1. Meditation is:

Deep breathing, release of muscle tension, prolonged stillness
Repetitive chanting, clearing the mind
Focus on sounds, objects, forms, letters
Mindfulness of thought, speech and action
Deep contemplation of the cosmos and inner self

2. The purpose of meditation is:

Relaxation
Serenity
Enlightenment, higher consciousness, “glow”
Inspired living
Restructuring of cognitive perception and response

3. In classic, mainstream Judaism, meditation is:

Forbidden
Frowned upon
Optional
Recommended
Obligatory

Is Meditation Kosher?

Let’s start with #3. The cruel facts are that to do what a Jew has got to do, you must think. Not just think as in “If apples are $2/lb., then two pounds are gonna cost me $4.” I mean think as in contemplate, cogitate, ponder, fire up your cerebral cortex into high gear.

That was Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda’s point. Rabbi Bachya was a Jewish sage of 11th century Spain. He noted that many authors write about what a Jew is supposed to do and speak—what he calls “duties of the external limbs”—but none write about the “duties of the heart.” He penned a classic work by that name that is still studied to this day. In his introduction, he provides his list of some of the Torah obligations that involve mind and heart. Among them, those that are relevant to deep, contemplation—which he recommends throughout the book:

  • Knowing that the universe has a Creator who created it with nothing to start from;
  • Knowing the complete oneness of that Creator with all our heart;
  • Knowing that there is nothing to which He can be compared;
  • Accepting within our hearts to serve Him;
  • Discovering His existence through contemplating that which He has created.

Over a century later, Maimonides compiled his authoritative version of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. The first five positive mitzvot and the first negative mitzvah are fulfilled only through meditation:

# Mitzvah Source Text Source
+1 Knowing that there is G‑d. I am G‑d your G‑d who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your G‑d. Exodus 20:2; Deut. 5:6
-1 Knowing that there is no power other than G‑d. You shall have no other gods besides me. Exodus 20:3; Deut. 20:4
+2 Affirming G‑d’s oneness. Hear O Israel, the G‑d is our G‑d, the G‑d is one. Deut. 6:4
+3 Loving G‑d. You shall love G‑d your G‑d with all your heart… Deut. 6:5
+4 Revering G‑d. You shall revere G‑d Deut. 6:13
+5 Serving G‑d with your heart (i.e. prayer) You shall serve G‑d your G‑d.
…and to serve Him with all your heart”
Exodus 23:25; Deut. 11:13

Note, both in Maimonides’ language and in Bachya, the knowing. Not “to know,” but actively, perpetually going about knowing. There's a difference between knowledge and knowing. You can stop knowing and still have knowledge. Knowledge is something you have. Knowing is something you do.

Let’s start with knowing there is G‑d. That there is a singularity from which all existence extends (a.k.a. G‑d) sits at the foundation of Judaism. But there’s no “say this five times and you get a bowl of rice” (or even chicken soup). It’s not a matter of knowledge but of an ongoing awareness, a state of consciousness that drives itself deeper and deeper into an infinitely profound mystery.

The same with knowing that there is “none else”: All your senses tell you there’s a world out there, following defined patterns of multiple forces. Knowing that there is no power outside of G‑d demands a perpetual state of awareness. Perpetual knowing.

Beyond that, in the Jewish credo, Shema Yisrael, you declare that “G‑d is one”—not just that there is only one of Him, but a perfect oneness, so that there is no true existence outside of that oneness. But hold on. See that world around you? Think again. It’s reality is under question. You could say it’s both there and not there. Keep thinking. You’re meditating already—just what Shema Yisrael demands of you.

If you still thought you could get away with no-brainer mitzvah observance, take a look at numbers four and five. Here you’re directed to love and revere. Not mitzvahs to be taken lightly: The mitzvah to love G‑d, the Sefer Hatanya tells us, is the root of all positive mitzvot; and the mitzvah to revere G‑d is the root of all negative (do not do) mitzvot.

But what if you don’t feel love or reverence, what do you do then? You can command a person to do, to speak, even to consider something—but to feel love and to feel reverence? Along comes Maimonides once again and tells you that these two mitzvahs are commands to meditate:

What is the path to love and reverence of G‑d? Meditate on His actions and on His wonderful and vast creations and you will become aware of His endless and unlimited wisdom. Immediately you will come to love, praise and glorify G‑d with great desire to know His great name.

Rambam (Maimonides), Foundations of Torah 2:2

The Magid of Mezritch (disciple and heir to the Baal Shem Tov) said something quite similar. He taught that when Torah says, “You shall love G‑d your G‑d with all your heart,” it is not as much a command as it is a guarantee: If you will “Hear O Israel”—meaning, meditate deeply—that “G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is One,” then you are guaranteed to come to love Him. Turns out that “to love” means to contemplate that which awakens love—i.e. meditate.

Meditation and Tefillah

Which brings us to our topic: Mitzvah #5. Serving G‑d with all your heart—which we discovered in installment #3 was the definition of prayer. We also said that prayer is principally a mind-and-heart exercise—the articulation of words being ancillary to the thinking of thoughts. Open your standard codification of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, and it couldn’t be more explicit:

During tefillah, you must focus your heart on the meaning of the words your lips are uttering. You must imagine G‑d’s presence right there before you. Dismiss whatever thoughts are bothering you until you are left with a clear mind to focus on your tefillah…

This was the practice of inspired and legendary people; they would seclude themselves and focus on their tefillah to the point that they transcended their physical senses, and their mental powers dominated bringing them close to prophecy.

If an extraneous thought comes into your mind during the tefillah, stay quiet until the thought disappears.

It’s necessary to think about matters that subdue the heart and focus it on your Father in heaven. Don’t think about empty matters.

Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1

In case someone missed the point, Rabbi Moshe Isserles spells it out plain and simple in his gloss on the spot:

Before tefillah, ponder matters of the majesty of the exalted G‑d and of the smallness of humankind. Remove all human pleasures from your heart.

—R’ Moshe Isserles, ibid.

Turns out there are two mind-heart exercises involved in tefillah: Besides focusing on the words your lips are saying in tefillah, you also need to calm down the scattered thoughts inside your skull and get it focused, clear and inspired. The Mishna calls this koved rosh—literally, “a heavy head”:

Don’t begin tefillah until you have achieved koved rosh. The fervent ones of old [“chassidim harishonim”] would pause for an hour before tefillah, so that they could focus their hearts on their Father in heaven.

Talmud Berachot, 30b

Detail from a painting by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman
Detail from a painting by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman

I haven’t cited anything wild and kabbalistic, esoteric or arcane (don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon). Just plain Judaism, the stuff that’s meant for every Jew—and wouldn’t hurt for all the rest of humanity as well. Judaism, as Rabbi Bachya devoted so many pages to express, is not a religion of robotics. Every action begins with mind and is imbued with heart and soul. “G‑d desires the heart,” declares the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106b), and the heart is brought close through the contemplation of the mind.

It’s just that it’s so much easier to manipulate the other limbs of the body—to walk, to do, to speak—but to think, and direct one’s own mind to think for any duration on one subject, that’s not only hard, but novel. Sad to say, most human beings go through their entire lives without every taking their minds into their own hands.

So in upcoming installments, we’ll discuss just that: How to take ownership of your mind, focus it on subjects that will awaken and focus the heart, and thereby truly harness the power of both of those organs. That way, we not only fulfill six of the foundation mitzvot of the Torah, we imbue life and soul to all the rest. We also make life a lot more interesting.

We’ll get to all that. But first, we still need to answer the questions in our questionnaire: Where do serenity and shifted consciousness fit in? Do we do those too? Next installment.