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.)
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.
Postscript: The Quest for Enlightenment
- 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.
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”).