Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hitbodedut - Jewish Isolation

The Jewish tradition stresses communal life and participation.  That means the synagogue, group prayer, and family holidays.  It also means a great deal of speech: in the form of wordy prayers

Yet every tradition has a minority report --- so to speak --- that acts as a counter measure to the dominant trend.  And although Judaism does not endorse monasticism, there has been a kind of self-retreat practiced by some individuals called hitbodednut התבודדות or self-seclusion.  For some super rabbis, this meant feats of self-seclusion.

The Alter of Novarodok left his active life of commerce and had himself bricked into a room for two years.  He remained silent, and communicated with the outside world through notes passed in a gap in the wall.  When he emerged, he acted as a communal leader for a while, but later he retreated to a cabin in the woods for nine years where he received visitors and students.  Later it was discovered that he had a hut even deeper in the woods where he retreated for long periods of time completely alone.

Maimonides' son, Abraham, endorsed and practiced hitbodednut, calling it "the most honorable of the exalted qualities and the path of the greatest of  the righteous and the means by which the prophets attained revelation."

The greatest modern proponents of hitbodednut are the Breslover Hasidim, who often seek out privacy in an empty room or the woods to pour their thoughts out to God.

Judaism is often maligned as a religion concerned only with outward action and not inner conviction.  Hitbodedut, with its concern for the individual, shows this is not the case.   There are paths toward a kind of personal embrace of Judaism --- away from the community and the synagogue, through the individual alone.

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