Posted on February 20, 2010 by David Bogomolny
Unlike some other traditional Jewish learning institutions, Pardes does not aim to encourage particular religious practices or beliefs among its students; rather, the Pardes faculty aims to empower students in Jewish textual study skills so that they may develop their Jewish identities in empowered, personal and educated ways.
In this context, the Pardes ‘Self, Soul & Text’ course was particularly meaningful for me, as the class featured a unique experiential component: we not only studied Jewish spiritual practices through text – we also engaged in these practices during class & on our own. The class also incorporated multiple opportunities for students to reflect upon their impressions of their experiences with one another.
We studied the writings of Chassidic masters, Kabbalists, and Jewish philosophers on sundry spiritual practices, including prayer, various meditations, ‘hitbodedut’, mindful eating, story telling, and others. Visiting spiritual professionals also came to our class to teach us about their areas of specialization: my favorites were Diane Bloomfield of Torah Yoga; and mussar teacher ChasyaUriel Steinbauer of the Mussar Institute.
I enjoyed some units greatly, and others left me untouched — the design of the course is such that students are given exposure to multiple spiritual practices in Jewish tradition so they can experiment with these, and find those that resonate most with them. As somebody who davens 3x every day, I found the units on prayer and Tachanun quite helpful; and this quote from Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook struck me deeply:
“Prayer is most true when it expresses the idea that the soul is continually praying… At the moment of actual prayer, the perpetual prayer of the soul is revealed… Prayer beseeches the soul to convey to her its role… All of one’s efforts to learn Torah and acquire wisdom are in order to enable the concealed prayer of the soul to be revealed…”
I connected with other practices and ideas that Rabbi James Moshe Jacobson-Maisels taught us, and I also developed a broader understanding of traditional Judaism from his class.
For me, the idea of so many rabbis exploring so many different avenues towards the Divine is powerful. Not only did I learn about existing Jewish spiritual practices through the ‘Self, Soul & Text’ course, but I also began to feel that with proper kavana (intent), one could reach for G-d in limitless ways, and… perhaps some people are already reaching for the Divine in personal ways, without describing it as such.
(Interestingly, the writings of some rabbis left me with the strong impression that they felt that their own practices were the most effective vehicles for connecting with the Divine. I don’t think they were all open-minded about one another’s practices.)
A classmate once pointed out to me that my journaling is much like the Chassidic ‘story telling’ spiritual practice, which we explored, and her comment rather shifted my perspective. I’ve been writing about my impressions of my life for some years now, but last semester I came to appreciate that this may be a means of spiritual expression for me… and now I maintain this kavana whenever I put my thoughts to keyboard.