What Is Jewish Meditation? Discovering a Hidden World, Despite What Jewish Law Says

In his new book, Tomer Persico not only surveys the history of the pursuit of Jewish meditation and mysticism, but also attempts to reconcile an increasingly individualistic and subjective approach to religion with traditional Judaism's absolute truth.

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Yoga in Beit Shemesh.
Yoga in Beit Shemesh.Credit: Emil Salman

“Meditatziya Yehudit” (“Jewish Meditation: The Development of Spiritual Practices in Contemporary Judaism”), by Tomer Persico, Tel Aviv University Press (Hebrew), 498 pages, 79 shekels

“In what is too wondrous for you, do not request; and in what is covered from you, do not investigate. What you have been permitted to, understand; and you have no business with the hidden things.”

– Talmud, Tractate Hagigah 13a

How can a Jew, whether he is a religiously observant believer or someone who does not observe the precepts, investigate that which is too wondrous for him, which cannot be spoken, which often demands silence? Can the pragmatic religion of Judaism, which sometimes tends to be rigid and earthly, and consists in the main of a collection of commandments that mark the covenant between the Jew and his God, provide a spiritual channel that will enable the believer to achieve insights about the very essence of his existence?

These are some of the questions that Tomer Persico – a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and academic director of Midreshet Alma for Hebrew Culture – addresses in “Jewish Meditation.”

At the outset, in his introduction, Persico puts forward a tough Jewish problem: To probe the hidden and the self, Jews must import and “convert” meditative techniques originating mainly in the East. This may not present a problem for non-traditionalist Jews, but the Orthodox are obliged in such a process to resort to certain measures to conceal the “idolatry” [avoda zara], or to resolve the contradictions that are liable to arise.

Persico shares with the reader a broad knowledge of meditation practices in Judaism. We learn that both meditation and mind work have long been widely practiced (albeit quite marginal in some cases) in Judaism. The author describes the modes of Jewish meditation spanning a range of historical periods, including the literature of the “palaces and the chariot” (early mysticism), and on through Maimonides, the kabbala, Hasidism and contemporary Jewish thinkers. He also emphasizes the development of meditation and its various transformations as they occurred in the internal spiritual life of Judaism.

Persico’s book is less about Jewish meditative practices as such, than about a range of Jewish thinkers who addressed the subject and the way it has been integrated into the religion. Understanding the essence of Jewish meditation and the search for the Jewish self entails thorough immersion in the text. However, the dense style in which the considerable knowledge that needs to be absorbed is presented here, is a drawback: The author’s academic approach gives rise to a systematic and thorough text, but it also can present a stumbling block to the lay reader. There is often an excess of detail. Little thought seems to have been given to making the book accessible to the general public, which is particularly regrettable in the light of the riveting subject.

“Jewish Meditation” offers a treasure trove of Jewish thinkers who are not widely known in Israel. A case in point is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014), who urges the practitioner “to imagine himself having died as a martyr in a Nazi gas chamber, and in the midst of this to read the ‘Shema,’ envision himself fading into the infinite, imagine the body’s tensions leaving it, and to conjure up God’s name while performing sexual relations.” Or Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943), the grand rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland, for whom meditation leads to prophecy – an inner experience that reaches its zenith in the spectacle of immanent divinity in the world and all it contains.

The XIV Dalai Lama and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi during the historic Jewish-Buddhist dialogue in Dharamsala, India, October 25, 1990ץCredit: Rodger Kamenetz

Persico becomes less cautious and more outspoken in the latter part of the book and the epilogue, where his personal opinion is heard clearly. In the concluding chapter, he shows systematically how meditation practices in Judaism have become increasingly popular as we advance further into the modern and post-modern era – what he calls the “subjective turning point.” One reason for this development is the contraction of the transcendental God. God becomes internal; he is transformed from a supervising divinity exterior to human beings, into a divinity that can be anywhere, including in the believer’s mind. Thus, the New Age movement, which lies at the heart of contemporary religious processes, has created personal spirituality. Neoliberalism and hyper-capitalism have brought about a situation in which, as Persico writes, “the humanist vision of man as a whole, evolving entity is sometimes supplanted by an approach that sees the individual as no more than a collection of flickering experiences.”

Since the book under review addresses the Jewish dimension of spirituality and the New Age, one needs to ask just what the subject of Jewish spiritualism is. One clear criterion for defining a person as a Jew is his observance of the precepts. That condition stems from a conception that holds Judaism to be a practical religion in which action precedes understanding.

The Jewish sages, in promoting their anti-Hellenistic approach, fought against the philosophy that separates body from mind. From their point of view, the act, or the law, generates the Jewish self; in this sense, upholding the precepts is upholding one’s personal existence. The praxis of the commandments eliminated any possibility of forging a private self that is not brought into being by law and by justice; the personal, individual Jew is only part of a judicial-political body in which the divinity is sometimes marginal or irrelevant. There is no place for spirituality and what is wondrous; we are left with a shallow Jewish subject, void of complexity.

Yet, according to Persico, there have always been streams in the religion that made it possible for a Jew to understand his interior world and to try to grasp its essence. But the neoliberal era has accelerated certain processes and given rise to a vulgar society in which people are reduced to a machine-like state and to repressing the fact that they are part of a community. Religion for Jews – and in particular, when they are the process of becoming religiously observant – is currently perceived as a personal voyage of self-reform, not as a return to a society that possesses absolute morality. The mitzvot, which testified to the covenant between God and his people, become a means for personal spiritual development, which might even be egoistic.

“The freedom to do as we please as long as we hurt no one,” writes Persico, “became the sole criterion that is brandished as an answer to every question. Other classic fields of morality and of the meaning of community, commitment to others and development are not taken into account This situation is liable to cause communal fragmentation Without balance and a broad human approach, the turn inward in the search for pleasure and happiness leads to deeper alienation, insensitivity and suffering.”

Persico does in fact suggest a solution to the postmodern situation: a reformation and updating of Judaism, in order to correct the present ethical situation, which is “tainted by egocentrism, instrumental utilitarianism, communal atomization and sentimental subjectivism.” Judaism’s reform is to be effected through a dialogue with prevalent New Age practices, and thus will address the Jewish yearning for a personal spiritual quest. The remaking of Judaism, says Persico, could influence society in general, acting as a dam to the neoliberal tsunami of extreme preoccupation with the self.

At the same time, it is imperative to ask: Should the present era be seen as a crass period of neoliberalism, in which only live individuals, lacking concern for the social-political structure, in which the concept of absolute morality possesses no value, in which there is actually no clear truth? Are neoliberalism and hyper-capitalism to blame for everything?

Man, the wondrous being who thousands of years ago translated nature into mystical forces and now understands it with the aid of special instruments he fashioned, is trying to understand his existence, and just as he secularized nature he is secularizing his inner self. It cannot be ruled out that mistakes will occur and that many will become lost and will indeed be transformed into little more than, "flickering emotions," as Persico puts it. In the end, though, he wants to return humans to a place to which return is impossible: the past.

Change, any change, encounters opponents. The subjective turning point is one of the deepest changes being undergone by humanity, so it is good and important that Persico is addressing it. Now, though, we are perhaps charged with the responsibility not to try to amend religion, but to strive to end its political-social function. If so, it will perhaps also become possible for mankind to seek the too wondrous and to watch as this singular creature is transformed from being part of a flock with a shepherd into an autonomous entity, connected to the whole universe. “Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, svaha!” (From the “Heart Sutra”; translation: Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh)

Dr. Meir Bar-Maymon is a participant in in the Biblia Arabica project of Tel Aviv University, which is studying the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Arabic, and its reception. He is also a researcher of political theology at Sciences Po in Paris, as well as a teacher of yoga.

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