Shammash: The Ninth Light

The Shammash is the ninth “servant” light of the hanukiah, the eight branched menorah of Hanukah. It is a utilitarian light with which we light the eight “holy” lights of the Festival. I have always felt that it seemed more than that. As you can see from the photos below, I lit it tonight to stimulate a little reflection on its possible alternative significance.

The Shammash is alight before all the other lamps: perhaps I could see it as a potential reminder of the “Pillar of fire”? That flame was the primal beacon for Israel long before the Temple era.

The eight lights represent the eight days of the Hanukah miracle and, like a ner tamid, the Shammash is alight on every one of them: it might be seen as a symbol of constancy, eternity, or even of the Divine Presence which never left us even in the days before the temple was re-dedicated.

As it brings all the other lights to life, perhaps it could represent revelation or inspiration?

As it can be viewed as standing behind or above the cultic lights of the menorah… perhaps it could remind us of the ultimate inadequacy of all our attempts to describe, understand, or worship God. A memory of the burning bush?

Perhaps I wax too lyrical- but it does seem odd that a subservient light/candle in the Hanukah menorah should so often have a decidedly prominent place in its designed construction. (It is often central and elevated). Perhaps it is one of those parts of a mitzvah that awaits a progressive “revelation” of its true or ultimate significance. Who knows….. It certainly seems to have more about it than its name (assistant/servant) might suggest.

On a much simpler level, although it seems to stand apart from the others (somewhat like a hermit in relation to the main body of the community) the Shammash still shines with same intensity, uses the same oil, and is connected to the same stem as the “eight”. As with many aspects of religious philosophy, interpretation is often a question of perspective.

(The significance of the shammash is given further consideration in the December 2008 post for Hanukah: Bethel -The Dedication of the Temple )

This month’s post is about Dedication, Beacon concepts, and Perspective.

In October 2007, my Rabbi asked me to write an article for him to use in a course he was about to deliver at Leo Baeck College in the UK. My brief was to summarise and consolidate the main “thesis” of Part One of my booklet called “The Cave of the Heart” ( in Hebrew: Kuntres M'arat ha-Lev) -and those updates which related to it- in a single continuous article. As such the article was to be a restatement, the "second take" so common in Jewish tradition. But this time I was to illustrate it with an account of my own lifestyle in its day to day expression.

I am reproducing that “Deutero-Cave” article here in the hope that you will find that the slight change in perspective illuminates and clarifies the points I tried to make in 2005 in “The Cave”. This is to be the last of my “monthly updates” and posting from now on will be on an adhoc/occasional basis. (I have liturgical issues to attend to, as you will see below)

A version of the article has since appeared in the Berghahn Journal "European Judaism" and was published in issue 41 (Spring 2008).

The photo, incidentally, is the cave-room in my current house taken with a very wide lens.

Dedicated Jewish Contemplatives
For Rabbi Lionel Blue and his “God in a Secular World” students.

Lionel has asked me to write to you “describing my lifestyle as a Progressive Jewish hermit and the motivation behind it”.

On my (this) website you can read the booklet I wrote in 2005 called “Kuntres M’arat ha-Lev” (Cave of the Heart) and the monthly updates which followed it. They are both concerned with two questions: “Is there a place for dedicated contemplative lifestyles in contemporary Judaism?” and “Is it possible to live a Jewish life if there are no other Jews living anywhere near you?”

To comply with Lionel’s request, my aim here is to describe my personal lifestyle and just a little of its rationale. I’ll use a time-honoured formula and ask Four Questions: Who am I?- Why have I chosen to be a hermit?- What do I do?- So what?

1:Who am I?

My name is Norman. I was born in Merseyside but now live in Spain. Currently, I am a Jewish hermit and I have been living a solitary contemplative lifestyle for the last four years.

I am now in my fifties, but I first met Lionel when I was 18 and he was visiting my home with the Discalced Carmelites in Oxford [i] . At the time I was a confused novice. Confused because I had entered the Carmelites on a sort of Pre-Raphaelite wave of fantasy and romance. I was a would-be “jongleur de Notre Dame” but I didn’t like giving up Mahler. I wanted to be a priest and that particular order had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary which suited me fine. But amazingly, it had almost passed by my attention that the order was principally a contemplative one. I wasn’t particularly interested in “contemplation” per se at the time. This was a fact which rightly shocked my novice master who nevertheless believed all his life that I was very specifically “called to be a contemplative”. It has taken me these thirty-five years to finally accept that he was (probably) quite right.

I am now a Progressive Jew. I converted under the auspices of the RSGB Beth Din in 1993 with Lionel as my sponsor.

I had left the Carmelites to become a music teacher and I spent most of my teaching career in South East Asia. I specialised in Javanese Gamelan [ii] but also led large music departments in various British International Schools. I spent four happy years as the cantor of the multi denominational Jewish Community of Jakarta [iii] …and then six (not quite so happy) years hovering around outside the Orthodox Synagogue in Singapore, occasionally going inside to join Shabbos or Festival services incognito. ( My unease was because I had not been converted by an Orthodox Beit Din. Fortunately an Israeli family whose children I taught were members of that Singapore Orthodox congregation (Magen Aboth) and they made me feel more than welcome there, something I have never forgotten and which deserves mention here.) My twenty-something years as a music teacher ended quite suddenly when I became partially deaf (through occupational deafness and ischemia). I lost the ability to hear certain pitches and decided that conducting 400 children in school concerts largely by sight was more than I, and perhaps they, could bear.

I bought a small house with a tiny enclosed garden in a coastal Andalusian village in Granada, and there I attempted to start a new life. At first this meant looking for part time work (no luck) and composing (nobody liked the stuff I wrote) and trying to find a new sexual/romantic partner (but failing). I slumped into the deepest and longest depression I have ever experienced. I felt useless, lonely, isolated, unsupported etc. etc. etc. But I emerged with a purpose when I “became” a Jewish Hermit. That last sentence still seems almost laughable to me even now. But it’s the truth.

2:Why have I chosen to be a hermit?

I have never had any trouble believing that prayer was a form of action or that contemplatives are as spiritually/cosmically valuable, and perhaps as necessary, as any other professionally philanthropic group. But in my thirties and forties, I never imagined that I would be re-joining that contemplative work-force myself. What surprised me even more was that I was attempting to do this as a Jew. I suppose that gets me full marks for chutzpah.

My depression-generated transmutation from “bitterly lonely” to “alone but content”, from “agonisingly inactive” to “dynamically contemplative”, was less a quantum leap than a slow and almost imperceptible sea-change. But you can believe me when I say it is as real as it was unexpected. Currently I am comfortably celibate and I no longer play, write, or listen to music. I can honestly say I am too busy relating to God to have time, energy, or inclination for much else.

For all of my “post-Carmelite” life I had been sociably and sexually active with no desire to change that. My job as a Director of Music ensured that I was a creatively productive workaholic for whom extrovert behaviour was a daily prerequisite. So what happened?

Well, although I poked fun earlier at some of my adolescent aspirations in the Carmelites, and though it is certainly true that I gave my novice master a nasty shock on announcing I was not keen on being principally contemplative…it would also be true to say that I had been attempting to communicate with God as a contemplative since the age of six. My parents were not “religious” and I was an only child. I saw Patrick Troughton as “Paul of Tarsus” on the TV (1960) [iv] and the next day I was hooked. It was as simple as that.

Not all of those who have invisible childhood friends encounter the animal or human variety. Some seem to prefer the divine. Neither are we all insane, though we often verge on lunacy at various times in our development. I had no “Secular World” angst about whether or not God existed. As far as I was concerned His Presence was palpable. Through all the changes in my perception of what the term “God” might mean… with the exception of a few months in a “Dark Night” (lets call it a “Dark late-Afternoon”) and a continuous “Cloud of Unknowing” (which was sometimes a “Cloud of thinking I had knowledge”)…I have been talking to Him all my life. In this sense I was always a contemplative. But I would describe myself now as a “dedicated contemplative” [v] . Big difference.

What happened in the “sea change” was simple. I began to see my “curses” as “blessings”. My “wilderness” (midbar) was actually a potentially productive “vineyard” (karmel)… and it had been all along though I had not seen it for what it was.

Composing had been a way of praying. My hearing difficulties took music away. I was left with the sound of silence…which made space and time for a still small voice to be heard.

Sex and romance had been the motor of my life. Relationships failed or, even worse, dwindled into acquaintanceships at a distance. I was left with the One who had been waiting for me all along … the One I now believe to be my only intended “life-partner”.

My career was in shattered ruins … but in fact it had only ever been a shell for something else. I couldn’t hear well enough to teach music any more and I didn’t know what other skills I could use. I despaired trying to see what I had left. The answer was ….. “you can pray/give God your full attention”. Choosing to do that “full-time” was a risky choice which I fought against for a very long time.

In agony, I had complained to Him daily, and to my distant but long-suffering friends periodically. I spent so much time moaning on and on about my lack of purpose, my health, my poverty, my needs etc that I bored myself silly….and the fire of that particular hell simply burnt itself out. But the Hound of Heaven is no respecter of denominational fences and it had been at my heels since I left the Carmelites. I finally accepted that I had been pursued and was now cornered in Judaism. I stopped worrying, and “left everything to God”. I turned my whole attention to God in devekut [vi] by attempting to maintain a nebulous but near-constant awareness of Him. That produced an unexpectedly dynamic move into prayerful Tikkun Olam [vii] as I found myself thinking about others for a change.

And almost imperceptibly …. in jerks and bounds …. over a period of around two years in almost complete solitude… it had simply clicked into place:

Not lonely--- but alone with God;
Not alone ---but united in spirit to all other “God-Wrestlers”;
Not unfulfilled--- but now seeking fulfilment in God alone;
Not inactive or escapist ---but actively “praying for all creation” all of the time;
Not sexually frustrated---but allowing an intimate relationship with God to flourish without restraint.

So … To answer the question: “Why have I chosen to be a Jewish hermit?”… Vocation can be a question of intuition or spiritual insight. It can also be a natural development of personality and individuation. But sometimes it is also a response to challenges thrown up by Providence. The choice was perhaps God’s as much as mine for I think I am now what I was meant to be all along. The choice was in choosing to see that now.

3:What exactly do I do all the time?

My models for the “dedicated contemplative lifestyle” came at first from Christianity. From the communal eremitic (hermit) traditions of the Carmelites and the Carthusians [viii] . I was in a quandary in 2003-4 because I was painfully aware that contemporary Judaism has no equivalent contemplative professions or organisations. Furthermore, what I was attempting to do had been disapproved of by the majority Jewish opinion for centuries. I would have to go it alone.

The pattern of living which developed in those years has stabilised and been constant since 2004. I will outline its form to try to give you an idea of what the nitty-gritty of my lifestyle involves.

I experience a year as divided into two units which are marked by the potential presence or absence of fire in the cave-room’s wood-burning stove. “Summer” is May to October and “Winter” is November to April.

I leave the village about three times a year travelling on a bus either to the next town or to Granada city. These are purely recreational day-trips though I often return having spent a few Euros on something unavailable in my own small town.
In summer months, an ice cream at the bus stop is enough to produce a childlike ecstasy. Once every six months or so, one of my friends will come and stay for a few days “on retreat”. About once a month I meet up with an old work colleague for coffee. The phone rings about once every two months. Twice a week when I sweep the street, [ix] I chat for a few moments with the neighbours in my appalling Spanish. I sing when I make kiddush on Shabbos…and some of my prayers are vocalised … but the rest of the time is spent in total silence.

My week is very clearly perceived as being divided into three units: (i) “The weekdays” which seem like a series of hours in one long “day”; (ii) “Shabbos” which seems like a recurring and virtually identical still point; and (iii) “Sunday” which is a sort of limbo between the two. Obviously, I work on a Sunday but I stay in my “ hermitage” [x] and it often feels like a sort of extension of Shabbos.

I leave the house once a day on weekdays for a short food-shopping trip. Its prime purpose is exercise now as I make the trip even if there is nothing needed. I live on a very steep hill and the round trip takes about an hour with a ten minute break in a bar. There I have a milky coffee and a piece of toast every day for lunch and although I am greeted by name and patted on the back by the Spanish as a regular there, I am never spoken to at length and I find the whole experience bizarrely reminiscent of eating in the companionable silence of a Carmelite refectory.

Though I may greet those I pass in the street with a smile, a wave, a “Buena(s)” or an “Adio(s) ”, the whole journey is literally a walking meditation which is hardly ever disturbed. Apart from this: the rest of the day, every day, is spent alone in the house or in its tiny high-walled garden doing manual jobs, reading, studying, writing letters and praying. My emphasis is very firmly on the latter.

Many “religious” Jews recite daily services from the siddur on a regular basis. Traditional hermits and monks say such services too, though the Christian ones often say or chant more services per day. The whole area of a “Jewish Hermit Liturgy” is one which I have yet to “work out” for myself in practice. Though I feel I ought to, I do not use the traditional forms of the daily services from a siddur regularly. For Christian monks, and for many practitioners of Rabbinic Judaism, such services constitute “work” and they are viewed as being a replacement for the temple sacrifices. Given that, I am right to question my laxity. I always say a morning, evening, and a night prayer but its form may be only a section of the traditional service or it might be totally improvised. Thus, the liturgical occasion is never missed but its form and content varies enormously. Doing something about the hours I keep and the blasé attitude I have to the use of the siddur are on my post Yom Kippur “To do list”. Having said this, the silent standing or seated prayer flowing from the Amidah which I describe in Part Two of “The Cave” is the axis of my day just as “communal mental prayer” was and is for the Carmelites.

I am not sure how detailed you would like this “Day in the life of a Jewish Hermit” to be. It may be that you are actually more curious to see “how I tie my shoelaces” than to read my thoughts and theories… in which case I have spilt the (locust) beans and revealed all in the following section headed “Daily Horarium”. It comes inclusive of warts.

If a detailed horarium is of less interest to you than watching paint dry, and you wish to rejoin us once the “thoughts and theories” are resumed: simply skip the following section and continue reading at “The simplicity and lack of apparent variety etc. etc.” below.



(This section of the article was updated in January 2011 to reflect changed practice in place from 2009 onwards)

I rise between 8am and 9am and retire somewhere between 12.30am and 3am. In my time-keeping I am certainly not following a monastic model at present. But it is regular.

My first act of the day is to go straight to my “place” in front of the framed shivviti in the cave-room which is the hub of my house. A “Good morning Lord”, a “Thank you for…” a “May this day be….” and then a slow and profound bow while saying “May Your Name be blessed in all the worlds.” gets things moving. Short but heartfelt.

After a breakfast cup of coffee, I wash and shave and then recite the Shacharit Service (Morning prayer). After this I read any emails from friends or visitors to my website, check the world news on the “GoogleNews” web-page. Between them, the emails and the world news provide ample supplementary material for me to reflect on and talk over with God.

The rest of the morning is spent in study and “Hegyon Ha-Lev” (Spiritual reading – what Christian monks called lectio divina and which is basically studying meditatively and using a text more as a springboard for prayer than as its crutch. It’s aim is to open the mind to inspiration.) Occasionally I will spend some of this time doing some graphic or calligraphic work but as I am having eyesight problems this occurs less frequently now. After the (already described) prayerful walk to my “silent communal lunch” I return and eat some fruit then either work on an item or some admin for one of my three websites or take a short siesta.

In the mid afternoon, coffee and a few biscuits are followed by a period of manual work. (housework, decorating, laundry, gardening, or street maintenance) which lasts flexibly from mid afternoon to early evening. To paraphrase St. Bruno, it is a time of “leisure which is occupied and work which is performed in tranquility”. As such, it is often my favourite time of the day. Throughout this period I rest in God. My hands and body are almost always in unflustered motion but my attention totally on or in Him. Ninety percent of the time I choose only tasks which will enable this. I am well aware that being able to do that is a blessing.

The main meal of the day usually follows sundown. May to November this means home-made hummus, tomatoes and bread, or cold canned fish and rice. Usually with some salad vegetable and fruit to follow. In the winter months it is usually a hot meal: cheese on toast, spinach and cheese sauce, or fresh fish and rice. I used to drink a glass of Malaga wine at each meal, though now this is a treat reserved for Shabbos Evening. Despite my repetitive menu and my awful cooking, every day at this point --- I feel like a king. I am very much aware that I am fortunate to have been able to put food on the table for so many years through the blessing of God. (As a Dedicated Jewish Contemplative I receive no external salary or financial aid, and have been living entirely on my modest savings. I know I have been blessed to be able to do this for so long.)

After the evening meal (or before and then again, after it, in high summer) I begin the main event of my day: Evening Prayer.

At the moment I do not recite the entire formal Maariv Evening service. Some days I will begin by reciting the Evening Shema with its blessings, and sometimes also the Amidah. I am aware that my formal liturgical practice in this respect is too bare, but I am working on that. So far, I seem to have concentrated more on regular daily contemplative prayer (which is never skimped) and wonder if the reluctance to extend liturgical practice is due to simple laziness, or to the fact that I have no other “monks” or “nuns” in a physical community here. Either way, it is an area of ongoing development for me.

This Liturgy is then followed by the core of my day: the evening “mental prayer” session. This is spent seated and/or standing and lasts between one and four hours. From May to October this “evening mental prayer” takes place on the roof. In the other months, in the cave-room. Somedays, if I have not already recited it beforehand, I will pray the first paragraph of the Amidah and follow it with an extended period of receptive attentiveness as described in Part Two of “The Cave”. Since 2009 I have ended each weekday prayer session with the recitation of a psalm for Gilad Shalit who is imprisoned following an abduction in Israel.

So what form does the “mental prayer” take? Well, I can begin by saying that I have never intentionally or formally “meditated” in my life and have no personal connections with or training in Eastern forms of meditation. As a Carmelite I was simply left to get on with it, with the whole community sitting in silence for two separate hours a day...and we received no “tuition”. This then, has been the model for my contemplative prayer all my life since then: No Teacher. No Textbook. Just God. My “mental prayer” is simply a contemplative dialogue with God - sometimes with words, sometimes not.

It begins with prayers of petition and supportive thoughts for my friends or for people whose need I am aware of. Our thoughts and prayers may not be able to prevent some disasters, nor can we will the impossible. But our prayers can often provide support, and “positive thoughts” may change more than we realise.

This is followed by a period of “conversation”. As such it resembles the Hassidic variety of hitbodedut promoted by the Baal Shem Tov and Nachman of Bratslav. You will see from Part Two of “The Cave” how I came to realise that this prayer is a dialogue and not a monologue. Our inspired thoughts are the messengers through which God intervenes in our world moment by moment. In our contemplative prayers, we co-create such “angels” with Him.

Where that period in my mental prayer session leads is very much experienced as being “up to” God …and though I can assure you that I am not scaling any mystical heights or approaching states or levels of awareness being denied to me at other times….. I am simply unable to describe what exactly does go on at this time. I don’t understand it myself! Most often it seems like very little has happened but I firmly believe that my attentiveness is required.

I have cheap internet access in the evening, and I make full use of it. The internet is my library and most of my surfing time is spent on Jewish sites. I have no access to Jewish library books and cannot afford to buy new ones so the internet is gold to me. Because of this, the rest of the evening is spent in what I would call “Online Torah Study” and reading online articles on Jewish Thought and Practice.

Shabbos is very different. I finish the weekend food-shopping by noon on a Friday and from that time till noon on a Monday I do not leave the house. With regard to diet: I eat and drink myself silly on Shabbos Evening, dining on Morrocan/Sefardi style Chicken hammin (an identical meal each week and the only time I eat meat) and enormous quantities of anything sweet and stodgy that I can lay my hands on.

Shabbos is a time when I do not work, do not make plans, do not create. But at the moment I do use the internet on Shabbos---It becomes my Online Synagogue. Much of Saturday morning is spent on the internet (it is free at weekends). I read the online Torah commentaries relevant to each particular week for about three hours and then read and listen to a recording of the weekly Parshah and Haftarah on a CD Rom. Some weeks I say the Shabbos Morning and Musaf services. Some weeks just the Amidah. Some weeks I do neither. Saturday afternoon I sleep and sleep and sleep. The afternoon-evening mental prayer takes place in rubber time, and I always sing Minchah with full ceremony…often extending it right up to Havdalah.

Oh yes, and in case anyone is still unconvinced that my particular brand of Jewish asceticism is “moderate”…. I never watch live television but on Friday and Saturday nights I often watch a full length film, part of a comedy series, or a dramatised novel on second-hand or borrowed DVDs.

(This horarium was updated in January 2011.)

Here ends the Horarium. Deo gratias. Let’s rejoin the others..........


The apparent lack of variety in my “schedule” simply makes space for an active interior life. I am not bored by any of the above though I frequently question the value of what I am doing.

I do not feel alone, though I sometimes ache for specifically Jewish company. Sometimes, despite having knocked on numerous doors, I feel sadly left out in the cold by “organised Judaism”, but even that gloom passes. I manage to maintain an awareness of the friends who are my “invisible community” on Shabbos. When I declare it a “Day of Assembly” in the evening Kiddush and when I read the Torah on Shabbos morning, I am specifically conscious of the British congregations meeting at more or less the same time.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can feel very vibrantly alive in solitude. Somehow, knowing that the majority of the World Jewish Community are “at prayer” breaks through the stone walls of my cave and I feel as though we are all truly in one place. Hanukah is usually a gentle comfort and not a wild fight for sweets. I just about manage a solitary seder, and there is always enough food for an Elijah as well so I live in hope. So far, I have given waving branches or jiggling round the cave on my own with a Chumash for a bride a miss. But what I do not currently ‘observe’ in festival practice I certainly ‘remember’ in study and thought. Being a Jewish hermit: You win some. You lose some.

Though I am on the alert for a “call out of the cave” should my time here have “expired” or “run its course”. I now hope that such a call does not come unless it is to develop what I have started in some way. I am more than content to maintain this lifestyle as long as my finances last out. I am content now whatever happens. My current path through the desert seems to be to live in the present moment and I count myself very lucky to be able to do that even though I am well aware of the risks.

In the website update Jewish Hermits in the Desert—(August 2007), I wrote:

“I hope I will live to see 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 are not to be encouraged as they put so many mitzvot 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.”

4:So what?

At first sight, it might appear that what I have described is simply the record of a personal solution to adversely changed circumstances. A possibly defeatist or quietist approach to accepting the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. Firstly, I do not believe it to be defeatist/quietist as the process of “turning things on their head” to see “curses” as “blessings” is a combative struggle which is anything but passive. It is a process which produces an active mode of acceptance which needs constant renewal and reaffirmation. Secondly, I will admit to believing that the quest for a state of equanimity is the answer to many of our “problems” and in this I discovered by experience what the Eastern religious-philosophies have been telling us for centuries. Contentment is something to do with seeing things in a certain light not something to do with what we can “have and hold”.

But there is more to this “Tale of a Jewish Hermit” than that. I am writing all this down because I feel compelled to make a case for the “Dedicated Contemplative lifestyle” in Progressive Judaism. That’s something I am trying to demonstrate by the effectiveness of my own life. Writing and talking about it is much more difficult for me to do. But I feel that the “time is right for it to be said” ….that’s why I wrote “The Cave” and its why my website exists. I also believe that such a lifestyle has an application in the lives of isolated or marginalised Jews generally.

On my (this) website, Part One of Kuntres M’arat Ha-Lev deals with my justification for saying this. In the monthly updates section: The “Bar Yohai” posting for May 2007 delves into the history of traditional Jewish objections to “dedicated contemplative lifestyles”, and the “Jewish Hermits in the Desert” posting for August 2007 highlights the history of monasticism and eremitism within Judaism so far. Here is a digest of the principal points to be found there together with a little amplification:

The majority of Jewish opinion throughout the ages has viewed family and congregational lifestyles as both “good” and “essential”. Though leaders, priests, prophets and mystics have frequently undertaken solitary “retreats in the desert” they almost invariably return to society for further “action”. Though biblical nazirites undertook short periods of ascetic retreat, they too always returned to “normal” lifestyles. This way of seeing the history suits most Progressive Jews. It also suited many of the prophets. The idea that social justice and community service are viewed as prime goals in Judaism is sound by anyone’s reading. In rabbinic Judaism those goals ultimately take precedence over prayer, religious study and liturgy. I am ultimately in sympathy with that.

But there is a complementary Jewish history too. In the century before the Christian Era, Judaism produced many experimental lifestyles. Most people have heard of the communities of Essenes, but there were also Therapeutae [xi] communities of what can only be described as “Jewish monks and nuns”. There is also a longstanding Talmudic discussion (which is still ongoing and awaiting Elijah) which is voiced there by “Shimon bar Yochai” [xii] claiming that “Study of the Law” (read “contemplative lifestyles” or “Yeshiva culture” depending on your allegiances) takes precedence over “active mission” (read immersion in physical “good works”).

Our Jewish-Sufi movement produced Avraham and Obadiah ben Maimon who advocated times of spiritual retreat . Our Kabbalah tradition was stimulated by Isaac Luria who lived as a hermit for seven years and most certainly believed that “contemplation” was actually “action” of an extremely powerful variety. The “modern” Hasidic tradition was initiated by the Baal Shem Tov who spent nearly ten years living far from any Jewish community other than his wife, with (according to legend) several months in each year spent in solitary isolation. And then there was the mysterious and unique 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.

These constitute Jewish tradition too. Yes, they are not “mainstream”. They are complementary. Yes, they represent a minority. But I believe that they are a source intended for our times. The various “movements” of progressive Judaism seem to be cyclically in danger of becoming detached from our God. The “Secular World” approves of our social conscience and our “works” so there is a tendency to sweep the sacrificial bones and ashes under the altar, out of sight lest the “superstitious” debris should offend “Enlightened” eyes. We ought not to be fooled that the import of the trappings of business and corporate culture into organized Judaism will endear us to that “Secular World” or make our mission more effective.

We ought to be proud and encouraged if Judaism is at the forefront of Social Action, World Charity drives and Ecological awareness programmes. That’s where it belongs.

But there is more to us than that. We are not a club. We are not a political party. We are Israel…the one who wrestles with God. These are times when we need to be reminded that He/She/It is the “flag we wave”. [xiii]
My call for the emancipation of the closet-contemplative in Judaism arises from a desire to be inclusive of the single or isolated Jew and from reflections on the contemplative monastic traditions of the Therapeutae and the “Mystics”. It comes also from an observation on the role of the Levites. In “The Cave” I wrote:

“All Jews are commanded to pray, study, and act but this inclusiveness did not preclude the establishment of the tribe of Levi. Where are they now? In Progressive Judaism their caste and its cultic status have become obsolete but should the essence of their function and service be regarded as similarly redundant?”

My point was that the Levites had been a sort of “beacon” group [xiv] within the community in Temple-based Judaism. The role and functions of the biblical Priests and Levites have not yet been “restored”. My suggestion is that (i) praying contemplative communities, (ii) individual lay people living dedicated contemplative lives, and (iii) Jews in isolated or otherwise “inactive situations” could be encouraged to contribute to the process of Tikkun Olam by “supporting and complementing” the work of the “actives” in Jewish congregational communities or social action organizations. They would effect this support simply by developing the intensity of their prayer-lives.

The formal and informal acknowledgement of this support would, in return, bind otherwise fringe or uncounted Jews back into the community. This “acknowledgment” could take many simple but effective forms. I believe the internet to be the underused tool for expanding and consolidating a scattered Jewish community. Solitaries could affiliate with congregations they never see in the flesh. Those congregations could mention such people in their liturgies in a way which recognises their spiritual contribution. Broadcast services and “virtual minyanim” could help turn the emphasis away from buildings and back to people.

The first two groups of “dedicated contemplatives” might also provide “retreat centre services” for the occasional use of the Jewish community [xv]. I have read much recently about the harnessing of the energies and interests of the mobile and energetic young in an attempt to stem the secularisation and “disappearance” of Progressive British Jewry. What of the marginalised?.. The role of the old and sick for example? Are they to be viewed as a section of the community needing “support and care” or are they “potential contemplatives” with an “as yet undiscovered purpose”. It all depends on which flag you are waving.

It’s not just the “old and sick” either. Here is a passage from page 17 of “The Cave” highlighting some groups which might constitute a power-house of prayer :

“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.

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.”

The way to remove the marginalisation of the “isolated Jew” [xvi] is through a more spiritual and expansive view of the concept of what constitutes “Jewish Community”. On page 21 and following I wrote:

“Community life means more than social or cultural gatherings, synagogue seats filled, or events on an organisation’s agenda or calendar.

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.

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.”

If “Jewish Contemplatives” are in any sense a “beacon”, they would be so by highlighting and pointing-out what should really be obvious: We are not a club. We are Israel.

“…Whenever the ark moved forward then Moses said: ‘Rise up, Lord’…”
(Numbers 10:35)

In our progress through this “Secular World”: Let’s not leave God behind us.

Norman R Davies
October 7th 2007
Tishri 25 5768


[i] Carmelites: are a Roman Catholic religious order of friars and nuns whose rule of life originated in the mediaeval Christian hermit community on Mt Carmel. The Discalced branch is the more contemplative group in the order and has its present day form from the hands of two sixteenth century Spaniards of Jewish ancestry: Teresa of Avila and Juan de la Cruz. They are communal hermits whose life consists in simple community services, two separate hours of “mental prayer” in common each day, and a great deal of time spent in one’s cell in silent work, study, or contemplation. Liturgy is simple and spartan. Their emphasis is on contemplative prayer. In recent years the friars have undertaken a more active ministry as well. The nuns have maintained the purely contemplative lifestyle to the present day.

[ii] Javanese Gamelan: is percussion music performed on large sets of bronze or iron metalophones and gongs. Whereas the Balinese forms are excitable and frenetic, Javanese gamelan is (usually) so sedate and meditative that it is often viewed as a form of meditation itself. It is often however, very loud. And constant exposure to this kind of music frequently produces deafness over time. I was involved in the introduction of this type of music into the English National Curriculum in the 1980s and my Gamelan group from Frodsham High School performed on British television and in the Albert Hall during the “Schools’ Prom” in 1984.

[iii] Jakarta Jewish Community: This was small and informal community of expatriates under the eminent leadership of Joseph Stern during the Suharto period. It was composed largely of American Conservative and Reform Jews with a few broadminded Orthodox members. Joseph Stern led the services (assisted by Jonathan Fink) and I sang/led anything that needed to be sung. I have never had a cantorial voice by any stretch of the imagination. But I did my best. ( So far, those four years are the only time I have experienced membership of a “congregation”)

[iii] "Paul of Tarsus”: was a BBC serial dramatization of the life of St Paul. The episode in question was the famous encounter on the road to Damascus in which Paul was temporarily blinded and heard a bat kol. The morning after this episode was broadcast, I was to be found “preaching” to the nations: Dressed in full Middle-Eastern-style sheets and towels, I propped the Bible up on a wooden ashtray stand in the vestibule of our terraced house and delivered my message to anyone who happened to be passing. One of them was the local “Lollipop lady” who referred to me as “Paul of Tarsus” every morning from that day on (until I was ten) as I approached her zebra crossing. From that I assume that my “preaching” as a six year old had made an impact. Patrick Troughton went on to play “Doctor Who”. I have exchanged the towels for a tallit, but am otherwise more or less the same. Tranmere seems to have recovered from the shock of my debut appearance relatively unscathed.

[v] Dedicated Contemplative: is the term I use to describe the Jewish equivalent of “Canonical hermit or anchorite” which is the term used by the Roman Catholic Church to describe someone who has chosen to live a specifically and intentionally orientated life of solitude and reflection. In the Christian sense it involves ceremonies and vows of dedication. In the Jewish context I use it to mean someone who has “made a conscious choice” to develop in this specific lifestyle for a limited or open-ended period of time.

[vi] Devekut: usually translated as ‘cleaving to God.’ ( What the Carmelites called “the Practice of the Presence of God.”) The Jewish (and Sufi) ideal is to be aware of God in the midst of business. Most of us need to compromise and choose a contemplative/active “balance” which suits our own personality.

[vii] Tikkun Olam: usually translated as ‘ healing of the world ’ , this term has very recently come to be understood as a synonym for ecological action. It was originally a term from the Kabbalistic tradition. I use it to mean the repair of all creation, worlds, bodies, souls, whatever is… prayer as well as by action.

[viii] Carthusians: are the “strictest” contemplative Order in the Catholic church. Founded by St Bruno in 11th century, the monks and nuns of this order live in cells in the form of individual houses which are grouped around a huge cloister. Their level of silence and solitude is quite extreme and they spend all of their time alone in cell or together in Church.

The Liturgy is ornate and performed in sung Latin. This routine is broken by a weekly communal meal (in silence) and a weekly communal walk (with light chat). They have no “active” ministry. As “communal hermits” they resemble the Desert Fathers of early Christianity and the Therapeutae of the Jewish tradition of monasticism. I visited the Parkminster Charterhouse when I was a Carmelite novice, and I have never left it, such was its impact. I recommend Nancy Klein Maguire’s stunning book “An Infinity of Little Hours” (2005) for anyone interested in reading more on communal eremitism or on the subject of “ religious vocation” generally.

[ix] Street maintenance: I live in a barrio of ten houses divided into two separate pedestrian streets, one above the other. Our “upper” street is lined with hundreds of potted plants both on the ground and on the walls. We water these ourselves using a communal hose….the whole street at a time. The area is very dusty and the winds are strong. I have made it my responsibility to sweep the street twice a week. The town council cleaning services have not quite “reached us” yet!

[x] Hermitage: My “hermitage” is a small, detached house built into a rock. The area where I pray and work is walled on two sides by this rock and so it looks and feels like a cave. The house has a small high walled patio-garden and a roof terrace with a partial view of the Mediterranean and of mountains. (That is a “partial view” as it is obscured by a neighbouring forest of washing-lines and cables, a barbecue chimney and two enormous satellite dishes (none of which are mine). It also has a soundtrack of three yelping dogs, three delightful but often screaming children and several hours each day of teen moto-cross rallying going on in the valley below…….. There. That should go some way to rid you of any overly romantic notion of my location!

[xi] Therapeutae: “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.”

(taken from “Jewish Hermits in the Desert -Aug 2007”---Jewish Contemplatives website)

[xii] Shimon bar Yohai: “The format of the discussion from the tractate Shabbat33a-b. (heavily simplified) is as follows: Rabbi Yishmael states that we have a duty to engage in worldly occupations. Rabbi Shimon states that if we are too occupied with our work-load we will have no time for Torah study. As the arguments develop, Rabbi Shimon is understood to be putting forth the view that the obligation to study Torah overrides the importance of earning a living. Centuries of commentary and discussion follow but ultimately, apart from the statement from Abaye that“many have followed the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael and have been successful others have followed R.Shimon Bar Yohai and they have not been successful.” The issue remains open to this day. I am living (as opposed to discussing) an answer to the question at the moment.”

(taken from “The Holy Fire of Bar Yohai –May 2007” -Jewish Contemplatives website)

[xiii] The Flag we wave: The reference is to the penultimate verse of the eleventh century hymn “Adon Olam”. Probably not written by Ibn Gabirol himself but certainly written here in Andalusia:

This is my God, my life He saves,
The rock I grasp in deep despair,
The flag I wave, the place I hide,
He shares my cup the day I call.

[xiv] “Beacon Group”: “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?”
(taken from “Jewish Hermits in the Desert -Aug 2007” -Jewish Contemplatives website)

[xv] Retreat Centre Services: There is a kind of “retreat” which resembles a “corporate conference”, and another a “ short residential course” with a religious or self-improvement theme. There is, however, nothing quite equal to the spending of a few days in the company of a community whose normal existence is one of silence and contemplation. It can be both relaxing and challenging at the same time and I am sure Lionel will vouch for its unique effectiveness. The provision of this kind of retreat service has long been the speciality of the monastic groups in Christianity. It is the classic form of “active ministry” for a contemplative. I attempted to provide such services myself here for two or three years. The idea being to offer individual retreats (totally unprogrammed) lasting for a long weekend or equivalent number of days. For financial reasons I shelved the idea though it is not wholly forgotten. I believe it to be an area in European Judaism which is in need of some development. In “The Cave” I wrote:

“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?”

[xvi] Isolated Jews: “A few weeks ago I read an article on the EJP website (European Jewish Press) discussing the composition of Jewish households in Britain since the 2001 census. I was particularly struck by this statement:

“More Jews than almost any other religious or ethnic group live in single-person households.

This fact, together with the large number of “Jewish households” in which not all members are actually Jewish, forces a rethink of the nature and boundaries of what is called the “Jewish community.”

The article continues: “Jews live in every county and district in Great Britain. The identification of around 20,000 Jews in areas that were regarded as containing very few—for example, Northumbria, Cumbria, Derbyshire and Warwickshire—and where there are no formal communal facilities, is an issue that policymakers will need to take seriously”

(taken from “The Priestly Blessing -June 2007” -Jewish Contemplatives website)