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Jewish meditation includes practices of settling the mind, introspection, visualization, emotional insight, contemplation of Divine names, or concentration on philosophical, ethical or mystical ideas. Meditation may accompany unstructured, personal Jewish prayer, may be part of structured Jewish services, or may be separate from prayer practices. Jewish mystics have viewed meditation as leading to Devekut (cleaving to God). Hebrew terms for meditation include Hitbodedut/Hisbodedus (literally self "seclusion") or Hitbonenut/Hisbonenus ("contemplation").
Through the centuries, meditation practices have been developed in many movements, including among Maimonideans (Moses Maimonides and Abraham Maimonides), Kabbalists (Abraham Abulafia, Isaac the Blind, Azriel of Gerona, Moses Cordovero, Yosef Karo and Isaac Luria), Hasidic rabbis (Baal Shem Tov, Schneur Zalman of Liadi and Nachman of Breslov), Musar movement rabbis (Israel Salanter and Simcha Zissel Ziv), Conservative movement rabbis (Alan Lew), and Reform movement rabbis (Lawrence Kushner and Rami Shapiro).
- 1 History
- 2 Early Jewish mysticism
- 3 Maimonides
- 4 Meditative Kabbalah
- 5 Hasidism
- 6 The Musar Movement
- 7 Conservative Judaism
- 8 Reconstructionist Judaism
- 9 Reform Judaism
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Bibliography
- 13 External links
There is evidence that Judaism has had meditative practices since the time of the patriarchs. For instance, in the book of Genesis, the patriarch Isaac is described as going "lasuach" in the field - a term understood by many commentators as some type of meditative practice (Genesis 24:63).
Early Jewish mysticismEdit
Historians trace the earliest surviving Jewish esoteric texts to Tannaitic times. This "Merkavah-Heichalot" mysticism, referred to in Talmudic accounts, sought elevations of the soul using meditative methods, built around the Biblical Vision of Ezekiel and the Creation in Genesis. The distinctive conceptual features of later Kabbalah first emerged from the 11th century, though traditional Judaism predates the 13th century Zohar back to the Tannaim, and the preceding end of Biblical prophecy.
Moses Maimonides, often considered the greatest Jewish philosopher, described meditation as settling the mind and allowing for divine providence and inspiration. In one passage in the Guide for the Perplexed (3.32), Maimonides suggests that meditation is a higher form of worship than either sacrifice or prayer. In another passage in the Guide (3.51), Maimonides offers a parable that suggests that purely intellectual, private meditation is the highest form of worship.
The branch of Kabbalah called Meditative/Ecstatic Kabbalah is concerned with uniting the individual with God through meditation on Names of God in Judaism, combinations of Hebrew letters, and Kavanot (mystical "intentions") in Jewish prayer and performance of mitzvot. Kabbalists reinterpreted the standard Jewish liturgy by reading it as esoteric mystical meditations and the ascent of the soul for elite practitioners. Through this, the border between meditative prayer and theurgic practice would be blurred if prayer becomes viewed as a magical process rather than supplication. However, Kabbalists censored Practical Kabbalah for only the most holy, and were careful to interpret mystical prayer in non-magical ways; the Kabbalist is able to alter supernal judgements by suplicating a higher Divine Will. A term for this, Unifications – Yichudim unites Meditative Kabbalah with Theosophical Kabbalah doctrine of harmony in the Sephirot.
Abraham Abulafia (1240–1291), leading medieval figure in the history of "Meditative Kabbalah", the founder of the school of "Prophetic/Ecstatic Kabbalah", wrote meditation manuals using meditation on Hebrew letters and words to achieve ecstatic states. His teachings embody the non-Zoharic stream in Spanish Kabbalism, which he viewed as alternative and superior to the theosophical Kabbalah which he criticised. Abulafia's work is surrounded in controversy because of the edict against him by the Rashba (R. Shlomo Ben Aderet), a contemporary leading scholar. However, according to Aryeh Kaplan, the Abulafian system of meditations forms an important part of the work of Rabbi Hayim Vital, and in turn his master the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria. Kaplan's pioneering translations and scholarship on Meditative Kabbalah trace Abulafia's publications to the extant concealed transmission of the esoteric meditative methods of the Hebrew prophets. While Abulafia remained a marginal figure in the direct development of Theosophical Kabbalah, recent academic scholarship on Abulafia by Moshe Idel reveals his wider influence across the later development of Jewish mysticism. In the 16th century Judah Albotini continued Abulafian methods in Jerusalem.
Isaac of AccoEdit
Isaac of Acco (1250-1340) also wrote about meditative techniques. One of Rabbi Isaac's most important teachings involves developing hishtavut, which Aryeh Kaplan describes as equanimity, stoicism, and a total indifference to outside influences. Rabbi Isaac sees hishtavut as a prerequisite for meditation.
Joseph Tzayach (1505-1573), influenced by Abulafia, taught his own system of meditation. Tzayach was probably the last Kabbalist to advocate use of the prophetic position, where one places his head between his knees. This position was used by Elijah on Mount Carmel, and in early Merkabah mysticism. Speaking of individuals who meditate (hitboded), he says:
They bend themselves like reeds, placing their heads between their knees until all their faculties are nullified. As a result of this lack of sensation, they see the Supernal Light, with true vision and not with allegory.
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Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570), central historical Kabbalist in Safed, taught that when meditating, one does not focus on the Sefirot (Divine emanations) per se, but rather on the light from the Infinite ("Atzmut"-essence of God) contained within the emanations. Keeping in mind that all reaches up to the Infinite, his prayer is "to Him, not to His attributes." Proper meditation focuses upon how the Godhead acts through specific sefirot. In meditation on the essential Hebrew name of God, represented by the four letter Tetragrammaton, this corresponds to meditating on the Hebrew vowels which are seen as reflecting the light from the Infinite-Atzmut.
Isaac Luria (1534–1572), the father of modern Kabbalah, systemised Lurianic Kabbalistic theory as a dynamic mythological scheme. While the Zohar is outwardly solely a theosophical work, for which reason medieval Meditative Kabbalists followed alternative traditions, Luria's systemisation of doctrine enabled him to draw new detailed meditative practices, called Yichudim, from the Zohar, based on the dynamic interaction of the Lurianic partzufim. This meditative method, as with Luria's theosophical exegesis, dominated later Kabbalistic activity. Luria prescribed Yichudim as Kavanot for the prayer liturgy, later practiced communally by Shalom Sharabi and the Beit El circle, for Jewish observances, and for secluded attainment of Ruach Hakodesh. One favoured activity of the Safed mystics was meditation while prostrated on the graves of saints, in order to commune with their souls.
Rabbi Hayim Vital (c. 1543-1620), major disciple of R. Isaac Luria, and responsible for publication of most of his works. In his Lurianic works he describes the theosophical and meditative teachings of Luria. However, his own writings cover wider meditative methods, drawn from earlier sources. His Shaarei Kedusha (Gates of Holiness) was the only guidebook to Meditative Kabbalah traditionally printed, though its most esoteric fourth part remained unpublished until recently. In the following account Vital presents the method of R. Yosef Karo in receiving his Heavenly Magid teacher, which he regarded as the soul of the Mishna (recorded by Karo in Magid Mesharim):
Meditate alone in a house, wrapped in a prayer shawl. Sit and shut your eyes, and transcend the physical as if your soul has left your body and is ascending to heaven. After this divestment/ascension, recite one Mishna, any Mishna you wish, many times consecutively, as quickly as you can, with clear pronunciation, without skipping one word. Intend to bind your soul with the soul of the sage who taught this Mishna. " Your soul will become a chariot. .."
Do this by intending that your mouth is a mere vessel/conduit to bring forth the letters of the words of this Mishna, and that the voice that emerges through the vessel of your mouth is [filled with] the sparks of your inner soul which are emerging and reciting this Mishna. In this way, your soul will become a chariot within which the soul of the sage who is the master of that Mishna can manifest. His soul will then clothe itself within your soul.
At a certain point in the process of reciting the words of the Mishna, you may feel overcome by exhaustion. If you are worthy, the soul of this sage may then come to reside in your mouth. This will happen in the midst of your reciting the Mishna. As you recite, he will begin to speak with your mouth and wish you Shalom. He will then answer every question that comes into your thoughts to ask him. He will do this with and through your mouth. Your ears will hear his words, for you will not be speaking from yourself. Rather, he will be speaking through you. This is the mystery of the verse, "The spirit of God spoke to me, and His word was on my lips". (Samuel II 23:2)
The Baal Shem TovEdit
The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, took the Talmudic phrase that "God desires the heart" and made it central to his love of the sincerity of the common folk. Advocating joy in the omnipresent Divine immanence, he encouraged emotional deveikus (fervour), especially through attachment to the Hasidic figure of the Tzaddik. He also encouraged his close disciples to find deveikus through seclusion (hisbodedus) from others and by meditating on the kabbalistic unifications (yichudim) of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria.
Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, the "Mitler Rebbe," the second leader of the Chabad Dynasty wrote several works explaining the Chabad approach. In his works, he explains that the Hebrew word for meditation is hisbonenus (alternatively transliterated as hitbonenut). The word "hisbonenut" derives from the Hebrew word Binah (lit. understanding) and refers to the process of understanding through analytical study. While the word hisbonenus can be applied to analytical study of any topic, it is generally used to refer to study of the Torah, and particularly in this context, the explanations of Kabbalah in Chabad Hasidic philosophy, in order to achieve a greater understanding and appreciation of God.
In the Chabad presentation, every intellectual process must incorporate three faculties: Chochma, Binah, and Daat. Chochma (lit. wisdom) is the mind's ability to come up with a new insight into a concept that one did not know before. Binah (lit. understanding) is the mind's ability to take a new insight (from Chochma), analyze all of its implications and simplify the concept so it is understood well. Daat (lit. knowledge), the third stage, is the mind's ability to focus and hold its attention on the Chochma and the Binah.
The term hisbonenus represents an important point of the Chabad method: Chabad Hasidic philosophy rejects the notion that any new insight can come from mere concentration. Chabad philosophy explains that while "Daat" is a necessary component of cognition, it is like an empty vessel without the learning and analysis and study that comes through the faculty of Binah. Just as a scientist's new insight or discovery (Chochma) always results from prior in-depth study and analysis of his topic (Binah), likewise, to gain any insight in Godliness can only come through in-depth study of the explanations of Kabbalah and Chassidic philosophy. In this view, enlightenment is commensurate with one's understanding of the Torah and specifically the explanations of Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy. Prolonged concentration devoid of intellectual content, or hallucinations of the imagination, should not be mistaken for "spiritual enlightenment."
Chabad accepts and endorses the writings of Kabbalists such as Moshe Cordevero and Haim Vital and their works are quoted at length in the Hasidic texts. However, the Chabad masters say that their methods are easily misunderstood without a proper foundation in Hasidic philosophy.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov used the term Hisbodedus (alternatively transliterated as "hitbodedut", from the root "boded" meaning "self-seclusion") to refer to an unstructured, spontaneous and individualized form of prayer and meditation. It may involve speaking to God in one's own words, though Rebbe Nachman teaches that if one does not know what to say, one should repeat the words "Ribbono Shel Olam," wihich will create a heightened state of awareness. Goals of hitbodedut may include establishing a close, personal relationship with God and a clearer understanding of one's personal motives and goals or (as in Likutey Moharan I, Lesson 52) the transformative realization of God as the "Imperative Existent," or Essence of Reality.
The Musar MovementEdit
The Musar (Ethics) Movement, founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the middle of the 19th-century, encouraged meditative practices of introspection and visualization that could help to improve moral character. Focusing on the truthful psychological self-evaluation of one's spiritual worship, the Musar movement institutionalized the classic musar literature tradition as a spiritual movement within the Lithuanian Yeshiva academies. Many meditation techniques were described in the writings of Salanter's closest disciple, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv.
According to Geoffrey Claussen of Elon University, some forms of Musar meditation are visualization techniques which "seek to make impressions upon one’s character—often a matter of taking insights of which we are conscious and bringing them into our unconscious." Other forms of Musar meditation are introspective, "considering one’s character and exploring its tendencies—often a matter of taking what is unconscious and bringing it to consciousness." A number of contemporary rabbis have advocated such practices, including "taking time each day to sit in silence and simply noticing the way that one’s mind wanders." Alan Morinis, the founder of the Mussar Institute, recommends morning meditation practices that can be as short as four minutes. One of the meditations especially recommended by Morinis is the practice of focusing on a single word: the Hebrew word Sh'ma, meaning "listen.":270
Conservative Rabbi Alan Lew has been credited with teaching Jewish meditation to thousands of people. His synagogue Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, California, includes a meditation center, the first meditation center connected to a Conservative synagogue. By 1997, Lew noted that almost all of the largest Conservative synagogues in northern California had regular meditation groups. Conservative rabbi Geoffrey Claussen has encouraged Conservative Judaism to adopt meditation practices from the Musar movement. Conservative synagogues that promote meditation practices in the 21st century sometimes describe these practices as helping people to create space in their lives to be present.
Meditation activities have become increasingly common at Reform synagogues in the twenty-first century. Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Rami Shapiro are among the Reform rabbis who encourage Jewish meditation practices.
- Ethical introspection
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