This work would never have come to be without the devotion of my first teacher, my father, HaRav Michael ben Efraim Bernstein, z"l, who bequeathed me the boundless inheritance of Torah study, as well as a very peculiar childhood. For someone who’d been a Rosh Yeshiva, Papa had very non-conformist ideas about Jewish education: one of them was learning with his daughter every day. He had not grown up in the 'yeshiva system,' but came from a simple family on the Lower East Side of New York where he attended public schools and an after-school Hebrew program. He was mainly self-taught in Torah when he became a student of Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, from whom he received ordination. Self-teaching characterized his whole life, as did a kind of radical individuality.
Papa was fiercely independent in his learning style and his halachic rulings (for example, our family ate Kraft cheese, and my mother and I wore pants; my father studied Christian texts in the original Latin and Greek and had many books in his vast, well-used library that were considered heretical by halachic authorities); the great men who came to seek his advice over the years testified to widespread respect for his creativity and devoutness. He was a holy elitist of sorts, at war with what he perceived as a deadening mediocrity in the world of Jewish learning and teaching: he did not trust institutionalized learning 'systems.'
He sent me to a Yeshiva elementary school for a while, but not with a whole heart. "What did you skip in school today?" he'd ask when I got home everyday – and, indeed, sometimes sections of Torah dealing with sexuality had been skipped by the teacher, or sections deemed 'too complicated.' "Get your Chumash," he'd say, "and let's look at it now." And Papa found the practice of teaching young American children 'ivrit be'ivrit' – ancient Hebrew texts discussed in modern Hebrew – absurd: "They don't know what 'vayomer' means and they don't know what 'hu amar' means," he complained to the school board after seeing all the time I put in memorizing sheets of Hebrew-Hebrew translations in third grade. Torah texts, he felt, should be explained in 'mama loshen,' in the person's native language. This did not mean, of course, not learning Hebrew. My father was a scholar of Semitic languages and the infinite richness of Biblical Hebrew was his true love; he delighted in it in a way that infected his many students over the years with his own wonder and delight. He just felt that matters of God and belief were so important that they should be explored with the fewest obstacles, which meant probing them in the language one was born into, the language of one's own mind, while at the same time keeping the Hebrew text central.
My father lost his battle with the elementary school board, of course, but in the time he spent teaching Torah to me, after school and during summers in the mountains, the language of our learning was English, and pushing the boundaries of that tongue to extract dimensional meaning from the sacred Hebrew text expanded my knowledge of both languages, and of human perception itself.
But he was a stubborn man, my Papa, and was not content to remedy the sins of the American yeshiva day school system in a piecemeal way. By the time I was ready for high school he put a more radical plan into effect and pulled me out of the yeshiva system entirely, while leaving my brothers in it. I was sent to Hunter College High School, a good New York public high school for girls (it’s now mixed) where I could get a solid secular education, something Papa deemed essential. And he took on my Torah education himself, with his own unique methodologies. We learned together every day.
Papa didn't think of himself as a Rosh Yeshiva or a Professor of Semitics; he called himself a 'melamed,' simply a teacher of children, although most of his students at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School were candidates for rabbinic ordination and post-graduate degrees. And the goal of all his teaching methods was independence in learning. He was an auto-didact whose goal was to teach others to be auto-didacts and I was lucky enough to be one of them. The Talmud says that it is incumbent on a father to teach his child to swim, and while my father did not fulfill that directive – actually, he never learned to swim himself – he taught me to swim in the 'ocean of Torah,' to get where I needed or chose to go in it under my own power. To search for my own answers to my own questions, independently.
I didn't know it when I was growing up, but this is unusual. I thought that all Jewish fathers learned Torah with their children, and I thought the ultimate goal of all teachers – including parents, of course – was to liberate students to take their own intellectual and spiritual journeys. As an adult, of course, I know that this often isn't so: most parents don't learn Torah with their children (apart from homework), and most Torah teaching has as an aim (whether conscious or unconscious) – of keeping students attached and dependent on teachers and experts and dogma, never on themselves and their own explorations and intuitive wonderings and knowings.
My father taught me to honor my own questions. "Nu, what's your question?" he'd ask after every verse of Torah we learned. Even as I grew older and our learning became more complex, and there were all the Sages and commentators' questions to be examined and appreciated, he would still ask: "And what's your question?" And there were no restraints on questions, there were no 'forbidden questions.' And he, as a teacher, was never afraid to say "I don't know." "I don't know, but let's look it up," or "I don't know but let's think about it." This did nothing to prepare me for life in the real world where, I found out later, there are forbidden questions, especially in the world of religion. And even if the forbidden-questions rule is not spoken out loud, we get socialized very young not to ask them.
"If God is everywhere, is He in the toilet?" is a question a four-year-old might ask, making his parents uncomfortable. They might try to change the subject, and if the little one keeps asking the question they might finally say that we don't talk about God that way. Certainly by the time a child is studying in a day school or yeshiva he knows not to ask it. And if he dared to, many a teacher would turn it against the child, telling him that it's a disgusting or impertinent question; the child might be sent from the room for inciting the other students to laughter. Because most teachers find it so hard to say 'I don't know' – which, of course, might be a fair answer to whether God is in the toilet or not – they turn the question against the asker; it is the asker who is at fault for having the question. Never is the question validated as a question with meaning, which, of course, it is.
The fact that some questions are forbidden reshapes the permissible dialogue of Torah Judaism. It often feels like the only questions one may ask are halachic questions: how big does my etrog have to be; how many days do I count before I go to the mikva; is this chicken kasher or tref? Spiritual questions about my relationship with God are answered, at best, by a list of behaviors that He wants of me: shaking a lulav on Sukkot; eating matza on Pesach; not sleeping with my neighbor's wife. Spirituality, the inner journey, tends to be neglected territory, forbidden territory, even though spirituality is what religion says it is all about.
What do we do with our forbidden questions? What do we do with our innocent wonderings about God and the world and ourselves? We hide them away, but they do not disappear. They show up as spiritual unease and dissatisfaction; an ache. A longing for something that we cannot even name.
Papa was bound to a wheelchair for most of my life, and I don't have many memories of going places with him. But I do have one clear, wonderful recollection of sitting next to him in the beit midrash for Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. I think I had just turned nine. We have a wonderful tradition relating to that night when we sit and study Torah all night long: that in the deepest, darkest hour of Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, the heavens open. In one sudden, mystical moment the clouds part, and all that has always been secret is revealed. As a little girl, leaning against my father in the beit midrash, trying to keep my bleary eyes open so that I wouldn't miss that magical event, I was intrigued by the possibility of getting to see what heaven really looked like – do angels really have wings and halos?
The idea of the heavens suddenly opening still draws me powerfully as an adult. It is both an awesome and tantalizing idea, frightening and desirable: that there is possible a moment in time – in spiritual time – when all the unknown, all the unknowable, is revealed right before our eyes and understanding. At one glance, the answer to everything. And it is a comforting idea, because inside every one of us the most forbidden question of all keeps screaming for an answer: "What in the world is it all about?" Not just what is this mitzva about or that mitzva about, but what is it all about? How does it all fit together and what is my place in it, what does it all mean, Life, the Universe and everything? What does God want of me? What is being a person about? What is being a Jew about?
The first time the heavens opened, on the first Shavuot at Har Sinai, HKB"H gave us His Torah, all of Torah in all its dimensions. Torah shebichtav: the Written Torah, the revealed Torah; a complete unit, unchanging over time. Torah shebe'al peh: the oral tradition, which, over time, came to be written down in the form of Midrashim, the Mishna, the Gemara, and which continues flowering as a living process of commentary and interpretation in every Jewish community in the world, all the way down to today. Also whispered into Moses' ear at Sinai was that aspect of Torah shebe'al peh which was not to be widely dispersed, teachings to be quietly preserved over generations by being passed from teachers to chosen students. There are many names for this esoteric wisdom: Kabbala, received knowledge; Razei Torah, Secrets of Torah; Chochma Ila'a, the Higher Wisdom; Torat HaNistar, the Torah of the Concealed; Chochmat HaKodesh, the Wisdom of Holiness; Chochmat HaEmet, the Wisdom of The Truth. Rav Kook often calls it the Light. The Light is the radiant, secret, inner meaning of Torah, Nishmat haTorah, the Soul of Torah.
Traditionally, Kabbalistic knowledge has always been exclusive, restricted. Before becoming a student of Kabbala under the tutelage of a Mekubal (a Master of Kabbala who had received the tradition from a Master of Kabbala), a man (yes, it was always a man) was required to be very learned in the Body of Torah, the Written and Oral Law. He must have shown tremendous spiritual dedication and he had to have developed the maturity that only life experience brings – one did not begin to study Kabbala before age 40 or before marriage. The secrets of Torah were carefully kept from the masses – they weren't ready, the time wasn't ripe.
But now it's time. The very first piece by Rav Kook which we will look at together declares it clearly – the time has arrived for the revelation of the secrets of Torah. We're a little late, in fact – Rav Kook wrote this piece during the First World War and the 'now' he speaks of is a century old. His call for revealing the Hidden Torah and pursuing new spiritual skills was not exactly taken up by the religious establishment. It is almost 100 years later and we are still choking on forbidden questions.
Now, I do not claim to be an expert on Kabbala per se. My own road to the Mysteries began not through Kabbalistic texts, but through myself, in my own story, in my personal explorations of Torah texts dealing with mysteries of Creation, particularly the creation of Woman. I was drawn into the story of cosmic genesis by one of the good Lord's 'accidents' and did not emerge from it for more than three years, an immersion that transformed and rebirthed me. And in the process – better, as the medium of the process – my truest gifts came into being, and I gave birth to my first work of art: "Womankindness." "Womankindness" was never published – it is a dense combination of poetry and scholarship; most valuable, but not an easy read – but through its creation I came together into my true self and expressed my music into the world; I came to know myself as a songwriter, as a rhymer of disparate worlds. Put differently: this was my primary phase of the process of what Rav Kook calls Teshuva Elyona, the Highest Penitence, the return to God by becoming one's authentic self. Now I didn't know that at the time. I had never met Rav Kook. All I knew was that while working on "Womankindness" I experienced enormous, radiant knowings of God and His universe within me – within me as uniquely me! – and I felt all alone with them. There was no one to talk to about them – and I lived in an environment of Talmidei Chachomim, very learned people – and no vocabulary in which to talk about them. In some ways these knowings made me feel crazy, but their truth – their reality to me – compelled me. Then, as a gift I will always be grateful for, my then-husband gave me a copy of Arpelei Tohar (literally, Mists of Purity), a spiritual diary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, which had just been published. Although considered by most a difficult text, I gobbled it up like candy, as if it were the love letter I had been waiting for all my life, permission to exist in all my being. Rav Kook made me feel sane, unalone in my spiritual/emotional/artistic uniqueness (as oxymoronic as that might sound). His poetic revelations of his own inner experiences – his desire for God, his love for all, his artistic process, his hearing/seeing the song of oneness set off waves of relief within me. I knew what he was talking about! And what he was talking about was just what I hadn't been able to find anyone to talk to about.
And what he had to say about it was both wonderful and frightening. I felt affirmed by Rav Kook's encouragement of personal communion with God and his articulation of the holiness of artistic process; by his prediction of a spiritual revolution to take place in our time and of the emergence of a new, enlightened personality, a Tzaddik of a new type: an artist of the sacred, living and illuminating a Torah that transcends all boundaries and denominations. And, of course, I was terrified. That Rav Kook included himself amongst these higher seers was one thing, but me? Nonetheless, Rav Kook's sweet voice kept calling me back – he kept telling me that my knowings were Torah, and every song I wrote confirmed my inner harmonies and made me feel sane.
I quickly moved on to other works of Rav Kook and have turned to him for a sense of my own okayness – okayness despite my peculiarities and sins, or perhaps because of them – ever since. He became my second Rebbe, illuminating the emotional and spiritual landscapes that my father's rational, Soloveichikian brilliance could not penetrate, the inner landscapes I had wandered that were not on the map of Halachic Judaism, even though they are what it is all about.
It was painful that Rav Kook's ideas about a new mode of Jewish relatedness to God had no room to grow in the religious-Zionist environments in which I lived, neither in New York nor in Jerusalem. His call was for radical individuality and a huge expansion of the modalities of Torah study, but the Modern Torah-Zionist circle into which I had been born and which I loved so deeply had, right before my eyes, grown more and more narrow in its definitions of halachic behavior, more and more rigid in its thinking, more and more exclusive about membership (and, frankly, more and more bizarre about what Rav Kook's own Torah might mean). To be accepted, one had to wear the uniform, speak a certain political vocabulary and send your kids to the right schools. God didn't come up often in conversation. I'd been terribly uncomfortable in this world for a long time; it felt like serving a God I did not know, and Who certainly couldn't be very fond of me. Nonetheless there were rewards for it – I was accepted in its inner circles as long as I kept any criticism to myself. This dissonance was deadly for me.
But without Rav Kook's voice in my ear I do not know if I would have had the courage to change my life; without his 'permission' to see things a new way, to take the call within me as seriously real, I don't think I would ever have dared to leave my secure, comfortable position within that world, my family and friends, and set out on a journey into the desert, in pursuit of the Beloved who had sent me the love letter.
The Religious-Zionist world is still uncomfortable with Rav Kook, even though it claims him as its own. Whenever I offered to teach Rav Kook's spiritual works at Jewish educational institutions, I was struck by the almost total uniformity of response. The dean or director – who was often, but not always, a man – would get a look of discomfort, shift position in his chair, stroke his beard if he had one, and say: "Hmm... that's very difficult material."
It is a kind of code, with many layers of meaning. One possible meaning is that he or she was saying "I read Rav Kook and didn't understand a word." Another implication might be – or perhaps this is all in my mind – how could a woman understand it? But it could also be that the discomfort is natural, that it comes because Rav Kook's work is so different from what we traditionally think of as Torah. It doesn't have the usual form of verse by verse or topic by topic. Rav Kook writes in short pieces – I call them Glimmerings. His work is really a spiritual diary, daily recordings of visions and insights, which only afterwards were edited and ordered by his son and his students and scattered amongst many texts. His work is not the familiar dialectic of learning we are used to – argument and counterargument – and is not even written in the more or less familiar language of other Kabbalistic works, with their vocabularies of sefirot and gematriyot. And most discomfiting of all – and you will find this discomfiting, too, and stroke your beard if you have one – is that Rav Kook's works are not about ideas out there… they're about you. His sweet voice whispers in your ear about your infinite potential.
The goal of revealing the secrets of Torah, Rav Kook says, is the fulfillment of God's words in Jeremiah that "Behold a time is coming..." for a new covenant between God and His People, Israel, which is unlike the covenantal relationship which He had with our forefathers. And when that time comes, God says, Torah will be inscribed inwardly, in the heart of every Jew: "And no longer will a man teach his brother or his neighbor, saying, 'Know God.' For they will all know Me, from the least amongst them to the greatest" (31:33).
Knowing God. Intimately, with no need for intermediaries, no need for interpreters. How does it come about? A repeating theme in Rav Kook echoes the phrase from Proverbs "recognize God on all your paths." Get to know God not just from books or from others, but within your very own life and experiences, in your own story: that is where knowledge of Him is to be found. And the emphasis is on da'at haShem, not just da'at Torah, which has come to have its own meaning: that only certain Sages can interpret what Torah means and we must be bound by it. But on that day, God says, no one will be more knowledgeable than anyone else: "They will all know Me, from the least amongst them to the greatest." There is a whiff of anarchy here that leaves the religious establishment uncomfortable, shifting in their seats saying "Hmm... that's very difficult material."
And evidently threatening – Rav Kook's writings have been censored, mistranslated, put out in editions whose footnotes try to pin down his words to traditional religious or philosophical ideas. But Rav Kook has something absolutely new to say to us about Judaism, and how thirsty we are for it! He offers us the road to that terrifying, wonderful moment, that leap of consciousness when the heavens part and we know God, as it were, face to face.
Now the road isn't easy, you may find this all confusing for a while; weird, even. But take your confusion as a sign of progress – this is, after all, the realm of mystery. You will only be confused until the first spark of understanding comes, and then, no doubt, you'll get confused again. Don't be put off by this, don't give up; this back-and-forth, on-and-off pattern is natural in the study of holiness, indeed it is the nature of all spiritual process. Have faith in the process itself; more sparks will come, I promise, even flashes, if you commit yourself to the inner journey.
Before we begin, some words of caution about things that can interfere with understanding the new ideas we are about to begin studying. First, there is our natural human resistance to newness; we tend to cling to our old maps. And Rav Kook's virtual lack of jargon may compound this problem. He uses familiar phrases like 'worship of God,' 'Torah study,' 'repentance,' 'Messiah,' and 'Tzaddik' and we think we already know what they mean; after all, they have been part of the Jewish vocabulary since time immemorial. But Rav Kook presents each of these concepts in a new way: he illuminates them from within and they are changed in meaning forever. He rarely defines the terms outright; an understanding of them grows by accretion, by hearing him use them with their new meanings in more and more contexts. We then even begin to experience how the old meanings contained the new ones in a hidden form all along, which is itself a crucial part of Rav Kook's teaching, and why he uses the eternal language of Judaism even as he introduces us to a Judaism with focuses that are different from today's. Nonetheless, in the beginning, when you read familiar words like 'worship' or 'Messiah,' 'Tzaddik' or 'redemption,' you may feel the traditional definition-image rise up in your mind and body; try not to let your old assumptions block new understandings. Try to read Rav Kook as if you were seeing words like those for the first time, hearing them in your mind's ear openly, innocently, without prejudice, trying to understand their meaning. And try to listen to his Torah not just with your logical, intellectual mind: this is not philosophy, and it is not intellectual swordplay. Kabbala – receiving – is not just the name for this wisdom, it is its mode of flow, the way it is transmitted, through receiving. It cannot be taught directly, but it can be learned: by receiving, by opening and allowing it to penetrate you. Listen to this Torah as you would listen to a love song – with your entire presence, with your whole being. Let only its resonance inside your own ear, your own life, your own story, your own soul, be proof of its truth or falsity. You are what these texts are all about: you and your longing for the infinite.
Which brings me to my second caution. There is a painting by the surrealist painter, Rene Magritte. We see a pipe, realistic even to the puff of smoke rising from it – we can almost smell it. And below the pipe is written, ceci n'est pas une pipe: this is not a pipe. After a moment of blankness at the paradox, a flash of awareness comes… of course, it's not a pipe! (I knew that…) It's a picture of a pipe, a representation – a re-presentation – of a pipe. And the message of the painting is clear. We human beings often mistake a representation of something for the thing itself – this is, of course, the whole dynamic of idolatry. Don't mistake Rav Kook's words – or anyone else's words, including mine – for the experience of the moment of the opening of the heavens. That can only happen inside you, in your own words or wordlessness, in your inner being, through your inner work and desire. Rav Kook's words are a map to that moment, but a map is not the territory. The territory is your own soul.