By Rabbi Elisheva Brenner
In the Torah “holiness” is part of an idiosyncratic way of understanding how the cosmos came into being, our place in it (cosmogony) and the nature of reality (epistemology). To our ancient ancestors, the cosmos, the physical world as we experience it, all life was brought about by “the word of G-d.” Today we would regard “the word of God” as a metaphor for the energies, forces, karma, particle and wave plus the energy of human consciousness that concentrates, compresses, expands and contracts into what we experience as the physical and spiritual world. When the energies of life are in properly balanced, albeit dynamic, homeostasis, the life system has achieved a state of sustainability. In Torah-speak, that homeostasis, that sustainability, is called “Holiness.” The parts of the system as well as the objects, actions and time intervals used to maintain and correct the system are called “Holy.”
We can find our way into the Torah’s way of understanding through the study of language and literary structural forms. Language is a window onto the way a people or culture perceives reality. It both arises from and reifies a culture’s epistemology. Biblical Hebrew is a language that for the most part, is made out of verbs and verb roots. This lets us know that our ancient Hebraic ancestors experienced reality as something in constant motion–even nouns and predicate adjectives are made out of verb roots–they represent motion in repose. In Torah, holiness/sustainability is a living system of systems just as we humans are living systems of systems. Each component of the system – humans, the Earth, nature, time intervals and the Godfield – are all in recursive relationship with every other part of the system. We humans are energy movers, drawing down from and sending up to the Divine source, and sending out to and receiving from other people, other life forms and the living Earth. The holiness system is in constant flux, needing to be balanced and corrected by human action.
Just as the systems of the human body exist in a structural form, so the cosmic system has a structural form. When we study the Torah according to its own ancient literary conventions, we find that just as the universe was spoken into existence, so the written words of Torah form a pictogram of the cosmos–a 3-D mandala made of words. The holiness/sustainability message is so central that it sits in the eye of the mandala, in the Holiness Code of Leviticus!
I first became interested in mandala form and the tendency of the human mind to “mandalize” visual memory in another forum… psychology. I did a master’s in counseling psychology at an Evangelist college in Atlanta, Georgia while I was in rabbinical school. That school did a lot of research on the integration of spiritual and religious parameters into the various psychological theories. It seemed to me then that the mandala, particularly the four-quadrant mandalas of Jungian psychology, related more to the horizontal dimensions of psychological geometry—they didn’t really model the “quest” dimensions of the psyche as well as some other models.
Our Hassidic rabbis psychologized cosmology in a way that addressed both dimensions. The four worlds model of Hassidut gives us a vertical dimension—every soul receives energy influxes from above to below and we “quest” from below to above as we elevate our consciousness toward the most abstract realm of communion with the Godfield. We express those energies in the world horizontally by way of what Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak called “talents.” Today we would call them personality traits. I brought Hassidut into my own research on personality theory and interpersonal psychology, and there it was—a mandala! The details of years of research aside, I eventually realized that this three-D geometry keeps repeating – in psychology, in chemistry, in nature, in halakhic reasoning and in Torah.
My final halakha project for ordination was about kosher meat. That brought me to reconsider many of my preconceptions about the sacrifices. For the first time (I admit), I really got into Leviticus. That interest continues to this day and informs my work and life as a rabbi. I read and reread works by Jacob Milgrom, Mary Douglas, and eventually, Moshe Kline. Those scholars in particular made me aware of how various literary structural forms used in Torah also reflect the cosmonology and epistemology of our ancient Hebraic ancestors. Those scholars convinced me that I, like so many others, kept imposing a Western linear reading on an archaic document.
New understanding brought many changes in my life. Take the way I pray, for example. I used to davven the traditional way. Now, I sit on the floor in a meditative pose with my coccyx, spine and head forming the vertical axis, the “quest” dimension, and the fringes of my tallit spread out in four directions. I imagine my head as the eye of the mandala. The tzitzit represent the mitzvoth and ethical commandments by which I interact with the world. I visualize myself as a mandala anchored by my vertical axis within the greater mandala of the cosmos. As I meditate, I focus on balancing my spiritual energies. On Shabbat I love to “travel” out of the physical world up to watch the angels doing the first “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh (Holy, holy, holy),” praising the eternal sustainability of God, alone. I then go out of linear time to watch our people rejoicing after they, we, cross the Sea of Reeds. The energy field is very different in the Earthly realm.
It has also affected how I regard my work. My husband, Aleph Rabbi Dr. Hersh Saunders, and I started the Center for Eco-Judaism a few years ago. We farm and ranch on 415 acres in Southern Colorado. For both of us, our Jewish spirituality is expressed and reinforced through our interaction with the land and the growing and processing of our food. I imagine that this land is much like the land our ancestors encountered. Our actual experience here, along with our study of historical, climatic, and archeological information from the ancient world also changed our understanding of much of the Torah and inform the Eco-Judaism courses we teach.
If you are interested in the ideas I have laid out above, I invite you to study with me at the Aleph Kallah this coming July, in the week-long course titled “Eco-Judaism: The Torah Mandala and the Mystical System Of Sustainability.”
I am teaching this in the hope that it will invite other Torah students to join me in developing Eco-Judaism as a way of life. For it to be rich and compelling we need midrash, commentary, praxis, and responsa. There is a lot of room for creative thought and collaboration, here. As the saying goes, “iron sharpens iron.” The synergy of our collective mind will, no doubt, take us places we might never go alone.
Complicated as the individual channels of study may seem, it all gets fairly simple when it comes together. So, I will close with this quote from Pirke Avot V:27:
Effort is its own reward. We are here to do, and through doing to learn; and through learning to know; and through knowing to experience wonder; and through wonder to attain wisdom; and through wisdom to find simplicity; and through simplicity to give attention; and through attention to see what needs to be done.
Rabbi Elisheva Brenner, JD, LPC, NCC, is executive director of the Center for Eco-Judaism in Pueblo, Colorado, a 415-acre farm, ranch, nature conservancy, and worship,research and teaching facility, and co-founder of Eco-Glatt, Inc. For more information, visit www.centerforecojudaism.com.
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