A Jewish Contemplative

“In the tractate of the Mishnah known as the “Ethics of the Fathers”, we are strongly advised “not to separate ourselves from the community” (Pirkei Avos 2:5). Anyone attempting to lead a Jewish solitary life has to come to terms with this directive, yet there have always been Jews who have felt inspired to make solitary lives of prayer and study their main spiritual discipline and a major part of their contribution to the life of the Community of Israel.

If you consult a modern Hebrew dictionary, you will discover that the word for solitude is “b’didut”. In Jewish mystical theology the related term “hitbodedut” (often transliterated as “hisbodedus”) has been used for centuries to denote interior and exterior seclusion for contemplative prayer and meditation. Despite this history, a non-Jewish observer might find it hard to see evidence of physical or spiritual solitude in Jewish practice—and many Jews might even declare that there is no place for it in Judaism at all. In this short essay I hope to shine a little positive light on that gloomy misconception.

The two main reasons for the apparent dearth of solitary practice in Judaism are its insistent focus on communal activity and its objections to life-long celibacy. Judaism does not generally encourage physical withdrawal from society, it encourages the pursuit of justice and mercy through social action. Judaism does not encourage monastic celibacy as a way of expressing devotion, dedication, or as a spiritual technique. Instead, Judaism regards procreation (Genesis 1:28) and the education of children by the family unit (Deuteronomy 6:7) to be positive mitzvos—commandments to be observed. It also insists that communal liturgical prayer is the ideal form of Jewish worship, and it makes the presence of a minyan (ten worshippers) the condition for many full liturgical usages in order to assert this directive somewhat forcefully.
jewish 4
Nevertheless, if we look at the lives of Jews with a leaning towards meditation, contemplation, and meticulous religious observance we may find surprising and highly significant anomalies in the practice of religious solitude. I am not merely referring to fringe pietist groups or minority eccentrics here, but towering figures like Moses our Teacher, Elijah the prophet, Rabbi Isaac Luria the eminent kabbalist, and the Baal Shem Tov, founder of “modern” chassidism. These are not Jews on the fringe. They are the generators and exemplars of quintessential Jewish spiritual practice.

What is even more remarkable—given the usually universally observed commandment to procreate—there are even Tzaddikim who have practiced celibacy as an exceptional form of Jewish spiritual dedication. Examples of lifelong celibates in Judaism include the prophets Elijah and Elisha (see Zohar Chadash 2,1; Midrash Mishlei 30; and Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 33), as well as the Talmudic sage Rabbi Simeon Ben Azzai (see the Bavli tractate Yevamot 63b and also the remarks on religious celibacy in the Shulchan Aruch, Even ha-Ezer 1:4).

Moses and Elijah were both advocates of religious solitude by example. Moses spent two very long retreats on top of Mount Sinai in deep solitude. He also left his wife and family behind and lived in celibacy for many years. Elijah appears to have been unmarried and childless yet, in a sense, his progeny are the contemplative Jews in each era. In every generation, each contemplative Jew follows Elijah into the cave of solitude to refine his/her spiritual attentiveness to the inner voice of the divine, and our tradition declares Elijah to be the archetypal mentor of those blessed to receive the gift of “his” mystical instruction. To be “under the mantle of Elijah” is to receive a profound contemplative awareness—a change in perspective— which is brought about by God’s inspiration.
Plate from 'Illustrations to the Bible': The Covenant published 1832 by John Martin 1789-1854
John Martin (1789 1854) Plate from “Illustrations to the Bible”: “The Covenant” (1832)

When Moses went “into the Cloud” (Exodus 24:18), it was for a solitary retreat of forty days. Elijah’s encounter with the “still small voice” in the cave on Horeb (I Kings 19:9-18) was the climactic event which concluded a long solitary journey of forty days (I Kings 19:8). This was a biblical “zen walking meditation” par excellence. These experiences were not the biblical equivalent of a short “weekend retreat”. They were significantly long periods of isolated meditation intended, I would suggest, as models for future Jewish practice.
torah at sinai
The giving of the Torah at Sinai was a unique religious event in that it was not an individual but a communal revelation. All of Israel experienced this event and yet, in a sense, the Torah was received by each individual in their own heart—in a spiritual solitude which is deeper than any mere physical solitude ever could be. It is “solitude within a crowd” and it is reflected each and every day in the traditional Jewish liturgy. Each communal service has periods where congregation members recite the central prayer of eighteen blessings (the Shemoneh Esreh) silently. At this and at other times during communal worship, they pray in secluded privacy under their tallisim ( prayer shawls), often at their own pace while absorbed in a text on the pages of their own prayer-book. They are worshipping in community, yet praying alone in interior solitude.
Elijah was only able to hear the “still small voice” when he had ignored the hustle and bustle of normal existence. The earthquake, and the wind, and the fire of our frenetic business and social lives can sometimes obscure a call to experience a deeper level of daat (religious encounter) or a more profound revelation of God’s will (ratzon). The messages of the “still small voice” are often the very ones which we are trying to avoid confronting, receiving, or putting into practice ourselves. Perhaps it is in a combination of external and internal solitude that we can best be aware of this tiny and hidden spark of inspiration (ruach ha-kodesh). Elijah was a Jewish mover and shaker, for certain—but even he went on a retreat. His is a Jewish example of religious solitude which many Jews ignore.”

jewish 1
Norman R. Davies is a former music teacher who specialised in Javanese Gamelan, teaching in schools in the UK and in South East Asia. Since 2003 he has been living a solitary contemplative lifestyle (as a Dedicated Jewish Contemplative) in Granada. He is the administrator of a small global community of “Jewish Contemplatives,” and maintains a website on the subject of Jewish monastic renewal and contemplative prayer at http://www.jewishcontemplatives.blogspot.com.
jewish 3
See also: Norman R. Davies “Dedicated Jewish Contemplatives” in “European Judaism” Spring 2008 Vol. 41, No. 1

“On my website http://www.jewishcontemplatives.blogspot.com you can read the booklet I wrote in 2005 called ‘Kuntres M’arat ha-Lev’ (Cave of the Heart) and the monthly updates which followed it. They are both concerned with two questions: ‘is there a place for dedicated contemplative lifestyles in contemporary Judaism?’ and ‘is it possible to live a Jewish life if there are no other Jews living anywhere near you?’
My name is Norman. I was born in Merseyside but now live in Spain. Currently, I am a Jewish hermit and I have been living a solitary contemplative lifestyle for the last four years.
I am now in my fifties, but I first met Lionel when I was 18 and he was visiting my home with the Discalced Carmelites in Oxford. At the time I was a confused novice–confused because I had entered the Carmelites on a sort of Pre-Raphaelite wave of fantasy and romance. I was a would-be ‘jongleur de Notre Dame’ but I did not like giving up Mahler. I wanted to be a priest and that particular order had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary which suited me fine. Amazingly, though, it had almost passed by my attention that the order was principally a contemplative one. I was not particularly interested in ‘contemplation’ per se at the time. This was a fact which rightly shocked my novice master, who nevertheless believed all his life that I was very specifically ‘called to be a contemplative’. It has taken me these thirty-five years to accept finally that he was (probably) quite right.
I am now a Progressive Jew. I converted under the auspices of the RSGB Beth Din in 1993 with Lionel as my sponsor.
I had left the Carmelites to become a music teacher and I spent most of my teaching career in Southeast Asia. I specialized in Javanese Gamelan but also led large music departments in various British International Schools. I spent four happy years as the cantor of the multi-denominational Jewish Community of Jakarta, and then six (not quite so happy) years hovering around outside the Orthodox Synagogue in Singapore, occasionally going inside to join Shabbos or Festival services incognito. (There was no Progressive congregation there at the time.) My twenty-something years as a music teacher ended quite suddenly when I became partially deaf (through occupational deafness and ischemia). I lost the ability to hear certain pitches and decided that conducting 400 children in school concerts largely by sight was more than I, and perhaps they, could bear.
jewish 2
I bought a small house with a tiny enclosed garden in a coastal Andalusian village in Granada, and there I attempted to start a new life. At first this meant looking for part-time work (no luck) and composing (nobody liked the stuff I wrote) and trying to find a new sexual/romantic partner (but failing). I slumped into the deepest and longest depression I have ever experienced. I felt useless, lonely, isolated, unsupported, and so on, and so forth. However, I emerged with a purpose when I ‘became’ a Jewish Hermit. That last sentence still seems almost laughable to me even now, but it is the truth.”

See also https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jewish-Contemplatives/47572267363

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: