Meditation in Judaism
By Rami Aloni
Although many think that meditation does not exist in Judaism, they will be surprised to find out that it does exist. Not only does it exist, but it played an important role in the time of the early followers (Chasidim) of the saintly Baal Shem Tov.
Although there are Jewish devotees of Eastern meditation who have turned back to their Jewish roots because they can not find any outlet for meditation in their observance in Jewish ritual, none the less, meditation does exist in Judaism as shall be shown.
The word for meditation in the Hebrew is "hitbonanut" (or hisbonanos as the Chassidim pronounce it). What causes the difficulty for those who have practiced Eastern meditation is that hitbonanut does not resemble the meditation form that they have become accustomed to in their encounter with the Eastern religions but because it is different does not mean it is not meditation.
The problem is that although hitbonanut plays a very important role in Judaism, it has been marginalized by the halachically inspired practices of those who follow the Lithuanian style of Judaic life. They view the adherence to Jewish Law in exactingness as being the only acceptable form of devotion. While this adherence to Jewish Law is undoubtedly important, still it does not supply the inner fire of devotion in prayer. Conforming to Jewish Law is only the external manifestation of prayer but meditation provides the internal aspect which is critical for proper prayer, the connection to the Infinite.
The form of meditation that was advocated by the early Chassidim (and captured so well in chapter 42 of the remarkable book, Tanya, by the first rebbe of Chabad) differs from the Eastern method of meditation not only in form but in substance.
Both forms of meditation claim to bring G-dliness into the person but differ greatly. Without going into the details of Eastern meditative practices, let us get involved in the purpose, place and substance of Jewish Meditation.
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The purpose of Jewish Meditation is not just to enhance the person's relationship with G-d but rather to increase his awareness of G-d in all of his actions. Most notably is to enhance his prayer sessions to bring the awareness that he is standing indeed before the Almighty G-d. Although this awareness during prayer is a cardinal aspect, the awareness of G-d is also increased through out the Jew's daily activity irrespective whether he is fulfilling a divine commandment (mitzvah) or living through the mundane aspects of life such as making a living and reacting to events as they develop around him.
Ideally a Jew should focus his mind on a certain aspect of G-d of which there are two basic themes: 1.) G-d as He is manifest in the world and 2.) G-d as He is to Himself. To fathom the meditation necessary to contemplate on the second aspect, G-d as He is to Himself, requires much training and study, since the essence of G-d as He is to Himself requires a special knowledge into the quintessential essence of G-d which is generally beyond the average person.
However the first aspect, G-d as He manifests Himself in the world, is available to everyone to meditate, each person according to his/her own level and life experience. This aspect of hitbonanut or meditation requires the person to contemplate of G-d as He has come into the individual person's life. G-d has helped every person and as a person looks into his/her own life it is not difficult to discern instances of divine help.
Taking time before entering into prayer, a person should focus on the events in his own life in which G-d has given him help. This contemplation or meditation with bring out the internal love of G-d from the hidden recesses of his heart into the open and cause the person to pray (or perform mitzvoth or live his life) with a feeling of closeness to G-d. This is the lowest level of Jewish meditation.
Those persons who posses the abilities to learn the holy spiritual books should study these books prior to prayer and then reflect on the concepts brought down in these holy books before they begin to pray. These concepts open one's mind and heart both in understanding of G-d and in feeling His goodness and closeness during their prayers and daily activities.
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As an example, let us understand that a man was chosen to go to the railway station to meet his favorite teacher, a man who inspired him and was very close to him. The teacher was now an old man and has difficulty managing his baggage, for this purpose this man was chosen to help him.
Imagine the excitement of the man being given the honor to escort his famed teacher to his hotel from the train station.
When the man arrived at the train station he met his master with joy and happiness and easily loaded the suitcases into the trunk of the cab and he and his favorite teacher sat in the back seat of the cab talking excitedly to the hotel where the young man again took the suitcases effortlessly up to his teacher's room.
Sounds good, right?
But let us picture this scenario instead: the young man arrives at the train station and instead of meeting his beloved teacher, he is told by the porter that the elderly teacher already has taken a cab to the hotel but that his heavy baggage is still waiting for the younger man to collect and take to the hotel.
Imagine how the young man would be saddened to have missed the opportunity to converse with his master. Imagine that collecting and carrying the suitcases would be a chore. He would feel the weight of the suitcases as a heavy burden and would be saddened in his ride to bring them to the hotel.
This is similar to praying with meditation or with out meditation.
When we pray, prayer is supposed to be with the joy of connecting to G-d. Unless we use these meditative skills to bring our consciousness into the awareness of G-d, our prayer is going to drag and be insipid. Jewish meditation, hitbonanut, brings the hidden aspect of G-d's presence out from the hidden recesses of the heart and mind to the revealed and allows us to serve Him and connect with Him with joy and happiness.
Jewish meditation has always been a part of Judaism but it differs vastly from the Eastern meditation. Because of this difference many returnees from Eastern religions can not find their place in Judaism. Some actually import the Eastern meditation into Judaism because without it, they feel Judaism is 'dry'.
Jewish meditation is especially important today as we Jews become more absorbed into the material aspects of the world. We need the real Jewish mediation and contemplation to afford our souls to reach the heights that they are designed to reach.
from the May 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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