by Matthew Gindin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Above The Sun: The Ancient (and New) Riches of Jewish Yoga
Tradition says that Avraham, the father of the three greatest faiths of the western world, was a visionary contemplative who saw beyond the fragmented, worldy values of his society. In one account as a result of deep contemplation he saw the universe as a palace aflame with radiant light ( Gen.R 39:1 ). In another, he meditated on the moon, sun, and constellations and realized each one, rising and setting as they did, couldn’t be the ultimate power. He broke through to see the One behind them all. His wife, Sarah, was herself a yogini , who tradition says had even greater prophetic powers than her husband. When Avraham was tested by God on Mt. Moriah ( Genesis 22:1-14 ) to show that he was willing to sacrifice his son Yitzhak like the tribes around him sacrificed their children to their deities Sarah yearned to join in the great kedushah of that moment ( Avodas Yisrael ). The aged Sarah entered a state of d’vekus (union with the Divine presence) and abandoned her body, dying in a misas neshika – death by Divine kiss.( Shelah Hakodesh ). After her death her body did not decompose for some time, which confirmed for Avraham the high level of her attainment ( R’Yonasan Eibeshitz ). This sign will be familiar to students of the biographies of saints and mystics the world over. Avraham was told by an angel not to actually sacrifice Yitzhak, demonstrating that God did not want his family to sacrifice their children, but that this did not mean he would demand less from then than the other tribes offered to their gods. Avraham honoured Sarah with burial in the Cave of Machpela, a sacred site to this day. ( Genesis 23:1-20
Yitzhak, Sarah and Avraham’s son, was also a contemplative. The Torah describes him as a quiet man who spent a lot of time meditating in the fields ( Genesis 24:63; Talmud Bavli Berachot 26a-b ). Ya’akov, Yitzhak’s son, was said to dwell in the tents of the sages ( Genesis 25:27 ). He is said to have had the ability to discern the hidden spiritual architecture of the Cosmos ( Sfas Emes on Genesis 28:10-22 ). His famed vision of the ladder reaching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it, became a major image in Jewish mysticism. Some saw the ladder as Ya’akov; some modern Jewish yogis see it as the sushumna , the astral energy channel in the spine. Interestingly, In Ya’akov’s vision of the ladder, the angels first ascend, then descend. This is the opposite of what we would expect- that they would descend, then re-ascend. The Rabbis explain that the angels are carrying prayers upward, and then returning with God’s response. Some say, though, that this represents the journey of consciousness up the sushumna and back, reaching up to the Divine and then “returning to the market place with open hands (to serve others)”, to quote the Zen phrase.
Another great yogini of the Torah is Moshe’s sister Miryam the Prophetess. She was one of the three great leaders of the Jewish people according to the Talmud. Wherever she accompanied the Jews in the desert a miraculous well followed her known as “Miryam’s Well.” At death she was said to pass away like Sarah from a Divine Kiss, in a state of d’vekus (clinging to God).
It may come as a surprise for some to learn of the rich tradition of meditation in Judaism. In fact, mystical, devotional, and transformational meditation practices have been a part of the Jewish faith since Biblical times. There are two primary types of Jewish meditation, which I will call mystical and moral . The first aims at attaining direct experience of God and the hidden structure of the Cosmos, the second at transformation of character. The goal of both practices is ‘d’vekus’, clinging to God at all times and bringing Holiness into this world. The first has come to be associated with the Kabbalah , the second with the Mussar tradition. In this article I will describe both, and provide a brief practical exercise for each so the reader can taste them for themselves.
The Prophets and The Merkavah Mystics
The prophets, known for their lifelong commitment to calling for justice in society and devotion to God, trained in special academies where they attained the high levels of spiritual development neccessary for prophecy ( Aryeh Kaplan , Meditation and The Bible ). Three such prophets, Yeshayahu, Eliyahu, and Yehezkel, had visions of such luminous power that they became archetypes for a movement of Jewish mysticism called the Merkavah (Mystical Chariot) tradition. Merkavah mystics tried to ascend to the heavenly realms to experience the hidden dimensions of the cosmos. Their journeys were the crucible in which the teachings of the Kabbalah were developed. One such mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, spent thirteen years hiding in a cave during a time of Roman persecution. When he returned he spurned the mundane pursuits of humankind, and everything he gazed at burst into flame. “Who are you to destroy my creation?, a voice thundered from above. Rabbi Bar Yochai returned to the cave until his spirituality was more mature.
The book of Rabbi Bar Yochai’s teachings, The Zohar (Book Of Radiance) became the central text of the Kabbalah, second in holiness only to the written and Oral Torah.
The mekubalim (“receivers”), or masters of the Kabbalah (“the received”), developed many interesting kinds of meditation. Their aim was to understand the secrets of Creation, experience the glory of God firsthand, repair the energies of the Cosmos and thus bring the redemption of all living things. Mekubalim like Avraham Abulafia (1240-1291), Yitzhak Luria (1534-1572), and Moshe Chaim Luzzatto ( “The Ramchal” 1707-1747) practiced meditations on the letters and sounds of the Hebrew alphabet. The Mekubalim taught that the universe was formed of God’s speech, and that the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet were the building blocks of the Cosmos. These teachings have a lot on common with the Mantra teachings of the Vedic tradition, which likewise sees the Universe as formed of sound and the sacred speech of the Divine.
The Ramchal, in a characteristically Jewish application of this idea, chanted entire Hebrew texts over and over again without punctuation until he connected with the maggid (angel) of the text. Once when doing this practice in a field outside Sfat with some disciples, he chanted the Mishna, a code of Jewish Laws, in this way. Suddenly he went into an altered state of consciousness. He then turned to his disciples and spoke. “I am the Mishna”, he said.
The Rambam (1135-), also known as Maimonides, a great physician and arguably the most influential Jewish philosopher of all time, also wrote one “mystical” topics although not from a Kabbalah orientation. He wrote that the ultimate purpose of Jewish practice was to perfect oneself to the point that one became worthy of prophecy. He also defined God as the One whose “knowledge, knowing and known” was one and indivisible, since there was nothing outside of Him.
The year 1698 was a time when the Jews of Poland were demoralized by pogroms, poverty, and spiritual disillusionment. At that time Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer was born. He would come to be known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, or Master of The Good Name, and he would unleash a new spiritual light on the Jewish people.
The Ba’al Shem Tov spent his early years as a “hidden tzaddik “, or saint in disguise, working as an elementary school teacher. He also spent long retreats in the Carpathian Mountains. In 1740 he began preaching, and started a spiritual revolution. He taught a path of joy that emphasized prayer as much as study and made the wisdom of the Kabbalah available to the simple villager. The Baal Shem Tov exalted the place of singing and dancing in the service of God, a marked feature of Hasidic communities to this day. He also emphasized the attainment of states of profound mystic absorption, what the Yoga tradition would call Samadhi. “When you pray”, he taught, “You should be totally divorced from the physical, not aware of your existence in the world at all.”
His great grandson, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, particularly emphasized the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings of joy and fearlessness in the service of God. “One should be happy all the time”, R’ Nachman taught. “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear at all.”
His meditation is called hitbonenus (see below). It consists of going to an empty room or a secluded wood or field, and pouring out one’s heart to God out loud in an uncensored stream of consciousness.
Another great Hasid was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. He organized Hasidic teachings into a clear intellectual system called Chabad . ChaBaD stands for Chochmah (intuitive wisdom) Binah (concrete understanding) and Da’as (intimate knowledge). He taught a form of meditation where one used the intellect to nullify all created things before God, seeing only Him as real. ” Ein od milvado “- there is nothing other.
The Mussar Movement
Another ancient stream of meditative practice came to be known as mussar (self-discipline). Its roots are as ancient as King David’s soul-searching songs or his son King Solomon’s character correcting proverbs. The writing of books on the subject began with Yosef Ibn Paquda’s Duties of The Heart in the 11th century. This masterpiece instructs the Jew in the inward duties of mind and heart which culminate in love of God. Many great works outlining the service of God and the perfection of character followed. One of the greatest, “The Path of The Just”, was written by the Kabbalist mentioned above, the Ramchal. It outlined seven stages of personal development which culminated in kedusha , or Holiness, a state of constant awareness of God’s presence. The Ramchal said a saint of this level of attainment becomes a kind of living spiritual altar, sanctifying everything he or she comes into contact with.
The birth of an organized, self-conscious mussar movement waited for Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant (1810-1883), the holy Salanter Rebbe. He worked tirelessly to promote houses of mussar where people would gather to study works of ethics and virtue and practice the form of meditation he invented, hitpailus . In this method one selected a phrase of Torah which addressed a character weakness or virtue one wanted to develop, and repeated it out loud to oneself over and over again, in a way that stirred the heart to respond. The Salanter Rebbe recommended making a curriculum of one’s faults, and singling one out for particular attention each week. “The whole world is a house of mussar’, he taught, “And every person is a book of teachings.”
His disciple Rabbi Mendel of Satanov developed the Salanter Rebbe’s teachings into a system (influenced by Benjamin Franklin’s similar system) called Cheshbon Hanefesh , or “Soul Accounting”.
During the Holocaust a Hasidic Rebbe named Kalonymous K. Shapira (1889-1942), the Piezetsner Rebbe, fought heroicly to keep the light of spirit alive in the Warsaw Ghetto. He hid his writings before his murder by the Nazis. They were discovered and published after the end of the War, the last great Hasidic writings of Eastern Europe. This included Aish Kodesh (Holy Fire) a collection of his weekly teachings on the Torah from 1939-1942. He taught a form of meditation which combined the mystical and transformative elements described above. In his technique, one witnesses one’s thoughts to correct negative habits of mind. This approach is based on his observation that watching thoughts “from the outside” diffuses them. This culminates in a process he called hashkatah – silencing the conscious mind. As Nehemia Polen describes it (italics and comments in brackets are my own):
“Once the mind is silenced or stilled, it is fully receptive to ‘mahshavah ahat shel kedushah’- the focusing on one holy thought… the next step is to ask God, in a quiet yet articulated manner, for help in attaining a spiritual gift, such as faith, love of God, or liveliness in his service. The meditation session ends in a niggun (wordless melody).Rabbi Shapira intimates that those who practice this meditation for several weeks would come to know the meaning of the verse “This is my God” (Exodus 15:2).”( Holy Fire )
The Rebbe taught that the conceptual, desirous, ego-mind blocked our deeper awarenesses. That is the reason that dreams furnish insights- because the surface mind is quietened. “We must attain the state of the sleeping mind- while conscious”, the Rebbe taught ( Sefer Derech Hamelech ). This idea will be familiar to many Yogis.
The holy Rebbe further taught that one should eventually come to see the whole world as souls and Divine essences. Before one could see this, however, the Rebbe taught that one could still transform one’s perspective by impressing the Divine nature of all creation into the mind. “The whole world and everything in it is Divine in origin and substance. It is not visible to my eyes, but God is the source of all reality; even I am full of God. The sand under my feet is an articulation of God. The whole world is utterly comprised of, and dependent on, God. Now I, of my own free will, have come to think of myself as a free and independent agent; I have exiled myself from the sense of the presence of God.” ( Conscious Community )
The Rebbe taught that this was already the perspective of the soul, the mind and body had to be trained to align with it.
Jewish Meditation Today
Rabbi Shapira was sent to Treblinka and murdered in 1942. His story is emblematic of the loss suffered by Jews at that time. Some estimate 80% of the spiritual masters of the Jewish people were murdered during WWII. The Jews who escaped to America and Israel suffered from a much impoverished tradition. Jews in America were left with choosing between becoming secular, joining tame and diluted play-it-safe American synagogue life, or an Orthodoxy many felt alienated from. Some decided to look elsewhere for spiritual answers, explaining why so many Jews are active in Buddhist and Hindu spiritual commmunities.
Some, however, tried to revivify Judaism, either from sources within or without. Those that chose the former began vital movements from within Orthodoxy like the contemporary manifestation of Chabad, an internationally successful Hasidic group that tries to bring non-observant Jews back to the fold. Streams of Kabbalah , Mussar , and Hasidism still survive in the worldwide Orthodox community as well. Among those that chose to revitalize Judaism from new springs Jewish Renewal was formed, a movement which embraces the insights of Feminism, Deep Ecology, and Eastern Religions. They have formed a point of re-entry for many Jews attracted to intense spirituality but not Orthodoxy. Spiritual teacher Alan Morinis has recently begun energetically teaching Mussar meditation outside of the Orthodox, strictly Jewish environments it normally flourishes in. Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, teaches 2 year courses in Jewish meditation and boasts a Jewish Yoga Teacher Training. Those looking to see what the wisdom of ancient Jewish traditions might have to offer their practice can begin by experimenting with the practices described below, and then see the resource list for further places to explore.
What the future holds for Jewish meditation only time will tell. Innovators are making new synthesises, the few surviving lineages of Jewish mystical practices are making a comeback, and commercializers are selling Kabbalah merchandise to Hollywood stars.
“There is nothing new under the sun’, said the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. ” ‘Under the sun’ there maybe nothing new”, commented the Rabbis, “But above the sun is another question.”
Rabbi Nachman’s Hitbonenus
1) Go out to a secluded place in nature, or to an empty room.
2) Speak to God out loud, with no censorship, in a constant stream of consciousness for at least a few minutes. If you are bored, or have nothing to say, say, “I’m bored, I have nothing to say, this is stupid, but I have to keep talking to you. Oh, how I wish I had something to say. I’m not sure I even believe in You…” Whatever comes to mind, say it. Empty your heart, pray for whatever you need or want, complain, mourn, thank, rejoice, request.
In Soul Accounting you choose 13 traits that you want to address. They can be positive traits you want to reinforce, or negative ones you want to lessen. The practice has two parts: 1) Each week, focus on one trait in particular using the Hitpailus method: Choose a phrase from a Holy Scripture close to your heart that addresses an issue you want to work on in your practice. Repeat it out loud to yourself with feeling. You can sing it, chant it, yell it, whisper it, but do so like you’re really trying to drive home the message. Spend a few minutes doing this everyday for a week. The next week chose a new trait and phrase.
2) Keep a daily record of how many times a day you use a positive or negative trait. Over the weeks, months and years you can see the change, and assess yourself more accurately.
The Piazetsner Rebbe’s Method: Silencing
1) Sit in a quiet place. Have a phrase from your faith tradition’s scripture ready.
2) Watch the flow of your thoughts without getting involved with them,viewing them “from the outside”.
3) When the thoughts slow and the mind becomes more clear and malleable, focus on the holy thought, letting it sink into your conscuousness. Feel its energy and let any associations arise and pass away.
4) When your consciousness feels steadied, uplifted, and purified, ask the Divine for a spiritual gift- a quality you would like to acheive in your practice- in your sadhana.
5) Conclude with a niggun (wordless melody ciming spontaneously into your heart), mantra, or sacred song.
Resources For Further Study: