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Yamima Avital: First Jewish Woman Mystic with her Own Written Torah

Punch Yamima Avital's name into a (Hebrew) Internet search engine and you will find forums with endless exchanges of information about where groups studying "Yamima."

Sometime in the early 1990s, she disappeared from view. She began to teach first from behind a curtain and then from the top of a stairway, half a floor above the classroom, her voice alone, and her words, enough to fill the room with her presence. She was sensitive, very sensitive, to other people's energy, to their conflicts and disturbances. She saw too much, saw into their souls, and it distracted her, broke her concentration. Gabi Lev, an actress and theater director who began to attend classes in 1989, when Yamima Avital would still speak facing her students, says that Yamima would sometimes reprimand her: "`Gabi, don't look at me!' she would say." At other times, adds Gabi's husband Natan, she would sense that a student was thinking about her, and she would address him or her by name and say: "Stop, don't think about me, think about what I am telling you."

It was hard not to think about Yamima, even though she often emphasized that she was just a vessel for a flow of words and ideas that were coming down from on high. According to Natan Lev, he sometimes felt himself bathed in light, enlivened, uplifted, just from being in her presence. When Yamima taught, she saw words engraved in light shining in front of her. "You're too emotionally turbulent," she would say to her students sometimes in the middle of receiving teachings from a higher dimension. "The words have stopped - they're not coming down anymore."

But the words would always eventually return. Over the years they added up to a nearly endless series of often complicated and idiosyncratic texts that expressed a system and language all their own. Despite the unconventional way they were revealed, and their sometimes arcane sentence structure, the teachings themselves concern, at least on one level, what is perhaps the most prosaic of challenges: learning to attain a state of calm attentiveness and emotional equilibrium as you go about your daily life.

"Segments" is what Yamima called the lessons she said she received, which she dictated at the normal speed of speech as her disciples struggled to write down as much as they could, comparing notes afterward to fill in the inevitable words or sentences they had missed. At the beginning of each class, Yamima would ask her students to share the insights they had gathered while trying to apply what they had learned in previous lessons to their lives. Then she would answer questions that troubled them; sometimes she would stop the dialogue and begin to dictate again. "So and so," she would say, referring to a student who had asked the triggering question, "has brought us down a segment."

By the time of her death in May 1999, after a fall down a stairway, Yamima was teaching seven or eight classes a week at the Ma'ayan (wellspring) Institute she had founded. Yet only after her death did her teachings begin to spread like wildfire, entering the mainstream of Israeli culture through several simultaneous vectors, penetrating religious and nonreligious circles, Tel Aviv professionals and New Age seekers all at once. At least 10,000 Israelis, according to some estimates - including pop stars Shlomo Artzi and Etti Ankri, along with other celebrities from the world of politics and the performing arts - are now meeting to study Yamima's teachings every week, mostly with disciples she herself had encouraged to teach.

In Pardes Hannah, which boasts at least six "Yamima" instructors, even people who have never attended a class are familiar with some of her basic vocabulary. "Within a minute or two of talking to someone," says local artist and herbalist Orly Laufer, not uncritically, "I can tell who is studying `Yamima,' just by the vocabulary they use."

`Thinking awareness'

Punch Yamima Avital's name into a (Hebrew) Internet search engine and you will find forums with endless exchanges of information about where groups studying "Yamima" - the formal name for her method is "thinking awareness" - are forming or are in progress, where special Yamima classes on birthing, child-rearing or marriage can be found, recommendations about teachers, and discussions of controversial issues: Who is qualified to teach? Is it recommended that men and women study together in the same group? And: Does studying Yamima lead inevitably toward a return to Judaism?

This last question points to a brainteaser, a mystery. "Despite the fact that the founding teacher was religious and punctiliously observed Jewish law," one Internet review of Yamima's teaching on a New Age site begins, "the study material has no religious content, but is relevant to any person, religious or secular, who is interested in broadening the borders of his personal awareness and applying these lessons to his life." Yet the site also issues a warning as well: "Still, it is important to remember that a significant number of her students returned or `came closer' to Judaism (c.f. Etti Ankri)."

By all accounts, Yamima did not urge people to return to Jewish observance. The lessons she dictated to her students did not include religious instructions or admonitions; they can be studied and practiced by religious and nonreligious alike. And yet hundreds of people who were influenced by her personality and ideas have "returned" to Jewish practice in some form or another. Most, but not all, of the 20 or so Yamima disciples who she encouraged to teach her writings and methods are observant, although a significant number of them were not when they began to study with her.

In the memorial book printed a year after her death, rabbis who knew her - Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Bratslav and Chabad, religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox - call her a tzaddeket: a righteous and holy woman, endowed with unique spiritual powers. By her own testimony, she was not a scholar of kabbala, Jewish mysticism. Yet some experts in this field spoke to her about kabbala, and were apparently amazed by her insights. I., a "Yamima" instructor from Pardes Hannah who has studied kabbala for many years, recalls asking her about a passage in "The Zohar," and receiving a long, precise interpretation that filled him with wonder. "Where do you know that from?" he asked. "I suppose from the same place that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai [traditionally considered the author of the seminal, 13th-century mystical work - M.O.] knew it from," she answered.

Yamima is not the first Jewish woman to have been recognized, even by rabbinic authorities, as a seer and as someone expert in spiritual matters without having undergone an apprenticeship in the requisite, demanding discipline of Kabbala. She's just the first in a very long time.

Women seers in history

According to Dr. Yossi Chajes of the Jewish history department at the University of Haifa, women spiritual adepts are mentioned with some frequency in 15th- and 16th-century historical records. In the confessions of Conversos that were recorded by their Spanish Inquisitors, men speak of women seers who provided spiritual guidance to members of the secret Jewish religious community (who were forced to convert to Christianity). Rabbi Chaim Vital, a disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria in 16th-century Safed and himself one of the major mystical figures of that century, recounts in his personal spiritual memoir "The Book of Visions" stories of his encounters with several women he considered to have unusually potent spiritual powers. One, Sonia Dora, who was known as "the dreamer," read Vital a message about his future that she claimed she saw written in Ashurite letters that appeared in oil floating on the surface of a bowl of water.

Another, Francesco Sara, is credited by both Vital and Ovadiah Sambari, a 17th-century Jewish historian, with having a "maggid" - a speaking or revelatory angelic being that provided her with heavenly knowledge. She was so highly regarded that when she warned that a plague threatened Safed, the city's rabbi, Moshe de Curiel, decreed a day of fasting and prayer for the entire community. From behind the synagogue curtain that divided the sexes, Sara whispered to the other women that the plague had been averted - but that the rabbi, whom heaven had chosen as a sacrifice for his flock, would die within a short time. He died eight days later. Mention of women seers, Chajes says, was censored after Sabbatai Sevi in books in which stories about them had once appeared, apparently because they had played a significant role in his ultimately disastrous messianic movement.

There are significant differences, however, between Yamima Avital and these earlier women. While women in the 15th and 16th centuries had limited access to formal education of any kind, Yamima - for all of her lack of scholarship in kabbala - was highly trained in another discipline: psychology. Both her son, Yishai, and her long-time disciples, such as her personal secretary, Idit, are secretive about the details of Yamima's biography, citing her extreme modesty, but a bare few facts are known.

She was born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1929, graduated high school there and moved to Israel when she was about 20. She later attended Ben- Gurion University of the Negev and Tel Aviv University, eventually earning a master's degree in psychology, and was widowed in her mid-30s. Yamima eventually became known as someone who could heal through the power of prayer, and was skilled at using both psychological insight and her psychic powers in providing counseling to the troubled. Until the time of her death, Yamima would set aside two days a week for healing and would regularly visit the sick in hospital wards, sometimes praying for hours beside their beds.

In 1987 or 1988, she founded the Ma'ayan Institute in Tel Aviv, moving it to Herzliya in 1990. There she began, for the first time, to teach groups of students the method of inner work that she formally called "thinking awareness," but which most people know simply as the "Yamima" method.

Growing popularity

Which brings us to the most important difference between Yamima and her predecessors. Yamima is apparently the first female mystic and visionary, clearly operating within the framework of Jewish tradition in terms of her personal piety and her contacts with at least some members of the rabbinic establishment, who left the world a systematic body of teachings, which was recorded meticulously by her disciples, albeit only in writing: Yamima did not allow her voice to be recorded, and also assiduously avoided being photographed. Her teachings have not yet been published in book form. But the notebooks of each of her devotees - and she had dozens - contain hundreds of pages filled with her teachings, which are used by those who base their own instruction on her methods.

A deeper assessment of Yamima's teachings will have to wait for the publication of the texts she dictated - which seems inevitable, given their growing popularity and the number of people who possess them at least in part - and for the writings of her disciples. From conversations with eight long-time students of Yamima (most of whom did not want to be quoted by name) and readings of text fragments that she dictated, it is clear that her teachings focus on territory of shared concern to psychology and religion: the human psyche or soul. Yamima's texts are aimed at guiding people through a process of self-discovery whereby they learn to pay close attention to their inner emotional state, which affects their interaction with others, whether spouses, parents, children or strangers they bump into on the street.

As in depth psychology, Yamima believes that childhood experiences often leave people with negative emotional imprints that they may carry with them for the rest of their lives. She calls these imprints "overload," and much of her teaching is devoted to helping people get to the point where they are liberated from the crippling emotional burden they carry. Yet unlike some therapeutic methods, Yamima's does not emphasize the need to explore the memory of childhood trauma; indeed, she sometimes even denigrates these efforts as "picking" at the wound. Instead of focusing on identifying the original source of the so-called overload by attempting to reawaken childhood memories, Yamima practitioners learn to contemplate negative emotions as they arise in real time - during episodes of friction with their spouse, parent or boss.

Yamima students are meant to internalize, through studying and applying her writings, basic structures of response to the provocations with which reality constantly tests us: to listen, to wait and only then to act or answer in any given situation, for example. These structures, combined with a heightened, almost meditative awareness of one's own inner feelings, helps practitioners identify and thus "cordon off" the explosive freight of childhood pain that rushes up from the past and often fuels our anger or frustration in the present. Yamima's assumption is that we often are attached to feelings of victimhood or deprivation. By preventing past wounds from "bleeding" into our actions and feelings in everyday life, we gradually lose our attachment to them; at a certain point, we release the imprints of negative experiences and are liberated from them forever.

"The baseline of my life rose to a higher level," says S., a clinical psychologist who has practiced Yamima's method for more than 10 years. "I don't fall down as much. I am a much happier person. I don't hear this constant disturbing buzz of pain and bitterness that I did before I started."

`Is my heart open?'

Learning to reign in the overload, to identify and finally to release a superfluous "segment" of one's emotional makeup is not an end in itself. The goal of the process in which students of Yamima's teachings are engaged is to reveal, first and foremost to the practitioner himself, the essential quality of his own self that was long obscured by emotional turmoil and lack of inner attentiveness. To the extent that a person is able to stand within "his own space" - i.e., the space of his essential nature - he will increasingly be able to rely on an ever-more precise and delicate awareness of when his actions toward others are in line with the biblical injunction "Love thy neighbor as thyself," which is perhaps the ultimate goal of Yamima's method.

"Is my heart open or closed at this very moment?" asks I. "You learn to look inward, to make delicate distinctions, and all in a split second." Veteran students of Yamima, like S., herself a respected clinical psychologist, speak of learning to hear "the emotional messages people are conveying that they can't put into words, almost like a frequency they are transmitting."

Yamima's belief in a quality of soul unique to each person, which everyone can learn to perceive and realize within themselves, is an important part of what makes her teachings spiritual or religious in nature.

"There is a spiritual horizon," says Vered Goldberg, who has studied with one of Yamima's students off and on for years, though she has not returned to Jewish religious practice. "An understanding that my right to exist is beyond my biography, and all my problems."

When asked what makes her teachings particularly Jewish, some Yamima students cite her language, which draws at times on kabbala - despite Yamima's claim that she never formally studied the discipline - and her teachings on the cycle of the year, based on the Jewish holidays. S., the psychologist, sees Yamima's emphasis on each person's responsibility to the collective as separating her from the discipline of psychology: "You are supposed to learn from your emotional difficulties," S. remembers Yamima insisting. "Psychology doesn't say this. According to Yamima, you are obligated to fix your soul. It's not a luxury, because all of Israel is responsible one for the other."

"You can study Yamima just to become more calm and happy, and it does not have to touch spirituality or religion at all," says C., another Yamima student who now teaches her methods. "But from the very beginning, hidden within the material, are very precise and profound connections to Jewish spirituality that can only be understood at later stages."

"It's the very way that she worked through ideas and words that made it Jewish," says Ruth Weider Magan, a singer and actress who studied with Yamima. "She poured this higher energy she was drawing down into the form of a lecture, a teaching - not a meditation or a mantra. And it was obvious that what was affecting you wasn't just her energy or just the lecture, but the way the two fit together perfectly."

National-religious interest

But what happens when Yamima is no longer here to make that perfect fit? What is the future of her teachings? As might be predicted, disagreements about the right way to propagate her spiritual legacy have arisen in the vacuum created by Yamima's untimely death. Idit, director of the Ma'ayan Institute, believes that too many people are teaching Yamima these days, and that the method without the person is not really Yamima.

"Yamima would bring people along the path, with her very special power, until they fixed their souls. Her absence is felt very deeply. There is a lack of precision in the learning today. People are teaching who did not spend much or any time with Yamima," says Idit. She believes that only those people who studied for many years with Yamima have the right to teach her "method" - a term that Idit herself rejects: "There really is no `method' because if you call it a method you miss the depth and the delicacy that is impossible to transmit."

Idit adds that she would like the Ma'ayan Institute to remain the authoritative center for the study of Yamima's teachings, although as Yamima teachers and classes spring up all over Israel, this seems like an uphill battle.

I., who Yamima herself did encourage to teach, is on the opposite side of the fence. He believes that her teachings are exactly what is needed right now in Israel, with a society plagued by interpersonal tensions that is also carrying a massive amount of collective overload.

"I took it upon myself," says I., despite "the disagreement of others, to send people out to teach. Whoever studied for two or three years and really dedicated themselves to it must be a teacher."

Many of those studying Yamima at present are from the national-religious camp. I. is trying to introduce Yamima groups to the ultra-Orthodox world, which he believes needs the method just as badly. In contrast to Idit, he does not believe that the power of Yamima's teachings have been diminished by her death.

"When a righteous person dies, he leaves us a double portion of his spirit," says I. "Like Elijah the Prophet did."

S. stands somewhere in the middle. Having studied with both Yamima herself and with one of Yamima's students, she is convinced that, when guided by a responsible teacher, the learning process and the texts themselves have a potency that remains undiminished by Yamima's passing. Still, as a psychologist, she knows that this power is itself potentially dangerous, and admits that "people teaching who are not good or pure people can certainly do damage."

Damaging or not, in the new Israel, where the old religious-secular polarity has perhaps softened for a considerable swathe of the population, Yamima's unique fusion of psychological and spiritual language, and the form of religiosity they imply, have struck a deep chord. During the first wave of return to Judaism in the 1970s and '80s, the model of return was of a sudden conversion accompanied by rejection of one's previous, secular identity (c.f. Uri Zohar). Returning to Judaism by studying Yamima seems to be a far more gradual process. With her emphasis on relationships rather than prohibitions, personal growth as opposed to sin, and emotions rather than theology, Yamima's text speaks to a post-ideological Israel, but one that is hankering as never before for psychological healing and spiritual illumination.

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