Dear Rabbi Fried,
I spent years as a devotee of Transcendental Meditation and was recently challenged by an old friend why I have traveled so distant from our own religion and why don’t I seek my spirituality from the religion of my ancestors, Judaism. My response was that I’ve been Jewish all my life and attended High Holiday services, etc., and never found anything spiritual about it. My friend’s rebuttal was that I never checked into it as an adult and have been sidestepping the issue based on my impression as a kid. Perhaps if I’d look into this as an adult with fresh, new eyes I would find deep spirituality in Judaism. That’s the nutshell version of our discussion. Since then, I’ve spoken with a number of somewhat educated Jews, and nobody has pointed me to anything that smacks of meditation or the like within the framework of Judaism. Before I give up, it was suggested to me that I reach out to you to see if you can say anything redeeming in this direction, if not, I rest my case.
Your question reminds me of a sobering conversation I had with an old friend in Indianapolis some 45 years ago when I was home for summer break from my yeshiva studies. I asked my friend, who often pursued interesting paths, what he’s into these days. His response, he’s gotten involved in Zen Buddhism. When I asked him what about pursuing spirituality in Judaism, he retorted that he’s been doing that since he’s a kid and there’s nothing spiritual there.
So, I know from that conversation and much of what I’ve read and heard from many, that your question is not an uncommon one. Perhaps if the rich, meaningful spiritual message which pervades traditional Judaism was made known to young Jews, many more would be happily seeking and finding deep spiritual experiences within their own heritage and traditions, rather than entering “foreign territory.”
Truth be told, traditional Judaism is laden with the deepest, most profound spiritual dimensions. Deep meditations are part and parcel of many of our prayers and rituals.
Meditation, by and large, consists of thinking in a controlled manner (a task easier said than done). It is, at times, working on controlling the conscious and unconscious minds and their inner conflicts, knowing that at times we seem to have separate, competing minds. This idea is discussed at length in the classical work of Jewish philosophy, the Tanya, which instructs us how to, through deep meditation, achieve self-mastery and control. This is the goal of many of the most important schools of meditation and here we find it deeply imbedded in Judaism.
Another goal of Transcendental Meditation and other forms of meditation is “knowledge of the self.” The goal includes self-knowledge without ego, with a high state of objectivity. This is a key focus of Mussar. Mussar is an area of study within Judaism which espouses some of the most profound levels of meditation on a particular Torah thought. The thoughts, or quotes, are chosen with a focus upon self-improvement in certain areas which allow one to transcend one’s physical existence and become one with that thought or teaching.
We are barely scratching the surface of the spirituality within our tradition. Perhaps we’ll devote the upcoming columns to investigate your question further, for the benefit of the many readers who, undoubtedly, share your feelings.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.