CONVERSATIONS IN THE SPIRIT: part 8, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

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From a collection of Lex Hixon’s WBAI “In the Spirit” Interviews

Lex Hixon was an accomplished spiritual practitioner, scholar, author who explored the great religious traditions extensively. He published nine books and spent 17 years hosting the radio program “In the Spirit” on WBAI, where he interviewed the day’s leading spiritual lights. Thirty-three of those interviews, carefully edited, appear for the first time in print in Conversations in the Spirit. Interviewees include the spiritual giants Ram Dass, Alan Watts, Daniel Berrigan, Swami Muktananda, Kalu Rinpoche, Mother Teresa, and Stephen Gaskin.

 

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

June 6, 1980

Born in 1934 and raised in the Bronx, New York, Aryeh Kaplan was an Orthodox rabbi, writer, and physicist. He completed his rabbinical training in Jerusalem and was ordained there in 1956 by Rabbi Yehuda Finkle, one of Israel’s foremost rabbinic authorities. He then went on to earn a B.S. degree with high honors at the University of Louisiana and an M.S. in physics at the University of Maryland. After completing a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, he changed career direction by taking a full-time position as a rabbi in Mason City, Iowa, in 1965. From then until the end of his life, he held positions as rabbi for congregations in many states across the country, ending up in Brooklyn, New York. Rabbi Kaplan wrote more than 50 books, including many on Kabbalah and meditation, but is best known for The Living Torah, a scholarly translation of the Torah with an extensive index. His writings displayed a wide knowledge of Jewish thought from basic introductory material to scholarly Kabbalah and Hasidut. Rabbi Kaplan married Tobie Goldstein in 1961, and they had nine children together before he died suddenly in 1983 at the age of 48 from a heart attack.

 

Lex Hixon: This morning we’re going to be talking about the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book Meditation and the Bible. He has written many books; some of you may be familiar with a widely circulated book called The Handbook of Jewish Thought.

When I read his book, Meditation and the Bible, although I’ve been studying and practicing meditation for quite a few years, I learned some very interesting new information. He quotes a great deal from the sources of Jewish mystical tradition, which are newly translated from Hebrew.

Aryeh, let’s talk about some of the themes in the book. Where do you want to start?

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: The main subject of the book is Jewish meditation in general. One of the reasons I wrote the book was because so many people have no idea that Jewish meditation even exists. That is why the book is not so much my writing, but to a large degree, I’m citing ancient and not-so-ancient sources that discuss Jewish meditation to show the history.

Lex Hixon: You mention that you got interested in Kabbalah when you were writing The Handbook of Jewish Thought.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: I consider The Handbook the most important thing I’ve ever done. I wrote most of it about 12 years ago. While I was writing it, I gradually realized that Jewish philosophy almost comes to an abrupt end in the 14th and 15th centuries. And from there on, almost all of Jewish philosophy and Jewish thought and theology is dominated by Kabbalah.

Lex Hixon: For non-Jews listening, would you say Kabbalah is the way of referring to Jewish mysticism in general?

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: Kabbalah literally means, “Accept it.” Taking or acceptance. It really means tradition, with a capital T.

Lex Hixon: Rabbi Kaplan reminded me that he’s not just a Kabbalist, he’s Orthodox as well, and in the rich soil of orthodoxy is where these beautiful Kabbalist flowers grow. The Kabbalah doesn’t grow in thin air.

Aryeh, you told me earlier that you’d been meditating ever since you were a boy, but not realizing it.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: Let me just elaborate on that. As anybody who’s familiar with the Jewish community knows, the Orthodox Jew prays three times a day, and the central part of that prayer is a prayer known as the Amidah [or Standing Prayer]. If one says that prayer correctly, with intense concentration, one gently pushes away all outside thoughts and is drawn close to the Divine.

We never thought of this as meditation. When people come to me and say, “I’m a religious Jew, I pray every day. How should I meditate?” Now, I say, “Make your daily prayer into a meditation.” There are other meditations a person could do, but the major meditation that a Jew does can be part of the service. And this whole methodology was part of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings in Hasidism. Although many other schools of Jewish meditation had existed, what the Baal Shem Tov did was to make the normal prayer service the integral part of Jewish meditation.

I might add that in Kabbalah, one of the important teachings is that every act that a person does throughout the day can and does become a meditation; that every act that a person does throughout the day can create a unification.

Lex Hixon: I like the idea of unifying oneself with God, because it’s a more intimate expression. It shows that the essence of the mystical path in all the traditions, which is forgetting oneself in the Divine, is also functioning in Jewish mysticism. There’s a point in the I/Thou relationship where one forgets that there’s any separation at all between the I and the Thou.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: There is nothing but Thee.

Lex Hixon: Nothing but Thee. The fact remains that if you had never gotten into Kabbalah, and your awareness hadn’t been sensitized by reading and studying with these great masters of Kabbalah, you might never have recognized Jewish practice as meditation.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: I would have been meditating, but not applying the word to it.

Lex Hixon: So Kabbalah is available in the world today. It’s not a lost tradition.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: By no means.

Lex Hixon: Jews, who karmically have more direct access to their tradition, but also, non-Jews who are drawn [to it], should know that Kabbalah is a real, living tradition, and we can have access to it. And in fact, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, teaches classes in Brooklyn.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: Kabbalah is a very powerful source, if one actually studies the Bible very carefully, one can find the root of all of Kabbalistic tradition right there in the Bible itself.

Lex Hixon: Let’s talk about the Hebrew word for meditation that you’ve focused on. Can you explain the inner meanings of that word and why translators and even Hebrew scholars have overlooked the fact that it really means “meditation”?

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: Yes, the word for meditation is Hitbodedut, which literally means “self-isolation.” If you look in most translations, even important meditative texts, they just translate it as “isolation.” You don’t get any idea that they’re talking about meditation.

The first clue I found was in a text by Maimonides’ son, where he speaks about isolation. And he says there are two types of self-isolation—there’s external isolation and internal isolation. And using that same word, he says external isolation is going into caves and forests and deserts to be alone with the Divine. Internal isolation, he describes as isolating one’s mind from all thought and from all sensation. So Hitbodedut means isolation, but isolation more in the meditative sense than the physical sense—secluding yourself from this world as a way to open yourself to the spiritual world.

Lex Hixon: You write as some length about Ezekiel’s vision in the Bible. This is a rare instance in which a prophet spoke about the method of experiencing [meditation]and then described the form of the experience. Can you illustrate what you’ve said about meditation in terms of Ezekiel’s vision?

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: According to the Talmud, Ezekiel’s experience was experienced by every prophet before him. He was among the last prophets, and he was the only one to explain it.

As it begins, he sees a stormy wind coming from the north and a dark cloud flashing fire. The Zohar explains that these were the different mental states that he was experiencing. When you first start meditating, you feel all the storminess within yourself: All the conflicts, all the problems come to the surface. This is the stormy wind. Then, everything goes blank, and you’re in Ezekiel’s dark and deep cloud. You feel that there’s no place to go, that you’re lost. Next, you start seeing a light, but you can’t stand it. It’s like a fire. If you’re not prepared, it will burn you. Then you see the glow, out of the dark.

 

 

Lex Hixon: And then, out of that light in Ezekiel’s vision, comes the silent voice…

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: Hashmal. It’s a very mystical word, Hashmal, that Ezekiel speaks about, which is translated as “everything.” In modern Hebrew, it became the word for electricity, even though it has absolutely no relationship at all to electricity. Hashmal—in the Talmud, it is described as the “speaking silence.” One gains a total inner silence, one is able to really listen, and only then one can hear. What people usually ignore in Ezekiel’s vision is the very end. The whole vision is a meditation in preparation for hearing the Word.

Listening is probably the most important element in Judaism. In fact, the creed of Judaism begins, “Hear O Israel.” We’re told that we have to listen, we have to open up our minds and our hearts to hear the truth.

Lex Hixon: Can you share with us one of Rabbi Nachman’s actual techniques that people can use in their daily life?

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov lived around the end of the 18th, beginning of the 19th century. He was a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who was the founder of the Hasidic movement. He felt that Jewish meditation should be open to anybody. Rabbi Nachman said that if you want to meditate, go out someplace where nobody’s going to bother you, a field or a quiet street. Or in a room by yourself under your covers at night, or sitting perhaps in the house of study, looking at a book so nobody will disturb you. Then just talk to God. Talk to the Divine in your own words, quietly, deeply, with longing and yearning for unification. Express your own words to God. Do this, he says, for an hour every day.

This method doesn’t require any training. It doesn’t require any great knowledge. Just your own words. His students started doing this. Once, one of his students came to him and said, “But Rebbe, Rebbe, I don’t have any words. I sit, and nothing comes. What do I do then?”

Rabbi Nachman said, “Take the words, ‘Lord of the Universe,’ and just say it over and over and over again.”

It is told that years later a Hasid came to Rabbi Nachman and said, “In my city, we have a great genius who knows a thousand pages of the Talmud by heart. Can you imagine that?” Rabbi Nachman said, “That’s very impressive. But I have a little Hasid who can say the same prayer a thousand times. I consider him to be just as great.”

Any person can sit down in a quiet place and just start: “O God, help me. Bring me close to you. I want you. I want to experience you. I want to feel the sweetness and infinite joy of being close to you.” Everybody has his own words for this. Rabbi Nachman says that the smallest child, the simplest person could make use of this method, and so can the greatest scholar and the most spiritually advanced person.

 

Lex Hixon: It’s a beautiful unification of all the different levels, and I think that it would be so important if people realized that meditation is something that can be done by the simplest, most childlike person, and the most advanced person. They will see that their soul is the same.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: There’s a whole literature on Kabbalistic meditation. You really needed a very, very skilled master; otherwise, it would be very easy to go astray. In his method, Rabbi Nachman felt that anybody who would begin this method would automatically go on the straight path, and could advance without any outside help.

Lex Hixon: Could you give us one more approach to meditation?

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: When we talked about the speaking silence, I mentioned the importance of listening. Every Jew knows the creed of the Jew is Shema Yisrael: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4.

How often do we really think and contemplate what these six words mean? The message there is that God is one, that there’s a basic unity to all creation. But first you have to listen, Israel. Listening correctly is essentially a meditative exercise.

Then we say Hashem Eloheinu: “The Lord is our God.” When we say “our God,” it means that we have access to Him, although you’re speaking about a unity beyond anything that the human mind can grasp. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe puts it very nicely when he writes that just like the hand cannot grasp a thought, so the mind cannot grasp the Divine. Our God is not abstract. We have access to Him. But first, you have to listen. You have to learn to open your mind, open every cell in your brain, so that this message of unity can enter.

Perhaps the best meditation of all, and one of the most effective that I’ve used has been to say the Shema itself these six words. Let us just think the words right now: Shema, listen; Yisrael, Israel; Hashem, the Lord; Eloheinu, our God; Hashem, the Lord; Ehud, is One.

Lex Hixon: Can you use that as a mantra? Would that be something to repeat with each breath?

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: No, don’t repeat. Just say it once, very, very slowly and very, very deeply. Let’s try it. I’ll be saying Hashem instead of the divine name. But I think the general mood will come across.

Let’s prepare ourselves. Actually, the morning service, as introduction to the Shema, starts out by taking us up to the cosmic world, to the world of the stars and the planets. Then the service takes us up even higher to the world of angels. And in the prayer service, we speak about how the angels sing praise; “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts. The whole world is filled with His glory.” And we go yet higher. “Blessed is the glory of God from His place.” And even higher and higher and higher, until we come to Havas Elom, the Universe of Love. And we enter into this universe of love and unification. And finally, when we have reached that level, we’re ready to listen. And at that point, we say the Shema:

Shema Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Ehud.

In the Torah, the very next word is translated as “You will love.” If you really listen, the love comes of its own.

Lex Hixon: Aryeh, thank you for your scholarship and for your many books, and thank you very much for coming and helping create a Shabbas mood. It’s been a joy.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: It’s my pleasure being here.

 

Lex Hixon at WBAI

 

Read CONVERSATIONS IN THE SPIRIT, part 7, with Swami Muktananda (November 3rd, 1974)  here.

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Lex Hixon

Lex Hixon was an accomplished spiritual practitioner and author who explored extensively the great religious traditions. He authored nine books and spent 13 years hosting the radio program, “In the Spirit”, on WBAI where he interviewed many prominent spiritual teachers. He died in 1995.

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