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Let me preface this question by stating that I'm Jewish with a background in Zen Buddhism. Eastern philosophy was my first introduction to spirituality coming from an atheistic/materialistic worldview. However, I've been studying Judaism, and I'm currently reading Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan, but I'm confused about his description of the self in the chapter titled "nothingness." I've read Letters To a Buddhist Jew by Akiva Tatz as well, and unless I'm mistaken, they seem to disagree with each other, which is what brings me here.

Kaplan's definition of the self follows an argument similar to one I've encountered in Buddhism. He states that because one can think of the body, then the body alone cannot represent the self. The same goes for the mind and even the soul. I can conceive of the mind and the soul, so that which is observing those categories (the self) must be even more fundamental. Therefore, he states that the soul "cannot be the real me." He then argues that volition, or the capacity to bring forth action or thought, is still more fundamental than thought. He writes: "because I must will myself to think, the source of my will is beyond thought." In other words, "the source of my will" is the closest thing to this definition of "self" he's seeking, and since no mental category exists for the "source of my will," it's in the same category as contemplating nothingness. He then provides the Hebrew word for אני which spells אין or nothing after being rearranged as an example illustrating this.

The chapter continues by introducing Kabbalistic teachings that speak of God as that which is beyond all categories. So in the same way that "the source of my will" is beyond mental categories and akin to nothingness, so is G-d. However, the self is not G-d, and Kaplan is clearly not arguing that. I'm not sure what he's trying to illustrate here, which takes me back to a major problem I encountered while studying Buddhism.

One of the most important teachings in Buddhism is that the self is an illusion. As such, enlightenment, or the cessation of all suffering, is attained when one fully realizes this "truth." The final conclusion of this line of reasoning is that one attains a state of consciousness where there is no longer any distinction between oneself and creation. There is no longer an inside or an outside or a "me" or "you." However, this is absolute insanity and implies that since G-d is everything, and enlightenment is a state where there is no longer any distinction between one and the universe, one is or can become G-d. In fact, if you study abnormal psychology, you'll find that many people believe they're G-d while in a psychotic state.

After reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew and studying Kaballah, my current understanding is that although G-d is everything, and as part of that creation I, too, am part and parcel of everything, a fundamental separation still exists between the Creator and the vessel of creation. Therefore, attaining absolute oneness with G-d is never possible and claiming to do so is perhaps the worst form of blasphemy.

So if the vessel is the fundamental unit of creation then individual souls can be considered the fundamental units of man. The highest spiritual state I can strive for, then, is the full expression of my soul as opposed to my bodily inclinations. Therefore, I'm not sure what Kaplan is trying to illustrate in that chapter. As far as I can tell, the soul is, in fact, that fundamental unit of "self" he was trying to define despite stating that the "soul cannot be the real me."

Is Kaplan's definition of the self accurate? Perhaps my understanding of this chapter is off, but I feel like his description of the soul is misguided (or at least not Jewish).

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    Voted to close, as this site does not deal with "what do you guys think" questions. – Al Berko Feb 3 at 13:19
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    @AlBerko I read it. It is a very good question. I have read both books but still can't answer it. The last sentence is very clear. – mbloch Feb 3 at 14:03
  • @mbloch I renamed it then. If the last line IS the real question. – Al Berko Feb 3 at 14:58
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    Off topic as comparative religion? I haven't read the whole post carefully, but from the title I'm amazed there are no close votes – Double AA Feb 3 at 15:15
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    @DoubleAA I don't think it's comparative religion. Though the OP mentions his previous affiliation with Zen Buddhism, this question is comparing two ideas he read in two popular Jewish books that seem to contradict each other. – ezra Feb 3 at 17:49
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I read the book Jewish Meditation many years ago and going through my library, it appears that I must have lent it to someone. So this is unfortunately only using what you have copied here.

The two paragraphs you use to state Rabbi Kaplan’s definition of self sound correct but the English translation is losing what he is trying to say.

Self in Hebrew is often called יש (Yesh). Rabbi Kaplan is using a less used term to point out the Hebrew play on words. He is saying self is אני (Ani), which means I. And that through the nullification of that sense of self (in his terms, the I), one achieves a state of אין (Ayin), which means nothingness. That this nothingness is the concept he describes as transcending all of creation, whether physical, emotional, intellectual or even spiritual.

And this is described in other places as the Pintele Yid, the true, innermost aspect of the Jew which is in the words of the Tanya, a piece of the transcendent G-d, (חלק אלקא ממעל ממש) so to speak.

And this term for G-d is described in the words of the Kabbalists as אין סוף (Ain Sof). This term for G-d can be understood as infinite transcendence .

Considering the background you express here and your personal spiritual yearning, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you should take the time to listen to the You Tube video lectures of Rabbi Shimon Jacobson on the book known as Ayin Beis. It deals directly with the subject you are investigating and will connect you with authentic, traditional Jewish teaching about it.

All the lectures are in English and will not disappoint. The link to the first lecture in the continuing series is here.

  • Thank you. I will check out those lectures. With regards to Kaplan's book, he doesn't go as far as Buddhists by saying that the self does not exist. He actually explicitly states that the self does exist in the chapter but that it is simply beyond mental categories and the same as "nothingness" in that regard. However, I don't agree that the "soul is not the real me" as he puts it. – user27343 Feb 3 at 20:00
  • G-d is everything, and everything is G-d, but the vessel of creation is separate (without that separation there would be no creation). And that vessel is separated further into souls. Therefore, the soul is the most fundamental unit of man and that "piece of transcendent G-d" within us all. I intend to reread the chapter, but I'm not sure I accept every part of his explanation at the moment. – user27343 Feb 3 at 20:02
  • @user27343 Like I stated in my answer, what he is trying to express from the Hebrew is getting lost in the brief English translation that he is making. From your additional 2 comments, it only reinforces my suggestion about those video lectures. What I hear most from you is that you need to have someone who can sit at the table with you and learn these things face to face. FYI, if you like Rabbi Kaplan’s writing, check out his 2 other books in English on the subject of meditation. (Meditation and the Bible, and Meditation and Kabbalah) Much more details (and learn the footnotes). – Yaacov Deane Feb 3 at 20:46
  • Yes, I bought meditation and Kaballah as well. On a slightly different note, I'm open to the idea that Judaism has a long tradition of meditation. With that said, I've never heard my rabbi or other knowledgeable figures talk about it. Even more, this forum doesn't have a meditation tag. So if meditation is important in Judaism, it has definitely been lost or purposefully hidden in some cases as Kaplan talks about it. – user27343 Feb 3 at 20:57
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    @user27343 May G-d bless you with great success at Tel Aviv University, if that is where you decide to go. Everything that you learn in the sciences and mathematics is the 1st rung in connecting with G-d and helps you to fulfill the mitzvot connected with being able to earn an honest living and later to be able to raise and support a Jewish family. Never forget that our Torah is also called Torat Chaim, the way of life, which includes earning a living and raising a family. For shiurim with Rabbi Turjeman, try 02-6221245 or e-mail: a0545201059@gmail.com – Yaacov Deane Feb 3 at 22:33

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