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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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