Jewish Hermits in the Desert (August 2007)

For those of you who are new to this site, though my entries on these pages are signed “Jewish hermit”, that is not an internet alias, it is my current job title. For the last four years, and until further notice….. it is both who I am and what I do.

This month’s post is a little more esoteric than usual . It focuses on Jewish monasticism, a concept discussed in Part One of “The Cave”.

A hermit is one who lives in the desert or wilderness (from the Greek for desert= eremo). I am a Jewish hermit but my “hermitage” is in neither. This is because the term hermit has a spiritual connotation as well as a geographical or topological one and can refer to one who has, in some sense, withdrawn or separated himself from society to live a life of simplicity, meditation, or prayer.

The term “Desert Spirituality” is a popular expression used most frequently in the Abrahamic traditions to describe an ascetic, stripped-down, and streamlined attitude towards the spiritual life. In Christianity there is both an ancient and a contemporary literature, often monastic or neo-monastic, which expounds the principles and practices of the genre. These in turn are derived from Scriptural desert stories.

The “Desert Spirituality” of Judaism comes from the Hebrew Bible and its rabbinical commentaries. In The Hebrew Bible, deserts and mountains in the wilderness are the most frequent “venue” for the Divine-human encounter… both personal and communal forms.

Perhaps the richest source for developing a specifically Jewish “Desert Spirituality” is the detailed Torah account of the “forty years” which Israel spent b’midbar (in the desert).

Man does not live by bread alone
(Deut. 8:3)

In this week’s Torah Portion Ekev (Deut 7:12 to Deut 11:25), we are instructed never to forget our time in the Desert during any future situations of comfort and wealth. Not because the desert represented a contrasting time of hardship and lack of comfort, but because, in the Jewish tradition, the pre-eminent characteristic of the forty years in the desert is that it was a time of spiritual focus and reliance on Providence. The passage insists that we remember that it was God who brought water from a rock and sent the daily-sufficient manna.

In Deut 8:2 and 8:16, the Parsha text describes this desert-life as a “Test”. The Desert was a situation in which we were asked to respond to God’s Providence with grateful equanimity and patient reliance. These two attitudes are the core of Jewish Desert Spirituality.
Any Jew who attempts to meet God in personal prayer as a contemplative is sure to discover that, like the desert itself, the spiritual life is a place of extremes. Periods of comforting devotion are followed by the chill of doubt or despair. The spiritual “scenery” can be perceived as panoramically stimulating one minute and unutterably boring the next. These endlessly recurring periods are tests and our reaction to both extremes should be, as I have said, “grateful equanimity and patient reliance.”
The haftorah which accompanies Ekev confirms this for:
“Though he walks in darkness and has no light, Let him trust in the name of the Lord and stay upon his guard”. (Isaiah 50:10)
If Israel “passes” the test, her “wilderness shall be made like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord.” (Isaiah 51:3)
In that Garden, God provides us with the maintenance tools, but it is usually (but not always) we ourselves who have to wield the hoe and the shovel. There are times when our own efforts can turn the wilderness into a vineyard. Times when he inspires us in our attempt to work out how to use the tools by ourselves. There are also times of opportunity when only “His mighty Hand” can do the job properly. In a sense, the garden only flourishes when we do two things simultaneously: We do all we can with our own talents but in the last analysis commend the lot into His Hands. Doing the second is not a pious afterthought. It is crucial. Ultimately, it’s not about us. It’s about Him.
Many say that there is no asceticism in Judaism.

The term askesis means “training” or “discipline”. I would suggest that Ekev highlights quintessential Jewish asceticism. That is to say: The Jewish ascetic does not need to invent acts of mortification. Rather he is disciplined by God who repeatedly presents him with testing situations. Jewish asceticism, the “training and testing”, is in the response. The parsha calls the manna itself a” test”. Do we accept the spartan but sufficient spiritual diet we might be offered or do we cry out for meat or Egyptian leeks?

Jewish desert askesis emerges from a humble recognition of precisely Who puts bread on the table and refreshes his soul. To keep him on his toes in this: “As a man disciplines his son, so does the Lord discipline you.” (Deut 8:5)

Any further asceticism, such as may be practiced by those living a contemplative lifestyle, can only be justified and commended in so far as it helps the practitioner to “strip down to spiritual essentials”. For contemplatives, the (spiritual) desert is a “place” of streamlining, simplifying, and increased spiritual focus which tests by encouraging a positive response and not a negative one. The Jewish “Desert” is rarely (if ever) a place of self-deprivation or penance.

In Ekev we are reminded that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord" (Deut 8:3). There is no criticism of "the Ordinary" in the Torah. The point being made is that there is more. It is a point which everyone is enjoined to take to heart, but which some choose to focus on more keenly. This does not mean that such specialisation need produce a sense of “exclusivity” in those who practice it. It is a question of diversity and personality. Possibly of “vocation”.
Countless times I have read a classic Christian justification for the existence of contemplative monastic orders which takes as its stance: In order to emphasise the truth of the phrase “Man does not live by bread alone”, there are always those who elect to separate themselves and live contemplative lifestyles as a kind of beacon, a reminder that the “other world” exists. Was that not a part of the rationale behind the Levite and Nazirite lifestyles too?
The Therapeutae
The eminent and venerable “Desert Fathers and Mothers” of early Christianity were the first Christians to go into the desert as practitioners of hermit/monastic lifestyles. But the establishment of institutional eremitical lifestyles actually pre-dates Christianity and can be found in the Jewish monastic tradition of the Therapeutae.

The Therapeutae (f..Therapeutridae) were mixed gender communities of Jewish hermits living totally contemplative lifestyle. Their name has been variously translated as “Healers” or “Servants”.

The Haftarah for Ekev is from Isaiah (49:14 to 51:3). It is from the section of Isaiah which announces the concept of “The Servant of God”. One of the many uses of this term (and there are several even within the original text) is as a description of an “Ideal Israel”, or perhaps an idealised Israel. A beacon concept of sorts. A pietist remnant who “go the extra mile” despite ridicule. Isaiah writes: “Listen to me you that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my Torah; fear not the taunts of men.” (Isaiah 51:7)
Though I can offer no justification or rationale for saying this, I wonder if the “Servant of God” in the haftarah may have been the inspiration for the name chosen by this, the first recorded order of Jewish monks and nuns.
They were certainly ones who did not “shout” nor cause their “voice to be heard in the streets.” (Isaiah 42:2).

And by the way: Yes, I did write “Jewish monks and nuns”. Don’t let anyone tell you there have never been Jewish monks or Jewish nuns. They existed.

Our sole surviving historical source for the details of this Jewish religious order is Philo’s “De Vita Contemplativa”. Though this document was written early in the First Century C.E. (A.D) it describes a specific organisation and lifestyle which he states was already well-established by that time. He defines the Essenes as an “active” order and the Therapeutae as “contemplative” one. He is talking about Jewish groups here, so that categorisation is in itself a remarkable one.

Each of the hermits of this order (both female and male) lived in solitude during the first six days of the week. Their cell was a small house bearing interesting similarities to the Carthusian cell in so far as it included a room used exclusively for the study of holy texts and for prayer (cf the Carthusian Ave Maria) as well as an individual enclosed garden. The “order” practiced a certain level of asceticism during the week, but on Shabbos the entire community would gather for communal meals and services. The place of assembly had a mechitzah to preserve the modesty of the separated men and women.

There are so many similarities between this Jewish Contemplative order and the foundations of the later Christian monks that I will list a few here, all of them derived from Philo’s account:

1. Members practiced renunciation of personal ownership, leaving their wealth to relatives on entry. (reminiscent of the later monastic vow of poverty)

2. Members practiced celibacy, though many (perhaps the majority) had previously been married. (reminiscent of the later monastic vow of chastity)

3. They seem to have valued the time after Evening prayer as special time for personal silent meditation. (reminiscent of the later monastic Great Silence)

4. They possessed and studied documents from the order’s “founders” which described the details and ideals of the order’s way of life. (reminiscent of the later monastic Rule and Constitutions)

5. They composed a special and solemn liturgical music for themselves which was performed antiphonally. (reminiscent of the later monastic chanted liturgy)

6. Sermons were delivered simply and without the customary show of oratorical skill.(reminiscent of the later monastic instructions for conferences)

7. Liturgical precedence was arranged according to entry date and not chronological age. (reminiscent of the later monastic choir procedures)

They also seem to have done a particularly lively form of “Tikkun Leil Shavuot” which involved clapping, singing and dancing till dawn.

In short they are a clearly if not prolifically documented model for any attempt to initiate or restore a “Jewish monasticism”. Many people are aware of the Biblical eremitical tradition in Judaism but you will find that the majority of the commentators of rabbinic Judaism, and indeed the vast majority of modern Jews (of whatever denomination) will have skipped over this possibly embarrassing group or simply be totally unaware of their existence.

Urban and Wilderness hermits

The eremitical life is as much an attitude of mind as it is a choice of environment or location, but it seems to me that hermits can be divided into two main types: the Wilderness hermit and the Urban hermit.

The “Urban hermits” are those whose eremiticism is lived out in areas of medium or high population, often deliberately sited in city centres. Often they view this as being an indication of their intention to try to bring some sort of “peace” or “blessing” to their immediate neighbours. Such persons frequently earn a living by home industry or by part time work in “normal” employment. Their life is fundamentally one of solitude and silence nonetheless. According to Avraham ben Maimon , the Biblical exemplars of (temporary) solitary lifestyles lived in houses or places of worship include Jacob, Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Aharon and his sons.

The “Wilderness hermits” choose to seek out deep personal and environmental solitude and silence which they feel can assist the formation and development of the interior life. (Avraham ben Maimon cites Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses as exemplars.) In our times, more often than not, part of the impetus for such lifestyles is Nature or Ecology inspired…and may not be religious at all…. This type of hermit most often seems to aim for self-sustainability and often sees their lifestyle as being a political statement as much as a spiritual choice. Specifically “religious” hermits who choose the “real” wilderness most often take their inspiration from traditional desert associations with spiritual retreat and heightened awareness.

I know that some of my Catholic Discalced Carmelite brothers visit this site so I’d like to mention here that they seem to have merged both these traditions satisfactorily. The Order had early foundations in busy cities like Malaga, Cordoba, and Sevilla as well as the more desert-like ones at El Calvario and La Peñuela.
Both the “Urban” and “Wilderness” models of hermit life can also be found in Hasidism.

The Baal Shem Tov (Israel ben Eliezar ) spent between seven and ten years in the Carpathian Mountains living a contemplative desert-style existence with his wife. He reputedly and regularly spent many months in that period in total isolation. Many of his (attributed) sayings are closely bound up with his reflections on Nature.

On the “urban” side we have the dramatically contrasting hermit lifestyle of the Kotzker Rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk who isolated himself in a kind of Jewish “Anchorage” attached to the House of Prayer for twenty long years. He only left his confinement when called to the Torah during the services he would normally observe through holes cut in the wall.

Regular and periodic isolation and solitude are practiced in the hitbodedut of Nachman of Bratslav where they are recommended in both a “wilderness” form and an “urban” form. Though he strongly recommended that the contemplative should meditate “outside the city, alone, at night, or on an isolated path where people do not normally go” (Lik.Moharan 52), he also thought that a personal “desert” could be created by “communing with God under the bedsheets” before going to sleep or by “secluding oneself” under a tallit (prayer shawl). (Sichot haRan 24)
I think I come somewhere in the middle of the “Urban/Wilderness” spectrum. The “cave house with an enclosed walled garden” which I chose eight years ago as my hermitage was in a tiny barrio of ten houses on a steep hill-side overlooking fields and the sea. The other side of the hill is no longer a village but is now a rapidly growing town. My barrio turned out to be a lot noisier and busier than I expected and, despite partial deafness, I often sit on my roof wearing tissue paper ear-plugs, looking inland wondering if I ought to go up into the “real” mountains.
Here are two views from my roof terrace:

What we see is often what we choose to see.
Both these photographs are taken from the same spot.

(The aerial and cables are not mine by the way.)
There are long spells of deep tranquillity here though and I am certainly fortunate enough to have solitude and silence in abundance. The fact that nobody in the barrio speaks English and that my Spanish is minimal assists this. It is quite normal for me to go for weeks having uttered nothing more than the odd “hello”, “goodbye”, or “thank you” and though my neighbours took years to get used to my “odd ways” (viz. as a person who never goes anywhere, does nothing, and only has visitors once or twice a year.) they seem to have accepted a foreign hermit in their midst in amiable convivencia. Never a week goes by without some vegetable produce from their allotments being passed through the grille of my door and I perpetuate an ancient European hermit custom by sweeping the street twice each week. (I am not making this up. They say my barrio is in a time warp and in many ways I am glad of that!)
The “experimental” form of Jewish eremitical life which I am currently living is a life lived without physical community. This can be both blessing and curse. The good stuff is that I am, to a great extent, “master of my own time and space” and I don’t know many people who have the good fortune to be able to say that. It also means that my Liturgical and dietary horarium is totally flexible. The time and duration of my daily mental prayer sessions completely free.

The bad part is that I have nobody to check I am not lazing about, nobody to celebrate Shabbos with, nobody to study Torah with or to correct my dreadful Hebrew, and little outlet for “recreation”.

I have written at length in “The Cave” on the ways that a solitary Jew can be a decidedly active part of the Jewish Community despite physical isolation. But having no physical community at all can be wearing and testing at times.

This month’s posting has featured the Therapeutae, the one single model we have for specifically contemplative Jewish monasticism. In many ways they had a viable answer to those problems. Not surprisingly it is the same one lived-out by the Carthusians, the Discalced Carmelites, and the Camaldolese to this day…. namely the formation of “Hermit Communities”.

I am prepared to stick my neck out further on this than I was when I first wrote “The Cave” and state that I hope I will live to see similar contemplative communities formed in Contemporary Judaism. If I don’t, and I admit I won’t be holding my breath…… I can at least take comfort that I have done a little “promotion-drive” here in an attempt to hasten that day.

Jewish tradition holds that permanent solitude and isolation is not to be encouraged as it puts so many mitzvot (commandments) out of the reach of the hermit. Communities of solitary Jewish Contemplatives seem to me to be “the Jewish way to go” for those of us with a monastic/eremitic heart. The Kotzker Rebbe called out for “Ten Hasidim who would follow him into the desert and eat manna”. I’m certainly not looking for “followers”. But I’ll keep alert for the emergence of others with similar aspirations….and in the meantime I’ll continue to view my personal desert (midbar) as being the Garden (karmel) of the Lord.