Jewish Meditation

Jewish Meditation zie boek

~Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan 

In the previous chapters, we have discussed the discipline of meditation in general. Before we can understand Jewish meditation, we must first have a good idea of the nature of meditation in its broadest sense. The phenomenology and psychology of Jewish meditation are not particularly different from those of other systems. The goals and results, however, are often very different.

There is ample evidence that meditative practices were widespread among Jews throughout Jewish history. References to meditation are found in major Jewish texts in every period from the biblical to the premodern era. One reason that this has not been universally recognized is that the vocabulary of meditation has been lost to a large degree, especially during the last century. Until the rise of the Jewish Enlightenment, mysticism and intellectualism had equal status within Judaism. The ostensible goal of the Enlightenment, however, was to raise the intellectual level of Judaism, and positive as this may have been, it was often done at the expense of other Jewish values. The first values to fall by the wayside were Jewish mysticism in general and meditation in particular. Anything that touched upon the mystical was denigrated as superstition and occultism and was deemed unworthy of serious study.

Even Kabbalah, which contains mysticism par excellence, was reduced to simply an intellectual exercise; its deeper meanings were totally lost. In earlier chapters we discussed how many phenomena experienced in a meditative state cannot be understood rationally. This premise was not recognized by the nineteenth- century rationalists, and even the ineffable became the subject of philosophical discussion.

For this and other reasons, all references to meditation vanished from mainstream Jewish literature about 150 years ago. This is true even in Chasidic literature, where meditation initially played a central role. Because of this antimystical trend, even Kabbalistic works published after around 1840 show a surprising lack of even the slightest mention of meditation. After a century of indifference, even the meanings of key words were forgotten.

In earlier literature, by contrast, references to meditation are abundant. This is true even in the Bible, although one has to resort to a kind of "verbal archaeology" to discover the true meaning of key words. In any case, it appears from both biblical and postbiblical sources that meditation was central to the prophetic experience, and that this experience was attained in the meditative state. The Bible states explicitly that the prophets used chants and music to attain higher states of consciousness. Careful philological analysis of certain key words in the Bible suggests that they refer to specific meditative methods. This subject formed the basis of my first book on the subject, Meditation and the Bible. However, since the discussion consists largely of analysis of Hebrew words, it is beyond the scope of this book.

From the literature, it seems evident that a prophet would almost always experience his first prophetic experience while in a meditative state. Later, however, it would become possible for him to experience prophecy without meditation. Sometimes prophecy would come to a prophet unexpectedly and without warning. This probably involved a phenomenon sometimes referred to as "flashback." After a person has become adept at reaching higher levels of consciousness through meditation, he can occasionally reach such levels spontaneously as well. This seems to be evident in the experiences of a number of prophets.

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. The Talmud and Midrash state explicitly that over a million people were involved in such disciplines. Regular schools of meditation existed, led by master prophets. The master prophets, in turn, were under the leadership of the primary prophets, the ones actually quoted in the Bible. In these schools, people were taught meditative methods in order to attain a closeness to God; as a side effect of such meditation, prophecy was also sometimes achieved.

Since nonprophets may have been practicing meditators, they would also experience spontaneous prophecy or visions, without actually meditating. This would explain the biblical accounts of individuals who had prophetic visions even though they were not meditating and had no prior prophetic experience. When a person engages in meditation on a regular basis, he can reach meditative states of consciousness spontaneously, without meditation, and these states can cause him to experience visions.

Everything found in later literature seems to indicate that these meditative schools required a strong discipline and faithful adherence to a strict regimen. The schools were extremely demanding, and were open only to those willing to devote themselves totally. Before even being admitted to one of these ancient meditative schools, a person had to be not only spiritually advanced but in complete control of all his emotions and feelings. Beyond that, the disciplines of the Torah and commandments were central to these schools, and these disciplines required a degree of self-mastery to which not everyone could aspire.

It appears that this was one of the attractions of ancient idolatry. While the Jewish meditative schools required extensive discipline and preparation, many idolatrous schools of mysticism and meditation were open to all. A person could at least think that he was having a transcendental experience, without adhering to the tight discipline of Torah and Judaism. It was very much like the situation today, when Eastern meditative groups seem easier to relate to than the strict discipline of Judaism.

For anyone who has ever had a taste of the transcendental, it can be an infinitely sweet experience, more pleasurable than love or sex. For many people, it was an experience after which they would actually lust. When the Talmud speaks of the "lust for idolatry," it could be speaking of the magnetic attraction that this spiritual experience had for people. If they could not get it from Israelite sources, they would seek it in idolatrous rites. As long as the Israelites were in their homeland, the situation was more or less under control. Idolatry may have been a strong temptation, but the prophetic mystical schools were strong enough to unite the people and prevent them from assimilating. Even if individuals or groups backslid, they could always be drawn back into the fold. In sum, during the entire First Commonwealth, meditation and mysticism played a central role in Judaism; the spiritual leaders were the prophets, the individuals who were most advanced spiritually.

All this changed with the diaspora, which scattered Jews all over the world. It was realized that if the masses remained involved in prophetic mysticism, the temptations drawing them to idolatry would ultimately alienate them from the Torah. Isolated, widely scattered groups would be ready prey to false teachers and experiences. Therefore, around this time, the more advanced forms of meditation were hidden from the masses and made part of a secret teaching. Now only the most qualified individuals would be party to the secrets of advanced prophetic meditation.

One of the last of the great prophets was Ezekiel, who lived in Babylonia right at the beginning of the Exile. The first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel is one of the most mysterious parts of the entire Bible. In it, the prophet describes his visions of angels and the Divine Throne in extraordinary detail. According to one tradition, this vision contained the keys to prophetic meditation and, if understood, could serve as a guide to attaining prophecy. The study of this chapter became known as the "discipline of the chariot" (maaseh merkavah). The methodology was there, but without the key it could not be understood. By the time of the rebuilding of the Second Temple, and the establishment of the Second Commonwealth, the Jewish leadership was clearly aware of the dangers that chariot meditation posed if it were made available to the masses. First, without adequate teachers and masters, Jews living in the diaspora would pervert the methods or use them for the wrong ends. This in turn could lead to the splintering of Judaism into rival sects or to the establishment of religions alien to Judaism. The net result would be the disunification of the Jewish people.

Second, as discussed earlier, Jewish meditation was an extremely difficult discipline, which required years of preparation. If it were an accepted part of Judaism, it was feared that Jews would become frustrated by the difficulties of practicing it and be tempted to try non-Jewish forms of meditation. This, in turn, could lead them to idolatry and assimilation. Idolatry had been enough of a problem during the First Commonwealth, when all the Israelites were in their homeland; now, in the diaspora, there was a distinct danger that it would lead to the destruction of the entire nation.

Therefore, the Jewish leadership made a very difficult decision. The benefits of having the masses involved in the highest types of meditation were weighed against the dangers. Although the nation might lose a degree of spirituality as a result of the decision, it would at least survive. Henceforth, the discipline of the chariot had to be made into a secret doctrine, taught only to the most select individuals. The Great Assembly, which represented the first Jewish leadership in the Second Commonwealth, thus decreed: "The discipline of the chariot may be taught only to individual students (one at a time), and they must be wise, understanding with their own knowledge." The Great Assembly also realized that the general populace would need a meditative discipline. But rather than have it be something loose and unstructured, they needed a discipline with a structure common to the entire Jewish nation, one that would serve as a means of uniting the people. It would have to contain the hopes and aspirations of the nation as a whole, to reinforce the unity of the Jewish people. The meditative discipline that was composed by the Great Assembly ended up as the Amidah, a "standing" prayer consisting of eighteen sections, which would be repeated silently, in an upright position, three times each day. It is true that nowadays the Amidah is thought of more as a prayer than a meditative device, but the most ancient sources regard it as a meditation. Indeed, the Talmud verifies that this was its original intention. This also explains why the Great Assembly legislated that the same prayer be repeated three times each day. People often complain that saying the same prayer over and over is tedious and uninspiring. For anyone familiar with mantra meditation, however, the opposite is true. All types of mantra meditation involve repetition. In mantra meditation, the device repeated is a word or a phrase, and it can be repeated over and over for weeks, months, or even years on end.

The Amidah was meant to be repeated three times every day from childhood on, and essentially the same formula would be said for an entire lifetime. The Amidah could therefore be looked upon as one long mantra. In many ways, it has the same effects as a mantra, lifting the individual to a high meditative level of consciousness. As we shall, there is an entire literature that describes how the Amidah can be used in this manner. But most important, there is ample evidence that it was originally composed as the common form of meditation to be used by the entire Jewish nation. From Talmudic times through the Middle Ages, an extensive literature dealing with Jewish meditation was written. Virtually every method found in general meditation can be found in ancient Jewish texts, as well as a number of methods that are found nowhere else. Indeed, a comparative study of meditative methods shows that the Jewish systems may have been among the most advanced in the world.

The Talmud speaks at length of meditation and meditative experiences, referring to it as the discipline of the chariot or "entering Paradise." There are numerous anecdotes about Talmudic sages, such as Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Akiva, engaging in these practices. The Talmud also says that the "original saints" (chasidim rishonim) spent an hour reciting the Amidah; the context shows that it is speaking of a meditative rather than a worship experience. However, since meditation had become a secret doctrine within Judaism by Talmudic times, everything is couched in allusion and allegory. Only to one who is aware of the methods do the accounts even begin to make sense. There were two major works on meditation that were most probably published during the Talmudic period (around 100-500 C.E.). The first is the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation. This is the most enigmatic text on Jewish mysticism. Over a hundred commentaries have been written on this text in an effort to unravel its mysteries, but they all tend to read their own systems into the text rather than extract its message. Careful analysis of the text, however, shows it to be an extremely advanced work on meditation. Another important text from this period is Heykhaloth Rabbatai (Greater Book of the [Divine] Chambers). This is a primary text on merkavah mysticism, which describes some of the techniques used in the discipline of the chariot. This work is fairly explicit, but even here, unless one is familiar with meditative techniques, the text is largely opaque. In the Middle Ages, meditation was a well-known technique and was discussed at length by the Jewish philosophers, especially in connection with prophecy. Such Jewish philosophers as Maimonides and Gersonides analyzed the meditative state in depth, contrasting the visions that one has in a meditative state with those in a dream state. The way it is discussed suggests that meditation was considered an integral part of Judaism.

Among Jewish mystics and Kabbalists, it was evident that meditation played a key role. A great deal was written during this period about experiences that one could have in the meditative state and how one's vision and state of conscious could be altered. Techniques were alluded to, but always in veiled hints, as if this teaching was bound to remain an oral tradition, never be put in writing. With one exception, we are left with tantalizing allusions, but no clear facts.

The one individual who broke the ride of secrecy was Abraham Abulafia (1240-1296). He was a highly controversial figure for many reasons, not the least being the fact that he felt he was destined to be either a messianic figure or a harbinger of the Messiah. But, as he states explicitly in his works, he was the first to put the methods of Kabbalah meditation into writing. Although he was criticized in his time, later Kabbalists recognized that the methods he describes represent the true tradition of prophetic Kabbalism. Soon after Abulafia's time an event was to occur that would eclipse meditation as the focus of Kabbalah. This was the publication of the Zohar in the 1290s. Although this mystical work contains many allusions to meditative methods, it does not speak explicitly about meditation. But the spiritual systems described by the Zohar are so complex that it would take a lifetime to understand them—and this is exactly what happened. With the publication of the Zohar, Kabbalah entered a new era. Besides reaching mystical states and higher states of consciousness, Kabbalists now had a new goal, namely to understand the Zohar. This made Kabbalah into an academic discipline as well as a mystical one. One begins to find more and more books published on Kabbalah that regard it as a philosophy rather than as an experience. Indeed, by the fifteenth century, it was virtually impossible to write a book on Jewish philosophy without referring to the Kabbalah. The mystical element, however, was still very important. Kabbalah study reached its zenith in the famed community of Safed, the city of saints and mystics. Foremost among the Safed Kabbalists was Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), usually referred to as the Ari. He was so spiritually sensitive that he became a legend in his own lifetime, but his main accomplishment was the vast body of Kabbalistic literature that he bequeathed to the world. The Ari unraveled the mystery of the Zohar, showing how its system could form the basis of a meditative discipline. Beyond that, he left a system of Kabbalah that is one of the most complex intellectual systems devised by man. This, in turn, had the effect of further intellectualizing Kabbalah, making the mystical realm every bit as stimulating and fasci nating as philosophy or Talmud. Thus, Kabbalah gained status as an intellectual discipline in its own right. The works of Kabbalists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took their place as some of the most profound, complex, and challenging Judaic works ever written. But this phenomenon also had the effect of reducing the importance of meditation, even among Jewish mystics. For many, Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah had become an intellectual exercise and nothing more. There was yet another influence that downgraded the importance of Kabbalah in this period. This was the reaction to the false messiah, Sabbatai Zvi (1626-1676). This charismatic individual twisted the teachings of Kabbalah and used it to support his warped messianic claims. His career ended when he was challenged by the Turkish sultan; he chose to convert to Islam rather than suffer martyrdom, leaving thousands of his followers totally disillusioned. The false messiah gave mysticism a bad name and brought about the eclipse of Jewish mysticism and meditation for almost a century. A renaissance of Jewish mysticism occurred in the middle of the eighteenth century under the leadership of the famed Rabbi Israel, known as the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760). The Chasidic movement, which he founded, was based on mysticism, and meditative exercises were central to the movement. An important early Chasidic technique involved using the daily service as a meditative exercise. Not only did the Chasidic movement bring meditation back into Judaism, but it infused the Jewish community with new energy and commitment as well. Still, the established Jewish community saw the embryonic Chasidic movement as a threat. Since it had adopted unique and distinctive practices, many Jewish leaders felt that the movement could become a cult. It was also felt that the movement was too closely associated with a single personality, a trait reminiscent of the Sabbatai Zvi fiasco. A powerful opposition to Chasidism arose, going so far as to excommunicate the entire movement. Leading rabbinical sages throughout Europe were marshaled to express their opposition to the movement in the strongest terms. This, in turn, had its effect on the Chasidic movement. Some elements of this movement took a road that had been traveled earlier, reducing all its mystical teachings to philosophy. Others chose to institutionalize the role of spiritual master, making allegiance to a master (or rebbe) the main distinguishing feature of Chasidism. During the first three generations of Chasidism, there was hardly a published work on the subject that did not contain some mention of meditation and the mystical experience. In later works, however, mysticism is notably lacking. Indeed, in many areas, after 1850, the Chasidic movement developed a strong antimystical trend. Thus, one of the last bastions of Jewish meditation fell, and the entire practice was forgotten for over a century. Even the basic vocabulary of meditation seemed to have been lost. Scholars wrote about Jewish mysticism but ignored blatant references to meditation; key words for meditation were either mistranslated or misinterpreted. A situation arose in which meditation was virtually erased from the Jewish consciousness and obliterated from Jewish history.

At this point it would be useful to discuss the most common terms for meditation found in Jewish texts. Since all of these texts were written in Hebrew, the key words are also in that language. From their roots and form, considerable insight can be obtained into the types of meditation that they signify.

The most common word for meditation in Judaic literature is kavanah. This word is translated as "concentration" or "feeling" or "devotion." In context, the literature speaks of worshiping with kavanah or maintaining kavanah while performing a sacred act. However, looking at the origin of the word kavanah, we immediately see that it comes from the Hebrew root kaven, which means "to aim." Therefore, kavanah denotes "aiming" consciousness toward a certain goal. The most apt translation is "directed consciousness." Earlier, we defined meditation as controlled thinking. In this sense, kavanah would be the most generic Hebrew term for meditation. The word kavanah is most often used in relation to prayer or worship. In Judaism, as we shall see, the line between worship and meditation is often a very fine one. Many elements of the worship service are specifically designed to be used as meditations, to reacher higher states of consciousness. We have discussed this usage with regard to the Amidah, but it is also true of a number of other prayers. When one has kavanah in worship, one is allowing the words of the service to direct one's consciousness. The mind is brought to the state of consciousness defined by the prayer one is reciting. In this respect, the prayer is used to direct the consciousness. The word kavanah is also associated with various actions, especially those involving fulfillment of the commandments or rituals. Here, too, kavanah denotes clearing the mind of extraneous thought and concentrating totally on the action at hand. The act itself becomes the means through which the person's consciousness is directed. In addition to the general concept of kavanah, various Jewish devotional works, especially those of a Kabbalistic nature, contain collections of specific kavanah meditations, or kavanoth, for various rituals. These kavanoth are used to direct the mind along the inner paths defined by the esoteric meaning of the ritual.

Another important Hebrew term associated with meditation is hitbonenuth. Translated literally, this word means "self-understanding." It reflects a somewhat different type of meditation. Normally, we look at things dispassionately and objectively. I may look at a leaf and even examine it very closely, but it does not affect me in any way. I am exactly the same person after as I was before. It does not change my state of consciousness at all. My mind is the same looking at the leaf as it would be otherwise. However, I may also look at the leaf with the aim of using it to attain a higher level of consciousness or a greater degree of selfawareness. I would then be using the leaf as a means to achieve "self-understanding," or hitbonenuth.

The great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) speaks about using hitbonenuth meditation while contemplating God's creation. One can achieve a profound love for God through such contemplation. This is effective precisely because it is not merely a simple contemplation of various aspects of God's creation, but is understanding oneself as part of this creation. When one sees God's creation, and understands one's own role as part of it, one can develop a deep and lasting love for God. Who has not gone out into the fields on a clear night and gazed at the stars, yearning to unlock their secret? One thinks about the vast, unfathomable reaches of the universe and stands in rapt awe. For many people, this in itself can be a "religious experience." It is an experience that can bring a person to feel a profound humility before the infinite vastness of the universe.

The next step is to go beyond the physical and contemplate the fact that this vast universe, with all its countless stars and galaxies, was all created by God. One ponders the fact that one ineffable Being created everything. We realize how different this Being must be from us, and yet we feel a certain closeness. The final step is hitbonenuth, understanding oneself in the light of this vast creation. At this level, one asks the questions, " I f God created this vast universe, then who am I? How do I fit into all of this?" At the same time, one may feel privileged that God allows us to have a direct relationship with Him. Imagine that the creator of all the stars and galaxies deigns to listen to me! Not only that, but He is concerned about me! Realizing God's greatness, and at the same time contemplating the closeness to Him that He allows us to enjoy, is precisely what can bring a person to profound love for God.

The Psalmist expressed this when he said, "I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You have established. What is man that You remember him, a son of Adam that You even consider him? Yet, You have made him a little less than divine, You have adorned him with glory and honor. You made him master over all Your creatures and placed everything under his feet" (Ps. 8 : 4 - 6 ) . We realize how insignificant we should be in God's eyes, and yet how significant we really are.

Hitbonenuth meditation can be focused on anything—a stone, a leaf, a flower, or an idea. One allows the subject to fill the mind and then uses it as a means to understand the self. It is a type of mirror in which one can see oneself in the light of true Reality. Using this mirror, one can see the Divine within oneself. Indeed, this may be the "mirror [aspaklaria] of prophecy" described in the Talmud. When one looks into this mirror and sees the Divine within oneself, one can also communicate with the Divine.

The final important Hebrew word for meditation is hitbodeduth. This is the most specific term for meditation and one that was used as early as the tenth century. Literally, the word means "self-isolation," and for this reason, the term escaped the notice of many students of Jewish mysticism. Many scholars have translated hitbodeduth simply as "seclusion" or "isolation," not realizing that it refers to meditation. The key to this term is to be found in a text by Moses Maimonides' son, Abraham. He writes that there are two types of isolation, external self-isolation and internal self-isolation. External self-isolation simply involves being alone physically—going off to fields, woods, or caves, anywhere away from other people. This, however, is only the first step; external self-isolation is the doorway to internal self-isolation.

Internal self-isolation consists in isolating the mind from all outward sensation and then even from thought itself. From what one reads in most non-Jewish classical texts, this is what is usually defined as the meditative state. Therefore, hitbodeduth is the Hebrew term for any practice that brings a person into the meditative state. It is a state in which the mind is isolated, standing alone, without any sensation or thought. It is known that sensory deprivation can help a person attain higher states of consciousness. Indeed, there are places in large cities where a person can buy time in a sensory deprivation chamber. In such a perfectly dark, soundproof chamber, one floats in a dense liquid at body temperature. Cut off completely from all outward stimuli, the mind can go off totally on its own and float toward higher states of consciousness. True meditation, however, does not require a sensory deprivation chamber. Rather, by using a meditative practice, one can blank out all outside stimuli at will. At the same time, one also blanks out all extraneous thought, filling the mind with the sub j e c t of one's meditation. This is hitbodeduth, self-isolation in a meditative sense.

Vocabulary is very important, since without it one can read a Hebrew meditative text and not even be aware of the nature of the subject. One reason that people were unaware of the importance and influence of meditation in Judaism is that they were incorrectly translating key words in the most important texts. The general impression one gains from studying these texts is not only that meditation was practiced by Jews, but that for quite a number of centuries it was a very important ingredient of Judaism. Clearly, Jewish meditation has been part and parcel of Judaism throughout the ages.