Daily Wisdom Post: Teshuva and the Spiritual Time Machines, Part 4

In our previous 3 posts we introduced a provocative Hebrew wisdom masters koan, “Great is teshuva, for in it intentional sins become great merits.”

Here is the third and final interpretation to help animate this koan in our lives:

The third understanding of the power of teshuva:  the spiritual time machine.  Teshuva literally means “to turn or return.”  To return to where?

It could man to return to the scene of the crime and not do it again.  If adultery with your best friend’s wife is the sin, then it means that you have the same opportunity–sexy and willing woman, available apartment, alibii, and the same level of attraction–but this time you set a sacred boundary.

Or it could mean something else entirely.  It could mean that you return not only to the same situation and even the same place, but also that time itself warps and you return to the same moment.  When the desire to make amends is driven by love, be it love of God, self, or other, then time warps and makes herself available.  The mystery of love modeled in the sexual is that time is not absolute.  It bends to the will of love and eros.

The Mystery of Love
Marc Gafni
Page 301

For more information on private study or to book a public teaching, contact Dr. Marc Gafni at support@ievolve.org

Daily Wisdom Post: Teshuva and the Spiritual Time Machines, Part 42022-08-02T08:23:19-07:00

Daily Wisdom Post: Teshuva

In our previous post we introduced a provocative Hebrew wisdom masters koan, “Great is teshuva, for in it intentional sins become great merits.”

Here is the first interpretation to help animate this koan in our lives.

First, there is the great erotic principle of yearning. Sin in Hebrew mysticism is a force of separation and division. Sin separates the human being from her divine source. The further you pull away, the more powerfully the force to return builds. As Isaac Newton said, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The greater the separation, the deeper and more powerful is the yearning to return. (Imagine a rubber band that is pulled taut and then released.) The energy of the fall is transformed into yearning, and the person winds up being a much better person than had they never fallen. In this way through the process of teshuva–implying recognition, regret, and future commitment–intentional sins are transformed into virtues.

The Mystery of Love
Dr. Marc Gafni
Page 300

For more information on private study or to book a public teaching, contact Dr. Marc Gafni at support@ievolve.org

Daily Wisdom Post: Teshuva2022-08-02T08:23:20-07:00

Daily Wisdom Post: Spiritual Time Machines

We should not think of our past as definitely settled … my past changes every minute according to the meaning given it now, in this moment. — CZESLAW MILOSZ

The most potent expression of the healing power of time circle consciousness is the mystical idea of teshuva, which is a word we have encountered before. Literally meaning “returning,” it describes the process by which we make amends and try to fix the mistakes of the past. Mis-takes are the times when we misperceived reality or ourselves and were not at our best. As we saw early on, love and perception are virtually synonymous. So mis-takes are the times we weren’t able to be lovers.

There is a provocative koan of the Hebrew wisdom masters where they say, “Great is teshuvah, for in it intentional sins become great merits.” What is radical about “teshuva” is that not only are past sins erased, but they are also mysteriously transformed into great merits.

The Mystery of Love
Dr. Marc Gafni
Pages 299, 300

NOTE: Look for a continuation on this topic on this site in the next few postings

For more information on private study or to book a public teaching, contact Dr. Marc Gafni at support@ievolve.org

Daily Wisdom Post: Spiritual Time Machines2022-08-02T08:23:20-07:00

Daily Wisdom Post: Body and Soul

The GorgeThe body leads to the soul, and the soul leads back to the body.  “When I look at the I of my body I find the I of my soul.  When I look at the I of my soul I find the I of God.”

The Sufis have a wonderful saying–“Say your praise to Allah and tie your camel to a post.”  What this really means is, touch the fullness of God and let that inspire even the simplest service.

The Mystery of Love
Dr. Marc Gafni
Page 324

For more information on private study or to book a public teaching, contact Dr. Marc Gafni at support@ievolve.org

Daily Wisdom Post: Body and Soul2022-08-02T08:23:20-07:00

The Daily Wisdom: Creation stories

Path in Woods
By Marc Gafni

From The Mystery of Love:

The trees are part of the Goddess’s erotic manifestation. The central symbol of much of the ancient pagan cult in biblical Canaan was the Ashera tree. The Ashera is the feminine earth goddess erotically expressed in the image of the Ashera tree. In a wonderful phrase of Keats, “Even as the trees that whisper round the temple become soon as dear as the temple self.” For the pagan, the hills were literally alive with the sound of music. Nature is the music of divinity undressed to the human ear. Every hill, brook, tree, and blade of grass was invested with its own divine muse.

The Daily Wisdom: Creation stories2022-07-06T03:20:24-07:00

Dr. Marc Gafni: The Seven Levels of Certainty and Uncertainty

Standing StoneBy Marc Gafni

The following are notes from Marc Gafni’s dharma talk given in March 2012 at Shalom Mountain Wisdom School, where Gafni serves as the World Spirituality Teacher in Residence.


The seven levels of certainty and uncertainty tells the story of how the great religious traditions came into being and how they were challenged first by science, and then by modern and post-modern mindsets.

This is a rough sketch of a map of certainty and uncertainty.

We have forgotten what we know. Indeed we do not know whether we know or not at all. We do not know whether we know or what we know or even how to know. The general impression today is that anyone who claims to know something is lost in dogma or regressive fundamentalism. Indeed almost the definition of a fundamentalist is someone who claims to know something with is totally “true” about Ultimate issues.

A person cannot survive and certainly cannot thrive without knowing.

A generation cannot survive without its knowing. A generation certainly cannot participate in the evolution of consciousness, which is the evolution of love, without knowing what it knows.

The public teachings of the great traditions were not about enlightenment. Enlightenment teachings in virtually all of the great traditions were esoteric. The great traditions taught the masses of people by leading them to believe a set of dogmas. Whether it was Christians professing, “Jesus is a saving grace,” Tibetan Buddhists or Jews professing, “We are the chosen people,” or Hindu doctrine, there was always a set of dogmas.

In each of the great traditions, a belief in a set of dogmas leads to a set of actions. The great traditions motivated people by infusing their daily lives with the belief that these actions were ultimately right. What motivated the actions was the belief that the actions were in alignment with the core constructs of the cosmos. Failing to do these aligned actions was sin, punishable not only in this world but in the next. Some of the dogma reflected deep reflection on the nature of the cosmos. Other doctrines emerge from the surface structures of that particular religion’s journey in history.

The goal was almost always a complex mixture of ethics and a sense that these teachings led the most possible people to lead lives that were most right in accordance with an ultimate knowing of the nature of reality.

Almost every system has a strong sense that is was the best system of human living. Other systems were thought to be inferior is some substantive way.

In all the great religions, to be in alignment with the beliefs and actions of “my system” meant public membership, the obligation to perpetuate my system, to be in alignment with the Gods, to be obedient to the Gods, to be responsive to the Gods.

So the story begins with each of the religions holding absolute certainty in regard to right action, right belief and the essential structure of the cosmos.

Post-modern naturally moves to reject these certainties for any number of compelling reasons. One of the most powerful is that virtually every religion claims to have an exclusive truth that competes with and contradicts the exclusive truth of another religion. So it seems that since not everyone can be right, everyone is probably all wrong. And we are left – after all the great postmodern deconstructions of knowing — with a painful and gaping uncertainty. The only certainty of post-modernity seems to be that you cannot be certain of anything. And any sort of claim to true knowing or certainty of any kind is in many circles mocked or worse. It is thought to be dangerous — as we said earlier — a sure sign of fundamentalist thinking.

But the true relation of certainty and uncertainty, knowing and unknowing, is far more nuanced and interesting. And to understand it is essential. We absolutely move beyond the post-modern dogmatic certainty which deconstructs all knowing and bows only to the ultimate and all pervasive claim of radical uncertainty. So let’s reconstruct some of the stages in spiral dance between certainty and uncertainty and let this be the beginning of our post-postmodern reconstructive project in which we are able to reclaim the Eros of knowing even as we hold the Eros of not knowing.

We begin with a simple reconstruction of seven levels of certainty and uncertainty.


Dr. Marc Gafni: The Seven Levels of Certainty and Uncertainty2023-06-21T10:26:05-07:00

Enlightenment is not loss of identity but a reclaiming of your true identity

Oak Tree

Photo Credit: Tie Guy II

By Marc Gafni

One of the simplest definitions of sanity used in the psychological literature is knowing who you are. To be sane is to know your identity, to recognize your name.

For example if I tell you that my name is Ken Wilber when my name is really Marc Gafni and I insist on being called Ken Wilber there is a fairly good chance that I am a bit insane. Or more than a bit. Because I am claiming a name not my own and I do not know my true identity. But the distance between the identity of Marc and Ken is relatively small, actually almost negligible, when compared with the vast distance between my separate self and true self.

The distance between the belief that I am but a skin encapsulated ego, merely Marc, and the knowing which literally blows my mind that I am True Self–and that the total number of true selves is one–is literally infinite. To be sane is to know that I am not merely a separate self but true self. From the place of true self, I am able to access not only my limited power, knowing, creativity, and love, but rather all of the power, knowing, creativity, and love in the universe flows through me.

From the place of true self, there is no reason for me to be jealous of you, to lash out at you, or to do anything other than love you as myself. Because in some sense you are myself. The pathological competition, grasping, and abuses produced by the contraction are deconstructed in the emergent glory of True Self. You access a spacious sense of peace, joy and harmonious equilibrium with all other expressions of being and becoming on the planet. The world literally becomes a different place. These are the goods of what has classically been called enlightenment.

So here is the great question. If enlightenment is sooo good, why isn’t everyone doing it? If enlightenment is the answer and it actually delivers on all of its wildly amazing promises — which it does — why is the world not flocking to Center for World Spirituality and other contemporary enlightenment schools, for intensive enlightenment studies? The enlightenment teachers for the most part explain that this is because of the clever brilliance of the ego which does everything in its power to avoid its own death. The ego does not want to die so it attaches you to a narrow identity of small self. Other teachers say that the work of practice required to liberate into True Self beyond ego is simply too demanding for most people. Still other teachers blame the blandishments of culture and society as being so seductive with their pseudo comforts that it is hard to free yourself from the game.

All of these explanations certainly carry some weight. But the deeper truth is that the problem is not with the seekers of enlightenment who are in all of the explanations considered in some sense deficient. Rather there is a core defect in the teaching of classical enlightenment itself. You see the teaching of classical enlightenment is boring, dislocating and alienating at its very core.

It is dislocating because the seeker-student asks rightfully: “If I give up my separate self –ego identity, then where am I?” The seeker asks correctly: “But what about me?” The enlightenment teacher responds by saying this is just the voice of the ego. The price for enlightenment is, “die to separate self.” Well, that is true but also partial. The seeker senses that “I will disappear into the undifferentiated oneness of True Self–which while blissfully seductive–at some deep level feels not only terrifying but wrong. It feels like a violation of the sacred dignity of the individual.

But not only that, it is also boring. The sense of creative edge, vitality, and becoming seems lost in the being-ness of it all. In this case it is the students of enlightenment not the teachers who are holding the higher intuition. The classical teaching of True Self enlightenment is counter intuitive. It is the Unique Self enlightenment that liberates enlightenment and reclaims its vital energy of transformation as a genuine and necessary option. Enlightenment is not a loss of identity but a reclaiming of your true identity.

Rather enlightenment is the move beyond your separate self to True Self, which is the ground for the awakening of your Unique Self. You correctly sense that the source of your dignity and value is your irreducible uniqueness. What Unique Self teaches is that enlightenment is not a loss of individuality. Rather it is the reclaiming of your infnite individualty as the unique expression of essence that lives as you. To be enlightened means to realize your True Nature as an utterly unique perspective and manifestation of consciousness. This is not boring. Rather it is the energized edge of your evolutionary creativity and becoming that is both indivisibly part of the greater one and ecstatically You. This is sanity. This is what it means to live in a larger context as an evolutionary lover. This is enlightenment.

Enlightenment is not loss of identity but a reclaiming of your true identity2022-08-02T10:10:15-07:00

Prof. Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D. in Dialogue with Dr. Marc Gafni

In the following 2-part dialogue (see the playlist below), Dr. Richard C. Schwartz and Marc Gafni explore the contribution of Unique Self to family therapy and other aspects of psychology. Following their discussion, Richard sent Marc this written communication:

Many spiritual traditions make the mistake of viewing ‘the ego’ as the problem. At worst it vilified as greedy, anxious, clinging, needy, focused on wounds from the past or fear in the future, full of limiting or false beliefs about you, the source of all suffering, and something one must evolve beyond in order to taste enlightenment. At best it is seen as a confused and childish — to be treated with patience and acceptance but not to be taken seriously or listened to. My 30 years of experience exploring internal worlds has led to very different conclusions regarding the ego. What is called the ego or false self in these spiritualities is a collection of sub-personalities I call ‘parts.’ When you first become aware of them, these parts manifest all the negative qualities described above, so I understand why this mistake is so widespread.

As you get to know them from a place of curiosity and compassion, however, you learn that they are not what they seem. Instead, they are spiritual beings themselves who, because of being hurt by events in your life, are forced into roles that are far from their natures, and carry extreme beliefs and emotions that drive their limiting or suffering perspectives. Once they are able to release those beliefs and emotions (what I call burdens) they immediately transform into their natural, enlightened states and can join your evolution toward increasing embodiment of your true nature, what Marc Gafni importantly refers to as correctly, your Unique Self.

Thus, if instead of trying to ignore or transcend an annoying ego, you relate to even the apparent worst of your parts with love and open curiosity you will find that, just like you, they long for the liberating realization of their connection with the divine and provide delightful and sage company on your journey toward enlightenment. In this way you will be relating to these inner entities in the same way that Jesus and Buddha taught us to relate to suffering, exiled people.

Richard Schwartz is a leading expert in the field of psychotherapy and recognized as the founding developer of Internal Family Systems Theory, an influential therapeutical model which combines systems thinking with an integrative view of the mind and its discrete qualities.

Prof. Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D. in Dialogue with Dr. Marc Gafni2023-06-21T10:28:03-07:00

Private Study with Dr. Marc Gafni

Marc Gafni

The spiritual teaching for this age must be drawn from all of the great traditions of Spirit, pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. These great understandings must be lovingly integrated into a space of open heart, community and insight that has the power and the compassion to guide us on the next stage of our personal and global journey.

The future of our world depends on the great realization of love: that which unites us is infinitely greater then that which divides us. For the first time in the history of the human race, we are able to rise beyond the place of our birth, our religion of origin, our family circle and choose to live our highest truth. This truth transcends and includes all of our personal history even as it invites us to our singular and unique evolutionary destiny.

The lineages are the great teachings of Spirit developed by the great communities and masters of all the ages, in all parts of the world. Trans-lineage means that we are moving towards transcending and including the Great Heart, Mind, and Body truths of all these lineages into an evolutionary integral Spiritual teaching. This is a down to earth, elegant, gorgeous teaching which embraces all facets of your Unique Life.

Until very recently, you, like many other people received the lineage transmission of the spiritual system that was dominant in your place of birth. You may have received it consciously. More likely, like most people in modernity, you received it unconsciously.

By lineage transmission we mean the absorption into your being of the great ideas, insights, maps, heart and mind knowings of a great tradition of Spirit, by whose lights you could orient and guide your life.

Usually the spiritual transmission that you received was confused and diluted at best. You did not know quite how to integrate the apparently contradictory insights of modernity and post- modernity with what you understood to be the great truths of the wisdom traditions.

If you are interested in private study with Dr. Marc Gafni, please email support [at] centerforintegralwisdom [dot] org to request more information.

Private Study with Dr. Marc Gafni2022-08-01T04:11:37-07:00

Daily Wisdom: Joy (Chiyut)

Chi Gong

Photo Credit: Chi Gong by I’m Daleth

By Marc Gafni

From Your  Unique Self:

Joy is your life energy. Joy is a by-product of Unique Self living.

Joy, as we have seen, is realized as the natural by-product of the passionate pursuit of something other than happiness.

What is that other thing that you pursue passionately that is not joy, that is a by-product of its pursuit? Of course, you must pursue virtue, goodness, integrity, depth, values””all necessary, but insufficient to give you joy. It’s not just virtue, goodness, integrity, and depth that you need to pursue; you must pursue your virtue, goodness, integrity, and depth, that is to say, your story.

Joy is a by-product of Unique Self living.

The Chinese taught us that joy is chi, joy is energy. In Hebrew mysticism, joy is called chiyut, which means “vital energy,” or “life force.” So both the Chinese tradition and the Hebrew mystical tradition use virtually the same root word to allude to joy.

Daily Wisdom: Joy (Chiyut)2022-08-02T08:23:20-07:00

The Israel Moment: Reclaiming uncertainty as a spiritual value

Old Person

Photo Credit: .craig

By Dr. Marc Gafni

Uncertainty is ethically and spiritually essential, Marc Gafni writes here, because it allows us to reach higher certainty, avoid the seduction of false certainty, and reach spiritual authenticity. In this excerpt from Chapter One of his volume Uncertainty, Marc introduces the core “Ullai Stories” or “Maybe Stories” of the Old Testament, explaining the role of Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, as a major character in these stories.

The Israel Moment: Reclaiming Uncertainty as a Spiritual Value

Much of religious tradition can be understood as culture’s attempt to fully triumph over uncertainty. Indeed one of the most important modern Biblical commentaries argues that divine revelation is the gift of a loving God who wants to spare the world the pain of uncertainty.  Many voices in the religious world have declared unilateral victory, arguing that all of life’s doubts can be defeated through faith, religious observance, and logic.1

I believe our life experiences give lie to absolute religious and spiritual claims to certainty. Sometimes the way religious tradition critiques itself and conveys its more subtle and even radical ideas is through the seemingly innocent story. It is in this light that I understand the following wonderful story:

Yankele used to go to the market every week to buy the basic necessities for the Sabbath. Every Friday, he would buy Sabbath candles for one ruble, bread for one ruble, and Kiddush2 wine for another ruble: three rubles were all he and his wife could spare for the Sabbath meal. One day, Yankele arrives at the market with the three coins jingling in his pocket, and he comes across an elderly gentleman that he has never seen before. The old man looks at him deep in the eyes and says softly, “Excuse me, young man, but I am terribly thirsty. Could you please buy me a cup of tea?”

Now a cup of tea cost one ruble. To buy this man a cup of tea means that Yankele would have only two rubles left, which would make one of his Sabbath purchases impossible. Yankele is not sure what to do. But he looks into the eyes of the stranger, and for some reason, has a feeling this man is truly thirsty.  And, as something of a scholar, Yankele knows that one can make Kiddush over bread even without  wine, and so he decides to do without the wine this week and buy this enchanting stranger a cup of tea. Together they sit down in the tea-shop, the old man picks up his tea cup, makes a blessing and drinks the tea, closing his eyes in pleasure as the refreshing liquid pours down his throat. It is a few minutes before he opens glistening eyes and thanks Yankele with a very slight bow of the head.

Just as Yankele stands up to leave, the old man says, “Excuse me, could you wait a moment? You have been extremely generous to me. But you see, I am very, very thirsty. Perhaps you could buy me one more cup of tea?” Yankele looks at this old thirsty man and knows he has a problem. What to do? On the one hand, he likes this strange old man. On the other hand, his wife will not like him too much if he comes home with no way to celebrate the Sabbath.

But then, on the other hand, Yankele remembers that one legal authority,  R. Akiva Eger, taught that lacking bread and wine, one can just say “Shabbat Shalom” to bring in the Sabbath.  In the end, Yankele takes the plunge. He sits back down and orders the man another cup of tea.

Again, the old man makes the blessing and drinks deep with eyes closed. Again, the man thanks Yankele with glistening eyes. But this time, as soon as the man bows his head, Yankele stands up quickly in the hope of escaping the words he knows are about to come: “Excuse me, sir,” says the old man before Yankele has reached the exit, “I am still very, very thirsty. Please could you buy me just one more cup of tea?” Again, Yankele is full of uncertainty. A crowd of Halachic variables rush around his head, but this time he can find no legal justification for forfeiting the last ruble which he needs for the Sabbath candles. “I’m sorry,” he says, “But I can’t buy you another cup of tea.” The old man smiles a sad smile, and bows his head. “Before you leave, let me bless you,” the old man says. “I bless you with great wealth, health, and a good long life.” Yankele thanks the man for his blessing and hurries off to prepare for Sabbath.

Sure enough, Yankele becomes a very wealthy man. He is able to look after his wife and all his children in luxury and style. He lives the epitome of a good, long life. But he is now nearing the end of his days, and he has only one desire left in the world and that is to thank the old man from that fateful encounter in the tea-shop. And so he goes and sits in the tea-shop every Friday in hopes of finding him again. Finally, one Friday before the setting sun, Yankele looks up from his tea and sees”¦the old man. It’s the old man””and although Yankele has grown older, the old man seems to look exactly the same.

Yankele jumps up, grasps the old man’s hands and blurts out all the gratitude that has built up inside him all those years. But the old man does not return his embrace, does not respond to his thanks. Yankele sees that the old man has bowed his head in order to hide a silent tear running down his face. “What is the matter?” asks Yankele, “Did I say something, did I do something wrong?” And the old man says, in a quiet, infinitely understanding voice””a voice which resounds throughout the heavens””he says, “If only, if only you had poured me one more cup of tea…”

The story,3 speaks to the experience of us all. We have all of us faced situations where we have needed to risk buying a cup of tea for a stranger, where we have to decide whether to take a leap in the dark. Likewise, we have all come across situations where we wish we had risked more, where with the benefit of hindsight we regret our caution. I have drawn on a story from within the Jewish tradition to point out that this universal experience of the uncertainties in life happens to us all. Yankele is a religious man, an observant, knowledgeable Jew with a deep faith in God, and yet this faith does not save him from uncertainty. Yankele acted according to the certainties provided to him by the law. The stranger makes the radical suggestion that there are times when we need to move beyond the soothing certainties of law or even common sense. This is the symbol of the third cup of tea. There is a point in our lives where, in order to reach authenticity, we need to buy the third cup of tea. Indeed in this story, sometimes only through entering uncertainty can the highest treasures be attained.

And yet Safek, which we have translated as uncertainty or perhaps more correctly, ambiguity, is the greatest producer of anxiety, tension, and existential malaise. There is no joy like the resolution of doubt. But how do we know how to resolve and when to resolve? Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hamlet wavered for us all.” His “to be or not to be” soliloquy is Shakespeare’s song of uncertainty which resonates in the melodies of all of our lives. How, if at all, can certainty be achieved? How are such decisions made? When to buy the tea and when not to buy the tea? When do we need to be safe and clear; when is risk irresponsible and immoral; and when is risk courageous, audacious, and even the highest expression of our humanity?

Biblical theology’s unique understanding is that living the sacred life requires a dialectical relationship between paradise and paradox, between core certainties and the existence of uncertainty. Both certainty and uncertainty are vital””each has its moment. Healthy religion, as well as healthy living, flow from simultaneously maintaining certainty and uncertainty.

In order to live in the world in a way that is both grounded and passionate, I need first to be certain about myself. If I do not doubt myself, then I have the inner strength to be able to encounter the many areas of my life where uncertainty is inherent and inescapable. Moreover, healthy acceptance of uncertainty will enable me to avoid both the paralysis of indecision and the recklessness of an extremism which craves the certainty of over-simplification. If I am anchored and motivated by some sense of inner certainty, then I can act courageously in uncertainty. If I hold no inner certainties, then acting from uncertainty is almost invariably a far too dangerous proposition.

In our book on Certainty, we understood that in order to reach sippuk””fulfillment””I need to resolve my inner safek””uncertainty. My failure to resolve that inner safek will prevent me from ever reaching true sippuk””satisfaction and will cause me almost pathologically to seek sippuk in places which are not of myself. Such a spiral will eventually lead to Amalek””the embodiment of evil””which the Zohar explains is the mystical equivalent of safek.4

In the first book of this study entitled Certainty, the Judah Moment framework was introduced, associated with the biblical story of Judah, in order to unpack the experience of core certainty. There is, however, a second moment in biblical consciousness where precisely the opposite holds true: where, rather than being enemies, safek-uncertainty and sippuk-satisfaction are inseparable allies. In this way of thinking, I can never reach deep sippuk without holding, choosing, or grappling with safek. Satisfaction is not attainable without uncertainty. In this second mode of Jewish thought, it follows that if I am unable to countenance safek in my life, I will always rush to grasp at a false certainty in order to escape the tension of uncertainty. This false certainty will never lead me to true sippuk.

In conjunction with teaching the need for inner certainty, biblical thought also deeply affirms the benefit of doubt. Uncertainty is understood to be both a spiritual necessity, a requisite for reaching authenticity, and an indispensable tool in achieving the highest levels of certainty. I shall refer to this experience as the Israel Moment. This because the archetypal Biblical figure of Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, is the paradigm for the spiritual reclamation of uncertainty as a reality to be embraced and not resolved. First, however, let us acknowledge the common assumption that faith and uncertainty are inherent contradictions.

Ever since the medieval period, when Aristotelian rationalism began to exert its overwhelming influence on western culture, doubt has been the perceived foe of religious man, or rather, religion has been the stick with which to beat down doubt.  Dr. Akiva Tatz provides a contemporary example of this tradition in his  popular spiritual handbook, Living Inspired.5 There, he suggests a seemingly overwhelming piece of evidence to prove that true religion is the antithesis of uncertainty. According to Tatz, not only does the Bible not accept the existence of doubt, but biblical Hebrew does not even have the word to express it.  On the face of it, Tatz would appear to be correct: the word for doubt””safek””first appears in post-biblical Hebrew and cannot be found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. Linguistically at least, doubt seems to be banished from the spiritual vocabulary of Biblical consciousness.

Tatz should not be so sure. For there is a second Hebrew word signifying uncertainty in the Bible, and particularly in the book of Genesis; that word is “maybe”””in Hebrew, ullai. As soon as we begin to explore the appearances of this word “maybe –– ullai,” an astonishing pattern begins to emerge. The Book of Genesis contains six distinct episodes which contain the word “maybe.” In all of them, “maybe” provides a vital key to understanding the story.  They are a heretofore unacknowledged, yet clearly recognizable, genre in their own right””-the six “Ullai Stories” of Genesis””and they provide us with the entry-point into Judaism’s embrace of doubt.

Sarai, the barren wife of Abram, uses the word ullai when she suggests Abram marry her maidservant Hagar, saying, ullai””maybe””Avram will have children through Hagar. Eliezer, servant of Abraham, expresses his fear of uncertainty with the word ullai when sent to find a wife for Isaac, saying, ullai””maybe””she will not agree to return with me to Isaac. Abraham himself sings the defiant song of ullai to God when challenging Him over the destruction of Sodom. Ullai””maybe””there are 50”¦40”¦30”¦20”¦10 righteous people in Sodom for whose merit you should save the city.

We will examine all these episodes at a later stage in our discussion. We will see how these, together with five other biblical episodes which””though they lack the word ullai in the biblical text””have been understood primarily by the Kabbalistic mystical writers as what we have termed “Ullai Stories.”  These stories are no less central than the Garden of Eden, the Binding of Isaac, Eliezer and the search for Isaac’s wife, the Covenant Between the Pieces, and finally the Golden Calf stories reread. In all of these stories ullai-uncertainty–plays a central role.

The major ullai character, however, is Jacob, whose life encompasses two of the ullai stories and whose transformation from Jacob into Israel will provide us with the matrix within which we will attempt to chart the spiritual path of uncertainty. It is this story that we have termed the “Israel Moment.” In contrast to the Judah moment, which suggests paths to inner certainty, the Israel moment is about struggling in uncertainly and the dialectical oscillation between the two. The final Ullai Story, with which we conclude, is when old Jacob, now called Israel, is confronted by Judah. Judah, the major protagonist of our first volume meets Israel, the major protagonist of our second volume. Henceforth, our discussion will revolve around the Israel Moment and the Ullai stories.

Before beginning our journey, however, it may be of value for the reader to have at least a very bare outline of the three reasons I hold uncertainty to be ethically and spiritually essential. These underlying motifs will guide our entire discussion.

  1. First, only by holding uncertainty can I attain higher certainty. The embrace of false certainty always prevents me from reaching the higher clarity and vision that is mine.
  2.  Second, we hold uncertainty in order to avoid the seduction of false certainty.  False dogma, be it religious, national, spiritual, or secular, is the ground out of which the dynamic of human evil always feeds. Most of the evil in the world is committed by people who are one hundred percent convinced they are right. People who hold uncertainty as a spiritual value rarely perpetrate massacres. Uncertainty is one of God’s protective mechanisms against hubris and it’s devastating consequences.6 Indeed, the cruel shadow side of modernity, which killed no fewer than a hundred million people in the last century, stems largely from its refusal to hold intellectual uncertainty. Instead of holding safek, moderns feel the need to claim their safek as Vaddai””clarity. Modernity, however, has ample precedent in almost all of the religious systems which history has produced. Uncertainty is sublimated by excessive and often fatal displays of religious or secular zeal and certitude.
  3.  Third, I need to hold uncertainty because only in uncertainty do I reach spiritual authenticity. This third level of uncertainty is never resolvable in favor of higher certainty.  This uncertainty is higher than any certainty and is reflective of the deepest nature of both spiritual and physical reality.

From Uncertainty.
Dr. Marc Gafni

1. A classic example is David Gottlieb, leading lecturer in Ohr Sameach, the premier intellectual center of Orthodox study for those returning to Jewish observance from an assimilated secular context. Gottlieb argues explicitly that if one takes together all of the classic theodicies, religious explanations offered to explain how a good God can allow innocent suffering, one has “solved the problem” of innocent suffering. Gottlieb explicitly and rather matter of factly makes the claim that religion has answered the great question of theodicy. The holocaust for Gottlieb no longer poses any essential challenge to religious faith. The extent of the challenge that one may feel is no more than the extent of one’s own ignorance of the explanations of suffering offered by Jewish wisdom.  That is to say, for Gottlieb, religion has answered the cry of the prophets who cry out in great pathos and audacity””How can the good God whom we love so allow such horrible suffering in his world? Had the prophets only attended Gottlieb’s lectures at Ohr Sameach, the problem would’ve been solved.
2. Kiddush is the blessing recited by observant Jews in order to usher in the Sabbath. According to the law the blessing is preferably recited over wine.
3. In my retelling of the story I haven interpolated my understanding into the text of the story much in the same way that Buber retold tales of Hassidim.
4. In chapter two of Certainty, volume 1 of this study, it is explained that the numerical equivalence in Hebrew letters between the word Safek and Amalek suggests that  uncertainty is an Amalek quality. It does not primarily refer to theological uncertainty as it is usually understood, but uncertainty of my own essential value.
5. Targum Press Ltd., 1993.
6. See  Abraham Kuk who expresses this notion in one of his letters.

The Israel Moment: Reclaiming uncertainty as a spiritual value2023-06-21T10:31:24-07:00

Teaching Marc Gafni’s “Unique Self” Enlightenment in the classroom – by Kathy Brownback


By Kathleen Brownback

Note: This blog post is adapted from “Teaching Marc Gafni’s ‘Unique Self’ Enlightenment in the Classroom: Reflections from a Phillips Exeter Class in Mysticism (for the annual conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, November 2011, Amherst College).”

A new course introduced at Phillips Exeter Academy in the spring of 2011 began with these words on the syllabus:

What we are about to explore has many names. It has been called the mystical tradition, the perennial tradition, the direct path, the path of the heart, the journey to (and with) the beloved, the practice of yoga, and the contemplative tradition. Aldous Huxley called it “the science, not of the personal ego, but of that eternal Self in the depth of particular, individualized selves, and identical with, or at least akin to, the divine Ground.” What these traditions share is the understanding that there is the possibility of union between the self and whatever we might call Ultimate Reality or God or Spirit, and that this union is primarily realized through a path of spiritual practice.

There is no possible way to make a comprehensive study of all these traditions in one term, and no need for us to do so. The main goal here is to locate various paths within the religious traditions, and to begin to understand what is meant by “spiritual practice.”

As the first teacher of this class, my main goal was to engage the students in a deeper understanding of ego development and the way in which the contemplative or mystical dimension of religion could help them both intellectually and practically as they move into their adult lives.

Phillips Exeter is a secular independent secondary school in New Hampshire, an hour north of Boston, with a 200-year history as an academic powerhouse for boys. It became coeducational in 1972 and has retained its high academic distinction, with all students headed for college and many to the top schools in the country.

The students are bright and lively and curious. But as anywhere, they struggle at times with nonacademic life circumstances that have the capacity to affect their intellectual engagement””a superficial and highly commercialized teenage (and often adult) culture, a pervasive unease about the future of their society in an era of environmental and economic challenge, and for some, personal or family histories of addiction or depression. For this reason I sought out texts and readings that were inclined to prompt questions at the interface of psychology and religion. I had the sense that these would speak to students in both an academic and a personal way, as in fact they did.

In this paper I will first describe student background and interest, then give a brief overview of the course, then focus on the work of one scholar and teacher, Marc Gafni, whose writing in particular spoke to the students in a powerful way.

In the course of the term I had to develop and articulate to myself my own changing philosophy of teaching, which I began to explore in a 2009 article in the Exeter alumni/ae bulletin entitled “In Pursuit of Truths.”

I will describe this evolution more deeply at the end of the article, but also briefly mention it here.


Teaching Marc Gafni’s “Unique Self” Enlightenment in the classroom – by Kathy Brownback2023-06-21T10:34:29-07:00

Daily Wisdom: On James Joyce’s definitive return to Yes

Ulysses Yes

Photo Credit: the queen of subtle

From Marc Gafni’s Your Unique Self:

One of the great literary masterpieces of the twentieth century is James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce spends reams of pages portraying the No reality encountered in the streets of Dublin by the main character, Leopold Bloom. Joyce masterfully maps the life of the archetypal human whose life is a series of unnecessary losses. The death of Bloom’s son and father, his daughter’s leaving, the passing of his youth, and finally the adultery of his wife.

Yet in the last scene of the book, Bloom returns home to his sleeping wife. Never mind it is a recently desecrated bed. Never mind he sleeps with his feet at her head. It is still home, the erotic haven of the inside. The book ends with a crescendo of Yes. As his wife feigns sleeping, we float along in her stream of consciousness, finally concluding with reminiscences of the early ecstatic hours of her and Leopold’s love. It is a definitive return to Yes:

And then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes
and then
he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain

flower and
first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down
to me
so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his
heart was
going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Daily Wisdom: On James Joyce’s definitive return to Yes2022-08-02T08:23:20-07:00

Daily Wisdom: On the inside of the inside, Yes is the answer

Jewel in Case

Photo Credit: Paul Gutman

From Marc Gafni’s Your Unique Self:

Remember, we come into this world trailing clouds of glory with core knowledge of our omnipotence, beauty, infinite power, and infinite potential. And then we hear a chorus of voices for the first ten years of our lives, and the only word they seem to be saying is No, No, No. We gradually come to associate maturity with saying No. When an idea or new direction comes up, our first response is why it can’t work. We are brilliant at it. Even the most simpleminded person becomes a genius when it comes to saying No. We can think up twenty reasons why it will not work before we can think up two reasons why it could. We have all become Dr. No with advanced degrees. ”¨But somewhere deep inside, the Yes remains, an eternal child of your Unique Self. We know on the inside of the inside that Yes is the answer.

Daily Wisdom: On the inside of the inside, Yes is the answer2022-08-02T08:23:20-07:00

Unique Self & Higher Education — May 1 – 2, 2012


Marc Gafni Seminar by Invitation Only. Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire. May 1-2, 2012.

Unique Self & Higher Education — May 1 – 2, 20122022-07-06T03:20:25-07:00

Daily Wisdom: Love is the perception of infinite specialness, full uniqueness

Child with Rabbit

Photo Credit: Squiggle

By Marc Gafni

Love is a perception of the infinite specialness, the full uniqueness of the beloved. To love another is to say Yes to their Unique Presence, to their Unique Being and Unique Becoming. The greatest of love affairs begins with a simple imprint of Yes.

From Marc Gafni’s Your Unique Self.

Daily Wisdom: Love is the perception of infinite specialness, full uniqueness2022-08-02T08:23:20-07:00
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