Commentary

“This Is Prayer”: Hitbodedut In Rav Shagar’s and Rav Elhanan Nir’s Writings

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Jeremy Tibbetts

Introduction

“R. Elazar said: When one who makes their prayer fixed, their prayer is not [truly] supplication… Rabbah and Rabbi Yosef both said: this refers to all who are unable to find a new element in their prayer.” (Berahot 29b).

Attention has been called one of the most important literacies of the 21st century.[1] With more information available at our fingertips than perhaps ever in history, it is no surprise that techniques that foster attentiveness have become increasingly popular. The U.S. meditation market is estimated to be valued at over $2 billion by 2022,[2] and advocates and researchers want to see mindfulness practices brought into schools.[3] Jews have been developing practices to bring attentiveness into life for thousands of years. Jewish practices that center on increasing attention and intention in tefillah bear a suspicious resemblance to mindfulness and date back to as early as the time of the Mishnah.[4] One Jewish meditation practice that has become highly famous in recent years is hitbodedut.[5] While most often associated with Bratzlav Hasidut, it appears in the writings of the Baal Shem Tov and is mentioned as a concept in works predating Hasidut by several hundred years.[6] I will seek to explore the perspectives of two contemporary Dati Leumi rabbis on hitbodedut who have been influenced by Bratzlav Hasidut. First, we will look at R. Shagar and his commentary on Likutei Moharan I:52, one of R. Nahman’s classic torot on hitbodedut. This will also serve as a brief introduction into how R. Nahman views the practice of hitbodedut. Afterwards, we will turn to R. Elhanan Nir and his short exposition on hitbodedut in his book Yehudi Ba-Laylah: Masa Be-Ikvot Halomotav Shel R.  Nahman Mi-Bratzlav on R.  Nahman’s recorded dreams. We will conclude by discussing how these expositions not only show hitbodedut’s ability to enhance prayer, but even to be a form of supplication and prayer in and of themselves. In looking at these two contemporary Israeli thinkers, I hope to share a deep appreciation for the unique voice of R. Shagar’s and his students’ “Hasidut Eretz-Yisraelit[7] and to contribute in a small way towards making their relevant and novel interpretations of Jewish texts more accessible to an English-speaking audience.

Rav Shagar

Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known by the acronym R. Shagar, served as rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat HaKotel and Yeshivat Shefa and founded Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak with his hevruta R. Yair Dreyfuss. His engagement with postmodernism, contemporary philosophy, and pedagogy designed to address the issues of today has led to a growing following of his teachings and methodology since his passing in 2007. Siach Yitzchak continues to publish his works, and new essays are periodically uploaded on their website in Hebrew and English. Bratzlav features prominently in R. Shagar’s teachings; this teaching about hitbodedut is from his two-volume set of shiurim on Likutei Moharan.

Likutei Moharan I:52 begins as follows:

There are heretics who say that the world is a necessary reality. Based on their evil and erroneous opinion it seems to them that they have proofs and examples of this, God forbid, from the way the world functions. But in fact their mouths spew foolishness. For the truth is that the world and all it contains are a contingent[8] reality.

Only the Holy One must necessarily exist. However, all the worlds and all they contain need not necessarily exist. God created them creatio ex nihilo. For God had the ability, the power and the alternative to create them or to not create them. Therefore the world and all it contains are certainly a contingent reality… Yet as soon as the Holy One resolved to issue the souls of Israel, then the entire world took on the aspect of necessary reality. For after the souls of Israel were issued, God was then obliged, so to speak, to bring the world into being. It was on account of this that their souls were created, so that all the worlds would be created for them and they would rule over everything.

R. Shagar reads R. Nahman’s ontological explanation of the creation of reality as truly an existential statement about our purpose in life:

“the goal of a person’s service according to R.  Nahman’s description in this torah is to bring our life to a state of necessity, meaning to be identified with our actions and to see them as something essential and not random.”[9]

While R.  Nahman is more concerned with the actual change of the status of the reality, R. Shagar is looking to understand what the idea of a necessary reality means for one’s inner world. R. Shagar asks: what does it feel like for the individual to live a necessary existence? His answer is that it is a world where our actions matter. If the world is necessarily so, then it makes a difference that I am here now. It couldn’t be that I would not exist or would make different choices and things would remain the same. In a necessary world, I necessarily matter.

Continuing in a psychological key, R. Shagar sees a more primary issue underlying the attempt to live in a necessary world: an inability to accept ourselves. “We are always seeking,” he writes, “external validation, a fist to force us to accept our life, to be at peace with it, but this is impossible. This reception must come from within us, from an understanding that our life is a life that is adequate for us; in a sense, ‘necessary.’”[10] The ‘philosophers’ that R.  Nahman discusses see the world as necessary so that they can feel important. If my actions are part of a necessary universe, then they must be meaningful. Yet we are still left with doubts, feelings of unfulfillment, a sense of regret, and more. This is because the only true self-acceptance can come from within.

After this lengthy introduction, R. Shagar explains that “precisely through leaving the village, through hitbodedut, a person changes themselves, their soul, to ‘necessary.’”[11] The unique character of hitbodedut can be understood in R. Shagar’s distinction between the attitudes of Chabad and Bratzlav regarding nullification:

“Surprisingly, the path R.  Nahman delineates to arrive to the soul’s state of nullification is not through achieving a mystical consciousness, like in Chabad which seeks nullification through hitbonenut (contemplation) of God’s infiniteness, how God fills and surrounds the world, but comes from the power of hitbodedut. Only if a person is doing hitbodedut with themselves and hears their Godly soul can they uncover intimacy with their Creator, and be nullified. Here nullification is not acquired through nullifying awareness of the ‘I,’ but the opposite.”[12]

Chabad hitbonenut consists of contemplating the infinitude of God so that one is nullified and ceases to exist altogether. Hitbodedut, on the other hand, is a dialogic process. If my self is nullified then there is no “I” to speak with God, so paradoxically nullification in Bratzlav comes about from a reinforcing of the self’s existence. Our problem of self-rejection exists within our internal monologue. The problem can only be solved through bringing my monologue into a dialogue with the other. And yet, hitbodedut must be done alone, since according to R. Shagar, we are unable to be ourselves around other people. Citing Sartre’s idea of being-for-oneself versus being-for-others, R. Shagar explains that the other’s very presence and gaze objectifies us. We can only be ourselves, for ourselves, when free from socialization.

It is for exactly this reason that

“R.  Nahman doesn’t denigrate the self and try to be collected into the Infiniteness of the Creator, but rather to speak to God, to spill one’s concerns, to tell God intimate things in a personal manner to bring God into our happenstances and needs.”[13]

Seeking a path for discussing our inner monologues while maintaining authenticity, R. Shagar sees in R.  Nahman’s teaching a certain type of speech with the other that can occur in hitbodedut which allows us to be free from our doubts and to accept ourselves. R. Shagar characterizes this type of speech as dibbur el (speaking-to) in distinction from dibbur al (speaking-about). Dibbur el, the goal of hitbodedut, is characterized as “being one with the speech, creating intimacy, connecting and having faith in the other… this type of speech changes reality ontologically.”[14] In this type of speech, my whole self and all of my being become communicable. I am totally connected with what I am saying, not wearing any masks or trying to conform to any societal norms. When we can be most radically ourselves, we can speak authentically and through dialogue, changing our internal monologue.

This underscores why R.  Nahman, in R. Shagar’s eyes, sees it as fundamental that hitbodedut occur at night outside of the village: the nullification that must occur is not of the self, but of one’s awareness of everything else. At night and alone there are no distractions and the world still sleeps, not yet awoken to a day of labor. The escape not only from socialization, but also from society itself, facilitates the nullification of doubts and worries and everything that is not me and my Creator. Separating from one’s normal surroundings allows for a heightened awareness of the self. By way of conclusion, R. Shagar suggests that the reader occasionally practice hitbodedut and offers that it can be practiced anywhere that is conducive to authentic speech, not only in the desert or outside of city bounds.[15]

We have seen that Shagarian hitbodedut:

1) contains a two-part crisis, beginning with an inability to see meaning and ‘necessity’ within our existence, along with the inability to accept ourselves;

2) is not about nullifying but emphasizing the self;

3) necessitates a unique type of authentic language;

4) serves to facilitate fundamental change; and

5) can be done anywhere.

R. Elhanan Nir

R. Elhanan Nir is a poet, author, and teacher in Israel. He has received numerous awards for his writing, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Artistic Creation. He has taught at Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak since 2004, and also teaches at Yeshivat Machanayim. R. Nir was a student of R. Shagar for many years and taught alongside him and R. Menachem Froman at Yeshivat Shefa.[16] His most recent book, Yehudi Ba-Laylah: Masa Be-Ikvot Halomotav Shel R. Nahman Mi-Bratzlav, is a fascinating work that dissects Bratzlav Hasidut through the lens of the recorded dreams of R. Nahman. The book is simply amazing, and R. Nir spends a few pages discussing hitbodedut in R.  Nahman’s thought.

R. Nir begins where R. Shagar ends, with the idea that hitbodedut occurs at night outside of the village. He sees multiple meanings in this movement: this is not only the move to leave the safety of the city walls and civilization to uncharted territory, but also the move from the established way of relating to God through prayer to the improvised conversation of hitbodedut.

He writes about how this movement affects a person:

“There is a terror in this exposed standing… this is the moment when a person requests speech itself. Speech is stuck in exile, the heart is full of a lack of trust, cynical and exhausted… and what now? One is left utterly exposed, seeking someone to believe in their life, who will see them as living freely, needing at the same time someone to defend and protect them.”[17]

Standing exposed and outside of our comfort zone, we find that our speech is in exile. Exiled speech is mired in doubt; we do not have the confidence to fully expose our inner selves through dialogue. Our speech is in exile when we have not yet developed an ability to trust the other enough to speak truly and freely. These words call to mind the idea of the Zohar that speech was in exile when the Jews were in Egypt.[18] By going into the wilderness we mirror Bnei Yisrael in the Exodus. Just as Bnei Yisrael left the urban Egyptian environment for the wilderness, we leave our urban environments for a wilderness. R. Nir’s use of the word hahmatzah (missing an opportunity) when describing the doubt that hinders true communication in hitbodedut also points to the failure of exiled language to fully communicate our internal worlds. This extends the Exodus metaphor, as hahmatzah shares a root with hametz. Hametz is made by the Hasidic writers to symbolize all types of negative attributes that prevent connection.[19] Halakhically, hametz must go through a process of bitul (nullification), and below we will see how R. Nir sees hitbodedut as a process of bitul in order to arrive at real dialogue. R. Nir additionally highlights in this quote a remarkable power of hitbodedut: the ability to redeem nature with our words. Our practice of hitbodedut affects the world around us along with the one inside of us, to change everything from a midbar (desert) to a medaber (speaker). While our encounter with hitbodedut could be filled with doubt and failure, our goal is to elevate speech out of exile. In distinction from R. Shagar, R. Nir sees hitbodedut as ideally practiced in nature so it can “remove nature from its stagnation and firmness, to bring it from a state of indifferent silence, silence and necessarily violence as well, to the state of open Divinity, full of language and speech.”[20]

R. Nir explains that “speech characterizes the Infinite as Infinite, removing it from the imperviousness that prevails in the world of nature and its surroundings and turning to It; it brings the Infinite out of the aspect of exile in which everything is hidden, and brings it to revelation via the voice itself when it makes speech.”[21] The act of going into nature and speaking actually allows for a form of revelation in the form of a meeting. Going into nature to practice hitbodedut is like hide-and-seek, where once away from our busy and preprogrammed lives we can speak, and thereby start to notice the Godliness in the world around us.

When we use our voice to speak to God, something remarkable happens:

“the words that one expresses through the mouth from the depths of the heart suddenly are revealed to exceed the boundaries of subjectivity and are revealed to be objective Godly words…it does not remain within the boundaries of human speech turning to God, but is human speech which is revealed to be Godly speech.”[22]

Again in distinction from R. Shagar, R. Nir suggests that the boundary between us and God becomes blurred through hitbodedut. In explaining this concept, he cites an earlier piece in Likutei Moharan, where R.  Nahman writes that “when one is nullified to the Infinite, they are in the aspect of ‘not knowing a person,’ that they do not even know themselves.”[23] This idea of hitbodedut as self-nullification is exactly what R. Shagar characterized as Chabad hitbonenut and not Bratzlav hitbodedut above! For R. Nir, we momentarily cease to be as the words we are saying turn out to be God’s words, and we find in hitbodedut the answers to the questions we were initially asking and the concerns we initially had. He even suggests that we observe our words go from subjective to objective, whereas R. Shagar invokes Sartre to show that we are objectified by the other and should seek to remain subjects if we want to speak to God! R. Nir sees in hitbodedut a sudden realization that there is no subjectivity since our words are from an objective God that transcends all individual perspective. R. Shagar suggests the opposite, that our hitbodedut is hindered by anything that diminishes our subjectivity and that we must maintain and even strengthen our perspective to be able to speak through it to God.

This union between us and God in hitbodedut becomes full nullification, as “it is actually God that is revealed through human identity; no longer are there two with one turning to speak to the other, no self-awareness divides them, rather the two are revealed as one.”[24] Understanding that we all contain Godliness actually becomes the work of hitbodedut, as we ascend from finding God in nature to finding God in speech to finding God in ourselves. R. Nir uses the exact same terminology as R. Shagar to describe this newfound language in which we become aware of God speaking through us, describing it as the move from dibbur al (speaking-about) to dibbur el (speaking-to).

This ascension, from action (going to nature) to speech (trying to speaking to God) to thought (finding the Godliness in myself), is a painful process. R. Nir calls this pain “the pain of transitioning from the world of tohu (chaos) to the world of tikkun (repair).”[25] This transition comes from finding a new language, the language of dibbur el, which is wholly connective. This language allows us to fully communicate our selves, the parts of us that are beyond all externalities and even thoughts and beliefs, and therefore to bridge directly with the listener, which in hitbodedut, is God. Through this process we are unified with the listener and transcend language altogether. The world of tohu is created by the inability of the finite world to fully hold God’s contracted self, and we are in a subsequent world of tikkun to reconfigure the sparks of Godliness in this world back to their intended structure. This process is one of partial redemption, where God serves as an aid in the individual’s healing through hitbodedut.

In R. Shagar’s thought, this healing is rooted in God’s distance, wherein the individual can find the space, through dialogue with God, to be themselves authentically and therefore to grow. Change begins and is cemented on the plane of speech. In R. Nir’s thought, the healing comes from moving beyond speech altogether. This is further exemplified by R. Nir’s final suggestion of how to commune with God and ultimately be healed: using niggun and music. Niggun is a path to circumvent “our obsession to translate every occurrence into words, and forces us to be completely and necessarily—at one.”[26] When we can get lost in music and leave behind all of our thoughts and worries and just be, then we are able to arise to the deepest level within us, which is God.

In summation, R. Nir’s hitbodedut:

1) contains a two-part crisis, beginning with an inability to first find the words to    say and then the pain of transitioning to the world of tikkun;

2) is not about emphasizing but nullifying the self;

3) necessitates a unique type of authentic language;

4) serves to facilitate fundamental change; and

5) must be done in nature.

Conclusion

While perhaps an interesting intellectual exercise, it is important to ask: what does any of this mean for the American Jew living in an urban environment? As a resident of New York City, it is exceedingly difficult for me to find any kind of real nature, let alone to be completely alone whatsoever! However, R. Shagar and R. Nir do share one belief that has ramifications for all of us: that the principles they outline here have applications to standard tefillah. R. Shagar writes that only through the stance that hitbodedut grants, of speaking to God in a straightforward and informal manner, can one pray.[27] In a similar vein, R. Nir explains that when we can “transition from dibbur al to dibbur el…then I am no longer speaking about something but to Someone. This is tefillah.”[28] Even if we cannot practice standard hitbodedut, or even if it does not seem to resonate with us (perhaps we should try!), we can still be changed through our kavannah to speak closely and freely to God in tefillah, and perhaps through this, bring the world to tikkun.


[1] Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies by Howard Rheingold.

[2]The Mindfulness Industry by Kit Caless.

[3] Mindful Schools is one such organization dedicated solely to advocating for mindfulness in schools.

[4] See for example Mishnah Berakhot 5:1. Hekhalot literature has also been labeled as a form of visualization meditation; cf. Vita Daphne Arbel’s Beholders of Divine Secrets: Mysticism and Myth in the Hekhalot and Merkavah Literature, pg. 31.

[5] See Tomer Persico’s Hitbodedut For A New Age: Adaptation of Practices Among the Followers of Rabbi  Nahman of Bratslav on how this relates to the Baal Teshuvah and New Age movements.

[6] On the Baal Shem Tov, see for example Mekor Mayim Chaim Ekev 32:1. The Arizal, Sefer Haredim, and even Abraham Ben HaRambam’s HaMaspik Le-Ovdei Hashem explicitly discuss hitbodedut. Cf. Meditation and Kabbalah by Aryeh Kaplan, pgs. 15-16.

[7] Zvi Leshem speaks insightfully about R. Shagar and his student’s place in “Hasidut Eretz Yisraelit” and how this relates to other branches of American and Israeli Hasidut in his lecture “Hasidut of the Future: Was R. H. Zeitlin’s Vision Fulfilled in the Hasidut or Neo-Hasidut of Our Day?”

[8] Necessary here means “necessarily must exist or be true,” whereas “contingent” means “must not necessarily exist or be true.” For these terms in their philosophical context, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Leibniz, section 2: The Nature of Modality.

[9] Shiurim Al Likutei Moharan Helek Bet, pg. 154.

[10] Ibid., pgs. 158-159.

[11] Ibid., pg. 160.

[12] Ibid., pg. 161.

[13] Ibid., pgs. 162-163.

[14] Ibid., pg. 163.

[15] Ibid., pg. 164.

[16] Beis Moshiach’s interview with R. Elhanan Nir, Every Word Counts.

[17] Yehudi Ba-Laylah: Masa Be-Ikvot Halomotav Shel R.  Nahman Mi-Bratzlav, pgs. 263-264.

[18] Zohar 2:25b. Cf. Sefat Emet Miketz 5659, Maor Va-Shemesh Rimzei Pesach Ve-Peirush Al Ha-Hagaddah.

[19] See, for example, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Likutei Sihot vol. 16 pg. 124. Notably, hametz must also go through a process of bitul, nullification, as R. Nir will prescribe for the one who seeks to practice hitbodedut.

[20] Yehudi Ba-Laylah: Masa Be-Ikvot Halomotav Shel R.  Nahman Mi-Bratzlav, pg. 264.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. pg. 265.

[23] Likutei Moharan 4:9, cited in Ibid. 266.

[24] Ibid., pg. 266.

[25] Ibid., pg. 264.

[26] Ibid., pg. 266.

[27] Shiurim Al Likutei Moharan Helek Bet, pg. 162.

[28] Yehudi Ba-Laylah: Masa Be-Ikvot Halomotav Shel R.  Nahman Mi-Bratzlav, pg. 266.