Rabbi Yoel Glick, author of “Walking the Path of the Jewish Mystic,” says we have different incarnations because our souls have different lessons to learn.
photo by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz
‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” said Albert Einstein. Since nothing is as mysterious as God, nor as beautiful or misunderstood, then perhaps the time may be right for a reawakening of mystical consciousness, as Jews once understood it.
After all, mystery is to mystics what music is to musicians, and Rabbi Yoel Glick, a renowned teacher of meditation, has a new book, “Walking the Path of the Jewish Mystic” (Jewish Lights), aiming to reacquaint the Jewish soul with the transcendent, with “a pathway to God.”
At a public discussion with Yossi Klein Halevi at the Upper West Side’s West End Synagogue, Glick, director of Da’at Elyon (the Higher Mind), a Jerusalem-based center for the study of spiritual wisdom, said “Yossi has been my co-conspirator in the whole of this journey,” partners in meditation and mystical studies for more than 30 years.
“Our relationship to God,” Halevi recently wrote in The Times of Israel, “is the core, the purpose, of Jewish existence,” even if “contemporary Jewish life has been impoverished by the diminishment of the Divine, the abandonment of the quest for the living God in our collective and personal lives.” In the synagogue conversation, Halevi added, “The vision that Yoel and I have for Jewish life is restoring us to what we once were: a God-centered people.” There was a time when “if you wanted to know about God you went to the Jews. We’re not the address anymore.”
Later, in The Jewish Week offices, Glick explained that the aim of mystical teachings is “moving people away from the external, whether that means being too machmir [strict] about halacha, or too focused on identity politics,” or even “too focused on social justice,” though there’s surely a place for all of those on the earthly level. Social justice, often said to be the fixing or repairing of the world (likened by some to the mystical concept of tikkun olam) “can be an extension of religion but,” when interchangeable with the anger and engine of partisan politics, it becomes “a far cry from what the inner essence of Judaism is,” connecting our purpose to God’s presence. Glick preferred the root phrase, “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai,” repairing the world through God’s sovereignty.
The Baal Shem Tov, said Glick, “believed that the only path to tikkun olam is through tikkun neshama [the fixing of the soul]. It is only out of the collective tikkun neshama, each person working on himself or herself through the contemplation of spiritual wisdom, that we become the worthy vessels for tikkun olam,” with God as the priority rather than the priorities of more personal agendas.
The idea, said Glick, of halacha and mitzvot is putting us on the “right frequency, raising our mystical, spiritual antennae to pick up the ‘God channel.’ You start to sense, to see things differently. You connect to the world, to other people, on a different, deeper level.”
Glick, who divides his time between Israel and rural France, was ordained at Yeshiva University as well as by his uncle, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, the chasidic teacher and composer.
There is a mystical teaching that Reb Shlomo called “the Yeshiva of the Nine Months,” about how a baby in the womb is taught the entire Torah, and then, on the brink of birth, is tapped above the lip by an angel, causing every lesson to recede into the baby’s unconscious. But it is not the familiar Torah that is taught in the womb, rather a simultaneous celestial Torah from the Higher Realms. Glick explains that the Ari (Yitzhak Luria, the 16th-century kabbalistic master) taught that within that supernal Torah are “all of God’s hopes and desires for the world. It is about eternal truths, the very nature of existence. Each of us is one letter in that Torah,” each of us carrying a truth, and assignment, that the baby is “meant to reveal,” or understand, “in this incarnation.”
Glick said that the tap’s amnesia is a gift allowing us to forget the regrets of previous incarnations. “Think of how difficult this life is, imagine if we also remembered what happened in earlier lives. We’d drown in the past.” What happened in the past is incorporated into our souls but tucked “beyond our consciousness, so as not to overwhelm us.”
Drawing on the classical Jewish teaching of gilgulim (cycles of lives, incarnations), Glick teaches that we have an individual soul essence, a higher consciousness, that at times comes down into physical form. Whatever we learn in this life, whatever we experience, whatever qualities we develop, becomes incorporated into that higher essential self. When we die, our externals disappear but, in time, we discover what it is that we need to do next, in a new incarnation. Whatever happens, good or bad, is an opportunity to learn and grow in different ways, says Glick. “Difficult things happen because that is the nature of this world. We have different gilgulim because our souls have different lessons to learn,” working out our past lives and lessons, while moving into the future.
To be in a relationship with God, said Glick, “is to see life through the broad expanse of being and consciousness. We get stuck when demanding to know where is God this minute, this second, why did this happen? Tell me right now! Our vantage point should be from the expanse of decades, centuries and millennia.” As the Haggadah says, all of us should see ourselves as having left Egypt.
Glick does not accept the modern notion that Judaism is a “this world” religion. Judaism has been around for more than 3,500 years and “only in the last 200 years, or so, have we started talking about a ‘this world’ religion,” a notion contradicted in numerous texts including Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which teaches that “this world is just a prozdor (passageway) to the World To Come.” The nefesh (aspect of the soul), said Glick, “exists for one life. But the neshama, our inner essence, the deepest part of the soul, goes from life to life. We need to connect to that part of us, our greater meaning, our greater purpose.”
Glick explained, when visiting the grave of the Lubavitcher rebbe, for example, his physical self is dead, “but was it his physical self that inspired people or was it his soul force? Visiting a grave we relate to that which is eternal. The soul force was there before the rebbe was born, and after he goes.”
Glick points out that “Jews have always argued with God, and sometimes God argues with us,” and suspicious it would be if we think God agreed with everything we believed, whether politically, sexually, religiously or anything else. “God is in an ongoing conversation with us.”
Normative religion, said Glick, helps orient our spirit, ritual fusing the physical and the spiritual. For example, “The body is fed when we eat,” said Glick, “but it is the bracha [the blessing we say] that feeds the soul. Saying a blessing shifts the mind from simply feeding the body to recognizing a gift from God; the interconnectedness between every level of being.”
The idea, he said, is to bring God’s love, mercy and wisdom into the world. To do that, we have to be connected to God.
Halevi, in his conversation with Glick, recalled a lesson from his father, a Holocaust survivor: “Never live with illusion. Or, as my father put it, don’t be a ‘stupid Jew,’ the kind of Jew who believes genocide is not possible.” But with time, the son began to hear the warning in another way, as well. This world was itself an illusion, existing on numerous mystical and spiritual levels beyond the naked eye. “Many of us allow society to dull our spiritual instincts,” said Halevi, “until we think this world is a normal” and a singular “reality,” when this world is anything but. He began to hear his father’s warning in the spiritual sense, “to be aware that the nature of this world is transient,” and to be a spiritual seeker was the only possible response.
Just as the Israelites crossed the sea and walked on dry land, Glick added, “so may we cross over the Sea of Illusion and into the freedom of God’s reality that underpins all that is.”