Reflections on the Spiritual Practice of Hitbodedut

Reflections on the Spiritual Practice of Hitbodedut

This reflection was written in 5777/2017.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Section 25 of Likutey Moharan on Hitbodedut

A person should set aside a set time daily to speak with God freely in their vernacular, instructs Rabbi Nachman of Breslov to his students and disciples. This daily practice, an addition to thrice-daily liturgical prayer is known as hitbodedut, deriving from the Hebrew root meaning seclusion. Hitbodedut is a contemplative meditative practice, a solitary practice and one rich with emotion and raw, honest human longing and yearning. It is perhaps one of Rabbi Nachman’s most well-known practices. Rabbi Nachman suggests that individuals who wish to engage in hitbodedut do so at night and find a location, such as out in a field or on a road where they will not be interrupted. The idea of nature joining with the individual in their prayer or hitbodedut practice also plays a critical role for Rabbi Nachman.

Hitbodedut is rooted in the traditional understanding that Yitzchack went out to the field in solitude to pray, which is why Mincha is typically attributed to him. Nevertheless, the practice itself is far more innovative than it is following in the direct lineage of a spiritual master. Rabbi Nachman provides specific instructions for practitioners of hitbodedut, some of which I perceive as helping create a ritual container within which the practice can take place. Hitbodedut is still practiced by Breslover Chasidim today and is of increasing interest in Jewish circles beyond it. I find the practice both deeply uncomfortable and profoundly moving. The beauty of the practice lies in that it is accessible to absolutely everyone, everywhere. Though Rabbi Nachman imagines hitbodedut as a verbal practice, done in the vernacular, and involving both petition and praise, if speaking aloud does not work for you or if you encounter obstacles, such as discomfort, boredom, self-consciousness, etc., writing may work just as well. If you don’t believe in a personal God who hears prayer, this practice might feel alienating or even trite. For me, though there is much I don’t know about God, one thing I do feel I know is that I believe in a God of resilience. Hitbodedut, then, invites me into a dialogic space, paradoxically in which I am not necessarily seeking a direct answer but instead receive greater clarity as the practice unfolds. I believe hitbodedut can be an incredibly generative and co-creative practice for us moderns who often balk at formalized prayer. At the same time, however, hitbodedut is intensely, sometimes painfully uncomfortable, which is why it is intended to be done in private. The unease emerges from the fact that hitbodedut is a frankly rigorous practice, in which the practitioner comes face-to-face with the rawness of their own experience and emotion in ways that they might prefer to push down, bottle up, compartmentalize so they can move on with their day.

Hitbodedut breaks us of that habit by forcing us to spend a set length of time in the practice daily, regardless of whether we feel like doing so. In that way, it is similar to traditional davening. If one believes one has an obligation to thrice-daily prayer, there are plenty of times that that prayer feels utterly lacking in kavannah. Though kavannah is as important in early Chasidism as it is in Kabbalah, it is easier to pray by wrote. Not at all ideal, but certainly those of us who are regularly engaged with the siddur cannot but admit to doing. Hitbodedut, similarly, can be done without kavannah, but it is significantly harder to. The fact that hitbodedut is explicitly intended to be done in the vernacular because it is easier for someone to express the full range of human emotion in their first language points to its radical accessibility. Hitbodedut, like formal prayer, is meant to include both petition and praise, positivity and struggle, whatever is on the heart of the practitioner on any given day. It is also just that much easier to have a free-flowing dialogue with God in a language in which the full spectrum of emotional expression is possible.

Hitbodedut is one of those practices that is both bound by opening and closing ritual—such as washing the hands and thanking God for the time you’ve had with God, and is also radically unpredictable and open. In that way, it is a highly therapeutic practice, and a profoundly risky one. I believe it has tremendous potential to radically alter our prayer lives. What I find particularly refreshing about how hitbodedut is imagined by rabbi Nachman is that if a person feels distant or alienated from God, all the more so should they engage in the practice, even if that is only standing there and saying to God, “God, I wish I could pray to you but I cannot”. The lack of apology for feeling far from God is so liberating, especially when it comes from someone such as Rabbi Nachman who also taught that there was no greater mitzvah than joy. Joy doesn’t come so easily, and yet, that doesn’t mean that we don’t or cannot return to our daily practice, even if it is cloaked in anger, frustration, yearning for that which we cannot have. Finally, hitbodedut is something that can be done by everyone, regardless of background. Rabbi Nachman noted that even the great righteous ones or tzadikim engaged in hitbodedut, felt far from God, etc. The radical equality in that is profound for how we might think about prayer individually and communally.

Divrei HaTefillah: Baal Shem Tov, selection from section Peh Chet of Amud HaTefillah

This was written in 5777 and is intended for use as a kavvannah or meditation before Pesukei Dezimra, verses of praise, on a Shabbat or chag morning.
Before we begin our davening this morning with Pesukei DeZimra or psalms of praise, I want to offer a brief kavannah or intention for our prayers. Many do not realize that Judaism has a longstanding rich and varied meditative tradition. Mystical or contemplative modes for entering into our prayers are very much a part of our tradition, and I believe that they can be excellent vehicles for connecting with the words in our siddur which I know for so many of us are quite difficult to grasp. I want to give over a brief teaching from the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism about prayer. In his Amud HaTefillah, the Baal Shem Tov speaks a great deal about focusing on the individual letters of the words which comprise our prayers as a mystical vehicle for ascending into greater levels of consciousness. There is an idea that this form of contemplative practice is also a deeply ecstatic one, and the more a person immerses themselves into the letters of the prayers, the greater the ecstasy. Ultimately, one should be so immersed and so wrapped up in the ecstasy of the moment that the words of prayer, which as we know are often spoken aloud become inaudible. It is as though through the vehicle of our speech, we simultaneously enter into our prayer and go beyond it. Our intense meditation and concentration upon the letters of the prayer, for the Baal Shem Tov, serves as a vehicle for connecting with the divinity that is found within each letter. You may be familiar with the idea that the Torah is the blueprint for creation or that before anything else existed, there was a primordial Torah of sorts. The Hebrew letters that make up the Torah and likewise our prayer books are a physical, tangible manifestation of that divinity we are trying to connect to. I often think of this as a way of achieving cosmic union with God through the vehicle of spoken prayer. Nevertheless, this state of cosmic unity, which the Baal Shem Tov also illustrates by describing the individual as going through the four worlds of classic Kabbalah as they ascend in greater consciousness, sounds quite unattainable. How might this admittedly complicated and confusing teaching impact our prayer lives? Though many of us yearn to experience some kind of divine encounter when we pray, that yearning often goes unrequited.

Pesukei DeZimra is a time in our service for us to warm up for prayer. Pesukei Dezimra can feel like a lot of words that we move through rapidly, without the kavannah with which they were intended to be recited. Traditionally, this portion of our service is seen as a means of giving us space to cultivate the kavannah for Shacharit and beyond. This morning, I want to encourage us all to adapt this teaching from the Baal Shem Tov. Is there a particular line that jumps out at you from the text or cries out to you? Is there a line you don’t understand and want to immerse yourself in? Take that one line, focus your attention and intention upon the words, the letters, and how they all fit together to form the whole of the verse. What comes up for you as you immerse yourself wholly in that line? Do you find you no longer hear yourself saying the words or, put another way, that your prayerful experience transcends the words? Though the intensity of the Baal Shem Tov’s meditative practice might feel unattainable, I think that we can use his focus on contemplative and ecstatic prayer to enliven our own prayer lives.