The Tao of Torah

More than a decade ago I was invited to join a monthly Torah study group in the San Francisco Bay Area that met at the homes of the group members. All of the members were currently or had once been affiliated with Jewish Renewal, a spiritual movement born in the 1960s that integrates Kabbalistic mysticism with modern, progressive values. In the group were therapists, teachers, lawyers, a nurse, a computer programmer, and a business consultant. Several members had at one time been involved with Eastern religions. I felt honored and delighted to join this circle of committed lovers of Torah. We would meet on Saturday around noon, chat for a half hour, and then offer the blessing for the study of Torah and recite the weekly Torah portion.

We took turns reading the Torah portion aloud. Each person would read a few verses—usually in English translation but sometimes in the original Hebrew. It was wonderful to hear the words of the Torah portion refracted through a dozen voices, male and female, young and old! Even more wonderful was the process of interpretation that followed. Instead of immediately proceeding to a group discussion of the text, we passed around “a talking stick”—which was usually a shofar or a Torah yad (ritual pointer)—and each person had five to ten minutes to speaking freely about what the Torah passage meant to him or her.

Torah page with "yad" pointer

Torah page with a yad pointer. Credit: Creative Commons/Rama.

Some people spoke from the heart, others from the head, others from a combination of the two. Some had read traditional commentaries beforehand; others simply brought their life experience and intuition. Several members related parallel insights from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism. A few chose to build on or disagree with what others had said, while most just spoke their own perspective. Afterward, we had an open discussion for a half hour and then shared a leisurely mid-afternoon Sabbath meal. What a beautiful and holy way to learn and eat and be together!

A Meditative Approach to Torah Study

Sometime during my first year of meeting with the group, I realized I could use my Buddhist meditation practice to deepen my experience of the reading and the sharings. I had been a practitioner of vipassana (insight) meditation since 1994 and had also been using contemplative practices in my university classes on literature, psychology, and religion. Vipassana meditation involves mindfully bringing one’s full attention and awareness to whatever is arising in the moment, as well as periodically inquiring into the nature of what one is experiencing. The inspiration to meditate during the Torah study group may have come during a moment of exhaustion: I had closed my eyes during the reading because I was feeling tired from a long week at work, but as I listened to the passage with closed eyes, I discovered that the words became more vital and evocative. Aha, I thought, I use meditation in my personal life and professional life, why not use it here?

And so I adopted a meditative approach to Torah study: as the reading of the Torah portion began, I would close my eyes, take a few slow deep breaths and begin to meditate. I listened mindfully to the spoken words of Torah in this contemplative way and refrained from thinking about or interpreting the words. I simply focused on receiving the words. When it was my turn to read, I opened my eyes and tried to read mindfully. During the individual sharings that followed the reading, I kept my eyes closed and listened contemplatively as my fellow Torah lovers successively offered their insights. I did not analyze or ruminate on their responses but allowed them to flow through me and evoke in me whatever sensations, feelings, images, and thoughts they were meant to invoke. Most of the time I chose to share last so that I could listen to and build on the insights of the entire group.

Because I remained in this receptive meditative state, the integration was neither labored nor primarily intellectual. Rather, it was a flowing intuitive integration that emerged spontaneously and semi-consciously as I listened and that continued to emerge effortlessly but more consciously as I spoke. My intention was to honor everyone present and at the same time add my own integrative perspective. Many of the group members appreciated my contemplative, integral approach. On one occasion a member said to me, “I really liked what you said. It was as if we loaded the bases, and you hit it out of the park.”

Weaver bird

Committing to nondualism means working to bind together different threads of experience, much as a bird weaves a nest. Credit: Creative Commons/Larry.

During my first year with the group, I discovered that many of the members had theistic understandings of God. To them, God was utterly transcendent, fundamentally separate from us but occasionally connecting with us during prayer, Torah study, and performance of the mitzvot. Some people spoke of their spiritual experiences in nature but distinguished these from their experiences of God. I was surprised by these theistic orientations since Jewish Renewal was founded by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who is an outspoken integral-pantheistic Jew. My assumption had always been that most Jewish Renewal members shared his basic nondual orientation of the divine as both filling and transcending the universe.

I noticed I was sometimes agitated by the various theistic views that were expressed. They reminded me of the views I had rejected when I left rabbinical school in 1977 disillusioned with the dogmatism, ethnocentrism, and sexism in Orthodox Judaism. I considered whether to argue against these responses during the general discussion following the individual sharings, but I decided not to. To begin with, I loved the sacred fellowship created by the individual sharings and didn’t want to spoil that sense of intimacy by turning the sharings into an argument. My preference was for dialogue, not debate. I also wanted to honor the variety of theological views. In my university classes I always try to validate different spiritual perspectives while acknowledging that every perspective has its benefits and limitations. In class discussions we explore those benefits and limits, but our Torah study group was not a class—it felt more like a communion or like group spiritual direction. I felt that if I were truly holistic, then I needed to find and honor the truth in every position and be able to integrate those elements into a more comprehensive whole. In sum, I decided to become a holistic weaver rather than a dualistic warrior.

Looking to Taoism for Nondualist Guidance

The shift from warrior to weaver was influenced in part by my understanding of Taoism. Around the time I joined the Torah study group, I was re-reading Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, the classic Taoist text and one of my favorite scriptures of all time. Though I had known about the book for many years, it was a friend who inspired me to read it in the early 1990s. She called it her “Taoist Bible.” The Tao refers to the transcendent Way that is the mysterious source of all being and non-being. It can also refer to the immanent Way of nature as well as the particular Way of human nature. Lao Tzu emphasizes living in harmony with nature, flowing with the forces of nature rather than resisting them, and moving around obstacles the way water moves around rocks. I also valued Lao Tzu’s advice to live simply, to value being over doing, and to rely more on contemplative awareness and intuition than on discursive thought. One of the reasons I was attracted to Zen Buddhism was that it combines Buddhist and Taoist approaches to create a powerful nondual spirituality.

As I was rereading the Tao Te Ching (as translated by Stephen Mitchell), I was again impressed by how compellingly Lao Tzu is able to reconcile opposites through the use of paradoxical logic. This logic strives to continually show that apparent contraries are interpenetrating and fundamentally related parts of a greater unity:

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

This dynamic diversity within unity is beautifully illustrated by the Taoist yin-yang symbol: in the middle of the dark yin sector is a bright point of yang, and in the middle of the bright yang sector is a dark point of yin.

Yin-yang symbol in nature

Yin-yang "symbolizes the wholeness and perfection of the eternal Tao, the Source of existence." Credit: Creative Commons/ Christophe Kratzert.

The passive energy of yin and the active energy of yang are dynamically intertwined: yin becomes yang, and yang becomes yin, and both are contained by the all-encompassing circle, which symbolizes the wholeness and perfection of the eternal Tao, the Source of existence. Aha, I thought, I can use Taoist paradoxical logic in my responses to our Torah study group; the key is to combine contemplative consciousness with an intention to integrate the various elements of the Torah portion, including the diverse perspectives of the group on those elements, into a comprehensive, dynamic whole.

My greatest challenge was staying fully present and open to passages from the Torah that I found abhorrent, outmoded, or simply boring, such as: the divine destruction of Sodom and Gemorah; the divinely sanctioned destruction of Amalek’s clan; the sexist treatment of women; the emphasis on the Chosen People; the complicated instructions for the building of the tabernacles; the lists of priestly duties and of who begat whom; and the sacrificing of animals. I was committed to finding some truth and value in all of these passages even as I critiqued them.

While I refrained from critiquing my friends’ responses to the Torah, I did not refrain from critiquing the Torah itself. I see it as a divinely inspired but human document. Like everything human, it is flawed and requires ongoing reformation. What may have been regarded as good and true and holy at one time is not necessarily good and true and holy for our times. Of course, from an absolute, nondual perspective, everything is always and ultimately good since everything is from the Infinite One. Yet we live in a world of distinctions and are spiritually called, and existentially obliged, to make discernments and to choose love, wisdom, and peace over hatred, ignorance, and war. But if we understand that there is a spark of holiness even in hatred, ignorance, and war, then we are able to transform these negative energies so that they can serve the highest good.

Making Sense of Animal Sacrifice in the Torah

As a lover of animals I have always been repelled by animal sacrifice. I believe that animal sacrifice is cruel and no longer justified, yet I tried to listen contemplatively to the Torah passages that describe the slaughtering, preparing and cooking of goats, sheep, cattle, and birds. And I tried to find the sparks of truth and value in those bloody passages. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, which derives from the three-letter root kuf-resh-bet, which means “close, near.” The purpose of sacrifices is to bring the worshipper closer to God. By giving up a valuable possession, such as a goat or sheep, the worshipper gains greater closeness to the Source of Being. The assumption is that possessions can bloat our egos and get in the way of our connection to more transcendent realities. If we prayerfully let go of our attachments to our worldly possessions, then we can connect more profoundly to the wellspring of our lives. However, it is one thing to give up inanimate possessions like clothes, furniture, and utensils and quite another to take the lives of living beings. While we must take the life of an animal or plant in order to live, I don’t think it is permissible any longer to take an animal life for the sake of worship.

River flowing through rocks

"Lao Tzu emphasizes... moving around obstacles the way water moves around rocks." Credit: Creative Commons/adhiwus.

Still, the ancient Israelites and other ancient peoples may have felt such a deep kinship with animals that they experienced taking the life of a ram or a bullock as sacrificing a part of their own lives. They may have viscerally experienced the animals they herded as part of their collective self—the bestial part of their collective identity. Indeed, they knew that these animals were eventually incorporated into their selves through the act of eating. If they killed animals to sustain their bodies, why should they not kill animals to elevate their spirits?

My contemplative, Taoist-inspired approach did not lead me to justify animal sacrifice but to excavate its partial truth and value—not just for the ancient Israelites but for us today. Every perspective, including my integrative perspective, has strengths and weakness, partial truths and partial falsehoods, partial benefits and partial costs. While many modern educated individuals are inclined to think of themselves as superior to the ancients who engaged in bloody sacrifices, most have lost the profound sacred intimacy that the ancients had with nature. For many of us, killing a goat is experienced as killing a creature separate from us, not a creature that is intimately and inherently part of us. Because we have lost that intimate connection, it is easier for us to kill animals in a mindless and unholy way. Indeed, we are much more reckless, mindless, and destructive of our ecosystems than the ancients ever were. We may rightfully abhor their ritualized animal sacrifices, yet we blithely destroy forests, pollute rivers, and blacken our skies, wiping out thousands of species.

While I believe we can have a deep and sacred intimacy with the nonhuman world without resorting to animal sacrifice, I also acknowledge what we can learn from the ancient peoples about the essential unity of life. We can recover their sense of unity while simultaneously respecting the rights of other creatures. We are different organs of the Body of Creation: just as the head has no right to usurp the liver, human beings have no right to exploit or sacrifice nonhuman creatures.

A few years ago our Torah study group decided to disband because many of our members had become actively involved with other spiritual organizations and groups. I am grateful for all the years of experiencing communion through studying and feasting together, and am thankful for the opportunity to discover the Tao of Torah.


3 thoughts on “The Tao of Torah

  1. I find it disappointing (and I think it un-Jewish) that almost all “spirituality” (what does this term actually mean? It seems to mean the New Age. I like the Torah, the Bible, and the Talmud; is the explanation that they are “spiritual”? Is that a non-offensive way of saying they are rooted in our “relationship with ‘God'”?) – that almost all “spirituality,” especially in America, is irrational and involves a celebration of irrationality. Perhaps this because in the English language, though not in French and German, “spirit” is different from “mind”. So to know God, join the community, read the text, perform all the happiness-inducing rituals, get holy, and to do all this set aside your thinking self along with your privilege and your ego. I quote from the article:

    “Because I remained in this receptive meditative state, the integration was neither labored nor primarily intellectual. Rather, it was a flowing intuitive integration that emerged spontaneously and semi-consciously as I listened and that continued to emerge effortlessly but more consciously as I spoke.”

    The author goes on to iterate the conventional view that the Torah is the word of God, he merely has a liberal-spiritual-mystical approach to how this is and what it means. (It was “divinely inspired” though in material terms it is in fact part of literary history. No explanation of this divine agency is offered, but presumably it is recognized in the still, small voice, or intuition. I suggest that intuition is in fact the sign of ideology and that critical thinking is the only way the progressive person gets out of it. Torah study traditionally is not intuitional, as Bible study is for Protestants, lacking an interpretive tradition).

    I suggest that this kind of “Jewish renewal,” which originates with the New Age Orientalizing of Schachter-Shalomi, is, no less than Jungianism, an anti-political and irrational ideology that for these reasons is effectively right-wing. It is Michael Lerner’s credit that in his book he did not advocate this kind of spirituality and the review he founded does not depend on it. I always find it curious when anyone who is part of this tendency is also politically on the left, but then at least since McCarthyism the left has been a big tent.

  2. I find it interesting that the author never seems to connect the similarity of the words Tao and Torah. They both have the meaning of “way” or “universal teaching” and are revelations, one written by the hand of men and one by the hand of Nature and can be said that both are authored by the same Creator. The Tao and Torah do not contradict, but complement. The Tao Te Ching is not “the Bible of the Tao” . The Bible or Book of the Tao is the physical world which would make the Tao Te Ching a commentary.

  3. Frankly, the two approaches for humankind are dissimiliar. Judaism is authoritarian with so much proscribed, whereas Taoism is about feeling what nature is asking/demanding, and going along with it. There are no sins in Taoist thinking. It’s all relative, and all natural.