Book Review: Jewish Meditation, A Practical Guide by Aryeh Kaplan.

Reviewed by Steven J. Gold, blog: yajcenter.blogspot.com, email:
yajcenter@aol.com

This book is one of the ground-breaking works by this Orthodox rabbi who
was the earliest of modern Jewish teachers to reveal to the general public
aspects of traditional Jewish meditation practices and related mystical
teachings that had long been kept concealed within the province of secretive
Kabalistic learning circles. Rabbi Kaplan had earlier written Meditation
and the Bible and Meditation and Kabbalah. In his introduction to Jewish
Meditation, he admits that the earlier works were not accessible for practical
application for those not already familiar with basic theory and practice.
Thus he wrote Jewish Meditation, A Practical Guide in response to a need
for such a manual. I will add here to the chorus of many others who highly
recommend this work for anyone interested in meditation generally, and in
Jewish meditation specifically.

From the perspective provided to me by my background in the raja yoga
and Vedanta systems, it was very interesting to become acquainted
with Kaplan’s approach. He begins with introductory chapters about the
usefulness and purpose for meditation techniques comparable to what is
found in many meditation manuals. His definition of meditation is very
broad, including many different practices which other traditions would call by
other names, such as “concentration” and “contemplation”. He acknowledges
that there are different Hebrew terms for these various forms in order to
distinguish them. But his basic definition is “Meditation consists of thinking
in a controlled manner. It is deciding exactly how one wishes to direct the
mind for a period of time, and then doing it…Meditation is thought directed
by will.” This is actually a little disappointing to me, because for me, the
core of meditation is about non-doing, of locating that place of quiet mind
that already exists within us, sitting/bathing in it, which elicits a heightened
state of receptivity, and allowing whatever comes to unfold and be received
from sources beyond the mind. This is consistent with the definition of the
word “kabalah” meaning “receiving”. Kaplan does acknowledge this as an
advanced form which focuses on “nonthought” or on nothingness. However,
he warns that “this form of meditation can be dangerous and should not be
attempted without a practiced guide or master”. For me, the other forms
that he describes as structured and directed contain the most potency when
initiated after the quiet mind state is engaged, not before, as he seems to
advocate.

The remainder of the book reviews various practices — structured,
unstructured, directed, undirected — which he gleaned from the research
contained in his earlier books. He tries to distinguish Jewish techniques from
others, and there is no question that there is a great variety of practices
within the Jewish tradition (almost a dizzying variety), some which may be

unique and particular to Judaism, but for many practices, the similarities
to descriptions from other traditions is inescapable. This includes a mantra
practice like in yoga, utilizing Hebrew phrases instead of Sanskrit. Certainly,
what is unique to Jewish practices is employing Hebrew phrases and Jewish
scriptures and sources, but other traditions similarly engage phrases from
their chosen sacred languages and scriptures. He is very insistent on
maintaining that although there may be similarities between Jewish and
non-Jewish meditation practices, and that “all forms have characteristics in
common”, that “does not imply any special relationship between [them]” or
that one is derived from the other. This reflects, in part, a concept of what
I call “similar independent revelation”, but it strives to deny, somewhat
unconvincingly, that similarities exist because they derive from a common
source, ascribing them to something more like insignificant coincidence.
However, he elsewhere acknowledges that there was a significant interplay
and mutual influencing between Jewish sages and mystics from other
traditions, including Christians, Sufis and Indians.

The chapter on contemplation contains a few interesting subjects.
One is an analysis of various levels of meaning and significance to the
Tetragrammaton. Another concerns contemplating on a flame.

There is a chapter on visualization followed by a chapter on nothingness,
in which Kaplan persists in describing techniques by which the mind is
actively engaged in fostering up images and conceptions, even that of
nothingness, instead of encouraging a mode of inner receptivity by which
one looks to receive images and a sense of nothingness originating from
the Divine source within and beyond the mind. For me, meditation is not
about manipulating the mind, but rather quieting the mind, which enables
discovery of states of consciousness beyond the mind. Imagining Divine
Light or Divine Sound through a visualization/fabrication of the mind is not
the same as experiencing Divine Light or Divine Sound coming forth on their
own accord as an inner revelation. Kaplan, however, warns against “spurious
visions” that might come forward into the mind of a novice meditator. It
is certainly important to guard against images and “visions” that are mere
inner emotional churning machinations of an agitated mind stirred up by the
meditative process, as distinct from real revelation, but there are criteria
to distinguish between the two. Real revelation is not accompanied by an
emotional charge, but is rather quite dispassionate and matter-of-fact in its
appearance. Kaplan cites some sources that recommend banishing spurious
visions, and replacing them with the Tetragrammaton, although later in the
book, he states that the Baal Shem Tov encouraged an inspection of them.
This is consistent with the teachings from my yoga tradition that it is an
important process of self-therapeutic meditation to allow such images and
thoughts to arise and be observed, but without getting emotionally involved
with them or acting upon them.

He devotes a chapter to “Conversing with God”, focusing on the technique
prescribed by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, discussed in Meditation and
Kabalah. He then launches into two related chapters, “The Way of Prayer”
and “Relating to God”, focusing on the central prayer of the Amidah as not
only a prayer, but as a meditation device/long mantra. He goes into some
detail about the history and deep meaning to the Amidah, and methods
to recite it in a meditative fashion. He quite curiously concludes with a
discussion of kundalini yoga in the context of the directions of bowing and
raising up in reciting the Amidah. He relates the 18/19 blessings of the
Amidah/Shemoneh Esrey as corresponding to the vertebrae of the spine,
and that the bowing and rising up is an exercise intended to activate the
spine and the kundalini energy associated with it.

The Chapter on “Unification” is devoted to an examination of the Shema
prayer, as its message is the message of Oneness, and utilizing it as the
basis for a meditation practice. The Chapter on “The Ladder” discusses the
vision of Jacob’s Ladder, and how midrash relates that the ladder had four
steps, relating to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, the four worlds,
and also to four layers of the soul. He also describes how the sequence in
the traditional morning shacharith service guides one through these four
levels, starting from the most gross to the most subtle, and then brings one
back down to earth to instill the highest consciousness into daily living. He
contends that the entire service can therefore be regarded as a meditation.

The Chapters, “In All Your Ways”, “The Commandments”, and “Between
Man and Woman” describe a Jewish version of Tantra. They express the
concept that every single action can be viewed as sacred and conducted
as meditation in action. First, “In All Your Ways” expresses the idea that
God is immanent in all things, so dealing with anything is dealing with God.
Second, “The Commandments” expresses that there are certain activities
that have been designated as particularly helpful in providing direction and
spiritual guidance in life. And third, “Between Man and Woman” expresses
that proper sexual relations is a particularly unique sacred activity, as it
mimics the very act of ongoing creation whereby the interplay between male
and female is essential for creating and sustaining anything and everything.

The book ends with a chapter entitled “Remolding the Self”. As sympathetic
as Kaplan appears concerning Chasidism, Jewish Mysticism, and Kabbalah,
it is interesting that he ends the book with this chapter discussing the
Musar movement, which he says was a reaction to Chasidism. The Musar
movement developed among the Mitnaggedim, opponents of the Chasidic
movement. Musar schools taught that it was not enough to live the righteous
life vicariously through a master, as had become common in Chasidic circles.
To the contrary, Musar maintained that every individual had an obligation
to strive to live the righteous life in his own right. It offered a program
through which every person could gradually perfect himself. He explains

that Musar focuses on one’s relation with one’s fellow beings in addition to
one’s relationship with God. Musar means “self-perfection”, and as such,
focuses on methods to overcome individual shortcomings in order to be a
better citizen of the world. Kaplan contends that the type of introspective
Musar “self-help” techniques can be seen as individualized meditations, and
that by engaging in these meditations, positive results can be realized. By
concluding the book with this chapter, Kaplan is making the point that the
real test of spiritual development is not only in attaining lofty meditational
levels, but in how one brings those attainments to bear in one’s interactions
with the everyday mundane world and its challenges and relationships,
starting first with the family unit, and especially between spouses. Perhaps
the greatest testers to our spiritual development that we have are those
closest to us, who can challenge us and press our “hot buttons” like no one
else. This is the ultimate “reality check”, where “the rubber meets the road”.
[The last three phrases in quotes are mine, not Kaplan’s!]