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MEDITATION AND THE BIBLE
By Aryeh Kaplan
Samuel Weiser, Inc.Copyright © 1978 Aryeh Kaplan
All rights reserved.
Many people are initially surprised to discover that meditation plays any role whatsoever in Biblical teachings. It is a subject not often discussed in this context, and many individuals who are otherwise knowledgeable in Biblical thought are hardly aware that numerous important classical Judaic commentators interpret certain passages as referring to meditative experiences. One important reason for this is that such practices have not been in use since the great Hasidic renaissance almost two centuries ago. Where the experience itself is not known, the meaning of words used to describe it also becomes forgotten, and the entire vocabulary is lost.
Therefore, before the concept of meditation as it occurs in Hebraic sources can adequately be discussed, a basic vocabulary must be developed. There are a few words in the Bible itself that apparently have important connotations with regard to meditative states of unconsciousness, but these expressions are not used in this context in post-Biblical literature.
There is, however, one word that is consistently used as a term for meditation, by commentators, philosophers and Kabbalists. The one word which most often denotes meditation is Hitbodedut ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The verb, "to meditate," is represented by the word Hitboded ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).
The word Hitboded is derived from the root Baded ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), meaning "to be alone." Literally, then, Hitbodedut actually means self-isolation, and in some cases, it actually means nothing more than physical seclusion and isolation. In many other places, however, it is used to denote a state of consciousness involving the isolation of the self, that is, the isolation of the individual's most basic essence.
Thus, when discussed in a Kabbalistic context, the word Hitbodedut means much more than mere physical isolation. It refers to a kind of internal isolation, where the individual mentally isolates his essence from his thoughts. One of the greatest of all Kabbalists, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543–1620), often speaks of such mental seclusion, saying that "one must seclude himself (hitboded) in his thoughts to the ultimate degree." In doing so, one separates his soul from the body to such a degree that he no longer feels any relationship to his physical self. The soul is thus isolated, and as Rabbi Chaim Vital concludes, "the more one separates himself from the physical, the greater will be his perception."
This state of mental seclusion is very important to the prophetic experience. There is considerable discussion of this, but the clearest description of this state is presented by Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), a major Jewish philosopher, often known as Gersonides or simply "the Ralbag." He clearly writes that the receiving of prophetic revelation "requires the isolation (hitbodedut) of the consciousness from the imagination, or of both of these from the other perceptive mental faculties."
The Ralbag is speaking of the meditative state, which he describes as the isolation of the consciousness to an extent where it is no longer disturbed by the imagination. The imagination to which he refers is the normal reverie involving the stream of consciousness and visual imagery that is experienced when all the other senses are shut off. It is from this that the intellect must be isolated, until the individual enters a state of pure consciousness, disturbed by neither reverie nor visual imagery. This is a normal definition of the meditative state, and it is the end result of all successful meditation. In order to attain this, the individual must isolate both the consciousness and the imagination from the other perceptive faculties of the mind.
In order to understand this more fully, we must realize that the human brain, marvelous organ that it appears to be, is still usually very inefficient as a thinking device. Henri Berg-son has suggested that one of the main functions of the brain and nervous system may be to eliminate activity and awareness, rather than to produce it.
Aldous Huxley quotes Prof. CD. Broad's comments on this. He states that every person has an innate capability of remembering everything that has ever happened to him and of perceiving all events that surround him. If all this information poured into our minds at once, however, it would completely overwhelm us, so the function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us and prevent us from being overwhelmed and confused by the vast amount of information that reaches our sense organs. They shut out most of what we perceive and remember, eliminating all that would confuse us, so that only the small, special selection that is useful is allowed to remain.
If this is true of visions in the physical world, it would be even more true of the extramundane. If an ordinary person were constantly able to visualize the spiritual domain, it would be absolutely impossible for him to function on a physical plane. Although the human mind has powers of perception and concentration that we cannot even begin to imagine, our main business is to survive at all costs. To make survival possible, all of our mind's capabilities must be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain.
Some researchers are studying this effect, maintaining that this reducing-valve effect may be very similar to the jamming equipment used to block out offensive radio broadcasts. The brain constantly produces a kind of static, cutting down our perception and reducing our mental activity.
This static can actually be seen. When you close your eyes, you see all sorts of random pictures flashing through your mind. It is impossible to concentrate on any one of them for more than an instant, and each image is obscured by a host of others superimposed over it. This static can even be seen when the eyes are open, but we usually ignore these images, since they are very faint compared to our visual perception. Still, this static reduces our perception, both of the world around us and of ourselves. Even more so, it makes it impossible to perceive the spiritual domain in any manner whatsoever, at least while in a normal state of consciousness.
One of the important purposes of meditation, then, is to eliminate this and similar static. As the Ralbag explains, one does this by isolating the essence of one's consciousness from the imagination, which is the part of the mind that produces such mental static. When one accomplishes this, he can see and understand things much more clearly, and even gain a perception of the spiritual domain.
Although many authors use the term Hitbodedut to refer to the meditative state, the word is most often used for the actual act of meditation, and many examples of this are found in the Kabbalistic literature. The clearest expression of this, however, is found in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Maimonides (1186–1237), son of the famed philosopher, codifier and physician, Moses Maimonides.
Rabbi Abraham Maimonides writes that there are two types of isolation (hitbodedut), external and internal. External isolation is nothing more than physical seclusion, but internal isolation refers to the meditative process, where one isolates himself both spiritually and mentally.
Such meditation is seen as the highest of all practices, being the method used by the prophets to attain their revelation. The prophets frequently engaged in physical seclusion, but the main purpose of such external isolation was as preparation for internal isolation or meditation, which brought one to the highest step on the ladder of revelation. Such a state of internal isolation is seen, not only as a means to attain revelation, but as actually being the revelation itself.
A number of Biblical verses are seen by Rabbi Abraham as referring to such a meditative state. It is the perfection from within the heart for which King David prayed when he said, "A pure heart create for me, O God" (Psalm 51:12). It was also the attainment of Aseph, regarding which he sang, "My flesh and heart fade away, while God becomes the Rock of my heart and my portion forever" (Psalm 73:26). These verses refer to the purity of the mind and heart, when they are cleansed of all things other than the Divine. When a person attains such a state, the Divine Essence is actually seen as entering the mind and dwelling in it.
The method through which this is attained is also clearly described: "This level is achieved through a cessation of activity on the part of the perceptive faculty, completely, or at least for the most part, divorcing it from the soul. The motivating force of the consciousness is thus divorced from all worldly concepts and is inclined toward the Divine. The intellect then becomes enveloped in the Divine, and the imagination which is associated with the meditative faculty becomes activated through contemplation in God's creation, gazing at the mighty things that bear witness to their Creator."
The main method of meditation as outlined by Rabbi Abraham, thus involves the contemplation of nature. A person can contemplate the greatness of the sea, marveling at the many creatures that live in it. One can gaze at a clear night sky, allowing his mind to be completely absorbed by the glory of the stars. Through such intense contemplation, one can attain a meditative state directed toward the Divine.
This is seen as the level of Aseph, one of the co-authors of the Psalms, who purified his heart and mind, cleansing it of all things other than the Divine. It is regarding this state that he said, "My flesh and heart fade away." When he divorced his consciousness from everything but God, he said, "Who have I in heaven? And with You, I have no desire on earth" (Psalm 73:25).
Although the entire psalm is not discussed, many other verses can readily be seen to refer to the meditative state, and indeed, it is so interpreted by some of the most important classical Judaic commentators. It is therefore enlightening to look at the entire last part of this psalm and see the two quoted verses in context:
I am continually with You,
You have grasped my right hand.
With Your counsel You guide me,
After glory You take me.
Who have I in heaven? With You,
I have no desire on earth.
My flesh and heart fade away,
God becomes the Rock of my heart,
My portion forever....
For me, closeness to God is good,
I have placed my essence in God my Lord,
To express all Your transcendence.
Numerous other Biblical verses are also interpreted in this light. Thus, regarding the inclination of his consciousness toward the Divine, the prophet Isaiah said, "Your name and Your remembrance are the desire of my soul; My soul longs for You by night, also my spirit within me dawns forth to You" (Isaiah 26:8,9). The Psalmist likewise said, "My soul thirsts for You, my flesh pines for You" (Psalms 63:2), and in another place, "My soul cleaves after You" (Psalms 63:9).
Another important point discussed by Rabbi Abraham is that all ego and sensation must be restrained before the meditative faculty can function. An example of this is seen in Elisha's advice to Gehazi: "If you meet a man, do not bless him, and if a man blesses you, do not answer him" (2 Kings 4:29). This is particularly noteworthy, since it seems to indicate that a certain degree of stoicism is necessary before one can adequately engage in meditation, a concept that is discussed at length by the Kabbalists.
In order to attain the meditative state which unifies man and God, the prophets and their disciples would make use of various types of music and song. Rabbi Abraham writes that this would motivate the consciousness toward God, and purify one's inner being of all external thoughts. There are a number of verses that mention this, one of the clearest being what is written with regard to the Temple service, "David and his overseers singled out the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun, who would prophesy with harps, lutes and cymbols" (1 Chronicles 25:1).
In order to be able to attain internal isolation, the prophets and their disciples also engaged in external isolation, secluding themselves from the general populace. They were then not disturbed by the mundane affairs of the multitudes, and could meditate on God and His works without interruption. Such isolation could be partial and temporary, or it could be total, where the individual secluded himself in unpopulated areas such as deserts and mountains. Rabbi Abraham notes that such seclusion is often mentioned in the careers of the prophets and their disciples. It is also for this reason that many patriarchs and prophets worked as shepherds, where they could be alone in the fields for long periods of time.
During such periods of isolation, the prophet would contemplate the sky and the mountains, as well as all the rest of God's works, drawing his mind to their Creator. According to Rabbi Abraham, this is the meaning of King David's statement, "How weighty are Your meditations, O God, how great is their sum, if I could count them, they would outnumber the sands" (Psalms 139:17,18). One becomes so immersed in his contemplation that he enters a state of trance and mental quietude, perceiving the unity of God like one who can actually sense it. When a person who has attained such a state is aroused, the spell of this unity remains with him, and David thus concludes, "I awakened and I was still with You" (Psalms 139:18).
The best time for such meditation is at midnight or before dawn. Rabbi Abraham finds allusions for this in such verses as, "Rise, meditate in the night, at the beginning of the watches" (Lamentations 2:19). King David likewise said, "Before my eyes are the nightwatchers, when I meditate on Your word" (Psalms 119:148). The younger Maimonides also speaks of some individuals who attempt to go without sleep completely, attempting to emulate the devotion described in the verse, "I will not give sleep to my eyes, nor slumber to my eyelids" (Lamentations 132:4).
Of great importance is Rabbi Abraham's discussion of the Moslem dervishes or Sufis, with whom he was apparently quite familiar. He describes a practice of one of their sects, where individuals would meditate in dark places, secluding themselves to such an extent that their sense of sight degenerated and they could no longer discern between light and darkness. In order for an individual to engage in such practices, he notes, one must be motivated by a strong inner light so as not to be troubled by external darkness. A certain "Abraham the Saint" is quoted as discussing such meditation in dark places and applying to it the verse, "Who among you fears God, obeying the voice of His servants? Such a man walks in darkness without any light, he trusts in the Lord and depends on his God" (Isaiah 50:10).
Even though meditation is best accomplished when one is secluded, an individual on an advanced spiritual level can engage in it any time. The younger Maimonides thus quotes a blessing frequently used by the great sages, "May God grant your portion among the ones who delight in seclusion, whose soul is isolated even among many people."
Besides their value in providing important insights into meditation in general, these writings of Rabbi Abraham Maimonides are also extremely valuable because of the light that they shed on the writings of his father, the famed Moses Maimonides. Although the son is not as well known, the father was one of the greatest of all Judaic thinkers, who distilled all earlier teachings and influenced virtually every later writer.
From here, we clearly see that when Maimonides uses the term Hitboded, he is actually speaking of meditation, a fact that has escaped the notice of almost every translator. A good example of such usage can be found in a letter that the elder Maimonides writes to his son Abraham. He says, "The first two covenants (circumcision and the Torah) are upheld through the third, which is the Sabbath. The goal of all three is the purification of the soul, methodology, withdrawal, as well as meditation (hitbodedut) toward God."
But what is even more important is the fact that Maimonides speaks of Hitbodedut with respect to the prophets, saying that it was one of the important techniques through which they attained their high level. From his son's writings, we clearly see that this is speaking of meditation. I do not know of a single translator, however, who appears to be aware of this fact.
This also sheds light on an important teaching regarding meditation that is found in Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed. Since we know the meaning of the word hitbodedut, we can now translate it correctly.
Excerpted from MEDITATION AND THE BIBLE by Aryeh Kaplan. Copyright © 1978 Aryeh Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
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