January 19, 2020

Postmodern Jewish Identity: I Entered as One and Came Out as Many

Our Rabbis taught: Four men entered the “Garden,”: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher, and Rabbi Akiva…Ben Azzai looked and died…Ben Zoma looked and became mentally unstable…Aher left the tradition…R. Akiva departed peacefully. – Hagigah 14b

Act 1:

The Garden: The glimmer of eternal splendor unknowable to the human mind. How I long to see it, how I long to know its wonders. And yet, it is untouchable, unknowable. A paradox: A place so soft and gossamer, yet as abrasive as steel. When I attempt to uncover its manifold secrets, I am turned away, denied even a glimmer of its empyrean light. And yet, with all the might of my learning and knowledge of Torah, I steal a chance. What beauty! Words could never describe! Here was revelation, the angelic made physical, the mysteries of the world made plain. Here was the redemption, the Messiah lounging idly as if time was nothing at all. I looked in the Messiah’s eyes. O the splendor! The entire universe collapsed into a singularity of God and humanity. Every spirit enjoined in a heavenly dance. The stars brought forth their luminous selves, their lights flickering unceasingly in the light of Torah. For a moment, I saw the soul of everyone who had existed and everyone who will exist until time no longer survives. But after that moment is over, I cease to be. The Garden has enveloped me, and I breathe no more.

Act 2:

The Garden: I am conflicted. There are so many images in my head, so many values in my heart, so many voices in my soul. Which path is the path of the just? Which is the path of the wicked? The sinner, he points above. The prophet, he struggles beneath. The Leviathan slumbers, it’s great snores rattling the core of every creature in the vicinity. I see broken men. I see babies searching for freedom, and met with hostility. I see women treated with disgrace. Injustice and oppression in all directions. I look inside myself: The self is fragmented though it seeks harmonious weaving. It is denied. I choose to struggle against the fetters of knowledge. I know nothing. I know everything. Which is right? Which is wrong? Where is the blowing of the Trumpets? Where are the Prophets of the Holy One? They are on either side of me. They are gone. None of these voices can be silenced. The echoes of the dead reverberate around me. I can see their faces, the faces of who they were. I hear the voices of the living. I see the dreams of the dead. Generations separate us, but I can touch their flesh. Where am I? Is this the Garden?

I am so deeply conflicted. Abandoned. Broken. Lost.

Act 3:

The Garden: Who do they think they are kidding? We are more than denominations and affiliations, more than our memberships, more than our intellectual convictions and doubts, and more than our social connections. This place disgusts me. I have learned wisdom from all corners of the world and it was all for naught. Why are we here? It is a farce, a folly, a fable. I have learned much and for what? We are spinning in circles, a never-ending diatribe against our intellectual superiors. What does it matter? We are everything, but we are less than nothing. It doesn’t matter. They say the world was made for me, but it doesn’t feel that way. I am so deeply distraught, existentially alienated. These human pursuits are a bore. What’s the point? The next generation learns from the previous generation in spite. I’m sick of it. I’ve poured my soul into these texts and for what? The Garden is corrupted. Why are others allowed to judge those whose interpretation differs from them? Aren’t they of the same blood? It is ridiculous. I wish I never learned of the Garden.

Act 4:

The Garden: These foreign letters became my friends only later in life. They taught me about the Garden. I’ve always wanted to visit and now I have. I came into the Garden with peace and I leave the Garden in bliss. I am a simple man, a proud Jew. I am eager to share the beauty of our perfect tradition with others. I came into the garden with intellectual curiosity and questions. I leave transcendent, buoyed by the knowledge I’ve learned. I blush. I hide. I long to learn the ways of my ancestors. I yearn to leave the Garden in peace. Maybe I already have. Time and space are but illusions to me. Until I gain clarity, perhaps, it is better that I meditate and pray to will that departure. I am not a learned man. I tell them I came to the Garden only to learn from the trees and the rocks, the blades of grass, and the soil beneath my toes. The water is crystal clear, its cerulean gleam reflects in the white sky above. I have seen visions of the Redemption, of the Messiah, though I did not meet her. I have never looked into his eyes. I long to see a day where she visits the worlds below. I feel that day is soon. I faithfully roll out the messianic carpet of liberation.


The Talmudic story of the Pardes—the Garden—is a perplexing one. We aren’t told much about it, but its lack of concrete details unveils its imagination and its invitation for radical interpretation. The four figures mentioned in the tale—Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher, and Rabbi Akiva—are more than just flesh and blood. They are archetypes for the Jewish soul. For the ensuing generations, they represent different facets of the Jewish people, in all its glory, intellectual vigor, its struggles, and its dreams. Sometimes, when I find moments to meditate, I try to inhabit the essence of each of these great teachers; I am each of them and each of them is me. But not only me. They are Jews who have existed and will exist in times to come.

When I’m at my most spiritually focused, I like to play them against each other in my mind: the cynicism of Aher versus the idealism of Akiva. The spiritual madness of Ben Zoma and the quest for truth with Ben Azzai. Each figure represents dialectical tension and reveals new ideas towards conflict resolution, inner peace, and hope. It may seem silly, but this exercise leads to clarity, sometimes even spiritual renewal. Try it, and see where your mind wanders at its moment of deepest pique. You’ll never know what wonders you may discover lurking in the corners of your opened mind.