Discussion with Dovid Sears on his Meditation

The interview of Yoel Glick and the review of Dovid Sears has generated a lot of interest among those interested in the topic. I expected a one part interview and a one part review. I will be posting in the next few days a third part of the Sears review and a response and defense of Glick by a Yoga practitioner. When four years ago, there was a debate here between Art Green who advocated a spiritual God within the self and Danny Landes who advocated the covenant commanding God of Berkovits, it was a very broad discussion of spirituality or non-spirituality. Now, we have a debate with Orthodoxy, followed by those concerned with the topic, on a syncretic spirituality as opposed a spirituality solely within Jewish sources. There are still many positions in between.

In the process of creating the review, the following discussion was produced and worth preserving.

Q: What would you say about an opposite case from that of Yoel Glick, where a person has been entirely trained in Eastern practices, but when teaching then passes it off as authentic Jewish teaching of the Besht or the Vilna Gaon? Which is worse: their packaging the East as Torah, or the misrepresentation the Torah as teaching Eastern ideas?

A: Are we talking about Eastern views that are consistent with Torah, which enable us to zero in on issues we had previously overlooked or neglected? Or actual falsification of Torah by attributing to certain Gedolim teachings that they never said? And as for honestly combining Eastern teachings with those of Torah, we would have to ask: which Eastern teachings? And how are they presented? As syncretic, or as parpara’os le-chokhmah, side-issues? It would depend on the manner of presentation and the context.

photo (c) D. Sears

Q. Hypothetically, let’s say that someone presents Zen silent meditation as if it were the same as the silence mentioned in Jewish mystical texts such as the Nefesh Ha-Hayyim. And this teacher says he is not syncretic or coming from outside at all, but claims that everything he teaches is just our practice of silence as a way of fighting mahshavot zarot (foreign thoughts). He denies how he got there.

A. I don’t know which misrepresentation is worse: East masquerading as Torah, or Torah being twisted to conform to Eastern ideas. I know being true to our mesorah is best!

We know that there are overlapping teachings, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish, about silence and the meditative state. The first problem is that some traditional Jewish meditative practices that entail silence have to be reconstituted from teachings in sefarim here and there; we have lost parts of our mesorah, it seems. I have discussed silent meditation with both the Bostoner Rebbe of Ramat Beit Shemesh (when he was in Borough Park, and I worked for him as a writer-translator) and with my mashpia in Breslov, Rav Elazar Kenig. Both confirmed such gaps in our mesorah, and were extremely unenthusiastic about those who wanted to bring it back to life through inference and speculation. These things are really a matter of mesorah.

Despite my points of disagreement with him, I think Yoel is very honest and “out front” about what he’s doing, which is the way it should be – even if he is not presenting “pure” Jewish meditation in the sense of carrying on a mesorah. He’s not trying to fool anybody.

The Orthodox Jewish meditation teachers I know seem to have found authentic Jewish teachings that are relatively uninfluenced by Eastern religions. I say “relatively” because the widespread interest in meditation in western culture is largely due to the influence of Eastern religions for over a century (pretty much beginning with Vivekenanda, and then Inayat Khan, but also a host of other Eastern teachers who succeeded in bringing their traditions here, especially after WWII). The Chabad, Breslov, Komarno, Vitebsk and Sefardic-Kabbalistic communities all have specific meditation practices that have survived, even if only furtively in some cases. Some are done in connection with prayer or speech, while others are done silently, in thought alone. But I am not aware of any traditional Jewish meditation practices that use silence itself the way Zen or Buddhist meditation does.

Q: What form of meditation do you practice?

A: As a daily practice, the type of hisbodedus that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov describes, and which I have learned from my teachers in Breslov – primarily Rabbi Kenig. I used to “drei him a kopp” about silent hisbodedus during my first years of studying with him, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Q. And what did he say?

A: Let me tell you a story. After reading Rabbi Kaplan’s “Meditation and the Bible” and “Meditation and the Kabbalah,” I started compiling sources in Hebrew that I came across here and there, similar material to Rabbi Kaplan’s but from some additional texts, until after a couple of years I had a folder of 50-60 pages of photocopies, ranging from Rishonim to Rabbi Yitzchok of Acco to the RaMaK to Rav Chaim Vital to the Piacetzna Rebbe. I no longer remember the specifics. When Reb Elazar came to Borough Park in the early 1990s and stayed with his wife at Rabbi Eichenthal’s rooming house on 47th St., I presented this material to him.

One evening, after all the vistors had gone home and the two of us sat alone in his room, I brought up the issue of silent meditation again. Reb Elazar asked me what I seemed to find lacking in the Rebbe’s hisbodedus, and, a little guiltily, I tried to state my case: I wanted to get beyond words. After a few minutes, Reb Elazar said (in Yiddish), “The silence we need is the silence of deveykus (cleaving to God)” – meaning, I assumed, that it is not a technique. “This kind of silence…” he added. Reb Elazar then closed his eyes, and became perfectly still. Perhaps five minutes passed. Then he slowly opened his eyes again, looked for a moment or two as if he had just returned from another plane, and then gazed at me intensely. I thanked him and left the room.

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