Considering Meditation

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…

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Is Meditation Kosher?”
from the Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series
Chabad.org

With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
Psalm 119:13-16

Meditation can seem like it’s some sort of far out contemplative state associated with a far eastern religious practice, but both Judaism and Christianity have a history of associating meditation and prayer. I Googled “should a Christian meditate” and got a ton of search results, too numerous for me to review, especially within the context of a single “morning meditation” (Gee, there’s that word, again). I picked the first one available which is from BibleStudyGuide.org:

At first thought, meditation is something that we may believe is reserved for strange, far-out cult members. But, Christians are to spend time in meditation. The meditation of Christians is much different than cult meditation which may use a mantra. Webster defines meditate as “1: to focus ones thoughts on: reflection or ponder over 2: to plan or project in the mind … : to engage in contemplation or reflection.” The greek word logizomai is translated various ways, but is translated meditate (NKJ) and think (KJ) in Phil. 4:8. Vines says of logizomai in Phil. 4:8 “it signifies ‘make those things the subject of your thoughtful consideration,’ or ‘carefully reflect on them.'”

Paul exhorts brethren to carefully consider, reflect, ponder, meditate on those things which are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy. He says: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, what ever things are lovely, what ever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8). In other words, Christians are to immerse their thoughts in everything that is good and spiritual in the Lord.

I have no idea how accurate all that is relative to mainstream Christian thought, but it seems to be enough, on the surface, to justify Christian meditation, even as Rabbi Freeman supports Jewish meditation associated with prayer. We also see, from my quote of David in Psalm 119, that meditation upon the acts of God pre-dates the first Temple in Jerusalem, so it enjoys a very long tradition among the chosen people of God.

But what exactly is meditation, how do we employ it in terms of prayer, and how are we to consider God and ourselves through this process? In Jewish thought, it has to do with the concept of “knowing.”

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.

But what does that mean? How do we actively participate in the process of “knowing” God versus having “knowledge” of God. For a Jew, it has to do with meditation and obedience to the first five positive and the first five negative commandments of the Rambam’s 613 mitzvot.

Here’s an example from Rabbi Freeman’s article:

# 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

According to Rabbi Freeman, the process of “knowing” as well as “affirming,” “loving,” and “revering” God requires that we meditate upon Him. But that still doesn’t tell us what it means, only why a Jew must meditate; in order to obey the Torah of God. There’s also the problem of loving and revering. How can a person be commanded to love? You either love or you don’t. You can’t turn the process of loving on and off like a light switch. You can decide to meditate upon God, but can you decide upon command to also love Him?

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

According to Rambam, you can learn to love God “on command” … by meditating. Think of it the way you think about someone you love romantically. Usually, in the early days of a relationship, you can’t keep your mind of the other person. If you are apart for any reason, you think about them, remember your last conversation, imagine the way the person looked the last time you saw them, and try to conjure up the sound of their voice. In a way, you “meditate” upon them and “all their works” (things that they did). Does this not contribute to our active “knowing” of the person and our progression of “loving” them? Is that so different than David meditating on all the works and wonders of God?

But the last positive commandment is to “serve” God. What does meditating upon God have to do with serving Him? In Judaism, “serving” God is traced back to the duties of the Priests in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, when performing various services, including the sacrifices. After the destruction of Herod’s Temple by the Romans, much of the concept of the Temple service was translated into prayer. To serve God is to pray to God.

But prayer, in Judaism, isn’t just the act of “talking to God.” Especially in liturgical prayer, a Jew is to contemplate on, concentrate on, and meditate upon, the process of prayer, right down to the individual words involved in the act of praying. This sounds a lot like a sort of meditation during prayer, but meditation is also involved in the Jewish person preparing themselves for prayer, prior the act of Tefillah.

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

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.

Meditation then, is a state of preparation, wherein you make yourself ready to enter into the presence of God in His realm. You don’t just “drop in” on God (although there are times when we need Him in a very immediate sense). You treat God with awe, dignity, and respect. You prepare yourself as if you are preparing for an extremely important encounter, by making your mind and your emotions ready for the experience. All this is fine for Rabbi Freeman’s Jewish audience, but is anything he’s talking about applicable to the Christian?

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.

That seems to be a pretty straightforward answer, though if any readers found some of the Jewish concepts in this blogpost challenging, it may be a bit daunting to discover that nothing “wild and kabbalistic, esoteric or arcane” was involved. Not only is a period of contemplation and preparation required for the Jew, but it’s recommended for anyone who is about to enter the Throne room of the King of the Universe.

But how do you do that? I’ll save the answer for next time.

It has to come from the core, but we are not masters over that place.

We can barely master our wardrobe—our conscious thought, our words to others, what our hands and feet are doing. Never mind the hidden things within.

But we can do this: We can wash our clothes and bathe our skin in pure waters. Meaning: we can focus our thoughts, guide our words and clean up our act.

Once scrubbed enough that light can pass through, we await the moment when the core awakens.

This is what Moses told his people on their last day together: “The hidden things belong to G‑d. But the obvious is for us and our children forever, to do what needs to be done.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Core”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

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5 thoughts on “Considering Meditation”

  1. Wonderful blog on a topic critical for me.
    I’ve been exploring contemplative prayer for a year now, learning to quiet my noisy mind in God’s Presence, but still struggle with distracting thoughts. Slow improvement.
    Practicing when hiking in the mountains, breathing God in and out with each step opens up an awareness of every example of Creation’s beauty I pass on the trail, because I am not off thinking about the future.
    When sitting in a chemotherapy room, meditation quiets my fears of the future, lets me more easly give everything to God.

  2. You are a wonderful, living example of what I’ve been trying to write about, Joe. I wonder if “breathing God in and out” works when I’m exercising on the elliptical? 😉

    Blessings and God’s grace to you and Heidi.

  3. Great stuff, James. We think so much more clearly when we clear our mind, re-orient ourselves to heavenly reality, and think of earthly things from the divine perspective.

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