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Jewish Spirituality—The Meeting Point Between Eastern and Western Philosophy

“We live in a generation thirsting for spirituality,” says Rabbi Yakov Nagen, an interfaith activist and author who teaches at Yeshivat Otniel. Targum Shlishi is supporting the translation into English of Rabbi Yakov Nagen’s 2013 book Awakening to a New Day, to be published by Maggid in early 2019.

Awakening to a New Day tackles the existential challenges we face about the nature of life and how to live it. In addressing these questions, Rabbi Nagen, who received a doctorate in Jewish philosophy from the Hebrew University, establishes Judaism and the Jews as playing an essential role in the story of humanity and in dialogue with world culture and philosophy. In the book, he journeys through the Parshiot, drawing from the Tanach, Talmud, Kabbalah, and Jewish philosophy as well as contemporary Israeli culture and Eastern and Western philosophy. A book review written by Yitzchak Blau called the book “a wise and helpful work that breaks new ground in our communal discourse.”

Below is an excerpt from the book, preceded by a video of Rabbi Nagen and a short profile. More information about Rabbi Nagen can be found on his website and in this Wikipedia profile.

View video ( 8 min.) of Rabbi Nagen lecturing: “Life is a Blessing: Spirituality in the Parsha ‘Parashat Noach’.”

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This profile on Rabbi Nagen appeared in Tablet’s 2016 article “Israeli Rabbis You Should Know,” a collection of Israeli spiritual leaders “you haven’t heard of but should.”

Yakov Nagen

Settler, interfaith activist

Since the passing of the memorable Rabbi Menachem Froman in 2013, a settler rabbi who sought reconciliation with his Palestinian neighbors through interfaith dialogue, his torch has been taken up by others. Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen, a New York native and graduate of Yeshiva University who now teaches in the Otniel Yeshiva deep in the West Bank, has in recent years turned with a warm embrace toward his Palestinian neighbors. Recognizing that religion has become a chief axis of tension between Jews and Muslims in the region, Nagen, an author of several books on Torah and spirituality, has come to the conclusion that religion must be part of the solution: “I believe the religious human encounter is the key to everything. When I meet a Palestinian and see how much he loves God—the same God I love—all the barriers fall,” he told a reporter.

Nagen’s close and repeated contact with Palestinian Muslims has led him to insights unusual for one socially at home on the Israeli religious right. He advocates a federative one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with equal rights for both peoples, in which the national narratives and symbols of each are recognized and celebrated. He has been a chief organizer of interfaith events throughout the southern West Bank, convening a joint Jewish-Muslim prayer vigil in the Etzion bloc after the Jewish extremist murder of a Palestinian family in Duma, and arranging clandestine meetings between high-profile Jewish and Muslim religious leaders. This activism reached new heights earlier this year, when Nagen took a fraught trip to Cairo, where he was hosted at the Al-Azhar Islamic University by Islamic scholar Omer Salem to discuss Judaism.

Nagen sees no contradiction between the neighborhood he has chosen to live in, with all its tensions and violence, and his political activism. As he put it in 2014: “The crisis point is the starting point; the fact that I live in the Hebron Hills, and that my students were murdered in the dining hall here, or along the road. The fact that evil and killing exists—that’s the starting point.”

The following is an excerpt from a preliminary English translation of Awakening to a New Day

Bereshit—Doing and Being

The year is 1954. Years before the Israeli masses began streaming into India, Azriel Carlebach, the legendary editor of the newspaper Maariv, traveled to India and summarized his experiences in his book “India- a Travelogue.” Carlebach understood well the difference between Western and Eastern worldviews. He quotes a discussion with the Indian prime minister at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru, in which Nehru pointed out to him the gap between Western and Eastern cultures:

We mentioned the political difficulties that were apparently hard to overcome, and I let slip, by the way, that “The question is, what to do?” He gave me a long look… and said, “You see, that is a question characteristic of a European…” “Why?” I wondered. He answered: “An Indian would ask: What to be…?” (Azriel Carlebach, , p. 266)

The difference between “to do and “to be,” in this intercultural comparison is the difference between the desire to change reality and the ability to accept it, between dynamic activity and contemplation, between preparation for the future and presence in the present. From an existential point of view, the distinction is between self-definition as an answer to the question “What do I do?” or to the question “Who am I?”

The land of Israel is located at the meeting point of East and West, and this geographic-historical fact has deep spiritual meaning. In Judaism there are conceptual elements that correspond to those associated with Eastern philosophies, as well as elements which are essentially those of Western thinking. The great spiritual message of Judaism, in my eyes, lies in the combination of these elements, linking “Being” with “Doing.”

Was the World Created Twice?

The distinction between “Being” and “Doing” and their combination can be traced to the creation story. The Torah tells the story of creation twice; in the first chapter of Genesis the description of creation is divided into days, whereas in chapter 2, the story centers on the figure of Adam in the Garden of Eden. The traditional commentators found varied ways to understand the repetitions and differences between the two accounts (the outstanding examples in the previous generation are Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his “Lonely Man of Faith,” and Rabbi Mordechai Breuer in his various writings). Some see the double description as an expression of the complexity of reality and its multiple facets, and others see different expressions for God’s providence over man and the world.

I suggest that the difference between the stories as the difference between the fundamental existential approach to life as “Doing” as opposed to “Being.” These terms are not external to the Torah- they appear in the text itself, are the foundations of the Genesis narrative, and the relationship between them returns throughout the Torah.

In its first description of creation, the Torah presents us with a story of “Doing.” Humanity is created in the image of God, and its purpose is to rule the world: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and conquer it, and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and over all living things that tread on land.” (Genesis 1:28) The language of creation is “that God created to do.” (Genesis 2:3) The second story, in contrast, describes an existential state of “Being.” Adam lives in harmony with nature in the Garden of Eden, and the rationale for Eve’s creation is that “it is not good for man to be alone” (2:18) In the former narrative, the connection of man and woman is aimed outwards- they must change reality through reproduction, and are commanded to multiply in order to fill and control the world. In the latter description, conversely, the connection of man and woman is aimed inwards, and the numeric direction is opposite- two become one: “And Adam cleaved to his wife and they became one flesh.” (2:24) Man and woman together answer the problem of human loneliness- the experience of oneness is the peak of their connection.

As in the two descriptions of creation, the two approaches of “Being” and “Doing” permeate Jewish life. The Jewish week is divided into two: six weekdays of action: “Six days you shall work and do all your labors,” and afterwards, one day of rest: “And the seventh day is the Sabbath to the Lord your God, you shall not do any labor.” (Exodus 20:9-10) The obvious question is: Is the distinction between “Doing” and “Being” an admission of life’s duality, such that each value negates the other? Must we choose between a life of “Doing” and a life of “Being?” Are these two sides of our life impossible to bridge?

The Torah presents these two values in two separate stories of creation in order to clarify each element on its own. But ultimately “Doing” and “Being” are not distinct, but rather two dimensions of reality. In our lives we often feel the need to separate these elements, but a dynamic life synthesizes them in a harmony between “Being” and “Doing.”

The Taste of the Tree like the Taste of the Fruit- Rav Kook and Tom Sawyer

At the beginning of Genesis chapter 1, God commands the earth to grow “fruit trees producing fruit,” but the earth grows “trees producing fruit.” (Genesis 1:11-12) Rashi, based on the midrash in Genesis Rabbah (5:11), explains: “Fruit tree—that is, that the taste of the tree would be like the taste of the fruit, and the earth did not comply.” The insubordination of the earth towards its Creator is known in midrashic literature as “the sin of the earth.” What is the significance of this sin? Why is it so important that the tree itself have a taste?  Rav Kook (Lights of Repentence, 6, 7) explains the connection between the tree and the fruit as an allegory for the relationship between the “ends” and the “means”—the fruit represents the goal, whereas the tree stands for the actions taken to reach that goal. The Creator of the world intended that the pathway to the goal should have intrinsic value. In our imperfect reality, a tree is merely the intermediary to produce fruit. In the language of Rav Kook, the earth “denied herself.” Rather than dare to be herself, as God intended initially, the earth chose to realize herself only partially. Now, all our actions in this world are just steps towards a future goal. They lack existential meaning in and of themselves.

An anecdote from Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, illustrates Rav Kook’s teaching well. In one chapter, Aunt Polly punishes Tom by making him repaint the fence around their yard. Aunt Polly symbolizes the reality in which “the taste of the tree is not like the taste of the fruit.” Only the “fruit,” the whitewashed fence, has value, while the action of whitewashing, the path towards achieving the goal, is a punishment. Tom, on the other hand, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his youth, knows the secret of life that the path is not just an intermediary or a curse, but rather a blessing and privilege. With this insight he convinces his friends to pay him for the opportunity to whitewash the fence instead of him.

In the language of spirituality, the highest aspiration is to “awaken.” The assumption is that one’s life can pass by while they are asleep. The duality of “sleep” and “wakefulness” relates to one’s awareness, the way they live their life. To a large degree, the lack of awareness of life stems from the wandering of a person’s mind back to the past or ahead to the future. In either instance, one is then not present in the one place where life actually passes—the present. As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” A “sleeping” person is not present in the present, whereas only an “awakened” person succeeds in focusing and truly being present. Rav Kook’s interpretation of the midrash challenges us to achieve “wakefulness” not only when engaged in passive contemplation but in all of our endeavors, and not to allow a vision of the future blind us to the value of the present.

The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life

Now we can understand Adam’s punishment at the time of his exile from the Garden of Eden. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil produced within Adam and Eve a change in consciousness. Their eyes were opened to the knowledge of good and evil; everything in their lives was now either good or evil. This change in consciousness is also the punishment, reality did not change, only our perception of it. Immediately after the expulsion from Eden, God describes the existential struggle for humanity as “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:19).

However, “the sweat of your brow” is a curse only if we relate to it as such. Sweat and hard work can serve as the key to a meaningful existence, and in this context sweat is a blessing.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov refreshingly comments that the word “sweat” is compounded (in Hebrew) of the first letters of the verse in Psalms 118:24, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Likutei Moharan 2:6). Specifically in the sweat Rabbi Nachman finds blessing and joy.

If Eden was lost because of a change of consciousness, the way back is by returning to the primeval consciousness where “Being” and “Doing” are unified, where “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” is not as a curse but a blessing. Existence here stems not from the duality of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but rather from the Tree of Life which accepts all life as a blessing.

Images: (top) Rabbi Nagen; (in text) cover of the Hebrew version of Awakening to a New Day

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