A Priestly Blessing of Love and the Question
of Pure Consciousness in Judaism
Aubrey L. Glazer
There are those moments we experience in life that remain etched in our hearts forever and the time of that etching stands still. Oftentimes those experiences can be transformative to the point where we actually shift in our own awareness of the world and the role our consciousness plays in processing the “big picture.” This essay will explore precisely that subtle shift in our awareness from the “thinking I”—that bold declaration of modernity within Rene Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”—which creates our perception of reality as moderns, to a pure consciousness of love which permeates the entire constitution of self and universe. I will argue in this essay that Judaism provides avenues for glimpsing such transformation of consciousness through liturgical moments, like the Priestly Blessing. I will offer anecdotal encounters with remarkable poets reflecting upon their verse and with teachings of spiritual masters, as well as my own constructive approach to all these elements, in order to address the question of the (im)possibility of pure consciousness in Judaism. To accomplish this, I will argue that it is possible to read the Montreal bard, Leonard Cohen, against Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Leiner (known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe) to sense the beginning of an answer. In turn, my discussion of Leonard Cohen will be explored against the backdrop of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, and I will then turn to an exploration of the work and thought of Integral Yogi Sri Aurobindo in order to enrich my understanding of the Ishbitzer Rebbe. By taking this constructivist approach, I am searching for the experiences that inspired the poetic verse and homiletic teachings under consideration. My juxtaposition of these “texts” will strike many readers as somewhat unconventional, but it is all part of an attempt to get behind the words of the Priestly Blessing into the experience to which that powerful blessing points—an experience largely inaccessible to most moderns. If I have been successful, by the close of this exploration, you will never read the Ishbitzer’s homilies the same way again, and you will never listen to Leonard Cohen the same way again; something in your relationship to Judaism and the pure consciousness of love transmitted through the Priestly Blessing will (hopefully) have shifted.
Let me begin by recalling two remarkable encounters with poets who explored the pure consciousness of love. One is Montreal singer–songwriter Leonard Norman Cohen (b. 1934), and the other is the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000). Despite the fact that I am now distanced from each of these encounters by significant space and time, I can actually put my finger on what it was that touched me so in both of them: an outpouring of pure love. It may sound strange, especially given that both Amichai and Cohen were both in their seventies at the time that these meetings took place, but these meetings with remarkable men touched me like no other.
The Montreal bard Leonard Cohen had just returned to stage performances as a singer–songwriter after more than a decade of living as a reclusive Jewish monk meditating on Mount Baldy on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The reasons for Cohen coming down the mountain were not that complex, and were, in fact, even antithetical to his contemplative life: his longtime manager had been embezzling the equivalent of millions from this cult folk-singer. When he was ready to retire and turned to his savings, Cohen realized that he had been swindled by his own manager. True, this incident was only one bump on the road, as Cohen’s life had been marked by bouts of depression, which he had attempted to alleviate through various means, including spiritual practices. Sitting in a café with Cohen, surrounded by a few fellow academics at a conference of the Association of Jewish Studies a few years ago, and watching him interact with his daughter Sasha, everyone present could feel him emitting an energy that palpably changed the room. Years later, I invited a close friend of mine (who happens to be a cantor) to join me at Barclays Center in Brooklyn to hear Leonard Cohen on what may turn out to have been his last tour. This friend told me excitedly that he had seen Cohen perform at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan a few nights earlier, and it had been one of the most spiritual experiences he’d had in quite a while. This sounded a bit hyperbolic to me, but I did not want to miss this apparent finale (and of course, the notion of a “finale” to Cohen’s career keeps shifting, as his creativity proves boundless and more songs emerging daily). After three straight hours of performing music drawn from his entire oeuvre, at times prostrating himself on his knees in prayerful positions, I had to agree with my friend: this was a truly transformational experience. Something palpable happened in that arena; Cohen was transmitting an energy of love that could only come from one place—pure consciousness.
Perhaps Cohen’s ability to channel such pure consciousness emerged after he was introduced by a close Jewish friend to a Zen Buddhist master called Roshi.1 Cohen was immediately drawn to follow this master because, he relates, there was something about this teacher that had captivated him for decades. Although Cohen does not use this language, he clearly experienced a common Tantric phenomena known as shakti-pat or an “energy-descent”—namely, a mind-to-mind release of pure consciousness transmitted by master to disciple.2 Interestingly enough, the more Cohen advanced in his Zen studies and rigorous meditation, the more deeply anchored he became to his Jewish identity. In part, this was a function of Roshi wanting his student to be authentic to what the Zen koan describes as his “original face,” and partly because Cohen remained aware of his own priestly lineage (as indicated by his last name).
Cohen claims to have had “a very messianic childhood”4 growing up on Belmont Street in Westmount, a suburb of Montreal. A classmate recalls how much “Leonard was embedded in religion, deeply connected with the shul through his grandfather, who was president of the synagogue, and because of his respect for the elders; I remember how Leonard used to recount how his grandfather could put a pin through the Torah and be able to recite every word on each page it touched…”5 In addition to providing his grandson with regular exposure to traditional synagogue life, Leonard’s grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klonitzki-Kline—himself a writer—was supportive of his grandson’s literary endeavors, and the two of them would often sit together in the evening “going through the Book of Isaiah, which the rabbi knew by heart and which Leonard came to love for its poetry, imagery, and prophecy.”6 This inspiration, which flowed both from his priestly lineage and the prophetic calling to be a poet, can be felt in the following prelude to a song proffered by Cohen during his concert in Jerusalem in the early 1970s, replete with Jewish mystical imagery:
It says in the Kabbalah that if you can’t get off the ground you should stay on the ground. It says in the Kabbalah that unless Adam and Eve face each other, God does not sit in his throne, and somehow the male and female part of me refuse to encounter one another tonight and God does not sit on his throne and this is a terrible thing to happen in Jerusalem. So listen, we’re going to leave the stage now and try to profoundly meditate in the dressing room to try to get ourselves back into shape…if we can manage we’ll be back.
Cohen’s decades-long dedication to Zen practice can be seen as a commitment to redeeming the Jewish tradition through the rigor of a Buddhist lens, rather than succumbing to its betrayal through a Judaism that he considered at times to be xenophobic or triumphalist. His master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, instructed Cohen that there is ultimately no contradiction between the prayerful worship of Judaism and atheistic practice of Zen. Notwithstanding his deep involvement with Buddhist thought, Cohen always insisted to anyone who asked that he remained a Jew, fully satisfied in having a perfectly good religion; this can be seen, for example, in the following lines of his poetry:
Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this decision is final.8
Cohen also pointed out that Roshi never made any attempt to give “this Jewish monk a new religion.”9
With the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973, Leonard Cohen immediately left his family on the tranquil Greek island of Hydra in the house he has retreated to since the 1960s and flew from Athens to Tel Aviv to volunteer for service in the Israel Defense Forces, explaining: “I’ve never disguised the fact that I’m Jewish and in any crisis in Israel I would be there…I am committed to the survival of the Jewish people.”10 For the next few weeks, Leonard joined up with Israeli musicians Oshik Levi, Matti Caspi, Mordechai “Pupik” Arnon, and Ilana Rovina to sing for the IDF soldiers in “outposts, encampments, aircraft hangars, field hospitals, anywhere they saw soldiers, and performed for them up to eight times a day.”11
What is most intriguing about the Montreal bard is his process of song writing. While Cohen appears to be a prolific songwriter, his drafts most often go through grueling stretches of agonizing rewrites until the song emerged complete. By contrast, this Yom Kippur War trip to Israel remains one of the few times when Cohen was able to compose a song quickly. Indeed, he improvised the song “Lover Lover Lover” in front of the soldiers during his second performance with the band of Israeli musicians, and the through the lyrics, he was able to express the effects of war in Zion:
May the spirit of this song
May it rise up pure and free
May it be a shield for you
A shield against the enemy.12
Clearly, this ability to feel love and transmit such pure consciousness in a time of war was Cohen’s own Priestly Blessing, even evoking its liturgical format. And this ability became even more evident once the Montreal bard actually returned again to Zion, despite his earlier (post-Yom Kippur War) poetic reflections on the impossibility of reaching Jerusalem: “I won’t be going to Jerusalem after all. You will have to go to Jerusalem alone. It is yours. It was given to you by the angels of culture and time. But I can’t go.”13 This feeling of love, and the ability to transmit such pure consciousness in a time of war through his own Priestly Blessing, emerged anew when Cohen travelled to Israel three decades later, at the end of his 2009 European tour. Playing the finale of his concert in Tel Aviv, Cohen—wearing his signature black suit and fedora—gave this preamble to his invocation of the Priestly Benediction:
I want to draw our attention to the Israeli and Palestinian member[s] of the Bereaved Parents For Peace…and those other men and women, some of whom have been called foolish, irrelevant, defeatist, but no, no, not at all friends! They have achieved the victory, perhaps the only victory available—the victory of the heart over its own inclinations for despair, revenge, and hatred. So dear friends…[positioning his fingers into the priestly formation and bowing with his musicians onstage he begins reciting the benediction:] Y’varekh·kha Adonai…
This return to Zion, with its invocation of the Priestly Blessing in Tel Aviv rather than at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, is telling of Cohen’s own journey from exile to redemption. The universalist tone of his poetics, which was incubated in the early 1960s in Montreal, resounded decades later—while remaining imbedded in his particular religious path. After the finale to end all finales—assuming the role of a priest, invoking his Priestly Blessing in Tel Aviv—the particular has become universalized with “Leonard Cohens everywhere.”14
That expansiveness, intrinsic to the Priestly Blessing of the pure consciousness of love, is something I also felt when I first met Amichai, then in his seventies, a few years before he passed away. Being in this poet’s presence, I felt constantly embraced by unending love. He was visiting my university for a poetry reading, and we were involved in a deep conversation about translating his radio play, “The Day Martin Buber Was Buried,”15 into a film script that I was then planning to direct. What was it that allowed this gentle septuagenarian soul to be so full of love? Born in Würzburg, Germany to an Orthodox Jewish family, Amichai was raised speaking both Hebrew and German. Perhaps it was a childhood trauma in Germany that caused him to dedicate his life to writing poetry of pure love. Apparently, Amichai had an argument with a childhood friend of his, Ruth Hanover, that caused her to bike home angrily; she fell and as a result of injuries sustained in the accident had her leg amputated. Several years later, because of her missing leg she was unable to join the rest of her family when they fled the Nazi takeover; she was killed in the Holocaust. Amichai would later write of that experience, of love lost with his childhood friend, in poems such as “Little Ruth.”16 Premonitions of becoming a writer began for Amichai while he was stationed with the British army in Egypt, as he confronted death in the trenches as the other side of love about which he would continually be writing poetry. As a soldier he happened to find an anthology of modern British poetry, and the works of Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden all inspired and confirmed his first serious thoughts about becoming a writer of love poetry. In 1956 Amichai served in the Sinai War, and in 1973 he served in the Yom Kippur War. He later became an advocate of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East, working with Arab writers. How could a Hebrew poet steeped in the machinations of war and death be so open to pure love, as permeates all of his poetry?
Such openness to pure love for Amichai finds its framework within a devotion to examining the intricacy of the human condition. Consider, for example, the powerful poetic expressions of this pure consciousness of love as found in the seventh stanza in his cycle, Open, Closed, Open:
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment
millions of human beings are standing at crossroads
and intersections, in jungles and deserts,
showing each other where to turn, what the right way is,
which direction. They explain exactly where to go,
what is the quickest way to get there, when to stop
and ask again. There, over there. The second
turnoff, not the first, and from there left or right,
near the white house, by the oak tree.
They explain with excited voices, with a wave of the hand
and a nod of the head: There, over there, not that there, the other there,
as in some ancient rite. This too is a new religion.
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment.17
The poet’s unstinting faith in the moment within which he stands and contemplates existence allows for an opening of his consciousness to a different experience of time. That experience is one that transcends his own subjective sense of self, allowing him to connect with millions of others facing crossroads and “showing each other where to turn, what the right way is.” The consciousness of each individual involved in the search for “what the right way is” in life is guided by a process of continual turning to follow the direction of the moment. That pulsation of turning and returning throughout the universe is a pulse that precedes its creation and continues guiding existence. This pulse of continual turning, t’shuvah, within pure consciousness is something that fascinates the poet, but he also channels it as a universal force that abides within his view of existence.
It is precisely this pulse of continual turning, this t’shuvah, within pure consciousness that frees the poet from being trapped at intersections of binary thinking and getting entangled in the web of dualism. Amichai’s non-dual view of the world is seen clearly in another poem, “A Man in His Life,” where he proclaims:
A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
takes years and years to do.18
The poet here identifies with pure consciousness, where there is no longer any sense of dualism between loving and hating, remembering and forgetting. The poet conjures concluding verses here that open once again to a pure consciousness of eternal time within his experience of mundane temporality:
…He will die as figs die in autumn,
shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.19
These encounters with remarkable Jewish poets, Leonard Cohen and Yehuda Amichai, may strike the reader as idiosyncratic, but I think they serve as helpful signposts along the path of the present investigation into the Priestly Blessing of love and the question of pure consciousness in Judaism. Truth be told, for most moderns, it is no small challenge to scour through those mystical texts on the Jewish bookshelf, like Daniel Matt’s pathbreaking translation of the body of the Zohar or Aryeh Kaplan’s translation of Sefer Yetzirah and the Bahir, that convey such experiences of pure consciousness.20 That is not to say that states of pure consciousness have not been experienced by adepts and mystics in the Jewish tradition; rather, the issue is whether these experiences have been considered worthy or even safe enough to transmit through a textual record. If these experiences do exist in Judaism, then certainly the most we will find in our search is a delicious hinting, always more concealed than revealed.21
Even with a cursory search of Jewish liturgy, we find that the only word that repeats as frequently as b’ahavah (“with love”) is probably b’shalom (“with peace”). Why is that? And, more to the point: Why is it that priests to this day during prayer services recite at appointed times the benediction “Blessed are You, Eternal One, Master of the Cosmos, who has sanctified us through the holiness of Aaron, and commanded us to bless His people Israel with love (b’ahavah)”?
The answer to this question is complex. Let us first outline the contextual meaning (p’shat) through translation of the Priestly Blessing itself (Numbers 6:24–27), as follows:
24: May YHVH bless you and protect you!
25: May YHVH deal kindly and graciously with you!
26: May YHVH bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!
27: Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.22
We are aided in understanding the power of this blessing by seeing these words in their historical context, as uncovered in recent archaeological discoveries at Ketef Hinnom, a hill overlooking the Hinnom Valley to the southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem. Silver plaques were found at the site that contain benediction formulas in paleo-Hebrew script (that is, the ancient Hebrew characters used in the Second Temple period). The major discovery of the Ketef Hinnom excavations were several rock-hewn burial caves, dating from the end of the First Temple period (seventh century B.C.E.). One of the larger tombs, which probably belonged to a wealthy family, was found almost intact, with over a thousand objects in it—the most important of which are two small silver scrolls that were placed in the tomb. Considering these finds, Jacob Milgrom offers the following insightful reading of Numbers 6:27:
Literally, “And they (the priests) shall place My Name on.” In light of the Ketef Hinnom silver plaques, which demonstrate that in the seventh- (or sixth-) century Jerusalem the Priestly Benediction was worn on the body in the form of amulets, the possibility exists that the literal meaning of this phrase is the correct one, that is, that the Priestly Benediction delivered by the priests in the sanctuary was also to be placed on the Israelites as prophylactics. The usual interpretation, adopted in translation, is that God’s Name is figuratively “placed” by the priests on the Israelites through the medium of benediction. Alternatively, God’s name is nikra, “called” upon Israel (Deuteronomy 28:10). Both verbs imply ownership (Deuteronomy 12:5; Jeremiah 7:10).23
This description of the historical reality surrounding how this Priestly Blessing was actually used is instructive, insofar as the words were worn and embodied by each person constituting the tribe of Israel. The assumption, of course, is not only that “clothes make the man” but in fact that these kinds of amulets do more than simply protect the wearer: they bring the Divine Presence into one’s life. So, what happens when we do not live up to the call to live in the pure consciousness of love? The prophet Malachi hurls this blessing as invective against the hypocritical priests by decrying:
…will [God] lift your countenance (ha-yissa panekha)…that He may be gracious to us (vi-ḥonneinu)…will He lift His countenance (ha-yissa panim)? Would that you not light (ta·iru) My altar in vain (ḥinnam)!
Undoubtedly, this stands as a scathing prophetic critique of priestly corruption of their powerful blessing. One could argue, however, that both the priest and the prophet—in their own way and time—attempted to link the divine name to their own being, and in so doing, to embody pure consciousness.
Pure Priestly Consciousness As “Soft Antinomianism”
in Ishbitz/Radzin Hasidism
The language of the benediction preceding the Priestly Blessing invokes the formula “blessing His people with love,” giving rise to the following questions: Is the priest the only channel of transmission for such a blessing? What (or who) is the source of that blessing? If the transmission leads to a state of pure consciousness imbued with love, then what does this suggest about the constitution of the Divine? Do emotions like anger and jealousy exist within a God that stands as the very source of this flow of love? We now turn to one of the most creative and radical schools of hasidic thought in Judaism Izbice/Radzin hasidism, and particularly to the Ishbitzer Rebbe, to explore possible answers to these questions.25
The original thinker in this lineage was Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Leiner (1800–1854), known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe, so named for the town of Izbica (Ishbitz in Yiddish), where he taught and wrote his homiletical commentaries to Scripture and Talmud known as Mei Ha-shilo·aḥ (which translates roughly as “The Waters of Release”). The Ishbitzer dynasty is an offshoot of the Pryzsucha school (lead by Rabbi Jacob Isaac ben Asher Rabinowitz, and transmitted through the dynasty of Kotzk (lead by Rabbi Mendel).26 The Ishbitzer dynasty flourished during a tumultuous time in Polish history, which is a testament to how Jewish ingenuity survived—and was inspired by—the face of tragedy. This time period was characterized by rapid modernization; moreover, tolerance and emancipation were facilitated by Pope Pius IX’s election to the papacy in 1846, as well as by the coronation of Alexander II as Czar of Russia in 1855.27 Hasidic communities in Congress Poland, like that of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, did not necessarily participate fully in Polish culture and politics, and they remained disenchanted with access to Enlightenment thinking, which was now virtually inescapable elsewhere in Europe.28 While modernization brought with it the advantages of technological advances, travel, and increased availability of printed books and manuscripts, it also posed challenges to these staunchly conservative Hasidic communities, in the guise of military service and secularism. It is important to note here the degree to which messianic overtones imbue the teachings of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, beginning already with a contentious split between Rabbi Menaḥem and Rabbi Mordecai Yosef in 1839 and 1840.
What is the nature of this messianism, and how does it relate to pure consciousness? One first needs to recall that messianism in Judaism is often a yearning to redeem the world in the final eschaton through a cycle of redeemers, beginning with the Messiah son of David and followed by the Messiah son of Joseph.29 One traditional way of understanding the roles of these redeemers is to see them as part of a narrative that culminates with the apocalyptic vision of Armageddon’s final battle, led by the Messiah son of David. Following his death in battle, a new eschaton of peace will follow, ruled by the ensuing Messiah son of Joseph. Some Jewish thinkers, like the Ishbitzer Rebbe, have sought to bring that yearning to redeem the world in the final eschaton closer to the here and now, in what we might term the proto-messianic era.
Secondly, one must keep in mind that the messianic era in general is considered to be a time when the commandments are no longer in effect and are thus nullified;30 it then becomes intertwined with an antinomianism, whereby the law itself is suspended and no longer practiced—as it has been fulfilled. The system of mitzvot assumes free will, whereby one has the freedom to choose between good and evil, thus reinforcing values and consequences that make its observance worthwhile. Once the human and divine will are unified through messianism, the mitzvot as a system no longer obtain, given that free human will itself has dissolved into a unified will.31 Both Rabbi Mordecai Yosef and his grandson, Rabbi Gershon Henokh, articulate a “tension between illumined experience and the authority of halakhah.”32 That tension arises once human and divine wills have been unified, because halakhah is a system meant to legislate submission to the divine will through human will and agency. Once the tension between competing wills has been resolved through unification, what then remains is a life that is completely and utterly free of any yoke of mitzvot, “as it will become clear that God is directing” the individual.33 Rather than resulting in an outright transgression of Jewish law, what emerges is a “soft antinomianism”—that is, by redefining “piety as acting in accordance with divine will,” it thus “can extend beyond the law.” 34 Such a soft antinomianism is “capable of living with halakhah while challenging its basic tenet—that is, its exclusive right to divine will.”35
There is a blurring of the boundaries between the messianic era and the person of the Messiah in Ishbitz/Radzin Hasidism, whereby the one who has refined the self through humility and piety becomes the messianic archetype acting outside the confines of halakhah in a pre-messianic world.36 This kind of soft antinomianism is a sanctified transgression of the law, whereby the communal experience of revelation at Sinai gives way to individual illumination as guiding force. What, then, is the purpose of following the commandments, if one is guided by the unified will of illumination rather than by human free will yoked to the divine law? The devotional way of life serves as a touchstone for piety: “the submission to the over-arching principle of mitzvot—[which is] to occupy oneself with God, even as the specific mitzvah may no longer serve any constructive function.”37 Shaul Magid concludes, from his study of Ishbitz/Radzin Hasidism, that
…personal illumination generally shares the same basic values with the halakhic system and, in most cases, enhances rather than opposes halakhic norms….Therefore, acting outside (and against) the system “for the sake of heaven” (i.e., to oblige the divine will) is built into the system and is always possible. Therefore, it seems that mitzvot function best when performed by someone who no longer needs them.38
With this approach to soft antinomianism now in mind, the question remains: how does living a life guided by such personal illumination then manifest the love of pure consciousness?
To answer this question, we now return to our opening concern with the Priestly Blessing of Love as a manifestation of living with pure consciousness. Commenting on the eight components of the priestly vestments39 and their mystical symbolism, the Mei Ha-shilo·aḥ notes a parallel between these dressings and the eight spiritual modalities in the blessing preceding the recitation of the Shema.40 As we shall see, the unspoken link between the two is that of love. In this symbolic matrix, the Breastplate of Judgment (ḥoshen mishpat) aligns with “discernment,” for as the Mei Ha-shilo·aḥ teaches:
Every human needs to contemplate in order to realize that within divine consciousness anger against the Israelites is non-existent, “for He is angry but a moment, and when He is pleased there is life” (Psalm 30:6).41
Love is the natural spiritual state of reality and anything other than love—especially anger—is non-existent. What is remarkable in this comment is the degree to which the Ishbitzer Rebbe is willing to recast the cosmos as a manifestation of pure consciousness: love. The Priestly Blessing then serves as a perpetual witness beyond its liturgical invocation, speaking to this spiritual reality of love that courses through the cosmos. The necessary re-alignment of dual consciousness into non-dual unity is catalyzed by this Priestly Blessing and in a sense unveils the larger purpose of the contemplative prayer process in Judaism.
A further look into the language of the Priestly Blessing in its component parts invites the Ishbitzer Rebbe to reflect on the divine names as a matrix of the cosmos. From his granular look at the letters within the words of the Priestly Blessing, the Ishbitzer Rebbe makes the following nuanced comment on the invocation in Numbers 6:26:
“May YHVH bestow favor upon you”—where the language of “bestowal” (yissa) implies that the Divine should supply you with a “spiritual elevation” (hitnassut). “And grant you peace”—namely, you will have an even greater “spiritual elevation” (hitnassut), even in the midst of dialectical opposition have no fear from the opposition because God is with you. So this is the meaning of “[grant] you”—namely, within yourself.42
In this hyper-literal reading of the Priestly Blessing, the Ishbitzer Rebbe is spiritualizing the blessing. By this process, the one invoking the blessing is engaged in an act of turning the outward blessing of the priest exoterically directed to the Israelites toward an inward esoteric blessing of the one invoking the blessing within oneself. Through this inner transformation of the body as a “temple in miniature” (mikdash me’at), the contemplative gesture allows for the pure love channeled through Priestly Blessing to expand throughout the macrocosmic structure of the individual, rather than through the collective. As one becomes imbued with pure consciousness by this self-reflexive energy transmission, the very constitution of subjectivity shifts from its previous dichotomy of human will and divine will to a unified will of love. Through the dissolution of human free will into nothing but divine will, the Ishbitzer Rebbe is making a compelling case for the possible reconciliation between the pre-messianic consciousness of exile and a proto-messianic consciousness of redeemed living in the here and now.43 To gain a better understanding of the very texture of this pure consciousness, we will have to turn outside of Judaism, before returning to the Priestly Blessing more deeply.
Embodying Pure Consciousness in Sri Aurobindo
What the Jewish mystic experiences in the state of d’veikut, or merging of the human mind state with that of the divine, does not seem that dissimilar to what the Integral Yogi Sri Aurobindo might have experienced in the Nirvana state. What both states of unio mystica (mystical union) do certainly share is the cessation of ego-consciousness in the all-pervading peace of what for the former is the Ein Sof (or Without End) and for the latter is the silent Brahman. Upon the disappearance of the ego in this state of unitive consciousness, the mystic must then grapple with the sense of unreality of the external world. Notwithstanding the nuances in stages and states of consciousness within each spiritual path, these mystics share the reality that this experience of unitive consciousness generally lasts only a short while—and then what? Jewish mystics tend to be highly attuned to the ebb and flow of unitive consciousness inherent in this state of cleaving (called d’veikut), while in contrast an Integral Yogi, like Aurobindo, notices how the transient experience of unitive consciousness is replaced by more integral experiences of an “immense Divine Reality” behind, above, and within everything that had initially appeared illusory.44 This is a realization that consciousness is the ultimate reality in the universe, of which all existence itself is but a manifestation, while beyond any final qualification. Pure consciousness, while unqualifiable, is nevertheless real; Aurobindo describes it as follows:
In the state of pure consciousness and pure being we are aware of that only simple, immutable, self-existent, without form or object, and we feel that to be alone true and real. In the other or dynamic state we feel its dynamism, to be perfectly true and natural and are even capable of thinking that no such experience as that of pure consciousness is possible. Yet it is now that to the Infinite Consciousness both the static and the dynamic are possible; these are two of its statuses and both can be present simultaneously in the universal awareness…45
It is precisely here, in this state which is the ultimate ontological category and the material cause of all that exists, that Judaism appears to rub up against the (im)possibility of pure consciousness. The challenge that such a state of integral consciousness poses for Judaism is how to then relate to the distinct categories of Creator–creation–creature. It is precisely this challenge that emerges within the d’veikut state that I would like to explore within a hasidic re-reading of the Priestly Blessing. While the Jewish mystic yearns to reach and remain in a state of d’veikut, the Jewish conception of consciousness would seem to dictate that a return to dual consciousness is intrinsic to its distinct categories of Creator–creation–creature.
With this understanding in mind, consider now the re-reading of the Priestly Blessing by the Ishbitzer Rebbe—who is himself one of the rare mystical voices in Judaism that advocates for cultivating and remaining in a state of pure consciousness. Remaining in such a perpetual d’veikut state, for the Ishbitzer Rebbe, is cultivated by entering into a single commanded act of a mitzvah with deeper consciousness; this very immersion leads to a cessation of all further commandments. There is no longer a need for commanded acts in such a state of pure consciousness, as the distinct categories of Creator–creation–creature no longer exist. While the Ishbitzer Rebbe may be the most radical exponent of this antinomian tendency in Judaism, one could argue that this direction is at the heart of all forms of Hasidism. This spiritual renaissance movement that swept through Eastern Europe in the mid-1700s had already posited that one could serve the Divine either through the 613 commandments (taryag mitzvot) or through “integral immersion” (m’sirat nefesh). Notwithstanding the ban on Hasidism and its wild mystical spirituality promulgated by the Gaon of Vilna in 1772, one can only speculate as to whether Jewish mystics after Hasidism would have eventually followed the path of integral immersion in consciousness.
In considering the question as to whether Judaism makes space for the cultivation of a state of the pure consciousness of love, we have encountered some remarkable, if not disorienting, teachings. Our investigation began with anecdotal encounters with two remarkable Jewish poets, Leonard Cohen and Yehuda Amichai, and explored how such seekers, so embroiled in the darkness of depression and death, can possibly come to continue writing and singing love poems. From these encounters, which already confirm experiences of pure consciousness in Judaism, we then turned our attention to the word b’ahavah (“with love”), seeking to understand why it is repeated so frequently within Jewish liturgy. The deepest layer of meaning appears to abide in the most unexpected of places: within the Priestly Blessing. By examining the contextual meaning of this biblical blessing, we then turned to a hyper-literal reading found in the homiletical commentaries of the Ishbitzer Rebbe. In the process of unpacking his commentary, Mei Ha-shilo·aḥ, to the Priestly Blessing, we discovered that an overarching “soft antinomianism” emerges, whereby the illuminated personality allows for a unification of the human will with the divine and, in the process, changes the praxis of halakhah. The change takes place in a twofold manner, as Magid explains:
First, it keeps the messianic personality rooted in the proto-messianic world, preventing him from moving beyond the boundaries of legitimate Judaism until the world catches up to him. Second, by living in tension inside the halakhah, the messianic personality destabilizes the law, thereby extending the elasticity of the halakhic tradition.46
From this vantage point, straddling the pure consciousness of the illuminated personality within Judaism, we then turned to a comparison of the Ishbitzer Rebbe’s teachings with the tradition of Integral Yoga formulated by Sri Aurobindo. This point of contrast was instructive insofar as it sets into relief the difference between the two traditions: straddling with pure consciousness as a proto-messianic posture in Judaism is a struggle to maintain, whereas Integral Yoga provides a state of pure consciousness that, once cultivated, is never lost. Whereas pure consciousness allows the mystic to remain tuned in with clear reception to a channel constantly broadcasting love, the halakhic system of mitzvot in Judaism serves as both an anchor and a prophylactic from remaining tuned into that channel of pure consciousness.47 In the cases of Leonard Cohen and Yehuda Amichai, who have by and large left behind Judaism’s halakhic system of mitzvot while still remaining creative Jews, each poet is able to manifest and create poetry of pure love. More than the hasidic mystic, it is the Jewish poet—as seen in Amichai’s transformation of Hebrew liturgical language and Cohen’s invocation of the Priestly Blessing—who truly embodies the messianic personality rooted in the proto-messianic world, yet is continually catching the world up to live in that state of love emanating from pure consciousness.
1 Kyozan Joshu Sasaki (1907–2014), also called Joshu Sasaki Roshi. “Roshi” in an honorific title used for Zen masters.
2 For more about the notion of shakti-pat or an “energy-descent,” which I am interpolating into the context of this analysis, see Jeffrey J. Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 262 and 485.
3 Thomas F. Cleary, Classics of Buddhism and Zen: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary (Boston: Shambhala, 2001).
4 Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (New York: Ecco Press, 2012), p. 72.
5 Ibid, p. 37.
7 Ibid, pp. 262–263.
8 Leonard Cohen, “Not a Jew,” in Book of Longing (Toronto: McClelland & Stuart, 2006), p. 158.
9 Simmons, I’m Your Man, p. 316.
10 Ibid., p. 272.
11 Ibid., pp. 272–273.
12 Leonard Cohen, “Lover Lover Lover,” on New Skin for the Old Ceremony (released August 11, 1974).
13 Leonard Cohen, “The Politics of this Book,” in Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs (New York: Pantheon, 1993), p. 291.
14 Nathan Jeffay writes: “Even that wasn’t the last that concert-goers saw of Leonard Cohen. On the way out of the stadium, there were Leonard Cohens everywhere. Next to the shopping carts purloined from supermarkets by street sellers using them to sell hot bagels was a stall offering black fedora hats, Cohen’s trademark. It sold hundreds, and so Leonard Cohen has left a behind a different Israel to the one that greeted him. Today, you don’t have to be Haredi to wear a black hat.” See also his “Hallelujah in Tel Aviv: Leonard Cohen Energizes Diverse Crowd,” in The Jewish Daily Forward of September 25, 2009, available online at www.forward.com.
15 Yehuda Amichai, Pa·amonim Ṿ’rakavot: Maḥazot Ṿ’taskitim (Jerusalem: Shocken, 1992).
16 Nili Scharf Gold, Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2008), pp. 78–98.
17 Yehuda Amichai, “I Wasn’t One of the Six Million: And What is My Life Span? Open Closed Open,” in Open Closed Open, trans. Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (New York: Harcourt, 2000), pp. 7–8.
18 Yehuda Amichai, “A Man in His Life,” in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, trans. Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell (New York: Harcourt, 1986), pp. 158–159.
20 Daniel Matt, The Zohar (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004–present); Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yeẓirah: The Book of Creation in Theory and Practice (York Beach, ME: S. Weiser, 1997); idem, The Bahir (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995).
21 Kripal suggests that mystical texts do two things very skillfully: “(1) rhetorically both reveal and conceal the religious experiences of their authors, and (2) such texts have the power to semantically re-enact analogous ‘experiences’ in the hermeneutical events of their readings.” See Jeffrey J. Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 9.
22 YHVH is my rendition of the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God (yod-hei-vav-hei) that appears in the Hebrew text but is traditionally left unpronounced.
23 Jacob Milgrom, JPS Bible Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), p. 52. In this context, the word “prophylactics’ denotes an amulet capable of protecting its bearer from spiritual damage by evil spirits.
24 Malachi 1:9–10, and cf. 1:6–7 and 11–14; and 2:2–9.
25 In this essay I refer to the spiritual lineage known as Izbica/Radzin Hasidism in general, while the main focus of the particular homilies I address are from the specific link in that Izbica/Radzin hasidic dynasty known and expounded by the Ishbitzer Rebbe. As Shaul Magid explains, the villages of Izbica and Radzin were both integral settings for the version of Hasidism I am referencing: “After R. Mordecai Yosef’s death, his circle of close disciples scattered….R. Jacob Leiner [R. Mordecai Yosef’s son] led the community in Izbica for the next twenty-four years, during which time he moved to Radzin, a small city almost due north of Kotzk and Lublin in the northern corner of the province. This brought him closer to the growing Izbica community already established in Lublin. R. Jacob Leiner remained in Radzin until his passing in the summer of 1878.” (See the introduction to Magid’s Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Ishbitzer Rebbe/Radzin Hasidism [Madison, WI: and London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003], p. xx.)
26 Shaul Magid, Hasidism on the Margin, pp. xviii–xix.
27 Ibid., p. xvii.
28 There is a distinctly “Polish” Jewry that remained identifiable throughout what is known by historians as Congress Poland. After 1815, this Congress consisted of ten Russian-ruled provinces, as well as the areas incorporated into the Austrian province of Galicia. For more information, see Gershon Bacon, “Poland from 1795 to 1939,” in the YIVO Encyclopedia, ed. Gershon D. Hundert, available online at www.yivoencyclopedia.org.
29 Steven S. Schwarzschild and Menachem Kellner, “On Jewish Eschatology,” in The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 209–228.
30 B. Niddah 61b, mitzvot b’teilot le-atid lavo.
31 This recurring motif of the unified will appears over fifty times in the Ishbitzer Rebbe’s Mei Ha-Shilo·aḥ commentary to the Torah, to be discussed below; see Magid, Hasidism on the Margin, pp. 205–207.
32 Magid, Hasidism on the Margin, p. 216.
33 Mei Ha-Shilo·aḥ, vol. 1, 51d–52a as quoted in Magid, Hasidism on the Margin, p. 223.
34 Ibid., p. 217.
35 Ibid, p. 227.
36 Ibid, p. 224.
37 Ibid, p. 233.
38 Ibid, pp. 237–238.
39 This eightfold division of the priestly garbing, described in Exodus 28:1–43, consists of the following: (1) the ephod, verses 6–12; (2) the breastplate of judgment and the urim and tummim, verses 13–30; (3) the robe, verses 31–35; (4) the frontlet, verses 36–38; (5) the tunic, verse 39; (6) the headdress, verse 39; (7) the sash, verse 39; and (8) the turban, verse 40.
40 This eightfold division of spiritual qualities is divided in the liturgy as follows: “Endow us with (1) understanding (2) and discernment, (3) that we may study (4) and teach your Torah with devotion, (5) heed its words, (6) transmit its precepts, (7) follow its instruction, and (8) fulfill its teachings in love.”
41 Mei Ha-shilo·aḥ, Parshat Tetzaveh (B’nei Brak: Meishor Publications, 5755 [1994/1995]), p. 89a.
42 Mei Ha-Shilo·aḥ, Parshat Naso, p. 146a.
43 The Ishbitzer Rebbe tends to refer to a reconciliation between the exilic messianic consciousness of Joseph and the redeeming messianic consciousness symbolized by Judah; see Magid, Hasidism on the Margin, p. 205.
44 Sri Aurobindo Ghose, On Himself (Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972), p. 102.
45 Sri Aurobindo Ghose, The Divine Life (Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobiondo Ashram, 1973), p. 345. See also Ernest L. Simmons, Jr., “Mystical Consciousness in a Process Perspective,” Process Studies 14:1 (Spring 1984), pp. 1–14, now available online at www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2585.
46 Magid, Hasidism on the Margin, p. 240.
47 This nuanced point of straddling the struggle for pure consciousness in contemplative and mystical Judaism is something that still needs to be redressed in light of recent popular works. For example, see Jay Michaelson, Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism (Boston: Trumpeter, 2009); and idem, Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment (Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions, 2013).