Friday, July 21, 2017

The Bahir: Illumination by Aryeh Kaplan





The Bahir: Illumination, by Aryeh Kaplan, is one of the legs in the three legged stool of Kabbalistic books.  Along with the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, and the Zohar, Jewish mysticism is more or less  based on these works.  The Bahir is an early work, and in it can be found most of the ideas that would fully flower in later Jewish mystical traditions, including the "Tree of Life" and the Sephirot.

The layout of the book is challenging.  Kaplan’s translations and commentaries are together, but to read the Hebrew text, which is vital, you have to flip to the back of the book.  I photo-copied the Hebrew text, so I could follow along.  

But this is petty concern.  We are lucky to have this English translation and commentary.  For one interested in expanding his or her Jewish religious literacy, this book is essential.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff



Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die, by Garrett M. Graff, is a revealing history of the attempts by the US government to insure the continuity of government (COG) since the dawn of the Cold War, and with renewed and slightly shifted vigor after 911.

The title is telling.  At the beginning of the Cold War, there were plans in place to save large population centers through evacuations.  But as nuclear weapons grew in size and strength, these efforts were largely abandoned.  The government, particularly the Executive Branch, was widely acknowledged to be the only entity that could  possibly survive a nuclear exchange with the USSR and govern what was left of the country.

Graff’s book is detailed, knowledgeable, and for those of us who lived during the Cold War, frightening in the sense of how close we came to nuclear war through accidents, computer malfunctions, and faculty communications.  At times only luck saved us from Armageddon.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation



Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation as translated by Aryeh Kaplan, is a nearly impenetrable book, examining the theogony of G-d’s attributes.  This book is written in a highly esoteric style.  The Hebrew, while formally simple, is compressed and open to many interpretations.

Kaplan takes a decidedly mathematical and mystical approach to this work.   He believes Jewish mystics used this work to induce numinous states.  He may very well be right.  The work also has a strong and unavoidable tone of magic; for example, astrology, largely forbidden in the Jewish tradition, is given a pass in the Sefer Yetzirah.  In a note Kaplan explains:

There is a commandment, “There shall not be found among you… one who calculates times.  In the Talmud, according to Rabbi Akiba, this specifically applies to one who calculates auspicious times, and a number of authorities accept this opinion as binding.  This, however, only means that one should not make astrology a dominant influence in one’s daily life… when one is engaged in these mystical techniques this prohibition is not applicable.

So, astrology is a tool used in Sefer Yetzirah, but never is prime directive.  Instead, the book of creation blends philosophy, midrash, astrology and earlier kabbalistic works in a melange.  In the end, it really belongs only to itself; read it, and it will be more than apparent. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answers: Exploring Spirituality and Existence in the Modern World by Richard Sylvester




Non-Duality Questions, Non-Duality Answers: Exploring Spirituality and Existence in the Modern World by Richard Sylvester examines the author’s uncompromising stance on non-duality.  This books is a series questions asked and answered by via email.  There is no particular order to the emails.  There is a great deal of repetition.  If you are unfamiliar with Sylvester’s view on non-duality, this is not necessarily bad; the repetition reinforces the topics, which are difficult to express in words.

Sylvester offers no system or strategy to “see” our non-dual status. We are already there, so there is nothing to be done.  We may be offered an experience of non-duality, and from that see that the world of our perceptions is like a “walking dream” and there is no self.  For many, that experience leads to depression.  If the world of phenomenon, where most of us get our vital reinforcement, is empty or a “walking dream,” then what is the point of anything?

But Sylvester explains that a second “state” can often arise, where we see meaning, or love, in the emptiness.  Beyond those two things, the author eschews any system (if these two points can even be called any program at all).  People are “awakened” to non-duality with often profound results.  Others simply see it as a given, and it has a minimal impact on them.  Still others plunge into crisis. 

I don’t agree with all that Sylvester writes.  I still think certain religious practices can help us understand our non-dual state.  He mentions Kabbalah in a limited, dismissively sense with apparently no much knowledge of the tradition.  But I understand Sylvester’s skepticism of methods.  Some people use them and they work; others do, and they fail to work.  A great deal of emotional discord can be created by the spiritual quest. We must be careful to not be always 'questing.'

In the end, Sylvester has the same advice for most of his correspondents who are undergoing a crisis or striving to understand non-dualism. Take a walk in the park.  Have a cup of tea and a cookie.  There is good reason he tells us this: we can’t intellectually or emotionally understand non-duality.  Perhaps the best places to 'experience' it are in simple tasks divorced from any process.  For this author, there is no difference from seeing the face of God and having a cup of tea.