Contemplative Judaism

By Kathy Keary

Our full series on Contemplative Life is here. 

Our series on Judaism and Contemplation is here.

Throughout history, contemplation has been an enriching part of the Jewish faith; however, today a growing and dynamic movement is renewing the heart of Contemplative Judaism. Contemplative practices are revitalizing Judaism in our country.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan in her article, “Contemplative Judaism,” describes common elements found in contemplative practices: “silence, quieting the mind, concentration, attentiveness, inwardness, receptivity, reflectivity, cultivation of ethical/spiritual qualities, and disciplined practice.” Among these practices are mussar, contemplative prayer, meditation, yoga, and spiritual direction. We will look at how each one of these practices are expressed within Judaism.

The Mussar Institute describes mussar as “a treasury of teachings and practices that help individuals understand their true nature as holy souls.” The practice encourages one to break through the barriers that obstruct the flow of inner holiness or light. “The goal of Mussar is to release the light of holiness that lives within each soul.”

Mirabai Starr eloquently speaks of the sanctity found in the contemplative practice of silently resting in God:

You meet your God in silence. In silence, your God speaks to you, and you understand the primordial language, and it resolves every quandary. This is why you thirst for the silence…This is why sometimes you race to your meditation cushion like a mother reunited with her child, and light a candle, drop your gaze, and sink into the embrace of silence. This is why you are not afraid of emptiness. It overflows with gracious plenitude. The God of Love lives there.

In her article, “Yoga and Judaism: Finding balance and making a connection,” Rea Bochner comments that many Jews find that the spirituality of Judaism and the spirituality of yoga fuse together in a beautiful way. A commonality between Judaism and yoga is that both encourage the practitioner to unplug, go inward, and rest. That is what the weekly Shabbat is all about. It’s not unusual for yoga leaders to incorporate aspects of Judaism into the yoga practice. For instance, one might recite the Jewish prayer, the Shema, as a mantra to quiet the mind while engaging in this practice.

In his article, “Jewish Spiritual Direction: Fundamental Assumptions,” Rabbi Jacob Staub describes spiritual direction in the Jewish tradition similarly to the way it is presented in our article, “Spiritual Direction: A Path to Interior Freedom” written from a Christian perspective. He asserts that spiritual direction encourages one to cultivate the propensity to discern the Divine in all aspects and in every moment of one’s life. He describes the spiritual director as a companion who accompanies the directee on their journey “offering loving, supportive, non-judgmental, undivided attention to your narrative as you sit together in the presence of the sacred.”

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As is evidenced in the Old Testament, Rabbi Goldie Milgram, points out that the practice of meditation in Judaism goes back to biblical times. For instance, the Book of Genesis reveals that Isaac met his future bride when meditating in a field. Jewish meditation is designed to nourish the soul as it transforms Judaism from a purely intellectual pursuit into a profound spiritual practice.

Rabbi Cowan cites several advantages of incorporating contemplative practices into the mainstream of Jewish life. Among these is the effect mindfulness training has on spiritual leaders who become “more effective, compassionate, present, responsive rather than reactive, visionary, and courageous.

Today there are many Jews who do not practice traditional Judaism; however, continue to claim the Jewish heritage. Contemplative practices go a long way in bringing in these people and connecting people of all ages even those who have strayed from a typical Jewish community.

Rabbi Cowan also comments that contemplative practices fortify a sense of commitment to the common good as one draws on the inner life to dictate their way of being in the world. Since contemplative practices are found in the major faith traditions of the world, this practice also allows a practitioner to develop meaningful relationships with people of other faiths.

Rabbi Richard Hirsch explains in his article, “Contemplative Practices,” that neuroscientists tell us that our brains retain the capacity for change throughout our life. Repeated patterns of contemplative practice can shift habitual and predictable emotions, impulses, and behaviors. These practices can redirect the usual pathways our brains follow allowing us to change our undesirable behaviors and reactions.

The profound effect that contemplative practices offer an individual makes it understandable that these prayer types are encouraged in all the major faith traditions. The common threads that run through diverse religions support the premise that more unites us than separates us. One thing that is for sure, through the ages, humanity has exhibited an unquenchable thirst to know and be in communion with the Sacred One. Contemplative practices allow the fulfillment of this deep desire to be within our reach.

Resources

Bochner, Rea. “Yoga and Judaism: Finding balance and making a connection.” Jewish Community Voice. Mary 27, 2019. https://www.jewishvoicesnj.org/articles/yoga-and-judaism-finding-balance-and-making-a-connection.

Cowan, Rabbi Rachel. “Contemplative Judaism.” Garrison Institute. May 18, 2010. https://www.garrisoninstitute.org/blog/contemplative-judaism.

Hirsch, Rabbi Richard. “Contemplative Practice.” Jewish Sacred Aging. August 26, 2019. https://jewishsacredaging.com/contemplativepractice.

Milgram, Rabbi Goldie. “Introduction to Jewish Meditation.” Reclaiming Judaism. Reclaimingjudaism.org/teachings/introduction-jewish-meditation.

Starr, Mirabai. God of Love, A guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Rhinebeck, New York: Monkfish Book Publishing Company, 2012.

Staub, Rabbi Jacob. “Jewish Spiritual Direction: Fundamental Assumptions.” Evolve. October 29, 2018. https://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/spiritual-direction

“The Mussar Institute: Becoming Your Best Self.” https://mussarinstitute.org/about-mussar.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Kathy Keary, spiritual director, holds a bachelor’s degree in Education, a master’s Degree in Theological Studies, and completed Sophia Center’s Souljourners Program, an intense study of spirituality and spiritual direction. Kathy believes that the Divine is present and active in all of life and encourages others to be awakened to the God in all including the divine within. She enjoys accompanying others on their journey to wholeness discovering the person they were created to be.

 

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