Judaism and Other Religions- paperback is almost here

My book Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding will be out in a reasonably priced paperback in 2-3 weeks. Now is the time to pre-order your copies. Amazon offers price guarantee. The book makes a wonderful gift for Hanukkah (or Thanksgiving, solstice, Saturnalia, Diwali, Christmas, Rohatsu-Bodhi Day, Vasant Panchami or Guru Gobindh Singh birthday). The book has already been used as the text in more than a half dozen university courses.

Available at Amazon here.


Service for Thanksgiving Day 1940 – Rabbi Joseph Lookstein

A few years ago I posted the Thanksgiving service from the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue of NY from 1945. Here is another one, this time the service from Kehilath Jeshurun 1940 and prayer from Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. Read the wonderful universal prayer- ideal for Thanksgiving reading.



Thursday, November Twenty-first
Nineteen Hundred and Forty
11:00 A.M.


Ma Tovu .                                                      Levandowsky, Cantor Fingeroth and Choir

Procession of the Colors
The congregation will rise at the entrance of the
color guard and will remain standing until after the
singing of the national anthem.

Presentation of American Flag     .         .       Ira F. Weisman, President, Kehilath Jeshurun Men’s Club

The flag will be accepted by Mr. Max J. Etra, President of the congregation

National Anthem      Congregation and Choir

President Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Proclamation –Max J. Etra, President 

Thanksgiving Prayer               .    Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein

The congregation will recite in unison the last verse
of the prayer.

Lo Amus                                          Machtenberg Cantor Fingeroth and Choir

Offertory Thanksgiving Address        Hon. Charles Lieutenant-Governor, State of New York

Olenu                                                                               Congregation and Choir

Adon Olam                                                                       Congregation and Choir


THANKSGIVING PRAYER by Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein

Eternal God:

We thank Thee for the glory of the universe, for the light of the sun and the mellowness of the moon and for the stars in their courses whose amazing dimensions and staggering distances challenge our imagination.

We thank Thee for the beauty and utility of Thy creations, for the flowers which are the stars of the earth even as the stars are the flowers of heaven; for the fertility of the soil and the abundance of its products; for the food that is borne within its bosom and the waters that flow from its deep and inner fountains; for the air that surrounds all creatures and that holds within its invisible self the secret and power • of life.

We thank Thee for the dignity and majesty of man, for the spirit of wisdom with which Thou didst endow him, for the vision with which he is possessed, for the sensitivity of his heart and the profound­ness of his soul. We thank Thee for the dominion that is his over all creation, for his capacity to live with all his kind and for the urge that stimulates him to search, to seek and ultimately to approach even Thee.

For all these blessings we thank Thee.

Almighty God, we pray that we may remain true to the destiny for which we were created. We pray that the dignity of human per­sonality may be preserved and the reverence of man for man may continue. We pray that the beautiful heavens that Thou didst spread over our heads may not be darkened by the clouds of hate and that the magic carpet which is earth may not be disturbed by the tramp of hostile feet. We pray that man’s inhumanity to man may forever end and that human genius may continue to strive for greater perfection and for nobler fulfillment. Let man come to understand that he is closest to God when he is nearer to man, that he worships at Thy holy throne when he serves Thy creatures and that he is within Thy holy shrine when he is at one with his fellow-beings.

We pray also for those of our fold in benighted lands of oppression, exposed to cruelty and suffering, that they may soon be blessed with the restoration of the rights and privileges of which they have been despoiled and which we believe to be the inalienable rights of man.

We pray sincerely for America and the ideals of democracy and freedom that are here enshrined. May she be strong to withstand all the currents that assail her and all the forces of evil that would invade her sacred precincts. A tower of light to her own citizenry, may she cast a steady beam and light up all the dark areas of the world and show to a perplexed and straying humanity the path of freedom, of life and of peace.

Rabbi and Congregation.

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to Thee, oh Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Thanksgiving Service at KJ 1940 EDITED

Sam Fleischacker Responses to Comments on “Words of the Living God

The author responds to his critics. Also notes that his next book The Good and the Good Book: Revelation as a Guide to Life comes out July 2015.

Response to Comments on “Words of the Living God
Sam Fleischacker

Here are some responses to the comments and questions about “Words of the Living God” that have been posted on the blog or Facebook page. Thanks very much to everyone who has written in!

1) Pace YK, at no point do I deny that we can experience moments of great religious significance that transcend language. Many elements of our tradition suggest that we need to go beyond language in our relationship to God. “Silence is praise to You,” says Psalm 65, and the Rambam quotes this approvingly; it fits well, of course, with his view of the limitations of language as regards God (I’ll say a bit more about the Rambam below). Psalm 19 also implies that nature “speaks” without words. And hasidut, as several respondents have pointed out, is filled with parables emphasizing the importance of getting beyond language — of moving away from language, in our worship, towards music, dance, or internal, silent devotion — and of God’s presence in non-linguistic spaces.

The question I’m grappling with is just whether these non-linguistic moments should be the source of our religious commitments — as opposed to gaining religious significance only by way of a prior revelation. I certainly think we have and should value these sorts of moments. I had my breath taken away by the sublime and beautiful landscapes on the different sides of Indonesia’s Mount Bromo: and in response uttered, in accordance with our tradition, both the blessing “oseh ma’aseh b’reishit” and the blessing “shekacha loh b’olamo.” But I’m not sure what I gained cognitively from this experience, and I’m quite sure that I wouldn’t have taken it in a religious light at all had I not already been committed to the Torah. What wordless encounter theology does is however precisely to take these sorts of experiences as foundational to the religious life, and read the revelatory moments in the Torah as roughly capturing the wonder and awe they arouse. Giving the non-linguistic this sort of foundational importance — greater importance than the Torah itself — is something new, not a mere extension of the Baal ha-Tanya, and it is supposed to help resolve or side-step the problems we moderns have with the idea of a God who spoke on Sinai. My claim is that that the hopes it holds out in this regard are vain ones: that it does not resolve either the historical or the philosophical or the halachic problems that concern progressive Jews in the modern age. We may well have wordless encounters with God — if we have encounters with God at all, I am sure some of them are wordless — but they cannot be our prime source of revelation: not the source of the sort of revelation that Jews believe in, at least.

2) To YM and HH: As I’ve indicated, I think it’s a mistake to see everything in figures like Heschel as coming from hasidic sources rather than philosophical currents in the non-Jewish world. This is a mistake because it is absurd to suppose that any hasid would have denied the literal truth of the Torah — would have described it as wholly a “midrash,” and allowed that it might have been produced by (fallible, and politically motivated) writers other than Moses. It is also a mistake because Jewish philosophy always draws on a wider non-Jewish context — on Aristotle, or Kant, or Heidegger — and to present it as a hermetically sealed project, in which each contributor is responding only to endogenous Jewish sources, is to distort it. As a philosopher whose training and scholarship has been mostly focused on non-Jewish thinkers, what I can bring to Jewish theology is precisely an appreciation of its wider context. I don’t by that mean to deny that there is also great value in pointing out its endogenous roots. Certainly, the Baal ha-Tanya is very important to Heschel, and it would be wonderful to see the connections between the two laid out in detail. But that shouldn’t blind us to Heschel’s interest in making sense of the Jewish tradition in terms of early twentieth-century phenomenology, or fitting it in with the theology of such writers as Otto.

3) Several people were puzzled by objection (b), in the first part of the essay: that wordless encounter theology gravitates towards animism rather than monotheism.

In response, I’d first note that if my other objections, especially (c), are successful, it doesn’t much matter if one agrees with (b). If wordless encounter theology relies on an incoherent conception of language, then it is unacceptable, even if it does not stand in tension with monotheism.

But I expected that my suggestion that wordless encounter theology smacks of paganism would have seemed obvious, and resonated with the experience of most readers. I recall once participating in shacharit on a retreat in the woods of Maine led by a rabbi much influenced by this sort of theology. When we came to the Shema, he noted to the community that Jews usually cover their eyes when saying the Shema, to make clear that they are committed to a God who transcends their surroundings rather than worshipping some object they see before them. But here in the midst of the nature’s glories, he said, we should for once open our eyes while saying the Shema. “So here,” I thought, “where the danger of avodah zarah is greatest, we should indulge our temptation towards it …” I would be surprised if this is an unfamiliar experience to my readers — that they have not also heard, far more often than they would like to have heard, that the Grand Canyon or a glorious sunset is the real place to encounter God. Again, I don’t mean to deny the joy that comes of praying in beautiful natural surroundings, but the suggestion that this is where God is most to be found surely recalls the pagan investment of groves and springs with divinity more than it does the idea of a God who fills the universe. Among other things, it implies that God does not dwell in ugly office buildings, or depressing slums, or anything else that is humdrum or upsetting: a fall away from, or failure to grasp, the sublime, rigorously monotheistic, declaration of Isaiah, echoed in our liturgy, that God is the creator of both good and evil.

The deeper point to be made here is that the very notion of a “god,” let alone of the one God of monotheism, is an abstraction that we cannot achieve without language. An infant or non-human animal may sense something wonderful or awful about a certain event, even without language, but that is not yet to understand the event as pervaded or governed by a god. To arrive at the notion of a “god” we need first to separate intentional from unintentional agency, to conceive of intentional agents that are not human, and to see elements of nature as explicable only by way of a super-human intentional agent. These are complicated, highly linguistic thoughts — making use of the sorts of generalization and abstraction that only language can accomplish — and without them, there will be nothing in our reactions to experience that could reasonably be interpreted as belief in a god.

To get to belief in “God” full stop, moreover — the upper-case, singular God of monotheism — we need to make sense of and accept an argument to the effect that gods, because perfect, cannot differ among themselves in any significant respect: that if the universe bespeaks intelligent and good government or design at all, government or design worthy of our love and worship, it must bespeak a single governor or designer, who pulls the whole thing together and gives us a place in it that we can embrace. It is unimaginable that we could get to any of these thoughts without language. Hence a view of religion by which pre-linguistic and pre-conceptual experience is fundamental will inevitably be a view of religion that gravitates toward animism rather than monotheism — as wordless encounter theology in fact does.

4) I thought YM’s gesture toward the “skein in our tradition according to which God is both ineffable AND speaking” was terrific. As I indicate in response 2) above, I don’t think this is what the theologians I discuss have in mind, when they make revelation nonverbal, and I don’t think my critique of that theology rules out this interplay. And I suggest that the best way to understand what Yehudah has in mind is by way of a process that is inter-conceptual and inter-linguistic rather than pre-conceptual and pre-linguistic. What is ineffable about God is something we appreciate in the spaces between words, on this model — the ways in which they fail, or fall short — rather than in a space that is prior to language.

I’ve tried elsewhere to explain what this process might look like (see the account of Kant’s “harmony of the faculties” in my Third Concept of Liberty, chapter 2), but the simplest way to think of it — this would also go with the comment of  SR — might be to consider the way great poets move between invocations of the ineffable, the mysterious, etc. and limpid, vivid descriptions of concrete objects: as if to suggest that there is something ineffable within language and something proto-linguistic, something that signifies, in silence (in the silences of a language-user, at least).

Consider in this light R. Mendel of Rymanov’s famous suggestion that the Israelites at Sinai heard just the silent aleph at the beginning of the first word (anochi) of the Ten Commandments. This is often taken to mean that the Israelites heard nothing at Sinai, that they had the sort of non-linguistic mystical encounter I have been taking to task, as a foundation for religion. But that’s not exactly R. Mendel’s point. Even aleph is an element of language, after all, a letter: which is moreover used to abbreviate important Hebrew words (including anochi), has a numerical value that could hardly be irrelevant to a Jewish experience of God, and plays a deep role in Kabbalistic cosmology.

So “hearing the aleph” is by no means something non-linguistic: although it may well draw our attention to the silent spaces within language, the elusive and multi-valent symbols and terms and sentences that we do not quite grasp. But what we do with elusive and multi-valent symbols and terms and sentences is come up with an endless string of attempts to grasp them — endless interpretations, midrashim — rather than being struck dumb. So the silence of the aleph is an invitation to engage in a great deal of language, rather than to abjure language: and it is able to invite us to this because it is already situated within a linguistic system. That’s what I mean by an inter-linguistic rather than a pre-linguistic gesture toward the ineffable. And I suspect that hasidic texts are best read by making use of this inter-linguistic framework, rather than supposing that they long to get beyond words altogether.

5) I don’t see that anyone has mentioned the Rambam (although some may allude to him in his comment on “negative theology”), but one might object to my claim that wordlessness is unsuited to Judaism by pointing to his critique of language in the Guide, and intimation that we come closest to God in silence. It might help clarify my view to note that the Rambam’s silence is a form of philosophical contemplation rather than mystical encounter, and we get there only via a good deal of — wordy! — metaphysics and epistemology. We need first to recognize, by linguistic means, both what the word “God” points us to and the limitations of language in capturing that referent; only then can we transcend language in our love of God. Language is for Maimonides, very much as it is for the early Wittgenstein, a ladder we can throw away only once we reach its top.

This is a very different view than one that would make a pre-linguistic experience of God foundational to all language about God. The Rambam is thus not a wordless encounter theologian. (It is also inept, given the Rambam’s conception of God, to suppose that we “encounter” God. We have encounters with particulars, at particular times and places, but God is necessarily not a particular, for the Rambam, and not present at any particular time or place. All the figures I discuss, starting with Buber, are anti-Maimonidean in their talk of an “encounter” with God: that is meant precisely to undermine Maimonidean and other religious rationalism, to presuppose a personalist God rather than the abstraction that rationalists revere.)

6) To MK: No, I certainly do not want the Torah “to become Heidegger’s Being.” Affinities between the two are drawn out beautifully in Peter Gordon’s book on Heidegger and Rosenzweig, but my own view might better be put by saying that I’d like Heidegger’s Being to become more like the Torah’s God.
MK seems more generally uncomfortable about using Heidegger for Jewish thought, and I imagine other people will feel this way as well. I understand that discomfort, of course. Nevertheless, Heidegger provides very useful tools for thinking about language and revelation (although on language, it is at least equally important for modern Jewish theologians to absorb the crisper, more rigorous, and more thorough-going, investigations of meaning to be found in the so-called “analytic” tradition of philosophy: in Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, Davidson, Dummett, Kripke, Putnam and Brandom, especially). We should never overlook Heidegger’s hostility to liberalism, which is deeply built into his thought (his anti-Semitism is I think less important: it depends on the misconception that all Jews are liberal cosmopolitans), but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from him.

In a debate with Isaac Breuer, Yeshayahu Leibowitz once exclaimed, “Dr. Breuer, why should we deceive ourselves? You know as well as I that in our treatment of philosophical questions both of us — who consider ourselves believing Jews…— do not draw upon Jewish sources but upon the atheistic anti-Semite Kant. We cannot do otherwise!” Today Jews discussing philosophical questions might say the same about Heidegger. And while it is a bit unfair to call Kant an anti-Semite, it’s certainly not unfair to say that of Heidegger. So it’s a dark irony that Jews, including Levinas, have drawn so much on Heidegger. But this is an irony we need to live with. Once again, as in so many other respects, we can understand our own, specifically Jewish beliefs properly only when we recognize openly how much they depend on ideas we draw from a larger, non-Jewish — and yes, sometimes anti-Semitic — context.

Howie Katz responds to Dovid Sears

Howie Katz is a local yoga instructor who has a deep interest in combining Judaism with Yogic wisdom. Here he responds to several of the points made by Dovid Sears.

Critique to Dovid Sears Review- by Howie Katz

Once again, we are indebted to Rabbi Sears for stating the Orthodox objections to positions advanced by Rabbi Glick, and for doing so in a clear and unapologetic manner, a manner without either rancor or sectarian polemics. Our concern is, after all, for the truth, and this type of discussion greatly enhances the search for it.

My major objection is to R Sears’ comments regarding Torah vs. Wisdom. (As a side note, and to perhaps to muddy the waters a bit, it is worth noting that the Sanskrit word Jnana actually means “wisdom”).

R Sears’ view is stated succinctly as follows: “Yoel Glick means something else by ‘Torah’ than most of us do. I think he means that other nations not only possess common-sense wisdom and scientific know-how, but spiritual knowledge – something of the Divine.” And “…our argument is primarily over the concepts of Torah vs. Wisdom. Yoel would extend the meaning of the former while I would extend the meaning of the latter.” This is followed by a quote from Maimonides about the unique revelatory status of the Torah, communicated through the foremost prophet, Moses. This quote is understood to refute the view of R Glick that there is Torah – and not merely Wisdom – among the nations.

I believe that what we have here is a category error on the part of R. Sears. The entire thrust of R. Glick’s book is about meditation, and the spiritual heights to which it can bring the practitioner. Vedanta and other Hindu-derived spiritual disciplines, such as Yoga or Buddhism, are the spiritual practices in question. The crucial point is that neither Vedanta nor classical Yoga is text based; neither relies primarily on a revealed text that is infallible as the means by which one can attain God-Realization. Indeed, both traditions are rather wary about what they sometimes scornfully refer to as “book knowledge.” What brings the practitioner to the desired state, variously called “enlightenment,” Moksha, Samadhi, “Mukti” etc. is saddhana – intense spiritual practice, and not the central reliance on a text or texts.

Indeed, Sri Ramana Maharshi, though he had the Vedas read to him every day in his ashram, felt the classic texts useful primarily as a confirmation of what he himself had directly experienced in the depths of his soul. To be sure, there is what is called shradda, or faith, but this is not in texts; rather, it is faith in the possibility of going beyond conditioned human existence, eliminating the attachment to the ego, and realizing one’s True Self as the one with Divine Consciousness. (None of this is to argue, by the way, that various forms of Hinduism do not believe in something we could call “Revelation.” However, the meaning of this term and its relationship to foundational texts is very different from what these terms mean in Judaism. For an excellent discussion of this see the volume entitled Veda and Torah, by Barbara A Holdrege).

All of this is to say that R Sears’ objection to R Glick’s assertions that other nations (especially India) possess Torah is, to my mind, irrelevant. The unique revelatory status of the Torah is not being “challenged” by the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra, or any other text because Vedanta and other Hindu darshanas are not primarily about texts (although there is certainly no lack of them). The “Torah” that R Glick posits as existing among other nations is, in the case of his book, the meditation techniques, rituals, and other practices that allow the practitioner to go beyond conditioned human existence and realize his or her essence as the Supreme Self. These practices and this view are not dependent on a divinely revealed text.

My argument might seem to fly in the face of the quote from R Glick’s book, cited by R Sears – “The Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, and many other texts provide profound wisdom and moral righteousness.” Note, however, the phraseology – “profound wisdom and moral righteousness.” The “Torah,” in my view, resides in the practices that bring the practitioner to Self-Realization, or Jnana. It may be that here, I diverge from R. Glick as well as from R Sears.

photo (c) D. Sears

The second major issue I would like to address is prophecy. R Sears is at pains to firmly reiterate the traditional view that Moshe is the “Master of all prophets” who “perceived matters clearly,” in contradistinction to other, lesser prophets. Here, I would make two points:

1) The Self-realization/Enlightenment of Sri Ramana, Ramakrishna, etc. is of a radically different nature than the Nevua of Moshe Rabbeinu. Indeed, so different are they that I think it is difficult to make comparative statements at all.

I would argue that the term “prophet” does not apply to the Indian non-dual masters, and that, indeed, the use of the term “prophecy” to describe highly evolved spiritual states in Hinduism is problematic. Though Moshe and the Indian masters both share R. Glick’s “bottom line” of Pure Consciousness/mystical experience (a point to which I will return), the similarities end there. Moshe’s Nevua was the transmission of a very specific set of texts laws, etc. i.e. the transmission of substantive content, while the Enlightenment of Ramana and Ramakrishna was their direct, experiential “knowing” of who they truly were, which filled them with bliss (Ananda). To try to hierarchically “rate” these two numinous experiences, and to place the Indian masters in a subservient position seems to me a profound misunderstanding.

I should also state that that I understand R. Glick’s statement about the “bottom line” of prophecy being “mystical experience” rather differently than does R. Sears. For me this means that any prophetic experience must, by definition, include a “mystical” element, an element of Absolute Silence, and feelings of Absolute Awe. Prophecy is not an Internet chat room with God. However, the fact this this is a defining “bottom line” does not rule out the subsequent communication of content in the form of Divine Commands, etc. In discussing the prophet Elijah, for example, R. Glick notes that the true Nevua was to be found in the Silence i.e. the Still Small Voice. This does not, however, rule out the subsequent communication of Divine directives, and I do not see where R. Glick argues that it does.

Finally, I would like to return to one of the foundations of R Sears’ critique: the statement in Eichah Rabbah that “If someone tells you that the nations possess wisdom believe them, but if someone tells you that they possess Torah, do not believe them.” Here, I have a number of questions/objections. My first is a perhaps rather naïve sounding observation and question. This statement in the Midrash is, in fact, just that – a Midrash! How, and more importantly why, did it get elevated to canonical status? There are, after all, quite a few Midrashim in rabbinic literature. Many are either understood allegorically,reinterpreted or ignored altogether. Why is this one considered so important?

There are a number of answers to the above questions, some of them not especially pleasant. One answer, of course, is the tendency of all monotheistic religions, Judaism included, to posit an absolute claim to the Truth, with no possibility of error. The notion that other spiritual traditions and practices might share in the truth and be equally valid paths–i.e, religious pluralism–is anathema to the Orthodox tradition. Here, we can do no better than quote R. Sears himself: “If this denotes a perrenialist there-really-is-no-difference “new testament” (of Universal Consciousness), why should anyone pack up and go to Jerusalem at all?”

Indeed, that is the crucial question. If “we” are not entirely correct and “they” are not completely “wrong,” does the entire practice of Judaism really become superfluous and, essentially, a waste of time? Seen in this light, the elevation of the above Midrash serves an obvious purpose: to ”plug the holes” against any notion that other spiritual communities might be equally true.

The Indian spiritual traditions, it must be said, are quite a bit more positive and pluralistic on this point. It is assumed that people will practice Yoga/Vedanta because it brings them into union with God, and this union and the associated practices are not undermined by admitting the validity of other paths. There is no concept of avodah zara if a person has an alternate mode of worship, no threat of “kareis” if one does not follow a particular deity or Yogic path. Yogis presumably do not get up at 4:30 AM to practice Yoga Saddhana because they are afraid that, if they don’t, Hanuman (or Shiva, or Kali or Krishna) will cut off their souls.

The idea that Jews do not have a monopoly on “Torah” is deeply threatening to many Orthodox Jews. This demonstrates, to my mind, a profound pessimism and sense of fragility concerning traditional Jewish spiritual practice. As R. Sears seems to indicate, the logic is that, if we are not absolutely and uniquely correct, why would anyone keep Shabbos, Kashrut and other mitzvot? The answer might be – because these practices bring Jews closer to God, even as the practices of other spiritual paths bring their adherents closer to God. Ironically, some anecdotal evidence even suggests precisely the opposite of what R. Sears believes: many Jews who practice Yoga/meditation are actually brought closer to, rather than driven away from, traditional Jewish practice. Indeed, there are more than a few cases where Indian gurus directed their Jewish followers to return to traditional Jewish practice.

Opening the window might not destroy the foundations of Judaism; it might even strengthen them.

Third, I disagree most with R. Sears is in his categorization of R. Glick’s book as a ‘Parah Adumah’, to ‘purify’ those of us who have practiced yoga, Vedanta, and other Indian spiritual practices. Because we are immersed in a spiritual world of ‘Tumah’, it is necessary to wean us away from this, and R. Glick, with his experience and knowledge of all things Indian, is an ideal person to accomplish this. The ideal, of course, is to never have engaged in any spiritual practices outside those of Orthodox Judaism. Thus, R. Sears sees R. Glick’s book as a form of kiruv, which he embellishes by citing the mystical experiences and practices of numerous Hasidic leaders and Mekubalim.

R. Sears’ attempt here is certainly in keeping with Orthodox theology and practice; I simply disagree with it. If one can enhance one’s state of consciousness by using practices from India, then go for it – even if Orthodoxy disapproves. Furthermore, R Sears is at pains to establish that the Jewish spiritual leaders cited developed a level of awareness that is at least equal to, if not superior to, that of Sri Ramana etc. He chides R. Glick for not availing himself of Jewish teachers and studying with Indian ones instead. His position is a vastly more sophisticated version of a slogan heard in kiruv circles: “It’s all in Judaism!”.

What, however, if ‘it’ isn’t? What if Indian spiritual practices do lead a given individual to a higher state of consciousness than the parallel ones cited by R. Sears? His short answer is – tough. Loyalty to the Torah and its’ boundaries come first. And if one resonates more with Jnanis rather than Rebbes – that’s also too bad. Interestingly, R Sears implicitly acknowledges a problem here – the highest goals/practices of Judaism are those related to this-worldly mitzvoth/Talmud Torah. Higher states of consciousness and their associated practices may be available within Orthodoxy, but they are hidden, oblique, and not really accessible. Would it not stand to reason, then, that traditions such as Vedanta and Yoga, which have a ‘one-pointed’ focus on these issues (to use a yogic term), would be a better place to access higher states rather than a spiritual practice that views Jnana/Samadhi/Moksha as ‘at best a sideshow?’, in the words of a previous commentator here.

To be clear; I do not think that R. Sears is ‘wrong’ or incorrect in his characterization of halachic/hashkafic limits to engaging in other spiritual practices. I simply do not agree with them, nor do I agree that reaching for higher states of consciousness is a secondary goal, after the ‘meat and potatos’ of Halacha and Talmud Torah are fulfilled. Of course, if possible, the search for Jnana should, ideally, be conducted within Jewish parameters. However, I, unlike R Sears and his religious co-thinkers, would not be averse to stretching – or in some cases crossing – those boundaries.

Dovid Sears Review of Yoel Glick – part III

Here is a third installment of Dovid Sears’ review of Yoel Glick’s new book. In another day, I will post someone who takes issue with Sears’ critique of Glick.
The original Yoel Glick posts are here part one and part two, the first three Dovid Sears posts are here one, two, meditation.

Wisdom or Torah? Dovid Sears

This is the third posting in a series related to Rabbi Yoel Glick’s recent book, “Living the Life of Jewish Meditation” (Jewish Lights).

In the interview with Yoel Glick, we find the following Q & A. The discussion is based on a Midrash from Eikhah Rabbah: “If someone tells you that other nations possess wisdom, believe them. If someone tells you that other nations possess Torah, do not believe them.”

Additionally, I would like to cite two relevant halakhot from Maimonides, as they are fundamentals of Judaism and are relevant to any discussion of the nature of Torah:

Moses, our teacher, is the master of all prophets … Unlike all other prophets, Moses, our teacher, would prophecy while fully awake … He would perceive a matter clearly, without metaphor or allegory … in a calm and composed state of mind … and whenever he desired … The skin of his face radiated beams of light, and he was sanctified like the angels (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Yesodey HaTorah 7:6).

It is clear and explicit in the Torah that it is a mandate that stands forever, without change, whether by diminution or addition… (as stated in Deuteronomy 13:1) We are commanded to fulfill all of the Torah’s words forever (as stated in Deuteronomy 29:28) (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Yesodey ha-Torah 9:1).

So much for the preamble.

photo (c) D. Sears

Q: Why is Indian meditation only wisdom and not Torah?

A (YG): In the context of the modern world, our understanding of the teaching that there is wisdom among the nations but no Torah needs to be reassessed… Even a few hundred years ago this statement may have seemed self-evident…Today, however, we have to answer this rhetorical question by admitting that there are other nations to whom God has given teachings as righteous and inspiring as the Torah. The Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, the Dhammapada of the Buddhists, and many other texts all provide teaching with profound wisdom and moral righteousness. Today, we have to admit that there is not just wisdom but Torah among the nations. The Torah is God’s special revelation to the Jewish people. A gift made no less meaningful or significant by the acknowledgement of the gifts God has given to His other children. (source here)

I was quite surprised to read such a statement. Read superficially, Yoel’s response seems to imply that Chazal made the distinction between “wisdom (chokhmah)” and “Torah” either out of religious myopia or naiveté. Are these the same sages of whom we learn that “even the the least disciple of Hillel,” namely, the legendary Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, could resurrect the dead, and whose knowledge spanned the Mishnah, Talmud, law, exposition, grammar, scribal analysis, logical inference, astronomy, gematriyot, incantations for both angels and demons, the “speech” of palm trees … a “Great Matter” and a “Small Matter”—the former being the prophetic mysteries of Ma’aseh Merkavah and the latter, the profound scholarly arguments of Abayye and Rava (Sukkah 28a, Bava Batra 134a)? Sages so intellectually adept that Rabbi Akiva, who single-handedly regenerated the Oral Law after the death of 24,000 disciples, could derive “mountains of legal rulings (tilei-tilei halakhot)” from every jot and tittle of the Written Torah (Menachot 29b; Eiruvin 21b)? And if Midrash Eikhah was compiled by the Amoraim, what would we reasonably expect from the foremost successors to the Tannaim we have mentioned?

Moreover, did Chazal lack knowledge of contemporaneous or earlier Indian religious teachings such as those Yoel quotes, when Jews had already long-established communities in India and had likely conducted trade there for centuries? Philo’s Alexandria, well before the redaction of the Mishnah, was renowned for its “Mouseion,” its all-encompassing library and research facilities (in Latin, “Museaum,” of which “museum” is a variant); thus it was an international forum for diverse religious and philosophical knowledge and discussion. I have read that the philosophers of Athens welcomed sages from all over the world, including India (where Hellenism’s influence also reached), creating the model for what came to be known as the “university.”

According to some Jewish traditions, both Plato and Pythagoras conferred with the prophets of Israel (Josephus, “War of the Jews” and “Against Apion”; Reishit Chokhmah, Sha’ar ha-Yirah 13:80, Sha’ar ha-Ahavah 6:42; Sefer Chareidim, chap. 13, et al. I seem to remember mention of this somewhere in Seder ha-Dorot, as well); and the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 10-11a) tells of the dialogue between Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi and Antoninus (although this probably was not Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, author of the Stoic “Meditations”). Were Chazal completely out of touch with what went on in the two greatest intellectual centers in the ancient world?

For that matter, was our Patriarch Abraham, who rejected the idolatry of the East some 4,000 years ago, similarly out of touch? (Hindus attribute the Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata, of which it is but one part, to Vyasa, who according to their traditions lived long before Abraham.)

The distinction Chazal make surely is meant to underscore the uniqueness of the Torah in comparison to “wisdom.” Yet Rabbi Glick would extend the definition of Torah to other religious doctrines—even if they were entirely free of any trace of idolatry or heresy, which in one way or another these scriptures are not. The word “Torah” would become all but meaningless.

There’s another well-known Aggadah that tells how God offered the Torah to the various nations, who refused it for one reason or another; but when God offered it to Israel, they declared, “Na’aseh vi-nishma, we will do, and we will understand.” Would Yoel rewrite that Midrash to say that some of the other nations accepted it after all—or parts of it—and called it the Bhagavad Gita or Dhammapada? If so, do we find that these three doctrines largely agree, or do they fundamentally contradict one another?

As I mulled over these conundrums, I realized that Yoel couldn’t mean anything like this. It would be too bizarre.

Rather, he evidently follows the view of Advaita Vedanta, which finds a common core to all religious experience which transcends doctrinal differences—while affirming that each religion has truth and value for the group that upholds it. For Jews, that is the Torah—while for Hindus it is the Bhagavad Gita, or Dhammapada for Buddhists, or another body of religious teaching that bears spiritual treasures for another faith community. Yet according to this view doctrinal religious values are all on the relative plane; ultimate truth leaves behind the dissipating, billowing dust of worldly concerns and dualistic thinking.

Yoel Glick means something else by “Torah” than most of us do. I think he means that other nations not only possess common-sense wisdom and scientific know-how, but spiritual knowledge—something of the Divine. For he has sensed this in the Eastern paths he has explored and which he deeply esteems. He is certainly entitled to esteem spiritual knowledge from other traditions, and so are like-minded “fellow travelers.” I too can appreciate Eastern mysticism. But the fact that there is truth and beauty in other traditions does not contradict or impinge on the uniqueness of the Torah as a God-given mandate to the Jewish people of a different order entirely. Maimonides takes great care to underscore the uniqueness of the Sinaitic Revelation in world history. So does Rabbi Nachman in his Shir Na’im, which his scribe Rabbi Natan placed at the beginning of Likutey Moharan:

No other religions compare to our faith
Contrivances of mortal intellect their sages conceived
Moses, however, ascended on high, cloud-garbed
Necessary Existent spoke with him at any time
So he distanced himself from his wife

Religious Jews study both the laws and extra-legal teachings of the Torah every day, “for they our life and length of days” (Liturgy), and we are prepared to lay down our lives for them, if need be – as historically has too often been the case.

If my understanding of Yoel’s position is correct, our argument is primarily over the concepts of “Torah” vs. “wisdom.” Yoel would extend the meaning of the former, while I would extend the meaning of the latter.

Non-Jewish wisdom can go beyond the mundane—and although Chazal don’t explain their terminology, this might not be such a radical idea. Especially when we consider that Chazal propose an ancient pre-Israelite monotheism passed down from Adam to his son Seth, who transmitted it to Noah, and Noah to Shem and Ever, the teachers of the Patriarchs (see Sefer Halakhot Gedolot 76, Hil. Hesped, p. 688; Abarbanel on Genesis 11:1; et al.). If some of this religious wisdom continued to proliferate throughout civilization, surely other nations possess righteous teachings too.

But what Jews mean by “Torah” is not one line of spiritual transmission among others. As we have cited above from Maimonides, it is a cornerstone of Judaism that the Torah is a unique Divine revelation to the Jewish people, communicated through Moses, “the master of all prophets,” at Mount Sinai, which was passed on to Joshua, and from generation to generation, as stated in the first mishnah in Pirkey Avot.

If both “wisdom” and “Torah” express truth, what is the distinction that Chazal wish to make in Eikhah Rabbah? In the spirit of Rabbi Nachman’s verses above, I would venture to say that “wisdom” means human wisdom, which the kabbalists would define as an “awakening from below to above” (mi-lematah le-maalah), while Torah is “min ha-shamayim,” thus an “awakening from above to below” (mi-le-ma’alah le-mattah). Certainly all of humanity possesses human wisdom in one form or another, and to one degree or another. But that is not the same as “Torah.”

We must also ask whether the Advaitan mystical-pluralist position is consistent with the foundations of our faith. (I’m sorry, Alan, I tried to avoid treading on your turf, but here we are.) If that theology were acceptable, how could conversion be allowed, much less encouraged (though not through missionary activities since ancient times)? Why would there be any need for conversion or advantage to be gained by it? I once read in Prof. Nathan Katz’s wonderful autobiography how a non-Indian student of an Advaitan professor in Bombay was so moved by what he or she learned as to seek conversion to that school of Hinduism. The teacher retorted that the student had missed the whole point and severed their ties thereafter.

photo (c) D. Sears

And what of Jewish inclusivism? What of Zekhariah and Isaiah and Zephaniah, who envisioned all humanity serving the One God of Israel with a common accord and “flowing” to Jerusalem? What of the teachings of Chazal about the ultimate reconciliation of all nations with Israel and the Torah of Israel? If this denotes a perrenialist there-really-is-no-difference “new testament,” substituting a universalist revelation for the more particularist (although qualifiedly so) revelation entrusted to Moses, why should anyone pack up and go to Jerusalem at all? What need would there be for such a focal point? And if the Great Mandala of human consciousness requires a focal point for some reason, why Jerusalem?

I share Yoel’s view about a phenomena that some academics have called the “Pure Consciousness Experience” which seems to be shared by otherwise widely differing spiritual paths. I can even sense it in Rabbi Nachman’s major hitbodedut teaching, which I quoted in an earlier posting, Likutey Moharan I, 52, particularly in the Rebbe’s remarks about the Necessary Existent as the ultimate reality and the foundation of consciousness. What I question is whether this category of mystical experience may be taken to be the very essence of all religion and the “bottom line” of all prophecy (see Interview Part II, Q & A ##15-16; also Living Jewish Meditation, Introduction p. xviii; Chapter 12, p. 189, where Yoel reiterates this concept).

Our sages (Sota 14a) did not share Yoel Glick’s viewpoint, for they describe how Moses, our teacher – who Yoel acknowledges must have experienced Pure Consciousness and attained enlightenment to the ultimate degree – at the very end of his life begged God that he be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael only so that he could perform the mitzvot related to the land – tithe his produce, bring bikkurim (first fruits) to the Holy Temple, leave a corner of his field for poor, etc. Clearly, Moses didn’t feel that after attaining the PCE such ritualistic mitzvot are trivial!

Neither can I accept the notion that all other aspects of prophecy merely reflect cultural diversity, or are later accretions by interpreters of the cryptic remarks of those privy to the Pure Consciousness Experience, as Yoel indicates. This would similarly deny the foundational beliefs of Judaism, and in so doing, our entire mesorah (aside from bordering on the ridiculous, and even breaking through Customs).

It sounds like what began as laudable good will and respect for others and the discovery of truth both near and far have led the author down a slippery slope. And this is the fatal flaw of the syncretism of Living Jewish Meditation, where all boundaries between the plurality of religions dissolve in the clear white light. Please, Yoel, let’s be content with Chazal’s use of the word “wisdom” and thus preserve what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “the dignity of difference.” Surely at the level of the Absolute, there are no distinctions—not between doctrines, not between anything. “After Creation” has been reabsorbed into “Before Creation” (Likutey Moharan I, 51, 64), and “water into water” (Chagigah 77a). But in this manifest world of olam-shanah-nefesh, with all the distinctions that apply to each category, there surely is—and whether we like it or not, that’s how it must be down here in the trenches, which the Zohar calls (and we can almost hear Rabbi Shimon sigh) the “alma de-peruda,” the World of Division.


Yet when all is said and done, there is something within us that constantly yearns to transcend this state of division and to experience the underlying Divine Unity – as in Rabbi Nachman’s story-within-a-story of the Heart and the Spring in his Tale of the Seven Beggars. Yoel Glick eloquently speaks of this yearning in his meditation on the “Shema”: “The essence of the Shema is a proclamation of the intrinsic unity of all creation. It is a declaration that everything arises from the same divine source. The Shema is a testament of our undying love for the Power at the heart of existence. Love is the path that will lead us to union with the Supreme Reality.”

Sam Fleischacker, Words of the Living God- Part II

Here is the second installment of Sam Fleischacker, Words of a Living God -Part II continued from Part One here. Download the whole essay and get back with comments.
In this part, Fleischacker argues for a Divine revelation in words. Torah should not be less than a poem and therefore subject to the full scrutiny of the midrashic process.“Language is the house of Being,” says the later Heidegger;The Torah is the house of God for us.”


Words of the Living God:Towards A Progressive and Traditional Jewish Theology(Author’s Abstract)
Sam Fleischacker, Philosophy Department, University of Illinois-Chicago

Part II: Sharing Language With God

In Part I of this essay, I criticized the idea — found in progressive Jewish theologians from Martin Buber to Michael Fishbane — that we encounter God outside language and our sacred Scriptures merely approximate what happened in that encounter. Among other things, this view misconstrues language as a purely human tool, under our control and used to manipulate a reality beyond itself for our everyday purposes. I argued that it is hard to make sense of this view of language, and pointed out how badly it fits poetry, in particular.

Part II begins by suggesting that poets exemplify how much language controls us rather than the other way around — they are vessels through whom the spiritual mysteries with which we struggle can be disclosed to us: who bring out the mystery that is in language itself, among other things. I take a particular Celan poem as an example, and propose that we can see it as a revelation.

But if a Celan poem can be a revelation, surely the Torah can be as well. It too is a great poem, brimming with power and mystery. Which brings us to the alternative to wordless encounter theology that endorse. God encounters us, if at all, in language — not, and certainly not just, wordlessly. The aspects of language that are beyond our control can of course be explained naturalistically; social scientists can and do put forward plausible explanations of the emotional, sociological, and historical factors about language that prevent individual speakers from fully mastering what they say. But a religious believer has reason also to take these factors of language as ways by which God shapes our world and destiny: vehicles through which God works. If God shapes nature and history, as the Jewish tradition believes, then God surely shapes language. And if God can be present in trees and waterfalls and horses, as Buber and his followers suggest, then God can also be present in language. God can speak.

What remains is to locate the linguistic site or sites in which we think God speaks pre-eminently. And for Jews, there is one obvious such site: the Torah. Even modern Jews, renouncing the theologically and historically implausible story of God literally speaking to Moses on Sinai, must recognize the fact that the canonization of the Torah was basic to the formation of our tradition. Perhaps that canonization reflects the traces of a powerful historical event, dimly recalled in the Sinai story; perhaps it came about because the Sinai story fit well with the experience of Jews returning from Babylonian exile, as described in Ezra-Nehemiah; perhaps it came about because the Sinai story simply spoke strongly to the ethical and spiritual imagination of Second Temple Jews. Whatever the reason, the text was canonized, and that set the stage for all the midrashim, ritual practices, legal codes and theology that have defined our tradition for over two millennia. I propose that we embrace this canonization as the means by which we have let God speak to us — have created a space in which we can share language with God. In the remainder of the essay, I sketch out what “sharing language with God” might look like.

Selected Passages (they are not consecutive)

God encounters us, if at all, in language — not, and certainly not just, wordlessly. If God shapes nature and history, as the Jewish tradition believes, then God surely shapes language. And if God can be present in trees and waterfalls and horses, then God can also be present in language: God can speak.

The first thing we need to do in order to recognize such a mystery in language is step back from the attempt to control some bit of language, to be sure we know what it means or implies. Which is to say: we need to humble ourselves to it, to let it guide or direct us, let it have authority over us. We need to allow God into our language if God is to speak to us, and we do that by giving some bit of language authority, directive power, over us.

The text was canonized, and that set the stage for all the midrashim, ritual practices, legal codes and theology that have defined the Jewish tradition for over two millennia. By embracing this canonization, we (re-)join our tradition’s particular form of humbling oneself before God. Jews encounter God, first and foremost, in the Torah. If we can’t encounter God there, we have no reason to expect such an encounter elsewhere.

What exactly God might mean by way of these things is a separate question. If, by hypothesis, they reflect something endlessly mysterious, beyond our grasp, then what we take them to mean should be constantly in flux: they will require endless midrash, and endless re-interpretation of the directives they seem to give us. What an all-good being, who loves all human beings and whom we can love, might mean by an expression or command is quite different from what a scribe or priest in ancient Israel might have meant, even if that scribe or priest is the immediate source of these words. Once we ascribe the Torah to God, we have ipso facto stripped it of its most straightforward meaning: we have opened it up to midrash. Taking the Torah’s words to be divine rather than human is precisely an invitation to a fluid, ever-changing process of interpreting them.

But the essential step is for us to take the Torah to be divine; we cannot hear a bit of language as spoken by God unless we invest it with the capacity to be that. We sanctify texts and only then can God speak to us through them. We may compare this process to what happens, according to the Torah itself, when we build a tabernacle for the worship of God. We build it, we sanctify it, and only then can God dwell in it. Exactly the same is true of the language of the Torah. “Language is the house of Being,” says the later Heidegger, and there could be no better metaphor for the Torah. The Torah is the house of God for us, but it becomes that if and only if we make it holy — if we invest it with sanctity, regard it as a way for God to address us. The sanctification of the tabernacle, in the Torah, requires us to treat all its parts with reverence, and never to use the whole for profane, daily purposes, let along to mock or trample it. Only then does it become a home of God, a space we can share with God.

Sanctifying the Torah itself is similarly to treat all its words with reverence, and to avoid employing it for our profane, daily purposes: to try always to learn from it rather than reading into it what we find it convenient to do, let alone mocking it or trampling on its demands. We make the Torah holy — we recognize and thereby establish its sanctity — but it then becomes speech that God can inhabit, speech we can share with God. Once we invest the Torah with authority, we can encounter God in it. On the literalist views common in many traditional Jewish communities, the Torah derives its authority from the fact that we long ago witnessed God speaking it. I am suggesting instead that if we invest the Torah with authority, God can today speak to us. The Torah is not authoritative because it is divine; it is divine because it is authoritative.

In short, the view I am recommending would return us to the traditional Jewish idea that the Torah is God’s word but not out of any historically naïve belief that God literally spoke it to Moses at Sinai. Rather, the view reflects an understanding of language as bearing God’s presence in its mystery, as a meeting place for God and humanity rather than a purely human product. This is a view that fits far better with the Jewish tradition, with personalist monotheism, and with philosophical understandings of the relationship between language and reality, than does wordless encounter theology. The central object of Jewish faith is that God speaks our language — dibra Torah k’lashon bnei Adam. This is what Christians would call a “mystery,” to be sure: a paradox as great and of much the same kind as the Incarnation. But it is mysteries that distinguish revealed religions from the rational theology of philosophers. There is an irremediable paradox or mystery in the idea that an infinite, perfect being can enter our finite, highly imperfect lives — but without that paradox, there can be no personal God, and certainly not the personal God of Judaism.

In a robust sense, then, we can emphatically say that Oral Torah was “given” at Sinai alongside Written Torah. But it was given as free will was given: as a fluid, ever-changing method or set of methods of interpretation, perhaps even just a call to autonomous interpretation on our part, not as a fixed set of meanings for the divine words to which it is directed. And if “Sinai” is, as I have been suggesting, a metaphor for a process that took place historically when we canonized the Torah, we can translate this point about oral Torah by noting that canonization of the written Torah went inextricably along with the rise of oral modes of interpretation. Fixing the written Torah as the word of God freed up its meaning to range widely, and to change over time. What God might plausibly mean by a set of words is after all very different from what a human author might mean by those same words. It is implausible to think that a 5th-century BCE Israelite priest or scribe might intend his words to be read in the light of modern liberalism, but it is not implausible to think that God might intend for us, today, to read them that way: God’s communication is not circumscribed by place and time.

But as long as we realize that attributing the Torah to God should make us more vigilant, not less, about seeking admirable meanings for it, I see no reason — no moral reason, no philosophical reason, and no historical reason — not to attribute the whole Torah to God: every sentence and word of it, as Maimonides admonished us to do.

We may be elated at the burning bush, bemused by the lists in Numbers, and horrified by the stubborn and rebellious son, but we can find religiously valuable meanings in all these passages: as our tradition has in fact long done. And anything less than this holistic reverence for the Torah, anything that splits it into more and less acceptable bits, takes away from its ability to teach us, to humble and thereby enrich the ethical and spiritual sensibilities we bring to it. The Torah becomes less than a Celan poem, and far less than an object of sanctity, a space for encountering God. We preserve the sanctity of the Torah by preserving it whole. “These and these” — all the sentences of the Torah — are the words of the living God. I know no more powerful way of encountering that God.

Full Version of Part II – here

Discussion with Dovid Sears on his Meditation

The interview of Yoel Glick and the review of Dovid Sears has generated a lot of interest among those interested in the topic. I expected a one part interview and a one part review. I will be posting in the next few days a third part of the Sears review and a response and defense of Glick by a Yoga practitioner. When four years ago, there was a debate here between Art Green who advocated a spiritual God within the self and Danny Landes who advocated the covenant commanding God of Berkovits, it was a very broad discussion of spirituality or non-spirituality. Now, we have a debate with Orthodoxy, followed by those concerned with the topic, on a syncretic spirituality as opposed a spirituality solely within Jewish sources. There are still many positions in between.

In the process of creating the review, the following discussion was produced and worth preserving.

Q: What would you say about an opposite case from that of Yoel Glick, where a person has been entirely trained in Eastern practices, but when teaching then passes it off as authentic Jewish teaching of the Besht or the Vilna Gaon? Which is worse: their packaging the East as Torah, or the misrepresentation the Torah as teaching Eastern ideas?

A: Are we talking about Eastern views that are consistent with Torah, which enable us to zero in on issues we had previously overlooked or neglected? Or actual falsification of Torah by attributing to certain Gedolim teachings that they never said? And as for honestly combining Eastern teachings with those of Torah, we would have to ask: which Eastern teachings? And how are they presented? As syncretic, or as parpara’os le-chokhmah, side-issues? It would depend on the manner of presentation and the context.

photo (c) D. Sears

Q. Hypothetically, let’s say that someone presents Zen silent meditation as if it were the same as the silence mentioned in Jewish mystical texts such as the Nefesh Ha-Hayyim. And this teacher says he is not syncretic or coming from outside at all, but claims that everything he teaches is just our practice of silence as a way of fighting mahshavot zarot (foreign thoughts). He denies how he got there.

A. I don’t know which misrepresentation is worse: East masquerading as Torah, or Torah being twisted to conform to Eastern ideas. I know being true to our mesorah is best!

We know that there are overlapping teachings, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish, about silence and the meditative state. The first problem is that some traditional Jewish meditative practices that entail silence have to be reconstituted from teachings in sefarim here and there; we have lost parts of our mesorah, it seems. I have discussed silent meditation with both the Bostoner Rebbe of Ramat Beit Shemesh (when he was in Borough Park, and I worked for him as a writer-translator) and with my mashpia in Breslov, Rav Elazar Kenig. Both confirmed such gaps in our mesorah, and were extremely unenthusiastic about those who wanted to bring it back to life through inference and speculation. These things are really a matter of mesorah.

Despite my points of disagreement with him, I think Yoel is very honest and “out front” about what he’s doing, which is the way it should be – even if he is not presenting “pure” Jewish meditation in the sense of carrying on a mesorah. He’s not trying to fool anybody.

The Orthodox Jewish meditation teachers I know seem to have found authentic Jewish teachings that are relatively uninfluenced by Eastern religions. I say “relatively” because the widespread interest in meditation in western culture is largely due to the influence of Eastern religions for over a century (pretty much beginning with Vivekenanda, and then Inayat Khan, but also a host of other Eastern teachers who succeeded in bringing their traditions here, especially after WWII). The Chabad, Breslov, Komarno, Vitebsk and Sefardic-Kabbalistic communities all have specific meditation practices that have survived, even if only furtively in some cases. Some are done in connection with prayer or speech, while others are done silently, in thought alone. But I am not aware of any traditional Jewish meditation practices that use silence itself the way Zen or Buddhist meditation does.

Q: What form of meditation do you practice?

A: As a daily practice, the type of hisbodedus that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov describes, and which I have learned from my teachers in Breslov – primarily Rabbi Kenig. I used to “drei him a kopp” about silent hisbodedus during my first years of studying with him, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Q. And what did he say?

A: Let me tell you a story. After reading Rabbi Kaplan’s “Meditation and the Bible” and “Meditation and the Kabbalah,” I started compiling sources in Hebrew that I came across here and there, similar material to Rabbi Kaplan’s but from some additional texts, until after a couple of years I had a folder of 50-60 pages of photocopies, ranging from Rishonim to Rabbi Yitzchok of Acco to the RaMaK to Rav Chaim Vital to the Piacetzna Rebbe. I no longer remember the specifics. When Reb Elazar came to Borough Park in the early 1990s and stayed with his wife at Rabbi Eichenthal’s rooming house on 47th St., I presented this material to him.

One evening, after all the vistors had gone home and the two of us sat alone in his room, I brought up the issue of silent meditation again. Reb Elazar asked me what I seemed to find lacking in the Rebbe’s hisbodedus, and, a little guiltily, I tried to state my case: I wanted to get beyond words. After a few minutes, Reb Elazar said (in Yiddish), “The silence we need is the silence of deveykus (cleaving to God)” – meaning, I assumed, that it is not a technique. “This kind of silence…” he added. Reb Elazar then closed his eyes, and became perfectly still. Perhaps five minutes passed. Then he slowly opened his eyes again, looked for a moment or two as if he had just returned from another plane, and then gazed at me intensely. I thanked him and left the room.

Samuel Fleischacker- Words of a Living God -part one

Back to Orthodoxy and Contemporary Thought. Is revelation ineffable or in words? Kant, Schopenhauer, and Otto thought the natural experience of the sublime stood alone, Barth and Rav Soloveitchik both said that there is no meaningful numinous with the kerygmatic.

Sam Fleischacker in this guest post, criticizes the positions of Martin Buber, Louis Jacobs and even Michael Fishbane by arguing that for a Jewish theology, revelation must come in words. (James Kugel agrees that it is words) In Part One of the essay-here, Fleischacker argues that the idea of an ineffable revelation does not solve modern philosophic or historic problems. For him, it is not a Jewish understanding. In Part II, he will offer his own theory of revelation in words.

Sam Fleischacker is Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago and, in 2013-14, a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. His most recent books include What is Enlightenment? (Routledge, 2013) and Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford, 2011). He is working on a manuscript on contemporary thought and revelation. We have already presented his view on revelation, he has already written elsewhere on Maimonides on revelation and models of revelation.


Fleischacker Introduction

Jewish theology – never a thriving business – seems to be undergoing something of a revival in recent years.  The Bible and midrash scholar, Michael Fishbane, published an influential exploration of theological issues in 2007.  Rabbi Zev Farber helped initiate the website TheTorah.com with a passionate manifesto on how one might reconcile historical scholarship with a commitment to the Torah in 2013.  Sam Fleischacker worries here that both of these scholars are, like their predecessors in 20th century Jewish thought, giving up too easily on the idea that the Torah is God’s word.

Words of the Living God
Towards A Progressive and Traditional Jewish Theology

 Words are human, God is beyond words, and the Torah is a human attempt to grasp what an encounter with God might be like.  That’s the view held by practically all progressive Jewish Bible scholars and theologians today, even ones in the Conservative movement, or on the liberal end of Orthodoxy.  The view is also widely represented as characteristic of sophisticated, modern Jews, as opposed to the naïve traditionalists who treat the Torah as God’s word.  Staking his ground as the founder of Britain’s Masorti movement, Rabbi Louis Jacobs wrote, “The believer in verbal inspiration believes that he has in the Bible … the ipssissima verba of the prophets, indeed, of God Himself.  The more sophisticated believer, nowadays, cannot accept this for the soundest reasons.”  (For references, see the full version of this piece.)  These “more sophisticated believers” instead see revelation as a non-verbal encounter with God and Scripture as a humanly-composed attempt to describe that encounter.

Before Jacobs, Abraham Joshua Heschel had written, famously, that “As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash.”  “The nature of revelation is  ineffable,” said Heschel and “human language will never be able to portray” it. “Any genuine encounter with reality,” so certainly any genuine encounter with God, takes place at an “immediate, preconceptual, and presymbolic” level:  a level that lies below language.  And in his recent Sacred Attunement, Michael Fishbane echoes Heschel, characterizing language as a human tool that “carve[s] a sphere of sense out of the limitless ‘whole’ [of the universe],” while God appears to us in moments that “rupture” the spheres we carve, allowing a ”vastness” beyond language to break in on us.  “Human speaking brings something of the ineffable divine truth to expression,” says Fishbane:  the Torah, and other Scriptures, are a human-all-too-human attempt to capture a divinity who transcends language.

At the origin of this sort of theology stands of course Martin Buber, whose I-You encounter — the core of all revelation, for Buber — is widely understood to be pre-linguistic:  “Only silence toward the You, the silence of all tongues, the taciturn waiting in the unformed, undifferentiated, prelinguistic word leaves the You free.”

All this sounds very beautiful.  But it is unclear what it amounts to.   And it is yet more unclear how any halachic form of Judaism — any form of Judaism committed to the wordy Torah, and its even wordier rabbinic commentaries — can be squared with such a view.  That might not have been a worry for Buber, whose Judaism was mystical, anti-rabbinic, and dismissive of halacha, but it should be a worry for Jacobs and Heschel and Fishbane.  If there is no good way of squaring wordless encounter theology with halachic Judaism, we should also wonder whether halachic Jews who uphold it are really so “sophisticated.”

In any case, most of those who draw on wordless encounter theology treat it as a dogma;  instead of examining it, they take it to be obvious.  I try here to begin the process of shaking up this dogma — and to offer an alternative to it:  a theology that blends a traditional respect for the Torah as God’s word with a progressivist approach to history.

Selections from the Essay:
We might want to endorse wordless encounter theology if we think it is coherent, spiritually attractive, and a helpful way of framing our Jewish commitments.  It is none of these things, however. 

a) Wordless encounter theology is unsuited to Judaism, a supremely wordy religious tradition.  The God of the Torah creates the universe with words and inaugurates our role in the world by giving us the power of naming. Taking a cue from these sources, perhaps, the rabbis argue endlessly over how best to interpret all these stories and commands and aphorisms, delighting in every fine detail of their linguistic embodiment, and using those details as the ground for their claims.

b) Wordless encounter theology is unsuited to monotheism. Wordless encounter theologians may protest that they are not talking about a direct experience of God — just having a sense of “wonder and awe,” in response to various limited experiences, that opens us up to an awareness of the limitless whole underlying all experience. A deity we encounter just at special moments of natural grandeur would be a limited deity who belongs in a polytheistic pantheon, or collection of animist spirits, not a force or principle of goodness underlying or pervading the universe.

c) Wordless encounter theology is based on a philosophically untenable conception of language. Wordless encounter theologians draw a sharp distinction between language and reality. Reality, including the reality of God, lies according to them beyond language; language is a human tool that only partially grasps, and bends to human use, what is out there.  But from a philosophical perspective, this picture raises a number of questions.
Why suppose that language is merely a human construct, a set of tools to make bits of reality usable for us?  If we know so little about reality in itself, how do we know so much about the reality of language?  So language masters us at least as much as we master it:  the full meaning of our words always lies somewhat beyond us, claimed by emotional valences, and sociological and historical processes, beyond our control.  More fundamental than any of these points is the simple fact that our intentions themselves are always linguistic, so language is always prior to our attempts to control the world, not a mere means for that control.  Language is also prior to our attempts to find out what is in the world:  it provides us with our modes of seeing and hearing, and interpreting what we see and hear, as well as the distinction between reality and illusion by which we determine which of our sensations are veridical. 

Wordless Encounter Paper -Read the Full Essay Here —Part 1, 19 pages

Part II is here

Shaivism to an Outsider

I will begin to answer some of the basic questions about Hinduism that I have been asked by my readers from the start. What do they believe and how does it contrast with Judaism? I will present these basic posts over several months to allow for feedback. (So, therefore next week, I return to blogging about Jewish Orthodoxy and/or Jewish-Christian encounter.)

Hinduism is a variety of denominations and from a Western and more specifically Jewish perspective can even be seen as separate religions in term of both theology and practice. There are the classic major denominational rubrics of Hinduism consisting of Saivism, Vaishnivites, Shaktism, and Smarta as well as the current denominations that one would find in the US like BAPS, Sai Baba, Iskcon , or Sri Chinmoy. I cannot repeat enough that you cannot know anything about Hinduism from the few ancient texts that might have been in your introduction to religion course. We will look first at Saivism.

I lived in a city dedicated to Shiva and on a campus with a major Shiva temple in the center of campus and I was there for the major festival of Mahashivarati. I will come back to the personal stories in a follow-up post. I am treading carefully since this is someone else’s religion. I am not claiming any special knowledge. This is a guide for outsiders, especially my Jewish readership, that will avoid the typical American academic approach. This is specifically a first draft. I will revise this as needed.


Saivism presents itself as the world’s oldest religion, the roots of Siva worship back more than 8,000 years to the advanced Indus Valley civilization. Many aspect of this religion are Dravidian pre-dating any Aryan or Vedic understandings. Historians date the religion to have been formed between 200 BCE to 100 CE, and fully recognized as a branch of Hinduism during the early Gupta period (c. 320 CE). This corresponds roughly to the same era as the Rabbinic scribes and Tannaim. Shaivism is the second largest branch of Hinduism, with over 198,000,000 adherents worldwide. A note on spelling: the pronunciation of Saivism and Siva is with a Sh as if it is written Shaivism. Usually the S has an accent to indicate the SH sound. Since this post is cut and pasted from dozens of sources, it was hard to be consistent here.

The worship is to Shiva as the central deity, a monotheism combined with panentheism, similar to mystical Judaism. Siva is portrayed by Saivites as the compassionate One present everywhere and offering grace or liberation to those who serve Him. “The Lord is one. He is the supreme of all existences and pervades all….He is kindness and love. His kindness is bestowed upon the suffering souls through the medium of His grace.” Shiva is the ultimate reality endowed with omniscience, omnipotence, independence, freedom from sin, benevolence, blissfulness, and purity. Shaivites hold that Lord Shiva performs five actions – creation, preservation, dissolution, concealing grace, and revealing grace.

Saivism sees Siva as a personal God neither male nor female. He is pure love and compassion, immanent and transcendent, pleased by human purity and spiritual practice. There is no incarnations or avatars as in Vaishnavism, no embodied male deity like Krishna since that would make the divine corporeal. On the other hand, they reject the Smartism approach that the divine is impersonal Oneness and the personal deities (Ishvara) are only a concession or a needed instrument.
Saivism does not encourage worship of minor deities. If any benefit is derived by worshipping them, it is only a temporary psychological benefit that will becomes a hindrance to spiritual progress. Whatever historical antecedent of many gods that had once existed has been reduced to all being attributes of Siva.

For spiritual progress and to earn Siva’s Grace, Saivism encourages everyone to develop good qualities such a love to all beings and to imitate Lord Siva who is seen as a personification of wisdom, love, and all good qualities. Here is a theistic hymn to Shiva as Lord of Heaven and Earth as well as personal god.The Lord is beyond all laws of heaven and earth but at the same time he is very near

Oh God Shiva, Oh remover of all problems, Oh personification of truth,
Oh all knower, Oh holy god who lives in every one’s heart,
Oh God who blesses with all types of wealth, Oh friend of people devoted to you,
A lustrous good morning to you, Oh my Lord of the universe.

The foundational text of Shaivism is the Svetasvatara Upanishad (work s such as the Bhagavad Gita are primarily for Vaishnavites). Here is one of the key verses about the lord sustaining the world, while the soul is bound in this world but freed by knowing the divine.

The whole world is the perishable and imperishable, the manifest and the unmanifest joined together —the Lord supports it all. The self (atman) who is not the lord, remains bound because of enjoying. By knowing the divine, one is released from all restriction.

Shaivism make use of rational proofs for the existence of God found in the Indian philosophers. From a Jewish perspective they are not far from Islam, except they have universal reincarnation. The major difference is that the infinite Siva emanates and maintains the world personified by his consort Shakti- who is not considered a separate god from Siva. One could compare Shakti to the real of the kavod, the sefirot, the celestial hierarchy of the medieval Jewish cosmologies. (Christian comparative works treat Shakti as the Logos). In many ways, they fit the category of Tosfot or the Rama in that they worship the God of creation along with an association with other aspects (shituf). Or it can be better understood through the more expansive version of R. Yakov Emden who frames it as accepting an absolute God, a god of gods and not just having intermediaries.

The second major difference is that divine blessings, divine providence, the gift of wisdom, and the gift of children are personified by devas such as Ganesha or Parvati. The store keepers selling clay idols in town as well as everyone on campus was quick to remind me that these cannot be referred to as separate gods if one is a Shivite rather they are devas. A term already translated by medieval Jews when they looked at Hindu religions as angels. Today, they would not be seen as gods or medieval angels, rather personified attributes. In actual practice for the last 200 years, they have been presented in basic works as allegories of ethical struggles, similar to the way S.R. Hirsch, Hertz, or Baeck read prior texts as ethical. [This is unlike the Smarta, with an Absolute above all forms.]

Shaivas often pray to Ganesha for worldly things, reserving prayers to Shiva for worship and asking for spiritual insight, help and advancement. Thus they might ask Ganesha for help in preparing and taking an exam, but ask Shiva to help us see our true spiritual nature.

The final, and for many, the main distinction is the extensive use of images.

Siva in His inherent form is formless. He is manifested in three ways, form without a body, form with body, and form both with and without body. The image of Siva Linga is symbolic of the last category, which is the intermediate stage between the other two.
For the first category, Śaiva texts describe Śiva, the highest aspect of reality, as a stainless void, “One who sees one entity as it really is sees all entities as they really are. One entity has the (same) innate nature as all entities, and all entities have the same innate nature as any single entity.”

The second way with a pictured image, representation of deities is where it is unlike Judaism but do not turn the image into an incarnation or shituf. It is a symbolic image that is not used in Temple worship, the linga is used. Some groups such as the Lingayatism, do not use the images (see below).
In the pictured image, Siva is seated on Nandi, his bull mount, the perfect devotee, Lord Siva holds japa beads and the trident, symbol of love-wisdom-action, and offers blessings of protection and fearlessness. Mount Kailas, His sacred Himalayan abode, represents the pinnacle of consciousness. Shiva has a crescent moon on his head. He is said to be fair like camphor or like an ice clad mountain. He wears five serpents and a garland of skulls as ornaments. Shiva is usually depicted facing the south. His trident, like almost all other forms in Hinduism, can be understood as the symbolism of the unity of three worlds that a human faces – his inside world, his immediate world, and the broader overall world. Shiva is often depicted with a third eye, with which he burned Desire (Kāma) to ashes. When Shiva loses his temper, his third eye opens to reduce most things to ashes. Shiva smears his body with ashes said to represent the end of all material existence.

The third category is the image of Sivalingam, Linga (Sanskrit for “symbol”) is the form in which he is most commonly worshipped and is often the most often misinterpreted symbol. Basically, it is a natural stone or natural pillar. American Temples in the West use beautiful crystals and boulders, many Hindus use an oval or egg shaped polished stone or painted oval figure. From a Biblical perspective, it is a pillar such as used in Genesis and then forbidden to Jews in Deuteronomy. Linga that have formed naturally are some of the most auspicious forms.


Many of the forms are that of a phallic symbol, and is usually the main object of worship in Shaivite temples. The linga is a simple stylized phallus that nearly always rests on pedestal of a stylized yoni, or female sex organ. Together, the linga and yoni represent the power of creative energy and fertility.The linga’s form began to be conventualized during the Gupta period, so that in later periods its original phallic realism was to a considerable degree lost. There are precise rules of proportion to be followed for the height, width, and curvature of the top. Variations include the mukhalinga, with one to five faces of Shiva carved on its sides and top, and the lingodbhavamurti, a South Indian form that shows Siva emerging out of a fiery superiority over Vishnu and Brahma. Some lingas are topped with a cobra, symbolizing the kundalini chakra located at the base of the spine.
Another image of Shiva is the Nataraja, on Western book covers it is probably the most iconic image of Hinduism. Nataraja is Shiva as the multi-armed Lord of the Dance. This image pictures Shiva in the dance of creation, preservation and destruction. In this multi-armed form Shiva holds a drum in one hand, representing creation, the fire of destruction in another. One of his right arms is in the gesture meaning “no fear”, signaling preservation. His fourth arm is held in an elephant trunk like posture, alluding to Ganesha, the removal of obstacles, again showing help and preservation to all people. Dancing Siva is expressive of the highly evolved arts and culture. The art of Siva is extensive but not generally used in Temple worship.

dance of shiva

Four types of Shaivism
Even within this one denomination of Shaivism, there are many subdivisions with major theological distinction. I will present four. Lingayats who do not use images or accept reincarnation, Saiva Siddhanta who want God to free their souls, Kashmir Shaivsm which is a monism, and the Ascetic Shaivism.
Lingayats (also know as Virashaivas)
Lingayatism established in 12th century by social reformer Basavanna makes several departures from mainstream Hinduism. It propounds monotheism and avoid images. It only worships Lord Shiva in the form of linga or Ishtalinga. an oval-shaped emblem symbolizing the absolute reality, It is worn on the body by a cord hung around the neck. They were sold in the campus bookstore.

They also bury the dead rather than cremate them. It also rejects the authority of the Vedas, the caste system and some Hindu beliefs such as reincarnation and karma,


Major Concepts of Saiva Siddhanta
The Saiva Siddhanta School is one of the most ancient schools of Saivism, currently popular mostly in the south.
The three fundamental concepts of this ideology are the divine, the soul, and the bonds of existence. Saiva Siddhanta believes in the three eternal entities of God, Soul and Bondage. These are called Pati, Pasu and Pasam respectively. Pati means Lord (of the souls) who is God. Pasam means bondage of the soul. Pasu means that which is under bondage. All things known and perceived are included in these three categories.

According to Saiva Siddhanta God is one, Souls are many. No two persons or beings are alike, every living being has a personal soul of its own. Bondage consists of three impurities called Anava, Karma, and Maya. God, soul and the bondage are all eternal and real. It has a personal doctrine, (as opposed to the advaita idea that all souls and God are ultimately one). The version of Brahmanism that R. Saadiah is familiar with seems to be some form of this, an eternal creation, with the world as bondage.

Siva is the ultimate and supreme reality, omniscient, omnipresent and unbound. He is Pati, the primal being and the supreme deity. Siva alone is the efficient cause of all creation, evolution, preservation, concealment and dissolution. He brings forth the worlds and their beings through his dynamic power, Shakti.
Anavam is the cause of all inherent negative qualities of the soul, ego, ignorance, hatred, etc. Like tarnish on copper, or the husk on wheat, it has a natural association with the soul. Anavam is spoken of only in Saiva Siddhanta and not in any other Indian philosophies. (Only Jewish adherents of Musar or those who follow medieval ethics of Maimonides have this a major concern of life)

Karma or binding action is the second impurity. It binds the soul to the consequences of its actions. Actions done from a self-less perspective do not bind the soul to the world. But actions done with an egoistic attitude, driven by ones desires, are binding.

Maya, the third impurity, binds the souls (jivas) to the sense objects through desires and ignorance. It is the first cause of all material things. It is real, and not an illusion as in Vedanta philosophy. To perform any karma or action, material objects such as the physical body and worldly things are required. These are created by God from maya. This is akin to a potter making pots from the clay. The physical body is made from maya and given to bind the soul. Modern Siddhanta literature compares maya to the Big Bang theory, in which the universe had an origin from a ‘cosmic egg’ and expanded to the present state. It is an expanding Universe.

The purpose of maya is two fold. First, to subject the souls (jivas) to the conditions of material existence and help them acquire sensory knowledge and material knowledge.

Second, to prepare them for final liberation by subjecting them to the laws of karma and helping them discriminate between right actions and wrong actions so that they can gain merit by doing right actions and avoiding wrong actions.
This is of course a long and tedious process and the souls (jivas) have to spend many lives before they feel the need to work for their liberation.

The difference from Judaism is that Rabbinic Judaism see that we have good and evil inclination, and that both are needed. All is not self-less and free of desire in that without it, a human being would never marry, beget children, build a house, or engage in trade (Gen. R. 9:7). It is only when it gets out of hand that it becomes the cause of harm. An effective antidote is the study and observance of Torah (cf. Kid. 30b). Greatness does not necessarily render a human being immune from the power of the evil inclination, which manifests itself in such traits as vindictiveness and avarice (Sif. Deut. 33), anger (Shab. 105b), and vanity (Gen. R. 22:6). In fact, the greater the man, the stronger are such tendencies apt to be in him. Maimonides’ reading of the garden of Eden of the fall into desire from pure soul is closer to this perspective.

Obligations and Liberation
In this life of maya, the soul evolves through karma and reincarnation from the instinctive-intellectual sphere into virtuous and moral living, then into temple worship and devotion, followed by internalized worship, or yoga, and its meditative disciplines. Union with God Siva comes through the grace of the satguru and culminates in the soul’s maturity in the state of jnana, or wisdom. In contrast, most Vaishnavites believe that religion is the performance of bhakti
In Saiva Siddhanta true liberation is a gift from God and the result of his direct intervention. The soul learns true and false through maya, basically theoretical knowledge or lower knowledge. In every birth, the soul, through its action, gains experience, and through experience gains knowledge. It does not help them to transcend their conditioned minds and experience their true consciousness. It is only when Lord Siva bestows his grace upon them and comes to them in the form of a personal guru.

Liberation is made in four progressive stages of belief and practice called charya, kriya, yoga and jnana.
The path of charya involves serving Lord Siva in a temple or religious place by performing tasks.
The path of kriya involves performing devotional tasks such as worshipping Siva , singing devotional songs, reciting the mantras, narrating stories about Siva or doing personal service to Siva like a son does to his father.
The path of yoga involves practicing yoga exercises (asanas) and meditation and contemplation (dhyana). By following this path one gets an opportunity to live constantly in the company of Siva and become his spiritual companion.
The path of knowledge is the fourth path, considered the most direct path. The other three are actually considered inferior to it. On this path, jnana or knowledge is the mean to become aware of their true Siva consciousness.

After liberation, the liberated soul knows that its intrinsic nature is that of Siva but that it is not Siva or the Supreme Self. Thus in its liberated state it continues to experience some form of duality, while enjoying Siva (pati) consciousness as its true consciousness free from all bonds (pasas).
Judaism spends most of its efforts on the two lower paths, but Maimonides, Kabbalah, and parts of Hasidut focus on the higher two paths. As Alon Goshen-Gottstein pointed out, the learning done in an ashram is as if we had a program of all Kabbalah and Hasidut.

In Saivism, the soul needs to perfect itself and then it merits liberation. In contrast, rabbinic texts allow greater moral latitude and laxity because the Jewish God in Rabbinic literature is ever patient, ever forgiving, long-suffering, and even takes bribes. Here too, the Maimonidean world-to-come based on knowledge and conjunction is closer to Hinduism. Also Kabbalists such as R. Azriel of Gerona and the Ramak share this spiritualization.

Kashmir Shavism
Kashmīr Śaivism: codified by Vasugupta (ca 800), is mildly theistic, but intensely monistic school, a well-known branch is Pratyabhijñā . Besides having ordinary traditional worshippers it is attractive to foreign outsiders and many intellectuals as a form of Hinduism similar to monistic immanence and identity of humans with God as found in Hasidut. I hear there are currently several Israeli Kabbalah scholars looking into the similarities.

The central thesis of this philosophy is that everything is Shiva, absolute consciousness, and it is possible to re-cognize this fundamental reality and be freed from limitations and immersed in bliss.

Thus, the slave (pasu – the human condition) becomes the master (pati – the divine condition), a self-realization that God is within one’s own soul. It believes that all reality, including Shiva and Shakti, is mirrored in the human soul and that recognizing this image is the means of liberation. This is like acknowledging that the sefort or the higher unity are states of the soul- Think of Rav Zadok Hakohen, Komarno, or the Mittler. The inner core of a person is consciousness which is identical with Shiva

Unlike Advaitan teachings in Kashmir Shaivism, God has volition, reality and maya are real, humans souls are limited, and yoga is a tool not a an end or method unto itself

Shavite Asceticism
Shavism has long been connected with rigorous asceticism. Many yogis, ashram, and holy men are shavites. They go beyond the personal relationship with the Lord who will liberate them by living a life beyond the categories of life and death. Well known are the naked ascetic Nagas. These form of Shaivism is almost the opposite of the aforementioned householder form of good deeds and knowledge leading to liberation. The ascetics are living to show that they are already above the world.
Prominent are the Aghori who deliberately contravene moral norms. They engage in unsavory activity– ghastly acts to show they are outside the realm of the house holder such as eating their food from a human skull, or covering their body with ashes of the dead, Do not conflate this version with the householder version described above.

This aspect contributes to the colorful folk religion and memorable street life of a Saivism event. It also colors events such major events- the last one had 12 million people attend- as the Kumbh Mela, the event every four years when the ascetics recruit.


Sahivites downplay the ancient Vedic canon in favor of later and for them more profound works, leaving the Western reader in the dark about their religion. There are extensive Shaivite Agamas of 28 volumes, a collection of provides instructions for the worship of Shiva. There principal collections of sacred narrative are the Shiva Purana, the Linga Purana, the Skanda Purana, Also many hymns and devotional books.

The first known guru of Saiva Siddhanta tradition was Nandinatha, (c. 250 BC Kashmir. He left behind a compilation of twenty-six Sanskrit verses called the Nandikesvara Kasika, in which he laid down the basic tenets of Saiva Siddhanta school. Tirumular, who composed Tirumandiram in Tamil and introduced the Nandinatha tradition to the people of southern India. He was instrumental in making Saivism popular in the south by emphasizing the devotional aspect. The 11th century AD Tirumurai is an authoritative source of Saiva Siddhanta literature.

Tirumular’s work was carried forward by subsequent devotional saints such as Appar, Sundarar, Sambandhar, whose works are preserved in Tevaram (the first seven volumes of the Tirumurai, the twelve-volume collection of Tamil Śaiva devotional poetry.) These saints moved from place to place and temple to temple, singing the glory of Siva and making Saivism a popular movement
Nayanars were a group of 63 saints (also saint poets) in the 6th to 8th century- Tamils saints writings are more important than your western religion book

Manikkavacakar, who came after these great saints, contributed substantially to the popularity and theology of Saiva Siddhanta school in the south. His work is preserved in the collection of poems known as Tiruvasagam.There are also the lives of the Saiva saints Periyapuranum, and Umapati’s Shivaprakasham (“Lights on Shiva”) in the 14th century.

Unless you have read selections from this Tamil literature then you have not read anything relevant for the Shaivite religion.

Finally, Western interest was to try and make Hinduism into Christianity. Many Western books include a discussion of the Trimurti, somehow implying that the Hindus worship multiple gods this can be understood as similar to the Christian Trinity.
The Trimūrti is an image of Siva as three faced, as three forms of the same God in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver and Shiva the destroyer or transformer. They are personified attributes. There are very few places in Indian literature where the Trimurti is mentioned. In fact the parallel is not very close, and the Hindu trinity, unlike the Trinity of Christianity, never really “caught on”. The other forms of Hinduism such as Vaishnavism generally do not accept the Trimurti concept at all. It is many know from unique archeological sites such as the 7th century, Trimurti Cave , alight atop a steep cliff, in Mahabalipuram. The theologies of these sites do not reflect current Hinduism, even if they make great book covers.

Dovid Sears review of Yoel Glick- Part 2

Part II Living The Life of Jewish Meditation by Yoel Glick – part 2
Reviewed by Dovid Sears

For Part I of this book review, click here.

This might seem a little off-subject in a book about meditation, but given the this-worldly drift of Judaism and the vast corpus of Talmudic law (which Rabbi Glick studied under Rav Soloveitchik), there might have been some mention of the need to integrate nistar, the “inner” and mystical dimension of Judaism, with nigleh, the “outer” practices of Torah study, the mitzvot and addressing our worldly responsibilities. The latter too have a mystical side. As early Chassidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib Hakohen points out in Or Gannuz la-Tzaddikim: “And it was when the Ark set forth… And when it rested… This alludes to two forms of divine service, action and contemplation. And each accomplishes its own tikkunim (spiritual corrections)…”

There is a kind of “meditation in action” that goes along with all of the mitzvot, as the elaborate kavannot (mystical intentions) of the Arizal’s indicate. Indeed, Chassidic tradition has it that the Baal Shem Tov employed kavannot of his own devising for even such mundane activities as smoking his pipe. Since the Creator is omnipresent, and the “koach ha-po’el bi-nifal” (i.e., the Creator’s power imbues every speck of creation), even our most ordinary actions contain a potential for the holy. This is an area of Jewish spirituality that Living Jewish Meditation mentions only in passing, but which deserves far more attention. For this is where the symbiosis of nigleh and nistar is most evident.

The late Rabbi Avraham Yurevitch, a prominent halakhic authority and Chassidic kabbalist in the Toldos Aharon community of Jerusalem, includes this in a discussion of mystical practice in his Darkei ha-Hasagah (p. 203):

“Also regarding the mitzvot, there are two strata: 1) internal and 2) external. The externality of the mitzvah is the basic act of the mitzvah, while the internality of the mitzvah is the matter of the kavanah [intention with which it is performed]. And a mitzvah lacking in kavanah is like a body without a soul. Surely there is no possibility of developing spirituality from the physical act of the mitzvah; rather, one must ensure that the act of the mitzvah will affect the consciousness of the person—that the mitzvah transforms the person’s state of mind, so that it leaves the category of shevirah (alienation; “brokenness,” corresponding to the Shattering of the Vessels in Lurianic kabbalah) and enters the category of tikkun. This is attained by preparing “vessels” that are fit to come to a state of nullification to the Blessed One [i.e., through one’s spiritual preparations]…”

While Yoel’s quotes from non-Jewish mystics are well-chosen and often moving, I must mention that I fail to see what place there is in a book about Jewish meditation for Ramakrishna’s claim that he and his inner circle were reincarnations of Jesus and the original Christians (mentioned on p. 214). With all due respect to both Ramakrishna and righteous Christians, the Indian mystic’s identification with a sect that rejected Chazal, deemed the “Law” passé, deified their leader, and whose scriptures were piously read aloud while their medieval co-religionists burned Jews alive in the town square is not very endearing to Jewish readers with any consciousness of our history. (I imagine that Ramakrishna had little or no awareness of any of this. And if he was a reincarnation of Jesus, I hope that he told his followers to lay off the Jews this time around.)

photo (c) D. Sears

In conclusion, Living Jewish Meditation is a clear and well-written volume that should speak to any Jewish seeker who has explored Eastern wisdom and who now wishes to enter the path of the Jewish mystics. It is intelligently structured and eminently usable. And one immediately senses that Yoel Glick’s words come from the heart and from “living the life” of Jewish (and non-Jewish) meditation.

But frankly, the book is a sort of Parah Adumah – the Red Heifer used in the Holy Temple, the ashes of which would “purify the impure” (those rendered tamei, or ritually impure through contact with the dead) but “defile the pure” (those who performed the rite of purification). For those Jews who have never ventured into other religious teachings and spiritual disciples, there is no need for this synthesis. The term “kabbalah” means “that which has been received,” and our traditions both exoteric and esoteric have been preserved in their purity, from master to disciple, by our tzaddikim vi-anshei ma’aseh, those who bear and actually personify these ancient traditions. To be sure, Jewish meditation is still a somewhat “secret” tradition, but it is nevertheless alive and well if one is willing to search diligently for it.

photo (c) D. Sears

Postscript: The Quest for Enlightenment

  1. Is there currently a Jewish realized being who is teaching meditation that we can learn from?

YG: Sadly, there is not. We are producing lots of wonderful scholars and even the occasional spiritual genius, but no enlightened beings. Enlightened beings and those who seek to attain that state are the soul of a religion. It is time for us to admit that we have a problem, instead of just saying how good we are at this worldly activity.

In his interview on this blog, Rabbi Glick bluntly states that there are no “realized beings” or “enlightened” teachers in the Jewish world today. This strikes me as a presumptuous remark from a person who does not strike me as a presumptuous man. First of all, who knows? And second of all, what do we mean by “enlightened?”

This term is usually associated with various Eastern religions, which don’t all conceive enlightenment the same way. In Judaism, our tradition speaks of da’at (knowledge, or da’at elyon (sublime knowledge), or “seeing the World to Come in one’s lifetime” (as in Berakhot 17a). These terms seem to approximate the enlightenment concept, but even then, their meanings are not entirely clear.

However, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s description of the goal of hitbodedut-meditation does seem to fit the bill. In Likutey Moharan I, 52 (“Hanei’or Ba-laylah”),  he speaks of hitbodedut, which is an inner path of self-examination and personal prayer, conducted alone and ideally in the fields or forests at night, and how one may systematically work through and transmute all of one’s negative emotions and traits. The goal of this process is to annihilate the very root of ego that lies at the core of all negativity and thus realize the “chiyyuv ha-metiziyut,” the “Imperative Existent” (a term apparently borrowed from the Rambam—see B. Naor’s essay in the appendix of Shir Na’im: A Song of Delight, Orot 2006), more loosely translated as the Divine “Essence of Reality.” This does seem to parallel the enlightenment experience described by at least some Eastern mystics.

As for “who’s who” among the Jewish enlightened, I surely can’t say, and neither can Rabbi Glick. But we have had many awesome tzaddikim, even in our benighted times, who were and are known for behaviors understood to be signs of spiritual elevation, and even for their ruach ha-kodesh (divine inspiration) and knowledge of hidden things. It is troubling to hear that such a baal mevakesh, an obviously sincere spiritual seeker, could live in Jerusalem for years but not succeed in finding such tzaddikim; rather, he needed to leave the Holy Land and sit at the feet of Hindu and Buddhist teachers in Europe in order to realize his spiritual goals. I have immense respect for all sorts of teachers and do not deny that truth and beauty may be found in many quarters. But Yoel’s professed inability to find Jewish teachers of sufficiently high caliber and his woeful conclusion about enlightenment ratings of those he encountered invites the saying of Chazal: “If someone tells you that they tried but did not succeed, don’t believe them!” (Megillah 6b). It is true that most contemporary rabbis and teachers of Torah are not on that lofty rung—but isn’t that inevitably the case? Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai stated, “I have seen bnei aliyah (‘people who are up there’), and they are few” (Sukkah 45b). And he was a Tanna, a sage of the Mishnah. One who seeks one of those rare teachers must be willing to keep searching and not give up, like the Viceroy in Rabbi Nachman’s story “The Lost Princess.” Even when the three giants in the seemingly endless wasteland tell him to give up and go home, he stubbornly perseveres.

Yoel mentions that his primary Jewish teacher, even during his time at YU, was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who gave him semichah. It is well-known that Shlomo revered all tzaddikim, past and present, and had close relationships with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Gedaliah Kenig of Breslov, the previous and present Amshinover Rebbes, and many others. He especially loved to tell stories, often accompanied by his melodies, of the tzaddikim of old, whom he surely saw as possessing higher consciousness, and indeed as “larger than life” – zikhronam liverakha. I’m sure that Yoel shares these sentiments, despite his remarks above.

In my own life I have witnessed some astounding examples of “matters that stand in the heights of the universe,” devarim ha-omdim be-rumo shel olam, from my teacher, Rav Elazar Mordechai Kenig, leader of the Breslov kehillah in Tsfat. I have swapped such stories with a close friend and neighbor who has had some profound encounters with the previous and present Amshinover Rebbes in Bnei Brak. There are countless testimonies about the wondrous powers – and the even more extraordinary human virtues – of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zatzal. Friends who grew up in Williamsburg have regaled me with tales of the holiness, compassion and piety of Reb Hershele of Spinka, zatzal, whom I was privileged to meet privately some thirty years ago. I have heard the same kinds of things about the Rimnitzer Rebbe, zatzal, and the Skulener Rebbe, zatzal. Another friend who was a close disciple of Reb Osher Freund, zatzal, could speak for days on end of his saintly mentor’s devotions to the Creator and kindness to all those who sought his help, spiritually or materially. And the list goes on.

There are still respected figures in the Chassidic world who teach meditation (hitbodedut, or hitbonenut, or whatever they may call the forms of meditation they practice), including Rabbi Yitzchak Moshe Ehrlanger of Jerusalem, author of the encyclopedic multi-volume Sheva Einayim on these subjects; Rabbi Meir Yehudah Yurevitch, leader of the “Vitebsk” chaburah in Jerusalem and son of the late Rabbi Avraham Yurevitch, zatzal (some of whose teachings have been published as Arvat Nachal, which includes the above-mentioned Darkei ha-Hasagah on mystical practice, pp. 184-212); Breslov teacher Rabbi Avraham Zvi Kluger of Jerusalem, author of Yichud HaHitbodedut; among others. Also the late Sefardic kabbalist Rabbi Shmuel Darzi, zatzal. Again, the “enlightenment” or degree of enlightenment of these individuals is unknown, and I don’t believe that they are infallible (which in any case is not the way we view tzaddikim—even the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and Moses himself were not infallible); but surely they are all people of spiritual stature.

I am not so familiar with who’s who in Lubavitch today, but early on Chabad developed an intellectual form of meditation or contemplation which is outlined in the Mittler Rebbe’s Ner Mitzvah vi-Torah Ohr/ Kuntres ha-Hitbonenut and other works. Given the centrality of “ein ode milvado” (the nondual doctrine of that “God is everything, and everything is God”—yet the Creator transcends creation entirely) in Chabad teachings and the methods the Chabad Rebbes forged for the attainment of its realization, there must be people who have mastered them and who teach them today.

photo (c) D. Sears

One may ask: Why isn’t there greater emphasis on the quest for enlightenment—da’at, sekhel, hasagah or whatever term we may use for it—in Judaism as compared with Hinduism and Buddhism? This is what bothers Yoel Glick, and I sympathize with his feelings. The relative obscurity of the goal of inner transformation (especially as described above in our citations from the Baal Shem Tov and other early Chassidic masters) in the Jewish world today is due to a variety of factors. One answer might be that first and foremost, the Torah wants our avodah, our divine service, whether in Torah study or performance of the mitzvot and good deeds or prayer—even if in terms of higher consciousness we often “can’t see the forest through the trees.” And this task is meant for all, not just a mystical elite. Perhaps we can read this into the verse: “I was senseless and ignorant; I was a beast before You—yet I am with You continually…” (Psalms 72:23-24). Yet, the kabbalists explain, our avodah in Torah and mitzvot is what cleanses and perfects the soul and ultimately the entire world (particularly when it is an avodah tamah, a “complete service” in the sense of being carried out with the proper kavanot). Hence, this is our great collective spiritual task and our focal point. And when as a result of such labors in the Torah and mitzvot, or due to meditation and contemplation, or simply a divine gift, the Jew experiences a spiritual ascent, the rest of creation ascends as well (Likutey Moharan I, 52 s.v. “im kol ha-olam”; 234 s.v. “aliyat ha-olamot”).

Dovid Sears review of Yoel Glick- Part I

I have been an acquaintance of Reb Dovid Sears for many years. Here he pens a review of Yoel Glick’s recent book Living The Life of Jewish Meditation. Below is part I offering a few choice opening words and then provide Jewish texts parallel the Hindu ones cited by Glick. In Part II, Sears will offer a few critiques including a deep questioning of Glick’s neglect of Jewish teachers.

Living The Life of Jewish Meditation by Yoel Glick 
Reviewed by Dovid Sears

Dovid Sears is an author/translator, Breslov teacher and visual artist. He founded the Breslov Center of New York in 1997 under the aegis of Rav Kenig of Tsfat, and is the creator of the Solitude-Hisbodedus website, an online archive on Jewish meditation. His books include Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition (1998); The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism (2002, about to be republished through Amazon); The Breslov Pirkey Avot (2012); and many others. His latest book is The Water Castle (Breslov Research Institute 2014). -The photos below are Sear’s.

photo (c) D. Sears

When I was asked me to review Yoel Glick’s new guide to Jewish meditation for this blog, I must admit that I didn’t expect much. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. While boldly eclectic in its synthesis of Indian mysticism and its Jewish mystical core, this is not just another New Age mishmash. Yoel Glick has done his homework and produced a worthwhile book. Plus he speaks as a genuine practitioner and also as a rabbi who in his youth studied at YU. But his spiritual quest has taken him far and wide.

Although this was supposed to be a book review, I’d rather confine myself to commenting on a few random points that caught my attention. I’ll also pass on discussing perennialism and mystical pluralism. These views, as conditioned by the author’s study of Advaita Vedanta, are reflected throughout the book, but especially in the Introduction, Chapter 12 (“Two Paths to the Supreme”) and “The Protective Influence of the Divine Kingdom” (pp. 196-187). To religious Jewish readers, this is probably the most controversial issue in Yoel Glick’s book—because what he has written is indeed a synthesis of ideas and practices, albeit with a Jewish core. And he segues from Shankara to Rumi to the Baal Shem on the turn of a rupee.

The particular combination of mystical teachings presented here seems to reflect the author’s personal journey, and does not attempt to be comprehensive or academic. Again, Yoel is a practitioner who is speaking to kindred spirits—of whom there are more than a few these days. On the one hand, more traditional Orthodox readers (myself among them) would fault him for his Hindu, Buddhist and to a lesser extent, Christian, Sufi and other referents, particularly when there are similar quotes from Jewish masters (and from the range of Chassidic and Kabbalistic texts the author cites, I think he knows those Jewish sources). Chazal state, “If someone tells you that other nations possess wisdom, believe him. If someone tells you that other nations have the Torah, do not believe him” (Eikhah Rabbah). Accordingly, in presenting the Torah’s teachings, we need have no recourse to other religious traditions, whatever their merits may be. On the other hand, Yoel Glick’s meditation manual is not a mainstream book for mainstream readers, and his quotes from other forms of mysticism will speak to many contemporary seekers. It seems that Yoel elected to go this way because these diverse religious thinkers are among his own teachers, whether through personal relationships or through their writings, and this is how he “hears the music.”

Perhaps a few more parallel sources deserve mention (although this is another one of those seemingly endless tasks, and I’m only mentioning what immediately comes to mind). If Yoel had wished to do so, he could have used such teachings in the place of a number of those taken from other traditions.

I must add that I’m listing these additional Jewish sources matter-of-factly, but when I first came across many of them, they knocked me off my feet!

Glick 22: “The rousing of our will is founded upon a tangible awareness of the truth of our innate divinity.” Then Yoel quotes Swami Chidananda: “To be like God is the natural ability of every individual soul. The ability to shine as God—sublime and radiant—is the natural heritage of one and all.”

Compare: Rav Moshe Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah, the classic 16th century kabbalistic ethical treatise on emulating the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy (“yud-gimmel mechilin de-rachamey”) and the ten sefirot in both our inner work and our relations with others. This emulation of God is only possible because we are all created in the “Divine Image.”

Glick 26-27: The Tibetan yogi Milarepa on “wrong intention” (which in his case involved the use of sorcery during his youth):

Compare: Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that his master the Arizal stood opposed to the use of “kabbalah ma’asiyut,” meaning the sort of kabbalistic “white magic” found in various medieval writings (e.g., see Shaarey Kedushah, beginning)—and needless to say actual sorcery, which is a Torah prohibition. The most obvious reason for the Arizal’s opposition to kabbalah ma’asiyut would be the spiritual dangers involved, but it may also be because this is a sidetrack for those on the spiritual path.

According to Chassidism, the risks of “wrong intention” are described in even more subtle ways. For example: “Many attempted to emulate Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, but were not successful” (Berakhot 35b). The Baal Shem Tov taught: They wanted to mortify themselves in order to reach the level of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai—and that it why they were not successful. One’s intent in divine service should be to gratify the Creator alone, not to attain madreigot (spiritual levels or powers) (Tzava’at ha-RIVaSH 47).

The Mittler Rebbe of Lubavitch stressed that even to seek religious ecstasy as a goal unto itself is a form of ego-gratification; rather ecstasy must always be a natural, uncontrived by-product of contemplation (Kuntres ha-Hitpa’alut).

Glick 36-37: Anagarika Munindra’s taught: ““If the rock-breaker strikes the stone ninety-nine times and it doesn’t break, yet it breaks on the hundredth strike, were the first ninety-nine wasted? Perhaps all ninety-nine strikes were needed before the stone would break, but at the ninety-ninth strike you may feel like you are making no progress at all.”

Compare: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s analogy of the “hundred year tree” that shows no signs of growth until after a century it suddenly explodes into full bloom. Sometimes we need to build a “komah sheleimah,” a complete spiritual structure, before we can see the results of our long and arduous efforts (Likutey Moharan II, 48).

Glick 38: Swami Ashokananda advocates “serene strength”: “Balanced strength is the true strength. It is like the serene surface of a calm lake. It goes deep, deep. One feels one can give oneself to it and be held securely. If necessary, serene strength can raise waves mountain high.”

Compare: The Gemara (Shabbat 77b) tells how Rabbi Zeira asked Rabbi Yehuda, “Why is the antenna of the locust soft?” The second sage replied, “Because it lives in the willows, and if its antenna were hard, it would snap when it strikes the wood, blinding the locust—because as Rabbi Shmuel taught, the locust’s vision depends upon its antennae.” Similarly in Ta’anit 20b, Chazal observe that one should always be “soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar.” In describing the “serene strength” that one must cultivate in dealing with the ups and downs of life and the difficult conundrums that beset us, Rabbi Natan cites these sources; see Likutey Halakhot, Hil. Eruvey Techumin, Halakhah 6.

Glick 46: “Breathing: The Rhythm of Life” presents the breath as a meditative focal point.

Compare:  “the long breath” that “fills all lacks,” as discussed in Likutey Moharan I, 60; and the confluence between the prajna-like cosmic breath and the “krekhtz” or sigh in Likutey Moharan I, 8.

Glick 50: yogic meditation on chakras and their parallel with sefirot:

Compare: the Komarno Rebbe’s meditation on the array of Divine Names and sefirot as corresponding to the human form in Heikhal ha-Berakhah (also mentioned below). I once translated a small excerpt from his collected meditations and posted it here. Alan Brill has already noted these Tantric and kabalistic parallels, as posted here.

Glick 52: mantras and formal prayer texts:

Compare: The Baal Shem Tov teaches that in uttering the words of prayer, one must concentrate in order to create a yichud (unification) with each word. This creates a bond with the Shekhinah, since all holy speech is an expression of the Shekhinah (see Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Noach, “Amud HaTefillah”).

Rabbi Nachman also describes how each letter and word of prayer begs the one who utters it to not forget it; yet one must continue praying and not remain stationary. Therefore, one must make “echad,” a unity of the entire prayer—so that paradoxically, one both continues to add more letters and words, but never leaves the preceding letters and words behind. See Likutey Moharan I, 65 (which Rabbi Glick mentions elsewhere in his book).

Glick 55: the role of music in spiritual practice:

Compare: the Rambam’s association of music with prophecy in Mishneh Torah, Yesodey ha-Torah 7:4; also Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi in Kuzari, Ma’amar II, 50. In this spirit, the Baal Shem Tov praised music as a vehicle for deveykut, cleaving to God. He expounds on the verse, “When the musician played (kinagen ha-menagen), the hand of God came upon him” (II Kings 3:15). That is, when the musician plays “like an instrument (kinagen ha-menagen),” unselfconsciously and with no self-serving motives, then “the hand of God will rest upon him.”

Rabbi Nachman describes singing and chanting in prayer as creating “radiant garments for the Shekhinah”; Likutey Moharan I, 42. Also see Lesson 237 about Levi, neginah and deveykut. Contemporary Rabbi Shmuel Stern, who is both a Rosh Yeshivah and composer-musician, has written an entire volume on music and mysticism, “Shir Binah.”

Glick 58: Ramana Maharshi on the Self and “making room”: “They fill the mind with all sorts of impressions and then say there is no room for the Self in it. If all the false ideas and impressions are swept away and thrown out, what remains is a feeling of plenty and that is the Self itself. Then there will be no such thing as a separate ‘I’; it will be a state of egolessness.”

Compare: In addition to the Breslov sources Yoel brings, there is a related (although somewhat different) teaching in Likutey Moharan I, 110, on not “corporealizing” (hagshamah) the Torah one learns by approaching it as “me” getting “information.” Then the information “takes up space.” However, when one learns for the sake of the One who gave the Torah, the new information won’t displace the old, because none of it occupies space. (The way Rabbi Nachman proposes in that lesson to overcome the tendency to corporealize is through fasting.)

Both teachings above regard the ego as the root of the problem. Rabbi Aharon of Karlin cites the The Baal Shem Tov as having taught, “If not for his ego, a person would apprehend [Godliness] like the Tannaim and Amoraim” (Beit Aharon, “Seder ha-Yom”).

photo (c) D. Sears

Glick 64: meditative visualization:

Compare: Sichot HaRan 62 (which I translated in “The Tree That Stands Beyond Space,” pp. 60-61, as “Thought is Potent”). There, Rabbi Nachman discuses how intense concentration can enable one to achieve a desired goal—even to the point of making something happen in the world through concentration alone. He also applies this principle to the attainment of one’s goals in Torah study.

Glick 83-84: As they sit beside a pool, Sri Ramakrishna tells his disciple, “Look at the fish. Meditating on the formless God is like swimming joyfully like these fish, in the Ocean of Bliss and Consciousness.”

Compare: the Baal Shem Tov’s metaphor of a pearl diver for one who meditatively prays: The diver who must hold his breath as he submerges himself in the sea; yet it is not enough to remain underwater—he must search for pearls. These are the words of prayer one utters in an expanded state of consciousness. The same principal also extends to Torah study and all religious acts in light of the realization that in truth, everything is Godliness. See Ohr ha-Gannuz la-Tzaddikim, Mattot (which I translated in The Path of the Baal Shem Tov, pp. 26-27). (The most conspicuous difference between the two teachings seems to be that the Baal Shem Tov addresses “meditation in action” re. prayer and other forms of avodah; see Part II.)

Glick 141: “Remembering” / Sufism, Rumi / zkhir:

Compare: Rabbi Nachman’s concept of “remembering the World to Come”—which alludes to the Divine Oneness that transcends the world of our ordinary, time-bound experience; see Likutey Moharan I, 54.

Glick 142: Ramana Maharshi: “When the harmonium … is being played there is a constant note that is called the sruti. Along with that, other notes also come out. If the ear is fixed on this note that is constant, then, while listening to the other notes, that original note cannot be forgotten. Actually, that first note gives strength to all the other notes.”

Compare: Likutey Moharan I, 22, on Direct Sound and Echo, upon which Rabbi Natan elaborates in Likutey Halakhot, Hil. Periyah ve-Rivyah, Halakhah 3, sec. 19 and 21 (translated in the Breslov Pirkey Avot, Part II, as “Sound and Echo,” “Listening to the Unheard Sound,” and “Ten Types of Song,” pp. 329-331).

It is likely that, as in Indian music, the drone is used to evoke a sense of the mystical “one note” in some early Chassidic niggunim, such as the Maggid of Mezeritch’s melody (“Maggid”) that Andy Statman recorded on his Shanachie CD, “Music of the Jewish Mystics,” and also “Reb Michel Zlotchover’s Niggun” on the live recording of his Bremen Concert, “On Air” (Tradition and Moderne).

Glick 144: Yoel quotes the verse “Hashem tzilkha,” G-d is your shadow. The Baal Shem Tov also expounds on this verse, although in a different sense: that whatever we do is “shadowed” by G-d: “God is your shadow…” (Psalms 121:4). When a person treats another in this lowly world with love and virtue, the Supernal King treats him the same way—like a shadow. Whenever a person moves, so does his shadow. Thus does the Creator relate to man. Thus it is written, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself (kamokha), I am God” (Leviticus 19:18)—that is, “kamokha,” as you show love, “so do I, God” (Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Kedoshim 21).

Glick 152-153: equanimity:

Compare: To the best of my knowledge, the term hishta’avut (equanimity) is not used until prior to the Rishonim, but I think the same concept is found in the Gemara (Berakhot 60b). There, Chazal expound on the verse, “When [God is revealed as] Y-H-V-H, I will praise His word; [when God is revealed as] ELoHYM I will praise His word” (Psalms 56:1). That is, whether we experience God’s mercy (Y-H-V-H) or judgement (ELoHYM), we should respond the same way—with praise. Rabbi Nachman cites this Gemara in Likutey Moharan I, 33, which deals with finding the “good days” within the “bad days,” i.e., the nondual within duality.

The Baal Shem Tov relates hishta’avut to the verse, “I have placed (shiviti, which may be homiletically related to hishta’avut) God before myself always” (Psalms 16:8). Whatever happens, one should say, “Does this not come from the Blessed One? If so, should it not be acceptable to me?” (Tzava’at ha-Rivash 2). (Prior to the Chassidic movement, hishta’avut is mentioned in Chovot ha-Levavot, Me’irat Einayim, Reishit Chokhmah, and Maggid Mesharim, among other sources.) Rabbi Avraham Maimonides, the Rambam’s son, also discusses this concept in his classic Sefer HaMaspik le-Ovdey Hashem.

Glick 175: “Perhaps the greatest of the inner changes that emerge after union is the ability to see through the Universal Mind of God … In this state of union with the Mind of God, the whole world and all of the heavens are in the grasp of these transcendental actors.”

Compare: Likutey Moharan I, 61 on the consciousness of the tzaddik as one with Chokhmah Ila’ah (Supernal Wisdom), which he also describes as the sekhel ha-kollel, all-encompassing or universal mind. Similarly, in L”M II, 72, he speaks of the moach ha-kollel, which seems to be the same thing; see there. Rabbi Nachman discusses the concepts of “Torat Hashem” (invoking Psalms 1:20 and ma’amarey Chazal from both the Bavli and Yerushalmi) and “tefillat Hashem” (as in Isaiah 56:7) in the sense of the individual becoming a vehicle for the Divine through Torah study and prayer (Likutey Moharan I, 22, sec. 10)

Glick 181: “realized souls” and universality:

Compare: These terms seem to parallel many teachings about the souls of the tzaddikim, particularly those of the highest level. In modern times, Rav Kook is distinguished for giving voice to such universality. For example:

“Great souls cannot dissociate themselves from the most universal concerns. All they desire and aspire for is the universal good, universal in its comprehensiveness, universal in its full width, height and depth… The higher unification, in which everything finds its completion, rests on the influence of the knowledge of God and the love of God, from which it necessarily derives, to the extent that one has embraced it. When the knowledge of God is suffused by a great love, when it is pervaded by its true illumination, according to the capacity of each soul to receive it, there radiates from its absolute light a love for the world, for all worlds, for all creatures, on all levels of their being. A love for all existence fills the hearts of the good and kindly ones among creatures, and among humans. They yearn for the happiness of all, they hope that all may know light and joy. They draw into themselves the love for all existence, differentiated into its many forms of being, from the higher love for God, from the love of absolute and total perfection in the Cause of all, who created and sustains everything” (translated by Ben Zion Bokser in his Paulist Press anthology, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, “Lights of Holiness,” pp. 226-228 / Orot HaKodesh, Vol. II, pp. 456 457)

Similar sentiments may be found in the writings of Rav Kook’s contemporary and friend, Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, author of the “Sulam” translation of the Zohar, Talmud Esser Sefirot, and other important kabbalistic works.

As for specific meditative techniques, Yoel might have added the one at the end of Rav Chaim Vital’s Shaarey Kedushah, sec. 3, for attaining ruach ha-kodesh, which was posted on the Solitude-Hisbodedus website, as translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

Or see the expanded version in Sefer HaBris, Chelek II, Maamar 8 and Maamar 11 (in the section of the book about the mysteries of prophecy). Yet these meditations would be inappropriate for those who have not prepared and perfected themselves according to the extremely demanding instructions in the main part of Shaarey Kedushah. (Which is probably why the Lubavitcher Rebbe – unlike Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan – did not recommend Kabbalistic meditation for the masses, but only meditation as a therapeutic aid and a relaxation technique.

Many of the visualizations in Living Jewish Meditation are the author’s creations, although based on traditional sources and concepts (as in the section “Meditation on the Name”). For those who can understand their intricate kabbalistic meanings, there is an entire volume of such meditations (in Hebrew) printed in large type designed for actual practitioners in Rabbi Eliyahu Ovadiah’s Be’er Eliyahu: Achdut Ha-Olamot, derived from mystical writings of the Komarno Rebbe found in Heikhal ha-Berakhah. However, this is not for beginners. What Rabbi Glick has accomplished is that he has simplified such methods in order to create Jewish meditative techniques with an “open admissions policy.”

photo (c) D. Sears

Ritual Wrist Washing

For several months, I sat one day a week ending drafts of chapters of a book while facing the hand washing station in a local establishment. I noticed what seemed to me like a new phenomenon.  People were doing the Jewish ritual hand washing by only pouring the water on their wrists or occasionally they cupped their hands and poured the water into their palms and then tossed it. The correct approach is pour the water on the fingers or to make sure they are included.

handwashing correct

Traditional Jewish hand washing before the eating of bread is to imitate the priestly washing of hands in the temple. The fingers need to have a specific measure of water poured on them in order to purify them.  As a praiseworthy greater act, one washes up to the wrists. Hands are then held upward to prevent impure water falling on the fingers. This washing is in distinction to the alternating washing done in the morning or at a cemetery.

What I watch was a steady tend of people pouring the water solely on their wrists and the fingers remaining dry or only some of the fingers getting wet.  Or they poured the water into a cupped palm in which some of the fingers only became wet by the splash. What is up with that?

When I noticed the phenomena, I started to look at the people. I have no specific tallies but the Israelis wash their hands correctly. The younger Americans quickly splashed water on their wrists. Has anyone else seen this? Is it because of the large number of incorrect web images? For example, see here at MyJewish Learning.


Or are people learning from irrelevant pictures?

hand wash incorrect

 Hindu Tantra and Kabbalistic Judaism

There are lots of websites attempting to create parallels between kabbalah and American Tantric chakras. These sites take a chart of ten sefirot and combine it with the new age chakra chart. These chakra charts are part of a modern Western appropriation of Hindu ideas as Western Tantra. They owe their origin to John Woodroffe (1865–1936), writing about tantra under the pen name Arthur Avalon. And from the 1970’s onward tantra became in the Western new age literature the essence of Hinduism as well as a guide to good sex. But let us turn to the historical forms. This is a first attempt and may undergo changes.


The chart above is entirely Western Orientalism. In actual Hinduism, an intention to a higher realm or visualization while performing a ritual is tantra; when a kabbalist intends that a ritual reaches a sefirah that is a similar activity.

Tantra is the name given by scholars to a style of meditation and ritual in which they are combined. The term Tantra literally means woven because in the practice of tantric intentions one is weaving together a religious action with a specific intention. A tantric intention goes beyond the simple intention that one is doing the required ritual in relation to the divine as an intentional act (kamata) or as a commanded act  (samkalpa).  In tantra, one has to have a specific intention during a ritual to a vision or higher realm.

Therefore, when a Jewish text wants one have an intention that goes beyond intention to do a mizvah, a kavvanah for a mitzvah for a sefirah such as the shekhinah or tiferet, it is a form of tantra since it requires one to weave a specific religious action with a specific intention.

The real definition of Tantra, however, is the practices contained in the vast Agamic literature; Tantra is another name for the Agamic literature that contains the basic Temple ritual and daily worship rituals that most Hindu denominations use. Hindu Temples do not follow the Vedas or even the Sutras, rather they follow this vast corpus called the Agamic literature that contains both ritual and intentions.  Most of these works have not been translated into English. There are over 60 major tractates of Agamic literature from the 2nd to 10th centuries- roughly co-terminus with the Talmud, more than all the earlier Hindu texts combined, and hundreds, if not more, of minor tractates.

Trying to understand Hindu ritual without the Agamic literature is like going into a contemporary American synagogue and trying to understand the service using just Leviticus. The Agamic literature has four major realms (1) the rules of Temple buildings (2) ritual worship (3) philosophy of worship (4) the new requirements of intentionality. The word Tantra is used for the latter rules of intentionality.

This post is connected to two related posts that I am working on simultaneously, visualizing in Hinduism and the theism of Shaivism from a Jewish perspective. Visualization and theism are needed to fully integrate this post.

Tantra comes in two main forms. A mainstream traditional form, that is used by ordinary men and women, called the right handed path, requiring a specific vision or intention while performing a ritual.

The second form is used by ascetics, antinomians, lay movements and forgotten cults called the left handed path, which may involve violating mainstream practice by eating meat, drinking alcohol, or impure sex. The latter was picked up by Western Tantra a hundred years ago and now new-age Americans create Tantric sex manuals. But the overwhelming majority of Tantra is just the equivalent of kabbalistic intentions. Some texts call these two forms the outer and inner paths, or limit the term tantra to Shakti Tantra while calling mainstream Vaishnavite Pañcaratra or Shaivite tantra as just ordinary practice.

Shaivism yantra

The leading scholar of Tantra, David Gordon White of the University of California seeking to capture the essence of tantra offers the following definition: “Tantra is that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.”

As a list of features:  ritual worship of deities, mantras, visualization of and identification with a deity, ritual use of maṇḍalas, Analogical thinking (including microcosmic or macrocosmic correlation), and the channeling of negative mental states

Tantra can apply to any act when the two aspects of consciousness and matter are combined – purusha and prakriti or their personified forms Siva and Shakti. Tantra works by natural means, based on the Indian system of Samkhya, in which man and nature are separate. At liberation the self becomes distinct from nature and realizes itself to have the divine qualities of Siva but ontologically distinct

Moshe Idel, retired professor of Kabbalah at the Hebrew University, presented the theosophic kabbalah of the sefirot as a series of enchanted chains or a realm of a mesocosmos envisioned between humans and the infinite divine. Medieval pietists studied kabbalah to know how to perform worship and ritual acts with proper intentions and visualizations.  The goal was to theurgiclaly unite malkhut and tiferet as male and female  or to combine other aspects of divine energy. Sometimes the goal was to bring down energy and power (ruhaniyut) and other times the goal was to cleave to the Divine. Idel showed how kabbalists used circles, colors, visualized divine names, microcosmos in their practice.

Idel distinguishes between the magical-ecstatic kabbalah that seeks power and experience  from the  theosophic kabbalah that seeks union with the divine. In a similar manner the anthropologist Geoffrey Samuels- distinguishes between those tantra intentions that give power and pleasure in the higher worlds as opposed to those that help with liberation.

A unity of the Tetragrammaton and Lordship, better known as a unity of tiferet and malkhut is similar to a union of Siva and Shakti. This intention finds its latter institution as the prefatory statement before ritual in a post –Lurianic world Leshem yichud Kudsha Brich-hu u’Shekhinteh “In order to unify the Holy One Blessed be He and his Shekhinah.”

A yihud is similar to the common tantric preface to worship of the need to unify Shiva and Shakti, where the ritual performer unifies the great deity Shiva and His consort Shakti, the male and feminine principles.  I must note at this point that most followers of Shavism, consider this unity two parts of the same divine. There is only one single theism centered on Shiva and all consorts, family members, and entourage are considered aspects of the one god Shiva. I will come back to explain this in a latter post.  So they are asking for the unification of the male and female  divine energies as mapped out on a celestial realm, with microcosm correspondences on the body and the ritual.

Tantra converts ritual into acts that change the cosmos and require an intention to effect the unity, so too Kabbalah converts mitzvot into mysteries. The concept that “God needs human worship” (avodah tzorech gevoha) is basic for Nahmanides, Bahye and later Nefesh HaHayyim.  For example, Sefer Ha-Bahir: Why is [a sacrifice] called a korban? Because it brings close [mekarev] the forms of the holy powers… And why is it called a “pleasant smell”?… “Pleasant” [nihoah] is nothing other than descent, thus it is said, ‘and he descended’ {Lev. 9:22]

Visualization of light and flames

An example of tantric meditation on light is Jayakhya Samhita.  Similar to Kabbalistic meditation, the practitioner should see the image as the size of the world, glowing and it is to be done while saying the appropriate mantra

Meditating on the god whose form is flames, whose splendor is like a thousand suns, covered with millions of flames, spewing flames from his mouth, [the practitioner] should fill the entire universe up to the World of Brahma with that [visualization]. He should flood the directions, making them blaze with the splendor of his mantra, and meditate upon the entire circle of the earth baked, like a clay pot, by the fire of his mantra,  [The practitioner] should join the five letters…] in sequence together with five other letters.

Compare the Jewish kabbalist Isaac of Acco 13th Century-Meirat Eynayim

You should constantly keep the letters of the Divine Name in your mind as if they were in front of you, written in a book with Torah (Ashurit) script.  Each letter should appear infinitely large…………..When you depict the letters of the Divine Name in this manner, your mind’s eye should be directed toward the Infinite Being (Ein Sof). .. Your gazing and thought should be as one. This  is the mystery of true attachment..  You may ask why one should bind this thoughts to the Tetragrammaton more than any other name.  The reason is that this Name is the cause of causes and the source of all sources.  Included in it are all things, from Keter to the lowliest gnat.  Blessed be the Name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.

The tantric meditation cited above Jayakhya Samhita continues with a promise of lack of sickness or death. It shows that even after cleaving to the infinite the soul is distinct, as in Kabbalah.

Having made [himself] indistinguishable from him [the Lord], the soul is the agent of undiminished action. In this way he has produced a body that is supreme in liberation and enjoyment, having the appearance of pure crystal, bereft of old age and death.

The Body

One of the leading experts on the normative tantra, Gavin Flood, in his book The Tantric Body explains tantra as the weaving together of the  material and mental and through this practice that may involve yoga, ritual, reading, visualization- the body is formed into a pattern. Flood finds the one thing that tanrtras have in common is that they are read on the body, all share “entextualization of the body” They also work by placing desire in the service of the ritual word to gain  power and  energy.

The Sixteenth Century Rabbi Hayim Vital describes a unification (yihud) that treats the limbs of the body as corresponding with the ten sefirot of Kabbalah. One visualizes and focuses on an image of ten versions of the Divine name that vary based on ten vowel signs. These names correspond in his system to the cosmology of ten sefirot and the human body. If accomplished correctly, then one gains supernal merit, powers, and blessing. Esoteric practices such as Lurianic Yihudim are near identical to the Hindu concept of Tantra, where one visualizes unities that bring divine energy into the human microcosm.

Chaim Vital  who writes in his Shaarei Kedushah about the true body as the spiritual body. “It is understood by discerning people that a person’s body is not the actual person; the body is merely a garment the soul wears… The same way that a tailor will make physical garment in the shape of a body, G-d similarly made the body, which is the garment of the soul, in the shape of a soul, with 248 limbs and 365 tendons … (corresponding to) 248 spiritual limbs and 365 spiritual tendons… (Or prior to this in the Zohar II, p. 162b)

Chart of 16 different meditations- corresponding to mantras and 15 days of lunar month.



Vedic practice like to make charts, Mandalas, concentric circles and a god’s eye map of reality. Śrī Vidyā   is a Hindu Tantric religious system devoted to the Goddess as Lalitā Tripurasundarī (“Beautiful Goddess of the Three Cities”).In the principally Shakta theology of Śrī Vidyā the goddess is supreme, worshiped in the form of a mystical diagram (yantra), a central focus and ritual object composed of nine intersecting triangles, called the Sri Yantra or śrīcakra. The nine realms are further arranged as 43 smaller triangles with a boundary of eight levels.  While having none of the same numbers as the kabbalah, it is still a similar path of meditative focus and visualizations.The divisions and sub-divisions are similar in idea to kavvanot of Safed, with sefirot within sefirot.

sri meru yantra

Guru Worship and Hasidic Rebbes

I am not going to deal in this post with the vast range of Bengali and Kashmir tantra, but I do want to include one of the tantra made famous as one of Arthur Avalon’s 1916 translations of Shakti Tantra.

This one is called Secrets from the Kularnava Tantra (c1150) teaches a tantra of guru devotion in which the guru is like a deep well from which one can and should draw forth wisdom and blessings, taking advantage of his rare presence to advance oneself on the spiritual path.   The scripture opens with a single question posed by Shakti, the Mother of the universe, as to how all souls may attain release from sorrow, ignorance and birth. The theistic singular God Lord Siva answers, speaking out the verses of the Kularnava Tantra stating that one can only be liberated through the guru and that  the devotee should worship the guru’s feet.

Lord Siva said: There is One Real. Call it Siva. All embodied souls, jivas, all the born creatures, are portions of Me, like sparks of the fire. But human birth is the most important, for it is then that one becomes awake, aware of his state of bondage and the necessity of release. It is then that one is in a position to take steps for his liberation from bondage’s hold.

Humans have a self-will and are not totally subject to the impulses of nature, as are other creatures. The world you reach after the physical body is shed is determined by the level of consciousness reached while in the body. So, as long as the body lasts, exert yourself towards the goal of Liberation

All fear of distress, grief, avarice, delusion and bewilderment exist only as long as one does not take refuge in the satguru. All wanderings in the ocean of births, called samsara, fraught with grief and impurity, last as long as one has no devotion to a holy Sivaguru.

Worship of The Holy Feet- The uninitiated may wonder why the feet of holy ones are so reverently worshiped in the Hindu faith. According to tradition, the totality of the satguru is contained within his feet. All nerve currents terminate there. The vital points of every organ of his bodies inner astral, inner mental and soul are there. Touch the feet and we touch the spiritual master. Mystics teach that the big toe on the left foot exudes the most grace. ..

The connection and binding of oneself to the Zaddik is essential to the Hasidic movement. The visualizing of the Rebbe as a practice starts in the earliest Hasidic texts such as the 18th century Yosher Divrei Emet by Meshulam Feivish and continues into the 21st century as a practice in both Satmar and Lubavitch.  However Hasidim, as far as I know, do not especially seek to touch the Rebbe’s feet.

To take one example of these practice, let us look at  Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, who, similar to a Guru,  is the source of connection and referred to as the nachal novea mekor chochma – ”the flowing river, source of wisdom” [Proverbs 18:4]

The essential reason we travel to the true tzaddikim is in order to merit to teshuvah—to return to God—whatever our circumstances may be. However, if someone travels or goes to a Rebbe for any self-serving reason, such as to receive from him some sort of prestige or public position, he utterly fails to draw close to the tzaddik; for he is traveling there for his own glory. Rather, the essence of drawing close to the tzaddik is when one’s intention is for God alone—so that the tzaddik may draw him closer to God and bring him back from the spiritual straits into which he has fallen. (Reb Noson of Breslov, Likutey Halakhos, Hil. Shabbos 7:21 (abridged) Translated by Dovid Sears)

Reb Noson of Breslov (Likutey Tefilos II, 28) pleas for a leader who will be an aspect of Moses to redeem the people since they cannot do it themselves.

Let us know which path to follow in search of a true leader such as Moses. Owing to our profound lowliness and weakness today, when the inner light of our faces no longer shines, no one can help us except that exceptional master and true leader who will be an aspect of Moses our teacher, one who will also be able to illuminate us with holy perceptions so that we might reach the true goal, which is to know and perceive You through the entire panorama of Creation.

Cultural Integration

Historian of Tantra David White states that Tantra was the predominant religious paradigm for over a millennium- divination of the body. Tantra influenced bhakti, popular religion, devotionalism and Vaishnavism completely blurring the lines between tantra and non-tantra. So too, Kabbalah was the predominant religious paradigm that influenced the Jewish liturgy, the performance of the rituals and the worldview of Judaism.

Interview with Yoel Glick – Part 2

This part 2 of the interview with Rabbi Yoel Glick. This part deals with the big questions of Vedanta philosophy and revelation. Please read it thoughtfully and offer comments.There are many original ideas here.  Part I is here.

Rabbi Yoel Glick just released a book  Living the Life of Jewish Meditation: A Comprehensive Guide to Practice and Experience. The book is billed as  a “comprehensive guide to meditation as a way of life draws on the knowledge of the East to vitalize and illuminate traditional Jewish practices in a whole new way.”  Glick will be on a speaking tour to promote his book-Here is an updated final schedule.

glick book

13)      You present Judaism as the Adavitan Vedanta view of Sankara. Why? Isn’t Hasidut closer to the non-Advaitan view of Ramannuja or the view of Madhva?

The comparison I make in the book between Hasidut and Advaita is not about two philosophical systems, but about two approaches to God. When we look at Hasidut and Advaita as two approaches to God experience, then there is a lot of similarity to their methodology, to their understanding of the inner processes that need to take place, and to their perception of the nature of the obstacles which stand in the way of achieving our spiritual goal.

The key link between these two approaches is their understanding of the need for the annihilation of the ego. Both approaches recognize that it is only by annihilating the little self that the big Self will be revealed. This is their common experience and the crucial idea in their teachings.

For example, Rebbe Yissaschar Baer of Zlotochov’s innovative reading of Deut. 5:5 “I stand between you and God” poignantly expresses this point. It is our “I”, our ego, the Zlotochover declares, that stands between God and us. If we want to bind ourselves to God, then we need to get rid of the ego.

Following a similar line of thinking, the Maggid of Mezertich compares the process of binding oneself to God to the process of joining two pieces of silver. All imperfections and dross must be removed from the two pieces, he explains, or they will not join together and become one. Similarly, if we want to join with God, he warns, there must be nothing separating us from Him. This removal of our “I” is necessary, he continues, because just as a seed needs to completely dissolve in the earth in order to bring out the power of a tree which is hidden within it, so our lower self needs to be completely obliterated for the full potential of the Divine Self within us to be revealed.

The passage from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov on bitul that I quote in the book concretizes this idea even further. He speaks of the need to go through a process of spiritual death in order to bind ourselves with God. He suggests that we actually visualize the death process – that we shut our eyes, close our mouth, and imagine we are dead.

These teachings parallel the Advaitic teaching that it is our identification with the body, the mind and the ego that prevents our true Divine Self from being revealed. If we can reach back to the source of the “I am the body” idea, then the ego will disappear and the presence of the Self will automatically be revealed.

The Hasidic methodology also parallels that of Advaita. Rebbe Nachman’s description of the simulated death experience of self-nullification (bitul) closely resembles Sri Ramana Maharshi’s description of the simulated death experience that preceded his own non-dual Self-realization.

So we have a common identification of the problem: the mind, the ego or lower self. A common explanation of the goal: reaching the state of Ayin (Nothingness), and immersion in the Ein Sof – the Unbounded Oneness of the Self. And a similar method of achieving the objective:  bitul or annihilation of the lower self by stopping all thoughts, by surrendering to God, or by going through an inner death. So even though there are differences in the philosophical systems of these two spiritual doctrines, they have similar approaches and share many concepts in common.

14) To most people, Hasidut and Advaita appear to have completely different conceptions of this worldly reality. How do you understand this?

The philosophical systems of Hasidut and Advaita are less distant than it would at first seem. The determining issue is how we understand the Advaitic teaching that this world is an illusion.

When Sri Ramana Maharshi was asked whether Sankara really meant that the whole world is an illusion, he replied that as long as we perceive of the world that we see with our physical eyes as reality, then we are taking an illusion for reality. However, once we see everything in the world as a manifestation of Brahman or God, then the world and everything in it is real.

An analogy Advaitans often use to explain this truth is a desert mirage. As long as we are at a distance from the source of the mirage, we think that the mirage is real. However, once we approach the source, we see that the mirage was only an illusion and all that really exists is the desert sand. The sand itself, however, certainly is and always was real. In fact, it is a quality inherent in the sand which created the illusion of the mirage that we mistook for something that was real.

The idea that the outer world which we see with our physical eyes is not a true reality is common among many Hasidic teachers. In one of his teachings, the Baal Shem Tov states “one must be so bound with God that the main thing he sees is God – that his principal vision should not be of this world, and then God through the world, rather God should be the principal thing that he sees. And such a person will merit that the husks will fall away from him, because these husks create a darkness and separation between man and God, and block the eye or sight of a person’s mind from seeing God.”

Here the Baal Shem clearly states that we should see God as reality and not the physical world. Further, he states that if we strive to see God in everything, then the husks (klipot) – will fall off from us. And what are the klipot but the outer shell or form of this material world which covers the inner Divine reality.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov also puts strong emphasis on this point. In one of his teachings he tells us that we must always remember and be conscious of the next world, otherwise will fall prey to the power of illusion that covers this world. He urges us to firmly turn our gaze away from this world and to strive to only see the one true reality. To see this reality, he explains, we need to shut our eyes to the vision of this world. We accomplish this goal by habituating ourselves to go through a constant process of bitul or nullification of the outer reality, in the same way that we place a finger before our eyes in order to block out an unwanted view.

An even stronger statement of the unreality of this world comes from Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Commenting on Deuteronomy 4:39, “Know this day and take unto your heart that the Lord is God; in the heavens above and upon the earth below, there is nothing else”, the Kotzker explains that this verse comes to tell us that there is no reality to the things of this world other than the Divinity that is in them. All that we see with our physical eyes, he declares, is an illusion and does not really exist. God alone is the one true reality.

Nor is this teaching of the unreality of this world restricted to Hasidut. It has a powerful antecedent in the teaching of Chazal that the next world is the true world (olam haemet) and in the Zohar that this world is a false world, (olmah deshakrah) –a world of lies and illusion that is not real. So although the predominant view in Hasidut is the viewpoint of duality that focuses on sanctifying this life and this world, there is also a significant strand of thought within the tradition that questions the truth and reality of this world and everything that belongs to it, even if it may not be as radical in its total negation of this world as is pure Advaita.

15) How can you exhort us to simply assert, “I want to be one with God, or like the Vedantists we can exclaim, “Om Tat Sat—I Am That.”?

My principle perspective on the relationship between Judaism and Hinduism is not that of a scholar or theologian, but of a spiritual teacher who is trying to help seekers build a living relationship with God. The realm I deal with is the realm of experience. And so the connections I make are based upon the nature of inner experience.

This is the reason I use the Vedantic phrase “Om Tat Sat” as an affirmation in the book. OM Tat Sat is not a philosophical statement, it is a meditation technique. When a Vedantist says “Om Tat Sat – I am That”, he is striving to transcend his limited physical awareness. He is trying to identify himself with That which is Infinite and Eternal. This is the experience I am seeking to connect the reader to in the book.

I could have used the Kabbalisitic language of “I have a spark of God inside me” or “I am a spark of the Ein Sof” instead of “OM Tat Sat” as my affirmation, but I decided that using Om Tat Sat would be more effective. Incorporating Om Tat Sat with other more Jewish affirmations provides the meditator with a fresh way to reflect upon and understand our traditional phrases. It enables him to access the underlying reality that these phrases are meant to convey.

After all, religion does not begin with philosophy and dogma. It begins with a powerful transcendent experience that an individual then tries to put into words. His or her description of the experience will reflect their background, knowledge and time period. But it is the living experience which is at the heart of what they are trying to convey. And it is this experience that we want to access. All the rest is only a poor substitute for a true Divine encounter.

16) Is revelation content-less then?

There are several levels to the answer to this question. Let us explore them one by one.

The Experience of Revelation

First of all, there is the issue of the experience of revelation itself. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that the revelation of prophecy is beyond the capacity of the human mind to consciously hold. Therefore, in the moment of revelation, the separate self of the prophet is blown away and his actual experience is unknowable and indescribable. Only after he returns to physical consciousness is he able to integrate the experience and then try to put it into words. This is why so many of the prophetic experiences are written in allegory or poetic images. Otherwise, they could not be grasped.

The one exception, according to Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, is Moshe. Moshe was the only prophet who was able to remain conscious even during the moment of revelation. He literally could talk face to face with God.

In this sense, then, revelation is contentless. That is, it transcends any structure that the human mind can hold.

Processing the Revelation by the Human Mind

The second issue involves the processing of a revelation by the human mind. No matter who the instrument is, they can only integrate ideas into their physical consciousness based upon the world that they know. Whatever God may reveal to them, they must understand it with their human mind and brain.

We see this truth expressed by the Midrash, in relation to the instructions that Moshe received for building the Mishkan and its vessels. When God describes to Moshe how to build the menorah, the Midrash tells us, Moshe was unable to comprehend what the menorah looked like until God showed him an image of a menorah made out of fire, and then he understood.

According to this midrash, it was the limitations of Moshe’s physical mind/brain that got in the way of Moshe understanding the appearance of the menorah. He simply lacked the capacity to assimilate the initial image in his consciousness. The situation is the same for every person who receives a revelation. We cannot possibly understand something that we have no vessel for comprehending. And we can only describe an experience according to the images and memories that are stored in our brain.

For example, if God had shown Moshe a computer and then explained it to him, Moshe’s understanding of what he had seen would have been limited by the nature of his own experience and the development of his mind. He could never have understood what a computer is as we do. He simply did not have the same foundation of knowledge that is available to us today.

Our experience is the basis of our understanding of reality. It is the lens through which we see the world.

Revelation in Each Generation

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, once again provides further elucidation on this point. Exodus 25:8-9 states: “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, the pattern of the Tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall you make it.” Rashi comments on the words “even so shall you make it” – so shall you make it throughout the generations. The Ramban and Tosefot challenge Rashi. How can this be so, they say? We know for a fact that Shlomo hamlekh made the altar of the Temple different than the altar of the Mishkan.

The answer to their question, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak explains, lies in the nature of revelation. Each generation and its prophet reach up into the higher realms and bring down a vision and spiritual power into the world. The Mishkan is the name the Torah gives to the spiritual vessel that they construct to hold this vision and energies. Each generation constructs a “Mishkan” according to the pattern and image that was shown to its prophet, thereby creating a spiritual vessel appropriate to their own generation.

When Rashi says: “so you shall do throughout the generations”, he does not mean that we should build the Mishkan exactly like Moshe did, but rather, like Moshe and the Children of Israel did in the desert, we should build the Mishkan that is appropriate to our generation and the vision of the prophet of our times. Therefore, Moshe built the altar in his day according to the vision he received, and Shlomo did the same in his day.

Transmitting Revelation that Goes Beyond Content

This teaching opens the door to a fascinating conception of revelation in Judaism. Not only is the traditional teaching being passed down from generation to generation, there is also a revelation that is received that goes beyond the information contained in the texts. There is a spiritual vibration, a higher wisdom that we plug into in each generation. This transcendent revelation is then translated into words and ideas by those individuals who have been given the spiritual mission of transmitting the Divine vision, the “builders of the Mishkan” in our time.

The Ari calls this greater revelation the supernal Torah. The supernal Torah is the source of all knowledge and wisdom within the Godhead. It is the blueprint for the world and the foundation of Creation. The written Torah that we have is only a small fragment of its infinite reality.

The revelation we receive of the supernal Torah is determined by our capacity to penetrate into its hidden realm. As the Maggid of Mezeritch teaches: “The Torah is clothed in all the worlds, in each world it is clothed in accordance with what that world is… And the tzaddikim, when they rise above body consciousness, can touch this Torah, each one according to his level… the higher the world he binds himself to, the greater the expansion of his understanding of the Torah will be, and the farther away from its source, the greater the contraction of the Torah.”

Revelation, then, is both with and without content. It is a spiritual experience that transcends all words and forms, as well as a direct transmission of profound insights and eternal truths. It is at once the unfolding of a whole world and also a sublime and inexpressible mystery.

17) Do you think this is a world of lies (alma dishikra) or an illusion? Do we tolerate suffering?

Answer: My view of life is encapsulated in the Ari’s dual concepts of shevirat hakalim – the shattering of the vessels, and tikkun olam – the repair of the world. As a result of this shattering, everything in this world is a mixture of light and darkness, good and evil, joy and sorrow, success and failure. Everything in our world is broken; nothing can be complete or whole.

So the first imperative is for us to realize the brokenness of our world. We need to open our eyes to the suffering that is all around us, to see the fragmented nature of people’s lives.  We need to accept the truth of the imperfection and sadness in our world.

There is also the possibility of tikkun or repair.  We accomplish this task by first discovering the spark of light within ourselves, and then fanning its flame until it becomes a spiritual blaze. We discover our own divinity by diving deep within through prayer and meditation. We fan its flame by developing within ourselves the Divine attributes of love, compassion and generosity, of wisdom, courage and faith.

We then use the power of these virtues to repair the world. We work to relieve the suffering of others. We strive to bring comfort where there is sorrow, joy where there is sadness, compassion where there is helplessness, strength where there is weakness, and hope where there is despair..

I see people with all of their faults, yet I strive to love them nonetheless. I see the world with all its cruelty and thoughtlessness, but I do not let the darkness obscure its tremendous beauty and wonder. I rejoice in the great diversity of life and being that is all around me. I am awed by the magnificent interconnectedness that binds us all together as one.

Interview with Yoel Glick-Part One

Once upon a time there was a magical place in the old city of Jerusalem that seemed like an entrance into a wizard’s den. The place had tall windows and offered classes, talks, and celebrations but it seemed more like a gathering of special people in a Tolkein Middle Earth party.  I had no idea about the place, and I did not really know its organizer, other than it was worth reading their wall flyers of classes to see if I wanted to drop by to attend one. My last visit was in 1987 when I heard the singing of a tisch happening from outside the window and I entered for a while. A quarter of a century later the insidious intrusion of social media knowing your searches- in this case Hinduism and Judaism- reconnected me to Yoel Glick.

glick book

Rabbi Yoel Glick received his BA from the University of Toronto and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University in New York, as well as from the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He is a teacher of Jewish meditation and spiritual wisdom. Glick just released a book  Living the Life of Jewish Meditation: A Comprehensive Guide to Practice and Experience. The book is billed as  a “comprehensive guide to meditation as a way of life draws on the knowledge of the East to vitalize and illuminate traditional Jewish practices in a whole new way.”  Glick will be on a speaking tour to promote his book (schedule here) to promote his book.

In a word, his approach is an Advaitan Vedanta reading of Judaism. The book looks to the non-duality of Neo-Hindu gurus such as Ramana Maharshi to discuss silence, knowledge and ecstasy.  His approach is unlike the technique and ritual approach of Aryeh Kaplan who looked to Transcendental Meditation and Asian meditation techniques to explain prophecy but lacked the basics of meditation practice. On the other hand, Glick is more grounded in revelation, providence, and fixed ritual than the non-dualism of Jay Michaelson.

Glick maintains a website called Daat Elyon, which he defines as follows:

Kabbalah texts speak of two types of knowledge: daat elyon, the higher knowledge, and daat tachton, the lower knowledge. Daat tachton relates to intellectual ideas, facts, and figures. Daat elyon is a direct experience where we merge with the object of our investigation, and comprehend its true nature as it exists in the Mind of God. Daat Elyon lies at the heart of the inner life. It is the catalyst underlying all spiritual evolution and growth.

Glick offers essays and divrei Torah under six headings: (1) Meditation and Prayer  (2)Thought of the Day (3)Spiritual Wisdom (4)Universal Vision (5) Self-Transformation (6)Life of Service (7) Holydays. Many of them are quite funky and almost all of them are juxtapositions of Vedanta and Hasidut.

Here is an excerpt from his piece on God’s presence

In God’s presence, we are saturated with an incredible joy. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that the joy of God’s presence is greater than any physical joy.  It is a joy that only grows and deepens over time. Sri Ramakrishna spoke of spiritual joy as an all-encompassing, all-embracing bliss that permeates every pore of our being.

When Sri Ramakrishna was in a state of Divine ecstasy, he would stagger about like a drunkard, reeling from the intoxication, unable to even hold up his body cloth. When the Baal Shem was flooded with Divine light, not only would he be uplifted, so would all of his Hasidim. In fact, the whole of his community would be filled with unbounded joy.

Here is an excerpt on silence:

Sri Ramana Maharshi teaches:“Silence is the true spiritual instruction. It is the perfect spiritual instruction. It is suited only for the most advanced seeker. The others are unable to draw full inspiration from it. Therefore they require words to explain the Truth. But Truth is beyond words. It does not admit of explanation. All that is possible to do is only to indicate it. How is that to be done?”

The Truth is infinite like its source. How do we get a glimpse of this eternal teaching? The Torah is the expression of God’s truth and we have been contemplating it for thirty-five hundred years.  Thousands of words of wisdom have emerged out of the teachings of the Torah and thousands more are yet to come.

Rabbi Akiva, who was one of the greatest expounders of the Torah, states in the Ethics of the Fathers: “a fence for wisdom is silence” (3:13) The Baal Shem explains that silence is a fence for wisdom because silence takes us into our inner reality. Through silence we can reach up beyond all words and forms into the world of pure thought. In this supernal realm, we can contact the truth directly at its source. We can see the truth as it is engraved in the Universal Mind of God.

Glick’s approach is more honest than the many who teach Buddhism or Evangelical Christianity but claim it is pure Torah.  This interview will be in two parts. Part One is a general discussion and Part Two is a more specific Vedantantic-Hasidic view of reality and revelation 

1)      Can you explain Hokhmat Halev?

Hokmat HaLev was founded in 1983 and closed its doors in 1987. (It was officially an institute only for 1984-1986.) Over the years, the institute went through several different incarnations. It began as a fulltime yeshiva for students of all backgrounds, morphed into a center for Jewish studies, and ended its life as a center for Jewish meditation and the study of spiritual wisdom.

The most incredible thing about Hokhmat HaLev was the eclectic group of people who taught and studied there. We had Gedalia Fleer, Yehudah Gellman , Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Pinchas Giller, and other dynamic teachers on our staff. Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman were regular guests. Yitzchak Ginsburg taught at Hokhmat Halev from time to time. Pinchas Pelli and his wife Penina also taught and were involved. Danny Matt was a teacher for a short while.

And then there was our extraordinary student body. We had students from all of the different Baal Teshuvah yeshivas in Yerushalayim, from Moshav Modi’in, even students from the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley. Many prominent leaders in Jewish spirituality and interfaith work today were students at Hokhmat Halev. David Cooper, Avram Davis, Yossi Klein Halevi and Yehezkel Landau, to name but a few.

Our curriculum was also quite unconventional. We taught Chumash, Tanach, Mishnah, and Gemara to both men and women. And we also taught them Hasidut, Rav Kook, Kabbalah, and Jewish meditation.

Every day the yeshiva was packed with people. The shiurim on Likutei Maharan that Reb Gedalia gave attracted students from all over the city and all walks of life. Yehudah Gellman’s teachings on Rav Kook electrified his audience. I can honestly say that I have never heard anything remotely comparable before or after. We would learn, sing and dance until late into the night. In all ways, Hokhmat Halev was a unique place; there was nothing like it anywhere in the world.

 2) How does this book and your spiritual path relate to your YU training?

Obviously, my YU training did not play a major role in writing this work. However, I can say that YU gave me the skills for analyzing the Jewish texts to discover the depth of meaning in their words. My time learning with Rav Soloveitchik gave me profound insight into the workings of Halacha and the breadth and depth of its outlook. It made me realize that Judaism was about much deeper concerns that what appeared on the Gemara page. It made me recognize that we are selling Judaism short when we present Halacha and Torah from only a narrow point of view.

At the same time, I was always an outsider at YU. During my years at YU, I lived on the upper West side three blocks down from the Carlebach shul. The shul was the real focus of my life. I was there with Shlomo Carlebach and his chevreh as much as possible.  So I was leading a double life in NY. Throughout my stay in NY, I moved back and forth between these two worlds, and the different realities and ideals they embodied.
3)      You write about the need to “use the wisdom of the East to shed light on Jewish texts and practices.” Are you worried about syncretism?

I believe that there is an exaggerated fear of syncretism. Judaism has always been influenced by other traditions and incorporated their ideas into our own religion. Chazal drew on the rules of logic from the Greeks. The Rambam drew on the principles of Aristotelean philosophy. Bahye Ibn Pekuda was strongly influenced by Sufi teaching. And so on throughout the generations.  So I see myself as part of an honorable Jewish tradition of incorporating ideas from other religions into our own religion. This integration of ideas from outside of Judaism is not just an artificial imposition of foreign concepts on an authentic tradition, a “dressing up” of Eastern thought as Judaism. The teachings I bring deeply align with streams of thought within our own tradition. In fact, I believe that they reflect an approach to Judaism that has existed ever since Biblical times.

4) Why is Indian meditation only wisdom and not Torah?

In the context of the modern world, our understanding of the teaching that there is wisdom among the nations but no Torah needs to be reassessed. For example, in the Torah, Moses tells the people “For what nation is there so great, that has God so near to them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon Him for? And what nation is there so great, that has statues and judgments so righteous as all this Torah, which I set before you this day?” [Deuteronomy 4, 6-8] Even a few hundred years ago this statement may have seemed self-evident.

Today, however, we have to answer this rhetorical question by admitting that there are other nations to whom God has given teachings as righteous and inspiring as the Torah. The Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, the Dhammapada of the Buddhists, and many other texts all provide teaching with profound wisdom and moral righteousness. Today, we have to admit that there is not just wisdom but Torah among the nations. The Torah is God’s special revelation to the Jewish people. A gift made no less meaningful or significant by the acknowledgement of the gifts God has given to His other children.

5) Why do you have no problem making analogies to Hinduism?

When most Jews think of Hinduism they think of the idol worship described in the Torah, people bowing down to rock and stone and thinking they are God. When modern-day Hindus hear this they laugh at our ignorance. A modern Hindu has no doubt that there is one God over all, and the deities in their homes and temples are symbols of the many different faces of that One Supreme Being. Besides, the part of Hinduism I refer to in the majority of cases is Vedanta. Vedanta is a sublime philosophy that teaches the underlying unity of Being and the essential oneness of everything that exists. The Hindus see God in both the form and the formless. I have no trouble quoting its principals and teachings.

6)      What is not in book that should be? Why?

There is a lot of material available on Jewish meditation that I have not included in the book, many different Jewish meditation systems that I have not touched upon. This was a conscious decision on my part. I believe that many forms of traditional Jewish meditation are too intricate and complex, especially for the majority of today’s Jews who lack a strong background in traditional learning. There also is no overall system of understanding these techniques, no science of Jewish meditation. In my book, I have tried to provide techniques that are simple, direct and more accessible to today’s Jewish seekers.

7)      Are you strict in your daily practice like in an ashram?

I try to bring a contemplative consciousness into everything I think, say and do. I have a daily schedule that includes meditation, prayer, chanting, contemplation and a lot of study and reflection on sacred text. I also work to keep up the remembrance of God at all times. In fact, it was in order to be able to live such a life that I moved to a small village in the south of France in the first place.

When I have the opportunity to go to shul, I strive to maintain a God-centered focus the whole time I am in synagogue. I prepare for shul like I am preparing to meet God. I come to shul after first meditating at home. I work on awakening love and devotion in my heart as I walk along the way. Once I enter the shul, I sit in a quiet corner on my own, cover my head with my tallit and go inward in prayer.  I strive to bring the power of silence and stillness into the synagogue. I strive to bring awareness into my prayer space.

Above all else, I constantly work on myself, on all aspects of my personality. I strive to develop the Divine virtues of compassion, generosity and wisdom. I try to walk in the world with humility, integrity and equanimity. My spiritual life is a continually unfolding process. I look toward the ultimate goal at every moment of every day.

8) Why should Jews read your book and not Eastern teachers?

My book is not a book of Eastern teaching. It is essentially a Jewish book. My meditations draw on Rabbinic teachings, concepts from the Kabbalah and Hasidism. They incorporate traditional prayers, Divine Names and other Jewish symbols and rituals. Judaism is my main source of inspiration. It is the language I speak and the life that I live. At the same time, I draw much insight from Hinduism and Buddhism. And I think that seeing Judaism through the lens of the Eastern teachings breathes new life into the Jewish sources. I believe that we have drifted far away from the original intention of Judaism. These insights from the East provide us with a way of returning to the source of the Jewish path.

When most people read the Tanach, they find it difficult to relate to the stories of the Avot and the Neviim. These stories do not seem to pertain to anything within the Jewish world that they live in. I myself only began to understand the stories in the Bible after I went to India. The lives of the forefathers and prophets are more like the life of sadhus in an ashram than the life of students in a yeshiva. My visits to Indian ashrams made the Biblical stories come alive. The intense spiritual training and total focus on God experience that exists in an ashram represents an ideal that is very much needed in Judaism.

In this regard, it is important to understand that the central purpose of my book is meant to provide seekers with a way to live Judaism as a serious spiritual path where the focus is on God and on inner experience. This inner experience then becomes the engine which drives all of our Jewish life and practices. Inner experience infuses our Judaism with spiritual vitality. It empowers us to become effective instruments for Divine service in the world.

9) Is there currently a Jewish realized being who is teaching meditation that we can learn from?

Sadly, there is not. We are producing lots of wonderful scholars and even the occasional spiritual genius but no enlightened beings. Enlightened beings and those who seek to attain that state are the soul of a religion. It is time for us to admit that we have a problem, instead of just saying how good we are at this worldly activity.

10)    Most assume that it is not our tradition to focus on reigning in one’s mind or building ashrams to overcome ego and seek non-attachment.

Judaism is a tradition with a multitude of different approaches to God. The teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and many other Hasidic teachers make clear that there indeed is a strong focus on controlling the mind and overcoming the ego in some parts of the tradition. Even in the Ethics of the Fathers you can find multiple passages that speak about the need to control the mind and overcome the ego. In terms of Judaism and ecstatic experience, there are numerous Jewish sources that detail such experiences.

At the same time, I would like to make clear that I am not promoting ecstasy and enthusiasm as the goal of practice. On the contrary, I am trying to show that the spiritual life is serious work that takes enormous effort and commitment. The goal indeed is an elevated state of consciousness. A person who has conquered his mind is incredibly focused, directed, aware and present in every moment. In my book I outline the signs of a realized soul. These signs include integrity, equanimity, tremendous courage and profound inner peace among other attributes.

11) What do you say do someone who says meditation is not needed or that they say meditation is long, slow, and boring?

On one hand, meditation is not for everybody. But if you are looking for the experience of God’s living presence then meditation is the fast track to get there. I also think meditation is the path of the future. It takes us to a completely different type of relationship with God/the Higher Power/the transcendent Reality. It is the right path for the development of human consciousness in our time.

Today, our outer reality extends from the sub atomic to the giant galaxies on the outer edge of the universe. Our inner reality extends into the conscious, subconscious and superconscious dimensions of the mind. Our minds have been trained to expand and stretch outward. We are wired for meditation and contemplation.

For those who think of meditation is slow and boring, all I can say is that there is no greater adventure than the exploration of our inner reality; there is no more exciting journey than the journey of the soul.
12) Most Jews see meditation as vipassana . How are you different?

My book primary follows an approach to meditation that is Jewish and Hindu rather than Buddhist. The Hindu and Jewish traditions have much more in common in their approach to God, the spiritual realm and spiritual life. Hinduism and Judaism are both personal approaches to God. Both religions speak about different aspects of God, describe complex heavenly realms, and portray a myriad of celestial beings. Both traditions believe in the power of prayer to affect the higher worlds.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is an impersonal approach to God. It does not believe in the existence of God or an individual soul.

At the same time, the concept of mindfulness plays an important role in my book. This is why the book is called “Living the Life of Jewish Meditation”, because meditation is about walking in the world with mindfulness and awareness.  Mindfulness and a still mind are the foundation of all meditation practice.

Interview to be continued on Sunday with a discussion of Vedanta and Judaism