Spiritual Audacity

Hear, O Israel, It’s Time to Meditate

Jewish woman praying at Western Wall
My daughters recently took up yoga, which means I’m now on the hook to sew a bag for my oldest daughter to carry her yoga mat –but more about that later. Thinking about yoga’s meditative aspects sent me back to my bookshelf yesterday to take another look at Jewish Meditation, the guide written by Aryeh Kaplan. Kaplan is one of our era’s most respected and –despite his short life– most prolific scholars of both Torah and Jewish mysticism. I’ve tried meditation a few times in my life and never got very far with it, but in rereading Kaplan I was struck again by one of the most provocative ideas I’ve ever come across about Jewish practice: that the Amidah, the prayer recited during each of the three daily prayer services, wasn’t intended to be a prayer but a mantra to aid meditation.

While a prayer is typically a statement of praise, petition, or thanksgiving directed toward God, a mantra is a phrase a person uses to enter a different state of consciousness; a state of consciousness in which she is more open to experiencing God’s presence or spiritual insights. That’s a lot of lofty potential for a practice that, quite frankly, sometimes just feels like a chore. Kaplan makes the case:

The meditative discipline that was composed by the Great Assembly ended up as the Amidah, a “standing” prayer consisting of eighteen sections, which would be repeated silently, in an upright position, three times each day. It is true that nowadays the Amidah is thought of more as a prayer than a meditative device, but the most ancient sources regard it as a meditation. Indeed, the Talmud verifies that this was its original intention.

This also explains why the Great Assembly legislated that the same prayer be repeated three times each day. People often complain that saying the same prayer over and over is tedious and uninspiring. For anyone familiar with mantra meditation, however, the opposite is true. All types of matra meditation involve repetition. In mantra meditation, the device repeated is a word or phrase, and it can be repeated over and over for weeks, months, or even years on end.

…The Amidah could therefore be looked upon as one long mantra. In many ways, it has the same effects as a mantra, lifting the individual to a high meditative level of consciousness. As we shall [see], there is an entire literature that describes how the Amidah can be used in this manner. But most important, there is ample evidence that it was originally composed as a common form of meditation to be used by the entire Jewish nation.”

So how does this post fit into a sewing blog? Well, I have to make a bag for one of my daughters to carry her yoga mat, and I’ve come up with a suitably Jewish meditative embroidery design for the bag that I’ll share on the blog. So stay tuned for that!

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(Photo: Woman praying at the Western Wall, 2012 by Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia Commons)