A Look into Jewish Mindfulness and Meditation

Today, many Jews who grapple with incorporating liturgical worship (also called davening) into their lives have turned instead to wordless, mindful meditation. With this practice, one can choose to reflect on God, on their place in the universe, or on something else entirely. These Jews, many in their early 20s or 30s, often grew up in Jewish communities where the cultural, social, and historical aspects of Judaism dominated over a spiritual or religious belief in God. Many of these young Jews have rekindled their spiritual connection to Jewish practice through meditation, which gives them more freedom and independence to form their own spiritual identity. We will explore this technique at Eldridge Street on July 23rd at our “Sabbath of the Mind” night of guided meditation and music, where meditation beginners and experts alike can experience a night of contemplative practice.

Although many people might think of meditation as a Buddhist tradition, contemplative and self-reflective practices play a role in many religions, including Judaism. The Hebrew word tefillah, commonly used to mean “prayer,” comes from the root l’hitpallel which translates as “to judge oneself.” This etymology demonstrates that while the purpose of Jewish prayer is to connect with God, it is also meant to encourage the worshiper to take a deep look inside his or her self and reflect on what is there. Both the outward connection to a higher power and the inward connection to our deepest selves can involve meditation, focused listening, intentional breathing, or other contemplative exercises.

While Judaism has its own history of mindfulness, many Jews (and non-Jews) are attracted to Buddhist traditions. According to an article in the Huffington Post, there are five main reasons why Jews gravitate towards Buddhism. First, as was previously mentioned, some Jews who grew up in reform or secular households do not believe in a traditional God and cannot always relate to the way Judaism is practiced in synagogues. For the Jew who feels uncomfortable praying in the traditional sense to a higher power, self-reflective meditation can offer other ways to feel spiritually connected to something larger. Second, because Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition and meditation does not require one to dedicate oneself to another deity, Jews who believe in God do not have to convert or struggle with opposing beliefs. Lastly, both Jews and Buddhists believe that humans should work together to eradicate all suffering through acts of kindness and social justice. Jews and Buddhists are two groups who have faced religious and cultural prosecution but find solace in compassion and forgiveness. The practices are more alike than one may think.

This coming Monday at 7:00, The Museum at Eldridge Street will host a “Sabbath of the Mind” event which will incorporate guided meditation with Shabbat prayer, accompanied by an communal live music performance by musicians Lisa and Sruli. The guided meditation will be led by Yael Shy, an expert on meditation, founder of the Mindfulness project at NYU, and director of the NYU Global Center for Spiritual Life. Her book, What Now? Meditation for your 20’s and Beyond discusses the benefits that young people can reap from practicing meditation in a Jewish or non-Jewish setting. The book won the Mind Body Spirit Award for “Best Meditation Book of 2017.” When it comes to mindfulness, Yael maintains that it can be beneficial to anyone, at any time and in any place, even during your daily commute to work.


Yael Shy, Director of the NYU Center for Spiritual Life (Photo from yaelshy.com)

Put the OM in SHALOM this Monday by signing up for Sabbath of the Mind online. We hope to see you there!  

Amelia Geser is a summer intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street. She is a senior studying Art History and Museum Studies at Grinnell College.

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