Guest Post from Len Moskowitz
(a second career rabbinical student at RIETS)
I attended the Pardes-Hillel Jewish Spirituality Retreat, held Jan 4-9 2011 at the Pearlstone Retreat Center, MD. Here is my Report.
Here’s the retreat advertisement:
The Psalms teach that the human soul is the light of God, illuminating our hearts and minds, our actions and relationships, for the Divine to enter. Yet too often we fail to experience the awakening and joyous presence which is our nature and instead find ourselves mired in the worries, demands and distractions of everyday life, running from class to test, from studies to events, from party to activity, and never deeply pausing to experience our divine nature. This retreat offers the opportunity for a sacred pause to open to the joy and presence which is our divine nature and take that awakening back with us into our everyday lives, to transform the sometimes muffled, tense or distracted experience of our lives into an open-hearted engagement with every moment. It offers the opportunity to touch that still small voice within each of us and the soul-wisdom which is our birthright. It offers the opportunity to transform our Jewish practice and lives into a deep mode of spiritual awakening.
Combining prayer, mindfulness meditation, silence, text study, group work and other modes of spiritual practice, this retreat will introduce participants to the profound depths of Jewish spirituality and the offer the possibility of finding life-transforming meaning in the Jewish tradition. Mornings of the retreat will be spent in silence and meditation, including meditation instruction and questions and answers, with a transition in the afternoon and evening into mindful speaking, group activities and text study. Evenings will include opportunities for teachings, sharing, art and activities. The retreat will conclude with a deep celebration of Shabbat helping participants experience one of Judaism’s most important spiritual practices. At the conclusion of the retreat, the teachers will provide participants with resources and techniques to continue practicing and growing in their universities and home communities.
Here’s my report on the retreat:
James Jacobson-Meisels and Yael Shy co-led the retreat. James teaches at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and Mechon Hadar. Yael is one of the two young women who started JMC-Brooklyn, and Director of The Spirituality Project at NYU. The retreat started on Tuesday afternoon and ended on Sunday morning.
There were sixteen attendees, including me. [They offered NYU Hillel scholarship funding for up to thirty NYU students, so sixteen attendees is a small group]. All the rest of the attendees were college students on semester break, mostly from NYU, but one each came from U of Washington/Seattle, U of Maryland, Wesleyan and perhaps another few schools. There were eight males and eight females. They spanned a wide range of Jewish backgrounds ranging from essentially none to one potential YU or YCT s’mikha student.
For me it was simply another retreat, a time for some deep silence, cultivation of presence and the realization yet again of the nature of my mind. It gave me time to practice my specifically Jewish meditation forms, mostly in the context of t’filla. And it gave me the opportunity to observe how James teaches.
Many of the others had never had the experience of quieting the internal mental noise, and many of them expressed that experience as a revelation. They also expressed appreciation for the davening, Shabbat experience, Torah learning and sense of community.
The meditation techniques they taught were exclusively from Buddhist sources, as James learned from his Vipassana teachers at IMS and Spirit Rock (Joe Goldstein, Jack Kornfeld, Sharon Salzberg and Sylvia Boorstein), and Yael learned from Sylvia Boorstein, Jeff Roth and David Cooper.
They did mindfulness sitting, eating and slow walking, and Metta (compassion) meditation. Yael presented the Metta meditation – it was Jeff Roth’s adaptation of traditional Metta into a “Blessing Meditation”. She also spoke a few times about using the “Five Hindrances” (which I recognized as being from the Buddhist Pali canon) as a framework, and mentioned impermanence as being a fact of life. James provided support for the meditation practices with Jewish sources that support mindfulness.
Neither of them explicitly identified the practices and the framework as coming from the Buddhist world, so I did. I think it’s important for people to know what the source of the practices are, so they can decide for themselves whether it’s something they want to do or not, and also to realize that they are not learning anything that’s of Jewish origin. What is usually presented as “Jewish Meditation” is really not Jewish-in-content in any way. The universalists make it seem as if all meditation techniques are common to all people, but that’s not so.
Yael did one 30-minute session of Rebbe Nachman’s hisbodedus “talking to God”. I was disappointed that they didn’t teach any other Jewish forms of meditation.
During learning sessions, James taught from the Piezeczner Rebbe, Rebbe Nakhman of Bratslav, the S’fas Emmes and the Mei Ha-shiloakh. During his talks he cited sources from Shas multiple times. (He has s’mikha from the Pardes and is now pursuing a PhD in Hasidut at University of Chicago.)
Lauren Holtzblatt, a JTS musmakh who was a campus rabbi and is currently at Hillel “corporate” in DC, taught two classes. One used Rav J. B. Soloveitchik’s article “Majesty and Humility” as a base to discuss the notion of “home”, and the dual nature of man as simultaneously provincial and cosmic.
A recurrent theme was their version of “Ein Ode Milvado” – that everything, including you, are manifestations of God. I kept recalling Rav Hayyim of Volozhin’s warning about this in the third shaar, third chapter of the Nefesh Ha-Hayyim, in his discussion of the name “Makom”, and how in his time people were getting into theological hot water with the concept. I think that we have the same problem today.
James sat in a modified lotus position on floor cushions, along with four or five of the attendees. The rest of us sat in chairs.
We didn’t have enough men for an Orthodox minyan. In any case, they had a mixed-gender minyan, doing kaddish each day and a full Torah reading on Shabbat. I davened by myself. Each morning they did Jeff Roth’s rudimentary chanting/singing service using some of the late Dovid Zeller’s tunes, and also left time for everybody to daven more by themselves. They also allowed time for minkha and maariv.
Two of the activities: making a collective ribbon ring with each of us contributing a section of ribbon representing someone special in our life whom we mentally bring with us to share the retreat experience; drawing a triptych of a state of being that is blocked in our lives, what it would look like when we succeeded in reaching that state, and what the process of reaching it would look like.
They did a good job of fostering a feeling of solidarity in the group, using cohesiveness-promoting activities in the evening. The group is continuing to stay in touch via email.
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