man with positive power and universe light watercolor painting abstract art

Am I A Mystic-Rationalist-Existentialist? Or Am I Too Fond of Labels?

I had a revelation on the London Underground a couple of months ago.  On the Northern Line, to be precise.  I don’t think anyone’s ever had a revelation on the Northern Line before; I certainly didn’t expect to have one there.  I remember that years ago even the London Underground had adverts announcing their new upgrades to the Northern Line with a paraphrase of Doctor Johnson: when a man is tired of the Northern Line, he is tired of death.  With friends like those…  But I digress.  My point is not to sound like a trainspotter, but to talk about the content of my revelation.

It was not, I hasten to add, a divine revelation, except inasmuch as the religious see the divine in everything.  I don’t think G-d spoke to me on the Tube (but just who does announce “MIND THE GAP” in such an authoritative, commanding voice?).  I just had a moment of startling insight into myself and my thought processes.

I was reading Arthur Green’s academic biography of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav [his spelling].  The book, incidentally, is highly recommended, at least if you are willing to read secular academic biographies of Jewish leaders.  On page 317, in an appendix on Faith, Doubt and Reason in Rabbi Nachman’s thought, Green writes about the three tendencies in Western religion: rationalism, mysticism and existentialism.  He does not define them in detail, but from what he says, and my wider reading, we might say that the rationalist seeks to reduce the miraculous elements of religion to a minimum and attempts to understand G-d through philosophical inquiry.  The mystic multiplies the miraculous elements within religion, but, like the rationalist, builds complex intellectual structures to understand G-d.  The existentialist, however, is focused on the personal experience of religion and has no time for intellectual gymnastics, whether rational-philosophical or mystical.

What matters to the existentialist is the feeling of closeness to, or (perhaps more usually) distance from G-d, not to mention the creation of an authentic sense of self through the search for G-d and the choices involved in that quest; existentialists, secular as well as religious, place a lot of emphasis on choice and authenticity.

Perhaps the rationalist starts from logical proof of G-d’s existence, the mystic from experience of devekut, the immanence of G-d, while the existentialist is forced to start from loneliness and experience of G-d’s absence, launching into a quest to find Him.  At any rate, I suspect there is a tension between the three tendencies: the rationalist sees the mystic and the existentialist as too subjective and irrational; the mystic finds the rationalist and existentialist lacking in faith and personal connection to G-d; while the existentialist sees the rationalist and mystic as being caught up in elaborate metaphysical systems lacking the human element.  Nevertheless, we should note that these are tendencies, not exclusive states of being; Green states that Rabbi Nachman alternated between the existentialist and mystical tendencies.  There is certainly scope for overlap between at least some of the tendencies.

Back to me, sitting on the Tube heading towards Golders Green.  I felt that this explained a lot about me, about my quest to see where I fit in the Orthodox Jewish community.  I immediately wanted to find out more about religious existentialism.  As I read a little more about it (although I am still reading and researching it), it seemed to fit with my experience of religion being based on loneliness, longing and a search for authenticity.    I discovered that a number of Jewish figures who inspire me are considered existentialist or proto-existentialist, not just Rabbi Nachman, but Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and the non-Orthodox theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Likewise, a number of figures that I encountered in the secondary literature and want to explore further are considered religious existentialists.

There are actually strong rationalist elements to my thought, but they are circumscribed by skepticism regarding any logically rigorous proof of the existence of G-d (which is not to say that I think there is no evidence for G-d, just that it is circumstantial and experiential).  In any case, I had been experiencing a frustration with religious rationalism, which I feel only takes a person so far.  It paints a broad pictures of the universe and can proscribe certain things (segulot, literal readings of Tanakh and Midrash, contemporary miracle-workers), but does not seem to give a person much of a positive, day-to-day scheme for living.  I wanted something more meaningful, something that would reach me every day.

So, rationalist-existentialist Jew seemed to describe me.  But one of the laws of my life is that no label seems to describe me adequately for long, perhaps because I’m always learning and growing.  I’m not someone who flits from outlook to outlook or interest to interest, but I do add more things in all the time, as I discover them.

Sure enough, I was sitting in a lecture given by Rabbi Dr Alan Brill on the history of kabbalah.  While I am not a mystic, I love history and had been anxious recently to know more about the history of kabbalah and how authentic its teachings really are.  During the lecture, Rabbi Brill drew a distinction between the kabbalist and the mystic.  The kabbalist, he argued, is someone involved in kabbalah and studying kaballistic texts, perhaps also involved in practical kabbalah (amulets etc.).  I am certainly not a kabbalist.

However, he also defined a mystic as something distinct from a kabbalist.  A mystic is someone with a strongly interior character, driven by spiritual growth and longing for the sublime.  He gave the example of Rav Kook, Rabbi Nachman and one or two other people who were mystical, but not really kabbalists.  This sounded a lot like me.  Suddenly, I was a mystic!  It is also true that I like the language of mysticism (and kabbalah), the poetry of shattered vessels, raising sparks and so on.

However, it seems to me that interiority, spiritual growth and a yearning for the sublime can be found in many other people than “pure” mystics. Why, even an atheist could have those traits (defining ‘spiritual growth’ loosely).  So… am I a mystic?  Do these labels even mean anything if they are so porous and confused?  Should I just be me?  How do I communicate with people (potential friends, dates) if I refuse to define myself?  After all, it is human nature to put labels on things and, up to a point, it is useful?  But this, I suspect is the subject for another time…