Your question reminds me of a sobering conversation I had with an old friend in Indianapolis some 45 years ago when I was home for summer break from my Yeshiva studies. I asked my friend, who often pursued interesting paths, what he’s into these days. His response, he’s gotten involved in Zen Buddhism. When I asked him what about pursuing spirituality in Judaism, he retorted that he’s been doing that since he’s a kid and there’s nothing spiritual there. I learned then from that conversation and much of what I’ve read and heard from many over the years, that your question is not an uncommon one and your frustration is widespread.
I feel that perhaps, if the rich, meaningful spiritual messages which pervade traditional Judaism were made known to young Jews, many more would happily be seeking and finding deep spiritual experiences within their own heritage and traditions rather than entering “foreign territory.” Today’s Jews don’t usually leave Judaism as a rebellion, rather because they don’t find anything compelling to stay with it. Honestly, if I would be fed the “Judaism” many of today’s Jews are taught I would probably also have left!
Truth be told, traditional Judaism is laden with the deepest, most profound spiritual dimensions on many levels. The Talmud, the Midrash, the Chumash and its numerous commentaries and myriad works of Mussar and Chassidic thought are saturated with rich spiritual teachings. Especially in the teachings of Kabbalah, many of which have been simplified for that layman by giants such as Ramchal, form a profound spiritual system of thought. Many of these teachings are available today in English.
To answer your question, meditation is not at all foreign to Judaism. In fact, it is strongly emphasized when performed in accordance with Jewish thought. Deep meditations are part and parcel with many of our prayers and rituals. Meditation, by and large, consists of thinking in a controlled manner. It includes deep work on controlling the conscious and unconscious minds and their inner conflicts, knowing that at times we seem to have separate, competing minds. This idea is discussed at length in the classical work of Jewish philosophy, the Tanya, which instructs us how to, through deep mediation, achieve self-mastery and control.
This is the goal of many of the most important schools of meditation and, in fact, you will find it deeply imbedded in Judaism. The daily prayer service, for example, is a unique time for the deepest meditations. In fact, the early pious Jews would meditate for an entire hour in preparation for each of the three services, pray for an hour, and then take an hour to “come back” to this world. Nine hours a day of meditation! Although we don’t achieve anything near the level of those Rabbis, we still learn from them the tremendous potential for deep meditation, upon the words of the prayers and the closeness to G-d, one can achieve through that meditation while praying.
One goal of TM and other forms of meditation is “knowledge of the self.” The goal includes self-knowledge without ego, with a high state of objectivity. This is a key focus of the area of study with Torah called Mussar. Mussar is a study within Judaism which espouses some of the most profound levels of meditation on a particular Torah thought. The thoughts, or quotes, are chosen with a focus upon self-improvement in areas which allow to transcend one’s physical existence and become one with that thought or teaching.
We are barely scratching the surface of the spirituality within our tradition. I recommend you start with “Jewish Meditation,” which develops much of what we have written above into a complete system of meditation within the parameters of Judaism. Continue to search and study and you will find all the spirituality you seek from within your own tradition and heritage, far beyond anything you will find in foreign territory!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried