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«Silence and Hebrew Meditation By Ken A. Bryson Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy (semi-retired) Cape Breton University Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada B1P ...»

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Silence and Hebrew Meditation


Ken A. Bryson Ph.D.

Professor of Philosophy (semi-retired)

Cape Breton University

Sydney, Nova Scotia,

Canada B1P 6L2

E-mail ken_bryson@cbu.ca


Telephone (902) 562-6714

Silence and Hebrew Meditation


This paper studies the reference to silence found in texts from Abraham, Moses,

Elijah, and Job to draw insight into the nature of meditation as prayer of the heart.

The Lord does not appear to Elijah in wind, earthquake, or fire but in the silence that follows these events. It seems possible to suggest that the silence is sacred because it expresses the ultimate ground of being or the root of the possibility of meditation. It serves as springboard to action.

Key Words: Ground, Lord, Meditation, Nothing, Silence, Subjective Truth Silence and Hebrew Meditation This paper is a study of the nature of sacred silence in some Hebrew texts in order to determine the connection between silence, meditation, and action. The action that follows meditation appears to be grounded in the nature of meditation (operation follows nature). At first brush sacred silence is the absence of sound.

This suggests that the meditative state is attained by emptying consciousness of thought. But the ways of reason suggest that the attainment of absolute nothing is an illusion. We cannot maintain thought in the absence of its object. So the nothing of meditation must be about something because Old Testament meditation moves through silence to dwell on a spirituality of words, namely, the precepts, statutes, words, and commandments of the Torah. 1 The Hebrew words for meditation haga or siach suggest the dual nature of meditation. The first movement of silence, passivity and subjectivity is followed by a focus on the word, action, and objectivity. This seems paradoxical. On the one hand, meditation invites us into a state of silent communion with nothingness, while on the other God’s Law invites the whole person into action. The paradox does not force an either/or choice upon us, but is offered as an opportunity to reflect on the richness of Hebrew meditation as an experience of the both/and variety, however. The key to the synthesis of opposites exists in the fact that silence and reflection on the Torah take place in the heart. Both paths are complementary. Silence sets the stage for the presence of God in the human heart while reflection on this sacred presence invites us to make noises about the divine law. We need to roar even if only in the soft whisper of a voice. Thus, meditation invites us to dwell in subjective and objective truth. In this paper, the focus is on the first path; silence as the means Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5: 1-21. See also Psalm 19.

towards the divine image. How Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Job responded to God calling is detailed in Old Testament scriptures.

The word meditation originates from the Latin phrase stare in medio meaning to stand and centre, respectively; to stand in one’s centre. We stand and meet the Lord at the centre of our being, namely, in the silence of the heart. The ways of the heart are not the ways of the mind and logic, though the heart moves the mind in knowing the ways of the Lord. So the silence of the meditative state must be other than the cessation of mental activity. Paradoxically, we look to the heart to grasp the state of meditation as something we do and do not do. The meditative state entails presence as well as absence; activity and passivity.

God put Abraham to the test when he called to him; “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a holocaust on a height that I shall point out to you.” (Genesis 22: 2-3.) Early next morning Abraham took his son Isaac to the appointed place; “Silently they rode for three days (emphasis mine); but on the fourth morning Abraham said not a word but lifted up his eyes and beheld Mount Moriah in the distance.”2 Abraham tied Isaac to an altar he prepared, and raised his knife to slay him. Isaac begged for his young life.

What are we to make of this passage from Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling? Abraham’s silence speaks volumes. He must have wondered how God could break a covenant by taking his only son; “he shall give rise to nations, and rulers of people shall issue from him’ (Genesis 17: 16-17). No word seems adequate to express the emotional and logical conflict Abraham must have felt as he set out to do God’s will. Still, his decision to obey the Lord suggests that something beyond logic, greater than logic, was going on in his heart.

I think that Abraham’s silence speaks to us about the nature of meditation.

In the words of Kahlil Gibran “Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing” 3 Abraham’s silence gives evidence of a profound faith. He appears to find the courage necessary for action in this silence. It empowers him to abandon reason and selfish concerns in order to rise into a deeper relationship with the Lord. Because he did this, his son was spared. Abraham’s silence exists in subjective truth—a place beyond reason, where the faithful stand in ‘fear and trembling,’ before the Lord. Subjective truth exists beyond logical truth and personal interests. It focuses on entering into relationship with the Lord. It is not for that matter illogical or laced with negative emotion since it stands on reason and emotion before letting go of them in fear and anxiety before the Lord.

Hollander, Lee M (trans.) (1960) p.122.

Gibran, Kahlil (1923) p. 72 Abraham’s silence and trust in the Lord is the foundation of religious meditation.

In being quiet and/or passive we open ourselves to act towards the Lord. We open wide the door of human suffering to let the Lord fill our life with hope. This view is supported by Mohammad Shafii, psychiatrist, who defines meditation as being “a psychophysiological state of active passivity and creative quiescence.” 4 In subjective truth we are simultaneously drawn away from and attracted to God calling. The divine call to action is planted in this meditative soil.

In that regard, I can imagine the Lord speaking to Elijah (1 Kings 19) and how the voice of the Lord rises out of the silence of the nothing to provide instructions to Elijah on what he must do to escape the wrath of Jezebel. What is the structure of this sacred silence or subjective truth? Does the emptying of thought prepare the way for meditation, given that the absence of wind, earthquake, and fire prepare the way for Elijah’s meeting with the Lord?

We know that Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Job experience the presence of the Lord in the centrality of silence. Moses encountered God in the well known story of the burning bush; “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Exodus 3: 5-6.)”5 Moses covered his face because he knew he was standing in the presence of the Father. He was afraid to look at God. Since we are not told that the fire actually consumed the bush, or anything else, we can only imagine it as being a metaphor for the absence of earthly activity and presence of the Lord in the silence of the moment.

Elijah, on the other hand, ‘walked a day in the wilderness to hide from Jezebel’ and was so distraught that he wished for death. Let us take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding his conversation with the Lord. On Mount Sinai, the Lord speaks to Elijah, not in the sights and sounds of nature but in the silence or soft whisper of a voice;

The angel of the Lord said, ‘Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.’ A strong and heavy wind was rendering the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord—but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake—but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire—but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was the soft whisper of a voice.

When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19: 11-14)6 Shaffii, Mohammad (1985) p. 90.

The Good News Bible with the Apocrypha. (1970) Ibid., The Sunday Missal describes the ‘soft whisper’ as a ‘sound of sheer silence’.7 The nature of the ‘sheer silence’ or ‘silent whisper’ out of which the Lord speaks to Elijah is sacred. In my view, Elijah is standing before God the Father—Creator of the world and all things contained in it. God appears to be standing in an unnatural nothing; the same space of silence where Isaac’s life is requested of Abraham.

This sacred space appears to expresses the root of the possibility of the presence or absence of natural sights and sounds.

At first brush, the silence appears to arise from the absence of wind, earthquake, and fire. But the divine space must be something entirely different since the absence of earthly activity, however difficult to imagine, does not provide suitable ground for a meaningful experience. The casual observer might be inclined to look for the Lord in what is no longer there. Surely this is not the meaning of the text. In our own experience, preparation to meet the Lord entails more than the futile attempt to empty mental contents. It seems to be the case that God’s appearance to us is a gift rather than the result of anything we do or fail to do. The problem with locating the Lord in an absence of things, were this approach feasible, is that it leads to the quest for what remains when nothing is left.

We need to move beyond our basic epistemology to avoid that absurdity. The presence of God must arise at a place other than the absence of the temporal. But what if the point is made that God’s ubiquity is such that he is everywhere in the temporal order? Still, this cannot be where Elijah meets the Lord because in that event the Lord would and would not be in wind, earthquake, and fire, at the same time. This view violates the principle of non contradiction. We need to move beyond the natural order to explain the place of Elijah’s encounter with the Lord.

This is possible because the natural order depends upon God the Father as the necessary and sufficient condition for its existence. This dependence safeguards the possibility of meditation because it provides an indication of where to look to hear the Lord. The Lord speaks to Elijah in an ontological presence rather than in the absence of something material and epistemic activity. It seems possible to characterize the epistemological absence of material things as a necessary and sufficient condition for the metaphysical presence of the divinity. The creation story tells us that God created the world and all things contained in it out of nothing! The Lord appears to Elijah out of this same nothing, in fullness made in the likeness of Abraham’s silence. The creative act provides the foundation for the possibility of negation. The Lord is the ontological ground of the possibility of being. In brief, the presence or absence of material things like wind, earthquake, and fire depends on the Lord as the ultimate root of the possibility of being. This aspect of our relationship with God has to be made clear before we can elaborate on the nature of meditation, that is, we need to examine how the recognition of our fundamental insignificance and total dependence on the Creator God (since we Sunday Missal: Living with Christ. (2007-2008).

exist contingently) is a condition for an authentic encounter with the Lord. In order to develop the argument that God is standing at the place of the ontological nothing we need to distinguish that sacred place from natural places. This, I think, will prepare us to let go of reason and receive the Lord in that first act of meditative silence. Let me begin with a discussion of the ways in which we frame the nature of silence or ‘nothing’ in the secular world. The Lord is not talking with Abraham, Moses or the prophet Elijah in any of the customary ways of framing the nothing. What do we mean by the nothing or the absence of things?

The nothing or silence cannot be imagined except as a modifier of something. We cannot think of nothing as such. So the emptying of mind is not fully attainable and cannot be the sort of activity that prepares us for meditation.

To explain this view we recall that the phenomenological character of consciousness affirms the relational character of thought; to think is necessarily to think of something. The failed effort of Descartes to successfully cast the existence of all things into doubt while safeguarding the ontological status of truth provides a case in point. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s seminal work The Phenomenology of Perception is one of a long list of works to make the point that perception and its object cannot be separated. What Descartes saw when he entered the world of universal doubt is a being of his own making rather than the being of things. The dissolution of the object of knowledge moves away from clear and distinct ideas to spell the end of consciousness. Consciousness and its object form an inseparable unit. For this reason the philosopher Martin Heidegger found it necessary to characterize the ‘thing- in- itself’ as a dynamic inclusive mix of thought and object. While we can focus on the subjective or objective correlate of that mixture, we do so in the spirit of the unity between consciousness and its object in the act of knowledge. This is not to suggest the interchangeability of these correlates, however. Consciousness and its object are distinct though they are not separate entities. It follows from the nature of perception that Elijah’s encounter with the Lord is an encounter with something rather than an encounter with the absence of natural events, including states of mind. Elijah and the Lord each play a role in the communication. The determination of the role Elijah plays in the discourse brings us to a discussion of the Lord as metaphysical root of the possibility of an epistemic encounter with the divine.

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