The Hasidic Masters

Posted: July 9, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Halfway through Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s A Heart Afire – his comprehensive collection of stories and teachings of the early Jewish Hasidic Masters – I discovered the the writings of the successor to the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezritch. He was an especially gifted teacher, defining the ways in which a master teacher is able to communicate large truths and bodies of wisdom in ways the student can comprehend them.

One of his delightful interpretive teachings portrayed the Kabbalah – the collection of mystical Jewish writings – as a body. His anatomy of the Kabbalah included four levels of encountering Torah.

The skin represents the simple, surface reading of the text. The underlying muscle is equivalent to the help we might find in daily living. The tendons and sinews move us to the allegorical interpretation that turns us from the superficial to the deeply spiritual meaning. And the bone is the deepest level, the marrow, the hidden structure that determines all layers above.

Each word of Torah, each letter, said he, may be viewed in the same way; one moves from surface to “bone” and the journey is not automatic or accessible to all. Only a few are able to taste the marrow.

This insight is a gift for all of us, regardless our tradition, for we all read and interpret our sacred scriptures. This encounter takes place on many levels – superficial story, life application, shocking insight, opening mystery – and not everyone is able to access all levels. Like a parable, the story speaks to each one in the place they presently reside.

The challenge, it seems to me, is to present the “diamond with many facets” in such a way that each person may discover their “own Torah,” their portion, where they are. Hopefully, with the aid of wise teachers and experienced spiritual travelers, we are able to move from skin to bone, not only in the reading of texts, but in the way we live our lives in the spirit.

This reminds me of another Hasidic story:

Once upon a time as a Rabbi was conducting services he noticed a man in the back row, looking downward and muttering to himself. As the Rabbi listened more carefully he could tell that the man was reciting his ABCs over and over again. After the service was over he went to the man and introduced himself. He asked the man about what he was repeating in the service and he said, “I am a simple man who doesn’t know how to pray. And so I decided that I would say the ABCs and just let God put it all together in the right prayer.”

You could call that skin. Or you could call it bone.

  1. katherine kinnamon says:

    I love this; your comments and the tale. skin to bone. good to know. take it easy, friend. kk

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