Finding God in Silent Jewish Meditation

June 7, 2018

“You mean, no talking, like not at all?” my sister asked by phone during the two-hour drive to the Royal Way Spiritual Retreat Center in Lucerne Valley. “That’s intense.”

It was June 2016, three years after my mother had died prematurely of a brain hemorrhage. Grief was supposed to be over. I had completed my year of Kaddish, settled all her estate business and had ensured some kind of familial stability for my younger siblings. 

But I was lost. 

I had been so busy taking care of others, I’d neglected my own well-being. I felt as if I was moving through life on cruise control, advancing one simple step at a time, but not going anywhere. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … only, I feared everything. I felt stalked by a crippling restlessness and the terror of unrealized dreams. Death has a way of reminding you that time is always running out. 

Determined to do something about the condition of my stasis, I decided to embark on a spiritual experiment: a one-week Jewish silent meditation retreat. 

Held by the Israel-based Or HaLev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, the program was conducted in “social silence,” meaning verbal communication was assur — forbidden. So was reading, writing, gesturing, eye contact and touching. For seven days, I was forced to live in desert isolation, sequestered in a sprawling 840-acre plot in the San Bernardino Mountains where there was nothing else to do but transform myself into a Jewish monk. (Or HaLev will return to Los Angeles this summer to conduct its third annual “Opening the Heart” retreat on July 1.)

When I arrived at quarter to 6, just before the opening meditation or “sit,” as it was called, I was greeted by Ariel, the program manager. “You have 15 minutes of technology left,” he said, handing me a large Ziploc bag and a Sharpie. “Write your name on it, put your phone inside and I’ll return it to you on Sunday.” 

I felt my grip on my device tighten. “Is this optional?” I asked. 

“It’s recommended,” he said.

So much for the honor system. I took the Sharpie in stride and bade farewell to my connection with the world. It was the first time in my life I would be completely cut off from everything I knew: no phone calls, no texts, no photos, no internet, no news. I figured that by the end of the week I’d either achieve total enlightenment or go stark raving mad.  

“This is not a vacation,” Rabbi Nancy Flam declared the first night in the meditation hall. “This is hard work. It requires dedication, attention, focus.”

It was the first time in my life I would be completely cut off from everything I knew. I figured that by the end of the week I’d either achieve total enlightenment or go stark raving mad.

With the exception of one or two familiar faces, I knew none of the other 50 or so seekers. Our instructors were both rabbis from out of town. Or HaLev’s founder and director, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, is a Pennsylvania-born observant Jew who lives on Kibbutz Hanaton in Israel. And Flam, senior program director for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, is based in New York. Though none of us would socialize or even learn one another’s names until the retreat ended, the presence of community was fortifying. During sits when I looked at my watch every five minutes, I didn’t feel embarrassed — someone else was doing it, too. And when I needed inspiration to focus, I didn’t have to look far before finding some intimidating angelic creature wrapped in a tallit and virtually floating in her meditative trance.    

Even in silence, there was solidarity. No one was alone in their suffering. We were all sorts of naked before our own private struggles.

“This is a yetziat mitzrayim,” Rabbi Flam said. “A leaving Egypt … 

“And what was enslaved in Egypt?”
she asked. “The rabbis tell us, ‘Da’at — awareness.’ ”

Although mindfulness meditation is deeply rooted in Eastern religious practice, most closely associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, Jewish mystical tradition has long incorporated meditation and mindfulness teachings. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav popularized a practice some 200 years ago called hitbodedut — “self-seclusion,” in which a person speaks aloud to God. But the relationship between Judaism and mindfulness expanded exponentially when a group of American Jewish practitioners including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Daniel Goleman and Ram Dass (aka Jewish Harvard professor Richard Alpert) each helped pioneer and popularize the mindfulness movement in the United States.

Or HaLev founder Jacobson-Maisels is a devotee of the Buddhist mindfulness practice Vipassana, but he also considers himself a student of the Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, best known as “the rabbi of the Warsaw ghetto.” Reb Kalonymus, as he was known, ran a secret synagogue in the ghetto, performing Jewish life cycle events even as death neared. After he was murdered by the Nazis, a student recorded a mystical practice he invented known as the Quieting Technique, or hashkatah. 

On retreat, Or HaLev integrates both Eastern and Jewish practice in its teachings, and maintains conditions for traditional Jewish observance. There is Shacharit chanting every morning and Torah study every evening. The retreat culminates with Shabbat, a religious experience designed to accommodate all participants, from totally secular to deeply observant. All meals are kosher vegetarian. 

It took me a few days to adjust, not just to the rules but to the environment and to the “practice” itself. The first few days were really long and I had more than one fantasy of fleeing to my car, racing through the desert like in “Thelma and Louise” and never looking back. But then something happened. Something really happened.

“You were having an experience that we like to call rapture,” Rabbi Flam told me when I met with her in a private session.

It’s true. All that talk I’d heard all my Jewish life about ecstatic prayer, connecting with the divine, feeling God move through me as if I were a vessel? It was no longer legend. It was real.

On the last full day of retreat, near the end of Shabbat, it was time to practice Rebbe Nachman’s hitbodedut. I found a quiet spot on the mountain with a view of the valley and watched the sky stream rainbow colors as the sun prepared to set. When I opened my lips to speak, all that came was tears. My voice was raspy from disuse. But I told God about the things I had learned, and God listened. And then I asked God to excuse me, so I could speak to my mother.

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