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Jewish Meditation: The Daily Practice of Giving Thanks

December 1, 2013 11:35 am 19 comments

Meditation. Photo: Moyan Brenn (http://bit.ly/1bblSdI) on Flickr's Creative Commons.

In my youth the Beatles, notably George Harrison, introduced us to Transcendental Meditation and a variety of other Eastern religious practices. Yoga had been popular long before, of course, so had Rabindranath Tagore, whom my father read. If the practices were completely devoid of any outside religio-cultural association, there was no problem in trying them out, any more than fitness training might create a conflict of interest with Judaism, which of course it did not.

I gave yoga a shot for a while, but soon lost interest. Later on I read the books that the late and much lamented Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote on meditation in Judaism. I would close my eyes, imagine a selected letter of the Hebrew alphabet and focus on that letter for as long as I could. That then gave way to concentrating on what looked like black and white clouds that I would “see” as I closed my eyes. At the very least, it relaxed me more often than not. Sometimes it transported me into a different world in which I felt myself to have gone beyond my own body and into the “spiritual.” This became a daily habit, before I started my morning prayers and at various other times during a day as the opportunity arose.

When the Talmud (Brachot 32b) said that “the early pious ones use to wait an hour in preparation before they started to pray,” this was precisely what they must have been doing, meditating to get in the mood. I studied medieval mystics like Abraham Abulafia and saw that they were practicing various forms of mystical meditation. I realized that meditation had for a long time been part of our own Jewish tradition. Many of the greatest rabbis and Chasidic masters used these meditations in their different ways. It was a tool to prepare for prayer, to make prayer itself more personal and meaningful and to enhance the spiritual side of their religious lives.

You may well wonder: If this is so, why has there been a conspiracy of silence in much of the Orthodox world for so long? I believe it is, in part, a reaction against the excesses and abuses of Kabbalah in the past, by men like Shabbetai Zvi and Jacob Frank. In addition in post-Enlightenment Europe at any rate, the rise of rationalism tended to mock mysticism. Nowadays there is a return toward this other aspect of Jewish religious experience precisely because we know too well the limitations of science (as well, of course, its benefits).

On many occasions during my teaching life, I have given courses on meditation in Judaism and on practices popular in the Kabbalah, not as ends in themselves but as means to fuller Jewish spiritual life. So, for me, all of this is nothing new. It is an essential part of my Judaism and has been for most of my life.

Now The Economist has discovered it (Nov. 6). Meditation is all the rage in cyberspace it seems, and what’s more, “it is keeping capitalism alive.” The article makes some interesting assertions. “Buddhism stresses the importance of ‘mindfulness’.” Indeed, but so does Judaism, and without the need to reject materialism either. This is the reason for blessings in our ritual, to think and consider before one acts. “Taking time out from the hurly burley of daily activities.” Isn’t that what Shabbat, festivals and indeed daily prayer are designed to do? Judaism has always tried to combine being part of the ordinary material world while yet preserving the alternative spiritual counterbalance. Not going overboard in either direction — Maimonides’s Golden Rule.

Now all of a sudden this “mindfulness” stripped of its original ascetic dimension is the fashion, and everyone is trying it. Something that has always been part of our tradition is now suddenly taken up by Google, eBay, Twitter and Facebook. They all advocate meditation in general, as well as offering courses within the company. And hey, presto, it becomes kosher!

But the article goes on to say, “The biggest problem with mindfulness is that it is becoming part of the self-help movement and hence part of the disease that it is supposed to cure.” That is precisely the problem that we have seen. The hijacking of Kabbalah from an intense supra layer over a framework of religious daily practice to a popular quick fix with minimal commitment or religious investment — a Hollywood fad.

That is the modern way. But it is doomed to mediocrity, as any popular movement is, as the shine wears off. History has taught us (so has Malcolm Gladwell, distilling the wisdom of others) that only intense involvement in any subject or sphere brings mastery. So it is with religion. As the world suddenly discovers what we have known for millennia.

Sadly, too many in our tradition treat religion as a social phenomenon or a means of social control. It is stripped of its deeper meaning and spiritual heights and replaced with ugliness, materialism and banality. In furniture, music, and clothes, we either glorify kitsch or bathos.

I look around and I do not like what I see. But when I return to the actual content of Torah and its mystical depth, I thank the Almighty for our heritage. “Thanksgiving” in the USA is once a year. For me it is every day.

19 Comments

  • Great read R.I.P George Harrison. It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.

  • You brought up a number of important points concerning meditation and Judaism. I have been teaching meditation for almost twenty years. My first inspiration was Rabbi Arye Kaplan’s books on meditation as well.

    I used to teach “Jewish Meditation” and now I teach non-sectarian meditation because not everyone is interested in “Jewish Meditation”. Instead, they are interested in the health and self-improvement benefits that meditation offers. Were they to discover that the meditation involves kabbalistic or Chassidic intentions it would turn them off to search out meditations that were not ‘kosher’.

    The meditations you mentioned are anything but “outside of religio-cultural association” and therefore create a conflict of interest with Judaism. Actually, almost any discipline coming from India, specifically, is directly connected to their culture and their religion including TM, even though it’s advertised as being other than that.

    I agree that the popular ‘Mindfulness’ meditations offered today are ‘quick fixes’ and leave little room for true spiritual development but they bring a person to a place of calm and awareness, from there the gates are open for the seekers of truth.

    In my opinion, Judaism is also a type of meditation designed to bring the practitioner to an awareness of Gd and fulfilment which, if one practices with truth and depth, one can actually bring Gd into everything in his/her surroundings.

    The trick is not to get stuck in the symbolic visions one may experience through various meditation practices but to live practically and turn his/her existence into a practical mind-full-ness with the goal of self and environmental perfection and holiness.

  • I’m absolutely delighted to read this. I have been living a Jewish contemplative life for many years: but I’ve never, ever, studied “meditation” ; nor do I make use of any meditative practices other than simply sitting or standing in HaShem’s presence while attempting to be in some form of dialogue with Him (as it were).

    For me , the only form of “Jewish meditation” worthy of the name is one which is focussed on HaShem and not on the self, or indeed on any part of G-d’s creation. What you say about the transience of many meditation and mindfulness “fads” rings true to me. They may well lead to a prayerful relationship with HaShem—which is wonderful—but so many times, I think they can be mere diversions or distractions.

    In my opinion….Jewish prayer and contemplation are not about “us”: They are about G-d. They are part of the way He acts through us. Separated from Torah, Jewish meditation is not fully Jewish.

    Thanks so much for writing this article. A freilichen Zos Channukah!!

    • Aharon

      I am always delighted to encounter others travelling the same spiritual path. May I comment on several points you raised.

      The differenes between Meditation and Contemplation are of style rather than essence. Both involve the mind in transcending its physical and mundane preoccuptions to reach within and without.

      Trying to connect with HaShem is the highest form of course. But along the way there are many different stages and styles. For example in Tefilla one can concentrate on a letter, a word or a phrase. You can focus on prayer as a means of reaching HaShem but you can also focus on prayer as an end in itself.

      Of course HaShem is the ultimte goal but it is not the only one. Jewish prayer and meditation are also ways of enhancing ones own self understanding and control. They add an extra dimension and experience to our lives as well.

      Thank you for your comments.

  • Moshiah and the ‘Key’ to the door back into the Supernal paradise of Gan Eden lie hidden within the Unconscious intuitive mind of every individual. It’s the primary desire within the deepest recesses of human desire, more than sex or even survival. My belief is that through meditation ultimately mankind will ‘reconnect’ with Moshiah, our dormant ‘G-d consciousness, and return to the Paradise of Eden. Of course, we can’t say that anyone has yet found the Key, the way for all Humanity to ‘connect’. Not Bar Kochba, Akiva Rambam, Arizal, or even the Holy Bal Shem Tov. Perhaps they found for themselves but certainly not for you and I. They say the techniques of Meditation were lost in the Exile. I don’t believe that anything can ever be lost from the collective human unconscious. I believe the time has come for Bitachon, for everyone who seeks the return to the Divine Grace of Gan Eden to seek within using whatever teachings they may find ( within Halacha )or may as an individual intuit from their Cochmah, unconscious mind. Moshiah has been with us since we lost the Holy Land of Gan Eden. He is only waiting to be found within one Jewish Soul and from thence all Humanity. Look within and seek Moshiah. We must all try.

  • there is a way to be deeply Jewish and not to be religious. I grew up in a liberal family,not religious but remembering and practicing Rosh Hashana, Pessah, Yom Kippur. I was 10 years old when WW2 started, we went from Paris to Geneva ,my mother was a swiss citizen. But during that time my parents and our older sister who was 16, where very active in helping fugitive Jews to come across the line from France to Switzerland. during this time in Geneva I discovered the existence of Zionism and joined a youth Zionist movement.At the end of the war we dicovered the horror of the holocaust. It was the only time I ever saw my father cry as he realised that all his family in Poland disappeared.
    When I reached 20 years, I told my parents that I feel that there is nothing for me to do in Europe, and I made alyah . I am still not religious, but I read and learn the Tanah as the basis of our civilisation and the basis of the world’s ethics.
    And I am proud to be an Israeli Jew

    • What a moving story and I am so pleased you feel this deep connection between you and the people and the Tanah. But surely you need to feed your own soul as well. You can do both.

  • Provocative article/essay. I find myself agreeing or at least feeling that many meditation practices have seemingly lost their higher spiritual content in order to appeal on a secular level to the population at large.

    Perhaps there’s a gateway experience through ‘mindfulness’ or TM (which btw is my practice of choice for both day to day secular activity and connecting to the highest Divinity) will help elevate folks to find their way to their God.

    Is it possible organized religions as we have known them for our lives for a start, are like many ‘institutionalized’ experiences, going through a transformation?

    In spite of the ‘trendy’ even celeb appeal of meditation practices I do believe the more the merrier in terms of people practicing for both spiritual and secular (is there a separation??) evolution.

    • Religions like all human activities get used and abused and often descend into dry ritual and power politics. That is why every five hundred years or so there has always been a mystical revolution within Judaism to return to the pristine source of our relationship with HaShem.

      I believe we need the formal structure of organized religion as well as the unstructured mystical personal ecstacy. But it is up to each of us to find the balance.

  • Always strong Jeremy Rosen. It is worth mentioning that the neglected Jewish meditation reentered modern times thanks to Rebbe Nachman and the practice of Hitbodedut: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2JS_98i5Mg

  • As I experienced there might be a parallel between buddhist meditation and the daily prayers themselves. When I pray I feel that the more I turn away from discourse and imagination, i.e. from all “meta-stuff”, and the more I concentrate on the words of the prayer and nothing else, the “pure quality of talking with G-d”, the more I feel like an empty vessel that is filled with G-d’s grace.

  • David B. Klein

    You have no idea.

  • In these final three weeks of my life experience in the United States, I am endeavoring to take into account all of the good that has crossed my path from my youth to the present. I have lived, studied, taught, loved, been loved, and so much tried to contribute to society in sixty years of life here in the Chicago area. The four years I spent in Israel changed my life more than any experience I have had in the States. The truth be told, I, too, am grateful for my Jewish heritage which I am not only intellectually engage in through prayer, but also imbrue my total sentience in the ethereal ambiance which is Eretz Yisrael. And the latter “chavayah” I am only able to become at one with in the Land of Israel. For me, a visit to Washington, DC, or Springfield, Illinois, does wonders in rejuvenating my American experience as does teaching American youth about our need to bring more tolerance into our lives. And yet, as my mentor often maintains, it is the struggle to live in my homeland, my motherland and my fatherland, that accedes my Jewish awareness to the prophets, the avot and imahot, and the very people who have lived, dreamt, and built the land of our inheritance, even in a hostile world in which the Jew is still villainized so regularly. I am so excited about reaching the summit, yes, praying, if only in my mind, on Har Habait and at the Kotel and in Hevron, and at the Ari’s gravesite and that of Shlomo Alkabetz and Shlomo Carlebach. Rabbi Rosen, my dream as a Jew living in the year 5774 is the good fortune I have, as does every Jew in the world, to live in our land, on our land, with our people who so desire to make this world a better place for every human being.

    • You are right.
      There has always been a very special and powerful connection between us, the Land of Israel and HaShem and nowhere in the world can feel this powerful connection other than in our land that the Torah says “HaShem is connected with it, His eyes look toward it all the time.”

      This doesn’t mean we can’t connect outside. But I do agree the spirituality you can get in Israel is unique.

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