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On Mindfulness and Jewish Meditation, Part I

On Mindfulness and Jewish Meditation, Part I


In the early 1970s I left my farm on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies to come to New York and study Torah. It was not easy to leave the crisp autumn mornings, the quaking aspens, the summer meadows filled with wildflowers and the snowcapped mountains. It was harder still to leave my fifty acres of organic fruit trees, the bees buzzing in the apricot blossoms, and my powerfully graceful chestnut quarter-horse, Flash. Most difficult of all was leaving a community where everyone was a meditator, where the vibration in my hundred-year-old log cabin was one of calm awareness and serenity. I kissed the ground, and I cried.

Most difficult of all was leaving a community where everyone was a meditatorWhen I arrived at my spiritual destination, a religious community in New York, I found that I was not unique. I was one of many truth-seekers who had made this pilgrimage from a world where the cultivation of consciousness had been a core value, yet we had felt something lacking. Some of us had lived on communes in Vermont and Oregon, or on sloops in Costa Rica and Nova Scotia; others had left graduate programs at Harvard, Berkeley, and MIT in search of the secrets of inner peace possessed by the holy men of antiquity. Upon realizing that a pastoral lifestyle and exotic Eastern meditation techniques were simply fast foods for our hungry Jewish souls, we had turned toward the nourishing wisdom of our abandoned birthright. We had chosen a Torah life.

Though the teachings were elevating, the family life was inspiring, and the mitzvahs were an everyday source of meaning and joy, I must confess that I didn’t feel the calm. Where was the tranquility? Is mindfulness, I wondered, an ingredient in a Torah life? I rarely heard my Torah teachers speak of cultivating inner awareness. Over time, however, as I became more sophisticated in my understanding of Torah, I realized that mindfulness and a peaceful, balanced soul is indeed an objective in Jewish life, and that the tools for attaining it are subtly woven into the tapestry of Torah knowledge. I learned, for example, that the Hebrew word “shalom” implies not just peace, but also completion, perfection, wholeness. We bless one another with peace; our daily prayers culminate in a request for peace.

As my Torah knowledge expanded, my curiosity deepened. I eagerly devoured any information that dealt with the intersection of Torah and psychology, focusing especially on how a Torah lifestyle enriches inner experience as well as outer behaviors and relationships. On subtle levels, the introspection and the refinement of values that form the core of a Torah life foster an experience of shalom in both senses of the word—a peaceful spirit, and a sense of wholeness. Chassidic philosophy demonstrates how inner turmoil is reduced when we have a clear understanding of our goals, and how the cultivation of trust, faith, awareness, and freedom from doubt enriches our lives with joy. I began to discover that Jewish tradition deeply addresses topics that many of us first encountered in other ancient cultures, or in practices and perspectives currently referred to as “New Age.”

One of the principal techniques for achieving a peaceful soul is establishing regular times for meditation. While “meditation” suggests an image of someone sitting in cross-legged lotus position with eyes closed and incense burning, meditation in a general sense comprises a wide variety of practices. All of them involve harnessing the dynamics of the mind in order to think in a more intentional, less random or accidental manner. Most also entail a certain quietude of mind, a sense of surrender to a higher or deeper aspect of the mind.

In his pioneering spirit, the Rebbe urged us to develop acceptable meditation methodologies that would serve as tools for overcoming stress and anxietyIn 1977 the Rebbe began a push to make a kosher form of meditation available to the public. The Rebbe specifically mentioned the efficacy of meditation as an antidote to stress and anxiety; he was concerned, however, that many of the more popular teachings were not consistent with Torah values. He reached out personally to a number of religious psychologists and medical professionals, as well as to others known to be versed in meditative practices, including my husband and me. In his pioneering spirit, the Rebbe urged us to develop acceptable meditation methodologies that would serve as tools for overcoming stress and anxiety, thereby replacing negative emotions with feelings of internal peace.

The Rebbe was most certainly not the first Jewish leader to address the topic of meditation. Commentaries on the life of Abraham suggest that when he sent his offspring to the East bearing gifts, these gifts included aspects of meditative practices that eventually surfaced in Far Asian spiritual teachings. Some speculate that a Hindu caste of holy men is called “Brahmans” after the Abrahamic tradition that spawned them. Abraham’s son Isaac was a meditator; when his bride Rebecca first saw him, he was “meditating in the fields”—and the Biblical accounts of his practice of “digging wells” are understood to signify his delving into the depths of consciousness. Many of the early holy men in Jewish history were shepherds who chose the pastoral lifestyle in order to be able to meditate in the fields. Talmudic sages and mystical Kabbalists had a longstanding tradition to meditate before and during prayer; since the time of the Baal Shem Tov, chassidim have carried this legacy forward until the current day.

There is a limited amount of literature on the Kabbalistic methods of meditation, perhaps because some of these practices were considered too difficult or perhaps even dangerous for the uninitiated, and were not meant for the masses. However, research has uncovered enough clues to convince us that some of the most important mainstream Jewish leaders of the past relied on various meditative techniques to advance their spiritual practices. Over time, safer and simpler methods have emerged. Meditation is a balm to the soul, an antidote to anxiety, a channel to the understanding of G‑d’s greatness—and man’s insignificance. At the same time, it also empowers and imbues us with Divine energy.

There are many forms of meditation, beginning with simple relaxation exercises involving attention to the breath or other bodily sensations. Other elementary techniques employ a word or phrase, repeated mentally in order to elicit a relaxation response and transcendent thought. Guided imagery allows the imagination to experience beauty and tranquility—because to the subconscious mind, imagination and reality are the same. The chassidic practice of hitbonenut meditation involves actively contemplating a spiritual concept until it expands our creative intelligence, deepens our awareness, and becomes an indelible part of our consciousness. Prayer is an advanced form of meditation; yet it is also simple and accessible to all. The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, implies connecting to and bonding with one's spiritual source. In fact the prayerbook, the siddur, can be seen as a highly sophisticated, structured guide to cultivating our awareness of the presence and the power of G‑d.

As I observe an increasing number of friends, family and acquaintances taking anti–anxiety or antidepressant medications, or struggling to keep an even keel in times of great economic and political turmoil, I feel compelled to re-examine this call from the Rebbe. More than ever, it has become crucial to help people learn appropriate techniques for stress reduction, and to explain why and how such practices are relevant to our lives. And it’s not just about overcoming negativity. Within these challenges lie thinly veiled opportunities to dramatically enhance the quality of our lives.

Human beings are endowed by their Creator with a spectacular and elaborate defense mechanism called the fight-or-flight response. When a stressor stimulates certain hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, these agents hasten the heart rate, cause our breathing to become shallow and rapid, increase blood flow to major muscle groups, slow digestion, and change various involuntary physical functions—thereby giving the body a burst of energy and power. Our muscles stiffen, our teeth clench; even our capillaries contract to restrain the flow of blood to the body’s surface. We become “uptight.” Being uptight can be very handy in the event that a gladiator is threatening to run us through with a sword, or a fiery dragon is baring its teeth to bite. It’s of dubious utility, however, when we’re trying to be creative in our work or loving in our relationships.

Many of us feel as though we are constantly under pressure. Whether the pressure is real or imagined, our health suffers, and our thinking becomes reactive and confusedOriginally named for its power to enable us to do physical battle or run away when faced with peril, the fight-or-flight response is now activated in situations where neither fighting or fleeing are appropriate—like in heavy traffic, or when the computer freezes, or when we have to deal with AT&T, a spouse’s criticism or a crying baby. Moreover, after the threat has passed, our systems are intended to return to more normal functioning via the relaxation response. In these complex and stressful times, however, this relaxation happens neither quickly enough nor often enough. As a result we become susceptible to damage—to the body, and to the soul.

When faced with chronic stress and an overactive limbic system (the primitive, reactive part of the brain), sooner or later we begin to see physical symptoms. The initial symptoms can be relatively mild, like persistent headaches or increased susceptibility to flu and colds. With more exposure to chronic stress, however, more serious health problems may develop. It’s been estimated that as many as 90% of doctor’s visits are for symptoms that are at least partially stress-related. These stress-induced conditions include, but are not limited to, depression, obesity, diabetes, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADD, anxiety disorder, heart disease, hyperthyroidism, sexual dysfunction, tooth and gum disease, ulcers and even cancer! As physical and emotional ailments progress into more subtle realms of the spirit, we might begin to become annoyed with our loved ones, or doubt our own capabilities to change our circumstances and ourselves. If we keep succumbing to stress and falling into a habitual reactive state, before long we also begin to doubt the benevolent presence of Divine providence in our lives.

The fast pace of modern living is prompted by the desire—and the ability, thanks to technology—to be more efficient and effective. But it turns around and bites us. According to the Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, rushing is the close ally of the yetzer hara (our negative, self-sabotaging inclination). Rushing impels us to react from our animal soul (the limbic system) rather than our higher self (the altruistic, optimistic, G‑d-focused mind). It’s an astute observation, rendered all the more potent when we consider that the Ramchal lived in 18th-century Europe. Imagine what “rushing” was to him, cruising the canals of Italy on a gondola and telling time from a sundial! It doesn’t take much imagination, however, to understand what rushing means to us today. Many of us feel as though we are constantly under pressure. Whether the pressure is real or imagined, our health suffers, and our thinking becomes reactive and confused. We become far less likely to make healthy lifestyle choices, like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating well. Nor are we likely to deal with our problems or with the needs of our loved ones in a calm and elevated fashion.

How is it possible to survive, let alone thrive, in the midst of this sense of constant pressure? To gain access to our own abilities, to activate the best of ourselves rather than act from our least functional, habitual patterns of response, we first need to alter our perception and our perspective. Meditation—or perhaps mindfulness exercises that may not look like “meditation” per se—can put us on that path.

As observers of the world in which we live, we are each like a carefully crafted camera. By adjusting the focus, we can see things more clearly. By changing the lens, we can choose to see the world from a broader point of view, or zoom in from afar to examine minute details. With certain filters it is even possible to see dimensions of “what is” that are ordinarily invisible to the naked eye. It is possible to view the same objects, relationships, choices, or challenges either more clearly, or from a different perspective, or with higher definition and better resolution, when we adjust our instrument of observation. Meditation can help make those adjustments in our minds, our hearts, our nervous and endocrine systems, our emotions, our thoughts, and ultimately our souls. Meditation can be like a powerful telephoto lens that brings us closer to that which previously appeared distant and unknowable; by the same token, it can function like a wide-angle lens that affords us the perspective to see the cosmic connections in our universe.

Part Two of this series offer a variety of methods for cultivating mindfulness.

Frumma Rosenberg-Gottlieb is an educator, spiritual mentor and storyteller. This article is excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming book, co-authored with her husband Simcha Gottlieb, entitled Wholly, Wholly, Wholly. Fruma has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, and was featured in the runaway best-seller Small Miracles.
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Dr. Natan Ophir Israel October 29, 2013

Ophir, Natan. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Call for a Scientific Non-Hasidic Meditation.” B'or Ha'torah, vol. 22, 2013, 109-123. Please see my article “The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Call for a Scientific Non-Hasidic Meditation.” B'or Ha'torah, vol. 22, 2013, 109-123.
In February 1978 Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson (the Lubavitcher Rebbe) sent out a confidential memorandum asking for “doctors specializing in neurology and psychiatry” to develop a meditation program that could serve as an alternative for the popular meditative imports from the Far East such as Transcendental Meditation (TM). Dr. Yehuda Landes, a psychologist in Palo Alto, California, responded positively and soon launched a pilot project. Then in July 1979, the Rebbe issued a public announcement asking for more people to help in developing and disseminating a Jewishly acceptable form of meditation.


Anonymous NJ October 29, 2013

J Meditation: Rebbe Rashab Currently reading "Love Like Fire and Water" ("Kuntres HaAvodah") by the Rebbe Rashab, a guide to Jewish Meditation translated into English.

DEEP. Reply

Anonymous Cathedral City, Calfiornia June 13, 2012

very well written essay Kudos on a fantastic essay on Meditation and it combines with the Jewish religion. I think a lot of Jews have left looking for the meditation piece, so I'l glad to see you bringing it up! Reply

Mnedel Brooklyn, NY July 10, 2011

where can i leran more about .. ..the Rebbe's "push to make a kosher form of meditation available to the public"? Reply

Anonymous San Jose, CA June 1, 2011

Thank-you! So beautiful.... Reply

Pedro Oliveira Oeiras, Portugal March 17, 2011

scientific basis for meditation There are a lot of scientific research already with proven results on the benefits of meditation.
What I can say first hand is that my heart beat slows down, and i am totally focused. so, it helps in every aspect of my life, since we can meditate even when we are walking or driving. To meditate is to have the mind trained to be focused on whatever we are doing. Reply

Dr. Natan Ophir Jerusalem, Israel March 17, 2011

the Rebbe wanted a scientific basis for meditation Thank you for the article. The Rebbe was interested in developing meditative techniques grounded in scientific research. Ever since completing my semicha in Jerusalem in 1978, I have been trying to go in this direction by examining the neuropsychology of research in meditation research to determine how to use Jewish meditation techniques. Reply

Yachad Shifman, Israel Bet Shemesh , ISRAEL March 17, 2011

"Peace" not "peach" my last sentence was supposed to read "see PEACE reign supreme" not peach...although an abundance of peaches in the Times of Mashiach would be nice, too (-: Reply

Yachad Shifman, Israel Bet Shemesh, ISRAEL March 16, 2011

Meditation is listening to Gd If prayer is asking of Gd, then Meditation is listening to His answer. Frumma, thank you, this article really hit home, having grown up non-religious in Northern California and having seen much of the world before choosing the Torah path. Now, i am blessed to be raising 2 amazing teens in Bet Shemesh, Israel with my beloved husband of 15 years and today , when i was in a gorgeous Jerusalem health food store, I saw many beautiful people living a cultivation of consciousness and was moved to tears of gratitude. PURIM SAMEACH, may we soon see peach reign supreme! Reply

Pedro Oliveira Oeiras, Portugal March 16, 2011

Indian meditation I agree with you "Jewish Soul" regarding hindu meditation. I was lucky to have learned tibetan buddhism meditation that have no idols to be used as meditation "tools". But I'm eager to know about how to meditate having the Torah as focus object. Reply

Frumma & Simcha Gottlieb Miami, FL March 15, 2011

To "Mouse" We agree with Chekhov, and with you - there is a time and a place for brevity. However we felt that this topic is long overdue for more substantial, contextual treatment. The landscape of human consciousness is vast as well as deep; the Rebbe refrained from offering facile answers to your very valid question. Part two of this article, and future installments, G-d willing, should prove helpful. Reply

Frumma & Simcha Gottlieb Miami, FL March 15, 2011

Re: Eastern Religion Dear 'A Jewish Soul':
Thank you for your comments - and congratulations on taking this challenging, rewarding 'quantum step.' To advance beyond thirty-plus years of a practice rooted in an idolatrous culture is no simple feat. In future writings we hope to clarify the distinctions as well as the apparent similarities and help to pave the path. Reply

A Jewish soul March 15, 2011

Eastern Religion I was in an Indian religion for over 30 years. I have been to India over 50 times sitting at the feet of their holy men. Now I am trying to be Torah observant. One must be very careful not to mix up Indian religion & philosophy with Judaism. Behind most Hindu practices is idol worship though they say it's not an idol. Even the teaching of the soul is very different than Judaism. Once a person realizes they actually have a Jewish soul, they take a quantum step and realize that it is only through Judaism in which one was born will Hashem be pleased. I joined the Hindu group in the 60's and I never had any desire whatsoever to leave it. I actually gave lectures all over the world. But now I am trying to be a Jew as my ancestors were. My advice to anyone in meditation that originates from India: Do not get involved. Judaism has everything and more to make your soul transcendental according to Torah that was so lovingly given by G-d to Moses. Reply

Anonymous anywhere, earth March 15, 2011

One can reach them by way of the Pslams. Keep at it for as long as it takes. These writings can 'take you places'. Some are very, very exciting.
Elevation by way of Torah is unmatched. Nothing quite like it.
But as I only had Pslams and happy to have them, it was well worth the effort. Reply

malka calabro sachs mintz thornhill, Ontario March 14, 2011

meditation/mindfulness I became engrossed in this article. I am looking forward to Part II. Reply

Pedro Oliveira March 14, 2011

Thank you I have practiced meditation since 1997. I learned the basic buddhist meditation techniques that fit any person, because they are only techniques: focus on the breathing, focus on a image, a sound, etc And it was great for me to read your article because as a Portuguese Jew educated as a Catholic, now trying to return to my roots through conversion, it was important to know that something so important as meditation is practiced by Jews. Reply

Mouse Lexington March 14, 2011

So what is the form(s) of meditation from Rebbe? Quite a long article, yet it said very little about the claimed subject - what meditation forms (besides Prayer) did the Rebbe approve and recommend.

May I suggest that - according to Chekhov - "brevity is a sister of talent"? Please be brief and to the point. Reply

Alizah Hochstead Efrat, Israel March 14, 2011

Searching and meditation The draw to search for something in the esoteric has not lessened. I often see many people people searching for peace in many ways rather than looking at the obvious. How does one reach them? Reply

Mendel Volf Seidner Miami, fl March 13, 2011

great article looking foward for part 2 Reply

Mr. john smith March 13, 2011

Caffeine free For me, personally, I find drinking too much caffeine in coffee or other carbonated drinks do not help with today's stress levels. Daily exercises also help. Reply

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