When Eleni Zatz Litt started to explore meditation practices during her training to be a yoga teacher and an art therapist, she looked to her own traditions. “Judaism for me is the anchor, the starting point,” she said. Litt is a member of The Jewish Center in Princeton and associate provost for faculty affairs at The New School in New York.
In the “Sh’ma Yoga” classes she occasionally leads at her synagogue she sometimes uses the kabbalistic concept of “adam kadmon” — a representation of a person on which the sefirot, or emanations of God, are mapped — to enhance the balance embodied in a yoga pose. She might ask students to think about balancing divine attributes such as love and justice. For a meditation focus, she may visualize a single Hebrew letter or the letters of God’s name, or an image like climbing Jacob’s ladder.
With the help of spiritual seekers with strong Jewish identities, meditation is slowly penetrating into Jewish practice. In central Jersey, clergy and their congregants are integrating meditation into Jewish practice both within and outside of traditional Shabbat services.
“That spiritual connection that people were craving and weren’t finding in their synagogues and caused them to go to India and be in an ashram, that desire to connect in a meaningful way through Jewish practice — today that desire is much more able to be met within the walls of a synagogue,” said Joanna Dulkin, hazan at the Jewish Center and a faculty member at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality based in New York.
Psychologist Ruth Goldston, a Jewish Center member, came to meditation as a useful aid for moving her patients toward self-exploration and self-acceptance, and from her experience of guided meditations in the havurah movement, a grassroots Jewish movement based on egalitarianism, creativity, and community building.
“Most of what Buddhists do can be translated into Jewish terms, Jewish words,” Goldston said.
She has been experimenting with taking, once a month, a mindful, meditative approach to the Shabbat Mincha, or afternoon service, held at 3 p.m. at the Jewish Center. She structures the service around a verse from Ashrei (moving alphabetically through the acrostic) and a text from the upcoming week’s Torah portion, interspersed with meditations and niggunim, or wordless melodies.
For Cantor Florence Friedman, who attends Congregation Beth El in Yardley, Pa., and the Flemington Jewish Community Center and is cantor emeritus at Temple Sinai in Summit, meditation is personally transformative. She started a meditation group five years ago at Temple Sinai and now runs one at Beth El (next dates are April 8 and June 10) from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. during the Psukei D’Zimra service on Shabbat morning. She has also led meditation sessions at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville.
At Temple Sinai, she said, many people she didn’t know came to the meditation service; “I think they were looking for a way into their Judaism in a different way.”
At each service she shares some meditation basics and focuses the meditation on “insight,” often using an idea presented in that week’s Torah portion. For example, she might explore the fear and anxiety Jacob felt when contemplating his meeting with Esau and his consequent transformation wrestling with the angel as a way for individuals to explore similar conflicts in their lives.
Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the Center for Jewish Life/Princeton University Hillel, became curious about meditation as a rabbinical student and felt most comfortable exploring it in Jewish settings. This past Yom Kippur, right before the Neilah service, Roth tried out a blessing practice she had adapted from one she learned at a meditation retreat run by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She invited the congregation to repeat in their minds the mantra, “May I be sealed for a good year,” and then replaced “I” with “loved ones,” and then again with “the Jewish people.”
Although some congregants loved the exercise and some hated it, she suggested that it is important for individuals to take risks in their Jewish spiritual lives. “Sometimes you get to a better place and sometimes you feel resistance, but I think it is better than the numbness of our routine,” she said.
What may come as a surprise for many is that meditation has some deep historical connections to Jewish practice. Even the Torah describes episodes that sound like meditation. For example, when the patriarchs experience God — Moses at the burning bush or Jacob’s dream about a ladder reaching skyward — they are alone and removed from everyday life, which is part of the meditation process.
Chasidic rabbis practiced a form of meditation inseparable from their relationship with God; for example, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav in the late 19th and early 20th century practiced “hitbodedut,” which Litt described as “being alone, being on one’s own with God.”
Nahman would “go out into nature and experience God’s wonder in the world,” Dulkin said, “and he would have a conversation with God like you have on the phone with your friend.”
“When we treat God in this way, as this beloved friend, there’s an opportunity to enter into a relationship with God,” said Dulkin, who has run a monthly meditation service on Shabbat morning that “is loosely based on the order of the prayers, just giving more space for contemplation” and focusing on selected ideas or concepts from the service.
Like her, some of her clerical colleagues who have studied at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality are beginning to bring spiritual practices into their synagogues. “It is very powerful to have your rabbi on the bima encouraging you to find your own relationship with God, or to take a deep breath, or to focus on one word rather than a whole paragraph, or to think about what prayer might mean to you personally,” said Dulkin.
“When you enter into a meditative space and are able to leave the reliable express train of the traditional service and get into a slower mode, I think you are able to reenter your life, and the service, with an enhanced sense of wonder, of awareness.”