Rabbi Yoel Glick may well be the most important Jewish meditation teacher you have not yet heard of. I say “not yet,” because Yoel’s long and self-imposed obscurity is ending.
For more than 30 years, Yoel has been my meditation partner, fellow member in a Jerusalem-based circle of friends exploring contemplative Jewish practices. Warm and empathic, with graying beard, knitted kippah and tzitzit fringes peeking out, he could pass for a typical Orthodox rabbi. But there’s nothing typical about Yoel Glick. His intensity reveals a single-minded urgency: to renew Judaism as a spiritual path to God realization.
In the last year, Glick has published two seminal works on the spiritual life. The first, “Living the Life of Jewish Meditation,” is the best contemporary manual I know of on the contemplative Jewish path. The second, “Walking the Path of the Jewish Mystic,” daringly renews the Jewish mystical tradition of describing the nature and function of Divinity. Both books, published by Jewish Lights, draw deeply on Kabbalah and Hasidism – as well as on the mystical wisdom of other faiths, especially Vedanta, the ancient monotheistic core of Hinduism.
Glick grew up in Toronto. His spiritual search began as a teenager, prompted by the death of his mother. Around that same time his aunt married Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the Hasidic singer and spiritual teacher, and Glick became part of Carlebach’s inner circle. Glick went on to receive ordination from Carlebach and also from Yeshiva University.
Glick and his wife Nomi moved to Israel in 1981 and settled in the Old City. There he opened a school for Jewish studies called Hochmat Halev (Wisdom of the Heart). Hundreds of spiritual seekers came to study Kabbalah and Hasidism and Jewish meditation.
But the success of Hochmat Halev left Glick increasingly uneasy. I’m not ready to be a spiritual teacher, he told friends. He needed to go inward, to deepen. And so he did the almost inconceivable: He shut down a thriving educational institution and went silent.
He and Nomi moved to the south of France, and then for a while to India, where he immersed in Hindu mysticism, even as he deepened his study of Kabbalah.
At age 61, Glick is now going public, teaching and lecturing in North America as well as in Israel. He divides his time between his home in southern France and in Jerusalem, where the following conversation took place.
Yossi Klein Halevi: When you and I started exploring Jewish meditation together over 30 years ago, spirituality was on the fringes of Jewish life. Today we’re seeing a growing interest in Kabbalah and Jewish meditation. The transformation is extraordinary. There’s a proliferation of books on Jewish mysticism, rabbis are attending meditation retreats sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and some synagogues have even introduced meditation into Shabbat services. Where do you see this spiritual renewal heading?
So many people in search of God have gone to the East. I decided that it was time to try to help recreate that same kind of path in Judaism
Yoel Glick: The next step is to return the personal relationship with God to the center of our religious life. There’s a wealth of information, practices and knowledge in Judaism about how to access God. We’ve been doing this for 3,500 years, beginning in the time when we had prophets and seers, and going through the Kabbalistic and Hasidic masters who knew how to tap into this experience. But we’ve lost contact with that dimension of Judaism, with the yearning for God experience, and particularly we’ve lost contact with the tools to achieve this kind of inner experience. What we really need to do is search the sources for the tools we need.
I spent many years studying the mystical paths and following the spiritual practices of Eastern traditions. What’s amazing about those traditions is that God is the center point. Knowing God is the whole goal of the system. That’s why so many people in search of God have gone to the East. After fifteen years of focusing on Eastern teaching and practice, I decided that it was time to try to help recreate that same kind of path in Judaism.
But that’s not so simple to do. The East has a carefully laid out plan of how you reach that place. Judaism has a wealth of knowledge and information of how to get there, but it’s buried in mountains of commentary, exegesis, folklore.
So your work is to systematize this knowledge.
The work is to mine and to systematize – and to express the teaching in the language of contemporary spirituality. When I went back to the Jewish sources with the lens of Eastern teaching, the direct talk about God and how to experience God, I started to find parallels in the teaching of Hasidism and Kabbalah. But they’re like buried gems, you have to dig deep to uncover them.
To do this you have to understand the language.
You have to understand the language of direct experience, and also of Hasidism and Kabbalah.
So you’ll read a passage in a Hassidic work and realize that what the author is describing is not an idea but an experience.
Actually a lot of it began with parallels to Eastern texts. I’d read something in Ramakrishna [the 19th century Indian saint], and then I’d find almost the exact same idea in the Baal Shem Tov. They were talking about how you live your life in the world. Ramakrishna said you should live your life like a maidservant in a rich man’s house.
Even when she is taking care of his kids and calling them my Rama and my Krishna as if they were her own children, all the time her mind is back in her village at home thinking about her real children. The Baal Shem Tov talks about how one should walk in the world as if all the time we’re actually in the higher worlds. Like a person out on a journey who is doing everything he has to do, taking care of his business, but one part of his mind is always thinking, “When am I going to get back home?”. And I realized that the Baal Shem Tov is living that life, he has been in that place of experience.
Where the invisible reality is stronger than the material reality.
Where that inner reality becomes foremost in your consciousness. One of the seminal teachings in the Baal Shem Tov is that you are where your thoughts are. He understood that if your mind is connected to that inner reality, then it doesn’t matter where you are, you are with God.
I am devoting myself to finding those places in Judaism that tell you how you can be always with God. I pull them out of their context, for example a commentary on the Parshat Hashavua [weekly Torah portion]. I pull the teaching out of the exegesis and say — look, he’s telling you how to walk in the world in God’s presence. This extraction can be especially useful today when so many Jews lack the background for traditional study. So I say, come, you don’t have to spend twenty years studying Talmud in order to study Kabbalah and get at this essential spiritual knowledge; let’s just take it out and put it right there. You want to go to God? This is how you do it.
What is your definition of contemplative Jewish meditation? How does it work?
The Kabbalah talks about two aspects of mind. Daat Elyon, which is the higher mind, and Daat Tachton, the lower mind. The lower mind is the physical mind we use to negotiate our way around the world. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be able to do much. But that’s really only one aspect of our consciousness. There’s a deeper, higher aspect of our consciousness which is our soul mind. That aspect of mind connects us to the reality of mind beyond the physical; it connects us to the world of spirit and the realm of direct knowing.
Meditation is about linking these two aspects of the mind together. The Indians talk about using the lower mind to take us into the higher mind. They are both composed of consciousness, which is the essence of our being, the essence of reality. Consciousness is the place where we form the bridge between the finite and the infinite. All meditation techniques are just different ways of helping us build and then cross over that bridge.
And our higher mind is a part of the mind of God.
One of the astonishing things that happens when you first begin to meditate is that you discover that when you stop talking, you’re not quiet. There’s a riot going on in your mind
There is a wonderful teaching from the Ari [the 16th century master Kabbalist] where he says that there is the physical Torah down here, but there is also a supernal Torah in the higher worlds. The supernal Torah is the first Divine thought that is the basis for the manifest universe. It embodies the truth of all being and all life – what God wants and hopes for the universe. According to the Ari, each of us is a letter in this Supernal Torah. The root of our soul is that universal consciousness. We’re each one bit of that universal consciousness, of that eternal truth, which we’re meant to reveal in our life and in our world. Meditation is a way of accessing that primal source, of being reconnected back to the essence of who we are. This is the unique aspect of a human being.
Let’s connect this specifically to meditation. How do you understand the different stages of meditation? How does the process work in a Jewish context?
The first stage in any meditation process is stilling the mind. One of the astonishing things that happens when you first begin to meditate is that you discover that when you stop talking, you’re not quiet. There’s a riot going on in your mind.
The first years of meditation are spent trying to quiet the mind. One way of stilling the mind is by concentrating on the breath. When you focus on the breath, it literally slows the mind down, puts you into the rhythm of the breath, allows you to become calm and relaxed, to become quiet and still. From that place you can begin to go inward into a deeper state of consciousness. Otherwise you’re coming back every second into the physical consciousness of the stream of thoughts that’s flowing all of the time.
One of the basic tools of Kabbalistic meditation is to visualize the four-letter name of God, the Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh. What is the impact of that practice?
The Name is a visualization technique which creates a place of meeting between ourselves and God.
We live in the physical realm. And God and all those who are part of God are in the spiritual realm. There has to be a way for the two to meet. We can’t meet in the physical, but we can meet in the mind. That’s the incredible beauty of a human being, that we have a mind. And we can use that mind to connect to that which is infinite.
So the mind is the meeting ground between the finite and the infinite.
Yes. And we use that meeting ground to bridge the gap between ourselves and God. When you do visualization you are creating an image in consciousness, which takes on life and has a spiritual vibration. When you listen to the radio, you have to tune in to the right frequency in order to get the program you want. So if we want to get the God program we use a visualization that is on the God frequency.
The image of the Name has a history behind it. For thousands of years people have been using the Name to go toward God, so it has energy built into it. Secondly, it comes from people who have known God. Each religion uses different spiritual symbols, names, and images, as a way to take one toward God. If you’re a Buddhist, you might use the Buddha, if you’re Christian, Jesus, if you’re Hindu, Krishna or Rama, but in Judaism, we don’t use anthropomorphic images. What we do have is sacred Divine names. We visualize the Divine names and create that meeting point in consciousness with God.
How far back does the use of the Divine Name as a contemplative tool go in Judaism?
The use of the Name as a spiritual practice goes back to Biblical times. Psalm 99:6 says “u’Shmuel be korei Shemo” – “and Shmuel [the Prophet] among those who called on His Name.” The prophets knew how to call on the Name and harness its spiritual power.
In the Temple in ancient Israel, invoking the Name also played a central role. The tradition says that on Yom Kippur, the most spiritually potent moment in the Jewish calendar, the High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies and then come out and bless the people using the name Yud Heh Vav Heh. When he pronounced the Name, a wave of such tremendous Divine power would emanate from him that all of the people gathered in the Temple courtyard would be thrown on their faces and all of their sins would be wiped away.
These teachings come to tell us that the purpose of meditation and prayer is to enable us to connect with the infinite and then bring its power down into our consciousness, our lives and our world. That is the essence of religion. We need a path in Judaism that once again makes this work our central focus, a path where we go back to being “Callers of the Name.”
So the purpose of Jewish meditation is not just to enhance the spiritual experience of the individual meditator. It’s for the meditator to be a conduit for the Divine spirit to flow into the world.
The center point of all of our meditation practices is to transform ourselves into a fitting vessel for the light and power of God to flow into the world. The Baal Shem Tov insisted that the transformation of the world will only arise out of the spiritual transformation of the individual. Until you’ve transformed yourself, the world will never be redeemed. He understood that doing good in the world isn’t enough. Inner transformation, linking yourself up to something greater than yourself, to God, to the soul of Israel, brings that power and consciousness into your being and makes you an effective instrument to change the world. When people have made a real inner connection, they become transformed. Their consciousness expands and their heart opens. They become compassionate, aware, present and alive.
Your new book, Walking the Path of the Jewish Mystic, is an inquiry into the nature of God. That pursuit is an old Kabbalistic tradition, but it’s been largely lost as a living expression of Jewish life. You present some far-reaching and quite daring insights. Where did you draw your sources from?
First, from Judaism: Kabbalah, Hasidism, rabbinic teaching and the Torah itself. But I see all these sources through the lens of other mystical traditions, and of my own spiritual experience. The Eastern religions and some of the esoteric traditions really focus their understanding of the Godhead on experiential knowledge. That also happened in Judaism originally. Meditation offered an experience of God, of the spiritual realm of oneness.
Of the reality of God. Monotheism not just as belief but as experience.
It’s an experience of the underlying unity of being, the true nature of our reality. Then the mystics come down after this experience and take a look at our world. That isn’t how the real world looks. So they ask, what is the relationship between that vision and this world? And how do we articulate it?
How do they explain the dichotomy between the perfected world they’ve just experienced and the broken world they return to?
Two things happen. They go up and touch this place of unity, light, harmony, peace, and flowing love, and then they come down into a world where there is disharmony, darkness, and hatred, and the dichotomy between the two is acutely painful. But every time they go up into the light, they are able to bring a little of that light back down into the world. This changes the way they live in the world. Some of that higher consciousness becomes part of how they live in this world, how they interact in their life, and their relationships with others. It’s out of this experience that the Kabbalistic teachings arose.
For me, the most essential are the teachings of the Ari, who talks about the “shattering of the vessels.” This universe initially was a universe of light, but that universe was shattered and then everything became a mixture of netzuzot, sparks of light and klipot, shards of matter – everything became a mixture of light and darkness. Therefore, everything in this world is imperfect, on some level broken. But that’s only the first half of his vision. The second half is that it can be fixed. What we’re doing here is raising up the sparks. Essentially, bringing the light into the world. Trying to take the world and infuse it with that light.
Tikkun olam has become the language for Jewish social activism. But you’re talking about a different kind of tikkun – Letaken olam b’malkhut shaddai, to repair the world by bringing the power of the Kingdom of Heaven down to earth.
That’s why the key concept here is experience. If you just understand the Kabbalah as poetic metaphor, then you are missing its true purpose and meaning. The mystical teaching is really an attempt to express an inexpressible inner reality and experience. As you go toward that place and try to connect with it through meditation and contemplation of the teaching, you actually move into those inner realities. The study of spiritual wisdom via contemplation is a pathway into the mind of God.
You are implicitly challenging the various ways in which Jews today relate to Kabbalah. In the liberal community, it’s through social justice. In academia, it’s theoretical study. For some writers and poets it’s become a source for romantic metaphors. What you’re saying is that we need to go back to the original intent of the Kabbalistic system, which was to experience something of God’s Presence.
All of those other ways of looking at Kabbalah also serve a useful purpose. But if you want to make God the center of your life, then you have to look at it differently. A shift is needed. Perhaps, one hundred years ago, it was enough to just experience God. Today, people also need to understand. Human beings have changed, evolved, our consciousness is different. A modern person going into meditation needs to understand the dynamics of meditation. Part of what Kabbalah is teaching is what is happening in those inner processes, what’s happening when you meditate.
Most people, when they meditate, have an experience, and they are happy to have the experience, but they have no idea what’s actually going on. The teachings of Kabbalah and Hasidism are there to tell you, this is the science of meditation. This is what is occurring when you sit down to meditate. You learn to understand your soul.
So you’re reading Kabbalah and Hasidism as roadmaps for the journey of the soul back to its source.
The great Hasidic teachers, particularly the early generations — the Baal Shem Tov, Dov Baer of Mezeritch, Shneur Zalman of Liadi [the first Lubavitcher Rebbe], Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Nachman of Breslov — all saw their teachings as vehicles to express their inner reality and as a way to explain the dynamics of how you connect to God. This is also true for the Kabbalists — Cordovero, the Ari, the author of the Zohar — and it is the purpose behind many of the stories in the Torah as well. We’ve just stopped looking at the sources in this way.
If you want to understand God, it’s not enough to just go to one religion. Each religion has described one part of the divine reality. Each has got an important contribution
In your books, you draw not only on Jewish sources, but on other religions, particularly Hinduism, as parallel and sometimes overlapping roadmaps. In your very original work you discern points of intersection between the traditions, as a tool to help the seeker on the way. How do you get past the strangeness of the language and imagery in the other traditions? For example, Jews tend to think of Hinduism as idolatry. How do you, as a rabbi, get past those obstacles?
I took the journey into those other religions. Particularly into Vedanta, the monotheistic aspect of Hinduism. One of the things I learned is that spiritual experience is universal. Any seeker who goes into that inner reality is going to the same place. There’s one God. We experience it in different ways according to our cultural background. So the language of Hinduism is a reflection of their language and culture and way of seeing the world. But the actual experience which the Hindu mystics are trying to describe is no different from what the Kabbalists and Hasidim are describing using their own language and metaphors.
Some Jews would say, Why bother? Don’t we have all that wisdom in Judaism? Why do you need to be going to Vedanta, Sufism?
A well-known Indian parable describes a group of blind men who are wandering around and they happen upon an elephant. One of them hugs a leg and says, Oh, it’s like a pillar. Another grabs hold of an ear and says, Oh, it’s like a fan. A third grabs the tail and says it’s like a rope. They all think they’ve figured out what an elephant looks like. But all they have been able to do is to touch one part. Because they’re blind, and they can’t really see it. That’s the condition of human beings.
We don’t have the equipment to understand the whole of the Divine reality. We’re limited physical creatures. So if you want to understand God, it’s not enough to just go to one religion. Each religion has described one part of the divine reality. Each has got an important contribution. I think that Jewish mystical tradition has certain elements that are universal, and also unique insights to contribute to the overall understanding. But you need input from all of the religions in order to get the larger picture. And the incredible opportunity of our time is that for the first time we can have easy access to all of these different traditions. So we can have these cross-fertilizations that enable us to get a wider picture of that higher reality. This approach combines the depth of knowledge that comes from studying the teachings and practices in our own tradition with the expansive vision that comes from exploring the wisdom of other faiths.
Let’s talk about your vision for concretizing this work.
Right now, my energies are concentrated on helping to create a path in Judaism that focuses on God-consciousness. My books are written as manuals for seekers setting out on the path, tools for further study and practice. But ultimately, manuals are not enough. Anything you do from a manual can go wrong without proper guidance. What’s really needed is a place where people can be trained in how to follow this path. We need a center where people can spend time, where they can work on building that inner link to God’s living presence. The work would consist of the practice of meditation and prayer, the study of spiritual wisdom and the work of self-transformation. If you can’t get yourself right, then all of this is a waste of time.
The schedule would also include counseling with a staff member, for work on one’s own particular path and struggles. What are the areas in your makeup that you need to work on? And where do you need to grow? Because part of this work is self-transformation. You work on your anger, on greed, on having more compassion. In any kind of community where you have interactions with people, there’s lots of opportunities to be shown what you still need to work on in yourself.
This center could be a way to train the next generation of Jewish spiritual leaders. Twenty-first century rabbis.
The next generation will still need traditional rabbis, but they will also need a new kind of spiritual leader who is focused on the knowledge of God. Rabbis who have real inner experience and can share that experience with others. Because for serious seekers today, wisdom that comes from inner experience is the only authentic knowledge.
Rabbi Yoel Glick can be reached at his website, Daatelyon.org.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative. He is the author of Like Dreamers, which won the Jewish Book Council’s Everett Family Jewish Book of the Year Award for 2013.