For some, Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say, Judaism's most complex ideas can be reduced to the “sweet and cute,” simple as a New Year’s apple in honey. Or, conversely, one can see 16th-century kabbalists going out into the apple orchards — evoking the Shechina, God’s feminine presence — greeting the Shabbat bride, veiled in Friday’s twilight.
Or one can go deeper, with a mystic’s kaleidoscope eyes, like cameras in science documentaries closing in on an apple until the atoms and molecules are visibly swirling, where the “Holy Apple Fields” are “celestial gardens where all the souls of humanity are planted,” teaches Rabbi Yoel Glick in his new book on Jewish meditation. These “trees” have their roots in Heaven, hanging upside down into our world, each tree representing a separate collection of souls, “soul families,” each with its own essence. Apples seen through silence and awe, galaxies away from the sweet and cute.
Glick is the author of a new book, “Living The Life of Jewish Meditation: A Comprehensive Guide to Practice and Experience” (Jewish Lights), a passport into the inner world of sitting, breathing, silence and the soul. He quotes freely and poetically from multiple religious and meditative masters, particularly Hindu (as meditation has long been more of an Eastern cultivation), but this is a thoroughly Jewish book, rooted in Jewish sources, mantras and visualizations. A mantra, explains Glick, is a “spiritually charged sound,” such as the first verse of Shema, with its idea that “everything is of God, in God, and from God.” Or, Adonai Hu Ha’Elohim (Adonai is God), chanted in biblical times by thousands witnessing Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, and even today, as the climactic mantra chanted seven times before the shofar’s blast ending Yom Kippur.
Alongside mantras are visualizations, such as Adonai’s ineffable letters (Yud-Heh-Vuv-Heh); the “heh” whose shape lends its visualization to a hinged door, swinging in and out with every inhale-exhale.
Glick’s meditations are earthly and easy enough to do on subways; magical enough to turn subways into celestial gardens.
Modern secular meditation is often associated with stress reduction, and God is extraneous. By contrast, “Living The Life of Jewish Meditation” is so named because, says Glick, it is about attaining “that sense of God’s presence throughout your day; moments of grace, of peace,” and learning how to tap into that celestial place “almost at will.”
As with that mantra bridging Elijah to last autumn’s Yom Kippur, Jewish meditation is both more ancient and mainstream than might be supposed. For example, there is a verse from Psalms, “Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid” (“I have placed God before me, always”). Glick points out that the Baal Shem Tov “took this literally, telling his chasidim to visualize God’s name throughout the day.” And not just chasidim. One of Glick’s students is a busy mother of four, shuttling her children around town, her life a hurricane of logistics. Once, while driving, says Glick, “she realized, ‘What if I meditate at each red light,’ imagining the Yud-Heh-Vuv-Heh in front of her forehead; what would that do?’ What she was doing was breaking the onslaught of the world, taking her mind to a higher place.”
“When prayer is taken to its highest level, it becomes meditation,” says Glick, a progression from words to sounds to silence to being with God. In fact, Jewish prayer services follow that progression, from the recitation of words to a climax of silence (the Amidah).
“The trouble is,” Glick explains, is that outside brief moments of formulaic liturgical silence, “Judaism has lost its connection to silence. We can’t bear silence. If there’s silence for a minute, even seconds, we think we have to fill it up with words. Learning to connect to that place of silence is essential.” As Elijah discovered in a cavelong ago, says Glick, God is not to be found in a wind, earthquake or fire, but in a “still, small voice.”
Glick allows stillness, even silence, to punctuate his words. “When I was 19, my mother was dying. I was looking for a deeper truth. It just so happened that, at that time, Shlomo [Carlebach] married my father’s sister, one of my favorite aunts, shifting the whole way I was living my life.”
Glick moved from Toronto to New York, a few blocks from Reb Shlomo’s shul on the Upper West Side. “I spent a lot of time with Shlomo and the chevra [the close community] there.” Glick felt he was living “a double life,” studying for the standard rabbinate at Yeshiva University, but also studying for a more expansive neo-chasidic semicha (ordination) with Reb Shlomo. “Shlomo told me, ‘I’ll only give you semicha on the condition you finish Y.U. He thought it important that I also get the ‘straight’ semicha. I was the first semicha Shlomo ever gave, matter of fact. We had a beautiful ceremony in the shul, everyone placing their hands on my head” in blessing.
In 1981, Glick and his wife Nomi made aliyah to Jerusalem, connecting to a group exploring a fusion of Jewish-Eastern meditation and spirituality. In 1988, “friends from England were moving to the south of France.” Looking to make a little extra money, “I knew there were cheap houses there, maybe I could do some renovations, real estate, something.” Instead, he further immersed himself in the contemplative life.
Glick divided his time between Jerusalem and the little French village of Clara, an hour from Spain, an hour from the sea, and 45 minutes from Perpignan, once home to long-ago Talmudic commentators, the Tosafists, and the Me’iri, a Catalonian Talmudist of the 13th century and one of the earliest Sages to suggest that Judaism’s warnings about learning from other religions referred to their idolatry, not their non-idolatrous spiritual wisdom. In that spirit, Glick deepened his exploration of meditative practices and spiritual ideas with monks, nuns and swamis while writing ethereal weekly teachings, often tied to the Jewish calendar, “Da’at Elyon” (“The Higher Wisdom”), that is now emailed to students around the world.
The south of France may not be the Jewish center it once was, but Glick says there are two shuls in Perpignan. “Somehow I’m always finding Jews or they are finding me.”
“We still return to the foothills” of the French mountains, says Glick, “a deep green forest, a bird sanctuary,” the music of nightingales filling the springtime nights. “There is wildlife. You can feel the presence of nature. You can harness the power of the silence.”
Glick writes, “According to the Zohar, dew descends every day from the place that is called Heaven onto the Holy Apple Field.” God’s spirit “falls upon the field like droplets … nourishing and soothing the thirsty trees.” In one meditation he teaches, visualize the holy dew, “feel the tender caress of its drops, the rejuvenating effects of this life-giving energy as it is absorbed inside you… You are sheltered and vivified, rooted and unshakable. …”
Now, “let go of all images and rest in silence. And finally, slowly, open your eyes.”