I just returned from a Jewish, silent meditation retreat up in the Lower Galilee’s Or HaLev. Although I live in the middle of the Negev, overlooking nothing but desert, I needed this retreat; my mind has been active with clutter. There is a spiritual teaching, energy flows where attention goes, and lately, I’ve been addicted to comment threads on http://972mag.com/, a challenging news blog from Israeli and Palestinian journalists, where I’ve been engaging in political discourse with a regular cast of characters. No matter what thoughtful commentary the 972 Journalists offer, most readers fire back with pre-programmed responses aligned with whatever beliefs they clung to before reading. The few moments we’ve managed to break free of talking points have been moving, but, sadly, rare. More often, commenters are committed to their certainty that they know everything about everyone else.
Some labels thrown around in these threads include: settler, Zionist, liberal Zionist, religious right winger, anti-Israeli/Zionist leftist, and this just in from a Jewish American man, “obscenely hypocritical” leftist Jewish immigrants to Israel (that’s me). We use these labels the way highschoolers do to make sense of their world: jocks, druggies, popular kids… And we do so for the same reasons: to separate, through judgment, ourselves from others in order to feel superior, in order to know where to sit in the cafeteria, in order to have a place to sit in the cafeteria, and mostly to avoid the complexities of this world, ourselves. This is the age of separation via the very religions that connect us—consciously or unconsciously—to this Land. It is one of the greatest tragedies of our time that the essence of God—the interconnectedness of everything—is used, including by vehement non-believers, for the purpose of disconnection.
We first arrived at the meditation retreat just in time for one meal before entering silence. As we registered, I filled out a form about my meditation history and was told by a man I’d just met that he did not like my old teacher. During the meal, some American new immigrants were talking loudly about their Israeli army service, and a dear friend of mine—a peace activist—whispered, “I didn’t come here to listen to that,” to which I whispered back, “don’t worry—soon we won’t have to know anything about each other.” Another woman, who, incidentally, is orthodox and lives in a settlement, discovered that a group of young women were from Be’er Sheva and asked, “How did they know about this?” Across the room, I could see someone I knew who worked with Rabbis for Human Rights, several men (and one woman) in kippot, a Haredi man, a man with an artificial ear (had he lost his to war?), religious students from Jerusalem, and secular residents of Tel Aviv. The tables were lined up as one, long banquet, yet people sat in packs.
There is nothing inherently Jewish about a silent meditation retreat: stay in silence for a prolonged period, practice mindfulness in everything from eating to walking to washing your face, sit on your cushion often, follow your breath, and when thoughts or feelings arise, as they do in humans, simply observe them before waving them goodbye. When that same thought or feeling returns (and it will—the mind is persistent), acknowledge it again, return to your breath. This action is not unlike the tool “redirect” that I used to train my dog, except in this case, I’m the dog and the trainer. Through this practice, one experiences a knowing that you are not your thoughts, you are not your feelings; you are more expansive than your mind, even than your “you”.
What makes silent retreats like this one “Jewish”—besides that the teachers talk a lot and the retreatants, too, can ask unlimited questions—is that they are run by Jews, many of whom are rabbis, and when we wake, we gather together to chant the morning prayers—our voices arising out of silence—about gratitude, compassion, and awe. Sometimes, teachers will connect basic mindfulness teachings to Judaism, though they’re just as likely to connect them to teachings of monks or Sufis. If the retreat runs over Shabbat, there are Shabbat meals, prayers, and practice, together in silent communion.
On this retreat, there was also an option to go to the community mikveh, something that, because I am not married, I’ve never had permission to do according to Jewish Law. As we waited for our turn to disrobe, shower, and immerse ourselves in ritual water before God with whatever intentions we were bringing for purification, healing, or rebirth, the woman helping at the Mikveh asked us, since many of us were first-timers, if we had any questions. What began with quiet questions about what to expect quickly snowballed into judgments of various tones: Did the Jewish laws around mikveh imply that menstruation made women unclean? Did the fact that only married women could participate mean that the Orthodox world denied the reality of non-marital sex? Did our own religion deem us unholy? Yet for some reason, nearly every woman returning to that waiting room after her mikveh was moved to tears. We lingered in that room, together, long after our turn had come and gone, our hair wet from timeless ritual, from inclusion, immersion; from our womb-like experience, alone with God.
At the end of the retreat, there is a gratitude circle, and people were invited to share their experiences. One woman told us she had never felt connected to Judaism until the retreat. A Haredi man, who had sat beside me the whole time, shared that although it was strange for him to practice with women, he felt more connected to prayer on these retreats than ever before. I shared how surprised I’d been to care about being included in the mikveh. And then one of the young men my friend and I had heard, days earlier, talking about his army service, spoke. He said that just after going into silence, he’d regretted not asking a man he’d met that evening about where exactly he lived, what he did for work, or how many children he had in order to know this man, but now, none of those things seemed to matter. Now, he’d experienced this man through his small, kind gestures; the essence of his being. In fact, he'd seen all of us this way; so much beauty. He vowed from this point forward to truly experience people, rather than to try to know them.
It took me one hour upon returning home to check in with +972 Magazine’s comment threads. They hadn’t changed. What had changed was that now, I could feel the pain of everyone involved; the longing to connect to the beauty within ourselves, each other, each piece of fruit, spider, clump of soil. I could feel our yearning to be included, to include; to recognize and be recognized. I could feel the suffering we endure in order to deny ourselves the love this world is offering us, every moment of every day.