Exploring the Connection between Judaism and Mindfulness


"Drink tea and nourish life; with the first sip, joy; with the second sip, satisfaction; with the third sip, peace; with the fourth, a Danish."

"If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?"

– Rabbi Michael Lerner

Judaism and Buddhism in the same joke? Nu! After all, both traditions share the idea that looking inward is a key to improving one’s interactions with the world outside.

In the case of Judaism, there’s Yom Kippur: it’s a deeply introspective observance, focusing on assessing our own behaviors and feelings. It’s meant to help us improve as people, and to move forward in a way that allows us to be kinder in our interactions with the world around us. In Buddhism, this ethos is echoed by the core teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which emphasize self-awareness as a way to alleviate suffering.

This sort of active self-awareness has in recent years become popularized as “mindfulness.” Rooted in Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is a philosophical, non-religious practice turning up in boardrooms, prisons, and public schools across America.

Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, who was raised in a secular Jewish family, described mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”  It is a form of meditation that emphasizes the conscious awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings, something that meshes neatly with the Jewish concept of kavanah (“directed intention”), which carries the idea that one should daven attentively and with presence of mind, and not merely by thoughtless repetition.

This connection to Judaism may account for the phenomenon of “Jubus,” Jews who practice Buddhist-style meditation.  American Jews even had a large part in introducing mindfulness to a modern audience (see sidebar).

But, just how compatible are mindfulness and Judaism? The Jewish concepts of kavanah and tefillah (joining mind and spirit through prayerful self-assessment) have close parallels in Buddhism, but they predate that philosophy by centuries or even millennia. To provide another  important example of mindfulness within Judaism, consider the observance of Shabbat and its role as a centerpiece of Jewish life: lighting candles, singing and saying brachot are meant to be done with care and conscious intent, while the acts of “unplugging” and abstaining from labor encourage an atmosphere of quiet contemplation.

I spoke with four local rabbis about their individual approaches to kavanah, tefillah and mindfulness, and how they bring these concepts to a larger audience; their remarks follow:

Rabbi Alan Flam, leader of the Soulful Shabbat Project.

In 2000, Rabbi Flam left his position as Executive Director of Brown RISD Hillel to renew his spirituality, which he felt had become “parched.” He found his renewal at the Institute of Jewish Spirituality (IJS) in New York, describing it as “a formative experience” and his inspiration for creating the Soulful Shabbat Project.

Flam conducts Soulful Shabbat services in the spirit of renewing tradition and practice, and with a focus on deeper spiritual practices and inclusivity. Participants sit in circles rather than rows, which allows everyone to be both teacher and student. Flam explained that the circle allows people to connect with each other and take turns leading services, which include poetry, drumming and chanting selected prayer passages. A Soulful Shabbat service moves slowly, allowing time for quiet contemplation.

Flam said that these services came from “an understanding that Shabbat was created to be, rather than do or create. It builds on that human need to have opportunities to be more aware and quiet, and to bring attention to who we want to be.” Describing prayer as a way of making a commitment to oneself, he explained that “making habits of practice…can add so much to our lives. Mindfulness is one of those things, and it can take many forms.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser, Temple Sinai

Rabbi Goldwasser’s interest in mindfulness started in rabbinical school, when he joined a colleague’s meditation group. The group prayed slowly, sometimes spending 45 minutes reflecting on a single verse. Goldwasser says that asking himself, “Am I trying to get through the words, or get the words through to the people?,” changed his relationship to prayer and informed his role and leadership as a rabbi.

Goldwasser says that “prayer is the instrument by which you open yourself to self-revelation,” and that it allows “God to speak to us and hear from us; the challenge is to listen.” Continuing, he said that “mindfulness is about revelation. It allows us to slow down, notice what’s inside, and hear our own wisdom about what God wants from us.”

Goldwasser holds a twice-yearly “contemplative service” at Temple Sinai, in which prayer and worship are slowed down. With a quiet focus on just a few words, he said, “[we] allow the prayers to enter into us and give them the time they need.”

He said that mindfulness practice “may only cause minute differences, but those few degrees can be life-altering. They can change entire relationships, entire attitudes, make suffering much less intense, and make you a nicer person to be around.”

Goldwasser is also involved with the IJS, and he acknowledges that “we need to be modest in our claims. [Mindfulness] isn’t going to reopen the government, but it has the potential to make people more self-aware, more joyful, and able to live with more wisdom. When people discover and engage with it, it’s worth the time it takes, and more.”

Rabbi Barry Dolinger , Congregation Beth Sholom

Rabbi Dolinger discovered mindfulness during his childhood jiujitsu classes. He recalled sitting in meditation and paying attention to his breathing before sparring, and said that he “found great comfort or solace in the familiarity of my breath.”

He also spoke about experiencing depression during his teen years, and how sitting with pain and discomfort provided another introduction to mindfulness. This was idea echoed by Goldwasser, who explained that “sometimes people in crisis are the most mindful, because it causes them to slow down and question their lives and choices.”

Dolinger emphasized the importance of gratitude as part of mindfulness practice, explaining that it “is fundamentally a recognition of the things you appreciate,” and that the “recognition of others’ roles brings agency to your own life.”

Dolinger also participates in the IJS and is a co-founder of Thrive, a local spiritual retreat. He described his involvement in these organizations by saying that “we want to bring instruction and mindfulness to rabbis to bring back to their communities.

The best way to bring mindfulness to the Jewish world is through its leaders.”

In discussing the ways he brings mindfulness to his own congregation, Dolinger said that he encourages worshippers to sit in quiet mindfulness prior to prayer, and that “any Jewish ritual, big or small, needs to have a container of mindfulness in order to have its effect.” He described a “scarcity mindset” rooted in fears about the survival of the Jewish people and the fear of lost traditions, but challenged this by saying that “Jewish life should be rooted. Mindfulness allows awareness, honesty and the recognition of fears and anxieties, and gives us the ability to ask, ‘What is this?’”

Rabbi Raphie Schochet, Rosh Kollel (Center for Jewish Studies)

Rabbi Schochet described mindfulness in terms of tefillah, explaining that prayer is about “recognizing our relationship with God,” and is “not about understanding Him, but about connecting to a higher spiritual dimension.” Finding this connection, Schochet said, requires an awareness of one’s own growth and change.

He said that this awareness comes from daily renewal and spiritual accounting, explaining the need to ask how we’ve changed ourselves and our relationships to God. “We need to continuously reassess who we are and what we’re doing,” he said, stressing that “living is about continuously changing” and that seeing things differently allows us to gain deeper understanding. He explained that changing in this way allows us to come closer to the divine ideal.

Schochet emphasized the importance of introspection, explaining that we build barriers for ourselves when “we’re just reacting to stimulation and not taking the time to reflect.” When asked how to bring such mindfulness to one’s prayers, Schochet answered, “Focus not on everything, but on small parts. Make it personal. The words simply are, but the message is your own.”

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (mschemaille@jewishallianceri.org) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.

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