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Jewish Journeys: Decoding the Torah’s Wisdom through Buddhist Meditation

May 27, 2014
by Richard S. Ellis The TunnelI am a Jew by birth, a mathematician by profession, and a meditator and lover of Torah narratives by choice. In this article I relate the interweaving stories of how I made these two choices — without becoming a Buddhist and without becoming Orthodox — and of how these choices made me. This article is for you if you are perplexed, as I used to be, by the reverence with which the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, is honored by Jewish tradition and practice. How are secular people to interpret the statement in the prayer book that the Torah is “a Tree of Life to those who cleave to it, and all its supporters are happy,” or the teaching in the Talmud that exhorts us, in reference to the Torah, to “turn it over and turn it over, for everything is in it,” or the insight of the German poet, Heinrich Heine, that the Torah is the portable homeland of the Jews, or, perhaps most extreme, the belief that the Torah, as an inexhaustible fountain of wisdom and spiritual sustenance, is no less than the key to the survival of the Jewish people? Understanding began to dawn for me, quite by chance, when my family and I spent a sabbatical in Israel in 1982. This was an event of negligible probability, given my total rejection, as a young adult raised Orthodox, of everything Jewish. Israel changed my life. While living there, I could touch the vital heart of a vibrant Jewish culture that welcomed me without conditions, and I could feel the fertile soil that had nurtured my Jewish roots since antiquity. And all this happened outside the synagogue, which is the only access available to most Jews in the diaspora. When the sabbatical ended and I returned home to America, I faced a major challenge: How could I keep Israel alive in my heart? Eventually, I realized that the answer was the Hebrew language, a natural choice given my love of languages. The Yiddish I had heard as a child morphed into the German that in high school came to me so effortlessly that at Harvard I majored in German literature and math. Back in the U.S. in 1982, I taught myself Hebrew and studied the Torah with a friend who was becoming Orthodox and gave me the first taste of what would later become a passion: the narratives of the Torah. While my friend read them as theology, I made the startling discovery that I could read them as literature, for which I could draw upon my experience reading Goethe and Schiller, Rilke and Kafka and Thomas Mann at Harvard. I came to see that the resources of Biblical Hebrew make the narratives of the Torah unique. They exhibit a fertile ambiguity, a magical panoply of self-transforming literary techniques, a fluidity of word, theme, and character pregnant with possibilities and unavailable in any translation. As I became aware of the open-endedness, multiple interpretability, and vast reach of the Hebrew of the Torah, I was inspired to bring to my everyday life the same awareness of interdependence and infinite possibilities. I will substantiate these strong claims by briefly discussing Biblical Hebrew and then analyzing a critical passage in Genesis. The magic of the language of the Torah flows naturally from its structure, which is based on three-letter consonantal roots and is written without vowels and without punctuation. Different placements of vowels and punctuation often yield diverse meanings that immeasurably deepen the plain sense of the text. Because of the structure of the language, the infinitely creative text of the Torah is effortlessly able to engage in literary artifices such as paradox, wordplay, and puns, all of which allow the text to speak in multiple voices from multiple perspectives. These comments point to the hidden modernity of the ancient text. Because it lacks vowels and punctuation, because of layers of ambiguity at the levels of letters, words, verses, and chapters, the Torah offers meaning not as an absolute quality of the text itself, but through the reader’s interaction with the text, which empowers the reader to experiment with alternate placements of vowels and punctuation in order to discover new meanings. These features of Biblical Hebrew confer upon it a unique poetic power. As the critic George Steiner observes in A Preface to the Hebrew Bible, “[t]he consonantal structure of all Hebrew writing... allows, indeed makes unavoidable, a polysemic plurality and richness of possible readings probably unmatched by any other written tongue.” Written without vowels or punctuation and based on three-letter consonantal roots, it is an ideal medium to describe the intensity and depth of the human encounter with what lies beyond words and language and concepts. In this sense, the Torah speaks a Buddhist language, a textual analogue of the Buddhist way of living that encourages us to live in the moment, to improvise, to go with the flow, to use silence to go beyond words and language and concepts, to be open to the interdependence and infinite possibilities of every instant of our lives. Although the connections between the two traditions would eventually become clear to me, Buddhist teachings did not enter my life through Torah study. Their advent was much more traumatically dramatic. They would become my life raft after a tsunami of incapacitating headaches nearly drowned me starting in February 2000. I suffered from the pain and even more from my outrage over the pain, which I reacted to with anger, fear, and self-pity, all of which made my pain and suffering much worse. “How could this have happened?” I shouted. “Why me? Why now? I don’t deserve it.” During a meditation retreat in the summer of 2003, I realized the truth. It is not the pain that causes suffering, but the mental state associated with the pain. The mystery of this wisdom! It had taken me three and a half years to understand deeply what I could now express in a single short sentence. Meditation and Buddhist teachings healed the suffering caused by chronic headaches and bestowed other rewards of infinite value, opening me up to the vast landscape on the other side of pain, to the unknowable mystery and grandeur of life, of which the headaches and their comings and goings are a symbol. The insight gained from meditation is called mindfulness. This is the calm and direct awareness of what is happening in the present moment, in your body, in your mind, and in the world around you. By focusing your attention on the present moment, mindfulness cultivates wakefulness and wisdom. Mindfulness can also help us interpret the narratives of the Torah and decode their wisdom because their mode of exposition is pure mindfulness, the calm and direct awareness, without judgments or concepts or ego, of what the characters are doing and saying. The text offers no analysis, no embellishment, hardly any descriptions, essentially no insight into motive or emotion; it is a text of almost pure observation and sober, nonattached reporting. Why does Abraham agree to sacrifice Isaac? Why does Rebekah favor Jacob over Esau? Why does Isaac allow himself to be duped into giving Jacob the blessing that is intended for his firstborn son Esau? The text gives no answers. The reader must create meaning herself by filtering the text through her own life experiences. Let us now bring our mindfulness to two enigmatic verses in chapter 25 of Genesis. We use the translation by Richard Elliott Friedman in Commentary on the Torah. Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, is suffering from a painful pregnancy, her twin sons struggling within her. She screams, “If it’s like this, why do I exist?” a potent echo of my scream of self-pity and despair when the headaches first struck. We then read in Genesis 25:22 that “she went to inquire of YHWH.” How are people of a modern sensibility, who are reading the Torah as literature and not as theology, to interpret this? To answer this question, let us try to understand, in a literary sense, what the word “YHWH” means in the Hebrew original. “YHWH” is the unpronounceable transliteration of God’s unpronounceable name in the Hebrew original, usually translated as “the Lord” and sometimes as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” God is first called YHWH in verse 4 of chapter 2 of Genesis at the beginning of the second account of creation. Three verses later YHWH breathes the breath of life into the human whom YHWH has just fashioned. As Rabbi Arthur Green explains in Seek My Face, Seek My Name, “[i]t is to be read as an impossible conflation of the verb “ ‘to be,’ ” for which the most accurate rendition is “ ‘is–was–will be.’ ” He also suggests a connection between YHWH and breath:
Y-H-W-H is a verb that has been artificially arrested in motion and made to function as a noun.… [A]ll the letters that make up this name served in ancient Hebrew interchangeably as consonants and as vowels. Really they are mere vowels, mere breath.… The name of that which is most eternal and unchanging in the universe is also that which is wiped away as readily as a passing breath.
If we accept the correspondence between YHWH and the breath, then it follows that a theologically neutral way of inquiring of YHWH or of the breath, as Rebekah does in Genesis 25:22, is to meditate. While meditating, Rebekah hears a voice, recorded in Genesis 25:23 and traditionally interpreted as a voice of prophecy, but which we are free to interpret in a modern sense as the voice of her innate wisdom that she is able to access by being silent. Two nations are in your womb, and two people will be dispersed from your insides, and one people will be mightier than the other people, and the older the younger will serve. Rebekah’s attention is caught by the cryptic last line, which of course she hears in the original Hebrew. This line demands interpretation. The Hebrew has the word order of an adjective translated as “the older,” a verb translated as “will serve,” and an adjective translated as “the younger.” However, as Friedman points out, the text does not say unequivocally what is usually taken to be the standard reading, which is that the younger son (Jacob) will serve the older son (Esau). This reading is not sensitive to the enigmatic and artfully ambiguous Biblical formulation resulting in the tantalizing double entendre of the last line, which, like a Zen koan or a prophecy spoken by the Delphic oracle, has two opposite meanings. Either the younger son will serve the older son, or the older will serve the younger. What is the implication of the enigmatic verse, “and the older the younger will serve”? Mindfulness, cultivated by meditation, becomes Rebekah’s resource. Through her pain, her self-pity and despair dissolving into insight, Rebekah becomes mindful of the ambiguity of that line, which challenges her to interpret it and not to accept it in its literal, superficial sense. This verse invites Rebekah to observe her two children and decide which one, by his superior intelligence and wit, will prevail. It challenges her to take fate into her own hands by thinking for herself and by acting. Eventually she chooses Jacob, having decided to interpret the prophecy as “the older will serve the younger.” The alternate interpretation — “the older, the younger will serve” — is the normal working of society, in accordance with which the firstborn son inherits all of the family’s property and wealth through the system known as primogeniture. Rebekah challenges this conventional understanding of society by doing all she can to help her younger son Jacob prevail. The challenge to primogeniture undertaken by Rebekah becomes one of the main themes of Genesis and other books of the Torah. Her actions inspire future generations to challenge and eventually overturn primogeniture, which severely restricts the freedom of younger sons, in favor of a system based on merit and not on order of birth. Her actions are also a symbol of the new civilization that the Jewish people would create and that reciprocally would create the Jewish people and enhance the civilizations in which they would live. Meditation and Buddhist teachings invite us to use mindfulness to explore the vast landscape that lies beyond words and concepts. As I did when confronted by headaches, Rebekah, when confronted by a painful pregnancy, goes beyond words and concepts to interpret the mysterious voice that she heard while inquiring of her breath, planting the seeds that would eventually blossom in a new civilization based on challenging the conventional understanding of society and overturning it when necessary. When the last word is read in the fifth book of the Five Books of Moses, we cycle back to the first word of the first book, bereyshit, usually translated as “in the beginning” but having a depth of profound associations impossible to convey in translation. It is a cycling back of the heart because the last letter of the last word and the first letter of the first word spell the Hebrew word for “heart,” which is lev. We end this article the same way, by cycling back to the beginning. This cycling back of the heart is a spiral and not a circle because — I hope — this article has provided insight into why the Torah is honored so reverently by Jewish tradition and practice. As the story of Rebekah teaches us, the Torah is a record, in words, of our ancestors’ encounter with what lies beyond words. The narratives of the Torah encode their wisdom using the infinitely creative resources of Biblical Hebrew. If we accept the invitation to approach these narratives as literature and not as theology, then we are empowered to use mindfulness and techniques of literary analysis to decode their insights and thus enrich our lives by the wisdom that is revealed. Doing this, we realize that the Torah is a self-referential mirror. When we honor the Torah, we honor ourselves. Richard S. Ellis is an adjunct professor in the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. Jewish spirituality and the wisdom about pain, suffering, and healing that chronic headaches have revealed are the subjects of his book, Blinding Pain, Simple Truth: Changing Your Life Through Buddhist Meditation, which was published in 2011. To find out more about the book, visit the website at The reader is referred to chapters 4, 5, and 6 of the book for a discussion of a number of passages in the Torah in the spirit of this article. Richard has published numerous papers in mathematics and related areas and is the author of two math books. He has also published poetry and articles on the Torah, literature, art, and anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and he has taught courses on the Torah and literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Jewish Community of Amherst, and the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.
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