Judaism via Vipassana


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Date: Sun Feb 29, 2004 9:38 am
Subject: Judaism via Vipassana

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Judaism via Vipassana

Jerusalem Post; 6/7/2002; Ruth Mason

Jerusalem Post


Headline: Judaism via Vipassana
Byline: Ruth Mason
Edition; Magazine
Section: Features
Page: 16

Friday, June 7, 2002 -- Stephen Fulder was a young Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1975 when the British government asked him to lecture for a year in Indian universities. During that year, he discovered meditation and today he teaches Vipassana and other Buddhist practices throughout Israel.

Ruthie Avidor was a high-school student in working- class Kiryat Haim in the 1950s when she met a group of young people who were also searching for meaning in life - and felt she had finally found what she was looking for. The group eventually founded Yodfat, a moshav in Galilee, and entered the Fourth Way, a spiritual path founded by G.I. Gurdjieff.

Dani Davidi had just been discharged from an elite army unit in 1980 when a high-school friend told him she had encountered something interesting. At first he resisted. Today, he travels the world lecturing about Emin, a spiritual philosophy whose goal is personal, societal, and universal development.

Sigal Halperin, a psychologist, was having relationship difficulties with her partner a few years ago when she turned to a book a friend had lent her. She wrote to an address listed in the book, found the help she needed, and now is a teacher of Pathwork, a way of working on one's self to expand one's consciousness.

Arie Ben-David had journeyed to India and Nepal in 1979 after his discharge from the the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit and a stint of working to earn money. During his travels, he experienced a dimension of reality beyond the physical. When he returned to Israel, a friend suggested he read the works of Rudolf Steiner, founder of the "spiritual science" of anthroposophy. The books gave him a framework for understanding his experiences. Today he teaches at Jerusalem Waldorf Teachers' College, which is based on Steiner's teachings.

Fulder, Avidor, Davidi, Halperin, and Ben-David are just five of the thousands of Israelis who are committed to some kind of spiritual path outside of - but not necessarily in conflict with - Judaism. Like many people throughout the West, Israelis are searching for greater satisfaction and meaning in life.

Many find what they're looking for within Jewish tradition. But many others encounter books or people that introduce them to philosophies and concepts, often esoteric, that are not attached to a particular religion. Perhaps ironically, Judaism often becomes more important to people once they have embarked on a spiritual path of any kind.

"There is a proliferation of interest and a supermarket of techniques," says Fulder, 55, who immigrated from London 20 years ago, lives in Clil, a community village in Galilee, and has three grown daughters. He is also the author of 12 books on herbal medicine. "People are really interested and curious to know what's out there - to help them with what's inside."

What's inside tends to reflect what's outside, and what's outside is often uncertain, overly materialistic, and lacking connection and direction.

People want answers to deeper, more eternal questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of life?

"This kind of searching became a meaningful phenomenon in Israel at the end of the 1980s," says Yoav Ben-Dov, a Tel Aviv University researcher who looks into the interface between contemporary culture, science, and mysticism. "We've come back to ourselves a little. The ideal of science and rationalism as an answer to everything is not as convincing. People are looking for answers elsewhere."

People on a spiritual path often follow a structured course of inner work which they hope will bring them answers to eternal questions. Techniques include meditation, close observation of oneself, movement, physical work, expressing old hurts, chanting, and various spiritual exercises. Just about every spiritual path has or had a teacher, master, or founder whose wisdom is venerated.

G.I. Gurdjieff, who has groups of followers here and throughout the world, was an Armenian mystic and philosopher who spent years traveling in search of ancient, hidden knowledge. His book, Meetings with Remarkable Men describes some of what he found.

His basic teaching is that most people live in a state of waking sleep and that transcending this state requires specific inner work. Groups, usually attached to Gurdjieff centers, do this work together with the help of a teacher.

People work on their thoughts, feelings, and bodies using exercises and special music and movements Gurdjieff found in that "hidden knowledge" he sought.

"We had been at Yodfat about six years and had done important things here with organic farming, ecology, and living with our Arab neighbors but something was missing," says Ruthie Avidor, 61.

"Around that time, P.D. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous [a book describing the Gurdjieff work] came to Steimatzky's and a few of us started reading it. We tried to work by ourselves. We didn't realize you needed to be attached to a school."

Eventually the group at Yodfat, along with others who had also been affected by Ouspensky's book, made contact with a Gurdjieff center in France which began sending a teacher.

"Gurdjieff didn't give us answers, but he showed how to ask questions," says Avidor, a grandmother of 11, who has been doing this work for 33 years.

"Through questioning, our inner attitude changes as well as our relationship to ourselves and hence to the world. People who ask existential questions about life experience a kind of lack. It's important to learn about that lack. It's hard because when do questions arise? In time of distress, of war. And then people forget. The trick is to remember to live with the questions, and to be able to accept someone else's authority, to become part of a hierarchy. That's very hard (especially for us Jews - who all have our own opinions)."

Many of Yodfat's second generation are continuing on the path, Avidor says. While she didn't discuss her spiritual activities with her kids, they absorbed enough to become serious searchers themselves.

"This gives me a feeling of satisfaction," she says. "They are partners in the search."

Two of her five children have become religiously observant over the past few years.

Referring to the need to accept authority and be part of a hierarchy, Avidor says: "In order to be a master of yourself, you must first learn to be a slave. It sounds idiotic, but it's true."

Without necessarily using the word, many spiritual paths have as their premise the idea that people really are slaves. We act not out of free choice but from our conditioning. Much of the work required of people on a spiritual path is self awareness: to observe ourselves deeply to become cognizant of - and free of - our conditioning.

Freedom is at the heart of anthroposophy (literally "wisdom of man"), a spiritual philosophy developed by the Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner as a result of his attempts to reconcile science and his own extrasensory experiences.

Israelis often first encounter Steiner's ideas in one of his 50 books, How to Attain Knowledge of Higher Worlds, and its methods and exercises for "building the inner stability, sensitivity, and clarity necessary for a healthy development," in Arie Ben-David's words.

Steiner wrote that for every spiritual step he takes forward, a person must take three moral steps forward.

Ben-David's paintings and sculptures and his work with his wife Jan Ranck, who directs the Jerusalem Academy of Eurythmy (a form of movement inspired by anthroposophy) are informed by Steiner's ideas. He also trains teachers to work in Israel's four Waldorf schools, which are based on Steiner's insights into child development. They emphasize experiential learning and the arts.

"One of the main goals of our teachers' training is to develop the ability to really experience and be one with: with a child you meet, a plant you grow, a bee you see flying to its hive, the color red - which then leads you to experience yourself differently.

"At anthroposophy's center is a freely developing human being," says Ben-David. "It's a path of development that aims to create a healthy integration between man and the world around him and has inspired practical initiatives based on spiritual knowledge."

Among these initiatives here, apart from the schools, are Kfar Raphael, a village in which small groups of mentally handicapped adults live with regular families and work in various workshops, and Kibbutz Harduf, well-known as producers of organic products farmed according to the methods of biodynamic agriculture, another offshoot of anthroposophy. The kibbutz also houses a residential home for children from broken families.

"What's unique about anthroposophy is that there are as many paths to it as there are individuals who walk the path," says Ben-David. "The idea is not to bring spirituality into small rooms of people who read books, but into your daily life.

"'Know thyself' is a phrase that resounds from ancient times," says Ben-David. "Observe yourself. What are your pains, your fears? The idea is not to repress them but to gradually transform them so we can meet the world freely and creatively. There are many ways to do this within anthroposophy. You can read books and do the exercises in them; you can work through the arts, through movement, through medicine."

Like those who teach Kabbala to the masses, Ben-David says that the spiritual world, which used to be accessible only to a few, is today is accessible to everyone who is interested in developing his soul to perceive it.

Sigal Halperin would agree with Ben-David. The path she chooses toward greater spirituality is based on the writings of another Austrian, a Jewish woman named Eva Pierrakos. Her book, The Pathwork of Self Transformation, is a series of lectures she delivered which she says were "channeled" through her by a spiritual entity that calls itself "The Guide." In 258 lectures, The Guide sets down a way to become acquainted with and gradually to transform one's "negative" side.

"The Pathwork says that the more you are capable of cleaning out internal barriers, like false beliefs about yourself, incorrect perceptions about life, inner conflicts that block you, the happier your life will be," says Halperin, 37 and the mother of one.

She heard of the Pathwork through a friend who had encountered it in the US and had taken an introductory course there. The friend bought every book she could find on the Pathwork back and when Halperin saw them, "it was love at first sight."

"I felt such happiness and curiosity. Just looking at the chapter headings in the table of contents, I saw there was a connection between the psychological [she has an M.A. in clinical psychology] and the spiritual. In a way I'd been looking for this my whole life. There are a lot of good and interesting ways to develop and search - and everyone needs to find the one that suits him. This one fits me."

Halperin went on to translate The Pathwork of Self Transformation into Hebrew and to study with Pathwork "helpers" in Italy. Eventually a group formed here that brings in a teacher from Holland for workshops. Halperin also is working on integrating Pathwork ideas into her clinical practice.

"I like the emphasis on working on the lower self," she says. "There is a lower self, a higher self, and our mask. The lower self is the yet undeveloped part in us that still contains negative emotions, thoughts, and impulses, such as fear, hate, or cruelty. The higher self is the divine spark in us, which is part of the universal intelligence and love that pervades life. The mask is the outermost layer, with which we cover up our lower selves and often even our higher selves as a protective shield.

"The task is threefold," Halperin explains. "To become aware of the mask so we can free ourselves of its automatic patterns; to transform the negativity of the lower self and to get more connected to our higher self.

"My mask is one of being nice. I was nice to everyone, always. Even if it was not appropriate to the situation. I wouldn't put boundaries when I needed to; I couldn't get angry. That was the way I learned to behave as a child in order to get love. Part of the goal is to become aware of these automatic patterns, so we can become more authentic and free to choose more adaptive behaviors.

"People often have a lot of anger about their childhoods, their parents. When our parents' love was limited, it hurt us. In the work, you connect with the anger in you and you express it. These feelings have energy. If you just sit and talk like in therapy, you understand, but you don't get the energy of it out. So we yell, we hit pillows. You feel the energy leaving your body. It took me two-and-a-half years to be able to do this. I'm a nice person. How could I show anger? But once I did, I felt surprisingly stronger, more whole."

Halperin says one of the most moving things in the Pathwork is to see other people doing this kind of work, to "watch people going to really low places that in daily life we don't dare go, to give it real expression and to transform it. I see it as an alchemy of the soul."

Halperin is now translating Creating Union, the book that brought her to the Pathwork. "Pathwork says that as you work on connecting and integrating different parts of yourself, you can connect better with others and you will feel more connected with the universe - which is what we all long for."

The universe figures prominently in Emin as well. "We see personal development as a necessary stage for fulfilling a higher goal," says Dani Davidi, 44, a father of two and one of the six world leaders of Emin and the promoter (usually known as "secretary") of Ma'aleh Zvia, a Galilee village whose adult residents are all Emin members.

That goal, man's purpose, is nothing less than to help the development of the universe.

"We think the entire universe is in a process of continual development and that it's now in a transition from being automatic and robotic to being more conscious," Davidi says. "Man is the crown of creation that helps the universe get to a higher consciousness by his own conscious development and as a result, the growing consciousness of the human race.

"The last 150 years have seen more changes than the past thousands. Why? There is a new permission from the universe, from God and all of his messengers, to the human race to move into another evolutionary stage. That's why we're seeing so much interest in spirituality now."

Just what is personal development? Davidi sees it as a multilevel process that lasts a lifetime: getting to the point where we can live according to values we consciously choose; shrinking the size of the ego so that we see ourselves in proportion and not as the center of the universe; working on personal weaknesses to reduce them as much as possible; and enhancing our human faculties to enrich human life.

A concrete example is to be able to see a problem from all perspectives and not just our own.

"The Israeli will always look at the Arab-Israeli conflict from the Israeli point of view and the Palestinian from the Palestinian point of view. Neither will see it from a common perspective or even a higher one," he says. "This is true also of personal conflict. We don't try to understand the other side. If we try to understand the feelings of the other side, we have a much better chance of solving the conflict."

Emin teaches that all the answers are inside oneself. Hence the name Emin which is an anagram for "in me."

The movement was founded in London in 1971 by a salesman and seeker who calls himself Leo. There are 1,700 Emin members in the world, 500 of whom live here.

Members believe that the world is going through great changes and that many templates are in the process of changing: families, nations, health, religions, ecology. Emin members work in groups to discover new templates through research, study of ancient cultures, and experimentation. They believe that intuition is our sharpest and most acute tool and that we need to develop it.

Davidi speaks of the template of gardening that uses special knowledge of plants and their influence on people. "Cherry trees will sedate mental activity," he offers. "Weeping willows are calming and inspire peace. We're working on how to use this knowledge to create special gardens. Ma'aleh Zvia is probably one of the most beautiful villages you'll ever see. It incorporates color, form, structure, buildings, gardens, lakes, water canals, special healing gardens."

Davidi stresses that he is first a Jew, second an Israeli, and third a member of Emin. His spiritual explorations in Emin led him to study in yeshivot for several years.

Stephen Fulder, the Vipassana teacher, has become Sabbath observant since finding meditation.

Ruthie Avidor and her fellow moshavniks built a synagogue and put a lot of energy into celebrating Jewish holidays.

Is this kind of searching kosher? While the spokesman for Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau refused to comment on the phenomenon, other Orthodox figures, familiar with people who have explored other spiritual paths, mostly take this kind of searching in their stride.

"People are searching for spiritual meaning and many of them - especially at the beginning of the road - are incapable of looking within Judaism because of the conflict in Israel between the religious and the secular," says Rabbi Mordechai Frank, 33, a Braslaver hassid and head of the Or Torah boys' yeshiva in Jerusalem. Many searchers, especially those who traveled to India, eventually reach the Braslavers.

"Things are much more spiritual than we think," he adds. "Why didn't this happen 50 or 100 years ago? I think it's the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecies of the End of Days. The prophet Amos said that there would be hunger in the land - not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water but for knowing God.

"Israel will search, long, feel that something isn't right - and from this will burst forth the great redemption. We are part of that process."

Frank says he sees the kind of searching described in this article as a positive phenomenon. "We know that the moment a person begins to search, he'll get there," he says. "I know many returnees to Judaism whose gurus and spiritual teachers told them, 'What are you doing here? There's a lot more where you come from.' "

Mordechai Gafni, an Orthodox rabbi and head of Bayit Chadash, a local spiritual community, says the black-and- white choice of religious or secular with which Israelis are presented does not satisfy their spiritual yearnings.

"Israelis are seeking a new vision indigenous to Israel, deeply Jewish and connected to mitzvot, yet rooted in love and spirit and not politics," he says. "The ability to provide such a narrative will determine the future of the State of Israel. If Israelis are forced to look outside Judaism for their primary source of spiritual nourishment - well, this will be Judaism's greatest failure since the destruction of the Temple."

Gafni uses the metaphor of a symphony to describe his position. "Each musician needs to master his or her own instrument in order to make music," he says. "To dabble in other instruments is lovely, to appreciate the music of the rest of the orchestra is essential. But one only makes music through one's own unique instrument."

Sarah Schneider, who founded A Still Small Voice, a correspondence school in classic Jewish wisdom, traveled her own circuitous spiritual path to Orthodoxy.

"It's not surprising that Israelis are looking around," she says. "We say that every Jewish soul experienced the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. It whet our appetite for spiritual content; we know how sweet it is. It's in the nature of the Jewish soul. Nothing else is going to satisfy it."

Schneider says that the power and the drawback of the Jewish path is that "there aren't a lot of peak experiences built into it. At a certain level of search, people are looking for that. We were peak experience junkies. I think it's a stage in the process. But transformation that happens during a peak experience doesn't sustain itself. A person's taste buds become more refined and they start looking for teachings that penetrate more deeply even though they may not feel as exciting.

"That's when a lot of people start exploring their Jewish roots. Jewish practice is very deep and is able to bring light to the Jewish soul, to touch certain places there that can't be touched with any other practice. It's like a glove that fits your hand. No other tool is shaped to fit that place."

Schneider says she thinks traditional Judaism is enriched by returnees who come back enhanced from other spiritual disciplines.

"They bring a newness that enlivens the traditional Jewish world, a freshness that enriches us all."

(Box)A partial glossary of wide-world spiritual paths in Israel

The Fourth Way of G.I. Gurdjieff

Groups meet to work on themselves in an effort to awaken from the "waking sleep" in which all humans live, according to this Armenian mystic, and to discover the true nature of man and the cosmos.


Developed by Austrian philosopher-scientist Rudolf Steiner who had mystical experiences since childhood. Teaches that we have different bodies, including non- physical ones. Has many practical offshoots including Waldorf education, biodynamic agriculture, medicine, architecture, art, and movement (Eurythmy.)


A psycho-spiritual path based on a series of lectures from a spirit "guide," channeled by Eva Pierrakos, wife of John Pierrakos, co-founder with Alexander Lewin of bio- energetics. Emphasizes work on the "lower self" in order to attain higher consciousness.


Founded by the Javanese, R.M. Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo (1901-1987), who received what he called "the great life force" and could transmit it to anyone who asked for it sincerely. After going through an initiation called an "opening," people meet in groups for bi-weekly "latihan" during which they open themselves to receive the divine.

The Art of Living

A path founded by the contemporary Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar based on breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, and service to others.


Founded in 1971 by an Englishman who took on the name Leo, Emin describes itself as "a cutting edge exploration into the fundamentals of how things actually work, why and how this can be useful in the improvement of a persons' life in all aspects."


An "ancient teaching" which resurfaced in 1965, Eckankar teaches spiritual exercises to experience the "light and sound of God" and to engage in "soul travel" which moves us into "greater states of consciousness."


An intense form of Theravada Buddhist meditation that encourages practitioners to look within. "The meditator comes to understand, though personal experience, the truths of dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (lack of an enduring self.)"

Keywords: Philosophy. Judaism. Israel. Perception. Personal. Religion.

Copyright 2002 Jerusalem Post. All Rights Reserved


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