Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan – Creating 20th Century Jewish Meditation

This is part IV in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- see Part I, Part II, and Part III for prior biographic discussion much of which has already been incorporated into Wikipedia. There will be Parts V and Part VI within the next two weeks, maybe even later this week.

How did Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan take an obscure medieval Ashkenaz description of the Godhead and turn it into a meditative practice of infinite space similar to the 1960’s understanding of meditation? Answer: The same way Swami Vivekananda took the medieval Kurma Purana and turned it into modern meditation about sitting straight and focusing. Should we follow his method and take the plethora of kabbalsitic texts published by scholars and adapt them as 21st century meditation? What if this had been the path into modernity for Judaism the way it was for Neo-Hinduism? What if the Reform and Orthodox movements of 1910 had turned to transcendental idealism to create a meditative Torah?

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Kaplan’s approach to producing a Jewish meditation is what he calls the “practice of verbal archaeology.”  He assumes the prophets were meditating to reach prophecy, which basically stopped after Ezekiel. Now, one can only do verbal archaeology by looking at meaning of words as translated in older commentaries which may preserve the true meaning. (Meditation and the Bible). Among the older commentaries are the works of the Kabbalists.

The early 13th century Sodei Razaya by Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (also called Rokeach) describes God’s Glory and the limitless Creator above. Within the book are a few paragraphs about the infinite of the Creator and the need to direct our hearts to the ten limitless dimensions when addressing God. They are the Sublime, depth, above and below, east west, north, south, past, future, good, evil), a spatial approach to God, rather than the more familiar scholastic philosophers who discuss God’s essence and attributes. The next paragraph after the ten dimensions moves quickly to the relevant point that God does not appear to us as these limitless dimensions but rather as the ever changing shekhinah. Most academic scholarship focuses either on the abstractness of the Creator or on visualizing the shekhinah/kavod. In contrast, Kaplan turns the presentation of the creator into a meditation on Infinite Space. I specifically choose this passage rather than the hundreds of other possible passages in Aryeh Kaplan because it shows the gap between the scholarly reading of a cryptic text and Kaplan’s reading.

The creator has no limit, boundary or appearance. If He possessed a limit the way every creature has limits, how could he be in the midst of all and not be touched by all…

Every blessing requires one to think in one’s heart for intention to Our Father in Heaven. To consider the unity of the ten directions and there is no other. By what means? Consider the sublime (lit. above) without giving end to ones thoughts. Rather, think of the creator as sublime (above) and none else and the impossibility of understanding Him. Similarly, below into the depth, the depth who can fathom, and none else. He is impossible to understand.

Think of the expanses of the sky and below as well as the directions of east, west, north and south. Think about before the world from the beginning until the end [lemaaleh]. Do not place a limit to your thoughts that you think about the creator. Rather, He exists from the primordial past until now, there is none other. Similarly, for the end of days, from now until forever.

Begin thinking from the beginning of time without limit to your thought except He is God and there is none else. Similarly, for the ends of the depth of good and depths of bad, which show beneficence to the good and to destroy the bad. To exist in exaltedness and variations. The creator is completely desire and filled with knowledge and power.

We find changes in the Shekhinah [appearing] sometimes as a young man and sometimes as an old man. Know that the reason is because the Kavod (glory) appears to the prophets according to the needs of the moment.   (Sodei Razaya 40-41)

Aryeh Kaplan in his book Sefer Yetzirah turns these intentions to the infinite Creator- Father in Heaven into mental and nonverbal meditations on infinite.  The Sefer Yetzirah speaks of depths of the world in Mishanh 1:5. Kaplan identifies those depths with the Kabbalistic sefirot and with the depths described by Rabbi Eleazar of Worms.

Kaplan converts Eleazar of Worms into meditation by adding the imperative “to picture” and the instructions about letting “the mind travel.” Kaplan in his introduction to the book wrote that he is translating the book as statements but that he really feels all statements of Sefer Yetzirah are imperatives. He also places the ten dimensions as a temporal sequence. He also removes reference to this as done at the time of prayer or to the personified Father in Heaven.”

The Sefer Yetzirah does not speak of directions, but of depths, an idea that if difficult to understand and far from one’s comprehension, is also said to be deep….

Although the depths of these directions is infinite, it can be described mentally. The first technique involves verbal thought… Gradually, then, once can learn to depict these infinite depths non-verbally.

The first exercise is to try to depict the “depth of beginning.” Attempt to picture an infinity of time on the past. Let the mind travel back to a moment ago, and an hour ago, a day ago, a year ago, continuing until you reach a level where you are trying to imagine an infinity ago. Then do the same with regard to the future.

The next exercise involves trying to imagine good and infinite evil. The limits are pure ideas, which cannot be verbalized.

Finally, one must imagine the limits of the spacial [sic] dimensions. One must perceive the height of the sky and beyond the sky. The depth of the earth and beyond the earth.

In this manner, one gradually trains the mind to depict the infinite.  (48-9)

These exercises are actually described by R. Eliezer of Wormes [sic] (355 ftnt 112)

Kaplan took an obscure medieval text and made it sound like a 20th century meditative path.

His idiom was contemporary for the 1970’s in which the higher states of meditation were about infinite space. The American scholar, Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman in his pioneering works on meditation portrayed meditation “the need for the meditator to retrain his attention” not the softer forms of mindfulness currently practiced. Goleman also focused on Buddhist meditation on infinite space as starting in the 5th level of Buddhist meditation.

Just as important, Anagarika Brahmacari Govinda in his Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (New York : Samuel Weiser, Inc., [1958, 1975] p. 117 also portrays this infinite space. This was not the era of meditation as mindfulness, rather meditation was considered as great acts of mental focus.

However, Kaplan did not actually teach these techniques in his classes nor did he practice them. He did not create a meditative school. Most of those who came to him because they were interested in Asian meditative techniques returned to their Hindu and Buddhist teachers, even among some of his closest students. His accomplishment was presenting texts only known by scholars and only discussed in their harder to find articles in the public domain. And for the last forty years, English language books on Jewish spirituality are indebted in his popular presentations and adaptations.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s method of popularizing obscure and cryptic texts, for example taking a 13th century text and presenting it in 20th century terms should be seen as part of broader methods. Instead of contextualizing that maneuver in the culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s, where NCSY meets TM,  his texts are similar to the work of Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu teacher who revolutionized the way the West thought of Hinduism with his appearance at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions. Vivekananda’s works took millennium old texts and breathed new life into them by creating a modern method of meditation. He argued that Hinduism is not temple worship to statues but a modern cultivation of the mind, an activity eminently progressive form of New Thought and philosophic idealism. Largely because of him, we use the words mantra and yoga in English. Almost anything taught by today’s Ashram leaders is based on Vivekanada’s method of modernizing prior texts.

Vivekananda took a few pages of the medieval work Kurma Purana, a long work of legend, mythology, geography, pilgrimage, and theology, as his base by which to abstract a system of meditation. According to the Kurma Purana, yoga (which in this context means meditation as purifying the mind) gives knowledge and identity with God.  Here is the medieval version.

From yoga comes knowledge; knowledge, again, helps the yogi to obtain freedom. He who combines in himself both yoga and knowledge─with him the Lord is pleased. Those who practice maha-yoga [meditation on the Self] either once a day, or twice, or thrice, or always─know them to be gods. Yoga is divided into two parts: one is called abhava-yoga, and the other, maha-yoga. That in which one’s self is meditated upon as a void and without qualities is called abhava-yoga. That in which one sees one’s self as blissful, bereft of all impurities, and as one with God is called maha-yoga. (Quoted in Raja-Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda)

Vivekanada turns the medieval work into directions for modern people by telling them to sit straight, have positive thoughts, chant a mantra, visualize space, flames, one’s heart, and God. Rather than a medieval language we have a modern physics language of “makes one’s mind a channel for thought waves.”

Sit in a straight posture. The next thing to do is to send a current of holy thought to all creation. Mentally repeat: “Let all beings be happy; let all beings be peaceful; let all beings be blissful.” So do to the east, south, north, and west. The more you practice this, the better you will feel. You will find at last that the easiest way to make ourselves healthy is to see that others are healthy, and the easiest way to make ourselves happy is to see that others are happy.

Another meditation is given: Think of a space in your heart, and think that in the midst of that space a flame is burning. Think of that flame as your own soul. Inside the flame is another effulgent light, and that is the Soul of your soul, God. Meditate upon that in the heart.

Then the wise man should meditate upon the luminous, benign form of the Lord…Then he must meditate upon his oneness with the luminous form of the Lord.  Lastly, he must let the form vanish and meditate upon the Atman. (591, 620)

Meditation is cultivating a single thought reminiscent of the subject of meditation by repeating it over and over again. By following the same method and concentrating on the same subject at the same center of consciousness, that single thought becomes a giant thought-wave. In course of time the mind develops a channel for that thought-wave and the practice becomes effortless. No practice, however mechanical or intermittent, is ever lost.

Kaplan used the language of mantra and meditation that Vivekanada bequeathed to the English language. Many of these same adaptation techniques in his translations of a medieval text were done by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.

Now imagine, if Kaplan had lived in 1900 and wrote works against Western and Eastern European Jewry arguing that a modern Judaism should be meditative and about the elevation of the mind. Further imagine if he had established in 1910 dozens of meditation centers and centers for Jewish Innerspace or a modern denomination of meditation. If he had done this, then we would now know Judaism as a meditation religion. Modern Jewish thought might have been about consciousness and mind cultivation.

However, Kaplan himself would have not actually done this since he did not practice or teach the meditations, such as the one above. He would as part of a public presentation teach his audience to say the shema slowly, to visualize the divine name, and/or repeat ribono shel olam. But the 1000’s of meditations in his work, he did not practice or teach as meditative paths. If he had not died, he would have been more interested in string theory in the kabbalah than a Jewish ashram.

Now let us return to Kaplan’s interest in visualizing the infinite where verbal and non-verbal meet. As noted above, much of this comes from the psychologist Goleman and Lama Anagarika Govinda’s work on Tibetan Buddhism. But was the latter a valid source of meditative knowledge? Why did Kaplan gravitate to that work? Lama Anagarika Govinda (1898-1985), polymath scholar, mystic, writer, painter and poet, was not a real lama, rather a German philosopher and artist who moved in India and thought Buddhism was the path to enlightening our minds and leading to creativity. Govinda thought Buddhism was the best form of German Lebensphilosophie “philosophy of life” to produce a superior person.

Govinda wrote essays on the relationship of time and space and the need to reach a point of infinite space above these categories. For Govinda, “all the powers and faculties of the universe are within us, unless we have activated them through practice or made them accessible through training they will never become realities that influence our life.” He wanted us to combine the potentials of the unconscious mind or depth conscious mind with that of our rational conscious mind.  For him, “as little as we can live by the intellect alone, can we live by the “unconscious” alone.” For Govinda, meditation means “putting ourselves into a state of intuitive receptiveness, in which the gates of the past and the present are open to the mind’s eye. “

The above foray into Vivekananda and Govinda offer a basis for understanding Kaplan’s amazing adaptation of Rabbi Eleazar of Worms. Hoever, Kaplan has many more influences including Aldrous Huxley, Charles Tart, Werner Heisenberg, Sir John Woodroffe, and W. Y. Evans-Wentz.

Academic scholarship in its discussions of Ashkenaz Piety and early kabbalah translate many passages about contemplative visualization done in that era. The soul must visually imagine or think about the creator, the glory and images of sacred space.

If we were to continue Kaplan’s method, how would we modernize these other passages? Here are some passages from E. Wolfson’s Through a Speculum that Shines- Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism, Princeton University Press, 1994. How would Kaplan have read them as imperatives and as about cultivating the mind?  Kaplan did not read texts as visions, he did not a visionary path but one of internalization and mental contemplations. Kaplan also removed as much as possible any anthropomorphism or direct visions of God. So, if we wanted to apply his method, how would he have scripted the following texts?

Eleazar of Worms,

A person should not think only about the glory that appears opposite the exalted throne but rather about the Creator of all who manifests His glory to those who are righteous in their hearts, for He is one and nothing resembles Him, blessed be He, and thus He ‘is near to all who call Him’ (Ps., 145-18).

The Creator is outside the images (mar’ot) and within them..

Since it is written ‘For I fill both heaven and earth’ (Jer. 23-24), why does one need to pray in a Synagogue or in the Temple? Yet, there is a place in which the Holy One, blessed be He, shows the created glory to the prophet according to the need of the hour. One might ask- how can one bow down to something created? And consider these verses- It is written, ‘For I granted many visions, and through the prophets was imaged’ (Hosea 12-11)… Rather the [vision] is nothing but a wonderful image (dimyon) and it appears as if he actually saw but it is nothing but a strong image. It is written, ‘upon this semblance of a throne there was the semblance of a human form’ (Ezek. 1-26); so too here [in the case of Isaiah] it is only an image.

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