Rabbinic Thesis: Jewish Ethics and Mysticism

As part of my master’s in rabbinic studies, I wrote a thesis titled “Internal Growth, Human Relationships, and Reaching Towards God: The Concurrent Development of Ethics and Mysticism in Early Modern Jewish Texts.” I analyzed Tomer Devorah, Mesillat Yesharim, and Nefesh HaChayim. Here is a vide of my thesis presentation, which basically covers the introduction to my thesis.

If you would like to read a copy of my thesis, please email me. Here are links to some of the books I read.

The above list is not complete. Many of my important sources came from articles available on Academia. My favorite essay is the one that opened up the world of Talmud as literature and the beauty of Jewish mysticism for me: “Four Entered Pardes Revisted,” from the Harvard Theological Review by Alon Goshen-Gottstein.

Eternal Divine Presence, 46 Days Omer 5781

Today is forty-six days, which is six weeks and four days of the Omer in the year 5781. נצח שבשכינה, Netzach ShebeShekhinah. Eternal Divine Presence. Does the Eternal, Never-Ending, Beginning without End call to you? Personally, I felt lifted out of soul-piercing depression through the Presence and Place of Eternity, Shekhinah and HaMakom.

Spiritual response to depression

To be clear, many people find deep transformation through anti-depressant medication and psychotherapy. This blog is not medical advice and I am not advocating that you avoid your mental health needs by diving into a spiritual journey. Rather, I am sharing part of my journey.

Depression runs in my family. When I was younger, I felt the edges of deep depression and watched as it slowly took over. Several deep dives into that abyss left me feeling broken and alienated from the world. I filled myself with peace activism, hoping to build fundamental social change to alleviate the world’s problems. This volunteer work left me with little time for self-reflection, and an abundance of judgmental self righteousness.

My cynicism, anger, and depression transformed into gratitude, heartfelt pain, and eudaimonia: deep certainty of the importance of each life’s journey. Finding the Eternal Presence, making space for HaMakom in my life, made my transformation possible.

Uncovering the depths of Jewish wisdom

After my Grandma Elsie died, z”l, my Uncle Paul invited me to his synagogue. My eyes were opened to the depth and breadth of wisdom encapsulated in the Jewish civilization. Through Rabbi Finley, I found deeply rooted Jewish ethics, mysticism, rationality, and neo-Platonic ideals. After years of attending his adult education courses and Shabbat services at Ohr HaTorah, I felt the call to become a rabbi myself. I chose to attend the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, the seminary co-founded by Rabbi Finley. Five years into this new identity, my influences have expanded and my gratitude for my professors and colleagues is infinite.

Pain and suffering still exist

I don’t have answers to why humans choose to kill one another. Or why death happens. Nor why pandemics and science-denial co-exist. All I can say for sure is that the Eternal Divine Presence embraces us with comfort and love. May we become vessels worthy of goodness and truth.

Previously today…

Spiritual care during a pandemic, 5780 / 2020.

Rejecting suicide, embracing Eternal Divine Presence, 5779 / 2019.

Words Create Reality, 5778 / 2018.

Breathless embrace of God and Shabbat, 5777 / 2017.

Image by Kyle Roxas via Pexels.

Truthful Foundation, 38 Days Omer 5781

Today is thirty-eight days, which is five weeks and three days of the Omer in the year 5781. תִּפְאֶרֶת שביסוד, Tiferet ShebeYesod, Truthful Foundation. In this sixth week of reflecting on core values, what is the truth undergirding your life’s journey? Do you have a vision statement?

My vision statement

On Sunday, I wrote a vision statement in a class. Here it is:

My vision is to introduce Judaism as a path of ethical mysticism: working towards our best selves as a way to connect to the Soul of the Universe and the souls around us.

The pull of ethical mysticism

Honestly, it took me quite a long time to sink into this truth pursuing me. Typically, people describe Jewish ethics as the Mussar tradition. Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism. Most teachers focus on them as distinct paths, and most modern Mussar stems from cribbing Ben Franklin’s autobiography. (No, seriously.) The reality is quite different. From the beginning of Judaism, interpersonal morality intrinsically connected with cleaving to the Divine. This is why ethical mysticism is my calling.

I think about how I entered seminary eager to discover the Jewish definitions of the soul and shocked to discover (a) how elusive definition is and (b) we borrowed the concept from pagan Greeks. Ruminating into the fact that monotheism did not start from a recognition of our individual souls. Actually, we Israelites did not give much thought to individuals in the beginning. Identity was by clan and each human mattered only as part of the collective whole. During the Hellenistic Age, that time-frame after Alexander conquered the “known world,” Hebrews started to concretize individual identity and appropriate that pagan soul concept.

Interconnectedness or appropriation?

All of our foundations interconnect. As distinct as Jewish wisdom is, I am forever indebted to pagan Greeks.

I pray humility finds us. May we be ready to accept our dependence on other communities to deepen our foundations. Let us build pathways towards truth and beauty together.

WordPress tells me the words I use are too complicated. I continue to work on deconstructing complex ideas into easy language.


Previously today…

Harmonious Bonding in a Pandemic, 5780 / 2020.

Embracing my life’s purpose, 5779 / 2019.

Witnessing Rabbi Aviva Funke’s ordination, 5778 / 2018.

The truth at the heart of my journey, 5777 / 2017.

Image by Antonio López via Pixabay.

Moving towards my future

This domain scares me. I want to be clear that I am still in the process of becoming a rabbi. My fifth year of rabbinical school started in August. With the help of HaShem, I am working towards May, 2023 ordination.

Yet, I claim the title in my domain

I did check with my advisor at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California before moving my blog. Our seminary is very clear about not referring to yourself by a title you have not earned. Nevertheless, the journey is a process. Some people use the title “student rabbi.” Others, “Rabbi-in-training.” And sometimes, community members will use “rabbi” regardless of your ordination status. This is true across religions — people confer the title they need you to assume in the moment.

I take this process very seriously. It took me six years from feeling the call to attending rabbinical school full-time. At times, I still have trouble believing I am actually doing this. As a person in mid-career transition, I am very aware how privileged I am to be able to spend these years sinking into the depths of Jewish wisdom, hoping to become a better version of myself, and helping others along their journeys.

Fundamentally, this domain helps me live into the person I am becoming.

What kind of Judaism?

Trans-denominational, rabbinic Judaism. Movements are a relatively new phenomena, and unlikely to remain stable for many generations to come. I learn the tradition on its own terms. Reading texts from original intent. Exploring their influence on later generations of Jews.

Simultaneously, I draw from my wider understanding of the human condition. I graduated from Wellesley College with a bachelor’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies. Perennial interest in how people interact on a communal, national, and global scale.

My influences

I grew up at Temple Ramat Zion, where I was a Bar Mitzvah tutor and adult choir member as a teenager. As an adult, I returned to Judaism through Rabbi Mordechai Finley’s teaching at Ohr HaTorah. Rabbi Finley was a co-founder of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, where I am studying to become a rabbi.

I graduated from the Davennen Leadership Training Institute, a two-year program sponsored by ALEPH: alliance for Jewish Renewal. Attended two trans-denominational rabbinical student retreats hosted by Rabbi Sid Schwarz. I earned a unit of clinical pastoral education, doing most of my clinical hours at a local community hospital. This provided me the opportunity to work alongside Christian chaplains and provide spiritual care to a wide breadth of individuals. I volunteered with Ruach, a Jewish emotional and spiritual support service.

Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructing, Renewal, and secular humanist Judaism have all contributed to my appreciation and understanding of Jewishness.

Previously, I worked in community organizing, advertising and marketing, and at a software company.

I do not speak for any organization or institution.

My vision: ethical mysticism

I am a work in progress. In particular, this website is part of the process of refining my vision and explaining myself more concretely and more simply. My partner believes my words are still too complex to attract readers. Nevertheless, they are the only ones I have at the moment to describe my vision.

Ethical mysticism: honoring my soul and the souls around me. Understanding myself in order to become a better version of myself. Using my higher self to observe my ego-self. Communicating with my Inclination towards Destructiveness, my Yetzer HaRa. Recognizing the difference between my ego and my soul. Creating space for my soul to flow into the soul of the universe.

My path in ethical mysticism is firmly rooted within the Jewish tradition. Reading and dissecting the ideas of this civilization is a deep honor. Yet, Jewishness does not exist in a vacuum. From neo-Platonic philosophy to neuroscience, I attempt to incorporate all of my learning into my life’s journey.

Rabbi Max Kedushin, z”l, in Rabbinic Mind described Judaism as an intellectual organism. I love this metaphor. We are all part of the process of keeping this organism alive and helping it to evolve.

Picture by Johannes Plenio via Pixabay.

Reclaiming my voice

In 2001, I became a blogger. It was a core aspect of my identity until life got in the way. I wasn’t particularly successful. Like most folks, I didn’t think branding or audience size were the reasons to write. I wrote because I have to. My soul thinks in paragraphs, speaks in poetry, moves with music. Somewhere along the way, I forgot how soul nourishing it is to blog. And now I’m back.

While I am the first to acknowledge my brokenness, I do not intend to write solely about the Dark. I named my blog what I did because I have a deep belief in Lurianic Kabbalah. The material world exists because the Divine made space for the other. The vessels holding in the Light shattered. Each of us is uniquely broken and our life’s work is to acknowledge the brokenness within and work to repair it. By repairing ourselves, we repair the world.

I am a forty year-old full-time student. Sometimes, the weight of my age, the weight of my curved turns in life, the non-existent through-line of my life, my over-dependence on hyphenating nouns, all of it weighs me down. It is far too easy to look in the rear view mirror. So yes, I’m in my third year of school, studying to become a rabbi. I’ve hesitated to start writing because I want a complete message to share with the world. As an incredible movie reminded me, the journey is more interesting than the destination.

My soul’s first language is Judaism. A dozen years ago, I found the human words to articulate why this ancient wisdom clings to me. My Uncle Paul introduced me to Rabbi Mordecai Finley and Ohr HaTorah. Rabbi Finley taught me the deep mystical and ethical undercurrent of Jewish life. He co-founded a seminary designed especially for mid-career transitions. And now, I am a student at Academy for Jewish Religion, California. I have the incredible opportunity to swim in the seas of depth.

To be clear: Judaism is the site of my deepest love and my deepest hurt. I was rejected because of my family’s precarious financial situation as a teenager. I was cast out in college for expressing Palestinian solidarity. My rabbi committed suicide. I spent a decade in the wilderness. And then, I got thyroid cancer. A year after my treatment ended, I decided to ignore the voice in my head telling me I’d never be accepted at a Zionist synagogue and joined my uncle for Shabbat services. Over the last dozen years, I’ve reclaimed my Jewish identity, developed a personal connection to the need for the Jewish state, a love for the existence of Israel, and a deep pain at the divisions in the American Jewish community.

Mussar and Kabbalah, ethics and mysticism, are my roadmap. Judaism allows me to grow into a better version of myself each day. I’ll never be a saint. I might never fully conquer my anger, resentment, and loneliness. HaShem willing, my days will honor the souls around me and the soul within me. I strive to be a vessel of holiness and I invite you to join me on the journey.