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The Silent Mind: A Jew’s Views on Meditation

January 12, 2011 – 3:37 pm22 Comments

Another meditative Jew. Image source: Belarome.ca

By Simon Holloway

Recently, I attended Vipassana: a ten-day, silent meditation retreat that was held in Blackheath, NSW. (For those who are interested in it, I reviewed it on my blog a little while ago.) And wandering through the bushland, I got to thinking. Sure, the material that they bombarded me with was of a strictly Buddhist nature, but was the practise really so foreign to Judaism? Do Jews meditate? Is it okay to meditate? And, between the clamour of the Bet Midrash and the hubbub of the shul, what might Jewish meditation look like?

When mining the classic literature for material of a meditative nature, the prime text to continually surface in this regard is a well-known and oft-quoted passage from the Tosefta (the body of literature that, according to tradition, was left over after the third century redaction of the Mishna). The passage is quoted in both the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, and concerns four rabbis who either enter an, or the orchard – depending on how one vocalises the text. Their names are Yonatan ben Azzai, Yonatan ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuya, and Akiva ben Yosef, but they are referred to simply as Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, “Acher” (“somebody else”) and Rabbi Akiva. They each meet a nasty fate.

Ben Azzai dies, Ben Zoma goes insane, “Acher” apparently loses his faith, and Rabbi Akiva, while he does escape the orchard in peace, was subsequently tortured to death by the Romans: a fate that would have been in the forefront of the minds of all those who read this story originally. Yet even if we take the narrative at face value, and assert that Rabbi Akiva “departed in peace”, we are still forced to question why it is that his companions should have suffered. What on earth was in this orchard? Or if the orchard is a metaphor for something more sinister, what actually is it?

There is a theory, and one that sometimes seems inseparable from this story, that needs to be properly dismissed. The theory states that the Persian word for orchard in this narrative (pardes – from whence the English “paradise”) is actually an acronym, and that it stands for four levels of textual exegesis. According to this theory, the four rabbis were studying the Torah from the simple level (“peshat”) through to the most mystical level (“sod”). But this theory, that there are four such levels of textual analysis, does not achieve written expression at any time prior to the 13th century, and is actually based explicitly upon passages in the Zohar.  What is more, to read the story as though it is denoting Torah study would be to rob the passage of its rightful import. What did it signify in its original context?

In both the Palestinian (Hagigah 2.1, 77b-c) and Babylonian (Hagigah 14b-15b) Talmuds, this story appears with the intention of explaining why Elisha ben Abuya came to be known as “Acher”. In both accounts he is guilty of some form of apostasy, but the two versions differ in regards to the reasons why. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha is said to have lost his faith after having witnessed Metatron, the mouthpiece of God, behaving in a fashion that differentiated him from the rest of the divine retinue. This would convey to us already that the “orchard” is either not an actual orchard, or was a mundane place from which the four rabbis travelled somewhere supernal. But the biggest clue as to what might be going on lies within the original version, found in the Tosefta.

It is there (Tosefta Hagigah 2.2) that the narrative is framed by two laws that forbid mystical speculation. The first (2.1) disallows people from teaching various matters to more than a specified number of people at a time, and in one instance (teaching “the work of the chariot”) even forbids teaching it to anybody, save only the most discerning pupil. The second passage (2.3) opines that one who contemplates mystical matters (“what came before and what comes after, what is above and what below”) should never have even been born. For a contemporary utilisation of this passage, Rav Aharon Schechter of Yeshivat Chaim Berlin referred to it in a public condemnation of Rabbi Natan Slifkin in 2006.

That the story of the four rabbis should be sandwiched between two laws that forbid teaching and meditating upon mystical realia only reinforces the mystical nature of this orchard, and the story seems to function as a cautionary tale. In fact, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak (“Rashi”) comments upon this passage as it appears in the Babylonian account, by noting that “entering the orchard” means “ascending to the firmament by means of a [divine] name”. This accords with an extra detail found in the Babylonian version (although found in neither the Palestinian Talmud nor in the Tosefta), in which Rabbi Akiva warns his comrades about what to say when they “reach the stones of pure marble”. It also accords with a genre of extra- and post-Talmudic literature that is known as Heikhalot (“palace chambers”), in which Rabbi Ishmael guides the reader through the various chambers of God’s divine palace, before arriving at the throne room and beholding his majesty.

So much for Rashi’s interpretation; significantly, the “Tosafot” disagree. Nobody knows with certainty which of these scholars were responsible for Tractate Hagigah, but with the majority of the Baalei haTosafot being from France, there may be good reason for suggesting one of the French academies. They stress in their commentary that the four sages didn’t really ascend to the firmament, but that “by means of a divine name” they made it appear to themselves as though they had. And so it is worth asking the important question: were the Tosafot suggesting that Rabbi Akiva and his three colleagues were meditating?

This question is not so strange. Contemporary with the later generations of the Tosafot was a rabbi in south-eastern France known as Yitzhak the Blind (Yitzhak “Sagi Nahor” – “Too Much Light”). The son of Rabbi Avraham ben David (“the Raavad”), Yitzhak the Blind contributed greatly towards early kabbalistic philosophies that pertain to the sephirot: divine emanations that bridge the distance between the transcendent godhead and his finite creation. Unsurprisingly for a man who was completely blind, Yitzhak believed that one could ascend these sephirot and approach his creator through mystical contemplation. This idea was to prove very influential amongst later generations of kabbalists – most notable Nachmanides, whose teacher was Yitzhak’s disciple.

But it wasn’t until the expulsion from Spain that these ideas gained widespread currency. Almost grudgingly, European scholars admitted the sanctity of a 13th century Iberian text called Sefer haZohar, which was attributed to the authorship of a second-century Palestinian rabbi named Shimon ben Yohai. Ben Yohai’s transformation is recorded in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud, and served Jews of the sixteenth century with an origin story for the Zohar. A collection of mystical midrashim on the Torah, the Zohar not only constitutes a development of the sephirot philosophy of Yitzhak the Blind, but a profound testament to the development of experiential, introspective Judaism.

Today, when people refer to the kabbalah, they are most oftentimes referring to the Zohar, particularly as it came to be interpreted by a sixteenth century Palestinian rabbi named Yitzhak Luria (“the Arizal”). In many instances, they are referring to his philosophy as it is presented by the teachings of Hassidic rebbeim, for it was the Hassidic movement that saw the extreme popularisation of this doctrine, to the intense chagrin of the rabbinic establishment of the time. And it is no surprise that many Hassidic practises, therefore, have much of a meditative nature to them.

Rhythmically rocking back and forth, their peyot keeping the tempo, are Polish Hassidim aware that their davening is taking on a mantric quality? Sitting in silence before shacharit and focusing on the ascension of prayer as explained by the Rebbe Rashab, Lubavitchers make no apologies for the fact that they are meditating. And when Breslov Hassidim go into the woods for hisbodedus (“self-isolation”), and pour out their heart in spontaneous prayer, they must know that it is no less an act of catharsis than when Sufis spin, when Christians count beads, and when Buddhists sit and think. Are they attaining “enlightenment” through such a practise? Is hisbodedus a form of hisbuddhadus?

At the end of the day, while there is much to compare about these different practises, there is even more by which they can be contrasted. But the presence of warnings like that found in the Tosefta and the Talmuds demonstrates that, while it took a long time before experiential Judaism became a force to be reckoned with, Jews have been practising forms of meditation from the very beginning. Today, large numbers of Israelis (and Jews from all over the world) attend Vipassana retreats. For many amongst them, embracing Buddhism is a way of running away from Judaism. To an extent, however, I wonder if they ever realise that running away by sitting still is just another way of coming home.

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22 Comments »

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Simon,

    I really enjoyed your article.

    I wonder whether Maimonides also promoted a form of meditation when he described acquiring knowledge of God through negating all concepts of God.

  • Sam says:

    Simon
    I found this a very interesting article indeed. I discovered perhaps 15 years ago that there is quite an established tradition of Jewish meditation. In those days Rabbi Laibl Wolf (now running SpiritGrow,)came to Perth and held some seminars and retreats which I attended. The primary activity was learning to silence the mind and participate in a directed meditation, with a stated aim of personal spiritual growth and understanding some elementary concepts of Kabbalah. However it was never 10 days of silence or even 1, as some spirited discourses were highlights of these retreats as well.
    Aryeh Kaplan, an American orthodox rabbi wrote a few books on Jewish meditation, which are excellent and suitable for the unititiated to learn how to meditate and understand the more basic concepts of Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Wolf back then acknowledged that many Jews seeking a deeper form of spirituality often venture into the Buddhist tradition(unecessarily), when there is a well established Jewish tradition of meditation and mysticism.
    From what Simon says near the end of his article, this is probably still the case as many Jews are attending Vipassana retreats.

  • Ittay says:

    beautiful piece, especially the last line.

  • Akiva says:

    I take it the vow of silence didn’t stick? :)

  • Akiva says:

    sorry. couldn’t resist. And I also really enjoyed reading your article.

  • Akiva says:

    No, actually one of my points was that you appear to be spinning the avaliable data to suit your own purposes.

    The other was that from the perspective of the Ha’am, a closer consideration of the data may make your assertions irrelevant.

  • Akiva says:

    woops, cranky comment meant for another thread.

  • KarovLeEmet says:

    Simon,

    You have failed to link the Pardes account to meditation. Supernal contemplation perhaps, but meditation as the term is commonly understood is absent from the Pardes story or those who comment on it.

    Meditation in the eastern tradition is in no way similar to the contemplation of the rabbis in the Pardes story.

    Aryeh Kaplan’s book on meditation is one that should be read by anyone wanting insight on the subject. While it has been many years since I last read his book, I seem to recall that he does not focus on the Pardes account.

    I think the focus of your article is therefore misplaced.

  • You may be right, KarovLeEmet: I read Kaplan’s book in 2002, and I have no recollection of its contents. I would be very interested in knowing if there are other narratives in the rabbinic literature that seem more applicable to this topic!

    My point with the Pardes story centred upon the notion of spiritual contemplation (whatever that means), and was mostly related to the fact that the Tosafot see the sages as having “utilised a divine name” in order to create the appearance to themselves of wandering God’s celestial palace in the upper firmament. To my mind, this is very reminiscent of a meditative practise, although I certainly acknowledge that it is not the same thing as a Buddhist one.

    Other stories that I could have used might have concerned rabbis sitting and discoursing upon scriptural passages until fire descends and encompasses them, and rabbis who acquire special powers through the manipulation of Hebrew letters. The former is found in the Palestinian Talmud and the midrash to Ruth, while the latter is found, inter alia, throughout the rabbinic literature. Both are exploited in the kabbalistic tradition, but neither really suits me as being related to meditation.

  • Michael says:

    Strange, Simon – I would have thought Kaplan’s books to be the starting point for such a topic.

    While Kaplan was unabashedly into Lurianic Kabbalah and all sorts of supposedly spooky stuff, I defer to his evident capability in bringing together all sorts of source texts about which I can make up my mind. A lot of it might be reading in too deeply.

    Meditation and the Bible shows all the points in Tanach where people were meditating. …according to later commentators of course.

    One interesting one was a letter I think from Rambam’s son or grandson explaining how Hebrews learnt Torah in the 40 desert years. It’s worth reading.

    Cheers,
    – MS.

  • Sam says:

    Simon

    Two things that I think need further comment. You say that you read Aryeh Kaplan’s book (I am not sure which one) in 2002 but don’t remember the content. Maybe you should have re-read it before deciding to go on the Vipassana retreat, as it might be more relevant to your belief system. BTW the book I have is titled “Inner Space” and I would thoroughly recommend it.
    Reading your blog piece reviewing your 10 day retreat it comes across that you hated 90% of it, but learned something nevertheless which you valued. You probably could have done that in 1-2 days without the unpleasant bits at a different kind of retreat.

  • Michael says:

    I have Meditation and the Bible, Meditation and Kabbalah, Meditation: A Practical guide (my favourite… maybe because it’s short – and practical) and one or two more. I’ve seen Inner Space but haven’t read it. Kaplan translated a handful of pocket books on Brestlover thoughts on the topic, and of course there’s Sefer Yetzirah which he translated, to the concern of some kabbalists around the world.

    Sam I don’t think you can infer from Simon’s words that which you have.

    Wanting to get to the heart of things without others colouring one’s thoughts is not necessarily bad.
    Perhaps this is why he didn’t want to pick up Kaplan’s works, or those of others.

    It’s hardly uncommon for Jews to attempt to access what many might believe is a purer, agenda-free spiritual experience with Oneness through Buddhist or similar ventures. I don’t, but I understand the sentiment of those that might.

    One of Simon’s talents is his ability to look at sources textually and contextually – something most Jews (including rabbis – of all streams) are too lazy/busy/otherwise preoccupied/ideologically opposed to coming at it from an academic perspective (e.g. using a Jastrow dictionary), to do.

    Simon (according to other Galus Australis contributors) may not always ‘get it right’ but at least he makes a darn good attempt.

    My point however, is that with something scarcely talked about and sometimes only alluded to like meditation in Jewish tradition – why reinvent the wheel? Kaplan’s already done a lot of the ground work. Simon is also very able to separate the wheat from the chaff, so perhaps Kaplan would have been a more appropriate springboard for an article.

    Oh, btw Simon – I don’t see how the pardes story serves as a blanket warning re: all four characters. For some reason, you neglected to consider the different cases from a rather apparent perspective. Rabbi Akiva’s three friends endured their fates as a direct result of this pardes experience, whereas Rabbi Akiva himself suffered his as a result of something completely different and very understandable – rebelling (and being spiritual leader of the rebellion) against the Romans. Suggesting that the Pardes experience destroyed all four is a rather long bow to draw, and I see no basis for it. The best you could try to manufacture would be that all four reached their fates – 3 directly and 1 indirectly – as a result of pardes. Again, I see no basis to read this into the story.

  • Well, Michael, I thank you for your encouragement! I think that Sam is right: I would have got more out of a shorter course (would have, could have, etc), but what I wouldn’t have got out of it was an understanding, however basic, of Vipassana, and I wouldn’t have known that the ten-day program wasn’t for me. So it was all worth when all is said and done.

    Now, what’s with all this fuss about Aryeh Kaplan? I have nothing against the man, and his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah is very impressively researched, but if what he offers is a contextualisation of Buddhism then I can do without it. I shall have to look at his works on Jewish meditation again (I am sure that they are amongst the fifty-or-so books that I left at my parents’ house), and see for myself which passages they are that he quotes. That would be very interesting. And if I were ever to attempt anything definitive about the subject, I can assure you both that I would read what he has to say :)

    As for the fates of the intrepid four, the presence of R’ Akiva in their company is interesting in itself. Akiva is often lionised in very mystical ways, which is possibly reflective of his charismatic personality and his esoteric halakhic exegesis. I did not mean to imply that the text was suggesting that he met a nasty fate, but that his fate would have been in the forefront of any original audience’s mind when they were reading the story, and that the assertion that he “departed in peace” might have carried subtle overtones of a reality that belied that.

    Consider the famous story of Moses’ encountering Akiva. In that instance, the fate of Akiva is spelled out, but it is again linked thematically to Akiva’s esoteric exegesis. To go full circle, I have heard people claim that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s early death was as a result of his enquiring too deeply into the mystical realia that underpin the Torah. This was said by people who admired him very much, but is just as silly as if it were not. One way or another, the connection is raised: don’t engage in mystical contemplation! Unless you live after the 16th century. And you really want to.

  • Sam says:

    Simon

    Without meaning to harp on Aryeh Kaplan’s written works just read any one chapter of the book you have, and it is obvious that his content bears no relationship to Buddhism whatsover. Why would you think that Buddhism is THE source of meditation practice in a Jewish context? As far as his early death is concerned I can’t buy it that there is any connection with his delving into mysticism. What do you mean if one lives after the 16th century? All of us do, so it must be safe to deeply contemplate the mystical for any of us, or is it?

  • Just quickly then.

    Michael, the initial line of my last comment came across as sounding dismissive and that was unintentional. Thank you for the very nice things that you said about me in your comment.

    Sam, I only referred to Kaplan’s “contextualisation of Buddhism” because you suggested that I should have read his book before going on the retreat. As you will no doubt recall, I don’t remember anything about his book, and have never suggested that meditation is an exclusively Buddhist phenomenon. In fact, the whole point of my article was that it is not.

    Finally, the closing line of my last comment was just a little bit of snark :) Don’t take it too seriously. Nihil obstat and all that, etc etc.

  • Michael says:

    :-)
    Once a sadiq, twice and three times – always assumed, by way of hazaqah, to be a sadiq. I was obligated to be dan lechaf zechuth and you should know it was an automatic response.
    I understood that while wishing to say thanks, your eager mind wanted to reach for the meat of our comments. In other words- I assumed you took my comments seriously. Which I in turn took as a compliment – and further reinforcement of the nice things I originally said.

    As they say in French sephardic transliteration: chavoua Tov

  • Ilana Leeds says:

    B’H
    Really loved this article. Interesting and informative. I always understood the story of the four rabbis and the pardes as an allegory for those who delve into the deeper mystic meanings of existence, Torah and the Zohar particularly.
    Each rabbi’s journey represents a different path in the search for deeper knowledge and understanding. If you are not prepared sufficiently you may die,(I am not sure whether this is a real phyical death or the death of mystic insight), go insane in the attempt to grasp knowledge that you are not prepared for or able to understand and then some may lose their faith completely or as Rabbi Akiva did hold the knowledge in perfect peace so much so even the prospect of a torturous death holds no horrors.
    I first read about this story in the early 80’s and later asked a teacher about it. Fascinating insights are gained through meditation practices and much peace. Personally it is all about one’s connection to G-D and the depth of faith that binds you to it.
    Can I not be thought offensive if I ask why you refer to ‘Palestinian’ rabbis and not Israeli? Palestinian is a term used by a the Romans for the area they conquered in Judeia and Sumeria. I found it strange that you would use it and struggle to understand. Although I am just dumb I guess. Could you explain?

  • Thanks, Ilana. I’ve encountered many over the years who have taken issue with my referring to the Talmud Yerushalmi as “the Palestinian Talmud”, or to rabbis in the land of Israel as “Palestinian rabbis”, but in reality (and despite whatever the origins of the word may have been), this is the only suitable term that I can think of. “Israeli” would be a misnomer, for there was no Israel before the middle of the 20th century. When we refer to “the land of Israel”, we are referring not to the land that is called “Israel”, but to the land that belongs to “Israel”, with “Israel” denoting the Jewish people. To refer to Palestinian rabbis as “rabbis of the land of Israel” is a bit of a mouthful, and to refer to them by the Hebrew name, musta’arabim will only confuse those who are not familiar with the term.

    By the way, if you would like to read references to “Palestine” (פלסטינה) in late rabbinic literature, you will find it mentioned in Genesis Rabba 90:6, Leviticus Rabba 5:3, Numbers Rabba 10:3, and Yalkut Shimoni 148, amongst other places. In fact, the last one is interesting because the Magen Avraham footnotes it in his commentary to note that the word “Palestine” refers specifically to “the land of Canaan and the Philistines”. Indeed, it is only because of present-day uses of the term that people have developed a sensitivity towards it, but I see no need to cater to that sensitivity by avoiding the word altogether :)

  • Marky says:

    I would have thought that Palestine is only the land of Pelishtim(Gazza?). However, if the Magen Avraham says otherwise, then who am I to argue..

  • Two different words, Marky. פלשת (peleshet) denotes the five cities of the Philistines (Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath), while פלסטינה (palestina) denotes a larger region. I couldn’t speak to precisely how large that region was (and nor, I suspect, could the Magen Avraham: “the land of Canaan and the Philistines” is likewise a very hazy description), but whatever its precise boundaries, “Palestina”, or something like it, has been the standard term for almost 2,000 years. Interesting to see it turn up in the rabbinic literature, isn’t it?

  • Marky says:

    Thanks, Simon. You’re a fountain of info..

  • Ilana Leeds says:

    B’H

    It would hardly be surprising to have it turn up in Rabbinic literature of the times because the Roman Occupation of Judaia and Sumeria was well documented. The jewish inhabitants were particularly troublesome to the Roman Occupiers and that is why they changed the names of the provinces of the Jewish Kingdom to a roman name Palestina. It was to quell the nationalist uprisings. The Romans were barbarians commpared to the Jewish lawmakers and learned men. They were actually quite disgusting in the way they treated all the inhabitants of the area and tried to subvert and corrupt them. The Jewish nation were very civilised and high thought of people.

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