Active versus Passive Meditation by Schneur Zalman Stern
The Chosen Breath - introduction to Jewish Meditation and Makor Or, a meditation centre in San Francisco.
The Argument for Makor Or (editor's note: and an argument for Jewish meditation) - by Alan Lew, rabbi and author of One God Clapping
What is Jewish Meditation? by Alan Lew
Yoga as a Way to Kavannah - by Levi Kelman
A Brief Introduction to Jewish Meditation - By Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Developing Our Spiritual Nature - excerpt from Jewish Guided Imagery by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins
The Purpose of Meditation - from the Inner Dimension
Meditations by Dr C. Benton
Philosophical Similarities between Judaism and Yoga:
Part Two: Non-violence / Ahimsa
Jewish Spiritual Practices - Yitzhak Buxbaum (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990)
The Way of Flame by Avram Davis (159 pages, HarperSan Francisco, $17). Davis, 44, received a doctorate from the history of consciousness department at U.C. Santa Cruz, and is now executive director of Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, California.
Miraculous Living: A Guided Journey in Kabbalah Through the Ten Gates of the Tree of Life. Rabbi Shoni Labowitz (334 pages, Simon & Schuster, $23).
Judaic Mysticism by Avram Davis and Manuela Dunn Mascetti (224 pages, Hyperion, $24.95).
Yoga Mosaic - an association of Jewish Yoga Teachers
InnerJew.com - "Presenting a contemporary approach to in er Judaism grounded in traditional sources, Innerjew emphasizes a synthesis of Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah. Inner Judaism is the broad current of teachings and practices within our tradition that teach knowledge of, and hence intimacy with, God."
Reb Goldie's meditation page - a Jewish meditation moreh (teacher) in the Reconstructionist tradition
Rabbi Laibl Wolf - an Australian Jewish meditation teacher
Makor Or - a Jewish Meditation centre attached to and associated with a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco. Established by Alan Lew, rabbi and author of One God Clapping
Kavannah: Resources for Kabbalah and Jewish Meditation
Chochmat HaLev: "An Independent Center of Jewish Meditation". Reputed to be the largest consortium of Jewish meditation teachers in the country.
Metivta - a centre for contemplative Judaism
Maqom: calls itself a "Cyber-School for Adult Talmud Study founded and directed by Rabbi Judith Abrams, Ph.D. Maqom is dedicated to the spiritually enlightening and intellectually honest study of Jewish texts."
The Inner Dimension: A Gateway to the Wisdom of Kabbalah and Chassidut
Elat Chayyim's Meditation info - Elat Chayyim is a retreat centre in upstate New York which is affiliated with ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal
Rasheit: Rabbi Rami Shapiro's site
Devekut: "Authentic resources in Kabbalah, Chassidut, Jewish meditation and Jewish spirituality."
A Still Small Voice - "a correspondence school that presents classic Judaism as a powerful path to spiritual transformation."
-- Levi Kelman (Sh’ma, 4/74, May 17, 1974)
This past year, a respected friend and teacher severely (but lovingly) attacked my current interest in Eastern mysticism. I responded that there is a parallel between my past interest in the counter-culture and my current interest in Yoga. My involvement with soft drugs, for example, had been beneficial in my search for what was to be a "Jewish fife." Getting high on a niggun may have preceded the drug culture, but it took the drug culture to rescue it from oblivion. Similarly, we have been taught that the Rabbis would meditate for hours before their davening; perhaps the wisdom of Eastern mysticism can rescue meditation.
Indeed, the serious practice of the Yogic techniques for the mind and body can be of great spiritual value to the Jew. Davening, for the Jewish Yogi, becomes more than the daily recitation of sacred texts, even more than a "conversation" with God. Raja Yoga (the path of meditation) results in an encounter with the Shechinah, the Godhead. Five to thirty minutes on the ECHAD-ness of Ha-Shem changes the character (not the content) of tefillah (prayer). The ECHAD-ness becomes all; within and without. This kind of experience does not happen daily. It takes practice. But the practicing itself deepens the prayer.
Exploring parallel themes
Nor is prayer the only area of Jewish life which can benefit from Yoga. In the whole area of health Judaism has paid very little attention to the body on a spiritual level. Hatha Yoga, however, prescribes a series of asanas (postures) to maintain health. With regard to food, the laws of kashrut (which transforms the Jewish table into an altar) increase in meaning when one sees the abstinence from certain animals and the separation of milk and meat as pointing to the Yogic vegetarian diet - which is healthier, cleaner and seemingly more holy than is a carnivorous diet.
Actually, Yoga and Judaism are similar in approach in a number of ways. Neither
offers easy solutions to life; trying to follow the "path" or "way" is the important thing. The two share the idea of doing as much as you can b'simchah (with joy); neither discipline is to be a burden. The most beautiful connection I found was between the Jewish idea of neshamah (soul) and the Yogic idea of "breath." As the Bible describes God breathing the breath of life into man's soul, Yoga also says that breath is the essence of life - and that the mind and body can be controlled by breathing exercises. Try doing some deep breathing before "Nishmat kol chai" on Shabbat!
A note of caution
At the same time, however, there are some important differences between Yoga and Judaism. Judaism does not view meditation as an end in itself, but only as the basis for actions. Yoga, on the other hand, sees all actions as extended meditations. Moreover, the concept of the Mashiach, and the whole Judaic view of time and history, forces one to reject the Yogic belief in cyclical time and reincarnation.
Consequently, there are dangers when Jews look to Yoga for wisdom. As drugs heightened our awareness, they also caused O.D.s and mindlessness. Similarly, the rush to religious mysticism has its share of Hare Krishnas and followers of Guru Mahara Ji [sic] who have ended up killing their Jewishness. Seriously committed Jews, therefore, must make a distinction between the religion of Eastern mysticism - which is often antithetical to Judaism; and the discipline of Eastern mysticism which can often be an enormous aid in developing Jewish sensitivities.
The serious Jew is not likely to find satisfaction in those "ashrams" (Yoga centers) which present an "all religions are one" line - where one can hear sanskrit chanting with Hebrew and Christian prayers (nothing I have encountered so far has ever approached the Siddur for prayer). Yet we Jews have been especially adept at incorporating the rituals and ideas of pagan and secular culture into our own, and thus making them kadosh. With some care, we can do the same to reawaken some spiritual concerns which have become latent in modern Judaism, by learning from the discipline of Eastern mysticism.
Sh'ma -- a journal of Jewish responsibility was founded by Eugene Borowitz in May, 1970. In 1994 Dr. Borowitz retired from the editorial helm and the torch was passed to CLAL and to Rabbi Nina Cardin who became Sh'ma's editor.
Jewish Meditation FAQ
What is Jewish Meditation?
Jews have meditated since biblical times. This practice take many forms, such as sitting silently and emptying the mind; focusing on Hebrew letters, words, or phrases; an awareness and channeling of breath; chanting; and contemplating Torah or philosophy. Sometimes Jews meditate before or after prayer. Other times they do it independent of prayer.
Today, we are uncovering the rich tradition of Jewish meditation. We are also adding to it from our contemporary understanding of Torah and meditation. Meditation groups are being formed around the country, and some synagogues are integrating it into their services.
Why haven't we heard about Jewish meditation before?
The tradition of Jewish meditation has been hidden for centuries. The rabbis worried that it might lead to idolatry in the Diaspora, or that it might be dangerous for uninitiated people. Meditation was strongly disavowed by secularized Jews at the time of the Emancipation, because it was considered "old-fashioned", a reminder of ghetto life. And most of the Eastern European rabbis who retained knowledge of it were killed during the Holocaust.
Today, many Jews think of meditation as belonging to other religions. They haven't seen it done in their congregations or synagogues. When they realize that an authentic tradition of Jewish meditation exists, however, they become interested in learning about it.
What are the benefits of Jewish meditation?
As the pressures of modern life continue to multiply and intensify, an increasing need will continue to be felt for a directly accessible form of spiritual practice that partakes of inner silence and equanimity. This need benefits the individual in a personal sense of general well-being and joy, but also is of great benefit on the collective level. As we continue to face conflicts and problems as the Jewish people as well as the human species, we need to make truly wise choices that will promote healing and repair of the connections between ourselves, and the care of the planet. By touching a place of inner silence and equanimity through meditation, we can make choices that don't come from fear or reaction to situations in the world, but from clear thinking about how to address the myriad of challenges that we face.
What are the three schools of Jewish Meditation?
One way to categorize the vast traditions of Jewish meditation is to broadly divide them into three groups:
Ayin refers to nothingness or emptiness. It is a discipline designed to get to the root of the human condition, which is the state of Ayin. Ayin may be seen as the deepest quality of soul. The deeper into ayin we go, the more profoundly we access soul and thus the ability to live our life from that essential state.
Chesed refers to loving-kindness. It is the manifestation of the Divine in its purest state in the world. Meditating and manifesting Chesed, we manifest Godness in its clearest expression.
Kabbalistic meditation is the third type of Jewish meditation. (Note: visualization is an example of kabbalistic meditation.)
by Rabbi Rami Shapiro - adapted from Minyan, A Primer For Jewish Spiritual Practice (forthcoming from Bell Tower)
Whenever I introduce meditation to a Jewish audience there is always skepticism: Is meditation really Jewish? Yes, it is. Minyan draws upon a meditative tradition within Judaism that goes back thousands of years. For example, Rabbi Abraham Maimonides (1186-1237), son of the great Medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, saw meditation as central to the lives of the biblical prophets.
The biblical prophets did not prophesy at will. Rather they focused their minds and sat joyfully and contentedly in a state of meditation....1
According to Rabbi Abraham, music and song were among the many ways the prophets induced a meditative state. Contemplation of the vastness of the night sky was another meditation technique of the prophets, one which most of us discover as young children. I have many memories of laying outside at night with friends and just watching the stars in the sky. Without knowing what we were doing we got caught up in the grandeur of creation. The vastness of space took our breath away, and with that, thoughts of self ceased, and we were filled with a gentle wonder. By contemplating the enormity of creation, you cannot help but feel a stirring of connection with all life. Somehow we sense we are a part of this. And that is the real gift of meditation: to discover that you are a part of rather than apart from the Whole that is reality.
Meditation practices continued in Judaism after the close of the prophetic era. The Talmud tells us that the sages would "be still one hour prior to each of the three prayer services, then pray for one hour and afterwards be still again for one hour more".2 The technique used by these rabbis was not preserved, though Moses Maimonides interprets the notion of being still to refer to maintaining a motionless posture "in order to settle their minds and quiet their thoughts."3
The strenuous discipline needed to master the meditative techniques of the sages tended to limit their use to a spiritual elite. Yet the hunger for spiritual experience is universal, and the rabbis sought to provide the general populace with a mystical practice of its own.
The formulation of this practice comes down to us as the eighteen benedictions of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer. The Amidah (also called the Shemona Esrei or eighteen after its number of blessings) is the central part of the daily worship service recited three times each day. The Talmud makes clear, however, that its original function was as a silent chant that would bring the worshiper into the presence of God. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that the great sages of the period would spend an hour reciting the Amidah alone. Considering it is required to say the prayer three times a day, the Talmud makes it clear that at least three hours of every day are to spent in this standing meditative silence. 4
Along with the silent recitation of the Amidah, the rabbis introduced their "yoga." The Amidah is to be recited without interruption, with each benediction flowing directly into the next. The recitation is accompanied by ritual bowing. When reciting the word baruch (blessed) one should bend the knees. When saying the next word attah (are You) one should bow from the waste. This bowing takes place at the beginning and end of the first and next to last paragraphs of the Amidah. The Talmud suggests that one bow quickly and rise slowly "like a snake"5 which, the rabbis said loosened the spine and opened the body to the flow of divine energy. I have been practicing one meditative system or another since I was sixteen years old. I tend to be drawn toward the simplest techniques, and when formulating the meditation practice for Minyan I chose to focus on the Hasidic practice called avodah be-bittul. It is this simple meditation that I find most powerful and universal.
Avodah be-bittul translates as "discipline of annihilation," and refers to a specific meditation practice leading to the temporary ending of self as a separate entity. It is the annihilation of self and all self-identifying factors. In bittul (self annihilation) a Jew is no longer a Jew; nor is a Christian a Christian. Even our humanness is annihilated. You are simply God's vehicle for knowing God as the Source and Substance of all reality.
You must include yourself in God's unity, which is the imperative of Existence. You cannot be worthy of this, however, unless you first nullify yourself. It is impossible to nullify yourself, however, without meditation. 6
As Reb Nachman of Bratzlav teaches:
One does not come by union with God except by complete self-annihilation.... Think of yourself as nothing, and totally forget yourself... You can thus enter the Universe of God-consciousness, a state that is beyond time. Everything in this realm is the same: life and death, land and sea... But in order to enter the Universe of God-consciousness where all is the same, you must relinquish the ego.... 7
The key to emptying the mind is found in the breath. Proper breathing is central to meditation practice, and good posture is central to proper breathing.
The diaphragm is a muscle located underneath the rib cage. It separates the chest from the stomach. Breathing from the diaphragm allows you to breathe evenly and fully right into the lower part of the lungs. When practicing meditation bring your awareness to your breathing for a few moments. Do not interfere with it. Just watch the flow of the breath, and the soft rise and fall of your stomach. Breathe evenly without gasps or breaks. As you breathe you will notice that the breath slows of its own accord. The more gently the breath flows, the quieter the mind becomes. Whenever you find yourself agitated or ill at ease, focus on your breathing and return to that gentle flow. You will calm down and be better able to handle whatever it is that is upsetting you.
To maximize the effectiveness of your breathing you need to maintain a posture conducive to diaphragmatic breathing. Some people choose to sit in a full lotus posture with each foot resting on the opposite groin. Others choose to sit cross-legged with each foot beneath the knee of the opposite leg. Still others prefer to sit in a straight-backed chair, with their feet parallel to each other on the floor. And some choose to lie on their backs to relieve the strain of sitting altogether, though most people find this position more conducive to sleep.
The point is to maintain a straight spine. Sitting with the spine straight does not mean sitting with the body in a straight line. The spine naturally curves, being somewhat convex in the lower third of the back, the lumbar region, somewhat concave in the middle thoracic area, and convex again at the neck or cervical region. It helps to have someone observe your meditation posture to see that you are aligned properly. If you experience any pain while sitting-- as opposed to mild discomfort-- stop and try another posture.
There are many meditation aides available: benches, cushions, and pillows. Experiment and see which works best for you. Remember, the posture is held to help you with the breathing. If you are struggling to maintain the posture you can be sure your breath is anything but slow and steady. Do what you must to sit comfortably.
When we simply sit and watch the mind at work; when we refuse to follow this thought or that feeling, and allow thoughts and feelings to rise and fall of their own accord, the mind slowly ceases to chatter. A deep quiet emerges and, for a moment at least, thought ceases. There seems to be no conscious activity in the brain; no thought, no thinker. And yet there is a profound knowing, albeit without a knower or an object that is known. This is what the Psalmist spoke of when he sang kalta nafshi, "my soul is obliterated."8 The separate sense of self is gone for a moment, and in its place is a wondrous and fundamentally ineffable awareness. The medieval kabbalists called this bittul she-me-'ever le-ta'am va-daat, annihilation beyond reason and knowledge, the ending of thought.
With the ending of thought and self comes an overwhelming awareness of Ayin, the oneness of all things. And with this comes a deep sense of love for Creation which returns you to the world of Yesh. Your return is accompanied by a heightened sense of connection with and compassion for all life. Emptying the self of thought fills the self with love. Filled with love you cannot but return to the ordinary world to effect tikkun ha-olam, perfecting the world through love and justice.
This is a critical aspect of meditation within the context of Minyan. While all meditative practices involve self-isolation, self-isolation is never the goal. Indeed, meditation is essentially without a goal. You meditate simply to meditate. The process itself is its own reward. This becomes clearer as you engage in the process and find yourself calmer, more centered, and more capable of handling the contingencies of everyday living with compassion and grace.
The point of meditation, at least as Judaism prescribes it, is not to escape from the world, but to become a vehicle for perfecting the world. Judaism is a profoundly this-worldly religion. It overriding concern is, to quote from the traditional prayer book, the "perfection of the world under the guidance of God." 9 You cannot perfect the world, however, as if the world were other than yourself. Trying to do so only traps you in projecting your own likes and dislikes onto the world. Perfection is not an imposition from without, but a nurturing of the holiness within. It is only when you see yourself and the world as one, and that one as part of the greater unity that is God that you understand the true work of perfecting the world.
Perhaps the best understanding of the link between meditative self-emptying and world-perfecting was given to me by a OB/GYN nurse: "Minyan is like midwifery. The world and everything in it is trying to birth something wonderful and I learn how to put myself aside and facilitate that birth. Meditation has profoundly affected the way I treat my kids, my husband, even my ex. I don't impose my needs as much as recognize the differing gifts people bring to relationships. I mean, I'm not a pushover, but I see that even my desire to help can sometimes be a hindrance to another's growth."
The emptying of self and the perfecting the world are two sides of the same practice. You are not seeking to escape the world, you are seeking to transform the world. You do this by recognizing the unity of all things in God and then acting accordingly.
When you awaken to this knowing you awaken to the fact that you were never asleep. Yesh is no less God than Ayin; God does not change. It is your perception of reality that changes. And the awakened human mind manages to perceive reality as both Yesh and Ayin, seeing God in both, as both. When you see God as All you no longer insist upon your absolute separateness, your absolute being, or even your absolute reality. On the contrary, when you see God as All you see everything as empty of separate being; you are no longer apart from God but a part of the Greater Unity that embraces duality. Your own separateness is lost and you are one with all and the One that is its Source and Substance.
There is service to God through stillness... when a person sits alone and in silence... and enters a world of absolute rest and stillness... emptying into God through devekut/God-consciousness.10
Here is the sequence for practicing. Sit comfortably. Relax your body. Do a mental check for points of tension and relax them. Typical tension points are the forehead, around the eyes, the jaw, and the stomach. Scan your body for tension, breathe slowly while focusing on the area of tension and simply allow the tension to fade. While the cause of the discomfort may not leave, the physical expression of it can soften. This often allows you to deal with the problem more effectively since the energy used to defend against the problem can be channeled toward resolving it. Now shift awareness to your breathing. Let your breath be smooth, even, soft and full. Don't regiment your breathing, just allow it to soften of its own accord. Pay attention to the breath as it enters and leaves your body through the nose.
After a few moments of just sitting and observing what is happening begin gerushin, the repetition of a holy phrase which is described in the next chapter.
The purpose of silently repeating a holy phrase during meditation is to give the mind something to chew on. As soon as you begin your meditation your mind will clamor for attention. Thousands of thoughts and feelings will flood your conscious mind. Distractions by the dozen will seek to draw you away from your practice. Suddenly everything is more important than avodah be-bittul.
This chattering of the mind occurs whether we practice avodah be-bittul or not. The difference is that in avodah be-bittul we do not react to the noise. We simply observe it. And yet we can help the mind quiet itself with gerushin.
Returning the conscious mind to the repetition of a word or phrase gives the mind something to do without giving it anywhere to go since the repetition does not generate linear thought. It does not distract the mind into replaying and analyzing the myriad dramas that occupy it during the waking hours of your day. Like a baby sucking quietly on her thumb, the mind occupied with gerushin curls up into a comfortable corner and becomes still. When your mind wanders, and it will, don't fight it; simply bring your attention back to your silent repetition.
That is it. There is nothing magical in this. No visualizations, no affirmations, no fantasies to occupy the mind and thrill the heart. Just sitting, breathing, and silently repeating a holy phrase.
Can it be that simple? Yes, but do not mistake simple for easy. Try it and you will see that it is not easy at all.
There is nothing harder to do than doing nothing; and avodah be-bittul is essentially doing nothing. Yet, in a short while the benefits will become clear. You will be more calm, less stressed, less willing to identify with all the craziness around and within you. You will gain distance from your own desire for control and power, and be better able to act in the world with justice and compassion.
It all depends upon your making avodah be-bittul a fixed part of your day. Each morning, ideally before you eat breakfast, set aside thirty minutes for meditation. If you wish to lengthen your meditation practice, add another thirty minutes in the late afternoon or early evening. In this way you will retrain the mind to see the world as it really is: the integrated, flowing wholeness of God.
1. Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Yesodai ha-Torah 7:4.
2. Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 32b.
3. Maimonides' commentary on Mishnah Berachot 5:1.
4. Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 12a-b.
5. Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 28b.
6. Hishtapchut Ha Nefesh cited in Meditation and Kabbalah, Aryeh Kaplan, Samuel Weiser Inc., New York, 1982, p. 309.
7. Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, Likkutei Moharan, Vol. 1, 22:10. 8. Psalm 84:30.
9. From the Aleinu prayer recited twice daily.
10. Or ha-Ganuz l'Tzaddikim
by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins
Chapter Ten: DEVELOPING OUR SPIRITUAL NATURE
"There are more things in heaven and on earth than you have imagined...." Shakespeare
"I will place within you a new spirit." Ezekiel 11:19
Spirituality is a difficult concept to define. When we think of a spiritual person, what usually comes to mind is an individual whose lifestyle is filled with such things as community service, cultural pursuits, elements of the meditative and reflective personality, and other non-materialistic activities.
In Jewish tradition spirituality has taken many forms. Tradition considers people spiritual when they perform God's will through the performance of mitzvot (commandments), study holy books (Tanakh, Talmud, etc.), and when they take prayer seriously. At certain periods in Jewish history, groups and movements arose which stressed various aspects of the spiritual life, such as kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), Hasidism (founded by the Baal Shem Tov in early eighteenth century Russia), Musar (founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter in nineteenth century Lithuania), and the modern movement for Jewish renewal (made famous by people like Rabbis Shlomo Carlebach, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Arthur Green, and Lawrence Kushner in the 1960s).
Since spirituality involves so many different things, including but not restricted to prayer, we shall try to focus in this chapter on areas not included in other parts of the book, although almost every chapter of guided imagery scripts includes some aspect of spirituality in its widest sense. We shall use as a basic paradigm the kind of spiritual approach one finds in the biblical Book of Psalms, and in some Hasidic literature, helping humans feel closer to God and to God's world of beauty and love. When the Torah commands us to be holy, the Hasidic interpretation says: Be humanly holy, love God, love Torah, and love both of them through and with the important people in your life.
[ It is often helpful to play soft, spiritual music during the guided imagery exercises - especially with those included in this chapter. Pachelbel's Canon is very effective. The music of Steve Halpern is also quite good. Perhaps some appropriate cantorial or Hasidic music, depending on the subject, would be helpful ].
PSALM 19 - GOD, HEAVEN AND TORAH
o Lie or sit in a comfortable position. Stretch and wiggle a bit until you feel very relaxed and comfortable. As you breathe, watch all the tensions, worries and problems in your mind float away. Let go of all the things inside you which you don't need or want. Breathe in clean, pure air, which gives you a sense of renewal and refreshment....
We will read parts of the nineteenth Psalm in the Tanakh, and appreciate the uplifting ideas contained within in.
In your mind's eye, look up at the Heavens, and experience the calm beauty, the serene security it brings you.... "The Heavens declare the glory of Adonai... the sky declares God's handiwork. Each day calls out to the other... each night whispers to its neighbor".... Feel the bright light of day, and then the dark velvet cover of the night.... Feel the protection which the world gives you.... See the majesty of the white clouds against the blue sky, and feel the warmth and lightness they bring.... Enjoy this feeling for a while. (Pause).
"The teaching of Adonai is perfect, renewing life...."
In God's world, we have a map to find our way through its mountains and valleys... the Torah. The Torah helps us understand and appreciate our universe and the people within it....
The beautiful customs and traditions of Judaism help us live our lives in this beautiful world, becoming enlightened, enriched, and enthused about ourselves and others.... "The precepts of Adonai are just, rejoicing the heart. The instruction of Adonai is clear, lighting up our eyes"....
The words which Adonai gave us in the Torah are uplifting and inspiring.... The Torah teaches us how to be kind, caring people, how to help others, and reach out to the needy and the broken souls of society.... The Torah helps us find joy in our life, and excitement.... It helps find truth and clarity....
"Cleanse my soul, Adonai... clear me of guilt and keep me from doing wrong"....
Let my life be pure and whole. Permit me to do right and love justice.... Let me be ever closer to You and Your ways... to Your Torah and Your people....
"May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai. You are my rock and my redeemer".... (Pause).
Stay with your thoughts and feelings for a moment. Enjoy them, and learn from them....
When you are ready, come back to this place, and gently and gradually open your eyes, taking your time to return only when you want to....
STANDING AT THE KOTEL
Holiness, kedushah, can be found in time (Shabbat and Festivals), in space (the Bet HaMikdash - The Temple in Jerusalem), in objects (a Sefer Torah), and in people (kohanim). Among the holiest places in Jewish tradition is the Kotel, the Western Wall of Temple Mount, where King Solomon and others following him built the first, and later, the second Temple. Since 1967 when Israel recaptured and reunited the holy city of Jerusalem, the Kotel has been a popular place of prayer for Jews who come from all over the world on pilgrimage.
o Find a comfortable place, and begin to relax.... When you are ready to let go of your environment, take some deep breaths, and find yourself becoming more and more deeply relaxed. Take another slow, deep, cleansing breath, and exhale as fully as you can.... Breathe deeply, into your belly, and then breathe out as fully as you can.... As you continue breathing deeply and easily, you are feeling more and more calm and serene.... As you exhale breathe out any unwelcome thoughts, and watch your breath as it brings you purity and calm....
You are now standing at the Kotel, the famous Western Wall of King Solomon's great Temple, built three thousand years ago.... What does it feel like to be there?.... Think about all the centuries and generations of Jews who have yearned to be able to stand where you are standing now.... Feel how fortunate you are.... (Pause).
Picture in your mind the many Jews who made long, tiring pilgrimages to this Wall, just to be able to be closer to God.... Do you see some of them standing there, alongside you, from a century or two ago, in long black coats and fur hats, shuckling and swaying as they whisper their prayers?....
Imagine reaching out and touching the stone. Feel its contours and roughly hewn edges. Listen to the birds who have built their nests in its cracks. Hear them coo as you run your hand along the cold stone in silent awe....
Even though there may be others around you at the Kotel, it is so quiet, it feels as though you are there completely alone, with God.... God is listening to you now.... Feel God's presence at the Kotel, as you begin to think of what you want to say.... (Pause).
Now say whatever you want to say to God. Take your time.... (Pause).
Perhaps you would like an answer from God. See if God would like to speak to you.... What do you hear God saying to you?.... (Pause).
If you would like to write down any prayer, as many people who pray at the Kotel do, write it on a piece of paper and place it in one of the crevices between the large rocks of the Kotel....
If you want, reach out to the Kotel, and take back with you the message of God, which is written on one of the papers between the cracks, and take it with you.... See what it says, and then fold it up and place it in your pocket to take along with you.... (Pause).
If there is anything else you want to say to God, do so now, before you leave the Kotel.... Remember that you can always come back here in your imagination, and speak to God any time you want, just by closing your eyes and coming to the Kotel in your mind....
When you are ready to leave, take a few steps back, and find yourself back here in this place.... Take your time, and come back slowly and gradually.... When you are ready, open your eyes....
THE LIGHT OF THE MENORAH
Light is a very effective metaphor for spiritual themes. Light is ubiquitous in Jewish tradition. We need think only of such ritual objects as the Ner Tamid, the Menorah, Shabbat candles, the Shiva and Yahrzeit candles, etc. Light is soothing, calming, and freeing.
o Let yourself become completely relaxed. Imagine that you are walking in the middle of a beautiful, safe forest. You are strolling through a clear path and looking at the beautiful bush and trees on either side of the winding path.... As you walk, you find yourself becoming more and more completely relaxed.... There is no hurry, so no need to walk quickly. Just saunter along, at a leisurely pace....
The farther you go along the path, the deeper you stroll into the forest, the closer you feel to God, and to God's world of beauty and serenity.... All the animals and wildlife in the forest are safe and secure. Nothing can hurt or harm you.... The growing things, plants, flowers, trees, bushes and exotic wild flowers, and the birds and other animals are all there to lend beautiful smells, sights and sounds to your walk through this beautiful and charming forest.... Take in the crisp smell of pine and feel the warm mist rising from the living forest bed.
Walk further in the forest, and feel how good and safe, and comfortable you feel. (Pause).
After you have walked for several hours, you are feeling even stronger than when you started. You are not at all tired or weary. You feel strong, healthy and confident.... You are not too warm or too cold, but just right. Everything is just right.... A gentle breeze is blowing, which makes you even more comfortable and happy.... Feel the breeze dancing gently on your face, as you feel yourself becoming more spiritually attuned, and joyful....
Ahead of you is a small mountain with a large Menorah sitting on a high rock on top of it. All seven candles of the Menorah are burning brightly. As you get closer to the mountain, you see seven steps that lead to the top of the mountain. Walk slowly upward, step by step, ascending each of the seven steps....
Approach the Menorah slowly and feel the warmth and beauty that emanates from it.... You sense something magic and wonderful as you get close to the Menorah.... The rays of light coming from the Menorah are very beautiful, and radiant. They bring you special feelings of joy and calm in your heart. You feel a sense of deep love and being loved.... The Menorah is your friend, and you may speak to it if you like.... (Pause).
As you watch the dancing light of the Menorah, you feel the magical light entering through your eyes and pour into your body. The rays of light from the Menorah begin to fill you with a sense of well-being and peace, of shalom. Every part of your body, every cell, tissue, muscle and bone is filled with this incredible light.... All the parts of you, your head, your face, your chest, your lungs and heart, your arms and hands, your legs and feet, are all filled with the beautiful light beaming out from the beautiful Menorah in front of you.... Now close your eyes and keep the light from escaping from you. (Pause).
Your whole being is filled with the spiritual light of Menorah, and through it, the light of Adonai.... You feel purified and cleansed, inspired and uplifted.... Let the light swirl around your body, penetrating into every tiny crevice of your body, making you whole and healed.... Your mind is filled with new wisdom and joy, your heart is filled with love and compassion.... Let this wonderful feeling imprint itself into your soul, so that you can keep it with you always.... (Pause).
The wonderful feeling you feel now comes from God. Express your thanks to God for the light which you are now enjoying.... o
[Parts of this exercise were inspired by Beverly-Colleene Galyean's Mind Sight].
ELIJAH THE WISE
o Allow yourself to become very relaxed, and enter the basket of a hot air balloon that will transport you to the Heavens. The balloon is a very safe and secure place to be, so you need not be concerned. Any time you want to come down, simply pull the level to lower yourself back to the ground. ...
Now toss out of the balloon more and more weights, so that you rise higher and higher....
Soon you see a white-bearded figure from the Bible floating around the skies. It is Elijah the prophet. Remember the biblical story about Elijah? Elijah never died. He ascended to Heaven in a fiery chariot, and all through the centuries he has roamed about the world, appearing at the naming of little babies, entering stealthily into homes during Pesach Seders, and showing up anywhere he wants at any time, constantly giving advice, doing good deeds, bringing laughter, cheer and hope to the world....
As your balloon rises higher into the Heavens, you get closer to Elijah, close enough to speak with him.... Perhaps you have some questions about your spiritual life which you would like to ask Elijah. He is a very wise and kind person, and will keep anything you say to him very confidential.... Have a conversation with Elijah and see what advice he has for you to help you become a more spiritual person.... (Pause).
Since Elijah will return to our world to announce the coming of the Messiah, you may want to also ask Elijah what things we here on earth might do to hasten the coming of Mashiach, when there will be no more war or strife, and all nations, races and religions will live in peace with one another. See what Elijah's response to your question about Mashiach is. (Pause).
Now take a last moment to ask Elijah anything else you forgot to ask. (Pause).
Now it is time to thank Elijah for the wisdom he imparted to you. Thank him now.... If you wish, you may hug or kiss him goodbye. Ask him if it is all right with him if you come back and speak with him again whenever you wish....
When you are finished, turn the lever to bring yourself gently back to earth. When you are ready, come out of the balloon, feeling very satisfied and pleased with the new information and enlightenment you received from Elijah.... When you are ready, return to this room, and open your eyes....
An appropriate discussion which may follow this guided imagery exercise can focus on the subject of the inner wisdom which each human being has inside, wisdom which can help us solve problems and point us in the proper direction. Through this imaginary meeting with Elijah, we utilize our own native (or divine?) wisdom which may not be available to us through normal rational channels. The process of imagery enables us to reach into a part of our brain and soul which stores much wisdom, insight, and hidden ideas, all waiting to be unlocked by Elijah to give us as precious gifts. Participants can offer examples of times when a "flash of insight" came to them, an experience similar to this type of encounter with Elijah's presence.
Other grounding exercises can follow, such as sharing groups, painting the scenes we saw, and discussing other ways to access our inner, mystical, divine wisdom.
The concept of memory is essential to Judaism. A major portion of the High Holy Day liturgy is called Zikhronot, remembrances. The prayer recited for the departed four times a year is called Yizkor, or Hazkarat Neshamot, both referring to memorializing our loved ones who have died. The Torah is filled with admonitions demanding that we never forget our biblical experience of being slaves in Egypt. History and memory are so ubiquitous in Judaism that one cannot practice Judaism without utilizing memory as an important part of worship and celebration. This guided imagery exercise will focus on some special, holy memories, which will reinforce our connection to God and to our spiritual self.
o Find the place within yourself that is at peace and tranquil. Remember a time when you everything was just right. Recapture that moment, and feel how good it is.... Notice how relaxed and at ease you are.... The peace of your life energizes every part of you. Your entire being is exactly the way you love to be - calm, confident, at peace, secure....
Go back into the forest of your memory and find in it a precious moment. A time when you felt very close to nature, or to God, or to another human being. Each of these can be described as holy moments. God wants us to be close and intimate with our environment and with the important people in our lives. God also wants us to be close to the divine part of ourselves.... Find one special, holy moment when you felt very spiritually attuned and connected....
Perhaps you are in a house of worship, or out in a beautiful meadow, or by the seashore. Maybe you are having an intimate conversation with a loved one, and sharing affection or other feelings.... Maybe you are singing or dancing, praying or eating.... Whatever you are doing that feels holy, go back deeply into that experience.... Notice all the details of this experience.... Who is there with you? What are you doing? What is going on around you?.... Look all around.... Remember all the smells, the taste, the touch of things.... What is it like to experience the feeling of a holy moment? (Long Pause).
If you would like, turn now to another holy moment.... Capture the image in your mind's eye of some special, sacred time, when you felt that God was in your life in a very deep way.... Pay attention to everything in that experience.... (Pause).
What do the experiences have in common? What ways can you bring that sense of the holy back into your everyday life?....
Take your time, and when you are ready, come back to this room, and gently, gradually, open your eyes, and be still for a while. (Pause).
FOCUS ON A WORD
There are many special words in the Jewish literary heritage. Jews are the People of the Book, said Mohammed, something which all peoples recognized. Words have important meanings, especially words from the important languages Jews have used throughout history, such as Hebrew, Aramaic, or Yiddish. This brief exercise will focus on an important word which can be selected from anywhere in the four thousand year old Jewish tradition.
o Sit or lie comfortably, and begin to assume a receptive mode. Be very calm and still, and let your breathing relax, along with all your body functions. Let your heart beat more slowly, and feel your entire being becoming like a piece of marshmallow, melting deep into the surface on which you are sitting or lying....
In this imagery exercise we will focus on one short word from our Tradition. Perhaps it is a Hebrew word, like shalom, or sh'ma (listen), 'or (light), or God's name, Adonai. You might pick a Yiddish word, such as mensch (a fine person), or shayn (beautiful). Or an English word, such as peace, hope, love, or justice.
Let this word appear before your mind's eye, and see it hanging in the air. Hear it pronounced slowly and softly in your imaginary ear. As with many of our prayers, words which are repeated have a cumulative effect on us. Keep repeating this special word to yourself, inside, so only you can hear and see.... After repeating it for a while, you will attain what our tradition calls kavvanah, or a feeling of special concentration.
Find yourself becoming more and more calm as you keep repeating the word as long as you wish, attaining more and more kavvanah. Let yourself be infused with the sound and power of this word. (Pause).
Next time you do this exercise, try to do it for a longer time. Each time, make it longer, until you reach about twenty minutes, if you can. Keep repeating it now until you want to stop....
When you are ready, sit quietly for a moment, and notice what repeating your special word with kavvanah has done to your concentration and state of mind. (Pause).
Whenever you want, come back to this room, and return to your normal consciousness, opening your eyes, feeling energized and content. Notice how the experience deepened the sense of the divine within you....
His book (152 pp., ISBN 0-918834-15-5, Paperback, $12) is published by Growth Associates Publishers, 212 Stuart Road East, Princeton, NJ 08540-1946. (609) 497-7375. E-mail: email@example.com.
The purpose of meditation (hitbonenut) in the Torah (as enlightened by the teachings of Chassidut) is to arouse the Jew in his heart, so that he will turn aside from the vanity, deceit and emptiness of the illusory existence that fills his consciousness, and will turn towards the true reality, G-d (see Rambam, Mishnah Torah, beginning of Sefer HaMada).
Effectiveness in meditation (as in all human endeavors) is clearly a gift of G-d (see Deuteronomy 8:17). However, as with all matters of free choice, its success depends also upon the efforts and will of man.
When a Jew meditates with the above purpose in mind, he thereby fulfills the following commandments:
1. "I am G-d your G-d..." (Exodus 20:2 & Deuteronomy 5:6. This the first of the Ten Commandments), i.e. to believe in G-d's necessary existence, from which all subsequent existence derives (see Rambam cited above).
2. "Hear, O Israel, G-d is our G-d, G-d is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4) i.e. to recognize the perfect unity of G-d in all of His creations.
3. "Know this day and go over in your heart that G-d is G-d..." (Deuteronomy 4:39), and "Know the G-d of your father..." (I Chronicles 28:9), i.e. to study, reflect upon, and know as much as possible about the G-dly light and life of all existence (see Likutei Amarim-Tanya, Bilingual Edition, Kuntres Acharon, p. 607).
The basic attitude required in the performance of all of the mitzvot of the Torah, the "earth" in which their seeds can take root, grow and bear fruit, includes:
1. the humility and lowliness of a dedicated subject performing the desire of his King, and
2. the selflessness and devoted service of a son for his father.
3. Meditation, being the most fundamental of the mitzvot, most requires this productive "earth."
Man's ego and self-love blind him to his shortcomings, especially to those related to the arrogance of the ego itself. The sages say, "Who is wise? He who knows his place." True evaluation of one's place can only come after years of hard, heartbreaking spiritual labor. Ultimately, G-d gives all of this knowledge to one whose heart calls upon Him in truth, as explained above. Thus, one cannot and should not expect to achieve in meditation all of the above mentioned goals at once. Although even from the beginning meditation should fill the consciousness with a new sensation of light and beauty, it is only later, after the "earth" has been "tilled" by the recognition of one's place and has been "fertilized" with the nourishment of Torah, that can one expect the seed of meditation to bear its full fruit, namely:
1. the turning away of one's heart from one's previous "smallness" and "lowliness" (used here in the negative sense), which interfere with one's love of G-d and one's fellow Jew.
2. the blossoming of a new heart, full of love and fear of G-d, love of one's fellow Jew and the whole of G-d's creation.
Most beginners mistakenly pursue abstraction in meditation ("taking off"). Chassidut teaches that one's initial intention in meditation should be to translate the "intelligence" perceived instinctively and clearly by the Divine Soul into the natural, "dark" intelligence of the animal soul. One achieves this through the use of precise parables and physical examples related to the Divine concepts in the meditation. Throughout this seemingly mundane intellectual task, however, one should strive to:
1. remain aware of the goal of one's meditation, as described above,
2. pray (meditation in the Torah is referred to as "the service of the heart, [namely] prayer") to G-d to bestow the gift of His Truth in meditation, and
3. be aware that the "intellect" is ultimately Divine and not mundane.
This essay is from The Inner Dimension web-site, presented by Gal Einai Institute of Israel which disseminates the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh.
By Danya Ruttenberg
(This piece originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.)
c.1999 Danya Ruttenberg
FOR PEOPLE IN the (San Francisco) Bay Area looking to invoke their inner Israelite, the Jewish religious scene can be rather baffling. Far in excess of the usual Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox synagogues, there are hundreds (so it seems) of congregations, communities, and week-long seminars offering the chance to "access the psychospiritual dimensions of the Hebrew life force within" and partake of the "covenant of silence." There are people telling you that "God is a verb" and that, more than anything, you need a "mix of Torah learning, ecstatic singing, dancing, and heartfelt blessing." Our local Judaica is now rife with "tools for transformation" - most of which seek to liberate the religion's long-forgotten "spiritual center."
This kind of talk has a tendency to anger or annoy more conventional Jews, who oft discount such efforts as hokey or New Agey - a bastardization of a 4,000-year-old tradition. Many on the other side then accuse said tradition of being staid, alienating, spiritually dead, and utterly inaccessible.
There's a tremendous local polarization on the subject of Jewish meditation (that's the catchall phrase for a whole range of activities - including those mentioned above) and almost no reasonable bridge between the two camps.
Until, perhaps, now. A new San Francisco-based center which opened at the end of 1999 may very well pave a concrete, intelligent path out of the amorphous spiritual stew; it'll provide fans of the introspective, contemplative New Judaism a clubhouse while - here's the kicker - reinforcing the existing structures of traditional Judaism. But this ain't no farm-or-ashram project; rather, it will run in conjunction with the city's most popular Conservative synagogue.
Makor Or (source of light), as the place is to be called, is the pet project of Rabbi Alan Lew, the head rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom.
The center, which will be located next door to the Richmond District synagogue, intends to be a home for the "rigorous daily practice of Jewish meditation." Daily sitting meditations - of the "just sit there and breathe" variety - will be presented as preparation for prayer services at the synagogue. The center will also hold weekly Torah study and classes, monthly retreats timed to fall on the Sabbath and/or Jewish holidays, and one-on-one guidance in "meditation and general spiritual counseling."
A kabbalistic cabal?
But what exactly is Jewish meditation? The concept is still fairly new - and the subject of some debate. Some call it "learning to breathe," practiced in a Jewish context - focusing the mind on Hebrew words or taking time during a prayer service - while others contend that it's part of a long, hallowed tradition. Contemporary advocates of a kabalistic renaissance observe that its ancient rabbinic and medieval teachers did practice forms of meditation in their pursuit of union with God - as did the 18th-century Hasidic master Baal Shem Tov, and others throughout Jewish history. So the argument goes: reinvigorate the present by reclaiming the mystical past.
Neither the issue nor the kabalistic books themselves are really all that simple. As Avram Davis, founder of Berkeley's Renewal congregation Chochmat HaLev, explains, "The language of kabbalah is very obtuse, and difficult to translate into a way that modern Americans understand. It's a highly technical language" that demands a rigorous understanding of both Torah and the legal commentaries of the Talmud. The old saying that only married men over 40 can study kabbalah isn't actually (entirely) based on sexism; the idea is that, after 40 years of foundation building, one might be ready to start the advanced course. In other words, it's hard stuff.
Verily, even its modern-day adherents understand that: Nan Fink Geffen, author of the recent Discovering Jewish Meditation, concedes that her work is based less on a strict reading of the Zohar or other kabalistic texts than "the understandings that [she] get[s] from mystical writings."
The question thus presents itself: Does a claim to historical legitimacy hold weight if the contemporary practices are not, in fact, what they purport to be? Is it OK to call contemplative exercises kabbalah if they're ... not?
Depends on whom you ask. Rabbi Lew vehemently states that he is "passionately indifferent as to whether there's a Jewish precedent in meditation." For him, history's particulars don't affect the tremendous contemporary "capacity of meditation to make people more aware of, and open to, Judaism." He tells a story about Norman Fischer, the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center (who will, when his term as abbot expires, become Makor Or's cofacilitator). Fischer, who had been raised a Jew, once attended the morning prayer service with his rabbinic friend; a surprised Lew watched him joyfully don the ritual garb and pray with a deep intensity. After services, Fischer turned to him and said, "Now that I've done Zen meditation, I could do this [Jewish practice] for the rest of my life, and it would be enough. But if I hadn't done meditation, I wouldn't even know what this was."
Lew knows the feeling all too well. He himself spent 10 years as a serious student of Zen Buddhism and even became director of the Berkeley Zen Center - until his empty mind offered up a few surprises. As he writes in his recent memoir, One God Clapping, after all of the illusions were stripped away, he "confronted [his] essence, and [his] essence was Jewish." This revelation sent him running off to the Jewish seminary, where he became - in many ways - an old-school Conservative rabbi. To this day, he's unflinching about ritual purity; Beth Sholom is, for example, one of the few Conservative synagogues that still reads the week's full Torah portion each and every Saturday.
So the former Buddhist goes Jewish, and then he tries to sneak in some Zen time next to the sanctuary - isn't that a bit like ordering ham and cheese in a New York deli? Certainly, there are critics of Lew's approach to meditation who consider such comminglings a palpable threat to the integrity of tradition. But his peers and advocates staunchly maintain that there's nothing idolatrous, heretical, or unkosher about taking a little time to breathe. Sylvia Boorstein, author of That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist, defines meditation as "applying the mind in a particular way with intention." She pauses and smiles. "Paying attention is nonsectarian."
Further, cultural appropriation is an integral part of Judaism's long history; the religion has managed to survive for thousands of years - through myriad attempts to extinguish it entirely - specifically because of an ability to adapt and change under new circumstances. The modern synagogue, for instance, is based on an ancient Egyptian model of temple as community center. The innovation came at a time when Israelites were forced into exile and couldn't access the Jerusalem Temple, where they sacrificed animals to God. One could guess that borrowing seemed better than giving up entirely, and that good ideas are always worth considering. The great sage Maimonides studied Aristotle, and even the kabbalists learned many of their chops from neighboring Sufis in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire. The examples are endless.
One may wonder, though, if Judaism is really in such dire straits that it needs to reconfigure; after all, nobody's in exile, and Jews have an easier time in America today than they've had anywhere since at least the 15th century. But a couple of generations after immigration and assimilation, the numbers really aren't so encouraging. According to recent studies, 80 percent of the American Jewish population never sets foot in synagogue, even during the High Holy Days. Half intermarry, and less than a third of their children are raised as Jews. One projection sets the American Jewish population at less than 10,000 by the turn of the next century.
Chocmat HaLev member Shoshana Phoenix says, "When the Holocaust happened, so many people were touched by death - so many teachers were killed - that a generation could only teach the rules, without the passion and the love. There was a whole generation that needed somewhere to go." While many turned away from religion altogether, others - including Lew, Fischer, Boorstein, and of course, Allen Ginsberg - looked East in the '60s and '70s.
And in recent years an increasing number of them have turned back, often crediting - as Lew does - their work elsewhere for the ability to see their ancestry's rich heritage anew. Still others are turning to Judaism for the first time, coming in from a place of extreme ambivalence about their socioreligious culture. (Oakland writer Lisa Schiffman's recent book, Generation J, details just this process.) But of course there are a few questions about what kind of Judaism they would like to be (re)discovering; obviously the religion of their parents wasn't enough, or everyone would have remained, as it were, within the fold.
This, then, is the real source of all this Jewish meditation talk. Is Judaism in a place that requires appropriation and reconfiguring? Evidently - because there is, almost suddenly, a lot of noise being made about the subject.
Practice, practice, practice
How can Judaism adapt to meet this generation's needs without weakening its existing strengths and the long valor of tradition? This question particularly is where Rabbi Lew's work diverges from that of his meditative contemporaries. Rather than create an entirely new religion or spiritual practice, he plans to use meditation "to support the existing spiritual subculture at Beth Sholom," he says. "When the synagogue becomes the context for meditation practice, it fosters an intensification of what's already going on," on both sides of the equation.
That is, Lew hopes that Makor Or will form a symbiotic relationship with the goings-on at Beth Sholom - that participants at the center will become involved with activities at the synagogue and vice versa. For the center isn't intended to be a proselytization tool so much as a way of upping the spiritual/religious content of both practices. As Beth Sholom member Leslie Caplan says, "It's like cross-training. They feed each other; one would pray as a Jew because one is a Jew, and one would choose to meditate because it supports that. You need a certain degree of fluency to give yourself over to Jewish prayer, to the rhythm and repetition. In meditation, the focus is on your breath, and we all have fluency in that." And further, Lew says, "It's not just that meditation makes davening [the act of Jewish prayer] deeper, it's that davening enhances meditation just as much." It's a two-way street, he says, in which breath work helps open a person to the profound beauty of prayer and in which the language of the prayer book gives name to the mind states experienced in meditation.
This kind of deep spiritual place, however, cannot be found without some hard work. Judaism is composed of what Lew describes as "intentional gestures capable of transforming us, of deepening our relationship to the sacred," from attending daily prayer and marking the divine on the doorway to blessings before meals and once-a-week rest days.
Lew steadfastly asserts that transformation can only happen if a person puts in the time, if they show up to prayer and/or meditation regularly - even if it isn't always easy, even if it's sometimes boring. In other words, it's attention to the mundane details of ritual that fosters deep, long-lasting growth. Just as getting into shape is painful but climbing mountains is exhilarating, many assert that once the rituals and the prayers (and/or the stillness of a meditative mind state) become a person's second nature, a whole new spiritual place can be reached. And though sometimes that place looks like an adrenaline-drenched mountaintop, often it might be compared to the sweet familiarity of a neighborhood jog.
"Up until now," Lew writes in One God Clapping, "the world of Jewish meditation has largely been characterized by the world of the workshop and the retreat; the world of the occasional conference. The missing key in American Jewish spirituality is practice; we need to build a serious form [of spiritual practice] that meets the zeitgeist of this time." Caplan agrees: "People talk about how they don't know the service, how their Hebrew is limited - there's a question of access that's there, and it's relevant. But the service is really learned by repetition. It's learned by going." Verily, embedded in the mission of Makor Or is a commitment to work; practitioners will have to sign on for a full "practice year" that includes a certain number of daily meditation sessions a week, classes a month, and retreats a year.
It's worth noting that the center won't be All Lew, All the Time; Makor Or will, in some ways, serve as an assembly of Jewish meditation's heaviest hitters. Both Boorstein and Chochmat HaLev's Davis are expected to log in time as visiting teachers - along with Jewish Renewal icon Michael Lerner and others. A grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation - which provides the bulk of Makor Or's operating budget - began in October; the full program will likely be running by January. Interestingly, the Cummings Foundation also funded both the meeting between rabbis and the Dalai Lama chronicled in The Jew in the Lotus and Metiva, Jonathan Omer-Man's widely respected Jewish meditation school in Los Angeles - in addition to another new synagogue-based meditation center, run by Florida rabbi Rami Shapiro.
Whether other organizations will pick up the funding baton remains to be seen - and may depend on the success of Lew's and Shapiro's ventures. It's likely that these first two centers will become the prototype if, in fact, other congregations decide to pick up the meditative pace.
And, if the enthusiastic initial response to Makor Or is any indication, it may very well happen; all signs seem to indicate that it's offering a service that's rare - but increasingly valued - in today's spiritual marketplace. For, as Caplan says, "probably the greatest thing you can have in your life is to be present in the moment - prayer and mediation are training for that."
By Alan Lew (from www.makor-or.org)
Why still another Jewish Meditation Center? Why such a center contiguous to a synagogue? In his groundbreaking book, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950’s, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow identifies three distinct stages in the evolution of American spirituality in the second half of this century. The first he calls Dwelling Spirituality. Dwelling Spirituality was the spirituality of the orderly cosmos, and it arose quite naturally out of the stable, orderly, post war society which produced it. In this spiritual model, one was born into a particularly spiritual universe and the spiritual task was to find one's place in it. God occupied a definite place in this universe and created a sacred space in which humans could also dwell. Dwelling Spirituality's principle mode of expression was the house of worship— the churches and synagogues which became the visible symbol of this spiritual era. This was an era of community building and building period— the sacred space made manifest as real estate. This model began to prove increasingly inadequate as the stable society which produced it began to break down. What arose in its place— what has prevailed until very recently— was what Wuthnow calls Seeking Spirituality. Disillusioned with the various spiritual universes they had inherited, and feeling increasingly oppressed by houses of worship they perceived as empty and devoid of spirituality, the postwar generation entered a much more ambiguous spiritual world, one in which a sense of negotiated possibility replaced the secure and absolute order of the cosmos; one in which individuals searched for sacred moments to reinforce their conviction that the Divine existed; one in which people were continually exploring new spiritual vistas rather than inhabiting a particular place or knowing a particular territory. The dwelling model was more secure, the seeking model less constraining. Reflecting the stability of its time, Dwelling Spirituality taught an orderly systematic understanding of life which protected its adherents from chaos. The Seeker Spirituality, which by and large replaced it, was far less likely to generate grand conceptions of the universe and more likely to invoke a pragmatic attitude that led one to try whatever promised to work. It offered fleeting encounters with the sacred. God's presence was no longer a given, but had to be verified by a special appearance.
Dwelling and seeking, Wuthnow argues, are both part of what it means to be human. And it seems clear that both will persist into the next century and beyond. But neither of these styles will prove ultimately satisfactory. Dwelling Spirituality encourages dependence on communities that are inherently undependable, and the spirituality of seeking is too fluid to provide the stability, consistency, and discipline required for spiritual growth and maturity. Its adherents flit from retreat to retreat, from workshop to workshop. One event seems to cancel out the other, and very little seems to take root. The facile shopping for quick fix solutions to spiritual problems has not served us well nor has the hope that people could fight their problems by simply settling into established spiritual communities.
So according to Wuthnow, we are ready for the emergence of a third model. In fact, it has already begun to emerge. This is the model of Practice Spirituality. Religious institutions which will flourish in the coming era will be those which can move from dwelling and seeking to the ancient wisdom that identifies spiritual practice as the heart of the religious enterprise. People who practice may be involved in communities or they may be sojoumers, but the quality of their faith is determined not by the places they occupy, nor by the journey they are on, but rather, by the seriousness of the time they spend in worshipful communion with the Divine and the consequences of this time for the rest of their lives.
One can certainly see all this at work in the burgeoning field of Jewish meditation. Up till now, Jewish meditation has been largely a product of the Jewish manifestation of the seeker model. Finding Dwelling Spirituality— the spirituality of the stable synagogue community— empty and unsatisfying, an entire generation of Jews went out to seek more gratifying forms of spiritual endeavor. Meditation in all its various forms became a very popular choice for these people— Buddhist meditation, Hindu meditation, Transcendental meditation, awareness meditation, trance meditation, meditation on breath, on mantras, on mandalas, on guided imagery— all of these were found by a generation of Jewish seekers to be more accessible, more immediately gratifying, more inspiring and more useful than the spiritual models they had grown up with. Some became serious practitioners of various traditions of meditation, but many more simply dabbled; many more went back and forth between one tradition and another, sampling the wares. So it was that when meditation began to make a serious impact on the Jewish scene, it was largely characterized by this sense of restless seeking. Up till now, the world of Jewish meditation has largely been the world of the workshop and the retreat; the world of the occasional conference. Recent conferences on Jewish Meditation in San Francisco and New York were each attended by close to a thousand people. My own Jewish Meditation workshops and retreats regularly fill up almost as soon as they are advertised, and most of the people working in this field have the same experience. But as of now, there is absolutely no place at all in the Jewish world where one can go to engage in the rigorous daily practice of Jewish meditation. The distressing reality is that several of the leading teachers of Jewish meditation regularly attend Buddhist mediation centers in order to satisfy their own need for a serious practice place. This tendency has had a considerable cost. First of all, it has retarded the development of serious Jewish meditation centers, and secondly, it has prolonged the confusion that has so far prevailed between Jewish meditation and the meditative practices of other traditions. Stepping a little too blithely between Jewish and Buddhist meditation, we have been a little slower than we might have been at developing a distinct identity for Jewish meditation.
I am largely indifferent to the argument as to whether or not there are precedents for meditation in Kaballah. Certainly the Jewish mystical tradition includes a range of exercises for contemplative spiritual transformation. But the context and the actual practice of these exercises has largely been lost. I very much appreciate the honesty of teachers like Jonathan Omer-man who readily admit, that they are not teaching a continuous, received tradition of Jewish mediation, but are, rather, inventing a new tradition of Jewish meditation out of a creative reworking of the raw materials of Jewish Mysticism. My own experience however, is that Jewish meditation is any kind of meditation, when done in a Jewish context, in the service of Jewish spiritual activity— in the Jewish morphic field, as it were. Much has been written and said about the capacity of simple awareness mediation, wherever learned, to deepen normative Jewish spiritual activity, and my work in the field has certainly borne this out. Norman Fischer, The present Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center complex, is my oldest friend, and a partner in the present project. He came to visit me once when I was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Norman and I had practiced Buddhism together for ten years at the Berkeley, Green Gulch, and San Francisco Zen Centers, and finally, at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, high in the Las Padres Mountains of Califomia. Norman began life as a devout Jew. He was his rabbi’s favorite as a teenager, and he attended morning minyan, and studied Talmud with his rabbi every day. I had always known this about Norman, but even though we had been very close friends for more than fifteen years by this time, I had never actually seen Norman do any of this. But when he came to visit me at the seminary and attended morning minyan with me, he put on tefillin, picked up a siddur and started davening away with incredible intensity. As we were walking out of the synagogue, he was positively radiant, and he turned to me and said; "You know, Alan, now that I've done zen meditation for so long, I could do this (i.e. normative Jewish spiritual practice, davening etc.) for the rest of my life, and I wouldn't have to do anything else. It would be enough. But if I hadn't done meditation, I wouldn't even know what this was." The "this" Norman was referring to, was the incredible richness of ordinary Jewish spiritual practice, and when he said "I wouldn't even know what it was" he was very accurately naming one of the most profound problems of contemporary Jewish life, to wit: Jewish Spirituality, is no longer self-evident to the vast majority of American Jews. They need help in accessing it, and meditation can provide precisely the help they need. This was my own experience upon returning to Judaism after ten years of rigorous meditation practice, and it has been my experience with the dozens of people who attend the four weekly meditation sessions I conduct at my synagogue immediately before morning minyan, Kabbalat Shabbat and Torah Study, and it has been my experience with the hundreds who have attended the day and week long Jewish meditation retreats I haw offered over the past few years both on my own and in partnership with Norman Fischer. Simple generic awareness meditation opens one profoundly to the full spiritual potential of Jewish prayer, of Shabbat, of Torah study. This has been pointed out many times, and was the first and most obvious discovery of my own work with meditation in a Jewish context.
But what has not been said as often, but which is equally true, and perhaps even more significant for the purposes of this discussion, is that when meditation and Jewish spiritual activity are done in combination, the Jewish activity also deepens the meditation, and defines it as well. This is how simple awareness meditation becomes Jewish meditation. I have been sitting before prayer in the kind of generic awareness meditation I learned as a practitioner of Zen Buddhism for almost ten years now, and certainly, the meditation has deepened the prayer for me. But the prayer has also changed the meditation. It has given me a Jewish spiritual language for the mind states I experience in meditation and it has made me aware of spiritual possibilities in meditation I wasn't aware of when I practiced meditation as a Buddhist even though it was precisely the same meditation.
MEDITATIONS - by Dr C. Benton - click for his home page
A variety of meditative practices exist within Kabbalah. Each generation makes its own contribution. Furthermore, tradition has it that many of the meditative practices of the East originated with Abraham when he gave mystical gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them eastward. Whatever the method, though, it should help strengthen our sense of connection with the Source of Life, and this connection should become integrated into our daily life so that we live in the world from the perspective of this Source rather than retreat from the world into the Source. Below is a short list of a variety of techniques that have been used in Judaism throughout the ages.
As far back as the time of Saul (I Samuel 10:5), music has been used to induce a prophetic state of consciousness. Today, we can likewise use Shabbat songs and recordings of great cantors and other Jewish musicians to uplift our souls. Song has great power to heal and to open the gates of holiness.
The Sefer Yetzirah discusses the "engraving" of the letters of the aleph-bet. According to Kabbalistic tradition, this refers to visualization of the Hebrew letters. The Zohar further discusses the primal forces represented by each letter and how the universe was created through the aleph-bet. When we accurately visualize a letter, we begin to get in touch with its particular vibration. Just as every work of art evokes a certain feeling, so does each letter of the aleph-bet call forth a certain energy. Accurate visualization of each letter can be a very powerful meditative technique!
In many places in the Torah and Talmud we read how prayer, the service of the heart, has replaced sacrifice. Also, many who find it difficult to find holiness through sitting and meditating will nevertheless easily get in touch with the Holy One through the prayers of the synagogue service. When it comes to praying, we have available to us both the set prayers that the sages have given to us, and the spontaneous prayers that arise in our own heart. Regarding the former, the sages of the Talmud warn us in tractate Berachot to not let our prayers become mechanical and devoid of sincerity. Additionally, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov recommended that we daily go out and talk to Hashem in our own words and in our own language, and let Him know all our needs and our thoughts and feelings. Sounds good to me!
We usually associate repetition of a holy word or name of God with eastern religions. Nevertheless, this is also a meditative technique found in Judaism. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov recommended that if one does not know what to say in prayer, then one may just repeat the phrase "Ribbono shel Olam" (Master of the universe). Similarly, other phrases from the Torah or Talmud may be used as "mantras" to meditate upon. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia would take this a step further by also contemplating all the permutations of the letters of a word until he evoked a state of ecstasy. Thus, pick a Hebrew word of your choice to meditate on, and see what effect it has upon you.
Philosopher Martin Buber wrote at length regarding how we can take any I-It relationship and turn it into an I-Thou relationship. In the former, the other is only seen an object in our lives. This object can be a person, a tree, or anything else that we perceive. When viewed as an object, we see it as separate from ourselves and of lesser importance. In contrast, the I-Thou relationship recognizes the holiness of what we see and our connection with it. This type of relationship can exist with anything and not just people. To switch from one to another, all that is involved is just a slight change in perception. I can be walking down a hallway and be viewing the people in front of me. If I see them as objects, then they are just obstacles to be navigated around. However, I can just as easily look at them and become cognizant of the life force, the holy spark, that resides within each one of them. As I do this, I become aware of their preciousness, and I accept their frailties as much as I do my own. In this way, I enter into holy relationship with them. Such a relationship can be established with anything that might be perceived. I can find holiness within the tree growing in my backyard or the hummingbird that comes to feed. I can also revel in the holy spark contained within a new thought or idea that Hashem has given me. By entering into an I-Thou relationship with the world, we can go through our whole day in a continuous meditative state as we fulfill the commandment to "acknowledge Him in all our ways." (Proverbs 3:6)
As we have mentioned elsewhere, nature is a gateway to God. It is not that we are encouraging the worship of the sun or the moon or other natural objects, but rather that the klippot, the veils that cover God's reality, are often a little thinner in the natural world than they are in the man-made world. Who does not feel God's presence more readily in a pristine forest than on a road of concrete? I recently found myself standing on the rim of an active volcano in Hawaii, and there the "shells" were literally being removed on a physical level as lava bubbled up through the crust of the earth. Because of the thinness of the klippot, the spiritual energy of that place was quite intense, and the sense of the Shechinah profound. I could not help but think of the smoke and fire and rumblings that also occurred at Sinai. In the long run, what can I say? Whenever Jews go up to mountain tops, great things happen!
In Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), Hillel tells us, "Do not separate yourself from the community." While prophets and others have often gone out into the desert to seek solitude with God, they have never remained there. Judaism has always recognized the importance and the primacy of community. We need one another, and we do not grow as well in isolation. The community can be a great source of spiritual nourishment and support, and through our involvement with the community we can experience a type of meditation through action.
In spite of the importance of community, we do have to seek from time to time a point of stillness within. In the Talmud, the word hashmal is interpreted as meaning the "speaking silence". The word hasmal appears in the account of Ezekiel's vision, and it has traditionally been translated as "amber" or "electricum". However, a more accurate interpretation would be the "speaking silence."
"And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came from the north, a great cloud, and a fire flaring up, and a brightness was around it, out of its midst, the speaking silence, out of the midst of the fire."
In this vision, the other elements are sometimes seen as coverings that must be passed through until we can hear clearly the voice of an inner teacher. We can also apply this understanding to the experience of Elijah below.
"And he said, Go out, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice."
-Kings I, 19:11-12
A traditional mystical practice within Judaism has been to discover this voice, or maggid, within, and to learn through dialogue with it. This was a practice of Rabbi Joseph Caro, the codifier of Jewish law, as well as many other Kabbalists. "Conversations with God" is nothing new to Judaism!
NEW MOONS, OLD SABBATHS
"And it shall come to pass, that every new moon, and every Sabbath, shall all flesh come to worship before me, says the Lord."
We all know about the importance of Shabbat, but Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new moon, is a festival that has often been ignored in recent times. In my opinion, Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh both offer unparalleled opportunities for connecting with God. A weekly day of rest and spiritual connection is a wonderful blessing that we shouldn't ignore. Likewise, the new moon is a monthly beginning of a new cycle that gives us the opportunity to start anew every thirty days. Rather than just look at the calendar to see when the new moon is, I find it helpful to also go outside and observe the sky each night. This helps you reconnect with God's rhythm in nature. At the new moon, the darkness outside provides a nurturing quality such as being enfolded by the protective darkness of womb. I feel the presence of the Shechinah. I am fed by this presence, and I think about all the good things I want to do and accomplish in the month ahead. I spend quite awhile in contemplation and spiritual absorption. Finally, I praise Hashem and then reluctantly go inside, always looking forward to my next Holy encounter on the next Rosh Chodesh.
by S. Z. Stern, from http://www.ascent.org.il/html/Mystic/meditation.html
Hisbonenut is the Jewish mystical discipline of active thought-meditation. In 1986 a collection of Hebrew manuscripts, roughly 200 years old, written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe) was published. One of these manuscripts (Ma'amorim Ketzarim, Inyonim, p. 133) discusses passive versus active thought-meditation. This amazingly contemporary treatise sheds light on some of the pitfalls of passive meditation and lends insight into the distinctions between passive and active meditation. The following is a translation and adaptation of this manuscript into English, followed by a few notes. (Full explanation of the topics mentioned would require much more space than can be alloted here.)
THOUGHT-MEDITATION; its qualities and characteristics.
There are two different methods of thought-meditation.
A) The first method entails centering and settling one's consciousness on the general sense of an idea, while passively withdrawing from all thoughts, feelings and body sensations. The meditator disengages and contracts the mind, and in no way increases the breadth or detail of understanding. This is done by fixating on a point of awareness in an uninterrupted stream of consciousness for approximately half an hour, which brings the person to the general state of "airy vision." (This may take weeks or months of preparation to accomplish).
Airy vision results from thought-meditation that uses the superficial powers of the intellect to divest the idea that is the focus of the meditation of any concrete definition. By thus abstracting the idea, the person will come to perceive through the mind's eye the subtle spirit of the idea as an airy vision devoid of tangible meaning. In this context the prophets said, "And they will be swept away by the [cosmic] wind," and "When you will gaze upon [the idea] it will be naught." As a result of this type of meditation, many people have been misled and deluded by their own imagination and by charlatans who promote futile and vain visions for their own gain.
Little deliberation is required to recognize this type of meditation. A few simple indications may be: 1) As bodily tensions are released, the person may experience slight twitching, jerking or nervous movements. 2) As the emotions are settled and calmed, a slight turbulence, disturbance or racing may be felt in the heart. 3) The mind is empty of thoughts and all thoughts that arise dissipate. 4) There is an increase in self-awareness.
B) The second method demands detailed, broad and deep comprehension, as opposed to withdrawing from the intellect. This process requires intense mental exertion to increase one's awareness of the open, simple and revealed meaning of the idea; to scrutinize and elaborate on the concept's many details, facets and ramifications, and not to allow the mind to contract and settle on one point alone. The indications for the second type of meditation are profoundly different than the indications for the first type. There is no passive dissipation of the energies of the body, heart, and mind whatsoever; but rather, there is active exertion, concentration and channeling of all the person's powers into the mind. This intense mental exertion is so all consuming that the person has no sensation of "self" at all. The awareness achieved through active thought-meditation is very different from the consciousness reached through passive meditation, where the person is susceptible to imaginings, vain visions and futile delusions. To the contrary, the person enclothes the idea in many metaphors and analogies until it is thoroughly comprehended and the truth can be perceived vividly through the mind's eye.
Another indication that one is engaged in active thought-meditation is the yearning to grasp new insights into the idea; to discover in every nuance the implicit and specific meaning. The person will be entirely oblivious to the "self," for the mind's total preoccupation with the idea completely overshadows any sensations of the heart.
Regarding the ecstacy and awakening that come through the first type of meditation, the person will find the arousal exceedingly euphoric. This happens because the meditative process of emptying one's mind is specifically directed toward bringing exhilaration into the "self." In actuality, this state constitutes a dualism between G-d and the individual. The person inescapably becomes egoistic and is ultimately distant from and in direct opposition to G-dliness, he returns strongly his sense of "self" being connected, [or worse, "soars upward like an eagle and proclaims 'I am and there is no other'"].
In contrast, with the second type of meditation, enlightenment comes only through channeling and emanating G-dliness (as a by-product). The person is not preparing the "self" to experience a revelation, but rather, is absorbed in intense mental exertion and is devoted to the vivification of a Torah insight. Enlightenment is spontaneously triggered by the Torah's G-dly wisdom, through "gazing at the Glory of the King and nothing else," and not because the person has cleared the mind in order to receive a revelation. Nor is the person enthralled by accompanying feelings of ecstacy, for the conscious awareness of "self" has no prominence at all, making exhilaration and other associated sensations irrelevant. So it is written, "The fool does not desire [true] enlightenment," but seeks feelings of ecstacy. Moreover, the fool's perpetuation of self-centeredness shuts out even the faintest glimmer of G-dly enlightenment.
Another distinction: the ecstacy experienced through the first type of meditation may cause a person to feel high and mighty, and to become callous, overbearing and flippant. He will likely acquire a heightened sensitivity to and an increased appetite for sensual pleasures. Through the second method, however, the person becomes truly humble and no longer esteems the "self" to be central. He is also far from desiring transient pleasures and relating to contemptible character traits, like indignation, oppressiveness, frivolity, etc. Such a person regards any negative characteristics he finds within himself as repulsive and deplorable, takes no credit for personal accomplishments, and considers the "self" to be veritably nothing at all.
COMMENTS (gleaned from Rabbi Hillel Paritcher's commentaries on Shar Ha'Yichud and Kuntres Ha'Hispaalus written by Rabbi Dov Ber, the second Rebbe of Lubavitch):
* Lack of self-centeredness does not imply sublimation, denial or loss of individuality. To the contrary, centering upon G-dliness liberates the spirit, whereas holding on to one's awareness of "self" obstructs spontaneity, creativity and enthusiasm.
* As an unsought and automatic result of attaining G-dly enlightenment, one may be imbued with Supernal Delight, the highest form of human pleasure. Yet the person is not carried away by this elation and does not give in to it. His intention remains purely to offer delight to G-d through his alignment with the Supreme Will.
* To gain a clearer understanding of how to practice Hisbonenut, active thought-meditation, much more explanation is needed. For example, it is taught that one should not meditate exclusively on a single isolated metaphor, but rather on the complete world-view that results from the synthesis of many metaphors. To do this the meditator must dwell at length on the precise meaning of several ideas until the kernel of each idea crystallizes in his understanding. Then he should broaden the viewpoint until the ideas can be seen through the mind's eye in a single glance as one unified insight. By gazing with the mind's eye deep into this unified insight, the first level of enlightenment may be realized, which is the enthusiasm of the natural soul (the astral body). Next, if he will go beyond the limits of the physical body and natural soul, through purity of intention and increased intensity in the meditation, the second level of enlightenment may be attained, namely the awakening of the G-dly attributes of the higher soul. On the third level, the G-dly attributes of the higher soul illuminate and permeate the attributes of the natural soul, which are based in the power centers of the physical body - action, emotion, thought, will and pleasure.
Schneur Zalman Stern has conducted Jewish meditation classes and workshops throughout the United States. He recently moved to Israel.