One of the questions I’m often asked is whether meditation is described by the Torah. The answer is largely, no– excepting one verse, part of this week’s parashah Hayyé Sarah. Genesis 24:63 seems like an unlikely candidate for the basis of Jewish meditation– as our narration turns back to Yitshak who is about to meet Rivkah for the first time (a rare and beautiful scene of romance in the Torah). In describing Yitshak at this key moment, the Torah says: “And Yitshak went out lasu’ah in the field around evening…”. Most translations have lasu’ah as ‘walking around’ or ‘wandering’. It’s related to the word for converse (as in a conversation), but it’s quite ambiguous. However, to the mystical tradition of Judaism it has always been clear what this little verse is referencing– Isaac is meditating.
Meditation is nothing other than conscious thought. Most of our thinking occurs by accident– thoughts invade our minds unbidden or we jump from one to another unthinkingly, responding to external stimuli. To consciously direct one’s thoughts is harder than it sounds– and the practice of meditation is entirely about finding ways to gain insight over one’s mind and to do so with intention. Like many things, meditation is simple in theory but complex in practise– and there are many practices.
Yitshak’s meditation in the field when he met Rivkah may have been the first mention of something we might call meditation, but it certainly isn’t the only place in Jewish tradition where conscious, intentional, practised thought takes centre-stage. Our tradition is rich with meditative techniques– some quite simple and easy, some very bizarre and difficult. Yet, by and large, in contemporary Judaism (1789-today), this aspect of our tradition has been ignored, if not actively repressed. That has led to a bit of a crisis.
With the explorations of the 1960s and the new age movement that grew from it, Jews began to seek more ‘spiritual’ practices in their own faith. Many were disappointed by what they found. As a result, masses of Jews left Judaism to become Buddhists, Sufis, Hindus, Christian monks, and more yet. Fun fact: a significant portion of Western-born teachers of Buddhism are Jews. In response to this, many Jewish organisations sprung up which attempted to blend Vedic traditions and westernised versions of meditation practices with Jewish traditions.
The most prominent result of this today is the prevalence of ‘mindfulness’. I have some problems with mindfulness, a few of which are discussed well by this article
, a great quote from which sums it up:
“In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself. It fits oh-so-neatly into a culture of techno-fixes, easy answers and self-hacks, where we can all just tinker with the contents of our heads to solve problems, instead of probing why we’re so dissatisfied with our lives in the first place.”
What really troubles me about the state of Jewish meditation today is that there are plenty of Jews meditating, but very few who are practicing meditation within a traditionally-developed Jewish framework. Yitshak meditating in a field and the numerous traditions and cultures which developed within Jewish life are deserving of rehabilitation. There is nothing wrong with Buddhist, Sufi, Hindu or any other meditative approach, but before we appropriate other cultures’ traditions or dilute metaphysically-problematic notions into quick-fix self-help mumbo jumbo, we need to be willing to look at our own faith and recover that which was lost.
A huge initial effort towards this goal has already been made by R. Aryeh Kaplan (z”l) whose books, Meditation in the Bible, Jewish Meditation, and Meditation and Kabbalah have done an amazing job of bringing authentic Jewish meditative traditions to new readership and accessible for new practitioners. In the new year, I’ll be leading a meditation group as part of our adult education programme, where we’ll explore some of these and try a few out.
Whether or not meditation is for you, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this important facet of spiritual life is far from absent in Jewish tradition. Rather there is a rich heritage, which is simply understudied and underdeveloped, which we can revisit, if we are so inclined– and in doing so follow in the steps of our forefather Yitshak, going out to the field at evening to meditate.