November 28, 2013

Jewish Meditation

In my youth the Beatles, notably George Harrison, introduced us to Transcendental Meditation and a variety of other Eastern religious practices. Yoga had been popular long before, of course, so had Rabindranath Tagore, whom my father read. If the practices were completely devoid of any outside religio-cultural association, there was no problem in trying them out, any more than fitness training might create a conflict of interest with Judaism, which of course it did not.

I gave yoga a shot for a while, but soon lost interest. Later on I read the books that the late and much lamented Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote on meditation in Judaism. I would close my eyes, imagine a selected letter of the Hebrew alphabet and focus on that letter for as long as I could. That then gave way to concentrating on what looked like black and white clouds that I would “see” as I closed my eyes. At the very least, it relaxed me more often than not. Sometimes it transported me into a different world in which I felt myself to have gone beyond my own body and into the “spiritual”. This became a daily habit, before I started my morning prayers and at various other times during a day as the opportunity arose.

When the Talmud (Brachot 32b) said that “the early pious ones use to wait an hour in preparation before they started to pray,” this was precisely what they must have been doing, meditating to get in the mood. I studied medieval mystics like Abraham Abulafia and saw that they were practicing various forms of mystical meditation; I realized that meditation had for a long time been part of our own Jewish tradition. Many of the greatest rabbis and Chasidic masters used these meditations in their different ways. It was a tool, to prepare for prayer, to make prayer itself more personal and meaningful, and to enhance the spiritual side of their religious lives.

You may well wonder, if this is so, why there has been a conspiracy of silence in much of the Orthodox world for so long. I believe it is, in part, a reaction against the excesses and abuses of Kabbalah in the past, men like Shabbetai Zvi and Jacob Frank. In addition in post-Enlightenment Europe at any rate, the rise of rationalism tended to mock mysticism. Nowadays there is a return towards this other aspect of Jewish religious experience precisely because we know too well the limitations of science (as well, of course, as its benefits).

On many occasions during my teaching life, I have given courses on meditation in Judaism and on practices popular in the Kabbalah, not as ends in themselves but as means to fuller Jewish spiritual life. So for me all of this is nothing new. It is an essential part of my Judaism and has been for most of my life.

Now The Economist has discovered it (November 16th). Meditation is all the rage in cyberspace it seems and what’s more “it is keeping capitalism alive.” The article makes some interesting assertions. “Buddhism stresses the importance of ‘mindfulness’.” Indeed, but so does Judaism, and without the need to reject materialism either. This is the reason for blessings in our ritual, to think and consider before one acts. “Taking time out from the hurly burley of daily activities.” Isn’t that what Shabbat, festivals, and indeed daily prayer are designed to do? Judaism has always tried to combine being part of the ordinary material world while yet preserving the alternative spiritual counterbalance. Not going overboard in either direction--Maimonides’s Golden Rule.

Now all of a sudden this “mindfulness” stripped of its original ascetic dimension is the fashion, and everyone is trying it. Something that has always been part of our tradition is now suddenly taken up by Google, eBay, Twitter, and Facebook. They all advocate meditation in general, as well as offering courses within the company. And hey, presto, it becomes kosher!

But the article goes on to say, “The biggest problem with mindfulness is that it is becoming part of the self-help movement and hence part of the disease that it is supposed to cure.” That is precisely the problem that we have seen. The hijacking of Kabbalah from an intense supra layer over a framework of religious daily practice, to a popular quick fix with minimal commitment or religious investment, a Hollywood fad.

That is the modern way. But it is doomed to mediocrity, as any popular movement is as its shine wears off. History has taught us (so has Malcolm Gladwell, distilling the wisdom of others) that only intense involvement in any subject or sphere brings mastery. So it is with religion. As the world suddenly discovers what we have known for millennia. Sadly, too many in our tradition treat religion as a social phenomenon or a means of social control. It is stripped of its deeper meaning and spiritual heights and replaced with ugliness, materialism, and banality. In furniture, music, and clothes we either glorify kitsch or bathos. I look around me and I do not like what I see. But when I return to the actual content of Torah and its mystical depth, I thank the Almighty for our heritage. “Thanksgiving” in the USA is once a year. For me it is every day.

4 Comments:

At 12:33 AM , Blogger The Levantine Maghrebi said...

Excellent post, as usual.

The idea of meditation or mysticism has been bastardized and commercialized to such a ridiculous degree. On Facebook, I constantly see people posting pictures from Lululemon of their "ambassadors" (I still don't understand what an ambassador for a clothing company exactly does) in the midst of warrior 2 on surfboards in the middle of the ocean. It makes for a nice photo, I suppose, but is this what meditation amounts to?
I have never even heard of Lululemon before becoming acquainted with some young adults who buy into this fad.

Even the Kabbalah Centre seems so polarized with this idea. On the one hand, I don't think Philip Berg intended to really create this pop, new age Kabbalah when he wrote Wheels of a Soul. Even his later books were actually fairly decent light reading with a bit of substance. Their prayer services are very traditional, and I am assuming their siddur is basically Shalom Sharabi's Siddur Hakavanot with their logo. However, I had the misfortune of reading/watching a bit of what his wife and kids have to say, which is right up there in that new age guru trend for people who watch too much Sex and the City. Then the whole cultish behavior, leader veneration etc make much more sense.

I cannot even remember the whole watered down mysticism trend being this popular even 6 or 7 years ago.

 
At 1:04 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

The moment I see commercialism intruding on religion or anything else, that is a sign to me that it is concerned with money first and spirituality second. The spirit is just a means to an end. And for me this cannot be genuine.
J

 
At 4:47 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't expect my teachers to live on air and I did indeed pay a modest amount to study Mindfulness earlier this year for about 20 sessions. It was in a Buddhist centre but taught within a secular context. As an effective alternative to cognitive behavioural therapy its benefits have already been highlighted variously. My study and practice were in the two basic forms of Buddhist meditation as a means to reduce stress (MBSR). I loved it, the meditations continue to provide welcome additional relief, avoidance and management of the stresses and strains of daily life. I can also now introduce clients to it too, if they wish. There's nothing mystical or weirdie about it. It's a welcome reminder of the need not to forget to look after the inner self too.
There are admittedly concepts of compassion, and loving kindness, as appear in some form or other in most religions but hey-is that so bad in today's hurly burly?
Luzrose

 
At 9:51 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

NO nothing bad at all. Something's always better than nothing. It all depends on your expectations. There a practice useful in self development and another in reaching out and beyond.
J

 

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