“The God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist. The mystic God is dead. So, let that God go.” ~ Marc Gafni
Many of us have difficulties with the word God. We associate an outside mythological figure with it, either a Santa-Clause-in-the-skies, a cosmic candy machine (you put a prayer in and a fulfilled wish comes out) or the punishing God that our parents asked for help when we were not doing what they wanted us to do. Most of us decided at some point of our lives not to believe in this God anymore.
While some of us let go of religion and spirituality altogether–believing in Science and our own experiences alone, others took refuge to the attitude: “I am spiritual but not religious.” The Eastern Enlightenment traditions with their practices seemed to do well without an explicit notion of God. And so we thought that with our understanding of God we had outgrown GOD altogether.
Yet, is that really true? Is there an understanding of God that might emerge after we let go of the traditional view? Is there something we might call an Integral God?
In long conversations about this topic Ken Wilber and Dr. Marc Gafni, coming from their respective perspectives of Integral Theory and Buddhism as well as Hebrew Mysticism and World Spirituality, have come to an understanding of what they call The Three Faces of God. They have both written extensively about that.
Here is an excerpt from Marc Gafni’s new book on The Dance of Tears:
The Three Faces
God in the first person is the experience of God flowing through you. God flows through you not by your denial of your unique perspective, or what Carlos Castaneda and many teachers influenced by him referred to as your “personal his-tory”–rather, your unique perspective is precisely the place in which you, the human being, meets and embraces the Divine. In God I the first person to awaken means to be lived by love. It is the realization that you are an irreducibly unique expression of the love intelligence and love beauty that initiated and animates all that is.
Thus, according to the Hebrew wisdom masters, God in the first person is realized not through generalized meditation, as is usually thought to be the case and which effaces one’s unique perspective. Rather, it is accomplished by what Lainer of Izbica calls Berur–literally, clarification or purification. Berur is a mystical technique that can take many forms, including meditation. The core of this, however, is that through Berur you first clarify and then merge with your radically unique perspective. This is your unique face. It is only through the embrace of your unique perspective that you are able to transcend your narrow human perspective to embrace a Divine perspective.
The paradox of Kabbalah, in contrast to the no-self of Theravada Buddhism, for example, is that it is through your unique face that you embrace your original face. Or, said differently, it is not merely that the personal precedes the transpersonal. Rather, the personal itself is the very gateway to the transpersonal. Of course, the Divine perspective naturally includes all perspectives. It thus transcends and includes one’s own unique perspective as well.
This move from a sacred but limited personal perspective to an all embracing transpersonal perspective is what Schneur Zalman of Liadi called the move from “our side” to “his side.” Like most post-Lurianic Hebrew mystics, he viewed this movement as the basic goal of all spiritual work. This first path is what is usually referred to as the path of enlightenment, in which the individual actually seeks to attain a state or permanent stage of mystical illumination. This spiritual path was one of the demarcating characteristics of the great mystical revival in Safed in the 16th century. It is for this reason, writes scholar of mysticism Elliot Wolfson, “that, in contrast to the general trend in Jewish mysticism to avoid writing first person accounts of mystical experience, we find an abundance of such first person testimonies in the Safed period.”
In the “God in the first person” practice one experiences a level of ontic identity with some dimension of the Divine. For example, according to the School of Izbica the experience of God in the first person is through the realization of the ontic identity of wills between man and God. Man actually has a first person experience of the Divine will animating and ultimately merging with his own will in complete identity. Practices such as meditation, which lead to the realization of some form of supreme identity with the Godhead, are aimed at revealing God in the first person.
Scholars like Moshe Idel tend to call certain forms of these “God in the first person experiences,” Unio Mystica or extreme Devekut experiences. Idel, however, was careful to note in later essays that after the moment of Unio Mystica the initiate returned, revitalized and empowered, to their own unique individuality. It is Lainer of Izbica, however, who crystallized most clearly the great paradox of Hebrew mysticism: the non-dual experience must affirm and not efface the unique individual even as personal uniqueness is the path to the non-dual One.
God in the second person is what Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem called “Communion.” This is the core experience of the human being who is not merged with the Divine but rather stands in relation to God. This is the essence of Hebrew biblical consciousness, and, according to Scholem, defines Hebrew mystical consciousness as well. God in second person is all about relationship. Whether the relationship is that of a servant to his master or a lover and his beloved, or a relationship between partners, or even friends, they are all “relating” to God. All of the above models of relationship find expression in Hebrew wisdom teachings. All are forms of God in the second person.
The most powerful form of God in the second person is almost certainly the prayer experience. It is told that when Hassidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev used to pray, he would begin with the standard liturgical form of blessing: “Boruch Ata Adonai – Blessed are you, God,” and then break out of the mold of conventional prayer and cry out in sheer joy: “YOU! YOU! YOU! YOU!” He would lose himself in these words, repeatedly shouting in ecstasy, “YOU! YOU! YOU!!!”
This is the rapture of God in the second person. For Levi Yitzchak, the blessing is a kind of Buddhist pointing-out instruction. It points, however, not to sunyatta or emptiness, but to God in the second person. The 16th-century Kabbalist, Yeshayahu ben Avraham, taught the spiritual practice of Hitbodedut. In one form, this meant walking alone in the forest “talking to God as you would to your friend.” In “God in the second person” we meet God and bow. In “God in the second person” we meet God and partner. In “God in the second person” we meet God and love. The key however is the encounter. It is the encounter with God in history and in the lived reality of every human being that is the essence of the “God in the second person” experience.
God in the third person is all of the talk that describes and maps the Divine reality of the world. God in the third person could be the physical sciences, social sciences, systems theory, Buddhist Dharma or Jewish Law or metaphysics. Of course, the various sciences, system theories and the like are unconscious faces of God; they only become conscious faces of God when they recognize not only the surface but the interior depth-dimension of reality. All third person maps of reality are God in the third person. Third person perspectives offer detailed maps of reality, whether through the tools of sociology, complexity theory, psychological theory, the sciences, or certain forms of theology and philosophy.
Now here is the key point. In order to attain a significant level of enlightenment, one must engage all three faces of God as one. It is in the integration of the three faces that one attains depth and wisdom. This is of course very different than usual understandings of enlightenment which locate it in a first-person God experience in which individuality is effaced and the separate self is absorbed into the One. Although absorption is a key feature of God in the first person in Hebrew mysticism, it is only a stage in a larger God-face process that is itself but one of the three major faces of God.
Each face of God has its own natural strength and its own unique shadow. It is only through the integration of all three that one attains the depth beyond the surface. It is only then that one can stand face to face with God or attain what the Kabbalists call Partzuf Shalem: the full face of God.
The contemporary world of spirit, however, can be most appropriately mapped as a struggle between the three faces. Each face attempts to dominate or colonize the other two. Each face claims that truth is accessible only– orat least primarily–through the perspective of its own eyes. Both, individuals and social systems, find themselves tugged between the three faces.
Often, a person or a community abandons one face in order to embrace a different face that they feel is truer. In doing so, they feel compelled to reject their previous “face” experience. Soon enough, they begin to feel incomplete and dissatisfied and are often unsure why. They then often wind up reverting to the face they initially rejected, but in doing so they usually abandon the new face they had more recently engaged. The implicit message of contemporary culture, as we shall see below, is that one must choose between the three. This is a tragedy, because the lack of any one of the three leaves one with a gaping hole of need, ethics, desire and illumination.
Ashram, Synagogue and Academy: God in first, second, and third person
Speaking in general terms we might say that Ashrams, new age seminars, and spiritual retreat centers such as Esalen, Omega, Hollyhock and Spirit Rock, place an enormous emphasis on God in the first person. The chief activity of the Ashram is usually meditation, with additional tracks in various forms of movement, psychodrama and the like. All are God in the first person practices. In meditation, the goal is the realization of the supreme identity between the human being and the god. It is to know the “I am God” to which the novice aspires.
The first person experience is also a primary domain of the many schools of Kabbalah which seek unio mystica with the Divine, employing a vast array of spiritual technologies. Likewise, in the contemporary Jewish Renewal movement there is an enormous prejudice in favor of God in the first person engagement.
This expresses itself both positively and in shadow terms including, a refusal to genuinely bow before a second person God who makes demands which itself fosters a disguised narcissim. It manifests as well in a tragic refusal to engage in third person the careful processes which characterize law, fairness and integrity before which the first person preference must bow. Without these second and third person dimensions truth, goodness and love are often hopelessly distorted.
The synagogue and the church are the primary proponents of God in the second person. Their primary activity is prayer, which involves the human being talking to God. Their secondary activity is the fostering of a “we” space which is called community. Here, in the well-known nomenclature of Martin Buber, man meets the infinite Divine in his fellow and his neighbor. Or, in Levinas‘ reformulation of Buber, man meets God in the face of the other.
The academy is the primary home of God in the third person. The academy is dedicated to objective third-person descriptions of all facets of reality. The social sciences and the hard sciences, as well as moral philosophy and metaphysics, are all ostensibly objective third-person descriptions of reality–God in the third person.
The problem is that each of the above views itself is wielding somewhat of a monopoly on authenticity and genuine spirituality. Synagogues and churches are very suspicious of ecstasy, Ashrams and Kabbalah because they are rooted in God in the first-person experience. A recent example is the new Catholic pope’s scathing dismissal of Buddhism. He confuses the God in the first person emphasis and its non-theistic character with atheism. Not recognizing the more familiar God in second person experience in the Buddhist system has made the pope a fierce spiritual opponent of Buddhism.
This kind of dismissal of God in the first person, dripping with invectives of all sorts, is dominant in Jewish intellectual and social circles as well. For many religious philosophers, God in the second person is the fundamental Jewish spiritual moment. Such eminent voices include Eliezer Berkovitz of Modern Orthodoxy, Joseph Soloveitchk, the pre-eminent philosopher and Talmudist of a central stream in 20th century Orthodoxy, Yaacov Reines of the Religious Zionist movement, Gershon Scholem the major voice of contemporary Kabbalah scholarship, the preeminent Jewish historian Salo Baron, most leading Wissenschaft scholars and virtually all the founders of the Reform movement. Berkovitz, for example, in two essays which are representative of his thought, “Crisis and Faith” and the “Philosophy of Encounter” scathingly critiques the aspiration of unio mystica as being a fundamental violation of Jewish Theology. He lumps drug-induced experiences of LSD and mystical experiences in the same category, dismissing both as a violation of the core Jewish ethos of “encounter”–God in the second person. To get a sense of the complete rejection of one face of god by another–particularly the absolute rejection of God in first person by the God in second person–there is indeed no better citation than that of Eliezer Berkovitz. In his own words:
It is important to distinguish between our interpretation of the prophetic encounter as the basic religious experience and the way of the mystic. The encounter should not be confused with mystical communion. The mystic’s goal is the surrender of personal existence. His desire is to merge with the One, to pour himself into God, to be drawn into the All. The mystic finds his fulfillment in the extinction of his dignity through being consumed by the absolute. For him individuality is a burden and a shame. Only the One or the All is real, and every form of separateness from it is an unworthy shadow existence.
In the encounter, on the other hand, the original separateness is affirmed; in fact, it is granted its highest dignity by being sustained by God. The encounter may occur because the individual personality is safeguarded. When there is encounter there is fellowship and fellowship is the very opposite of the mystical surrender of man’s identity in an act of communion. Judaism is not a non mystical religion. Judaism is essentially non mystical because it is a religion. The mystical communion is the end of all relationship, and therefore, the end of all religion.
Judaism is essentially non mystical because according to it, God addresses himself to man, and he awaits man’s response to the address… Man searches and God allows himself to be found. In the mystical union, however, there are no words and no law, no search and no recognition, because there is no separateness. Judaism does not admit the idea that man may rise “beyond good and evil” by drowning himself in the Godhead…
[The mystic’s] worship of the absolute demands the denial of his own separateness from it; thus we are led to the Spinozastic amor dei; since nothing exists apart from the infinite, man’s love for God is “the very love of God in which God loves himself.” One is inclined to agree with those who see in this the monstrous example of absolute self love. The truth is, of course, that where there is no separateness there is no love either. When there is no encounter there can be no care and concern. The mystic endeavors to overcome all separateness; the pantheist denies it from the very beginning. Judaism, on the other hand, through its concept of the encounter, affirms the reality as well as the worth of individual existence. Judaism is not only non mystical; it is also essentially anti-pantheistic.
A similar prejudice appears in Gershon Scholem’s work. Much of Scholem‘s work on Devekut was paradoxically to affirm that Unio Mystica was either absent or rare in Jewish mystical sources. According to Scholem, the mystic was engaged in communion, not unio-mystica with the Divine. In effect, Scholem implied that, even in mysticism, God in the second person–what he called communion–is the primary experience. Contemporary Kabbalah scholar Moshe Idel has spent a good part of his career taking issue with this central assertion of Scholem . He has shown decisively that God in the first person, through many and varied forms of unio mystica, is a demarcating feature of Devekut for the Hebrew mystic.
Two passages–not from esoteric sources, but each from a mainstream Hassidic master, will serve to illustrate this point. The first is from Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founding master of the Habad dynasty:
And we see that when man cleaves to God it is extremely delightful for him, and very sweet, so much so that he will swallow it into his heart…as the bodily throat swallows; and this is true devekut–cleaving–as he becomes one with the essence of God into whom he was swallowed, without being separate [from him] as a distinct entity at all. This is the meaning of the verse ‘And you shall cleave to him’ Mamash-literally.
A second passage, from Levi Isaac of Berditschev, raises the possibility that this can be a permanent state of being and not merely a temporary state experience:
There is a tzadik who (cleaves to the nought) and nevertheless returns afterwards to his essence. But Moses our master, blessed be his memory, was annihilated all the time since he was constantly contemplating the grandeur of the creator, blessed be he, and he did not return to his essence at all…since, as it is well known…Moses our master was constantly cleaving to Ayin–nothingness, and from this aspect he was annihilated.
It is these types of texts, which clearly affirm Idel‘s position that God in the first person, in the sense of total identification and absorption in the Godhead, is an important goal of the Hebrew mystic. This scholarly argument has probably been one of the most important discussions in Kabbalah scholarship in recent years. I have shown elsewhere that Idel and Scholem‘s positions are not as far apart as they might seem and that they are actually referring to different stages of the mystical experience. Be that as it may, the choice on each of their parts to emphasize a different moment in the mystical experience is driven not by text but by personal religious and moral inclination.
The energy around this conversation is of course bound up with a deeper argument: What is the essence–or at least the ultimate–in religious experience? Is it God in the first person, or God in the second person? That is the question. Idel emerges in his personal biography from the ground of eastern European Romanian folk mysticism, which was all about God in the first person experiences. By contrast, Scholem emerges from the central European model, which preferred God in the third person, but at most could tolerate small doses of God in the second person.
Unio Mystica, God in the first person, was regarded by Scholem, his student Joseph Weiss, and most of the others who followed them, as rooted in a kind of religious quietism or even fatalism. This was for them the great weakness of the God in the first person model. This was too much of a violation of both Biblical and Talmudic personalism as well as the Zionist and western ethics of activism and autonomy which influenced their own values. Since they were explicitly looking to Jewish mysticism as a potential source for the revival of the Jewish spirit, God in the first person kinds of quietism were re-read by them into more palatable second person experiences which never negated the separate existence of the individual. In doing so, Scholem explicitly states his intention to distinguish Hebrew Mysticism from the dominant currents in general mysticism whose language was more that of union than communion.
The primary difference is that in communion the unique individual is not effaced, whereas in union the unique individual is annihilated. Writes Scholem:
Devekut or ‘communion’ with God is not ‘union’ in the sense of the Mystical Union between God and Man and of which many mystics speak.
Here, Scholem is describing Kabbalah in general, and Hassidism in particular, primarily through the prism of the Baal Shem’s teaching, even though he himself recognized that more extreme formulations are present in the teaching of the Baal Shem’s foremost disciple, the Great Maggid. In a parallel passage, Scholem writes,
It is only in extremely rare cases that ecstasy signifies actual union with God in which human individuality abandons itself to the rapture of complete submersion in the Divine stream. Even in this ecstatic frame of mind, the Jewish mystic almost invariably retains a sense of distance between the creator and his creature.
Scholem, in these texts, and in many other places in his corpus, has a clear agenda; he is making important orienting generalizations which serve to distinguish Hebrew mysticism from its non-Jewish counterparts and in doing so makes it more congruent with what he felt to be the essentially personal gestalt of Hebrew wisdom. His particular agenda here is the retaining of the personal, individual moment as primary in Hebrew thought–evidenced by its centrality even at the height of mystical ecstasy–in marked contrast to other mystical systems which highlight “the abandonment of individuality to rapture.” Even when Scholem talks about mystical passages that use the terminology of union, he struggles to blur the clear God-in-first-person sense of the term Yichud, which means unification, as in the realization of union. In describing the practitioner of the meditative rites of Yichud, Scholem writes:
He breaks down the barriers and brings about unification by making into an organic whole what seemed separated and isolated. He does not become God but he becomes ‘united’ with him by the process in which the core of his being is bound up with the core of all being.
Scholem’s insistence on retaining God in the second person as the primary model of Hebrew wisdom by blurring the significance of God in the first person texts becomes even more evident in his description of the writings of the Great Maggid. The maggid‘s writings abound with passages that seem to reflect strong pantheistic and unio-mystica orientations, yet Scholem comments:
[The Maggid taught that] man finds himself by losing himself in God, and by giving up his identity he discovers it on a higher plane.
Here, as in many other saying of Rabbi Baer, devekut is said to lead not only to communion but to ach’dut, union. But this union is not at all the pantheistic obliteration of the self within the Divine mind which he likes to call the naught, but pierces through this state on to the re-discovery of man’s spiritual identity. He finds himself because he has found God…and the radical terms should not blind us to the eminently Jewish and personalistic that they still cover. After having gone through devekut, man is still man–nay he has in truth only then started to be man, and it is only logical that only then will he be called upon to fulfill his destiny in the society of men.
In this passage, however, we already sense a more sophisticated position in Scholem who recognizes God in the first and second person as different levels of consciousness. However, what is clear from Scholem is that first person rapture is a stage on the way to second person address and fellowship. This is of course the opposite of what one might expect from readings in non-Jewish mysticism, where second person is but a stage on the way to the deeper and higher first person experience.
Similarly, Jospeh Soloveitchik’s intellectual enterprise implicitly adopts Scholems position on Unio Mystica. In his work, Days of Remembrance, he writes explicitly:
Judaism rejects Unio mystica.
Moreover, Soloveitchik’s more well-known classical essay, Halachic Man, is in large part a rejection of the God in the first person posture so prominent in mysticism in general and Habad Hassidism in particular. Soloveitchik’s description of homo religiosus is a classic description of the quietist mystical typology. In response to this God in the first person archetype, he writes:
Halachic man is as far removed from homo religiosus as east is from west.
In a like manner, Martin Buber, who began his career in Jewish thought with an embrace of the intense mystical experience as being characteristic of true religion–God in the first person–eventually rejected his initial position and affirmed what he famously called “I-thou” as the demarcating Jewish religious experience. For the most part, Buber and Soloveitchik’s readings of God in the first person in quietist terms of passivity and resignation were accurate for certain schools of Hebrew mysticism.
However, as I have shown elsewhere and noted above, there is a whole other way to read God in the first person experiences. In this second way, championed by Mordechai Lainer of Izbica and adopted from him by Abraham Isaac Kuk, God in the first person is not emasculating but radically empowering of the individual who realizes his core identity with the Divine spirit or will. This is critical because it allows for an integral embrace of all three faces of God by circumventing the major critique of first person God paths, as we saw for example in Berkovitz and Scholem, namely that they are emasculating of personhood and unique individuality. For this reason, I will now showing why this critique is not necessarily valid.
The root of the empowerment fostered by the integration of all three faces of God is what I call “non-dual humanism.” Non-dual humanism, which yields a God in the first person religious typology, is significantly different from the quietist-via-passive variety ascribed to God in the first person understandings by proponents of the personalistic God in the second person orientation of Judaic consciousness. To get a deeper sense of this empowered religious type that emerges from a first person non-dual God experience, let me cite from my academic work on the subject:
The following is a list of the core characteristics of the realized man according to Hassidic master Mordechai Lainer‘s teaching. They point out the highly humanistic undertone of Lainer‘s non- dualism: Non Dual humanism as its core is God realized in the first person of the human being.
1) Affirming and honoring the unique individuality of every person.
2) Engendering human freedom and empowerment.
3) Affirming the necessity, ontological impact and dignity of human activism.
4) Affirming the ontic identity between the human and Divine name as the empowering realization of enlightenment.
5) Affirming the ontological dignity of human desire, and viewing it as an important normative guide.
6) Affirming the ontological dignity and authority of the human capacity to employ trans-rational faculties, Lema’alah MiDa’ato – above and beyond his common knowing, in apprehending the unmediated will of God.
7) Affirming the centrality of will and the ultimate ontic identity between the will of God and the will of the awakened person, who has achieved post-Berur consciousness.
8) Viewing not only the Tzaddik, but every person who walks in a Berur-awakened state, as a source of ultimate moral and legal authority. We have termed this the “democratization of enlightenment.”
What is remarkable about Lainer’s thought is not that all of these features are present all at once. Indeed, many of them could be easily identified in many writers on secular humanism. What is unique is that all of these flow directly not from a secular perspective but from a radical non-dualism which affirms that all is God. The idea that the human being substantively participates in divinity is the conceptual matrix that radically empowers and frees the human being. Just like the core humanistic principles that find expression in Lainer are not unique to him, neither is the idea of substantive identity between God and Man, a concept deeply rooted in classical Hebraic thought and mysticism. Indeed, Lainer and Abraham Kuk, who was highly influenced by him, may represent the latest stage in the great Jewish Rabbinic and Mystical tradition of apotheosis. This non-dual tradition, which affirms the possibility of human transformation and ontic identity with some manifestation of the Divine, lies in the conceptual foreground of all of Lainer’s thought. This tradition gives birth to many offspring including the ontic identification between God, Torah, and Israel, the blurring and even identification between the name of God and the name of man, the tradition of the Tzadik – who is sometimes seen as a semi-Divine and even Divine figure – and the tradition of the erotic merging of the human being and the Shechinah. All of these traditions find echo and are expanded in Lainer‘s non-dual humanism. What is unique about Lainer is neither his humanism nor his acosmism. His uniqueness lies in his distinctive combination of the two–what we have termed acosmic or non-dual humanism.
According to Lainer, all of the core characteristics of non-dual humanism are manifested by the Judah Archetype. Before discussing the Judah characteristics, it is important to note that, for Lainer, living in the way of the Judah archetype is not an option; for those who are called to this life it is an absolute obligation which, if ignored, conjures Divine curse. Judah is contrasted with Joseph, and sometimes with Levi.
While Jospeh and Levi are characterized by Yir’ah, by fear or awe, the Judah archetype is characterized by love. Judah represents for Lainer the religious typology who has realized his first-person ontic identity with the will of God. He consciously participates in divinity, realizing that his name and the name of God are one. His non-dual consciousness is realized through a process of Berur in which he further understands that there is no such thing as human action independent of God. Rather, he knows and experiences every action he takes as being fully animated by Divine will. This non-dual realization is radically empowering for him.
Judah manifests and is virtually identified with the quality of Tekufot, the personal power and sacred audacity which is a direct result of realizing one’s Divine core. He feels himself called by his inner Divine voice, his own personal revelation, to expand–what Lainer terms Hitpashtut–beyond the narrow boundaries foisted upon him by external structures. Therefore, in Lainer’s language, he can naturally be Mechaven Ratzon Hashem, “intend the will of God.” Judah affirms the dignity of his Teshuka, his desire. Moreover, he allows himself to be guided by his Teshuka once it has undergone a process of Berur.
Judah, writes Lainer, time and again, is connected to the awareness of Ein Lo Gevul: “He has no boundary.” He is identified with Ratzon Hashem even Lema’alah Meda’ato, beyond his conscious will. He has realized no boundary consciousness. His prayer, repentance, Torah and desire all derive from this consciousness of Ein Gevul. This consciousness has normative implications. It moves him–even when he is misunderstood by his own community–to occasionally break the law in order to respond to an order of revelation which is more immediate and personal than the original revelation of Sinai mediated through Moses. His path to “no boundary” consciousness is unique. More than merely participating in the general Divine will, he incarnates the unique Divine will. Paradoxically, it is through boundary, particularly through his own radically individual nature–what Lainer refers to in the Hebrew as Perat, or fruition particular–that he is able to transcend the Kelalim, the general principles of law, and access Peratei Div’rei Torah, the unmediated revelation of the Divine addressed specifically to him, refracted through the prism of his unique soul.
His unique soul, expressed in his unique will, reveals and manifests his ontic identity with the Divine will. He has undergone a process of Berur that allowed him to identify his unique Soul Print (chelek) and Soul Root (shoresh), his unique manifestation of the Divine light, the root of his soul. He is particularly connected to his unique Mitzvah for which he must even be willing to give up his life. Because the very essence of his Life Essence (Chaim) is his uniqueness; therefore to live without it would be to not live at all. In short, Judah is the personification of non-dual humanism. Judah is a classic expression of the God in the first person consciousness.
It is evident that Lainer had enormous influence on the greatest of the modern Jewish mystics, Abraham Isaac Kuk.
When R. Kuk insists in his writing that “I” is “I am the Lord your God,” and sets that up as a major religious model, then he is arguing for God in the first person. In that very same paragraph he teaches that in the realization of “I” is “I am the Lord your God” one claims his essential power–what R. Kuk calls “one’s essential ‘I’.” When his books are burned by those who carefully read them (not just by communities who opposed his Zionism), part of the principled opposition to his teaching is the danger of setting God in the first person as a religious ideal, and not entirely without reason.
The great weakness of God in the first person is that it is a great place for the ego to hide. I have known highly sophisticated spiritual egos who found wonderful refuge and great solace in the God in the first person experiences. Often the Eros and power of their God in first person experiences makes those experiences the focus of their spiritual quest and sadly allows them to override elemental dictates of ethos. This is the danger of God in the first person being the exclusive or even primary face of God. While both Lainer and Kuk were cognizant of this danger, and offered sophisticated treatments of the ethical and spiritual work needed to be done to avoid it, the trap still remains a major shadow in all God in the first person paths.
Shifting perspectives, however, we must note that Ashram disciples, Kabbalah seekers, and Spiritual retreat center consumers–all God in first person advocates–have little use for synagogues, and not entirely without reason. They feel unable to connect to the God in the second person conversation. They find the experience of the synagogue to be disembodying, alienating and not trustworthy. In the words of many: “I do not feel alive in the synagogue.” It is more than even that, however. They feel that the externalized voice of God too often overrides their own deepest moral intuitions. Moreover, they feel that such a division between Man and God is a product of the limited perception of duality and contributes to a world built on divisions and boundaries.
False divisions and boundaries, they correctly point out, are the source of most human suffering. The highly unsophisticated and misguided dismissal of theism that is rampant in both popular and learned Buddhist texts is symptomatic of this tendency. However, on the other side of the divide, a Synagogue Rabbi once asked me why I bothered teaching at spiritual retreat centers, lamenting that,
There is no sense of commitment or conversation with God; it is just another way for the ‘me’ generation to coddle itself.
Shifting perspectives once more, we note how obvious it is that the academic world, which subscribes to God in the third person, has little use for, or trust in, either the synagogue or the Ashram. The academy rejects their methods as being “subjective,” preferring the method of third person engagement, which it considers to be far more “objective,” and–again–not entirely without reason. However, the Ashram and Synagogue are equally distrustful of the academy, viewing it as a place where spirit has been killed, stored in formaldehyde, and mounted for intellectual study devoid of all life, commitment, ethos or Eros.
A final example of the great clash of perspectives which underlies some significant part of the Jewish culture wars: There were and are fierce arguments in Jewish thought over the nature of prayer. The simple and direct understanding of prayer is that it is the archetypal expression of the God in the second person relationship. Indeed, some Hassidic masters, together with the likes of the great Orthodox Talmudist and mystic Joseph Soloveitchik, insist that prayer is linked to man’s acute “crisis of need awareness.” For them, it is this sense of man as creature that translates into the prayer of entreaty and is the core framework within which man may approach God.
Some Hassidic masters, however, especially in the school of the Maggid of Mezeritch, insisted that prayer was about the human being collapsing the Ani–the separate human self–into the Ayin, the infinite pool of Divine nothingness. Human prayer of “mere entreaty” was considered to be of vastly inferior quality to mystical prayer of union with the Divine. As the Maggid of Mezeritch put it:
A person should not pray for his own needs; rather he should only pray for the needs of the Shechinah.
Of course, what the Maggid goes on to teach is that a primary goal of prayer itself is absorption into the Shechinah. Here again there is a felt need to choose between God in the first person and God in the second person.
Of course, within every Jewish movement, one can find occasional lone voices crying for the integration of at least two, and sometimes–although rarely–even all three faces of God. However, usually the faces of God and the camps that champion but one face, are in deep conflict with one another. They are virtually always critical of each other and virtually never work together. In the words of Lainer:
The life-objective of Ephraim, as inspired by God, is to concentrate on the halachah regarding every matter, and not to budge from obeying its every letter… And the root of the life of Judah is to focus on the Creator and to be connected to God in every situation. And even though Judah perceives how the halachah inclines on an issue, he nevertheless looks to God to show him the core of the truth behind the matter at hand… [Judah] looks to God for guidance in all matters rather than engage in the rote practice of religious observances, nor is he content to merely repeat today what he did yesterday…but that God enlighten him anew each day as to what is the God will in the moment. This [quest for ever-fresh enlightenment] sometimes compels Judah to act contrary to established halachah…. But in the time to come, we have been promised that Ephraim and Judah will no longer be at odds with one another (Isaiah 11:13). This means that Ephraim will no longer have any complaints against Judah regarding Judah’s deviation from halachah, because God will then demonstrate to Ephraim the core intention of Judah, that his intentions are for the sake of the will of God, and not for any selfish motif. Then will there be harmony between the two.
As we have already noted, individuals in their personal journeys, and communities in their development, often go through different stages in their unfolding. Each stage implicitly unconsciously prefers one face of God over the others. The different stages are usually viewed as inconsistent and contradictory, causing great confusion of identity and direction. However, a closer look at these stages of development, both in individuals and communities, shows that they are often roughly organized around a preference for one or two of the faces of God over the others.
Integral Judaism makes a simple but powerful point. In order to engage the full face of God, to be before God, Lifnei Hashem, one must engage and integrate the three main faces of God. In our understanding, this is the underlying core of Kabbalistic Yichudim that are engaged in unifying, what were literally called, the “many faces of God.” Failure to fully engage any one of these three faces leaves the person without some critical tool necessary for spiritual growth or for what Hassidism, based on a rich earlier tradition, called enlightenment. Not only does it prevent spiritual growth, but it also leads to the absolutizing of one face of God over the others, and becomes then a form of idolatry. The ancient rabbis referred to this as the “cutting of the shoots,” the act of separating the Shechinah, God’s lower face, from Zeir Anpin, God’s higher faces. Indeed, the biblical text itself frames idolatry as “You shall have no other God Al Panai”: literally “upon my face,” which we read to mean choosing one face of God as the only face.
Perhaps Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin said it best. To paraphrase his teaching: There are three essential expressions of the Divine, each of which plays an integral role in spiritual life. They are called “I, You and He.” I implies my integral experience of God, within my heart and within all of which comprises my universe, for the “glory of God fills the whole earth” and God “dwells within the innard of the earth.” You implies my imminent relationship with God, my encounter with God as Other, as Creation to Creator, as in prayer and meditation–not through my experience of God’s presence across the length and breadth of Creation but through directing my focus toward a specific sacred space like the Holy of Holies in the time that the Temple stood, or–in modern times–eastward toward the Temple Mount. He is the highest level and refers to my transcendent experience of God, my acknowledgment of God as purely unknowable mystery whose existence is unrelated to the known world of Creation, for “the universe is not the place of God, but God is the place of the universe.” He, the Zohar states, is “the most concealed of all mysteries, the most secret of all secrets, and cannot be named.”