Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rabbi and Materialist

First appeared in Outwords, Dec. 2010

I read somewhere in Martin Buber, though I search now in vain for the quote, of an Hasidic rabbi who said, “in my old age I have reached such a state that when I pass a bundle of straw laying crosswise on the road, I take it as a sign that it does not lay there lengthwise.” What we have here is a personal expression of a conviction that shows up in many spiritual traditions. Native American medicine people and Hindu sages agree with the Rabbi, there is no such thing as coincidence; everything is synchronicity.

For the Rabbi, every aspect of being is meaningful. Every object, every thought, every sound, every occurrence, is, as it were, a sign pointing to his heart. Perhaps when he sees the bundle of straw he thinks “what is it in me that is crossed up?” or, “what is it that tries to block my way?” And as he considers thus, his heart will reveal to him that which is disordered, that which bars his advancement, and he may then set about putting it right. To such a person, the highest levels of personality development surely lie open and life is indeed meaningful for him. He has filled life with meaning, as one fills a goblet with wine.

But now let us consider the opposite scenario, that of, shall we say, the Scientific Materialist. For the Materialist, there is nothing deeper to life than what can be seen under the electron microscope or glimpsed through Hubble’s lens. To him the universe is made of dead matter and blind chance. To assume that God or the Universe at Large communicates on a personal level, or any level for that matter, is sheer foolishness; his reason rejects it. To the Materialist, these notions are nothing more than the imaginings of a childish mind. When he passes a bundle straw laying crosswise in the street, he takes it as a sign of nothing, merely the outcome of the laws of gravity, inertia, friction and the like. It’s position has nothing to do with him personally, his reason assures him, it has no special meaning. And thus his life is made meaningless.

What need has the Scientific Materialist of inner searching or of deep questioning, and what catalyst? To him everything is a weight, a measure and a velocity, to be grasped with his intellect and understood. His eyes are ever focused outwardly; he does not look inward to his own becoming, and so he misses it. Indeed, it fails to happen.

Post-modern philosophers tell us that, technically speaking, there is no such thing as perception, that what we take as perceptions are actually, at least in part, conceptions. That is, how we perceive the world around us, and therefore what we perceive of the world around us, is necessarily colored by the social and cultural milieu in which we exist. Biologically, it has been shown that what our brains, and therefore our minds, can perceive is determined in large part by the stimuli received during early development. Kittens raised in a room with only vertical stripes lose the ability to perceive horizontal stripes once they have grown.

The Rabbi knows the secret of this, without recourse to psychology or post-modernism. He knows the secret of conceptual reality, and uses this knowledge to shape his reality by shaping his conception of it. He conceives of a universe that communicates, and lo, it communicates. He conceives of connections of meaning linking every atom of the universe and behold, they appear. He conceives of a perfect Self, of a Soul, and look, it arises. For the Rabbi, the whole of Creation has become an endless Tarot. In it he sees the reflection of ever deeper levels of himself, constantly unlocked and revealed to his consciousness.

The paradox is that one must first be convinced that life is meaningful before life becomes meaningful. Actually, life becomes meaningful the very moment that we become convinced of it’s meaning. The bundle of straw in the road remains what it is, but we may decide to fill it with meaning or not. The judgment we pass on the universe is also a judgment on ourselves. If the universe be nothing but meaningless coincidence, then so too are we; but if we fill the cosmos we meaning, we too shall be filled.

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