Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is often sought out for his views on numerous subjects and we [at Parabola] found ourselves wondering what he’d have to say on each of our themes. Generous and gracious, he clears time from his demanding schedule not to answer but to challenge and to question editors and readers alike.
Having an attachment to material reality is to me a very high achievement. You see, dealing with spiritual things, I am in danger of fooling myself. It’s a big danger and it is very common. There is something one of our sages said: “Who can you fool? God can’t be fooled. Other people don’t allow themselves to be fooled. So the only person you can fool is yourself. But it is not a great achievement to fool a fool.” I may think that I am in a spiritual realm, and I may be, or I may not be. But it’s a very easy place in which to fool myself.
One of the big dangers to pilots is that they can’t really sense direction. They can’t sense whether they are upside down or right-side up. They don’t really know what is heaven and what is the sea. And it’s a real danger. One of the Kennedys was killed just in that way. He thought that he was rising, and in fact, he was just dumping himself into the sea. He just didn’t know. In spirituality it is even easier to do the same thing. You think that you are soaring, and in fact you are going to drown yourself very deeply. Faster and faster. You do all the maneuvers, and everything shows that you are doing the right thing, except that you go very deeply into the sea.
Combining the spiritual and the material is an important achievement. And it’s not that easy. This attachment to all the senses is one of the things that I feel is lacking with many people who have tendencies toward spirituality. And this tendency for spirituality makes them apt to wander in a limitless and possibly directionless void.
So, the ability to stay attached is important. There are spiritual people to whom you can’t talk at all. Let’s say I am meeting a spiritual person, and I ask him, what was the taste of your last meal? What was the taste of watermelon? I know it’s not spiritual, not at all, but it’s a different way of being connected to an important mode of existence. Our mystical literature says that a spirit is evolved from spiritual entities. So there are spiritual entities, higher and higher and higher, up to the point where even talking about them doesn’t make any kind of sense whatsoever. Spirit can be made by other spirits, but matter is bound with divinity itself.
Matter is not more real than the spirit. I am among those who believe that humans are basically superior to angels. And our superiority lies in the fact that we have a dual existence: we are amphibian creatures. We move between matter and spirit while most of the creatures of the world are either/or. We live in two worlds, and it is just this double ability of ours that gives us superiority over angels. We have a dual attachment, so when we lose one of them, we lost our superiority.
There is a measuring tool called a vernier scale that uses two measuring rods and can achieve a far more accurate reading than either rod on its own. We also have two measuring rods, and because of that we can achieve more than each of them separately.
To speak about it as a Jew, the creation of man is the creation of a lump of clay in which the living spirit is given. But both of them are important. The clay and the spirit. If I try to deny one of them, I am destroying what I call the divine structure, and, the divine structure tells me its peak is humanity. That is what He says is His image: the creature that is at least in some way resembling Him is a creature that is both spirit and matter. The other creatures are either/or, they are what I call partial creations. There are spiritual creations and material creations. Humanity, which is the combination, has this distinctiveness so if you lose one part you lose the special quality of the human being.
There is a Chasidic story about one of the great Chassidic masters, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. He was himself a mystic and also wrote very interesting, very touching music. The story is that he is walking in the street, and he hears a little baby crying bitterly. So he looks around and sees that the crying is coming from his son’s home. So he enters the house and sees his grandson shouting and screaming, and his son sitting near the crib in meditation, neither hearing nor seeing anything. In deep meditation, he is oblivious. The grandfather soothes the little boy and then pushes his son and says to him something very important. He says, “I didn’t know that you have such a little mind. When I am in the deepest meditation, I still can hear a fly crawling on the wall.” This is, again, about connecting.
What is the smell of a rose? I know it is not a mystical experience, but the mystic that cannot be sensitive to the smell of a rose is nothing. This is something very deep: the smell of a rose; the taste of a fish; the feeling of skin. Those people who cannot sense these things are handicapped. If I am an amphibian but can live only in one world it is a handicap. So to get reattached is the need. Not to be free of attachment, to get attached. To be in a relationship with all the senses. The Middle Ages denigrated the body and considered the body a corruption: the more you get rid of it, the higher you are. There are statements in many religious literatures that the sense of touch is a shame for humanity. No sense is a shame for humanity. Losing a sense means being maimed. Being deaf and blind is being maimed. Losing any other sense is being maimed. That I am swimming or floating in some spiritual realm doesn’t retrieve the lack that I have in another realm. So, being attached is a great thing because it points to the completeness of humanity.
Perhaps many Parabola readers feel that without meditation you are not really a human being. It may be true. But it is also true the other way. If you don’t know how to draw a circle, if you don’t know how to plant a tree, if you don’t know how to bite a nut, if you don’t know how to smell a flower, you are not a complete human being. You are only half a creature. The spiritual person and the material person are both deformed people – not in the same way, one is blind and one is deaf – but it is still a deformation.
If I think the way to God goes through the spiritual, my prayer becomes more and more spiritual. There is a version of a Jewish story by Anatole France. The story is that one of the great saints had a revelation that a disaster is coming but he himself won’t be able to stop it. He has to get the help of someone, and he was given the name of so-and-so, the shepherd. He searched for him and found him. He was indeed a shepherd, a professional shepherd, but he was a completely ignorant person who didn’t even know the alphabet. So the saint thought he didn’t know anything. But he watched him, and he saw that in the field there was something like a hole. And this man would stand on one side of the hole, and say, “Now I will jump to the other side for the glory of God.” So he was jumping from one side to the other. This man didn’t know how to pray. He just jumped. And he’s a great saint. So there is a saint that doesn’t know how to pray. He just jumps. A jumping saint.
It’s just as efficacious as the one that is sitting and is immersed in meditation. See, it’s basically the same thing. Because I think, God looks down, and He sees the world, and it has all kinds of creatures in it. What matters is that they should work well and that requires the right combination. Now, the right combination is different from one person to another. What is the right combination? What is the right way of making a cake? The question is, what kind of a cake? What kind of a cake? For one you put in more cream, or more sugar. Or you don’t put in any cream or any sugar. There is no rule that every cake has to be made of the same ingredients, but the ingredients should work together in order to produce something.
I had a friend who was quite a good sculptor. And I once scolded him, being slightly older, I told him, look, so-and-so, you are doing a very bad thing when you use your brain too much. You don’t have a good brain. But you can do much better with your hands. So instead of relying on your brain, which is a middling to low brain, you should work with your hands.
I am afraid of the word spiritual. I am, now, almost allergic to it. If I want to go to God, the spiritual is not closer to Him than the material. For example, Aldous Huxley wrote very well but he made a mistake. He thought that mescaline, or LSD, opens doors to another world. It open doors – but into oneself. There are also all kinds of yoga and in many, they are just achievements. And how is nirvana different from being hit over the head with a stick? Some people can break a strong piece of metal between two fingers. I am not against it. It is something but does it have any kind of intrinsic value? The same thing is true about all kinds of spiritual abilities, whether meditation or concentration. I’m all for concentration but it is a tool. What are you doing with it?
I like bridges because bridges are almost always beautiful. And they are beautiful because they have to be functional and the function itself creates a sense of beauty. So I am saying about tools, and other things. It’s a beautiful bridge, very nice. Now, the second question is, where does it lead? And if it doesn’t lead anywhere, then there is a question about the bridge.
What good is it?