Book Review: Learning the lessons of reflection … and to take nothing for granted
By Masha Shollar
Special to The Chronicle
Jewish mysticism undeservedly suffers from a bad reputation. Some believe it’s a playground for pseudo-spiritualists to wax profound; others believe it to be impenetrable, layer upon layer of deep but bewildering teachings. But mysticism needn’t be either. When properly explained, mysticism is enlightening, accessible and far from a hoax.
In “A Partner in Holiness” (Jewish Lights), Rabbi Jonathan D. Slater aims to prove just that. The practice of mindfulness, so popular today, traces its origins to Chassidic thought. Slater’s two volumes, which contain several short lessons for each weekly Torah portion based on the mystical tract “Kedushat Levi” by Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, help readers find specific ways to apply mindfulness to their everyday lives. Each entry contains a quotation from the week’s Torah portion, an explanation of its deeper meaning, as put forth by “Kedushat Levi,” and a prescription for applying that lesson to daily life.
The “Taking It into Your Life” section of each lesson contains specific advice, not only for one’s service to G-d, but for enhancing one’s life in general. For example, one lesson speaks about the importance of not doing the mitzvot by rote, as if they were a daily routine with no meaning, and instead to do them with intention and joy. This call to emotional presence should be extended to all parts of life, which should be performed with focus and thought.
Elsewhere, the reader is told to practice being more compassionate toward others, specifically compassion that leads to real acknowledgement of suffering in some way, rather than pity, which can be a paralytic. It’s fitting advice from Reb Levi Yitzchak, who was often called the “defense attorney” for the Jewish people and who was known for his kindness and sympathy toward all. In these times of pain and hardship the world over, it is easy to turn to the next page of the paper and with it forget the suffering, but this lesson asks us not to be so detached.
There are far too many interesting and pertinent sections in the two volumes to be listed here, but as the chapter about this week’s Torah portion of Pinchas is relevant, it should be mentioned. One of the most striking comments concerning this portion tells the reader not to serve G-d only out of fear of punishment, “unbalanced by love.” This is because fear is a motivator that loses power with time, and that will never lead to love or joy and will cause one to live a half-life. Serving G-d from love, however, is a much more powerful form of devotion.
A word for those who are new to mysticism: The introduction is required reading. It will expound not only the basics of mindfulness, but give a quick crash course on early Chassidic thought, explain some of the key terms that will be used throughout the book and illustrate how these Chassidic basics appear in “Kedushat Levi.”
In the end, these volumes certainly achieve their goal, as they push us to be more present and focused, not just on the spiritual, but on every aspect of our lives, and to make sure that we take nothing for granted. Most of the lessons in this book end with the word “reflect.” Slater’s work makes you do just that.
Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.