There are three basic levels of text interpretation in the Judaic tradition: Literal/Biblical, Theoretical/Talmudic, and Mystical/Kabbalistic (Fishbane, 1998; Kenton, 1980). Literal/Biblical text interpretation includes the historical, biblical, and narrative levels of the material. Theoretical/Talmudic text interpretation consists of the extrapolation of the philosophical, ethical, moral, and religious doctrines, laws, and teachings that are woven into the fabric of the written material. Mystical/Kabbalistic text interpretation seeks to unearth the hidden and concealed metaphysical teachings buried in the text.
From an Integral perspective these three levels can be seen as correlated to the Big Three of 1st Person (I), 2nd Person (WE), and 3rd Person (IT) perspectives. The Literal/Biblical level of interpretation is the 3rd Person or IT level of the text; it is the surface structure; the directly observable aspects of the material. The Theoretical/Talmudic level of the text is the 2nd Person or WE level of the text; it is the communal meaning patterns just under the surface of the text; it is the blueprint for how we should treat each other, of what is right and good and just. The Mystical/Kabbalistic level is the 1st Person level of the text; it is level of secret teachings that guide us into a personal experience of the Divine. These three levels are The Good, The True, and The Beautiful, and when integrated together, they reveal a deeper and more expansive vision of the Word, the Logos.
Taking the story of Passover as an example… On the literal level of interpretation, Passover is a ritualistic retelling of the story of a historical biblical event, the Israelites’ exodus from bondage in Egypt. On the theoretical level, the story and rituals of Passover have many philosophical, ethical, moral, and religious lessons to teach us about human behavior and the human endeavor to live according to the teachings of the religion of Judaism. Traditionally, the rituals of Passover, including the Passover Seder, tend to focus on these two levels of interpretation and understanding.
On the Judaic mystical level of interpretation, Passover can also be seen as a powerful vehicle for personal and communal psycho-spiritual development. From the Mystical-Kabbalistic perspective, the Passover story of a people being freed from the bondage of slavery is transformed into a road map for how an individual can be freed from the bondage of limited consciousness (Kenton, 1980); the land of Egypt becomes the realm of narrowness of body and mind, and Moses becomes the Higher Self being called upon by the Divine to free all the different voices of the psyche (the children of Israel) from the bondage of the ego or the limited self (Pharaoh).
Several years ago I attempted to create my own Passover Haggadah or prayer book (Kaplan, 2003) that integrated all three levels of interpretation and discovered a deeper and more profound experience than I had ever encountered within the Judaic tradition. This was my first Integral Passover…in that I experienced Passover on a physical, communal, and psycho-spiritual level of being and becoming.
Fishbane, M. (1998). The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kaplan, M. A. (2003). A mystical Passover: A transformational Passover haggadah. Pacific Grove, CA: Original Gravity.
Kenton, W. (1980). Kabbalah and Exodus. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc.
Image: Passover Shehechianu by Baruch Nachshon