Parshas Shoftim: Justice

Tzedek tzedek tirdof: justice, justice, you shall pursue. So says this Parsha. The Rabbis give the repetition here a brilliant interpretation: you shall pursue justice- justly. No detention without trial; no blowing up of whaling boats; no suicide bombs; no means justifying the ends. There are no ends, Gandhi said, only means.

I read a story this last week which I told in my Jewish meditation class, synchronicitously foreshadowing this parsha, which I didn't know was coming next at the time. In the story a man reads this directive, zedek zedek tirdof and sets out into the world in search of justice. He cannot find it, though. Not in the rabbinical courts, or in the tavern, not in the streets or the market. Finally he leaves the village and goes into the wild, and even there he cannot find justice. He approaches witches but they merely laugh and leer. He approaches thieves and they say. “To us you've coming looking for justice?”

Finally, deep in the forest, the man comes upon a small cottage emanating light. No one answers the door, so the man opens it carefully and calls out. No one answers, and he cautiously goes in. Inside the cottage, which is much bigger inside than it is outside, the man sees rows and rows of shelves containing hundreds and hundreds of oil lanterns, all burning. As he approaches the shelves for a closer look a strange man appears from out of the shadows and says, “Would you like to know what these are?” The man says yes and his odd host shows him that at the base of each lantern is written a name and each one is the life of a living soul.

The man immediately searches for his own. He finds it and sees to his horror that there is barely any oil left. The strange man smiles eerily at him and says, “Now you know. You should go home.”

The eery man turns and leaves, and our hero is left looking at his lamp, so poor in oil, and the lamp next to it, which is nearly full. What would it hurt, borrowing just a few extra drops? A few more weeks, a few more months? The man reaches out his hand to the full lamp, and suddenly he feels the cottage owner's hand on his shoulder. “Is this the justice you were looking for?”

As I said to my students, I think we can assume the man did not live much longer. It appears that the melech hamavet– the angel of death- has caught him messing with his things.

My students agreed that the message seems to be that the place we should search for justice is in our own actions. The truth is that this is often, in fact, the last place we look.

Parshat Vayakhel: G-d’s Shadow

In this week’s parsha we find the divinely inspired craftsman Betsalel, who is “wise of heart”. Betsalel is put in charge of building the mishkan, the portable tent-temple which was to serve as the holy place for Israel in the desert. Betsalel’s name means “in the shadow of G-d”, which seems to suggest the very close relationship that this inspired artist had with Divinity (for further discussion of divine art see R’ Jonathan Sacks

His name, Betsalel, points to a quality that all of humanity posseses. As it says in the morning ritual for putting on the Talis (prayer shawl):

מַה יָּקָר חַסְדְּךָ אֱלהִים. וּבְנֵי אָדָם בְּצֵל כְּנָפֶיךָ יֶחֱסָיוּן:

Mah yakar hasdecha Elohim uvnei Adam b’tsel k’nafecha y’hesayun

How precious is your kindness, Source of all Powers: the children of Adam in the shadow of your wings will shelter.

(Seder levishat tsitsit, Siddur Avodat HaLev p.128).

The reference here is explicitly to “the children of Adam”, ie. all of humanity. This is not exclusive to those with the holy spirit (ruah ha’kodesh) like Betsalel.

B’tsel c’nafecha: In the shadow of your wings. This imagery seems to combine the sense of a bird being sheltered within the wings of its parent and the sense of a bird flying high above, its shadow falling below as a guide and sign to those beneath it. Here we can read two ways in which being in the shadow of G-d manifests G-d’s kindness.

There is another verse which further develops this idea:

ה’ צלך על יד ימינך

Hashem tsilcha ad yad yeminecha

G-d will be your shadow at your right hand.

This verse, from Tehillim (Psalms), inverts the idea: here G-d is your shadow!  Rabbenu Yonah, z”l, comments:

“This is the meaning of the verse, ‘ה’ צלך על יד ימינך’—’G-d is your shadow upon your right hand.’ Just as a shadow mirrors our actions, so too does G-d act toward us as we act toward Him. If we cry to Him, He is right there crying alongside us. If we distance ourselves from Him, He distances Himself from us. And when we draw near to Him, He draws close to us.”

In what way does this manifest G-d’s kindness? One might wish it was the opposite way: when we pull way G-d pulls closer, giving us encouragement, and when we draw close G-d pulls back, spurring us on.

In Rabbenu Yonah’s image of the shadow dance  G-d’s movements act as a sign to us of our own spiritual state. When we feel the presence of G-d’s shadow- comforting presence and signs- it is a sign that we are drawing closer, when we feel distance and confusion it is a sign that we ourselves have drawn further away. Rabbenu Yonah says this is the way G-d inspires us to grow and change- this shadow dance acts a barometer for the state of our da’at– our consciousness. When we act, think, and speak in certain ways those things which we associate with closeness to G-d- more peace, more joy, a sense of flow and being in the right place, more virtue, more calm, more kindness, and the feeling of being led and being given signs, to name a few- these things increase. When we act, speak, and think in other ways then these same qualities decrease, to be replaced with their opposites. This is a sign to us that we need to do teshuva- return. We need to search our actions and see where we have drawn away from G-d and from ourselves.

Of course it should be remembered that even when the shadow of G-d is distant this is only an appearance.  Rabbi Nachman, zy”a, teaches that “No one should ever give up for himself, however fall they have fallen. Even if she is lying in the very pit of hell, she must never despair of G-d’s help. Even there she can draw close… for ‘the whole earth is filled with divine presence (m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo- Isaiah 6:3) ‘ [LM II.72]”. Further, “If a person falls from their level, he should know that it is something sent to him by the hand of heaven. The whole purpose of of this rejection is that she should be drawn closer. The reason for the fall is to awaken this individual so that she steps up her efforts to draw closer… (LM I.261)”. We see from these quotes that according to R’ Nachman G-d’s presence is never actually lessened, only our perception of it, or one might speculate, perhaps the way that G-d is manifest in our consciousness changes.

All of this seems true while we are in a relationship with G-d’ s “mere” shadow, the place where most of us can be found (at the best of times!) It is worth remembering, though, that when we have ascended to a higher level all this will be revealed as Godliness and Holiness. R’ Nachman teaches elsewhere (Sichot HaRan 136) that the “shadow” itself is created by our incomplete awareness and purification: “When you succeed in nullifying the shadow completely, turning everything into absolute nothingness, then G-d’s glory is revealed in the world. There is nothing to hide the light and cause a shadow. And then “The whole earth is filled with divine presence (Isaiah 6:3)”.

This is “the coming of the Messiah”, when “the knowledge of G-d will fill the world like the waters fill the sea” and “G-d will be one and His name will be one”, ie. there will be no perception of distance from, or absence of, divinity. As it says in the Talmud, ” ‘On that day G-d will be one and His name will be one’: is this meant to imply that right now G-d is not one? No, what it means is that in our present state we make a distinction between the different types of experiences that G-d sends us. …but in the time to come we will bless G-d for everything (Pesachim 50a)”.

We can understand this on a global level or as the time of individual attainment of this awareness. As one great tzaddik said (R’ Nachman?), “For me Moshiach (the Messiah) has already come.” This is because for him the boundary between G-d and not-G-d had collapsed, and ha-kol letova, everything was for the good.

These ideas are reflected beautifully in a recent song by Darshan (

As I wait, I will sing

I will take shelter of your wings

please do not be late

don’t delay the spring

we’ll celebrate

both Queen and King

The singer here waits for the full revelation of G-d that comes with the days of Messiah/messianic consciousness, and in the meantime sings (draws closer to G-d). He prays that the spring of renewal of the world/his own consciousness should not be delayed, for then the Queen (the Shekhina/ Shadow/Revealed, Immanent aspect of G-d, Teva/Nature, Elohim) and the King ( The Holy One, Blessed Be/G-d’s hidden, transcendent aspect/ YHWH) will be both celebrated as One.

Speedily in our days, amen.

journeys in the wilderness of judaism

It all started when I took over my wife’s position teaching Hebrew school on Sundays. In order to teach the kids the parsha I began studying it daily again like I used to in the morning while waking over coffee. Slowly it worked on my mind. The daily study drew me back into the mytho-poetic world of Torah, prodding me with ethical questions and moral demands, opening strange vistas of history.

Then there were the kiruv Rabbis and Rebbetzins. The liberal minded Litvak with the constant Shabbat and Torah class invitations. The warm hearted Chabad shliach with the promise of tefillin to replace my lost pair if I promised to don them and say the Sh’ma every morning. This probably sounds familiar to some of you. The pull of the tribe, the sweetness of communal life, the intellectual euphoria of Torah study, the satisfying grounding of meaning, purpose and place.

Yet as I began to wear tzitzit again and strategized to kasher my kitchen, as I read Heschel and the phenomenal world came alight with the promise that it hid and yet revealed an ineffable mystery, conflict grew.

Externally, oppositions between my own understanding of Jewish moral and spiritual commitments and the understanding of others came into relief. The bifurcation between the different world of an observant Jew and the gentile populace began to take shape. The open field of one universe with many equal peoples and people began to separate more into boundaries and positions. Should I attend a henotheistic or transpolytheistic Yoga  chanting event when Jews are covenanted to represent radical monotheism? I did attend but was uncomfortable and uncertain about being there. I attended a Zen retreat wearing my kippah and held aloof from the Buddhist services (I was greeted warmly and allowances were made).

Internally conflict took the shape of doubt. As I took up the yoke of halacha again I began to spend hours attempting to learn Jewish law with intellectual honesty so I could follow a halacha with integrity, not one of blind custom. Questions about Rabbinic authority, legal logic, textual integrity, swirled in my head in addition to the demands of daily life both sacred and mundane. They filed in like loud and earnest dinner guests newly arrived on an already crowded family dinner whose voices come to drown out the conversation of those already there.

I had been down this road before. I tried to be moderate and relaxed. I tried to take my time and allow for uncertainty, imperfection, slow growth. Unburdened by fundamentalist beliefs about the Torah and Talmud I felt fairly comfortable in a somewhat blurry mental landscape, where theological and legal commitments and beliefs were not completely clear.

What motivated me? Two things: one the list of qualities I mentioned above: sweetness, familiarity, intellectual euphoria, discipline, meaning, groundedness. Two I had found again, or maybe for the first time, a sense of God. Aided by my medical studies over the past two years my own innate sense of wonder had come to be coupled with an amazement at the ingenious designs of biology and botany. I was entertaining the real possibility that there is an awesome Creator whose gift of life infinitely obligates us to ethical ascension and service of others. This was quite a sea-change. Despite having a sense of God and divinity as a child, and an aborted attempt at becoming a ba’al teshuva (convert to orthodox Judaism) in my late 20’s, I have spent most of adult life as an atheist and much of my spiritual practice as a Buddhist.

Then it began to unravel. As I became more observant I also felt more tension in my marriage and in my daily life. The details were surface problems over the deep troubles.

The deep troubles are manifold. I accept in principle the idea of the Jewish tribe unified by a body of sacred law. I do not believe that Rabbinic law carries the weight of divine law. I am horrified by lives ruined by Rabbinic enactments- man made misery masquerading as casualties to a divine plan.

Deeper, I do not believe the Torah can be trusted as anything like a verbatim account of a revelation at Sinai, if such a thing occurred. The evidence strongly suggests that the Torah was compiled by scribes over the course of centuries. The scribes must have redacted texts based on oral traditions, traditions that were themselves probably manifold, varying by region and elaborated and filtered by the elders and teachers who preserved it. The texts themselves, once written down, were further expanded, edited, and spliced together. Although the Torah as a whole records a grand spiritual and moral vision it cannot be trusted on the details: details that Orthodox Jews run their lives by. I cannot order my life and certainly cannot abrogate my conscience or reason in any way on the basis of legal details grounded in such nebulous claims to divine authority.

Deeper, who knows what really happened in the depths of Israelite history? The story of the Jewish people is awesome strange and the vision of the Torah singular and sublime in its context. But I cannot ground my life commitments in soil where I am, in the honest depths of my soul, agnostic. There are noble and transformative spiritual practices which do not require such existential and intellectual risks of delusion and dishonesty.

What was the spiritual core of my attraction to Judaism? It was my awe at the fact that anything exists at all. Add to that the order of nature and Jewish claims of “ethical monotheism” begin to seem compelling. But nature, as well as beautiful and ordered, is also brutal and heartless. Human suffering seems infinite and dreams of spiritual justification for earthly tragedy remain just that- dreams. Theists claim that God counts every strand of hair and numbers every  fallen sparrow. Does he also number the hours of a child locked in a dryer machine while its parents go to the bar? Does he count the African women raped and mutilated in the hundreds of thousands? Does he mark their screams while being vaginally penetrated by knives before having their throats cut? Does he record the heartbeats of the chronically depressed or the long hours of dark anxiety in schizophrenic brains?

To move beyond suffering mediated by human illness and evil, did the Creator really find it wise to have wasps hatch their larvae in the bodies of living caterpillars or predators eat their prey alive? For that matter, why design a universe where animals survive by eating each other? Who thought up that macabre idea?

I would not argue for a moment that these questions disprove God’s existence. They do, however, remove the ground for easy faith. Ultimately, with their menacing faces before me, I cannot ground my life’s rhythms and reasons on monotheism. Life is an amazing gift, even with its suffering. Wonder, obligation, and compassion seem real and true, maybe the most true things. Beyond that I cannot go.

What then is my current relationship to Judaism?

Well, I do love it despite its real flaws. Many of its intuitions move me. I feel a part of the community and I enjoy that belonging and celebrate what I think is wise and good in our heritage as I think all communities should. I respect our customs. I want to preserve our wisdom and be an informed critic of our mistakes.

In some ways the stance I’m articulating here is disappointingly boring. I am re-joining the hordes of agnostic, unaffiliated Jews again. I have never wanted to be boring, but my conscience does not permit me to make the bolder and more interesting choice of joining the ranks of ba’alei teshuvah. Perhaps time will reveal the truth. Perhaps it won’t. How do we live in such a universe? That is the question.

Parshat Kodshim: The Holiness of Heterosexuality?

“And YHWH spoke to Moshe, saying, “Speak to all the gathering of the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: You shall be holy, because I, YHWH, your God, am holy (Vayikra 19:1).”

So opens the the recently passed parsha Kodshim.  This sentence, with its stark and challenging grandeur, is a favorite amongst Jews of all denominations. What is it to be Holy, Kadosh? The parsha does not offer definitions. Instead it offers a long list of examples: the Ten Commandments, ritual offerings to God, justice, caring for the poor and the infirm, treatment of women, food, the illegality of sorcery, and loving both one’s neighbour and the stranger as oneself.

All of these examples have led many to see holiness as laying in following the mitzvot in general and more specifically the ethical mitzvot which predominate here. In fact the mitzvot listed in this parsha fall into both the categories of bein adam l’havero (between one another) and bein adam l’makom (between people and God) and so we can infer a definition of holiness from this: right relationship with other human beings and with God. The mitzvot listed suggest one’s relationship with others should be one of justice, honour and kindness. One’s relationship with God should be ritualized and disciplined and should involve binding oneself through ritual and custom to God alone. It should also involve not taking life without offering it back to its source in a sacred way, as in the Temple sacrifice ritual. Incidentally one could argue that this extends the mitzvot here to a third category: bein adam l’hayyot (between humans and animals).

All of this seems interesting and edifying until we get to Vayikra 20:13: “And a man who will lie with with a male like laying with a woman: the two of them have done an offensive thing. They shall be put to death.”

How is “laying with a man like laying with a woman” fatally unholy?

It comes here as part of a recap of some sexual laws from the previous parsha (Vayikra 18:22). Together these two parshas outline a number of forbidden sexual relationships, most of them easy to understand. All of them are physically (genetically) or emotionally dangerous. Anthropologists tell us that there are semitic tribes that to this day do not have incest taboos, so apparently these laws were indeed necessary. Also there was the Egyptian custom of sibling marriage and anthropologists claim that some tribes in Canaan practiced ritual homosexuality, and that in at least some cases this involved male on male anal rape.

One possibility thus presents itself: these laws were partially intended to differentiate the Israelites from their neighbours. Rabbi Gershon Winkler has argued that these laws were intended to outlaw homosexual rape specifically because it was widely practiced in Canaanite temples.

This is possible, but doesn’t seem that strong an explanation. It does seem reasonable that the phrase “laying with a man like a woman” does refer to anal sex. This is the interpretation that Conservative Jews have adopted and they have ruled that homosexual romance and marriage are permissible but not anal sex between men.

The difficulty is: since Israelites didn’t practice temple prostitution or sacred orgies, why did this one aspect of Canaanite Temple practice need to be discouraged?

Rabbi Steven Greenberg has suggested that the problem is not anal sex but the use of other men not for their own sake but as a mere replacement for a woman. In his reading one should lay with a man like one is laying with a man, not like one is laying with a woman. This is a good drash, but seems unlikely as pshat (the literal reading) to me.

Richard Elliott Friedman has suggested that homosexual anal sex is outlawed here not because it is offensive to God but because it is offensive to Israelites. The verse says, “Do not do X. It is an offensive thing.” Friedman suggests that the Torah is in effect saying “Do not have homosexual intercourse. It is something people generally find offensive and you are trying to be a refined, disciplined, holy people. Therefore abandon it.”

This reading is somewhat plausible. It seems to follow, intentionally or not, a Maimonidean reading of the text. In Moreh Nevuchim Maimonides says that many of the mitzvot were given simply to refine people: he includes in this list the laws of kashrut and the laws of purity. Maimonides also views a major part of Jewish law as a concession to human perceptions: the laws of Temple sacrifice. Maimonides writes that if Israelites hadn’t been conditioned to need to make sacrifices by the religions of their neighbours, God wouldn’t have instituted the sacrificial laws. Maimonides argues that the sacrificial laws were given not to encourage people to make sacrifices, but rather with an eye to weaning them from the practice altogether.

This is in harmony with Friedman’s view that since homosexual intercourse is no longer viewed as an “offensive thing” we can now abandon this law.

I find Friedman’s argument appealing but am ultimately unconvinced. Homosexual intercourse was punishable with death: this seems quite a severe punishment for the sake of promoting a sense of refinement of character based on Israelite biases. The severity of the law seems to reflect both an awareness that homosexual intercourse was appealing enough to some to warrant strong deterrence, and a passionate concern on the part of someone to prevent its occurrence.

One other possibility is that homosexual intercourse was outlawed because it was perceived as against the way of nature. The Tanakh is filled with praise for the divine wisdom inherent in nature. Some of the laws, like those limiting breeding hybrid crops or mixing certain types of fabric, seem to reflect this. Another key law with respect to this is found in the verse which outlaws men and women adopting each other’s dress. This seems a clear example of a law attempting to preserve what are perceivable as natural boundaries. Perhaps this desire to respect natural boundaries grew out of the Israelite perception, unique in the ancient middle east, of the whole world being an expression of the wisdom of one benevolent God.

This presents two problems for us today. The first problem is that we now know that homosexual desires are not a perverse inclination of the human heart but a natural inclination grounded in genetic predisposition. We also know that it is impossible for homosexual men to be “cured” of their desires. The evidence suggest that homosexual desire is in fact natural. This seems to conflict with the rationale we perceived above.

If we agree that homosexual behaviour is natural than we might be tempted to conclude, with the Conservative movement, that homosexual romance that excludes anal intercourse is kosher. I myself am empathetic to this view. I am neither a posek (obviously!) or a homosexual, and I feel that the combination of both attributes would be ideal in judging this matter. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, I think this seems a fairly equitable resolution of the conundrum for those committed to some form of traditional Jewish law. It preserves the halacha d’oraita (written law).

This still does not resolve our problems, however. Even if we do conclude that homosexual romance is permissible but not anal sex , how do we understand its being a capital offence? This capital offence is no more disturbing, however, then the death penalty for Shabbat violation.  However uncomfortable it makes us the Torah threatens death for many offences we would not even consider criminal today, there is no escaping that it does.

On a practical level we know that the Talmudic Rabbis legislated exhaustive restrictions on the application of the death penalty which made it impossible to actually implement. Still, the question of why the Torah mandates such harsh punishment for breaking laws that seem comparatively minor remains.

Another difficulty is that understanding the ban as only extending to anal sex is not an option open to Orthodox Jews. For Orthodox Jews the only options are to abstain from homosexual romance entirely or to engage in some degree of homo-erotic love, thus violating what they consider to be Torah law, while otherwise observing the rest of the mitzvot.

Thankfully no-one is able to enforce the Bibilical death penalty anymore. With regards to the option of engaging in homosexual intercourse whilst otherwise being observant I am reminded of the words of orthodox Rabbi Simon Rappaport. He pointed out that to fail to observe this mitzvah is no worse than failing to observe any other. To judge those born with desire for other men, or to (has v’shalom) publicly condemn or persecute them, is as unacceptable as publicly shaming and assaulting those who talk during prayer or drive on shabbat. Sadly some fundamentalist thugs might advocate doing that these days, but it is clearly against traditional Jewish law.

The Moon Viewing Party

I was recently at a Zen sesshin led by Norman Fischer in Bellingham where he gave a talk on the following koan. It reverberated in my mind afterwards and I wrote the following in the Greyhound station on the way home:

Here is the case as I remember it:

Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang Huihai, Xitang Zhizang, and Nanquan Puyuan went out to view the full moon.

“What should one do at a time like this?”, asked Mazu.

“It is a good time to cultivate practice”, said Baizhang.

“It is a good time to recite sutras [and make merit]”, said Zhizang.

Nanquan flapped his sleeves and left.

Mazu said:

Meditation returns to the ocean

Merit goes into the treasury

Only Nanquan goes completely beyond.

In Zen symbolism the full moon often represents the awakened mind: the Buddha nature which is luminous, free, and ever present beneath our ordinary grasping mind. The meaning of Mazu’s question, in Chan code, is: “At a time when the Buddha mind is evident, what should one do?”

Baizhang answers: “A good time to cultivate practice.” It is a good time to refine our minds further, to remove subtle obstructions to the clarity of our awakening awareness.

Zhizang answers, “It is a good time to recite sutras [and make merit].” This is a more indirect approach to developing awakening. Zhizang believes that the awakening mind must unfold naturally and that the chief obstacles to such unfolding are karmic obscurations. Therefore when the awakened mind does manifest, there is nothing one can do to develop it. One should instead engage in meritorious activities which purify one’s karma and the awakened mind will thus dawn naturally. Zhizang and Baizhang have diametrically opposed responses. Baizhang suggests willful refinement of one’s state of mind. Baizhang suggests making merit to remove the obscurations which prevent the awakened mind from unfolding naturally. And what of Nanquan’s abrupt and cryptic response?

Nanquan shakes out his sleeves and departs. This symbolizes simply dropping the idea of doing anything in particular and moving on without attachment. Nanquan says, in effect, “Do not cultivate the mind or engage in purification. Simply let things be and continue, neither pursuing nor rejecting.” These three views are reflected in Mazu’s poetic response to their answers:

“Meditation returns to the ocean” refers to Baizhang, and is a play on his Chinese name, which contains “ocean”. Meditation is helpful for Baizhang, but…

“Merit goes into the treasury” refers to Zhizong, whose name contains the word “treasury”. Reciting sutras is helpful to Zhizong, but…only Nanquan goes completely beyond. “Going completely beyond” is, of course, the purpose of Zen practice. The other answers are good, but it is Nanquan who embodies Zen.

What do we see through a Jewish lens? The full moon might be equated to the attainment of a direct experience of God’s reality. What should one do at such a time? Zhizang says: Deepen it. Refine it. Cleave to it in d’veykut.

Baizhang says: You yourself cannot bring on such an experience. Rather you merited it through your Torah and mitzvot. Increase your study, prayer, and good deeds. Through them you will draw the light of the sh`khina upon you and warrant perceptions of Godliness.

Both seem like good kosher advice, and wise too. What of Nanquan’s advice? At first glance his answer doesn’t seem to make much Jewish sense. You experience God’s presence and you just drop it and move on? You’re joking. Equanimity and non-attachement may be the ultimate goals of Buddhism but but they’re not the ultimate goals of Judaism. One doesn’t treat an experience of God as not better or no worse than any other experience and move on, prioritizing one’s freedom of mind!

But perhaps we are reading Nanquan superficially. Does Nanquan really believe that an experience of the awakened mind is no better and no worse than any other state of consciousness? Or is it that he understands that clinging to the experience and trying to perpetuate it is in fact an obstacle to its realization? The awakened mind is not a simple “peak experience” or samadhi, it is the experience of radical clarity and non-attachment itself. Similarly the experience of God’s presence is not any particular ecstacy or vision, although these may be included, rather it is a revelation of reality itself and of one’s place in it- from a Jewish point of view a revelation of truth.

It seems to me there are two ways to understand Nanquan’s approach in Jewish terms. The first way to understand Nanquan is that his gesture communicates that any attempt to perpetuate the experience of the ultimate is in fact an obstacle. An obstacle to what? To serving God in the next moment. Reb Nosson of Breslov points out that one must continuously renew one’s service of God. In Devarim 6:6 it speaks of the mitzvot “that I command you today”. Similarly Rashi writes, on Devarim 27:9, that one’s serving God should always be as though one were starting anew “today” (Likutey Halachot Tefillin 5:5). The Arizal taught that God does not just renew Creation every day, but every second, and that each second the universe is a completely different universe (The Seven Beggars, p. 12). Therefore one’s service must be new every second. It was for this reason that King David was compared to the moon, which is always changing and ever renewed. Like the moon so is life. Thus the Jewish calendar is based on the moon to teach us that we muct constantly renew ourselves and our service of God (Ibid). The insights of the last moment are not the insights of this moment.

A second way to understand Nanquan’s gesture is as communicating that when one experiences God, whether in Torah study, prayer, contemplation, in the face of another, or the unfolding of one’s life- is that a place where “God is” and other places where “God is not?” Perhaps Nanquan’s response is equivalent to a level of d’veykut where it is understood that every experience is God. Thus there is fundamentally nowhere to progress to. A dialogue I had with a (Jewish) Zen teacher comes to mind.

I commented to Peter Levitt, sensei of the Salt Spring Zen Circle, that a Sufi parable teaches that religions are like crafts which carry one to the other shore of a river. Some people disdain such crafts and sink in the water. Some love the crafts so much that they spend all their time maintaining them, repairing them, elaborating them, and forget about crossing the stream. Peter smiled and said, “How does the water cross?”

Water is of course already there. The water is the true basis of one’s travel, and God is the true basis of all experience and all practice (or non-practice). God is already there.

So, is Nanquan right then and Baizhang and Zhizang wrong? Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Soto Zen founder, comments on this case in the Eihei Koroku: “All of them together make a nice moon viewing party.”

Above The Sun: Jewish Yoga

I wrote this about 5 years ago. It was originally posted on the website: Yoga Mosaic: The Association of Jewish Yoga Teachers.

Tradition says that Avraham, the father of the three greatest faiths of the western world, was a visionary contemplative who saw beyond the fragmented, worldy values of his society. In one account as a result of deep contemplation he saw the universe as a palace aflame with radiant light ( Gen.R 39:1 ). In another, he meditated on the moon, sun, and constellations and realized each one, rising and setting as they did, couldn’t be the ultimate power. He broke through to see the transcendent Creator behind them all. His wife, Sarah, was herself a yogini , who tradition says had even greater prophetic powers than her husband. When Avraham was tested by God on Mt. Moriah ( Genesis 22:1-14 ) to show that he was willing to sacrifice his son Yitzhak like the tribes around him sacrificed their children to their deities Sarah yearned to join in the great kedushah of that moment ( Avodas Yisrael ). The aged Sarah entered a state of d’vekus (union with the Divine presence) and abandoned her body, dying in a misas neshika – death by Divine kiss.( Shelah Hakodesh ). After her death her body did not decompose for some time, which confirmed for Avraham the high level of her attainment ( R’Yonasan Eibeshitz ). This sign will be familiar to students of the biographies of saints and mystics the world over. Avraham was told by an angel not to actually sacrifice Yitzhak, demonstrating that God did not want Avraham’s family to literally sacrifice their children, but that this did not mean he would demand less from them than the other tribes offered to their gods.   Avraham honoured Sarah with burial in the Cave of Machpela, a sacred site to this day. ( Genesis 23:1-20 ).

Yitzhak, Sarah and Avraham’s son, was also a contemplative. The Torah describes him as a quiet man who spent a lot of time meditating in the fields ( Genesis 24:63; Talmud Bavli Berachot 26a-b ). Ya’akov, Yitzhak’s son, was said to dwell in the tents of the sages ( Genesis 25:27 ). He is said to have had the ability to discern the hidden spiritual architecture of the Cosmos ( Sfas Emes on Genesis 28:10-22 ). His famed vision of the ladder reaching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it, became a major image in Jewish mysticism. Some saw the ladder as Ya’akov himself; some modern Jewish yogis see it as the sushumna , the astral energy channel in the spine. Interestingly, In Ya’akov’s vision of the ladder, the angels first ascend, then descend. This is the opposite of what we would expect- that they would descend, then re-ascend. The Rabbis explain that the angels are carrying prayers upward, and then returning with God’s response. Some say, though, that this represents the journey of consciousness up the sushumna and back, reaching up to the Divine and then “returning to the market place with open hands (to serve others)” (to quote a Zen saying).

Another great yogini of the Torah is Moshe’s sister Miryam the Prophetess. She was one of the three great leaders of the Jewish people according to the Talmud. Wherever she accompanied the Jews in the desert a miraculous well followed her known as “Miryam’s Well.” At death she was said to pass away like Sarah from a Divine Kiss, in a state of d’vekus (clinging to God).

It may come as a surprise for some to learn of the rich tradition of meditation in Judaism. In fact, mystical, devotional, and transformational meditation practices have been a part of the Jewish faith since Biblical times. There are two primary types of Jewish meditation, which I will call mystical and moral . The first aims at attaining direct experience of God and the hidden structure of the Cosmos, the second at transformation of character. The goal of both practices is ‘d’vekus’, clinging to God at all times and bringing Holiness into this world. The first has come to be associated with the Kabbalah , the second with the Mussar tradition. In this article I will describe both, and provide a brief practical exercise for each so the reader can taste them for themselves.

The Prophets and The Merkavah Mystics

The prophets, known for their lifelong commitment to calling for justice in society and devotion to God, trained in special academies where they attained the high levels of spiritual development neccessary for prophecy ( Aryeh Kaplan , Meditation and The Bible ). Three such prophets, Yeshayahu, Eliyahu, and Yehezkel, had visions of such luminous power that they became archetypes for a movement of Jewish mysticism called the Merkavah (Mystical Chariot) tradition. Merkavah mystics tried to ascend to the heavenly realms to experience the hidden dimensions of the cosmos. Their journeys were the crucible in which the teachings of the Kabbalah were developed. One such mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, spent thirteen years hiding in a cave during a time of Roman persecution. When he returned he spurned the mundane pursuits of humankind, and everything he gazed at burst into flame. “Who are you to destroy my creation?, a voice thundered from above. Rabbi Bar Yochai returned to the cave until his spirituality was more mature.

The book of the tradition of Rabbi Bar Yochai’s teachings, The Zohar (Book Of Radiance) became the central text of the Kabbalah, second in holiness only to the written and Oral Torah.


The mekubalim (“receivers”), or masters of the Kabbalah (“the received”), developed many interesting kinds of meditation. Their aim was to   understand the secrets of Creation, experience the glory of God firsthand, repair the energies of the Cosmos and thus bring the redemption of all living things. Mekubalim like Avraham Abulafia (1240-1291), Yitzhak Luria (1534-1572), and Moshe Chaim Luzzatto ( “The Ramchal” 1707-1747) practiced meditations on the letters and sounds of the Hebrew alphabet. The Mekubalim taught that the universe was formed of God’s speech, and that the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet were the building blocks of the Cosmos. These teachings have a lot on common with the Mantra teachings of the Vedic tradition, which likewise sees the Universe as formed of sound and the sacred speech of the Divine.

The Ramchal, in a characteristically Jewish application of this idea, chanted entire Hebrew texts over and over again without punctuation until he connected with the maggid (angel) of the text. Once when doing this practice in a field outside Sfat with some disciples, he chanted the Mishna, a code of Jewish Laws, in this way. Suddenly he went into an altered state of consciousness. He then turned to his disciples and spoke. “I am the Mishna”, he said.

The Rambam

The Rambam (1135-), also known as Maimonides, a great physician and arguably the most influential Jewish philosopher of all time, also wrote one “mystical” topics although not from a Kabbalah orientation. He wrote that the ultimate purpose of Jewish practice was to perfect oneself to the point that one became worthy of prophecy. He also defined God as the One whose “knowledge, knowing and known” was one and indivisible, since there was nothing outside of Him.


The year 1698 was a time when the Jews of Poland were demoralized by pogroms, poverty, and spiritual disillusionment. At that time Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer was born. He would come to be known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, or Master of The Good Name, and he would unleash a new spiritual light on the Jewish people.

The Ba’al Shem Tov spent his early years as a “hidden tzaddik “, or saint in disguise, working as an elementary school teacher. He also spent long retreats in the Carpathian Mountains. In 1740 he began preaching, and started a spiritual revolution. He taught a path of joy that emphasized prayer as much as study and made the wisdom of the Kabbalah available to the simple villager. The Baal Shem Tov exalted the place of singing and dancing in the service of God, a marked feature of Hasidic communities to this day. He also emphasized the attainment of states of profound mystic absorption, what the Yoga tradition would call Samadhi. “When you pray”, he taught, “You should be totally divorced from the physical, not aware of your existence in the world at all.”

His great grandson, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, particularly emphasized the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings of joy and fearlessness in the service of God. “One should be happy all the time”, R’ Nachman taught. “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear at all.”

His meditation is called hitbodedut (see below). It consists of going to an empty room or a secluded wood or field, and pouring out one’s heart to God out loud in an uncensored stream of consciousness.

Another great Hasid was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. He organized Hasidic teachings into a clear intellectual system called Chabad . ChaBaD stands for Chochmah (intuitive wisdom) Binah (concrete understanding) and Da’as (intimate knowledge). He taught a form of meditation where one used the intellect to nullify all created things before God, seeing only Him as real. ” Ein od milvado “- there is nothing other.

The Mussar Movement

Another ancient stream of meditative practice came to be known as mussar (self-discipline). Its roots are as ancient as King David’s soul-searching songs or his son King Solomon’s character correcting proverbs. The writing of books on the subject began with Yosef Ibn Paquda’s Duties of The Heart in the 11th century. This masterpiece instructs the Jew in the inward duties of mind and heart which culminate in love of God. Many great works outlining the service of God and the perfection of character followed. One of the greatest, “The Path of The Just”, was written by the Kabbalist mentioned above, the Ramchal. It outlined seven stages of personal development which culminated in kedusha , or Holiness, a state of constant awareness of God’s presence. The Ramchal said a saint of this level of attainment becomes a kind of living spiritual altar, sanctifying everything he or she comes into contact with.

The birth of an organized, self-conscious mussar movement waited for Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant (1810-1883), the holy Salanter Rebbe. He worked tirelessly to promote houses of mussar where people would gather to study works of ethics and virtue and practice the form of meditation he invented, hitpa’ilut . In this method one selected a phrase of Torah which addressed a character weakness or virtue one wanted to develop, and repeated it out loud to oneself over and over again, in a way that stirred the heart to respond. The Salanter Rebbe recommended making a curriculum of one’s faults, and singling one out for particular attention each week. “The whole world is a house of mussar’, he taught, “And every person is a book of teachings.”

His disciple Rabbi Mendel of Satanov developed the Salanter Rebbe’s teachings into a system (influenced by Benjamin Franklin’s similar system) called Cheshbon Hanefesh , or “Soul Accounting”.

Holy Fire

During the Holocaust a Hasidic Rebbe named Kalonymous K. Shapira (1889-1942), the Piezetsner Rebbe, fought heroically to keep the light of spirit alive in the Warsaw Ghetto. He hid his writings before his murder by the Nazis. They were discovered and published after the end of the War, the last great Hasidic writings of Eastern Europe. This included Aish Kodesh (Holy Fire) a collection of his weekly teachings on the Torah from 1939-1942. He taught a form of meditation which combined the mystical and transformative elements described above. In his technique, one witnesses one’s thoughts to correct negative habits of mind. This approach is based on his observation that watching thoughts “from the outside” diffuses them. This culminates in a process he called hashkatah – silencing the conscious mind. As Nehemia Polen describes it (italics and comments in brackets are my own):

“Once the mind is silenced or stilled, it is fully receptive to ‘mahshavah ahat shel kedushah’- the focusing on one holy thought… the next step is to ask God, in a quiet yet articulated manner, for help in attaining a spiritual gift, such as faith, love of God, or liveliness in his service. The meditation session ends in a niggun (wordless melody).Rabbi Shapira intimates that those who practice this meditation for several weeks would come to know the meaning of the verse “This is my God” (Exodus 15:2).”( Holy Fire )

The Rebbe taught that the conceptual, desirous, ego-mind blocked our deeper awarenesses. That is the reason that dreams furnish insights- because the surface mind is quietened. “We must attain the state of the sleeping mind- while conscious”, the Rebbe taught ( Sefer Derech Hamelech ). This idea will be familiar to many Yogis.

The holy Rebbe further taught that one should eventually come to see the whole world as souls and Divine essences. Before one could see this, however, the Rebbe taught that one could still transform one’s perspective by impressing the Divine nature of all creation into the mind. “The whole world and everything in it is Divine in origin and substance. It is not visible to my eyes, but God is the source of all reality; even I am full of God. The sand under my feet is an articulation of God. The whole world is utterly comprised of, and dependent on, God. Now I, of my own free will, have come to think of myself as a free and independent agent; I have exiled myself from the sense of the presence of God.” ( Conscious Community )

The Rebbe taught that this was already the perspective of the soul, the mind and body had to be trained to align with it.

Jewish Meditation Today

Rabbi Shapira was sent to Treblinka and murdered in 1942. His story is emblematic of the loss suffered by Jews at that time. Some estimate 80% of the spiritual masters of the Jewish people were murdered during WWII. The Jews who escaped to America and Israel suffered from a much impoverished tradition. Jews in America were left with choosing between becoming secular, joining tame and diluted play-it-safe American synagogue life, or an Orthodoxy many felt alienated from. Some decided to look elsewhere for spiritual answers, explaining why so many Jews are active in Buddhist and Hindu spiritual commmunities.

Some, however, tried to revivify Judaism, either from sources within or without. Those that chose the former began vital movements from within Orthodoxy like the contemporary manifestation of Chabad, an internationally successful Hasidic group that tries to bring non-observant Jews back to the fold. Streams of Kabbalah , Mussar , and Hasidism still survive in the worldwide Orthodox community as well. Among those that chose to revitalize Judaism from new springs Jewish Renewal was formed, a movement which embraces the insights of Feminism, Deep Ecology, and Eastern Religions. They have formed a point of re-entry for many Jews attracted to intense spirituality but not Orthodoxy. Spiritual teacher Alan Morinis has recently begun energetically teaching Mussar meditation outside of the Orthodox, strictly Jewish environments it normally flourishes in. Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, teaches 2 year courses in Jewish meditation and boasts a Jewish Yoga Teacher Training. Those looking to see what the wisdom of ancient Jewish traditions might have to offer their practice can begin by experimenting with the practices described below, and then see the resource list for further places to explore.

What the future holds for Jewish meditation only time will tell. Innovators are making new synthesises, the few surviving lineages of Jewish mystical practices are making a comeback, and commercializers are selling Kabbalah merchandise to Hollywood stars.

“There is nothing new under the sun’, said the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. ” ‘Under the sun’ there maybe nothing new”, commented the Rabbis, “But above the sun is another question.”


Rabbi Nachman’s Hitbonenus

1) Go out to a secluded place in nature, or to an empty room.

2) Speak to God out loud, with no censorship, in a constant stream of consciousness for at least a few minutes. If you are bored, or have nothing to say, say, “I’m bored, I have nothing to say, this is stupid, but I have to keep talking to you. Oh, how I wish I had something to say. I’m not sure I even believe in You…” Whatever comes to mind, say it. Empty your heart, pray for whatever you need or want, complain, mourn, thank, rejoice, request.

Soul Accounting

In Soul Accounting you choose 13 traits that you want to address. They can be positive traits you want to reinforce, or negative ones you want to lessen. The practice has two parts: 1) Each week, focus on one trait in particular using the Hitpailus method: Choose a phrase from a Holy Scripture close to your heart that addresses an issue you want to work on in your practice. Repeat it out loud to yourself with feeling. You can sing it, chant it, yell it, whisper it, but do so like you’re really trying to drive home the message. Spend a few minutes doing this everyday for a week. The next week chose a new trait and phrase.

2) Keep a daily record of how many times a day you use a positive or negative trait. Over the weeks, months and years you can see the change, and assess yourself more accurately.

The Piazetsner Rebbe’s Method: Silencing

1) Sit in a quiet place. Have a phrase from your faith tradition’s scripture ready.

2) Watch the flow of your thoughts without getting involved with them,viewing them “from the outside”.

3) When the thoughts slow and the mind becomes more clear and malleable, focus on the holy thought, letting it sink into your conscuousness. Feel its energy and let any associations arise and pass away.

4) When your consciousness feels steadied, uplifted, and purified, ask the Divine for a spiritual gift- a quality you would like to acheive in your practice- in your sadhana.

5) Conclude with a niggun (wordless melody ciming spontaneously into your heart), mantra, or sacred song.

(originally published in Yoga Mosaic: