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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 5. Zen Judaism

Chapter 7. Jewish meditation

Current teachings

What it is

Meditation on others

Current teachings. I read R. Aryeh Kaplan’s book on “Jewish meditation” some time ago, and was rather disappointed. Such writings are in my opinion based on readings, intellect, wishful thinking and fantasies, rather than on actual personal practice of the art. Meditation cannot be guided by ideology, but must remain a free process of exploration and discovery. It does not consist in imposing some idea or belief on the mind, but in becoming convinced by actual personal experiences. The writer on meditation should write in the first person and tell what he himself has observed, rather than base his pronouncements on authorities.[1]

It is true that the heshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul) is a practice crucial to Judaism. In particular, during the month of Elul leading up to the days of awe (new year and yom kippur), we are enjoined to and do examine our thoughts, words and deeds, and take stock of our many vices and deficiencies of virtue. Kaplan also mentions the practices of hitbodedut (self-isolation) and hitbonenut (self-understanding), recommended by some Hassidic schools (such as the Brezlav Hassidim). But, though these practices are undoubtedly valuable for self-improvement, can they be counted as meditative?

If meditation is understood in the general sense of increasing one’s awareness, then yes such practices are meditative. They increase self-awareness of one’s actual situation and behavior, making possible comparison to Jewish norms, and thence self-perfection. But though such psychological and ethical work on oneself is of great importance, what makes it seem not quite meditative in my view is the fact that in Judaism it is very verbal and judgmental. Of course, beneath words and ethical judgments are wordless intentions and frank observations – but the level of consciousness involved in these processes seems very ordinary.

More broadly, set prayer and Torah study (including learning the Talmud and subsequent rabbinical commentary and law, of course) could be considered as forms of meditation, insofar as they involve sustained mental concentration. However, here too the centrality of words and rational judgment implies a structural limit of sorts. Also to be noted is the aspect of indoctrination, forcing one’s mind into a given groove, these activities involve. Even so, undeniably, these activities do have a very powerful spiritual effect. For instance, on yom kippur one truly feels the opening of the Heavens to prayer.

To my mind, meditation in the loftier sense refers to a process or exercise that raises one’s level of consciousness in a significant manner. That is, rather than having to artificially reprove and fight oneself to change one’s behavior, one quietly acquires a higher way of seeing things which makes one’s behavior naturally change for the better. This is due to the new vantage point that the neutral meditation practice (like zazen) gives us, which makes one see for oneself without ideological prejudices that one’s old desires and values were worthless and one’s past behavior was foolish and vicious.

Meditation makes possible a quantum leap up of consciousness, which allows us to transcend our passions. Meditation produces personal insight that removes the desires that make one act foolishly, and thus greatly facilitates self-mastery. True meditation, then, treats the root of misbehavior, and not merely the superficial fact of misbehavior. It does not consist in self-reproof and self-forcing, but effects lasting deep down solutions of the underlying problems, dissolving them.

On this basis, I would like to debunk the myth that meditation in this sense exists in Judaism today. I have not seen it, not even in Hassidic circles I have visited occasionally. If any religious Jews practice silent meditation, they are very rare indeed. And if any do, one may wonder how many of them were actually directly or indirectly influenced in this regard by Oriental philosophies/religions. They would likely refuse to admit it, because foreign influence is severely frowned upon in Judaism.

I do however believe Jews in the past have practiced silent meditation. Reading the books of the Bible known collectively as the Nakh (the Prophets and Writings), it seems evident that ‘prophecy’ was not merely practiced by the famous, great prophets. There were schools of prophecy and groups or communities of prophets. If prophecy was taught and consciously pursued, it is reasonable to suppose some sort of meditation practice was involved if only to purify the mind of extraneous mundane thoughts and consciously direct it heavenward. Kaplan, as I recall, mentions meditation as a preparation to prophecy.

Looking at more recent times, there are also indices that meditation has been practiced. Once, in Sfat, while on a guided tour of the home of R. Joseph Caro, I was told by the guide that mystical Jews like Caro[2] used to sit silently for an hour before beginning their prayers, to develop their kavanah and awareness of God’s holy presence. Now, that would be true meditation in my view! If this practice has indeed existed, it should certainly be revived. It is sorely needed in today’s Judaism, which (it seems to me) is excessively verbose and stressed-out.

What it is. Silent meditation is not a waste of time, as some seem to think. It increases the power of consciousness, in breadth, in depth and in intensity. This means: in prayer, more honesty, sincerity and intensity; and in study, more concentration and insight. Likewise, one becomes more honest with oneself, with other people and with God, meaning what one says more, doing one’s best more, stronger in resolve and in discipline, and so on. By getting into a more profound and pronounced intuitive contact with oneself, one develops greater self-knowledge (in a non-narcissistic sense of that term, of course), and thence one’s intentions and actions become more real, pinpointed and powerful.

Silent meditation may be viewed as an act of imitatio Dei. Just as God is silent, or talks rarely and little, so should we strive to do. There is surely something neurotic in excessive verbal discourse, inside us, between people and in relation to God. More often than not, words hide rather than reveal the truth. Even in prayer, they can often act as a smokescreen concealing our true thoughts, motives and intentions – from ourselves, if not from God. They often express wishful or dutiful thinking rather than actual insight or belief. By silently meditating on the here and now for a good while, we ‘tune in’ to God’s silent presence.

But, note well, meditation is not a religious ritual; it is simply “to be with what is” – it is “nothing special”[3]. On this basis, I advocate what could be called “Zen Judaism”. Let us add Zen (i.e. meditation[4]) to Judaism, and it will greatly improve[5].

Such addition would not be a threat to normative Judaism, but enhance it. We should not reject silent meditation as a foreign influence, and therefore something necessarily tainted and flawed. That would be really foolish, like rejecting some modern medical technique simply because it was not developed by a (religious) Jew. Let us not commit the fallacy of ad hominem. A person presumed deluded often has misleading ideas – but not always. Although some people who may be accused of idolatry engage in meditation, it does not logically follow that meditation is idolatry; it has in fact nothing to do with it.

Judaism already has many ideas that are in fact also found in other philosophies or religions. This is natural – just as we all breathe the same air. In some cases, the ideas may have migrated from Judaism; in others, they may have migrated to it; in others again, it is hard to say who influenced whom; and in others still, similar ideas may have been independently developed by both sides. I am not an expert on history, but over the years I have read about such apparent movements of ideas or myself noticed them in passing[6].

Because these events are lost in the hazy past, and we can no longer determine which came first, the ideas concerned today seem kosher to orthodox Jews. They can claim them to be of Jewish origin, without fear of being easily proved wrong. But they refuse to accept new ideas of evident foreign origin. That is silly, because the truth or worth of an idea certainly does not depend on its originator, but on its own merit – its intrinsic qualities. The wise man is always willing and eager to learn, from whoever has something of value to teach him.

The bottom line for any proposed import is the effect it can have on the faithful. At the synagogue, I look at my fellow Jews, and I reflect how each one would greatly benefit from meditation. This one to be less conceited; that one to be less often angry; that other one, to find more energy and confidence; another, to slow down a bit; and so forth. Judaism teaches us many virtues, but does not give us the practical tools for implementing those teachings. Meditation provides the means for self-improvement.

Meditation on others. An aspect of meditation I rarely mention, perhaps because I am an individualist at this time of my life more than any previous time, is consciousness of other people. In truth, we all think a lot about other people, even if only in the background of our mental life. Our mental life is very social even in solitude, even if we are not lonely. We may think of people by way of reminiscing past encounters, or by projecting new encounters. In the latter case, we may imagine different situations and rehearse what we will say or do in relation to the person(s) involved. Often, we behave as if we believe in telepathy, speaking to people at a distance in one’s head or out loud (even though they cannot physically hear us).

Whenever we think of other people in any way, we are (if only by implication) aware of them as other entities with consciousness, and with a will and values of their own. This object of everyday awareness can and ought to be made one of meditation. That is, in addition to awareness of one’s immediate surroundings, one’s body, one’s mental life, one’s consciousness and one’s self – one should also become aware of the many people that lie beyond one’s field of perception. Solipsism is a philosophical possibility, but a very unlikely one. We are not alone, and cannot possibly understand our personal existence without considering its manifold relations to the existence of others.

We are not speaking here of inanimate matter or even of vegetation, note well, but of other subjects with the power of consciousness. This means mainly other people. But by extension it can also mean other animals, though to a far lesser degree of course. And by further extension it can also mean (for those of us who have faith in this) – God.

The relation of our consciousness to that of other people (or other animals) may be conceived as structured like a network (at least at ordinary levels of consciousness). But the relation of our individual consciousness to the universal consciousness of God should rather be conceived as one of (very tiny) part to the (very great) whole. We may suppose that the consciousness of God underlies and embraces the mutual consciousness of us lesser beings. So to become conscious of God is doubtless a lot more difficult, for a tiny and superficial thing is trying to reach out to something far greater and deeper. Moreover, it is doubtful we can be truly conscious of God (within conceivable limits) if He does not specifically permit us to.

Thus, consciousness of God can be viewed as one aspect of the meditation on consciousnesses other than one’s own. Still, our main concern here, at least at an early stage of meditation, is with meditation on other people. Becoming and being aware that we live in a world of people. This is not merely a biological and sociological fact – it is a psychological fact. Other people are constantly impinging on our consciousness in many ways – and it is important to notice this constant impact and examine its variegated outcomes. It is amazing, for instance, how thickly populated our dreams can be at times – much more so than our life while awake!

The effect of people on our internal as well as external lives is sometimes beneficial and sometimes harmful, and of course also sometimes indifferent. We owe a great deal to others (our parents, our teachers, our community leaders, our social services, and so forth) – no man is an island unto himself – and we should modestly be aware of our debt and feel appropriate gratitude. The opposite attitude is conceit and arrogance – very undesirable attributes. To be thankful is to realize one is loved (in some sense, to some degree) and to love (ditto) in turn. And that means to show others as much friendliness as one can, and to support them in accord with one’s abilities and as much as one can (though without self-destructive extremism).

With regard to negative factors, one has to of course try to understand them before one can neutralize them. Often, the fault is one’s own – i.e. other people have a negative effect on one because there is some sort of flaw in one’s ‘way of being’ – and one has to find out how to correct one’s attitudinal and behavioral errors. No doubt, too, the fault is often in the other person(s) concerned – other people are fallible too – so our job is to find a way to deflect their negative impact on one, if only by avoiding them (if possible). In any case, the meditator stays aware and cool, and seeks solutions to problems (at an appropriate pace).

The Buddhist meditations in relation to other people (and more generally, other sentient beings) are of course admirable – and no doubt very effective over time at healing many personal and social wounds. I refer here to the cultivation of loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upeksha).

I think they are not so easy to put in practice if taken to extremes, but some people seem to adapt to their demands pretty well. I personally find they do increase my sensitivity, but also my vulnerability. My intentions may be beautiful, but my neighbor may continue to behave in his usual uncouth manner. I may change, but others seem to remain the same and to be now more able to hurt me. Not so pleasant. Of course, all such difficulties are part of the process of spiritual growth, till the right posture is found and one becomes immune.

The important lesson to learn from these four meditations is that one’s attitude towards other people can be improved by training, and that such change for the better in one’s internal dispositions and behavior patterns ‘changes everything’ in one’s actual relations with others. At the least, it will improve our relations. Ideally, it can ‘save the world’ from hatred, fear and conflict and institute instead a régime of love and mutual help. “Love thy neighbour as thyself” saith the Torah (Lev. 19:18) and many other wisdom books.

Meditation on God – on His presence, His attributes, His beneficence towards us – is of course a higher stage than that and more difficult to achieve. But if instead of seeking God only outside and beyond oneself, one looks upon Him as the root of one’s spiritual core – i.e. if we think of ourselves as being “in His image and likeness”, as essentially one with Him – we may perhaps find it a little easier to approach Him.

[1] It is true that, though Jewish (and indeed a practicing Jew), I am more attracted to Eastern meditation practices, because they are more empirical than rational. However, if you read my work, you will see that I always remain lucid and critical of Eastern philosophy too.

[2] J. Caro (b. Spain, 1488 – d. Israel, 1575) is best known as a major Talmudist and the author of the code of Jewish law called the Shulchan Aruch. But he was also, together with most of his contemporaries, especially in Safed, a kabbalist, who reported having many mystical experiences.

[3] I am here quoting two meditation teachers: respectively, Paramananda, p. 175, and Shunryu Suzuki, p. 46.

[4] Zen is a Japanese word meaning meditation. It comes from the Chinese ch’an, which comes from the Sanskrit dhyana.

[5] I would similarly advocate Zen Christianity and Zen Islam, to improve the tone of these daughter or sister religions. Note also, the converse expression to Zen Judaism, viz. “Judaic Buddhism”, would have a different sense; it would mean adding Jewish monotheism to Buddhism.

[6] Offhand, I can mention for example the “emanation” theory that Judaism is considered to have inherited from Neo-Platonism. Also, recently, in an article on Gnosticism, I saw mention of “trapped particles of spirit” which reminded me of “broken vessels” theory by the Arizal.

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