Judaism unites East and West

Nagen unpacks the West’s ‘doing,’ East’s ‘being’ approaches

BE, BECOME, BLESS: Jewish Spirituality between East and West By Yakov Nagen Koren Publishers 350 pages; $19.95 (photo credit: Courtesy)
BE, BECOME, BLESS: Jewish Spirituality between East and West By Yakov Nagen Koren Publishers 350 pages; $19.95
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘One of the defining characteristics of our time,” writes Rabbi Yakov Nagen, author of Be, Become, Bless: Jewish Spirituality between East and West, “is the ever-expanding search for spirituality.”
In his book, Nagen, a senior lecturer at the Otniel hesder yeshiva who holds a PhD in Jewish philosophy from the Hebrew University, utilizes a wide spectrum of classical Jewish literature – Bible, Talmud, Hassidism, and Kabbalah – together with his deep familiarity with Eastern spirituality and Western culture to assist those who are engaged in the search for greater meaning and understanding in life.
The book is divided into 52 essays based on the weekly Torah portions that are read in the synagogue throughout the year.
The book’s tone is set in the opening section on parashat Bereshit (Genesis), in which the author explains the differences between the Western mindset of doing, and the Eastern approach of being.
The Land of Israel, suggests Nagen, is not only at the geographical crossroads of East and West, but at its spiritual center as well.
“Judaism contains ideas that are generally identified with Eastern religions,” writes Nagen, “along with ideas that underpin Western thinking.”
The message of Judaism, he suggests, is the synthesis of these two elements.
Nagen explains how the concept of doing complements being. Movement, he writes, is one of life’s primary characteristics. It is only through action and movement – by doing – that we arrive at being. Doing is only at odds with being when a person sees action as a step on the way to future meaning. The realization that the journey itself is the very essence of life, writes Nagen, can elevate our lives.
Citing a lesson that he learned from his teachers, Nagen writes that the names of the first four Torah readings in Genesis provide direction in the path of spiritual fulfillment. In the beginning, citing the name of the first Torah reading – Bereshit – one must be at rest, peace and tranquility, as indicated by the name of the second Torah reading – Noah – which means rest. Only then, he explains, can one begin one’s spiritual journey, listing the name of the third Torah reading – Lekh Lekha – the words that God said to Abraham when he told him to leave his home of Haran for Canaan. The redundancy of the phrase “Lekh Lekha” – literally, “go to you” – teaches that the spiritual voyage that one must take is an inward voyage, a voyage to oneself.
Nagen, who is well known for his participation in interfaith dialogue between Judaism and Islam as well as his encounters with Eastern religions, writes about his meetings with clerics of different faiths.
During a trip to India, Nagen visited the head of the ashram in Haridwar, Swami Vijayananda. The swami, writes Nagen, was born Abraham Jacob Weintraub in France, became an atheist, and later was attracted to Eastern religion. Nagen discusses the similarities and differences between Judaism and the Upanishadic religions, and describes his meeting with the swami, the lessons he learned from him, as well as his regret that the swami chose to give up his Jewish faith.
Nagen describes the iftar meal – which is eaten at the end of each day’s fast in the month of Ramadan – in which he participated with a group of Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze and where he shared an explanation from the Zohar that relates that hospitality itself is a welcoming of the Divine Presence.
In his commentary on parashat Hayei Sarah, Nagen describes the differences and similarities between Jewish and Eastern ideas.
Western religions, Nagen explains, differentiate between the divine and the earthly. God created the world, and acts upon it. Man prays to God and strives to learn from Him and obey Him. By contrast, Eastern religions consider God and the world to be one.
In that context, Nagen describes a joint prayer for rain that was held at the Sea of Galilee with the late Rabbi Menachem Froman and leaders of other religions, including the Dalai Lama. At the service, the Dalai Lama confessed to Froman that he could not pray for rain, because in his worldview, where everything is one, there is no room for this type of prayer.
Nagen utilizes this story to illustrate the differences between the concepts of being and doing. In a world where everything – man and God – is one, humanity’s purpose is to reveal the unity underlying reality. However, according to the Jewish religious worldview, in which God is a separate entity, the individual’s challenge is to act and rectify reality.
Perhaps one of the best examples of man’s search for spirituality, as described by Nagen, is centered around the question of belief in God. In his essay on parashat Ki Tisa, Nagen quotes the Zohar and explains that faith in God will always entail unanswerable questions.
“A god that can be defined is no God at all,” writes Nagen, “for definition is constriction, while divinity is infinite.”
According to Nagen, it is important to realize that even when our questions remain unanswered, there is value in continuing to ask them. Questions stimulate growth, he explains, and even if some questions remain unanswered, the world remains open.
Nagen cites the story told by Isidor Rabi, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who attributed his success to his mother. Upon his return from school each day, his mother would ask him not what he had learned but, instead, what questions he had asked.
Nagen is cognizant of the importance of mindfulness and the necessity of living life in the moment.
In his commentary on parashat Ki Tavo, he writes that during Rosh Hodesh prayers, he was puzzled by the verse that is recited during the Hallel prayer – “This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalms 118:24). Nagen wondered which specific day was referred to by the verse, until he concluded that “this is the day” could be taken to apply to every single day.
“A person’s capacity to be present in the present, to be aware of the moment and work with it, is the capacity to experience life itself, for only the moment is where life happens,” he explains.
The spirit of openness, curiosity, and honesty that marks Be, Become, Bless makes it a book that is especially attractive to the younger generation, which, having come of age in a time when information is instantly accessible in the palm of one’s hand, is looking for meaningful answers to existential questions of spirituality.
Nagen suggests that just as modern Zionism sees the renewal of Jewish nationalism as a type of return to the days of the Bible, so, too, the recent emphasis on spirituality can be seen as a biblical renewal as well.
Those who are looking to better understand Jewish spirituality and its similarities and differences with Eastern thought will be well served by this book.
Jewish Spirituality between East and West
By Yakov Nagen
Koren Publishers
350 pages; $19.95
THE DALAI LAMA in 1999 in Israel to attend an Interfaith Jubillennium Conference for World Peace. Nagen describes an interfaith joint prayer for rain at the Sea of Galilee that included the Dalai Lama. (Reuters)