Contemplative Judaism

By Rabbi Rachel Cowan

The Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) just completed a week-long program at the Garrison Institute. “Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training” was well attended by a mix of rabbis, teachers and social activists.  We asked Rabbi Rachel Cowan, director of IJS as well as a Garrison Institute board member, to tell us about Contemplative Judaism.

Contemplative practices lie at the heart of Contemplative Judaism – a small but growing and dynamic movement that is renewing, reinterpreting and revitalizing the meditative stream that has always been present within Jewish tradition. “Contemplative Judaism” describes a cluster of spiritual forms and practices that share, to one degree or another, a series of related elements: silence, quieting the mind, concentration, attentiveness, inwardness, receptivity, reflectivity, cultivation of ethical/spiritual qualities, and disciplined practice. Such practices as mindfulness meditation, yoga, spiritual direction, mussar (refinement of inner moral qualities through reflection and practice), and/or contemplative prayer are being taught to thousands of rabbis, cantors, educators, social justice activists, chaplains, leaders of organizations, seekers and learners of all ages and backgrounds. The contemplative stream within Judaism serves as a balance and complement to both the highly verbal, intellectual forms of study and the identity-focused aspects of Jewish life.

The purposes that drive the work of integrating contemplative practices into mainstream Jewish life and cultivating the deep stream of Contemplative Judaism are five-fold: 1) renewing Judaism itself – its theology, its worship and practice, its teachings; 2) providing mindfulness training to help leaders become more effective, compassionate, present, responsive rather than reactive, visionary and courageous; 3) teaching spiritual practices that can connect Jews of all ages and persuasions to Jewish wisdom even when they do not feel religious and find no meaning in mainstream Jewish communities; 4) strengthening the connection between the inner life and commitment to the well-being of all others; and 5) creating a basis for profound relationship with spiritual seekers from all faiths and backgrounds.

The impact of the work so far is extensive.  Contemplative practices open Jews to a new, more universalist theology that sees God as a force/consciousness/Presence known through experience and recognized through a wide range of practices including traditional liturgy and commandments, but also through meditation, experience in nature, and art. Contemplative practice can foster a deep awareness of Unity and a commitment to justice for the planet and its living creatures.  Thousands of Jews now have access to a deep spiritual life, even when they don’t know Hebrew or relate to traditional prayer services.  Leaders have mindfulness skills that make them more effective and wise.  All of this is revitalizing American Judaism.

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