Jewish Monasticism’s role in Jewish ancestral trauma healing, and as an expression of a universal human inclination & spectrum.
For over two decades, starting with my adolescent solo time at my art studio (earlier, playing Legos?), in the silence of the Zen Buddhist Monastery I trained in, while bearing witness at sites of human tragedies & triumph around the world, and through how I live today with long stretches of solitude, I have been engaging with the notion of monasticism.
Life’s turns, enhanced by a global pandemic, dropped any last confidence of mine in a sense of stability or fixedness, within and without.
(I have been living week-to-week nomadic solitary life for over two years now, or, nearly 26 years if I count from leaving my family home in Israel, never staying in any one place more than two years. Some folks asked me, this is one of the reasons I was able to come here to Poland and support as I do the Ukrainian efforts.)
And yet, I rely on something. What is it like to have single-pointed dedication to this … one thing? What is this one thing? More on that later. For now, for the purpose of this article, I want to concentrate on the form and practices that this investigation is taking. What practices, what decisions, contribute to such a life?
Since being reacquainted with my Jewish ancestral lineage, I have been exploring the contentious, but very ancestrally real, subject of Jewish monasticism. But notice that even this word monasticism is not rooted in Hebrew, meaning, something else is setting the rules of this conversation. Based on preconceived ideas, many associate monasticism with celibacy, asceticism, solipsism, exclusive communal living, or hermits living remotely etc. These are expressions that often use a language (English in this case,) biased by most often Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. Nothing wrong in these! It just a different thing. In Judaism, and the Hebrew language, Nezirut, נזירות, has its own form, some of which is independent of the notions I listed above.
Judaean sages that codified Jewish life in early centuries, touched on the biblical source of Nazir practice. I will not list them here. My insights do refer to them and I will share about them in later time. And, if you continue reading, you will see a more pertinant reason I don’t lead with them.
From my Zen training, I learned to rely on direct experience over scripture, teacher, community, dogma, place or even ‘nature.’ This goes back to the fifth-sixth century Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma’s core insight, which later became the creed of the Son (Korean), Chan (Chinese), Zen (Japanese) schools of Buddhism.
Bodhidharma disrupted institutional Buddhism by relinquishing reliance on anything beyond direct pointing to the human mind/heart. Radical stuff. Judaism never had such a moment. Since the 1st century CE, the rise of Talmudic Rabbinic Judaism, and of one Jewish rebel mendicant called Jesus, many have tried. They were rebuked at best, ostracized and excommunicated at worst. Fears of another messiah, or anyone directly pointing or in contact with divinity, disrupting the status quo, resulted in distancing the Jewish collective entity from its esotric heart. Mystics in the following centuries had to diminish their insight to remain within the normative ways of their communities to fulfill basic needs.
In Autumn 2021 I visited Israel in a highly private trip, mostly to the north district of the Galilee, to the magical forests bordering with Lebanon, and the mountains and vallies that were the backdrop for Jesus’ travels and the lives and deaths of the Taanaim, early Judaean masters. Covid and Palestinian occupation raged on. Israel was a different country than the one I left 21 years ago. I found the greatest solice, not to my surprise, at Mivdad Netufah — a Catholic convent and a compound of hermitages (such thing is called a laura, I learned.) Overlooking Beit Netufah valley and carved into a thousand years old cistern was its main chappel. I spent a silent morning there, along with silent nuns. We exchanged appreciating smiles. A few days later, I visited Port of Akko on the mediterranean, where Rabbi Haim Luzatto (RamKHa”L) alighted a ship after being sent away by his Jewish-Italian community, prohibited from teaching and practicing kabbalah.
What does the Nazir ask of me, today? What does it have to do with a church carved in cistern? An old port city? Recurring dreams of years spent at Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York? Nazir is the component of my mind that insists on being a Temple of One. On prioritizing my relationship with Not-Knowing/Yah (one name of the Hebrew god)/Thusness (one English word used to refer to the Buddhist nothingness in an affirmative way), FIRST; Being convinced that serving the world will only benefit from more connection with what sources a wakeful, present, available me. It is an agency and freedom of mind beyond conditions; Nazir is the lover of this Yah. The part of me that is dedicated to my spiritual wellbeing, cares for it, and seeks those who can support when my tools are dull.
It’s the part of me that, on Leil Shavuot — a sacred night traditionally dedicated to dairy foods and rigorous study into the night celebrating everyone’s (not only Jews’) enlightenment on Mount Sinai — is satisfied with consuming a large tray of Pizza and being drunk on davenning (jewish prayer-singing) past midnight in Krakow’s old Jewish Quarter alone. It’s the part of me that came to Poland without the support of a religious organization, movement or congregation to bear witness to the Ukranian exodus. It refers to Not Knowing, First. Awareness, first; Mystery, first. It is not in conflict with other modes of beings with others, it is just not limited by or tethered to them.
Learning from my autistic and nonbinary siblings, I thought, what if monasticism is a spectrum, a kind of convergence of neurodiveristy and a spiritual calling? A spectrum on which one can self-identify and self-locate the form of their spiritual experience in a vast, nuanced field, untethered from a normative ways of presenting? The talmudic teachings, in fact support this — they say that if anyone, even in passing, identifies as a nazir, they are a nazir.
Unlike other identifiers, currently there are few resources and communities for those on the monastic spectrum, most are denominational and refer to a rule (as an in a religious order,) one must uphold.
Self-referential, or even worse, the no orientation of deep experience of Not Knowing, is very foreign and even scary to many Jews. I, like many, am conditioned to refer to the collective, to authority, to the written words and their guards. Mirror neurons, the part of our brain that reflects another person’s cognition are so cherished, exercised in arguments, debates, opining, explaining. They save us from the pain under the surface from millenia of tragedies, persecution and genocide. There is much trauma in my people’s collective soul and our bodies. Jewish & Zen Buddhist teacher Bernie Glassman used to tell me, “Buddhists need to learn to talk more, Jews need to learn to talk less.” I have heard a saying attributed to Reb. Zalman z”l saying half-jokingly, that (I am paraphrasing,) “Jews will make terrible buddhists because we are a highly attached people.” What if we have internalized abdicating our own attention and a sense of belonging to the doggon universe, for the sense of belonging to a people? The yearning for a way out of this conundrum drove countless Jews to other spiritual paths, especially in Asia.
The Nazir is the Jewish part of me that says, I need to cultivate radical solitary Presence, first. I have been forgotten for too long, it says. Healing the collective, it continues, is predicated by healing this awareness. Then, bring this awareness to the collective, affect it with its frequency.
Understanding the necessary but ultimately porous spectrum of the dualities inward & outwards, self & collective, my Nazir engages the world from that place of Tohu, the hebrew word in Sefer Bereshit (Book of Genesis) often translated as either chaos or void, but which the Kabbalists saw as the field of infinite centerless fullness, the totality of interconnectivity, and potential creativity (Buddhists please read: Shunyata, nothingness, emptiness) from which all rises before awareness (and awareness itself,) and from which Tikkun, fundamental restoration, manifests.
When I shared about this with others, they have been interested, inspired and even relieved to learn about the possibility of this radical way of being, to introduce a sliver of it to their own ways, making it their own.
So, I thought of “Nazir: Temple of One.” I envision this as an unfolding conversation I want to have about how I live a part of my life and particularly about demystifying & reclaiming Jewish monasticism and monasticism in general, in light of nondual, mind-first embodiment, radical single-pointedess + yearning + dvekut (Hassidic term encapsulating dedication, determination, cleaving to something dearly. How is that different from Buddhism’s clinging you ask? Great question. It is.)
More questions I have revolve around what I call the Road, the Cave, the Marketplace, the Fellowship, and the Crisis, codewords that relate to a spectrum of world-facing.
You may ask, “So long story short, are you a Nazir now?” My ‘Nazir’ is not enamored by its own name and function either. I do not hold it as my new ‘identity’ now — unless I mean naming an important part of my experience, today, because I sense it may benefit from being explored and seen with others — ‘benefit’ meaning: Freed. Unclungged-to. Simplified. Absorbed into the whole. Changed in the eye of awareness — Like everything else.
To be clear — my experience of Suchness, direct experience of reality-as-it-is, is not jewish, or buddhist. I am engaging with the Hebrew word here as a skillful mean to see, engage, lubricate and ultimately liberate a stuck aspect of my human cognition, that is related to a unique-but-not-special human lineage on this blue planet revolving a burning ball of gas. At the end of the (solar) day, everything is porous, through and through. No merit.
Lots of words here. Bernie would challenge me, “What does it have to do with being a mensch (Yiddish word for a good person)?” At the end, his question is my ultimate litmus test.
I will share more about ways I’d like to engage with this Nazir in practice and conversations soon. Many of the ideas above are only trailheads of much longer exportations, and they are just a part of my notes on the subject. At this moment, I am appreciating having your eyes and ears this long. Thank you.
(Feel welcome to leave a comment with how you relate to this.)