flooded by the warm compassion of boundless love, as thick as a stream of soft steel, I stood, I sat, I floated - the Lu fell on me from every side like snowflakes, washed into me like waves, performed its action within my depths. It ascended within me from the deepest of my emotions, closer to me than I am myself with me, touched me in the depths that I never knew, in the root of my essence....
"So I stood, melting, disappearing, ascending and rising, I am in the heart of the sacred substantiality, and it is in the depths of the place from where my existence sprouts, weeping from tremendous love, crying from the infinite sweetness that I could not contain. Great and good waters flowed into me, more and more, and I could not sip them all" (p. 56).
Since then, I learned that many experience the presence of the "Lu," in differing intensities and in different ways. But as my students attested, many also do not let themselves open up to it. In our rational and fast world, that lusts for achievements and results, it is easier to shrug off a feeling of a presence of this sort as just some good mood, and to continue with the old independent-self occupations, instead of silencing the "I" that is occupied with its own affairs. and to open up an inner expanse for the new presence, and to nurture this presence. Nonetheless, it continues to appear in our inner selves and to rise in our hearts.
The Religiosity of the Future?
How many "religious" people who read my book found it interesting, because for them the spirituality of the "Lu" is the beginning of movement in the right direction? People hinted to me that if I were to continue on this path of mine, I would come to traditional Judaism. begin to put on tefillin, eat kosher food, and accept the authority of the rabbinical laws.
It seems to me that those people err in their understanding of the essence of the phenomenon. The spirituality of "Lu" is not just a starting point. It is not the raw seed that will yet grow and rise, but a mature and full spiritual position, and even more: it is the spirituality of the future.
The traditional religions accustom us to think of religiosity as possible only within a defined and authoritative framework of tenets of faith and sacred knowledge, laws of behavior, spiritual rites and exercises, holy writ, and a religious establishment. This is the case for every traditional religion in the world, and the New Age cults follow faithfully in their footsteps. From this viewpoint, it seems that as long as we have not defined the rules of prayer and rite or meditation, then we still haven't arrived, we are only on the way.
Free and personal spirituality has always existed, but until now only as a marginal phenomenon. I believe that, today, we are readier for this than ever in the past. A new spirit blows in the cultural and ideational air of our times. Man as an individual, whose identity and worth are inherent in his uniqueness, is a new discovery. Thus, the ideas of personal freedom of conscience and expression, the individual's rights, the equal worth of any man qua man - these and like notions began to sprout only in the last 300 years, and blossomed only in the last few decades. This new perception of man calls for a revolutionary spiritual approach in which man meets God as a unique individual, without the mediation of religious authorities and formulas suitable for all. But traditional Judaism, like other traditional religions, still has not digested the new tidings, and adheres to the obsolete conception of cramming the individual into a ready-made framework.
Evidence of the tremendous change undergone by Western culture is the postmodern spirit that has sprung up in the past thirty years, with its popular street slogans, such as "everything is relative" or "everyone and his subjective truth." Despite the oversimplification and shallowness of these widespread slogans, they possess a spark of an important insight: contemporary man no longer trusts universal formulas, and he is ready to live in a world without hard and fast frameworks. In this sense, we live today in a new era, the likes of which were unknown in the history of the world. In our hearts we are already ready for spirituality of a completely new type, for spirituality of searching without final answers and bottom lines, of yearning without rules of action and tenets of faith; one of spiritual fraternity between the different, instead of obedience and uniformity of thought.
It seems to me that this readiness is especially pronounced in Israel. There is a great spiritual thirst in the country, as is attested by the waves of young people who go to India, the rising popularity of New Age cults, the phenomenon of the newly observant, and the students in the class that I taught. But for many, this thirst is not slaked in the ultra-Orthodox yeshivot, in the watery substitutes of the Reform or the Conservative, nor in the fantastic theories of the New Age cults. And it is the way of such a thirst that it will eventually find channels to express itself. It seems to me that the challenge standing before these thirsting individuals is to develop new spiritual languages that will open spiritual channels that will quench the thirst of the free soul, without choking it with doctrines and formulas. As regards those for whom Judaism is close to their hearts - the challenge is to develop channels that will be free and personal, but whose language is Jewish.
I presume that the more the spirituality of the "Lu" will spread in Israel, the more that the new message will ascend and win legitimacy among the public at large, the more it will be fought by institutionalized Judaism and cast out as a distortion. But it seems to me that this opposition is doomed to failure. More and more hearts and minds in Israeli society are eager for a free spirituality or for a Judaism of inner freedom, and very many revolt against the rabbinical monopoly on religiosity. May it be His will that in this free religiosity revolution we Israelis will be the world vanguard, just as, thousands of years ago, we were the pioneers of the monotheistic revolution.
Dr. Ran Lahav teaches Philosophy at the University of Haifa
translated by Ed Levin