Meditation Grows in Popularity Among Jews : Contemplation: The rediscovery of ancient tradition makes it a port of re-entry to Judaism, proponents say.
They might have been taken for Buddhists, this dozen men and women sitting on the floor of a candle-lit room, eyes closed, listening to the sound of their own breathing.
But when they began to chant softly together, the word that flowed out of their meditative state was a clue to their common ground.
These were not Buddhists but Jews. Among them was a Hasid, a Conservative rabbi, and several men and women with little knowledge of Judaism. The word that filled the room was shalom , the Hebrew word for peace. They breathed it in and out, easing themselves back from an inner world to a communal bond.
This eclectic group in New York City represents a small but growing number of Jews who are finding their spiritual lives enhanced by drawing on Judaism’s contemplative tradition.
As that ancient tradition is reclaimed, so are Jews who had drifted away from the religion of their ancestors. In recent decades, some were attracted to meditation and went in search of Zen masters; others drifted away from religion. Still others retained formal ties but longed for a deeper spiritual connection to the ancient biblical faith.
According to some estimates, as many as 70% of people in Buddhist and Hindu groups in North America are Jews.
According to Rabbi David Cooper, who teaches meditation near Boulder, Colo., “virtually all” of the people teaching Vipassana meditation, one of the most popular forms of Buddhist meditation in America, are Jews.
Mindy Ribner, who runs the Jewish Meditation Circle in New York City, describes herself as a lifelong “spiritual seeker” who found that the Judaism of her youth was spiritually empty. Her interest in meditation took her outside Jewish circles to Eastern religions. She learned yoga and followed a guru to an ashram, and finally to Jerusalem in the 1980s, where she was invited to join a Jewish meditation group.
“I was looking for something else besides dry yeshiva learning,” she said. “I was searching for the mystical connection.”
Cooper became an “observant” Jew--a Jew whose religious practice is guided by Jewish law--after more than 15 years of meditating with Sufi Muslim and Hindu groups in the United States. Now he is creating a retreat center on a mountaintop near his home, which will provide a kosher environment for seekers.
Some Jewish leaders, particularly the Orthodox, whose focus is religious law, distrust meditation despite its long history in Jewish spirituality. A Hasidic Jew who is part of the group that chanted “shalom,” said the distrust stems from fear of what meditation “can lead to,” fear that practitioners “might go their own way.” He asked to be referred to by his first name, Chaim, because he feared the consequences of his religious practice becoming public.
Proponents of meditation like to cite the biblical poet who composed the 19th Psalm. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable,” he wrote.
Students of biblical prophets were also known to meditate, according to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who reintroduced North American Jews to meditation in the late 1950s.
The students retreated to the desert and waited for the “subtle sound of stillness,” said the rabbi, who is regarded as the prophet of the Jewish renewal movement and espouses a blend of traditional and New Age Jewish practices.
Cooper, the author of two books related to meditation --"Silence, Simplicity and Solitude” and “The Heart of Stillness"--says meditation helps bring people closer to the religious laws. When people with spiritual longings encounter Orthodox law, they are often so overwhelmed that they “run the other way,” he said.
Helping people appreciate Jewish observance is also part of Ribner’s approach.
“I try to help people to have this very personal and dynamic experience with God and then show them how they can transfer it into traditional Jewish forms” so that keeping the Sabbath is exciting, she said.