Cave of the Heart (iii) : PART ONE continued

Part One: Tikkun
Contemplative Life as Active Life.
1a: Contemplative Lifestyles in Judaism
I use the terms “contemplative prayer” and “contemplative life” in this booklet in a way which would benefit from a little clarification before going further.

By “contemplative prayer” I mean personal and usually silent time spent “with” God alone. It may involve what might be described as a conversation, or a wordless gaze of (hopefully) mutual awareness, or it may involve the receipt of something from Him which simply requires our attention or willingness to receive it for it to be given. My favourite concept of it comes from A.J.Heschel, who says that prayer is God “noticing us” rather than something we do ourselves.

The term “contemplative life” is rarely seen in Jewish texts but in Christian parlance it most often refers to the choice made by a small number of people to devote themselves predominantly or totally to a life of such prayer.

The Carmelites, along with the even more solitary Carthusians are perhaps the main orders (religious worldwide communities) which “specialise” in this kind of lifestyle. Catholic Christians also use the term to describe the element of prayer within the life of an otherwise socially active member of the Church. However, it is in that other vocational or occupational sense that the phrase “the contemplative life” most often appears. That is the way in which I am using the phrase here.

Within Judaism there is no contemporary equivalent to such a contemplative vocation.

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In certain periods of Jewish history there have been a few individual Jewish mystics who have entered into a solitary contemplative life and still fewer who have formed hermit communities along the Mount Carmel lines. This is not surprising really. Judaism does not have the same “martyrdom” and “mortification” tradition of the Christian Church, a tradition which was a fundamental element in the emergence of the religious orders. Once martyrdom had been, to some extent, phased out by the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity, it is suggested that the rigours of monastic asceticism and celibacy were often viewed as an alternative way of sharing in the sacrifice of the Cross.

Asceticism is not a common feature of Jewish practice and celibacy is almost unheard of. It is usually frowned upon as a violation of the command to procreate, and solitude and isolation are regarded as sad and incomplete states of life.

For the Jew, the figures of Moses up the mountain and Elijah in his cave are there, it is true.....but their contemplative periods were more “retreats” than a lifestyle: a prelude to intense socio-religious action. Judaism is also a religion which focuses more on the way intellectual study and communal prayer leads to practical action in the world than on the individual’s prayer life.

Though I am currently aligned with Orthodox Judaism, previously I converted to Reform Judaism in the nineteen nineties. For most of the years since that time I was  geographically isolated from other Jews. In Jakarta, for four years I was very active in the life of its remarkably multi-denominational Jewish community. But the heart of my life was always contemplative prayer. Coming to Judaism from a Catholic contemplative background I was not initially attracted to the traditional rabbinic focus on intellectual study and so found a personal home in the prayer-world of the Hasidim, especially in the world of my namesake, Nachman of Breslov whose
 hitbodedut (self seclusion) seemed my closest similar reference point.

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I struggled to find justification for my personal emphasis on contemplative prayer from within Judaism, and I am still plagued by doubts that my views represent an authentic Jewish view. There is much to increase these doubts in the Jewish literary tradition and so far, I have found very little to support my position other than a few passages in Maimonides and in fragments of works by his descendants Avraham and Obadiah (of which I have only seen extracts).

That personal conversations and arguments with God are to be found throughout the Bible is not doubted. That there is a rich mine of documented mystical experience to be found in the writings of the kabbalists, the mediaeval philosophers and poets, and in the Hasidic tradition is also unquestionable. In contemporary Judaism however, the emphasis is on community engagement and many feel that the days of “descending in the chariot” and “ascending Jacob’s ladder” are long gone. Some feel relief at this.

It is when one comes to consider the place of individuals seeking to express their commitment in specifically contemplative lifestyles that things come really unstuck.

Nazirite separation has become a memory. The schools of the “Sons of the Prophets” and the communities of the Essenes and of the Theraputae did not survive beyond the destruction of the second Temple.
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Some say that the ways of those Jewish communities were transmuted into the eremitical, cenobitic, and “retreat-period” traditions of Christianity and that they are also to be found in the Sufi movement within Islam. This was certainly the view of Rav Avraham ben HaRambam.

The circumstantially based externals of the early Jewish experiments in “monasticism” may not be viewed as having contemporary relevance, but the essence of their response to a call to contemplative life may well have.

The essence of that response is that, though they are a minority, some people do feel called to periods or even lifetimes of focused intimacy with God, and not for self-serving reasons.

The Christian Carmelite and the Muslim Sufi have seen, remembered, and acted on this for centuries. There have been times in the history of Israel when we saw it too. Maybe it is now our turn to remember.

Though I would personally be delighted if there were Jewish monks and nuns I do not think many Jews I have met would share my enthusiasm! I would particularly wish to see the restoration of the Therapeutae lifestyle (Jewish contemplative communities with members living as hermits during the week and congregating only on the Sabbath) which must surely be the nearest thing to “Jewish hermit monks and nuns” that our history has recorded…but I also realise that a desire to embrace such a lifestyle would always be a decidedly minority choice.

I am not suggesting that Judaism is in need of a “monastic” tradition, whether restored or created, though even that possibility is not beyond consideration. But I am suggesting that a prophetic and eremitical tradition  does exist and that it is there to be developed.
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Israel’s compunction to “keep working” and indeed “keep talking” can sometimes be as counter-productive as it can be dynamic. Might short “neo-nazirite” periods of retreat in solitude, for example, give God the chance to get a word in edge-ways?

All Jews are commanded to pray, study, and act but this inclusiveness did not preclude the establishment of the tribe of Levi. Pietist  groupings, however small,  are by no means insignificant contributors to the life of the entire Kehal Yisrael.

If you think that there are no “Jewish Contemplatives” out there because you have never heard of or met a “Jewish Hermit”, remember that they are almost certain to be invisible. They will have retreated from lack of acceptance long ago or they will have left Judaism for other religions.

We wave the arba minim at the festival of Sukkot: fruit and bound-together plants which represent the variation and diversity which individual Jews bring to the community of Israel as a whole. Some commentators view the arba minim as a symbol of a diversity in which the strong support the weak. Others, myself included, view it as a non-judgemental and positive statement about diversity being celebrated for its particular beauty per se.

It was a diversity accepted and expressed by the arrangement that was made between Isachar and Zebulun without any taint of elitist pietism.

Might it not be possible to accept that some people have what might be termed a natural gift or predisposition for the contemplative life which could be acknowledged, and maybe developed, for the good of the whole? And here, I mean the good of kol ha-Olam as much as for kol-Yisrael….for the community of Creation and not just the Jewish community.

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Please remember here that I am in what I expect be a temporary situation as a reclusive hermit and so I am not motivated to say all this for my own sake. Though I would now be content if my contemplative lifestyle were to turn out to be permanent, my attachment is to contemplative prayer rather to a contemplative lifestyle. My lifestyle may suddenly become an “active” one as it has done before. But some people have no choice. What is more, they may be an unnecessarily inactive section of the Jewish community who might be nurtured into enormous spiritual fruitfulness.

My current “Carmelite” lifestyle is lived within Judaism and so it has a very different flavour from its Catholic expression. There is, happily for me, no element of “self mortification” or “martyrdom” in it and my single status was not and is not in any sense “sought out”. It is simply my current status though it is one which I am now content with. Although I am compelled to live frugally, I am not attracted to asceticism and I certainly try to enjoy what I have to the full.

For many people though, such a solitary, reflective lifestyle may seem to be just a sad accident.

That thought stopped me in my tracks shortly after I had returned to my “cave” the second time round. It produced an “outward looking” meditation which alerted me to the needs of others and led me to places I was not expecting.

I had already turned my apparently negative and restrictive personal circumstances into the positive re-discovery that a contemplative lifestyle was purposeful, creative, and actively useful. That was very much a greatly appreciated legacy from Carmel. Most other Jews are not so well prepared.

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1b: Choosing a Contemplative Lifestyle

Everybody needs a sense of purpose.

That “everybody” includes the minority of Jews who feel called to a contemplative lifestyle or to a deeply contemplative expression of their religion, but it also includes Jews who are or who feel isolated or otherwise prevented from “community” activity.

Perhaps you would consider this list for a moment:
Some isolated Jews may have found themselves made redundant or incapacitated through illness or other circumstances.

Of that group, some of them will have been disabled all their lives and thus prevented from many forms of activity or normal communication with humanity.

Some people may be living and working in unavoidable isolation from Jewish community centres or even in situations of restriction or oppression.

Some may have lost a life-partner, and in that, lost also the only practically functioning community they had.

Some may be people who are naturally inclined towards a single life. People who have chosen that state for (selfish or unselfish) career reasons, or whose attempts at partnership formation have simply not worked out.

Some people may be both single and desperately lonely and thus feel excluded/exclude themselves from the world of “family life”. Their isolation can be physical or internalised or both.
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Some may simply be people in isolation who for one reason or another have found themselves with more time on their hands and fewer opportunities for a social expression of their religious feelings and aspirations than they had expected.

Within this group there will be Jews who are in prison, and the quarantined or terminally ill.

Some isolated Jews may be retired people, with or without dispersed families, who have found themselves unexpectedly confronted with questions which they had been cushioned from in the bustle of their previous working lives.

And, I have to add, some may feel called to solitary life both naturally and supernaturally and have no idea how to go about it. As Jews, they will very possibly feel marginalised and embarrassed.

If you go back through that list of “life situations” you will see that the people I have described are by no means a small minority. They are diverse, hidden, dispersed, and very probably in need of spiritual support.

The thought process reminded me of a rabbinic tale about the two ways of hitting a target. One being to shoot the arrow at a target on a wall, the other being to shoot the arrow into the wall and then draw the bullseye round it. I may have been doing the latter, but things “started to fall into place”…..and experience tells me that is a sign of Providence working.

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But the bulls-eye was also a “point” that many had seen before me, and I remembered how I had “seen” it already:

I studied and taught Javanese gamelan music for over twenty years. Much of that musical tradition was and is influenced by Islamic mysticism. The Javanese had a saying that the purpose of Gamelan is “to return sound to the One who is the Origin of sound”.

A similar concept may be found in the works of many of the Jewish mystics. It is not so much a core philosophy of Judaism, more a rather colourful thread in its prayer shawl, but it is one of great beauty. Sketched here very prosaically, the image expresses the intuition that the whole of creation is replete with shattered shards which are slowly reconstituting themselves after the “cosmic bang” which occurred during the Creation. These “sparks” of the Divine, so some mystics felt, needed a little help from mankind on their way back to the “core” of God. The idea being that prayerful acts, the observance of mitzvot, acts of charity, justice and mercy somehow healed the world by releasing these trapped particles: thus sending them on their happy way back, or rather, forward to their origin. This process of reconstitution they called tikkun olam … the “repair” of the universe.

It is obviously thought to be a very active and dynamic process, though it is significant that many of the above mentioned expressions of tikkun are actually spiritual ones. Tikkun can be a question of “being a mensch where there is no mensch” and wherever this is an activity which involves practical and social action few would question its value. Judaism is pre-eminently a religion of concern for social and material justice. Tikkun is most usually seen these days in practical expressions of “making the world a better place” for all humankind with ecology, human rights, and politics as the tools. But to relegate the tikkun of purely spiritual action to a redundant past of homely piety or to dismiss it as magical or superstitious claptrap is a waste of a good idea.

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Doing so might also inadvertently be wasting the talents of “closet” contemplatives who are either too embarrassed to “come-out” or simply unaware of their “talents”.

As a Carmelite, I was surrounded by people who believed passionately in the value of living a contemplative life. I admit I miss the support that gave. Any other Jewish solitaries and contemplatives out there will be feeling the need for such support too.

Contemplative prayer should complement action and congregational prayer in the life of all Jews. But not all Jews have the inclination for it. Many are heavily and laudably engaged in activity, for some there is attendance at synagogue. A tiny (or possibly not so tiny) minority may have only their prayer life to offer. But their contribution could do with some support though liturgical reference, through inclusion in rabbinic documentation and sermons, through the development of specifically focused literature. An expansive, inclusive, and spiritual definition of “Jewish Community” would emancipate those people and open the door of concerted action to those currently in that closet.

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1c: The Contemplative within the Community
Community life means more than social or cultural gatherings, synagogue seats filled, or events on an organisation’s agenda or calendar.

We hear the Voice of Sinai as the Knesset Yisrael (the Community of Israel) in our individual hearts.

The covenantal relationship between Knesset Yisrael and God is manifested in the inner and outer life of each individual Jew. This is what makes Judaism a religion and not a club…not just a “grouping” of people with a common nationality or shared ideals. It is that individual communication with God which paradoxically produces the “We” of all Jewish prayer and all Jewish activity, and it is a paradox which is at the heart of specifically Jewish mysticism.

If one accepts that there is a Knesset Yisrael, an eternal Community of Israel which is not bound by the limitations of time, space, or number…. If one accepts that there is an Adam Cadmon, a “Soul of Humanity” of which we are the re-uniting fragments… It should be a small matter to see that neither can be contained by synagogues, by movements, or by religious denominations. The best they can do is to facilitate points of focus for some of the fragments. The only real point of focus is the spiritual one they hope to represent. They worst they can do is to allow themselves to think that they embody it exclusively.

In this age of the internet, isolated Jews might express their “belonging” if they were encouraged to affiliate with established synagogue communities online, in full mutual knowledge that they may never be able to attend them in any capacity other than a spiritual one. Small communities composed of people who never meet save in spirit and shared intention could also be fostered through internet links.

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Minyanim (prayer groups) often meet in separate rooms or spaces within a common synagogue complex or nearby buildings yet count themselves as “meeting” as one community. This is a statement about unity in diversity which reduces the relevance of spatial proximity to its real insignificance. Such a diverse but united synagogue grouping itself meets in physical isolation… but not in spiritual isolation… from the rest of the Community of Israel. It does not take much of a stretch of halachic imagination to consider that distant affiliated members “not physically present” could be “really present”.

Every Saturday morning I read and study the Torah portion for that week at the same time as my distant friends do in the U.K. Am I not there with them? As far as I am concerned (and I hope as far as G-d is concerned)…Yes. But if there were expressions of such similar presences made liturgically explicit I would feel more present than I do.

Taking this one step further. Let us assume that there are, say, ten isolated Jews in mainland Europe. Could they not themselves be viewed as a minyan if they expressed the common intention to be so? (If you follow Orthodox rulings the answer is “no” because they insist on a physically present quorum of ten for community prayer. )

To take it still further. A number of “Jewish Contemplative” isolates might contract on the internet to form a minyan. Such a minyan might be a legitimate twenty first century expression of the early Jewish “desert tradition”.

I adhere to the halachah which  states that community worship is an obligation and fully respect the customs related to prayers  which may only be recited  in a minyan, but in the case of those far from community centres, maybe we are just not being spiritual enough here?

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Though it has not been attempted regularly, Jewish liturgy has been set up on the internet from time to time. As a child I remember radio and television programmes which were broadcast for the benefit of those unable to attend church services. I remember, for example, a programme on the radio called the “Daily Service” which was an abbreviated form of the Anglican liturgy of the day. That was in the Nineteen-sixties when computers filled rooms not laps. Might key regional synagogues or world-wide Jewish educational organisations consider the live-stream broadcasting of at least part of their liturgy on a regular basis? The introduction of broadband internet connections in many parts of the world would make this easier to manage than in recent years. 

Millions of people who live outside organised religion come into contact with God through the BBC radio/web-site “Thought for the Day” programme. It frequently includes the reflections of Rabbi Lionel Blue and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks but also features speakers from all major world religions. That programme lasts less than five minutes but I know from the comments of countless people I have met that it makes a big difference to their day, and in some cases to their lives. That programme can be listened to live, or replayed on the internet at one’s leisure. Though it would be unrealistic to broadcast entire synagogue services live, might the idea of a “Jewish thought for the day/week” together with a prayer and/or a little music be a feasable way to include the disparate or isolated in a community liturgy?

The many oiutreach websites on the  internet make Torah commentaries  available to me and many others like me. There are computer programmes which can chant us the Torah reading for a particular week.. But there would be a certain edge to a live or recently produced and regularly updated audio or video service, prayer, or reflection broadcast specifically for those not able to attend community worship.

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Surely that would be a great act of tikkun and as I am talking about individual/community internet enterprise and not national or commercial television/radio all it would need is a little time and money, the right expertise........and God’s inspiration.

The laudable social, cultural, educational, liturgical and fund raising functions of the synagogue are only the tip of the Jewish iceberg. A prayer-based and pre-eminently spiritual notion of “Jewish Community” would not only include the minority of “contemplative solitaries”, the much larger number of isolated potential “congregants” and the multitudes who simply feel estranged from the “synagogue scene”. It might also provide inspiration for the development of personal prayer outside the usual synagogue environment and a more intense awareness of world-wide Jewish Community solidarity and purpose. A prayer-rooted expression of Jewish identity also potentially bypasses the hurdles of denominational party politics and small-time religious bickering: a potential not to be scoffed at if we truly hope that “Jerusalem will become a centre of prayer for all people” as we state daily in the Amidah.  Silent contemplative prayer is perhaps the key not only to Jewish unification, it is accessible to individuals of all religious communities.

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1d: Contemplative Prayer as Active Progress

I’ll come clean here and tell you why I think the spiritual action I’m writing about is important:

It was Israel’s wish at Sinai that Moses did the listening for them though this does not seem to have been the Divine intention. Moses himself wished that all Israel were in receipt of the prophetic spirit and the subsequent institution of the prophetic role was perhaps a kind of compromise.

Perhaps the tendency of some Jews to leave the “religious and spiritual” aspects of Jewish life to the Rabbis and Cantors is a perpetuation of the same compromise.

If the Torah which is written on our hearts is ever to be understood and if the spirit of prophecy is to return in its fullness: the individual, personal communication and the spiritually receptive attentiveness which they require is not only desirable, it is crucial. For all Jews.

Ultimately we are said to be destined to become a nation of prophets. For that time to be approached there has to be somebody listening.

The parallel development of contemplative lifestyles and contemplative prayer in the life of all Jews might go some way towards making sure that those “listeners” are in place. 

If living a contemplative lifestyle/having a contemplative life is as valuable as I propose it is, they might not otherwise emerge. The potential might go to waste. 

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I headed this chapter: “Contemplative life as Active life”. The discussion over the relative importance of Prayer/Study vs Action/Good deeds is ancient. I am not going to enter into it here. But I do want to underline the way in which a life of prayer can be dynamic.

There are many who would feel that prayer was only really relevant if it produced tangible action.

But maybe contemplative prayer is action?

My feeling is that there are some times when prayer itself can be either the only possible action or the most effective one.

Fr. John Bernard frequently quoted the dictum “bonum est diffusivum sui ” ...... goodness of its very nature overflows. In context, he was proposing that action in “good deeds” be the litmus test of the value of a person’s prayer life. His personal “activity” was expressed in directing students, preaching retreats, and giving spiritual direction on the phone in his cell......but pre-eminently by effecting the sort of tikkun (though he would not have used the word) that was the result of a life spent in silent prayer and solitude “for the sake of heaven”.

We are not angels.....our realm of action is the Natural and the Human world.

I remember a Carthusian saying that the apparently enclosing walls of the monastic cell were “see-through” and thus opened up on all the world. It was at the mouth of the cave that Elijah heard the still, small voice. The Cave of the Heart is at the point of intersection of the worlds. When a contemplative seeks seclusion in God he also finds the “world” and realises his responsibility even more deeply. He does not evade or retreat from it. The “world” is in God.

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The contemplative is always in community, whether that be a handful of neighbours, a family, a circle of distant friends kept often in mind, or the people they meet briefly or correspond with. Even if they were in total solitude they would still be part of the community of Creation: Responsible not only for themselves but for everyone. This is not just my own reflection. It is one which permeates the liturgy of Yom Kippur.

The thought is often expressed that we are God’s only hands in the world. There is a sense in which God is more present in “our” world when we make Him so. Might the contemplative then, following the image through, be His mind or heart in the world too? Or is that blasphemy? If it were not blasphemy, then it would mean that a “contemplative lifestyle” was a valid and purposeful Jewish lifestyle. Part of the diversity which is the garment of God’s unity.

We are tzelem Elohim....made in the image of God.

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Have you ever felt consoled by a friend who promises their prayers from the other side of the world?

Have you ever felt so close to someone you love when they were miles away that the distance melts in the thought/feeling?

Have you ever sensed that something was wrong with someone you are close to in thought but miles away from in space.....only to find that a phone call confirmed your apprehension?

Have you ever even just thought of someone only to have them turn up out of the blue at the door, in your path, or in your email inbox?
These are not proofs of the existence of a potential spiritual field of action.....but they are daily occurrences in my life and the life of many of my friends, so I choose not to ask too many questions..... but I do acknowledge them as significant.

A person living a contemplative lifestyle (as I’ve said, whether by choice or circumstance) can make a difference to the world by consciously turning their focus in prayer to the healing or tikkun process.

This process is active in the individual’s journey in and to God and simultaneously in the process of the evolution of all Creation. From the position of the former we hope to influence the latter.

In my personal prayer I find it easier to do this on an individual level by joining my thoughts to those of friends, especially when they are in periods of distress. Attempting to give such spiritual support on a wider scale, perhaps even a global scale might have highly significant consequences.

Contemplative solitaries may seek seclusion, but they certainly do not seek separation from the Community of Israel.

Those who are physically or geographically prevented from attending Community worship are not prevented from joining it. Those who are attending it may benefit from being more explicit in their intention to join with them in tikkun. 
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Maybe the service of every Jewish heart in contemplative prayer is as needed for tikkun olam as is our cash and socio-political labour.

Perhaps it is needed even more.

Perhaps Shimon bar Yohai was right after all.

The rest of this little book suggests how part-time, full time, or occasional contemplatives might perform a very simple act of spiritual tikkun which might help to develop such a service of the heart.

Footnote *1

These words were written in 2005 at a time when the internet was underused by almost all Jewish Denominations.
Since then, with astounding rapidity, internet liturgy and services for isolated Jews have become common, well funded, and well produced on both sides of the Atlantic.

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