Discovering Jewish Meditation: Instruction & Guidance for Learning an Ancient Spiritual Practice

Discovering Jewish Meditation: Instruction & Guidance for Learning an Ancient Spiritual Practice by Nan Fink Gefen, Jewish Lights, $16.95

Jewish meditation retreats are booming. Jewish yoga—twisting ourselves into the shapes of Hebrew letters—is on the Web. And Nan Fink Gefen’s step-by-step instructions take the mystery out of meditation. And still the thought persists: Is Jewish meditation just Buddha in a tallis (one of the catchy titles at a Jewish meditation weekend)?

Gefen goes back to the Bible for early references to meditation, weak though they may be. When she brings in the Kabbalists’ link to divine sparks through meditation, Jewish meditation seems on firmer ground, as an esoteric part of our tradition. The Hasidic embrace of meditation brings it closer to the Jewish mainstream. And Gefen makes it clear that Jewish meditation is a work in progress, that our evolution as Jews in a time of spiritual searching demands something more immediately, spiritually accessible and less sexist than rigorous Orthodoxy.

The author’s personal perspective strikes a chord: Jewish meditation as the great equalizer—between men and women, between Jewish scholars and the Jewishly ambivalent. And her belief that Jewish meditation exists not just to bring us closer to God but to actively involve us in tikkun olam—repairing the world—resonates for both religious and non-religious social activists. But does meditation necessarily lead to social activism? Okay, so we Jews are not a purely contemplative lot, but does it follow that there’s a purpose for “soul work” and the “point is for us to become more fully the people we can be so that we contribute increasingly to tikkun olam”?

As someone who went to Israel back in 1972 to check out my Jewish roots and ended up being initiated into TM, Transcendental Meditation, in Jerusalem, I’m open to connecting my meditation to my Judaism. But I haven’t yet found that chanting the Jewish words prescribed in Gefen’s book transports me into a Jewish realm. Gefen’s instructions are simple, step-by-step, specific. The admonitions to be patient and non-judgmental are doubtlessly good advice for all of us stiff-necked, achievement-oriented Jews. Still, I wonder is it possible to learn to meditate out of a book when traditionally one is supposed to have a teacher?

For those still hung up on that syncretic Buddha-in-a-tallis, Gefen points out that Buddhism doesn’t have a monopoly on mindfulness. In finding ways to move from Jewish meditation to becoming more knowledgeable and comfortable with the contents of this religion, Gefen recommends observing Shabbat. With observation comes the mindfulness of being present in the moment. “Observing” —how compact in its double meaning: immersing yourself in the rules/keeping your distance. Gefen also recommends blessings for increasing our awareness of the world around us.

Gefen makes the point that in the past, Jewish meditation revolved around traditional Jewish observance. Now we can choose how we want to be Jewish. For one reader at least, this makes spiritual sense.

Amy Stone is one of the founders of Lilith.