“I just returned from an amazing three day retreat that inspired me to new levels of love and appreciation of everything Jewish.”

— Shifra Bemis

June 2018 Newsletter

Lisa GoldsteinFinding Curiosity

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein

Sometimes hitlamdut, cultivating a lens of openness and curiosity, is simple and inspiring. It is reawakening a childlike wonder that brings joy and gratitude and a sense of belonging to this life.

That is not my experience these days. These days I am keenly aware of the voice inside that says, “We’ve seen this before and we know how it is going to unfold.” This voice looks back at history, at other times and countries, noticing patterns and predicting the future. It is rooted in the fear born of the real trauma of past generations. It is also rooted in the knowing that these things do indeed happen to other people in other places; why shouldn’t they happen to us, too? Childlike wonder seems impossibly naive and perhaps even foolish.

And yet. These days are exactly the context in which to bring the wisdom of hitlamdut, that embodied, fully engaged curiosity. What happens, for example, when I start paying attention to the sensation in the body? First I notice that I am irritated and uncomfortable. My breath is short. I feel pulsing in my face. That is actually interesting! What is that exactly? Then I become aware, oh, I am afraid. Now I can explore, what is fear like? I can bring a softness to the fear so that I can move towards responding to it, not being controlled by it.

To be clear, the goal of this practice is not to create a log for myself of what the experience of fear is like in my body. The goal is to develop my ability for hitlamdut like a muscle. Because the reality is that that fearful voice that says we know what is going to happen next is not a truthful voice. We don’t in fact know. That is worth remembering and practicing, because as Rebecca Solnit recently wrote, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”

There is a great deal we cannot control in our world, and yet, we can still act. We can develop our capacity to see things with openness and curiosity, for hitlamdut. We can bring compassion to our own experience and connect with others’ experiences as well. We can discern what communal and political arenas we can step into and what steps we can take. Because this moment has never existed before and there is so much to do.


Hitlamdut: Don’t Know (Guided Meditation Practice)

Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell

Hitlamdut is about orienting ourselves towards our lives and experience with the sense that there is always something to learn in this moment. A challenge to this is that we often find it difficult to break out of our habitual ways of seeing and relating to what we encounter. This practice of cultivating an orientation of “don’t know” can help us be open to receiving the Torah of this moment.

Rabbi Menahum Nahum of Chernobyl, Me’or Einayim Bereshit 5

ואחר שלומד כל התורה אז הוא יודע כלום, כי תכלית הידיעה שאינו יודע, וכאמור בזוהר הקודש, ’כיון דמטי לתמן מה פשפשת מה אסתכלת הא כולא סתים כקדמיתא’ (בהקדמה דף א ע’’ב).

A person who has truly learned the entire Torah realizes that they know nothing. The culmination of knowledge is the awareness that we do not know. Thus the Zohar says: “Once you reach there, what have you examined? What have you seen? Everything is just as hidden as it was in the beginning.”


Lisa GoldsteinHitlamdut: Integrated Learning

Rabbis Lisa Goldstein and David Jaffe

Everything is new.
We can learn from everything, even the unpleasant.
We are always in learning mode.

“בן זומא אומר איזהו חכם, הלומד מכל אדם שנא’ מכל מלמדי השכלתי”
(ד’ אבות א’).

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from every person, as it says, “From all my students, I have gained wisdom.” (Mishnah Avot 4:1)


“כל אדם שיש לו חוש באיזה דבר ירגיש מאד כשיראה דבר-מה מזה הענין. למשל: חייט שרואה אדם יביט
תיבף על בגדיו, סנדלר – על מנעליו של פלוני, תופר כובעים – על כובעו של פלוני, וכן סוכר במסחרו ירגיש
מאד בדיבור או מעשה שיצה לו ממנו תועלת למסחרו, משא”כ איש אחד לא ישמע ולא יראה הנ”ל, כי לבו
אין מסור לבקש ולחקור דברים מזה, כי אין לו חפץ בהם…כל זה אם הוא אין לו הרגש באלה לא יבין
להתלמד מזולתו. אם כן ההלימד מכל אדם הריהו סוחר גדול, מסחרו בכל משלהף על כן יבין להתלמד
מזולתו, נקרא חכם.”

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv writes:
Every person who has a special feeling for a certain endeavor will be extremely sensitive when she sees any little thing having to do with that endeavor. For example: When a tailor meets someone, he will immediately look at his clothes, the shoemaker – at the shoes, the milliner – at the hat. Similarly a merchant will be very sensitive to any words or actions that will have an impact on his merchandise. Another type of person would not see or hear any of these things because his heart is not given to inquire and investigate anything from these matters because he has no desire for them… all of this, if one is not engaged in such activities, one will not notice them when performed by others. If this is the case, then one who “learns from every person,” behold – this is a great “merchant!” He trades in everything and thus he understands the necessity to learn from the other and thus be called “wise.” (Quoted in Aley Shur, Chapter 5, by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, translation by Rabbi David Jaffe)

Questions for discussion:

  1. What prevents you from taking on the stance of hitlamdut?
  2. How does your sense of expertise or particular interest either help or hinder you in developing a stance of hitlamdut?
  3. What might help you be more like the “great merchant,” who notices everything and becomes wise?

Click here to download this teaching.

Hitlamdut from a Mindfulness Perspective

Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg

In middot practice there are many opportunities for reflection in journaling and conversation. This is of value in building trust and support and harvesting the wisdom that grows as we practice. However, the practice of cultivating middot occurs in the moment, and is based on one’s ability to cultivate awareness and a relaxed and accepting attitude toward what is present right now.

Into this spacious place we bring the quality of hitlamdut – non-judgmental exploration of the truth of my experience, moment to moment.  In mindfulness practice this quality is sometimes called curiosity, investigation or beginner’s mind.

Hitlamdut is the capacity to ask ourselves open ended questions such as: “what is true in this moment?” In mindfulness practice, we tend to move our attention first to the body.  We ask ourselves: What am I feeling in my body right now? Is there heat? Is there pressure? Where is it? In the stomach? Chest? Throat? Is it moving? Or pulsing? Does it seem stuck? Then I might ask myself if this experience is pleasant or unpleasant or neither.

I take a few breaths. I am practicing hitlamdut: can I observe my experience with more precision? Can I awaken more interest in this moment?  Am I frightened? Am I numb? Am I sad? With greater practice and more space I might be able to observe my thoughts. I move to the balcony of my awareness. I inhabit the role of witness. There is no agenda except to see the patterns of thought. What is running through my mind in this moment? Are these stories true? Can I allow them to pass through the mind like clouds in the sky?

(This piece has been excerpted from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Tikkun Middot Project curriculum.
For more of Sheila’s writings, check out her newest book, God Loves the Stranger, available here.)

Hitlamdut: Cultivating Non-Judgmental Awareness of the Truth of this Moment

Rabbi Marc Margolius

Hitlamdut: Cultivating Non-Judgmental Awareness of the Truth of this Moment

Hitlamdut is cultivating non-judgmental curiosity about what is true about our experience. It is a stance towards life which expands our inherently limited perspective, revealing blind spots created by own unconscious assumptions, preconceptions and judgments. Hitlamdut is analogous to what in mindfulness practice is called investigation or beginner’s mind.

The classic rabbinic text in this regard is the teaching of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot 4:1: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person, as it says, ‘From all my students I gained wisdom’” (Psalm 119:99). Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, 15th century commentator on the Mishnah, applies this principle to learning even from people one might usually discount. He teaches that the one who is willing to learn from a person of lesser stature (or, we might add today, from one who holds different political views) “is not concerned for his/her own honor and … is evident that the wisdom acquired is for the sake of heaven and not simply to show off and aggrandize the self through it.”

For Rabbi Simchah Zissel Ziv , a 19th century Mussar (ethics) teacher, Ben Zoma is referring to a “generalist” who “trades in everything” and understands the necessity to learn from everyone and everything, in contrast to “specialists” who can see only that which relates specifically to their own expertise. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a 20th century Mussar teacher, understands the “one who learns from all people” as learning ALL that they have to teach, even that which until now were outside the realm of the learner’s interests.

Through the practice of hitlamdut, we continually grow in awareness of self and others. By suspending the inner voice of din/judgment for a moment and, as Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg teaches, move to the balcony of our awareness and inhabit the role of witness,” we insert a space between stimulus and reaction. In this space, we can see more clearly the full rage of our options for acting or speaking.

The Holocaust survivor and philosopher Viktor Frankl wrote that “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” By practicing hitlamdut, by inviting ourselves to see more clearly and more deeply what is happening, moment to moment, we realize our innate capacity for freedom and responsible action. We become less constrained by the force of habit, and more free to choose the wise path, that which represents our innate godliness–what Lincoln famously described as the “better angels of our nature.”