Dedicated Jewish Contemplatives: A Jewish Monastic option?

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
October 15, 2010

What do you do if you are a Jew who wants to live a life which is totally dedicated to contemplative prayer in a religion which usually promotes intense social and communal activity? What do you do if you want to live a solitary life when the Judaism around you stresses the pre-eminent duty of having children and living in families to ensure the survival of both the tribe and its religion? What do you do if you are not attracted to the legal, teaching, and leadership roles of the rabbinate yet feel a strong call to be in a professional state of intentionally-dedicated and community-sanctioned contemplative practice? Expressing that on one leg: What do you do if you feel called to be a Jewish monk or nun in a religion which has no existing monasteries?

Those were questions which I asked myself in 2003 and my personal response was to be what I wanted to find, and see how it felt. I was already a “contemplative Jew” but I decided to become a “Dedicated Jewish Contemplative” (DJC). Essentially, I became a Jewish monk.

Having maintained that DJC lifestyle now for seven years, I believe I have found a path which gives one set of answers to those questions, and it is a path which has made me happy. I want to share that for the sake of others who might be asking those same questions.

Christian contemplative monastics are almost always people who take lifetime vows. Buddhist monastics usually practice shorter periods of ordained dedication that may be prolonged if appropriate. Moslem sufis (and their Jewish counterparts) practice intense periods of solitary retreat but return to “normal life” afterwards. I have no objection to the lifetime model, but am principally promoting a temporary lifestyle here – a form of Jewish monasticism where people would live either communal or solitary lives of contemplation for specified or open ended periods of time. Maybe for weeks or months. Maybe many years.

Over the years I have listened to many objections to the kind of DJC lifestyle I practice. Most often they were objections to the idea of Jews living celibate or solitary lives. A monk or nun is essentially one who lives a “separated” life in some way. They need not live in total solitude, nor embrace a lifetime of celibacy, though a temporary distance from close partnerships or emotional entanglements with others in silent retreat is a proven way to deepen contemplative activity. Monasticism can be solitary (eremitic) or communal (cenobitic). To me, both those monastic types are Jewish lifestyle options with a Jewish history and a current relevance to an unfolding and developing Judaism.

In our Bible, I see three principal models for a dedicated contemplative lifestyle: the Levitical, the Nazirite, and the Prophetic.

The priests and Levites of the desert Sanctuary and the later Temples spent time withdrawn from normal activity (mostly on a rota basis) and often lived in communal enclosure. They were exclusively dedicated to the worship rituals, many of which were offered in silence. In many streams of contemporary Judaism, though there are vestigial honours attached to presumed descent from levitical or kohenite ancestors, there is no modern equivalent of such a dedicated “profession” other than the clerical and academic rabbinate. But there are still people whose hearts cry out: “One thing and one thing alone I seek, to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life…and meditate in His Sanctuary” (Psalm 27:4). For me, such “meditation” consists of hegyon ha-lev (lectio divina) and silent contemplative prayer - whether they are practised whilst davening or as part of one’s daily mental prayer or hitbodedut.

The levitical role was hereditary and, for many, its functions are now obsolete. As a biblical institution and in its essence, “Levi” was a small but significant “separated community” with a specific worship and prayer role. The Levitical concept could provide a model for a new chosen expression of dedicated religious life – no longer as a status-linked lifestyle but as one which might provide a home for contemplative Jews.

There are overtones of a monastic timbre in the biblical concept of Naziriteship first expressed in Parsha Naso. A Nazir was one who engaged in certain ascetic practices, usually for a minimum period of thirty days. These practices consisted of: taking a vow; avoiding all grape produce; not cutting the hair; avoiding contact with the dead; and offering a sacrifice at the end of the Nazirite period. The details of those practices are not, I suggest, as important as the fact that the Nazir was a lay individual “dedicated” or “separated to the Lord” (Numbers 6:8). In later periods, there was also a type of lifetime Naziriteship (see Judges 13:7) and of long-term Naziriteship (as practised by Shimon Ha-Tzaddik of the Great Assembly). There are also instances of “extended Naziriteship” in which the dedicated state was renewed over repeated periods, each of seven years’ duration.

The Levitical and the Nazirite concepts are in the heart of the Torah. They are core traditions which have been dormant for centuries. They invite a living and contemporarily relevant renewal. In Amos 2:11 we read “I shall cause prophets to arise from your children and Nazirites from your young men.” We are partners with our God and can choose to make this happen, or to postpone the day. I think “now” would be a good time to start the ball rolling.

The biblical tradition also makes it plainly obvious that extended solitary retreat is a Jewish option. We have only to consider the retreats of Moses and Elijah to see the kosher stamp of authenticity on such hermit practices, and we are not just talking of a weekend at a retreat centre here; we are talking of long solitary silences: When Moses went “into the Cloud” in Exodus 24:18, it was for a solitary retreat of forty days. Elijah’s encounter with the “still small voice” in the cave on Horeb (I Kings 19:9-18) was the climactic event which followed a long solitary journey (a walking meditation) of forty days (I Kings 19:8).

The prophetic tradition also produced the schools of the “Sons of the Prophets” (II Kings 4:38 and 6:1, I Samuel 10:5 and 19:20). These were communities of “trainee” prophets, and though some of these were of questionable motivation and ritual practice, they were nonetheless communities of full-time contemplatives trying to train their openness to divine inspiration. In that, they represent another model of Jewish monks and nuns.

Rabbinical Judaism also produced exemplars of the eremitic life, including stars like Yitchak Luria and Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, who both chose to live out long periods in contemplative solitude, the former for seven years and the latter for nineteen.

A type of communal “monasticism” was also expressed by the communities of Jewish Sufis for whom Abraham and Obadiah ben Maimon produced their manuals, and also by the contemplative communities referred to in the writings of Bachya Ibn Pekuda. Their expressed group aim was a perpetual mindfulness of God, in the midst of their business and social lives as well as in their deep-retreat periods. Their writings nonetheless make it clear that there were, at least, some of their members living in communal or solitary celibate retreat on a semi-permanent basis.

But perhaps the clearest historical example of organised Jewish contemplative lifestyles is to be found in the mixed gender “hermit communities” of the Therapeutae. Our sole surviving historical source for the details of this Jewish religious order of monks and nuns is Philo’s “De Vita Contemplativa.” Though this document was written early in the First Century C.E. (A.D), it describes a specific organisation and lifestyle which Philo states was already well-established by that time. He defines the Essenes as being an “active” order and the Therapeutae as being a “contemplative” one. He is talking about Jewish groups here, so that categorisation like this is in itself remarkable.

Each of the hermits of this order (both female and male) lived in solitude during the first six days of the week. Their personal “cells” were small houses; these consisted of a living area, another room used exclusively for prayer and the study of holy texts, and an enclosed garden (all remarkably similar to the cells of Carmelite desert houses and to Carthusian cells). This “order” of Jewish Contemplatives practiced a certain level of asceticism during the week, but on the Sabbath the entire community would gather for communal meals and services. The community described was celibate, but it has been suggested that the core members were elders who were “retired” from previous family and working lives who were accompanied by younger but temporary “novices.” It is this model of Jewish monasticism - combining both the eremitic (hermit) and the cenobitic (communal) - which I would like to promote above all others. Even if the communal aspect is created only on the Internet over global distances, a location-based experiment might one day follow.

Those are some of the roots of a Jewish monastic “tradition” as I see it. But they are not in themselves the justification for why I embraced a monastic life as a DJC. That had as much to do with personal conviction and possibly “vocation” as to any reliance on traditional sanction. Vocation can be a matter of genetic inheritance and personal life-experiences as much as a matter of Divine summons. Ideally, it is a matter of “choice.”

In the Mishna, the colleagues of Simeon Ben Azzai chided him for being celibate. His response was that others would have to observe the commandment to procreate because he felt his personal task was to express his love for Torah in an unusually exclusive way. A contemplative is a student of the Torah of the Heart and may not necessarily make as much use of written texts as does a rabbi or a yeshivah student – but he/she may well share Simeon’s dynamic passion. Being celibate is not (for me) a way of creating a kind of purity or to experience a form of ascetic mortification. It is just a state that has emerged by circumstance, but it has freed me to intensify my undivided attention to God in contemplative prayer. Once I saw that function realized, celibacy became a choice. It is a choice which few Jews might want to make, but why stop them if they do? For the tiny Jewish minority that is called to monastic celibacy, a ban against it would turn a potential blessing into a repressive curse. People like us are the “children of the childless Elijah.” We are called to continue the work he left unfinished in that cave on Horeb, and to devote ourselves to contemplative prayer in a specifically focused way.

Specific, but in no sense superior - and in no sense threatening to other ways of answering the God of Israel’s command to love Him with a whole heart.

Yet those who seek to find contemplative ways to live a Jewish life are heavily criticised. Perhaps it is not just the ideas of solitude or celibacy that cause controversy. Perhaps the objections are more deeply ethical.

Judaism is a religion of “activity” and much of that is communal. Its core message is one of Justice and its adherents most often express this in socio-political action. The discussion on contemplation (as religious study) versus action (as tangible deeds) is ancient. It began with the eccentric views of a cave-dwelling recluse, Shimon Bar Yohai (in Shabbat 33a-b), and continues to this day. But ultimately, these are two simply different ways to achieve the same altruistic goals. I expect that it is a minority of Jews who would share my view that those practising contemplative prayer and out-pouring compassionate thought are also world transforming activists, but such a view is shared by most schools of mysticism and spirituality in Judaism, especially in streams of practical Kabbala.

Recently, I set up an experimental online community of Jewish Contemplatives with Christine Gilbert and a handful of like-minded Jews to promote this view and to make it a communal as well as an individual practice. Our mission statement puts it like this:

“We live and pray as a small congregation within the Community of Israel though we may never meet..

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.”

The effects of living such a life of contemplative devekut are not for the sake of the practitioner at all but for the sake of “all the worlds.” Prayer and attention to the sacral and the numinous is as important to the health of renewed Judaism as is the more down-to-earth side of our religion. They are inseparable. There is a very real sense in which all Jews are priests in the sanctuary and all Jews are prophetic seekers of Justice. But we each use our own skills and characters to develop whatever we are best at for the good of the whole.

The “contemplatives” of Judaism are in a minority. But they always were. The tribe of Levi was only one of twelve tribes, and the kohanim an even smaller subgroup within that tribe. The thread of blue in the tzitzit is a single thread amongst many others. But, like all Torah institutions, both are there for a reason, which we are invited to search out and to develop.

There is a “tribe” of potential “Dedicated Jewish Contemplatives” within the heart of Israel and most of it is in the closet. I’m out. If you are reading this and wish you were too, I hope this little article gives you a push.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by