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Review of God is a Verb

In my spiritual direction class, we've each been asked to choose a book to review for our classmates. Off the list we were given, I chose Rabbi David Cooper's God is a Verb, and am sharing my review here as well because I thought some of y'all might dig this book too. There's a passage about the myriad ways of interpreting Torah which just knocks me out; it might merit its own post someday...

Early in his journey into engaged Jewish practice, Rabbi David Cooper discovered both the joys of pilpul (dialectical Talmud study, which fed his brain) and the need for sitting still (which fed his need to be "surrounded by the presence of the Divine at all times.") The desire to answer questions of why we are here and how we can transform our world for the better led him to the study of kabbalah.

Kabbalah, he writes, cannot be comprehended solely by intellect. It is not a "system," but a way of life. Cooper's approach to kabbalah refracts classical kabbalistic teachings and Hasidic stories through the prism of Jewish renewal. But renewal, he cautions, does not mean jettisoning what came before. "The move toward renewal does not mean the wholesale elimination of the 'old way, but the apprisal of everything from a fresh, honest perspective," he writes.

Not surprisingly, Cooper begins his exploration of kabbalah with a description of Rabbi Isaac Luria's cosmogony (story of how the universe came into being): the shattering of the vessels which had contained God’s light. He offers the Lurianic teaching that "[e]very particle in our physical universe, every structure and every being, is a shell that contains sparks of holiness. Our to release each spark from the shell and raise it up...these sparks are raised through acts of lovingkindness, of being in harmony with the universe, and through higher awareness."

One mode of raising sparks is the study of Torah. One of my favorite passages in God is a Verb speaks of Torah study thus:

The literal account of the five books of Moses is almost impossible to appreciate without assistance. Hundreds of commentaries exist, and, as we might imagine, many offer interpretations that contradict others. Nobody agrees that there is a definitively "correct" way to read the Torah. In fact the oral tradition suggests that there are at least 600,000 different interpretations, representing the number of those who received the Torah through Moses at Mt. Sinai.

This is what makes the study of Torah so interesting. If we simply accept the literal meaning of what it says, then it is merely a book with many unusual stories. If we engage it, however, work with it and use a variety of methods to analyze the text, it yields hidden clues that lead us on to further investigation. Study like this, a continuous give and take, becomes a mystical relationship between the text and the one studying it.

Among the tools at our disposal for understanding Torah are gematria and the rich symbolic language of kabbalah. Kabbalah, Cooper writes, assumes that there are hidden secrets in everything. Torah is understood to contain all the wisdom of creation, encoded in ways which require our active participation to untangle and comprehend.

Study can help create the consciousness we need in order to apprehend God, Who is always present, whether or not we realize it. "The Now rests upon the palm of God’s hand, so to speak. The dimension of this moment is supported in its entirety by the nature of the Divine. Thus there is a vital relationship between God and every aspect of creation."

We place names on God (Who is unknowable) because we need a handle to grasp what is beyond grasping, but our names always fail. For Cooper, the kabbalistic name Ein Sof ("without end") is "not the name of a thing, but is an ongoing process." A few pages later, he writes, "The closest we can come to thinking about God is as a process rather than a being. We can think of it as 'be-ing,' as verb rather than noun."

Studying Torah (writ large - the body of text and commentary) is one way of aiming to comprehend God. In studying Torah, we need to 'own' our right to interpret the text in the ways we need. Cooper tells the Talmudic story of the oven of Akhnai, in which Rabbi Eliezer moves a stream of water, the schoolhouse walls, and a tree in order to uphold his halakhic ruling. Even a voice from heaven thunders that Eliezer's interpretation is right. But his colleagues chide him, reminding him that since Torah "is not in heaven that you should say 'who will go up to heaven and bring it to us,'" the ability to interpret and unfold Torah lies in our hands, not God's. (In one version of the story, God crows delightedly, "my children have defeated me!" and laughs.)

Cooper spends some time unpacking central kabbalistic metaphors, among them the tree of the sefirot which is also called the Tree of Life. This tree is made up of the 10 sefirot [attributes or aspects of God], connected with 22 lines which each represent a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Since the sefirot can be understood to represent vowels, the sefirotic tree (22 letters + 10 vowels) adds up to the "32 paths of wisdom" with which (according to the Sefer Yetzirah) God created the world when God spoke creation into being.

The sefirot are holographic; each one contains all of the others within it, spheres within spheres. And each of us contains all of the sefirot, as well. "Each aspect of creation, and each individual person, is a miniature Tree of Life," Cooper writes. "Each of us represents a physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual shape based on the way we harmonize our inner tree."

Cooper describes the classical kabbalistic notions of the four worlds (assiyah, yetzirah, briyah, and atzilut) and the five levels of soul (nefesh/action, ruach/formation, neshama/creation, chaya/emanation, and yechida/will.) The higher levels of soul are always pure, no matter what actions we may have taken in the "lower" realms of action, formation, and creation.

Cooper describes the soul as something like the invisible electromagnetic forces which hold the universe together. "Kabbalah describes the soul as a kind of spiritual magnetic field." Our souls draw power from the "grid" of the "great soul" which is God. And when we do good deeds, because our souls are connected to the source of creation, we can transform the flow of creation.

One teaching he offers (quite seasonally appropriate for us now!) is the Talmudic teaching about the obligation to become lib'sumei (perfumed) on Purim until one can no longer distinguish between good and evil -- read in the mystical tradition as an instruction to ascend beyond binarisms to the unity which transcends them. (Some of us have lately been studying this in another class; I blogged about it in the post Purim: accepting the highest Torah.)

Cooper writes beautifully about the striving towards moshiach which is central to the classical understanding of Jewish life and practice. He has an intriguing take on the notion of waiting for moshiach to come:

Waiting is self-defeating. We have whatever we need. This realization often is hidden behind veils, but as we peel these veils away through our awareness practices and our actions to improve ourselves and the world, we discover that everything we ever wanted is right here.

Messianic consciousness is not something that comes in the future; it is our intrinsic nature.

We are, he seems to be saying, the change we've been waiting for. Or we can be, if we only open our eyes.

One way to embody transformation is to work on our middot (spiritual qualities). Cooper describes a classical path of refinement in this way:

Learning leads to respect, respect leads to generosity, generosity leads to acts of lovingkindness, acts of lovingkindness lead to moderation in living, moderation in living leads to purity of thought, purity of thought leads to joy, joy leads to selflessness, selflessness leads to awe, awe leads to equanimity, equanimity leads to extraordinary mind-states, and extraordinary mind-states lead to life eternal (God-consciousness.)

He describes different spiritual paths for each of these middot, and suggests practices we might undertake in order to cultivate them.

Toward the end of the book Cooper writes about reward and punishment, working through fear, death, reincarnation, and resurrection. "Because resurrection is in a timeless domain," he writes, "it penetrates any reality limited by time and space. In other words, resurrection is not something for which we must wait. It is always here. Our challenge is to move from ego consciousness to God consciousness." In this sense, it seems to me that resurrection is of a piece with the moshiach-consciousness he says is always at our fingertips.

At the end of the book, he tells a tale about raising 10,000 rubles one kopeck at a time. "The story of the dirty penny is a metaphor for attaining messianic consciousness," he writes. Every time one does a good deed, it builds the capacity to do more. Open the heart just a crack, and then it will be able to open more. In this way, our work of spiritual transformation -- on a personal level, and on a cosmic level -- is done.

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