Lately I've started lecturing at Christian monasteries. Monks, you see, are interested in 'spirituality.' And, since 'spirituality' requires humility, my monastic hosts are just humble enough to imagine that even Jewish Comparative Religionists at state universities might have something useful to say.
In this, of course, they differ from our own Haredi 'spiritualists' who dismiss all secular learning (except for cell-phone technology) with a contemptuous sniff. Humble, I guess, is for Moshe Rabbenu ' stiff-necked is for the rest of us.
In any event I've become, to my amazement, a celebrity on the 'cassock and coarse bread' circuit that extends south from Lacey, Wash. (the Benedictine Brothers of St. Martin's Abbey) to Etna, Calif. (the Old Calendarist Greek Orthodox Fathers of St. Gregory Palamas Monastery).
So, just returned from the Benedictines of Lacey, and contemplating another invitation to St. Gregory's, my monastic wandering has me wondering. Why can't we do this? Wouldn't it be lovely to spend a week or so cloistered in a wholesome Jewish brother- or sister-hood in the forest, devoted to a calming regimen of prayer, Torah study, and focused reflection on what really counts? Some place totally different from, say, shul?
Why not? After all, Jews of Second Temple times may have even invented the monastic life. The Therapeutics of Alexandria had separate communities for men and women, coming together only to celebrate Shabbat and the festivals in study and antiphonal prayer. And don't forget the Essenes of the Judean wilderness (or, as they called themselves, 'the Commune'), whose monastic rules and apocalyptic visionary texts are among the most famous of the Dead Sea Scrolls. What happened to these folks and why did their religious lifestyle disappear from among us?
War, for one thing. Both the Therapeutics and the Essenes were wiped out, along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews, in three futile 'wars of liberation' against Rome in 66-73, 115-117, and 132-135 CE. These yielded, in order: one destroyed Temple (mourned still today), the genocide of Egyptian Jewry (remembered only by ancient historians), and, a final kick in the pants, the spectacle of a Messianic fraud (Bar Koziva: 'the Son of Disappointment') who died with his boots on, but achieved virtually nothing else.
Yet the demise of the Therapeutics and Essenes hardly explains why no post-war, Jewish monastic movements sprung up to replace them. So what gives?
Let's first dispense with the usual, obscurantist, answer to this question. As secular Jewish folklore goes: 'There is no monasticism in Judaism because we Jews (unlike goyim) are not a prudish people and have a healthy relationship to our bodies.'
What? The modern people that produced potty-mouths like Lenny Bruce and Howard Stern have healthy relationships to their bodies? Tell me about it! Seriously, there is a grain of truth to this theory, but it's not where our secular folklorists place it.
The truth is, the end of Jewish monasticism is in some sense dependent upon a healthy relationship of Jews to their bodies. But it's no genetic accident! It was carefully inculcated in us by the rabbis during that crucial century between the defeat of Bar Koziva and the compilation of the Mishna, the famous halachic digest of Rabbi Judah, the patriarch.
In catastrophic times, Rabbi Judah's Mishna replaced impotent Jewish militancy with a vision of daily life as a regime of quasi-monastic self-discipline. Redirecting violent passions away from the Evil Empire and toward our own private demons, the sages turned the defeat of the yetzer hara (the rebellious urge) into a meditative discipline capable of transforming the soul. Sages cast the written Torah's mitzvot into a discipline of restrained enjoyment of the world's delights. The Mishna's oral Torah made the world itself into an opportunity for monastic restraint, even as it immersed Jews in the world as God's good creation.
The walls of this worldly Jewish monastery were constructed by the halachot of Shabbat rest and kashrut, enforcing upon us a spiritual separation from every society of which we have been a part.
Within those walls of separation, the halachot governing the blessings of food ensured that sustaining our bodies was an occasion for meditating on the source of all abundance and the diversity of the bounty the Creator has supplied for us.
And, while our meals are not eaten in monastic silence, the halachic equation of table and altar ensured that our table talk be suitable for the presence of the Shechinah, eliminating gossip and foolishness.
True, we are commanded ' when not eating ' to replenish the species. But that mitzvah includes halachot governing the modesty of our carnal embraces, the times we may indulge in them, and the frame of mind we are to bring to them. These ensure that the act we share with even the lowest forms of animalian existence is transformed into the most unique expression of reverence for the divine image embodied in our partners.
What, finally, is the animating spirit that fills this worldly monasticism of the halachic way of life? It is, of course, the daily adoration of the giver of Torah through our meditation on the Torah itself, the shadow of the image of the Creator in the world of doing. Talmud Torah keneged kulam! The study of Torah outweighs all other virtues as we collectively strive to reshape our personal and communal selves to glorify the name whose very being is our own.
Halachic discipline, engaged with devotion, is as demanding and intrusive as any ascetic regime. Yet, unlike true monasticism, Jews are enjoined to become ascetic pietists in the midst of the distractions of family and material responsibilities.
So one thing's sure: our constant failure to live up to the Torah's standards encourages us in pursuit of that final, and most important monastic virtue: humility!