Jewish Asceticism in the Room of Elisha

The text of Haftarah Vayera echoes the account of the hospitality of Abraham in the related Torah portion. It describes the guest room built by the Shunamite woman for Elisha.

Though quite luxurious by Biblical standards…to us, it might seem to be a perfect description of a monastic cell. No need for a wardrobe for sets of clothes, no need for luxuries, no need for additional decorative objects. Yet it is totally practical and (one hopes) comfortable. Being on the roof…it even had a physical isolation from the rest of the house. Jewish Contemplatives do not seek the asceticism of Christian monks, but we ought to be aware that our real needs are actually very few, that we ought to maintain a simplicity of immediate environment as it encourages an uncluttered approach to our prayer life and daily routines. A simple private room/space is really all we need to sit down and try to talk to and listen to our G-d. A bookcase would be nice, perhaps. Or maybe the only book we really need is the Torah written on our hearts?

Distractions and diversions can so easily become the “unnecessary furniture” of our internal monastic cells….and keeping that spiritual and psychological cell uncluttered is a never-ending task.

In the Zohar (2:133a) and in the Tales of R.Nachman of Breslov (Tale of the Exchanged Children) this passage in the life of Elisha is treated mystically. The bed, table, chair, and lamp of II Kings 4:10 being related to items in the Mishkan and later Temple. (namely the Ark, the Ark cover/“Throne”, the Table of offering, and the Menorah). In the Zohar passage they are symbols of the Shekinah. In R.Nachman’s tale, the contemplative/tzaddik has to re-adjust the positions of these objects ever so slightly in order to effect tikkun.

It may be significant that, several times, R.Nachman states that the re-adjustment is a slight one: We are small. Anything we do is small next to G-d. But our tiny actions, our attempts to restore order, peace, harmony, love, hospitality, and generosity into our surroundings are potentially acts of major significance. For a contemplative whose primary field of action is spiritual, this is an act of faith which requires chutzpah to declare, and determination to maintain, day after day.

R.Aryeh Kaplan’s commentary on the “Elisha Room” imagery in R. Nachman’s tale reads: “G-d created evil in the world, so that the Israelites would be able to rectify it and thus become rulers of creation”. “Rulers of creation” sounds far too grand to me, but if we accept that (a) G-d created everything, both the things we call good and the things we call evil; and (b) that Man is intended to continue and perfect the work of Creation, then it is possible that we ourselves have been created to effect a sort of balance between gevurah and chesed ...not just by our physical actions, but also by our prayers and indeed by the integrity of the lives of prayer which we aim to lead.

Often we cannot see the results of our prayers. Often we are aware of how selfish and thoroughly unpleasant we can be, and on such days we might fear that our prayers are unacceptable. But if we are true to our professed (and streamlined) claim that we ask “One thing and One thing only…to dwell and meditate in the House of G-d”….then our small service might not, perhaps, make Israel the “ruler of creation”…but it might be of crucial importance in enthroning G-d in that “Room of Elisha.”

On this website I have attempted to show that the sort of Jewish neo-monasticism and contemporary Jewish eremitism which I advocate is not new, but that it has roots in Biblical Naziriteship, in Levitical lifestyles and in the Prophetic “schools”-as well as in the monasticism of the Essenes and (more specifically) the Therapeutae. I have indicated that the Biblical models have together inspired many respected Jewish mystics and Hassidim to live as hermits themselves (e.g. Isaac Luria, the Baal Shem Tov, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk) or to form contemplative communities.(e.g. Shalom Sharabi and Kalonymus Kalman Shapira). The Jewish Sufis of the Maimonides dynasty, the celibate “complete ascetics” of Bachya Ibn Pakuda, and the Mussar followers of Joseph Horwitz could also be added to the list.

The principal objection to the restoration or renewal of any such pietist and “ascetic” lifestyles is not so much that they are a minority interest (for inclusivity is very fashionable these days)...but is more often due to a belief that Judaism is a religion which puts action first and that lives exclusively dedicated to religious contemplation/study are regarded (in many denominations) as being selfish escapes or a waste of time and energy. The Venerable Shimon Bar Yohai and the contemplative practitioners in the last paragraph would contest that.

The second most common objection I have come across is that “Judaism” and “Asceticism” simply do not sit well together. Not only does this represent a rather odd neglect to “adopt and adapt” the ascetic Nazir principle and the Levitical model (which are “commanded” in the Torah) into a vibrant twenty-first century format ... it is perhaps quite simply due to an unfair and inaccurate association of asceticism with masochism.  

It is not true to claim that Judaism does not have need of asceticism- but specifically Jewish asceticism consists not so much in physical penance or mortification as being content with what one is given and in streamlining one’s spirituality. The room of Elisha might be taken as a perfect example of such moderating simplicity. It took care of basic needs, was sufficiently comfortable, and yet it “kept things simple” and on an unpretentious scale.

I’d like to look at this idea of “Jewish Asceticism as streamlining” a little more closely with the aid of a passionate Prophet, a master Philosopher and a pragmatic Cat.

In Haftarah Noach, Isaiah (the passionate Prophet) writes:

“Why do you spend money 
On that which is not bread  
Or expend your energy  
On that which does not really benefit you.”

(Isaiah 55:2)

Nobody likes a killjoy- We all love a bit of shopping therapy- but Isaiah is right to ask and we know it.

On my kitchen wall hangs a quote from Moses ben Maimon (the master Philosopher) It reads:

“Our true needs are few in number.
Our superfluous needs are many,  
but the desire to fulfil them is endless”

During my morning coffee  the other day, I read the latest Garfield cartoon on the back of a newspaper:

In the first frame-a wildly excited John asks a decidedly uninterested Garfield to guess what he is hiding behind his back.

In the second frame a delighted John displays a square piece of wire mesh declaring

“Look what I’ve just bought in the hardware store—all I need now is a hole for it!”

In the third frame Garfield, the pragmatic Cat, thinks dispassionately:  
“The hole, I think, is in his head”.

I have a periodically irresistible habit of dropping into the “Multi-Cien” discount store on the way back up the hill to my hermitage. The shop is so named because everything used to sell at around 100 pesetas (less than a US dollar). Articles are not quite so cheap there these days, but they are still the cheapest one might find locally. You would be surprised (or horrified) at some of the tat I end up buying in the spirit of “John” when forgetful of the clear message in the Isaiah and Maimonides texts. Sometimes I’ve done it because I have found a genuinely useful bargain. Most often I’ve bought something I simply didn't need. 

Of course, we have a duty to enjoy and to be grateful for the good fortune we have… just as we have a duty to express this gratitude in the “charity” of acts of social justice. More than that, as Jews we are aware that enjoyment is almost a sacred duty. Spending a little money on our whims and fancies can lift our spirits, and it really can be a noble therapy if applied from time to time. In moderation it is a part of the Jewish celebration of life. But spending, acquiring, and possessing can so easily become a distraction and a burden.

Misuse of funds and of physical energies is a concern for all Jews. There is an equally tenacious but more clandestine form of “energy dissipation” which the contemplative in particular has to guard against: the creation and cultivation of superfluous Spiritual needs or engaging in Mystical shopping-therapy. The cycle of needless desire and acquisition can be at work there as well.

Studying the thoughts and discoveries of others is one of the ways in which we learn. For Jews the thoughts of our predecessors in mysticism can often be a safeguard and (almost but not quite) a route-map. It is true that we can be temporarily “carried away” into the world of deep prayer whilst engaged in such religious study. Sometimes this can be the very deepest prayer for we are only truly in contemplative prayer when we no longer realise that we are praying.

Similarly, the thoughts of our contemplative contemporaries, both in print and in the blogosphere, are often an exciting and refreshing stimulus to our own development. Quite obviously and laudably, we need to be faithful to our tradition and study the works of those who have gone before us and those who walk with us. But we can overdo this.

How many hours have I spent browsing “religious/spiritual” websites when I should have been standing in receptive prayer? Is it right that a contemplative should spend more time in such study than in undiluted solitary prayer? How often have I put off the hour of prayer by extending time spent on some less viscerally-exposed and stoic activity so that when the time came for Standing- all I had the energy for was a brief liturgical recitation?

I would be the first person to echo the Kotsker Rebbe’s dictum that the hour of prayer should be delayed until sufficient preparation had been made. (He declared that there were no clocks in his community, only souls.) He reminded us that the woodcutter is engaged in his trade even while sharpening his tools—but I still think that the number one distraction of both the aspiring and the experienced contemplative is to be excessively engaged in reading, talking, or writing (!) about spirituality/contemplation when the task at hand is meant to be action not theory. Praying is the MAIN task of the contemplative- but because it can often be demanding, we put it off, we skimp on it, we allow our energies to be spent elsewhere.

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record:

  • Contemplation is not about possessing or attaining it is about receiving. 
  • It cannot be taught or studied. We only learn by doing it ourselves. 
  • Contemplation is not about Me, or Them, or even Us-it is about G-d. 
  • All the contemplative really needs to do is stand still and listen.
  • Everything else is commentary.

Jewish asceticism on the contemplative path is a matter of clearing the way for one purpose only: We remove the obstacles our superfluous desires create in order to devote ourselves to G-d more whole-heartedly. Thus contemplative prayer itself becomes the remedy for the dissipated energy considered in Isaiah 55:2.

I did not notice it until after I had written this article, but the very next verse in Isaiah offers the very remedy I have just been suggesting. In it we read:

“Incline your ear and come to Me.
Hear and your soul shall live.”
(Isaiah 55:3)

But to do that you need to stop reading this and start praying.

October 20 2009