New Age Judaismby Melinda Ribner
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Many people will be surprised to find that Judaism is fundamentally aligned with what we think of as the New Age. Many of the things we associated with the New Age are not new but are part of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. New Age Judaism is not about Judaism modified to meet the needs of the moment, but rather it makes age-old Judaism, traditional and kabbalistic teachings accessible to the modern person in a new way.
New Age Judaism is a very practical guidebook to Jewish spirituality drawn from the insights and personal observations of the author, a well-known meditation teacher and psychotherapist. Melinda Ribner has taught Jewish meditation and meditative kabbalah for over 16 years and incorporates many of these exercises into her book. In 1989 she formed The Jewish Meditation Circle which meets weekly in Manhattan. Her work draws on the teachings and practices of the Musar, Chassidic, and Kabbalistic schools within Judaism.
"Jewish meditation is not just a way to be centered of balanced. It is so much deeper. Mindy (Melinda) is one of the special human beings who never forgets there is one God. She has the privilege of bringing the deep teachings of the holy rebbes. So much holiness. Her meditations go straight to the heart of every person. It is a privilege to learn with her."
-Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach of Blessed Memory
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Who, What And Where Is God?
Many people wonder and question "Where is God?" There is a natural yearning within each of us for God, for a taste of eternity. We search in many places and in many ways for the transcendent experience. Yet the deepest truth is that everything we are looking for is available within us. God is within us. We have each been given a pure and holy soul. This soul is our true essence and is actually a part of God.
It is elevating but not necessary that we travel to holy places to find God. A person can stand at one of the holiest sites in the world and feel absolutely nothing. It is possible to not feel anything wherever you are if your heart is closed. One can be in one's own home and feel the Divine Presence in a powerfully intense way. The Baal Shem Tov said that people are where their thoughts are. If a person is in Jerusalem with a mind not filled with holiness, he is not really in Jerusalem. His body may be there, but he is not. Similarly, if a person is in New York and he's pining for God, he really is in God's holy city.
I recently returned from conducting a weeklong retreat at a Jewish Renewal center, during which a young woman gave a moving testimony about her experience. Before she took the workshop, she explained, when asked where she davened, where she prayed, she would be embarrassed to tell people "nowhere." She was ashamed that she did not have a personal connection to God and was uncomfortable attending any synagogue. During the workshop she opened to a very deep and personal connection to God. She proudly announced that henceforth when asked where she davens she will respond "everywhere." At every moment, in every place, in every activity, there is an opportunity to connect directly with God.
God is wherever we open to Him, so close to us we cannot see Him. Sometimes we wish that God were physical, so we could feel and touch Him, but then God would be separate from us. If God were physical, He would be limited to time and space, would occupy one space and therefore not be in another space. There can never be a total merger between things that are physical, because each one occupies its own space. God can be so close to us because God is not physical. God is everywhere, but to experience God, we need to let God into our lives. Meditation, prayer and doing good deeds to connect with God's Will create the channels to spiritually open, purify and expand our consciousness. If I am full of myself, I will not be open to the experience of God. I need to empty myself and allow God to be in me and with me. If we are open, we will feel God's presence within us for we are a part of God. We live in the midst of God.
Because God is not physical and does not occupy space and time in the way that we do, it is not surprising that many may question God's existence. Even fervent God-believers are sometimes troubled with doubts and lapses in faith. Duties of the Heart, the wonderful classic book of Jewish philosophy by Bachya Ibn Paquda, which I highly recommend, provides the following illustration to prove the existence of God: Can you imagine pouring ink onto a blank sheet of paper and forming the most beautiful poetry? Everyone has to acknowledge that this is impossible. Similarly, how can this world not have a Creator?
All too often we are so busy that we fail to appreciate all the goodness we are given merely in being alive. It is good to set aside a few moments periodically from time to time, especially when you are outside, to close your eyes, take some slow deep breaths and allow the mind to quiet. With each inhalation, feel yourself open to greater vitality. With each exhalation, allow yourself to relax. Pause between each breath. When you have stilled the mental chatter sufficiently to be present to yourself as you inhale and exhale, open your eyes and look around you. See this world as if for the first time. What a beautiful world! How could this universe, which is so magnificent, so intricately designed and so complex, not have a Creator who loves His Creation?
We do not always see God in the way we see physical things in this world, but that does not mean that God does not exist. The Zohar calls God "The Most Hidden of Ah the Hidden." God is concealed and hidden in our physical world. Many things exist that we cannot see or touch, and we rely increasingly on them in our daily life. For example, I have not seen electricity or radio waves, yet I assume that they exist because I see how I benefit from them. Very few of us have any real understanding of how television, the telephone or the Internet operates, yet we have come to depend on them. Acknowledging our acceptance of the unknown working in our lives helps us more easily accept the presence of an invisible, all pervasive God.
Though most people believe in the existence of a Creator, some feel that God is distant from us. It is true that God is hidden, but God is not distant. God is simply awaiting your heartfelt invitation to enter your life. God is very humble and does not want to impose the Divine Presence upon anyone unless they really want it. The Kotzer Rebbe reminds us, "God is where you let Him in." God's love and accessibility are emphasized in Jewish thought and practice, and the legacy of the Jewish prophets reminds us of just that. The prophet Isaiah tells us, "Ah the world is full of His glory." The prophet Jeremiah quotes God as saying, "Do I not fill heaven and earth?"
The fundamental belief in the existence and unity of God is the most essential point in Judaism. Everything is predicated upon it. Judaism is most acknowledged for bringing to the world the concept of monotheism, the belief in one God. The Hebrew word for Israel, which in Hebrew is Yisrael, may be broken into two root words: Yeshar and El, which together mean "straight to God." The Jew goes straight to God. Through time Judaism developed its own bureaucratic structures, but in its essence Judaism remains antiauthoritarian. The Jew prays directly to the Creator of the Universe. There is no need for intermediaries, rabbis or idols before the one God. Each Jew is potentially a high priest, bringing down blessings for self and others. People identifying with the New Age should be comfortable with this basic tenet of Judaism: Every person, regardless of stature or religion, can have a personal relationship with God. Each of us can talk directly to God and our words make a difference. According to Judaism, even non-Jews can be prophets and can be filled with the holy spirit. The Divine Presence is not discriminatory.
According to most important and basic Jewish teachings, the one and only God created this world and He did so to bestow goodness. When God finished creating everything in this world, the Bible says, "God saw that it was good." After God created man, the Bible says, "God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good." We human beings were made in a manner unlike all previous creations. We were made in the likeness and image of God. We were made to be capable of receiving the highest goodness, which is God. A partial good would not be sufficient for humans. In his book The Way of God for God, one of the explanations given by Moses Luzzatto proclaiming the creation of man as "very good" is that man was given free will. Of all the creatures God created in this world, we human beings alone can choose to come close to God. God wants us to choose Him, yet it has to be our choice. God blesses us in many ways in life, but God's greatest blessing is that God allows us to be attached to Him and, in that way, experience our own perfection.
Devekut, "cleaving to God," is the goal of all Jewish spiritual practice. The righteous and holy people of the Jewish lineage cling to God and identify with Him in such a way that they experience themselves as part of God and are able to share in the ecstasy and pleasure that God experiences within Himself. Such people shine Godliness in this world, inspire and model the spiritual potential that is within each of us. Through actively attaching ourselves to God, we expand our consciousness and are able to receive the highest good and the greatest joy. When we make a God-connection, we have more love in our hearts for all of Creation, including ourselves. To access our own tremendous spiritual potential, Judaism directs us to seek God at all times, to love God, to serve God, and to walk in His ways, even though we cannot know with our minds who and what God is.
In his desire for increasing intimacy and knowledge of God, Moses, the most exalted Jewish prophet, asked God directly, "What is your name? Who are You?" God answered, öEhyeh, Asher Ehyeh,ö which means, "I will be what I will be." What a name! It is considered, kabbalistically, to be the name closest to the essence of God. Will is the highest expression of the Divine. God created the world because it was His will and desire to do so and for no other reason. It was not that God was deficient and needed the world to complete Him. The name "I will be what I will be" tells us that God is totally free and does not depend on anything else. No deficiency can be attributed to His existence. This is the only time in the Torah that this name is revealed. God is telling us that He is not definable. "I will be what I will be." God is not a fixed or finished product, like an idol, but is very much alive, living and evolving. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and David Cooper said, "God is a verb. God is being God."
Interestingly enough, the most familiar name of God, YHVH, is rooted in the Hebrew word hovey, which means "to be." When the Hebrew letter yud is placed in front of the root, it makes the verb active. So YHVH means "active being." YHVH is Being being. It is existence itself. God was, is and will be. In Hebrew, God is the only being that can say "I am." For example, a person who is hungry would say in Hebrew "I hungry." God is ultimately the only true reality. God is what makes everything else alive. The Torah, to inform us that our lives are tied to this God-connection, tells us, "He who attaches himself to YHVH is alive today." God is life. We are more vibrant and alive when we make a God-connection. To the extent we open to God, we open to life, to reality and to our true selves. God is the "stuffö of existence itself, and we are part of God. Much like electricity that empowers our machines, God is the fuel of existence for everything.
It is important to know that everything that is known about God is about how we experience God and how God relates to us. It is said that God is good or God is loving, but this describes God in relation to us. This is not about God as God is to Himself. This is beyond us. I reiterate this point because it is essential. Once this is understood, many crises of faith may be avoided. People struggle with their own limited concepts of God, not with God. The true God-believer has much in common with the agnostic, for both acknowledge that they can never know God. We must always bear in mind that our own concepts of God are limited, therefore we have no right to impose them upon others who may have different concepts than we do. We are all a creation of God. We are finite, bound by time and space. Can a part know the whole? Our experience of God is limited. Can we who are limited and finite know that which is infinite? God is even more than what is infinite. God is beyond all conceptualization and definition. God created concepts. Even if we describe God as infinite, infinity is still a concept. It is not God. As my teacher Reb Shlomo Carlebach would often say with a sigh, öWhat do we know?"
We all have a tendency to create images of God to help us relate to Him. We often think of God as a person. God is the father, the mother, the friend, the lover. This is natural and helpful, but if we are stuck in our images, we will never experience God as God. We only experience our own projections. This is a very important point to remember. God in His essence is beyond every definition, concept or image we may have about Him. We may have a preference to refer to God as male or as female, to call God "King" or "Queen," or to eliminate all reference to gender and call God "Source of Life," "Universal Consciousness" or "Limitless Light," but these are merely our preferences.
Unfortunately, we too often let our images of God separate us from the experience of Godùand from each other. We benefit when we remember that our images are only images, not God. The third commandment actually forbids the making of images or pictures of God because God cannot be visualized or imagined. The Bible says, "Man is created in the image and likeness of God." The only image we may have of God is the human being.
Even though we can never achieve complete knowledge of God, we are encouraged to consciously apply ourselves to learning about God. Learning Torah and its commentaries and studying the prayers written by the great Jewish prophets and the teachings of Jewish saints will teach us much about God and awaken love for Him. As the song goes, "To know him is to love him." Studying and following the path prescribed by Jewish law teaches us how to bring God awareness into our daily lives. The most direct and powerful opportunity we have to learn about God comes from our own prayer, meditation and life experiences, but even from such secular studies as science and psychology we also learn about God.
We are privileged to live at a time of tremendous breakthroughs of knowledge in all areas of life. As we as individuals and as a society progress in learning, in understanding ourselves as well as the laws of the universe, we learn more about God and the possibilities of life are expanded. Yet there will always be more to uncover. We will never be able to say that we know God or His world completely.
Similarly, because our souls are a part of God, it is also important to know that we can never even say that we know ourselves or another person completely. When we get to know other people as they are, and not as we want them to be, we will see that they are more than we originally imagined. We should suspend all limiting ideas about people, for there are awesome depths of beauty and majesty within every person for every person is in essence a Divine Soul in a human body. Some of us may need more polishing so our souls shine more brightly. Some of us may need better eyes so we can see the holy sweet souls within others. Nevertheless, as we open to experience the depths of our own souls, we bear witness that all humans, including ourselves, were created in the image and likeness of God. In those moments, we taste Godliness in ourselves and others. This is true intimacy.
To truly come close to God, to experience God's oneness, to gain a glimpse of who we are, to be fully alive, we have to let go of our limiting concepts of God and self and go deep inside, to the innermost places of our being. Meditate and meditate. God says, "Be still, and know that I am God"(Psalm 46). When we quiet our minds and open our hearts, God's voice may be heard, God's love may be experienced. This is the gift of meditation. Sefer Yetsirah: The Book of Formation, which is thousands of years old and the most ancient text of Jewish meditation, instructs us, "Bridle your mouth from speaking and your heart from thinking. And if your heart runs, return to the place." When you can come to internal silence, you will grasp the words of the Psalmistù"Silence is your greatest praise" (Psalm 65)ùand be filled with great joy.
King David reminds us, "Even if our mouths were filled with song as the sea is filled with water, our tongue with melody as the roar of the waves, and our lips with praise as the breath of the firmament, and our eyes were radiant as the sun and moon ...," we would not have words adequate to praise and thank God. At a certain point during prayer, we realize that words only block the experience of intimacy with the Creator, which cannot be conceptualized in words. Just like a lover wants to gaze or kiss the beloved when there are no words adequate to express a love that is beyond words, the silence of meditation provides the soul the opportunity to cling to God in the most direct way. Meditation is the experience of an intimacy with the Creator that cannot be articulated in words. At the deepest level of truth, there are no words to talk about God for He is beyond words, no thoughts to think for He is beyond thought. Prayer and meditation are intertwined like the inhalation and exhalation of the breath. Heartfelt prayer lifts us to the place beyond words, a place of intimacy, the place of meditation. The silence experienced in meditation again gives rise to words of prayer because we tend to articulate our experiences in language.
The goal of New Age Judaism is to expand our consciousness of ourselves and of God. The following powerful meditation has been adapted and simplified from the Sefer Yetzirah. The meditation demonstrates many of the basics that have been presented about God. I believe that this meditation helps to further free us of the limiting anthropomorphic images we have of God and to open us even more to the new spiritual paradigm of the New Age. This powerful meditation guides us on an imaginative journey in which we gaze into the realm of infinity, where time and space are unlimited and boundless. It demonstrates experientially many of the basic things we have been learning about God. Through this meditation, we may clearly experience that we are in the center of God. This is a wonderful awareness. Though best done in a sitting position, I also like to do an abridged version of this meditation when I am walking outside.
Meditation on Touching Infinity
Assume a comfortable seated position and center yourself with your breath. Allow your mind to travel to back in time ten years. Take a breath. Now imagine you can travel back fifty years, though you may not have been born then. Now imagine you can go back a hundred years, then a thousand years, then two thousand years, then five thousand years and so forth. Keep going back farther and farther. Go as far as you can go. When you are unable to go farther, when "farther" is beyond your powers of imagination, you have touched infinity. Know and respect that there is a realm in time, before even time was created, that you cannot enter. Slowly bring your awareness to the present moment and take a few deep breaths.
Now allow your mind to travel into the future. Go forward in time. Imagine the world in ten years, in a hundred years, in a thousand years. And then ten thousand years. Know that you can go farther and farther, until you arrive at a place where you can go no farther. Your mind can conceive no farther. This is infinity. Then slowly bring your awareness to the present moment and take a few deep breaths.
Now allow your mind to travel through space going upward. Imagine traveling through the heavens, past the stars, leaving this galaxy, traveling into other galaxies and going upward and upward until you arrive at a place where you can go no farther. Again you have hit infinity. Slowly bring your awareness back to the present moment and the present space and take a few deep breaths.
Now imagine that you can travel downward, into the earth, and then again into space, going downward. Keep going, through the galaxies, until you can go no farther, for you have hit infinity.
Now imagine that you can travel to the north, traveling in the northern direction as far as you can conceive. Keep going northward until you can go no farther in your imagination for you have again hit infinity. Slowly return your awareness to the present moment, the place where you are.
Now imagine that you can travel to the south. Keep going south from wherever you are, going more and more to the south until you can no longer conceive journeying any farther in your imagination. You have again hit infinity Slowly bring your awareness to the present moment, your present place.
Imagine that you can travel to the east. Keep going eastward in your imagination as far as possible. Keep going until you hit infinity. Now travel back to the present moment, the present place.
Imagine that you travel west. Keep going westward in your imagination as far as possible. Keep going westward until you again hit infinity, until you cannot conceive of anything farther west. Slowly bring your awareness back to the present moment and the present place.
Take a few deep breaths and breathe in the awareness that you are sitting in the middle of infinity. You are a part of this infinity. You are in the center of infinity. Every point in infinity is the center. Infinity is the best metaphor for God. Kabbalah uses the term Ain Sof "without limit," for what we normally call "God." God is infinite.
God surrounds Creation. Yet God is also within this world because this world is within God. You are in God and God is within you. Wherever you are, you are within God. Everything occurs within Him. You are in the middle of God. God is called the Makom, the "Place of the World," because everything is within Him. You are in the Makom. You are in the Place of God.
Wherever you are, God is with you. Sit silently in the awareness of the presence of infinity, in the presence of God. Wherever you are, whoever you are, you are in the center of God. Breathe this awareness in and, as you exhale, let go. Allow the walls that you have constructed, that separate you from this awareness, to be relaxed. Transcend your identification with the limited personality and the ego self. You are not alone or on your own. With each breath, let go, open, expand and connect to what is beyond you. Be permeated by this awareness. Be rooted in this awareness. Continue to take deep breaths. In kabbalah this infinity is called Or Ain Sof, "Limitless Light." Sit in the awareness of infinite light. Let this light enter you and permeate you on all levels of being: physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Imagine you can breathe with your whole physical body. Your entire body opens, expands and contracts. Your organs breathe. Everything within you pulsates. Everything opens, reaches toward infinity and then contracts. Your physical body is surrounded by an astral body. Imagine that this astral body expands in all directions. Imagine that your emotional body can also breathe and that you can now vibrate your feelings. If you would like, become aware of a hurt that you have held deep inside. Breathe it out toward infinity. Let it go. Give it to the light. Light dissolves negativity, light dispels darkness. Let light into the spaces where this hurt resided. Continue to open. Now imagine that your soul can breathe. Feel the soul's deep desire to expand, to leave the confines of the physical body, to merge with the Infinite One. Then feel the soul's desire to return to the physical body and feel the joy of being in a physical body. Expand and contract. Experience opening and letting go.
Continue to open to the expanded awareness of infinity. You are free to expand your consciousness as much as you can. You are free to contract your consciousness as much as you want. This is your choice. However, wherever you are, wherever you goùto the highest place, to the lowest placeùyou are always in the middle of infinity. There is no place else to go. There is no place to hide. Because infinity contains within it that which is finite, every point within infinity is the center. You are the center point in the middle of infinity.
(c)2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted from New Age Judaism by Melinda Ribner. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Simcha Press, 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.
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Meet the Author
Melinda Ribner is a well-known meditation teacher and psychotherapist. She has taught Jewish meditation and meditative kabbalah for over 16 years and incorporates many of these exercises into this book. In 1989 she formed The Jewish Meditation Circle which meets weekly in Manhattan. Her work draws on the teachings and practices of the Musar, Chassidic, and Kabbalistic schools within Judaism.
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I'm not a New Ager, and you don't need to be one to get a lot out of this book. Primarily it's a collection of meditation and prayer exercises that don't involve a siddur. The writing is happy and encouraging, not dry as in some other Kabbalah books. I found the first meditation, about being in the center of God, to be such a wonderful doozy that I still haven't progressed past it. As a vegetarian myself, I enjoyed the author's comments about meat not being required eating on holidays.