Hanukah Gelt: Trusting in God - (Dec 2009)

(Photo:Hanukah in my hermitage last year)

A contemplative Jew and a Jewish Contemplative are not  quitethe same thing. On this website the term “Jewish Contemplative” does not simply denote a “contemplative” Jew. I use it as a term which describes a lifestyle, an occupation, and maybe a vocation. A “Dedicated Jewish Contemplative” is one who lives a life specifically devoted to God in prayer. It is not so much a life of study as a lifestyle of “cleaving to God” or “Deveykut”.

The mission statement of the Jewish Contemplative Community to which I belong reads:
“We cleave to God.
In doing this, We hope to be redeemed from selfishness;
In doing this, We pray for our congregation’s members;
In doing this, We pray for the Community of Israel;
In doing this, We pray for all Creation.
We hope that this may be our specific and acceptable Service to God.”

Ideally, that mission statement describes a full-time activity which involves no other activity or occupation. At the moment, the other members of my community are in part-time or full-time employment but they would all support the existence of “Full-time Jewish Contemplatives” and aim to live as close to the ideal as possible according to their own life-circumstances. A full-time observance could be possible only for those who are self-sufficient or who are supported by a community.  

In the past, the only Jews  to have lived this way on a (comparatively)  long term basis were certain prophets—like Elijah and Elisha and their “schools”;  the monastic Essenes and Therapeutae in the Second Century; and certain  mystically inclined individuals in comparitively modern times— usually from minority Pietist and Hassidic groups.   The more usual Jewish way to live a contemplative lifestyle has not produced many such temporary "dedicated contemplatives"; rather, it has usually been practiced by Jews engaged in   parallel and full time  lives of  gainful employment and the raising of a family.  

In short,the practice of a dedicated and intentional prayerful lifestyle akin to solitary monasticism or eremitism is a decided rarety in Jewish history and in twenty-first century Jewish practice it is virtually non-existent. 

 Since 2003 I have been living as a solitary "Dedicated Jewish Contemplative" with no outside funding. I live in an area of Spain with over 26% unemployment and, so far, have found it impossible to obtain part-time work which would not clash with my chosen life of prayer and seclusion. 

So how have I managed it? 

Well, to put it in a nutshell- I have been living exclusively on my very modest savings and on a very large helping of bitachon- trust in Divine Providence. The former is disappearing rapidly but the latter has never failed me. 

Last year, during the season of Hanukah, I wrote a commentary for the community on the festival Haftarah reading. That article reflected on the notion of Trust in God in such situations and I am now publishing this version of it here for you to read. 

Haftarah Shabbat Hanukah
Zechariah 4:6

I am currently in the Orthodox process of converting ki halachah, but I underwent  a conversion process under the auspices of a Reform Beit Din in 1992. Before converting to Judaism I had been a Discalced Carmelite friar. Elijah was seen as having been the Carmelite Order’s mythical founder. It has often occurred to me how remarkably unexpected it is that now, thirty years later, I should be trying to live and promote a sort of “ Jewish Carmelite” renewal. 

When I ask myself why I was not born Jewish, the only fully satisfactory answer that I can think of is that converts bring with them certain insights and skills which are intended to be used to enrich the community they join. Just as Avraham ben Maimon believed certain Sufi practices to be a memory of the original Jewish “prophetic-school” ones, I can see the reflection of the Jewish monastic tradition (Therapeutae) in both the Carthusian and the Carmelite traditions of Christian monasticism. Some days I wonder if all this is just me trying to draw a bull’s-eye around an arrow-head already shot, but most days I can see that had I not been a Carmelite I would not have had the positive experience of monasticism nor such a direct contact with a “spark” from the Elijan tradition that those years gave me. They gave me confidence through experience and not just theory: confidence in God’s Providence and confidence in seeing the value of a full-time life of prayer. 

It also means that I had a fortuitous exposure to Teresa of Avila (a Christian of Jewish descent) who in the sixteenth century, struggled with the same problems of funding a contemplative lifestyle as I do now. 

Once when discussing the lax spirit and lack of funds in a new convent of the Discalced Carmelite reform, someone suggested to Teresa of Avila that the nuns needed to beg more often. She replied that it was precisely because they were "out and about" in the town seeking charitable support that they were without it. She was a firm believer that if the nuns had remained in their cloister and prayed for support, it would miraculously appear. 

She did not expect it to drop from heaven unaided. She expected it to come from the purses of rich benefactors as a direct result of the nuns’ unquestioning trust in God. Her firm belief was definitely that “God would provide” a miracle of that Divine/human kind… if the nuns had their prayer lives and their reliance on God to the forefront. 

I am Jewish and not Christian, and so I do not go all the way along that Teresian path. By writing this at all I am, quite transparently now, advertising my funding difficulties as well as my openness to the idea of part-time employment in order to survive.  I am reminded of the Jewish joke:
Sam: Dear God, please help me win the lottery!
Heavenly Voice:  I will Sam, I will....but first my boy, you have to buy a ticket.
Nevertheless, on a day-to-day basis, Teresa's  somewhat quietist approach is one that I am often “accused” of taking myself. I will admit it appeals to me but then, so far, it seems to have worked. It is true that in the last year things have become decidedly tight, and like anyone I have moments when I fret about the future. But if I see my personal situation in comparison with people who are really poor- with Jacob, I can say that I certainly have “enough”.

One of the legends of Hanukah is that the last remaining cruse of oil used for the menorah burned for a “miraculous” eight days (during the re-dedication of the temple). Both Elijah and Elisha “provided oil” for the practical sustenance of their supplicants. One tale relates to oil being used for a spiritual purpose (the temple light), the others for a secular one (food and income). I live in hope that my pot of oil will last for at least “eight days” to get my personal “dedication project” off the ground.

So, I continue to take a “Teresian” approach to my current lifestyle and trust that if God wants me to be a “full-time dedicated contemplative”, He will provide opportunities or strategies for my survival through either inspiration or action.

If I run out of funds, that may be a way of indicating that my personal “cause” is not truly “for the sake of heaven”. I am prepared also to accept that as a possibility. Like David I can say: “If I find favour in God’s eyes, He will restore me and let me see His Dwelling Place…but if He says He is not pleased with me, then I am ready, may He do with me whatever He wills” (II Samuel 15:25).

Or perhaps it would indicate that my time as a Jewish Contemplative on long-term retreat was intended to be temporary all along: if so it would be following a more usual Jewish (and Sufi) pattern.

But no matter what the future may hold, the essence of the “trusting approach” is that whatever human steps we might take to “provide” for ourselves or our communities- God is ultimately the only true “Provider”.

Is this the same attitude that we find in the Haftarah quotation which heads this article, do you think?

“Not by might and not by power but by my Spirit says the Lord”
(Zechariah 4:6)

As I am not a Hebrew scholar I am unable to analyse the precise potential meanings of the words used for “might”, “power” and “spirit” when commenting on this text. But what is clear is that the Zechariah text above certainly suggests that God’s direct or inspired action is real and not imaginary. That it goes beyond what humans can do alone. That Providence is something we ought to put our trust in.

Each year, we read the Joseph narrative during the Hanukah season. People often comment that the tale is not so much a story of man’s relationship with God as one which focuses on family relationships. It does not seem to focus on the notion of “Divine intervention” unless it is to be seen at work through the various dreams. Thanks to a brilliant commentary on Mikeitz by Nehama Leibowitz I can see that this is not really the case. She highlighted that perfectly when she pointed out the emphatic re-iteration in the following verses from Genesis 41:

In verse 25:  “What God is about to do he hath declared to Pharaoh”
In verse 28:  “What God is about to do he hath shown to Pharaoh”
In verse 32:  “and God will shortly bring it to pass”.

Similarly, in the next parshah, Vayigash, we read that though the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery, Joseph ascribed the real authorship of this action to God when he said:

“God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”
(Genesis 45:4-7)

The extent to which we should rely on “God’s action” and the extent to which we should rely on “human action” is at the heart of the history of the festival of Hanukah too.

In the festival Haftarah, the menorah vision of Zechariah (Zech.4:3) describes two trees which flank the candelabrum and which provide the oil. One is taken to be Zerubabel- a messiah figure for the secular and physical, and the other is taken to be Joshua - a messiah figure for the priestly and spiritual. They are two complementary forces seen as separate in methods of action but united in purpose.

In the written history of the festival’s origin, the tale of the Maccabees ended up in the Apocrypha and not the Bible. The first book of Maccabees focuses on the Rebel/Zealot movement’s victory which was attained by physical force, while the second book focuses on the ideological cause and martyrdom of the Pietist movement’s faith in the spiritual or supernatural. Again, we see here two very distinct attitudes sharing a common purpose.

They remind me of the way Philo described the contemporary Essenes and Therapeutae of Jewish monasticism as being the “active” and “contemplative” branches of the same Jewish movement. Two ways of expressing a dedicated communal lifestyle.

Perhaps the Haftarah’s message is not so much that action and prayer are complementary but that they both need something else, something more, in order to be “in-spired” - in order to have the “Breath” or “Spirit” of God in them - namely an explicit connection with God Himself. Taking that point of view, the text might be read as:

“Not just by the might of political action
Nor just by the power of spiritual faith
But by the spirit of God which joins them together
in effective and complementary balance.”

In the developing and rather confused history of the festival of Hanukah, it was not so much the Maccabees’ victory or the Pietists’ martyrdom that was placed centre-stage: The rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) placed the miracle of the long-lasting oil in that prime position. In doing so they were choosing the “spiritual and miraculous” emphasis. I think that is also the intended meaning of the Haftarah quote. Might and Power are predictable yet fallible. Breath and Spirit, inspiration and revelation, can be wildly unpredictable, but they can sometimes act as their beacon: a ner tamid which lights the way forward. It might also be a beacon which warns of a way not to be taken—and it can, at times, be a reminder of being ever in the present in spiritual constancy.

Despite Jacob’s vow in Genesis 28:20, I do not know to what extent I should rely on God to provide for me, I do not know to what extent we should believe that our prayers have a direct effect on the progress of the cosmos (from assisting our friend’s struggles in illness, to world politics), I do not know to what extent we should fight wars to achieve anything believed to be “good”. Despite choosing to walk a comparatively quietist path, the working out of this “Maccabean enigma” is a work still very much in progress for me, and no doubt for you too.

But I do feel that it is the specific duty of the Dedicated Jewish Contemplative to be the “Joshua”, the “Pietist”, the “Teresian” above all else and to declare explicitly that all is in the hands of heaven. It is unrealistic for anyone to think that all Jews be both Joshua and Zerubabel, some specialisation is both inevitable and beneficial. Both trees feature in the vision that feeds the lamp.

A contemplative’s special task is to pray… and if that is done, it is my hope that “action” will be done: 
by God as a “miracle of inspiration”;
by God through “human hands”;
by God through the miracles of His Providence.

As the daily Modim prayer reminds us, those miracles are not confined to the festival of Hanukah but are with us at every moment of every day.

Dec 1 2009