Kedushah: So Far and Yet So Near- (June 2009)

We have recently celebrated Shavuot, the annual festival of the First Fruits and of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. I have been reflecting on the way that we place ourselves at Sinai every time we pray and have decided to publish an edited version of an article which I wrote for the sister website (Community of Jewish Contemplatives) as a post-festival reflection for a wider audience. It refers to our community as being an "Elijan" Community...but the tasks of Elijah are pertinent to all Jews and so I hope all readers will find what I had to say to be of some interest and relevance. It begins with a brief commentary on the prayer we call the "Kedushah": The Song of God's Otherness.
.Haftarah Yitro Isaiah 6:3


So Far and Yet So Near


The liturgical Kedushah which is developed from this text in Isaiah (and a related one in Ezekiel 3:12 ) is one of the prayers which is traditionally recited only when a minyan is present. If I had waited for such an occasion before saying it, I would only have recited it a handful of times in the last decade. My nearest Jewish synagogue is many hours away on a bus and (to my knowledge) there are no Jews living in my town or anywhere nearby.

Typically, in such a situation I make an exception for myself and rightly or wrongly, I “sing” the Kedushah every Shabbos during the Amidah. For years (for minyan purposes) I have regarded myself as present in spirit with the Knesset Yisrael of Sinai and since last September, specifically bound in prayer with the other members of the online Community of Jewish Contemplatives.

I think most people would agree that there is something very special about the recitation of the Kedushah during communal liturgy (whether it be physically communal or spiritually communal). Everyone will have their own favourite moments in liturgy, some of which will regularly serve to keep us on our toes, as it were. There are three points in my own Shabbos liturgy which always seem especially illuminated. Two of them are in the Amidah and one in the Sh’ma. All three are more or less guaranteed to send a shiver down my spine.

In the Amidah, the first “illuminated moment” is in the Avot blessing when we say “ El Elyon”. My own practice is to leave large pauses between the phrases of the first paragraph of the Amidah and as I say the words “El Elyon” (God Above all, beyond all knowledge, beyond anything we can fathom, beyond any actual or imaginary world we might ever travel to) I have always left a longer pause than usual. In that pause I attempt to feel a little something of the immense distance between God and ourselves. It is, for me, a moment’s celebration of God’s transcendence, not as something chilling and off-putting, but as something full of awe and wonder. We seldom address God by this one of His Names and that makes the moment doubly special, a moment to be savoured.

The second “illuminated moment” in my Amidah is the Kedushah itself.

When I recite the Kedushah I consciously prepare myself to stand with the celestial beings who are praying along with me, but as I haven’t the faintest idea what they might truly be, (despite their colourful and exciting categorization into Chayot, Serafim, Ofanim and so on) that too produces a sense of being lost in a world beyond my comprehension and certainly beyond my grasp. Yet I always feel particularly “close to” or “linked to” that other world during it. The same will be true for the majority of spiritually minded Jews when they recite the Kedushah. This is not surprising as, in whatever language it is declaimed, it is one of the most numinous prayers in all liturgies. The creatures of the Celestial world (Elyonim) and the People of the Earthly world (Techtonim) rarely meet so explicitly in the liturgy.

The Elyonim are variously our guardians, our supporters, and our witnesses as we stand on that point at the end of our world during the Amidah. Some say that the two nods we give to the left and the right as we take three steps out of the Presence during the Oseh Shalom are an acknowledgement of that angelic collaboration in our worship. Being open to the idea that there is more to the Physical Cosmos than we know develops our humility and gives us a realistic perspective on our own place in Creation. Acknowledging the highly possible existence of other life-forms and different universes of prayer and praise co-existing with our own can similarly become steps towards developing an awareness of the Utter Otherness of their Creator and Sustainer .

The third “illuminated moment” is from an earlier point in the liturgy, before the Amidah, and it begins “Ani ADONAI” (I am ADONAI, The One who is). It is the last line of the Sh’ma. When we recite or chant this line, we speak one of God’s most personal declarations of immanence, yet it too serves to remind us that the One who is speaking is so Other that to be in His Presence so intimately can be almost unbearable. Reciting this last line with special focus, slowly and gently, listening to every sound and silent pause between its words and phrases can be one of the most intimate moments of communication with the “I” of our God in all the Jewish Liturgy.

The strange thing (for me) about all three of these moments is that they contain the most highly explicit feelings of awe in God’s Presence with the vaguest yet most tangible feelings of being somehow close to Him. Even when feelings are blunt, even at times when our faith, or trust, or perseverance are at their lowest ebb: these three passages still manage to keep us in mind of the enormity of what we do when we stand before Him.

The Kedushah is a celebration of this dual perception of God as both Transcendent and Immanent.

The first section (Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh)
declares “Other, Other, Totally Other, is He.”

The LORD of celestial Armies (ADONAI Tzevaot), He dwells in worlds beyond our comprehension and the Creatures who surround Him there in worship are as Aliens to us.

The second section (melo kol ha aretz kevodo) declares that He is present in all the atoms of all the worlds we know or ever could know. That He fills the space and time between those atoms, between our intuitions and thoughts, between our thoughts and our words, and between our experiences and our understandings. Inescapable. Inside each individual, as totally as He was in the Holy of Holies.

Being alone when I sing the Kedushah, for the last fifteen years I have always made it my practice to make up a totally new tune every time I sing the prayer. For the “Kadosh” line itself I have frequently spun off into a choking arabesque which was anything but musical sounding.

It’s my way of joining in the rushing around and wildness that Isaiah observed in the angelic choirs. I have yet to attain a satisfactory level of kavanah during the Kedushah, that is obvious! This failure to “seize the prey” musically is not a surprise to me. Indeed it may be one of the messages of the exercise. The attempt to describe God, the attempt to praise Him always fails…but exerting ourselves to the limit in the attempt is the best we can offer.

On a handful of occasions I have intended to sing and found that not a single audible sound would come out of my mouth….just the body forcibly making the movements which ought to produce the words. Strangely on those occasions I felt as though my song was closer to the one being sung around me/above…. I think there is a profound message there for me and for you. But I’m not going to try to write about it just now!


So far, I’ve been jotting down a few thoughts on the text and its use in a contemplative liturgy. But for us - contemplative prayer is our principal work, and so I really ought to say something now about the implications of the Kedushah on that.

The Kedushah text highlights the Transcendent and the Immanent. It has occurred to me that the text thus sheds its light on what I chose to call the M’arat Ha-Lev. This will take some explaining, but I would like to try:

The visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel have provided Jewish sages, mystics, and scholars with profound material for philosophy, theology, and countless methods of contemplative prayer. They have inspired esoteric mystical associations and entire schools of Jewish mysticism. But there is nothing in the visions of Isaiah or Ezekiel which surpasses the experience of every Jew present at Sinai. (Parshah Yitro, Exodus 19:9)

At Sinai we all saw the Voice of God as He laid Torah on our hearts. Some of it was heard but has not been verbalised. Some of it was seen but has not risen into our consciousness. All of us heard it in our own way and each of us is commanded to write our own torah as a result of what we heard. We are all invited to listen to that Voice. All of us.

Sinai, as I will never cease repeating, is not just something in the past: It is happening now in the Ever-present. What we need to do is find our individual place at Sinai again. Our spot at the foot of Sinai. Each of us has our own place and that place is the M’arat Ha-Lev , the Cave of the Heart .

There are tribes laid out at the foot at Sinai, and each tribe has its own charism. Though each one of us has a unique individual perspective, each of those tribes represents a shared path. A distinct group "way of doing things" within the People of Israel.

There are those who go down in the Chariot and there are those who are engaged in the Work of Creation. There are those who climb Sefirotic Trees and those who manipulate the Holy Letters. But the way of the M’arat Ha Lev is a simple path for simpler people.

There is one process to arrive there: Stand still.
There is one activity to perform: Listen.

It is the way of Elijah. Not the way of Elijah the zealot. The way of Elijah at the threshold of the cave: the place where the worlds meet.

In Kuntres M’arat Ha Lev I was using a sort of code. I was aware that the place at the end of the “unrolling carpet” on which we stand in prayer during a Contemplative "Standing" was a point in time and space and yet beyond them.

Several times I have described that point as the “intersection of the worlds”. In using that phrase I was referring to three types of intersection:

  • A place (physical time and space) where an individual human and God can “meet”;

  • A place (eternal moment) inside God and inside each individual where all spiritual meetings occur;

  • A place (expandable moment) in contemplative prayer where we turn away from looking inside ourselves to look through God’s eyes at other people.

The first two are perceived-experienced-engaged with during the Standing itself and the third is an event which can occur within it but can also “spill out” into the ordinary events and perceptions of our lives when we are not engaged in focused prayer. The third can, and often does, involve an imperative call to action.

I tried to express these ideas in stages by reference to Elijah’s Cave both in the kuntres itself and in the article on this website called “In the Cave of Elijah”. You will know from that article that my reading of I Kings:19 is that Elijah was not being scolded for retreating into a cave and ordered into active service- but that he was being scolded for not developing his contemplative service and the command to leave the cave was merely a command to appoint a successor.

I believe that the work of Elijah was unfinished. I believe that we are here to continue it. That is why I wrote Elijah’s name at the head of our Community members list. He was there already.

The essence of the Elijan experience of God (as I see it) is that we approach God (liturgically and metaphorically) in three steps: we pass through earthquake, wind, and fire (distractions, self-centredness, anxiety) and then, standing at the intersection between our world and His (the mouth of the cave), we focus with awe on His transcendence (with mantle over our face), then, and only then, we become open to hearing His Voice. (His immanence).

When we are standing at that still point, our personal place at Sinai, our Cave of the Heart, the part of God where we can see the sound of the speaking silence, we are not hoping for the visions of an Isaiah or the experiences of an Ezekiel. We are the sons and daughters of Elijah the childless and all we want is to be useful to God.

But like Isaiah, we are standing there to say “hineini” and with God’s help we may feel God respond “I am here too”, or perhaps “Good, Now do this…”.


In this graphic, the “point” of the M’arat Ha-Lev is at the threshold of the arch. It is a point of focus in the distance (the transcendent) and simultaneously it is a point of focus inside us (the immanent) represented by the starlight inside the star of David.

The angelic Elyonim are guardians, witnesses, silent worshipers. They are symbols of the event taking place, marking the point of intersection.

They are the keruvim of the ark, Lights who are “called” Shamor and Zachor.

They are silent.

Maybe that’s because they are listening and the Talmud says that the angels on high cannot “sing” the kedushah till we have “sung” it below.

Or maybe it’s because on the Elijan path, the contemplative is really only interested in hearing one thing, something which is heard only when all other sounds are silenced…..the still small voice….heard so deep inside our souls that its thunderous whisper can drown out any storm or shofar blast.

(This article was originally published on the Community of Jewish Contemplatives Website on Feb 12 2009 as a commentary on the Haftarah for Yitro.)