Thursday, April 10, 2008

Labyrinths in Judaism I: The Jewish Sacred Path

Labyrinth (mavokh; sevakh; labirint). Conceptualizing the path to enlightenment as a maze which the spiritual pilgrim must travel is a theme that appears in several religious traditions, including Judaism.

Some today say that a labyrinth is distinguished from a maze because a maze features multiple paths and dead ends, while a labyrinth follows a single, set path. This is certainly not accurate, as the most famous labyrinth all, the labyrinth of King Minos of Crete, was not a simple single route. This modern idea of the labyrinth, that there is (or should be) only one path through life or toward enlightenment, may reflect the Christian appropriation of much of the western labyrinth tradition. Moreover, it is a markedly fatalistic metaphor, one that is belied by human life itself, which entails constant choice, many possible paths - even occasional dead-ends - as we make our way to the heart of human experience. Labyrinths, like life, can require us to walk in ways of uncertainty. In Jewish tradition, unicursal (single-path) labyrinths do appear, but so do multi-cursal labyrinths.

The Jewish use of labyrinths is rather more often literary then it is graphic or physical. Jewish spiritual masters will often use the image of a complex palace or a daunting forest in their teachings, midrashim, and parables, to illustrate our journey toward home/God/the self. Here is a beloved example from the tradition of Hasidic parables:

A man went walking in a forest, only to find himself lost. Each time he thought he was getting somewhere, he found himself even more lost. This went on for days and days, wandering in the thick woods. Eventually, this man ran into another just like him; someone else had been wandering lost in the forest. "Hello!," said the first man, "Thank God! Now that I have found you, you can show me the way out," he said. "I don't know the way out either," said the second. "But I do know not to go the way I have come from, for that way is not the way. Now let us walk on together and find the light."

In the next few entries, I will share more examples of Jewish labyrinths - literary and graphic - with the readers.

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabbi - thank you for your writings, Blog and book. They are brilliant.

5:53 PM  

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