Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
At my health club I have joined a class in meditation. We practice techniques of breathing and mindfulness and achieve tangible positive physical and mental results. In the past, I have associated meditation with spiritual movements. So why can’t I find more of it in my Jewish contexts? What can I do to become a more meditative Jew?
Distractedly Seeking Spirituality in Demarest
If you seek properly, you can find many meditative opportunities in our Jewish practices. Our traditions are rich in interior modes of spiritual expression. I practice Jewish meditations throughout the day, and not just at times of prayer.
There are many resources available. Teaneck’s Len Moskowitz offers meditation training at nearby Yeshiva University. Books by Aryeh Kaplan and others have been popular for years. In Brooklyn, Jerusalem, and elsewhere you can find many Jewish meditation teachers and groups.
The main shortcomings of such options is that they assume that to practice Jewish meditation, you must learn peripheral kabbalistic texts or seek practices outside of the regular cycle of Jewish rituals.
I believe that need not be the case. A person can become an adept meditation practitioner within the regular daily practices of our religious communities.
Let me give you some background, and then tell youhow I have developed and integrated my mindful Jewish practices.
You can describe the activity of meditation as “study or thinking intently and at length, as for spiritual purposes,” or as “contemplation of spiritual matters.” The ancient rabbis did not have a term directly correlated to what we call meditation. They called some meditative dimensions of prayer “the service of the heart.” To them, that indicated an inner intellectual and emotional activity that they located in the heart, since they saw that it beats slower or faster depending on your state of mind. Ancient rabbis had no explicit ideas about brain activity and few terms to speak about modes of consciousness.
Now, we use the term “meditate” for many varieties of activities that we call meditative. Consider those meditators from the 1960s or 70s, who practiced a popular form of Transcendental Meditation, Zen, or other related types of meditation. Far outside of establishment places of worship—separate from synagogues and churches—they sought a regimen that would help them achieve a sensation that they could transcend or go beyond themselves. They sought to bend their consciousness by a variety of methods, such as by finding their mantra or via deliberation on gnomic Zen sayings, called koans.
The rapid spread in popularity of TM a generation ago worried some leaders of organized religion. A few rabbis declared it to be a forbidden form of idolatry. In 1978, the Lubavitcher rebbe railed against the threats of meditative cults on the one hand, while on the other hand he called for Jewish doctors to develop a kosher form of therapeutic meditation. He meant that they should come up with an independent new course of meditative exercises within Jewish practice and based on Jewish principles or contents.
More recently, I have learned in my own external travels and inner quests that there is no reason to exit the synagogue or to abandon standard Jewish practices or study kabbalah to discover ways to meditate. I and many others practice meaningful meditation at the core of our regular standard Jewish prayer, and in our daily life through the ordinary texts and actions of Jewish living.
Your question is valid. It is true that the rich meditative qualities of regular Jewish practice are not at all self-evident to many of us. Few Jewish teachers instruct us about them. We reach our insights and practices through a journey of discovery, often alone, and often in several stages.
I described in my book “God’s Favorite Prayers” how an exemplary Jewish meditator can sit in the synagogue visibly engaged in everyday regular prayers, and at the same time, practice effective mindfulness.
To do this you must be trained in a course of mindfulness meditation, a derivative of Eastern practices, that seeks to foster your clear awareness of the sensations of your physical and mental state as it unfolds in the present moment.
As a mindful meditator, you learn to observe more vividly the place you are in—the tones, shades, gradations, and nuances of your present, your immediate exterior reality, and the flowing progression of your inner thoughts and emotions.
Years ago, during my training, I discovered “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” a perceptive book on mindful meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Although Kabat-Zinn is a Jew, he had no identifiable connections to Judaism. His insights mainly were derived from Eastern religions and practices. I had to make all the connections back to my practices of Judaism on my own.
Over time and through sustained training, wherever I went, including the synagogue, I became an accomplished mindful meditator. I could moderate my own thoughts, to stand outside them and observe the flow of my consciousness going by, much like a naturalist might observe the currents of a river.
When I came into the synagogue after training as a mindful meditator, I started to find analogues to that style of meditation in the existing practices of my established Jewish rituals. I realized that I was a practitioner of the meditations that we call blessings, our berakhot. I discovered new dimensions of my old prayers.
I found that a blessing is more than a formula of Hebrew words that have simple knowable meanings. In the past, I had thought that the fixed opening phrase of a berakhah, “Blessed art thou O Lord, our God, King of the Universe,” semantically expressed the speaker’s intention to bestow good wishes upon God or to exalt God, who is referred to in the formula by three names. I learned this formula when I was 2 or 3 years old and hardly pondered the theological meaning or even the simple semantics of this phrase each time I recited it as an older child or as an adult.
So what new purpose or function of the berakhah formula did I discover when I came back to reexamine it as a mature meditator? I saw that these recitations served for me as the known cues for many instances of my daily, periodic, repetitive or occasional mini-mindful meditations. These provided for me meaningful guidance to the rush of my thoughts and to the meanderings of the awareness of my waking life.
Traditional Jews recite blessings before eating, after performing bodily functions, when witnessing meteorological events, seeing flowers, or hearing good or sad news. And of course we recite blessings in the synagogue.
As part of my mindful practice, our formalized Jewish blessings functioned to demand of me a meditative awareness of my person, my body, and the surrounding external world. For a simple example, take the blessing I recite before eating an apple, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe who creates the fruit of the tree.” This is a cue to savor the taste and texture of my foods mindfully. The blessings serve as triggers for me. They tell me to stop, to be mindful of my actions, to be thoughtful of what type of food I hold in my hand, how that food is to be regarded and classified, and to recall what is “its correct berakhah.”
All forms of mindfulness heighten my moments of experience and elevate ordinary events from a background of awareness to a foreground of thinking. Mindful occasions of blessings help me savor my conscious awareness—the consistency and flavor, the origins and essences of my living.
Meir, a second-century talmudic rabbi, spoke of his expectation that every Jew could experience 100 triggers of mindful meditation each day.
This mindful meditation through berakhot that I’m describing is not identical to that which Kabat-Zinn and others taught me in secular contexts. I adapted my mindfulness to apply it to my Jewish context. In fact, I came to realize over time that through my blessings, I engage in a complex form of mindfulness, a heightened relationship to my multiple worlds, both personal and cultural.
I came to understand that when I hold an apple and recite the blessing for it, I have to know which proper berakhah to make. That meant I had to relate first to that content from my religious world, Jewish tradition, halakhah. Still holding that apple, I add on mindfulness of the fruit, to feel its heft and taste its tartness as I bite into it.
Because I’m mindful, my interaction with daily life is defined not just by the torrents of my rushing thoughts. My thinking is formed in a duplex relationship to that combination of both the cultural and personal contexts that I activate mindfully in my conscious mind, disentangled from those twisting currents of distractions gushing around in my life.
My blessing-meditations turn the rush of my daily living into a series of discrete moments of experience, each savored fully with thanksgiving, gratitude, and ideally with compassion.
And so my advice to you is to do as I did. Seek and learn and come to know and practice meditation along your own paths, and then bring it into conversation with your Judaism. And yes, you can be sure that our rich traditions offer many Jewish moods, motivations, and actions that you can make meaningfully and mindfully meditative.
Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He teaches advanced Talmud and Jewish law codes at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. He is a prolific author and has published many books about Judaism and Jewish texts. He also is CEO of Halakhah.com, a site that distributes for free annually worldwide more than 600,000 English translations of the Talmud and other Judaic books.