Jewish Meditation and Contemplation - March 2008


Recently, a friend asked me how I would define “contemplation” and “meditation”. Not being particularly well informed in the academic theory of either of them, I found this quite difficult but came up with the following personal (and therefore quite woolly) response:

A student of Philo, a devotee of Rashi, a disciple of Maimonides, a Breslov Hasid, and a Chabad scholar would all have widely differing views about what the terms contemplation and meditation might mean and how the activities or states they represent might differ from each another. People write whole books on the subject and reading them would almost certainly provide better definitions than I could offer. Nevertheless, it occurs to me that, since the middle of the twentieth century, the term “meditation” has acquired increasingly non-religious associations. Many of my atheist or agnostic friends would use the term meditation to describe a time of deep reflection or even psychic relaxation but they would use the term contemplation much more sparingly if at all. Perhaps, in the lexicon of Spirituality, “contemplation” is becoming a term which refers to “contemplative prayer” while “meditation” has a more secular nuance.  The following are my tentative suggestions:

-Meditation is a practice while contemplation is the medium of a relationship; 

-Meditation is a process of mental or psychic training while contemplation is simply attempted communication with God;
-Meditation is a process which induces states or promotes awareness while contemplation is simply a conscious though often intuitive attempt to effect or progress a “personal” relationship with God.

I don’t think “what meditation and contemplation are” is anywhere near as important as just getting on with doing them.

Even if one accepts my religious-secular litmus test in differentiating them it will be clear that ultimately the secular/meditational approach can have the same results as a contemplative/religious one. In some ways the difference resembles Revelation and Providence as expressed in the Exodus experience and the Purim experience. Both are Divinely generated. Methods are not as important as intentions and God is present though hidden in both.

Is there a place for dedicated contemplative lifestyles in contemporary Judaism?
Did Jewish monasticism end with the Therapeutae?

Is it possible to live a Jewish life if there are no other Jews living anywhere near you?

The "Cave of the Heart" (M'arat ha-Lev) is a short pamphlet (Kuntres) which I wrote in 2005 to consider these questions. It is in two distinct halves. The first half is partly autobiographical and partly discursive, and examines some aspects of contemplative Jewish living. The second half is more reflective, and is principally the sharing of a simple method of contemplative prayer.

You can find the text of this kuntres on the sidebar links to the left under the header "The Cave of The Heart". The section ends with a posting of the entire booklet for anyone who wants to print the whole thing off to read offline.