The Euphemist

Reflections on Jewish Studies and many other subjects big and little, by a perpetual student who sometimes searches a little too long for just the right word ...

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Location: Minnesota, United States

Christian, truth seeker, husband, son, brother & uncle, Lutheran pastor, musician (cello, etc.), Jewish Studies grad student, intellectual historian, aquarium enthusiast & pet owner, philologist, astronomer, Norwegian-American, Ford pickup driver, buffoon.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

नोर्मल म्य्स्तिसिस्म Revisited

Normal Mysticism Revisited

This is a reposting of an old post on my old blog. The commenter's exact biographical info has been edited to protect the innocent. Why the title is coming up in Asian characters I have no idea.

This topic relates to the topic of the Jewish "smorgasbord" of ideas concerning God, which I expect to write a short essay on for the Jewish Theology course I'm taking. And it's one of the topics that connected the most with my own Christian faith and experience.

The term "normal mysticism" was coined by someone named Kadushin (if I have it right in my notes), and it's the idea (from their viewpoint) that in many if not most religions "paranormal techniques" are used/needed to get in touch with the divine. But in Judaism normal experiences are a stimulus for awareness of God's presence. So, as the rabbi says in "Fiddler on the Roof" (which movie my prof hates, btw, for reasons I won't get into here) "There's a blessing for everything", and goes on to say blessings for sewing machines, etc. One of my class readings gives the text for a prayer to be said upon relieving oneself in the bathroom. No detail of life is beyond the umbrella of sanctity.

My immediate reaction, of course, is that normal mysticism is a part of Christian faith at its best as well, that the glory of God is present in ordinary, everyday things. I just gave my wife a copy of the book "Hidden Art" by Edith Schaeffer, in which she shows how simple creativity in homemaking can be an expression of faith and devotion. Kathleen Norris, the theologian laureate of South Dakota, writes some good stuff on the topic of God in the ordinary, especially in her book "The Quotidian Mysteries".

I've run into certain Christians over the years who have had an above-average understanding of "normal mysticism". Francis Schaeffer & L'Abri are strong in that area. It was in a Schaeffer study group years ago that I first experienced a certain brand of Christian fellowship that can be hard to find - an almost indescribable blend of conversation on deep subjects with the eating of wholesome foods (the founder of the group was an organic farmer), of singing and praying together, laughing and crying together, of open-hearted love, open sharing, and devotion to the Truth. When one has such an experience one misses it when it's gone - sadly a common experience in Christendom. I've caught glimpses here and there of just how good it can be - not only at L'Abri centers but among a rather wide spectrum of Christians, even among some Lutherans!!!. We caught a glimpse of it recently at the vegetarian cooking seminar at the Seventh-Day Adventist church. We've also experienced it at a coffeehouse and bookshop in Indiana operated by an Eastern Orthodox Christian community. I pray that I can help recreate the experience for the people who call me "pastor".

By the way, the course I'm taking doesn't ignore the contributions of Christians to the topic. An Anglican lady named Evelyn Underhill is credited with defining mysticism as "conscious awareness of the presence of the divine." I see that her writings are available through Eighth Day books.

Sometimes God works through everyday things, sometimes He works through extraordinary (to us) things. If you've experienced "normal mysticism", drop a comment and tell us about it.
posted by Michael at 7:51 AM

Rich said...
Dear Pastor
You wrote this blog almost 3 years ago but it annoys me as though it were written yesterday. "The term "normal mysticism" was coined by someone named Kadushin (if I have it right in my notes), and it's the idea (from their viewpoint)..."
You are a graduate student in Jewish Studies: His name was MAX Kadushin; if you think it's worth your while to use his ideas at least look up his first name, (if I have it right in my notes) indeed!!! and "it's the idea (from their viewpoint)" !?! Jews are not quaint Micronesians and you are not Margaret Mead. What do you mean their viewpoint? Didn't Max's universality strike a chord with you, or did you think you discovered the relevance of Jewish thought on your own... And most people do prefer the Fiddler play to the movie. Other than that I'm sure you are charming at cocktail parties.
Rabbi Richard
Graduate, JTSA

9:48 PM
Michael said...
Dear Rabbi Richard,

Thank you for your comment on this post. Your comments deserve a thoughtful, detailed response.

Three significant points I gather from your comments. Let me know if I understand you correctly, and if I’ve missed anything else you’re trying to tell me:

1. You’re saying that as a Jewish Studies graduate student, I’m responsible as a blogger to display a higher level of understanding than I showed when I commented about Rabbi Max Kadushin without remembering his first name or very much else about him. And to do less is careless and/or inconsiderate.

The point is well taken. I once thought it might be a rewarding experience to document/share my learning experience by blogging about it. Hence, posts like “Normal Mysticism” in which I write about some of my first thoughts when I encounter a new idea for the first time. I thought a blog might be an acceptable place to share half-baked ideas in hopes that they will become fully baked someday. But I’ve found out in more than one way that I was wrong. First of all, my little blog has been largely ignored. I’ve read somewhere that successful blogs generally give the reader uniquely valuable information, or are exceptionally entertaining (it probably doesn’t surprise you that I don’t remember the exact quote, nor the first or last name of the person who said it), and I’m not so vain as to imagine that my attempts at blogging have either helped or entertained many people. Furthermore I’ve discovered that I simply don’t have time to do justice to blogging. I could probably do a more valuable or entertaining blog if I had the time, but I’ve decided that I’m better off quietly doing my studies and actually learning things, not to mention doing my job and other duties. So if you look at my blog (which I continued at the address, you’ll see that as of late I really don’t blog anymore, other than every few months when I post about subjects like my dog’s 12th birthday, or other things obviously of no interest to people who don’t know me personally.

But now, 2 ½ years later, I hear from someone who’s been offended. Nothing could be further from my intention. Which brings me to the next thing I hear you saying:

2. That in my post I’m treating Jewish people in a condescending way, like “quaint” specimens to be studied.

Could you please explain to me more how I have done this? In reply to your question, “What do you mean their viewpoint?” I think you may have misunderstood the antecedent of the pronoun “their.” (I admit I didn’t help matters by putting the antecedent after the pronoun.) “Their” refers back not to the Jews or to Judaism, but to “many if not most religions.” All I meant by “from their viewpoint” is that I was contrasting the viewpoint of “many if not most religions” with that of Judaism. I was trying to summarize what I understood from the course lectures in “Jewish Theology”, that Normal Mysticism in Judaism contrasted sharply with unusual and extraordinary measures taken in many religions in order to get in touch with the Divine. Have I misunderstood or misrepresented Max Kadushin’s views? Would he disagree with this contrast between Judaism and “many if not most religions?” Is that what you mean by my missing “Max’s universality?”

What did I say that suggests that I think I’ve “discovered the relevance of Jewish thought on my own?” I wouldn’t claim that any more than I’d claim that Columbus (or Leif Erikson) really discovered America. But I would indeed claim that I’m in the process of discovering the relevance of Jewish thought for myself. I was attempting nothing more in this post than to share my own thoughts, half-baked as they may be, upon learning something new. The central assertion of my post is that the concept of Normal Mysticism in Jewish thought seems akin to me to things I’ve experienced in Christian spirituality. By the way, in my opinion there’s a hint of universality in that claim. I’ve known people who would brand me a heretic for suggesting that there could be kinship between Christian and non-Christian religious experiences.

A word to the wise: in your comment “Jews are not quaint Micronesians” you lay yourself open to the charge that you yourself think that Micronesians are “quaint.” I don’t think that’s what you really mean to say. For the record, I don’t think that Jews, Micronesians, or any other people are quaint, and though I’m not an expert on Margaret Mead, I doubt that she did either. I’d rather think that her serious, expert research on Micronesians reflected a high value that she placed upon all people. So do I, but it seems that I didn’t show that in my blog post, so I apologize for my insensitivity. I only ask that you spell out carefully what is offensive about what I’ve said, especially if there are parts of it that I haven’t understood yet. It seems that the offense lies especially in subtleties of language. Even if it seems like it should be painfully obvious, it would be helpful to me if you’d spell out for me what not to say.

3. I hear you saying that I come across like the kind of intellectual dilettante who thinks that he’s an expert because he’s taken an introductory course and enjoys stringing factoids together in a way that dazzles and entertains people in social gatherings, all the while having no real understanding of the subject. “Other than that I'm sure you are charming at cocktail parties.” Ouch. Sounds like you’re saying that I haven’t (a) proven myself capable of any better, or perhaps you think I’m (b) incapable of or (c) uninterested in doing any better than that.

I can accept charge (a). As I’ve said, I’ve already given up my stream-of-consciousness blogging on my Jewish studies experience, and now I have a couple of new good reasons, because I’ve found it’s too easy to cause unintened offense, and it’s too easily misunderstood as an attempt to look like an “expert”, as if I’m trying to say “Hello, I’m the new Margaret Mead!” By the way, there aren’t many cocktail parties where I live in rural South Dakota. To gain a cocktail party-level knowledge of the culture I’m immersed in, one need go no further than “A Prairie Home Companion” or the movie “Fargo.”

The very reason why I’m taking the MSJS program at Spertus is that I don’t want to be a dilettante, just quoting things from reference books or exploiting my beginner’s knowledge to dazzle the 99% of people in my state who know even less about Judaism than I do. I want to gain actual expert-level knowledge in a given field, as Geology Professor Steven Dutch describes in this article: "Self-Appointed Experts" In my case I hope to specialize in the late Biblical “Second Temple” period. But I’m not there yet.

So, in the meantime, I’ll continue to study the foundations of Jewish Studies, in hopes that after toiling and studying in modest obscurity, someday I might pleasantly surprise you and others by erupting forth as someone who has something intelligent to say about the Second Temple period and other things I’ve studied. And I’ll ask you to take me as a serious student and thinker, able to learn from mistakes and listen to correction. And I’ll refrain from any further acts of blogo-dilettantery, especially ones that might treat Jews, Micronesians, or anyone else as “quaint.” Do we have a deal?

One more thing I hear you saying: you have a deep passion for the Jews, Judaism, and Jewish thought, and you don’t want them to be slighted, disrespected, or mistreated in any way, especially by a Jewish Studies student. I hear you. As a Jewish Studies student your toes are the last ones I want to step on, and I apologize. If there’s anything else you believe I need to know on this subject, I’m listening. What if I do find myself at a cocktail party sometime, and someone asks, “What are you learning in Jewish Studies?” How would you have me answer the question in a respectful manner, considering that I know some things but I’m not an expert?

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17


4:23 PM
Michael said...
PS - The more I read the sentence in which I said the "their viewpoint" comment, the more I see how bad a sentence it was, and I don't blame you for not understanding it. I think your saying that Jewish studies deserves better writing than this post, and I agree. I find myself wondering if I should take all this down after a bit. What do you think?

6:41 PM
Rich said...
I should never post late at night
1. Kadushin was a hero of mine when I did religious studies at Yale so that when I actually got to take one of the last courses he taught at JTS I was in 7th heaven, (I was only in my first year and required special permission);
2. After you explained that I got the antecedent of "their" wrong the rest of my post becomes drivel and your response was calmer and more reasoned than I deserved.
Good luck with the studies!!!

4:11 PM
Michael said...
Thanks very much. You've lifted my spirits and made my day!

As I said, I'll try my best not to write sloppily about Jewish Studies in any venue, including blog posts. One must tread carefully upon sacred ground.

I looked back at my materials for the "Jewish Theology" course and rediscovered that the course readings included two sections from Kadushin's "The Rabbinic Mind", including "Normal Mysticism" and "This Side of Philosophy." I suspect I'll be seeing much more of him, since "The Rabbinic Mind" is also the name of a course I have yet to take at Spertus.

Thanks again! - Michael

7:40 PM