KUNTRES M'ARAT HA LEV: The Cave of the Heart

My original “Kuntres M’arat ha-Lev” was written as an A5 booklet in 2005. This is just a copy of the entire booklet in its 2017 edition.  I am currently preparing a book entitled "The Cave of the Heart" and this  kuntres forms Chapter Five of that new work. As I estimate that it will be several months before I finish that new book -which I expect to self publish- I am re-publishing this slightly streamlined version of the Kuntres online  as an interim record of the original document. 

Over the years, many people have contacted me to point out the significance of the phrase “Cave of the Heart” in Eastern religions, but I was totally unaware of such connections when I chose the term. My use of the phrase “Cave of the Heart” (in hebrew: M'arat ha-Lev) was an unrelated coincidence. You can read an account of how I use the term HERE.

It is also worth mentioning to new visitors to the site that I wrote the booklet in 2005 at a time when I still considered myself a “progressive” Jew (having undergone  a Reform Jewish conversion in 1992).  Though I am pluralistic and inclusive in many aspects of my thought, I  moved towards a much more traditional Jewish practice and theology ...and in July 2016 I completed the process of Orthodox conversion ki halacha in Madrid with an Israeli Beis Din.  Some of my comments in the 2005 "Cave of the Heart"--- on  Sabbath observance and on many aspects of  halakhah---have thus evolved considerably or have been superseded.

Nevertheless: My positive  valuation  of contemplative practice and solitary contemplative lifestyles in Judaism has not changed....but deepened.

I am not a religion scholar by any means, and I make minimal reference to other sources for the simple reason that I have read only a handful of books about spirituality or mysticism. When I write about contemplative prayer, I write only from personal experience and from prayerful intuition and my “philosophy” is to encourage my readers to be practical contemplatives in that same spirit.

Here then is the entire booklet:



The Cave
The Heart

A reflection
on Jewish Contemplation
Norman R. Davies


This is a book which turned out to be a booklet.

I thought I had a lot to say,
But I was wrong.

I’ve written it for other Jews but hopefully, in such a way
as to be of some use to all who “wrestle with God”.

The first part is a personal testimony
which will explain why I am asking a question.

The question is:

“What value does a contemplative lifestyle have
within the Community of Israel?”

The second part is a simple method of
receptive contemplative prayer
which may be part of the answer.


And after the fire
there came a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard it,
he wrapped his face in his mantle
and went out,
and stood
at the mouth of the cave.

(Kings I 19:12,13)



There are three archetypal caves in my life and a fourth which is my current home. Well, it’s not actually a cave. It’s a small house in rural Spain built into the side of a hill. In design it resembles a Carthusian house-cell, but the rooms where I work and pray are walled on two sides by a natural rock and they certainly make it feel like a cave. The three archetypal caves that it so often brings to mind are the Cave of Elijah whose draw I felt as a young Discalced Carmelite novice in Oxford, the Cave of Plato which I read of as a Theology student in Ushaw College Durham, and the Cave of Shimon bar Yohai in Israel which I was figuratively led into when I converted to Progressive Judaism in 1993.

Plato’s cave ( which you can read about in The Republic) is a paradigm of perception and reality. If my memory serves me correctly, it was a place where shadows seem real and truth comes only from subterranean excavation, a digging of one’s way out into the true light.

Elijah’s cave on Mount Horeb is the place where the prophet reflected and was encouraged to rely on Providence before zealously bounding into action. “His” cave and spring on Mount Carmel was also the place where tradition holds that Jewish, then Christian, and then Muslim men lived in hermit communities, the Christian group giving rise to the present day Carmelite Order.

The cave of Bar Yohai was the place where the 2nd century C.E. Jewish mystic took refuge when fleeing from the Romans. He lived there for a total of thirteen years with his son, both (reputedly) buried up to their necks in sand during the day to save clothes and subsisting on the water of a nearby spring and the seeds of a conveniently placed carob tree.
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Some say that he lost his temper the minute he re-entered society and felt compelled to return there for a second dose of solitude after his first attempt at social reintegration had failed.

Living in contemplative isolation had etherialised him to the point that he expected everybody to imitate his 24/7 level of meditative prayer and study. Some say he was, as it were, “sent back” to learn that his view was imbalanced and that he needed to learn that his way was neither the only way nor a “purer” one: that most people had to earn a living; and that “worldly” action was not to be criticised as a second best but that it was meditation’s co-partner.

And then there is another cave, the one which has generated this little book. It is neither a dwelling nor an archetype. I will refer to it as the m’arat ha-lev, the cave of the heart. It is simultaneously “where” we meet God and a part of the individual soul. But, more on that later.

I am not blessed with Plato’s intellect, but I have spent many years in his cave. Frequently I have wondered if I was “seeing” illusory shadows or a real but hidden world that eternally sustains and periodically breaks into our world, our world being one whose reality is like that other world’s surface skin.

I am not as short tempered as the venerable Bar Yohai, but like him I made forays out of the cave and found myself thrust back in as “not cooked yet”. When I left the Discalced Carmelites in 1976 my novice master, Fr. John Bernard Keegan said that I “would be back”. He was right.

The contemplative in me would not go away. I worked in order to make a living, but that work was principally the means to support my religious life. Though I was a typicallyworkaholic music teacher for over twenty years, most of that time in pressure-driven International schools, I knew I was a contemplative at heart. Six years ago I decided to take a risk and respond to that intuition. I left my job and bought my “cave”.
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My plan was to simplify my life: to find a part time job and make space for musical composition, religious study and prayer. The routine which quickly developed went something like this:

During three weeks in the year I had visitors. For the rest of the year I lived alone, left the village about three days in a year, and left the house once a day on a regular, short food-shopping trip which doubled as exercise. (The village is on a very steep hill.) The time was spent in almost total silence. The few words of business spoken on the shopping trip, or in a brief greeting with my kind neighbours as we crossed paths in the street were my only “live” human contact. The rest of the time was spent in the house or in its small high-walled garden doing manual jobs, reading, studying, composing, writing letters and praying.

For two years I lived that contemplative lifestyle but I have to say, not altogether happily. The search for part time work to support the venture hit a brick wall. Financial panic set in and when I was unexpectedly asked to return to my old job abroad I leapt at the opportunity.

But it was not to be.

In the second year back in that job I realised that I was going deaf. Only partially, but more than enough to make music teaching both difficult and painful. I eventually accepted and acted on the doctors’ advice to avoid further hearing damage and returned to my “cave” in Spain. That was two years ago,in the summer of 2003. I have to say that I do not think the return was an accident.
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I found myself stripped of the character supportive motivation and prestige that a job-title or job-description brings, saddened by the hearing loss that now drastically limited the musical and educational activities which had been my life, and I found myself set down thus psychologically exposed on a mountain top. The reader should remember I had also landed in a comfortable home, in good general health with enough money in the bank to afford not to work for a few years. I have never for one moment forgotten that enormous good fortune. Any small trials I had I see in proper perspective and I am not looking for sympathy. They are mentioned here as they turned out to be the door which opened into the experience I describe in the next chapter.

Part-time employment remained elusive but I decided not to allow a destructive panic to set in as had happened before. I set about making the best of the situation….by living the contemplative lifestyle with contentment and increased dedication. In this my second period "in the cave", the silences are considerably longer and the solitude very much deeper. I have no idea how long I will be "dining on carob seeds" this time round, but while I am I want it to be of use.

At this point I have to say that I wish I could have written this booklet without all this biographical detail. I would rather have written a scholarly tract adorned with textually referenced arguments and counter arguments. But I am someone who still stumbles over Hebrew vowel-signs and who splutters and chokes over the kind of Talmudic-style exposition that a more genetically or culturally blessed Jew would have for breakfast. My brain simply does not work that way and so I am compelled to make my biographical details my principal “text”. I have to write using my own voice andnot that of others for much of this to make sense. If someone is not already writing the erudite expression of what this booklet sketches, then maybe they will read it and be pushed to pick up their pen.

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I do not expect there to be a multitudinous potential readership of Jewish recluses and hermits who might find this little booklet to be of interest. Though who knows there may be the odd one or two, in which case I’d like to try to encourage them to “come out”. My hope is that there may be other religious “outsiders” of whatever creed or denomination who may, at least, find support or stimulation in these few pages.

I also want to attempt to provoke interest and discussion on contemplative lifestyles within the  Jewish community of which I am an isolated but zealous member.

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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.

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And these words
which I command you today
shall be upon your heart
Deuteronomy VI:6.

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Part Two: M’arat ha-Lev
The time and the place of contemplative prayer


The “World which is to come” is not in the future. It is the moment which is now. The “day” on which “God is One and His Name shall be one” is here if we would only listen.

How can anyone listen to God personally?
How can anyone meet him in prayer?
Nobody can see Him and live.

Any perception we may have of Him comes heavily screened.

As this perception of Him is being formed we decode it according to our communal and personal “preferences”.

We may distort it, even disfigure it in the process.

So “who” or “what” is the contemplative listening to?

In Jewish prayer the name of God is composed of the four letters YH and VH. This name is never pronounced but is read as “Adonai” (Lord). It was pronounced once a year by the High Priest in the Temple of Jerusalem at the most solemn moment of the liturgy on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. With the passage of time it is sometimes stated that the vowel sounds which belonged with those four consonants were simply “forgotten”, presumably as they had been committed only to the memory of the High Priest. I prefer to think it was not an accidental forgetting.

Whether that is true or not, it is significant to me because it makes it an ikon of how indescribable and undefineable God really is. However much we try to philosophise, there is
always a feeling of utter helplessness in delineating or accurately expressing any concept of God's nature. 

His activities and, for many Jews, His apparent choice not to intervene are often bewildering and sometimes painfully incomprehensible, sometimes to the point of arousing the outrage of His people. It is not only the Holocaust of the last century or the persecutions of previous centuries that have provoked it. Creation is formed of what we call “good and evil” elements. The Jew believes both must have been created by God and as such are part of Him----for everything is. It seems highly appropriate to me that His very Name is a confusing mystery.

His Name, must be the most significant name there is and though it is veiled in mystery many have expressed the idea that it is a word referring to existence itself. Some have described it as a verb rather than a noun, thus hinting at the possible idea that God is (maybe) somehow more of a “How” and a “What” than a “Who”.

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To me, the revelation of the Name from the midst of the burning bush seems to be the most significantly “personal” Divine revelation there is…. and one which is there for us to feel as much as to philosophise about despite the “cloud of unknowing” thrown about any attempt to grasp it cognitively. It is a revelation but its enigmatic form is its beauty.

The kabbalists referred to God as “Ein Sof”…. This term is usually translated as “the Infinite” or “The Endless”. Ultimately we can never understand or grasp even this concept, let alone the Being it attempts to describe….but contemplative prayer is a way of developing our awareness of being in It, part of It and, somehow a crucial receptacle of It.


This awareness can arise in highly charged moments, come and gone as swiftly as the brief appearance of light on a cloud darkened sea. It can also grow imperceptibly at an agonizingly slow and apparently uneventful pace, to emerge like a crystal, revealing something which was actually there all along. Like the breath of a breeze it may come as a once in a lifetime momentary shift in perspective after which our memory of it is our only manna. Or it may not be “felt” at all and only be sensed in its results.

Anyone who approaches God in a contemplative spirit becomes painfully aware of the dynamic tension caused by His distance while simultaneously feeling His somehow personal action ever more deeply in the heart. The Name is, as it were, the embodiment of this dynamic tension…..not on parchment, not on a shiviti, but in a part of our soul which is made pregnant by contemplative awareness. This “space” is the cave of the contemplative par excellence….the m’arat ha-lev, the cave of the heart.

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It is some“where” or some“time” where an encounter with God takes place. If you are reading this it’s very likely that you know it already, but if you don’t I’ll suggest one way of putting yourself in the way of it in a moment.

God is often referred to as Ribono shel Olam, a term usually translated as Lord “of the World”, or “of the Universe”. But “olam” can also refer to time. God is the Master of All Time.

When I first took up residence in my Spanish “cave”, the momentum of my previous existence as a timetable and deadline bound school teacher did not lose impetus. After an initial period of busily “doing” house renovations, composition, nest building etc. to fill my time, it was not long before time started bending, slowing down, and sometimes, to all intents and purposes: stopping.

I enjoyed the shift in the progress of time enormously because, since early childhood, I have never been quite convinced that time was anything but an illusion. Returning to the solitary contemplative life, the moment which was the present became “slower” while the progress of the hours in a day, and of the days of the week, seemed to accelerate.

Being able to wallow in this kind of time transcendence is a precious luxury denied to all save the solitary contemplative. Most readers will have babies to feed, businesses to maintain, agendas to prepare and deadlines to meet.

But I have an unproven theory (unproven save in my personal experience) that once you have experienced even a short moment of such time-transcendence, others follow. Just one really deep period of such an experience can somehow be recalled in the midst of everyday bustle, though it might need a periodic “topping up”. It can not only be recalled, it can sometimes break in.

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God is the Master of All Time.

The God of Israel is most often viewed as “The God of History”. The notions of progressive revelation and developing peoplehood are crucial concepts in Israel's development.   But there are times in prayer and in unexpected moments in a person’s life when the “timelessness” or perhaps the “Eternal Present” of God seems to break through into our perception…. and these moments may confirm our faith in the midst of our “dark nights” and produce action as effectively as does the time-based perception of religious history as progress.

They are to a person’s life as Shabbos is to the other days in a week.

I should mention here that I have written of “moments”. The reader should understand that such moments may last a second, minutes, and even hours when reckoned in chronological time. This will have implications later in the chapter when you see that the method of prayer which I am to outline takes place at a still-point in time which is unmeasurable.

I came across two unusual concepts of Time when I was fifteen which have given me much food for thought ever since. (I am now in my fiftieth year…I am a slow learner.)

The first was anamnesis: making a past event actually present at another time.

The second was kairos: a “special time”, a window of opportunity outside of chronological time in which
momentous events break into “our world” from the “divine world”.

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I mention them here because they are not much seen in Jewish literature and yet they have provided me with much to reflect on in my current residence in flexi-time. I heard the first in a throw-away line in an argument with an Anglican Vicar and the second whilst cleaning a friend’s garage out with a Methodist Minister…..some readers might not have had my bizarre luck, and they are concepts worth applying in a Jewish context.

Both of these concepts seem very close indeed to reality as perceived inside the m’arat ha-lev. They both suggest that chronological time is there to be used but that we are not limited by it. That the world of God’s immanence can somehow receive some element of His transcendence.

There are hints of a Jewish view of “special time” in the cyclic timescale of the Jewish festivals. Some commentators see it in the Passover Haggadah which asks us to consider ourselves as having been personally brought out of Egypt and even more poignantly in the idea that all Jewish souls (even those yet unborn) were present at the revelation of Sinai….an event which is said to “happen” every day.

And then there is the unique festival of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is somehow always singular.

Although the Torah readings peculiar to each week, and its occurence every seventh day give Shabbos a cyclic element: once in it, Shabbos has the same eternal “tone” we experience in contemplative prayer. To me Shabbos afternoon always seems a most appropriate time to enter the m’arat ha-lev. It is somehow there already. 

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We are made in the image of God. There are so many interpretations of the implications of that short but profound statement.

Might one of them be that we are more capable than is often thought of entering into or somehow manifesting His timelessness to make it more present in the world?

The “still, small voice” which Elijah heard makes an invitation calling us to do just that.

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2a: The Invitation

It begins as a gentle but insistent sense that He is giving us an invitation to meet Him.
 So simple, and yet so easily ignored or discounted as “merely our imagination”hence His insistence. 

It is not a special gift for the chosen…it is an invitation for everyone.
 It just embarrasses us to admit we sense it. Possibly out of personal reticence, 
or maybe, and quite justifiably, we are simply rather afraid of it and its implications.
We can find many excuses to ignore the invitation or postpone its acceptance, or face its moment…
 It may however, be an invitation to share in the kind of listening 
which is the most essential part of the tikkun process and if so,
 then that should be proclaimed from the roof tops.
Actually, it is proclaimed. It is called keriat Shema: the proclamation of His Name.

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Every day, morning and evening,
the Jew is encouraged to proclaim the statement:

Hear O Israel, YK-VH is our God, YK-VH is One.
(Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad)

In the congregational recitation of this prayer, focus on performing this type of hearing/listening can be rather difficult but by no means impossible.

From within the cave of the heart in individual prayer it can become a contemplative event. There it becomes more of an action or a process than a text to be recited.

Responding to the invitation to “know before whom we stand” and to listen to what He might have to say can best be done in solitude. It feels very personal, and it is…even though the One inviting is not a person.

All very paradoxical……but less so if you let “Him” take the lead.

Be still
and know that I am God
Psalm 46:10

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2b: Standing still before God

Though I have dipped into the literature of the Kabbalah and borrow some of its terminology I am not a kabbalist. My net searches show me the enormous body of literature that has arisen over the last twenty or so years expounding kabbalistic meditation techniques for an obviously ravenous section of the Jewish community who are searching for a contemporary spirituality within mainstream Judaism. I have not yet read this literature in any depth and may never do so.

My problem with a lot of “spiritual literature”, and particularly with “methods of prayer” is that they often seem to increase and feed the self-centredness which is a natural part of every solitary contemplative’s psychological makeup. (see the evidence of these pages!). I feel sure that many readers will share the frustrations of that problem. I needed to find (or was found by) a way which would short circuit or re-route that natural tendency and transform it into a form of prayer which ignored or silenced the ego whilst still allowing it to function naturally but unobtrusively.

For me, and those like me.....Any system which speaks of spiritual or personal “progress” or of ascending or descending through stages or levels is simply too likely to produce self-observation and a false sense of achievement for it to be sustained over any length of time without causing spiritual narcissism.

I certainly did not want to be staring at my own face. But then neither did I want to see God’s......I just wanted, and still want... to relate to Him from a safe(ish) distance and try to be useful to Him.

As a Carmelite, though I could be stunned by the beauty and profundity of single phrases in the poems of San Juan de la Cruz,
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I was actually quite frightened by the giddy heights expounded and analysed in his prose. I found myself quite content in the simple world of Brother Lawrence whose “Practice of the Presence of God” (with its method of developing a constant awareness of God in the midst of ordinary activities) seemed more than enough to be going on with.

As a Jew I have been dazzled and gripped by lines extracted from the Zohar but the classical forms, analyses, and systems of kabbalistic meditation are just too complex and intellectual for me. They may well be so for you too.

If you are reading this hoping for some insight into such meditational techniques you will be disappointed ….what I am sharing in this chapter is extremely simple.

There is presumption here.

I’m convinced that there is a simple way for those needing a kind of spiritual minimalism.

It is a path I have been on since my conversion thirteen years ago, and having given it a “good try” and found it to be meaningful I want to share it. I have the trepidation of a Bar-Mitzvah boy in making it public here but my “instinct” tells me there are others out there who may actually need to read these words. It is a method for those who are fired by what can only be described as an ache to be connected to God and to be of use to Him, but whose psychological or intellectual inadequacies make the ascent of Mount Carmel or Mount Horeb necessary by a less travelled side-path.

It is a simple path, but in no sense is it an easy short cut….and travelling on it can often be boringly “uneventful”.
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This whole booklet is just the frame for the three point statement I have come “here” to make.

Here it is:

Contemplative Prayer is giving God
a chance to speak to us/ do something to us.

It is not about us, it’s about Him.

The method is simply
To stand in His Presence;
Make space inside ourselves for Him to act;
and then
Listen to what He may have to say to us
personally and individually.

That’s it.

Yes, that’s all of it.

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If you were expecting manipulations of hebrew letters and numbers, or mantras, or ascetic practices you will be very disappointed by that little revelation.

If you are a scholar of Jewish mysticism you might be irritated by my impertinence. If you are somebody who feels relief on reading those statements but need a little bit more help to make those words make sense: then read on!

Both congregational and private prayer can be focused on combinations of praise, thanksgiving and petition. Private prayer can also be a form of self analysis and questioning. I practice all four of those aspects of formal prayer as do many Jews. They can be performed with much devotion and spirituality and they can sometimes be mechanical and verbose.

But just as the Carmelites I lived with complemented their liturgy with daily periods of both communal and private silent meditation; just as Nachman of Breslov recommended spending daily time “secluded” in a private space attempting prayerful (though sometimes noisier) communication with God…..I am suggesting that a prayer life without this element of contemplation is incomplete.

I realise that there is nothing new in this suggestion or for that matter, in the three-point “method” I have just outlined. The method is ancient. Consisting, as it does, of nothing more than the development of periods of attentiveness and receptivity in prayer, it… or something very like it… must have been the core curriculum of the “Schools of the prophets” which I mentioned in chapter one. It may however be “new” for many Jews who will not have considered that prayer could include a “time for response”. Jews are very familiar with the idea that “listening to God” takes place whenever the Torah scrolls are read, studied, or discussed but
that same Torah is to be found in the heart of each individual Jew. That Torah of the heart is rarely accessed, but it can be.

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2c: The Voice

The method I am recommending “happened” very early on in my life as a Jew and seems to have arisen during the private recitation of two prayers. The Shema and the Amidah.

(For non-Jewish readers: The Shema consists of the opening proclamation already quoted and is followed by a study meditation of three passages from Deuteronomy and Numbers.
The Amidah is a prayer of eighteen blessings recited in the standing position to which its name refers.)

What would happen was simple. I would get “stuck” on a word in private recitation and would find myself paused in silence. This is something which must happen to many who follow the tradition to say these prayers regularly. That pause became a door to a “place” where I could simply stand in God’s presence and give him my silent attention.

To this day I find it hard to believe that in all the years preceding this I had never actually thought to do something so obviously necessary. I had expected “answers” to prayer to come obliquely (if they came at all) by insights during prayer or through insights and events outside the time of prayer. Never, with immediacy or directness, whilst in the midst of it.

If private informal prayer is “conversing with God” why had I previously made it a monologue?

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Who would be so impolite as to ask a question or make a request and then not leave a pause for a reply….not even the tiniest of pauses?

Leaving such a pause was little more than an small act of courtesy, and yet it had never occurred to me to make it.

Once this had dawned upon me, this is how it developed:

I simply formalised that period of silent attention by regularly including it in my recitation of the Amidah. Chazal tell us that the earliest practice  of reciting  the Shemoneh Esreh took several hours. Some say that this was because of the  time spent in oreparation before its formal recitation. Others say it is because the prayer was recited slowly and with lengthy pauses for meditation.  It is this latter practice that I adopted and whenever a pause became a lengthy mediation period, I simply allowed that to develop into wordless contemplation.

Sometimes something happened. Most often nothing did. But I kept at it.

I really believe that what happens to an individual in contemplative prayer is a private matter and needs to remain so, but the whole point of me writing this down at all is to share this “method”. Consequently I need to be just a little more specific on form if not content here.
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I believe that we are all capable of hearing God’s voice. Not in the way Moses did, for sure, but in the way all Israel did at the foot of Sinai. We hear it in our “hearts” and not through our ears. It is not our own voice, (though part of it is). It seems to have a “tone” all of its own and does not speak often. (There may be years between perceived occurrences).

The Voice seems to respond to questions and its answers are usually either unexpectedly mundane, brief and brutally to the point, or just plain odd. In the latter case the meaning or significance of what we have “heard” can emerge long after the event, maybe in another prayer session or when something happens in our lives to explain it.

The Voice sometimes answers us before the first “word” of such a question has been expressed.

Sometimes “answers” are delayed while we rephrase our question after realising that the question we thought we needed to ask had been masking one we were afraid to ask.

Sometimes we are given an “answer” which seems to bear no relation to any question we may have asked, in such cases it is what we really need to hear.

Often, we are the ones being asked a question. Our answers however, are rarely so forcefully convincing or honest.

Often, we are left to our own devices to find our own answer but, if we are fortunate, we can then be blessed by hearing a “voice of approval” as from a parent who congratulates a child on developing its independence. The Voice can be commanding, but it never makes our decisions for us.
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The Voice may be heard synaesthesically. It may “use” verbal communication, it may present a visual image, it may cause a movement in our body, or it may not be sensed at all save by the “heart”. (I refer to the “place” of this encounter inside God/us as our lev, our heart… but I am referring to a spiritual, intuitive faculty which is neither intellectual, emotional, nor imaginative.) On the many occasions when absolutely nothing seems to have happened, this part of our consciousness often seems to be aware that “something” has been done to us even though it is not necessary for us to know what or why.

There is some similarity between the type of awareness I have just described and the dream state. The same “Voice” sometimes speaks in dreams. In such “special” dreams (special because we recognize they are in a class of their own, not that we are) it has the same synaesthesic quality and we wake suddenly with a flash of intuition or have it on our lips as we arise in the first moments of the morning so that we should not forget what we have been told. I think that sometimes such special dreams act as a channel of information because we were somehow not sufficiently receptive in recent prayer.

The Voice sometimes seems to make use of synchronous events.....inexplicable chains of coincidences which seem to come in bursts to ensure that we “get the message”. Often they come as a sort of “underlining” of something we have just experienced in contemplative prayer. Their rapidly consecutive appearance convinces me that, as the Baal Shem Tov said: “there are no accidents” where this little miracle occurs. Such an “underlining” can also act as a confirmation that what we are listening to is not merely our own imagination.
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My use of the terms “Voice”, “hear”, “see” etc can be taken (almost) literally or metaphorically. They are an attempt to describe an experience which will differ from person to person, and which takes many different forms in the various periods of an individual’s life. The common denominator is that they describe a process of intuition, maybe even one of inspiration or revelation which operates on a level beyond the superficial, emotional or intellectual. However it is perceived, it is a process which produces insight, learning experiences, and attentiveness to God in our deepest self and in the world about us.

I apologise if that does not make sense to the reader. My hope is that in many cases though, it will make sense and that for such readers it will give some peace. In isolation it is easy for normal healthy people to suspect their sanity or their faith when exploring contemplative worlds. Hearing such a Voice does not produce rock solid faith, if anything it is more often accompanied by an increase of doubt and periods of self-questioning that are part of the sort of intellectual and spiritual struggle that gives us the name Israel. (God-wrestler).

These periods of struggle are sometimes agonisingly empty and desert-like. Sometimes they are times of storm, wind and fire. The Voice may be “a still, small voice” but its stillness resembles the apparent stillness of a surgical laser beam coming sometimes with anaesthetic, sometimes without. Our delusions and our false securities are burnt out. One way or the other.

It has to be said here that those delusions sometimes come “gift wrapped” and are hard to differentiate from the “real thing”. Hard, but not impossible.
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People who “hear voices” may be suffering from illness; they may feel commanded to perform selfish or hateful acts; they may feel driven by a compulsion which leaves no room for argument or discussion. The Voice I am referring to never causes any of these.

If you “hear” a voice in prayer and doubt its origin, test it: If “hearing it” produces an increase in practical acts of justice and love, of tzedekah and chasadut, and removes self-absorbtion or ego-focus, then it is (comparatively!) safe and healthy.

There are times when we are excited by emotional or ecstatic episodes in prayer. Sometimes the mere sensation that we are engaged in a “spiritual quest” can itself create excitement or produce spiritual self-gratification. Perhaps these “curses” are sometimes actually “blessings” sent to maintain our interest….but they are ultimately red-herrings and relying on them or dwelling on them is spiritual masturbation.

I am sure that any “secular” psychologists reading this will be having a field-day examining the mental processes described in those last few paragraphs from a purely natural view-point, superimposing whatever model they subscribe to in analysing them.

I am not at all embarrassed by the exposure because I actually expect God to operate using natural human processes when communicating with humans.

I believe that the “Voice” I have described is both God’s Voice and ours simultaneously. The extent to which it is His Voice, I cannot say. If you are brave, ask it!

How much of it is “our voice” can often (but suprisingly, not always) depend on the level to which we have removed our
self-centredness, our insatiable desire for (material and spiritual) things we don’t really need, our prejudices, and our totems. Or had them removed for us. That is an ongoing process and as it is a “work in progress” we may mishear the Voice by hearing only the frequencies we want to hear, or simply by filtering it in inaccurate language.
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If we look to the Biblical prophets whose attention to the Voice was much more finely tuned than ours, we will see that even they encountered the hidden meanings or word-play we might experience.
But if our intention is truly to listen to God alone with the motivation of service overiding all others, then our misinterpretations are shortlived. Other presentations of the same “word” are made till we get the message. This way we get as near to understanding it as we can.


The method I am, I suppose, “promoting” here is that if we place ourselves regularly in the presence of God silently (or sometimes not so silently) sooner or later He will do something....and it is my belief that putting ourselves in that situation is somehow of great use to Him. It all takes place in clouded internal worlds of fleeting half awarenesses.....but it changes us and makes the world we return to after such prayer different. If it is not too presumptuous to claim it, I would suggest that we grow by it into seeing things a little bit more in the way God does.

This simple method assumes that God is perfectly capable of acting if He wants to, but for that to happen we need to invite Him. It is principally a profound acknowledgement of that belief. 
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Nevertheless, it is not so “passive” a method that we are exempt from putting some work into the process ourselves. Preparation before standing in His Presence involves considerable care and effort but during the prayer session itself we will often have to work quite hard to clear away the mental clutter that blocks our path. Making an internal space, an ayin that He can fill, needs both our (chronological) time and our effort. We also have to be prepared to accept that it may not be an effort that produces a sense of fulfillment and that it may not be completed either in that session or even in our (current) lifetime…….. but “neither should we desist from the task of trying.”

Neither is it so passive a method that it consists solely of the exercise itself. The point of standing in attentive contemplation is to be open to inspiration. That is inspiration for action… both spiritual and material action. We do the work it inspires.

I recommend using a standing posture because of the way I started using this method during the liturgical Amidah which is always performed in that way. It is also practical because it does not restrict movement (should that arise) and for me it is almost essential as I fall asleep if I am sitting down!

It is in no sense suggested that actually “standing up” is a necessary posture. Elijah seems to have also used a “seated with the head between the knees” one to great effect when he was not standing at the mouth of the cave under his mantle, and all Jews once prostrated themselves in prayer until that was sadly legislated against save during the High Holidays.

The sort of contemplative “Standing” I am recommending as a method can be taken figuratively rather than posturally and it is most certainly not intended as a suggested alternative to the formal Amidah- though it can be included as part of ones’ private formal prayer.

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In this form it would consist of allowing extended silence to enter into such recitations. If you feel drawn to it, or sense its approach on arriving at a particular sentence, phrase or word in the siddur you are using…..resist rushing on through the formula and follow it into the cave of contemplation for as long as It likes.

Just “present” yourself before God and ask Him to let you come to Him. Tell him you are there to listen ….. and then “Be still”.

Making a “standing” as a separate unit of prayer, possibly at an altogether different time might also be something you might like to try.

In this form it often needs even more preparation than a formal prayer session. That preparation might be study, or a reflective period which may last days before you feel ready to approach Him. Sometimes, such a slight delay in responding to the invitation mentioned earlier can be a positive event.

Or the invitation may come totally unexpectedly and with some urgency. At such times our response may be almost instinctively rapid.

If I am “standing” as a separate prayer session I sometimes find that borrowing the “three steps back, three steps forward” ritual of the Amidah helps to focus both my body and my mind.

For any reader who would benefit from a sort of model of what I am talking about here’s one way you might like to try:

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In a room where you are not seen or heard,
find a spot where you are not likely to bump into anything.
Stand straight with your feet close together and your hands loosely by your sides.

Close your eyes and keep them closed.

(If you feel so inclined... stretch your body for a bit and then return to the same standing posture.)

After a few moments of standing in verbal or mental “talking to God” or in the recitation or singing of a prayer: ask God to permit you to stand before Him/help you to come to Him.

When you feel ready to approach,
and with your eyes still closed:

Slowly take three steps back, wait a moment....
then very slowly take three steps forward to “come into
His Presence”

Bow before Him, talk to Him or think in Him, then move on to something like the following statement:

“LORD, if there is anything that you would say to me, or something which You want to do to me…..I am here.”

Or even more simply…..try just saying or repeating:

Hineini (I am here)

After which you should “Listen” for as long as you feel you are being asked to. (That could be seconds or minutes).
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That still, silent attentiveness may be very hard to achieve or maintain, though it can be developed by repetition of the exercise over time. Distracting thoughts can either be gently dismissed or followed, they might themselves be an intended route to lead you to the same moment of encounter. What counts is that you are trying not to be concerned about yourself or what you are doing so much as trying to be prayerfully available to God, even though it may be for a very short space of time.

What counts is your “attempt” to be attentive to Him.

In presenting this “model”, I have to leave the reader at that “hineini” point. Each individual needs to grapple with the “creation of the empty space” using their own experience and creativity. This is not a cop-out. Everyone is unique and needs to find their own ways to do this.

For those who want it, there are a million meditation books dealing with ways to promote “stillness” or “attentive silence”. They may help, or they may confuse. Reading about prayer can be a good way to avoid doing it. Nothing beats the “suck it and see” approach because in the end…..you are your own teacher.

The important thing is your attentiveness to Him.

The m’arat ha-lev is not a metzar (a confined space) it is a merchavyah (a wide open expanse). Should you feel like singing or dancing or moving or whatever after some time being still and silent, let it happen. That may actually give you what you are meant to hear or receive.

If nothing happens or it seems that nothing is happening, remember that “no” and “ not yet” are also answers and that they do not necessarily imply a rejection.
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Again: The important thing is your attentiveness to Him

If you have never done anything like this before or if you feel silly doing it despite really wanting to do it… my suggestion is that you persist in making the experiment for a reasonable period on a regular basis before giving up. The fact that contemplative prayer or meditation is a lot less glamorous and “eventful” than your hopes or expectations may have led you to expect should not be allowed to put you off. You are doing it for Him more than for yourself after all.

As to how often you should perhaps do this kind of meditation: My advice to someone unfamiliar with this kind of prayer is to do it every day, or every few days, or once a week, or whenever you feel called to…..but, if possible, more or less regularly and for a reasonable length of time.

I’ll leave the definition of what that might be to you but ask you to remember, if you’ll pardon the anthropomorphism, God seems to enjoy an old-fashioned lengthy courtship.

If you find it produces no results (in your life)….then leave it. It might not be the “right time”…… but you may feel unexpectedly called back to it at a later date.

Or perhaps it’s just not a way meant for you, in which case He will surely offer you another one.

The particular method I’ve proposed and the personal attitudes and reflections in which I have framed it in this booklet are not at all important. Developing our deep attentiveness in personal prayer is….. for all Jews.

Israel’s response at Sinai was/is “We will do and we will hear.” That is most often interpreted with the meaning: Israel hears God’s voice by observing the commandments.
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That is most certainly true.

A complementary interpretation occurs to me.

I’m absolutely certain that there are no accidents.

It surely must be of primary significance that the first command in the principal prayer of Judaism, is Shema….Listen! Judaism has been focussed for centuries on "doing".  But the time is coming when the significance of "listening" will grow.

It is time for us to "listen" in contemplative prayer because it is only by paying attention  in receptive contemplation that we can become the prophets, or sons of the prophets, that we are all destined to be.

Aharon Nachman ben Avraham
[Norman R.Davies]
Ist edition Erev Iyar 15 5765 / May 23rd 2005

This edition  Nisan 27 5777/ April 23