Discovering Jewish Meditation; A Beginner's Guide to an Ancient Spiritual Practice

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gefen, cofounder of Tikkun magazine and codirector of Chochmat HaLev, a Jewish meditation center in Berkeley, Calif., declares that although we may think that meditation belongs to the Buddhists, it is authentically Jewish. Indeed, Gefen finds references to meditation in Genesis (when Jacob spent time alone before his reconciliation with Esau, for example) and the Psalms. By the Middle Ages, Jewish mediation had "gone underground," though it was practiced by some Kabbalists and later claimed by the Hasidim. But readers don't need to become black-hatted mystics to take advantage of the tradition: this book encourages Jews of all persuasions to give meditation a shot. Gefen maintains a strict view of what is, and is not, meditation. In prayer, the goal is to communicate directly with God, whereas meditation attempts "to move into a spiritually open state, and then we experience whatever is there. This may include directly sensing God's presence. Or, it may not." Gefen teaches 13 basic meditations, from the Hineni meditation to a thankfulness meditation. This book is a worthwhile addition to the Jewish library, but it will never replace Aryeh Kaplan's Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide (reprinted in 1995) as the essential reading on the subject. (Dec.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
Discovering Jewish Meditation: Instruction & Guidance For Learning An Ancient Spiritual Practice in a "reader friendly" manual on all aspects of meditation within a Judaic context. Author Nan Gefen teaches her readers how to meditate on their own, thereby placing them on the path to a deeper, establishing and maintaining a more intimate connection with the Divine, and garnering insight about their own lives. Ideal for the novice, Discovering Jewish Meditation also has much to recommend it to those already embarked upon a program of meditative practice as a key element of their Jewish tradition, practice, and spirituality.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580230674
  • Publisher: Jewish Lights Publishing
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


What is
Jewish Meditation?

* * *


Over the years you've undoubtedly had experiences that were spiritual in nature. Perhaps they took place while you were reading a poem, or holding a sleeping child. Or walking in the woods, or watching the sunset. Or while you were praying.

    These experiences—and more—have helped you know that something exists beyond your regular, everyday reality. This "something" is what I call "the silence within." To many of us this state seems both familiar and mysterious. It has the quality of spaciousness, and it appears to have no boundaries.

    Like a pregnant pause before a sentence, the silence within contains all possibility. It is the raw material of creation, the formlessness that exists before the concrete emerges. When we enter into this state, we have our most intense spiritual experiences and receive our most significant moments of understanding.

    If you are like many people, you probably don't pay much attention to the silence within as you rush from place to place, juggling responsibilities and meeting deadlines. But you sense its existence. In the quiet moments it hovers just outside your consciousness, and you are drawn to it. It might even frighten you, the scary unknown.

    All of the world's major religious traditions acknowledge the existence of the silence within. Whatever name they give it, or however they describe it, they see it as something that can be explored. Each tradition has created ways for doing this, andpasses them on to succeeding generations.

    Likewise, nontraditional spiritual teachers, such as those in the New Age movement, assume that transcendence of everyday life can take place. The experience of the spiritual realm, they say, does not depend on a traditional belief in God or adherence to a particular religion.

    In these times of spiritual seeking, many people are turning to Jewish meditation as a pathway to the silence within. They are discovering that the practice is wise and beautiful, and that over the years it can lead to great spiritual transformation.

    In the pages ahead, you will be introduced to Jewish meditation. You will learn about its background, as well as its techniques. This will enable you to use it creatively in your life. When you understand it in its fullness, you will see its enormous strength. And when you learn how to practice it, you will receive the great gift of its living presence in the years ahead.


What Is Jewish Meditation?


Most simply, Jewish meditation is a spiritual practice found within the Jewish tradition.

    The best way to describe it is to consider its name. The word "Jewish" is included because meditation has been—and is—a part of Judaism. Traditionally it exists alongside other aspects of Jewish observance, such as prayer and Torah study. Less traditionally, it is done alone as a spiritual practice.

    Jewish meditation uses images, words, and symbols that come from the Jewish tradition. The meditations themselves, and the teachings that go along with them, reflect Jewish understanding. Because of this, people who are introduced to Jewish meditation will not mistake it for any other meditative practice.

    Now we move on to the "meditation" word in Jewish meditation. Meditation is a specific kind of activity that involves directing the mind. It follows a prescribed order, and it uses techniques different from ordinary thinking or daydreaming. The activity takes place during a prescribed time period, and thereby has a beginning and an end. Although the contents of Jewish meditation are unique in many ways, it joins other meditative traditions in directing the mind to the silence within.

    Jewish meditation can be further described as an organic practice that has grown and changed through history. Although it is part of Judaism, it nevertheless has absorbed elements from other traditions, such as Sufism, Gnosticism, and Buddhism. The practice contains a great variety of teachings and meditations. At different times creative bursts of collective insight into the use of meditation have taken place. One, in fact, is going on right now.


What Is the Relationship Between
Jewish Meditation, Jewish Mysticism,
and Kabbalah?


Jewish meditation is a technique rooted in certain understandings. The main philosophical base of Jewish meditation is Jewish mysticism. This tradition has existed throughout Jewish history, and it centers on an intimate, immediate contact with the Divine. Many of the images we use for meditation and the ideas we teach come from it.

    Jewish mysticism seeks to answer the basic questions of life, such as the nature of God, the meaning of creation, and the existence of good and evil. It transmits understanding through the study of mystical texts like the Sefer Yetzirah, which was written between the third and sixth centuries C.E., and the Zohar, which was written toward the end of the thirteenth century. The language of mysticism is poetic and evocative, and it opens the imagination to perceiving God in new ways.

    Jewish mysticism has an experiential side. It considers meditation to be a pathway to an intense connection with the Divine. Through the centuries mystics have taught their students the meditations they've devised, and some of them have been written down. Jewish meditation, as we know it today, draws meditations from this great treasury, as well as from other sources.

    It is important to understand that Jewish mysticism has always had strong ties to traditional Judaism. The mystics of the past had rigorous Jewish practices, even though they saw the Holy Cosmos in nontraditional ways. Their spiritual experience through meditation added depth to their religious commitment rather than providing an alternative way of life.

    If Jewish mysticism is the base of Jewish meditation, what about Kabbalah? This word, which is bandied around a lot these days, often confuses beginning meditators.

    Kabbalah means "to receive" in Hebrew. It refers to the mystical tradition within Judaism from the twelfth century to the present day. Like the rest of Jewish mysticism, it is directed to the experience of union with the Divine.

    The Kabbalah can be described as a nontraditional response to spiritual concerns. God, for instance, is seen as indwelling as well as transcendent, and as both male and female. The world is perceived as ever-changing, radiant, and reflective of the Divine. All life contains sparks of holiness. These understandings differ from the traditional view of God as outside the natural world and separate from humankind.

    The Jewish mystical tradition, including the Kabbalah, is a collection of many teachings about the structure and nature of reality. It has evolved through the centuries. We speak of it as though it is a completed point of view, but it is like a tree sending out new branches in surprising directions: Its shape is still emerging.


How Does Jewish Meditation Compare
to Other Kinds of Meditation?


Jewish meditation aims toward exploring the silence within. In this way it is like other religious meditative traditions. All of them direct meditators to let go of their everyday concerns and ordinary patterns of thinking as they open their minds to spiritual experience.

    Most religious traditions consider meditation to be an important path to personal transformation. So too does Judaism. One of the ways this takes place is through self-refinement. During meditation, our ego defenses dissolve and we become more aware of who we really are. We then can act to strengthen our positive qualities and diminish or transform those qualities that are destructive. As a result, we are able to make more of a contribution to those around us and to the world. Our inner "light" or "soul" becomes more revealed.

    A further similarity between Jewish meditation and most other traditions is found in the intention to bring the meditator closer to God. In past centuries this was the reason for Jews to meditate. The meditator yearned to close the distance between the self and the Divine, and meditation was the vehicle for this to take place. Today, the emphasis on connecting to the Divine still exists, although we teach and practice meditation in ways that are not necessarily the same as those of past centuries.

    Jewish meditation resembles other religious meditative traditions also in that it holds the understanding that we have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Buddhists regularly perform acts of service, and Christians are guided by the edict to "love your neighbor as yourself." Jews commit themselves to tikkun olam (repairing and healing the world). Meditation alone is not enough: We also must become involved in changing the world. This basic tenet of Judaism is fulfilled even more effectively when we retreat into meditation for periods of time. Within meditation, we can find the strength, the balance, and the purpose we need to continue this task.

    We've discussed some of the similarities between Jewish meditation and other religious traditions. But what about relaxation meditation, that popular antidote for illness and emotional distress? There are similarities here too. Both use specific techniques to enter into a state of meditation. These techniques sometimes appear to be the same, as in meditations that focus on the breath.

    The point of this type of meditation is to relax so that restoration and healing can take place. But we can't relax if our minds are whirling around. Likewise, we can't enter into the silence within if our minds are spinning out of control. We must find a way to stop the busyness. Meditation provides this, whether the end goal is to relax or to transcend our ordinary reality.

    All forms of meditation—including Jewish meditation—share a common base of techniques. But differences exist in their purposes and how they are used. In transcendental meditation, the meditator repeats a mantra again and again. The mind focuses on the sound, although it has no inherent meaning to most meditators. In Jewish meditation, the same mantra technique is sometimes used, but meditators are instructed to focus on Hebrew letters or words. The goal is for them to become "filled" with these letters or words, and to merge with them so that they enter into a deep meditative state and experience the presence of the Divine. An example is the Sh'ma meditation, which you will find in chapter 6. This meditation is based on the traditional Sh'ma, a prayer that proclaims the unity of the Divine. The words of this prayer are repeated silently, like a mantra, and the meditator is instructed to pay attention to their sound, not to their meaning. Even so, these words are undeniably Jewish and they resonate with most Jews.

    The most obvious way in which Jewish meditation differs from other traditions is its Jewish context. Jewish meditation is part of Judaism, not Sufism, Buddhism, or any other religion. It developed through the centuries as a Jewish pathway to the Holy, and it was practiced by those committed to traditional religious Judaism.

    Today, many non-Orthodox Jews are adopting Jewish meditation as a spiritual practice without taking on rigorous Jewish observance. They are discovering that it gives their lives spiritual meaning. Still, Jewish meditation is so strongly grounded in Judaism that they experience it as Jewish meditation rather than general meditation.

    Jewish meditation can be distinguished from other meditative traditions also by its content. The meditations come from the wellspring of Jewish understanding, and they include Jewish symbols, words, and images. Although some of them have themes found in other traditions—such as the chesed (loving-kindness) meditation in this book—they also are located within Judaism.

    But perhaps the most important difference between Jewish meditation and other traditions is how it feels to sit in a room with others who are doing this practice. The experience is not like Buddhist or Hindu or Sufi meditation. For many of us, it feels like coming home.


What Are the Historical Roots of
Jewish Meditation?


Jewish meditation goes back a long way. Some scholars suggest that it was present even in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. They note that Isaac engaged in an activity hat appears to be meditative: "And Isaac went out to walk in the field in the evening" (Genesis 24:63). According to some interpretations, this experience of meditation or prayer was so intense that his presence radiated outward, causing Rebecca, his bride-to-be, to fall off her camel when she first saw him. Jacob too seems to have entered a meditative state when he isolated himself in preparation for his reunion with his brother Esau: "Jacob was left alone" (Genesis 32:25). In his solitude he wrestled with an angel—just as we sometimes struggle with our desires and fears during meditation.

    Other hints of the existence of meditation can be found in the Psalms. They describe the yearning that leads to the spiritual experience that we most often associate with meditation or prayer: "My soul yearns for You, my flesh pines for You" (Psalm 63:2). They also show us the importance of becoming connected to the Divine: "I have continuously placed God before me; God is at my right hand so that I shall not falter" (Psalm 16:8).

    At the time the Bible was completed, around 400 B.C.E., meditation appears to have been widespread. A few sources claim that over a million Israelites meditated on a regular basis, but most say that this figure is wildly exaggerated.

    Meditation during this period—and for many centuries thereafter—can be described as apocalyptic and visionary. People learned to focus their minds on fiery chariots, angelic hosts, wild beasts, and sometimes-terrifying images of Divine majesty. Accounts of these meditations sound hallucinatory to our contemporary ears.

    When the Jews were dispersed into other countries after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., many of them continued to meditate. Rabbis spoke out against this practice, however, because they feared that it would lead to abandonment of Judaism. Meditators might be tempted to try out foreign spiritual practices, and eventually they would be seduced away from the tradition of their birth.

    Over time, Jewish meditation seems to have gone underground. By the Middle Ages, only small, select groups of religious men continued the practice. Most people weren't even introduced to it: The prescription held that one must be male, over forty, and married to study Kabbalah and to meditate. This elitist control over meditation remained in effect for many centuries until the Hasidic movement began in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century.

    In the meanwhile, Jewish mysticism and Jewish meditation continued to develop through the writing and teaching of the Kabbalists. For example, Abraham Abulafia in the thirteenth century devised meditations that focused on the name of God and the pure forms of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century transmitted a radical mystical understanding of creation that was the basis of many meditations. The insights of great teachers such as these helped to shape Jewish mysticism and meditation as we know it today.

    During the centuries before the Hasidic movement, Jewish meditation consisted mainly of focusing on the letters of the Divine Name in various combinations—a practice thought to be dangerous for the uninitiated. Once Hasidism became established in Eastern Europe, however, meditation became more accessible. Rabbis in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought it into widespread use by teaching that prayer could be done as a mantra. Anyone could climb the spiritual ladder through all the states of being and experience the opening of the heavens by praying in this meditative way. These rabbis also developed contemplative forms of meditation aimed at helping people increase their awareness of God's presence and refine their character traits.

    In its heyday Hasidism had hundreds of thousands of adherents. But by the twentieth century it had shrunk in size and influence, and meditation was less a part of religious practice. Many Hasidic rabbis who knew how to do it died during the Holocaust.

    Until recently, the existence of Jewish meditation was barely known in the United States. Mainstream American Jews historically have viewed spirituality with suspicion. As a result, synagogues and Jewish organizations have failed to support the spiritual quest, and seekers have had to look outside their own tradition to learn a meditative practice.

    But this is changing. In the last two decades the word about Jewish meditation has gotten out. Aryeh Kaplan, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote several books on the subject in the 1970s and 1980s. Other publications followed that helped to break through the wall of ignorance. Most recently, in Meditation from the Heart of Judaism edited by Avram Davis, twenty-two of today's leading teachers of Jewish meditation explain their techniques, practices, and faith. Meditative texts from past centuries are now being translated and taught. Several centers of Jewish meditation exist in the United States, and undoubtedly more will be established. Meditation classes and sitting groups are proliferating, synagogues are bringing the practice into their communities, and several conferences on the practice have been convened.

    As more people experience Jewish meditation's power and wisdom, they are helping to spread it further within the Jewish world. After centuries of being hidden, meditation finally is beginning to be accepted as a legitimate part of American Judaism.


What Is Jewish Meditation
Like Today?


Jewish meditation is a stream fed by three sources.

    The first is the Jewish meditative tradition. Some of the meditations we teach come from past centuries, discovered within old texts or passed down orally from teacher to student.

    The second source of Jewish meditation is the creative work of meditation teachers today. Using Jewish symbols and images, we are fashioning meditations that are especially meaningful for people in this postmodern era. Although these meditations are "new," in the sense that we have no record of them being done before, they build respectfully on the contributions of teachers in the past and on the tradition of Jewish meditation.

    Jewish meditation is being influenced by a third source: Buddhism. In recent decades many Jews have adopted Buddhist meditative practices. Almost a third of American Buddhists are Jewish by birth. Many of these people have found a spiritual path within Buddhism that they didn't find within Judaism, but they want to reconnect with their Jewish roots. We are pleased to introduce them to Jewish meditation. As they learn about it, they bring the knowledge and wisdom gained from Buddhism to their practices. Their insights help to shape the direction of Jewish meditation.

    If you look at current teachers of Jewish meditation, you will see that we don't all teach the same material or use the same approach. This is because we come from different backgrounds. Some of us, as traditionalists, are committed to passing on meditations learned from Kabbalistic or Hasidic sources. Others blend these traditional meditations with contemporary ones. A few bring Zen or Vipassana insight meditation into the Jewish setting, and they teach Buddhist awareness practice along with other, more traditional Jewish meditations.

    The differences continue: Some teachers think that Jewish meditation includes meditative singing, chanting, and movement. Others hold to a more strict definition, saying that the practice should be done by sitting and focusing in a traditional way. They consider these more expressive techniques to be meditative warm-ups, and dismiss them as not the real thing.

    The different approaches have not been integrated, although efforts are being made in that direction. Meditation teachers, for instance, are discussing how to bring in elements of Buddhist practice without losing Jewish meditation's essential character. In time, there will be more clarity—although I wager there will always be various schools of thought about the nature and practice of Jewish meditation.

    The variety in teaching styles resulting from this lack of agreement can confuse beginning meditators. They often ask, "What is proper Jewish meditation, anyhow?" The answer is that no one way is "best" or "more Jewish." Each has something to offer.

    In this discussion about Jewish meditation today we haven't yet mentioned a most obvious and important fact: The practice is now open to everyone. Thankfully, you no longer have to be male or traditionally observant to practice Jewish meditation.

    The effects of this change are already apparent. People from all backgrounds feel welcomed into Jewish meditation. And as more women and nonobservant Jews become involved, they bring their unique perspectives and insights to the practice. They are part of the creative process, helping to develop a meditative practice that includes but extends beyond traditional concerns. Through sharing their experience, they are contributing to the shape of Jewish meditation for the future.


* * *

Let us take a few minutes to focus on the breath.
The breath is central in Jewish meditation. It connects us to the rhythms of the universe and helps us quiet our minds.
We will stop at the end of these first few chapters to pay attention to the breath. This will help you become mindful of its qualities and integrate moments of meditation into your study of Jewish meditation. It also will teach you how to begin the core meditations in part two.


Now, inhale deeply. Let your breath fill you. Allow your chest to expand to its full capacity.
As you exhale, make a sound. Any sound. It can be a sigh or a shout or a musical note—whatever feels right to you in this moment. Don't analyze it or attribute meaning to it. Just let it be.
Draw the sound out as long as you can.
When your lungs have deflated, let your chest become filled once again. As you exhale this breath, make another sound.


Do this several times: the breath in, the breath out with sound.


When you are finished, sit quietly for a few moments.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction ix
Part One: The Practice of Jewish Meditation
1. What's Jewish Meditation? 3
2. The Promise of Jewish Meditation 17
3. States of Consciousness 29
4. Forms of Jewish Meditation 41
5. Getting Started 57
Part Two: The Core Meditations
6. Focused Meditations 81
7. Awareness Meditations 109
8. Emptiness Meditations 117
Part Three: A Meditative Life
9. Challenges of a Meditative Life 129
10. Meditation and Jewish Spiritual Practice 151
Jewish Meditation Resource Guide for Beginning Meditators 169
About Jewish Lights Publishing 177
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