Once upon a time there was a magical place in the old city of Jerusalem that seemed like an entrance into a wizard’s den. The place had tall windows and offered classes, talks, and celebrations but it seemed more like a gathering of special people in a Tolkein Middle Earth party. I had no idea about the place, and I did not really know its organizer, other than it was worth reading their wall flyers of classes to see if I wanted to drop by to attend one. My last visit was in 1987 when I heard the singing of a tisch happening from outside the window and I entered for a while. A quarter of a century later the insidious intrusion of social media knowing your searches- in this case Hinduism and Judaism- reconnected me to Yoel Glick.
Rabbi Yoel Glick received his BA from the University of Toronto and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University in New York, as well as from the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He is a teacher of Jewish meditation and spiritual wisdom. Glick just released a book Living the Life of Jewish Meditation: A Comprehensive Guide to Practice and Experience. The book is billed as a “comprehensive guide to meditation as a way of life draws on the knowledge of the East to vitalize and illuminate traditional Jewish practices in a whole new way.” Glick will be on a speaking tour to promote his book (schedule here) to promote his book.
In a word, his approach is an Advaitan Vedanta reading of Judaism. The book looks to the non-duality of Neo-Hindu gurus such as Ramana Maharshi to discuss silence, knowledge and ecstasy. His approach is unlike the technique and ritual approach of Aryeh Kaplan who looked to Transcendental Meditation and Asian meditation techniques to explain prophecy but lacked the basics of meditation practice. On the other hand, Glick is more grounded in revelation, providence, and fixed ritual than the non-dualism of Jay Michaelson.
Kabbalah texts speak of two types of knowledge: daat elyon, the higher knowledge, and daat tachton, the lower knowledge. Daat tachton relates to intellectual ideas, facts, and figures. Daat elyon is a direct experience where we merge with the object of our investigation, and comprehend its true nature as it exists in the Mind of God. Daat Elyon lies at the heart of the inner life. It is the catalyst underlying all spiritual evolution and growth.
Glick offers essays and divrei Torah under six headings: (1) Meditation and Prayer (2)Thought of the Day (3)Spiritual Wisdom (4)Universal Vision (5) Self-Transformation (6)Life of Service (7) Holydays. Many of them are quite funky and almost all of them are juxtapositions of Vedanta and Hasidut.
Here is an excerpt from his piece on God’s presence
In God’s presence, we are saturated with an incredible joy. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that the joy of God’s presence is greater than any physical joy. It is a joy that only grows and deepens over time. Sri Ramakrishna spoke of spiritual joy as an all-encompassing, all-embracing bliss that permeates every pore of our being.
When Sri Ramakrishna was in a state of Divine ecstasy, he would stagger about like a drunkard, reeling from the intoxication, unable to even hold up his body cloth. When the Baal Shem was flooded with Divine light, not only would he be uplifted, so would all of his Hasidim. In fact, the whole of his community would be filled with unbounded joy.
Here is an excerpt on silence:
Sri Ramana Maharshi teaches:“Silence is the true spiritual instruction. It is the perfect spiritual instruction. It is suited only for the most advanced seeker. The others are unable to draw full inspiration from it. Therefore they require words to explain the Truth. But Truth is beyond words. It does not admit of explanation. All that is possible to do is only to indicate it. How is that to be done?”
The Truth is infinite like its source. How do we get a glimpse of this eternal teaching? The Torah is the expression of God’s truth and we have been contemplating it for thirty-five hundred years. Thousands of words of wisdom have emerged out of the teachings of the Torah and thousands more are yet to come.
Rabbi Akiva, who was one of the greatest expounders of the Torah, states in the Ethics of the Fathers: “a fence for wisdom is silence” (3:13) The Baal Shem explains that silence is a fence for wisdom because silence takes us into our inner reality. Through silence we can reach up beyond all words and forms into the world of pure thought. In this supernal realm, we can contact the truth directly at its source. We can see the truth as it is engraved in the Universal Mind of God.
Glick’s approach is more honest than the many who teach Buddhism or Evangelical Christianity but claim it is pure Torah. This interview will be in two parts. Part One is a general discussion and Part Two is a more specific Vedantantic-Hasidic view of reality and revelation
1) Can you explain Hokhmat Halev?
Hokmat HaLev was founded in 1983 and closed its doors in 1987. (It was officially an institute only for 1984-1986.) Over the years, the institute went through several different incarnations. It began as a fulltime yeshiva for students of all backgrounds, morphed into a center for Jewish studies, and ended its life as a center for Jewish meditation and the study of spiritual wisdom.
The most incredible thing about Hokhmat HaLev was the eclectic group of people who taught and studied there. We had Gedalia Fleer, Yehudah Gellman , Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Pinchas Giller, and other dynamic teachers on our staff. Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman were regular guests. Yitzchak Ginsburg taught at Hokhmat Halev from time to time. Pinchas Pelli and his wife Penina also taught and were involved. Danny Matt was a teacher for a short while.
And then there was our extraordinary student body. We had students from all of the different Baal Teshuvah yeshivas in Yerushalayim, from Moshav Modi’in, even students from the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley. Many prominent leaders in Jewish spirituality and interfaith work today were students at Hokhmat Halev. David Cooper, Avram Davis, Yossi Klein Halevi and Yehezkel Landau, to name but a few.
Our curriculum was also quite unconventional. We taught Chumash, Tanach, Mishnah, and Gemara to both men and women. And we also taught them Hasidut, Rav Kook, Kabbalah, and Jewish meditation.
Every day the yeshiva was packed with people. The shiurim on Likutei Maharan that Reb Gedalia gave attracted students from all over the city and all walks of life. Yehudah Gellman’s teachings on Rav Kook electrified his audience. I can honestly say that I have never heard anything remotely comparable before or after. We would learn, sing and dance until late into the night. In all ways, Hokhmat Halev was a unique place; there was nothing like it anywhere in the world.
2) How does this book and your spiritual path relate to your YU training?
Obviously, my YU training did not play a major role in writing this work. However, I can say that YU gave me the skills for analyzing the Jewish texts to discover the depth of meaning in their words. My time learning with Rav Soloveitchik gave me profound insight into the workings of Halacha and the breadth and depth of its outlook. It made me realize that Judaism was about much deeper concerns that what appeared on the Gemara page. It made me recognize that we are selling Judaism short when we present Halacha and Torah from only a narrow point of view.
At the same time, I was always an outsider at YU. During my years at YU, I lived on the upper West side three blocks down from the Carlebach shul. The shul was the real focus of my life. I was there with Shlomo Carlebach and his chevreh as much as possible. So I was leading a double life in NY. Throughout my stay in NY, I moved back and forth between these two worlds, and the different realities and ideals they embodied.
3) You write about the need to “use the wisdom of the East to shed light on Jewish texts and practices.” Are you worried about syncretism?
I believe that there is an exaggerated fear of syncretism. Judaism has always been influenced by other traditions and incorporated their ideas into our own religion. Chazal drew on the rules of logic from the Greeks. The Rambam drew on the principles of Aristotelean philosophy. Bahye Ibn Pekuda was strongly influenced by Sufi teaching. And so on throughout the generations. So I see myself as part of an honorable Jewish tradition of incorporating ideas from other religions into our own religion. This integration of ideas from outside of Judaism is not just an artificial imposition of foreign concepts on an authentic tradition, a “dressing up” of Eastern thought as Judaism. The teachings I bring deeply align with streams of thought within our own tradition. In fact, I believe that they reflect an approach to Judaism that has existed ever since Biblical times.
4) Why is Indian meditation only wisdom and not Torah?
In the context of the modern world, our understanding of the teaching that there is wisdom among the nations but no Torah needs to be reassessed. For example, in the Torah, Moses tells the people “For what nation is there so great, that has God so near to them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon Him for? And what nation is there so great, that has statues and judgments so righteous as all this Torah, which I set before you this day?” [Deuteronomy 4, 6-8] Even a few hundred years ago this statement may have seemed self-evident.
Today, however, we have to answer this rhetorical question by admitting that there are other nations to whom God has given teachings as righteous and inspiring as the Torah. The Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, the Dhammapada of the Buddhists, and many other texts all provide teaching with profound wisdom and moral righteousness. Today, we have to admit that there is not just wisdom but Torah among the nations. The Torah is God’s special revelation to the Jewish people. A gift made no less meaningful or significant by the acknowledgement of the gifts God has given to His other children.
5) Why do you have no problem making analogies to Hinduism?
When most Jews think of Hinduism they think of the idol worship described in the Torah, people bowing down to rock and stone and thinking they are God. When modern-day Hindus hear this they laugh at our ignorance. A modern Hindu has no doubt that there is one God over all, and the deities in their homes and temples are symbols of the many different faces of that One Supreme Being. Besides, the part of Hinduism I refer to in the majority of cases is Vedanta. Vedanta is a sublime philosophy that teaches the underlying unity of Being and the essential oneness of everything that exists. The Hindus see God in both the form and the formless. I have no trouble quoting its principals and teachings.
6) What is not in book that should be? Why?
There is a lot of material available on Jewish meditation that I have not included in the book, many different Jewish meditation systems that I have not touched upon. This was a conscious decision on my part. I believe that many forms of traditional Jewish meditation are too intricate and complex, especially for the majority of today’s Jews who lack a strong background in traditional learning. There also is no overall system of understanding these techniques, no science of Jewish meditation. In my book, I have tried to provide techniques that are simple, direct and more accessible to today’s Jewish seekers.
7) Are you strict in your daily practice like in an ashram?
I try to bring a contemplative consciousness into everything I think, say and do. I have a daily schedule that includes meditation, prayer, chanting, contemplation and a lot of study and reflection on sacred text. I also work to keep up the remembrance of God at all times. In fact, it was in order to be able to live such a life that I moved to a small village in the south of France in the first place.
When I have the opportunity to go to shul, I strive to maintain a God-centered focus the whole time I am in synagogue. I prepare for shul like I am preparing to meet God. I come to shul after first meditating at home. I work on awakening love and devotion in my heart as I walk along the way. Once I enter the shul, I sit in a quiet corner on my own, cover my head with my tallit and go inward in prayer. I strive to bring the power of silence and stillness into the synagogue. I strive to bring awareness into my prayer space.
Above all else, I constantly work on myself, on all aspects of my personality. I strive to develop the Divine virtues of compassion, generosity and wisdom. I try to walk in the world with humility, integrity and equanimity. My spiritual life is a continually unfolding process. I look toward the ultimate goal at every moment of every day.
8) Why should Jews read your book and not Eastern teachers?
My book is not a book of Eastern teaching. It is essentially a Jewish book. My meditations draw on Rabbinic teachings, concepts from the Kabbalah and Hasidism. They incorporate traditional prayers, Divine Names and other Jewish symbols and rituals. Judaism is my main source of inspiration. It is the language I speak and the life that I live. At the same time, I draw much insight from Hinduism and Buddhism. And I think that seeing Judaism through the lens of the Eastern teachings breathes new life into the Jewish sources. I believe that we have drifted far away from the original intention of Judaism. These insights from the East provide us with a way of returning to the source of the Jewish path.
When most people read the Tanach, they find it difficult to relate to the stories of the Avot and the Neviim. These stories do not seem to pertain to anything within the Jewish world that they live in. I myself only began to understand the stories in the Bible after I went to India. The lives of the forefathers and prophets are more like the life of sadhus in an ashram than the life of students in a yeshiva. My visits to Indian ashrams made the Biblical stories come alive. The intense spiritual training and total focus on God experience that exists in an ashram represents an ideal that is very much needed in Judaism.
In this regard, it is important to understand that the central purpose of my book is meant to provide seekers with a way to live Judaism as a serious spiritual path where the focus is on God and on inner experience. This inner experience then becomes the engine which drives all of our Jewish life and practices. Inner experience infuses our Judaism with spiritual vitality. It empowers us to become effective instruments for Divine service in the world.
9) Is there currently a Jewish realized being who is teaching meditation that we can learn from?
Sadly, there is not. We are producing lots of wonderful scholars and even the occasional spiritual genius but no enlightened beings. Enlightened beings and those who seek to attain that state are the soul of a religion. It is time for us to admit that we have a problem, instead of just saying how good we are at this worldly activity.
10) Most assume that it is not our tradition to focus on reigning in one’s mind or building ashrams to overcome ego and seek non-attachment.
Judaism is a tradition with a multitude of different approaches to God. The teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and many other Hasidic teachers make clear that there indeed is a strong focus on controlling the mind and overcoming the ego in some parts of the tradition. Even in the Ethics of the Fathers you can find multiple passages that speak about the need to control the mind and overcome the ego. In terms of Judaism and ecstatic experience, there are numerous Jewish sources that detail such experiences.
At the same time, I would like to make clear that I am not promoting ecstasy and enthusiasm as the goal of practice. On the contrary, I am trying to show that the spiritual life is serious work that takes enormous effort and commitment. The goal indeed is an elevated state of consciousness. A person who has conquered his mind is incredibly focused, directed, aware and present in every moment. In my book I outline the signs of a realized soul. These signs include integrity, equanimity, tremendous courage and profound inner peace among other attributes.
11) What do you say do someone who says meditation is not needed or that they say meditation is long, slow, and boring?
On one hand, meditation is not for everybody. But if you are looking for the experience of God’s living presence then meditation is the fast track to get there. I also think meditation is the path of the future. It takes us to a completely different type of relationship with God/the Higher Power/the transcendent Reality. It is the right path for the development of human consciousness in our time.
Today, our outer reality extends from the sub atomic to the giant galaxies on the outer edge of the universe. Our inner reality extends into the conscious, subconscious and superconscious dimensions of the mind. Our minds have been trained to expand and stretch outward. We are wired for meditation and contemplation.
For those who think of meditation is slow and boring, all I can say is that there is no greater adventure than the exploration of our inner reality; there is no more exciting journey than the journey of the soul.
12) Most Jews see meditation as vipassana . How are you different?
My book primary follows an approach to meditation that is Jewish and Hindu rather than Buddhist. The Hindu and Jewish traditions have much more in common in their approach to God, the spiritual realm and spiritual life. Hinduism and Judaism are both personal approaches to God. Both religions speak about different aspects of God, describe complex heavenly realms, and portray a myriad of celestial beings. Both traditions believe in the power of prayer to affect the higher worlds.
Buddhism, on the other hand, is an impersonal approach to God. It does not believe in the existence of God or an individual soul.
At the same time, the concept of mindfulness plays an important role in my book. This is why the book is called “Living the Life of Jewish Meditation”, because meditation is about walking in the world with mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness and a still mind are the foundation of all meditation practice.
Interview to be continued on Sunday with a discussion of Vedanta and Judaism