Meditation, Jewish Style

by Tinamarie Bernard June 21, 2010


This past winter, I traveled to New York for seven days of meditation, Jewish style.

Surprising for many Jews, I imagine, who might consider meditation to fall in the sphere of Buddhism, Hocus-Pocus or Madonna’s Kabbalah. They may wonder why a San Diegan trekked cross country – a trip that involved 15 hours, two flights, a bus and taxi – when there are numerous meditation centers locally. I traveled to Elat Chayyim, a retreat center devoted entirely to Jewish spirituality. Along with 110 people, I followed an agenda of secular silence, meditation and prayer.

Jews – over a hundred of them – silent for a week? The answer to that apparent contradiction is yes. We managed to cope quite well despite the long, and very quiet, days. Our routine started early, before breakfast at 6:30. Davening, meditating, journaling, yoga, contemplation, and virtually no words for seven days. Imagine a group of our size: absolute silence, eyes closed, breathing relaxed, and bodies motionless for 45 minutes. Then imagine us walking for 45 minutes in slow motion in deep concentration before starting the cycle over again. Of course, we didn’t neglect the basics: time was set aside for kosher vegetarian meals (minus any talking), lectures on meditation techniques, and daily yoga. Through the entire week, we spoke to no one except for scheduled appointments with the Rabbi’s leading our retreat. Our days ended at 9 pm.

Why subject our tuchas to so much sitting for a week? Because it takes that long to quiet the mind through directed thought.
Only when time loses relativity and senses sharpen, can insight, intuition and calm shut out the static. Several days of contemplative silence, prayer and chanting in Hebrew allowed me to reach a calm and highly aware state of mind. It was from the ensuing stillness that I began to recognized the mystery inherent in Jewish Meditation.
I’ve been intrigued ever since.

A Meditative Walk. When I first arrived, it was Sunday. The grounds of the center were covered in snow, but the weather was rainy and we were in for days of rain and thaw. Finally, on the following Sabbath morning, we saw snow begin to fall. It continued for an hour, a canvas of white enveloping our congregation inside. When the service ended, I bundled myself up for a meditation walk outside.

It was a timeless hour. This was in part because I wore no watch, but also because of the pace. To meditate while walking requires one to move very, very slowly and very, very deliberately. Everything is experienced with great focus, from the placement of footsteps, to one’s breath and body movement, to the sensations of the outside world.

On this walk, I noticed things I usually would have missed. I heard how a brook sounds different when you listen to its melody upstream vs. downstream. I watched how snow really falls: what seems like only a few flakes observed horizontally is a load of white when you look up into the sky. I became quiet enough to hear an animal bustling in the spongy snow covered ground. Finally, I figured out that snow was more air than water. It took an enormous amount to quench my thirst.

This was far more than a lovely stroll. I actually experienced what seemed like a merging with the quiet and serenity of wintertime. To say this memory is one of my most vivid is an understatement. It ranks in intensity and depth with the birth of my son.
A Brief History of Jewish Meditation. In my first search for information on Jewish meditation, I discovered limited references and mostly blank stares. For a tribe known to have many opinions, information was not readily forthcoming. This obscurity falsely implies that mediation has always been on the fringe of Judaism. The truth is quite the opposite.

Meditation is an almost forgotten way of achieving spiritual enlightenment with references in the Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah. Evidence suggests that when the bible was written (400 B.C.E.), meditation was practiced by the Israelites. Talmudic references describe meditation schools that were linked to the biblical prophets.

Meditation was taught with the intention of bringing people closer to God. These programs required discipline and students were expected to be deeply spiritual before a meditative practice was initiated.

Additionally, the Kabbalist Eleazar Azikri described Jewish meditation as beneficial to the soul, and the Talmud sages were thought to meditate before and after services. The Torah tells us that Jacob meditated in a field. And Rabbi Akiva supposedly practiced a type of meditation in which he turned in circles while davening.

As long as Israelites were within their own homeland, the demands and intentions of meditation could be managed. But once the Diaspora scattered Jews, maintaining the rigor and spiritual depth of Jewish meditation was problematic. By the time the Second Temple was rebuilt (70 B.C.E.), the Jewish leadership balanced the benefits with the dangers of having the masses meditate. They decided to teach only the most qualified students, thereby preserving the sacredness of Jewish meditation even while diluting the spiritual experience for the average Israelite.

With the rise of intellectualism in the 1800‚s, mysticism and anything connected to it was marginalized and reduced to an intellectual experience. Even the ability to understand the language of meditation was virtually lost as rationalists dominated the discussion of Jewish spirituality. Chasidic and Kabalistic traditions included mediation for a bit longer, but eventually intellectualism prevailed here too. Jewish meditation, once integral to Judaism, almost disappeared.

Meditation is back. With some searching, I discovered a resurgence of information as well as a renewed passion in others to bring in this aspect of Jewish spirituality back to our experience. The teachings of ancient Jewish mystics are being rediscovered. For example, on my retreat the facilitators made reference to Jewish meditative practices of Abraham Abulafia, a sage in the 13th century. At Limmud this past January, the morning meditation with Alan Lew was so popular, they had to double the size of the room. Classes, books, retreats – they are on the rise. The emphasis on Jewish spirituality is popular these days.Meditation Novice. Of all that I’ve discovered about Jewish Meditation so far, the truth is that I’ve barely scratched the surface. My one retreat and few readings still make me a meditation neophyte. I hunger to experience more. I believe there is a great benefit to Jewish meditation: it connects the intellectualism of Judaism to the profound and mystical. It links me to something bigger than myself – the divine if you will. While my practice is still solitary, I hope one day to be part of a meditation group. So if what I write inspires other Jews to learn about this sublime side of our faith, then I offer a short list of resources to jump start your own meditation practice. Shalom.

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One thought on “Meditation, Jewish Style

  1. Meditation is certainly back and I’m not surprised. These are difficult times and more people are considering meditation and spiritual retreat sessions to find more positivity and peace for a moment.

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