Editors' Note:This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Jewish community here.
In the last decade, numerous books have been released on the intriguing topic of Kabbalah and its philosophies. However, little has been done to convey how Kabbalah relates to functional Jewish practice. While Kabbalah has been applied to personal transformation, psychology, and the monthly calendar, the practical path by which we live this lofty consciousness through the specifics of Jewish life has yet to be explained. If anything, it seems the average Joe and the average Jew assumes just the opposite—that the specifics of Judaism get in way of the lofty Kabbalistic ideals.
To Be or Not To Be
One of the greatest difficulties in explaining Judaism as an attempt to counsel humanity toward fulfillment, self-actualization, and spirituality, is people's mis-sense of self and of soul.
In the Western world, we have been fed an illustration of the spiritual experience. We imagine the spiritual seeker at the top of a mountain about to float away into the clouds, being blown along by a gentle wind. The words "soul" and "spirituality" have been redefined on the backdrop of Western society and culture. The West's version of the spiritual experience has come to be equated with their vision of utopia—the path of absolutely no resistance.
However, Judaism's picture of the spiritual experience begins quite differently.
One of the ways we refer to God is as the Rock; that does not sound too flowy.
In fact, one could make the claim that the Rock-view of spirituality is diametrically opposed to the Flowy-view of spirituality. Rock-spirituality is assertive whereas Flowy-spirituality is passive. Rock-spirituality is choice-based whereas Flowy-spirituality simply goes with the flow. Rock-spirituality is to be proactive whereas Flowy-spirituality is to be acted upon. Rock-spirituality is to be sturdy and stand strong against the winds of change whereas Flowy-spirituality is to be blown away with the wind. Rock-spirituality is control of self whereas Flowy-spirituality is loss of self.
In short, Judaism's take is that spirituality is accessed when you make a conscious and directed free will choice. This is the human side of your self. This is the soul side of your self.
This is an implementation of the human spirit.
The question then becomes what do you do with your free will choice? What do you do with your human spirit? In which direction are you going to move?
That is where Judaism comes in.
Judaism is all about one's relationship with self, others, and God.
Based on the participants involved, every relationship has ways by which it can flourish and ways by which it can be shattered.
That is to say, every relationship has a Torah; every relationship has an "Idiot's Guide To My Relationship with X"—a handbook exploring what builds the relationship up and what brings the relationship down. In our relationship with God, the Torah is that manual. The Torah puts forth what we can do, and what we can avoid doing, in order to facilitate as great a relationship, association, and affiliation with God as possible.
Now, in relationships we can often intuit specific modes of behavior that will lead to certain results, but this is not always the case. For example, I understand that my walking into the house yelling and screaming would bring down my relationship with my wife. However, the fact that my failure to squeeze the toothpaste from the end of the tube brings down my relationship with my wife, I do not have an explanation for as of yet. Similarly, many people have a certain intuition that murder and theft will somehow bring about a disconnect in one's relationship with God, but question how keeping kosher (the Jewish food laws) will contribute to one's God-connection.
Thus, Judaism is not a philosophy nearly as much as it is a spiritual science. The Torah is outlining a complete spiritual pathway by which one can maximize one's relationships—with one's self, with others, and with God.
An Infinite Disclaimer
Now, it must be stated at the outset, that when dealing with the Infinite we, by definition, will not be able to fully comprehend anything 100 percent. (The Hebrew phrase used to express Reasons for Commandments is Taamei Hamitzvot. The Hebrew word taam, often interpreted to mean "reason," can more accurately be translated as taste, as if to say that a person can get a taste of why we do a particular act in Judaism but can never fully wrap his head around it, since the commandments stem from the Infinite.) Similar to the functioning of any committed relationship, Judaism teaches that we are to involve ourselves with the commandments even if we do not understand exactly how they will bring us closer to God. If every time my wife asks something of me, I choose whether or not to fulfill the request based on its importance in my eyes, I devalue her as an independent entity. That is to say, commitment in one's relationships sometimes requires the same attitude as when your doctor prescribes a pill: you take the pill and it cures you even though you do not understand why.