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Jewish Meditation Q&A

by Rabbi Goldie Milgram Director, ReclaimingJudaism.org

Can meditation be an authentically Jewish experience?

Yes. Jewish mystics of all generations have used meditation practices as spiritual tools for expanding awareness, happiness and holiness. Kabbalist Eleazar Azikri distinguishes study as the practice for the intellect and describes a Jewish meditation practice known as “hitbodedut” as seven-fold more helpful to the soul.

In the Talmud our sages are described as meditating for an hour before and after services. In the Torah we are told of Jacob who went out into the field to meditate. Rabbi Akiva is described as spinning in circles and deflecting off the corners of his room while praying. (This meditation practice is reminiscent of the Sufi whirling dervishes.) Even yoga-like sensibilities are depicted in the Talmud, such as the recommendation that when bowing in prayer one should “hyper-extend the spine until one can read the words on a coin set in front of your feet on the ground.”

While the practices of mindfulness or movement-based meditations, like yoga, are delightful to do in a Jewish setting, these are not the ancient arts of Jewish meditation. Some of these ancient forms are described further on in this document.

What is the purpose of Jewish meditation?

Just as healthy foods nourish us through the blood stream, so Jewish meditation nourishes our “soul stream.” Meditation can transform Judaism from the purely intellectual process most of us grew up with into a spiritual practice that links us to Judaism in the most profound way.

Meditation gets under our intellectual defenses and helps us to feel at one with creation and to experience an expanded life rich in conscious awe and joy.

Each holy day and cycle of life has its own rhythm, nuance, taste and character. Jewish meditation can help us shift into these holidays cycles, deepening our connection to them.

Should meditation be done in a group or alone?

Both. Recent bio-medical studies in the field of psycho-neuro-immunology indicate that group meditation enhances the benefits of solitary meditation. When a minyan of Jews meditates together, there is a reciprocity of caring, support and spiritual energy.

Meditating alone has its advantages too. Solitary meditators can experience a wonderful closeness to God, the flow of what Kabbalists call “the river of light” (which may in fact correlate with what scientists have identified as the electro-magnetic fields of the body) can add energy and delight to your day.

Are there different kinds of Jewish meditation?

Yes! An exciting variety of approaches exist. Depending upon your emotional make-up, the circumstances and the effect you desire to create, one might suit you better than another. But whatever technique you choose, the benefits of a regular program of Jewish meditation will intensify with daily practice and delicious nuances of experience and awareness will emerge over time.

Major Methods of Jewish Meditation

  • Estatic chanting of verses from psalms, Torah and prayers.
  • Focusing upon a Shviti — a special Jewish graphic which helps induct a mystical state of consciousness.
  • Meditation on the names of God or on the letters of God’s name.
  • Guided visualizations.
  • Walking, dancing and movement meditations; Otiyot Chayyot and Ophanim are two major forms of the latter.
  • Focusing upon the levels of an external or inner flame.
  • Working with the “Tree of Life” and sephirot — where each section of the Tree flows into the next and each section (sephirah) concerns important characteristics that benefit from conscious cultivation.
  • Attaining a state of “Eyin” — the “no-state” which is glimpsed through attention to breath and silence.
  • Guided sounding of vowels or letters.
  • Study of ancient sacred Jewish texts, specially designed to induce mystical encounter.
  • Becoming attuned to the power of special blessings in connecting us to what mystics experience as “the river of light.”
Wed, April 24 2019 19 Nisan 5779