Friday, December 16, 2011

Vayishlah (Wanderings)

A Dialogue About Ego Death

The early part pf this week’s parashah contains one of the strangest events in the Torah—Yaakov’s nocturnal encounter with the mysterious, almost spectral figure of a “man” who struggles with him until dawn, injures his thigh muscle, and then blesses him and gives him a new name (Gen 32:24ff.). Rather than Ya’akov, a name redolent of crookedness, even dishonesty, he becomes Yisrael—he who struggles with God and is able; and/or, he who is upright with God (yashar-el). Was this figure an angel of God? An avatar of his brother Esau, whom he is about to encounter again after twenty years, and from whom he parted with most bitter feelings? Whatever the exact nature of this figure, and whether it is to be read as an actual occurrence or a dream–vision (thus, e.g., Rambam in Guide II.42), we may surely read it as a “dark night of the soul,” a deeply transformative, inner experience which somehow consolidated the changes Yaakov underwent during the twenty years he spent in Haran. It seems to me that, in the spirit of Hasidism, it would not be too far-fetched to read this as a paradigm “for very person, in every time and place”; surely all of us, at some point or another, must undergo deep inner struggles with whom we are and whom we need to become.

These thoughts are elicited especially strongly in light of a significant dialogue I wish to share with readers with Stan Tenen (on whom more below). This discussion began with his reaction to my essay for Vayera about the Binding of Yitzhak, and ultimately touches upon important issues relating to the nature of what we mean by religion, the meaning of life and death, self and the cosmos. expressing some of our questions and conundrums about that event. In his first letter, Stan wrote:

The willingness to sacrifice one's only child, and thus also one's entire future, is the epitome of the ego-death experience. If Avraham Avinu had not been willing to sacrifice all he had, all his life and all his future, he would not have reduced his ego sufficiently to merit inheriting the future.

There is a direct relationship between the depth of one's nullification of ego and the potential for growth and miracles. If one completely nullifies one's ego by awareness of the infinite and transcendent nature of God, then the future has infinite possibilities. The depth of nullification is proportional to the height of possibilities.

At this stage, I found some of what he said very troubling. In my reply, I wrote: “Perhaps I misunderstand you, but I have deep reservations about the whole concept of ‘ego-death.’ In brief: as I see it, the real problem is not ego vs. negation of ego (what Hasidim call bittul atzmi), but inflated ego vs. healthy ego.” At this point, I understood him to be advocating “self-nullification”—a concept found in many early Hasidic texts—as a serious, actual option for the religious life of the Jew. I strongly questioned whether there is such a thing as a person who has truly negated his ego, and suspect that those who think that they have done so are in some sense deluding themselves; hence, to hold it up as an ideal encourages either hypocrisy (conscious or unconscious), or various kinds of craziness. Hence, I cannot accept the Habad notion (found in Chapter 1 of Tanya) of a Tzaddik gamur, a “perfect” or “completely righteous person” who has no ego, no will, and no desires, but lives entirely to help others and to serve God. It is at best a useful theoretical construct, a foil against which to poise real, living human beings.

The alternative to this, which I see as the “high road” of Judaism, is to guide our ego in a healthy but modest, humble way. A central part of this is what I call a “life project.” By this, I mean some activity—which may be intellectual, artistic, practical-social in nature, or even building a family—which engages the person’s energies and imagination to the fullest, and involves creating or building something beyond the self and its own immediate satisfaction and pleasures. Those of us who have found a serious and worthwhile life project in which to pour our ego–energies are fortunate—but it is important to realize that such a life project is ultimately in some sense a function or offshoot of the ego, not its negation; it is, in some sense, an expression of the self and its uniqueness. Albeit, on another level, to use religious language, its ultimate aim is to magnify God’s Name and make it present in the world.

I know from myself, that my writing— in piecemeal fashion, through the medium of these weekly essays and studies, and perhaps ultimately through some more systematic presentation in book form—have been a source of deep satisfaction to myself. If I may be so bold, Stan, my dialogue partner here, has been engaged for several decades in a very exciting and unique intellectual enterprise to which he has devoted his best energies (more on that below). I would go so far as to say that the life of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom Habad doctrine describes as a tzaddik gamur, may be understood by us ordinary mortals in terms of a very audacious and far-reaching life project—to bring the entire Jewish people back to Torah and mitzvot, and to create the world-wide network of emissaries needed to do so; at a certain point in his “career” as Rebbe this was even conceived as messianic project. I of course know nothing from “within” of the personality of the late Rebbe or how he thought about his own life, but simply by virtue of the mere fact that he was a human being I believe that he was in some senses imperfect and clearly had an ego—and to all evidences a very strong one.

Two more comments at this point. One, that just as our Sages say that no person dies having fulfilled half his desires—a saying usually understood as referring to grossly carnal or corporeal desires—may also apply to the spiritual and creative life. That is, there is always more to learn, more books to write, or more music to compose or paintings to paint, more people to help, more to understand. Thus, life projects are rarely or never completed in full.

A second aside: Perhaps Rabbah, when referring to himself as a beinoni, even though, as noted there, he never walked four ells without wearing tefillin and without speaking words of Torah—i.e., he was as close to perfection as a Jew can be —implies that the idea of tzaddik gamur is a fiction, or a theoretical yardstick, not a reality.

Stan replied to my above comments as follows:

There's a deep paradox here, and it relates to the alternative-universes theory in physics…. I don't think it's possible for a person to stay in an ego-death state, except for a short period. I think the majority of people who have ego-death experiences don't integrate them very well. Some become egomaniacs, and some think that they're the Messiah.

The true ego-death experience can be initiated spontaneously, as part of a disease process (heart attack), in very deep meditation, and/or as facilitated by psychotropics. It is my understanding that regardless of how the circumstance comes about, the results are pretty much the same….

A person undergoing an ego-death experience must not be able to tell that it's an ego-death experience rather than their actual death. This is because the ego would have to be active in order to realize that its death was psychological and/or psycho-physiological, but not physical.

Thus, a person undergoing an ego-death experience believes that they are actually dying. In this experience, a person has a choice either to fight the experience and try to stay alive, or to surrender and yield up their soul. At the moment of surrender, at the moment of letting go, at the moment of ego-death, a person is turned inside-out and transformed.

Others observing a person undergoing ego-death might see them actually die, or might be aware that it's an ego-death experience and not see them die. This leads to a bifurcation of reality and/or alternate realities. The greater the self-abnegation, the wider the window of opportunity for the “action of heaven.” Complete self-abnegation thus leads to the greatest possibilities for future life and growth.

Stan’s answer put things in a totally different perspective. It’s clear that what he is speaking of is a very powerful, probably singular, once in a lifetime transformative mystical experience. In this light—not as a normative demand, nor even as a hypothetical ideal as the highest level of living one’s life, but as something which happens through a kind of Divine grace—it takes on a totally different significance. Nevertheless, I think that my own above remarks, based on a certain misunderstanding, are of value in their own right as clarifying certain issues.

What Stan writes here is reminiscent of what has been described in certain mystical experiences, in which a person feels himself totally nullified in union with God. I once read that certain medieval Jewish mystics used to make their souls take an oath that, following the Heavenly ascent, they would return to the body and not stay “up” there, as otherwise the person would die. Perhaps “death by the Divine kiss” was a mystical ego-death which, if the person was ready, became a bodily death as well. To continue:

A person who wears their humility on their sleeve is an egomaniac. Intense, forced (or over-practiced) piety and/or humility are actually the exact opposites of real piety and real humility. … Of course, I don't know everyone or every condition, but I'd say that people who think they've burned out their Yetzer Hara [lit., “the Evil Urge”—but really also the source of life vitality, of eros] have really just burned out their creativity…. The Yetzer Hara is necessary for life. It refers to all activity on the “earth plane,” and to a Newtonian reality where everything circles “Ra,” the Egyptian sun-god [I don’t know if I agree with this etymology—but that is a very minor point-yc]. The Yetzer Hara is the wheel of karma, and the cycles of the planets and the seasons, and the cycles of living beings.

The scholars (Wolfson, et al.) think that Kabbalah is about sex magic, because -- not having experienced the grand mort of ego-death, they mistake the descriptions of ego-death for le petit mort of the sexual experience. There is a relationship: le petit mort is le grand mort writ small, and le grand mort is le petit mort writ large. {Is that why the Kabbalah uses the metaphor of sexual union to describe unification within the Godhead divinity? I hope to write an essay on this in the near future. YC]

There are also real-world opportunities to engage the principle of self-abnegation. This is the subject of my old essay "The Three Abrahamic Covenants and the Car-Passing Trick" at … Abraham's complete self-abnegation, in his voluntary willingness to yield up his future (Isaac), opens the world of infinite growth and possibilities, numbering greater than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand.

Because it's very rare for academic or religious scholars to have actually experienced ego-death for themselves, the bulk of scholarly discussion on the matter is uninformed (by lack of experience) and confused and confabulated with le petit mort, near-death, and other quasi-ego-death experiences that can't be distinguished. And the world of conventional (Newtonian mind-think) doesn't help, because it insists on excluding the conscious experience of the experimenter—which is of course crucial to any understanding of the ego-death experience, which is impenetrable from the outside.

One concluding comment about the Akedah: everything Stan has written on this relates to the ego-death required of Abraham: to give up his future, his progeny, and thus also the continuity of his own life-project of spreading knowledge of God’s oneness —singularity and uniqueness, combined with His rulership over all—beyond his own death. But there is another, equally serious problem with the Akedah: the ethical issue, what Kierkegaard calls the awful paradox of the “theological suspension of the ethical.” How could God command Abraham to sacrifice, i.e., to kill, another human being, to violate what we are told elsewhere is a basic, innate ethical rule? Here, I envision Abraham living every moment of the three days journeying from Beer-sheva to Mount Moriah with a kind of double consciousness: simultaneously believing that God required this of him, and being prepared to obey blindly out of his great love for Him; and the equally great certainty that God could not demand this of him, and that in some way he could not comprehend that it would in the end prove to be so.

* * * * *

A few words about Stan Tenen. Stan has devoted his life to studying the idea that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are not merely a group of conventional signs, but a kind of hand signal whose meaning is intuitively understood by human beings without any further instruction. To this, he adds a wealth of insights from the worlds of mathematics, geometry and physics. He has recently published a book in which he presents his ideas: The Alphabet That Changed the World. For details, visit his website,


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