When you think of meditation in modern western civilizations, images of women in yoga pants and loose tank tops on the beach cross-legged with their eyes closed might come to mind. Though the practice has roots in Buddhist tradition, Judaism also holds these customs deeply, as written in scripture as well as philosophical commentary.
Studies show that the practice of Buddhism and of Buddhist meditation in the West have gained significant following from individuals with a Jewish background since the 1960s. “There is also evidence that during the period when the Bible was written (until approximately 400 B.C.E.), meditation was practiced by a large proportion of the Israelite people,” writes Aryeh Kaplan in “Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide.” The Talmud and the Midrash both state that over a million people were involved in such meditative and mindfulness disciplines.
References to meditation vanished almost completely from mainstream Jewish literature around 150 years ago. Even within the Kabbalistic, or more mystical, traditions, meditative and mindfulness practices were reduced to simply an intellectual exercise, losing the deeper meaning of traditions prior to the rise of modern Kabbalah.
Jewish cultural expression manifested itself within the works of the Buddhist teachings, creating a “Zen boom” in the 1950s. This phenomenon of people was deemed “Ju-Bus” (or Judaic Buddhists), and yet not a lot of these individuals recognized that meditation and mindfulness had a place within their own religion.
Jewish meditation falls within three realms: mantra meditation, contemplation and nothingness. Each holds a different value and deepens the connection between the worshipper and God in a unique fashion.
Mantra meditation was used by prophets through chants to gain a closer relationship with God. Schools were also extremely devoted to these disciplines and faithful adherences, and Jewish meditative schools existed to require extensive work through the Torah and the broad scheme of the Jewish religion in general. But practices had to change once the Diaspora occurred. After long discussion and contemplation, it was decided by the Jewish leadership, or the Great Assembly, that a general populace meditative discipline was necessary. Thus, what is now known as the Amidah, a “standing” prayer of 18 sections that is repeated silently, was formed.
The Amidah became a form of mantra meditation, a device using a word or phrase that is repeated over and over. It’s considered the first type of Jewish meditation and is also considered the easiest to follow dutifully in practice. This is the most typical Jewish form of meditation. The passage is meant to be repeated three times a day from childhood onward, throughout an entire lifetime. Therefore, the Amidah can be looked at as a meditative mantra. This blessing defines the relationship between the worshipper and God, a fundamental principle of Kabbalistic beliefs.
Contemplation, or concentration, is the second form of Jewish meditation. The most common word in Judaic literature for meditation is kavanah, which translates to mean “concentration,” “feeling” or “devotion.” Kavanah can be used to find an inner understanding, a true and deeper reason for a meditative practice in general. This “self-understanding,” or hitbonenuth, was spoken about by the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who believed that solitude and self-consciousness could bring us closer to God and extend our own reflections. Hitbonenuth meditation can be focused on anything, from an idea to a stone. The subject at hand is meant to fill the mind completely and should be used to find a deeper, more complete understanding of the self.
Lastly, the practice of meditating on nothingness is also found in Jewish traditions. Hitbodeduth, which literally means “self-isolation,” has been noticed by many Jewish mysticism scholars, including Maimonides’ son, Abraham, who wrote of two types of isolation: external self-isolation, which involves simply being alone physically, as well as internal self-isolation, which consists of an outward sensation of loneliness, bringing a person into a meditative state. When emptiness is directly cognized, it becomes the object of consciousness and is undifferentiable, like when water is poured into water, according to Jeffrey Hopkins in “Meditation on Emptiness.” This metaphor is to say that the idea of emptiness, or nothingness, and the worshipper or person practicing meditation and mindfulness, become one with each other. There is no differentiation between the person and the idea of emptiness or nothingness.
Research on Jewish mindfulness must continue. There is a lack of insight into how each form of practice affects a person or worshipper, along with how they play out in individuals’ lives and if there truly is a “better” form of practice.