Moving Toward Meditation: Too Much?
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My husband has become increasingly involved with yoga, meditation and mindfulness over the last year or so. He says that his practice helps him calm down and feel more peaceful. I notice that he seems much more interested in these activities than anything synagogue- or Jewish-related, and this worries me. I don’t think he is setting a good example for our children, and I worry that his hobby can become cultish.

Dear Anonymous,

Interest in meditation and mindfulness has skyrocketed over the past few years. Enthusiasts describe psychological benefits such as stress reduction, better mood and greater awareness. Physical benefits include improved flexibility and strength. In theory these practices emphasize psychological and physical awareness and are religiously neutral. In other words, they need not conflict with Jewish tradition. In fact, our Jewish heritage has a rich meditation lore deriving in the main from chasidic teachings. 

Objections to Jews participating in mindfulness, meditation and yoga practice fall into two main camps. The first is that many of the popular programs have strong connections to eastern religions. Imagery invoking Buddhism or Hinduism is often visible in yoga classes. While a statue of a Hindu deity isn’t necessary for either meditation or a headstand, the presence of such an icon at the front of a room can feel idolatrous. Similarly, much of the written material uses terminology from eastern traditions and can be off-putting. However, the basic principles of awareness, intention and loving kindness underlying meditation traditions have much in common.

The second objection is a concern that meditation and mindfulness practice might lead to excessive focus on the individual self and distract from religious and communal obligations. Certainly this can be true of any intense pursuit that becomes an all-consuming passion. Sports and the Internet are frequently cited absorptions that sap spouses’ energy from participating in family or community activities. Ideally, the clarity and calm achieved from mindfulness, meditation and yoga would enhance the rest of life, not become an end to itself. For example, yoga and meditation might be used to prepare for formal prayer.

I suggest that you spend some time getting to know what your husband likes about his new pastime. Talk with him about his experience, maybe even attend a class. Try to understand what he is getting from mindfulness/meditation and yoga that he doesn’t feel has been there for him in organized Jewish life thus far. Look into the Jewish literature on mindfulness and meditation. Perhaps you and your husband might read a book or attend a class that will connect his interests with Jewish tradition. Talk with people at your synagogue or Jewish community center about trying to arrange programming that combines yoga, meditation and mindfulness with Jewish spirituality and practice.

Dr. Michelle Belfer Friedman, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, invites Jewish Week readers to send questions to Issues related to psychology, psychiatry and the interface of mental health and general culture are welcome.

Last Update:

12/03/2011 - 18:16
Jewish life, Judaism, meditation, mindfulness

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yoga is no more that a name for self communication, has nothing to do from where it comes from. As such we most need to be withdrawn of daily activities. It is only another way to talk with G-d. The nature of unity is love.

I believe Dr. Friedman articulated the camps of objection well but thought her responses were inadequate. Regard the first objection, eastern imagery and idolatry, even the themes are awareness, intention, and loving kindness are present in Judaism, they are always present without idols. I went into these practices knowing there are common themes -- thats what made me comfortable. The deeper you get into the Eastern practices, though, the more you start to value the idols and other dieties (which can similarly be rationalized to fit in with Judaism). Before you know it, another faith replaced Judaism. Religions are strange in that its tough to tell when another is taking over. The second objection, distraction from religious and communal obligations, is also legitimate. Your analogy to sports does not quite fit because a practitioner may perform eastern rites (meditation, kirtan, pranayama, asanas, yoga diet) instead of performing Jewish rites (meditation, tefillin, prayer, kashrut). Most people have to work as well and tho it is possible to perform all of these practices, there are only 24 hours in the day. The question of priorities between yoga or judaism is different from the question of priorities between baseball and judaism because, to most, baseball isnt a religion. This isnt to say that you cant merge the two practices -- its just not that simple. Rabbi Gelberman, who passed away last month, did significant work in this field.
Your view is small minded. Yoga and meditation do not have to be at odds with ones Jewish-ness. Rather then feel threatened by this, it would be far more useful to embrace it and be happy that your husband has found a path that brings him peace. He is a good example for your kids--not bad. You should try yoga and meditation too!
The Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn is doing incredible work and has accessible, meaningful, and spiritually fulfilling programming. Everyone, not matter where you live, should check them out!

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