JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2002 / 20 Teves, 5762

Meditation and isolation

By Rabbi Berel Wein

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- UNLIKE many other faiths, Judaism does not emphasize solitude, isolation and meditation practices. In fact, Judaism concentrates strongly on the necessity of community, social interaction, national identification and solidarity with all of its co-religionists.

A monastic life, celibacy, vows of poverty and a renunciation of this world, its pleasures, problems and opportunities, are all foreign to the spirit of the Torah and Jewish existence. The current promotion of isolated meditation as being somehow a Jewish form of "spirituality" is only another example of the confusion of Judaism with other faiths, fads, and importations from other cultures that so muddles the modern Jewish scene. Jewish prayer requires a public quorum and private prayer, no matter how sincere and devotional that it may be, does not allow for the advanced level of praise of G-d that is the privilege of public prayer.

Throughout Jewish history, the trend towards monasticism and meditation has been decried. The Creator Himself chastises Elijah the Prophet, who after sojourning alone in the desert for a period of time, apparently is reluctant to return to his task of leading and instructing the Jewish people. The L-rd sends him forth on his mission and refuses to allow him to wallow in pessimism and self-pity, emotions that prolonged isolation from other humans often breeds within us.

The great Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and his son Elazar spent many years alone in the desert, hiding from the Roman authorities that wished to execute them. When the danger finally passed and the great Rabbi Shimon returned to civilization, he could not bear to see how mundane and even profane life and society were. His years of isolation and meditation made him into a pillar of righteous and holy fire that could no longer abide the seeming pettiness and smallness of everyday human existence.

Again, G-d demanded a change of attitude on the part of the great Rabbi Shimon, lest he be forcibly returned to the isolation of the cave once again and thereby miss the challenge and opportunity for service to Israel that the L-rd has envisioned for him.

In later times, the great Chasidic masters often opted for periods of isolation, retreating into the forests that were part of their physical environment for meditation and self-renewal. Yet, this also brought upon them criticism from their colleagues and certainly from the masses of Israel who needed a live Rebbe present to tend to them and not an absent spiritual figure engaged in self and meditation. The great Rebbe of Kotzk, Menachem Mendel (Halperin) Morgenstern, spent his last decades in isolation and lonely meditation. Many of his disciples and followers thereupon defected and founded different Chasidic courts to serve the needs of the thousands of Jews who they felt the Rebbe in choosing isolation, had abandoned.

The great success of the Chasidic movement lay in the closeness and accessibility of the holy leader with the ordinary people who relied on him for guidance, advice, blessing and inspiration. Thus prolonged isolation and lengthy periods of meditation were not the stuff from which great Chasidic leaders, courts and dynasties were made of.

However, times of isolation and meditation were recognized to be necessary for spiritual leadership to be effective. Thus, it was customary that during the month of Elul, rabbis, Chasidic leaders and other spiritual teachers and heads within Israel would absent themselves from their public duties and appearances and devote themselves to isolation and spiritual meditation and self-analysis.

The great men of the Mussar movement practiced these methods of self-introspection daily, albeit for only relatively short periods of daily time. But Elul was always a special time when the barriers against prolonged isolation and personal meditation were relaxed in order to allow one's self to prepare properly for the Days of Awe and judgment that herald the onset of the Jewish new year.

So, as in everything else, balance becomes the rule of the Torah. Some meditation and isolation, in the proper time and duration, is beneficial. Unrestrained mystical behavior and monasticism is not part of the Jewish way of life and G-dly holiness.

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He has authored over 650 tapes, books and videos which you can purchase at RabbiWein.com. Comment by clicking here or calling 1-800-499-WEIN (9346).


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© 2002, Rabbi Berel Wein