The lawyer who wants to help free our minds

Roland Brandman’s new book, Sapphire Mind, mines the rich tradition of Jewish meditation


When Borehamwood-based property lawyer Roland Brandman was furloughed during the pandemic two years ago, he found himself with an unexpected opportunity.

Over the course of four months, he sat down for 10 hours a day and wrote the book that he had been too busy to produce before.

Sapphire Mind is a 650-page work on Jewish meditation, which is both a collection of his own essays on the ideas behind Jewish contemplative practices as well as a sourcebook of quotations, thematically arranged, from biblical, mystical, Chasidic and other writings.

Anthologies of kabbalistic literature may have been published before but “no book of this type, so far as I am aware”, he said. It is a distillation of quotations from 150 to 200 books he has read over more than a decade —“ all those quotations that I found most profound and inspiring”.

Brandman, who is 37, currently chairs HaMakom, the Jewish meditation group founded in 2011 by Rabbi Danny Newman, who is now rabbi of Shema (the South Herts and Edgware Masorti community).

He is also taught by Rabbi Daniel Gigi, a contemporary of his at City of London school, who became an Orthodox rabbi, authored a book on meditation, 28 Jewelled Crown, and founded another organisation to bring Jewish techniques to a wider audience, Maayan Hatum (“Hidden Spring”).

“Meditation changed my life in wonderful ways and is part of daily life for me,” Brandman said.

“It gives me a wider perspective on things and all sorts of benefits can come with it.”

A lot of people, he said, “are trapped in their words and their thoughts. During the day their mind is constantly on the go.

"They don’t necessarily get opportunities to stand apart and get a bit of distance from their normal thinking patterns to a very peaceful and still place — and from that place, they can mould and develop how they see the world.”

But like many who have come to Jewish meditation, it was not part of the world of his youth. He grew up in a Reform community, became ba’al teshuvah (newly observant) in his teens but then when he went to Oxford University to study classics, he was “estranged from Jewish life”.

After university, a friend of his mother’s introduced him to a secular form of meditation, involving mantra techniques. “I wanted to relax more. It gave beautiful spiritual experiences — I felt centred and connected again.”

He began reading mystical and spiritual literature from around the world but it was only when he went to Limmud for the first time, a couple of years after taking up meditation, that he met people practising a Jewish form of it and discovered that there were traditional precedents.

“It was a kind of revelation because I had never known about it,” he said. “I felt my inheritance had been kept from me. My re-entry into Jewish life really took off from that Limmud.”

He began to delve into Jewish sources and as he did, made a habit of marking quotations that particularly struck him — a compilation that he was later able to draw on for Sapphire Mind.

“The essays are designed to give an overview and encapsulate a philosophy for a contemplative Judaism,” he said. But he stresses “a” rather than “the” philosophy. “I don’t pretend there is one correct view.”

The first section is the most philosophical, examining the nature of consciousness, Divinity and the soul.

But the subsequent chapters move on to more practical topics — “there is a chapter on seclusion, one on silence and another listing meditative techniques from the traditional sources”.

Others cover subjects such as compassion or how to deal with suffering. The fourth and final section “talks more about mitzvot and having a path for daily living”.

While Chasidism developed spiritual techniques, practices could be found even in Lithuanian circles too. “The Vilna Gaon said you should spend Shabbat in silence — with some exceptions.

"When I ask people in frum communities in London do they ever do this, they say no. When I ask why, I get the answer, ‘We are not on the same level’. However, the Vilna Gaon was not writing for people at his level. He was writing it for everyone.”

The retreats run by HaMakom attract people from Charedi backgrounds to those who “won’t set foot in a shul once in a year. It’s amazing to see that. One of the nice things about meditation is that it can bring people together across denominations. If we are sitting in silence, no one can say ‘I’m not going to sit in silence because that’s not my nusach [style of liturgy]’.”

He makes it a priority to find some time each day “where I sit in silence. It doesn’t have to be that long. Even having a daily practice of ten minutes would be a good thing.”

And as his book counsels, a little bit every day is better than “a long chunk once a week”.

Just as they organise explanatory services from time to time, synagogues, he suggests, might offer a service which “involves a period of sitting in silence or chanting niggunim. I was aware that one United Synagogue a few years ago had what was labelled as a mindful service. It was the same service [as a regular Shabbat] but people were asked to be reflective rather than talk to their mates when they got bored. Some liked it, some didn’t. But it doesn’t have to happen every week.”

HaMakom is trying to do more work in Jewish schools to ensure that more young people are introduced to Jewish meditative traditions. “Do I think it would be a good thing for them to be more widely practised?

"Certainly. I think in this country we are relatively late behind America, but I think it is progressing. We see our numbers at HaMakom increasing every year. And as every day in the national newsapers someone is writing on mindfulness and how beneficial it is for business, or for schools, or for mental wellbeing or general health, I think it will only grow.”

Sapphire Mind — Liberation in Jewish Meditation, Roland O. Brandman is published by Izzun Books, £49

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