An Introduction to Jewish Meditation

by Bonny Styles
(California, USA)

If the Jewish mystical tradition is perhaps less familiar than Zen or yoga, it is nonetheless a rich source of both holistic medicine and techniques of meditation. Jewish mystics recognized the connection between a person’s state of mind and their physical condition hundreds of years ago, regarding health as a positive state of well-being in which a person not only enjoys physical health, but has a receptive mind and an underlying sense of purpose in life.

Mysticism has existed within Judaism since the early days, possibly originating with the esoteric teachings of sects such as the Essenes, four thousand years ago. But although it has its roots in earlier mystical traditions, the most important movement in the history of Jewish mysticism, known as the Kabbalah, did not become established until the thirteenth century.

The Kabbalah, which combines a highly developed and complex system of philosophy with specific techniques for increasing spiritual awareness, has had a checkered history. Originally confined to a small minority of Jews, Kabbalism went through a period of profound development as a result of the teachings of the influential Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century, and became a dominant force in the Judaic world. The seven¬teenth century, however, brought a decline in Kabbalistic teach¬ings owing to a messianistic movement, which resulted in misinterpretation of its doctrines and consequent excesses, and the study of the Kabbalah became forbidden to all but a handful of scholars.

During the eighteenth century Kabbalism again flourished in Eastern Europe, its teachings being widely spread through the Hassidic movement founded by Israel ben Eliezer, only to fall once more into disrepute with the rise of modern rationalist Judaism in the nineteenth century. Dismissed by this movement as mere speculation and medieval superstition, the Kabbalah has nevertheless begun to attract renewed interest in the late twentieth century and deserves as much attention as the teachings of any other great mystical tradition.

The essence of Kabbalistic teaching is that everything in the universe is derived from the same source, and that the purpose of existence is to recognize our identity with God and the whole of creation through spiritual practices such as meditation. Just as the Jewish people have lived in an almost constant state of exile from their homeland, so do we experience a continuous sense of exile from our own divine nature. However, the Kabbalah explains that ‘exile contains redemption within itself, as seed contains the fruit’. This holistic, non-dual outlook is one of the most remarkable features of the Kabbalah. Just as Taoist philoso¬phy expresses the interdependence of yin and yang, the Kabba¬lah views all the pairs of opposites – and indeed the entire universe – as interconnected.

Like other mystical traditions, the Kabbalah maintains that it is through stilling the mind that we can perceive our underlying nature. Great emphasis is placed on the importance of purifying the body, eating properly and meditating regularly. A number of different meditation techniques are available, but the particular technique chosen matters less in this tradition than the attitude and commitment of the meditator. Some meditations involve visualizing symbols such as the Tree of Life, which expresses the unity of creation. Others use the Hebrew alphabet to explore different permutations of the name of God.

Each letter is considered to contain an aspect of the creative energy, so that by concentrating on the letters we become open to a state of awareness far beyond our normal, everyday consciousness. Another technique of meditation is to identify with the part of the mind which witnesses thought, and guided meditations are practiced in order to confront tendencies such as anger, loneliness or hatred.

The ideal state of mind for meditation, common to all these techniques, is one of focused attention or kavvanah. This involves the creation of a state of mind in which we are not subject to the limitations which conscious thought normally imposes on us. The Hassidic teacher Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch describes mystical experience and the process leading to it in the following words: ‘When a man strips away the material aspect which envelops him, he will depict in his mind only the divine energy … so that its light will be of infinite greatness.