A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

27. Chapter Twenty-Seven


1.   Enlightenment Without Idolatry


The phenomenal self. When Buddhists speak of one’s ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’ they are often referring to what could be described as one’s sphere of experience at any moment. Moment after moment, all around the central point where cognition actually takes place, there is a cloud of phenomena: bodily sensations and sentiments, appearances of surrounding sights and sounds, and mental images and sounds, verbal and non-verbal thoughts, and moods. It is important during meditation (and eventually, beyond it) to get to be and to remain aware of this totality of variegated experience, and to realize the great weight of this experience in one’s life.

According to Buddhists, this phenomenal mass is all there really is to one’s life – and thence they conclude that there is no self. This phenomenal cloud, they claim, is what we call the self, it is the whole of the self. Moreover, according to the Yogacara school, this cloud is only mind (since, they argue, all experience is necessarily mediated by consciousness). But I beg to differ on such views – and claim that we must pay attention to the center of that sphere of experience too.

At the center is the self, the one who is experiencing. This Subject experiencing the changing phenomenal objects is the real meaning of the word self. It is a non-phenomenal entity, who is not experienced outside itself, but is known to itself by intuition. That is the soul or spirit. Buddhists philosophers deny it, but I am not convinced by their reasoning. Even so, I am convinced that Enlightenment is (as they claim) the central goal of human existence – the meaning of it all.

The Jewish core value is, of course, service of God, i.e. fulfilling the commandments given in the written and oral Torah. But, it seems to me, the higher one tends spiritually, the better one can fulfill such a mission. Enlightenment means the perfection of wisdom. So there’s no contradiction between these values. The more perfect the tool, the better it does the job.

The value of Enlightenment. The Buddhist idea of Enlightenment (boddhi) is one of its great contributions to human aspiration and inspiration. I would like Judaism to more consciously value and pursue this goal, through meditation. Of course, Judaism would never accept the idea that Enlightenment makes one a ‘god’. I agree with this crucial caveat.

There are some significant points of similitude between the Judaic-Christian-Islamic group of religions and the Hindu-Buddhist group. One point all (or at least some schools in all) might agree with, is the notion that we are all rooted in an infinite God or Original Ground and that we will all one day return to this Source. Indeed, these grand religions may be viewed as teachings on how to prepare for or accelerate such a return.

Now, both groups would consider that when an individual human manages somehow to merge back into God (or whatever the Source is called), God remains unaffected, i.e. nothing has been added to Him. From the latter’s viewpoint there was never separation, no breach of unity. Where the two groups would differ, however, is in the status acquired by an individual who fuses with the Deity. The religions of Indian origin would regard such a person as having become a ‘god’, or even identified with the one and only God; whereas the Middle Eastern religions would consider the individual as ceasing to exist as a distinct entity.

I would refer to the tacit image of a drop of water flowing back into the ocean: certainly, that drop loses all ‘personality’, and moreover it becomes a mere part of and does not become equated with the ocean as a whole.

The Jewish religious way often seems like a constant hectic rush to perform countless rituals. It seems intended to keep you busy and stressed, as if agitation is proof of devotion. Set prayer sessions, some of them hours long, obligations to study without time limit, and many other demanding duties fill the days, evenings and weekends of those who faithfully follow this way.[1]

Although that way gives one some satisfaction, if only the feeling of having a good conscience, if one has done all that needed doing fully and correctly (which is not always easy), it cannot be said bring peace of mind in the sense of cessation of “running after” things. Indeed, some commentators boast of this:

The Jewish approach to life considers the man… who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest—to be someone who has lost his way. (Adin Steinsaltz, p. 99)

Such an attitude is, in my view, an unfortunate devaluation of Enlightenment. In fact, it is a sort of cop-out: the rabbis, admitting that the way they have developed is unable to deliver the inner contentment and illumination all human beings yearn for, present this restlessness as a virtue above peace.

The missing ingredient here, it seems to me – what is needed to slow things down and give us time to breathe is – still and silent meditation. I here quote the 6th century CE Indian mystic and founder of Chinese Zen, Bodhidharma (p. 49):

Not thinking about anything is zen. Once you know this, walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, everything you do is zen...Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness. Freeing oneself from words is liberation.

Traditional Jewish observances do on the whole perform their function, which is to bring us closer to God. I believe that sincerely, which is why I personally continue to practice Judaism and recommend it to fellow Jews. However, sometimes I get the impression that Judaism obstructs or blocks one’s natural personal relation to God.

The main problem in my view is the ‘commandment’ format of Jewish law, which results in its excessive ritualism and legalism and almost non-stop verbosity. Jews are constantly in the position of slaves receiving peremptory orders under threat, rather than of free men and women kindly advised to voluntarily act in wise, objectively good and naturally virtuous ways. The commandments seem too often of uncertain value, if not contrary to reason; and those who object to them are viewed with much disapproval. It is argued that since these are God’s orders, they must be wise imperatives; but their lack of evident wisdom in some cases makes their alleged source doubtful to some people.

At such times, it is actually meditation that keeps me going in Judaism. Thanks to it, I do not attach much importance to the imperfections I perceive in it, and remain focused on what seems to me the essential: getting personally closer to God.

Against Idolatry. Idolatry is clearly forbidden by God to Jews in the Ten Commandments[2]. God is to be the one and only object of worship – there is no other “god” by His side or in opposition to Him to worship.

Moreover, God does not “incarnate” in human form, or other material body or ghostly form of limited size; the very idea of incarnation is idolatrous. We are therefore forbidden to mentally worship any putative god or incarnation through belief, fear or love. All the more so, we must not physically worship any representations of alleged gods or incarnations, by bowing before statues or flat images or movies and similar acts. This interdiction obviously suggests that the worship of images of any alleged divinity or even of the true God is spiritually extremely damaging, in this world and/or the next.

According to the Rabbis, the interdiction of idolatry applies not only to Jews but also to Gentiles. It is one of seven Biblical commandments intended for the “Children of Noah” (i.e. the non-Jews, or Gentiles). This is stated in the “oral law” and subsequent rabbinical commentaries. In that case, Judaism may be regarded as categorically rejecting all religions that involve idolatrous beliefs and practices to any degree. Similar teachings are in principle found in Islam, no doubt thanks to Jewish influence.

With regard to Christianity, the issue is more complex, however. Some Jewish commentators (Maimonides comes to mind) appear to class it as a monotheistic religion. They argue that Christians intend to worship the formless one and only God, even as they worship alleged incarnations of God (the Son, the Holy Ghost) by prostrating themselves before images and similar acts. Most Christians would agree with this assessment, and class themselves as monotheistic. In my view, certain aspects of Hinduism and even Buddhism may be similarly classed as ultimately ‘monotheistic’ in intent or in effect.

It would clearly be preferable, however, from a purely rational viewpoint, if all religions eschewed all thoughts or acts that could be regarded as idolatrous from their curriculum.


2.         Good People


Discriminating between good and bad. “May all people be happy!” say the Buddhists. In my Jewish view, this Buddhist wish should be understood in proper sequence. Not as an indiscriminate, unjust wish that all people as they are be happy now – for then evil people would get away with their evil! Rather as a wish that such people change for the better, and when they thus earn happiness it will come upon them. This is similar to the Talmudic story of a Talmudic rabbi who was told by his wife (if I remember rightly) not to curse evil people out of this world but to wish evil to depart.

And really, I think that is what the Buddhist expression is intended to mean. For Buddhism does not consider that happiness will befall anyone contrary to their karma, but rather that anyone who attains enlightenment will find ‘happiness’ therein. For they will then have lost their ignorance, and the intrigue and violence it generates, and their problems would disappear. Thus, the pious wish should more accurately be stated as “May all people attain enlightenment!” – and in this non-provocative form, who would oppose the idea?

Of course, the issue remains: can all people indeed become good? Supposedly, if we all proceed from the One, we can all return to the One – so Buddhism would apparently say.

On the other hand, would we want a Hitler to ever redeem himself – should there not for him and the likes of him be no redemption ever?

The good man. The good man[3] is of course a strong man, in the sense of someone with a power of will sufficiently developed to overcome morally negative influences and temptations, and forge ahead towards morally positive ends. He has character; he is not at the mercy of chance impulses within himself.

However, such strength of character is not his deepest secret. His true power is his moral intelligence – viz. his understanding that the good is valuable and the evil is valueless and counterproductive. He is not fooled by illusory attractions or repulsions. It is for this reason especially that he does not find it so difficult to avoid evil and pursue good.

That is, through lucid insight, the good man neutralizes the power of negative influences to slow him down or arrest him, and enhances the power of positive influences to facilitate his way towards spiritual success. He is consistently wise: he is not moved by the mirages that the evil impulse presents him, but on the contrary empowers his better side. He never dithers between good and bad.

By way of contrast, the spiritually low or evil man is basically stupid. He convinces himself (sometimes through superficially clever intricate arguments) that evil is attractive and good is unattractive – and for this reason he is overwhelmed by evil and uninterested in good. Alternatively, he mentally places good and evil on the same plane. It is he, by his own twisted imaginations, who has given evil power over himself and weakened his native goodness.

Thus, the virtuous man is not victorious so much due to exceptionally strong will, but because of his perceptiveness and wisdom, which render his ordinary strength of will more easily effective. The wicked man, on the other hand, has woven for himself such a delusion about the value of evil or non-value of good, or through doubt, that he weakens and incapacitates himself in any attempt to avoid evil and do good.

I thus, in the last analysis, agree with the Buddhist idea that the root of evil is essentially a cognitive failure – a self-inflicted fiction, illusion, foolishness and stupidity. The volitional problem behind moral failure is relatively secondary; it is subsidiary to the weakening of self and strengthening of obstacles due to erroneous convictions. For this reason, meditation and sound reasoning are both essential antidotes.

This explains why the perfect man (the tzadik in Judaism or the enlightened man in Buddhism) is said to be free of good or evil. This does not mean that he is morally permitted to do evil, but that he has no desire to do evil. And this does not mean that he is forced deterministically to do good, but that he clearly sees that evil is without interest and stupid. Thus, he never falls into vice or fails to be virtuous, not because he lacks free will, but because of active moral intelligence.

This conception of morality can be clarified further by considering the extreme case – that of God. We conceive of Him as having Omnipotent free will, and yet as never committing evil or even abstaining from good. These characteristics are seen as mutually consistent, if we understand that God is obviously not forced by anything (any deterministic force or influence on His volition) to be Perfect, but being Omniscient and All-wise He is simply never fooled by evil and is anyway always more than strong enough to overcome its superficial attractions. For this reason, it is safe to say that utter goodness is the ‘nature’ of God, without thereby implying that He is at all determined or influenced to so act. Even though he always opts for the good, it is always a free choice of His.

We must try to tend in that direction, following the principle of imitatio Dei. The tzadik is someone who has found the spark of Godliness within him to such a degree that he naturally acts in perfect accord with that principle.

The danger of religiosity. Though religions are in principle intended to improve people, religion can sometimes be an obstacle to self-improvement, because it may give us a false sense of perfection. One seems in accord with its essential demands, and so comes to ignore ‘little imperfections’. Our shortcoming may be improper social behavior, i.e. lack of respect, consideration, politeness, and the like (what is called derekh eretz in Judaism); or perhaps a holier-than-thou attitude or a more pronounced form of fanaticism.

This observation is nothing new. Many people steer clear of religion precisely to avoid such ugly side-effects of it. We see around us, and history has often shown us, many cases of this disease – in Judaism, in Christianity and in Islam, and no doubt likewise in the other religions. To be fair, such unpleasant aspects of religiosity sometimes emerge from secular philosophies or from science. Conceit and arrogance are not the monopoly of any single doctrine.

The truth is, all religions and all philosophies (including science) are part of ‘samsara’. They can help us approach ‘nirvana’, but they cannot take us all the way there. They are intrinsically flawed by their format as rational and volitional pursuits – whereas true transcendence requires a sort of fundamental ‘letting go’ of this world and one’s place in it. So, whatever doctrine one adheres to, one should not allow oneself to be blinded by it. It is always a means, not the end.


3.         A World of Mercy


There is a Jewish doctrine according to which this is a world of mercy (tempering justice), whereas after death we go to a world of (strict) justice. One’s first reaction to that claim might be: ‘what, you call this a world of mercy?’ Yes, the idea here intended is that the sufferings we go through in this world are very light compared to what we justly deserve. Thus, we are better off paying off our debts by suffering in this world, rather than having them exacted off us in the next world. For there, the full payment will be required, without mercy.

The teaching here taught is that we should take advantage of the opportunities for redemption offered to us by this world, because here we have freewill and can repent and do good deeds. Whereas, in the world after death, we can no longer fix our errors or perform positive mitzvoth (duties), but must passively receive whatever we have coming. Thus, this is a teaching designed to push us to act while we still have the chance to do so.

This idea is comparable to the Buddhist doctrine that to be born as a human being is a very exceptional opportunity to attain enlightenment/liberation (nirvana). Such a chance should not be wasted on vanities or in negative activities, but one should strive positively for removal of bad karma and for spiritual growth. Otherwise, next time one may be reborn in a less favorable estate, and become stuck in the cycle of samsara (birth and death, implying suffering) for eons.

Needless to say, one can see in this context the stupidity of suicide[4]. According to this teaching, such an act is not an effective way to escape from one’s difficult situation, but only a way to make matters worse (in the hereafter or the next life). Trying to avoid challenges is useless and counterproductive. One should always bravely face the difficulties of life and cheerfully try to improve one’s situation as well as one can. Life is certainly a great gift. And time passes so quickly.

Lately, the media fashionmongers have started pushing relentlessly in favor of voluntary euthanasia or ‘assisted suicide’. Most Western countries have already made passive euthanasia (i.e. withholding life support) legal, and now some have legalized active euthanasia (i.e. killing) and the issue has become hot in most others. The advocates of this social innovation make it seem like an act of mercy – parading some people with terribly painful incurable diseases to excite our pity. These advocates are of course materialists, who do not believe in any sort of afterlife or rebirth.

They do not consider that it may be more merciful to allow the sufferer’s bad karma to play itself out on this earth in this lifetime than to artificially cut it short. They do not consider that things might be worse thereafter, precisely because the karma was not allowed to play itself out. How do I know? I don’t! But do they? Certainly not! They have no sure knowledge either, only mere speculations.

Moreover, the advocates of euthanasia do not really consider that helping someone commit suicide for whatever motive might still be murder. They are usually the same people or type of people who legalized abortion on demand, indifferent to the suffering and privation of life of the babies killed. They are close to those who support homosexuality, and in particular the adoption of children by homosexuals. They are people who consider their pursuit of any pleasure or avoidance of all pain as unquestionable absolutes. They do not acknowledge that we may earn certain pains or have no right to certain pleasures. They have little or no regard for spirituality or ethics.

And they have nothing to offer the suffering souls other than a quick and supposedly painless death. At least religion offers hope of cure or redemption. In situations of great suffering, why not try prayer and repentance? It might help, psychologically if not existentially. Also, when possible, try meditation.


Drawn from Logical and Spiritual Reflections (2008), Book 5, chapters 8-10.



[1]           I should also mention, here, how we are sometimes (e.g. late at night at Pessach) required by the law to eat and sleep at unhealthy hours, not to mention the consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks (meat and alcohol). Moreover, little allowance is made for fresh air and regular exercise. The natural cycles and needs of the human body are too often overlooked.

[2]           The issue of idolatry in Judaism is a complex one, and I do not pretend to know all its ramifications. The present remarks may well go beyond the letter, into the spirit, of Jewish law. They are intended as an independent, philosophical analysis, not a religious legal opinion.

[3]           Or good woman – here the term ‘man’ is intended as meaning ‘human being’.

[4]           I mention this, due to reading often lately about youths – in Japan, in Britain – committing suicide. No doubt they feel afraid of life, and presumably have been given no spiritual education that would give them the strength and courage to face it.

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