A Spiritual Renewal

For this week’s Daily Meditations, we share wisdom from Hasidism, a Jewish mystical tradition that emerged several hundred years ago in what is now Ukraine. Jewish scholar Arthur Green summarizes this movement’s origin and its reliance on contemplative prayer:

Hasidism [is] the great movement of religious revival that brought new spirit to the lives of Jews in the towns and villages of Poland and Ukraine toward the latter half of the eighteenth century. Here worship, particularly in the form of contemplative prayer, came to be clearly identified by a new group of religious teachers as the central focus of the Jew’s religious life. Both the ecstatic outpourings of ordinary people and the highly sophisticated treatments of devotional psychology in the works of early Hasidic masters bear witness to this new and unique emphasis upon the inner life of prayer. [1] 

The Polish-born rabbi and influential theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) found great inspiration in this period of Jewish spirituality and history: 

Then came Rabbi Israel Baal Shem (c. 1700–1760) in the eighteenth century, and brought heaven down to earth. He and his disciples, the Hasidim . . . uncovered the ineffable delight of being a Jew. God is not only the creator of earth and heaven. He is also the One “who created delight and joy.”. . . Jewishness was as though reborn. Bible verses, observances, customs, suddenly took on a flavor like that of new grain. . . . The Jews fell in love with the Lord and felt “such yearning for God that it was unbearable.” 

They began to feel the infinite sweetness that comes with the fulfilling of the precept of hospitality or of wearing the tallith [prayer shawl] and tefillin. [1] What meaning is there to the life of a Jew, if it is not to acquire the ability to feel the taste of heaven? [One] who does not taste paradise in the performance of a precept in this world will not feel the taste of paradise in the world to come. And so the Jews began to feel life everlasting in a sacred melody and to absorb the Sabbath as a vivid anticipation of the life to come. [2] 

One of the great themes of Father Richard’s teachings is the importance of experiencing God’s love and delight, and the emptiness of religion without it: 

The trouble with much of civic religion and cultural Christianity is the lack of religious experience. People who haven’t had a loving or intimate experience with God tend to get extremely rigid, dogmatic, and controlling about religion. They think that if they pray the right words, read the Bible daily, and go to church often enough, it will happen. But God loves us before we do the rituals. God doesn’t need them, but we need them to tenderly express our childlike devotion and desire—and to get in touch with that desire. The great commandment is not “thou shalt be right.” The great commandment is to “be in love.” [3]

[1] Arthur Green and Barry W. Holtz, eds., trans., Your Word Is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer, 2nd rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Jewish Lights, 2017), vii.

[2] Teffilin are small, black leather boxes containing verses from the Torah, with straps used for wearing on one’s head or arm. 

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Earth Is the Lord’s; and, The Sabbath (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Co., 1963), 75, 76–77.

[4] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer(New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999, 2003), 88.

Image credit: Carrie Grace Littauer, Untitled (detail), 2022, photograph, Colorado, used with permission. Menachem Weinreb, two Jewish boxes of tefillin unwrapped (detail)2021, photograph, Jerusalem. Arthur Allen, Untitled 12 (detail), 2022, photograph, France, used with permission. Jenna Keiper, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: God, unveiled, in our deepest rituals and traditions as well as in the simplicity of light moving across stones and trees.

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