Is meditation a Jewish thing?
Shalom and thank you for your question. You want to know if there is a problem for Jewish people to practice various forms of meditation. The short answer is, it depends on which type we are talking about. However there is much more to say about this important topic.
A definition of meditation that I found explains it as follows: It is similar to contemplation, thought, or thinking, and it can also refer to a written or spoken discourse expressing considered thoughts on a subject. In today’s parlance, perhaps we could define it more as a system of contemplation, perhaps combined with breathing exercises, that people engage in in order to transcend anxiety or banality and become transported to a frame of mind which is clean of racing thoughts about mundane matters and conducive to serenity and purposefulness.
We are currently reading the book of Genesis (Bereishit). Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of Shulchan Aruch haRav and the book of Tanya, basic text of Chassidic teaching, as well as many other works of Chassidic teaching, is known to have said that a Jew must live with the times. When his disciples heard the Rabbi expressing such an idea they were a little bewildered. They knew that Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a purist in terms of total dedication to the Torah way of life as opposed to any secular fashion or fad. How did this jive with a statement such as ‘living with the times”? They were embarrassed to ask the Rebbe directly, but received an enlightening answer from someone who was close to the Rebbe. (I don’t remember if it was a relative or a close disciple of the Rebbe. If it was a relative he was also a disciple.) He explained that the Rebbe meant that we should live with the Torah portion of the week, deriving spiritual messages and strength for our daily lives from what we learn, (Chassidic insights can further enhance those messages). This in itself requires meditation, but let us take a look at the Torah portion from a few weeks back. The Torah introduced us to Abraham, at the point in his life where G-d tells him “Go (you) for yourself…to the land which I shall show you.” According to the commentators, Abraham was seventy-five years old at this point. The Midrash, part of the Oral Law, tells us the fascinating story of Abraham’s childhood discovery of G-d. The king Nimrod (the name Nimrod is from the Hebrew root of mered – meaning rebellion) who was told by his astrologers that a boy would be born who would challenge Nimrod as the deity he made himself out to be, had some thirty or thirty-five thousand baby boys killed so that they would not grow up to be that threat to his power. Abraham’s mother however, hid him in a cave until he was three. When he came out of the cave, he observed that there is a beautiful world out there with plants and animals, hills and valleys, rivers and streams…and he felt that someone must have created it. At night he saw the moon ‘ruling’ over the world and he thought that it must be the Creator. In the morning however, Abraham saw the sun rise and the moon disappear. He then reached the conclusion that there must be a G-d who created the sun and the moon and all the rest of creation. This is contemplation, or meditation. Abraham remarried after Sarah’s death and had more children, to whom he gave gifts and sent them away to the East. What is the significance of this? Abraham’s name is a contraction of the Hebrew term ‘Av hamon goyim’, father of many nations. Abraham’s purpose was to bring the gift of monotheism to the world – which up till then was a world of pagan idol worship. (Noah and some of his descendants were G-dly people, who communicated with G-d and received His wisdom and studied it, and contemplated it. They were a minority though.) Abraham brought the concept of meditation to the world and those children he begat towards the end of his life took some of his spiritual wisdom to the East.
In last week’s Torah portion, we learned that when Abraham’s servant Eliezer brought Rebecca in order to become Isaac’s wife, Isaac had gone out to ‘talk in the field’. This ‘talk’ was contemplative prayer, and it was the precursor of today’s afternoon prayer service, Minchah. Abraham began the morning service, and Jacob began the evening service. We further learn, in the commentaries of an upcoming Torah portion, that Jacob stopped off for fourteen years on the way to Haran where he went to find his intended wife, in the House of Study belonging to Shem and his grandson Ever, descendants of Noah. Jacob studied there for all of those fourteen years. He studied the G-dly wisdom which was later to be formally gifted to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Why did Isaac go out into the fields? We also find, much later in history, that the holy Baal Shem Tov who was orphaned of both parents at a tender age, would regularly go into the forest and contemplate G-d’s wondrous creation and communicate with HIm.
So meditation is not a foreign concept to Judaism, quite the contrary, it started off there. Throughout the years of exile among the nations, Jewish people were strongly influenced by the various cultures they found themselves in. The religious music of German Jews has a definite classical European touch, while the religious music of North African Jews is Oriental sounding, and totally different from the aforementioned style. In the same way, Jews were influenced in many areas by their surroundings, although not completely. Jews who kept the commandments had a higher level of hygiene that their non-Jewish neighbours due to Torah requirements of hygiene and purity, so that during the plague of Black Death or other plagues, the non-Jews thought that Jews were saved by the practice of some sort of witchcraft. On the other hand, the common practice hundreds of years ago, and in some areas more recently, was to ‘educate’ children with the strap, so many Torah teachers used that ‘system’ also. (This is a whole discussion unto itself but today’s Torah educators unanimously agree that this approach is not suitable in our times.) What all this has to do with our topic of discussion is that during many centuries of the Middle Ages until the age of the Enlightenment, the Jewish approach to spirituality was influenced to a certain extent by the surrounding cultures which did not focus on self-awareness as today’s culture does. The secular enlightenment began to happen in the world approximately concurrent with the spiritual trend of Chassidic thought led by the Baal Shem Tov. As mentioned above, the Baal Shem Tov focused very much on contemplation in natural environments like forests and fields, and on contemplation as preparation for prayer and service of G-d.
Rabbi Joseph Isaac (Yoseph Yitzchak) Shneerson, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, is said to have been able to discern from observing an object, what kind of person formed that object, such as a piece of ceramic art work that he correctly decided was made by a blind artisan. When a person creates a piece of art, or coordinates a project, he or she usually imparts something of himself or herself into that project. Each poet or artist has his or her individual style. Similarly, when a person creates a system of contemplation, they impart something of their own into that system. If the person is G-d-fearing (as in positive fear – or rather awe and respect,) then their system will be conducive to helping people reveal their innate positive fear of G-d. Thus we see that it is important to check out whether or not your meditational system brings a person to a place where they can acknowledge G-d and the place He has in their lives. I once saw a recipe book that was based on a popular Eastern religion which has a chapter on sprituality. The ‘meditation’ that was advocated there was to repeat the mantra “I am, I am..”
In contrast, the most important Jewish meditation is to focus on the unity of G-d when reciting the Shema prayer morning and evening. Unity of G-d is a topic that needs to be studied and contemplated, but for our purpose here, it means that there is no other deity, and that all of creation is part of G-d. There is only one entity in the world and that is G-d.
Having said all the above, I recommend that you look up Jewish meditations and mindfulness, there is a lot of material on it. There are alot of practical methods which can help achieve more serenity.
Mindfulness is a very important concept, and in another daily Jewish prayer it says “And you shall know this day and return it to your heart, that G-d is the L-rd in Heaven above and on the earth below…” (Deuteronomy 4:39). Is it not a strange expression ‘return it to your heart’? Why is it not enough to say: “you shall know this day”? The answer is that it requires contemplation and meditation, to internalize the message of the unity of G-d, which includes being aware of the purpose for which we were created by Him and are sustained in life by HIm. This purpose is ‘to create a dwelling place for HIm in the physical realms,’ meaning to reveal the inherent spirituality in every created entity until the whole world reflects G-dliness and as Maimonides teaches, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d…there will be no more war or famine, no negative competition…”
We hope this has been helpful!