At Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Baltimore, Rabbi Dana Saroken spoke to her class of a dozen adults about Joseph’s realization near the end of Genesis: to move forward, he had to respond to his brothers in a new way. “What does it mean to let go of old scripts?” she asked. “How does that liberation look in our own lives?” As the congregants settled onto their mats, yoga teacher Kimberlee Strome took over, leading them in a series of poses around the theme of holding on and letting go.
And at Baltimore’s Temple Oheb Shalom, Reform Rabbi Steven Fink regularly does deep breathing exercises with bridal couples before they sign their marriage contract. “It helps them calm down, come into the present, and remember why they’re there,” he told Tricycle.
Mindfulness, meditation, and even, to some extent, yoga are becoming commonplace in American Judaism. While some believe that such practices have been part of the Jewish experience from the start, others believe that their recent popularity is due largely to the influence of Buddhism and other Eastern religions. But people in both camps believe it has had a positive effect on Judaism.
Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality said, “There have always been Jewish mindfulness practices, especially in Hassidism. Many of these contemplative practices weren’t written down, but even when we do have the words that talk about connecting with the divine, they don’t explain how to do that.”
Jewish meditation teacher Steven Siegel agreed, saying, “There are practices that I learned from the swami I studied with in the ’70s, but had I read a certain tract written by an 18th-century eastern European rabbi, I might’ve learned the same thing.”
There are three reasons that certain mindfulness practices have been absent from much of American Judaism, said Reform Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. First, the Reform movement rebelled against the trappings and practices of traditional eastern European Judaism when it took hold in the United States in the 19th century. Second, the German formality and intellectualism of early Reform Judaism rejected more soulful practices. And third, because so many Orthodox rabbis who taught meditative practices died in the Holocaust, those more soulful aspects of Judaism were lost and are only now being rediscovered.
Beginning in the 1950s but more seriously in the ’70s, some American Jews were drawn to Buddhism or at least some of its practices. During that period, several of the foremost Buddhist meditation teachers in the United States were Jewish, as was a sizable percentage of the people practicing Buddhism and Buddhist meditation, according to Dr. Emily Sigalow, author of the forthcoming book American JUBU: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change in the United States. These included Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass); Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Jacqueline Schwartz, and Sharon Salzberg, who founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts; Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, a founder of Naropa University; and Sam Bercholz, founder of Shambhala Publications. In his book The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz speculates that as late as the 1990s, perhaps a third of the Buddhist studies faculty in American Universities were Jewish. Sigalow notes that those numbers, especially among white American Buddhists, continue to be disproportionately Jewish compared with the number of Jews in the general population.
According to Reconstructionist Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, “A person can maintain her love of the dharma through meditation and still be a practicing, believing Jew. Many Jews involved in Buddhist practices are not looking for a new religion, but rather are amazed to discover that meditation and the insights that arise from it are authentic to Judaism.”
Fink believes that “many Jews, especially in the Reform community, are uncomfortable with the idea of prayer. Mindfulness is a more secular and easier to embrace euphemism for prayer, for kavanah [intentionality in prayer and deeds].”
Judaism has a long history of assimilating elements from surrounding cultures. Bendat-Appell said, “It adapted aspects of Greek rhetoric and philosophy into the Talmud and Islamic mystical tradition into Kabbalah. One of the most famous medieval Jewish philosophers, Moses Maimonides, borrowed extensively from Aristotelian philosophy.” The late Conservative Rabbi Alan Lew, author of the memoir One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, put it this way: “Judaism seems to have a kind of cell-like mechanism. We seem to know intuitively what it can absorb and what’s toxic.”
Not all mindful practices are considered equal, however. While meditation is becoming commonplace in Judaism, yoga is a harder sell.
Some people trace Jewish resistance to yoga to its origins in Eastern religions. According to Bendat-Appell, “Unlike meditation, which can be easily reshaped to eliminate the trappings of Eastern religions, yoga studios often contain statues and altars that are repellent to observant Jews. Even words like namaste—the god in you—feels trefe [not kosher] to people who focus on those things.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Judaism’s renewed emphasis on mindfulness came from Buddhism or was there all along. Reconstructionist Rabbi Geoff Basik believes that “there’s value in an eclectic spirituality as long as you’re rooted in your own. To put it another way, it’s OK to be multilingual. The tradition something comes from isn’t an important question. Does it help us access our own spirituality?”
That’s the rationale behind Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s annual Yom Kippur afternoon meditation service. “The work of Yom Kippur is to face with honesty and humility our imperfections,” says Sachs-Kohen. “It’s challenging and daunting. The meditation service enables that work, gives us the space, bookended by the liturgy.” Participants said that they left the session more open to accept what the prayers of the day have to offer.
Mindfulness practices reflect the metanarrative of Judaism, the move from slavery to freedom to redemption, according to Institute for Jewish Spirituality teacher Marvin Israelow. “That is what we’re after as individuals as well,” he said. Mindfulness practices “help us choose freedom, choose life. Breathing in and out in nature is an echad [one] moment—all is one.”
In today’s culture, Jews, Buddhists, and most other Americans are looking for ways to cope with the frenetic pace and information overload of everyday life. Congregation Beth El Rabbi Dana Saroken sees it this way: “People feel like they can’t keep up. Trying to do everything faster is not the answer; it just exhausts. Meditation, yoga, and other mindful practices are ways for people to create space in their lives in order to be present. God gave us Shabbat to provide, at least for one day, the opportunity to be a human being and not a human doing.”
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.