Monthly Archives: November 2014

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.

Brill0230622267

Advertisements

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.

lookstein

THANKSGIVING SERVICES

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

ORDER OF SERVICES

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

Benediction

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!

Paul-Celan-loss-poetry-language
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.

dovidsears10
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.

dovidsears8
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.

dovidsears7
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.”

SamF

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.

dovidsears9
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.